Emily Duff. Born On The Ground.

a0353059603_16Having ploughed a soulful Southern loam on her last two records (Maybe In The Morning and Hallelujah Hello), both recorded at Muscle Shoals in Alabama, Emily Duff here returns to her New York roots for a zesty collection of punchy songs. There’s still a soulful edge here and there but there’s a New York groove throughout with nods to Duff’s apprenticeship at CBGB and the Big Apple tradition of feisty female pop and rock. Adding a powerful booster rocket to her trajectory, she has enlisted Eric “Roscoe” Ambel for production duties and electric guitar. A sure-footed step as Ambel is as close to a trademark of quality as one can get these days.

According to Duff, the nine songs here are all related to some sort of breakup (or more accurately perhaps, breakdown) she has experienced, seen through the prism of a current happy family life, allowing her time to reflect on her past. There’s little rancour here (aside from We Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere and Knuckle Sandwich) but plenty of emotion as Duff recalls busted relationships and her absent mother.

The album kicks off with a swamp rock outing similar to those on her previous albums as she wails against the sorry “sonofabitch” she is kicking off her metaphorical train on We Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere. He’s well advised  jump as she returns later with the blistering Knuckle Sandwich which hammers along with killer guitars and electrifying honky tonk piano as Duff turns the table on a bully as she snarls like Patti Smith.

Elsewhere the dial is turned down on a series of well crafted songs which range from the stoical tale of hardship which is Born On The Ground (with more killer guitar soloing) to the theatrical antics of No Escape which is perfectly executed  with carnival organ, Mike Garson like tinkling ivories and lyrical guitar licks. There’s a glimmer of power pop on Easy Go! while There Is A Way Out has a New Jersey feel to it preparing the listener for Something Sexy’s strut into Asbury Park territory. The tender Killer allows Duff to show off her excellent vocals over a shuffled beat with electric piano setting the pace as she sings about a lover leaving her. A gliding guitar solo and Duff’s wearied voice here reminds one of Lucinda Williams’ best work. A mighty burst of guitars introduces the final song, Forever Love, another fine foray into power pop which sways with an “up yours” Chrissie Hind like sashay.

With Ambel at the helm and her band ( Scott Aldrich: guitar,  Skip Ward: bass, Charlie Giordano: keyboards, Kenny Soule: drums) on fire throughout, Born On The Ground shows that Duff can easily transfer her talents from the south to her native territory without sacrificing any of the emotion while broadening her palette.

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The Mammals. Nonet. Humble Abode Music

a0010025840_16As the album title indicates, The Mammals have expanded to a nine-piece set up for this follow up to the excellent Sunshiner. Adding past members of the band for a weekend of recording live in a Hudson Valley studio, there’s a sumptuous warmth as the songs tumble out with the ensemble expertly balanced. Less polemical than Sunshiner, the album still addresses the social justice and environmental concerns which stir Ruth Ungar and Mike Merenda, at heart they are still protest singers albeit with superb songs, melodies and performances.

The album kicks off in swell style with Ungar’s husky voice beguiling, over a rippling cosmic country backing as she reflects on the inevitable comedown after a season of festivals on Coming Down Off Summer. The band here are perfect as they swell into a pedal steel gilded outro which recalls the glory days of the good ole Grateful Dead. This dappled dip into seventies styled country rock is maintained on Merenda’s excellent What It All Is, the glorious playing belying the words concerning the fate of young men sent off to war, and reaches its apogee on the breezy rhythms of California with its waves of organ, keening pedal steel and sparkling banjo. Still reminiscent of the counter culture but less cosmic, there’s the incredibly appealing You Can Come To My House where Merenda offers an open invite to stay over a while. With CS&N like harmonies and a welcome mat similar to that rolled out by Brian Wilson on Busy Doing Nothin’,  he describes a perfect hangout to chew the fat and fix the world.

Several of the songs are less sunny. Radio Signal has a persistent organ stab over an old time folk melody reminiscent of Wild Mountain Thyme and is somewhat unwieldy until the band soars in halfway through – it’s a song which might be best appreciated live. However, Ungar stomps in with the swampy Someone’s Hurting and then the country gospel funk of East Side West Side, both excellent. East Side West Side kind of updates Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land and Ungar goes back again to the folk tradition on what may be the best song here. Penned by Merenda but sung by Ungar, If You Could Hear Me Now is in the grand tradition of American folk songs with its echoes of early Dylan.

We’ve merely scratched the surface here as Nonet waxes and wanes across its ten songs offering up new delights on each listen. If you can, try to get the deluxe edition which has a second disc with five songs. Here they let it all hang out playing wild folk reels and ragging on Dylan and Etta James.

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Jim McAteer. Here Be Dragons. Sonic Bull Records

a4151804092_16Here Be Dragons was a legend printed on ancient maps indicating unknown territories but those who are aware of Glaswegian Jim McAteer will most likely be willing to join him on this quirky and affectionate voyage. A fixture on the local open mic scene,  his debut album has been a while in the making with McAteer allowing that he is a born procrastinator so it’s somewhat ironic that it was released on the eve of lockdown. However, it’s eventually made its way to Blabber’n’Smoke HQ and, we have to say, it’s a fine listen.

McAteer’s baritone voice is the first element to hit the listener with the opening song, Talk To Myself, a fine and lazy dip into laidback and languid blues, reminding one of the late Leon Redbone. Elsewhere on the album, McAteer reminds one of Bill Callahan and Robert Fisher and at times he even hints at the lugubrious tones of Jake Thackray –  fitting really as some of his songs share Thackray’s odd worldview. You can hear it on In Love With Every Atom which is probably best described as a molecular love song, on the eccentric My Antique Ladies’ Bicycle, a song inspired by a character McAteer used to see riding around Partick on a bike while dressed in ladies clothing, and on the whimsical Wouldn’t That Be Grand?. The latter is a wonderful song given a great performance as McAteer wanders around in a Thurber like daydream, full of unfulfilled romantic bliss while his excellent players offer a dulcet melody which midway through blossoms into a fully-fledged folk bridge.

The band, (Mike Fowler double bass, Patrick Coyle lead guitar, Graham McGeoch and Solvieg Gjul Askvik fiddle, and  Stephan Mors drums) excel throughout and add so much to the songs. There’s the country rock swirl of The Everything Thing and the Velvet Underground screech of Troubles Again, the burbling bass and weeping violin on Opening Closed Doors (a song which is reminiscent of Bill Callahan) and the Appalachian hints on I Don’t Know. They approach perfection on McAteer’s bruised love song, Sing Me A Song, in which he wanders into Fred Neil/Tim Hardin territory and they follow him, summoning up memories of Greenwich Village. On his own however McAteer is no slouch as he plays some fine acoustic guitar on  What Is On Your Mind? where he admires a girl from afar, a theme revisited on Two Eyes, A Nose, A Mouth, sweetened here by winsome fiddle with fine modal picking towards the end.

Winding up on Brand New Blue, a solo venture with some fine finger picking, McAteer reaffirms his affinity with many of the classic songwriters mentioned above and brings to an end an album which, aside from being a grand listen, offers much food for thought.

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Prinz Grizzley. To My Green Mountains Home. DoWhWa Records

a1511769312_16After the stark monochrome portrait  which adorned his first album Come On In, Chris Comper (AKA Prinz Grizzley) has elected this time for a vivid riot of red to entice listeners into his follow-up, the sleeve looking as much like a movie poster as a record cover. It perhaps indicates a greater confidence in himself as since releasing Come On In, Prinz Grizzley have played countless festivals and completed a lengthy European tour with Seasick Steve. On his travels, Comper bumped into renowned producer Beau Bedford (best known for his work with Paul Cauthen), a serendipitous moment as it led to Bedford travelling from Nashville to Austria to produce the record. The result is a somewhat brasher effort than the debut release with much more thump in the engine room when required allowing Comper to expand his palette.

Thus there’s a powerful drive in the opening song, You Don’t Know Love, with gritty guitar and pedal steel winding around Comper’s powerful vocals, adding a slight sense of southern soul. Even more so Shovel, a song inspired by Comper’s grandfather’s migrant life, shakes into life with a wonderful junkyard shuffle, snarled lyrics and massed chorus before an insanely fuzzed up pedal steel squeal erupts. It’s a glorious mess of a song drawing equally from chain gang shouts and Tom Waits. It’s followed by the lustrous urban slink of Keep The Fire High which recalls The Stones’ return to form on Emotional Rescue (and keep an ear open for some tremendous percussion towards the end).

Elsewhere, Comper revisits familiar territory. Nothing Left But Scars is a wounded country rock lament and the title song, inspired by his Austrian homeland, has the same languid feel as some on the more introspective numbers from the debut album. Drifting will be a familiar song to anyone who has caught the band live but here it gets a refit as Comper, joined on vocals by Erin Rae, turns it into a powerful and emotive love song with the band soaring as the song progresses. Peeling it right back on Rush Little Man, with only acoustic guitar and lonesome pedal steel accompaniment, Comper offers a grim portrait of an everyman stuck in a dead end job (who might dream of being like Comper on the cover art!). Meanwhile Meet Me At The Pines is classic Grizzley fare with Comper powering into soulful vocal mode as the band strike up a grand country rock vibe.

There are a couple of out and out rompers. Longing For A Fire has a Springsteen like bustle to it although here they manage to rustle up the E Street sound with acoustic instruments. And if one has to be reminded of what a fine live act Comper and his band, The Beargaroos, are, listen to them rush through the skiffled honky tonk of Cutting Wood. Further afield, Magdalena adds a taste of exotica with its whiff of melodramatic melodies and The Salty Life Of Ocean huffs and puffs with a piratical air closing the album with a grand flourish.

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Kai Clark. Silver Raven.

71gortbg2dl._ss500_Have to admit it. I was trepidatious regarding this release. Aside from the Wainwright/McGarrigle clan, precious few artists offspring have produced much to write home about, so news that Gene Clark’s son, Kai, was releasing an album of his father’s songs was a worrying prospect. Clark’s star has been in the ascendant over the past few years, sadly, too late for him, with a slew of unreleased recordings and renewed critical acclaim (in particular for his “lost” masterpiece, No Other) allowing him more positive press than he ever had in his lifetime. Thankfully, Clark Jnr. does his father proud here with a judicious song selection (some favourites – Mr. Tambourine Man, Eight Miles High, bona fide classics – Silver Raven, Polly and some deeper cuts). In addition, his voice has a slight touch of his father (must be the genes!) and he has enlisted Carla Olson to sing on several of the songs.

The song selection covers his career from The Byrds to Clark’s final recordings. Mr. Tambourine Man and Turn! Turn! Turn! don’t vary much from the original arrangements but have a fine robust punch to them. Eight Miles High however sounds somewhat sludgy in comparison to the mercurial original  (as do all covers aside from Husker Du’s) but when Kai turns to one of the highlights of The Byrds’ first album, Here Without You, you catch a glimpse of Clark’s majesty and it’s perfectly played and sung here.

Moving on from the Byrds, Kai Clark has some more leeway to play around with and he starts off with an excellent rendition of I Found You which is punkier, almost as if it were a 1966 Arthur Lee snarling the words. Kansas City Southern rolls into town with an insouciant bar band swagger and Train Leaves Here This Morning is given a wonderful and woozy back porch country rock delivery with an old buddy of Gene’s, Byron Berline, adding fiddle. Polly, from the Dillard and Clark album, Through the Morning, Through the Night, sparkles with its cosmic pedal steel and ringing Rickenbacker chimes.

Silver Raven (the first song of his father’s that Kai learned) is given due reverence given its provenance but it has to be said that the son turns in a pretty powerful performance with slide guitar wailing away over some fine family harmonies. However, the best performances here lie in the latter songs. Gypsy Rider (again with Berline on fiddle and with Carla Olson reprising her original role) is both thrilling and chilling. Your Fire Burning, a posthumous release, closes the album properly (Eight Miles High is listed as a bonus track) and as the liner notes state, “Is perhaps the most poignant evidence we have that, at the time of his passing, Gene Clark’s music was hitting new heights of artistic brilliance.”

Kudos then to Kai Clark for this fine reflection on his father’s genius. The album stands on its own two feet and if you are a Gene Clark fan it’s certainly worth a listen while a casual listener might find it an intriguing entry point into the Gene Clark rabbit hole.

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Josh Okeefe. Bloomin’ Josh Okeefe.

 

It’s best just to come out with it and say that Josh Okeefe is firmly on the side of those who collect Dylan bootlegs from 1961 to 63. Before Dylan got all weird and well before he got all surreal and plugged in. The raw young Dylan, along with his forebears, Woody Guthrie and Rambling Jack Elliot, loom large on Okeefe’s debut album from the album art to the song writing and delivery but, and maybe it’s something in the air these days, O’Keefe has hit a nerve somewhere. He certainly delighted audiences on his appearances here in the UK with many folk still talking about two support slots he played within a few days in Glasgow last year.

Like Dylan, Okeefe can be political, romantic, humorous, and sardonic and again, like Dylan, he has a grasp on traditional songs and is able to cast them anew. In fact he’s terribly good at what he does and it’s quite astonishing to learn that he’s a lad from Derby who decided to decamp to Nashville after scuffling around his hometown, London and Brighton. His roots do show via his voice which at times reminds one of Billy Bragg and on occasion, Lonnie Donegan.

The album takes its time in gathering steam. The opening cut, We’re All The Same, a timely call for unity, lacks punch while the following Lucille, Lucille is somewhat tentative although the harmonica playing here is classic early Dylan. Suitably warmed up however, Okeefe goes for the jugular on Thoughts And Prayers, a powerful and angry song about school shootings with his bile directed towards the politicians who express their sorrow and “thoughts and prayers” for the victims while doing nothing to change the situation. Harrowing situations bring out the best in Okeefe with Soldier approximating another Greenwich Village troubadour, in this case Phil Ochs, as the song dissembles the hopes and dreams of those sent to war. Son Of The Working Class, (with Okeefe playing banjo) is as gritty a folk ballad as anything written by Ewan McColl and it’s etched here as if in slate.

Dylan of course had what some folk described as a Chaplin like persona back in the days and Okeefe manages to capture this on several of the songs here with the talking blues the perfect vehicle. Talkin’ Neighbour From Hell is a close cousin to Motor Psycho Nitemare and Okeefe has great fun with it, reverting to his native voice and quoting from This Land Is My Land. Rolling With The Punches meanwhile is freewheeling indeed and Okeefe waxes somewhat poetic on the moving environmental call to arms, When Mother Nature Calls, where he condenses a Dylan like anthem and Clancy Brothers’ like earnestness into one.

Bloomin’ Josh OKeefe is unashamedly indebted to the past but it speaks to the present and with its unadorned simplicity it’s like a breath of fresh air. Had we be living in normal times, Mr. Okeefe would have been singing these songs in Glasgow’s Glad Cafe next week. Here’s hoping that’s just been postponed.

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Josh Okeefe · Thoughts & Prayers

 

 

Philip Rambow. Canadiana. Fretsore Records

philip-rambow-2020-250x250-1For most, Philip Rambow is a name from the past having made some waves in seventies London, bridging pub rock, glam and punk. Rambow, a Canadian, had two shots at fame, first with his band The Winkies and then as a solo artist. His albums were critically admired but he had more success with his song writing, including co-writing There’s A Guy Down The Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis with the late Kirsty MacColl. So much so that after two solo albums in 1979 and then 1981, he didn’t release another album until Whatever Happened To Phil Rambow? appeared in 2015.

Canadiana, a mere five years later, confirms that Rambow’s writing is as sharp as ever while the album title (not sure if we could call it a pun, but, whatever) is an attempt to convey a sense of his musical journey from youthful days in Canada to his time spent in the UK playing his take on American music, a journey reflected in the album artwork and liner notes. And, make no mistake, this is American music, ranging from country swing, honky tonk and good old fashioned country. The fact that he’s aided and abetted by the likes of CJ Hillman on pedal steel, Pete Thomas on drums and the mighty Martin Belmont on guitar helps of course and the end result is an excellent and eminently listenable album which features both humour and heartbreak.

The album kicks off in a grand style as Hillman’s pedal steel leads into a song which could have featured on any number of cosmic cowboy albums from the seventies. American Buffalo laments the loss of the American dream with Rambow touching on totems now long gone. Things Are Not Looking Good touches on similar ground although here Rambow delivers a cartoon like tapestry of domestic disasters sounding like a hillbilly Dylan fronting a western swing band influenced by Louis Jordan. It’s a fine chortle and is accompanied later on by the swinging Piggin’ Out which will surely thrill any fans of the late Dan Hicks.

Springtime In my Heart is a finely tuned sardonic take on social media with a nice old-fashioned palm tree orchestra lilt and Get Even is a finger popping jazzy number with a sly dobro solo but Rambow returns to more country sounds on a couple of numbers. Hard Times is a red dirt ballad portraying a marriage gone wrong, worthy of Guy Clark, and then there’s the magnificent Out On Your Own – a duet with Sharlene Hector – a true tears in your beer honky tonk wallow. Hector features again on Oceans Apart, another couple uncoupling song but  given a tragic faded grandeur while the closing song, Devoted To You, finds Rambow, over a wonderfully realised arrangement which is part sixties melodramatic pop, part David Lynch, inhabiting a needy and seedy chanteur pleading to his lover. Quite excellent.

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My Darling Clementine with Steve Nieve. Country Darkness Vol. 2. Fretstore Records

country-darkness-vol-2-1-350x350-1On this second instalment of their three piece interpretation of songs by Elvis Costello, My Darling Clementine continue to seek out elements of country darkness from the man’s catalogue. From the start of their career, My Darling Clementine (Lou Dalgleish and Michael Weston King) have been in love with classic male/female country duetting and their application of this to the songs of Costello continues to impress. Furthermore, they have delved deep into Costello’s songbook (it would be a pretty obsessive Costello fan who could immediately pinpoint these songs) avoiding most of his more familiar numbers.

Joined again by Costello’s most steadfast musical companion, Steve Nieve, on keyboards along with the core of Richard Hawley’s Band (Colin Elliott, Shez Sheridan and Dean Beresford on guitar, bass and drums), My Darling Clementine don’t detour from the approach they took on the first EP. The songs chosen are given an MDC makeover, sometimes subtle, sometimes more radical as on the Tex Mex take on Different Finger (originally on Trust).

They kick off with Either Side Of The Same Town (from The Delivery Man) with Costello’s southern soul delivery given a full Muscle Shoals’ treatment. With requisite piano and organ prominent, the duo sing magnificently as they tear at the emotions while a wonderfully lyrical guitar solo seals the deal. I Lost You, a co-write with Jim Lauderdale, comes from an album Costello recorded in Nashville (National Ransom) and its bouncy acoustic thrash is here transformed into a slick country rock number with a slight sixties sheen as Nieve’s piano drives the song along while twangy guitars manage the shift changes. The vocal exchanges here are quite brilliant as they variously riposte and parry and then join together in harmony.

It’s back to Costello’s earlier years as they tackle Different Finger, a song which in its original incarnation had a honky tonk feel. Here, My Darling Clementine take it south of the border with Pierro Tucci adding his accordion to the mix. Throw in some fine Augie Meyer like vox parpings from Nieve and there’s a perfect Tex Mex blend here. The kaleidoscopic jollity of the music here might disguise the darkness but it’s there aplenty as these two lovers have their secrets with the song coming across like a musical Tijuana Bible (albeit without the titillation). The darkness does descend however on the funereal Still Too Soon To Know, plucked from Brutal Youth. Here, the embers of a relationship are poked at to see if there’s still a spark as our singers search their souls over a sombre backing.

As with the first volume, this EP is available on 12” vinyl or download. According to Michael Weston King, the promised third EP is on hold due to this pesky virus, but given the quality of the first two releases, that’s another light at the end of the tunnel we should all be looking forward to.

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The Danberrys. Shine

ezgif.com-resize__7_Husband and wife duo, Dorothy Daniel and Ben DeBerry (Danberry, get it?) beef up their familiar back porch sound on SHINE, their third album, gathering a full band clan including gutbucket electric guitar, pump organ, trombone and tuba. This allows them to deliver some raucous songs such as the Tom Waits’ like junkyard stomp The Road along with the opening title song which reeks of southern menace. It’s quite a shift in gear and not all of this revamp is as striking as the two songs mentioned as the duo wander into AOR territory.

Songs such as Never Gone and The Mountain are glossy but unremarkable while Love Conquers War is somewhat clichéd. They do hit the mark on the meandering The River Is Wide which is by turn, spiritual and invigorating as it weaves its way. Undertow, mostly, maintains this standard with its glistening guitars and emotive vocals from Daniel. It’s perhaps appropriate here to comment on the lack of lead vocals from DeBerry throughout the album. In the past he has sung on several songs but here he’s limited to harmonies, a pity really. The album might win them new followers but as it signs off with Rain, it reminds us of how great a vocal harmony pair they are especially in stripped back mode.

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The Danberrys · Shine

Norma MacDonald. Old Future

a3487093927_16This fifth album from Nova Scotia’s Norma MacDonald maintains the high standards set by her previous releases. Here she’s drawn to the sound of classic early seventies singer songwriters – that Laurel canyon vibe, captured well on the mournful Golden Age with some lovely pedal steel garlands, played by Dale Murray (who also co-produced).

Temperamental Year and Trick Of The Light kick off the album. Likeable enough songs but pretty run of the mill in comparison to the better songs yet to come. A percussive susurration and gentle strings softly propel One Man Band, allowing MacDonald’s voice to shine. Slow Down Marie again features strings, in this case a cello, adding some timbre to this fine song with its hints of Leonard Cohen. Meanwhile I Already Have A Shadow could be a Dolly Parton deep cut while Lover Of Unreason cuts along finely recalling Emmylou Harris. There’s a brief nod to country on the sardonic Your Wedding Day, a song which takes some of the tropes of classic lost love Nashville misery and delivers them in fine fashion. Wrapping it up with the Patsy Cline like weepy, Some Days, MacDonald might not have perfectly caught that California feeling but she’s certainly staked a claim to be considered a very fine singer/songwriter.

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