Blue Rose Code. The Water Of Leith. Navigator Records

the-water-of-leithBlue Rose Code is the shape shifting ensemble chosen by Ross Wilson to deliver his songs, the vehicle for “that fusion of folk and jazz and where it intersects with song writing,” as he said in an interview with The Herald. Since coming to prominence in 2014 when his second album, The Ballads Of Peckham Rye, was nominated for the Scottish Album Of The Year Award, Wilson has blazed a trail across the country, constantly touring, the band swelling from three to ten or so members depending on who is available and where that night’s gig is. This musical caravan has picked up many fellow travellers along the way and on The Water Of Leith, the fourth album from Blue Rose Code, Wilson has assembled a fine array of them to assist him on what is probably his most assured piece of work so far, the album an almost transcendental journey into the hinterlands of his Hibernian soul.

An exile from his native Scotland for several years, Wilson returned home in 2015. Despite his years away there was always a “hameland” aspect to his songs while he has always used his mellow Scots burr when singing (a perfect example; True Ways Of Knowing from The Ballads Of Peckham Rye). The Water Of Leith is a culmination of this prodigal son’s return with much of the album rooted in a Celtic twilight vision while elements of two of his musical heroes, Van Morrison and John Martyn, loom large. Morrison, after a six year absence from his native Ireland, recorded his wondrous stream of Irish consciousness, Veedon Fleece, following a rest and recuperation holiday in the south of the island.  Martyn, originally a folkie, increasingly immersed himself in improvisation, adding free jazz drummer John Stevens to his live shows for a period of time, the results a spontaneous explosion of musical exploration. Here Wilson follows in their footsteps, the album a hymn to his native land while it is, at the same time, sonically adventurous. His plaintive ballads surrounded by sweeping epics with string arrangements and horn and wind charts. An Odyssey of sorts charting a newfound domestic comfort and the pull of a mystical land of glens and lochs, a land of seers and Kelpies; the sweep of the album is just majestic.

The album opens with just Wilson and piano gently introducing the concept of being home again on Over The Fields, the song gently swelling as female harmonies (from Beth Nielson Chapman and Eliza Wren Payne) join in along with a very delicate band and string arrangement. It’s difficult to describe just how powerful an emotional tug this song is. Suffice to say that Wilson sings wonderfully, the Morrison comparisons, as on his emotive Listen To The Lion, surely fitting here. Dedicated to the late John Wetton who played bass on Peckham Rye, it’s a magnificent song. The warm tones of Bluebell follow, the band inhabiting a fluent mix of jazz and folk as Wilson delivers a  belated love song soaked in memories, good and bad, the band soaring towards the end while the vocals again recall Morrison’s Celtic scat murmurings. Ebb & Flow rides on a more formal horn section blowing like a soul band on a jauntier number which, and apologies for bringing up the name again, recalls Morrison’s lighter numbers such as Cleaning Windows.

Wilson absents himself allowing the haunting Gaelic voice of Kathleen MacInnes, astride acoustic guitar, accordion and fiddle, to paint a gentle evocation of the Scottish hinterland on Passing Places which then flows gently into Wilson’s masterful pastoral impression of boat journeys along the west coast islands on Sandaig. Here Wilson breathes new life into an old kailyard tradition, his words transforming stereotypical Scottish scenes into a hopeful new future, a clarion call for a bold new country. Pushing the boat out Wilson offers several songs and instrumentals that are impressionistic. The ten minutes of The Water, another occasion where he absents himself, allows James Lindsay on double bass, John Lowrie on piano and Colin Steele on trumpet full rein to inhabit a fine mixture of Debussy like piano and Miles Davis Lift To The Scaffold jazz noire while To The Shore, the twin song to The Water, aches with Wilson’s hopes for the future, a new life on the way after a tumultuous voyage. An 18 minute song suite combined, the two numbers are an audacious assault on the three minute pop song but the tumultuous Hispanic jazz leanings on the latter song (another nod to Miles Davis?) complement the noirish tones of the former.

Julie Fowlis pops up on the fiddle fuelled folk remedy of Love Is…  while On The Hill Remains A Heart is an energetic swirl enlivened by the whistles and pipes of Ross Ainslie as Wilson sings of war widows, both examples of Wilson’s canny ability to write a fine melody with some heft to its heart. He closes the album with the affecting Child. Another straight from the heart song, similar to Pokesdown Waltz, with a heart in the throat like wallop. Here Wilson hunches over his piano like a  Scottish version of Randy Newman, a true humanitarian singing from the depths of his soul.

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Red Moon Joe. Time & Life

redmoon20smallerA recent article in Billboard magazine seemed to think that “UK Americana” was a new trend, citing artists who had played at the recent Americana Fest in Nashville. And while it’s perhaps true to say that the UK division of Twang has been getting its act together (principally via AMA-UK) over the past few years, Blabber’n’Smoke can testify to a much longer tradition going back to the seventies while Americana UK has been on the go since 2001. Anyway, thinking about this we were reminded of Red Moon Joe’s recent album, Time & Life. It’s their second release from their first reincarnation – the band originally convened in 1985 but split in 1993 – and it’s proof that some of us on this side of the pond have had the bug for quite some time.

Helmed by singer and guitarist, Mark Wilkinson, a man who built up a reputation as a go to guitar player for the likes of Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle and Guy Clark, Red Moon Joe rode the wave of cowpunk and alt country back in the days before going their separate ways. Their reunion album, Midnight Trains, released in 2013 (20 years after their last effort) was well received and now, only four years later here’s the follow up. Wilkinson is still front and centre although he shares writing credits with several of the band members (Steve Conway, David A Smith, Dave Fitzpatrick and Paul Casey) and as befits their more mature years, much of the album reflects the gathered wisdom of age with songs recalling past events and past heroes.

With several of the songs recalling the likes of Uncle Tupelo and Jason & The Scorchers the album is a fine blend of up tempo rockers and more reflective ballads, the music finely balanced between electric fuelled blusters and gentler, acoustic, meditations. The notion of looking back is introduced via the album’s title and the title of the opening song, both a nod to a Swinburne poem, but the song is far removed from Swinburne’s Victorian decadence (for that check out The Fugs) as the band weigh in sounding like Uncle Tupelo, guitars thrashing while pedal steel sneaks its way in with guest, Justin Currie adding harmony vocals. The High Lonesome, which follows, again features a guest singer. This time Cathryn Craig duets with Wilkinson as a banjo acutely cuts into the guitars and pedal steel while Wilkinson whips out a fine solo before the song flows into an extended jam with the pedal steel and guitar duelling much in the manner of Poco back in the days. There’s another excellent cosmic cowboy moment on One Day Behind, a glorious conglomeration of psychedelic pedal steel and bustling banjos, the band again recalling early pioneers such as New Riders Of The Purple Sage.

They delve into Jason & The Scorchers territory with Hard Road where Wilkinson’s solo challenges Warner E Hodges and there’s a swell Waylon Jennings’ country thump to Shadows. Meanwhile, and closer to home, they employ a horn section on the E Street sounding dedication to striking miners on the anthemic Orgreave while Elvis, Townes and Hank is an excellent ode to their roots with the horn section, slide guitar and solid rhythm reminding one of The Band. The album closes with the waltz time Tex Mex border strains of Nobody’s Fool, a song that surely was conceived in the midst of a Van Zandt listening binge.

Time & Life is surely evidence that the man on the Clapham omnibus can connect with the drifter on the interstate Greyhound and its highly recommended.

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Jesse Dayton. The Revealer

jesse-dayton-the-revealerTexan Jesse Dayton has a CV that looks as if he made it up in a hurry on his way to a job interview, snatching random names from a hat in order to say, “I did that!” Well, sure enough, it’s not made up. He has played guitar with, written with, produced, filmed (and starred in the movie) with Willie Nelson, The Supersuckers, X, Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell, Waylon Jennings and Rob Zombie, to name a few. He’s also a successful solo artist, his first album, Raisin’ Cain, was released in 1995 and he’s continued to record in between his other duties on a regular basis with The Revealer being album number eight.

He’s had five years to write this album which he states has, “my best batch of tunes yet.” Recorded in the legendary Sugarhill Sessions in Houston, Texas, in the main live in the studio, Dayton recalls, “You could feel the ghosts of George Jones, Freddy Fender, Doug Sahm and Jerry Lee Lewis in the room while we were working.” Given that Jerry Lee is still walking this world it was probably his presence or aura that was felt but, aside from this quibble, Dayton just about sums the album up there. It’s packed with tremendous songs which, despite a fair degree of variety, are rooted in that hard rocking, outlaw country vein that grew out of Austin way back then with other mavericks such as George Jones given their due.

You know you’re in good hands from the start when the opening bars of Daddy Was A Badass chug into view, the song a true slice of outlaw country bluster with Dayton saluting an army veteran who “was a honky tonk dancer and even beat cancer.”  He married the belle of the ball, raised his kids, and flew off a cliff on his Harley Davidson at the end of his days. It’s a badass song to be sure, up there with The Blasters and Dayton’s firm baritone voice rides the rhythm as surely as the song’s hero rode his hog. The Blasters come to mind again on the rollicking Holy Ghost Rock’n’Roller with Riley Osbourne’s blistering piano recalling Gene Taylor’s although the topic, the battle between God’s and the Devil’s music surely reflects the careers of the two foremost rock’n’roll ivory ticklers, Jerry Lee and Little Richard while the song is preceded by a brief sound clip of the Rev. Jimmy Snow railing against “the beat.” Some of those ghosts mentioned earlier loom large on several of the songs. The Way We Are is a dead ringer for Waylon Jennings with Dayton saluting the rock’n’roll lifestyle, Possum Ran Over My Grave is George Jones lit large, a fine tribute to the man who, aside from being called Possum was also called “No Show,” with Dayton sending chills up the spine just as Jones could do. The countrier than country titled I’m At Home Gettin’ Hammered (While She’s Out Gettin’ Nailed) might not get much airplay in these PC days but it’s a hoot of a song and delivered with the irreverent humour and relish that characterised much of Doug Sahm’s latter music. One can just imagine Sir Doug, wherever he is these days, hearing it with some delight.

Dayton reveals his talent throughout the album. There’s a brief diversion into Springsteen territory on the organ fuelled swagger of Take Out The Trash with the guitars adding a magnificent jangled rush. Pecker Goat, co-written with Hayes Carll, is a real country rock thrash with fiddle flailing away and a fine guitar solo while Eatin’ Crow and Drinkin’ Sand is in a similar vein with the rock solid band sound leavened by fiddle interludes while Dayton gets to show off his flashiest guitar playing of the album while also sounding as if he’s singing from the depths of Hell. Away from the thunder, there are some lighter moments such as the delightful country duet with Brennen Leigh on A Match Made In Heaven, another nod to Jones and his various duets over the years while Never Started Livin’ is a good old redemption song, the bad boy saved by a good woman.  Mrs. Victoria (Beautiful Thing) is a moving country blues number with Dayton’s resonator guitar to the fore as he sings an affectionate song about a much loved Negro maid and Dayton closes the album with another acoustic number, Big State Motel.  A stark portrait of the morning after the night before it resonates with the life of a musician doomed to replay this scene over and over. It also allows Dayton to again show off his undoubted guitar skills.

A rock solid country album sure to please anyone dismayed with the current glossy Nashville output, The Revealer is, at the end of the day, Badass.

Good news is that Jesse Dayton rolls into town this week playing at Stereo on Wednesday 25th October. Meanwhile, if you want to see the Rev Jimmy Snow denounce Rock’n’Roll here it is.

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Prinz Grizzley. Come On In. Shed Music

prinz-grizzley-2017-1One of the joys of attending a music festival is the unexpected discovery, an act, perhaps one you’ve never heard of, that just knocks you out. OK, it doesn’t happen that often but when Blabber’n’Smoke was at Kilkenny Roots earlier this year we did have such an epiphany when we popped into a hotel to see what the action was. On stage was a classic country line up playing classic country songs, the singer, well, his voice was immediately compelling, worn and wearied at times but able to soar and even yodel at times. It was Prinz Grizzley of course and it was something of a surprise when it transpired that the guys had travelled from Austria to play several shows over the weekend. It seemed to be a weekend well spent as Blabber’n’Smoke weren’t the only ones impressed with the band the most talked about act and even getting some PR representation from the jaunt.

Prinz Grizzley is the creation of Chris Comper, an Austrian who has been on the indie scene over there for some years before gravitating into his current country mode. The way he tells it he “Dug deep down in the rich grits of good ol´ country, folk and blues. The more he dug, the more he returned, back home to rural feelings that bound him to his roots in western Austria. Surrounded by rugged wild country, with god-loving, hardworking folk, whose simple living and gentle loving he finds an inspiration for songs that might have been written across the ocean.” And that pretty much sums up Come On In, the debut album – eleven songs which set Comper firmly in the Americana field as he ranges across country, honky tonk and romantic Western ballads. Listening to the album it’s clear that Comper did indeed dig deep, inhaling all he exhumed as he turns in a superb set of songs expertly crafted by his musicians with pedal steel weeping away along with some horn and string arrangements that elevate several of the songs. His lyrics (in English) are impressive, his love songs intimate and poetic while he also has a fine way with a story song. Many of the songs contain striking images and metaphors brought to life by his expressive vocal range.

The album opens with a classic sound, plaintive harmonica and softly strummed guitar introducing Wide Open Country before a lonesome pedal steel weighs in and the song slides into a slow waltz time affair. It could be an outtake from Neil Young’s Harvest days as Comper sings a song soaked in gratitude for being in love. The jauntier country lope of Give Me One More Reason shifts the band into saloon bar territory, fittingly enough as the song’s about betrayal as Comper sings, “I was worried about the signs Lord, she brought banc to our home. The smell of party and excitement lay upon her.” There’s more country heartache on the yearning I may Be Late, a cracking number with some superb curling pedal steel as the protagonist tries to persuade an old girlfriend to abandon her fickle man and come back to him. Again, Comper has a way with words here as he sings, “I heard he always spends your money in a topless bar, When you come home from the nightshift all you find is an empty jar.Personal Hell returns to the simple country rock lope of the opening song, albeit with a chunkier guitar propping it up, and again it’s an offer to be there in times of need and with the accordion accompaniment and Comper’s high lonesome voice it has echoes of The Band in it. For some reason Comper seems keen to play the other man at times. Fiery Eyes, an infectious number with horn arrangements sees him again trying to lure a woman from her man. Mind you, when he sings, “To be honest with you, I think leaving would be the right thing to do,” she would have to have a hard heart not to side with him.

Having proved he’s a dab hand with his country version of Don Juan, Comper turns his hand to some shitkicking rockabilly on the hard livin’, hard drinkin’ tale of Mountain’s Milk while Irene is a frontier song as a rancher in his dying days gives thanks to his better half and recalls their disappointments. Twang guitar and pedal steel evoke a wide-open space, almost Ghost riders in The Sky territory and Comper rides with his as his voice soars towards the end. Aging is the issue again on the powerful and glistening Walls, the pedal steel here gliding like a cosmic Jerry Garcia, as Comper inhabits a bedridden geriatric raging against the dying of his light. A couple of the songs are more intimate. I Can See Darkness seems to be another meditation on aging while the closing Tell Me Why finds Comper in a retrospective mood as he wallows through past memories, the delicate string arrangement adding a melancholy air.

The album confirms the impression we gained when we saw Prinz Grizzley all those months ago. Comper is an incredibly talented chap, tapping into a rich seam of country music and stamping his own personality on it. Word is that Prinz Grizzley will be touring the UK next year, if so, do be sure to go and see them.

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The Strange Blue Dreams. The Strange Blue Dreams. Holy Smokes Records

a4106934099_16Back in March 2016 Blabber’n’Smoke raved slightly over an EP from The Strange Blue Dreams, a Glasgow based combo who played songs which seemed to have been gathered from some Twilight Zone littered with rock’n’roll relics. Unlike many retro rockers, The Strange Blue Dreams pilfered from the past with some finesse, their songs, written by their crooning front man, David Addison, celebrating the worlds of Larry Parnes, Barry Gray and Joe Meek while the band delivered dreamily reverbed swoons along with a touch of exotica garnered from the likes of Martin Denny along with Eastern and Balkan music.

This debut album truly fulfils the promise of the earlier EP as its eleven songs shimmer and shake like jelly on a bone. They delve into a truly strange universe on songs such as Electricity and (yes) Twilight Zone while others swing delightfully in a manner reminiscent of such luminaries as Dan Hicks and Leon Redbone. It’s a heady mixture but it all hangs together with some style and a magnificent sense of cool which just exudes from the speakers.

With a very brief sound effect of sparks fizzing from a plug the album soars into being with the scintillating romance of Electricity which speeds along with a hint of Mink Deville’s Spanish Stroll in the harmonies as the guitars clash and clatter wonderfully. Reverberatin’ Love follows and as we said when we first heard it, it’s reverb set to stun, attitude to cool. If anyone asks you to sum up the band just play them this one. Twilight Zone dials down the frenzy as Addison croons wonderfully while the band lay down a Hawaiian backdrop replete with some fine mandolin from David Rae, it sounds as if Ry Cooder was zoning in from another universe. The Ballad Of The Sun And The Moon features Addison at his best, his unhurried voice clear above some frenetic fretwork as he sings of a tale of cosmic rivalry. Staying with celestial bodies, Up To The Stars is the first song to feature the band’s Eastern sympathies as they break into a Klezmer like rhythm, a style they revisit on the frenetic closing song, Anyway, a song which is bound to have audiences on their feet in a live setting with its cinematic evocations of films as diverse as Fiddler On The Roof and Cabaret.

Jungle Drums is a wonderful melange of surf music and Cotton Club like tribal drumming as popularised in the forties by Duke Ellington and others and there’s a nod to Buddy Holly on Towards The Warm Place although it’s the Buddy Holly from Mars, not Lubbock, that the band resurrect here. Meanwhile Lyrebird has a touch of Dan Hicks’ Hot Licks around it as it skitters along with some brio while Pretending Everything follows in a similar manner with the melody and delivery filtered through a fine production which suggests that the song again belongs to another dimension, one where Van Dyke Parks collaborated with the Sopwith Camel instead of The Beach Boys. Finally there’s the icing on the cake which is (That’s The Place) I’m Falling. Here the band pull in influences from Flamenco and Mariachi, Morricone and Tom Waits for a truly dramatic number.

The Strange Blue Dreams release the album with a launch gig at Cottiers Theatre in Glasgow this Friday. In the meantime check out their video channel, Tuned To The Moon, for a fine peek into their  weird rock’n’roll universe.

 

Jeremy Pinnell. Ties Of Blood And Affection. Sofaburn Records

e2069a_5277bb38e84c4e118495b89d2105a130mv2When North Kentuckian, Jeremy Pinnell, released his first album, OH/KY, a few years back I reviewed it for Americana UK saying, “The ten songs here are all exemplars of Country tradition be it Hank or Merle or Waylon.Ties Of Blood And Affection reaffirms my thoughts back then as Pinnell spins nine songs with each and every one of them a stone cold killer, steeped in a tough country tradition and elevated at times by some killer lyrics. In his songs he inhabits badlands, honky tonks and whorehouses. His spirit is defiant and proud, past sins are to be accounted for but in the meantime there’s a life to be lived and his characters live pretty full lives.

The record swings with a brashness that harks back to Waylon Jennings’ Lonesome, On’ry & Mean; country music with a rock’n’roll heart, Jennings’ response back then to Nashville’s increasingly straight laced music, Hank Williams music for modern times. Jennings and his fellow outlaws won that battle back then but today, with Nashville again trying to lose country’s roots in favour of flavourless ‘bro country, it’s artists like Pinnell who are carrying the flag for an authentic take on what Jimmy Rogers called the white man’s blues.

An acoustic guitar leads us into the arresting opening lyrics of Ballad Of 1892 as Pinnell sings, “Laid up in the house full of hookers and wine, my baby’s in the back done committing a crime” before the band slink in with a solid country beat, slinky guitars and tough pedal steel flashing like a flick knife. Take The Wheel is somewhat sweeter despite Pinnell’s gravelly vocals on a road song that barrels along with gliding pedal steel before a road stop in a honky tonk on Feel This Right. Here Pinnell is in his comfort zone, a bar room philosopher declaring his hard won triumphs and his daily toils. He has to pay his bills but he’s got a kid and a good woman who calls him daddy and his musings are surrounded with a wonderfully realised fat backed, almost Western Swing, style, the band almost lazily laying down some excellent licks. Still in the honky tonk there’s the redemptive love song, I’m Alright With This, with Pinnell casting a gaze back on times in institutions and the days when he went to jail every time he had a beer before being saved by the love of a good woman. Again, Pinnell and the band just slay it with their nonchalant country insouciance, the guitars and pedal steel almost slipping from the speakers.

It’s this lived in aspect that makes the album so attractive. There’s a sense that this is a bunch of guys just laying down their tales, the art disguised by the ease with which they deliver the goods. Think of your favourite country song and there’s a fair bet that one of the songs here will match it. Different Kind Of Love is a sweeping declaration of affection with a Jennings’ like majesty and I Don’t Believe chugs along with some brio and a fine dose of machismo.  Ain’t Nothing Wrong is a master class in country rock with the guitar and pedal steel battling it out as the band approach the brilliance of Emmylou’s Hot Band way back then.

The album closes with another tough outlaw type song on The Way We See Heaven with Pinnell again throwing up some arresting lyrics. Here he foretells his hell raising days leading to an eternity below, not an issue as he’ll be with the ones who loved him. It’s delivered with a bewildering skewer of guitars, pedal steel and organ along with a steady outlaw country heartbeat.

The album’s out and Jeremy Pinnell embarks on a short tour of the UK, accompanied by Ags Connolly, this week. All dates here. 

Richard Thompson. Acoustic Rarities. Proper Records

arRichard Thompson’s decision, back in 2014, to record some of his back catalogue with just him and his acoustic guitar (Acoustic Classics) might be one of the best of his career. Hailed immediately by fans and critics he recently followed it up with Acoustic Classics Vol. 2, another cracker, and now, just two months later, he unveils a third instalment.  Essentially, there’s no real need to read further on if you enjoyed the previous volumes. Rarities stands beside them, tall and proud.

The format is the same. Thompson, voice and acoustic guitar, revisits his catalogue. Here the bait (if any was needed) is six previously unreleased songs and a few recorded by others but not previously by Thompson. Alongside these he digs deep into his recorded past revisiting Fairport Days, his obscure solo debut, Henry The Human Fly, and two numbers originally recorded with Linda Thompson.

Sloth, originally a lengthy electric folk dirge on Fairport’s full House, is stripped back but still sends shivers down the spine with Thompson’s unique guitar style a triumph. Poor Will And The Jolly Hangman (a song that was recorded for Full House but which didn’t make the final cut, only emerging some years later) allows Thompson to stake, yet again, a claim to be one of our finest troubadours in the folk medium. From the duo years with Linda, Thompson selects the dark Never Again and the even darker, End Of The Rainbow, the latter given a magnificent reading and as relevant today as it was back when it was recorded, a bleak prophecy for a fresh faced bairn.

Henry The Human Fly (his first solo album in 1972) was, allegedly, the poorest selling album ever released by US label Warner Bros/Reprise and Thomson was reportedly dissatisfied with it. This reviewer still has his copy bought back then and still thinks that The Angels Took My Racehorse Away and Roll Over Vaughn Williams stand amongst Thompson’s best songs. Here he selects The Poor Ditching Boy for a royal makeover with accordion accompaniment, a version which begs the question as to whether, for a future instalment, Thompson could deliver the whole of the album acoustically.

As for the unreleased songs, some will be familiar to gig goers over the years such as the humorous Alexander Graham Bell, here given some Django like guitar runs, while Push And Shove was a live favourite some twenty years ago. Rainbow Over The Hill was offered to The Albion Band and it’s a neat reversal of the rainbow metaphor from The End Of The Rainbow with its optimism. What If is a fine example of a spiky Thompson diatribe while She Played Right Into My Hands rolls along with a fine pub session folk feel and They Tore The Hippodrome Down wanders down a nostalgic alley. Best of all however is the stark folk ballad Thompson offered to Blair Dunlop, Seven Brothers. Here he revisits his reimaging of classic folk ballads that helmed Liege & Lief and Full house with a song suffused with portents of doom.

So, number three in an excellent series. Wholly recommended to Thompson fans and hopefully not the last of them to surface.

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