Norrie McCulloch. These Mountain Blues. Black Dust Records

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Ayrshire man Norrie McCulloch’s 2014 album, Old Lovers Junkyard, remains possibly Blabber’n’Smoke’s favourite Scottish album of the decade. McCulloch, seemingly from nowhere, wove a magnificent tapestry of country and folk influenced sounds on the album, its creamy pedal steel to the fore. However, as we mentioned when reviewing the album, there was more than a hint of classic UK folk rock lurking in the grooves, in particular the slightly jazz inflected keyboard work that John Martyn and Nick Drake used to adorn their songs on the cusp of the sixties and seventies. These Mountain Blues, due for release in February, reverses the mix. Yes, there are some sublime songs here which could stand tall beside the works of Townes Van Zandt or Guy Clark, the pedal steel still warms but the prominent instrument here is the piano, its cascading notes colouring the album with an autumnal melancholy and offering an understated grandeur. A perfect accompaniment for McCulloch’s excellent sense of nostalgia and regret expressed through his songs and his very fine, slightly wearied, voice.

Recorded live to analogue tape in the space of three days at The Tolbooth in Stirling (which just happened to have a baby grand piano in situ), These Mountain Blues captures McCulloch and his band (Dave McGowan, upright bass, piano and pedal steel; Marco Rea, bass and piano and Stuart Kidd, drums) in fine fettle. There’s an intimate organic feel to the disc as if they were playing in your room conjuring the images from the songs in front of you. McCulloch’s writing is evocative as he sings of his landscapes, his forebears and his descriptions of outsiders trying to fit in as on the impressive New Joke.

The album opens with Calico Days, a punchy acoustic guitar riff, not dissimilar to Bert Jansch’s work with Pentangle, grabs you before the rhythm section and piano glide in. A hymn in praise of life and the power of music McCulloch welcomes “old friends,” urging them to “bring your stories and your grace on these Calico days.” It’s a wonderful breeze of a song and the most upbeat on the album although the sweeping Pass By My Door which follows is a close contender. Here McCulloch captures some of that heady mix of folk, blues and jazz which informed Van Morrison on songs such as Young Lovers Do on astral Weeks. The freewheeling vibrancy and joyousness of the song is really that good, the piano celebrant, the lyrics approaching Morrison’s stream of consciousness way back then.

However if there’s a template for this album then it’s a fair bet that John and Beverly Martyn’s Stormbringer would fit the bill. Recorded in Woodstock in 1970 with Levon Helm on drums that album was produced by Joe Boyd with arrangement by Paul Harris who also played the very elegant piano parts. The sound they created informs much of These Mountain Blues with the title song a fine example. It’s a poignant recollection of McCulloch’s visit to the grave of Townes Van Zandt and as it soars and weeps the piano chords are resonant amid the guitar balladry at the heart of the song. Hard To Be The Man You Are Not and New Joke follow in similar style, wearied songs almost limping along but buoyed up by the piano along with pedal steel on the latter and it’s pedal steel which predominates on the tremendous When She Is Crying Too, a song which fulfils the promise shown on Old Lovers Junkyard. It’s a beautiful song, expertly played; steel guitar gliding over the slow rhythm and rich piano playing as McCulloch turns in a great vocal and lyrics,

” when that thief nightime comes around and steals the stars before they’re even out / that’s not the only crime even when you’re not here/ all it takes is a song for the pieces of my heart to start to disappear.”

Wreathed in a forlorn LA country vibe, When She Is Crying Too has some of the emotional heft and melancholic beauty of Gene Clark in its veins and is the stand out song here. That’s not to dismiss the remainder as McCulloch sings of his grandfather’s travails in the coal mines on Black Dust, a song that is defiantly rooted in local folk roots while The Old Room is another heady bout of nostalgia delivered with a light touch. Cloudberry Flowers is suffused with jangling acoustic guitar and woody bass and again captures some of that late sixties folk vibe and the album closes with another superb song, the ethereal Heart’s Got To Be In The Right Place. This tale of a split family, mother and father separating, is given a superb arrangement, the instruments delicately tip toeing around each other as McCulloch sounds forlorn, it’s a song that tugs at the heartstrings.

Richly textured, warm and chilling, soaked in memories and delivered with its heart on its sleeve These Mountain Blues is proof that Norrie McCulloch is mining a rich seam of songwriting. He transcends his influences creating some beautiful music which deserves to be heard by all who care about music.

Release date 26th February but you will be able to pre order the album on CD or vinyl soon via Norrie’s website

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3hattrio. Dark Desert Night

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3hatrio, from Utah, invoke “the cultural traditions of the generations who have worked and lived on the deserts of the American southwest” as the influence for their peculiar brand of acoustic American music. It wears a similar patina as any Appalachian influenced recording but their approach (from their line up; fiddle, banjo, double bass to their slightly experimental touches) is somewhat singular. They describe it as “American desert music” and cite Ansel Adams’ photographs as a pictorial equivalent. The songs on Dark Desert Night are certainly evocative but listening to the album the pictures conjured up are moving ones from John Ford to Sam Peckinpah (and most strikingly Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller despite it being set in the snowy wastes of Washington State). Indeed, this band are ripe for picking for soundtrack work.

The 11 songs here are dark and evocative. There are two takes on traditional songs. The anglicised folkiness of Carry Me Away, a murder ballad recorded by John Lomax way back when betrays its origins with its dum dum di de rae refrain (as satirised by Tom Lehrer on his Irish Ballad). The tale of an 1881 cattle drive on Left Texas, another Lomax field recording, is delivered like a porch spun memory, the narrator recalling long ago events over a narcoleptic string band backing, fly blown and all but exhausted. The effect here is of hearing a Cormac McCarthy western tale told by one of his characters.

To their credit, the self-penned numbers equal or better these snapshots. Recalling at times The Handsome Family 3hatrio cast up scenarios of horses panicking in Sand Storm, the aftermath of a railroad disaster on Get Back Home and winter’s travails on White Pressing. But more often they marry their music to lyrics that just evoke a feeling, a moment, usually of something dreadful or portentous leaving the listener to fill in the gaps. Nothing, Tammy’s Sister and Off The Map are all tremendous pieces, musical jigsaws you have to make sense of although there is able assistance in the excellent playing of the band. A cold, wintry fiddle is the prominent instrument here while the double bass features as much more than a rhythm instrument, burbling and bouncing around the spare banjo and guitar parts. With two vocalists, the pained and strained Greg Istock and the wearied baritone of Hal Cannon, on board there’s a pleasing variety to the album although both are equally able to conjure up a mood. The mood overall being elegiac for a past when the desert was not somewhere to visit but a living presence with folk eking out some kind of existence on its borders.

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Prisoners at Pittsburgh Institution Release a New Song, “Selah” by David Corley

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Presumably most folk are aware of John Prine’s song, Christmas In Prison, a song that regularly does the rounds at this time of year. It’s a fine song but I’m pretty sure that it doesn’t reflect the reality of being incarcerated at this time of year. Criminal sentencing is a hot potato at the best of times; there’s the “you done the crime so do the time” and the “hang ’em’ high” brigades that would rather lock folk up and throw away the key. However there’s plenty of evidence that rehabilitation rather than pure punishment reaps its rewards. Prison can be like a university. Inmates can learn from their peers, new tricks and ways of doing wrong but it can also offer opportunities previously denied to them particularly as race and poverty are prime indicators of one’s likelihood of getting banged up.

Famously, Johnny Cash performed to inmates in San Quentin and Folsom but music can be used as a rehabilitation tool also and producer Chris Brown, recently mentioned on Blabber’n’Smoke for his work with David Corley and Suzanne Jarvie, has been working with inmates of the Pittsburgh Institution in Ontario for some time on a project called Pros and Cons Music Mentoring Program. The results are to heard on an album called Postcards From The County which you can download here. Brown has talked about the experience here and this week has unveiled the latest fruit from the enterprise, a song written by David Corley and played and sung by the inmates.
Corley, currently riding high on end of year lists with his excellent album, Available Light, has this to say,

It was a real honor, for me, to have these guys, in prison, taking their own time to do something special with this song that I wrote. And this is a very personal song to me. I could hear, right away, from the first recordings, the genuine care and effort they were putting into it. I originally gave this song to Chris, to record on his own record, and he, in turn gave it away to them. That’s just Chris, and these fellas. This song’s free, and for anyone and everyone….a prayer and a song of life and love and time passed.”

Cast away any prejudice and have a listen to the song. It’s delivered with feeling and a warmth that surely proves that music can bridge any gap, can offer hope to those who had no hope and it certainly justifies Brown’s desire to maintain some form of rehab for these prisoners despite budget cuts.

 

Favourite albums of 2015

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Well it’s that time of year again when we make up lists. Some get songs written about them (Santa’s naughty or nice one), some guide us around the supermarket, ensuring we don’t forget that all important stuffing. Blogs. Well, blogs do their “best of the year” lists so here’s Blabber’n’Smoke’s list of our favourite albums of the year. They’re not in any order (other than alphabetical) so there’s no number one and no losers, just some great music. 2015 was a bumper year for country music with young artists wresting the spotlight away from the ‘bros; back home there were some excellent releases that have received international recognition on websites, blogs and radio stations scattered across the globe. I’ve separated local releases simply because I think it’s important to highlight Scottish made music, had it been a straightforward top ten several of these would be in there. I’ve provided links to reviews where possible.

My thanks to all the artists, PR Agents and labels who have been kind enough to submit their efforts for Blabber’n’Smoke scrutiny, we love you. To them and to all readers have a happy festive season however you care to celebrate it.

Anna & Elizabeth. Anna & Elizabeth. Free Dirt records

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Brent Best. Your Dog, Champ. At The Helm Records/Last Chance Records

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David Corley, Available Light, Continental Song City

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Danny and The Champions Of The World, What Kind Of Love, Loose Music

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Justin Townes Earle. Single Mothers/Absent Fathers. Loose Music

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Barna Howard, Quite A Feelin’, Loose Music

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Sam Lewis Waiting On You. Brash Music

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Jeremy Pinnell OH/KY Sofaburn Records, 2015

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Michael Rank & Stag. Horsehair. Louds Hymn Music

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Daniel Romano, If I’ve Only one Time Askin’, New West Records

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Pharis and Jason Romero, A Wanderer I’ll Stay, Lula Records

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Sacri Cuori, Delone, Glitterbeat

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Cale Tyson, Introducing Cale Tyson, Clubhouse Records

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Homegrown

Stevie Agnew & Hurricane Road. Bad Blood & Whiskey. Skimmin’ Stone Records

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Dark Green Tree, Secret Lives, Haven Records

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James Edwyn & the Borrowed Band – The Tower

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Daniel Meade Keep Right Away. From The Top Records

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Iain Morrison. Eas. Peatfiredog Records.

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Findlay Napier. VIP Very Important Persons Cheerygroove Records.

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Dean Owens. Into The Sea. Drumfire Records

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The Wynntown Marshals, The End Of The Golden Age, Blue Rose Records

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Honourable mentions

Lewis and Leigh Hidden Truths EP.

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Blue Rose Code Grateful

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And that’s about it. Lots to look forward to in the New Year, not least albums from Norrie McCulloch and Blue Rose Code in the next few weeks and of course, Celtic Connections. See ya.

A Blabber’n’Smoke Christmas

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Ho ho hum. It’s Christmas so the shops and the airwaves are full of jingle belled songs spreading the cheer. Let’s admit it, most are awful and even the better ones are dulled by repetition. So Blabber’n’Smoke has spent some time on the old interwebs thing to try and find some Christmas songs that are a wee bit off of the beaten track. Enjoy.

Otis Gibbs

American Gun

Daniel Michaelson

Cam Penner

Viv Albertine

Robert Earl Keen. Most folk will be familiar with his song  Merry Christmas With The Family. This is just as good.

Wild Billy Childish

Erin McKeown

The Felice Brothers

Joseph Spence. Cerys Matthews seems to like this on a lot.

This went the rounds some years ago claiming to be by Nick Cave and Tom Waits. It ain’t.

It’s Christmas so we need an orphan song

Some power pop

And some hokum

And finally, as television is so important to Christmas here’s a TV special from the good folk in Glossary

 

 

Paul McClure. Songs For Anyone. Clubhouse Records

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The self styled “Rutland Troubadour,” Paul McClure releases his second album, Songs For Anyone, in January. His debut album, Smiling From The Floor Up, released in 2014 was a fine affair, in the main one man and his guitar which Blabber’n’Smoke likened to an old favourite, Loudon Wainwright III, although we did note that the extra instrumentation on some of the songs added that little bit of chutzpah. It’s unlikely that this caused Mr. McClure to cast around for musicians for his follow up album but cast around he did and the results are generally cause for celebration.

Songs For Anyone, an album of ” songs about love; trying to get it, trying to keep it, trying to understand it, and just getting on with it…” according to the man himself, is a band album. It’s loose limbed at times, a hootenanny of sorts, the songs purveyed with a fine sense of the here and now. McClure’s apparently the man for house concerts and here he recreates one on disc although it would need to be a large room in order to accommodate the instrumentation. He plays several (acoustic guitar, harmonica, mandolin, ukulele and percussion) while producer Joe Bennett adds his panoply of strings and things (bass, lap steel, piano, organ, violin, banjo, trumpet and percussion). Along with Michael Monaghan on drums and Hannah Eton-Wall (from The Redlands Palomino Co) on backing vocals the stage is set for some excellent country, confessional folk and soulful love songs.

The freewheeling Gentleman’s Agreement opens the album with a flourish. Rooted in Laurel Canyon 70’s country style it glides along with the ease and comfort of early Eagles back when they were in torn denim. Unremarkable Me relocates from LA to Muswell Hill as McClure busks away on a song that details a humdrum life brightened by his partner’s forbearance that could have been penned by Ray Davies. Likewise I Could Be A Happy Man could have been plucked from the Kinks’ “country period” and here McClure paints a fine picture of a satisfied mind describing a late night jam with the band and outings with his family, the bumpy country vibe resonant of cobblestones, not freeways, with Bennett’s fiddle adding a nice indolent atmosphere.

Emboldened (and encouraged by his producer) McClure visits several styles on the album. There’s his harmonica playing troubadour set up on Holding A Ten Ton Load and My Big Head Hat Of Dreams, both slightly Dylanesque (with some Chuck Prophet thrown in on the former and some Mariachi on the latter). The introspective singer/songwriter is portrayed on the gentle Yesterday’s Lies, a string laden lament with some great harmonies, and Don’t Take Me Under which is one of the mightier songs here. Organ and stinging lap steel add some emotional heft to McClure’s vulnerable opening stanzas, his voice here passionate and yearning, similar to Elvis Costello but without the bile. McClure outdoes this however on the stripped back guitar ballad Everyday Is Mine To Spend where he and Eton-Wall sing together in best duo fashion (take your pick, Gram and Emmylou, George and Tammy) and they repeat this trick on the excellent So Long, a waltz of sorts that spins around some fine band playing with piano gently guiding the star crossed lovers amid some excellent percussion. A song to savour indeed but exceeded by the swoonful, Pink Floyd like (indeed) bucolic beauty of A Song For Anyone that is just, (excuse the bathos here) heavenly.

Songs For Anyone is a deeply romantic album that has its moments of joy and sadness, all wonderfully conveyed with some brio and hopefully Mr. McClure will have the resources to deliver it live with his compadres. On this showing, solo or accompanied, he’s one to watch out for in 2016.

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Lynne Hanson & The Good Intentions 7 Deadly Spins

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Canadian Hanson’s 2014 album, River Of Sand, was a riveting exploration of Southern music somewhat akin to the mood and atmosphere of Roseanne Cash’s hymn to the Mississippi on The South and The River. For 7 Deadly Spins Hanson has honed in on a particular theme of Southern music, the murder ballad. Her seven tales here are soaked in sin and blood, true confessions and lack of redemption all feature while the music is dark and alluring.

Shifting from languid, guitar heavy brooding to sparse finger picked and bare boned storytelling Hanson evokes a mood that would fit perfectly into the TV series True Detective. Her characters are caught up in modern morality tales, some are cold and calculating, others victims of circumstance. Black Widow is musical story telling of the highest order, the protagonist described perfectly in the opening lines, “Raven hair, long green dress, red lined lips, rose tattoo above her breast.” Married five times with “husbands who drop like flies” the widow is celebrated with a slinky Southern groove, the band shuffling along like an upbeat Handsome Family as she deals with husband number six. Wonderful stuff.
The album opens with the Tom Waits’ like blues of Gravedigger (complete with hammered anvil and swirling organ) and a mood is immediately conjured. Hanson is deadpan, her vocals dispassionate as befits a killer as she lays out her C.V.

Water’s Edge is as sludge filled as the Mississippi, gutbucket guitar bellowing as a husband is buried on the tide line. Hanson sings “He knocked me down, he got me to my knees. Shot of courage, kitchen knife, two timing man I took his life. He broke my heart so I made him bleed.” Her image, “Tattered dress, bloody hands, dirt covers my wedding band” says it all. My Mama Said is a death row confession, church bells tolling as Hanson inhabits the mind of a cold killer in the shadow of the gallows, a fate foretold by her mother. Cecil Hotel is the starkest song here, simple guitar and a forlorn horn motif highlight the spare existence of a god fearin’ farmer on the run after killing the rapacious landlord, bereft of family and waiting to be caught.

The last two songs up the ante in terms of the music, moving into blues boogie territory with Hanson exclaiming like a sixties Dylan on First One’s Free while Run Johnny Run is a fine swampy Ry Cooder like escapade but both are a bit of a letdown after the magnificence of the previous songs. Overall 7 Deadly Spins posts notice that Ms. Hanson is on a bit of a roll and is definitely not to be messed with.

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