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. These don’t naturally fit into the classic double album concept so all are confined to a single disc. 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.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Chastity Brown + Otis Gibbs - Hare and Hounds, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Sunday 18th June 2017

There was an air of duality in the Hare and Hounds this evening as circumstances led to the pairing of Chastity Brown and Otis Gibbs for a co-headline gig. A raft of common ground splits the obvious sound and vision differences between each artist, headed by an instinctive trait to be able to spin an artistic web around the audience. This is also joined by the underpinning of a very personal take on folk music, albeit Americana style.

However to take the contrasts at their most literal, this was Chastity’s first visit to a Birmingham venue, while Otis has made the city a regular stopping off point over the last decade of touring this country. Carrying on with the literal theme, Otis is one of the great story telling artists famed for punctuating highly informative songs with regular personal tales, which never lose their shine. On the other hand, Chastity is driven more from the heart and instinct. This leads to incredibly deep songs such as ‘My Stone’. Despite a general observational approach to music, Otis proves to be a no mean architect of the moving piece either with ‘Something More’ never failing to stir an smidgeon of emotion with each rendition.

For the gig annals, Otis adopted the role of show opener and spent an hour on stage sharing an intoxicating batch of original songs for an audience that comprised of both hardened fans and new acquisitions taking a punt on an act that you don’t see every night in the bars of Kings Heath. A busy merch table during the intermission was a testimony to his draw with the new record MOUNT RENRAW being an obvious pull. This album was first made available to Birmingham folks when Otis played the neighbouring Kitchen Garden last October and since that last visit songs like ‘Sputnik Monroe’ and ‘Great American Roadside’ have bedded in alongside old favourites such as ‘Small Town Saturday Night’ and ‘Joe Hill’s Ashes’.

The last couple of months are proving to be a significant period in Chastity’s development as an international artist. The brand new album SILHOUETTE OF SIRENS has met with widespread critical acclaim and her current run of UK shows has garnered favourable reviews. This was in fact the second time that she has been caught live on the tour and it was interesting to compare this final show with one in nearby Bewdley which was one of the the opening dates just over a week ago. On the surface, Chastity’s time on stage was a little longer, this occasion running to an hour and twenty minutes with maybe more focus on the inter song chat which is no bad thing when you wish to get further insight into an artist’s make up. There was definitely an increased spring in her step, a burning desire to get across more to the audience and a tendency to generally rock to a greater extent. The sets were fairly similar, although to the Bob Dylan and Nina Simone covers that she did, you can add an upbeat version of Van Morrison’s ‘Sweet Thing’ parading as the perfect encore closer.

Similarly to the Bewdley show, Chastity’s guitar playing accomplice Luke Enyeart was in identical riveting form, showering the right amount of twang, slide and pumped up electric on fine songs such as ‘Wake Up’, ‘Drive Slow’ and ‘Carried Away’. To end the tour on a high note lends leverage to a return in the not too distant future and further reports of super shows up and down the country fuels this further. Her fascinating mix of predominately folk ‘n’ soul, with more than a hint of country blues creates a warm aura of heartfelt music, intentionally or not, deigned to be an outlet for a primal flow of feelings, emotion and a little pent up anger. An ideal cocktail of purposeful intent and style.

There is no need to choose between the gruff working roots style of Otis Gibbs and the soulful tendencies of Chastity Brown. Merit exists on a parallel scale and both artists encompass the wide wonderful world of Americana music. The fact that artists originally from Union City Tennessee and Wanamaker Indiana are prepared to share the gifts of their craft in the equally exotic surroundings of Kings Heath Birmingham is a treasure not to be taken lightly. Enthusiastic support for both these artists in multiple forms is critical in ensuring nights like this can continue on a recurring basis.

Saturday, 17 June 2017

Sarah Jane Scouten - When the Bloom Falls From the Rose : Light Organ Records

Perhaps one feature of today’s music model where control is devolved by default to artist level  is the trend for a more experimental approach and a tendency to refrain from being boxed into convention. Frequently artists fuse particular styles leading to an increased use of the word ‘tinged’ when it comes to music description. While the first sentence can be wholly applied to the new album from Canadian singer-songwriter Sarah Jane Scouten, the fused approach is generally bypassed in the assembling of twelve highly distinctive tracks which form WHEN THE BLOOM FALLS FROM THE ROSE. The result is a collection of exceptionally infectious and independent tunes spanning the genre sounds of country, folk, rockabilly, pop and even a slice of old time rag.

Indeed Sarah Jane Scouten is a heaven sent dream for a contemporary folk festival where audiences are more than open to a diverse range of styles. This is further made viable by the high calibre of music that she makes, whether through her own writing or an acute perception to select the compositions of others. On this new record, there is a ten-two split between original and cover material with the latter pair falling clearly into folk music territory via their historical storytelling existence.

‘Britannia Mine’ is an impassioned minimalist song written by Paddy Graber, a person directly involved in a bitter industrial dispute in the western Canadian province of British Columbia, which inspired the composition. The other folk song moves slightly east in its origin to Alberta with ‘Where the Ghost River Flows’ being a haunting rural tale penned by Jasper Joe Adams. Sarah Jane’s own dip into this genre style comes in the form of the uplifting folk rock title track ‘When the Bloom Falls From the Rose’, the melting vocals of ‘Rosehips for Scurvy’ and the curiously titled ‘Poland’. The latter focusses on the frequently used theme of love with the title taken from the line ‘if you were the king of Poland I’d be the consort of the damned’.

Having seen Sarah Jane live when she toured the UK in a low-key capacity a couple of years ago, her extraordinary ability to impart a classic country song can be 100% certified. This side of her multi-appeal shines brightly on the record with the opening track ‘Acre of Shells’ being a prime candidate for the album’s golden moment. Pedal steel, a waltz-like feel and imaginative writing create an excellent love song, blossoming with the chorus line ‘how could I ever love somebody else, in an acre of shells you’ll find just one pearl’. The superb ‘Every Song I Sing’ and the alluring narrative piece ‘Paul’ are other key components where Sarah Jane plays the country card with great skill.

The eclectic nature of this album is set to escalate further when we get to the raucous rockabilly number ‘Bang Bang’. This track ratchets up the pace of the proceedings in the number two slot on the running order with an enormous jolt of energy. This has also been selected as one of the promotional songs, which while being a sensible choice, is not necessarily representative of the general tone. Neither is the old time feel to ‘Coup de Ville Rag’, but like the other song in this paragraph, its isolationist nature enhances the broad feel to the album and boosts its overall appeal. Just when you feel this record could not get any further diverse within its pre-defined boundaries, it takes you in a dreamy pop direction with ‘Man in Love’; another fine song that could be shortlisted for the standout moment. The album closer is probably the toughest track to define, but the serene sounding ‘Crack in Your Windshield’ is another example of Sarah Jane’s smart song writing and ensures the record ends on a positive note  in its attempt to seal the deal with the listener.

WHEN THE BLOOM FALLS FROM THE ROSE is an album that will plant a smile on the listener’s face. It successfully calls at many stopping points without watering down its fascination.Sarah Jane Scouten’s take on music presents a mine of informative song writing laced with an eclectic soundtrack covering many folk, country and other bases. The result is an album packed with potential to flourish intently and it will be a fabulous acquisition to those who cross its path.