Monday, 25 March 2019

ALBUM REVIEW: Good Lovelies - Shapeshifters : Self-released

Good Lovelies are a band that do not rush, and like to evolve at their own pace. Four main studio albums since their formation in 2006 is testament to this Canadian trio having to deal with what life throws at them rather than empty barrels of stimulation. A take it easy strategy has also stretched to rolling out their latest album. SHAPESHIFTERS had its Canadian launch last year, and after a short breathing space, focus switches to Europe and a physical release to coincide with a tour. It is always more productive to promote an album live and personal, and the new record has plenty of nuances that will enhance a Good Lovelies show.

Ultimately, the success of a record depends on a broader appeal and SHAPESHIFTERS continues an exploration away from a traditional roots sound that tended to define the music of Caroline Brooks, Kerri Ough and Sue Passmore when they first came to prominence on the international stage. Perhaps there was always a genre-free streak to the Good Lovelies to the extent that the new record remains homeless when categorising is attempted, unless you subscribe to the simplistic theory that music is either good or bad. It is impossible for the Good Lovelies to fall into the latter category and repeated plays of this relative short (32 minutes) record re-enforces this view. The term ‘pop’ was mulled over when attempting to grasp the destination of this album, but it has little desire to court mass market-appeal on concessional terms.

This album and its box of tricks effect, scores highly on the innovative scale as the band attempts to widen the canvas of which they supplant their considerable musical skills. Delectable harmonies roam free and spread liberally across the ten tracks, while the sonic landscape subtly mixes the old and the new in terms of instrumentation. For those drawn to the Good Lovelies on the back of their first two records, the pleasurable tones of the closing track, ‘This Little Heart’, inject a dose of familiarity as an unaccompanied start eases into a banjo infused gently rolling sound, all bound by those ubiquitous harmonies.

Dedicated and intensive listens to the record eventually anoint three tracks to cement the appeal. Opening number ‘I See Gold’ obviously had designs to be the focal piece and truly delivers on this point with its manoeuvres and switches. It also houses the album title in the line ‘we are the shapeshifters’, with its mythical change definition almost proving metaphorical to this being the next stage of the Good Lovelies evolution. As engaging as the opener is, it is eventually trumped by ‘When We Were Young’, a gem of a track at the heart of the album. A sumptuous effort blending in shades of late 60s psychedelia. Concluding this mini trio is the vocally strong ‘Daylight’, epitomising the exchange of the lead role and why the Good Lovelies have often proved a cohesive trio born to make music together.

Adjusting to the alternative beat of ‘Take Me, Take Me’ in second place in the track listing ensured that grasping the essence of SHAPESHIFTERS did not come instantly. Also after multiple plays, ‘I Had a Dream’ struggles to make an effect. When the record finally sunk in as a valuable addition to the Good Lovelies collection, ‘Move Away Clouds’ probably acted as the pulse of the album. In the latter plays of the review period, ‘Pulse & Fiction’, with a slightly detectable ‘do wop’ start, gained traction, while the penultimate song, ‘Hurry Up’ eventually became the moment when you started to feel the Good Lovelies of yester year. Faint sound of kids on the last track, coupled with a lullaby feel, put the family gloss on something that is very dear to the heart of the band.

Undeniably, the goodwill built up of being a Good Lovelies fan for over a decade played a part in giving SHAPESHIFTERS the space to make its presence. On this occasion, time delivered the rewards and this well-crafted album settled into its intended spot. Oh and those harmonies never cease to amaze.

GIG REVIEW: Jason Ringenberg - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Sunday 24th March 2019

Many of the audience were likely to be musically elsewhere in 1982, a time paramount to tonight’s show. However, it was easy to buy into the spirit exuded by Jason Ringenberg when recreating a pivotal moment of the country and punk worlds colliding. The Scorchers brush with the big time may be a distant memory, but the yesteryears roll back when its unassuming leader adopts a revivalist sentiment. Rejuvenated by a solo album, and the renewed faith that there is still life and interest in the old dog, Ringenberg is once again treading the floors of intimate venues injecting a ferocious spurt of passion. The guarantee of an enlightening, informative and entertaining performance is long established and folks heading down the Kitchen Garden way on this Sunday evening experienced a performer enacting a cutting style.

The triumvirate of artist, audience and location aligned perfectly, to the extent of admitting that the wrong venues had been played in Birmingham before. Armed with just an acoustic guitar and a headful of songs, Ringenberg snarled, yodelled and bounced through a qualitative set of songs, forever decorated with fascinating stories and recollections. We learned that Steve Earle forgot he co-wrote ‘Bible and a Gun’, the precise chord change altering ‘Lost Highway’ from a country to a rock ‘n’ roll tune and that Perry Baggs is the best harmony singer Nashville did not tap into. This was just the starters.

STAND TALL is Jason Ringenberg’s new album and not surprisingly a key component for shows on this latest UK tour. Opening the first of his two sets with ‘John Muir Stood Here’ from the album set the scene and the flavour of this new record flowed as further tracks were shared. Like so many gigs attended over the years, a song off the album grows significantly when heard live and this was the case with ‘I’m Walking Home’, with all its historical themes and narratives linking effectively.

Two prominent tracks to make the set list were ‘Looking Back Blues’ (a song getting plenty of airplay interest in the States) and ‘God Bless the Ramones’ (a song leaping from the pile on many first listens). The latter won the request contest on the evening as a little audience interaction helped shape the second set.

The whole breadth of Ringenberg’s career featured including a host of Scorchers’ classics such as ‘Shop it Around’, ‘White Lies’ and ‘Broken Whiskey Glass’. All needed little introduction to the faithful present. Likewise a couple of Farmer Jason contributions introduced as Ringenberg’s alter ego went down well with ‘Tractor Goes Chug Chug Chug’ and ‘Punk Rock Skunk’ lightening the mood. Especially the latter following a solemn cover of Jimmie Rodgers’ ‘Hobo Bill’s Last Ride’.

There are very few humbler and more sincere performers around than Jason Ringenberg. Siding with his outlook, style and approach is an amenable proposition and hooking into his engaging stories is as absorbing as watching him boot scoot in the tightest of performing areas. Animated maybe, but a compelling listening experience bound by two Dylan covers – ‘Absolutely Sweet Marie’ kicking things off nearly forty years ago and the slightly obscure ‘Farewell Angelina’ closing the new album.

This fabulous gig required no support, just an iconic artist updating their relevance and reminiscing about a heyday when the genre fault lines of country and punk were straddled. The Kitchen Garden, Jason Ringenberg and an astute audience were the perfect ingredients for a splendid evening representing the intensity of live intimate music at its best. Without doubt a night for the memory vault.

Saturday, 23 March 2019

GIG REVIEW: Orphan Colours - St. George's Hall, Bewdley. Friday 22nd March 2019

Orphan Colours went down a treat when they played an hour-long set at Beardy Folk Festival on the Shropshire/Worcestershire border last June. Upon their return to the area, and a subsequent gig in nearby Bewdley, it was déjà vu in terms of response and grasping the opportunity to show why they are such a highly rated outfit. This London-based band took the honour of being the latest Americana-style act to headline the monthly Severn Sessions evening at St. George’s Hall and demonstrated that you need not always look overseas for quality acts of this ilk. Once again, a packed hall greeted the guests, who took their place on the evening’s roster among a host of fledgling young local musicians to provide a comprehensive package of entertainment.

It was a modified Orphan Colours line up for this show. Streamlined to a four-piece act minus the sax, the band were also without pivotal members Fred Abbott and Dave Burn, but drafted in a rather useful lead guitarist introduced as Tim. The remaining core trio of lead vocalist Steve Llewellyn (acoustic and electric guitar), bassist Graham Knight and familiar drummer Steve Brookes (to any fans of Danny and the Champions of the World) ensured the show went on and a few more folks drifted away as Orphan Colours fans. A growing number now enhanced by the release and success of a debut award-nominated album ALL ON RED.

Perhaps edged in this direction by the line-up, their 70-minute set split into two halves with Steve and Graham choosing to open up as a duo to share half a dozen songs in acoustic mode. This segment allowed the pair to road test a quartet of new songs lined up for the next album, likely recorded later this year. Obviously, the finished format of these songs may change when filtered through the production process, but the raw prototype showed the ingredients available for another stellar release. The pick of the new ones was ‘Radio Heart’, which has the hallmark of single material, with its instantly memorable chorus hook.

The momentum notably changed when Steve and Tim accepted the invitation to enter the stage and the Orphan Colours that added significant clout to the UK Americana scene began to let rip. Established favourites such as ‘Start of Something’, ‘High Hopes’ and ‘Goodnight California’ soon ignited the proceedings, with the latter rightfully settled into the climactic pre-encore slot. However, these three giants had to give way to ‘Sun is Rising’ as the evening’s stand-out moment, and a case of an album track taking on a new lease of life in the live arena.

The band’s roots are never far from the surface. Midway through the set, they covered the ahab song ‘Uptight’, relevant in that Steve, Dave and Graham were all members of this acclaimed band that flourished under the alt-country tag before the Americana label exploded. The encore number was the band’s usual homage to Tom Petty, with ‘Won’t Let You Down’ having the double whammy of getting folks to their feet and sending everyone home happy.

In a slight switch to the evening’s usual format, both opening acts came from the local youth pool. The main support Hannah Law has graduated through the ranks and now commands a set as an accomplished singer-songwriter, though still a short while before she exits her teenage years. A younger trio of Rosie, Jack and Josh exchanged roles and songs in the first slot showing a broad base of influences as they set out on the music journey.

The journey of Orphan Colours continues to gather pace. They perfectly execute an uncomplicated style of seminal rock music that leans heavily in a folk and country direction. A thunderous beat, archetype harmonies and an ear to create a memorable tune all play a part as this experienced group of musicians seek to move their project forward. Evenings like this suggest the band is precisely on track.

Monday, 18 March 2019

ALBUM REVIEW: Danny Schmidt - Standard Deviation : Live Once Records (Out in the UK March 29th)

In the mythical existence of the ‘Lyric Laureate’, songwriters would have to clamber over Danny Schmidt to claim the mantle. Few contemporaries are the equal of this Austin Texas native and each album released unveils a deluge of lyrical delight for song junkies to dissect. If no further inspiration was required for a brand new record, the birth of a new child to Schmidt and fellow song writing wife Carrie Elkin suggests to have provided rich accessible pickings for fresh material. You do not have to wait too long for this influence to blossom as ‘Just Wait ‘til They See You’ articulates a sense of renewal in the first track of a new album, poignantly titled STANDARD DEVIATION.

From the moment this opening song flexes its muscles with lines such as ‘I’ve seen the redwoods and northern lights, just wait until they see you’, you are in the grip of hypnotic writing delivered exquisitely by a perceptive tune melody. Schmidt’s previously album OWLS rolled out to a similar impact in 2015, but you get the feeling that STANDARD DEVIATION moves the gauge along a little further. This view is propelled forward with the most powerful of album closers as the topic of ‘miscarriage’ or more precisely the language applied, is tossed into the open forum under the subtle title ‘We Need a Better Word’. Only a Danny Schmidt album could start on the right foot and conclude anchored to the left.

The build up to this emotive finale comes in the guise of a frank view of family life in ‘Bones of Emotion’. A song that concludes a trio of tracks which lift the record into a higher stratosphere in the second half than reached in the first.  Forming this chain of tracks are the catchy earworm number ‘Last Man Standing’ and an equally infectious piece of song writing detailing the Jefferson Highway (a road from Winnipeg to New Orleans) in ‘The Longest Way’. In these two tracks, the sound saunters into the realm of country music, partially inspired by the presence of fiddle in the former and visions of Johnny Cash in the latter. A country sound is also detected in ‘Agents of Change’, in contradiction to the ‘that very’ urban theme of gentrification inspiring the track.

Consensus would label Danny Schmidt a folk singer, and he lives up to this tag midway through the album with ‘Newport ‘65’; a track leaving very little to the imagination with words like ‘prophet’, and ‘shepherd’ joining blasts of harmonica alongside a little folk music commentary. Linking the theme of meaningful writing, the irony of the track ‘Words are Hooks’ is not lost as it takes the nous of a master words craft person to ponder the power of language’s key component.

It would not be a Danny Schmidt album without at least one head-scratching track and the title piece ‘Standard Deviation’ excavates deep into a swirling world of mathematics and possible metaphors for love. As much as songwriters like the listener to get the message, pleasure can too be derived from twisting words into own interpretations.

While not pushing the album’s heavyweight tracks, the gorgeous tones of ‘Blue Eyed Hole in Time’ warrants the final word, not least in the general feel of optimism that surrounds the record, despite some of the darker moments. Maybe a repeated theme of the newborn in the last mentioned track plays a part in this summation.

The poetic virtue of STANDARD DEVIATION makes this album another valuable addition to the ever-widening Danny Schmidt back catalogue. Sometimes we just have to celebrate having him in our sphere of listening and be thankful that songs can accrue so much pleasure in this format.

Friday, 15 March 2019

ALBUM REVIEW: Jason Ringenberg - Stand Tall : Courageous Chicken Music (Out in the UK 15th March)

It may be closing in on forty years since Jason Ringenberg broke the seal on a charge to music fame, but fans, folks and insiders still lend an ear to the issuing of new material. That time is now upon us as STAND TALL signals the end of a major hiatus of solo recordings (bar the Farmer Jason output) and a lengthy period since a Scorchers name appeared on an album. Of course, the live presence of Jason and the Scorchers and the solo shows of Jason Ringenberg flicker on and off the horizon, with the latter getting a renewed focus in light of a record that sparkles with the old magic. ‘Godfather of Americana’ and ‘architect of cow punk’ never lose their relevance as the new album reasserts a stance that country music works well when given a makeover fuelled by the energy and passion of an alternative edge.

STAND TALL is a meaningful mix of originals, covers and classic re-works, all bound by a commission to seek inspiration in Sequoia National Park in northern California. From the opening strains of an instrumental under the banner of the album title to an obscure Dylan cover in the guise of ‘Farewell Angelina’, Ringenberg resonates with an attentive listener, blending the curious with the informative, while never losing sight of recording a good solid accessible song.

Early spins of this record led the listener in the direction of ‘God Bless The Ramones’ and subsequent plays refused to relinquish this track as being at least the most ear catching moment. We head back to the early eighties in more ways than one as Ringenberg recalls a moment when his Scorchers went on the road opening for The Ramones, deciding that you might as well make a song in the style of the subject. Splendid listening, more so if you have a soft spot for a bygone age.

Although a significant proportion of the new songs sprung up in the surroundings of the Californian residency, some had a more direct link to the environment such as the explicitly titled, ‘Here in the Sequoias’ and the follow on track ‘John Muir Stood Here’. Sequencing also plays a part in the album’s midriff as the story song ‘I’m Walking Home’ immediately follows a cover of Jimmie Rodgers’ ‘Hobo Bill’s Last Ride’, the former written on the way to Bristol VA/TN and the second a product of the legendary recordings in this iconic country music town.

Early in the album (specifically bridging the opener and the Ramones stand out) sit a pair of tracks that demonstrates Ringenberg’s songwriting still at its sharpest. Both ‘Lookin’ Back Blues’ and ‘John the Baptist was a Real Humdinger’ inject a stimulus into the proceedings in a way that Jason Ringenberg has perfected for many a year. No matter how much rock ‘n’ roll figures in the sound, the country element remains steadfast, culminating in a style that flourishes with a hearty vigour.

To conclude a brief skirt around the eleven tracks, Ringenberg salutes the work of others on two more numbers. ‘Almost Enough’ is a jaunty rhythmic dip into the songwriting skills of Hugh Deneal, giving the album another song to both savour and get your teeth into. Wrapping things up is a version of a song Jean Shepherd put her mark on, and Jason Ringenberg also does justice to ‘Many Happy Hangover to You’.

There is barely a moment on STAND TALL where Jason Ringenberg makes a false move. The unique sound and style ensures no straying into the wastelands of irrelevance, and thus any desire to hark back too much to the halcyon days of Jason and the Scorchers. This album is a timely reminder to what a good artist we have in our midst. Expect no half measures when Jason Ringenberg is in recording mode and the fruits of this latest endeavour unveil as a highly enjoyable listen on many fronts.

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

GIG REVIEW: Larkin Poe - Glee Club, Birmingham. Monday 11th March 2019

Larkin Poe are a band seemingly existentially embedded into their blues- rock phase. This signifies a major shift since the Lovell sisters first came to prominence overseas and the subsequent early years of the Larkin Poe incarnation. The last time they toured significantly away from their US base the evolution was underway, with the KIN album turning the dial up in terms of sound. Since then, heady times have swept along Rebecca and Megan leading to the release of two heavily blues biased records and plenty of vivid association with many major names of the electrified guitar world. However, you can primarily appear online to fans overseas for only a limited period and retain interest, therefore the time is right for Larkin Poe to once again reach out and expand the live performances.

The Glee Club in Birmingham played host to the touring four-piece set up on the second date of a UK tour; a trip that will also take in continental Europe alongside plans to visit Australia and the Far East. The stature of Larkin Poe has grown to such an extent that 3-400 capacity venues are close to selling out. In turn, the sibling led outfit ensured that those choosing them for their live music fix had the treat of a scintillating display of blues infused roots rock ‘n’ roll.

Those already au fait with Larkin Poe will identify Rebecca as the guitar playing exuberant mouthpiece and Megan as the unassuming queen of the slide guitar. These roles were at the forefront of this evening’s show as the band stormed through a hundred minute set incorporating strong originals, classic covers and more than the occasional nod to the pioneers of blues. Most notably, those who helped take it into the mainstream.

It was an evening of serial namechecking, and blues aficionados are not going to disagree with referrals to Robert Johnson, Son House, Skip James, Lead Belly and Stevie Ray Vaughan. The latter was the subject of the show’s most pleasantly surprising moment when Rebecca introduced a brand new song in honour of the great man titled ‘Laurel Land’, in fact one played first time to a live audience and sounding rather good.

Extraordinary sibling chemistry was awash all evening through vocal harmonies, spine tingling co-ordinated solos and sincere chat. There was even a slight nod to their folk and bluegrass past when Rebecca swapped her guitar for a long-loved banjo to play a couple of tunes against a semi-rock background.

Vocally the band, especially Rebecca, seemed to have ascended to another level. Old classics like ‘Black Betty’, ‘Preachin’ Blues’, ‘John the Revelator’ and ‘Come on in My Kitchen’ were belted out with a resounding vigour. If you wanted any proof that these are proud Georgia girls putting their stamp on contemporary southern rock then look no further than ‘Blue Ridge Mountains’, one of the tracks shared from their recent VENOM AND FAITH album.

The show was not all entirely about the current phase of Larkin Poe as the band dealt the popular older track ‘Mad as a Hatter’ in response to the important theme of recognised mental health issues, one close to them as a family. This was probably the one serious moment on the evening as the tone generally circulated in celebratory proportions on the back of finally playing again in front of fans in the UK, a country that has provided long-term support.

Opening the show this evening was a duo from Bristol called Foreign Affairs, who delivered a thirty-minute set that went down well with a sizable portion of the audience. They joined this tour straight from appearing at the Country-to-Country Festival in London. Opportunities will also present to widen their appeal when continuing to open for Larkin Poe on dates both at home and in Europe.

At the triumphant end, it was clear that Larkin Poe had duly enthralled a roomful of fans, likely old and new, ensuring that spending a Monday evening supporting live music is still kind of a rock ‘n’ roll thing to do. Rebecca and Megan Lovell proudly wear the badge of carrying the torch for American roots music and few would disagree that they carry it off in fine style. It was good to have them back touring the UK and while the future of this ever-evolving band is difficult to predict, the present is serving them well.

Thursday, 7 March 2019

GIG REVIEW: Angel Snow - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Wednesday 6th March 2019

Eighteen months have elapsed since Angel Snow last played the Kitchen Garden in Birmingham and changes were very much at a finely tuned minimum as she returned to play one of the opening dates on her latest UK tour. On the upgrade side, last time’s solo performance grew into a duo as Angel teamed up with English guitarist Joe Wilkins to provide the perfect stringed accompaniment to her supremely crafted songs. Additionally, a set of new tunes began the journey from artist to listener as she introduced her latest record, an EP titled ARROWS. Whether Angel delivered her signature song, ‘Lie Awake’, from nearly a decade ago now, or brand new numbers like ‘Maze’ and ‘Window Seat’, the shear magnetic quality was unyielding and matching the magnitude of a blue chip blueprint.

On her previous visit, which doubled up on the touring front with Danish singer-songwriter Ida Wenoe, Angel split the guitar duties between acoustic and electric, with the latter contributing to the evening’s atmospheric ambience. This time Angel handed all the electric duties to Joe and his subtle excellence ensured each of the songs had a coating of the most mindful of soundtracks. Left to concentrate on acoustic guitar and generous inter-song chats, the vocals never sounded better using the combination of slight amplification and venue acoustics to induce a state of blissful serenity to those in listening distance.

Running through a set of songs dated old and new, highlights joining the aforementioned Angel Snow classic (for those uninitiated ‘Lie Awake’ was cut by Alison Krauss on her PAPER AIRPLANE album, but each rendition by the originator seals the ownership) included ‘I Need You’ and a mesmerising version of ‘Vienna’ just the before the closing moment came. Fact is the high quality plateau never lowered all set.  

One conundrum occurring each time Angel Snow plays a live show is why this Franklin resident (the one just south of Nashville) has not been more prolific on the recording front. In turn, she probably remains an untapped talent to a wider audience, a situation that contradicts the enormous impact she has on those aligned with the hypnotic vibes of her songs in full flow. However, fate follows certain paths and at least being able to savour these songs in intimate settings on what is becoming a regular basis is a blessing.

The notion of leaving the audience wanting more was perhaps taken a little to the extreme during this show with a playing time of sixty minutes (without a support) probably short by a quarter of an hour in the eyes of most people. The impeccable performance left the overall show in the credit column, but maybe some pondering thoughts generate when assessing the balance between content and customer investment, the latter in both cost and time.

These Angel Snow shows do rather tiptoe into the gig landscape, but the impact of the evening resonates in the aftermath. This Kitchen Garden return was a triumph of substance over hyperbole and those attending had the pleasure of a fixated musical experience.