To say I’ve been looking forward to this release is an understatement – Ms Rose’ previous melodic Classic Country has always ticked the right boxes for this particular reviewer (Me too! ED.) – and “We Still Go to Rodeos” surpasses all expectations. Now releasing independently via her own MCG management/label, this has seemingly given her greater control to do things her way – and what we have is a delicious potpourri of styles, which is far closer in style to the live Whitney Rose ‘experience’ than perhaps her previous releases. Kicking things off is “Just Circumstance” a character song coming from the same observational well as the likes of “Truckers’ Funeral;” but this tale tells of a poor girl whose choices in the ‘dice-man’ challenge of life always take her down a path where there’s “No pomp – just circumstance”, set to an arrangement that sounds like early Blondie, if they’d played in Austin rather than NYC. “Home with you” is meltingly gorgeous Countrypolitan goodness that should unfreeze the hardest of hearts – great chorus too “I wanna go home with you Be alone with you Maybe sit out I the yard and get stoned with you”. The first single release from the album “Believe me Angela” follows and is a tale of a jilted wife offering sincere and practical advice to the younger woman who’s run off with her man #spoiler – He’s not worth it (he’s a dick!). The tempo lifts again with a song that Whitney drew from personal experience – “In a Rut” – full of guitars that echo Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers, and driven along by the formidable Pankrantz/Fordham rhythm section, framing an earworm that’s as catchy as…let’s not go there….but it is damn catchy. Hank definitely didn’t do it (musically) this way, but he’d certainly approve the attitude! “A hundred shades of blue” takes things down with latin-tinged minor key melody that would go down well with the customers at Twin Peak’s Roadhouse Bang Bang bar (David Lynch, please take note). “I’d rather be alone” is anthemic chugga-chugga 70’s NY pop song, but with added banjos! In my universe it is already in full rotation on the music video station in my head. “You’d blame me for the rain” is a sultry surprise – Dave Leroy Biller’s bluesy country-soul guitar lines, frame a late-night melody that confidently takes Whitney into previously uncharted musical territory – and wins. “Fell through the cracks” is in power ballad territory, with Whitney delivering an effortless lesson in how to match the emotion of a song to its delivery – no fake histrionics here. “Don’t give up on me” is an understated shuffle where the vocal and melody are to the fore in an ages old tale where you “fight until you bleed” to get the one you love – very much a statement of intent for the listener too. “Better Man” takes things up again and actually makes me think of a country version of The Undertones – hand-clap drumbeats and soaring bass and guitar iced with a nonchalantly assured vocal will have you leaping around your room hoping the neighbours don’t see you (I didn’t just do that by the way. Honest). “Thanks for trying” keeps the loud guitars plugged in and is another single finger to a man/The Man. Credit must go to producer Paul Kolderie for the harmonious balancing of the various stringed styles throughout, but especially here, where Pettyesque twangy guitar crunch, mixes with but doesn’t clash with raucous steel-guitar;a good job well done, sir! The album ends in quieter mode with the Summery harmonica led and gently percussive title track – a further ‘statement of intent’ from an album that contains several more; metaphorically, musically and literally too. “There’s lots of things that we ain’t got” sings Whitney “We’ve got something different of our own” – this album shows that “something different” is definitely “something special”.
Ags Connolly WRONG AGAIN (You Lose a Life) Self-Released
Some say he is a ‘National Treasure’ others call him ‘The Oxford Cowboy’ but we know Ags Connolly as the ‘Jolliest Man in British Country Music’* and here he is with the first song from his new album, of the same name WRONG AGAIN, due for release on November 1st ……….. and we couldn’t be more excited. Come on Country Lovers; what’s not to like about a song so sad the vinyl actually weeps in time to the pedal-steel guitar? Then of course there is Ags’ wonderful mournful voice which certainly wasn’t made for Disco music …… it is Pure Country through and through.
Here’s what he and his label have to say –
“Wrong Again is Ags Connolly’s third studio album, following on from his highly-acclaimed offerings How About Now (2014) and Nothin’ Unexpected (2017). The traditional country singer-songwriter from Oxfordshire took the reins on this latest effort, producing the album with a team of London-based musicians in the peaceful and intimate surroundings of Woodworm Studios in his home county. Ags also enlisted the expert help of accordionist Michael Guerra (The Mavericks) and fiddle player Eamon McLoughlin (Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell), both of whom had graced his previous album.
Alongside Ags’ trademark honky tonk shuffles, drinking songs and barroom ballads, Wrong Again delves once more into Tex-Mex/south-of-the-border flavours while entering some new territory with lively western swing.”
*Love him as we do; Ags will admit, he isn’t really the ‘Jolliest Man in Country Music.’
The Ponderosa Aces No Particular Way Mad Ducks Music
There’s a Honky-TonkSomewhere in Need Of This Band.
Even though The Ponderosa Aces from Calif-orn-IA are made up of band members that are way past the first flush of youth and have been playing the live circuit since before any of them could shave; there’s still a delightful and amateurish excitement to this album right from the get-go, with opening song If You Think I’ve Got a Drinkin’ Problem. A clever and part ‘tongue in cheek’ break-up/make-up song that will have you dancing around the kitchen. Country Music effects people in many ways; and when it’s as good as Come Around you can two-step around a Honky-Tonk dancefloor to it with ease or, like me either kick back and wallow in the magic; or turn it up to 10 on the car stereo…… none of which are right or wrong; but whichever you choose… you will enjoy these fabulous 3 minutes of quality music. While I no longer want a whole album of Truckin’ songs; I do like it to be a good ‘un when one does come along; and here Gotta Keep Truckin’ is right up there within touching distance of Commander Cody and Dale Watson. With so much dizzying Pedal-Steel and it’s accompanying Telecaster Twang this album is surely Classic Country? Or is it Outlaw Country? Or more than likely in 2019…….. Ameripolitan; but such titles are immaterial when you hear The Landlord’s Comin’ and the Blown My Chances as they tick every box someone wearing Wranglers and a plaid shirt will love anyways. It’s always easy to let music like this to just drift over you as you tap your toes to the Breitling type beat but listen carefully and there’s some damn fine songwriting in their too most noticeably on the delightful Come Around and Simpler Life which sound like Marty Robbins singing Willie Nelson songs (or something like that). For the guys and gals who crave ‘authenticity’, look no further than the wonderful Simpler Life, Moonshine From a Still and Fiery Skies which could all have come from Hit albums recorded any time since 1970; yet are still as sharp as a tack and perfect for Country radio RIGHT NOW. Baring in mind my difficulty in characterising the Ponderosa Aces, there could be a clue in the title of my Favourite Track here…….. Lots of Ways to Be An Outlaw, which may take it’s inspiration from the albums Johnny, Waylon, Willie etc. made back in the day; but listen to it carefully and it’s a song about living and loving in the USA in 2019! I probably receive too many albums like this; and most fall by the wayside as there’s usually a ‘Country by Numbers’ formula to them; but The Ponderosa Aces sound like they live this life and music 24/7……. this album is the Real Deal kids!
Scorching Set of New, Old and Truly Authentic Country Songs.
Think about this for a minute; how come a man who was at the forefront of what we now know as *Ameripolitan or whatever we are calling ‘Real Country’ these days, is having to fund his latest album via his fans on IndieGoGo? Mercifully Jason Ringenberg doesn’t let such things worry him too much; he just ‘Keeps on Keeping on’; playing gigs wherever and whenever he can; albeit as himself, or with The Scorchers or more likely as his alter-ego Farmer Jason; for which the music world owes him an enormous debt. I’m a fan, by the way. Enough of that……. ‘give me the lowdown on the music’ I hear you ask. Oddly, for a singer-songwriter album, the title track, which opens the album, Stand Tall is a glorious instrumental, well worthy of a John Wayne or Clint Eastwood soundtrack, and features our hero in the heady mix somewhere, while the band conjure up Technicolour images of the Old West. ‘That’ distinctive and definitive Country voice comes out of the speakers like a Tennessee storm a moment later on Looking Back Blues; which is as Country as Country gets in 2019 as Jason loosely sings about life’s missed chances, with more rhymes than a children’s poet. That’s the beauty of this fellas songs; they can make you dance, sing and any old thing you want to when you hear John The Baptist Was a Real Humdinger or John Muir Stood Here or more likely his remembrance of the time the Nashville Scorchers supported The Ramones on a month long tour of Texas in ’82 on God Bless The Ramones. What a way with words and music this guy has! This, dear reader is exactly where Country and Punk collided to beget Cow Punk. As per usual not everything here is 99 mph; Ringenberg can break your heart into smithereens with his delicate ballads; and Here in the Sequoias is the perfect antidote to the whiz-bang songs that surround it. Long term fans will always expect a drinking song from Mr Ringenberg; and Many Happy Hangovers To You sounds like it’s destined to be included in any future sets by the Scorchers; and if/when it does expect a full house to know every single word and extol them with ecstatic force and glee. If you’ve ever seen Ringenberg play you will know his pre-ambles are often as entertaining as the songs themselves; plus you will realise he’s a well read young man too, which brings us to I’m Walking Home, about a teenager who was virtually kidnapped to join the Confederate Army; but it’s the tiny details in each verse, coupled to a superb Celtic-Military tune that make this song stand out from just about everything else I’ve heard from this era; and I’ve heard a lot! As a fan-boy I am pre-programmed to love absolutely everything that Jason Ringenberg has ever recorded; but even I can still be surprised by his undoubted talent and story-telling, which brings me to two wonderful songs that must tie for the title of RMHQ Favourite Song. Bob Dylan’s Farewell Angelina is a stunningly beautiful song that had my heart twisted in knots the first two times I heard it; and now two weeks later it’s still unravelling to reveal even more depth to a magnificent tale. The other is a theme Jason has touched on before; but on his exquisite version of Jimmie Rodger’s Hobo Bill’s Last Ride he dips into the Country Music play book and comes out with an absolute tearjerker, which doesn’t just include a classy melody but finds our hero regaling us with a yodel or two, too! For a man who thought his music career was over after losing his muse; and thinking he’d lost his fan base……. this album is setting the bar very high indeed for everyone else in 2019!
Even Rolling Stone once said of Jason and the Scorchers “they single handedly re-wrote the history of rock’n’roll in the South”
It’s been another amazing and occasionally tearful year here at RMHQ during 2017; I had my own health issues at the beginning of the year and in late October Mrs Magpie was rushed to hospital for an emergency operation (you don’t need to know the details……but it was a very scary time for me) but during the year there was always MUSIC and some of the music I’ve listened to in 2017 has been staggeringly good (some quite poor and disappointing too!) but some of the discoveries I’ve shared will change your lives.
Strangely enough when checking the data we had 93 more visitors than 2016 but 117 less views! All of which still blows my mind after two short years of going solo due to musical and financial differences.
After reviewing 312 albums, singles and box-sets choosing Ten and only Ten favourite albums was nigh on impossible; so this year I’ve stretched the list to twenty…..but it could have been fifty.
My criteria for selecting this 20 was basically sitting down with a piece of paper, a pencil and three strong cups of coffee remembering albums that ‘touched’ me in some way. Some are from perennial favourites who continue to make new and interesting music, but a lot on this list are brand new artistes to me and took my breath away in some way.
Ags Connolly and Jeremy Pinnell
Gateshead, Tyne and Wear
We’ve liked Ags Connolly for a few years now at RMHQ but Jeremy Pinnell has been a brand new discovery this year and his album Blood and Affection is a key contender for the title of Album of the Year; so when I heard that they would be playing the newish Prohibition Bar in the shadow of Sage Gateshead all of the stops were pulled out so I could attend.
After 3 weeks of trying and with only 48 hours to go I managed to swap shifts with a colleague, and with hardly enough time to grow a beard and get the Grand-kids to draw pictures on my arms that I would pretend were tattoos I entered the latest hipster bar to be greeted by the gregarious Mr Connolly who was standing at the bar.
Twenty minutes later a nervous looking Jeremy Pinnell made his way onto the corner stage and framed by some fabulous velvet curtains, closed his eyes and immediately punched the adoring crowd straight in the heart with a stark and beautiful rendition of Ballad of 1892, and as the final words left his mouth you could genuinely hear a pin drop until the applause nearly took the roof off (which would have been difficult as the Aberdeen to London railway line ran above!).
Without the fabulous band that accompanied him on the record Pinnell proved that a great song doesn’t need a big production, as he proved by pretty much singing the whole album tonight with just a simple acoustic guitar and a fascinating voice; all of which kept us enthralled for just under an hour.
Highlights? Phew…..everything? If pushed Different Kind of Love became even more delicate than I could have ever imagined and Country don’t get any Countrier than hearing Jeremy Pinnell singing Take The Wheel only six feet away from where you are sitting and the Honky Tonky I don’t Believe; suddenly became sad and full of poignancy when stripped right back to the bone, like tonight.
Pinnell even managed to throw in a brand new song, Blue Ribbon Blues (?) and a wonderful Gary Stewart song too.
After a very short break Ags Connolly took to the stage and halfway through his first song, a couple tried to sneak past the stage telling him “Sorry, but we’ve got a train to catch!”
Connolly was the perfect foil for Jeremy, as the English ‘Ameripolitan’ singer-songwriter has a punchier style with the guitar and a rich baritone voice; which both came to fore on his trademark bittersweet ballads Slow Burner and Nothin’ Unexpected; but it was the inclusion of an old Cowboy Song Diamond Joe that really caught my attention…..probably as I’ve not heard the album it comes from; and the world needs more Cowboy Songs in my opinion.
Ags too included a shiny new song; written after a break-up in Austin Texas, and I swear every woman in the room had a tear in her eyes as he sang Lonely Nights in Austin; then wanted to give him a cuddle at the end.
Two particular songs really showed his class in this world, and still have me shaking my head as to why he’s still playing in front of a handful of people on a Monday night instead of headlining much bigger venues. Just like Pinnnell’s stripped back songs tonight I Hope You’re Unhappy and The Night I Saw James Hand were quite spectacular when sung like this.
The evening was rounded off with Pinnell joining Connolly on stage for three songs; and it really was a magical experience hearing them them stroll through Jeremy’s Ain’t Nothing Wrong, Ags’ Good Memory For pain and a delightful rendition of Hank’s When God Gathers His Jewels.
What a fabulous way to spend a Monday night; with the only downside being the size of the audience; but then again that just added to the ‘magic of the evening’ by making it more intimate and memorable for everyone who did attend, and there wasn’t a Cowboy hat in sight.
TIES OF BLOOD AND AFFECTION
The Sound of Bakersfield on Steroids.
I don’t know what constitutes ‘Country Music’ any more; but as Kris Kristofferson once said “If it sounds Country, then it IS Country!” So, using that adage Jeremy Pinnell may look like a Victorian Child Catcher on the album cover; but the songs he writes and music he makes is pure 21st Century Country Music…..but with a very dark streak at it’s heart.
Opening song finds Jeremy’s voice creaking at the seams on the Ballad of 1892; a tale of dark nocturnal goings on between a couple on the edge of society sung to a sweet tune; and even the first time I heard it I realised I was listening to an exceptional talent.
Track #2 Take The Wheel is the type of naturally swinging Country and Western I associate with the likes of Waylon, Willie and Cash…..but this lad looks and sounds like the ‘real deal’ as he sings from the heart ‘I forgot how much I love music/cos for so long I thought I might lose it’ in a song that touches on the narrator ‘driving in a haze’ and ‘spending time in an institution’ at one stage as he pleads with the woman to ‘please just take the wheel’ – a metaphor for life itself, I think.
Don’t for one minute think that this is a ‘sad album’…..no, no, no. The subjects may be stark and tell of a troubled life; but Pinnell and band certainly like a melody and a tune in the old fashioned sense.
I Don’t Believe is a beautifully crafted song that nods in the direction of several songs and bands I love; but the rip-snorting pace means you quickly forget about comparisons and just let the lyrics tie you up in knots.
Oh Lordy Lord…..how good is I’m Alright With This? The singer chugs along nicely, talking about why he has to stop drinking ‘I got tired of going to jail/every time I drink a beer’ and ‘doing a few lines’ because he now has ‘a good woman with the sweetest kiss’. Tell me that’s not the basis for a great Country song…..I dare you!
His ‘Battle with his Devils’ turn up again on Ain’t Nothing Wrong/Ain’t Nothing Right and why his ‘woman in Kentucky’ could be his saviour…..but she’s not with him every day and there are ‘temptations’ around every corner.
Pinnell certainly has a way with words and telling a story; current comparisons would obviously be Sam Outlaw or Sturgill Simpson; but Jeremy Pinnell’s songs even more steeped in the Classic Bakersfield Sound than anyone on the current circuit; with songs like Best I Could Do and The Way We See Heaven sounding as contemporary as anything I hear on a daily basis; but could just as easily have been the type of song you would hear in a Honky-Tonk bar anytime between 197o and 1990.
I’d not heard of Jeremy Pinnell before receiving this, his second album but the artwork intrigued me and the 9 songs each took my breath away in different ways; as I certainly didn’t expect ‘that face’ to sing Songs this articulate and melodious. Which brings us to our ‘Favourite Track’ Different Kind of Love. Wow…..I’m very nearly lost for words a week after playing it regularly. It’s the type of Classic Country Love Song that you presume isn’t written any more; but it is…and it’s here.
This is an album of music to ‘listen to’ but you can dance to it too, the slow smoochy, hanging on for dear life type of dancing.
Amanda Anne Platt & The Honeycutters
Thoughtful and Articulate Small Town Country Music.
While not really the most enticing Album cover you’ve ever seen; the photographer in me was actually drawn to the picture on the cover of Amanda Anne Platt’s fourth album; as it’s the type of ‘washed out’ photography I myself am experimenting with at the moment.
And, to some degree; and I doubt it’s by accident, that imagery actually gives you a feel of the lived-in Blue-Collar, small town Country music within the grooves of the disc that follows.
Amanda’s pearlescent voice slides gracefully from the speakers on the opening track Birthday Song; which isn’t the normal happy-clappy song the title would suggest; this is a woman looking backwards and forwards in equal measure and wondering what she has achieved and what the world holds for her in the future. We’ve all been there; and Amanda tells her story with style and elegance.
Long Ride follows and the mood doesn’t get much happier. The band sound wrapped as tight as a drum while Amanda pleads with her lover to stick on in there for ‘the long ride;’ and the pedal-steel and piano combine to add enough poignancy to bring a tear to a glass eye.
There are days when I’m staggered that a songwriter can still find a new angle on the age old story of a ‘tired relationship’ and boy does Amanda Anne have a way with words; Learning How To Love Him, finds her accompanying herself on acoustic guitar on a deeply moving song, that reminded me of Jeannie C Riley and Loretta, all those years ago.
Brand New Start is a similar sorry tale but played out to a Waltz beat and is as Country a Country Song as you will hear this year.
The first time I heard Guitar Case and The Good Guys (Dick Tracy) I thought they sounded a bit ‘old fashioned’ which is odd (and wrong!) as they fit in perfectly with the type of songs I love by ‘Ameripolitan’ artists like Sturgill Simpson and Sam Outlaw; so why can’t a lady fit into that sphere? Well, Amanda Anne Platt and the Honeycutters can; and do stand side by side with those guys; but without the Trucker Cap.
Don’t fret, there are toe-tappers here too with Eden and the delightful Late Summer’s Child being a touch more up-tempo and ‘happier’ especially the latter (which is Mrs. Magpie’s favourite song here).
The band here are outstanding from start to finish and Amanda Anne has an spectacular vocal style, ‘pearlescent’ as I described it earlier; but it’s the songwriting that stands out here with two songs that I will choose as ‘RMHQ Favourites’……The Things We Called Home is 100% pure Honky Tonk and timeless; while Amanda and the band straddle the divide between Country and Alt like a tightrope walker on the rattlingly good ‘every-man song’ Diamond in the Rough.
In it’s own heartache drenched way, this has been a joy from start to finish……pure darn Country too; but real down-home Country that we now have to refer to as Ameripolitan; but it is what we know as COUNTRY MUSIC…..pure and simple.
Broody and Toe-Tappin’ Outlaw Country At It’s Best.
This has been sitting around the RMHQ offices for far too long now, without me writing words about it; especially as it keeps forcing itself into the CD player without being asked.
Californian AJ Hobbs has released two previous EP’s, one under the pseudonym Cal King, but this is his first full length Album and without giving too much away…..is bloody excellent!
The title track Too Much is Never Enough kick starts the CD like a Ford Bronco on a red hot Saturday night. Hobbs has the kind of slightly rough edged voice that lends itself perfectly to this type of Country music and his band sound as if they having the time of their life behind him on a song about a man’s ‘battle with the bottle.’
The Ford Bronco analogy is pretty nigh perfect for what follows too; Hobbs paces the songs perfectly with a few deeply personal ballads like the slow and atmospheric Tomorrow I’ll Be Hurtin’ and A Whole Lot of You and Me riding shotgun to up-tempo dance tunes like Are You Going to Tennessee and the title song from that first EP and no doubt a show-stopper…..Shit Got Real.
Even before you bought the album, a cursory peak at the track listing will point you in the right direction when you see titles like Waylon & Merle and of course The Bottle Let Me Down.
While the whole album more than merits being played over and over again; a couple of tracks have certainly caught Mrs. Magpie and my attention; with both Daddy Loved The Lord and Take It Slow making us sing ‘harmonies’ alongside AJ Hobbs; but thankfully not in public.
That said; and it’s probably because I’m an old romantic I’m going for the gorgeous and fiery Life Without You as my favourite track here.
It’s fair to say Country Music like this never went away; no matter what the good people on Music Row and the radio stations would have you believe. Dale Watson has been a flag-bearer with his ‘Ameripolitan’ take on the genre and over the last couple of years there’s been a hatful of albums from the likes of Frankie Lee, Sam Outlaw, Sturgill Simpson and of course our very own Ags Connolly; all reviewed very positively on these pages and AJ Hobbs is every inch the ‘real deal’ and sits shoulder to shoulder with all of those guys; as well as the originators that they all listened to in their bedrooms.
At The Helm Records/Proper Distribution
Spiky Traditional Country Music From The Mean Streets of Rural Oxfordshire.
While the mainstream press have finally discovered the ever burgeoning ‘British Country Music’ scene; albeit the ‘poppier’ end, some of us have been championing singer-songwriters like Ags Connolly for several years now.
An exponent of what is now called Ameripolitan Music; this is Ags’s second album and the intervening three years have seen his writing not just mature but move forward leaps and bounds away from any ‘pigeon hole’. # As I write this review the legendary Tom Russell has just Tweeted that he has ‘just discovered’ Ags Connolly!
I defy anyone listening to the superb opening track I Hope You’re Unhappy to not presume it was from some high falutin’ Country Star from Nashville or more likely Bakersfield. Connolly’s way with words and the way he surprises you with the ‘twist’ in the chorus, coupled with the slight burr in his voice which is very reminiscent of his hero James Hand; make this one of the finest album openers I’ve heard in years.
While some of the songs like Neon Jail and Fifteen Years are best described as bitter-sweet (it is a Country Album after all!) there is a warmth radiating throughout which wasn’t apparent on the debut album; and also missing from a lot of other Country records these days.
Even as a fan of Ags Connolly, I have been left stunned at the lyrics and world weary delivery on the title track Nothin’ Unexpected and the slow, sultry Tex-Mex of Slow Burner.
Surprise don’t stop there as we even get a couple of waltz time dance tunes too; Haunts Like This is the type of song you dream of hearing when on holiday in the Southern States (but rarely do) and Do You Realise That Now; on which Ags fears he won’t find fame until 100 years from now.
Yet again I’ve come across an album, which is just that – a whole album of cracking songs, with one better than another but the tile of ‘Rocking Magpie Favourite’ is a simple choice…..When The Loner Gets Lonely.
Phew! What a beautifully sad song this is. The ‘world weary burr’ in the singer’s voice is especially evident on this tale as Connolly’s perceptive and razor sharp lyrics describe ‘someone’ we all have in our circle of friends.
While I’d love Ags to have a ‘hit’ with this, don’t be at all surprised if this song doesn’t turn up, sooner or later on a Superstar ‘Hat Act’ album.
Twangtastic guitar, sweet accordion, barrel-house piano, pure prairie fiddle, clever lyrics and luscious choruses come at you left, right and centre making this the type Country Music people say “Isn’t made any-more” but it bloody well is; you just have to search a little bit deeper than the discount shelves at Tesco and Asda!