One of the finest Canadian exports of the last few years Sarah MacDougall is playing the Glasgow Americana Festival (Brel on 9th October) and luckily enough she has a brand new album that those fortunate enough to attend should be able to get their hands on. The Greatest One Alive is a tremendous little album. Small but perfectly formed its ten songs are all delightfully crafted with MacDougall’s excellent vocals well to the fore. She has a great voice, husky and tender with a slight sense of vulnerability. She also evokes, both in her writing and singing a sense of the great cold outdoors, perhaps due to her Swedish background. Despite this the album also embraces a warm and celebratory experience with a spring in the step of a piece such as Song #43. Chillier climes and notions do inhabit the less adorned songs. Permafrost with its chilling pedal steel is hypnotic while Cold Night illustrates perfectly those moments, late at night and alone when rumination and recrimination deny sleep.
There are some fine and tender musical moments throughout the album with We’re All Gonna Blow Away and The Greatest Ones Alive swelling with pride from the speakers. The opening song Sometimes You Lose, Sometimes You Win grabs you from the start with its windswept sweep where acoustic guitars and piano pile into each other achieving a degree of perfection. This ensemble playing reaches its peak on It’s a Storm! (What’s Going On?) where MacDougall and her vocal partners are assisted by some fine rumbling percussion to create some musical onomatopoeia. However the most arresting song is the one that she delivers all by herself, MMM, a terrific and tender love song.
We’re All Gonna Blow Away
Gwendolyn. Bright Light
A child of California, Gwendolyn first came to Blabber’n’Smoke’s attention when she released Lower Mill Road, a 2007 album recorded in Scotland with players such as Chris Drever and John McCusker. With this, her fourth album she’s left the Incredible String Band influences evident on Lower Mill Road behind and welcomed country music with open arms. With a voice that is a cross between Melanie Safka and Dolly Parton she’s joined by her regular band who play an idiosyncratic selection of instruments including found percussion and glass harmonica. Despite this the overall sound is fairly traditional and throughout the album there is an impish and infectious sense of joy. The songs range from the Bakersfield country pop sound of Tater Tots and Whiskey Shots to the Nanci Griffith like Discover Me. Ably assisted by a clutch of guests including Tony Gilkyson, Josh Grange and some of I See Hawks in LA there are snatches of fiddle and guitars, both steel and twang, popping up when one least expects it. With all of the songs written by Gwendolyn she has produced an excellent set that harks back to tradition while stamping her own quirky personality all over. Listening to this I was reminded of Michelle Shocked’s Arkansas Traveller, another album that explored country roots. Gwendolyn’s effort is just as ambitious and overall is a tremendous listen with repeated hearings unveiling new delights. Well worth checking out.
Rum Drum Ramblers. Mean Scene
At the last Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three gig in Glasgow, washboard and harmonica player, Ryan Koenig pressed into my hand this fine album. Recorded by him and fellow South City Three member, Joey Glynn (upright bass) with Mat Wilson on guitar and vocals this will delight anyone who enjoys Pokey’s blend of old time swing and blues. The vibe is essentially the same and the third member of the South City Three, Adam Hoskins appears on slide guitar. The addition of the Funky Butt Brass Band on several songs offers a more pronounced jellyroll type jazz sound while Wilson’s vocals are mellower than Pokey’s. Comparisons aside the Ramblers are indeed a mean machine with some magnificent interplay between the instruments, a sly jive talking style and an obvious love of their influences. All 12 songs are gems with the standouts being Jack and Tom, a rattling introduction to the album, If It Have To Be with its vintage sounding blues guitar licks and Do You which has a decided Michael Hurley feel to it.
Well below the radar you’ll need to go to CD baby or Amazon to buy or download this but it’s a guaranteed winner.
Jack and Tom
Old Dollar Bill. Across The Tracks
When what appeared to be cash money came tumbling out of the envelope we thought that at last someone had figured out that payola should not be restricted to members of parliament. Unfortunately it was a fake dollar bill from our old friends in the east, Old Dollar Bill, the mighty Edinburgh duo of Ed Henry and Stephen Clark. Hot on the heels of their collaboration with the Wilders and Woody Pines comes this four song EP. Maintaining their expanded palette with guest musicians from the Edinburgh folk scene (Martin McQuade on double bass, Owen McAlpine, harmonica, Mairi Orr, harmony vocals and Tom McAweaney, an old, old friend of Blabber’n’Smoke on fiddle) Old Dollar Bill deliver a great little bundle of tunes that sound as if they could have been played by bunch of genuine hillbillies. Clark excels on mandolin, Dobro and banjo while Henry’s percussion and especially his use of the Cajon adds an extra layer of enjoyment to what are already fine songs.
The EP opens with Move On, a driving romp that warns of the perils of gold digging women. Bright Light is drawn from the tradition of Appalachian dirges such as Oh Death and has some spine tingling vocals and fiddle playing. Hats Off to Begg (dedicated to the late Bryan Begg, a musical compadre of the Bill) is a heartfelt tribute that has a soulful southern blues slink to it. The EP closes with The Cold Gin Waltz, an instrumental that highlights the Celtic influence on Americana and could easily have featured in a movie such as Cold Mountain.
Old Dollar Bill seem to grow in stature with each release and this one is well recommended. .
The offending Old Dollar Bill
A marine biologist who grew up in New England listening to sea shanties, Anna Coogan is no stranger to the second element. The Wasted Sea, follow up to her acclaimed debut The Nocturnal Among Us is in the main a set of songs about the sea and the folk who live and die on, near or under it. A delicate album, there are no rollicking bawdy ballads here, rather forlorn tales of women awaiting the return to shore of their men or mourning those who do not return. Coogan sings beautifully and is ably supported throughout by a superb group of musicians who cosset the songs with some fine Dobro, mandolin, violin and banjo, the soft mallet drumming on the opening song, The Sons Will Join Their Fathers could almost be the waves lapping the shore.
Despite the delicacy of the playing there is plenty of emotion on show here. Coogan can sound steely, hurt, lost at times. On her fine cover of Phil Och’s epic The Crucifixion (dedicated to her father and perhaps an odd inclusion but it does feature a verse about a mariner) she builds up a righteous anger. The highlights however are Come Ashore Love, a haunting song that features Colby Sander’s Dobro and Come The Wind, Come the Rain where Coogan sings accompanied only by Eyvind Kang’s violin on a song that is the closest the album gets to a traditional folk sound.
A fine successor to her debut album, The wasted Ocean is well recommended to anyone who likes Kris Delmhhorst, Alela Diane or Rachel Harrington. She is well acquainted with Glasgow having appeared at Celtic Connections and indeed mentions this fine city in her liner notes (noting that the spark for the album was lit on a “soggy Glasgow morning). She’s appearing at Glasgow Americana on October 6th.
Come Ashore, Love
Hemifran is a music label and distribution company based in Sweden and is responsible for marketing and shipping many of the Americana releases you read about here and on other publications. The artists they push and promote range from household names (well, in my household) to independent spirits who’ve managed to conjure up a disc’s worth of music and offered it to the world.
Like most labels Hemifran occasionally gather up a handful of tunes and paste them into what one used to call a sampler. Their two previous offerings, “I Like It Better Here – Music From Home” and “I Like It Better Here – Some More Music From Home” have featured artists such as Jackson Browne and Graham Nash along with some lesser known but at times tremendous artists. Despite their releases being chock full of contemporary acts these two discs did display an engaging love for the singer songwriter feel of the seventies and this carries on with their third in the series.
“That Thing That’s a Whole Lot Bigger Than This – Hymns From Home” is a lovingly crafted artefact based on a suggestion by Greg Copeland that the third compilation consist of “secular hymns,” or songs that “have to do with “That Thing That’s a Whole Lot Bigger Than This.” To this end we have a selection of songs that in the main delve back to the likes of Townes Van Zandt, Steve Young, Steve Goodman and others of that ilk. Copeland himself appears twice while Steve Noonan, Jack Tempchkin, JD Souther and Judy Collins all get a piece apiece. Finger picking story songs predominate with several styles on show but with the likes of I See Hawks in LA and the power pop presence of Anthony Crawford’s On The Hill this is not a simple folk album. JD Souther’s On The Day Nobody Likes You glides from a Bo Diddley beat to glossy Boz Scaggs like soul shuffle while Judy Collins offers a hymn like paean to the power of song that evokes celestial choirs.
As to the theme of secular hymns all is revealed in the liner notes where each performer explains their choice. You can read these on the Hemifran website. Better still they have very kindly offered five copies of the album to give away here. If you want a copy all you have to do is let me know via the comments below with a promise to come back and tell us what your favourite song on the album was and why. First five to respond with a cast iron promise get the album.
I See Hawks In LA – If You Lead I Will Follow
Mare Wakefield is yet another of those talented writers and performers whose albums tumble into Blabber HQ with increasing regularity. Whether its something in the water or just plain old talent a good percentage of them have a firm grasp on what makes a good album, a good song and the chops to deliver the goods. In the pantheon of female (and this goes for the guys also) performers in the Americana field there are the stars (you know who they are), the hardy perennials who will always get a mention and then the workers at the coalface. Time and again I’m astounded and impressed by the quality of the music produced by people I’ve never heard of, who plough their own field and come up with the goods. Wakefield is yet another one of these.
Based in Nashville this is her fifth release. A vibrant and impassioned singer she can deliver straightforward confessional songs then delve into a big band arrangement with sassy horns and a great sense of swing. Wicked is one such song, deliciously salacious it conjures up rain swept neon lit passions while Red Dress has a New Orleans shuffle with stride piano. The central song on the album is About the War where Wakefield sings about her dreams of tending to wounded soldiers and of watching generals, safe behind the lines, drinking fine wines. In a brave move she allows a “long haired hippie from Galilee” to enter her dream to tell her to forgive them but the dream and the wars go on. Reading this one might think of the hippie tendency to regard Jesus as “one of them” but Wakefield avoids any such seventies mawkishness in what is really a very good song.
The album ends with the eight minutes long “bonus” of Dear J where Wakefield ditches her fine back up musicians (who include Will Kimbrough and Fats Kaplin, two musicians who seem to be appearing with increasing regularity recently). An open letter in the style of L. Cohen’s Famous Blue Raincoat it’s a wordy recollection of times spent with an old flame, some regretted, an acknowledgement that time moves on and that what was meant to be doesn’t always happen. A great end to what is really quite a fine album.
Five years ago English songwriter Mat Gibson cut a very impressive album in Philadelphia with his band The Broken Hearts. Packed full with fine guitar slinging Gibson came across as a UK equivalent of Ryan Adams at times. Since then he seemed to disappear from view until this re-emergence as a solo artist on Clubhouse Records. In the interim it appears that he spent several years in Quebec and something of the Canadian landscape (or mindscape) appears to have returned with him as Forest Fire is a set of stark, minimalist songs which sound as if they were conjured up on freezing plains with the writer isolated, miles from anywhere. The sound of the North Country (think of The Jayhawks here) also appears to have had some influence. This is most evident on Yonder Burning Tree where Gibson’s harmonica and guitar could have come straight from Hollywood Town Hall. Gibson plays all of the instruments sticking in the main to acoustic guitar with sparse accompaniment from his harp and occasional keyboards. There are some other embellishments, the slide guitar on the opening song Lord Only Knows, played by Jonathan Berry lends a plaintive air to what is an excellent song. Forest Fire drips like an icicle, a pale fire indeed as Gibson sings of seeing forest fires sending plumes of smoke into the air as he flew back from Quebec. On this elegiac song with heartrending vocals and a perfect marriage of guitar and strings Gibson’s lyrics cast a perfect light on the stress and strain and regret left behind when a relationship ends. The aeroplane metaphor is revisited in Icebergs where Gibson sings of having nowhere to land, buffeted by the forces of nature conspiring against him. An airborne version of Titanic, Gibson sings of “the band playing silently on” as the ‘plane circles endlessly.
After the glacial outpourings of the previous songs the final cut, Where Demons Go, adds some muscle with some electric guitar thrashing. Almost an exorcism after the confessional nature of what came before it Gibson asks “won’t you give me one more chance to make things right with us.” Whatever the answer there’s no doubt that that this album marks the return of a major talent to our shores and it’s to be hoped that we don’t have to wait five years for the follow-up.
Lord Only Knows