The folk scene has been busy recently throwing up a host of youngsters carrying on the newer tradition of picking up the mantle that commenced with the emergence of Eliza Carthy some years ago. Seth Lakeman, Chris Wood Sam Lee and Karine Polwart all spring to mind while we reviewed Will Varley just the other week. Now it’s time for Fabian Holland to join this band of new wave Albion warriors with his excellent self titled debut. Holland sings and plays guitar, indeed he plays guitar superbly with his finger picking at times recalling some of John Renbourn’s work. Aside from two traditional songs (Banks of The Dee and Dr. Price) and a cover of Skip James’ Hard Time Killing Floor he has written an album of songs that fit comfortably into the folk tradition whether it be tales of lusty landlord’s daughters, portraits of outcasts or more personal reflections in the vein of Richard Thompson as on Like Father Like Son.
While Holland’s voice and guitar dominate he’s accompanied on occasion by fiddle, melodeon, harmonica and double bass all of which are used sparingly adding a slight dash of colour to Holland’s monochromatic melodies. The opening song The Landlord’s Daughter is the most traditional sounding one here and it’s not too far a flight of fancy to imagine that this could have been unearthed from an old Pentangle album with its dazzling guitar and bass interplay. Likewise Hard Time Killing Floor abandons the delta to revisit an early sixties bedsit land where folk like Bert Jansch were learning to play by listening to old blues albums. Holland proves however that he is a contemporary artist with several songs that address current issues. Little Boy Jonny resonates with military forays in Afghanistan while Charlie and Mad Eric are doleful tales of folk cast aside by society.
A brave and assured debut it’s a fair bet that if Holland continues in this vein he’ll be up there when the next BBC folk awards are handed out.
No sooner than No Mean City ends another Americana themed festival hits Glasgow in the shape of Glasgow Americana hosted by Fallen Angels promoter Kevin Morris. Packed into a week of mouth-watering gigs in a variety of venues this years event sees stellar names such as Israel Gripka Nash, Slaid Cleaves, Laura Cantrell, Darden Smith, Madison Violet, Devon Sproule, My Darling Clementine, Anna Coogan and Dean Owens appearing. The week culminates in a tribute evening celebrating Gram Parsons featuring James Grant, Roddy Hart, Madison Violet, Ben Glover, My Darling Clementine, The Parsonage Choir and The City Sinners.
The Parsons tribute night and the Cleaves show are already sold out so folk intending to attend any of the other shows would be well advised to head over to the website and book their seats now. In the meantime we thought we’d delve into some of the wares likely to be on sale at the various gigs.
We’ve already mentioned the excellent new release from Slaid Cleaves and the latest live offering from Madison Violet while Anna Coogan has long been one of our favourites. However it’s with a degree of serendipity that albums from My Darling Clementine and Israel Nash Gripka have recently dropped into the Blabber’n’Smoke mailbox with both of them boding well for their Glasgow appearances.
My Darling Clementine are husband and wife team, Michael Weston King (ex The Good Sons) and Lou Dalgleish and their album, The Reconciliation? is a celebration of classic country male/female duets with some southern soul thrown in for good measure. It’s not a pun to say that this effort appears to be a labour of love as everything about it appears to have been well crafted from the song writing and magnificent playing to the superb packaging that has a faded and scuffed vinyl album patina looking like the sort of platter one might find in a charity store bin. King and Dalgliesh spar and croon as well as any of their forebears including Tammy and George, Dolly and Porter and even Emmylou and Gram while the music flits from honky tonk to tear jerking Nashville rhinestone ballads and soul farm grit with backing from Richard Hawley’s band for the most part. There are no happy songs here although the final cut Miracle Mabel tells of the birth of King and Dalgleish’s daughter with a fine tenderness. The majority of the songs are about breakups and divorce (Unhappily Ever After featuring a guest vocal from Kinky Friedman standing out) and while there’s a barb in some of the lyrics where they strip away the showbiz tears and schmaltz and reveal the reality of domestic abuse and alcoholism ( No Matter What Tammy Said (I Won’t Stand By Him) for example stands Wynette’s melodrama on its head as Dalgleish abandons her man) listening to the album one could almost be sitting in a flea bit bar with a great jukebox belting out each of the songs here and quietly shedding a tear in one’s beer. Magnificent.
Israel Nash Gripka has been well regarded for some time with his two previous releases garnering favourable reviews. Now ditching the Gripka he unveils his latest offering Israel Nash’s Rain Plans following a relocation from his native Missouri to Austin Texas. God knows what Austin has done to him but if he could bottle it he’d make a fortune as this album astounds from start to finish. Nash wallows in the sumptuous sound that characterised the glory days of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young with particular emphasis on the Young contribution. In addition there is a sweeping pedal steel vista that hovers over and around some visceral guitar work that sends shivers up the spine evoking Jerry Garcia’s work on Crosby’s seminal work If Only I Could Remember My Name. All of this might mark Nash as a mere copyist or revivalist but the sheer beauty of some of the songs here soon overwhelms any such thoughts with the middle eight and outro in Myer Canyon in particular stunning the listener into a state of awe. Guitars weave and wander with a ferocity and lyricism that defies description and he repeats this throughout the album and there’s a moment in the title song where the guitars fizz and burn just like the best firework you’ve ever seen. Rather than go through this album song by song it’s sufficient to say that it burns brightly and holds its freak flag high and is a contender for the album of the year. If Nash can deliver even a tenth of this energy live then his show will be incandescent.
Short mention of what promises to be a fine gig tomorrow night in the State bar. Billed as a fringe addition to the Glasgow Americana FestivalAnnie Keating has delivered two fine albums in the past few years. We reviewed Water Tower Viewhere saying
“Keating comes from a folkier side with an earthy delivery, her vocals husky, at times sounding like a female John Prine, at others reminiscent of the frailty of Melanie Safka. Her subjects are the usual folk topics, tales of losers for the most part and one might wonder what more there is to say about the underbelly of American life. However Keating has the ability to take a well worn scenario such as gambling in On the Loose and breathe new life into it.
With some very sympathetic backing from a variety of players all of these songs beg to be heard but the standout songs are The Borderline with a very restrained backdrop and Keating’s vulnerability well to the fore and the closing Scene I/Scene II which, as the title suggests, is like an aural movie. Intimate and engaging, an excellent recording.”
Her latest album For Keeps continues in a similar style and received good reviews including one in The Telegraph. We’d be there for a fine Friday night out but unfortunately won’t be in Glasgow. A pity as this is what we might be hearing.
If you’re looking for an album that just about sums up the state of Americana these days then look no further. Austin Lucas has a punk background but grew up in a folk and bluegrass loving family.Ttiring of screaming his lyrics over a blitzkrieg of sound he returned to his roots and forged a fine amalgam of country and rock over a series of albums. Stay Reckless finds Lucas ensconced in the mighty bosom of New West Records which should offer him a fair degree of exposure. To top it all he’s blessed enough to have the services of Glossary, one of the finer exponents of the genre these days to hand catapulting this album into a contender for the year end top ten.
The album’s a captivating mixture of light and shade, hard driving country rock and choke worthy country ballads with Lucas’ tremulous voice, shades of Jay Farrar and George Jones flitting in and out, tying it all together. His duets with Glossary’s Kelly Knieser in particular tear and jerk at the heartstrings while he drives the harder numbers with authority. The band meanwhile are more than able to slam headfirst into the turbo charged punk fuelled maelstrom that is So Much More Than Lonely and then down clutch to deliver the wistful country flow of Four Wheels. Todd Beene’s pedal steel work in particular shines throughout the album but there are some exhilarating guitar duels with Joey Knieser with Small Town Heart standing out.
Lucas wrote much of this album in the wake of a divorce and this is reflected in some of the lyrics with Rings being the premier example. Lucas starts off with a solo lament before a sympathetic pedal steel whirls overhead. A restrained fiddle and some halting harmonies from Kelly Knieser add to the melancholic feel. It’s an excellent song given a wonderful delivery and perhaps the standout here despite tough competition from the miniature epic that is Save It For Yourself and the Waylon inspired toughness of Different Shade of Red. All in all an excellent listen.
Released just in time to prime UK fans for his forthcoming tour Greg Trooper’s 11th album, Incident On Willow Street is another fine set from the man who has been praised and covered by the likes of Steve Earle and Billy Bragg. It maintains his position as a fine craftsman who takes elements of American music (including folk, country and soul) and carves them into his own unique style. Incident On Willow Street is more varied in its delivery than its predecessor, 2011’s Upside-Down Love which had a southern soul vibe about it. While Trooper can still deliver a drop dead southern ballad with keening steel guitar and gospel organ as on Everything’s A Miracle, one of the album’s highlights, overall there’s a more varied feel with up-tempo country songs and even some Celtic connections.
The opening song, All the way To Amsterdam is a fairly generic song which doesn’t prepare the listener for the heights to follow. It does introduce the sweet and mellow pedal steel tones of his lieutenant on this album, the multi instrumentalist Larry Campbell ( a stalwart member of Dylan’s never ending tour band a decade ago). Campbell is all over this album and maybe instrumental in the rootsier feel. His mandolin drives Good Luck Heart, the second song here and by now Trooper’s building up a head of steam as this initially jaunty song is beefed up by some excellent country twanging and the band is swinging mightily by the end. A blistering song. Steel Deck Bridge reflects the American dream of endless optimism that there’s something at the end of the rainbow. A great performance it builds in intensity as Campbell on guitar and steel guitar piles waves of sound over the solid beat. One Honest Man is the other guitar whacked number here with Campbell hitting the scales on a New Jersey tales of walking the mean streets.
Trooper ditches the urban feel for the remainder of the songs with Amelia a gentle love song buttressed by tender pedal steel while This Shitty Deal has a Mexican cantina type delivery as Trooper sings of a poor dope cuckolded by a femme fatale and who blames himself. The Girl In The Blue is another border song with Campbell adding some south of the border fiddle and it’s infectious as hell. Diamond Heart is a neat little loping country number with fiddles blazing away over a Floyd Cramer like piano bed and a Celtic lilt that reflects the impact the old world music traditions had on the new world. Trooper updates this musical miscegenation on the ribald Mary Of the Scots in Queens where he tells the tale of his unrequited lust for the titular Mary but is whipped and defeated by her eventual husband “Irish Brian.” Trooper and his band mates go all out here for a “folk rock” sound which resembles the early solo Richard Thompson and it’s a fair bet to say that this song will be a real crowd pleaser.
Trooper is touring the UK in October with several Scottish dates, check then out here
Obviously going all out for the Radio Two audience Glasgow blues behemoth Craig Hughes‘ latest album, like a previous effort, Pissed Off, Bitter And Willing To Share, takes no prisoners and accepts no compromise when it comes to describing what he is singing about. You might not hear Hughes’ grizzled voice beaming at you while you have your cornflakes (although local Americana show Sunny Govan Switchback has been championing the album) but one gets the impression that Hughes is not in it for the fame but is compelled to record his bleak tales peopled with wretched, well, losers and bastards, and if folk like them then so be it.
Losers and Bastards is Hughes’ second full length release (third if you count his split double disc with Sleepy Eyes Nelson) and sees him once again in the company of Tommy Duffin who drums and plays “boom-chicka-boom” guitar on one of the cuts. Hughes reprises the mix of acoustic slide guitar and stomping razor bladed electric blues wails that he showcased on his last release, Hard Times Vol. 1 (which was voted best blues EP of 2012 by American mag Blues Underground Network). His lyrics too are a mix of despair and grim humour and on a couple of the songs here he proves himself to be a great chronicler of Glasgow life with one of the songs, Future After All reading as if it was an excerpt from a James Kelman story.
The album opens with the foot stomping acoustic blues of Happy Man Cries, an open wound of a song that recalls Richard Thompson’s End of the Rainbow in its pessimism as Hughes sings of a kid’s joy and reminds him that it won’t last as “life’s not as much fun as it seems.” That kid, now grown up, might be the subject of Jam Jar Wasp Trap, another acoustic trip which describes an empty life of staring at the television vicariously grasping at celebrities and ultimately ending up like “an old man in a brothel who can’t get it up.” Next up Hughes plugs in for the dirty blues stomp that is Last Orders (When I Die) as he wonders who will mourn him when he’s gone and plays some mean slide. Future after All is a life in miniature as the protagonist expresses a futile optimism after a small lottery win which is soon drank away and he sinks amidst the morass of his life wondering where his next drink is coming from. A bleak tale but Hughes expresses it with some wonderful imagery and a fine Glaswegian existentialism as he blames the possibility of nuclear annihilation for his having no ambition other than to drink. We mentioned James Kelman earlier on but it’s not too fanciful to compare this to the sordid ballads of Jacques Brel as well.
For Dressed in Rags Hughes sticks on an imaginary Stetson and goes all ZZ Top on us while Beans and Bread is another poverty ridden tale but delivered with some humour and a breathless chorus. White Water is the most upbeat number here with a touch of country blues as Hughes sings of a femme fatale and waxes poetically “As the years go by I think of her from time to time/Out of the blue her smile might come to mind/And I recall losing her, the way she turned back as she left/And that faraway look in her eyes/She wasted her youth going further and faster/She fell for successive losers and bastards/She was a kindred spirit and I was drawn to her.”
With his growl of a voice one would never expect to accuse Hughes of showing a little tenderness but here he shows that we all have our soft spot and everyone has a shot at romance, successful or not. Everybody’s Got to Cheat and Lie Sometimes might turn out to be Hughes’ anthem as he churns out a Woody Guthrie type manifesto over a rough beat and some scintillating slide guitar. A Strongman and an Acrobat visits Blind Willie Johnson territory on an evil sounding acoustic slide number with voodoo lyrics and he wraps the album up with the rollin’ and tumblin’ boogie of Wood and Wire which declares that when the chips are down a guitar is a poor man’s best friend.
As usual Hughes is offering Losers and Bastards on a pay what you want basis for the download however for a measly five quid you can get the CD package with a lyric sheet and it’s well worth every last penny. check it out here.
It’s always nice to open up an album from an unknown band and to be, well, blown away by the music therein. The Coals is perhaps at best a fairly nondescript name for a band with no real indication of what they’ll sound like (apparently they are named after a bar in L.A., weird name for a bar I think) and the cover art, a washed out picture of a naked woman sitting on a hillside close by a dog, seems to be, well, random and given the title of this mini album, mildly disturbing. Several days and several plays later we still think The Coals isn’t the greatest brand name in the world (although its growing on us) but the cover strikes us as a sly joke given the sense of humour apparent on the band’s website and their determination to bring a sense of laidback joy to their audience. The album title is from a Leonard Cohen poem, not one of his happiest called How We Approached The Book of Changes where he asks to be released from his human form in this “miserable and bewildering wretchedness” and be instead, “a happy animal,” presumably released from the cares, miseries and woes of the world, happy to just wag a tail and sit innocently beside a siren.
Enough already of the pseud’s corner analysis. After all there are only eight songs here clocking in at under a half hour but we can safely say that listening to A Happy Animal is a half hour you’ll not regret losing and indeed that many more will disappear under the mellifluous influence of The Coals. They’re from California and are led by singer and songwriter Jason Mandell whose laid back vocal delivery recalls the young Kris Kristofferson and Dylan’s brief baritone circa Self Portrait The band (Mandell, guitar, vocals, Darice Bailey, keyboards, Peter Hastings, bass, Greg Eklund, drums, Andy Tabb, guitar and Jack Arky, accordion) slip easily between styles with country folk, gospel blues and Mexicali all featured.
The album opens with a brief snippet of a street corner preacher warning that “destruction will come to Los Angeles, God will destroy Los Angeles for its sin” (echoes of the Burritos here folks) before Redeem Me, a free flowing country flavoured jaunt with Mandell almost purring the lyrics opens the album proper. Dirt Road is a rambunctious barrelhouse country song that sounds as if it was unearthed from The Basement Tapes and it’s over all too soon, a pity as the band’s playing is exuberant with fine piano and percussion driving it along. Let Me Down Easy lowers the temperature as Mandell sings a heartfelt love song over some striking Dobro playing. Maria takes us into Tijuana territory with Mexicali trumpet added to the mix, it’s a fine addition to the canon of Tex-Mex influenced California songs and one that we return to time and time again. Hand To Hold is a minor gem as Mandell visits the glory days of the LA troubadours and sings resignedly of the burden of relationships as rippling acoustic guitar and fine harmonies on the chorus recall the simplicity of James Taylor and the craft of John Prine. It’s an excellent song and encapsulates all that has to be said in less than two minutes, no fat here. Steal My Heart is a very laidback honky tonk number with barroom piano and a fine Dobro solo all delivered with a loping devil may care attitude. Another excellent song. Baseline Blues excavates the early Kristofferson along with a whiff of Cohen and even Lee Hazlewood as Mandell is accompanied on vocals by Sally Dworsky and the listener should be astonished at the quality of Mandell’s writing and the band’s delivery as this is as good a song as we’ve heard all year. Mandell sings “Tried to say I need I you without saying that I do, Tried to make you see what kind of hell you put me through, baby I just can’t help but wanting you” over a majestic piano led Muscle Shoals type melodrama that excites through and through. After this the ragtime Lord, Lord, Lord is almost an anticlimax but again the boogie piano and general bonhomie gives it a rousing feel. If we rated albums this would be a 10/10. The only quibble is its brevity as we could listen to this all night.
26 year old Will Varley is an author, artist and performer full of piss and vinegar, occupied with the Occupy movement and involved in the DIY ethos of his label Smugglers Records. To promote his first album he didn’t play the usual circuit, instead he embarked on a 140 mile walking tour playing to anyone who wanted to listen. As The Crow Flies is his second release and showcases his strong vocals, guitar dexterity and his fine song writing skills. Varley works in the folk tradition and he proves he can deliver in the traditional fashion with the powerful and chilling tale of a Shaman’s deception on Blood and Bone which could have graced the likes of Traffic’s John barleycorn album or any one of Fairport Conventions latter efforts. For the most part however he reflects the sixties singer/songwriter revolution and he succeeds spectacularly well in this with some songs that are wonderfully crafted. Where The Wild Wind Blows opens with a description of a bucolic Eden the singer has to leave for an uncertain future. Similar to the early poetry of Dylan with a nod to Roy Harper it’s a fine curtain raiser. Weddings and Wars continues down the same road as Varley sums up Man’s achievements over the ages and finds them for the most part destructive and deadly. His voice spits vitriol here and again one is reminded of the angry young Harper when he sang songs such as I Hate The White Man. Soldiers on The Wall is an apocalyptic vision of the future which envisions states from Morocco to New York policed by the titular guards. Delivered in a hazy fashion we’re unsure if this is a dream or a vision but it’s a powerful message.
There are several songs which sound more personal although political nuances are never far away. The title song is a wonderful piece of nostalgia as Varley recollects images and instances from his youth as he goes back home while She’s Been Drinking is the sorry tale of a promising life going down the drain due to addiction. His lyrics are evocative and engaging with some excellent imagery throughout while the accompaniment from fellow Beggars Records artists Cocos Lovers cocoons the songs with a delicate touch.
Finally we must mention two songs that offer some levity to offset the gloom that pervades the album ( although we must say that gloom is good). Both are in the vein of Dylan’s humoresque talkin’ blues with I Got This E-Mail a genuinely funny tall story where the protagonist is sucked into a Nigerian scam, eventually marches on Whitehall only to find that David Cameron has fallen for the same scam. The scabrous Self Checkout Shuffle will appeal to all who use these automated supermarket guardians and anyone who fantasises about supermarket romances.
Ed Askew has been a secret for four decades. A New York artist and teacher who released one album on the ill fated ESP Disc label (home to The Fugs, Holy Modal Rounders, The Godz and Albert Ayler) back in 1968 he then all but disappeared from view. But these days popular music likes to regurgitate its past and just like Vashti Bunyan, Rodriguez and most recently Shelagh McDonald Askew has climbed back into the limelight, rubbing his eyes and, tentatively at first, looking around him. His revival started with the release in 2007 of his second album (which he recorded in 1970!) followed by two new albums Rainy Day Song in 2008 and Imperfiction in 2011. All were solo efforts with Askew playing an instrument called a Tiple (somewhat like a ukulele only with ten strings) on his first album then adding keyboards to the latter ones. For The World is his first collaboration with other musicians including Marc Ribot, Jay Pluck, members of The Black Swans and Sharon Van Etten.
Now in his early seventies Askew’s voice remains somewhat unique. He’s acquired a slight patina with age but remains a trembling tenor sounding as if he’s carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. There’s a slight similarity to Will Oldham in his idiosyncratic delivery while John Cale also comes to mind (without the Welsh lilt). The songs for the most part are sepia toned meditations and fables which betray his sixties origins while the music is dominated by an old fashioned piano sound like your aunt playing in the parlour. Delicate stringed instruments including harp wander in and out of the simple melodies while a lonesome country harmonica adds an almost Neil Young ditch feel to some of the pieces.
The album opens with the rolling piano and plaintive harmonica of Rodeo Rose. Askew sounds world wearied as the piano repeats itself with only some crepuscular guitar from Ribot to break the circle. It’s almost as if the itinerant vagrant who mumbled the words to Gavin Bryars’ Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet had found a voice and penned some lyrics. Mesmerising. Blue Eyed Baby is another circular song with Askew agog at the wonders of nature and he sings it with a sense of wide eyed wonder. Gertrude Stein is a simple homily to the poet and her poem Sacred Emily as Askew recalls his past and simply wishes these days to be able to sit and forego these memories and think of nothing at all. It’s a brief song and reminds one of Tom Rapp, another artist who recorded for ESP Disc back in the sixties.
Rapp’s band, Pearls before Swine, comes to mind again on So, a halting and mysterious song which is almost like a series of Haikus linked together on a necklace of haunting piano. Moon In The Wind brings back the lonesome harmonica while the piano plinks on while Drum recalls the likes of Weimar artist Joachim Ringelnatz’s poetry and declamation. Baby Come Home is the most sprightly song on the album with Askew hitting an early Dylan vibe while the closing title song is a rickety fable about the joy of singing and at the end of the day it’s a joy to hear Askew singing again.
Ed Askew might be an acquired taste (he’s in regular rotation on Stuart Maconie’s Freak Zone) but this album should be lapped up by anyone interested in the wider shores of folk and outsider music. Buy it here
Brandy Zdan first came to our attention as one half of Twilight Hotel whose fine album When The Wolves Go Blind we reviewed last year Lone Hunter is her debut solo release and is advance notice of her forthcoming UK tour (including a Scottish date at The Torpichen Inn, West Lothian on Saturday October 19) where she will be accompanied by Awna Teixeira of Po’ Girl and Cara Luft under the clumsy moniker of The ABC of Canadian Music. A six song strong mini album it truly is a solo effort as Zdan plays most of the instruments on the disc including guitar, percussion, lap steel, synthesiser and Wurlitzer. She is assisted by producer George Reiff on percussion and guitar on one song while Ricky Ray Jackson adds pedal steel to two others. In the vocal department Jamie Lin Wilson and Kelley Mickwee 0f The Trishas (with whom Zdan is a touring member) add backing vocals on O Where.
Zdan’s crystal voice rings throughout the disc and although she’s based in Texas these days several of the songs have that northern America/Canadian sense of frosty wide spaces that one imagines haunts artists from north of the 49th Parallel. The title song in particular is a bare boned haunting number that seems to be about loss and despair and an eventual longing to return to the earth and elements, perhaps an allusion to Into The Wild, a book about going into the wilderness to die.
This stark approach continues in I Remember When You Used To Love Me, a tear stained letter with dramatic percussion and Does Everything Break, another song about lost love that has a keening pedal steel that highlights the loneliness expressed in Zdan’s plaintive voice. Pedal steel is used to good effect again on O Where, another song of loss which features naive hope instead of despair as Zdan forlornly believes her baby will return “in summertime, when all is green.”
Two songs are more upfront in their delivery with an echo of the moodiness of her band Twilight Hotel on the opening song Mourning Dove (co-written with Dave Quanbury, the other half of the band) with its whammy guitar flourishes and noirish sensibility. Blood As The Ink stands apart from the other songs however as a burbling new wave like bass line and fuzzy guitar solos zip past in a flash somewhat disturbing the overall mood of the disc.