Mature, Stylish, Graceful and Classy Songs of the Heart.
It appears that singer-songwriter Dan Navarro was a big deal in the USA Music Biz in the 1980’s and 90’s as one half of a duo called Lowen & Navarro (14 albums in 20 years must count for something!) plus he had a hand in writing quite a few hit songs too…… yet I’ve never heard of him, until now…… his debut solo album in 2019. In fairness, now I’ve played SHED MY SKIN a couple of times I’m more than happy to make this a starting point; as he not only writes an interesting song; he has a husky and ‘world weary’ voice that hooked me in right from the first verse of opening track, Shed My Skin. Much like the album itself; this song sits comfortably alongside many of the artists that came out of Laurel Canyon in the 60’s and 70’s; but also the tightly wrapped music that came from Townes Van Zandt and his merry band in the early 70’s. While many of those songwriters were ‘old beyond their years’ Dan Navarro writes his songs after a ‘life well lived’ and with the wisdom that can only be found, ‘looking back;’ which is what makes Straight To The Heart of Me and Ghosts very special indeed; as each demand your time and effort to get the best from them. For a Singer-Songwriter album that sounds quite simple and easy on the ear; Navarro gets to thank a multitude of people for their help in the making of the record; but thanks to Steve Postell’s mixing and producing nothing ever gets to take you away from Navorro’s heartfelt approach to his bittersweet love songs Bulletproof Heart, Hard For Me Now and especially the cinematic and claustrophobic Let Her Ride too. For an Americana album like this, Navarro includes two fascinating choices of cover songs; Billy Idol’s Sweet Sixteen which now becomes a mean ‘n moody Acoustic Rocker, which I didn’t recognise at all, partly because it now includes some amazing fiddle from Aubrey Richmond, Dobro from Doug Cox and some sensual and breathy harmonies from Grace Pettis (what’s not to like?) and the other gets to close the album; a fairly maudlin rendition of Wichita Linesman which just about perfectly closes the proceedings. Although I’ve been smitten by both those songs, two others have totally captured my heart; the lucid Arrows which conjures up it’s own windswept imagery in a way I’d normally associate with someone like Jackson Browne; and the other is the song that actually is my Favourite Song Here; You Drove Me Crazy, an intensely powerful duet with Janiva Magness that really proves Navarro’s songwriting is up there with the very best; and the way that the accordion, guitars and mandolin interweave behind their voices is quite unnerving at times yet incredibly beautiful at the same time. As I alluded to earlier; Dan Navarro’s songs are all pulled from a world of experiences that only a ‘man of a certain age’ can attain and articulate; and Dan Navarro does it with style, grace and class.
I was watching a musician on stage once and between songs, while tuning up, he was talking about his influences. Blues, classic rock, 1970’s pop. And then he made this announcement: “I pretty much skipped over the 1980’s and 90’s. Never listened to ANYTHING from those decades.” At that point I knew he had nothing he could show me. If he was that dismissive about twenty years of rock ‘n’ roll’s musical heritage — two decades of highly influential artists, bands and people who made a huge difference, and changed pop music as we know it today — then I could no longer take him seriously. Where would we be without the Replacements? R.E.M.? Black Flag, Prince, Sonic Youth, Run-D.M.C., Nirvana, the Cranberries? Nine Inch Nails, Green Day, Madonna, Radiohead, the Smiths? I could go on, but I think you get my point. Those tumultuous years where pop and rock and rap and country all changed significantly, seemingly overnight, were a huge influence on musicians and music lovers in general the world over. As much as I love many bands from the 1950’s through the late-1970’s I’m glad we had the cosmic shake-up of post-punk and the changing of the guard of what was on the radio back then. It made most of us appreciate a broader range of musical genres than we had before. You like some blistering distorted guitar with your Country? Go for it. Rapping over samples, beats, and sound effects? Sure, no problem. You want to play slide bass with slamming drums and saxophone? Yes, yes, yes! So I am glad to tell you all that Massy Ferguson’s album Great Divides is full of tasteful influences from the 1980’s and 90’s from the lead guitars, to the crisp snares and hi-hats and boomy tom-toms. But they also have the guts to throw in some rather tasty organ swells and rocking piano on several of these cuts too; try Maybe The Gods; to hear what I mean. These cats come across as “Americana” (they are named after a tractor company after-all) but, despite the southern drawl, at heart they’re indie rockers at heart, and it shows on songs such as “Mama’s in the Backseat” and “Drop an Atom Bomb on Me.” They come right out of the gate running fast and hard with “Can’t Remember” which has the obligatory catchy chorus and they hardly let up except for the occasional softer song such as “Saying You Were There” and “Saddest Man” (which has some nice pedal steel and a good walk-down melody and some of the better emotional lyrics on the album.) Massy Ferguson reminds me of the band the Refreshments with more green pastures and country creeks than lonesome desert highway. More workingman, less holidaze. Rock ‘n’ roll ain’t rocket science and the Massy Ferguson contingent knows this well. Don’t think too hard, just rock out. You can sort out the details later.
Review by The Legendary Roy Peak CBE & Bass. Released May 17th 2019
I’m not sure exactly what the New York Country band the Felice Brothers is trying to do with their album Undress. There’s the usual obligatory “hip” references throughout, a bit of both Robyn Hitchcock and Donovan in the song structures, which is ‘cool’ — and just enough Mountain Goats mixed in to the Americana-ness to keep it twenty-first century current — and the excellent musicianship we’ve come to expect from the brothers Felice and their cohorts is there in every word and note. But………. I appreciate the irreverence of the title track with its updated and understated “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” type composition by way of a Saturday Night Live skit. The song “Salvation Army Girl” is all jaunty fun and retro horns and has less pretensions than anything else despite the name dropping. (Yes, we get the references, but are they necessary?) “Jack Reminiscing” seems to get its inspiration from the wrong Bob Dylan songs — is this a Dylan parody? I can’t tell. Several of the songs make me laugh in a good way, they’re all executed well, but there’s something I just can’t put my finger on, that keeps the music at an arm’s length away. I want to like this album. I DO like this album, but I’m not all in……yet. It could be that halfway through the album turns from Oasis poppiness to modern millennial Americana. Now, I have no problem with anyone being genre-fluid — heck, in this day and age I almost expect it — but it has to feel seamless not just shifting gears. You can’t just change musical clothes, you have to become the character completely. The Felice Brothers aren’t as fearless as ‘Jenny Lewis’ and they don’t take as many chances as someone like Wilco (not that they take as many as they could or should, don’t get me started), but they do seem sincere, which may help explain their popularity and longevity in the New York and even International music scene. So let’s give this latest release by the Felice Brothers a chance. It’s growing on me little by little, it just might grow on you, too.
Bruce Springsteen Hello Sunshine (Single) Columbia Records
The music world went absolutely bonkers on Wednesday when Bruce Springsteen announced that he would be releasing a new album in June; so I presume people will be feinting at the prospect of hearing this first single; Hello Sunshine. ‘Epic Americana’ is what springs to mind;and…… yep…….. it really does whet the appetite for a whole album in this style, doesn’t it?
“Bruce Springsteen’s first new studio album in five years takes his music to a new place, drawing inspiration in part from the Southern California pop records of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. The album was recorded primarily at Springsteen’s home studio in New Jersey with additional recording in California and New York. Columbia Records will release Springsteen’s 19th studio album on 14th June.”
‘Western Stars’ is available for pre-order now here.
The Stars Have Aligned For The Chameleon of Americana.
For the second time this week I’ve been listening to an album by an artist that sounds unlike anything they’ve recorded previously; which is a) challenging and b) a very good thing. When posting a single, earlier this year from from Josh Ritter’s 10th album FEVER BREAKS I described him as a chameleon; and now I’m immersed in the whole album I can’t think of a better word to describe his career and this actual set of songs. First and foremost; these songs are both stereotypical Josh Ritter and the very heart and soul of what we know as Americana. The punchy and almost American Gothic The Ground Don’t Want Me opens proceedings like a rusty Camero……. stinging words that are only matched by a pedal-steel; alongside a neat toe-tapping beat from the singer and his band. Oddly enough it’s a song that will sit comfortably in a Honky-Tonk and a Theatre; which is quite some achievement. Next up is the single That Ole Black Magic, which we loved earlier in the year and sitting alongside it’s peers it still sounds full of piss n vinegar; and Ritter has already shown the Hip Kids how to put the Alt. into Country and we are only two songs in! Mercifully not everything is quite so Fast n Furious; Josh slows things down in a manner that’s not a million miles away from the style Dylan perfected on Nashville Skyline; The Torch Committee tells a very dark tale that is sadly as relevant today as it was when set in the 1950’s; All Some Kind of Dream is as dark as it’s sad as Josh sings of today’s American attitude to immigration and compares it to his country’s forefathers…….. and it’s well worth seeking out. Perhaps Jason Isbell’s production brings out something special in Ritter’s storytelling via these varied arrangements; but I’d never have known he had his stamp on this album if I hadn’t been force fed it via the Press Release, as Ritter’s mature storytelling on A New Man and On The Water would have risen to the surface regardless of whoever was twiddling the knobs in the control room. As is my won’t I must now select a Favourite Song and that’s been far from easy, as nearly every song here has it’s merits, with the lonesome Silverblade being as good a Country song as I’ve ever heard from this songwriter; and then there’s the delightfully sensitive Blazing Highways Home which is clever, articulate and humble in equal measures; but I’m going back to I Still Love You (Now and Then) which is the type of Love Song that Americana Music does better than any other genre; and Ritter manages to capture the emotions that linger after a breakup better than most; and if I say it’s in the mould of Guy Clark’s latter-day songs; that should be praise enough. Josh Ritter has been around a long time time, grafting away on the circuit and only releasing albums when he felt the material was strong enough; and it’s quite possible that the stars have finally aligned for him on this rather wonderful album.
Everything You’d Hope For if You Could Bottle the Tulsa Breeze.
Here’s an interesting question …….. has JJ Cale ever wrote a bad song? Obviously some are better than others; but a bad one? One that makes you either roll your eyes or…… press ‘skip’ on the CD player? I can’t think of one; which brings us to this wonderful release of never before released tracks; which begs another question …… why have we not heard them before? Selecting an opening track must have been a nightmare; but I can’t think of anything here that’s any more ‘quintessential Cale’ as Lights Down Low which captures the warmth in the man’s voice and words that many have tried to copy; but always failed. I’ve played STAY AROUND in fits and starts over the last couple of weeks; but used as the soundtrack to a delightful drive around the Durham Dales on Easter Monday in the Spring Sunshine; and with Oh My Oh My, Long About Sundown and the title track Stay Around wafting from the speakers I could just as easily have been in the Oklahoma foothills. Because this is JJ Cale there is a delightful flow to the way the songs are laid out here, with nothing getting noisier than 4 on the dial nor lower than 3; while each is individual in it’s very own rite. As a bit of a fan; there are joyous discoveries around every corner, not least My Baby Blues, the only song not written by JJ but by his wife Christine; and the highlight is some sublime slide guitar that brings out the joy in her lyrics like pepper does to a strawberry. As this is an album to wallow in, so selecting a single song as a Favourite is like choosing a favourite child……. but a couple do stand out and could easily have been Classics had they been released in JJ’s lifetime; Stay Around and Girl of Mine both sweep along like a summer breeze, album closer Don’t Call Me Joe is perfect for late night radio and while it didn’t fit into my car journey; Winter Snow will surely find its way onto many other songwriter’s albums before this year is out. Then there is Tell You About Her which really is the ‘great lost JJ Cale song’ ……. why was this left off whatever album it was recorded for? I’m stumped if I can give you an answer. I’m normally nervous of posthumous releases of material like this; but knowing the way his family and Christine in particular cherish his memory, I knew these songs were being released for ‘people to hear’ and not just as a ‘cash in;’ which is the case with far too many other artistes.
Josh Ritter All Some Kind of Dream (Single) Pytheas Recordings/Thirty Tigers
The latest single taken from Josh Ritter’s forthcoming tenth LP (produced by Jason Isbell), ‘All Some Kind Of Dream’ sees this RMHQ Favourite at his best – blending heartfelt, introspective Americana with his renowned alt-country charm. Partner that with Isbell’s masterful production and you’re left with some of Josh Ritter’s finest work to date. The singer-songwriter’s tenth LP, Fever Breaks, is due for release April 26th via Pytheas Recordings/Thirty Tigers and as well as drafting the mighty Jason Isbell on production duties, he’s also got the multiple Grammy-winning musician’s 400 Unit band featuring on the songs too.
Las night I planned to review something completely different than this latest release by DL Rossi, but after not playing it for a couple of weeks, something drew me to the artwork on the cover and here I am, about to start gushing about this guy, his voice and his wonderful songs. I’ve said before ‘music effects you in many ways depending on your emotional state at a particular time’ and so it has been with this EP/Album this morning. I knew the songs from a couple of weeks ago; but this morning …… woah…. they have taken me not just by surprise but as a musical hostage! At first sight opening track This Road is a staple of the Americana/Roots scene; but there’s something quite magical about the way Nolan Rossi’s delicate production brings out the sadness; no…. the tragedy in DL’s voice as he pulls us through an emotional ringer, on a story of being in the middle of a real-life shoot-em-up and the mixed emotions such a trauma leaves someone with. For a young man, DL has had his fair share of troubles, from testicular cancer through a failed marriage that followed a nervous breakdown and not forgetting his dalliance with Punk Rock getting him ostracised from the Christian community he had belonged to growing up. But being a songwriter; those tattered emotions just make for damn fine songs; listen to the mournful Love Song A Sweet Thing to understand where I’m coming from! There’a blue-collar Alt. Country essence to Good Woman; you know the type that Steve Earle used to create and Rossi grabs that tarnished mantle with a new found fervour on this heart-crushing love song. On the deep, dark and soulful More Seconds Rossi takes to the acoustic guitar, and with the assistance of Mollie Parden and Corrie Bechler on backing vocals they combine to create a song worthy of Gram Parsons at his most eloquent. A drummer by profession, it’s no surprise that DL has a wonderful way with timing on these songs, especially so on Something Back which just sweeps you along like a leaf in the wind. With only 7 songs here; and each one has effected me in some way, selecting a Favourite has certainly not been easy; with Be Your Man and it’s inherent passion oozing from every single line being a contender; but I’m going for the song that should be a Radio Hit if it weren’t for the judicial use of the word ‘shit’ in every other stanza! Better is one of those songs that a writer only manages to write once in a lifetime; as many people listening to it will think ‘that is about me!’ In Better Rossi really encapsulates the raw emotions you feel when things are spiralling out of control;
“I lost a lot But I also lost myself Doing things I never thought I’d do And I’m broken up But that isn’t an excuse To be an asshole after a few.”
History shows that Rossi does come out the other side; with a fabulous song in tow too. Not everyone is so lucky.
I have a Gretchen Peter’s T-Shirt that says ‘Sad Songs Make Me Happy’ and that phrase neatly encapsulates my feelings about DL Rossi’s songs here; they are as sad as sad can be; but they are as intrinsically beautiful and tragic as can be but hopeful and eloquent too, and the world is a better place that they are available for the likes of me and you to wallow in his prose.
Adam Carroll I Walked In Them Shoes Gypsy Shuffler Records
Raising the Flag and Bar For Texas Songwriting
Adam Carroll is a highly respected Texan songwriter, now releasing both his ninth, and tenth album this year, 2019. Good Farmer, an album he recorded with his wife, Chris Carroll, is being released next month, but before that you can check out I Walked In Them Shoes, recorded with some help from Lloyd Maines and Pat Manske. These songs on this particular album were all recorded in one session, and Adam’s spoken introductions give them a definite demo feel which works to good advantage here. It’s hard to go wrong with simple arrangements, sparse decoration, and a ‘vocals up front’ mix, and it also helps if the songs are as solid as these are. I doubt that a fuller arrangement on any of them would add anything, so why tamper with purity? “Iris and the Lonesome Stranger” is a familiar story told well, while “My Only Good Shirt” could be a song about passing the torch of songwriting and musicianship along. “Crescent City Angels” takes inspiration from New Orleans, but it’s the title song that got my attention the most. “I Walked In Them Shoes” eschews a traditional arrangement, and Carroll’s vocal take leaps over the finger-picked guitar runs throughout. This is definitely the most rock ‘n’ roll song on the album, fueled by attitude, a sincere feeling of accomplishment, and learning to roll with the punches. There’s been comparisons of Carroll to songwriters such as Guy Clark, John Prine, Townes Van Zandt, and others, (Some even say he’s the best Texan songwriter ever. I’m not gonna go there, because Alejandro Escovedo has pretty much all of them beat!) but mostly these tunes remind me of lesser known songwriter Bob Frank’s best ones, though Carroll is assuredly less dirt floor than Frank, and probably not as barefoot either. What I do hear is Carroll’s gift for imbibing these songs with a genuineness of emotion and sincerity. He’s not as edgy as Townes, nor as funny as Prine, but he does has a gift at storytelling, and enough solid melodies to keep it interesting.
Sadly a few really good releases are falling by the wayside these days at RMHQ, and this belter nearly did too, bizarrely as I wrote another review recently I was reading this Press Release while listening to something so very and completely different! ‘Everything happens for a reason’ my Sainted Mother used to say; and today I have now immersed myself in the correct music and I now feel a whole lot better than I did when I got out of bed. I’d love to think that the raw Alt. Country Rock of opening track Lucinda is at leased dedicated to Ms. Williams if it’s not exactly about her, as singer Casey Shea drops a musical time bomb of Springsteen or maybe early Bon Jovi proportions…… so I guess there might be more New Jersey than LA where the band come from, in the mix . With that in mind it’s all too easy and a little lazy to describe this as ‘Classic Rock’ when it’s nothing of the sort. OK there is more than a hint of Bruce and Jon in New Yorker Shea’s singing drawl; but it’s quite distinctive in its own rite too; as is the Masterclass in Rock Guitar from Joe Guese on every track from the restrained beauty of Heaven and the all out, head down boogie of Kansas City which will sound even better coming from the speakers on a 58 Camero rather than my ’58 plate Laguna. Listeners of my vintage will obviously pick up on the band’s inspirations and influences; of which there are many; but hey…. if you are under 30 and out for a good time on a Friday night then the likes of Shangri La-La Land and Made in LA will most likely be the most exciting music you’ve ever heard in your life; and will be just as thrilling the following Tuesday on the drive to work. Two songs in particular have stood out for me; and both showcase not just Casey Shea’s singing and songwriting alongside Joe Guese; but the multi-faceted talents of all of the musicians that actually make up Grand Canyon. The piano led Theory of Everything finds Shea and Amy Wilcox swap verses in a way not bettered since Meat Loaf was top of the Pops and the other, Standing In the Shadows ticks every box I have for a truly great modern Rock & Roll song, from the clever duet between Shea and Wilcox through the power chords from Guere’s guitar and a bass n drum combo that could grace any musical troupe from the Heartbreakers through the Pretenders and even the E Street Band! There’s not a bad track here and nor is there a duplication either; and for all of the grey haired and grumpy music fans out there sporting Neil Young, Bruce, Dylan or Fleetwood Mac t-shirts there really is new, interesting and exciting music in the Classic Rock format if you are only prepared to scratch the surface and look for it…… Grand Canyon are the perfect starting point.