Thursday, 27 August 2015

Gilmore & Roberts - Conflict Tourism : GR! Records

CONFLICT TOURISM may be one of the more interesting album titles of the year and it is to the credit of Kat Gilmore and Jamie Roberts that the substance of the record far outweighs the intrigue. The major award nominated duo have created their own niche in the wave of young folk artists adding a youthful vibrancy to the genre. This niche is set to become an entrenched anchor as the new album possesses an enormous depth of song writing superiority. This strong album is full of magical moments combining enthralling stories, highly crafted songs and a balanced delivery reaching across the purist divide.

Apart from their established duo act, Kat and Jamie have professional music activities elsewhere and diving deep into the construction of this record will reveal a marked differentiation to each of their input. The writing of the eleven songs is credited to either artist with Jamie just edging the numerical advantage with six cuts and the general rule of thumb is that the writer leads the vocals. This gives the album a refreshing feel throughout its optimum forty-five minute duration, although collaboration via select harmonies and instrumental input is always present.

An added joy to savouring the delights of this record has been absorbing the lyrical content and admiring how the knack of delivering the killer chorus has turned the project into an engaging listen. The Jamie-written ‘Time Soldiers On’ may be found deep into the listings, but it packs a powerful punch in terms of song structure combining a memorable chorus with a fantastic verse layout. The topic of using the four seasons as a core may be a well-trodden route, but the striking use of first line repetition with near poetic effect makes this song standout alongside some emotive mandolin.

Not to be outdone in the top song stakes, Kat excels with her number ‘Stumble on the Seam’ and its classic storytelling format. This song was previewed in their live shows last year and tells a tale of a desperate search for a hidden seam of mineral wealth with a gentle twist at the end. Kat is also the architect of the album’s thumping opening track ‘Cecilia’ which sets the scene accompanied by a Seth Lakeman-style beat. In contrast, the album closer – another Kat song titled ‘Ghost of a Ring’ - is tenderly delivered and mixes a sense of melancholy and loss with yet another high quality chorus.

Photo by Elly Lucas
Jamie is also equally as capable in serving up a near slow motion piece with ‘Balance / Imbalance’ proving a curious listen as its contrasting lyrics reveal another emotive offering. A similar feel emanates from another Jamie composition in ‘Peter Pan’ which evolves into a dark view of premature mortality and fits neatly into the conflict theme of the title. Elsewhere Jamie proves that he too can deliver a folk stomper and ‘Jack O Lantern’ has all the traits of a classical structure amidst the interesting character being unveiled in the song.Traditional song style is also key to 'Peggy Airey' where Jamie explores a nineteenth century popular figure in his home town of Barnsley. Jamie’s final writing contribution is the superbly well-written ‘Selfish Man’ and a song analysing the effect of one’s behaviour on others.

It’s back to the writing of Kat for the final two songs and ‘Warmonger’ most prominently features the duet side of the duo’s vocals, while once again providing a link in its lyrical subject to the album title. ‘She Doesn’t Like Silence’ is the track with the element of twang that will resonate in Americana circles, although this record has all the overall credentials of a staunch folk release. Anyhow putting genres aside for a moment, this beautifully sung and written sad song deals delicately with the onset of decline and demise. It also delivers a cutting line in ‘It might be a while till I’m myself again’ as the effects switch to the song’s narrator.

By now you must be getting the message that this album is full of many delights, both hidden deep in the lyrical structure and more explicitly in the tones of the musical sound as well as the montage of fetching choruses. CONFLICT TOURISM is a proud release for Kat Gilmore and Jamie Roberts and can accept no finer praise than connecting with the listener from start to finish. It supremely reflects on their talents and acutely represents the health of the bright young folk scene.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Daniel Pearson - Alone, Together : Saint in the City Records

The contrasting structure of the album title suggests an artist toying with a multitude of feelings. This leads into a record supported by a strong indie spine, flavoured with folk sensibilities and allowed to saunter into occasional classic rock territory. ALONE, TOGETHER is Daniel Pearson’s third album release and joins his previous efforts in punching above its weight. This time a central streak of orchestral grandeur weaves around the variety of core guitar input suggesting a middling maturity to Daniel’s music. Not an ounce of the forty minute playing time is wasted as nine tracks succinctly portray the intended conviction of a singer-songwriter strong on sentimental message.

The numerous string arrangements differentiate this from Daniel’s other albums which have all had their release on Saint in the City Records. However the carefully constructed lyrics remain to decorate a clarity evocative vocal style ensuring maximum listener impact. If you’re acquainted with Daniel’s music, there will be an air of familiarity in the track ‘I Still Believe’ as it gets a subtle makeover from its original version appearing on 2012’s MERCURY STATE. While an element of curiosity revolves around the re-work, the effect of this outstanding and resounding anthem is rock solidly profound and retains the power to impress.

While similar anthemic vibes surround the track ‘War Stories’, it is probably album opener ‘Hymn for the Hopeless’ which delivers the record’s strongest theme. With the strings in full flow, this antidote to despair gives a voice to the moments of somber feelings and reveals Daniel’s song writing with its deepest sense of conviction. On the acoustic front, Daniel mixes more violin input with standard folk instrumentation on ‘The Open Sea’ a track which sees the writing at its figurative finest. ‘Come Back Around’ memorably closes the record with similar acoustic effect and successfully plants a yearning desire in the listener’s mind.

For those requiring a little extra rock sound to their music, both ‘The Bridge’ and ‘Rivers’ will oblige. The latter is not afraid to let the electric guitar take control from the opening bars, while the former is that directive stray into the waters of classic rock, albeit in a mild portion. ‘As Deep as Love’ and ‘Circles’ seamlessly merge into the mood of the album without necessarily reaching some of the peaks, but still maintaining the continual flow of mixing prime passion with sensitive nuances.

ALONE, TOGETHER is powerful music with a conscience, awash with acoustic reverence and orchestral pomp. Daniel Pearson’s style offers compassionate writing with stirring emotion and each release adds more than a ripple to any pool of placid singer-songwriter activity. The record deserves a chance to impress and will reward subsequent choices.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

The Stray Birds - The Met Studio at The Gatehouse Theatre, Stafford. Friday 21st August 2015

When The Stray Birds are in town, old time is cool. On the back of widespread acclaim for their performances at Cambridge Folk Festival and assorted dates, the roots trio originally from Lancaster Pennsylvania rolled into Stafford to once again demonstrate a timeless breath taking spin on the beautiful fusion of harmony, virtuoso musicianship and an innate ability to capture the spirit of a bygone age. With precision skill, the band’s performance ascended to impressive heights, maturing with each song that continually portrayed the trio in a different configuration. This ranged from the lead vocal interchange of Maya de Vitry and Oliver Craven, not forgetting the multiple contributions in this facet from bassist Charles Muench, to the instrumental exchange of mandolin, fiddle and guitars. Whatever the format, the single mic soaked up the sound before projecting its elegance to a near-sold out venue.

The guys from the town’s Fish Records promoted this show which was held in The Met Studio setting of the Gatehouse Theatre and formed part of their ongoing plan to bring quality folk music to the Staffordshire area. Of course booking The Stray Birds meant attracting folks from further afield and anybody who made the journey could have little regret in investing their valuable leisure time for such accomplished music. Following an entertaining set from local blues influenced singer-songwriter Pistol Pete Wearn, who mixed self-penned originals with covers from artists as diverse as Hayes Carll and Jerry Lee Lewis, The Stray Birds used every second of their ninety minute allotted time to woo the appreciative audience with enterprising covers and fetching originals true to the core of tradition.

The trio’s latest album BEST MEDIICINE is approaching its first anniversary in the next few months and several of its tracks were central to the evening’s musical menu. ‘The Bells’ and ‘Never For Nothing’ saw the band immediately hit their stride, while the title track 'Best Medicine’ had all the credentials to be the evening’s peak. Like many of the songs shared, invaluable and informative introductions were the perfect accompaniment as we learned of the New York record shop acting as the song’s inspiration. Also from the latest album, Maya explained how family circumstances in Canada formed the basis for ‘Adelaide’, a song she also graced us with her captivating vocal style. This heavily detected a Gillian Welch influence and to continue the association they included a version of the traditional standard ‘Make Me a Pallet on the Floor’, co-incidentally also recorded by Gillian as well as being an integral track on BEST MEDICINE.

Whilst commenting on their extensive tour schedule, Oliver informed us that he and Maya have now re-located to Nashville and surely the Americana side of the Tennessee music industry will buy into their traditional ideals. This included paying homage to the Everly Brothers, the Louvin Brothers and the more up to date duo work of Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings. The sheer beauty pouring out of Maya and Oliver’s own sumptuous duet ‘Somehow’ added to a crowded gig summit which was also joined by two covers, namely Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Loretta’ and the Doc Watson/Jimmie Rodgers championed favourite ‘Blue Yodel # 7’. ‘Sabrina’ brought the main set to a fine conclusion before the infectious ‘When I Die’ had the sole spot in the encore, with background research revealing this as a new song.

If The Stray Birds had been on the periphery of my musical horizon for the past year, they were definitely on centre-stage this evening and deservedly so. The humour and interaction between Maya, Oliver and Charles was on fine form all night, but merely acts as the dressing to their stunning talent which, while classically trained, has evolved into possessing a magical common touch. Any perceived hype surrounding previous performances in the UK was turned to a golden substance as this show witnessed at The Met studio blossomed into one of the year’s most enjoyable to date. 

Friday, 21 August 2015

Debbie Bond and the Trudats - The Hop Pole Inn, Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, Thursday 20th August 2015

She was first introduced this year as an ‘Alabama sweetheart’ on the Saturday of the Maverick Festival and what a fine ambassador for her home state Debbie Bond has proved to be. Since that glorious day at the beginning of July, Debbie and her husband/musical partner Rick Asherson have stayed in the country playing countless gigs to continue to promote the state via their brand of inspirational blues music. This evening they swapped the idyllic surroundings of rural Suffolk for a more down to earth pub in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire without any let up in their mission to thrill, inform and most of all entertain.

Debbie wasn’t the first Alabama based artist to tread the boards of the Hop Pole this year as Hannah Aldridge payed the venue in March. Co-incidentally Hannah also appeared at the Maverick Festival as part of the themed Alabama feature. While Hannah’s heady mix of country, folk and soul music ventures heavily into Americana territory, Debbie keeps her feet firmly planted in the tradition of maintaining the blues as a relevant art form. This she does with exhilarating passion and a skill to make the notes buzzing out her guitar fizz with electrifying twang. Of course this is in tandem with her exemplary band known as the Trudats and this evening comprising of Rick on keyboards/harmonica, backing and occasional lead vocal, with London based drummer Sam Kelly undertaking the percussion role.

It is impossible not to underestimate the impact of Rick’s playing on the show as his keyboard sound underpins Debbie’s lead guitar part with frequent role reversal. However it is his harmonica blowing which raises the eyebrows most, especially with the train song that sees Rick leave the keyboards behind in contrast to his usual dual playing. Listening to this song brought back memories of Debbie and Rick playing a second, and more focussed, set on the Sunday morning of Maverick which probably sowed the seeds for attending this gig. Rick also featured prominently in the call and response number ‘Rick’s Boogie’ which increased the engagement of an audience, in the main just having a pint in their local, but more than aroused by this better than usual ‘free pub gig band’.

To equate the Hop Pole with an Alabama juke joint is stretching the comparison a touch, but Debbie was unfazed by the surroundings as she was determined to inject a high dose of blues passion to a fairly sedate gathering. To be fair audience participation from the venue was probably maximised by the time Debbie and the guys played their encore version of Muddy Waters’ classic ‘Got My Mojo Workin’’. Debbie was keen to share her definition of the blues as being as much about uplifting your spirits as the alternate view and also to glow about her association with respected Alabama based bluesman Willie King, whose band she played in until his death in 2009.

Alongside the re-working of many blues numbers, Debbie was keen to showcase some of her own compositions such as ‘Falling’ which appeared on her 2011 album HEARTS ARE WILD. ‘You’re the Kind of Trouble’ was another track from this album to feature and appear amongst the regular sales pitches of Alabama as a tourist destination, heralded as a music soaked place to rival Tennessee and Mississippi. The passion was flowing for a good couple of hours and hopefully the contents of the tip bucket reflected the sincerity and talent that was on show.

With London born Rick’s links to his homeland and Debbie’s almost evangelical mission to spread the word of her beloved state, a return UK visit in 2016 is likely to be on the cards. So if a Debbie Bond gig appears at a venue close by, you could do a lot worse than buying into her belief and pride of a musical style moulded to thrive in any live setting. 

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Sarah MacDougall - Grand Canyon : Rabbit Heart Music

In the past Sarah MacDougall will always be remembered as the artist who played an encore song at the Kitchen Garden Café in Birmingham standing on a table amongst a small gathering of people. The evening like so many gigs there was a thoroughly enjoyable one. Alas no return visit has meant a little detachment from Sarah’s music, which has now been reversed via a re-introduction through the channels of her new album GRAND CANYON. Where perception of Sarah was of a straight down the middle Canadian folk singer, this new record heralds a highly explorative and experimental artist ready to stretch the boundaries of the genre. The result is an eight track record, though its thirty four minute running time accumulates the standard album feel, which does require a little industry of the listener and a freeing of the mind to unlock the merits of its content.

Perhaps it was that lodged memory of Sarah that persisted with the album, an action that paid off while coming across others who dismissed the release. It is a record heavily influenced by landscape, surroundings and subsequent induced feelings. It is also one of identity which features a lot in Sarah’s life as she draws influence from her Swedish heritage and Canadian homeland. From two lands which evoke a colder climatic feeling, you can sense the recording igniting some warmth and this is magnified by the learning that Sarah took herself off to the far north of Canada to undertake the writing task.

The inspiring vocals of Sarah tie up neatly with the diverse sounds amply supplied with numerous string arrangements and multiple instrumental raids. Scanning down the list of players revealed a couple of artists demonstrating the close knit status of Canada’s folk community, in total contrast to the vastness of the land. MJ Dandeneau plays as bassist in Sarah’s core three piece band and has played on our shores with at least two touring Canadian acts in Amanda Rheaume and the Good Lovelies. The award winning Rose Cousins is among the guest artists joining Sarah to enhance the record.

Going back to identity and two back-to-back tracks on the album tackle the subject. ‘Sparrowhead’ is up among the most enjoyable songs on the album and includes the line ‘take me home my Manitoba’. In contrast, for the following song Sarah returns to her first language in ‘Malmo I Mitte Hjarta’ which even non-Swedish speakers can see the link in its translation as ‘Malmo in my heart’. ‘Baby It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll’ has been one of the tracks selected for radio coverage in the UK and this is a sensible choice from the point of view of wider appeal. ‘The Story of Pippi and Lionheart’ had a title which prompted curious investigation which led to a possible link with Swedish child literature and unwraps as a song with a memorable lyrical structure. The same could also apply to ‘2012’ with its consistent use of repetition.

The album opens with ‘I Want to See the Light (Lost from Our Eyes)’ a haunting song with a dark sentiment and basically launching a left field sound adrift from your usual folk offering. The title track ‘Grand Canyon’ can be interpreted as a song of personal release and what better metaphor to use than a place of such vast openness. ‘Devil’s Gap’ brings up the rear of the recorded tracks, is a beautifully delivered piece of work and achingly pleads for the ultimate connection in its short lyrical moments.

GRAND CANYON is a stimulating and enthralling album, full of gazing and contemplative sentiment. It often wanders into alt-territory with the invitation to follow on its terms. Sauntering down this path will lead you into the enchanting musical world of Sarah MacDougall and its treasure trove of discovery. A table also awaits Sarah for her return to the Kitchen Garden Café one day.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Lauren Housley - Sweet Surrender : Big Bad Recordings

The search for that genuine powerhouse vocalist to grace the UK Americana scene can be called off as Lauren Housley announces her formal arrival into the full length recording world. Her debut album SWEET SURRENDER has been a long time coming and any pain from the journey can be immediately extinguished right from the opening snippets of the first track. Where others pretend, Lauren mixes genuine gift, a keen ear and an authentic path to unleash a special record which has the potential to interest the mainstream, while being totally anchored to the terms of the untainted independent.

The rose colour of her home has switched from white to red over the formative years of a burgeoning career, but the prosperous blooming of the music should entail a nationwide interest for starters. Rather than hooking on one specific genre, Lauren draws upon inspiration from country, soul and blues to form this ten track collection, rich in fine song writing and utilising the collective authority of an established list of players to enhance the production. The hooks are rampant throughout the record with pedal steel weaving in and out of many tracks, supremely blended in places with Wurlitzer organ. Without a cover in sight there is a timeless magical appeal to Lauren’s songs which are all sung with incredible feeling and emotion.

Lauren and her long time musical collaborator Thomas Dibb have been writing songs for eight years so the journey to this release, and subsequent media attraction via Radio 2 interest, has been lengthy and no doubt fraught with many lows punctuating the highs. Both take equal credit for each of the ten tracks which are all presented free of pop pretence and serve a modern focal point to what constitutes a great song. Scanning down the list of players reveals two guys who have previously crossed my path both live and on record. Scott Poley recorded and toured with Cara Luft in the past, while Chris (CJ just to differentiate!) Hillman has proved an in-demand pedal steel guitarist, with Billy Bragg regularly using his services.

‘Nice to See Ya’ is an audibly moving song which announces the album’s arrival and sets the tone with a valid attempt at being the record’s ‘first among equals’. It definitely resides in the positive camp of songs as the album unveils as a mixture of the blue and brighter sides of life. To link in the more buoyant side to the writing of Lauren and Thomas, ‘All You Need is a Friend’ closes the record some forty minutes later in a similar state of mind and beautifully supported by a piano intro.

On the topic of great intros, what can go wrong with a blues-tinged harmonica one and the answer is nothing as evidenced by the title track ‘Sweet Surrender’. Sounding very much like Allison Moorer at her finest (and that’s high praise from this pen), the track oozes with a streak of southern charm that could have evolved from any point from Nashville, Tennessee to New Orleans, Louisiana, but remains firmly entrenched in Manchester, UK. Alongside Ms. Moorer, the other contemporary vocalist who springs to mind when listening to Lauren is Jennifer Nettles, obviously minus the extreme southern twang, but with equal passion and fervour. ‘It Ain’t About You’ with its archetypical country theme of family disharmony is the song which probably best emphasises this comparison.

You can take your pick whether you prefer the upbeat or the ballad version of Lauren with the latter style being supported with a quartet of fine songs headed by another challenger to the best track mantle. ‘When Autumn Came’ is that killer classic sad song and the one where Hillman adds the steel as well as displaying the traits of a well written number in terms of lyrical make up. ‘Face the World’ is in true tear jerker mode where the steel merges extremely well with electric guitar. ‘If You Were Mine’ and the painstakingly heartfelt ballad ‘Show Me What Love is’ complete this quartet with the former being the most tender of the four.

The soulful side to the record excels in two tracks to take the record up to that desirably complete round number of ten. ‘The Waiting Game’ may be representative of the lead up to this release and its solid groove underpins a track heaving with wonderful Wurlitzer and a breezing input of horns. ‘Ghost Town Blues’ has been the song scheduled for commercial consideration and its soul stomping qualities house plenty of spotlight appeal. Think a little bit of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Uptight’ and you’ll be on the right track. A radio edit exists on some versions of the album, leaving a personal judgement on preference which from these quarters will always lean away from the orchestrated commercial.

It is an understatement to suggest that this record made a profound impact. The package is complete and Lauren makes a without compromise stab at stardom. There is ample substance to unite the ardent roots purist with the wider world and launch a talent deservedly of a larger platform. Whether this review waves Lauren Housley off into the commercial world remains to be seen, but being totally engrossed in SWEET SURRENDER has been a joyous experience. 

Case Hardin - Colours Simple : Clubhouse Records

They say good things come in threes and Case Hardin’s new album COLOURS SIMPLE explicitly lives up to this quip. It’s their issue number three on the Clubhouse Records label, the third full collaboration from the four core band members and the astute listener can implicitly detect three strands to the motion of the record. On by far one of the most interesting releases of 2015 to date, Pete Gow leads Case Hardin into the territory of song writing excellence, ensuring every ounce of small letter soul infiltrates each crevice to once again proclaim the majesty of the full album. To further ingrain that classic feel, the liner notes inspire with heartfelt nostalgia alongside some beautiful mind bending cover art suggesting a blending of simplicity with the abstract. This is in tune with the mood of the album which blossoms with maturity and intelligence as the listener is taken on a path, dark in places, but for ever lit up by the glow of Gow’s lyrical brilliance.

This pedigree release tests and teases, probes and pleases throughout its ten track–fifty minute occupation of your undivided attention with perhaps little appeal for the casual listener which makes it even more special for those who like to bury themselves in the lyrical content. Recorded in the Reservoir Studios of Chris Clarke, the home of so much valued English alt-country rock, this canvas of masterly music delivers on a grand scale and will no doubt get articulate scribes brimming with superlatives. However let’s turn the wider praise into micro analysis and consider the three strands to the motion’s reception.

On three tracks, the record envelops itself into a complex structure with multiple layers and gear changes led off by album opener ‘Poet’s Corner’. This chorus free masterpiece will demand eight minutes of your initial attention, but will reward with a rock masterclass merging faint organ with a mid-song explosion of sound. On a lesser scale, ‘These Three Cities’ continues the mood with a more intrinsic feel to the pace change as the narrative of the song unveils. The final part of this intriguing trio is the folk rock vibes complete with vibrant fiddle which decorates one of the two Gow/Jim Maving co-writes in ‘A Mention in Dispatches’.

Maving who plays all lead and slide guitar on the album also assisted in the writing of ‘Roll Damnation Roll’ which heads a quartet of songs less complex and more acoustic led. Of the four this is the greater upbeat number with mandolin and piano threaded throughout aiding attractive appeal along with the first track on the record to contain a conventional and memorable chorus. By contrast ‘Fiction Writer’ is a softly delivered vocal effort from Gow with low key guitar supporting a piece revealing yet another intriguing character. On the back of the lengthy opener, the album returns to post–seven minute song territory with the seedy tale of a similarly double life in ‘High Rollers’. Once again it’s a low slow song allowing Gow to inject belief into the character. Acoustic melody closes the album in ‘Another Toytown Morning’ as this name-laden song presents interesting themes and provides an outlet for the lyrics to blossom.

The final song strand is three straight up rockers giving the album renewed energy and a balanced output to substantiate its complete feel. The familiar brass section trio of Geoff Widdowson (aka the Champs ‘Free Jazz Geoff’) and the Bennett Brothers (aka The Dreaming Spires) ignites a rock n’ soul track lifted as the album’s first single titled ‘Cheap Streaks From a Bottle’. ‘The Streets are Where the Bars are (The Bars are Where the Girls Will Be)’ is a basic good ole Americana drenched roller lifted by piano and one of the few tracks to have a straightforward song structure backed by a strong chorus. A further bracketed title ends this brief song analysis in ‘(Jesus Christ Tomorrow Morning) Do I Still Have to Feel This Way?’ with a single lingering thought. Its hook has more than an uncanny resemblance to ‘Am I the Only One (Who’s Ever Felt This Way’) from the Dixie Chicks album WIDE OPEN SPACES. However who cares as both tracks are superb efforts.

Quite simply, with no pun intended, COLOURS SIMPLE by Case Hardin is a record to treasure and a collection of songs knee deep in marvelled magnificence. Long live the complete album in all its glory and that a British band from the thriving independent sector can engage in such artistry.