It was a dilemma selecting the music for tonight as I’ve been having internet problems all week, meaning I couldn’t forward any ‘new music’ to the Nova Super-Computer; plus it was a Bank Holiday weekend; and baring in mind the listening figures have gone up every week; I decided to do a ‘seats of the pants’ show ….. making it up as I went along, playing a mix of tracks and artists already featured for the benefit of the new listeners.
Canyons & Highlands Canyons & Highlands Black Dust Records
Top Shelf High Quality Americana via a Campervan in Scotland
To all intents and purposes, Canyons & Highlands is Scots singer-songwriter Norrie McCulloch alongside some Scottish and Americans friends/musicians who added their individual parts via the medium of the internet when inter-Continental travel was out of the question. OK; that’s been commonplace with a lot of albums; but I’ve heard very, very few that sounds as clear or ‘warm’ this particular album does from start to finish. Norrie, who recorded his parts in a campervan on the drive; as he didn’t want to disturb his wife, who worked for the NHS all through the pandemic; has always been a Folk Singer; of the modern persuasion who always erres on the side of Americana. The first thing I noticed as opening track Pushing On/Wolves was the luscious harmonies that accompany McCulloch’s brittle Scots’ brogue on a song that’s is so deep, you’re left wondering if the singer can get back out the other end. This is followed by the far less sombre Hurry Up Angel, which features some fabulous guitar parts that really add an emphasis to the words that sting your ears when you listen too closely …. “Hurry up Angel Stop falling behind There’s a Devil on our trail Looks like he’s got a taste for blood And he’s spent a night in jail You’ve been kicking down doors With no shoes on your feet You’re gonna hurt something one day I hope it’s not my heart”
Songwriting has always fascinated me; especially the imagination that drives someone to write what they do; and here McCulloch combines his own active imagination to combine words and lines from old postcards he’s been collecting on visits to the USA; as well as fragments of his own letters home to combine with current observations; which makes Down From the Mountain; Zodiac and of course; Other Side of the World all the more introspective and deeply fascinating and destined to squeeze every heartstring in the house. Where does life seperate from Art? There’s nothing not to like here; with the singer using his enigmatic voice as an extra instrument; adding his own special magic to the deceptively simple and windswept nod to Country Gothic, Took It To Heart which benefits greatly from Dave McGowan’s (Teenage Fanclub) haunting pedal-steel. We Get By is a torrid heartbreaker, as the singer takes us on a journey through a relationship that’s headed for the rocks but keeps on keeping on …… and is then followed by Zodiac, which starts with the narrator phoning home to with his partner ‘Happy Birthday’ ….. but she’s already left for a night out with friends. Just when you think you can get your breath back, you’re hit with the emotionally bleak Drifting Apart; obviously some kind of ‘break-up’ song; but the type that hasn’t got a definitive ending ….. will they just stumble along or will things get better? Who knows? But plenty of us have lived this song too. Hopefully you will guess by now; Canyons & Highlands won’t be in the Easy Listening section at HMV! Which in a roundabout way brings me to the final two songs on this magnificent record …. I Am the Blues and Deep Forest Green; which I’m still debating which to make my Favourite for reviewing purposes. If I’m not over thinking it; I Am The Blues is dealing with the taboo subject of depression; as Norries talks (prays?) to his Mother as Iain Thomson’s fluid electric guitar licks channel Richard Thompson to create a fog that the listener is never sure they or he will ever escape from. Then, there’s the final song; Deep Forest Green, which is how I best know Norrie McCulloch …. solo and with an acoustic guitar; pouring his heart out like a barman with a quality whisky from the top shelf. Perhaps; and I hope that this is the case, Norrie McCulloch has always ‘had the songs’, but changing his given name to the mysterious Canyons & Highlands just might just be a ‘game changer’ for one of my Favourite singer-songwriters/Folk Troubadours.
From the Foothills of the Ozarks to The World …. This Singer-Songwriter is The Real Deal
As I’ve said many times; one of the joys of this reviewing lark is discovering ‘my new favourite singer and/or band’ ….. which might be a Spoiler regarding what’s about to follow. I neither recognised the singer or the publicist’s names when this arrived a couple of weeks ago; but out of professional courtesy onto the spreadsheet it went and the music was dutifully uploaded onto the RMHQ Supercomputer. There it sat until last week, when I put it on as background while I edited some photos …… which soon got stopped and the music was returned to zero and the notebook came out. As regular readers will know I have very eclectic music taste; but this little diamond ticked every box I have; AND Forrest sings like he is either a young sibling of Sam Baker or was brought up two streets away from the RMHQ Favourite. I say ‘sing’ but it’s that ‘a bit faster than talking and a bit slower than actual singing’ style; if you know what I mean …. and drole too …. very very drole; although it does sound like he has a twinkle in his eye most of the time. The show starts with a maudlin fiddle; followed by Forrest’s story of a man who didn’t see his marriage break up coming in Big Blue Space. How he manages to cram so much detail into just over four minutes; and never sound hurried leaves me both baffled and fascinated. That’s the absolute joy here; McCurren sings and writes about the Blue Collar/Trailer Trash underbelly of America yet somehow always manages to make the mundane and the heartbreak sound …. romantic? The Twangfest, Heavy Old Hearts certainly falls into the latter camp and the song that follows; With a Little Luck about his Batchelor Great Uncle Jim; who sounds like he himself had more stories than a library and a life well lived, probably does too. Denver is a bit darker than the previous two I’ve mentioned; but l.o.v.e comes out of every groove on this glorious song about a first love that that the narrator still hankers for many years later. I half hoped that Little Rock would be a cover of the Marilyn Monroe hit single; but sadly/thankfully it’s not; but actually a classy Alt. Country tale of a one night stand between a pil-poppin’ truck driver and a waitress; with crunchy guitars and some really snappy drumming; and shows what a staggering songwriter Forrest McCurren is …. “I’ve seen moonbeams, dancin’ in your eyes I found heaven, between your thighs And it smells like roses just underneath your chin Well I hope you know no matter where I go I’m always coming back home again“ We all know the ‘adage’ write about what you know; and McCurren has sure lived a fine life so far; if the sad and lonely, Hart Hill, Pray For the Sun are anything to go by; and using the same thread he takes his Father’s stand-by expression Oh Me, Oh My for not just the album title; but a rather inspirational song about ‘having to leave’ home and friends too ….. “Adios all my amigos, I’m sorry I can’t stay These long nights and booze-fueled fights are ruining my days I’ll stop by if I need to get high or bum a cigarette But I’m gonna try to find the blue sky Gonna try some Nicorette, I’m gonna buy some Nicorette“ ….. it’s all in the detail! “We all got crosses we must bear, there’s no hate in my head But before you go please throw away The photo of me on your bed, naked on the edge of your bed“ Nicorette? Revenge porn? Where else are you going to get those things in a Country song? There are also two absolutely special songs here too; just like Forrest did with his Father’s ‘expression’ ….. he plays around with something his Mom would say when things were getting tough “You have to go into the dark top see the stars” as the basis for Stars Still Shine, which shows what a wise old sage that lady was. The other; Dime a Dozen, just about shades that as my Favourite, as Forrest channels his inner Springsteen and John Prine on a dour tale sung against a maudlin fiddle/bass/steel-guitar backdrop; about a hardworking young man stuck in his small town; and while he lives for Friday night ….. it’s more about drinking to forget than the fun shack so many others sing about. “Some folks, gotta chase a dream I just want a bar where the drinks are cheap Mama’s still kickin’, I know, she’ll need me To drive her to bingo, twice a week”
and even though I don’t really know what he means I love the was he describes a girl as having ‘handgun hair‘! I listen to four or five albums most weeks from singer-songwriters; established and new and all have some merit …. but with Forrest McCurren it feels like I’ve discovered a genuine rough diamond that’s already the finished article. He’s the real deal.
Gretchen Peters THE SHOW (Live From the UK) Proper Records/Scarlet Letter Records
Even Better Than Any Studio Based Greatest Hits Package Can Capture.
My father used to say “God acts in mysterious ways” and I’ve often found solace in that adage when things that really can’t be explained happen in my life. In this case, I’ve had this remarkable double album for a month now and played it in full; every couple of days, yet never felt ‘the right time’ for writing up a review. With the release date looming I decided that this morning would have to be ‘the right time’. So as I drank my morning tea perusing my Social Media accounts I stumbled on a friend forwarding the message that from June 2023 Gretchen and Barry Walsh would cease touring; while still recording. Phew! That news somehow makes this Live Recording even more important; don’t ya think? I presume Gretchen planned the release to coincide with that news; and that may or may not account for the sequencing that makes the haunting Arguing With Ghosts as the lead song …. my memory doesn’t tell me that it was or wasn’t the first song of the night when I saw her on this particular tour …. but it certainly makes for a fascinating intro. This is followed by Hello Cruel World; again ….. was this a ‘secret message’ to her legion of fans …. or just a coincidence? Enough of this ‘movement in shadows’ malarkey ….. let’s just talk about the music. To some degree this Double Album is a Greatest Hits; but with a couple of left of centre songs from her 40 year career tucked in for good measure. For your information; and you’d never know it; but these songs were recorded over three seperate nights at three seperate concert halls around the UK; yet the end result sounds absolutely perfect, so a huge round of applause to the producer and engineers (as well as the soundmen in the venues). It’s a given at this stage, that Gretchen sounds pitch perfect (as does Barry Walsh btw) on every song; so for me it’s the song selection that is most noteworthy. I was going to say that those first two songs were ‘recent’ yet; Arguing With Ghosts has just celebrated it’s 8th Birthday and Hello Cruel World its 11th! These are followed by Secret of Life which is surely from the same vintage; but no ….. its 26 years old…. yet still hitting nails bang on the head in 2022. I was late to the party and only discovered the musical delights of Ms Peters via the Hello Cruel World album which I reviewed for a magazine; pretty much unaware that her career went back decades earlier; and I’m sure the first time I saw Gretchen Peters it was just her and Barry Walsh on stage in true troubadour fashion, singing the likes of Hello Cruel World, Revival, The Matador and Five Minutes with just a guitar and piano for accompaniment; here they get the full nine yards; guitars (electric and acoustic), piano, bass and most importantly …. a full and sumptuous string section. Which brings me to the part about what a great songwriter Gretchen Peters is; and always has been. These songs and more here; would all have sounded just as powerful when sung so sparsely in clubs and small theatres in their earlier performances; and lose not a jot when filled out for large concert halls. I’ve been thrilled to hear songs like the majestic Say Grace and the very acutely observed When All You’ve Got is a Hammer, which opens the second album like an old friend re-entering your life. As I implied earlier; I’ve been listening ever more intently this morning; which appears to have brought out even extra depth to Blackbirds, Disappearing Act and Everything Falls Away; as if they needed anything extra to make them any more special. Of course the beautiful On a Bus To St. Cloud, Blackbirds and Say Grace in any format will always be Favourites of mine; but as usual I’m going off piste for Favourites on this particular album as I’d forgot how wonderfully observed Love That Makes a Cup of Tea and album closer Idlewild were … in fact I’d forgot that both were even Gretchen Peters songs. If there’s one song that you should hear to understand why Gretchen Peters’ fans are so loyal (and vocal) it’s possibly Five Minutes, where she captures the minutiae of a Blue Collar woman’s life in …. Five Minutes. Then; there’s When You Love Someone ….. WOW! What a song! Hearing Gretchen and Barry harmonising like the Everly Brothers has been like having my heart X-rayed. Then, there’s the most pertinent song here (for me at least) …… When You Are Old; man oh man ….. one of her oldest songs here ….. written in 1991 when she was in her early 40’s yet somehow has a writer’s foresight to see into the future and hearing her sing this in 2022 with just as much heartfelt l.o.v.e in her voice nearly reduced me to tears, and the long applause at the ends shows that it’s not just me who thinks so …. making it my Favourite Track here. There’s not a lot else to say; her fans were always going to buy this; and especially now Gretchen has announced her retirement from touring will bring a few more waverers to the party; and I can’t think of a better way to say farewell to this particular part of her life; possibly even better than any studio based Greatest Hits package can capture.
Kelsey Waldon No Regular Dog Oh Boy Records! Sprinkling Her Very Own Brand of Country Stardust To Create a Series of Mini-Soap Operas
While avoiding the actual Press Release, I obviously had to read the email that accompanied this album last week; and seeing it was being released on John Prine’s Oh Boy Records! meant I was 99% sure I was going to like the contents; then seeing Shooter Jennings’ name as producer and his band featuring as backing added the extra 1% before I’d even heard a note!! My ‘Spidey-Senses’ were confirmed after only a minute or so of first song; No Regular Dog, which is very much the type of Modern Country Music that both I and Mrs Magpie love to bits. There’s enough pathos in Kasey’s voice to fill a bathtub and when that ‘warble’ arrives in the chorus I genuinely choked up. Alongside a couple more, later track #2; Sweet Little Girl has a big production from Jennings; but instead of smothering Walden’s vocals he/they somehow manage to capture the spirit of the story in a way I’d normally associate with early Loretta and/or Reba recordings … and I’m not exaggerating at all. Recording since 2007; Kelsey Walden still has a lot to say in her songs; and I’m sure I won’t be the only one who will revisit the harrowing tale of Small Town America (or England) History Repeats Itself, or the heart squeezing Simple As Love and the stunning Progress Again many, many times as while being very personal to the singer; also open up doors from my own life and plenty of other listeners too. While Jennings’ sympathetic production and the arrangements of the songs themselves make for perfect listening at home; I’m pretty sure Ms. Waldon will be touring these songs without a band behind her; and certainly not one of this quality; so you have to see past what you are hearing to imagine her standing alone on a stage somewhere in East Treestump, Nowheresville on a Thursday night ….. and even then; You Can’t Ever Tell and Backwater Blues will blow you away, such is the strength and intimacy in the writing … and of course the delivery. Never having heard Kasey Waldon previously has made this album an absolute delight from start to finish; with the word ‘quality’ turning up 6 times in my handwritten notes over the last few days; and two songs received 3 stars too! These are the fabulous Honky Tonkin’ Peace Alone (Reap What You Sow) which again tugged at my heartstrings while also making me return to a couple of times in my own life that I’m not too proud of …. and Kelsey somehow makes that sound romantic; plus Doug Pettibone’s searing guitar interludes and Aubrey Richmond’s outstanding fiddle playing will draw even the most casual of listeners into the fold. The other is actually the most ‘obvious’ of songs to become a Favourite; but in my defence I’d already given Season’s Ending 3 stars before I knew it was actually about John Prine …. and when I read the story behind it as it gently eased out of the office speakers I had to wipe some dust from eyes more than once; so Season’s Ending takes the well deserved accolade of RMHQ Favourite Song. Like many of her contempories Kasey Waldon takes the minutiae from her everyday life and loves then adds her very own brand of stardust to create a series of mini-soap operas that somehow gel together to make for a fascinating and thought provoking album that will never stray far from the house stereo.
PS …. It turns out that Kelsey Waldon was raised in the Western Kentucky town of ….. Monkeys Eyebrow! Please, please, please let that be true and can someone send me confirmation that it really does exist.
Chastity Brown Sing To the Walls Red House Records
Heartfelt and Gutsily Crafted Soul That’s Guaranteed to Make Your World Shine That Bit Brighter.
Very occasionally, when listening to an artist for the first time, just one particular song has the capability to deliver an almighty gut punch, which in that very moment, is the gateway to connecting with the album and indeed their whole world………. today it has happened courtesy of Minneapolis born Chastity Brown.
Digging deep in the vaults of RMHQ, I am aware there is a lot of ground to cover with regards to Ms Brown and her own contemporary twist on a tapestry woven with threads of Americana Soul, Blues, Gospel and a smattering of Funk: her previous release, Silhouette Of Sirens, was way back in 2017 making Sing to The Walls her first musical offering since Pandemic times. I was half expecting the album to be ladened with Lockdown frustrations and anxieties, but delighted to discover it simply beams out a joyful positivity, a loving groove which most definitely keeps the glass half full for the duration.
The album swoops in with the first two singles, Wonderment and Backseat, the former kicking off with Chastity’s surging, distinctive rich vocals ringing out, powerfully honest. Musically softly lapping in at the start, with rhythmic plucking adding a spiritual Indian echo. The current gradually gathers pace to a rising driving beat of guitars, explosive drums leading to a swirl of Hammond keys. Wow by the end of the track I already feel like I’ve been on one hell of a journey, one where we have perhaps witnessed the artist allowing herself to be gradually released from shackles to embrace new experiences: “letting go.”
Neatly rooted in that same spot, Backseat’s exquisite chant of “I never felt so free” introduces us to a contemporary funk groove pulsing with a strong hooky drum beat, the engine of the track which just screams out to be played on the open road. Oh, so it makes sense, when I skim the press pack, to discover that Ms Brown nurtured her cool rhythmic vibes by teaming up with two drummers, Brady Black in Stockholm and Greg Schutte at her home studio to work on the album.
Perhaps, because I have just returned from Boston (!), another standout track for me is one bearing same name, making me just want to turn around and head straight back out! Immediately whisking us to Chastity’s blissful happy zone, it lyrically hangs basking in the first flush of a new romance. With smooth sensual vocals, rolling casual drums and sweet melodic layers, it leads us to a charmingly exhilarating guitar solo, making it one of the happiest peaks on the album for me. It does not sit all alone though, there are 10 stunning songs to discover here, and transforming Lockdown into writing time resulted in Chastity Brown having a huge pile of new material at her fingertips.
Golden is the heavyweight track of the album and demands our undivided attention. It’s the only song steeped in, but not dominated by rage and angst: “Why have I got to be angry?”, this is Chastity boldly laying down her reaction to the racial tensions and riots she has witnessed, some being virtually on her doorstep. She hits us with the hefty, raw emotional force of her uplifting words, a calling to remain strong and steadfast in the face of adversity. It’s a message we cannot help but take positive inspiration from, as her exceptional vocal delivery booms out: “Does this black woman’s voice have too much power Would it go down sweetly if I sang softer?”
This album is so seriously good that I’m hopping through the title track Sing to the Walls, a piano driven beautifully crafted tribute to breaking through barriers and the rousing Like A Sun which really does what it says on the tin (!) to finally arrive at that aforementioned killer track which started this whole journey off for me……
Curiosity is an instant smash to my ears, another piano led empowering ballad: heartfelt words to a lost love but not wallowing in self-pity, instead flooded with mature emotions that are full of longing yet uplifting and releasing. Chastity Brown flips heartbreak spelling out that we have to sometimes endure emotional pain to set us on a path to a happier place.
“It’s Curiosity setting into motion, I was a stranger to myself, when I knew ya I should say thank you, for loving and leaving me”
These sentiments sum up the very essence of an album which causes spirits to be raised a little bit higher with every play. In her own words: “What matters to me is my survival – and for my survival, it has been necessary to try and embrace some joy”. I cannot imagine there has ever been a better moment than this to catch Chastity’s wave of positivity with Sing To The Walls, as we all try and put our best foot forward again.
Black Deer Festival 2022 Eridge Park, Royal Tunbridge Wells
A successful return for the UK’s biggest Americana focused festival
Initial disclaimer – I’ve never been a big fan of outdoor festivals ever since the time my tent flooded at Reading Festival in the late 80s, but this time I’d got a lovely AirBnB to retire to of an evening, so I thought I’d give Black Deer a go – its lineup of largely Roots and Americana acts, with a sprinkle of more populist acts like James and Imelda May promised a fine weekend’s entertainment.
Friday, the first day, somewhat overdid things on the weather front – temperatures in the mid-thirties Centigrade meant that acts in shadier environments became more appealing – on that score, I caught the songwriters’ circle in the Ridge tent at the start of the day, where Irish Mythen set a personal benchmark with an effervescent and lively performance: Emily Barker and Caroline Spence contributed acute observational songwriting on ecology and relationships before Imelda May, delayed in traffic and rounded things off with a poem about the female orgasm!
Caroline Spence made a solo appearance with CJ Hillman, immediately afterwards and her summery voice and acoustic arrangements won over many. The Felice Brothers, over on the main stage produced a fiery, rebel rousing set before the polish of Imelda May – after that I decamped to the Ridge tent for reasons of self-preservation and musical choice to see well-received sets from Israel Nash and Shovels & Rope, whose boisterous performances fired up the crowds. Highlight of the day for me though was the “Ozark Holler Hootenanny” over in the smaller Haley’s Bar – a collection of artists based around the trio of Dylan Earl, Jude Brothers and Will Carlisle with a guest appearance from Lady Nade, who delivered a hugely entertaining collection of songs from Arkansas. A fine end to day one.
Day two and while less sunny, was incredibly humid. Early performances by Lady Nade in Haley’s bar and slide-blues maestro Jack Broadbent did nothing to lower the temperatures and provided fine evidence of the breadth of UK roots talent. The much anticipated (not least by me) appearance of Courtney Marie Andrews on the main stage was a brave set, with four as of yet officially unreleased songs taking their place amongst CMA’s strong back catalogue. Wilco’s only UK appearance on their current tour followed immediately after and a festival pleasing set including personal faves like “Impossible Germany” went down well – and Courtney Marie Andrews and band were invited back on to join on the band’s performance of “California Stars”. Things started to take a turn towards the apocalyptic near the end of an energetic set from the Waterboys when the decision was taken by the organisers to evacuate the arena due to rapidly approaching electrical storms – and a correct decision it was too, as the festival site was battered by one of the worst storms I’d seen outside of travels in the US and mainland Europe. It took over an hour to get off the car park but at least in our case there was dry accommodation at the end of our escape.
Incredibly, Sunday saw the site looking as though nothing had happened – a combination of fortunate geology and hard work meant that, other than a last minute pull-out by The War & Treaty, things were unaffected. Irish Mythen continued her plan for world domination to a supportive crowd on the main stage, whereas Hiss Golden Messenger drew a rapidly growing audience in the Ridge tent – as did John Smith, in trio format with the core of Lauren Housley’s band. At the end of the day, the Americana punter was faced with a stark choice – the Dead South on the main stage or the Drive-By Truckers in the Ridge Tent – this reviewer stuck with the guitar assault of the DBTs and enjoyed it greatly, right up to the emotional denouement by Patterson Hood, dedicating the final song of their set to his terminally ill father-in-law who he would be rushing home to see post gig (and tour).
All in all, this was an entertaining and enjoyable weekend. Audience numbers were good enough to pack the different stages, but not too full to make movement around the site difficult and there was a pleasingly varied mix of people in attendance. Black Deer isn’t perfect by any means – there were logistical issues for audience, performers and press that could be tightened up – but such is the friendliness of the whole affair, that you’ll struggle to find anything else that succeeds in bringing Roots and Americana to a mass audience in such a successful way. Other festivals with a similar musical focus are often preaching to the musically converted – Black Deer is bringing new and younger ears to the herd.
Ryan Law & The Shelter Ryan Law & The Shelter Last Night From Glasgow
Authentic Americana and Iconic Rust Belt Imagery
My initial reaction to hearing this; the band’s second release, was that Ryan Law & The Shelter could be the best ‘Bar Band’ I’ve heard in years …. if such a thing still exists! With band members split between the spires of Oxford, England, across the USA and even Qatar.! Recording was done via the internet yet somehow the outcome sounds and feels like it could have been a ‘one take’ in the studio ‘as live’ such is the virtual electricity and excitement in every song; not least the opener Suit For a Man; which finds Law just about singing above the punchy and tight backing. Big Riffs and a shout-along chorus? What’s not to like? Without ever sounding ‘forced’ Law’s singing style is sort of ‘middle American’ which adds an authenticity to everything; and the iconic imagery he/they create on Raider’s Town, Better Days and the steamy and muggy More Than Then are pure Blue Collar/Rust Belt stories that bely the country of their birth. The guitar playing throughout flits between grungy and Tom Petty Twang with ease; and at times you get both in the same four minutes ….. I’m thinking Cool Cool Cool, which in another life would have been a huge hit on College Radio …. which I guess could be Community Radio these days? I Don’t Know Man starts acapella, then some handclaps cause a false sense of security before Laws’ voice goes up an octave or so and the band come in like low level twister in August! For a personal Favourite Song I’m genuinely torn between the sweet Honky Tonk of Our Credit; not least because of the keyboards/pedal steel accompaniment; but the in depth song itself made me concentrate more than usual …. and it was well worth the effort, I can tell you. The other; Better Days to some degree would be what we expect from an imaginative and articulate Americana/Alt. Country band in the 2020’s …. but these guys add a sharper edge to both their words and their playing than I’d ever dreamed I’d hear before I pressed ‘play’ the first time last week; so this is probably edging ahead as Favourite Track. In many ways Ryan Law & The Shelter are the type of band; regardless of genre that we dream of unearthing here at RMHQ and if you are wandering around a Festival some time soon and see their name outside a tent; or better still if they are playing a bar a club somewhere near you call in …… they are well worth that gamble.
Rod Picott Paper Hearts and Broken Arrows Welding Rod Records
A Stunning Album of Devastating Honesty and Emotional Perception.
Those who follow Rod regularly on Facebook will know as well as anyone that he’s a great writer – in lyrical and literate forms – and has a world-wise eye for the minutiae of everyday life in its hard physical and emotional ways. In this latest release, the observational lyricism is married to some of the most sensitive production and instrumentation that Mr Picott has been presented in – and it’s a joy.
“Lover” – most definitely not the Taylor Swift track, opens things up “A few more miles in the motor I guess” … I’m so tired of flying alone” is a hymn for those of us middle-aged types fighting against the receding of emotional opportunity and the gaping maw of loneliness. “Lover come find me” is the call – tears – and it’s only track one. Gently strummed guitar and faraway pedal steel push the heartbreak in the vocal to the fore of this raw confessional.
“Revenuer” (for us non-American folks that’s a kind of aggressive tax inspector/trading standards hybrid). “Revenuer’s coming but he won’t catch me” is not just an ages-old tale of being chased by the fuzz and that blurry line between right and wrong, but also a metaphorical departure in haste from the grim reaper. Grumbling distorted guitar, pounding percussion and clanging barroom keys reinforce the sense of fear and determination at the song’s core. “ Mona Lisa” which follows is a Prine-esque finger-picked tale of waiting for the one – whoever that might be – and it finds Picott in fine melodic voice too with its central message of “You’re not the Mona Lisa / I’m not your James Dean” – a spiritual relation to the opener, this song hits home on a personal level with this listener.
“Dirty T-shirt” is a distant cousin in sentiment of Jonathan Richman’s “Everyday Clothes;” in that it celebrates the beauty in the imperfect and average around us – the tremulous, cracked fade-out on Rod’s vocal on the last line is the kind of sympathetic production that does these songs proud too – big kudos to Neilson Hubbard on that account.
“Frankie Lee” is a beautifully observed underdog character story and a co-write with Jennifer Tortorici that deserves – and will demand – pin-drop silence. “Sonny Liston” uses the (insert adjective depending on your view of the man) icon as a motif and emblem for the shame of slavery – and by extension, America’s general mistreatment of all its “poor (and) huddled masses”. Musically it’s got very much another John Prinesque feel and dynamic (Someone really ought to introduce Prine’s former guitarist, Jason Wilber to Rod. You heard it here first.) “Through The Dark” follows – a Slaid Cleaves co-write and one which explores the notion and imperative – “Take my hand – I’ve got this – don’t let go…” – but whether that is a defiant gesture or a desperate plea – well, you take your pick….
“Valentines Day” has a self-effacing back story about its recording, which I won’t spoil as it’ll surely come up on stage in the song’s introduction – but get the hankies ready; a broken vocal, a gentle melody “Here I stand/no-one’s hand in my hand / on Valentine’s day” and the details which remind me of the bit in “Manon De Sources” where Ugolin sews Manon’s ribbon to is chest – the heartbreak of impossible intimacy. If Rod plays this on his upcoming visit I kid you not, I’ll be in the audience with my mask pulled up and wearing shades….and I’ll be keeping those emotional crutches in place for “Washington County” too with its oh-so current observations, fashioned in partnership with Mark Erelli of the fact that “once a month we reach the foodbank”. There’s so much righteous anger in this song – for the right musical, yet wrong political reasons, it deserves to be an anthem sung far and wide.
That righteous anger takes a different form in “Lost in The South” where Rod recounts the experience of a New England craftsman who when he moves South is, quite frankly – treated like shit – and so develops a double-shoulder sized chip before the years of being culturally streetwise harden the narrator against the blows towards a “Yankee lost in the South”.
As I remarked at the start of this, Rod writes a lot about his father in his Facebook posts – and his relationship with him; those posts offer a detached and objective observational – yet highly emotional – account of the complexity of someone – in this song “Mark of Your Father”, that idea is take into wider contexts and explores the difficulty of father-son roles, through a sequence of set-pieces. It’s in some ways a development and exploration of Larkin’s famous lines from “This must be the verse”
“They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do. They fill you with the faults they had And add some extra, just for you.”
The album closes with another Slaid Cleaves co-write – musically it allies Kris Drever style picking to the difficulty of finding a positive way through the world;
“You ask again and again in the dark of the night As you live and you die and you try to make your own light”
In creating an album with so much honesty and emotional perception on a personal level, Rod Picott has tapped into the seam of the universal. Musically, it’s been perfectly crafted – stand up and take a bow Neilson Hubbard – around the timbre of Rod’s vocals and it’s drawn some wonderful vocal performances that ally the medium and the message. I love it when artistically, everything falls into place for an artist – and that’s true of Rod Picott’s “Paper Hearts and Broken Arrows”.
Curse of Lono The Cluny II Newcastle May 17th 2022
For health reasons, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for me to leave the house on an evening to attend a gig; especially when the venue is a standing one; so the act has to be special to tempt me out these days. Seeing the new version of Curse of Lono certainly ticks that box for me! While I’d vaguely heard the name ‘Lucas & King’ I had no idea at all what to expect ….. so I was intrigued when two young women wandered onto the stage, which was packed with instruments. Within seconds of their first song; Bo Lucas’s distinctive voice quietened the chatterers sitting behind me in the bleachers. I say ‘distinctive’ and it is; but I could have also said ‘beautiful’ and/or ‘quirky’ but whichever; I and the Cluny crowd fell in love with it immediatly. The other half of the duo; Hayleigh King plays a rather fabulous and Twangtastic style of guitar accompaniment too btw. Obviously I didn’t know any of the song titles in advance; but one could have been called No Giving In; and was almost Avant Garde with Bo going full on Marianne Faithfull while Hayleigh added some really subtle Jazz influenced piano parts beside her …. and the reception from the sparse crowd was quite extraordinary. Half way through the all too short set the couple dropped in a cover version…. and what a spectacular choice it was; Nancy Sinatra’s Bang Bang! Six songs and every single one a winner and completely different from each other certainly putting Lucas & King on the RMHQ radar, that’s for sure. After a short interval, as various members of the ‘new’ Curse of Lono’ band set up their various instruments Bo Lucas appeared too, sorting some leads that I presumed she’d left behind; only for her to plug one in as she was the backing vocalist! I really should keep up to date with the news. As the band started with a new and increasingly intense and hypnotic version Think I’m Alright Now, the room suddenly filled up with fans who had either been in the bar; or in the case of Clive ….. trying to get into Cluny I! For the second song Steppin’ Out; Felix’s vocals somehow dropped an octave or two to create a fabulous air of musical mystery. Without listing every song they played in their hour and a half on stage; but there was a fabulous mix of old and new songs; with the new members of the band expounding a new found energy in the older songs; none more so than Don’t Look Down and London Rain. While I’ve loved Curse of Lono since the first play of their debut EP in 2016; yet I’ve never been able to ‘pigeon hole’ them. Are they Americana? Possibly. Are they Indie? Possibly Are they Goths? Maybe (around the edges). Are they Alt. Country? Maybe. The only act I can really ever compare them too would be Nick Cave, which neatly brings me around to the duets, London Rain and So Damn Beautiful which weren’t a million miles away from Cave’s work with Kylie… yep they really were that good. As you’d expect the new band members all got their moment in the sun; with Joe Harvey White mesmerising the audience with his intricate pedal steel playing; and when he played his Gretsch guitar, I swear I saw smoke coming off the strings on a few songs. Highlights? Dedicating 2018’s Way To Mars to his mentor, Chuck Prophet was as apt as it was a masterstroke as the cool harmonies and interplay between the rhythm section and the guitars was as extraordinary as anything the ex-Green on Red man has ever released. Another would have to be the lustful and feisty Ursula Andress from the latest album; which took on a life of its own; which I didn’t expect. After being off the road for over two pandemic laden years, this was quite an emotional night for both band and audience; which really showed by the reaction to both encores Man Down and the pumped up Buy The Ticket, Take The Ride. As I tried to make a discrete exit it proved difficult as I had been standing next to the merch desk which was suddenly surrounded by fans trying to buy t-shirts, CD’s and (reasonably priced) LP’s.