The Cinematic Magic of Americana Captured By a Master.
Well; it’s finally here ……. and any new Bruce Springsteen album has to worthy of celebration, doesn’t it? ‘Yes’ is the required answer. That said, the last few haven’t been that great though, have they? Without resorting to Google I guess you can’t name any of the last 10, especially in chronological order. But; and I’m giving the game away early …… WESTERN STARS really is special, and unless you are one of those boring fans losing sleep waiting for the new E -Street Band album (that won’t be Born To Run II btw) this is really special indeed. The three pre-release singles appear to have only hinted as to the delights awaiting the more open-minded among us, stating with Hitch Hikin, a gentle tale of a loner ‘hitch hiking’ somewhere lonesome and windswept; and as expected is full of minutiae that most songwriters would miss out as being irrelevant; but when Bruce purrs that ‘the trucker has a dashboard picture of a pretty girl’ as the orchestra; and especially the cello build the background atmosphere into almost Hitchcockian proportions. Apart from Bruce’s trademarked vocals; WESTERN STARS is pretty much unlike just about anything I’ve heard from him before; apart from possibly the vastly underrated MAGIC, which may have been his starting point for some of the characters herein. This is immediatly followed by The Wayfarer and it’s not too much of a stretch to think that there could be some kind of ‘narrative’ linking all of the songs together; and now I’ve played the album to death over three days, it wouldn’t take a half decent Film Director to link everything together in one 60 minute film; as the stories and imagery here owe more to John Huston and Clint Eastwood than Woody and Bob. Maybe I’m wrong but I can’t remember Bruce using orchestral scores in this way before; and as the singles Tucson Train and Hello Sunshine merely hinted at; boy can he use this format to bring his words to life in a way, his normal R&R ways can’t; with relatively simple songs (for Bruce) like Stones and Drive Fast (Stuntman) becoming epic tales in this format. For a man of his age I’ve thought it all a bit ‘tiresome’ when he still sings about ‘wrapping your legs around velvet rims’ or ‘Dancing in the Dark’; but here his character(s) are older, if not wiser and just as troubled as everyone in Glory Days; and he’s not afraid of writing and singing about the things that effect our generation NOW; with the nod to Roy Orbison in There Goes My Miracle being a prime example and in the wistfully dark and brooding title track Western Stars he sings, ” I wake up in the morning, just glad my boots are on Instead of empty in the whispering grasses Down the Five at Forest Lawn On the set, the makeup girl brings me two raw eggs and a shot of gin Then I give it all up for that little blue pill That promises to bring it all back to you again.” Just like Bruce we are getting older, and still he’s singing for me and you. I think I knew where to go for the RMHQ Favourite Song right from the get go; but the droll and tired Moonlight Motel which closes the album, is a wonderful way to tie up proceedings; and Somewhere North of Nashville is the ‘Americana’ song he perhaps had in his head when the first inklings for this album was still a concept; and Chasin’ Wild Horses is Bruce Springsteen using metaphor and his vivid imagination at their very, very best; but for me…… and possibly me alone; I fell in love with the upbeat Texicana of Sleepy Joe’s Cafe the instant I heard it last week and I’m pretty sure I will still love it in 10 years time. For me, it’s actually the most commercial song here and I will be devastated if it’s not a Hit Single this Summer; and it also fits perfectly in my theory that this is the Soundtrack to an Imaginary Film about a drifter wandering around the backwoods and B Roads of the middle and Southern States, looking for ‘something’ but he doesn’t know what. Only time will tell where history will place WESTERN STARS, and I doubt it will be anyone’s Favourite Ever Bruce Springsteen album; but it should and will make many Top 10’s and my own Top 5*; and I welcome it as it’s a brave release from this Rock God; and a welcome one too.
Nick Lowe & Los Straightjackets Sage Gateshead Thursday 13th June 2019
It’s mostly ‘work related’ but my Gig Going days are few and far between these days; so getting me out of the house on a ‘school night’ has to be for a very special gig; and tonight ticked every box I have. I’ve been a Nick Lowe fan since the heady days of Pub Rock when he was a member of Brinsley Schwarz, then later in Post Punk and beyond as both a Producer and singer I’ve bought far too many of his records to count. Then two years ago the legendary Los Straightjackets recorded an instrumental album of Lowe’s ‘hits’, which we loved at RMHQ ….. as did the Maestro himself, and an EP and now a joint tour has followed! Oh ……. not only, but also …… the evening started with a solo set from Dawn Landes! Dawn’s set got off to a slightly shaky start with her voice wavering a touch on (That’s Why They Name) Whisky After Men; but thankfully her vocal chords noticeably warmed up by the start of Keep on Moving; and the mood was set, with Dawn’s lovely and witty story leading into Straight Lines which I adored,as I did the beautiful Bluebird too. With so much music crossing our path I’d forgot what a gorgeous voice and range Dawn Landes has, and uses exquisitely on a Francoise Hardy song (sung in in perfect French btw) and the a’Capella My Tiny Twilight written for and dedicated to her young daughter; and the finger-clicks and body poppin’ went down a treat with a very reverential audience, most of whom were new to the cause.
It was fascinating during the intermission to see who many of the great and the good in the local music scene were in attendance; not just to see Sir Nick Lowe, but more importantly…….. Los Straightjackets. Our new favourite Men in Black came out wearing their trademark Mexican wrestling masks and slinked straight into a cool surf infused So It Goes which sent shivers down my spine, and as it grew to a climax the Great Man finally made his appearance and closed the song with style and panache! Both of those words perfectly describe the man himself too; grey slacks and a crisp white shirt which perfectly matched his crisp white quiff. As he himself said in an introduction; the night was chock full of two minute songs from his back catalogue plus a couple of new songs and a cover or too…… and the world was a better place for it. Oh man! What a night ……. all of these songs were majestic in one way or another; but hearing Nick and The Band turn You Inspire Me into a gorgeously dreamy ballad, Half a Boy simply sizzled and the new song Blue on Blue dragged the mood down somewhat, but was a lot more delicate and poetic than I’ve ever heard from Mr Lowe in 40 years. The pairing of Nick with Los Straightjackets is/was both bonkers and inspired …… they simply made each other sparkle all night, with the two guitarists each getting tumultuous applause following really dazzling short and sweet solos that were mind blowing. Being the man he is, Lowe even left the stage for ten minutes to leave the Masked Men to regale us with not just their own cool tracks, but some uber-cool and well choreographed moves too. These guys are seriously professional but fun, fun, fun too! No Nick Lowe gig would be complete without I Knew The Bride and tonight’s rendition was both raucous and rip-roaring, with everyone on stage adding something special, which is why it closed the show ……. or did it? Who’d have guessed that there would be an encore? Well, there was….. and guess what, it was only What’s So Funny About Peace Love and Understanding, a timeless and not just underrated song but one that may be under valued too by the populace; but what with everything that’s going on in the world of politics these days ….. it just may be our unofficial National Anthem.
I started Thursday with a 4.30 am alarm call and Friday would be 5.30 am …….. but my subsequent lack of sleep was well worth it.
Imaginative Americana That’s Full of Thoughtful Charm.
I don’t know an awful lot about singer-songwriter Stuart Smith apart from he comes from Illinois and this is his second release and it was his life long dream to record at Sam Phillips’ iconic Sun Studios. In a busy month, being recorded at Sun Studios was enough to pique my interest; but there was going to have to be something special to get me to listen fully and then find the time to write about the contents; especially with such a limited Press Release. Well, dear reader; the opening verse of Inches From Your Heart not just caught my attention; but told me that this song was going to be my Favourite Track regardless of whatever followed.
“I had a dream last night You were only 23 A natural blonde singing Born to Run In my car painted British Racing Green”
That spooks me because I love Brice’s Born to Run and I have a life long fascination with sports cars ‘painted British Racing Green!! Stuart Smith? You’ll do for me matey. The song itself then takes us on a harrowing journey into the heart of love lorn Americana territory; without ever losing the listeners attention. Smith fills his songs with both strength and wisdom; with the wired Shadows sounding quite stark by comparison to the opening track that precedes it; but with Smith’s voice getting ever more passionate as the story develops you know you are listening to something really special indeed. Labor Day is a thematic love song that dabbles its toes in the Countrier end of Americana, but the claustrophobic production and multi-layered instruments behind Smith and his acoustic guitar make for a very memorable and thought provoking few minutes; and a song you will want to come back to again and again. Smith’s voice finds ever more pathos to it on the heart-tugging Rattle The Locks (on my heart), which fires passionate love bullets with each and every note and word. Perhaps it was the opening harmonica but Promised Land and the way Stuart wheezes his way through this enigmatic tale; but my first thoughts (and again today) I couldn’t help thinking of Springsteen’s Tom Joad era; and while never copying The Boss there’s more than a nod in his direction on this beguiling song. The all too short EP closes with another windswept blue-collar, ‘deep and meaningful’ Americana tale, We Are Nowhere which will make you put down the newspaper or book you are reading to catch every last word. It’s fair to say that I’ve been very impressed by this second outing from Stuart Smith; and I don’t know if recording these oft winding and clever songs in Sun Studios made an iota of difference; as they are good enough anyway; or just knowing where he was made Smith ‘up his game’ during the recording process but either or both theories make good sense. What else do you need to know before parting with your hard-earned pocket money? He has a world weary, slightly worn around the edges singing voice that just oozes rustic charm; and can not just write a song that will touch the heart of everyone who hears them; but his guitar playing is both understated and somehow manages to combine the subtleties of John Martyn with the passion of someone like British Folk legend Bert Jansch too.
While ‘billed’ as an Irish singer-songwriter, our friend Dean Maywood has a truly ‘International’ feel to his songs and the way he sings ’em. While Ireland is noted for its love of Country Music, Maywood skirts the Americana and more cerebral singer-songwriter edges rather than the twiddly-dee, check shirt wearing music we normally associate with the Emerald Isle. Dean first came to my attention via opening track Jane, when it was a single back in January. This haunting and atmospheric song, with sumptuous harmonies supplied by Siobhan McShane, conjures up images of running away and driving down Ventura Highway, rather than the M1 from Dublin to Belfast…… it’s that kind of cinematic and romantic bittersweet love song we love here at RMHQ. From listening to this EP and some of Dean’s much earlier work I don’t think his singing style is ‘effected’ in anyway, it’s just the way he sings and when you add a steel-guitar and warm harmonies ( Patsy Gallagher this time) the imagery he creates on Louisiana defies listeners not top presume he comes from East Nashville or downtown Oklahoma City and not the North of Southern Ireland; and it’s similar in many ways with the starker and more haunting The Silver Dollar. If anything, the only disappointment here is the actual brevity of the disc, as its only 5 songs long; but Maywood certainly throws down his marker as a talented storyteller with the final song here Lay You Down and the song that is the RMHQ Favourite Track, Knowing & Lying which really does criss-cross the intelligent writing of John Martyn, John Prine and perhaps even John Lennon in the way he details the minutiae of a heartbreaking relationship but somehow making it sound of operatic proportions.
Songstress Relives and Re-Invents The Songs She Grew Up With.
While she’s released a stack of ‘critically acclaimed’ albums over the last 40 years, I’ve only ever owned one ….. her self-titled debut RICKIE LEE JONES LP from 1979; and today can still only name Chuck E’s in Love as a song by this esteemed singer-songwriter; which is a bit of a shame; don’t you think? So, I was full of excitement when I first received this album a month ago; and when I saw it was full of ‘cover songs’ I did a little dance (inside my head) as regular readers will know how much I like a good cover version. So, my first thoughts were ‘what a brave and interesting choice’ for Rickie Lee Jones to start the record with her version of the iconic Bad Company, by the beat combo of the same name. First and foremost you will recognise it, how could you fail to? But Ms Jones slows it down a couple of notches and turns it into the Country Melodrama I think it was always meant to be, and I likes it rather a lot. By sheer coincidence after seeing Rocketman I’ve immersed myself in Elton John’s Tumbleweed Connection over the last week; and there’s one of the best songs from that album here; My Father’s Gun which again mines a deep Country swathe that does justice to the original, which in many ways was a gateway for what we now know as Americana. While there’s an ‘Americana’ feel to many songs here; that’s only because Americana is a very broad church and can comfortably count Dean Martin’s Houston and You’re Nobody (Until somebody loves you) and even Mack The Knife when done in this particularly affectionate manner. It’s no surprise that all of these songs are ‘personal’ to Rickie Lee Jones; and pulled together show what immaculate taste she has, and always has had and her interpretations of Skeeter Davis’ End of the World and Johnnie Ray’s superb Cry are sort of faithful; Rickie Lee Jones’s distinctive voice takes them both into a very modern and accessible idiom and will appeal to hipsters of all ages, while the quirky Nagasaki (most famously by Benny Goodman) is fun to hear a couple of times, but will probably wear thin after a while. For a Favourite Tracks I’m torn between two songs I’ve never heard before, the breathy and sensitive Quicksilver Girl (Steve Miller Band!) and Lonely People (America) and I think I’m going to go for the latter as Rickie takes it and makes it extremely relevent and a song for ‘now’. Personally I’ve loved rediscovering Rickie Lee Jones and her lovely voice as much as I’ve thrilled at hearing her versions of these songs; it’s a keeper from start to finish.
Heartfelt Songs Draped in a Gossamer Veil From a Modern Day Grievous Angel.
It’s kinda funny that I spend so much time on Social Media sounding grumpy about the amount of albums I get sent to review, sometimes even overwhelming me ….. then when I heard earlier in the week that Frankie Lee was releasing an album which I hadn’t been sent; I got all ‘pissy’ and fired off a sarcastic tweet on the subject …… which then elicited an apologetic e-mail from the Record Company and an immediate download (plus ensuing CD). Sorry everyone; I don’t ever mean to be ‘precious’ …… just some days the ‘dark clouds’ take their toll on me. Enough about me ……. the music, the music, the music! I loved Frankie Lee’s AMERICAN DREAMER album back in 2015, and still dust it off occasionally for a play late at night. Sadly young Mr Lee got a bit lost in the euphoria that greeted his peers at that time, Sturgill Simpson and Sam Outlaw (plus someone else I can’t think of) and as quickly as he arrived on ‘the scene’ he skedaddled back to where he came from, which was a huge shame. A quirky squeak opens the delightful Speakeasy; a velvet fog of a love lorn Country Song; with Frankie firmly grasping the ‘successor to Gram’ mantle that I alluded to with AMERICAN DREAMER; and the inclusion of a flute towards the end is fascinating and rather exciting in it’s own way too. There’s something really exquisite about Lee’s voice, but when I write down ‘Mid-Western, nasally and heartfelt’ it certainly doesn’t do it justice; but it’s certainly distinctive and perfectly matches the imaginative and well drawn out stories in his songs; with (I Don’t Know) John being a perfect example of a song that ‘shouldn’t work’ but will stop you dead in your tracks when you least expect it; perhaps not even on the first three times you play this album; but it will, one day. All of the songs here are as tightly wrapped as I’d hoped; and I love it when a songwriter from across the Atlantic Ocean can capture my own feelings with their words and deeds; just as Lee does with the mournful In The Blue, Downtown Lights and Blinds too; which are all Classic Americana draped in a gossamer veil. Obviously music, like all of the Arts is subjective; but I have a real soft spot for the darker edges of the format; especially in Country and Americana Music and I’m happy to tell you Frankie Lee appears to have been listening to as much Elton as he has Townes Van Zandt and Willie Nelson in the intervening years; with the piano led In the Blues with it’s cinematic orchestration and the stunning One Wild Bird sounding like they could be outtakes from Tumbleweed Connection (one of the greatest albums of all time btw). As I’m sitting typing; it’s just dawned on me that this just might be the ‘Americana Album’ that Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen keep trying to make but fail miserably; as nearly all of the stories here are ‘blue collar’ and about ‘the working man (and woman) in one way or another; but here the judicial use of a pedal-steel and Lee’s distinctive vocal styling really, really tugs at the heartstrings in a way Bruce and Neil can’t any more. These tales are all believable from start to finish. Because of the time restraints I mentioned at the beginning I’ve only played STILLWATER three times; but two songs have caught my attention above all else; the dark and edgy Broken Arrow with Lee’s angry acoustic guitar and drums juxtaposed against a stinging steel guitar and a melancholic harmonica could and should be my Favourite Song (Mrs. Magpie hates it!) but I’m deferring to her better judgement in such matters and selecting the final song Ventura for this prestigious accolade. Another song around a fairly simple piano structure but, wit the occasional inclusion of a howling harmonica that should far the senses, but never does and the powerful lyrics found me holding my breath and staring at the speakers in virtual disbelief. Frankie Lee’s back and basically sounds the same sad and wistful self as three years ago ; but now with a much tighter and occasionally dreamier ‘sound’; to some degree reminding me of everyone from Gram Parsons to Elton John, Springsteen and Buddy Holly at one time or another; but always and ultimately Frankie Lee ……. his time has come!
The Blue Highways Play Johnny, Play (Single) Self-Release
I’m not sure where to start with this single from The Blue Highways; as it’s a doozy in it’s own little way ….. but alongside their own guitarist Jack Lury they have also managed to lasso six of the finest guitarists from Britain’s Americana Glitterati ….. including Tony Poole – King of the electric 12-string Rickenbacker (Starry Eyed and Laughing, Bennett Wilson Poole), Joe Hazell – Curse of Lono, Paul Lush – The Lost Sons of Littlefield and Danny and the Champs, Lewis Fowler – Two Ways Home, alongside pedal-steel legends Henry Senior Jr – Danny & The Champions and also CJ Hillman! Six guitarists, you say? Yes; but this song is very much mostly about the words and chorus than the magnificent duelling guitarists behind singer Callum Lury. Trust me; you won’t be disappointed.
Bruce Springsteen Tucson Train (Single) Columbia Records
Just like the metaphorical ‘London busses’; you wait ages for a great Bruce Springsteen single; then three come along one after the other! Much to everyone’s surprise …… here’s the latest instalment; nay …. teaser for Bruce’s next album WESTERN STARS, single #3 TUCSON TRAIN.
Dark, Moody and Eloquent Americana-Folk Crossover.
With so much music available these days for artistes to draw from, it’s no surprise that that the genre lines become ever more blurred. In days of yore, Londoners Alvarez Theory would have been classed as ‘Folk Rock,’ albeit with the emphasis on ‘Folk;’ but with the judicial use of a banjo several songs crossover into what now is deemed ‘Americana’; which is also a lot more ‘hip’ in radio and magazine circles I would guess. There’s an almost Canadian Gothic feel to opening track By The River, as Diana-Maria Diehl summons up her demons to to exorcise a love affair gone wrong; and the rest of the quintet play their respective instruments with quietly restrained anger; and a whole lot of passion too. For a group from London Town, there’s a very North American feel to most of their songs; and when I say ‘North American’ I mean music made in the states either side of the Border that straddles USA and Canada, with the clear, cool and often rawness I associate with that area unfolding like a butterfly from a cocoon on Last of a String of Tempests and Bring Her Back to Life too. The imagery that is evoked on songs like the desolately beautiful House That Stood The Storm and Big City, Empty certainly belay the fact that these songwriters life in London; and not some windswept hilltop cabin in the bleak midwinter. Even though this is quite a simple album, of sorts; there’s a lot going on behind the words that hints at a group of probably classically trained musicians who are now performing music that they love and adore; which brings me to the two songs vying for the accolade of RMHQ Favourite Song; 1949 is one of those songs that sounds so intense you can hear a pin drop 50 yards away; but it still won’t break your concentration and the other, Mary McKinley is certainly a song I’d have presumed was from Canada or perhaps rural Ireland and features some heart-stopping harmonies and steel guitar, that juxtapose a song of majestic proportions; so the title goes to Mary McKinley! It’s never made clear what, exactly an ‘Alvarez Theory’ is; but it’s fair to say that this darkly charismatic album of exquisitely constructed, performed and sung stories is well worth the investment if you have the time to immerse yourself in the Alvarez Theory’s musical world.
Bruce Springsteen There Goes My Miracle (Single/video) Columbia Records
Just like London busses, you wait ages for a new Bruce Springsteen single and just as you are ‘getting on board’ ……. another one comes along straight after it! My first thought? I like it …… and it sounds like he’s channelling his inner Roy Orbison, in both words and deeds.
” Columbia Records will release ‘Western Stars’, Springsteen’s 19th studio album, on 14th June. The 13 tracks of Western Stars were recorded primarily at Springsteen’s home studio in New Jersey, with additional recording in California and New York, and encompass a sweeping range of American themes, of highways and desert spaces, of isolation and community and the permanence of home and hope. Ron Aniello produced Western Stars with Springsteen, and the album’s musical arrangements include strings, horns, pedal steel and contributions from more than 20 other players. “This record is a return to my solo recordings featuring character driven songs and sweeping, cinematic orchestral arrangements,” says Springsteen. “It’s a jewel box of a record.”
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. ‘Western Stars’ is available for pre-order now here. ‘Western Stars’ track listing 1. Hitch Hikin’ 2. The Wayfarer 3. Tucson Train 4. Western Stars 5. Sleepy Joe’s Café 6. Drive Fast (The Stuntman) 7. Chasin’ Wild Horses 8. Sundown 9. Somewhere North of Nashville 10. Stones 11. There Goes My Miracle 12. Hello Sunshine 13. Moonlight Motel All songs written by Bruce Springsteen.