Friday, 30 January 2015

Gem Andrews - Vancouver : Barbaraville Records

The most profound attribute to this album is that numerous listens lead you to have a 100% belief in the music of Gem Andrews. It may have its roots in both the north east and north western parts of our land but any transatlantic drift westwards still retains that ultimate streak of Englishness. A touch of irony for an album titled VANCOUVER which is quite distinctly a movable feast of moody country and cutting folk, all sprinkled with a fragrance of Americana.

While still a songwriter in development, Gem has assembled a collection of original compositions and cleverly selected borrowed tunes to what evolves into a lyrical emporium of darkness and melancholy. An eleventh hour check of 'who wrote what' revealed Gem as the source of possibly the strongest track on the album in ‘Crimson Tide’, best described as wondrous tale of fading love sung with deep passion within an impeccably structured song. This and the other five tracks to surface from the creative writing well within Gem’s head, heart and soul introduce a songwriter of emerging talent. Whether basing a song around revelations discovered in ‘Your Father’s Diary’ or following a path of helplessness and hopelessness in ‘Dead Weight’, Gem explores some of life’s darker sides thus displaying her natural gravitation to the expansive genre of folk Americana.

One person whose belief in Gem right from the outset of this project has been unrelenting is respected musician Martin Stephenson who handled production and other technical duties on the record. Another key player to feature is Nicky Rushton who lent a couple of songs in the form of the tearjerker ‘Mother Dear’ and the pure heavenly tones of ‘Ten Thousand More’ alongside piano and harmony vocal contributions. The Gabriel Minniken-penned ‘Please Forget Me’ takes the record in a classic country direction and once again Gem displays a vocal style akin to how these songs are meant to be performed - drenched in pure emotion and sincerity. The other song Gem borrowed is ‘Heart Like a Wheel’ from the vaults of Canadian folk legend sisters Kate and Anna McGarrigle.

Musically the album follows a simplistic route which allows the songs to flourish with the best interludes being an elegant thread of fiddle adding a sombre layer of sadness with delightful enormity across a majority of the tracks. Namechecking Townes Van Zandt, Nancy, Emmylou, Neil Young, Johnny and June in the opening number ‘Calling’ lays the groundwork of where Gem’s influences exist and this spirited launch track perfectly sets the tone of the album. By the time we reach the finale and the title track ‘Vancouver’, there is an absolute guarantee you will be under the spell of Gem’s mesmerising music.

At just over half an hour, you are left feeling that there is so much more to come from Gem Andrews especially in her original material. However by being plentiful in joyous moments, even those of a darker persuasion, VANCOUVER lays down a marker of what Gem can do in interpretation, presentation and song writing. Although this her second record, having a quality release to promote is an empowered starting point for an artist and Gem Andrews can hopefully exploit this in raising her own profile in markets eager to savour this sound.

Try before you buy

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Cahalen Morrison and Eli West - Kitchen Garden Cafe, Kings Heath, Birmingham Tuesday 27th January 2015

Each year a dreary British winter has a ray of spring hope with the Celtic Connections Festival and the Transatlantic Sessions tour. The knock effect of these two twin events embedded north of the border is the sprinkling of touring artists who seek a few dates in the more southern locations of these isles. Obviously the Transatlantic project hits a number of English cities in force in February, while artists such as Cahalen Morrison and Eli West call at numerous venues on their trek to Glasgow’s melting pot of majestic music. So for the first time, the duo hailing from America’s Pacific North West, found their way to the south Birmingham suburb of Kings Heath to showcase their talents to an anticipated Kitchen Garden Café audience.

Eli West
Cahalen and Eli have been attracting praise for a while now and it was good to embrace their brand of roots music close at hand. An unassuming and humble duo, the pair predominately let their songs and music do the preaching, or to be more precise the compulsive pickin', taking the sound of banjo, guitar and mandolin to all four corners of the café and beyond. We have experienced, here in the UK, numerous examples of roots music flourishing from the states of Washington and Oregon, and whether exploring the depths of bluegrass, old time country or folk music, the pair enhanced this theory with their Birmingham debut.

Cahalen Morrison
Following the standard format of a couple of 45 minute sets, the performance was based around the latest album which sees a rich seam of stunning instrumentals, cleverly curated covers and outstanding originals merge into a melange of masterly music. The twin standout numbers of the evening were the pick of each set, with the classic country sounding ‘Natural Thing to Do’ just edging ‘Pocket Full of Dust’ in the honours stakes. A couple of other tracks from this album, out last year and titled I’LL SWING MY HAMMER WITH BOTH MY HANDS , which impressed were ‘James is Out’ and the dual instrumental of ‘Ritzville / Steamboats on the Saskatchewan’.

The striking duo had an impressive poise on stage. Eli with his more heightened stature held court all evening on acoustic guitar, while Cahalen swayed between playing banjo to open each set before switching to mandolin. Whether in harmony, duet or solo, their voices ached with the toil of rural old time music, a style seemingly to flow through their veins, heart, soul and spirit. Cahalen did pay respect to his south western desert upbringing with the song ‘Down in the Lonesome Draw’ which semi-autobiographically traced his gravitation north.

Cahalen appeared to be the architect of most of the originals, although the pair was keen to represent the work of others right across the roots spectrum. Alongside the bluegrass standard ‘Kentucky Girl’, they also covered Norman Blake’s ‘Church St. Blues’, a song given a similar treatment by UK act The Carrivick Sisters at the very same venue a couple of years ago. The more contemporary folk sounds of Townes Van Zandt were celebrated in a version of ‘Bar Room Girl’, while ‘Voices of Evening’ by Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard graced the show’s final moments.

With all the charm of a brace of musicians dedicated to their musical passion, Calahen Morrison and Eli West bade farewell to some new found fans and thus headed north to seek more eager partisans of high class roots music. A couple of new songs, including one untitled, previewed a prosperous future for the duo and a number of UK return visits are planned starting with the Shetland Folk Festival in May. A duo once seen, heard, experienced and enjoyed but not forgotten is a celebratory parting message and worthy alongside a thanks for popping into Birmingham. 

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Porchlight Smoker - Water Into Sand : At The Helm Records

The phrase ‘water into sand’ may represent a radical transformation but the album of the same title by Porchlight Smoker eases along the roots spectrum with a far more sedate transition. While never settling on a single sound, the album retains a high impact to effortlessly make a case for instant projection up your listening list. After synchronising the title of their second album ‘2’ with its chronological status, WATER INTO SAND sees the Brighton based quartet tackle that all important third album with gusto, craft and guile to produce a super release fully encompassing the diversity of the band’s make up.

Folk, Americana, bluegrass, old time and traditional country are labels pretty much relevant to this album with the classic combo of lyrics, sound and vocals expertly reflecting these styles. From the quintessential English sound of the South East, through the Celtic influence of Eastern Scotland via the wide open spaces of Wichita Kansas, the original locations of Porchlight’s core elite feature heavily in the directional influence of WATER INTO SAND. Whether covering the Jimmie Rodger’s standard ‘Waiting for a Train’ or recording an original road song based on the semi-iconic border-to-border route ‘US75’, American themes and styles undoubtedly run through the record, which is obviously primarily influenced by Kansas native band member Scott Smith, He has also enlisted the services of a couple of compatriots back home and he used his co-write with Carl Clark ‘Mary Mary’ to open the album alongside a composition from Jeff Pickering, who also played pedal steel on his song ‘Instead

Fred Gregory shares his musical duties with the other increasingly acclaimed Brighton based band Hatful of Rain and the contributions he makes to Porchlight are just as profound. In fact his delightful fable-like song ‘Man in a Boat’ takes the honours as the album’s most memorable track with a tale of a fishing trip gone wrong told in stunning and effective simplicity. Fred has also written three more songs for the album in ‘A Day in Mid-July’, the heartfelt ballad ‘If I Had a Way’ and the closing track ‘I Don’t Mind’. The latter is the most eye (or more technically ear) opener of this trio with an almost late sixties rock vocal style attaching itself to a banjo led backbeat.

As you would expect from an album rich in roots influence, mandolin, double bass, dobro, banjo and lap steel take most of the lead in underpinning a sound, with occasional interludes from fiddle, accordion and harmonica. In fact the guys let the music do the talking in the form of the album’s sole instrumental, and the Steve Bell composed, ‘Cleaner’s Rag’. Steve, who hails from Dundee, is likely to be the album’s Celtic advocate and his song ‘Maria Kennedy’ has all the wonderful traits of a Scottish folk ballad. Whilst an original tune wrapped up in a familiar sound, the positive spin to this song, which deserves its ranking amongst the album’s finest numbers, is it’s a credit to Steve’s skill at honing in on a popular style. As well as penning ‘US75’, a long way from Bonny Scotland mind you, he also wrote the remaining song ‘Homeline’, to conclude this eleven-strong assembling of impressive compositions and tunes.

Although not featuring in the writing credits, Scott Warman plays a great role in keeping the sound together with percussion and double bass duties alongside vocal pieces. In fact the diverse vocal input of all four band members is core to the album remaining fresh and an integral factor in describing it as versatile and cohesive with an abundance of unique contributions. At this point it is worth mentioning the technical role of Al Scott, who also was at the helm of Hatful of Rain’s fine album last year, and the band’s link up with the Brighthelmstone team for the release of the record.

With its jingling roots soundtrack, the members of Porchlight Smoker are the architects of a sincere bunch of songs delivering a timeless essence of transatlantic impressionism. Interspersed with inspired individualism and held together by carefully constructed creativity perfectly sums up WATER INTO SAND. Album number three just could be the magic number to lift Porchlight Smoker to the heights that their talents warrant.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Blair Dunlop - Cookley Village Hall, Worcestershire Sunday 18th January 2015

The true test of an artist flourishing at the mid-level of the industry is the flexibility to adapt to a variety of formats and surroundings. After excelling with his band last year, including a cracking Birmingham date, Blair Dunlop showed at this village hall gig how to conduct a solo show with enlightenment, flair, wit and an abundance of skill. It was almost a year to the day since Blair played the very same venue alongside his illustrious father, but this evening Ashley Hutchings was consigned to a few mentions as his son oozed with heaps of confidence and panache.

With the help of something old, traditional, borrowed, newish and very new, Blair entertained a committed audience with a twin pair of symmetrical sets, reflective in both their length and quality. Not only pulling material from his two albums to date, this extended slot of a solo Blair saw more background chat about the songs which perfectly complemented the occasional outbreaks of dry impish wit. A precious constant across both sets was the lauded guitar playing which expertly adorned a pair of non-Blair tunes, the traditional 16th century harp piece ‘Si Bheag Si Mhor’ and the more contemporary Richard Thompson masterpiece ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning'.

Alongside what are now becoming old Blair Dunlop favourites, ‘Secret Theatre’ and ‘Blight and Blossom’, both from the album title of the latter, some of the songs from his ‘newish’ album (2014’s HOUSE OF JACKS) got an insightful airing. These included the generational club songs ‘45s (C’69) and ‘45s (C’14)’ alongside the philosophical ‘Chain By Design’ and the demo-like titled ‘Fifty Shades of Blue’. The track ‘Song of Two Bridges’, also from the latest album, is actually an Ashley penned song, one of the best on the album and it returned to the scene where it was sang live by the pair last year.

The evening was brought about by some local enthusiasts with the help of the Shindig organisation operating under the wider Live and Local banner showing how quality roots music can be promoted right into the heart of our rural communities. Alongside the two Blair dates, the same venue successfully entertained Canadian fiddle and roots supremo April Verch in 2013. All have been reasonably well attended with turnouts the envy of some places promoting gigs in more populous areas.

It was noted when seeing Blair play with his band last year how a more Americana rock sound was mixed with his undeniable folk credentials, and during this show he referenced the influence the West Coast sound has had on him. This culminated during the evening in a cover of Jackson Browne’s ‘These Days’ and an example of the self-exploration that seeps into Blair’s music. Having officially documented the latest album as ‘newish’, Blair chose to share a couple of newer songs which are earmarked for the next release, although this is very much in its embryonic state and likely to materialise in 2016. Of the pair previewed, ‘Castello’, based on his Italian experiences, made the more profound early effect, without doing the fine ‘First World Problems’ any disservice.

While the seeds of the next album are growing, 2015 will no doubt see a very active Blair Dunlop still promoting HOUSE OF JACKS and appearing solo, with the band and perhaps a few surprise collaborations. Upon closing the evening with a requested version of ‘Flandyke Shore’, Blair promised the other request, any Bob Dylan song, when he returns to Cookley again. One thing for sure is whatever the talented Blair Dunlop puts his hand to will be a success and this consummate performer is certain to continue to prosper in the future.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Tracey Browne and Raevennan Husbandes - East By North West : Self Released

Quite often the origins of folk coverage on this blog are a live show and its endearing impact. True to form the names of Tracey Browne and Raevennan Husbandes first crossed my path back in the halcyon summer days of August 2014 and to be more precise, The Den stage at Cambridge Folk Festival. Supported by ace pedal steel guitarist B.J. Cole, Raevennan impressed in an exciting set of multi-genre music and for the final number had invited Tracey on stage to sing an accompaniment. Spring forward a few months and the pair confirm their partnership with the release of the excellent full length album EAST BY NORTH WEST.

Named after the pair’s home locations at the time of Lowestoft and Manchester, the record contains eight originals and an arrangement of an existing poem. Collectively it hangs together with a thread of beautiful vocals, crafted musicianship and a natural chemistry for collaboration. The project had its own origins in a chance meeting between the pair at a residential music gathering organised by the Unthanks and its fruition could become one of the surprise hits of 2015. The contrasting backgrounds of the pair range from Tracey’s decade long recording career and experience of working with the likes of Thea Gilmore to Raevennan’s spritely, energetic enthusiasm to harness her talents into successful recordings.

Musically the album possesses its own contrasts best typified in the haunting stripped down rendition of the Patrick Kavanagh poem ‘On Raglan Road’ and the ravishing addictive upbeat number ‘Fire in My Heart’. The former oozes with pure spiritual class and is arranged within the traditional tune ‘The Dawning of the Day’, while the latter bounces into almost pop territory yet captures some fine musicianship into a song supported by a strong and catchy chorus refusing to be dislodged from your brain.

Along with their pristine vocals and joint musicianship (Tracey adds piano and percussion to her guitars while Raevennan focusses on string instrumentation), the pair are joined by several other acclaimed players such as Mike McGoldrick supplying flute on the opening track ‘Coming Home’ and Belinda O’Hooley adding accordion to ‘I’m Gonna Get Myself in Trouble’. The opener sees Tracey reference her home town of Manchester with warts and all nostalgia, while the other track is another of the co-writes and breezes along with a toe-tapping tempo and contains the wonderful adjective ‘asinine’ to send you rushing to your dictionaries.

Peacemaker’ and ‘In the End’ are strong songs adorned in the opening stages by enticing dobro giving the album a couple of moments of pure Americana to garnish the general folk structure and substance to the record. The soaring lyrics of folk standard ‘To the Sea’ inject a feel of positivity into the writing and it is re-assuringly uplifting for a genre which can have its darker moments. Likewise the two remaining tracks preach an ode to longevity and hanging on with ‘Blood and Bone’ being there to the ‘bitter end’ and ‘As Good As News’ preaching to ‘never give up, never surrender/times like this, don’t let it defeat ya,’

Both artists have followed this ethos after periods of creative inactivity and the result is a duet record perfectly designed to enthral the listener. EAST BY NORTH WEST will move you, excite you and first and foremost entertain you. Tracey Browne and Raevennan Husbandes knew they had something creative in common and the lucky recipients are those who engage with this superb record. 

Miriam Jones - Between Green and Gone : Miriam Jones Music

Essential criteria when putting your head above the parapet of the deluge of singer-songwriters is to possess a vocal style to raise eyebrows. Such a style need not be flawless as one expressing the wornness of life can perfectly fit the mood of the song, especially on compositions digging deep into one’s inner thoughts. Miriam Jones is an artist who eased through an endless list of submissions with an album giving an enriched listening experience and presenting a performer equipped with the tools to make an impact in a crowded market. BETWEEN GREEN AND GONE is a fascinating collection of a neatly packaged set of ten songs, sharing an equal trait of similar length and effect but blessed with leaving a favourable impression.

A sprinkling of releases have previously appeared under the name of Miriam Jones, a Canadian native who has been settled in the UK for a number of years. However this one may be your introduction to her as an artist and it has been capably assisted by Simon Edwards who previously has worked with artists such as Fairground Attraction and Billy Bragg. The album had an extensive preview at the back end of last year when Miriam had the good fortune to support Roddy Frame on his UK tour and sales of the CD were extremely popular, even selling out at the Birmingham date. Well the wider public can get their hands on the album in a variety of formats after its February 2nd release date.

With so much inner inspiration there is no room for covers and the track listing is piled high with songs of high merit exemplified by the tingling effect of the chorus blessed number ‘Warning’ and the build-up qualities to ‘Unknown’. Musically the album is underpinned by a variety of guitar styles and decorated with some blissful organ work adding a smattering of soul. ‘Cracks’ is a song that fits into this category and makes a strong case for the honour of first among equals.

On an album extracted from the depths of the writer’s soul don’t expect a barrage of explicit lyrics, more a subtle blend of feeling and thought thus retaining an extremely personal presence. After 37 minutes the album tantalisingly departs leaving its calling card of stark effect and cultured elegance with the ironically titled song ‘Stay’. While this is yet another album where the effect of listening in its entirety exceeds lifting stand out tracks, the slight epic structure to ‘Given All’ at least deserves a descriptive mention.

Released under the auspice of Miriam Jones Music suggests a self-released status which is a common occurrence in today’s modern music model and one where there is an ever increasing blur between such records and those churned out by major labels. While there has to be commercial considerations in every professional release, the purity and substance of many self-released records demonstrates a strong underbelly to the market. Helping to spread the word of these artists and this type music is a precious commodity to maintain this strength and support performers such as Miriam.

The music of Miriam Jones is definitely up the street of people who are fans of the mature folk style female singer-songwriters that honed their skills in country music before blossoming under the Americana banner. BETWEEN GREEN AND GONE has that double edged appeal of instant impact coupled with a growing tendency for some of the tracks to evolve over time. Ultimately Miriam Jones has made an excellent record capable of mixing with the best of its genre. 

Sample and Pre-order/order the album here

First Aid Kit - Birmingham Symphony Hall Friday 16th January 2015

In the week of their Brit award nomination, the supremely sublime Soderberg sisters showed that the mainstream might just be heading in the right taste direction. In the intervening couple of years since First Aid Kit last played a more intimate Birmingham venue, their international bandwagon has gathered pace cutting across both genre preservationists and more casual observers, residing for one evening only at a sell-out Symphony Hall. With a sound effortlessly floating between the alt wings of folk and country, while being briefly injected with a spiced up dose of pop and rock, the stage show of Johanna and Klara is awash with heavenly harmonies, memorable melodies and a reminder of the compulsive purity of roots music.

 The four piece stage line up may be symmetrical in its stance but much of the First Aid Kit sound is driven by the atmospheric dulcet twang of the pedal steel and who better to display his maestro talents than Melvin Duffy, one of the UK’s foremost exponents of the instrument. With the solid backfield of Duffy and Niclas Lindstrom on drums holding court, Johanna (keyboard) and Klara (acoustic guitar) had the liberty to explore the depth of their prodigious musical ability, schooled in Stockholm but now increasingly strengthened by a Stateside presence.

2014’s mega cool album release STAY GOLD had to virtually share equal billing with THE LION’S ROAR in the set list but that is far from a hardship with the near identical quality of both records. The ninety minute stage time hardly fluctuated in the magical experience of an absorbed audience gratefully gorging on the rapid song flow. ‘The Lion’s Roar’ perfectly set the scene as the clock struck nine and there was no finer way to send a crowd home happy than being serenaded with the signature tune ‘Emmylou’.

From the latest album, the delectable ‘Stay Gold’ had an early airing, perhaps while the band were getting into full stride, but ‘Master Pretender’ and ‘My Silver Lining’ were presented in full glory. ‘Heaven Knows’ was always a prime finale candidate and it duly rocked as the filling in a three song sandwich encore. In giving a nod to their past and present influences, the girls interpreted the work of others on two contrasting occasions. Their recent liaison with Jack White in his Nashville studio led to a cover of ‘Love Interruption’, thus providing the evening’s rock induced moment with Melvin ditching the pedal steel for more conventional electric guitar. Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘America’ was given the First Aid Kit treatment in the encore as the sisters recalled the time they sang the song in front of Paul Simon in Stockholm.

Few present would argue about the show’s golden moment as Johanna and Klara bravely came to the front of the stage and delivered a stunning unplugged version of ‘Ghost Town’ to the respectful audience. This proved to be the only tune lifted from their debut album THE BLACK AND THE BLUE but it held its place against the more popular material that has evolved since First Aid Kit spread their wings far and wide. As the Swedish sisters go from strength to strength, they gave an opportunity for a UK artist at the outset of her career to open the shows on this current tour. Bringing her eclectic style from Croydon to the stage of Birmingham’s most prestigious venue was a long journey for Kimberly Anne but she enthusiastically grabbed her thirty minute limelight opportunity to share the breadth of her undoubted musical talent.

The bar for the 2015 gig year has been set high by this eagerly anticipated First Aid Kit show which failed to disappoint. Though still young in years, the acclaimed Soderberg sisters have created a distinctive sound that resonates right across the music spectrum with the mouth-watering prospect of much more still to come. Right now, First Aid Kit make music the right way and long may that continue especially with the pedal steel guitar being king. 

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors - Medicine : Magnolia Music

With the perfect remedy to deal with the trials and tribulations of life, Drew Holcomb reveals his own tonic in the release of the new album MEDICINE. A record smoothed around the edges without any extended polishing, it has proved the ideal project for Holcomb to take stock of his ten year recording period and reflect where his career lies. Following the promotion of his previous album GOOD LIGHT in 2013, he is beginning to make inroads into the UK market and MEDICINE is packed with credentials to continue this successful penetration. Literate to its core and explicit in its presentation, the album is a positive thread of masterful song writing, with music to match the mood of the sentiments.

Once again Drew has enlisted the services of his band The Neighbors (oh to have common transatlantic spellings) and the twelve tracks ebb and flow through the emotions of life. Each track takes its place in a divergent collection that occasionally varies in tone but is consistent in classy artistry. Three songs make a very strong case to illuminate the album including a wise choice to open proceedings with the elegant and finesse blessed number ‘American Beauty’. This reflective love song is symbolic of the stance of the album which tackles common themes in a profound way highlighted by a strong vocal presence decorating each track. The adjective ‘strong’ can also apply to the melody attaching itself to the excellent rock overtures composition ‘Shine Like Lightning’ and another example of the streak of positivity that is even present in the more sombre numbers. This trio of early stand out candidates is completed by the epic strains of ‘The Last Thing We Do’ and its rallying call attributes.

For an artist entrenched in the creative hub of East Nashville and schooled on sophisticated Americana rock, Drew is at perfect ease of where he wants to be and is humble at being given the opportunity to earn his crust making records on his own terms. The tender moments such as the twang infused ‘Heartbreak’ and the sensitive piano ballad ‘You’ll Always Be My Girl’ sit comfortably alongside more ratcheted up tunes like ‘Sisters Brothers’, the latter a bouncy protest style effort with some serious guitar work leading a brash call for unity. On the topic of effective musical interludes, no Americana album is complete these days without a dose of soulful organ and ‘Ain’t Nobody Got It Easy’ duly provides on this record.

All twelve tracks have their source in the pen of Holcomb with the second gear subtleties of ‘Avalanche’ being the only co-write and a super little song interpreted to be about succumbing to love. Accessing Drew’s thoughts online about the making and make up of MEDICINE makes fascinating reading as well as perusing the lyrics yourself. ‘When It’s All Said and Done’ is an appropriate song to close the album and is befitting of this status. Other tracks worthy of mention include the whistling, optimistically sounding number ‘I've Got You’ and the core theme of using the medicine of music being exalted in ‘Here We Go’. The remaining song ‘Tightrope’ sits neatly at number 2 in the track listings and exemplifies the compulsive clarity of the album.

The UK has another opportunity to catch Drew Holcomb live shortly and no doubt those active music followers who pop along to his shows will share in the immense pride gained in recording this album. If just supporting Drew by acquiring the record is your only avenue, then you will be exposing yourself to an artist true to the belief in the soul of the song and equally as impressive in composing a soundtrack to bring these songs to fruitful enjoyment. This is one MEDICINE that is a joy to swallow. 

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Amelia Curran - They Promised You Mercy : Blue Rose Records

Whether you are someone who likes to meticulously dissect abstract lyrics or just let a soft melodious sound flood your senses, then the twin appeal of Amelia Curran’s new album is a heaven sent release. Very much in the mould of her previous records, THEY PROMISED YOU MERCY is a wordsmith’s delight of lyrically layered compositions hinged by an assortment of sounds fluctuating distinctly without taking the record out of a second gear pulse. Praise from within Canadian folk circles is not uncommon for Amelia as she confirms, in this seventh album release, her prime status in the world of that country’s exporting talent.

First and foremost, words are the currency of Amelia who not surprisingly is the architect behind all eleven tracks, with the trademark writing style of first person perspective no finer highlighted than in the lyrical structure of ‘I am the Night’, one of the songs selected for album promotion. In fact the choice for promo material is endless and the positioning of ‘Somebody Somewhere’ as the opening track is wise to hook in sceptical ears with its compulsive anthem qualities. Although sonically anchored by the instruments core to contemporary folk, the infusion of brass on the special second track ‘Coming For You’ and even more effectively, Hammond organ on ‘The Matador’ heralds a slight experimental feel to a record pushing for recognition outside its unjust boundaries.

Amelia is regular touring artist with her trusty guitar, so it is just as useful that the songs have a stand-alone substance to accompany her on the road which includes a January UK itinerary. Sales of the CD should prove popular on these dates especially when audiences have listened to a strong candidate for stand out track in the delectably ascending ‘Never Say Goodbye’. Gazing down a list of album players reveals a familiar name in Christine Bougie who is a top Canadian session lap steel guitar player featuring on so many high quality folk and roots albums. Christine is known to UK audiences as a member of Gretchen Peters touring band and will be visiting us again in March and April. Her beautiful playing adds atmosphere most prominently to the softly delivered closing number ‘You’ve Changed’.

There is a reassuring consistency surrounding Amelia’s vocal style which hits the perfect pitch and remains steadily on course during the 42 minute playing time. You get a satisfying feeling of direct address when listening to the album in solitude, probably the best way to savour the soul of the record and indulge in its literate craft. Whether submerging into such wonderfully titled songs like ‘The Reverie’, with its striking chorus,  or attempting to analyse the line ‘no restitution for the wicked, fables and trouble’ from ‘Fables and Trouble’, this is a record which refuses to let go and is more than welcome to have this effect.

With poetic license, Amelia Curran once again unleashes an album on the world to turn heads and it wouldn’t be a surprise if THEY PROMISED YOU MERCY followed in the acclaimed shoes of HUNTER HUNTER with lofty recognition by the Junos. Regardless whether lavish praise is formalised, this record is on the hunt for a place in the heart of any enthusiast under the spell of Canadian contemporary folk music and there are certainly many here in the UK who support the touring artists with unequivocal commitment.

Details of Amelia's UK tour

Friday, 2 January 2015

Alan West - All Things for a Reason : Neo Music

Like an anchored buoy in a sea of change, Alan West is prepared to stand firm amongst the contemporary new wave attaching itself to UK country music. Not afraid to mix it with the young pretenders (including hosting a mid-winter festival featuring many and playing C2C pop up stages), Alan is acutely in touch with his perception of country music and ALL THINGS FOR A REASON refuses to budge from a deep passion installed many years ago.

Alan first crossed my path around half a dozen years ago when supporting Hal Ketchum in Wolverhampton and although active on the UK scene for a number of years, this new album is only his third studio release. However, alongside his long term accomplice Steve Black, Alan has recorded an album strong on principle and a timely reminder why country music possesses genre credentials. Questions are often raised about British artists positioning their mind 4000 miles west when making music, but Alan fully understands the country music market having some affiliation with the romanticism of American culture and he refrains yielding from these shared ideals.

For the eleven tracks that add up to the sum of this full length release, two are borrowed, with the remainder predominately coming from the trusted pen of Steve Black. The most striking of these solo writes is the quintessential American storytelling epic ‘Numbers’. The style and theme may be far from virgin ground but the song is expertly constructed and delivered with its developing heartfelt sentimentality. While the themes of many songs are explicitly wrapped in the Star Spangled Banner such as ‘Come on Home’ and ‘Hillbilly Woodbines’, Alan wisely steers clear of pseudo accents and thus retains authenticity in being a trusted interpreter of international country music.

Released on UK independent label NEO Music, ALL THINGS FOR A REASON had its final stages of fruition come together in a Nashville studio, often the ‘go to’ destination for the recording of a country album. Nashville has also played an important role in the career of acclaimed US songwriter Hugh Moffatt who kindly donated the album’s second track ‘The Way Love Is’. The other borrowed tune is far more familiar and Alan unashamedly hasn’t dug too deep for it. Admittedly, up tempo versions of ‘Take Me Home Country Roads’ are more suited to this John Denver classic but this hasn’t deterred Alan going in the opposite direction leaving the listener to ultimately decide on whether it works.

Other tracks of noteworthy on the album, although it has to be said that each one is there on merit, include the Tex-Mex border feel to ‘Maria Delores’ and ‘It Pays To Be’ which takes the award of being the most retro friendly track, cue a rustle through Hank’s back catalogue to find its inspiration. Alan’s sleeve notes use the analogy ‘all things for a reason’ to explain the lengthy gap between releases and follows this by using the album’s title as the closing track thus preaching the philosophy of never giving up.

The true beneficiaries of this theory are the listeners to ALL THINGS FOR A REASON and they will be grateful that Alan and Steve persevered with the making of the record. Engaging and interesting songs supported by musicianship curated to provide the essential country sound make this an album worth investing in. It also provides a focal point on the UK scene to ensure contemporary artists don’t drift too far away from the ideals of country music.


Thursday, 1 January 2015

Ryan Bingham - Fear and Saturday Night Wrasse Records

Fast forward twelve months and there may be a slim chance that you’re reading this January review. However there is a far greater probability that you’re still listening to FEAR AND SATURDAY NIGHT, the fifth and potentially greatest impacting major label album to date from Ryan Bingham. Settling in a new recording regime but still possessing that fearsome harsh vocal style wonderfully breathing life into the vivid canvas of his surroundings, Bingham leaves a giant imprint on the world of country, roots and Americana music. Like all great albums, expect a slight foray into rock and the intrinsic lyrical style of folk, with a sprinkling of Tex-Mex to reflect his Texas/New Mexico roots and wider western background to his upbringing.

Ryan Bingham received most acclaim for the track ‘The Weary Kind’ written for the motion picture Crazy Heart which interspersed his four previous albums, getting the nod at both the Grammys and the Oscars. There is so much of this inspirational style across the new record probably peaking in the superbly constructed ‘Snow Falls in June’, a wondrous metaphorical effort showcasing the fertile song writing of Bingham. In fact all twelve tracks are self-penned originals and benefitted from that songwriter’s solace of solitude while they go about extracting every sinew of creatively mined substance. The brace of songs selected to open this 52 minute serving of indulgence are indicative of the album’s content and take you right to the heart of Bingham’s craft. ‘Broken Heart Tattoo’, an harmonica laden chat to an unborn child has been the chosen track to promote the album but its sequential predecessor ‘Nobody Knows My Trouble’ takes you straight to the core of where Bingham uses song to bare his soul.

You get visions of a barren land through the landscape of the songs and though they can be perceived as dry, the vocals are far from arid. This project sees Bingham in total control and in the safe producing hands of Jim Scott (Tom Petty, Wilco).The assumed autobiographical similes are in full flow by the time we get to ‘Top Shelf Drug’ and you sense the frustration in Bingham’s voice proclaiming ‘My Diamond is Too Rough’. Musically the album rocks in places especially in the strong chorus attaching itself to ‘Radio’, while an accordion led border sound and a Spanish count-in heralds the transcontinental road song ‘Adventures of You and Me’.

There will no doubt be mutterings of Dylan and Earle in Bingham’s style but how about a shout out to Indiana troubadour Otis Gibbs who equally masters and harnesses the gruff sound. Sound wise the guitar is undoubtedly king with enough twang to appease the country contingent, harmonica the blues brigade and a general across the board mix to have the Americana world drooling. The recording holy trinity of sound, vocals and lyrical content are all present in the highest order and the latter being blessed with an incited implicitness.

Since striding onto the scene in 2007 with his MESCALITO debut album, Ryan Bingham has attracted many plaudits without playing to a gallery shaping the direction of his music. Like his life in general, the musical career of Bingham as fluctuated in its order and structure but FEAR AND SATURDAY NIGHT might prove to be the release that cements the place he wants to be. This record will run and run with no-one knowing where it will end up, though bets are off that it will have the wider industry bestowing praise on it.

Annie Keating - Make Believing Self Released

Annie Keating makes a welcome recording return to UK audiences with a brand new self-released album hitting these shores in the opening weeks of January. MAKE BELIEVING is a sweet eclectic mix of rural idealism and suburban endeavours confirming Annie’s status as a leading light on the North Eastern US indie-folk-Americana scene. As we have come to expect from her previous five albums, there are traces of experimentalism all underpinned by a thread of root connecting sounds.

This brief overview of MAKE BELIEVING can be further illustrated by the opening three tracks which encompass the theories behind this album analysis. A record hitting its heights in the first song can be a double edged sword but in this case there is no evidence of the album tailing off. The track in question, ‘Coney Island’ retains an element of nostalgic charm wrapped in an appealing package and can be applied to any faded fondness of the mind’s recollections. This dose of suburban reflection is followed by a memorable defection from the land of concrete and steel with a fiddle led country waltz- like beat accompanying the delectable ‘Sunny Dirt Road’. Never afraid of filtering in tints of urban influence, ‘I Want to Believe’ possesses such vibes which blend in well with perpetual harmonica refusing to relinquish a roots hold.

Image by Marc McAndrews
Despite having its sound defined in the initial ten minutes, the remaining half an hour ebbs and flows through a further eight tracks awash with Annie’s glowing vocals and continually reminding the listener as to why she is regularly compared to America’s eminent female singer-songwriters. A further highlight worth singling out is ‘Know Hard To Fall’ with its catchy chorus once again supplemented by the ubiquitous harmonica. Scanning down the list of players reveals an unsurprising source for much of the roots sound (banjo, fiddle, mandolin et al) in the name of Canadian acclaimed bluegrass band The Abram Brothers, or in the case of the credits - John and James. A natural beauty exists within Annie’s vocals which rise sufficiently enough above the instruments to make a significant effect without any need for overpowered brashness. ‘Lost Girls’ further exemplifies this and is a steadying anchor track in the album’s final quarter.

Annie is often a fleeting visitor to the UK and if funds allowed for a more extensive stay, then the record would be given a greater impetus over here. However its strong qualities will find sufficient love in the extensive dedicated online avenues, many on self-anointed missions to keep the art of mixing fine songs with the sounds of the land alive and flourishing. MAKE BELIEVING is an inventive and veritable album rejoicing in the triumph of the independent spirit nurturing one’s own soul and desire to make music. Luxuriating yourself in this release as well as delving further into the world of Annie Keating is an advisable leisure pursuit and one that will transport a talented artist into your listening sphere.

Bob Collum & the Welfare Mothers - Little Rock : Harbour Song Records

What a delightful way to start the New Year! An Anglo-American album full of subtle hybrid strands of Americana music served up in a simple yet captivating style. An exiled Okie who defied the ‘go west’ call and settled in the eastern counties of southern England instead, Bob Collum returns to themes from his homeland for this superlative release. LITTLE ROCK may be the capital of the state neighbouring his beloved Oklahoma but it lends its name to the title of this 10-track album and the opening number which steers the record in a semi alt-country rock direction. However the true spiritual sound of the album centres round the gorgeous pedal steel courtesy of Allan Kelly.

Any further micro analysis of this record cannot go past a country duet of magnificent magnitude. Bob has worked with Marianne Hyatt on previous releases and together they have produced an ear catching number sparking marital chords around the land. ‘Good Thing We’re In Love’ is the only co-write on the record and rattles along in biting and cutting disunity, though forever thankful of the sanctity of the title. Positioning itself alongside the lofty perch of My Darling Clementine duets, this stand out song possess easily the best lyric for this and many a year ‘I do the jumping when you holler frog’. Another MDC link is the addition of Martin Belmont to the lengthy list of players joining the core of Bob’s band, wonderfully named The Welfare Mothers.

As indicated earlier, LITTLE ROCK develops its themes a long way from Essex, but the whole album is underpinned by that sound synonymous with London’s alt-country scene which from a personal viewpoint rarely seems to venture north. However the themes are generally solid American standards such as the Confederate flag in ‘Johnny Held ‘Em Down’ and the scarred backdrop of society in ‘Wasted Wonderland’. The sound ventures into folk territory with the telling of a true murder story ‘Locust Grove’, a topic that genre does rather effectively both sides of the Atlantic.

Queuing up behind the delightful duet in the leading track stakes are the strikingly impressive ‘Seven Kinds of Sorrow’ and the anthemic ‘Broken Down’. Either track would stand tall on more mortal albums and deserve wider platforms to be heard. Packed with pedal steel solos, rhythmic strumming and outbreaks of harmonica, the latter will have you humming long after the eject button has been reluctantly pressed. ‘Seven Kinds of Sorrow’ opens in stunning a Capella mode and once again demands intense lyrical recital after the exquisite organ kicks in, melting into the other fine examples of roots instrumentation.

Bob, who has clocked a few miles on the indie scene both sides of the Atlantic, has shared the stage with many respected US artists such as Dave Alvin, Alejandro Escovedo and Robert Earle Keen, all highly valued in the UK as well. Presently Bob is tied up with Harbour Song Records and it would be great if the album got promoted live around the country. Obviously integral to this would be Marianne who wrote and performed the track ‘Superdome’, a number wrapped in alt-indie sensibilities and is believed to be based on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. The only crime the last two songs, ‘The Great Unknown’ and ‘Empty Hands of Love’, commit is to be worthy runners up to the meatier efforts of LITTLE ROCK and both keep the album on track as it steers through the wide open spaces of the Americana landscape.

Making a New Year resolution to check out the work of Bob Collum and the Welfare Mothers is one of your easier January commitments and will definitely be a rewarding one. LITTLE ROCK is an album which won’t disappoint and that duet has got to be the final parting shot. Make sure by hook or by crook you check out ‘Good Thing We’re In Love’.

Gretchen Peters - Blackbirds Scarlet Letter Records

If HELLO CRUEL WORLD ascended into heavenly status, then BLACKBIRDS sees Gretchen Peters sanctify a slice of self-actualisation. The success of her 2012 album presented a tricky follow up conundrum and, while this new release is far removed from sophomore territory, the solution is no shallow act of surface creativity. Collaboration has lubricated the path to success and the higher the quality, the greater the impact. Those helping out Gretchen may have shared the process but the product is ultimately owned by one of America’s leading singer-songwriters. With the career album already in the bank, this next phase of Gretchen’s musical journey is underway and the defining factor appears to be canonising influence. This flourishes in every lyric, note and bar of BLACKBIRDS.

The namedropping begins with the album contributors, starting with the consummate twang of Jerry Douglas, moving through the talents of Jason Isbell. Will Kimbrough and Jimmy Lafave before settling with the vocal excellence of long-time friends, Suzy Boggus and Kim Richey. Husband Barry Walsh makes his presence felt in the background, including co-producing duties, and will no doubt come to the fore when the album hits the road highlighted by a UK trip in March and April. Maybe Rosanne Cash and Lucinda Williams owned the generational airways in 2014 but Gretchen can be the anointed one in 2015. Throughout its forty nine minute duration, the album spills into a melting pot of perspicacious lyrics and adept musicianship held together by a roots sound thread and liberally sprinkled with stand-out tracks which will emerge over time.

The album’s title track,  a co-write with Ben Glover, surfaced last year on Ben’s tremendous record ATLANTIC and apart from opening Gretchen’s new release also takes the form of an eleventh track reprise. This final phase of the album adopts a more haunted gothic approach to the song ‘Blackbirds’ which captures the dark side of a Louisiana crime scene. Geography continues to form a backdrop to a record built on the concept of adjusting to the advance of time. ‘The House on Auburn Street’ is a cleverly crafted song based on the simple notion of re-visiting past places of residence in our mind with Gretchen harking back to her suburban upbringing in Pelham, New York City. Bringing things right up to date, Gretchen uses the explicit title ‘Nashville’ to reflect on her current hometown but the offering is far from cliché ridden and deeply personal. We once more head back down to the Gulf region in ‘Black Ribbons’ and a track which epitomises the splendid musical arrangements running through the record.

Photo by Gina Brinkley 
The duet with Jimmy LaFave on ‘When You Comin’ Home’ heralds a supreme sound and if you want a further break from the ballad style then ‘When All You Got Is a Hammer’ will feed your upbeat urges and rock the album as much as you are going to get. Although as previously mentioned stand out songs are likely to fluctuate, Gretchen at her soft tender best make an early claim especially in the piano led beauty ‘Everything Falls Away’ and the pin drop moment atmosphere surrounding the fond memories echoed in ‘Jubilee’. Perhaps Gretchen’s song writing peaks on this album in its latter stages with the wonderful line ‘ain’t no train to take us back from where we came’ adorning a strong number ‘The Cure for the Pain’, dealing with waning health. To mention the track ‘Pretty Things’ last is no intended slur, especially on one which is quintessential Gretchen Peters and firmly etched in this egalitarian album.

The accompanying press release for this record sees Gretchen voice the ageing process from a female perspective as the driving source for BLACKBIRDS. Layers of attention reveal the true depth of the album and much like Gretchen’s back catalogue, sustainability is the key ingredient. Maybe mortality is a great creative inspiration and one that we can all draw on in the utopian pursuit of self-actualisation. BLACKBIRDS projects Gretchen Peters in top mode once again and lays out a newly sustained path of marvellous musical mystique.

The following track is sampled on  American Songwriter