Top 10 albums of 2019


As everyone else is doing it, we thought we’d post our favourites from the past year. It’s not a definitive list (already been changed several times) but here we go…

Our Native Daughters, Songs Of Our Native Daughters

The Delines, The Imperial

Peter Bruntnell, King Of Madrid

Hayes Carll, What It Is

Colin Linden & Luther Dickinson, Amour

Anna Tivel, The Question

Ian Noe, Between The Country

Buddy & Julie Miller, Breakdown On 20th South Avenue

Norrie McCulloch, Compass

Felix Hatfield, Boundaries



There’s a wealth of bubbling under albums which have been greatly appreciated and listened to regularly but we’re not going to mention here. So have a search through the archives to see what else tickled our fancy in 2019. It was quite a good year and hopefully 2020 will be as fruitful.

A Blabber’n’Smoke Christmas Tale

Ever since Dickens, it’s been a Christmas tradition for short stories to abound. Some ghostly, some sad, some filled with good cheer. In keeping with this tradition Blabber’n’Smoke are proud to publish this seasonal offering from a good friend of our blog. Read on…

The Rough Sleeper

By Ken Irvine.

Canary Wharf business aria, London, Sketch collection

It felt like May. Why did I keep hearing that?

Worse still why did I keep passing the knowledge on. Everyone could feel the wet balmy remnants of Storm Francis. They could hear the spring-like chirpings of the blackbirds and starlings in the bare trees. Why did I insist on sharing that – in the back of taxis, in bars, in the barbershop?

Warm beads of sweat trickled down my back as I trudged towards the building, weighed down by my heavy load.  The river and the houseboats on my left.  The sound of the geese on the little islet in a vocal battle against the traffic. I thought of the relative tranquillity of the island and the successive fringes that surrounded it.

The river, a thin channel between the north bank and the island, too shallow for the pleasure boats that used the south channel, but the occasional rower would stray in there when the tide was right.

The houseboats, really the best real estate in the area, the few eccentrics who staked their claim here decades ago, in what was a downbeat , industrial part of town were now sitting pretty, but it was a tenuous existence –tethered to the bank against the ebb and flow and constantly warding off city hall  bureaucrats who wanted to wipe them from the map permanently.

The pretty little park, fringed with willow that mothers and toddlers would frequent this in day time, and when night fell it was the haunt of the local teenagers, smoking dope and drinking cheap alcohol, skateboards and chrome plated BMX’s discarded around them.

The busy main road, angry cyclists in the narrow bike lane and smug, frustrated commuters in cars ploughing their way home for Christmas in the rain.

Then, the rows of apartments, containing and contrasting all aspects of humanity, from billionaires in penthouses to eight-to-a room migrants in basements.

I sniggered to myself as I thought of my appearance. My heavy parka with the hood up against the rain. The large blue Ikea bag slung over my shoulder and my stooping gait balancing myself against the weight of its contents. Like a grim alcoholic King Wenceslas minus the snow.

Bruce Springsteen – Atlantic City was playing in my headphones. I needed supplies if I was going to do this and the bag was full of food, some festive treats at knock down prices, but mainly staples -cartons of orange Tropicana, cereal bars, assorted tins of fish- mackerel, sardines, salmon, cans of strong beer- 7,7%. I had reckoned that would be enough. There would be no waste and I wouldn’t starve.


My building had few lights on when I arrived just after nine. It wasn’t the kind of place where people went to bed early, far from it. The students who rented in there had parties any night of the week, well into the small hours of the morning. But they were all away. Most of the other residents were away too, to families in other parts of the country.


They hadn’t told us about that in the sales pitch. That by choosing a first -time buyer shared ownership block, that I was buying in to a world where parents faked their first-year kid’s applications, these kids graduated and moved on, leasing the apartments to other students. These became neglected and the prices stagnated as all the other genuine residents moved out. I was the longest running tenant – or so it seemed. Twenty-six years old and I’d been here two years.

I switched on the light and hit the remote.  The Allman Brothers – Stormy Monday – Live at Filmore West ’71.  I smiled, it seemed apt, and I sat down – there was no need to turn the heating on.

I looked out of the window – It wasn’t the same for the surrounding blocks – those with proper concierges and strict rules about how the apartments were decorated and what could be placed on the balconies. Those with large brightly light Christmas trees in their windows, and tasteful fairy lights clipped professionally to the balustrades.

It was time.

Everyone was going away, no pubs, no meals, no socializing – no temptation to smoke until things started up again in January. I poured myself a large glass of Fino that had been on the “Reduced” shelf and went out to the balcony and lit up – my last one of the year.  Yes, by January I would have quit, and the album would be in the bag. I felt the warm glow almost immediately.


Although he was on the other side of the building I could see him,  a reflection on the mirror glass in the building opposite. Sat by the river wall – wringing his hands, running his thin fingers through his long black curls. I had seen this ritual many times – but still, it surprised me when he started. I guess after spending all day sitting in the underpass that linked  the shiny office buildings,  his hat on the ground  receiving a few coins,  it was a relief , once the daytime office crowd had gone – it was a freedom  to sit by the river and play his heart out, his djembe drum secured between his knees, his head rolling, trancelike.

 I took a long drag of the cigarette as leaned on the balcony. It tasted good, but I was resigned to what I was about to do.

I looked across at the smart block opposite. The facing apartment was fully illuminated, floor to ceiling windows. A young couple probably no more than 5 years older than me. From what I could see she spent all her time at home chilling, with an expensive pair of Beats headphones on. She was my dream audience, someone who clearly liked her music laid back. I poured another glass of wine and lit up another last cigarette.

Chastity Brown   – Colorado, played and I thought about what it might be like there – better than here.   

Beats woman really had nothing to worry about. Not like me. She had no addictions, I knew that much about her. I could tell that she was shrewd. She / they had bought well. Not up against the fumes of the  High Street like me – no,  they were in the young wealthy professional set who had mainly invested in the blocks that were set in the middle of the development. Despite being set back, they still had river views through the gaps between the street front properties.  She had it all – seclusion, glimpses of the river, wealth. It didn’t cross my mind that she might want more than that.

To the east the incoming flights appearing to hover motionless over the city. Stacking up. Within a few minutes they would be passing by the front of the building.

Was I ready for this? I had been checking the prices over the last few days and they had been going up. It was getting close to the tipping point where I had promised myself I would do it. It was puzzling that they should go up – totally counterintuitive. Why would someone want to come to a rain soaked city over Christmas, and even if they did , why weren’t prices cheap when the inhabitants of the city were all elsewhere, in Auckland, in Mumbai, in Salzburg, in Capetown, in Geneva.  But the little meter on the website showed demand was high and availability was low.

High demand for this dump ?  I thought. Who would want to pay that – but the fact was they did – there were no hotel rooms available. Soon I would get the offer I wanted. The money would be in my bank account, and I could proceed with the next stage of my life. The key would be in the keysafe. I wouldn’t have to meet them. But the place would be beautifully clean and tidy for them and they would be blown away by my personalized welcome notes and quirky, friendly handwritten guide to the best parts of town.

They would leave, noting how friendly, generous and welcoming I was even though they didn’t meet me. There were enough photographs around the place for them to attribute a personality to me. One of prosperity, fitness, talent and humour.  Me: surfing (or at least carrying a board); on a yacht; with a girl; strumming a guitar. That was the one that they would remember.

I had already written their review. Glowing. About how respectful they had been, about their excellent communication and about how clean the flat was on my return. I would submit that within minutes of them returning the keys. So that before they had a chance to write anything negative – they would read my erudite critique of their manners and fastidiousness and be stunned into reciprocating with their own positive review, and so it would continue.

Then I lit another last cigarette. The rainwater was swilling in the gullies below me and the massive drips from the broken gutter above, I dreamed of the lake. The frozen lake in Minnesota. I would be wrapped up properly, warm and snug, auguring the hole in the ideal position, near the cabin, but far enough out in the lake to be alone, remote, to see nothing but white.

The wine was working well. I was feeling fuzzy and relaxed. I started playing with lyrics in my head

against the snow in the winter light. Her warm brown eyes and her breath frosted and white. 

Bu that’s where the daydream ended. Who was I kidding? How could I pull off a song about a frozen lake when I’d never even seen one?  What was the draw of America? in particular the frozen wilderness that made me want to write about her – rather than go there – what was stopping me from going there. There was so much wrong.

I moved onto the next track “Yola – Faraway Look”

I had tried to spark up a conversation with Beats woman in the Spar before. It was in the first year of moving in – almost exactly two years ago. The developer had been trying to get as many sold before Christmas as they could. I had been one of the first. Hopeful , 24 years old, owner ( or so I thought) of my first property . I had watched the neighbouring flats fill up too. On the first day I had seen her and her partner instruct their removal men to carefully place their expensive looking furniture. The pre-lit tree placed in their window and they had got the removal men to neatly entwine the white lights around the balcony, so that by the end of the day their apartment, tastefully lit and sparsely furnished with choice items had resembled a John Lewis advert.

We had talked about the suggestion that the ground floor units were going to fill up quickly , the Spar was already there – good for cigarettes and alcohol – but we were going to get a hipster bar, a Korean barbecue place , a posh brasserie, a dry cleaners, barbershop, a bike shop with a paddle board hire franchise and a branch of Wholefoods

I had been excited about it, she had been slightly cynical. Turned out she had been right. It was too late to rectify things.

So, in the end I had made no lasting friendships in the place. Those that I had met in my block had moved on, and those who lived in the other blocks looked at the residents of our block as a hindrance, something bringing down the tone of the whole estate. I owed too much to move, my salary had not gone up for years, but the rent portion of the shared ownership was steadily rising.

I don’t know what it was that distracted me – something was afoot with Beats woman, she was dressed up for a night out. Her balcony door was open, she still had her headphones on, but was singing along to the track. Her voice – strong and soulful drifted across the gap- I strained to work out what it was.


“My baby’s gone, I have no friends” , The traffic drowned her out  for the next minute or so , then she drifted back strong , “there’ll be no more sorrow , no grief and pain”  I got it! The Eagles Please come home for Christmas . Picking up my guitar I quickly worked out the key A ? no, b flat ?  yes , and started strumming along . The instrumental break came and I continued strumming along and sang the guitar solo – a high falsetto echoing across the chasm between the blocks. The drumming from the riverside started to sync, – she came out on to balcony and lifting one side off her ear, listened for a second, and then sang at the top of her voice “there’ll be no more sorrow no grief and pain and I’ll be happy, Christmas once again”. For a moment she seemed to be three feet away rather than fifty.  She took off her headphones and stood motionless gazing out at the river .

I heard the little ding from my laptop, I went in and I looked at the screen. The offer had come in. A couple from Brazil, seventeen fifty for twelve nights days starting on Christmas day. Perfect.

I moved back to the outside. She was still on her balcony, staring down at the car park. I gazed over at her – I didn’t notice the weather report behind me on the flickering TV in the corner. Storm Francis was being pushed out. As of tonight, a cold front was moving east from the Arctic, over Russia, down the length of Finland, across Sweden and Norway. It was already sweeping across the sea towards us.

She raised her head and looked around her at the other buildings as if assessing her situation then noticed me standing on the balcony, smoking my third cigarette.   She stood motionless for a few seconds, staring. Then she shivered and moved inside and hit the button that closed the blinds.


As I walked down into the underpass, Sam Cook – A Change is Gonna Come was playing from his little speaker. He was lying wrapped in a couple of blankets, his head on the drum, dead still. I reached into my pocket and pulled out the letter that I had prepared for him should I find him sound asleep like this.


This is Alex, you know,  the office worker guy, the one with the beard and locks,  who comes through here five past eight every morning , and leaves at five past 6 , I say hi to you every evening , and on Wednesdays when I go through with my guitar on my back you always yell to me – “ I wanna be in your band Man !” I’ve never said this to you, but I always dream that one day I’ll just sit down beside you and I’ll play my guitar and you on your drums and we’ll sing the world to right!

Anyway, I had some bad news last week. I got told that I wasn’t shaping up to the company’s expectations on the shitty job that I’ve been doing for 4 years – and I got told that somehow they were going to let me go – I didn’t think they could do that , but now it seems man that they can do anything these days.

I always wish I had said something to you face to face, I see your grin and that glint in your eye and the way that you don’t care how the f*ck your hair looks – I don’t know what your story is why you choose to live in this underpass, maybe you’re like me – estranged from anything resembling a family – but man I just think that  you deserve better.

– ok so here’s my point. As I said I’ve got no future in that building above us, and I’ve got no money- but I sure know how to do a deal – and what a deal I’ve just done, Man !!

I’ve just let out my flat over Christmas on – for a sh’t load of money –it’s probably illegal cos I don’t own it , just rent it from the builders – at same time I went on Gumtree and started looking up recording Studio hire . It’s so cheap this time of year – in the end I managed to book a studio full of analogue equipment with a great desk too – the owners are away in Barbados for Christmas and they have basically handed over the whole place to me – it’s got a kitchen , a shower and a couple of sofa beds too – I’m basically gonna spend the next twelve nights there and record a track a day – I’ve got most of my stuff written but looking forward to writing some on the hops – I’m interested in all kinds of old time stuff like Bob Dylan, Gram Parsons,  John Fogerty and the Byrds – maybe you don’t know any of them , but the main thing is I’m not making a tribute album- I want to come out of there with something that’s urban , gritty , psychedelic and relevant’ It’s gonna be recorded in the city but it’s as much about nature and a longing for remote wild places as anything – all at the same time.

I’ve thought about you a lot man , about the rythyms  that you put down – come down when you read this and help me do this!  The studio address is below  – it’s gonna be quiet here over the holidays and at one point it will probably get real cold. I know some other musicians I’m gonna ask too – who knows maybe we will end up with that band – a great big , clunky,  band in the back of a van – touring round doing what we love .

Peace on earth


I placed the letter beside his speaker and walked up the steps back to the street.  The air had turned chilly, the clouds were disappearing, and the sliver dust of moonlight settled coldly on the night.



Dawn Landes + Jonah Tolchin, The Grace, London, 7th December 2019

Live review from guest writer Mark Underwood.

While Dawn Landes may not be a familiar household name, she is an artist who may have unwittingly seeped into the subconscious of many people seeing as her songs have regularly featured in TV shows such as The Good Wife, Bored to Death, Skins, House, Gossip Girl and United States of Tara.

Welcome to the Courtyard theatre”, Landes dryly announces at the start of her show given that the concert had been relocated to the Grace, the latter appearing to be a purpose built venue adjacent to its more recognisable neighbourhood venue, the Garage, in Highbury – the new location a somewhat sparse and soulless place. It’s a fittingly stripped down performance, Landes accompanied for most of the show with nothing other than an acoustic guitar and a foot tambourine. A no frills show then, although she cuts a charismatic figure in a blue denim dress with a floral motif, her red lipstick matching the colour of her ankle boots.


The first two songs in her set are drawn from her 2014 album, ‘Bluebird’, including the eponymously titled song which represents freedom and is built around some great Mississippi John Hurt blues chords. A song which immediately took flight in the small confines of the venue, with Dawn’s crystal clear vocals a highlight throughout, it also proved she’s an adept finger picker on the guitar. The ‘Bluebird’ album itself gained some renown as a break up album. Not a break up album in the Bob Dylan mould you understand – and neither was it particularly blue – but something of a more reflective and thoughtful venture, both adjectives that could as easily be applied to the second song of her set, ‘Try To Make A Fire Burn Again.

If Dawn Landes ventured back in time for her opening numbers much of the rest of her set came from her latest record, ‘Meet Me At The River’, an album she recorded with the veteran – and now sadly deceased – producer, Fred Foster. An emerging theme in Landes’ writing is the notion of movement and travelling, no benefit exemplified than in the song ‘Keep On Moving’ a song ostensibly about “People who go on very long walks”, it’s actually a salute to activists like Peace Pilgrim, Mildred Norman, who criss-crossed the country, walking 25,000 miles between 1953 and 1981. It’s a toe tapping, upbeat number that celebrates people voicing their beliefs and taking to the streets for various causes.

She delves further into her back catalogue for the song, ‘Bodyguard’, with its repeated chorus line, an autobiographical tale about how the master recordings for her second album were stolen from her apartment. If the earlier numbers from ‘Bluebird’ are about navigating the breakup of a relationship, then its follow up tonight, ‘Bloodhound’, is about how it feels to be alone.

‘What Will I Do?’ from ‘Meet Me At The River’ is clearly a song in which she takes great pride, seeing as it was the first number to gain the Fred Foster seal of approval, the song preceded by Landes’ charming story about how he declared her a writer on the basis of this tune alone – while he was listening to her performances on his couch with his eyes closed in his Tennessee home. It’s followed by the first of several covers, Dolly Parton’s ‘Longer Than Always’, perhaps an apt choice for someone who entered herself in a competition in Sevierville, Tennessee that honours Parton’s songwriting talent (Landes came second). Equally charming is her a capella rendition of the song she wrote for her two year old daughter, ‘I’m Your Mama’ accompanied by hand claps, footstomping and knee slaps.

Most of the best songs from ‘Meet Me At the River’ all feature tonight including the wryly humorous ‘Why They Name Whiskey After Men’ which compares the opposite sex to alcohol because they can both taste good but leave a lot of pain afterwards – before she returns to the theme of movement with the instantly catchy ‘Traveling’ on which she’s joined by Jonah Tolchin –  a song which meditates on the pleasure of a road trip taken, not for the sake of the final destination, but for the simple joy of being somewhere new.


In a demonstration of her versatility, Landes takes time to explain how she’d been working on a musical for the last 5 years based on the true story of her fellow Louisville native, Tori Murden McClure, and her quest to become the first woman to row a boat, the American Pearl, across the Atlantic Ocean from America to France. In the song ‘Amelia’ a bird lands on Tori’s boat and she hallucinates that the bird is Amelia Earhart – “Sometimes a woman’s place is first in flight.

We’re then asked if we’re interested in hearing a Jimmy Driftwood song, before Landes launches into ‘What Is the Color of the Soul of a Man?’ – a song written in 1963 but with issues of racial equality and justice still unresolved in America, just as relevant today.

Landes finishes with a Hank Williams cover, ‘Lost Highway’, before sending her fully satisfied audience home with an encore of ‘Silent Night’ the Christmassy mood heighted by her asking for the lights to be turned down as low as possible.

Earlier on, fellow Yep Roc recording artist, Jonathan Tolchin, entertained the audience with his witty and observant modern updating of the blues despite the airline KLM somehow managing to lose his guitar before the show. Fortunately, both he and Landes found a replacement and a small mishap did nothing to undermine what was a highly enjoyable performance.

Ronnie Costley. A Matter of time. EP

jcalb01815482Those of us somewhat long in the tooth may remember The Kissing Bandits and their lead singer, Ronnie Costley. The Bandits were majot players in Glasgow in the 80’s, playing a grand mix of garage rock, post punk and power pop with Costley a commanding presence on stage with a hint of Lux Interior present. Despite being signed to WEA, the Bandits never hit the big time and they went their separate ways with Costley locating to Ireland where he still lives. He continues to make music and Blabber’n’Smoke, alongside deejays such as Iain Anderson, were impressed by his album, Souvenirs & Scotch Mist, his recollections of growing up in the west of Scotland which came out a few years back.

Matter Of Time (as was Souvenirs & Scotch Mist) was recorded with many of Costley’s  compadres in the Glasgow music scene and here he offers us a countrified collection of four songs, all distinct from each other and all, in their own way, quite entrancing.

The EP opens with the title song as a zippy acoustic slide guitar glides into this rippling slice of upbeat jangled celebration. Costley here achieves the almost impossible task of recalling Gene Clark as he sings, “When rhyme and reason seem impossible to find and dreams are shackled to the past, you have to realise it’s just a state of mind and you can let it go, no need to make it last.” Allied to these Zen like words of wisdom is some fantastic playing as the song is buoyed along on a welter of acoustic guitars and banjo along with some whip smart electric guitar solos. No Money Coming In is a much simpler song which recalls the early work of Gerry Rafferty (especially on his debut album, Can I Have My Money Back) with Costley singing of the monetary woes of being a working musician. We were especially intrigued here by the opening farmyard birds squawking as a lonesome piano played some bars from Rally Round The Flag.

Away from the farmyard, Costley then launches into the eminently danceable Hey, You Want To Dance With Me which lurches magnificently with full-blown mariachi horns over groovy organ and licktastic guitar. It’s short, over almost before it begins, but it captures some of that joi de vivre which The Mavericks do so well, and if, god forbid, it gets out into the wild, could be the wedding song of next year. It’s a pity there’s only four songs here but the last one certainly leaves the listener with some puzzlement. How’s The World Treating You is an odd conglomeration of tin pan alley, syrupy country and gonzo rock with a dash of The Kinks thrown in. Aside from Costley’s acute capture of a lonesome drunk there’s creamy pedal steel guitar buttering his lyrics along with a demented guitar solo midway which is allied to a heavenly chorus. Odd indeed but strangely addictive.

Matter Of Time is available here.



Libby Koch. Redemption 10 – Live At Blue Rock. Berkalin Records

redemption-10-album-coverWhenever she tours here in the UK, Texan singer songwriter Libby Koch is greeted with enthusiasm by the select band of followers who know of her. Live, she’s a treasure – warm and friendly, slightly sassy and with real red dirt roots – while her song writing is not to be sniffed at. Much of this is captured on Redemption 10, a live album (recorded in Blue Rock studios with an invited audience) which is essentially a remake of her first album recorded 10 years ago when she was still working as an attorney at a law firm in Houston. That album was a tentative toe in the water moment for Koch who has now released four studio albums, and while it might be egging the pudding to say it was a Damascene moment for her, its reception led to her swapping the courts for a life on the road.

Redemption was a stripped back affair, Koch, her guitar and harmonica, that’s all. Here, with a five-piece band behind her, it’s instructive to compare the discs. On the debut the songs sing out but Koch is somewhat restrained whereas here her voice has filled out and swings with her Texan accent, listen to way she now manages the undulations of How Long with a consummate ease as opposed to her more formal studio recording. Meanwhile the addition of the band gives the songs a great lift, a Technicolor scheme as opposed to the monochromatic original.

Opening with the sweet pedal steel and fiddle laced Houston, Koch sweeps through the album with aplomb. Just The Way has a Dylan (circa Desire) arrangement to it and Can’t Complain, a hardscrabble tale of red dirt living is quite magnificent, a song to rival many of Koch’s more famous peers and it’s followed by another excellent song, Redemption.

Time here to mention the stellar playing on fiddle by Javier Chaparo, guitar from Bill Browder and pedal steel wizard Patterson Barrett, all three concocting a swinging and smooth country rock backing. Barrett gets behind the piano for a raucous delivery of Down, unrecognisable from its parent album as Koch comes across as feisty as Linda Gail Lewis. Closing the album (as on the original) with Johnny Cash’s I Still Miss Someone, Koch and the band sound superb, leaving one wishing that someday Ms. Koch might be able to bring such a line up over here. In the meantime, the album’s an essential addition to any Koch fan’s library.