Originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Peter Mulvey appears to be a musician who has definitely paid his dues. A spell in Dublin busking back in 1989 was followed by a decade or so in Boston and the release of several albums. His busking continued with his 2002 album Ten Thousand Mornings being recorded live on a Boston subway platform and for the past few years he has travelled by bicycle on his annual Fall tour entertaining along the way.
Over the course of around 17 albums Mulvey has proved to be a wry commentator on the human condition and an adept collaborator with other musicians including Jeffrey Foucault and Kris Delmhorst. A fine singer and excellent acoustic guitarist his 2006 release, The Knuckleball Suite, remains a favourite here at Blabber’n'Smoke.
Silver Ladder is somewhat of a departure for Mulvey. Following “a turbulent stretch in his personal life” Mulvey sought solace in his writing. By the time he had enough for an album he contacted an acquaintance, none other than chuck Prophet whom Mulvey had met once before and Prophet agreed to produce the album. The result is a tougher sound than one has come to expect from Mulvey with Prophet and fellow Mission Express member James DePrato playing guitar, David Kemper (from Dylan’s tour band) on drums, Tom Fruend, upright bass and Aiden Hawken on keyboards (including Celeste, Chamberlin and Mellotron). Sara Watkins of Silver Nickel added some harmony vocals and played violin. While it’s not a rock album the well drilled crew deliver some punchy moments from the start with Lies You Forgot You Told stepping sprightly over a taut rhythm section as the guitars and keyboards decorate the melody. You Don’t have To Tell Me is propelled by driving acoustic guitar with a slight rockabilly jaunt reminiscent of Nick Lowe when he had a spring in his step, Prophet weighs in on backing vocals and there are some tasty guitar breaks. Sympathies continues in a similar vein with accordion added to the mix along with a memorable hook and melody that places the song close to the brash vitality of Prophet on Temple Beautiful. While these opening songs are brisk and confident lyrically there’s a thread of loss and betrayal running through them and the next number, the country stained lament Remember The Milkman (a duet with Watkins) is a break up song through and through and one wonders if Mulvey’s turbulence was due to the end of a relationship. What Else Was It reinforces the sense of loss. A denser, multi layered song which owes something to Mulvey’s Irish connections as his voice approaches a brogue, it’s dark and brooding and in the end reproachful. Trempealeau follows with its simple acoustic guitar and keyboard backing allowing Mulvey to appear wounded and vulnerable however he turns in his best performance here on what is a beautiful song. Sara Watkins returns to duet on the restrained ballad Where Did You Go with the pair singing wonderfully together as they apologise for their lost love. Tasteful guitar breaks with an understated hint of Bakersfield twang adorn the song which would not appear out of place on the recent my Darling Clementine’s The Reconciliation? album.
Up till now the album is a winner but over the course of the final five songs it seems to lose its footing somewhat with a mixture of styles vying for attention. Josephine harks back to Mulvey’s previous quirky delivery and style although Back In The Wind rewinds to the beginning of the album and the Nick Lowe/Elvis Costello model of brisk power pop. Copenhagen Airport is an oddity. Acoustic guitar scrubbings and soaring electrics over a throbbing bass line dominate until, close to the end Mulvey ponders the beauty of the women in the titular airport complaining that none of them are on his flight. Someone needs to ask him about this one. If You Shoot At A King You Must Kill Him is a surrealistic delve into Mulvey’s dreamworld with his vocals rushed as he delivers a song poem with atmospheric sound effects. It’s like a psychodrama and perhaps cathartic for the singer as he strives to finally cast off his emotional shackles. It’s telling that he’s borrowed the title from Ralph Waldo Emerson in the sense that the album will close the door on the episode and allow him to move on without retribution. Speculation of course but otherwise the song remains unexplained.
Despite the quibbles over the final third of the album overall Mulvey is triumphant with Prophet’s production taking him in a new direction. Some lucky folk will get the chance to see him in action as he is touring the UK in March and April although there are no Scottish dates penned, a pity as I’d love to see him performing Marty and Lou where it’s all about the monkeys.
Peter Mulvey’s Kickstarter introduction to the album
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Rutland singer/songwriter Paul McLure seems to have built a small but dedicated following from his time spent with acoustic roots duo, The Hi and Lo, who released one album on Clubhouse and were featured in the label’s famed Nebraska sessions, a live reading of all the songs from Springsteen’s album of the same name. Now flying solo, Smiling From The Floor Up is primarily a one man affair with occassional assistance from Clubhouse labelmates Alex and Hannah Elton- Wall (The Redlands Palomino Company) and Joe Bennett (The Dreaming Spires) with McLure describing it as
“a collection of songs recorded without the trappings of a band or orchestra, lightly textured layers with occasional touches of colour here and there; a harmony here, a piano there, a sympathetic slide guitar draped across the shoulders of another.”
It has to be said that the album reflects the description. Standing naked as it were with only his guitar (or in one case a ukulele) to hide behind McLure sits in the tradition of the likes of Loudon Wainwright 111 and says that many of the songs are drawn from personal experience. There’s none of Wainwright’s confessional self flagellation however with McClure sticking to sorry songs of love lost or eulogising the opposite sex as on For You, a lovely and tender song. There’s a frailty and a fatalism to these songs, none more so than on Song 6, inspired by Louis Theroux interviewing a “lifer” in the US penal system as McLure sounds as beaten and defeated as the prisoner. The title song is a dreamlike swoon with lazily picked guitar that recalls Tim Buckley or Fred Neil and halfway through a mournful pedal steel does indeed drape the song adding to the dolorous feel. While McLure solo is beguiling it has to be said that the addition of the other musicians does raise the level of enjoyment when listening to the album. The ukulele strum of Lola-Rose has some mock trumpet while the ramshackle piano and percussion backing to Any Number You Like (As Long As It’s Four) brings to mind a sepia toned pub knees up. The catch of the day here is the excellent Pollyanna which adds banjo, percussion and steel guitar, all somewhat off kilter in a Tom Waits way adding a fine tipsy feel on this excellent tale of a femme fatale who is every “barfly’s dream” who will take you all the way and leave you there.
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John Murry’s 2012 album The Graceless Age has gathered an impressive pedigree since its initial release here in the UK. With staggered worldwide licensing and with a limited two disc version available it’s appeared in end of year top lists in the UK for two years in a trot. Recorded during Murry’s “lost years” when he was in the grip of an addiction it remains a startling and powerful listen, redemptive despite the harrowing tales it tells. Murry himself appears to have a love/hate relationship with the album with tales of emotionally wracked live renditions alternately confounding or amazing audiences.
Glasgow had a brief glimpse of the live experience last year when Murry and his band played at Celtic Connections. However the venue selection of Kelvingrove Art Gallery proved to be ill conceived as the cavernous galleries swallowed up the sound and regurgitated it with booming echoes making it almost impossible to listen to. Tonight was a different story. The cramped (and packed) basement bar allowed Murry and his accompanist Will Waghorn the intimacy to directly confront the audience with his psychodramas which proved to be emotionally wrenching, for him and the audience, with several of the songs from the album mesmerising. Murry’s voice ached and broke as he relived his traumas while his guitar playing and foot stamping added a sense of urgency to his need to confess. Waghorn on drums added colour with a delicacy that was very impressive and it’s clear that the pair have a bond that’s been forged on the road. While much of the show maintained Murry’s burning intensity he leavened the night with a wry sense of humour and a fine line in self deprecation that at times had the audience in fits of laughter. Playing to the gallery he regaled a tale of a lost passport then announced that he’d rather play some covers and asked the crowd to vote for their favourites from Neil Young, Neil Finn, John Prine or Bruce Springsteen. Arguing over the result, in the end he played a song by each of them. He also paid tribute with covers of songs to Mark Linkhouse of Sparklehorse and Tim Mooney, the late producer of The Graceless Age.
The set opened with a new song, co-written with Chuck Prophet, called Glass Slippers that continues in the vein of songs like Photograph with Murry totally enveloped in the delivery. Another new song, The Stars Are God’s Bullet Holes was a lyrical delight and was propelled by some fine propulsive percussion. The meat of the evening however were the songs at the core of The Graceless Age. Photograph featured some visceral guitar playing while Ballad of The Pajama Kid, stripped of its narcotic fuzz, blazed with Murry’s vocals ragged and powerful. California (introduced as a happy song compared to its predecessors and spelled out as KKKalifornia) built to a powerful climax as did Senor Malverde as Murry delved into his past mistakes and misadventures. Little Colored Balloons, the centre piece of the album and the most naked of his songs ended the show. With Will Waghorn managing percussive rolls while playing a restrained Euphonium Murry poured his all into this cathartic tale of his overdose and resuscitation. In its recorded state it’s an arresting song but live it seems almost as if the mournful horn is a funereal accompaniment to Murry’s death and rebirth as he wrenches the words out riveting the audience. Astonishing and electric in its delivery Murry conspires with the audience in his pain here and it might seem hyperbole to pronounce this as one of the best performances this writer has witnessed but then, you had to be there. Fortunately for us all he’s survived and while able to invite us into his world, his own personal Calvary, hopefully with the new songs he’s able to move on and news that he has an EP in the works will allow us to listen to a great songwriter who has turned his life around.
Posted in Live | Tagged John Murry, Will Waghorn | 3 Comments »
Glasgow’s premier Americana promoters, The Fallen Angels Club celebrate their tenth anniversary of bringing top class acts to the west of Scotland this year and they kicked off the celebrations with Sturgill Simpson, a star in the ascendant who’s riding high on the back of the UK release of his superb album High Top Mountain. Simpson, from Kentucky but now living in Nashville has been touted by all and sundry as “the next big thing” in country music here and in the States as High Top Mountain pumps a shot of adrenalin into the flat lifeless chest of Nashville music. Whether he makes it big remains to be seen but there’s no doubting that he can rip it up with the best of them and then add a George Jones like mournful ballad straight after.
Tonight it’s just him and his guitar and he’s drawn a sizeable crowd for a wintry Sunday night. Announcing that he’s going to play a bunch of songs he wrote and a bunch that he didn’t he proceeded to deliver several songs from High Top Mountain that, stripped of the country rock trappings, highlight his “hillbilly” leanings while his covers were for the most part a dip into classic country with selections from Lefty Frizzell, Carter Stanley, Willie Nelson, Charlie Moore and Bill Napier along with Steve Fromholz and Jimmy Martin. As Simpson said, he has hundreds of these songs in his head and currently he plucks them out at random. He may choose them at random but he proved to be well versed in their delivery with his voice capturing the slight nasal mountain style that goes hand in hand with Appalachian songs while his guitar playing is fluid, deftly picked and strummed with several of the songs featuring breaks that recalled bluegrass picking. Sad Songs and Waltzes Aren’t Selling This Year, I’d Have To be Crazy, I Never Go Round Mirrors, all plucked at the heartstrings the way they’re supposed to with Sturgill sounding as if he’s lived these songs all of his life.
Achieving an easy rapport with the audience Simpson explained the provenance of several of the covers and had us laughing as he described the “laundry list” conception of his collection of Nashville clichés that constitutes You Can have The Crown. He’d done his homework as well even venturing a joke about the local football rivalries but the highlights of the evening were the songs from High Top Mountain. You Can have The Crown was given its full title (King Turd of Shit Mountain) and the solo delivery allowed for the humour of the lyrics to stand out. However it was the songs that relate to those heartstrings and the sad tales that excelled with Water In A Well, Time After All and in particular the story of a mining community left high and dry in Old King Coal all getting fine deliveries. The Storm, a powerful brooding number on the album, was transformed into a reflective introspective piece while Life Ain’t Fair and The World Is Mean retained its jaundiced punch.
In the midst of this Simpson announced that he has a new album poised for release in a few months (High Top Mountain had a belated UK release) and offered us a peek with Living The Dream, a bittersweet reflection at the end of a career in music which bodes well for his next release. If its half as good as High Top Mountain then it will be well worth getting.
Simpson had some solid support on the night from local picker, Daniel Meade who regaled us with several songs that ranged from talking blues to ragtime to folky songs with a Guy Clark feel. Several songs from his album, As Good As Bad Can Be, Hard To Hear and If It’s Not Your Fault (I Guess It’s Mine) were all well above par. You can listen to the album (and buy it) here.
Posted in Live | Tagged Daniel Meade, Lefty Frizzell, Sturgill Simpson, The Fallen Angels Club, Willie Nelson | Leave a Comment »
It was a sad day for Scots music when Perth based Southpaw called it a day a few years back. Their take on classic Americana was of the finest order with their album Buffalo Mansions one of the better UK country rock albums of recent years. So it was welcome news indeed that the nucleus of the band had regrouped under the moniker The New Madrids with a new singer/guitarist Ian Hutchison fronting the solid rhythm section of Calum Keith and Maurice McPherson while Donny McElligott and Owen Nicholson man the guitars with Hutchison and McElligott sharing lead vocal duties. With the new name comes a tougher sound and while at heart they remain a country rock band there’s a sinewy swagger to some of the songs here recalling the peacock strut of the Stones in the early seventies with hints of Free and Little Feat. Indeed on one song, Shake, they import horns and deliver a classic blue eyed soul song that drips with passion as it builds to its climax. McElligott rivals Frankie Miller in the vocal department, the guitar solo is an exemplar of understated Southern cool and the pedal steel swathes all in honeyed regret as the towering horns (by Bruce Michie) burst with a Stax like majesty. Very impressive.
The album opens with the free flowing country ripple of Wrapped Up which has Nicholson’s pedal steel curling throughout like a whippoorwill reminding one of the likes of Buddy Cage or even Jerry Garcia’s fluid work with the New Riders. You strides into syncopated blues rock territory with the band tight as hell, corkscrew guitars snarling across the beat in best Little Feat fashion although Hutchison’s vocals are just a wee bit too frenzied. Hey Christine is a fine twang fuelled ballad with lashings of pedal steel while Shine A Light revisits soul territory with Michie’s horns again employed to great effect as the band channel a Muscle Shoals country soul feel that recalls the likes of Donnie Fritts, sublime.
Big Fun does what it says on the tin. A loose limbed rocker calling out for more cowbell it swings with a youthful swagger as McElligott’s vocals capture the hoarse urgency of early Eagles songs, the harmonies swell on the chorus and the guitars become more turbo charged as the song progresses. Long Is The Way also recalls the seventies highpoints of country rock although here it’s the acoustic variety as guitars are strummed and the vocal harmonies shine. The addition of fiddle (Hannah Fisher) adds to the impression of Laurel Canyon hippies sitting around a campfire waiting for Asylum Records to sign them and again the New Madrids carry this off with aplomb on what currently is the highlight here. Mountain Of Trouble starts off promisingly but veers off into later Eagles boogiedom. Exhausted perhaps they turn in Alaska which is a beautifully restrained vocal duet with Brennen Leigh as the cold hearted protagonist who drives her lover to murder. Acoustic guitar and plaintive fiddle adorn this stark tale which surely will have audiences in rapt attention live.
As the band sign off with the gumbo rock of Need A Friend, another nod to the Little Feat school of slow burn shuffle with Hutchison’s voice showing that the band have two excellent soulful singers, it’s apparent that they’ve moved on from their previous incarnation, taken some vitamins and worked out. The result is a well toned and muscular crew who can burn with the best of them with McElligott and Hutchison well able to offer up songs that are inspired by the likes of the those whose LP covers adorn the album’s liner notes while stamping their own personality on the results.
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Sons Of Bill from Charlottesville, Virginia made a bit of a splash back in 2012 with their third release, Sirens. Produced by Cracker’s David Lowery it showed the band growing into their skin as worthy successors to the likes of Son Volt and the Drive By Truckers. In the midst of recording the follow-up, this time produced by Ken Coomer (Uncle Tupelo, Wilco) they’re taking a break to swing through a lengthy European tour which includes several UK dates including two in Scotland where they will be supported by their new Blue Rose label mates, our very own Wynntown Marshals.
Obviously it’s useful to have some new product on hand when you’re sloshing through six countries (Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium, England, and Scotland!, five if you’re a no voter!) so the Sons and Blue Rose have delivered a seven song E.P. to accompany the tour. Only available via the Blue Rose website or at their gigs The Gears EP offers a sneak preview of three songs from the forthcoming album (to be called Love & Logic) along with acoustic versions of two songs from Sirens and two live cuts.
Of the three new songs Brand New Paradigm finds the band swerving from the sound of Sirens with the vocal harmonies more polished and a mild nod to classic Mercury Rev. It’s a sumptuous confection of sound with chiming guitars and soaring vocals. Road To Canaan is primarily acoustic with finger picked guitar and a female singer duetting with James Wilson. Mallets softly propel the song with occasional percussive flurries adding dramatic effect while atmospheric guitar gimmickry evokes the wintry road from Nebraska, a beautiful song. Bad Dancer however rips it up in fine fashion as the guitars slash and burn and Wilson celebrates the cool kids who hang apart, who don’t dance but know what’s hip as they slouch in corners at parties.
The acoustic version (with steel guitar) of Santa Anna Winds (the opening song from Sirens) strips away the rock trappings and allows the song’s nihilism to ring clear and is much improved for that while Radio Can’t Rewind is another stripped down version of a song from Sirens which in this version is a heart-warming Dobro infused doldrum and again it unveils a greater heart than the previously issued version. As for the live cuts, Turn It Up was the centrepiece of Sirens and here it translates into a fine example of turbo charged country rock with guitars centre stage while the cover of Neil Young’s Unknown Legend adds a bit of fire in the engine room compared to Shakey’s version.
The EP is a great introduction to the band and it might be prudent if you wish to see them (and given the likelihood that Marshalls fans will pack the venues) to book tickets now. Sons of Bill and The Wynntown Marshals appear at Stereo, Glasgow on Sunday 9th March and then the Voodoo Rooms in Edinburgh on Monday 10th March. The other dates are on their website . If you need any further evidence of the live power of Sons of Bill there’s a free download only live album available here.
Blue Rose Records online store
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A fine addition to the Loose Records roster, Sturgill Simpson’s story so far could almost be the first reel of a Hollywood movie about a country singer. Born in Kentucky, raised in a music loving family and tutored in country classics by his grandfather, young Sturgill grows up wanting to be a musician. It ain’t easy however and he takes work where he can get it spending four years with the Union Pacific Railroad and even suffers a spell in the navy. He ends up in Nashville where he leads a band called Sunday Valley who eventually become Sturgill Simpson and the High Top Mountain Boys. In 2012 he’s quoted as saying “I am attempting to make what I believe to be the purest, most uncompromising Hard Country album anyone has heard in 30 years.” Well, Hollywood isn’t real but the story is and while High Top Mountain might not attain the heights predicted by its creator there’s no doubt that Simpson’s album is a classic reclamation of country music from the big hat brigade delivered with the muscle and grit that fired Waylon Jennings on Lonesome, On’ry & Mean leavened with his Kentucky heritage as he cites Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley as influences. The album title proclaims his home territory “High Top Mountain is located near the Kentucky River on Stray Branch in Breathitt County, Kentucky and is home to High Top Cemetery, the final resting place of many past generations of my family.”
Recorded in Nashville and featuring country legends Hargus “Pig” Robbins on piano and steel guitarist Robby Turner, Simpson turns in 12 songs that in turn barrel at you with a truck driving force or tug at the heartstrings. The telecaster/steel/piano interplay is invigorating and hell raising and one wonders just how good this would be in a live setting as sparks fly throughout the album. Simpson’s voice carries just the right weight required while his writing is top notch. Top of the ladder here is The Storm which lopes along like a classic Jennings song, muscular and lithe it stealthily builds to a climatic guitar and pedal steel exchange as the lyrics invoke elemental nature and yoke it to the protagonists’ heartbreak. A mellotron adds a sweeping vista to the song and there are moments when it recalls The Grateful Dead’s jaunts into country.
Simpson can parlay sad songs with some excellence, Old King Coal laments the loss of the mining industry while Water In A Well weeps wonderfully. Hero celebrates the grandfather who guided the young Simpson in his musical education. It’s the type of song that can easily become somewhat maudlin but the passion involved in the vocals and the splendid pedal steel lift the song above platitude. However the highlights here are the no shit tough talking romps and Simpson punches well above his weight with some excellent choices. Life Ain’t Fair and The World Is Mean opens the album with an autobiographical bent as he sings of being coached in writing outlaw songs as steel guitar curls around the meaty beat. Railroad Of Sin hammers along with the steel imitating a bullet train as the band go into overdrive. You Can have The Crown is on the face of it just another pell mell fast paced country rocker but the band are really shit hot here with fireworks erupting from the guitars while Simpson draws a picture of a feckless dreamer who spends his time on the internet waiting for God to throw him a bone. He ends the album with two covers. Poor Rambler races like a greyhound as Simpson yells the lyrics over rushed acoustic strumming before guitar and piano dart in and out with some inspired and ferocious soloing. I’d Have To be Crazy lowers the tempo as Simpson visits that other country outlaw, Willie Nelson. A lovely come down following its frenetic predecessor it allows the band to shine as an organ offers a spiritual pillow as Simpson delves into southern soul.
High Top Mountain might not be the purest, most uncompromising Hard Country album anyone has heard in 30 years or it might. Time will tell. In the meantime it’s sufficient to say that it is country music of the highest calibre, avoiding false patriotism and studio schmaltz and if you dig Waylon or Willie or Cash or Hank then you should investigate this. Simpson is appearing in Glasgow at the Admiral bar on Sunday 23rd February and it may be a unique chance to see him in such an intimate setting.
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