Forget, “you had me at hello, “ this latest musical jaunt from TTMTMS had me at the cover illustration, one seemingly taken from an Edward Lear publication. Not that it says much about the music itself but it does tell me something about the way they think and the things they find amusing. Truth be told, they had me before that. They had me at Tightropin’ that most English of romps through the most American of sounds. And that is really the essence of the band, the ability to liberally plunder the best bits of state-side roots history, porch band culture and cowboy campfire jams but then drive a spike through the centre that is shaped like English folk tradition and quirky humour. Many can folk but few frolic so wonderfully and so brilliantly revelling in this country’s quintessential qualities.
Roots music, like most generic labels, is too broad a term to really convey anything useful to the listener. It covers all sorts of world, folk and traditional sounds, sounds that seem to lie at the beating heart of one culture or another and also seems to imply a nostalgic backward glance to a sound that is fairly well established, that is instantly identifiable, easy to pin down and even point to on a map. But if ManaLion is to be found anywhere in this broad musical scatter gun of ideas, it is found in a rare and interesting corner that is marked progressive, forward-thinking perhaps even futuristic.
Rhode Island four-piece Deer Tick have put together something of a miniature ‘Best Of’ compiled from selected songs from their two previous albums (Deer Tick Vol 1 and 2 respectively) but have also included cover versions of songs that inspired the original recordings AND new compositions, so, all in all, a bumper pack of audio offerings.
Sven Jørgensen freely admits to being a a fan of nineties music but unlike many others enamoured with the era, instead of ploughing a singular music furrow, of trying to rework Brit-pop, resurrect the Seattle sound or wander some dusty alt-country byways, he takes a much wider approach. For whilst the sound of On/Off Generation is one that certainly tips its hat to the decade, he somehow manages to blend its genres together in to new forms, ones that are both fresh and familiar at the same time.
No video for this one, just a slice of emotive and minimal Americana from one of the best bands on the UK roots circuit. Case Hardin have been slowly building a strong following through energetic and heart-felt live shows and some finely crafted songs.
This mellow moment comes from the album PM, but you can pick any album and find the same array of great songs and deft playing and catch them live and you are in for even more of a treat.
It’s reassuring to find Arthur Rivers exactly where I left him last time, kicking off the album with the previously encountered single You’re the Ocean Waves, You’re the Sea. And although this gentle and wonderfully wonky folk creation gives you a hint at the soft textures and delicate treatments that make up the rest of the album, this is more a vague signpost rather than a road map. It would, of course, be perfectly lovely to follow such pre-designated folk paths pretty much knowing where you are going but instead the album wanders any number of rootsy routes and world music byways. As a famous man once said, it is better to travel well than to arrive and Beyond Sunsets and Rainbows is definitely about the journey. Armed with a vague sense of direction and a sense of musical adventure you head off wide eyed into his music.
Lead You Home takes us past cosmic country bars, You & Me is haunted with the mournful sound of gothic Mariachi, We Remain The Same wanders the bayou’s and backwaters of the Deep South to blend a gospel spiritual with a work gang chant and Heal Your Pain is a suitable soothing infectious pop-folk song. One of the most telling lines on the album is when Arthur sings “Let’s start a fire” and where many would follow that up with some rabble rousing rhetoric, he merely suggests that the “Dance around it remembering the past.” This is an album of intimate reflection, soul-searching and personal nostalgia something that comes as a welcome change of pace in a world where big seems to be regarded as better.
The clever pay off here is that many people mixing up folk, country, sweeping string sections, banjos and the like often produce some sort of nu-country or dream state folk music, something that seems to lose its rigidity and sense of direction, but not Arthur Rivers. For all the soft edges to the music, its gentle textures and subtle musical weaves it is inherent with melody and memorability. The basic structures are rigid and accessible, it is just that he is so adept at knowing just what needs to go into the song to make it work that you end up with a set of songs that do everything they need with the minimum of fuss.
Rather than resort to studio tricks, over-playing, solo’s and similar showboating, instead the lyrics remain the focal point offering emotion, remembrance, love and connection, and rather than merely trying to get feet tapping along is designed to to do nothing less than get the very soul dancing.
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.
Frank Sinatra once said “it’s not the song it’s the singer” and if singers are your thing you should definitely listen to the growly voice of North Carolina native Malcolm Holcombe.
With a voice like a canoe being dragged across the pavement his earthy, world-weary words turn these country songs into fables and brings a wisdom that only comes with age. He’s surrounded himself with some very good musicians and a female vocalist in Iris DeMent who brings a softer, light voice to act as the Ying to his Yang and compliments his gruff voice perfectly.
What I’m learning about American roots music is, like blues and folk, it isn’t simply a reflection of its surroundings, but also acts as a lesson of its landscape, it’s people and it’s history and you can feel this history and legacy drip from the music here.
The songs are more like stories set to music with Holcombe addressing the listener like a small town preacher addressing his flock, this isn’t music about quarterbacks on prom night or even Stetson-wearing cowboys, this is the dark nights under the stars, pine forests on the trail and fur-trappers battling the elements.
If you like your country music performed by a frontier troubadour with grit in his voice and fire in the belly, this is for you.
Gregory Alan Isakov’s new song, ‘Dark, Dark, Dark,’ has just premiered publicly. Of the album, Billboard proclaims, “The 12-song set wound up sounding more characteristically ruminative…blending a gentle spaciousness with dusky atmospheres and carefully nuanced textures.”
‘Dark, Dark, Dark’ is the third track unveiled from Isakov’s anticipated new album, ‘Evening Machines’. The release, his first in partnership with Dualtone Records, is due October 5th and is now available for pre-order.
The album’s previous single, ‘Caves,’ was recently featured at Paste, who called it, “Enchanting…Essential to the song’s boundary-less feeling is the enchanting vocal layering—the layers reach out in every direction to create the sense that they extend forever, but you are still somehow at the center of it all.” The first single, ‘Chemicals,’ which surpassed 3.8 million streams this week, has garnered critical acclaim from Rolling Stone, who praise, “[the song] unfolds at a gentle pace…[it] is the sound of befuddlement turned into beauty.” PopMatters furthers, “‘Chemicals’ is a penetrating narrative that explores the complexity of the human condition. It’s almost overwhelming to ponder what the rest of the album will reveal.” Earlier this month, Isakov was the subject of an Inc. story on balancing both his career as a musician and working his own farm, see the full interview here.
Recorded at a converted barn studio located on Isakov’s three-acre farm in Boulder County, CO, the twelve-track album was self-produced and mixed by Tucker Martine (Neko Case, The Decemberists) and Andrew Berlin (Descendents, Rise Against).
Of the record—his fourth full-length studio album and first in five years—Isakov comments, “I’d work really hard into the night. A lot of times I would find myself in the light of all these VU meters and the tape machine glow, so that’s where the title came from. I recorded mostly at night, when I wasn’t working in the gardens. It doesn’t matter if it’s summer or winter, morning or afternoon, this music always feels like evening to me.”
All with Joe Purdy
November 20th—Brussels, Belgium—Orangerie Botanique
November 21st—Hamburg, Germany—Uebel & Gefaehrlich
November 23rd—Oslo, Norway—John Dee
November 24th—Stockholm, Sweden—Nalen
November 25th—Copenhagen, Denmark—VEGA
November 27th—Amsterdam, Netherlands—Paradiso
November 28th—Groningen, Netherlands—De Oosterport
November 29th—Berlin, Germany—Passionkirche Kreuzberg
November 30th—Cologne, Germany—Gloria
December 1st—Zurich, Switzerland—Mascotte
December 2nd—Paris, France—La Maroquinerie
December 4th—London, UK—O2 Shepherds Bush Empire
December 5th—Bristol, UK—SWX
December 7th—Dublin, Ireland—Academy
December 8th—Glasgow, Scotland—Saint Luke’s
December 9th—Manchester, UK—Academy 3
My knowledge of folk is limited, I find it hard to listen to the British working-class stories of toil, trouble and industry, but I admire and respect the roots of the genre. The instruments; acoustic and organic, the lyrics; heartfelt and honest and the genres popularity grows by the week.
What Colorado-based singer/songwriter Gregory Alan Isakov has delivered here is poignant and interesting, it’s recognisable but immediately it feels an evolution from what folk, particularly in this country, is. I find there to be such a fine line between American Folk and Country music that the two often intertwine, which, if you’re a fan of either genre is great news because the songs on Evening Machines will keep you interested and engaged. But alongside the pedal steel, banjo and all manner of percussion sits keyboards, electronic drums and electric guitar.
Songs written against a backdrop of vast space and farming communities (Isakov shares his time as a musician with being a farmer). This is the type of music that evokes images of sitting on the front porch on a summer’s evening with your sweetheart alongside you, overlooking a lake as the sun sets and the stars emerge over the pine trees. Evening Machines is a perfect tonic to the hustle and bustle of modern life and presents an opportunity to stop and listen.
The songs are arranged thoughtfully and with care and slowly they creep into your mind. From the album’s opener ‘Berth’ (a song about immigration) through the wonderful ‘Dark, Dark, Dark’ to the personal closer ‘Wings In All Black’ the album manages to hold on to the listener and calmly guide you through a world of characters and layered music.
As I wrote before, my knowledge of folk is limited, but if this is where folk is heading I’ll buy a ticket and take my seat.
Gregory Alan Isakov is touring the UK from 4thto 9thDecember with shows in London, Bristol, Dublin, Glasgow and Manchester.
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.
In the movie Jerry Maguire there is the often-quoted line “you had me at hello” and when I was given the press release regarding this album it had me at “cello”.
The cello is one of a handful of instruments that I never tire of hearing in music, this is partly because I’m always interested in where it sits in the overall sound and its inclusion here makes for a beautiful addition to an already impressive bunch of songs.
The instruments on show here reads like a who’s who of folk music; guitar, upright bass, and banjo but don’t expect songs about life in the shipyards or the working man, these songs tread confidently through subjects from the love song of ‘Love Is’, through indie-sounding ‘May 18’ and ‘Any Light’ and the anxious offerings of ‘(Don’t Tell Me) There’s Nothing In My Head’ and ‘Everything’s Just Fine’ (that, by the way, has a brilliant intro) which are edgy and ironic in their subject matter, you can almost picture the calm interior of a psychiatrist office.
I’ve had this album playing for the last two weeks and I’m still finding things to keep me interested, the songs are well thought out and delivered. The strength of any album should always be the songs and the writing partnership of Johnathan Harms and Ryan Evans really do have something worth exploring. Boasting songs like ‘White Spider’, ‘Deal’ and ‘Bed’ the whole package is handled carefully. Sure, sometimes the lyrics try to be a little too clever but when the songs are this strong, who cares?
What this album shows is this small band of musicians (Grant Gordon, Kenny Befus and Katherine Canon make up the band along with Harms and Evans) can tackle and blur the boundaries of different genres, subjects and styles without losing that overall sound. I also like the way the vocals can be sweet and clean in one moment and then broken and angry in another, a strong weapon to have if you intend on keeping your listeners on their toes, and I think maybe this is the secret to this album, you are never really certain of where the music will take you next but when the journey is this good, do you really want a map?
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.
There is an art to making music which seems to buzz with contemporary vibes yet echos with the sounds of the past but that is exactly the mix that James Donnelly manages to bring to On The Radio. In an era where pop music, because this is pop as much as it is folk or roots or music hall or anything else, seems to ever more seeking to re-invent the tools that it uses to make its sound, here is something different. Not only is it music forged from traditional instruments, it is forged from instruments, ukulele, accordion, piano, which are either associated with more niche genres or bygone eras. Yet this is as fun and funky as anything else you will find doing the rounds today.
On The Radio is a homage to the power of music, specifically, as the title suggests, music emanating from the radio, music chosen by a third party, a seemingly random event that in this planned and predictable world where all media seems to be at the control of the listener, still has the ability to deliver the present surprise of a tune you weren’t expecting to hear. There is also something of the mercurial blend of Caribbean sass and urban cool that Paul Simon was a great exponent of in those early post S&G days and that is always going to be a good thing.
It is this blend of urgent folk, roots and a post-modern take of what popular music sounded like in the past, from early jazz dancehall tunes, to folk-revivalist troubadours to the current re-examination by artists of many of those core sounds. It is spacious and even through it drives along with energy and groove, there is plenty of room for each of the musical elements to have room to breath creating a wonderful mesh of interlocking yet identifiable sounds, rather than the usual pop wall of noise. Hats may be tipped to the past but this is certainly a song for today, for the young, discerning and hip.
In short it is music made with no limits, geographically or generically and exists in the present only because it has one foot in the past and the other in the future. Maybe if we spent less time trying to decide what music should be and how it is made and just let it all naturally fuse together ignoring rules and tradition, fashion and fad we would end up with more albums like this. Wouldn’t that be refreshing?
Whilst many bands see the way forward as trying to create totally new musical platforms, they look ahead only seeking to creating something cutting edge, to use technology to invent the future, others know that in the cyclical nature of things there really is very little new to be had. Nothing of any real worth or longevity anyway. These are the ones who realise that musical beach-combing is just as valid a path, that the building blocks are all already out there and that everything you need can be found by searching out sonic gems between the tides of the musical shore line of musical history.
Edinburgh’s Baba Yaga does just that finding Balkan vibes and old world folk, emotive gypsy violins and rootsy traditions and weaving them together in new but very familiar ways. This isn’t folk music re-worked or re-imagined, there isn’t any real need to take that route anyway, they understand that there is still plenty of milage in the old tunes. The Sandman runs on a slow and smokey groove, part east European instrumentalism, part bucolic traditional British folk harmonies and part homemade musical glue to bring it all together.
Normally when you hear of a new outfit dipping their toes into such waters it is normally to punk things up, to turn it into a frenzied and frantic make over, as if the current climate couldn’t cope with something as rooted in the past as this. Well, thankfully Baba Yaga don’t fall for such gimmicks and instead give us the best of both worlds, traditional music with just the deftest of modern sheens. Sassy, sultry, seductive and splendid!
Dancing with the Beast, the new album from Gretchen Peters, puts female characters at the fore, from teenage girls to old women. And intentionally so. With the 2017 Women’s March and the #MeToo Movement as bookends to her writing time, Peters knew that a feminist perspective would be the critical core of the record.
She admits, “You can trace the feminist DNA in my songwriting back to ‘Independence Day’ and probably before. The thing that 2017 did is just put it front and center.” Though Peters doesn’t consider herself a political writer, she is politically minded and, therefore, knew she had to address the 2016 election and all that has happened since… but in her own way.
There’s a bittersweet beauty to the passing of time — the changes it brings are just as often heartbreaking as they are heartwarming. The inevitable tension that arises from that sway is Gretchen Peters’ most trusted muse. With melody supporting that melancholy, the songs on the new album combine to lift the effort over the high artistic bar set by her last outing, 2015’s award-winning Blackbirds.
If the fashion of the moment seems to be pop and indie bands appropriating retro and roots goodness to add cool and credibility to their sound, True Strays have always made music for more honest reasons. Yes, there are a host of indie bands folking up and rock bands bluesing out at the moment in an effort to find a more discerning audience but Where The Wild Things Hide and Hunt just reminds us that this trio has always been the real deal. This isn’t the sound of a modern band cynically toying with the sounds of the past for commercial gain, this is a band born out of time. One who would be just as happy if they woke up to find that they were a bunch of jobbing raggle-taggle folk-blues wranglers playing for the dime and delight of juke joints and cowboy bars in the dustbowl days of 1930’s America. (I should imagine, but I don’t have definitive proof of that.) They then proceed to use roots sounds and a garage rock attitude to join the dots between between that era and Memphis in 1956, Detroit in 1969 and London and New York in 1977…and I guess the here and now.
Heal The Haunted pretty much sums up the authenticity of their voodoo blues – heavy of groove, instantly singable yet flecked with deft and clever sonic choices and Roll On takes those same resonant sounds and uses them to build a widescreen, big sky, cinematic feel, all sumptuous harmonies and deftly picked guitar details. Oh My Love is the perfect blend of pulsing, pacy melody and utter infectiousness and Since I Was a Boy sees them bow out with a trashy and wonderfully clattering jam style workout.
It is this last song that best sums up their real attraction. In a world of finely produced pop and cliched rock, slick and sanitised commerciality and style over substance, True Strays remind us of what is really important. Shuffling grooves and driving back beats, bass lines which demand that you dance along, wonderful slidework and singalong vocals. Everything else you can take or leave. Are True Strays a playful detour through rock history? Or maybe a bourbon-soaked bar band from hell? The evidence would suggest both, thanks to a band with the smarts, chops, and passion to make something fresh out of the expansive musical fodder that helped lay its rowdy foundation.
As well as having a fantastic name, The Happy Curmudgeons, make a sort of music which seems to have fallen out of fashion, but much deserves a revival. Think of where the genres of folk and rock intersect today and it is normally in the much overdone punked up Celtic traditions or an attempt to revive some sort of hippy dream time in an act of rose-tinted nostalgia. But Idle Time reminds us that bands such as The Grateful Dead, Neil Young and even Steely Dan effortlessly and seamlessly manage to build roots rock classics that combined folky deftness and rock muscle. And that is exactly what is going on here.
Running at a gentle pace it grooves and pulses but leaves enough space at the front end of the song so that when the electric guitar needs to go to work, either building banks of sound or cutting through with dexterous and understated lead work, it does so with wonderful impact. There is something chilled and 70’s about the song, a wonderfully change of pace from the bombast and bluster that rock is more usually associated with today. But the Curmudgeons are content to reference rather plunder and the song does no more than tip its battered and jaunty fedora in their direction whilst reminding us of the cyclical nature of music fashion. Time for a cosmic roots revival? Who’s with me?
This first outing in a planned trilogy of albums under the arching title of the “Texas Series” is a masterfully understated slice of rootsy, country acoustica or as the artist himself refers to it Freestyle folk. The songs found within has a wonderfully DIY quality, in part due to the sparse nature of the music, which in turn creates a finish akin to a gentle jam session or a well delivered busk. And just to qualify that statement, that is in no way a comment on production, more on the deft editing and spatial awareness of the song writing in the first place.
And if your impression of Texas music is defined by Southern Rock’s face melting guitar work or campfire cowboy songs, remember that this is the state where the conservative country set united with the liberal hippies in the 70’s to embrace the cosmic country scene as the likes of Nelson, Sahm and Jennings grew their hair and dropped out. There are moments when Texas Paintbrush feels like the musical progeny of those times, a sort of blend of Bob Dylan and outlaw country or reminiscent of Townes Van Zante’s alt-country groove. Though of course that was years before we needed such terms to pigeon-hole things.
I Don’t Want to Go Home throws some deft and delicate electric guitar motifs around whilst Canyon Hymn would be just as at home in a back room folk club in rural Oxfordshire on the other side of the Atlantic. Where The Wind Blows is a funky little number that seems to lilt along like the tumble weeds it evokes and Misty is a suitably soulful ballad.
Texas Paintbrush is one of those albums where the music seems at most to evoke rather than force ideas, where it is used to create fragile bubbles around emotions and atmospheres, rather than feel the need to fill in all the gaps. And as the first part of a triptych of counter-culture inspired, alternative roots music, I can’t wait to see what the next instalment brings.
Is nothing sacred? How can I earn a quick buck writing about music if artists like Jon Lindsay won’t stay put in one or another other genre. Actually its worse than that, Zebulon seems to create a genre of its own, one made of all the best bits of American music over the last 80 years. Is he allowed to do that? Do the unions know? Am I going to have to start earning my money now? Damn it! Last time out Jon could be more easily categorised as a modern pop troubadour, this time around he is somewhere between a music hall entertainer, a roots revivalist, a social commentator, a musical archivist and a curator of all things cool.
Zebulon pops when it needs to, rocks in a perfect gentle but assured fashion and drives on a bluesy-gospel funk. Bar room pianos skitter past, Hammonds swell and soothe, brass sections boogie things up and a pulsing back beat is created by a perfectly on the money rhythm section. It’s the Asbury Dukes playing a modern pop card, Nick Lowe funking it up or any number of modern power-pop bands exploring its parents record collection.
But it is clever beyond the music, and perhaps perfectly timed considering the partisan, opinionated and entrenched world which seems to be coalescing around us. Based on a gig he played for a young Southern girl before she headed off to a Northern college, some of the rhetoric and narrow-minded talk which acted as a back-drop to that evening has informed the song’s lyrics.
But politics and world views aside, this is a cracking song. It would be enough that it has something very important to say, but the fact that it also comes on as a history of American musical styles and never feels forced, overly eclectic or anything other than the coolest, most groovesome song that you have heard in a long time just marks Lindsay out as an important artist to watch.
Even if you’ve never heard of Martin Harley before, the words “feat. Jerry Douglas” tagged on to the title of track 2 should set expectations as high as they come before you’ve even broken the seal on the cd packet. I mean, if the great Jerry Douglas is picking up the phone to this guy, there must be something seriously worthwhile going on here, right?
Static In The Wires has been out for nearly a year now, and was launched on the back of a UK tour last Spring. But the good news if you missed that is that there is another UK tour about to get under way, starting in Cambridge on February 19th, stopping off at Bristol on February 28th, and finishing in London on March 10th.
The album itself kicks straight into high gear with the first track being a recipe straight out of the Little Feat / New Orleans cookbook. The aforementioned track two, “Feat Don’t Fail Me” provides not only the title of the upcoming tour, but also a perfect example of the delights and goodies that everyone who still thinks blues is nothing more than three chords crying into stale beer is missing out on!
The rest of the album lives well up to the standards set early on, mixing poignant Americana with folk roots and easy blues, delivered easily and gently by consummate musicians and deft production.
From start to finish, this is a thoroughly listenable album, with engaging songs and equally engaging personality – and that sort of engagement doesn’t come along very often. I am reminded of Kelly Joe Phelps and Tom Waits at several points along the way, and the album stands up well to the comparison.
Tour dates are below – do yourself a huge favour and start the new year off with a musical gift that you will not regret!
Mon 19 Cambridge Cambridge Junction
Tue 20 Norwich Norwich Arts Centre
Wed 21 Derby Guildhall Theatre
Thu 22 Liverpool Liverpool Philharmonic, Music Room
Fri 23 Bury The Met, Derby Hall
Sat 24 Newcastle upon Tyne Cluny 2
Mon 26 Edinburgh Traverse Theatre
Tue 27 Shrewsbury Henry Tudor House
Wed 28 Bristol The Lantern, Colston Hall
Thu 1 Coventry Warwick Arts Centre
Fri 2 Stamford, Lincs. Stamford Arts Centre
Sat 3 Lewes The Con Club
Tue 6 New Milton, Hants. Forest Arts Centre
Wed 7 Falmouth The Poly
Thu 8 Exeter Exeter Phoenix
Fri 9 Street Strode Theatre
Sat 10 London Union Chapel
Solo albums aren’t always a sign that cracks are beginning to show in the ranks of an established band, more often they are just a way of finding an outlet for music which doesn’t fit into the existing musical journey. The fact that Jeff Crandall invited fellow members of Swallows to help create his solo album whilst they were simultaneously recording the band’s third album across town shows just how harmonious a process it can often be. And if Swallows is a mercurial blend of rootsy Americana, slightly psyched out rock, blasted blues and frenetic folk, the odd thing about this solo album is that whilst Crandall’s building blocks are similar in nature, what he builds with them as J. Briozo is a whole different affair.
It covers a lot of ground, wandering as it does between the breezy pop-blues of The Big Parade, the gentle cosmic beauty of Beautiful Mess, the retro, west coast psychedelia of Sun Sun True, the wide-screen cinematics of Blue and some lovely minimalism with Santa Cruz. It is eclectic for sure, same as the band who spawned this majestic record but where as Swallows tend to be writ larger across their chosen musical landscapes, in this mode the result is more often than not a more considered, understated and subtle affair. They know how to rock out for sure, just check out Spinning Out for some glorious college rock grooves but its finest moments are found in the intricacy and parred down moments, the smaller details and the gentler musical brush strokes of the moody yet reflective opener Blind or the lilting acoustica of Rain Song.
Many of these songs could have been fitted into the Swallows set, but I’m glad that Crandall had the foresight to consider them a separate entity. By doing so under a new moniker, he retained the ability to call all the shots, even whilst working with his regular sonic work mates, and in doing so the songs come with no pre-existing baggage or feel the need to conform to the Swallows template. The result is not only the realisation of an alternative musical vision but an album which stands firmly on its own two feet. It is the strange and thoughtful cousin of Swallows but is destined to have a really interesting journey in its own right.
Chris Murphy’s musical mastery seems to spread itself across any number of genres, styles, eras, instruments and tastes, a troubadour in the truest sense, a storyteller, a communicator and an entertainer. Here we find him in the realm of rootsy folk-blues but rather than the cliche ridden sounds that many modern artists wandering similar sonic territory try to fashion together with a brow sweating with earnestness and integrity, Chris just gets on with doing what comes naturally to him. And because he isn’t weighted down by the fickle finger of fashion the end result is bouyant, energising and timeless.
Sounding like the ultimate bar band, but one that seems so good that it only exists in the background of Hollywood blockbusters scenes, the ones that make your inner critic roll its eyes and tell yourself that the big screen is nothing like real life, he weaves gypsy jazz violins and chiming guitar riffs through straight but effective backbeats, playful pianos and a confident and communicative vocal. It feels as if the song could come from any time in the last 80 years and be playing in any bar in the western hemisphere but whilst the setting may be universal, few artists could get it this deliver something this deftly wrought, this effective, this seemingly effortless.
I have been listening to and writing about Mat’s music for a while now from the skittering acoustica of Moths to the scuzzy blues of Bookclub and finally on to music released under his own name and We Are Lovely Things, an album where it all really started to really come together where you can hear him finding his own sound, his own place in the musical scheme of things. Long Wind takes that honing down of his musical identity even further for never has he sounded more focused, together and singularly of himself.
It is an odd thing to say about a song whose lyrics seem to be at once a stream of consciousness, a confessional and simultaneously struggling with the age old worries of the human condition and a musing about the state of the world. And whilst musically it is set to very basic lines, something he self-deprecatingly references, it is because the lyrics are so engaging that the hypnotic simplicity that it drives on seems more than adequate as a delivery system.
The half-sung, half-spoken directness and conversational nature makes this feel like a chat over a beer, something wonderfully at odds with the modern approach to music where impact is all, big is best and more is more. It sounds like a lost gem from a past alt-folk scene or underground country movement which got lost in time but it also sounds like a wonderful new direction. Forget following fashion, lets just have the honesty.
Let’s get one thing straight before we go any further. Singing close harmony is not easy. In fact it’s damn difficult, and demands the highest level of every skill that a singer possesses to get it anywhere close to being right.
I’m not talking about adding the minor 3rd above the melody and hoping that most of the notes fit. And I’m DEFINITELY not talking about the guy (usually the bass player – why is it always the bloody bass player??) who brings his cheap microphone along when his rock cover band plays out, and “does BVs”.
Hint: if he calls backing vocals “BVs”, he hasn’t got the skills, period!! Let him gurn and pose and throw whatever grunts and howls he wants to at the mic, just for the love of God, don’t turn his volume up!
No, what I’m talking about here is proper Everly Brothers, Beverly Sisters, Crosby Stills Nash & Young close harmonies, where there’s not an atom of space between the different voices, where there is literally one single voice delivering depth and texture and full orchestral harmonic structure with zero apparent effort.
And it’s bloody difficult. And when it’s done right, it is profoundly and endlessly impressive!
And, by the way, if you think that harmony singing is tricky, don’t even get me started on singing in unison! Unison singing is the holy grail of group vocals, and Rainbow Girls have it sorted. Three quite different voices, with quite different qualities, singing a single melody line in such a way that it is impossible to determine how many voices are involved!
And if all the skill, all the technical prowess and wizzardry is put to the task of delivering good songs, be they beautiful plaintive ballads, thought-provoking, subtle-but-effective protest songs, or up-beat mood enhancers, the technical stuff is impressive for about 30 seconds. And then it simply steps aside.
And for the rest of the Rainbow Girls new album, American Dream, or if you’re lucky enough to be present for a performance, the rest of the live show, you’re free to enjoy the songs and the performances for what they should be – music that inspires, evokes, challenges, enthrals and delights.
Previously a full band, but currently recording and touring as a more minimalist trio, Rainbow Girls make close harmony roots/country/americana sound so completely effortless that it’s all but impossible even to imagine them doing something so mechanical or tedious as practicing.
And similarly, the songs on American Dream require no conscious effort whatsoever on the part of the listener. The quality of the songwriting, the natural lyric writing that is easily in the same league as the very best, and the simple beauty of the three voices combine to overwhelm any resistance, and cannot but transport the listener to exactly where the song and the singers wants to take him.
This is a beautiful album, apparently simple, but at the same time rich, subtle, honest and fun – an album that demands lots of repetition, and that should not – must not – be consigned to the chaos and clamour of a background noise rotation playlist on your mp3 player.
On the contrary, this album deserves, and richly rewards, time, consideration and attention.
If you must stack it with other music, mix it with Daylight Again by Crosby Still & Nash, Bridge Over Troubled Waters by Simon & Garfunkle, and Barton Hollow by The Civil Wars. They will be perfect bedfellows.
American Dream is out November 2017
In a world of genres and sub-genres, labels and pigeonholes, Jimmy’s music reminds us that once you strip back the journalistic jargon, the post-this and that-core, the fashionable moniker and the industry marketing, if what is left is worth keeping, then you might as well just call it music. Okay, folk music if you like. Roots music at a push. But it is the wonderful simplicity of his songs that cut through all of the corporate crap and get us back to the essence of what music is. A tune, a story and an engaging delivery, if a song needs anything more than that you have to question what you are trying to do here.
What Jimmy is trying to do is entertain, something he does effortlessly with his mandolin driven jaunty grooves, understated balladry and infectious tunes. At his most effervescent, such as You and Me, he offers up engaging Paul Simon vibes but for the most part there is something quintessentially British in his ragged troubadour ways whether lamenting the demise of his Campervan on End of The Road or reflecting on the life of a musician on the title track.
Honesty is something in short supply in the world today, especially in the way the music industry is currently structured but Jimmy’s music reminds us of a simpler, less artificial way of doing things. Of music for music’s sake, of direct communication and an unfussy, unadorned way of writing songs. Some artists seem to think that the more tricks and gimmickry you pile on to a song, the more noticeable it will be. Thankfully we have Jimmy Lee Morris who in just a handful of songs proves exactly the opposite to be true.
Blind River Scare has always been a great reminder that when it comes to roots genres, the lines blur easily. Country music is just folk with a fancy hat, or perhaps folk is country under smaller skies. The point is it all comes from a common source and it is where those cultures and traditions co-exist that Blind River Scare, and indeed the song writing of its leader, Tim Manning, is born.
For every country twang there is a folk lick, for every new world breath there is an old world heartbeat; ancient celtic auras blend with more recent musical ideas, worlds collide, universal ideas are revisited, new stories are told, small personal narratives are threaded through bigger stories and vice versa.
It is this ability to wander these two worlds with ease that flavours the music, No Jericho being a slice of homespun folk, Restless Soul very much playing with the sounds of the American heartland and then you have songs such as But Still You Stay which is the perfect example of the cultural distances being shortened, an ocean being crossed and traditional sounds being blended.
You can count on Blind River Scare to come up with the goods, deliver a package of great songs but the clever thing is that whilst singing about what a big, exciting and sometimes scary place the world can be, the universality of the music reminds us that, in some sense at least, it really isn’t that big at all.
So what do you get when you take the funky, rootsy blues of Hip Route and add in the distinctive and raw vocals of Reef’s Gary Stringer? An infectious, bass-driven slab of sassy, low-end swagger and attitude filled earthiness, that’s what! Stringer makes the perfect vocalist for the song; his voice has the same wonderfully rasping delivery that Jim Blair’s does, the same rolling growl when pushing the note, so what he brings to the table is less a new sound, more a new level of intensity to the existing one.
Musically it plays to Hip Route’s strength’s – their ability to write concise, memorable rolling riffs, their skill at knowing how to thread the bear minimum together to great effect, to deliver sparse beats, spare yet pulsing bass lines and the fact that they write songs which without intentionally aiming for the commercial market are often as dance fuelled and rug cuttingly contagious as anything deliberately trying to play that game. Hip Route just do it at half the speed with a quarter of the beats and a fraction of the notes and still come out clear winners. If my memory of childhood Latin classes doesn’t fail me I think the scientific term for what we have here might be Groovus Maximus and if not, why not?