Eleanor Underhill. Navigate the Madness

soloalbum-wtitleSome folk here might be familiar with the rootsy charms of Underhill Rose, a fine banjo and guitar duo who we have written about before and who we saw play an excellent set at last year’s Celtic Connections. Late last year Eleanor Underhill released a fine solo disc which really has slipped below the radar but it certainly deserves mention so here we go.

Navigate The Madness is a world away from the folky homeliness of Underhill Rose as Underhill uses an array of instruments along with her signature banjo over an inventive and intriguing musical backdrop. Along the way she is beguiling and hypnotic, some of the songs dark mysteries while others are infused with an almost Portishead like trippiness or come across like a new breed of folk rock similar to that of The Mammals. There’s a sense of the experimentation of Joanna Serrat and even John Martyn in the opening Imperfect World which acts as a doorway into this Eleanor in Wonderland album and by the time of the second song, Stranger Things Have Come,  a voodoo infused chant with a rumbling and spooky bass line, we know we’re not in North Carolina anymore. A discordant piano appears midway through taking the listener further down this rabbit hole while a host of incidental instruments including celeste remind one of sixties spy movies and David Lynch like weirdness. Across this peculiar and ominous backdrop Underhill intones some bizarre and weirdly unsettling scenarios and this sense of being somewhat off kilter in the modern world is repeated elsewhere in the lyrics across the album.

Stranger Things Have Come is certainly the most unsettling song here but Underhill continues to confound expectations as the banjo led Hard To Find is suffused with wisps of synthesiser zooming around. Captured In Arms, another banjo led number starts off as if it’s Appalachian in origin but it soon kicks off with a thumping bass line driving it along and the impressive tale of life on the road on Before I Head West Again soars away in a sophisticated folk rock manner with Underhill’s voice here particularly impressive. Never Meant To Say Goodbye is another impressive ensemble piece with the double bass standing out while Underhill’s voice performs some acrobatic leaps but best of all is the cinematic torch song Cold Wind Blues where a blowsy saxophone and exotic Latin tinged rhythm section merge into a kaleidoscopic swirl which recalls the work of the Italian band Sacro Cuori delving into the sixties heritage of Eurobeat. Finally, Into The Unknown is another song which defies expectations as it folds old time banjo, field hollers and jazz and blues signatures into an almost lysergic amalgam.

It might be a far cry from the porch front style of Underhill Rose but here Eleanor Underhill has delivered a magnificently eclectic album which pushes the boundaries of what we usually call Americana

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Neilson Hubbard. Cumberland Island. Proper Records

We continue the sweep up of albums from last year we unfortunately missed at the time…

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Neilson Hubbard is perhaps best known as an in demand producer with Mary Gauthier’s Rifles And Rosary Beads his most recent triumph. He’s also been involved over the past couple of years in what has been a burgeoning cottage industry, working with Ben Glover and Joshua Britt in The Orphan Brigade and with Britt and Dean Owens in a new venture called Buffalo Blood. Cumberland Island, his first solo album in 12 years, has Glover and Britt again involved along with Will Kimbrough but it’s a rare opportunity to hear Hubbard himself over the course of an album.

As with The Orphan Brigade albums, Hubbard has a hook to hang the album on, in this case, a visit to the titular Cumberland Island, an island off the coast of Georgia. Redolent with American history – native Americans, conquistadors and slavery – and with the ruins of a mock Scottish baronial castle (built by the brother of Andrew Carnegie and called Dungeness), the island is now a national park and the visit by Hubbard with his new (and pregnant wife) inspired this collection of low key and beautifully measured songs.

For the most part it’s a contemplative album with only the brisk rockabilly attack of That Was Then raising the pulse while there’s a grand old time country feel to Old Black River with Eamon McLaughlin’s fiddle sawing away over a tugboat rhythm. Elsewhere some of the songs almost stumble from the speakers. How Much Longer Can We Bend, graced with weeping fiddle and restrained piano, shimmers with a spectral beauty while the title song is a haunting evocation of the natural beauty of the island with its feral horses invoked as free spirits. Love, in its various permutations, features in several numbers as on Save You which slowly builds to a climax from its tentative tiptoeing opening as Hubbard’s finely cracked voice offers salvation to his soul mate. My Heart Belongs To You is a tender love ballad reminiscent of a sweeter Tom Waits while Don’t Make Me Walk Through This World On my Own is a magnificently mournful supplicant’s prayer. The spare, piano led songs, Let It Bleed and Oh My Love, stand out in the sense that Hubbard here is baring his soul. The former aches with loss while the latter finds him seeking and perhaps finding hope. Two sides of the coin perhaps but both songs are delivered with a wonderful sense of vulnerability and the musicians excel in capturing this.

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M.G. Boulter & The Froe. Blood Moon. Hudson Records

Clearing the way for a new year, some discs were retrieved from a dusty shelf which we really should have mentioned before. So, the next few posts won’t be topical but might remind folk of some albums which were and still are, well worth getting.

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First off is this excellent EP from the esteemed chronicler of the Thames estuary, M. G. Boulter, recorded with Birmingham string quartet The Froe in tow. Recorded in the historic Fishermen’s Chapel in Leigh-on-Sea, the disc finds Boulter’s delicate tenor vocals tenderly supported by darting violin and the woodier timbres of viola and cello. As on his well-acclaimed album, With Wolves The Lamb Will Lie, Boulter beguiles the listener with the beauty of the arrangements while he writes with some finesse on darker themes than one would expect from the bucolic settings.

Blood Moon swoons with a stained romanticism which bundles together Blake’s Albion, late night Texaco garages and the lure of the moon. It’s a wonderfully baroque song in a sixties folk manner which leaves the listener wondering if the protagonist is prowling the streets with murder on his mind. Frances Forlorn is darker in tone musically with the title character ploughing a similar furrow to that of Eleanor Rigby while Giving Up The Ghost is a most crepuscular song, the pizzicato strings creating a dusky insect chorus. The strings tiptoe delicately throughout Night Driving, a wonderful paean to driving on starlit ribbons of motorways in the pitch black with Boulter’s lyrics as evocative as some of W.G. Sebold’s ruminations. The EP closes with Boulter’s guitar and lap steel more upfront on Soft Light but again he evokes the allure of darkness with only distant circus sounds and moon reflected waves able to guide him. It’s a wonderfully fragile song which almost defies gravity.

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John Kilzer. Scars. Archer Records

61BLOyK6jJL._SY355_Blowing in from Memphis, John Kilzer has a ton of baggage tailing him. An academic and a Minister of Divinity, he’s known hard times with substance abuse but has also had some success with several of his songs covered by various luminaries. Scars finds him in pensive mood, reflecting on his past and ruminating on the current state of affairs in his homeland, in a manner which reminds one at times of a combination of John Hiatt and Paul McCartney.

The album opens with the well mannered sixties pop sensibilities of Flat Bed Truck, a song which sounds as if McCartney was reminiscing about a Texas truck stop as opposed to Penny Lane all those years ago, a trick repeated on Woods Of Love. However, there’s some meatier stuff to be heard here as Dark Highway boogies along with some fine piano playing and The American Blues slopes in slyly as Kilzer gets a bit snarly when describing the state of his nation with a fine note of paranoia thrown in. On a more introspective note, the title song is a tender number laced with acoustic guitar and subtle keyboards as Kilzer accepts and acknowledges his past while the trenchant Time, with stark piano and biting guitar, seems to point out that he’s there to guide others stuck in a dark past.

Kilzer closes the album with a lopsided love song, Rope The Moon. Here he remakes/remodels George Bailey’s declaration of love in It’s A Wonderful Life adding a degree of modern angst and an excellent arrangement as the song builds to its climax. Overall, an interesting album which grows on repeated listening.

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Best of 2018

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It’s always kind of weird trying to sum up a year’s worth of music. For sure, there’s a couple of albums which just demand to get mentioned as they’re at the forefront of the old cerebral cortex, very pleasurable memories imprinted for all time (hopefully). But then there’s a host of sounds which have thrilled one at some point during the year and it’s been a task going through the archives to recall them, although it’s also been a most pleasing process as we stumble across a half forgotten gem.

So, here’s Blabber’n’Smoke’s ten favourite albums of the year, in alphabetical order, along with a list of those who just didn’t make the cut but which are well worth listening to. Rising above all of them however is our number one choice of the year. Our favourite album (and best gig of the year) award goes to the stunning Bennett Wilson Poole, a band who just lit up 2018 for Blabber’n’Smoke. Firstly with their excellent album which rejuvenates jangled harmony rock and then for a series of shows we were lucky enough to see them play, several times in trio format, and then finally with their full band line up. That last show was at Glasgow’s Glad Cafe and there’s no doubt that this was the show of the year. If this list does nothing else let it guide you to listen to them if you haven’t done so already.

So, we’ll let Bennett Wilson Poole top the list and then add on a top ten. Links are added to our reviews where available.

Bennett Wilson Poole. Bennett Wilson Poole

And the rest in alphabetical order…

Amy Helm. This Too Shall Light

Birds of Chicago. Love In Wartime

Carson McHone. Carousel

Courtney Marie Andrews. May Your Kindness Remain

Dean Owens. Southern Wind

J P Harris. Sometime Dogs Bark at Nothing

Lachlan Bryan & The Wildes. Some Girls (Quite) Like Country Music

Leon III. Leon III 

Ruston Kelly. Dying Star

The Mammals. Sunshiner

Also of note:

Alejandro Escovedo with Don Antonio. The Crossing

Alela. Diane. Cusp

American Aquarium. Things Change

Anna Egge. White Tiger

Anna & Elizabeth. The Invisible Comes To Us Now

Benjamin Folke Thomas. Modern Man

Cam Penner. At War With Reason

Carter Sampson. Lucky

Dave Alvin and Jimmie Dale GIlmore. Downey to Lubbock

Gene Clark. Gene Clark Sings For You

I See Hawks In LA. Live And Never Learn

James Edwyn & The Borrowed Band. High Fences

Joshua Hedley. Mr. Jukebox

Karine Polwart. Laws Of Motion

Letitia VanSant. Gut It To The Studs

The Lonesome Ace Stringband. When The Sun Comes Up

The Lost Brothers. Halfway Towards A Healing

Mary Gauthier. Rifles and Rosary Beads

Nathan Bell. Love Stars & Bones Love stars & Bones

Patrick Sweany. Ancient Noise

Phil Cook. People Are My Drug

Rab Noakes. Welcome To Anniversaryville

Sam Morrow. Concrete & Mud

Stephen Fearing. The Secret Of Climbing

3hattrio. Lord of the Desert

It’s been a great year for music and we’d like to say thanks to all the artists and promoters and fans for joining in. And, apologies for anyone left out or those who have been in touch asking for reviews. We can’t possibly do them all but without folks like you we wouldn’t be here at all. So, read the reviews and if you think it’s worth a punt do get in touch. We aim to please. Love, peace, kisses and joy to the world for all who are tuned in. We’ll sign off with this cool Christmas song from Giant Sand.

Townes Van Zandt Down Home & Abroad/Doug Sahm Texas Radio & The Big Beat. Floating World Records

These two albums of vintage recordings from late Americana legends, both double disc CD sets with impressive liner notes, certainly serve a purpose as more and more live gigs and radio sessions from the past make it into the public domain. The question is, “Do they deserve to appear and is it worth forking out for them?” Well, in the case of Townes Van Zandt here, the answer is definitely yes. As for the Sahm set, it’s a bit more woolly.

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Down Home & Abroad consists of two live shows recorded in 1985 (at The Down Home in Johnson City, Tennessee) and 1993 (in Helsinki). In both shows Townes is in fine fettle, relaxed and chatty as he rambles through his stellar catalogue of songs, most of the classics are here with only four duplications across the discs. On the Tennessee set he is accompanied by guitarist Mickey White and flautist/saxophonist Donny Silverman, the latter’s contributions reminding one of the early Van Zandt studio albums. His talking blues on Talking Thunderbird Blues and Fraternity Blues both raise some hoots from the audience and some of his introductions raise a chuckle but when he delves into a song such as Rake, you know this is a guy who has faced darkness in his soul. The accompanying players give Snake Mountain Blues an additional heft and there’s a neat combination of Colorado Girl and Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues which is just outstanding. By 1993 Townes is much more weathered, his voice more stained but still capable of dredging up deep emotions. Here he’s solo and his guitar is just a bit more ragged but again he has those great songs to back him up. He sounds tentative at first on this first visit to Finland but as the show progresses he relaxes, his chats loosen up and by the end of the show (which, going by his repeated assurances to the crowd that the main act will be on soon, goes on longer than planned) he’s flying, playing audience requests and goofing around as when he kicks off Brother Flower saying, “If I start humming it’s because I’ve forgotten the words.” A raw rendition of Flying Shoes and a halting Don’t you Take It Too Bad (and here you can compare the performance to that of eight years earlier) close the show. With both shows well recorded (aside from some minor tape hiss on the Helsinki show) this release is bound to attract devotees of Townes Van Zandt and for more fair weather listeners is not too shabby a way to hear what all the fuss is about when it comes to the peculiar genius of Townes Van Zandt.

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Texas Radio & The Big Beat (aside from the title the discs have no relationship with The Doors) consists of two shows recorded for radio transmission in 1973 and 1974, in Philadelphia and then in Houston. Recorded in the wake of Sahm’s Atlantic album, Doug Sahm and Band, which had the likes of Dylan and Dr. John sitting in, the shows don’t reflect that disc with only two songs, Papa Ain’t Salty and (Is Anybody Going To) San Antone represented. Instead, Sahm and the bands behind him offer some of his older hits such as She’s About A Mover and At The Crossroads along with numerous covers of blues and country standards. It has to be said that both recordings are thin, the band muffled for the most part with instrumental solos either too loud or lost in the mix. Sahm himself is fiery and passionate, having fun but with his vocal track way up high on most of the songs. The Philadelphia recording wins out in terms of its variety and Sahm’s between song chat but on both shows the majority of the songs are blues shuffles with little of the variety that was on show on that Atlantic Records studio album. That said the versions of (Is Anyone Going To) San Antone and Wolverton Mountain, both from the Philly gig, are pretty cool but it’s difficult to recommend this to anyone but die hard collectors.

Rich Krueger. NOWThen. RockinK Music

Final_NOWTHEN_Final_cover_hi_resIt’s just over a year ago that Blabber’n’Smoke stumbled across Rich Krueger, a man who has become our second favourite singing doctor (Hank Wangford is still No. 1, sorry, Rich). Krueger is a working medicine man in Chicago but he’s had a contemporaneous career as a musician with his band The Dysfunctionells (with the album title relating to this weird yin/yan) and in the past 18 months he’s launched himself solo with a vengeance, even attracting the attention of the self styled “Dean of critics, Robert Christgau. NOWThen is his second album in less than a year following on from the splendid Life Ain’t That Long and, as with its predecessor, NOWThen is a wonderfully meandering set of grand songs.

Krueger is an astute observer of human behaviour and he writes about it much in the way of wayward souls such as Randy Newman and Terry Allen. And although he fits somehow into the American folk scene being a winner at the 2018 Kerrville Folk Festival, the album veers through rootsy numbers spiced with Dobro and swirling organ, piano based jaunts, Asian exotica and Mariachi stylings. At heart however is his razor sharp observation which he translates into wordy yet incredibly enjoyable songs. The best example might be the coming of age tale Don where Krueger weaves a fantastic(al) tale of a teenage buddy who was a “contrarian,” an admirer of Nietzsche and Hitler although most of his classmates were Jews. The song flows along with a fine fiddle fuelled country swirl as Krueger’s words spill out – almost a screenplay in miniature – as he just about diagnoses Don as a sociopath before breaking down what one should imagine as an aural equivalent of theatre’s fourth wall as he asks, “Did I entertain you?” as the song ends.

Krueger can delve into history, singing about the Wright Brothers or Huey P. Long, the songs part story, part surreal. Then there’s his own experiences as on the opening song, Kenny’s (It’s Always Christmas In this Bar), dedicated to his local watering hole and delivered in a manner which, should Billy Joel ever hear it, have him weeping, as Krueger plays a doo wop flavoured piano led pop song which knocks Mr. Joel for six. The Cajun flavoured O What a Beautiful Beautiful Day is a warts and all depiction of the trial and tribulations of giving birth with Krueger noting that, on a chance encounter with Tom Waits, Waits’ advised him to, “Write about what you know,” and Krueger, being a neo natal doc, knows all about the bloody mess which surrounds a delivery. Elsewhere, Wittgenstein, Pope and Robert Browning are springboards for songs but pride of place here might go to Girls Go For Arse’oles, an apology of sort for most males’ behaviours towards the opposite sex with the title borrowed from Robert Crumb.

With a cast of players which include Robbie Fulks, Gary Lucas, John Fulbright and Peter Stampfel, the album is expansive and eclectic (there’s even a mock advert with the Colbert Report’s Erik Frandsen voicing Krueger). When Blabber’n’Smoke first noticed Krueger we said he was a maverick and NOWThen kind of confirms that but it’s important to say here that he’s an incredibly talented maverick.

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