Bare Along the Branches
BLACK DUST RECORDS
Classy Contemporary Folk Songs That Transcend Boundaries and Borders.
I loved; and still love Norrie McCulloch’s last album These Mountain Blues released less than a year ago so was very surprised when this ‘follow up’ album arrived in late January.
So, it was with a modicum of trepidation that I slid the shiny disc into the office hi-fi and sat back cradling a piping hot cup of tea.
It took less than two minutes of opening track Shutter for a smile to break out and I breathed a sigh of relief. Norrie’s voice sounds even warmer and more ’rounded’ than on the previous album; and the ‘sound’ that surrounds a delightfully brittle bittersweet love song obviously comes from a band of musicians who know each others strengths intimately and gel like a well oiled machine.
Historically I steer away from the F Word; but this is Folk Music Jim; just not as we know it.
McCulloch’s voice is definitely Scottish; but to the uninitiated…. quintessentially ‘Celtic;’ and songs like Safe Keeping and Around The Bend are from the Folk idiom; but just like his heroes Guy Clark and Bobby Dylan the way McCulloch interprates his own lyrics is way beyond the ‘finger in the ear’ ballads and shanties that still get played in Folk Clubs around the world.
McCulloch is obviously well travelled; and he has picked up ideas for stories and songs along the way; making Frozen River and Little Boat just as relevant in Australia, Appalachia and Airdrie…..which is quite some feat, in my humble opinion.
Dig deep here and you will find the Lo-Fi dark delights of Beggars Woods and Turn To Dust; written shortly after the death of his Mother and are both as Southern Gothic as they are Scottish Presbyterian in essence.
Then, just when I thought I had a handle on Norrie’s ‘new direction’ he throws a couple of left-field curve balls with the ‘Folk Rockers’ Never Leave You Behind (featuring some sublime pedal-steel from Mr Ian Sloan) and Lonely Boy.
Like all of the best singer-songwriter albums through the ages, Bare Along The Ashes is best listened to alone, preferably with the lights down low and a refreshing brew to hand; which brings me to my two stand out tracks…….the stark and brooding piano led This Time is absolutely spellbinding but the one I keep going back to; and the one ‘shuffle’ on my I-pod keeps playing is Safe Keeping. A very simple melody masking a very complex and timeless song that could be about my own life in a ‘small town’ and looking for a road out.
This is Norrie McCulloch’s third album in as many years; and for such a prolific songwriter there’s not a weak song here and the self-confidence in his storytelling and way with words is quite astonishing really.
If you like quality songwriters like Guy Clark, Richard Thompson and the like I’m pretty sure you will love this album by this proud son of Scotland too.
Released February 24th 2017
Blackie & The Rodeo Kings (featuring Rodney Crowell)
LIVE BY THE SONG
from the new album Kings & Kings…….featuring RMHQ favourites Eric Church, Bruce Cockburn, Rodney Crowell, Vince Gill, Jason Isbell, Nick Lowe, Raul Malo, Buddy Miller and Keb Mo!
Album Review to follow ASAP!
Yep Roc Records
A Grunge Infused Alt. Country Album That Will Blow Your Mind!
For no apparent reason I don’t actually own any of the Sadies previous 9 albums, but have seen them play live…..a show that is in my Top 10 of all time and sticks in my mind because the Good Brothers took to the stage in pale blue Nudie suits and proceeded to blow the roof of the Cluny.
My ears nearly exploded and my eyes nearly popped out of head halfway through opening track Riverview Mirror.
The rolling ‘twang’ of the guitars aligned to some luscious harmonies instantly took me back to those heady days when I first discovered Buffalo Springfield, The Byrds and of course Gram Parsons esq.
Things hot up on the following track Another Season Again; which is a tightly coiled slice of Garage-Punk but still stays stoutly within Alt. Country territory and had me clenching my fists and headbanging along to the beat…maaaan! Something I haven’t done for many a year.
Honestly; by track #5 The Elements Song, where the guitars tentatively enter ‘psychedelic’ territory; I was smiling like a ninny and furiously scribbling down notes so as not to miss any of my initial feelings.
As Above, So Below features some delicious 12 string guitar picking and again the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield spring to mind; but this is very much The Sadies in 2017 and not a homage to the 60’s in any shape or form.
There is the feeling of unbridled freedom in the playing and lyrics throughout Northern Passages; especially on songs like Questions I Never Asked and There Are No Words, which is chock full of fuzzy guitars and a drum beat straight from the pits of Hell.
Selecting a favourite track hasn’t been easy as each song has it’s own merits; but I will point you to either God Bless The Infidels, with its Urban-Hillbilly Swing or the Country-Grunge of It’s Easy (Like Walking) featuring Kurt Vile on guest vocals; but you could stick a pin in and find your very favourite song of all time and I wouldn’t disagree with you.
I first received this disc two months ago and have been sitting on it like a man with a secret; desperate to let the world know of its existence; but had too many other albums to review near their deadlines; but The Sadies have been my palette cleanser in between; playing this album loudly in the car (first thing in the morning and late at night) as well as ‘for pleasure’ while reading a magazine or the newspaper…..and it works well in every setting.
Released February 10th 2017
I’ll Make The Most of My Sins
At The Helm/Last Chance Records
Compelling and Introspective Lo-Fi Alt. Country Meets Folk.
For the third time in as many weeks I have to write ‘this wasn’t what I was expecting’.
Rob Vincent has sort of been on my radar for a couple of years now, with several friends raving about him and telling me ‘you will love his music.’ Yet I somehow totally missed his debut album, Life In Easy Steps and his high profile support slots for James Blunt, Squeeze and Paul Carrack among others.
It doesn’t matter what I was actually expecting; because opening song Mobius knocked me sideways right from the moody almost classical opening few bars and right through a gut wrenching love story which is both articulate and intelligently written. Plus the inclusion of some sweetly ragged harmonica is always going to catch my attention.
A beautiful and well written song, So In Love captures the very essence of the sort of nail-biting dark and broody Alt. Country I’ve loved since I first discovered the likes of Cowboy Junkies many years ago.
A week after playing this album 2 or 3 times a day I can now see why my friends would think I would like Rob Vincent.
The Liverpudlian writes from the very bottom of his heart, Time Won’t Wait and Denial are the type of songs you would normally associate with Master Craftsman singer-songwriters from the Americas, not a young man from Liverpool still beginning his career.
I absolutely love it when a songwriter I’ve never met somehow manages to put my own idiosyncratic feelings into words. All Of You; about a man willing to change his ways for the love of another is just such a song; and will touch most of the people who ever hear it.
The title track is quite staggering in its complexity, yet still manages to be accessible for the average listener like me . Almost poetic in the way Dylan and Townes Van Zandt could mould the two idioms into one I’ll Make The Most of My Sins finds Vincent singing in an almost Gospel manner as the band swoop and soar behind him in minor keys. Lo-Fi at its absolute finest!
Which brings us to the ‘RM Favourite Track’ accolade…..Dancing With Devils. Another song that will make you think it’s about you, and you alone. Vincent obviously has his own demons; which he writes about here, but they are a lot more common than most of us are prepared to admit and the young man captures them in intimate detail and sings them over a gloriously uptight tune that showcases a superb band.
Easily sliding between lonely singer-songwriter mode to a full band profile, Robert Vincent has managed to create a bunch of songs that will be listened to late at night when all alone and lonely; but will just as easily be transferred to the stage and create a great evenings entertainment. Quite some feat.
Released January 27th 2017
Hurray For The Riff Raff
Jumping Hot Club at the Cluny, Newcastle.
19th January 2017
My New Year Resolution was to see more live music again; and already events have dictated that it’s been nearly three weeks before gig #1.
For those who’ve never visited The Cluny in Newcastle it’s an old Bonded Whisky Warehouse in the East of the city overlooking the tiny River Ouseburn, and split into two venues. Cluny 1 is the larger Hall and holds about 360-370 and Cluny 2, where my gig was holds 150-160. When I arrived 20 minutes early, for a change there wasn’t a parking space for half a mile or so; which is virtually unknown.
It turned out that not only was the Hurray For The Riff Raff gig Sold-Out but so was Martin Barre from the Jethro Tulls in Hall 1!
Hurray for live music!
The queue for HFTRR was actually up the stairs and outside the venue long before the doors opened, which was another first at this popular venue.
Hey ho; let’s talk about the actual gig should we?
Opening act local singer-songwriter Rhona Dalling, daughter of JHC regular Tim Dalling, at first appeared to be a strange choice; as she was more to the Folk end of the Roots spectrum; but songs like I Don’t Mind and the dark and melancholic How Do We Get Down; were all very well received by the already packed crowd.
By the time Alynda Lee Segarra and the other four members assembled by the side of the stage the atmosphere was genuinely ‘electric.’
Opening song Life Is Safe, was something of a slow burner, with Alynda looking as if she was as tight as a spring, making her distinctive voice sound both warm and fragile too.
The intense mood continued with the second song Nothing’s Gonna Change That Girl; from the forthcoming Navigator release. The ‘free-jazz’ vibe; a theme that came and went throughout the night took me a bit by surprise, but certainly wasn’t unpleasant.
As the applause shook the rafters Alynda took her huge semi-acoustic guitar off and proceeded to prowl the stage like a Hip-Hop tigress during a a wonderful re-interpretation of Daniella.
The blonde bass player; who was wearing a ‘Not My President’ t-shirt provided a very funky groove for another new song, the socio-political Rican Beach which was a lot punchier live than the sampler that the record company sent me.
From my vantage point in the VIP Section (ha, ha, ha) on the tiny balcony I could already see that the audience had split into two, with regular attendees who had seen the band several times before looking slightly baffled at the ‘new direction’ but the bulk of the crowd were already ‘into it’….and I was starting to err towards the latter too.
Even The Body Electric, from 2014 had a makeover and now had an almost Southern Gothic feel to it; mostly from the shimmering cymbals and powerful brushed drumming from the back of the stage.
Then; HFTRR dropped in the title track from The Navigator and bizarrely it was a return to the sweet Alt. Country Twang that we normally associate with this group, as was their ‘outlaw song’ Young Blood Blues; which feature some sublime bottle neck geetar from Jordan Hyde.
It would be wrong to say that it was a night of ‘ups and downs’ but there were definite mood-swings;
with oldie Blue Ridge Mountain actually bleeding into a fast and furious fan favourite Look Out Mama, during which pockets of shuffling/dancing broke out around the room.
Then; as if to confuse/challenge me even further Alyssa went ‘all Lucinda’ on closing songs Living in the City and the magnificent Pa’Lante ; again from the new album.
With nowhere really to go, the band had to push passed fans on the stairs beside the stage and disappear behind the curtain for 30 seconds before mysteriously re-appearing for their encore numbers!
The first of which St. Rock Blues found Alynda wrapped up as tight as a coiled spring again; but the band got their groove back and played their ‘Trump Card’ the night before the presidential inauguration, with a stomping cover of the Creedence song anti-Vietnam song Fortunate son with Alyssa actually snarling the lyrics.
What an interesting evening. Older fans of the rootsy HFTRR seemed more than a little confused on the way out; but the younger newer fans were beaming like beacons.
Me? I need to hear more of the new album and bigger, rockier sound before I commit.
The Grahams & Friends
Live in the Studio
Three Sirens Music Group.
Classy Album Gets an Exciting Makeover.
I loved their Glory Bound album in 2014, and the Deluxe Version which followed but this is now the album’s third incarnation; albeit the first official release in the UK so I’m a little bit baffled as to where to start. Do I do a ‘compare and contrast’ of these ‘one-take’ live in the studio versions of songs from both previous albums or treat it as a brand new record?
I will presume it’s all new to you, so I will opt for the latter option; but occasionally ‘compare and contrast’….confused? You will be.
Title track Glory Bound is one of the most powerful opening tracks I’ve possibly ever heard; with Alyssa Graham not only trading lines like “I wish hadn’t done the things I did when I was young/all the little tablets I melted on my tongue.” with Sarah Watkins but harmonising with the rest of the Watkins Family too!
The updated versions of songs like Gambling Girl and especially the foot-stomping City of New Orleans are well worth the admission price alone, but it’s the collaborations that intrigue and excite me.
Here, The Lonely Ones becomes a brittle and beautifully doleful ballad with Alyssa joined by starlets The Milk Carton Kids; and the end result left me quite breathless and teary eyed.
I’m not au fait with David Garza but Suzanna Choffel was a favourite on my old radio show; so I couldn’t wait to hear her sing alongside Alyssa Graham; and the trio really create a glorious sound on Mama, with Garza actually stealing the show!!
The inclusion of Alejandro Escovedo’s Broken Bottle is a rare treat for anyone who missed it on the Deluxe release but it is Tender Annabelle that wins the title of ‘RM Favourite Track.’
Completely deconstructed and a choir of Angels added on the chorus, should have been enough; but having Alyssa’s trembling voice more than matched by the dulcet tones of John Fullbright; leaves me salivating at the prospect of these two recording a whole album together.
If you don’t have either Glory Bound or its follow up Deluxe Edition I heartily recommend this disc; and personally can’t wait to see them perform on the upcoming UK Tour for which it is being released.
Released January 27th 2017
Bobby Fuller Died For Your Sins
Yep Roc Records
The Coolest Cat in Americana Re-Defines Cool Americana Music.
Chuck Prophet’s last album Night Surfer was the RM Radio Show Album of the year in 2014 and in his previous incarnation the original Green on Red were the first Alt. Country band I ever saw, ‘blowing my mind’ at the legendary Riverside Club, Newcastle many moons ago.
Although a regular visitor to our fair city in the intervening years it’s fair to say Prophet never captured his ‘on stage magic’ on vinyl until Temple Beautiful in 2012…..and now, five years later….phew, the kid can now really write as well as he plays!
The album opens with a BOOM! The title track Bobby Fuller Died For Your Sins is a trademark Chuck Prophet ‘three to the floor’ rocking, chug-a-lug boogie slice of Americana, with the Mission Express supplying a fantastic chorus in-between verses hailing a forefather of Rock n Roll.
Your Skin follows, and it’s the first of several surprises as it has a slightly psychedelic feel to the beat, especially Prophets’ fuzzy guitar licks and Stephanie Finch’s almost Floydian keyboards.
Similarly, Killing Machine takes a dark story and adds a hypnotic Doors type feel to the back-beat; and I can only presume (hope) that both songs get the light-show they deserve when the band play them live.
Prophet even has the confidence now to take a stroll back to his earlier albums, with Jesus Was a Social Drinker, in as much as it has a glorious Pop-Rock feel to it much like those albums alluded too.
One song that will probably get lost in the annals of time, but doesn’t deserve it, is Post-War Cinematic Dead Man Blues; as it has entangled it’s way into my brain and won’t come out. It’s a tune that is difficult to pin down as it nods towards several 60’s songs without ever sounding like anything in particular and Prophet really, really makes his Strat sizzle at times!
The song most reviewers will pick up on, Bad Year For Rock & Roll, will surely become a stage favourite as it mentions David Bowie and Peter Sellers directly and alludes to the raft of other famous artistes who passed in 2016. Plus, it’s a cracking ‘rocker’ too….straight from Prophet’s #1 play-book.
I genuinely love this album from start to finish, but picking a ‘Favourite Track’ has been relatively easy; although it is a tie.
The album closes with red-hot rocker called Alex Nieto and Prophet claims this to be his first ever ‘protest song’ and his ire and anger come through in every single note as he tells us about the young Latino who was killed in a hail of bullets by the LAPD in 2014.
The other is a lot more frivolous. If I was Connie Britton sees our hero Chuck, pen a loving ode to the flame-haired star of Friday Night Lights and now Nashville. I too am smitten with Coach Taylor’s wife and swooned the first time I played the song; and even now two weeks later I still get giggly at the lyrics. 10/10 Chuck….10/10.
Because of his distinctive voice this is obviously a Chuck Prophet record; but the way he glides between 60’s Psychedelia and Garage right through to 21st Century Rock n Roll, as well as including the occasional sensitive singer-songwriter ballad (We Got Up and Played) our hero proves he ain’t no one trick pony; he’s a thoroughbred ….pure and simple.
What more can I say, apart from I will be amazed if I review 10 better albums this year.
Released February 10th 2017
The Spirit of Woody, Steinbeck and John Huston That Rekindles the American Folk Flame.
I can remember the afternoon when I first saw Otis Gibbs the Jumping Hot Club at SummerTyne as if it was yesterday. Since then I have accumulated all 7 of his previous albums and must have seen him perform 10 or more times and he never fails to make my soul stir and enrich my brain. Plus, his Thanks For Giving a Damn podcast has taught me more about Americana history, music and its exponents than any magazine or website has even come close over the last few years.
Yep, I’m a bit of a fan.
Recorded in lieu of a party in his living room on the day of hos 50th Birthday, the album opens with Ed’s Blues (Survival) a beautifully sad song featuring some incredibly maudlin fiddle and a story about a friends death that has a great similarity to Gram Parson’s final days.
Otis has always been able to extract a song from the everyday things he encounters as he travels around the highways and by-ways of rural America and at last he has managed to put all of those freaks, geeks and oddities into one three minute opus. Great American Roadside truly en-captures the ‘Spirit of Americana’ in a way I don’t think I’ve heard before, and it conjures up pictures that are best viewed in mono or sepia…..definitely not Technicolour.
On his last album, Souvenirs of a Misspent Youth, Otis looked back fondly on his upbringing, specifically his relationship with his father and that theme recurs here with the raw and emotional Empire Hole, about the Limestone Quarry that his Dad worked in. I love the way Otis contrasts the beautiful New York Skyline with the hole in the ground in rural Indiana that supplied the stone for the city’s most famous landmark.
Sticking with the ‘looking back’ theme, two songs really intrigue me….Kathleen about a ‘first love’ in 1993 who has taken a wrong turn, but still features in the narrators life, albeit the shadows. It’s lyrically excellent and truly heartbreaking with Gibb’s voice sounding warm, leathery and on the verge of cracking.
The other is the Appalachian/Irish flavoured Lucy Parsons. The type of song more normally associated with the likes of Tom Russell; but a delightful move forward for Wanamaker’s favourite son.
While One Day Our Whispers is my favourite Otis Gibbs album (and a Top 10 of all time) it’s entirely possible that the more I listen to my favourite two songs included here that this album could overtake it very soon.
Those two songs epitomise everything I love about American Singer-songwriters and especially this one.
Gibbs gives us two history lessons with Bison and Sputnik Monroe. Bison is a heartfelt tale of the ‘white men’ destroying the great Bison herds and therefore destroying the great Cherokee nation. The song’s construction and delivery will grab you by the heart strings and feel like a kick to the stomach…..but leaving you staggered at Gibbs’ story-telling ability.
The opening lines to Sputnik Monroe should instantly grab your attention – “Listen to me people/Let me speak to your Soul/There’s more to Memphis than Rock & Roll.” The song about a long forgotten white boxer, who instigated the first integrated sporting event in the South, is a ‘typical’ Otis Gibbs story. One where he finds a tiny gold nugget that needs to be brought to our attention and does it in a very articulate and never less than interesting manner.
If this song doesn’t win ‘Song of the Year’ Awards at the end of 2017 there’s no justice in this world.
No longer the ‘Angry Man of Folk’ that I first fell in love with many years ago; Otis Gibbs now sounds more rounded; mature even (?) and his story-telling on this and the previous album will surely bring him to the attention of a much wider audience that will give him the recognition and rewards his talent deserves.
Released 13th January 2017
Every Soul’s a Sailor
LowdenProud Records LOWD60161
Rodeo King Proves He is a Prince Among Singer-Songwriters.
Well, I don’t know what I was expecting…..but I wasn’t expecting this!
I only knew Stephen as a founding member of the amazing Blackie & The Rodeo Kings; quite probably Canada’s finest Country Rock (?) band; so when the sweet rolling Country sounds of Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is filled the office just before Christmas I was astonished straight-away. Fearing’s distinctive voice is…..is…..warm, weather beaten, slightly nasally and expressive in a way not heard around these parts for a mighty long time.
The song, with it’s lovely chorus and awesome guitar interludes is so cool it made it difficult for me to listen to the rest of the album as I kept going back to it.
This left me with a huge dilemma…..could the rest of the songs live up to this compelling opening track?
Yes…is the short and definitive answer.
Red Lights in the Rain follows and takes us on a very emotional and sad journey that is full of poetic lines like ‘nothing says I’m hungry like a baby’ and ‘no one says I’m lonely like a train.’ Plus, Stephen’s soft guitar picking will send shivers down your spine.
Fearing takes a bit of a left turn on The Things We Did, which somehow sounds a bit Western Swing and a bit Country Blues and is more than a bit of a toe-tapper too.
Every Soul’s a Sailor is an album that begs to be ‘listened to’ which may seem an odd thing to say; but Stephen Fearing’s lyrics and the way he delivers them demands your full attention and not just be in the background. Carousel sounds not unlike something from James Taylor and if you listen on headphones you will get the full benefit of a craftsman at his very best.
Gone But Not Forgotten is in a similar vein; ‘easy listening,’ yet still edgy and lyrically clever….if that makes sense.
The title Better Than Good, intrigued me as it’s something I’m prone to say when describing something and the song itself certainly is Better Than Good as Stephen describes his feelings for the lady in his life.
As usual I played the album a couple of times before reading the Press Release and gave myself a smug 10/10 for getting the background to the rocking Blowhard Nation bang on the nail! I won’t give too much away but the song was written and recorded in the middle of the 2016 US Election campaign and….well….give it a listen.
10 songs here and not a bad one among them, which is some achievement but after 20 years or more as a singer-songwriter and band member perhaps that’s no surprise, it certainly won’t be for his legions of fans in North America, which brings me to my ‘favourite track’ here.
Obviously it should/could have been the opener Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is, but now two weeks after receiving the album I’m going for…..the beautiful title track Every Soul’s a Sailor which closes the disc. I can’t even describe why; but it just touches me in many different ways….which is a good thing.
#All proceeds from the single Blowhard Nation go to http://warchild.ca/about/#overview
Released February 3rd 2017
Chip Taylor (AKA James Wesley Voight)
Beautiful and Thought Provoking Songs From Legendary Songwriter.
Chip Taylor? Not heard of him? You have. Wild Thing, Angel (Of the morning), Try and Any Way You Want Me are just four songs that he wrote and topped various Hit Parades or at least are being played somewhere on Planet Earth on a Gold Radio Station as you read this.
Yet the one time professional gambler doesn’t rest on his laurels sipping cocktails from a golden chalice; no he still tours endlessly and records albums with songs that are touching and mindful.
The opening track is fascinating as it’s actually a spoken story of Alice playing in golf tournaments for kids set to music. It was only on the fourth or fifth time of hearing it that the story of ‘Barry taking his Granddaughter to the various tournaments’ began to unravel. I’m not going to spoil it by giving the last verse away, but Taylor really is a Master Craftsman.
That last sentence really does sum up Chip Taylor; he can tell a story and tell it in his soft, homely Grandpa style like no one else. St. Joan is a tale that stopped me in my tracks and made me listen intensely to every single word, then press ‘repeat’ each time it ended.
Book of Hope is really absorbing, although it’s vaguely about Religion and International Politics…..the way Taylor’s provocative lyrics slowly pour from his lips will make you realise that there really is ‘light at the end of the tunnel’…..if you look for it.
One track that should work but doesn’t work is Enlighten Yourself; basically because of the itro which finds Taylor rambling about people who “tell him to ‘Relax’ but never explain how to.” To emphasise his annoyance several lines are prefaced with a car horn; this happens again mid-way through. Probably a good idea that should have been left in the studio.
Then again Chip also ‘introduces’ two other songs that are actually enhanced by his spoken words set to music; the first is the title track Little Brothers. For those who don’t know Chip Taylor was born James Wesley Voight. That surname may ring a bell as his eldest brother Barry is a world famous expert on volcanoes. No? Possibly you know his other brother Jon; one of the finest actors of his generation. Yes, that Jon Voight!
The three are the boys featured on the cover and the story/song is absolutely glorious the way Chip puts some family minutiae to music; yet the thread will resonate with many of us too.
Regular readers will now my fondness for a ‘love song’ and Taylor delivers one here that brought a lump to my throat the first time I heard it. On Time Goes By the singer declares his love for his wife of many, many years in a whisper but the sentiment screams from the speakers. This is as good a love song as I’ve ever heard!
My absolutely favourite song here; and one that really tugged at my heartstrings also features a spoken introduction and one that is an integral part of the song that follows.
In these troubled times (I am writing this post-Brexit and the evening after DJ Trump became American President) the song Refugee Children is beautiful/touching/clever/relevant in equal measures. Taylor doesn’t hit you over the head nor sugar coat the tale but he gets the ‘message across’ in a way 99.99% of other songwriters can ever manage.
Released September 23rd 2016