Mars Arizona is a state of mind as opposed to an actual place and is occupied by this duo comprised of Paul Knowles and Nicole Storto. Their fourth album, High Desert, on Big Barn Records, is a fine slice of harmonic country rock. Previous releases have featured the likes of Al Perkins and David Grisman which might give a clue as to where this pair hail from musically. There are distorted fuzzy guitars and harmonies straight from the CSN&Y songbook. This is most evident on “Can we Turn this Page” which starts off with some snatched archived newspeak on anti Vietnam demos before launching into what is basically a protest song straight from the sixties. With cover versions of songs from that period including the stones’ “Sweet Virginia” and the Dead’s “Must have Been the Roses” there is a comfortable wallowing feeling for anyone who was around in those days. However with songs like the opener “Glad To Be Here” with its triumphant pedal steel sound and the John Prine like “Alabama Bound” there is plenty here to catch the ear of anyone looking to get a fix of some finely delivered country rock.
Glad To Be Here
In a similar time warp are Arizona crew Prophet and The Cowboys of Apocalypse who have a predominately acoustic epic sound that recalls the desert soundscape captured in Zabriskie Point all those years ago on their album The Edge. Mainman “Prophet” is a veteran of US metal band St. Madness but here he trips out on his admiration for the edgier side of country. Songs like “The Edge” are like Morricone mixed with early Hawkwind, believe it or not. A dramatic telling with Spanish guitar curlicues and lonesome harmonica give this song a spooky, er, edge. Prophet is not above some shitkicking however and “BBQ” is a turbo charged country romp with guitar that could be from the likes of Warner E Hodges while “High As Hell” is downright mean. “Goodnight Angel” is the star here, a song that one could imagine mark Lanegan covering. Guitars ripple while Prophet growls as if Roky Erickson had crawled from the desert. Kind of weird, king of Gothic but if anyone wonders what Lemmy might have sounded like if he came from Death Valley instead of Ladbroke Grove here’s a chance to find out.
Winter are a Swedish band fronted by the eponymous Anna-Lena Winter who writes some cracking songs and delivers them with a classic vocal style. Their last album, Ten Songs, got great reviews and they should repeat the trick here. The songs are radio friendly Americana rock in the vein of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers with fizzing guitars and swirling keyboard. A song such as “Crazy” is a hit waiting to be heard, gutsy and bold. While Winter can evoke the smoky drawl of Lucinda Williams (on Run) she can also be precociously seductive as on the lazily swung “Real Gone.” Guitarist Fredrik Lidkin plays heroically throughout but the drumming of Abbe Abrahamsson must get a mention also. His playing on the hypnotic wash of “A Minute Away” is a delight. Best song here however is “Book of Love” which is a perfect little song about the trials and tribulations of love where the band excel.
The Orbitsuns from Detroit are a down and dirty country punk band with a fine line in songs about boozing and other nefarious deeds. They look and sound like the type of band in a Hollywood movie playing to the baddest bunch of mean muthas but who turn out to be even badder. With a sound ranging from the propulsive drive one associates with Los Lobos to some wild r’n’b inspired country picking this lot look and sound mean. “Trains” and “Boozehound” are the songs that most resemble Los Lobos with the guitars slicing across a great drum sound on a pair of songs that are no slouches. “Who You Looking Pretty For Today” evokes the spirit of Doug Sahm with Spanish guitar and an inspired groove while “Church on Sunday” is a honky tonkin’ romp through the old hell raisin’ church going dichotomy that has inspired many a great song. Coming to the UK in July it’s a pity there are no Scottish gigs that I can see however the band have some fine videos on their website that whet the thirst for what one would presume to be a great live experience. The album might be a poor second to seeing them but you could string a net up between you and the hi-fi and then throw bottles at it while it’s playing.
Time was when one talked of “classic” or “veteran” artists the reference was to pre sixties icons, blues or folk or country singers that stamped their legacy on those who followed. Well time marches on and these days singers and songwriters such as Loudon Wainwright or John Prine debut’s are as far removed from us as Leadbelly or The Carter Family were to them. A long winded way perhaps to introduce Sally Spring who made a minor splash in the seventies but who has landed this superior slice of rootsy Americana that is as contemporaneous an album that I have heard all year.
The eleven songs here all dwell in the Americana idiom, covers of Johnny Cash’s I still Miss Someone and Los Lobos’ Short Side of Nothing illustrate the breadth that this entails, yearning classic singing on the Cash piece and an urgent rock pace on the Lobos track. Spring’s band are able to rock and coddle with equal aplomb and she is joined by guests such as Gurf Morlix, Caitlin Cary and Peter Holsapple on several songs. Overall the playing is excellent, sympathetic with a particular nod going to James Mastro on guitar and Ted Lyons on resonator, guitar and percussion.
Throughout the album Spring sings with an easy, assured and warm voice. She invites listeners to almost wallow in the sound of her singing. Of the eleven songs, at least half of them beg to be played over and over and again. Lake Ponchatrain has a chorus reminiscent of Joni Mitchell’s Circle Game with an accordian supporting a nostalgic tale. Mentone, Alabama is a road song with a bluesy clipped guitar that avoids the driving down the highway cliche but instead takes the listener down wisteria lined avenues and byways. Beautiful Ride has a wonderful wearied feel of regret and longing while Mattie showcases the band with a tremendous coiled slouch of snakelike guitar and rattling percussion, a voodoo version of southern swamp blues. The album’s closer, Boys In The Cornfield digs deep into the roots of folk as Spring commands attention on a song that can bring shivers to the spine. The one quibble here is the inclusion of a live song, It Don’t Make Sense, a Willie Dixon song that interrupts the overall vibe.
The album isn’t officially released for a few months yet but is available here
Tyler’s last album, “10 Songs of America Today” was an accomplished piece of Americana detailing a multicultural life in the mixed up mess that America finds itself in today. Despite this it was an uplifting album Helmed by Peter Case there was a blue collar sub Springsteen type feel to it but when he toured the UK last year in lieu of Case (who had undergone cardiac surgery) he unveiled another side to his character, a bohemian troubadour steeped in American traditions, the railroad, the carny, the hobo, the latest in a line that included Guthrie, Leadbelly, Ramblin Jack Elliott and Michael Hurley.
Lectric Prayer reflects this side of Tyler, less orchestrated than 10 Songs here he is supported by Sarah and Sean Watkins of Nickel Creek, Don Heffington (Emmylou Harris and Lone Justice) and Sebastian Steinberg (too many to mention). The sound is acoustic with the violin well to the fore. Tyler’s way with a melody and lyric are as strong as on the previous record and he delivers again with his well worn husk of a voice.
In this more traditional setting there is less of the mordant observation apparent in 10 Songs but Tyler is able to delve deep into tradition to produce some fabulous songs. The stringent folk blues of Ooh You’re scarin’ Me and the rickety gospel of Train To Heaven are stompingly good. The introspective Bless That day and Good Ol’ Circus days reflect his ability to capture an audience with nothing but his guitar and talent. Lectric Prayer is a hypnotic groove with wheezy harmonica and a railroad rhythm and the tub thumpin’ Runaway Hellbound Train allows the band to swing merrily.
Overall this is probably a better album than 10 Songs. It should appeal to anyone who thought Springsteen was earthy due to the Seeger Sessions or indeed anyone interested in modern day American folk. Tyler is a cool hobo dude indeed.
There’s a wealth of information on the two albums on Tyler’s website and here’s the opening song Tears of Blood
Mark Bates is a youthful chap from West Virginia who has produced an album chockfull of the contradictions inherent in the music of the American south. Ostensibly a God fearin’ population, scratch the surface and there is sex, crime, fear and darkness. Bates was raised in a church going family and drank in the waters of this duality. He sings with passion of whores, murder and alcohol, ingrained with the spirit of the area. With a mixture of blues soaked tales, soiled ballads and country tunes Bates’ piano is well supported by an able musical cast with guitarist Duke Levine and on keyboards Michael Bellar shining in particular.
Forbidden Love thumps along with a southern swampy edge and while the lyrics are a compendium of voodoo and dirty love clichés the delivery is excellent, muscular and gripping. In the same vein Daisy is a dirty sounding blues slugger with Hammond organ and biting guitar as Bates describes the eponymous Daisy who smells like a polecat and never takes a shower. Shotgun with the Devil starts with a skeletal banjo and percussion that sounds like agitated crickets as Bates visits again a southern trope, the musician’s meeting with Old Nick. This is a claustrophobic and suspense filled song that builds in atmosphere with a sense of doom.
Away from the blues The Promised Land is a tale of murder and retribution told in a time tried tradition, an excellent story that is buttressed by fine playing almost as if The Band had taken an old country tune and handed it to Bates. Go On takes on an approximation of Mercury Rev’s take on the Band with what seems to a musical saw offering celestial swoons on a superior piano ballad.
A Drunkard’s Tale is perhaps the most dramatic song here and certainly the one that will get mentioned in reviews. Personally I think it’s one of the weaker songs with too much melodrama and with Bates trying just too hard to reach a higher register in his vocals, this is a song that Tom Waits might carry off but Bates just doesn’t have that gravitas and deadpan beatness.
The one cover here, Townes Van Zandt’s Flying Shoes is given a very successful and dynamic reading which fits well with the overall sense of the album The last song is a vaudevillian romp called Death Sucks which conjures up a New Orleans jazz line on a morbidly bleak of family fault lines at a funeral and provides a fitting end to a fine album.
You can buy it here
and listen to some of the songs here
A medley of mishaps involving public transport and a citizen’s duty to cross out a politician conspired to prevent me seeing the opening act The Wynntown Marshals who were promoting their fine new album. A poor start but after this things could only get better. And so they did. A rejuvenated Scorchers had the house jumping with a fine set that gave full space to their new album, Halcyon Days but also found room to slip in several of their old crowd pleasers. Guitarist Warner E Hodges, looking like a wild haired version of Robert Downey Jnr. was on fine form. Slinging his guitar with abandon and towards the end swirling like a dervish he mugged with glee at the front rows of the audience and appeared to be having a fine time. Front man Jason Ringenberg howled and flayed like a man possessed while between songs he regaled us with tales of songwriting partners and the genesis of some of the new songs. While these appear to be still bedding in (with Jason reading lyrics from a sheet) overall the best of them sound as if they could have been in the Scorchers’ repertoire forever. There was a great atmospheric reading of Twang Town Blues and numbers such as Moonshine Guy, Mona Lee and Days of Wine and Roses fit right in to the Scorchers’ tradition. A great Ramones type bash through We’ve Got It Going On and a scorching (had to do it) rendition of Better than This from Hodges totally fired up the audience. However it was the fan’s favourite Broken Whiskey Glass that drew the most cheers and some incredible audience participation while White Lies closed the show all too soon.
Initial thought on receiving this was along the lines of “good God, another actor who thinks he can sing!” For indeed one of the Bacon Brothers is that Kevin (of six degrees game fame), star of many a Hollywood movie, some great, some not so. Digging into the history however it appears that this is not some one off vanity project but that The Bacon Brothers are a working band going back to the mid nineties and that Michael, the other brother, has composed for television winning an Emmy in the process.
So far so good then. Putting aside the Hollywood aspect, what does the album sound like and why is it being pushed now when it was originally released stateside in 2008. Second question first. This is their first album to be released in Europe with a whistle stop promo visit from the bothers in early May. There are also promises of a full tour to follow.
As for the music one is tempted to say, “don’t give up the day job” although primarily because one presumes it pays better. The album is actually pleasant in its weaker moments, radio oriented pop rock, the cod reggae of Bunch of Words being the primary example. But there are some songs that have a good grip of rhythm and blues (New Year’s Day, the opener) and on Go My Way they have a valiant and largely successful stab at a muscular blue eyed soul sound similar to the early efforts of Hall and Oates. Both brothers sing well and the band playing is impeccable. The stand out song is Architeuthis (a giant squid so Google tells me) with an interesting Irish melody woven in towards the end of it, one can’t imagine Bruce Willis attempting something like this.
Overall this isn’t an album I’d go out of my way to buy but it is far better than I expected it to be. If the brothers do tour it would be interesting to see how they measure up live.
Here are some songs from their Myspace page