Bronwynne Brent. Stardust.

Brent

Over the past few years it seems that the tsunami of talent that appears at the Folk Alliance International gathering in Kansas eventually laps up on our shores as promoters and distributers sign deals to release albums and set up tours in old Blighty. The first wave of 2014 is Mississippi’s Bronwynne Brent with her second release Stardust and if any that follow are half as good then we’re in for a treat.

The cover art portrays Brent as a flower garlanded hippie songstress with an ever so slight resemblance to Joni Mitchell back in the days. However one listen to her voice and thoughts of Mitchell fly out the window as Brent has an earthiness that forever eluded Joni’s rarefied atmosphere. Instead Brent has that seemingly untutored and effortless way of singing that borders on the idiosyncratic with the weight of emotion on its shoulders. Immensely attractive and engaging Brent’s voice is in the tradition of singers like Billie Holiday, Karen Dalton, Melanie and Alela Diane while at times there’s even a hint of the late Amy Winehouse on the more up-tempo numbers here.

The beguiling vocals are the entree to the album’s pleasures but Brent proves to have a way with words as she sings of loss and despair for the most part. The songs portray abandoned women, betrayed, trying to find some comfort in their inner worlds but condemned to relive their tragedies in their memories. It’s not a happy album but happily Brent has embroidered her words with some exceptionally fine music which ranges from the glacial folk noire of Devil Again to the rustbucket blues of Bulletproof and the tombstone Mexicana of Lay Me Down. She’s ably assisted in this by producer Johnny Sangster’s guitar skills whether it be twangy reverb or country picking while the drumstool is occupied by the unmistakeable cool of Calexico’s John Convertino, reason enough some might think to pick up the album. Add to this the presence of anther Calexico cohort, Jon Rauhouse on pedal steel on several songs and the album’s pedigree is impeccable. Well recommended.

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Brock Zeman. Rotten Tooth. Busted Flat Records

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Blabber’n’Smoke liked Canadian Brock Zeman‘s last offering, Me Then You back in 2012 with its taut and sinewy rock with a hint of blue collar Steve Earle in the tales it told. We also noted his production and playing on the magnificently doomed Tom House released on Zeman’s label, Mud Records. Now he’s back with Rotten Tooth, an eleven song self penned collection which, while no great departure from its predecessor other than a hint of influence from the boho bawling of Tom Waits which colours a few of the numbers, Zeman himself says

“I learned an awful lot from recording Nashville singer/songwriter Tom House over the last few years and it’s led me to some unexpected places and given me some brand new eyes and ears.”

House’s album was a frank journey into a booze driven American underbelly and it may be that his words have spurred Zeman into being somewhat more visceral on some of his songs, most notably the opening title song which starts off with a sample of a dental instruction on how to extract a tooth. Pretty soon Zeman growls into view over a savage acoustic blues riff before the band hammers in. Gnarly as hell Zeman sings

“I’m the only rotten tooth in my family’s mouth/Take more than pliers just to pull me out/I’m on the shady side of my family tree/That crooked little branch that wouldn’t grow straight
The little grease fire that you can’t put out/Ya, I’m the only rotten tooth in my family’s mouth/Black clouds fill the sky wherever I travel/My footsteps sound like a judge’s gavel/
Hell spit me out and heaven don’t want me/Because I’m mean as a rattlesnake and twice as ugly/Won’t you write this on my stone before they lay me down/That I’m the only rotten tooth in my family’s mouth.”

OK, there’s a thousand songs out there about black sheep but Zeman delivers this with a ferocity that is breathtaking and it’s begging to be placed on the credits of some hillbilly murdering tale on HBO. Zeman runs with this bad blood throughout the album. Neighbour fights, murder, the Lord’s retribution all feature with Zeman and guitarist Blair Hogan playing some fine gutbucket blues. This grimness is leavened musically with some songs delivered in a lighter style with cello employed on occasion such as on the convoluted murder ballad Where Words Mean Nothing as the vaulting tune belies the blood stained lyrics. Overall we’re looking at Americana Noire.

The Waits influence is at its height on two songs. Dreamland Motel is a wordy squall describing the titular no star abode

“I ain’t ever stayed in a place like this before/The toilet is talking to the sink about the blood on the floor/And if I make it through the night I swear on my skin/That it’s Travel Lodge baby from now on in.”

Sending Strange Weather takes the Waits’ model and adds some Jim White to the mix as Zeman warns of the coming Apocalypse with hoodoo guitar and strangled voices. It’s a tremendous cut and with songs like these Zeman deserves to be better known. Suffice to say that if you think Robert Mitchum’s Rev. Harry Powell could strap on a guitar then this might be an album he would make.

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Red Pine Timber Company. Different Lonesome

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We mentioned Perth band Southpaw a few reviews back and almost as if by happenstance what should pop through the post but this album featuring Southpaw singer Gavin JD Munro fronting a big band with a big sound that straddles classic folk rock and fat back horn fuelled grooves, a weird coupling indeed but one that definitely works for the most part. This nine piece crew lilt magnificently on countrified waves with mandolin rippling while pedal steel weaves in and out as the brass adds a Southern soul or gospel feel, the end result coming across almost as if one were being treated to a revue as opposed to a single band. The imagery, particularly on the striking video for their song Hurricanes, is American Gothic summoning up a rustic backwoods sentiment which is reflected in the music. They eschew any sense of parched desert rock. Instead the landscape they inhabit is the enervating green lushness of the swamps and bayous , thick blooded, slow to react but dangerous when aroused. One could imagine them playing in a shack in Walter Hill’s movie Southern Comfort, dripping sweat as they offer up some swamp and mountain music. They don’t play Cajun but the fiddles and airs cut through to American folk music’s antecedents in misty Scottish Highlands and Irish glens giving the album an attractive Transatlantic connection.
Aside from the closing song, the traditional Oh Sinnerman, all of the songs are written by Munro and he proves to be a fine wordsmith summing up predicaments and dilemmas in classic style, spare but telling all you need to know such as on Different Lonesome

“She pours out the coffee, and we start the day, everything is faultless, we designed it that way. How can I rewrite the words I should have said, It’s a different kind of lonesome when the love’s not dead.”

Munro sings as if he’s inhabiting the souls of the luckless characters here, tired, worn out, resigned to their fate. His melancholic voice (along with some of the melodies) are reminiscent of Gene Clark in his prime and he’s ably assisted on harmonies by Kate Burgoyne who provides a fine foil to his hurt. The band meanwhile offer an empathetic backdrop with electric guitars by Aaron Brake and Stewart Methven curling and occasionally snarling over the strummed acoustics and sympathetic rhythm section. Lonesome harmonica tops several of the songs. The title song, Sweet Seville, Save My Soul, Hurricanes and No Direction are all superior wearied ballads that glow with a Tupelo honeyed light while the brass section adds a tumescence that is quite daring. While Munro’s melancholic side is given full rein on these the band show that they can kick the proverbial shit with some up-tempo numbers that gives the album some variety. The opening song, Lonely Days are Gone is a sparkling jangled riposte to The Boxtops song The Letter while Sermon On The Street has a mid sixties Dylan kick especially in the harmonica playing. They also get down and dirty with The Way It Was which has a Stones’ like swagger and strut.

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Suzy Bogguss. Lucky. Proper Records

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Last time we encountered Ms. Bogguss she was delivering a primer for kids on the American Folk Songbook . She sounded great then but now it’s the adults turn as she offers up an album’s worth of Merle Haggard covers that hum and buzz with a fine honky tonk spark. A tribute album one might say but Bogguss is adamant that she never meant to go down that route. Instead she was hunkering back to her country roots and just about fell into singing old Haggard songs (her first release was a Haggard cover) in the studio and it was going so well she saw the project through. You want a tribute album? Check out Tulare Dust on Hightone Records , in the meantime here’s an album of Merle Haggard songs sung by Suzy Bogguss, perhaps dreaming his dreams.

Anyway, It almost goes without saying that the songs here are all excellent. Tear stained laments, beer drenched wallows, mournful love songs with some fighting and jail time, that’s Haggard territory after all. Bogguss captures most of these exceptionally well with a variety of styles. Outright Honky Tonk on Let’s Chase Each Other Through The Night, rockabilly roustabout on The Runnin’ Kind, Southern slinkiness on I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink. There’s a magnificently boozy and woozy Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down with Boguss sounding as sassy as hell. Hearing this reminds Blabber’n’Smoke of hearing Haggard’s songs for the first time courtesy of Emmylou Harris and, trawling back, The Burritos and Gram Parsons. Back then his songs stood out as honest and earnest and it’s as true now as it was then. It must be difficult to produce a bad cover of a Haggard song and Ms. Bogguss delivers a classy set that entertains in its own right and hopefully might lead some who listen to go back to the originals.

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Trent Miller. Burnt Offerings. Bucketfull of Brains Records

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It’s funny how you think you have your finger on the pulse when it comes to what’s happening in your end of the music scene and then something comes in with a great pedigree but it’s news to you. So it was when this album from Trent Miller, his third it appears, popped through the post and floored us. Imagine if you will an artist who has the romantic lyricism of Gene Clark, the LA voodoo of Jeffrey Lee Pierce and the retrospective roots appreciation of Richard Hawley. Picture a young Italian musician feverishly devouring tales and music of far away heroes as he scraps around for a living before eventually coming to London where he spends several more years scrapping around before some discerning folk lend an ear.

That’s essentially the story of Trent Miller. From Turin, he couldn’t fill a phone box in his native land and it was only after several years of itinerant jobbing in London that he was able to release a home recorded album, Cerebus, which led to his signing by Bucketfull of Brains who fitted him up with a band and released Welcome To Inferno Valley in 2012 leading to critical acclaim. A raw boned collection of country tinged folk, Welcome To Inferno Valley had Miller’s sinewy voice set over a primarily acoustic band setting. Burnt Offerings continues in this vein for the most part but his voice sounds more assured while the music is less rustic and more arranged with a greater emphasis on electric guitar and pedal steel.

Miller has an affinity with Gene Clark and the former Byrd’s spirit casts deep shadows on this album. Songs such as the title track and Pictures From A Different World have the literacy of Clarks’s song poems while the musicians hark back to the dappled sunlight picking of his late sixties forays into folk rock. Your Black Heart harks back to the sumptuous arrangements of Clark’s spell with the Gosdin Brothers while Sands Of Time sounds like a lost nugget from ’65. If this were all then one could dismiss the album as simply a (very fine) simulacrum of one of Miller’s heroes but he soaked up more than Clark in his dog days and he amalgamates his influences well here. Burnt Offerings opens the album with a loping rhythm and spectral guitar swoons that recall Lee Hazlewood as Miller sings of cathedrals in the desert. It’s hypnotic and beguiling. Lupita Dream sinks deeper into this dreamscape, lush and intoxicating it sounds like Jeffrey Lee Pierce wandering, stoned and immaculate as the guitars slide ecstatically by. The harmonica on Hearts On A Wire grounds the dream bringing it back to a back porch kitchen sink drama but before the listener has time to wallow in the comfort of the singer’s despair All These Violent Years slams into view. A metaphysical take on life and love with driving guitars, thumping drums and soaring vocals it’s somewhat of a tour de force leaving the listener exhausted afterwards. Sorrow Knows Better recalls another of Miller’s favourites, Guy Kyser of Thin White Rope with a sludgier sound and piercing guitars he almost steers into a piratical heavy metal shanty. Finally Miller dips a toe into the current guitar based psychedelic smorgasbord as epitomised by Israel Nash Gripka on On The Stone Beach which has the mystical Clark vibe and some very sweet fat guitar shining throughout the song.

Miller might be a product of his influences but the whole is better than the parts. It’s an album that will thrill those aware of the antecedents and beguile those who aren’t. The album is released on 14th April, you can order it here

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Peter Mulvey. Silver Ladder. Signature Sounds.

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Originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Peter Mulvey appears to be a musician who has definitely paid his dues. A spell in Dublin busking back in 1989 was followed by a decade or so in Boston and the release of several albums. His busking continued with his 2002 album Ten Thousand Mornings being recorded live on a Boston subway platform and for the past few years he has travelled by bicycle on his annual Fall tour entertaining along the way.
Over the course of around 17 albums Mulvey has proved to be a wry commentator on the human condition and an adept collaborator with other musicians including Jeffrey Foucault and Kris Delmhorst. A fine singer and excellent acoustic guitarist his 2006 release, The Knuckleball Suite, remains a favourite here at Blabber’n’Smoke.
Silver Ladder is somewhat of a departure for Mulvey. Following “a turbulent stretch in his personal life” Mulvey sought solace in his writing. By the time he had enough for an album he contacted an acquaintance, none other than chuck Prophet whom Mulvey had met once before and Prophet agreed to produce the album. The result is a tougher sound than one has come to expect from Mulvey with Prophet and fellow Mission Express member James DePrato playing guitar, David Kemper (from Dylan’s tour band) on drums, Tom Fruend, upright bass and Aiden Hawken on keyboards (including Celeste, Chamberlin and Mellotron). Sara Watkins of Silver Nickel added some harmony vocals and played violin. While it’s not a rock album the well drilled crew deliver some punchy moments from the start with Lies You Forgot You Told stepping sprightly over a taut rhythm section as the guitars and keyboards decorate the melody. You Don’t have To Tell Me is propelled by driving acoustic guitar with a slight rockabilly jaunt reminiscent of Nick Lowe when he had a spring in his step, Prophet weighs in on backing vocals and there are some tasty guitar breaks. Sympathies continues in a similar vein with accordion added to the mix along with a memorable hook and melody that places the song close to the brash vitality of Prophet on Temple Beautiful. While these opening songs are brisk and confident lyrically there’s a thread of loss and betrayal running through them and the next number, the country stained lament Remember The Milkman (a duet with Watkins) is a break up song through and through and one wonders if Mulvey’s turbulence was due to the end of a relationship. What Else Was It reinforces the sense of loss. A denser, multi layered song which owes something to Mulvey’s Irish connections as his voice approaches a brogue, it’s dark and brooding and in the end reproachful. Trempealeau follows with its simple acoustic guitar and keyboard backing allowing Mulvey to appear wounded and vulnerable however he turns in his best performance here on what is a beautiful song. Sara Watkins returns to duet on the restrained ballad Where Did You Go with the pair singing wonderfully together as they apologise for their lost love. Tasteful guitar breaks with an understated hint of Bakersfield twang adorn the song which would not appear out of place on the recent my Darling Clementine’s The Reconciliation? album.
Up till now the album is a winner but over the course of the final five songs it seems to lose its footing somewhat with a mixture of styles vying for attention. Josephine harks back to Mulvey’s previous quirky delivery and style although Back In The Wind rewinds to the beginning of the album and the Nick Lowe/Elvis Costello model of brisk power pop. Copenhagen Airport is an oddity. Acoustic guitar scrubbings and soaring electrics over a throbbing bass line dominate until, close to the end Mulvey ponders the beauty of the women in the titular airport complaining that none of them are on his flight. Someone needs to ask him about this one. If You Shoot At A King You Must Kill Him is a surrealistic delve into Mulvey’s dreamworld with his vocals rushed as he delivers a song poem with atmospheric sound effects. It’s like a psychodrama and perhaps cathartic for the singer as he strives to finally cast off his emotional shackles. It’s telling that he’s borrowed the title from Ralph Waldo Emerson in the sense that the album will close the door on the episode and allow him to move on without retribution. Speculation of course but otherwise the song remains unexplained.
Despite the quibbles over the final third of the album overall Mulvey is triumphant with Prophet’s production taking him in a new direction. Some lucky folk will get the chance to see him in action as he is touring the UK in March and April although there are no Scottish dates penned, a pity as I’d love to see him performing Marty and Lou where it’s all about the monkeys.

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Tour dates

Peter Mulvey’s Kickstarter introduction to the album

Paul McLure. Smiling From The Floor Up. Clubhouse Records

Rutland singer/songwriter Paul McLure seems to have built a small but dedicated following from his time spent with acoustic roots duo, The Hi and Lo, who released one album on Clubhouse and were featured in the label’s famed Nebraska sessions, a live reading of all the songs from Springsteen’s album of the same name. Now flying solo, Smiling From The Floor Up is primarily a one man affair with occassional assistance from Clubhouse labelmates Alex and Hannah Elton- Wall (The Redlands Palomino Company) and Joe Bennett (The Dreaming Spires) with McLure describing it as

“a collection of songs recorded without the trappings of a band or orchestra, lightly textured layers with occasional touches of colour here and there; a harmony here, a piano there, a sympathetic slide guitar draped across the shoulders of another.”

It has to be said that the album reflects the description. Standing naked as it were with only his guitar (or in one case a ukulele) to hide behind McLure sits in the tradition of the likes of Loudon Wainwright 111 and says that many of the songs are drawn from personal experience. There’s none of Wainwright’s confessional self flagellation however with McClure sticking to sorry songs of love lost or eulogising the opposite sex as on For You, a lovely and tender song. There’s a frailty and a fatalism to these songs, none more so than on Song 6, inspired by Louis Theroux interviewing a “lifer” in the US penal system as McLure sounds as beaten and defeated as the prisoner. The title song is a dreamlike swoon with lazily picked guitar that recalls Tim Buckley or Fred Neil and halfway through a mournful pedal steel does indeed drape the song adding to the dolorous feel. While McLure solo is beguiling it has to be said that the addition of the other musicians does raise the level of enjoyment when listening to the album. The ukulele strum of Lola-Rose has some mock trumpet while the ramshackle piano and percussion backing to Any Number You Like (As Long As It’s Four) brings to mind a sepia toned pub knees up. The catch of the day here is the excellent Pollyanna which adds banjo, percussion and steel guitar, all somewhat off kilter in a Tom Waits way adding a fine tipsy feel on this excellent tale of a femme fatale who is every “barfly’s dream” who will take you all the way and leave you there.

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