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.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Worry Dolls - Kitchen Garden Cafe, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Wednesday 22nd February 2017.

The pace is certainly picking up for London based duo Worry Dolls as they motor on through the midway point on their current 25-date run of UK shows. Such an extensive headline tour, and armed with a brand new album available in multiple formats, was only a pipe dream as they sought musical direction in their post-university years. In fact the last time they played the Kings Heath area of Birmingham, it was in support of Keston Cobblers Club. Subsequent belief in their ability to make music that resonates with an increasing audience has paid off and the opportunity was grabbed to see the fruits of their development during this Kitchen Garden Café show.

Worry Dolls is the performing moniker of Rosie Jones and Zoe Nicol; two artists sharing common values and discovering that timeless knack of harmony presentation. Musically the pair keeps it straightforward with predominately Zoe’s banjo and Rosie’s guitar providing a steady backdrop to a sweet sounding vocal output. The latter element probably courts the most appeal alongside a priceless ability to write a bunch of songs, rich in integrity while possessing a popular streak. Folk, country and Americana are labels that may help them seek structural audiences, but neither really defines Worry Dolls in the strictest sense. A broad individual stamp and the smart utilisation of innate talent enable the music to blossom creating an enormous potential to reach out far from traditional bases.

Across their two sets in this midweek Birmingham show, all featured songs were of original origin which is quite unusual from a wide sample of gigs seen. However when your song is such a valuable asset, why not use every inch of available canvas. A couple of earlier Worry Dolls EPs and the brand new album, only released last month and titled GO GET GONE, offered sufficient choice to fill the evening. Only on the penultimate track, the feisty ‘All I Got’, did a song not readily available appear. Indeed it is useful to finish a gig on a high and this number plus the encore selection ‘Train’s Leaving’ proved to be serious contenders for the show’s highlights.

When reviewing the album, the retro country pop sounding ‘Miss You Already’ was identified as one of the standout songs. This evening it acted as the set opener, which is not always the best position as often it takes a few numbers for the artists to get into their stride. Rosie and Zoe were definitely into theirs by the time they played ‘Bless Your Heart’, an excellent ear pleasing track already siphoned off as a single. At this point we began to learn about the Worry Dolls outside the songs, with the title of this piece being adopted from a put down greeting they learned in Nashville. In fact their time in Music City was the location where they recorded the album under the esteemed stewardship of Neilson Hubbard.

Apart from Worry Dolls overseas excursions, another preferred element of inter-song chat was a short introduction to most of the songs including inspirations and topics. These included ‘Passport’, ‘Things Always Work Out’ and ‘Drive’. The audience were also briefed on a couple of artists who they have worked with. One co-incidentally being Ben Glover, who had only just played this venue the previous night and had co-written ‘Light Oh Light’ for the new record.

Another song that came across well was ‘She Don’t Live Here’, despite Rosie not having access to a piano which graces the recorded version. The review indicated the essence of this song to being a similar sound to Canadian folk stars Madison Violet; a viewpoint that remains after listening to the live version.

No doubt there will be plenty of other opportunities to catch Worry Dolls on the circuit as the year rolls out. Some of these may have the good fortune of a full band in tow complete with pedal steel. In the meantime Rosie and Zoe have the raw tools to take their songs far and wide. The unassuming style, precisely pitched vocals and accessible song melodies will not be short of admirers. The Kitchen Garden Café is used to distinguished artists passing through and Worry Dolls didn’t disappoint. 

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Ben Glover - Kitchen Garden Cafe, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Tuesday 21st February 2017

The English Midlands is far from unknown territory for Ben Glover. Support slots for Brandy Clark and Mary Gauthier have raised his profile in Birmingham, while a similar role for Gretchen Peters had a repeat effect after shows in Bromsgrove and Leamington Spa. Maybe a little further afield, but a decent gathering in Shrewsbury when co-headlining with Angel Snow showed potential away from being the opening act. Well now the time has come to step out of the shadows as a performing artist in the UK as Ben began his first headline tour at Birmingham’s premier listening venue – the Kitchen Garden Café.

A coup for Nashville based Ben on these run of dates across mainland Britain and his native Ireland is acquiring the services of ace guitarist Colm McClean for sparring duties. Together their guitars blended into a melange of acoustic bliss providing a special setting for Ben’s highly acclaimed songs to burst into life. Colm was a key figure in Gretchen Peters’ touring band when she played our isles last year and drew praise for helping lift these shows onto a plateau of unmatched rivalry. This evening the same skill was applied to Ben’s songs which while springing up from a number of sources, bases and projects each contain a high degree of accomplishment.

This inaugural UK tour has been named after Ben’s latest album THE EMIGRANT. Five songs from this record were sprinkled across the brace of sets which formed the show. ‘A Song of Home’ – one of the key promotional tracks – drew a gasp of audience approval upon completion, while ‘Heart in My Hand’ re-affirmed its prime status as one of the stand-out numbers from the release. Ben’s buoyancy and informative chat grew as the gig progressed leading to some background to the song ‘Moonshiner’ and why the whole theme of the record, especially the title track, has personal resonance to him. It was fitting to end the second set with a version of a traditional closer, ‘The Parting Glass’. Each time this song is heard thoughts go back to the Wailin’ Jennys singing it in Worcester around a decade ago, albeit in a contrasting style to Ben’s rugged tones.

One of Ben’s most intriguing projects in recent years was his collaboration with Joshua Britt and Neilson Hubbard in The Orphan Brigade. The evening began with the track ‘Sweetheart’ from that album, but it wasn’t until the second half before the audience were fully briefed on the supernatural goings on in Octagon Hall – a place which needs to extend its opening hours to a Monday! Not surprisingly the tale of a flirtatious ghost ‘Trouble My Heart (Oh Harriet)’ was the other chosen song to share from that record, with full approval here.

While fans of Ben would have been well versed with much of the show’s content, the most revealing parts were the next Orphan Brigade project which has just been recorded in Italy. The same team this time headed to Southern Europe to explore the mystique, aura and fascination of a subterranean setting; full of tales, emotion and exploring the unknown. Three immensely engaging songs were previewed from this upcoming release, each providing an absorbing inspiration. ‘Pain is Gone’ and ‘Pile of Bones’ will both have their day as the album evolves, but ‘Flying Joe’ is straight off the blocks as a potential live favourite. Look out for this highly anticipated record which is set to see the light of day later this year.

You didn’t have to search too far to come across audience members attracted to this show from the Gretchen Peters angle. Therefore Ben had no hesitancy in delivering three of his songs co-written with Gretchen including two off her latest album – ‘Blackbirds’ and ‘Pretty Things’. While the first of these also appeared on Ben’s previous album ATLANTIC, there was some contemplative thought of committing the other to record in the future. Perhaps a lesser known song in ‘The Mississippi Turns Blue’ completed the trio, but still another fine effort and one of the focal points of the ATLANTIC album alongside ‘Too Long Gone’ which was featured early in the set.

There is no apology in making the review song laden as this is Ben’s golden currency and what is set to serve him well long into the future. While on the topic of remuneration, the story behind the song ‘Whatever Happens Will’ is a staple of his live show and a message that sometimes you take what you get. Just one song left to comment on and an old standard that needs little introduction other than this Kitchen Garden audience matched the Glee Club in September for ploughing their vocal might into ‘Ring of Fire’.

Ben Glover writes songs that demand intense listening and contain an earthy substance that is perfectly suited to a coarse vocal style etching each emotion conveyed in the lyrics. The merging of an Emerald Isle roaming soul with the deep psyche of the Nashville song writing community is creating an artist and performer of moving capability. The gamble of heading back to the homeland devoid of the comfort blanket has paid off. This show at the Kitchen Garden Café is the start of a very promising chapter in the musical adventure of Ben Glover.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Chuck Prophet and the Mission Express - The Rescue Rooms, Nottingham. Sunday 19th February 2017

When Chuck Prophet is on a mission, what you see is one of the most enigmatic purveyors of alt-country rock ‘n’ roll music on the circuit today. Of course Chuck has been producing the goods for over thirty years through his Green on Red connection and solo work. On the evidence of these latest set of UK dates, the Californian is still firing on all cylinders and an enthralled Nottingham crowd soaked up a whole two hours of vintage Chuck Prophet and the Mission Express.

Although vintage in style, the material leaned heavily upon the absolute contemporary with the brand new album featuring prominently. BOBBY FULLER DIED FOR YOUR SINS is barely a week old and yet its status as a cultural high spot for poetic rock ‘n’ roll is securing tightly with each play. Chuck and his band launched their set with the title track of this album just after eight thirty and the marker was set for a riveting couple of hours of prime sophisticated velocity. The Bobby Fuller connection didn’t just lie with the opening track as the encore began with a cover of ‘Let Her Dance’, a popular hit for Bobby before his sad early demise in the mid-sixties. By that time, the entrance fee had been repaid several times over with Chuck in absorbing form and in total control of an engrossed audience.

Each song, whether crowd pleasing old favourites like ‘Temple Beautiful’, ‘You Did’ and ‘Willie Mays Is Up At Bat’ or new material such as ‘Bad Year for Rock ‘n’ Roll’, was perfectly accompanied by the four band members. It was the usual set up with the lead guitar of James DePrato and keyboard of Stephanie Finch stepping more to the fore leaving Vincente Rodriguez (drums) and Kevin White (bass) to shore up the backfield. The former pair also added vital harmony contributions ensuring that there will always be a West Coast feel to the music of Chuck Prophet.

Several spins of the new record reveal another song writing lyrical masterclass from Chuck. Two particular stand-outs from this album were ‘Jesus Was a Social Drinker’ and ‘We Got Up and Played’. Both saw Chuck switch into acoustic mode with the utilisation of his Martin D-38 prompting an ironic cry of Judas from the audience much to his amusement.

It is 2017, so the inevitable and essential political comment from the progressive American artistic community ensued, with ‘Barely Exist’ being dedicated to those seeking a better life. Also much of that community is still coming to terms with the losses of 2016 and Chuck delivered a duet version of ‘Iodine’ with Stephanie as a tribute to Leonard Cohen. This was a gig awash with an abundance of seriously good moments, so you could take your pick from the pin drop sublime to the fully fledged onslaught of electric amplification. Even the latter contains marvellous content as exemplified by ‘Alex Nieto’ off the new record.

The Rescue Rooms proved the ideal hosting pad for Chuck. A sizeable gathering was comfortably housed and the enjoyment of the music was enhanced by finding the venue’s sound sweet spot. Likewise Chuck found his all night. By the time the band signed off with the popular ‘You and Me Baby (Holding On)’, a perfect resting place in the personal gig memory vault had been created making this one of the standard markers for at least the rest of the year – probably longer.

The bill was enhanced through a short opening set from an American folk singer by the name of Max Gomez who is travelling with Chuck. An engaging song about an antiques store and insurance fraud proved the highlight of his set and Max made a re-appearance for Chuck’s encore. The whole set up on stage proved a resounding success for Nottingham based promoters Cosmic American who have a long association with Chuck. Maybe their forays into Birmingham for his gigs didn’t reach the same level but a short drive up the M42 for West Midlands based folks was a small price to pay for a night like this.

Long may Chuck Prophet’s lengthy association with touring the UK remain and even if there is not a universal appreciation of America’s favourite past time, a few of us understand the psyche of ‘three on, two out and the Giants greatest ever centre fielder'.