Peter Bruntnell Journey To The Sun

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It’s getting to be ubiquitous to declare that an album under review is a “pandemic recording” but, so it goes, and Peter Bruntnell’s latest offering goes to show that he, along with several others, have certainly risen to the occasion. Journey To The Sun finds Bruntnell ensconced in his basement, a proud possessor of newly purchased accoutrements, namely, a bouzouki, a synthesiser and a drum machine – I mean, we’ve all been all over Amazon while locked up – and he employs these throughout. Aside from some vintage keyboard additions from Peter Linnane, transmitted from Boston, and pedal steel from Iain Sloan on one song, it’s a truly solo album.

The album certainly leans more to the melancholic side of Bruntnell as he casts aside his ability to produce star spangled rock’nroll. Having said that there are some jangled outings with Lucifer Morning Star featuring  a burbling synth bubbling along with Bruntnell’s guitar while Runaway Car is a rather glorious rush reminiscent  of Steve Stills or The Lemonheads. But, for the most part, the album is quite autumnal with echoes of Nick Drake here and there. The ebbs and flows of the opening song, Dandelion, from its stark acoustic opening (Bruntnell getting his money’s worth from that bouzouki) to the sombre bass and whispers of synthesiser which close it, sets the scene perfectly. Here, Bruntnell inverts what should be a bucolic summer scene, his whispered voice speaking of decay and death with legions of blindfolded angels surrounding him, high on a hill, as dandelions run wild. The song shares that odd mix of horror and blandness which can be found in some of the films of Ben Wheatley.

Bruntnell’s new synth and some lockdown listening to Brian Eno’s album, Another Green World, leads to him including two space age instrumentals into the mix. Both are short with The Antwerp Effect leaning to Philip Glass minimalism while Moon Committee finds Bruntnell  picking his guitar over a soft sonic bubble of sounds. The latter recalls the likes of Steve Hillage’s Rainbow Dome Musick and both are pleasant inclusions but when Bruntnell injects some synthesised sounds into several songs it gets more interesting. You’d Make A Great Widow heaves into view with dizzying sound effects before a robotic drum kicks in and the sound opens up to display a song which is quite quintessentially Bruntnell ,with echoes going all the way back to Normal For Bridgewater. Dharma Liar is also introduced with some synthetic squeaks and burbles before they retreat somewhat into the background allowing Bruntnell, Linnane and Sloan to deliver this gorgeous eight minute dreamlike confection. It’s the pinnacle of the album, a glorious song suffused with melancholy but quite uplifting with its shifting patterns and Brian Wilson like arrangement.

Elsewhere, Bruntnell delivers more of what we expect from him as on the luscious strum of Heart Of Straw which has a heart of political darkness within its lyrics. There’s a version of Wild Mountain Thyme which, given that it’s Bruntnell singing it, sits up there with the likes of The Byrds. But, given that he can deliver such a song as Merrion, a tale which could sit as easily on an archival collection of dustbowl blues as it could on an Uncle Tupelo album, it is a wee bit redundant. There’s some more soothing sonic soupçons along with weathered keyboards on Waiting For Clive, a fine slice of ennui, and the album closes with Bruntnell closeted within the wonderful confines of Mutha. It’s an elegy of sorts, a mournful farewell to a mother, given a wonderful kitchen sink scenario as he offers support and succour to the bereaved. It’s a hefty hump on which to close but Bruntnell, intentionally or not, here hits the button which can open the floodgates of oh, so many, who have lost loved ones in these pestilential times.

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Phil Hooley. Songs From The Back Room.

When one thinks of Scarborough, it’s end of the pier stuff – amusement arcades, fish and chips and trying not to shiver on the sands. It’s certainly not the place you would anticipate would birth an album chockfull of warm Americana styled songs delivered in a fine relaxed fashion. Songs From The Back Room is the solo debut of veteran songwriter Phil Hooley, front man of The Woolgatherers, a band who have plied their enjoyable mix of country, folk and swing at festivals and pubs the length and breadth of the country. Ensconced in Scarborough in lockdown, Hooley happened upon Nashville drummer and producer Justin Johnson, who, for some reason, was also holed up in the seaside resort, they gelled and, several months later, here’s their baby.

For the most part, Songs From The Back Room is a very laid back affair. Guitars glisten and pedal steel does indeed swoon, but the primary focus is on Hooley’s well-grained voice which is like a finely aged malt whisky. Johnson’s production is sympathetic, allowing Hooley to effortlessly croon his words over the finely crafted arrangements. The opening song, Learning To be Still, sets out their stall as Hooley recalls Mark Knopfler vocally while there’s also a hint of Dire Straits in the guitar parts. That Same Old Song follows with a slight skip in its step due to a jauntier melody and some sly Dobro playing as Hooley displays his affection for writers such as Guy Clark. Midasville then arrives with a fine billow of dusty Western tropes as Hooley duets with Liverpool’s Rob Vincent on a grand tale of a frontier town becoming a ghost of its former self – a story as old as the hills perhaps but oddly topical given the recent MAGA baloney. Anyhow, it’s a brilliant song and the band pull it off with some élan.

Aside from the brash pub rock of Pour Me A Drink, a rollicking number which perhaps betrays Hooley’s early introduction to Brinsley Schwartz, and the finger popping sophistication of Maybe Later, Hooley sticks to his winning ways on the piano and fiddle ballad, River Of Dreams which flows wonderfully and is reminiscent of early Jackson Browne. Trust Your Heart has a warm-hearted chorus which is a balm for these unsettled times. Here, the band perform wonderfully with a fine tapestry of fiddle, guitars, pedal steel and mandolin woven into the song. Closing the album, Hooley harks back again to the likes of Guy Clark on the moving and spare It’s Time We Said Goodbye. It’s a lovely song, suffused with love and regret, and a perfect end to what is a very good album.

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Reigning Sound. A Little More Time With Reigning Sound. Merge Records

What to do when a pandemic means you are separated from your current band line up? They’re stranded in New York and you’re in Memphis, the place where you first strapped on your guitar. For Greg Cartwright the answer was simple, round up the original Memphis line up of Reigning Sound and go down memory lane. That’s almost the story behind this album but, in truth, Cartwright had just finished a tour with the original line up (Jeremy Scott on bass, Greg Robertson, drums and Alex Greene, keyboards) promoting a reissue of 2005’s Home For Orphans. The tour had just ended when Covid hit and, stranded in Memphis with time to write, Cartwright just wrangled the band into the studio.

A Little More Time With… turns back the clock somewhat, sounding less like Cartwright’s latest offerings and going back to the roots of the band. There are rootsy rockers and country styled songs, along with a dollop of Memphis soul, all in all, a fine smorgasbord of Americana to feast on. In addition, producer Scott Bomar (who has worked with Al Green and William Bell) captures the sound on a vintage 8 track tape recorder, allowing the album a vibrant and almost live feel.

Cartwright wrote most of these songs in lockdown and the opening Let’s Do It Again, addresses this directly in a most triumphant manner. It’s a full-blown organ swept rocker with echoes of Dylan and The Band in its marrow. The title song, while less frantic, follows in the same lines and it’s followed by a turbo charged cover of an old Adam Faith rocker, I Don’t Need That Kind Of Lovin’ which, to retain The Band comparisons, harks back to when they were backing Ronnie Hawkins.

So far, so rocking. But then there’s a brace of songs which dial it back a bit. I’ll Be Your Man hauls in some sweet strings and Christine seems to strive for a Doug Sahm like groovieness but, ultimately, both songs fail to really catch fire. However, as pedal steel introduces Moving And Shaking, Cartwright is back on the right track on a song which celebrates rock’n’roll with more than a hint of Gram Parsons in its delivery. You Don’t Know What You’re Missing is even better, sounding like a Travelling Wilburys’ out take and the album closes with a fine melodramatic sweep as On And On finds Cartwright  waxing on the importance of love over an impressive arrangement chockfull of plaintive pedal steel, harmony singers and church like organ. A fine end to a pretty fine album.

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Annie Keating. Bristol County Tides

Named for the hideaway in Massachusetts where Keating retired to during the pandemic, Bristol County Tides finds the normally Brooklyn based artist in both gutsy and reflective form. The album is an odyssey of sorts with a claustrophobic funkiness in its opening numbers eventually opening out into a more relaxed acceptance of the way things are. Along this journey, Keating breathes life into some exceptional characters and also pays heed to more personal matters – family, friends and relationships.

It’s a full bodied, full band album with Keating riding the waves over an excellent sounding ensemble, her basic three-piece band along with a small host of guests who add accordion, pedal steel and keyboards. Altogether, the band are supple as they sway and swell, as able to dig into a deep Muscle Shoals like groove while also delivering the delicate intricacies of a song such as Half Mast which is winningly swoonsome.

Third Street opens the album with a vengeance. A grungy urban cry, it prowls the streets capturing snapshots of modern day equivalents of Damon Runyon characters with a voyeur’s eye and snakelike guitars. Kindred Spirit inverts the voyeurism as Keating imagines herself as one of the denizens and invokes the empathy and support which is often the token of community solidarity. Here, the band are more laidback, the guitars more liquid over swirling organ but Keating then dials this up several notches on Marigold which has that hefty blend of chunky guitar chords and church like organ which The Jayhawks utilised to great effect. Later in the album, there is Lucky 13, a luscious and languid swill of a song which is sultry in its kaleidoscopic and slightly nightmarish vision of a casino from hell.

In between these urban howls, Keating retreats to the country and elsewhere on several songs. Blue Moon Tide rides on sly acoustic slide guitar and barbed keyboards while Half Mast finds her creeping back into singer/songwriter territory on a song which comes across as if she were channelling the late Leonard Cohen. It’s fair to say that Keating can come up trumps when she strips things down somewhat as on the exquisite Song For A Friend (a song which just about sums up the album but she truly excels on Bittersweet. It’s a farewell song suffused with images and colours and memories, delivered with a fragile spare guitar and pedal steel backing with Keating, kind of weirdly I suppose, again reminding me of that 70s songstress, Melanie, in her vocal delivery.

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