Tuesday, 29 January 2019

GIG REVIEW: Caroline Spence - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Monday 28th January 2019

As the two-year anniversary of discovering the music of Caroline Spence approaches, it is worth reflecting on her steady ascent to becoming a wider recognised and respected artist. This is especially pertinent to the UK, which seemed a distant place when a copy of the album Spades and Roses inadvertently crossed my path via a US press agency in early 2017. Eventually, opportunities gathered momentum and the album in an intended pursuit found its way across the seas, soon to be followed by a number of touring visits. Since an initial run of touring dates last February, she followed things up in partnership with Robbie Hecht in the summer; a trip that also took in higher profile festival slots at End of the Road and Long Road.

On the back of a Midlands show at Thimblemill Library during the first tour, and calling in at the nearby Kitchen Garden with Robbie in August, Caroline made a return to the latter this evening to bridge the gap between appearances at Celtic Connections and the AMA UK showcases in London. The big news accompanying this Nashville resident-Virginia native on the latest trip is the recent revelation of a new record due out soon, with the added boost of it getting a label release via the Rounder Records operation.

One consistency linking these developments is the high quality of the music, coupled with its distinct approach to bring southern sensibility to the broader brush of quintessential American folk music. Foremost Caroline Spence thrives as a folk singer steeped in Americana, dedicated to the acoustic guitar and sparked to conjure up the most compelling of songs, all delivered through a delicately hushed voice.

Across a pair of sets afforded to Caroline this evening, the bulk of songs off Spades and Roses made the set list, along with a smattering of tunes reflecting the distant past, near past and imminent future. However, before the main event we had the honour of a short set by another Nashville singer-songwriter Michaela Anne, who had little hesitation in joining her friend on a rare chance to play a joint show, albeit 4000 miles from their home city.

Michaela Anne is another artist no stranger to Birmingham audiences after opening for Sam Outlaw at the neighbouring Hare and Hounds in 2017. In contrast to Caroline, she takes her cue from a traditional country outlook and successfully blends a timeless approach in a steely contemporary wrapping. Further contrasts exist in Michaela Anne using the subtle tones of a gently strummed electric guitar. While her songs are less familiar than Caroline’s, numbers like ‘Luisa’, ‘Stars’ and ‘One Love Song’, the latter originally recorded as a duet with Sam Outlaw, came across exceptionally well in a tight schedule to open proceedings. More will likely be heard of Michaela over here in the future, one that includes an upcoming new album and a support slot opening for Mandolin Orange on a UK tour date.

Inevitably, this was not the last we heard of Michaela Anne as the opportunity for the two to team up for a duet was too good to miss. The obvious song had to be ‘Softball’, as Michaela was one of several female artists enlisted for the making of the track’s striking video, which further forced home the important message. More surprising, but no less welcome, was the impromptu rendition of ‘Passionate Kisses’ as the delightful parting gift to an audience thoroughly entertained throughout the evening.

It may be early days to associate Caroline Spence with the likes of Lucinda Williams and Mary Chapin Carpenter, but there is a strong indication that she possesses the writing talent to travel a long way down the song highway.

From the songs shared this evening, few crossed the floor from performer to listener more evocatively than the immaculate ‘All the Beds I’ve Made’ and the infectious ‘Slow Dancer’. Close on the heels of this pair were the emotional ‘Southern Accident’ and the rejuvenated ‘Hotel Amarillo’, the latter with the freshened up intro courtesy of Robbie Hecht.

On the topic of Robbie Hecht, ‘Trying’ (a song they co-wrote) headed a quartet of numbers away from the Spades and Roses album, a record still sounding as good as when first heard two years ago. ‘Whiskey Watered Down’ from an older album surfaced as a request, and Caroline was not going to let the night pass without sharing the two new songs that previewed the upcoming album. Of the pairing ‘Long Haul’ and ‘Mint Condition’, the former made the greater initial impression, but her songs have enough depth to develop and grow once subject to devoted listens.

Of the remaining tracks enjoyed during the show, ‘Heart of Somebody’ and ‘Wishing Well’ had the honour of opening each set. From memory the former has been the opener on each time seen, which sometimes is not the best slot for a song. ‘You Don’t Look So Good (Cocaine)’ and ‘I Can’t Complain’ completed the song set. The latter had the introduction of being an optimistic piece grateful for making a living as a singer-songwriter.

As a performer, Caroline Spence’s assuredness grows with each gig seen. The fruits of Spades and Roses sealed the deal as an effective songwriter and the development as a touring artist has been an added bonus. The settling of the dust on this successful revisit to the Kitchen Garden is likely to be a temporary zone, as a return to support and promote the new album means the UK is set to see a lot more of Caroline Spence in 2019. There are few complaints here. 



Sunday, 27 January 2019

ALBUM REVIEW: Deer Tick - Mayonnaise (Out February 1st 2019)

What are the factors for deciding to hone in on any particular release? From the beginning, obtaining an advance copy of MAYONNAISE, the new release from Deer Tick, tossed a few interesting inquisitive points around. Firstly, they are a band never investigated before despite being on the known periphery for a number of years. Maybe also a quiet period for new material created a suitable window to take a step into their world and give the album a couple of spins as a taster. Throw in the status of this being an interim release mixing covers, alternate versions of old songs and a handful of newbies gave the exploration process plenty of teeth and avenues.

On a side note, who can resist the striking cover sharing one of life’s delightful pleasures and the name Spencer Cullum Jr getting an insert alongside a song title. Where you stand on the mayonnaise debate may be irrelevant, but acknowledging one of Nashville’s premium pedal steel players, probably best known for his longstanding role in Miranda Lambert’s touring band, is a given. Therefore, enough inspiration began to surface to explore this album.

Deer Tick ‘tick’ many boxes on the indie rock/alternative Americana spectrum, but twang is not one of them. However, the addition of Cullum’s steel to the final track ‘Cocktail’ brings it to life, enhancing the original tenfold and making it a super listen ready to spice up many playlists when the entity of this album release fades.

Cocktail’ is one of the four tracks on the album that have had a makeover since the last Deer Tick record. That release in 2017 split across twin discs, simply labelled Volume 1 and 2, and added to a considerable back catalogue spanning almost twenty years. The other tracks are ‘Limp Right Back’, ‘End of the World’ and ‘Doomed From the Start’. Dedicated Deer Tick fans will no doubt voice opinion on the versions, the only brief assertion offered here is marginal, but this a tasting exercise without deep rooted authority.

Contributing to the interim status of this album are four covers that emerge after proving live favourites from the gigs played promoting the previous record. They come from diverse sources in George Harrison, The Pogues and the Velvet Underground, with the fourth, ‘Too Sensitive For This World’ by Ben Vaughn requiring some Google assistance. On the other hand, ‘White City’, ‘Run of the Mill’ and ‘Pale Blue Eyes’, all originally recorded by the aforementioned trio have a degree of popularity to draw conflicting comparisons with Deer Tick’s version. Without entering into serious debate, all four are good fit to what a newbie can extract from assessing the value of MAYONNAISE.
To stir the mix more productively, five new songs have been included. An act that can be contentious where fans feel a touch short -changed when primarily drawn to a release based on progression rather than reflection.

Putting the controversy to one side, the new tracks are a mixed bag: one superb, one experimental and three standard fare. ‘Hey! Yeah!’ is the pick of the bunch: catchy, raucous and reminiscent of the Scorchers at their post-punk best. This track did see the light of day last year, and at least, has a Bandcamp home in addition to the video. ‘Memphis Chair’ is a short instrumental piece and is a definite leftfield venture in the context of this album. ‘Bluesboy’ opens the record and is about as heavy as you get among the tracks, in contrast to the acoustic rock ballad existing within ‘Strange, Awful Feeling’ or the good old roots stomper ‘Old Lady’.

Has MAYONNAISE tempted further discovery into the work of Deer Tick? Maybe with a prevailing wind, but even in its phase as a stand-alone release it provides a fascinating listen, prompting many discussion points. So if propelling a band forward is a goal for any record, this box has been ticked and in a way to successfully court newbies.

ALBUM REVIEW: Mandolin Orange - Tides of a Teardrop : Yep Roc (Out February 1st 2019)

There is a delicacy and subtleness about the music of Mandolin Orange to create the most thoughtful of listening space. Their latest bout of creativity reveals a fourth album release on the influential Yep Roc label and a further opportunity to build on their flourishing credentials. The chemistry between Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz was evident when first seeing the duo play live a couple of years ago and the intimate qualities that make Mandolin Orange a compelling all round act pack the album to the hilt.

The alliteratively titled TIDES OF A TEARDROP weighs in at ten-tracks-forty-two minutes and uses every crevice of the tight canvas to illustrate the intricacies of roots music. Hailing from Chapel Hill North Carolina, Andrew and Emily are surrounded by a rich environment evidently making old time roots music relevant in a contemporary age. Each track floats along in an acoustic cloud, punctuated by exquisite vocal exchanges that breathe continual life into the listening experience.

You do not have to listen long to detect the relevance of at least one-half of the band title. Although in the name of balance, the violin and perpetual acoustic guitar feature as much as the mandolin, providing a soundscape that glistens with a rustic gold.

There is a distinctive edge to both Andrew and Emily’s vocals, which exchange the lead role especially in the first half of the album. Without resorting too much to gender stereotypes, there is a more rounded elegance to what Emily offers in the song department in contrast to the harsher side of her partner. However, when utilised together they blend perfectly.

To get the most out of this album, repeated plays are desirable in order to tap into the vibes and thus gently sway with its breeze. Once switched on, riches will exponentially appear.

On the song front, a promotional number titled ‘Golden Embers’ leads the way along with a delightful video for all to view. The vocals of Andrew continue into the soothing ‘Wolves’, before Emily steps up to lead on ‘Into the Sun’ and the slightly more up tempo ‘Like You Used to’.

The second half of the album houses a distinctive country-sounding track in ‘Lonely All the Time’, while the record’s title appears within a line locked into the gospel-like ‘Suspended in Heaven’. ‘When She’s Feeling Blue’ adopts a softer tenderer tone in line with its title and ‘Time We Made Time’ ensures the forty-two minutes ends on a graceful plateau.

Whether the strength of an individual track outweighs that of the album is debatable, but that leaves a fruitful pick for anybody wanting to share some of the treasures in airplay. Ultimately, Mandolin Orange indulge best in one single extended sitting and TIDES OF THE TEARDROP proves the perfect soundtrack for some blissful roots music.  


GIG REVIEW: Rachel Baiman Trio - Thimblemill Library, Smethwick. Friday 25th January 2019

2018 was the year Rachel Baiman and Molly Tuttle won over many new fans in the West Midlands when the pair teamed up for a highly successful gig at Thimblemill library, exemplified by an outstanding turnout for a Sunday evening. 2019 will see them both build on this initial exposure with separate shows that will enable their music to be closer scrutinised to tune into the undoubted quality. More on Molly Tuttle will emerge in the spring, and her Birmingham show has already sold out. However, the focus right now is on Rachel Baiman and a few memorable thoughts from her triumphant return to Smethwick on the last Friday of a January unseasonably blessed with mild weather.

Like so many American roots artists touring the UK this time of the year the lure is a show at Celtic Connections. With Rachel Baiman heading north of the border later in her tour, the folk of Smethwick (and those travelling in from other areas) gave her a warm welcome in exchange for a fantastic multi-dimensional display of all things good in Americana music of this persuasion.

Appearing in a trio format helped form a highly entertaining show with Rachel supported wonderfully by Cy Winstanley on guitar and Shelby Means on upright bass. The audience was spoilt on many fronts including both the harmonies collaborated and the individual spotlights on each of the trio as musicians in their own right. Distinctively, there is so much to savour in the voice of Rachel Baiman, which is so reminiscent to Gillian Welch, and more recent comparisons with Maya de Vitry, who coincidentally released her debut solo album on the day of this gig.

Rachel, Cy and Shelby came on stage around quarter past nine, following a short set by Midlands regular Amit Dattani, who adopted his common role of sharing exquisite finger picking guitar skills and lo-fi folk songs inspired largely by random meandering thoughts.  Once in place the trio set about filling the room with a fistful of delightful tunes with the main focus on Rachel’s SHAME album from a couple of years ago and the short EP titled THANKSGIVING released late last year.

Alongside the raft of excellent songs, Rachel effortlessly switched between guitar, banjo and fiddle to show her instrumental diversity and prowess. She leaves the impression of not governed by a particular one, but a capability to mix and match the mood. Between the songs we learned a little about Rachel herself, but more importantly, the inspiration and focus on issue-related pieces like ‘Shame’, ‘Thanksgiving’ and ‘Tent City’. Like so many of her touring compatriots, the heavy desire to promote social justice and unity by the power of song is a wonderful trait and there was not too much encouragement needed for folks to join in at the end of ‘Never Tire of the Road’ with a little rendition of Woody Guthrie’s ‘All You Fascists Bound To Lose’.

Just sitting back and capturing the vibes of the performance paid off the entrance fee tenfold, with the icing on the cake existing in the tracks ‘Thinkin’ on You’ and ‘Wicked Spell’. Two standout candidates should the desire to nominate arise.

Referring back to Molly Tuttle, the closing song on the evening was a duet Rachel recorded with Molly and released on the EP. ‘Madison Tennessee’ is a good slice of country to join the bluegrass, folk and many other types delved into, and a fitting departure gift for all. While on the topic of country, Cy took us down Texas way for his opportunity to share a tune, with ‘Bobby Where Did You Learn to Dance’ turning Thimblemill Library into a two-stepping dance hall for a brief three minutes, although one of a passive nature. Shelby’s offering was a softer effort in ‘Listen Sister’, but one highlighting a distinct vocal style to complement the evening.

An hour and half after taking the stage, Rachel Baiman retired to the merch table for busy exchanges and the added satisfaction that the success of last year’s show had been built upon.  We were left with no doubt that a special artist had just passed through town with the realisation that this should never be taken for granted. Friday night at Thimblemill Library was a gathering of smart people and four gifted musicians. The two entities exist side by side and fuel each other. Let us keep Rachel Baiman, in addition to many artists of her standing and ability, touring over here on a regular basis and together the mutual appreciation will forge ahead.

Thursday, 24 January 2019

GIG REVIEW: May Erlewine Trio - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Wednesday 23rd January 2019

May Erlewine will no doubt have played to more populous audiences in her lengthy career, but would have to seek widely to find a gathering of more dedicated gig-goers than those frequenting the Kitchen Garden on this January evening. Bestowed with knowledge, experience and a smart ear, they intensely soaked up the divine offerings of our visitor from Michigan USA and duly responded with the warmth and appreciation commonly showed to outstanding touring artists in this intimate venue.

From the opening strains of ‘Wild’, housed within the 2017 album release MOTHER LION, to the crowning moment of ‘Never One Thing’ adding to its vast amount of song admirers, May dipped into every nuance of her unrivaled class to spin a magical weave of multi-faceted singer-songwriter music. Ably assisted by her ‘trio’ compatriots, Julian Allan (percussion) and Max Lockwood (bass), the treat splendidly dealt to those taking a chance on an artist still relatively low key overseas, despite a well-stocked discography.

The current tour had its launch at the annual Celtic Connections jamboree, famous for providing musical comfort to a deep Scottish winter. Tagged onto this were a few dates dotted around England, and there was certainly no harm tapping into a West Midlands scene, often a challenging market to touring artists of an ‘Americana’ persuasion.  However, the open and affectionate way that May shone a light on her career, inspirations and frequently free-spirited existence made any prior knowledge or experience a non-prerequisite. Indeed, through a constant flow of musings, thoughts, amusing stories and the occasional rant, a graphic picture of a performer born to share an innate talent splashed across a spacious canvas.

If you like your Americana a patchwork quilt of folk, country and soul with a dash of temperate pop, then May Erlewine comes the pre-packaged article. Throw in a honey voice, a gracious smile and an acute knack of arranging a sophisticated sound in strains of subtle simplicity, and the stage is set to for the holding of a gratifying court. Songs for the memory bank were aplenty, with lofty candidates for the standout moments starting with the delicious ‘Shine On’ ,the oddball ‘Big Mama Brown’, in addition to momentous versions of the often over covered ‘Crazy’ and one like ‘Mama Said’ that could be covered more.

May Erlewine’s brief visit to Birmingham left a notable impression, laying a foundation that could grow with a prevailing wind. Sitting in the midst of her on-stage charismatic appeal generated beams of spiritual waves and the introduction of an artist with an impressive trail could not have been a more fulfilling experience as a new gig year quickly moved into place. 


Sunday, 20 January 2019

ALBUM REVIEW: Tiffany Williams - When You Go : Self-released (Out on January 18th 2019)

Simplicity is top of the agenda when you first digest the music of Tiffany Williams. Yet peel away from the minimalist nature of a single voice, and the assortment of stringed acoustic instrumentation flickering in and out, reveals a deep thinking singer-songwriter pondering some primal feelings. In the case of this East Kentuckian now residing in Nashville, it is the complexities of movement and the endearing lure of your roots. If twenty minutes and five songs act as the audition, WHEN YOU GO is a wonderful introduction to an artist well-equipped to make serious moves in the world of country-folk.

The shortened EP format can be a double edged sword when it comes to assessing the impact of music. The length enables conclusions drawn quickly, but with the nagging doubt, whether the sample is representative. In the case of Tiffany Williams, there was an instant attraction that wavelengths are aligned, further compounded when adding the accompaniment of finding the lyrics on her website. The marriage of music and words is utterly compatible, in a way to light the fire of inspiring some kind thoughtful words.

Smitten by the sound is given an extra dimension when digging further into the background of Tiffany Williams. Being a coal miner’s daughter does not do any harm in traditional country circles and doubling up as a fiction writer alongside a self-assessed ‘lexophile’ puts you in a good place when it comes to penning thoughts. Of course, the path from writer to songwriter is not always clearly accessible, but in this case: melody, voice, feeling and inviting instrumentation suggests the transition has successfully navigated.  

The record’s title also acts as the name of the first song where ‘When You Go’ tracks our writer’s Appalachian family home in Letcher Country, complete with warts and all recollections. The opening line of the chorus: ‘I worry that my best isn’t any good anywhere but here’ calls all self-doubters and compulsive in its frank honesty undertones. ‘Big Enough to Be a Mountain’ comes across as a love-homage to whoever/whatever amidst stretching the listener’s imagination. The writer gets deeper, perhaps pit shaft proportions, as we amble into the confessional tones of ‘You Were Mine’

This is followed by further musings in ‘The Waiting’ as once again location and relationships entwine. In contrast to the EP title and opening track, the final song spins the tenses around with every possibility that ‘When I’m Gone’ will induce a touch of emotion as some final poignant reflections immaculately present in a similar vein to the whole body of this short record.

In releasing WHEN YOU GO, Tiffany Williams has succeeded by matching the ideals of what certain ears are listening out for when exploring the subtle, meaningful and literate world of country folk. Whether paths cross again is immaterial in the here and now, but more importantly, twenty minutes of captivating music hit the right spot. 


Friday, 18 January 2019

ALBUM REVIEW: Maya de Vitry - Adaptions : Mad Maker Studio (Out on January 25th 2019)

If music is a gift from artist to listener, then recipients of the new album from Maya de Vitry have a gilt-edged treat to unwrap and savour. When sad news of The Stray Birds calling it a day emerged in the latter part of last year, little did we realise that ADAPTIONS was right around the corner. Of course, The Stray Birds was a core trio of very fine roots musicians, but there was something extra special about Maya de Vitry’s role right at the heart of this combo. The route taken in this debut solo release in some respect is a major sound diversion, but there is a trademark feel that Maya has not left her roots behind, just expanded, evolved and emerged as a fuller bodied recording artist.

These are roots branching out in a sophisticated direction, with electric guitar injecting a whole new realm of energy. Anthony da Costa, a much-revered guitarist in alt-folk/country circles, appears to be a key component in the revised sound, and his artistry has worked wonders with the deep reaching vocals of Maya de Vitry, ones that twist in a mournful moan ala Gillian Welch whilst sending shivers from head to toe in their ability to convey meaningful emotion.

So, as folk morphs into folk rock, the twelve tracks that form the supreme entity that ADAPTIONS is destined to become roll out in a cyclical wave – all bound by a stunning lyrical complexity sharing the depth of a song writer’s soul. The circle completes by the soft tender tones of the first and last track. ‘Wilderness’ opens up in an atmospheric spell of minimalist splendour in direct unison with the tranquil tones of the tempered closer ‘You’.

Tempo change stutters as the playing time unravels, peaking with two tunes that vie in the early stages as tracks to hang your hat on. ‘Slow Down’ features the vocals of Maya that we have come to love as they blend perfectly with a new sound slowly being captured. The pomposity of ‘Anyone At All’ makes it an understandable standout candidate and a strong message that Maya can mix it in populist circles.

Two further familiar names joining in the fray see ex-Della Mae member Courtney Hartman lend vocals and co-writing skills to the hauntingly beautiful ‘What the Moon Said’, a random personified dip into the natural world. Ana Egge contributes to ‘Anybody’s Friend’ in a co-writing role as the positive tones of teaching morals takes root in a tune decorated with the most lovely of hooks.

The Key’ and ‘This Side of a Dream’ may exist a fair distant apart in the track listings, but both are intrinsically linked by their soothing and sultry feel. In moments like these, diving into the lyrics is a recommended listening companion. Attached to the press copy were some detailed thoughts on each song by Maya, but sometimes it is just as satisfying to digest understanding on your own terms and let the lyrics take the song wherever you want to be guided.

Like many satisfying records, this release shares the workload. In parts, it will do the work, but requires the listener to chip in with some endeavor from time to time. No hardship if you want to get the best out of a record.

Back to the tracks, and the delights of ‘My Body is a Letter’, a song that does possess some remnants of a Stray Birds feel to it.  ‘How Do I Get to the Morning’ is an olive branch track containing a roots infused inner with a groovy beat before hitting the rails with a rocky outtake.

‘When Memories Come Around’ is a crowning gem of how this album blends stirring guitar work with a stunning voice, which just leaves ‘Go Tell a Bird’ to bring up the rails. This final track has persistently drew a blank in inspiring comment, but perhaps is symptomatic that this album is one for the long haul and maybe an indicator that there is still much to be discovered long after release date and the dying down of formal reviews.

Full kudos to Maya de Vitry for curating a debut album that induces endless hyperbole. Subtle, permeative, sensual and compulsive are just four words that describe ADAPTIONS. An early opportunity to grasp this supremely textured album has been gratefully enjoyed and happily drowning in a deep vault of probing and visionary song writing ensures unabated approval is offered from these quarters. 


ALBUM REVIEW: Helen Rose - Trouble Holding Back : Monkey Room Music (Out 25th January 2019)

Before this album has its first play, the words: whiskey, Dakota, levee and Mississippi start to lay the ground for where the destination is likely to be. Yes, it is Americana to the core, although leaning heavily in a blues-infused direction. Helen Rose has equipped her impressive vocal and musical credentials with a comfort blanket of the traditional, borrowed tunes and themes rich in the culture of a genre. As a body of work, and indeed Rose’s debut, TROUBLE HOLDING BACK emerges as a commendable effort, stimulating interest, creating thought and settling down as a mighty fine unabated listening experience. One that will have few struggles fighting its way through a cluttered highway of new releases to be heard.

It is hard to look past the second track ‘Flatlands of North Dakota’ as Rose assumes the mantle of a modern day Bobbie Gentry to spin a mystique tale, albeit set a couple of thousand miles north west from the dusty delta. An uncanny likeness to ‘Ode to Billy Joe’ opens this track, which proceeds to tell a five-minute story of struggle and making ends meet out beyond the tracks.

Rose takes her place in the writing credits on this and a couple of other tracks, alongside showing off her tenor sax skills on a few more. The team assembled to record the ten songs making the album cut have succeeded in creating something recognisable and fulfilling, prompting many foot tapping and head nodding moments. All bound by a vocal prowess that pitches at an optimum listening level.

From a traditional perspective, the arrangement of ‘When the Levee Breaks’ enhances the art of passing on the time-honoured song. When borrowing tunes, a version of Don Heffington’s ‘John Coltrane on the Jukebox’ provides a good fit complete with sax solo, while taking on Steve Earle’s ‘The Mountain’ considerably widens the goalposts.

Mississippi Moon’ is a solo write from album producer Marvin Etzioni and proceeds to anchor the record in a way that defines how the talents of Helen Rose can put a permanent stamp on a song.

Leading the remainder of the originals, ‘Love and Whiskey’ gets the album off to a punchy beginning, while the slightly sinister ‘A Dangerous Tender’ equally stimulates the second half. Further tenor sax opens the title track ‘Trouble Holding Back’  and album closer ‘Love on Arrival’ is a suitable temperate effort to gracefully close the door. Making an invigorating claim for the latter stages’ highlight, the infectiously soulful ‘Oh Glory Be’ provides a joyful touch.

TROUBLE HOLDING BACK is a double-edged album to the extent that its first and umpteenth listen retain a distinct appeal. Helen Rose has fully utilised her craft, skill, astuteness  and inspiration to share a record rich in its construction and embodying the wide reaching template of Americana. Whether the word ‘debut’ leads to ‘breakthrough’ is in the hands of fate, but sealing the deal with individual listeners ensures that small steps are heading in the right direction. 


Wednesday, 2 January 2019

ALBUM REVIEW: Dan Rauchwerk - We Are More Than What We Leave Behind : Self-released (Out in the UK on Jan 7th 2019)

A new year; a new name and another record getting a renewal in a new land.  Dan Rauchwerk’s WE ARE MORE THAN WHAT WE LEAVE BEHIND breezed into life last year in his homeland and now takes a punt in the old world; a source for some of the material.  This New Yorker plants his foot firmly in folk troubadour territory and serves up a fertile source of stories spinning history into different perspectives. The style is raw and simple, akin to a refined Billy Bragg, but awash with a desire to listen intently. A singer-songwriter’s dream scenario.

This ten-track selection is the debut solo release from an artist cast as a founding member of the international touring band The Lords of Lichtenstein. No previous experience is required to take a lucky dip into this record’s contents and to derive some listening contentment. Reference to the title eventually comes in the final line of the final song, but at thirty-five minutes long you do not have to wait too long and the gist of the album is well grasped by then.

Historical context comes to the fore quite quickly with the feisty ‘Mrs, McLaughlin’ opening proceedings and leaving Rauchwerks’s war futility sentiments fervently in the open. A few tracks down the line, ‘Victoria’ takes the influential monarch as the centrepiece with several cutting lines concluding a legacy. In contrast to the famous, inspiration draws from browsing unknown epitaphs in ‘It Just is’ showing that our writer is more than content to roam down random paths to reach a shared conclusion.

As an aside, I am unaware whether Dan Rauchwerk has listened to the track ‘Dusty in Memphis’ by The Dreaming Spires, but if not, his own song ‘Memphis’ had some psychic influence thrust upon it in more ways than one.

The duet with Caitlin Mahoney was probably the album’s most disappointing moment, but a least it prompted checking out a new artist. While her solo material sounded fine, perhaps not all matches are made in heaven. On a more positive note, and taking the concept of legacy in an alternative direction, ‘Skywalker’ is a stellar piece of song writing shedding some limelight on the unsung.

A stark clarity emanates from this album and I am sure if Dan Rauchwerk and his instruments stood in front of you the live musical experience would be entertaining, engaging and enlightening. There is likely to be a backstory attached to each song, but in the absence of not seeing him live, then a vivid imagination can fill the void. A singer- songwriter would likely concur with such interpretation.

WE ARE MORE THAN WHAT WE LEAVE BEHIND reveals a lot more about Dan Rauchwerk – the singer-songwriter, than we knew before. The conclusion being a record fighting for its patch and securing a stake. Maybe even a legacy, although definitely a title on the tin that explains the contents.


Try Before You Buy

ALBUM REVIEW: Kaia Kater - Grenades: Smithsonian Folkways Recordings (Out in UK on January 11th 2019)

There has been an enormous level of potential attached to Kaia Kater. Although, it is the release of her latest album GRENADES that will see the seam most productively tapped. This album (Kater’s fourth) is having a staggered release across her target territories, with it taking a UK bow on January 11th after initially beginning life across the pond in the latter months of 2018. The vagueness of ‘across the pond’ is pertinent in this context as it portrays a Canadian artist heavily schooled in old time American music exploring their very own Caribbean roots. The multiple facets that adorn this record make it one of the most interesting releases discovered in a while, providing an abundance of thoughtful moments across a soundtrack that amply rewards an open-minded approach.

For the record, GRENADES consists of eleven songs and three spoken interludes drawing inspiration from the island of Grenada; the home of Kater’s father who fled the country in the 1980s in the aftermath of political upheaval and subsequent US invasion. While the music will ultimately claim the spotlight, the three spoken parts delivered by her father and strategically placed at track numbers: 4, 8 and 13 add an atmospheric element to splice the album with traces of documented history.

For folks previously aligning Kater’s work with the banjo, the reduction of its impact will be instantly noticeable without a move too far away from a roots base. One interesting addition to the sound is the work of fellow Canadian Christine Bougie, whose twang laden input has enhanced artists such as Good Lovelies, Bahamas and, more relevant for fans in the UK via a previous key member of Gretchen Peters’ touring band. This sound, presumably from lap steel, is subtle yet detectable and threads throughout the album starting in the opening track ‘New Colossus’.

The writing input strengthens this side of Kaia Kater’s armoury. Only on ‘La Misère’ does she dip into the archives, and the impact of this short track lies in its language delve into some French dialect. Elsewhere apart from the exquisite storytelling, the ability for a continuous array of strong chorus melodies to emerge smooths the way for the album’s sonic capabilities to take hold. Even in the first half of the forty-three minutes playing time, this feature has lauded the reception of tracks such as the aforementioned opening one, ‘Canyon Land’ and ‘Meridian Ground’.

If the spoken parts achieve one thing, they will surely create a curiosity to dip back into the history books and learn more about the circumstances surrounding Grenada and ultimately the aggressive side of US foreign policy at the height of the Cold War. These spoken parts chronicle the optimism of change, the horror of invasion and the ultimate re-settlement. The personal element provokes thought and supplies the intent that has led to Kaia Kater making GRENADES.

Further fascinating content emerges in the second half. ‘Hydrants’ sees all instruments ditched for a Capella delivery, while the banjo re-appears to support the penultimate song ‘The Right One’. Title track ‘Grenades’ is a worthy candidate for stand-out number in the latter stages with its shimmering organ play out ending the song on a high. To dismiss any lingering doubt about this album being a compelling listen, ‘Poets Be Buried’ seals the deal in a stunning heartfelt finale that urges further delving rather than closing the book.

From a personal perspective, GRENADES moves the game a lot further forward than its predecessor NINE PINS, the release that accompanied Kaia Kater on her recent tilt at the UK market. It was unsurprising that Rhiannon Giddens had played a significant part at the outset of Kater’s overseas touring career including offering opening slots, and an invitation to join the Cambridge Folk Festival curation. 2019 sees Kaia Kater return to play shows in the late spring and this time equipped with such a strong new album that the potential tag can be finally removed. A record that will prosper further in a live setting. So kick-start your New Year listening by allowing this album to educate and entertain you.