STAR SMILE STRONG
The Greatest Living Scouser Still Has a Fire Inside His Soul!
I came to Ian McNabb late in the party; Friday 31st May 1996 to be precise.
His fame (and fortune) with the Icicle Works had somehow managed to evade me, as had his two previous solo albums (including the brilliant Brit nominated Head Like a Rock) but that gig and the Merseybeast album he was promoting totally blew me away – I may even have uttered the words “I have seen the future of Rock and Roll; and it’s name is Ian McNabb!”
Subsequently Ian McNabb is the only act in my collection where I own every album and single they have recorded; including a couple of bootlegs and a Japanese release of Merseybeast too.
I am an unadulterated fan.
Which brings us to STAR SMILE STRONG. Can I actually be objective? Well; yes I can, because the last couple of albums prior to the covers album ECLECTIC WARRIOR in 2013 were patchy at best and only ‘average’ especially when compared to his earlier recordings.
This new album gets off to a strange start with what sounds like static or the wind and the night for nearly a minute on Mystic Age. Then some delightful guitar evolves from the shadows before Ian’s trademark voice purrs from the speakers on a Floydian space trip that includes a haunting Tenor Sax solo, some sublime lap-steel, a synthesiser, an organ and enough guitars to start a small shop….plus an interlude from the sexiest man in Astronomy and Physics. The weirdest thing is…..it works, the whole ensemble never sound overwhelming on this 8 minute opus.
My head was still spinning when track #2 Can’t Get What I Want came crashing at my ears like a souped up Vauxhall Nova.
HURRAY! This is trademark McNabb (with the addition of a kazoo) and even has shades of latter-day Icies about it as Ian and cohorts Roy Corkhill on bass and Dodgy drummer Matthew Priest create a cranked up Rock n Roll noisefest that will send the Kasabians and Kaiser Chiefs running home crying to their Mummy’s if they ever get to hear it.
It’s been a long time coming; but Ian McNabb has certainly got his songwriting muse back with a vengeance.
Lazy Water finds him in a romantic mood, with his acoustic guitar taking precedence over a 12 string electric that shadows it, alongside Corky’s subtle bass-spine around which everything revolves as usual.
This particular songwriter uses ‘love and romance’ as a theme quite a bit; but no ‘Moon in June’ for him; there’s always a healthy dose of cynicism in his bittersweet stories and here the rocktastic Wanna Change My Plea to Guilty and I Kinda Like It Without You will definitely resonate with regular fans; and could even bring in some new fans too.
I certainly don’t want to do a ‘compare and contrast’ with his earlier songs; because Ian is very much about the now and the future; but a friendship that was cast during the Merseybeast days with the legendary Ralph Molina (Crazy Horse) has spawned a fantastic song called This Love I Feel For You; and it wouldn’t be out of place on any of his key albums; but the Tex-Mex trumpets give it a sweet Alt. Country feel and left me wanting a whole album in that vein.
I’ve had the album a few days now and have even played it ‘for fun’; not just for review purposes…..which is something I can’t say for everything I review and two songs caught my attention straight away and have gone onto a playlist for a forthcoming car journey.
Women Love a Bastard (Men Love a Bitch) is Ian McNabb back to his very, very best with a song that isn’t a million miles away from They Settled For Less Than They Wanted from Merseybeast, but brought bang up to date. His eye for detail and his vivid imagination combine in a way very few other songwriters can achieve; yet Ian McNabb is still; sadly relatively unknown to the world at large.
The other, Hotter Than The Sun won’t appeal to everyone (Mrs. Magpie hates it!) as it finds McNabb being louder than ever before, on an out and out, feet apart and head-banging RAWK SONG that will shake the fillings from your teeth. Not just a great song, but it features two legendary members of the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, Zal Cleminson on guitar and drummer Ted McKenna hitting his skins with hammers and…… the intro is the great man Alex himself….what’s not to like?
Never one to limit himself to the traditional three minute format when writing; the album closes with a wonderful 12 minute short story set to music, Clarabella (Come to the Window) which somehow encompasses everything I love about Ian McNabb’s songwriting style and the way he sings ’em.
If you follow Ian on Social Media you will know he has very eclectic musical tastes; and he appears to have cherry picked bits of Rock, Folk, Country and even the much maligned Prog to take a step backwards to actually move forwards. Thus making STAR SMILE STRONG by far and way his most complete album for 15 years and in many ways he’s throwing down a marker to his contempories; by writing and creating 12 brand new songs that are all worthy of inclusion here; and for you to listen to.
Released April 20th 2017
Six Shooter Records
Feisty and Spirited Folk-Rock From a Canadian Outpost.
Bizarrely, and for the first time in years I had just played Amelia Curran’s previous album THEY PROMISED YOU MERCY the night before I received this, her latest disc. As my Sage like Father used to say, “God acts in mysterious ways.”
Opening track Move a Mile is a real ‘ear-catcher’ as it has a ‘big production’ but also has an air of spaciousness about it. Confused? You won’t be……this is the type of quality singer-songwriter song that was all pervading in the 70’s and 80’s……think Joni, Alannis and perhaps Mary Chapin Carpenter the way Amelia carefully chooses her words and phrases but adds them to a commercial melody making the song very accessible to the casual listener.
While some of the subject matter is quite deep and occasionally dark; Amelia’s warmly expressive voice and some tightly wrapped guitar throughout pulls you in to songs like Sunday Bride and the bittersweet Act of Human Kindness; a song that really highlights not just Amelia’s writing skills but her vocal range too.
I mentioned the 70’s and 80’s earlier but only because that was probably the ‘watershed’ for singer-songwriters, especially female ones who were finally seen as the equal (and in several cases – the leaders) of the male of the species and like Tapestry, Elite Hotel and Blue there is a timeless quality to these songs, especially Try and the angst ridden No More Quiet which could easily have been on any of those classic LP’s.
This is Amelia Curran’s eighth album and that apprenticeship comes across in the way she effortlessly builds the tension in her stories and keeps you hanging on in there until she has got her message across……and that message is always worth waiting for.
While this is basically an old fashioned album that begs to be listened to as a complete package and not in bite size chunks; a couple of songs really do stand out from the crowd.
Every Woman/Every Man is a delicately fragile work that evokes memories of the early Nanci Griffith albums and, now I think about it Carole King’s Tapestry, but is also a trademark Amelia Curran song.
My other favourite is at the other end of the spectrum Gravity is as catchy and punchy a Folk Rocker as I’ve heard for quite a while and held together by a glorious electric guitar spine, that supports Amelia’s expressive vocal performance.
Maybe there’s nothing on the TV in Canada, leaving a lot of time for developing songwriting skills, but here we have another Canadian taking a traditionally American format (is being a singer-songwriter mostly associated with the USA?) and actually bettering it.
RELEASED April 21st 2017
TAKE ME BACK (Single)
It’s been a few weeks since we had a video worth posting…..not that there’s no good ones out there, just something that excites me and makes me want to share it.
Brenda Burch is a new name to me and has a gorgeous voice and can write a damn fine Country song too as this new single proves.
Taken from her latest EP Sparks Will Fly (review to follow) it was filmed in her home state of Utah and adds a stunning backdrop to a sharp song about getting your life back together.
Released May 1st 2017
ALL IS WELL
Another Unknown Legend From The Suburbs Delivers a Gem.
I receive music from a variety of sources and countries every week, so prioritising reviews is proving increasingly difficult, especially as I pride myself in listening to everything prior to writing about it.
Thus more and more albums are falling by the wayside; some from bands and singers on biggish record labels and also self-releases by Singers like Roy Peak. Roy did the right thing and contacted me via the website several times earlier this year, but because I was overwhelmed by work and CD’s I didn’t respond…..then two days ago he sent me a snarky/sarcastic Tweet.
I wasn’t in the best frame of mind so this was the wrong place……right time!
OK Fella…..bring it on……show me what you’ve got!
Oh dear……opening track Okolona is bloody good! Peak has the type of interesting and raspy singing voice I love and the slightly sloppy guitars and bass behind him were just what I needed to hear, but didn’t know it.
By day Roy Peak is a bass player (for hire?) in several bands; but with songs like Underhill Rose and the grizzled folk-rocker It’s Better To Be The Bride he deserves to front of house a lot more often.
I like the way Peak takes everyday subjects like life, love and death and give them a quirky left of centre makeover. His writing style on Teach Me and the punchy Black River is like the edgier side of Neil Young and John Martyn, but Peak certainly isn’t a copyist or indeed a one trick pony.
He has an angry Punky streak in him too which comes across in the fiery Mean Girl Blues and the muscular Somewhere in the Distance too.
It’s favourite song time and on an album that has appealed to me on many levels one song stands out above all others; Clear Lake, February 3rd 1959.
One of the greatest songs of all time, American Pie is about the same subject…..the death of Buddy Holly. The difference here is that Roy Peak inhabits the mind of a tired and lonely Holly and re-imagines his last thoughts about his wife Maria Elena.
It’s a genuinely clever and fascinating song that shoe horns in a couple of Buddy’s song titles without ever being cheesy or mawkish, which is quite an achievement.
Apart from the vanity side of listening to albums before anyone else; one of my main reasons for keeping going with The Rocking Magpie is discovering artists like Roy Peak and having the ability to scream their talents from the Internet Rooftops……trust me, this is right up our/your musical street; and it’s cheap too.
Released December 2014.
Yep Roc Records
Set the Controls For The Heart of a Space Oddity!!!
I’ve not heard much of Robyn Hitchcock’s’ back catalogue and once walked out one of his gigs……seriously!
So, I was a bit nonplussed when I received his latest and 21st recorded work. It sat on the desk for a couple of weeks until intrigue got the better of me……WAHAY!
I couldn’t believe my ears when the 60’s meets 70’s Glam of opening song I Want To Tell You About What I Want crashed out of the speakers!!!!!!
A heady mix of early Pink Floyd, late Small Faces and a smattering of Bowie’s flat Mockney enunciation make for an amazing start to an amazing album.
This is followed by a PsYch-Glam ode to the original ‘feminist’ Lady Writers….. Virginia Wolf. Whip smart guitars, funky bass and Hitchcock’s insightful lyrics make for a very intriguing three minutes.
In keeping with the heady mix of 60’s Psychedelia and 70’s Glam Rock, there’s an almost poetic feel to many of the songs……Sayonara Judge and Autumn Sunglasses being perfect examples of a songwriter having fun with words and music; and defying you to decipher any (if any) hidden messages.
Who cares if songs like the Country crossover of 1970 in Aspic and Mad Shelley’s Letterbox don’t exactly ‘make sense’……but when did Pop Music have to make sense? Just stick the headphones on and crank the level to eleven!!!! Enjoy the moment…. just enjoy the moment.
For me, on an album of 10 delights there are two real highlights; I Pray When I’m Drunk which is a real British Pub Rocker of a toe-tapping hoe-down of a tune and the one song that probably is a ‘true story’ of sorts; Raymond and The Wires.
Here Robyn takes us back to simpler times in 1964 when a young lad takes a trip into the big city with his Dad and takes an exciting ride on an electric trolley-bus. The detail and the sentiment throughout is razor sharp and heart-warming; plus it reminded me of my first ever trip into Newcastle with my Mother in December 1963…..which stays with me today.
Robyn is a touch older than me, but we both come from the same generation when buying an LP or even a single was a ‘considered decision’; meaning I discovered only Pink Floyd in 1973 or 4 via a 99p compilation called Relics about the same time I was hidden away in my bedroom listening to Tyrannosaurus Rex, Hunky Dory, Ziggy and the White Album…….all of which I suspect Robyn Hitchcock did when putting together these glorious songs.
INTRODUCING has been a complete surprise for me and I guess you too; but should and indeed will appeal to us music fans of ‘a special vintage’ but could also find its way into the collection of those cool kids with beards and tattoos that have recently discovered the delights of Robyn Hitchcock’s influences too.
RELEASED April 21st 2017
Mining Lite/Thirty Tigers
The Feistiest Country Album of the Last 10 Years!
We absolutely loved Angaleena Presley’s debut album AMERICAN MIDDLE CLASS and it’s still firmly ensconced in the company car for those long road trips through the Heartlands of NE England.
After such a strong record it’s wise to be cautious of any follow up but…….right from the sigh that opens the raw and heartfelt Dreams Don’t Come True you know we are still in the same Blue Collar/Friday Night Lights small town America territory. In fairness the sentiment of kids struggling to emulate their parents ‘successes’ that scratches your heart on this song are true of youngsters all over the world; and the weary tune and Angaleena’s breathy vocals set the scene very nicely indeed.
Who knows where Traditional Country Music ends and Alt. Country begins; but Ms. Presley straddles both genres with ease on songs like Only Blood and Good Girl Down among many others here. This song also happens to be the first time that Angaleena and her friends and Pistol Annies Miranda Lambert and Ashley Monroe have written together for a long while; and….their class shows.
While Angaleena is very much her own woman and pretty much has her own distinctive ‘sound’ her subject matter and the punchy way she gets her message across on Outlaw, Bless My Heart and the title track WRANGLED evokes memories of Loretta Lynn, Bobbie Gentry and more recently Elizabeth Cook. I don’t know if this is ‘feminist’ writing or whatever; but the women in Presley’s songs are all as tough as old rope but with hearts the size of Texas…..but don’t mess with them.
As is my won’t I played the album 2 or 3 times before reading the accompanying notes; so went “AHA!” when I read that the grizzled voice that opens Cheer Up Little Darling is none other than Guy Clark, who actually co-wrote this beautiful ode with Angaleena and features his self-made guitar and mandola played by Shawn Camp in the Great Man’s style; adding extra pathos to an already tearjerker of a song.
Angaleena co-wrote all 12 tracks and the depth of material shows what an exceptional talent she is; especially our two favourite songs.
Mrs. Magpie insists that High School is as good as anything she’s ever heard, as it details those ‘secrets’ that schools and towns have and try to keep; but never do. The first character attempts to hide her pregnancy and there’s a sports-jock popping pills to try and emulate his hero, father. Sadly, a sign of the times, but the way Angaleena turns this soap opera into a song is extraordinary.
I’m not 100% certain why; but I love the spirited way Angaleena cranks up the tension on Mama I Tried. Electric guitars instead of acoustic help get the message across as she sounds like she’s so angry phlegm is coming out with the words……powerful stuff indeed.
There’s only one flaw on the album; but it’s a biggie. Half way through there’s a rocker called Country; what’s wrong with that you ask? Well for some reason it’s a collaboration with a Hippity-Hoppitty Rapper called Yelawolf and….well…..his part really, really jars with everything else here. The song don’t need him….it will be a showstopper anyways; but…..hey….kids today; what can you tell them?
That apart, WRANGLED will certainly feature in our Top 10 Albums of 2017……in it’s own way it’s as groundbreaking as Elizabeth Cook’s Balls album and could and should mark the next big step in Angaleena Presley’s burgeoning career.
Released April 21st 2017
Thirty Tigers/Cooking Vinyl
The New King of Laid Back Country Strikes Again.
In the last couple of years there’s been a slew of new, young Stetson wearing Country singer-songwriters; at the very least some are ‘good’ but a couple, and I count Sam Outlaw as one ….are truly exceptional, as his 2015 debut ANGELENO proved.
Less than two years later he returns with more of the same; but with added maturity and occasionally ‘edge’ to his writing.
Throwing us the first curve ball Sam goes deep, really deep on opening track the sweepingly atmospheric Everyone’s Looking For Home. A slow burner of a ballad finds Sam Outlaw in a very dark place, and the inclusion of an almost funereal sounding Mariachi band adds an extra dimension to an already beautiful song.
Bottomless Mimosas, which follows is one of those songs that make you go “OOOOOHHHH!” when you here it. The gentle guitars, strummed bass and the tsch-tsch of the drums eventually melt behind Outlaw’s softly expressive voice and when the (now cheery) Mariachi band drift in the world and its troubles all drift away into the sunset. What’s not to like?
Outlaw lays his ‘feelings’ out on the line for all to see and dissect on several songs here with She’s Playing Hard To Get (Rid Of) and the Modern Classic that is Now She Tells Me gently squeezing your heartstrings until you gasp for breath.
In real life Sam Outlaw is in a very happy and stable relationship; but boy can he write a tearjerker! Diamond Ring and Two Broken Hearts are both the type of Country songs you pray to hear on FM radio, but never do because Music Row don’t write ’em like this any-more…..but Sam Outlaw does.
When it comes to selecting a ‘favourite track’ I don’t set any parameters; you don’t do you? Music doesn’t work that way…….the best songs just ‘touch you’ for no reason that makes sense.
Here I finally pulled it back to three songs…..the album is so good it could be any actually; with the odd subject matter of Bougainvillea, I Think being an extraordinary song and beautiful with it. Sam looks back to his late teenage years when he would sit and ‘drink beers and chat’ with his matronly next door neighbour neighbour, whose name and the ‘flower she would wear’ he can no longer remember. Not a tale of love (lost or unrequited) just a woman with lots of life stories he once knew who is slowly being erased from his memory as he himself grows older. Quite delightful.
The title track TENDERHEART does what a title track should do; encapsulate what the album is all about and this one does it with grace and style. A cleverly worded song with a gorgeous melody and is as Country as Country gets these days.
But, as the shuffle mode on my I-Phone has been trying to tell me the award goes to All My Life. Compared to the rest it’s quite a simple love song (the best ones always are) Sam tells us that he’s travelled the world ‘looking for a wife’ and there she was in his home town all along! It’s a bit of a Romeo and Juliet theme as my favourite line suggests “We are still to young/and your father owns a gun/I think you are just the girl to make me settle down.”
It’s a fun little ditty with a razor sharp sense of humour and Outlaw’s trademark worldly wise observations in every line…..all coupled with a classy melody too. A WINNER.
The album closes with another sad heartbreaker, Look At You Now and as it fades to the groove you will take a deep breath, sigh and either press Play or turn your disc over to side 1 again and drop the needle onto track #1 and before you know it it will be 3AM and you haven’t gone to bed.
Country Music comes in many shapes and formats, and I pretty much love all of it but on a long sunny day nothing beats slipping on a Jimmy Buffett, Lyle Lovett or perhaps Don Gibson and now we can add Sam Outlaw to that list.
Released April 14th 2017
One of America’s Unsung Lyricists and Storytellers Strikes Gold.
Anything released on Chicago’s Bloodshot Records is bound to jump to the top of our ‘To Do’ list at RMHQ; and this follow up to one of our favourite albums of 2014, The No-Hit Wonder went there on merit.
For the uninitiated Cory Branan is the embodiment of what we know as Americana……he is first and foremost a storyteller, that uses whatever musical genre that springs to mind to back up his worldly wise lyrics and the end result is always fascinating, interesting and memorable.
Brannan’s fourth album starts with a jaunty Celtic Country romp that features some wonderful couplets……”Whatcha gonna do with all that youth/Just because it’s brutal don’t make it truth,” among them.
For a three-piece they surely kick up quite a racket and the use of a Xylophone might be a first for me in Americana…..unless you know otherwise.
This is followed by a more traditional bittersweet Countryesque love song, Imogene but the imaginative way Branan twists his words and feelings certainly isn’t from Bakersfield or Music Row.
The short and sweet (plus bittersweet) songs on this 14 track album come thick and fast; never letting the listener settle as each song tells its own valuable story and demands your attention at the expense of what came before.
Just when you think you have a handle on Branan’s train of thought he throws in a beautifully dark ballad Cold Blue Moonlight, that conjures up memories of Chris Isaak; then immediately follows this with the contentious punk rocker Another Nightmare in America.
The dramatic story in that latter song has Branan singing from the viewpoint of a ‘racist killer cop’….uncomfortable – yes, but essential listening.
Later Branan blew my mind with his exquisite acoustic guitar playing on Equinox; and the song itself ain’t half bad either.
As we draw towards the end Branan lobs in a musical hand-grenade with another Punk Rocker, Visiting Hours. Unlike most other American Punk music, there’s a great story in among the fiery guitars and punchy drums.
We have to spin back to the beginning, track two actually for our favourite song here…..Blacksburg. A horn section that would do the E Street Band proud coupled with a tightly wrapped love song combine to give us one of the finest Country Rockers I or you have heard in donkey’s years and really shows the world what a great songwriter Cory Branan is.
ADIOS finally closes with the beautiful Country-Folk of My Father Was an Accordion Player. Rolling piano, tsch-tsch drumming, gently strummed bass and of course an obligatory accordion solo coupled with a singer-guitarist paying homage to his late departed father is the perfect way to close this Minor Masterpiece.
Released April 7th 2017
A Stunning Collection of Articulate, Raw and Emotional Songs.
I’ve only ever seen Sean Rowe perform in concert once; and he scared me! I first noticed him as he stalked the foyer of the venue looking like an angry and slightly reformed Hells Angel.
During his support slot he stopped mid song to chide someone for not listening, or something. Trust me, we all ‘listened’ very intently, just in case there were questions afterwards!
Jump forward a couple of years and I was having lunch with my friends Bap Kennedy and Willie Richardson in down-town Belfast, when the conversation got around to ‘music we were listening to;’ and Bap told me he had just discovered Sean Rowe and spent ten minutes or more describing the effect the guy was having on him and ‘how he wished that he could write like him.’
As soon as I opened the envelope containing this disc I thought “Ooh…..Bap will want to hear this!” But tragically Bap died on 1st November 2016; and he won’t get to hear Sean Rowe’s latest album NEW LORE…..which has made it a very difficult album for me to review.
The first song Gas Station Rose opens with some delightfully strummed Folk guitar then, much to my surprise the gruff voiced Rowe goes on to deliver a beautiful love song as strings swoop and soar around his words like swallows and hummingbirds.
I love the little chuckle that introduces the snappy Newton’s Cradle; an upbeat tune that masks a song with a dark story at it’s heart. The title comes from the line “Every time we fight/It’s like a Newton’s Cradle.” which is quite a novel description and something Bap would have appreciated.
It has taken a while for me to get my head around this album; but eventually the ‘penny dropped’ and it’s not just Rowe’s rich baritone but the detail in songs like It’s Not Hard To Say Goodbye Sometimes and The Vine that reminded me of ……..Leonard Cohen. Seriously, once I ‘got that’ everything fell into place.
A couple of songs really, really stand out, You Keep Coming Alive is almost frightening in it’s brooding intensity and I Can’t Make a Living From Holding You is a Masterclass in songwriting; but …..and this might make me contrary; my favourite song here is a love song to, for and about Rowe’s child.
Twee? Hell no……but the way Sean describes his feelings about the here and now then his fears for their future are simply beautiful; and the delicate production make for a timeless song that will live on far beyond any of us listening today.
Recorded in Memphis at Sam Phillips’ Recording Studio; NEW LORE isn’t like anything I’ve heard from Sean Lowe before; the songs and stories are still as open, intense and raw as expected but the production by Matt Ross makes them warm and accessible; which the magnificent lyrics deserve.
Released April 7th 2017
Who Are You Listening To? (SINGLE)
True North Records
I’ve been a fan of Canadian singer-songwriter for quite a few years now; and his HONEST MAN album got me through a very dark time following my Prostate Cancer operation a year or so ago.
One of my favourite tracks was WHO ARE YOU LISTENING TO? A songwriter’s rallying call for people not to take things politicians say ‘too literally’ and therefore ‘think for themselves.
When Andersen wrote the song America (and the UK)were both in the throws of nasty pre-Election campaigns when all sides of the political divide got immersed in very personal scare-mongering.
What could possibly go wrong?
Well; the world now knows the answer to that conundrum!
Sadly not a lot has changed with the politicians and Matt has now released the song as a single ….with a ‘radio edit’; although it will be a very brave DJ who plays it!!!!
So; go but it.
RELEASED April 3rd 2017