Beth Bombara. Evergreen.

a2227776830_16Reading that this album was composed in the main in a secluded log cabin in the Canadian Rockies, we were expecting a soul searching acoustic laced forlorn collection of laments. Instead of that we find that Beth Bombara, after a lengthy bout of touring, took the time out to recharge her batteries and having done that, headed to the studio and plugged into the mains. Sharing the voltage with Bombara is her excellent road tested band along with co-producer John Calvin Abney on keyboards. They’re a versatile bunch and add a lot of oomph to Bombara’s fine songs with some of the songs delivered with the finesse of bands such as Little Feat or even The Band while Bombara  recalls the likes of Kathleen Edwards or Aimee Mann.

The album kicks off with the punchy I Only Cry When I’m Alone which is girdled with some excellent sinewy guitars and a pulverising beat as Bombara admits to her insecurities. Upside Down follows in a similar manner although the guitars are crunchier and the solos somewhat snarlier while Anymore opens with Bombara’s plaintive guitar stutterings before swelling into a wonderful example of that good old cosmic American music with guitars growling and gliding  as her voice soars. She then dives into the most country sounding song on the album on Tenderhearted which in style recalls Courtney Marie Andrews although Bombara comes across as made of tougher stuff as she recounts the rough edges of her tender hearted lover while the band dig into a muscular country rock groove. Talking of the band, they really take flight on Does It Echo. Opening with ominous percussion, guitars and electric piano, Bombara then weighs in with her portents of doom before a wonderful instrumental coda, which is quite blissful in the manner of David Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name, closes the proceedings.

Invoking the Stones on the ballsy Good News and getting real sleazy on Criminal Tongue, Bombara and the band show they can rock out but the title song shows that there’s a power pop pulse also beating within. The album closes with Bombara accompanied only by piano and strings on a proper log cabin song at last. However, instead of an introspective breast beating exercise, she seizes here an opportunity to deliver a quietly understated comment on the current political climate in the USA. One leaves the album with the thought that it’s people such as Bombara who have the power to  make America great again and that there’s an army out there. Hopefully they will start to tune in.

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3hattrio. Live At Zion. Okehdokee Records

3hattrioThis live album from the premier purveyors of American Desert Music is not officially released until November. However, with 3hattrio commencing a UK tour this week, they have brought the first run of discs with them allowing those who attend their shows to be the first on the block to own this excellent recording.

Over the course of four albums 3hattrio (Hal Cannon, Greg Istock and Eli Wrankle) have emerged with not only a unique sound but as keepers of the traditions and history of Zion National Park with particular reference to Utah’s desert lands. Inspired by the arid landscape and influenced by the numerous settlers over the ages including Southern Paiute Native Americans, the trio have an almost magical ability to transport the listener into what, at times, seems an alien world.

As evocative as the albums are, they don’t really prepare you for the emotional impact of experiencing the band live. With just a guitar, banjo, fiddle, double bass and rudimentary percussion they conjure some fabulous sounds, at times eerie and shamanistic, elsewhere evoking frontier sounds carried from the old world and bearing the trails through Appalachia as played around desert campfires. When your reviewer was fortunate enough to experience them live we reported that there was a circularity to the songs on the night, one all enveloping aural experience, and so it is on Live At Zion which the band describe as, “A single piece of music, a desert symphony rising out of our home in Zion Canyon.”

Recorded in a pre civil war church in their hometown of Virgin, Utah, Live At Zion finds the band playing to friends and neighbours and expertly captures the live experience. With a mixture of songs from the albums along with new pieces, it’s a magnificent listen from start to finish. Hal Cannon’s evocation of the mighty winds which have carved the shape of much of the desert landscape sets the scene before Istock’s impressionistic Thelma & Louise creeps into view. Propelled by his driving double bass as Wrankle’s fiddle twists and turns, the song is powerfully evocative as Istock scats and mumbles before the trio soar off into uncharted territory and then return to the primary riff. It’s desert music with a whiff of Coltrane’s extrapolations thrown in and is just astounding. Cannon grounds the band with his salute to their homeland on Zion Song and much of the album repeats this trick as the trio alternate between atavistic sound explorations and down home folklore. At the centre of the album is a number, called here Desert Triptych, which is an amalgam of three songs (Rose, Night Sky and Lord Of the Desert) which is just astounding. Ranging from the spacey opening (which would surely astonish any prog rock fan) to Cannon’s invocation which is reminiscent of a stoned cold and immaculate Jim Morrison tripping in the desert, it has to be heard to be believed.

The trio continue to paint vivid sound portraits on the wailings, slick banjo and sonic fiddle exploration (and closing humour) of Texas Traveller, while the percussive intricacy of Crippled Up Blues and then Cannon’s banjo led riparian song, Flight, showcase the trio’s magnificent interplay. Throughout the album Wrankle’s playing astounds while Istock’s mastery of his bass and percussion remains a mystery as it seems impossible for any human being to do what he does here.

Live At Zion captures this unique band in full flight and bodes well for the upcoming UK shows.

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Carly Dow. Comet

cd_cover_concepts_presentation_final28129Carly Dow is a Canadian banjo player who first came to attention internationally in 2015 with her debut album, Ingrained.  On Comet, her second album, the banjo remains her primary instrument while she adds acoustic and electric guitar, along with piano, to her musical arsenal. More to the point, a fine array of musicians flesh the sound out, the songs here approaching soft rock at times although for the most part they are probably best described as folk rock.

Affairs kick off in a fine manner with an excellent brace of songs opening the album. Brightest Time Of Year has Dow’s clawhammer banjo picking surrounded by eastern sounding strings and evocative percussion adding an exotic air while pedal steel and electric guitar float throughout. The overall sense is evocative of Joni Mitchell and early Fairport Convention. Next, there’s the slight country thump of Sunlight Remembers with some Dobro snaking throughout while the title song is a pulsating radio friendly number with bass and drums gently driving the song along. Tiger’s Eye finds Dow back on banjo for the rootsiest track so far on a song which seems to be about finding a wild inner self. With shovelling percussion and Matt Filopoulos adding some magnificently skewed bursts of guitar, this is quite fiery and reminiscent of some of the work from that esteemed quartet of female banjo players, Our Native Daughters.

Next up there’s a trio of songs which sound somewhat diluted in comparison to those above. Dreaming Of You and the following Like Coyotes veer dangerously close to the radio friendly rock of Fleetwood Mac. They are excellently played and sung and there’s a sublime guitar solo on the latter.  Meanwhile, on Something Lost, the banjo and strings seems ill suited to each other. However, the album coasts to a fine end beginning with the breezy accordion laced lilt of Cut & Run which gives way to the moody Too Bright with its reverberating guitars and heady electric solo. Throughout the album, Dow uses allusions and metaphor to describe various relationships and the closing Constellations is no different. Her lonesome banjo picks out the opening before a sweet pedal steel creeps in as Dow faces her fears and eventually ends up howling at the moon and stars.

Overall, Comet is an album which sounds excellent, the playing and production well above par. In addition, and although they don’t sound alike, it’s an album which fans of mid 70s Joni Mitchell might find quite intriguing.

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Old Man Luedecke. Easy Money. True North Records

1b4e24aa191bd5f5b454cb5257d8488fThis latest album from Canada’s banjo playing folkster Old Man Luedecke is a deceptively sunny listen. Written mainly at a songwriter residency in the mountain resort of Banff in Alberta, the album, perversely, has a Caribbean feel to it with several songs using calypso rythyms while some of it slides down with the ease of a Pina Colada sipped to the strains of a Jimmy Buffet “yacht rock” classic. With a crack band behind him (including Fats Kaplan and Tim O’Brien),  Luedecke pilots a skilful course through his tropical sounds recalling similar ventures from the likes of Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal.

Skipping through some light hearted songs such as his ode to sardines and the mock piratical shanty song Money Pit, Luedecke addresses issues such as leaving his family behind as he goes on the road to earn a buck. Indeed, the album opens with his daughters asking him why he has to go away before he launches into the wishful rhapsody, Easy Money. This is followed by Dad Jokes, a delightful ditty on the perils of middle age which is delivered somewhat like Michael Hurley delving into the kiddie rap of 3 Is A magic Number while How Do I Deserve Your Love is  a bustling shuffle of banjo and  skiffle like rythym section. Lonely County and I Wanna Go meanwhile are more straightforward  bluegrass like numbers with a hint of The Carter Family and latter country rock in the grooves.

Dipping into tradition, Luedecke offers us a fine old seafaring ballad on The Mermaid which reeks of Greenwich Village earnestness and then launches into a French lyric version of Dylan’s Hard Rain, called here Le Ciel Est Noir which was a hit for Nana Mouskouri back in the seventies. Towering over the other songs however is one which Luedecke has written following the death of his father. Death Of Truth, in comparison to the rest of the album, is sombre, with a martial drum beat and mournful organ, Luedecke  sounding like Leonard Cohen at times as he says farewell to a man who would have been appalled by the current state of affairs and in particular, the spread of fake news.

Easy Money is an album you could play to entertain your guests as you fire up a barbeque but on closer listening it’s a finely crafted and intriguing listen.

Old Man Luedecke is currently touring the UK and Europe, all dates here.

Rod Picott. Tell The Truth & Shame The Devil. Welding Rod Records

fullrescoverRod Picott has carved himself a career, a stellar series of albums and consistent touring finally allowing him to give up his day job as a sheetrock hanger. Tagged as a “blue collar” storyteller he has recently branched out into the world of literature publishing his poetry and a book of short stories but he was almost derailed last year following a major health scare. He survived, thankfully, but that brush with mortality gave him pause for thought leading to this, his most stripped back and personal album so far. Tell The Truth & Shame The Devil is not solely about his illness but, as he says in his liner notes, “Confronting mortality, I asked myself a few questions. Who am I? Who have I been?” Some of the songs try to answer these questions, others delve into his past and a few are simply just excellent examples of his song writing as Picott bares his soul on what is a magnificent record.

The album opens and closes with a short rumble of thunder, a portent of doom perhaps, but otherwise it’s unadorned, just Picott, at home with a guitar and a harmonica laying down his truth. The opening song, Ghost, sets the scene as he posits himself as an invisible entity whom no one can hear, trapped in an existential quandary. A 38 Special & A Hermes Purse, a song Picott says was directly related to his heart problem, is a dark meditation on the will to live and the demons who can persuade one to end it all. A Guilty Man is a confessional, past behaviour alienating those around him leading to a lonesome life, although there is a chance of absolution.

These dark and intimate songs are surrounded by some spectacular notes on family memories which are unveiled with the authority of a writer such as Steinbeck as Picott recalls his father bailing out a flooded basement or putting on his Sunday best to go to church. On Mama’s Boy he sets out his family’s boxing heritage, makeshift rings for the kids to scrap in and then watching the likes of Clay and Liston on the family TV, the song becoming a meditation on masculinity as Picott sings, “Gonna turn that boy into a man.Mark is based on a memory of a high school friend who killed himself which Picott sees as a turning point from childhood to the cold reality of grown up life, his sixties benchmarks, Kennedy, The Beatles turning to dust. The song recalls Hunter S Thompson’s famous line on the death of sixties optimism, “You can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look west, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

On a wider plane, Picott has a riposte to the “glamorisation” of working class life on A Beautiful Light (co-written with Ben de la Cour), paints a gritty portrait of the dingy life of a bar band on Spartan Hotel and tries to summon up an angel for his demons on Folds Of Your Dress. Too Much Rain meanwhile is a murder ballad which is informed by his recent immersion in gritty southern fiction.

Packed with excellent songs and expertly mixed from Picott’s raw tapes by Neilson Hubbard, Tell The Truth & Shame The Devil is likely to be compared to the likes of Springsteen’s Nebraska due to its stripped down nature. It’s more than that however. It’s the sound of a master craftsman who has supped with his devil and lived to tell the tale.

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Tenement & Temple. Tenement & Temple. Thrum Recordings

a0680655913_16It’s been a while in the coming but this debut album from Tenement & Temple, the latest incarnation of Glasgow’s Monica Queen and Johnny Smillie, has been well worth the wait. Queen, in case anyone reading this doesn’t already know, has a voice to die for. There’s a compelling sense of innocence in her crystal clear delivery and it’s always tempting to describe her singing as angelic although she can belt out a rocker as evidenced on her and Smillie’s earlier recordings as Thrum. Smillie meanwhile, aside from being a superb guitarist, is a maestro in the studio as his lengthy list of production and arrangement credits will attest to.

While the pair have continued to buckle on the Les Paul’s and deliver the pulverising Crazy Horse like sturm und drang of Thrum on occasions,  it’s been the subtler (and quieter) acoustic duo format which has been the mainstay of their live appearances over the past few years. Blabber’n’Smoke witnessed an early incarnation when the pair opened for Steve Earle in what was the first of the Summer Nights shows in Kelvingrove around five years ago and then a proper Tenement & Temple gig at Perth’s Southern Fried Festival in 2016.  Superb as these shows were, they didn’t prepare one for the delights to be found within this disc.

Although it’s tempting to describe the album as mellow, there’s so much more to it than that. Gathering elements of country, classic sixties orchestral pop and swooning tin pan alley, it’s a gorgeous listen. Smillie keeps to acoustic guitar for the most part while Queen’s majestic vocals are occasionally enveloped in ethereal harmonies while the songs are wafted on a pillow of outstanding arrangements, some dreamlike, many evocative while remaining firmly within the Temple & Tenement universe, such is their unique calling card.

The album opens with the plaintive lament of Loving Arms with Queen summoning something of the spirit of the McGarrigle sisters over Smillie’s teardrop guitars. I Know adds some keening electric guitar to the mix as Queen’s spoken words counterpoint the angst fuelled desperation in her spiralling vocals on a song which comes across like an intense French torch song. Meanwhile, Your Sweet Face  is a hypnotic swirl of cartoon Disney like innocence replete with shimmering guitars and star spangled percussion and It’s Been A While Lord is a shimmering song of devotion. Smillie’s skills are all too evident on the short but effective 10 More Years which marries Nashville misery and French chanson alongside a whiff of lee Hazlewood while the excellent Ripa finds the duo in a Latin mood transporting the listener to sunnier climes.

They close the album with a magnificent triple whammy. One Room House is an archetypal tear jerker with Queen doing a Tammy Wynette like spoken word part as Smillie works his wonders on the arrangement which is quite sublime. Where The Wild Roses Grow allows Queen the opportunity to wallow magnificently in the depths of Appalachian doom and gloom before they close the disc on a collaboration with Glasgow’s Strange Blue Dreams on what is possibly the best ever rendition of Blue Moon that we have heard. Taking Presley’s version as a template they usher the song into a twilight zone of phantom guitars as Queen’s voice quivers oh so brilliantly. If David Lynch were to hear this, he’d probably have an orgasm.

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