Here’s a few of the albums which have been rocking this joint over the past week.
Betty Soo and Doug Cox Across the Borderline: Lie to Me.
Blabber’n’Smoke first encountered Betty Soo a few months ago. Now she’s teamed up with ace guitarist Doug Cox to produce a fine, simple and superb album of covers. Soo is of Korean stock and hails from Texas while Cox is Canadian. Meeting at a guitar camp (indeed, do such things exist?) they appear to have shared a mutual admiration for Doug Sahm (whom Cox worked with) and soon Cox was touring with Soo. Together they cooked up the idea for this album wanting to share their favourite songwriters with the listener. Hence an album of songs by the likes of Loudon Wainwright, Butch Hancock, Sahm and Guy Clark along with lesser known talents such as Jeff Talmadge and Betty Elders.
Stripped back, the album features the pair on vocals with Cox’s fine resophonic guitar playing shining throughout. It’s an intimate affair, perfect for late night listening and the song selection is spot on. While the goofy country of Big Cheeseburgers (by Blaze Foley) and the bluesy Boxcars (Butch Hancock) are superb readings they excel on a pair of ballads. Betty Elders’ Light in Your Window showcases Soo’s fine clear voice while Guy Clark’s Dublin Blues ends the album on a high note.
Soo and Cox will be touring the UK in September and appear in Scotland for three dates.
Brothers Reid are a band from Aberdeen who take Americana by the scruff of the neck and give it a good shake. A busy bustling band this debut might be a little muddy in its production but they have a fine line in their mixture of West Coast influenced rock with some folk influences thrown in. Starting off with Done and Dusted the harmonies and sinewy guitars hint at evenings spent listening to old Steve Miller and Moby Grape albums. Flea Circus continues in this vein but it’s the third song, Farmboy Blues which catches the listener’s ear. While it has a hint of the Grateful Dead’s country leanings the band steer it away from homage with an extended coda that has some fine guitar and strings. The outright folk embellishments on the following song City Lights come as a bit of a shock at first but are a brave reminder that the band hails from Scotland and not California. Despite that California is never far from the mind as they deliver their epic Roll On, a guitar churning slow flowing piece that sounds like it might be a killer heard live. Similarly the closing title song, a blues boogie whose harmonica parts recollect Canned Heat could have an audience on its feet yelling for more. Promising.
For a debut album his is a bit of a behemoth. Based in Philadelphia Malone and crew have produced a package that one generally expects from established bands. Comprising of two discs, the actual album on CD (with 13 tracks and five bonus cuts) and a DVD of them rehearsing in the studio it looks mighty impressive. Best of all however is the fact that Malone et al pull this off with no sign of filler throughout this bar the repetition of one song, Just Like New which has a “radio edit” version tacked on. Fitting perhaps as this band are nothing other than radio friendly with their version of blue collar American rock. Ringing and stinging guitars, sweet pedal steel and a rocking rhythm section back up Malone’s impassioned vocals on a series of songs that sound as familiar as hell after a few listens. The jangling intro Silver From is straight out of Earle county while the spooky Emmit Meets a Demon recalls the Byrds’ forays into swamp rock. Leave Us Alone has hints of the Jayhawks as has the Ballad of Mr. Bardo.
Covers of Creedence’s Fortunate Son (a great version by the way) and Tom Petty’s I Should Have Known It (on the DVD) show where the band are coming from. While they won’t win many awards for originality they do deserve an award for delivering this fine slice of energetic and rocking Americana.
Just time to note that The Hot Seats, a fantastic band from Virginia are playing at Lauries Bar this Thursday. Winners of a Herald Angel award for their appearance at the Edinburgh festival a few years ago they’ve also wowed the crowds (as we say) at Celtic Connections. Old time country, Appalachian yearnings and good old bluegrass fun this is a rare chance to see them in an intimate venue and it looks to be a great night.
Blabber’n’Smoke makes no excuses for featuring Peter Stampfel again. This Greenwich Village veteran and peer of Dylan back in the early sixties continues to amaze us with his vitality and infectious enthusiasm. His Glasgow gig back in January with Jeffrey Lewis was a sheer delight and in person he is simply astounding, a pleasure to spend a few moments with. So much so that at that gig I stumbled away without picking up a copy of the album he’s recorded with Lewis. Nevertheless of late Stampfel has been on a roll both live and in the studio and this collaboration with Dutch avant garde musicians The Worm All-Stars is a fine addition to his canon.
Stampfel met these guys when he was in Amsterdam for a screening of the Holy Modal Rounders’ documentary, Bound to Lose. Invited to perform after the screening they offered to back him up. According to Stampfel’s delightful liner notes he was so enthralled by them he invited them over to New York to rehears some songs. He then followed them back to the Netherlands to record this album. The Worm All-Stars consist of Lukas Simonis on guitar and bass, Nina Hitz on cello and keyboards and the astonishing Alan Purves on all manner of percussion and noseflutes with all three contributing to the vocals. Although described as an avant garde noise troupe they manage to carry off a very fine old country type sound allowing Stampfel to indulge in his love of traditional Americana. Several of the songs are old traditionals while others are more recent, written by Stampfel and his compadres with one contribution from Simonis.
Of course this being Peter Stampfel this album is far from a retread of old and new folk numbers. The band add a tremendous sense of adventure and at times plain old sonic wizardry while Stampfel stamps his authority all over the piece, vocally and musically. Recalling the wild adventure that was The Holy Modal Rounders in their earlier incarnations songs like Last Chance and Peg ‘N Awl disinter the old Harry Smith Anthology sound and revive it much as Victor Frankenstein did with his creature, awesome and dangerous yet with a simple sense of wonder.
Revisiting songs from his past there is a fine version of Midnight In Paris from Have Moicy while the infamous Rounders song Fucking Sailors in Chinatown which opens the album is as anthemic as ever. This should have been on the Rogues Gallery CD spawned by the Pirates of the Caribbean movies if there were any justice. Simonis’ song, Maximum Spare Ribs is a mutant Ghostriders In the Sky with the ghostriders replaced by insurance salesmen! Time and again one is struck by the playing on this album but special mention must be given to percussionist Purves who populates all of the songs with all sorts of clutter and clatter. Stomping bass drums and skittering sticks abound with perhaps the best example being the aforementioned Last Chance where the cacophony is added to by some excellent violin screeching and fine guitar from Simonis. Stampfel and Hitz work brilliantly together on the skeletal One Will Do For Now which creaks and groans like old timber.
The album is well packaged with liner notes on all of the songs by Stampfel. He pays special mention to Shambolar, a song originally by Sherriff and the Ravels from 1958 describing it as “the Rosetta stone connecting African music, Caribbean music and doo-wop. The version here offers full rein to Purves’ percussion on a chant that could as easily have come from Paul Simon’s Graceland or an old Fugs’ record. The connection, I’m sure is there.
An added bonus to this excellent album for Scottish listeners is a hidden song at the end. Percussionist Alan Purves originally hails from Edinburgh and he provides a spoken tale, A Wee Fortune, a scatological account of a night out in Edinburgh from his youth which is darkly humorous and brings to mind a meeting of Ivor Cutler and Irvine Welsh. Buy it here
Drunken Banjo Waltz
Been a while since I looked at some of the albums gathering dust at Blabber’n’Smoke. Here’s a few that are about to hit the shops.
First up is a fine EP from the splendidly named Water Tower Bucket Boys. Based in Portland, Oregon this four-piece string band have a sound that’s slightly off kilter from traditional bluegrass and revivalist peers. While they are able to conjure up songs that sit well within the country canon such as Pilgrim Song they add a vibraphone on R Song and on Meet Me Where the Crow Don’t Fly a typewriter provides the percussion. Despite this the overall impression is of a band who know their roots and have the musical chops to deliver. The mandolin and banjo on Pilgrim Song are excellent and Meet Me Where The Crow Don’t Fly is a brilliant stroll through a dark Americana with some devilish fiddling. In fact all five songs are well worth hearing. The band start an extensive UK tour later this month. Website
Fearing and White are essentially a two man super group if such a thing can be said to exist. Canadian Stephen Fearing is probably best known over here as a member of the superb Blackie and the Rodeo Kings while Belfast born Andy White has carved a fine reputation for himself over the years. The two have been writing songs together for several years but only recently managed to record any of them. Anyone familiar with either of these guys won’t be surprised by what’s on offer here. More to the point they won’t be disappointed either. The 13 songs are all well crafted and well delivered with Fearing and White playing all of the instruments and sharing vocals while percussion is ably handled by Ray Farrugia. Fearing’s guitar is the predominant instrument on several of the songs tearing big bluesy chunks out of the likes of Under The Silver Sky, a fine Blackie type song and Say You Will, a slow rolling number that could have been crafted by J.J. Cale. The remainder consists of full bodied workouts such as Mothership, a bubbling pop stew with big chords breaking the surface and acoustic based ballads with Fearing and White harmonising like brothers heard best on the fantastic What we Know Now.
All in all a fine album and well recommended if you like literate honest to god songwriting and delivery. The duo are scheduled to play in Glasgow in October. Website
What We Know Now
The Carrivick Sisters hail from Devon and From The Fields is their fourth release. Playing guitars, mandolin, banjo and fiddle between them they veer from English folk to old time Americana across this album. They harmonise well and when they are joined on two songs by the esteemed B.J. Cole on pedal steel they achieve a sound that is not too short of sublime. Both appear to be accomplished players with some fine guitar and fiddle playing in particular featuring. Writing in a traditional field they have a fine grasp of what makes the music tick with some of the songs seeming almost to be plot summaries from the pen of Thomas Hardy. This is most to the fore on Flowers With Jamie and the spinechilling Charlotte Dymond while the title song is an acappella telling of a lovers’ tryst that ends in tragedy. With an excellent instrumental The Mouse, The Bird & The Sausage (named after a Brothers Grimm tale) included this is an impressive album that belies the sisters’ relative youth. They come to Scotland in September appearing in Edinburgh.
A Californian songwriter Geoff Baker came to our attention a few years back with a sparkly entertaining EP that had a fine mixture of quirkiness and melancholy about it. Three years later this full-blooded album appears, upping the melancholia on a selection that often refers to loss and sadness. Baker says of it “This album starts between midnight and dawn, on a dark street in Berlin in the fall of 2001, days after the death of a close friend and partner in musical crime, seven sheets to the wind, stumbling home, guitar in hand, Nearing your front door a few minutes later, out of breath and out of paper, you find an empty pack of cigarettes on the sidewalk and write, on the only side of the foil that will ever let you write, “Where are you now?” It’s half honest and half rhetorical.
In short, this became an album about people you miss, places you’ve been, things that went wrong, and things you did wrong. But it’s also about how powerful memories are, where to look for the good, and how no thing, no place, and nobody that ever mattered to you can ever really be lost. “
The first thing to strike one here is the overall sound of the album. Despite his stateside status the majority of these songs have an autumnal English feel to them Paul Simon did this in the sixties and Baker follows in his footsteps. While he plays the majority of the instruments himself he’s assisted on a few songs and when the cello parts, played by John Mescall appear there is a definite whiff of Nick Drake in the air. Although there are some uptempo songs (the title song, Girl From Kinnelon and Continental Drift) even these maintain the overall theme of loss.
The woody tones of the opening song One step Further Than You have Ever Dared To Go sets the scene. Its rippling guitars and husky vocals invite the listener in and set up themes that are revisited. On Barbwire Fences in Kansas adds a touch of Americana with some plaintive pedal steel from Bruce Kaphan. A meditation on memorials there’s a touch of Jay Farrar’s style about it and Baker captures a fine sense of desolate locations and sadness. The sense of loss and loneliness culminates in the unadorned Not To Worry (Even Jesus) where Baker sings accompanied only by a solo guitar on a beautiful song with lyrics that are baffling, almost haiku like. “Light that I caught beating on my window, Was you and telling me to move along, You were saying not to worry, What has been can never be gone, Not to cling so fiercely to the earth, When I don’t know what anything is worth.”
The effect is mesmerising. Baker follows this up with a stunning song, The Middle of Nebraska, which starts off with just guitar accompaniment and gently builds up with mandolin and then fiddle and cello cosseting the song. Although this is the highpoint of the album there are several other gems. All The Same has a definite Drake feel in the arrangement while In the First Week of April is an old fashioned narrative ballad concerning a veteran of the Gulf wars who relives his traumatic memories. The closing song When I Was Young I Never Wanted The Sun seems to point to a feeling that runs through the album, a sense of displacement, of being out of joint when Baker finds himself living outwith his native California. On his website he notes where he was when he write these songs, places like Amsterdam, Cork, Berlin, Kansas and New Jersey. This might go some way to explain the wintry feeling to these songs and although it might be tough for Baker to forego the sunshine state if his sojourns are responsible for these beautifully crafted songs then here’s to him spending more times in colder climes.
What is Americana? The simple answer might be that it’s music (or literature, art) that refers to America, in particular to that continent’s (primarily the US of A) heritage. So a broad church with country, bluegrass, jazz, swing and god knows how many others getting a shout in. But are, for example, Kings of Leon Americana? U2? Jack Johnston? The answer of course is yes and no. Or rather, it depends. It depends on the singer, the song, the listener, the situation and for an awful lot of folk in the end it doesn’t matter. And perhaps therein is the rub. For if it does matter to you then you probably know the answer already.
Americana is a feel, an intuition, a knowledge of and respect for, well, Americana. It has depth, history, tradition. Tradition that harks back to the great immigrations that peopled the USA, that recalls the natives who were displaced by the newcomers, the poverty and violence experienced by the Negro slaves, the violence of the civil war, the culture that grew out of all of these. The tradition continued in modern times, the civil rights struggles, the protest songs, the discovery of their own culture by the late sixties generation which fed into the No Depression generation of the eighties which in itself reached back into the distant past also.
It’s easy for anyone anywhere in the world to be captivated by Hollywood cowboys, Lonnie Donegan records or books by Cormac McCarthy. Dig deeper and chances are you’ll find Americana, a fabulous land with a fabulous story. And best of all you don’t have to be American. Jim Dead is a man who I reckon has done his fair share of digging. So much so that he inhabits a mythical Americana hometown, Deadsville. Deadsville is a mixture of all of the above however Dead has sculpted it into shape. A dust blown dread place with frontier justice, where gunslingers are replaced by guitar slingers, where the blues are amplified and dragged from the past and shot into Technicolor glory.
Calling up a new version of his band The Doubters consisting of Craig Hughes on guitar, James Duffin on bass and Tommy Duffin on percussion and harmonica, Dead offers up twelve songs that portray Deadsville as a scary place to be. Telling stories of lynchings, drugs and death the band walk throughout the landscape with a powerful swagger. Several of the songs here reach epic proportions both in length and delivery. The combination of Dead’s and Hughes’ guitars conjure up visions of Crazy Horse and the Drive By Truckers. While there are quieter moments such as the opening song Silence has No Place Here, Hotel, (with a touch of Willie Vlautin about it) and My Heavy Heart, My Aching Bones, there remains a sense of doom, of hopelessness in them. However the big hitters here are when the band plug in. The loping Bone Blue Moon has the feel of hank Williams backed by Creedence Clearwater, the song does indeed feel as if Dead is howling at the moon. Untitled has some spooky, almost psychedelic tinges, when Dead repeats the refrain Baby, Baby there is a sense of what could have been if Led Zeppelin were an American band. Hughes’ playing on this epic is spectacular, full of menace, coiled, ready to kill. Mean–Eyed River Snake is a mean tale of the death of a girl as retold by a confused, possibly pilled up youth who may have seen too many drive in horrors. It ends in a confusion of babbling while Hughes’ guitar rumbles in the background. The Hallelujah Revolver perhaps tries too hard here to achieve a proper dynamic, a gospel song from hell it’s the one song where the feel is muddied, Having seen a gobsmackingly good live version done by this line up of the band it’s possible we were spoiled beforehand. Honours must go to the stand out song here however. Jim Landstrom Must Die is a killer track. A deceptively jaunty riff leads into a sorry tale of a jive travelling salesman who gets lynched after selling bottles with “stars that fell from from the sky.” Peckinpaw in parts, “ hang him up by his legs, slit his throat so the streets turn ruby red” the band really gel with some tremendous bass playing and a cracking vocal performance from Dead.
If this album was by a crew from the south west of the USA chances are it would be hailed to the heavens. As it is it’s perhaps the best example I’ve heard so far of a local band setting up residence in that fabled Americana. Definitely one to buy. website
Liverpudlian Kete Bowers delivered a fine album with his 2011 release Road which featured the great BJ Cole on pedal steel. Introduced to American music by his Scottish grandmother who played Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Jim Reeves and Jerry Lewis on the family turntable he turned in a set of wearied songs that […]
San Francisco based Tiny Television released their fine debut, Mission Statement, back in 2009. A dusty Dobro driven slice of classic Americana its weathered well and still gets played in the Blabber’n'Smoke habitat. Four years down the line and one successful Kickstarter campaign later Just This Side of Everything crawls into the light of day […]
Most folk probably think of Appalachian mountains and woods or fetid Southern climes when it comes to the rootsiest Americana music. Charlie Parr, who comes across as a dyed in the wool backwoodsman reminds us that the frozen north, home of strip mining and decaying industrial landscapes has its own history. Duluth, Minnesota is his […]
Taking some time out from her regular gig as a member of the Wailin’ Jennies Ruth Moody releases her second solo album just in time to promote her UK tour which includes a six night stint at the Royal Albert Hall as a special guest of Mark Knopfler. Knopfler appears on These Wilder Things along […]
Husband and wife duo Aaron and Nicole Keim, collectively known as The Quiet American have come up with a neat concept on their album Wild Bill Jones. While it’s not as well known as similar songs such as Stagger Lee or Long Black Veil Wild Bill Jones is a staple of the old time country […]
Vermont based Bow Thayer takes a mighty stride forward on Eden, his third album with his Perfect Trainwreck set up. Originally from Boston Thayer has featured in several bands as he has pursued his version of a driving folk, country and blues sound with his weapon of choice these days being an electric banjo. Eden […]
Inevitably there are albums sent to Blabber’n'Smoke that just don’t get reviewed. Some aren’t very good, others just get swallowed up in the pending pile and by the time we get around to them the release date has been and gone so we move on to the next and more current contender. However with the […]
It’s off up to Aberdeen for this one. Craig John Davidson is a native of the granite city and The Last Laugh, his fourth release, is his first for the very fine Aberdonian Indy label, Fat Hippy Records. A one man band, Davidson plays all of the sounds on the album apart from some strings […]
The creative duo behind this band are guitarist ( multi instrumentalist actually) Kenny Marshall and lyricist Kevin W. Peery. An odd set up in Americana land as I can’t recall anyone else having this type of relationship (although I probably stand to be corrected). Indeed Elton John with Bernie Taupin and Procul Harum with Keith […]
It’s been a turbulent few years for The Wynntown Marshals with arrivals and departures (including guitarist Iain Barbour and drummer Keith Jones) that might have derailed lesser bands. However they’ve ploughed on with their other guitar wizard Iain Sloan picking up the baton dropped by Jones as the band’s indefatigable publicist and also employing an […] […]