John Alexander. Of These Lands album launch party. The Glad Cafe, Glasgow. Friday 19th May 2017 with Roseanne Reid.

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The south side’s Glad Cafe was as packed as I’ve ever seen it for this show celebrating the release of local musician John Alexander’s second album, Of These Lands. Introducing his set in front of a drum kit Alexander promised the audience a bit of a Neil young experience, some solo acoustic songs before the band kicked in. A mite grandiose one might have thought but by and large Alexander followed through particularly when he buckled on his Gibson Les Paul midway through the set.

The album’s an intriguing mix of country blues and folk tinged rock which allows his fine guitar skills and deeply grained voice a chance to shine and both of these were on show tonight as he delivered all of the songs from the album along with a few older numbers.

The first three songs were solo efforts. Perched on a stool that he worried was “a bit too wobbly” he opened with the delightful Used To Be A Friend Of Mine, a song that harks back to the sixties folk revival with echoes of John Martyn and Bert Jansch before Don’t Fail Me, a harrowing eulogy to fallen soldiers, cast a dark shadow upon the hushed audience.  Alexander followed this with the sly blues picking of This Side Or The Other which, in a similar fashion to the opening number was a reminder of the freewheeling take on the blues that was popular back in the sixties. Delivered with a whiff of Bleeker Street and The Gaslight Cafe it’s the sort of song that Dave Van Ronk did so well and it allowed Alexander the opportunity to lay down some fine blues picking on his guitar.

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Drummer Jim McDermott appeared for the next song, one of the highlights of the album, Hallowed Ground. Although McDermott plays on several songs on the album Hallowed Ground isn’t one of them but tonight he fashioned a primal percussive shuffle over which Alexander laid down his skeletal blues, his voice stained with Delta dirt before they launched into the gruff All My Angels Have Fallen with McDermott pushing Alexander’s gruff delivery to new heights.  The pair were then joined by bassist Nico Bruce for a bone rattling Take The Blame.

Strapping on his Les Paul Alexander was as good as his word earlier on when he mentioned Neil Young as the band launched into a grungy raw boned rendition of Skin (from his previous album) that saw Alexander shredding notes from his guitar over the solid rhythm section.  There was a fine and chunky Meet Me Where The River Flows and a magnificent rendition of A Little Daylight which was muscled up from the album version with a seventies  rock feel, halfway between The Stones and Humble Pie, the only thing missing from the into was some cowbell. They ended the set with a cover version from a man who, as Alexander said, “went to school around the corner” and sure enough they pumped up an excellent rendition of John Martyn’s Don’t Want To Know which sparkled with a true love of the man’s music as all three conjured up as fine a rendition as I can recall. Alexander’s voice eerily reminiscent of Martyn while Bruce’s bass was supple and evocative and McDermott shone on his cymbal work.

No encores, declared Alexander but the crowd demanded one more so as McDermott and Bruce departed we were treated to a gutsy rendition of Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright which allowed a closing glimpse of the man’s fine voice and guitar work. All in all this was an excellent show.

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We must mention the opening act, Roseanne Reid. Ms. Reid is a graduate of sorts from the Steve Earle school of song writing and we’ve seen her in support slots several times over the past few months. Hailing from Edinburgh she disguises herself as an Appalachian waif as her songs recall the likes of Earle himself along with Mary Gauthier while she acknowledges writers such as Merle Haggard as an influence. Over the months she is building in confidence and she announced tonight that she is writing several new songs to supplant those from her EP she has been reliant on for so long. However with songs such as Sweet Annie, Amy and I Love Her So she’s already shown that she is somewhat special and an artist to watch out for.

David Starr. The Head and Heart

original-the_head_and_heart_coverWhen Blabber’n’Smoke first heard David Starr on last year’s Love & Sabotage  we likened him to Poco, Steve Stills, JD Souther, Andrew Gold and even Fleetwood Mac. The album (which featured contributions from Ritchie Furay, Steve Cropper and John Oates) was a wonderfully melodic slice of country tinged rock music and on the one occasion we saw Starr play the songs live he more than made up for a lack of a band with his enthusiasm and skill honed from many years on the road.

The Head And Heart, Starr’s six song EP follow up is a more reflective affair with little of the California highway breeziness that dominated the earlier album. Instead, Starr offers up some robust thoughts on the inner self and the temptations and conflicts we all face from day to day. The EP finds his friend John Oates firmly in the driving seat as he produces and arranges all the songs breathing new life into one Starr recorded some years ago and also tackling a golden oldie.

Starr proved on Love & Sabotage that he can delve into the more introspective and folkier side of things with his excellent You Will Come To Know and here he continues on that path. The album opens with The Edge Of The World, a peek into the mysteries of women and their beguiling ways that’s cloaked in a sumptuous melody with cello and pedal steel adding a quiet majesty over a pulsating rhythm section, somewhat akin to Jackson Browne’s work on For Everyman. The following title song is similar in delivery with the backing musicians somewhat stellar here with some very fine percussion (from Greg Morrow) in particular. Starr sings here of the ongoing conflict between emotional and rational thoughts, that moment when it’s tempting to just do it and consequences be damned while an inner voice is screaming just the opposite. Here his voice is strong and earnest with Oates adding fine harmonies. It’s a wonderful song and perfectly executed.

There’s more roots rumbling on the closing Dancing With My Pride (co written with cellist Bob Leipman) which utilises the woody timbre of the cello (played here by Nat Smith) to underscore the elemental aspects of the song as Starr picks upon a theme suggested by his reading of a book written by his grandfather. Here he sings of a farmer wronged in the past but for whom hope springs eternal as the song sashays from  haunting verses to a countrified middle eight with the cello coming across like a fiddle and parlaying with mandolin and pedal steel.  Again this song exemplifies the contradictions that Starr dots throughout the EP as the song attempts to defeat pessimism with an optimistic hope for the future and there’s a wonderful moment when his voice just drops into a whisper on the last line of “I’ll forgive her soon by the light of the prairie moon. Imagining her kiss and her sweet perfume. I’ll close my eyes and I’ll see her face , in a dream I’ll be the man I hoped to be. But for now…”  in a manner that is reminiscent of Warren Zevon.

Elsewhere Starr heads into darker territory on a pair of songs which have a burnished sheen to them that is in danger of roaming into AOR in the eighties. Waiting In The Dark shimmers with a menace as Starr descends into drugdom in the inner city but the scything guitars and polished production mark the song as somewhat out of step with the overall sound of the EP.  I’ve Come For You is another rainpuddled neon sign reflective slice of nightlife but it’s delivered much more successfully with some actual wickedness in the slide guitars and a sense of venom in Starr’s vocals.

Finally, Starr takes the brave step of covering California Dreaming, a song that’s imprinted on just about everyone and a choice that beggars the question of why redo this one? Apparently it was suggested by Oates as fitting into the EP’s theme of contrasts and for sure, despite it being thought of as the epitome of hippie heaven, the song actually is a wistful plea to be in sunny climes as the singer is stuck in a cold and dreary place. Starr (and Oates) take this melancholic yearning as the starting point for a dramatically reinvented version that replaces the Mamas & Papas soaring vocals for a wintry and claustrophobic New York winter feel, the band closer to The Insect Trust than Papa John and Mama Cass.

Davis Starr is currently touring the UK. all dates here including a Blabber’n’Smoke House Concert on 23rd May. PM for details.

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John Alexander. Of These Lands

a0817967281_16I first noticed the name, John Alexander, in the credits of the latest Doghouse Roses album where he contributed some fine guitar. And then this album, Of These Lands, popped through the post with some roles reversed, Doghouse Roses’ Paul Tasker and Iona McDonald credited with vocals and guitar on some of the songs. Their presence certainly ticked some boxes, marking the album as one to have a good listen to but, and I think it’s fair to say, I wasn’t expecting the rollin’ and tumblin’ excitement that was to follow.

Alexander is a Scottish musician but he’s welded to and wades in muddy waters, the delta sort to be more accurate. Some of the songs on the album follow in the line that stretches from Taj Mahal to Keb’ Mo’ with a vibrant attachment to country blues, the guitars evincing a spritely fingerpicking blues style while Alexander’s voice has a very fine smoke stained patina that at times sends chills up the spine. The best example here is on the spooky Hallowed Ground (with Tasker on slide guitar) which recalls the magisterial ground zero of old time blues, Blind Willie Johnson’s Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground. It’s the starkest moment on the album but the voodoo swampiness of Meet Me Where The River Flows (with Jim McDermott on drums and Nicholas Blythe on bass), the zinging guitar sparks of Take The Blame and the fiery solo rendition (with Alexander on acoustic and electric guitars) of All My Angels Have Fallen are rooted in the blues tradition with the latter recalling the late John Campbell.

Less one think this is just a blues album Alexander has some more tricks up his sleeve. An accomplished guitarist he is able to cross the ocean from the Mississippi delta back to the motherland and in particular those artists who picked up on blues traditions and transformed them into a sixties folk blues boom. Hence we have the nimble A Little Daylight which with its vocal harmonies could easily have sat within a Pentangle album while Used To Be A Friend Of Mine sounds like an outtake from an early John Martyn album.  Seven Cold Curses takes a slight curve into a rootsier Americana with a whiff of Townes Van Zandt while Hold On is a powerful and taut ballad that recalls the dustier edges of 70’s country rock  such as Guy Clark or Steve Young. On the closing This Side Or The Other Alexander draws all of his influences together as his grainy voice demands, “a double shot of whisky and a ham on rye”.  The song is a laid back and wonderful conglomeration of folk and blues (and beyond), Greenwich Village meets the delta and a smoky London town. A delightful end to a very fine album.

There’s an album release show at Glasgow’s Glad Cafe this Friday, 19th May. Tickets here

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Static Roots Festival takes off

sr posterBack in the sixties Immediate Records (home to The Small Faces, The Nice, Humble Pie and others) had a neat little slogan which went, Happy To Be Part of The Industry of Human Happiness. Reason I mention this is because I recently had spent some time in the company of a German friend of Blabber’n’Smoke who just about epitomises that epithet especially with regard to music. Dietmar Leibecke is a tall (very tall) and wonderful human being who may be known to several readers given his habit of turning up all over the place whenever there’s some good music to be heard.

Dietmar lives in Mullhelm An Der Rhur in Germany and for the past ten years he’s been promoting Americana and roots music in Germany with a host of house concerts along with booking tours for bands we’re all familiar with. Last year Dietmar ventured into the dangerous waters of setting up a music festival which he called Static Roots. Held in Oberhausen it was a two day event that featured Leeroy Stagger (Canada), The Wynntown Marshals (Scotland), John Blek & The Rats (Ireland), Malojian (Northern-Ireland), Meena Cryle & The Chris Fillmore Band (Austria), The Midnight Union Band (Ireland), and Anna Mitchell (Ireland). By all accounts, it was a great time and he’s set to do it again this year. Intrigued by the thought of setting up such a venture from scratch Blabber’n’Smoke wanted to hear more so we spoke to Dietmar to learn his story.

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The first Static Roots was held last year. Can you tell us a little bit about how and why you did it?

Well last year was a year of anniversaries. First off, there was my Silver Wedding anniversary and it was also my 50th birthday. It was also ten years since we had started to promote shows and on a personal note it was five years since I had received a kidney transplant so there was a lot to celebrate. My wife and I wanted to do something special and we decided on the idea of setting up a small festival. Where I stay there wasn’t anything like that going on and I was completely influenced by the Kilkenny Roots Festival. They always have a great line up and it’s so much fun. Wherever you go you see great acts and it’s not just the music but it’s the people as well, a real community. So we were thinking about that and decided to go for it and we got in touch with some of our friends in the music business and asked them to come over and play and we got a great response. Artists we had met in Kilkenny like John Blek and The Rats, Malojian and The Midnight Union Band agreed to come and then my friends from Scotland, The Wynntown Marshals signed up. And then there was Leeroy Stagger from Canada who has become one of my best friends, I’ve known him for around ten years now. The one act we got who I didn’t know personally was Daniel Romano. I’d seen him live and thought he was great but in the end his satnav took him to another town called Oberhausen which was near Munich. He called and offered to come the next day but by then the festival was closing so we didn’t get to see him.

It sounds like quite an adventure but you’ve been promoting shows for around ten years now. How did that start?

It was another birthday, my 40th. Steve Wynn has been my biggest influence since I was young, his album with The Dream Syndicate, Days Of Wine and Roses was really the first record that blew me over and made me think that this was music that was made for me. It opened up a completely new world for me and it’s still one of the best albums I’ve ever listened to.  So I got in touch with Steve and asked him to play my 40th birthday and he said yes! He came with the Miracle Three and put on a fantastic show and that’s really how we got into the business of putting on shows. When Steve came over he introduced me to the idea of doing house concerts.  I hadn’t  really heard of the concept up till then but then I looked it up and found a couple of American bands who were open to playing house concerts so a little while later I invited Leeroy Stagger over to play our house. He was the first artist to play there and it was just so touching and so intense so we’ve continued to do it and so far we’ve hosted about 50 house concerts. We started off with solo acoustic shows but then we had Easton Stagger Phillips (Tim Easton, Leeroy Stagger and Evan Phillips) come to play and we had to get a PA system for that. From then we went on to have full bands like Danny & The champions of The World and The Wynntown Marshals playing in our house. I think that Leeroy has been here the most, about five times. It’s great fun and nowadays I occasionally book tours in Germany for bands I want to see in my house. The house concerts, even with a full band are very intimate and it’s great to see the audience being so attentive and the acts can take their time and tell their stories behind the songs, it’s so much more than playing in a bar for them.

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So how many people would you normally have at a house concert?

Well they always sell out and we have space for around 65 people there but it depends on the size of the band. If it’s a six-piece band we only let in 60 people but for a smaller band we can squeeze in maybe five more people.

You must have quite a large room

It’s not so big but we have a couple of beer benches, you know the traditional lederhosen and sauerkraut German beer benches so we have space for about 30 to 35 seats with the rest of the audience standing at the back of the room.

OK, you’ve got a full band, amplified, playing in your house. What do the neighbours think?

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They are all invited! Last summer we had John Blek and The Rats over and it was loud but it was so hot we had to open all the windows and leave the door open and some folk came over to see what the noise was and ended up staying. We converted a few people that night and made some new friends. Sometimes it’s been so loud I’ve wondered if the police might show up but so far so good.

 

Back to Static Roots. Can you tell us a little more about that?

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It’s held in an old zinc factory which has been converted into a theatre. It was built I think in 1904 and it’s a lovely building with old brick walls and some of the original fixtures. It looks really cool with huge windows, a big stage and a great sound and a great crew. It’s a nice big venue with a beer garden out front, burger stands and all and it really worked well last year. It holds around 300 people which I thought was a good number. I didn’t want to go for a bigger place because I knew it would be hard to fill it. Again I was thinking of Kilkenny where I think the biggest venue holds around 400.

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Have you gone again for acts you know?

Danny and The Champions of The World, Peter Bruntnell and John Blek are good friends but we’ve also got David Corley who I saw last year at Kilkenny and Erin Rea and The Meanwhiles, both of them making their first appearances in Germany.

Hopefully this is not an insensitive question but do you expect to make any money from this?

Well last year, because it really was a celebration of our wedding anniversary and such it was an invitation only event in the main. We did spread the word around friends in the music world and asked them to donate to a fund we had set up for Doctors Without Borders (AKA Médecins Sans Frontières) so there was no ticket fee, just a donation and we collected around 9,000 Euros for the campaign. We covered the artists’ fees and the cost of the venue out of our own pocket. This year it’s a public event and we’re selling tickets for the show and so far it’s going fairly well with more than half the tickets already gone. We are getting some press coverage and we’ll see how it goes but I’m sure that the festival is going to be a success some day along the line. It will need some time to get established but it was so much fun last year and the audience was great. We had a bunch of folk who came over from Kilkenny, the Kilkenny Roots Family we called them and there’s a great bunch of Scottish people who came over as well. A lot of people I had met at shows before, there were so many friends there. It’s quite funny but also important that wherever you travel music wise you meet people, like minded people and you keep in touch and it’s such a great community of open minded people interested in music, peace, love. I love the idea of music bringing people together, I’ve been to Rambling Roots in High Wycombe, March into Pitlochry and Kilkenny Roots so far this year and I can keep all those memories for ever and I hope that Static Roots will be as good. I’m going to have the time of my life at it even if it’s been lots of work in setting it up but once the last note is played I’m going  to say, “Man, this was brilliant” and then it will be looking forward to next year’s festival.

Static Roots takes place on the 9th and 10th June at Oberheim  with the following line up

David Corley

Peter Bruntnell

John Blek & The Rats

Danny & The Champions Of The World

Erin Rae & The Meanwhiles

Torpus & The Art Directors

David Ford

Nadine Khouri

Jack Marks

Tickets are available here. It’s only a hop and a skip away.

Festival pictures by Klaas Guchelaar

 

 

 

Eric Ambel. Lakeside. At The Helm Records

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Glory be. An Eric Ambel album, only 12 years after the last one. To be fair Ambel (Roscoe to his friends) has been busy running his own bar in NY’s East Village (The Lakeside Lounge) while still producing a slew of artists for the past two decades. However his bar (and its famous jukebox) fell victim to rising rents and closed two years ago and it seems he’s had the time to come up with Lakeside and what a glorious rambling rock’n’roll creature it is.

A founding member of the Del-Lords and The Yayhoos,  Ambel has also been the guitar slinger for Steve Earle and Joan Jett and The Blackhearts while various incarnations of his own Roscoe’s Gang have come and gone. As noted above he’s an in demand producer with the likes of The Bottle Rockets, blue Mountain, The Backsliders, Nils Lofgren, Cheri Knight and Mojo Nixon all benefiting from his skills. Above all however is the fact that he’s a huge fan of music and Lakeside is a tribute of sorts to his lost and lamented bar with Ambel telling The Bedford and Bowery webzine, “I was working on the record before I even understand that the record really was about the Lakeside. It took me a while to understand that. It was influenced by stuff we had on the jukebox. Our jukebox was really great, and it was just our soundtrack.”

It must have been some jukebox as the album is a firecracker of ten songs that positively crackle and burn. There is a variety of sorts on the disc, a revved up version of Barrett Strong’s Money with Ambel aping Jerry Lee’s Star Club rendition over a stone killer riff and a sweetly distorted guitar rhapsody on the closing Cryin’ In My Sleep that goes all Santos and Johnny on us. Ambel nails his colours to the mast with Hey Mr. DJ where he decries the habit of employing cheap DJ’s to replace live music. It opens with a huge T Rex like guitar surge before forging on like lava destroying all in its path. With corkscrew guitar solos and pummelling bass and drums he sings, “Hey Mr. DJ play another song like the one you just played. Crank the drums, crank the bass, crank that shit all over the place”.

Ambel’s Roscoe’s Gang have oft been compared to Neil Young and it’s true that here he still abides by the Crazy Horse bible, that side of Young which sounds like a bar band about to fall over having had too much to drink (think here of Barstool Blues and Lookin’ For A Love, both on Zuma). So we get Have Mercy which is pumped up with razor sharp guitars and Don’t Make Me Break You Down with its slow burning groove and low rumbled guitar solos that meander throughout amidst crashes of cymbals. Buyback Blues is another delve into that honey slide narcoleptic twilight zone that Young once inhabited and, turned up loud, it’s shiveringly unnerving with Ambel’s desperate voice recalling the misery and mystery of Peter Green in his heyday.

There’s also the Sun studio kissed rockabilly pop of Here Come My Love (which would give Nick Lowe a run for his money) and the wide sweep of Let’s Play With Fire which toys with country rock. Massive Confusion is a Ramones like thrash which is a rush from start to end (1:54 minutes so it fits into the Ramones time limit) and there’s a brief pause for breath on the cover of Gillian Welch’s Look At Miss Ohio which is amped up but slowly delivered over a solid drum beat with squirreling guitars eventually rising to a crescendo before collapsing into a Hendrix Hey Joe riff at the end.

Overall Lakeside is ridiculously brilliant. It brims with evil guitars and attitude and should be on any self respecting listener’s list. Absolutely recommended.

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Donald Byron Wheatley. Moondogs and Mad Dogs. Maiden Voyage Recording Company

267934Life Is A Carnival sang The Band and for Donald Byron Wheatley it could be his signature song. A scion of a travelling fairground family Wheatley had a nomadic upbringing, setting up and dismantling show rides across the country, a wild and probably not so romantic existence but once the crowds had their fill of candy floss and cheap thrills and set off home Wheatley would listen to his showman father sing songs culled from the blues tradition along with his abiding love, Bob Dylan.  The young Wheatley learned these songs (he recalls singing along to Subterranean Homesick Blues, word-perfect, when he was six years old) and toyed with the idea of a musical career but life intervened, as it does. However that six year old Dylan aficionado resurfaced years later as Wheatley had to deal with adult issues; the death of his father, friends facing hard times and he found himself writing some songs. A musician cousin of his, John Wheatley, encouraged him to capture these in a studio and the pair headed off to Reservoir Recording Studio, a lucky strike on two accounts as it brought them into the orbit of Chris Clarke who runs the studios and is bass player with Danny & The Champions Of The World and Danny himself who was in the process of setting up a record label. Happenstance indeed but the upshot is that Wheatley can now proudly offer up Moondogs and Mad Dogs, a debut years in the making and adorned with a prime set of musicians including several of The Champs and pedal steel legend BJ Cole.

Like a musical Grandma Moses Wheatley is a primitive folk artist, his canvas the songs he heard growing up. Dylan is the prime mover. Several of the song titles nod to Dylan originals and he dots and darts throughout various Dylan eras, the amphetameanied talking blues of Subterranean Homesick Blues, Big Pink and The Basement Tapes, the red hot punk guitar assaults of Mike Bloomfield as Dylan transversed from folk to rock at Newport and Rolling Thunder Gypsy jaunts . But he also delves into Southern soul and funk (Not Tonight Josephine and Ten Dollar Jenny) along with the Romany wanderings of Ronnie Lane on Swalley Howell while there’s a nod to the pained solo recordings of John Lennon on Nothing, his voice smothered in echo uncannily akin to the late Beatle. He’s a grand wordsmith and half the fun here is in following the lyrics as there are unexpected twists and turns in the grand Dylan tradition as on the opening Life’s A Beach while Greenwich Village Blues is a wonderful capture of that time when Dylan et al invaded The Gaslight and it’s delivered with just the right amount of patina to allow the listener to wallow in the past.

On an album that’s unashamedly proud to wear its colours on its sleeve Wheatley transcends his influences coming across as a UK version of The Felice Brothers. The cracked voice, the sheer joy of the title song, the wracked and organ fuelled barnstorm of Smoking Gun are all delights but the best is on the blistering quicksilver ramshackle blues of Hand Me Down Leopard Skin Hat which, in a blind test, could easily be taken for a genuine lost Dylan song.

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Jon and Roy. The Road Ahead Is Golden.

4086666Jon Middleton and Roy Vizer are a Canadian duo who have been steadily building up their profile over the course of six albums. Their 2012 release Let It Go was awarded a Western Canadian Music Award for Roots Recording Of The Year while they seem to have cracked that financial lifeline that is TV exposure with several of their songs appearing on adverts. Recorded in a rural studio close to the band’s base in Victoria on Vancouver Island The Road Ahead Is Golden is a relatively simple affair with Middleton on guitar and vocals and Vizer on drums ably supported by bass and keyboards; the songs relaxed and easy flowing with Middleton’s attractively wearied voice the main hook.

The album ambles along nicely, a relaxed effort that’s just the right side of MOR music, not too demanding as the guitars ripple over Vizer’s supple percussion. Middleton at times recalls Will Oldham in the vocal department but the mood is more reminiscent of Oldham’s revisiting of his songs on his album Bonnie Prince Billy Sings Greatest Palace Music. The opening song, Runner, sets the pace with brisk scrubbed guitar pushing the song along as a subdued keyboard adds some colour. Breakdown skiffles along with some fine key changes and The Better Life posits the rural life as an antidote to the information highway that many of us are locked into these days.

Clever One slows the momentum with delicate finger picking and electric piano to the fore while How the story Goes is short and sweet with female harmonies added to the mix but the band’s dependence on Middleton’s voice is laid bare on the instrumental Silent Lou which just kind of noodles along. Overall, the album rests squarely on the vocals although there are some nice touches such as the guitar break on the title song and the late night groove of Nothing But Everything.  It’s a disc to spin on a lazy afternoon with Middleton’s voice wafting over a cooling breeze.

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