Our Man In The Field. The Company Of Strangers. Rocksnob/Rootsy Music

Sometimes talent will just out and for singer songwriter, Alexander Ellis, a series of serendipitous events (chance meetings, Youtube videos and Scandinavian fans staying to watch the last act of the night) have led to him fronting Our Man In The Field and releasing their debut album on the Swedish label Rocksnob, an offshoot of the well regarded Rootsy Music. You can root around the ‘net for all the stories here but suffice to say that Ellis, having played many of the songs included here solo at any number of noisy pubs across London for a decade, began to form a gang. And a splendid gang it is with bass player Tom Rosenfeld, Henry Senior Jr. on pedal steel and Greg Bishop on drums, giving Ellis’ songs a wonderful waft and wallow of unadulterated  and very deft country rock and folk stylings.

Recorded live in the studio, this is a beautifully crafted and carefully measured album which allows Senior’s playing to colour most of the songs while Ellis’ wispy voice sends us postcards from the emotional frontline. There are elements of Laurel Canyon, of songwriters separated by time such as Tim Buckley and Nels Andrews, along with a whiff of Celtic mist within the mix, but the whole is greater than the parts as when a banjo erupts from nowhere to dominate and ground the ethereal Easy Going Smile. There’s also a huge emotional heft at times as with the wonderful performance of It Is What It Is which has a lovely pedal steel lick at the beginning before the band and Ellis descend into an introspective melancholia. Here Ellis excels on vocals, wailing here in a manner which is reminiscent of the best of Alan Hull or Kevin Coyne or even Loudon Wainwright.

Whether it’s the fleet footed melodrama of Swansong (Don’t Play With Matches), the rustic rumble of Pockets or the autumnal shades of Eleanor’s Song, one is always impressed by the sheer quality of the band’s playing. Meanwhile songs of the calibre of Thin (I Used To Be Bulletproof) – a real pedal steel swoon suffused with vulnerability- or It Was Ever So, inspired by the closure of a London fire station but a universal plea for social justice, show that his years of jobbing on the live circuit have honed Ellis into being a superior songwriter. The relatively spare and unadorned Don’t Speak, close to the end of the album, allows the listener a peek into Ellis alone and it speaks volumes that here he is just as engaging as he is when adorned by his band’s superb playing.

The Company Of Strangers has been a debut long in the making but it’s delivered fully formed and announces a significant new talent. Here’s to serendipity.

https://www.ourmaninthefieldmusic.com/

Daniel Meade & Lloyd Reid. If You Don’t Mind

An old buddy of Blabber’n’Smoke, Duke Dali, was released for a while recently and having glommed on this release amidst a pile of albums awaiting review, decided to wax on it.

Glasgow’s dynamic duo, Meade and Reid, have been joined together at the musical hip for nigh on 14 years, playing as a duo and in the bands The Flying Mules and The Meatmen, in most of Glasgow’s dives and in some of our more salubrious saloons and venues. In addition, they have an international profile having built up an impressive rolodex of influential chums (including Old Crow Medicine Show and Sturgill Simpson) and have graced stages far and wide with their infectious mix of country, rockabilly and good ole’ fashioned rock’n’roll. Daniel Meade may be the more familiar name having released a slew of solo albums alongside his band projects but those in the know, know that when Lloyd Reid is in the mix then the pair really work their magic.

If You Don’t Mind is the first release (bar an earlier single) to have both their monikers on the sleeve and it’s the culmination of a germ on an idea hatched on a tour bus some years back but only realised in lockdown isolation. Reid’s guitar has been a vital part of Meade’s sound over the years but he has been expanding his vistas adding steel guitar to his well regarded fluid Hofner guitar licks and here he provides an incredibly impressive array of sounds to Meade’s well honed songs. The closing song here, Why You Been Gone So Long, features his trademark runs which owe as much to jazz guitarists as it does to country slickers as he lifts an already excellent song into the ether (not to mention Meade’s fantastic piano solo which is just sublime).

Why You Been Gone So Long is a fine example of Meade’s ability to produce an immediate classic, sounding as it does as if Woody Guthrie could have penned it and throughout the album he hits the mark time and time again. The anguished If You Don’t Mind kicks off proceedings as the pair sound like The Rolling Stones playing in a puddle of beer amidst broken glasses in an old time saloon. Hard To Be A Man These Days belies the remote recording involved in lockdown as the pair sound as if they were hunkered down in Sun studios in Memphis. Meanwhile, the very brief Give This World A Shake could have easily been inserted into a 1960’s soul revue.

Over the course of the album, Meade digs into hard luck and hardscrabble times. Choking On The Ashes has Reid adding weeping pedal steel and Mexicana guitar to Meade’s mournful words while Good Heart Gone Astray is a good old god dam country weep with honky tonk piano and keening pedal steel. Sleeping On The Streets Of Nashville is a grand tale of crashed dreams as a would be country superstar hits the skids but Meade and Reid do hit the highlights on the superbly performed Old Rope And Razor. Here, Meade writes a song which bears comparison with sixties luminaries such as Fred Neil or Tim Buckley while Reid’s guitar lights up the song like a Greenwich Village cafe neon sign. It’s perhaps the best number Meade has offered us over the years and with Reid’s nimble playing it’s quite sublime.

https://danielmeade.bandcamp.com/album/if-you-dont-mind

Victoria Bailey. Jesus, Red Wine & Patsy Cline. Rock Ridge Music

If the title isn’t enough to entice you in, the first few minutes of this tremendous album surely will as Victoria Bailey’s perfect country voice introduces Honky Tonk Woman. The band then kick in with a seductive blend of fiddle and pedal steel joy in a perfect country song which contains just about all the hurt, heartache, romance and religion one could ask for. It’s honky tonk heaven indeed and raised well above the bar by Bailey’s exquisite performance.

Steeped in music via her parents from an early age, Bailey grew up in Orange Country, California, but she seems as well versed in Nashville sounds as those of nearby Bakersfield and the nine songs on Jesus, Red Wine & Patsy Cline all confirm this. She has one of those pure country voices which hit on impact, think of Dolly or Patsy or Loretta and you’re halfway there, while she has assembled an accomplished set of pickers to accompany her. Have a listen to the country swing of Homegrown Roots with its zinging Dobro and impressive use of various percussive sounds and try not to be impressed. In addition, Bailey proves to be an excellent writer as she paints a picture of a dusty bar whose customers love their country music and paints this as well as Guy Clark once did.

Regarding Bakersfield, Bailey celebrates it on Skid Row where she sings, “Have you ever heard of the Bakersfield sound – Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and Dwight Yoakam’s town – and all this time you thought you had to be from the South to get a little respect for your country sound?” Having firmly stamped out any sense that country can only come from the south she then allows the south a shout out her wonderful take on Johnny Cash’s Tennessee which is chock-full of creamy pedal steel and twanged guitar while she approximates a good ole gal’s voice in a middle interlude. Tennessee mentions George Jones and Bailey takes a leaf from Cash as she peppers her songs with mentions of country icons, a nod to tradition perhaps, but she’s not beyond taking a pop at them also. Outlaws is performed in a Waylon and Willie style, the band, as always, magnificent, but Bailey’s sarcasm is evident as she sings from the viewpoint of the little lady at home as her beau goes on the road. The lyrics tell the tale as she sings, “Write her a love song, tell her that you love her but you leave her feelin’ blue.”

There’s more grief on Ramblin’ Man, an excellent tear stained ballad as her cowboy man comes and goes as he pleases while Spent My Dime On White Wine has a slight gospel influence with a soulful organ as Bailey sings of the trials and tribulations of being a jobbing musician. The album closes with the swoonfull Travellin’ Kind, another song about waiting around for a lover to return.

Jesus, Red Wine & Patsy Cline is one of those rare albums where all of the songs are quite superlative. Bailey’s not breaking any new ground here but she has delved into tradition and added her own take on it with the result that the album is one of the best we’ve heard this year.  Bailey is an absolute gem and a fresh breath of country air. Highly recommended.

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Karen Jonas. The Southwest Sky And Other Dreams

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Karen Jonas’ fifth album really steps up to the plate in terms of song writing and delivery. It’s the album she’s been promising to make for some time, building on the many delights contained in her previous releases but here, Jonas, the songs and the band, all conspire to create a wonderful noise.

 As the title hints at, Jonas, from Virginia, is surveying the great southwest – the deserts and dusty towns, faded dreams and lurid fantasies. Some of the songs are personal, based on her memories of travelling around the Mojave Desert, others are based on sketches of characters and places glimpsed as Jonas toured across Texas. As might be expected, it’s an eclectic mix with neon rouged bars, bowling alleys and domestic drudgery all featuring and Jonas and her band conveying the essence of the places visited with an equally eclectic mix of sounds ranging from country to rockabilly and honky tonk. At the epicentre, Jonas is impressive, her voice quite wonderful.

The album opens with the note perfect portrait of a fading lothario, sustained by memories of seventies glory but now just The Last Cowboy (at The Bowling Alley). With its wonderful Tex-Mex country delivery adorned with sweet pedal steel, Jonas captures well the quiet indignities he inflicts on himself as the youngsters fail to celebrate his bowling skills. Palm Tree Paradise is another excellent slice of pedal steel fuelled country rock albeit a little bit chunkier and a lot more tearful as Jonas dissects a past relationship, summing up her partner’s shortcomings but admitting she’d do it all over again. Later in the album, Jonas returns to the theme of relationships on several songs which are fuelled with a desperate sadness and a barely restrained sense of fury but in the meantime there’s a couple of swell up-tempo numbers. Pink Leather Boots is a short and sassy rockabilly number which has a trucker mesmerised by a lap dancer, fantasising about taking her home to meet his mum. There’s more raunch and rockabilly in the roustabout Be Sweet To Me with Jonas snarling in fine fashion. Bridging the feisty and forlorn, Farmer John (no relation to the Nuggets frat rock number) is a dramatic slice of American gothic. The band slip and slither with a menace as Jonas kind of unravels while standing at the kitchen sink wondering where the hell her husband is. It’s Handsome Family territory perhaps but Jonas inhabits it well.

On a similar note but much more resigned in its delivery, there’s the incredibly moving Maybe You’d Hear Me Then,  a shimmering number which disguises the slow burning anger of a woman left at home while Barely Breathing is a more claustrophobic take on a similar situation. Better Days gets this all in the open as Jonas describes a pair of women, a hurt wife dependent on pills, a waitress waking up with a stranger, both, like our opening cowboy, dreaming of their better days. She closes the album with a gorgeous country infused lament on Don’t Blink Honey, a song which on first listen sounds like a lullaby of sorts but turns out to be Jonas’ summation of life, basically, it’s a losing game. It’s an elegant close to an album which is gritty in its substance and lifted by the sheer exuberance of the playing.

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Sunshine Walkers. The Best Of Kimberley Rew & Lee Cave-Berry

61e9fgqph5l._ss500_Mention The Soft Boys and most folk will associate them with Robyn Hitchcock, the idiosyncratic singer/songwriter who has gone on to carve a successful solo career. However, it was The Soft’s guitarist, Kimberley Rew, who initially became, well, not famous, but certainly commercially successful. Joining Katrina & The Waves, Rew penned their top ten chart hit Walking On Sunshine while another of his songs, Going Down To Liverpool also hit the charts when covered by The Bangles. In addition, a bizarre series of events led to Katrina & The Waves winning the Eurovision Song Contest in 1997 with a Rew composition, Shine A Light, a song originally written for The Samaritans!

On a solo note, Rew was out of the traps with a serious contender in The Bible Of Bop, an album recorded variously with his Soft Boys chums and The DBs and which remains somewhat stellar in its power pop power. Consumed by the Waves however, it was not until 2000 that Rew returned to recording under his own name, releasing several low key albums. By now he was accompanied by his wife Lee Cave-Berry (a musician with her own tale to tell including being the proposed bassist for a Bill Haley UK tour -cancelled when he died with Cave-Berry suggesting that the thought of having a female bass player did for him).

Anyhow, Sunshine Walkers, aside from its cheesy title, is a selection of songs that the pair have released over the past 20 years, alongside three from Bible Of Bop. It’s a generous helping, 21 songs spanning 70 minutes and while it leaps around genres somewhat, it’s a grand listen, serving to remind one that Rew is not only a killer guitarist but one of those somewhat unique songwriters who can channel  humour into songs while remaining well away from being a comedy act. Think of Neil Innes and indeed, Robyn Hitchcock.

We were unaware of Rew’s output, aside from Bible Of Bop, and it’s great to hear Hey War Pig, Stomping All Over The World and especially, My Baby Does Her Hairdo Long again. The latter is a stone cold classic. But venturing into the album we were blown away by the likes of Restless Ocean, a Neil Young like guitar epic and then Rew’s psychedelic guitar showpiece, Flower Superpower which has a Temptations’ sly funky groove wired into it. A cover of The Troggs’ I Want You is snotty as fuck with garage band chords thrashed out along with snarling solos.

The album kicks off with a great example of Rew’s off kilter approach as The Dog Song finds him pondering on whether pets have a philosophical or religious bent as the band hammer out a raunchy Stones cum Berry riff. Bloody Old England reminds one of Ray Davies or Steve Marriott’s cockney odes to English tropes while The End Of Our Rainbow is a McCartney like piano fuelled end of the pier romp. There are nuggets like this throughout the album. It makes Me Happy kicks off sounding like Wreckless Eric as Cave-Berry takes the vocals and Rew turns in a tortured solo and Backing Singer Blues has a loose limbed Rockpile swing to it. There’s no space here to mention all songs but it’s nice to note that the pair have the opportunity to celebrate their union on the sweet laid back vibes of Happy Anniversary and to state that the closing song, Simple Pleasures, is one of the finest jangled power pop songs we’ve heard in a long time.

Nicely packaged and with liner notes by Bucketfull Of Brains’ Nigel Cross, Sunshine Walkers is uplifting and, after months of lockdown, a real breath of fresh air.

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