Villiers and The Villains. Music Confounds the Machine

a0119926799_16When Blabber’n’Smoke attended the Kilkenny Roots festival back in May we were very pleased to see Villiers and The Villains play in some of the local pubs as part of the free music trail which is an integral part of the festival. We’d first heard of this Belfast based band back in 2016 when we reviewed Songs of Love and Fate, a fine mix of Dylan influenced country rockers and some Lou Reed urban cool. Live we can confirm that they can carry off this mix with some aplomb, stretching out on some numbers with guitarist Doc Doherty keen to whip out some excellent solos at the drop of a hat. A perfect bar band in fact, rooted in blues and rock with the attitude and look of “been there and done it.” Music Confounds the Machine builds on the first album with the band tighter and taking on more influences including an exciting injection of south of the border Mexicana and while Tony Villiers is still somewhat in thrall to Dylan and Reed,  here he’s bolder, casting aside their shadows on several of the songs.

The album kicks off with a fat sounding horn section parping over a bluesy band stroll on The 1979 Situation with the horns and Doherty’s squealing guitar conspiring to drown the song in a caterwauling sound as Villiers snarls away. It’s loose limbed and pub friendly but as an introduction to the album it slightly wrong foots the listener as the remainder of the disc is much more nuanced. Kingdoms of Sin takes the born again Dylan of the eighties into an almost vaudevillian atmosphere with a cod dramatic vocal chorus as it waltzes along and one can imagine the late Alex Harvey enjoying this one and the bluesy Red Wine and Reefer would surely bring a smile to the ghost of Rory Gallagher. There’s more horn fuelled rumpus on Meat for the Dogs while Montpelier Hill comes across as if a jocular Lou Reed was having a good day. Little Rhoda May meanwhile is an excellent skiffle like number which, like several songs from the previous album, sounds like Dylan and The Band goofing off in the basement of Big Pink and The Band are again recalled as The Villains add an organ to the mix on the southern swell of Without Your Love.

So far so good but Villiers and the band ramp it up on several numbers. Mexico is a magnificent song which drinks deep of many excellent bands who have roamed around the borderlands with Little Feat the first that springs to mind although the band here invest the song with their own personality. The Government is Coming to Town recalls the theatrics of Kingdoms of Sin although here it’s more pronounced with Villiers the ringmaster announcing the arrival of ministers of state as if they were clowns tumbling from a car and the band trip out on Tijuana tequila. Two songs find Villiers speaking in his fine brogue with his voice on the title song invariably reminding this listener of Van Morrison’s Coney Island although there is no narrative, more an impressionistic poem imbued with the spirit of Dylan Thomas and Jackie Leven.  He speaks again on The Bubble Will Burst, a lengthy closing song which has the band and Villiers honing in on Lou Reed circa his New York album but which again is delivered with an authority which allows the song to stand well clear of becoming just a pastiche.

We need to mention the delightful Down at Ellie Mays which has Villiers with guitar and harmonica creating a song which can stand along with any romantic singer/songwriter song from the past couple of decades and he also picks up a harmonium for a hidden number at the end of the album bringing it to a wonderfully creaky end.

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Red Pine Timber Co. Sorry For the Good Times. Goldrush Records

a3958064908_16With Scotland’s premier Americana festival at Southern Fried Perth looming, a perusal of the programme jolted us into remembering that we hadn’t discussed this second album from this excellent Perthshire band although it was released a few months back. For that we apologise but now is as good a time to delve into the album’s delights as surely any Blabber’n’Smoke readers within hailing distance will be going to Perth and they can purchase the album at the band’s show.

Anyway. Red Pine Timber Co. came into being several years ago, a hefty ensemble of  players assembled by Gavin J.D. Munro, late of the much missed Southpaw, and they released their first album in 2014 (which we reviewed here). With Monro well versed in the Americana idiom and the band adding a fine Celtic soul sound mix to the songs (including an adventurous horn section) the album was a bold step forward for Monro. As we said at the time the album was a collection of, “Wearied ballads that glow with a Tupelo honeyed light while the brass section adds a tumescence that is quite daring.” Four years down the line and we find that this could quite easily sum up Sorry For the Good Times although there are fewer wearied ballads and in the meantime Munro’s vocal foil, Katie Whittaker, has blossomed into a singer par excellence, her crystal clear voice able to worm its way into your heart while also being capable of belting out some raucous rockers. The band meanwhile, despite some line up changes, are well honed in bar room ballads and country styled rockers with that horn section still injecting a vital ingredient into the mix.

The album is much more reflective of the band’s live performances than their debut release. Having seen them several times, outdoors, indoors, in a crammed sweaty pub and a concert hall, they always put on a fantastic show. Monro and Whittaker can bring a tear to the eye as they cast themselves as heartbroken losers in life’s lost highway before the band roars into action and rips it up sounding for all the world like a testosterone charged Hot Band or a whisky fuelled New Orleans combo. Happily much of this is captured here.

They open with a Byrds’ like guitar jangle on If You Want To before the horns weigh in and propels the song forward as Munro and Whittaker share vocals on a number which is defiant and punchy. The pair then deliver Hollow Heart which still has a pugnacious horn section but has at its core a simple country styled song with mandolin breaks and creamy pedal steel churning away as the pair sing like star crossed lovers. The third song, Tracks in The Snow, allows Whittaker her first opportunity to fly solo with the band dialling it down to a pared back acoustic backing with only a swooning steel guitar and occasional twanged telecaster interrupting her vocal reveries. An acoustic guitar solo erupts halfway through with Spanish sounding arabesques adding a touch of exotica to this magnificent piece. Munro meanwhile is the front man on The Same Kind of Pretty which has a sinful slide guitar worming its way throughout adding a swampy southern touch to the song.

We do get some much anticipated tears in the beer songs with Whittaker, sounding like a Nashville angel, singing the aching hurt of Put Down The Bottle while Munro, not to be outdone, gives us the boozy western waltz Bar Stool with the band expertly inhabiting a mood of inebriation as fiddle and pedal steel weave away and a tipsy trombone completes the scene. The band do gear up however for the Bo Diddley rhythms of Look at The Moonlight, sounding here like some bastard son of The Stones and Tom Waits with screeching fiddle and an impressive harmonica solo wailing out from amidst the sonic maelstrom they conjure up. They swoop into Gram Parson Las Vegas territory on two songs, the horn fuelled For the Angels (which again has a lovely touch of the Stones in the piano opening) and the magnificent Cutting You Loose which finds the band really cutting it as they sound like the tightest country rock combo around while Whittaker here excels, staking her claim to considered amidst the newest crop of feisty country singers such as Sarah Shook and Linda Loveless.

Sorry for the Good Times is an eclectic listen but the Red Pine Timber Co. are an eclectic band who fuse a wide range of influences into an energetic whole. It’s somewhat heartening to be able to report that, for once, a band is able to capture some of their live energy on a disc. If you are going to Southern Fried be sure to catch them live.

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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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