Borrowed Books. Shorting Out And Longing

a2495436425_16Borrowed Books are a new Edinburgh based band who can count among their members two luminaries. There’s Cam Fraser, ex of The Cateran, a Scottish band who more then held their own against the likes of Husker Du and even the mighty Nirvana back in the days. Alongside Fraser is Ray Neal, guitarist with Miracle Legion and now resident in the Athens of the north. The whys and wherefores of how these two teamed up are not explained but suffice to say that their album (with a line up completed by Aly Barr on bass, Chris archer on drums and Colin sands, piano) is an excellent listen with its heritage sound of REM like jangled glistening pop.

Theirs is a nuanced take on what some might call power pop. Opening number, Mountains In Oceans kicks off with a jangled guitar strum before the band weigh in with a sturdy beat. There’s a sense of melancholy to the song, heightened by a brief and tender middle eight. Gather is altogether more upbeat with piano and sparkling guitars allowing it a grand flourish while Selfish Act opens with a huge bass throb before lashing out in all directions creating a swell of guitars over its powerful propulsion.

That sense of melancholia glimpsed in the first song is amplified on Northerly with its majestic piano and pained vocals while Wooden Arm’s longing rumble with its ebbs and flows, and the crunching guitar attack of Kind Of Mean have a touch of Neil Young’s epic forays. Many of the songs share the dynamics on show here as the band sway rhythmically and then erupt into brief crescendos with This House Will Hold and Harbour Wall (both featuring accordion by Reuben Taylor) fine examples. Stripped back however, they can be equally potent. Altona is a breezy love song of sorts and the closing Things Put Away is a wonderfully realised confessional with exceptional piano from Sands while Neal’s guitar is pearlescent.

Aside from the lustre of the songs and playing, there’s much joy to be had from the lyrics throughout the album which, at times, approach the likes of Randy Newman, especially on Things Put Away. Shorting Out And longing is an album to savour and digest slowly. It’s well worth the effort.

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Mr. Alec Bowman. I Used To Be Sad & Then I Forgot

a0146832945_16If you’re the type of person who finds the BBC series, The Detectorists, a soothing balm, or for whom a home counties blend of Leonard Cohen, Momus and Seamus Forgarty might seem attractive, then Mr. Alec Bowman is the man for you. I Used To Be Sad & Then I Forgot is a remarkable album, lyrically bleak with an extraordinary bustle of background activity, delivered in the main by producer Josienne Clarke, which delicately supports Bowman’s simple guitar melodies and world weary voice.

With assistance from Paul Mosley on various keyboards, Clarke’s guitars, harmonium, brass and woodwind and ambient sounds offer the album a wonderfully off kilter bucolic feeling which is emphasised by the soft focus capture of Bowman in a field of flowers on the cover. The album would have been a perfect release for harvest Records back in the seventies, sharing a catalogue with Shirley Collins, Roy Harper and Kevin Ayers but we’re in darker days now and Bowman is perfectly suited for these times.

Despite the comparisons, Bowman really transcends these as he stamps his own personality across the album. We don’t know the genesis of these songs but there are hints that they are drawn from personal experience. The sleeve notes mention that they are for, “Confused and misled people who think that not being alive anymore would be a wonderful present that they could give themselves but were too cowardly to act on it – staying alive is its own kind of bravery.” Death hovers across the album and indeed, the album opens with a reverie of sorts as Bowman floats serenely, musing on catastrophic air crashes, on Physics & Form. Next up, A Ditch Worth Dying For is certainly more grounded with its whiff of miserablism, Cohen meets Brel with spectral percussion on bowed cymbals adding to its angst.

Dark indeed but by now Bowman has the listener hooked and the washes of bleached guitar on Safe Mode, a song for modern times and isolation, along with the delicate pastoral sounds of Leaves, with its beguiling wind arrangements, maintain this lure. Long Goodbyes signs off the first half of the album as Bowman, accompanied by a forlorn electric piano, ponders on the pointless power of words.

There’s a short intermission, an organ rendition of The Old Rugged Cross, before Bowman weighs in again on the bleak Patience which refers to Cohen’s famous line about there always being a crack of light which gets in although here Bowman urges those who can’t see that light to persevere despite their hopelessness. From here on in however the album is more optimistic, a reflection perhaps of Bowman’s journey as he gleefully lists a number of grisly ways to die (including we think, a reference to the sad circumstances of Frightened Rabbit’s Scott Hutchison) on Hand In Hand while Event Horizon Of You, an odd combination of physics and Lewis Carroll’s The Walrus & The Carpenter, is quite sublime. My Kind Of Chaos is another gentle whiff of pastoral whimsy as Bowman finds a kindred soul and the album ends with a song which reflects the message from the liner notes quoted above. Never The End Of The World urges anyone at the end of their tether to hold on and be strong as Bowman sings, “Take a leaf from my story, don’t disappear till it’s time… but don’t take it from me, wait and you’ll see, life is much larger than you.”

I Used To Be Sad & Then I Forgot is a brave album. It’s dark, but then without dark we wouldn’t have any light. And beyond the darkness, the songs, arrangements and performance are quite superb.

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Swamp Dogg. Sorry You Couldn’t Make It. Joyful Noise

swamp_dogg_daniel_final_grandeThey say you can’t keep a good Swamp Dogg down and that’s certainly the case for 77 year old Jerry Williams, still going strong since he started making music in the late 1950s. Best known for a slew of cult albums in the seventies, recorded mainly in Muscle Shoals with Williams claiming to be influenced by LSD and Frank Zappa, he also claims to have been into country music since his childhood. Indeed, his 1972 release, Cuffed, Collared & Tagged included a tremendous interpretation of John Prine’s Sam Stone.

Sorry You Couldn’t Make It follows on from William’s 2018 “comeback” album, Love, Loss And Auto-Tune and he retains his coterie of admirers from the Americana world including Justin Vernon. It’s a much more organic album with a full-blooded Memphis soul sound despite being recorded in Nashville, check out the Staples like groove of Good, Better, Best. There are moments when it falters as on the sentimental Memories, a song which features John Prine singing with Williams. It would probably sound fine in a stripped back fashion but the arrangement is over fussy with outdated effects.

However, from the opening and classic soulful surge of Sleeping Without You Is A Dragg, a real soul swamper of a song, all of the necessary ingredients are present and correct for a very fine slice of country soul. Stabbing keyboards, metronomic percussion, waves of churchy organ and baleful horn riffs along with clipped and tight guitar lines allow Williams to bear comparison with the likes of Solomon Burke. Don’t Take Her (She’s All I Got) is in a similar style and it’s worthwhile noting here that Williams wrote this song back in 1970 and watched Johnny Paycheck take it to the top of the U.S. country charts in 1971. Here Williams reclaims it as his own. Perhaps the most powerful of all these soulful numbers is the heartbreaking I lay Awake which is awash with Duane Allman like slide guitar. Less churchlike, there is Family Pain,  an intoxicating blend of country fiddle and stinging guitar with Williams railing against the drug epidemic in Curtis Mayfield mode .

John Prine returns for the closing song, Please Let Me Go Round Again, a much more successful collaboration, as these two old friends reflect on their lives as if they were swapping tales before a toasty hearth. As the band vamp on in quite a brilliantly laid-back manner, the pair chat, allowing us to eavesdrop. It’s quite wonderful and the recent death of Prine gives the song an added poignancy.

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Whitney Rose. We Still Go To Rodeos. MCG Recordings

2019-whitneyfrontcoverfinal5b3000px5dHaving blasted onto the scene with two excellent releases back in 2017 (South Texas Suite and Rule 62), accompanied by some terrific live shows on this side of the pond, Whitney Rose returns to the fray with an album which is much more nuanced than either of its forebears. We Still Go To Rodeos roams much further from the tough Austin country and southern soul one might have expected to hear with several of the songs having much more rock edge to them, a possible result of Rose having taken to a quote  from Marty Stuart calling Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers the best country band of all time. To this end Rose has gathered some crack players including Gurf Morlix on guitar and Lisa Pankrat on drums and roped in Paul Kolderie (of Uncle Tupelo and The Pixies fame) as producer. Together they have produced an album which, given the right breaks, would certainly widen Rose’s audience while still satisfying her core fans.

The album opens with a triumphant chord on slide guitar as Rose sashays into Just Circumstance, a grim telling of a teenager never given a chance but uplifted as the band play with some gusto and great country rock licks. Home With You is another glorious country rock offering with some southern sultriness somewhat akin to Dusty Springfield added to its mesmerising mix and this is maintained on Believe Me, Angela which flows wonderfully with a delicious pedal steel solo as Rose sings of a Jolene like character adapting to being the ex and offering advice to her usurper.

Things get hairier as the guitars grind up for the slam bam rock’n’roll assault of In A Rut, a full tilt pell mell run through with Rose in full control throughout, well able to shout out the chorus. I’d Rather Be Alone is another rocker which is as sinewy as a Springsteen number while Rose sings it as if she were once in The Bangles while Better Man recalls the post punk country of bands such as The Long Ryders. Sliding back into southern slinkiness, Rose and the band get funky on Blame Me For The Rain, a very fine Bobbie Gentry like wallow and then on Thanks For Trying, an expansive thrash which sounds as if Rose had resurrected the Stray Gators, she ties together her new found Pettyness and her country roots quite wonderfully.

In the midst of all this there’s space for the winsome A Hundred Shades Of Blue with its delicate pattern of acoustic guitars and slight border style along with the delightful acoustic skip of Don’t Give Up On Me. The title song closes the album in a somewhat offbeat style as Rose gets all domestic and romantic with Bruce Channel like harmonica, pit pattering drums and swooning guitar. It’s a torch song of sorts but not louché, more satisfied.

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Scarlet Rivera. All Of Me

71mb4zpoayl._ss500_Scarlet Rivera’s 15 minutes of fame was back in 1975 when Bob Dylan spied her on a New York street, clocked her violin case and invited her to his studio. Soon enough she was on the Rolling Thunder tour and her gypsy like violin was an integral part of Desire. Dylan moved on and Rivera continued as a solo artist, releasing a dozen or so albums of new age or Celtic inspired tunes. All Of Me, a six song EP, is her first foray into singing her own songs.

Working in partnership with Tim Goodman who produced the disc and co-wrote all of the songs, Rivera confounds expectations as she turns out to be a fine singer, her weathered voice has the patina of experience one associates with the likes of Marianne Faithful and she uses it well on the majority of the songs here. Her violin, while not exactly taking a back seat, is merely part of the band with no grandstanding.

The first songs find Rivera in gritty mood. Dust Bowl visits Steinbeck territory on a fine acoustic country blues number where her violin duets wonderfully with Johnny Hoy’s harmonica. Lady Liberty, a savage diatribe aimed, it seems, at the current resident of ‎1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, prowls and snaps with a southern style, barbed guitars and  gospel like backing singers backing Rivera’s throaty growls. All Of Me pales somewhat in comparison but its full bodied band swing with parping baritone sax and some virtuoso violin playing allows it be a more than enjoyable listen which would probably be great in a live setting. 50/50 tackles sex discrimination with some vim and vigour. It’s another low slung bar blues number with some southern accents taking it in a New Orleans direction while Rivera vamps vocally towards the end as if she were a sixties southern soul belle.

Rivera moves away from her bluesier side on the remaining two songs and they do suffer as a result as her voice is less suited to more introspective pieces. Sacred Wheel limps along somewhat with an arrangement which never takes wing on what is a tender ballad. Song Bird, a tribute to Joni Mitchell is more successful as its arrangement is reminiscent of Mitchell’s mid seventies work with billowing bass and fine soprano sax, however the lyrics are somewhat clichéd.

Whether this will open a new chapter for Ms. Rivera remains to be seen but the gutsier numbers here are promising.

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The Unthanks. Diversions Vol. 5 – Live And Unaccompanied

live-and-unaccompanied-albums264973638One of the most inventive groups currently working in the UK folk field, The Unthanks are somewhat unique in their ability to conjure up a sound which seems as ancient as the oldest oaks in the land while also being experimental and celebrating the likes of Robert Wyatt’s jazzpoetry. Their catalogue is peppered with diversions as when they decided to record an album of songs written by Nick Drake’s mother but throughout it all, one thing stands out, their glorious singing. This disc showcases those voices, Becky and Rachel Unthank with Niopha Keegan completing the trio. Recorded live over several concerts, the trio sing unaccompanied, conjoined throughout and sounding by turns traditional, spooky and occasionally humorous. The best moments are chilling as myths and legends and old, old folk tales are sung deliciously. Fans of The Wickerman and of those 1970’s kids’ programmes which had eldritch theme songs will be well delighted by what’s on offer here.

It’s not all weird sisters singing as they dig into their local roots for the earthy Geordie Wedding Suite, sung magnificently in local dialect, while Where’ve Yer Bin Dick is a very short and wonderfully silly street song. However, the meat of the album is in those moments when the three singers send shivers down the spine. Magpie is perhaps best known via its inclusion on the Beeb’s Detectorists and they deliver a grand version here. Griesly Bride, originally an Australian poem, is wintry and chilling with a lycanthropic twist while Karan Casey’s Weary of Lying Alone seems to have been dredged from a misty peat bog. Maenwhile they wring out all of the melancholy and loss of Molly Drake’s Poor Mum but perhaps the best moment of the album is the stupendous We Picked Apples In The Graveyard, a song by Richard Dawson. With its bucolic lyrics tinged with menace, it’s just wonderful. They swing into a powerful Bread And Roses and close the album with an even more powerful moment as their audience joins in on Farewell Shanty before an ambient hum fades the song out.

Live And Unaccompanied can’t be faulted. An apacella album of folk songs might seem a hard sell but let it in to your life and you’ll be well rewarded. Simply superb.

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Amy LaVere. Painting Blue. Archer Records

a1220605408_16Compared to her peers, Amy LaVere flies seriously under the radar. She has a fierce fan group but unfortunately, that’s not reflected in the mass media despite a critically well-respected back catalogue. To be honest, Painting Blue probably won’t change that but it will delight those in the know while we’d challenge anyone who has an ear for velvety Americana musings not to immediately like this album. The immediate lure is LaVere’s seductive voice, soft and silky, warm and comfortable; she could sing the alphabet and make it sound interesting. Then there’s the music, immaculately played, an eiderdown of gliding guitars and tender percussion with occasional strings and things all adding to a listening experience which is at times dreamlike.

A more than able writer, LaVere has a history of slotting interesting cover versions into her albums and so it is here as she opens the disc, rather bravely, with her take on John Martyn’s I Don’t Want To Know (Americanised here to I Don’t Wanna Know). It’s brave because Martyn’s original is definitive and it’s rare that any cover could hold a candle to it. LaVere’s rendition is upscale sophisticated lounge jazz and will probably bewitch newcomers to the song but it’s, to say the least, an odd start. Further on, she sings Elvis Costello’s Shipbuilding more successfully, transforming it into a childlike fantasy while a cover of David Halley’s Stick Horse Kid is a sublime accordion spiced slice of blue collar American life.

She really gets into gear on No battle Hymn which prowls wonderfully in full band mode with swirling organ and pulsating rhythm as LaVere laments the current state of the world. Painting Blue On Everything is another fully pumped up song with organ stabs, gutsy guitar and swirling strings with LaVere positively crooning on what could be a love song to Picasso or just a personal memory of a lover. There are some lighter moments as on the fleet footed Girlfriends with its slight Mexicana tilt while Not in Memphis burbles with elements of southern soul especially in the playful organ fills. The summit is achieved in two songs midway through. Love I’ve Missed wanders wonderfully with glimmering guitars and glossy pizzicato strings as LaVere goes all bedsit lost romance on us while the immense No Room For Baby does seem like a personal confessional, LaVere singing about not being a mother, taking that decision which is often weaponised against women. It’s a tremendous song as the players flit in and out – weeping strings, female chorus singers and pattering percussion – along with LaVere’s intimate voice centre place in what is a powerful performance.

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