Saturday, 24 June 2017

Jaime Wyatt - Felony Blues : Forty Below Records

Of course, with the music versus the backstory debate, the music should always come out on top, but things fit into place better when both complement each other to perfection. Therefore, primarily FELONY BLUES by Jaime Wyatt is an exceptionally good mini album. The phrase ‘such swagger’ is borrowed on this occasion, with the biggest fault only being: why stop at seven tracks. There is probably a practical answer to that question, but it is a tribute to the architects that you are left aching for more after an exhilarating half an hour.

The enamoured sound of Jaime is based on the smart ability to unite country music with its near cousins, the alt variety and Americana, and spin it into a bunch of half a dozen highly palatable songs ready made for the sweet ear. The backstory is a little more downbeat as much of the record is based on Jaime’s experience on the wrong side of the prison walls after an addiction-fuelled altercation. Whilst not being the first country artist to channel rehabilitation into first class music, this whole scenario can prove to be additional selling point. Not that this is necessarily needed, as those who solely base their judgement on unfiltered listening will certainly be won over.

Jaime’s Californian heritage, base and influence can be factored into the interpretation of her music. Naturally, it falls on the fault lines of distinctly retro and delicately contemporary. A cool freshness aids a torpedo effect into modern country fans preferring an independent edgy approach, while timeless qualities help span the generations. Also a cover of ‘Misery and Gin’, initially recorded by Merle Haggard, further pushes up the credibility in some quarters, although this track tends to crown the record rather than prop it up.

The swirling guitar, lovely beat breaks and rousing chorus of opening track ‘Wishing Well’ go a long way to defining the record and it is hard to think of a stronger track that opens an album in 2017. Those who base a lot of credence on the first song setting the tone will be delighted with this offering and duly rewarded with pursuing the remainder of the content. The follow on track ‘Your Loving Saves Me’ is not short on sass or exquisite twang and yet another chorus that has little difficulty in finding a hook in your mind.

By the time, we get to the delectable ‘From Outer Space’ when the steel kicks in, the implicit narrative fizzles with heartfelt pleas to a lover. Maybe this is a track that has to fight hard to be heard alongside its compatriot juggernauts, but the strength of an album is often defined by its base and FELONY BLUES has a very strong one.

We get into the serious side of Jaime’s writing by the time the fiddle inspired ‘Wasco’ explodes in the listener’s midst. It is assumed this is the institution that she spent time in and the lyrics fire off in several directions while reflecting a great deal of conflicting emotions. It also puts a completely different slant on the term graduation day. ‘Giving Back the Best of Me’ is a tenderer offering utilising the steel well as Jaime slips into a poignant gear while in ballad mode. Another valid reason to extol the virtues of this being a neatly balanced collection of tunes, appealing to several sides of a listener’s preference. ‘Stone Hotel’ is the penultimate track before the Haggard cover pulls the shutter down and is another successful attempt to dress a serious point in a tune that blossoms so well upon first listen.

FELONY BLUES is an album designed to make an instant impact without a layer of throwaway packaging. It presents Jaime Wyatt as a country artist to place on your 'get to know' list and one you won't regret liaising with. A sentiment launched into cyberspace by Rolling Stone’s anointment of her as a “New Country Artist You Need To Know”. You may ask what do they know, but in this instance, they are spot on.

Erin Rae and the Meanwhiles - Thimblemill Library, Smethwick. Friday 23rd June 2017

Thimblemill Library is in a current phase of interacting with musical art to the extent of opening its doors to a host of touring artists. Alongside marrying literary focus with that of the lyricist, embracing the world of cultured protest and engaging with left field ideals, you can now add library ambience providing the backdrop to a most beautiful sound. The latest artist to grace this art deco building hails from Nashville Tennessee and commandeers the most respectful of audience attention through a haze of serene country folk songs evoking a state of meditative relaxation. Erin Rae welcomed a raft of new fans to her music after this first visit deep into the heartland of the industrial West Midlands, ones sure to remain with her when she returns.

Flanked by her Meanwhiles, in-demand Nashville players Dominic Billett and Jerry Bernhardt, Erin set about executing her distinct style and breezed through a couple of blissful sets. There is an element of adjusted expectation and sensory alignment required to fully acquaint oneself with the tone of the music. In fact, it took deep into the second set for the sweet spot to be reached, and this was very much in the domain of the listener in light of Erin’s consistent approach. The moment of enlightenment peaked in the final three tracks of the show with ‘Minolta’, ‘Monticello’ and ‘Rose Color’ successfully leaving a mark of an unwanted end.

The unassuming and softly spoken Erin hails from 21st century Nashville, but there is so much late 20th century California in her sound and vision. Close your eyes and drifting Laurel Canyon clouds float around, open them and the surroundings become more tangible. Her partners help out enormously offering the ‘less is more’ ethos to decorating her songs with the perfect soundtrack. The echoes and notes were a little different from when the pair last visited the area as part of the Andrew Combs band in May. Dom had the rhythm in the palm of hands on drums and bass keys, while Jerry optimised the electric guitar output required to supplement Erin’s crystal vocals.

As was expected, the vast bulk of material used came from last year’s full album release SOON ENOUGH, which was brought to life in the UK via a tie up with Clubhouse Records. Current signals in the media of Erin advancing forward with her next record were confirmed through brief between-songs chats and the playing of the new song ‘Wild Blue Wind’. Despite a wide ocean of available classic material from a bygone era, seemingly to be Erin’s influence, the preference leans heavily on the original song. The one instance where the work of others was celebrated sent the mind ticking over in seeking more information on a track from the 1970s by Judee Sill titled ‘Jesus was a Crossmaker’. This song was tackled in a seamless way to each other track which included introduced numbers from the album such as ‘Clean Slate’, ‘Pretty Thing’, ‘Futile Attempts’ and ‘Light’.

There was a slight adjustment to the opening act for the evening with the performance of the duo Ashland being slimmed down to a solo slot from Dave Sutherland. His regular partner Kathryn Marsh was afflicted by the dreaded curse of all vocalists on performance day: a lost voice. Nevertheless, the show must go on and Dave dug deep into his experience, song arsenal and professionalism to deliver an excellent half hour, helped only by a borrowed effort from Rodney Crowell plus a trusty guitar.

Erin herself highly values the forty-year-old guitar that gently strums to the beat of her songs and began life in the possession of her father. She cuts the pose of the natural singer-songwriter born to extract every ounce of the gift bestowed on her for a willing audience. There is an element to her music that does command the right environment for it to prosper. Get this wrong and you will struggle; get it right and a blissful world opens up. Thimblemill Library, an artistic gem on the Sandwell-Birmingham border, created such an environment for Erin and the Meanwhiles to put on a very individual performance and spin a web of serene music on an audience fixated for the moment. 

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Danny and the Champions of the World - Brilliant Light : Loose Music

The best way to enjoy the new Danny and the Champs album is to throw away the notebook, park the analysis and kick back with your hands clasped behind your head. BRILLIANT LIGHT hits the shelves on June 30th and immediately possesses a spring in its step to be the ‘soundtrack of the summer’. In fact, this record has an added effect of taking you back in time to when music had a more innocent appeal and concentrated airplay provided the opening to the masses. Sadly, those times are a distant memory meaning records like this have to scrap hard to be heard. Those who do cross its path though are in for a real treat.

Danny and the Champions of the World has always been a band where you just want to chuck labels, compartments and the proverbial ‘little boxes’ away. The guys just make music that comes from instinct with the only boundaries coming from finite tangible resources. Heart, soul and ideas are infinite, thus joining the Champs bandwagon (or tour van) is a journey full with laughs, energy and a desire to just make music that folks will feel something for. The new album is perfectly in tune with how an outsider perceives the ideals to be: carefree, crafted and packed with positive guile.

Now the first warning is that Danny has binned convention by tossing away the archetypal mean number of tracks and decided to go with a hefty number of 18 songs. However, don’t be put off by the 80-minute running time as this album can be enjoyed in a multiple of ways including just being a background to everyday tasks that can open up their arms to a little musical accompaniment. In fact the tip is not to think too deeply about this record, Danny has done the job for you and from the perception of seeing him live many times over the past few years, more than happy for you to just soak up the vibes.

For a little bit of background information, the album is once again released on the regular home label of Loose Music, frequented by the usual Champs many who have served Danny well since he made the decision to channel his creative talents through this fluid collaboration. The lengthy track list is full of live stompers that will surely become gig staples in years to come and those penned from a more personal angle such as the pre-aired ‘Swift Street’. From a sound perspective, the golden mix of guitars, keys, steel and horns blow away any constraints of genre restrictions, while Danny’s vocals continue to coat each song with a touch of personal soul.

One of the most liberating aspects of listening to BRILLIANT LIGHT is steering clear of track dissection and just taking the music at face value. This approach may not always be the best way of grasping a record or artist, but in the case of Danny and the Champions of the World, it is increasingly becoming the de facto way of maximising the appeal. The term ‘soundtrack of the summer’ has a hazy nostalgic twist to it, stirring up the memory bank. This album has succeeded in locating a key to the past. While other music over the summer will challenge me and invite scrutiny, there is a ‘go to’ record in the corner ready to provide instant relaxation and relief. Danny Wilson is the architect of this record and it is an absolute gem.

Hannah Johnson - Shaken : Self-Released

From Toy Heart to Broken Heart, the music of Hannah Johnson has always been rooted in the past and free of any compromise. However, Hannah frequently rejects the populist retro revivalist path, preferring to come across as an astute historian hell bent on being a contemporary custodian of a timeless style. In a first major solo outing since taking an alternative path to what formed her first decade of making commercial music, Hannah has teamed up with a number of established players to conjure up a highly infectious collection of tunes perfectly encapsulating the soul of traditional country music. SHAKEN can take its name from a multitude of experiences of both sides of the emotional divide, but in this instance it clearly houses eleven cuts that fully succeed in carrying out the mission statement of an artist driven by her own heart and instinct. 

While local gigs are generally billed as Hannah Johnson & the Broken Hearts, a significant switch for the album release is to slim down the artist title. Hannah is though joined on the album by her resident Broken Hearts: father Stewart on his distinctive pedal steel and Chris Shirley on electric guitar and tic tac bass. To boost the authenticity of this album, Hannah headed to Austin Texas from her home in Birmingham UK to record eleven songs at Ameripolitan Studios to tap into the local talent; an apt location in these interesting times for the fight to own the soul of real country music. With the right ingredients, it comes to little surprise that the contents of this record are spot on, making it a valuable release, especially when you’re seeking for such exponents on the UK music scene.

It is of further little surprise when you delve deeper into the record to identify that the tunes consist of three original songs and the remainder interpretations of work from a bygone age. The word ‘cover’ doesn’t seem appropriate in this context as the songs are carefully selected, not driven by courting popular appeal and providing a perfect fit for how Hannah wants to portray this current phase of her career.

While the names Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline and Roger Miller hardly have a negative impact on a country record, the song selection avoids the usual suspects and if anything, getting to grips with this record can turn into a historical investigative exercise. Another successful aspect of this album is the way the three originals blend into the older material thus giving credence that Hannah can still excel in this field. (‘The Captain’ remains a tremendous piece of song writing from the Toy Hearts days). ‘Nowhere Train’, ‘Morning Cocktail’ and ‘Your Girlfriend Hates Me’ are strategically planted within the first four tracks in the running order, with the first one initially coming across as the strongest of the trio.

Elsewhere on the album, a version of Charley Patton’s ‘Trouble in Mind’ and a delightful rendition of ‘West Texas Lullaby’ make substantial cases for being high spots. Standards rarely dip throughout the near forty-minute spin of this album, which gets its UK bow in early July before Hannah heads to Austin to push it further including a launch night at the famed Continental Club.

Alongside Hannah’s trademark husky vocals and the stellar complete line up of pickers, players and harmonisers, credit must also be guided towards the pedal steel playing of Birmingham’s own legend in this field: Stewart Johnson. His upfront backing role on this instrument has always been a delight to witness, especially when his two daughters took the Toy Hearts general sound away from Bluegrass and into a heavily Bob Wills influenced Western Swing direction. Of course, the music of the Texas music pioneer is celebrated on this record with a version of ‘Sooner or Later’.

SHAKEN is no record of ‘work-in-progress’ status, it is Hannah Johnson doing what she does best and very well. It is ready made to jump onto your turntable, slide into your CD player or find a prominent position on your device (filed under ‘country’ of course).

Katie Spencer - Good Morning Sky : Self-Released

Haunting, escapist and moving: although all you essentially need to know is that GOOD MORNING SKY, the debut mini-album from Yorkshire-based artist Katie Spencer, is very good. Sauntering along at a pedestrian pace allows time for each heartbeat of this record to align with that of the listener. The collection may only last twenty minutes and comprise of five tracks, but the enticing feel from sampling the work of a young singer-songwriter finding her own way in the music world sends out signals of a promising future.

If you’re seeking an initial hook to display the music of Katie, think a slice of indie alternative folk. An eerie almost spiritual sound benefits from an acoustic backdrop interspersed with some cool electric. There are implicit soundtrack elements to the tunes which you could quite easily imagine adorning the moving images on some noir piece of celluloid. Apart from a relaxed languid exterior, the five songs leave an imprint to suggest an artist ahead of her curve, whilst displaying prodigious tendencies in the sphere of her style.

Katie is making inroads in presenting her music as an independent artist effectively and the atmospheric video for the track ‘Children (Don’t You Know)’ is as good starting point as you are likely to get, while capturing the essence of her music. The album’s opening track ‘It’s True’, complete with the gorgeous tones from John Martyn’s acoustic guitar, also acts as an imaginative introduction to her recorded material and perfectly sets the scene for a wave of drooling music to gently roll in. ‘Magazines’ follows in a hazy cloud with the sultry vocals being surrounded by some seriously good instrumental support. ‘Moths to the Light’ succeeds in taking the pace down even a further notch without losing the momentum of effect. The final track ‘Can’t Resist the Road’ houses the album title in one of its opening lines and seals the deal on what the record sets out to offer.

As you would expect from such a release, there are raw elements that can be built upon. While the vocals have a clear role in projecting an evocative atmosphere, natural development will enhance their appeal to really prise open a listener’s ear. Katie and her team of players have absolutely honed in on a specific landscape style. Smart arrangements are prevalent and very successful in creating the dark mood that gives the record a splendid mystique. Perhaps there is room for improvement in seeking a stronger initial lyrical impact suggesting a pull between the deep excavation of the words and a need to make the music accessible. However, the major selling point of this debut record is the wonderful exposition of mood generation and this has effortlessly appeared with great success.

GOOD MORNING SKY is a tempting release waiting patiently in the wings to pounce on an unsuspecting listener when given the chance. Katie Spencer uses the breadth of her inner psyche to write and sing songs that evoke feelings far away from the surface of disposable music. This mood-driven mini-album is an effectual dip into the recording world and a highly promising debut.

Jeni Hankins - The Oxygen Girl : Jewell Ridge Records

Nothing lasts forever is one of life’s more philosophical observations and it doubles up as the title of the most pertinent track on this album. THE OXYGEN GIRL is the debut solo release from Jeni Hankins who is better known in music circles as one half of the former country folk duo Jeni and Billy. When time was called on all facets of their relationship, an abundance of songs was likely to follow. In a display of amicability, ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’ is actually a co-write between Jeni and Billy; a lone symbol on an album which clearly signposts the direction where Jeni is taking her life and career.

This direction is east across the Atlantic from the US to the UK and a strapline to this album could be a love letter to migration. All the folk singer credentials are in place, but the general feel is more European than Appalachian with the specific twang of her home state diluted among an assortment of songs that span the continents in their theme, setting and sentiment. The instrumentation used on the album does keep one foot on the American side with fiddle, banjo and steel still making the dominant sound.

Knowing a little about the background, taking the twelve tracks with a heavy dose of the lyric booklet and trying to understand the inner subtleties of this record will all aid to the enjoyment. While there are probably higher impact tracks from her previous material, the importance to Jeni of this record should not be under estimated and it should be a signal that this is a just an opening point to a new chapter in her career.

The album is a lyric laden body of work, packed with several fascinating tales, stories and heart rendering personal musings. It can be construed that there are a number of push and pull factors infiltrating the songs. Those with an Anglo perspective begin with opening pair of ‘The Shipping News’ and ‘The British Invisible Mending Service’. The first of these comes across as a navigation to love, while the other presents a metaphorical broken heart in need of repairing to an age-old tradition. The capital of Jeni’s new home also gets a mention in ‘Dance on the Stars’.

Two extrovert and explicit story songs make a grab for the listener’s attention. ‘Palomino Girls’ deals with the hopes and thoughts of certain Las Vegas workers, often giving them celestial trappings. ‘The Oxygen Girl’ is an intriguing tale of life, relationships and encounters within a circus community. Follow the lyrics carefully and the jigsaw will be complete.

Another interesting song is the listed album closer where Jeni pens an open ode to her father in ‘Hey Dad’. There are faint strains of slipping back into a stronger accent during this track, intentionally or not. This just falls short of being the album finale as a secret track lasting around twenty seconds emerges to provide closure.

Being a previous advocate of the music of Jeni Hankins has definitely had an impact on assessing the wealth of THE OXYGEN GIRL. Grasping the message has made accessing this record a smoother process. However there is ample content in the three facets of lyrics, soundtrack and vocals to attract new fans. The strength of her music has often been in the soul of the storied song and this aspect continues to flourish as Jeni completes this life changing transformation. ‘Nothing lasts forever except a song’ echoes in the album’s most poignant track and it is the gift of communicating via this medium, which continues to make the Jeni Hankins an artist to believe in.

Slaid Cleaves - Ghost on the Car Radio : Candy House Media

When history settles on the who’s who of early 21st century Texas song writing the name of Slaid Cleaves will hold a prominent position. While technically he will always be an honorary Texan due to his North East formative years, the decades spent penning many songs in Austin, and the ensuing album releases, have seen the stripes earnt. Just when you thought it was getting a little quiet on the Slaid front, a new album titled GHOST ON THE CAR RADIO has appeared revealing our song-writing protagonist in fine form firing on his many lyrical cylinders.

His long time musical sidekick Scrappy Jud Newcomb is once again heavily involved on production matters and it is of little greater surprise to see the name of Slaid’s lifetime buddie Rod Picott appearing in the writing credits. Now we are used to this pair exchanging co-writes on each other’s albums and subsequently this has occurred with ‘Drunken Barber’s Hand’ hitting the recorded status for the second time since appearing on Rod’s 2015 album FORTUNE. With the world getting a crazier place over the last couple of years, the metaphorical sentiment of the chorus line has never been more apt.

No doubt time will judge where this album resides in the rankings of Slaid’s discography, but there are sufficient examples among the track list of songs that have the potential to push some his classic cuts, of which I would include ‘New Year’s Day’, ‘Hard to Believe’ and ‘Broke Down’ to be up there with his all-time best. While perhaps those heights haven’t been scaled during preliminary plays, ‘Little Guys’ and ‘The Old Guard’ immediately jump out as ones to listen out for. The latter is a splendid nostalgic take on a generational battle over the juke box in a quintessential small time bar with, as you would guess, ‘cheating hearts  crazy arms, now it’s crying time’ coming out on top. The other pick sees Slaid once again champion the underdog and provide further proof that this writer can get to grips with putting the brakes on life’s rampant progress.

Reflecting back on Slaid’s work over the years, there has always been a diarist/ chronicler/ commentator side to his writing often defaulting to the literary literal. The work with Rod Picott has often veered down a blue-collar route with two co-writes appearing on this record in ‘Primer Gray’ and ‘Take Home Pay’ reflecting a well-worn style. The last song in particular has a ‘cutting’ line suggesting if funds are low you could always visit the blood bank!

Perhaps the most interesting track on the album is the closer where you are left to ponder who or what is being taken on a one-way trip to the ‘Junkyard’. Once again, this ‘sunset’ track originates from a Cleaves/Picott co-write and is hopefully not to be taken as a career curtain. Slaid may have slowed down on the recording front in recent years and now approaching his mid-fifties, but the time is ripe for him to really focus on the generational struggles that he is so good at documenting within his songs.

While the album has a general feel of classic Slaid Cleaves, complete with the usual soft vocal style, A* master of the narrative status and a solid production backing, there are moments when the material struggles to more than scratch the surface. Evidence is being gathered of Slaid spending some considerable time on the road supporting the album and this may be the catalyst to lifting those tracks yet to fully blossom.

GHOST ON THE CAR RADIO gives long term Slaid Cleaves fans plenty of material to get to grips with and possesses sufficient conduit appeal for new admirers to ease into the sphere of classic material within his back catalogue. The main thing is that a key Americana songwriter is back doing what they do best and adding more credibility to how history will ultimately judge them.