The James Low Western Front. Whiskey Farmer


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.

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Dave Provost. My Favorite Ghost/Stephen David Austin. A Bakersfield Dozen.

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.

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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.

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The Cage