I See Hawks in LA. Live and Never Learn. Western Seeds Record Company

i-see-hawks-in-l-a-live-and-never-learn-cover-300dpi-696x623Still flying that old freak flag high and championing the evergreen sounds of Topanga canyon country rock from back in the seventies, I See Hawks in LA return to the fore with this excellent slice of slinky and sly songs. It’s been five years since their last album Mystery Drug and in the meantime two band members have had to contend with the passing of parents, events which stalled the band but which they say they got through due to friends, family and making music. A presumption then that these songs might have had a longer gestation than usual but they are all the better for that as The Hawks deliver a wonderfully balanced set which sets rockers and humorous tales alongside more serious matters such as their ongoing concern for the environment.

It’s a lengthy album but chockfull of great songs. Forget about the comparisons to the Eagles which commonly inhabit reviews of the Hawks. Here they delve deeper into the sounds of bands such as Poco, New Riders of The Purple Sage and even the good old Grateful Dead – just listen to the winding guitars in Singing In the Wind (a song which weirdly enough finds the Hawks in wind blasted Wuthering Heights territory). There’s also a soupçon of southern syncopation in the slow meander of White Cross and surely that’s the spring heeled wackiness of NRBQ lurking in the taut rhythms of Stoned with Melissa before it dissolves into its incense and peppermint coda. There’s cosmic cowboy joy in Poour Me while The Last Man in Tujunga is a supreme roadhouse boogie styled song which would give Commander Cody a run for his money.

The band are more contemplative on their ecology themed songs. Ballad For The Trees has singer Rob Waller sounding like Brett Sparks of The Handsome Family as he sings of the ecosystem in danger of breaking down as the band huff and puff with a powerful country rock chug. Planet Earth is, strangely enough, more ethereal, lifted to the heavens by some heavenly pedal steel playing despite the dystopian despair of the spare lyrics which recall the words of J. G. Ballard.  There’s also a light touch on the breezy Live and Never Learn where Dave Zirbel’s pedal steel uncoils itself in best 70’s country rock fashion while Tearing Me in Two adds some fiddle to the mix moving the band from the saloon to the front porch.

We need to mention two songs on which drummer Victoria Jacobs features. My Parka Saved Me is an almost fifties styled death on the road song as she recites the tale of a car smash with a twist on the old tale of a cigarette case catching a bullet. On Spinning she sings lead and takes us down a paisley patterned rabbit hole, a lovely nod to the naivety of many of the psychedelic folk songs of that long gone era. A paisley pattern or more appropriately, a coat of many colours, just about sums up this album as it dips and dives into various styles but overall the band weave these disparate threads into a very fine tapestry of songs and sounds, the end result being one of their best albums.

I See Hawks In LA are currently touring the UK, all dates here.

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The Mammals. Sunshiner. Humble Abode Music

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Mike Merenda and Ruth Ungar, after a long spell on the road and one (excellent) album as The Mike & Ruthy Band, here revive their old band name which went into hibernation some years back. The Mammals were considered one of the best roots rock band back in the noughties and came with a government warning due to their political songs, one in particular, The Bush Boys, getting right up the White House’s nose.

Currently a six piece band, the front pair are joined by guitarist and keyboard player Ken Maiuri, pedal steel player Charlie Rose, bassist Jacob Silver and drummer Konrad Meissner. Together they have produced in Sunshiner, an incredibly vibrant and joyous slice of music, a collection of songs that glide, that soar and exhilarate. This is today’s American folk rock, the band rolling along expertly picking up moss from antecedents from both sides of the Atlantic such as Fairport Convention, The Byrds and The Band while ancient roots from the folk tradition are also to be heard. It’s also a political album, not in the sense of polemics, but across the piece they cleave to an American radical position which goes all the way back to the Wobblies through to hippies and into the current protests on American streets. They celebrate humanity, deplore poverty and care for the environment and they do so in a most entertaining manner.

The full power and sweep of the band is apparent on the opening Make It True  with its Dylan like harmonica and folksy bustle with soaring harmonies urging folk to just appreciate and celebrate the very act of being here. This impressive ensemble sound is repeated on The Flood and Fork In The Road while Culture War is somewhat more folky with Merenda commenting caustically on current information highways, worrying about those cathode rays beamed into homes and feeding your mind, instead urging folk to get back to basics citing Guthrie and Seeger –  basically, Educate, Agitate and Organise. Open The Door meanwhile has Ungar singing about altruism with the band laying down a powerful rock beat and as the song heats up she sounds almost like Grace Slick as she hammers home the closing lyrics. For a full appreciation of the band’s chops however there’s the incredible kaleidoscopic mix of rock and folk which is Doctor’s Orders. There are words in here but they are submerged and distorted as Ungar’s fiddle and Maiuri’s organ just go kind of batshit all over the place, a delirious knees up indeed.

While this quicksilver folk rock sound is exhilarating, the band dial it down on a couple of numbers going back to their Catskill roots. Beautiful One is just Ungar and her ukulele on a lullaby like primer for kids advising them to be loving and kind and children are again at the heart of My Baby Drinks Water with Ungar’s voice almost acapella ( her father, Jay, adds some very  quiet violin) as she decries an avaristic society which allows children to starve. Maple Leaf chugs along nicely with a fine ecological message and Sunshiner is a very tender acoustic number with Merenda singing about a family whose men folk worked in the mines but who now try to be carbon neutral with solar powered generators. A worthy but perhaps dry subject to sing about but the band invest it with a quiet beauty, banjo tinkling and pedal steel gently flowing. When My Story Ends is a song some folk might consider worth having played at their demise.  Sounding as if it could have been written by Pete Seeger or Rosalie Sorrels it’s an incredibly sweet song with Ungar singing of her perfect way to end her days on earth.  They close the album with the beguiling notes of Big Ideas, the music here recalling the mood and ambience of John Martyn’s Grace and Danger over nine soothing minutes with Ungar and Merenda softly singing together over muted keyboards and atmospheric guitars. It’s truly a beautiful song and a wonderful way to end the album.

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Cowboy Junkies. All That Reckoning. Proper Records

prpcd149-300px30 years on from The Trinity Sessions and 16 albums along the line the Cowboy Junkies continue to mesmerise with their simultaneously glacial and slow burning sounds with Margo Timmins’ voice and brother Michael’s warm guitar tones their signature. All That Reckoning, their first release in six years, follows what was for them a furious burst of activity when they released four albums in their Nomad series in 2011 -2012. Recorded when the band found themselves without a record deal the four albums showed the disparate faces of the band, each disc with its own personality with two of them based on particular themes. All That Reckoning however irons out these facets with the band adopting an at times sepulchral sound with solid bass and drums propelling swathes of guitar while Margo Timmins voice reaches out from the depths.

The album opens with the spare glowering of All That Reckoning (Part 1) with bass guitar guiding the vocals over a background of muted electronic effects, the song signalling that this is not going to be a sunshine sort of listen. A wash of percussion introduces When We Arrive with Timmins singing, “Welcome to the age of dissolution,” a nod perhaps from writer Michael regarding the new world age we are in currently as nations close their drawbridges. The the song is delivered at a similar pace to the opening song although with a narcotic lushness about it and much of the album is in a similar vein, walking pace songs with stolid bass and drums and Timmins’ ice queen voice although there is variety in the guitar settings along with occasional additional instrumentation.

They do crank up the volume and energy at times.  Sing Me A Song is fuelled with fuzz guitar and incandescent solos as the rhythm section rock out and All That Reckoning (Part 2) stomps angrily all over its earlier counterpart. Meanwhile Nose Before Ear sounds like a tale plucked from the Child Ballads with the band sounding as if they have been listening to Calexico while Wooden Stairs sounds as if it’s describing a hidden story behind the bland facade of Grant Wood’s American Gothic.

The Things We Do to Each Other stands out with its acoustic guitar slightly setting it somewhat aside from the other numbers but it’s essentially another piece in the jigsaw here with the band railing against the populist attempts to segregate against anyone who is not one of us.  Obviously written some time before the furore surrounding America’s recent immigration issues Missing Children is astoundingly prescient.  A huge slab of a song with angry jabs of guitar and violin stabbing throughout Timmins sings sounding like Patti Smith at times as she sings of the indifference of folk to news items regarding the plight of child immigrants. It’s the centrepiece of an album which is indignant regarding the current state of affairs and perhaps the best album the Cowboy Junkies have recorded for some time.

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Rab Noakes. Welcome to Anniversaryville. Neon Records

welcome-to-anniversaryvilleAt the grand age of 71 Rab Noakes‘ profile is probably higher now than it has been since his days as one of the UK’s premier folk and rock artists back in the seventies when he was recording with Gerry Rafferty, providing songs for Lindisfarne and having his own albums  produced by the likes of Bob Johnston and Elliot Mazer in Nashville with various Dylan veterans in tow.

Noakes went behind the desk to become a respected producer of radio programs but a reissue program  of earlier albums and a double CD, I’m Walking Here, along with regular appearances at Glasgow’s Celtic Connections Festival had raised his profile in the first half of this decade but this was almost derailed when he was diagnosed with tonsillar cancer. Following successful treatment Noakes released The Treatment Tapes in 2017, a six song EP inspired by his journey from diagnosis via treatment to recovery. 2017 was indeed an auspicious year for him as it marked his 70th birthday and 50 years of performing and to mark this Noakes appeared at Glasgow’s Celtic Connections with a band he called the 70/50 in 2017 with many commentators noting the show as a highlight of the festival. Since then Noakes has been on the road much of the time, often in tandem with Jill Jackson, one of the prime movers of the 70/50 band with the pair playing a sold out show at Perth’s Southern Fried Festival and now he offers us this splendid album which is a culmination of sorts of the many celebratory aspects of last year.

In his informative sleeve notes Noakes describes the album much better than anything you will read here but its genesis was in the Celtic Connections concert as Noakes, having a well rehearsed band on hand, decided to go straight into the studio and bang out some songs, as he says, on the Nick Lowe principle of bash it out now, tart it up later.  They laid down 15 of the 17 songs we have on hand here and it has to be said that the band – Stuart Brown (drums), Christine Hanson (cello), Jill Jackson (vocals, guitar), Innes Watson (guitar, fiddle), Una MacGlone (double bass), Lisbee Stainton (banjo, guitar), and Kathleen MacInnes (vocals) – conjure a finely loose limbed sound ranging from folk infused melodies to almost skiffle like strum-a-longs. Further recordings saw band members and others refining the songs over a fairly lengthy period of time but the end result is a very cohesive and eminently enjoyable listen.

The 17 songs are a mix of old and new written by Noakes along with some interpretations of others which have had some significance to him over his adventurous lifetime. Again, Noakes explains in the notes why each song was chosen with some of the entries mini essays which are most enlightening with his explanation of Tramps and Immigrants our favourite. Some of the anniversaries are fairly straightforward as in his choice of the number one song in the sheet music charts for his birthday in 1947.  Coincidentally enough it was Anniversary Song, written by Al Jolson and riding high in the charts back then performed by The Billy Cotton Band and Noakes and his band turn in an excellent gypsy like waltz version of the song. It all Joins Up (in the End) meanwhile was written by Noakes when he outlived the age his father was when he died and it’s a finely understated reflection on  the vagaries of life with Noakes recalling his rock’n’roll touchstones and reminding us to live our life by the full. With Watson’s fiddle leading the ensemble and Jackson adding fine harmonies the song is given a sublime reading while it is a reminder that at his best Noakes can write as well as McCartney or Rafferty.

Listening to many of the songs one is reminded of the spirit of Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance in the band’s playing especially on the opening numbers. Together Forever is a song Lindisfarne covered on their second album and it’s a welcome opportunity to hear it again in this new version. Let The Show Begin and Oh Me, Oh My and London Town stroll along in similar fashion, all of them eminently listenable.  Lost friends are eulogised in the stripped back Gently Does It with Noakes in singer/songwriter mode recalling Alex Campbell while A Voice Over My Shoulder returns to the fiddle and banjo fuelled ensemble sound on a tribute to Robin McKidd, a musician friend who accompanied Noakes on his first professional engagement back in 1967.

TCB (Working Man and Working Woman) finds the band in slight rockabilly style as Noakes kicks out at politicians and  celebrates the working class, the song influenced by a visit to the RCA studios where Elvis recorded (TCB being an Elvis catchphrase – Taking Care of Business). There’s some more politics as he revisits another earlier song, Jackson Greyhound, a reminder of the civil rights movement in the 60’s as several freedom riders were arrested and beaten as they boarded buses in defiance of the Jim Crow laws. Here Noakes is just astounding as this Fifer totally inhabits the spirit and sound of the times, the song imbued with the sweetly sticky sounds of the south as he comes across like Loudon Wainwright. Adding another string to his bow Noakes avails himself of his collaborations with  Kathleen McInnes in the more traditional field of Scots music on several songs. The Handwash Feelin’ Mairket finds him using a Rabbie Burns like idiom to describe a local carwash which runs on hired immigrant labourers while The Twa Corbies/ An Dà Fheannaig allows him and McInnes to delve deep into Scots traditional music on a song which is as haunting as anything one might hear on any collection of murder ballads. Following on is Tramps and Immigrants which Noakes sings in broad Scots emphasising its origins while incorporating the Dylan song, I Pity the Poor Immigrant which poached the melody and is here sung here by McInnes thereby joining up all the dots. It’s simply fantastic. McInnes also has a starring role in the closing song, that old chestnut, Tennessee Waltz, which she first sings in the Gaelic before reverting to English. Noakes explains that the song is, “a piece of first class songwriting… with something truly deep at its heart wrapped in the lightness of a waltz with a sing-along form.” He’s right, McInnes sings wonderfully and the band play as if they were perched on an Appalachian porch.

Hand on heart this is one of the best albums we’ve heard all year and it should be issued to anyone with a pair of ears and a beating heart. When we reviewed The Treatment Tapes we wrote, “Overall the EP is a two fingers to the big C delivered with a life affirming sense of spirit,” and it’s spiriting to see that on the cover art here Mr. Noakes, resplendent in his two tone suit, is indeed offering that two fingered salute. He’s on top form here and hopefully there’s much more to come from this venerable Scots musician.

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Patrick Sweany. Ancient Noise. Nine Mile Records

a0458375684_16A Nashville artist who is more steeped in the blues and soul than many of his townsfolk, Patrick Sweany gets down and dirty on Ancient Noise, an album which saw him head to Memphis to record in Sam Phillips’ Recording Studios which has been recently refurbished and which is popping up in several sleeve note mentions of late. Produced by Matt Ross-Spang (who helmed Margo Price’s Midwest Farmer’s Daughter) Ancient Noise is steeped in southern styles, raucous blues and swampy rock numbers the deep filling while there’s a delicate dollop of Memphis country adding some sweetness to the whole.

Sweany lurches into the album with the gutbucket kick of Old Time Ways, an evil sounding swelter of slide guitars before diving even deeper into the Devil’s music with the growling Up and Down where he sounds as if Howling Wolf’s spirit was inhabiting Tom Wait’s larynx while the guitars and percussion clatter around like a pneumatic drill let loose inside a scrap yard. A thrilling start to the album.

There’s a brief respite as Sweany allows piano player Charles Hodges (Al Green’s go to keyboard man) to lead the band on Country Loving, a song on which Sweany mines seams previously explored by the likes of Dan Penn and Donny Fritts. This more delicate side of Sweany is further explored in the shimmering slow burn of Steady where the guitars quietly fizz away like distant fireworks as he sings of the ties which unite his relationships. However the pull of the Memphis mojo drags him back into swampy waters for the remainder of the album. No Way No How is a brilliantly muddy foray into syncopated southern rock a la Alan Toussaint or Little Feat and its repeated on the slinky grooves of Cry of Amédé, a song based on a true tale of a Creole musician beaten up by a vigilante mob after a white woman loaned him a handkerchief to mop his brow. Get Along hits a more soulful groove with Hodges’ fluid organ keys burbling over a propulsive beat with Sweany’s vocals  supplemented by some gospel harmonies and Play Around is reminiscent of sixties Brill building pop forays into southern soul culture.

Ancient Noise is perhaps Sweany’s most rounded album so far and is heartily recommended.

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Jason McNiff. Joy and Independence. At The Helm Records

92c7aaaf254fbffea22531ec5e1fa7edLast year Jason McNiff released Rain Dries Your Eyes, a two disc compilation which charted his course over 15 years and six albums of relentless troubadouring and which proved that he is a bit of a gem when it comes to our native singer songwriters. Joy and Independence finds McNiff alone in the studio with just his guitar for company stripping away all the band trappings which have adorned many of his songs. As he says, the album is intended to be, “a homage to a golden era of the coffee house troubadour.” And while we agree with that notion it has to be said that Mr. McNiff could perhaps have added bedsits alongside coffee houses as Joy and Independence could easily sit beside albums by L Cohen, Al Stewart, Nick Drake and Bert Jansch in any self respecting student’s gloomy abode.

As with Dylan, McNiff’s distinctive voice may  inhibit the casual listener but as with many of the troubadours he admires his voice is an instrument which floats above his excellent guitar playing sounding at times like an innocent abroad, full of wonder and grace, almost like a male chanteuse. It’s perhaps heard at its best here on the tumble of words and flurries of guitar which is (There are no) Ordinary Days, an extraordinary song which is steeped in the sixties songwriter tradition mixed with the Gallic sensibilities of Momus. The storytelling element of those troubadours is to the fore on the lengthy Amanda, McNiff’s retelling of the trial of Amanda Knox in Italy which bears comparison with several Dylan songs from The Ballad of Hollis Brown to Hurricane and Joey. Midnight Shift meanwhile is a personal reminiscence of McNiff’s days playing the late night slot in the now closed Soho spot, the 12 Bar club while the title song is a picaresque tale of two lovers travelling through Italy in search of their dreams before going their separate ways with the song adorned by some gorgeous guitar playing.

McNiff hits the nail on the head with every song here. There’s a real sense of longing on Wind of Zaragoza and his reworking of Stuck in the Past is plaintive and moving with the sole use of piano here adding to the sense of nostalgia and loss. Been a Bad Day is a perfect down in the dumps song, McNiff the wounded lover stranded with his memories and regrets, but there is  joy of sorts in the uplifting Thoughts which has McNiff singing along with Lily Ramona. Finally McNiff offers us the magnificent And the Sun Comes Up on My Dreams which sits beside the aforementioned (There are no) Ordinary Days as the standout songs here. We’d previously reckoned that an earlier McNiff song, I Remember You, totally inhabited the freewheelin’ spirit of sixties Dylan and to our mind that’s also true of And the Sun Comes Up on My Dreams. It’s a joy and a wonder to listen to.

We need to mention the guitar playing here which is excellent and which befits a man who sat for six months watching Bert Jansch play in the 12 Bar club. McNiff in fact offers a fine recollection of his various guitars in the liner notes calling them, “these curvy shaped bits of wood…imbued with romance.” So true as a listen to this album will testify to.

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