Emma Swift

Emma Swift might be a new name to many in the UK, although it’s apparent that she picked up quite a few fans on her recent tour with Robyn Hitchcock, in her native Australia however she was well known as the host of radio shows In the Pines and Saturday Night Country. All the while she was finding her way as a songwriter and performer both solo and as half of the duo 49 Goodbyes before eventually taking the step of locating to Nashville a year or so back. This self-titled mini album is her debut and was released around a year back in Australia but Swift has just relaunched it on iTunes.

Live Blabber’n’Smoke described Ms. Swift thus

…her lachrymose country songs were well received. Her version of Gram Parsons’ Brass Buttons highlighted her aching bittersweet voice while the suicide note that is Rowland Howard’s Shiver was delivered with a fine mix of tenderness and defiance. Her own song, Seasons, marked her as a writer and singer who could be up there with the likes of Lucinda Williams…

The album reinforces this with Swift’s voice in particular commanding attention. She combines the languid manner of Lucinda Williams with the effortless swoon of Linda Ronstadt while also managing the sultriness of kd Laing in torch song mode. In addition she’s a great writer, the five songs here all worthy of attention (in addition there’s a cover of The Motels’ Total Control) and to cap it all the band she’s assembled play some very sweet heartbreaking country music.

She opens with the bittersweet Bittersweet, a soft rock country balm for the soul effortlessly singing over the slow rhythm shuffle with pedal steel and Wurlitzer curling around her voice. Woodland Street has a late night jazz feel to it with Swift vulnerable in her pleading, a sense continued on Seasons, an initially brighter, summery song where again she’s looking for affection (with her voice here reminiscent of Lucinda Williams). Swift manages a neat trick here with the first half of the song optimistic as she waits for her lover in the spring, honeyed pedal steel and sparkling guitar like reflected sunlight on the sea before she fears he’ll be gone by the fall and there’s an almost imperceptible shift in the mood of the music, the guitars sadder, keening instead of honeyed. At the heart of album is the lengthy King Of America, eight minutes of hesitant, slow flow twang guitar and cosmic country tinged pedal steel that recalls the glory days of NRPS and Garcia himself as it weaves an unsteady course over deadpan percussion. Almost as if the Grateful Dead had scored David Lynch’s Twin Peaks Swift offers a portrait of the narcotic pull of the likes of Gram Parsons or Hank Williams as she succumbs to their invitation to dance. It’s a glorious song that places Swift at the forefront of our singer/songwriters today.

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Roberto & the Tickety 2. Middle Age Spread.

Humour in music is difficult to write about. Is a humorous act just a joke or something to be listened to in the same manner one would listen to the latest album from, say, Ryan Adams? Probably not yet the rock’n’roll road is littered with some great songs, usually listed under “novelty,” that stand the test of time. One of the arbiters of what’s a good “novelty” song is the great Dr. Demento, an LA institution since the early seventies and champion of Nervous Norfus, Weird Al Jankovic and Barnes and Barnes (the exquisite song, Fish Heads). So, it’s a badge of honour that Dr. Demento has recently cast his eye in the direction of Scotland, specifically those kings of Mirth ‘n’ Roll Roberto & The Tickety 2 featuring two of their songs on his show, White Wine from their first album and Harley Davidson from Middle Age Spread, their latest release.

Well, who are we to disagree with Dr. Demento as he’s spot on with his picks here. Roberto & The Tickety 2 are a Perthshire based trio who actually have some great musical chops. Roberto handles his double bass with some dexterity as Dave Clelland lays down some fine percussion. Topping this is the guitar work of Owen Nicholson, an ace guitarist who, instead of his usual country rock licks, plays some excellent jazzy guitar lines; in fact I’m sure that if you were to hear the album without the vocal track you’d think this was by someone like Barney Kessel. Fine as that is Roberto Cassani ensures that the songs have the main ingredient required of a fine novelty song, i.e. novelty, fun, humour and such. Listening to the songs here which accurately spear some social notions and poke fun at well-deserved targets there was a thought that he’s working in the same sphere as ace humorists Tom Lehrer and Ivor Cutler, his words fired at various Aunt Sally’s. So we get a salute to baldness (“men are boys until they’re bald”), the perils of the male menopause (Harley Davidson) and a jab at hipsters (Grizzly Adams) among others. There’s broad humour in the very funny Man For My Mum with Cassani importuning George Clooney lookalikes in the pub lavatory in a search for a new dad, sleazy Soho boho jazz on Pane & Salame with Cassani coming across like Paulo Conte and some very fine cod Mexicali drama on Pedro. Best of all is the hazy, almost Tiki laidback groove of Don’t Grow Up, a fine warning to children throughout the world.

It’s all still tongue in cheek but definitely a step up from their first album Manflu and best of all for a comedy album it’s one that you can listen to time and again as it does groove and the lyrics reveal new nuggets time and again.

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Phil Lee. Some Gotta Lose… Palookaville Records

A new album from Phil Lee is cause for celebration, a musical Maverick perhaps but as Blabber’n’Smoke said in the review of his previous album, “he captures what may be the true sense of Americana, able to toss songs off with just an acoustic guitar that stand alongside the likes of John Prine, hit the honky tonks with tremendous truck driving stories, dig a southern soul groove or get deep and dirty with the blues. Irreverent, profane and above all laughing at the cosmic irrelevance of it all.”  And so it is with his latest, Some Gotta Lose… the title coming about as Lee explains in a recent interview with Blaine Schultz., “Mainly I got the idea from never having a snappy come back to the query, “you’re so dang fabulous (I paraphrase) how come it is I’ve never heard of you?” (That with the implication it’s somehow it’s my fault. The noive)…My pat answer became ‘Hey, some gotta lose’.”

It’s this sense of not taking himself too seriously that endears him to many but deep down Lee is seriously stewed in rock’n’roll with a back history that would make a fine biopic peopled with the likes of Neil Young, The Burritos, Wilco and Alison Moorer. Above all he’s a gifted songwriter and his albums should never ever be filed under humour despite the occasional joke.

Produced by Willy Mason Some Gotta Lose… is a wonderfully warm and loose limbed album. Recorded pretty much live, warts and all in a house in upstate New York Lee visits the blues, country, soul and even tango with his band hitting a fine groove throughout. Drums rattle and guitars buzz and burn, the organ glowers and Lee’s hipster voice is accompanied by female harmonies on several of the songs. The groove is important with Lee explaining that the live recording set up allowed the band to stretch out at times trying “telepathically to figure out who should play a solo or just hang out.” There’s some bum notes apparently but the overall impression is of a bunch of musicians cutting loose and having a great time.

The album opens with the Southern soulfulness of Ain’t No Love with guitar licks aplenty summoning up a swampy rhythm before harmonies and harmonica glide in. Halfway through the song picks up tempo as the band riff on the melody while Lee sings the chorus before taking it home. There’s more Southern grooves on Don’t tell me Now with Lee getting lascivious with an ex who has blossomed into a catch whose “breasts got fuller and kiss got sweeter.” Lee and the band plead wonderfully with yearning guitar echoing his sentiments as the song meanders to its end. Sex rears its head again on No Taking It Back only here Lee is hesitant in the moment of triumph, pondering the aftermath while the churchlike organ drenched This One is another soulful meditation on a past lover that is bitter sweet in its Muscle Shoal type delivery. Lee ends this song on harmonica as the organ swells taking it into Stray Gators territory.

Wake Up Crying is a zippy Dylan fuelled 60’s blast sounding like an outtake from Highway 61 with Bloomfield like guitar bursts and there’s some real retro rockabilly on the cover of the traditional Lil Liza Jane. Kiss Of Fire is an audacious tango with Lee playing up to his comic persona but even so its compelling listening. Finally, there’s the country lament of If Frogs Had Wings, a fiddle sawing away offering comparison to Dylan again, this time circa Desire. A death row prisoner’s final thoughts with Peckinpah imagery thrown in it’s simply fantastic.

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The Deslondes. New West Records

New Orleans isn’t the first place you’d expect to hear classic country music although in the past few years acts such as Hurray For The Riff Raff and Gal Holiday have proved that pedal steel can cut it in the Crescent City. now along come The Deslondes, a five piece band who sound as if they’ve been marinated in old time country spiced up with some blues and soul, the end result a very fine ramshackle sound that can be likened to The Band, The Felice Brothers or even Doug Sahm (on the fiddle sawed Same Blood As Mine). And while they don’t (as yet) achieve the heights of these acts this debut album is a heart warming collection of songs that variously swing, rock or pull at the heart.

Some of the band have been together for several years (recording as The Tumbleweeds) and have strong ties with Alynda Lee Segarra (of Hurray For The Riff Raff) before eventually coalescing as The Deslondes. With several songwriters in the fold and four of the band able to sing lead there’s variety aplenty on the album and despite the country tag we’re pushing here theres’ a definite Big Easy influence at play most evident on the opening and closing songs. I Fought The Blues And Won rides on a Fats Domino like piano riff with a laidback singalong quality. Out On The Rise is starker with the piano more in tune with barrelhouse blues and a clarinet solo nailing the NO vibe although a lonesome pedal steel cries throughout.

Sandwiched between these is the fine country gospel of Those Were (Could’ve Been) the Days and the trucking Less Honkin’ More Tonkin’ (guaranteed to please fans of Junior Brown or Bill Kirchen), the spaghetti western twang of Time To Believe In and the Johnny Cash meets Ricky Nelson chicka boom of Louise. There are laments. Simple and True stumbles and starts fitfully and Heavenly Home is a mighty slice of pedal steel garnished southern grit. Best of all is the lonesome howl of Low Down Soul which is indeed indebted to Hank Williams and well worthy of being mentioned in the same breath.
The Deslondes (Sam Doores vocals/guitar, Riley Downing vocals/guitar, Dan Cutler vocals/stand-up bass, Cameron Snyder vocals/percussion and John James Tourville pedal steel/fiddle) play several UK shows this week, dates here. There’s a fine interview with the band from Uncut magazine which you can read here.

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Martin Harley and Daniel Kimbro. Live at Southern Ground. Del Mundo Records.

UK lap steel and slide blues guitarist Martin Harley gained a good deal of recognition with his 2013 album Mojo Fix. Live At Southern Ground, the follow up was recorded “live” (no audience as far as we can gather) in Nashville’s Southern Ground Studios with double bass player Daniel Kimbro after the pair met up and jammed at a Tennessee festival. Almost a spur of the moment decision then, the album was recorded in one day with Harley playing regular, resonator and lap top (Hawaiian style) guitars with Kimbro slapping the big fiddle.

As such it’s a really fine slice of acoustic blues, well recorded and definitely an album that will please anyone who recalls Taj Mahal in his acoustic prime or the many finger picking wizards from the sixties folk boom who peppered their sets with blues covers. Harley writes the majority of the songs with a fine handle on the classic blues rhetoric while his guitar playing is at times mesmerising and vocally he answers that age-old question as to whether white men can sing the blues with some aplomb. The interaction between him and Kimbro’s nimble bass playing is a delight with some passages demanding to be replayed as one decides which instrument to concentrate on. Together they have a similar sort of musical telepathy to that of the late John Martyn with the great Danny Thompson.

Acknowledging his roots Harley covers Lead Belly’s Goodnight Irene and Blind Willie Johnson’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine while a cover of Tom Waits’ Chocolate Jesus is given a razor edged slide guitar thrust which takes the song into acoustic Led Zep territory. The album ends with an uncredited song that harks back to Johnson’s Dark was The Night, Cold Was The Ground with its sinister slide playing laid over some sombre and spine tingling double bass bowing. It’s a hidden track so if you do get the album wait for it at the end, it will blow you away.

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The Stray Birds/The Jellyman’s Daughter. Fallen Angels Club, St. Andrews In The Square, Glasgow. 25th August 2015

Third visit to Glasgow in 18 months for Pennsylvania roots trio The Stray Birds and while most of their set was familiar to the audience (a fair bet a good percentage had seen the two previous shows) they grow in confidence and delivery. Buoyed by some ecstatic notices for their appearance at the Cambridge Folk Festival a few weeks ago Maya de Vitry, Oliver Craven and Charles Muench offered a spellbinding set with de Vitry in particular excelling, her voice commanding. Her delivery of their ode to record stores, Best Medicine was slower and more poignant than the recorded version and somewhat spectacular. There’s no doubting their musical skills as they skirled around their condenser microphone whipping up excitement as on the opening song The Bells and Caleb Klauder’s New Shoes while Make Me A Pallet On The Floor and Blue Yodel #7 were fun and funky. However the best moments were on the more tender moments as songs by de Vitry and Craven allowed for a delicate touch on various guitars, fiddles and mandolin with Never For Nothing given a solemn heft from Muench’s bowed double bass while Harlem was a world away from standard bluegrass fare sounding more like a classic Carole King song.

Muench helmed much of the show’s introductions, down-home and witty while there was some band banter over who wrote what and who did this before they dived into another fine ensemble piece. Crammed before the one mic there’s a pleasing visual symmetry on display with Craven playing several of his fine guitar solos in a vertical position in order to avoid taking an eye out. Covers of Townes Van Zandt’s Loretta, taken at a trot despite some preferences for a slower version and Nanci Griffiths’ I Wish It Would Rain were real crowd pleasers and the encore of a new song, When I Die which was Appalachian dyed bodes well for the future.

The opening act was The Jellyman’s Daughter, an Edinburgh based duo who combine cello and guitar to fine effect. Nice harmonies and some fine song writing were displayed on a rendition of The One You’re Leaving while covers of Gillian Welch’s The way It Will Be and a fine reconstruction of The Beatles’ Money Can’t Buy Me Love showed some eclectism in their influences.

The Roseline. Townie

Kansas band The Roseline are essentially a vehichle for Colin Haliburton’s sweetly sad songs which are delivered with a gentle flow. Haliburton has a light voice, not dissimilar to Ryan Adams at times while the instrumentation is primarily keyboard driven and burnished with scrubbed acoustic guitars and slender electric embroidery.

The eleven songs here deal with tough subjects including mental illness and substance abuse but there’s no descent into hell here. Rather there’s always a glimmer of hope, the music like a ray of sun peeping through a cloud. At times there’s a resemblance to the poppier elements of Calexico particularly on the title track and the closing A Children’s Game. At his best however Haliburton delivers some swooning country tinged numbers with Dark Love Is Still Love featuring keening pedal steel while Selfish Heart is simply wonderful, a yearning desire to spend time with a sweetheart that isn’t realised because “love ain’t on the cards for a man with a selfish heart.”

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