I reviewed Sparks’ 2009 album The Scorpion and the Story for Americana UK and strangely enough some of that review is quoted in the press notes for this album. According to the quote praise was, indeed, high. Digging into my archives I noted that the quote was very selective and I had really only considered the album as good rather than the second coming. Anyway, I concluded the review by suggesting that she was at her best when the songs were less cluttered, unadorned, and even more strangely she’s taken my advice (as if!).
Having relocated from Nashville to Barcelona, she retains many of the musicians who have graced her earlier efforts. Will Kimbrough and Fats Kaplin among others reappear and the album is again produced by David Henry. As on “Scorpions” Sparks has a loose concept to hang the songs on. Here she’s released the album as two discs, “a study in dichotomy” she says. Until Morning is supposed to represent her darker side while Come Out of the Dark is the “dawn that follows the darkness.” Try as I might I fail to see this “dichotomy” and in the long run it’s perhaps better to sit back, relax and enjoy the songs as they come. So casting aside all pretensions what have we got?
Essentially Sparks is a very good songwriter with a powerful voice and a cooking band. The second disc does offer a brace of tender ballads. The travelogue that is Tennessee Line tugs while Come Out of the Dark is a tremendous song of longing, of someone waiting, almost till the end of the time, to consummate a love. On the same disc Judge a Book is a real humdinger. Classic pedal steel and twang guitar rumble and wail throughout this turbo charged monster that has a wonderful cinematic feel about it.
The first disc opens with Rain (The Widow), a pile-driving howl with a magnificent percussive drive and some wild guitar squalls while Mama has an almost Hispanic beat to it. The Hispanic influence reappears on the one cover here. Quizas Quizas Quizas is a 1940’s Cuban song and Sparks delivers it with a fine sense of sensuality and menace.
Judge a Book
When I wrote about the latest Wilders’ gig in Glasgow I noted that they had appeared here so often recently they were becoming akin to locals. Interesting then that they have indulged in a spot of musical miscegenation, teaming up with Edinburgh duo Old Dollar Bill for this release. Furthermore it’s a bit of a menage a trois as another popular visitor, namely Woody Pines is also involved.
Before we get too confused what we have here is a one track CD single, the title song from the forthcoming Old Dollar Bill album, their second. Before you ask “why should I buy a single with one song that’s going to be on the album anyway?” I’d point out that, in this day and age of digital downloads it’s an actual physical artefact and comes with some very attractive packaging and for the price of a pint is well worth getting.
As for the song itself Old Dollar Bill and the tourists (as they’re described in the notes) spend almost six minutes on a splendidly loose limbed picaresque tale of a “whisky drinking, finger pickin’ bluegrass man.” The bass playing of Nate Gawron and Dobro from Phil Wade certainly fill out Old Dollar Bill’s sound. Woody Pines introduces the song and Stephen Clark and Ike Sheldon swap vocals. Like Hank Williams without the heartbreak it’s good time music and it sounds as if they had a whale of a time recording it. The enthusiasm certainly spills out of the speakers. It’s a tremendous performance and akin to having a jam session in your room.
Available at gigs and here it’s a great opportunity for fans of all three bands involved to get a piece of the action. You can hear it on the Old Dollar Bill MySpace page.
Picott is for want of a better term, a “blue collar” singer songwriter. Working in the same field (more appropriately factory but that doesn’t really fit) as Springsteen in his more contemplative moments he celebrates working life. While he’s never set the heather on fire his albums have always been dependable slices of weary lived in tales delivered in a laconic style. Welding Burns will be no surprise to anyone who’s familiar with his work, some co-writes with Slaid Cleaves, harmonies by Amanda Shires and some fine picking and playing from some superb Nashville cats.
The 10 songs here are all fine examples of Picott’s work, vignettes, little slices of life. The title song tells of the inability of ordinary folk to move on from their inheritance. Delivered over a Southern blues groove with some fine fiddle from Shires it’s a powerful performance. Black T-shirt continues in this vein as a high school drop out sees the only way out to be robbery. The criminality and the southern vibe continues in 410.
Still I Want You Bad is an achingly heartfelt love song addressed to a partner whose bad habits don’t matter. Will Kimbrough adds some fine guitar here (as he does throughout). The album’s themes of loss, poverty and disillusion are gathered together in the opening song, Rust Belt Field. As the factories of the likes of Detroit closed the workers are left, bereft of self-respect and scrambling for any chance of a quick buck. Picott portrays this with a degree of empathy and a wonderful delivery. All in all a fine listen and a powerful indictment of the plight of some ordinary folk in the USA of today.
A regular visitor to these shores, Picott has a Glasgow date pencilled in for October.
Rust Belt Fields
When it comes to talking about Greenwich Village folkies of the sixties (as I’m sure many of us do on many occasions) several spring immediately to mind. Dylan, of course, Phil Ochs, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Dave van Ronk,Tim Hardin, Fred Neil and even the Clancy Brothers. Tom Paxton was in there also and for a number of people he remains second only to Dylan in terms of talent and popularity. Somehow however it’s rare to see him namechecked these days while the likes of Neil and Ochs are constantly “rediscovered.” Perhaps it’s because he remained a darling of folk clubs and was never really picked up by a hip crowd after the early seventies. Nonetheless he remains an important part of the folk revival jigsaw and throughout the sixties and up to the present day he has written many memorable songs which are part of the standard folk repertoire in addition to a multitude of topical and protest songs, sometimes hard hitting, sometimes humorous.
Anyway, Tim Grimm, a fine writer in his own stead and who after years of listening to Paxton got to know him offers here 12 Paxton songs ranging from 1964 to 2007. While Paxton’s best-known song “Last Thing on my Mind” gets a wonderful airing the remainder of the songs are less well known. The album opens with “Rumblin’ In The Land,” a song from Paxton’s first album. Backed by banjo and guitar Grimm delivers a muscular performance very much in the vein of the early sixties, a great start. There’s a terrific rock groove to “Bishop Cody’s Last Request” and the satirical “General Custer” gets a solid and swinging bluegrass delivery. The band continue to rock on “My favourite Spring” which is a vivid account of a Korean war veteran’s bitter sweet recollections of a failed baseball career, a tremendous delivery here. Paxton’s more tender moments are faithfully recalled on several songs. “Whose Garden Was This” is a poignant early ecological song while “All Night Long” is enhanced by the fine harmony vocals from the Bowman sisters. Another song from Paxton’s first album, “Fare Thee well, Cisco,” a tribute to the then recently departed Cisco Houston stands out with some fine accordion and a delivery that sounds a little like John Prine in his prime. The deeply sardonic ”Forest Lawn” about a soldier’s final resting place is given a Leonard Cohen type waltz style. The highlight however is indeed the song that most listeners would recognise. The cover of “Last Thing on My Mind” is superb. With an arrangement that is ever so slightly reminiscent of Tim Hardin’s If I Were A carpenter, especially on the drums, Grimm revives a great song with a great deal of affection and respect while stamping his own authority on it.
An album certainly for Paxton fans but even if you don’t know his songs this album stands up as a collection in its own right.
Rumblin’ In The Land
They just keep on coming. Marybeth D’Amico is yet another of those singer/songwriters who might never become a household name but who can deliver as fine an experience as many of her better-known peers. Her first album Heaven, Hell, Sin and Redemption, as its title might suggest was an exploration if the seamier and darker side of life. On this second album she tackles weighty subjects such as the Berlin Wall (she lives in Germany) and the aftermath of natural disasters such as earthquakes and storms. When she gets down to relationships she looks on the dismal side, her characters appears to be fixed, unable to change their destinies which on the whole don’t bode well. Recorded in Texas with producer Bradley Kopp (Eliza Gilkyson, Jimmie Dale Gilmore) and featuring a fine band behind her several of the songs surge strongly with soulful organ and crunchy guitars very much in Kathleen Edwards’ style. Chief of these is Don’t Look Back which is a terrific song with a radio friendly sound. Inside Out is more reminiscent of that other Williams, Lucinda, bluesy with some fine slide guitar work from producer Kopp, D’Amico sings of someone trying to salvage some honour following a break up, putting on a brave front but inside failing miserable, retiring to her room to cry. Powerful stuff. The jaunty acoustic picking of Reborn lifts the mood of the album although it appears to be about a woman saved from suicide by the birth of her child. No matter, this brief shard of light is swallowed by the following Der Grenzer, the song about the Wall. Taken at a funereal pace with martial drumming this is a modern folk song that chills. D’Amico remains in folky mode with Star Crossed, another song that sounds as if it was forged many years ago.
Overall then is a very strong album and it’s almost guaranteed that the likes of Bob Harris will be playing it soon.
Don’t Look back