Zalman Yanovsky. Alive And Well In Argentina. Floating World Records

zal_hi_res_2000xZal Yanovsky was the yin to John Sebastian’s yang in The Lovin’ Spoonful. He was the zany one who goofed around on stage while Sebastian kept his cool. This all blew up when Yanovsky, a Canadian, was caught in a drug bust and was reckoned by most of the hippy community to have sold out his dealer in some kind of plea bargain in order to avoid deportation. The Spoonful were caught up in this and became somewhat uncool and Yanovsky split from the band soon after. He soon faded into obscurity eventually returning to Canada where he ran a restaurant until his untimely death aged only 58. He only released one album after departing the Spoonful but what a doozy it was. Alive And Well In Argentina sprang from captivity in 1968 only to be widely ignored but over the years it has acquired a cult following with original editions a collector’s item.

While there are some echoes of Yanovsky’s spell in the Spoonful to be heard here and there, the album is a wacky collection of wacked out songs. There’s black humour galore, sonic experimentation and some blissfully stoned country and western songs and while there may a temptation to lump the album in with other sixties oddities such as The Fugs  the album actually stands up as a great collection of well played songs and stands up well to the test of time. It was produced by Jerry Yester (who replaced Yanovsky in the Spoonful) and how much of its attraction is due to Yester’s work is up for debate. But with several of the songs interwoven with spoken word clips and featuring odd sound effects some of the album is like a rehearsal for Yester’s work with Judy Henske on another sixties cult album, Farewell Aldebaran. This is most apparent on the discordant instrumental Lt. Schtinkhausen which closed the original disc and which comes across like The Beatles on a bad acid trip.

Schtinkhausen might be a nod to the pioneering electronic music genius Stockhausen and Yanovsky alludes to other pioneers such as Edgar Allen Poe on the opening Raven In A Cage, a fine slice of psychedelic pop, and on the bizarre Hip Toad, a classic and stone cold immaculate word salad which surely would have had Kim Fowley spitting with envy. Much of the album consists of Yanovsky’s unique covers of familiar songs. George Jones’ Brown To Blue is given a tongue in cheek sincere delivery while Little Bitty Pretty One is just a hoot to listen to and impossible not to sing along with. Floyd Cramer’s  piano instrumental Last Date is given a Santos & Johnny  makeover allowing Yanovsky to showcase his guitar playing while Ivory Joe Hunter’s I Almost Lost My Mind is a kaleidoscopic slice of R’n’B which foreshadows The Band’s collection of covers on Moondog Matinee. He also, perhaps to prove a point, throws in an excellent cover of John Sebastian’s Priscilla Millionaira.

Yanovsky goes over the top on the magnificent title song which, of course, alludes to elderly Nazis in hiding. Here he goes all bluegrass us, perhaps influenced by the recent release of the movie Bonnie & Clyde with the song belting along banjo style until it’s hijacked by Teutonic voices plucked from documentary sources. It’s a song you probably wouldn’t get away with these days. Tucked in at the end of this reissue is Yanovsky’s attempt at a single. As Long As You’re Here. It’s like a wilder and wackier version of the Spoonful but there’s also a fine sting in the tail as the song ends in a chorus of “Is it a hit or a miss?” It was a miss unfortunately as was its B-side, also included here, which is the song played backwards.

It’s been a long time since we last heard this album but it’s been a total blast catching up on it again. So, if you buy just one sixties cult classic this week, buy this one.

Buy it here

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Songs Of Our Native Daughters. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings

sfw40232This album was released several weeks ago and the reason why it’s taken some time for Blabber’n’smoke to acknowledge its existence is that it’s taken several weeks to fully delve into the importance of this document. The music and the written words within this disc are described by Rhiannon Giddens as, “Shining new light on African American stories of struggle, resistance, and hope, pulling from and inspired by 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century sources. Interpreting, changing, or creating new works from old ones.” More specifically Giddens notes that “There is surely racism in this country—it’s baked into our oldest institutions—just as there is sexism, millennia old. At the intersection of the two stands the African American woman. Used, abused, ignored and scorned, she has in the face of these things been unbelievably brave, groundbreaking and insistent. Black women have historically had the most to lose, and have therefore been the fiercest fighters for justice.”

The acorn of the album was planted when Giddens visited the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC and was struck by a quotation from William Cowper, a noted abolitionist and satirist. It took further root during a screening of Nate Parker’s film, Birth Of A Nation when Giddens noted that in a scene depicting the rape of a slave woman, the camera lingered on the husband’s humiliation. All of this and much more is explained in the superb liner notes which detail Giddens’ invitations to her co-stars here, all of them black female banjo players, the banjo of import in several respects, again all explained in Giddens’ essay. Ultimately, Giddens wants the album to be seen as “Part of a larger movement to reclaim the black female history of this country.” As such, she and her sisters in song have succeeded as the album packs a powerful punch. The songs, all eminently memorable contain a litany of crimes, misdeeds and horrors visited upon their forebears while also celebrating the indomitable spirit which allowed them to survive and sometimes rise above such evil.

The Quartet performing Songs Of Our Native Daughters are Giddens, her former Carolina Chocolate Drops colleague Leyla McCalla, Alison Russell (of Po’ Girl and Birds Of Chicago) and Amythyst Kiah. Together they are a formidable force, writing or co-writing in various combinations and singing together in a spectacular fashion while producer Dirk Powell is acknowledged as an important ingredient in the mix. The songs range from powerful southern infused fury to glorious sun kissed Caribbean harmonising while Bob Marley is saluted in the cover of Slave Driver, the notes stating, “Marley sang about spirituality and sensuality but also about militant resistance to oppression… Like Martin Luther King his militancy has been whitewashed in the years since his death.” Like Marley, this album has songs to enjoy but which also contain a message.

Kiah kicks things off with her song Black Myself, her powerful voice driving the song just as much as the stinging electric guitar which gives the song a southern rock thump as she notes that there were considered degrees of “blackness.” Moon Meets The Sun follows, an almost calypso like song which is notable for the superb interplay of their voices but behind its sunny disposition the four are singing a defiant song, “Ah you steal our children but we’re dancing ah you make us hate our very skin but we’re dancing.” Giddens reads from the Cowper poem which so moved her in the haunting Barbados before Allison Russell hoves into view on what is possibly the most impressive song on the album. Quasheba, Quasheba grew from her own research into her family history uncovering this ancestor who was stolen in Africa and sold into slavery. Leyla McCalla meantime moves to the front for her salute to Etta Baker on I Knew I Could Fly, Baker being a blues guitarist who gave up playing when she married and only gained recognition in widowhood. The band then take great joy in upending the traditional John Henry, a song which celebrates the strength of the steel driving hero as they transfer him to a sick bed while his wife Polly Ann goes to work in his stead and survives.

The album is packed with memorable and moving songs. Mama’s Crying Long is a field holler telling of a slave who killed her rapist and was lynched. Better Git Yer Learnin’ is set to an 1885 banjo tune and commemorates the attempts to set up black schools after emancipation, many of which were simply blown up by whites. McCalla offers up a Haitian inspired number on Lavi Difisil and Kiah and Russell turn in a powerful diatribe regarding the hypocrisy of white slave owners who were happy to rape their slaves and then sell off their own black offspring on Blood & Bones, linking this to the misguided current white nationalist movement which has been revitalised under the current occupant of the White House. And it’s this linkage which lifts the album from being merely an incredibly well performed set of roots music, similar in fashion say to Ry Cooder’s or Taj Mahal’s best efforts. The stories and histories sung about here unfortunately reverberate through the ages and continue to impact. Black people and in particular black women are still discriminated against, look at #BlackLivesMatter for example. Writing as a white male in the first world one can’t begin to feel the ongoing pain, humiliation and real danger visited upon those who face these trials on a daily basis. The wonder of this album is that it might make more of us think about this more often. Buy it for the music as it is tremendous but take some time to investigate it as well. There’s even a bibliography to get you started. As well as being a contender for album of the year it’s probably the most important album of the year.

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Jason Ringenberg. Stand Tall. Courageous Chicken Music.

final-pack-shotOn the eve of a UK tour by the legendary Ringenberg, THE Jason of Jason & The Scorchers, it’s heartening to hear this latest album from him and even more heartening to report that it is a humdinger. It fairly zips along with typical pizzazz, country, folk, and punk licks all rolled into little balls of fire with his familiar voice at the helm. What’s not so heartening is the revelation in the liner notes that Ringenberg had resigned himself to never recording again in this “internet driven music world.” His ennui was dispelled when he was given the opportunity to be artist in residence at Sequoia National Park in California. He spent a month in the wilderness, dwarfed by the arboreal giants, tracked by bears, and found songs tumbling out of him. Energised, he returned to his own roots in Southern Illinois and recorded most of this album with chums he’d played with back in his college days there before finally completing it in Nashville.

The album opens with a tune obviously indebted to his month in the wilderness, the wonderfully cinematic instrumental Stand Tall. It’s music for a western movie with Morricone and Tiomkin like splendour, banjo, fiddle and twangy guitar battling it out with a horn section over a galloping beat. The splendour of the sequoias informs the gentle folky rhythms of Here In The Sequoias with Ringenberg saluting the majesty and tranquillity of these giants while John Muir Stood Here is a scorcher (sorry) of a song which commemorates the famous Scottish naturalist who kick-started nature conservation in the States.

Elsewhere Ringenberg tears through some cracking country rock as on Looking Back Blues with its searing pedal steel and Almost Enough, a song written by an old Illinois comrade, Hugh Deneal, while Many Happy Hangovers To You is a wonderfully loose-limbed confection with squirreling guitars and pedal steel driving the song along. In a gentler mood, he turns in a fine reading of Jimmy Rogers’ Hobo Bill’s Last Lament while Dylan’s Farewell Angelina closes the album. He recalls his own past when supporting The Ramones on a tour back in 1983 on God Bless The Ramones, a punk infused blast with some scorching (sorry again) lap steel playing while the excellent John The Baptist Was A Real Humdinger basically recasts the hapless water dunker as a wild west hero. Overall, we should be grateful to those sequoias for inspiring the man to record again as Stand Tall is an excellent album.

Jason Ringenberg is touring the UK in March including a Glasgow show on 28th, all dates here.

Findlay Napier & Megan Henwood. The Story Song Scientists. Dharma Records

5aab257b-ed75-45c6-b919-01d15a8e6a71Having penned the cabinet of curiosities which was VIP and then eulogised his adopted city of Glasgow, Findlay Napier seems to have now gotten into the habit of releasing EPs with a selected partner. The first of these was his collaboration with Rebecca Loebe on Filthy Jokes and now here’s a six-song disc written with Megan Henwood, a BBC 2 Young Folk award winner. Napier is a huge champion of the art of song writing and subsequently either runs or attends writing workshops much of the time and it was at one such event he met Henwood and casually asked her if she fancied, “Writing a song about maths?”

It’s one of the many attractions of Napier that he can pluck a subject almost randomly and turn it into a song which is not esoteric but rather intriguing. We’re not familiar with Ms. Henwood’s oeuvre but the songs here are all co-written and her warm voice works well with Napier’s while she opens some other dimensions for Napier aside from his typical investigations. The opening song is Unnamable Radio, based on a 1971 event when a phone in radio jock kept a suicidal man on the line as emergency services eventually located him. It fits well into the vignettes and biographies which have peppered Napier’s albums, as do a couple of the other songs here, but elsewhere the duo bustle about other matters.

Shepherd has Henwood to the fore vocally and it’s a wonderfully realised modern folk song which glistens with some superb guitar work while arching back to the likes of John Martyn, Bert Jansch and Sandy Denny. The harmony singing here is sublime and the song cleaves to the hinterland of folk music, pastoral, mystical and downright spooky. There’s more mystery and weird folkiness on North Pond Phantom which is about a Thoreau like hermit who subsisted on food stolen from homes around his hermitage for 27 years. It’s another true story and Napier and Henwood breathe life into it gracefully and with an empathetic tenderness. But these guys are supposed to be scientists so it’s only fitting that they write a song about a German mathematician who wrestled with the concept of infinity, much to the consternation of his peers. End Of Numbers is another song which could have fitted onto VIP as is the powerful and driving pulse of Wild Wild Country which one presumes is about the ill-fated Rajneeshpuram cult in Oregon. They close the album with The Last Straw, an ecological plea which is the most intricate number on the disc with percussion and some great retro effects. Whether it’s a stylophone or not which produces the cheesy sounds it’s a neat effect cleverly juxtaposing a sixties sci-fi plastic future and the current concerns over plastic waste in the oceans. Whatever, it’s a cracking finale to what is a very good EP.

And finally, you just have to love this video…

From charity shop chords to AMAUK awards. A chat with Steve Grozier.

a1336805552_16Glasgow based singer/songwriter Steve Grozier  released his latest songs on a double A side digital single last Friday. This Saturday he has a launch party to celebrate the release at The Old Hairdressers , a funky and wonderfully distressed venue in the city centre which is high on the list of the hippest places to play in these days. The release follows on from two well received EPs, Take My Leave, released in 2016, and A Place We Call Home which came out a year later. The discs were instrumental in getting Grozier prized slots at festivals in the UK and some regular rotation on roots based radio shows. The new release maintains Grozier’s reputation as a winsome and somewhat melancholic artist, his mellow voice supported by some very sympathetic players including his buddy, Roscoe Wilson, a Glasgow guitarist who has mastered the art of country rock licks and doleful lap steel.

Goodbye Rose is a lachrymose affair with some fine chunky and curling guitar licks over a sluggish rhythm, a thick as molasses southern affair. Jason Molina’s Blues is leaner with keening lap steel adding a valedictory sense as Grozier salutes one of his musical heroes. We’ve heard Grozier perform this live on a few occasions and it’s always been quite chilling to hear. Suffice to say that here he has captured that chill perfectly in the studio on what is a remarkable song. Both songs indicate that Grozier continues to grow in confidence as he plows on despite the difficulties encountered by a truly independent artist these days. In the run up to this weekend’s show Steve was kind enough to have a quick chat with Blabber’n’Smoke.

First off, congratulations on the new release. What can you tell us about the songs and why a double A side release?

Well, the first one is Goodbye Rose, which details the disintegration of a marriage following the loss of a child. The second, Jason Molina’s Blues, is inspired by and dedicated to the memory of the American singer-songwriter Jason Molina. I wrote the latter after reading Erin Osmon’s book Jason Molina: Riding with the Ghost. I don’t know if the term ‘double A side’ still has meaning with a digital only release, but I liked the way The Hold Steady recently released a series of singles (two tracks) over the course of about a year. I thought it was an interesting way to release music. The costs involved in delivering hard copies such as CDs are so prohibitive these days, particularly for independent artists, and I lost money on both of the EPs I released. I do want to continue to release music, but I need to work out how to do that in a sustainable way.  I did look into a small run of 7” vinyl for these two tracks. Unfortunately, without a tour to support the release I definitely wouldn’t make my money back. I would love to have something on vinyl in the future, finances and audience permitting.

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One of the reviews of your first release, Take My Leave,  stated, “Part Townes Van Zandt, part Jason Isbell, Grozier’s vocal style is a classic blend of old and new Americana,” which is fine praise. Which artists have influenced you and who do you rate today?

Fine praise indeed. I admire both of those artists. Personally, I’m not sure I sound like either of them, but no complaints here. I’ve always been drawn to songwriters that have something interesting to say about heartbreak and the darker aspects of life and death. Equally, I like something with twangy guitars. The alt-country scene was emerging at the time I really started exploring music, buying my own records and going to shows. I was interested in the way that bands like The Jayhawks, Wilco, Son Volt, Old 97’s, Drive by Truckers and Richmond Fontaine took that punk/DIY ethos and applied it to country songs. A few of the contemporary artists I admire include Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus, Jenny Lewis and Big Thief and loads other that I can’t think of right now.

So was that when you started to write your own songs?

Like a lot of songwriters and musicians, I grew up in a house filled with music. I have my dad to thank for that. I don’t know if he ever played an instrument, but he was a singer in a band, briefly, and he loves music. I remember when I was growing up and he had this Pioneer record deck and he’d always have on a blues or rock ‘n’ roll record. I grew up listening to Springsteen and Dylan or The Stones and Rory Gallagher. I didn’t get into country music until later, when I heard The Flying Burrito Brothers. I started writing when I was in high school, probably when I was 15 or 16. It was just poetry at first. Then, I found my dad’s acoustic guitar. I’d never heard him play it. I started setting this awful poetry to the few chords I’d learned from a charity shop chord book. The first song I ever learned to play was Blowing in the Wind by Bob Dylan.

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Going back to the EPs, they got some fine press and on the back of that you were selected to appear in the showcase events for last years’ AMAUK awards festival down in London. You’ve also played a couple of festival shows over the past two years so what have been the highlights?

It was great to have the opportunity to play the AMAUK showcase. Roscoe (Wilson) and I went down to London and we played completely unplugged in this little room above a pub and you could have heard a pin drop. It was a rad couple of days and it was also cool to have had our pals from James Edywn and The Borrowed Band there too. Other highlights from last year have to include Maverick Festival. I got to play in a barn and then record a couple of songs for Richard Leader’s radio show. Closer to home I did a rare full band show at King Tut’s with Blitzen Trapper back in April ’18 and it was fun too. The guys in that band are sweet people. 

OK, it’s on to the launch show for the new release this weekend at The Old Hairdressers. What can we expect?

This show is going to be special. It’s an intimate (50 covers) all seated affair with cabaret tables, candles and fairy lights all those things. It’s with my band, the Wildcats – Roscoe Wilson on electric guitar and vocals, John Dunlop on bass and it will be our first show with Graham McDonald on drums. No spinal tap jokes please, but he’ll be our fourth drummer in just over two years! I’m also delighted to have Scottish Alternative Music Award winner Megan Airlie joining us on the bill.

Tickets for Steve’s launch show are going fast but you might be able to snag one here, a steal at only £6.

Goodbye Rose/Jason Molina’s Blues is available here.


Thanks to Ryan Buchanan  and Graham McCusker for the pictures.