Mark Utley. Bulletville. Sleep Cat Records. This Is American Music

Blabber’n’Smoke first came across Cincinnati’s Mark Utley when we reviewed Magnolia Mountain’s album Town And Country back in 2012. A double album that spanned the breadth of country rock from folky roots to grungier grooves Town and Country was followed by Beloved which delved into a Muscle Shoals direction while Utley simultaneously released a solo album that hankered more to his country leanings. His next step was to form a band that would perform the country songs from the solo album and hence Bulletville was born. A splinter group of sorts Bulletville features Magnolia Mountain members Renee Frye (vocals), Jeff Vanover (guitar), and Todd Drake (drums) who are joined by bassist Ken Kimbrell, keyboardist Ricky Nye and pedal steel guitarist John Lang. Here they deliver a solid package of tear stained and heart wrenching country songs that run the gamut from George and Tammy like laments to beer fuelled honky tonking gut busters fuelled by lashings of pedal steel.

The album opens with the loping bass into to Good Timin’ Girl, a breeze of a song with a classic bittersweet country tale that could have been written by Dolly Parton and sung by Kenny Rogers, in fact if Rogers or any of his ilk ever took this on then it would be a guaranteed hit. As it is the performance here is exemplary, Utley almost croons the words while Frye adds a multtitracked refrain, the pedal steel is sweet and honeyed and Nye offers up a fine piano solo. Wish You Were Her however steers well clear of the charts and heads for the bars as the band sway into Ameripolitan territory and the guitars grimace instead of smile. A woozy waltz time lament with a seventies feel courtesy of the electric keyboards and fuzzy bass line it sees Utley and his partner sharing a table but separated by miles of estrangement. The album is packed full of these wonderful odes to lost or failed love with Utley mining the past and coming up with new treasures such as the classic couplet “I just can’t remember to forget” on the honky tonk tones of Remember To Forget while Honey I’m Home weeps wonderfully as Utley swaps the family home for the local pub in an attempt to drown his sorrows. One Heartbeat At A Time is another break up song but it’s delivered with the commercial heartbeat that John Hartford sounded out on Gentle On My Mind and is another example of the commercial potential contained herein. While all of the band are in excellent form here Renee Frye in particular sparkles with her harmony support with Only In Our Minds an excellent country duet. She has two showcases here, the rolling and tumbling boogie Firecracker where she is as sassy as Loretta Lynn while The Only Thing is another tear jerking lament offering the female counterpoint to Utley’s songs of loss.

If this were all the album would be a winner but they throw in a couple of belters just to up the ante. Four In The Morning swaggers in with a muscular swing as beefy pedal steel and swirling organ churn and boil over a menacing rhythm producing a song that has the heft of a Joe Ely song back when he was a pal of The Clash. Jesus Wept is simpler in its delivery with some Bakersfield country in the twang guitars as Utley sings “I’m broke as hell, all my bills are due, My girlfriend’s mad and my wife is too” on a song that just about encapsulates the stereotype of red necked country music lovers. It’s a bit of a hoot. Utley closes the album with the only cover, a version of fellow TIAM artists, Great Peacock’s Bluebird which he dresses up in warm vocals and sweet pedal steel murmurings, a sweet end to a meaty album.

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Dave Desmelik We Don’t Want A Dying Flame.

Ninth album from North Carolina’s Dave Desmelik who Blabber’n’Smoke last reviewed here describing Deep Down The Devotion as a “song cycle of life and death and the little that matters in between.” Desmelik followed that one with an album of 16 instrumentals on Instrumental Swim and on We Don’t Want A Dying Flame he offers a mixture of instrumentals and self penned songs that delve deeper into the existential angst he conjured up so well on Deep Down. Again he plays the majority of the instruments himself (with some assistance from Josh Gibbs who plays lap steel guitar on five numbers and Andy Gibbon, bass guitar on four) and while there’s a homespun feel to the album the sound is excellent, at times recalling, as we said last time, the sparser moments of Richmond Fontaine.

The album opens with the five minute instrumental, Hyper Fatigue which sounds as if The Penguin Cafe Orchestra were backing John Fahey with nimble guitar picking and wheezy keyboard to the fore. The tune meanders but never falters, groping its way through some ambient electric guitar grumblings and ken speckle percussion. At its end we stumble into the stark landscape of Destruction, a dark acoustic song menaced by angry fuzzed fretwork with Desmelik describing a dystopian nightmare, his voice resigned and weary. Over its six and a half minutes the song grips the listener and while there are echoes of Eef Bazerley’s work here it’s a miniature masterpiece. L-I-F-E offers a ray of light with its audio verite recording of children at play over some fine acoustic guitar picking while the following No Words To Describe pays tribute to the mother child bond. Red Collar, Statue, Two Gifts and Sand Toe are handsome instrumental interludes dotted throughout the album, they’re miniatures compared to the opening tune and lighter in mood with Desmelik’s guitar compelling but the meat is in the songs here. We’re Older Now (Ode To OBJ) harks back to a band Desmelik played in (Onus B. Johnson if you need to know) and again Eef Barzeley of Clem Snide comes to mind as the song falters, in danger of becoming a waltz time country piece but teetering and never falling. It’s a wonderful ramshackle, wrecked and honest ramble through some memories and a very fine song indeed. Josh Gibbs’ lap steel enlivens On The Clock as Desmelik delivers a gnomic self help guide which buzzes and burns with a sweet grace while Stretch continues in this vein, both musically and lyrically as Desmelik describes life as a set of emotional and physical callisthenics. The last song Do You Even Know, another swooningly gorgeous melange of guitars, belies its sonic attractiveness as Desmelik subverts the usual singer songwriter confessional memoire with a series of vignettes before asking the titular question begging the listener to wonder. The album closes with another instrumental, reeB aniloraC (read it backwards) that rumbles and rambles.

We Don’t Want A Dying Flame is an idiosyncratic album. Desmelik has a somewhat unique talent that reveals itself here on close repeated listens although some of the songs are immediately arresting. The instrumental byways scattered throughout might dilute the impact of the album somewhat but there’s no question that he’s a singular voice worth hearing.

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Sons of Bill + The Wynntown Marshals. Stereo, Glasgow. Thursday 19th February

The first promotion of the year from Glasgow’s Fallen Angels Club was a rerun of an event featured last year as part of their tenth anniversary celebrations. Same two bands, same venue, pretty much the same crowd although tonight was fuller than last year so word must be spreading.
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First up was Edinburgh’s Wynntown Marshalls with a seven song half hour set comprised of numbers from 2013’s excellent The Long Haul and three new ones from their forthcoming Blue Rose Records release, The End Of The Golden Age. Having spent several months recording the album the band seemed delighted to be back on stage and turned in a winning performance, gutsy and brilliantly played. Familiarity hasn’t dulled the pleasure one gets from The Long Haul Songs. The crunching rock of Driveaway dipped and soared with swirling keyboards before a thrilling (and loud) climax. Whatever It Takes allowed singer Keith Benzie to show he can give Jeff Tweedy a run for his money as a singer and songwriter as did Low Country Comedown which was given a fine country rock swagger with a Beatlish touch to the harmonies by the band before it segued with a wall of noise into Tide, bass player Murdoch MacLeod’s epic squall. I’ve seen the band play this song five or six times now and each time it takes on a different persona. Tonight, given the restrains of a support slot, it was tighter and shorter than it has been in the past but it remains a powerful piece with guitarist Iain Sloan cresting the waves with piercing guitar solos while the organ playing of Richie Noble steered it tonight in the direction of CS&N’s Long Time Coming. The three new songs from the forthcoming album (Red Clay Hill, Dead Sunflowers and the title song) all bode well for its release. Red Clay Hill was classic Marshals’ Americana with a fine jangled guitar chassis while The End Of The Golden Age came across as a fine slice of power pop with some barbed guitar and three part harmonies that were excellent, whetting the appetite for the new disc.

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Sons Of Bill could do no wrong from the start with the stagefront packed. While they showed that they can whip up a storm with fiery numbers such as Bad Dancer over the course of the set the balance was in favour of the softer edged harmony tinged offerings from their last album, Love And Logic. They opened with their tribute to Chris Bell, Lost In The Cosmos, a brave choice as its delicate delivery demanded attention from the audience but there was an immediate hush. Road To Canaan slowly built up into a thunderous climax before Siren Song screamed into view. Joey’s Arm has grown into a powerful arena like rock ballad but tonight it was eclipsed by the muscular rendition of Brand New Paradigm, another song that opens with lilting harmonies before whipping itself into a bit of a frenzy. With the three brothers Wilson taking turns at lead vocals and Sam Wilson proving himself adept at finger picking sensitivity and gut crunching electric lead the crowd were lapping this up. A three song encore however was almost anticlimactic with Sam and Abe Wilson turning in a guitar and keyboard stripped back Find My Way Back Home before the band launched into the chunky Turn It Up with a final number, the funereal Hymnsong ending the night on a minor note. While I felt that the set tonight was not as gripping as last year’s I was in the minority as chat in the queue for the Merch table was unanimously positive. It has to be said that the Sons Of Bill have the chops, the looks and importantly, the songs that could catapult them into the bigtime. This is their second tour in the UK, when they come back grab the opportunity to see them as they have the potential to outgrow venues like this.

Wynntown Marshals website

Sons Of Bill website

Andrew Combs. All These Dreams. Loose Music

First thing to say about this album, the second from Nashville artist Andrew Combs, is that we were expecting some kind of Roy Orbison doppelganger to come soaring from the speakers. Seems that comparisons to Orbison have been bandied about all over when folk write about the album but the similarities (if they are there) largely passed us by. Instead we were reminded of the lush arrangements of songs such as Gentle On My Mind and Everybody’s Talking as rippling guitars and sweet strings swept over the two opening songs, Rainy Day Song and Nothing To Lose. Throughout the album there’s a sense of late sixties popular country pop with Strange Bird recalling Mike Nesmith’s latter efforts with The Monkees before flying solo, poppy with hooks galore but with a sly intelligence in the lyrics (and some inspired whistling). On the title track Combs continues to deliver a radio friendly sound on another song that flows effortlessly with strings and a slightly twangy guitar in the middle eight while his slightly weathered voice, attractive throughout, has a passing comparison to Ryan Adams. We have to admit here that the song All These Dreams shares with Orbison’s latter efforts a sense of drama, however it’s the Orbison who was the senior figure in The Travelling Wilburys and of Mystery Girl who’s recalled here and much of that sound was down to Jeff Lynne. Whatever, the worst that can be said here is that Combs has the ability to write hooks as catchy as Lynne and that can’t be all bad.

The latter half of the album steps out from under the Nashville pop umbrella and is all the better for that. The ballad, In The name Of You stands tall next to similar efforts from John Fullbright while Slow Road To Jesus opens like a dusty Kristofferson song before heading into a mock baroque gospel tinged lament. Here Combs’ voice is hesitant and searching while the arrangement is wonderful, the guitars, keening pedal steel and spare percussion perfectly balanced with the swooping strings and brass that adorn the bridge. This is Jimmy Webb or Harry Nilsson territory and it’s executed brilliantly. Month Of Bad Habits has a slight bossa nova feel allied to a deep south sultriness and again it flows sweetly with a hint of menace in its undertones albeit sweetened again by the string arrangements. When the guitar and pedal steel cut loose halfway through the song toughens up and the extended outro is not a million miles away from some of Calexico’s work. Combs closes the album with another understated ballad, Suwannee County that is swathed in warm pedal steel work (from Steelism’s Spencer Cullum Jnr.) and demonstrates that while he’s a dab hand at channelling 1960’s Countrypolitan Nashville pop his stronger hand lies in darker territory.

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Esther Sparks & The Whiskey Remedy. Love Songs

Esther Sparks was born and raised in a spiritual community, the Spire Fellowship, based in Overtoun House in West Dunbartonshire. She moved to the States in 1996 living in New Orleans for several years before relocating to Colorado, a chequered past and one which she’s visited on prior albums. Now she’s formed a band, The Whiskey Remedy (American spelling of whisky please note) and released Love Songs. The album was released back in October of last year and Sparks and company actually played two Scottish release dates along with a session on Tom Morton’s radio show. Late as ever to the party Blabber’n’Smoke was only recently alerted to the album but on listening reckoned it’s well worth sharing here.

Love Songs is a short album with Sparks on guitar and vocals and married couple, Darren Thornberry on harmonies and lead guitar, and his wife, Melissa on drums. It’s dominated by Sparks’ strong vocals which retain a hint of her Scottish roots while her writing is rooted in a confessional folk idiom recalling writers as diverse as Tracy Chapman and Michelle Shocked while there’s a sense of Eddie Reader in the delivery. The trio deliver the songs with brio and mention must be made of Melissa Thornberry’s percussion which is inventive throughout, adding colour to the primarily acoustic guitar based numbers. Mr. Thornberry adds some guitar solos but his primary contribution is on the harmony vocals, best heard on the vituperative Love Like Yours.

The album opens with the stark self-flagellation of Forgive Me with Sparks’ regrets to the fore over forlorn piano and a climatic chorus. Always is another apology but this time more gentle and tender in its delivery despite some martial drumming and Sparks’ most assured vocals on the album while My Ground has some tremendous percussive effects which cosset Sparks’ spooky spiritual delivery. By now it’s evident that the songs are about loss and regret and Your Love Called nails this as Sparks delivers a powerful solo performance about abandonment, wondering how and why it happened, teetering on the edge of despair. Broken promises and broken love continues on the full-bodied rush of Madeleine’s Man while The Man Up The Stairs is a wish fulfilment torch song as Sparks conjures up an ideal partner. Closing with the boozy clatter of Prayer Of A Drunkard that culminates in a bar room chorus, Sparks ends up in the suds and slosh filled sentimentality that fuels broken dreams worldwide reminding one of Mary Coughlan’s odes to the demon drink.

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Norrie McCulloch & Iain Sloan with Howie Reeve and Michael Anguish. Seven Song Club. Tron Theatre Glasgow. Friday 13th February

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Norrie McCulloch’s Old Lovers Junkyard was one of Blabber’n’Smoke’s favourite home grown albums of 2014. Its honeyed country stylings coupled with McCulloch’s warm rasp of a voice and his fine song writing all added up to a winner, an album that’s been receiving ongoing radio plays and gathering new followers; certainly anyone we’ve recommended it too has been quite effusive in their praise. Friday was our first opportunity to see McCulloch in action as part of a trio of acts appearing at the Seven Song Club in one of Glasgow’s hidden treasures, The Victorian Bar at The Tron Theatre. All warm and woody it was a perfect setting for his heartfelt songs. An added attraction was that McCulloch was appearing accompanied by Iain Sloan of The Wynntown Marshals playing pedal steel guitar, an instrument he uses not only for the Marshalls’ jangled rock but also as the current dreamweaver for progressive rock band Abel Ganz. An intriguing set up we thought. Old Lovers Junkyard wallows at times in the pedal steel yearnings of Dave McGowan but a two man show, acoustic and pedal steel only remains a rare beast. Willie Vlautin and Richard Buckner have appeared thus in live situations but on record we can only recall the magisterial And The Hits Keep On Coming, Michael Nesmith’s 1972 album recorded with just him and Red Rhodes on board. While there’s a recording of Nesmith and Rhodes playing live live on The Amazing Zigzag Concert box set this set up is not one that you would generally come across. It intrigues in two ways; pedal steel is apparently difficult to master and naked might miss a tight rhythm section to bolster it. However, with its ability to change pitch and harmonics it’s almost unique in its ability to accompany human voice, to echo, support and cosset the singer.

Anyhow, waffle aside, McCulloch and Sloan fitted together like bread and butter. Seven songs, as advertised, wafted around the room, McCulloch assured, warm throated and ebullient, Sloan caressing the songs, creating wafts of billowing buttered sounds and occasionally soloing with a deftness and warmth that demonstrated the emotional capabilities of the instrument that Danny Wilson (of Danny & The champions Of The World) describes as the ironing board of love. Indeed as McCulloch sang Sloan appeared to be almost caressing his instrument, coaxing it into life, a winning combination indeed. As for the songs there was a fine mix of old and new, four from Old Lovers Junkyard and three from McCulloch’s current recording sessions. Old Lovers Junkyard itself was given a desolate and yearning feel with Sloan’s pedal steel weeping along to the forlorn lyrics while Too far Gone had some heart breaking pedal steel glissandos on this bitter sweet tale. Call Me Home was a lesson in frailty, the pedal steel keening away, McCulloch’s voice halting, reminiscent of seventies singer songwriter neurosis, questioning and wondering and adorned with an excellent steel led outro. Still Looking For You , the closing song on Old Lovers Junkyard and the closing song tonight had a warm, laid back country feel to it. Of the new songs New Joke was a hard luck tale written while travelling home from Bridge Of Allan had a harsher edge to the vocals with the pedal steel adding some bite. McCulloch was inspired to write These Mountain Blues on a road trip to see Townes van Zandt’s grave in Texas and the song does indeed inhabit TVZ territory as he sang about an oak tree next to the grave, achingly evocative it offered an opportunity for Iain Sloan to deliver his finest solo playing of the night. The other new song of the night bridged whatever gap there is between Ayrshire and Texas as McCulloch went solo and off mic to sing a song inspired by his grandfather’s toils in the mines, Black Dust. A powerful piece, this was the folkiest moment of the night as he sang, “he didn’t know he was digging his own grave” with guitar and harmonica and gusty vocals in the working class folk tradition.

A short set perhaps but throughout the show the audience appeared mesmerised, the combination of the songs and performance transfixing, McCulloch affable and commanding on stage in between songs. The queue for his album afterwards testament to the quality on show.

A mea culpa here regarding the other acts, both new to Blabber’n’Smoke but Howie Reeve was very impressive as he delivered a set of fairly challenging aural assaults, played on an acoustic bass which he banged, clattered, tweeked and plucked at times with some ferocity, at others a surprising tenderness. With lyrics that recalled the absurdities of Ivor Cutler or the surrealism of Robert Wyatt he was incredibly engaging, a cross between R M Hubbert and Eugene Chadbourne and he deserves some delving into his catalogue. Michael Anguish closed the night with a full band set that portrayed him as a fine performer who strays into Avett Brothers company at times. Loose limbed Americana styled songs flowed from the band with one in particular reminding us of the long lost Granfalloon Bus while there was also an element of 1970’s folk weirdness in the mix on the closing song.

Heid: The T. F. Arnott Story

Here’s an oddity, the description alone commands attention and demands a listen.

“….. fragments of a long lost more extensive piece of work by a radio documentarian about a delta blues guy called T. F. Arnott. It tells the story of his strange and deeply twisted career and how it spanned throughout the better part of the 20th century. First spotted as a talent scout in Hollywood in the mid thirties he appears throughout the ages, meeting folk like Elvis, Richard Feynman, and even Bill Clinton along the way. “

The album is the demented brainchild of T. F. Arnott (described as a “Blues Player, Poet, Theoretical Physicist, Hollywood Mogul, Alligator Hunter and also Glaswegian”) who recalled his younger days when he and his chums would record improvised radio comedy programmes on his mum’s tape player. Now grown up (allegedly) he’s spun this fantasy (with the assistance of Kerr McClure, Isaac Wilcox, Marcus Montgomery Roche and Peter Arnott) and unleashed it on an unsuspecting world.

It’s great fun. The album consists of acoustic blues songs for the post part interspersed with snippets of documentary commentary from various characters recalling the career of T. F. Arnott. These range from Shaky Mo (a doppelganger for Camberwell carrot Danny from Withnail & I) describing Arnott’s 1967 spell in London where he recorded “Twelve songs about Sausages” (” great title, crap record”), to the owner of Florida’s Crocodile Club who went hunting in the Everglades with Arnott, killed a manatee and tried to make a guitar case out of its skin. Failing to do so they eventually fashioned a hat instead. There’s episodes involving The Manhattan Project, Jean Paul Sartre’s sex club and Arnott’s in setting up Sun Records which he originally called Bum Records. Sure, it’s juvenile at times but there’s many chuckles contained herein, a bit like listening to Cheech and Chong recording Blind Melon Chitlin Lemon while watching Spinal Tap.

As for the music, some of it is excellent. There’s a fine Glaswegian take on How Come My Dog Don’t Bark (recorded by Dr. John among others) retitled How Come My Dog Dinnie Bark. Cry recalls the works of Hamish Imlach with wonderful woozy Glaswegian backing vocals, Don’t Ya Call Me sounds like an angry west of Scotland John Lee Hooker while there’s a lighter take on the blues with the toe tapping and memorable Magic Band. Overall it’s great fun, not to be taken too seriously (the legend himself confided to Blabber’n’Smoke “it’s just a wee DIY type affair”) but for the grand price of £2 you can download it and judge for yourself.

Buy it here