BATHED IN COMFORT
Americana Labelled With Love From England and San Francisco.
The story begins the day after 43 year old Ex-Patriot Yorkshireman Steve saw Chuck Prophet in concert and began ruminating on some songs he had written and on a whim he forwarded them to Mr Prophet for his consideration. Much to the songwriter’s surprise Chuck responded by inviting him over to San Francisco to record said songs alongside the Mission Express…..yep; really.
Six of these songs were recorded over those few days with the intention of releasing them as an EP; but Chuck and the band liked them so much Steve was invited back in early 2016 to write and record a further 4 songs that would ultimately make up this album.
Intrigued? Well; read on……
At this point I desperately tried to forget the Chuck Prophet connection as opening song Rosalie bears no resemblance to anything I’ve heard from him……but why would I? This is Steve Gardner’s album and Prophet et al are just helping out in the background. This opening track conjures up memories of Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook’s post Squeeze solo outings; a quaint English Folk Rock/Americana hybrid that just oozes quality from every groove.
As everyone knows I’m a sucker for a good love song and quite a few are included here; the dark relationship breakdown of a torrid affair that is described in I Can’t Walk Away is truly heartbreaking and delicately told from the male protagonists point of view; and the dark Murder Ballad Take Me Down is worthy of Nick Cave.
What Would I Do is a bit ‘wordy’ at times, but on the other hand is a gorgeous love song shrouded in a velvet fog of longing for the woman he’s in danger of taking for granted…….a scenario many of us live out each day, and Steve Gardner puts the sentiment I feel so eloquently into words and music.
Who among us could resist a song called Peter The Astrophysicist? Hmm; so it’s just me is it? Well it’s certainly a bit quirky as Peter dances around the world looking ‘for a wife’ but hey…..we all need a little bit of quirkiness in our lives don’t we?
Back to Mr Prophet; it’s easy to see why this self-confessed lover of British music would fall in love with the 2 1/2 songs that tie for the title of RMHQ ‘Favourite Song’…….The Fall of Lance Gardino is a tale of a one time Rock Star now selling vinyl on a market stall and ‘Raising Hell on a Thursday at the karaoke/singing a selection of his own hits.’ Amazingly well constructed and the Mission Express do what they do better than most other musicians behind Gardner’s droll flat Northern vocals.
Two and a half ‘songs’ you ask…..well the other song appears twice; first as a traditional Pop-Rock toe-tapper and then at Chuck’s insistence in a Country guise…….The Day The The Aliens Saved The World is a wonderful tongue in cheek A-Political song that may or may not have a semi-religious sub-plot; or not as the case may be……but I bloody love both versions.
What more can I say; this has been joy from start to finish and owes a whole lot more to the likes of English Pop Royalty Squeeze, Prefab Sprout and especially Nick Lowe than it does our favourite San Franciscan and given a good tail wind I can imagine several of these songs being played on Radio 2 or any of the cooler TV 30 Something shows.
Released 20th May 2017
Deep, Dark and Often Poetic American Folk Songs.
Just like buying a house, the adage of “Location, location, location” can be used when discovering new music.
Last week Mrs. Magpie was seriously ill in hospital for over two weeks (out and recovering now btw) and on the third night it was cold, damp and very dark as I fired up the car for the journey home; and probably because the mono cover art was very dank and depressing I slid this disc into the car stereo.
As an almost Native American howl filtered out of the speakers I clipped the seat belt into place, and thirty minutes later I was still sitting in the car park almost breathless and with tears streaming down my face.
Obviously my circumstances that night dictated my mood; but the beautiful bleakness of the Winterlings latest album certainly played its part that night; and subsequent nights over the next week.
The duo of Wolff Bowden and Amanda Birdsall share vocal duties; and occasionally harmonise in a way I’ve not heard as good since I first discovered Handsome Family; but without the quirkiness.
Songs like Gold, Owl Mountain and Puget Sound have a distinctive cool and razor-sharp Canadian feel to them; which is where many of the songs here were written, but the couple are 100% USA with Bowden hailing from Florida, not that you would know it from the brittle way these songs are sung.
I guess the Winterlings are at the Folk end of the Americana spectrum; but it’s the end inhabited by the acoustic Neil Young, Gordon Lightfoot and Joni Mitchell in the way they too inhabit their songs with sincerity and emotionality; World To Change and Birthplace are prime examples of songwriters with a poets soul.
When it comes to choosing a favourite track for you, I have to jump back to the first two songs; the title track American Son which is simply stunning in the way its constructed, the subject matter and the mostly the way the couple weave their incredible voices together over an intense acoustic back beat.
But; and it’s actually an easy selection the accolade goes to that opening track which totally caught me unawares; The Ghost of Leonard; a tale of Bowden being visited by the Ghost of Leonard Cohen while deep in meditation…….. and I’m not sure I’m going to hear a more compelling opening line than “Lit my body like a cigarette/when I was young/and dreamed of death/your poems fell like ash.”
Much like the duos name, The Winterlings and AMERICAN SON is very much an album for the long, dark and dank nights of Winter and if like me you like the deeper and more ethereal end of Folk Music you will love this album.
Released November 1st 2017
WAFFLES, TRIANGLES & JESUS
The Definitive Americana Album From Left Field Maverick.
Jim White used to be incredibly difficult to categorise; but with the advent of ‘Americana’ there isn’t a single word in the English language that sums up this left of centre Maverick better, as he encapsulates everything I associate with that all encompassing word.
Probably best know for his documentary film Searching For The Wrong-Eyed Jesus, Jim White is so much more; obviously a singer-songwriter but an artist, a writer and raconteur of the finest order too.
This is White’s 7th album under his own moniker but he also has numerous collaborations which are never less than interesting and always worth checking out.
So; why did this little silver disc make me shake with excitement when I slid it into the office CD Player?
Everything about opening track Drift Away sums up why I love Jim White, he has a soft and sensual voice and his lyrics are almost poetic in essence and he chooses instruments and melodies at will to suit the song he hears inside his head. Drift Away is almost Appalachian in mood; and moody it certainly is.
Yet Silver Threads when it comes along is positively jaunty by comparison and almost Country-Rock; no….that’s exactly what it is Country-Rock not too unlike the harmonies of Poco, if I’m not mistaken.
Playing Guitars on the other hand is a whimsical piece that would sound silly in lesser hands; but had me trying to decipher a hidden meaning (which isn’t there btw) because it’s by Jim White.
Just as your face is smiling from ear to ear, White throws a musical grenade into the mix by following it with Far Beyond The Spoken Word which is spellbinding but has to be heard to be believed.
Later we get Reason To Cry, a haunting and almost Gothic song that will send a shiver down your spine. With Jim White you never know what to expect from one song to the next; but the journey is never less than exciting and intriguing.
Picking a ‘Favourite track’ is virtually impossible with such a myriad of delights to choose from; but I’m going to toss a coin to decide between the Honky-Tonky duet Earnest T Bass at Last Finds the Woman of His Dreams and Prisoners Dilemma an almost cinematic opus, with a dark and serious and almost threatening chorus and melody.
Jim White albums aren’t for everyone; and they are never recorded with commercial success in mind, but White’s fans are many and loyal and they will love this latest release like a long lost child returning to the fold.
PS I can’t wait to finally see him on his upcoming UK Tour.
Released 10th November 2017
Totally You Gunslinger (Single)
Grant-Lee Phillips in the guise of Grant-Lee Buffalo was one of the Gateway acts that turned me on to what was then New Country but which eventually begat Alt. Country and Americana music; so the prospect of hearing and now sharing the first track from his new WIDDERSHINS album which won’t be released until February 23rd 2018 was far too good to miss.
TOTALLY YOU GUNSLINGER conjures up the magic of the FUZZY and MIGHTY JOE MOON albums but more importantly the Jupiter & Teardrop single which is still in my Top 10 of all time.
Ethereal? Mystical? Intense? Soulful? are all words that sprang to mind the first time I heard the song and probably feel the same way two days later and now I can’t wait to hear the actual full album.
Grant-Lee Phillips talking about WIDDERSHINS……
““Widdershins…it’s an old word. Moving counterclockwise, spiralling backwards? This album begs the question, “In what direction are we moving?” – Grant-Lee Phillips
“I’m drawing from the urgency of the moment,” says the acclaimed Nashville-based singer-songwriter of Widdershins, his ninth solo album set for February 23, 2018 release on Yep Roc Records. Inspired by “the things that eat away in the late hours,” Phillips invests the insight, nuance and wit in a riveting dissection of today’s fraught social landscape.
Recorded over four days at Sound Emporium in Nashville, the 12-track set was produced by Phillips (guitar/vocals/keyboards) and cut largely live in the studio as a trio with Jerry Roe (drums) and Lex Price (bass). Mixed by Tucker Martine (My Morning Jacket, The Decemberists) and engineered by Mike Stankiewicz, the album delivers its poetic truths in Phillips’ peerless melodic sensibilities, relayed via vocal performances that balance intensity and vulnerability.
“I made a commitment to myself not to sink into despair,” explains Phillips, “I’m tracing a longer narrative here. We’ve been through some of this before – not just our country, but the civilisation as a whole.” Phillips sees in Widdershins a connection to his earliest work with Grant Lee Buffalo. “That was also a time of intense social anxiety. The Gulf War, the LA riots – everything became cranked up. Then a few years later there was the earthquake we lived through, which also made for a time of uneasiness. I was in a heightened state when I wrote that stuff – as I am now.”
THIS SWEET OLD WORLD (Re-Visited)
Highway 20/Thirty Tigers
Great Songwriting Never Goes Out of Fashion.
As so many other music lovers did, I first discovered Lucinda Williams with her Car Wheels on a Gravel Road album in 1998ish, which actually followed THIS SWEET OLD WORLD albeit 6 years later, so it’s a fascinating challenge to listen to Lucinda’s re-recording of a 25 year old album that I’ve never heard before.
So, with only a nod to the past I will treat this as a brand new release with only a couple of nods to the past and wait patiently for the pedants to rise from the shadows and explain in tedious detail why the original versions were ‘better.’
Track #1 Six Blocks Away must have sounded amazing when listeners first heard it in 1992, because it still sounds fresh and electric today as Lucinda drily sings about a part-timer lover in her inimitable style while a Roger McGuinn/Tom Petty guitarist weaves in and out behind her.
The first song I recognised enters the fray at #4, Memphis Pearl is a staple of Lucinda’s concerts and this delicate arrangement adds more pathos to an already sad song than I ever would have expected.
For me, there are pleasant and often beautiful surprises around every corner, with songs like Sidewalks of the City, Which Will and especially the title track Sweet Old World sounding as if they had been written around the time that Lucinda’s last album Ghosts of Highway 20 was released; not twenty odd years before it, such is the intricacy of Lucinda’s songwriting and storytelling; but I suppose the new arrangements may give the songs that extra touch of sorrow; but whichever way you feel…..they are absolutely beautiful songs.
One of my favourite songs I’ve heard Lucinda sing in concert (and on the Fillmore album) is here; and this version of Pineola is stunning from start to finish; with the band sounding spellbinding and even frightening behind her as she puts the Alt into Alt. Country.
There are four Bonus Tracks here, and Lucinda being Lucinda has also re-recorded these as they were from the original sessions too; and I can’t tell you how good Factory Blues and Dark Side of Life are, as they fit in perfectly with everything I’ve heard from Lucinda in the last twenty years and it would have been such a shame if they’d been left in the vaults.
But, none of those take the title of ‘RMHQ Favourite Track’ …..that accolade goes to another song I’d not heard before and one that took my breath away the first four times I heard it and may again the next…..Little Angel/Little Brother is as good a song as I’ve ever heard Lucinda Williams sing and the arrangement is as simple, raw and awe-inspiring as the words themselves; and the singer sounds like she could breakdown at any moment, but thankfully doesn’t.
Although this record didn’t attract the attention of the Chart Compilers when it was first released, it’s easy to see, with 25 years hindsight the direction Ms Williams was headed, even though very few others were in 1992; and the world is a much better place for her being in it…..as this forgottan classic proves.
Released September 29th 2017
POSTCARDS from MAGDALENA
At The Helm Records
Glacier Cool Americana Songs of Love, Loss and Heartache.
WOW….Where does the time go? It doesn’t seem like 5 minutes since we were fawning over Jeff Crosby’s last release WAKING DAYS but that was a whole two years ago; and it appears that the hirsute songwriter hasn’t been sitting around twiddling his thumbs, as these 10 brand new songs were written ‘on the road’ and apparently in some pretty obscure towns around the world.
Such is the life of the modern troubadour.
That Californian-Americana ‘sound’ which defined WAKING DAYS is still there in the bittersweet opening track Best $25 I Ever Spent; although this song was written in Taganga, Magdalena Columbia about the unrequited love of a ‘hippie girl who loved the beach and smoking joints….and dancing in the rain.’
While there is an undoubted Laurel Canyon ‘feel’ to Crosby’s songs; his words and stories are invariably darker and more sensitive than I remember; but it was a long time ago.
Without having a lyric sheet to crib from; Beautiful & Strange reminds me of the poetry of Thomas Hardy; but set to a West Coast melody and a searing guitar.
It’s never easy for a fella that looks like me to sympathise with a good looking guy like Jeff; but listening to Hearts Too Heavy and Cold Summer he sounds like he’s had more than his fair share of heartbreak; but that’s why he’s such a good songwriter, both of these songs sound like they could have been written about episodes in my own life. Clever that.
On a couple of track Crosby Turns Left at the Alt. Country/Americana intersection; with It’s Us having an intense and almost Indie sensibility to it; although there is still the obligatory steel guitar thread running through the middle; and on Sunrise Over Iceland (For Lois) the stark story is pure Damn Country; but not like any other Country song I can think of.
There is something really special about the way Jeff Crosby uses the English language, especially metaphors and couplets and boy does he know how to add a melody too.
Favourite track? It has to be Hotel Bibles, which closes proceedings and has Crosby sat alone with an acoustic guitar, a harmonica and a broken heart. His description of the damaged relationship is desperately told in poetic lines like, “like an old tattoo/the definition faded” and “like hotel bibles/with torn out pages,” and when that harmonica wails…..so will you.
In my previous review I described Jeff Crosby as an ‘Americana Diamond’ and I stand by that description; but this time he proves himself to be a flawed diamond……but he can describe those most intimate and personal of stories better than most.
Released October 27th 2017
ON THE WAY DOWNTOWN (Live Recordings)
Two Fabulous Radio Shows Unearthed After 20 Years.
It behoves me that I don’t think I’ve ever actually heard Peter Case before. I certainly don’t own any of his previous 12 albums; so this has been a voyage of discovery for me.
To some degree this set of 18 songs recorded for the Folkscene radio show serve as a retrospective and a great place for people like me to start.
The album opens with a fabulous song called Spell of Wheels from his newly released (1998) album FULL SERVICE, NO WAITING, and as it faded to a close I was already kicking myself for not discovering him earlier.
The next few tracks, all featuring a ‘full band’ alongside Case all come from that release, with the lyrically astute Honey Child and Until The Next Time showing a songwriter, and singer at the very top of his game.
For a ‘Live Album’ there’s not a lot of talking or even introductions; but that doesn’t do any harm to the likes of On The Way Downtown or See Through Eyes which are both absolutely captivating.
At this stage I have to pass comment on the crystal clear sound, courtesy of Sound Engineer Peter Cutler who manages to make a Radio Show sound as if it was being recorded in Abbey Road or Electric Lady.
The second half of the album sees Case in 2000 with violinist David Perales playing a mix of older songs and newer ones from that year’s Flying Saucer Blues; and there’s a tighter, more intimate feel to these songs, with Pay Day, Icewater and the inspired Leaving Home all sounding extraordinary.
For only two musicians, Case and Perales really kick up a storm on Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda and for that reason alone it takes on the mantle of RMHQ Favourite Track.
As I said earlier this is a fabulous entry point to discover Peter Case; but the quality of the complete package and the fact that these recordings have been hidden in a locked vault for nearly 20 years mean his fans will buy this in their droves and love it to death.
Released October 27th 2017
I’ll Be Yours
A great collection of songs from this Los Angeles based quartet that hints at any number of influences. They’ve got a frontman in Patrick Farris whose looks won’t offend too many in their audience and a clutch of tunes that won’t be easily ignored either.
The album kicks off with Nevada and immediately we’re into the world of the Americans. “Never was a fan of the quiet life/sitting in my hand is a pair of dice” sings Farris. It’s an out and out heads-down rocker; and it would be a bit of a cheap shot to compare it to mid-period Springsteen; but almost any track these days that has ‘cinematic scope’ i.e. wide-ranging subject matter, gets compared to Springsteen/Dylan/Young etc etc. and I mean it as a compliment.
Tracks like The Right Stuff don’t owe a nod to anyone though, a pacey critique of ‘him’ being accused of not having the right stuff. This band clearly demonstrate that they have the chops, as The Right Stuff and Stowaway could easily fall flat if there wasn’t more than a drop of talent in the band.
I’ll Be Yours slows the tempo and shows, perhaps, a weakness in the song writing, or at least in the melody. It wanders about in search of a hook and never quiet settles on a tune. Not one you’d easily remember. This is when you make the break for the bar or loo during the set.
Last Chance is back in familiar heartbreak territory “I knew I could win you over/if I could keep my mouth shut long enough” and “Yesterday somebody said you were out with somebody new” we’ve all been there. The chorus chimes with a plea to “try me again”.
I’d pay good money to be looking out at the audience during this track. The guys would be all ‘Nah, it sucks, but I’m better off without her’ and the girls will be ‘Of course I’ll give you another chance’!
The band may be familiar to you if you caught American Epic the PBS history of roots music in the US since the 1920’s. The band featured in the shows, not bad for a bunch of unknowns and you might think they have some mates with clout. They do; Jack White has been involved as has T Bone Burnett and Robert Redford. They were even involved in the selection of the band who, in the past, have backed Nick Cave and recorded with Keith Richards and Tom Waits. That having been said, none of these heavyweights would have picked the band on good looks alone. These guys can back it up with musicality and some fine songs.
Review courtesy the ever wonderful Tony Pearce esq.
Released 7th July 2017
Warm, Evocative and Thought Provoking Inter-crossed Celtic-Americana.
While I can’t actually find any record of Ciara Sidine’s 2011 debut album SHADOW ROAD SHINING in any of my files or even my CD Collection (it doesn’t actually have a filing system) but I certainly recognised both her name and her warmly expressive voice; so I guess I reviewed it for a certain UK Magazine and the CD will turn up when I least expect it.
So; with no real reference point I will treat this album as a completely new ‘find’ and what a ‘find’ it is!
As per usual I will begin at the beginning, track #1 Finest Flower. PHEW! My first thoughts were how much Ciara reminded me of a young Joan Baez or Linda Ronstadt the way she phrases her words and sings them in a breathy fashion. Then the more I’ve listened the more the song unravels, and the thorny topic of Ireland’s Mother and Baby Homes is worthy of Joan herself; had she been from Ireland.
Some artistes get a bit arsey when reviewers constantly draw comparisons; but as a ‘seller of their works’ I feel it is my duty to let the readers know what to expect, which is why I have to say the gutsy and passionate 2 Hard 2 Get 2 Heaven has a golden thread that leads back to Sinead O’Connor’s first album; but Ciara’s distinctive voice and exquisite songwriting skills actually makes that comparison futile with hindsight.
UNBROKEN LINE will undoubtedly be filed under ‘Folk’ in record shops; but Ciara Sidine can’t be pigeon-holed so easily; as she is an old-fashioned singer-songwriter who changes course like the wind and lets the song choose it’s own expressive style; with the lovely Watching The Dark and the spine tingling Trouble Come Find Me both being a bit of a late night Jazzy/Blues hybrid and perfect for anyone with a broken heart.
What I particularly like about this album; is the way Ciara’s expressive voice draws you into her stories; so much so that I defy you to try to listen to this as background music (as I did), because you will find yourself stopping whatever you are doing and cocking your head towards the speakers so you don’t miss a word of songs like Unbroken Line and the staggeringly dark tale Let The Rain Fall (which is a song Sinead O’Connor must wish she could have written!).
If you are ever lucky enough to hear the title track Unbroken Line on the radio it will make you do a double-take; as it sounds like the sort of Americana/Country Rock song you’ve heard before but actually haven’t.
On an album chock-full of richly crafted and exceptionally well written songs; two stood out the first time I played them and made me call Mrs. Magpie into the room to hear them. Lemme Drive Your Train is a subtly sassy love song from the point of view of a feisty young woman, and Woman of Constant Sorrow is Ciara’s reworking of that Country Folk standard; and the way she pours her heart and soul into her vocal performance; and the restrained elegance of her band makes it as exciting as any version I’ve ever heard in 40 odd years, therefore giving it the accolade of RMHQ Favourite Song.
Although Ciara Sidine’s name is on the album cover; this is actually a ‘band effort’ and couldn’t and wouldn’t have sounded half as good without the aid of Conor Brady’s liquid and lissome guitar playing; Robbie Malone’s subtle bass playing; Justin Carroll’s haunting keyboards and the jazz-lite drumming of Dave Hingerty all sitting in the shadows as the singer shines in the spotlight.
Released October 6th 2017
ANGELS & ONE ARMED JUGGLERS
21st Century Classy Adult Orientated Late Night Alt. Rock .
The name Chris Barron didn’t actually mean anything to me, but the cover artwork looked outstanding so into the player the silver disc went; and the opening track Angels & One Armed Jugglers hit me like a punch to the nose. A really classy piece of music with a multi-layered approach; but ‘that voice’ is just mind-blowing; so I fumbled around for the accompanying Press Release as track #2 April and May punched it’s way out of the speakers.
“Of course!” I chided myself as Chris Barron is/was the frontman for the Spin Doctors; one of the ‘gateway’ bands that led me to what I now know and love as Alt. Country via Alt. Rock and this second song has all that iconic band’s hallmarks stamped all over it.
With that in mind don’t think this album is an artist trying to re-live his glorious youth; far from it; it’s a lot more ‘grown up’ and now, five days on it actually reminds me of Donald Fagan’s Classic Nightfly album; although sounding nothing like it really……just a ‘feel.’
As you’d expect the songwriting and storytelling is quite exceptional with the gently sad In a Cold Way and the nod in the direction of Tom Paxton, Still a Beautiful World which I’ve played on repeat five or six times, like a smitten teenager looking for the ‘hidden meanings’ in Barron’s words. Then, of course there is the ‘I can’t believe that’s not a Randy Newman song’…………Till The Cows Come Home, which the whole album probably pivots around.
The overall ‘feeling’ here is of an album designed for actually ‘listening to’ which may sound odd; but too much of our time is spent with albums as a backdrop to something else; that would be a huge loss as you would miss the intricate lyrics of Gonna Need Someone and the Alt. Country gem (Too Old to Burn) Too Young To Fade which closes the album.
On an album that held a myriad of surprises the first few times I played it; two songs stood out right from the get go and become ‘equal favourite tracks’…..the dark and contemplative Darken My Door and the straight forward Alt. Rocker Saving Grace; not least for the feisty guitars and pounding bass; but hey with lines like “Her skirts too tight for a Monday night” and “I’ve tried songs about Angels/I could use a punch in the face” you know you’re not in Josh Groban territory any more!
It’s probably all too easy for guys like Chris Barron to sit back and count the cash from their mega-hits as it rolls in; but I salute this fella for having the cojones to put his money where his heart is and write, record and release such an interesting and often beautiful set of songs into such a cynical world as this one.
Released October 20th 2017