John Hinshelwood. Lowering The Tone.

John Hinshelwood is one of the stalwarts of Glasgow’s (and further afield) Americana scene although rarely does his name appear in lights. Performances, either solo or with his band or with The City Sinners seem to appear in fits and bursts although he does a regular slot at Tchai Ovna in the west end. Over the years he’s championed the memory of Gram Parsons with several tribute shows while his musical collaborators have included Rab Noakes and Gene Parsons while he’s supported Roger McGuinn (that’s three Byrds mentioned so far), Tim O’Brien and Martin Simpson.

Lowering The Tone is only his third album in a decade but as with its predecessors (Holler ‘Til Dawn and Shattered Pleasures) it’s an album informed by American country rock and folk circa the early seventies, reminiscent in turn of the latter day Byrds, Guy Clark, Jackson Browne and Poco (along with a host of others). The end result might not be cutting edge but its joi de vivre is infectious with Hinshelwood obviously enjoying himself while the quality of the band(s) he has assembled (all local including his regular live band, members of The City Sinners and a few other crack players) is at times astonishing with guitar players Tim Black and Iain Barbour both in spectacular form. The album was recorded in Glasgow’s Calton Studios but at times you would swear that this was a bunch of grizzled LA veterans sweating it out in Burbank.

Hinshelwood wrote (or co-wrote) nine of the eleven songs here and all are well above par. The opener Radio Angel starts off like an earnest singer songwriter strumming his wares but pretty soon Malcolm McMaster’s pedal steel swoops in as the song picks up pace. McMaster has a tremendous solo while Tim Black’s acoustic slide snakes away. With some very fine harmony vocals from Kathy Stewart the songs kick-starts the album in swell fashion. A fat backed pedal steel introduces the Western Swing styled I Don’t Want To Hear That and again McMaster delivers a fine solo that humbucks away while Black’s guitar is almost Hawaiian. Laid back and with an infectious groove that recalls Danny Adler’s Roogalator it’s a tremendous slice of music. Look Back In Anger is a story song of star crossed lovers that again features some superlative guitar over sumptuous jangled acoustics and swirling organ. What’s Left (Is what’s Right) is a swampy blues effort while A Few Shallow Moments has a Byrds like intro before Hinshelwood launches into a Gene Clark/Jackson Browne mode with a Beatles middle eight thrown in for good measure. Sometimes less is best and Hinshelwood delivers the excellent Little Rowdy accompanying himself on acoustic with Iain Barbour’s sympathetic lap steel the only colour added allowing his fine voice space to shine. Back to the full band and No Easy Way weighs in like a descendant of Gene Clark’s dense productions on No Other. Ed McGlone’s fretless bass throbs throughout like a lead instrument and reminds one of Joni Mitchell’s jazzier forays. The Cost of Doing Business is a cover of an old Pure Prairie League song and while it coasts along in a fine manner it suffers in comparison to the songs surrounding it. As if to prove this Hinshelwood next delivers one of the album highlights, American Lifestyle. A loose limbed Dobro driven road film synopsis it opens with a couple marrying in Mexico, feeding on hamburgers, French fries and milkshakes on their honeymoon as the rhythm section skiffles away and mandolin sparks against the Dobro. Excellent.

McGlone’s fretless bass reappears for the lengthy A Poet’s Life which is an impressionistic paean to Walt Whitman. Again Joni Mitchell and Gene Clark are recalled as the music curdles around Hinshelwood’s voice and ends with a fine coda. The album ends with a cover of Carole King’s Crying In The Rain with Patsy Seddon and Kathy Stewart adding their voices to Hinshelwood’s offering a version which is as shiveringly good as the Everlys.

Lowering The Tone is an excellent album which along with offerings from other bands such as The New Madrids and The Wynntown Marshals shows that Americana is alive and well in Scotland. There’s a chance to catch John Hinshelwood (and his band) as they are appearing at The Southside Americana Club at The Glad Cafe this Sunday while upcoming City Sinner dates are here.

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The National Jazz Trio Of Scotland. Standards Vol. III

Shurely shome mishtake as Sean Connery might be thinking as he reads this review. Jazz on an Americana blog? Well, anyone familiar with Bill Wells‘ work will know that while he has roots in the jazz scene he is one of the most eclectic artists in Scotland today having worked or recorded with members of Teenage Fanclub, Isobel Campbell, Future Pilot AKA, Jad Fair, Duglas Stewart, Lol Coxhill and Kevin Ayers. His album with Aiden Moffat (Arab Strap), Everything’s Getting Older won the inaugural Scottish Album of The Year in 2012.

Wells’ latest project is the daringly named National Jazz Trio Of Scotland which, for starters, is a quartet featuring three vocalists and Wells himself on samples. the singers are Aby Vulliamy, Kate Sugden and Lorna Gilfedder while the samples played by Wells were originally recorded by Norman Blake of Teenage Fanclub. Wells takes these and via computer has laid down a sparse and airy backdrop for the vocalists. It may be electronic music but he’s managed to retain a warmth, an organic feel which at times recalls the work of Brian Wilson and indeed the one cover song here is The Beach Boys’ With Me Tonight with the remainder of the “standards” written by Wells (with lyrical assistance on two songs).

The result is a very likeable album that will delight anyone who recalls Young Marble Giants while the summer friendly bossa nova feel which permeates several of the songs would seem to make it ideal for chilling on a sunny afternoon. Closer listening however reveals shadows midst the sunshine with heartache and hurt present in many of the lyrics with the closing song, Trying To Escape You, a particularly beguiling concoction of languid vocal harmonies and twinkling keyboard trills that is almost hypnotic leading one to imagine that the Shangri-Las have returned in a post modern musical landscape.

The album launch is this Saturday at The Glad Cafe in Glasgow’s Southside. Should be a great night.

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Dan Amor. Rainhill Trials. Recordiau Cae Gwyn Records

A missive from Wales with Dan Amor’s album, Rainhill Trials which handily coincides with the summer weather we’ve been experiencing as this is the sunniest album we’ve heard in some time. Amor lives in North Wales and despite a press release accompanying the album there’s precious little information to be had regarding him. Suffice to say that he’s compared to Syd Barrett and Paul McCartney much of the time although Blabber’n’Smoke thought that Donovan, Harry Nilsson and early Ben Watt would be closer to the mark. In any case Rainhill Trials is an album packed full of sun dappled songs finger picked gently as multitracked vocals barely break sweat and well mannered keyboards ripple softly. It could all collapse into whimsy but Amor manages to avoid this with an occasional darker undercurrent that threatens to upset the lazy hazy ambience. This is most apparent on the fuzzed up jangle of Dusk Bird, a song that surely was inspired by Sparklehorse while Y Gwynt (Welsh for The Wind) has a dogged VU simplicity in its riff that removes the listener from sunny climes to a more claustrophobic space.

Time here to say that Amor delivers his songs in either English or Welsh with an almost 50/50 split here but overall the non Welsh literate listener should not feel handicapped as the overall experience overcomes any language barrier. In English he sings of a nunnery as if captured in aspic on Sister Anne and relays a seafaring folk song on Landlubber (along with a faux pub sing-along intro) while Springtide is a splendid piano driven paean to nature that comes across as if Neil Innes had spoofed the Beach Boys instead of The Beatles. As for the Welsh sung songs it appears that the nature theme is maintained on Brenhines Y Tonnau (Queen Of The Waves) while Y Ci (The Dog) floats dreamily along although there is a sense of frustration in not knowing what Amor is singing here. There’s an unlisted song at the very end of the album that just about encapsulates all that preceded it as Amor breezes along riding a summer wind.

Overall it’s a perfect summer album and happily enough Amor is offering it as a download on a name your price basis here. So have a listen and decide for yourself.

Loudon Wainwright III. Haven’t Got The Blues (Yet). Proper Records.

26 albums into his career Loudon Wainwright continues to demand attention from anyone with an ear for well crafted and well performed songs that draw from the history of recorded American folk music. Primarily known as a comic writer/performer (thanks to that Dead Skunk) and more recently as the progenitor of a small musical dynasty Wainwright has suffered to an extent from this perception despite the fact that at his best he is one of the finest singer/songwriters in the world today. He’s been on a roll since his Charlie Poole project (High Wide and Handsome) won the best traditional folk album Grammy in 2010 and Haven’t Got The Blues (Yet) maintains his recent quality as Wainwright plays some old time folk, some rock’n’roll and even a touch of klezmer. His tragicomic persona is reflected on the album cover which features Weary Willie (Emmet Kelly), a 1930’s Clown, sunk in a bubble bath, forlorn, with his clown outfit strewn around while the back cover is more mischievous with a photo shopped image of Sigmund Freud as Blind Lemon Jefferson ( a reference to Depression Blues on the album).

Wainwright belts out the opener, Brand New Dance, in full band rockabilly style with horn section included as he bemoans the workaday life. It’s skilfully played but there’s a feeling that he could knock out several such songs each day and while a radio friendly rock song might be useful for radio programmers for this reviewer such fodder has always been Wainwright’s weak spot. The clarinet led klezmer style of Spaced is a better fit as Wainwright rails against New York parking rules but again it’s an easy target and the song lacks a sense of passion. Song three, In A Hurry, therefore is a timely reminder of Wainwright’s excellence as he pares back and delivers a tremendous portrait of a panhandler observing the nine to fivers who race past him. Charged with emotion it harks back to the desolation captured on his debut album and is well worth the cost of admission alone. From here on in Wainwright does no wrong as he balances his humour, pathos and wicked observation in a variety of styles. The wit of The Morgue , Man & Dog and I’ll Be Killing You this Christmas is well balanced with the music complementing the lyrics while Harlan County is a bona fide old time country facsimile that laments the lack of premises to buy booze in a dry county.

Another bellwether mark of a Wainwright album is the family confessional song with past offerings at times stark and somewhat unsettling. Here he offers the upbeat and tender I Knew Your Mother (with backup vocals from daughter Martha) on a gingerly deft tribute to the late Kate McGarrigle that points directly to the fruit of their loins. On the other side of the coin Wainwright delivers a dense folk rock song (which recalls Richard Thompson’s work) on Looking At The Calendar where he muses on holidays and the least hurtful time for a couple to separate before plumping for April Fool’s Day (we did mention sardonic earlier on I think).

Overall on a LWIII scale this one rates 8/10. If you like Loudon you’ll love this. If not, then why not?

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Roots Roundup: The Warren G Hardings, The Railsplitters, Bradford Lee Folk.

The quality and variety of string band music that arrives at Blabber’n’Smoke varies greatly. In addition it seems everyone in the world (and their brother) has picked up an instrument and released an album and the pending pile here has steadily grown. So to clear the decks an intensive listening session was in order (with appropriate fuel, thanks here to Innis and Gunn) resulting in the following cherry picked recommendations.

The Warren G. Hardings. Get A Life.


Named after the 29th POTUS the Hardings, from Seattle, are very un presidential with their frantic picking and scrubbing on the majority of the songs here. Hi energy bluegrass is the name of the game here with the band touted as similar to Trampled By Turtles although they come across as much warmer and, for want of a better word, authentic, without the jam band tendencies of the Turtles. While they’re able to lay back and deliver the excellent honeysuckled bliss of Anonymous Waltz and The Devil’s In The Roots begins as a gentle tip toed ballad before picking up steam the pell mell attack of the opening numbers, Treehouse and High & Low take the breath away. The playing is top notch with the classic interplay of guitar, mandolin, fiddle and banjo thrilling at times over a solid string bass thump. With a mischievousness apparent in Post Suburban Recession Era Blues (a slacker bluegrass anthem!) they’re at their best on the jitterbug syncopation of What Can I Say?

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The Railsplitters

Hailing from Colorado the four piece Railsplitters initially appear more traditional than the Hardings. Two guys and two gals, they have the rippling mandolin, banjo and piercing fiddle down to a T and add some very sweet pedal steel on several of the songs. The opening song, Jackson Town, hillbillies into view with Lauren Stovall’s vocals well grounded as she praises her hometown while the band slap and pick excellently. Boarding Pass (that’s the way it is) lopes along in a very pleasant fashion with the pedal steel reinforcing the country feel but the following song, My World is nothing less than astonishing. A polished (to a sheen) country pop song that has a driving rhythm with some very fine mandolin playing throughout it’s elevated by an astonishing vocal performance from Stovall while there’s a powerful hook in the chorus almost demanding that the song should be blaring from the radio this summer. Elsewhere they capture a Carter Family wildflower sound on Where You Are while Family Waltz tears at the heartstrings in the best way. There’s a brace of instrumentals on the album allowing the band to show off their chops with Longs Peak a gentrified instrumental that recalls the work of The Nitty Gritty Dirt band on their album Symphonium Dream.

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Bradford Lee Folk and the Bluegrass Playboys. Somewhere Far Away.

Louisiana born, Missouri raised and now resident in Nashville Bradford Lee Folk comes straight out of the traps with a quintessential bluegrass song, Foolish Game of Love, on his album Somewhere Far Away. He really does have a “high lonesome sound” in his voice and the playing here is excellent with the fiddle in particular hauling all sorts of historical baggage as it flails away. If the remainder of the album was similar then it would be well worth listening to but Folk turns out to have the gift of writing what could well be called pop songs played within the bluegrass idiom and on several occasions he reminded me of the early John Hartford, writer of Gentle On My Mind. Folk’s light tenor voice floats over some very fine playing creating an oasis of calm on the wonderful Somewhere Far Away while The Piper swarms with a woody warmth that recalls Michael Hurley. Soil and Clay ends the album on a sombre note as Folk delves into mortality on an impressionistic ballad that is baroque in its twists and turns, almost at times like early Tim Buckley. A great album that deserves to be heard and the pick of the bunch here.

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Floyd Domino and Maryann Price. Upfront. New Tex Records

Floyd Domino and Maryann Price are both veterans of the Western Swing revival of the seventies, Domino most memorably as a member of Asleep At the Wheel while Price was the voice on several of Dan Hicks and The Hot Licks’ finest recordings. Both have extensive CVs beyond these achievements with Price being an integral part of the Kinks’ 1974 line up and also spending time with (those guys again) Asleep at The Wheel, Domino playing and recording with Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, George Strait and Waylon Jennings. So far so pedigree.

Upfront finds them in the company of Gary Bristol on bass and Michael Holleman, drums along with Kenny Kosek (ex Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band) on fiddle as they delve into the jazzier roots of their respective careers on a selection of covers and self penned originals that run the gamut from Annie Ross vocalese to Gypsy swing and some sumptuous late night jazz sophistication. Price’s voice has moved on from her Hot Licks days, a little lower, more experienced but with a fine sense of mischievousness lurking within while Domino’s piano shines like Oscar Peterson’s or even the Duke himself at times. Allied to some very fine fiddle from Kosek and the solid rhythm section the set is as tight as the proverbial duck’s A while retaining the essential element of swing with all of the numbers at the very least toe tapping or (on the slower numbers) causing the listener to cast about for a dance partner.

Aside from the performances the song selection is something of a triumph. No dog eared covers here that have been trampled to death in the past. Dan Hicks has two numbers featured, Cowboy’s Dream #19 and O’Reilly At The Bar both of which recall the Hot Licks’ hip reinterpretation of swing music with the latter’s bar fight shenanigans wonderfully portrayed. Henry Hipken’s Who Knows What Tomorrow Might Bring swings mightily with Chico Marx piano (only better played) and vibrant gypsy fiddle opening a world of romance and danger. Another Hipkens cover, I Must Be Doing Something Right has Price playfully adopting a naive innocence delivered with a Mae West tongue in cheek as the band lay down a fantastic backdrop, cheeky and elegant. On The Last Day Of Pompeii (by Michael Peter Smith) is another number that recalls the vapid elegance of the pre war jet set, fiddling while Rome burns ( to mix a metaphor) as Price relates all the things she could have done had she known the top was about to blow. Is All Of this For Me is a velvet curtain of a song, dinky, late night, almost orchestrated as the fiddle hovers over an excellent piano solo and a Noel Coward like stiff upper lip romance.

Price maintains the quality with Everybody’s Talking About The Same Thing a witty and coquettish inquiry into love while The Apology (co-written with Domino) allows her voice to slip and slide within an update of Julie London’s Cry Me A River. They close the album with the excellent The Damndest Finest Ruins, written by Domino that pulls in Steely Dan and Charlie Mingus with the vocals adorning the jazz chops of the band with Holleman sparkling on cymbals while Domino plays his best.

It maybe odd to find what amounts to a jazz album coming from Texas but these guys have the chops and the end result encapsulates music from New York to San Francisco with a detour south in between. Some time spent looking at the New Tex website shows that they have several other tasty offerings with Domino featuring on piano on The Great Recession Orchestra’s album, Double Shot, a tribute to the Mississippi Sheiks and 1940’s Texas swing while there’s a tribute to Milton Brown featuring many of the same players. Hear over here to check them out.

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Ernest Troost. O Love. Travellin’ Shoes Records

Blabber’n’Smoke last encountered LA based Ernest Troost when we reviewed his fine Live At McCabe’s album two years ago. An Emmy award winning film and TV composer Troost is also a natural talent when it comes to folk blues guitar picking and singing with all three of his previous albums recommended. O Love maintains the standard and adds a tougher edge on occasion as Troost ventures into rockier ground with a couple of the songs featuring him on electric slide guitar (which he plays quite wickedly) along with a rhythm section. The first of these, the opening Old Screen Door, fairly rips along sounding not a million miles removed from the rockabilly noir of Jace Everett as Troost paints a grisly family crime scene where “The snakes were hissin’ in the hedges/ the rats whispered ‘neath the floor/ and the moon was just watchin’/ through the old screen door.” With its scatter gun guitar breaks it’s pretty thrilling stuff. Weary Traveller is another band effort, this time a tumbleweed strewn southern romp with lap steel guitar snaking throughout while the title song seesaws along with nimble finger picking pitching in between a highway rush of wailing guitar which recalls the likes of Twilight Hotel.

For the remainder of the album we’re in more familiar territory, particularly if you have a copy of the Live at McCabe’s album as there are no fewer than six songs here that Troost initially unveiled back then (odd as usually it’s the other way around with live versions following the studio effort). However here the songs are retooled, some more than others with Bitter Wind getting an added bass drum kick and Storm Coming revamped as a bluesy growl while O Love gets the makeover mentioned above. Aided and abetted by several of the players who appeared on the live album, in particular Nicole Gordon who sings harmony on the majority of the songs here along with Mark Goldberg on bass and Debra Dokin on drums along with a crack crew of LA music veterans Troost delivers some excellent songs.

Close is a classic country rock love song with rippling guitars, jaunty mandolin and classic harmony sounds that sends sunshine vibes through the speakers while Harlan County Boys is more dappled with an Appalachian air and an antiquarian feel as Troost recalls the perils of mining and union struggles. The Last To Leave is as good a country waltz as we’ve heard for some time and comes with the appropriate sense of lost love and hurt. Troost hits the mark time and time again revisiting the sunshine vibe with I’ll Be Home Soon and twanging his guitar on the spiritual lament of All I Ever Wanted.

Troost says that the songs on O Love are “a collection of love songs, viewing love from different angles.” Strange angles indeed when death and loss sit side by side with the joy of a song like Close. However love is expressed in different ways at different times and Troost has captured its highs and lows perfectly here on an album that sees him very much in form.

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