Rod Picott. Out Past The Wires. Welding Rod Records

12IN_GATEFOLD_JKT_2PKTWhetting our appetite for his upcoming tour of the UK, Rod Picott releases his most ambitious album yet, the sprawling double disc (on CD and also on vinyl!) Out Past The Wires, 22 songs carved from his usual cast of blue collar workers, hard luck losers and folk living on the edge. Picott seems to have been extraordinarily prolific in the last year, the songs on the album whittled down from a long list of 78 to 32 serviceable ones, the ten spare songs expected to surface at some point. In addition he has released a collection of his poetry (God in His Slippers) and is preparing a book of short stories which will expand on some of the characters in the songs here.

Produced by Neilson Hubbard, the album features Picott backed by a studio band which includes Hubbard on percussion along with Will Kimbrough, Evan Hutchings, Lee Price and Kris Donegan with Picott recording his voice and guitar initially before the band set to backing them allowing the fuller band arrangements to rock out with some finesse, a finely nuanced balance of loose limbed spontaneity and excellent playing. There are moments here when they sound like The Faces with the slide guitars on A Better Man particularly reminiscent of Ronnie Wood slashing away while Better Than I Did opens with a Lennon like harmonica trill before the band head into Basement Tapes territory.

With Picott’s more sensitive songs, featuring just him and his guitar with some minimal backing, scattered throughout the two discs, mingling with the full on band songs, there’s no dichotomy between the discs here and, somewhat rare for a double album, no sense that Out Past The Wires would work better as a single disc. Instead it’s a double dose of good medicine with no slump in quality control in sight. He’s by turn joyous and morose, optimistic and pessimistic, angry and resigned. Blanket Of Stars is a beautifully delivered tender song sung by an outsider who’s mother was a teenage bride, his daddy a little bit drunk while Holding On ruminates in a similar manner with Picott in solo folksinger mode, the song grabbing one’s attention just as much as the rockier items here. Dead Reckoning is a perfectly realised love song as is The Shape Of You although here the love is in the past and the singer is drinking away his memories. Alcohol is the devil in Bottom Of The Well, a stark and astute portrait of a descent into addiction but this despair is somewhat redeemed by the following We All Live On, a rare note of optimism from Picott.

It’s a joy to hear Picott and the band gel on songs such as Take Home Pay (one of four co-writes with his buddy, Slaid Cleaves) and Coal which burns with a slowly seething sense of injustice along with a Southern rock swamp vibe while Hard Luck Baby is a rocker in the Mellencamp camp. But the 22 songs here run through a gamut of styles with the common denominator being Picott’s finger on the pulse of today’s America with Hard Luck Baby coming across like a condensed and updated version of The Grapes of Wrath. Overall the album is a triumph with Picott stepping up to the mark throughout and it certainly sets the barrier high for his upcoming shows, a barrier we are sure he will surmount as he’s a seasoned and exceptionally good performer. In addition he’s preparing the companion book with a first sneak peek available here as he fills in the background to Take Home Pay.

Rod tours the UK in March, all dates here

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The Lost Brothers. Halfway Towards A Healing.

a3891704386_16Oisin Leech and Mark McCausland, the Irishmen who sing so beautifully together as The Lost Brothers, headed to the arid lands of Tucson, Arizona for their latest instalment of wonderfully crepuscular songs. The pair have a penchant for choosing a specific location for each of their recordings (including Liverpool, where they started off as a duo, Sheffield, Portland Oregon and Nashville) and often a particular producer, believing that it’s key to attaining the “magic.” For Halfway Towards A Healing they recorded in Dust and Stone Studios with owner Gabriel Sullivan and the legendary Howe Gelb overseeing the production and sure enough, some of the Giant Sand man’s sonic drizzle percolates throughout the album.

There’s no dramatic change in The Lostie’s sound. They’re still the perfect late night accompaniment, their harmonies excellent, the songs almost lullabies, a balm for the discontented and the lonely. They’ve often been compared to Simon & Garfunkel but at times here they approach the melancholic lyrical beauty of Leonard Cohen, the title song here being the premium example (while it also slouches along wonderfully with Gelb’s fingerprints all over it). More Than I Can Comprehend (co-written with Glen Hansard) is a lyrically stark portrait of a relationship blowing up and Songs Of Fire is despair writ large despite its incredibly nimble arrangement. For true melancholia however it would be hard to beat Summer Rain which rambles along wonderfully with Gelb’s idiosyncratic lounge piano allied to a lazy cowboy rhythm.

The opening songs, Echoes In The Wind and Where the Shadows Go, will satisfy those who hold to the Simon & Garfunkel comparison, the former in particular is suffused with Simon’s early style. Come Tomorrow, a song which canters along in comparison to its siblings recalls another sixties songwriter, in this case Tim Rose and his version of Morning Dew. Again Gelb seems to be in the background with gently twanged guitar and occasional sonic splutters making their mark. On working with Gelb Mark McCausland says, “He would pick us up in the morning and take us out into the desert. We’d walk for hours, then he’d drop us back at the studio. We’d go through songs with studio engineer Gabriel Sullivan, then Howe would meet us at the end of the day, listen to what we’d done and work on the tracks. All those trips into the desert were to get the environment into our system.” The Tucson topography looms large in the instrumental, Reigns Of Ruin, a gentle cantina styled strum and Gelb himself has a cameo appearance as he narrates the closing song, The Ballad Of The Lost Brother, a self help manual of sorts which sounds like the sort of thing Travis Henderson (from Paris, Texas) might have said were he a gonzoid Zen like musician from Tucson, an odd end to the album but a delight for any fans of Gelb.

Mark Twain said, “Comparison is the death of joy” but if one were forced to compare Halfway Towards A Healing against their earlier albums it’s tempting to say that this is their best yet.

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Tom Heyman. Show Business, Baby.

a1381658475_16For two decades Tom Heyman has been a vital part of the San Franscisco music scene, a go to pedal steel man and guitar slinger who has recorded and played with the likes of Chuck Prophet, Alejandro Escovedo, Russ Tolman, Mark Eitzel and John Doe. He came to Blabber’n’Smoke’s attention when he released his third solo album, the late night wallow that was That Cool Blue Feeling and we got to see him play live when he toured over here with Dan Stuart and Fernando Viciconte. On Show Business, Baby, Heyman wanted to capture the experience of “seeing a great band getting down in a small club, “citing his love of bands such as Rockpile, The Flamin’ Groovies and NRBQ, an experience he knows all too well having spent ten years with Philadelphia’s Go To Blazes and he succeeds in spades.

With 13 songs, all hovering around the three minute mark, the album is an excellent collection of taut and punchy numbers, many of them capable of being inserted into The Groovies’ Teenage Head with no seams showing. There’s a sense of juvenile delinquency (and more so, inadequacy) on several of the songs along with tons of swagger and snot –  the closing number, Sonny Curtis’ Baby My Heart (with Heyman digging into Bobby Fuller’s version) is straight out of Nuggets. The curling guitar riff which kicks off the album on Baby Let Me In sets the scene as Heyman snarls and whines impotently at his girl who’s locked him out as the band barrel on magnificently, a Seeds like keyboard stab incessant along with a deranged guitar solo from Heyman.  It’s a great start to the album but throughout there are songs which just spring from the speakers brimful of attitude, stuffed with memorable riffs and stomps. The cowbell happy Show Business recounts Heyman’s time as a bartender, What In The World is NRBQ meets Bo Diddley while Whiskey Wolf kicks off with a Dragnet like guitar riff as Heyman sings of a 9-5 guy transformed into a booze fuelled predator at the weekend with guest guitarist Eric Ambel howling at the moon on his “rip snorting guitar solo.” Meanwhile the hero in Out West dreams of getting it together by heading for the coast of the setting sun as the band clatter along like Joe King Carrasco and All Ears has the pounce and drive of Nick Lowe’s Rockpile.

On a couple of the songs Heyman comes across as a successor to Mott The Hoople’s Ian Hunter whose hip sense of sneer ruled songs such as The Golden Age Of Rock’nRoll. Etch A Sketch is a clever metaphor for a broken heart while Little Killers is one of those songs stuffed with rock’n’roll cliches tossed off with a cool attitude and a fine pop sensibility. Finally, there’s a magnificent cover of Dion’s Daddy Rollin’ (In Your Arms) which is heavier than the other songs here, an evil sounding organ fuelled blast with pummelling drums, it’s like a Vanilla Fudge cover of Dion’s fuggy folk psychedelic original leading one to wonder whether Heyman could investigate a late sixties voodoo vibe somewhat further.

With this sleek, sharkskin suited (with a hint of glitter), album, a hymn to tight rhythm, cool riffs and snarly rock attitude, Heyman succeeds perfectly in his quest to capture the joy of close up musical nirvana. It would be a joy to see him deliver any of this live.

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The Man From Leith Finds Himself in Muddy Waters – Dean Owens & Southern Wind

railway-pic-crop-3Dean Owens unveils his latest album, Southern Wind, at a showcase concert this Friday as part of Celtic Connections. Recorded in Nashville with a crack team of American musicians (including Neilson Hubbard and Will Kimbrough, both part of The Orphan Brigade) the album is a bit of a departure for Owens. Many of the songs were co-written with Kimbrough and there’s a definite whiff of the deep South woven throughout. We spoke to Dean about its making and asked about several of the songs on it.

You’ve recorded several of your albums in Nashville but Southern Wind seems to be more rooted in an American sound as opposed to the Celtic Americana that characterised Into The Sea. While the opening number, The Last Song, sounds like it could have fitted easily into the last record with that freewheeling roustabout swing which is reminiscent of Ronnie Lane’s last Chance, the rest is quite different.

It was hard to follow up an album like into The Sea, a lot of folk really liked that and I think the best thing to do is to go down a different road and try not to repeat yourself. I’ve done that with all my albums I think. If you go back to my first album and follow them thorough I think they are all quite different. Last Song is probably a bit of a connection to the last album, when we sequenced the album we decided to kick off with that one and then head into a slightly different world.

The main difference from Into The Sea is that I wrote most of the songs with Will Kimbrough and he’s from the South and that brought a strong flavour into the album. I was talking to a friend the other night about this and he thought that Into The Sea, although I recorded it with some of the same musicians in Nashville, was much more about my background, looking at me growing up and with lots of family and friends references whereas on this one there are different characters and a different feeling. That has come about through writing with Will and also through spending more time over there. Since I recorded Into The Sea I’ve spent a lot of time over in Nashville and travelling about. Aside from Southern Wind I’ve also been recording this other project, Buffalo Blood  down in New Mexico and I think that, as an artist, you kind of soak up all that stuff.

The instrumental break on When The Whisky’s Not Enough and the opening slide guitar and bluesy moans of No Way Around It are particularly evocative of Southern music.

I’m really pleased with the way No Way Around It worked out. I wanted it to be a big sounding song and that take was the one and only time we played it in the studio. I think we really captured the vibe I was going for, the real spirit of the song and in bringing in Kira Small for the backing vocals, I really wanted to have a good soulful voice in there and she nailed it. I’d said to Neilson Hubbard, the producer, “I really want to make a swampy sounding record,” and that’s what he does really well. He’s from Mississippi and Will’s from Alabama as is Evan the drummer so they have that sound in their veins.

I really wanted  especially to feature Will’s guitar playing on the album and on The Last Song he’s actually playing guitar, bass and piano. He just had that Ronnie Lane type of bass sound on the demo so rather than have the regular bass player Dean Marold play, Will did it and he also played piano on it as he has that rollicking Faces’ like loose way of playing.

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You mentioned Kira Small and her voice on No Way Around It is spectacular. It reminds me of Merry Clayton’s singing on The Stones’ Gimme Shelter.

That’s exactly what I was thinking of when we were recording that, that Gimme Shelter type sound. I’d said to Neilson that I wanted a big soulful voice in there and right away he said that he knew exactly the woman who could that and it was Kira. That’s one of the great things about Nashville, I mean people ask me, “Why go to Nashville? There’s loads of great musicians here.” Well of course there are but in Nashville everything’s on your doorstep. You can say I want that voice or I want that instrument and you’re surrounded by some of the best players and singers who can just come in, almost at a minute’s notice for a session. Kira came in and nailed that on the first take. That’s one of the reasons I love working with Neilson, I trust him and he knows what I want and he knows how to get it.

Earlier you said that much of Into The Sea was informed by family memories but there are a couple of songs here that are also  about your family.

When Into The Sea was being recorded my sister was gravely ill and her passing was obviously a huge blow and although I don’t want to dwell on it, in a way I wanted to, as it were, put that part of me to rest. My sister will always be with me and that song, Madeira Street, is a memory but it’s also a way of moving on. It’s a situation that affects more and more people as we go along. I’ve realised that in the past few years that so many people I know have had similar situations so although the song is about me and my sister I hope that people can relate to it.

You also have a song about your mother.

Well, my parents try to come along to my shows whenever they can and one of my most popular songs is The Man From Leith which is of course about my father and my mum’s always been giving me a hard time about not writing a song for her. So I had started this song (Mother) a while back but I really didn’t know where it was going. I sang it to Will when we were doing a wee song writing session way before we started on the album and he helped me out with some of it. I still felt it needed something else however and when I was touring with Danny & The Champs I was playing it in the dressing room, just as a way of warming up, and Danny asked me what it was as he quite liked it. Anyway, I was staying with Danny the next day and we were messing about with it and I was telling him about my mum and some of the things she was always saying and he said, “That’s it, there’s your lyrics there,” and he helped me to piece it together and encouraged me to put it on the album. Fortunately she loves it, I sang it to her on Christmas Eve and by the time I was finished we all had a bit of a tear in our eyes.

There’s a great rockabilly punch on Elvis Was My Brother.

That’s the song that people seem to be picking up on so far. It was pretty much based on a letter a friend sent me and I asked him if I could use it and he said yes and he’s really happy with the way it turned out. Of course it’s about a huge Southern character, Elvis, so it fitted on the album along with my other song about another Southern hero, Louisville Lip, about Muhammad Ali. Aside from musicians one of my greatest heroes was Ali and although we’ve lost a great many musicians in the past couple of years his death was the one that really hit me. I’ve got some memories of sitting with my dad watching Ali fight Foreman when I was really young and although I’m not sure if it’s what really happened as I was so young, I think that I was mesmerised by this guy dancing around with these really cool white shorts on and I said to my dad that I wanted a pair of those. He said I could only get them if I became a boxer and so later I joined a boxing club and that was a huge part of my growing up.

I remember exactly where we were when we heard that Ali had died; we were in Amarillo, Texas, one of those names that certainly conjures up one particular song. We were in the van coming back from New Mexico when one of the guys read the news on his phone. And when we got back to Nashville I sat down and wrote the song and played it to Will and we decided it had to go on the album. Ali was just my hero and aside from his boxing prowess he was a huge figure in the South in the civil rights era so he deserved to be on the album.

The album launch is on Friday and you’ll be appearing with your own band, The Whisky Hearts. Given that the album was recorded with these American Southerners, how will The Whisky Hearts play the songs?

The songs will sound different when we play them. The Whisky Hearts are all brilliant Scottish musicians and while they’re not steeped in the South like Will and Neilson are, they’ll play the songs with their own passionate take on it. For example, there’s no fiddle on the album but we’ve got Amy Geddes on fiddle so it will sound different.  We did it with Into The Sea, we took the songs I had recorded in Nashville and brought them home and we’ll do the same here, the spirit of the record will shine through.

Dean Owens & The Whisky Hearts are appearing as part of Celtic Connections at the Drygate, Glasgow on Friday 2nd February. Southern Wind is officially released on 16th February with advance copies on sale at Friday’s concert. Dean will also be a guest of Celtic Music Radio‘s Mike Ritchie on Friday afternoon, 1-2pm, talking about the album and playing some songs in session.