Jeremy Ivey The Dream and The Dreamer Anti- Records
The Dark Heart of Alt. Country Gets a New Voice.
As is my won’t I’d played this album a couple of times before I read the Press Release; and yet again I’m pleased I did because what I hear bares very little in connection to the prose of some in-house underwriter. For me opening track Diamonds Back to Coal is a real ‘breath taker’ in the most literal sense; as it’s a deep and powerful view on the state of America; but without all the shouty angst. Ivey uses metaphor, nuance and even melody to get his message across in a way that will make Bob Dylan proud. To all intents and purposes this is Americana at its very best; with Ivey (and producer Margo Price who just happens to be Jeremy’s wife!) combining Alt. Country and Indie, with the odd splash of Folk to create a sound that shames more established artists (and producers). The subject matter isn’t always ‘easy on the ear’; with the duet with Margo Greyhound, Story of a Fish and Worry Doll all being perfect examples; with sing-along choruses and bitingly pithy lyrics masking two dark stories. Jeremy Ivey is certainly ‘left of centre’ in the way he creates his characters and their situations; and in my humble opinion the world needs more songs like Gina The Tramp and Falling Man, with their deceptively mellow tunes but so full of piss and vinegar you can taste them in the air. This sounds like a very personal album to me; which makes choosing a Favourite Song a burdensome task; as each and every song here has its merits; but I;m going to toss a coin to decide between Laughing Willy and the piano led (and John Lennon influenced?) darkly observational title track The Dream and the Dreamer. Both are quite exceptional and possibly even ‘timeless’; but somehow the bitter angst of Laughing Willy is exactly what I needed to hear this morning …… so it wins (today). While Jeremy Ivey and Margo Price are inextricably intertwined both musically and in their personal life; I’ve heard enough here to realise that Mr Ivey has more than enough talent not just to be the ‘wind beneath her wings’.
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?
Jason Hawk Harris Love and the Dark Bloodshot Records
Pushing the Boundaries of Even Insurgent Country!
I somehow doubt Bloodshot Records have a huge team of A&R Execs haunting the dive bars across America seeking out the next Band to join their never ending roster of Insurgent Country acts. But how else do you explain finding someone like Jason Hawk Harris? You’re never going to find his like on America’s Got Talent or whatever it’s called; and I guess there’s another 99 singers and bands who sound a bit like him who sent in cassettes of their songs too; but weirdly only Jason fits the Bloodshot bill, and he does it quite perfectly too. I can’t even tell you what the Bloodshot ‘signature sound’ is; as every act is so very different; but right from the serenely sparkling opening track The Smoke and The Stars you just know this is a marriage made in Insurgent Country Heaven and you are the Guest of Honour. I doubt I’m going to hear a more Countrier Country Drinkin’ song this year than Cussin’ at the Light which follows tout suite; and you can easily imagine the Ghost of George Jones smiling down benignly when he hears it; especially when Natalie Nicoles seamlessly slides in on harmony vocals. Harris’s observations in his songs might pass a few by; especially if you are too busy dancing to Blessed Interruption, Confused or the irresistible ‘Honky-Tonky’ Red Room Blues; but at some stage take the time to actually listen to his words; you won’t regret it. Before I get around to telling you about my Favourite Track, I’ve got to mention the staggering Grandfather which closes the album. WOW! The only other songwriter that I can think of who would dare to write a Country song like this, is Jason Isbell, and there’s even something in Harris’ phrasing that reminds me of Isbell too and it’s only because there’s an even stronger and stranger song here that means this amazing song is only my Second Favourite Song on this record. Would could be better than that? Phantom Limb, is the answer. There are so many lines I can cherry pick to explain why this particular song has taken my breath away; but I’m going to select a couplet to wet your appetite ……. Harris softly describes his mother’s funeral thus, “I got this shirt. Smells like the viewing/ Formaldehyde, tobacco and tulips/ I’ve washed it ten times, and it won’t come out.” Dark and dangerous, gloomy and enigmatic but always accessible and full of songs that genuinely pushes the boundaries of Country Music in all its various formats ……. and my world is so much better for knowing this album exists.
Even though I have a couple of friends who will regularly travel hundreds of miles to see Eilen Jewell on her regular visits to the UK, she has somehow passed me by and remains a mystery to me. I can’t think why. It’s just one of those things. So, I was quite excited when I received this, her 8th album, GYPSY . MMMmmmm ……. I instantly liked opening track Crawl, a punchy and bouncy Country Rocker of old, graced by a shimmering fiddle from Katrina Nicholayeff and some excellent guitar interplay from Jerry Miller and Eilen herself. The pace immediatly drops to a lazy afternoon stroll for Track #2 Miles to Go; and therein lies the beauty of this album and I’m assured, Eilen Jewell herself …….. she can turn her hand and mind to anything in the Americana gamut and put her own distinctive stamp on it. It’s easy to hear the apprenticeship which started with her busking on the streets of Santa Fe and ultimately touring the world, coming to fruition with clever, intelligent and always accessible songs like the dark and brooding Working Hard For Your Love juxtaposed with the poignantly political 79 Cents (The Meow Song); which should be on every school curriculum across the USA; and the ethereal title track Gypsy, all of which are disparately different but come together to create a series of mood swings that will all end with you smiling, although tears will well in your eyes. When it comes to choosing a Favourite Song I really am spoiled for choice; there’s the straight up Classic Country of These Blues and You Cared Enough to Lie, which if I didn’t know any better must surely have been a hit for Patsy Cline; but is actually a Pinto Bennett song that Eilen very much brings to life. Another contender is Fear, which closes the record and straddled Folk, Alt. and Country in the way I normally associate with Ms Nanci Griffith; but I’m going for HARD TIMES, a folk anthem that follows in the footsteps of many songs of a similar title; and in 2019 I’d have hoped such words and sentiments would have been banished to the history books……. but instead of invoking the spirits of Woody Guthrie and Steinbeck; Eilen Jewell is singing about what she sees daily from her window. A sad indictment of our times; but a beautiful song none the less. This album has been quite a journey for me; and I could see from the first play why so many people are devoted fans, yet she remains unknown to me and millions of others ……. let’s put that right now; go buy this album!
A Comprehensive Collection of Sam Baker’s Songs, Played Live With No Safety Net.
I can’t remember exactly when I ‘got into’ Sam Baker. It was a while ago and probably one of his regular shows at the Jumpin’ Hot Club in Newcastle, I don’t think it was via an album. But now, like so many others I’m a bonafide acolyte of several years standing, poring over his every word and note. Mrs. Magpie can’t stand him! Right from the songs on his 2004 debut album Mercy, Sam deliberately sets out to challenge the listener in many ways, not least emotionally, and if you come out the other end unscathed you can count yourself a ‘fan’. While I can’t think of one, I’m still surprised that is Sam Baker’s first ever Live Album; especially as his concerts are invariably memorable in many, many ways; and that is the case with this raw and exciting performance which finds Baker completely alone on stage in Buffalo NY in July 2018 with just his guitar, harmonica and a wood board to click the timings on as his safety net . In fairness Baker could have opened the concert with just about any of songs and it would have been ‘nearly perfect’ so the biting lyrics that make up Boxes fits the bill perfectly. What follows is a comprehensive collection of songs from throughout the songwriter’s relatively short career; and while the studio versions may not fit together quite so appealingly, stripped back to bone and sinew Baker draws you into songs that were written over 10 years apart like Waves and the magnificent Same Kind of Blue sound like he’s somehow plucked them both from the ether earlier in the day and is performing them for the first ever time. In this particular format Sam Baker occasionally sounds like he must have been a Beat Poet in an earlier life, as he makes no attempt to ‘sing’ in the traditional manner; but that just makes Angel Hair and Broken Fingers even more intensely beautiful and articulate than ever. With so many great songs to choose from across his career to fit in I can understand why they’ve had to edit out most of the applause and all of the ‘stories behind the songs’ which is a bit of a loss as they are integral to any Sam Baker show ……. would a Double Album have killed you? Hey ho, that’s only a tiny criticism; as what is here has made choosing virtually impossible as each and every one could and should be my Favourite Track; how can I not choose Mennonite? Come on ……. Odessa? But, it’s a song for our times! Sorry, but I’m going for a song that is an essential inclusion in any Baker gig; Iron from that very first album Mercy and is sadly still as relevent today as it was way back then. I can’t think of a better way to start your own discovery of Sam Baker and his songs than this album; if you come out the other end unscathed you are going to absolutely love his studio albums!
A Stepping-Stone in the Right Direction For Alt. Country Stardom.
While many of my peers were instantly smitten by Beth Bombara’s last recorded outing Map and No Direction, I couldn’t get my head around it and thought the title very apt indeed. Jump forward a couple of years and I’m not 100% sure I’m listening to the same singer and songwriter (I am btw). There’s a new self-confidence and maturity in not just Beth’s writing, but her singing too, starting with the criminally beautiful I Only Cry When I’m Sad. The title says it all really and add Beth’s rich and earthy vocals to Samuel Gregg’s crunch electric guitar and Mike Schurk’s ‘enhanced heartbeat’ drumming and you have an almost perfect Country Heartbreaker. It’s quite clear to hear that Beth and band have honed these songs on the road, as there’s hardly a note or phrase out of place anywhere; and Karl Kling and Kit Hamon’s production must surely mirror the sound Ms. Bombara had in her head when she entered the studio. When you listen to Upside Down, Tenderhearted or Criminal Tongue it’s as if Beth must have alternated Lucinda’s WORLD WITHOUT TEARS and Tom Petty’s FULL MOON FEVER on the van stereo and thought ….. “I can do that too.” And she can! There’s a lot of that nascent Alt. Country here; but Beth is also very capable of throwing a curve-ball to keep you on your toes; the maudlin All Good Things finds Beth mostly singing; (or is it pouring her heart out?) alongside John Calvin Abney at the piano and earlier on the epic Anymore she and her band bring that Alt. Country ‘sound’ right up to date; and then some! Although Beth Bombara comes from Missouri and now lives in St. Louis, this All American gal sure sounds very Canadian here ……. I mean that in the most complimentary manner. There’s a sharpness to her her songs that I usually associate with bands and singers from way Up North; rather than the Southern States. Which all brings me around to the RMHQ Favourite Song; not an easy choice as the title track Evergreen is the most commercial song here and may even be ‘too Country’ for Country Radio; but a gentle nudge in the right direction and it is perfect for daytime radio. Then there is Criminal Tongue which is razor-sharp, cool and articulate, with Beth coming across as a alluring combination of Bobbie Gentry and Dusty Springfield fronting Crazy Horse! This is a very special album and has all the hallmarks of being the stepping-stone that my fellow reviewers hinted at two years ago; it’s fair to say Beth Bombara certainly has a map and a definite direction now …… The Top!
Ethereal 1960’s Influenced Country That is Actually Quite Perfect For Today.
Just like in the days of yore, when he dallied in Record Shops on Saturday afternoons, I’m still guilty of ‘judging an album by the cover’; especially when I don’t know the artist/band in question. Which is why I’ve picked up on this rather delightful release from Scotland’s Tenement & Temple aka Monica Queen and Johnnie Smillie from Glasgow’s seminal band Thrum …….. which is just a plain brown card sleeve encasing a disc meant to look like an LP. Where to start? The beginning, I suppose. Opening song Loving Arms is a sweeping 1960’s influenced, harmony drenched Countryesque song that is so lush you will find yourself swooning with delight as Monica uses her pearlescent voice in a way I’ve not heard since I first discovered Emmylou or more notably Miss Margot Timmins. While there are plenty of other influences for the lazy reviewer to dwell on; I can’t get past Monica’s own amazing voice and Smillie’s supportive production; plus his intricate guitar playing; especially on Ripa and Especially I Know. For an album that is quite intense and ethereal, there’s the distinct feeling that the duo are having the time of their lives creating music that is deeply moving and which they obviously love. It’s not clear who wrote what, as I instantly recognised a couple of songs ……. the Murder Ballad, Where The Wild Roses Grow first made famous by Nick Cave and Kylie (which sounded nothing like this haunting beauty) and, of course Blue Moon, which finds Tenement & Temple joined by RMHQ favourites Strange Blue Dreams which is not a million miles away from the Cowboy Junkies version. Of the others, which may or may not come from Johnnie Smillie’s vivid imagination, the waltz tempo of 10 More Years would have been something my Mother would have adored and One Room House finds the couple dabbling in George and Tammy territory and coming out unscathed; while It’s Been a While Lord sounds like something Dolly would have recorded in the 60’s; but wouldn’t have sounded this good! Then of course there is the stunning I Only See Your Face in the Dark; which is the RMHQ Favourite Song here, and it’s something of a cornerstone for the album itself, as sweeping strings compliment Monica Queen’s beautiful vocals on a very complex arrangement that somehow makes an ‘old fashioned’ Country song sound very, very contemporary indeed, which is quite an achievement for all concerned.
Leroy From The North Health & Fitness Self-Release
Heavy, Heavy Alt. Country That Rocks.
Originally this was misfiled in my I-Tunes under the wrong name; and I was mystified when I very nearly reviewed it as a world-weary singer-songwriter’s latest release! All’s well that ends well; and now Eli WulfMeier aka Leroy From The North’s debut EP and precursor to the Autumn release of a full album can get its full deserts on RMHQ, as it’s been a late night favourite in the Magmobile on the journey home from work. Originally from Michigan and now based in LA, WulfMeier a) sure knows how to Rock in an Alt. Country manner and b) has great musical taste which really and truly influences all 5 songs here. The fast and furious duelling guitars on opening track Into The Sunset set the tone for a Classic Poco/Eaglesish hybrid that will have you shuffling your feet and playing Air-Guitar like a spotty teenager while bellowing out the crusty chorus (or that may be just me!). Who knew Country Rock could still have a melody and a chorus in 2019? This followed by Fast Friends, which again features some dazzling fretwork, but is nailed very firmly to Daxx Neilson’s Industrial Strength drumming, which actually makes a refreshing change; and WulfMeier’s songwriting and storytelling ain’t too shabby either. In his bio ‘Leroy From the North’ has played alongside a few ‘big hitters’ in the LA Alt. scene over the years, and the name Johnny Fritz popped up …… who’s Dad Country album is still a form favourite in the RMHQ stereo. Track #3 Here in My Home is a lot ‘Heavier’ than I’d have expected; oddly enough making me think of Ronnie Van Zandt fronting Jon Lord era Deep Purple …….obviously I could be wrong; but not by much. The song still fits in perfectly well and is a counterpoint to the pure prairie Country of Locked Out which it precedes. Then there is Hey Man (Hammerheads) which is a case of Leroy keeping the best (or is it The Beast?) for last, and easily the RMHQ Favourite Track here, as it is ‘heads down, pedal to the metal, full on Country Rock Thrash’ the likes of which I haven’t heard in donkeys years; and sounds like an ‘encore number’ if ever I’ve heard one! It’s not clear if these songs will appear on the forthcoming album; but I presume they will; so use this as an exquisite ‘starter’ in readiness for the Meaty, Beaty, Big n Bouncy album that is bound to light up our lives.
Robbie Fulks Country Love Songs (Vinyl Only Release) Bloodshot Records
A Country Music ‘Game Changer’ In So Many Fabulous Ways!
Robbie Fulks is probably ‘taken for granted’ by several generations of Alt, Country fans as he is constantly touring and regularly releasing albums; yet there was a time when what he does so well and so naturally was as rare as hens teeth! But thankfully the home of Insurgent Country have always appreciated what a rare talent he has; and to help celebrate their very own 25th Anniversary they are re-releasing his debut album COUNTRY LOVE SONGS as a 180 gram Vinyl record. It may sound as fresh as a mountain daisy today in 2019, but even I as a Fulks Fan can’t imagine how extraordinary the twisted opening song Every Kinda Music, But Country must have sounded in 1996! Just like all the others here, it’s a love song but one that Fulks tips his ‘knowledgeable cap’, back to the Glory Days of Hank, George and Chet with more than a dash of cheek too . I own 6 Robbie Fulks albums, but never this one; so hearing Barely Human, Tears Only Run One Way and the other ‘live favourite’ The Buck Starts Here for the first time has been as exciting as I’ve hoped for two decades. I can’t work out how old/young Robbie would have been way back then; but what a burgeoning talent he had for not just songwriting and storytelling, but adding a catchy melody too – which was way out of fashion in the 1990’s! After praising him to the hilt, I must also mention two tracks which may not have aged as well as the rest; The Scrapple Song is a comical ode to Pennsylvania’s favourite foodstuff apparantly and the instrumental Pete Way’s Trousers kind of jars with everything either side of it …… but I could be wrong. Man…… what to select for a Favourite Song? The powerhouse album closer Papa Was a Steel Headed Man certainly showcases what a talent Fulks was and still is; while the left of centre tearjerker Barely Human is/was probably the first song in a style which is now synonymous with Robbie Fulks; but I’m closing my eyes and selecting She Took a Lot of Pills (and Died) because, yet again it’s 25 years old it sounds as fresh as a daisy with Fulks taking the baton from George or Hank and sauntering in the direction of Alt. Country, Americana and/or Countrypolitain without a care in the world! I hope someone out there can tell me who the mysterious actress of the story was. I will leave the last word to Robbie himself; and the note he attached to the tape he originally sent to Bloodshot in 1996:-
“13 original country songs with an early 50’s production aesthetic (hot vocals, robust bass, live instrumental tracks) and arrangement, reviving certain types of songs long abandoned by mainstream country music. Likewise in retro spirit, these songs will frequently violate current country songwriting trends which hold as taboo themes of negativism, forceful expression, and points of view uncongenial to the prevailing ideology of fatuous feelgoodism; they will instead reflect a modern sensibility in their emotional graphicness, vigorous iconoclasm, and sense of humor. In composition and presentation the music will honestly reflect the heart and personality of its author/singer, and in its fundamental sincerity will stand resolutely against the poisonous tides of camp.”
An Alt. Country Game-changer From London’s Finest.
I can’t tell you how excited I was when I opened the package to find this album by the Curse of Lonos…….. then my heart immediatly sank when I realised that it was a ‘re-hash’ of the last album. Now, a month later I’ve moved back to being very close to that original state of euphoria as the band seem to have found some weird new alchemy in this almost acoustic and stripped to the bone re-recordings; done ‘Live’ in the famed Toe-Rag Studios. Track #1, Tell Me About Your Love is just as enigmatic as ever; but perhaps the judicious use of legendary pedal-steel player Sir BJ Cole gives it a really authentic Country ‘feel’ which I somehow missed on previous incarnations. BJ turns up again on I’d Start a War For You, which follows and that ‘tone’ coupled to the songs trademark harmonies and imaginative playing gives it a sense of the feeling you get when there’s a big black cloud in the sky and you fear an impending storm…….. but it never actually materialises. I’m going to have to take a deep breath now ………. even though I’ve been a huge fan, supporter and very vocal promoter of Curse of Lono since that very first EP Felix sent me……. but……. listening to Going Out West, Way to Mars and even the magnificent Pick Up The Pieces on heavy rotation for a week or more; I feel they are …….. gulp…….. even better than the originals! There; I said it. One thing’s for sure on 4am Curse of Lono certainly shrug off those lazy Doors and Velvets comparisons, as without all the post-production jiggery pokery; there is a distinct ‘Alt. Country’ swagger to the sleazy Blackout Fever and The Affair now becomes becomes something Wilco or Son Volt would have been praised to the sky for had they recorded it in this manner. Even the epitome of British Gothicana, London Rain is freed from its claustrophobic shadows and oozes Americana charm as it now simply sizzles with sexual tension in a way I’d never thought possible. It has to be one Hell of a song to beat London Rain or I’d Start a War For You to the accolade of RMHQ Favourite Song here; but Don’t Look Down, which closes the album evokes the lost spirit of George Jones in both words and deeds, with Felix never sounding finer and the harmonies almost spiritual as Charis’s bass and Neil’s delicate drumming create a golden thread for Dani to create a ghostly shadow on the keys and Joe to deliver an understated masterclass in the shadows with his guitar; but the addition of BJ Cole (again) and Dani gives this song a special gravitas that will make it live on forever and will surely give Curse of Lono a foothold in the American market?
PS On the CD inside cover there’s a long, long list of people the band want to ‘thank’ …….. while the whole Bob Harris family inc. some cousins and their paperboy appear to be included; NO Rocking Magpie!