Oliver Swain’s Big Machine. Never More Together


I know that British Columbia is a big place but it seems to be packed full of excellent musicians with Oliver Swain the latest to pop out of the woodwork. Apparently he’s big over there in folk circles but Never More Together, his second album, is our introduction to him. He plays double bass, banjo and guitar (his banjo a nineteenth century goat skin creation), sings and at times, whistles. His brief whistling here  causing us to recall Andrew Bird but the fact is Swain is much more fun than Bird.

He’s paid his dues playing with early incarnations of The Bills and The Duhks and with Ruth Moody before setting out with Outlaw Social and then The Red Stick Ramblers. His debut album, incidentally called In A Big Machine, was a mixture of traditional and self penned songs and included a fine cover of Springsteen’s’ I’m On Fire which successfully transferred the Boss from his NJ streets to the Canadian pines.

So to Never More Together. It’s less folky than its predecessor and all songs are written by Swain who demonstrates a fine versatility here creating what one might call “chamber pieces” along with more regular fare. In addition to his instruments his voice is an important part of the jigsaw, a slight tenor, he can sound ethereal, swooping around like Rufus Wainwright at times and he uses this ability best on the closing eight minute Take Me Up, a richly textured piece.

The album opens however with the claw hammered banjo jaunt of the title song. Light and airy it occupies similar territory to fellows such as Pharis & Jason Romero or Morrison & West although instead of peering into the deep dark woods of Appalachia Swain is in a sun-dappled clearing. No Strange Thing sees Swain coming across as a sweet voiced soul singer duetting with Emily Braden on a string-laden swoon (arranged by producer Adrian Dolan) that is like a country cousin to Norwegian Wood. Maggie, Molly & Raul is an oddity indeed, a confusion of nursery rhyme like words and Beatlish chiming guitars it has a charm but might have been more suited to appearing at the end of the album with its coda extended as that does have a bracing, almost psychedelic, feel.

After this blip Swain really gets down to work. Gone is a tender and beguiling song, Swain’s voice enveloped by the gradual instrumental swell, a burbling woody swirl. The Moan is a short instrumental lead into Apple Sucking Tree, both sinister with cello and Swain’s double bass as evocative as any of the instruments on Peter and The Wolf, creating a dark wooded space, the song exploring a similar sonic ground as that commanded by Cam Penner, an atavistic response to the wildernesses these guys travel around in. There’s some brief respite on the gentle string driven caresses of Old Dreams, a song that ripples like a mountain stream before Swain wraps it up with the epic Take Me Up. Opening with a potpourri of stringed instruments somewhat akin to an orchestra tuning up Swains voice swoops in eventually as the strings coalesce and judder almost as if they were auditioning to play Stravinsky’s Rite Of Spring. There’s a delightful instrumental passage with Swain’s guitar picking to the fore before he and the  strings  hit a wonderful baroque folk  swing and then the song eventually collapses back into its primordial shape, a last gasp from double bass bowed low bidding farewell. It’s an audacious song but it works and is a fine end to what is a fine album.



Trembling Bells. Wide Majestic Aire. Tin Angel Records


Trembling Bells are in the grand tradition of folk musicians who roam far and wide in their influences and subsequent styles. Perhaps best known for collaborations with Mike Heron (of The Incredible String Band) and Will Oldham they take elements of traditional music, sixties and seventies experimental folk, classical music, psychedelia and Velvet Underground fuzz blending it all together in their particular alchemical pot. Their last album, The Sovereign Self, was Stuart Maconie’s favourite album of 2015; Maconie of course is the curator of Radio 6’s Freak Zone and therein lies the rub. It’s all too easy to consign the ‘Bells to the “weird” zone, labelled as a tough listen but folk who remember (or are catching up on) albums such as Shirley Collins’ Anthems Of Eden, Kevin Ayers’ Whatevershebringswesing, Richard Thompson’s Henry The Human Fly or The Albion Band’s Rising Like The Sun will find much here to comfort them. Wide Majestic Aire doesn’t sound like any of these but the spirit of adventure and quest that informed works like these is very much alive here, the band unafraid to mix soaring guitar solos with pump organ sounds, unaccompanied voice and Baroque classical influences.

Wide Majestic Aire is a seven song mini album, its feet firmly anchored in two of the band’s (or more properly leader Alex Neilson’s) homelands, Leeds, his birthplace, and Carbeth in Scotland. The opening title song revisits Neilson’s formative years living close to the river Aire, reading Lorca and Blake as he walks the river banks, the dismal council estate he comes from replaced by Elysian Fields. The song flows like the river, a grand romantic sweep that takes him to the dreaming spires of Oxford, the buildings golden brown and ochre as Lavinia Blackwall’s voice commands attention, her mannered delivery nicely set against a rickety instrumental break. It’s an inspiring song and one of two here which most recall the pomp years of classic folk rock, Sandy Denny on Liege & Lief and solo recordings perhaps. The second song to do so is the closing Marble Arch. Again the band cleave to a rock sound, a solid rhythm section backing Blackwall’s majestic voice, guitarist Mike Hastings adding a fuzzed up guitar screech throughout.

No such firm footing on the capricious England Was Aghast, a song that veers from sonic rumblings with guitars and cymbals crashing to an electronic hornpipe of sorts as Blackwall declaims an England that is like a Hieronymus Bosch painting. Show Me A Hole (And I’ll Crawl In It) musically recalls the Incredible string Band as a reedy organ dominates although there’s a decidedly medieval feel present. Lyrically obscure there are some fabulous images conjured.  “There’s a line of beauty that starts at Roland’s wrist and ends at your mouth which I kissed and even Rodin showed an envy for that ruinous bliss” while later, up on Dionysian hills, “a butterfly dashed itself against a riot shield.” The organ pumps away until, towards the end, the band dash in in full prog folk glory, Celtic fuzz guitar and Keith Emerson keyboards to the fore. Swallows Of Carbeth is a simpler affair, a seemingly straightforward paean to the bucolic attractions of this off grid haven, the band nicely rolling and tumbling along initially. However it’s a lost love song, the delights soured by a leaving and the music darkens and becomes more frenzied, the fiddle blazing away. There’s more travelogue on the appealing I Love Bute, a lovely kenspeckled number that recalls the music that added so much to the original Whickerman. Finally Alex Neilson offers the unaccompanied voice song, The Day That Maya Deren Died, inspired, he says, from seeing The Watersons. As befits this unique writer however he gathers obscure references (Deyer was an avant garde filmmaker), place names (Kelvinside) and surrealistic images (a self immolated soldier) and weaves them into a song which kind of defies description but is also self referencing as it ends with the singer stating he’ll write a song about London’s Marble Arch, that song following and closing the disc.

Trembling Bells are out and about in April promoting this record. Dates are here.






Caleb Caudle. Carolina Ghost. This Is American Music


As Mike Nesmith said back in the days, “and the hits just keep on comin.” Nesmith was back then an unrecognised country music pioneer, a pop musician finding his roots and accidentally leading some folk into the world of country music. Here Caleb Caudle stakes his claim to be the latest in the run of young guns who are similarly revitalising the genre. Caudle, from North Carolina, gained some acclaim for his 2014 album, Paint Another Layer on My Heart. On Carolina Ghost, recorded following a return to his homeland and a decision to give up alcohol (18 months clear now), Caudle digs deeper into his country vein, the music creamy with pedal steel, gurgling guitars and a Southern bedrock of organ and piano.

This new wave of country music is a multi headed hydra. Some head into Hank territory, some dig Waylon and Willie while others hark back to the Countrypolitan sound. Caudle seems to be divining the smooth radio friendly sound of 80’s acts such as Randy Travis and George Strait with a nod to the seventies in the shape of Gram Parsons and the Eagles (back when Bernie Leadon was a member and before they cryogenically altered their nasal passages). As such some folk might think that this is somewhat lightweight music but a couple of listens allows one to see some muscle in here, lyrically Caudle is darker than one suspects while the music, sweet as it is, is a honey trap.

The trap opens with the honeyed melody of Gotta Be with Brett Resnick on pedal steel to the fore as the song sweeps along as Caudle sings with some yearning of his perfect lover. He then muscles up on the gritty Piedmont Sky, a song that seems to about his travails over the years singing,”waiting on an agent to call my number,” before heading back to his hometown. Carolina Ghost is sublime, a whisp of a song carried along on gliding pedal steel and subtle keyboards, Caudle hymning his native soil as he recalls earlier days with a hint of mystery. Broken Hallelujah flies on a similar breeze, again the song flows sweetly, the guitars just so fine, the pedal steel keening expertly over a cracking rhythm section as Caudle begs for a second chance. Midway through there’s some very fine duelling between the pedal steel and guitar, elevating the song somewhat.

There’s some honky tonk swing on the broken love song Wasted Thursday while Dobro dominates on the classic melody of White Doves Wings, the strained teardrop of Steel & Stone and the closing valediction of The Reddest Rose, a song that recalls John Stewart in his prime. In the midst of this feast Caudle offers the most heartfelt moment of the album, the bruised ballad that is Tuscaloosa. Here Caudle comes across like an Alabama Springsteen as he captures the languid flow of the South while he also evokes memories of Joe Ely and his Flatlanders pals flying into Dallas.

Carolina Ghost has the rebel sense of 70’s rockers discovering country music and finding out that radio folk actually liked it while at the same time it provokes a sense that Caudle, like Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson is rescuing country music from the pop orientated pap so popular these days. If justice prevailed these songs would be wafting from the airwaves




Norrie McCulloch – These Mountain Blues live at Tron Theatre, Glasgow 18th March 2016


Such is the way of the music business that it’s been four months since Blabber’n’Smoke reviewed Norrie McCulloch’s second album, These Mountain Blues which only is released this week. It’s a beautiful album, the songs warm and expertly crafted, an opinion only reinforced last week when the limited edition vinyl album was delivered leading to several further listens.

The album was given an official release show on Friday night at Glasgow’s Tron Theatre in the fine setting of their Victorian Bar. Part of the regular Seven Song Club nights, McCulloch was given special dispensation to go over the usual seven song limit, the album unveiled in all its glory and played by the cast who recorded it. With Stuart Kidd on drums and Dave McGowan and Marco Rea swapping piano and bass duties through the night before a sold out crowd there were a few nervous moments from Norrie particularly when one of his guitars appeared to be somewhat recalcitrant when being tuned. However the band stepped up to the mark, their camaraderie obvious as they gamely held the song aloft as he found his stride. The audience, it must be said, willing him on.

These Mountain Blues has been receiving rave reviews across the board and it was a treat to hear the songs tonight. The musicians have lived with these songs for a while and their expert playing offered a fine sense of grandeur to McCulloch’s song writing while he delivered the words with grace, his voice warm, able to sound weary or joyous, stained with his memories.

Calico Days was an excellent opener, a clarion call to believers much in the way that Fairport Convention rallied their listeners on Come All Ye on Liege & Lief, its punchy drive and elegant piano nailing McCulloch’s colours to the mast. This bracing folk rock vibe was continued on Pass By My Door again with the piano prominent particularly on the closing melody and it was the fine interplay between McCulloch’s guitar and McGowan’s stately piano playing that elevated the following These Mountain Blues into a thing of wonder. Written by McCulloch after a trip to Townes Van Zandt’s grave it’s the beating heart of the album and the standout tonight although it was run a close second by McCulloch’s solo rendition of Black Dust, a song written for his grandfather who was bruised and eventually died from his coal mining exertions. A song that could well have come from the pen of Van Zandt was given a local bearing as McCulloch’s voice was more noticeably Scottish here while his words recalled the late William McIlvanney’s stout celebrations of the stoic Ayrshire working man.

The songs flowed sweetly. The grim acceptance of fate on Hard To Be The Man You Are Not and the plaintive loss of New Joke (here given a lengthy rendition) and The Old Room were testament to the band, the songs and the singer as they floated from the stage. Cloudberry Flower was a brief return to a more upbeat feel before they closed with the heartrending When She Is Crying Too and Heart’s Got To Be In The Right Place. The latter tentative at the beginning but as we said earlier it was gently guided by the band into its rightful place as a grand finale to a superb suite of songs.

The Seven Song Club generally features three acts, each confined to seven songs. Tonight’s set was opened by Alan Tempie, a chap you might encounter busking in the city centre. Playing guitar and using a harmoniser pedal on his vocals he sang a mix of his songs and some covers. His renditions of The Divine Comedy’s Lady Of A Certain Age and Fred Neil’s Everybody’s Talking certainly pinned him to a late sixties troubadour style, a style he carried off well with hints of chaps as varied as L. Cohen and Peter Sarstedt. His own Florence Foster Could Not Sing, a song about a 1940’s socialite who self funded her recording career in spite of her lack of talent, was a delight, a song that could sit easily on Findlay Napier’s VIP album.


Everywhere were up next. A grizzled three piece they parlayed some songs that one would have termed “pub rock” back in the days, some funk, some Merseyside sparkle with guitarist/singer Jimbo MacKellar laying into his guitar. They then stretched back into a psychedelic haze that recalled The Pretty Things at their most deranged before ending with a cracking deconstruction of Bowie’s Jean Genie, the verses slowed down amid whip smart bursts of the chorus, the guitar shredded this time.


Although the spotlight was on Norrie’s album launch, the two acts here offered up some fine appetisers.


Dropkick. Balance The Light. Rock Indiana Records/Sound Asleep Records


It’s hard to believe that Balance The Light is Dropkick’s 14th album. The East Coast Scots certainly don’t sound (or look) like grizzled veterans of the rock’n’roll world while the album is as fresh as a daisy and brimming with energy. Over the course of 16 years they’ve gathered a well deserved reputation as purveyors of power pop and sunny jangled country tinged rock, an idiom that we rain sodden Scots seem to do well in (see Teenage Fanclub, Daniel Wylie, Attic Lights) while they are, to paraphrase Tom Waits, “big in Spain.” Their 2013 album, Homeward, saw the band, by then a five piece, expand their horizons with more keyboards in the mix, an occasional melancholic air and some tantalising glimpses of an almost psychedelic buzz. Balance The Light continues in this vein. There’s still a jangle in their stride but as befits a band with older heads on their shoulders that stride is more paced and measured, pausing to reflect.

Having said that Dropkick are still adventurous and this is evident on the opening song here, Save Myself. The song opens with a hazy shimmer, a guitar charged slow beat, the vocals delicate, almost strained although the harmonies remain in place. Halfway through a synthesised noise begins to beep and flutter as if the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop had popped in and the band step up the pace as the song reaches a crescendo in a thrash of sounds. It’s an exhilarating opener which recalls the more experimental side of Wilco and the sonic wizardry of Todd Rungren. It’s the most way out number here but its layers of sound are reflected throughout the album. I Wish I Knew shape shifts between Beatles like guitar harmonics and swelling organ notes with a fine McGuinn type guitar solo at its centre. Wake Me In The Morning is a gossamer thin confection which sits atop a repetitive synth sound, gradually replaced by stately piano chords and burnished guitar before returning at the end of the song.

Elsewhere the band continue with the groove they hit on Homeward. There’s a Neil Young kick on the closing Think For Yourself and Out Of Love Again flows along like a meeting of The Only Ones and The Byrds while they actually offer a song called Homeward which is suffused with the vulnerability of Alex Chilton and the chug along country soul of Neil Young. Here the guitars curl and the organ sweeps the rhythm along as Andrew Taylor sings like a lost soul. Again much of the words on the album continue in the vein of its predecessor, Taylor trying to salvage relationships, most nakedly expressed here on the gentle A Long Way To Go.

Despite the above litany of influences there’s no doubt that Dropkick have a sound of their own. They have a heftier take these days on their sunshine sound, the guitars more muscular, the backdrop more ornate. Before The Light sees Andrew Taylor’s brother, Alistair, leaving the fold (although he mastered the album). There’s a continuity of sorts however as he was replaced by Roy Taylor (no relation), returning to the band after a five year hiatus.

The album is released on 25th March. If you pre purchase it here you can get an additional three unreleased songs. The band are playing some shows in support of the album release including dates in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dundee in April. Dates here




Matt Patershuk. I Was So Fond of You. Black Hen Records


We’ve written about several acts who might be considered a new wave of young country bucks (Sturgill Simpson, Cale Tyson, Daniel Romano, Barna Howard etc.). They sidestep the current Nashville trends such as Bro’ Country and EDM and instead look back to classic country music, not the hillbilly type but the golden years of the fifties and sixties, their heroes George Jones,  Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Glen Campbell and John Hartford, artists who were mavericks but still able to turn in a hit song.

Well it’s time to add Canadian Matt Patershuk to this list. I Was So Fond Of You, his second album, is a breath of fresh air, an inhalation of healthy banjo, fiddle, pedal steel and guitars, all set to a fine shuffle from the excellent rhythm section and topped with his  sometimes honeyed, sometimes gravelly  vocals.  Recorded at producer Steve Dawson’s Nashville studio, the band, Mike Bub, bass, Gary Craig, drums, Fats Kaplin, fiddle, banjo, accordion and guitar along with Dawson on guitar and pedal steel, sat down together and played live with no overdubs. The cherry on the cake here is the addition of Ana Egge on harmony vocals, added later but knitted right into the songs.

The opening song, Back Against The Wall is a gritty slice of Southern slither with mean slide guitar and rasping fiddle. It’s a great opener but hardly indicative of what is to follow. Prettiest Ones introduces Egge’s voice, a perfect foil for Patershuk’s wearied tones on a gentle song that tiptoes along sprinkled with mandolin and sweet pedal steel. She remains on board for the mild Western swing of Smoke A Little Cigarette, Kaplin here superb on fiddle and Patershuk capturing the laconic songspeak of Bob Wills perfectly, a trick he repeats on the upbeat Burnin’ The Candles At Both Ends. Pepe The Cat Murdering Dog, an absurdist tale of sorts finds the band all jaunty and hitting a bluegrass stride while Mean Coyotes heads into Tex-Mex country on a Willie Nelson like ticket. Here Patershuk just hits all the right buttons, the harmonies with Egge beautiful, the band just on the right side of closing time at a cantina, reedy accordion setting the scene  on a mournful song that paints a rancher burying a pony, a victim of those coyotes, as he relates this to his own life.

There’s more equine content on Tennessee Walker, an epitaph to a beloved steed that recalls Doc Watson as imagined by Steve Earle and Earle comes to mind again on the revenge ballad of Harviestown. Here a “yellow bellied drunk man killed my darling girl” and the singer vows to go down to Harviestown where “I’ll use my two bare hands, I won’t need a gun.” It’s a great song, a fine addition to the old murder ballad tradition but it gains some extra weight when one realises that Patershuk is here dissembling a tragic moment of his own. His sister, Clare, was killed by a drunk driver in 2013 and he dedicates the album to her memory and in particular he describes his memory of this on the title song, a truly affecting piece which is given a respectful reading from the band, a slow waltz with Egge echoing his plaintive vocals. It’s tearstained indeed and sad to think that the song grew from a tragedy but ultimately (and here one does feel somewhat helpless, like a mourner not knowing what to say at a funeral) it’s a beautiful song and hopefully gives some comfort for those who knew her. Patershuk can certainly wring the emotions and he does so expertly on Little Guitar, a song that stands tall in the grand tradition of the likes of Kris Kristofferson and Jon Prine. Here he inhabits a veteran of world war II, bruised and battered, his brother killed in the war, blood flowing through his flaxen hair. He finds solace in his second hand guitar singing, “you can’t make a fist when you’re playing guitar.” It’s a monumental song delivered with grace by the players and well worth the price of admission on its own. A wonderful album.


Blue Rose Code. And Lo! The Bird Is On The Wing


The third instalment of Ross Wilson’s testament to the glories of life and living, And Lo! The Bird Is On The Wing is a magnificent listen; a collection of songs with a beating heart, flurries of melodies with Wilson’s voice an instrument in itself. There is hurt and heartbreak, emotions that give the album some of its most affecting moments, but above all there’s a sense of celebration, a celebration of just being alive, of seizing the moment. The album title (from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam), a reminder that life is fleeting so be grateful for each day. Wilson and his cast of supremely talented musicians have crafted an album that dips and soars like a murmuration of starlings offering the listener a myriad of delights.

There’s an organic flow to the album, the songs almost weeping into each other, the opening glimpse of the majestic single, Grateful, here in an abridged state, setting out Wilson’s agenda. Thereafter it’s a thrilling ride through folk and jazz tinged celebrations and wallows, the sinewy bass note that opens the free flowing box of memories that is Brave Cedars & Pied Wagtails returning later on the free form closing moments of In The Morning Parts 1 & 2, a nod perhaps to one of Wilson’s heroes John Martyn and his experimentation on songs such as Bless The Weather. In The Morning returns in the guise of Part 3 as the closing song here, this time with Colin Steele’s trumpet leading into Wilson’s closing remarks which are blessed with harmonies from The McCrary Sisters, the Gospel troupe who raised Grateful from the great to the magnificent. There’s a thread here. Musically it’s Wilson’s debt to Martyn and Van Morrison (and if anything there are moments here which recall Veedon Fleece) while lyrically Wilson takes us from his first moments of recovery into his marital breakup and his current sense of purpose.

The billowing breeze of Brave Cedars & Pied Wagtails leads into the confessional My Heart, The Sun, a false dawn of hope, the gentle pummel of percussion and lonely trumpet harbingers of what is to come. Rebecca is a spritely love song with some fine guitar work from Wild Watt Wyatt, a respite of sorts as Wilson then heads into the brokedown palace of Pokesdown Waltz, his naked exploration of his marriage ending, a song that bursts with regret, the words so emotive, the delivery stunning. Steele’s lonesome trumpet and Danny Thompson’s burbling bass introduce the centrepiece of the album, Glasgow Rain, an impressionistic journey though the West End as desolate as watching rivulets of rain running down a window as a storm lashes around you. Here Wilson unleashes his love of jazz and experimental music, trumpet, double bass and piano delicately tracing his voice before swelling into a mild cacophony as John Lowrie’s scattered percussion and Lauren MacColl’s violin join in, a ghostly spoken part here delivered by actor, Ewan McGregor. The music then gradually subsiding into rain swept sound effects with a final farewell from the bass and piano washed away like chalk on a pavement. A song of misery and self loathing with Wilson pleading “I try and I try and I try but I told you darling, I’m no good” it’s elevated into a thing of beauty as his voice trembles and pleads, the repetition and phrasing recalling Van Morrison on classics such as Listen To The Lion and Linden Arden Stole The Highlights. Aside from Morrison the song recalls the work of Robert Wyatt and his collaborations with Michael Mantler and Carla Bley while its rain swept Glasgow vista will also beg comparisons to The Blue Nile.

It’s truly a testament to the wonder of this album that even after the emotional blitz and sonic adventure of Glasgow Rain the listener can be transfixed by the following songs. In The Morning Parts 1 & 2 returns to the spritely breeze of Brave Cedars and Rebecca, the band skipping along with a refreshing spring in their step as Wilson and Wrenne and The McCrary Sisters celebrate a new dawn, the words uplifting as Wilson describes a rebirth of sorts. It’s a joyous song and as it heads towards its dissolution in a welter of bowed bass, skittering keyboards and gliding pedal steel, the vocals just peeking through, there’s an undeniable sense of willing Wilson on,  urging him to carry on and cast his demons aside. The following track, Love, alleviates this concern as he delivers a most tender and affecting paean to Cupid’s arrow, the mournful, almost brass band opening giving way to a song that most recalls the late John Martyn with Wilson sounding at his most vulnerable. The chorus with Wrenne wrapping herself around Wilson’s voice like a bountiful siren is just gorgeous, the band’s playing hypnotic, a song to savour. Favourite Boy is an almost playful aside, a Harry Nilsson like ballad balancing shadow and light, hopeful for the future but with a sense of gloom ever present. Again The McCrary’s are on hand to enhance the song. The curtain draws with the closing In The Morning Part 3, Steele’s trumpet coolly recalling the likes of Miles Davis before Wilson looks to the future over a lonesome picked guitar, the band gradually joining in, fiddle to the fore and The McCrary’s back in the fold for the blossoming swell at the end. The words here, as throughout the album are poetic and inspiring, indeed, had we quoted some of the gems from the album this review would be twice as long. Suffice to say that Wilson here sings, My best days they still lie before me, a sentiment that his very dedicated following will surely subscribe to.

And Lo! The Bird Is On The Wing is an album of import, a personal statement from Ross Wilson which is suffused with a humanity and grace that one generally attributes to a great novelist. Wilson is a rare animal these days, his music vibrates with a life-force sadly missing in much of the music offered to us. On stage he has an uncanny ability to draw an audience into his world, an Odyssey of loss and redemption and the album does capture that. A definite contender here for album of the year.


Talking about imaginary westerns and Doghouse Roses with Paul Tasker


It’s been a while since we’ve heard from Doghouse Roses, the duo of Iona MacDonald and Paul Tasker whose two albums and several EPs showcased Tasker’s mastery of the acoustic guitar and MacDonald’s sublime singing voice. Collaborations with The Willard Grant Conspiracy and shows with acts as disparate as Raul Malo and Pokey LaFarge culminated in the excellent 2010 album This Broken Key, described by one reviewer as, “Perfection, or as near to perfection as we might reasonably expect.”  Since then however the band have kept a low profile, only surfacing for the occasional gig until, galvanised by a support slot for US cult rockers, Television, they went back into the studio in 2015 and also embarked on a tour of Germany. A tour only EP was released but now they have a new album (Lost Is Not Losing) in the can and will be playing a set of dates in April. In addition, Tasker is releasing a solo album, an all instrumental record called Cold Weather Music, at the end of this month. In anticipation of this flurry of activity Blabber’n’Smoke managed to meet up with Paul Tasker to speak with him about his album but we kicked things off by asking for an update on the Doghouse Roses album.



It’s been nearly six years since Broken Key. What have the band been up to in that time?

We worked really hard from 2007 through until about 2011 and we really just burned out, we weren’t really enjoying it anymore. We didn’t stop as such, we still did small gigs here and there. There was never a plan to start it up again but then some serious gigs were offered to us including a BBC television slot and we enjoyed rehearsing and playing again and some new songs came out of that so we decided to give it another go. As I said, we never stopped but we didn’t have the heart back then to go through the stuff to make another record because if you’re going to do that you really need to want to do it. It’s a lot of work and there’s a lot of obstacles. So we eventually decided to go into La Chunky studios in Glasgow’s Hidden Lane and we worked with Johnny Smillie for four days, we had a German tour booked at the start of 2015 so we did a tour only EP for that. After that we recorded the album with some guests on it, Laura Beth Salter on mandolin and Dejan Lapanja from Slovenia on guitar. We have bass and drums from Steff and Craig from the New International and Jo Shaw and John Alexander are also on the album. Playing as a duo live is one thing but on a record, well, the pinnacle is Gillian Welsh and Dave Rawlings but look how much they’ve played live together and yet they only do an album every six or seven years. I think it’s difficult to hold interest throughout a duo type album.

Is there a release date for Lost Is Not Losing?

It’s finished but because I’ve got my album coming out we don’t want to release this one until later in the year and we want to have a properly  thought out plan leading up to that. That was one thing about Broken Key, we didn’t really have a plan. We just put it out and hoped for the best but it’s a hard world out there and things just get lost. You really need to start the ball rolling, the PR stuff from the moment you get into the studio. I really don’t check out stuff like Facebook as much as I should but you can see bands there who are constantly updating what’s going on, what they’re doing and, needless to say we didn’t do that. Now we have a news page on the website but people have to find that whereas Facebook finds you. We’re hoping for a November release but a lot depends on our touring plans as we want to be able to promote it properly.

So after six years can we expect a different sounding Doghouse Roses?

Well, when me and Iona recorded this we did it live, sitting next to each other and it worked out really well. Before, when we recorded, we were separated, we could see each other but we weren’t close together and I think that’s made a difference. The majority is acoustic guitar and voice with four songs featuring a band. It’s still us writing the songs but I think it sounds a bit different, a bit fresher. And we recorded it using all sixties gear so that adds something to the sound.

I thought the song you’ve previewed from the album, Diesel Engine, had a “retro” feel to it, a nice early sixties, even fifties snap.

I bought a 1958 Harmony Rocket and I used it on Diesel Engine and it has that sort of sound. It was a really strummy number when we did it live but when we were recording it we slowed it down so it had a kind of groove rather than a drive and I put probably far too many guitar layers on it.  But there’s some nice harmonies in there. I’m working with another band, Colour Of Whisky which is like a vocal band so we got all them in to do harmonies. It turned out quite nice.

While we’re waiting for the April shows from the band and the release of Lost Is Not Losing there’s your solo album, Cold Weather Music, to look forward to. Can you tell us about that?

It’s been a couple of years in the making. I’ve basically made the album three times now. The first time was in 2010 but it I really didn’t get down what I was hoping for although it was a good learning curve of sorts. So I tried again in 2012 with Luigi Pisquini, a recording engineer, and we hired this place called the Recording Cottage in Inveraray. This time it was closer but still not quite there although a couple of the tracks from this session are on the album. Eventually I ended up at Green Door studios, an old analogue recording place and it was just the right space so essentially I’ve made the album three times before being happy with it. It’s all instrumental, two of the tunes, Husker’s Theme and Tundra Plane feature banjo, Sky Train and Ne’er Day are duets with flute and guitar, Blooms in the Autumn and InE are guitar duets, that’s me and Dejan, and the others are just me on guitar.

I believe that you’ve said that it’s like a soundtrack for a movie that hasn’t been filmed.

Well when I was working on some of the pieces, James Morrison at Whisky and Milk was writing a screenplay for a Western and he asked me if I had some music that sounded American as well as Scottish so I tried a few things on the banjo and one of them turned into Husker’s Theme. I worked from some pictures James had taken and I tried to evoke the scenes and we took a little road trip up to the Highlands and that’s where most of the artwork in the album comes from. So yes, it’s a bit like a soundtrack for a film that, as you say, hasn’t been made yet.


Why’s it called Cold Weather Music.

When we were away in 2009, I think it was in Denmark, someone came up and said, “You guys play cold weather music, no one would ever think you come from a place like Spain” and I quite liked that. A lot of the music I like, people like Ólafur Arnalds, you can tell it’s from a cold country. Although I like Samba and Tango and such I can’t really relate to it.

Aside from the album being available as a CD and digital download you’re also releasing it on vinyl. I take it that you’re a fan of the format.

I actually got into records just when it was changing over to CDs. There was a place called Borderline in Galashiels and one day I went in and instead of just having the odd piece of vinyl they had boxes and boxes of it. Someone had traded in their collection and there were some classic records there.  I remember there used to be a ton of records shops on Byres Road, you could do a record shop crawl. Those days are gone although they do seem to be coming back in a small way.

The album’s a wonderful evocation of the landscapes featured in the photographs, the banjo and pedal steel adding, as you said, an American touch to the Highland mists. It will probably surprise folk who always compare your playing to the likes of Bert Jansch.

Well Jansch was my first touchstone. That’s who I wanted to sound like when I first started playing but these days I’ll find myself playing something and I’ll think, “Oh, that’s just like third rate Jansch,” so I’ll cut that bit out. When I started to play it was the height of Brit Pop and I thought that was god-awful and then I saw Jansch at The Press Club on West Nile St. and I thought he was brilliant. Before that I had no real direction to follow on the guitar but after that show I tried to find his albums. Back then Bert and a lot of others like him were having a real dip in popularity, I mean there were only about 30 people at the gig and his records were hard to find.  But I got as many as I could find and to me it was a whole new mysterious world of playing the guitar, trying to figure out how he did that and then trying yourself to do it. And so when I started writing songs I wasn’t actually lifting his stuff but I was “borrowing” things so that the first Doghouse Roses songs did have that Jansch type sound to them.

What guitarists do you listen to these days?

Well these days I think I listen to more piano players than guitarists. I really like Nils Frahm and Oscar Peterson. When I play guitar these days I try to think of it more as a piano than a guitar

So 2016 is looking to be a busy year for you.

Well first off, we’ve got Joseph Parsons coming over from the US and we’re doing four shows with him in April.  It will be nice to get out and get back to playing; Iona’s really looking forward to the shows.  I’m so glad to have the solo album done, it had become a bit of a millstone, but I’ll be playing some of the tunes from the album at these shows. I’m also doing a solo show on the 15th at Woodend and then hopefully later in the year I’ll be able to gather all the players for a show to play the album in full. After that we can concentrate on the run up to the release of Lost Is Not Losing.

Dates for Doghouse Roses April shows are here. Blabber’n’Smoke’s review of Paul Tasker’s Cold Weather Music will be here soon, in the meantime he’s playing at Woodend  Bowling Club for Sounds In The Suburbs tomorrow, 15th March supporting Locust Honey. You can buy his album here

Doghouse Roses website



Maz O’Connor. The Longing Kind. Restless head Records.



This third album from folk artist Maz O’Connor finds her leaving the world of traditional songs behind, heading instead on a musical odyssey, a journey from youth to adulthood if you will. O’Connor has written a brace of songs which open with several that can refer to leaving home while the closing songs see her finding her own two feet. In between she writes about two historical figures, women betrayed, inspired by paintings of them in the National Portrait Gallery. It’s a warm and woody sort of album, cello, harmonium and double bass comforting although there are some sublime pedal steel moments (courtesy of Chris Hillman, no, not that one, this is CJ Hillman from Manchester) and on one occasion some clangorous guitar. The songs are guitar or piano based, the latter at times recalling the work of Judee Sill, indeed the album as a whole rarely has any sense of Albion’s folk tradition coming across instead as a continuation of the sixties and early seventies singer/songwriter tradition. O’Connor’s voice, a fine instrument in itself, aids and abets this comparison as she occasionally switches octaves like a young Joni Mitchell particularly in the opening bars of A Rose.

Produced by Jim Moray (who plays several instruments here) the album flows well, the avowed journey from youth to now not immediately apparent nor necessary for the listener’s enjoyment. Instead, it can be relished as a somewhat sumptuous wallow in burbling bass and rippling guitar, woody cello and comforting keyboards. A brief intro leads into The Longing Kind, a crystal clear teardrop of a song which is followed by the wonderful travelogue of A Winter’s Blues, O’Connor painting a vivid portrait of rainy days and an escape to Italy over an hypnotic backing, the double bass (from Matt Downer) gently pushing the song along amid O’Connor’s fine guitar lines. Crook Of His Arm builds on this, the sound fleshed out by percussion, cello and pedal steel but with the same heartbeat, O’Connor’s words quite sublime as she sings of leaving home with a bittersweet sense of regret and defiance, her vocals here unrestrained. Mother Make My Bed is an adolescent carouse and the one most reminiscent of O’Connor’s northern roots, the trumpet reminiscent of brass bands, the sing-along strum redolent of Cumbrian get togethers. It segues into the folk rock balladry of Greenwood Side, a song written and performed much in the manner of Fairport and Steeleye Span with guitar solos and with an affiliation to the traditional song The Cruel Mother.

Emma marks the appearance of O’Connor’s piano playing and the song inhabits that pained world epitomised by Judee Sill while Jane Gray recalls Joni Mitchell well before she discovered jazz. These songs act as an interlude before the quintet which closes the album with O’Connor looking at her relationships since stepping out into the world. Billy Waters has a spring in its step as O’Connor salutes a fellow musician, Coming Back Again is a simple affair, guitar and vocal only with a purity reminiscent of Greenwich Village folkies as O’Connor relates a doomed affair. There’s an elemental touch to A Quiet Word with O’Connor evoking the sea and the weather on another love song before she launches into the beguiling emotional awakening that is A Rose, the highlight of the album. O’Connor wraps the album up with the mildly rambunctious When The Whiskey Runs Dry which finds her coming to terms with her past.

As we said above, The Longing Kind is an album to savour, the songs unveiling like the layers of an onion as you delve in, the playing excellent and O’Connor marking her place as a songwriter and singer of note.


The Strange Blue Dreams EP. Holy Smokes Records


Glasgow audiences have always had a soft spot for some retro rock so it should be no surprise that there’s a buzz about The Strange Blue Dreams, a quintet who, judging by this debut EP, have been supping at the well of Sun Records with dollops of Gene Pitney, Chris Isaak, Richard Hawley and mondo surf movie soundtracks to follow. Released at the beginning of March the lead song on the EP, Reverberating Love, has been play listed on Radio Scotland, Vic Galloway and Roddy Hart are fans and the band were invited to play at the closing event of the Glasgow Film Festival, fitting perhaps as the video for Reverberating Love is a work of art in itself. The band plugging into an elegant yesteryear, the monochrome perfectly capturing a film noir effect, all Fritz Lang and Orson Welles, shadows and light and all.


The band are not gung ho retro rockabilly fiends. There’s an element of sophistication in the songs, a skip that Orson Welles might not recognise in his role as Hank Quinlan in Touch Of Evil but would surely have relished as the twinkle eyed Harry Lime in The Third Man, dark but tantalising with an almost vaudevillian touch. This is most evident on Up To The Stars, the third song here, merrily dancing along with a Gypsy tipsiness, an Eastern romance with a circus touch, a kaleidoscopic merry go round.

The Sun And The Moon is another song with a skip in its step, its jauntiness a Richard Hawley like song with a big smile on its face, the guitars scooping up happiness as singer Dave Addison tells a tale of cosmic rivalry twixt the two orbs amidst some great whistling. Shadows and light again.

Reverberating Moon, the lead track, is the jewel in the crown here. Reverb set to stun, attitude to cool, they strut excellently through this vibrant slice of shimmying and shivering rock’n’roll recalling elements of Barry Gray’s theme song for Fireball XL5 and the work of Joe Meek.

The band are appearing at the Glasgow edition of Country To Country and will be playing the EP and other songs at Hereford (Mar 18), London (Mar 19) and Dundee (Apr 9).


Holy Smokes Records