Much has been written of the music lore of the Mississippi Delta. Less so The Thames Delta, an equally mercurial and mythical place and one that seems to have a strange ability to draw itinerant musicians from all over the old world and the new to its colder, murky environs. Musicians such as Bob Collum, who hails from Tulsa but who has called the Essex hinterland home for many years now. It is to be expected I guess. Take a age old global port add the influx of cultural music that goes with such industry, not to mention a thriving folk circuit and a home grown pub scene which re-invented American rock and blues for the pre-punk UK market and the seeds for a sort of global Americana musical garden were not only sown but have been constantly well watered.
Elton John once sang “sad songs say so much” and it’s probably safe to say that we all have a sad song in our list of all-time favourite songs, those are the songs we are often drawn to, we can sympathise, empathise and relate to these moments of emotional outpouring. We find comfort knowing some rich, famous singer in LA shares the exact same emotions that we do.
Michelle Lewis’s album has more than its fair share of sad songs, but they are mostly delivered with an optimistic outlook, yes, she’s been hurt but she’s still here and not only has she learnt from those heartbreaks she’s managed to channel it into songs and it’s pretty uplifting in parts.
Even 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.
On an increasingly packed shelf of roots music stands an artist who is quietly going about his business, blending and blurring the lines between country, folk and blues and playing shows all over the place, and picking up friends and followers as he goes.
If you’re a follower of Mark Harrison, or keep an eye on roots music in general, I won’t be telling you anything new here, you’ve already had the scoop and it’s I who is the late comer, but for those who stumble upon the cd cover and think “that looks interesting” or have heard his music on Radio 2 or perhaps wandered past an acoustic stage at a festival and heard a song or two by him, read on…
The Panoramic View is Mark’s sixth album and is a wonderful dip into nostalgia, these songs could have been written sixty years ago but the great success is how these songs also feel and sound contemporary. The opening track title, ‘One Small Suitcase’, sums up the feeling of the album in three words, these are songs to accompany a railroad trip, sat on an old wooden crate, passing the fields of Idaho, watching the miles and hours drift by with nothing but the stories and imagery that Harrison effortlessly seems to conjure.
Harrison encourages the listener to go on the journey, pack that small suitcase, get on board that train and visit the father surrounded by children, the heart broken man wronged by his woman, the legendary railroad worker and the man living on a farm scratching a living and trying to avoid temptation and passing on his words of wisdom to the upcoming generation. I guess this is a metaphor for what Harrison is trying to do, a blues man at heart, he is repeating and retelling the music of the blues, so it can hopefully find a home among the pop tunes and short-lived celebrity acts. But if you’re hoping for screaming guitar solos, look elsewhere because this is subtle story telling that clings on by it’s nails long after the song has finished.
There are acoustic songs like ‘House Full of Children’, ‘Ragged’ and ‘John The Chinaman’ but there is a growly earthy centre that is found in the superb ‘Hooker’s Song’. Obviously none of this can be done alone, Harrison surrounds himself with some fine musicians, bringing the different tones to life with ease. One thing that particularly stood out was the brass work of Paul Tkachenko, hearing a tuba being played on any record puts me in mind of the silver bands of Northern England, yet hearing it here, on an album so obviously American-inspired allows these stories to feel more relevant to me somehow.
So, like I said earlier, if you have heard Mark Harrison before, I’m probably telling you nothing new here, the songs are good, the music is good and this is what you’ve come to expect from a musician writing and delivering this level of music, but if this is your first visit, you’re in for a treat.
Although it seems that summer may have only just disappeared and we have all the Autumnal delights to get through yet, plans are already being made for the Christmas holiday season. Katie Garibaldi may be the first Christmas song to land on the review pile but I think it is going to take some beating. As part of her Home Sweet Christmas album Safe and Warm mixes her already well established roots credentials with more devotional gospel vibes the result is the perfect match of seasonal and timeless.
Whilst many will be releasing songs which are either dry and formulaic or silly and sentimental, Garibaldi mixes the right about of delicacy and grace with clever sonic choices and deft composition. The layered harmonies are exquisite, the space in the song allows her own soft but effective main vocal to have room to soar, with the instrumentation only framing and embroidering the song rather than driving it any more than is necessary.
A seasonal song that you can play all year round? Absolutely!
Last time Amilia passed our way she was celebrating the joys of the Christmas holiday season in suitably buoyant and bubbly mood. This time out she offers up a gorgeous piece of ethereal country music, a song which seems to drift past your consciousness rather than engage the listener with anything more direct. Harlan is a simple song, gentle lyrics paint poetic reflections and the rhythms of the acoustic guitar are only minimally embellished by additional musical textures.
But like most simple songs it has the ability to be more effective than a more intricate rival. It is wonderfully open, direct and through the nostalgic and reflective lyrical imagery she presents a song that remains both fantastically compelling yet brilliantly vague. The simplicity of the music forces you to focus on Amilia’s vocals, not that you would have missed them, a combination of hushed late night tones and crystal clear delivery, drifting yet poignant.
Understanding what a song needs is a skill in its own right, knowing what to leave out requires an even more astute musical mind. Thankfully Amilia K. Spicer understands the power of understatement and Harlan is the perfect example of musical restraint making for a more compelling song.
There is an old adage (are there no young adages and if not should we fear for the future of adages? ) which says that you can tell a lot about a person by the company that they keep. The same is true of bands and anyone rubbing shoulders with the likes of Paul McClure and The Local Heroes, Matthew Edwards and The Unfortunates or who invites members of Danny and The Champions of The World to guest on their album, are people that, even before I have heard a note, I know that I am going to get along with.
And as Always opens up the album, I am vindicated by Drew Morrison, his band and his music. A bit like the aforementioned Champ’s, there is something inherently soulful at the heart of the songs, more than just Morrison’s plaintive and worldly vocals but something sensitive and soothing whilst, ironically, often juggling the weight of the world. Or at least the weight of one man’s world. Intimate and emotive, Electric Notes Wild paints personal portraits, tells small stories that just happen to be universally relatable, is direct but gentle, romantic but restrained.
In typically British fashion it keep things manageable, people like Springsteen may have painted broad sonic Americana brush strokes to describe the nature of his own country, Morrison does the same for his through quite conversations, wistfulness and reflection. Musically the cloth is cut perfectly, the songs built of wonderful textures and interplay, it’s what you get when you put so many deft players behind such a delicate songwriter.
Let Me Break Your Heart Tonight is such a gorgeous song, its understatement and its sentiment reflecting everything I love about this album and Sad Music seems to exist somewhere near where the M1 crosses the Mason Dixon line. Like We Used To underlines the wonderful nostalgia that beats at the heart of the record and Islands describes the feeling of isolation that threads its way through many of the songs.
Less is indeed more and even though there is plenty going on musically on this album, the playing and arrangements are so finely woven, so carefully placed, that it never intrudes on the songs but instead subtly serves them. You can be assured that if a certain note, beat or word is on this album then it is the perfect one for the job, that it conveys just the right emotion or resonance. Quality control is something Drew Morrison and The Darkwood excel at and Electric Notes Wild is the perfect example of that.
There is a quote that comes with the press release of Grandview Station’s eponymous album noting that it has been described as “like finding an album in the basement from 1979 that was lost and never released.” To be honest, as a sound bite, that takes a lot of beating in its accuracy and succinctness. Rock music may be having a tough time trying to work out where its future lies, but sometimes it forgets that it is also okay to look to the past, to tip its hat, in this case most probably a dusty and battered stetson, to past glories too.
There is a big difference between plagiarism and torch bearing, between wholesale plunder and weaving gentle sonic tributes through your music and here we are definitely in the realms of wholly original music being made that just happens to walk with a certain familiarity. The songs are fresh and groove laden, they just happen to also leave you with a slightly nostalgic after taste. I think they call that the best of both worlds.
Country vibes, blues structures and rock muscle all blend effortlessly into music that fits on a time line anywhere between late sixties cosmic country outlaws to modern southern rockers, along the way taking in 70’s rock access, 80’s anthemics, 90’s directness and 21st century reinvention. A fine line between rock traditions and moving the ball forward. And even when they aren’t moving the ball forward, they sound like they are having a great time, and you will too. Isn’t that the whole point of rock music?
Crashing By Design feels like a long lost, mid-paced power ballad, a term which even as I write it seems to under sell how deft and dexterous this song actually is. Fall From Grace’s sultry sax intro heralds a subtle and supple mix of late night musical textures and rock vigour and Hate To Love You is that end of festival, fists in the air, sunset swan song. But Grandview Station really come into their own when they go for broke. Acid Rain is a frenzy of psychedelia and Dixie grooves, Where I’m Not Wanted goes on a crazy ride between Austin and Los Angeles, harvesting the raw blues of the former and the skyscrapping musical attitudes of the latter and It Won’t Be Me puts the album to bed with a wonderful dynamic mix of guitar excess and perfectly poised interludes and sounding oddly like James Taylor discovering hard rock….at last.
Music should always be forward thinking, but not at the expense of forgetting where it comes from and Grandview Station know exactly the path that got them to where they are today. Thankfully they are more than happy to use that as the perfect vehicle to drive into a bright future.
Known for creating the soundtrack of a generation, John Fogerty, in conjunction with BMG, is set to release two further albums from his extensive 2018 solo reissue campaign.
Released on the 26th October, ‘Eye of the Zombie’ and ‘Deja Vu (All Over Again)’ follow the critically acclaimed 20th anniversary release of Fogerty’s Grammy Award-winning album ‘Blue Moon Swamp’, the multi-platinum, Grammy nominated ‘Centerfield’, and the gold-certified Grammy nominated album ‘Premonition’, all released earlier this year.
2018 marks the 20th anniversary of John Fogerty’s Grammy Award-winning album ‘Blue Moon Swamp’. Originally released in 1997, ‘Blue Moon Swamp’ won Best Rock Album at the 40th Grammy Awards in 1998, with the song ‘Blueboy’ receiving a Grammy nomination for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance that same year. The album would go on to receive gold certification by the RIAA with the album charting in 11 countries, reaching No.1 in Finland and Sweden.
As co-founder of Creedence Clearwater Revival, Fogerty’s career spans 50 years and he is hailed as one of the most influential musicians in rock history. As the writer, singer and producer of numerous classic hits including ‘Born on the Bayou’, ‘Green River’, ‘Proud Mary’, and ‘Bad Moon Rising’, Fogerty has been honoured as one of the 100 Greatest Guitarists, 100 Greatest Songwriters, and 100 Greatest Singers by Rolling Stone. Earning induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Songwriters Hall of Fame, and Baseball Hall of Fame, he is also a New York Times best-selling author for his memoir, Fortunate Son: My Life, My Music.
The first thing that jumps out from Kat Danser’s new album is how familiar it feels, you’re in the company of someone that knows exactly what they are doing, this isn’t to say there is nothing new here or it feels tired, (there is certainly a knowledge and love for this style of music that sits proudly on top of blues, country, skiffle and rock n roll) but you immediately feel in safe hands.
It’s a ten-track journey through America’s musical heritage with a feeling that you’re either sitting in the back of the tour bus or travelling on a rickety train that eats up the miles while the songs – like the stations – come and go.
It’s no surprise that Kat lives and breathes this style of music, the authenticity in which the songs are presented reflects her knowledge of the genre/s (she has a PhD in Ethnomusicology so to say she knows her stuff would be an understatement). But does knowledge equate to a good record? In this case yes, her vocals lie somewhere between the jazz rasp of Diane Krall and 80’s singer Tanita Tikaram, this isn’t the poppy country voice of Miranda Lambert or Taylor Swift, Kat’s voice has a bass-y, bluesy quality that spring her descriptive, story-teller lyrics into life.
The album plays out like a guided tour of America’s southern states, Kansas and Memphis are mentioned in track names and there is a definite vibe of travel throughout the album. She dips into the sweaty, smoky blues with ease and it’s clear she is trying to recreate the sound and feel of the Delta blues players like Robert Johnson and Skip James but the problem with trying to authentically recreate the feel and sound of a music that is so ingrained into a certain part of the world as it’s people, history and geography is that in keeping that sound if can become limiting in what can be achieved. One step either side from the recognisable sound and you wander off into another genre. One way around this, and what is done so well here, is to bring in very good musicians that can subtly smudgethe rule book and breath new life into the tracks.
A special mention should go to harmonica and sax player Jim Hoke who not only plays some well-fitting harmonica but also some deftly placed sax, it adds a new character to the usual suspects of a blues band.
This album has been spinning around my cd player for a few days and it doesn’t show any sign of being ejected any time soon, so if you want to listen to some grown-up, educated blues and country music that will make your foot move and possibly make you think about a trip to America’s deep south then you could do much worse than giving this a try.
Those with their ear close to the grass roots end of the music spectrum, the place where jobbing troubadours and sonic dreamers wander with little concern for fame and fortune, have long been aware of the potency and potential of both David Celia and Marla for many years. One an expert in pop melodies and wry observation, the other a painter of rootys soundscapes and drifting folk eloquence, separate they are both great to say the least, together they become something much more the sum of those, already admirable parts.
Daydreamers is a document. A document of a long distant relationship, of the touring life, of their hopes for their own future as well as those for the world around them. It is also a document of the sound of the 60’s folk revival but one seen less through rose tinted retrospectcles and rather through the timeless and cyclical nature that music is beholden too.
The title track is built around a wonderful, innocent wide eyed hippy ethic which is sadly to often missing from our current dark and cynical age, Follow Me is a gentle piece of drifting acoustica, one that Crosby Stills and Nash would have, okay not quite killed for but may have given you a hard and unnerving stare, and Warming Words is a gorgeous slice of lilting country-pop. It is also an open and unabashed love letter to each other, I Am Her Man and Lover of Mine seeing the two of them trading their feelings for each other but doing so in a way that swerves the obvious or the mawkish and lands perfectly in the realms of timeless classic.
Musically it may look to the past for its references but in all other respect it is a forward thinking album, one that is graceful and celebratory, gentle, wonderfully open and honest and grafted with genuine affection both for each other and the music that they fashion to that end. How joyously refreshing.
It’s nice to know that in this age of meticulous studio production, where even the smallest amount of natural talent can go a long way with the right engineer and the right box of tricks, that some people are still making albums in much more honest ways. Tony Rose’s solo album is just such a musical beast with the main body of the tracks being laid down live in a single session. Best known as a member of globe-trotting folksters Two Dollar Bash, Tony finally decided that it was time to put his own album out and so a small bunch of musical cohorts were gathered, tracks were recorded and Medicine Tunes was born.
Unsurprisingly the musical paths that Tony explores on this debut outing are not too far removed from his main musical concerns and indeed many of the people who have walked with him down those roads, Mark Mulholland and Stéphane Doucerain from Two Dollar Bash/Impure Thoughts as well as long time collaborators Geir Voie and Sean Condron, appear here too.
What Tony Rose revels in is good, solid, unfussy roots tunes, songs that embrace the deft and dexterous side of the genre, mandolins and banjos lend a country lilt when needed, others such as Pieter’s Song come on like a good old British pub folk singalong. There is room for Tex-Mex campfire songs with the appropriately named South of The Border, Lost in The Valley blends in some Celtic melancholic poeticism and Song of The Angels is a lovely, emotive piece of sweeping balladry.
Tony has always kept busy, wandering around Europe and North America, playing gigs and releasing albums with a succession of renowned bands so I guess that is excusable that he has only just got around to releasing an album under his own name. I just hope that he finds time to do it again sooner rather than later.
If asked to name an exquisite songwriter, we could all roll a bunch of names off without hesitation. Questioned to name a brilliant performer and again we could do so with ease. If pushed for someone who plays with a timeless roots sound yet is still pushing those generic boundaries forward and we might find that to be a more difficult task, yet with a bit of thought we could probably all think of one or two. But if asked to name an artist who manages to tick all of those boxes and you are suddenly in difficult territory. There can’t be many artists able to excel in all those areas, who can be found in that small part of the Venn Diagram where all of these skills are present but Thea Hopkins is certain one of that select club.
Love Come Down is a collection of six songs which wander the American landscape, folk, blues and country rooted tunes that embrace social commentary, love balladry, universal truths and personal reflections. Add to that Thea’s evocative voice and an often wistfully melancholic but never overtly sad touch, jazz textures and lilting acoustica and you have an amazing suite of songs.
Almost Upon a Time is a gorgeous folk ballad, timeless, heartfelt and restrained, Mississippi River, Mississippi Town is a shimmering slice of country, one that eschews the Nashville template and makes more left-field and progressive choices and the title track is a wonderfully understated dreamscape using space and atmosphere as much as the instruments to get the job done. I would say that this is a future classic in the making but then again, why wait?
Bakersfield,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!
If there is one form of music that seems best equipped to do the whole love and longing, nostalgia and wistful romance routine, country music seems to have all the tools to hand, and Todd Barrow’s latest release is the perfect proof. But of course the art of getting such songs right is walking that fine emotional line. Stray too far one way and you end up with something a bit too personal something that doesn’t necessarily speak to everyone, too far the other and you find yourself in cliche and pastiche.
Thankfully Todd is the master of some fancy sonic and lyrical footwork and delivers a song which is romantic and reflective, with just the right amount of intimacy. It is a song that is both personal and yet ultimately relatable by anyone who has ever experienced that feeling of mild intoxication by just being close to someone you hold dear. Musically it is spacious and restrained which makes the lyrical message even stronger, framed by just the right musical motifs and clever attention to detail to delicately dress the song up but ultimately just allowing the lyrics to do their thing. And it is a thing they do with a combination of power and poise. Perfect.
Although 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.
Today 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.
Regular perusers of this site will know that we are not so hot on covers of songs. They rarely bring anything new to the table and if they try to there is a certain arrogance in thinking that you can take established songs and make them better. Apart from Kirsty McColl’s majestic reworking of Billy Bragg’s iconic A New England, and only then in the extended 12” format ….remember them kids…and the breath of new life that Jeff Buckley gave to Hallelujah, few covers have come close to justifying their existence. The Olsten Brothers Band may just have snuck onto that shortlist.
If the RHCP original was uncharacteristically brooding and intense in place of their usual hi-jinx, art-punk for high school jocks, TOBB takes things even further. Coming at things from a bleak, washed out country vibe this rendering is a blasted, dystopian version of the genre, a gothic cowboy anthem for an apocalyptic America.
Remember when Johnny Cash released his American Recordings and album that took on not only expected outlaw country selections but the likes of Nick Lowe and Glen Danzig too…this version of Otherside fits right into that mentality. Dark, spacious, majestic and ultimately eerily terrifying. How great is that?
Along 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.
Anyone who opens their album with a Spaghetti Western theme medley is not only laying out a pretty clear statement of intent (if the band name and album cover hadn’t already done that) but is playing right into my musical comfort zone. From there they proceed to punk up Tex-Mex, give country music a rock and roll kick up the butt, mix garage rock with cowboy cool and take blues on a sultry ride south of the border accompanied by the good, the bad and the seriously groovy.
Rather than find new places for country music to explore, The Mezcaltones instead reunite it with old musical friends, wander back through roots routes mixing and matching the sounds of the south and beyond. The resonant riffs of songs like Short Change Hero seem to blend our Hollywood views of the old west with 50’s rock and roll, Howlin’ at the Moon plays with big blues-rock dynamics and I Know My Rider is pure southern alt-rock.
It’s a great, escapist, white knuckle ride, a sound track to a vision of America which never existed. But like a wise man once said, when the legend becomes fact, print the legend…and then write it an amazing sound track!
Marianne Nowottny does a very interesting thing on Wagon Wheel and walks a fine artistic line between the familiar and the fresh as she takes a sort of established, country template and subjects it to a touch of avant gardening. It’s a bit like looking at something from a distance and understanding its overall shape and nature but then being surprised on closer inspection as to what it is actually made of. For Wagon Wheel sounds like a long lost, old-time music hall country tune but it is built from as many strange sonic pieces as it is expected sounds.
Steel guitars soothe and soar, banjos pluck hypnotically but the constant kick drum echoes contemporary dance beats, there is musical detail provided by unexpected electronica and the way the snare comes and goes as it walks its wonderfully wonky path creates another unexpectedly new element. There is more than a hint of this being a country record made by someone who doesn’t want to be too closely associated with the genre, someone exploring its ideas but doing so from a distance. In fact, musically it sounds to me like Violent Femmes had they thrown more country sounds into their mix…well, sort of. The great thing about this track is that it is hard to find useful handles and labels to describe it, and that is always a good thing.
All of this makes a lot more sense when you realise that Nowottny is a musical magpie, someone able to flit through genres taking what she loves as the ingredients for her music, which has included everything from jazz, blues, pop, avant-rock—and even classical Chinese and Indian music. It is obvious, therefore, that the established rules are only there as a guideline of what to avoid, to help her to swerve away from the mainstream pack and head off to paint her own musical landscapes.
It’s music that seems to be one thing but upon closer inspection is something else entirely, music that reveals more and more upon every play as you try to work out how she has forged all of these odd musical approaches and strange modus operandi into something that, from a distance at least, sounds so familiar. I guess that’s how subversiveness works best. Very clever indeed.
In 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.
Devizes-based singer-songwriter-guitarist Tamsin Quin is one of those artists that seems to be doing the right things at the right time and has been gathering something of a following for her blend of acoustic folk with intelligent lyrics that owes more than a slight nod to country music and Americana. This eight-track album is long overdue and sounds glorious. Music has always been a labour of love, you can pay the best musicians in the world to play on your album but unless the belief and the passion is there, you’ve just wasted your money and the whole team that Tamsin has assembled work together so well to ensure that these songs have a strong platform for her vocals to shine through.
Opening track ’Searching’ begins like a homage to the comforting country music that we all know, acoustic guitar backed by chicken-picking guitar licks and steady snare beats welcome us before the vocals lead us into a dreamy love song complete with a catchy chorus. It feels like it’s been lifted from a ‘Welcome to Nashville’ tourist video, so it comes as no surprise that Tamsin spent a little time in the home of country music.
The album really comes alive when the band join in and support her, it could be argued that songs ‘Fearless’ and ‘Upwards for Me’ are the strongest on the album and certainly have the broadest appeal to people new to this style of music. The one thing I would change though is where these songs sit on the album, like naughty school children, they should be separated and kept slightly apart, the tempo and key are similar so they drift from one into another seamlessly, but sitting where they do gives the album a beautiful lift to the middle section before going into the more folky surroundings of ‘Jennifer’ and the bitter sweet ‘Seventeen’ that tells the story of people living with regrets, broken dreams and missed chances, heavy stuff but the vocals manage to tell the story with a maturity the song requires.
This album would be a great companion to watch a sun set or watch a bottle of wine slowly lose its contents with friends, there is much to enjoy and, after listening to it a few times, it does what great albums do, it slowly reveals little secrets to the listener that you haven’t heard before.
I’m interested to know what other songs she has up her sleeve because this is clearly the beginning of an interesting journey.
If there is one form of music that seems best equipped to do the whole love, loss and longing routine, country music seems to have all the tools to hand, and Chris Pietrangelo’s latest release is the perfect proof. But of course the art of getting such songs right is walking that fine emotional line. Stray too far one way and you end up in maudlin and misery, too far the other and you find yourself in cliche and pastiche. Thankfully Chris is the master of some fancy sonic footwork and delivers a song which is wistful and reflective, with just the right about of regret. He doesn’t ask us to feel sorry for him, it is more likely that you would just pour him a drink after the show and discuss “the ones that got away.” We’ve all been there brother.
Musically it blends cool and understated riffs with gently picked acoustics, banks of great harmonies and the right mix of drive and restraint to build effective musical dynamic but more than that it is fundamentally a good song. No, it’s a great song, and whilst its head may be in Nashville, its heart in Memphis, its future is definitely global.
Cowboy Junkies will release All That Reckoning, the band’s first new recording since The Wilderness (2012) on July 13, 2018 via Proper Records.
Whether commenting on the fragile state of the world or on personal relationships, this new collection of songs encourages the listener to take notice. It also may be the most powerful album Cowboy Junkies have yet recorded.
Their now classic album, The Trinity Session celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. On its release in 1988, it was like a whisper that cut through the noise and Cowboy Junkies proved that there was an audience waiting for something quiet, beautiful and reflective, selling more than a million copies. For over 30 years, Cowboy Junkies have remained true to their unique vision, creating a critically acclaimed body of work that has endeared them to an audience unwavering in its loyalty.
In addition to The Trinity Session, albums like Pale Sun, Crescent Moon (1993), Lay It Down (1996) and more recently, Open (2001), and At the End of Paths Taken (2007) chronicle a creative journey reflecting the independent road the band has elected to travel.
Cowboy Junkies will make a very welcome return to the UK for live dates in November as follows:
Nov 9 Glasgow, Mitchell Theatre
Nov 10 Manchester, RNCM
Nov 11 London, The Bridge
I’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.
This song has passed our way before, previously as an audio recording only but like all songs the right video can certainly underline and enhance the sentiment of a song and that is exactly what this part-performance, part-narrative video from Natalie Jean and Levi Moore does here. First time around we were concerned with its sonic qualities, which are rich, deep, soulful and lilting, such is the thrust of the audio format, but a video lets you dwell on the meaning via a storyline and the sheer power of visuals, and this is where the song becomes more than just a great piece of recorded work. It becomes a relatable and touching story.
Letting Go is a song about freedom, at its most personal and basic level, about not caring what others think and just allowing yourself to be free to love and be loved by who you want. Its soft and lilting country lines and sweet soulful depths capture both the sadness and the joyfulness of the subject as the video follows the perceived rejection and reconciliation of the young, would-be lovers of the story. Not only a fantastic ballad but an important life message.
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.
The thing that Country music – particularly good country music – does well is evoke an image of another world. A world of vast American plains, roaming cattle, starry nights and tight-knit community and Old Crow Medicine Show have been painting these pictures for so long that they’ve started producing images within their songs so vivid that it makes you want to change all immediate plans, buy a pair of dungarees and live like Huckleberry Finn.
The release of Volunteer coincides with the band’s 20th anniversary and it’s obvious early on that the band are in the mood for a party with songs like ‘Elzich’s Farewell’, ‘Dixie Avenue’, ‘Shout Mountion Music’ and opener ‘Ficher & Shine’ sounding like they were recorded at a Saturday night hoedown along with clapping, foot stomping and cheers from a nearby audience of revellers. You can almost hear boot heels knocking against straw-covered wooden floors.
But intertwined with the energetic, dancing songs are moments of reflection and emotion, aimed often at a loved one – beautifully done in the final song ‘Whirlwind’ – or, particularly in ‘Look Away’, the music explores the geography and the landscape of the country itself giving the album a lovely balance and grounding.
It’s clear the band love their surroundings and draw inspiration from it and when the album moves into storytelling territory in the barefoot, steamboat upbringing of ‘Child of The Mississippi’ or the deal-with-the-devil story of ‘Old Hickory’ proves this is a good band doing good things.
The six-piece band produce a full sound of harmonised vocals, guitar, banjo, harmonica, double bass, drums, occasional slide guitar and a frantic violin which, like it or not, will make you move. Make no mistake this is an accomplished album of strong song writing and musicianship just beware of that temptation to buy some dungarees and throw it all into those muddy waters…