Fred Neil. 38 MacDougal. Delmore Recording Society

Initially released on last November’s Record Store Day, on clear vinyl, 38 MacDougal was considered by some Fred Neil fans as something of a holy grail. An intimate glimpse of the man back in 1965, recorded in a friend’s apartment as Neil was in the throes of recording his official solo debut. It’s now being given a CD and digital release for those who weren’t able to grab a copy in the first instance.

Neil was the most enigmatic of the Greenwich Village singer/ songwriters who followed in Dylan’s footsteps and, in comparison to Tim Buckley, Phil Ochs and Tim Hardin, his recorded output is minimal. After an initial joint album with Vince Martin, released in 1964, he released two other studio discs and a live album before retiring to Florida in the early ‘70s to work with his dolphin research project. Despite this, Neil was a major figure in the sixties music scene and several of his songs have achieved fame after being covered by other artists. Chief among these is of course, Everybody’s Talkin’ due to Harry Nilsson’s take on it on the soundtrack to Midnight Cowboy.

38 MacDougall was recorded on a reel-to-reel tape in a New York apartment shared by Neil’s long time buddy and accompanist, Peter Childs and John Sebastian of The Loving Spoonful. Neil, reportedly, had fallen out with his producer, Paul Rothschild, and was threatening not to finish his album, Bleeker & MacDougal. Childs reckoned the best way to calm Neil down was just to play some songs together before coaxing him back to the official recording sessions. The tapes feature Neil on 12 string acoustic guitar with Childs on acoustic and electric guitars. Of the eight songs, five were to appear on Bleecker & MacDougall, and it’s instructive to hear them without the studio embellishments of the released record. Gone Again in particular has Childs on a wiry dobro giving the song much more of a “hobo” touch to it while Candy Man finds Childs scrubbing away on electric while Neil introduces the song with an ironic shout out to Dick Clark’ hit TV show.

Of note are the three songs here which didn’t appear on the studio album. Once I Had A Sweetheart finds Neil reaching back into tradition much as his contemporaries in the UK, Bert Jansch and such, were doing. Sweet Cocaine, later released on his 1966 self-titled album, loses the harmonica and is quite appealing in this rawer version. Finally, there’s Neil’s rendition of an old spiritual song, Blind Man Standing By The Road And Crying, a song he would perform live but never captured before on tape. This rendition is just perfect, with Neil’s deep baritone voice digging into the lyrics and sounding soulful and powerful, a post beat, Greenwich Village version of Paul Robeson.

You can buy the album here

Dropkick. The Best Of Dropkick.

Having released around 16 official albums, Dropkick, the premier sunshine power pop band from Scotland’s east coast were somewhat spoiled for choice when it came to compiling a best of album. So spoiled for choice in fact that they’ve only gone and spoiled their fans with a 27 song set (30 on a limited double disc vinyl edition) which, given that no one is going on holiday this year, will be a perfect substitute for those desiring some sunshine in their lives.

Over the years there have been several line ups of the band (although it’s intriguing to note that essentially there have only been eight members including some who left and then rejoined) and it’s tribute to Andrew Taylor, the primary songwriter, that there’s a signature Dropkick sound portrayed throughout. Sure, enough, their roots are in bands such as The Byrds and Big Star, but Taylor et al can stand on their own two feet and this dig through their past more than proves that point. How they cherry picked the selection is not known to us but their first three albums are conspicuous in their absence, the earliest selection here being Dog And Cat from 2006’s album, Obvious. To be honest, we haven’t heard those first three albums, but Dog And Cat portrays the band setting out their stall, firmly in thrall to jangled pop with a mandolin providing much of the jangle. There’s a refreshing sense of innocents setting out into the fray here but, one year later, on Give It Back, the band have fleshed out and flex their muscles somewhat, the song a harbinger of much to come especially with its sinewy guitar solo.

This writer’s first exposure to Dropkick was the 2008 album, Dot The I and by then they were just about fully formed. Good Vibes remains quite spectacular especially when it channels The Beach Boys towards the end, while Figure It Out reminds one that the band can turn their hand to melodic pop in the vein of McCartney and Gerry Rafferty. They can also pack some heft which was more to the fore on Abelay Hotel which had a much more chunkier element to the songs. Have a listen to Choose and admire the chiming guitar riff which grounds the excellent harmonies and imagine this was actually Graham Nash and The Hollies with George Harrison on guitar, it’s not too far fetched actually.

With such an abundance of songs included it would be somewhat tiresome and tiring to go through all of them. Rest assured that the eight albums which followed on from Abelay Hotel are all represented, each one’s individuality able to stamp its presence. Whether it’s the appearance of a mighty organ groove amidst the clangourous guitars of Hold On, the pedal steel inflected Come Home or the Beatles’ like guitar harmonics and swelling organ notes of I Wish I Knew, with a fine McGuinn type guitar solo at its centre, Dropkick maintain a kite mark of quality throughout. I’m Over You, Goodbye brings us bang up to date, plucked as it is from the 2020 album, The Scenic Route, and it finds Dropkick in rude health.

As mentioned earlier, The Best Of Dropkick is available in several versions, all available here. No matter which format you may go for, the songs are not presented in chronological order allowing for a fine sense of variety throughout. It’s a cracking collection and quite impressive given that Dropkick are not exactly what you would call a “stadium” band (they’ve really pulled all the stops out for the vinyl edition). If you are new to the band then prepare to be impressed, for those in the know, this is a handy pocket book edition of some of the best songs to have come out of Scotland.


Kat Danser. One Eye Open. Black Hen Music

Normally a “blues” album wouldn’t be at the front of the queue for a review on Blabber’n’Smoke. Sure enough, we do love some down and dirty slide guitar and where would we be today with the likes of The Wolf, Muddy Waters and their likes who amped up one of the main strains of American roots music? Anyhow, Kat Danser demanded our attention for two reasons. Firstly, she’s a she and it’s been a long time since we heard anything bluesy which wasn’t loaded with testosterone and in addition, she has a Ph.D. in Ethnomusicology so we reckon she knows her stuff. Secondly, the album is released by Black Hen Music, a badge mark of quality these days, and sure enough, Black Hen lynchpin, producer and guitarist Steve Dawson, is involved.

Danser has one of those “take no prisoners” voices, earthy, sassy and proud. In addition, she swings, and the album swings with her. This is no twelve bar blues workout. Rather, Danser roams around blues, gospel and soul while adding some fine seasoning derived from New Orleans and Cuba. Two saxes and a trumpet power through many of the songs while Dawson excels on guitar.

The album kicks off with the steady rolling strut of Way I Like It Done. The horns and delightful barrelhouse piano drive the song as Danser sets her stall out with some humour. Lonely & The Dragon next prowls into view, a crawling king snake of a song with opium undertones, it allows Danser to intoxicate the listener amidst some very cool organ riffs. Had she followed up with more songs in a similar idiom then we would have been quite satisfied but instead Danser diversifies. Bring It With You When You Come is a cover of a Gus Cannon song given a Jelly Roll Morton like delivery and New Orleans looms large in the swaying syncopation of Frenchman Street Shake with Dawson’s slide guitar recalling Ry Cooder. Jesse Mae Hemphill’s Get Right Church meanwhile sees Danser heading into a Mavis Staples’ direction and here, we really have to say that the arrangement, the guitar and parping horns, are quite magnificent. Also recalling the Staples, and in particular, Pops’ last album, End Of Days is another soulful slice of brilliance with a perfectly judged and excellently played arrangement.

Please Don’t Cry harks back to early sixties romance with the band playing in a manner which is reminiscent of those Louisiana pop records compiled by Charlie Gillett on Another Saturday Night while the closing Mi Corazon heads further south  with its Cuban inspired rythym. Altogether, this is quite excellent although there is one song on the album which, to our mind, is somewhat out of joint. One Eye Closed finds Danser diving into a 1976 punk inspired rant with the band following suit sounding for all the world like a second division punk band. Sorry to say but had this been tucked in at the end as a “hidden” track, then it wouldn’t have been as obtrusive.


Tele Novella. Merlynn Belle. Kill Rock Stars

It’s not often that you’ll come across an album which claims to channel influences as diverse as Marty Robbins and Pentangle, but that’s what Tele Novella, a duo from Texas, claim were the starting points for this oddball and enticing slice of wax. You can almost guess from the pair’s given occupations prior to teaming up (Natalie Ribbons owns a vintage shop, Jason Chronis collects rare records) that the album is going to be somewhat leftfield but suffused with nods to vintage pop and rock.

Methinks that the mention of Robbins and Pentangle is but a PR hook as a listen reveals a much more esoteric range of predecessors. These include Judy Henske and Jerry Yester’s gothic folk album, Farewell Aldebaran, the psychedelic whimsy purveyed by the avant garde ‘60s combo, The United States Of America, the proto freak folk of Pearls Before Swine and the spacier moments of Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra. In addition, there’s an undeniable whiff of another odd pair, The Handsome Family, running throughout the album, although Tele Novella have a sunnier disposition.

Essentially, Ribbon’s voice, an emotive blend of melodrama and hushed wonder, rings out over an assemblage of sounds conjured into being by Chronis. There’s a basic skeleton of acoustic guitar over which are laid a cornucopia of odd keyboards sounds which include harmonium, autoharp, Optigon, vibraphone, and a yard tool known as the Garden Weasel. The songs were recorded originally on an 8-track cassette recorder and then fleshed out with the assistance of engineer, Danny Reisch, who has given the album a fine sheen, belying its lo-fi beginnings.

Their mock medieval balladry is quite beguiling. There’s a sparkle in the delicate spinnings of the assorted keyboards on Never and One Little Pearl is like a rondel performed within a Grimm‘s fairy tale. A Lot To Want owes much to its spooky organ sound which is plucked from Tom Rapp’s Swine while Ribbon never sounds better as she sings as if she’s in a hall of distorted mirrors which has no exit (and I know that doesn’t really make any sense but that’s what came to my mind). Desiree, meanwhile, is iridescent in its dreamlike charm.

Going back to Marty Robbins, there’s a definite cowboy clip clop to a couple of the songs. Wishing Shrine kicks off with Morricone whistling before Ribbon recounts a trip to a friend in the desert before ending the night placing wishes in an adobe wall, recalling the legend of Tucson’s El Tiradito. Crystal Witch is adorned with church bells and laden with portentous guitar glowerings which, again, recall some of Morricone’s most epic offerings while the closing song, Technicolor Town, trots into view like an opening shot of a Western movie. It has a wonderfully wheezy and kaleidoscopic turn to it with the percussion huffing and puffing as Ribbon canters away quite wonderfully.

Merlynn Belle is such a unique album which makes it hard to describe. However, if any of the above has whetted your appetite, give it a listen. It really is quite captivating in its singular approach.


Harry Dean Stanton With The Cheap Dates. October 1993. Omnivore Recordings

It’s still hard to reconcile that we live in a world which no longer hosts Harry Dean Stanton, one of the coolest men who ever lived. Stanton, who died in 2017 at the age of 91, was perhaps the essence of the Hollywood school who came of age in the late sixties, as described in Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders: Raging Bulls. After serving in the Pacific in the Second World War, Stanton drifted into acting appearing in several TV shows in the fifties and early sixties before graduating into movies. He never achieved the stardom accorded to his buddy, Jack Nicholson, but his hangdog persona adorned several great films including Cool Hand Luke and Wise Blood while he even had a major part in Alien. It was in 1984 that Paris, Texas propelled him into the frontline while the same year saw him play what is our favourite character of his, the repo man Bud in, of course, Repo Man.

Dotted throughout his film career was Stanton’s love of music, in particular that of the American southwest. He sang four songs in Cool Hand Luke and gave a heartrending rendition of Canción Mixteca in Paris Texas along with a singing performance in the revived Twin Peaks. He sang live with Dylan and Art Garfunkel and liked nothing better than to hang out with his pals in bars and get up to sing some songs. However, aside from an album of songs lifted from the documentary, Partly Fiction, we really haven’t heard a true Harry Dean Stanton album.

Well, October 1993 rectifies that as it offers a set of songs recorded with a proper (and properly shitkicking band) which consists of Jeff “Skunk” Baxter (ex Steely Dan & Doobie Bros), Slim Jim Phantom (The Stray Cats), Tony Sales (Iggy Pop & David Bowie) along with Stanton’s long time musical compadre, Jamie James (The Kingbees). There are four studio recordings and five recorded live at L.A.’s legendary Troubadour Club. OK, it’s essentially a covers album but Stanton can sing, his voice a fine tenor not a million miles removed from that of Jimmie Dale Gilmore, while he’s skilful on harmonica. The band are tight in the studio and on stage with Baxter’s pedal steel in particular sounding oh so sweet. 

They kick things off somewhat tentatively with Dylan’s I’ll be Your Baby Tonight which is fairly hurried in relation to the original and never really finds its comfort zone but they grab Chuck Berry’s Promised Land by the neck and shake it wide awake with a raucous road pounding performance, the guitars grinding and switching gears with some flair. Changing tack, they take on William Bell’s You Don’t Miss Your Water, famously covered by The Byrds on Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, and they give it a wonderful arrangement with swathes of acoustic guitar, sweet pedal steel and excellent harmonies. The studio songs end with another wonderful arrangement, this time of the Cooder/Hiatt/Dickinson classic, Across The Borderline, here clothed in an authentic border cantina sound which oozes with lost romance. Stanton sings wonderfully here, slipping into Spanish tongue towards the end.

In contrast, the live set is quite rowdy as they barrel into another Berry number, You Never Can Tell to kick things off. Baxter’s squirreling pedal steel fuels the song while Stanton’s harp and James’ lead guitar scrap away at each other. It’s joyous and you can tell that the band are having a ball. They glide nicely through Spanish Harlem before James takes lead vocals on an old Sun Records song, Miss Froggie (by Warren Smith) allowing Stanton to concentrate on his harp skills. Although it’s missing Stanton’s voice, it’s fair enough to say that here they whip up a storm, sounding like The Blasters. Stanton’s back at the helm for a grand run through of Bright Lights Big City, a song which one imagines they can’t really add much to and they don’t, but again their sense of joy, along with Stanton’s blues harp, makes for a great listen. To close, Stanton plays to the crowd with an animated solo delivery of Canción Mixteca which is somewhat removed from the sorrowful version on Paris, Texas but is delivered with gusto. The audience lap it up, it’s great fun to listen to and ends a fitting tribute to this departed icon.


And, just because we can, here’s one of our favourite memories of Harry Dean Stanton as he plays a raddled MC introducing Ry Cooder’s band to an empty bar. As Sean Penn described him, Stanton was “the gentlest, kindest, most ornery and philosophical old bastard any of us ever knew.”

Felix Saunders. I Guess This Is Progress EP

It’s been a miserable day, so what better way to brighten it up by listening to a stellar set of four songs which are even more miserable? I Guess This Is Progress is the debut EP from Felix Saunders, a man who we know little about but who hails from Scotland’s Western Isles, the EP recorded in Black Bay Studios in The Outer Hebrides. Saunders says of the disc that, “It’s the sum of my mental health, failed relationships, trying to survive on jobs that barely pay you, and feeling isolated from the world”.

His summary might give some indication of the lyrical content but it doesn’t address the forlorn beauty of the songs and a performance which is truly captivating. The closest comparison that comes to mind is that of Vic Chesnutt although there’s also a slight touch of the early Go Betweens in the arrangements.

Hope And Faith has a faint glimmer to it, the fading light of fluorescent stars stuck on a bedroom ceiling, as Saunders sings of being a “an astronaut in my own mind, floating around in dead space.” A plaintive acoustic guitar strum and pearlescent keyboards drift through the song allowing it a fine somnambulistic sense. It would be nice to report next an uplift of mood but Sinking Fast, if anything, plumbs the emotional depths. The arrangement is more claustrophobic in a song, which might be seen as cry for help, the singer treading water and anticipating water filling his lungs.

King Of Nothing returns to the crepuscular sounds of the opening song although, midway through this hymn of despair, guitarist Pete Fletcher plays a short Robert Fripp like solo. Lyrically, Saunders flays himself. “I’m the Harley Quinn of hate, I’m the jesters in the ballroom, I’m the king, the king of nothing. I’m the disaster in the sky, the feeling you can’t shake.” The song is quite a gorgeous listen despite the nihilism in the words. Something Waltz closes the disc with a recollection of romance which is finely balanced between hope and despair. His darkness -“The devil horns only I can see” – is in the way, but at the close of song he is hoping that his partner is “Waltzing all alone in the rain. Must of been dreaming ’bout you and me.”

Four short songs doused in misery. The day is starting to look up.


Aaron Lee Tasjan. Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan! New West Records

This is an album so good, Aaron Lee Tasjan named it thrice. The fact that the tripled title comes across like some crazed fans’ chant from the past might be a nod to Tasjan’s occasional brushes with glam rock (he played with a latter day line up of The New York Dolls) but if there was any justice, hordes would be chanting his name should the album ever hit the main airwaves.

Imagine if you can, McCartney, Wilson, Nilsson and Van Dyke Parks swapping ideas while bouncing around on a waterbed while high, and then throw some Tom Petty into the mix and you might get a sense of what this album sounds like. It’s undeniably retro but, in a similar fashion to Beck’s Odelay, Tasjan has a similar ability to swirl his influences and come up with brand new, shiny and unashamedly popular brilliant songs. In addition, Tasjan addresses his sexuality on several songs, still a rare thing to do, while several other songs are astute observations on our current lifestyle.

The album opens with the tremendous rush of Sunday Women which has a Big Star like chorus and an audacious arrangement with many of the synth like sounds actually played on guitar by Tasjan (apparently true of much of the album). Computer Of Love kicks off in a similar fashion before acoustic guitar and piano drive the song along as Tasjan sings of the anonymity of the net as people hide behind avatars and “fake friends tweeting just to mess with me.” Later on Tasjan offers the listener Not That Bad, a bedsit song for the digital generation, which is conversely clothed in an appealing bucolic arrangement. There’s also a remnant of his acoustic troubadour style on Another Lonely Day but there’s a gossamer like beauty in the harmonies and gently ascending accompaniment. This song is like a blissed out slacker’s version of Kristofferson’s Sunday Morning Coming Down as the protagonist awakes and “got dressed in what was left of my clean clothes” and later, “in the sun I froze and I lay there in the dirt till I grew again.” Gone is the dusty drouth of a hangover, replaced by a sense of ennui.

Up All Night has Tom Petty writ through it like a stick of Blackpool rock and is quite magnificent. Tasjan sings “Broke up with my boyfriend, to go out with my girlfriend, cause love is like that,” on a song which again, has a live for the day attitude in these fluid times even as he gets to the doctor who says he might or might not have a problem. Don’t Overthink It doffs its cap to new wave pop with its synth sounds and burbling bass funk recalling Talking heads before Cartoon Music bruises in with its excellent ‘60s psychedelic bubblegum arrangement. Central to the album is the intriguing Feminine Walk which may or may not be autobiographical  but on which Tasjan tags stars such as Bowie, Bolan and Jagger and Grace Jones as androgynous touchstones belying the idea of a “working man playing in a rock’n’roll band.” It’s followed by yet another would be classic which takes its cue here from orchestrated pop’s mid sixties heights. Dada Bois is a glam anthem which builds from a piano and voice introduction to a full blown production number, it’s a song which Alex and his Droogs from A Clockwork Orange would have dug had they been into love as opposed to hate.

Perhaps the best thing to do here is just to relax and enjoy the music. Now You Know wafts in on a Beach Boys’ cloud of sound, like an outtake from Friends, and bounces around with an unrivalled sense of melody and joy, ending with a perfect descending bass line. The album wraps up with another sublime song, the cosmic swoon of Got What I Wanted. Tasjan here seems satisfied and sated while the band explore the various nooks and crannies of The Beatles’ Blue Jay Way. A glorious end to a magnificent album.