We reviewed Sean Taylor’s last album, Walk With Me two years ago and marked him out as a fine evocative singer/songwriter in the J.J. Cale/Tim Buckley mode. Love Against Death, released yesterday confirms this to some extent with others comparing him to the late John Martyn. It’s fair to say that his fine guitar picking and dry voice does bare comparison with numerous predecessors but here he transcends any influences and the best that one can say is that this sounds like a superb Sean Taylor album.
With a fuller sound than that of Walk With Me there’s less introspection and the guitar is less pronounced. This may be due to the album being recorded in Austin, Texas with producer Mark Hallman but more likely is the fact that Taylor has packed the album with, for want of a better word, “protest “ songs, or at least politically influenced pieces that reflect his views on various injustices in the world today. This is immediately apparent on the powerful opening song, Stand Up and on Western Intervention. Both songs are polemics, the first celebrating the recent wellspring of popular protest, the latter a driving bluesy diatribe against the imposition of free market western imperialism and the impact it has on all of us. Aside from the politics both are fine driving songs that manage to make their point and sound great at the same time. Coal Not Dole revisits the miners’ strike of the early eighties and employs the well-worn refrain which side were you on? With a fine spidery guitar solo present there’s a true sense of anger here. Taylor also delivers more individual testaments on the plight of the working man with a fine reworking of Sixteen Tons and the jaunty Cajun influenced Ballad of a Happy Man where the musical delivery reflects the solace found by those down on their luck in song and dance. Heaven, an addiction song in the tradition of Needle of Death and The Needle and the Damage Done is a dreamy reverie and is probably the song that does sound most like Martyn circa Solid Air.
Away from the politics Taylor provides tributes to some of his literary heroes. Cassady is a gentle reminder of the force of nature that inspired Kerouac and Kesey but which ended up in a solitary death on a Mexican railroad. Les Fleurs Du Mal is an evil sounding slouch which recalls Kerouac’s vision of ‘The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.’ Taylor’s guitar work here is down and dirty, scrubbing against organ on a song that sounds as if it came from the swamps around New Orleans and is somewhat reminiscent of the recent work of Gurf Morlix.
Les Fleurs Du Mal
Staying in Scotland today for a preview of this album from impressive Glasgow band Two Wings. Impressive but very difficult to categorise (why categorise? I dunno, answers on A4 paper sent to Blabber’n’Smoke HQ please). You could call them psychedelic folk or weird folk or even if pressed make a case for calling them a folk band, but then you can’t impress all of the folk all of the time. Suffice to say that they gather in a lot of influences that certainly include the sixties San Francisco sound that produced Jefferson Airplane and H.P. Lovecraft and the myriad UK bands that clustered together under the folk banner in the early seventies teetering on the edge of prog rock. (see the excellent book Electric Eden). Add to this a dash of Richard Thompson, Kate Bush and latterly Joanna Newsome and Tuung and you might have an idea of what two Wings sound like.
Fronted by Finnish singer Hanna Tuulikki and guitarist Ben Reynolds (of Trembling Bells fame) and ably assisted by Kenny Wilson, bass, Owen Curtis Williams, drums and Lucy Ducombe, additional vocals, the band create a fairly unique sound that might be difficult for casual listeners but ultimately rewards anyone who enjoys listening to music that is off of the beaten track.
Kicking off with Eikon, the single from the album the first thing to strike the listener is Tuulikki’s voice. She sings like a cross between Kate Bush and Karen Dalton and with the added contribution of Ducombe the pair make some weird sisters. As stated earlier this is not easy listening but over the course of the album the voices make perfect sense especially when Reynolds’ is added to the mix. As for the music here it comes across somewhat like Kevin Ayers’ Whole World Band with the horns recalling David Bedford’s work. This continues on the gorgeous Feet which recalls Ayers’ more bucolic side. There’s a faux medieval feel initially to Love’s Spring courtesy of what might be a recorder but the song soon evolves into a trippy guitar solo with disembodied voices hovering close by. This is what a night at the Filmore West might have sounded like. The highlight of the album is Altars and Thrones which shimmers with a hazy sense of dread. The rippling guitar, sensitive percussion and tremendous vocals create an almost ethereal feel on a song that is tremendously reminiscent of the great Pearls Before Swine. The folky It Hurt Me owes more to English folk song but we are back in psychedelia with the closing Forbidden Sublime where Reynolds’ guitar playing is certainly electric music for the mind and body while Tuulikki caresses the words and a mournful horn section adds a sense of desolation. Extreme listening but well worth the endeavour.
Altars and Thrones
For most folk Dean Owens’ most familiar work will be It’s Raining in Glasgow, a song that is regularly trotted out on Radio Scotland. For a song that is indelibly linked with our dreich melancholia it was surprising to find that it was recorded in Tennessee as part of the album Whisky Hearts. Forsaking Nashville this time Owens has set his sights on New York where most of this album was recorded. Other than the recording location however there’s little here that relates to the Big Apple apart from the occasional street name checks on a few of the songs. Instead what we have is a collection of well crafted melodic pop songs that are layered with a production that does shine but which threatens at times to overwhelm the project.
Wander On for example could be a fine soulful effort but the clunky guitar and over the top backing vocals rob it of any intimacy. For the most part here the simpler the better. Desert Star which opens the album is a decent enough song which ripples with layered guitars and shimmering vocals. No One’s A Failure has that effortless way with a melody that the late Gerry Rafferty possessed and although it might be somewhat fanciful to think so there’s even a slight vocal similarity to the late Humblebum. Harmonica and perhaps ocarina add a slight folky touch to what is our favourite song here. The lazy stumble of Springtime could hark back to the laid back New York coolness of John Sebastian as it meanders along. The addition of Kendall Jane Meade duetting with Owens is the icing on the cake here. Solo (Valentine NYC) is the one song here that does reflect the feelings of being cast adrift in a strange town and could become as much a radio favourite as Raining in Glasgow. Overall however there’s a sense that the New York tag is driven primarily by the opportunity Owens had to spend time there and that if he had a kick ass hometown band then the album would have had some more bite to it.
No One’s A Failure
A timely reissue for this third release from Canadian duo, Twilight Hotel as they embark on a short European tour in March and April. They should go down well as the tone of this album is not so much Americana as Europicana (a word I have just coined) in parts. What Do I Know About Love? could be the music for an Apache Dance with its louche accordion and stinging guitar while the title song and Poor and Hungry both hint at the European moodiness of The Walkabouts on their album Train Leaves At Eight. However Mahogany Veneer pulls them back slap bang into the States on an autobiographical tale of the longeurs of touring and their longing to return to their home turf of Winnipeg.
On Ham Radio Blues and Dream of Letting Go the guitar bluster and the harmonies of Brandy Zdan and Dave Quanbury at times recall the recently re-energised Cowboy Junkies. They do however manage to stamp their own identity on the hypnotic Frozen Town and especially on the brooding menace that is The Darkness, a song that could easily illuminate some of the seedier scenes of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.
Overall the sound of Twilight Hotel is dark and menacing, guitars swoop and soar, razor sharp at times with echoes of Morricone, the percussion (by Stephen Hodges, ex Tom Wait player) is dynamic and sensitive, banjo, accordion and dulcimer add a gossamer touch to what is an aural gothic movie. This is perhaps best summed up on the closing song When I’m Gone, a macabre plea not to buried “underground in a wooden box with walls around. Leave my bones bare and I will become a river.” Superb stuff.
As part of their tour Twilight Hotel hit the ABC2 on 18th April.
When I’m Gone
With a slew of albums waiting to be heard we thought we’d introduce an occasional column which captures the best of the rest, a brief nod to what’s rocking the joint at Blabber’n’Smoke in the hope that those wise enough to know follow the crumbs to the gingerbread cottage.
Ledfoot. Gothic Blues Volume One. Ledfoot is Tim Scott McConnell , one time member of the Havelinas. He looks a mean dude with mean tattoos and he plays a mean guitar. Just him and some spellbinding acoustic playing with bottleneck and slide well to the fore McConnell conjures up a spooky and indeed gothic blues sound that mines the same territory as Jeffrey Lee Pierce and John Campbell. Standout song is The Cold Light of Day where one can imagine that he does have a hellhound on his trail. website
Homespun Remedies. Great Depression. From Dallas Homespun Remedy are a low key collective of pickers and singers whose sound recalls the harmonies of CSN&Y and the easy going country rock of the mid seventies. With banjo, pedal steel, mandolin and accordion all featured it’s a sweet melange of what I suppose is now traditional music given that the seventies are around 40 years ago. Pleasant enough with their best shot being Empty Pockets which has a touch of the Walkabouts to it. Website
Angela Perley & The Howlin’ Moons. Fireside. This is an EP, apparently the third in a series. Five songs all of which are immensely gratifying. The opening I Like You Fine has a huge sound with organ and soaring guitar combining to lift the spirits. She then betters this on the boogie belter that is Come On Home. Be Bad is turbo charged with the band barrelling along while Weeping Coyote captures in its five and a half minutes all that is best about a tight Americana rock band with superb organ and guitar licks and solos flying out of the speakers. The one ballad Fireside still packs muscle while portraying Perry’s more sensitive side. Best of all however is her voice which recalls Maria Muldaur in her heyday. website
Bob Livingston. Gypsy Alibi. From Buddy Holly’s hometown, Lubbock, Bob Livingston is a fine singer songwriter who was involved in the legendary Lost Gonzo Band who helped revolutionise Texas country music back in the seventies. Here he delivers here a fine set of 12 songs (plus a bonus) that veer from Western swing to rockabilly and honky tonk. There’s plenty here to delight fans of any of these genres with all of the songs well played and well written. Our favourite is Country Western Swing that has a great fat fiddle and steel guitar sound. The bonus song is a live rendition of Holly’s Not Fade Away recorded in Bangladesh with tabla accompaniment. Still gonzo after all those years then. website
Canadian Zeman’s last album, Ya Ain’t Crazy Henny Penny was a fine dust blown collection of songs that were like snapshots of hard lives lived in hard times. On Me Then You he continues in this vein with all of the songs well written vignettes, intriguing tales, a collection of short stories almost. However he’s all but abandoned the acoustic based ballads that featured heavily on Henny Penny. Instead a full-blooded band sound rings throughout with clanging guitars and driving rhythms pushing the songs.
Pushing The Stones which opens the album is a frantic pacesetter. Blair Hogan provides a big fat guitar riff as Zeman hollers. Until It Bleeds settles into a more relaxed groove but still packs a punch as Zeman delivers a Steve Earle like tale of an abandoned fool thinking about his departed lover. It’s delivered in a tender yet muscular style, Zeman sounds tough but hurt, the sound is almost country with pedal steel decoration but it swells mightily at times with a tough rock feel. The lyrics capture the bitter regret of the protagonist
“I put a hole in my wall on the day that you left
Just stood there watching blood falling from my fingertips
I still don’t know what I thought it might do
A hole in the wall don’t do nothing but stare back at a fool.”
Triple Crown maintains this quality with a portrait of a tough Texas beerhall. The band deliver another solid example of Earle styled rock and Zeman’s pen delivers expert sketches of the bar’s denizens
“He’s got hair to his elbows and snake skin boots
A rebel flag t-shirt and a jailhouse tattoo
He’s sucking on a Camel, blowing smoke rings around the moon
He’s way south of trendy but man, he’s Texas cool”
“The guitar player’s got a Stetson and a smoke dangling from his lips
And he looks just as greasy as his guitar licks
The prettiest girl in the whole bar asked me what my name was
But the band was so goddamn loud that I never caught hers
But I got her hair in my mouth from screaming in her ear
And it smelled just like cigarettes and her breath smelled like beer”
This hard driving melodic rock continues with Someone For You and Light in the Attic although the latter is sweetened somewhat by the stately piano and very fine pedal steel playing. On Claws they return to the clangorous sound of the opening song with some magnificent guitar soloing featuring along with some neat percussion from Steve Foley.
Zeman does feature some acoustic balladry on the apocalyptic End of The World while the pair of songs, Rain On the Roof #1 and #2 that end the album feature strings and a mellower sound. Rain On The Roof #1 is a great song. Gathering many of the tropes that feature throughout, loneliness, the elements and the desire to stop time it is simply superb. The extended ending of Rain On The Roof #2 with rain sounds and a string section draws out the sense of time wasting away. A fine album indeed.
Rain On The Roof #1
Blabber’n’Smoke first encountered Australian band Jeremy Edwards and the Dust Radio Band way back in 2008 when their album Stay Hungry knocked us out. The album was an almost perfect example of well crafted and brilliantly played Americana, taking elements from as far back as Gram and Emmylou up to the Jayhawks’ melancholic majesty with a pinch of Steve Earle’s political bluster. Four years on and Russian Doll arrives in the in tray and it was with high expectations that we played the platter. From the first it was comforting to find that the Dust Radio Band are unchanged. Ben Edwards and George Brugmans, bass and drums respectively continue to lay claim as one of the best rhythm sections around. Tight, grounded, unobtrusive but powerful they lay the foundations for a cracking selection of songs. Julianne Henry’s fine voice remains a great foil for Edwards’ resigned vocals which can sound vulnerable and frail at times but above all burn with emotion. Finally Roy Payne’s guitar, pedal steel and Dobro, along with Edwards own fretwork burns and buzzes throughout making this a fine follow-up to the grand edifice that was Stay Hungry.
Edwards writes all ten songs here and each and every one is a potential winner. The title song, Russian Doll is a lascivious slide guitar driven boogie very much in the vein of Lowell George’s Little Feat. This murky blues’ feel permeates the album with Holy Ground, the album opener slithering and buzzing like a rattlesnake as a biting guitar underpins a mandolin riff before some delicious soloing. The guitars on Misery Loves Company are like shards of steel being hammered as the hard as nails rhythm section piledrive on a pulverising song that just begs to be played loud. The invigorating Bring the Family Around is a fast paced jaunt that recalls (strangely enough) the gutsy feel of John Hiatt’s Bring the Family album and has a great guitar lift at the end. There are moments when the band are not so sure-footed with Between Hell and the Highway failing to live up to its opening AC/DC type intro, while it’s a fine song it fails to stand up in comparison to its companions.
They do turn down the amps on several of the songs. The melancholic ballad Sing has a fine dynamic with sweet pedal steel and an excellent vocal performance from Edwards. Better Than Me is half Cajun, half Lowell George with slide guitar and fiddle duelling. Edwards picks up the mandolin again for the final song Pulled an Angel Down which references Thomas Gray but more importantly is a potent mix of acoustic playing with upright bass, Dobro and fiddle coalescing into an almost perfect sound.
Overall this is an album where all of the pieces just fall into place. Edwards and band deliver some classic songs in the classic style much as the likes of the Jayhawks and others. Do give it a listen.
Sometimes it seems that Portland, Oregon is poised to be the next “happening” city in the good ole’ UsofA. Home to Foghorn Stringband, The Water Tower Bucket Boys, Blitzen Trapper, Alela Diane and Richmond Fontaine among others when one looks into it Portland has been the next happening place for many years. Quiet and unassuming it seems to just get on with it without ever aspiring to the notoriety of the likes of Nashville or Austin. I’ve never been there so this might just be a random notion but one gets the impression that a place that has been like a second home to the likes of the Holy Modal Rounders and Ken Kesey must have something going for it.
Anyway, the above is a bit of a meandering introduction to The James Low Western Front who are indeed Portland based and also, in their own way, quiet and unassuming. Led by the titular James Low they are basically an alt country outfit much in the way that Richmond Fontaine are and this is reinforced by the presence of Paul Brainard on pedal steel. Having said that Low is quite different from Willy Vlautin. While Vlautin excels in his portraits of an American underclass, drifting, out of work, at times desperate, Low attempts to paint a picture of a class that despite their own difficulties still have aspirations. However the overall picture here is of a siege mentality, a constant struggle to achieve. Whereas Vlautin’s characters’ are constantly on the move here the protagonists appear paralysed, waiting and hoping for things to get better. On Thinking California Low sings “ I know she wants to leave here, There’s nothing I can do but promise we’ll get better before the year is through.”
All of this is delivered in a sweet country veined manner, for the most part laid back as in the fine Words and Thinking California. A dry and dusty low key bunch of songs with pedal steel, Dobro and keyboards supporting the basic guitars and Low’s attractive vocals it’s a fine set.
What’s a jobbing musician to do these days without label backing or deep pockets of their own? While we get major label releases here at Blabber’n’Smoke for review the majority are self released so its no surprise to see that Kickstarter is increasingly used as a fundraising source. Indeed Stuart Murdoch of Belle and Sebastian recently raised a sizeable amount to Kickstart a movie project that otherwise might never have seen the light of day.
Anyway, Nantucket based Dave Provost used Kickstarter to fund this, his second album and for that we can be grateful. Provost sits comfortably in that section of your collection that contains the likes of Steve Earle, Bruce Springsteen and John Hiatt (as long as you don’t have your albums in alphabetical order). Kicking off with the self assured strut of Hall of Bones the guitars ring out while an organ slightly swells before a chiming guitar solo, add Tom Petty to the above mentioned mentors and you have an idea of what this sounds like. Unplugging for the next song, Little Red Guitar, we get a slow country waltz sweetened by some fine pedal steel but the following Hula Girl digs into a bluesier and swampy groove. Mark Cutler’s slide oozes menace while Provost sounds somewhat like Jace Everett’s impassioned vocals on Bad Things. While Provost delivers more driving anthemic tales on Corners of the Sky and Up in the Air the majority of the remaining songs are pitched in a lower key. Please Stop Talking is a delicate acoustic tapestry with twinkling mandolin, rippling guitar and accordion while Partner in Crime features some fine Dobro playing (from Chris Boyd) on what might be the best song here. Almost the best song here we should say. While Provost covers Steve Earle’s I Ain’t Ever Satisfied the other cover, Rowland Salley’s Killing the Blues is indeed a veritable killer and knocks spots off of other versions by John Prine and Robert Plant.
Partner In crime
On first listen this sounds just like yet another album of well played honky tonking country songs very much in the Bakersfield tradition with the likes of Merle Haggard and Dwight Yoakam beaming at you through the beers and tears. A fine cast of players, described in the liner notes as “the tortured artists” do provide a thrilling sound with Marty Rifkin on pedal and lap steel guitar standing out with his magnificent fills and solo slots. With fiddle, Dobro and banjo all appearing on occasion Austin covers all the bases to the extent that the album could be well recommended to anyone who digs, well, that “Bakersfield” sound.
However Austin has a trick up his sleeve. Wading through the many fine licks here one eventually finds his lyrics which are certainly a notch above what one expected. While he’s able to craft an almost perfect tale of a jailbird heading home after a 40 year stretch (The Cage) and deliver an affectionate homage to the late Buck Owens (The Day Buck Owens Died) several of his songs have a wry, sardonic edge to them. Heroes and Heroin namechecks Captain Trips aka Jerry Garcia on a cautionary anti drug song while Kansas Ain’t in Kansas Anymore is a powerful diatribe against the encroaching gang warfare that used to be emblematic of the likes of LA but which now infests middle America. On The Fat Kid he deals with bullying at school coming across like a Telecaster wielding Randy Newman as he sings “ he’s a fat kid, a loser and a freak, a pachyderm pariah, a mesomorphic geek.” He gets bang up to date on MySpace where he damns the dilemma of having to use the net to promote his music and being pulled into the whole social networking whirlpool. Overall Austin’s debut is mighty impressive indeed.