Martha Fields. Headed South

It’s been a while since we heard from Martha Fields, Texas Martha to her friends, a fine songwriter who, strangely enough, manages to conjure her Appalachian and southern soul influenced songs while ensconced in France where she is ably aided and abetted by her very own continental version of Emmylou’s Hot Band.

Headed South is the latest in a series of albums Fields has recorded in France which have no hint of their provenance, it’s as if she had transported Nashville to Bordeaux. Her band are well versed (actually, expert) in picking and swinging on all sorts of stringed instruments which would normally be found lying around on the Opry stage and, if you’ve had the opportunity to see them live, they do indeed, kick ass. Fields herself is a fiery performer and her gutsy qualities transfer well to disc as when she and the band rock into the rollicking honky tonk  come country swing of Laveda’s Lounge, the third song here and one which you could imagine Phil Alvin’s Blasters having a go at.

The album opens on a much mellower note with the sweeping title song which finds Fields once again examining her southern roots as the band lay down a soulful country glide. Next, there’s a deep dive into that southern territory as she heads for the swamplands on the spooky Let The Phoenix Rise. A later number, Hillbilly Babylon, is akin to her earlier songs regarding her family heritage such as Do As You are Told and is delivered with a tremendous sense of verve as it progresses from its mountain fiddle and martial drums opening to a limber guitar solo and a bustling country rock ending. Meanwhile, there’s a fine ribald edge to the sinewy In My Garden which recalls the late Dan Hicks with its gypsy fiddle and sinuous Dobro and slide guitars.

There’s a fine sense of light and shade to the album. Aside from Laveda’s Lounge, there’s the menacing strut of Death Rattle Of Love with its fiery guitars while High Shelf Mama is an old-fashioned blues boogie with Fields channelling the likes of Big Mama Thornton. Set against these is the yearning ballad Yellow Roses and the soul searching reminiscing of Souvenir, a tremendous song on which the band excel as organ and guitar gradually swell towards the end. Do More Right is a high flying string band skirl which finds Fields railing against our current overlords and there are more contemporary comments on the mannered side step into vaudeville which is Bad Boy.

There’s a wonderful surprise at the end of the album as Fields offers her version of J’entends Siffler Le Train, a hit by the sixties French pop star, Richard Anthony. He in turn, borrowed his version from the great American folk canon where the song is generally known as 100 Miles. Fields sings the song in French and English and she and the band lay it down in a manner not too dissimilar from that of the late Gene Clark. It’s a cool end to a great album.

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Jenny Don’t And The Spurs. Fire On The Ridge. Fluff and Gravy Records

OK, this album has been percolating in the inbox for several weeks having been released back in June, so apologies to the delightfully named Ms. Don’t for being somewhat tardy with this review. What to say? It’s a belter. Chockfull of twang, country and swing with spoonfuls of rockabilly and spaghetti western sounds to help it go down, Fire On The Ridge is an album which will surely delight any fans of Commander Cody or Asleep At The Wheel. Moreover, at its heart, there’s a cowpunk drive to the album which should attract those attuned to the likes of Jason & The Scorchers or The Blasters.

Hailing from Portland, Oregon, The Spurs were founded back in 2012 by Jenny Don’t and bassist, Kelly Halliburton with Sam Henry joining in on drums shortly after. Their background was in garage punk and thrash but the addition of guitarist Christopher March in early 2017, added his experience of years playing on the Northwest Country, Rockabilly, and Honky-Tonk circuit. Their chops certainly shine throughout the album with Henry’s drums pummelling and driving the band forward while the guitars smoke and burn. Astride this wild ride sits Ms. Don’t who sings with a prairie purity, at times coming across like Patsy Cline, sometimes like Neko Case, elsewhere yodelling gleefully.

The album kicks off forcefully with Fire On The Ridge, an almighty racket and rumble of a song which evokes the open vistas of the wild west with tribal drumming and acres of twanged and reverbed guitars amping up the tension. California Cowboy, a sweet country laced lost love song is a brief respite before the turbo charged Blasters’ like Be The Only One rushes in. One of the disc’s many delights is in the band’s ability to rock and then relax somewhat. We get the light footed western swing of Restless Heart and Foolish Lies with the band in a delicate and playful mood, followed by the short rockabilly skiffle of Train Ticket (reminiscent of The Knitters) and then, on the one occasion where they apply the brakes, the swoonful tear stained ballad, Friday Night.

They pull out all the stops towards the end of the album. Johnny Vagabond glistens with mystery and romance as Don’t sings of her absent lover and the band beam in as if they were playing in a Martian wild west saloon. There’s echoes of John Leyton’s Johnny Remember Me and Peggy Lee’s Johnny Guitar somewhere in this song’s DNA. Queen Of The Desert goes the whole hog western spaghetti route with its clip clop beat and dramatic guitars allowing Ms. Don’t to ride victoriously into the sunset. Quite wonderful.

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JP Harris’ Dreadful Wind & Rain – Don’t You Marry No Railroad Man. Free Dirt Records

Noted as one of the best purveyors of amped up country mayhem in recent years, JP Harris puts away his telecaster and tube amps on this collection of pared to the bone traditional folk songs, partnered by an old chum, Chance McCoy. In his informative sleeve notes, Harris expresses his interest in old time banjo (to the extent that he learned how to build them) and his love of what he calls the repetitive archaic sound of old time music. We know it as the music of that old weird America (as Greil Marcus called it), songs tilled from the earth, dark and filled with portents of death and doom and first collected on the Harry Smith Anthology Of American Folk Music.

Don’t You Marry No Railroad Man finds Harris, on banjo and vocals, and McCoy, on fiddle and backing vocals, dive headlong into Harry Smith territory. Recorded in a “a hundred year old sharecropper’s shack, deceptively well-equipped with some world-class gear inside” the pair laid down these ten songs, all plucked from tradition and memory. Most will be familiar to aficionados of the genre via numerous archive recordings but the liner notes allow Harris to explain his own connections to the songs and the versions he knows. In essence, that world-class gear the pair employed not only allows the songs to shine but carries them back in time to paradoxically create a timeless album.

Prior to his music career, Harris was a carpenter and he includes two carpenter songs here. The hardy perennial, House Carpenter, opens the disc and sets the scene with its mournful and mystical content and goes some way to proving that the devil has the best tunes. Harris and McCoy claw and scratch at the song as they fall under its spell. Later on there’s The Little Carpenter, another sepia stained lament laden with portent and mystery. In the notes, Harris mentions that he took to it due to his being a carpenter, and recalls hearing it first on an Alan Lomax field recording of Blind James Howard of Harlan, KY, from 1933. The primitive picking and fiddling continues apace on Mole In The Ground and on an excellent rendition of Barbry Ellen, a song Harris learned from a Jean Ritchie recording. This gathers together so many strands of what eventually became American folk music – the Child Ballads, Scots and Irish traditions- indeed, Samuel Pepys refers to the song in his diary dated January 2, 1666!

There’s some hardscrabble jauntiness on the outlaw song, Otto Wood and Closer To The Mill rocks (in an old time square dance way) but two songs here really reach out. Wild Bill Jones is a murder ballad delivered by Harris and his banjo which is quite spellbinding. Old Bangum meanwhile, reminds us of a time when the folk revival was reaching out to all sorts as Harris first heard this on a Seeger Family album aimed at children. Harris here retains the wondrous naiveté and nonsensical sounds which Pete and Peggy Seeger excelled at. We were certainly too young to hear Blind James Howard but this song pricked our conscience and reminded us of earlier and simpler days.

All in all, Harris and McCoy have delivered a modern update on a classic sound which will surely be seen, in time, as an essential link in the chain of American folk music. Real time old time weird Americana indeed.

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Party For Joey. A Sweet Relief Tribute To Joey Spampinato. True North Records

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Those with long memories may recall two excellent albums, released in 1993 and 1996 respectively, Sweet Relief – A Benefit For Victoria Williams and Sweet Relief II – Gravity Of the Situation. The purpose of these albums was to raise funds for the charity organisation, Sweet Relief, who offered assistance to musicians in the US who were struggling to make ends meet while facing illness, disability, or age-related problems. The charity was set up by Victoria Williams after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and the first album was a collection of her songs recorded by a fantastic line up of artists (ranging from Lou Reed to The Jayhawks to Pearl Jam) with all proceeds going to the charity. The follow-up centred on the late Vic Chesnutt and again had quite a spectacular queue of acts lining up to contribute (including REM, Cracker and even Madonna).

Party For Joey follows that template. Joey is Joey Spampinato, bass player and founding member of the legendary NRBQ who is currently recuperating from cancer treatment. For those not in the know, NRBQ (or The New Rhythm & Blues Quartet) were an incredibly tight and hugely engaging bunch who, from 1969, drew on R’n’B, rockabilly, powerpop and jazz amongst a host of other influences, earning them the unofficial title of “The best bar band in the world.” Their famous fans are legion but unfortunately the paying public didn’t seem to catch on and the band never made it into the big league. And while Terry Adams, on keyboards, is considered by most to be the quintessential pivot point of NRBQ, Spampinato was no slouch in the song writing stakes while his bass playing remains much admired.

Party For Joey, for anyone not familiar with NRBQ, is simply a terrific album, chock-full of great songs delivered by another excellent line up including Los Lobos, The Minus 5, Robbie Fulks, Peter Case, Bonnie Raitt, Steve Forbert and Buddy Miller with Jim Lauderdale. For those familiar with the band, it’s quite fascinating to hear these new takes on a bunch of old favourites. Several of the songs adapt the “NRBQ” sound – piano led boogie with whip smart taut guitar and oh so tight rhythm section – with ex member, Al Anderson, leading the charge on an electrifying take of You Can’t Hide. Bonnie Raitt (recording with a current NRBQ line up) revisits her earlier cover of the song Green Lights while Deer Tick offer an uncanny approximation of the dizzy rhythms utilised in That I Get Home (from 1980’s album, Tiddlywinks). Peter Case meanwhile, shuffles in with a groovelicious rendition of Don’t Knock Off my Door, just after a mini supergroup (Ben Harper with Keith Richards, Charlie Musselwhite, Benmont Tench, Don Was and the late Don Heffington) roll on down the line quite wonderfully on a fantastic version of Like A Locomotive, from Wild Weekend, sounding for all their worth as if this was a Taj Mahal song plucked from his Giant Steps album. Los Lobos, a band who are not too dissimilar from NRBQ in their command of R’n’B and slippery rhythms, easily adopt Every Boy Every Girl.

The gifts keep on coming. The Minus 5 (with both Peter Buck and Mike Mills in tow) stomp through Don’t She Look Good with a rockabilly swagger while Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale adopt an Everly Brothers approach to How Will I Know. Kick Me Hard’s Chores is given a hillbilly remake by Robbie Fulks but the most surprising inclusion is the Penn And Teller rendition of Plenty Of Somethin’, a song from 1997’s You’re Nice People So You Are. This pair of magicians somehow seem to capture the unique oddness and oddball humour of NRBQ in this delightful ditty.

Party For Joey is a grand listen and a purchase goes to a good cause. Really, there are no losers here so go ahead and join the party.

Buy Party For Joey here.

I can’t find any online renditions of the songs from the album but here’s Keef warbling on about Joey

For more information about Sweet Relief Musicians Fund visit www.sweetrelief.org

John Murry. The Stars Are God’s Bullet Holes. Submarine Cat Records.

For a man who has seemed to have spent much of his life clinging to a lifebelt in extremely choppy emotional waters, John Murry, when he comes up for air, generally comes up with the goods. He has one undeniable classic album under his belt, his solo debut, The Graceless Age, a glorious and beguiling hazy summation of his life up to that point. The follow up, A Short History Of Decay, was a much more stripped back affair, recorded in just five days in Canada with Mike Timmins of The Cowboy Junkies in the producer’s chair. Both albums were somewhat claustrophobic, The Graceless Age almost suffocating within a miasma of LA smog while A Short History Of Decay sounded as if Murry was rattling the chains which bound him, exemplified by his cover of Afghan Whigs’ What Jail Is Like.

Now, Murry resurfaces with his third album, The Stars Are God’s Bullet Holes, an album which might be considered, sound wise, as midway between its predecessors. Producer John Parish expands on the grungier aspects of Decay while whiffs of pedal steel, Memphis guitar licks and inventive keyboards allow some of the songs to approach the narcoleptic sumptuousness of The Graceless Age, while small eruptions of electronic noise are added, much like static on a radio. Murry, meanwhile, remains his enigmatic self, a dark rider whose songs dig deep into the soul with erudite nods to classic literature and his favourite (mostly existentialist or nihilistic) philosophers. There’s a sort of perverse pleasure to be had in connecting the dots between the album’s opening song, Oscar Wilde (Came Here To Make Fun Of You), the album’s title and Wilde’s famous aphorism that “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” For Murry, those stars are not wondrous but are evidence of the ultimate futility of it all as the almighty takes pot-shots at us. Einstein was only half right, God doesn’t play dice with the universe, instead he’s set up with a sniper rifle aiming to fuck up your life, a concept encapsulated here in the coruscating title song.

There may or may not be six degrees of separation between Oscar Wilde and Timothy McVeigh but Murry joins the dots in the opening song with initial scenes of the Oklahoma bomber gathering the materials for his deadly operation as the ghost of Oscar Wilde smirks at the current state of the union. For Murry fans the song will be familiar, having been previously released in various guises on two limited edition EPs. Here, it has its Sunday clothes on as Murry and Parish dress it in a distressed country rock fashion. Pedal steel features, but the drums are robotic and there’s no twang in the guitars, rather, short staccato stabs intrude towards the end of this dystopian vision. Perfume & Decay is another song previously released but here it has a more propulsive drive as Murry’s relationship accelerates into a train wreck with a cruel sense of inevitability, amplified by its sudden ending. Several songs are in thrall to Murry’s past. Di Kreutser Sonata, sonically, is closest to the template forged on The Graceless Age. A hallucinogenic electronic fuzz with faint bursts of whistling, creamy pedal steel and fractured guitar, it doesn’t exactly float, It’s more like a pestilential mist descending, as Murry invokes Tolstoy’s novella about a fractured family. Ones + Zeros is a piano led threnody which features what might be Murry’s favourite subject, death, while Time & A Rifle rattles along as if Murry was riding with the horsemen of the Apocalypse dealing death and justice, armed with a fiery fuzzed guitar.

A cover of Duran Duran’s Ordinary World adds depth and menace to a pop confection as Murry delivers it in a fashion more akin to post punk doomsayers such as The Blue Orchids or The Comsat Angels and I Refuse To Believe (You Could Love Me Like That) adds a hint of faded glam rock to the mixture. Aside from a hidden track (a loose limbed and fuzz fuelled blend of The Seeds, Love and Hendrix) Murry closes the album with a song which, in emotional terms, approaches the cathartic heft of Little Colored Balloons. Yer Little Black Book is infested with sonic snippets and more of that robotic drumming with Murry freewheeling the lyrics in a manner not dissimilar to that of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of Ulysses. It’s a fine close to what is, in essence, a triumph for Murry.

The Stars Are God’s Bullet Holes is an album which is dark and decadent, an immersive listen which confirms that Murry, in the words of The Guardian, is one of the great existential pop poets.  

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Peter Bruntnell Journey To The Sun

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It’s getting to be ubiquitous to declare that an album under review is a “pandemic recording” but, so it goes, and Peter Bruntnell’s latest offering goes to show that he, along with several others, have certainly risen to the occasion. Journey To The Sun finds Bruntnell ensconced in his basement, a proud possessor of newly purchased accoutrements, namely, a bouzouki, a synthesiser and a drum machine – I mean, we’ve all been all over Amazon while locked up – and he employs these throughout. Aside from some vintage keyboard additions from Peter Linnane, transmitted from Boston, and pedal steel from Iain Sloan on one song, it’s a truly solo album.

The album certainly leans more to the melancholic side of Bruntnell as he casts aside his ability to produce star spangled rock’nroll. Having said that there are some jangled outings with Lucifer Morning Star featuring  a burbling synth bubbling along with Bruntnell’s guitar while Runaway Car is a rather glorious rush reminiscent  of Steve Stills or The Lemonheads. But, for the most part, the album is quite autumnal with echoes of Nick Drake here and there. The ebbs and flows of the opening song, Dandelion, from its stark acoustic opening (Bruntnell getting his money’s worth from that bouzouki) to the sombre bass and whispers of synthesiser which close it, sets the scene perfectly. Here, Bruntnell inverts what should be a bucolic summer scene, his whispered voice speaking of decay and death with legions of blindfolded angels surrounding him, high on a hill, as dandelions run wild. The song shares that odd mix of horror and blandness which can be found in some of the films of Ben Wheatley.

Bruntnell’s new synth and some lockdown listening to Brian Eno’s album, Another Green World, leads to him including two space age instrumentals into the mix. Both are short with The Antwerp Effect leaning to Philip Glass minimalism while Moon Committee finds Bruntnell  picking his guitar over a soft sonic bubble of sounds. The latter recalls the likes of Steve Hillage’s Rainbow Dome Musick and both are pleasant inclusions but when Bruntnell injects some synthesised sounds into several songs it gets more interesting. You’d Make A Great Widow heaves into view with dizzying sound effects before a robotic drum kicks in and the sound opens up to display a song which is quite quintessentially Bruntnell ,with echoes going all the way back to Normal For Bridgewater. Dharma Liar is also introduced with some synthetic squeaks and burbles before they retreat somewhat into the background allowing Bruntnell, Linnane and Sloan to deliver this gorgeous eight minute dreamlike confection. It’s the pinnacle of the album, a glorious song suffused with melancholy but quite uplifting with its shifting patterns and Brian Wilson like arrangement.

Elsewhere, Bruntnell delivers more of what we expect from him as on the luscious strum of Heart Of Straw which has a heart of political darkness within its lyrics. There’s a version of Wild Mountain Thyme which, given that it’s Bruntnell singing it, sits up there with the likes of The Byrds. But, given that he can deliver such a song as Merrion, a tale which could sit as easily on an archival collection of dustbowl blues as it could on an Uncle Tupelo album, it is a wee bit redundant. There’s some more soothing sonic soupçons along with weathered keyboards on Waiting For Clive, a fine slice of ennui, and the album closes with Bruntnell closeted within the wonderful confines of Mutha. It’s an elegy of sorts, a mournful farewell to a mother, given a wonderful kitchen sink scenario as he offers support and succour to the bereaved. It’s a hefty hump on which to close but Bruntnell, intentionally or not, here hits the button which can open the floodgates of oh, so many, who have lost loved ones in these pestilential times.

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Phil Hooley. Songs From The Back Room.

When one thinks of Scarborough, it’s end of the pier stuff – amusement arcades, fish and chips and trying not to shiver on the sands. It’s certainly not the place you would anticipate would birth an album chockfull of warm Americana styled songs delivered in a fine relaxed fashion. Songs From The Back Room is the solo debut of veteran songwriter Phil Hooley, front man of The Woolgatherers, a band who have plied their enjoyable mix of country, folk and swing at festivals and pubs the length and breadth of the country. Ensconced in Scarborough in lockdown, Hooley happened upon Nashville drummer and producer Justin Johnson, who, for some reason, was also holed up in the seaside resort, they gelled and, several months later, here’s their baby.

For the most part, Songs From The Back Room is a very laid back affair. Guitars glisten and pedal steel does indeed swoon, but the primary focus is on Hooley’s well-grained voice which is like a finely aged malt whisky. Johnson’s production is sympathetic, allowing Hooley to effortlessly croon his words over the finely crafted arrangements. The opening song, Learning To be Still, sets out their stall as Hooley recalls Mark Knopfler vocally while there’s also a hint of Dire Straits in the guitar parts. That Same Old Song follows with a slight skip in its step due to a jauntier melody and some sly Dobro playing as Hooley displays his affection for writers such as Guy Clark. Midasville then arrives with a fine billow of dusty Western tropes as Hooley duets with Liverpool’s Rob Vincent on a grand tale of a frontier town becoming a ghost of its former self – a story as old as the hills perhaps but oddly topical given the recent MAGA baloney. Anyhow, it’s a brilliant song and the band pull it off with some élan.

Aside from the brash pub rock of Pour Me A Drink, a rollicking number which perhaps betrays Hooley’s early introduction to Brinsley Schwartz, and the finger popping sophistication of Maybe Later, Hooley sticks to his winning ways on the piano and fiddle ballad, River Of Dreams which flows wonderfully and is reminiscent of early Jackson Browne. Trust Your Heart has a warm-hearted chorus which is a balm for these unsettled times. Here, the band perform wonderfully with a fine tapestry of fiddle, guitars, pedal steel and mandolin woven into the song. Closing the album, Hooley harks back again to the likes of Guy Clark on the moving and spare It’s Time We Said Goodbye. It’s a lovely song, suffused with love and regret, and a perfect end to what is a very good album.

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Reigning Sound. A Little More Time With Reigning Sound. Merge Records

What to do when a pandemic means you are separated from your current band line up? They’re stranded in New York and you’re in Memphis, the place where you first strapped on your guitar. For Greg Cartwright the answer was simple, round up the original Memphis line up of Reigning Sound and go down memory lane. That’s almost the story behind this album but, in truth, Cartwright had just finished a tour with the original line up (Jeremy Scott on bass, Greg Robertson, drums and Alex Greene, keyboards) promoting a reissue of 2005’s Home For Orphans. The tour had just ended when Covid hit and, stranded in Memphis with time to write, Cartwright just wrangled the band into the studio.

A Little More Time With… turns back the clock somewhat, sounding less like Cartwright’s latest offerings and going back to the roots of the band. There are rootsy rockers and country styled songs, along with a dollop of Memphis soul, all in all, a fine smorgasbord of Americana to feast on. In addition, producer Scott Bomar (who has worked with Al Green and William Bell) captures the sound on a vintage 8 track tape recorder, allowing the album a vibrant and almost live feel.

Cartwright wrote most of these songs in lockdown and the opening Let’s Do It Again, addresses this directly in a most triumphant manner. It’s a full-blown organ swept rocker with echoes of Dylan and The Band in its marrow. The title song, while less frantic, follows in the same lines and it’s followed by a turbo charged cover of an old Adam Faith rocker, I Don’t Need That Kind Of Lovin’ which, to retain The Band comparisons, harks back to when they were backing Ronnie Hawkins.

So far, so rocking. But then there’s a brace of songs which dial it back a bit. I’ll Be Your Man hauls in some sweet strings and Christine seems to strive for a Doug Sahm like groovieness but, ultimately, both songs fail to really catch fire. However, as pedal steel introduces Moving And Shaking, Cartwright is back on the right track on a song which celebrates rock’n’roll with more than a hint of Gram Parsons in its delivery. You Don’t Know What You’re Missing is even better, sounding like a Travelling Wilburys’ out take and the album closes with a fine melodramatic sweep as On And On finds Cartwright  waxing on the importance of love over an impressive arrangement chockfull of plaintive pedal steel, harmony singers and church like organ. A fine end to a pretty fine album.

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Annie Keating. Bristol County Tides

Named for the hideaway in Massachusetts where Keating retired to during the pandemic, Bristol County Tides finds the normally Brooklyn based artist in both gutsy and reflective form. The album is an odyssey of sorts with a claustrophobic funkiness in its opening numbers eventually opening out into a more relaxed acceptance of the way things are. Along this journey, Keating breathes life into some exceptional characters and also pays heed to more personal matters – family, friends and relationships.

It’s a full bodied, full band album with Keating riding the waves over an excellent sounding ensemble, her basic three-piece band along with a small host of guests who add accordion, pedal steel and keyboards. Altogether, the band are supple as they sway and swell, as able to dig into a deep Muscle Shoals like groove while also delivering the delicate intricacies of a song such as Half Mast which is winningly swoonsome.

Third Street opens the album with a vengeance. A grungy urban cry, it prowls the streets capturing snapshots of modern day equivalents of Damon Runyon characters with a voyeur’s eye and snakelike guitars. Kindred Spirit inverts the voyeurism as Keating imagines herself as one of the denizens and invokes the empathy and support which is often the token of community solidarity. Here, the band are more laidback, the guitars more liquid over swirling organ but Keating then dials this up several notches on Marigold which has that hefty blend of chunky guitar chords and church like organ which The Jayhawks utilised to great effect. Later in the album, there is Lucky 13, a luscious and languid swill of a song which is sultry in its kaleidoscopic and slightly nightmarish vision of a casino from hell.

In between these urban howls, Keating retreats to the country and elsewhere on several songs. Blue Moon Tide rides on sly acoustic slide guitar and barbed keyboards while Half Mast finds her creeping back into singer/songwriter territory on a song which comes across as if she were channelling the late Leonard Cohen. It’s fair to say that Keating can come up trumps when she strips things down somewhat as on the exquisite Song For A Friend (a song which just about sums up the album but she truly excels on Bittersweet. It’s a farewell song suffused with images and colours and memories, delivered with a fragile spare guitar and pedal steel backing with Keating, kind of weirdly I suppose, again reminding me of that 70s songstress, Melanie, in her vocal delivery.

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Roberto Cassani. Ansema We Stand

Last time we encountered Roberto Cassani, the Perthshire based, Italian born double bassist, was on his 2019 album, Oh!…L’Amore!, an autobiographical affair. It was far removed from his earlier work which was often comedy based, with Cassani encouraged to offer up more personal songs by his friend and mentor, the legendary Danny Thompson. Ansema We Stand maintains this shift into a more “serious” mode as Cassani delivers an album sung in Rivoltino, the endangered language of his native Lombardy, and marries this to an exquisite set of songs which reflect his Italian heritage but also have a great deal of Scottish traditional music woven throughout.

Cassani says of the album that “It values the influence Scotland has had on me over the years, while allowing me to create the first ever piece of art in my native dialect. It’s a proud moment. Covid was a bit of a starting point to celebrate what we can achieve as small communities to help each other and from this, comes a universal message: culture and community are essential to survive and flourish, especially in hard times.” To this end, the small community gathered around Cassani on the album consists of a storied roll call of venerable Scottish players – Anna Massie on guitar, fiddle, mandolin and tenor guitar, John Somerville on accordion, Steve Fivey on drums and percussions, Ross Ainslie on pipes and whistles, Hamish Napier on piano and flute and Greg Lawson on violin. It’s a terrific ensemble and they truly carry off the premise of celebrating the two cultures.

Several of the songs feature music which not be out of place on recent Blue Rose Code albums. That swirl of Caledonian mists and mystery are evoked several times on songs such as Dolina, Erio In Corsia, and, in particular, Mpedtada Quarantena. Italy is more pronounced on the enchanting L’Ada (which still has a Celtic sweep to it) and on two songs which open the album. Ansema translates from Rivoltino as Together and so the album begins by saying we stand together. The title song is a perfect mix of the two cultures; imagine Paulo Conte backed by Lau. It’s followed by Evviva which has the joy and exuberance of Italian popular music (think of Luna Mezzo Mare from The Godfather’s wedding party) allied to the skirl of trad Scots music. Quite magnificent. The closing song, An Basi (apparently a translation of a Robert Burns poem), serves to remind us that Cassani is a well respected double bass player, schooled by the Italian jazz bassist Giovanni Tommaso, as his instrument bounces and resonates under his dextrous touch on a superb solo performance.

This is certainly the most “complete” album we’ve heard from Cassani and it certainly achieves his aim of marrying two cultures. That it does so with such aplomb should certainly put it in line for some awards when they start handing out Trad music gongs.

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