Fresh from their highly praised appearance at The Americana Music Festival in Nashville in September Al Lewis and Alva Leigh are set to appear at Glasgow Americana in October with Hidden Truths, their third EP, due for release on October 16th. Since the pair, Alva from Mississippi, Al from Wales, teamed up in London around two years ago they’ve gathered a fair amount of noise, supporting John Fullbright, gaining the attention of Ryan Adams and becoming a staple on those radio shows which still have some form of quality control. Their previous EPs, Missing Years and Night Drives, the first a fresh faced quartet of songs swerving between pedal steel flavoured country and introspective acoustic numbers, the latter a darker affair with the duo recalling Twilight Hotel especially on the spectacular The Devil’s In The Detail, gave notice of their talent and number three is no different.
Hidden Truths continues the noirish trail blazed on Night Drives and beefs it up with some fine horn arrangements which add some swing to the songs which at times are like mini movies packed with drama and emotion. The first song, Heart Don’t Want, opens with a pleading Leigh sounding vulnerable over a naked guitar strum. Lewis then wades in with a defiant sneer, his voice adding a sense of urgency. A dramatic horn section adds a cinematic lift with the pair sounding like a musical version of Charlie Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate. The quite amazing Only Fifteen is truly a mini opera squeezing into 4 minutes what Pete Townshend took two whole discs to convey. A clattering rockabilly rush sets the scene as Lewis describes being abandoned as an infant. At fifteen he finds he is adopted and sets out to find his birth mother who, once tracked down pleads her age, also fifteen as reason to abandon him. Her plea, backed by some fine plaintive horns seesaws with his guitar fuelled rage until they achieve a rapprochement. It’s a wonderful performance recalling Loretta Lynn’s work with Jack White.
Please Darlin’ is a down home slice of country pie larded with swollen horns and a loose electric guitar thrum as Lewis and Leigh play star crossed lovers who continually interrupt their daily chores in order to dance to their favourite record. There’s an infectious gaiety about it and halfway through listening to it a thought popped into my head that if Delaney and Bonnie had a TV sitcom way back then this could have been the theme song with backing by The Band. A silly thought sure, but it fits.
On each of their two previous EPs the duo have ended with a cover song (Wilco and Coldplay if you ask) and here they close with Elton John’s Country Comfort (from 1970’s Tumbleweed Connection). They take this lament for a rose coloured past and replace John’s mannered voice with their own excellent harmonies recalling classic Parsons and Harris and capturing the sense of nostalgia and loss in the lyrics perfectly.
Only four songs but each one is excellent and apparently Lewis and Leigh are promising an album in the New Year. In the meantime they are touring the UK with four Scottish dates included (Aberdeen, Inverness, Glasgow and Edinburgh), the Glasgow Americana show is on Saturday 10th October at The Glad Cafe. Other dates here
Ex member of The Frames and winner of an Oscar (Best Original Song, 2007 for Falling Slowly from the film Once) Glen Hansard is perhaps second only to Van Morrison in the recognition stakes when folk talk about current Irish singers (Bono excluded). He’s carved a reputation as a soul searching sensitive chap especially after allowing the breakup of his relationship with Marketa Irglova (his co Oscar winner and partner) to be pored over in the documentary The Swell Season. Didn’t He Ramble is his second solo release and there’s plenty of wistful pensiveness on it especially when his Irishness is on display (several of the songs have a decidedly Hibernian bent) however there’s also a brashness present with a horn section and booming beat featured here and there.
Unfortunately, the mixture of the two makes for an uneven listen. The jangled Lowly Deserter is smothered under parping horns. Her Mercy opens tenderly, almost prayer like, with hushed guitar and sensitive keyboards adding to the sanctified mood. Halfway through a choir and horn section confirm this but the song then looses any subtlety as the horns elbow their way into front space. The horns are used more successively on Just To Be The One; muted, with flute and string embroidery here they fit Hansard’s melodic delivery like a glove.
No such concerns with the remainder of the songs with the opening, Grace Beneath the Pines is an atmospheric emerald piece with Hansard emoting in a poetic bent as he alludes to Frost (grace upon this road less travelled) and Yeats (There’ll be no more running round for me/no more going down you will see) over a sombre string backing. The song recalls fellow Celt Jackie Leven as it builds in intensity. Wedding Ring is a stumblebum folky song with an easygoing beat and Paying My Way grumbles along in a low-key Springsteen fashion. McCormack’s Wall is the most evidently Irish song with Hansard’s voice accented as he hymns some of his homeland’s delights before ending the song with a fiddle led jig. Stay The Road sees Hansard and his guitar closing the album and is evidence that he is at heart a troubadour, his words expertly crafted and carried expertly aloft by his nimble fingers. A simple song but an excellent ending. There’s simplicity evident also on the song Winning Streak, a winning folk rock number that is immediately hummable and memorable. The concern here is that it’s because the song has a close resemblance to Dylan’s Forever Young along with a dollop of John Prine. Having said that it’s a fine listen.
Way back in 1971 Kris Kristofferson wrote a song, The Pilgrim; Chapter 33 , the lyrics of which could be applied to a man who was to come to folk’s attention some 35 years after the song was written. He’s a poet and he’s a picker/He’s a pilgrim and a preacher/ and a problem when he’s stoned/He’s a walkin’ contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction/Takin’ every wrong direction on his lonely way back home.
If nothing else John Murry is a poet and a picker and he’s documented his drug habit in some harrowing songs. As for the rest; well he has confessed to making up some absurd tales for his pal Chuck Prophet’s newsletter and at times he does seem to be a bit of a lost soul casting around for some stability. The latest chapter in his life sees him living for the time being in County Kilkenny, Ireland and setting out this week on a tour of UK dates accompanied by Grum Gallagher, guitarist with Kilkenny rock band, Duende Dogs. John was kind enough to take some time out to speak to Blabber’n’Smoke about his latest adventures.
I believe that you’re living in Ireland for the time being. How did that come about?
Well, Willie Meighan (promoter and record shop mogul in Kilkenny) set up six or seven dates here for me back in March and back home well, I’m getting divorced. I guess things just became so contentious I felt the best thing to do was just to stay away for a while. I don’t know if I intended to stay here but communications were going wrong, getting mixed up. There were recordings I had made in Australia and Oakland and here and even if I could have salvaged them and put them together I don’t think it would have made any difference because the feelings about them were just too claustrophobic and I didn’t think that anyone cared about getting them finished.
So, in terms of your recordings does that mean that you’ve scrapped them and are having to start over again?
Yes but I’m OK with that. Well, no I’m not. I’m not OK with how difficult it is to have to do that and I’m pretty frustrated with how the whole thing has played out. It’s all a bit confusing for me. The way support from labels and management was supposed to be, I thought I could finish the record but when I met with the people it became clear that there had been kind of, bad blood happening. I mean if I could do anything else I swear to Christ I would, anything other than make up songs and play them. I had no idea it would become as difficult as it’s become.
You’ve been living in Kilkenny then since March. How have you been finding that?
It’s an amazing place, I mean it’s smaller than Tupelo Mississippi where I grew up and there’s so much going on all the time. People have been so supportive and it’s amazing that even with the way the Irish economy, the whole European economy, being the way it is that they put on things and people go to shows. They really do support the arts here, it’s really phenomenal. From 2007 when Bob Frank and myself first came here, there’s something about the place that does feel like home. It wasn’t a bad place to land up in.
You’ve been playing quite a few shows in Ireland, how has that been?
It’s been good, I’ve met Grum Gallagher whose been playing with me and who’s going to be doing the tour with me. It’s given me time to find people around here that I really like playing with and who do it for the same reasons I do, especially Grum. So it’s a bit like getting to start over again and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s given me a chance to go through the songs and hear for myself which ones actually stand up on their own as songs as opposed to what I was doing, getting locked into creating something and then continuing to work on it without thinking about what it would sound like if I was just playing it on my own or with just one other musician. That’s really what I wanted to do, effectively write things I could play alone or with one person and that would be enough. So that’s weeded out some songs. It actually feels a bit like when I was younger when I used to play a residency at the Hi-Tone in Memphis. You see, things like record labels, well, I don’t think they really matter. You have to think to yourself, what am I actually getting from this relationship and what are they getting? I think there’s a kind of desperation in the industry right now to define itself and when that kind of desperation kicks in it shapes what people are willing to do, there’s a lot of games that actually get in the way of getting anything done. I think I’m blessed to have made the record with Tim (The Graceless Age), it’s let me play dates in the UK and eleswhere in the world, OK it may not be with an agency but I can still do it. Ultimately it’s not agents and managers I need, it’s the people they hate that I need. Every middle man that comes between an audience and the music is effectively nothing more than a distributer and the way that people listen to music these days has changed things. So there’s a desperation in the industry to maintain a place that they’re not able to control anymore. I mean if you’re born cursed to make music then you’re going to do it and if people are damned enough to have to go to shows then they’re going to go. It’s always been that way. Booking agencies and record labels be damned.
That’s a terrible curse, being damned to listen to good music.
Yes, it’s a horrifying curse, especially if it rains and you’re outdoors in Scotland. Why do they have outdoor things in Scotland? I mean Ireland’s that way too but they just throw up a lot of tents, and the Norwegians, they just pass out in the mud and then they come to and they realise there’s more music and they go for it again until they pass out again.
Talking about new songs, you released a video of one called The Wrong Man, just you and your guitar. Is that the direction you’re heading in?
Yeah, that’s one I wrote that stands up as a song that can be played with very little accoutrements, it works in that way. The others I’ll be playing on this tour are all in that vein. I mean people keep saying shit about Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska but I don’t know if I necessarily hear it that way, I can hear the anger and frustration in it and maybe that’s what people are comparing but I think it’s just a soul song in half time.
To me Springsteen is more blue collar, workmanlike
Well right now I’m kind of trapped in influences from way back, from when I moved to Memphis and had access to all that Stax stuff, Carla and Rufus Thomas, Otis Redding, Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham; I fell in love with that stuff. And that’s what I’m trying to do and it seems to come naturally to me and that’s what disturbs me. I mean that song came so quickly and easily that I thought, oh, this can’t be good because I didn’t have to try very hard.
Maybe that’s what we call talent
Well, we’re all talented I guess in some ways but it’s the only one I’ve got that’s stuck in my craw since I was a little kid. It’s the thing I can’t get away from because I love it too much and if that’s the case then that’s what I’m going to do. A lot of what I did before was experimentation, playing around with a lot of ideas to then create a song or to layer things into a song. I’m really curious about sonics but I’m equally curious about songs and about pushing myself as a person who writes them. I don’t like that word songwriter though. Did you know that’s the number one claimed occupation on tax returns in the United States?
No I didn’t, maybe songwriters are the only folk who pay their taxes over there! Anyway, you’ll have Grum Gallagher with you on the tour.
Yes, I’m coming over with Grum, he’s playing guitar and keys and he’s just brilliant. When we first met we became friends really quickly but I had no idea that we would sort of, get each other the way we did. We played a handful of shows together at Carroll’s Bar in Thomastown, a great place, John Martyn used to play there a bunch. They revamped the place and we opened it up and it was a great honour for me that they let me do that. Anyway, when we played the shows it just kind of felt like I had found a Warren Ellis, someone completely on the same wavelength. There’s very little we need to talk about, it’s something that we both hear and get and don’t really have the language to discuss it. It’s really been a blessing as it’s the kind of thing I’ve lacked in my life and musically for a long time, someone who isn’t outside the music being created but an integral part of it, in the middle of the battle. We’re touring at the end of September and then we’re back in November and there are still dates being added. I’m going to be seeing places in Scotland I’ve never seen before as I’ve only played Glasgow and Edinburgh in the past so I’m really excited to be able to see the islands and things like that. We’re going to, how do you say it, Stornoway?
Make sure you take your winter woollies, it’ll be cold
Yeah, I really need to get a good jacket, I didn’t think this through. I did intend to go back to the US but then it just occurred to me that the safest thing to do was to stay here. I don’t know if I was right or I was wrong but I’m here for better or worse. I need something rainproof.
You can catch John and Grum at the dates below and apparently there will be a limited edition live album of John’s show at the 2013 SXSC Festival available at the shows. The disc will also be available for a limited time via The Swiss Cottage Sessions, contact them via Facebook for details John has also been working on a new EP in Ireland.
25th – St Mary’s Church, Guildford
26th – Private show, Winchester
27th – Upstart Crow Festival, – London
28th – The Prince Albert, Brighton
3rd – The Fox and Newt, Leeds
4th – The Cluny, Newcastle
5th – Admiral Bar, Glasgow
7th -The Ceilidh Palace Ullapool
Thanks to Garrett Kehoe for his assistance in setting up the interview
Two years ago Blabber’n’Smoke reviewed the debut album, Wreckin’ Yard, from Dunfermline’s Stevie Agnew and was well impressed by it. On the album Agnew had crafted some particularly fine songs that were in the vein of master story tellers and Americana icons such as Steve Earle and he delivered them with a heady mix of acoustic instruments and the odd rocker. Well, the good news is Bad Blood & Whiskey is if anything even better with Agnew in great voice, sounding grizzled and worn (and wise) while the music has retained the country/folk acoustic leanings with a definite dash of Celtic melodies thrown into the pot. Shades of Shane MacGowan loom here and there while the spiky haired spectre of Rod Stewart can be imagined smirking in the corner.
As on Wreckin’ Yard the songs are composed by Agnew and drummer Chris Smith (who produced the album and plays several instruments here). Of the 13 numbers there are several that are simply breathtaking, digging deep into woe and misery, drink and lost love with the occasional ray of light, the lyrics and melodies are striking. In addition the playing from the Hurricane Road band (assisted by several guests including Agnew’s father, Pete of Nazareth fame on bass at one point) is strong, able to accommodate blues, folk and rock with ease. Although are a couple of occasions when Agnew and his cohorts slip into an overused format, the slinky blues of The Fall Of Man and the mannered country rock of Moonshine for example, overall the album is striking.
The MacGowan influence is best heard on the wonderful Take Me Home With You, a duet with Ali Bell in the manner of McGowan and McColl that has a fine lilt to it with Uilleann pipes adding to the comparison. The pair sound great together although one gets the impression that Bell’s character has been imagined by the narrator who is seeking succour from any girl while in his sozzled state. You can’t beat lyrics like this…
“You’re well put together and fit for your age/It looks like you’ve been around the block/don’t put me on hold leave me out in the cold it’s nearly eleven o’clock/I’ve been wandering around this mouldy old town and the band’s playing Lefty Frizzell.”
It’s a song that given the right breaks could easily become a radio regular.
Agnew is excellent on several tear stained laments here, the opening Don’t Know How To Leave Her is the equal of any Don Henley ballad and In The Shadows is a pedal steel soaked slow waltz with lyrics that are imbued with the spirit of Hank Williams. There’s some sweet Caledonia soul on the quietly majestic Whiskey with harmonies from Elaine Shorthouse and Beth Malcolm cosseting Agnew’s strained vocals while Venal Street bridges the gap between Tom Waits and Michael Marra and is one of the highlights here. There’s some gaiety on Eyes Like Audrey Tautou which trots along with a Celtic air similar to Steve Earle’s Galway Girl while Earle again is recalled on the brisk I Will Find You, another song girdled by fiddle, country guitar licks and pedal steel. There’s more Celtic folk on the tale of an old roue on the prowl on Ghosts Of Yesteryear with the lyrics here especially fine. The badge for best song here however goes to the spectral Bad Blood with Agnew’s hoarse voice sounding as if he and Tom Russell were raised together.
Despite the plethora of influences mentioned above Bad Blood & Whiskey isn’t a hotchpotch imitation of various artists. Agnew stamps his authority on the songs and listen by listen there are more gems to discover and relish, be it the words or the playing. An excellent album indeed and it would be somewhat amiss not to mention the album artwork which is quite striking featuring Agnew slumped in a bar vividly captured by Edinburgh photographer Marc Marnie. It just about sums up the album (with a nod to Tom Waits).
Over the past few years it seemed that Los Lobos were marking time, their only releases being live affairs, one “unplugged” (Disconnected In New York) and a live rendition of their album Kiko. Both albums were in fact pretty good but fans yearning for the follow up to Tin Can Trust have had a five year wait for Gates Of Gold with the previews of the title song setting parts of the blogosphere on fire. The song, a mandolin driven mid tempo lurch was favourably compared to vintage Levon Helm, it’s theme of wonderment regarding an afterlife assessed as an acknowledgement of the band’s increasing years. It’s a fine song although a little too short for our liking, fizzling out just when we felt it should start to burn. As an introduction to the album it also sells itself short as around it Los Lobos deliver their usual heady mix of rock and blues and Mexican styles with several of the songs boasting an impressive sense of daring do pulling in jazz and psychedelic flurries and proving that they are still essential listening.
Made To Break Your Heart opens the album with a flourish. A bustling beat and jagged guitar underpins the vocals before shifting into a jackhammer riff and glorious guitar solo. When We Were Free utilises the studio to full effect with the guitars treated and distorted over a tremendous burbling bass and vibrant percussion. With Steve Berlin’s sax freewheeling along with jazz influenced guitar runs the song runs the gamut from prime time Joni Mitchell to Weather Report and there’s more sonic burps on There I Go, a song that sounds like Dr. John beaming in from outer space. It’s back to earth with a tremendous bump on the gutbucket rock and blues drive of Mis-Treater Boogie Blues, a veritable treat for the ears. There’s more boogie on Too Small Heart while I Believed In You goes back to basic 12 bar blues with barbed wire slide guitar and scuzzy rhythm giving it an all too authentic touch, you can well imagine the band, broke down but not busted hammering this out in a low-lit dive.
One gets the impression that Los Lobos at heart are still a bar band and could throw out songs like I Believed In You at the drop of a hat and do them better than most bands around. However writers David Hidalgo, Louis Perez and Cesar Rosas are also capable of tender ruminations alongside their perennial returns to their Latin roots. Poquito Para Aqui swings with a Columbian Cambian sway with the guitars reminiscent of Ry Cooder’s ventures into Cuban music while La Tumba Sera El Final is a cover of a Mexican song about following a lover to the tomb. As adept as ever at translating Latin themes into rock’n’roll they offer the excellent Magdalena, a rolling and rocky blues number with tumbling guitar and a wonderful juggernaut thrust halfway as they sing of Mary Magdalene. Finally, Song Of The Sun is a creation myth that opens with acoustic guitar strums leading one to expect a folk rock song in the LA Topanga canyon style. Instead the band invest it with a powerful driving rhythm that recalls English rockers such as Richard Thompson and again the only fault here is that the song is all too short.
Overall Gates of Gold is on a par with Tin Can Trust and one can imagine that if they were to concentrate on the concentrated excellence of songs such as Song Of The Sun and Gates Of Gold Los Lobos could come up with an Americana classic.
2015 is shaping up to be a bumper year with numerous releases mentioned previously on Blabber’n’Smoke (have a look around, I’m not going to recite them again) looking to settle into the “classic” album status once the dust has settled. Well, here’s another one, a superb collection of soulful country cuts from North Carolina via Nashville musician Sam Lewis. Waiting On You is Lewis’ second album and is the latest chapter in what could be considered a dream come true for this young musician. Apparently he’s yet another of those discovered at an open mic night good luck stories with Nashville producer Matt Urmey spotting his potential a few years back and hooking him up for his first release. Talent will out and if the quality of the backing musicians here is any gauge then Lewis has it in spades.
The album is excellent from start to finish. Lewis flows from country to folk to Southern soul with ease, his voice is a warm honeyed balm, at times recalling the ease of Charley Pride then heading into Dylan Nashville Skyline crooning mode. He gathers up antecedents such as Van Morrison, The Band and Dan Penn with Spooner Oldham and pours them into the songs. His regular band, JT Cure on bass and Derek Mixon, drums are joined by luminaries Darrell Scott, Mickey Raphael, Will Kimbrough and The McCrary Sisters although these are merely the icing on the cake – Lewis and his songs are the stars here.
There are 12 songs and each one is special. There’s the country element, sad and forlorn on Texas which is adorned by Raphael’s signature harmonica sound, down home country blues on Little Time with Kristina Train on backing vocals and dusty honky tonk on I’m Coming Home. 3/4 Time is a jaunty quickstep that funnels Sturgill Simpson into Van Morrison Tupelo Honey territory with some Sun Records action thrown in. Hard to believe perhaps but when the cork was popped on the song these were the aromas that wafted out. Time here to mention the production (by Lewis and Oliver Wood) as the drums and bass are so crisp and there’s a fine snap to the backing vocals, overall the album just sounds great, warm and comfortable.
Lewis dips his toes into soul waters with Waiting On You which actually recalls James Taylor initially before Gabe Dixon’s Wurlitzer piano wades in and The McCrary Sisters envelop the song in a Gospel veil. The McCrary’s feature again on the sublime country soul of Love Me Again which flows wonderfully with a similarity to Dylan’s Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You and on the slow burn of Talk To Me while She’s A Friend drives straight to the heart of Muscle Shoals territory with some Stax thrown in for good measure. There’s some bare boned folk blues on Virginia Avenue which has Lewis backed by the nifty resonator guitar picking of Welsh wizard Martin Harley and to top it all there’s a roustabout rock’n’roll jaunt on Things Will Never Be The Same with Garth Hudson rinky dink organ swirlings from Dixon and killer guitar from producer Wood.
A great album, perfect from start to finish and obviously well recommended. Good news is that Lewis is touring the UK in October including a date for Glasgow Americana Festival. Dates are here.
Case Hardin’s last album PM was a spare affair, its stripped back songs gathering comparisons to Willie Vlautin’s bare boned American tales. For Colours Simple the band have limbered up, taken a Charles Atlas rock’n’roll class and now show off their musical muscle. Singer and main writer Pete Gow continues to recount his tales of life’s casualties with a keen journalist’s eye but there’s a heft to the songs and in particular the sinewy guitar work of Jim Maving sparkles throughout. The four piece band (Gow, Maving, Tim Emery, bass and Andy Bastow, drums) are augmented by the keyboard playing of Mike Wesson while a horn section (composed of Robin & Joe Bennett of Dreaming Spires and Free Jazz Geoff Widdowson of Danny And The Champions Of The World) features on one song.
They nail their colours to the mast with the opening eight minutes and twenty seconds of Poets Corner, a song that is epic in its sweep in a manner reminiscent of Springsteen but without his swagger. A booming bass drum tolls as the song begins before organ and guitar creep in and Gow paints a claustrophobic picture of a hot and sticky urban scene. Halfway through the song Maving launches into a spiralling guitar assault as the song ascends a crescendo before eventually winding down and ending with that same tolling drum. A spectacular and intense song it leaves the listener somewhat winded, for the remainder of the album however (other than two songs) they continue to rock and definitely roll with less intensity and, dare we say, a sense of fun. Fiction Writer and High Rollers hark back to the spare sound of FM, the latter especially given the presence of Hana Piranha’s violin. Fiction Writer is a melancholic meditation on loneliness with Gow sounding world weary while High Rollers is a classic story telling song in the Townes Van Zandt/Guy Clark tradition. Bravely Gow sings here from the point of view of a female casino worker who does more than deal decks, describing the grimness behind the glitz and supposed glamour.
Elsewhere it’s all shoulders to the wheel as the band romp into the rockier numbers. These Three Cities has Gow telling of an encounter with a prostitute over a rolling bluesy and blowsy melody reminiscent of Del Amitri. Roll Damnation Roll sees Maving on acoustic slide guitar on a short introduction before the song kicks in much in the manner of an old Rod Stewart number. The song itself follows suit with its acoustic swing recalling Ronnie Lane’s sashaying strut as mandolin and honky tonk piano trill and roll. Cheap Streaks From A Bottle is a streetwise rocker with the brass section injecting the bustle of city living and again one is reminded of Rod Stewart, this time in his guise as one of the lads in the Faces, a sense repeated on the rollicking The Streets where The Bars Are with Wesson’s fingers flying across the keys and Maving sliding away. The inevitable hangover is memorably described on (Jesus Christ Tomorrow Morning) Do I Still have To Feel This Way? which bumps and grinds with a fury, guitars snarling over organ swirls and a tight backbeat. The album ends with the mandolin and acoustic guitar driven Another Toytown Morning with Gow coming on like a modern day Phil Ochs, full of fire and fury.
Colours Simple is the album which should elevate Pete Gow to the upper echelons of UK songwriters while he and the band are to be congratulated for carrying on the baton from the likes of Ronnie Lane carving out a rootsy rock and folk route that is not slavishly American.
Tom Brosseau has been quietly picking up plaudits for his latest album Perfect Abandon which he recorded in Bristol with producer John Parrish. Raised in North Dakota Brosseau has been tagged as a folk singer by most reviewers and there’s always been a hint of the unorthodox about him with some of the songs on his last album Grass Punks recalling the likes of Ed Askew, a cult folkie from the sixties (who incidentally shares a record label, Tin Angel, with Brosseau).
Blabber’n’Smoke reviewed Perfect Abandon here and on hearing that Brosseau is undertaking a short tour of the UK (including a date in Glasgow) we managed to have a short conversation with him.
Hi there. Can we start by asking about Perfect Abandon. The album seems to be a bit of a departure from what I know of your previous style which was I think almost a sixties folk feel. You recorded it in Bristol with John Parrish. How did that come about?
The idea for the sound of Perfect Abandon really came about while I was on tour in the UK in 2014 with a band of superb musicians supporting Grass Punks. I have only been the head of a touring band a few times. It’s a thrill. The experience reminded me how much fun, and rewarding, performing with others can be. Though my manager Mary Jones is with me always and I could never imagine being able to get through my career without her, I now had others to share with me the pressures and all the joys of the touring life and performing. Joe Carvell on double bass, Ben Reynolds on Stratocaster and young David Butler on two-piece drum kit.
Were there any particular artists that influenced the sound of the album?
Particular artists, no, but sound, yes. I wanted to make the kind of record I like listening to. Modest recordings, recordings that were always gonna be what they were gonna be. Nothing more. The Bristol Sessions. Sun Records. I grew up playing songs in my bedroom, writing songs in private. It was my own way to escape. I used a Dictaphone to record. Cassette tape recording was always good enough for me- I never needed anything more. Studio production can get to a point where it starts to eat away intimacy. I want my recordings to retain the sense that it is what it is and whatever it is hopeful it is real, genuine.
There’s a sparseness to the album that allows you and your lyrics to stand out. How much of the album is about you trying to find your way in the world?
Respectfully, I’m likely the wrong person to answer this question. Wrong person or at least not the best person. The album material always moves on past me and becomes out of my hands. Personally, what I do know is that I am trying to find my way in the world constantly. I may be a worker but I am also a wonderer. So many avenues I pursue, so many lives it seems I then spend. My stances are traded like a see-saw. I used to think I knew everything. Now I don’t. I used to have confidence. Now I fight to let it out. This one might not be as obvious- I used to want to hold onto my youth. Now I just feel like a kid. Maybe the reality is we are ever changing and at the same time don’t change at all. Some of us go through life pretty even-keeled about it. Some of us go insane. Some of us are simply aware that it’s happening.
Being lost or abandoned seems to be a theme throughout. The opening song, Hard Luck Boy is a narrative that sounds as if it could have been delivered by someone like David Sedaris. Did you deliberately try to make this song different in its delivery from the remainder of the album?
When I wrote Hard Luck Boy I just set down at the kitchen table. No expectations. No pressures. Just see what happens. When I finished there was very little to edit. Landlord Jackie was the same way. I was at a hotel on the outskirts of Nashville, Tennessee. It was a misty-muggy sunny day. I stayed in. The room was dark and dry and cold. I remember ironing my shirt and slacks. Next to the ironing board was a table, a few sheets of complimentary stationary and a pencil. I was overcome with the need to do some longhand cursive in that environment. John Parish and Ali Chant were in the control room. We did two takes of Hard Luck Boy. The version on the album is take one. I remember thinking to myself, “Don’t worry. Just finish this first take and do another one” because I felt that I wasn’t yet ready. Aside from the fact the song is in the talking format, which makes it stand out from all the other songs on the album, perhaps what you are sensing when you say different in its delivery is my unpreparedness.
Can I ask about your past, where you’re from and how you got into music?
I’m from the Red River town of Grand Forks, North Dakota. I was taught music in my family and community. The importance of tradition was passed down to me from my grandmother, Lillian Uglem. Tradition which among many things included folksongs. At church and in school I received much encouragement to enjoy singing, develop my voice, listen to music.
You’re coming to the UK in September. Will you be performing solo or with a band?
I will be solo this go round.
With songs from Perfect Abandon getting some radio play including several from Cerys Matthews on BBC Radio 6 Tom Brosseau will be playing several dates in the UK from next week. Dates are
Blabber’n’Smoke makes no bones about our stone cold admiration for the music of Michael Rank, a man who has now released five albums of “wracked and raw” country music following the breakup of his relationship with the mother of his young son. The first album, Kin, was a blasted heath of an album with some fiery guitar work that might now be considered a catharsis of sorts, a casting aside of his old world (which included his band Snatches of Pink, wonderfully described by Rank as his volume and tantrum days). Rank admits that following the birth of his son he’d pretty much given up on music but after the split he picked up a guitar and songs came tumbling out. Five albums later he’s still hurting it seems but from his hurt he’s fashioned a great deal of beauty, a fragile and tender beauty to be sure but emotionally powerful and, more to the point, some of the best music of the past four years.
Horsehair continues Rank’s odyssey into classic seventies stained folk and country rock. His shape shifting collective band Stag here comprise of Nathan Golub on pedal steel, Alex Ingleheart, electric guitar, Ron Bartholomew, mandolin, Jesse Heubner, bass, Gabriele Pelli and John Teer, fiddle, James Wallace, organ and John Howie Jnr, drums. A plethora of players but a bare boned outcome with the full line-up rarely all present. The predominant sound is of jagged mandolin, ragged guitar and roaming fiddle, all swaying to Rank’s fine feel for the Stone’s country phase with some of Rod Stewart’s early work sneaking in. Neil Young’s ditch years are also in the mix while Rank seems at times to be striving for a less desolate landscape eventually finding harbour in the blissed out groovyness (or cosmic floppiness) of The Grateful Dead in the early seventies. Capping this is the presence of Mount Moriah’s Heather McEntire who sings with Rank throughout, her voice cajoling, comforting and supporting his frail husk of a voice. They pair wonderfully in the style of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris on their most famous collaboration, Love Hurts, wounded hearts waltzing around to wounded music.
Rank has nine songs here and they all have moments that raise the hair on the back of the neck. The opening Frontier is the starkest number, hesitant mandolin and lonesome fiddle on an ode to lost love. At the other end there’s the full band country stumble of This Side of Texas which opens with fiddle sawing over mandolin and acoustic guitars the song slowly building up with curling electric guitar and organ briefly added to the mix. It’s an awesome song, the lyrics by turn poetic, “stars are falling out like ashes, that great big sky done swallow me”, fearsome, “we keep a list of all our captives, we string a necklace with their teeth,” but ultimately returning to the personal as Rank and McEntire sing “I wrote a song to bring her back son, one song don’t stitch a wound.” Husk is another wounded country song that barely stumbles out of the gate initially before the vocals come in. Pretty soon Nathan Golub’s pedal steel curls into view and leads the song into a lengthy outro with the players weaving and dancing musically creating a vibe not dissimilar to that of the Grateful Dead stretching out on their country ambles in the early seventies, real cosmic American music.
It would be easy to paint Rank as a miserabilist wallowing in his loss but even on a song like Trails where he sings “The one you left behind you’re running through my mind you’re always on my trail.. I wish I was enough so you would stay here with me…ain’t nothing about it easy” is dressed in a wonderfully sparse arrangement with delicate organ and spare guitar conjuring a spiritual feeling towards the end. There’s also a beautiful moment when McEntire almost sobs, capturing the feeling evoked by the song.
Mexico jumps into view with a Stone’s like guitar lick on the raunchiest number here while Horseman is dusty Americana with the fiddle given free rein in the manner of Sid Page on Mike Wilhelm’s magisterial reading of Me and My Uncle with some Scarlett Rivera thrown in for good measure. However before ending we must allow mention of the album’s highpoint.
Two Shades is simply one of the best love songs of the past ten years capturing as it does the ecstasy of togetherness and the pain of separation. Rank acknowledges his ex partner’s role as his son’s mother and allows that their time together was special singing “I’ve got a boy here and he’s two shades of something that once upon a time was something to behold” but it’s the chorus that raises the song well above the ordinary. Rank and McEntire rival any celebrated duos as they entwine around each other singing “And I know we ain’t covered in roses and I know we ain’t covered in jewels but I know that when I used to hold you most everything looked better for me and you, near everything looked better for me and you” over a gorgeous simple melody garlanded in honeyed pedal steel. If Dolly Parton recorded this it would be considered a classic.
So five albums in and Michael Rank just seems to get better and better. It’s a Blabber’n’Smoke bucket list deal to see him at some point but presently he’s keen to stay close to home. Fortunately there’s a wealth of videos of him and various permutations of Stag populating YouTube, all of which support our contention that he’s the bee’s knee’s right now. We now await album number six.
Emma Swift might be a new name to many in the UK, although it’s apparent that she picked up quite a few fans on her recent tour with Robyn Hitchcock, in her native Australia however she was well known as the host of radio shows In the Pines and Saturday Night Country. All the while she was finding her way as a songwriter and performer both solo and as half of the duo 49 Goodbyes before eventually taking the step of locating to Nashville a year or so back. This self-titled mini album is her debut and was released around a year back in Australia but Swift has just relaunched it on iTunes.
Live Blabber’n’Smoke described Ms. Swift thus
…her lachrymose country songs were well received. Her version of Gram Parsons’ Brass Buttons highlighted her aching bittersweet voice while the suicide note that is Rowland Howard’s Shiver was delivered with a fine mix of tenderness and defiance. Her own song, Seasons, marked her as a writer and singer who could be up there with the likes of Lucinda Williams…
The album reinforces this with Swift’s voice in particular commanding attention. She combines the languid manner of Lucinda Williams with the effortless swoon of Linda Ronstadt while also managing the sultriness of kd Laing in torch song mode. In addition she’s a great writer, the five songs here all worthy of attention (in addition there’s a cover of The Motels’ Total Control) and to cap it all the band she’s assembled play some very sweet heartbreaking country music.
She opens with the bittersweet Bittersweet, a soft rock country balm for the soul effortlessly singing over the slow rhythm shuffle with pedal steel and Wurlitzer curling around her voice. Woodland Street has a late night jazz feel to it with Swift vulnerable in her pleading, a sense continued on Seasons, an initially brighter, summery song where again she’s looking for affection (with her voice here reminiscent of Lucinda Williams). Swift manages a neat trick here with the first half of the song optimistic as she waits for her lover in the spring, honeyed pedal steel and sparkling guitar like reflected sunlight on the sea before she fears he’ll be gone by the fall and there’s an almost imperceptible shift in the mood of the music, the guitars sadder, keening instead of honeyed. At the heart of album is the lengthy King Of America, eight minutes of hesitant, slow flow twang guitar and cosmic country tinged pedal steel that recalls the glory days of NRPS and Garcia himself as it weaves an unsteady course over deadpan percussion. Almost as if the Grateful Dead had scored David Lynch’s Twin Peaks Swift offers a portrait of the narcotic pull of the likes of Gram Parsons or Hank Williams as she succumbs to their invitation to dance. It’s a glorious song that places Swift at the forefront of our singer/songwriters today.