Monday, 22 January 2018

ALBUM REVIEW: Mary Gauthier - Rifles & Rosary Beads : Proper Records

With the corner barely turned into a new year, surely the most important release of the next twelve months has surfaced in Mary Gauthier’s epic new album RIFLES AND ROSARY BEADS. Eleven co-writes with wounded veterans via the Song Writing with Soldiers Program is just the mere structure for this project. Its real heart and soul exists in the tortuous stories, sprinkled liberally with a fair degree of hope. Gauthier digs deep into her whole expression and presentation repertoire to produce a career body of work; successful at leaving the listener suitably informed and visibly moved.

Throughout 2017, anticipation built as to where Mary Gauthier would next direct her lyrical prowess, with very short odds on the political discourse in her homeland from the evidence of her online outpourings. There is an element of politics in the background to the stories, but this is outweighed by the personal stance and the highly creative way they have been woven into the prime medium of the popular song.

RIFLES AND ROSARY BEADS does create the impression of being a therapeutic project. Obviously, the veterans have been presented with the ultimate voice, while maybe the process itself took the artist’s mind away from society’s more visual divisions. From a listener’s perspective, each of the eleven tracks lands in a mist of stirring rhetoric, with perhaps two standing peerless in their effect. ‘Bullet Holes in the Sky’ could well be Mary Gauthier’s finest composition to date, a high accolade when you are up against ‘I Drink’ and ‘Christmas in Paradise’. Its stellar storytelling narrative is inspiring and probably the first time Nashville Tennessee has been the location for a song breaking down the feelings of one individual on November 11th. Like many of the songs, it is sung emphatically and possesses a decent melody to up the commercial ante.

The other standout song is quite simply titled ‘Iraq’ and details the distressing experience afflicted to a female mechanic while on military duty in that country. The line ‘My enemy wasn’t Iraq’, paints a million pictures with just a handful of words. Quotable lyrics also frequently jump out across the album starting with ‘service was not a sacrifice’ in the album opener ‘Soldiering On’.

Generally, the album’s theme centres around the aftermath of war, best analysed in the explicit title ‘The War After The War’. One assertion from devouring the lyrics via countless listens is that this is not designed to take sides on the pros and cons of war. Such an objective would probably need a different vehicle and it appears that many of the subjects are seeking social compensation rather than questioning the merits of their endeavours.

From a musical perspective, Gauthier serves up lashing of her Southern empathy and at times, the vocals are reminiscent of Lucinda Williams at her soul seeking best. Intermittent harmonica blasts life into a couple of the songs, while occasional fiddle adds a touch of sombre morbidity. The overall studio enhancement has packaged a product ripe for listener enjoyment, thus maximising every opportunity for these songs to be widely heard.

RIFLES AND ROSARY BEADS is every inch the trademark Mary Gauthier that has come to be a valued part of the American folk scene. In essence, these folk songs of 2018 are every bit important as any predecessor of the genre. This is an album with plenty to say and it is said with stirring fervour. Whatever the message, art is nothing without an audience and in this instance the recipient has been served exceedingly well with a record to be unequivocally enjoyed. 


ALBUM REVIEW: Orphan Colours - All On Red : At The Helm

Orphan Colours are a new name on the UK recording scene, although its inhabitants are no mere novices. Born out of members from acclaimed British bands: ahab, Noah & the Whale and Danny & the Champions of the World, this buoyant ‘hot off the press’ collaboration is set to map out a promising future with the release of their full length debut album titled ALL ON RED. Whether all their chips are being placed on one colour or not, widespread acclaim is assured to, at least provide a base for a stab of some remnants of commercial success. Throwing their hat into the ring of UK Americana may suggest some kind of niche outlook, yet there absolutely no reason why the mainstream cannot slide back into the clear and accessible rock sound that emanates from this record. If you subscribe to the original ideals of Americana tumbling out of the old adage ‘too country for rock: too rock for country’, then you will be at least be travelling on the same highway as Orphan Colours.

The namechecks of Tom Petty and Jason Isbell quoted in the bio provides more than an implied direction for this band’s track to follow. Throw in lashings of sax, especially in the early stages of the record, and you can add shades of the E Street Band, or in a different universe, Danny & the Champions of the World in full soulful flow.

Getting an album off to a rousing start is often a wise decision and Orphan Colours have certainly achieved that with the resounding trio of ‘Start of Something’, ‘High Hopes’ and ‘Goodnight California’. The middle song has been the single choice to chase some early airplay, while the latter of the three proceeds a long way to encapsulating the influences and feel of the album. Indeed, settling on this as the eventual stand out track will be a smart move.

Whether stretching the album to fifty-one minutes works as a whole is open to debate, especially when such peaks have been climbed early on. There is a generally more laid back drifting feel to the latter stages pondering the thought whether mixing the tempo may have enhanced the impact. ‘Sarah’, ‘Inside Out’ and ‘Rambling Rose’ do roll out as low-key closers, when perhaps more fitting climax numbers may have left the listener chomping at the bit for more.

Throughout the record, ample evidence is found of this being a tight knit sound, rife with satisfying riffs and interludes. This presents it as more than a nod in the direction of those iconic American rock bands that pioneered the genre spreading its sprawling wings in the dawning of the classic album. The UK music scene will be richer from more bands practising this approach, so with a January release ALL ON RED makes an early case for an album to spearhead this theme in 2018.

Maybe after scaling its initial heights, a gradual comedown was required mid album, exemplified in the gentle laid-back stroller ‘Lonely Lately’. Prior to this, ‘Waiting’ is another track, which succeeds in finding its groove, while the listener takes a back seat. There will be a school of thought that this album is prize-packaged for the turntable revivalists and one where its entirety will become a slow burner. In light of this possible view, at least the openers possess the early strength to open a few doors.

A marker has been placed down that Orphan Colours intend to create some waves in 2018 and ALL ON RED will be their vital ally. A timely reminder that us Brits can punch above our weight when it comes to taking on an established scene many thousands of miles away. 


ALBUM REVIEW: Laura Benitez and the Heartache - With All Its Thorns : Copperhead Records

Sometimes records are blessed with a destiny. They capture a perfect sound to enthral a listener fortunate enough to tap into its wavelength. The fabric, dressing and substance of Laura Benitez’s third album hauls it into this category before unravelling as a timeless treat to fans who love a classic country sound laced with more than a hearty dose of fiery Latino sauce. WITH ALL ITS THORNS has put down a marker for an early instrumental delight of the year with lashings of luscious pedal steel sparring with border-inspired accordion, piercing your ear amongst a host of memorable tunes. Easy listening, maybe; absolutely adorable listening, certainly.

Adding the word heartache to your band name is well on the path to adhering yourself with country tradition and as you submerge deeper into the album, the nod towards the Californian version becomes more apparent. Laura herself is steeped in the West Coast music scene and made the journey north from Los Angeles to her now base in the Bay Area. Distancing herself further away from her homeland’s southern border has done nothing to dilute the Hispanic influence and in addition to the frequent accordion, she drops into bi-lingual mode for the mid album number ‘Almost the Right One/Casi Mi Cielo’. If you so desire to be swept from a dusty saloon to a dusty cantina, your wish has been granted. While on the topic of vocals, Laura finds a higher plateau right from the off and puts on a scintillating performance as if judgment day is fast approaching.

Any judgement on this album will be best placed to consider the exceptional opening and closing tracks. Repeatedly, the critical importance of a stunning opener has been preached and Laura firmly delivers here with the rapturously received ‘Something Better Than a Broken Heart’. Another essential trait of an outstanding release is to find the optimum length and leave the listener departing on a high. ‘Nora Went Down the Mountain’ is Laura’s delightful parting shot, and a prime piece of wanderlust storytelling, fully in the mode of the country-folk genre.

Amidst all the obvious country leanings, the murder revenge ballad ‘In Red’ does wander very freely into folk music territory and perfectly captures Laura’s lyrical prowess to take a true story before weaving in some fantasy, hopefully! Storytelling does feature prominently in ‘Ghost Ship’, which is an account of a fire that happened recently in Oakland and had a considerable impact on that community’s arts scene. At this point, and in tracks like ‘Secrets’ and ‘Why Does it Matter’, the sound does climb down a little from the ravenous up tempo driving country floor fillers than herald the early stages of the record.

Easier Things to Do’ and ‘Our Remember Whens’ are the tracks responsible for maintaining the magnificent momentum of the opening. At this stage, you know you are in the presence of a fine bunch of players, with a plethora of sumptuous steel, accordion and guitar solos punctuating the valuable vocals. Heartache may well be their collective name and they certainly have the effect of spilling it out in their sound, alongside bouts of alternative feel good buoyancy.

There are elements of the record with a distinctive familiar feel and ‘The Fool I Am Right Now’ falls into that category. No doubt, Laura has immersed herself into country history to develop this sound, so any apparent likeness is liable to be inherent. ‘Whiskey Makes You Love Me’ completes the eleven-track offering and what other subject content and connotation would you expect?

WITH ALL ITS THORNS by Laura Benitez and the Heartache ultimately wins by putting a smile on the face of the listener. While the destiny is unknown, hanging onto the coat tails of its glorious journey is the place to be in the first month of the New Year. Simply an unrivalled piece of Hispanic drenched classic country. 


Sunday, 21 January 2018

GIG REVIEW: The Lone Bellow - Band on the Wall, Manchester. Friday 19th January 2018

Maybe us folk south of Hadrian’s Wall are allowed a smidgen of jealousy concerning the January offering that Celtic Connections gives the good people of Glasgow in one of the year’s darkest months. However, some compensation exists in those American artists that choose to build in a few English dates during this mid-winter visit. In fact, The Lone Bellow has extended this to a handful of continental Europe shows as well, as they continue the quest of promoting their latest album through the most connective of mediums: live gigs. First stop in 2018 was a sold out night in Manchester’s Band on the Wall venue and a supreme opportunity to share a scintillating performance with fans old and new. Led by the effervescent and theatrical front person Zach Williams, this was a gig to blast the New Year into perpetual motion and set the tone for bands of a similar ilk to follow.

This was my first time seeing The Lone Bellow live, and while similarities to Americana bands Dawes, The Bros Landreth and Sons of Bill did exist, nothing prepared me for the James Brown-esque enthusiasm of Zach Williams. Pumped with gallons of heartfelt and appreciative soul, he led his band in the most exuberant manner, before ultimately giving in to temptation and completing the encore in the middle of the crowd. Prior to this, the five piece band had served up  a near seamless diet of anthem-laced alt-country rock, fired by stirring guitars, driving rhythm and a touch of delicate mandolin. Lead guitarist and integral part of the core band trio, Brian Elmquist, musically drove the live performance, relentlessly switching instruments and showing himself as more than a capable vocalist with an encore lead on the acoustic embraced ‘Watch Over Us’.

This was one of four moments in the show where drums and bass temporarily departed the stage, to leave the core trio of Williams, Elmquist and Kanene Pipkin to re-enact the pin drop rehearsal of taking the heat out of the moment with a stripped down sound and single mic. This was equally as important to the success of the show as the waves of frantic rock ‘n’ roll with Williams tub-thumping his heart in awe of the electricity being generated in the room, while forever being humble to the outpouring of adoration.

The set list spiralled out of the band’s three studio albums. Not surprisingly, the most recent record WALK INTO A STORM featured highly with the triumvirate of ‘Deeper in the Water’, ‘Time’s Always Leaving’ and ‘Come Break My Heart Again’ scaling the gig’s summit from a personal viewpoint in the run up to the finale. Popular opinion would have probably leaned towards ‘Green Eyes and a Heart of Gold’ from their self-titled debut album or the soul bearing 100% unfiltered ‘Teach Me to Know’ in its impromptu setting and format. From the opening bars of ‘May You Be Well’, through the rock overlays of ‘The One You Should’ve Let You’ to the tender vocals of Pipkin on ‘Call to War’, the relentless motion of sincere songs rarely drew a moment’s breath, or any remnants of an extended verbal interlude.

While The Lone Below has drew many accolades since forming in New York City around half a dozen years ago, including signed status and an Americana Music Association award nomination, there are still swathes of potential in the UK to conquer. This Friday night in Manchester was a happy hunting ground of mutual appreciation, but there is a popularised streak to the music and live show that should lead to a wider engagement on a more frequent basis.

Clearly, Zach Williams is the driving force of The Lone Bellow, but one that would surmount to very little without the input of his two influential lieutenants. While there are probably slicker touring bands on the circuit, few can match the intensity of this evening’s performance, and purely on this basis The Lone Bellow should be added to any one’s ‘to watch/see list’ if they have been evaded in the past. Consequently, if WALK INTO THE STORM got lost in the scrum of stellar country, folk and Americana releases that invaded the musical landscape in 2017, take a minute to check it out, as it is not going to disappear anytime soon.

Local five-piece Manchester band Tragicomics provided the support for the evening with a thirty-minute set of pulsating alt-country rock. They only had one mission, and that was to play short, sweet and hard, thus giving those early arrivals an opportunity to warm up for the energy due to be generated later from the headliners. On this account, The Lone Bellow did not disappoint and like so many nights when top quality Americana rock bands grace us with their presence, dissatisfied customers were as scarce as the proverbial… You get the drift; it was a damn good night of live music. 


GIG REVIEW: Luke Jackson - Cherry Reds, Birmingham. Thursday 18th January 2018

The second gig of the year proved a somewhat low-key affair, as Amy Wadge had to pull out of her nationwide duet tour with Luke Jackson at the last moment. Not one to sit in his Canterbury flat twiddling his thumbs, Luke decided to fulfil a number of these dates in solo mode, with the audience obviously notified of the change. Following a trip to the North West, the Birmingham date in the upstairs room of the city centre located Cherry Reds was an ideal stopping off point for this hastily rearranged format. Luke has frequently visited the Midlands area for shows in the past, including one at the Hare and Hounds when he toured with Amy in 2015. Just six months previously, the talent of this folk-blues singer-songwriter first alerted me via a gig at the Artrix in Bromsgrove. To this date, a casual eye has been kept on a promising career that now goes back quite a few years for one seemingly so young.

During the two sets that Luke intimately delivered to a small gathering, you got a good flavour of his prime asset, a vocal style that conjures up a real depth of feeling and breadth. Upon first hearing Luke sing live, one could not help thinking what the effect on him could be if he spent an extended period in the Delta, living and breathing the story of the blues. What then would be unleashed on the UK scene is favourably imaginable. Maybe not quite the Deep South, but Luke does get to travel across the ocean and during this evening, he spoke of a recent song-writing excursion to Canada. Anyway, wherever Luke takes his career, the raw ingredients will successfully fuel the outcome.

This run of dates may be curtailed, but we know Luke will be back and he appears to be a firm fixture on the UK acoustic gig scene in some format or another. To add to his growing catalogue of releases, he previewed a brand new live album due out very shortly and added that further studio material is not too far behind. This evening’s sets were a fun balance of popular covers and songs of his making, of which the latter were totally owned by the voice. The best of these was undoubtedly saved to last with the chorus of ‘On The Road’ being the absolute definition of where Luke Jackson is as a performing artist in 2017. The queue of admirers is only going to get longer. 


Wednesday, 17 January 2018

ALBUM REVIEW - Belle Adair - Tuscumbia : Single Lock Records

A summer record in the middle of January; it can have its plusses as the long nights of a Northern Hemisphere winter bed in. While I will always associate a hazy, jingly jangly sound with that of the warmer months, there is certainly no hardship to be acquainted with the brand new record from Muscle Shoals region based outfit Belle Adair any time of the year. TUSCUMBIA for those not too au fait with the Shoals area geography is a city (a loose affinity to that word) close to where this band operates. It is the latest release on Single Lock Records, a growing label responsible for excellent albums from Nicole Atkins, Dylan LeBlanc and John Paul White over the last year or so. The sound domain of this record is a lock into the description that greeted this piece in the opening sentences and exceedingly excels at it.

The bonus of having an album-defining track up top has long been championed here and ‘Get Away’ does the job for this, the second album from core four-piece combo Belle Adair. Plenty of harmonious ‘oohs and ahs’ blend into the twangy jangly guitars then emerge to be omnipresent throughout the eleven tracks that form this forty-minute album. While this sound is not what you would expect from, both the area and FAME recording studio where this album saw the light of day, there is certainly a classic American tinge to it, if not necessary pure Americana. Although, association with late 60s California is likely to be referred to, us Brits have perfected the sound, noticeably in the 90s Brit-Pop explosion and more recently in indie bands such as Co-Pilgrim and The Dreaming Spires. Any fans of these three strands of music are likely to find the contents of TUSCUMBIA agreeable.

The band led by Matthew Green are as mentioned a core four-piece outfit featuring drums and multiple guitars, but studio keys also play a big part as exemplified by the presence of label co-owner Ben Tanner (Alabama Shakes) as a touring member. The album is a seamless body of work, conventional to grasp and not full of hidden crevices. ‘Out on the Blue’ adopts a minor mid-album tempo switch before ‘Pushing the Stone’ scales the peak of the latter stages. This last track succeeds in replicating the stunning melodies, which greet you in the opener and its sequential follower ‘Long Fade Out’.

Repetition is a key to whether you grasp this album or not, and in a rare occurrence for much of the reviewed material here, diversity does not have a major role to play. The vocals reside somewhere in cumulus nimbus territory and allow plenty of room for the multitude of gently strummed guitar riffs to flourish. One certainty is that once you fall under its spell, this record will be very hard to shake off; surely not a too shabby trait to have.

The Muscle Shoals area has a rich history of bearing the fruit of music from humble backwater surroundings and projecting it around the world. Whether TUSCUMBIA does the same for Belle Adair remains to be seen, but markets do spring up for this type of music and plenty across the pond will be wooed. Conclusively, this album evolves as a swimmingly good record to kick back to and enjoy whatever the season. Mildly revivalist, yet forever appealing. 


Saturday, 13 January 2018

GIG REVIEW: The Bennett Family Singers - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Friday 12th January 2018

What better way to begin the new gig year than a familiar venue hosting three familiar artists in a unique format. A near capacity audience was shoe horned into the angular sectors of the Kitchen Garden to see the second staging of The Bennett Family Singers show, and a first in the home city of its architect, Birmingham based singer-songwriter Katy Bennett. Together with her brothers, Robin and Joe of recent Dreaming Spires fame, a union of sibling harmonies was created, delivering a stripped back sound to a raft of songs, more often found in a haze of swirling electric guitars.

However, acoustic was the de facto mode this evening, with the omnipresent guitar joined by fiddle, banjo and harmonica for frequent opportune moments. The intimacy of the stage presentation was conducive to a warm atmosphere being generated, with occasional insights to what a musical upbringing was like in the Bennett household, long before any family member saw it as a route to earning a living. Of course, such intimacy drifted into friendly rivalry, which added to the reality of three family members sharing the spotlight. Blossoming from these moments was an obvious inbuilt sibling harmony; utilised to its utmost during songs shared in the company of friends and fans alike.

Katy’s approach to her recorded music is finely balanced with other commitments, but the 2016 album SONGS OF THE RIVER REA was a highly commendable effort. This evening’s reflection of that release was best focussed on the tracks: ‘Rusted Ring’, ‘Soul in the Soil’ and ‘Jack and Ivy’. The former acted as the solitary up- tempo moment of the night, while the latter was quite rightly called out by Joe as an excellent song. Katy also delved a little into her musical influences, and a version of K.d. Lang’s ‘Nowhere to Stand’ took a few folks back to 1989.

The Dreaming Spires may well be on an extended hiatus (give or take the odd appearance) that will leave fans guessing as to its length, but a small selection of their songs are still bursting with life when given a live airing. ‘We Used to Have Parties’, ‘Laughing & Dancing’ and ‘Singing Sin City’ were all successfully moulded into stripped back acoustic pieces for this show. While the latter used to have a snippet of the Flying Burrito Brothers’ ‘Sin City’ blended into the live version, this evening we were afforded this classic Gram Parsons tune in its entirety, led off by Joe before the others chipped in.

Unequivocally, the highlight of the show was a moving rehash of the Spires masterpiece ‘Dusty in Memphis’. As good as the standard version of this song is, the trimmed down playing magnified the composition to another level. A re-issuing of the song in this format could be envisioned as a success, although sometimes it is just best to celebrate the instantaneous nature of enjoying a live song in a fresh format.

Any Dreaming Spires hiatus does not mean periods of inactivity for the brothers. Robin reminded everybody of his recent involvement with Sarah Cracknell’s influential 90s band Saint Etienne, with the playing of a song written for her called ‘Take the Silver’. Literally, 48 hours prior to this gig, information surfaced on Robin’s new project, simply titled Bennett Wilson Poole. This sees him reunited with his Champs compatriot Danny Wilson for a release that will likely create a few waves in the forthcoming months, and keep its architects busy. Meanwhile, Joe continues to be a key member of the prolific band Co-Pilgrim and more music from them is likely to be on the horizon soon. Personal projects apart, this one-off show (now given a second showing after a Bewdley debut last year) is all about going back to your roots and not forgetting the musical grounding required to forge a fruitful career in this sphere.

A successful evening was eventually crowned with an encore version of ‘The Weight’,  a song with a timeless appeal to bring together collaborating artists for one final hurrah. The night had earlier been opened with a set by Birmingham singer-songwriter-guitarist Amit Dattani, who is preparing for the release of his debut solo album in March. An attempt to hone in on a finger picking - old time roots sound is shapely up nicely, with balance provided from a more contemporary lyrical input. Without doubt, the release will retain Amit's presence on the local Birmingham gig scene and it will be interesting to see how these songs roll out in the dual role of recorded and live numbers.

Family collaborations have been around since music’s year dot and are likely to be so until time is called on all of us. A little bit of room was created for the Bennetts to share their innate talent with the enlightened few, and the reception surely made it a worthwhile venture. Whether Bewdley and Birmingham are the only stops on the trail of The Bennett Family Singers is probably solely in the hands of the protagonists, although the pull of popularity may play its part too.

www.katyrosebennett.com

www.thedreamingspires.net