For her second album Scottish singer songwriter Martha L. Healy returned to Nashville where her first album Better Days was recorded. Three years on from that release and it’s evident that Ms. Healy has moved on from the primarily country influences heard on that album as Keep The Flame Alight is a much more personal and introspective collection of songs although there still dashes of country sass as on the excellent Woman With No Shame and the swampy Livin’ Someone Else’s Dream. Some of this progress was evident on her EP, To Be Free, where Healy paid tribute to Hank Williams and Patsy Cline but also showed on her song Too Much Time that she was developing her writing chops as we compared her to the likes of Mary Chapin Carpenter and Gretchen Peters at the time.
Much of Keep The Flame Alight maintains this direction as Healy digs into her own conflicts and also delivers some powerful songs which address the fickleness of human relationships. With excellent support from a cast of Nashville players the songs flow beautifully whether it be the metronomic percussion, delicate piano and fiddle on the title song or the slight Celtic influences on Unmade Bed and Mickey. Meanwhile Healy sings wonderfully, clear as a bell with Wendy Newcomer adding fine harmonies.
The album opens with the haunting melody of No Place Like Home with Healy expressing the sense of homesickness she experienced in Nashville, the place of her dreams perhaps but also miles away from her familiar haunts and her family. There’s a fine sense of longing in her voice as she sings of the rainy days and warm fires she misses as the band offer some comfort with a sweet fiddle solo over a muted blend of twangy guitar and accordion. The title song finds Healy in an almost existential dilemma as she worries about the march of time, counting the lines on her face in the mirror and fearful of the darkness which she fears could envelope her. The chorus is a strong declaration that she can fight this and welcome each day as a new beginning and this ultimately uplifting song is bolstered by the magnificent playing on show which is polished to a sheen with Rory Hoffman’s piano playing of particular note.
Elsewhere Healy shows that she has a firm grasp on storytelling with Fall In Love Again narrated by a woman still longing for an old paramour. Woman With No Shame meanwhile portrays the doubts of a woman who is looking for love but who ends up in a series of one night stands and Livin’ Someone Else’s Dream is basically the diary of a bored housewife. All of these are delivered with an unashamed American sounding backing with Dobro leading the way through Woman With No Shame while Livin’ Someone Else’s Dream visits a southern swampy morass. Unmade Bed is another story song but here there’s a fine Celtic lilt to the song as Healy inhabits the mind of a woman who has a fling with a childhood sweetheart. The Celtic folk influence is heard again on the mantra of We Will Be Okay which seems bound to be an audience sing-along when played live. Healy closes the album with a fine homily on Don’t Give Up which revisits some of the themes of the title song, strength in the face of adversity and again it’s delivered with a wonderfully played combination of piano, accordion and fiddle over pitter pattering percussion as she sings with true conviction.
On Keep The Flame Alive Healy has delivered a mature and immersive set of songs superbly played by her Nashville cats. One misses the exuberance of some of her earlier songs perhaps but as a statement it’s a defiant one proclaiming that she has moved on.
It’s always a cause for celebration when a new Richard Thompson album comes out. An artist who has rarely put a foot wrong over a 50 year career, he’s one of those touchstones (a bit like Nick Lowe or Loudon Wainwright) who constantly remind one of what great song writing is all about. 13 Rivers follows on from the two volumes of Acoustic Classics, which found Thompson revisiting his back catalogue, and the Jeff Tweedy produced Still which stands up as perhaps his best album over the past decade and a half.
13 Rivers doesn’t have the light and shade of Still, being more of a rock album with the sterling work of drummer Michael Jerome very much driving the songs along as bassist Taras Prodaniuk lays down solid bedrock. Meanwhile Thompson’s guitar slashes and burns on several of the numbers, sometimes duelling with guitarist Bobby Eichorn, and recalling some of the more fiery moments on 2013’s Electric. In addition, there’s a dark undercurrent flowing through the album with Thompson saying that he wrote the songs in “A dark time.” His troubles aren’t specified but from the portentous and roiling album opener, The Storm Won’t Come, to the closing Shaking The Gates, a melancholic number which recalls his very early works, there’s a sense of doom embedded throughout. It’s most pronounced on the excellent My Rock, My Rope where Thompson seems to be clinging by his fingernails over a bottomless abyss. Bones of Gilead, despite its spritely delivery, has a biblical like bloodiness to it while The Dog In You growls over a slow blues like beat as Thompson offers a damning exposition of the song subject’s failings.
Although there’s a great deal of bile and rancour here Thompson keeps a firm hand on the tiller as the band weld together creating some scintillating sounds. Perhaps the most savage song, Pride, sparkles with Eichorn’s guitar flourishes and there’s even a hint of Carry On comedy as Thompson sings the words, “Infamy, infamy.” It’s very tempting to consider 13 Rivers a break up album but overall it’s sufficient to appreciate that Thompson has always flourished when he’s down at the dark end of the street. When he can summon up such a perfect burst of rock music as on The storm Won’t Come – a song which could have sat easily on Fleetwood Mac’s Then Play On – it’s maybe just best to sit back and let the storm burst over you.
Best known for his associations with Hiss Golden Messenger and freak folk band Megafaun Phil Cook has also spent time as the musical director for The Blind Boys of Alabama and worked with Mavis Staples. It’s the latter names who spring to mind as one spins People Are My Drug which is steeped in gospel music and New Orleans rhythms, the impressive array of female singers who whoop, holler and testify with a soulful abandon giving the disc its signature sound.
From the swamp like Steam Powered Blues to the closing cover of Allen Toussaint’s Life, Cook almost takes a back seat, aside from his Pops Staples’ like guitar licks. Instead a layered chorus of voices are to the fore recalling the likes of The Edwin Hawkins singers or indeed The Staples with Tide of Life probably the most uplifting example here. Even Randy Newman’s He Gives Us All His Love is transformed into a devotional shout out to the Lord, the harmonies evangelising as if this were all one big tent meeting. Toussaint’s Life meanwhile ends in a horn fuelled Crescent City bacchanalia.
People Are My Drug is a joyous album which bears comparisons with the work of Ry Cooder as Cook celebrates an important strand of American roots music.
Sam Misner and Megan Smith were both actors before joining forces musically after meeting at a Shakespeare Festival. Having released four albums notable for the pair’s harmony singing here they return somewhat to their thespian roots explaining this collection of covers by saying, “Every actor’s job is to interpret someone else’s words…For us, approaching covers is about capturing the essence of the song…”
The duo tackle eight songs they claim as inspirations. There are no radical reinventions here, the covers all recognisable. The pair sing wonderfully, both individually and in harmony while their playing is exemplary particularly in the interplay between double bass and guitar on their delightful version of Dr. Dog’s Turning the Century, a song which has the freshness one imagines folk heard when they first encountered Simon and Garfunkel back in the sixties. Indeed the album opens with Simon and Garfunkel’s America, so faithful to the original that one is surprised when a clarinet fails to play, and they repeat this on songs by The Loving Spoonful, Gram Parsons and The Band. They do surprise with their version of Talking Heads City of Dreams which comes across as if it were Neil Young covering it round about the time of Comes a Time. As with most collections of covers one might ask, “why bother?” but it is a very pleasant listen.
Nicky Murray made a bit of a splash when he released his debut album on Martin Stephenson’s label back in 2014 before going on to be one of the standout acts at the following year’s Wickerman Festival. A singer/songwriter who reminds one of the glory days of singer/songwriting he leans towards the more bucolic and experimental end of the spectrum. Murray is blessed with a tremendous voice in addition to his writing skills and when he was staying in Glasgow a few years back he used to turn up at open mic nights and you could guarantee that there would be gasps from the audience as soon as he started to sing.
Now living in Inverness where he has become a driving force on the local music scene while also attending university, Murray has been quiet on the recording front of late with only one single released in the past few years. Now he unveils this excellent mini album of five songs which more than match the anticipation which has built up over those years. Wintermore is a much more assured recording than the debut album Plenty More Weeping and it features some adventurous string arrangements. Aside from his regular recording partner Chloe Rogers on fiddle the disc features Chloe Bryce, again on fiddle, with Patsy Reid on cello and Rachel Sermanni & Emma Gillespie on harmony vocals.
It’s difficult to define the music here and the album will probably sit in the folk bins in record shops although that does it a grand disservice as Murray treads a similar path as the likes of Kathryn Joseph, The Unthanks and Robert Wyatt. The disc opens with the relatively straightforward 1983 which meanders wonderfully for almost six minutes with Murray’s hushed voice complemented by some excellent harmony singing while his sensitive and accomplished guitar playing is fleshed out by the cello and fiddles. As the song swims its way along one is reminded of Roy Harper’s more sensitive moments. Before You which follows is in very much the same vein although here Murray’s guitar playing is simply excellent and again the strings give the song a wonderful sense of depth. Although one might be accused of hyperbole, we’d say that this is one of the most beautiful song’s we’ve heard all year, its dappled wonder quite heartbreaking at times. It’s simply glorious.
With just voices and strings the 50 second long It’s All Here separates the pastoral opening songs from the more adventurous closing acts. World Will Sea finds the strings setting the scene as they waver from sonic squeaks to pizzicato waltz time interludes as Murray is cast adrift with just his sublime voice and guitar to keep him afloat. The closing Wintermore opens with forlorn piano and weeping strings sounding for all the world as if they were recorded in an underwater saloon. Another lengthy number much of it comprises of that piano being pecked at as the strings hover and then dip like harpies snatching at food. It’s a desolate song with Murray invoking the notion that winter is a time of contemplation as he sounds like a man in the wilderness with only memories sustaining him.
A glorious return to recording, Winterlong is Murray at his best and it deserves to be heard far and wide.
You can buy Wintermore here
Amy Helm’s second album opens with a blast of guitar sounding like a foghorn announcing the arrival of what is quite a special album. That foghorn guitar belongs to the opening title song which is a masterful slice of soulful funk, the rhythm section metronomic and sly while guitars fizz and burn beneath her impassioned vocals. The song was written for Helm by Hiss Golden Messenger’s Mike Taylor and Josh Kaufman and it’s a perfect introduction to an album that is yet another addition to the grand canon of releases which celebrate the soul of American roots music.
Produced by Joe Henry, This Too Shall Lie finds Helm recording in LA, far away from her Woodstock home. The overall sound however is steeped in the south with churchlike organ, slippery guitar and gospel like harmonies present throughout. There’s a preponderance of covers here which is not a bad thing as Helm delivers a magisterial reading of Allen Toussaint’s Freedom For The Stallion, transforms the Milk Carton Kids’ Michigan into an aching slice of Muscle Shoals groove with hints of Aretha Franklin within it and offers T Bone Burnett’s River of Love an excellent soulful makeover.
Helm’s voice is a revelation here as she delves into soul and gospel, powerful and emotive this talent was only hinted at on her previous album. Her tribute to Odetta is a tour de force and its allied to a tremendous arrangement which has an almost chain gang like repetition to it as it hammers along although elaborate piano notes take the song to a higher plain. The shadow of her late father Levon Helm (who last recorded on Helm’s debut album) is cast on two songs. The Stones I Throw was a Band staple back when they were Levon and The Hawks and here it’s given an excellent rambunctious rendition as if it were the Staple Singers delivering it. The album closes with an a capella rendition of Gloryland which was Levon’s usual choice of encore. It goes without saying really that here Amy Helm and her harmony singers put their all into this Ralph Stanley song which encapsulates that southern sense of finality, glory and redemption as they close the lid on an excellent album.
It’s been a while since Warren McIntyre and The Starry Skies released their well-respected debut album, Ask The Animals. Six years in fact. Now they’re back with McIntyre dropping his prefix to the band name although he remains the driving force behind the band’s pulsating mix of driving power pop and folkier material all filtered through an Americana sensibility. Be Kind is an upbeat album and McIntyre is on record as saying that, “One thing there is not enough of is people being kind to each other, it’s really clichéd but it’s nice to be nice. I decided I wanted to be more straightforward lyrically and send a simple message about spending the rest of my time on this planet being as kind as I can as much as I can.” Well he just about does that here although some of the songs on the album do wander into darker territory.
He sets out his Be Kind manifesto on the opening song of the same name. It’s a bucolic and gentle introduction to the album, McIntyre’s voice clear and gentle as he sings over piano and a string section. Glitter & The Glory then bursts into view with a bang as the band shift into a star spangled psych pop mode. With rushes of jangled guitar and cinematic sweeping strings and McIntyre spitting out his Dylan like lyrics, this is quite majestic in its multi layered splendour and dynamic delivery. Next up is another cracker in the form of the single lifted from the album, Starry Skies which has a George Harrison like slide guitar and psychedelic strings as the rhythm section drive the song along with Noel O’Donnel’s drumming quite the powerhouse. These two songs might recall the densely arranged psychedelic pop rock of the sixties but the band are also able to roll out their rinky dink salute to party girls out for a night on the tiles on High Girls which comes across like Alex Chilton fronting the funksters at Stax . Here the band hit a tremendous groove with pumping bass guitar from Jonathan Lilley and a whizz bang guitar solo from John Rooney as McIntyre leers but never becomes lascivious.
Bombs Betty is a fiery rocker with screeching fiddle from Heather Phillips although it suffers somewhat in comparison to the songs mentioned above as the band wail about an apocalyptic future. There’s more desolation in the landscape summoned up on Guns & Gold which is delivered here with a fine New York punk sneer and it allows McIntyre to return to his theme of kindness as he reaches out a helping hand to those affected by downtown mischief. That helping hand is there again on the gentle lope of I’ll Be There For You which is a country styled duet and which shows that the band can rein it in and still carry an emotional punch. Loving You is even more delicate as McIntyre and Heather Phillips swoon together on a tremendous song which in its hazy delivery recalls the likes of Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra and also Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan. For our money it’s the jewel in the crown here although the album as a whole shows that west coast Scotland can rival west coast America at times.
Starry Skies officially unveil the album with a launch gig on the 6th October as part of the Glasgow Americana Festival, all details here.