This third album in as many years from Ayrshire bred songwriter Norrie McCulloch confirms what Blabber’n’Smoke has maintained since we first heard his debut, Old Lovers Junkyard, that he is one of Scotland’s (and the UK’s) premier artists. Over the course of his three albums McCulloch, along with his superb studio band (Dave McGowan of Teenage Fanclub / Belle & Sebastian and Stuart Kidd and Marco Rea from The Wellgreen) has gathered from a well of inspirations (artists such as Townes Van Zandt, Jay Farrar, Fairport Convention, Van Morrison and John Martyn). By some alchemical process he has transformed them into his own noble spirit with songs that inhabit the past and celebrate the here and now, his attractive and slightly wearied voice with its mild Celtic burr anchoring him to his homeland whilst the music traverses oceans and genres.
Bare Along The Branches finds McCulloch continuing to peer into his roots and influences but with a new found confidence that is reflected in the more diverse instrumentation on show here. There’s an expansive edge to some of the songs with electric guitar and organ added to the trail mix that was on show on These Mountain Blues. Thus enabled McCulloch is able to capture for example the sheer joy of vintage Van Morrison Caledonia Soul escapades on songs such as Shutter with its repetitive refrain which is pure Morrison soulful scatting. The song itself concerns a tryst gone wrong in a lonesome cabin, a wonderful concatenation of images and sound with piano and organ fuelling the sheer exuberance of McCulloch’s lyrics. There’s more soul on the plaintive Lonely Boy with electric keyboards and Chi-Lites harmonies harnessing the song to seventies Top of The Pops memories of smooth harmony groups dressed in silk while Little Boat chugs along with some meaty guitar plunges and churchlike organ on another song that is reminiscent of Van Morrison.
While this affiliation to a hybrid Celtic soul music dominates the first half of the album McCulloch proves he can deliver ballads in the Americana vein with Safe Keeping and Frozen River evidence of his admiration for Jay Farrar, the former a halting dust blown rust belt eulogy while the latter skips along almost approaching bluegrass. Never Leave You Behind meanwhile is a full blown dive into country rock with some fine lap steel playing from McGowan and McCulloch revisits the dusty troubadour persona of his previous albums on the tremendous Around The Bend. This is a glorious ballad in a Neil Young mode with banjo, harmonica and lonesome pedal steel combining to create a frontier feel while McCulloch’s lyrics are a form of old Western Zen acceptance. The album closes with the lengthy Beggars Wood, a stark meditation on a childhood fable that has followed the artist into adulthood and is only exorcised when he revisits the scene. As it progresses the song blossoms from skeletal guitar and voice into a soaring guitar solo that avoids bombast as it stutters to the end, the song proof indeed that McCulloch continues to explore new avenues for his muse. Three albums in and not one clunker, McCulloch has the talent to enter the mainstream if he gets the breaks so grab a hold of this and let everyone else know about it.
Norrie McCulloch has arranged several shows to launch Bare Along The Branches starting with The Tollbooth in Stirling on 23rd February. Next up is Glasgow’s State Bar on the 24th and then Edinburgh’s Bluebird Cafe on the 25th.