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).