Martha Fields. Dancing Shadows.

ok-martha-fields-cover-25-avril-2018-page-001-1She may be an adopted Texan who spends much of her time in southern France but Martha Fields grew up in the shadows of the Appalachian mountains and there’s a rich stream of southern soul running through her veins. Her first album, which saw her billed as Texas Martha, was a rollicking collection of honky tonk songs which barrelled along although there was a hint of her family roots in the menacing Do As You Are Told, a song which, tellingly enough, reappeared on her next album, Southern White Lies. Here she ditched the Texas Martha moniker as she delved into her roots, familial and musical, with the music a rich loam of powerful picking suffused with a burning sense of anger over the fate of what politicians often dismiss as poor white trash.

Dancing Shadows continues musically in a similar vein to Southern White Lies as Fields, with her excellent band, well road tested as they roam across Europe playing here, there and everywhere, also roam around various roots styles. Able to turn their hand to bluegrass, country rock, rockabilly and southern rockers, the band guide the album through its highways and byways. Fields meanwhile casts her net somewhat wider than on the previous album although at the heart of the disc she’s still delving into her history while there’s also a pronounced element of the exile commenting on news from home.

The album kicks off with the earthy punch of Sukey, the band in a muscular bluesy mood allowing Fields’ rich and emotive voice to ring out as she sings of a troglodyte Cherokee ancestor and recalls visiting her cave and watching her own shadow cast on the walls. Fields has always celebrated strong women, within and without her family, and here she maintains this while she goes on to celebrate other survivors as on the slinky Forbidden Fruit, which sees the band summoning up a mighty fine approximation of Little Feat syncopation. On Maxine a put upon daughter kicks off in delightful style as does the band on an energetic bluegrass influenced number and on Forbidden Fruit they again delve into swampy blues as Fields kicks out at aeons of masculine domination.

Fields addresses her position as an exile of sorts on several of the songs the most prominent being Exile where she sings of being a stranger in her own land. Paris to Austin is a delicate and tender number where she tries to reconcile her French sojourn with the realities of home, eventually settling for the idea that her music can bridge the oceanic gap while West Virginia In My Bones is a gutsier approach to her situation. Oklahoma On My Mind is more wistful with a sense of mortality about it as Fields just about sums up the ties which bind one to their homeland with lyrics evocative of John Ford westerns and Cormac McCarthy novels as the band lay down an excellently muted filigree of gentle guitar picking and atmospheric organ.

If the above paints Dancing Shadows as a “message” album, so be it as Fields surely has a message for this age but there’s tons to enjoy without getting too involved in the words. Demona is a high-spirited high plains morbid love song which has a wonderful coda where the band strike up a martial beat. Last Train to Sanesville harks back to the honky tonk romps of Texas Martha while Fare Thee Well Blues could have easily have been an original Carter Family song. Hillbilly Bop does just what it says on the tin as the band sashay and swing and Fields lets rip on the vocals (and having seen the band play it live it’s a definite crowd pleaser). Again, it has to be said that the band, all French dudes by the way, are just so good and Said And Done is a perfect example of their dexterity and ensemble playing in bluegrass style with solos coming fast and furious. The album closes with the wonderful Lone Wolf Waltz which finds Fields tying together Patti Page, Larry McMurtry, Steinbeck and Dorothea Lange as she wallows and waltzes through dust laden buffalo graveyard memories. Just wonderful.

On Dancing Shadows Martha Fields forges on as a fiery writer and performer who is fuelled by tradition and fired up by injustice. That she carries it off so well is testament to her and her band mates and they surely deserve more recognition.

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Young Waters. Young Waters

268x0wA five piece acoustic band from Bristol, Young Waters were previously known as Snufkin, a name which to our mind is perfect for a folk group who cite The Incredible String Band and Fairport Convention as influences. However listening to this excellently played and well mannered collection of chamber folk music it’s probably for the best that they underwent the name change. Indeed there’s little here which would remind one of the aforementioned bands as Young Waters seem more enamoured of the tight song structures one recalls from Pentangle (without the jazz and blues influences) and leaning more towards Renbourn rather than Jansch in the guitar stakes.

Aside from some impassioned moments on Weary Soul and a final dash to the line on the closing song much of the album is a courtly passage through finely entwined instrumental dexterity supporting Theo Passingham’s limpid songs. The majority of the album was recorded in one day at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios (a prize won by the band at The Bath Folk Festival) but it doesn’t sound rushed, instead the songs unwind at a steady pace. The opener Dust sets the scene as fiddle, guitar and a burbling bass slowly lead into the song before Passingham and singer Kerry Ann Smith intone the words in a delicate fashion. They almost tiptoe through the song although it does wax and wane and there’s some fine counterpoint singing. A cover of Jesca Hoop’s Enemy is more down to earth and there’s a hint of the eerie atmosphere contained in some of the soundtrack to The Wicker Man. Don’t Stare at the Sun follows as Passingham’s fairly unique reedy voice strains over a simple guitar melody on a threnody of sorts which reeks of alienation.

As the band weave away through their songs one continues to be impressed by their dexterity with Bleary Eyed a pizzicato delight while Eternal Bliss follows in the footsteps of Don’t Stare at the Sun although here the instrumentation is more fully fleshed. However, as the songs meander for the most part over five minutes with little in the way of dynamics the listener can drift off. A cover of a traditional song, Polly Vaughn, sung acapella, does grab one’s attention and sets up the closing number, Swimming Pool which is perhaps the most fully realised song on the album. Here the band almost swing and there’s a satisfying progression in the song as it builds up to its instrumental break and then settles back down before its closing crescendo.

Overall, it’s an impressive debut album and one would hope that as the band progress they can loosen up in the studio. That said, there’s enough here to indicate that on stage they would be quite entertaining as they can whip up a storm when required.

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Ben Kunder. Better Human

a1212112929_16This second album from Toronto based songsmith Ben Kunder is an enjoyable slice of breezy pop inflected songs which comes across at times as if a more upbeat than usual Ron Sexsmith was the scribe and performer. Kunder’s attractive tenor voice rides over some very sympathetic settings with some arrangements recalling the heyday of LA balladry as practised by Jackson Browne ( as on Fight For Time) while the fizzy Jessi is enlivened by electric keyboard and a cheesy synth zipping around over the rock steady backbeat.

The album opens with the title song which is a bit of an earworm as it’s eminently hummable melody is catchy as well while the rhythm section pulse away and again a synthesiser warbles along with the end result not too far removed from Todd Rundgren’s early work. Indeed, Kunder roots around classic singer songwriter territory for much of the album with the piano driven Hard Line, a ballad which rises to a string laden crescendo, sounding like the sort of song Eric Carmen should have written while Lay Down with its Hammond organ swell dives into the southern delta sounding for all the world like a lost Leon Russell number.

Despite the abundance of comparisons above Kunder stamps his own personality on the album and this is most apparent on the last two songs. Come On is simply presented with weeping strings, acoustic guitar and female harmonies as Kunder delivers a beautifully tender love song and Night Sky sparkles with a sense of wonder as he sings to his child, recalling his birth and offering his guiding hand for the years ahead.

Ben Kunder is currently touring the UK, all dates here and he plays in Glasgow tonight at The Doublet Bar.

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Ruston Kelly. Dying Star. Rounder Records

rustonkelly_dyingstar_cover_f_rgbBest known for his marriage to country star Kacey Musgraves and for having written hits for the likes of Tim McGraw, Ruston Kelly’s debut album Dying Star indicates that he has the potential to become a star in his own right. He can write songs which recall the musings of Steve Earle or Ryan Adams and sing them in a finely grained voice with an attractive lack of polish. In addition, the songs are delivered for the most part in classic California country rock with keening pedal steel (played by Kelly’s father). They are bathed in melancholia and regret, stained with a faded grandeur as they surround you.

The album opens with a lush California sound on Cover My Tracks, awash with acoustic guitars and pedal steel and sweet harmonies which disguise the somewhat downbeat lyrics. Much of the album concerns the fallout of broken love affairs and the  substances folk turn to to try and mend their hurt, the protagonists painted with fine brushstrokes as they try to make sense of their lives.

Faceplant and Blackout are strongly worded songs of drugs and despair and Big Brown Bus is like a modern version of Willin’ although this time it’s a lost passenger on a bus going through Texas who is using stimulants to keep his act together. The song opens as a pained piano ballad before swelling into a glorious cosmic Americana finale. There’s an almost palpable sense of sorrow and regret on Just for the Record, Anchors and Jericho but it’s on the title song where Kelly excels as his voice almost breaks while the band lay down a tender and enveloping cloud of pedal steel laced melancholia. It’s almost heartbreaking to listen to this song.

Kelly shows here that he is set to join the ranks of those Nashville based artists who are bucking the trend for radio friendly pop tunes as they use tradition to inform their music. In his case it’s to California that he has set his compass and anyone who digs the likes of Jackson Browne should certainly lend their ears to this.

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Willie Nelson. My Way. Legacy Recordings

wn_myway_cd_grandeLest we forget, it was Willie Nelson’s album of standards, Stardust, released back in 1978, which saw him becoming a household name. Of course by then he had a chequered career, writing huge country hits for Ray Price and Patsy Cline (with what is perhaps his most famous song, Crazy) in the early sixties before becoming a country star himself and then fading out somewhat towards the end of the decade. He reinvented himself in the seventies, abandoning Nashville for Austin, Texas, releasing albums which eschewed the Nashville sound and signing up to the Outlaw Country movement with buddies Waylon Jennings, Tompall Glaser and Jessi Coulter. 1975’s Red Headed Stranger was the pinnacle of his wayward battle with Nashville but it was the following year’s Stardust, a 10 song collection of standards, which saw him burst into the pop charts.

Since then Nelson has achieved iconic status while remaining, for the most part, true to his country roots and is still releasing albums at the age of 85. Last Man Standing, released only a few months ago, proved that he remains a vital force in country music while his immediately recognisable voice, rich and supple, remains in fine fettle. The latter is especially noticeable on this album which is Nelson’s tribute of sorts to another golden voiced singer, Frank Sinatra. As on Stardust Nelson takes familiar songs and transforms them with his voice, coaxing and teasing out all the subtleties inherent in what has come to be known as the great American songbook. Nelson and Sinatra apparently were friends and Nelson says that, “I learned a lot about phrasing listening to Frank,” and that is apparent here. His laconic vocals on the energetic opener Fly me to the Moon never show any sense of urgency or trying to match the jump rhythm the band strike up.

There are some lavish string and horn arrangements on the up tempo numbers with A Foggy Day really swinging while Blue Moon has a hip nightclub jazz cool vibe to it and Night and Day is given a slight bossa nova feel. Norah Jones turns up to swap vocals on What is this thing called Love, another swinging number, but it’s on the ballads where Nelson really hits the spot. Summer Wind has the band evoking the birth of the cool while a guitar solo (presumably Nelson playing his guitar Trigger) is just excellent. One for my Baby and One for the Road continues to nestle in its late night bar room wallowing and Young at Heart has what may be Nelson’s best vocal on the album as harp player Mickey Raphael echoes his voice. This reviewer’s favourite moment however is Nelson’s reading of It was a very good Year, perhaps because it’s our favourite Sinatra song but Nelson sings it so well while the arrangement is more supple than on Sinatra’s original. The album closes with a very dignified version of My Way with none of the bombast with which the song has been unfairly burdened with over the years.

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Alejandro Escovedo with Don Antonio. The Crossing. Yep Roc Records

crossingcover-300x300Sometimes a record just accords with the times and so it is with this sprawling and epic collaboration between Alejandro Escovedo, a Mexican-American who was named by No Depression as the Artist of the Decade at the end of the nineties, and Antonio Gramentieri, AKA Don Antonio, the Italian leader of the awesome Sacri Cuori. Both outsiders of sorts who manage each in their own way to capture the spirit of American music while retaining elements of their native culture, the pair teamed up last year when Gramentieri supplied the live band for Escovedo’s European tour and having hit it off they repaired to Italy to record The Crossing.

The album purports to be the story of two immigrants, Diego and Salvo, one Mexican, one Italian (natch) who are both seeking the American dream. They’re not the migrants of Steinbeck or Guthrie, seeking employment picking fruit. Instead, they’re in awe of the pop culture of America, the Beats, the punks, the movies, and as the album progresses they name check many of their heroes while at times aping the sonic attack of bands such as The Stooges and The MC5 (to the extent of having James Williamson and Wayne Kramer play on the songs which name check their bands). The album roams from fiery guitar led outbursts to more atmospheric (and, yes, cinematic) numbers with Gramentieri’s experience in creating pulsating and evocative music sitting side by side with Escovedo’s melodic and muscular rock punchiness.

And the album doesn’t hold back its punches. There’s the spoken word Rio Navidad, written by Willie Vlautin and read by Freddie Trujillo which has a racist Texas Ranger put in his place while on Fury and Fire Escovedo spits out the words, “They call us rapists so we build a bigger wall. We’re gonna tear it down.” On Footsteps in the Shadows  they evoke the nightmare of Diego’s crossing the American Mexico border with the music claustrophobic and haunting while Salvo’s introduction to the American way of life is his encounters with an alienated bunch of rednecks – “bigots with guitars” – on Texas Is My Mother. While our heroes strut their stuff on Outlaw For You which name checks several heroes (Thee Midnighters, The Plugz, James Dean, Alan Ginsberg, Cesar Chavez) over a pumping organ riff,  ultimately their odyssey turns sour with the closing title song a eulogy of sorts. Here they accept that the dream has soured as ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) tighten the screws with Diego lamenting the death of his buddy Salvo.

With 17 songs and a playing time of around an hour the album is a hefty listen but for such an opportune adventure which addresses real time issues it’s well worth the effort. Musically it’s an album to savour as it twists and turns with Gramentieri’s brief interludes allowing him to speak to his own love of Italian music leggera  while Escovedo is allowed to wallow around in the glittered rock kingdom of T Rex on MC Overload. Joe Ely’s Silver City aches with a longing for the promised land (with Ely assisting on vocals) and Cherry Blossom Rain is up there with Escovedo’s excellent tear stained ballads on Thirteen Years. There’s even a rare appearance from former Only Ones Peter Perrett and John Perry on Waiting For Me, a nice nod to UK new wave.

Overall, The Crossing is an album made for our times with Escovedo and Gramentieri  painting a picture of hopes and dreams but ultimately aware of the challenges facing those who are railing against the prevailing wave of populist hate and dogma.

The Alejandro Escovedo Band With Don Antonio commence a UK tour this week playing in Glasgow at Oran Mor this Friday, 26th October, all tour dates are here.


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Carson McHone. Carousel. Nine Mile Records

ff4eb003e6e51612017eae7935b95a41First up, here’s another album added to the list of contenders for best of the year when we start to tally up soon. In addition, we have to add Carson McHone, from Austin, Texas, to the list of female artists who have really injected some fire into the Americana scene of late. McHone, who was playing in Austin bars at the age of 16 has had two previous releases (an EP and an album) but Carousel is her first fully fledged outing which captures in several of the songs an Austin honky tonk sound but in others shows that she is straining at the leash to catapult herself into the top echelons of singer/songwriters working in a country vein.

With producer Mike McCarthy (Spoon, Patty Griffin) at the helm and with a great squirreling country band behind her, McHone delivers her more traditional numbers with style and plenty of energy although she doesn’t follow the rulebook. The opening Sad is rife with pedal steel, twang guitar and fiddle as McHone dips and dives throughout the song which switches tempo from plaintive country waltz to bar room grittiness. Lucky, a grand song about a philanderer is even more pronounced in its division between McHone’s tear-filled laments in the verses and her sardonic and jaunty chorus. There is a fully fledged dive into gutsy country rock on Good Time Daddy Blues with the band barrelling along in best trucker fashion and on Maybe They’re Really Just Good Friends McHone dips into western swing in an excellent fashion.

In the grand tradition McHone sings mainly of women in trouble with the main problem being their men folk but she offers her version of living a life in bars on the spindly Dram Shop Girl which with its rattling percussion, mournful fiddle and woozy guitar solo captures splendidly the sense of seeing life through a glass. Drugs is more direct in its depiction of addiction with the band approximating at times Lou Reed’s VU songs with the pedal steel conjuring up a sense of narcotic euphoria as McHone repeats a mantra singing over and over the line, “I need drugs.” Moving even further from the mainstream the introduction to Gentle sounds almost like The Grateful Dead warming up for a jam with Phil Lesh like bass lines although when the song itself weighs in it is more of a fiddle sawed country lament with some cosmic pedal steel licks adding to its lustre.

McHone closes the album with three songs which really see her moving away from the honky tonks. How ‘Bout It is a spare piano ballad, almost a torch song, where she waxes poetic in a love reverie while Goodluck Man has her voice up close with evocative guitar murmurings, the song approaching the ambient style of Emmylou Harris on Wrecking Ball. Finally, there’s Spider Song which has a creaking harmonium adding a fine patina to a song which sounds as if it’s been dredged from an antebellum age while the lyrics could have come from a Child ballad with their chilling imagery.

While the cohabiting of the more traditional country fare and the latter folkier numbers might have made for an odd combination the album works well as one listens to it. There’s a sense that McHone is set to move on and that this is a transitional album. She says of country music that, “I want to do more with the form, push myself past where I understand it to be.” She’s certainly made a grand start here.

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