Tuesday, 30 October 2018

GIG REVIEW: Rachel Harrington - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Monday 29th October 2018

Rachel Harrington’s overseas music career has had two phases. Between 2007 and 2012, the singer-songwriter from the Pacific North West recorded three successful solo records and a one off country project as front person of the Knockouts. Additionally, she toured UK and Europe countless times utilising the solo, duo and band formats. This focus away from her American home met with critical praise including a session recorded for the Bob Harris Country Show on BBC radio. An extended hiatus followed that was only broken last year when making a tentative return to play a few UK summer shows. Among the dates on the tour was a first ever visit to the Kitchen Garden in Birmingham. Now the music rehabilitation is in full swing another overseas trip followed and with no surprises, a repeat engagement at the Kings Heath venue ensued.

The show put on by Rachel was of a similar vein to last year. She used the first half to share some of her older material including a few requests from fans that have actively followed her for years. Among the set of original tunes played this evening, ‘Karen Kane’, ‘Under the Big Top’ and ‘Carver’ were from memory additions to what made the show last year. On the other hand, there was no mistaking the repeat playing of firm old favourites ‘Sunshine Girl’, ‘Spokane’ and ‘He Started Building My Mansion in Heaven Today’. Supplementing each song was the ubiquitous backstory, an art that Rachel has perfected over the years.  Some of the stories were new while others retained an air of familiarity, the natural consequence of following an artist for over a decade.

Similar to last year Rachel switched focus after the break to share some of her favourite cover songs, a love that has helped rekindle her desire to play music again. Most of these were familiar tunes with ‘Unknown Legend’, ‘Ode to Billy Jo’ and ‘Dublin Blues’ featuring last year. Although once again from memory, ‘Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain’ and ‘Those Memories of You’, the latter from the original Trio album, were new additions for this year. In true Rachel Harrington tradition, the gospel tune ‘I Don’t Want to Get Adjusted to this World’ was her parting gift to an appreciative audience.

A few of these songs are set to feature on an upcoming covers album that Rachel has self-recorded, but alas physical copies were not available for fans to purchase on this tour. Plans are afoot for her to return to the UK to play some shows next summer, so this omission should rectify then.

Although there is strong evidence online of new music coming soon, it was strange that not a mention was voiced during the show. Maybe a little insight or sneak preview would have whetted the appetite for the very aspect that won Rachel Harrington many fans overseas in the first place. Inevitably, this output will be the ultimate judge of how successful the return is rather than the covers. Fingers crossed that 2019 will be the year when Rachel Harrington – the songwriter completes the rehab and new material to match her esteemed past surfaces. 

Monday, 29 October 2018

ALBUM REVIEW: Carson McHone - Carousel : Nine Mile Records (Out on 26th October 2018)

The continual search for keepers of the country flame from the contemporary pool can pause for a moment to digest the brand new album from Carson McHone. CAROUSEL may have a slightly rehashed slant to it, but if you are new to this Austin Texas native then none of it matters. The eleven-track album gets its release on Nine Mile Records, a label responsible for artists such as Carrie Rodriguez in the past. One guarantee is that anybody with a faint interest in traditional country music will at least raise an ear to the music of Carson McHone.

Expect plenty of fiddle, steel and lyrics drowning in vocal emotion. In other words, check off the country template credentials and sit down to enjoy how Carson has successfully made a record to get the nod in influential circles.

In essence, the album is ten-strong in terms of songs, the eleventh being a one-minute instrumental intro that effectively launches the second half or reverse side if playing the vinyl version. Four of these songs get a second life after surfacing on the 2015 self-released GOODLUCK MAN, including the title track from that release. Whether or not you are au fait with the previous record, chances are high that CAROUSEL will reflect positively and slide neatly into any available listening space.

Whatever tempo floats your boat; this album serves you well ranging from sad song waltz syndrome attached to ‘Gentle’ to a more foot-tapping rockabilly sound belting out of the pacey effort ‘Good Time Daddy’. Retro is especially king in the fifties style swing number ‘Maybe They’re Really Just Good Friends’, but to balance things and inject a hybrid perspective ‘Drugs’ in the second track position retains a contemporary feel. The latter uses repetition effectively to power home the message and supplies a decent live video to highlight the song.

Background blurb sheds light on ‘Dram Shop Gal’ being autobiographical, and thus maybe a web search for the term as used in Texas if unfamiliar. Note us Anglos may only know the meaning from the Scottish phrase ‘wee dram’. For a slight switch in the sonic landscape, the final track ‘Spider Song’ detours from a country feel to more of a folk sound courtesy of a melodeon/accordion style whirring backdrop.

Elsewhere on a record that eases itself comfortably into repeat play mode, ‘How ‘Bout It’ scores highly in late night piano ballad territory. In contrast, ‘Lucky’ possesses an appealing mid-track tempo switch and if you feel the desire to anoint a stand out song then it acts as a commendable candidate for the crown. Alternatively, you could look no further than the opening number ‘Sad’, one possessing an initial dose of country music staple that goes a long way to defining the album.

CAROUSEL is a useful addition to any serious country music collectors’ catalogue and showing once again, that Texas is often the hotbed for the decent stuff. The name Carson McHone may not be yet well known, but time is still on the side of this twenty something artist and further recordings as good as this one will serve her well.


GIG REVIEW: Kacey Musgraves - O2 Academy, Birmingham. Sunday 28th October 2018

There was enough credit in the Kacey Musgraves bank to forgive a slow start to the GOLDEN HOUR era. While others instantly eulogised over the album, the title of the opening track has never been more pertinent when getting to grips with a new record. It was also apt that ‘Slow Burn’ fires the opening salvo on dates during the Oh, What a World Tour, which is currently rolling around venues in the UK. For the latest visit to Birmingham, the entourage headed across town to the Academy and a renewal with fans in a venue steeped in the city’s musical heritage, long before the corporate world stepped in. An element of curiosity will always surround the music of Kacey Musgraves: a maverick, independent or just another act out to fluidly maximise exposure. One constant is always the inspirational depth to her music and an ability to match interesting facets with excellence. For two hours this evening we witnessed an artist perfecting the art of smooth entertainment, capable of engineering the full range of gear changes, while exuding complete control of the proceedings

As expected, the entire complement of new material fluttered around a packed venue leaving just enough room for some classics to mature nicely like that proverbial fine wine. Rumours of the modern classic ‘Merry Go Round’ jettisoned from the set list were far off the mark and it is impossible to tire listening to its cutting lyrics and smart observation. This evening’s rendition slightly slowed down and had a boost from the haunting tones of pedal steel. The instrument famously described by Danny Wilson as ‘the ironing board of love’ played a significant role across the set and securing the services of ace Nashville based player Smokin’ Brett Resnick for the tour was an astute move.

The band, a six-piece operation and a little more conservatively dressed than on previous tours, played the perfect foil to the glitz and sparkle of Kacey. Easing between the more studio-based sounds of GOLDEN HOUR and the roots focus when the country ‘A’ game ascended, they probably had their finest moment when let off the leash for the final throes of ‘Die Fun’.

The country content (yes, there was still plenty to keep Kacey in credit column) increased when the band re-assembled in acoustic mode at the front of the stage to deliver ‘Oh, What a World’, ‘Family is Family’ and the first half of ‘Love is a Wild Thing’. The first of this trio proved interesting as it is one of the more controversial tracks on the new album from a production standpoint, but tonight it had its roots credentials reclaimed. The final song during this segment is the most acclaimed on GOLDEN HOUR, praised by fellow songwriters as a stellar piece of song writing. Kacey introduced it as the moment when finding love was unexpected and used the second half of the song to usher the band back into standard formation.

Joining a raft of tracks already mentioned as key high spots are five more from a set that just about surpassed the hour forty mark. ‘Follow Your Arrow’ is staple Kacey fare and forever cements in the pre-encore singalong slot. ‘Rainbow’ is one of the most beautiful songs she has recorded and its spot opening the encore was perfectly suited with Kacey just accompanied by a band member on piano.

The track rapidly ascending as a favourite on the new album is ‘Happy & Sad’ and the live version provided further confirmation. Whatever thoughts arose concerning the direction of the new album ultimately override by the sheer quality of the songs and it has been an absorbing experience giving the record room to prosper. On the other hand, it is always enjoyable to listen to what Kacey does best, with ‘High Time’ and ‘It Is What It Is’ proving timely reminders.

While not being the most charismatic and emotive performer on stage, there is an endearing charm to Kacey Musgraves. Vocally she is competent enough to hold sway and probably peaked on that front with the added feeling observed to ‘Space Cowboy’. For a round of fun at the end, she was joined by opening act Sophie from Soccer Mommy to duet on a cover of the NSYNC song ‘Tearin’ Up My Heart’ (research needed to name this track!), and the disco tune ‘High Horse’ either sent some folks home happy or others heading for a swift exit. Take your pick.

It was interesting that Nashville-based indie rock band Soccer Mommy were invited to open on this tour, almost confirming the distant stance being taken from country music. They played a forty-minute opening stint, and paraded as your usual four-piece combo with a lite twangy electric sound. The highlight was a short segment when Sophie played solo for a few tunes, including a different take on Springsteen’s ‘I’m on Fire’.  At this point, there was a touch of Phoebe Bridgers about her. By the way, check Phoebe out if you have not heard her and like a bit of deep feeling indie Americana.

This was the fourth time seeing Kacey Musgraves live and probably the best yet. The performance housed an artist in control and one who works within the limit of their strengths. These obviously lie in the stunning songs that she brings to the table and the affable way they present, along with the top musicians she works with. Horizons are expansive for this native of Golden Texas and who knows where Kacey Musgraves will drift next. One suspects a tenuous tether to country music will always exist and it will be of no surprise if her career evolves into one of influence. This performance upon a return to the only Birmingham that really counts was absolutely adorable and a major advert for the magnetic attraction of top quality live music from an artist who clearly matters. 


Saturday, 27 October 2018

ALBUM REVIEW: Jamie Lin Wilson - Jumping Over Rocks. Self-Released (Out on October 26th 2018)

Jamie Lin Wilson was an artist recommended to me a few years ago. The subsequent period has seen her occasionally flicker on my horizon with only a 2015 album release to follow up the original 2010 Dirty Blonde Hair EP. However, 2018 is set to be a major landmark for this Texas singer-songwriter based south of San Antonio. The good fortune of obtaining an advance copy of JUMPING OVER ROCKS set the pulse racing with countless early plays that tagged this album as one of the year’s forerunners in the authentic country stakes. As the album is now out for all to enjoy, the time is ripe to share the love for a record spiralling deep into the ethos of this blog’s title.

JUMPING OVER ROCKS has its name drawn from a lyric in the mid-album story track ‘Death & Life’ and evolves into an eleven-song collection of primarily original numbers. The exception is a nodding tribute to the late great Guy Clark via a version of ‘Instant Coffee Blues’ in tandem with fellow Texan Jack Ingram as her duet partner. It is fitting that Clark has some presence on the album because Wilson is one of many artists stoking the fire of articulate song writing and fully embracing the sweet spot where country meets folk. The last analogy had its origin in the press release, proving that occasionally, publicist hyperbole warrants.

Jack Ingram also features on the first track in the co-writing role. ‘Faithful and True’ is a stunning emotive ballad, which exudes an enormous amount of strength straight from the off. Wilson’s voice really gets into the aching groove from the subsequent track ‘The Being Gone’. Here the Texas reference ventures north to Dallas in the lyrics and cements a ‘Lone Star’ rhetoric that begins with the album recorded in Austin.

Despite the paucity of solo releases, Jamie Lin Wilson is an experienced operator on the Texas music scene. There is no rookie naivety on the album, just the work of a seasoned professional, upholding the constitution rather than acting as a revolutionary. There is nothing wrong with that stance especially when eleven tracks to salivate over emerge.

Making substantial cases for the stand out moments are two tracks with serious connotations. Wilson teams up with Turnpike Troubadours frontman Evan Felker for the rousing ‘Oklahoma Stars’ to bring a slice of quality country music c/o west of the Mississippi. At the album’s conclusion, the style drifts heavily into Brandy Clark territory with the character led ‘Alice’ reminiscent of the great storytelling songs that launched her associate into the upper realms of country music. Whether a similar path follows for Jamie Lin Wilson is probably unlikely, but she knows her niche and plenty of adorable praise will still pour in from astute critics.

There is a tidy mix of stompers and smoochers across the album. ‘Run’ is pure country gold and rattles along with a tempo to keep the boots shuffling. At the other end of the scale, ‘Everybody’s Moving Slow' is your archetypal tender slow dancer and hits the heartfelt spot amicably. The ubiquitous steel maintains a steady upbeat feel to ‘Eyes for You’, while ‘If I Told You’ stoically flies the flag for the more emotive temperate numbers. The stark message that eases out of ‘In a Wink’ is that some much of this album has a stand-alone appeal making it very easy to syphon any one of the tracks for radio play.

The authenticity and real deal nature of JUMPING OVER ROCKS makes it an album to celebrate as much as one to deliver endless listens. Good music travels over the wires easily today, so if Jamie Lin Wilson had a desire to make a European trip, then plenty of fans would embrace her. Enjoying this cracking record makes having faith in that early recommendation handsomely pay off, with or without the live dates.


GIG REVIEW: Kirsty Merryn - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham.Tuesday 23rd October 2018

Some albums wither and die probably only destined to have a short shelf life. Alternatively, others possess longevity to benefit from subsequent renewals. Kirsty Merryn’s SHE & I absolutely falls into the latter category. Its conceptual uniqueness added a breath of fresh air to the folk world, everlastingly sustained by a pristine execution. Twelve months on from savouring the delights of the record upon release, there was a timely opportunity to return to the album as Kirsty delivered its entirety on a current run of live dates across the country.

Although she is no stranger to playing shows in the Midlands area, this was Kirsty’s first visit to the Kitchen Garden, an ideal venue to capture the intricacy of the record. This solo presentation was a one off on the tour as partner Todd McDonald was unavailable for the evening. Having only previously seeing Kirsty on her own, it was a case of business as usual. The decision to split the evening between the whole album in set one and a mixed selection after the break worked well to set the framework for a splendid bout of entertainment.

Before Kirsty even steps into the spotlight, a classical training background has supplied the credentials to score highly in the technical stakes. While some singers thrive on an element of imperfection, Kirsty comfortably airs a state of elegant vocal supremacy. Likewise her piano playing offers a cultured backdrop. Maybe a little adrift from folk convention, but perfectly aligned with her attributes.

The songs from SHE & I took the whole notion of gender focussed song writing to a new level. The depth of the project is immense, and fully warrants any extended praise afforded to it. For the uninitiated, the album predominately draws on the inspiration from historical female heroes in a variety of fields with Kirsty cementing their various places in the history books in her own inimitable words.

Away from the album, and effectively the second half of this show, Kirsty extended her repertoire with a selection of traditional songs and additional ones of original origin. Versions of ‘The Outlandish Knight’ and ‘The Banks of Sweet Primroses’ may go a long way to satisfying folk purists, but the self-penned ‘Deep Wild Torrent’ was the pick of the post-break bunch. Older songs such as ‘Constantine’ and ‘Winter in Ontario’ did have a previous existence on an earlier EP, while tunes like the ‘Wedding Song’ and ‘The Wake’ may yet find their way into recorded status.

The future for Kirsty Merryn is likely to be a new release mixing traditional and original tunes with timings heavily dependent on funding. Whether the intensity and uniqueness of SHE & I is matched will be judged in time, but one certainty is that the full bag of performing and writing credentials are set to prosper. Listening to Kirsty sing and play in a pin drop environment was not a bad way to spend a Tuesday evening, perhaps the perfect tonic to a long work day. 


Friday, 19 October 2018

ALBUM REVIEW: Neilson Hubbard - Cumberland Island : Proper Records (Out on 19th October 2018)

The name Neilson Hubbard has cropped up numerous times in the producing role of many excellent albums over the past few years that perhaps the moment was right to enter the spotlight. Steps were taken in this direction with the Orphan Brigade project where Nielson collaborated with fellow musicians Ben Glover and Joshua  Britt. Now a major leap has occurred with the release of a brand new solo album titled CUMBERLAND ISLAND. Here Neilson has curated eleven tracks drawn from different periods of his lengthy career to form a theme based around the location in the title. The result is an expansive earthy record scratching deep into the gruff emotions of thoughtful expression. Predominantly, he sinks into submerged insular mode, making the listening experience extremely intimate.

Both Ben and Joshua are involved in this album, either in a co-producing, writing or playing role, with another very familiar name in ace guitarist Will Kimbrough being one to jump out on the pre-release blurb. We also learn that Cumberland Island is located off the coast of Georgia (USA not the Caucuses) and a place dear to the heart of Nielson. The album gets a major lift in Europe via a release on Proper Records and there is likely to be considerable interest this side of pond on the back of the artists associated with Neilson. The Americana community is a ready-made potential audience for this record, especially those who find solace in the rugged deep tones of a singer-songwriter wearing canyons of feeling in their vocal style.

One thing that Neilson never loses sight of is the listener’s quest to hook up onto some chorus appeal. As much as some of us enjoy burying deep into subliminal messages and intrinsic song writing, there can be as much pleasure derived from just sitting back and letting dulcet sound waves drift around. In these moments, the presence of an appealing chorus cannot be under estimated.

Two tracks that fall into this category during the early plays are ‘If The Sun Comes Up Tomorrow’ and ‘That Was Then’. As far as the general vibes are concerned, it will not take long to make the decision to invest a greater amount of listening, but a word of warning is that dissecting this record to the degree that it deserves is no quick fix. So hang in there, and ripe hanging fruit will lower itself into your grasp.

A further delve into the collaborative song writing credits reveals a deeper involvement for Ben and Joshua alongside contributions from familiar names such as Matthew Perryman Jones and Hannah Miller. The latter contributed to the rather impressive ‘Oh Black River’ and a very good recording artist in her own right as exemplified in the excellent endorsement given here for a 2015 self-titled album.

There is an obvious Ben Glover stamp all over this album, or could it be a reciprocation of a Neilson Hubbard stamp on Ben’s records. Likely, it is an immense deep mutual association, which permeates right through their creative souls.

Each of the eleven tracks has a life of their own and the most generous praise afforded is that any review is purely a gateway to experiencing the subtleties of celebrated singer-songwriter roots music. Any lingering doubts around somebody better known behind the scenes crossing the divide  profusely extinguish within the vaults of this album. Cinematic and pensive reflection are two starting points in drafting the listening appeal to Neilson Hubbard’s CUMBERLAND ISLAND, the rest is for you to explore. 


Thursday, 18 October 2018

GIG REVIEW: My Darling Clementine - The Rep, Birmingham. Wednesday 17th October 2018

Maybe there has always been a theatrical touch about My Darling Clementine. Spoof and irony nestle securely alongside exclusive musicianship with the occasional big toe dip into the literary world. Therefore, Birmingham’s Repertory theatre may not be such a left field choice to host a homecoming gig of a sort, despite its limited involvement in the local live music scene. In fact, the venue has graced My Darling Clementine on two previous occasions when crime author Mark Billingham presented The Other Half project in conjunction with Michael and Lou contributing the music input.

In the eight years since Michael Weston King and Lou Dalgleish launched their My Darling Clementine operation, there have been numerous highs for this husband and wife duo seriously intent on highlighting a side of country music increasing marginalised. Three superb albums in addition to a surplus of stellar gigs, including a never to be forgotten night in 2013, has kept the pair busy along with the other travails of being ordinary citizens. Making Birmingham their home in the past has always put a different slant on city gigs and there was a healthy studio turnout for this show that in effect acted as the first Birmingham appearance, at least in full band format, since the release of STILL TESTIFYING in 2017.

This latest Birmingham show is part of an extended run of dates around the country, and fortunately one incorporating a full band rather than the stripped down duo format. Joining Lou and Michael were a backroom team of Al Gare (double bass), Dean Beresford (drums) and Preben Raunsbjerg (electric guitar), the first two, well- known figures on the local music scene and the third, a distinguished Dane instantly becoming an impressive new addition to the band. Together as a team, they drove a near immaculate bunch of songs: sweet, slick and country to the core, though frequently dashed with a slice of sixties soul.

You know that old music is going to play a major part in the My Darling Clementine style, but to the band’s creative credit, covers keep to a minimum. Three key ones threaded through the evening with the band taking a break to allow Lou and Michael to duet on the George Jones and Gene Pitney number ‘That’s All It Took’ and a version of Hank’s ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’. Listening to the latter act as the first part of a two-song encore prodded the summation that Hank Williams’ covers are just borrowed for their three-minute duration before safely returning to their owner’s legacy.

The other significant cover saw Lou take to the keyboard and churn out her usual rendition of the country standard ‘A Good Year for the Roses’. Apart from collaborating with Michael in the vocal duet stakes throughout, there were two precious moments when Lou takes her impassioned voice to searing levels. Just prior to the break, the Tammy Wynette response song ‘No Matter What Tammy Said’ had the most magnificent of airings, full of vigour, fire and stubborn zest. Later in the set, emotions ran high during ‘Ashes, Flowers and Dust’, as the My Darling Clementine façade took a slip.

From a set list pushing twenty songs across the evening, stand out moments kept jostling for recognition, but ultimately the twinning of ‘Departure Lounge’ and ‘Nothing Left to Say’ from the 2011 debut album HOW DO YOU PLEAD possessed a certain panache which goes a long way to defining My Darling Clementine.

This was an evening without the need for any support. While this band line up was different to previous impressive set ups, the assembled trio ensured each cultured song had the optimum backdrop. Maybe additional pedal steel could have enhanced the sound, but let us not be greedy and the country credentials were still strong, as exemplified by acres of electric twang and a bunch of sincere melodies ratcheting up the heartache and misery. Another upgrade could have been adding ‘Two Lane Texaco’ to the set list, but it joined a lengthening list of personal album high spots not making the live cut in 2018.

The Rep may be better known for its thespian escapades, but after a slight pause for sound adjustment during the first song, the listening experience in the bleachers was top notch. It helps when you are exposing your ears to fine musicians and songs packed with loads of appeal. The evening continued to soar towards its inevitable conclusion of ‘100,000 Words’, with increasing thoughts of how enjoyable My Darling Clementine shows have been over the last half a dozen years. It helps that ears are tuned into what Lou and Michael set out to do, although execution has to match intent, which is achieved with consummate ease.

Midway through the gig, the song ‘Our Race is Run’ prompted thoughts that this notion need not apply to My Darling Clementine anytime soon. Where Lou and Michael eventually take this project, who knows? What is important is that someone carries on the mantle of projecting an iconic style and who better than My Darling Clementine to keep turning on the creative tap. Nights like these make it all worthwhile.

Saturday, 13 October 2018

ALBUM REVIEW: Hilary Scott - Don't Call Me Angel : Belltown Records (Out on 12th October 2018)

Since being fortunate to obtain an advance digital copy of this album a couple of months ago, the art of falling in love with a record has surfaced. While the sumptuous tones of Hilary Scott’s DON’T CALL ME ANGEL have garnered countless pleasurable plays, the conundrum of how to convert the appreciation into meaningful words refused to reveal a solvable hand. As the eventual release date passed, the time was ripe to at least share a few thoughts and ultimately let folks decide whether they are touched in similar ways.

The issue came prominently from where to locate a coat hanger to house such a record in the mind. Genres such as country, Americana and folk bounced around without offering a best fit. Pop reared its head, but that also seemed inappropriate, although the ease of listening meant very little exertion had a requirement. The vague realm of singer-songwriter had to be the final resting place if such a location needed finding. Labels aside, maybe just words like classy, distinguished, passionate and cultured would suffice to get things underway.

For the record, Hilary has found it convenient to apply the strapline ‘one l’ to announce that she is not the Hillary Scott of Lady Antebellum fame. In fact she is much better. Hilary is an American singer-songwriter, the architect of twelve recording projects over a twenty-year period and someone who constantly looks overseas for opportunities to promote her music. If like me, you are joining her bandwagon in 2018, the notion of better to arrive late than not arrive at all is the ideal conclusion.

This latest record is a ten-track effort, comprising of nine self-penned compositions and a cover version of Prince’s ‘Kiss’. The latter emerges as a soft bluesy effort that slightly sits adrift from the crux of Hilary’s prime skill of writing fine songs.

Of the nine other tracks, where the killer ballad reigns supreme, there is no finer starting point than the title track ‘Don’t Call Me Angel’. Although, this opening track sets a standard that many others effortlessly match. Throughout, the vocals sink deep into the depths of each song and absolute ownership powers from a passionate and soulful singing style. Soulful with a lower case‘s’ mind you as this is far more heartland fare than R n B focused. The soundtrack accompanying each song acutely executes whether soft rock guitar or shimmering keys take the lead.

Even after many listens, anointing a favourite track is still a bridge too far, so many are damn good. When pushed into a corner, ‘Not Used To Being Used To, ‘You Will Be Mine’, ‘Unlove Story’ and ‘Moon and Back’ would make a short list, but ask me tomorrow and any of the nine originals could be included.

Anyhow, the true merit of this record is the entity of letting its entirety wash over you in a single listening experience. Long live the album as this review finally sees the light of day on the explicitly inaugurated ‘National Album Day’.

Now that release day as arrived, will DON’T CALL ME ANGEL by Hilary Scott make room for the next up on the review process line. No chance, this album has earned the right to be accessible for a while to come. There you are, some words to support a record that appeals. Remember – ‘one l’. 


ALBUM REVIEW: Annie Oakley - Words We Mean : Horton Records (Out on 12th October 2018)

To pun or not to pun, that was the question before scribing any thoughts on the debut Annie Oakley album. Eventually, temptation caved in and reluctance not say that it hit the mark subsides. Adopting the name of an historic sharpshooting hero is a curious and smart move for this Oklahoma-based trio. Maybe there is some intentional gender association on the back of the Babb sisters (Sophia and Grace) teaming up with third member Nia Personette to offer a delectable take on harmonious indie-folk. WORDS WE MEAN had its world bow on October 12 with a release on Horton Records and hence a focus on the UK market via the good guys at At the Helm. The social media age abbreviation RIYL denoting association can often raise eyebrows on press releases and assorted blurb, but stating artists such as The Wailin Jennys, The Staves, First Aid Kit and in more left field, The Milk Carton Kids is generally travelling down the right highway.

Admittedly, this album has had a stop start existence in these quarters. Initial promise from the early single ‘Did You Dream’, did not transmit to the first couple of album spins. Even as the luscious sound and wispy tendencies took hold to move the release out of the potential into the review pile, the omission of a killer track keeps the album in check. Ultimately, keeping the reins on any hype surrounding Annie Oakley.

However, the potential for the trio to develop is limitless and the sublime hand at their disposal is likely to evolve in a fulfilling direction. The sweet and silky harmonies act as the redeeming feature alongside a lo-fi sound that drips into your subconscious in mesmeric portions.  The acoustic vibes come courtesy of some delicate banjo and fiddle, while the injection of the electric guitar provides the indie tinge, most prominent in the midway track ‘Into the Light’.

Apart from the aforementioned single, the most appealing song on the record exists in the opening position with ‘Pomp and Swell’ soaring above its counterparts in the melody stakes. As the album gently floats through its forty-five minute duration, further high spots emerge in tracks such as ‘Brother’, ‘If I Were a Ghost’ and ‘Nothing to Say’. ‘Sweet Time’ also does a neat job in signing off the record and sealing the potential of where next.

There are probably some clichéd inner thoughts about Oklahoma music in my mind. This stems from exposure to grittier earthy artists such as Carter Sampson, John Moreland, John Fullbright and Parker Millsap. The sound of Annie Oakley could not be further from this style, even to the extent that you could envisage listening to a folk trio from the urban northeast (NYC rather than Tyne and Wear!).

So with any association with dusty twang dismissed, it is over to the precious tender moments and subtle gear shifts that mark out WORDS WE MEAN as an album to mark the card of an up and coming act. Once studies are out the way, Annie Oakley intend to step up their music activity on a grander scale. Adding some muscle and a couple of killer tracks will boost their presence and we might just be well seeing the beginning of something special. 


Thursday, 11 October 2018

GIG REVIEW: Emily Mae Winters + Annie Dressner - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Wednesday 10th October 2018

Three vocalists that appeal to me all find perfection within imperfection. The voices of Lucinda Williams, Brandi Carlile and Natalie Maines each possess a fault line offering a peep into the chasm of their soul. Now without resorting to a case of over hyperbole, there is a distant resemblance in the vocals of Emily Mae Winters thus lifting her head and shoulders above most singers that cross my ear. This is one immense talent that needs to be nurtured, with a limitless potential dripping out of the songs, music, voice, and an approach to projecting a distinct style.

Any resemblance to conventional folk music is ebbing away as Emily sharpens up her tools to launch into album number 2. The probability of Emily Mae Winters soaring up the scale of UK performers recognised in the blurry horizon of Americana is increasing to the extent that 2019 could be one big year.

Anyhow, back to the present and the HIGH ROMANCE pre-release tour stopping off at Birmingham. This show was a lower key affair to last year’s visit. Maybe the reason was the ‘between albums’ syndrome and spreading an existing fan base thinly between Birmingham, Coventry & Leicester.

Any return is sure to be an upgrade in turnout especially with the new record in tow and the buzz of a special artist getting the word around. Hooking up on the live front with ace guitarist Ben Walker is a smart move. Without wanting to dismiss his work in the Josienne & Ben duo, the scope in the direction Emily’s music is taking will present ideal opportunities to branch out in a live capacity.

Before exploring the main set in detail, a special word for Annie Dressner, who switched a rescheduled performance at the Kitchen Garden to open the evening. Annie, an exiled New Yorker now a 7 year plus resident of Cambridge, is making tentative steps back into active performing after a lengthy break. It was back in 2013 when I last saw Annie play live and the simultaneous release of her most recent recording. Five years on and the Anglo-American vocals remain, pouring originality into a series of songs cut from a decent cloth. Annie mixed her set between a few tracks off an upcoming album and some older stuff.

The songs ‘Brooklyn’ and ‘Fly‘ rather splendidly represent the transitional period in her life of moving to the UK. To bring things up to date, ‘Kentucky’ and ‘Heartbreaker’ reveal a more stable existence albeit both themes hark back to the past with stateside origins. The new Annie Dressner album, BROKEN INTO PIECES, is formally released towards the end of October and expect to hear a lot more from this talented singer-songwriter in forthcoming months.

As soon as Emily Mae Winters hit her stride with ‘Blackberry Lane’, memories instantly came flooding back of the first time I heard her. This was a short set at last year’s Moseley Folk Festival. Around the same time, the SIREN SERENADE album was released and while times may be changing, we still had timely reminders of what a fine album this is.

Anchor’, ‘Miles to Go’ and the title track joined the opening number from the album. In fact, ‘Siren Serenade’ was one of a couple of tracks delivered solo, with even her guitar getting the elbow in this one alongside band mates Ben and John Parker on upright bass.

On the guitar front, Emily proudly displayed (and played) her brand new Gretsch alongside a more worn traditional acoustic model. The electric came into its own as the new songs began to ease out of a rockier wrapping. Of course, the challenge to adjust the vocals to combat the greater amplification is presented, one that Emily accomplished relatively comfortably.

Her voice will definitely grow into the new songs alongside an opportunity for Ben to ratchet up the solo segments. Such talent should be encouraged to shine and any enhanced presence would be a great addition to Emily’s music.

One certainty is the strength of the new material. More will seep out in due course. From a theme perspective, ‘This Land’ and ‘How Do You Fix a Broken Sun’ prove intriguing listens. While ‘Come Live in My Heart & Pay No Rent' succeeds big style in the title credentials and shows that the folk tendency to trawl the archives for inspiration will never wane.

While John Parker does a sterling job in the rhythm role, there is mileage in adding drums to the new material, although their road use is always subject to viability. An interesting thought is how these new songs will be recorded when Emily hits the studio in December. Inklings are that a desire to upgrade the creativity stakes will prevail and not churn out standard versions, which have been done a million times previously. The tools are at Emily’s disposal and it will be interesting to listen to her eventual route.

On the covers front, this evening’s set contained a pair of classics, of which the highest praise is that Emily owned both renditions. To put a stamp on the Krauss/Plant revised version of ‘Killing the Blues’ is no mean feat. In addition, you can carry me away from this world with ‘Will You Still Love Tomorrow’ playing, and even if you substituted The Shirrelles with Emily Mae Winters there would be few complaints. Both these covers were repeats from her last visit to the Kitchen Garden in October 2017, although sadly we did not get ‘Red Dirt Girl’ on this occasion.

One room for improvement is for the set time to be lengthened to boost the live reputation. Weighing in at just under the hour was a little short. Eventually two full albums plus a few choice covers will provide ample material to increase the stage time. The final song to send the Emily Mae Winters faithful contingent merrily on their way home was another nod in a country/Americana direction with a good ole drinking song titled ‘Gin Tingles Whisky Shivers’.

If a seal of approval need further adhesion then this night delivered in voluptuous portions. Very few vocalists have created the same level of effect than Emily Mae Winters and the sheer quality portrayed this evening suggests few will struggle to match her, especially away from the classically trained folk hierarchy. Indeed 2019 has the potential to be very special when HIGH ROMANCE emerges and the next stage of the Emily Mae Winters bandwagon kicks fully into gear. 



Sunday, 7 October 2018

COMBI REVIEW: Stephen Simmons - Gall : Self-released / House Concert - Staffordshire. Saturday 6th October 2018

October chat between Stephen Simmons and his co-performer Dave Coleman this evening brought up the topic of some of the Halloween traditions back home, with Stephen particularly commenting on how he is often touring Europe during this time of year. In a slight twist of irony, it was October 31st 2014 when I first saw Stephen Simmons play live and thus extending the musical appreciation that initially surfaced when reviewing the HEARSAY album released around then. 

At the time, he was establishing a fan base in the Staffordshire area and always pays the county a visit when trips are made from his Tennessee home to continue a mission of sharing music with European audiences. Since that Halloween evening four years ago, Stephen has played an annual show in Elford, either in a house concert or marquee garden format, cementing relationships formed and frequently bringing new music.

The 2018 renewal saw a couple of innovations. Stephen usually tours the UK alone, although Molly Jewell, a fellow Nashville musician, joined him a couple of years back. The time the co-operation expanded into a fuller presentation, with long-term musical companion Dave Coleman playing electric guitar throughout as well as chipping in with a few solo songs prior to each of Stephen’s sets commencing.

On the new music front, Stephen released an album this summer titled GALL. Unfortunately, for lovers of physical copies mainly, the album is only available digitally, but quite often artists hamstrung by financial constraints have to make rational decisions. There is already a considerable Stephen Simmons back catalogue in place, including many long-term favourite songs frequently making his sets, and the good news is that further new music is in motion that hopefully will get an expanded release. You can never restrain a prolific singer-songwriter bursting with new ideas.

Anyhow, for those of you open to feasting on digital music the new album is a wise and valuable investment. A link to the Band Camp site is placed below but it is also available on the mainstream sites for streaming or downloading on both sides of the pond. GALL is probably Stephen’s most stripped back and personal set of songs for a while. The process is purely a one-person operation and the recording took place in his vacant grandparents’ house away from the big city in small town Tennessee.

With this album not really being subject to the big sell, only a couple of songs had an outing during this evening’s house concert. ‘Burnt Orange & Bruised Purple’ and ‘Death to the Dreamers’ are among the leading songs on the eleven-track record and sounded good in a live unfiltered setting, akin to what you get on the album in reality. The location and the family orientated content interweave coherently with perhaps the strongest song to feature being the title number ‘Gall’.  You never know, in the future some of these songs may re-surface on another album.  Alternatively, this project may always remain self-contained. Either way, GALL is worth checking out especially if you have come across Stephen’s work before and are partial to high quality singer-songwriting with a southern flavour.

Back to this evening’s show and the impact made by the presence of Dave Coleman. Getting the electric guitar sound spot on in an informal dining room setting is tricky, but this was accomplished by a player with vast experience as a producer and founder of the Nashville-based rock ‘n’ roll roots band The Coal Men. Dave introduced a couple of his songs including the track ‘Singer (In Louisville)’ featured here. With murder ballads being a theme of the evening, Dave could not resist sharing a version of ‘Long Black Veil’. When supporting Stephen, he skillful added the appropriate riffs and required twang, probably letting loose the most when they covered Springsteen’s ‘Tougher Than the Rest’. The Coal Men’s records are readily available digitally and can possibly be tracked down on a CD. Dave had copies of 2016’s PUSHED TO THE SIDE and the 2013 release ESCALATOR for sale and if you like your roots music with a little tempo and rhythm alongside some nifty guitar work they will be right up your street.

The presence of the electric guitar did ensure Stephen had to make some vocal adjustment to his sound. This smoothly occurred for a bunch of songs stretching back well over ten years or more to sound as sweet as ever. You never know quite what you are going to get from a Stephen Simmons set list, but with a fresh range of stories, the content is normally top notch.

This evening it was older tracks like ‘Asheville Girl’ (probably the standout moment from the show), ‘Lay on the Tracks’ and ‘Parchcorn Falls’ that crept up the appreciation scale. It is also good to hear ‘Horse Cave Kentucky’ especially after visiting this self-generating tourist attraction on a Southern states road trip in 2016.

Stephen was his normal unassuming self, grateful that folks turn up to listen to his songs, and fully embracing the culture of being a word junkie. He is humble enough to continue to want to write better songs and will probably never cease to until the guitar, pen and notepad are packed away. A slice of southern culture is exported around the world when he leaves his Nashville home and whether he is viewed as country, folk, singer-songwriter or Americana, he simply, as his compatriots often say, is ‘just a dude who likes to write, play and sing songs’.

The house concert environment is the perfect setting for Stephen Simmons to hone his craft. Maintaining this level of intimacy alongside striving to pursue other live music opportunities is a fulfilling place to be. The blessing is a combined moment of pleasure. The privilege to listen and to play is simultaneous. The part Stephen Simmons plays in small corners of the UK live music scene is not insignificant and likely to be successfully around for a few years yet. 



Saturday, 6 October 2018

ALBUM REVIEW: J.P. Harris - Sometimes Dogs Bark at Nothing : Free Dirt Records (Out on 5th October 2018)

Free Dirt Records have been responsible for some exceedingly good album releases in recent times and this continues with the brand new record from JP Harris. When you are in the company of artists such as Western Centuries, Dori Freeman, Rachel Baiman and Vivian Leva, the bar is elevated high; a challenge richly accomplished throughout the short shrift tones of SOMETIMES DOGS BARK AT NOTHING.

Regardless of the back-story, which may or may not be relevant to the listener, you gain the impression from the off that JP Harris is a straight-up no bullshitting honky tonker. The songs are brash, cutting and splashed with an element of rawness. Just glancing at the titles before spinning a single track, the vocabulary is awash with negative connotations such as nothing, quit, blues, dead and alone. However, this is country music and wallowing in some sort of depressive misery is a badge of honour, and we purists would not have it any other way. Of course the motto ‘sad songs = happy person’ increasingly gains traction to put things into some perspective.

The opening bars of this ten track-thirty one minute offering immediately throw up one association – Sturgill Simpson in his pre-Meta Modern days. Throw in a couple of detectable Cash and Kristofferson moments and the shaping of a modern day country music outlaw takes shape. There is a touch of self-homage in the opening track titled ‘JP’s Florida Blues’, an instant fast paced driving rocking number that knocks the album into shape with no delay. It takes a few more tracks before this frenetic activity surfaces again. The track to do this is ‘Hard Road’, and the initial associated thoughts confirm. In addition, to leave you on familiar ground, JP frantically strums through the blistering ‘Jimmy’s Dead and Gone’, hailing the never to be forgotten train rhythm that has railroaded through country music since the days of Jimmie Rodgers and probably before that.

 For those of you who prefer your honky tonk of a slower persuasion, dripping with one voice drowning their acoustic guitar or piano with heaps of self-penned melancholy, then JP Harris is right on the mark. The ubiquitous curse of the alcohol habit gets the full treatment in this style courtesy of ‘When I Quit Drinking’ and ‘I Only Drink Alone’. Cliché or not, you get what you are dealt in these waters.

The title track anchors the album at no. 5 in the running order and ‘Sometimes Dogs Bark at Nothing’ sees our protagonist get metaphorical in his song writing. An approach that is compelling for any song-writing junkies out there. Earlier in the album ‘Lady in the Spotlight’ opens with a tidy guitar riff before emerging into a song that draws the Kris Kristofferson comparison. At this stage, any attempts to anoint a crowning track vanish as this album deserves its entity platform and you cannot moan that half an hour of excellence is taking up too much of your time.

Of the remaining tracks, ‘Runaway’ see JP joined by Kristina Murray on harmony vocals, an artist who has been attracting serious praise for her recently released record. ‘Long Ways Back’ has a late night blues feel to it and neatly fits into the moment when the record slides into some heartfelt melody. ‘Miss Jeanne-Marie’ gets the full character treatment and JP uses piano to ramp up the story- telling mode. Expect to hook in securely here, but as it is the penultimate track, you will already be on-board.

JP Harris makes country music as was meant to be. Oh and there is plenty of essential pedal steel. SOMETIMES DOGS BARK AT NOTHING knows what it is about and powerfully presents a slice of music that retains a gilded status.


Thursday, 4 October 2018

ALBUM REVIEW: Bob Collum and the Welfare Mothers - Pay Pack and Carry: Harbour Song Records (Out on 5th October 2018)

It is nearly four years ago since Bob Collum brushed away any New Year blues with the release of a record that eventually travelled a long way down the 2015 musical highway.  Now as the nights draw in and 2018 hurtles towards its conclusion, the follow up to the excellent LITTLE ROCK is unveiled for all to hear, complete with a spring in its step to placate any detrimental season change. PAY PACK AND CARRY still carries the moniker of the Welfare Mothers as the backing band and resumes Bob Collum’s stature as the architect of some exceedingly infectious music.

Terms such as pub rock, power pop, alt country and exiled Americana can be tossed around and still carry a resemblance of accuracy whichever angle you choose to approach this album from. Ultimately, Bob Collum, and whoever nestles comfortably within the Welfare Mother family, makes music that sinks deep into your psyche and retains an instinct to refuse to budge from your immediate horizon. In other words, the challenge is to let a satisfactory smile leave your face when this album gets its umpteenth play. A tough one given the ingrained appeal.

Plenty of fiddle and steel ensures that an element of countrification remains in focus, albeit definitely from an alternative perspective. Many of the tracks do not refrain from a good rinsing of pop sentiment, albeit from a bygone age where trends were not subject to the chase and quite simply - good songs became popular.

Just pitching gems like sumptuous album opener ‘Across a Crowded Room’, serious standout candidate ‘Catherine Row’ and infectious title track ‘Pay Pack and Carry’ against classic covers of Michael Nesmith’s ‘Different Drum’ and the Incredible String Band’s ‘Log Cabin Home in the Sky’ ratchet up the song writing acumen of Collum. Whatever your view on covers, you cannot deny the value they add here and a humble touch from the press blurb suggests they keep an artist in check from running rampant with self-absorption.

Also by reigning in the content, the album exudes a compact feel with each of the ten tracks playing an important part in maintaining momentum. You gain the impression that the music flows devoid of complication and this aids the ease of listening. Indeed the whole clarity façade embeds into the listening experience that mixes the explicitly detected American twang of Tulsa born Collum with a good ole British pub rock sound.

Back in 2015, it was the classic duet ‘Good Thing We’re in Love’ that hooked me into the work of Bob Collum. This time the highs were more evenly spread, to the extent that it did take a few spins to get the fires stoked. Once up and running, the bandwagon of PAY PACK AND CARRY rose through the gear changes ensuring tracks such as ‘Mr McGhee’, ‘Tin Can Telephone’ and ‘Blue Sky Rain’ assumed a similar mantle to those tracks eulogised about earlier.

At this stage, it would be remiss to omit ‘Scarecrow’ and ‘Hey Blue’ as they are integral parts in keeping the toe-tapping feel to this record rolling along. Indeed, there need not be an anointed highlight as the true reward has been to keep this record on heavy rotation without any remnants of weariness surfacing.

Between albums, it is a relatively low-key existence for Bob Collum and the Welfare Mothers in my world, briefly punctuated by a Maverick Festival appearance in 2015. However, this compensates greatly when the album release cycle delivers. Who knows what 2019 will bring, but one certainty is that PAY PACK AND CARRY will not be filed away too deeply and is a good 'go to' when you want a slice of uncomplicated sophistication in your listening repertoire. 


Wednesday, 3 October 2018

GIG REVIEW: Blair Dunlop - Robin 2, Bilston. Tuesday 2nd October 2018

The shortening of the days and dipping of the temperature may see the prevalence of the dreaded lurgy, but Blair Dunlop was not going to let any affliction knock him off course. There is a new album on the table up for promotion and we all know that music is the best medicine. To be fair, the momentum of this gig at the Robin 2 in Bilston played its part and from an early vocal stuttering, it soon turned into business as usual. This is Blair Dunlop reminding folks what an accomplished artist he is, fully adept on the writing, musicianship and performing front.

For the early throes of the tour supporting the recently released NOTES FROM AN ISLAND, Blair has assembled a trio format in harnessing the talents of long time drummer Fred Claridge and newly enlisted acquaintance Jack Carty on bass. The latter, an experienced singer-songwriter in his own right, opened the evening with a support set packed full of self-penned songs spanning the European and Oceanic continents, thus representing the British home and the Down Under upbringing of this exiled Aussie.

Peaking with songs such as ‘Hospital Hill’ and ‘Stargazer’, Jack paved the way for Blair to take centre-stage complete with a homely lampshade making the vacuous Robin feel a little more intimate. Before too long, the impish character came to the fore making Blair a highly personable performer and one to warm the hearts of those in his midst.

His style blends the storytelling of folk with a pop tinge, while never straying too far from the late sixties-early seventies rock templates of either side of the pond. He tended to major on electric guitar for most of the evening, swaying between a few extrovert rock riffs and more subtle twangy strumming. Impeccable percussion from Fred Claridge kept appropriate time ranging from the Americana leaning upbeat ‘45s (C.'14)’ (which acted as the foot tapping pre-encore closer) and the impressive ‘Nothing Good’ lifted off the new record. Blissful three part harmonies adorned the latter and eyes closed could easily have imagined a Californian super group on stage.

On a stateside theme, there was an air of familiarity about the cover of ‘Dancing in the Dark’, which Blair did try to put on a different spin. This was one of a handful of tracks delivered solo on acoustic guitar, including the evening finale of ‘No Go Zones’, an interesting and relevant song to sing when returning to the West Midlands. The subject of the track is the infamous and ill-advised Fox News story slamming our beloved second city as being a rather dangerous place to live!

To stir up a slice of audience interaction of the singing kind, Blair had the ideal song in ‘Green Liquor’, one dark in sentiment contrasting with a highly catchy harmonious humming end finale, leaving no excuse not to join in. A track not even needing an invitation to participate in is the brand new single ‘Sweet on You’. This could quite conceivably be Blair’s best song to date, an enhanced accomplishment with now four full- length albums in the bank. Other songs to make their mark on the night were a cover Gabrielle Aspin’s ‘Please Don’t Say You Love Me’, and a song representing Blair at his folk best in ‘Up on the Cragside’.

An hour and half after hitting the stage, Blair Dunlop had accomplished the feat of putting on yet another entertaining and highly enjoyable show. The Robin 2 is not an easy place for a singer-songwriter heavy on original material to ply their trade on a midweek night. Yet those who, either took a punt or are seasoned fans had their investment amply rewarded. Artists like Blair Dunlop keep the live music scene fresh, vibrant and brimming with meaningful music. Another first class show added to the record.