The Strange Blue Dreams. Simple Machine. Holy Smokes Records

Having survived the pandemic by hunkering down in one of their favourite spaces, The Twilight Zone, Glasgow’s Strange Blue Dreams emerge with a second album which is infused with glorious retro sounds and an unbridled sense of delight in being able to twang again. When Blabber’n’Smoke wrote about their first album we said that they celebrated “the worlds of Larry Parnes, Barry Gray and Joe Meek along with a touch of exotica garnered from the likes of Martin Denny along with Eastern and Balkan music” and it’s fair to say that on Simple Machine they remain true to that vision.

A five piece band, led by singer and chief songwriter David Addison, The Strange Blue Dreams swing, sashay and sway with some aplomb through the ten songs on display here. Kicking off with the title song which wanders in with an insouciant nonchalance, we are faced with a simple lamentation as sung by a hapless gizmo, the sort we were promised would serve all our needs by programmes like Tomorrow’s World back in the day – emphasized by the retro robot toy on the album artwork. Swathed in a retro blue velvet shimmer it’s a grand start to the disc. Strange Paradise takes this promised future to more exotic climes, a Tiki reminiscence of a holiday in Butlins perhaps, while For My Sins adds some eastern mystique to the mix with the song sounding as if it has been unearthed from a compilation of late sixties Turkish psychedelia. With some wicked and deliciously reverbed guitar twanging soaring throughout, it’s bound to become a favourite.

Whether crooning and then soaring into Tin Pan Alley territory as on the melodramatic It Sounded Like A Song or battering into big band sounds with the horn laden Wine And Circuses, time and again the band take time honoured song styles and sprinkle their unique take all over them. Gold In The Mountain is a wonderful blend of reverential Presley allied to a Staple Singers like vibe and the album closes with a sprinkle of stardust on the initially dream like Knock Three Times which rises to a wonderfully skewed crescendo, somewhat akin to a beauty queen wiping away her tears as she ascends to her throne. However, it’s not bathetic, instead, it shows that The Strange Blue Dreams have their finger on the pulse of the dynamics much loved by rock’n’roll pioneers of past times. Joe Meek would have loved this song and Gene Pitney could have sung it.


Wynntown Marshals. Big Ideas. Wynntown Recordings

When Scotland’s Wynntown Marshals (“Europe’s best Americana band” – Americana UK) sat down to record their follow-up to 2015’s The End Of The Golden Age they couldn’t have imagined in their wildest dreams that the title of that album would be somewhat prophetic. Big Ideas was first mooted back in 2018 but, and not for the first time, the band saw a shift in personnel which led to a settling in period which then of course was prolonged when the world shut down due to Covid. So, it’s been a long wait for this album but there’s an upside to that with the band having had the opportunity to polish Keith Benzie’s songs to perfection. It’s always difficult to improve on excellence but the listener, after a few plays here, might be correct in surmising that this is the most fully realised Marshals recording so far.

Front and centre is singer and songwriter Benzie who writes all the lyrics here, the first time since their debut album Westerner (which did have a cover of Ballad Of Jayne, An L.A. Guns number and an indication that The Marshals were not to be simply marshalled into a country rock genre). The music behind his lyrics is credited to the Wynntown Marshals, an indication that the band are speaking with one mouth here, leading to a more unified listen. For sure, they remain true to their core sound, generally a heady mix of Wilco like yearning allied to jangled Petty/Byrds like anthems along with a healthy dose of lesser known outriders such as Canada’s The Weakerthans, but that core sound is now undoubtedly that of The Marshals. They’re recognisable from a million miles away with Benzies’s voice the focal point.

Having said that, the return of Ali Petrie on keyboards is welcome, with his introduction to the opening song, New Millennium sounding not a million miles removed from Roy Bittan of Springsteen fame. The song soars from the start with Iain Sloan’s guitars chiming over the piano as Benzie sings an anthemic celebration of youthful hopes and ambitions. Those hopes and ambitions have somewhat soured on the following title song which, while still romping around with glistening and chiming guitars, is more pessimistic in its outlook. The band’s ability to hone in on pitch perfect jangled power pop is again evident on the excellent Learn To Lose which gradually builds to a Tom Petty like crescendo of crashing guitars and perfect harmonies with Sloan delivering some Byrds like solo guitar and there’s much more of that in Treat Me Right, a crunchy guitar driven number which finds Benzie ruminating on the tattered remains of a relationship, the band weighing in like, well, The Band, the song culminating with fiery guitar duetting as reminiscent of Wishbone Ash as it is of The Allmans.

On a gentler note there’s the warm melody of Tourist In My Hometown, a fine example of Benzie reminiscing on his past with the opening verse surely familiar to anyone who recalls their student days. On Keys Found In The Snow, Benzie extrapolates from a notice in a window to meditate on the possibilities and stories behind the lost keys, the band superbly restrained with Sloan’s pedal steel and Petrie’s electric piano adding just the right amount of light and shade. In a similar vein, although in a much more robust sense, the band create a hypnotic backdrop on The Missing Me which is not too far removed from the lyrical guitar epics of Israel Nash and Peter Bruntnell.

Most Marshals albums contain a history lesson of sorts and on this occasion Benzie visits the battle of Stalingrad on The Pocket. That he takes this grim tale of starvation and death and transforms it into a gorgeous lament, suffused with hope among the suffering, is quite remarkable. The album closes with the plaintive Full Moon, Fallow Heart with Benzie front and centre, his voice and guitar accompanied by piano. It’s a philosophical rumination on the choices we make, the mistakes and slight triumphs we gather over the years with Benzie musing that life is both perfect and less than perfect, an eternal conundrum.


Steve Dawson & The Telescope 3. Phantom Threshold. Black Hen Music

Number two in a planned three album series for release this year, Steve Dawson’s second instalment finds him moving on from the rootsy guitar based songs on Gone, Long Gone to investigate the sonic possibilities of an instrumental album utilising, as usual, his armoury of all things stringed – acoustic and electric guitars, mandotar, national steel guitar, ukulele and, especially, pedal steel guitar. It’s quite a jump from the fatback tones of Gone, Long Gone to the ambient Americana contained here but with a little perseverance it’s well worth the leap.

Dawson has previously released several instrumental albums and the title of his backing band here (Jeremy Holmes -bass, Chris Gestrin – all manner of keyboards and Jay Bellerose – drums/percussion), alludes to his pedal steel based album Telescope which came out in 2008. Pedal steel is omnipresent in these tunes but it’s just one of the many sounds vying for attention as the quartet guilelessly wander through almost 50 minutes of music which is supremely contemplative.

A thread of pastoral, bucolic calm, runs through the first three numbers, reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s early, calmer days, and then a funky clavinet gives Ol’ Brushy a hint of southern sweat, not too far removed from The Meters’ early instrumental sides. The title tune has slight, oh so slight, washes of surf music in its veins and is followed by the most stripped back number so far, the basic pedal steel and accordion yearn which gives The Waters Rise an almost narcotic sea shanty lilt to it. That it’s then followed by the one cover version here, Brian Wilson’s You Still Believe In Me, begs one to look into how Dawson has put this album together and whether there’s more to it than meets the eye (or ear) but the familiarity of the tune is sufficient for a fine wallow in its sheer sumptuousness.

The temptation to allocate a sense of place or of some intent is difficult to resist when it comes to instrumentals so let us just say that there is a (very) slight touch of Hawaii in the first half of Tripledream – not too far removed from the exotica of Martin Denny – which is then punctured when the band are joined on cornet (by Daniel Lapp) giving the close of the tune a tipsy jaunt. Lily’s Resistor has 60’s spy movie guitar echoes and That’s How It Goes In The Relax Lounge is tantalisingly close to elevator music although, as with all of the tunes here, it’s much more textured and entertaining than the muzak it seems to emulate, especially when Lawson throws in an excellent electric guitar solo. Ending with a solo performance on a prepared Weissenborn guitar on Whirlwind, Dawson grounds the album somewhat, reminding one that he is au fait with the likes of John Fahey.

Instrumental albums (unless they’re by a universally accepted instrumental genius) are usually a tough sell and Phantom Threshold won’t appeal to all those who loved Gone, Long Gone. However, Dawson and The Telescope 3 have concocted quite a beguiling broth here and it will reward those who choose to partake of it.


Laura Benitez And The Heartache. California Centuries. Copperhead Records

First thing to say about this album is that is a wonderful listen from start to end, full of glistening modern country rock, the band hitting all the touchstones – cosmic pedal steel, twangy guitars and keyboards full of soul. Add Benitez’s wonderful voice and her song writing skills to the mix and we have a disc which is bound to please. A fine example is the traditional sounding Are You Using Your Heart which sounds here like a jukebox staple from the glory days of Tammy and Loretta while also reminding the listener of fine tones of Laura Cantrell.

While it might be the most commercial song here, Are You Using Your Heart is just one of the winning melodies which Benitez has produced and on several of the songs she tackles weightier issues than simple heartbreak. The opening song, Bad Things, finds her in a baleful mood over a muscular country backing as she surveys the tidal wave of calamities which have occurred over the past couple of years, shocking some folk out of their “It can’t happen here” mindset. In a similar vein Gaslight focuses on the mass indifference to tragedies and scandals such as the epidemic of mass shootings, the #metoo movement and black lives matter, her point being that despite headlines, most folk just reckon it that only happens to other folk. Delivered in an almost folk style (although pleasantly beefed up with a sweet country arrangement), the song sounds like a Joan Baez for these days. The band are much punchier as they weigh in on Let The Dice Roll where the protagonist is indeed the recipient of bad news with Benitez singing, “Bad news hits you like a rig going 99.”

A couple of the songs are much more personal. A Love Like Yours is a joyful romp which pays tribute to her partner while All Songs was written as Benitez and her young daughter were ensconced in a trailer with the air outside polluted by smoke from wildfires. It’s a sing-along song of sorts which, like many of the others here is enlivened by swell solos on electric guitar and pedal steel, but on God Willing And The Creek Don’t Rise the band go full on bluegrass for an energetic take on climate change while Invisible is chock full of Appalachian airs.

Having referenced the pandemic at the beginning of the album, Benitez celebrates her return to live music on the closing song, I’m With The Band, a fine loose limbed country roadhouse number with some tremendous pedal steel playing from Ian Sutton.  I’m pretty sure that a host of jobbing musicians on the road will empathise with the lyrics. A cool end to a great album which is unashamedly country at heart.