Villiers & The Villains
MUSIC CONFOUNDS THE MACHINES
Cinematic Americana For When The Sun Sets Over Avalon.
As I’ve said before our little website is meant to hark back to the days of the old school yard when someone would see you standing with an LP under your arm and ask what it was; then recommend something similar…….word of mouth marketing before it was trendy?
Which is exactly what happened here.
I can find next to nothing on the interweb to tell me who Villiers and the Villains are (Facebook mentions Tony Villiers and no one else); but if they is good enough for my mate Willie Richardson in Northern Ireland, who went to the bother of sending me their album; then they is certainly good enough for the likes of you out there!
First of all the album title MUSIC CONFOUNDS THE MACHINE appealed to me before I’d even heard a note; but when the first weary chords and Villiers nasal drawl that open first track That 1979 Situation filled the RMHQ office; I immediately felt that I was in for a rare treat indeed.
Even before you get to the final track; the big sound that Villiers and the Villains produce belies them being a local band from Northern Ireland with day jobs to pay the bills.
Kingdom of Sin; which follows is another world weary yet even more atmospheric slice of cinematic Americana with some wonderful choral harmonies that drift in and out like a High Sierra breeze; and this Villiers talking Blues type story ain’t half bad too.
For a second album (?) there’s a lot going on here; with the band strolling in a 60’s Greenwich Village Folk Rock style on Down At Ellie Mays and Little Rhoda May; then they throw in a couple of toe tappin Blues numbers with the Van Morrison Street Choir era inspired Montpelier Hill and the 80’s issue love song Mexico which very nearly melts my heart every time I hear it.
Then there are the glorious Meat For The Dogs, and The Government Man Is Coming which together must be rip-roaring highlights of their shows and then there’s the magnificent Red Wine and Reefer sounds like a young Bob Dylan guesting with the Waterboys.
Villiers and the Villains manage to drop little musical time bombs left and centre here; with the gentle When My Heart Was Broke catching me unawares last night and then had me pressing ‘repeat’ five times in a row so I could savour every word and couplet; then this morning the quirky title track, the poem Music Confounds The Machines came into it’s own and stopped being a coda to Morrison’s Coney Island and took on a whole life of its own; as Villiers warm N’orn Irish brogue reminded me of the late lamented Bap Kennedy as much as it did Van the Man; and the gentle piano backing is just perfect for this delicately intense story.
I’ve very nearly changed my mind and made that song my Favourite Track here; perhaps I will tomorrow, but I’m going with my brain and not my heart and pointing you towards another Talking Blues, The Bubble Will Burst as the words alone are worthy of a much bigger audience than they will receive; as the clever production and Villiers incisive voice as he recites this bittersweet love song/poem will astound all who hear it.
Now I’ve played the album half a dozen times; I feel like crying. Not because it’s no good…….far, far from it my dear; this album is so good it would be hailed as a minor masterpiece by the National Press and magazine if Villiers and the Villains came from Arizona, Winnipeg or even Sarf Landin; but because they are from Northern Ireland and pretty much stay within the craggy Emerald Isle they will sadly go unheralded in the UK and more importantly the US of A who would lap up music like this should they get the opportunity to hear it.
Try it, buy it…….then thank me (and Willie!)
We’ve been fans of this Northern Irish singer-songwriter since we first saw him opening for Mary Gauthier in 2012, when even then, lesser acts wouldn’t have let him come near the theatre for fear of being upstaged. The following year Bap Kennedy actually introduced me to him at the inaugural (and subsequently only) Belfast Skyline Festival, and Ben actually remembered that previous review in Maverick Magazine.
There’s an argument that Ben could make a handsome living sitting in a Nashville penthouse churning out co-writes with the great and good of both Music Row and the much cooler East Nashville crowd; such is his ever growing reputation as a wordsmith; but thankfully he still has ambitions of his own and SHOREBOUND is the latest in a trilogy of exciting and absorbing albums; starting with The Emigrant (2016) and the collaborative Orphan Brigade (2017) with Joshua Britt and Neilson Hubbard that both tested his metal as a songwriter and he won both times.
Now on his sixth album under his own name SHOREBOUND marks an apparent new direction for Mr Glover, as most of these songs are not just writing collaborations but most include musician friends in the recording, starting with the beautifully melodic What You Love Will Break Your Heart which has Amy Space providing luscious harmonies as Ben delivers a Country Heartbreaker Deluxe.
Several songs here genuinely stopped me in my tracks the first time I played this CD; starting with Tack #2 A Wound That Seeks The Arrow a breathtaking duet featuring a wondrous female voice that I recognised but couldn’t place; so had to look at the credits to discover it is Angel Snow; a new name to many of my readers but not those of listeners to my old radio show where her songs Gasoline and Coal & Water were Bona-fide favourites. The combination of voices evokes memories of many other famous pairings over the years; and even now a month later whets my appetite for a whole album in the same style by the same couple.
It’s no surprise that I feel exactly the same way about
Generally the ‘Guest Stars’ are happy to stand in the background, providing harmonies and intricate musicianship, which is especially the case with the Celtic-folksy Catbird Seat with Mary Gauthier, and it’s stinging pedal-steel in the background and the soft-rocker Ride The River alongside our latest RMHQ ‘discovery’ (?) Kim Richey.
When I only have limited space it’s a difficult choice to decide what to concentrate on……the amazing partnerships like the back-porch Twang of My Shipwrecked Friend alongside his friend and mine Anthony Toner and the Buffalo Springfield inspired (?) Song For the Fighting with producer Neilson Hubbard (which was a contender for Favourite Song status) or do I concentrate on the glorious songwriting and storytelling on the title track Shorebound or Kindness or the brittlely beautiful Northern Stars which includes fellow Northern Irish Alumni Malojian and Matt McGinn in the background; but who manage to create a melody that plenty of more famous American musicians have striven for for decades. This too was a contender for ‘Favourite Track status for several days!
While this album could possibly be filed under Easy Listening, it is but it’s also an album that demands that every song needs to be ‘listened to’ especially the Celtic-Country Rocker Wildfire which is exactly what the title suggests and has Popstar, Style Maker and DJ Extraordinaire Ricky Ross not just singing alongside Ben but providing the perfect foil to his distinctively warm vocal style.
There can’t be anything else to add, you must be thinking. Well there is; and it’s the Favourite Track accolade which has obviously been a very difficult decision to make as each single song here could win that award on its own merits; but I’m going for…..no….yes….no…..it’s a tie!
The first song of the two is a first for me, as the dark and moody Dancing With The Beast, a glorious almost Gothic duet with Gretchen Peters is also the title track on her own latest album which I will review later this very week! In the setting of this particular album the song provides the shade to the light most other songs provide; and played on it’s own it sounds like it should be the theme tune for a late at night Ghost Story on TV; and it just also just might be Ben Glover’s finest ever vocal performance.
The second of the pair couldn’t be any more different and goes to show the majestic way Ben Glover can not just write (or co-write in this case) a beautiful song to fit any mood that takes his fancy. The intensely fervent Keeper of My Heart which finds Ben writing and singing alongside another RMHQ Favourite, Rob Vincent esq. is the perfect way to close this amazing record; as it encompasses everything that is not just great about Roots Music in all its permutations but showcases a much undervalued talent that deserves a much wider audience than he probably already has; and would get if here were from the Americas.
#Ben Glover really is a rare talent and I can only think of one other singer-songwriter that he reminds me of; and that’s Bap Kennedy; who also managed to combine his Celtic Roots with a genuine and historic love of American Country music and do it with ease and grace. As does Ben Glover.
I recently sent out a Tweet asking for local bands to get in touch with music to review; and the only response came from a Glaswegian band with a singer who hailed from a town 4 miles from my doorstep.
Out of a sense of decency I said to send their latest disc; their third since 2002 and first in 10 long years which arrived the following morning.
God definitely works in mysterious ways.
I was immediately intrigued and impressed with the opening track Hymn, a Gospel flavoured acapella song lasting less than a minute; then a full on powerhouse Celtic Folk-Rocker followed; raising my eyebrows to a cartoonish level.
WOW! The epic Kaon Blues (pt1) lasts over 7 minutes and the swirling guitars, luscious harmonies, militaristic drumming and brass section combine to create a sound akin to the best of Simple Minds, Runrig and Big Country filtered through Deacon Blue. It’s a universal sound that couldn’t sound any more Scottish if it came in a shortbread tin.
While nothing else, thankfully reaches those heady heights……my senses couldn’t take it; the pitch is set perfectly for delightful folky compositions like The River and the atmospheric Ballad of the Lighthouse Keeper to seep into your consciousness like the aroma of heather after a rainstorm.
For younger listeners, on a couple of tracks The People will sound like they take their lead from bands like the Lumineers and Mumford & Sons; but ‘that Power-Folk sound’ on Into The Wilds and Henry ‘O has been around since the sixties Folk Boom and these guys do it with aplomb, passion and show you young ‘uns how it should be done.
While I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by the whole album; which is just as good played on a car journey as it is in the conservatory while reading the Sunday papers one song really stands out.
The Devil Inside is one of those songs that will go on to define a band. The Devil Inside encapsulates everything that is good, not just about this album but music itself. The singer’s voice aches as a guitar weeps and wails while the bass, fiddle and drums fill every gap imaginable; and when the harmonies fill the air you feel like the world is a better place to live in.
The playing, writing and story telling throughout is quite exceptional; especially from a band I’ve never heard of and who appear to be part-time but utterly professional and play for ‘fun’…….remember that, eh?
At The Helm Records/Last Chance Records
Another Masterpiece From The Most Romantic of Irish Wordsmiths.
With more than a hint of mischief the album opens with the jaunty Nothing Can Stand In The Way of Love! The opening verse “Hey baby I know/I’m always gonna be/Between the devil/And the deep blue sea/I know that I’m just a man/Just flesh & blood/And nothing, nothing can stand in the way of love,”is a corker, even without the benefit of hindsight.
Kennedy’s voice sounds happy and the twang guitar coupled with a swing accordion backing makes for a real party toe-tapper and hip shaker.
Even in his Energy Orchard days Kennedy was always a Romantic song- writer, with a capital R. Track #2 the piano led, Good as Gold gently swings along with all the perceived wisdom of a man getting a second chance at life…and love, and again…is right up there with his finest recordings.
After all these years the songwriter still manages to surprise me. To a sweet Tex-Mex tune Bap takes on the roll of a troubled young man called Henry Antrim in 1880 in an American Border Town who knows his ‘days are numbered’ and talks to a beautiful Señorita about how he’d like to be remembered. Henry Antrim was the real name of Billy The Kid.
With a much faster electrified Tex-Mex style tune Por Favor is the perfect foil for Honky Tonk Baby which follows, midway through the album, and both show that the Belfast Boy has a real Country heart and Soul. That latter song; if I’m not mistaken is an ode to his bass-playing wife Brenda and twists the traditional ‘love song’ style on it’s head.
The title track, Restless Heart was released a few weeks ago as a ‘teaser’ and has received numerous self-merited radio plays. With addition of that honky-tonking piano and a Twangtastic guitar again, this soft and tender Country Rocker harks back to the days of Kennedy’s Hank, Elvis and Me.
The album closes with another electric rocker – It’s Not Me, It’s You. A bit of a tongue in cheek rabble-rouser for the upper Middle Aged among us. Much like the mischievous opening track, the chorus on this track will have you chuckling as tears roll down your cheeks.
Choosing a favourite should be impossible when the quality overall is pretty damn excellent ….but it’s not.
Even if Bap had released Track #3 I Should Have Said 5 or 6 years ago it would have torn my heart to shreds in the way Living Years by Mike and the Mechanics always does when I hear it on the radio.
“I was young & foolish/And I could not fail/I could see the big picture/And the devil in the detail/And I lived for the moment/In a circus ring/Now we all know better/Hindsight’s a wonderful thing/I should have said I love you.”
Who knows what or who Bap was writing about? Parents? Friends? Belfast? His brother? ex-Band mates? Bloody Hell……this song was written long before that horrible diagnosis but…….but…..as my father used to say “God acts in mysterious ways.”
Kennedy’s beautiful and touching words resonate with me and will you; but when you hear Bap almost whisper them through a strained voice over a diluted Walk on the Wild Side type backing your heart will crack wide open; and if it doesn’t…..you are logged into the wrong website!
I’ve been writing reviews for 15 years now and I’ve never loved music as half much as I do this album; but have hated actually having to write every single word on this page.
Those words will baffle some of our regular readers but the legions of Bap Kennedy’s fans across the globe; of whom I am a fully paid up member, will understand my heavy hearted sentiment.
Bap has had a glorious career, starting with his time with Energy Orchard (a Band that crossed the boundaries of Indie, Folk, Country and what was to become Alt. Country?) then at the behest of Steve Earle became an acclaimed solo singer-songwriter that has brought plaudits from across the spectrum and friendships (musical AND personal) with the likes of Mark Knopfler, Van Morrison, Shane McGowan…..and me.
After falling out of love with the music industry he then went and met and fell in love with Brenda, whom he married and amazingly (not really when you meet her) got his muse back and began writing some of the finest songs of his illustrious career with Shimnavale and The Sailors Revenge.
In late 2015 he began writing songs for a forthcoming album, and in the New Year went into the recording studio to begin the onerous process of making an album due for release at the end of 2016.
With Brenda now on bass and an assortment of exceptional musicians, Bap was really enjoying playing concerts again, then the night before he was due to play a Festival in Westport Co. Mayo (Ireland) he woke up with severe stomach pains and eventually allowed Brenda to take him to hospital……days later he was diagnosed with pancreatic and bowel cancer.
#Postscript Sadly Bap passed away just after 6pm on Tuesday 1st November 2016