Russ Tolman. Compass & Map.

tolman-cd-450x450Mention the so-called “Paisley Underground” and folk will wax wonderfully on The Dream Syndicate, The Rain Parade, The Long Ryders, Green On Red and The Bangles. Whether or not this was an actual movement or just some bands lumped together geographically (LA for the most part) is still moot and several of the main actors actively disavow the term these days. Anyway one of the bands lumped in here was True West, a name rarely heard these days, who released two albums and who at one point seemed poised to break into the big time. Despite touring with REM, noted by Prince, front page on the music weeklies and lined up for an Old Grey Whistle Test TV slot while on a UK tour (nixed due to work visa issues) unfortunately that didn’t happen and they disbanded in the mid eighties.

Key to True West’s sound was guitarist and songwriter Russ Tolman who quit the band in 1985 to pursue a solo career which kicked off strongly with several impressive albums released between 1986 and 2000 before everything kind of petered out. There were a couple of single releases while Tolman beavered away in producing and occasional live dates including a short lived True West reunion. Now, 30 years after going it alone, Tolman has geared up again with an avowed intention to get back to recording and touring and his opening salvo is this handsome retrospective plucked from his back catalogue, 20 songs in all. It’s a welcome reminder for those who have followed him and an excellent introduction for anyone new to him as it follows his trajectory from grungy desert rock to synthesized LA country music.

Handsomely packaged with informative liner notes by Pat Thomas and Tolman himself the album avoids a strict chronological delivery of the songs but broadly speaking it opens with earlier and snarlier cuts before settling down somewhat into the late nineties before ending with latter day songs (although it closes with a 1994 number). This allows one to follow Tolman’s progress including his vocal delivery (he states in the liner notes that when recording the first album, “I was deathly afraid of singing – I’d never done it before).  Despite his misgivings, his voice is always intriguing, on the early songs perhaps betraying a tendency to delve into a punkish sneer (no bad thing) before settling into a fine approximation of Lou Reed and Lloyd Cole, a cool laidback narrative voice. Song writing wise however he springs fully formed from the womb and the compilation is a strong argument that he be considered in the same vein as contemporaries such as Steve Wynn, Chuck Prophet and Howe Gelb.

From his first album, Totem Poles & Glory Holes, Looking For An Angel is a punk like thrash of guitars with Tolman sneering away and the song not a million miles away from early Dream syndicate or Giant Sand. Down In Earthquake Town, represented here by two songs is richer in its textures with Planes, Trains And Automobiles a sublime mixture of exotic percussion and Spanish guitar as Tolman offers a flyblown tale of lost love with a wonderful twang in his semi-spoken delivery. By the time of Goodbye Joe (1990) Tolman is really at the top of his form with Marla Jane as exhilarating as Chuck Prophet’s recent offerings, a thunderous riff topped with some delicious guitar curls it stomps along with a fury. The opening lines to Blame It On The Girl (Ah fuck it, just throw it away…) lead into a spectacularly dynamic slice of rock’n’roll that beggar’s belief, the hip vocals and squalling guitars the equal of any Tom Petty song.

As he sashays into the nineties Tolman settles down somewhat and the brace of songs here find him fronting a melodic jangled rock as he becomes more comfortable with his voice. Something About A Rowboat and Sleepin’ All Alone do recall Lloyd Cole’s Commotions particularly with the vocal delivery but then again there’s the snarling That’s My Story And I’m Sticking To It which returns to the Paisley Underground days with organ jabs and tortured guitar  reminiscent of Green On Red. 1998’s City Lights album offers the delightful Monterey with its sweet delivery disguising the acerbic lyrics and the laid-back country rock of Salinas which again belies Tolman’s fine digs at the picture perfect scene one might expect. More up to date there’s one song from New Quadraphonic Highway, a visionary album that had Tolman experimenting with synthesizers  to create his notion of cosmic cowboy music as he amalgamated them with pedal steel (played by Tom Heyman). Most recently, there’s Los Angeles, a digital only single from 2013 which, after several years of inactivity, was the first blooming of his rebirth and which sweeps along with a multilayered guitar, organ and keyboards swirl and another song which should ring bells for anyone into any of the acts we’ve already mentioned.

The album closes with a 1994 song, Dry Your Pretty Eyes, a song that somewhat apes The Velvet Underground but is a fine encapsulation of Tolman’s talent as he has evolved into an excellent singer and an acute songwriter. As Pat Thomas, the author of the album’s liner notes remarked on the Paisley Underground, it was a “marriage of classic rock and punk” and on Dry Your Pretty Eyes Tolman proves that he can do that in spades.

Summing up, if you have any interest at all in Steve Wynn, Chuck Prophet et al then you have a duty to listen to this. Hopefully there’s more to come.

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Richard Thompson. Acoustic Classics II. Proper Records

58Richard Thompson pleased a great many people with his 2014 release, Acoustic Classics, where he handpicked several of his songs and delivered them solo stating at the time,  “I really wanted something that would reflect the acoustic shows but we didn’t have anything like that, Just some old, slightly scratchy recordings of solo sets that I wasn’t really happy with.” It seems that he was happy with the result as he’s gone and done it again with this second volume where he again goes through his extensive back catalogue coming up with 14 gems and this time he’s included his Fairport Convention days with three of the songs taken from that period.

He opens the album with the acerbic She Twists the Knife Again which is perhaps the least successful of his renditions here although his staccato guitar runs reflect the jagged lyrics.  The Ghost Of You Walks which follows is more representative of the album as a whole as Thompson settles into his familiar melancholic mood while his guitar playing is expressive and tender as is his singing. The first of the three Fairport songs, Genesis Hall, follows suit with Thompson reining in the Fairport waltz arrangement unveiling it as a modern folk classic with the words (written about a raid on squatters with Thompson’s police officer father participating) allowed to ring free. Jet Plane In A Rocking Chair and A Heart Needs A Home, both from his partnership with ex wife Linda, follow with the latter particularly affecting.

It’s of note that Thompson can invest songs that were originally recorded with full rock band arrangements with as much power and drive using just his acoustic guitar. Here Pharaoh and Gethsemane (from Amnesia and The Old Kit Bag respectively) pack a punch with Pharaoh in particular stern and glowering, its message undimmed and particularly apt for these benighted times. Guns Are The Tongues, another powerful protest song is the one song here that has added instrumentation with a mandolin added to the guitar and again Thompson invests it with a powerful dignity.

He goes all the way back to one of his earliest and best known songs when he tackles Meet On The Ledge and while the original can probably not be beat it’s great to hear Thompson sing this. The biggest surprise on the album is with a song of similar vintage, Crazy Man Michael. Originally released on Liege & Lief when Fairport were digging deep into folk music it proved that Thompson and co-writer Dave Swarbrick were able to deliver songs that reeked of tradition and here Thompson is just perfect as he maintains the eerie folk magic that informed the original.

It’s another triumph then for Thompson and a must for his many followers. And for those wanting more there’s another disc of Acoustic Rarities available via his Pledge Music Page here.

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William The Conqueror. Proud Disturber Of The Peace. Loose Music

william_the_conqueror_-_proud_disturber_of_the_peace_-_vjlp232There’s been a bit of a buzz in the blogosphere regarding this debut from Cornish band William The Conqueror, partly due to an impressive appearance at last year’s Americana Fest in Nashville and a nomination for best song at this year’s UK Americana awards. A listen to the album however begs that age-old question, what is Americana? (Answers on a postcard please) as it draws from and reflects so many other genres. Appearing on Loose Music helps as they are rightly considered purveyors of quality “Americana” music but Proud Disturber Of The Peace is quite idiosyncratic, grungy, folky, lo-fi and even soulful at times, it’s really a trip into a singular vision. The closest equivalent I can think of is the music that emanated from the early days of The Fence Collective, a bunch of folk who tore up the rule book back at the tail end of the nineties.

The trio (Ruarri Joseph, Harry Harding and Naomi Holmes) recorded the album live with few overdubs or post production resulting in an up close band sound, the instruments piling on top of each other. The opening song In My Dreams hurtles in resembling the jangled frenzy of The Velvet Underground and the street busking bustle of The Violent Femmes while the following Tend To the Thorns is a trip into the epic “big music” sound of The Waterboys with some Echo And The Bunnymen thrown into the mix. Third song, Did You Wrong,  is another thrash in the instrumental department although here Joseph adopts a laconic and cool vocal delivery. Thereafter however they settle down somewhat with the remainder of the songs less frenetic.

Pedestals builds on Joseph’s talkin’ blues style (which again is rather laid back although impassioned) as the band vamp along with some horns adding atmosphere. Keeping the horns they plunge headlong into street r’n’b territory on the slippery rhythms of The Many Faces Of A Good Truth which recalls Gill Scott Heron while Cold Ontario continues in a similar vein. Mindful of Joseph’s previous stint as a folk singer Mind Keeps Changing recalls early folk rock a la Greenwich Village with echoes of Tim Hardin although it builds into a muscular keyboard driven rock song by the end while Manawatu, which closes the album, has classic folk harmonica amidst its thrusting instrumental climb to a rousing climax. Best of all perhaps is the title song which gathers much of what surrounds it on the album as the band ride tempo changes, guitars burst into bloom and the rhythm section busks away with some fervour. Over this Joseph almost croons with a cool authority which reminds one of Morphine’s Mark Sandman’s beat vocals.

I guess that looking back on the litany of comparisons up above then William The Conqueror are certainly to be considered in the world of alt whatever. What matters is that the album is a great listen that pushes the envelope somewhat. Give it a shot.

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The Honeycutters’ Amanda Anne Platt takes centre stage

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From Ashville, North Carolina, The Honeycutters’ last album, On The Ropes, was on several best of lists at the end of last year with the majority of reviewers homing in on singer and songwriter Amanda Anne Platt, the de facto leader of the band. On the eve of their first tour of The UK, they will release their newest, self-titled, disc. Self titled perhaps but Ms. Platt has decided to step up to the plate with this one, the result being the newer moniker of Amanda Anne Platt & The Honeycutters. Blabber’n’Smoke spoke to Amanda last week and we started off by asking her about the name change.

I’m sure that you’ve been asked this by everyone and it’s mentioned in the press release but can I ask you why you’ve finally put your name out front before the band? I mean you’ve always been the focus of the band and you’re singled out in reviews and I was wondering if it was a way of you reminding people that, with the great wave of female artists that are about now, that you are one as well.

It’s been a topic that has come up with every album we’ve put out. Should we use my name or the band name? Even on our first album back in 2009, we considered it but in recent years there have been some changes in the band line-up that made me think more about it. To be honest, my co-founder and ex boyfriend who played guitar in the band until 2013 came up with the name so after he left, it’s felt a little odd using it. However, I think it’s a good name and as the band has grown and changed that name has grown new significance, so I don’t want to part with it completely. Nevertheless, putting my name out there has at least given me the feeling of more freedom from the past. It does also feel as though I’m claiming some girl power, I suppose. Instead of just being “the chick from the Honeycutters.” 

Your last album, On The Ropes, seemed to be less reliant on mandolin and Dobro with pedal steel, electric guitar and organ more to the fore with something of a soulful feel on several of the songs. I think that this is continued on the new album with an even “rockier” touch on Diamond In The Rough.  Are you becoming more “country rock” than country or folk as you progress?

I think that’s a fair statement. Although who knows, the next album might be all acoustic! I’ve definitely been enjoying the “rockier,” more soulful feel of the band. When I first started playing my songs in front of people I was really in a period of backlash against all the punk rock that I got into in my teens. I grew up listening to country, folk, and blues at the hands of my parents, then rebelled against that in my teens, and then rebelled against myself by getting really heavy into old time country music like The Carter Family and Jimmie Rogers. So when I put my band together I had more of an ear for the acoustic instruments. It’s not that any of that appreciation has waned, but throughout my twenties I started listening to a lot of rock ‘n roll from the sixties and seventies and let that leak into my songwriting a little. 

I’ve noticed in several of your songs that you sing about love’s bitter twists and its general unfairness regards women. Songs like Me Oh My, Not That Simple, Blue Besides and Golden Child. I was reminded at times of the likes of Loretta Lynn. Do you think that all is not fair in love and war?

Well, sometimes it’s not fair. With Me Oh My, that’s a song that I wrote when I was feeling the impossibility, as a woman,  of having a good home and family life and also being a touring musician. I was 25 then and I had a lot to figure out about what I wanted and what my options really were. It’s not that I’ve figured all that out here at 31, but I think I see things a little clearer. A couple of those songs– Blue Besides and Golden Child, are also less about heartache (at least for me – I like a listener to be able to take away their own meaning) and more about accepting the grey areas of life and not giving up on a dream because you hit a rough patch. But to really answer your question, I think women do have a tougher go of it in love and in business sometimes. But there again, what does not kill us makes us stronger. In addition, you might get a song out of it. 

The new album has songs about getting older (Birthday Song) and bereavement (Learning How To Love Him). Do you find yourselves thinking about “time being a gift” as the years go on?

I do, absolutely. This past year I’ve been confronted with several acquaintances losing their spouses and, more recently, the death of someone young that I’d worked with. It just puts things in perspective. Birthday Song was written on the eve of my thirtieth birthday when, instead of feeling panicked about the end of my roaring twenties, I found a patch of gratitude for being older and wiser, wise enough to know that I still don’t know anything and that’s OK. When I wrote Learning How To Love Him I was writing a love song, not a death song. I was imagining the whole of a life spent with someone in love, the ups and downs, fear and faith. We should all be so lucky to stick it out that long. 

The Guitar Case is about life on the road, the ups and downs of touring and playing and although the refrain (the sun is shining…) seems quite optimistic overall, you paint a pretty grim picture of repetition and almost boredom. Is this your life on the road?

That was a very particular moment on the road. Not an isolated event by any means, sometimes the road just sucks. But the payoff of that is that when we hit the stage and I’m making music with people I love, it’s fucking fantastic. Nothing can top that. We’ve had many ups and downs and it’s easy to be bitter and I indulged that bitterness just enough to write that song. As we’re talking however, I’m staying at a beautiful hotel in Telluride Colorado with a panoramic view of the mountains. We’re all going to go for a hike before soundcheck today. This is also the road. Sometimes that dim light becomes blinding!

Eden is an exceptional song and the fate of the woman, stranded in Indiana after losing her job and her husband reminded me a little of The Ballad Of Lucy Jordan, the character looking back and regretting things, realising she’ll never get to do the things she really dreamed of, exiled from Paradise. Can you tell us a little bit about how you came to write this one?

I’ll start by saying that I was not raised in a religious household nor do I feel any affiliation with organized faith now. But I have always been fascinated with this idea of the Garden of Eden, the Fall from Innocence, and especially with it somehow being Eve’s fault. To me, I was writing a story about a woman who feels like I have felt at times living in this country, that she wants to get out into the middle of nowhere and let life be SIMPLE. There’s a lot of noise these days, and the “American Dream” gets shoved down our throats more and more while attaining it gets more and more impossible. Even faith gets convoluted with power and politics. It’s tempting to stop trying to make anything better and just escape and feign ignorance. 

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I believe that originally you are from New York. How did you end up in Asheville? I read somewhere you wanted to be a luthier and that’s what led you there, and how did you get into song writing and performing?

I did move from New York to Asheville to be a luthier, or to learn the trade. I built the guitar that I play, but haven’t finished anything since! Music got in the way, Ha! I also had recently dropped out of college and needed to put some distance between that whole situation and myself.

 I started writing while I was still in school. I lived about two miles off campus and would pass by a music shop when I walked back and forth and, as I mentioned I was really into early country music at the time and I noticed a banjo in the window one day. So I bought it. I think I started writing songs as a way to sort out my feelings about leaving home and everything I had known for the first 17 years of my life. Also, I wrote a fair number of songs instead of doing homework. I started playing them at open mics in the area and got some encouraging feedback. Since then it’s just been a series of small, logical steps. 

You mentioned some of the musical styles and artists you were listening to in the past but can I ask you who has influenced you as a writer and singer and also who have you been listening to recently?

I sometimes feel like I’ve been influenced by anyone and everything ever but that’s a cop out. Like I said, I was brought up listening to a lot of earlier country artists like Earnest Tubb, Patsy Cline, The Louvin Brothers and Hank Williams. My dad is a huge fan of the blues, so artists like Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and Lightnin’ Hopkins were well represented too along with folk music of the sixties like Joni Mitchell and Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan. My parents met and married in Austin, Texas in the seventies so the songwriters of that time and place were part of my upbringing too. I remember being a little older and listening to Lucinda Williams and Jimmy Dale Gilmore, Guy Clark and Jerry Jeff Walker. The first CD I remember having for myself was the Rolling Stones’ Hot Rocks I’m a Stones over Beatles girl if pressed to choose (luckily no one ever really has to). In my teens I loved punk rock and grunge – Rancid, Gogol Bordello, Green Day and I was a huge Radiohead fan but I also liked straight ahead rock like Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen. Then there came the string band stuff and classic country. I developed a great love for Creedence Clearwater Revival in my 20’s then The Eagles, JJ Cale, Nina Simone, Warren Zevon, and all the stuff that now passes for “classic country,” Georges Jones and Strait and Conway Twitty and Charlie Pride and Tammy Wynette and Loretta and all of that. That’s the short version, I’m leaving so much out! Right now I’m totally hooked on Bruno Mars’ latest album 24k Magic. I think he’s a force for good in the pop music world. And anything Chris Smither ever does I think is brilliant. 

Finally, you’re coming to the UK in August for a lengthy tour up and down the country. You don’t have many days off but is there anything you are particularly looking forward to doing or seeing?

I’d like to see some castles! And some honest to goodness British Pubs. We have a lot of what I think are good imitations in this country but I want to have a pint and eat some fish and chips – the real thing. Mostly I just love meeting people and swapping stories, so I’m excited to get out of this country for a minute and hear some different perspectives. 

The album, Amanda Anne Platt & The Honeycutters. is released on Organic Records on Friday 4th August and the tour commences on the same day, all dates here.