Friday, 17 March 2017

Romantica - Shadowlands : At The Helm Records

The release of SHADOWLANDS signals the end of Romantica’s lengthy hiatus and the added good news is that At The Helm Records have stepped in to make this album readily available in the UK. This development is buoyed by the distinguished nature of this hefty release which weighs in at fifty nine minutes and fourteen tracks. Any trepidation of a record of such length struggling to entirely engage is sent packing after a couple of listens. Maybe the content is a mix of growers and those with an instant impact, but Ben Kyle has done a tremendous job in channelling so much determination, skill and guidance into a record packed with endless high points.

In the interim years since Romantica’s last album in 2009, Ben has been active in releasing a duet record with Carrie Rodriguez. In fact a UK tour around the time of that release saw Ben and Luke Jacobs play a set of Romantica songs in support of Carrie. Luke has since cemented his relationship with Carrie on many fronts, leaving Ben to arrange a new gathering of musicians to get SHADOWLANDS out. The result is an irresistible landscape soundtrack, forever etched in the Minnesota environment with the vocals retaining a Celtic trim to reflect Ben’s Irish heritage. For genre junkies the sound is a blend of folk rock and alt-country with a significant singer-songwriter sensibility streak.

Background information suggests that the album’s content has been strengthened by enhanced life experience and the passing of time. Whether viewing life from a macro or micro perspective, the song writing is spot on. The deeply personal and highly nostalgic sits well with the observational astute and if you’re looking for a sound element to die for there is plenty of weeping steel. In essence this album lands on the listener with a buzzing glow and its compulsive hooks serenade a steely core.

For me there is one track that stands head and shoulders above the rest and not just being a lyrical sucker for hearing Nashville and Louisville in the first verse. ‘Lonely Star’ rolls out to proclaim a profound metaphorical message with the analogy that Texas is not just the sole domain of the aforementioned song title. Pushing this song hard is the pumped up passion applied to the beautiful ‘Give Your Heart a Shelter’, a track that explodes like a shooting start in its final throes.

For some third person musings, the tribute to Gram Parsons in ‘Cecil Ingram Conor’ (named in honour of Gram’s pre-recording name) and the poignant piece titled ‘Buffalo Bill’ come up trumps. The latter almost unravels as an open letter and like so many tracks on the album is decorated with some atmospheric steel. A fourth track responsible for leaving those favourable first impressions is the light hearted album closer ‘Shandy Bass’, a fiercely nostalgic composition no doubt drawing inspiration from Ben’s Irish upbringing.

Outside this leading quartet are a series of highly merited tracks beginning with album opener ‘Let The Light Go Through You’ which gets the record off to a simmering start. ‘Get Back in Love’ sees Ben score a maximum in the stakes of penning a heartfelt love song, while ‘St. Paul City Lights’ takes the sound deepest into a country direction. To give the album a wider Americana feel, a wave of West Coast influence occasionally drifts in, most notably on ‘Nobody Knows’. This airy feel helps the album paint a picture and contrasts neatly with the increased tempo of offerings like ‘Blue Heart’.

Perhaps the true depth to this album is excavating some of the tracks which require a little more endeavour such as the imagery surrounding ‘Here It Comes’ and the message buried in ‘Harder to Hear’. ‘We Were Young’ and ‘After the War’ also fall into this category and complete the line-up of an album that begins to form the credentials of a mini epic with a large degree of multi-facetted content.

While there will be likeminded albums released this year from some big hitting artists, SHADOWLANDS gives Romantica the perfect vehicle to compete and ultimately muscle into contention for serious acclaim. Perhaps a defining feature is the way that the vocals are ground into the song emotion making it a release full of gutsy eloquence. A slice of purple and green reflect the sources that ultimately inspire Ben Kyle fuelling a record that heralds a successful recording return for Romantica.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Laura Marling - 02 Institute, Birmingham. Tuesday 14th March 2017

Watching Laura Marling perform is an absorbing experience as she retains a knack of holding you to every note, breath and lyric. Maybe the deadpan static steely delivery plays a vital role alongside a meandering vocal style effortlessly floating around the breadth of the scale. The ability to transfix an engrossed audience, even in a four figure mainly standing rock venue, is a testament to an alluring appeal which continues to garner widespread praise from scribes, many of whom are partial to a little poetic waxing.

It was a Birmingham return to the O2 Institute for Laura, almost two years from the moment when she played the venue in the midst of promoting 2015’s SHORT MOVIE album. If the house was almost full on that occasion, this time the sold out signs were up with a similar situation of a brand new record to present. SEMPER FEMINA had been only released a matter of days before this show, which was slotted in the middle of a run of UK dates.Not a single moment was wasted in turning to the new material with Laura reeling off eight songs from this record in the set’s early parts. Any element of risk evaporated as the new songs bedded in remarkably well. Laura did acknowledge this initial barrage of the unfamiliar, but there was serial faith in her judgement.

Starting with new album’s focal track ‘Soothing’, a mood of artistic tranquillity settled in, aided and abetted by a five piece backing line up ensuring the soundtrack was executed with utmost precision. Not averse to appearing solo, Laura did a mid-set stint unaccompanied, with a sheer equilibrium of balanced majestic effect to when in the company of the backfield of twin guitars, percussion and a pair of backing vocalists.

Apart from the aforementioned opening track, ‘Wild Fire’ and ‘Nothing, Not Nearly’ impressed as much in the live format as the early spins of the new record. The inter-song audience enthusiasm grew with the more popular back numbers, which is now growing to the extent that the current release is her sixth album. Remarkable output for a twenty seven year old, but in line with an artist already off into the distance as one of this era’s most prominent singer-songwriters. You can take your pick of highlights from the second part of the set, with no doubt equal praise for songs such as ‘Darkness Descends’, ‘Once’, ‘I Speak Because I Can’ and ‘Sophia’ from the assembled masses.

In truth there was not a single below par moment in the encore-less eighty minutes that Laura spent in the spotlight. Capturing this performance in an isolated mind enabled the true beauty of her music to flourish and prosper. To witness such a mesmerising experience in a pin drop environment was a treasured treat. Whether you view Laura Marling from a folk, indie, alternative or an increasingly Laurel Canyon influenced perspective, the joy of losing yourself in a literary melange of predominately acoustic and occasionally electric is a privilege to find.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Kim Lowings and the Greenwood - Kitchen Garden Cafe, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Tuesday 28 February 2017

For those of a local persuasion this gig was a case of a Black Country band crossing over the divide to play a Birmingham venue. For the rest of you this was the first headline gig at the Kitchen Garden Café for Kim Lowings and the Greenwood with the impact being another glowing display by one of the region’s finest folk artists. The Greenwood might have been slightly depleted for the evening, but the structure and delivery of a familiar bunch of songs was as good as ever. Kim’s live performance continues to flourish with each show and 2017 is shaping up to be an exciting year in terms of projects and new releases.

While the new record, what will be their third full length release, is still some months and funding away, the focus this evening was very much on the songs that have strengthened Kim’s live presence over the last few years. To this extent there was only a couple of new songs previewed, both of traditional origin, with most of the upcoming material still being tantalisingly kept under wraps. The two sets which formed this headline set at the Kitchen was a rich mix of the traditional and original, all played with an accomplished finesse and sang with a blossoming elegance.

In perfect symmetry, Kim opened both sets free of her trademark mountain dulcimer for a couple of songs thus freeing her vocalist element to rise to the summit. These segments included a beautiful ode to Sandy Denny with a version of ‘By The Time It Gets Dark’ and a gorgeous rendition of the Be Good Tanyas classic ‘Littlest Birds’. The latter of these induced spontaneous audience accompaniment, a feature that was often repeated peaking with closing numbers ‘Away Ye Merry Lasses’ and ‘The Begging Song’.

The musical accompaniment was in full string mode for this show as Tim Rogers’ Cajon was absent with apologies. Bassist Dave Sutherland and dual guitarist/bouzouki player Andrew Lowings stepped up to compensate, but paying punters will never be short changed when Kim hits the sublime spot with her beautiful vocals. Among the highlights from this infectious show were the songs ‘Off to Sea’, ‘Regrets’ and ‘Lullaby’, the last two being prime examples of Kim’s added precious gift of penning a special song. Her output is destined to be a mix of interpreting the past and ploughing the route of converting inspiration to original song. Whichever the choice, the result is universally appealing.

Opening for Kim this evening was her good friend and Kitchen Garden Café regular Chris Cleverley. Apart from past and present collaboration, both performers have been part of the Company of Players project which offered a fresh take on the Bard’s legacy through the lens of contemporary song. Both will be appearing in Birmingham in April when the project’s roadshow hits these parts and Chris once again treated folks to his fine contribution with the excellent song ‘But Thinking Makes It So’. It had only been a couple of weeks since Chris graced a sold out show at this venue when supporting Lewis and Leigh and like that appearance he impressed once again especially when tackling ‘The Dawn Before the Day’ and ‘Rafters’ from his debut album APPARITIONS. The latter particularly explodes with a riveting acoustic energy and almost pans out in rock opera territory.

Kim’s own recent album HISTORIA also featured frequently in her sets. ‘Maggie’s Song’ always brings a joyous smile without quite reaching the heights of a rare bit of Greenwood electric added to the album version. ‘Monsoon’ was also lifted from this 2015 album and an appropriate choice for a wet Birmingham night, although not quite as dramatic as the song’s inspiration.

For the second time in the month of February, ‘The Parting Glass’ was sung in the Kitchen Garden Café. Kim’s sparkling encore version was in a totally contrasting style to Ben Glover’s rugged rendition a week ago, but both have a place and this proved a fitting climax to another impressive show.

Discovering the music of Kim Lowings in her home town of Stourbridge four years ago has proven to be a wise move. Incidentally, the evening of the discovery was in support of Jess Morgan, another singer-songwriter with a rising star. There is so much bright talent on the UK’s folk and acoustic scene that popping into your local venues can often reap rewards. This Kitchen Garden Café gig could well have been the start of another long lasting appreciation for any music fans seeing Kim Lowings and the Greenwood for first time. They won’t be disappointed with the discovery. 

Saturday, 25 February 2017

Benjamin Folke Thomas - Copenhagen: Louvaio

What you see and what you hear is what you get when Benjamin Folke Thomas bounds into your musical horizon. The striking Swede with vocals as deep as his excavated song writing is back with a brand new album full of smart, astute content packed with an interesting punch. COPENHAGEN is the title and unravels as an assorted selection of songs stretching the entire spectrum from complex to catchy. One certainty is that this release courts memorable appeal and reaches out to those looking for a slightly offbeat style to their roots music.

This is the third album for a singer-songwriter who has shared his habitat between London and his Scandinavian homeland. Residency in the former has allowed Ben to get a foothold on the industry ladder and accrue a decent amount of praise for his recorded music and entertaining live shows. Take your pick for a label to describe his musical style – folk in intrinsic lyrical substance, alt-country in a rousing full band show and distinctly Americana in outlook. All aspects get a look in on the new album as ten self-penned tracks launch a campaign to secure your attention.

Individual taste plays an important role in suggesting a starting point for exploring this record. ‘Rhythm and Blues’ rolls into your ear drums with infectious appeal, while ‘Finn’ sets the pulse racing for lyrical wordsmith junkies. On the topic of vocabulary content, the introduction of lines containing words such as narcissism and contamination in album opener ‘Good Enough Me’ indicate that boundaries will be pushed. If you’re looking for a few more options to groove along to then ‘Hold On’ and ‘Bad News’ fit the bill.

It’s always a solid offering to have significant parts at each end of the album. Alongside the enhanced lyrical content of the opener exists some rousing guitar pieces, while the record concludes with a resounding closer in ‘Gimme a Small’, revealed in all its acoustic glory. Wherever you look, this release hosts intriguing findings with Nazi resistance and the outcome of thin walls being points to grab your attention.

COPENHAGEN is a useful addition to the song armoury of Benjamin Folke Thomas and will continue to bring vibrancy to his hugely engaging live shows. The fruitful hooks and an insatiable desire to scale the lyrical summit primarily add up to this being a profoundly satisfying release. In these challenging times of continental collaboration, the music of Benjamin Folke Thomas acts as a diverse and unique addition to the UK’s independent roots scene. More albums like this will continue to add value.

Ashley Riley - Can't Let You Go :Self-released

The transcendent nature of music is at full force when a listener in suburban UK hooks up with a sound spawning out of Decatur Illinois. International horizons vanish in this digital age as good music meanders to respectful homes while disregarding boundaries. For the third time in three years a record release by Ashley Riley has floated into a virtual world of a UK blogger and morphed into a satisfying sense of reality. This time the music is in the form of a self-released seven track EP titled CAN’T LET YOU GO with its dusky undertones blending into a blissful state of buoyant twang and melancholic soul.

From start to finish, Ashley and her band have created a body of music deep in character and rich in freedom as the sound veers in an Americana/alt-country direction. Weeping guitars and vocals to suit give the record a multi-sensory effect revealed in the achingly good opener ‘Lonely’ and the follow on title track ‘Can’t Let You Go’. The adjective ethereal can be over used in music reviews, but make room for one more placement when describing ‘Tell Me Why’.

A redeeming feature of this record is the way it thrives on a multitude of smooth gear changes. Mid track ‘Country Song’ unravels as a springy effort while the pace picks up significantly as we move into ‘Wait a Minute’. Throughout, the nifty guitar work meets approval adding a vibrant aspect to the proceedings in places.

If you’re looking for the record’s crowning moment then the final pair of tracks creates a sunset feel to a long hot sultry day. A hazy jazz mood infiltrates ‘Lovers’ before we exit the door in the company of the tearful ‘Leaving Nashville’ complete with faint steel and a subtle aural aroma.

The origin of this release was a desire to commit to record a mixture of songs left off the last studio album THROUGH THE THIN and others lingering around homeless for a number of years. Far from being the scraps, they evolve into a precious entity challenging the listener to a multiple of repeat plays.

Whatever the desires, intentions or ambitions for her music, Ashley Riley continues to make a connection with limitless appeal and CAN’T LET YOU GO is another fine example of securing this bond. The market may be crowded and choice endless in this digital age, but making room for her music might just be a sensible decision wherever you reside in the world.

Caroline Spence - Spades & Roses : Self-Released

The ultimate beauty of a record is not when it leaves the performer but the moment it lands on the listener. Music is best gift wrapped for sharing and it is an absolute treat to be cast under the spell of the new album from East Nashville based artist Caroline Spence. SPADES & ROSES is the follow up to the 2015 release SOMEHOW and transmits to the listener as a luscious layered body of drooling singer-songwriter heaven. The seeping aurora that oozes out of tracks one to eleven makes this one of the most satisfying albums to hit the wires in 2017 stamped with a guarantee that it will last the distance.

Under the guidance of Neilson Hubbard, the producing architect of three high quality album releases just this year to date, the music and vocals give each other the space to flourish allowing the sheer magnitude of Caroline’s immense talent to sparkle. This talent ranges from a hazy sensual vocal style to the strength of committing some pretty substantial lyrical content to the powerful medium of song. You can take your pick of genre labels from country, folk and Americana, but this album rises above such tagging to flagship what is good about the overall essence of penning the ideal songs to induce goose bumps and the preferable shivers.

Like all great singer-songwriter albums, SPADES & ROSES is best savoured with the lyric sheet at hand, yet just immersing yourself into its pulsating tones isn’t a bad substitute. Caroline has some pretty special associates in her midst with Miranda Lambert being attracted to her songs and touring with John Moreland. To throw another name into the mix, there is a hint of Gretchen Peters threading throughout the release. This most prominently surfaces in a sound perspective in ‘To Go Down’, which ironically is the one track that Caroline didn’t write. Pete Lindberg, who is known in the UK through his touring work with Cale Tyson, is responsible for this song.

Deep into the well of this album, Caroline really gets to the grips with issues ripe for the scrutiny of song. ‘Hotel Armadillo’ is a wonderful take of the life of a travelling musician, while ‘Softball’ explores gender inequality in full metaphorical mode. In ‘Southern Accident’, Caroline opens her heart to epic proportions and fully displays the tough inner/tender outer side to her art in ‘You Don’t Look So Good (Cocaine)’.

The songs are a general mixture of solo and co-written efforts with a familiar name from a few years ago in Stephanie Lambring cropping up on the credits. She collaborated on one of the album’s promotion tracks ‘Slow Dancer’, an example of tantalisingly revealing the contents of the record via reputable online music outlets. When folks finally get a copy of this album, the guarantee is that you’ll get won over right from the first track. Caroline aches ‘I wanna lose myself in the heart of somebody’ and you’ll definitely start losing your heart in this record as soon as you hear ‘Heart of Somebody’.

Another Stephanie Lambring co-write blossoms in the early stages of the record in ‘All The Beds I’ve Made’ and the highest compliment to pay this album is to proclaim that it is totally devoid of any filler content. Therefore anointing a standout track is replaced by the need to create time for the whole listening entity. Even as the final three tracks emerge your patience won’t be tested. ‘Wishing Well’ provides a timely change in tempo and ‘I Can’t Complain’ could even be lifted as the strapline to this album review. The piano-led closer ‘Goodbye Bygones’ is in classic territory, contains the album title in the lyrics and seals the deal of this being a totally absorbing release.

Spending time listening to SPADES & ROSES is an exercise in mind massaging. Therefore kick back and soak up its tempting twang and amalgam of soft toned elegance. Southern to its core while exposing an element of evocative fragility start the journey of projecting this album’s worth. However the next stage is that of listener connection so do what you need to do. 

If Courtney Marie Andrews laid down a hand of three kings when releasing her album in the UK at the start of this year, Caroline Spence, by unwrapping the gem that is SPADES & ROSES, has responded with a trio of aces.

Jim Lauderdale - London Southern : Proper Records

It has been a double dose of transatlantic involvement for Jim Lauderdale lately. Not only did he play a major part in the success of the recent touring Sessions show which thrilled concert hall fans the length of the country, but a new album appears with a major imprint this side of the pond. LONDON SOUTHERN gives a big clue in the title of how this album came to life. Apart from recording it in the capital, a lifelong ambition of Jim, he hooked up with members of Nick Lowe’s team to produce a high calibre record streaked with a thick vein of substantive quality.

For many years Jim Lauderdale has been the crossover king of American music, albeit constantly switching between bluegrass, classic and contemporary country as well as pioneering Americana as a haven for homeless roots music. True to his eclectic nature, LONDON SOUTHERN rolls out as a mixture of sounds and even in the first three tracks we meander through the misty waters of classic country, lounge jazz blues and a soulful tinge. Maybe the album does steer down a middle line but it’s done in such as sophisticated way that it will warrant periodic plays and has potential to evolve into a slow burning standard.

Two elements that contrast this release from THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING which appeared last year are this one has twelve new tracks split evenly between solo and co-write status, also its release on Proper Records will enable wider availability in the UK. A cacophony of studio sounds gives this record a hot coal appeal with plenty of horns, strings, piano and organ joining the ubiquitous guitar.

An excellent track ideal for radio play opens the record with ‘Sweet Time’ being the standard bearer for classic country among the dozen. Elsewhere ‘We’ve Only Got So Much Time Here’ and ‘You Came To Get Me’ raise the soul stakes, while ‘I Love You More’ sees Jim in tear jerker mode. Rock ‘n’ roll gets a look in when the needle reaches ‘No Right Way To Be Wrong’ and ‘If I Can’t Resist’ is a pure smooth operator. A band of assumed considerable standing underpins the record creating an overall sound that invites you to sit back, relax and chill out to fine selection of songs.

Possibly the missing elements to Jim’s involvement with the UK at the moment are the headline dates which would considerably build on the four or five songs he got to share in the Transatlantic Sessions shows. Showcasing LONDON SOUTHERN would best be served with some assembly of players which may be the stumbling block to arranging a tour, or at least a couple of high profile dates. However the alternative is to embrace the cheerful sounds on the various available formats that mark this new album as one to add to your valuable collection.