Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Jess Klein + Mike June - Kitchen Garden Cafe, Kings Heath, Birmingham Monday 29th September 2014

Brandishing a new album full of introspection, honesty and renewed belief, Jess Klein returned to Birmingham to give a reminder of how fortunate we are to host so many fine Austin-based artists prepared to spread their talents far and wide. With the mission to nudge the fascinating experience of spending an evening in the company of such performers to more locals still work-in-progress, the task is made much easier when artists of the calibre of Mike June join the fray. Together Mike and Jess played a brace of enlightening sets to stamp an indelible mark on those selecting the Kitchen Garden Café for their Monday evening entertainment.

Jess’s new album LEARNING FAITH hit the airwaves earlier this year and represents a much deeper phase of her writing career with the second word of its title serving as the record’s inspiration. There is a more distinct blues infused sound to this release and, when hitting her stride, you could sense Jess getting deeper into the songs. Starting off on electric guitar which has so much appeal when turned down real low to match the intimate surrounding, Jess soon moved onto her trusty acoustic guitar and was at equal ease whatever her choice of accompaniment. Her vocals melted into the passion of each song and the chat was minimal yet incisive in parts. The latter included a glowing account of the spirit demonstrated from the power of protest and a reminder of the importance of the underdog role in furthering the cause of the neglected.

Politics was far more explicit in the songs of Mike June and it is great credit to Jess that his talents are being shared live with UK audiences for the first time. The lure of the song writing community of Austin, Texas proved too strong for Mike to resist but he draws on a lifetime experience from his Newark, New Jersey roots through extensive nationwide travel, currently with fellow Austin based artist Jon Dee Graham. There was a highly literate and perceptive grit in the song delivery of Mike which was focused on several memorable anecdotes documented in songs lifted from his pair of albums recorded in 2012. ‘Hard Times’ depicted a tough view of life courtesy of characters from small town North Carolina, while ‘Newark’ recounted love from the seedier side of life and ‘Charlie and Lily’ being a little more conventional. Whether or not Austin remains the permanent base of Mike June, he has acquired all the traits of what makes the town an exceptional source of song writing talent and the name of James McMurtry flirted across my mind a couple of times while enthralled by his half hour set.

Jess joined Mike on stage to sing harmony on one of his songs before building on the appreciative vibes circulating the Café’s dedicated gathering. As indicated earlier, Jess based much of her set around the new record but three particular tracks from the back catalogue still retain an integral charm to them. ‘Shonalee’ and ‘Soda Water’ were stand out songs when Jess played a nearby venue a little over twelve months ago and sounded just as good this evening. From the new record the title track ‘Learning Faith’ possessed great merit but was eclipsed by the fabulous ‘Dear God’, sung with such passion. One song you probably won’t hear on the radio is ‘So Fucking Cool’ but you’ll never forget the live version with its memorable source story and irony in the words of Jess that was probably better understood in the UK than Germany.

By the time Jess closed the evening with a return to simple low key electric and the beautiful ‘Bound to Love’, another successful gig packed with outstanding exported talent lodged itself in the memory banks of those present. The mission to educate those missing continues with evangelical endeavour but the music of both Jess Klein and Mike June ensures the process rolls on in fine style. A warm welcome will always be in place for such artists. 



Saturday, 27 September 2014

Girls Guns and Glory - Good Luck Lonesome Day Records

Follow the linear trail back of the sound of Girls Guns and Glory’s fifth album GOOD LUCK and your path will wind from modern day American roots rock, through post punk new wave, call at an outlaw honky tonk and end up at its straight down the middle-rock n’ roll source. Throughout its entirety, the album never loses sight of that long lasting country trait of mixing storytelling lyrics with a deep rooted melodic sound. This four piece combo from Boston, Massachusetts can be mightily proud of a record that sparkles with clarity and maximises frenetic guitar with clever melodies.

Led by vocalist, guitarist and prime songwriter Ward Hayden, Girls Guns and Glory pay their guitar dues on a record democratic in its name origin and just as eclectic in the moods it succeeds in conveying. Awash with potential stand out numbers, the song with the most profound poignancy is the spine tingling ‘Centralia PA’, a reflection on a town bled to death by the detrimental side of coal mining. The superb verse construction of this song helps preserve the memory of the place even in its inhabitable state. Like many of the songs on GOOD LUCK, Hayden has had a hand in its writing. In fact the only band non-original is ‘Rockin’ Chair Money’, a song recorded by Hank Williams which the guys take up the guitar scale leading the tune almost into crashing territory. Perhaps the band wishes their funding followed the same path as that of the song.

Lead off track ‘All the Way to Heaven’ is the perfect album opener and while it would be a pity if this was your only stop, it is a great feel good tune to promote the wares of Girls Guns and Glory. The tune most akin to the rock n’ roll source of the band’s sound is the nostalgic feeling ‘Shake Like Jello’, complete with your usual riffs, backing harmonies and altogether a neat little fiery number. If you like a serving of post punk new wave mash on your menu then ‘Be Your Man’ is your song and a number full of the ingredients which flavoured Jason and the Scorchers cowpunk movement. For a little more left field indie sound, then discovering ‘C’mon Honey’ will reveal the more alternative side of Girls Guns and Glory, while in contrast the following track ‘Built for Speed’ is a more conventional soulful blues stomper, however both tracks are held together by a heavy and prominent beat.

One of These Days’ and album closer ‘It’s Your Choice’ are both representative of the record’s less intense moments and blend quite comfortably with the faster paced songs. As with most of the album, the guitar work shines brightly amongst the lyrical content and you feel that the band are in complete control of what they want to achieve. The unusually titled’ UUU’ completes this ten song collection and is another slightly off centre track with vibes lifted straight from the late 70s/early 80s new wave movement.

Girls Guns and Glory have teamed up with fellow North East US artist Sarah Borges for a string of UK dates in October and music lovers who like the word ‘alt’ in the genre title will revel in the sounds radiating from GOOD LUCK. While this record has its release on Lonesome Day Records, you could envisage some fit with Loose or Clubhouse in the UK. Many people are aware of the quality from these labels and it is no small praise linking Girls Guns and Glory with them.


Sarah Borges - Radio Sweetheart Lonesome Day Records

Ok, not entirely relevant to the review but when news broke that Sarah Borges had returned to the studio and was bringing her new record to the UK, visions of her singing while standing on the bar during the last trip came flooding back. While not an act of drunken mayhem, it epitomized the energy of her show and the good news is that Sarah has lost none of her passion during this gap of a couple of years. A split from her backing band The Broken Singles led to this enforced hiatus but Sarah has dusted herself down and RADIO SWEETHEART is a blistering revival record which rocks more than rolls in the truest sense.

Renewed faith in Sarah was bestowed upon her by Kentucky based Lonesome Day Records and it is with fellow label artists Girls Guns and Glory that the UK return is arranged including a visit to the scene of the bar singing episode in Nottingham. The initial jolt to get the record in motion was a successful crowd fundraising activity and teaming up with producer Steve Berlin of Los Lobos fame. Sarah’s writing is featured heavily across the ten tracks with only Lloyd Price’s ‘Heavy Dreams’ being a cover. This track is one of the rockier moments on the record which is prominently defined by Sarah’s ability to sync the Holy Grail trinity of soaring guitars, gut wrenching vocals and a reminder that music is highly palatable with a strong melody.

Hailing from Massachusetts, an area historically swarming with indie rock bands, Sarah very much draws her influence from the new wave sound of the early 80s which today seems to have merged into the alt-country/Americana scene. The stand out track has autobiographical potential in its title at least and ‘Start Again’ showcases Sarah at her best and harnessing the energy of her musical stimulation. This record is almost made to bypass radio and go straight to the stage such is the feel of the production which succinctly catches the emotion that only a live performance can deliver. There is no finer example of this than Sarah’s introduction to the storming album closer ‘Record on Repeat’ possessing everything a young person needs to free themselves from the world of saccharine pop and explore the excitement of adult oriented rock. Listeners of more advanced years will get flashbacks during this track.

Girl with a Bow’ opens proceedings with the unmistakable vocals of Sarah already bridging the years since her last release. This is followed by the title track ‘Radio Sweetheart’ which sees Sarah take her foot off the accelerator a little with a slight reduction in the album’s temperature and intensity. ‘Big Bright Sun’ is probably a better attempt to portray a more refined sound, although Sarah equally excels at adding a blues tinge to ‘Think What You’ve Done’. She probably digs deeper into her heart and soul, both lyrically and emotionally for this track which is immediately followed by the harmonica laced ‘Mind on Me’. ‘Hands and Knees’ is a mid-album track struggling to punch its weight among the meatier tunes, although ‘The Waiting and the Worry’ has no such issues with once again a fantastic melody attaching itself to a driving beat, all carefully crafted by Sarah and her band of talented musicians.

The world of female artists pushing their male counterparts to the limit in pursuit of an exciting brand of guitar driven alt-country Americana rock is stronger with the release of RADIO SWEETHEART. Of course supporting this record is imperative but is surely a tantalising taster to listening to it live. Whether performing on a stage, on a bar or in the studio, Sarah Borges has announced her return in fine style. 


Thursday, 18 September 2014

The Jellyman's Daughter - The Jellyman's Daughter Self Released

The market may be getting a little crowded with male/female acoustic folk duos but if everybody moves up a little, there is room for Edinburgh based outfit The Jellyman’s Daughter. While your search for electric influence will be futile, splendid harmonies are aplenty as well as luscious individual vocal pieces primarily from co-member Emily Kelly. What makes this duo stand out is the prominent role for Graham Coe’s cello and this is a particularly brave move for an instrument which can have a somewhat solemn feel to it when exposed. However The Jellyman’s Daughter succeeds in shaping their songs around the sound and exploiting its mood in an appealing way.

If The Black Feathers head the UK march to fill the finally deceased Civil Wars gap, then The Jellyman’s Daughter are not too far behind and now have a debut self-titled full release to chart their drive towards wider recognition. Their path to me was supporting Samantha Crain at a recent Edinburgh gig and it didn’t require too much effort to tune into the talents of this duo. While the stage presence relies on the beauty of the vocals and the impact of the cello, they have invested in additional banjo, fiddle, mandolin and double bass to give the recorded songs a fuller feel leading them further down their beloved bluegrass path.

Of the album’s eleven tracks, nine are self-penned originals with the two remaining numbers possessing an intriguing existence. Instruments are almost ditched for the duo’s rendition of the traditional song ‘Darling Corey’ leaving the vocals to flourish, while I challenge you to hear a more stripped back and alternative version of ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ which they pull off with immense courage. The originals leap at you right from the first track with opening song ‘Blue Lullaby’ endorsing the sound of The Civil Wars with a hint of blues faintly adorning Emily’s vocals. Second track in ‘The One You’re Leaving’ hits the right note in the melody stakes and makes full use of the banjo introduction.

Initial listens to the album throw up a couple of stand-out tracks with probably the haunting and mysterious ‘Come Back to Me’ just shading the Americana influenced ‘Carolina’ and the band’s love of old time mountain music. This style was a perfect fit for The Jellyman’s Daughter to be invited to perform at this year’s Southern Fried Festival in Perth and further events south of the border would also embrace their style. ‘Anna’ is the track subject to a little video promotion and is one of two on the album to feature a slither of fiddle. The other is ‘Little Child’, a laid back number allowing Emily’s vocals to prosper and float in a haze of elegance.

All That’s Been’ heads the three remaining tracks with Graham leading off this duet and is one of a number of songs to replicate their stage presence and leave the session players on one side for a moment. ‘Slow Burn’ is an appropriate name for a track that does struggle to make an impact amongst the meatier songs on the album while ‘Seeing Red’ has a greater appeal with only double bass accompanying Emily and Graham.

Now that you have made room for the Jellyman’s Daughter in your listening repertoire, taking on board their semi-unique style will enhance your appreciation of acoustic roots music in the traditional folk and Americana style. Reviewed on the day of their referendum vote, this debut album reflects well on Scotland’s wealth of exportable talent, whether or not south of the border becomes an export market. 


Luke Tuchscherer - You Get So Alone At Times It Just Makes Sense Little Red Recording Company

When played well pedal and lap steel can produce an emotion sapping accompaniment to songs designed to explore some of the darker places in our mind. Whether by experience or imagination, Luke Tuchscherer’s initial deep dive into the world of country music has risen back to the surface with an album capturing that sound and mood. With cultured arrangements and explicit songs baring the scars of life, YOU GET SO ALONE AT TIMES IT JUST MAKES SENSE is not an album to be consumed lightly but then we all know that the best records never shy away from a little pain.

Whybirds drummer Luke has stepped forward to go alone on this debut solo release and has the potential to create more than a ripple in the UK's Americana and alt-country community, although with its deep sense of tradition perhaps the alt tag should be dropped. This record is awash with top notch writing, stellar playing and more importantly connects instantly without the need to go down the grower route. Just as the press release was enlightening and free of superlatives, Luke’s writing is simple, plain but highly effective in conveying not just the message of each song but planting a measure of sincerity into the mind of the listener.

All twelve songs have a strong feel to them and a couple do leave the door slightly ajar for a brief glimpse of light. A breezy melody attaches itself to the dutiful and merciful track ‘Women’ which offers a little respite, just in the same way that ‘Two Ships (Caroline Please)’ recalls a fading optimism of what might have been. Leading the deluge of melancholic moments is the mournful ‘You Don’t Know Me’ drowning in morbid glorious pedal steel and the equally as depressive ‘Hold On’. Tears are delivered along with ‘Dear Samantha’ and it’s a song which makes you want to re-write history. Sitting at track eleven, if you aren’t engrossed in the album now and feel for the characters then perhaps another genre is the remedy.

Eleven musicians under the guidance of producer Tom Peters have contributed to the record leading the album down several distinctive sound routes such as a west coast 70’s feel to ‘When Day is Done’ and ‘Three Long Days’. Banjo and Dobro add an acoustic roots tinge to album opener ‘(Lord Knows) I’m a Bad Man’ while drooling Hammond organ sprinkles smidgeons of soul over ‘One of Us’. This song has been sent out into the wider world as the album’s scout track via Sound Cloud links and free downloads from Fatea with the intention of reporting back with new fans. With its cutting lyrics reflecting a spiralling existence, it certainly is up there with the album’s peak moments.

Additional musical influences on the album include some cello especially on the acoustic led ‘I Don’t Need You To Love Me’ and there is no finer string instrument to induce sound tainted with sadness. A full string arrangement by Johnny Parry enhances ‘(To Make It Worse) I’m Falling In Love Again’, while the album’s lengthiest track ‘Darling, It’s Just Too Hard To Love’ opens with subtly strummed ballad pretensions before launching into a concoction of instrumental delight missing only the earlier defining tones of pedal and lap steel.

The decision made by Luke Tuchscherer to follow his heart and veer down this path has been rewarded with a strong emotive album right at the core of what makes this genre so special. YOU GET SO ALONE AT TIMES IT JUST MAKES SENSE should possess two warnings: not for the faint heart but essential for those who know good music. 


Oh Susanna - Namedropper Continental Song City

Over the last couple of years, enormous pleasure has been derived from delving into the Canadian folk, roots and country scene revealing a tight knit community spanning this vast land. Discovering new artists and then exploring their back catalogue has often proved to be a rewarding experience with the latest in a lengthy line being Suzie Ungerleider, or to be more precise, her recording name of Oh Susanna. Suzie had been on my radar for a while so the opportunity to feature her new album NAMEDROPPER is long overdue for such an established artist.

This new album sees Suzie take a break from writing, so fellow music enthusiasts using the release as an introductory tool will get an instant feel of her vocal talent and ability to interpret the songs of others. If the thought of a covers album leaves you indifferent, fear not as this is more of a commissioning project enlisting the great and the good of Canadian song writing talent. All fourteen tracks are seeing their recorded life for the first time and when the services of artists of the stature of Ron Sexsmith and Jim Cuddy are involved then the quality stakes are raised.

After an initial satisfying listen to the record, more intense scrutiny was applied to a trio of tracks originating from the pens of three personal favourites. The sultry sounding ‘This Guy’ possesses all the hallmarks of a Good Lovelies classic and Suzie’s near stripped down version shows a telepathic vision of how to interpret a song from Toronto’s favourite female trio. Many have enthused over the words of Amelia Curran and her gift of ‘Loved You More’ wraps your attention around its lyrical construction with Suzie breezing through the vocals. Another Maritime contribution, this time from Old Man Luedecke, gets the solo piano accompaniment with ‘Provincial Parks’ being one of the album’s more tender moments.

Suzie has aligned herself with Jim Bryson for this project and the challenge for the pair of them was to give each song the interpretation it deserved. If you appreciate a voice that glows with comforting warmth and values alluring appeal over aesthetic purity then Suzie will meet your approval. Indications are that her song writing skills will be rejuvenated after a brief enforced break and what better re-inspiration than the line-up assembled here. The musical arrangement and production under the guidance of Bryson is kept on the deft side without the need to overpower the vocals and providing effective interludes such as on Ron Sexsmith’s ‘Wait Until the Sun Comes Up’.

Although Suzie was raised north of the border and is an integral part of the Canadian music community, her Massachusetts birthplace sees her just short of citizenship and it was interesting to note another American artist getting a song writing credit in Angeleena Presley, who herself has an eagerly awaited upcoming release. The song in question is a co-write with Sexsmith, his second contribution, and album closer ‘I Love the Way She Dresses’. This follows perhaps the album’s strongest track and the punchy vibes emanating from Jim Cuddy’s ‘Dying Light’. The Blue Rodeo founding member pulls the heart strings in classical portions with this passionate song belted out by Suzie and serenaded by segments of glorious organ.

Strip away the negative connotations of the term NAMEDROPPER and you have an album ripe in collaboration, rich in song and regal in its presentation and projection.  Whether you are new to Oh Susanna or not, this record sets itself apart and will nestle in well alongside her own material. It is also a proud representation of the strength of Canadian music.


Full Track Listing with Writing Credits

1 Oregon (Jim Bryson)
2 Into My Arms (Joel Plaskett)
3 Goodnight (Royal Wood)
4 Cottonseed (Keri Latimer)
5 Wait Until the Sun Comes Up (Ron Sexsmith)
6 Mozart for the Cat (Melissa McClelland)
7 Provincial Parks (Old Man Luedecke)
8 Letterbomb (Luke Doucett)
9 Loved You More (Amelia Curran)
10 1955 (Jay Harris)
11 Savings and Loan (Rueben deGroot)
12 This Guy (Good Lovelies)
13 Dying Light (Jim Cuddy)
14 I Love the Way She Dresses (Ron Sexsmith/Angaleena Presley)

Monday, 15 September 2014

Sunjay - Sunjay New Mountain Music

With a streamlined stage name and guitar in hand, Sunjay Brayne ups his ante in the world of studio recorded music in the form of this effortlessly arranged ten track collection of songs spanning the world of folk and Americana music. Singer-guitarist Sunjay has gone down the simplistic route when naming this new album, a follow up to 2013’s live release ONE NIGHT ONLY, and each offering carves out its own niche. Several familiar songs ring fence the album simply titled SUNJAY but they far from diminish the excellent guitar skills and developing vocals which glow with maturity.

Having seen Sunjay play short sets several times in his role of Stourbridge Folk Club host, he rarely plays down his passion to explore and interpret the blues. However that particular style is toned down a touch on this album with the biggest nod to it being his version of the popular old blues number ‘Drop Down Mama’ which brings his pickin’ skills to the fore early in the album. Sunjay definitely has one eye across the ocean when it comes to song selection and there is no finer choice on the record than a superb take on John Hiatt’s cracking tune ‘Memphis in the Meantime’. Alternatively, closer to home influence and guidance is always at hand as former Bushbury Mountain Daredevil founder member and local Stourbridge publican/music organiser Eddy Morton has produced the album and provided the opening song ‘London Road’, a traditional feeling social commentary number sure to be a winner in folk clubs up and down the land.

Recorded under license to and in the studio of New Mountain Music, Sunjay has collaborated with a number of artists of which the most familiar to current gig goers are likely to be Dan Walsh on banjo and Kat Gilmore on fiddle and background vocals. Both have been guests of Sunjay at his club nights and were no doubt honoured to play their part on this entertaining and gifted record. Likewise Sunjay has paid his respects to some iconic songwriters with complementary versions of the James Taylor standard ‘Close Your Eyes’ and the much covered ‘You Don’t Mess Around with Jim’. It doesn’t take too much effort to sit back and enjoy Mark Knopfler’s tale of pioneering Americans in ‘Sailing to Philadelphia’, a song interpreted with consummate ease by Sunjay.

The Tom Rush penned ‘No Regrets’ taken to the upper reaches of the charts by the Walker Brothers needs little introduction and a further delve into American folk sees Sunjay deliver a stompin’ a cappella version of ‘A Folk Singer Earns Every Dime’ complete with a couple of subtle twenty first century references. Sunjay explores the American songbook a little further back in time with his arrangement of the traditional standard ‘Sittin’ on Top of the World’, recorded by many over the years including Doc Watson. On an album that is equally as pleasurable to explore the song origins as to enjoy Sunjay’s renditions, the educational process is completed by tracing ‘Going Down the Road’ to the pen of yet another American folk singer in Mary McCaslin.

The dates Sunjay has arranged to promote this self-titled album are extensive and the opportunity to hear so many fine songs under the spell of this talented performer is one not to be missed. Grab yourself a copy of the album as well and stretch your mind into the vast vault of inspirational song; arranged, sung and presented in a faultless style. 


Kim Lowings and the Greenwood - Ort Cafe, Birmingham Friday 12th September 2014

“She has a string of live dates lined up throughout the summer and onwards, with hopefully the intention to keep writing and interpreting new songs to one day, be in a position to add to her catalogue of recordings.” These were the words that closed our review of Kim Lowings back in May and it was great to catch up with her and the band on this Birmingham date after a busy summer period. This included a prestigious opening slot at the Warwick Folk Festival, a residency at an Edinburgh Fringe venue and some extended recent coverage on Genevieve Tudor’s Sunday Folk show on BBC Radio Shropshire. The good news is also that new songs are taking shape and hopefully some of these will begin to surface in the New Year.

For this show at Birmingham’s eclectic Ort Café in the inner city suburb of Balsall Heath, it was very much business as usual for Kim as she served up her regular offering of intriguing interpretations of traditional numbers and plenty of innovative originals. One enhancement following that Stourbridge gig in the final days of spring was the return of Ami Oprenova on fiddle to give the Greenwood collective a more complete feel. She joined the usual combo of Andrew Lowings (guitar/bouzouki), Tim Rogers (cajon) and Dave Sutherland (double bass) with Kim confining herself to her favoured mountain dulcimer on this occasion. Together they produce a tight knit sound to present authentic roots music at its soul searching best.

A niggling minor ailment curtailed a few of Kim’s more vocal experimental songs on an evening promoted by Best Seat Sessions which presented local singer songwriter Malc Evans as the opening act. Kim soon hit her stride for a set lasting just over an hour with any temporary impediment being disguised in true professional style. A trio of her finest originals, ‘The Allotment’, ‘Off to Sea’ and ‘Deepest Darkest Night’ sounded as good as ever along with her memorable renditions of ‘The Devil and the Ploughman’ and ‘The Bonny Labouring Boy’.

For your musical record, Kim Lowings hails from the ‘creative hotbed’ of Stourbridge West Midlands, was schooled at the acclaimed Dartington College of Arts and to date has two major physical releases to showcase her vibrant and accomplished brand of folk music meeting the approval of both contemporary and traditional audiences. Sales of the debut album THIS LIFE have nearly depleted stocks of the initial production batch; while the four track EP DEEPEST DARKEST NIGHT is the perfect taster for people wanting to dip their toes into folk music. Alternatively Kim and the band are active in the digital world with a highly recommended live recording of ‘Annie Laurie’ being available on the world’s favourite video sharing site.

While this interim feature is designed to keep the flame flickering for Kim’s tried and trusted material, anticipation is growing to file some column inches on the next phase of Kim Lowings and the Greenwood. In the meantime there are still a number of Midland dates before the winter sets in including a support slot at the Kitchen Garden Café opening for BBC Radio 2 award nominees Josienne Clark and Ben Walker. Whether catching one of their live shows or sampling the recordings, marking the card of Kim Lowings and the Greenwood is a choice well worth making. 



Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Justin Townes Earle - Single Mothers Loose Music

Whether you believe in nature or nurture, Justin Townes Earle has consistently used his talent to search for the true soul of Americana music. His five previous albums have been recorded amidst a host of personal barriers and, while commercial appeal has never been on the agenda, recognition for what he has been striving for has been forthcoming. Not an artist afraid to confront experimentation within the confines of his mission, the latest album SINGLE MOTHERS does reflect a maturity in the writing and outlook of a married man passing the threshold of thirty. Of course there is still fire in his belief that truly authentic Americana music needs to be made and has decided that the time has arrived to make a more laid back mellow version in search of the holy grail of contemporary roots music.

Despite an undulating rhythm and pace across its half hour, SINGLE MOTHERS is representative of an unhurried sound, placid in places but totally absorbing in ambience and effect. Pedal steel guitar reigns supreme on this ten track album, owning the softer parts of the sound and spearheading Justin’s delve into elements of classic country. However like all true Americana recordings it does possess smidgeons of blues, soul and a touch of soft rock.

In a bid to remove the potential of polluted tinkering, the album was recorded solely with his four piece touring band with minimum rehearsal and takes. In fact two of the more passive inducing songs feature just Justin and pedal steel guitarist Paul Niehouse, these comprise of the slightly solemn ‘Picture in a Drawer’ and the totally mesmeric ‘It’s Cold in this House’. In contrast both album closer ‘Burning Pictures’ and ‘Time Shows Fools’ are recorded with a little more upbeat and oomph but still retain the overall ethos of mild in overture and sentiment.

As you would expect the writing is deeply intense and personal but Justin leaves it open for the listener to decide whether to immerse themselves in the lyrics or kick back and enjoy the vibes. The latter has soulful tinges in ‘Wanna be a Stranger’ and ‘My Baby Drives’, while Justin flirts a little with the blues on his social commentary number and title track ‘Single Mothers’. Fantastic atmospheric pedal steel opens another heartfelt track ‘Today and a Lonely Night’ where Justin bares his sole and asks for nothing more back than a sympathetic ear.

Album opener ‘Worried about the Weather’ welcomes the listener to the milder and more conciliatory side of Justin Townes Earle to launch a seamless thread of music built to last. While there are a multitude of candidates for stand out track on an album pretty even in quality there is an ultimate soothing presence about the gorgeous ‘White Gardenias’ where once again pedal steel is king and Justin resonates with his new found contentment.

SINGLE MOTHERS has an open invite to join Justin Townes Earle on his new journey of discovery and an affirmative RSVP is an essential response. This phase of his career has seen him sign to Loose Music for the UK release of the album and he joins a growing band of artists exploring an area of country music where few dare to tread. Perhaps we are also a step nearer where the word Justin outweighs the other components of his name. 

Monday, 8 September 2014

Police Dog Hogan - Westward Ho! Union Music Store

There is yet to be a coined term for the exported English version of Americana, but if there was such a word it would still struggle to define the musical world of Police Dog Hogan. This London based octet have the opportunity to share their brand of unique familiarity at this year’s Americana Music Festival and the Nashville alt-elite will get an early opportunity to sample the wit, passion, eccentricity and unrelenting excellence of their new album WESTWARD HO!. As far as steering their style into the blurred world of Americana music, Police Dog Hogan put the brakes on at the western extremes of the English seaside before sending a lyrical postcard to the world.

The mass amalgamation of roots instrumentation has been core to Police Dog Hogan creating their own niche on the UK live circuit and on this their third studio album they have elevated the extension of the quality right across the release. The writing is clever, cutting, mature and full of quip merging well with a sound taking only an occasional breather. Lead singer and guitarist James Studholme has the strongest links with the geographical heart of the album which starts with the exploding chorus of the opener ‘Thunderheads’, hurtles along in the blistering haze of ‘West Country Boy’ and reminisces refreshing heartfelt honesty in the outstanding ‘Crackington’. Packed with memorable lines, acute observations and more than the occasional landmark namecheck, each song demonstrates the inner soul of the writing in a similar vein to the fiddle, banjo, mandolin and trumpet adding the finer touches to the musical arrangement.

Three more bright and breezy songs present a sample of how good the band comes across on stage, whether at summer festivals or headline shows. The harmonica and mandolin sprinkled ‘One Size Fits All’ looks at some of life’s troubles from an egalitarian angle, while there is a definite Irish feel to the sparkling trumpet and fiddle infused ‘From the Land of Miracles’, confusingly also the title of Police Dog Hogan’s previous album. This lively trio is completed by a wander into gospel territory with the slightly tongue in cheek ‘Judgement Day’ and a tune driven along by blistering fiddle and banjo.

For the personnel record, Police Dog Hogan comprise of seven ‘experienced gents’ and then divide their age in half to present trumpeter Emily Norris. Both their studio and stage existence sees a frivolous mask covering a band serious about making good time music mixed with some hard edged themes. The guys have teamed up with a group of ex-prisoners Platform 7 to record the track ‘Home’ and have taken an active interest in the Music in Prisons charity. On a lighter note, the world of footballer’s wives is explored in ‘No Wonder She Drinks’ and ‘A Man Needs a Shed’ is a self-explanatory gender centric track. ‘St. Lucie’s Day’ and ‘Buffalo’ represent the gentler side of an album which has benefitted enormously from the producing skills of the Oysterband’s Al Scott and a tie up with the increasingly influential label Union Music Store.

In an album packed with a wealth of interesting anecdotes, references and themes, the final track to mention is ‘Ethan Frome’ which is based on a century old novel of the same name and adds a final shot of intrigue to a record expertly preserved for multiple listens. Police Dog Hogan now has a complete album to parade alongside their previous memorable songs and stirring live shows. WESTWARD HO! possesses a quintessential English charm and successfully takes Americana music on at its own game. Now we just need to search for a name to satisfy the genre junkies.



Catherine Ashby - Tennessee Tracks Self Released

British artists seeking the inspirational surroundings of Nashville, Tennessee can almost reach a crossroads of which path they ultimately want to major in. For some the glamour and bright lights associated with the image spun world of the multi-media age can turn into a distant goal while others gravitate to the side where they hope substance will prevail over style. It crudely can be pitched as pop versus folk or full blown electric versus fiddle and steel but country music should be diverse enough to accommodate a significant amount of diversity. One listen to TENNESSEE TRACKS by Catherine Ashby and there is little doubt that the goal is more AMA than CMA. The result is an EP wringing in emotion, sung with gravelly depth and capturing a sound drenched in Americana sentiment.

No doubt the songs were in place before London based Catherine headed to Music City and enlisted the services of the now late Lorna Flowers to bring them to palatable fruition in a style rich in atmospheric essence and aching in the longing sound of pedal steel et al. There must be an enormous amount of pride in the way the songs have grown roots upwards with the lead track ‘Memphis’ giving the release a fitting launch in such a grand style. This is followed by the haunting track ‘Dispel’ which itself lays the groundwork for the record to flourish into the beautiful ‘Magnolia Arch’.

 By now the fiddle is flowing alongside Dobro and Catherine is immersing herself even deeper into a sound reminiscent of many a leading female US folk singer seeking to soak their material in the fertile springs of classic country music. ‘Craving More’ is an apt title for the fourth track which now sees Catherine firmly in the groove and cruising towards the pivotal moment of the record. For me that occurs in the final song where ‘Letting Go’ does as it says with great reluctance and plants the ultimate question of what next for Catherine.

Realistically the quest is to raise awareness through the promotion of TENNESSEE TRACKS and spread the word that high quality folk-Americana is alive, well and flourishing this side of the ocean without the need for any pseudo American pretence. This is a release ready made for any fans of left field singer –songwriter fare and possesses a timeless feel to reach out to newcomers to the country genre in need of some substance. By nailing the songs, vocal intensity and musical arrangements to a tee, Catherine Ashby has produced a release ready to announce her arrival to listeners outside the bounds of her inner circle.  


Available here and other sources

Friday, 5 September 2014

Andrew Combs - Hare and Hounds, Kings Heath, Birmingham Thursday 4th September 2014

He may have started out as the chosen opener for the cream of Americana music talent but on the evidence of tonight’s show, it won’t be long until Andrew Combs sheds this tag and joins the elite himself. With acute articulation, shared sensibilities and a touch of bar room dust, Andrew taps into the rich source of folk and country music to display a mature and assured status. Basing himself in Nashville and working alongside the likes of Caitlin Rose, Jason Isbell and Shovels and Rope has helped Andrew develop into a repeat play inducing recording artist and a memorable live performer capable of turning heads.

Andrew is using this inaugural tour as a touring headline artist to launch his association with UK label Loose Music and share the dual fruits of his past and future. The first album for his new label in this country is due out early next year and we were introduced to several of the songs earmarked for the record when it’s released. This included the title track ‘All These Dreams’, the promoted track ‘Rainy Day Song’ and for me the standout track (on first listen anyway) ‘Suwannee County’. The latter had its origin in meeting a guy in Florida with a mutual interest in fishing. This simple, honest and observational approach to song writing aligns Andrew well with his contemporary peers and pays due respect to the pioneers of the craft.

Photo by Melissa Madison Fuller
Andrew may be listed as a solo performer but he is far from alone on this short UK tour and hopefully the prelude to a fuller one promoting the new record in the New Year. Opening for Andrew is Austin singer-songwriter Matt McCloskey who himself had a statuesque poise and potential to rise above the mediocrity of touring one man and a guitar talent. Andrew’s stage presence was enhanced by a pair of Philadelphia based musicians who especially brought to life some of the livelier songs from his debut full length album WORRIED MAN. Dominic Billett held court on percussion while Jerry Bierhadt supported on electric guitar and rose to the solo mantle of excelled status on a couple of opportune moments.

WORRIED MAN has been a regular go to album in the months running up to this tour and on perfect cue Andrew added many of its finest tracks to the improvised set list. ‘Devil’s Got My Woman’ was possibly the highlight of the whole evening but closely followed by the title track, ‘Please, Please Me’, ‘Heavy’ and the requested ‘Too Stoned to Cry’. It has been a couple of years since the release of this album making the upcoming record all the more eagerly anticipated. Around a year ago Andrew did release the popular sing along single ‘Emily’ and an attentive Hare and Hounds audience responded politely to invited participation on the chorus.

Of the remaining songs recalled from the set, no country/folk gig is complete without a gospel number and Andrew duly complied with his excellent composition ‘Slow Road to Jesus’. Likewise reference to the Volunteer state is standard song writing fare and Andrew played the title track of his 2010 EP ‘Tennessee Time’. ‘Foolin’ and ‘Pearl’ were other songs featured and lined up for the new record. Hopefully these will have a warm familiarity appeal to them when Andrew tours again in 2015.

This gig was brought to Birmingham by promoters Cosmic American and highlighted once what a grand job they and Loose Music do in presenting fantastic Americana talent to us small but growing band of insatiable followers in the UK. Andrew Combs played his part in meeting this appetite and, with a dose of optimistic justice, can continue to flourish in the future. 





Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Zoe Wren - Pandora's Box Folkstock Records

The far reaching consequence of opening Zoe Wren’s PANDORA BOX is not as the myth goes detrimental but the revealing of five beautifully sung songs blending a finesse voice with the soothing tones of acoustic strumming. This debut EP is a tantalising short collection presenting Zoe first and foremost to the folk world but with lashings of potential to work the cross genre songbook. She can sing quite comfortably in the classical traditional style and still retain a contemporary charm to captivate the listener.

Hailing from the London Borough of Camden, Zoe has found an outlet in the Hertfordshire set up of the Folkstock team to record her first collection of songs. Early focus was on the neo-traditional style ’45 Fever’ which featured on the FEMMES FATALES OF FOLK album released earlier in the summer. This tune sees Zoe experiment with bass and percussion courtesy of Lauren Deakin-Davies and is defined by some serious gear changes including a sparkling chorus explosion, although admittedly it took a little while to grasp. Far more palatable from its very first listen is ‘Just a Song Away’. This wonderfully written ballad has a mesmeric feel to it and clings to the hope of song. Maybe autobiographical; maybe not but Zoe’s view of the subject could also be that of the listener

‘I walked the road and heard the music from afar.
Sweet to the ear.
 I listened for a while, it came right from the heart.
All that I could hear.

Title track ‘Pandora’s Box’ opens the EP and has also been included on the latest Fatea Showcase Sessions. This curious and mysterious song sets the scene well and is a conducive introduction to the record. ‘Tale of an Oak Tree’ is a well-crafted and thought provoking song with sad sentiments wrapping themselves around the simple notion of remembering. Like all successful tasters, this closing track has the desired effect of a yearning for more. The remaining track is at the centre point of the record and the simply structured ‘A Moment’s Madness’ once again reflects Zoe’s gift of merging mature writing with ear pleasing tunes.

This discovery of an extended listening experience of Zoe Wren has unveiled a gem of a singer, writer and communicator through song. PANDORA’S BOX is a release to tempt you, with only positives leaping out when the lid is lifted. 


Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Kelly Oliver - This Land Folkstock Records

With a graceful air of stripped back simplicity, Kelly Oliver announces her arrival on the UK folk scene in the guise of an album rich in honesty and sharing a blossoming talent wrapped around songbird sensibilities. Essentially Kelly is one young lady, one guitar, part harmonica and a million words flowing from her creative gifts to fuel the outlet of her golden vocals. Helping hands have played their part in channelling THIS LAND from demo status to a fully-fledged album release but never hindering the captivating focus that the listener has in discovering the musical talent of Kelly.

Iconic British folk fiddler Dave Swarbrick kindly lent a hand to ‘Grandpa was a Stoker’, while two up and coming talents at the other end of their careers contributed in different ways to a pair of stand-out tracks on the album. Kelly’s cover of the Dougie McLean classic ‘Caledonia’ first surfaced on the recently released FEMMES FATALES OF FOLK record and also graces this debut full length album with the added input from the increasingly acclaimed Midlands singer-guitarist Sunjay Brayne. Also making a vocal contribution this time is another BBC Radio 2 Young Folk nominee in Luke Jackson who helps turn the lead single from the album ‘Diamond Girl’ into a near duet.

Apart from the cracking aforementioned cover, the only other non-Kelly original is the traditional ‘Mary and the Soldier’ as the album feasts on the song writing acumen of an artist itching to commit her inner thoughts to song. These originals include another song to feature on the FEMMES FATALES OF FOLK album as Kelly turns her writing skills to the centuries old tale of the last witch trial and arriving at ‘The Witch of Walkern’. Kelly is fast emerging as the starlet jewel of the Folkstock stable which particularly champions unsigned female folk talent and was the architect of the compilation album which featured two of her recorded tracks.

While Kelly claims several alternative influences, THIS LAND has its feet firmly placed in the traditional camp and perhaps understandably treads a conservative line in style. Experience and maturity will surely lead to further exploration as the talent is there to exploit experimentation. Two great Internet showcases of acoustic music have featured Kelly in Songs from the Shed and Whispering Bob’s Under the Apple Tree Sessions. The former saw Kelly preview the album tracks ‘Mr Officer’ and the painful love song ‘Daughter Dear’, both featuring her newly learnt harmonica skills.  Another fine ambassador of folk music Fatea Magazine gave the excellent ‘Far From Home’ valuable exposure as part of their quarterly downloads and this delightful track gets better with each subsequent listen.

The three remaining tracks all carry on in the same vein with Kelly opting to retain a fairly straightforward yet successful formula when unleashing her songs wholeheartedly on the folk community. ‘A Gush of Wind’, ‘Off to the Market’ and ‘Playing with Sand’ all have a standard storytelling structure each addressing their tale with classical ease and accompaniment. Right across the album Kelly decorates each track with a vocal style that was savoured live when she played a short set at this year’s Cambridge Folk Festival.

THIS LAND is a commendable collection of songs to launch the full length recording career of Kelly Oliver. While on the surface it seems directed to a traditionally orientated listening base, there is a potential to reach out to a wider audience and bring differing strands of roots music together. The lid is now off Kelly’s potential and the challenge is not to be impressed. 



Daniel Romano - Tin Music and Arts, The Canal Vaults, Coventry Monday 1st September 2014

You don’t often get classic original country music passing through town so when you find out that Daniel Romano has hastily added a Midlands date to his extensive European tour the opportunity is too good to miss. The town in question happens to be one seemingly always portrayed as reminiscing about its Two-Tone past but fair play to Coventry, and in particular the Tin Music and Arts set up, for booking Daniel on a rare excursion to our shores. Backed by his five piece band, The Trilliums, the Canadian artist hits the country road and doesn’t veer once off a track meandering south to Texas via Tennessee. Make no mistake this is real country music and done rather well.

A commendable turnout on the first Monday in September in an improvised and cosy little venue saw Leamington Spa based singer-songwriter Ben Penrose open proceedings with an impressive vocal style elevating his set above the norm. Ben stated that he often performs in a trio and three would have been the optimum number for the Canal Vaults stage area, so you can imagine the precision planning required to fit all six of Daniel’s band into the available space. With no real introduction and minimal chat, Daniel launched straight into a set that lasted just over an hour and mainly comprised of songs from his two most recent albums, SLEEP BENEATH THE WILLOW and COME CRY WITH ME.

While traditional comparisons spring upon you straight away, there is more than a hint of Justin Townes Earle and Wayne Hancock in the swagger and song delivery of Daniel. Perhaps the vocals are a little deeper and while billed as dark country, the band are just on the paler side of the Handsome Family. Backing Daniel on this tour are his brother Ian on drums, Aaron Goldstein on pedal steel, Anna Ruddick on bass, with Jenny Berkel sharing harmony vocals and playing acoustic guitar while multi-instrumentalist Kay Berkel completed the line-up and switched between fiddle, accordion and piano. Together they produced a tightknit sound with the rhythm section holding court and creating the tempo for the pedal steel to flourish. The encore featured a foot stomping jig which brought the fiddle playing skills of Kay to the fore but primarily the deadpan lead of Daniel dominated the show with his compelling vocal style and ability to be a poetic purveyor of fine songs.

For the standout numbers on the evening, there was very little chance of anything beating the best of SLEEP BENEATH THE WILLOW and true to form, ‘Helen’s Restaurant’ and ‘Time Forgot (To Change MY Heart)’ not only excelled on the evening but ranked high amongst the best heard live this year. There was a brief change of direction when Jenny took over vocals to sing a song of hers ‘All That You Do’ while perhaps the most memorable moment was Daniel conveying the slightly surreal tale of ‘Chicken Bill’ with a nod to the panache of the Man in Black. Once readjusting to and tuning into the persona and minimalistic approach of Daniel, the high quality nature of the music made this a worthwhile trip into the centre of Coventry.

You may have to search a little deeper for cool classic contemporary country and often it finds its niche within the Americana music scene but when found it rarely fails to evoke moments to treasure. Having been tipped off about Daniel Romano a couple of years ago, the live version matched up exceedingly well against the recorded material with no small credit to the band. While there still remains an element of mystique around Daniel, the explicit quality of his music reverberated around this intimate and quaint venue.