Who I Am is the sound of the modern age being fashioned out of traditional strands. Those strands may be well established, country stylings, rock muscle and a pop accessibility but songs such as this are very much a modern sound. As old as country music is, this is it hitting its most unashamedly commercial stride, and why not, there is nothing wrong with selling records after all. It is the notion of rock music dropping all the cliche and bombast and just providing the engine to drive such a big sound. It also shows that even the most infectious of pop songs don’t have to follow the modern production line methods, that a popular song can also be musically astute and that you don’t have to strip down to your underwear to try to sell it.
Pop music isn’t just about transient Day-Glo dance records for the young and easily distracted, there is just as big a market for adult pop. After all just because the target audience has got clubbing and partying out of their system, doesn’t mean that they want to sit at home listening to classical music or late night jazz radio. It is this market that Naomi K will easily tap into.
You’re in my Head pitches gentle melodies with country infused grooves, bluesy licks and soft harmony vocals into a smooth, late night, mature pop sound. That’s not to say that it won’t appeal to the younger set, it’s just that unlike the music coming off of the chart targeting pop production line, this comes with something that those artists do not have. Longevity. After the fickle finger of fashion has dictated to the cool kids what the next fad or sound is, You’re in my Head will still be found on rotation with those who don’t care about all that nonsense. Cool music for the more discerning pop fan.
I keep reading reviews which compare Carolee Rainey’s sound to Fleetwood Mac in general and Stevie Nick’s in particular. And whilst there is something in the voice which connects the two women, I think that they are missing the most obvious point. Yes, there is a Fleetwood Mac connection but Feel Fearless sounds, stylistically at least, more like Christine Perfect, had she taken a more countrified path, rather than that of her chosen commercial blues.
Yes, everyone wants to sound like Nicks but Perfect has always been the much more interesting musician, her more exploratory works overshadowed by the cash cow leviathan that is the women’s musical day job. Nicks has always played with drama and anthemic poise, Perfect is all about subtlety and that is what is going on here.
Opening salvo Deal With The Devil, could easily have come from the sessions which resulted in Rumours, I’ll admit that, but after that the rest of the album largely settles down into more restrained territory. Mystic Rose is a country, piano-ballad, driven on voice and sentiment more than instrumentation with just the most subtle of riffs and sonic motifs decorating around the edges and Feel and Listen To The River almost cross over into Kate Bush territory in their off-beat dynamics and left field approaches. Empower is the really interesting one here, a rumbling, tribal, bluesy groover all about the message and unhindered by anything that would get it the way of driving the point home.
Feel Fearless is a clever collection of songs, seeming to taking dummy runs into fairly mainstream territory but then side-stepping into much more interesting musical spaces. It has something to say lyrically and plenty to give musically and if other reviews suggest that Carolee Rainey is just walking in the shoes of Stevie Nicks, ignore them, there is, thankfully, more going on here than that suggests. Much more.
Trent Miller is a great example of why the various tribal demarcations found in music, its generic barriers, its tribal affinities, its journalistic pigeon-holing and listener driven expectations, are all attitudes that thankfully are receding into the past. For whilst it is easy to hear the references to outlaw and fringe country heroes of the past, the ghost of Townes Van Zandt particularly floats between his notes and guides his pen, this is no country by numbers, no revisionist exercise or past pastiche. It may beat with a country heart but the classical sweeps and brooding cellos, the chiming, jangling psych-pop guitars and the brooding tones nail Time Between Us’s myriad colours to the mast just as readily as the more expected lilting rootsy sound and the inherent melancholy.
Days in Winter is an upbeat, Americana-infused gem, but one that seems to lend itself as much to the pen of Nick Lowe or Elvis Costello as it does to the traditional country sound and After The Great Betrayal (he does know how to chose a good title) shimmers with gentle post-punk vibes. At the other extreme the dark and dulcet tones of Motel Rooms of Ocean Blue (see, I told you) and stark minimalism Bonfires of Navarino Road (ditto) provide the more expected late night, introspective vibes, but still blending as much Old World restraint as it does New World tradition.
How Soon is Never is a brilliantly smooth roots meets chamber pop ballad, the sort of thing that Bryan Ferry would have scored a big hit with back in the day had his solo career veered away from the lounge bar schmooze and headed down a dustier heartworn highway. There is much speculation of what British-Americana is, ignoring the fact that Trent is actually from the vicinity of Turin anyway, but this seems too restrictive a term for what he does here, where weaves of folk, new-wave, chamber pop, retro-rock and even gothic undertones form the warp to the countrified and rootsy weft. Like all of the best music Time Between Us and the man behind it defies easy categorisation and that is the way I want him to stay.
As someone who has visited the country mainly through its music and media, She Can Flow sounds like nothing less than America’s beating heart. And to be fair it is probably an America that never existed outside its road movies, TV adverts, beat legacy, literature and other rose tinted nostalgia, but in my mind it is what America should sound like. There is something in the songs musical soul which makes it quintessentially of that place but when and where is something that is harder to but your finger on.
It mixes lilting country rhythms, folky deliveries, a ragged bluesy beat, a funky, soulful groove and even after fitting all of those traits together manages to retain an immediacy and infectiousness that is normally only found in classic pop writing. It draws a line between 60’s coffee shops and modern country-pop crossovers, timeless porch jam sessions and 70’s Austin cosmic cowboy gigs, European folk and New World acoustic blues. In fact there isn’t much in the discerning musical world that it doesn’t touch upon and if there are genres that it doesn’t concern itself with, then you shouldn’t worry about them either.
There is a part of country music which errs on the side of over-earnestness. Brooding acoustic guitar slingers singing of unrequited love, darker times and driving off into the sunset and that’s fine, there is obviously a market for such a style. Thankfully though there is equally a market for something with more spring in its step, for the jaunty and boogie-some something which can act as the lighter balance. Luanne Hunt sits very much on that side of the sonic seesaw.
This time out joined by Steven Bankey, she proves that even whilst taking a less well travelled route, for her at least, musically the song is joyous and infectious. Although more often associated with holiday songs, celebratory tunes, songs sung with a knowing smile and even euphoric gospel music, here the subject matters is wistful and reflective, dwelling on the times in life when things don’t quite work out, it never veers into the melancholic or self-pitying more interested in taking a philosophical and accepting stance.
And the heartache laced through the lyrics is more than balanced by the music, deft and intricate guitar work, sassy beats, wonderfully traded vocals, a soaring fiddle and a bank of sumptuous harmonies are the order of the day. The song sits somewhere between the rhinestone glitter of Music City and a broader country-pop vibe which whilst being an automatic pick for any country chart that happens to cross its path is also genre-hopping and accessible enough to find its a contender for the non-specialist realms too.
Life is tough, we all make mistakes, country music has always been the perfect vehicle for documenting those moments but do so via the sort of music that Luanne Hunt and Steve Bankey make and somehow things don’t see quite so bad after all.
Molly Kruse has that classic Americana sound, it is hard to pin down musically in anything other than a general sense but geographically it is the cultural pulse of that great nation. Tilt your head one way and it is a classic soul number, the other and you catch a lilting country vibe, step back a bit and it is an uptown pop-jazz number from the classiest of clubs, move nearer and it is a cool, modern R&B piece.
As someone who hasn’t travelled as much of the world as I would like, who explores a lot of the world through it’s music and everything that it evokes, Molly Kruse sounds like nothing less than America’s beating heart. And to be fair it is probably an America that never existed outside it’s road movies, TV adverts, beat legacy, literature and other rose tinted nostalgia, but in my mind it is what America should sound like. Away from the celebrity spotlight of what we laughingly call the music industry, disposable pop with it’s bland shopping mall beat and faceless landfill indie – all complicated hair and scenester regulations – Ms. Kruse offers us something real, something authentic, something that you won’t look at in ten years time and wonder “what was I thinking!” Molly Kruse is not only the real deal, she is the real deal made over for the modern audience. Perfect.
It is easy to make a case for the fact that country music can take itself a bit too seriously. A gross generalisation I know, but you know the ones I mean, those moody looking, lonesome cowboys waxing lyrical about love, often unrequited, about the one that got away or done them wrong or their dog … or their pickup truck. Thankfully, Seth Hilary Jackson navigates a very different route through the genre on If Love Had a Butt, the title signposts as much and it is just the humorous shot in the arm the genre needs from time to time.
And he gets the balance just right. This is no goofy throw away tune, it takes a very serious subject but instead of getting hung up on the pitfalls and disappointments which often come part and parcel with relationships and emotions, he is happy to laugh at the whole thing. And musically it comes from a well thought out place, somewhere between pure country, pop and mountain folk, the tune is built on dexterous guitar picking, lilting banjos and gentle harmonies, perfect, clean-limbed and straight to the point.
After years of writing for other people Jackson has just released his first album, This Ones For You, and a quick listen makes it obvious that he is a wide-ranging song-writer, wandering from the sublime to the ridiculous, addressing issues serious and silly and taking in a number of genres. Sometimes you want something to think about, sometimes you want a sweet song and sometimes you just want song to put a smile on your face. Seth Hilary Jackson has all the bases covered.
Oh yes, and he likes Jethro Tull, so you have got to love him, right?
Find out more about Seth Hilary Jackson HERE
If you were so inclined or are naturally one of those people who needs everything in neat generic packages I guess you would drop The Nadas into the alt-rock pigeon-hole…or the pop-rock one…or perhaps alt-country…roots? It just shows you the limitations of genres, especially when it comes to bands like this, ones who neatly genre-splice classic sounds into new, original music. Okay, lets forget the labels, they are not needed here, the music sells itself, let’s all calm down and start again.
One Louder is one of those albums which comes at you like a career spanning retrospective when it is in fact just another regular album release, albeit their eleventh so it is clear that they have more than got their act together. So good is this collection that if you told me that it was the “Best Of” …not “Greatest Hits” as that implies rampant commerciality and this is better than that…from a long lost iconic country rock band at a time before we needed alt-this and post-that to explain our music, I wouldn’t bat an eyelid. All killer no filler as they say…do they still say that? Okay, forget that but you know what I’m saying.
Musically they wander from the sumptuous harmonies of slow-burners like Another Verse and the late night, hazy waltz of I’m Only to the infectious country-pop of Rita’s Hook and the indie rock groove of Best Weekend. But it is hard to sum things up just by the bands dynamic scope. You have to take into account, the deftness of the writing and the fact that whilst they wander between roots and rock, pop and indie, they still produce a wonderfully cohesive sound, one which no matter which genre they are pursuing, which time signature they are playing in or how hard their foot is on the pedal, always sounds like The Nada’s.
Boston might have cornered the market in indie guitar bands, Nashville in roots and rhinestones, the West Coast has its hazy signatures and Austin its cosmic country, but if you have eclectic music tastes thats a lot of travelling, better that you just head along to a Nadas gig, they seem to have it covered…and then some.
On paper this duet from Natalie Jean and Levi Moore may seem to be coming from a very familiar musical place, a gentle balladic country-pop place, rich in harmony and minimalist deliveries. But music doesn’t exist on paper, it exists somewhere between the creator and the listener and whilst it is easy to say that you have heard this all before, I can assure you that you haven’t. You may have heard something similar, something which wanders around the same concept and musical neighbourhood, but The Letting Go sets a wonderful bench mark for such a song style.
Firstly there are the vocals, two exquisite and contrasting voices both getting their moment to shine, Jean tugging at heart strings with a sweet but confident allure, Moore revelling in a rawer baritone and both coming together to make a compelling chorus as their tones and textures mix beautifully. But the songs is about much more than those voices, great as they are. It takes its time to get moving but gradually builds its musical layers as a platform, building from plaintive piano and minimal guitar rhythms to add beats and additional sonic motifs through a slow and deft build up of additional instruments.
It’s a country record, of sorts, but one which swerves all of the cliches and instead invents its own genre through a bit of musical gene-splicing, part alt-country ballad, part old world folk, part pop. For whilst it is a song which has a country core and even elements that will find favour with the Music City purists, this is a musical coupling less interested in following the rules, at least not to the letter, and therefore doesnt fall into the obvious traps. By and large theirs is a soothing and soulful take on the genre, restrained and delicate and the gently sweeping vocals and lilting banjo’s touch on pastoral bluegrass and bucolic folk as much as they do the traditional country music building blocks. It is also a song which you appreciate more each time you play it…a gift which keeps on giving and that’s for sure!
If Drowning saw Echoglass playing with subtle balladry, Blackburn Boulevard took a more indie-pop route and Last To Know wandered some wonderfully Americana musical pathways, Memories seems to tie all those ends together. It has depth yet sass, it tugs at heartstrings, joins country vibes with the folk sounds which in part informed its development, pulses with pop prowess and wanders dynamic highs and lows so effortlessly that you can’t see the join. It also reminds me, in some ways, particularly the vocal structures and deliveries of REM! That’s a good thing right? Quite right!
In fact it is hard to think of a sector of the music buying public who couldn’t find something to love in this song. It crosses borders generically, geographically and chronologically and offers a song which seems totally in keeping with the cross-referencing, cross-cultural, small global village that the creative world is now based on.
Country grooves leave dusty footprints across the record and acoustic rock music brings the required swagger but there is so much more going on here as well. Bluesy bar-room piano adds some wonderfully deft touches and the emotive guitars which frame the song wander down some fantastic Southern rock pathways. It feels at once retro, contemporary and brilliantly forward thinking…how do you even do that?
And just when you have Echoglass pegged in the broad indie-pop spectrum, when you think you have worked out their musical approach they go and throw a curve-ball. Not satisfied with just ploughing the same musical furrow, Last To Know sees them break out the Americana vibes and it is great. Musically sitting somewhere between a Nashville country ballad and the less rhinestone strewn vibes of the British-Americana scene, Last To Know is a charming blend of deft picking and sumptuous harmonies, understated deliveries but powerful lyricism.
It sits in just the sort of folk meets country territory which is going to appeal to music fans in the Old World and the New, a mid paced, lilting song built along simple lines, fine touches of piano adding delicate, underpinning detail, but retaining a wonderfully spacious feel that allows the voice to take centre stage. And what a voice it is, never showy or seeking the limelight, just impressive within the requirements of the song and that in itself, in this day and age, is a rare thing. It is that restraint, coupled with the room to breath that the songwriting affords that makes the music shine so brightly.
Yet again Echoglass music proves an example of loveliness over cool, apparent effortlessness over forced gimmickry and subtle musical textures over sonic weight. If only more people would adopt such an approach.
To an outsider, particularly one born on the opposite shore of The Atlantic and with very different musical traditions running through my DNA, country music can often seem to be full of predictable pitfalls and calculated cliche. But away from the rhinestones and glitter of Music City’s main thoroughfares there are artists who paint very different pictures even whilst using the same palette of musical colours.
Even when in acoustic country ballad mode as the titular track finds him, Jake Ward explores wonderful new ways of blending the genre with contemporary rock and even some deft pop hooks and mainstream sensibilities. The result is a song built of twanging country rock guitars, sweeping folky fiddles, rich harmonies and a mix of confident riffs, poetic lyrics and clever musical detail, and an accessibility which will have the most fervent pair of country boots stepping and stomping but which will also get the pop sneakers on the move too.
Although the title track of the e.p. of the same name, it is the most considered and understated of the collection. Freight Train, it’s polar opposite is heartland rock at its most vibrant, I’m Leaving tracks folky, bluesy, country boogie to its logical and most energetic conclusion and Where The Wind Blows is stadium ready country-pop-rock. It’s a pretty eclectic package!
Country music in many ways is the beating heart of the nation, the soundtrack to the American Dream, at least in popular perceptions, it is as powerful and popular, diverse and desired as ever and it is artists such as Jake Ward who will ensure that remains the case. There is a reason why he already comes with the label, Number one best kept secret on the Texas music scene!
Every so often, an album drops on my desk for review accompanied by a sizeable surprise of one kind or another. That some of these albums ever actually see the light of day is never a surprise, sadly. The ever-lower costs of recording and production has a dark side to offset the obvious advantages of no longer being shackled to a purely commercial record company machine, and a lot of that darkness casts deep and depressing shadows over the keyboards of music reviewers the world over.
The surprise in the case of the new release from Sarah Morris, “Hearts In Need Of Repair”, is not that the album is so good. Her first two albums, and in particular the 2015 release “Ordinary Things“, set expectations high for this third collection, and those expectations have been met and exceeded.
The surprise is that the album was fan-funded by a kickstarter campaign, and without any industry backing. I’m pretty astonished, if I’m honest, that “Ordinary Things” didn’t trigger an avalanche of money men wanting to sign her up to contracts of various kinds….. And as I write that, I start to wonder whether Morris had the offers but chose instead to avoid the shackles mentioned previously?
Whatever the reason, the fans who put their hands in their pockets for “Hearts In Need Of Repair” have been richly rewarded. We see the continuing development of a singer-songwriter who has a deep understanding of the structures and cadences of a multitude of genres, from country to folk to pop, married with a subtlety and deftness of touch that makes all that technical understanding sound completely natural and effortless. (Taylor Swift and her subsequent army of cross-over wannabees should take notes.)
Slightly less country than “Ordinary Things”, the songwriting is complimented by a group of accomplished musicians who skip lightly through the spaces between genre rules and stereotypes, and by exceptional production quality that belies the budget available, and that sets the bar yet higher for all “home” produced music.
If ever there was a need for an antidote to the Trump/Brexit/PerfectGiftForChristmas cacophony, it’s now. And if ever there was a perfect antidote, it’s this album. That’s not to suggest for a moment that this is an album only “of its time”. On the contrary, it’ll long outlast all the ills that it cures, and all the abrasions that it soothes.
There are several highlights – Helium, On A Stone, and Confetti to name just three of my favourites – but this album is a delight from top to bottom, and you’ll have your own picks for sure.
The album is available on the usual on-line outlets, or head over to her website at http://www.sarahmorrismusic.com/product/heartscd/ to buy direct (always the best way to buy from self-producing artists). Sadly, you won’t get the home-baked cakes that the $80 kickstarter funders got, but you will get one of the best albums of the year!
I guess it had to happen sooner or later, the first Christmas song of the season just came to the top of the review pile. Such songs are always a difficult thing to pitch just right, there have been a few moments of brilliance such as The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl’s Fairytale of New York and Jonah Lewie’s mercurial and laterally thought Stop The Cavalry and then there have also been moments where those qualities have been in shorter supply (almost every other song.) But the fact that this first song of the season comes from Amilia K. Spicer immediately alleviates any fears or doubts.
In her typical deft and delicate fashion she has put together a lilting and jolly country-pop song which delivers a sentiment of togetherness, family connection and celebration which, whilst could be true at any time of the year, is the underlying focal point of the holiday season. Thankfully Amilia has a way of imparting the much needed lightness of touch that such a song needs and her musical dexterity renders it graceful, heartfelt and tender. Job done, time to get the Christmas lights from the attic and check they still work!
There are some artists who just make genreless music. Music which wanders the sonic landscape with no regard for the lines and boundaries marked on a map, one drawn up in a secret meeting of industry marketing men and music journalists. After all out here there is just the music, no neat boxes, no easy demarkations and whilst that might cause problems for the scribes and planners, it allows totally freedom to artists such as Jo Potter, an artist who, quite rightly, works in a place simply called music.
It is this blurring of lines and blending of sounds that allows her to build a personal musical identity, some of which is familiar but pieced together in a wonderfully unique way. Too slick to be pop, to soothing to be rock, it weaves soulfulness and jazz sophistication around a country heart, bluesy melancholic undercurrents and a gentle late night beauty.
At it’s most groovesome, such as on tracks like When Things Go Wrong you can hear the sound of Nashville glitz dancing with the smokey blues of an upmarket Chicago blues bar glamour, but what I love most about Saved is the more intimate moments. Indeed the title track itself is a song Norah Jones would be proud of and Something also sitting on that same jazz to country arc of her early albums.
Saved is a gorgeous album, not only blending the roots of Americana music into effortlessly cool and deftly built music for a modern and mature audience, but it showcases what a wonderfully classic voice Jo has, one which puts her on a line which runs back through the likes of the aforementioned Jones to Sade and beyond back to Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee.
Nostalgia can be a comfort, especially in such turbulent times, but what is so great about Jo’s sophomore album is that whilst you can see where it is coming from, the musical references that she tips her hat to, what she has fashioned here is a collection of songs which at once sound fresh and modern yet could be a long lost recording by any number of musical greats. Sometimes you can sound familiar, sometimes you can sound forward thinking, there aren’t many artists able to do both at the same time.
Songs such as Nashville are proof that it isn’t the raw materials that define a song, it is more about how the artist fits them together. Give a hundred other country, folk, alt-country …whatever, artists the same clean limbed guitar lines, the same subject matter, the same resonance and rootsy approach and they will probably return something palatable but predictable. Michael Askin fashions something far cleverer than that though.
Whilst on the surface it fits somewhere between the rhinestone glare of Nashville’s heartland and the more edgy and underground vibe of its eastern scene, subsequent listens reveal a song as much set in Music City as it is Music City on the therapists chair. And musically it is subtle beast, taking its time to get into its stride and even then playing a modest and restrained hand. Country music can be about pickup trucks and national pride, nothing wrong with that, there is a market and a place for everything but Michael Askin reminds us that country music, like all music born of the mass, can be used in far cleverer ways and Nashville is a clever song indeed. It grafts interesting observation and social commentary on to a track which whilst following the rules does so in a smarter and more emotive fashion, which is a pretty neat trick if you can pull it off. Michael Askin more than pulls it off here.
Danny and his Champ’ chaps have always been hard to pin down generically. Americana is always a label which raises its head and indeed they are, to a degree but not in the way that we normally associate with the term. Rather than the rhinestone, country-esque flavours that normally sit under such a title they have a much wider lens, one that takes in a more soulful, jazz-hearted and occasionally heartland rock sound putting them somewhere on a line connecting Tom Petty with the much underrated Buffalo Clover. Folk? Certainly, but again in a more textured way than your average finger in the ear folk police or the frantic, one chord banjo thrashing that Mumford and the Whale seemed to inexplicably popularise. Pop? Indeed, in the way that anything this infectious and harmonious can be deemed pop, not capital P pop, but certainly in the popular canon.
Blending a ragged street soul, rootsy juke box r’n’b, old time music hall, blissed out blues, country rock and a host of other rootsy flavours, they mix classic, timeless sounds with a contemporary delivery that makes for a great album. Horn sections blare as if before walls of Jericho, Hammond organs ooze cool, pulsing basses and concise backbeats drive the groove and guitar licks search for that lost chord, whilst anyone in the music’s path can’t help but boogie, swing, sway and strut.
It is the sound of truck stops blending into back street Chicago blues clubs which in turn become the sound of a rocking chair creaking on a back porch as the screen door slams, Mary’s dress sways and there is a distinct possibility that Roy Orbison is playing on the radio. But being an Old World take on the New World sound it neatly avoids the clichés and finds it’s own mid-Atlantic middle ground.
It is the sound of an alternative, underground path that music took when it had the chance to turn mainstream, musicians playing the right card rather than the obvious one. It is the sound of a midnight ritual designed to re-animate the zombie corpse of the muse of music that mattered, still matters and will continue to matter, long after the current vacuous pop anthem singer-songwriter wannabe has returned to their day job where the main concern is asking the customer if they want fries with that!
Sadly the modern pop picker probably only has access to the glories of the past via modern cash-ins such as the likes of that pub landlady of pop, Adele, and her false retro posturing. Even if this wasn’t the case, Danny and The Champions of the World would still be important to the cause, but the current bandwagoning and wholesale plundering of the past going on around them makes their brand of modern-retro classic essential as a torch to be kept burning.
One of the things I find myself on a bit of a mission to defend these days is that most mercurial of beasts…pop music! Okay, let me qualify that. The term pop has too long been sullied by production line, throwaway, fashionista dross, but there is another way of doing pop, a way of taking all its trademark melody and immediacy but making it slicker, having it say something, giving it more integrity. That is the sort of pop music that am happy to defend and that is why I’m more than happy to stand in Jonathan Cavier’s corner.
Blending elements of acoustic country, folky deftness and the inherent infectiousness of pop, Comes A Moment is also an exercise in not over playing the hand. Clean-limbed musical lines, subtly shifting dynamic and a few, minor musical embellishments, which are more than happy to remain unobtrusive, less-is-more details, are all used to construct a song with broad appeal. The popster will warm to its melody, the country fan its boot-strapping beat, the folkie will appreciate its chiming acoustic soul and everyone will love the heart-warming sentiment.
Not all pop music needs a dance routine or a guest rapper to sell itself; some is just content to be good at its job.