Blabber’n’Smoke’s Favourites of 2021

Well, farewell 2021. It was nice while it lasted but you were too much of a tease, really, for it to go on much longer. We started going out only towards the end and then, when it seemed that we were getting on an even keel, you done went and got all frosty again, gigs gone, Christmas and New Year all but cancelled. One thing you did provide was a bumper crop of albums and for that we do thank you.

Here’s a list of Blabber’n’Smoke’s favourite albums of 2021 (although there are probably a couple we’ve forgotten). There’s a top ten, but not in any particular order, along with a list of runners up and special mentions at the end. Where possible we’ve linked the album title to a review (or interview in one case) of ours.

Only four gigs this year! Hopefully 2022 will bring us more great albums but more importantly and despite the dismal start, allow live music to live and breathe again.

A huge thanks to all the artists, promoters, PR folk, venues and fellow fans who all help Blabber’n’Smoke limp along. Happy New Year.

The Felice Brothers – From Dreams To Dust

Allison Russell – Outside Child

Charley Crockett – Music City USA

Peter Bruntnell – Journey to the Sun

Steve Earle & The Dukes – JT

John Murry – The Stars Are God’s Bullet Holes

M. G. Boulter – Clifftown

Jason McNiff – Dust Of Yesterday

Malcolm Holcombe – Tricks Of The Trade

Robin Adams – Wrong Road Home

Also of note

Los Lobos – Native Sons
Sturgill Simpson – The Ballad of Dood & Juanita
Danny George Wilson – Another Place
David Huckfeldt – Room Enough, Time Enough
Maria Muldaur with Tuba Skinny – Let’s Get happy Together
JP Harris’s Dreadful Wind And Rain – Don’t You Marry No Railroad Man
Chris Eckman – Where The Spirit Rests
Bard Edrington V – Two Days In Terlingua
Steve Gunn – Other You
Nathan Bell – Red White And American Blues (It Couldn’t Happen Here)
Audrey Spillman – Neon Dream
Jenner Fox –Planet I’m From
Starry Eyed & Laughing – Bells Of Lightning
Aimee Mann – Queens Of The Summer Hotel
TK & The Holy Know Nothings – The Incredible Heat Machine

Although coming from vastly different directions, I really enjoyed these sets – Various Artists, Highway Butterfly- The Songs Of Neal Casal and Peter Stampfel’s, 20th Century In 100 Songs. There were also fine tributes in the shape of Party For Joey – A Sweet Relief Tribute To Joey Spampinato, and The Wanderer – A Tribute To Jackie Leven. Edinburgh’s Dean Owens appears on The Wanderer and he released three fine EPs this year, his Desert Trilogy, in conjunction with Calexico and various Tucson musicians- a taster for his forthcoming album, recorded with John and Joey and due out early next year.

Johnny Dowd. Xmas 2021. E.P. Mother Jinx Records

We don’t normally review Christmas music here at Blabber’n’Smoke. Aside from the fact that most of it is crap, most of it is also unbearably wholesome and cheerful and that’s something we really can’t tolerate. Now, Johnny Dowd, one of our favourite musical mavericks, is not someone you’d normally expect to be vying for airtime with Mariah Carey, Slade and Bing Crosby but, it turns out he has a small stash of Christmas songs scattered throughout his back catalogue and he gathers them together here along with a new recording of Silent Night.

There is of course, a good enough pile of decent Christmas songs, most of them melancholic or downright depressing, along with a fair few which are just so far enough from the formula to actually entice you in. Dowd’s festive five are probably in the latter category.

There are two traditional Christmas songs. Jingle Bells (which first appeared on The Pawnbroker’s Wife) comes across as if Funkadelic were given a spectacularly potent dose of acid and let loose in Santa’s grotto. While Silent Night has the pathos one associates with the recording of the homeless man repeating Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet in Gavin Bryars’ work of the same name, there also seems to be a sardonic nod to Simon & Garfunkel’s recording of the song which included a newsreader’s litany of disturbing news stories. Here, Dowd has snippets of Spanish speech included as the song slowly limps into sight. The song of course, limps along splendidly throughout while Dowd then seems to take a leaf from Phil Spector as he wishes the listener a Happy Christmas (somewhat woefully) at the end.

Separate Beds is the most conventional song here as Dowd and Kim Sherwood-Caso trade vocals on this downbeat country festive song of a couple breaking up. There’s a hint of The Handsome Family in the delivery and the black humour. In contrast, Death Comes Knocking is a macabre mutant nightmare carnival song which wheezes and puffs in a Tom Wait fashion while Christmas Is Just Another Day is another dose of off kilter melody. Ostensibly, it has Dowd’s protagonist missing his late mother on Christmas day but there are hints (kinfolk come to visit me on Christmas, they come but cannot stay) that tempt one to consider that this forlorn son is locked up after topping his dear departed mother. Whatever, it’s deliciously dark as is the whole EP. You won’t be hearing this one wafting down supermarket aisles.  


Orit Shimoni. Lorem Ipsum.

The last time we encountered Orit Shimoni, the nomadic Canadian singer/songwriter, her endless travels had, unexpectedly, ended. Covid had stranded her in Winnipeg, hunkered down, and forced to find a semi permanent place to stay – a strange state of affairs for a musician who, literally, had been on the road for 11 years.

Stuck in Winnipeg, Shimoni released the wonderful Strange And Beautiful Things, a collection of songs she had recorded earlier in Toronto with a full band line up. She follows it up with Lorem Ipsum, a truly solo effort recorded in her flat using “a failing, noisy laptop, a cheap microphone, and, free, basic recording software.” She admits that this was a time of deep despair, not only due to the pandemic but also the extreme polarisation, ignorance, and hate she was seeing across the world. Seeking some solace in her song writing she realised she had songs already written which fitted her mood and, having recalled 11 of them, she set to recording them in one all night session. The result is this lo-fi record which, in spite of its humble origins, positively speaks to the human condition and is yet another reason to consider Shimoni as one of the most under rated songwriters and singers of our time. On some songs here, blood and tears truly flow. Smithereens is a chilling description of the aftermath of a suicide bombing and is Dylan like as it encompasses empathy and condemnation. Another venerable songwriter, Leonard Cohen, comes to mind on It’s Good That You Died When You Did, primarily due to the song’s delivery and cadences but also in the fatalism on display. Horse, a stark portrait of an act of violence inflicted on an animal is delivered in a winning  amalgamation of both Dylan and Cohen. Mention of them does point to the album being akin to mid 60s folk and there’s a perfect example of Shimoni drawing on that tradition when she dips into whimsy to unveil the real violence visited upon people on Show Me A Picture as opposed to cartoon violence. While a bomb in a Roadrunner short might just be just a kaboom moment with no fatalities, in real life it maims and kills. Meanwhile, her notion that, in real life, liars’ noses should grow, just like Pinocchio’s, is a definite winner.

Shimoni bares her soul on several of the songs. It All Comes ‘Round Again finds her recalling The Holocaust with her parents reassuring her that it is in the past, only to see that, across the world, atrocities still occur with nations  still putting kids in cages. Maybe Tomorrow is truly a lockdown song, a claustrophobic nightmare. My Flying Shoes (the title a nod to her hero, Townes Van Zandt) is perhaps, the crack which lets the light in as she sings of getting back to doing all the normal things which we all took for granted before we were all locked down. The album closes with its most powerful song, Sing Back To Me, a metaphysical plea to join together, cast aside enmities and accept that we are all cast from the same mold. Here, Shimoni approaches the visceral and spiritual appeal of Patti Smith at her most mystical. Overall, Lorem Ipsum is a cry from the heart and it deserves to be heard far and wide.


Robin Adams. Wrong Road Home. Holy Smokes Records

Normally a Robin Adams album leads one to search a thesaurus looking for alternatives to winsome, melancholic, introspective, sensitive and words like that. Adams’ albums have portrayed him as a singer songwriter very much in the folk/bedsit tradition with luminaries such as Bert Jansch and Nick Drake often summoned to serve as comparisons. Wrong Road Home is however a splendid change of direction as Adams delivers a lively, sometimes  raucous, elsewhere tender, collection of songs, delivered in a folk  and country style with a decidedly American bent. It’s noted that Canadian folk duo Kacy and Clayton appear on several of the songs.

The album is inspired by some of Adams’ favourite American songwriters – people such as Hank Williams and Michael Hurley (we’d add Woody Guthrie, The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers to the pile) – while the music is a wonderful mix of string band excellence and hillbilly musings. Banjo, fiddle, mandolin, pedal steel, Dobro and, yip, a singing saw, all feature, giving the album an authentic patina of old time Americana and all that entails. There’s trains and crossroads and ghosts in these tales of bad luck and while the songs are a joy to hear there isn’t really a happy moment to be heard. Meanwhile, Adams’ drawings which adorn the sleeve and the lyric booklet are surely a nod to Hurley.

From the instance when lonesome banjo and harmonica wander in through the saloon like front door of the title song, sounding for all the world like two weary travellers looking for a drink, we’re transported to the old west as Adams wanders into a nether world peopled by talking dogs and crows and blind men shooting arrows at the stars. It leads him to what does seem to be a last chance saloon where, ordering beer, he is given absinthe while seated next to an artist with “a hole right through his chest” wondering why he isn’t dead. With ragged fiddle, lonesome pedal steel and a wearied lope in its stride it’s a tremendous opener. Deep Down follows in a similar style but it digs deeper into weird old Americana, freighted with menace emanating from “the old dark woods” where “gallows swing and the moon stays round.”

Listening to these two opening songs, the only clue that these haven’t been unearthed from some Appalachian archive is Adams’ voice which retains his Scots accent. It’s a fantastic balancing act which he maintains throughout the album and it offers the opportunity to think not only of the Americans he celebrates here but also those pioneers of the 60s such as Hamish Imlach and especially the original Incredible String Band. The fiddle sozzled blues of Broke Down Empire Blues here could surely sit on the first ISB album while the jug band like Nobody Blues is a song which Imlach would have had great fun with. The Scots-American union reaches its zenith when Adams transports Burns’ Tam O’Shanter to the Ozarks, yodelling away like Jimmie Rodgers on The Ballad Of Tommy Shanter. This is quite fabulous. The saw offers the requisite amount of spookiness but there’s so much else bustling away, the pedal steel, a fiddle sawing, swarms of accordion and burbling banjo, all jostle together and raise the song into the realms of greatness. It’s not hyperbole to say this really. If you doubt, then have a listen and keep an ear out for the way there’s a brilliantly brief burst of bowed double bass denoting danger towards the end.

Adams waltzes through the album excellently, unveiling gem after gem. Too Far Gone is a hum bucking slice of Western Swing and Hungry Bob reminds one of Burl Ives or Pete Seeger’s’ kiddie friendly songs (with a dollop of Shel Silverstein). While Your Games is a pretty, Jansch influenced, guitar trip which is more in line with his previous releases, Sing To Me As I Sleep is a trip into Carter Family territory and the closing song, Floorboard Blues is wonderfully rudimentary as Adams sings and yodels an old time waltz quite brilliantly.

It’s not often that an album stops you in your tracks but when we first heard this we were quite gobsmacked by how good it is. It’s a total diversion for Adams and it’s astounding that he’s pulled it off so brilliantly. It probably does help if you’re enamoured of old time Americana to begin with but, coming in at the tail end of the year, we reckon it’s one of our top ten contenders.

Spell Songs II : Let The Light In. Thirty Tigers


Originally gathered  to offer their musical take on some of Jackie Morris and Robert Macfarlane’s musings on our ever changing language in their book, The Lost Words: A Spell Book, Spell Songs have reconvened in order to convey their musical musings on the pair’s latest book, The Lost Spells. The collective (Karine Polwart, Julie Fowlis, Seckou Keita, Kris Drever, Rachel Newton,  Beth Porter and Jim Molyneux) were highly acclaimed on their first release and Let The Light In looks set to gain yet more accolades as its, ahem, spellbinding songs and performance look to gather pace with a series of live shows set to follow on from the album release.

The 15 songs here tap into current concerns re the environment and dovetail into a back to nature movement which has traditionally been associated with folk music and various campaigns against the destruction of our habitat. Each song celebrates creatures and plants which have long been a part of our diversified flora and fauna, many of them now endangered. While the album is solidly folk tradition at its roots, the players utilise studio to add layers of sound and effects, culminating in an album which is quite astounding to listen to. It’s both ancient and modern, it traverses borders and summons earth spirits throughout. The ensemble are electrifying at times as when they weld Afro and Celtic music on Jay, a magnificent song with Seckou Keita engaging in call and response with the massed female singers. Kris Drever’s Red Is Your Art darts and dips like a murmuration of starlings and, likewise, Swifts, a vocal duet from Drever and Rachel Newton gambols along quite merrily. The sinewy Oak, again featuring Drever, is rooted within a deep tradition of folk songs saluting the power of nature and the turn of the seasons.

Karine Polwart’s Bramble is cloaked in mystery and wonder, its woody timbre and martial drums enlivened by snippets of voice which are almost cartoonish in nature. As the band nimbly flutter and caress the song, it flows gently into Julie Fowlis’ St. Kilda Wren, sung in Gaelic and invoking ancient spirits. Beth Porter’s Gorse is a quite magical and fantastical voyage into a speckled wonderland – frosty and childlike, it transports the listener into memories of shadow land fairy tales. With Polwart singing supremely on the tip-toed delight of Moth and Fowlis delivering yet another wintry tale on Silver Birch, another song cloaked in wonder and mystery, Spell Songs have certainly delivered a spell binding and enchanting listen.

Ian M. Bailey. Songs To Dream Along To. Kool Kat Musik.

Following on for their collaboration on the Shots Of Sun EP, Ian M. Bailey and Glasgow’s Daniel Wylie have co-written this full length album which, as with Bailey’s (and Wylie’s) previous releases, is a quite joyous celebration of 1960’s sunshine paradise pop, as practised by The Byrds, The Beau Brummels, The Association and many others, and the soft rock sounds of the early 70s as exemplified by America, Seals & Croft and numerous offshoots of the whole Byrds/CSN/Burritos clan.

Bailey remains a one-man band, playing all of the instruments (aside from a string section on The Sound Of Her Voice) and, as before, it’s quite impressive that there’s no hint of this in the final delivery. The songs are fresh and show no sign of being assembled whatsoever and the harmony singing (again all Bailey) is outstanding. Listen to Everything Will be Alright and try not to imagine that it’s a band like the trio America singing it.

Bailey is an experienced practitioner in the art of 12 string Rickenbacker jangle and this is to the fore in the opening song, This Is Not A Feeling which opens with a Beatles’ like acoustic guitar strum before the 12 string sparks up and we are offered a Gene Clark like song which aches with a romantic melancholic feeling. Take It Or Leave It is in a similar vein with more mid 60s’ solipsism although here it’s less melancholic given the powerful thrust of the verses and the waves of keyboard which pump throughout the song. Further along the track list, Slow Down River and Just Like A Child (Dream Catcher) remind one of the latter day Byrds, their jangled pop reined in by the likes of Clarence White and Gene Parsons who brought in new sensibilities rooted in old American music. Meanwhile, I’m Not The Enemy, still suffused with gleaming 12 string, is more akin to the Paisley Underground bands who revitalised these sounds in the 80s, even though its lyrics remain rooted in the original psychedelic underground.

As we said, Laurel Canyon and its denizens also loom large and it’s easy to imagine songs such as A Place To Live, Everything Will be Alright and The Sound Of Her Voice being performed by a sensitive soul on The Old Grey Whistle Test back then. The latter in particular, with its sweeping strings, reminds one of Dan Fogelberg which, we have to say, is no bad thing. The highpoint is the delicately delivered and harmonious What’s Happening Now which is a dreamlike meander with gently flowing guitars along with a slight undercurrent of menace courtesy of a muted yet decidedly psychedelic electric guitar. There’s also fun to be had in the mock Eastern exotica of Midday At The Hope Lodge which can’t help but remind one of The Beatles’ flight from the murderous cult pursuing them in their movie, Help!

Despite the surplus of names we’ve mentioned, Bailey and Wylie have come up trumps with Songs To Dream Along To. It’s a glorious listen that certainly rises above its influences.