Pokey LaFarge
In the Blossom of Their Shade
New West Records

A Crazily Infectious and Stirring Collection of Worldly-Wise Earworms

Recorded in East Austin, after trying to start a promotional tour that got wiped out by the pandemic, LaFarge turned disadvantage to advantage, in recording an album laced with (some) sunnier perspectives than his prior release “Rock Bottom Rhapsody” – there’s also a stylistic shift in this release with the record moving a few steps away from the Swing Blues of earlier work towards more international influences.

This is clear from the off, with opener “Get it For It’s Gone” which is laced with a ska/bluebeat groove and is a guaranteed body-moving earworm after half a listen.
This Caribbean/South American flavour is continued with “Mi Ideal” which has a Latin sunny afternoon lightness about it and it’s one you can sing along too, even if you don’t understand the lyrics (I’m speaking from experience here!). “Fine To Me” choogles along in a Creedence Clearwater revival style before “Drink of You” slows things down with its “there’s always something to drink about” refrain and its Sinatra-esque late night/early morning lyricism and theme.

Following this “Rotterdam” explodes into view with a twangy Latin ode to the need to travel and the desire to find peace – somewhere else.
Personally, I can think of better places than the Dutch mega-port as bolt-holes, but Pokey Lafarge does a good job of romanticising a distant location and does a far better job of selling the mysterious charms of the place with a musical and lyrical melting pot of influences better than the Beautiful South did!

“To Love or Be Alone” takes the listener back to South America – fans of Calexico and their recent collaboration with Dean Owens will find joy in this number, which poses the eternal question of whether it’s worth settling for someone – or rejecting. I have to admit, I played air maracas to this – it’s giddily infectious.

It’s waltz time on “Long For the Heaven I Seek” a tale of waiting and longing – it develops into a tentatively hopeful gospel-tinged plea for some form of communion.
It’s then a short leap into the 50’s vocal group feel of “Killing Time” which could have slotted into the soundtrack for John Waters’ “Cry Baby” with no problem at all – “I’m killing time/it ain’t killing me” is a brave declaration of positivity in these times.

“Yo-Yo” takes a Latin rhythm and lyrically explores emotional uncertainty – we’ve all been there – and back. It’s one of the quieter tracks on the album but its “do you want me or not?” line will resonate widely.

“Goodnight Goodbye (Hope not forever)” fittingly closes the ten track offering – “nothing says goodbye like a stiff drink and a tear” and its roughed up 50’s lounge style is gorgeous.
It’s one plucked straight from the Raul Malo velvet smoking jacket and big cigar playbook and it succeeds in dislodging the other 9 earworms that this album’s implanted (without the aid of a 5G tinfoil hat chip) into your brain. Without a shadow of a doubt, this crazily infectious and stirring collection of world-wise earworms is already my favourite Pokey Lafarge album and one which could easily seem him cross-over to bigger and bigger audiences.

Review by Nick Barber

Released 15th October 2021

Shipcote & Friends POP PICKERS

Shipcote & Friends
Pop Pickers
Low Fella Records

Songs That Will Take You on a Lovely Summer’s Evening Trip Somewhere Wonderful

W know Shipcote was a member of a couple of Martin G Stephenson’s various incarnations many years ago; but why it’s taken them so long to get together in this format I will never know…….. it just makes complete sense.
Don’t get me wrong; this is still very much a Shipcote solo album; but via his role as Producer/Engineer and accompanying guitar/ukulele/steel drum/bass and backing vocals; the Bard of Brady Square’s ‘stamp’ is very much all over this album.
Not normally the most prolific of recording artists, this is Shipcote’s second release of 2021 ….. and; as he has nervously told me several times ……. a bit different from anything he’s done before ….. and he’s done a lot!
That said, as soon as you hear Shippy’s warm and melancholic tones on the sad opening track Lonely Nights you know you are on safe ground; but the gentle Caribbean-lite guitar play, shakers and MG Stephenson in the background; make for a delightful few minutes; and not for the last time either.
While Shipcote’s albums are never completely ‘solo’ ….. he always brings his friends along to flesh out his songs; but POP PICKERS actually has something of a ‘band’ feel to it; none less so than on I’ve Got Faith In You, which is actually a duet with Gem Andrews and later the tragic heartbreakers, What’s Love and from the pen of another local lad; Nev Clay’s haunting Hurting You.
I’ve known Shipcote for many years now and pretty much know he is one half of a strong, long and loving partnership …… so it never ceases to amaze me where he drags songs like What’s Love and Where’s It All Gone from; but that’s why he’s an acclaimed songwriter and I write reviews I suppose.
With that in mind; the quaint ukulele fronted Bad Situation really does sum up the nightmare we’ve all lived through in the last year or so, with a myriad of lockdowns and no live gigs to speak of, and how it affected such a ‘people person’ as what Shipcote is…. oh; the song will still make you smile btw.
While ‘different’ from previous albums in as much as the overall ‘sound’ is a little more commercial and contemporary than on previous records; there are actually less surprises here than the singer had frightened me with; as the actual ‘surprises’ are very good to the extreme; which brings me to the runners and riders for the accolade of Favourite Song ….. with all three being beautifully imaginative stories that have been turned into even more beautiful songs at the hands of Shipcote and Stephenson; purveyors of Fine Roots Music.
If you heard St. Cecilia on the wireless you would immediately stop what you were doing; kick back and let Shipcote and his Highland Mariachi Band just waft over you like a Border breeze; but eventually Shipcote’s mighty fine prose would unravel and you will be left open mouthed; and as he sings; Cecilia would make a fine name for a daughter; and it did.
Oddly enough on an album by a lauded singer-songwriter; the instrumental; Saltwell Stroll (Part II) is as archetypal a track on a Shipcote album as I think I’ve ever heard ….. it’s charm personified.
Then there is Amy …… phew ….. phwoar …… gulp ….. wipes away a tear.
Man oh man!
Where did this come from?
It won’t take Vera or Columbo two minutes to work out that the Amy of the title is Ms Winehouse; and this love song to the memory of the tragic Diva is as timely as it is welcome; and IMHO one of Shipcote’s finest songs ever …… and a song that deserves airplay across the English speaking world.
I’m not going to delve any deeper into the song; that’s a treat for you when you buy the album ….. but by far and away my Favourite Song here.
The warmth and love incorporated into all of these songs takes you on a lovely Summer’s evening trip to somewhere wonderful; well away from the trials and tribulations that face us in everyday life that is 2021.

Released September 3rd 2021

NEW WEBSITE http://www.shipcote.com/



Brian Setzer
Gotta Have the Rumble

Whole lotta Shakin’ Going On From This This Cool Cat

While I’ve liked them for aeons; I’ve still always been surprised by how ‘big’ and popular the Stray Cats and their various offshoots actually are around the world; none more so than singer Brian Setzer who is a Major Star everywhere in the English speaking world (and Japan!).
Neatly moving back to the tried and tested Rockabilly/Rock & Roll formula that first found him fame; this party gets of to a kickin’ start with Chequered Flag; a nitro fuelled love song that wouldn’t be out of place in a modern adaptation of West Side Story.
It’s all too easy for naysayers to dismiss Rockabilly; but done right …… and not many do it better than Setzer; it’s as exciting as popular music gets IMHO.
Like all good professionals, Setzer and producer Julian Raymond make these songs sound ever so simple; but listen closely and there’s a Hell of a lot going on in the background behind the singer on Stack My Money, The Cat With 9 Lives and the stupendously danceable Rockabilly Riot too.
While there’s an obvious Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent ‘feel’ to the overall album; but Setzer sneaks in a ‘Sun era’ Elvis ‘lip curl’ or two into The Wrong Side of the Tracks and the slip-slap bass driven Off Your Rocker; which is no bad thIng at all and just shows how much fun Brian Setzer is still having after all these years.
My copy doesn’t say who plays what here; but I certainly tip my cap to Twangtastic Duane Eddy influenced guitarist on Smash Up on Highway; which sounds like there are sparks and oil coming out of the speakers as the song builds and builds until ……… (I’m not saying!).
Another high octane belter here; One Bad Habit sounds like the lynch pin to the whole album as Setzer sounds like he’s shaking his hips along to the bouncy beat as he sings his cotton picking heart out.
All in all this is a blast of an album; which makes selecting a single Favourite Song a nightmare; but I’ve eventually narrowed it down to two songs; the first actually sounds out of place to some degree; but also autobiographical as Setzer adds contemporary Country fizz to Rockabilly Banjo; and I can only imagine how much fun it’s going to be in concert.
The other; and probably my personal Favourite is the feisty love song Turn You On, Turn Me On which again has a Country edge to the kick-ass Rockabilly melody and even feistier electric guitar solos throughout; and even though this version is 90mph; I guess in concert it goes past the ton!
Also; name dropping Ballroom Blitz does it no harm at all here at RMHQ.
It’s fair to say Setzer’s fans are going to love this as it never really strays too far from the tried and tested Stray Cats formula; although there are certainly bits and pieces that have the potential to get him play on Rock Radio and therefore a whole new younger audience beckons.

Released August 27th 2021


The Popravinas GOON WEST

The Popravinas
Goon West

SMILE! Surfs Up Again Kids – Prepare Yourself For a Popratastic Night In.

In the week that I’ve been having an online discussion/debate about ‘What the Hell Anti-Folk’ is; I’ve actually been listening to two catchy melody, tune filled; Grown Up Pop albums, of which this is one.
As I’ve said many times over the years; one of the main purposes and even joys of inventing The Rocking Magpie is/was discovering and promoting exciting NEW music that mostly fits into the Americana/Roots genres; but not always so.
To all intents and purposes The Popravinas are quintessentially a Californian bar band; but the type that, once the audience is drunk enough, fills their second set with their own songs!
GOON WEST, their fourth album has filled a few gaps for me lately, as it’s ‘good time, fun time Summer Music’ tipping its metaphorical hat towards Sunflower/Surfs Up era Beach Boys with a dash of good old Garage swagger in the mix too.
YAY! Opening track Do The Creep is a poptastic monster; setting the scene for the bands deep and occasionally ironic songs that are neatly gift wrapped in a catchy melody that will have you swaying your shoulders and/or hips in time as the story develops like a Polaroid snap.
For a DIY Production via John Adair, the sound here is crisp and snappy from start to finish; with every instrument coming through the speakers individually while creating lovely combined sounds that enhance every song; none more so than Feasibility Holdout, Self Made Derecho and the startling Who Started What? All of which could easily have become an unholy mess in lesser hands.
While certainly ‘surfy’ and ‘poppy’ in a Barenaked Ladies/Ben Folds stylee for Grown Ups, every now and again Adair’s pedal-steel strays into the Americana Zone; which is no bad thing when the outcome is Zoom to the Ocean or Fade Out, is it?
While I’ve corresponded with John Adair a little bit over the last couple of years; I still know very little about the band; and them being based in California I ain’t likely to bump into them in a North Biddick WMC on a Saturday night (although we would make them most welcome); so that leaves me enough room to fantasise about what they look like; and I dream of them looking a bit like The Beach Boys in that iconic photo, where they’re wearing stripy shirts and chinos; but I would be more than happy to find them in Hawaiian shirts, skinny jeans and canvas pumps or moccasins ….. it’s ‘that type’ of music ….. and if money was no object I’d love to see an Archies style video for Bunkin’ In Reno (although the story is a lot darker than that damn catchy tune first suggests).
For my Favourite Song; and there are 11 candidates on an 11 track album; I’m erring to left of centre with the relatively stark finale Flat Side of Low; which may or may not have a pseudo-political edge to it; or it may be about a relationship breakdown ….. but that’s the brilliance of music, isn’t it? We will all hear the same song, yet hear something completely different. |
But there is one other song; and again slightly to the left of everything else that I’ve come back to several times; the rocktastic Is There Anybody Anywhere But Here? Singer Eddy Sill treads a thin line between smart-arsery and just plain smart; and I feel he ends up filling the three minutes with the latter; Smart Pop; huh?
I absolutely luuurve it to bits!
In a parallel universe The Popravinas would be stars of the College Circuit and indeed College Radio too; but to all intents and purposes neither exists the way they used to, so it’s left for the likes of you and me to hail the absolute genius of The Popravinas.

Eddy Sill: Lead Vocals, Bass
John Adair: Electric and Acoustic 6 and 12 String Lead and Rhythm
Guitars, Background Vocals, Pedal Steel, Keyboards, Mandolin, Banjo, Percussion, Piano
Dean Lyons: Rhythm Guitar
David Rodgers: Drums

RELEASED August 25th 2021



Judy Collins
Live at The Town Hall NYC
Wildflower Records

An Amazing Recreation of a Transitional and Benchmark Concert.

Judy Collins is one of those Singer-Songwriter ‘names’ that have flitted in and out of my life like a butterfly for nigh on half a century; and like that magnificent creature; she’s never really settled long enough for me to really admire her beauty.
So; it was with great pleasure I sat down a few Sundays ago to play her re-construction of the transitional 1964 concert at New York Town Hall that changed her life forever.
As with all her contempories at that time in ’64 Judy had played every coffee house and folk club across the East Coast of Americae in the previous couple of years; so I can barely imagine the trepidation and excitement that preceded that fateful night; but 57 years later Ms Collins returned to the scene as a True Legend; but I still sensed a frisson of tension on the opening track; Winter Sky; not necessarily a bad thing; as it only adds to the power in the words themselves; but the applause at the end obviously lift any nerves and her take on Tom Paxton’s Ramblin’ Boy; which follows is simply sublime.
Recorded for a ‘Virtual broadcast’ my only critique would be the lack of inter-song ‘chat’ that appears to have been edited out, which is a shame as I’d love to hear Judy’s words on the likes of Mr. Tambourine Man, Last Thing on My Mind and, of course Send in The Clowns which are still staples of her concerts after singing them on that very same stage half a century earlier.
I’ve reviewed a couple of her releases in the last 5 years; so technically I wasn’t surprised at the graceful clarity of Ms Collins’ voice in 2021; but I’d only heard studio recordings yet hear she has nowhere to hide; being a ‘live recording’ and ……. WOW …… hearing her hit notes on Anathea; notes that a lady of her age has no right to hit and hit with ease, is simply breathtaking.
While I recognise many of the songs here; as they’ve become Classics over the years; but think back and imagine how brave it must have been to include Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Tom Paxton songs to her set list in 1964!
Then, there are a couple of songs I don’t know at all; which have been a delight to discover; especially the Traditional Folk Songs Wild Rippling Water and John Riley; which in lesser hands would be anathema to me; but the way Judy delivers them is truly spellbinding.
Where to go for a Favourite Song is never going to be easy with an album such as this; but I’ve eventually narrowed it down to three; Shirley Collins’ tragic Cruel Mother, the outstanding versions of Both Sides Now and Coal Tattoo which hit me like a sucker punch the first time I heard it a few weeks ago; and while I’ve heard (and got) several other versions over the years; the way Judy delivers Billy Edd Wheeler’s keenly observed story, brought tears to my eyes as I thought of my Father who could easily have been the coal miner in the sad tale.
So; that’s what I’m going for …. Coal Tattoo as my Favourite Song; but you will likely choose something different; but for the same type of reasoning; such is the way Judy Collins sing life into her songs.
Although I would have liked to have heard Judy talk about the songs herein; but with hindsight their absence means this album bares repeated playing; unlike so many other Concert recordings which can be tiresome after a while; the simple production and superb engineering means that all the studio guff that so many people add to their records is missing and Ms Collins plays to her strengths; her exquisite choice of song and her voice; of course

Released August 27th 2021


PODCAST: Since You’ve Asked with Judy Collins 


Del Barber
Stray Dogs
Acronym Records

A Warm and Literate Collection of Small Town Canadian Country-Folk Tales

The follow up to his 2020 Juno-nominated album “Easy Keeper”, “Stray Dogs” finds Del Barber revisiting material he’s penned earlier, during pandemic isolation at his rural Manitoba home – with all eight songs on Stray Dogs being drawn mainly from previously unfinished demos, tidied up and shined to a sparkling state by his long-time band and producer Scott Franchuk.
The title itself is a reference to the varied collection of songs that were never planned to form a cohesive whole, but which now happily sit together on this release.
Opening track “Meantime” was originally released as a teaser single to the album and it’s a fluid, melodious and literate vignette which could easily sit on mainstream radio until the line
smoke puking out from my argument
shocks the listener into more careful observation.
“Nothing Left to Find” is a song of small town and personal frustration, when all inspiration has dried up and the answers appear to be anywhere but …here….
“Friends Like Us” is underscored with pedal steel and warmly picked guitar and is a conversation between close friends seeking answers; and finding themselves asking more questions – there’s a warmth and grit to the lyrics, with Barber referring to one friend as a “real big bugger” which, along with its melodic hook, places this song in Prine narrative territory.

“Travelin’” moves out of the small town and picks up the pace with rhythmic bluesy mandolin whereas “I Belong With You” chooses a domestic scene to present an alternative view of a situation of being settled in an environment/relationship with its repetitive warmth, challenges and certainty.

“Fishin’ and Wishin’” has somewhat of the feel of Green on Red’s “Little Things in Life” both musically and in the seeking out of the details in life that give it purpose and nullify the loneliness therein.

There’s a core of frustration that links the disparate scenes on this release and that theme raises its head again in the title of “Empty Plate and an Appetite” and deals with feelings where “it never adds up right”.

Final track “Just a Little Heat” takes a car metaphor to explore relationship and inspiration issues in a Rod Picott like character study and confessional.
Only eight tracks in total (there was a single edit of the opening single “Meantime” in my review download too) but there’s plenty of musical and lyrical depth to get lost in, in Del Barber’s revisiting and of his back pages and old hard drives.
These songs are a worthy follow-up to “Easy Keeper” and are like wrapping the listener in their favourite; but somewhat worn warm winter coat – Barber pokes at the emotional holes in the lining, but there’s a comfort and security there in his warm hearted Country-Folk tales.

Review by Nick Barber (No relation)
Released August 20th 2021




Darrin Bradbury

It’s Americana Jim; Just Not as You Understand It.

I think it’s fair to say that you will make a judgement within the first 30 seconds on first track Field Notes From a College Town as to whether you will like Darrin Bradbury and continue further ….. yep ….. it’s very much ‘that type’ of album; it’s Americana Jim; just not as you understand it.
That said, fans of Jonathan Richman, Sufjan Stevens and to some extent, RMHQ Favourites Barenaked Ladies will not just love this album …… but cherish it for years to come; whispering its merits to like-minded souls in hipster coffee shops across the world.
Even writing that last sentence sounds brave; and it is ….. but Darrin Bradbury’s drole approach and ironic wit certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste (just ask Mrs Magpie!) but to the likes of me, songs like Shiny Town, XXY Top Left and The Wedding Song aren’t just articulate and ryley observed but 21st Century poetry; set to music.
I first discovered ‘this type of music’ via Randy Newman; and I guess at some stage so did Darin Bradbury; who must have thought ‘if that kid can make it; so can I” ….. another brave statement; but outsiders like Newman in the 60’s and now Bradbury half a century later have no natural home …. certainly not radio.
After a few plays, it’s quite apparent that Bradbury knows his way around a melody; and isn’t afraid to use it to help emphasise his pithy and intelligent prose; try both 15 Shovels and Those Beautiful Days (Andy’s Song) to hear a musician unafraid to experiment with his music while supremely confident that there is an audience; no matter how small, that will not just appreciate his songs but understand them too.
A musician friend in the Americana World is about to nervously send me their very own ‘experimental’ Synth-Country album; but I think Darrin Bradbury has got there first with the magnificent Busted World; and he sets the bar very high, too.
Before I get to my Favourite Track; I can’t go without mentioning the Bonus Track that’s tacked onto the end; and a song that somehow becomes the corner stone for what has gone before; My Old Kentucky Home ….. which isn’t ‘that song’ but a brand new and slightly misty eyed, rueful look back at the singer’s Old Kentucky Home in 2021.
For my Favourite Track I used my normal ‘system’ which is to leave the album for a few days then randomly think of songs I can remember; and why.
The title track, Artvertisement is a spiky Neo-Punk meets Americana battle of the bands and only lasts 1 minute and 10 seconds; but an awful lot happens in that time.
15 Shovels is perhaps the most commercial and radio-friendly song here, and if you did hear it and its swirling organ and powerful drumbeat melody will lull you into a false sense of security for buying the album on the strength of a single ….. which I think funny.
But I’m going left of centre on a very left of centre album for my actual Favourite Song here; an Anti-pop antithesis to Sunday Morning (Coming Down); the brooding Pizza & Drugs which more or less doesn’t fit into any category I can think of apart from Experimental Pop; and for that I’m thrilled Darion Bradbury wrote it, recorded it and released it …… as in 2021, the world needs the likes of Darrin Bradbury more than ever.

Released August 20th 2021


Bandcamp https://darrinbradbury.bandcamp.com/album/artvertisement


Karen Jonas
Summer Songs (EP)

Well-Crafted, Lyrically Astute Vignettes of Smalltown (American) Life

Since the critically acclaimed “The Southwest Sky and Other Dreams” Karen Jonas released the seasonal “A long December,” and this has now been followed with a further seasonal offering, “Summer Songs” EP.
Lead-off track is a cover of the Don Henley tune “Boys of Summer” which is given more of a reflective and longing take in Jonas’ vocal – for those unfamiliar with Karen’s material, it’s a good way of drawing attention to her work – and the other three songs on the EP don’t pale either, or seem out of place in comparison.
“Summer’s Hard for Love” with its “Harvest Moon” style arrangement is a languid and reflective take on the frustration of love possibly going wrong.
“Thunder on the Battery” uses pathetic fallacy of Southern summer rains to portray a relationship break-up and its fallout – Tim Bray’s guitar adds an electric sparkle that underlines the dichotomy in a sensual emotional fallout.
Final track “Summer Moon” was recorded live in the studio and it’s an intimate Joni Mitchell style rumination on lost, uncertain love – the this time, the Summer backdrop is one of the dark end of Summer, of the warmth before the darkness of the Winter months.
There’s a vulnerability about this song – and all the EP, which is gently at odds with the possible expectation of what one might expect from a “Summer Songs” EP – Jonas deals with the discomfort, uncertainty, melancholy and warmth of the Summer and the knowledge that the season is ephemeral – and that Autumn and Winter are on their way. There’s an autobiographical collection of poems on the way from Jonas too – “Gumballs”, the writing of which, in part inspired her to revisit and collect these Summer themed songs.
I’d look out for that too, if well-crafted, lyrically astute vignettes of (American) life are your thing.

Review by Nick Barber

RELEASED August 2021

cd http://www.karenjonasmusic.com/
Poetry http://www.karenjonasmusic.com/

GA-20 Try It …You Might Like It!

 Try It… You Might Like It!
Alligator Records

Never Fashionable Means Never Out of Style – But Chicago Blues is Always Cool

Yes; GA20 are named after the classic amp, vintage equipment is the band’s ‘thing’; and from reading the press release accompanying this LP you would be forgiven for thinking the band is more about the archaeology of musical instruments than the music itself.
Don’t be mislead, this album proves the music is exactly what the equipment obsession is all about.
Formed in 2018 GA-20 consist of guitarist Matt Stubbs, guitarist/vocalist, Pat Faherty, drummer Tim Carman and no bass player?
Stripped-down Chicago Blues is what GA20 is about.
Raucous, raw, and driving beat played with style and panache.
This LP, the trio’s tribute to Hound Dog Taylor; one of the legendary Chicago Bluesmen has been recorded with the help of Bruce Iglauer who formed Alligator Records specifically to record and release Hound Dog Taylor and The HouseRockers first full-length recording in 1971.
Try It… You Might Like It is a collaboration between Alligator Records and Colemine Records marking the 50th anniversary of both the original House Rockers record and Alligator Records itself.
The cover pic is Taylors hand, showing his 6 fingers and the 10 tracks are all songs written by Taylor himself or associated with him.
However, this is no slavish copy of the originals, if anything GA20 takes the House Rockers sound and turns it up a notch or two (sometimes three).
From the opening track, it’s full-tilt boogie all the way.
Starting with She’s Gone with plenty of fuzzy slide guitar reminding me of another Hound Dog Taylor-inspired guitarist, George Thorogood through to the last track Hawaiian Boogie, GA20 give the songs new life.
This is music for dancing, raising the roof, and ahem…rocking the house.
Recorded in one or two takes and using authentic vintage equipment the sound captures the primal power of the Blues at its best.
Never fashionable means never out of style.
Tracklisting; She’s Gone; Let’s Get Funky; Sitting At Home Alone; Phillips Goes Bananas; It’s Alright; Give Me Back My Wig; It Hurts Me Too; See Me In The Evening; Sadie; Hawaiian Boogie.

Released August 21st 2021

Review by Tom Gleeson.



James McMurtry
The Horses and the Hounds
New West Records

A Triumphant Return Full of Fabled Wit, Tunes, Observations and Intelligence

In the press release for this album – McMurtry’s first in seven years – the songwriter mentions that ‘the ghost of Warren Zevon has stomped all over the recording without being asked’ – and that’s a good starting point, but there’s so much more.
Opener “Canola Fields” swings with a Tom Petty-ish energy and contains the narrative swell that McMurtry is renowned for – crisp lines like
We met up in Brooklyn before it went hipster
You carried your keys in your fist

are fired out effortlessly and fluently.
The Zevon force is noticeably strong within the music and lyrics of “I Don’t Bleed,” with its
I’m near enough to Jesus as I want to get
dry humour and melodic and rhythmic phrasing.
“Operation Never Mind” adds a slight delayed double track slapback to McMurtry’s vocal and the line
no-one cares because no-one sees it on TV
will stop you stone dead in your tracks and grab your attention – the writer’s trick of getting a hook – in this case lyrical – to focus the listener is done with consummate ease.
Musically it’s got a lot in common with Isbell-era Drive by Truckers too.
The first noticeable shift in pace comes with “Jackie”
“faithful’s a nice word in Sunday school class
is an intelligent middle America observation of the pragmatism and romance (what there is) of life – it’s a thoughtful musical mini-novella which raises questions about how we live our lives -no answers – but lots of dark questions. “Decent Man” is another character study that tackles issues of mortality and dried up inspiration – musically it does the trick of mixing the most terrible of stories wrapped up in the sweetest of melodies; and again the ghost of Warren Zevon presides all over it, and that’s very good indeed.
“Vaquero” mines more personal inspiration set against a laconic Tex-Mex accordion and uses the news that an old friend has died – and as McMurtry sings in Spanish – “Brinca la Vida” – you don’t know what’s coming next for you.
The title track is up next – It’s a tale of somebody who’s on the run – from what it doesn’t matter – but turns back and faces what they’re running from – it’s a metaphorical Western tale laced with reluctance, inevitability and defiance.
It’s fitting that it’s the title track in that it also embodies the cathartic process of putting yourself in a position to create honest-speaking art – you have to go in dark and deep; and face what you don’t want to.
“Ft Walton Wake-up call” is a bad day talking blues tale but the worst of that pretty bad day is
I keep losing my glasses
which in itself is metaphorical for being unable to interpret the media maelstrom that’s referenced throughout this story of a world where we’re all bombarded from all sides – it’s a pacy, stumbling run-off of a song that embodies the breathlessness and pressures of modern life.
This exasperation also finds form on “What’s the Matter”, but here it’s set against the stresses and reality of a distance separated relationship and contains what sounds like a mando-guitar (is that what they call them?) solo.
The album ends with an uplifting Irish lilted swing of a melody and Jason Isbell chord changes on “Blackberry Winter” – which deals with the darkest of depression and the need for
someone there to tell you no”,
to save a life and bring them back from the brink.
This duality of the dark and light in life permeates this much welcomed McMurtry release – seven years since he last graced the record store shelves, he’s back with wit, intelligence and the best stories and tunes – this is an album to revisit, grow into and stare at the lyric sheet for days.

Review by Nick Barber
Released August 20th 2021


USA & Canada https://store.newwestrecords.com/collections/james-mcmurtry-the-horses-and-the-hounds
Europe https://newwestrecords.ochre.store/release/234126-james-mcmurtry-the-horses-and-the-hounds