Long a mainstay of the London pub gigging scene Simon Stanley Ward released a fine debut album a few years back but since then he’s developed a career as a stand up comedian so it was with some trepidation that we bunged this on the player. The first song, Jurassic Park, is about, well, you guessed it, the movie Jurassic Park. Over a pumped up new wave backdrop Ward sings about how he wished he was Jeff Goldblum in the said movie. It ‘s the type of song a band like The Vapours could have slain Top Of The Pops with back in the eighties which is fine but it doesn’t bode well for the remainder of the album.
Thank heavens then that the remainder of the songs are built on stronger foundations although there’s little of the Alt Country feel of Ward’s debut. They are light hearted in the lyrical sense as he sings about Beluga whales and the import of water and stylistically they wander from fifties rock to grungy Spanish Stroll like riffs with only one song venturing into country territory. It helps immensely that Ward has assembled an ace band composed of some familiar names including Paul Lush (who also produced), Henry Senior, Tom Collinson, Geoff Easeman and Neil Marsh – have a look through your collection and you’ll find those names in there.
The ramshackle honky tonk, I Heard It All, on the perils of voicemail and ensuing paranoia, recalls some of the work of Phil Lee and it’s our favourite number here purely because it reminds us of the first album. However, the next song, Wow, is an absolute cracker as it zooms off like a Thin Lizzy and Hawkwind merger. Here Ward recounts a true event when an astronomer working on the SETI project believed he had received an alien message (look it up). The band zoom into outer space as Lush lets rip with some stratospheric guitar solos before it all boils down with some interstellar warbles. Grand stuff. Beluga Whale is more restrained, the band laying down a fine beat as Ward imagines himself one of these clown like leviathans while laying down a nice plea regarding the fate of these beasts. Meanwhile Water (You’ve Got To Have It) comes across as an environmental lecture being delivered by a somewhat dishevelled Bob Dylan (with his heart in the Highlands) as Ward does his best impression while the band wheeze and heave mightily with some excellent accordion from Gill Frost.
Settling into the album there’s the sublime Mexican tinged Goodbye, the glowering funk of Set In Stone and the sunny delight of A Friend (Who Isn’t Me) with pedal steel and chunky twang guitar giving it a fine swagger. All fine songs and quite smart lyrically but we’ll reserve the last words for the closing Wine. It returns to a new wave type of style but here it’s more Joe Jackson than The Vapours as Ward meditates on the results of spilling his last glass of Rioja into his bath as he soaks. Again, the band are a salve as they revolve around Ward’s words with a great degree of empathy. If Elvis Costello is looking for a new backing band he should start here.
Overall Songs From Various Places is an odd album but there’s no doubting the craft that’s gone into the making of it. After listening to it over the past few days we’d actually love to see Ward do a 1980’s TOTP video for the opening song, skinny ties and all and he could maybe persuade Jeff Goldblum to do a cameo.
Someone just knew that we here at Blabber’n’Smoke have a soft spot for music that is dry and dusty and reeks of gulches and sand storms. Sure enough, we’ve reviewed plenty of albums which can fit into that bill, ranging from the “erosion rock” of Giant Sand to the monumental shifting sandscapes of 3hattrio, and so when we were sent this superb slice of cinematic instrumentals, hewn from the mystical Joshua Tree National Park where the Rev. currently resides, it fit right in.
As the title indicates this is the third in a series of albums intended as (and in some cases used for) soundtracks with the tunes often inspired by long drives through inspiring landscapes. The Reverend, real name Lucio Menegon, is an intriguing character, according to Google, fitting into both avant-garde and Americana circles with perhaps the closest comparison being Marc Ribot. Whatever, this album is on a par with any soundtracks released by Ry Cooder with Menegon’s guitar slipping wonderfully from low-bellied twang, atmospheric slide and liquefied mercury runs. Behind his versatile guitar there’s an incredibly simpatico band laying down the bedrock with inventive percussion to the fore with the overall sound not dissimilar to that achieved by the Italian band Sacri Cuori or the fairly obscure UK band, A Small Good Thing.
Aside from the excellence of the playing it’s the atmosphere conjured up by the tunes which really makes an impact. From the start on No Destination we’re in desert territory with Menegon’s guitar rippling over fuzzy rhythm and battering drums, the Monument Valley tune here. Chaparral Kiss in contrast opens with a strummed acoustic guitar before a skewed mandolin is inserted over some tentative keyboards, the effect almost oriental. This effect is fully blown on the following Dream Of The Desperado, a lengthy meditation suffused with slide and pizzicato guitar over an insect buzz of percussion reminding the listener of that weird hybrid of Zen Buddhism and Westerns that was David Carradine in Kung Fu. Whether it’s intentional or not, the basic riff on Lost Alien Highway recalls the melody of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme while the sound effects on Funereal, a rainstorm pouring from the speakers, summons up visions of muddy farewells in fields of broken homemade crosses. But perhaps the best evocation here is in the fly blown and sun scorched Yuma Interlude where the guitar is almost tearful. Listen to this and surely your head will be infused with images from movies going back to High Noon through Morricone up to Tarantino. It’s quite spine chilling.
Fred Neil is probably most familiar as the writer of Everybody’s Talkin’, the song from Midnight Cowboy which was a smash hit for Harry Nilsson. Some folk might recall other songs from his heyday as perhaps the premier singer/songwriter of Greenwich village in the wake of Dylan while some might know that Neil just about retired from music in the seventies to spend his time on dolphin conservation in Florida, playing live occasionally in Coconut Grove. Neil died in 2001 but his reputation grows and this tribute album, featuring many who knew him, is a fine salute to the man.
The album was initially conceived by Jim Wurster who first saw Neil playing in Coconut Grove with Eric Anderson and Rick Danko and was smitten by Neil’s songs and presence. He’s gathered a fine assembly of artists from Florida and also managed to get the likes of Rodney Crowell, Eric Anderson, John Sebastian and Arlan Feiles to pitch in and the result is a finely varied collection of Neil songs, all worth hearing and hopefully an invite to listen to the man himself.
The artists delve into all the corners of Neil’s music. Blues on Crowell’s sly delivery of Candyman, the hard stomping Everything Happens from Diane Ward and Jack Shawde and the stripped back acoustic ramble of Vince Martin’s Handful Of Gimme. There’s the Village folk troubadour on Valerie C Firecracker’s excellent rendition of Bleeker & MacDougal and Bobby Ingram gives us a grand rendition of A Little Bit Of Rain while Arlan Feiles’ Be-De-Da shares an umbilical connection with Neil’s original giving one a true intimation of Neil’s delivery. Charlie Pickett rocks out on The Other Side Of This Life recalling the Jefferson Airplane version and Neil’s influence on Tim Buckley is plain to hear on I’ve Got A Secret, performed here by The 18 Wheelers.
Keith Sykes gets the flagship title song and he goes more for the Nilsson version and very nice it is too. Meanwhile, Neil’s other major song, Dolphins, is offered two slots opening and closing the disc. The first is from Eric Anderson (with John Sebastian on guitars and harmonica) and it’s a suitably respectful performance imbued with a sixties sounding delivery while Anderson’s baritone voice recalls that of Neil’s. The closing version, from Matthew Sabatella and Diane Ward, sounds more contemporary, the pair swapping verses and harmonising as the band come across somewhat like Mazzy Star.
As tribute albums go this is a fine affair which gives you a whiff of the main man’s work. On a nice note, net proceeds from sales are going to Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project, a project founded back in 1970 by O’Barry, Stephen Stills and Fred Neil. On a more intriguing note, Neil first befriended O’Barry when the latter was a trainer for the dolphins used in the television show Flipper. It’s weird to think that a show we watched as kids might have led to a song as awesome as Dolphins but then it’s a funny old world.
No Depression have a fine article about the album you can read here.
After the introspective ruminations of Lovers And Leavers, his 2016 album, Hayes Carll seems to have recovered his sometimes impish sense of mischief for his latest album, What It Is. Lovers And Leavers was of course a “break up” album and they’re not generally noted for being upbeat but here Carll is certainly on a bounce with several of the songs good old-fashioned Texan red dirt rockers while the quieter numbers are a fine indication of where his head is at right now. Co-producer (and fiancé) Allison Moorer has certainly settled his heart but he’s not so settled when it comes to the likes of racism and the fate of veterans, both the subject of songs here.
He opens with the nonchalant humour of None’ya, a sly nod to his current relationship which uses his Texas drawl to great effect before banging into the rambunctious rocker Times Like These which takes an oblique swipe at the White House as Carll delivers his own state of the nation address. There’s some more rock on the squirreling bar room blues of Beautiful Thing while If I May Be So Bold clatters along like a cross between Steve Earle and Johnny Cash. American Dream meanwhile finds Carll and his top class bunch of Nashville pickers on top form as they funnel some bluegrass licks into a jaunty rocker.
Jesus & Elvis is probably known to most folk who will buy this album as Carll has been playing it live for several years while it was recorded some time back by Kenny Chesney. It’s been worth waiting for Carll’s version as the songs takes on an almost classic status up there with some of John Prine’s work. Fragile Men also tackles a weighty subject, influenced as it is by events in Charlottesville but its somewhat portentous arrangement dims it in relationship to the songs surrounding it. However the quirky Wild Pointy Finger makes up for this as Carll sidles up to the mic over some inventive percussion and slinky finger picking on a song which seems to be pointing the finger at the eruption of ill advised and plain wrong social media commentary.
Throw in songs such as Things You Don’t Wanna Know, a fine southern soul influenced number and I Will Stay, an excellent love ballad and What It Is is on a par with the best of Carll’s albums. It would be unfair to say it’s a return to form after Lovers & Leavers as that was an exceptional album but it’s certainly a return to the Hayes Carll many people expect.
Hayes Carll is touring the UK in May including a Glasgow show. All dates here.
The story of The Delines (so far) could almost be the plot line of one of their songs. A band gets together, records an album of slow burning hangdog songs and then, just as they’re about to record a second, the singer is terribly injured when struck by a car. End of story? Except that the story doesn’t end there. Singer Amy Boone received severe injuries in the incident and is still recovering her full mobility but, three years on, she has recovered enough to record with and tour with the band who have just ended a triumphant UK tour.
The Delines are, of course, a vehicle (sorry for that but there’s no other word really) for Willy Vlautin’s songs, replacing the much lamented Richmond Fontaine. Boone had come on board the Fontaine’s to sing her sister’s parts from their album The High Country on tour and her voice got Vlautin to thinking that she could be an excellent conduit for some songs he felt he couldn’t really carry off. It’s a thought that is now fully fledged as The Imperial is as grand a listen as one could hope for with Boone’s magnificent voice breathing life into Vlautin’s wounded souls.
Vlautin has often gravitated to the faded grandeur of motel life and The Imperial can be considered a successor to The Fitzgerald, both run down establishments where life is somewhat murky and on the edge. Whereas Richmond Fontaine’s tales were dry and dusty, the stories here are delivered in a lush style which recalls both Memphis blue eyed soul and Kurt Wagner’s languorous outings. It’s an album to be wallowed in, the songs washing over you, a torch lit procession of glossy keyboards, supple bass playing, tentative guitar licks, sweet pedal steel and warm horn arrangements. With Boone’s achingly evocative voice on top The Delines are just superb here.
And of course, there are the songs, or stories, all perfectly written miniatures capturing the lives of Vlautin’s characters. He also breathes life into them, describing sometimes mundane situations, sometimes more dire straits, life’s trials and tribulations, while offering them a degree of dignity even as their self respect or self esteem is zero. Listening to the album, you can almost believe that you know Charley or Eddie and Polly or Holly, the latter in particular the subject of a devastating portrait on Holly The Hustle which is a screenplay in itself. Two quotes from the songs might sum up the album as Boone almost whispers, “Cheer Up Charley” at the beginning, most of the subjects having little reason for cheer. And then the repeated refrain of, “The party never stops/So the pressure starts” in Eddie And Polly indicates that our heroes and heroines are doomed to repeat their mistakes, trapped in the world of The Imperial, a hotel where it does seem that you can never leave.
We’ve always been partial to Rob Heron & The Tea Pad Orchestra’s jived-up take on old timey music, a grand blend of western swing, country blues and ragtime. They’ve reminded us at times of Pokey LaFarge (with whom they have toured) and it has to be said they do put on a grand live show. On Soul Of My City they continue to evolve with some elements of rockabilly and early sixties beat pop creeping in, but at heart they are still supreme evangelists for pre sixties music albeit that Heron has at times allied this innocent sounding music with current commentary on state of our nation and his home town of Newcastle.
Such is the case here with the title song ramming in with a stirring martial beat before Heron and the band slouch into a louche late night vamp as he rails against the so called “gentrification” of a bohemian Newcastle quarter, an excuse really for a moneyed land grab. There’s more social commentary on the lighter Lonely Boy In The Dole Queue which finds Heron solo and yodelling away in his best Jimmie Rodgers style. Meanwhile the syncopated swing and twang of There’s A Hole (Where My Pocket Used To Be) is a grand nod to hard luck songs of the past with its excellent and flamboyant delivery similar to that of local neon lit sonic gangsters, The Strange Blue Dreams.
The band roam across various styles in a grand fashion. Life Is A Drag is a cross dressing song given a stirring western swing outing, Une Bouteille De Beaujolais has a not unexpected Gallic touch while Holy Moly (I’m In Love Again) comes across like as if Hank Williams was being accompanied by an extremely dexterous bunch of Acadian musicians. They do vamp wonderfully on Fool Talking Man and One Letter Away From Lonely is a total swoon of a bobbysoxer song. There’s a bit more muscle in the rockin’ rumble of Let’s Go Back In Time, a big boned salute to old time music as Heron lists his favourites while singing, “That 21st century music man, it’s so watered down.” Like A Cuckoo teeters dangerously close to his cut off point as the band give us a finely attuned horn fuelled bop which could have featured on the soundtrack of the original John Waters’ Hairspray. Signing off with what is probably the first postmodern take on old time music’s occasional interest in sex, stymied at the time by obscenity laws and therefore couched in various terms, there’s Double Meaning, Double Entendre. It’s cool, it’s funny, and best of all, it rocks.
Rob Heron & The Teapad Orchestra are touring the UK in February and March including shows in Glasgow and Edinburgh. All dates here.
History is much more interesting on record than in a dusty museum and it seems that recently there’s been a slew of discs which reach back into the past in order to enlighten and entertain us. It’s certainly the case with Riverland, this trio’s collection of songs inspired by Mississippi, the state and the river, described in the liner notes thus, “Mississippi is a broken place. It is America’s Eden, if instead of banishment, God chose to flood the garden and wipe flat every last splinter that Adam and Eve ever erected.” It’s certainly central to much of the history and culture of the States, a state of mind as much as a place of mud, floods and slavery, and Brace, Cooper and Jutz do the legends and stories justice on this fascinating listen.
Avoiding the temptation to delve into delta blues the trio deliver a handsome set which doesn’t avoid civil rights issues but gives space to poverty stricken folk who tried to live off the land and some of the artists who have defined some of the Mississippi spirit in book and in song. Acoustic for the most part with resonator guitar well to the fore, they sing of pre steamboat punt driven keelboats, the devastation wrought by floods and the aftermath of the civil war when Ulysses S Grant besieged Vicksburg, the town capitulating on the 4th July leading to them refusing to celebrate the national holiday thereafter. The disc is chockfull of information like this and a handsome booklet leads the listener through the stories behind the songs.
The album opens with River City, a melancholic diorama describing the trials and temptations of the bright lights. It’s next on to the quick step old timey King Of The Keel Boat Men and then the powerful drama of Win Along The River, the Grant song, delivered with weeping fiddle and aching mandolin. There’s not many upbeat songs here, Southern Mule jaunts along in a mild western swing style while Fort Defiance, a song sitting towards the end of the disc, is simply a description of the delights to be had boat watching at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers although even here there’s a tug of melancholia in the song. They celebrate a renowned civil rights activist and preacher, Rev. Will D. Campbell, on the banjo speckled Old Tom T And Brother Will which is about his friendship with Tom T Hall and Campbell comes alive on the most powerful song on the album, Mississippi Magic, which concerns the enrolment of James Meredith as the first black student at the University of Mississippi. Elsewhere the Nobel Laureate, William Faulkner is recalled in It Might Be Hollywood and there’s a grand nod to John Hartford (and Mark Twain) on the Hartford inspired To Be A Steamboat Man (Hartford himself qualified as a steamboat pilot). The album closes with an elegy of sorts on Mississippi, Rest My Soul, a song which finds a son of the soil clinging to his stained heritage despite an exodus to the cities by his peers. It ties the album up as, from the excitement at the beginning through the trials and eventual tired present day, this talented trio really do sum up this blighted land.