When I reviewed Diana Jones‘ previous album, High Atmosphere I said it simultaneously sounded sixty years old and contemporary. Her careworn voice and superb ability to author heartbreaking tales of hardship and woe had a deep affinity to pre-war country recordings while the delivery by a stellar bunch of musicians led by producer Ketch Secor was top notch. Two years later and with a bunch of songs written while on tour Jones decided to eschew a studio with “isolation booths for a variety of musicians to overdub parts” and instead headed for the Museum of Appalachia in Clinton, Tennessee, a living museum and part of the Smithsonian Institute where she set up shop in a cabin with Matt Combs (fiddle, mandolin, banjo, mandola, viola) and Shad Cobb (fiddle, mandolin, guitar). With a log fire, one electrical outlet and one naked light bulb in the cabin they spent two days recording and the end result is this Museum of Appalachia Recordings album, 11 songs that are as old as the hills and as fresh as today’s milk.
Jones’ voice stands out immediately with its air of resignation and wearied tone. At times reminiscent of Karen Dalton she sounds as if she’s lived these tales. And such tales. Jones tries to show a redemptive path to God’s grace on O Sinner while Drunkards Daughter is a cautionary tale of how the sins of the father rest on the daughter. Song For a Worker is an uplifting song of praise to the Lord’s day when the workers rest and worship while Satan sets the temptation of Jesus to a mandolin driven jaunt. The overall tone of the album is reverential reflecting the God fearing folk of past times, humbled in their poverty, battered and bowed on a daily basis but buttressed by a belief in their faith and the promise of a better life thereafter. Misguided perhaps but there’s no denying that back in the days this belief allowed folk to endure hardship we can’t imagine now and Jones captures this with an astounding veracity. Simply put every song here is a delight and sitting back listening to the strings and things melting and meshing together one can almost imagine sitting in that log cabin and being transported to those yesteryears. An excellent record.
Bit late in mentioning this as several of the gigs have been and happened but Texas twosome The O’s are hurtling around Scotland right now and there’s word of an album coming out on the Electric Honey label. Remaining dates are below and their website is here
June 12 – Aberdeen, SCOT – Cafe Drummond
June 13 – Aviemore. SCOT – Old Bridge Inn
June 14 – Dingwall, SCOT – The Mallard
June 15 – Inverness, SCOT – Madhatters
June 16 – Strathpeffer, SCOT – Richmond Hotel
June 19 – Skelmersdale, ENG – Old Toby
June 22 – Glasgow, SCOT – The Griffin
Blabber’n’Smoke’s favourite junkerdash (psychedelic swamp-shack rags) band Hillfolk Noir attack the UK on three fronts this month with these two releases and a tour that commences today and which packs in 18 shows in 19 days including a sweep through Scotland. Perhaps the finest proponents of old time jugband, folk and blues songs around these days their previous albums have all had a no frills approach to the recording process, clutched around the one mike, recording in a penitentiary or mimicking pre war radio shows as on their last album Radio Hour. Radio Hour featured a six piece line up but What’s That Hat For? finds them slimmed down with bassist Michael Waite supporting Allison and Travis Ward with a subsequent slimmed down sound. Nevertheless the three of them still manage to whip up a stirring feast with lashings of slide guitar, banjo picking, washboard, harmonica, snare drum snaps, singing saw and rough and ready vocals.
While there’s a slightly heavier reliance on driving acoustic blues hollers than on the previous albums with the opening song Goin’ Out West a perfect example they still deliver some excellent jugband delicacies such as their vibrant rendition of You’re A Viper while the very brief instrumental Zone-d is a zany goofball of a tune. There’s even a touch of skiffle on the closing Little Black Train but it’s on songs such as Cluck Old Hen and the cautionary tale Drugbust that they display their almost telepathic empathy and capacity to sound ragged and loose while being as tight as a duck’s proverbial behind. If you want a definition of good time music you’ll find it here.
As if What’s That Hat For? wasn’t enough Travis Ward steps out with a solo album of sorts, Jump Ups and Jollities. While he sings and plays guitar, jaw harp and banjo Allison Ward is in here with banjo, washboard and washtub so in essence it’s Hillfolk Noir slimmed down yet again. Less frenetic than Hat Ward utilises the talking blues technique on several of the songs here while others are reminiscent of old time folk troubadours. Recorded in two studio sessions there’s a live feel to the songs. While he can nail venerable old songs such as Hallelujah I’m a Bum, Death Don’t Have No Mercy and So Long It’s Been Good to Know You Ward comes up with some crackers of his own. The Stranger and Rowdy McLeod sounds as old as the hills as Ward and banjo regale us with a classic tale of Western derring do, death and revenge. North of Appalachia and Old Pack River Road are both steeped in tradition while Crow Juice which lasts all of 30 seconds just about sums up old time Americana folk.
Pages From a Folk Singer’s Diary is a magnificent pastiche of sixties talking blues where he wonders if he should have been a film critic instead of a folk singer as he reminds us that Morricone did the soundtrack to John Carpenter’s The Thing. Pete the Hobo revisits the talking blues as Ward deconstructs the genre with a sly twist as he meets a transvestite hobo, very much in the same vein as Dylan’s Motorpyscho Nightmare this one raises a smile.
Both of these albums showcase the undoubted talent of Travis Ward and on the strength of these you’d be crazy not to catch him and the band ( who are touring as a trio this time). You can check the dates on their websitewebsite but they include Biggar, Edinburgh, Kilbarchan and Irvine.
While there’s no shortage of contemporary Americana bands, duos and solo artists digging into the roots of folk, blues, bluegrass, old time, ragtime and whatever its apparent that there’s a thirst for the first blossoming of what was then called “country rock” with hardly an issue of Mojo or Uncut not featuring Gram Parsons, The Byrds or the Eagles. While Gram ain’t touring anymore, the Byrds have flown and the Eagles disintegrated into stadium mush I See Hawks In LA, a grizzled bunch of veterans, have kept the LA canyon flag flying. Playing a sweet, pedal steel flavoured with telecaster topping seventies influenced rock sound they include survivors from the psychedelic sixties in their line up and have long championed environmental issues. A bunch of old hippies perhaps but over the past few years they’ve released a solid bunch of albums and Mystery Drug, the latest coincides with a rare visit to the UK with some Scottish dates included.
With a fuller sound than their last offering, New Kind Of Lonely, the songs here almost define that “peaceful easy feeling” one expected when listening to the latest release on Asylum records back in the seventies. Rob Waller’s voice is relaxed and comfortable while the harmonies gently caress. Pedal steel and accordion support the strummed guitars on several of the songs and there are moments when they rock out with some snarly twanging guitar such as on Rock N Roll Cymbal From The Seventies or the fast driving one and half minute snapshot My Local Merchants. However the real joy is to be found on songs like The River Knows where the pedal steel keens superbly or the excellent opening song Oklahoma’s Going Dry with its environmental message. The title song sounds as if it could have been written by John Stewart as it conflates the drug experience with pirates sailing the seven seas. Yesterday’s Coffee is classic 70’s LA rock while We Could All be In Laughlin Tonight is a fine careworn description of the trials and tribulations of a road weary band. There is some variety with the southern Little Feat like boogie of The Beauty Of The Better States and the accordion flavoured One Drop Of Human Blood but overall the main vibe is of a band who inhabit a time and space that may have passed into the mists of time but fortunately for those who were not there a trip into Mystery Drug can capture some of the essence of that time. And if the album is not enough I See Hawks In LA are heading down Topanga Canyon with their satnav set for the UK and gigs in Dingwall, Glasgow, Kinross, Perth and Inverness in June. Full dates on the website.