When a band says that they take their inspiration from pre-war country music, The Carter Family, and the psych-cowboy music of Lee Hazelwood, then the results are either going to be a mess or something a wee bit magical. Thankfully, in this case it’s the latter as this London based trio (who expand when required) turn in a grand listen on their debut album. Truth be told we can’t find too much evidence of The Carter Family here but there are oodles of Hazlewood styled melodramas with an added ingredient of spaghetti western fuzzed guitars to spice it up a little. They also cite “hillbilly noir” writer Daniel Woodrell (author of Winter’s Bone) as an influence with the result that many of the songs are deliciously dark examples of gory gothic Americana not too dissimilar from that of The Handsome Family.
Led by Frank Sweeney who was a member of indie favourites The June Brides the band comprise of Sweeney along with Annie Holder (guitar, vocals and autoharp), Adi Staempfli (bass and vocals) and Charlotte Burke (drums and percussion). Since his indie days Sweeney has obviously become steeped in that old weird Americana (or the Arkana of the title with Sweeney alluding to The Tarot and its themes of death, confusion and justice) which has informed so many great albums. As such there is some old fashioned music on the disc in the form of the banjo driven Oliver Curtis Perry Part 1 which rattles along much like the train which Oliver Curtis Perry robbed back in the 1890’s. Meanwhile their version of Down In The Willow Garden (heard by Sweeney on The Everlys’ Songs Our Daddy Taught Us) roots around in the tradition while adding a wonderful psychedelic folk fug to the arrangement with the song coming across as if it were by Pearls Before Swine.
However it’s the dramatic mix of doomed romanticism, twanged guitar and sweeping orchestral sounds along with the Nancy and Lee like duets which really grab the ear here. Goodbye My Friend is not too far removed from Down In The Willow Garden but it has a much grander cinematic dimension to it. Black Dog Following Me is quite majestic with its fuzz guitar, strings and horns so evocative of images imprinted on us from western movies while the vocals are up there with Some Velvet Morning. That they can repeat this trick several times on Trav’ler, 22 and Dust of Mars just ups the ante for those of us who are suckers for this freaky frontier music (and surely 22 must get the award for the best murder song allied to a jaunty clip clop Mexicali trot if such an award exists). Best of all is Cousin’s War which opens with a gloom laden organ before a banjo clips in urging the song forward as Sweeney opens the proceedings singing, “A summers day, a yellow dress, she wore violets in her hair/She was to marry her own true love, with a love only they could share/But her brother took a hunting knife, He hurt her love full sore/And he is dead by her brother’s hand, that led a family into war.”
If you are interested in murder ballads, border ballads or just plain old-fashioned gory story telling with a cinematic scope then round up a posse and seek out this album, we’re sure you will enjoy it.
Here’s a whirlwind tour of the album…
And one to savour…
Black Dog Following Me by The Magic City Trio from the magic city trio on Vimeo.
JP Harris modestly describes himself as a carpenter who writes country songs. On his third album, Sometimes Dogs Bark at Nothing, he has indeed carved an excellent benchmark by which the remainder of this year’s releases should be measured. A colourful (and heavily tattooed) character, Harris has lived an itinerant life since leaving eighth grade class in Alabama, riding the rails and hitching lifts for a decade or so picking up labouring jobs for a spell and then moving on. This lifestyle informs several of his songs which he delivers with a raw authenticity whether they be hard driving honky tonkers or gritty ballads and on this album he even tackles some sweet Nashville countrypolitan sounds.
The album opens with the flat out pedal to the metal rocker, JP’s Florida Blues #1. Fuelled by some barrelling organ and fiery slide guitar the songs soars from the outset and with its female harmonies adding a southern swell to the ride this is like The Allmans’ on amphetamines. Anyone who has seen one of Harris’ incendiary live shows will know what to expect here and he delivers more hard drivin’ country on the truckin’ Hard Road which features some tightly coiled guitar and pedal steel licks while Jimmy’s Dead and Gone starts off in hard scrabble skiffle fashion before the band weigh in like a runaway locomotive as Harris turns in the best hobo train song in a long long time. Thrilling stuff indeed but Harris spends more time on the album showing us that he can rein it in and wax poetic in more delicate fashion.
Lady in the Spotlight is the tale of a disillusioned would be starlet that with its rippling guitars and folky melody could have been penned by Shel Silverstein or Tom T. Hall. Runaway meanwhile is a red dirt country slope with some fine Dobro playing as Harris inhabits similar territory as the late Guy Clark and to his credit stakes a fine claim regarding his right to be there adding the next song, Miss Jeanne-Marie, another plaintive ballad in similar fashion, just to be sure. In addition, Harris shows that he can rival Joshua Hedley in the drinking and sinking Nashville sad song category with the excellent pairing of When I Quit Drinking and I Only Drink Alone. Meanwhile the limpid croon of Long Ways Back with its satin smooth guitar is just superb and it’s hard to believe that it wasn’t written by Willie Nelson.
The album’s curious title comes from the delightful homily of the same name which has Harris posing a series of questions the answer to all seemingly just because they can. A brief song featuring only acoustic guitar and Dobro it’s a fine distillation of Harris’ writing and singing talents which is nestled within an excellent set of songs making up what is essentially a fantastic album.
The 12th Glasgow Americana Festival kicks off today as Bristol based Yola Carter brings her hi-energy mix of soul and country to Cottiers Theatre. Carter, winner of UK artist of the year and Song of the Year at the AMA UK awards is just the curtain raiser for a splendid roster of acts pouring into Glasgow over the next five days. Emily Barker, well known to many for her theme song for the BBC drama Wallander and for her spot in the opening ceremony at the London Olympics, will be showcasing her Memphis influenced soulful blues album Sweet Kind of Blue while Kimmie Rhodes, a true red dirt Texan legend is also coming along.
Nathan Bell, winner of the performer of the year award in 2017 by the influential website Americana UK returns to the city which he took by storm at Celtic Connections some 18 months ago and another singular performer, Anthony D’Amato is at the HIP place to be on the south side, The Glad Cafe. Also coming to the Glad Cafe are the UK “supergroup” Bennett Wilson Poole for their first Scottish appearance. This trio of seasoned and bloody brilliant musicians have dominated the UK roots Americana scene ever since their album came out earlier this year and this gig is definitely worthy of “bucket list” attention.
There’s plenty of home grown talent on show as Martha L Healy and Starry Skies both have album launch shows (with Healy’s show apparently sold out, sorry folks) while The Hellfire Club’s show at The Hug & Pint promises to be a hot and sweaty intimate shindig. And for an interesting mix of local and American acts there’s the ever popular Hazy Recollections revue which includes Woody Pines and Adriana Spina on the bill which this year is being hosted by Glasgow’s answer to Whispering Bob Harris, our very own Mike Ritchie. In addition to the main acts there are some great supports adding to the experience and the whole line up can be found here.
Check the links above for Blabber’n’Smoke’s thoughts on some of the acts and see some video evidence of the avalanche of talent coming this week. Get thee down there.
For her second album Scottish singer songwriter Martha L. Healy returned to Nashville where her first album Better Days was recorded. Three years on from that release and it’s evident that Ms. Healy has moved on from the primarily country influences heard on that album as Keep The Flame Alight is a much more personal and introspective collection of songs although there still dashes of country sass as on the excellent Woman With No Shame and the swampy Livin’ Someone Else’s Dream. Some of this progress was evident on her EP, To Be Free, where Healy paid tribute to Hank Williams and Patsy Cline but also showed on her song Too Much Time that she was developing her writing chops as we compared her to the likes of Mary Chapin Carpenter and Gretchen Peters at the time.
Much of Keep The Flame Alight maintains this direction as Healy digs into her own conflicts and also delivers some powerful songs which address the fickleness of human relationships. With excellent support from a cast of Nashville players the songs flow beautifully whether it be the metronomic percussion, delicate piano and fiddle on the title song or the slight Celtic influences on Unmade Bed and Mickey. Meanwhile Healy sings wonderfully, clear as a bell with Wendy Newcomer adding fine harmonies.
The album opens with the haunting melody of No Place Like Home with Healy expressing the sense of homesickness she experienced in Nashville, the place of her dreams perhaps but also miles away from her familiar haunts and her family. There’s a fine sense of longing in her voice as she sings of the rainy days and warm fires she misses as the band offer some comfort with a sweet fiddle solo over a muted blend of twangy guitar and accordion. The title song finds Healy in an almost existential dilemma as she worries about the march of time, counting the lines on her face in the mirror and fearful of the darkness which she fears could envelope her. The chorus is a strong declaration that she can fight this and welcome each day as a new beginning and this ultimately uplifting song is bolstered by the magnificent playing on show which is polished to a sheen with Rory Hoffman’s piano playing of particular note.
Elsewhere Healy shows that she has a firm grasp on storytelling with Fall In Love Again narrated by a woman still longing for an old paramour. Woman With No Shame meanwhile portrays the doubts of a woman who is looking for love but who ends up in a series of one night stands and Livin’ Someone Else’s Dream is basically the diary of a bored housewife. All of these are delivered with an unashamed American sounding backing with Dobro leading the way through Woman With No Shame while Livin’ Someone Else’s Dream visits a southern swampy morass. Unmade Bed is another story song but here there’s a fine Celtic lilt to the song as Healy inhabits the mind of a woman who has a fling with a childhood sweetheart. The Celtic folk influence is heard again on the mantra of We Will Be Okay which seems bound to be an audience sing-along when played live. Healy closes the album with a fine homily on Don’t Give Up which revisits some of the themes of the title song, strength in the face of adversity and again it’s delivered with a wonderfully played combination of piano, accordion and fiddle over pitter pattering percussion as she sings with true conviction.
On Keep The Flame Alive Healy has delivered a mature and immersive set of songs superbly played by her Nashville cats. One misses the exuberance of some of her earlier songs perhaps but as a statement it’s a defiant one proclaiming that she has moved on.
It’s always a cause for celebration when a new Richard Thompson album comes out. An artist who has rarely put a foot wrong over a 50 year career, he’s one of those touchstones (a bit like Nick Lowe or Loudon Wainwright) who constantly remind one of what great song writing is all about. 13 Rivers follows on from the two volumes of Acoustic Classics, which found Thompson revisiting his back catalogue, and the Jeff Tweedy produced Still which stands up as perhaps his best album over the past decade and a half.
13 Rivers doesn’t have the light and shade of Still, being more of a rock album with the sterling work of drummer Michael Jerome very much driving the songs along as bassist Taras Prodaniuk lays down solid bedrock. Meanwhile Thompson’s guitar slashes and burns on several of the numbers, sometimes duelling with guitarist Bobby Eichorn, and recalling some of the more fiery moments on 2013’s Electric. In addition, there’s a dark undercurrent flowing through the album with Thompson saying that he wrote the songs in “A dark time.” His troubles aren’t specified but from the portentous and roiling album opener, The Storm Won’t Come, to the closing Shaking The Gates, a melancholic number which recalls his very early works, there’s a sense of doom embedded throughout. It’s most pronounced on the excellent My Rock, My Rope where Thompson seems to be clinging by his fingernails over a bottomless abyss. Bones of Gilead, despite its spritely delivery, has a biblical like bloodiness to it while The Dog In You growls over a slow blues like beat as Thompson offers a damning exposition of the song subject’s failings.
Although there’s a great deal of bile and rancour here Thompson keeps a firm hand on the tiller as the band weld together creating some scintillating sounds. Perhaps the most savage song, Pride, sparkles with Eichorn’s guitar flourishes and there’s even a hint of Carry On comedy as Thompson sings the words, “Infamy, infamy.” It’s very tempting to consider 13 Rivers a break up album but overall it’s sufficient to appreciate that Thompson has always flourished when he’s down at the dark end of the street. When he can summon up such a perfect burst of rock music as on The storm Won’t Come – a song which could have sat easily on Fleetwood Mac’s Then Play On – it’s maybe just best to sit back and let the storm burst over you.
Best known for his associations with Hiss Golden Messenger and freak folk band Megafaun Phil Cook has also spent time as the musical director for The Blind Boys of Alabama and worked with Mavis Staples. It’s the latter names who spring to mind as one spins People Are My Drug which is steeped in gospel music and New Orleans rhythms, the impressive array of female singers who whoop, holler and testify with a soulful abandon giving the disc its signature sound.
From the swamp like Steam Powered Blues to the closing cover of Allen Toussaint’s Life, Cook almost takes a back seat, aside from his Pops Staples’ like guitar licks. Instead a layered chorus of voices are to the fore recalling the likes of The Edwin Hawkins singers or indeed The Staples with Tide of Life probably the most uplifting example here. Even Randy Newman’s He Gives Us All His Love is transformed into a devotional shout out to the Lord, the harmonies evangelising as if this were all one big tent meeting. Toussaint’s Life meanwhile ends in a horn fuelled Crescent City bacchanalia.
People Are My Drug is a joyous album which bears comparisons with the work of Ry Cooder as Cook celebrates an important strand of American roots music.
Sam Misner and Megan Smith were both actors before joining forces musically after meeting at a Shakespeare Festival. Having released four albums notable for the pair’s harmony singing here they return somewhat to their thespian roots explaining this collection of covers by saying, “Every actor’s job is to interpret someone else’s words…For us, approaching covers is about capturing the essence of the song…”
The duo tackle eight songs they claim as inspirations. There are no radical reinventions here, the covers all recognisable. The pair sing wonderfully, both individually and in harmony while their playing is exemplary particularly in the interplay between double bass and guitar on their delightful version of Dr. Dog’s Turning the Century, a song which has the freshness one imagines folk heard when they first encountered Simon and Garfunkel back in the sixties. Indeed the album opens with Simon and Garfunkel’s America, so faithful to the original that one is surprised when a clarinet fails to play, and they repeat this on songs by The Loving Spoonful, Gram Parsons and The Band. They do surprise with their version of Talking Heads City of Dreams which comes across as if it were Neil Young covering it round about the time of Comes a Time. As with most collections of covers one might ask, “why bother?” but it is a very pleasant listen.