Russ Tolman. Compass & Map.

tolman-cd-450x450Mention the so-called “Paisley Underground” and folk will wax wonderfully on The Dream Syndicate, The Rain Parade, The Long Ryders, Green On Red and The Bangles. Whether or not this was an actual movement or just some bands lumped together geographically (LA for the most part) is still moot and several of the main actors actively disavow the term these days. Anyway one of the bands lumped in here was True West, a name rarely heard these days, who released two albums and who at one point seemed poised to break into the big time. Despite touring with REM, noted by Prince, front page on the music weeklies and lined up for an Old Grey Whistle Test TV slot while on a UK tour (nixed due to work visa issues) unfortunately that didn’t happen and they disbanded in the mid eighties.

Key to True West’s sound was guitarist and songwriter Russ Tolman who quit the band in 1985 to pursue a solo career which kicked off strongly with several impressive albums released between 1986 and 2000 before everything kind of petered out. There were a couple of single releases while Tolman beavered away in producing and occasional live dates including a short lived True West reunion. Now, 30 years after going it alone, Tolman has geared up again with an avowed intention to get back to recording and touring and his opening salvo is this handsome retrospective plucked from his back catalogue, 20 songs in all. It’s a welcome reminder for those who have followed him and an excellent introduction for anyone new to him as it follows his trajectory from grungy desert rock to synthesized LA country music.

Handsomely packaged with informative liner notes by Pat Thomas and Tolman himself the album avoids a strict chronological delivery of the songs but broadly speaking it opens with earlier and snarlier cuts before settling down somewhat into the late nineties before ending with latter day songs (although it closes with a 1994 number). This allows one to follow Tolman’s progress including his vocal delivery (he states in the liner notes that when recording the first album, “I was deathly afraid of singing – I’d never done it before).  Despite his misgivings, his voice is always intriguing, on the early songs perhaps betraying a tendency to delve into a punkish sneer (no bad thing) before settling into a fine approximation of Lou Reed and Lloyd Cole, a cool laidback narrative voice. Song writing wise however he springs fully formed from the womb and the compilation is a strong argument that he be considered in the same vein as contemporaries such as Steve Wynn, Chuck Prophet and Howe Gelb.

From his first album, Totem Poles & Glory Holes, Looking For An Angel is a punk like thrash of guitars with Tolman sneering away and the song not a million miles away from early Dream syndicate or Giant Sand. Down In Earthquake Town, represented here by two songs is richer in its textures with Planes, Trains And Automobiles a sublime mixture of exotic percussion and Spanish guitar as Tolman offers a flyblown tale of lost love with a wonderful twang in his semi-spoken delivery. By the time of Goodbye Joe (1990) Tolman is really at the top of his form with Marla Jane as exhilarating as Chuck Prophet’s recent offerings, a thunderous riff topped with some delicious guitar curls it stomps along with a fury. The opening lines to Blame It On The Girl (Ah fuck it, just throw it away…) lead into a spectacularly dynamic slice of rock’n’roll that beggar’s belief, the hip vocals and squalling guitars the equal of any Tom Petty song.

As he sashays into the nineties Tolman settles down somewhat and the brace of songs here find him fronting a melodic jangled rock as he becomes more comfortable with his voice. Something About A Rowboat and Sleepin’ All Alone do recall Lloyd Cole’s Commotions particularly with the vocal delivery but then again there’s the snarling That’s My Story And I’m Sticking To It which returns to the Paisley Underground days with organ jabs and tortured guitar  reminiscent of Green On Red. 1998’s City Lights album offers the delightful Monterey with its sweet delivery disguising the acerbic lyrics and the laid-back country rock of Salinas which again belies Tolman’s fine digs at the picture perfect scene one might expect. More up to date there’s one song from New Quadraphonic Highway, a visionary album that had Tolman experimenting with synthesizers  to create his notion of cosmic cowboy music as he amalgamated them with pedal steel (played by Tom Heyman). Most recently, there’s Los Angeles, a digital only single from 2013 which, after several years of inactivity, was the first blooming of his rebirth and which sweeps along with a multilayered guitar, organ and keyboards swirl and another song which should ring bells for anyone into any of the acts we’ve already mentioned.

The album closes with a 1994 song, Dry Your Pretty Eyes, a song that somewhat apes The Velvet Underground but is a fine encapsulation of Tolman’s talent as he has evolved into an excellent singer and an acute songwriter. As Pat Thomas, the author of the album’s liner notes remarked on the Paisley Underground, it was a “marriage of classic rock and punk” and on Dry Your Pretty Eyes Tolman proves that he can do that in spades.

Summing up, if you have any interest at all in Steve Wynn, Chuck Prophet et al then you have a duty to listen to this. Hopefully there’s more to come.

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Richard Thompson. Acoustic Classics II. Proper Records

58Richard Thompson pleased a great many people with his 2014 release, Acoustic Classics, where he handpicked several of his songs and delivered them solo stating at the time,  “I really wanted something that would reflect the acoustic shows but we didn’t have anything like that, Just some old, slightly scratchy recordings of solo sets that I wasn’t really happy with.” It seems that he was happy with the result as he’s gone and done it again with this second volume where he again goes through his extensive back catalogue coming up with 14 gems and this time he’s included his Fairport Convention days with three of the songs taken from that period.

He opens the album with the acerbic She Twists the Knife Again which is perhaps the least successful of his renditions here although his staccato guitar runs reflect the jagged lyrics.  The Ghost Of You Walks which follows is more representative of the album as a whole as Thompson settles into his familiar melancholic mood while his guitar playing is expressive and tender as is his singing. The first of the three Fairport songs, Genesis Hall, follows suit with Thompson reining in the Fairport waltz arrangement unveiling it as a modern folk classic with the words (written about a raid on squatters with Thompson’s police officer father participating) allowed to ring free. Jet Plane In A Rocking Chair and A Heart Needs A Home, both from his partnership with ex wife Linda, follow with the latter particularly affecting.

It’s of note that Thompson can invest songs that were originally recorded with full rock band arrangements with as much power and drive using just his acoustic guitar. Here Pharaoh and Gethsemane (from Amnesia and The Old Kit Bag respectively) pack a punch with Pharaoh in particular stern and glowering, its message undimmed and particularly apt for these benighted times. Guns Are The Tongues, another powerful protest song is the one song here that has added instrumentation with a mandolin added to the guitar and again Thompson invests it with a powerful dignity.

He goes all the way back to one of his earliest and best known songs when he tackles Meet On The Ledge and while the original can probably not be beat it’s great to hear Thompson sing this. The biggest surprise on the album is with a song of similar vintage, Crazy Man Michael. Originally released on Liege & Lief when Fairport were digging deep into folk music it proved that Thompson and co-writer Dave Swarbrick were able to deliver songs that reeked of tradition and here Thompson is just perfect as he maintains the eerie folk magic that informed the original.

It’s another triumph then for Thompson and a must for his many followers. And for those wanting more there’s another disc of Acoustic Rarities available via his Pledge Music Page here.

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William The Conqueror. Proud Disturber Of The Peace. Loose Music

william_the_conqueror_-_proud_disturber_of_the_peace_-_vjlp232There’s been a bit of a buzz in the blogosphere regarding this debut from Cornish band William The Conqueror, partly due to an impressive appearance at last year’s Americana Fest in Nashville and a nomination for best song at this year’s UK Americana awards. A listen to the album however begs that age-old question, what is Americana? (Answers on a postcard please) as it draws from and reflects so many other genres. Appearing on Loose Music helps as they are rightly considered purveyors of quality “Americana” music but Proud Disturber Of The Peace is quite idiosyncratic, grungy, folky, lo-fi and even soulful at times, it’s really a trip into a singular vision. The closest equivalent I can think of is the music that emanated from the early days of The Fence Collective, a bunch of folk who tore up the rule book back at the tail end of the nineties.

The trio (Ruarri Joseph, Harry Harding and Naomi Holmes) recorded the album live with few overdubs or post production resulting in an up close band sound, the instruments piling on top of each other. The opening song In My Dreams hurtles in resembling the jangled frenzy of The Velvet Underground and the street busking bustle of The Violent Femmes while the following Tend To the Thorns is a trip into the epic “big music” sound of The Waterboys with some Echo And The Bunnymen thrown into the mix. Third song, Did You Wrong,  is another thrash in the instrumental department although here Joseph adopts a laconic and cool vocal delivery. Thereafter however they settle down somewhat with the remainder of the songs less frenetic.

Pedestals builds on Joseph’s talkin’ blues style (which again is rather laid back although impassioned) as the band vamp along with some horns adding atmosphere. Keeping the horns they plunge headlong into street r’n’b territory on the slippery rhythms of The Many Faces Of A Good Truth which recalls Gill Scott Heron while Cold Ontario continues in a similar vein. Mindful of Joseph’s previous stint as a folk singer Mind Keeps Changing recalls early folk rock a la Greenwich Village with echoes of Tim Hardin although it builds into a muscular keyboard driven rock song by the end while Manawatu, which closes the album, has classic folk harmonica amidst its thrusting instrumental climb to a rousing climax. Best of all perhaps is the title song which gathers much of what surrounds it on the album as the band ride tempo changes, guitars burst into bloom and the rhythm section busks away with some fervour. Over this Joseph almost croons with a cool authority which reminds one of Morphine’s Mark Sandman’s beat vocals.

I guess that looking back on the litany of comparisons up above then William The Conqueror are certainly to be considered in the world of alt whatever. What matters is that the album is a great listen that pushes the envelope somewhat. Give it a shot.

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The Primevals. Dislocation. Triple Wide

Primevals DislocationVeteran Glasgow rockers, The Primevals, have been hellbent for over 30 years in their quest to keep the heart of garage band rock’n’blues pumping, a task with which they have been spectacularly successful as they maintain their renaissance which began with 2011’s Disinhibitor after a fallow period at the beginning of the century. While their early contemporaries such as The Gun Club and The Cramps have gone the way of all things, Disinhibitor saw a revitalised band roar back into form and it was quickly followed by Heavy War and Tales Of Endless Bliss, both again superb slices of sound that, to coin a phrase, were groovetastic. Psychedelic swirls, evil slide guitar and hypnotic riffs all bundled into one very fine trip.

Dislocation is no disappointment as it sets its sights firmly on its antecedents with the band firing on all barrels. The twisting snarly slide guitar that kicks off the opening song Fever Zone serving notice that we’re back in Swampland on a classic Primevals’ song with singer Michael Rooney raving towards the end over the rushed beat and psychedelic organ. I Got Strong speeds along with a Seeds like velocity, the band pumping like adrenalized muscle tissue while Boho Baby is a Doors’ like seedy walk on a wild side, a vampish twilight zone of sputtering guitars and panther like stealth. All three songs are excellent and delivered with such a freewheeling ease that one imagines that the band and Rooney (who writes all the songs) could probably knock them off in their sleep, so ingrained in their musical DNA is this primal urge. However one of the delights of The Primevals is their ability to switch gears mid song, jump from garage rock to free jazz, localise a song or just freely associate and all of these come to play throughout the album.

East Campbell Street Breakdown opens with a brief lofi blaxploitation soundtrack soundalike before they go into a burnished speed riff not too far removed from Blue Oyster Cult as Rooney hones in on the plight of Glasgow’s homeless community.  Cuckoo Clocks, Chocolate And LSD manages the task of wedding Orson Wells, Forrest Gump and Albert Hoffman in a paranoid welter of scrambled vocals and razor sharp guitar scything. Meanwhile The Jump From Real To Weird adds trumpet from Robert Henderson over a pummelling riff as Rooney riffs on the lyrics almost scatting. Throughout the album the guitars of Tom Rafferty and Martyn Roger slash and burn but it’s in the frenetic Pleasures Past that they really excel as, apart from a short solo burst from one of them, they buzz and swarm like a pack of hornets. Slow Drip (a Rooney/Rafferty co-write) allows Rooney’s harmonica to add a crazed Yardbirds like R’n’B frenzy to the middle eight over some neat wah wah guitar and they close the album with another co write (with Richard Mazda) on another mighty example of Primevals music, a huge slab of noise, the guitars feral with Rooney in the throes of spiders in his bed hallucinations.

All in all Dislocation blasts the cobwebs from your ears  with the band again staking their claim to be the prime purveyors of swampy garage rock and the album is dedicated to the late Stewart Cruickshank who did so much to promote Scottish rock bands. The Primevals have an album launch gig this Friday at Glasgow’s Hug & Pint and it’s bound to be a great night of hi-octane sweaty rock’n’roll.

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Emily Duff. Maybe In The Morning.

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Country soul has been a genre percolating through several recent reviews here on Blabber’n’Smoke with My Darling Clementine, Danny & The Champions Of The World and Emily Barker all referencing the classic sounds that emanated from Alabama back in the late sixties and early seventies. The arrival of Emily Duff’s second album then was somewhat timely as this New Yorker actually went to the legendary Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals to record this soulful slab of wax. Duff is a new name to Blabber’n’Smoke but she’s got a fine pedigree along with a winning way of promoting herself. Her bio commences, “Emily was born in Flushing Queens and raised by a pack of cigarettes. Her Mama taught her 4 perfect chords and then ran off leaving Emily to figure out the rest on her own…armed with a hollow body electric guitar and enough anger to level a small country Emily carved a path straight to CBGBs and never looked back.” Who could resist such an introduction?

First coming to attention as part of Gary Lucas’ God & Monsters (replacing Jeff Buckley as his star briefly ascended) Duff eventually moved towards roots music with her trio Eudora before settling down with her own Emily Duff Band after taking time out for her family. Maybe In The Morning follows on from her 2015 album Go Tell Your Friends which had reviewers comparing her to Lucinda Williams and while one can see that in the new album, Duff delves much deeper into her early heroes such as Bobbie Gentry and The Staple Singers while the ghosts of The Allmans and Delaney & Bonnie are never too far away. Recorded with her regular band and a wealth of Muscle Shoals musicians including original “swamper” Clayton Ivey on keyboards, the album is chockfull of touchstones; Gospel harmonies, churchlike organ and liquid guitar solos that coalesce into the quintessential southern soul groove. Duff then takes this sound and adds her own vision which at one point is decidedly a New York state of mind as she sings on the title song about addiction as the band pulverise like The MG’s on speed.

She lays her wares on the table with the swampy and sultry Hypmotizing Chickenz which opens the album. A syncopated southern brew with a Meters like percussive precision, Gospel chorus and mighty slide guitar solo it’s as gritty as, well, grits. Please Don’t Do Me Dirty is somewhat breezier, the guitars gliding with the grit provided here by Duff’s throaty voice as she sings about the sexual undertones hidden by southern manners almost as if it were written by Tennessee Williams. Bomp Bomp bounces along like a pop confection from Bobbie Gentry with a hook made for radio play while one could imagine Everytime I Go To Harlem being a staple of Elvis’ Vegas shows as the band rock out with a sanctified middle eight. Alabama is a fast paced country rocker which sounds more west coast derived with the pedal steel gleaning away as Duff recalls a childhood visit to the State but there’s an immediate return to the swampy south on the glorious slow drift of Diamonds which has Duff’s fine vocals duetting with a male counterpart who sounds for all the world like Bobby Whitlock wailing away on the Layla album.

There’s so much to enjoy here with Needledrop Blues a witty dissertation on the current vinyl fascination delivered with some honky tonk vigour while Don’t is a ballad that builds on foundations laid down by the likes of Etta James back in the days. Daddy’s Drunk Again is a taut slide driven boogie with shades of Tony Joe White and Listen To Mama is a fine holy mess of cluttered rhythm section and muddy slide guitars colliding into each other as Duff stands tall and gutsy inhaling the spirit of Flannery O’Connor. The closing song, Somebody On Sunday, gathers all the antecedents together on a slinky southern groove that is so affecting one can almost smell the wisteria.

Sure, Maybe In The Morning is infused with that special moment in time that saw gems scattered daily from a bunch of talented Southerners, but to her credit Ms. Duff has created a vibrant and engaging album that doesn’t just rely on nostalgia. If there’s a new wave of country soul about to land then she should in the vanguard. You can buy the album here and there’s also a great interview here where she talks about her experience of recording in Muscle Shoals. As we said earlier she has a way with words so do catch her colourful descriptions of her time there.

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Willie Nelson & Leon Russell. One For The Road. Retroworld Records

1577We’ve had an interesting batch of reissued albums sent in recently so over the next few weeks we’ll be indulging in a little bit of nostalgia. First up is this 1979 collaboration between Willie Nelson and Leon Russell recorded after the pair toured together. Russell, who died in 2016, was riding the coat tails of his fame by then while Nelson was gearing up his “outlaw country” persona breaking out of his Nashville straitjacket but the pair were even then old troupers and this album, originally a double vinyl release, finds them delving into country and tin pan alley standards.  As such it’s not what you might call an “essential” part of either man’s catalogue but it’s a rollicking good listen with Russell and Nelson trading vocals, their voices quite complementary while there’s plenty of Russell’s piano work while Nelson throws in some fine guitar parts.

The album opens with a fiery trio of songs – Detour, I Saw The Light and Heartbreak Hotel which rock as if they were playing in a Texas roadhouse (and apparently Heartbreak Hotel reached No. 1 on the US country charts, a feat Nelson has never again achieved).  Let The Rest Of The World Go By slows the pace on a typical Nelson tearjerker with strings and his sensitive guitar solo while Russell is content to tickle the ivories but it’s back to some barrelling boogie on Trouble In Mind with the pair sharing vocals with Maria Muldaur and Bonnie Raitt (who also adds some wicked slide guitar). They seems to be having great fun on their take of the old chestnut, Don’t Fence Me In which is followed by a superb reading of Wild Side Of Life and they amble to the end of the first of the original discs with a sunny side up attitude on Riding Down The Canyon which is given a fine Western Swing feel and Sioux City Sue.

There’s quite a shift on the second half of the album as they drop the rock’n’roll for Russell’s arrangements of which include Danny Boy, You Are My Sunshine, Stormy Weather and Summertime. As on his own album of classic songs, Stardust, here it’s Nelson’s voice which is the main attraction but there’s no denying Russell’s skills with his arrangement of Summertime particularly grand. The closing One For My Baby and One More For The Road has some funkier keyboards than one normally hears on this old saloon ballad.

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Jaime Wyatt. Felony Blues. Forty Below Records

jaime_coverAside from those old time blues guys and gals who were at the mercy of the law every time they set foot outside the door, country musicians seem to have an affinity for brushes with the law. Or at least they would like you to think so. Look through the rap sheets and it’s full of misdemeanours, drink, drugs, more drink and the odd fight here or there, a suspended sentence or a night in the pokey. True, Billy Joe Shaver and Johnny Paycheck did actually shoot someone and then there’s David Allen Coe and Merle Haggard and mention of Haggard leads us to Jaime Wyatt. Ms. Wyatt was an aspiring musician who wasn’t getting the breaks and who drifted into drugs and robbery eventually serving time.  On getting out she resumed her music while being drawn to the likes of Johnny Cash and Haggard, partly due to their connections with the US penal system. A meeting with John Durrill who had penned a song, Misery and Gin, for Haggard led to her recording the song and eventually this mini album.

Misery and Gin closes the album with a mournful wail, weeping pedal steel and soft shuffled band backing recalling Emmylou Harris with the Hot Band at their most lachrymose although Wyatt’s voice is earthier than Emmylou’s. It’s as honky tonk as she gets here with the remainder of the songs adhering more to a breezier LA country sound and indeed she has fellow Los Angelino Sam Outlaw sing with her on the tough Bakersfield influenced Your Loving Saves Me while the opening Wishing Well sparks with spirals of guitar recalling the canyon days of Linda Ronstadt and her fledging band. Wasco is a spritely fiddle fuelled number with Wyatt embodying the romantic fantasies of an inmate with the song positively flying with a rebellious abandon that sucker punches Dolly Parton. Stone Hotel hammers in like a Waylon Jennings’ song and it’s as autobiographical as Wyatt gets as she relates her downfall while the band flail wonderfully around her with a full bodied outlaw country abandon.

She’s more reflective on the plaintive Giving The Best Of Me with its rippling acoustic guitar and sweet pedal steel again recalling that 70’s LA singer songwriter vibe. From Outer Space is an almost literal example of Cosmic American Music as Wyatt waxes wonderfully about celestial affairs, pedal steel swirling like a comet around her as the rhythm section humbly remain rooted in a very fine country shuffle. Overall a lovely record.

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