Released at the tail end of last year, Unseen Course kind of got lost amidst the host of Christmas releases and end of year lists which tend to dominate December. Of course, it’s now the tail end of February and we are only now getting down to writing about it and for that we offer our apologies as it’s an album which has been a keen listen recently.
Stereo Naked are a Cologne based band with a flexible line up arranged around core members, Julia Zech (late of Fierce Flowers) and Pierce Black. They play a modern hybrid of bluegrass, country and folk with Zech on banjo with Black on double bass while they share vocals and harmonise quite wonderfully. This is immediately apparent on the almost acapella opening song Dive Right In where the voices dominate on a soulful, almost gospel like finger popping arrangement. It’s the most pared back number on the disc as the remainder finds the pair’s playing embellished with guitar, pedal steel, percussion, strings and horns allowing for a full band sound.
While the banjo driven numbers, Would You and Love Song Nr. 3 certainly can be considered as a form of bluegrass, much of the album heads into into different territory with a contemporary mix of quirky upbeat numbers such as Sanity (“Let’s dance like chickens with our heads cut off,”) and mellower, almost jazz like, ballads. On Old Solo, they turn in a chilling seaborne folk song which creaks and wheezes with authenticity in a manner reminiscent of Anna & Elizabeth. They also have great fun on the closing song, Take The Money And Run. It’s a cowboy ballad given a full cartoon like makeover and a cinch for inclusion on the soundtrack if the Coen Brothers ever decide to film another ironic Western movie. Overall, Unseen Course is a delightful album, airy for the most part with Black’s supple and inventive double bass playing ensuring the songs don’t float away into the ether.
What to do if you have to self isolate for a week after catching that nasty Corona virus bug thing? Well, if you’re Daniel Meade, once the first couple of days of (thankfully) mild sniffles are over, you sit right down and record your latest record. And so it was that in early January Glasgow singer and songwriter Meade, in covid house arrest, recorded Down You Go, six original songs and two covers in a stripped back manner which we last heard from him several years ago.
Forced to go back to basics, Meade reminds the listener of what a fine performer he is on his own, away from the raucous rock’n’roll of his band the Flying Mules and the pyrotechnics of his last couple of albums. Indeed, you need to go back to his earliest releases to find him in a similar compact and relaxed vein. And, while the album is home grown, Meade is quite the master at home recording so there’s no lo-fi nonsense here, the recording is clear and vital, his voice and guitar up close and intimate. In some ways it’s a perfect bedsit album, draw the curtains, and wallow in the sounds.
The album opens with the simple guitar strums and rippling piano of Fixing Quicksand with Meade inhabiting Jayhawks territory on a bittersweet love gone wrong song, a relationship with shakey foundations. Contrary wise, If I Didn’t Have You, is a song of love and salvation with Meade giving thanks to his soulmate and confessing his past sins. Its simple melody, plucked guitar, slight percussion and strings remind one of very early Townes Van Zandt and Meade’s voice has a similar world weary manner to that of Van Zandt’s. Meade continues in this vein on Down You Go although the theme is darker with a hint of Hank Williams thrown in. The jauntiest song on the album, Cocaine Jane, is beautifully simple. A strum along country roots song which follows in the footsteps of Johnny Cash, The Grateful Dead , Davey Graham and such, it’s a grand listen in a fine tradition.
Moving from Cocaine country to troubadour land, Meade turns in an excellent exercise in wintry melancholy on Will You Still Love Me When It Rains, an incredibly moving song which, while once again reminiscent of some of the most sage singer songwriters around, has Meade singing quite brilliantly, no mid Atlantic voice mannerisms here. Aside from his own songs, there are two covers on the record. There she Goes was written by Mark May, a Glasgow musician who died far too young. Meade played in May’s band while still in his teens and this is his affectionate tribute to a mentor. It’s a lovely song which has a hint of Gene Clark in its genes. The other cover is a bit of a surprise. Having watched that Bros documentary, Meade was inspired to take on their hit, When Will I Be Famous. Here he strips it back to the bone and reveals it as something like a cry for help. There are wisps of Leonard Cohen and The Proclaimers flitting around the delivery as Meade sings quite authoritatively and yet plaintively within his Covid imposed exile.
Down You Go is available as a download and extremely limited edition CD here.
Good things come to those who wait and for Dean Owens and his fans, the release of Sinner’s Shrine has been a long time coming. Recorded two years ago but put in abeyance due to Covid, Sinner’s Shrine is the latest episode in Owens’ increasing immersion in American music. From his days in Edinburgh’s The Felsons, followed by a series of increasingly popular solo albums and collaborations, Owens has never shied away from his love of and indebtedness to the songs and culture of The States while always retaining elements of his Leith family roots. Look to the swampy Southern Wind (co -written with Will Kimbrough and winner of the AMAUK’s song of the year) which rubs shoulders with Elvis Was My Brother, a fine epistle to a childhood friend on 2018’s Southern Wind album. His collaborative album, Buffalo Blood, released a year later, was a full-blown American trip, recorded in the deserts of New Mexico and now, he returns to the arid southwest as Sinner’s Shrine finds Owens, this time in Tucson, giving full expression to his love of that border country’s music and myths.
The icing on the cake here is the presence of most of Calexico, perhaps the chief purveyors these days of those sun-blistered environs. A chance meeting with Calexico’s Joey Burns ended up with Owens travelling to Tucson with a handful of songs inspired by the polyrhythmic sounds of Calexico and his knowledge of the local lore. It’s a match made in heaven as Owens cleaves to the exotic sounds conjured by Burns and his compadres. With fellow Calexicans, John Convertino, Sergio Mendoza and Jacob Valenzuela all on board and with other Tucson luminaries on tap, Sinner’s Shrine is certainly the epitome of Owens career so far. It’s expansive, thrilling and, above all, authentic. That signature Calexico sound is ever present but is helmed by Owens’ ownership of the songs and this is perhaps most apparent in the reworking of New Mexico, a song originally recorded by Owens on his first solo album. Back then it was a low-key acoustic number, here it blossoms into a fully-fledged border ballad with grumbling guitar and soaring trumpet.
The history of, the romance, and the reality of living in these borderlands inform several of the songs. The opening song, Arizona, has a cluster of instruments including pedal steel (from Paul Niehaus) appearing as if through a heat haze as Owens explores the territory – the barrio, the titular sinner’s shrine – essentially the heart of the border music he has long admired and he admits that it has cast a wire around his own heart, drawing him in. Despite the notion of wide-open desert vistas, Arizona is quite claustrophobic in effect with the band coiled, but ready to strike. And strike out they do over the rest of the album. The Hopeless Ghosts, a song inspired by a Townes Van Zandt quote, is a tale of wanderlust, of dusty trails full of memories, while the aforementioned New Mexico positively jumps out of the speakers as Owens gets more romantic, singing of his “Sweet Maria,” a long lost lover. He gives it a lusty rendition on a song which one could easily imagine Johnny Cash singing. Summer In Your Eyes is another romance which, with its mariachi horns, elegant piano and sleek guitars would not be out of place on a Mavericks’ album. Meanwhile, the short interlude which is Here Comes Paul Newman is Owens’ affectionate nod to the cowboy movies he loved while growing up. While it’s Newman’s Hud he mentions in the notes, it’s Morricone’s spaghetti western soundtracks which he perfectly captures here with his assured whistling.
The title of the album is mentioned in the opening song but the sinner’s shrine also informs Compañera, a beautifully realised lament which is soaked in memories and tradition. Here, the band wallow wonderfully over a string arrangement which certainly pulls at the heart strings while Tony Pro, from the Mariachi band Luz De Luna, on guitarron, adds some gravity. Going back to cowboy movies, Compañera stands comparison to Dimitri Tiomkin’s score for that old John Wayne film, The Alamo, a favourite of mine when I was a kid.
Whilst it’s quite wonderful to wallow in Owens’ excellent capture of the romance and history of Tucson and the surrounding area, at the heart of the album there is a darker tone. On The Barbed Wire’s Still Weeping, the vocals are distorted, disembodied, while Burns and his cohort pull out the big guns. The song deals with the plight of the migrant population on the US/Mexico border, a theme common to both Owens and Burns, and they portray a parched and dread landscape with a thunderous sense of menace. La Lomita is in similar territory with Owens singing of a refuge on the border which was in danger of being demolished to make way for Trump’s infamous wall. The song is a full blown spectacle with Mendoza adding just about everything but the kitchen sink from his percussive box of tricks as it sways magnificently with stabs of trumpet and staccato guitar. It’s the most “Calexico” sounding number on the album and proof, if it be needed by now, that this pairing is just about perfect. Further proof of that perfection is to be had when Burns called in the Guatemalan singer, Gaby Moreno, to add her glorious voice to the sensuous swirl of Land Of The Hummingbird. Inspired by the rhythms of Cumbia it’s sexy and sultry while Mendoza’s piano playing reminds one of the majesty of the Buena Vista Social Club. That signature Calexico sound is given another airing on the tremendous thrust of the Farfisa infused We Need Us before the album closes with a nod to Owens’ past on After The Rain. A song which dates back to The Felsons, it was originally inspired by an Ansel Adams photograph and having heard Owens sing it, Burns demanded it be on the album. Here, it retains its quiet majesty while turned down a notch or two in terms of Owens’ singing, but it’s a fine valedictory to what is an extraordinarily great album.
After the triumph which was The Imperial, an album which marked not only Willy Vlautin’s new band as a pitch perfect setting for his emotionally raw vignettes but also served as proof (if needed) that singer Amy Boone amply rewarded Vlautin’s choice of her as his new voice with her wonderfully languid delivery. The Sea Drift is yet another winner for the band. On paper, it might be considered more of the same as Vlautin continues to portray a cast of drifters and grafters with some acuity and Boone breathes life into them, her voice hurt and bruised while the band lay down a soothing, soulful groove. However, this time around there’s more emphasis on the horn and string arrangements, a subtle shift but one which adds another layer to The Delines‘ take on “retro country southern soul,” adding a film noire element at times. While The Imperial centred on a downbeat motel, here the album takes place on the Gulf Coast, an area not too often captured in song. The album title recalls a section of Walt Whitman’s poetry collection, Leaves Of Grass, a section pertaining to the shore. The contrast between the presumably desirable coastal locations and the reality that life there is often grim hovers throughout.
The first two songs have the advantage of having been previewed earlier, accompanied by a pair of excellent videos. Little Earl is nothing less than the epitome of Vlautin’s spare writing style, its four short verses painting a picture which leaves one dying to know the full story of how a short assed kid – “Little Earl is driving down the Gulf Coast, sitting on a pillow so he can see the road” – while his brother lies bleeding in the back. It has a similar unhurried approach as many of the songs did on The Imperial and this continues on much of The Sea Drift but the next song, Kid Codeine, is one of their brisker outings. The heroine, always cool and easy, breezes through the song accompanied by horns, strings and a female chorus which all recall late sixties easy listening pop arrangements. Despite the “upbeat” arrangement there’s still a heart of darkness in the song and from here on in Vlautin really does dig deeper.
Drowning in Plain Sight is like an aural version of Diary Of A Mad Housewife, transposed to the working class south. Dolly Parton could take this song and make a hit of it but it wouldn’t be a patch on The Delines’ glacial delivery and Boone’s desperation. All Along The Ride is, if anything, even more desolate and again, Vlautin sets a scene perfectly, leaving us to imagine the intro and outro to this particular couple’s current isolation from each other. The delicate Spanish guitar which introduces Surfers In Twilight, an arresting tale with its very own Garden of Gethsemane denial moment, is joined by a mournful horn section giving the song an air not dissimilar to Miles Davis’s forays into Spanish themes and Davis is brought to mind on the two instrumentals written by trumpet and keyboard player Cory Gray. Lynette’s Lament and The Gulf Drift Lament both recall Davis on Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud.
Hold Me Slow captures the languor and enervation of a love tryst in a humid sub tropical location while Past The Shadows is a reminder that several of the songs here are about escaping. This Ain’t No Getaway does offer a glimmer of hope as a woman gets out of a troubling scenario but she seems to accept that she’ll soon be in a similar position. The last song on the album, Saved From The Sea, is a torch song in effect with Boone crooning about a saviour of sorts, someone who “Makes me feel like my life ain’t been wasted, like my life ain’t just slipping away.” Here, it seems, Vlautin is saying that the proximity of the sea and the temptation to surrender to its depths is the get out clause for those ground down and wearied Southerners.
Ultimately, The Sea Drift finds The Delines with a fuller and richer sound and, while it’s in no way a concept album, listening to it is somewhat akin to reading Vlautin. Most of these songs could easily become short stories or even novels and perhaps some will. None of them are far removed from the subject of his latest book, The Night Always Comes, or indeed, any of his writings. But, with the help of Cory Gray, Freddy Trujillo, Sean Oldham, producer John Morgan Askew and especially Amy Boone, his words are brought to life here.
Another slice of Johnny Dowd’s dearly beloved mutant music is always worth celebrating and Homemade Pie is no exception. The 13 songs here are all gloriously fucked up – stewed in a hotchpotch of 60’s garage band riffs, off kilter country, badass guitars and kaleidoscopic killer clown like melodies – just another day in the Dowd household we’d love to imagine.
Anyhow, Homemade Pie picks off from where 2019’s Family Picnic left off, with Dowd sticking to the basics and eschewing the even weirder homemade electronica which featured on albums such as That’s Your Wife On The Back Of My Horse and Do The Gargon. With his regular crew on board (Mike Edmondson on guitars and keyboard, Willie B on drums and the wonderfully dead pan vocals of Kim Sherwood Caso), Dowd stands proud on the rubble of his songs, waving his freak flag high.
That said, Dowd’s songs, for all their waywardness, have a way of worming themselves into your brain. He grabs a genre, subverts it and launches it right back at you. It might have been put through a mincing machine in the process but there’s still a whole load of nourishment to be had. Gone is a fine example as Dowd writes a tour diary of sorts in the manner of Bukowski while the band deliver a skewed 50’s like doo-wop feel. Silk Scarf is another nod to past rock’n’roll with Dowd’s droll delivery perfectly matched by Sherwood Caso’s cool injunctions while You Can Call Me The Wind takes the likes of Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra’s duets into another dimension. Uncle Jimmy kicks off with the melody from Benny Spellman’s Fortune Teller and pounds it into submission, aided by a stabbing organ riff and sulphurous guitar as Dowd merely repeats the one line lyric throughout. The opening title song is a grand slice of Nuggets type garage rock with Dowd a travelling salesman doomed to dwell in a Flannery O’Connor story.
With its woozy fairground delivery, Out For Blood is a menacing tale which kind of takes the story of Badlands and transposes it into a meeting of an itinerant singer and an obsessed fan. That fairground waltz is repeated on the surreal ramblings of Rick Ross, a song which is probably the weirdest ever about a man and his dog (or his God as he wonders). God himself has abandoned Dowd on the claustrophobic cluster which is Shack and the closing song, Do Me Do is perhaps the most broken down and fractured lost love song you will hear this year. Even the guitar solo here sounds broken hearted. We do have to mention the behemoth, nestled within the album, which is the fully pumped up garage band workout, Rise Up. A splendidly raucous song with Dowd at his snarling best, he insists he loves his country, right or wrong while describing the desecration of its values, all the while rising to the declamation, “Fuck Donald Trump, Donald Trump is a fool.” No pussyfooting here (and no radio play) but at least it’s nice to know that Johnny Dowd is on the side of the righteous and long may he deliver his missives from the USA’s underbelly. They are songs from the gutter, staring at the stars.