David Starr. The Head and Heart

original-the_head_and_heart_coverWhen Blabber’n’Smoke first heard David Starr on last year’s Love & Sabotage  we likened him to Poco, Steve Stills, JD Souther, Andrew Gold and even Fleetwood Mac. The album (which featured contributions from Ritchie Furay, Steve Cropper and John Oates) was a wonderfully melodic slice of country tinged rock music and on the one occasion we saw Starr play the songs live he more than made up for a lack of a band with his enthusiasm and skill honed from many years on the road.

The Head And Heart, Starr’s six song EP follow up is a more reflective affair with little of the California highway breeziness that dominated the earlier album. Instead, Starr offers up some robust thoughts on the inner self and the temptations and conflicts we all face from day to day. The EP finds his friend John Oates firmly in the driving seat as he produces and arranges all the songs breathing new life into one Starr recorded some years ago and also tackling a golden oldie.

Starr proved on Love & Sabotage that he can delve into the more introspective and folkier side of things with his excellent You Will Come To Know and here he continues on that path. The album opens with The Edge Of The World, a peek into the mysteries of women and their beguiling ways that’s cloaked in a sumptuous melody with cello and pedal steel adding a quiet majesty over a pulsating rhythm section, somewhat akin to Jackson Browne’s work on For Everyman. The following title song is similar in delivery with the backing musicians somewhat stellar here with some very fine percussion (from Greg Morrow) in particular. Starr sings here of the ongoing conflict between emotional and rational thoughts, that moment when it’s tempting to just do it and consequences be damned while an inner voice is screaming just the opposite. Here his voice is strong and earnest with Oates adding fine harmonies. It’s a wonderful song and perfectly executed.

There’s more roots rumbling on the closing Dancing With My Pride (co written with cellist Bob Leipman) which utilises the woody timbre of the cello (played here by Nat Smith) to underscore the elemental aspects of the song as Starr picks upon a theme suggested by his reading of a book written by his grandfather. Here he sings of a farmer wronged in the past but for whom hope springs eternal as the song sashays from  haunting verses to a countrified middle eight with the cello coming across like a fiddle and parlaying with mandolin and pedal steel.  Again this song exemplifies the contradictions that Starr dots throughout the EP as the song attempts to defeat pessimism with an optimistic hope for the future and there’s a wonderful moment when his voice just drops into a whisper on the last line of “I’ll forgive her soon by the light of the prairie moon. Imagining her kiss and her sweet perfume. I’ll close my eyes and I’ll see her face , in a dream I’ll be the man I hoped to be. But for now…”  in a manner that is reminiscent of Warren Zevon.

Elsewhere Starr heads into darker territory on a pair of songs which have a burnished sheen to them that is in danger of roaming into AOR in the eighties. Waiting In The Dark shimmers with a menace as Starr descends into drugdom in the inner city but the scything guitars and polished production mark the song as somewhat out of step with the overall sound of the EP.  I’ve Come For You is another rainpuddled neon sign reflective slice of nightlife but it’s delivered much more successfully with some actual wickedness in the slide guitars and a sense of venom in Starr’s vocals.

Finally, Starr takes the brave step of covering California Dreaming, a song that’s imprinted on just about everyone and a choice that beggars the question of why redo this one? Apparently it was suggested by Oates as fitting into the EP’s theme of contrasts and for sure, despite it being thought of as the epitome of hippie heaven, the song actually is a wistful plea to be in sunny climes as the singer is stuck in a cold and dreary place. Starr (and Oates) take this melancholic yearning as the starting point for a dramatically reinvented version that replaces the Mamas & Papas soaring vocals for a wintry and claustrophobic New York winter feel, the band closer to The Insect Trust than Papa John and Mama Cass.

Davis Starr is currently touring the UK. all dates here including a Blabber’n’Smoke House Concert on 23rd May. PM for details.

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John Alexander. Of These Lands

a0817967281_16I first noticed the name, John Alexander, in the credits of the latest Doghouse Roses album where he contributed some fine guitar. And then this album, Of These Lands, popped through the post with some roles reversed, Doghouse Roses’ Paul Tasker and Iona McDonald credited with vocals and guitar on some of the songs. Their presence certainly ticked some boxes, marking the album as one to have a good listen to but, and I think it’s fair to say, I wasn’t expecting the rollin’ and tumblin’ excitement that was to follow.

Alexander is a Scottish musician but he’s welded to and wades in muddy waters, the delta sort to be more accurate. Some of the songs on the album follow in the line that stretches from Taj Mahal to Keb’ Mo’ with a vibrant attachment to country blues, the guitars evincing a spritely fingerpicking blues style while Alexander’s voice has a very fine smoke stained patina that at times sends chills up the spine. The best example here is on the spooky Hallowed Ground (with Tasker on slide guitar) which recalls the magisterial ground zero of old time blues, Blind Willie Johnson’s Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground. It’s the starkest moment on the album but the voodoo swampiness of Meet Me Where The River Flows (with Jim McDermott on drums and Nicholas Blythe on bass), the zinging guitar sparks of Take The Blame and the fiery solo rendition (with Alexander on acoustic and electric guitars) of All My Angels Have Fallen are rooted in the blues tradition with the latter recalling the late John Campbell.

Less one think this is just a blues album Alexander has some more tricks up his sleeve. An accomplished guitarist he is able to cross the ocean from the Mississippi delta back to the motherland and in particular those artists who picked up on blues traditions and transformed them into a sixties folk blues boom. Hence we have the nimble A Little Daylight which with its vocal harmonies could easily have sat within a Pentangle album while Used To Be A Friend Of Mine sounds like an outtake from an early John Martyn album.  Seven Cold Curses takes a slight curve into a rootsier Americana with a whiff of Townes Van Zandt while Hold On is a powerful and taut ballad that recalls the dustier edges of 70’s country rock  such as Guy Clark or Steve Young. On the closing This Side Or The Other Alexander draws all of his influences together as his grainy voice demands, “a double shot of whisky and a ham on rye”.  The song is a laid back and wonderful conglomeration of folk and blues (and beyond), Greenwich Village meets the delta and a smoky London town. A delightful end to a very fine album.

There’s an album release show at Glasgow’s Glad Cafe this Friday, 19th May. Tickets here

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Eric Ambel. Lakeside. At The Helm Records

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Glory be. An Eric Ambel album, only 12 years after the last one. To be fair Ambel (Roscoe to his friends) has been busy running his own bar in NY’s East Village (The Lakeside Lounge) while still producing a slew of artists for the past two decades. However his bar (and its famous jukebox) fell victim to rising rents and closed two years ago and it seems he’s had the time to come up with Lakeside and what a glorious rambling rock’n’roll creature it is.

A founding member of the Del-Lords and The Yayhoos,  Ambel has also been the guitar slinger for Steve Earle and Joan Jett and The Blackhearts while various incarnations of his own Roscoe’s Gang have come and gone. As noted above he’s an in demand producer with the likes of The Bottle Rockets, blue Mountain, The Backsliders, Nils Lofgren, Cheri Knight and Mojo Nixon all benefiting from his skills. Above all however is the fact that he’s a huge fan of music and Lakeside is a tribute of sorts to his lost and lamented bar with Ambel telling The Bedford and Bowery webzine, “I was working on the record before I even understand that the record really was about the Lakeside. It took me a while to understand that. It was influenced by stuff we had on the jukebox. Our jukebox was really great, and it was just our soundtrack.”

It must have been some jukebox as the album is a firecracker of ten songs that positively crackle and burn. There is a variety of sorts on the disc, a revved up version of Barrett Strong’s Money with Ambel aping Jerry Lee’s Star Club rendition over a stone killer riff and a sweetly distorted guitar rhapsody on the closing Cryin’ In My Sleep that goes all Santos and Johnny on us. Ambel nails his colours to the mast with Hey Mr. DJ where he decries the habit of employing cheap DJ’s to replace live music. It opens with a huge T Rex like guitar surge before forging on like lava destroying all in its path. With corkscrew guitar solos and pummelling bass and drums he sings, “Hey Mr. DJ play another song like the one you just played. Crank the drums, crank the bass, crank that shit all over the place”.

Ambel’s Roscoe’s Gang have oft been compared to Neil Young and it’s true that here he still abides by the Crazy Horse bible, that side of Young which sounds like a bar band about to fall over having had too much to drink (think here of Barstool Blues and Lookin’ For A Love, both on Zuma). So we get Have Mercy which is pumped up with razor sharp guitars and Don’t Make Me Break You Down with its slow burning groove and low rumbled guitar solos that meander throughout amidst crashes of cymbals. Buyback Blues is another delve into that honey slide narcoleptic twilight zone that Young once inhabited and, turned up loud, it’s shiveringly unnerving with Ambel’s desperate voice recalling the misery and mystery of Peter Green in his heyday.

There’s also the Sun studio kissed rockabilly pop of Here Come My Love (which would give Nick Lowe a run for his money) and the wide sweep of Let’s Play With Fire which toys with country rock. Massive Confusion is a Ramones like thrash which is a rush from start to end (1:54 minutes so it fits into the Ramones time limit) and there’s a brief pause for breath on the cover of Gillian Welch’s Look At Miss Ohio which is amped up but slowly delivered over a solid drum beat with squirreling guitars eventually rising to a crescendo before collapsing into a Hendrix Hey Joe riff at the end.

Overall Lakeside is ridiculously brilliant. It brims with evil guitars and attitude and should be on any self respecting listener’s list. Absolutely recommended.

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Donald Byron Wheatley. Moondogs and Mad Dogs. Maiden Voyage Recording Company

267934Life Is A Carnival sang The Band and for Donald Byron Wheatley it could be his signature song. A scion of a travelling fairground family Wheatley had a nomadic upbringing, setting up and dismantling show rides across the country, a wild and probably not so romantic existence but once the crowds had their fill of candy floss and cheap thrills and set off home Wheatley would listen to his showman father sing songs culled from the blues tradition along with his abiding love, Bob Dylan.  The young Wheatley learned these songs (he recalls singing along to Subterranean Homesick Blues, word-perfect, when he was six years old) and toyed with the idea of a musical career but life intervened, as it does. However that six year old Dylan aficionado resurfaced years later as Wheatley had to deal with adult issues; the death of his father, friends facing hard times and he found himself writing some songs. A musician cousin of his, John Wheatley, encouraged him to capture these in a studio and the pair headed off to Reservoir Recording Studio, a lucky strike on two accounts as it brought them into the orbit of Chris Clarke who runs the studios and is bass player with Danny & The Champions Of The World and Danny himself who was in the process of setting up a record label. Happenstance indeed but the upshot is that Wheatley can now proudly offer up Moondogs and Mad Dogs, a debut years in the making and adorned with a prime set of musicians including several of The Champs and pedal steel legend BJ Cole.

Like a musical Grandma Moses Wheatley is a primitive folk artist, his canvas the songs he heard growing up. Dylan is the prime mover. Several of the song titles nod to Dylan originals and he dots and darts throughout various Dylan eras, the amphetameanied talking blues of Subterranean Homesick Blues, Big Pink and The Basement Tapes, the red hot punk guitar assaults of Mike Bloomfield as Dylan transversed from folk to rock at Newport and Rolling Thunder Gypsy jaunts . But he also delves into Southern soul and funk (Not Tonight Josephine and Ten Dollar Jenny) along with the Romany wanderings of Ronnie Lane on Swalley Howell while there’s a nod to the pained solo recordings of John Lennon on Nothing, his voice smothered in echo uncannily akin to the late Beatle. He’s a grand wordsmith and half the fun here is in following the lyrics as there are unexpected twists and turns in the grand Dylan tradition as on the opening Life’s A Beach while Greenwich Village Blues is a wonderful capture of that time when Dylan et al invaded The Gaslight and it’s delivered with just the right amount of patina to allow the listener to wallow in the past.

On an album that’s unashamedly proud to wear its colours on its sleeve Wheatley transcends his influences coming across as a UK version of The Felice Brothers. The cracked voice, the sheer joy of the title song, the wracked and organ fuelled barnstorm of Smoking Gun are all delights but the best is on the blistering quicksilver ramshackle blues of Hand Me Down Leopard Skin Hat which, in a blind test, could easily be taken for a genuine lost Dylan song.

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Jon and Roy. The Road Ahead Is Golden.

4086666Jon Middleton and Roy Vizer are a Canadian duo who have been steadily building up their profile over the course of six albums. Their 2012 release Let It Go was awarded a Western Canadian Music Award for Roots Recording Of The Year while they seem to have cracked that financial lifeline that is TV exposure with several of their songs appearing on adverts. Recorded in a rural studio close to the band’s base in Victoria on Vancouver Island The Road Ahead Is Golden is a relatively simple affair with Middleton on guitar and vocals and Vizer on drums ably supported by bass and keyboards; the songs relaxed and easy flowing with Middleton’s attractively wearied voice the main hook.

The album ambles along nicely, a relaxed effort that’s just the right side of MOR music, not too demanding as the guitars ripple over Vizer’s supple percussion. Middleton at times recalls Will Oldham in the vocal department but the mood is more reminiscent of Oldham’s revisiting of his songs on his album Bonnie Prince Billy Sings Greatest Palace Music. The opening song, Runner, sets the pace with brisk scrubbed guitar pushing the song along as a subdued keyboard adds some colour. Breakdown skiffles along with some fine key changes and The Better Life posits the rural life as an antidote to the information highway that many of us are locked into these days.

Clever One slows the momentum with delicate finger picking and electric piano to the fore while How the story Goes is short and sweet with female harmonies added to the mix but the band’s dependence on Middleton’s voice is laid bare on the instrumental Silent Lou which just kind of noodles along. Overall, the album rests squarely on the vocals although there are some nice touches such as the guitar break on the title song and the late night groove of Nothing But Everything.  It’s a disc to spin on a lazy afternoon with Middleton’s voice wafting over a cooling breeze.

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Jim Byrne. Ten Writers Telling Lies

bookimageTen Writers Telling Lies is an ambitious project. A book of short stories, an album of songs, a series of illustrations, all entwined and caught up in a lie which, in the end, is withheld from the reader/listener. It’s the brainchild of Jim Byrne, a Glasgow West End flaneur and songwriter who admits that he was somewhat tired of the normal “record some songs and release them cycle.” The light bulb moment occurred when Byrne was at a book reading, which ended with the author of the night and friends playing some tunes. Mulling this over afterwards Byrne decided to recruit some writers for a collaboration which would entail them writing a story or poem and lyrics for the songs he was sitting on. In addition he asked each of them to take a “selfie” each of which were then the basis for an illustration by Glasgow artist Pam McDonald. The results, all included in the book, follow in the footsteps of the renowned Alasdair Gray who typically would enliven his books with intriguing illustrations although McDonald sets her own style.

At the heart of the project was the somewhat nebulous idea of the lie. Here Byrne was somewhat ahead of the pack as he conceived of the idea long before the issue of “fake news” became commonplace. Anyhow, Byrne states in his introduction that all involved were to agree to lie about a particular aspect of the project to the extent of signing a document forbidding them from revealing this “lie.” It’s a tantalising aspect, a challenge to discover the lie (and which, so far, we haven’t fathomed) but ultimately there’s no need to go all Tin Tin and investigative as the package works brilliantly on its own two feet. You can consider it as an anthology of new Scottish writing (to which it stands up well) with an album of songs to listen to as you read or try to match up the hidden threads which bind the project together.

So there are stories and poems about adolescent courting, rural surgery, beatnik dreams, termination blues and cross dressing priests. As in all anthologies there are different styles and themes but it’s an enthralling read and, if nothing else, a fine introduction to each of the writers. As for the music, Byrne excels. As befits the collaborative element of the project there’s a fine degree of variety on show here although it’s all helmed by his fine voice, at times lugubrious, plaintive or occasionally crooning. There’s a lengthy list of contributing musicians, singers and spoken work participants and the songs range across gospel themed laments, Celtic airs, Ronnie Lane like folky jaunts, Mexicali border dustiness, creamy pedal steel country and finger popping rock’n’roll. Variety for sure but it all hangs together with the overall sense of the album a peek into the human spirit and the many ways in which it can encounter adversity and try to overcome it. From the weeping fiddle that opens Burdon Of Your Cross, a song that recalls Johnny Cash’s religious songs, to the closing Promise That We’ll Meet Again, sung by Elaine Fleming and delivered with a folk purity with Byrne finger picking on acoustic guitar it’s a joy to listen to. There’s tenement gallousness in the spoken parts on Sweet Gone Tomorrows, All This I Learn From A Kiss is a gloriously warped waltz and Blood On Your Hands is a heart melting country duet with Byrne and Dinny Shuff doing their best George and Tammy.

The writers are Stephanie Brown, Pat Byrne, James Carson, Samina Chaudry, James Connarty, Pauline Lynch, Calum Maclean, Gillian Margaret Mayes, Micheal Norton and Stephen Watt. You can read more about the project here.

For a man who says he was somewhat jaded this project has certainly invigorated Byrne. It’s warm, evocative and exciting and well recommended. There’s a launch show at Cottiers in Glasgow this Thursday with readings and music and the book and album are available here. 

 

 

 

 

 

Imelda May Life. Love. Flesh. Blood. Decca Records

life-love-flesh-blood-album-coverMuch has been made of Imelda May’s new direction following her marital split and her hook up (professionally) with T Bone Burnett for this album which promised to move on from her rockabilly with a bodhran premise. On stage she has ditched the fifties themed polka dots and teased hair coming on instead like Chrissie Hynde’s sister with rock chick chic but Live. Love. Flesh. Blood , despite trailing credentials to die for, remains resolutely in the middle of the road. As with her previous manifestation which was a somewhat diluted version of Cramps lite rockabilly, here she attempts to croon like  Patsy Cline or dive into the badlands of Mexicana but there’s little sense of daring and despite Burnett’s awesome heritage he fails to inject any real passion into the album.

Several of the songs just fail to achieve lift off. They may seem impressive but like Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose ambition defeats design and delivery. The vampish Bad Habit harks back to songs like Love Potion No 9 but it fails to swing and the thrash of Leave Me Lonely abandons all subtlety sounding somewhat like Cher. Similarly, Should’ve Been You has a drum sound that sticks out like a sore thumb while Imelda’s voice seems to stretch for the high notes without having undergone a warm up beforehand. Much more successful are the quieter moments, the opening Call Me a delicate late night murmur with some sweet guitar that recalls Van Morrison’s Crazy Love while Black Tears is a Patsy Cline like bar room swoon with guest guitarist Jeff Beck adding some swell retro guitar slide. Sixth Sense is a nod to May’s previous good girl gone bad rockabilly mode and it slinks along with a fine atmospheric patina while How Bad Can A good Girl Be is soaked in Mexicana romance. Levitate roams around in similar territory and here the band and May do conjure up a romantic moment with guitar and strings sensual and seductive. May closes the album with an acoustic based number that may be somewhat autobiographical on The Girl I Used To Be. With a very slight Celtic folk lilt to it, it kind of highlights May’s dilemma, straining for the mainstream while trying to retain some roots. Ultimately, the record is destined for fairweather listeners and as such will probably sell a bundle.

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