Back in July 2011 we reviewed Rod Picott’s fine album Welding Burns so it was a nice surprise to see that Slaid Cleaves revisits two of the best songs on that album (which he co-wrote with Picott) on his latest effort. We tagged Picott as a “blue collar” songwriter back then and Cleaves backs this up on an album that at times celebrates the working man while documenting the hardship and struggle faced by many Americans these days. Cleaves Does leaven the agony with a couple of more upbeat songs that reflect his current base of Texas but overall his viewpoint is as critical of the American way of life as Picott’s
He opens with the powerful title song, a hard bitten tale of a traumatised Afghanistan vet feeling lost and abandoned that rings with a righteous anger as chiming guitars push the song on. Rust Belt Fields stands proud as an indictment of corporate greed while Welding Burns positively burns (indeed) with a fiery indignation. In The Rain is a plaintive cry of desperation with some fine guitar work while Without Her is a gem of a love song as the singer drowns in his loss, the horn arrangements here adding a lonesome quality. I Bet She Does puts the shoe on the other foot as Cleaves avoids the unwanted advances of an ex and details her failings with a gorgeous arrangement that is simple and uncluttered, a simple song that speaks volumes.
It’s not all doom and gloom however as Cleaves adds a few more upbeat numbers that come straight from the heart of Texas.Texas Love Song bounces into sight with a sprightly Dobro soloing throughout while God’s Own Yodeller bounces into Flatlanders’ territory with some excellent pedal steel from Lloyd Maines. Dedicated to the late Don Walser, a true Texas yodeller it’s a honeycombed delight that brims with vitality.
There are 13 songs here and all of them deserve your attention as Cleaves digs deep into the emotional hurt of common folk with the spirit of Woody Guthrie and delivers it with the alt country feel of the likes of Jimmie Dale Gilmore. Go For The Gold just about sums it up, a simple song with a simple message and blessed with immaculate guitar by Scrappy Jud Newcomb, a contender for song of the year.
Regular readers will know that at Blabber’n’Smoke we’re suckers for good old fashioned, dust blown, gulch dry twangy Americana. Throw in some mariachi horns and we’re salivating. Maybe it stems from formative years and time spent watching cowboys and Indians on the screen while John Wayne ruled the roost as far as my old man was concerned. So when an all star remake of Hollywood cowboy Lee Hazlewood’s first album, Trouble Is A Lonely Town popped into the mailbox we mosied along to the stereo and with two fingers of red eye in hand hunkered down.
Hazlewood’s original album was a stripped down narrative affair, a series of vignettes of small town life in some undisclosed past time featuring characters with names such as Orville Dobkins and Emory Zickfoose Brown, all linked by Hazlewood’s gravelled introductions. Recorded in 1963 it predated his glory years with Nancy Sinatra and aside from some cult collectors had faded into obscurity when Charles Normal, a Portland based musician found a used copy in a thrift store (or charity shop as we would call it) in Oslo. Homesick, he listened to it constantly for several months. Several years later while he was touring as a member of Frank Black’s band he started recording his versions of the songs and asked the Pixie main man to join in. The idea of a homage to the album grew and he enlisted the assistance of his brother Larry Norman on vocals. The project bit the dust when Larry passed away following a heart attack in 2008 but eventually Normal regrouped and finished the album with a little help from his friends.
Aside from Black those friends included Pete Yorn, Courtney Taylor-Taylor (Dandy Warhols), Isaac Brock (Modest Mouse)and Kristin Blix and they all contribute vocals to one of more of the songs here while the late Larry Norman features on two selections. Normal arranges the music expanding on the original, mainly acoustic versions using horns and additional instrumentation. Finally and serendipitously Normal found his narrator when he answered his door one day and his postman drawled that he had a package for him. Sure enough, Jerry Albertini, U.S. postman, connects the songs with a voice that is not too far removed from Hazlewood’s.
All of the songs have had a major refit and storm out of the gate firing on all cylinders. Long Black Train belts along fuelled by twang guitar and mariachi horns as Frank Black inhabits Dan Stuart’s soul for the duration. Ugly Brown with Larry Norman on vocals is a nice’n’sleazy New Orleans horn ridden lament that swings like hell. Black returns for Son of a Gun sharing vocals with his young son Julian. Singing with kids should be a no no but here it works and the sinuous Latin rhythms are undeniably hip shaking. Kristin Blix takes us back to the Mexican border on the superb We All Make The Flowers Grow which celebrates the town’s undertaker who’s secure in his knowledge that sooner or later all of the inhabitants will swell his coffers. Run Boy Run is a Frank Black fronted ramshackle country romp with screwy guitar while Pete Yorn’s Six Feet of Chain inhabits the same feel. The Railroad (featuring Isaac Brock) harks back to the groovy sixties with a stone solid horn groove that could have graced a pilled up Mod’s Blue Note collection. Courtney Taylor-Taylor’s Look At That Woman is the weakest link here as the song is too ponderous compared to its siblings but Eddie Argos (of Art Brut) picks up the baton and runs ahead with Peculiar Guy which weirdly enough sounds like the Pixies rearranging a song from The Rocky Horror Show. The honour of closing the album is offered to Normal’s late brother Larry Norman who sounds as if he’s lived in this town called Trouble all of his life. While he harbours a desire to leave his inertia and habit defeats him and this is reflected in the music which has a lazy lope along vibe where he can clip clop out of town or remain for the for the occasional bursts of excitement characterised by the dizzy waltz time middle eight.
All in all this is a blast of an album, perhaps more fun for those acquainted with the original but well recommended for anyone who digs American music mythology. Normal appears to have been so satisfied by the project that he is inviting folk to recommend his next project and if you are so inclined you can do so here. In the meantime sit back and enjoy this one.
The first thing to strike one about this Tennessee quintet is the source of their name. Led by married couple Dorothy Daniel and Ben DeBerry they amalgamated their surnames to baptise the band. The second and more important note is how good they are. The opening song of this album, Here We Go Round would stand proud on a Cowboy Junkies album with Daniel’s voice as strong and sultry as Margo Timmins. Stately and impressive Here We Go Round has sinewy mandolin and Dobro buttressed by a sombre fiddle and immediately the ears perk up. Rain In The Rock which follows is a fast flowing intricate acoustic romp which has muscle aplenty from the strong vocals to the short acoustic guitar breaks. Third song in and DeBerry takes over vocal duties with Blow On Wind, a classic song in the making which has a chorus to rival that of Old Crow Medicine Show’s signature Wagon Wheel.
An impressive introduction to the album these three songs are as good as any we’ve heard this year. Daniel and DeBerry along with Ethan Ballinger (mandolin, guitar), Christian Sedelmyer (fiddle) and Jon Cavendish (bass) are slick and tight with a fine ensemble sound while Daniel and DeBerry are fine songwriters. There are several other gems to be heard over and above the opening salvo. Over and Over with DeBerry on vocals is a fine dreamlike concoction that reminds one of David Crosby while Annie Wants To Go Home revisits Cowboy Junkie territory with a powerful vocal performance from Daniel.
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.