Cold Satellite. Cavalcade

Cold Satellite is the six piece band led by Wisconsin singer songwriter Jeffrey Foucault that sprang fully formed in 2007 after poet Lisa Olstein allowed him to set some of her words to music resulting in Cold Satellite’s self titled debut album. No less a person than Greil Marcus singled the album out for attention and now, several years down the road the pair produce their second collaboration with Cavalcade, a full blooded rock album that recalls the likes of the Stones and The Faces back in the days. Olsen herself doesn’t appear on the album leaving Foucault and his talented band to deliver the wares. The presumption is that she provided most if not all of the lyrics, if so then the join is not evident as there’s no sign of verse being shoehorned into song here.
With three guitarists on board (Foucault, David Goodrich and Hayward Williams) plus pedal steel from Alex McCollough Cold Satellite conjure up some stirring moments while the rhythm section of Jeremy Curtis and Billy Conway anchor them perfectly. While there are some songs that would not sound out of place in Foucault’s day job as a very fine Americana purveyor there is a sense that he and the rest of the band are having some great fun in letting their hair down and rocking out.
The kick off with the sonic blast of Elegy (In A Distant Room) riffing away on a wall of guitars as Foucault proves he can shout with the best of them. A thrilling corkscrewed guitar solo entwines with the pedal steel before some feedback closes the curtain. A fine start. Necessary Monsters is a pumped up John Lee Hooker boogie shuffle which slides along with élan. The title song is a magnificent slice of acoustic and organ driven southern rock recalling The Allman Brothers in their heyday. They get heavy on the hammering Silver Whips and Tangled Lullaby while Pearlescent thrums with menace as guitars splice the air. It’s all pretty thrilling to listen to, lean with no fat. There are some quieter numbers which nestle easily amongst their noisier neighbours. Bomblet starts off as an acoustic ballad laced with pedal steel until a tortured guitar solo (remember them, it’s allowed here as the song seems to be about stadium rock) takes it into the stratosphere. Glass Hands purrs along like a sleek feline while the closing Every Boy, Every Blood is Foucault in his best Jackson Browne mode as the band gently support him. Overall it’s a great album.


Tom Russell. Aztec Jazz

Tom Russell‘s never been one to shy away from a bold move, a sideways step, a novel way to showcase his fine song writing skills. Whether it’s a cowboy themed album, a celebration of Charles Bukowski or a “folk opera” detailing his ancestors’ journey to America. Aztec Jazz may be his boldest yet, a live album recorded in Norway with a 32 piece wind ensemble and guitarist Thad Beckman featuring for the most part songs from his previous two releases, the Calexico backed Blood and Candle Smoke and Mesabi. Living in El Paso Russell was increasingly influenced by Mexican sounds on these albums and it’s tempting to think that the Norwegian Wind Ensemble who back him here were considered to be some equivalent to Calexico. Unfortunately that’s not the case and the album suffers somewhat from the arrangements which can seem at times overblown and occasionally syrupy. It’s a pity that Beckman’s guitar appears to play second fiddle to the strings as on the moments when he appears his strings do have that border feel.
Having said that Russell’s songs are strong enough to survive any amount of basting and his delivery is excellent throughout as he sings with his usual passion. While Guadalupe cries out for a flyblown cantina sound which the Norwegians can’t approximate and Russell’s autobiographical African tale Criminology has just too many horns parping there are some moments to savour. Nina Simone finds the Wind Ensemble in moody cinematic mode and perfectly balanced with Russell and the song. East of Woodstock, West of Vietnam makes full use of their percussion while the wind instruments do conjure up a south western vista that is widescreen and evocative.
Obviously this was a one off occasion and Russell fans will be glad of the opportunity to hear it. As an introduction to his work however it might give the wrong impression and the advice would be to grab Blood and Candle Smoke to hear most of these songs in their original glory.


John Wilkes Booth And The Black Toothe.

You have to admire an act who name themselves after a notorious assassin, sing songs about Charlie Manson and stick a crucified walrus on their album cover, a death metal combo perhaps? Well John Wilkes Boothe And The Black Toothe confound expectations as it transpires that they are a trio from Ashville, North Carolina who eschew Satanic riffs and instead offer up an intricate acoustic folk stew that blends the likes of the Violent Femmes, Incredible String Band, Jeffrey Lewis, Lewis Carroll, Comus and Pearls Before Swine into a beguiling dish.
Comprised of Ben Melton, Myles Holt and Paul Blackwood the trio weave their guitars and occasional percussion expertly while they introduce a sense of naivety with their slight voices and the absurdism of some of the lyrics which feature unicorns, walruses, goatchilds, ostriches and octopi. Although on paper this might appear twee as hell they avoid mawkishness instead evoking the spirit of adventure and exploration that characterised the more leftfield exponents of early folk rock.
Opening song The Possum is a fine introduction to the weird world of the Toothe with its hint of incest set to a high lonesome harmonica. They delve deeper into darker tones with the cadaverous The Carrion which is one of the weirdest love songs we’ve ever heard but the highlight here is the sinister and absurd surrealism of One Foot. A love song to a woman who is only one foot tall it has a beguiling delivery that is hypnotic and spellbinding.
Weird indeed but often weird is good.


Eric Brace & Peter Cooper. The Comeback Album. Red Beet Records

Brace and Cooper have made three albums together and last year produced a well regarded tribute to Tom T Hall’s kiddie album Songs of Fox Hollow. Seasoned practitioners in the art of delivering well turned out songs that often have a touch of humour they’ve gathered together some Nashville luminaries for The Comeback Album including Fats Kaplin on fiddle and mandolin and Lloyd Green on pedal steel. The end result is a good humoured and exceptionally well played disc that won’t surprise anyone familiar with their work and will delight fans.
They open with a roll call of heroes (and anti heroes in the case of Tricky Dicky?) from the past on Ancient History covering music, sport, politics and such and do so with a swell panache as the song buzzes along buoyed by some fine Wurlitzer organ and the first of many fine guitar solos from Richard Bennett. Ponzi Scheme is a modern riches to rags song adorned with mandolin, fiddle and acute pedal steel from Green which is bound to be a crowd pleaser live while they shuffle up a fine potage in Thompson Street which features Rory Hoffman on clarinet and accordion as they paint a vivid picture of small town politics in the South . Hoffman returns on the jaunty Sailor where his clarinet, gypsy guitar and mandolin spin a fine tale.
Whether they’re relating Brace’s spell in a county jail on Johnson City or bowling down the highway on Nobody Knows the lyrics are witty and repay repeated listening. They throw in three covers for good measure. Karl Straub’s Carolina harks back to sun kissed Californian past times with Green’s pedal steel billowing away on a song that recalls John Stewart . David Halley’s Rain Just Falls closes the album and it’s a fine valediction allowing Brace and Cooper to showcase their harmony vocals on a song that slinks into the sunset with Green’s pedal steel again to the fore. The other cover is the highlight of the album as the pair reconnect with Tom T Hall for a glorious version of his song Mad. They’re joined here by three “special guests,” Duane Eddy who provides some low strung twang, Marty Stuart on vocals and mandolin and Mac Wiseman, 87 year old Bluegrass Hall of Fame member on vocals and it sounds as if they all had a ball doing this as will the listener.


The Snakes. The Last Days of Rock & Roll. Bucketfull of Brains Records.

Hailed by some as the “new heroes of British Country Rock” following the release of their debut album and subsequent E.P The Snakes have been a fixture on the London “alt country” scene since around 2002. The Last Days of Rock & Roll however isn’t a country rock album by any means with the clue lying in the title’s resemblance to Mott The Hoople’s The Golden Age of Rock and Roll to the beast it really is. Rewind to the seventies and the wooden horse tactics employed by the likes of Mott and the Faces who donned glitter to get some authentic rock’n’roll in the charts while bands like The Who and the Stones had their last brace of worthwhile singles. While this was happening a pub rock scene was brewing that eventually spewed up Brinsley Schwarz, Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers, Roogalator and The Kursall Flyers, bands who all shared an affinity with the American country rock of the time. Stir all of this up and you have an approximation of what The Last Days of Rock & Roll sounds like.

It’s a tough task and there are occasions when The Snakes falter as on the The Last Train which runs out of puff too soon and almost falls into power ballad territory. Look What We Could Have Been is similarly guilty of over egging the pudding with sky pointing guitar soloing bringing images of a thousand plus lighters held high celebrating stadium gods although it does have some of the spirit of Ian Hunter within it. However we’re glad to report that the remaining nine songs are indeed celebrations of the spirit of rock in its many guises and there are several which positively sparkle.
Too Hard opens the album with a bang. One of the true country rock songs here it rushes like the wind with great harmony vocals from Hannah Elton-Wall (of the Redland Palomino Company, a band The Snakes shared a drummer with until recently). The Band Played On has an epic feel to it with its driving Hammond organ, west coast harmonies and whiplash guitar all of which coalesce on a thrilling ending. The band take a short detour with a splendidly chiming cover of The French Girl, a song written by Ian and Sylvia but more commonly known via Gene Clark’s version. Guardian Angel recalls The Kursall Flyers’ more heartbroken moments while Jerry’s Chair is a deceptively upbeat memory of bassist John O’Sullivan’s late father. The centrepiece and highlight of the album is the astounding title song. The Last Days Of Rock & Roll does recall numerous tributes and elegies to the power of the rock along with memories of Top of The Pops dancers swaying and holding banners aloft as Simon Moor hits all sorts of emotional buttons, Ziggy, Mott, Argent and even Mud in the apocalyptic and anthemic first half of the song. Halfway through with the chorus ringing out it shifts gears however into a gutsy gospel blues as imagined by the likes of Primal Scream ending with a musical melange that includes sitar. A magnificent edifice indeed and probably a real crowd pleaser live.


Kevin Doherty. Seeing Things

A member of exuberant Irish folk group Four Men & A Dog, Kevin Doherty has had a fertile solo career running in tandem with his band work. He’s recorded with Levon Helm and Rick Danko and been described as a “Donegal Leonard Cohen.” Seeing Things is his fourth solo affair and immediately one can hear the reason for the Cohen comparison on the opening song, To Begin and on the excellent I’m Going Now which begs comparison with Cohen circa New Skin For The Old Ceremony. However it’s unfair to labour this point as throughout the album Doherty shows kinship with such excellent tunesmiths as Harry Nilsson, Paul McCartney, Randy Newman and, going back a century and a half, Stephen Foster. Although there’s a slight brogue in his voice there’s little to suggest that this is the work of an Irishman (musically I mean, lyrically it’s loaded with the Emerald Isle) and there’s nary a sight nor sound of a fiddle, banjo or bodhran. In their place we get a suite of intimate songs which drizzle out of the speakers like snowflakes, gently fluttering and caressing as they fall. With some excellent string arrangements by Michael Heaney the album is bare boned with guitar, piano and occasional accordion the primary instruments while Doherty’s fine vocals are supported on two of the songs by Charley Webb (of the Webb Sisters) and Lise O’Neill. As for the words Doherty is a great writer with a poet’s touch and almost every song has an arresting or striking lyric contained within it while there are nods and allusions to Dylan Thomas, John Donne, James Joyce, Paul Bowles and in the title song Seamus Heaney. Doherty’s online notes on the songs are especially worth reading.

With the exception of I Wish I Was On A Train which sounds somewhat underdeveloped all of the songs here are almost perfect examples of the songwriter’s craft. The miniature morning song of To Begin, the tender Latin American tinged Esplendido Corazon, the Cohanesque (sorry) Rambling Irishman would deserve attention anywhere. Doherty however excels himself on two songs that elevate the album into a contender for the annual best of lists at the end of the year. The title song Seeing Things opens with the arresting line “We’re slamming through clouds in a loud piece of shining steel” as Doherty slides into a wine fuelled reverie on a flight. The baleful horn and gentle backing support the song like billowing clouds. New York City (Going Back) has a subtle laid back organ groove with some muted horn and is an impressionistic report on meetings and encounters in the Big Apple with Philip Roth and John Henry offered walk on parts. So far we’ve avoided mentioning Van Morrison but Doherty’s vocal manner and lyrics here recall Morrison’s as Doherty slips oh so easily into the big feller’s stream. A magnificent song.

Bill Kirchen. Seeds and Stems. Proper Records.

If you’re of a certain age the name Bill Kirchen will drag you back to the days when Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen acted as a gateway drug into country music, a Texas alternative to Gram Parson’s cosmic American music. Kirchen was the guitar gunslinger and occasional vocalist in Cody’s band and responsible for some of their finest songs. As a solo artist he’s kept the Austin freak flag flying with his truck filled boogies for the past 40 years and his latest album, recorded in London in a pell mell fashion sees him revisit his back catalogue with an energy that belies his vintage state.
Selected songs from his solo years and vintage Airmen classics are retooled with Kirchen in fine voice and twanging away on his telecaster. Whether he’s rocking the joint or jerking teardrops on the supreme title song or the ultimate sad trucker lament, Mama Hated Diesels all the cuts here are magnificent fun retaining the irreverence of the Cody crew but with an undeniable love and affection for the genre he inhabits. The band are tight, Kirchen’s solos are top notch country twang and he remains a fine singer. Cody classics such as Too Much Fun, Seeds and Stems, Mama Hated Diesels and Semi Truck (full title-Here I Sit, All Alone With a Broken Heart, I Took Three Bennies and My Semi-Truck Won’t Start) reignite a spark for anyone who hankers after those halcyon days and his signature song, Hot Rod Lincoln is transformed into an epic pastiche of numerous country and pop/rock icons as Kirchen adopts their various guitar styles.
The later songs are just as good with Rockabilly Funeral ploughing a great blues rhythm while Womb To The Tomb slinks with a Southern vibe that is somewhat akin to the Drive By Truckers. Truck Stop at the End of the World just about sums up Kirchen, it’s a smoking hot truck driving song with tremendous guitar fills as he tells a fantastical tale of how truckers will survive World War 3. The veteran SF guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, ex Jefferson Airplane adds some fine acoustic guitar to the country picking of Talkin’ About Chicken while Kirchen sneaks in an excellent laid back version of Dylan’s It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry. All in all an excellent album and well recommended whether you were ever high in the ozone or just interested in a master craftsman setting out his wares.