David Starr. Beauty & Ruin. Cedaredge Music

unnamed-5Colorado musician David Starr has been steadily building a following in the UK over the past five years. A trifecta of well regarded releases (Love And SabotageThe Head And Heart and South And West) alongside his annual touring posited him as a deeply romantic and yearning singer songwriter, well schooled in the attractions of classic American song writing, in particular, the seventies heydays of California’s sun blistered troubadours. A fine guitarist and an excellent raconteur, Starr uses this heritage to grand effect on disc and in performance but on Beauty & Ruin, his most ambitious project to date, he delves into his own past for what must surely be considered as his best album of his career.

Beauty & Ruin is a homage to Starr’s grandfather, Fred Starr, a teacher, politician and novelist, who died in 1973. His last novel, Of What Was, Nothing Is Left, tells the tale of an Arkansas youth, indentured to work for a veteran of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders who fought in the Spanish American wars. The book spans his decades with ‘The Cap’n’, dealing with love, loss, treachery and death, with echoes of Steinbeck and Charles Portis in it. Starr had fond memories of his grandfather but had avoided reading his books until, a few years ago he decided it was time to right this and his reading of Of What Was, Nothing Is Left, sparked his creative spirit. Starr gave a copy of the book to his chum, John Oates, who was equally taken by the story and the pair decided to gather a select group of friends together and ask them to read the music and write songs inspired by it. Jim Lauderdale came on board as did Doug and Telisha Williams (of The Wild Ponies) along with Dana Cooper, Wood Newton, Irene Kelley and Shelley Rae Korntved. Together they crafted the album (with several of them appearing on it) and with Oates producing.

Beauty & Ruin is not a concept album, it doesn’t follow the book’s narrative and can be listened to and enjoyed without any knowledge of the book. However, the songs do pertain to places, people and incidents in the narrative so the disc and the book are definitely companion pieces and for those thinking of reading the story, this review is spoiler free.

Beauty & Ruin is much more expansive than Starr’s previous albums, the music provided by a swarm of players and backing singers. It opens with a simple Starr love song, Laura, for the female protagonist in the book, the cause of much heartache. With its gliding pedal steel over rippling guitars and superlative percussion it’s a reminder of Starr’s love of classic singer songwriter days and this style reappears on the darker title song and then on Road To Jubilee, a song co-written with Jim Lauderdale, which traffics in the narrative songs of Jackson Browne while Fly By Night recalls the Eagles. There’s a more direct country rock influence on Laurel Creek which features Dobro as Starr sings of one of the more devastating events from the book while Irene Kelley provides excellent accompanying vocals. Bury The Young (written by The Wild Ponies) is in a similar vein as it flows as gently as a mountain stream but with a heart of darkness. Americana gothic indeed.

At the centre of the album are two songs on which Starr and company pull out all the stops. Of What Was, Nothing Is Left has a Jackson Browne tilt to it initially with the rhythm section punching it beneath a grand melee of guitars and pedal steel. As the song progresses, Starr’s voice becomes more strident and soulful till, by the end, he’s wound tight as a spring, ready to snap. It’s a powerful song and it’s followed by another highlight on The Cracks Of Time. It’s a gentle but ominous song which opens with pattered hand percussion and mandolin before a glowering electric guitar prowls into sight eventually slithering into a solo which is quite intoxicating. The darkness abides on the night time prowl of My Mother’s Shame which almost growls with an old testament sense of destiny and on which, the guitars are elementally evil as they slouch towards the narrator’s demise.

As in the contradiction of the title, there’s darkness and light here and Starr manages both with equal aplomb. He’s not cutting edge Americana but that’s probably not where he wants to be. Instead, he’s a craftsman with his finger on the pulse of what, for a great many people, was the high point of American song writing. That he does it so well is to be applauded and in Beauty & Ruin he has perhaps crafted his masterpiece. We’re sure his grandfather would be proud.

The album is available on CD and vinyl (which really shows off its striking cover) and Starr has republished his grandfather’s book. All available on his online store. Meanwhile, Starr will be touring the UK in May, all dates here.

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Pete Gow. The Fragile Line. Clubhouse Records

51ozy1xibrl._aa256_Pete Gow’s debut solo album, Here, There’s No Sirens, was one of the UK’s best albums from last year and fans who attended his short run of shows to promote the disc had the opportunity to buy The Fragile Line, a companion disc, limited to tour dates only. Now, the good folk at Clubhouse Records have released the album digitally (with an additional song tacked on) so if Sirens rocked your boat, here’s a chance to get more from the pen of Gow.

Recorded by the same team as on Sirens (Gow with drummer Fin Kenny and producer Joe Bennett on keys), The Fragile Line is more dynamic than its companion with a punchier rock touch to several of the songs. Tourniquet, for example, rushes by in a tour de force, and Gow explains that many of the songs were written to allow a more dynamic flow to the live set, saying that, “the songs on Sirens made a great track listing, but a pretty depressing set list, so we wanted to get lots of light, shade and balance into the live shows.”

Thus we have the punchy soul groove of Let’s Make War Happen, the aforementioned Tourniquet and the closing remake of Case Hardin’s Poets Corner (from Colours Simple) which retains its funereal drumbeat but adds strings and loses the original guitar soloing while Gow’s voice dominates more so than on the original. The digital addition, Storm Surge, could easily have sat on Here, There’s No Sirens as Gow delves once again into a gloomy and solipsistic doomed romance as piano and strings weigh in with a resigned forlornness. The title track is perhaps the best on the disc, stripped back, with cello adding a wonderfully sad timbre. There’s a cover of Warren Zevon’s Lawyers, Guns And Money sat in the middle of the disc which, in the live shows, was apparently a highlight. Here it’s slightly out of place and slightly awkward. It’s, of course, a great song and Gow performs it well, but to this reviewer’s mind the strings and things just muddy the waters here. That said, The Fragile Line is a must buy for anyone who dug Here, There’s No Sirens.

Gill Landry. Skeleton At The Banquet. Loose Music

gilllandry_skeletonatthebanquet_web-1500Currently weathering the storms battering the UK as he tours, Gill Landry’s latest release is perhaps the best of his career. Skeleton At The Banquet is a gorgeously dark and delicious album, deeply grained with Americana tropes – Dylan like troubadouring on Angeline,  western vistas on The Wolf, badlands existentialism on Nobody’s Coming and drunk in the gutter romance on The Refuge Of Your Arms. With Landry’s fine baritone voice oozing throughout along with grand guitar and excellent arrangements, it’s a winner from start to finish.

Landry describes the album as, “a series of reflections and thoughts on the collective hallucination that is America” and it’s true that the songs are not narratives per se. Rather, Landry summons up a mood which is reflective but also rather lost. The Place They Call Home, a song best heard in a low light, glimmers with an almost apocalyptic despair as weeping violin accompanies this series of snapshots, the characters almost ghostlike. However, Landry dresses all of this musing in immensely listenable melodies and arrangements such as on the lush neon-lit noir of I Love You Too and the gypsy rhythms of Trouble Town. All in all, quite magnificent.

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Dropkick. The Scenic Route. Bobo Integral Records

a3687674551_16To paraphrase Ms. Austen, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a fan of Byrds styled jangle rock will love Dropkick” and on their latest release, Dropkick simply confirm this universal statement. To The Byrds we’d also add that anyone who enjoyed the debut album by Bennett Wilson Poole or are aware of the myriad glories of Peter Bruntnell will also take to The Scenic Route like a duck to water.

Much, or indeed, all of the album will be no surprise to anyone who has followed this band. The wispy vocals, the jangled guitars and driving rythyms, the sunny disposition are all intact. The ten songs are all compact, most of them around three minutes in length and the band stick to their signature sound throughout closing with a couple of finely wrought minor key songs.

The album opens with a bang on the jubilant crashing guitars of Feeling Never Goes Away, a chime fest indeed and the most buoyant number here although it’s over almost before it starts. Catching On follows and it’s a bona fide classic Dropkick number with its gliding rhythm and glorious harmony vocals ending in a slight smorgasbord of feedback and sonic gobbledegook. Disappearing is announced by grumbling guitars and sweeping organ as Andrew Taylor guides the band in a Bruntnell direction which they follow again on the muscular For Too Long with its exuberant guitar solos.

Despite the sunny disposition, several of the songs deal with loss and rejection. A Matter Of Time has a resigned air to it with the lyrics recalling the late Gene Clark and that sense of unrequited romance is maintained on the mournful Home Early but hopes springs eternal as the band spark into the naive optimism of Tomorrow. Broken is the ballad of the album which has a McCartney like air to it before burgeoning into a glorious and soaring guitar solo and the band wind things up with the homely You’ll Always Be There, a tender concoction of laidback guitars over a shuffling beat as Taylor sounds wonderfully hopeful and vulnerable.

Neil Bob Herd & The Dirty Little Acoustic Band. Every Soul A Story.

cd7fef_eeea9f8ca428416e87e1a1674c8c9d5cmv2Previously mentioned on Blabber’n’Smoke as part of Sid Griffin’s Coal Porters, Neil Bob Herd has, after years of dabbling in various combos (at one point described as the Scottish Billy Bragg!) and almost becoming a stand up comic,  gone and brought out his debut under his own name. Every Soul A Story is an engaging and enjoyable album although it is a bit of a mongrel, its pedigree stretching from pub rock to Scots’ folk and western swing, but, as we all know, a cute little cur is much more fun than a fussy well-bred pooch and so it is with this album.

Much of the album does remind one of previous acts who have wandered through similar fields. Plucking a few names here, we came up with Nick Lowe, Hank Wangford and  Danny Adler (all superb by the way) while Herd, his Scottish roots on show, even manages to come up with a song, Light A Single Candle, which is reminiscent of Jackie Leven. The band adapt to each song with ease, whether rocking up a rumble on Best Song, racing down the highway on the rockabilly Bad Land or weighing in like a seasoned bunch of folkies on the shanty like The Colour Of History.

Ok, there’s no reinventing the wheel here but we’d defy anyone not to enjoy the snappy and well dressed As Much As I Need To which sounds like Nick Lowe singing a Buddy Holly song  or groove along to the sweet swing of Everyone’s Got A Book Inside Them with its twangy guitars and excellent fiddle (by Gemma White rivaling Bobby Valentino). The most intriguing number is the slinky and swampy Dobro fuelled Well Well which is a sci fi like dystopia with the band stomping along in their best fashion. Hugely enjoyable.