It hasn’t been the best of days; even if I have managed to crank out a couple of other reviews, so I was just finishing up a couple of hours ago, in readiness for watching something funny on Netflix when an e-mail arrived from Mike Blackhart, the hirsute singer from a Rock band called Chains of Daisy; claiming all kinds of support from Classic Rock stations and websites that normally make me run for the hills. But ……. there’s always a but; there was ‘something’ that made me download their EP. Here I am now, three coffees later, headphones on desperately trying to reconcile my diary so I can see them play live some time soon. “Why would that be?” You may well ask. Opening track Dead As Stone blew me away straight from the get go! The obvious comparison is The Faces; not Sir Rod Stewart and The Faces; but Long Player The Faces when Rodders was just the singer and not yet a Superstar. A heart-stopping bass, rinky-dink piano and searing, yet refined guitar solos and a swaggering and cocky singer who wouldn’t get past Round #1 on Britain’s Got Talent …… what’s not to like? Absolutely nothing…. that’s what! These kids can really write a Rock Ballad; that’s for sure; as the tragically beautiful A Farewell Winter Blues proves. Trust me; turn the lights down low and cuddle up …… it’s that type of Lurve Song; full of tears, pathos and heartache. (Which is just what I needed to hear today). The fourth and final track finds the band going acoustic for Never Walk Alone; and Blackhart’s pained voice and the intricate guitar play between Carlos Oliviera and Aristeidis Makaronas; especially the inclusion of some sweet bottle-neck reminded me of the interplay between Rodgers and Kossoff in the late lamented Free …… and trust me; that’s high praise indeed from me. Then, there’s the next single and my personal Favourite Song here; Morning Song with its surprisingly Countryesque melody and toe-tapping beat …… it’s a sure fire radio hit; and has the touch that could even make it a crossover hit too. This multi-talented trio are from from London, Greece and Portugal and make truly International British Blues Rock!
Drew Holcomb & The Neighbors Dragons Magnolia Music/Thirty Tigers
The King of Alt. Country Hat Acts Delivers Another Classic!
In the internet age it’s kind of odd that albums are still occasionally released at different times across the world; which is why it’s annoying that I’ve missed the North American release date for this latest release by RMHQ Favourite Drew Holcomb; as my copy has arrived to coincide with its UK Release in October; but onwards and upwards we go. Opening track Family is unmistakably Drew Holcomb & The Neighbors but sounds unlike anything of theirs that I can ever remember. A jolly and eminently danceable beat based around some enthusiastic drumming and the band all harmonising on the word ‘Family’; which acts as sort of chorus ……. if only we had radio stations brave enough to play left of centre songs! There are all kinds of other songs here too ……. Holcomb himself describes them as a ‘sonic landscape’ and who am I to argue? Obviously there are the obligatory Love Songs, with none finer than the delicate heartbeat of But I’ll Never Forget The Way You Make Me Feel (featuring Ellie Holcomb on harmonies and Oooh Oohs); but the Byrdsian You Make It Look So Easy and the other duet with Ellie, the velvety lullaby Watch The World runs it a very close second and third. Surprisingly (to me at least) there are even a couple of exciting guest appearances, with Lori McKenna joining Drew on the swishing and swaying You Want What Have You Cant’ Have, which is as Pure damn a Country song as you will hear this year; and. Natalie Hemby from rising stars The Highwomen not only co-wrote the tragic and harrowing Maybe with Drew, but joins him on vocals too. The song that closes the album; Bittersweet opens with some slightly psychedelic guitar; but quickly finds Holcomb pouring his heart out over a divinely lo-fi backdrop from the Neighbors. Only time will tell if DRAGONS will become my favourite album from this fabulous singer-songwriter but with two simply stunning songs here tying for the accolade of not just Favourite Song on the album, status but being contenders for Favourite Song of the year too! The first finds The Lone Bellow alongside Drew and the Neighbors as Holcomb recalls the advice his Grandfather once gave him in a dream. In lesser hands this could easily have been twee and cloying; but in this setting Holcomb brought tears to my cynical eyes more than once. “ I was climbin’ a mountain Asleep in the moonlight Ghost of my grandpa Came to me in a dream ‘Cause the stars hung above us He started singing this chorus Laughed loud as hell And said this to me “Take a few chances, a few worthy romances Go swimming in the ocean, on New Year’s Day Don’t listen to the critics Stand up and bear witness Go slay all the dragons that stand in your way”
Now that’s a mantra for a life, well lived isn’t it? The other song, End Of The World finds Drew and his cohorts delving not just into REM territory in words, but Mumford & Sons in deeds too; and this very topical track is surely destined to becoming an Alt. Country Classic and should finally tip Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors into the Commercial stratosphere (hopefully).
Released North America August 16th 2019 Released UK & Europe October 11th 2019
Ags Connolly WRONG AGAIN (You Lose a Life) Self-Released
Some say he is a ‘National Treasure’ others call him ‘The Oxford Cowboy’ but we know Ags Connolly as the ‘Jolliest Man in British Country Music’* and here he is with the first song from his new album, of the same name WRONG AGAIN, due for release on November 1st ……….. and we couldn’t be more excited. Come on Country Lovers; what’s not to like about a song so sad the vinyl actually weeps in time to the pedal-steel guitar? Then of course there is Ags’ wonderful mournful voice which certainly wasn’t made for Disco music …… it is Pure Country through and through.
Here’s what he and his label have to say –
“Wrong Again is Ags Connolly’s third studio album, following on from his highly-acclaimed offerings How About Now (2014) and Nothin’ Unexpected (2017). The traditional country singer-songwriter from Oxfordshire took the reins on this latest effort, producing the album with a team of London-based musicians in the peaceful and intimate surroundings of Woodworm Studios in his home county. Ags also enlisted the expert help of accordionist Michael Guerra (The Mavericks) and fiddle player Eamon McLoughlin (Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell), both of whom had graced his previous album.
Alongside Ags’ trademark honky tonk shuffles, drinking songs and barroom ballads, Wrong Again delves once more into Tex-Mex/south-of-the-border flavours while entering some new territory with lively western swing.”
*Love him as we do; Ags will admit, he isn’t really the ‘Jolliest Man in Country Music.’
Heartfelt Country Songs Full of Hope, Love and Faith.
Perhaps Josh Turner is too mainstream for my regular readers, and possibly RMHQ is too ‘edgy’ for his normal fan base but when I reviewed his last album hardly anyone read it …… which wasn’t helped by a lack of promotion by the label and PR (don’t get me started!). But, I carry on regardless because I actually like Josh Turner. What we have here is a UK ‘extended release’ of his Hit Album I Serve a Saviour that’s coinciding with a 3 Date UK Tour; and it’s not my ‘comfort zone’ by a million miles as it’s a collection of songs celebrating Turner’s Faith (with a capital F) …….. and it really amused Mrs Magpie when she caught me listening earlier in the week! Irony apart, opening track Hank’s I Saw The Light is as good a version as I’ve ever heard; easily comparable with the one by Bap Kennedy as it too has me tapping my toes and mentally raising my hands in the air shouting Hallelujah! during each and every chorus). I have an ambivalent approach to organised Religion; but when I hear Josh Turner singing classics like Amazing Grace or Turner’s jaunty Swing Low Sweet Chariot or more close to home, the Methodist Anthem that my father had sung at his funeral; How Great Thou Art I’m actually questioning my own mortality and what may follow. Which brings me to the ubiquitous Long Black Train which has turned up on my albums than the fade out groove; but possibly never sounded more ‘Country’ than this swinging version that knocks most others into a cocked hat! As a reviewer I try my best not to let personal taste or in this case ‘beliefs’ get in the way; and just talk about how the songs evolve and actually effect me …….. and Turner has the ability here to touch my heart with his gently wrapped earnestness on the beautiful Great Is Your Faithfulness and more unexpectantly the warm Hill Country beauty of Me and My God. Obviously on an album like this there is going to be surprises around every corner; and I’ve found myself coming back to the title track I Serve a Saviour and the stunning The River of Happiness (which is actually a harmony duet between Turners wife Jennifer and son Hampton) many times now, and both have left me with a lovely warm glow. The two ‘bonus tracks’ are Live Acoustic versions of Without Him and I Serve a Saviour and really and truly showcase not just Turner’s ‘Faith’ but his undoubted talent as they are as raw as an open wound. Then, there is I Pray My Way Out Of Trouble; a spectacularly odd choice for me – a Natural Born Sinner Boy, to choose as my Favourite Song, but when I first heard Turner’s words last weeks they had a profound effect on me; as I was in a bad place (again) and while I don’t believe in a an all encompassing God as such; Josh could have been singing about me trying to contact my dear departed Mother. Yep …….. I cried my way through all 3.39 minutes three times consecutively. It’s very easy to dismiss a person’s Beliefs out of hand, and I don’t want to get drawn into how deeply Religion fits into Country Music in parts of the USA but if we leave that aside, I SERVE A SAVIOUR has really touched me in a way I’d never have expected two years ago ……… but what with my advancing age and deteriorating health combining to have me questioning my own mortality I have received plenty of succour and hope from every song here.
Aaaahhhh Helen McCookerybook, possibly or is it probably, the sweetest Punk Rocker that ever lived? This review is far too short to list all of Helen’s accomplishments in the last 40 years (eh? 40 years and her still so young looking?) but if there’s any aspiring young musicians out there; especially of the female variety……. forget Miley Cirus; check Helen’s ‘story’ and back catalogue out if you are looking for inspiration. Enough of looking back; onto today and her latest release GREEN. Opening track Rainbow of the Colour Green is charm personified; with a spiky poetic spine to it and when the harmonies eventually sweep in, you hardly notice them the first time as you will be so engrossed in the song itself. It’s fair to say that Helen has a distinctive singing voice; and it’s absolutely perfect for her joyful songs; even when the subject matter is a tad on the dark side…… Danse Macabre and At The Bathing Pond instantly spring to mind; but I’m still on a learning curve with the album so more songs are yet to unravel. Even at her most serious there’s always a smile in Ms McCookerybook’s voice; which is why I find her albums so charming; but it’s her songwriting that makes her stand above her peers. Without ever patronising us, Helen includes a couple of politically charged songs; So Long Elon is a stunning observation of our planet’s future and Where Is Home treads a similar but more local path; or does it? And, who else could write such articulately clever bittersweet love songs like Change the DJ or 21st Century Blues and still make them so accessible. Two songs in particular stand out like blood red roses in a hedgerow; the quirky and perceptive Saturday Night With the London Set with it’s Jazz-Lite undertones and my Favourite Song here; A Good Life With a Bad Apple which is so complex it will have you leaning in towards the speaker to decipher it; but when you do you will recognise someone from your circle that fits Helen’s moving and colourful description. Is this Folk Music? Of course it is; but it follows more in the tradition of British Legends Jake Thackray and Victoria Wood than it does Woody Guthrie or Bob Dylan as Helen’s songs and stories are simply timeless and have a deceptive simplicity will appeal to young children and old fogeys like me as well as all you hipsters with your well manicured beards, tattoos and designer clothing.
Oh Susanna! JOHNSTOWN (20th Anniversary Edition) Continental Song City
A Lo-Fi Gothic Americana Debut Album That Hasn’t Aged a Day.
While I’ve been aware of the name ‘Oh Susanna!’ aka Suzie Ungerleider for quite a few years now (although not 20), the first album I heard was SOON THE BIRDS in 2011 then I waited until 2017 for the fabulous A GIRL IN A TEEN CITY; and neither prepared me for the stark beauty of this, her debut album in 1999. The first thing that struck me last week; was ‘what a tortured soul’ this young lady must have had back then! Without being a ‘concept album’ in any way; it appears that Suzie created the fictional JOHNSTOWN to give a hook and a narrative for this slightly eclectic group of songs; but songs that are exceptionally constructed and delivered by a very talented songwriter in the making. The dark simplicity of the title track Johnstown, which opens the record is breathtaking, especially when you realise that this was a debut album from a very young woman. What on earth was going on in her head to build an almost Gothic tale of the murder of a small town prostitute? Who knows? Who cares? It’s a fabulous introduction to a fabulous album. Obviously finding her voice at that time; Suzie flits between sounding like Joan Baez (Old Kate), Nanci Griffith (Pueblo and The Bridge) and Melanie Safka (Alabaster), but that’s no hardship as the songs are all eminently listenable and help create the Suzie Ungerleider we know and love today. There’s an indefinable power to this group of songs that is as unexpected as it’s all consuming, with Peter J Moore’s understated production capturing the ghostly beauty of Back Dirt Road and Home Soon which both made me sink back into my chair more than once as they seeped into my old and haggard soul. As this is a celebratory 20th Anniversary release (CD, download and hipsters only Vinyl too!) there’s the inclusion of Suzie’s very first release too; a cassette only EP A SHOT OF OH SUSANNA, which is made up of five original versions of songs that made it onto this album. Then there is the Official RMHQ Favourite Song ……. cue drum roll……. if Tangled & Wild, with it’s understated pedal-steel and super-soft drum and guitar accompaniment was only being released by Oh Susanna in 2019 as a brand new song; critics would hail it is a Masterpiece only made possible by 20 hard years at the coal face of songwriting; yet here it is on Suzie Ungerleider’s debut album in 1999 and a whole career was yet to unfurl. That’s how good this song, and it’s fair to say …… this album is.
Alt. CountryPower-Pop meets Punk on the corner of Sad and Lonely.
Well this is a turn up for the books! The publicist who sent this album is more noted for supporting the more Folkier and Rootsier end of the Americana spectrum; so the crunchy electric guitar and slightly angsty and sorrowful vocals on the opening title track 4:30 took me by surprise ……. in a good way. Although Ms. Perley’s exquisite songwriting and storytelling can be a bit dark at times; songs like the punchy Back in Town and Dangerous Love have hooks that will still be in your head hours after last listening to them. I don’t know who she is, but love the ‘effected snarl’ in Angela’s voice as she describes someone in her circle on the mean ‘n moody Snake Charmer. That ‘snarl’, or is it a ‘snear’ also appears on the tightly wound rockers Let Go and Friends (with the latter being the best song the Runaways never recorded!). I’ve been really, really impressed with Angela Perley’s storytelling throughout 4:30; and especially so with the edgy but gentle and reflective Local Heroes which bleeds into Lost & Found; which is clever programming on someone’s behalf. To some degree listening to this album has been a case of ‘right place/right time” as it’s been perfect company in the car on a couple of hot and sultry car journeys; which kind of sums up my two Favourite Songs; the maudlin Don’t Look Back Mary and He Rides High, which precedes it. Even with the Air Con on; you can taste the unrequited love and sense of longing in both songs; which both certainly put the Alt. back in the Country that I love. Think an Americana drenched Bangles or and this even better; Angela Perley being some long lost relation of either Lucinda or Debbie Harry and too you will fall under her spell right from that razor-sharp opener through to the perky and bittersweet love song Walk With Me, which delightfully mixes Pop-Punk with Alt. Country melodrama ……… seriously; what’s not to like?
Seth James Good Life Bismeaux Records/Cherry Bomb Records
Devilishly Bodacious Texas R&B With a Side-Order of Southern Soul.
It’s been a tough couple of weeks and new music has been on the back burner; with my tried and trusted CD Collection getting me through, so I was ready for something fresh and interesting on Sunday night. Sadly the first few albums I dipped into left me disenchanted, then along came Seth Jame’s opening track Brother. Ooohheee ….. let the good times roll! A James’ ‘twinkle in the eye’ singing style, accompanied by some rinky-dink pub piano, fizzing guitars, devilishly angelic harmonies and a brass section that sounds like they should be at a New Orleans’ funeral! Yes sir ….. this is what I needed; and four days later it’s still hogging the stereo. It looks like James has been around the Texas club scene for quite a while now; and that solid apprenticeship pays off on the tightly wrapped The Time I Love You The Most and Medicine Man as both sound like a dalliance between Bonnie Raitt and Doug Sahm with the Mavericks playing in the background. I guess this will be filed under ‘Blues’ in most record stores and on streaming sites; but there is so much more than that here; as you’d expect from a band who plays Honky-Tonks on Monday and Tuesday nights ……. Seth James can turn his hand to most parts of Americana; adding Soul, Rhythm & Blues and even hints of Urban Country into Third Generation, From Way Behind and the most bodacious Ain’t What You Eat But The Way How You Chew It! Some songs here are brand new like the title track Good Life; but a couple have also been allowed to develop over the last 10 years or so until now; when James was ready to spring the deep down and Soulful I’m Coming Home onto an unsuspecting world; and the time is just right for a song that is equal parts Al Green, Chet Atkins and Charly Pride ……. I urge you to listen with care; it;s a real heartbreaker. There’s absolutely nothing to dislike here; no filler at all, making choosing a Favourite Song supremely difficult. Should I go for the dark and menacing Get Outside? Or the glorious love song Little Angel; especially because of the stomping and wheezing electric organ and swinging horn section that makes it an extraordinary few minutes. Then of course there’s the slow and sleazy Country Blues of I Am The Storm which closes the album with James pining his heart out while playing a Resonator Guitar; but I can’t resist the Otis influenced That’s How You Do It, which is a sure fire dancefloor filler; which takes the Grand Title against some heavyweight contenders. I’ve found this a very easy album to play; but I have an open mind when it comes to music; and if you have too then you are going to love discovering Seth James.
World Weary and Grizzled British Country Rock to Stir The Soul.
All I seem to take from the accompanying Press Release is that The Blue Highways are probably British, were formed in 2018 and Bob Harris likes them. But perhaps that’s all we need to know, as the music they create certainly ‘does the talking’ for them. The powerful opening track He Works kick-starts the EP like pouring petrol on a BBQ! This tale of guy who works hard day in and day out without complaint suddenly has his world turned upside down; giving him the opportunity to finally live the life he daydreams about ……. but does he take it? All in all He Works is a very clever and intelligent song masquerading as a 4 to the floor Country Rocker with additional horn section. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear this song came from the Southern States and not Southern England! Callum Leary’s world weary and grizzled vocals and a muscular rhythm somehow lift the next song, the almost Shakespearean Blood Off Your Hands into Black Crowes territory, if I’m not mistaken. Next out of the traps, Matter of Love buzzes along like it’s tail is on fire, and this enigmatic and twisted Love Song manages to question the whole concept of love, if you listen carefully …….. but even if I’m wrong, it has a very catchy chorus anyways. With British Country and UK Americana in the ascendancy today, but judging by those first three songs The Blue Highways have decided to quite rightly, ‘out rock’ every one else on the scene; but they also throw a splendid ‘curve ball’ with the final track Have You Seen My Baby, which is more of an acoustic heartbreaker; and even without the aid of the splendid Henry Senior Jr. from Danny and the Champs supplying some truly maudlin pedal-steel would more than likely have been my Favourite Song by a Country Mile. From their profile pictures The Blue Highways are unfeasibly young to have created such a mature and well crafted songs; but they have and this EP is certainly well worth hunting down regardless of which side of the Atlantic you live on.