Johnny Dowd. Do The Gargon

Never one to be filed under “easy listening” Johnny Dowd’s latest album is a blistering power trio fuelled blast. Do The Gargon features Dowd on guitar and vocals along with Michael Stark on keyboards and Willie B. on drums and bass pedals. The twelve songs all relate to Gargon, in Dowd’s words “Who the hell is Gargon? All I can say is: look around, look in the mirror, look at me. He is the beast within who got his feelings hurt (boo hoo). The recurring theme of my new record is an incident in my (or was it Gargon’s?) past. A young boy is abandoned at a filling station in 1953. Did this happen? Is it a memory, a dream, or a lie he told himself to justify all the nonsense that followed?”

Gargon is like a rock’n’roll Zelig as he (or Dowd) propels the band through ZZ Top styled blues burners, ersatz disco, dance crazes, funk and guitar heroics. Dowd’s unique vocal delivery unites the songs sounding robotic at times as he forensically dissects moments in Gargon’s life. While this might sound, on paper at least, as if we have a po faced concept album on our hands Dowd’s customary dark humour is never far from the surface whether it be in the lyrics or the deconstruction of familiar musical types. This is probably best realised on the title song which Dowd says was inspired by The Monster Mash. Dowd kick-starts the song “Alright kids, this is Johnny Dowd , I got a brand new dance for you, it’s called Do The Gargon” and indeed he offers instructions on the dance moves in between relating a tale of an abandoned kid who delivers death to those who take him in. You could dance to this I suppose but zombie makeup would be a requisite. While several of the songs strain to maintain this level with Butterflies and Unicorns in particular collapsing into a parodic prog rock black hole Dowd hits more than he misses. Nancy Sinatra is a fuzz fuelled miniature gem where Gargon sashays down the strip in a dress and Go Go Boots borrowed from the lady while Gargon’s Disco Balls has a funky keyboard intro and a ferocious riff as Dowd again recounts the 1953 abandonment. Pretty Boy is the most direct reference to ZZ Top as Gargon hangs out with Billy while waiting for the bus and declares himself prettier than his mother over a mutant blues boogie. Girl In A Suitcase is the one song that doesn’t bludgeon the listener into submission as Dowd and band slip into freaky nightclub territory (a David Lynch type nightclub) as Gargon falls in love with disastrous results. However the highlight here has to be the eight minute opening song, Gargon Gets All Biblical. It’s as if ZZ Top were fronted by a psychotic charismatic preacher ( who sounds like Bill Burroughs) with the guitar transformed into writhing venomous snakes before morphing into a Black Sabbath leaden riff.
So not an easy listen but there are moments here that are quite thrilling and one wonders how this material will translate into the live experience. Dowd is penned in for UK dates in September so there may be an opportunity to find out.

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Sparrow and the Workshop Murderopolis. Song, by Toad Records

Glasgow based trio Sparrow and the Workshop have trod the “indie” path for some years now, regulars on radio sessions, supporting name bands and popping up at festivals but never managing to garner the acclaim accorded to the likes of Frightened Rabbit. It’s fitting perhaps that their third album, Murderopolis is released by Edinburgh’s independent label Song, by Toad, a label that grew from a blog that has consistently been a solid barometer of all that’s good (and cool) in the Scottish independent scene.

Partly because of their name and really only being familiar with some early radio sessions we had kind of filed the band under the “gothic folk inspired” tab but their second album Spitting Daggers featured some tub thumping rocking and on Murderopolis they beef up the sound with Gregor Donaldson’s drums dominating many of the songs while the guitars from Nick Packer are jagged and razor sharp while an array of instruments and effects add mood, often dark and sinister. Peering over this menacing soundtrack Jill O’Sullivan shrieks, cajoles and glowers dominating the proceedings.

It’s not a perfect set with the title song in particular coming across as somewhat confused with the band playing a melody that could have come from Stereolab only to interrupt it with sub Orff vocal interjections. However the rampant mutant blues rock of Valley of Death, The Faster You Spin and Darkness are somewhat exhilarating with O’Sullivan’s voice cold and steely. Water Won’t Fall is a glistening glimmer of Americana as it was produced by Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra back in the days. They’re at their best on the roller coaster Odessa which starts off as a rumbling ballad in the manner of the Cowboy Junkies and gradually builds up to a thundering climax.

You can catch them live at the forthcoming Pale Imitation Festival, curated by Song, by Toad in Edinburgh on Saturday 10th August.

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Song, by Toad Records

Old Dollar Bill. Live & Cookin’

East coast Blabber’n’Smoke favourites Old Dollar Bill haunt the taverns of Edinburgh on a very regular basis playing just about anywhere and with almost anyone who can play a tune. By all accounts they can turn just about anywhere into a riotous occasion with their rousing two man take on jug band, country, blues and folk songs. Live & Cookin’ is a fly on the wall snapshot of a recent appearance in Leith Folk Club where they were joined by double bassist Michael Weidenhof and while the recording lacks some oomph it does a fine job in capturing their live act with five songs that brim with energy and enthusiasm. Percussionist Ed Henry scuttles around for all he’s worth on his kit as guitarist Stephen Clark scrubs and picks with vigour while Weidenhof lays down a firm bass line.
They offer three covers, Robert Johnson’s Hot Tamales (They’re Red Hot), Lefty Frizzell’s Sick, Sober and Sorry and Flatt & Scruggs’ Sleep With One Eye Open that are all taken at a brisk pace while two originals, I Swear I Killed My Liver (Over You) and Move On show that they can conjure up songs that stand up well against their venerable forebears. Above all they convey a great sense of fun, fun for the audience and also themselves as Clark and Henry trade vocals and mesh as only a pair who play together several times a week can do. Live & Cookin’ wasn’t a planned release but the pair decided that the recording was good enough to share with their audience after listening to it although by the last song Clark’s voice is somewhat strained. Available from their website or at live shows I reckon that it will be snapped up by anyone looking for a souvenir of their night but if you’ve enjoyed any of their studio releases it’s well worth investing in for only a fiver.
Here’s a video of the pair at Leith Folk Club a year previously performing the opening song here, Hot Tamales (They’re Red Hot) to give you a sense of what to expect although the CD sound is much superior to that of the video.

Echo Bloom. Blue

Echo Bloom is a vehicle for Brooklyn based songwriter Kyle Evans whose previous releases have featured an album inspired by German photographer August Sanders. Blue is the first of an intended trilogy described by Evans as “chamber pop (Blue), another country/shoegaze (Red), and classic pop (Green).” The songs on Blue are basically acoustic songs performed on guitar and variously feature bass, piano, organ, banjo, mandolin, glockenspiel, autoharp and percussion. The chamber element consists of arrangements featuring cello, violin, viola and French horn which adorn several songs. Most striking however are the vocals as Evans possesses a potentially great voice, cracked and rough hewn, stuffed full of emotion it can be tender or tough. He surrounds this rough diamond of a voice with a brace of singers who offer a choral accompaniment or duet with him and the end result is sometimes spectacular.
Added to this Evans turns out to be a very fine songwriter and some of the moments approach the summit of the likes of Van Morrison at his best. The lyrics of Firecracker are brief but encapsulate a moment so well as he sings
“On the streets of the Capitol the fireworks echo and bloom flowering down into red and then green and then blue and for a second I could see your face near In that moment of light I saw a tear on the side of your cheek you leaned you head onto my shoulder and whispered to me “How’s life so beautiful, and yet so brief?””
Evans surrounds these words with a great arrangement that swirls and eddies under the vocals, a piano plays a stately solo and he ends up scatting just as Morrison might do if this were on Veedon Fleece. It’s not an isolated moment as all of the nine songs here all have flashes of brilliance to them. The opener Annunciation is done acapella and introduces us to Evans’ voice and those of his fine collaborators ( Aviva Jaye, Zachary Stains, Brian Mummert, Steve Sasso, Monica Jo Montany and Kate Vargas). Cedar Beach is a fantasy encounter with a ghost from the sea with bucolic strings and wind and on listening to this I was reminded of the recent album by Birds of Chicago as vocally they inhabit similar territory. Water and the elements feature heavily in many of the songs and The Flood adds an almost biblical dimension while The Returning Of The Doves has allusions to the Noah myth. A remarkable song Doves starts with an acoustic guitar before the band kick in and build to a climax with apocalyptic electric guitar thrashing standing in for a furious mother nature.
Having heard this I really can’t wait to hear the rest of this proposed trilogy and I’d suggest that you grab the opportunity to listen to and download some of the songs the band offer for free on their website before you are compelled to buy the album. On a local note we were impressed that the video for Fireworks was shot on Bute. Hopefully they’ll visit Scotland again sometime soon.

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Echo Bloom – Fireworks from Echo Bloom on Vimeo.

Josienne Clark & Ben Walker-Fire & Fortune/Lucy Ward-Single Flame. Navigator Records

Time for a little chill out with a pair of albums that can be filed for the most part under the folk tag and which feature young proponents of traditional music who are following in the recent footsteps of the likes of Eliza Carthy and Seth Lakeman as they in turn drew from the seventies folk resurgence.
Fire & Fortune from Josienne Clark and Ben Walker is a beautiful album. Clark has a wonderful voice which at times is reminiscent of Jacqui McShee of Pentangle fame while Walker plays an inspired guitar. His arrangements are spare with just the right amount of decoration each song deserves and they are well served by some fine players including Jim Moray, piano, John Parker, double bass, Jo Silverston, cello, Basia Bartz, violin, Ivan Mendolia, drums and Ruairi Glasheen on Bodhran.
Of the twelve songs five are covers with the remainder penned by the duo and it’s testament to their writing skills that their own songs stand up as well as the more familiar traditional ones. These include a tender reading of My Love Is Like A Red Red Rose and a spare rendition of When a Knight Won His Spurs. The opening song After Me immediately strikes the listener as something special as the strings strike a wintery feeling and Clark’s glacial voice rings out. The chill remains on the haunting The Month of January where Clark’s voice appears from a fog of loneliness provided by wind instruments and tenebrous cello. Another Perfect Love has a lazy, almost jazz lounge swing to it and recalls Sandy Denny’s solo work. Almost all of the songs are done to perfection and the album is well recommended.
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Lucy Ward , another rising star in the folk world is another fine singer and interpreter of old songs while well able to write new additions to the canon. Her voice is earthier, more sultry than Clark’s and she tends more towards the New World in her traditional choices. She has a more dramatic approach with several of the songs and in the opening song she lays bare where her roots lie as she name checks Dylan and Melanie and pays tribute to the sixties generation. Indeed there are moments here when one can glimpse the likes of Joni Mitchell, Dory Previn and Ms. Safka but it might be a fair bet to say that she also has a soft spot for Tim Buckley’s ethereal wanderings especially when listening to her song Icarus. Her songs are described as symphonic however over the course of a listen we might venture to say cluttered with over fussy arrangements. The relatively pared back banjo plucking of the traditional Lord I Don’t Want To Die In The Storm benefits from its sparseness. She does have a stand out song in Honey where the simple guitar accompaniment and her voice merge together to create a comfortable shimmering haze.

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Leeroy Stagger. Truth Be Sold. Clubhouse Records

Canadian Stagger has built up a reputation over eight albums as a solid working man’s hero, a Canadian Steve Earle of sorts with a punk rock background before he hit a roots rock highway. His ninth album Truth Be Sold is released this week as he returns to the UK for a series of dates that include Maverick Festival and the Summertyne Festival in Gateshead. Produced by Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin (who adds sax on some cuts) Truth Be Sold is a vibrant ride which clatters along with several songs featuring garage riffs, fuzzed guitar and ramshackle percussion.
Martial drumming and snarling guitars introduce the opener, Memo, a ferocious finger pointing song that brims with anger. Goodnight Berlin has a Stones type swagger from the opening Keef like chords as drummer Nick Stecz drives the song, battering away for all he’s worth. The song rushes by leaving the listener breathless and demands repeated listening for the rush gained. Stagger tones it down for the laid back Celebrity, a bitter sweet essay on the emptiness of stardom that recalls a less deranged Green On Red but it’s all hands on deck for the turbo charged rant that is Cities On Fire. Written several years ago Stagger updated this powerful piece to pay tribute to the Occupy Wall Street movement. Hi octane rock’n’roll in its delivery Stagger’s vocals mesh with the propulsive rhythm as guitars soar and there’s even some BOC cowbell on display. Despite that there’s no sense of bloated stadium rock here, just a justified anger. Have A Heart is another pile driver of a song that betrays Berlin’s hand as a producer with the gutbucket guitar solo and hammering percussion recalling Los Lobos.

Interspersed with these fiery moments Stagger has his gentler moments. Break My Heart is a pedal steel sweetened lament with just the right amount of pathos. Sold Down The River is a similar wallow in pedal steel heaven while Mister dives into Steve Earle drawldom. Finally we must mention ESP which is a glorious celebration of life and music and which rivals the likes of Wilco as Stagger and band soar on a great melody, guitars chime and the harmonies are heavenly. A great song indeed.

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Mark Collie & his Reckless Companions. Alive At Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary.

We presume that everyone in the world with an ounce of sense has copies of or knows about Johnny Cash’s prison albums recorded in Folsom and San Quentin. They added an outlaw sense to Cash’s reputation, he seemed to be at one with the inmates. a jailbird made good ( although he never did time, just nights in the cells for drug busts and weirdly enough picking flowers). We mention this because the Cash albums are the template for this fine document, Alive At Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, an album recorded 12 ago but shelved after it was the victim of record label politics at MCA.
Country artist Mark Collie knew Cash and in the late nineties he decided to emulate the man in black with his own prison concert firmly believing in the power of song and hoping that he could inspire at least some of the inmates to reconsider their paths. Weaving his way through red tape he eventually pitched up at Tennessee’s toughest jail in October 2011 with a stellar band and guests, the results of which are finally unveiled here. It’s a glorious recording and while the songs don’t have the familiarity that Cash’s songs had when he played his gigs they have a full bodied band feel to them with Collie and crew pitching country, rock, blues and gospel songs with energy to burn. The Reckless Companions include Willie Weeks on bass, David Grissom, guitar, Chad Cromwell, drums, Shawn Camp and Mike Utley, keyboards, all seasoned veterans who have played with the likes of the stones, Clapton, Joe Ely, John Mellencamp, Dylan, Neil Young, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson so not your average pick up band. In addition Collie brought up the venerable bluesman Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown who delivers the solid Someday My Luck Will Change along with some tasty guitar licks and Kelly Willis (imagine the audience’s reaction) who offers two songs, the sparkling Heaven Bound and the chuck Prophet written Got A Feelin’ For Ya which she delivers with a blowsy abandon, God knows why there wasn’t a riot.
Collie and the band deliver the goods throughout the album as he raps with the inmates and then launches into songs he wrote with the gig in mind. They’re hard luck tales, songs of redemption and ruin bolstered by gutsy playing. On The Day I Die is a death row epic where Collie sings “In the morning they’ll come and I’ll break my last bread and the preacher will read while they’re shaving my head” Dead Man Runs Before He Walks is a prison escape song which draws an energetic response from the inmates while the opening lines of I Could’ve Gone Right, “Twenty third birthday I picked up a gun, this time to get my dope I had to kill someone” is a sucker punch for the captive audience. The band deliver Doug Sahm type Texas tales (Maybe Mexico), country laments (Rose Covered Garden) and hard driving rock (Reckless Companions) with equal aplomb and it’s exciting to listen to these down the line. A cover of Folsom Prison Blues that brims with energy caps it all.
A worthy companion to the Cash discs this is a vibrant and ultimately uplifting listen and if there’s anything criminal about it it’s the fact that Collie had to wait over a decade to see it realised.

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