The Strange Blue Dreams. Simple Machine. Holy Smokes Records

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

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

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

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Wynntown Marshals. Big Ideas. Wynntown Recordings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Laura Benitez And The Heartache. California Centuries. Copperhead Records

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

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

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

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

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Monica Queen. Stop That Girl. Last Night In Glasgow

Monica Queen, doyen of Scottish singers, lends her glorious voice to a collection of cover songs on her latest solo release. In the main these are songs originally released in the 80s, a post punk era which saw a wave of songwriters unafraid to reveal their pop sensibilities although these were invariably coloured by punk and its predecessors. As such, Queen tackles Orange Juice, The Subway Sect and the little known Bourgie Bourgie along with artists who were gathering new fans at the time such as Captain Beefheart and Lou Reed. At its heart the album recalls the halcyon days of Scots pop, centred mainly on The Postcard label and as such Queen is backed by a select crew of musicians who played with various bands of the era including Aztec Camera, The Blue Nile, Bourgie Bourgie, Jazzateers, Love & Money and Paul Quinn & The Independent Group. Integral to the project are her long time partner, Johnnie Smillie (on guitar and production duties)  and Douglas MacIntyre, head of The Creeping Bent Organisation, who writes two of the songs on the album.

The album kicks off with the warm guitar and organ tones of Bourgie Bourgie’s I Gave You Love (with original guitarist Mark Swan on guitar) which soon soars into celestial popdom as Queen’s voice rings out over a twisting tangled guitar solo which seems quite endless in its invention. Captain Beeheart’s Too Much Time is one of his more accessible songs and while Queen and Smillie don’t mess around with its original melody they do give it a soulful makeover with the end result sounding as if it was being beamed in from a southern soul shack with Queen sounding like a cross between Irma Thomas and Diana Ross. So far so good, but it’s when the title song crashes in with a glorious flourish of guitars that one begins to be really knocked out by how good this album is. The original version (written by Vic Godard) today sounds quite quaint in its DIY quality but here it gains wings and flies into the stratosphere. Queen is in full throated glory here while the band and the harmonies are quite spectacular, recalling the sound of Orange Juice around the time of Salmon Fishing In New York. When Queen later visits Orange Juice themselves on her cover of Dying Days she again lifts the song into a much more dramatic and spectacular orbit with the band sounding ever more kaleidoscopic, especially in the elongated ending with male harmonies repeating the title.

Lou Reed’s Over You retains much of the Velvet Underground trade mark sound, especially in the repetitive percussion but Queen commands the song while Smillie adds some brilliant curlicued guitar. Perhaps the most triumphant cover on the album is the immersive dive into Gene Clark’s Why Not My Baby. A glorious enough song to begin with but sung here by Queen with passion, conviction and yearning while the arrangement updates the baroque folk of the original quite brilliantly with the strings replaced by clarion guitar.

Midway through the album are a brace of songs which step away from the covers’ concept. What Is Home is a Queen/Smillie song which recalls their work as Tenement And Temple. With a tenebrous cello adding to the melancholic air, it’s chamber folk of the first degree with a dramatic flourish in the vocals. Two songs by Douglas MacIntyre follow. Deep In My Bones revisits the Velvet Underground in its funereal percussion and glowering guitars with Queen sounding disembodied as if she were singing from a coffin buried six feet deep. I Want You To Stop, You’re Killing Me is a much brasher affair with the band sounding as burnished as a quicksilver version of The Byrds circa Younger Than Yesterday. Its sonic brilliance almost disguises the lyrics which seem to about trying to escape from a “gaslighting” relationship but there’s no doubting the excellence of Queen’s performance here. Overall, the album is a reminder that the old Postcard Records’ motto, The Sound of Young Scotland, was not so much age related but more of a state of mind.

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Sulidae. Kitchen Sink Dharma

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Sulidae is a solo project from Glaswegian singer/songwriter Bobby Motherwell although describing Motherwell as a singer/songwriter actually does him some disservice. Aside from playing in the band The Undying Embers, he promotes live music in his abode of Howwood, bags Munros for a charity drive and is an accomplished photographer, poet and prose author. Kitchen Sink Dharma is our first opportunity to listen to Motherwell and its mellow sound, accompanying his warm embrace of humanity in his lyrics, sung with a fine Scots burr, kind of knocked us out by how good it is.

There are songs and spoken word poems. most of them adorned with delicate accompaniment. The players involved (Kirsten Adamson – backing vocals, Andy Lucas – keys, Duncan Lyall – upright bass, Colin Steele – trumpet and Alice Allen – cello) are among the cream of the crop when it comes to Scottish players with Lucas and Steele well known as members of the ever shifting Blue Rose Code and Lyall having a CV to die for. Together, Motherwell and his troupe weave a quite magical tapestry of songs and sounds.

The album opens on a downbeat note as Motherwell sings on A Letter And A Blessing of a relationship which has foundered. The song’s recollection of the more mundane aspects of breaking up allows it the aspect of a kitchen sink drama but there’s a sliver of hope within the lyrics as Motherwell dwells on the aftermath, singing, “The Future looks painfully bright.” Adamson adds ethereal backing vocals while Lucas’ piano is plaintive and elegant. This balance of regret and hope permeates the album with Motherwell able to capture the pathos of writers such as Loudon Wainwright and Richard Thompson while the chamber folk of Unspoken harks back to the earthiness of early Gerry Rafferty on his debut solo album, Can I Have My Money Back.

There’s a nod to classic country duos when a banjo intrudes on the prison ballad Why Don’t You Believe In Me as Adamson trades harmony vocals with the song sounding as if it could be an out-take from a lost Alejandro Escovedo album. In a similar vein, The Child In The Growing positively glows as Motherwell, with Adamson again singing along, muses on the rhythm of life with Colin Steele’s trumpet adding to the circumspection. Motherwell nails his colours to the mast on his solo rendition of Living Like All The Rest which is a confessional of sorts, reminiscent of the late Jackie Leven.

While the songs agonise and tussle with the human condition, there are two spoken word poems which, aside from emphasising Motherwell’s Scottish accent, give the album some emotional ballast. How Peace Was Won, backed by pared back piano and birdsong, finds Motherwell finding some solace in nature and nostalgia while The Silence Was Deafening, which closes the album, again cleaves to nature, almost like a Ted Hughes poem with a Scottish accent. 

Brand New Day erupts towards the end of the album as if someone has swept open the curtains as you are recovering from a hangover. It’s bright and spritely with Steele’s trumpet ringing as clear as a morning reveille and while it’s Motherwell’s celebration of a new start it does somewhat jar within the overall sound of the album. A minor complaint to be sure.

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Miraculous Mule. Old Bones, New Fire.

A London based band who describe themselves as “a group of Anglo-Irish honkies who dig African-American Gospel, prison/work songs and Hillbilly music,” Miraculous Mule are a new name to us here at Blabber’n’Smoke. Intrigued by their blurb, we plugged the disc in and, short story, quite loved this album. The band take a clutch of old blues and gospel numbers and deliver them with some aplomb with a sound which recalls the likes of Delaney & Bonnie, Leon Russell and Stoneground along with more than a whiff of Dylan & The Band’s Basement Tapes in their loose limbed approach.

They open with a chain gang lament on I Know I’ve Been Changed, the singers channelling that feted soulful frenzy which characterised preachers such as Elder Utah Smith, famed for his 1940s recording, Two Wings. Nobody /Nothing is much zippier with frantic banjo and fuzz fuelled guitar while City Of Refuge settles into a soulful groove reminiscent of The Staple Singers.

Familiar songs such as John The Revelator and O Death are given new legs in the arrangements here with the former being quite seductive in its shimmering amalgamation of Pops Staples’ guitar lines and Dr. John like voodoo vibes. Butcher Boy is a brief foray into Child Ballad territory which they carry off quite successfully and You Got To Take Sick And Die wanders into early Greenwich Village Fred Neil territory. Amidst the covers, band leader Michael J. Sheehy offers one original song, We Get What We Deserve which captures the essence of the album – a loose limbed ramble of a song with gospel harmonies and meandering electric guitar which sounds like a companion song to The Stones’ You Can’t Always Get You Want. Closing song, Sinner Man is so closely tied to Nina Simone that the band don’t really deviate from her many versions of the song but just dig down and play it. However, you can’t deny there’s an irresistible temptation to picture the band playing this in the mid 60s on a bill along with Jefferson Airplane and Richie Havens. It’s part of the success of this album that the band simultaneously update these songs and transport you back to more optimistic times. Well recommended.

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Mark Mulholland. Revolutions Go In Circles. Ports of Call Music

Mark Mulholland is a Glaswegian musician who has been a bit of a globetrotter over the years, spending time living and playing in European capitals such as Prague and Berlin while also being heavily involved in the burgeoning wave of African music including producing an album by Tamikrest. On Revolutions Go In Circles he bridges these worlds with a set of songs which in the main are jangled folk rock laced with subtle sub Saharan delicacies. With players such as Toumani Diabate and the late Tony Allen on board, along with musicians from the UK and the States, this truly is an international affair and it is quite an engaging listen.

The album is a collection of songs recorded over the past ten years in various locations. Lockdown allowed Mulholland the luxury of revisiting them and giving them a final polish with additional contributions sent in via the internet. It was nice to see a Blaber’nSmoke favourite, Orit Shimoni featuring heavily on the album adding backing vocals on several of the songs. One thing which struck us on listening to the disc was Mulholland’s stylistic similarity to another musician much admired here, namely Jason McNiff. The pair share a vocal similarity and also an affiliation to the songs of Bert Jansch and a song such as Silence Falling Snow could easily be mistaken for a McNiff song.  They are indeed fellow troubadours.

The album opens strongly with the brisk folk rock of Moving On, loosely based on a hitch-hike through Spain but really an opportunity for Mulholland to toss in a litany of literary and musical heroes which, unsurprisingly, will be familiar to most who were baby boomers and travelled bohemian highways in their youth. In a similar vein, Filling Up The Silence finds Sean Condron’s banjo to the fore on a song which recalls Mulholland’s days living in a dingy Berlin squat while Getting There is a jangled and bejewelled minor gem of a song which shares some of its melody with Another Girl, Another Planet but remains firmly within Mulholland’s troubadour orbit. His nomadic ways are addressed in the fine Celtic airs of Live Anywhere and youthful ambitions are recalled on the excellent Your Race Is Run, a laid back, Dylan like rumination.

A brace of songs rely more heavily on Mulholland’s African connections and the first of these is the bustling River Walk, powered by Tony Allen’s drumming and with Yacouba Sissoko’s variety of instruments including n’goni (an African harp like instrument) sounding much like it were Tamikrest backing the singer. Walk A While cleaves to a western notion of a folk song but it twinkles with delightful kora played by Diabate, a wonderful example of the fusion Mulholland seems capable of achieving. The album closes with an even better example as Mulholland, accompanied by Baba MD, sings 900 Miles, a traditional American song he first heard from a Bert Jansch version but here transported to Mali. It’s quite gorgeous.

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Crosby Tyler. Don’t Call The Law On Me

It’s been a long time (eight years actually) since we last heard from Crosby Tyler, one of those American artists who really delve into the roots of Americana – folk, blues, country and all points in between. He’s come across as a hobo, a blue collar singer songwriter and a veritable one man band on previous releases and worked with the likes of Peter Case and Nickel Creek. Don’t Call The Law On Me (featuring Aubrey Richmond (Shooter Jennings) – fiddle, back-up vocals, Jeff Turmes (Mavis Staples) – bass, Dale Daniel (Hacienda Bros) – drums, Mike Khalil-pedal steel, electric guitar, Kimbra West – back-up vocals) is described by Tyler as  “Involving more pedal steel and Telecaster guitars — my most countryish album to date” citing influences such as Buck Owens, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, David Allan Coe, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Todd Snyder, Robert Earl Keen and Shel Silverstein. Quite a list but, sure enough, Tyler pulls them all together for what is an engaging, rough and ready listen.

The outlaw element is immediately apparent when the title song opens the album. Tyler’s well worn voice is enlivened by Kimbra West’s harmonies as the band work up a fine country rock sweat on a tale of a drunken fist fight. This rangy and nicely ragged sound, not a million miles removed from Doug Sahm’s rockier moments, is revisited on several songs including Tyler’s plea for world peace on the swinging Peace, Love & Beer and on his observations on the dark underbelly of rural life on Us Black Sheep We Ain’t Like The Others as he sings, “Us black sheep we ain’t like the others, We were born to be rowdy mother fuckers, Our blood’s hustling, dealing, stealing, and some days killing.” Best of all is the shit kicking country rock romp of Bikers, Hippies And Them Honky-tonkin’ Cowboys with its raunchy Telecaster and buzzing pedal steel. Tyler also tosses in a couple of truckers’ songs in the shape of Trucker On The Road and 18 Wheels Of Steel, both of them quite exhilarating.

Slowing the pace, Tyler turns in a brace of powerful songs including the jail house lament of Born A Bad Boy which rides on a menacing beat with Aubrey Richmond’s fiddle sparring with Mike Khalil’s keening pedal steel. That fiddle and pedal steel are then accompanied by some very tasty chicken picking country guitar licks on Stop Being An Ol’ Redneck, a sly dig at modern times – “The radio don’t play no David Allan Coe, It’s just Hip hop and this bitch, And it sure don’t twang my soul, Ye all on Facebook and Instagram.” Finally, there’s the excellent The Family I Never Had which finds Tyler singing about the remnants of a band who almost made it big but whose members are now either dead, in jail, serving in a food store or being Jehovah’s Witnesses. It’s quite brilliant and Tyler’s delivery can’t help but remind this reviewer of Ian Hunter’s Ballad Of Mott The Hoople, although in this case the band in question were Tennessee bred.

Coming out of the blue, this album was a very pleasant surprise. Tyler has a gruffness in his voice which reminds one of John Hiatt and he writes with acuity on American dreams, most of them unfulfilled. Meanwhile, the band is a great little combo and a joy to listen to.

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Jason McNiff. Tonight We Ride. Tombola Records

Having spent much of lockdown streaming his weekly Sundowner show (previously held in The Jenny Lind in Hastings), Jason McNiff grew to love the opportunity to play covers of songs he loved and those requested by his virtual audience. Hence, his first post pandemic release is this fine collection of handpicked covers. Given McNiff’s history there’s no surprise that two of his major inspirations, Dylan and Bert Jansch, feature twice and the inclusion of Townes Van Zandt won’t raise any eyebrows but the remainder are an eclectic bunch. What’s certain is that McNiff delivers all in his distinctive style, his wispy vocals, guitar wizardry and fleet footed folk rock are all present and correct and, just to remind you that he is a writer of some distinction, he includes two of his own songs, one of which actually stands out as the best of the album.

The songs feature McNiff  in solo mode and with a rhythm section (with two being more embellished) and much of the album highlights McNiff’s undoubted prowess on various variations of guitar – acoustic and electric, resonator and Spanish guitar. Lest one forget, one of the enduring tales of his formative years is that McNiff was a permanent fixture at the late Bert Jansch’s six month residency in London’s 12 Bar Club, soaking up the maestro’s style and so it’s fitting that the album opens with a song from Jansch, Running From Home, taken from his 1965 solo debut. It’s more jaunty than the original and flows with some zest, reminding one of the folk tradition blooming in the UK in the mid sixties in the wake of Dylan. In comparison, another Jansch song, The Open Road, originally recorded 30 years later is darker and much more rooted in a traditional folk idiom. McNiff, solo in this case, delivers a stark and chilling reading.

It’s interesting to hear McNiff sing a Townes Van Zandt song. The Texan’s gruff fatalism on My Proud Mountains seems more fragile and less defiant in McNiff’s rendition while the Texas dirt is replaced by a rainy London town feeling. Similarly, Dylan’s One Too Many Mornings, while it has a mid sixties organ swirl to it, sounds as if it would be more at home on a Pentangle album. Meanwhile, the other Dylan cover, Precious Angel (from Slow Train Coming), strips away the original’s sheen and is a delicately flecked confection of glistening guitars.

The guitarist on the original Precious Angel was Mark Knopfler and Dire Straits’ Tunnel of Love is one of the more surprising covers on show here. Suffice to say that McNiff performs much the same trick as on the Dylan number, the song stripped of its gloss and given a superb, primarily acoustic makeover. Even more stripped back is his resonator guitar led and gnarly rendition of The Waterboys’ Fisherman’s Blues which, having heard it means this reviewer need never go back to the original as this is just perfect. McNiff has a knack for reducing songs to their basic elements and he delivers a wonderful solo rendition of Leonard Cohen’s Moving On, his Spanish guitar encompassing all of the original’s Grecian dressings, while The Beatles’ Tomorrow Never Knows comes across like a hybrid from Donovan and the very early Jefferson Airplane. Reaching way back, a live rendition of Stephen Foster’s 19th Century song Hard Times harks back to Greenwich Village years, a delightful reminder of vintage times but, all too sadly, very pertinent to these present days.

The title number, a Tom Russell cover, is the most full on song here with the band in full flight. Less melodramatic than the original it’s more in keeping with Dylan’s Desire era outings. The band are also in fine fettle on McNiff’s own song, I Remember You. It’s a glorious song and played here with a sense of joy which, amidst some splendid song covers, might be considered to be the most memorable song here. Whatever, it’s the crown in what is an exceptionally fine album from an exceptionally fine artist.

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