Monkey See –  Russ Still & The Moonshiners (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

Ahead of a forthcoming album, Bootleg, Russ Still and his country infused rock posse have given us a taste of what’s to come with the excellent Monkey See. It strides cowboy-booted along a perfect line between roots and rock, is packed with hooky grooves and wonderfully infectious choruses ticking boxes in country, commercial and rock camps as it does so.

Continue reading “Monkey See –  Russ Still & The Moonshiners (reviewed by Dave Franklin)”

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Scene and Heard – CCCXCVIII : Who I Am  – Whitney Lusk (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

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.

Continue reading “Scene and Heard – CCCXCVIII : Who I Am  – Whitney Lusk (reviewed by Dave Franklin)”

Mats Ronander and The Dusty Runners –  Would You? (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

z63RdpyQEven on the first play of this album you come away with the feeling that these are songs forged by a very skilled writer and recorded by an experienced band. And you would be right, just one look at Mats Ronander’s resume reveals that he not only has a pile of solo albums behind him but is a go to, top flight session man and has toured as part of, not only home grown legends such as ABBA but has graced the ranks of the likes of Ian Hunter and Graham Parker’s live line ups. In short, the man knows what he is doing. And then some!

Having gathered around him an equally impressive cast of players he has created an album which mixes slick country grooves, polished blues and approachable rock, all shot through with accessible, soulfulness and infectious vibes. It’s where commercial possibilities meet rootsy traditions, where the sound of the American dream gets dressed up for an even bigger international audience.

At one extreme you have the purer Nashville infused sounds of the Karin Risberg led Nothing’s The Same, a song that just glistens with rhinestones and personal reflection and at the other The Bridge plays with big funky, soulful blues. The title track wanders through some latin inspired beats, Spare Me Some change is a bluesy plea and My World showcases the gospel harmonies which are never very far away from the proceedings.

It’s a fine album, deftly constructed, able to wander across genres yet deliver a consistent overall sound, one where rootsy underground music is taken from the truck stops and downtown blues bars and represented and repackaged for a slicker uptown audience. Purists might prefer their music with the rough edges still in evidence but Ronander’s ability to create such sounds for a much bigger stage is exactly why he has had such a successful career.

Scene and Heard – CCCXCIII: Cool Ride –  Peter Senior (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

39957139_474972783004192_6081965620063109120_nThere is very little new under the sun, as they say, especially when it comes to guys singing about cars. But as is always the way it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it. Anyway, that’s enough cliche’s for the time being, you know what I am saying. And whilst Cool Ride is a guy singing about a car, it is the music that Peter Senior uses to deliver the message that justifies going over such well trodden territory again.

Blending a country rock ’n’ roll groove with more soulful textures, –  plaintive piano notes and melancholic trumpets with a bluesy backbeat –  the song might swerve away from the usual cliches, but the video certainly doesn’t. I like to think that the images use are knowingly obvious, that it is self-deprecating, delivered with a wink and it does indeed remind us that there is more to life than cars and girls (sorry another throw away reference). It is also about cars and boys!

The track is taken from On The Edge, an album which acts as a showcase for Senior’s myriad styles and musical interests skipping between country and rock, Motown and pop, an almost as live recording and his first solo album to date.

But despite, or perhaps because of, the playful innuendo found here you shouldn’t dismiss the song as a past pastiche or rose tinted glance back to past musical glories. Okay, that is part of what’s going on here but it is also a song for today, a modern update on simpler musical times and blending oil stained Americana with sassy late night jazz vibes. And the more you play it the more you find to like about it.

Between the more obvious beats and the straightforward intent, subtle and supple textures emerge, the odd percussive groove here, a Mariachi blast there, perfectly poised harmonies and some clever arrangements. It would be easy to take so many different sonic elements, throw them into the mix and end up with a cluttered sound, one where one instrument steps on the toes of another but the production here allows everything to breath, even to the point that you can hear some of the “live-ness” of the recording, something I thoroughly approve of.

So to conclude, it is a song that you need to get to know, one that you need to spend some time with,  take for a spin a few times and understand how it handles. And like most great cars you will find that what you find when you lift the hood of this sonic beast may very well surprise you.

Kick Out The Twang – Speedbuggy USA (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

8689357Bakersfield,CA always sat at a sonic crossroads. That scenes reaction to the slick, string lead, over-produced Nashville country sound of the time saw them embrace a sound based around the surf guitar tone and honky-tonk bar driven twang, a sound which would later influence the both pure country players, the West Coast psychedelic roots acts and even some of the British Invasion bands. Speedbuggy USA take that same rock and roll energy and those country textures and pay tribute to that legendary sound.

Kick Out The Twang is, for the most part, a full on, energetic meeting of those musical minds, it rocks like a bad ass (note the American spelling, just this once) is filled with wonderful washes of pedal guitar and grooves around accompanied by banjos and that trademark guitar twang. Throw in a bag of memorable riffs and sing-along choruses aplenty and you have the perfect blend of old and new. Even though there is a move amongst recent indie bands to re-appropriate country and folk music to create a modern hybrid, Speedbuggy USA sound so authentic that you would be hard pushed to sit them in any one particular decade from the last seven.

Long Gone is typical of their more hillbilly sound but they are just as likely to deliver some low slung rock and roll such as Rodeo Star and when they do they put you in mind of the likes of George Satellites, which is more than fine by me. Unchain My Heart sees them break out the soulful moves which along with the ballad-esque sounds of Shaky Town proves that they are just as good at tugging heartstrings as they are starting the party. They boogie, they rock, they soothe and they sway and they do each equally as well. This is country music for people who don’t realise that they like country music!

1969 Frey/Souther collaboration gets CD debut

mailLongbranch/Pennywhistle, the legendary 1969 collaboration between late Eagles co-founder Glenn Frey and longstanding songwriting partner, JD Souther, will make its CD debut as well as return to vinyl for the first time in nearly 50 years on September 28 via Geffen/UMe. The album has been remastered and remixed by acclaimed producer/engineer Elliot Scheiner (Eagles, Steely Dan, Toto) and Souther. Released earlier this year as part of the Glenn Frey box set Above The Clouds: The Collection, the eponymous album is being made available as a standalone CD and on 180-gram black vinyl for the first time ever.

Pre-order Longbranch/Pennywhistle now: https://UMe.lnk.to/LongbranchPennywhistle

Longbranch/Pennywhistle represented the budding essence of a songwriting team that would tap into something quite intuitively special that eventually took flight on such well-loved and enduring Eagles tracks to come such as “Best of My Love,” “New Kid in Town,” “Heartache Tonight” and “The Sad Café.” Agrees Souther, “Longbranch/Pennywhistle gives you some sort of foundation for what’s to come.”

Continue reading “1969 Frey/Souther collaboration gets CD debut”

You’re Free –  Dan Israel (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

YoureFree_DanIsrael_1500Americana is a strange term for what is essentially the roots rock sound of the New World. It’s a bit like the term Chinese Food, in that it has no real meaning in the country of China itself, after all there they just call it …well, food. And so Americana only seems to have any real currency outside the country of its birth. But looking in from the outside that is essentially what Dan Israel excels at but to those around him it is just good old country-infused rock and roll which somehow sonically speaks of and to American lives.

It is difficult to explain exactly what Israel does without it sounding like he is just going over old ground. Maybe he is but when you can revisit the same sonic territory as the likes of Tom Petty, Steve Earle, Neil Young, John Mellencamp, The Jayhawks and the like and still make it sound like the first time you heard such music then he no justifications needed. None at all.

I guess the difference between getting this so right and just treading creative water is the quality of the songwriting and this is some exquisite work. Back To You is a cool country groove, Long Gone Dream is a brooding and bruising apocalyptic blues stomp and Your Free is a stadium ready heartland rock anthem. Familiar territory perhaps but a reminder of why there isn’t much you need to change about the genre when the songs are this damn good.

Pieces  –  Luke Tuchscherer (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

0013245538_10Although previously pursuing a solo path associated with a more restrained countrified sound, Pieces not only marks a big stride forward, sonically speaking, but reunites him with the incendiary roots rock of his earlier days as a member of The Whybirds. As Luke explains, “ My first two records where made whilst The Whybirds were still active, and so I felt it was important for them to be sonically separate from the band.” With his formative band no longer a going concern and perhaps inspired by the fresh start of a relocation to New York, he comes out all guns…not to mention guitars…blazing.

Based around a core of rock driven songs with a few acoustic numbers just to not break all continuity  with the sound of the last two albums, Pieces transcends the expected generic restraints, no matter how many words like post- or alt- you put in front of country, folk or roots labels and heads straight into Neil Young or Tom Petty’s territory of heartland rock. The Mf Blues is a suitable sweary and ragged bar room stomp, Requiem is a brooding dystopian rock workout and Batten Down The Hatches would give The Boss, that’s Mr Springsteen to you, a run for his money.

The deft and more delicate acoustic pieces such as Charing Cross and Ghosts offer some wonderful breathing space, just enough of a pause that the album doesn’t become too full on, though with Luke’s clever use of melody and dynamics even in his most stadium and (Gaslight) anthemic moments, the songs remain engaging rather than merely powerful. The title track being a good example of this, a clever blend of loud sing-along choruses and gentle verses and a sonic journey that builds in intensity and infectiousness as it travels to its final destination.

So it’s both a fresh start and a return to the past, music inspired by largely American icons finding its way back home, an album that can be big, blustering and full of bravado, whilst also able to be smooth and soothing. To be honest I can’t think of much he has missed out. Good work sir.

Meant 2 Be –  The Happy Curmudgeons (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

HC-Hi-Rez.png.jpegWhen Idle Time first wafted across the office space, I had The Happy Curmudgeons pegged as folk rock wranglers of the old school. They threaded a path through the likes of CSN, Neil Young, the Grateful Dead and other such roots rockers, absorbed that same blend of a simplicity of intent and deftness of delivery and reinterpreted it for a whole new audience. Of course the great thing about having a whole album of their music to wander through is that you get a fuller picture of what the band is all about. And whilst I stand by my initial thoughts based on the initial single, a full set of songs shows a band that explores many diverse genres and interesting music fusions.

The title track, for example, takes a turn down a fairly gentle, yet highly commercial folk-pop byway, delivering the sort of song that, especially with the boy-girl mixed and matched harmonies, is quite reminiscent of The Beautiful South. At the other end of the sonic palette, Burn Sugar Burn muscles and boogies its way along in that sort of hippy heartland rock way that I was describing in the intro, a great blend of exquisite bluesy guitar and country-rock energy. And then you have pure roots songs like 3rd Coast, part ragged folk, part cosmic country, the old American sonic lore as revisited by the 70’s revivalists being kept alive as the wheel turns once more.

Soulsville, as the name suggests, throws a hot and sassy slice of R&B into the mix, all blues grooves and dark soulfulness and Seasons is the perfect, spacious ballad, high end bass lines wandering through gorgeous acoustic picking and chiming pianos. Butterfly by stark contrast is the band at their most rock and roll all  brooding, low-slung guitars and serious intent.

In a way this album reminds me of early Heart. Bear with me. Before they went on to become air-brushed, 80’s MTV stars and cliche rock bar fodder, their earlier albums were a heady mix of straight down the line rock and roll and dexterous folk loveliness, the band as often found wielding acoustic mandolins as they were electric Gibsons. And though maybe not sonically a perfect comparison, The Happy Curmudgeons have the same attitude to musical gene-splicing and genre hopping. 

It’s a great approach, it’s healthy, it means that truly new music, rather than being template following nostalgia, is the order of the day and it means that albums become a wonderful dynamic ride through complimentary styles and musical stances. I just pray that I don’t catch the band dressed in leather, “throwing shapes” in a cloud of dry ice next time I turn the TV on. It’s okay, I trust them.

Float Your Boat  –  The Two Man Travelling Medicine Show (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

thumbnailGiven their cow-punk credentials, their brilliant collision of roots sounds from both sides of the Atlantic, their gypsy blues bar band busk swagger, it is fairly unexpected that the opening and titular song on their second e.p. Float Your Boat, is a tribute to Desmond Dekker. Actually that isn’t quite fair as Float Your Boat, as the name might suggest, is more about not worrying what is currently cool or musically in fashion but just listening to the music which does as the song title suggests, just like the things you like. A point that they make over a typically quirky blend of wonky folk, rock muscle and bluesy grooves.

They continue to explore some interesting concepts, narratives and inner thoughts to do with who we are and who we think we are. Putting on A Show is an exploration of identity, a soul-searching examination of the ever changing nature of who we are, a song exploring permanence and change, expression and perception. It’s a fairly reserved number considering the musical resources they have at their disposal, but that understanding of restraint means that the doleful violin and distant chime of piano are all the more powerful.

Similarly reflective is Violent and Sad, a melancholic and timeless paean to children growing up in hard environments and I Met A Wolf rounds things off brilliantly, back to their more countrified ways. But as always this isn’t just a pastiche of music made thousands of miles away, culturally unconnected and un-lived but instead drips with their trademark musical machinations. I hate the term British-Americana and this final track just hits the point home. This isn’t a group of people tipping their hat to music from another country, if they are it is only the slightest of nods. This is a sound that is much more than mere nostalgia or reverence, this is the sum of every band that lead to the formation of TMTMS, every late night spent listening to records, every conversation about music, every gig attended, every cool riff they have ever heard, every stage they have walked upon…it is the sum total of the people who made it.

Music isn’t about what we would like to be, it is who we are and this latest e.p. isn’t merely about the music that floats their boat, it is the wind in its sails, their direction of travel and their final destination all rolled into one.

So Happy Birthday…Ronnie James Dio

A-312415-1297611337.jpegToday would have been the 75th birthday of the man christened Ronald James Padavona, famous for fronting Rainbow, Black Sabbath, Dio and Heaven and Hell and, if legend is to be believed,  populariser of the devil horns sign and the man best associated with Dungeons and Dragons style hard rock. Don’t get me wrong Rainbow’s Rising and Sabbath’s Heaven and Hell are sublime albums but he also was prone to a few cliche moments too.

But let us not forget that before all of that he was in a rather good country blues band called Elf who had a string of cool albums and who would probably have done a lot more had one Ritchie Blackmore not enticed them into being his backing band to make the first Rainbow album, a process that broke the band. Anyway, here’s Elf being cool, funky and surprisingly free of swords, dragons and rainbows.

Along The Road – Dirk Schwenk and the Truth  (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

dschwenkAlong The Road follows in some classic musical footsteps. The blend of smooth country tones, deft and dexterous blues licks and just the gentlest of rock muscle to push everything along and bands like The Eagles and CSN spring to mind. Throw in subject matter that circles timeless rather than contemporary issues and music which tips its hat reverentially to the past as much as it dances to the tune of its own age, conjuring the likes of The Band or CCR, and you have the perfect package.

I may have over played the references somewhat and I don’t want to give the impression that this is some pastiche of times long gone, for Along The Road is anything but that, it is just as confident in where it is going as to where it comes from. Along The Road She Comes is a gorgeous alt-country groove employing staccato dynamics, swelling Hammonds and a wonderful optimism and The River is a swirling, shimming slice of escapist southern blues.

It’s a great collection of songs, delivering a lot of familiar sounds but proving that those genres have glorious futures ahead of them. As does Dirk Schwenk.

Scene and Heard – CCCXLVII : On Down The Road –  Few Miles South (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

FMS album coverIn recent years there has been a move to take country out of its traditional sonic stamping ground and bend it into new, supposedly cooler, versions of itself and adding “post” or “alt” or “new” and the like to the front of the genre. I guess it is just the way of things, people having adverse reactions to the music of the previous generation and seeking to make something new for their young, emerging tribe. And whilst country may have picked up some stereotypical trappings, sometimes it is just done so damn well that you have to look beyond the journalistic rhetoric and the generic divides and just admit that it is a hell of a lot of fun. Few Miles South is just such a band.

They wear their country heart on their denim sleeves for sure, after all what’s more country than a band riding down a blasted, endless highway in the back of a cattle truck playing their song. There’s an upright bass, a lap steel guitar, boot cut jeans, cowboy hats, baseball caps…there’s even a dog. And the result is glorious. Groovesome country goodness, the sort of song that will cause even the most ardent wall flower to throw some line dancing moves and boogie the night away. It’s life-affirming, fun, deft and perfectly delivered. If you didn’t think you liked country music, I challenge you to listen to On Down The Road and then not admit that you may have been a bit quick to call it. Go on, I dare you.

Black Sheep Apprentice – Born To Walk Alone  (reviewed by T. Bebedor)

151612241.jpg.galleryI’ve been listening to this album on and off for the last week trying to formulate a way of starting off this review but never really feeling like I have enough information to give a review befitting what occurs within the 10+ tracks of this collection of songs from Swindon’s ‘grown-up Country’ specialists, so I find myself returning to the album to try and kick my ears into instructing my hands what to write.

And it’s proving difficult.

I think maybe the best place to start is with the warning; don’t get comfortable. This is not a generic album by any means and is happy to make you tap your feet and slap your thighs as it is in giving you a dizzying moment of “well where the hell are we going now!?”.

I’ve made no secret in previous reviews that I like opening tracks and this album’s opener starts in moody, Sergio Leone territory, a land of squawking buzzards overhead, dusty plains, creaking salon doors and a lone church bell ringing, it’s quite cinematic, it’s dramatic and you settle down for a dip into country music but no, this isn’t that kind of a show cowboy, after 35-40 secs we’re replacing that atmosphere with a bouncy opening track called ‘Let It Go’ which almost acts as a piece of advice because if you had any preconceptions about what to expect from this band, forget it, let it go because what you can expect – other than well written songs and more than a nod to the macabre – is the unexpected.

Tread carefully because this path isn’t familiar to most.

The music runs a deftly course between the dark ‘deal-with-the-Devil’ country music through the blues of the whiskey joints of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana where ghosts sit on the shoulders of wandering strangers, into rock and maybe even a little indie-rock. It wears it’s heart on it’s sleeve and the songs are songs of regret, often loneliness but definitely of experience the running order of the songs at times feels like they are going through certain emotions from loss (in Let it Go, Thrown Away, Water) to acceptance (Born to Walk Alone) to resolve (in Pheonix, I Curse Your Name and the demented but crowd roaring Black Sheep Apprentice) and they are all delivered with a voice sounding closer to Geddy Lee of Rush than the storytelling voice of Johnny Cash. Another leftfield twist.

I would have liked to have heard more growl on the bass at times and a few of the songs could have been shaved here and there but one man’s snack is another man’s feast and this is a big album, an album that gives you a lot of bang for your buck and doesn’t skimp on what’s included, which seems to be the band’s heart, blood, sweat, tears and balls!

After hearing what the band can do I’ll be catching them live very soon, there seems to be energy in spades on offer here that can only be best experienced live, so give the album a listen and catch a gig or two.

 

 

Time Between Us –  Trent Miller (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

Trent-Miller_Time-Between-UsTrent 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.

River Road –  The Gary Douglas Band (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

31265593_2410589195633675_4972983383240998912_oMany years ago there was a band I adored called The Del Fuego’s and a song in particular that I just couldn’t get enough of that went by the name of Allen’s Mills. It was the sound of a rock band putting their own stamp on country, even before the term alt-country had become fashionable. It was a raw and ragged take on Americana, again before every music journalist and music aficionado had even begun to argue over what the term even meant. It was…well, it was simply great. And everything I loved…and still love, about that song beats at the heart of River Road.

But no mere plagiarism or pastiche going on here, Gary Douglas is too smart to just settle for that, no, this is his own sound it is just that it takes in all the hallmarks of that iconic song which in turn referenced a host of greats from the days of yore. And indeed mine! Throw in some anthemic Springsteen-esque fist in the air antics, forged of underpinning pianos, epic guitar lines and squalling saxophone breaks and you have something pretty damned awesome. The sound of everything you love made into something you haven’t heard before. How does he even do that?

Hillbilly Blues – Billy Roberts and The Rough Riders (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

hillbilly_final.jpgThe title may suggest some sort of raggle-taggle, clattering country infused bluegrass, but Billy Roberts and his musical posse are in much slicker territory that it might first suggest. Well, I say slicker, all things are relative, and he has always come from a rough and tumble, bar band sort of place rather than the over-produced rhinestone Music City sound anyway. All I’m saying is The Grand Ole Opry this is not. Though there is a lot of the American South going on here, made all the more ironic considering the bands actual geographic base of operations, but anyone coming at this track, and indeed any of their music, without such prior knowledge would certainly place them south of the Mason-Dixon line.

Hillbilly Blues sounds like Tom Petty and Steve Earle driving along the I-40 singing Rainmakers’ songs, okay that is a bit simplistic but it has the same drive and accessibility, the same groove and grind, the same mix of utter commerciality and hidden gem status, and those horns just add something brilliantly quintessentially of that continent, something drawn from the blues-jazz hinterland of the American dream. But unlike the American dream, this is not a song of aspiration and hope, but a wonderfully self-deprecating take on the trials and tribulations of trying to pay the bills as a guitar-slinger. But then again country music has always been great at lamenting its own demise, but the charm here is that the song is never maudlin or melancholic, more about standing defiant in the face of the storm.

And the result is probably the most immediate and infectious song to come out of the man’s creative clutches so far and considering the standards he has already set, that is high praise indeed. As always stalwart Rough Riders Alex Quinn and Rory Racione do a sterling job, the former laying down some wailing guitar lines and slinky solos whilst the man at the back powers the song across the line with some tasteful and well tailored, driving beats. Maybe it takes an outsider to really cut through the musical complacency and well-guarded traditions of the country rock sound…listen to Hillbilly Blues and you realise that there is no maybe about it.

Scene and Heard – CCXCIII : Her Voice in My Head  –  Joshua Ketchmark (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

KETCHMARK-The-Misses-coverI remember Joshua Ketchmark’s last single, 17,  very well. Firstly because it was the last review I wrote before shutting things down for Christmas. Secondly because it dripped with a real Neil Young vibe. But mainly because it was a cracker of a song, one that understood its place on the singer-songwriter timeline whilst helping to take that style forward into the bright new future. Her Voice in My Head grooves on a more countrified feel, but one invested with a slice of rock muscle sailing it closer to an early Ryan Adams feel. How does this guy keep referencing all my favourite artists but still sound like his own man?

Her Voice In My Head is the perfect follow up to 17, and it proves that Ketchmark really has the acoustic rock, singer-songwriter thing sorted. After all, anyone can sing, anyone can write songs, but the term is more than the sum of its parts. In the case of Joshua Ketchmark much, much more than the sum of its parts.

Born To Walk Alone –  Black Sheep Apprentice (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

BTWA-Album-Cover-700x700.jpgIf good things come to he who waits then this first full album from Black Sheep Apprentice is proof that the longer you wait the ..err..gooder those things are. Richard Skidmore has guided his musical vehicle through many line-up changes and all the usual highs and lows of band life to a point where the dark stars that seem to hang in the sky above him finally aligned and Born To Walk alone became a reality. It may have taken a while but it has certainly been worth the wait.

Over the year’s Black Sheep Apprentice has evolved from a punked up country band, a sort of blend of The Clash and the Cash…Johnny that is, to a more nuanced vision of gothic Americana, Morricone-esque high drama, and low slung country-blues. Even at a time where alt-country is all over the US zeitgeist and its British-Americana sister sound is flavour of the month on this side of the pond, Born To Walk Alone might be built of recognisable generic strands but the way it is put together still creates a very original take on things.

Even within the countrified confines of their chosen path there is wonderful variation here. Water is a soulful gospel piece enhanced by the resonant rasp of Pete Cousin’s guest vocals whilst Phoenix tips it’s hat to the more driven country rock’n’roll sound that the band were conceived in. The title track with its smoother edges and orchestral sweeps has more than a touch of Neil Diamond about it, if he had eschewed the slick stadium path to play biker bars and truck stops in East Texas and the band’s titular song might be renamed Psychosis and Insanity : The Musical!

Fans of country will love the album’s traditional heart, rock fans the muscle, punks the rawness and more mainstream pop pickers the accessibility and infectiousness. It is raw yet soulful, textured yet direct, cinematic yet punchy…in fact it is hard to think of a music consumer who won’t get a kick out of this album.

Extended Play Catalogue Vol  1 – Neil Gregory Johnson (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

a2266731179_16Country music has a habit of taking itself a bit seriously, all those over-earnest, 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.  Rock music is often troubled with testosterone fuelled cliche, though which is less easy to defend. Blues often gets a bad name from stadium level guys in suits and shades removing every ounce of passion and pain from the genre in the name of money and fame…ironically the total opposite of the place from which blues speaks.

So if you cut all of those rotten cores out of the aforementioned generic apples and gather all the good bits that remain, you pretty much have the basic ingredients that Neil Gregory Johnson fashions his music from and Extended Play Catalogue Vol  1 is a lesson to anyone working in roots music today in vibrant and honest songwriting.

Kicking off with the joyous Three Days on The Wagon, the perfect blend of exactly the genre splicing I have just described, the song proves to be a great calling card for what is to follow. This opening salvo blends country swagger, blues sass and rock muscle, it grooves and grinds, bounces and boogies and the wailing train whistle harmonica is the perfect icing on the cake. From there we move through the move countrified, line-dancable beats of I Want To Drink a Beer With You, a celebration to wasting time in good company. Pure blues is served up with Loving and Leaving, a timeless piece that could fit into a set list any time from the late sixties onwards and Well Kept is slow country blues that fits effortlessly into both camps.

This is an album that could only have been made by someone who isn’t that beholdened to one genre or another, someone broad minded enough to realise that its all just music. It draws lines between the Austin blues bars of today and the cosmic cowboy scene of the early 70’s, between the Southern Rock of yesteryear and the modern alt-country of today, between Chicago blues bars and the freewheelin’ scene of his North Western home. It is rootless and out of time, it references rather than rehashes, tips its hat rather than plagiarises and although much is surely familiar, it is better described as truly original music forged from classic sounds.

More than anything else Extended Play Catalogue Vol  1 is a collection of songs for the everyday and the working man, the realities of life and its loves, loss and longing but also its beauty and celebration. It may come from a personal place but every word and sentiment found here is totally relatable to the listening public at large. This maybe the sound track to Johnson’s life, but in many ways it is the sound track to all our lives. Never has an ordinary life had a score so glorious.

Listen to and buy the album HERE

 

One Louder –  The Nadas (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

One_Louder_LP.png.jpegIf 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.

J D Carroll and The Usual Suspects – Dreamers Choice (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

wp2600fa1b_05_06Whilst the core sound driving this beguiling release from JD Carroll is unmistakably country, it is country music delivered through a hazy, slightly psychedelic, folk infused lens,  which seems totally in keeping with the subject matter it deals with. If the aforementioned rootsy genre informs the structure and the shape of the song, it is what is hung on that framework which makes this more than just another country band. It is the sound of underground Nashville hanging around on the street corner of Haight-Ashbury in the 60’s, it is the sound of traditional music clashing with the sound of revolution, albeit a gentle and peaceable one, it is the sound of the past looking for a future and the present remembering its past.

Musically Dreamers Choice is subtle beast, moving at a gentle and fairly understated pace even then playing a modest and restrained hand. Country music can be about pickup trucks, hard times and all the usual cliches, nothing wrong with that, there is a market and a place for everything but JD Carroll and The Usual Suspects reminds us that country music, like all music born of the mass, can be used in far cleverer ways. Dreamers Choice is country music coming from a fairly existential place indeed. It grafts interesting observation and social commentary on to a track which whilst following the rules does so in a smarter, more intriguing and emotive fashion, which is a pretty neat trick if you can pull it off. JD more than pulls it off here.

Free  – Collins and Streiss (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

Free_Cover_Collins_StreissObviously more by accident than design but Collins and Streiss’s sound owes something to their initials and all that implies. If they became a trio by incorporating someone whose surname began with an N then the CS&N moniker would be highly appropriate. Appropriate because their blend of rich harmonies and rootys, country rock, west coast cool and gratuitous sax is not a million miles away from that famous trio.

And by the time they put their foot on the gas at about the half way point, they drive the song through the same territory that Tom Petty was happy to call his musical stamping ground. But for all the achievements of such icons, they can’t take all the credit, people have been making slick, sumptuous and sassy rock since the year dot, or at least since the year microdot…if you know what I mean, and they have been making it ever since, though not always as well as this. So Collins and Streiss sit at the cutting edge of a timeless sound, it evokes the past and reminds us of former glories but it also speaks to the here and now and suggests that the future is in safe hands too. Lovely!

Legacy –  Matt Westin (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

20170831-A80I6940The songs on Legacy 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. Matt Westin fashions something far cleverer than that though.

Whilst on the surface it fits somewhere between the rhinestone glare of Nashville tradition and the more edgy and underground vibe that gets called country rock or alt-country. But really it is just the natural marriage of country music and the rock heritage that it grew up along side.

And musically it is subtle beast, born out of heartache and tragedy and, as the name suggests, a tribute and remembrance to a lost love one but never pulling those heartstrings too obviously. Country music can be about pickup trucks, trains, campfires and national pride, nothing wrong with that, there is a market and a place for everything but Matt Westin reminds us that country music, can also document life in a deeper, more emotive way, a way that is both totally personal and universally relatable.

For Legacy is a collection of songs for the everyday, the working man, the realities of life and its loves, loss, longing but also its beauty and celebration. Never has an ordinary life had a soundtrack so glorious.

Peripheral Vision – Alpha Mule (reviewed by Sarah Ryan)

AM+cover+sm+type.jpgWith harmonies reminiscent of Simon & Garfunkle and imagery reflective of a whiskey-fuelled fairy-tale, Alpha Mules’ ‘Peripheral Vision’ boasts an array of original and Tuscon-tuned tracks. Taking inspiration from the music of the American south and American southwest, Alpha Mule blend several genres together in this album – bluegrass, country, rock and folk to name but a few.

Opening the album with the remote calls of a train, Corpus Christi is a song which lends itself to the solitude, seclusion and heat of the Sonoran Desert. Cutting into the foreground with sharp subtlety, the banjo’s allegretto tempo effortlessly compliments Joe Forkan’s dulcet vocals. By having a highly open melodic sequence, the instrumentation is allowed, if you will, to ‘‘run free’’ in this track: the closing phrases of Corpus Christi, wherein the slide guitar is partnered with Eric Stoner’s banjo, personify a feeling of space, distance, and loneliness, while the cyclical nature of the song ultimately helps to create a hypnotic and compelling sound. Although still reinforcing the expansive style of the album, On The Moon juxtaposes Corpus Christi’s marriage of melody and harmony by conveying a clear contradiction between the lead vocals and Stoner’s banjo and guitar accompaniment. While some may argue that the soft, legato vocals are submerged by the strong, staccato string section, I feel that the punchy percussion does nothing but add to the energetic and upbeat nature of the track.

Mirroring the title of the album, Peripheral Vision epitomises all that is tender, soft, and loving in life. By repeating lines, such as ‘The girl in my blind spot’, composers Joe Forkan and Eric Stoner are not only able to reinforce themes of mystery, uncertainty, and longing, but also convey an overriding presence of ambiguity (which seems to trickle into each track on the album). With the howling call of the harmonica, a sense of regret seeps into this song – like a pillowcase being stained by tears. However, with the phrase ‘Her image breaks through’ comes the instigation of a new emotion: optimism. The closing bars of Peripheral Vision also reflect the hope and anticipation that can clearly be heard in the Forkan’s lyrical phrasing. Brimming with exoticisms, The Distance is a song which can only be described as ‘‘the perfect story.’’ Flawlessly underpinning the overall tone of the song, the interlude witnesses the banjo and guitar playing as if one instrument, while Jacob Valenzuela’s trumpet summons the listener to a distant land. Simply put, this song provides the heat of far-off places and is full of faded promises.

A technique used in both The Distance and Mule in the Mine, Forkan and Stoner’s incorporation of word painting highlights the sophistication and beauty of the album itself. Used extensively throughout Mule in the Mine, the embedded word painting in Forkan’s melody mirrors the vigour of the accompaniment and the percussions driving rhythm. Constantly flitting from fortissimo to pianissimo, Mule in the Mine is a song which packs a musical punch.

If you want to not only picture the vastness that originates with loneliness, but also experience that heat that comes from adventure, then listen to this album.

 

Scene and Heard  – CCXXXIX :  Not Too Far to Reach –  Jake Ward (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

EP_Album_CoverFINAL2_preview_300300To 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!

Acoustic –  Nelson King (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

23621267_10155868700574084_2211265628735833507_nYou can say what you like about Mr King but you can’t deny that he has a pretty solid work rate. It seems that barely a season goes by without at least one album popping into the review pile. Whilst many of his albums have seen him head into that battered and brusied electric rock ’n’ roll territory that he seems to effortlessly ooze, this album returns him to the acoustic playground that he explored so wonderfully on The Collection. Acoustic does just what it says on the tin, for the most part, one voice, a couple of layered acoustic guitars, minimal beats and the odd foray into a slightly embellished sound.

But if that sounds a tad underwhelming or that you have heard enough of such deliveries to last a life time, you haven’t factored in the sheer ragged glory of Nelson King’s songs. This is no fey, gap-year, indie-folk singer in wide brimmed hat aiming for the artistry of Simon and Garfunkel and only reaching the gimmickry of Bon Ivor, this is a man who has paid his rock and roll dues so many times over, read, absorbed and even added a few footnotes to the rule book, that he doesn’t even have to plug in to make rootsy rock and roll statements, statements which feel like long lost classics from a golden age. This is rock and roll in the raw, stripped to its very soul, often vulnerable, always emotive.

If songs like You Blow Me Away and House on Fire are concessions to a fuller band sound, both of which could have easily graced a Stones set any time from the early seventies onwards, it is the lilting country-folk vibes of I’ll Fall For You and Face The Sun which are more representative of the overall feel of the album, the later in particular feeling like Keef and Ronnie jamming out in the dressing room in a cloud of nicotine and whiskey vapour.

It is always easy to see where Nelson King comes from, imagine a blusier Johnny Thunders growing up in England and learning to play by listening to Dylan and Neil Young, Creedence and The Band, but they are references worn openly and honestly and of course with music this fundamentally pure, unpretentious and invigorating what would be the point of trying to re-invent it. Better to just add more timeless gems to the canon and that is exactly what Nelson King has done here.

A preview from the next album Shine

Greenbah –  Billy Roberts and The Rough Riders (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

greenbahGenres are tricky things, full of implication and assumption. Pop music isn’t always popular, soul bands don’t always connect deep down and not all blues is melancholic. Similarly the term Americana might imply that it is a sound taken from the American music psyche or that references past glories from that country. But maybe some music is less about geography and more about the similarities between the people making it. If the modern urban sprawl has given us intense, minimal rapped deliveries put to a empty industrial-tribal beat and conversely slow-paced agrarian comments produce gentler, lilting folk, maybe all Billy Roberts is doing is channelling the natural pace and pulse of hard-working, regular communities, wherever they may be found.

And maybe the term Americana is a bit misleading, some of the hall marks are there for sure but Greenbah also wanders many other roads, it is rough around the edges rock, outlaw country, rhythm and booze; it grooves, it boogies, it motors. It is the sound of the perfect bar band, one that you could have stumbled across anywhere from 60’s San Francisco, 70’s New York, 80’s London and a hundred other scenes and cities across the decades. I guess it carries a torch that stems back to the early blues players and then has evolved, grown, got sonically tooled up but always been around in some form or another.

If album opener, Old Friend, ticks off more than a few of those American country references and has a certain Springsteen vibe about it,  Greenbah also has more than a few tricks up its sleeve. Blood and Bones is a raw, blues rock workout, Only One is a pacy ballad as blistering as it is beautiful and No One Knows Me is a west coast country punk anthem. There is even room for a moment of Cohen-esque bar-room introspection with Don’t Tell Mamma and Little Johnny is a song that Tom Waits would kill for, bent to his will and then probably re-written with a tuba in mind.

To say that it is a solid album is an understatement, The Rough Riders as a pack are a force to be reckoned with, they get the job done with the minimum of fuss, with an attitude of “I’ve had my union card a long time, I know what the job is, don’t mess with me when I’m working.” The charm comes from the fact that although it is the sound of a group of musicians playing at the top of the gruff, country-rock game, they rarely give away all the goods at once, preferring instead to serve the song and wait for their rare, individual moment in the spotlight, teasing and taunting the listener. Any showboating is reduced to intricate motifs and clever sonic designs which spice the music rather than lime-lit ego massaging that modern music is infamous for.

People are people, music is where you find it and the world is a small place. All cliches I’ll grant you but it does explain why Billy Roberts and The Rough Riders are difficult to place in every sense of the phrase. So why not raise a glass to the post-genre, post scene, post-everything world…then finish the bottle whilst listening to this intriguing Antipodean band.

Directions – The Singer and The Songwriter (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

7f6c48f9-ced1-44f7-aab5-6dd9e47bb282As we found out when listening to the wonderfully cinematic Anywhere, Everywhere, The Singer and The Songwriter revel in escape, freedom, travel and more importantly sharing that journey together. They are themes which run openly through their latest e.p. Direction, painting pictures of heading off into the unknown, of exploration and the desire to see what is just over the horizon. And whilst the cinematic, widescreen Americana of that single is also present on opening track Wild Heart, the space afforded by a mini album shows that they love to travel across genres just as much as they do across state lines.

Give Love is a lovely lilting and soulful gospel groove and Worried No More is an old school country rock strut but it is the last two songs on the e.p. which reveal a less categorisable side to the band. Show Me The Mountain is a strange, primal ritual, built on beats and ancient voices calling from beyond time and things round off with Apparent Brightness which seems to be a collection of celestial voices sent down from a higher plane and made to serve time in a quirky folk-pop band. And why not?

It is a surprising and wonderfully gathering of songs and whilst you always feel that their hearts are out there on the open road, even when they are physically elsewhere, the fact that they channel those ideas through such a wide range of styles and genres, even inventing a few new ones on the way, just shows that this is a band whose approach to music is as broad minded as is their love of exploring the world around them. If only their were more people like them, the world would be a friendlier and more understanding, not to mention musically diverse, sort of place.

Voodoo Smile –  Ragged Union (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

14203255_1184189898270421_532741306454354670_nIt says something about the quality of Andy Milsom’s songwriting and indeed the band as a whole’s ability to authentically delivery what I guess we will have to call British Americana, that it is difficult to spot the original tracks from the covers on this album. The fact that they chose to cover The Stones and Tom Petty (twice) gives you a good idea of the musical world they inhabit…though their inclusion of Depeche Mode’s Personal Jesus rendered into a grooving gospel-rocker also shows just how broadly their minds work.

But great as the pre-loved music is, it is the originals that we came here to check out and that they sound like forgotten tracks from the Great American Songbook is what they were probably aiming for. Well, bullseye gentlemen. Dave Preston’s one inclusion, Lovers, is a deftly crafted piece, emotive and full of regret and Andy Milsom seems to be able to knock out songs with ease  which seem to exist at that point where the Mason Dixon line joins the M4 corridor.

This is a band which references rather than repeats, picks at rather than plunders, tips a hat to the music it loves rather than tries to copy wholesale and the result is a rather wonderful and fully formed British take on Southern music. Because of this deference they avoid the cliche that many of their contemporaries fall in to and instead fashion an album whose original inclusions are as good as the classics they punctuated them with. Somewhere down the line these British boys will pen their own American Girl and who knows where that will take them!

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