Glasgow’s Jim Byrne is something of a musical chameleon. Over the course of four solo albums and a couple of EPs as a member of The Bearpit Brothers, he has rooted around various pop, folk and tin pan alley styles while he will be fondly remembered locally for his fledging years in Clydebank playing punk and garage rock, including a stint in The Primevals. So far he has been firmly in the independent camp when it came to his recordings but for 4 Country & Folk Songs, he finds himself on the roster of Fox Star Records, a situation which allows him to proudly (somewhat tongue in cheek) proclaim, “59 year old songwriter signs his first record deal.”
Following in the footsteps of musicians as varied as Dan Hicks and Richard Hawley, Byrne delves into past sounds and reinvigorates them. Be it on the fragile and broken down country waltz of The Yellow Clock or the twanged telecaster thrums on The Holy Ghost, he sets the scene and then peoples it with his fine baritone croon and keen lyrics.
The four song EP opens with an eerie fiddle introduction to The Yellow Clock, a haunting song which inhabits the thoughts of a daughter returned home from her mother’s funeral. Surrounded by mementos, she surrenders into a reverie, almost hypnotised by the ticking clock. With rustic fiddle (by Kurt Baumer) and harmony vocals from Lesley O’Brien, Byrne paints a perfect miniature of grief and loss. This Heart Of Mine Is A Blind Blind Fool, in contrast, is quite jaunty as Byrne looks to Hank Williams and his ilk for inspiration, adding in a mild Jambalaya of swampy Cajun sounds with O’Brien again joining in on vocals.
Tell The Devil I’ve Stole His Crown Of Pain is a grand melodrama which neatly sits within murder ballad and Child ballad idioms. The culprit here is a shadowy and somewhat supernatural figure who is “born with the devil’s charm,” the type of character you’d be well advised to avoid never mind entering into a contract with him. It’s wonderfully realised with a lonesome fiddle providing the melody over a repetitive guitar rythym while Byrne comes across like Nick Cave channelling Johnny Cash. Cash comes to mind again, along with Lee Hazlewood, on the concluding song, Holy Ghost. It’s cinematic, almost widescreen, as it boils down religious symbols, spaghetti westerns and an old fashioned love story into one great pot boiler. If Quentin Tarantino is still on the lookout for songs to put on his next pulp film, then he’d find some salvation here.
Here at Blabber’n’Smoke we’ve been huge fans of Nathan Bell ever since we heard his 2016 album I Don’t Do This For Love, I Do This For Love. We spoke to him back then and now, on the eve of his UK tour to celebrate the release of his new album, Red, White and American Blues we caught up with him again. First off, we asked him if he was looking forward to visiting the UK and whether he was certain he would make it given the current travel issues.
Well, I’ve got so much to do these days that I never really slow down so I’m actually looking forward to coming over to the UK as it will almost be like, a break. I’ll just be doing one job instead of several. When we were setting it up it looked like it might be a 50/50 chance of travelling but right now it’s much more certain. I think we’ve reached the point statistically where, if you’re smart enough to be vaccinated, and you should be smart enough, that you’ve reached the point where the real danger is to people who are really unwell in other ways. It’s also a great opportunity to launch the new album which was actually recorded back in June 2019. A lot of people didn’t put out new music during the pandemic because there was no touring and of course there’s no money to be made in streaming.
Red, White and American Blues features a full band on most of the songs.
It’s a different kind of record from what I would normally do. I mean you can still find the acoustic songs in there and I had some nervousness about making it but it turned out well and the band didn’t overwhelm the songs. It was originally going to be acoustic but when I started recording with Brian (Brinkerhoff) we came up with a vinyl release, The Right Reverend Crow Sings New American Folk and Blues, which was acoustic. This one is more electric or “electricious,” as I wouldn’t call it a completely electric album.
I saw a collection of short videos on YouTube where you play the songs from the album on acoustic guitar and talk about them and I recall that you said that Mossberg Blues was the closest you get to one of your favourite albums, Let It Bleed.
That’s maybe an exaggeration. I did those videos on the back of having Covid but I mean I’m not going to get the sound The Stones’ had. This is my record, I’m not trying to recreate Let It Bleed. It’s just the approach, it was pretty down and dirty and all of the songs here are first or second takes, I don’t think we got around to doing a third take on any of them. And some of it was just the instrumentation. You know, when someone else produces your record you have to hope that they hear the spaces the same way as you do and luckily Bryan and Frank (Swart) did.
I was very impressed by your co – singers, Parry Griffin, Regina McCrary and Aubrie Sellers who add so much to several of the songs.
I feel very fortunate to have them on the record, it was Brian who had the contacts. I really didn’t expect to have someone like Regina McCrary sing on one of my records but as I say in that video you mentioned, she adds a kind of Harlem theatre like feel to Mossberg Blues while she’s fantastic on Retread Cadillac.
You had an acoustic version of Retread Cadillac on the Reverend Crow album and here you really amp it up.
Everybody loves that song. I’m very conscious that I don’t want to mimic black blues music. I don’t want anyone to hear me and think, “He’s trying to sound like he’s black.” I think it’s clearly me, it’s my voice, but I’ve spent years playing like that, a drop thumb on a baritone guitar so it’s got a nice deep thump to it. It’s about Lightnin’ of course and there’s one line in the song, about Dowling St and when I sing it, it sounds like Downing St, so the blues fanatics will come after me for making a mistake. However, we left it in because part of the charm of those old blues records is that they left shit in, mistakes and all. I saw him in his last years and by then he was cultivating the legend because he was making a lot of money being Lightnin’ Hopkins, playing the character. I’ve no idea what he was like at home but for a 15 year old, to see him on stage was just huge. You could say that the song sort of sums up my entire development as a musician through the use of Lightnin’s legend.
American Blues pays tribute to Gil Scott Heron.
There was a period of my life when I listened to him. I grew up in a culture, which was a mixed medium of poets and their intersection with jazz. I’ve never been a jazz player because I’m not very good at it and I wouldn’t want to be a mediocre jazz musician because that’s maybe the worst thing you can foist on the world. A mediocre blues musician might be alright for a while, but a mediocre jazz musician, well, that’s just wrong. So, it’s taken me years and years to get comfortable with doing an overtly political and almost spoken word song like American Blues. It doesn’t sound anything like Gill Scott Heron but if you know about him then you can see the connection.
Mark Kemp writes in the liner notes, “Red White And American Blues is not a protest album, although it has protest songs, It’s not a Black Lives Matter album, but in these songs, Black lives matter. It’s an American album. It’s a set of songs about a broken country and its broken people.”
I’ve always been a political writer. Just in the subject matter. But then there’s marketing of protest music and then there’s protest music. Leadbelly wasn’t marketed as a protest singer until long after he’d written his songs. My songs don’t have the symbols of protest music. If you listen to the lyrics you’ll find some humour in there if you’re looking for it. American Gun for example, it’s not quite what you might think it is about so you have to listen carefully to the whole song. I think that if the record is marketed as a protest album it does it some disservice to it but there’s no question that it’s political. I left out Trump’s name on purpose because he colours the scene so much. Dave Chappelle (Americana comedian) said that the problem with Trump is that he’s scary as hell and as funny as hell, and that scared him. I mean even people who hate Trump can’t help but laugh when he says some of the stupid shit he says. So, I didn’t want his name in there because it would take up too much space and I mean, he’s not the only one. There’s Viktor Orborn, Bolsonaro and that crazy guy in Belarus who’s willing to hijack a plane to kidnap a journalist. There’s plenty of people who fit into that slot so I didn’t want it to have any specificity to one guy if that makes sense.
But America has made a lot of mistakes. The problem with any country that offers a great deal of hope, but which requires you to be subsumed into it, is that it also offers the possibility of a great deal of oppression. When 9/11 happened, and the album’s being released in the United States on the 20th anniversary, the reaction in America wasn’t, “What is our role in the world?” Well, maybe it was for a few forward thinking people, but for most, it was. “Well tomorrow these guys are going to drive a truck full of gasoline and blow it up in my back yard.” There was no realistic reason to expect that but the guys who know how to pull the levers and make money pressed that on to the American people. So our reaction was aggressive, it cost millions of people their lives all across the globe and it ruined thousands of American military people’s lives. Not just those who were killed or injured, but everyone who was sent over there, it affected them and their families. I mean, I’m going to take some punches to the face if this gets noticed out there because I’ll be seen as unpatriotic, antifascist, and supporting groups that want to see America change. But America has to change, if we don’t, then at some point we’ll just go full circle back to the way we formed the country which was on the backs of native American and black people.
The album’s subtitle alludes to Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel about a demagogue who is elected to the White House.
That was actually Frank’s idea. We were sitting around talking about a title and I just said we should call it Red White and American Blues. Now, I think there have been plenty of songs or albums called that. If you look hard enough you can find a guy who is as far to the right as I am to the left who has an album with the same name. So Frank said, we should just call it, It Couldn’t Happen Here and so we just joined the two titles together. The thing is, it could always happen here, or anywhere. Part of my family comes from Ukrainian Jewish stock and if anyone knows anything about it couldn’t happen here it’s us. I’m only one generation away from the immigrant and like most people with a Jewish background I’m very aware of what can go wrong.
A Lucky Man seems to be the most personal song on the album and it’s dedicated to your late father, the poet Marvin Bell, whom you call the original Dead Man.
My father wrote a series of poems that eventually morphed into a collection called Incarnate: The Collected Dead Man Poems. It is really something to read, it was his crowning achievement. He used the character of the Dead Man as the speaker or the subject. He was like a representation of something, a voice like you might have in the Tibetan Book of the dead. Obviously, I knew the whole series of books and I guess some of it rubbed off on me. I had characters in my songs like Ghost or Crow that work in the way of the Dead Man. I don’t know if any of my music had any influence on my father’s concept of the Dead Man but I know that to some extent we became intertwined over the years. He and I were going to do a joint project. He was going to do 12 poems about jazz and I was going to do 12 songs about jazz but which weren’t jazz songs, a bit of a challenge. But it never really got started before he died last year. Anyway, when I was writing these songs I realised that I had borrowed some of the Dead Man’s persona so I thought I should acknowledge that.
Do you write any poetry?
I’m a dreadful poet, I really am and I know when not to do something. Having said that, I know that many songwriters say their words aren’t poems, but I’d argue that any lyric that isn’t poetic has failed.
Well, Nathan Bell has made it to the UK and he kicks off his UK tour tonight at the Glasgow Americana Festival. All tour dates are here
Woody Guthrie famously had a sticker on his guitar which stated, “This guitar kills fascists.” Of course, he never actually hit a Nazi over the head with the thing or garrotted one with an E-string but I guess we all know where he was coming from. Nathan Bell might have a baseball bat at home which he calls his Nazi thumper but again, it’s doubtful that he’ll crack anyone’s skull with it. However, he’s certainly in the same ball park as Woody when it comes to his songs.
Bell’s late blossoming as a songwriter and performer of note began with his “Family Man” trilogy which saw him singing about the hard pressed everyday folk of America. His empathy, observations and acute insight raised the bar for so-called “blue collar” folk music and he was an immediate hit in the UK when he started to perform over here back in 2017. This coincided with the election of a tangerine toned oaf to the high office of President of The United States, a travesty which outraged Bell and which led to his spectacular album, Love > Fear (48 hours in Traitorland). This was the tip of an iceberg of populism which saw several countries around the world elect (or being duped into consolidating) demagogues into office. The warning signs were apparent and the subtitle of Bell’s latest album makes it clear that, despite the demise of Trump, we’re still in a dangerous place.
It Can’t Happen Here is a 1935 novel by the Nobel prize winning American author, Sinclair Lewis. It describes the election of a popular demagogue to the White House who soon begins to institute fascist laws (strangely enough it started to sell again in early 2017). Bell changes Can’t to Couldn’t, indicating that it’s too early to say that this will never happen. The album title is a warning shot, a reminder that all need to be vigilant although the disc itself is a more rounded affair, much more nuanced than had it consisted of “finger pointing songs.” There’s a great deal of anger enveloped within its grooves but there’s also a great deal of love and respect.
The majority of Bell’s albums have been acoustic affairs so it’s a bit of a jolt to hear the Pete Townshend like guitar crashing in at the beginning of Angola Prison. It’s the muscle of the piece, jolted by the sinewy and melodic acoustic guitar which underpins the song as Bell tears into the cruel punishments meted out to mainly black prisoners in this infamous jail. It’s a powerful opener and Bell opts for full band workouts on several other songs such as on the slippery bar room blues of Wrong Man For The Job (“If I was the President I’d start another war. Wouldn’t care who we were fighting or what we’re fighting for. I’d take all your money and slip out the back door…”) and the Stones’ like back alley scrabbling which is Mossberg Blues. Meanwhile, Running On The Razor, a song Bell wrote in response to a documentary on a Southern family which he describes as poverty porn, is a deliciously dark slice of voodoo blues which has Aubrey Sellers adding her soulful voice to Bell’s gruff delivery. It’s quite magnificent but it’s not going to played on the radio anytime soon so you’ll need to buy this motherf***er in order to hear it.
There’s an electrifying electric version of Retread Cadillac, a song about Lightnin’ Hopkins which first appeared on Bell’s 2019 release The Right Reverend Crow Sings New American Folk And Blues. Here, it’s Regina McCrary who generates the power as she sashays, moans and testifies, transforming the song. It’s McCrary again who adds the vocal oomph to Mossberg Blues and clearly Bell is having a ball with these stellar vocal sparring partners as he also has Patty Griffin sing on three of the songs here. These are more reflective, and in two cases, more personal songs, allowing Griffin to entwine her voice with Bell’s in the grand manner of Parsons and Harris. American Gun is contemplative as Bell simplifies America’s approach to the world which weirdly enough boils down to Mao’s infamous dictum that “all political power comes from a barrel of a gun.”A Lucky Man finds Bell writing about his travels overseas and reflecting on his mortality, with the song dedicated to his late father while To Each Of Us is an achingly beautiful love song.
There are many facets to this fascinating album which was recorded in 2019 but held over due to the pandemic. Some of the songs foreshadow, not the pandemic, but the political mess we remain in with Bell calling out those who pull the levers, not to benefit others but themselves. He can pull at your heartstrings but he can also raise your pulse as he rails against injustice. Maybe this album can kill fascists.
Far from being locked down, Charley Crockett seems to have been incredibly busy over the past year. August 2020 saw the release of his excellent album, Welcome To Hard Times and then his tribute to the late James Hand came out earlier this year. On a roll then and here comes Music City USA, a glorious collection of songs on which Crockett roots around country, soul and rockabilly with some abandon, ably supported by his band The Blue Drifters. One might assume that the title alludes to Nashville but Crockett roams further afield allowing that many cities in the states have their own claim to music fame, although it’s fair to say that he is rooted in the south and south west on what he calls his “gulf and western” album.
Compared to Welcome To Hard Times there’s more variety on show here and while many of the subjects remain the same, Crockett seems to have a more personal investment in several of them. Songs of outsiders hoping to be discovered relate to his busking years and, on a wider canvas, he takes aim at the dismal situation we all find ourselves in these days. Despite the sometimes grim topics the songs are all gussied up and presented quite wonderfully. The ghosts of Hank Williams, Buck Owens, George Jones and even Doug Sahm and Solomon Burke may haunt the record, but it’s vibrant and colourful, as is the excellent artwork on the cover which is quite evocative in its Kodachrome intensity and retro design.
Honest Fight opens the album in a charming and disarming way as Crockett adopts an everyman pose, toiling to get by and standing up for himself. It’s similar in style to many of the songs on Welcome To Hard Times with its straightforward country feel and several songs such as The World Just Broke My Heart, Are We Lonesome Yet, Smoky and Just So You Know follow suit. Crockett knows his stuff and he ranges across a variety of so-called country genres. There’s a Bakersfield touch to Lies And Regret while Buck Owens comes to mind on the title song and there’s surely more than a hint of George Jones in the apologetic Hanger On while Round The World is a helter skelter banjo driven ride. The title song, a wonderfully upbeat countrypolitan number, finds Crockett slyly railing against the corporate side of Nashville. These are all original songs couched perfectly in their various idioms but he also delivers two covers which drive home his knowledge of and love for these classic songs. Muddy Water is a delightful outlaw song, originally recorded by Stonewall Jackson and given here a Cash like delivery. Skip A Rope however is a horse of a different colour. A mid 60s song by Henson Cargill, it’s in a similar category to Porter Wagoner’s Rubber Room, that is to say it is quite unbalanced and ripe for revival as the deceptively jolly playing belies the description of a dysfunctional family who bring up a racist kid.
While Crockett rides imperiously across these varied country genres, he also swoops into the melting pot of his gulf and western musical gumbo. He fronts a horn section on the pleading I Need Your Love and totally nails the sound one associates with Muscle Shoals, a feat he repeats on I Won’t Cry which could have come from the pen of Dan Penn or Spooner Oldham. Acknowledging that blend of blues, soul and country which flourished in the late 60s, he then delivers the wonderful This Foolish Game which should delight any fans of James Carr. However, the highpoint of the album is when Crockett swivels back to dark country sounds on the gutbucket country thump of 518, a song that sounds like Hank Williams backed by The Bad Seeds. Quite exquisite. All in all Crockett gets you to thinking that Music City USA is not so much a place, more a state of mind.
Ms. Ungerleider will be better known to most readers as Oh Susannah whose debut album Jonestown has long been well respected. Her name change is in part due to her increasing awareness of the racist and “minstrelsy” associations of the original Stephen Foster song which she had adopted for her stage name. She goes on to say this also represents a personal decision allowing her to feel more comfortable as herself rather than hiding behind the moniker. The proud, almost defiant title of this album certainly does seem like a relaunch of sorts but nestled within the album cover is a sweet selection of songs which display that Ungerleider certainly continues to be an excellent song writer and performer, fragile while, at times, quite powerful.
The album is perfectly produced by Jim Bryson who allows Ungerleider’s voice and the muted, mainly acoustic, trappings of the songs plenty of room to breathe. It’s dreamlike at times although on occasion these dream can be unsettling. Two songs, Baby Blues and Disappear, inhabit the mind of a child who is witness to disturbing scenes but they are counter balanced by a pair of delightful love songs to her own child on Summerbaby (which relates the kid’s premature birth) and Hearts. Alongside these there is a song co written with bass player Bazil Donovan about his own daughter which is the poppiest number here.
The album opens with Mount Royal, a wistful account of youthful hopes and aspirations set in Montreal as the protagonist aims to shoot for the moon and the stars but is gradually disillusioned. It’s a wonderfully descriptive song composed of little vignettes while the arrangement is superb as a gentle backing of whispered keyboards gradually emerges before a final flourish. Pumpkins finds Ungerleider recalling the sweet but icy tones of Grace Slick on an autumnal song which gently glows as it shuffles along with tender accompaniment. The disillusion alluded to in the opening song is evident in the rueful North Star Sneakers where teenage rebellion has been tamed by marriage and children although the memories remain vivid. The album closes with a song which also alludes to earlier offerings. Ships seems to find Ungerleider seeking to help a survivor as she asks “what did you see when you were young what made you hide your face and bite your tongue,” offering to break into their “box”, not to “steal but to reveal, to dress wounds and heal.”
Well, here it was, our first live gig since March of 2020. Trepidatious yet somewhat excited, our loins were girded. Double vaxxed and with a negative test result safely nestled on the smartphone, a short bus trip (another first!) allowed us to check in to Glasgow’s Glad Cafe (via an app) and, suitably masked, head to the bar. What a palaver. However, if that’s what it takes to keep us safe then so be it. At least there would be someone on a stage, with a guitar, and singing. And so it was.
This was only the second show put on by the Glad Cafe and only the fourth promoted by Glasgow’s Fallen Angels Clubsince restrictions were loosened, so everyone’s kind of dipping their toes in the water right now. Never mind that a few miles down the road, several thousand folk were tripping at TRNSMT, they’re young and invincible (hopefully). In the confines of The Glad Cafe, those of us less invincible were well looked after with mask rules gently applied (I went to the bar at one point for a quick look at the tap beers on offer and was rebuked by the barmaid as this five second reconnaissance mission was unmasked). The long and short of it is that this was a most enjoyable night, the music grand, the audience mindful (and for most of them this was also their first outing) and the venue quite brilliant.
If anyone was still feeling anxious they would surely have been calmed by the soothing sounds delivered by the opening act, Our Man In The Field. Their debut album, The Company Of Strangers was an engaging collection of country rock flavoured songs which packed quite an emotional heft while gliding smoothly into the ether. It’s a slimmed down duo who are accompanying the headliner, Jerry Joseph, on this tour but Alex Ellis, frontman, vocalist and writer, and Henry Senior, on Dobro and pedal steel are more than capable of transporting those songs into a live setting. Ellis’s voice is mellifluous and Senior’s contributions are, at times, quite removed from simply adding pedal steel licks or Dobro slides to the show. On many of the songs Senior was using his instruments to provide ambient shimmering sounds, a glowing bedrock for Ellis’ fine songs.
Setting the scene for the night, Ellis explained the genesis of several of his songs. Easy Going Smile, for example, is his riposte to John Denver’s Leaving On A Jet Plane, a bittersweet favourite song of his mother. Renditions of this along with Thin (I Used To Be Bullet Proof), Don’t Speak and It Was Ever So reminded one of how good the album is and were gamely reproduced by the duo. Held hostage by that pesky pandemic, Ellis has a slew of new songs and plans to record them soon and we were treated to a few tonight. Go Easy was dedicated to London’s Betsy Trotwood venue while The Road was an intricate exploration of foibles. Come Back To Me was described as a “lockdown” song written when Ellis had to decide whether to hide out or help when the curtains closed on all of us. The new songs bode well for the next album.
Jerry Joseph’sThe Beautiful Madness was one of our favourite albums of 2020. It opened a door into the quite incredible world which Joseph inhabits, with a slew of albums behind him alongside a globe spanning crusade to reach out to war torn refugees, to spread music and hope amongst them. Having The Drive By Truckers as your backing band and Patterson Hood in the producer’s seat does help lift one’s career and Joseph is the first to admit this. He’s toured here before but never got the attention now being lavished on him.
That attention is well deserved. He’s flying solo on this tour (apparently Henry Senior has joined him on a couple of songs on the tour but not tonight) and he’s quite a revelation. From the off he’s brimful of energy, a coiled spring primed to unleash, a force of nature as several others have noted. He’s raw and unadulterated, his guitar is thrashed by the second song as a string snaps as if insulted or scared by his presence. The sense that Joseph is kind of like an amalgam of Joseph Conrad and Warren Zevon with a shitload of Sam Peckinpah images in their baggage was immediately summoned as he opened with War At The End Of The World, a song inspired by a Mario Vargas Llosa novel. It’s a powerful song, screaming with vivid images and it sets the scene for much of what was to follow.
It was an exhilarating ride as Joseph sang songs inspired by treks into some of the world’s most dangerous locations. The killing fields of Mexico’s cartels and the war wracked bone towers of Iraq featured as the songs piled on, with Joseph’s introductions at times quite chilling although leavened with a fantastic course humour. Much of the album featured with Days Of Heaven quite anthemic in a Springsteen sort of way, and San Acacia a riveting commentary on the murderous border towns in Mexico. (I’m In Love With) Hyrum Black – described as a sort of Mormon cowboy outlaw song- came across as light relief in comparison. A couple of older songs rang out. Ten Killer Fairies, a song written in the knowledge that Joseph’s addictions meant his coins were going towards someone in a cartel who was saving up for his next yacht rang clear as a bell with a Dylan like honesty. And then there was Wisconsin Death Trip, a glorious song and delivered perfectly to a somewhat gob smacked audience as Joseph totally commanded all attention. Quite brilliant and a perfect reintroduction to the magic of live music.
We’re a bit confused by this album. Not the music, that’s quite swell, but the release date. There are mentions of this disc going back a year to September 2000 but it arrived in our mailbox a short while ago with a press release proclaiming a release date of September 2021. It seems that initially this was an independent release but it has now been picked up by a label. This is really just a roundabout way of saying that we haven’t sat on Mr. Morris for a year, no sir, we’re bang up to date.
Anyhow, RB Morris has a fair amount of well-known fans willing to proclaim his genius and while this often isn’t any guarantee of excellence, on this occasion, they are right. He comes from that dusty troupe of well-travelled songwriters who can tell a tale and evoke vibrant images and scenarios through their words and music. Butch Hancock and Guy Clark come to mind almost immediately and there’s also a fair whiff of Roger Miller’s loose-limbed narratives. Morris says this is his “dustbowl album” but he’s not trying to emulate Woody Guthrie, rather, he’s reciting a set of songs inspired by his “early road trips out west.” He has surrounded himself with a top class band who are able to match their playing with the various environs visited. There’s the menacing highway blues of Montana Moon – a song which rivals Dave Alvin, the sly and somewhat louche fatback guitar fuelled Me And My Wife Ruth and the Dylan meets Cash mash up of That’s Just The Way I Do.
Morris truly inhabits the songs also. He sounds quite insouciant on the bouncy brilliance of Six Black Horses And A 72 Oz. Steak, a road song about a 1000-mile trip which tips into odd dreams about Audie Murphy alongside other weird encounters. The Zen like Missouri River Hat Blowing Incident (a contender for song title of the year) finds Morris chasing the titular hat and realising his travels have truly started. There’s a sense of wonder also and it’s highlighted by the spare ambient and cosmic country sounds conjured by the band at times. The title song glistens with atmospheric pedal steel and there are several instrumental interludes which serve to thread the various narratives together. Overall, the songs and preludes knit together perfectly, the album can be listened to as a travelogue with the songs acting as the stops and encounters on the way, and Morris proves that he is indeed quite an excellent writer and performer. Well recommended if you missed it last year.
All good things must come to an end and so it happens that Ghosts is the final piece to be slotted into Dean Owens’ Desert Trilogy slipcase. A quick recap. Having recorded an album, Sinner’s Shrine, with Calexico in Tucson, Owens’ plans for its release were scuppered by Covid. Undeterred, the Edinburgh based artist used his lockdown time to record another bunch of songs with various members of Calexico and other Tucson luminaries and he’s been releasing them via this highly desirable collection.
All the EPs have a song from the album but Owens was keen not to short-change his fans so, overall, they contain eight new songs, all cut from the same cloth which inspired the original recordings, Owens’ love of the American Southwest. So far there has been critical acclaim for this new direction and Ghosts is certain to bask in similar glory.
As with the other EPs, it’s a song from Sinner’s Shrine, which leads off. The Hopeless Ghosts is very much in the vein of Calexico’s hot, dusty and claustrophobic desert shuffles. John Convertino’s drumming is instantly recognisable as is Jacob Valenzuela’s soaring trumpet and Paul Niehaus weighs in with his swooning pedal steel. As Calexico do much of the time, Owens achieves a cinematic effect here with visions of movies by Leone and Peckinpah summoned by the music and the words – there’s drama by the dirtload. It’s haunting (as most songs with Ghosts in the title should be), as Owens comes across like some high plains drifter, condemned to forever travel. In a nice touch, Owens explains that the idea of hopeless ghosts comes from a Townes van Zandt description of his songs. Anyhow, the song is a towering achievement which is lifted further aloft when Grant-Lee Phillips joins Owens on harmony vocals, especially when the pair vocally pirouette towards the end of the song.
Mother Road is much more restrained as Owens delivers a wearied narrative, inspired by a 93 year old barber who had a shop on Route 66, a road now seldom travelled once the Interstate opened. It’s a sepia stained portrait of past times, replete with lonesome pedal steel and mournful trumpet and it’s a fine example of how Owens can transport his evocative portraits of his home town to a foreign land. Even When I’m Gone finds Owens on his own on a song which was recorded in Tucson but which was inspired by walks with his dog in the woods near Edinburgh. Again, there’s a sense of desolation here although it’s tempered by the thought that once we pass, life will go on. The EP ends with a murder ballad which Owens says he had written for Johnny Cash but, with the man in black gone, he has to sing himself. Owens recorded his basic track in Scotland with Kevin McGuire on double bass before Convertino, Martin Wenk, Tom Hagerman and Naim Amor sent in their contributions from various locations. Fittingly, as the last song on this trilogy, it’s called The End and, yes, one can imagine Cash singing it on one of his latter albums. Like some Dostoevskian anti-hero on the eve of his execution, Owens reflects and ruminates on a life of crime as a baleful trumpet and tasteful shards of guitar lead him towards the gallows. It’s a very impressive song.
So, trilogy wrapped up, all we can do is wait for Sinner’s Shrine. The main course after these wonderful appetizers.
Having abandoned Muscle Shoals for New York on her last album, Born On The Ground – released on the eve of the pandemic – Emily Duff really didn’t have much choice regarding the recording location of her latest album, Razor Blade Smile. In fact, the album was birthed in her cramped Greenwich Village tenement (shared with husband, teenage kids, a dog and a few dozen guitars!) as Duff took time out on the fire escape and wrote these songs.
As has often been the case recently, Duff’s fire escape songs found their way into the studio once Covid restrictions relaxed as she and producer Eric “Roscoe” Ambel recorded her acoustic versions. The basic tracks laid down, Ambel then assembled a band and grafted them onto Duff’s originals with nary a join to be seen or heard. The result is a kickass set of songs with a New York attitude which at times has a Patti Smith toughness along with nods to alt country and some of that southern grit displayed on her earlier albums.
It’s the south which is summoned first of all as the gutsy finger picked guitar intro to Go Fast Don’t Die is rapidly joined by a kaleidoscopic Band -like country funk while Duff comes across like a foul mouthed Bobbie Gentry. It’s only two minutes long but it packs a powerful punch. Next up is the more conventional and fleet footed Gimme Back My Love which reminds this writer of Bruce Springsteen, but then the album gets down and dirty on the slow groove of Done And Done with Ambel’s guitars rumbling and growling alongside Charlie Giordano’s swelling keyboards. Duff’s in her element here, her strong voice weighted with portent like an iron fist in a velvet glove and she revisits this on the melodramatic Don’t Hang The Moon which dives deep into a witchy woman vision of dark country rock music. The title song is a scuzzy slice of punk rock and Another Goodbye recalls the high priestess of punk, Patti Smith. Duff here sounds more guarded and, indeed, paranoid, as the band slide between punk reggae and New York organ grooves.
Sidling closer to country towards the end of the disc, we find Giordano abandoning his keyboards for accordion on Feelin’ Alright which is given a fine country lope while Nicotine & Waiting is quite tremendous. It’s a tear stained slow country waltz with weeping pedal steel and accordion, burnished by Ambel’s guitar glimmerings. Duff here shows why some folk compare her to the like of Lucinda Williams.
Yes, that Brinsley Schwarz whose name launched a thousand pub rock bands (and almost sank them when his eponymous group had a disastrous U.S. launch). The band Brinsley Schwarz included, alongside our subject here, the fabulous Nick Lowe, and they somehow survived their inglorious start to become a well-loved band on the nascent pub rock circuit. As punk rock began to invade their space, Lowe and Schwarz were canny enough to catch a ride on this new wave, Lowe producing The Damned while Schwarz went on to become Graham Parker’s wing man.
Tangled is Schwarz’s second solo album (following 2016’s Unexpected) and, as befits a musician of his vintage, there’s a sense of elegy in several of the songs. Crazy World is a fine example as Schwarz’s tender voice sings over graceful piano and mournful strings as he tries to reach out and to make some sense of recent events. Stranded is in a similar fashion although it’s a more personal song and it is given an excellent band build up climaxing with Schwarz playing an elegant and moving guitar solo. He takes Your Breath Away follows suit with more sublime fatback guitar thrills and, in addition, Schwarz throws in an excellent reading of Graham Parker’s Love Gets You Twisted.
There’s an echo of the Brinsley band’s country influences on the laid-back confluences of You Drive Me To Drink while Game On is a jangled jaunt which, once again, recalls those early efforts of UK bands to approximate the sunny sounds beaming in from California although Schwarz here delivers it with a finely balanced sense of resignation. Storm In The Hills, a grand retro rocker with groovy barrelhouse piano and tasty guitar licks, finds Schwarz once again getting tangled up in the modern world, and the environment is the subject of his slightly Tex-Mex influenced You Can’t Take It Back. Schwarz ends the album on an optimistic bent with the sunny side up thoughts of All Day which starts with just him and what sounds like a ukulele, before the band kicks in for a fine, pub rock like coda.
Tangled is an album which contains the benefits of a life well lived and the sage reflections gathered therein. It’s much like a well-loved old friend inviting you in for a warm and cosy evening full of top entertainment.