When a band says that they take their inspiration from pre-war country music, The Carter Family, and the psych-cowboy music of Lee Hazelwood, then the results are either going to be a mess or something a wee bit magical. Thankfully, in this case it’s the latter as this London based trio (who expand when required) turn in a grand listen on their debut album. Truth be told we can’t find too much evidence of The Carter Family here but there are oodles of Hazlewood styled melodramas with an added ingredient of spaghetti western fuzzed guitars to spice it up a little. They also cite “hillbilly noir” writer Daniel Woodrell (author of Winter’s Bone) as an influence with the result that many of the songs are deliciously dark examples of gory gothic Americana not too dissimilar from that of The Handsome Family.
Led by Frank Sweeney who was a member of indie favourites The June Brides the band comprise of Sweeney along with Annie Holder (guitar, vocals and autoharp), Adi Staempfli (bass and vocals) and Charlotte Burke (drums and percussion). Since his indie days Sweeney has obviously become steeped in that old weird Americana (or the Arkana of the title with Sweeney alluding to The Tarot and its themes of death, confusion and justice) which has informed so many great albums. As such there is some old fashioned music on the disc in the form of the banjo driven Oliver Curtis Perry Part 1 which rattles along much like the train which Oliver Curtis Perry robbed back in the 1890’s. Meanwhile their version of Down In The Willow Garden (heard by Sweeney on The Everlys’ Songs Our Daddy Taught Us) roots around in the tradition while adding a wonderful psychedelic folk fug to the arrangement with the song coming across as if it were by Pearls Before Swine.
However it’s the dramatic mix of doomed romanticism, twanged guitar and sweeping orchestral sounds along with the Nancy and Lee like duets which really grab the ear here. Goodbye My Friend is not too far removed from Down In The Willow Garden but it has a much grander cinematic dimension to it. Black Dog Following Me is quite majestic with its fuzz guitar, strings and horns so evocative of images imprinted on us from western movies while the vocals are up there with Some Velvet Morning. That they can repeat this trick several times on Trav’ler, 22 and Dust of Mars just ups the ante for those of us who are suckers for this freaky frontier music (and surely 22 must get the award for the best murder song allied to a jaunty clip clop Mexicali trot if such an award exists). Best of all is Cousin’s War which opens with a gloom laden organ before a banjo clips in urging the song forward as Sweeney opens the proceedings singing, “A summers day, a yellow dress, she wore violets in her hair/She was to marry her own true love, with a love only they could share/But her brother took a hunting knife, He hurt her love full sore/And he is dead by her brother’s hand, that led a family into war.”
If you are interested in murder ballads, border ballads or just plain old-fashioned gory story telling with a cinematic scope then round up a posse and seek out this album, we’re sure you will enjoy it.
Here’s a whirlwind tour of the album…
And one to savour…
Black Dog Following Me by The Magic City Trio from the magic city trio on Vimeo.
JP Harris modestly describes himself as a carpenter who writes country songs. On his third album, Sometimes Dogs Bark at Nothing, he has indeed carved an excellent benchmark by which the remainder of this year’s releases should be measured. A colourful (and heavily tattooed) character, Harris has lived an itinerant life since leaving eighth grade class in Alabama, riding the rails and hitching lifts for a decade or so picking up labouring jobs for a spell and then moving on. This lifestyle informs several of his songs which he delivers with a raw authenticity whether they be hard driving honky tonkers or gritty ballads and on this album he even tackles some sweet Nashville countrypolitan sounds.
The album opens with the flat out pedal to the metal rocker, JP’s Florida Blues #1. Fuelled by some barrelling organ and fiery slide guitar the songs soars from the outset and with its female harmonies adding a southern swell to the ride this is like The Allmans’ on amphetamines. Anyone who has seen one of Harris’ incendiary live shows will know what to expect here and he delivers more hard drivin’ country on the truckin’ Hard Road which features some tightly coiled guitar and pedal steel licks while Jimmy’s Dead and Gone starts off in hard scrabble skiffle fashion before the band weigh in like a runaway locomotive as Harris turns in the best hobo train song in a long long time. Thrilling stuff indeed but Harris spends more time on the album showing us that he can rein it in and wax poetic in more delicate fashion.
Lady in the Spotlight is the tale of a disillusioned would be starlet that with its rippling guitars and folky melody could have been penned by Shel Silverstein or Tom T. Hall. Runaway meanwhile is a red dirt country slope with some fine Dobro playing as Harris inhabits similar territory as the late Guy Clark and to his credit stakes a fine claim regarding his right to be there adding the next song, Miss Jeanne-Marie, another plaintive ballad in similar fashion, just to be sure. In addition, Harris shows that he can rival Joshua Hedley in the drinking and sinking Nashville sad song category with the excellent pairing of When I Quit Drinking and I Only Drink Alone. Meanwhile the limpid croon of Long Ways Back with its satin smooth guitar is just superb and it’s hard to believe that it wasn’t written by Willie Nelson.
The album’s curious title comes from the delightful homily of the same name which has Harris posing a series of questions the answer to all seemingly just because they can. A brief song featuring only acoustic guitar and Dobro it’s a fine distillation of Harris’ writing and singing talents which is nestled within an excellent set of songs making up what is essentially a fantastic album.
The 12th Glasgow Americana Festival kicks off today as Bristol based Yola Carter brings her hi-energy mix of soul and country to Cottiers Theatre. Carter, winner of UK artist of the year and Song of the Year at the AMA UK awards is just the curtain raiser for a splendid roster of acts pouring into Glasgow over the next five days. Emily Barker, well known to many for her theme song for the BBC drama Wallander and for her spot in the opening ceremony at the London Olympics, will be showcasing her Memphis influenced soulful blues album Sweet Kind of Blue while Kimmie Rhodes, a true red dirt Texan legend is also coming along.
Nathan Bell, winner of the performer of the year award in 2017 by the influential website Americana UK returns to the city which he took by storm at Celtic Connections some 18 months ago and another singular performer, Anthony D’Amato is at the HIP place to be on the south side, The Glad Cafe. Also coming to the Glad Cafe are the UK “supergroup” Bennett Wilson Poole for their first Scottish appearance. This trio of seasoned and bloody brilliant musicians have dominated the UK roots Americana scene ever since their album came out earlier this year and this gig is definitely worthy of “bucket list” attention.
There’s plenty of home grown talent on show as Martha L Healy and Starry Skies both have album launch shows (with Healy’s show apparently sold out, sorry folks) while The Hellfire Club’s show at The Hug & Pint promises to be a hot and sweaty intimate shindig. And for an interesting mix of local and American acts there’s the ever popular Hazy Recollections revue which includes Woody Pines and Adriana Spina on the bill which this year is being hosted by Glasgow’s answer to Whispering Bob Harris, our very own Mike Ritchie. In addition to the main acts there are some great supports adding to the experience and the whole line up can be found here.
Check the links above for Blabber’n’Smoke’s thoughts on some of the acts and see some video evidence of the avalanche of talent coming this week. Get thee down there.