Ethereal, Claustrophobic and Misty-Eyed Songs For Romantics Everywhere.
Jeremy Nail’s last album My Mountain in 2016 completely took us by surprise at RMHQ and was hardly out of our stereo for months; regardless of what shiny new disc was meant to be reviewed; and obviously it made our Annual Top 10 that year.
Time moves on and a lot of misty eyed singer-songwriters have graced our office in the last two years; but every now and again; normally when I’m feeling sad and lonely (it does happen) and the handsome young Texan can always make me at feel at ease with the dark edges of the world.
Then early last week a plain brown envelope arrived just as I was about to leave for work, so I left it on my desk alongside 4 or 5 others; and there it stayed until yesterday when I saw a link to a review on Twitter!
Affronted at not knowing about this release I was just about to pen a stinging letter to his Press Guru when I finally opened the aforementioned padded envelope.
Everything was put on hold as I carefully slid the CD into the player and sat back nervous and expectant……waiting to see if he could come close to that previous Masterwork.
Perhaps it’s my memory or the change of producer or just a maturing but opening song Abiquiu has a warm glow to it; even though it’s a sad tale of a mythical town somewhere unnamed that is dying like so many others across America. But here, Nail finds a tiny glint of hope and ends the song “Here in Gods Country/There is no glory without suffering/You dance between the two/on a chance you make it through/Abiquiu” then the title is repeated over and over again as the hypnotic guitars fade to dust.
Yep…..the kid still has it!
The title track Live Oak follows and some very precise and neat guitar picking takes us in a more Countrified direction than I’d expected. OK it’s not YEE HAW Country; but Nail’s beautiful narrative about a real tree in Austin Texas which was deliberately poisoned but saved may or may not be a parable about his own life and illness, and that’s Country enough for me.
For me Jeremy has a poets soul and very distinctive voice that washes over me and seeps into my heart whenever I hear him; and if you have never heard him before you are in for a rare treat when you hear Rolling Dice, the deceptively gorgeous So Long Yesterday and more importantly Other Side Of Time; which will have you tilting your ears towards the speakers as he sings in a loud whisper as an ethereal guitar and some angelic drumming fill the spaces behind his carefully crafted words.
In this highly technological world I’ve played this album on a number of different systems including my olde Technics Hi-Fi which has been long banished to the conservatory but strangely; for me songs like Freedom’s Bell and Fields of Our Fathers sound best when played through the tiny and tinny speakers on my laptop; as it gives them an extraordinarily claustrophobic sound that suits the dark and brooding way the songs are delivered.
Not for the first time in recent years; this is a complete album with no nods towards commercialism; this is very much the way Jeremy Nail intended this record to sound and be pieced together and the result is both brittle and beautiful; with one song in particular taking my breath away the first time I heard it; and even today I’ve had to repeat it three times in succession and the story (alongside others) is still unravelling; and I’m sure it will for years to come.
So, the haunting Sea Of Lights is my Favourite Track here; but you will have your own and will cherish it like a first born child’s first mittens or shoes.
For what sounds like a simple Country-Folk/Singer-Songwriter album; according to the sleeve notes there’s a hell of a lot going on behind Jeremy Nail’s voice; but it’s testament to the delicate production, engineering and mastering that you hardly notice them at all; but would miss all those extras if they weren’t there.
Released August 17th 2018
No Coward Soul
Broodily Intriguing Americana From the Backwoods of South London.
I’ve often heard the argument that Americana (and indeed Country Music itself) can and should only be written and recorded in America, by Americans; which is exactly the same ridiculous point of view from heretics who claim ‘White men can’t sing the Blues!’
For what it’s worth much of the finest Americana music that I love comes from a romantic vision that many of us have of America from either across the USA’s Northern border or from across the Atlantic primarily in the UK.
Which brings us to No Coward Soul, a 5 piece band based in the backwoods of South London and revolving around singer Brad Schmauss who hails from Alaska.
Apparently stalwarts of the burgeoning Americana ‘scene’ in London and the South I wasn’t aware of this band until the CD arrived; but opening track the gentle hazy Lighthouse which finds Schmauss at the piano and sounding not unlike Harry Chapin fronting Granddaddy as a harmonica wails over a bittersweet ballad.
The mood then lightens and the tempo certainly picks up to a Country trot on Fireflies, with Schmauss’s voice sounding very emotional as a young lady provides very sensual harmonies in the background.
When I first played this a fortnight ago I remember, pursing my lips and nodding along to that last song and then performing air-piano on the next; Bullet, which is something I haven’t done for a long time.
That ‘far flung romanticism’ comes to the fore on several songs, especially Nighthawks which is a delightful left turn with a clever lyrical twist and L’il Mikey Mountain which takes us on a quite dark journey that I wasn’t expecting.
Because I know No Coward Soul are British or at least based here; the sound they have is not like anyone else on the scene I’m aware of; as instead of going for a West Coast Soft-Rock trip or the more fashionable Byrdsian twin guitar sound; No Coward Soul are treading their very own path in a quite arcane fashion.
This is certainly ‘Americana’ but of a more curious persuasion with sings like Orpheus and Belly of the Whale harking back to the more literate works that prevailed among 1960’s and 70’s singer-songwriters and left us scratching our heads in our teenage bedrooms.
But there is also more than a smattering of straightforward American influenced Pop-Rock with 654, Holy Toledo and probably more than everything else Death n Texas reminding me of bands like Barenaked Ladies and They Might Be Giants, as Schmauss and friends use melodies and bouncy tunes to ease you into a false sense of security but make you need to decipher the words too.
Just to be contrary I’d have preferred the short title track The Almanac to have started or closed proceedings as it’s a Film-Noir style poetic talk-over, rather than a song and would work perfectly well as an intro or exit, rather than being tucked away in the middle.
For an album that was initially difficult to ‘get into’ It’s been a joy on some recent late night drives home in the sultry midnight heat; with one song in particular capturing my attention; so the curious and Gospel tinged Gotta Believe becomes my Favourite Song.
This album won’t be for everyone as it’s a ‘grower’ and there aren’t any ‘radio hits’ to catch your attention. This is a good old fashioned Long Player that demands your full attention from start to finish; but, that said; don’t be surprised if by some quirk of fate that No Coward Soul go on to take the mantle from the likes of Coldplay or Snow Patrol; stranger things have happened!
Released 14th 2018
Liz Frame & The Kickers
SPARROW IN A SHOEBOX
File Under Country, Folk and Americana.
If I’m being perfectly honest I struggled to get my head around this album when I first received it; not that there was anything wrong with it, just that I needed a fix of louder music…..Bluesy stuff to make my feet move and my heart skip a beat.
That said; I always knew I’d come back as there was something in the way Liz Frame sings plus the songs themselves sounded like I needed to listen deeper than I was capable of at that time.
Now I’m ready to kick back and let Liz Frame and the Kickers win my heart and soul without much of a fight.
The title track Sparrow in a Shoebox is the first thing you’ll hear and if you’re not careful it will make you go weak at the knees. A delightful mix of Rootsy Country and classy Folk music; I was instantly reminded of those early Mary Chapin Carpenter records I still cherish and perhaps even Nanci Griffith in the way Liz both writes and sings.
In a good way there’s a little bit of everything here; from the gutsy Folk and Roll of Lookin’ For a Lonely Man which really showcases Patrick Chamberlin’s guitar skills; through the the heartbreaking Tex-Mex ballad Ungrateful Girl and coming out the other end with a gentle Rocker for people of a certain age, Grown Children; which will have fans tapping their toes to the melody while nodding along in agreement to Frame’s very perceptive lyrics.
In between the band slip and slide seamlessly between Grown Up Country song What You Gonna Do When I’m Gone? and the intense Little Brown House; which again will tug at the heartstrings until you fall under the Boston songwriter’s spell.
Now I’m sitting in the sunshine wallowing in this delightful discovery; two songs really, really stand out and therefore tie for the Favourite Song Award; the deceptively simple She’s Made of Light and Love is one of those songs that will spin your brain as it unravels each and every time you hear it.
The other is I Used To Be Your Slave; and again Liz and the band mask a harrowing tale with a jaunty tune; but the message hear is much clearer as she takes the role of a woman leaving an abusive relationship.
SPARROW IN A SHOEBOX just like those early albums by Nanci, Lucinda, Mary and Emmylou could easily be filed under both Country and Folk but more likely these days under Americana; with fans of all stylea finding plenty to like and indeed love here.
Let’s just hope it’s not another 7 years wait for the third album from Liz Frame and the Kickers; as that’s how long her fans have waited since her debut in 2011.
Released 8th June 2018
DANCING WITH THE BEAST
Beauty in the Darkness of Sad Songs and Taboo Subjects.
It’s funny how you discover an artist isn’t it? Sometimes it’s a song on the radio, occasionally an advert will catch your attention or more likely for you it will be one of my amazing reviews; but for me and Gretchen Peters I still treasure the DIY Best Of CD my mate John created for me many years ago even though the last three tracks no longer play and I actually own the original albums the tracks come from.
Leap forward 10 years or so and I’ve found myself wallowing in the miserable beauty of her latest album for several weeks now; desperately keeping its majesty a secret from the rest of the world until now; the week of release.
When you get to our age (we ere born only a couple of weeks apart) a lot has already happened in your life and suddenly a lot of people around you, loved ones and friends begin to get seriously ill and regularly die; as happened to Gretchen in 2017; leaving her in the depths of despair and add to that a Presidency that goes against everything she has stood for and campaigned against all through her adult life nearly brought her to her knees.
But; when you are an amazingly talented and Award winning songwriter it all gets stowed away until the day you can write it all down and set it to music…….hence DANCING WITH THE BEAST.
As regular readers will already know I’ve publicly battled my own Demons in recent years so the first time I heard opening song Arguing With Ghosts (and again last week) I found myself weakly smiling as tears ran down my cheeks. If I started quoting individual lines from this song about the sadness and loneliness felt after the death of a loved one I would end up posting the whole bloody song.
Then of course we have Gretchen’s ghostly approach to delivering this Modern Gothic Classic over a gentle piano and soft string section while the drummer sounds like only the shadows of the sticks are touching the skins.
Oddly enough; this song ties with one other as the RMHQ Favourite here.
Phew; onto the rest………
While still sad, this story is oddly scary to the core; Wichita which follows is a lot more upbeat and takes us into Dark Country Territory; and shows what an amazing imagination this particular songwriter has. By the way, it’s very unlikely you will ever hear this song on the radio; but don’t be surprised if it turned up on the soundtrack to some gruesome Murder Movie some time in the future.
Even though this is a particulary Dark album; there is still plenty of shade in the way the songs are created and the almost Classical tunes (think Bach and Dvorak) that accompany them.
The Show is a prime example, opening with some stark piano and Gretchen sounding like she’s holding back tears as she sings ‘Freight Train plays a major Southern Chord/sign across the street says Praise The Lord/hotel coffee tastes likes kerosene/Yet I fell as happy as I’ve ever been.’
As she herself says, “Sad songs make me happy” ….. me too.
There are plenty of ‘big songs’ included here that will get a lot of well deserved attention like Disappearing Act and The Boy From Rye instantly spring to mind; but there are a couple of hidden gems too; with Lay Low being something every musician in the world can associate with and possibly only Lucinda Williams would dare to write a song like Truckstop Angel such is the taboo subject of a drug addicted prostitute; but hey……..it’s truly magnificent and will stop you in your tracks just like a Hi Lux fired up on nitro would.
Before I get onto my other Favourite Song, I can’t not mention the title track Dancing With The Beast; another delicate heart-to-heart song about a taboo subject; as Gretchen takes the role of a woman in an abusive relationship and a song so intense and beautiful it surely must follow Blackbirds into the Winners Enclosure at the Grammy Awards.
Lowlands too is a brooding Country pot-boiler about a break-up and the loneliness that follows, primarily for women, and again Gretchen inhabits the soul of a woman in such a position in a way I can’t think any other singer-songwriter can.
A few weeks ago I reviewed Ben Glover’s new album and highlighted his co-write Say Grace with Gretchen Peters; and mentioned it appeared here too. There’s not a lot to choose between either version; but both singer’s distinctive voices bring a little extra ‘something’ out of an extraordinary set of words and an almost Mystical and Celtic tune.
Now, you may well ask how can any song be better than any of those last few songs and actually be good enough to tie with Arguing With Ghosts for the world renowned accolade of RMHQ Favourite title?
Well; the song that closes the album, Love That Makes a Cup of Tea is an intricately complex story masquerading as a simple Country-Folk song that her fans adore Gretchen Peters for and goes to show that no matter how dark you feel your life is; and we all get to feel that way some time…….True Love, a cup of tea and someone asking and meaning “How are you doing?” Gets you through even the most difficult of times. #FACT
So far 2018 is proving a spectacular year for the eclectic swathe of music we like at RMHQ but this particular album will certainly feature in our end of year Top 10; and will sit proudly in that ‘special box’ for those nights I need to wallow in the mud with someone who knows what it’s like to suffer the mental torture of depression.
Released May 18th 2018
The Dead South
ILLUSION & DOUBT
Dead Duck Records
Cool Bluegrass and Classic North American Folk for People Who Hate Bluegrass and Classic North American Folk Music!
When I first received this album I accidentally read the accompanying Press Release before hearing the contents…….’A signature blend of Bluegrass and Classic Folk’ it read. Yikes……all I needed was something like ‘Prog Rock overtones’ too and it might have gone straight in the bin unheard!
So, with caution and plenty of scepticism I pressed ‘play’….oh dear…..that is a banjo if I’m not mistaken…..yes it is; but within 30 seconds a grizzled voice, a mandolin and a cello joins it and the mood is immediately cranked up to 11 as Boots gets the party started with gusto.
Oh dear; I can’t believe how easily I fell under the spell of these crazy Canadians The Deep South’s spell……but who won’t with dancetastic songs like Smootchin in the Ditch, One Armed Man and Deadman’s Chew too?
There are surprises around every corner; and good ones too. I expected The Good Lord to be some kind of God Fearing Gospel song……but, Hell No! These kids know how to coral ‘lovin, cheatin, drinkin and cussin’ songs in a way that left me smiling like a Cheshire Cat.
On a similar theme it took me a couple of plays to unravel Time For Crawlin’ but when I did it really tickled me and has a chorus that just begs to be sang along to……very loud.
If you’ve not heard of the Dead South before; think if ever Quentin Tarantino made a film about the Beverley Hillbillies he needn’t look any further than Hard Day, Miss Mary and the cinematic Massacre of El Kuroke for his soundtrack.
Then of course I am obliged to choose a Favourite Song’ and I can’t look further than the epic closing track Gunslinger’s Glory with it’s Waltz-like ending which epitomises everything good about ILLUSION & DOUBT. It’s a bit Bluegrass, a bit Old Timey Country, a bit quirky and the musicianship, harmonies and singing all combine perfectly on a sublime tale of the New Old West and coming in at just over 8 minutes but sounding like 3.
I’ve seen and heard plenty of groups like The Dead South over the years; but the majority come across as too ‘reverential’ and ‘earnest’ in their quest to sound like the originators but the Dead South sound like they not only appreciate the work of their forefathers and ‘genuinely know their stuff’ but they predominantly want to have fun, and share that fun with listeners all over the world.
Well, dear reader I’ve played it a few times now and, while it does contain plenty of Bluegrass and Classic Folk; there is oh so much more in the grooves here that is actually enjoyable and their professional Punky/Sloppy approach makes it Bluegrass and Classic North American Folk for people like me who hate Bluegrass and Classic North American Folk Music!
Released March 23rd 2018
HEARTBREAK SONG FOR THE RADIO
Atmospherically Tightly Wrapped Songs Drenched In Harmonies And Heartache
Sadly this CD has been sitting in the back of the ‘to do’ box for a couple of months now; probably because it didn’t have a Press Release with it; but in my defence I have been rather busy lately then last week a friend wrote a glowing review of a concert on a UK Tour (which didn’t include the NE btw) and I thought “I think I have an album by said combo” and I did…..and The Lynnes are actually RMHQ favourites Lynne Hanson and Lynn Miles from Canada Town!!
HEY HO….Better late than never?
Opening song Cold Front sets the mood perfectly; one sensational female voice complimented by the other on harmonies on an atmospherically tightly wrapped song that straddles Country, Folk and whatever we think of as Americana albeit from Canada.
As we know both women are accomplished singers and songwriters in their own rite, but together they move up several rungs of the success ladder with ease and grace.
There’s even a hint of the Everly Brothers on Recipe For Disaster but the gorgeous title track Heartbreak Song For The Radio and Dark Waltz are exactly the type of lo-fi Canadiacana we have come to expect from the land of the Maple Leaf and these two ladies themselves.
I first discovered Lynne Hanson via her Murder Ballads album; so it shouldn’t come as a surprise when darkly delicate songs like Blame It On The Devil and Blue Tattoo make an appearance out of left field towards the end.
Perhaps it’s the subject matter of these two songs; but I’d love to hear Tom Russell cover at least one and preferably sing it or them alongside The Lynnes; I think the end result could be extraordinarily good.
OK, regular readers will know I am self-absorbed but I really do think that the punchy Halfway To Happy and Heavy Lifting could have been written about ME! Both delve into the darker recesses of Country Music and come out the other side with lyrics and a song that will squeeze the heartstrings of anyone who has loved and lost or; as in my own case people who feel sorry for themselves……just because.
Both are full of stinging couplets and stories that transcend the backwaters of Roots Music; hence they tie for the accolade of RMHQ ‘favourite song’ on this wonderful long playing album.
Released February 2nd 2018
COME ON IN
Shed Music/Continental Record Services
Elegant Country Love Songs For the Very Sad and Lonely.
Where to start? Chris Comper aka Prinz Grizzley first got in touch with me in 2016 sending me his debut EP; which I loved and thought I’d reviewed…..but can’t find a copy any where. As happens he disappeared off my radar until a couple of weeks ago when the nice people from Continental Record Services got in touch rather excitedly raving about this ‘new’ Austrian Country influenced singer-songwriter……and it’s fair to say Chris/Prinz has spent the intervening two years immersing himself in the dark and lonely end of the Country street and honing his song-writing skills within an inch of his life.
The album starts with a delightfully sad lament called Wide Open Country; a wailing harmonica and pedal-steel link together over a slow waltz like beat as Grizzley bemoans his luck and the effect he has on the people around him.
Give Me One Reason follows; and you are instantly transported to a bar in a Nashville backstreet on a damp Tuesday night with only you and a handful of other losers in love watching the singer singing a song about ‘you’ and you alone. Yes; my friends Prinz Grizzley has the ability to reach deep inside your chest and squeeze your heartstrings with his words.
Things do perk up a little on Mountain’s Milk; a four to the floor toe-tapper that finds our singer fighting the urge to break into a yodel on the chorus; which was a relief at RMHQ.
Prinz’s nasally world weary voice is perfectly matched on the Townes Van Zandt/Guy Clark influenced Irene and I Can See Darkness; both of which show a writing talent in the ascendancy.
Okay; this album is on the darker end of the Country spectrum; but there’s plenty of us out there who appreciates songs about losing in love; sung by someone who sounds like he is actually living the hurt he portrays. Yes/No?
As I’ve been happily married for 40 years Mrs Magpie has never understood why I love Country songs like Personal Hell and Where’s Your Fire Gone (which sounds like a long lost Gram song btw) but every coin has two sides and while I’m happy on the outside; I do love to wallow in my own misery some nights and songs like these are the perfect soundtrack.
Which brings me to the award of ‘RMHQ Favourite Track’……at face value not easy; as this is an album that needs to be listened to and cherished in one complete sitting; but I absolutely adore Fiery Eyes; which ticks every box I have for a bitter sweet love song; especially the brass section that swings in every few lines as does that scintillating pedal-steel on a deeply personal song that just may be written about my feelings for my own beautiful wife.
It’s a very crowded market place for Americana/Country Music at the moment; and it may be all too easy for an Austrian Country singer-songwriter to disappear between the cracks; but that would be a shame of huge proportions as in Prinz Grizzley we have a glorious songwriter and singer who, alongside his band can stand shoulder to shoulder with any of the currently feted ones in America, Canada or indeed the UK at the moment.
# For fans of Sturgill Simpson, Jarrod Dickenson and Danny & the Champions of the World.
Released February 13th 2018
OUT PAST THE WIRES
Welding Rod Records
A Double Album Packed With Quality Heart Breaking Blue Collar Stories.
After a musical career spanning 17 years and 7 albums, it’s difficult to know where to start with singer-songwriter Rod Picott, as he’s been prolific in that time and always gives great value when seen live; plus at least three of his songs are among my favourites of all time; but sung by his best friend Slaid Cleaves.
Hey ho; that’s all in the past and this is his shiny new double album of 22 songs that just may have the capacity to make him leap above his peers in my Singer-Songwriter Top 10.
It came as no real surprise that Disc #1 opens with a delightfully curmudgeonly and clever love song, Be My Bonnie, where Rod sounds uncannily like Kristofferson but with Dylan on harmonica. This is actually a great place to start for new fans as you hear amazing lyrical craft from the opening lines…..”You’ll be my Bonnie/I’ll be your Clyde/We’ll marry our future/and together we’ll ride” through to my personal favourite “Show me your scars Babe/no need to hide/I got a few scars of my own/deep down inside”.
Don’t we all?
The pace suddenly picks up on the Alt. Country Rocker Better Than I Did; which follows and finds Picott snarling the bittersweet lyrics out and punctuating them with some really angry harmonica playing.
Alongside Slaid Cleaves Picott is best known for his ‘Blue Collar’ songs; and no one I’m aware of (inc. B Springsteen & N Young) these days capture that spirit better than these two; the next two songs also feature on Slaid’s last album with Picott making the heart breaking Take Home Pay into a mid-pace Country Rocker that will be perfect for any bar bands out there to cover; and on his Father/Son co-write with Cleaves, Primer Gray the tale of a mutual love of cars becomes a delightful back porch ballad; with a haunting pedal-steel in the background.
I’m normally no lover of double-albums; but here it gives Rod Picott the opportunity to glide seamlessly from trademark acoustic ballads like Holding On and Date of Grace through Soft-Rockers like A Better Man and Coal with practised ease.
Disc #2 treads exactly the same path; with the haunting first song Dead Reckoning yet again proving what a Master Storyteller the man from New Hampshire is.
I don’t own all of Rod’s 7 albums; but it comes as no surprise that in recent years he has turned his hand to writing a screenplay and a book of poems; and there will be a book of short stories fleshing out some of the characters in these songs; and I for one can’t wait to read more about ‘the Mother and Son’ in Store Bought and also the sad and lonely man, Picott sings about in the tragically beautiful Diamonds In The Dirt but Hard Luck Baby very much tells its own tragic Alt. Rocking story of a young woman who “was thirteen when she gave herself her first tattoo” and “When she was sixteen/pulled her braces off/looked like a magazine/But every little hurt/They all add up/Till you’re hard like a diamond.”
See; I told you he is Master Craftsman in songwriting, didn’t I?
After 21 songs that take you on a ragged and rocky emotional roller coaster Picott brings proceedings to a close with a song of hope in a terrible world; or at least that’s how I hear Little Things; perhaps you will hear something different; because that’s what makes Rod Picott one of our generation’s finest songwriters.
So; how the Hell am I supposed to select a Favourite Song when the overall standard is so damn high? Well; I’ve gone a bit left-field with my choice…..Straight Job; is an acoustic Country song worthy of Cash, Bruce or more likely Waylon with Rod inhabiting a musician that knows he has to turn his life around and get a Straight Job as his wife is ill and pregnant, which means he’s finally got to sell his Telecaster and take the proceeds down to the hardware store.
I probably could have thrown a dart at the track list to find my favourite; but this song and the way he sings it probably sums up Rod Picott as much as anything else here or on his previous albums.
I doubt Rod Picott is a millionaire or ever will be; but his songs and in particular the ones on this album will bring more pleasure to people who hear them than all the wealth in the world ever will; but by buying this Double-album you will help put food on his table; and make your own life a little better every time you hear it.
Released February 16th 2018
Market Square Music
Exquisite Inter-crossed Country-Folk From a Northern Industrial Town.
Don’t feel sorry for me but I have very few ‘friends’ in the music industry; not even casual ones; as I’ve made it a policy to keep away from the cliques that dominate the national and local scenes; leaving me free to review albums and gigs without the fear of upsetting someone who thinks I owe them a favour.
But; the musical stars have aligned on this latest release from adopted Geordie and recent resident of Berlin, Gem Andrews, who actually is a friend of mine and the cover artwork (a truly beautiful photo of Gem *plodging in front of St. Mary’s Lighthouse in Whitley Bay) by my mate David Wala and the crystal clear production and mixing is by local legend Ross Lewis……so can I be impartial?
The album opens with Letter a brooding love song that encompasses all that is I love about Gem’s music in under three and a half minutes. Just like everything which follows this song comes from a Folk Singer who has immersed herself in Country Music and turned herself into a good old fashioned and timeless Singer-Songwriter.
Sing Your Song follows and I soon found myself slouching in my chair desperately trying not to breathe too loudly in case I missed a word or phrase and would regret it for the rest of my life. It’s that type of breathtaking song.
I particularly like the way the fabled Tim Dalling has arranged Julia Darlings poem Two Lighthouses; keeping a Folk spirit to it that makes people like me fall in love with the words and sentiment, without realising it’s actually a Folk Song.
Hmmmm…..selecting a ‘favourite song’ is never easy; and here it’s nearly impossible with the tigerish Lungs being an early contender but Feather & Skin somehow stands out like poppy in a field of golden wheat. Ross Lewis’s simple production truly displays Gem’s pearlescent voice and the restrained way the musicians (aka The Mush Collective) come together in an almost Classical manner without ever threatening to overshadow the singers hushed tones is genuinely admirable.
One other song deserves a mention if for no other reason than the delightful Come a Long Way which closes the disc features some of the finest ‘cardboard box whacking’ from Dora & Macie Keddie-McLaren that you will ever hear.
When I hear albums like this, and especially songs like Bare which features some spellbinding violin from Bernard Wright and the Countrylicious Medicate I find myself despairing at the British music industry; because if Gem was from the Appalachians or indeed some tiny village in North Ontario the Press and indeed Mr Bob Harris himself would be falling over themselves to tell you about ‘the next big thing;’ but Gem is British and more importantly NORTHERN so has to plough her own furrow at her own expense and depend on sites like this to get her songs out into the wider world.
There’s not a bad song here; with Gem’s voice, writing and it has to be said her guitar playing have matured beyond all expectations…..perhaps marriage suits her.
*plodging = local dialect for paddling in the sea.
PS….The pedal-steel player? ‘The’ Chris Hillman?
Released February 16th 2018
At The Helm Records
Americana Meets The Big Country Sound of Nova Scotia On Game-Changing Release.
Like many reviewers I’ve been sitting on this disc since before Christmas; giving it occasional outings in the car and on the RMHQ office stereo; getting my head around the nuances of the new songs and to some extent the ‘big production’ which isn’t what I expected at all.
With a box full of other CD’s to review I’d always planned to write my prose in the week before release; only to find the world and it’s dog have been uploading and it has to be said; national magazines have even been printing glowing reviews.
So; does the world need my thoughts? Probably not; but as a long term fan and supporter of young Mr Owens I may as well chuck in my twopenn’orth before he disappears off into the Ed Sheeran stratosphere.
Let’s start with album cover……YOWZA…..how cool is that artwork? If you were in a record shop and saw that in a rack you would just have to pick it up, wouldn’t you? The correct answer is YES.
Then when turning it over the song titles all look ‘interesting’ and in keeping with that iconic imagery on the other side.
So; does the music live up to the packaging?
It’s a personal quirk but I love songs that start with 1…2…3.4!; and Last Song which is actually the first song starts in such a manner; and it’s a big ole passionate Alt. Country Rocker with a Celtic heartbeat. Even the first time I played this CD I thought that Dean has finally ‘grown into his voice’ and I still feel that way about this particular song; he sounds like he trusts himself to ‘let go’ and that’s just what he does; and there’s some mighty fine guitar and piano too btw.
With a powerful song like that as an opener there’s always the danger that the artist has peaked too soon.
Oh no…..oh no, no, no.
The title track Southern Wind follows and can only be described as EPIC…..as it slowly builds from humble beginnings through an atmospheric chorus through to the thunderous ending; conjuring up memories of Bob Seger and even the Allman Brothers; but hey Dean Owen sounds like neither…..this is very much HIS SONG and one that is surely destined for legendary status on some soundtrack or other; or at the very least Top Gear’s next Father’s Day CD!
Even if Dean Owens only ever recorded those two songs he could die a proud man; but there’s even better to come….trust me…..there is.
The Scotsman’s Folk roots show through the Country facade on When The Whisky’s Not Enough; and on No Way Around It he gives us a crashing Swamp Rocker Deluxe with added Gospel singers in the background, plus there’s even a jaunty calypso nod with the bittersweet Mother and immediately afterwards Dean manages to make the delightful ballad Famous Last Words take a swerve down a Jazzy street, but it fits in perfectly well as it prepares us for the maudlin and very Scottish Madeira Street with it’s dark edges and rainswept imagery.
Many times over the last few years I’ve said in public that much of the best Americana Music I hear comes from way outside the USA and I believe this album is just such a case; as my two favourite songs here are love songs to and about two of America’s finest sons; but written and sung with a passion that only thousands of miles can bring; as both characters are probably taken for granted in their homeland.
Whereas in Europe the memory of both Elvis and Muhammad Ali are still revered to this day.
Over a virtual Twangfest on Elvis Was My Brother Dean sings about a friend that “had no Father from the age of 10” so he used The King as a surrogate “brother” listening to and learning every single word on Forty Greatest Hits and using the songs as a template for life itself. A very clever song indeed.
Most reviewers will go for SOUTHERN WIND as the ‘best song’ on this album; but listen deeply to Owen’s words on Elvis Was My Brother and then follow it with the heart-shredding Louisville Lip, featuring some truly mournful trumpet (cornet?) in the background and you will hear a songwriter on the verge of greatness.
Dean Owens has been around the scene for a very long time; and with the Whisky Hearts trooped backwards and forwards the UK and Europe plying their trade to anyone that would listen; but that hard apprenticeship is about to finally pay off as SOUTHERN WIND has all the hallmarks of being a Game-changer for this proud son of Leith; and it’s fair to say he deserves every bit of success coming his way.
Released February 16th 2018