Red Hot Blue Collar Honky Tonkin’ Rock & Roll.
Every now and again I use my I-Phone as a radio in the car; hitting ‘random’ and letting the fates choose my soundtrack for the journey to or from work. It’s been a fascinating aid over the last few years; helping me sort the wheat from the chaff when it comes to selecting albums to review; and finding me a few absolute diamonds that otherwise may have been missed.
Such is the case with the latest release by Ben Bostick from South Carolina; even though I have an unreviewed copy of his self-titled debut album hauntingly sitting above my desk at this very moment.
HELLFIRE starts with a growl; as No Show Blues takes us on a late night walk into the dark side of town where only the very brave stay. Dirty guitars, a raggedy honky-tonk piano and bass/drum combo that sound like they spent the day stripping down stolen Harleys combine with Bostick’s world weary and greasy voice to create a glorious noise that instantly ensnared me last Thursday night.
The title track Hellfire follows and is a whole lot more toe-tappin’ as it’s Bakersfield in origin and and sounds like it was written after a night drinking Sour Mash and listening to Waylon and Jerry Lee records right through to sun up.
Ben Bostick and Band crank up the tension that comes from the type of love very few of us have ever experienced on a couple of belters that will stay in the memory for a long, long time…….Blow Off Some Steam features some truly sizzling Twang guitar in the style of Redd Volkaert or Luther Perkins and on The Other Side of Wrong they make Jerry Lee Lewis sound like a choirboy!
There’s a fizzing excitement on this album right from the very beginning to the gloriously brooding final track The Outsider which is as scary a Rock & Roll song as I’ve heard this side of the first time I heard Psycho Killer!
Everything here sounds like it was recorded in one take, with no soft overdubs or last minute additions to appease the men in suits; It Ain’t Cheap Being Poor and How Much Lower Can I Go are deceptively simple Country drenched Rock & Roll songs that must sound exactly the same when played live after a night on the beer with whisky chasers, with sweat not just running down Bostick’s forehead but the walls of the club too.
Where to go for a ‘Favourite Track’? The Feeling Mean with it’s Gene Vincent undertones was an early contender, as was the Blue Collar Country Twang of No Good Fool but I’m closing my eyes and picking the glorious Work, Sleep, Repeat as it was the first song I heard that night in the car after an 11 hour shift at work in the hot cab of a bus; and it fit my mood perfectly.
Ben Bostick has created an album here that comfortably sits in several camps; Alt. Country, Rock & Roll, Countrypolitan and best of all Classic Country and will appeal to fans of all those genres.
Released June 27th 2018
No Coward Soul
Broodily Intriguing Americana From the Backwoods of South London.
I’ve often heard the argument that Americana (and indeed Country Music itself) can and should only be written and recorded in America, by Americans; which is exactly the same ridiculous point of view from heretics who claim ‘White men can’t sing the Blues!’
For what it’s worth much of the finest Americana music that I love comes from a romantic vision that many of us have of America from either across the USA’s Northern border or from across the Atlantic primarily in the UK.
Which brings us to No Coward Soul, a 5 piece band based in the backwoods of South London and revolving around singer Brad Schmauss who hails from Alaska.
Apparently stalwarts of the burgeoning Americana ‘scene’ in London and the South I wasn’t aware of this band until the CD arrived; but opening track the gentle hazy Lighthouse which finds Schmauss at the piano and sounding not unlike Harry Chapin fronting Granddaddy as a harmonica wails over a bittersweet ballad.
The mood then lightens and the tempo certainly picks up to a Country trot on Fireflies, with Schmauss’s voice sounding very emotional as a young lady provides very sensual harmonies in the background.
When I first played this a fortnight ago I remember, pursing my lips and nodding along to that last song and then performing air-piano on the next; Bullet, which is something I haven’t done for a long time.
That ‘far flung romanticism’ comes to the fore on several songs, especially Nighthawks which is a delightful left turn with a clever lyrical twist and L’il Mikey Mountain which takes us on a quite dark journey that I wasn’t expecting.
Because I know No Coward Soul are British or at least based here; the sound they have is not like anyone else on the scene I’m aware of; as instead of going for a West Coast Soft-Rock trip or the more fashionable Byrdsian twin guitar sound; No Coward Soul are treading their very own path in a quite arcane fashion.
This is certainly ‘Americana’ but of a more curious persuasion with sings like Orpheus and Belly of the Whale harking back to the more literate works that prevailed among 1960’s and 70’s singer-songwriters and left us scratching our heads in our teenage bedrooms.
But there is also more than a smattering of straightforward American influenced Pop-Rock with 654, Holy Toledo and probably more than everything else Death n Texas reminding me of bands like Barenaked Ladies and They Might Be Giants, as Schmauss and friends use melodies and bouncy tunes to ease you into a false sense of security but make you need to decipher the words too.
Just to be contrary I’d have preferred the short title track The Almanac to have started or closed proceedings as it’s a Film-Noir style poetic talk-over, rather than a song and would work perfectly well as an intro or exit, rather than being tucked away in the middle.
For an album that was initially difficult to ‘get into’ It’s been a joy on some recent late night drives home in the sultry midnight heat; with one song in particular capturing my attention; so the curious and Gospel tinged Gotta Believe becomes my Favourite Song.
This album won’t be for everyone as it’s a ‘grower’ and there aren’t any ‘radio hits’ to catch your attention. This is a good old fashioned Long Player that demands your full attention from start to finish; but, that said; don’t be surprised if by some quirk of fate that No Coward Soul go on to take the mantle from the likes of Coldplay or Snow Patrol; stranger things have happened!
Released 14th 2018
LOVE COMES DOWN
Distinguished, Articulate and Most of All, ‘Grown Up’ Folk Music.
Sadly I knew next to nothing about Thea Hopkins, save she was a ‘Folk Singer’ of some sort, as that’s where I think I’ve seen her name on festival guides of the years; but one listen to the title track Love Comes Down and all of my expectations were turned upside down!
Yes; this could be filed under ‘Folk’ in a record shop, but only if Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Joan Armatrading were there too.
Here I am, over a month later sitting all alone in the July sunshine listening to this captivating 6 track EP/LP and I’m lost for words as to how to describe Thea Hopkins’ voice and singing style; which is very much how and why she stands apart from her peers.
All of the above; and her storytelling on this love song is glorious too; and slide in a steely trumpet voluntary that would do Chet Baker pride and you find yourself helplessly falling in love with the power of music all over again.
This is followed by The Ghost of Emmett Till; which is in a similar haunting manner and re-tells that horrible story in a majestic manner that still fits the mood in certain parts of America to this very day.
Next up, Mississippi River, Mississippi Town takes you not just by surprise as it’s a deep, dark Americana ‘sound’ with some intricate banjo picking and something called an ‘electric ebow’ which really creates a dusky atmosphere on a story about a storm and imminent flood that could devastate the area.
Tom Halter’s trumpet makes another appearance on Almost Upon a Time and this time is joined by some delightful piano from Tim Ray; on a song that needs to be heard with the lights turned down low or your eyes tightly closed at the very least to get the best from it.
Everything comes neatly to a close with the sixth and final song on this all too short album; Until Then is a rather beautiful grown up lullaby, which could easily be sung to small children; but more importantly an over worked and under appreciated lover too perhaps?
Which only leaves us Tamson Weeks; which takes the accolade of ‘Favourite Track’; not least because it fits in perfectly amongst the other five songs; but mostly because it’s a fabulous story of Thea’s Great, Great Aunt who was a medicine woman in the Aquinnah Wampanoag Indian tribe of Martha’s Vineyard; and this starkly atmospheric tale is a glorious way to remember what sounds like a fascinating woman.
As I eluded to at the beginning, this is eloquent ‘grown up’ music in the manner of those three songwriters I mentioned and as I type Tim Buckley and Nanci Griffith spring to mind too.
Now all I need to do is find the time to explore Ms. Hopkins back catalogue as my musical appetite has most certainly been whetted by these six songs.
Released UK 13th July 2018
Released USA 7th September 2018
Big Harp George
Classic R&B With a Razor Sharp Modern Edge.
If I saw the name Big Harp George outside a venue I’d be very disappointed if I found that he was playing a stringed instrument normally associated with the Angels! Yes; this George; the very dapper George Bisharat from San Francisco plays the chromatic harmonica and boy can he play it!
That said; on this his third album George predominantly sings and boy, can he sing too.
Alongside an ever growing band, on the opening track Down to the Rite Aid, George swings the life out of a rye observation on the tough life people and in particular musicians have these days.
This is followed by the funky Internet Honey; where our narrator’s friend who is ‘built for love and not for speed’ finds love; and lots of it on the internet.
Already you realise that Big George and band have one foot in the past with their classic R&B ‘sound’ but the other is very much in the present with the topics he writes and sings about.
George’s sweet, sweet harp playing obviously drifts in and out of many songs and when it does, it makes the mournful Nobody’s Listening and the tongue in cheek Lord Make Me Chaste (but not yet) quite extraordinary in a world where I thought ‘I had heard it all before.’
I don’t know where or when but there’s one song here that I instantly recognised; yet it appears to be brand new for this album.
Cold Snap By The Bay is a deep and insightful tale about three homeless men who died one cold night in San Jose; and the story never made the newspaper never mind the front page.
This song, dear reader is exactly what the Blues has always done better than any other musical genre; prepare to have your heartbroken in six soulful minutes.
But the Blues comes in many formats and Big Harp George’s band can play them all with vigour and class. Sizzling guitar; a trombone that sounds like a full Memphis big old brass section, industrial strength drumming and a bass player from the Gods surround George and his harmonicas in a way we thought I could only dream about until now.
Just Calm Yourself is a cool and danceable call and response duet; while the two instrumentals In The First Place and especially the title track Uptown Cool prove that a good tune doesn’t necessarily need words to get the message across.
Then there is the RMHQ Favourite track award; and I’m going for another fun and slightly tongue in cheek song this time; Alternative Facts uses a couple of the President’s ‘favourite phrases’ to describe the way a singer decides to re-write his career so he can make it famous. Yet again George uses a classic Blues tradition (think BB King) but makes his lyrics very, very contemporary for a much younger generation.
What more can I say? Watching bands like this are where I cut my teeth around Newcastle in the 1970’s but sadly technology, Punk and babies came onto the scene and the bands and fans had all moved on by 1980; but thankfully there is still a vibrant Rhythm & Blues scene in the USA with bands prepared to go out on a limb paying homage to the past but bravely writing and singing their own razor sharp material.
Released July 16th 2018
Uncle Brent & The Nostone
Salt & Lime/Sarah (single)
The crazy cats first got in touch with RMHQ last year with a single release BEST OF ME just as Mrs. Magpie had been rushed to hospital and we went into ‘lock down’; but thankfully they kept in touch; and here we have their latest Double A-Side single… Salt & Lime and Sarah.
The first thing that struck me was the amazing energy these guys produce on SALT & LIME while also managing to combine melody with a catchy chorus; something I haven’t heard for a long time.
It’s kinda cool too that they compare the lovely young lady Margarita to the alcoholic tincture of the same name.
Unrequited love is always a great subject for a song; and the guys don’t disappoint one iota; with a song that has one foot in Country and the other in Rock and would be perfect for daytime AM radio all Summer long.
The flip side Sarah’s Creek is more of a modern Americana Gothic Ballad; with a very dark message when the story slowly unfolds under an ever evolving and epic and cinematic backdrop, that will make your jaw gape.
I guess even in Texas it’s all too easy for bands to fall into the ‘covers trap’ but thankfully the likes of Uncle Brent & Nostone are sticking to their principals writing, performing and occasionally releasing their very own master-works and the world is a little bit better today because of it and more importantly these two wonderful songs.
Now; if only I still had a radio show!
Released July 14th 2018
Nine Mile Records
The Coolest Blues, Funk and Country Swamp Music You Can Imagine.
Sadly; such is the backlog at RMHQ that this album; from one of our favourite artistes has sat around unplayed and unloved for over a month now; but such is our love for Patrick Sweany that we knew we would get the best out of it when the time was right; and that proved to be last Sunday.
The sun was high in the sky and it was so hot my cold beer was soon warm beer; so I had to keep refilling my glass as I let this music seep into my soul.
Hallelujah! Opening track Old Time Ways was exactly as I’d hoped it would be; Sweany on top form howling from the heart as a red hot band makes every single note count; and not a single one is out of place.
This is already Swamp Music par excellence, mon ami.
Sweany’s cool groove continues through Up and Down and on third track Country Loving he slows things down to an evening stroll through the Everglades pace, as Charles Hodges takes on a Professor Longhair role at the piano while Sweany croons (if such a word can describe his grizzled tones) the sweetest of honest love songs.
In its own way ANCIENT NOISE is a ‘move on’ from what I remember of his last two albums; with a new found maturity to the construction of songs like Outcast Blues, Play Around (with its Roy Orbison undertones) and more especially Get Along which could easily have become an over excited stomp; but Sweany and bandmates show incredible restraint on a chest tightening Soul-Rocker.
Back in the olden days I don’t know if the songs Steady or album closer Victory Lap would have been described as Rock Ballads; as that term has gone out of fashion now but both are articulate, intimate and very easy on the ear while retaining Sweany’s trademark powerful honesty in every breath and stanza.
There’s also the surprising inclusion of a pseudo-political song that delves into the troubled past of the USA and more importantly The Southern States. At first I thought Cry of Amede was just a nod in the direction of Dr. John; but delve deeper and you will hear a history lesson that will send a shiver down your spine; as Amede Ardoin who was a Creole musician in the 1930’s and was cruelly beaten for receiving a handkerchief from a white woman as a gift. Sweany gets the unpleasant story across without ever sounding maudlin or even preachy; just giving us the facts in a sensitive and rather beautiful manner.
With so much to choose from; and so many songs that sound exciting, interesting and often just plain fabulous I’m going for the Country Funkylicious No Way No How as my favourite track; simply because it was the first one that I found myself murmuring the chorus too.
This is the third of eight Patrick Sweany albums we’ve reviewed here at RMHQ and each one has come along into our lives just when we needed some rough and ready, sweaty and cinematic Southern Blues with a splash of Rock n Roll flavoured bourbon; and he delivers all of those things with gentlemanly panache.
Released July 6th 2018
CHILDREN OF PARADISE
River House Records/Virtual Label.
Passion, Politics and Raw Power From New York’s Finest.
I’m not sure what’s left to say about New Yorker Willie Nile……he was a stalwart of CBGB’s back in the 70’s, releasing two critically acclaimed albums, then in 1981 got involved with ‘legal problems’ with a record label; but kept playing bigger and bigger shows, then he made another couple of albums in the 90’s …… then he finally found his rightful place in the Rock mainstream with a series of albums that proved he still had fire in his belly and a hundred songs in his heart …..a ready made Rock & Roll music machine for a new century.
Those who’ve had the honour of seeing Nile and band play live won’t be too surprised by the first few acapella verses on Seeds Of a Revolution; as this guy can actually sing…..but I can’t remember him doing this on record before. The song itself is a ‘signature’ Willie Nile modern neo-political rock song for the internet generation; a gut wrenching tale of the images that he has seen on the TV News effecting his sensibilities; and alongside a couple of other songs here couldn’t be more timely.
The much gentler sounding Folk Song, Getting Ugly Out There is in a very similar vein; and is the exact type of ‘protest song’ the experts try to tell us isn’t being written any more; but they are and Willie Nile is one of the finest exponents of this lost art.
For a man ‘of his age’ Willie Nile can R.O.C.K better than most youngsters these days; and on Earth Blues; alongside his trusted band he spits and snarls as he lists all of the things that are going wrong with the world around us. In many other hands this ‘message’ could be quite twee; but with Willie you can’t help but listen, nod and agree with every single word as he assaults all of our senses in every groove.
Fear not though dear reader; this isn’t all doom and gloom; All Dressed Up and No Place To Go, Rock n Roll Sister and the amazing Don’t must surely have all had their roots in our guy’s sweaty CBGB’s days; surely? Rock? Punk? Power Pop? Who cares; as these are all just 4/4 head bangin’ boogie songs of the finest pedigree.
Then there is the inclusion of a couple of rather beautiful love songs, that show Willie’s mellower side; with his storytelling as sharp and intelligent as ever on Looking For , Have I Ever Told You and the poetic All God’s Children, which finds Nile at the piano and sounding ever more like Randy Newman each time I play the song.
Then we must select a ‘favourite song’, which is never easy with Willie Nile albums as each and every song has it’s own special narrative that makes it very special indeed; but I’m going for Secret Weapon, a delightful love song that’s a little bit different from what I’ve come to expect from Willie Nile and band. It’s a sensitive Rocker with a razor sharp Punky edge to it and could be perfect for AM Radio; especially Matt Hogan’s glorious guitar playing and solos throughout.
I’m not sure if this is Willie Nile’s ‘best album’; but it’s certainly in the Top 3 and there are more than a few songs here that would easily make it onto any career retrospective should such a curio ever be released.
Willie Nile? He’s got some very famous friends who have sung his praises over the years; but he’s far from being a musicians’ musician or a songwriters songwriter; his music is for absolutely everyone who likes quality Rock and Roll; and he’s one of the few acts who are just as exciting on record as they are on stage; and if you ever get to see him and the band play; you will know what a mean feat that is.
PS The cover artwork is outstanding too; made up of some stunning black & white portraits of people who live in Nile’s neighbourhood in Greenwich Village and taken by Cristina Arrigoni.
Released July 27th 2018
The Herron Brothers
STUCK IN THE SUN
There’s not an awful lot I can say about this charming, catchy, folkie, poppy song from The Herron Brothers……part Lightning Seeds and part The Proclaimers it really has been our anthem here at RMHQ for the last couple of sunny weeks (when we aren’t singing “It’s coming Home!” of course).
Real life brothers from the far outreaches of North Northumberland and more recently residing in Derby; The Herron Brothers have their debut album out in September…..and we can’t wait.
Released 6th July 2018
Lachlan Bryan & The Wildes
SOME GIRLS (Quite like Country Music)
Deep and Dark Uneasy Listening for the Discerning Music Lover.
Somewhere in the deep and distant past I’m sure I once reviewed Australian Lachlan Bryan’s BLACK COFFEE album for a magazine; but I can’t find any sign of the album in my collection; nor me words either.
My memory was more of a singer-songwriter in the Folk troubadour style rather than the Country/Americana act the album title and accompanying Press Release would suggest; and opening track I Hope That I’m Wrong ironically proves me correct.
This rather special song and story,treads a path that neatly straddles world weary Folk and the type of laconic Country music we associate with Townes and Guy or more recently Slaid Cleaves or Josh Ritter.
Possibly with Josh Ritter in my mind, I love the way Bryan (and the Wildes) create many and various velvety layers to go with the rich tapestry that songs like Careless Hearts, The Cemetery Near My Hometown and especially Portrait of the Artist as a Middle Aged Man weave each time you hear them.
First and foremost Lachlan Bryan is an exquisite storyteller, who isn’t afraid to challenge the listener with some of his subject matter. Peace In the Valley is a very sombre Folk song about a young woman who goes missing; and told from the view point of her helpless father; and will send a shiver down your spine at the end.
Another dark tale that sparkles with life is Stolen Again; where he takes the roll of a man who woos a beautiful girl away from her lover, then spends his time worrying about losing her to another. Very clever and lyrically very astute.
As usual I didn’t look at the back of the album cover the first time I played the disc; so got a delightful surprise when I recognised the dulcet tones of the young lady he duets with on TVZ’s Don’t You Take It Too Bad; yes…that really is Lindi Ortega playing Emmylou to Lachlan’s Gram on three minutes of absolutely majestic Country Folk.
And that’s not even the best or most memorable song here!
That title is a tie between another duet, this time with Shanley Del; The Basics of Love which genuinely made me swoon the first couple of times I heard it; to some degree Bryan plays second fiddle to the lady in question; which is quite brave for the ‘headline act’ but it works incredibly well on a song that could stop your heart in the wrong conditions.
The other is a Waitsian lament with Bryan alone at the piano; Sweet Bird of Youth before a gently picked ‘Jazz guitar’ enters the fray to add even extra pathos, if indeed any more was needed; but makes for the perfect accompaniment to feeling sorry for yourself after midnight.
Even when Lachlan Bryan and the Wildes decide to ‘rip it up’ it’s more of a Summer Stroll in the park, than a city centre riot; and that keeps the mood flowing with the infectious toe-tappin’ Hill Country (rocker?) It Tears Me Up (Everytime You Turn Me Down).
This isn’t ‘easy listening’ on any level; but will appeal to lovers of articulate and occasionally daring song writing from a songwriter and ace band on the cusp of a major breakthrough, if this album is anything to go by.
Released UK & Europe 29th June 2018
Shipcote & Friends
Low Fella Records
With World Cup Fever currently hitting England like a huge Novichuk attack; our friend and local hero Shipcote has sent us his new single ‘Football Focus’ which comes from his last album, Old is Cool and will also serve as teaser for his new album due out in Autumn 2018.
A genuine Football fan; Shipcote’s a season ticket holder at Gateshead FC, and has written this lovely and literate ode to Britain’s favourite pastime from the heart; and even named it after the iconic 1970’s BBC Saturday afternoon sports programme.