John Murry. John Murry Is Dead.

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Don’t worry, that’s not a headline, just the name of the latest EP from Mr. Murry compiled to tie in with his recent short tour down South. Regular Blabber’n’Smoke readers will know of Murry’s trials and tribulations, his past addiction issues and more recent hassles with the recording business. More importantly they’ll know that he is capable of making music that is emotionally direct, his thoughts tumbling out over confessional ballads and scorched earth waves of sounds. His 2012 album The Graceless Age, surely in the running for top ten status at the end of this decade, remains the foundation for most fans but anyone lucky enough to have seen him live in the past few years will testify to his ongoing ability to transfix an audience, even reduce to them to tears with the power of his performance.

It’s not been an easy road for Murry since the triumph of The Graceless Age. Rather than reiterate it here I’d advise you to head over to his revamped website where there’s an eloquent summary written by Oliver Gray, one of the folk who have been unfailing in their support of Murry. The good news is that things are looking up. The follow up to The Graceless Age is as good as in the can, Murry having headed to Canada to record with Michael Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies. He’s been granted residential status in Ireland and is happily ensconced in the small city of Kilkenny, there’s a documentary on him in production and he’s bringing out a graphic novel that will portray episodes from his life so far.

While we await the album John Murry Is Dead is an EP produced to tie in with his recent short tour of England. Hard copies were available at his concerts and it will soon be available to buy digitally via his website. For the most part it’s the result of Murry’s involvement with the Tamalpais Research Institute (TRI) , a state of the art studio and web platform set up by The Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir who produced one of the songs here, Murry’s anguished cover of Jimmy Ruffin’s What becomes Of The Broken Hearted. Cloaked in ecclesiastical organ fills, Murry croons his pain away here. Weir also turns up on the centrepiece of the EP, Murry’s current magnum opus, Oscar Wilde. On a song that most definitely captures the feel and range of those on The Graceless Age Murry describes a society under surveillance, swayed by the media, driven to home grown terrorism as Irish wit Wilde looks down. At least I think that’s what some of it is about but it’s delivered excellently, revisiting The Graceless Age’s “sumptuous narcotic pillows of sound that swirl and beguile the listener.” Piano, organ, violin and pedal steel guitar slither throughout the song as Murry’s voice pleads and intones brilliantly. Weir appears at the very end here on a strangulated and brief attempt to play Dixieland on trumpet.

The Wrong Man opens the EP and it captures Murry at the top of his game. Again his voice shines, he sounds vulnerable, wounded, the music a delightful confection of Wurlitzer keyboards and dreamy guitar over a smattering of cymbals. He then covers Peter Gabriel’s creepy crawly Intruder, the drums here recalling the original but overall it’s much murkier recalling the Manson clan’s habit of invading homes without alerting the sleeping occupants. It’s claustrophobic and menacing. Finally there’s the intriguing One Day, billed here as a Rick Vargas remix of As I Lay Dying (Vargas one of the engineers at TRI and who produced several of the songs here). A blizzard of effects, wonky guitars and keyboards blitz the song , reminiscent at times of Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse  as Murry, buried but still audible proclaims his resurrection from his addiction days but accepts and indeed proclaims that in the end we’re all dust.

A very welcome addition to the Murry canon then and hopefully just a taste of what’s to come. The EP will soon be available here along with a previous EP, Perfume and Decay and an odds and sods collection The Resurrection of John Quixote, both also well recommended.

Here’s an earlier version of The Wrong Man…

Seth Lakeman. Ballads Of The Broken Few. Cooking Vinyl

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On his eighth solo album Seth Lakeman continues to amaze in his questing journey to reinvigorate the UK folk scene. Ballads Of The Broken Few finds this quintessentially English folk musician working with producer Ethan johns, a man one normally associates with our American cousins, for a set of songs that still reek of proud Albion but reach out across the water pulling in Appalachian influences. Throughout the album Lakeman is accompanied by the vocal trio, Wildwood Kin, their harmonies another nod to the transatlantic influences here. Recorded “live” in the “great hall” of a Jacobean Country House the album is for the most part a gloom ridden exploration of death, loss and misery, a twilight album with Lakeman’s sawed fiddle raw and emotive over a funereal beat, a drone somewhat akin to that of Fairport Convention’s version of Flowers of The Forest.

The album opens powerfully with the ethereal voices of Wildwood Kin intoning over a skirled fiddle before Lakeman kicks his drum into service leading into a skewed spiritual of sorts on Willow Tree. Immediately we’re into weird folk territory, Wicker Man witchery but with an affiliation to chain gang spirituals as the beat hammers on. Silence Reigns retains the fiddle drone eschewing the beat, Wildwood Kin’s voices carrying the melody, their voices arching on the middle eight, the whole a mystical meditation equally at home in Appalachia or misty Dartmoor. Several of the songs follow in these footsteps. Stranger weeps for a drowned son, Anna Lee (a song sung by Levon Helm on Dirt Farmer) is a dirt poor lamentation for a mother drowned and Whenever I’m Home has a ringing chorus on the most plaintive of songs.

There is some variety here. Lakeman grabs his guitar for the kenspeckle acoustic folk rock of Meet Me In The Twilight which is leavened by the excellent harmonies from the Kin. Silver Threads is a tentative pizzicato number, the harmonies the highlight here and the propulsive Fading Sound recalls the heady seventies folk rock flight. Aside from his production duties Johns adds some fractured  grungy and slide guitar sounds on the title song, another stomp filled belter which is somewhat bettered by the addition of mandolin to the swampy mix on Innocent Child. Here Lakeman comes across as a traditional folk response to Nick Cave. Indeed if you’re a fan of Cave’s soundtrack work there will be much here that will thrill you.

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Get Up and Dance! Various Artists. Rhythm Bomb Records

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Until this little jewel popped through in the post Blabber’n’Smoke had never heard of Rhythm Bomb Records. Turns out they’re a bijoux record label based in Hamburg and London and they specialise in rockabilly and roots music. They’re not a reissue label, instead they scour the planet (and yes, we said planet as they haul in artists from as far afield as The States, Australia and Europe) looking for the best in current rockabilly and associated music. In addition they produce many of the records they release in a few select recording studios (you can see a list here )  creating a “house sound” and there’s not many labels you can say that of these days. Many of their releases (on vinyl and CD) are in very limited editions and they obviously take pride in their graphic art, some of the cover art is droolingly wonderful.

Anyhow. Get Up and Dance! is a mighty fine package and a very fine introduction to the label. A five disc CD set it contains 125 songs and after having spent a fair amount of time listening to it we can confidently say that there’s not one ounce of filler in here. Each and every song is well worth listening to even though we weren’t familiar with any of the dozens of acts who perform. The discs are themed, Perfect For Parties, Boppers, Strollers, Jivers and Slow Down, the artwork (designed by Henrique San) is cool, perfectly capturing the moods of the music.

As for the music, well it’s steeped in the fifties as you might expect. There aren’t any notes other than song titles and artists so apart from a few covers we recognised (such as George Jones’ You’re Still On My Mind, delivered here by the Rob Ryan Roadshow, Good Rockin’ Daddy from Billie & The Kids and several others) many of the songs are probably originals. They’re all delivered with an authentic feel, there’s no polish here but all are expertly recorded, a perfect (and perhaps mono) rush of sound. It’s nigh on impossible (and unfair really) to pick out the best or favourite song here. Suffice to say that there are hi octane rockers, fuzzy garage belters, slappin’ bass acoustic snappers, bluesy harp driven hollers, hiccuppin’ country rock, pile driving blues rockers, horn parping goonsville, twangy instrumentals and spoony romantic nocturnes. All steeped in historical melting pots such as New Orleans, Texas and Memphis. All great.

Get Up and Dance! is limited to 300 copies so if you want one head here 

Here’s a couple of songs from the collection…

 

 

 

 

The Stray Birds. Magic Fire. Yep Roc Records

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Over the next few weeks Blabber’n’Smoke will be looking at albums recently released by artists who will be appearing at the forthcoming Glasgow Americana Festival. The tenth anniversary of the festival this year’s line up is particularly strong and we believe tickets are going fast so have a look here if you don’t want to miss out.

First off is the latest album from Pennsylvania trio The Stray Birds, regular visitors to Glasgow. The past twelve months have seen a significant increase in their profile; signed to the highly regarded Yep Roc Records, proclaimed by many as the highlight of last year’s Cambridge Folk Festival and their song, Best Medicine (the title song from their previous album) named song of the year at The International Folk Music Awards. On record and in concert the trio ((Maya de Vitry -vocals, guitar, banjo, fiddle, Oliver Craven – vocals, guitar, fiddle and Charles Muench – vocals, double bass, banjo) epitomised the new wave of Appalachian influenced folk music, the three of them bunched around a single mic, their songs rooted in tradition but addressing current issues.  de Vitry’s spectacular voice in particular has the ability to simultaneously make the past come alive and cause time to stand still for the audience who are transfixed.

For a band who seem to be on the up escalator it’s a brave move then to mess with the winning formula that got them there in the first place, however that’s exactly what The Stray Birds have done with Magic Fire. There are several firsts for them here. While they engineered and produced their previous efforts this time they’ve invited Grammy award winning producer Larry Campbell to helm the record.  In tandem with this the trio invited percussionist Shane Leonard to join them for the album while broadening their own music palette bringing in keyboards and electric guitar.  By luck or intention these bold steps have paid off in gold. Leonard, really a multi instrumentalist and songwriter in his own right fits right in, his various styles suiting the new direction while Campbell, a veteran who has produced Dylan, Willie Nelson, Levon Helm and Paul Simon, captures their new found folk rock sound with some panache, adding polish without smoothing out the grit.

There’s a transitional feel to the album. Several songs cleave to their established style. The opening Shining In the Distance has de Vitry proclaiming over a strummed guitar before  percussion and accordion weigh in on a spiritual song, de Vrity as impassioned as Odetta while her fiddle solo reminds one of their earthier roots. Fossil aches with plaintive steel guitar as de Vrity launches her rich loamy voice as on Best Medicine, her yearning verses leading into an uplifting chorus while Mississippi Pearl is a wonderful evocation of a woman’s voyage of discovery heading to “the edge of the world.” Here the new line up works brilliantly, the halting acoustic instruments, creamy pedal steel, restrained guitar breaks and sensitive drums gelling, the harmonies heavenly. It’s a song that here recalls the cream of 70’s LA country rock (Linda Ronstadt would have killed for it) but one can imagine the unadorned trio still captivating an audience without the sublime added instrumentation.

As for heading in a new direction there’s a sense that the band are at a crossroads. They head off in one direction with a gritty country rock feel, telecasters and fiddle over a shuffling beat recalling artists such as Wildflowers era Tom Petty on the instantly likeable Third Day In A Row (with Craven’s voice uncannily like Petty’s). The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band come to mind on the very danceable Sabrina and the deft quick step of Sunday Morning while Hands Of Man slides along with skirling fiddle to the fore and reminds one of Classic Fairport Convention. There’s a fork to the left leading to classic country pop as Craven and de Vrity hold hands on the Everly’s styled Somehow, adding themselves to the list of classic country harmony duos but they head back to the mainline for a couple of songs that do raise eyebrows on first hearing.

Radio is a wonderfully loose limbed approximation of a cocaine addled Fleetwood Mac. A soft percussive shuffle softly propelling the beat, guitars loosely entwined (here very loose) as de Vrity channels Christine McVie on a song that is slippery and supple, the subject possibly a sly dig at the airwave ubiquity of The Mac back in the days. Not content to let de Vrity get away with this bassist Muench then offers up his Where You Come From, another song that harks back to FM radio FM (Fleetwood Mac) dominance. Again, Leonard is propulsive on percussion, the guitars sparkle, the song a perfect fit for playlists. Unlike other acts who have received attention for their rootsy efforts and then turned tiller in order to get more attention here The Stray Birds approach the perch and look down, grab a few seeds and then safely deliver their own version, organic as opposed to mass produced, and somewhat wonderful.

It will be interesting to see how the band manage this transition in a live setting. As we said they play Glasgow Americana on 9th October in the midst of a major UK tour, all dates here.

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The Handsome Family. Unseen. Loose Music.

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The Gomez and Morticia of Americana, Brett and Rennie Sparks AKA The Handsome Family have long delighted with their singular vision. Rennie able to spin words from weird dreams, bizarre history and extrapolated incidents, Brett voicing these in his monotone baritone, all wrapped up in a strangely comforting low key country styled exotica with ancient keyboards and autoharp nestling amid the guitar and banjo.

Critically acclaimed and with a devoted following The Handsome Family burst out of the niche world of Americana when their song Far From Any Road (from way back in 2003) was chosen as the theme music for the hit TV series True Detective. Online at least they were stars, downloads and viewings of the song hitting millions, a gratifying tale indeed and hopefully some of the moolah has found its way to them. Certainly when Blabber’n’Smoke last saw them they seemed somewhat gratified by the episode but, comfortable within their unique universe, their first album release since the brouhaha, Unseen, carries on as usual with no hint of cashing in with only one song approaching the lush desert storm of Far From Any Road.  A case of Stay Calm and Stay Weird.

They open with that trademark sound on the glorious Gold, a border tale suffused with imagery, “Got a tattoo of a snake/And a ski mask on my face/But I woke up in a ditch/Behind the Stop-N-Go/Lying in the weeds with a bullet in my gut/Watching dollar bills go fly away in the dust.” An image sparked when a dollar bill blowin’ in the wind smacked Brett in the face in a car park, fine fodder for Rennie’s imagination. Indeed the album title came from another episode when Rennie, sitting in an airport seat was then sat upon by a businessman who failed to see her. Contemplating her invisibility, she writes as a detached, unseen observer, dreams, occurrences and false memories feeding her fantasies.

The Silver Light is a woozy neon lit country waltz which describes fly blown bar flies addicted to slot machines seeking nirvana in the reflected glow of the tumbling wheels hoping that their angels will line up. This netherworld, a reflection of hopes dashed appears again in The Red Door, a Hitchcock like admonition not to open the door under the stairs and on King Of Dust where the protagonist, hung upside down in his truck after a collision sees himself flying over the desert. Rather than going to a heaven all he sees is barren parched lands, bones bleached in the sand, an Icarus of despair.

Elsewhere they bemoan a lost innocence on Back In My Day and visit a funway in dashed expectations of seeing the world’s tiniest horse, the mournful fairground gaiety of Tiny Tina recalling a baleful clown’s sadness, a painted face hiding his pain. Gentlemen  is true gothic, a song swaddled in the bizarre psychedelia of Farewell Aldebaran as Brett sings of  a 19th century medium who hoped to vacuum up spirits like so much dust, inventing a machine to do just that.  They close with the yearning romanticism of Green Willow Valley which comes across like a wraith tempting his love to cross over into his world, a mirror version of The Green Leaves Of Summer, a love song that graced the John Wayne movie The Alamo. Here it’s a skeletal Wayne beckoning from beyond the grave.

 

An album begging for epithets such as crepuscular and spooky it transcends these. In short it’s another trip into the odd and extremely attractive world of Brett and Rennie Sparks. The duo are lining up UK dates for early 2017 and in the meantime you can get Unseen on a limited edition transparent green vinyl LP here.

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Phil Ochs. Live Again. Floating World Records

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A contemporary of Dylan, a protest singer who carried on protesting when Dylan decided to give up on “finger pointing songs,” Phil Ochs never achieved the fame accorded to his rival. Consider that just one year before Bob and The Band set out across The States for their Before The Flood tour, opening to 18,000 folk, Ochs was playing this show in an old stable in Michigan, three years later, he took his own life. His early demise and his reluctance to drop his political stance and move further into pop/rock have left Ochs firmly in limbo when it comes to general recognition, indeed he doesn’t even seem to have achieved “cult status”. Instead, aside from some devoted fans including Sean Penn, he is noted as a respected artist in the folk and protest movement with his later and more expansive work rarely mentioned. As a result there haven’t been any grand retrospectives or box sets of his work but recently there’s been a trickle of live recordings uncovered and Live Again is one that’s highly recommended.

Recorded in 1973 with Ochs sounding in fine spirit he performs alone with his guitar, the songs spanning his 10 year career. It’s a recording very much of its time with Richard Nixon firmly in his sights (the disgraced Tricky Dicky resigned one year later) but his preamble to Here’s To The State of Richard Nixon is alarmingly relevant to these days of clownish presidential hopefuls. Elsewhere he rails against CIA involvement in South America (of which he had personal experience, arrested in Argentina after a visit to Allende’s Chile) on Santa Domingo and hones in on the American art of assassination on the immensely powerful Crucifixion. There But For Fortune, Changes, Outside A Small Circle Of Friends and I Ain’t Marching Anymore retain their appeal revealing why Ochs was once considered an equal of Dylan back in the Greenwich Village days. In addition  several of the songs offer evidence that Ochs should stand shoulder to shoulder with his fellow sixties troubadours such as Buckley, Neil and Hardin with The Bells, Flower Lady, Changes and Pleasures Of The Harbour all wonderfully delivered.

With the shit storm that is the Middle East and the potential ramifications of the current presidential election Ochs sounds as relevant today as he did back then. Live Again is a must for fans of his music and works well as an introduction for newbies.

Here he is in 1969.

The Coal Porters. No. 6. Prima Records

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Only yesterday Sid Griffin, erstwhile founder of The Coal Porters was anointed a cult hero by The Guardian for his role in alt country pioneers The Long Ryders. Problem with cult heroes is that, by definition, they are relatively unknown, often long gone before cult status is bestowed on them. No such problem with Mr. Griffin as not only is he alive and kicking he’s barnstorming across the country with his “alt bluegrass” band The Coal Porters who are now in their 25th year, originally following the Ryders’ country rock path before entering the 21st century as an all acoustic band.

No. 6 is the sixth album from the acoustic Porters and it’s important to emphasise that while Griffin might be the “name” here the band are a truly democratic collective with song writing and singing duties shared between Griffin, guitarist Neil Robert Heard and Fiddler Kerenza Peacock. Produced by folk rock legend John Wood (who has worked with Fairport Convention, Nick Drake, John Martyn and Beth Orton) the ten songs here see the band working within their bluegrass base while including folk, country and even 80s’ type indie romanticism.

Herd’s Songs are muscular and earthy. Save Me From the Storm is a clever amalgamation of sea faring folk song and spiritual call and response with the Porters’ dynamic soloing mid song quite invigorating. Unhappy Anywhere ripples along finely with a Celtic lilt and morose lyrics, Herd in a Hibernian existentialist mood. Meanwhile The Old Style Prison Break is a keen examination of cowboy movie staples delivered with a shit kicking front porch jollity.

Ms. Peacock offers up the instrumental Chopping the Garlic, a showcase for her fiddle playing with the band not playing second fiddle, banjo player Paul Fitzgerald and bassist Andrew Stafford getting the chance to shine along with Griffin on mandolin and Herd on guitar. They certainly zip along and the coda is cool. She then sings on Play A Tune (apparently her first vocal performance) and it’s a much more mannered song than its siblings. Her high, almost breathless vocals and fiddle allusions to The Lark Ascending are miles from normal Porters fare but it’s a very personal song, a tribute to her mother and its wonderful performance reminiscent of acts like The Raincoats and Virginia Astley.

Your man Griffin turns in his usual high calibre efforts. He strolls effortlessly through the jaunty Salad Days, a witty quickstep recalling his brush with fame while Train No. 10-0-5 is classic story telling with Fitzgerald’s banjo well to the fore before Peacock goes all Scarlet Rivera. He tops this with the sublime The Blind Bartender, a song that’s loaded with Peckinpah border drama heightened by the soaring trumpet solo from Cuban Eikel Venegas which transports the song into a dusty cantina. Wonderful.

We need to mention the closing song. A fine Coal Porters reclamation of The Only Ones’ Another Girl Another Planet, bound to be a sing-along at their gigs and then there’s Griffin’s opening gambit, his bluegrass tribute to the Ramones on The Day The Last Ramone Died. No stranger to rock’n’roll history Griffin here takes the tragic fact that all four bros are gone and forges an excellent tribute to them. His memories of seeing the band, donning his leather jacket when he heard of Tommy going, his aside regarding the ubiquity of the tee shirt are delivered energetically and I’m pretty sure that when they play this live it will give the audiences one more chance to yell, “Gabba gabba hey.”

Currently touring the UK (dates here) the good news is that if you’re quick you can catch The Coal Porters in Glasgow tonight at Woodend Bowling Club