Lowlands. Love ETC. Harbour Song Records

Over the past few years Blabber’n’Smoke has grown to expect great things from Lowlands. An Italian based band they’ve steadily built up a fine reputation with 2012’s Beyond an excellent Springsteen type album while main man Edward Abbiati delivered a tremendous collaboration with Chris Cacavas earlier this year on Me And The Devil. Love etc. finds Abbiati and the band in a more reflective mood as they ponder on those old perennials, love and loss, a mood influenced by Abbiati’s personal circumstances but, as has happened elsewhere, leading to a peak in the artistic process.

It seems that following on from some emotional knocks Abbiati wrote the title song, an attempt to dump the ballast and resurface and then built the album around this resurrecting songs he had written previously that fit into the theme of loss, bereavement and abandonment. Initially the album was acoustic but a live show with a horn section led to several of the songs being recorded in a single session with the band augmented by the horns. The end result is an album that recalls the loose limbed approach of The Basement Tapes as the band spin woozily throughout the songs with spiralling steel guitars, wheezy harmonica and parped trumpet and trombone fleshing out the sound. While some of the music portrays a sombre mood as on the cello clad You And I and the stripped down Can’t Face The Distance the majority of the album is like an exorcism of bad times as the songs sway and swing with abandonment and the horns are used to flesh out regret or joy.

The opening song, How Many, sets the scene perfectly as the band, curled lap steel and all are enveloped by the horn section who evoke an old fashioned and faded grandeur. This is intensified in the following title song as the horns sound like the Salvation Army and Abbiati swings like a New York troubadour in the seventies with wisps of Tom Waits and even Billy Joel sneaking in. I Wanna Be continues in this vein with Abbiati singing “I walk the streets at night/Try to find me a little light/I learn me a Dylan tune/Then I howl it to the moon.” As he sings this a clarinet homes in recalling Gershwin’s NY threnody creating a bit of a chill. You, Me, The Sky & The Sun uses the horns to create a devil may care attitude, a woozy stagger that is revisited on Happy Anniversary. The happy go lucky country jaunt of Wave Me Goodbye and the joyous trot that is My Baby lift the mood of the album suggesting that despite the clouds there’s some sunshine in Abbiati’s mind.

Overall Love etc. isn’t a gloomy album. There are moments that soar and tear at the emotions but at times there’s a tremendous ramshackle buoyancy about it, no more so than on the excellent Doing Time which sashays along with a winning swagger. There’s even a hint of the late sixties Dylan honey voice on Still I Wonder while the tender Goodbye, Goodnight , with only guitar, voice and accordion serves as an excellent sign off. Almost a lullaby in style it says goodbye to the past with some affection. Above all, it’s a warm, enveloping comfort blanket of an album, one to be savoured. And in case the above is somewhat long winded Chris Cacavas pretty much sums it up on Lowland’s website where he says “This album is fucking good. The best Lowlands yet?”

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The Rulers Of The Root. Porky Dreams

The Rulers Of the Root are a four man band with deep roots in music and sound. Two of the band have a fine pedigree in the local music scene stretching back to the eighties and three of them work as sound engineers offering others the benefit of their ears and expertise. Fate, work and family tossed them together on the same shore some years ago and it transpired that one of them was an aspiring wordsmith while another was itching to get back to the front line. And so it was that The Rulers Of The Root came about as singer and lyricist Patrick Gillies shared his jottings with workmate, John Palmer. Palmer, a guitarist of note, saw some promise in Gillies’ offbeat thoughts and together they set about setting them to music. Another co-worker, Chris Quinn was recruited for his sonic expertise and drumming skills while Palmer reached out to an old bass playing pal resulting in the laid back Mick Murphy squaring the circle as it were.

All of this was a few years ago and it’s only now that the band unveil their debut album, Porky Dreams. Three years in gestation, nurtured and formed in their womb like HQ, Porky Dreams more than delivers on the promise that those fortunate enough to have seen the band live in their rare forays out have glimpsed. It’s not as raucous as their live set, the clowning and costumes are absent but at the root of it all Porky Dreams is a fine, absurdist document, couched in a weird west of Scotland vision of Americana. At times it’s almost as if that cartoon character, Lobey Dosser, had sprung to life and played at Govan’s version of the Opry especially on the Hazlewood drawl of Millport Cowboy and the parched slide guitar infused Neilston Blues.
There’s a wider canvas however throughout the album as the band canter through a variety of styles with Gillies’ rough hewn vocals and lyrics that draw from writers such as Conrad and Joyce as much as they do from the likes of Captain Beefheart, Ian Dury and Tom Waits drawing it all together. Whether he’s delivering a devastating portrait of a sailor’s life on Rose Of Jericho or launching into the Beefheart like flood of words, each one savoured for its sound as well as its meaning on Cat Fur, he commands attention. On paper “Rough skag a dull dick/ Saints bones, their tongues flick/ back street, a finger poke/ I’m not Rococco, I’m only Baroque” might make sense to some, on record it’s just brilliant.

While there are numerous references to local locales (the sailor in Rose Of Jericho drinks in the Scotia Bar before ambling down to the Broomielaw) the band steer clear of any kailyard romanticism and like a seaman they visit various ports with Tom Waits’ like bucket blues on Colon Man, Tropicana on Sinaloa, jazz noir on the Rupert baiting Murdoch Browns, Blockheads’ funk and thrust on I’m Spartacus, Dr. John voodoo on La Rue and dank and dark wailings on Elephant In The Room, a song Palmer says was influenced by Kevin Ayers’ cavernous Song From The Bottom Of A Well. It all coalesces in the title song which belts along with Palmer’s murderous slide guitar and a killer beat as Gillies prowls and growls. Like the Captain and the Gun Club thrown into a blender and cut to pieces it swings with a vengeance.

The band launch Porky Dreams at Glasgow’s Glad Cafe on Saturday 22nd Novenber.

Rulers Of The Root Facebook

Video can’t be shared here but click on it to see the hoodoo voodoo who do crew.

The Rulers Of The Root – Maillot Jaune from Clyde Jones on Vimeo.

Dan Michaelson And The Coastguards. Distance. The state51 Conspiracy

Shamefully this album has been glowering at me for three months, patiently waiting its turn in the queue. Shameful as when I refreshed my memory of the last Dan Michaelson album I heard it truly was one of the better albums of 2013 and the follow up, Distance, has a fair claim to be in the best of lists for this year. It’s similar to its predecessor (Blindspot) but there’s a slight shift in the music, in the main a muted low key Americana sound which just about tops the slurried wash of Blindspot. This reinforces the similarities to Bill Callahan that were evident on the last album but the band that this brings most to mind are Lambchop as the songs slowly unroll with brushed percussion and weeping pedal steel.

The singular point, evident from the start is Michaelson’s extraordinary voice. It permeates the room with its gravity, almost as if he’s next to your ear. Deep but fragile, ready to break down as it dredges emotions from the depths. And it’s the depths of despair that form the lyrics as Michaelson for the most part stands bereft and forsaken as the songs weep. Aside from Burning Hearts which breaks into a trot (although lyrically it’s still pretty dismal) the pace is slow allowing Michaelson plenty of space to wallow magnificently. There’s an elegant gloom to the album from the muted horns on the opening song Evergreen to the glacial piano that leads on the closing song Somewhere before the song glides into an instrumental section that evokes a wintry feel. One for the Christmas stocking surely.

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Front Country. Sake Of The Sound.

It’s interesting to see and hear bluegrass evolving. Back when the Grand Old Opry ruled it was a mortal sin to have drums included and when the longhairs (in the shape of The Byrds) invaded all hell broke loose. By the seventies The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and The Grateful Dead were flying high with that lonesome sound while players like David Grisman and Peter Rowan were updating the genre. Bluegrass has been at times newgrass and elements of jazz and jam bands have been thrown into the mix but at it’s core it’s always been a bulwark or touchstone for those who see Nashville going through its periodical makeovers be it The Nashville Sound, the big hat arena rock style or the current bro movement. Despite the early straightjacket imposed by the Opry Bluegrass has proved flexible enough to adapt and adopt new styles and while there are numerous excellent examples of straight ahead old time bluegrass bands composed of youngsters there’s a sense that there’s a new wave of, and pardon the use of, “progressive” players working in the idiom with bands like Fish & Bird and Run Boy Run recent examples.

The above is really just a long winded way of introducing California’s Bay Area band, Front Country, who do use the terms progressive and chambergrass to describe their music. There’s no doubt that as a band they are extremely skilled and there are moments on their debut album, Sake Of The Sound, that are pure bluegrass in the true sense with Glacier Song being the best example. However there are moments when the instruments veer off almost like jazz or rock solos while a song such as Colorado uses the stringed instruments to create a powerful throbbing undercurrent before breaking out into traditional form on the middle eight. On the opening song, Gospel Train, they manage to conjure up a powerful spiritual blues that harks to both the delta and the electric violin stylings of Sugarcane Harris when he was with Zappa.

A six-piece band, Front Country are fronted by the immensely talented Melody Walker who along with guitarist Jacob Groopman (who’s also in the band) released the magnificent We Made It Home album last year. Walker and Groopman provide the vocals as well as guitars while Adam Roszkiewicz on mandolin, Jordan Klein, banjo and vocals, Leif Karlstrom, violin and Zach Sharpe, bass fill the line up. With original songs and some choice covers including a gutsy rendition of Utah Phillips’ Rock Salt & Nails the album might not be to the taste of traditionalists but a listen to the title song which manages to combine the pop sensibility of Fleetwood Mac while retaining a woody, organic feel should convince anyone looking for a sense of adventure in string band land.

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The Rulers Of The Root


Debut albums are generally the domain of youth, pimpled adolescents unleashing pent up formative years of angst, doubt, unrequited love perhaps. So it’s strangely comforting to find that Glasgow band, The Rulers Of the Root, are, if not grizzled, at least able to recall when pubs were shut on Sundays and buying music meant a trip into town on a weekend. Their album, Porky Dreams, is released officially next Saturday with a launch gig at The Glad Cafe on the south side. It’s a tremendous album that showcases singer Patrick Gillies‘ excellent wordplay, a slightly absurdist take on life that comes across at times as stream of consciousness, at other times emulating the likes of Ian Dury with a fine feel for the shape and sound of language. Delivered with gusto in a manner reminiscent of Captain Beefheart, Tom Waits or Nick Cave the words are well matched by the band’s well-drilled and finely honed music. While they visit several styles on the album there’s a precision to the playing that has come from extensive rehearsals and a long history of listening to tight units such as The Blockheads and The Magic Band. Guitarist John Palmer and bassist Mick Murphy have a lifetime of playing in bands behind them while drummer Chris Quinn has a similar if less lengthy pedigree. With three of the band working in sound engineering there’s ears aplenty to fine tune the music and the end result is Porky Dreams, years in the making perhaps but with a spring in its step as well as its tail.

With the album pressed and plans well afoot for the launch Blabber’n’Smoke met up with three of the band and we started off by asking how they got together and past glories.

John: Three of us work together while Mick is an old friend of mine through my wife. He knew her brother, Malcolm Duffin, a drummer. Mick played in Glasgow bands in the eighties and for the past few years he’s been playing in Clash tribute bands. I played in several bands in the eighties.

Chris: I played in a few bands in the eighties but I’ve always been on the other side of the fence as a sound engineer. It’s a refreshing change to be on this side for a change.

Patrick: I’ve got no musical history. At the risk of boring you, about ten years ago, Nancy, my wife, bought me a guitar because I’d been wanting to play one for years. Like any teenager I could play Sunshine Of Your Love on one string but I started buying songbooks by the likes of Ray Davies and such and tried to play them in my ham-fisted way. Anyway, I eventually started writing songs and played them to John who thought they were quite promising. They were really like dead bodies these songs but John did his Dr. Frankenstein on them, revived them, put some glitter on them. After that, it was like a leaking tap. I just kept on writing songs to the point where we’ve got about 30. We put 15 songs on the album because I’m so old I was terrified I’d die before I’d get a record out. So it’s 15 songs but only 55 minutes so they’re not huge songs. The central core I suppose is country, a weird juxtaposition, a beginning and an end, some Blockheads type stuff.

Is it mainly songs from your live set?

Patrick: Yeah but we revived an old song called Elephant In The Room, which was one of the first songs I wrote, John did a really good job with it, it’s basically a country song but we’ve turned it into a Kevin Ayers type extravaganza.

John: Yeah, it’s quite dark, I was inspired by Ayer’s Song From The Bottom Of A Well which was one of my favourites when I was about 14. I love the guitar playing on it, that crazy, cranking guitar, just hitting it really. It’s an experiment I suppose but it came out quite well.

You say that a basic influence is country but while Charlie certainly fits that bill there’s some funk, Latin American grooves and noirish jazz on the album.

John: Yeah, every song’s been through about half a dozen different stages until we find a style that fits the song. We all listen to so much, we’ve been buying and listening to music from everywhere for a long time. It was quite funny when Chris was mastering the album and was trying to figure out which tags to put the songs under, we wanted to tick all of them.

Patrick: Yes, Loudon Wainwright maintains that his career was set back when someone said he was country and western so all his album were filed under that beside the likes of Sydney Divine.

The lyrics are quite striking, where do they come from?

Patrick: It never really follows a format I’m afraid. For example with Porky Dreams I came up with the name of the song (after some intense dreams one night) and just Googled American idioms and threaded them all together to make some sort of sense and to fit the sound of the G to G minor groove. Murdoch Browns also came with the sound of the original riff. It changed a bit over time and was written at the time News International was in the news a lot, I think it started from that phrase ‘Chipping Norton Set’. Elephant in the Room had a completely different tune originally but was written first and then the music came later. With Rose of Jericho I just wanted to write a story, a bit like Richard Thomson’s love story 1952 Vincent Black Lightning. Millport Cowboy was written after a visit to Millport …and it was full of Cowboys!! Neilston was written after a rail journey to Neilston in the rain and I wanted to convey a bit of that repetitive rail sound. Music and words came together. I’m sorry I can’t come up with a consistent formula! Charlie was about a friend of mine who fell out of a fourth floor tenement window and about my dad who was in Normandy. I wanted to write a traditional country song in A. I suppose words and music came together.
I’ve got good musicians and good sound engineers here. I write the songs and then take them to John and he does the rest and then the song will have three or four incarnations with the band before it finally pops up. Some of them are really close to the original, for others it’s been a really long process.

John: Some of the songs on the album were recorded years ago, really just as quick demos so we’ve had to go back to them and repair things, modify them and such. Patrick’s singing has changed since we started recording

Patrick: What he means is its improved a lot. We even had a soviet era, songs about the KGB; I was reading a lot of Solzhenitsyn at the time.

John: Yeah, we had a Ukrainian friend come into do a voice over on that. It comes across like a Zappa thing but what she’s reciting is a recipe for chicken soup! She was really good at it and we said you’ve done this before, turns out she records the voice messages for Ukrainian passenger ships, the evacuation instructions and such.

Unfortunately, there’s no Ukrainian chicken soup on the album, perhaps the next one. In the meantime Porky Dreams is a sublime trip into Patrick Gillies’ fevered imagination, an imagination that comes to life on stage where he adopts an almost atavistic persona and again one is led back to mesmerising performers such as Dury and Beefheart as Gillies grimaces and gestures utilising props at times and inhabiting the songs as one possessed. Meanwhile Palmer, a superb guitarist, in fact one of Glasgow’s most guarded secrets, lets rip with style, panache and a deep love and knowledge of rock riffdom.

Blabber’n’Smoke will have a review of the album in the next few days and the launch is at The Glad Cafe on Saturday 22nd November where they will be supported by Edinburgh’s Kings Of Cheeze, details here.

Gal Holiday and the Honky Tonk Revue. Last To Leave.

Isn’t the internet wonderful? A few months ago I happened on a video that stood out for two reasons. First was the one take approach to it as the camera panned and dollied around the band playing, nice. Second however was the band itself. A Patsy Cline like singer with an intriguing look sang wonderfully over a magnificent blowsy Spanish inflected twang laden backing. The band was Gal Holiday And The Honky Tonk Revue and the song was To Make Amends. It stuck with me so Blabber’n’Smoke eventually acquired a copy of their latest album, Last To Leave, and lo and behold, To Make Amends is but one of the gems contained therein.

New Orleans residents, Gal Holiday And the Honky Tonk Revue are fronted by Vanessa Niemann, a wonderful singer, fired by the likes of Cline, Wanda Jackson and Loretta Lynn. She’s a formidable looking lady, the album cover has her imperiously sitting, defiant, outside an old trailer van, bags packed. Her lizard green dress and cowboy boots, tattoos and flame red hair all flagging up danger, this woman is not to be messed with. The image is carried on to the music, she sings with a sultry confidence, a country torch singer with attitude. Meanwhile the band curl and swing hitting plain old honky tonk, sweet bluegrass stylings and killer outlaw country.

From the start Niemann asserts her authority as a hefty grunt from her opens the first song, The Long Black Ribbon, a wide screen cowboy clatter with sterling pedal steel and telecaster twang. She’s A Killer is a film noire piece set to Western swing with double bass plucking bravely and the guitars just hoovering it up as they duel and quarrel. It’s similar to the rockabilly stylings of Imelda Mae but to the nth degree. Last To Leave is a fairly straightforward country styled lament but again the performance is well above par and they continue at this level throughout the album. Broke Down And Broke is gritty trucking fare while Rainy Nights, Sunny Days is suffused with early sixties Nashville smoothness, slightly jazzy with an excellent guitar solo that shares joy and tears, you need to hear this but it really is magnificent. Teach Me How To Two Step ups the sassiness quotient as Niemann swaggers over some more excellent guitars (it has to be said here that Chris Adkins and Tony Martinez on guitar and pedal steel shine throughout the album) and on the one cover here, Pat Benatar’s Love Is A Battlefield, they rein in the temptation to offer an amped up country rock version and instead treat the song to a brisk Bakersfield jaunt which again has some superb picking.

Last To Leave is an audaciously great listen from start to finish and while New Orleans folk can catch the band on a regular basis it would be great if someone could entice the band to cross the water. In the meantime we have the disc and that video.

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Cam Penner and Jon Woods. Blackfriars Bar, Glasgow. Saturday 8th November

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On a rain soaked and cold Saturday night in Glasgow the troglodyte trappings of the cellar in Blackfriars offered a warm and dry repose. The cave like comparison seems apt as it was a bear of a man, big, bearded, cradling a tiny four stringed acoustic guitar, who emerged from the shadows to mesmerise the audience for the next hour or so. Cam Penner looks ferocious, a look belied by his easy going and gentle introductions, but when he sang he drew the audience into a different world, one that’s sparse, cold, steeped in nature and history. Be it the reminiscences of Once A Soldier, the spectral Ghost Car or the gutbucket blues of Memphis Penner preached,crooned and hollered, stalking the stage, gently picking his guitar or banging a drum kit.

Cradled in the corner throughout this was Penner’s foil, fellow Canadian Jon Wood who conjured sounds from a variety of instruments and effects. On guitar, Wood ploughed the blues as sweet, sad and occasionally savage notes flew from his fingers while his lap steel added colour and atmosphere. Integral as his guitar efforts were to the show it was Wood’s use of a sampler which created a twilight zone where ghosts dwelled and shadows beckoned while sampled keyboards added to the tapestry of the sound.

Together the pair delivered a show that cut to the bone with occasional shivers to the spine as Penner spun his tales and wove a web that tantalisingly drew us in to a world far removed from a rainy Glasgow night. A trip to a heart of darkness drawn from Penner’s life and country that the Glasgow punters for the most part live vicariously but for the duration of the show we were in the wilderness with this big-hearted man as our guide.

There’s still time to catch Penner and Wood this week, dates here:

Nov 13 Kirkcaldy, Nov 14 Woodend Barn Banchory, Nov 15 Blue Lamp Aberdeen, Nov 16 Harbour Arts Centre Irvine