Justin Rutledge. Islands

Canada’s Justin Rutledge’s latest album is like a gift to his fans. A lockdown album conceived before lockdown, it features Rutledge plucking songs from his back catalogue and delivering them in appealing stripped back versions, the main instruments here being his voice and guitar. Recorded in three days in early 2020 it has a warm and immersive feel to it with echo and reverb used to great effect, the songs ringing loud and clear while additional sounds, especially some sublime electric guitar warblings, add some heft to the overall yearning.

With most of the songs hovering around the five-minute mark, the album allows for a fine wallow in Rutledge’s bruised thoughts, the only upbeat moment coming at the end of the disc with Rutledge’s echoed voices singing the audience favourite, Jellybean, the first time that he’s recorded it actually. The remaining songs are much more introspective and the opening song, Come Summertime, is one of the starker deliveries here. Nonetheless, it sets the stall out for what is to come as it steadily builds in grandeur as piano and grave electric guitar kick in. Good Man is more folk like in its structure as Rutledge hymns a troubled soul while the mournful This Is War is an icy dissection of frozen relationships with appropriate arctic blasts of ambient sounds. Out Of The Woods is another chilly song with its references to snow but is more remarkable for its gusts of gutsy guitar which bellow and growl however Rutledge then warms us up with the wonderfully relaxed Federal Mail which retains its Ry Cooder like bar room lilt but is here delivered as an instrumental.

There is one cover song here as Rutledge takes on a song by the Canadian band, The Tragically Hip. Nautical Disaster was written by the late Gord Downie whose death in 2017 was widely felt in Canada. Rutledge strips the song of its rock bombast, transforming it into a chilling elegy for drowned souls. . The standout song on the album however is the finely crafted Alberta Breeze which has a touch of Dylan in its delivery and Van Morrison in its lyrics.

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Jack Law. Shock Of The Blue

Jack Law is a bit of an unsung veteran of Scots music. Way back in the 70’s he was a member of Greenmantle, a band who shared a stage (including the infamous Green’s Playhouse, later The Apollo) with the likes of Billy Connolly, Gallagher and Lyle, Donovan and even Wishbone Ash. Greenmantle ended in 1976 but Law retained his interest in music and began recording again with a reformed Greenmantle and a new outfit, Raging Twilight, in the 2010’s, accompanied by a successful return to the stage.

Like many of his peers, Law wrote his songs through a prism of American music – Dylan and late 60’s LA Canyon especially – while basing many of his later recordings on his own trips to the States. He describes himself as a storyteller but, with the onset of Corona virus and the resultant lockdown, he found that he was drawn to writing about more inner journeys. As he says of the pandemic, “Small things became larger… our past has become the focus of our attention, remodelling and reshaping our understanding.”

Recording at home, Law has embarked on a series of more personal and introspective songs which he plans to release in instalments over the coming months. Shock Of The Blue is the first of these offerings, a three song EP which, to our mind, contains his best songs to date. Playing guitars and bass, with keyboards on one song by Duncan Sloan, Law comes across as a seasoned and wise troubadour, wandering through his thoughts and his past.

Lonesome Avenue trickles out – bedecked with piano, organ and some sly guitar licks – for all the world like a mournful Rolling Stones ballad from their glory days, while Law’s wearied voice comes across in a similar manner to that of grizzled rock’n’roll veteran, Ian Hunter. It’s quite wonderful, poignant and full of regret. Down From The Hill finds Law utilising his home studio set up to great effect. A rudimentary percussive backing (which is somewhat wayward at times) is appealingly naive and sits wonderfully behind Law’s labyrinthine thickets of guitars and sound effects which give the song a slight psychedelic edge, an edge amplified by the vocal effects which recall the whimsy of Syd Barrett.

There’s a definite whiff of nostalgia in both of those songs and the final number, Love, Lies, Bleeding is no different. Here, Law returns to his original roots in the 60’s when he and his peers were picking up on the mantle of Dylan and the folk revival. Part talking blues, part poetic, the song manages to accomplish the difficult task of sounding as if it could have been performed by the original Incredible String Band or Rab Noakes, had they been given a very advanced copy of Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks. It does portray its origins, but it’s performed magnificently and is a fine closer to a grand little release and we look forward to hearing the next instalment.

Bob Collum & The Welfare Mothers. This Heart Will Self Destruct. Frestsore Records

Last time Blabber’n’Smoke encountered Bob Collum, born in Oklahoma and now based in Essex, we remarked on his similarity to the pioneering efforts of bands such as Roogalator, The Kursall Flyers and others who paved the way for the likes of Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe. This Heart Will Self Destruct retains elements of his affinity with those heady days of proto UK country rock roots music, but adds a healthy dash of more country flavoured numbers and Bob Wills’ styled Western Swing.

There’s a fine and gentle introduction to the album as Parachute glides in with a foot-tapping country rock sway, enlivened by Mags Layton’s fiddle break. Guest guitarist, Martin Belmont, adds some delicious licks towards the end of a song which is quite a palate cleanser. Another guest, this time Peter Holsapple, is on fine and funky form on B3 Hammond organ adding a Garth Hudson like presence to the slinky soul of Spare Me, one of the album’s highlights. Tall Glass Of Muddy Water is up next and it’s another standout as Collum and the band vamp their way through a song which variously recalls chain gang work songs, New Orleans voodoo hoodoo and good old fashioned film noir menace.

A raucous and hugely enjoyable romp through Leiber & Stoller’s Saved allows the band to let their hair down before they launch into a darker theme on From Birmingham. It’s a fulsome country tearjerker song with weeping fiddle and mournful accordion leading the way as Collum sings of a frustrated love affair and more of this on future recordings would be greatly appreciated. As it is, the remainder of the album returns to more upbeat tempos with the title song reviving the toe taps of the opening number while Giving Up is perhaps the song best suited here to sum up Collum’s ability to update the nervy new wave approach to country music. And just as those ex hippies tucked into skinny jeans matured and perfected their craft, two songs towards the end of the album allow Collum and the band to show how well they manage their version of country rock. Second Fiddle comes out of the country gate, approaching rock with its muscular rhythm section while sounding for all the while as if it were a song by The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band while Shake It Loose is a hip swaying dance song with twang guitar duelling with Layton’s excellent fiddle playing.

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