Ms. Ungerleider will be better known to most readers as Oh Susannah whose debut album Jonestown has long been well respected. Her name change is in part due to her increasing awareness of the racist and “minstrelsy” associations of the original Stephen Foster song which she had adopted for her stage name. She goes on to say this also represents a personal decision allowing her to feel more comfortable as herself rather than hiding behind the moniker. The proud, almost defiant title of this album certainly does seem like a relaunch of sorts but nestled within the album cover is a sweet selection of songs which display that Ungerleider certainly continues to be an excellent song writer and performer, fragile while, at times, quite powerful.
The album is perfectly produced by Jim Bryson who allows Ungerleider’s voice and the muted, mainly acoustic, trappings of the songs plenty of room to breathe. It’s dreamlike at times although on occasion these dream can be unsettling. Two songs, Baby Blues and Disappear, inhabit the mind of a child who is witness to disturbing scenes but they are counter balanced by a pair of delightful love songs to her own child on Summerbaby (which relates the kid’s premature birth) and Hearts. Alongside these there is a song co written with bass player Bazil Donovan about his own daughter which is the poppiest number here.
The album opens with Mount Royal, a wistful account of youthful hopes and aspirations set in Montreal as the protagonist aims to shoot for the moon and the stars but is gradually disillusioned. It’s a wonderfully descriptive song composed of little vignettes while the arrangement is superb as a gentle backing of whispered keyboards gradually emerges before a final flourish. Pumpkins finds Ungerleider recalling the sweet but icy tones of Grace Slick on an autumnal song which gently glows as it shuffles along with tender accompaniment. The disillusion alluded to in the opening song is evident in the rueful North Star Sneakers where teenage rebellion has been tamed by marriage and children although the memories remain vivid. The album closes with a song which also alludes to earlier offerings. Ships seems to find Ungerleider seeking to help a survivor as she asks “what did you see when you were young what made you hide your face and bite your tongue,” offering to break into their “box”, not to “steal but to reveal, to dress wounds and heal.”
Well, here it was, our first live gig since March of 2020. Trepidatious yet somewhat excited, our loins were girded. Double vaxxed and with a negative test result safely nestled on the smartphone, a short bus trip (another first!) allowed us to check in to Glasgow’s Glad Cafe (via an app) and, suitably masked, head to the bar. What a palaver. However, if that’s what it takes to keep us safe then so be it. At least there would be someone on a stage, with a guitar, and singing. And so it was.
This was only the second show put on by the Glad Cafe and only the fourth promoted by Glasgow’s Fallen Angels Clubsince restrictions were loosened, so everyone’s kind of dipping their toes in the water right now. Never mind that a few miles down the road, several thousand folk were tripping at TRNSMT, they’re young and invincible (hopefully). In the confines of The Glad Cafe, those of us less invincible were well looked after with mask rules gently applied (I went to the bar at one point for a quick look at the tap beers on offer and was rebuked by the barmaid as this five second reconnaissance mission was unmasked). The long and short of it is that this was a most enjoyable night, the music grand, the audience mindful (and for most of them this was also their first outing) and the venue quite brilliant.
If anyone was still feeling anxious they would surely have been calmed by the soothing sounds delivered by the opening act, Our Man In The Field. Their debut album, The Company Of Strangers was an engaging collection of country rock flavoured songs which packed quite an emotional heft while gliding smoothly into the ether. It’s a slimmed down duo who are accompanying the headliner, Jerry Joseph, on this tour but Alex Ellis, frontman, vocalist and writer, and Henry Senior, on Dobro and pedal steel are more than capable of transporting those songs into a live setting. Ellis’s voice is mellifluous and Senior’s contributions are, at times, quite removed from simply adding pedal steel licks or Dobro slides to the show. On many of the songs Senior was using his instruments to provide ambient shimmering sounds, a glowing bedrock for Ellis’ fine songs.
Setting the scene for the night, Ellis explained the genesis of several of his songs. Easy Going Smile, for example, is his riposte to John Denver’s Leaving On A Jet Plane, a bittersweet favourite song of his mother. Renditions of this along with Thin (I Used To Be Bullet Proof), Don’t Speak and It Was Ever So reminded one of how good the album is and were gamely reproduced by the duo. Held hostage by that pesky pandemic, Ellis has a slew of new songs and plans to record them soon and we were treated to a few tonight. Go Easy was dedicated to London’s Betsy Trotwood venue while The Road was an intricate exploration of foibles. Come Back To Me was described as a “lockdown” song written when Ellis had to decide whether to hide out or help when the curtains closed on all of us. The new songs bode well for the next album.
Jerry Joseph’sThe Beautiful Madness was one of our favourite albums of 2020. It opened a door into the quite incredible world which Joseph inhabits, with a slew of albums behind him alongside a globe spanning crusade to reach out to war torn refugees, to spread music and hope amongst them. Having The Drive By Truckers as your backing band and Patterson Hood in the producer’s seat does help lift one’s career and Joseph is the first to admit this. He’s toured here before but never got the attention now being lavished on him.
That attention is well deserved. He’s flying solo on this tour (apparently Henry Senior has joined him on a couple of songs on the tour but not tonight) and he’s quite a revelation. From the off he’s brimful of energy, a coiled spring primed to unleash, a force of nature as several others have noted. He’s raw and unadulterated, his guitar is thrashed by the second song as a string snaps as if insulted or scared by his presence. The sense that Joseph is kind of like an amalgam of Joseph Conrad and Warren Zevon with a shitload of Sam Peckinpah images in their baggage was immediately summoned as he opened with War At The End Of The World, a song inspired by a Mario Vargas Llosa novel. It’s a powerful song, screaming with vivid images and it sets the scene for much of what was to follow.
It was an exhilarating ride as Joseph sang songs inspired by treks into some of the world’s most dangerous locations. The killing fields of Mexico’s cartels and the war wracked bone towers of Iraq featured as the songs piled on, with Joseph’s introductions at times quite chilling although leavened with a fantastic course humour. Much of the album featured with Days Of Heaven quite anthemic in a Springsteen sort of way, and San Acacia a riveting commentary on the murderous border towns in Mexico. (I’m In Love With) Hyrum Black – described as a sort of Mormon cowboy outlaw song- came across as light relief in comparison. A couple of older songs rang out. Ten Killer Fairies, a song written in the knowledge that Joseph’s addictions meant his coins were going towards someone in a cartel who was saving up for his next yacht rang clear as a bell with a Dylan like honesty. And then there was Wisconsin Death Trip, a glorious song and delivered perfectly to a somewhat gob smacked audience as Joseph totally commanded all attention. Quite brilliant and a perfect reintroduction to the magic of live music.
We’re a bit confused by this album. Not the music, that’s quite swell, but the release date. There are mentions of this disc going back a year to September 2000 but it arrived in our mailbox a short while ago with a press release proclaiming a release date of September 2021. It seems that initially this was an independent release but it has now been picked up by a label. This is really just a roundabout way of saying that we haven’t sat on Mr. Morris for a year, no sir, we’re bang up to date.
Anyhow, RB Morris has a fair amount of well-known fans willing to proclaim his genius and while this often isn’t any guarantee of excellence, on this occasion, they are right. He comes from that dusty troupe of well-travelled songwriters who can tell a tale and evoke vibrant images and scenarios through their words and music. Butch Hancock and Guy Clark come to mind almost immediately and there’s also a fair whiff of Roger Miller’s loose-limbed narratives. Morris says this is his “dustbowl album” but he’s not trying to emulate Woody Guthrie, rather, he’s reciting a set of songs inspired by his “early road trips out west.” He has surrounded himself with a top class band who are able to match their playing with the various environs visited. There’s the menacing highway blues of Montana Moon – a song which rivals Dave Alvin, the sly and somewhat louche fatback guitar fuelled Me And My Wife Ruth and the Dylan meets Cash mash up of That’s Just The Way I Do.
Morris truly inhabits the songs also. He sounds quite insouciant on the bouncy brilliance of Six Black Horses And A 72 Oz. Steak, a road song about a 1000-mile trip which tips into odd dreams about Audie Murphy alongside other weird encounters. The Zen like Missouri River Hat Blowing Incident (a contender for song title of the year) finds Morris chasing the titular hat and realising his travels have truly started. There’s a sense of wonder also and it’s highlighted by the spare ambient and cosmic country sounds conjured by the band at times. The title song glistens with atmospheric pedal steel and there are several instrumental interludes which serve to thread the various narratives together. Overall, the songs and preludes knit together perfectly, the album can be listened to as a travelogue with the songs acting as the stops and encounters on the way, and Morris proves that he is indeed quite an excellent writer and performer. Well recommended if you missed it last year.
All good things must come to an end and so it happens that Ghosts is the final piece to be slotted into Dean Owens’ Desert Trilogy slipcase. A quick recap. Having recorded an album, Sinner’s Shrine, with Calexico in Tucson, Owens’ plans for its release were scuppered by Covid. Undeterred, the Edinburgh based artist used his lockdown time to record another bunch of songs with various members of Calexico and other Tucson luminaries and he’s been releasing them via this highly desirable collection.
All the EPs have a song from the album but Owens was keen not to short-change his fans so, overall, they contain eight new songs, all cut from the same cloth which inspired the original recordings, Owens’ love of the American Southwest. So far there has been critical acclaim for this new direction and Ghosts is certain to bask in similar glory.
As with the other EPs, it’s a song from Sinner’s Shrine, which leads off. The Hopeless Ghosts is very much in the vein of Calexico’s hot, dusty and claustrophobic desert shuffles. John Convertino’s drumming is instantly recognisable as is Jacob Valenzuela’s soaring trumpet and Paul Niehaus weighs in with his swooning pedal steel. As Calexico do much of the time, Owens achieves a cinematic effect here with visions of movies by Leone and Peckinpah summoned by the music and the words – there’s drama by the dirtload. It’s haunting (as most songs with Ghosts in the title should be), as Owens comes across like some high plains drifter, condemned to forever travel. In a nice touch, Owens explains that the idea of hopeless ghosts comes from a Townes van Zandt description of his songs. Anyhow, the song is a towering achievement which is lifted further aloft when Grant-Lee Phillips joins Owens on harmony vocals, especially when the pair vocally pirouette towards the end of the song.
Mother Road is much more restrained as Owens delivers a wearied narrative, inspired by a 93 year old barber who had a shop on Route 66, a road now seldom travelled once the Interstate opened. It’s a sepia stained portrait of past times, replete with lonesome pedal steel and mournful trumpet and it’s a fine example of how Owens can transport his evocative portraits of his home town to a foreign land. Even When I’m Gone finds Owens on his own on a song which was recorded in Tucson but which was inspired by walks with his dog in the woods near Edinburgh. Again, there’s a sense of desolation here although it’s tempered by the thought that once we pass, life will go on. The EP ends with a murder ballad which Owens says he had written for Johnny Cash but, with the man in black gone, he has to sing himself. Owens recorded his basic track in Scotland with Kevin McGuire on double bass before Convertino, Martin Wenk, Tom Hagerman and Naim Amor sent in their contributions from various locations. Fittingly, as the last song on this trilogy, it’s called The End and, yes, one can imagine Cash singing it on one of his latter albums. Like some Dostoevskian anti-hero on the eve of his execution, Owens reflects and ruminates on a life of crime as a baleful trumpet and tasteful shards of guitar lead him towards the gallows. It’s a very impressive song.
So, trilogy wrapped up, all we can do is wait for Sinner’s Shrine. The main course after these wonderful appetizers.
Having abandoned Muscle Shoals for New York on her last album, Born On The Ground – released on the eve of the pandemic – Emily Duff really didn’t have much choice regarding the recording location of her latest album, Razor Blade Smile. In fact, the album was birthed in her cramped Greenwich Village tenement (shared with husband, teenage kids, a dog and a few dozen guitars!) as Duff took time out on the fire escape and wrote these songs.
As has often been the case recently, Duff’s fire escape songs found their way into the studio once Covid restrictions relaxed as she and producer Eric “Roscoe” Ambel recorded her acoustic versions. The basic tracks laid down, Ambel then assembled a band and grafted them onto Duff’s originals with nary a join to be seen or heard. The result is a kickass set of songs with a New York attitude which at times has a Patti Smith toughness along with nods to alt country and some of that southern grit displayed on her earlier albums.
It’s the south which is summoned first of all as the gutsy finger picked guitar intro to Go Fast Don’t Die is rapidly joined by a kaleidoscopic Band -like country funk while Duff comes across like a foul mouthed Bobbie Gentry. It’s only two minutes long but it packs a powerful punch. Next up is the more conventional and fleet footed Gimme Back My Love which reminds this writer of Bruce Springsteen, but then the album gets down and dirty on the slow groove of Done And Done with Ambel’s guitars rumbling and growling alongside Charlie Giordano’s swelling keyboards. Duff’s in her element here, her strong voice weighted with portent like an iron fist in a velvet glove and she revisits this on the melodramatic Don’t Hang The Moon which dives deep into a witchy woman vision of dark country rock music. The title song is a scuzzy slice of punk rock and Another Goodbye recalls the high priestess of punk, Patti Smith. Duff here sounds more guarded and, indeed, paranoid, as the band slide between punk reggae and New York organ grooves.
Sidling closer to country towards the end of the disc, we find Giordano abandoning his keyboards for accordion on Feelin’ Alright which is given a fine country lope while Nicotine & Waiting is quite tremendous. It’s a tear stained slow country waltz with weeping pedal steel and accordion, burnished by Ambel’s guitar glimmerings. Duff here shows why some folk compare her to the like of Lucinda Williams.
Yes, that Brinsley Schwarz whose name launched a thousand pub rock bands (and almost sank them when his eponymous group had a disastrous U.S. launch). The band Brinsley Schwarz included, alongside our subject here, the fabulous Nick Lowe, and they somehow survived their inglorious start to become a well-loved band on the nascent pub rock circuit. As punk rock began to invade their space, Lowe and Schwarz were canny enough to catch a ride on this new wave, Lowe producing The Damned while Schwarz went on to become Graham Parker’s wing man.
Tangled is Schwarz’s second solo album (following 2016’s Unexpected) and, as befits a musician of his vintage, there’s a sense of elegy in several of the songs. Crazy World is a fine example as Schwarz’s tender voice sings over graceful piano and mournful strings as he tries to reach out and to make some sense of recent events. Stranded is in a similar fashion although it’s a more personal song and it is given an excellent band build up climaxing with Schwarz playing an elegant and moving guitar solo. He takes Your Breath Away follows suit with more sublime fatback guitar thrills and, in addition, Schwarz throws in an excellent reading of Graham Parker’s Love Gets You Twisted.
There’s an echo of the Brinsley band’s country influences on the laid-back confluences of You Drive Me To Drink while Game On is a jangled jaunt which, once again, recalls those early efforts of UK bands to approximate the sunny sounds beaming in from California although Schwarz here delivers it with a finely balanced sense of resignation. Storm In The Hills, a grand retro rocker with groovy barrelhouse piano and tasty guitar licks, finds Schwarz once again getting tangled up in the modern world, and the environment is the subject of his slightly Tex-Mex influenced You Can’t Take It Back. Schwarz ends the album on an optimistic bent with the sunny side up thoughts of All Day which starts with just him and what sounds like a ukulele, before the band kicks in for a fine, pub rock like coda.
Tangled is an album which contains the benefits of a life well lived and the sage reflections gathered therein. It’s much like a well-loved old friend inviting you in for a warm and cosy evening full of top entertainment.
Praise be the world when, in the midst of a pandemic and other shit storms, a new Malcolm Holcombe album arrives. It’s like a rock to hold onto as mayhem rushes by, with Holcombe’s gruff voice, his command of visceral country blues, and lyrical acuity, sure to hold you fast.
Tricks Of The Trade is classic Holcombe – raw, sinewy and vibrant. He growls magnificently over a set of songs, which, on this occasion, are amped up somewhat while never letting go of his North Carolina roots. He’s aided by long time companions, Jared Tyler and Dave Roe with Roe’s son, Jerry, taking on the drum role, and together they rustle up a mighty rumble. While it’s Holcombe’s voice and words that are first and foremost, it’s the hustle and bustle of the stringed instruments – guitar, slide, Dobro – snaking throughout the album which capture attention. At times the interplay is quite hypnotic as on the Townes Van Zandt like Damn Rainy Day which, for this reviewer, could have lasted for twice as long and still tempt one to press the replay button.
It’s timeless music, as old as the hills but bang up to date also as Holcombe addresses some issues of the day. Crazy Man Blues doesn’t go so far as to name the man but it’s evident who Holcombe is weighing into here. The opening Money Train is suffused with blues and gospel as it satirises the worship of Mammon and Your Kin is surely a condemnation of US border forces as they straddle Mexico and separate families.
Elsewhere, Holcombe just waxes wonderfully on eternal themes. On Tennessee Land is akin to Woody Guthrie’s dustbowl ballads while Misery Loves Company is a rare upbeat number belying its title, as Holcombe and crew (including backing singer Mary Gauthier) turn in a joyous country number. There’s more joy to be had in the title song which uses a circus theme to suggest that we are still in thrall to the bread and circuses the Romans used to placate their citizens. If Holcombe is suggesting that his songs are just a similar trick of the trade, the discerning listener would surely refute that. You need to dig deep to find artists of the calibre of Holcombe, even within these days of music on demand, and, once found, he is surely more than mere entertainment. Dig deep and dig him so that this breed of tried and true truth tellers and musicians can survive.
Here at Blabber’n’Smoke we hugely enjoyed Karen Jonas’ last album, the excellent The Southwest Sky & Other Dreams, so we were excited to receive this latest disc, albeit an EP with only four songs on it. So be it, it will tide us over for the time being.
Jonas, from Fredericksburg, Virginia, has over the course of five albums, proved to be adept at updating honky tonk songs and the Bakersfield sound while her song writing has grown to encompass the wide range of themes she tackled on The Southwest Sky. There’s more than a smidgeon of this on the EP but she opens with a bit of a surprise, her take on the Don Henley hit, The Boys Of Summer. First thoughts on this were, admittedly, that this was somewhat redundant, but listening to Jonas’ fine countrified rock version and then comparing it to the ‘80s synth ridden original, one has to admit that she quite owns the song. Her voice is in total control over the driving beat and swooping pedal steel and she kind of returns some of the song back to its original co-writer, Mike Campbell of The Heartbreakers.
Jonas seemingly was inclined to record this while grabbed by a writing frenzy earlier in the year which has resulted in an upcoming poetry collection, Gumballs, due out soon. Full of personal memories it led to her revisiting snippets of songs she’d started earlier but never completed. Going back to her notebooks, she chose three to accompany the Henley hit, going with a summer theme.
Summer’s Hard For Love is a nostalgic listen. Bathed in a languid and laid-back accompaniment with lazy acoustic guitars and slowly swooning pedal steel it has a touch of Neil Young’s Harvest Moon to it. Jonas sings it kind of sultry, kind of a mix of Patsy Cline and torch ballad singer. Thunder On The Battery, as its title suggests, is more portentous as the band limber up to create an atmospheric rumble. It’s akin to some of the songs on the last album. The EP closes with just Jonas and her guitar on Summer Moon. Close miked, it’s an intimate recording which proves she has the voice and song writing chops to place her amidst the top echelons of our favourite singer songwriters.
Stuck in pandemic land, I See Hawks In L.A. essentially underwent a crash course in remote recording for their latest album, On Our Way. As the band say, they “began the studio game. ProTools, trial by error, error in abundance…Can we use an iPhone recording?” Well, it’s graduation day today as they unveil the album and we can safely say that, were we marking it, it would get an A+.
On Our Way maintains the high standard set on previous releases by these wayward California hippies with their signature notes of high tide lines left behind by the likes of The Dead remaining intact. There is cosmic country, as on the pedal steel infused Geronimo, laid back musings on Stealing (which recalls classic Laurel Canyon days) and even some grungy junkyard ramblings on Mississippi Gas Station Blues which sounds like a mash up of Los Lobos and The Doors.
They set their stall out quite firmly on the flighty country rock of the opening song, Might have Been Me, which ripples along quite excellently and which is followed by the title track which has a slight touch of The Byrds to it in its chime. There’s a lengthy and somewhat freaky fiddle intro to Know Just What To Do which eventually subsides as the song sweetly flows into a fireside like homily. Warm and comforting for sure, but that fiddle buzz eventually returns as the song wavers between comfort and sonic malevolence. It’s as if John Cale had happened upon a David Crosby recording session. This sense of adventure is highlighted on the closing number, How You Gonna Know, an elongated eight minute trip dominated by intricate drum patterns accompanied with antipodean interruptions which eventually erupts into a tribal whelp.
Much more straightforward is the impressive Kentucky Jesus, a song which celebrates Muhammed Ali’s anti draft stance, and drummer Victoria Jacobs offers us the paisley patterned psychedelia of Kensington Market, revisiting territory she explored on the Hawks last album. If it’s Americana then there has to be a travelogue song and the band deliver another excellent slice of cosmic country rock on If I Move which swoops along quite excellently name checking fast food joints chock-full of memories of a lost love, the narrator lost in an endless highway, fuelled by despair. Quite wonderful.
Terlingua, situated in south Texas, might only have a population of 58 but it has featured in movies (including Paris, Texas) and has acquired the title of being Texas’ ghost town. Its abandoned mine works are a tourist attraction for hardy tourists, willing to endure the desert heat and, amidst its parched buildings, there’s a one hundred year old church still standing. This church was the location selected by Bard Edrington V to record this album in as live a manner as he could. The songs were all recorded live in a matter of two days, the band in a circle, playing to each other, no overdubs, the real deal.
Edrington has, over the past couple of years, proved himself to be quite a superior songwriter, both on solo outings and as one half of the Hoth Brothers. Here he excels himself. Having gathered a tremendous set of players to accompany him (Karina Wilson on vocals and violins, brothers Bill and Jim Palmer on bass and drums, Alex McMahon on pedal steel, banjo and guitar and Zoe Wilcox on backing vocals) he digs deep into traditional American folk themes and comes up with a startling selection of songs. The band meanwhile gel so well it’s difficult to believe that this is a “fly on the wall” recording and, while there are moments which recall the likes of Townes Van Zandt, there are others where the band delve into electric folk blues as practised by The Cowboy Junkies on their acclaimed Trinity Sessions album.
Opening with Ramblin’ Kind, a title which surely nods towards to Hank Williams, Edrington leads the band on a jaunty folk number with twirling fiddle to the fore which introduces a character who seems to haunt much of the album. A drifter – jobs here and there, sleeping rough and prone to wallowing in booze. He’s an American Everyman, down on his luck, and much of the album is about his compatriots and their share of bad luck and struggle. The mood darkens on the grungy Dylan like Property Lines which has Wilson sawing away like Scarlett Rivera as the band plunge into muddy waters, guitars wailing and flailing away to keep from drowning. It’s an epic song and is given an epic treatment.
Similar tales of bad luck and trouble fall into place throughout the album such as on the bittersweet country styling of Shut The Screen Door, the loping country blues of A New Day On The Farm and the stark death rattle of Black Coal Lung. All of these are quite excellent but Edrington tops them with a couple of songs which just about defy description. Nevertheless, here we go. Bard And The Bears is an ancient sounding song of the type we are used to from Michael Hurley. The song scrapes along as Edrington inhabits the flora and fauna of his youth while the band slowly pile in with jagged guitar and an insistent fiddle motif gradually taking over. Strange Balloon meanwhile finds Edrington musing on the night sky and the possibility of life out there, over a quite intoxicating rumble of guitars, fiddle and percussion.
Coming back to earth, Masterpiece Of St. Mark’s Square seems to be an impressionistic painting of some happy times in Venice while Athena’s Gaze is a full blown flowing folk rock number which alludes to the power of ancient Greek myths. A more recent past is visited on Dog Tags 1942, a song written by Edrington’s grandmother about her son going off to war. It’s a fine front porch slice of Appalachian music and it’s followed by the album closer, No Reason, which meanders through its seven minute duration quite wonderfully as Edrington burrows into his very own happy place while the band expertly nudge him along. Their telepathic playing is a Texas equivalent of the groundbreaking sounds conjured by Fairport Convention when they unleashed A Sailor’s Life. It’s a perfect way to close a brilliant album.