Mishka Shubaly seems too good to be true. A fantastical biography paints him almost as a child prodigy, a brilliant writer receiving a Dean’s Fellowship, the largest merit-based scholarship offered by Columbia University’s School of the Arts. Having achieved his degree he quit writing, survived a shipwreck, became a musician, an alcoholic and drug addict. He then got clean and started to get his highs from distance running while reviving his writing career going on to become a successful author with a series of candid autobiographical novellas released on the burgeoning Kindle market. More to the point he revisited the songs he was writing when his main occupation was waiting for the man and has been releasing them on a series of albums the latest of which is Coward’s Path.
The first thing to say here is that hopefully his writing continues to sell because it’s unlikely there will be queues of folk lining up to buy this. Shubaly doesn’t hold back when he describes the desperation, the degradation, the self loathing and bleakness of the addict. Expletives are common (with one song called Fuck Self Control) while his voice is of the non singing variety, a rough untutored vehicle that often seems out of control and about to crash, think of a collision between Ed Sanders (of The Fugs) and Barry McGuire (Eve Of Destruction) and you’re halfway there. The songs for the most part are ramshackle folky singer songwriter events thrashed out with occasional slide guitar, organ, percussion and fiddle adorning the bare boned acoustic guitar rhythms. All in all a recipe for a mess one might think.
Well, think again. Coward’s Path is wayward, bleak, rough and not easy listening but ultimately it uses these qualities to its advantage. Like some of the fabled cult albums of the sixties on the ESP label it has a mesmerising quality, a weird attraction as Shubaly draws the listener into his twilight world. The roughness becomes a faux naiveté, the arrangements begin to spark and repeated listens reveal melodies and a raw beauty in some of the songs. To cap this the lyrics are the diamonds in the mine with Shubaly challenging Bukowski for the title of sodden poet laureate. At his best he comes close to Cohen or Cave singing “that nightstand I built for you Is it lonely for me alone in your bedroom? Does it cry out at night or does it understand As you tremble underneath your new man’s hands?” on I Can’t Remember When You Were Mine. Your Stupid Dreams treads the same territory as Richard Thompson’s End Of The Rainbow with Shubaly warning an infant that life is shit “There You lay in your diaper, just as cute as could be Propped up on your elbows and smiling at me. I drove in for your birthday, your mother drove me away. But that woman taught you to crawl And that’ll come in handy some day.” “If my heart was a horse they would shoot it” he wails over a clattering percussive collection of ironmongery on Frankenstein Heart driving home the self disgust that permeates the disc but again it’s compulsive listening as the song lurches along and the lyrics become ever more visceral.
While Fuck Self-Control is a vitriolic and deluded salute to determined self-destruction there are some tender moments to be found with Depravity’s Rainbow a mock baroque folk song that resembles some of Tom Waits earlier work while New Jersey Valentine’s Day Orphan Blues is almost Latin in its rhythms. The best is kept to the last with the wonderful dirge that is Your Plus One at My Funeral as Shubaly reaches from beyond to ask “who’s going to walk you home when I’m rotting down below?” Again the song structure is simple, repetitive guitar strums throughout but producer Erik Nickerson adds a tremendous guitar solo that sounds as if it’s reaching for the sky along with percussive effects that again recall weird folk experiments of the sixties. Simply brilliant. Earlier however Shubaly actually emerges from his ditch to offer up a song that is fully formed and with any luck should be weaving its way through discerning radio playlists on I Can’t Remember When You Were Mine, a fine pop song fuelled by self despair.
In essence Coward’s Path is a vicarious, at times voyeuristic voyage into the life of an addict portrayed through a series of musical vignettes that burrow under the skin. It might be destined for cult status; at the very least it begs to be heard at least once, it might turn into a habit.
Ags Connolly, from Oxford, released one of the finest country albums of last year with How About Now. Recorded outside of Edinburgh with producer Dean Owens and a fine cast of Scottish musicians (Stuart Nisbett, Kev McGuire, Jim McDermott, Andy May and Roddy Neilson) who sounded as if they were straight off the bus from Austin Texas, the album led to one reviewer calling Connolly “England’s Willie Nelson.” Connolly made his debut appearance in Glasgow last week and was kind enough to meet with Blabber’n’Smoke for a pre show beer and a chat. We started off by asking him about his recent trip to the Ameripolitan Awards in Austin.
Yeah I went out there. I spent ten days in Austin, three days in Albuquerque and I was supposed to spend five days in Nashville but because the weather was so bad flights were delayed so I missed two of the five days I was supposed to be in Nashville and that included the gig I was due to play at the Five Spot. There were loads of people supposed to come down. Will Kimbrough, Luke Bell, Pokey LaFarge and Ryan Koenig. It was a real shame. Flights were cancelled and delayed so it just didn’t happen.
The Ameripolitan Awards in Austin were great; I wrote a review of it for Country Music People. It was a great experience. I’m a recognised Ameripolitan artist but I wasn’t nominated or anything but it was just great to meet people. They didn’t know who I was at first, just the British guy hanging around but by the end of it they did saying “oh, I listened to your music” or whatever. I mean it just gives you sort of extra exposure, you know that networking thing that I’m never really good at but in that environment it was easy to do. I played a gig at the Rattle Inn and James Hand came in to watch the show just after he’d finished playing up the street at The Hole In The Wall. I’d just finished playing my song I Saw James Hand so I had to apologise to the audience and started playing it again. We caught up with each other after the show and we’re looking at ways of getting James over here to do a tour with me.
As for Nashville, well I’ve been to Austin loads of times but never Nashville so I did as much of the touristy bit as I could in the three days I had left, The Ryman Auditorium, The Cash Museum. And I saw the good and the bad side of Broadway, a lot of fairly rubbish covers bands but there are places that still have good traditional stuff and I met some really good people, just a shame I didn’t get to play the gig there.
Did you play in Albuquerque?
I was seeing family I have there, It’s a nice place, somewhat isolated and of course where they filmed Breaking Bad. I didn’t do the official Breaking Bad tour but my brother took me to a few of the places, actually better than the official tour which doesn’t go everywhere. It was pretty cool seeing the actual places but a lot of them are people’s houses so you can’t really hang around. I did one show there with Wildewood, a local band who’ve toured with The Handsome Family. It was a great little gig, held in a place that only opened for the show, opened at 8, closed at 11, but a great night.
And how has the album been doing?
It’s done well, been really well reviewed but as always it could do some more exposure. We’re going to release How About Now as a single in May to see if we can give it another push. It’s been out for about a year now so the next thing is to think about the second album and I’d like to do it up here again at Castlesound in Pentcaitland, the place was so good and all the musicians were so great.
There was a vinyl edition released
Yeah and I’ve got some with me tonight, I don’t always remember to bring them but it’s good to have them at shows because you never know who’s going to turn up and buy one. But it’s a great thing to have, it’s one of the things I’m most proud of, that record. It’s all my own thing and there’s a big picture of me on it, beautiful. My mum and dad threw out their record player years ago but my mum bought a record player because I had the vinyl out. It’s a lovely thing to have and that’s why we did it, a lot of people were asking if there was a vinyl edition so we printed up 500 of them.
What got you into country music?
I don’t really know. My dad’s not into country music, I listened to rock as a kid then I got into singer songwriters and that eventually led me to country. Bands like CSNY and the Byrds, I mean I like their albums and I listen to them but they’re not like core influences for me. I preferred writers like Leonard Cohen and Loudon Wainwright III, he’s my favourite songwriter. Some people think Gram Parsons is the essence but for me he’s the beginning, you should branch out and see why he did what he did. I’ve always had this thing where if someone references an artist or covers a song I’ve got to go and check them out. I bought a Hank Williams album before I had a clue what country music was as so many people talked about him as an influence. I loved it, not because it was country but because I really liked simple songwriting, again, like Loudon Wainwright or Ron Sexsmith, people like that and I thought there must be more of this simple songwriting and I found it in country music. It’s the home of it. I don’t mean stuff that’s really easy to write, in fact it’s really difficult to write it and make it sound really simple, that’s the genius of it.
Yeah, Hank Wangford says that when he was a rock’n’roll doctor in the late sixties he treated Gram Parsons who came into his surgery with a George Jones and Tammy Wynette album under his arm. Intrigued Hank listened to Jones and it turned his life around.
Yeah. Funny, I was talking to Hank a few weeks ago, he’s touring small villages, and I was talking to him. I gave him a copy of my album so it’s gone full circle for him from Gram to George to having an Ags Connolly record!
What are your plans for the future?
I’ll be touring with Jack Grelle in September in the UK and I’m really looking forward to that and then we’re hoping then to tour together in the States next year, that will be really cool. Jack tours around all over the States and for someone like me that would be a great experience. We’re also looking at maybe playing some dates in Italy and Croatia if we can set them up.
There seems to be an audience for Americana type music in Italy and Croatia and the like.
Yeah, Dale Watson has played a couple of festivals over there and I’ve got a couple of fans in Croatia actually, I think the internet makes it a lot easier for them to hear things.
Ags tour dates are here including some shows he’s doing with Cale Tyson on 23rd April and 9th May.
Over the past few years The Wynntown Marshals have gone from strength to strength. Their 2013 album, The Long Haul, was generally accepted as one of the finest examples of UK Americana music of the past decade and led to the band being signed to Blue Rose Records, a label whose roster shows that they are not easily impressed. Terrific as it was The Long Haul was conceived during some turbulent times for the band with drummer Kenny McCabe joining just before recording began and keyboard player Ritchie Noble climbing on board after the album was finished. The End Of The Golden Age follows two years consolidation for the current line up including a hefty slew of live shows (which get better and better each time Blabber’n’Smoke sees them). While The Long Haul portrayed a band triumphant in the face of adversity here they’re riding a wave of popular acclaim and success.
Fans of The Marshals will be gratified to find that there’s no major change in direction or sound here, instead there’s a sense that the band have shifted up a gear. Their roots are still to be found in the melancholic songs of Wilco and the fiery guitar bursts of Neil Young while singer Keith Benzie continues to mine a rich narrative seam that embodies classic American landscapes and his own experiences. Noble adds a subtle richness to the mix with his keyboard skills (on Hammond, piano, Rhodes, Wurlitzer, synth and glockenspiel) fully embedded, a sound explored by The Marshals on The Long haul but fully realised here. It’s perhaps best noted on the pale fire of Idaho where his piano is stately and measured as Iain Sloan’s pedal steel keens away with the song itself sounding as if Neil Young had discovered an outtake from Déjà Vu. Elsewhere some judicious horn additions from Bruce Michie add to the sonic palette.
The album opens wonderfully with a blissful guitar intro that actually recalls the bucolic Canterbury rock of Caravan on There Was A Time before Benzie’s hoarsened voice leads the band into a corkscrewed country rock song with organ swells and skirling guitars that betray their Celtic roots. Dead Sunflowers is a sinewy number that recalls Canada from the previous album. A fulsome tenor sax introduces the starry-skied regretful love song Being Lazy with Benzie sounding like Jeff Tweedy at his most laidback while the production captures each and every squeak of the acoustic guitars. With lyrics by bass player Murdoch Macleod, Being Lazy captures the band at their best; Benzie inhabits the song, the keyboards cosset the melody as the guitars strum along with an occasional whiff of pedal steel, a wonderful song. Red Clay Hill is a fiery burst of outright Americana rock with tough guitars and swirling organ as Benzie sings “Last night I dreamt that I took a walk in an Ansel Adams picture” before being joined on vocals by Hannah Eton-Wall (The Redlands Palomino Co). The song soars wonderfully and there’s a magnificent guitar mash in the middle firing in all directions. The Girl On The Hill inhabits the same territory as Being Lazy. A winsome dappled brook of a song, sparkling guitars and pampered keyboards lift it aloft belying the possibility that it’s actually a murder ballad, the lyrics pointing in that direction but somewhat coy regarding what actually happened.
Over the years The Marshals’ have generally provided a would be epic on their albums and here it might be the mysterious tale of a man’s involvement with a killer whale on Moby Doll. As usual it builds from a slow narrative into a propulsive thriller and hopefully it will be a killer live. The album ends with the celebratory (and joyous) title song, a brief memorandum from Benzie regarding a past relationship which celebrates joy and sadness buoyed by an uplifting jangle fest of guitars, a fine curtain closer.
The End Of The Golden Age is released in May and there’s talk of a vinyl edition as well. In the meantime they’re touring Germany before the album launch at The Voodoo Rooms in Edinburgh on 12th June.
Listening to Oxfordshire’s Ags Connolly’s debut album, How About Now, you would swear that he was born and raised in some US Southern State. On his first visit to Glasgow this notion was dispelled the moment he spoke and his chipper English accent was there for all to hear. A curious duality perhaps but rather than sing his excellent tales with his own voice (and if so in danger of coming across like a serious Adge Cutler) Connolly has immersed himself in country music, in particular the burgeoning Ameripolitan movement, and with his adoption of the genre’s musical style he’s seen fit to adopt the vocal mannerism’s of his heroes. It’s certainly a winning decision as borne out by the rave reviews the album and his live shows have gathered with Country Music People magazine declaring “Connolly is the closest we’ve ever come to an English Willie Nelson.”
An imposing figure with a natty Nashville shirt, Connolly delivered his songs of loss and woe, shaped and comforted by the demon drink, with a fine emotional thump and such conviction that the audience were transported to Nashville’s Music Row. A Good Memory For Pain was an instantly memorable number that recalled George Jones, a thought that was reinforced by the tear jerking That’s The Last Time. On record That’s The Last Time is perfectly played by the band assembled by Edinburgh’s Dean Owens who produced the album. Live, Connolly dredged all the emotional depths of the album version with his heartworn voice and simple guitar accompaniment. Even more heartrending was his masterful rendition of She Doesn’t Need Anyone Anymore, a real tears in your beer moment but the emotional highpoint (or low point perhaps) came towards the end of the set when Connolly sang the powerful Get Out Of My Mind, his voice as rich as Charlie Rich’s was.
Elsewhere Connolly name checked his influences on the sturdy manifesto that is When Country Was Proud before describing his recent visit to Nashville where he met one of his heroes, the subject of his song, I Saw James Hand. Hand apparently arrived just as Connolly had sang the song leading him to confuse the audience by promptly singing it again. Of course Connolly played the song tonight and followed it with a fine rendition of Hand’s song, Over There, That’s Frank, a magnificently boozy honky tonk lament. Scattered through the set covers of Johnny Paycheck’s Slide Off Your Satin Sheets and Shel Silverstein’s Jennifer Johnson And Me demonstrated Connolly’s mining of country’s rich seams and with several new songs unveiled that match the quality of those he’s already recorded it seems that Connolly might just be the UK’s best country act about today.
The first thing to say about this album is that if you intend to listen to it then best go out and buy some beers and snacks beforehand. Next, get a comfy seat, set up your audio for its best “widescreen” effect and prepare to sit through two and a half hours of prime Americana country folk opera. It’s an effort for sure to sit throughout The Rose Of Rosecrae but having done so on three occasions (along with several dips into individual songs) Blabber’n’Smoke can confidently declare that ultimately it’s an interesting and rewarding endeavour and that the album, while not quite the masterpiece that some are pronouncing, is poised to loom over competitors in year end lists.
Tom Russell is no stranger to themes and concepts with previous albums such as The Man From God Knows Where and Hotwalker comprised of songs and spoken word, sound collages and guest artists. The Rose Of Roscrae takes this to another level, it’s a full blown musical story that traces the journey of a young Irishman to America where he goes West (as young men were inclined to do) allowing Russell to include Celtic laments, talking blues, cowboy songs, square dance, slave songs, Native American chants, Gospel and Mariachi music. Weaving traditional songs, standards and his own material into his sonic tapestry Russell has engaged a luminous cast of characters using archive recordings and contemporary collaborations to flesh out the story, the list is daunting……………
Jimmie Dale Gilmore, David Olney, Johnny Cash, Joe Ely, Augie Meyers, Fats Kaplin, Barry Walsh, Jimmy La Fave, Gretchen Peters, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Walt Whitman, Moses “Clear Rock” Platt, Jack Hardy, David Massingill, A.L. “Bert” Lloyd, Finbar Furey, Sourdough Slim, Blackie Farrell, Tex Ritter, Glen Orhlin, Pat Russell, John Trudell, Henry Real Bird, Thad Beckman, Maura O’Connell, Eliza Gilkyson, The McCrary Sisters, Ian Tyson, The Swiss Yodel Choir of Bern, Bonnie Dobson, Lead Belly, Guy Clark, Dan Penn, Gurf Morlix, Pat Manske, The Voices of the Waverley School, Pasadena, California and The Norwegian Wind Ensemble.
You get the picture.
As we said the album is a night in, the songs rolling over you. Some are snippets, over in less than a minute but like connective tissue essential to the overall sinewy aural chew. However there is sustenance galore in many of the individual songs which cleave to Russell’s familiar styles, bold and proud American folklore with sparkling guitar and Dobro providing punch and his spoken soliloquies that paint campfire pictures with tender guitar backdrop. When his hero is thinking back to his homeland Russell captures a fine Hibernian air which is best heard when Finbar Furey provides an excellent Carrickfergus/ The Water Is Wide before Russell wades in with a fierce expatriate’s memories of the Irish landscape. Throughout the album Russell deploys his “actors” as a director might with Jimmie dale Gilmore’s high lonesome voice capturing the frontier while David Olney rants magnificently as a hang ’em high judge. Meanwhile Eliza Gilkyson is a fine vocal foil to Russell on the opening songs of the second disc as does Gretchen Peters before the story heads down to Mexico allowing Augie Meyers and Joe Ely to shine.
Overall there isn’t enough space here to dig deeply into the 52 songs that comprise The Rose Of Rosecrae. Suffice to say that it’s a bold adventure and one that by and large succeeds. It’s begging for a visual accompaniment, a stage show or film gathering all of the cast (although the deceased might have to phone it in) but it’s safe to say that for those who have enjoyed Russell’s previous thematic albums this is essential. As for the others I’d recommend a deep breath, some popcorn and open ears and prepare to be astonished. Tom Russell will be appearing in Glasgow as part of Glasgow Americana in October.
Blabbern’Smoke first encountered Jack Law last year when he played a set at Glasgow’s Glad Cafe supporting John Hinshelwood. An imposing character and no spring chicken (and I’m sure he won’t mind us saying this, he called his band the Spring Chickens on the night) Law turned out to have a very interesting past as a musician prior to a successful career in public health issues. As one half of the duo Greenmantle (the other half being Billy Campbell, a veteran of Glasgow’s sixties beat scene) Law criss-crossed the country playing folk clubs and the like from 1970 until ’76 when the band eventually parted. Influenced by the likes of CSN&Y and very much a part of the scene that produced Stealers Wheel and Gallagher & Lyle they were on the bill at Glasgow’s infamous Green’s Playhouse, later The Apollo, for a benefit concert for the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, a gig that included Billy Connolly, Gallagher & Lyle, The JSD Band and Donovan. In fact there’s a handbill advertising the show on display at Glasgow’s Transport Museum.
Almost 40 years later Law and Campbell reconvened after a chance encounter and released an album, Two Hats, in 2011 which was well received and now they’ve come up with their second offering, Radio On. With producer George Burton collaborating musically Law and Campbell have taken the opportunity to record several of the songs they played endlessly on the road back in the seventies with Burton adding some studio sparkle and heft. The result is a full-blown band sound (with Dave Thomson on board) with horns and and some imaginative arrangements that, while harking back to the late sixties and early seventies, are impressive. The band describe the album as “a bow to the past, a wink to the present and a nod to the future.” The past is when the songs where written while the present is the current arrangements and performance. It wouldn’t come as a huge surprise to discover that Law, Campbell and Burton might have been viewing old episodes of Top of The Pops prior to the venture as the overall feel is akin to those “respectable” bands who occasionally scored a hit and appeared amidst Pan’s People and teenybopper idols. The aforementioned Stealers Wheel and Gallagher & Lyle are obviously touchstones but on the album there are echoes of The Pretty Things on You Don’t Read my Mind with its psychedelic middle eight while Sad Cafe come to mind on Moviemaker. The nascent country rock of the early seventies is revived on Masters Of Rhyme and the twang fuelled Red Rosé And Ruined. Both Campbell and Law sing well and this is most evident on Fine day For Dying which delves into the Scottish soul movement of the seventies which saw groups such as Cado Belle and The Average white Band transporting Philadelphia to the Highlands. One of the highlights here, Fine Day For Dying uses a horn section to great effect and grooves with a healthy slink.
As for the nod to the future, the title track is a new song, worked up in the studio while they recorded the rest of the album. It’s the punchiest effort here with a power pop thrust as they strap on jangly guitars and celebrate the joys of music with the freewheelin’ feel of driving a convertible down a rock’n’roll highway. For a couple of veterans reunited after so long a time the album is testament to their experience and road tested chops and while it might not set the heather on fire it’s sure to please their fans and with luck strike a chord with a some new ones.
When Robert Chaney, a Floridian musician, decided to move to London a few years back he didn’t have any contacts so he figured he’d check out the open mic scene. As he tells the story an early appearance led to him coming to the attention of producer Ken Brake and together the pair of them set out to make Cracked Picture Frames. It’s a bold album, Chaney, armed only with acoustic guitar and his lonesome voice, delivers a stark and startling effort that fits into the solo, haunted singer/songwriter tradition. The quality of the songs and his immaculate delivery however elevate the album above its peers, head and shoulders above in fact as song after song stuns the listener. While Chaney dips into Southern Gothic, Greenwich Village folk, Texan troubadour and delta blues styles on various numbers he stamps his authority all over the album.
His lyrics command attention be it telling blood stained tales such as on The Ballad Of Edward And Lisa or waxing poetically on the magnificent Does Your Love Pay Out In Full, a song that would sit very comfortably on Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks. Dylan and Townes Van Zandt might be names that come to mind when listening to the disc but to these ears, Cracked Picture Frames recalls the desolate howl of the first Loudon Wainwright album and the bleak landscapes that can be evoked by Eef Berzely from time to time. While there’s a hint of The Handsome Family’s grotesquery in some of the words the grim humour is absent, instead Chaney is bleak, he observes and reports with a poet’s mind. So we get a story of a child blinded by his religiously delusional aunt, a Mexican school bus crash, domestic violence, a forlorn lover wanting to patch up a broken relationship. On what might be the most arresting song on the album, The Cyclist, Chaney is as naked as Dylan was on his first albums, recalling the likes of the Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll as he narrates a mini movie that is noirish in the extreme as the protagonist, involved in a love tryst with his brother’s wife ends up paying for a crime she commits instead of revealing his betrayal. A nice update on that old standard Long Black Veil, it deserves to be heard.
Cracked Picture Frames is a wonderful album, proof, if needed, that one man and his guitar can be riveting as it paints pictures in the mind. His voice, a cracked crooner on the drawn out words of Corazones Amarillos, urgent on the bluesy Black Eyed Susan draws you in and the guitar work is simple but beguiling. One imagines that live, an audience would listen, hushed, to these meditations, in the meantime the album more than suffices.