The arrestingly titled Son Of The Velvet Rat are husband and wife duo Georg Altziebler and Heike Binder, both Austrian but now domiciled in Joshua Tree in the Californian desert. Like that other married duo, The Handsome Family, Son Of The Velvet Rat inhabit a somewhat gothic twilight zone, a crepuscular portrait of a sometimes dark and eerie landscape with their muted tones reminiscent of rituals and murky deeds. Producer Joe Henry evokes well the atmosphere in his liner notes which portray a motel, part Bates, part Lynch, all mystery.
The songs slouch forward for the most part with Georg’s voice a haunting half sung threnody (which recalls Chip Taylor’s recent efforts) while the music floats on drifts of organ, accordion and splintered guitar with occasional decoration from pedal steel and violin. A couple of the songs have a pulse beat beyond moribund with Blood Red Shoes a fine upholstered ride along a dark highway with additional vocals from the much missed Victoria Williams while Surfer Joe is like Springsteen taking time out to hang with some Repo Men with an alien in the trunk of their car. Starlight Motel opens with an evocative Spanish guitar trill and spooky harmonica but gradually picks up speed as the gears shift up with Georg on the run from a mystery crime. Part gangster story, part metaphysics, it glows with an evil neon malice, guitars shimmering in the reflection.
The meat of the album is in the slow procession of darkness exemplified by the opening Carry On, a funereal number with weeping violin. Copper Hill is suffused with mournful horns as the song slowly advances again like a funeral but here with a New Orleans like dignity. Love’s The Devil’s Foe rests upon a plaintive organ note before an impassioned plea from Georg to his succubus has the band evoking the elements with splashes of piano and percussion and Shadow Song creeps along with a sinister bass line with occasional flurries of violin, spooky indeed. Sweet Angela is a love song with a twist as the singer sits in the glow of a TV, his remote control out of reach but deciding that an anonymous woman on the screen would be the perfect replacement for “that bitch in Berlin”. The album closes with the claustrophobic existentialism of Franklin Avenue with Georg reimagining an encounter as the band achieve a perfect sense of bathos, a dreamlike evocation.
Dorado is a dark trip into the American psyche and should delight those who admire The Handsome Family and The Walkabouts, a band who infused a dark European feel into their lonesome laments.
Back in January 2015 Blabber’n’Smoke indulged in a bout of reminiscence courtesy of Starry Eyed & Laughing when Forever Young, a fantastic scrapbook of previously unreleased songs and radio sessions compiled by the band’s guitarist and singer Tony Poole was released. Rather than repeat their story you can read the review here. Poole had previously gathered together the band’s two albums and single releases on That Was Then, This Is Now (also on Aurora Records) and that was that, the two releases a comprehensive history of a great band who flamed and burned for a few short years in the seventies. But Poole has continued to delve into the archives and amazingly enough has come up with another album’s worth of songs, 20 to be precise, 14 alternate recordings of songs we know and six previously unreleased. More to the point there’s no sense here of barrels being scraped as the album more than holds its own in comparison to the previous releases. It’s apparent from the glorious Byrds’ like opening song, a cover of Donovan’s To Try For The Sun which does for the Maryhill pixie what McGuinn did for Dylan.
Bearing in mind that the band were in thrall to the American West Coast sound (The Byrds and Dylan, Buffalo Springfield, Moby Grape, CSN&Y) the album is replete with reflections of their forebears and the transition from cover versions to their own songs mirrors that of Forever Young. Thus we get the aforementioned jangle fest of the title song, a lively take on Jackie DeShannon’s When You Walk In The Room as done by The Searchers and a moody For What It’s Worth, performed in a live session with some scorching guitar recalling Clarence White’s work on the live sides of The Byrds’ Untitled album. There’s a nice surprise as they cast their sights on Al Stewart, back then a UK bedsit folkie (way before Year Of The Cat), and subject his Old Compton Street Blues with its Jacques Brel like romanticism to a full on Byrds jingle jangle treatment, Brel replaced by the romanticism of Gene Clark. Clark himself is covered as the band abandon the 1967 string arrangements of Echoes transforming it with an Eastern styled psychedelic fuzz as if Clark was still on board for Younger Than Yesterday and Crosby was in charge of the droning guitars. It’s a fabulous version and proof that Starry Eyed & Laughing were deep into their influences as back then Clark was barely on the horizon and copies of his sixties albums were as rare as hen’s teeth.
The first sessions for the first album offer up a sparkling Going Down, still a rush after all these years, a brisk 50/50 Better Stop Now and a very fine version of Money Is No Friend Of Mine. To my mind this tops the version that ended up on the album, it’s less jaunty and more akin to the spirit of Woody Guthrie’s Do Re Mi with some fine twang guitar thrown in. Alternate takes or radio sessions of songs such as Closer To You Now, Nobody Home, Down The Street and Oh What are welcome additions to the canon and the album closes with the previously unheard Sea Comes At Its Edges, an elegiac sweep of spangled guitars, folk song and modern technology which captures the visions of McGuinn and Crosby perfectly.
On a sad note, as Tony Poole was readying this album for release it was announced that Starry Eyed & Laughing drummer Michael Wackford had died and the album is dedicated to his memory.
Outside My Mind is the second album from London based singer/songwriter Ned Roberts. Recorded in LA in old fashioned style (direct to tape, an attempt to capture the spontaneity of the band in the studio) with producer Luther Russell on drums, electric guitar and piano there’s a spare and intimate feel to the album allowing Roberts’ songs plenty of space to impress. And impressive it is as Roberts turns in a set that is warm and mellow recalling Greenwich Village folkies and their UK counterparts’ bucolic ramblings. Roberts’ voice is closely miked with his slightly nasal delivery reminiscent of James Taylor at times, his acoustic guitar playing ripples like a rustic stream and his harmonica wheezes just like Dylan’s did. While the album does evoke hazy memories of sixties troubadours Roberts manages to capture the timeless aspect of the best of that oeuvre with Outside My Mind a contemporary album built on solid foundations. In this respect Roberts marks himself as an artist on a par with the excellent (and sorely missed) Hobotalk along with current artists such as Norrie McCulloch and Blue Rose Code.
It’s apparent from the opening song that Roberts is plucking from the branches of the fruitful sixties as Drifting Down tumbles slowly (and wonderfully) along lines set down by the likes of Bert Jansch and early Fairport Convention with Russell’s curled guitar in particular recalling very early Richard Thompson. Through The Arches rolls along in a similar vein with Russell’s piano and skittering drums evoking the jazzy folk feel that was Joe Boyd’s trademark. The title song (which closes the album) revisits this sound with Jason Hiller’s bass playing here rumbling throughout the song in a manner that I’m sure Danny Thompson would approve of. Elsewhere Roberts mirrors the genius that was Tim Hardin on Letter Home with its doomed romanticism and delicate string arrangement while Lights On The River is borne aloft on a soulful organ groove with Roberts here sounding like Dylan circa Self Portrait and the band sounding like, well, The Band.
Lyrically the album is a collection of love songs which, in the main, are melancholic, wistful recollections, hopeful murmurings with nature often invoked. Rivers and rushing waters, snow and rain, coats held tightly against a breeze the backdrop for Roberts’ musings. The whole is a wonderful collection of late night listening delight as the vocals and arrangements wash over a tired but soon to be satisfied mind.
Prior to his album launch on 29th March Ned Roberts is playing a few gigs in the UK including one at the Fallen Angels Club on Tuesday 21st March at The Admiral Bar and an Edinburgh show the following night at The Leith Depot.
It kind of takes your breath away when the first thing you read in the PR blurb for an album is that the artist is the recipient of 27 Grammy Awards. Apparently that’s the case with Alison Krauss and it ties her with Quincy Jones as second most winner (Conductor George Solti is at the top with 31). Krauss of course has won most of these in the Bluegrass category, her work with her band Union Station considered to have been a major force in the recent resurgence of Bluegrass especially via her contributions to the soundtracks of Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? and Cold Mountain. Originally it was her fiddle playing that made people stand to attention but increasingly she has concentrated on singing with her album recorded with Robert Plant, Raising Sand, a major success.
Windy City is her first solo album in 17 years and it marks another signpost in her career. In tandem with her producer, the Nashville veteran Buddy Cannon, Krauss has selected ten songs that sing to her for various reasons, the majority of them recorded before she was born. The result places Krauss in pole position if we ever need a replacement for Dolly Parton, a singer with significant country chops but who is able to offer up radio friendly fodder without descending into mindless pop. A couple of the songs here are delivered in a mainstream ballad style (both of them associated with Brenda Lee, Losing You and All Alone Am I) that are just a wee bit too stage musical for comfort and Roger Miller’s River In The Rain taxes her voice at times but elsewhere Krauss and Cannon deliver the goods.
The delightful honky tonk drive of It’s Goodbye And So Long To You with its curling pedal steel and rinky dink piano offer Krauss an opportunity to dive in with an unalloyed joy before she delves into the classic tear stained Windy City. Dream Of Me is a fine slice of Nashville pop with the band expertly delivering some twang guitar, sweet pedal steel and nifty piano as Krauss croons the lyrics. Apparently this was a song she chose not knowing that it was written by producer Cannon and once decided on Cannon and his daughter Melanie sing the background vocals. Whatever, it’s a perfect vehicle for Krauss as is Poison Love, another pedal steel fuelled swoon of a song with some added exotica in the Mexican stylings of the guitar solos. While the majority of these covers might be considered somewhat obscure Krauss breaks out two that will be familiar to most. John Hartford’s Gentle On My Mind is given a fine run through with the arrangement more in tune with Hartford’s original as opposed to Glen Campbell’s version and Krauss manages it with flying colours. Willie Nelson’s I Never Cared For You is given an appropriately dramatic arrangement, the vocals soaring over this darkly romantic song. Closing the album Krauss revisits the ballad treatment we dismissed earlier on but on You Don’t Know Me (recorded by Eddy Arnold and Ray Charles), she dips into Patsy Cline territory as she swoons and croons and the band lay down a tearful country backdrop.
It’s hard to believe that it was back in 2005 when Blabber’n’Smoke first heard Adriana Spina when her debut EP, A Thousand Lives was released. Since then the Scots singer/songwriter has been on the road gradually working her way up the ladder to the point where she has landed prestigious support slots for the likes of Joan Armatrading, Eddi Reader, Dar Williams and Sheryl Crow. On the recording front, she released her debut album in 2011 and now, after a successful crowd funding campaign, she unveils its follow-up, the highly accomplished Let Out The Dark with its lead single, Sparkle named as a single of the week by Radio Scotland’s Janice Forsyth.
Spina sits comfortably within the sphere of artists such as Mary Chapin Carpenter, her songs are modern folk tales set within arrangements that can be subtle or rock out with some finesse as on the radio friendly Disappear which appears towards the end of Let Out the Dark. With its surging guitars and Spina’s dynamic voice which manages the twists and turns of the song excellently it’s perfect for spinning on the road on a sunlit day. Hear It From You is another rocker that just fails to capture the heights of Disappear but it belts along with some vigour while there’s an REM glimmer to the guitars on Spina’s ode to refugees on See Another Day. There’s a similar brooding guitar delivery on the love gone cold tale of The Same Drum, a song that matches the best of many of her US contemporaries.
There are more introspective moments and the album opens with perhaps the best one, the slow toll beat of Home with Spina pondering on a relationship that’s perhaps damaged beyond repair. Her voice here is a delight, multitracked to provide her own harmonies while the band (Stuart MacLeod and Ross McFarlane) with Spina on acoustic guitar spin a delicate web that recalls some of Richard Thompson’s darker work reminding one of the album Shoot Out The Lights. Two Steps has a cold Northern feel to the music which is amplified by some of the images in the lyrics with Spina again reflecting on love lost and while one might initially think that Don’t Recognise Me, a delightfully simple rendition with only Spina and her guitar on show, is yet another ode to lost love the lyrics seem to allude to childhood and adolescent years with a family member.
Sparkle is a miniature gem, a Christmas song of sorts but one that finds Spina forlorn as the strains of Band Aid on the radio signal another year over and she ponders on whether she should surrender to the myths and jollity of the season. Throughout the album there’s a thread of abandonment and the closing song Where You Are is a bare boned bedsit wallow with Spina turning the blame for a failed romance on herself as she echoes early Joni Mitchell in some of her phrasing. A lovely end to a very fine album.
To celebrate the release of the album Adriana Spina has a launch party at Glasgow’s The Flying Duck on March 24th before embarking on a brief tour around the UK. All dates here.
It’s always been difficult to pin The Sadies down. They came tearing out of Canada in the 90’s with a fine mash up of instrumental rock and alt country detouring to collaborate with soul singer Andre Williams (and eventually becoming as well known for further collaborations as their own efforts). Gradually the instrumentals took second place to harmonic vocals and their 2007 album New Seasons is generally regarded as a minor classic and with Northern Passages they’ve assembled another album that at the very least deserves to be considered on a par with New Seasons and in this writer’s consideration is a far more assured affair. While they still offer up an agglomeration of influences The Sadies transcend them as they gather together sixties psychedelic country, proto punk aggro, Paisley Underground and college rock; the parts welded into a sleek well tuned machine.
They open with the trippy psych folk of Riverview Fog channelling the Byrds circa The Notorious Byrds Brothers before barrelling into the Detroit metal ramalama of Another Season Again fuelled by snotty MC5 like arrogance. This dichotomy runs throughout the album with dips into country rock countered by all out freakouts with power chords and feedback well to the fore, at times this occurs within the one song, witness the astounding There Are No Words and the powerful The Elements Song which is a wonderful wall of sound infused with incense, peppermints and incendiary guitars. There are wide open vistas on the frantic acoustic drive that is peppered with Morricone like guitar flashes which is Through Strange Eyes while God Bless The Years is (almost) straightforward country rock with pedal steel almost tongue in cheek here (and recalling again The Byrds on Drug Store Truck Driving Man). The Good Years is a narrative that could have been penned by Paul Simon back in the days and delivered as if Simon and his buddy Art were perhaps on those pep pills so popular back then while As Above, So Below has a sixties like baroque pop groove.
There’s fuzz guitar and feedback. Melody and mayhem. Psych pop and strutting grooves. The curious amalgam of Gene Clark and The Yardbirds that is Questions I’ve Never Asked perhaps the best example of the duality on show here but overall Northern Passages is a thrilling ride and perhaps the best Sadies album so far.
Copenhagen finds Scandinavian artist Benjamin Folke Thomas continuing his journey from folkie (admired as much for his finger picking skills as his songs) to melodic rock band leader. Recorded with the same line up as on Rogue State Of Mind the album is less punchy than its predecessor with Thomas’s attractive baritone well to the fore over a backing that rarely lets loose but is more sonically adventurous. The opening song, Good Enough For Me, is a prime example as the band settle into a mid tempo shuffle with Thomas almost talking through the Dylan like lyrics before his refrain is amplified by muted guitar swirls. As the song progresses the guitars muster some energy before breaking out into a Thin Lizzy type duality without disturbing the neighbours. The following Rhythm And Blues is sparkier with an acoustic guitar thrash and is the first of several songs that address relationships. The band are in fine folk rock form here but the passion emanates from Thomas’s vocals.
There’s a great deal of passion involved here but again it’s down to Thomas’s voice or his lyrics with one song, Hold On particularly scathing as Thomas tears into some rock idols and their predilection for youthful flesh. The soulful intro in Good Friend Again finds Thomas recovering from the night before and disturbed by the neighbours, “fucking through the wall” before he goes on to scourge himself for his failings while the band slowly ramp up the tension. Bad News finds Thomas approximating Leonard Cohen’s apocalyptic pronouncements on his The Future album down to Cohen’s use of keyboards and programmed drums on an enigmatic song that might refer to the global banking crisis that still has us bailing out the banks.
Nestled within these songs are some gems. Finn is a trilogy of tributes to three people in his life that wafts wonderfully with the band finely pulsating and sending out some barbed guitar shards that swell towards the end as a chorus of backing vocals come in and then fade leaving only a beating drum. Copenhagen 30/6 is lighter fare with as its almost bossa nova beat finds Thomas recalling a rock’n’roll romance threatened by poor gigs and too much booze but with a hopeful ending. Struck Gold is about salvation via a muse and again the band gently propel the song along with a funereal beat and slivers of guitar. The song itself is one that had it been written back then might have been selected by Johnny Cash for one of his valedictory albums. The album closes with Thomas revisiting his earlier folk persona with Gimme A Smile recalling the work of Tom Paxton.
The album’s released this Friday and Benjamin Folke Thomas starts a short UK and Europe tour tonight, dates here.