Yellow Feather. And Gold

yellow-feather-and-goldThe first thing folk might notice about this band (and this album) is the name, Casey Kristofferson, nestled in the band line up. Yes, she’s the daughter of Kris and Rita and she’s one third of this unassuming trio from North Carolina. She sings and writes several of the songs along with Hunter Begley who also sings and plays guitar while lap steel player Charlie Willis completes the band. It’s Begley who is at the helm, his voice the lead on many of the songs and he takes the trio down some dusty roads, his tired and weary take on life’s hiccups somewhat splendid while the overall sound is laid back with a winning lack of polish. Willis’ lap steel gives the album a sweet curl, sounding almost like Leon McAuliffe (of The Texas Playboys) while a slew of guest players (especially fiddler Lindsay Pruett and pianist Matthew Rowland) allow them to gently rock out on a couple of the songs with the rhythm section of Herschel VanDyke and Robert Parks unobtrusively pushing the songs along.

If You Ain’t Cheatin’ opens the album on a high note although it’s a very low key song opening with the lines, “It was a shitty little shack but it was where they did their stuff,” as Begley sings about an engaged girl caught romping with another man. With lyrics which could have come from Mary Gauthier and a fine old fiddle driven country stumble pace it gives notice that the following 40 minutes might be extremely gratifying. There’s more downbeat wallowing in Sarah Accidentally, a mesmerising mix of hypnotic guitar (courtesy of Brian Wright) and some deadpan rhythm as Begley leads the band down a Richmond Fontaine byway while Pirate’s Love Song is a dreamlike evocation of what is possibly a fantasy love life. Blood And Bones ups the tempo as a true blooded country song but its finely nuanced sloppy jauntiness carries a tale of loss and emptiness.

There’s a fine mix throughout the album with Swallow You Down and Key Of C both resembling the slack rock’n’roll of The Felice Brothers while Couch Farm romps along finely with an Appalachian air as Begley sings about the daily drudge of working in a furniture chain store. Lucille, a fine and mildly rollicking bar room ballad recalls the laid back excellence of The Deslondes.  Kristofferson, who in the main sings harmony, steps up to the mic for Fences, a song written by another country scion, Amy Nelson (who is in a band, Folk Uke, with Cathie Guthrie, yip, Arlo’s kid) and it’s given a mild Western swing treatment while her song, Dirty Feet, featuring Aaron Lee Tasjan on guitar, is a bit of an anomaly here as it glides more into a singer/songwriter introspective direction. The closing Lost All Direction meanwhile finds the band dipping into a swampy jangled puddle; guitars and a banjo (there’s none listed in the credits but it sure sounds like one) along with a wheezy harmonica congeal perfectly into a fitting farewell to an extremely fine album.

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Malojian. Let Your Weirdness Carry You Home

a1294981180_16OK, this album’s been kicking around since last October but it’s only recently that Blabber’n’Smoke acquired a copy and one listen propelled it straight to the top of the reviews bundle. Malojian is essentially Irishman Stevie Scullion and Let Your Weirdness Carry You Home is his fourth long player. It finds him moving on from the melodic folk based songs of his early albums to a full blown psychedelic fuzziness souped up with a fine dose of power pop. There are healthy nods to Beatles whimsy, Donovan dippiness and Jeff Lynne’s grasp of pop with Scullion wrapping them all up into a very attractive package.

A couple of the songs hark back to his earlier style, the pastoral Hanging On The Glow is ethereal, lifted by a gently swelling string section while the hipster baiting Beard Song, played on piano, opens as if Scullion is inhabiting the soul of Harry Nilsson before an excellent trumpet solo from Linley Hamilton raises itself above the bar room playing. There’s also an excellent instrumental break in the form of Broken Light Company (Theme) in the middle of the album with its delicious old time waltz feel recalling Neil Innes’ Book of Records theme while the seagulls squawking towards the end remind one that much of this album was recorded in a lighthouse.

The meat of the album however is when Scullion starts rooting around in his Strawberry Fields allotment. Opening song, Some New Bones is a lysergic balm, an almost Eastern drone throbs throughout the song while disembodied voices whisper and guitars flow backwards. A New Armageddon seems to float over the excellent percussion (from Joey Waronker) with its keyboard melody eventually overtaken by crashing guitars and a swooning cello, it creates a mood which is then elevated by the energetic surge which is Battery, driven by a Kraut rock drum beat and riffing cellos it’s magnificently  hazy. However Scullion tops this with the extremely trippy Ambulance Song, a real peek into the psychedelic toy box of 1960’s dandified Carnaby Street pop. It transports one back to patchouli scented days with its perfect amalgamation of dappled guitars playing what seems to be an Eastern scale, baroque strings and a closing berserk harmonica solo, a real nugget of a song and that’s not to mention its creepy lyrics. The title song closes the album and it’s a slight return to the opening only more urgent and twice as long. The drumming here is like Ringo’s on Strawberry Fields Forever while strings and fuzz guitar buzz and drone becoming more demented as the song progresses with Scullion breathily intoning the title.

In a way this album deserves to be considered anew despite it coming from last year as it will be perfect for the forthcoming better days, its psychedelic sunshine sounds just perfect for some balmy weather. Whatever, it’s a magnificent listen.

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Hannah Read. Way Out I’ll Wander. Hudson Records

packshot-sqOur friend in Edinburgh, David Ferguson, writes about the wonderful new album from Hannah Read…

Hannah Read is an Edinburgh-born singer, songwriter and fiddler (with links also to the remote Scottish Isle of Eigg), who is now resident in Brooklyn, New York. Hannah is much in demand as a collaborator on both sides of the Atlantic and was part of the highly successful Songs Of Separation project, which won Album Of The Year at last year’s BBC Radio Folk Awards.

For her first full-length album, Way Out I’ll Wander, Hannah Read has delivered a beautifully-crafted set of songs which deal elegantly, eloquently and honestly with universal themes of home, love and loss. Hannah’s pure and clear vocals (transatlantic, with pleasing traces of her Scots accent) are to the fore, while subtle washes of strings, woodwind and yearning lap steel guitar add richness to the intimate song arrangements.

Highlights from this very fine album include Moorland Bare (an evocative Robert Louis Stevenson poem set to Hannah’s hauntingly beautiful melody); the simply stunning Alexander (a poignant and reverential tribute to an elderly war veteran); Way Out I’ll Wander (an achingly beautiful reflection on the loss of Hannah’s much loved grandfather “…on the last day of the year…”); and the invigorating Boots (which oozes delight in the simple pleasures of newfound love).

Filled with songs of true depth and beauty, Way Out I’ll Wander is likely to bring Hannah Read even greater recognition on both sides of the Atlantic, on a par with her good friend Sarah Jarosz (who provides backing vocals on the album).

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Rich Krueger. Life Ain’t That Long. RockInk Music

richkrueger6We were introduced to Rich Krueger last year via his EP Overpass (reviewed here) which revealed him as a serious songwriter with razor sharp wit, a sometimes surreal way with words and an excellent ability to blend various musical styles ending up with his own idiosyncratic sound. The EP was a curtain raiser for two planned album releases with Life Ain’t That Long the first to be whelped into the world and a fine pup it turns out to be.

There’s no template for a Krueger song and the album weaves like a drunken sailor with bar room wisdom, tin pan alley pop, country and old fashioned R’n’B  all stumbling into view.  Sure enough there are shades of Springsteen, Newman, Bukowski and Van Morrison here and there but it’s all filtered through Krueger’s sardonic prism. The album opens with the country styled A Stoopid Broken Heart which sweeps along with pedal steel, fiddle and slide guitar in a glorious manner as Krueger sings as a barfly longing for the bar singer and telling everyone in the saloon about it. The Gospel According To Carl is more mannered, kicking off like a Randy Newman number with Krueger and his piano carrying the melody before the band weigh in and the song swells into a Gospel number. It’s a grand narrative, the protagonist a flashy used car dealer who can charm the pants off the customers having learned his craft as a pretend cripple at his dad’s tent shows. Of course dodgy brakes on a just sold car lead to calamity and his literal downfall as he sits atop a church, sozzled and ready to fly. Meanwhile the guy opportuned for casual sex in a bar in A Short One On Life grows to empathise with his paramour’s plight while Ain’t It So Nice Outside Today inhabits the souls of people who suffer- ill, old, maimed, feeling helpless, yet, despite this parade of horrors, there’s ultimately a sense of optimism by the end. The quest for happiness is investigated in the jazzy What Is It That You Want with Krueger recalling Ben Sidran back in the days.

Krueger seems to delve into his own past on a few songs. ’77/17 is a coming of age tale which recalls a first love and the ongoing flame it ignited, his own American Pie (in both the Don McLean and the movie series sense). Krueger’s teen sex life and the cultural highpoints of 1977 are conjoined in this winning slice of slightly stained urban R’nB grit. The Sex Pistols are one of the cultural touchstones in ’77/17 and Sid Vicious makes an appearance in the schlocky Springsteen like Then Jessica Smiled which is replete with farting sax solos and female harmonies straight from the Brill Building as Krueger looks back on his life, the lyricism here diametrically opposed to the wonderful pastiche that is the music with the song ending with a quote from Bonnie Tyler’s It’s A Heartache. Delicious.

Finally there is the crowning glory that is The Wednesday Boys, a song which truly inhabits the Celtic soul of Van Morrison with Krueger even approximating Morrison’s stream of consciousness delivery. It’s his Brooklyn version of Cypress Avenue and his band here support him with flying colours creating a wonderful neon lit night time ambience, Ed Hopper’s Nighthawks coming to life. We look forward to the promised second album.

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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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