Jim Byrne. 4 Country & Folk Songs. Fox Star Records

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Glasgow’s Jim Byrne is something of a musical chameleon. Over the course of four solo albums and a couple of EPs as a member of The Bearpit Brothers, he has rooted around various pop, folk and tin pan alley styles while he will be fondly remembered locally for his fledging years in Clydebank playing punk and garage rock, including a stint in The Primevals. So far he has been firmly in the independent camp when it came to his recordings but for 4 Country & Folk Songs, he finds himself on the roster of Fox Star Records, a situation which allows him to proudly (somewhat tongue in cheek) proclaim, “59 year old songwriter signs his first record deal.”

Following in the footsteps of musicians as varied as Dan Hicks and Richard Hawley, Byrne delves into past sounds and reinvigorates them. Be it on the fragile and broken down country waltz of The Yellow Clock or the twanged telecaster thrums on The Holy Ghost, he sets the scene and then peoples it with his fine baritone croon and keen lyrics.

The four song EP opens with an eerie fiddle introduction to The Yellow Clock, a haunting song which inhabits the thoughts of a daughter returned home from her mother’s funeral. Surrounded by mementos, she surrenders into a reverie, almost hypnotised by the ticking clock. With rustic fiddle (by Kurt Baumer) and harmony vocals from Lesley O’Brien, Byrne paints a perfect miniature of grief and loss. This Heart Of Mine Is A Blind Blind Fool, in contrast, is quite jaunty as Byrne looks to Hank Williams and his ilk for inspiration, adding in a mild Jambalaya of swampy Cajun sounds with O’Brien again joining in on vocals.

Tell The Devil I’ve Stole His Crown Of Pain is a grand melodrama which neatly sits within murder ballad and Child ballad idioms. The culprit here is a shadowy and somewhat supernatural figure who is “born with the devil’s charm,” the type of character you’d be well advised to avoid never mind entering into a contract with him. It’s wonderfully realised with a lonesome fiddle providing the melody over a repetitive guitar rythym while Byrne comes across like Nick Cave channelling Johnny Cash. Cash comes to mind again, along with Lee Hazlewood, on the concluding song, Holy Ghost. It’s cinematic, almost widescreen, as it boils down religious symbols, spaghetti westerns and an old fashioned love story into one great pot boiler. If Quentin Tarantino is still on the lookout for songs to put on his next pulp film, then he’d find some salvation here.

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Nathan Bell. Red, White and American Blues (It Couldn’t Happen Here) Need To Know Music

Woody Guthrie famously had a sticker on his guitar which stated, “This guitar kills fascists.” Of course, he never actually hit a Nazi over the head with the thing or garrotted one with an E-string but I guess we all know where he was coming from. Nathan Bell might have a baseball bat at home which he calls his Nazi thumper but again, it’s doubtful that he’ll crack anyone’s skull with it. However, he’s certainly in the same ball park as Woody when it comes to his songs.

Bell’s late blossoming as a songwriter and performer of note began with his “Family Man” trilogy which saw him singing about the hard pressed everyday folk of America. His empathy, observations and acute insight raised the bar for so-called “blue collar” folk music and he was an immediate hit in the UK when he started to perform over here back in 2017. This coincided with the election of a tangerine toned oaf to the high office of President of The United States, a travesty which outraged Bell and which led to his spectacular album, Love > Fear (48 hours in Traitorland). This was the tip of an iceberg of populism which saw several countries around the world elect (or being duped into consolidating) demagogues into office. The warning signs were apparent and the subtitle of Bell’s latest album makes it clear that, despite the demise of Trump, we’re still in a dangerous place.

It Can’t Happen Here is a 1935 novel by the Nobel prize winning American author, Sinclair Lewis. It describes the election of a popular demagogue to the White House who soon begins to institute fascist laws (strangely enough it started to sell again in early 2017). Bell changes Can’t to Couldn’t, indicating that it’s too early to say that this will never happen. The album title is a warning shot, a reminder that all need to be vigilant although the disc itself is a more rounded affair, much more nuanced than had it consisted of “finger pointing songs.” There’s a great deal of anger enveloped within its grooves but there’s also a great deal of love and respect.

The majority of Bell’s albums have been acoustic affairs so it’s a bit of a jolt to hear the Pete Townshend like guitar crashing in at the beginning of Angola Prison. It’s the muscle of the piece, jolted by the sinewy and melodic acoustic guitar which underpins the song as Bell tears into the cruel punishments meted out to mainly black prisoners in this infamous jail. It’s a powerful opener and Bell opts for full band workouts on several other songs such as on the slippery bar room blues of Wrong Man For The Job (“If I was the President I’d start another war. Wouldn’t care who we were fighting or what we’re fighting for. I’d take all your money and slip out the back door…”) and the Stones’ like back alley scrabbling which is Mossberg Blues. Meanwhile, Running On The Razor, a song Bell wrote in response to a documentary on a Southern family which he describes as poverty porn, is a deliciously dark slice of voodoo blues which has Aubrey Sellers adding her soulful voice to Bell’s gruff delivery. It’s quite magnificent but it’s not going to played on the radio anytime soon so you’ll need to buy this motherf***er in order to hear it.

There’s an electrifying electric version of Retread Cadillac, a song about Lightnin’ Hopkins which first appeared on Bell’s 2019 release The Right Reverend Crow Sings New American Folk And Blues. Here, it’s Regina McCrary who generates the power as she sashays, moans and testifies, transforming the song. It’s McCrary again who adds the vocal oomph to Mossberg Blues and clearly Bell is having a ball with these stellar vocal sparring partners as he also has Patty Griffin sing on three of the songs here. These are more reflective, and in two cases, more personal songs, allowing Griffin to entwine her voice with Bell’s in the grand manner of Parsons and Harris. American Gun is contemplative as Bell simplifies America’s approach to the world which weirdly enough boils down to Mao’s infamous dictum that “all political power comes from a barrel of a gun.”A Lucky Man finds Bell writing about his travels overseas and reflecting on his mortality, with the song dedicated to his late father while To Each Of Us is an achingly beautiful love song.

There are many facets to this fascinating album which was recorded in 2019 but held over due to the pandemic. Some of the songs foreshadow, not the pandemic, but the political mess we remain in with Bell calling out those who pull the levers, not to benefit others but themselves. He can pull at your heartstrings but he can also raise your pulse as he rails against injustice. Maybe this album can kill fascists.

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Charley Crockett. Music City USA. Thirty Tigers

Far from being locked down, Charley Crockett seems to have been incredibly busy over the past year. August 2020 saw the release of his excellent album, Welcome To Hard Times and then his tribute to the late James Hand came out earlier this year. On a roll then and here comes Music City USA, a glorious collection of songs on which Crockett roots around country, soul and rockabilly with some abandon, ably supported by his band The Blue Drifters. One might assume that the title alludes to Nashville but Crockett roams further afield allowing that many cities in the states have their own claim to music fame, although it’s fair to say that he is rooted in the south and south west on what he calls his “gulf and western” album.

Compared to Welcome To Hard Times there’s more variety on show here and while many of the subjects remain the same, Crockett seems to have a more personal investment in several of them. Songs of outsiders hoping to be discovered relate to his busking years and, on a wider canvas, he takes aim at the dismal situation we all find ourselves in these days. Despite the sometimes grim topics the songs are all gussied up and presented quite wonderfully. The ghosts of Hank Williams, Buck Owens, George Jones and even Doug Sahm and Solomon Burke may haunt the record, but it’s vibrant and colourful, as is the excellent artwork on the cover which is quite evocative in its Kodachrome intensity and retro design.

Honest Fight opens the album in a charming and disarming way as Crockett adopts an everyman pose, toiling to get by and standing up for himself. It’s similar in style to many of the songs on Welcome To Hard Times with its straightforward country feel and several songs such as The World Just Broke My Heart, Are We Lonesome Yet, Smoky and Just So You Know follow suit. Crockett knows his stuff and he ranges across a variety of so-called country genres. There’s a Bakersfield touch to Lies And Regret while Buck Owens comes to mind on the title song and there’s surely more than a hint of George Jones in the apologetic Hanger On while Round The World is a helter skelter banjo driven ride. The title song, a wonderfully upbeat countrypolitan number, finds Crockett slyly railing against the corporate side of Nashville. These are all original songs couched perfectly in their various idioms but he also delivers two covers which drive home his knowledge of and love for these classic songs. Muddy Water is a delightful outlaw song, originally recorded by Stonewall Jackson and given here a Cash like delivery. Skip A Rope however is a horse of a different colour. A mid 60s song by Henson Cargill, it’s in a similar category to Porter Wagoner’s Rubber Room, that is to say it is quite unbalanced and ripe for revival as the deceptively jolly playing belies the description of a dysfunctional family who bring up a racist kid.

While Crockett rides imperiously across these varied country genres, he also swoops into the melting pot of his gulf and western musical gumbo. He fronts a horn section on the pleading I Need Your Love and totally nails the sound one associates with Muscle Shoals, a feat he repeats on I Won’t Cry which could have come from the pen of Dan Penn or Spooner Oldham. Acknowledging that blend of blues, soul and country which flourished in the late 60s, he then delivers the wonderful This Foolish Game which should delight any fans of James Carr. However, the highpoint of the album is when Crockett swivels back to dark country sounds on the gutbucket country thump of 518, a song that sounds like Hank Williams backed by The Bad Seeds. Quite exquisite. All in all Crockett gets you to thinking that Music City USA is not so much a place, more a state of mind.

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Suzie Ungerleider. My Name Is Suzie Ungerleider. Stella Records

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Ms. Ungerleider will be better known to most readers as Oh Susannah whose debut album Jonestown has long been well respected. Her name change is in part due to her increasing awareness of the racist and “minstrelsy” associations of the original Stephen Foster song which she had adopted for her stage name. She goes on to say this also represents a personal decision allowing her to feel more comfortable as herself rather than hiding behind the moniker. The proud, almost defiant title of this album certainly does seem like a relaunch of sorts but nestled within the album cover is a sweet selection of songs which display that Ungerleider certainly continues to be an excellent song writer and performer, fragile while, at times, quite powerful.

The album is perfectly produced by Jim Bryson who allows Ungerleider’s voice and the muted, mainly acoustic, trappings of the songs plenty of room to breathe. It’s dreamlike at times although on occasion these dream can be unsettling. Two songs, Baby Blues and Disappear, inhabit the mind of a child who is witness to disturbing scenes but they are counter balanced by a pair of delightful love songs to her own child on Summerbaby (which relates the kid’s premature birth) and Hearts. Alongside these there is a song co written with bass player Bazil Donovan about his own daughter which is the poppiest number here.

The album opens with Mount Royal, a wistful account of youthful hopes and aspirations set in Montreal as the protagonist aims to shoot for the moon and the stars but is gradually disillusioned. It’s a wonderfully descriptive song composed of little vignettes while the arrangement is superb as a gentle backing of whispered keyboards gradually emerges before a final flourish. Pumpkins finds Ungerleider recalling the sweet but icy tones of Grace Slick on an autumnal song which gently glows as it shuffles along with tender accompaniment. The disillusion alluded to in the opening song is evident in the rueful North Star Sneakers where teenage rebellion has been tamed by marriage and children although the memories remain vivid. The album closes with a song which also alludes to earlier offerings. Ships seems to find Ungerleider seeking to help a survivor as she asks “what did you see when you were young what made you hide your face and bite your tongue,” offering to break into their “box”, not to “steal but to reveal, to dress wounds and heal.

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RB Morris. Going Back To The Sky. Singular Recordings

We’re a bit confused by this album. Not the music, that’s quite swell, but the release date. There are mentions of this disc going back a year to September 2000 but it arrived in our mailbox a short while ago with a press release proclaiming a release date of September 2021. It seems that initially this was an independent release but it has now been picked up by a label.  This is really just a roundabout way of saying that we haven’t sat on Mr. Morris for a year, no sir, we’re bang up to date.

Anyhow, RB Morris has a fair amount of well-known fans willing to proclaim his genius and while this often isn’t any guarantee of excellence, on this occasion, they are right. He comes from that dusty troupe of well-travelled songwriters who can tell a tale and evoke vibrant images and scenarios through their words and music. Butch Hancock and Guy Clark come to mind almost immediately and there’s also a fair whiff of Roger Miller’s loose-limbed narratives. Morris says this is his “dustbowl album” but he’s not trying to emulate Woody Guthrie, rather, he’s reciting a set of songs inspired by his “early road trips out west.” He has surrounded himself with a top class band who are able to match their playing with the various environs visited. There’s the menacing highway blues of Montana Moon – a song which rivals Dave Alvin, the sly and somewhat louche fatback guitar fuelled Me And My Wife Ruth and the Dylan meets Cash mash up of That’s Just The Way I Do.

Morris truly inhabits the songs also. He sounds quite insouciant on the bouncy brilliance of Six Black Horses And A 72 Oz. Steak, a road song about a 1000-mile trip which tips into odd dreams about Audie Murphy alongside other weird encounters. The Zen like Missouri River Hat Blowing Incident (a contender for song title of the year) finds Morris chasing the titular hat and realising his travels have truly started. There’s a sense of wonder also and it’s highlighted by the spare ambient and cosmic country sounds conjured by the band at times. The title song glistens with atmospheric pedal steel and there are several instrumental interludes which serve to thread the various narratives together. Overall, the songs and preludes knit together perfectly, the album can be listened to as a travelogue with the songs acting as the stops and encounters on the way, and Morris proves that he is indeed quite an excellent writer and performer. Well recommended if you missed it last year.

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Dean Owens. The Desert Trilogy EPs – Vol 3 Ghosts

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All good things must come to an end and so it happens that Ghosts is the final piece to be slotted into Dean Owens’ Desert Trilogy slipcase. A quick recap. Having recorded an album, Sinner’s Shrine, with Calexico in Tucson, Owens’ plans for its release were scuppered by Covid. Undeterred, the Edinburgh based artist used his lockdown time to record another bunch of songs with various members of Calexico and other Tucson luminaries and he’s been releasing them via this highly desirable collection.

All the EPs have a song from the album but Owens was keen not to short-change his fans so, overall, they contain eight new songs, all cut from the same cloth which inspired the original recordings, Owens’ love of the American Southwest. So far there has been critical acclaim for this new direction and Ghosts is certain to bask in similar glory.

As with the other EPs, it’s a song from Sinner’s Shrine, which leads off. The Hopeless Ghosts is very much in the vein of Calexico’s hot, dusty and claustrophobic desert shuffles. John Convertino’s drumming is instantly recognisable as is Jacob Valenzuela’s soaring trumpet and Paul Niehaus weighs in with his swooning pedal steel. As Calexico do much of the time, Owens achieves a cinematic effect here with visions of movies by Leone and Peckinpah summoned by the music and the words – there’s drama by the dirtload. It’s haunting (as most songs with Ghosts in the title should be), as Owens comes across like some high plains drifter, condemned to forever travel. In a nice touch, Owens explains that the idea of hopeless ghosts comes from a Townes van Zandt description of his songs. Anyhow, the song is a towering achievement which is lifted further aloft when Grant-Lee Phillips joins Owens on harmony vocals, especially when the pair vocally pirouette towards the end of the song.

Mother Road is much more restrained as Owens delivers a wearied narrative, inspired by a 93 year old barber who had a shop on Route 66, a road now seldom travelled once the Interstate opened. It’s a sepia stained portrait of past times, replete with lonesome pedal steel and mournful trumpet and it’s a fine example of how Owens can transport his evocative portraits of his home town to a foreign land. Even When I’m Gone finds Owens on his own on a song which was recorded in Tucson but which was inspired by walks with his dog in the woods near Edinburgh. Again, there’s a sense of desolation here although it’s tempered by the thought that once we pass, life will go on. The EP ends with a murder ballad which Owens says he had written for Johnny Cash but, with the man in black gone, he has to sing himself. Owens recorded his basic track in Scotland with Kevin McGuire on double bass before Convertino, Martin Wenk, Tom Hagerman and Naim Amor sent in their contributions from various locations. Fittingly, as the last song on this trilogy, it’s called The End and, yes, one can imagine Cash singing it on one of his latter albums. Like some Dostoevskian anti-hero on the eve of his execution, Owens reflects and ruminates on a life of crime as a baleful trumpet and tasteful shards of guitar lead him towards the gallows. It’s a very impressive song.

So, trilogy wrapped up, all we can do is wait for Sinner’s Shrine. The main course after these wonderful appetizers.  

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Emily Duff. Razor Blade Smile.

Having abandoned Muscle Shoals for New York on her last album, Born On The Ground – released on the eve of the pandemic – Emily Duff really didn’t have much choice regarding the recording location of her latest album, Razor Blade Smile. In fact, the album was birthed in her cramped Greenwich Village tenement (shared with husband, teenage kids, a dog and a few dozen guitars!) as Duff took time out on the fire escape and wrote these songs.

As has often been the case recently, Duff’s fire escape songs found their way into the studio once Covid restrictions relaxed as she and producer Eric “Roscoe” Ambel recorded her acoustic versions. The basic tracks laid down, Ambel then assembled a band and grafted them onto Duff’s originals with nary a join to be seen or heard. The result is a kickass set of songs with a New York attitude which at times has a Patti Smith toughness along with nods to alt country and some of that southern grit displayed on her earlier albums.

It’s the south which is summoned first of all as the gutsy finger picked guitar intro to Go Fast Don’t Die is rapidly joined by a kaleidoscopic Band -like country funk while Duff comes across like a foul mouthed Bobbie Gentry. It’s only two minutes long but it packs a powerful punch. Next up is the more conventional and fleet footed Gimme Back My Love which reminds this writer of Bruce Springsteen, but then the album gets down and dirty on the slow groove of Done And Done with Ambel’s guitars rumbling and growling alongside Charlie Giordano’s swelling keyboards. Duff’s in her element here, her strong voice weighted with portent like an iron fist in a velvet glove and she revisits this on the melodramatic Don’t Hang The Moon which dives deep into a witchy woman vision of dark country rock music. The title song is a scuzzy slice of punk rock and Another Goodbye recalls the high priestess of punk, Patti Smith. Duff here sounds more guarded and, indeed, paranoid, as the band slide between punk reggae and New York organ grooves.

Sidling closer to country towards the end of the disc, we find Giordano abandoning his keyboards for accordion on Feelin’ Alright which is given a fine country lope while Nicotine & Waiting is quite tremendous. It’s a tear stained slow country waltz with weeping pedal steel and accordion, burnished by Ambel’s guitar glimmerings. Duff here shows why some folk compare her to the like of Lucinda Williams.

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Brinsley Schwarz. Tangled. Fretsore Records

Yes, that Brinsley Schwarz whose name launched a thousand pub rock bands (and almost sank them when his eponymous group had a disastrous U.S. launch). The band Brinsley Schwarz included, alongside our subject here, the fabulous Nick Lowe, and they somehow survived their inglorious start to become a well-loved band on the nascent pub rock circuit. As punk rock began to invade their space, Lowe and Schwarz were canny enough to catch a ride on this new wave, Lowe producing The Damned while Schwarz went on to become Graham Parker’s wing man.

Tangled is Schwarz’s second solo album (following 2016’s Unexpected) and, as befits a musician of his vintage, there’s a sense of elegy in several of the songs. Crazy World is a fine example as Schwarz’s tender voice sings over graceful piano and mournful strings as he tries to reach out and to make some sense of recent events. Stranded is in a similar fashion although it’s a more personal song and it is given an excellent band build up climaxing with Schwarz playing an elegant and moving guitar solo. He takes Your Breath Away follows suit with more sublime fatback guitar thrills and, in addition, Schwarz throws in an excellent reading of Graham Parker’s Love Gets You Twisted.

There’s an echo of the Brinsley band’s country influences on the laid-back confluences of You Drive Me To Drink while Game On is a jangled jaunt which, once again, recalls those early efforts of UK bands to approximate the sunny sounds beaming in from California although Schwarz here delivers it with a finely balanced sense of resignation. Storm In The Hills, a grand retro rocker with groovy barrelhouse piano and tasty guitar licks, finds Schwarz once again getting tangled up in the modern world, and the environment is the subject of his slightly Tex-Mex influenced You Can’t Take It Back. Schwarz ends the album on an optimistic bent with the sunny side up thoughts of All Day which starts with just him and what sounds like a ukulele, before the band kicks in for a fine, pub rock like coda.

Tangled is an album which contains the benefits of a life well lived and the sage reflections gathered therein. It’s much like a well-loved old friend inviting you in for a warm and cosy evening full of top entertainment.

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Malcolm Holcombe. Tricks Of The Trade. Need To Know Music.

Praise be the world when, in the midst of a pandemic and other shit storms, a new Malcolm Holcombe album arrives. It’s like a rock to hold onto as mayhem rushes by, with Holcombe’s gruff voice, his command of visceral country blues, and lyrical acuity, sure to hold you fast.

Tricks Of The Trade is classic Holcombe – raw, sinewy and vibrant. He growls magnificently over a set of songs, which, on this occasion, are amped up somewhat while never letting go of his North Carolina roots. He’s aided by long time companions, Jared Tyler and Dave Roe with Roe’s son, Jerry, taking on the drum role, and together they rustle up a mighty rumble. While it’s Holcombe’s voice and words that are first and foremost, it’s the hustle and bustle of the stringed instruments – guitar, slide, Dobro – snaking throughout the album which capture attention. At times the interplay is quite hypnotic as on the Townes Van Zandt like Damn Rainy Day which, for this reviewer, could have lasted for twice as long and still tempt one to press the replay button.

It’s timeless music, as old as the hills but bang up to date also as Holcombe addresses some issues of the day. Crazy Man Blues doesn’t go so far as to name the man but it’s evident who Holcombe is weighing into here. The opening Money Train is suffused with blues and gospel as it satirises the worship of Mammon and Your Kin is surely a condemnation of US border forces as they straddle Mexico and separate families.

Elsewhere, Holcombe just waxes wonderfully on eternal themes. On Tennessee Land is akin to Woody Guthrie’s dustbowl ballads while Misery Loves Company is a rare upbeat number belying its title, as Holcombe and crew (including backing singer Mary Gauthier) turn in a joyous country number. There’s more joy to be had in the title song which uses a circus theme to suggest that we are still in thrall to the bread and circuses the Romans used to placate their citizens. If Holcombe is suggesting that his songs are just a similar trick of the trade, the discerning listener would surely refute that. You need to dig deep to find artists of the calibre of Holcombe, even within these days of music on demand, and, once found, he is surely more than mere entertainment. Dig deep and dig him so that this breed of tried and true truth tellers and musicians can survive.

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Karen Jonas. Summer Songs EP.

Here at Blabber’n’Smoke we hugely enjoyed Karen Jonas’ last album, the excellent The Southwest Sky & Other Dreams, so we were excited to receive this latest disc, albeit an EP with only four songs on it. So be it, it will tide us over for the time being.

Jonas, from Fredericksburg, Virginia, has over the course of five albums, proved to be adept at updating honky tonk songs and the Bakersfield sound while her song writing has grown to encompass the wide range of themes she tackled on The Southwest Sky. There’s more than a smidgeon of this on the EP but she opens with a bit of a surprise, her take on the Don Henley hit, The Boys Of Summer. First thoughts on this were, admittedly, that this was somewhat redundant, but listening to Jonas’ fine countrified rock version and then comparing it to the ‘80s synth ridden original, one has to admit that she quite owns the song. Her voice is in total control over the driving beat and swooping pedal steel and she kind of returns some of the song back to its original co-writer, Mike Campbell of The Heartbreakers.

Jonas seemingly was inclined to record this while grabbed by a writing frenzy earlier in the year which has resulted in an upcoming poetry collection, Gumballs, due out soon. Full of personal memories it led to her revisiting snippets of songs she’d started earlier but never completed. Going back to her notebooks, she chose three to accompany the Henley hit, going with a summer theme.

Summer’s Hard For Love is a nostalgic listen. Bathed in a languid and laid-back accompaniment with lazy acoustic guitars and slowly swooning pedal steel it has a touch of Neil Young’s Harvest Moon to it. Jonas sings it kind of sultry, kind of a mix of Patsy Cline and torch ballad singer. Thunder On The Battery, as its title suggests, is more portentous as the band limber up to create an atmospheric rumble. It’s akin to some of the songs on the last album. The EP closes with just Jonas and her guitar on Summer Moon. Close miked, it’s an intimate recording which proves she has the voice and song writing chops to place her amidst the top echelons of our favourite singer songwriters.

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