Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit
LIVE at the RYMAN
The Crown Prince of Alt. Country in All His Lucid Glory.
It’s kinda funny how Jason Isbell became an ‘Overnight Success’ after God knows how many years he has been hawking his act around the bars, clubs and concert halls around the world to ever increasing, but never huge crowds of appreciative Americana fans. But, to me and you he’s been a bonafide Star ever since his early Rock n Roll days in Drive By Truckers and even more so since he went solo and redefined what Alt. Country could actually be, but it took him winning TWO Grammy Awards earlier this year, and more recently getting one of his songs included in the A Star is Born movie; primarily to make Bradley Cooper appear ‘authentic enough’ for the rest of the world to catch on.
So with a whole new fan base to sate; Jason and those cool cats at Southeastern Records have culled 13 tracks from last year’s six Sold Out nights at the Ryman to showcase his talents where they shine brightest……in concert!
Although he has more ‘famous and popular songs’ I can’t think of a better song of his than Hope The High Road to open this album. It rocks like rowing boat in a storm, and Isbell’s way with words is as articulate as a Hemingway novel; and don’t get me started on those guitar solos!
This is followed by a spectacular version of 24 Frames and White Man’s World which was scarily prophetic when it first appeared on Nashville Sound but now; a year later it’s sadly even more pertinent; and Amanda’s fiddle playing often out rocks the guitars; and boy do they sizzle!
Although this isn’t a ‘live from the soundboard recording’ there’s certainly enough intensity and excitement in Last Of My Kind and Flagship to make new fans want…. No ‘need’ to check his website to find out when Jason & The 400 Unit are coming to town.
His songwriting has always been exemplary in my book; but when you hear the crystal clear production coupled to Isbell’s fierce approach on Super 8 and Cumberland Gap, you just know that those Two Grammys are only going to be the start of a big collection of shiny trophies.
Finding a Favourite Track here hasn’t been easy, as each and every song has its own merits especially the mesmerising Elephant, which is one of the most heart-breakingly clever and beautiful songs I’ve ever, ever heard and I’m going to go against the grain and pass over the Grammy Winning We Must Be Vampires; which is still every bit as brilliant as it was on the original album but instead I’m choosing the epic The Life You Choose, which I’ve grown to love over the last three years; and again Isbell somehow manages to wring even more passion and imagery out of it in this format than I could ever have dared hope.
If I have a complaint about LIVE AT THE RYMAN, it’s that some truly amazing songs from the first three albums are missing; presumably because of licensing issues, but they are missing none the less; but…. Hey ho…….. what is here more than makes up for that and showcases a truly amazing talent.
Released October 19th 2019
LONDON IRISH (EP)
Talking Elephant Records
A Short Showcase For a Huge Talent.
Yet again I appear to be ‘late to the party’ with the music of Ms Linda Em; as the quotes on her Press Release appear to show she is; and has been a shining star on the London ‘scene’ for quite a while now.
Although born in Waterford and then moving to a quaint fishing village on the River Thames in London Town’s East End as a child; neither fact really plays a significant part in any of the truly International and pretty epic songs featured on this EP.
The single Wild Fire opens with the striking of a match; which is incredibly apt as this dark duet with producer Gavin Glass simply smoulders with unrequited passion in a way I’ve not heard since Nick Cave and Kylie recorded When The Wild Roses Grow; and similarly reduced me to a quivering mess the first twice I played it.
Then, Linda throws a twisting curve ball with Two Hands which incredibly takes us into the dark world of Edith Piaf…..seriously; her voice wavers and swoops as a piano tinkles out the tune before an operatic choir join the chorus on a song full of Parisian Gothic qualities.
Whoosh! We then get a full on Alt. Country belter with Little Lightmaker; with a pounding drum and sizzling guitar back up to Linda’s Nashville-Celtic warble and pleading; which works fabulously well.
Then the short set closes with White Horse which still errs on the sharp edge of Alt. Country but with a big Technicolour feel to it too; and with only four amazing and very different songs to choose from; I think I’m going to select this as my Favourite Track, for no particular reason other than I like it best.
Listening to these four songs in one sitting won’t always be easy as they are all so very different from each other; but placed together they showcase a singer; and indeed songwriter who isn’t following a straight and narrow path; but one who has a voice and a way with words that she trusts and believes in; as will you when you buy this EP.
Only time will tell which route Linda Em goes off in; but in this crazy world I can’t think why someone with talent in such abundance can’t record an album that stretches these threads in even more directions and still be successful.
Released September 21st 2018
The Weight Band
WORLD GONE MAD
No Stage Fright From These Big Pink Veterans.
Normally I have a pathologic hatred of looky-likey bands; so even though the Press Release was a bit vague I still approached this release with appropriate caution.
But (*Spoiler Alert) the end result is just fine and dandy; as The Weight Band, who are made up of musicians from the Band’s latter touring version pay homage to the forefathers of Americana AND Alt. Country in the finest way without resorting to lazy cover versions of the Hits; but carefully selecting a couple of rarities and a Jerry Garcia cover to compliment 8 of their own songs; which sound pretty damn authentic.
Obviously for fiscal reasons The Weight Band sound uncannily like The Band; and the title track World Gone Mad sounds just perfect in that context; blending a little bit of old-school hippy wisdom with 21st Century cynicism; which is why the originals music still stands tall today.
Once I’d put my original reservations to one side I quickly fell in love with the raunchy You’re Never Too Old to Rock and Roll, which will be included on the mythical RMHQ Soundtrack album.
This is immediately followed by Big Legged Sadie (from Saskatoon) which genuinely sounds like the Band in all their finery having a ball on a cheeky love song.
I’m sorry if I keep ‘comparing and contrasting’ but it’s difficult not too, as we have three singers here who all sound very similar to Levon, Robbie and Garth; and their instrumentation and playing is as razor sharp as you’d expect too.
With that in mind; I’ve sort of treat this album as ‘the album the Band never made’ and in that context Every Step of The Way and Fire in The Hole work perfectly well; and the beautiful I Wish You Were Here Tonight sounds even better and could easily have been an out take from Cahoots.
But; then again Heat of the Moment and Bob Dylan’s 1998 Day of the Locusts, while fitting the format perfectly well somehow manage to take the music in a whole new. exciting direction.
There is also one song here that straddles both of those formats and that’s the blue collar bodacious Country rocker, Common Man which is easily my favourite song here and sets the course for whatever The Weight Band choose to release next.
As they are first and foremost a touring band; the album closes with a Live track The Remedy, which truly showcases what this band are all about and manages to whet my appetite for any future UK Tour.
Released 14th September 2018
COME HELL OR HIGH WATER
Gypsy Eyes Music
A Masterclass From a Modern Americana and Folk Legend.
Here we have Malcolm’s 12th album (I think) and not only are legendary songwriters lining up to sing his praises on the accompanying Press Release but this could easily be labelled as a Duets album as Iris Dement sings alongside him on just about every song.
From the opening chords of Left Alone through to the final wheezes and notes of Torn and Wrinkled I’ve sat mesmerised several times over the last few days as I’ve listened ever more to this album.
Opening track Left Alone; featuring Miss Iris DeMent on whispered harmonies as as powerful song as Malcolm may ever have written; as he recounts the tale of an ageing Vietnam Veteran, who is now ‘left alone to die/with a burnt out mind;’ but sadly the sentiment can apply to many of the men and women across the world who have proudly fought for their respective countries in the intervening half century but are later left on the scrapheap.
Many of the songs here are just as challenging to the listener; not for the first time Malcolm unloads his tightly wrapped wrath on Big Business and the Banks with Legal Tender and on New Damnation Alley he kind of speaks for many of us as he ponders “Feeling my age/Feeling cynical and wrong/Too scared to believe any more.”
I always think it’s lazy to compare Malcolm Holcombe to Townes Van Zandt; even if they do occasionally sound alike and write of similar subjects but I’ve often thought there was more than a hint of Leonard Cohen or even Randy Newman in his writing; and more than ever that comes to the fore on Brother’s Keeper and the magnificent It Is What It Is, which would surely have been included on Cash’s American series had he still been alive today.
Many years ago I remember Rod Stewart’s voice being described as an ‘instrument’ and now more than ever, that adage applies to Mr Holcombe as his distinctive growls, wheezes and snarls make songs like In The Winter and more especially October Morning transcend both the traditional Folk and Country formats and become quite extraordinary in the way he expresses his guttural feelings.
If I still had my radio show I could pick any of these songs for late night playing; but there’s nothing here that would fit into day time or even national broadcasting…….Hit Singles are as far away from Malcolm Holcombe’s thinking as is World Peace; but I will point you towards my Favourite Song; Black Bitter Moon which features some rather sweet and intricate guitar picking as Malcolm and Iris lift the mood from despair to hope; in the blink of an eye.
There’s one more song here that needs an honourable mention; even if it is only September; but Merry Christmas is one of those bleak memory songs that I adore at that time of year; and will go onto my Christmas Eve playlist between Steve Earle and John Prine; but before Willie Nelson!
I appreciate it’s not easy to ‘get into’ Malcolm Holcombe’s music; not least because he ain’t no ‘pretty boy’ Country Star in a Trucker Cap and his voice sounds like he found it in a dumpster behind a car parts unit; meaning he wouldn’t even get past the pre-TV stage of X Factor; but those songs……phew……they all have the REAL X Factor; and are well worth the effort you initially put in; as you are rewarded five fold in every verse and stanza of every story.
Malcolm Holcombe is the ‘real deal’ combining Folk, Country and even Blues in a most eloquent and engaging manner…… trust me.
Released USA September 14th 2018
Released UK October 12th 2018
Alejandro Escovedo & Don Antonio
A Soundtrack Befitting a 21st Century Grapes of Wrath.
I normally tense up at the mere mention of something being a ‘concept album’ but anything from one of our musical heroes, Alejandro Escovedo has to be of interest around the RMHQ office; and now I’ve played it back to back 5 times I’ve come to think of THE CROSSING as more of a soundtrack to a film that hasn’t yet been made……but should be ASAP.
Together again with Italian band Don Antonio who he toured the UK with a year or so back; Escovedo’s imagination runs riot on this epic tale of two boys, one Italian and the other Mexican who meet up in Texas as they both chase The American Dream.
The orchestral score Andare neatly sets the scene for this amazing tale to unfold as the scarily haunting Footsteps in the Shadows follows; with Escovedo whispering the lyrics as his young character eventually makes it over the Border then the story swiftly moves onto Texas Is My Mother which may……or may not be the happy ending that one boy had dreamt of for so long.
I’ve been a fan of Alejandro Escovedo for a lot of years now and while I never expected him to create such a set of powerful songs as this; I’m not surprised either, as many of the themes here have littered his more recent releases.
Cleverly leading from one to another songs like How Many Times, Something Blue and the beautifully sad Cherry Blossom Rain all stand tall and alone on their own strengths with absolutely nothing else added just for the sake of moving the story along.
As with all of the best Soundtracks there are swings to the left here and there with Rio Navidad being a spoken word tale, read out so hauntingly by his Richmond Fontaine bandmate Freddy Trujillo about a Texas Ranger called Diego; and written by Wily Vlautin is as poetic as it is almost operatic in the way the few short minutes twists and turns.
With the benefit of hindsight, the instrumental Amor Puro and Silver City, which would befit Randy Newman counterbalance the Punk Rock onslaught of Fury and the Fire; Sonica USA and MC Overload , but all four need to be here to tell this story in all it’s glory and gory.
Finding an individual Favourite Song was never going to be easy; but betting without the awesome title track THE CROSSING which closes the record I’m going for the quintessential Outlaw For You which is everything you’d expect from Alejandro Escovedo; especially when he’s at his feistiest and most literal.
Because of the subject matter in these songs, it’s fair to say that THE CROSSING isn’t always ‘easy listening’ but; it is Essential Listening; baring in mind what is happening in parts of the US of A that even five years ago no one would have even dared imagine happening in their lifetime.
Even after 14 albums, of ever increasing intensity and verbosity this, possibly is the record that Alejandro Escovedo was always destined to make; and hopefully will be well and truly rewarded when the Awards Ceremonies come around; but I won’t hold my breath.
Released September 14th 2018
Benjamin Jason Douglas
FIRST WORLD BLUES
Flour Sack Cape Records
Slick, Smart and Swampy Country Blues.
Yet again you can thank my trusty I-Phone for finding this album for me and indeed you. OK, I’ve had it in the reviews box for a few weeks but with so many other albums from artistes that you and I know and love, to listen to this one kept getting pushed to the back.
Then last Monday on a rain swept journey to work, the opening track Tent Pole came sashaying out of the car speakers like a New Orleans funeral marching band; and I was instantly captivated.
The return journey 10 hours later was made up of the complete album as my soundtrack; and now I can’t get enough of Douglas’s raspy and wheezy voice and that’s nothing compared to his articulate way with words and a tune.
Beat Black and Blue Collar Blues which follows, is another jaunty mid-tempo song; nay ‘howl’ and hearing it that first night had me bellowing out the chorus after barely a minute; and certainly not in time with the young Nashville based singer-songwriter.
While the album refers to ‘The Blues’ it’s actually a bit of a misnomer; as Benjamin Jason Douglas (aka BJD here on in) is a crafty singer-songwriter with a toe in many camps; but manages quite easily to bring them all together under one wonderful musical umbrella.
Our young man can really Rock-a-Tune when he wants to with Digging a Stigmata, which sits quite comfortably between the low down and sultry Doc Red Blues and the oh so cool late night Jazzy tones of Funny Feeling.
It’s all too easy and even lazy to compare BJD to the likes of Dr. John and even the lyricism of Randy Newman; who must have been influences, but our Benjamin is very much his own man when it comes to writing a cool song and delivering it with his own swagger and a side order of panache; as Tchoupitoulis and the almost Swampy Gothic of Walking Down The Grain both prove.
Choosing a Favourite Track was quite easy for me as one song stood out just by it’s title alone; and that’s Raggedy Andy Williams, as the 70’s crooner is a ‘guilty pleasure’ around these here parts; and BJD’s heart rendering chorus of “honestly Alice/how did you expect/ this Raggedy Andy Williams love story to end?” sang with a croak in his already gruff and leathery voice almost had me in tears that first night in the car! I’m pleased that I’ve never suffered a break-up like this; as I’m not sure I would have come out the other end in one piece; but then again, I’m not a songwriter, and such matters of the heart and how they deal with them are what separates guys like Benjamin Jason Douglas from the rest of the pack.
But credit must also go to the epic Street Preacher and Gloria which combine to close an absolutely fabulous debut album; that is destined to be a bit of a go-to album in the RMHQ Offices for a long time to come.
I will end by going back to the beginning; because this album is the perfect soundtrack to a stormy and heartbroken night; but I’ve also played it on the big speakers as I lounged in the garden on a sunny and hot Sunday afternoon and it didn’t annoy the neighbours.
Released August 10th 2018
THIS SIDE OR THE OTHER
Black Hen Music
Founding Father of Americana Shows No Signs of Slowing Up.
Like many of my favourite albums from the days before the Interweb was in it’s ascendancy, most came via ‘word of mouth’ and David Olney’s Live in Holland CD was one of those and will still occasionally get dusted off and let me drift off into a world of wizened Americana characters that only he could possibly invent and bring to life.
His other album (EP?) that I love is Film Noir from 2011 which would have been the last time I saw him play live; which is a damn shame.
Then of course there are numerous individual songs that if compiled onto some kind of Retrospective may end up being a triple album; and then have to leave a couple out.
So; any new release is worthy of my time and means I have to put time aside to listen ‘properly,’ with no distractions.
Sadly that is today when I am painfully deaf in one ear, so will pretend this is a Mono release (joke.)
Opening track Always The Stranger, is trademark David Olney with a sweet Texicana tune masking a bittersweet love story that is sung by world weary voice; and it’s certainly the type of song that makes you want to sit back and wallow in whatever the narrator has to say.
Wall which follows has a Native American feel to it, and as the title suggests it’s about ‘building walls’ both real and metaphorical; which is a tender subject across the border lands of America and Mexico where many of Olney’s characters reside.
As you will expect from one of the founding fathers of of Americana; this is a song that has much to say about modern history as it does the past; intertwining both with grace and hope.
This imagery of ‘walls’ continues throughout THIS SIDE OR THE OTHER with the beautiful title track and Death Will Not Divide Us both using that invisible imagery on both songs, making them enjoyable on many different levels; but making you continuously change your mind as to what they are really about; which is quite some trick for a songwriter.
Even by David Olney’s standards I Spy is a dark song; almost ‘talking Blues’ poetic in a Kerouac style that has had me trying to unravel it’s many mysteries this morning; but have decided to just let it be what it is……. a riddle in a puzzle set to music.
Again; by David Olney’s ‘standards’ this is as much a Country album as he’s produced in many years; with Western imagery hauntingly making Stand Tall and Border Town sound like they should be on the soundtrack for a Tarantino re-imagining of Butch Cassidy.
For a man of his advancing years, David Olney can still write a love song that will send shivers down your back; which brings us to the two songs vying for Favourite Song Status; Running From Love with it’s ghostly harmonica accompaniment would easily win the title on many albums; but is just pipped at the post by Open Your Heart (and Let Me In) which will touch the hearts of every romantic who hears it.
Then, just when you think you know exactly where David Olney is coming from he throws a perfect curve ball with the finale; a simple and very rootsy song called She’s Not There…….hang on a minute!
Yes; it actually is the Zombies pop hit from the 60’s but turned on its head, with David doing for this what Joe Cocker did for With a Little Help From My Friends, way back when.
Perhaps I should change my choice of Favourite Track; but will actually keep this song our little secret.
Such is the quality and density of David Olney’s songwriting I could probably write a completely different review of these songs tomorrow and again next week. I will now leave it to you.
Released August 24th 2018
The Bottle Rockets
Yes, we get inundated with new music from fresh faced artistes every day and we love bringing them to you…..but every now and again the Oldies come along and re-write the rule book…..ladies and gentlemen; I give you…..The Bottle Rockets!
Here’s a little teaser from their new album BIT LOGIC which will be released on October 12th.
Watch this space kids.
OUTLAW FOR YOU (Single)
Any day that starts with an e-mail saying that a new Alejandro Escovedo album is in the post and here’s a link to the new single has to be a good one; right?
Much like some of his haughtier and more famous peers Alejandro is prone to change the style and direction of his music at the drop of a hat (a concert featuring him and a string quartet still makes a few of my friends go starry eyed).
The new album The Crossing (Sept 14th on Yep Roc) is themed around immigrants and immigration which is a red hot topic across the world; and knowing Mr Escovedo I doubt he will pull any punches….here’s hoping.
It’s taken a while; but I love his new found back to his teenage days gutsy, rootsy and occasionally punky approach to his Alt. Country songs and this punchy new single Outlaw For You ticks every box in my guide to Rock and indeed Roll…..the Kid still has it, as if there was ever any doubt!
Did You Dream (Single)
We get sent quite a few singles most weeks and the vast majority manage to pass us by in the blink of an eye; but this little beauty from Oklahoma based band Annie Oakley stopped us in our tracks; and we think it will you too.
It’s a taster for their debut album in October……so ‘watch this space’
“The award-winning band is fronted by twin sisters Sophia and Grace Babb on rhythm and lead guitars and vocals, with Nia Personette on violin and third-part harmony. Singing together since childhood, Sophia and Grace were given guitars and started songwriting at their mum’s urging after their father’s death compelled them to find an emotional outlet.
They were 14 years old.
A year later, they were joined by friend Nia on violin, herself no stranger to loss; she, too, had lost her father shortly before joining the band. Since the band’s formation, wise, emotive lyrics and sophisticated instrumentation have been hallmarks of their style.”