Matt Hill. Savage Pilgrims. Quiet Loner Records

b3aw1sicmvzaxpliiw2njbdlfsibwf4il0swyj3zsjdxq3d3dAfter a well regarded although somewhat under the radar career as Quiet Loner, Matt Hill, a Nottingham raised singer songwriter, has decided to ditch his old moniker, transferring the name to his record label, and proudly presents us his first album recorded under his own name. Hill is quite an intriguing character. Hardly a household name, he has been beetling about the UK Americana community for many years (indeed, his 2004 release, Secret Ruler Of The World was voted the best release of that year by Americana UK) while he has been heavily involved in community projects over the years. This has included stints as ‘songwriter-in-residence’ at the People’s History Museum in Manchester along with work in prisons and, somewhat delightfully, “teaching protest songs to toddlers.” His list of achievements is really too long to mention all here but Hill tells all in this short biography here.

An Elvis fan from an early age, Hill drank in American music through radio and TV as he was growing up and feels comfortable playing in an Americana styled idiom although many of his songs are rooted in a defiantly Anglicised tradition. On the album, he imagines the visionary poet, William Blake, rising from his London grave to haunt the merchant bankers who now infest the ancient square mile while there are several songs drawn from Nottingham and Salford histories. D.H. Lawrence and a 19th century bare-knuckled boxer feature but there’s also a song about the infamous Gary Gilmore asking for a telephone call with Johnny Cash as his last request. It’s tempting to mention here, Grassicana, a term coined by Lawrence County, a Nottinghamshire band who also combine Lawrence references and Americana music, but Hill is actually more akin to the likes of Dean Owens, another songwriter who successfully combines his homegrown roots with a love of American music.

Anyhow, Savage Pilgrims, is brimful of excellent songs as Hill takes the listener through a set of songs which draw on folk, country, blues and gospel. Stone & Bone opens the album in fine style as he rattles along in skeletal rockabilly fettle coming across as if he were psychogeographer Iain Sinclair fronting 16 Horsepower. Save Your Eyes has a sweet Leonard Cohen like lilt as Hill inhabits a local hero at the end of his days and he revisits this Cohen like feel, although with more of a tea dance element to it, on his celebration of a Nottingham meeting point on Four Corners. The Exile Of D.H. Lawrence points to the writer’s exile in New Mexico which is emphasised by Morricone like whistling while Chains is an engaging frontier ballad swept along by a mighty wind as Hill delves into the history of slavery.

There are two songs about boxers, both drawn from history. Billy’s Prayer is the folkiest number here as Hill recalls Fairport Convention’s foray into the past on John Babbacome Lee while Bendingo bustles along like a country cousin to Dylan’s Hurricane. However, the most fully realised number here is the excellent Gary Gilmore’s Last Request. With a nod to Cash’s chicka boom rythym, slowed down with trilling banjo and supple twanged guitar, Hill excels with his deadpan vocal delivery. There’s cowboy noire twangings on Stand Before The Wagon and then a final farewell on the closing number, Roll Me Out, a tender and moving campfire song.

A true wordsmith, Hill’s lyrics are acute throughout the album as he brings the songs to life. He’s a singular talent who has a well-developed sense of social justice and a real grasp on the music and places which have shaped him.


Matt Hill · Gary Gilmore’s Last Request


Courtney Marie Andrews. Old Flowers. Loose Music

a2943217509_16While Courtney Marie Andrews’ last album, May Your Kindness Remain, cemented her reputation as one of the best singer songwriters around these days, it was her previous disc, Honest Life, a glacial and at times emotionally bare boned performance which had really pointed her out as one to watch. Some of the songs on that album related to the breakup of a relationship and its aftermath. Now, several years later, Andrews returns to that theme as Old Flowers was written after the end of a nine-year relationship she was in. We all know that old adage that break ups are like manna from heaven to the artist’s muse allowing them to pour their heart out in song. True or not, Andrews here towers over the heights achieved on her previous releases.

While she is note perfect in her singing and her writing is as precise as a surgeon’s scalpel, much of the beauty here is in the delivery of the songs. Produced by Andrew Serlo, the album features just three musicians, Andrews herself with Twain’s Matthew Davidson playing bass, celeste, mellotron, pedal steel, piano, pump organ, and wurlitzer and Big Thief’s James Krivchenia on percussion. The trio are outstanding, allowing the album an intimate feel while the arrangements range from classic 1970’s Laurel Canyon moments to more intriguing and beguiling arrangements. Its mood is reflective as Andrews sings about the relationship, her memories, her torn emotions and her loss although there is a sense that there is a new beginning.

The opening Burlap String trumps Neil Young’s recently released lost album as Andrews and her band offer the listener a glorious pedal steel sweetened LA country number which is suffused with nostalgia. The opening and stark piano on Guilty is actually reminiscent of some Neil Young classics with Andrews burrowing deep into her relationship on the most nakedly emotional song on the album. If I Told is the first glimmer of the band’s inventive sonic wonderland as Andrews’ gently scrubbed guitar is accompanied by dappled keyboards and a wash of gentle ambient sounds. Break The Spell is equally captivating in its scintillating and nuanced use of percussion and electronic keyboards while Andrews on piano on How You Got Hurt, with Davidson’s eerie embellishments, sounds at her most vulnerable.

At the heart of the album there are two songs which truly resonate. Carnival Dream is a stark piano ballad with harsh and dramatic percussion as Andrews surveys the wreckage around her. Old Flowers again is piano driven and again it recalls some seventies singer songwriters but here we’d mention the likes of Judee Sill, Laura Nyro and, yes, Joni Mitchell. And talking of Mitchell, the most uplifting song here, Someone Else’s Fault, inherits the spirit of Joni’s For The Roses with its bittersweet evocation of Hollywood. Indeed, in this incredibly moving and ambitious album, Courtney Marie Andrews lives up to the many comparisons to Mitchell which folk have made. It grows in stature on each listen.


Blue Rose Code. With Healings Of The Deepest Kind. Ronachan Songs

a3752937601_16How do you follow an album such as Water Of Leith, a composition with a majestic sweep in its expansive contemplations on life and love and homeland? For Ross Wilson, the answer seems to be to condense it somewhat. On Healings Of The Deepest Kind, Wilson continues to offer songs soaked in Celtic mists with burbling double bass, hypnotic strings and jazz tinged horns along with the occasional upbeat and more playful number as he journeys through his trials, tribulations and joy. Compared to Water Of Leith, the songs are more compact and personal, as befits an artist who isn’t afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve as the recording of the album followed yet another tumultuous period in his life. There are few musicians these days who are as nakedly forward in their inner thoughts as Wilson, a man who seems to forever teeter on the edge but who thrives on his artistic muse and the love and comfort of friends. This transparency allows a degree of intimacy with his followers and adds a powerful punch to his recordings. Delightful as the songs may be to a casual listener, there’s a sense of communion within his community, the ebbs and flows of his life recharged by their love and appreciation.

The 45 minutes or so of this album sweep by wonderfully, a balm for the senses, a comfort blanket for the soul, indeed, a healing of sorts. Wilson retains his affinity with the likes of Van Morrison and John Martyn as the songs waft wonderfully with the grace and beauty of those chaps in their prime. Morrison springs to mind especially with the reference to healings in the album title, a word that Morrison has used on several occasions alluding to the power of music. It’s also a word often associated with the late Jackie Leven, another touchstone for Wilson, but here the source appears to be the philosophy of Pádraig Ó Tuama, an Irish poet, theologian and conflict mediator, a man who believes in the healing power of words.

The album opens (or dawns) with the band playing an impressionistic mix of strings and horns which recalls both Debussy and Miles Davis, over which Ó Tuama, reads his poem, What I Need To Hear, the last line of which is the album title. As the poem ends there’s a gentle percussive thump shifting the band into the beautiful tones of You’re Here And Then You’re Gone. This percussive heartbeat runs throughout the song like a human metronome grounding the waxing and wanings of the strings, muted trumpet and e-bowed guitar which adorn Wilson’s wonderfully wearied voice as he sings of friendship and relations and the need to grasp them due to the impermanence of life. It’s really quite a breathtaking introduction to an album which will return to this mood but not before a couple of songs which have more of a hop, skip and jump to them.

Love A Little is such a spritely number it’s hard not to break into a smile when listening to it. While there’s light and shade in the words it’s a joy to hear and Emily Kelly (of The Jellyman’s Daughter) sparkles on harmony vocals. LDN City Lights is more rambunctious with a touch of country rock in its bones as guitarist Lyle Watt twangs away and the fiddles skirl. Bloom meanwhile is a perfect example of Wilson’s ability to embrace life and love even in darker moments and transform his thoughts into song.

The elemental sounds which introduce The Wild Atlantic Way prepare you for one of Wilson’s epic voyages around his soul. Here all points converge as he slopes into a peaceful late night jazz ambience conjuring up the romance of the sea with a siren call to Ireland combined with the wonder and mystery of a newborn child. There’s a turbulent sax solo indicating rocky waters before the calm at the end of the song with Wilson crooning his love. The following Starlit, with Lyle Watt’s lyrical guitar shapes recalling John Martyn, blossoms as the strings and horns swell with Wilson in a cyclical and most poetic mood. Again, the impermanence of life (“We all have come from starlight, we all return to starlight”) reiterates the need to live in the moment and open up your heart. You might be hurt but at least you’ve savoured a moment.

Red Kites is, simply put, a fantastic slice of yearning Caledonia soul with that word, healing, appearing yet again. Soaring like the titular birds, the song and performance glides, dives, and ducks with an impressive agility. The album closes with the delicately balanced Riverstown, its stately string arrangement enlivened by a sweet saxophone solo as Wilson waxes as eloquently as Laurie Lee did in Cider With Rosie.

As expected, Ross Wilson and his current Blue Rose Code comrades, have another gem on their hands. With Healings Of The Deepest Kind is made to savour and to wallow in. It’s an album touched with genius, toiled with experience and, ultimately, suffused with healing.



Bill Kirchen. The Proper Years. Last Music Co.

88Bill Kirchen earned his epithet, “Titan of the Telecaster” primarily due to his stalwart duties in Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen, the infamous Austin based longhaired hippies who roared into life in the late ‘60s. Their mix of boogie-woogie, trucking songs and wild country swing wig outs, fuelled by various substances, reinvigorated country rock with Hot Rod Lincoln, from their first album, even hitting the US charts. Mid seventies, the band broke up and Kirchen moved into a successful second chapter which continues to this day. Oddly enough, many of the highlights of this career have seen him closely involved with UK artists, a liaison which grew from Nick Lowe producing Kirchen’s band, The Moonlighters in the early eighties.

The Proper Years  comprises three albums Kirchen recorded in London for Proper Records  (Hammer Of The Honky-Tonk Gods, Word To The Wise and Seeds And Stems) from 2006 until 2013, all crammed into an excellently priced two CD set. Aside from Kirchen’s Telecaster wizardry, there are appearances from a host of luminaries including Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, Paul Carrack, Commander Cody, Dan Hicks, Maria Muldaur and Butch Hancock. As he did in the Cody band, Kirchen barrels from rip-roarious honky tonk workouts to tear filled beer fuelled country laments, all the while injecting a healthy dose of humour as he delivers what he calls “Dieselbilly.”

With 38 songs to choose from we’re not going to do a blow by blow account. Suffice to say that there’s oodles of Kirchen’s picking skills from the opening Hammer Of The Honky-Tonk Gods  to the turbo charged and refuelled version of Hot Rod Lincoln (where he can be accused really of just showing off as he mimics several guitarists’ styles). He also revisits his Lost Planet Airmen days on grand versions of Down To Seeds And Stems and Mama Hated Diesels and digs into the well of country despair on Skid Row On My Mind, a song which could give Willie Nelson a run for his money. The songs from Word To The Wise, essentially a duets album, are particularly joyous as Kirchen parries with his collaborators in fine style with Elvis Costello glowering on Man In The Bottom Of The Well and Dan Hicks on great form on Word To The Wise. We do have to give a special mention to the magnificent Rockabilly Funeral which slouches along as if The Fabulous Thunderbirds were the pall bearers as Kirchen gets increasingly absurd and lascivious as he details his demise.

It would be remiss of us not to mention Austin de Lone, once of Eggs Over Easy, progenitors of pub rock and the one musician (aside from Kirchen) to appear throughout the cuts here. He’s the conduit from Austin to London for Kirchen’s voyage and the set ends with three bonus songs from their 2016 Transatlantica album which is well worth investigating.

All in all, The Proper Years is the best retrospective release we’ve heard this year and it really should reside in any self respecting album collection.


Proper Music Distribution · Bill Kirchen – Rockabilly Funeral

Orit Shimoni. Strange And Beautiful Things.

a3775197937_16Perhaps the most nomadic musician we know, Orit Shimoni lives nowhere and everywhere. For ten years, Shimoni has relied on a network of fans and friends as she criss-crosses her native Canada on train and bus to sing and then sleep wherever she is offered a bed or even a space on a floor. It’s a measure of her fan base that she has even ventured many times to mainland Europe similarly relying on the kindness of strangers, fans and friends. Lockdown caught her in Winnipeg where she’s living in a basement, possibly her most permanent residence for several years, but several months earlier she took some time out in Toronto to record Strange And Beautiful Things with a fine bunch of musicians. The result is the most fully realised recording she has released since her days in Little Birdie, with the band (and especially the use of trumpet and harmony vocals) creating a sumptuous surround sound for her always excellent voice.

Shimoni opens the album with the seemingly lightweight New Orleans jazz of the title song. It’s an immediately likeable number as the band skip in after her countdown but then she sings, “Look around, all you see are constellations, Patterns of abuse and patterns of migration. Following the stars, trying to hide their scars…,” and the song takes a different trajectory from the hummable ditty one might expect. Ultimately it’s an optimistic number as Shimoni accepts the duality of life and has decided to grasp onto the strange and beautiful things she has encountered.

The sunny aspect of the opening number is a bit of an anomaly as the remainder of the album is a mix of smouldering bluesy ruminations with brief excursions into country and folk. Shimoni has said that most of the songs here were written over several years but saved for recording with full band arrangements. A listen to the late night neon slicked Song For Townes is enlightening for those who know the sparer version (on Lost And Found On The Road To Nowhere). Written by Shimoni as she slept over in a room once used by Van Zandt, the song, another written around duality, this time God and The Devil fighting for the songwriter’s muse, is impressive in both formats but here it’s infused with a dark and dramatic majesty recalling the likes of the Cowboy Junkies. In similar fashion there’s the slow rumble of Keep On Running, the string laden slow waltz of Delicate Times and the late night swoon of Sharp Tongued Girls but Shimoni then recalls the airy rhymes of Laura Cantrell on the pedal steel sweetened George Street and even pumps things up for the Elvis Costello like Sally.

The final two songs are simpler in delivery and serve to remind one that Shimoni is a powerful performer. One Voice has her assisted by basic bass and rumbling percussion as she sings of a lonely existence. Sweet By And By is simply superb as she sings wonderfully over a simple folk melody -a perfect campfire moment with laidback solos and lovely harmony singing – her voice full of emotion and soul as she evokes gospel music in a cowboy setting.

Over the course of ten albums, Orit Shimoni never fails to impress but Strange And Beautiful Things might be her best yet and it deserves to be heard far and wide.



Emily Duff. Born On The Ground.

a0353059603_16Having ploughed a soulful Southern loam on her last two records (Maybe In The Morning and Hallelujah Hello), both recorded at Muscle Shoals in Alabama, Emily Duff here returns to her New York roots for a zesty collection of punchy songs. There’s still a soulful edge here and there but there’s a New York groove throughout with nods to Duff’s apprenticeship at CBGB and the Big Apple tradition of feisty female pop and rock. Adding a powerful booster rocket to her trajectory, she has enlisted Eric “Roscoe” Ambel for production duties and electric guitar. A sure-footed step as Ambel is as close to a trademark of quality as one can get these days.

According to Duff, the nine songs here are all related to some sort of breakup (or more accurately perhaps, breakdown) she has experienced, seen through the prism of a current happy family life, allowing her time to reflect on her past. There’s little rancour here (aside from We Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere and Knuckle Sandwich) but plenty of emotion as Duff recalls busted relationships and her absent mother.

The album kicks off with a swamp rock outing similar to those on her previous albums as she wails against the sorry “sonofabitch” she is kicking off her metaphorical train on We Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere. He’s well advised  jump as she returns later with the blistering Knuckle Sandwich which hammers along with killer guitars and electrifying honky tonk piano as Duff turns the table on a bully as she snarls like Patti Smith.

Elsewhere the dial is turned down on a series of well crafted songs which range from the stoical tale of hardship which is Born On The Ground (with more killer guitar soloing) to the theatrical antics of No Escape which is perfectly executed  with carnival organ, Mike Garson like tinkling ivories and lyrical guitar licks. There’s a glimmer of power pop on Easy Go! while There Is A Way Out has a New Jersey feel to it preparing the listener for Something Sexy’s strut into Asbury Park territory. The tender Killer allows Duff to show off her excellent vocals over a shuffled beat with electric piano setting the pace as she sings about a lover leaving her. A gliding guitar solo and Duff’s wearied voice here reminds one of Lucinda Williams’ best work. A mighty burst of guitars introduces the final song, Forever Love, another fine foray into power pop which sways with an “up yours” Chrissie Hind like sashay.

With Ambel at the helm and her band ( Scott Aldrich: guitar,  Skip Ward: bass, Charlie Giordano: keyboards, Kenny Soule: drums) on fire throughout, Born On The Ground shows that Duff can easily transfer her talents from the south to her native territory without sacrificing any of the emotion while broadening her palette.


The Mammals. Nonet. Humble Abode Music

a0010025840_16As the album title indicates, The Mammals have expanded to a nine-piece set up for this follow up to the excellent Sunshiner. Adding past members of the band for a weekend of recording live in a Hudson Valley studio, there’s a sumptuous warmth as the songs tumble out with the ensemble expertly balanced. Less polemical than Sunshiner, the album still addresses the social justice and environmental concerns which stir Ruth Ungar and Mike Merenda, at heart they are still protest singers albeit with superb songs, melodies and performances.

The album kicks off in swell style with Ungar’s husky voice beguiling, over a rippling cosmic country backing as she reflects on the inevitable comedown after a season of festivals on Coming Down Off Summer. The band here are perfect as they swell into a pedal steel gilded outro which recalls the glory days of the good ole Grateful Dead. This dappled dip into seventies styled country rock is maintained on Merenda’s excellent What It All Is, the glorious playing belying the words concerning the fate of young men sent off to war, and reaches its apogee on the breezy rhythms of California with its waves of organ, keening pedal steel and sparkling banjo. Still reminiscent of the counter culture but less cosmic, there’s the incredibly appealing You Can Come To My House where Merenda offers an open invite to stay over a while. With CS&N like harmonies and a welcome mat similar to that rolled out by Brian Wilson on Busy Doing Nothin’,  he describes a perfect hangout to chew the fat and fix the world.

Several of the songs are less sunny. Radio Signal has a persistent organ stab over an old time folk melody reminiscent of Wild Mountain Thyme and is somewhat unwieldy until the band soars in halfway through – it’s a song which might be best appreciated live. However, Ungar stomps in with the swampy Someone’s Hurting and then the country gospel funk of East Side West Side, both excellent. East Side West Side kind of updates Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land and Ungar goes back again to the folk tradition on what may be the best song here. Penned by Merenda but sung by Ungar, If You Could Hear Me Now is in the grand tradition of American folk songs with its echoes of early Dylan.

We’ve merely scratched the surface here as Nonet waxes and wanes across its ten songs offering up new delights on each listen. If you can, try to get the deluxe edition which has a second disc with five songs. Here they let it all hang out playing wild folk reels and ragging on Dylan and Etta James.