Suzanne Jarvie. In The Clear. Wolfe Island Records

a3420829329_16It was back in 2015 when Suzanne Jarvie, a mother and lawyer, released an excellent debut album, Spiral Road. The album was a wonderful collection of songs which recalled the early releases of Emmylou Harris with Jarvie writing in the wake of her eldest son’s trauma after a serious fall. Despite having only dabbled in music up to that point the incident unleashed a song writing genie within her which led to the album and then on to successful concert dates, often in the company of fellow Wolfe Island denizens such as Hadley McCall Theakston and Hugh Christopher Brown who produced this album.

In The Clear, as the title might suggest, continues to find Jarvie writing in the aftermath of her son’s brain injury with several of the songs dealing with the aftermath although she avoids autobiography, preferring imagery and allusion. Thus, the gritty Point Blank with its glowering guitar and film noir hard-boiled lyrics, was written apparently in response to her son’s mood swings while Headless Rider finds her imagining her daughter’s sense of displacement as her sibling lies stricken. It’s a wonderful song which comes across almost like a Larry McMurtry story in song and verse, the hint at a familial connection really is only available to anyone with access to the PR notes but armed with this knowledge it makes sense. Aside from that it’s just a fabulous song which Jarvie delivers with a sublime and sweet country vibe as the band flow wonderfully; acoustic guitars, pedal steel, mandolin, fiddle, banjo and keyboards all swarming together, Jarvie’s very own Hot Band.

For someone who professes to be relatively new at the game, Jarvie manages time and again to hit all the buttons. Her songs are crammed with words to the extent that they all read like short stories. Take for example You Shall Not Pass, another gritty number with soulful Hammond organ and southern stained guitar licks which comes across like an Appalachian version of Lord Of The Rings  and then there’s the dust bowl dirt stained The Core. Featuring the legendary Mickey Raphael on harmonica, The Core might be one of the best songs we’ve heard this year, certainly a song to rival the best of Gretchen Peters and her ilk. Jarvie reaches similar heights throughout the album. Martyoshka and One It Finds are somewhat muted with a slight hint of Joni Mitchell while the title song is perhaps the closest we get here to the Emmylou comparisons with its superb Dobro from Burke Carroll. Perhaps the nearest to autobiography is the delicate All In Place which has a tiptoeing mandolin rippling away as Jarvie sings “I can see you’re worried it’s alright, I’m worried too and I’ve been up all night, watching the wipers cross the glass, all the minutes thunder pass.” The words will reverberate with anyone who has been in waiting for news of a loved one but aside from that the song’s arrangement is just so good and the playing so excellent. Slightly bluegrass, slightly LA canyon, slightly perfect.

Jarvie’s muse may have been born from tragedy but, unleashed, it thrives and In The Clear is a magnificent collection of songs, perfectly sung and perfectly played.

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Pete Gow. Here There’s No Sirens. Clubhouse Records

cruk0046cd_cruk0046lpThe Pete Gow we’re acquainted with is the frontman of Case Hardin, an edgy bunch of UK country rockers. Here, on his first solo album, Gow turns in a collection of songs which are personal and introspective, the country Americana of Case Hardin replaced by muted tones and sweeping strings. His voice is stained and regretful throughout as he wanders through a set of songs which recall musically, Elton John back in his Tumbleweed days, and lyrically, Guy Clark. It’s beautifully recorded by producer Joe Bennett who also played many of the instruments you hear as well as arranging the strings and horns, Gow played the guitars and Fin Kenny drums and aside from that it’s all Bennett.

The opening song, One Last Night Stand, sets the tone for the remainder of the album as tentative piano and spare acoustic strumming introduce the number which then swells with strings, organ and a sturdy rhythm section as Gow almost croaks out this bleak recollection of a tryst doomed from the start. Mikaela follows in a similar fashion although the story here is less abstract as it posits the protagonists as a later day Bonnie & Clyde in the sense that they were destined for each other while there’s a slight mariachi touch to the horn arrangements. Bennett’s arrangements reach their pinnacle on the tremendous title song which again grows from its spare beginnings to include a majestic string section which spirals around Gow’s resigned voice. Here he’s bereft and alone it seems but there’s solace in music as the strains of The Pogues’ Rainy Night In Soho waft from a radio and distract him from his solipsism and indeed the song closes with a scuzzy snippet of that self same song.

It’s a gloomy album to be sure but that never harmed the likes of Leonard Cohen. So we get the halting and  bittersweet country influenced TV Re-Runs and the stripped back folk of I Will & I Do, the most straightforward song here and the one which most recalls those Texas Troubadours. Pretty Blue Flower is a lengthy dissection of a relationship teetering on the edge and with its winsome country stylings and closing violin contribution is somewhat remarkable. The lead single from the album, Strip For Me, finds Gow examining the alarming double standards which still abound these days as he references the now infamous Stormy Daniels while singing from the perspective of a powerful white male. Again, this is clothed in a wonderful arrangement, the song sweeping on with an excellent sense of resignation and ennui. Here There’s No Sirens might be miles removed from Case Hardin but it posits Gow as one of our best songwriters about these days.

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Johnny Dowd. Family Picnic. Mother Jinx Records

johnnydowd_familypicnicReleased just prior to Johnny Dowd’s upcoming European tour, Family Picnic has been touted as a slight return to the sound and themes of his earliest albums with less of the tortured electronic skronking which informed his last couple of releases. Certainly Dowd’s idea of family values is not the same as someone like Thatcher or Reagan would have espoused as his families are composed of folk who are like rabbits caught in a headlight, catastrophe rushing towards them. And while the album continues to sound as if it’s been washed in an acid bath, the drums and vocals scarified into the songs, the guitars and keyboards misshaped by the process, by Dowd’s standards it does go some way back to that weird American Gothic which was celebrated in Jim White’s film, Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus. As Dowd sings on the closing number, “I sing songs of lust and depravity, that’s the only kinda songs come out of me,” and that just about sums it up.

Much of the album pursues a kind of mutant gutbucket blues with snarly guitar to the fore although it also dips into kaleidoscopic and frightful carney funway music and primitive country jaunts. The opening instrumental, Hoodoo, buzzes with hot guitar and exotic xylorimba summoning up thoughts of mondo type exploitation movies of the sixties. However, it’s like a frog in a blender as it gets increasingly twisted out of shape ending in a wonderfully demented organ solo. Next up, Dowd comes across like a Lou Reed revenant as he sings The Man Of Your Dreams over a ramshackle backing and owes up to having something missing from his psychological makeup, a hollow man indeed. Here he’s got a vocal foil in the shape of Kim Sherwood-Caso whose deadpan contributions to several of the songs add to the bathos. There’s a bit of a side step as Dowd examines the psychological makeup of the south in the maggot infested blues of Vicksburg before he launches into the flickering neon flash of Shameless, a song which demolishes anything The Stones have ever done when they tried to get down and funky and dirty. Again, Dowd’s hero is falling apart, dependent on his “baby” to pull him up while the music is as insistent as a dentist’s drill pile driving into a cavity.

Dowd screws with your mind throughout the album. The melodious chorus to Walking Floor has Sherwood-Caso repeating the words, “Big fucking mess,” while on The Stuttering Wind the harbinger of love is a “shiny black crow” who has a sideline in scavenging the souls of the recently buried. Four Grey Walls is twice as demented at least as the most demented of Tom Waits’ cracked fairground waltzes and on Back End Of Spring Dowd unleashes some scabrous  guitar  as he lays down a beat version of the Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone. Closer to home, the title song is a litany of the broken and diseased participants of a hellish family gathering and then there’s the tale of Little Jimmy, a threnody for a man who, as Dowd sings, “Was not evil, just a fuck up.” Anyhows, Jimmy gets his comeuppance when his wife, “Cuts his throat because his bullshit she would not take.”

Listening to Conway Twitty is somewhat akin to being inside the brain of any aspiring country star when they’re experiencing an epileptic fit. The ambition sparking but zapped by rogue neurons firing off in all directions, eventually ending in a fugue induced and plaintive plea, “I wanna be a star.” Dowd closes the album with the supremely engaging heaven and hell battle themed Thomas Dorsey where he compares himself to this giant of gospel song and admits that he can’t sing of salvation, only hell and damnation. For what it’s worth, we’d say that Dowd’s trips into the underworld are as glorious as any hallelujah.

Johnny Dowd kicks off his European tour this week with several UK dates included, all details here.

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