Roberto Cassani. Ansema We Stand

Last time we encountered Roberto Cassani, the Perthshire based, Italian born double bassist, was on his 2019 album, Oh!…L’Amore!, an autobiographical affair. It was far removed from his earlier work which was often comedy based, with Cassani encouraged to offer up more personal songs by his friend and mentor, the legendary Danny Thompson. Ansema We Stand maintains this shift into a more “serious” mode as Cassani delivers an album sung in Rivoltino, the endangered language of his native Lombardy, and marries this to an exquisite set of songs which reflect his Italian heritage but also have a great deal of Scottish traditional music woven throughout.

Cassani says of the album that “It values the influence Scotland has had on me over the years, while allowing me to create the first ever piece of art in my native dialect. It’s a proud moment. Covid was a bit of a starting point to celebrate what we can achieve as small communities to help each other and from this, comes a universal message: culture and community are essential to survive and flourish, especially in hard times.” To this end, the small community gathered around Cassani on the album consists of a storied roll call of venerable Scottish players – Anna Massie on guitar, fiddle, mandolin and tenor guitar, John Somerville on accordion, Steve Fivey on drums and percussions, Ross Ainslie on pipes and whistles, Hamish Napier on piano and flute and Greg Lawson on violin. It’s a terrific ensemble and they truly carry off the premise of celebrating the two cultures.

Several of the songs feature music which not be out of place on recent Blue Rose Code albums. That swirl of Caledonian mists and mystery are evoked several times on songs such as Dolina, Erio In Corsia, and, in particular, Mpedtada Quarantena. Italy is more pronounced on the enchanting L’Ada (which still has a Celtic sweep to it) and on two songs which open the album. Ansema translates from Rivoltino as Together and so the album begins by saying we stand together. The title song is a perfect mix of the two cultures; imagine Paulo Conte backed by Lau. It’s followed by Evviva which has the joy and exuberance of Italian popular music (think of Luna Mezzo Mare from The Godfather’s wedding party) allied to the skirl of trad Scots music. Quite magnificent. The closing song, An Basi (apparently a translation of a Robert Burns poem), serves to remind us that Cassani is a well respected double bass player, schooled by the Italian jazz bassist Giovanni Tommaso, as his instrument bounces and resonates under his dextrous touch on a superb solo performance.

This is certainly the most “complete” album we’ve heard from Cassani and it certainly achieves his aim of marrying two cultures. That it does so with such aplomb should certainly put it in line for some awards when they start handing out Trad music gongs.

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Maria Muldaur with Tuba Skinny. Let’s Get Happy Together. Stony Plain Records

Mention Maria Muldaur and, inevitably, Midnight At The Oasis will be the song which comes to mind, it being a sizeable chart hit in 1972. However, as this fine article on the Americana UK website makes clear, Ms. Muldaur had already carved a reputation prior to this and has gone on to release several albums which tend to root around blues and jazz, the old timey sort. And old timey is perhaps the best way to describe Let’s Get Happy Together which Muldaur recorded with a New Orleans troupe, Tuba Skinny, who specialise in blues, jazz and jug band renditions of songs from yesteryear.

Muldaur had been enamoured of Tuba Skinny having heard some of their albums, and when both were scheduled to appear at International Folk Alliance in New Orleans in 2020, they teamed up to perform together. It went so well that it was decided to record an album and Muldaur spent some time researching vintage songs to bring to the studio. It has to be said that the twelve she selected are just about perfect for the project (she offers details of the provenance of each selection in the liner notes – hinting that one should seek out the originals) and the result is a delightful listen for anyone interested in old time jazz, blues, string band and swing.

Tuba Skinny are an eight piece band who resemble a small 1920’s or 30’s ensemble (coronet, tuba, trombone, clarinet, banjo, guitar and washboard) and they deliver the sounds from that era effortlessly with, as Muldaur notes, “a relaxed, natural, organic groove.” It’s worthwhile saying that they also swing. Muldaur meanwhile has always excelled when singing these type of songs and although there is a fine patina settling in these days she remains in grand voice and totally commands these songs.

As for the songs, unless you are an obsessive  devourer of old time music, they are unfamiliar. Muldaur has done her research well and chosen some gems. The opening I LIke You Best Of All (recorded by the Goofus Five) showcases the syncopation and slippery rythyms of the band while the lyrics are in that ribald area of “jelly roll” mentions and such. The title song was written by Louis Armstrong’s first wife, Lil Hardin Armstrong and Be Your Natural Self comes from an artist called Frankie “Half Pint” Jaxon who, according to the notes, sometimes performed as a man and sometimes as a woman, with Muldaur calling him/her, one of the first gender benders.

Irving Berlin is the best-known writer covered here with his I Ain’t Got Rhythm delivered with a nod to Billie Holiday’s 1930’s version but it’s a song by Alexander Hill, Delta Bound, originally recorded by Ivy Anderson and the Duke Ellington Band which takes the honours here. It’s a delightful slow vamp which positively oozes with a southern sensuality.

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Steve Grozier. All that’s Been Lost.

It’s been a long time coming, but Steve Grozier’s debut album has been well worth the wait. Blabber’n’Smoke first encountered Glaswegian Grozier way back in 2016 when he released his first EP, Take My Leave. Another EP and a double A-side single followed but, like many other things, the album was delayed by the pandemic.

Grozier has always been low key (in the best way). His songs and vocals are understated. Melodies are there but are pared to the bone at times, somewhat in the manner of the likes of Townes Van Zandt. A fine example is heard on Memories which features an acoustic guitar strum and plaintive vocals along with some very tasty Dobro and acoustic slide guitar curlicues. Simple and quite wonderful. In an interview with Blabber’n’Smoke, Grozier said that he’d “always been drawn to songwriters that have something interesting to say about heartbreak and the darker aspects of life and deathand when Take My Leave was released, comparisons to Townes and also to Jason Isbell were uttered in reviews. While comparisons are often useful, Grozier doesn’t of course sound like either of them, but just to muddy the waters, we’d like to add another songwriter to the mix as there are moments here which bring to mind Neil Young wallowing in his ditch, while several others are quite mired in an early seventies LA canyon smog.

The album opens with a gentle country rock number which could well have nestled within the grooves of Young’s Comes A Time. Twenty-Third Street is awash in sweet pedal steel with slight organ swells and tasty Telecaster curls as Grozier strolls along, his voice slightly hushed. Blue And Gold is one of the more polished songs on the album with Gozier’s voice slightly echoed over a glistening backdrop. Organ and piano add a stately air to this dense tale which, truth be told, is hard to make out lyrically but which has a slow burning beauty to it. There’s more multilayered grooves on the billowing folk rock of Power In The Lights which opens with a simple guitar melody and Grozier’s lonesome voice before gathering power with waves of wailing guitar, culminating in a glorious crescendo of noise. Meanwhile, Sam, I Know You Tried comes across as a folk song given a psychedelic edge to it, the apocalyptic fuzzy guitar and gloomy organ reminding one of Crosby, Stills & Nash’s rendition of Wooden Ships. Charlie’s Old Mustang/Graveyard is a sweet return to the country rock of the opening number although here Grozier’s touchpoint is more that of the alt-country movement, there’s some Jayhawks, some Whiskytown in the mix here. The song is a wonderful hardscrabble tale and the band here are quite magnificent, playing with a great deal of empathy. As mentioned above, Memories is quite astounding, and Grozier revisits its spare sound on When The Darkness Comes which benefits from Tim Davidson’s lonesome pedal steel along with some mournful harmonica from Anton O’Donnell.

A few years back, Grozier paid tribute to the late Jason Molina on his song, Jason Molina Blues. He concludes his album with another valedictory tribute, this time dedicated to Neal Casal. I Miss My Friend is another restrained country number with lap steel, slowly picked guitar and mandolin. It’s an incredibly moving tribute, beautifully performed and, all in all, something of a balm for the soul as Grozier acknowledges the darkness which drove Casal to his sad end on a wonderfully written song.

We would be remiss not to acknowledge the album’s producer, Roscoe Wilson, one of Glasgow’s most talented musicians who, along with producing, contributes guitars, bass guitar, lap steel, mandolin, keys/organ and drum programming and co wrote much of the music with Mr. Grozier. The pandemic meant that much of the album was recorded in Wilson’s home studio with the musicians unable to record together. Together, the pair have triumphed over such adversity and the album stands tall as a singular and most arresting listen. If there’s such a thing as “Glasgow Americana,” here’s the motherlode.

The album is available here as a download while there will also be a very limited vinyl edition which you can pre-order.

Amy Speace with The Orphan Brigade. There Used To Be Horses Here. Proper Records

On this follow up to her award winning album, Me And The Ghost Of Charlemagne, Amy Speace delves into her personal space for a truly intimate album which was written in the space between two life changing events, her son’s first birthday and then the death of her father. One event life affirming, the other a loss, a dichotomy which informs the songs here which are suffused in memories, some happy, some less so.

Speace is accompanied throughout by The Orphan Brigade (Neilson Hubbard, Ben Glover and Joshua Britt), the accomplished trio whose own albums lend themselves to place and time and it’s a match made in heaven. Their delicate and impressive colourings caress the songs wonderfully while a string quartet adds to the quiet beauty of several of the songs here. One listen to the magnificent edifice of One Year will confirm that Speace has picked her musical partners well.

The album opens with sweeping strings and gentle mandolin ripples on Down The Trail as Speace heads back in time, recalling family journeys from her childhood. It’s as evocative as a faded old family photograph and sets the scene for much of what is to follow. There are echoes of Joni Mitchell in the writing, and her vocal delivery, from hushed to exclamatory, is quite brilliant. The title song is another snapshot from the past but within it there is a sense of anger as her childhood memories of pastures are confronted by the modern reality of urban blight – her father’s spirit no longer resides there. It does reside within yet another sepia toned memory on Father’s Day which is based on an actual photograph from a day out in 1972 with Speace reflecting on her fear that her memories will eventually fade and wishing that her father was still around to celebrate another father’s day. It was not to be and Grief Is A Lonely Land is an incredibly touching elegy which deserves to be heard far and wide as it knocks any Broadway melodrama off of its perch.

On a more affirmative note, there’s the bustling and bluesy skiffle of Hallelujah Train which can be considered as a kind of a grand send off to the deceased, gone but riding into glory. River Rise is delivered in a similar vein and Shotgun Hearts (with guitar from Will Kimbrough) is a defiant shout out with a little bit of Springsteen hidden within its pulse. Mother Is A Country, the second last song, returns to the personal as Speace waxes poetically on the havens a child can find in its mother’s embrace and love, while allowing for the mother’s sense of emotional turbulence in the wake of giving birth.

The album closes with a warm and cosy rendition of the late Warren Zevon’s Don’t Let Us Get Sick. It’s a come together anthem here, enlivened by the always excellent band playing and a fine two fingers to the pandemic which has blighted all of us. A fine end to an album which is full of the milk of human kindness and which is a glorious listen.

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Dean Owens. The Desert Trilogy EPs Vol. 2 – Sand And Blood

Friday sees the much-anticipated release of the second volume of Dean Owens’ Desert Trilogy – three EPs which each feature a song from his even more anticipated Sinners Shrine album (due for release in September) along with other songs recorded in or inspired by his recent Tucson liaison with Calexico.

Sand And Blood opens with Land Of The Humming Bird, co-written with Gabriel Sullivan of Tucson rockers XIXA (this EP’s sneak preview of the album). It finds Owens fully embedded in the southwest borderlands on a dark romantic song played with an effortless sense of swing. Sergio Mendoza’s piano playing here is excellent while Naim Amor adds some neat guitar grumbles, but it’s Gaby Moreno, duetting with Owens on vocals, who really steals the show here. Owens has a thing for hummingbirds but he’s never made them sound so exotic as he does here.

Dolina casts a darker shadow as the Calexico chaps shift into their most moody groove with staccato trumpets bursts and shards of guitar thrown out like gravel from under a juggernaut’s wheels. The lyrics are menacing, the sand and blood of the EP’s title are to be found here, and the coruscating distortion of Owens’ voice midway through is quite gripping, like watching a cinema giallo unfolding before your eyes. Ashes & Dust is one of the songs worked up internationally during lockdown with the musicians zooming in from Scotland, Texas, Arizona and Berlin. You certainly can’t see (or hear) the joins as it fits in perfectly with the atmosphere summed up in the previous songs. It’s a dustier and drier vision of the desert, summoning up the stark adobe peppered barren landscapes of Leone’s own trilogy. With Owens capturing the inner thoughts of a blessed and cursed individual, like a funeral procession, the song proceeds slowly, the protagonist approaching his own personal Golgotha.

It has to be said that Dolina and Ashes & Dust are both quite tremendous and that neither of them are slated for inclusion on Sinners Shrine just makes one wonder how good that album is going to be. Anyhow, the EP concludes with She Was A Raven which is an alternative take of the opening song. Here they abandon the refined pace of the original and instead sweat it out. Gone is Gaby Moreno, and in her place are Jacob Valenzuela’s rip snorting trumpet trills and Joey Burn’s scathing guitar solo adding up to an almighty rumble.

Sand And Blood is available on a limited edition CD here. The third volume of the Desert Trilogy, Ghosts, will be released in July.

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Songs From The Fans – Chris Cacavas 60. Polythene Records

Today’s the day that Chris Cacavas racks up 60 runs around the sun. In that time, Cacavas has been a founding member of Green On Red, has had a lengthy solo and band career with Junkyard Love, played on innumerable releases by the likes of Giant Sand and Steve Wynn and currently mans the keyboards in the reformed Dream Syndicate. To celebrate his birthday, a host of friends and fellow musicians have recorded this album, comprised of covers of his songs from across his career, a surprise gift from them to him as it’s unleashed today.

Taking part in the enterprise are Calexico, Howe Gelb, Steve Wynn, Chris Eckman, Stephen McCarthy and Russ Tolman, all contemporaries of Cacavas back in the early Serfers/Green On Red Days. Also included are Pat Thomas (who released the first two Junkyard Love albums), Edward Abbiati from Lowlands (who has recorded with Cacavas) and Hakan “Hawk” Soold, who is the executive producer of the album, along with various others who have come into Cacavas’ orbit at some point. Cacavas is criminally underrated in his native USA but has always had a healthy following in Europe, perhaps a factor in his eventually moving to live in Germany, and this disparate bunch reflects his career, from Tucson days to the vineyards of Europe.

Listening to the album one is struck by the quality of the songs, reminding us of how good a songwriter Cacavas is, whether delivering hi octane rockers with a blistering Neil Young like fury or delving into emotional distress. Truth, by The Plastic Pals, Wrecking Yard, here performed by Pat Thomas and Drivin’ Misery, given a fine reading here by Steve Wynn, remind one of what a powerful listen the first Chris Cacavas & Junkyard Love album was. That said, the songs that tumble out here show that the quality control button has always been within his reach with Stephen Mccarthy’s E-Z Living (from the solo album, Anonymous) proving to be particularly poignant while The Surfin’ Nerdz’s delivery of California (Into The Ocean) allows one to consider Cacavas to be as acute an observer of LA malaise as John Murry on his Graceless age album. There are 18 songs here which remake and remodel Cacavas in varying degrees. Calexico transform the churning rock drive of Just Do Something into, well, a Calexico song with their trademark desert shuffle and mariachi horns. Howe Gelb likewise transforms the guitar encrusted howl of Pale Blonde Hell into a heady mix of cocktail exotica and lounge lizard vocals. We haven’t space to talk of all the songs but we can heartily recommend the album to any fan of Chris Cacavas or indeed, anyone with an interest in the so called Paisley Underground and its offshoots.

Happy birthday to Mr. Chris Cacavas.

Songs From The Fans is available on CD and as a download here.