A new year and a new artist to open 2020’s expected cornucopia of delights. Elaine Lennon is a Glasgow based singer songwriter who has only recently embraced her creative muse, waiting until seeing both her kids safely off to start their schooling before she commenced her own classes. Having been a passionate music fan, Lennon decided she would take the plunge and write her own songs, attending writing workshops and eventually taking her first tentative steps into live performance at the tail end of 2018. Her hard work paid off as she almost immediately won a Danny Kyle award at Glasgow’s Celtic Connections and then went on to be noted as “One to watch” by the Nashville Songwriters’ Association International. All in all a pretty impressive start which has been reinforced by a steady flow of live shows across Scotland which have all been critically well received.
And so, it’s debut album time and Lennon fulfils all the promise noted by her audiences (and those Nashville folk) as she turns in a tremendously accomplished set of songs which have her warm vocals and delicate keyboards to the fore over some very sympathetic band arrangements. With support from Creative Scotland she’s aided and assisted by some of Scotland’s best talent. Findlay Napier produces and plays guitar with Euan Burton on bass while Iain Sloan adds pedal steel and Patsy Reid manages the strings. Back in the old days this would have been called a bedsit album, a set of soothing ballads with some whispers of blues and good times, best listened to when needing cheered up after a break up, the sort of album Janis Ian used to do. There’s no doubt that Lennon does indeed raise memories of those confessional singer songwriters of yore who wrote songs which sounded like sad Christmas carols without ever mentioning Christmas, artists as diverse as Lesley Duncan and Dory Previn. More up to date, she’s obviously been a keen watcher of the likes of Gretchen Peters and it’s interesting to note that one of her more vocal supporters is Ben Glover, a man who has collaborated with Peters and as host of others.
The album opens and closes with two excellent songs. Next Friday Night pulls at the heartstrings as Lennon sings of a couple’s lifelong love story, her piano rippling away alongside a plaintive violin, her vocals here the best on the disc. By Your Side is in a similar vein, a song pledging undying love, which soars wonderfully with the piano and strings somewhat haunting. These are the type of songs in which Lennon excels and there are several here including Only Love Can break Your Heart which could have been a power ballad full of melodrama but her restrained vocals and , again, a minimal although lovely arrangement allows the song a quiet majesty. You And Me is another delicate ballad infused with hope while Fear (Breakup Song) is the one song here which is somewhat feisty in its lyrics while remaining true to the tried and trusted arrangements which suit Lennon so well.
Lennon breaks the mould on a couple of numbers. Trouble has a slight gospel blues touch to it, a Nina Simone feel if you will, and having seen Lennon play it live with vigour it has to be said that this cut is just a bit too restrained although the middle eight allows the band to swirl excellently. The throbbing bass and growling guitars on This give the song a dark Americana patina while Lennon pays tribute to a relative who played in Glasgow jazz bands back in the ‘60s on the entrancing In Songs We Live On, singing in a vampish manner over a scratchy original recording of his. There’s also one cover song on the album, a version of Hank Cochran’s She’s Got You which Lennon recrafts into another heartworn ballad with Iain Sloan adding some lambent pedal steel.
One can only salute Ms. Lennon on her drive, ambition and talent. The album is a most assured debut, and if luck remains on her side, some of the songs here would surely beg to be heard on the nation’s airwaves. In the meantime, she has an album release show under the aegis of Celtic Connections at Glasgow’s Glad Cafe on January 24th.
Those of us somewhat long in the tooth may remember The Kissing Bandits and their lead singer, Ronnie Costley. The Bandits were majot players in Glasgow in the 80’s, playing a grand mix of garage rock, post punk and power pop with Costley a commanding presence on stage with a hint of Lux Interior present. Despite being signed to WEA, the Bandits never hit the big time and they went their separate ways with Costley locating to Ireland where he still lives. He continues to make music and Blabber’n’Smoke, alongside deejays such as Iain Anderson, were impressed by his album, Souvenirs & Scotch Mist, his recollections of growing up in the west of Scotland which came out a few years back.
Matter Of Time (as was Souvenirs & Scotch Mist) was recorded with many of Costley’s compadres in the Glasgow music scene and here he offers us a countrified collection of four songs, all distinct from each other and all, in their own way, quite entrancing.
The EP opens with the title song as a zippy acoustic slide guitar glides into this rippling slice of upbeat jangled celebration. Costley here achieves the almost impossible task of recalling Gene Clark as he sings, “When rhyme and reason seem impossible to find and dreams are shackled to the past, you have to realise it’s just a state of mind and you can let it go, no need to make it last.” Allied to these Zen like words of wisdom is some fantastic playing as the song is buoyed along on a welter of acoustic guitars and banjo along with some whip smart electric guitar solos. No Money Coming In is a much simpler song which recalls the early work of Gerry Rafferty (especially on his debut album, Can I Have My Money Back) with Costley singing of the monetary woes of being a working musician. We were especially intrigued here by the opening farmyard birds squawking as a lonesome piano played some bars from Rally Round The Flag.
Away from the farmyard, Costley then launches into the eminently danceable Hey, You Want To Dance With Me which lurches magnificently with full-blown mariachi horns over groovy organ and licktastic guitar. It’s short, over almost before it begins, but it captures some of that joi de vivre which The Mavericks do so well, and if, god forbid, it gets out into the wild, could be the wedding song of next year. It’s a pity there’s only four songs here but the last one certainly leaves the listener with some puzzlement. How’s The World Treating You is an odd conglomeration of tin pan alley, syrupy country and gonzo rock with a dash of The Kinks thrown in. Aside from Costley’s acute capture of a lonesome drunk there’s creamy pedal steel guitar buttering his lyrics along with a demented guitar solo midway which is allied to a heavenly chorus. Odd indeed but strangely addictive.
Matter Of Time is available here.
Whenever she tours here in the UK, Texan singer songwriter Libby Koch is greeted with enthusiasm by the select band of followers who know of her. Live, she’s a treasure – warm and friendly, slightly sassy and with real red dirt roots – while her song writing is not to be sniffed at. Much of this is captured on Redemption 10, a live album (recorded in Blue Rock studios with an invited audience) which is essentially a remake of her first album recorded 10 years ago when she was still working as an attorney at a law firm in Houston. That album was a tentative toe in the water moment for Koch who has now released four studio albums, and while it might be egging the pudding to say it was a Damascene moment for her, its reception led to her swapping the courts for a life on the road.
Redemption was a stripped back affair, Koch, her guitar and harmonica, that’s all. Here, with a five-piece band behind her, it’s instructive to compare the discs. On the debut the songs sing out but Koch is somewhat restrained whereas here her voice has filled out and swings with her Texan accent, listen to way she now manages the undulations of How Long with a consummate ease as opposed to her more formal studio recording. Meanwhile the addition of the band gives the songs a great lift, a Technicolor scheme as opposed to the monochromatic original.
Opening with the sweet pedal steel and fiddle laced Houston, Koch sweeps through the album with aplomb. Just The Way has a Dylan (circa Desire) arrangement to it and Can’t Complain, a hardscrabble tale of red dirt living is quite magnificent, a song to rival many of Koch’s more famous peers and it’s followed by another excellent song, Redemption.
Time here to mention the stellar playing on fiddle by Javier Chaparo, guitar from Bill Browder and pedal steel wizard Patterson Barrett, all three concocting a swinging and smooth country rock backing. Barrett gets behind the piano for a raucous delivery of Down, unrecognisable from its parent album as Koch comes across as feisty as Linda Gail Lewis. Closing the album (as on the original) with Johnny Cash’s I Still Miss Someone, Koch and the band sound superb, leaving one wishing that someday Ms. Koch might be able to bring such a line up over here. In the meantime, the album’s an essential addition to any Koch fan’s library.
This second album from Hope In High Water (who amusingly describe their music as “Mountain music from the flatlands of Milton Keynes”) expands somewhat on the simpler guitar and banjo songs which populated their debut from a few years back. Josh Chandler Morris’s guitar and Carly Slade’s banjo are aided and abetted by Luke Yates on violin and percussion with Darren Camp on drums but the primary difference is that the pair have dug deeper into the well of American music. There’s more soul and grit in these grooves, not in an old fashioned R’n’B sense but picking up on vibes cast by the likes of The Band and old folk hands such as Karen Dalton.
The Band come to mind on the opening song, Healed, a song heralded by Morris singing, “Started to feel comfort in my own skin, it took a healthy dose of psilocybin” over a fine and syrupy rootsy rhythm which could have come from an album such as Cahoots. Slade then takes the driver’s seat on the banjo led It’s Over Now proving that she has some grand vocal chops which have a hint of Maria Muldaur to them. The song rolls along in fine style with its old time, almost music hall, sing-along chorus bound to be a live favourite, somewhat at odds with its subject matter which concerns surviving childhood abuse, meanwhile, an accordion allows the song to have a slight anglicised whiff to it in the manner of Richard Thompson.
While not wanting to set the pair to feuding, it’s Slade one looks forward to hearing as the album moves along. Morris has an attractive strained husk to his singing and the pair do fantastic harmonies as on the title song. However, Slade excels on several numbers. She returns to the subject of abuse on Stronger Than You Know, a much starker number than It’s Over Now, with her voice dredged from the depths while her plaintive banjo has the air of Greil Marcus’s old weird America. She gets weirder (in a good way) on the haunting Alone, a song which is worth the price of the ticket in itself as the band throw in some excellent dark folk stylings, while Something Unnamed has the unadorned simplicity which characterises the best of American folk music. Overall, very nice.
Although they were linked in with that brief “new weird folk” movement of the noughties, Vetiver were always a much more straightforward concern than the likes of Devandra Barnhart. Their albums feature “nice” melodic folk songs which, at times, rock slightly, and so it is here on their seventh album, their debut on Loose Music here in the UK.
Up On High is mellow for the most part. An album to relax with as Andy Cabic’s slightly hushed voice wafts over lightly strummed guitars, the songs sweetly embellished with delicate washes of organ and pedal steel. There’s a sense of the past about it, not overtly nostalgic nor in tribute to anything in particular but the soft rock sounds of the likes of Bread along with the more harmonic psych pop bands of the sixties come to mind. This is most apparent on the title song which does kick off sounding as if it’s The Turtles prepping You Showed Me before Cabic veers off into a magnificent halting dreamlike confection. The closing moments here are just astounding.
There’s more of this blissful ennui on To Who Knows Where, another fluffy pillow of a song and on A Door Shuts Quick with its light footed guitar while Filigree (an apt title) ripples along with the freshness of a mountain stream. The good old Grateful Dead, circa ’72, are hinted at in the opening song, The Living End, while Swaying positively bursts with a sunburst jangled guitar exuberance. It’s unfortunate that there’s a slightly clumsy attempt at funk midway through the disc on Hold Tight as Cabic doesn’t have the vocal heft to carry this off but all is forgiven by the time the closing Lost (In Your Eyes) rolls along as it’s another dream like invocation to surrender to Cabic’s voice and the sumptuous playing.
Vetiver set off on a UK tour in December including shows in Edinburgh and Glasgow, all dates here.
It was back in 2014 that Blabber’n’Smoke last encountered David latto when we reviewed his band’s last EP. The David Latto Band were up and coming in the UK Americana scene with a fine album already under their belt but soon after, Latto kind of disappeared. According to the man, he had hit some kind of creative wall which led to him taking a couple of years out. Working away from the music scene for a couple of years, he was eventually tempted to dip his toes in the water again with a brace of new songs which veered away from the alt country he was known for, being of a more personal songwriter persuasion.
Re-establishing his presence via live gigging over the past two years, Latto now has the first fruits of his recent labours on show in this five song EP. It’s a polished affair, sometime a bit too polished for ears more accustomed to a rootsier approach but there’s no denying Latto’s songwriting skills and his warm honeyed voice. He opens with the title song, a shimmering confection of jangling guitars which strays a little bit too far into pop territory for this reviewer with its soaring chorus, although a close listen to the words reveals a song which is packed with emotional pain and, at times, despair as Latto sings of being, “A dead man walking.” We’re much more comfortable with the pedal steel layered lament of Blood & Whiskey and the feather light tones of Haunt Me which features some excellent percussion. Better Ways avoids the pitfalls of the opening song although sharing many of its sentiments. There’s some gritty guitar midway and the polished finish does just what it’s supposed to do, showcase an excellent song. Losing You closes the disc with a flourish as Latto, still somewhat despairing, harnesses the full power of his musicians and Mally Smith’s excellent backing vocals on a song which builds to a grand climax with a powerful percussive drive and soaring electric guitar. It’s a song which strives for greatness and, with its hints of Prefab Sprout and even U2, it could achieve that if it got onto enough radio playlists. All in all, a welcome return for this songwriter from Fife.
Show Me How To Feel was released at the end of October but there’s a live launch gig next Saturday, 30th November, at Brig Below in Edinburgh with vinyl copies of the EP on sale. Details here.
Hot on the heels of his critically acclaimed retrospective collection, Too Broke To Die, compiled for the European market in view of his increasing popularity on this side of the pond, Jerry Leger excels on Time Out For Tomorrow. Harnessing his romantic troubadour persona to a mercurial band sound replete with sweeping organ and quicksilver guitars, Leger hits the bulls eye on each of the ten songs here.
Time Out For Tomorrow runs the gamut of classic Americana styled music. His band, The Situation, are quite superb throughout while the production (Mike Timmins of The Cowboy Junkies) captures every nuance. Consider the contrast between the opening Canvas Of Gold, a grand song borne aloft on swathes of slide guitar, and the crepuscular doings, singing saws and Romany guitar and fiddle on the dark ballad Survived Like A Stone. Both jump out at the listener allowing one to consider Leger equally adept at brash rock’n’roll and introspective meanderings. The album as a whole leans towards the former but when Leger turns inwards he offers us the glorious I Would, a glistening jewel of a song which floats over a simple country rock backbone with glowering guitar shadowing Leger’s achingly romantic lyrics. He takes to piano for another heartache on That Ain’t Here which is simply majestic. The song, so simple yet so memorable, has the tang of classic writers such as Lennon or John Hiatt.
There’s an undeniable whiff of classic rock throughout the album as Leger dips into the past to flavour his songs. Justine chimes perfectly with a mid sixties vibe, a conglomeration of visionary Dylan with sparks flying from guitar and organ as if Bloomfield and Kooper were sparring in the studio. Read Between The Lines rattles along as Leger testifies with an anguished passion over an excellent mash up of tin pan alley melodrama and a hip Chuck Prophet like insouciance. This potpourri allows Leger to deliver songs like Burchell Lake, a faded portrait of a once thriving community featuring snakelike slide guitar, along with, what is possibly the best example of the band’s mastery of dynamite dynamics here, the bustling romance of Corner Light, a song to savour. Leger closes the album with the sweet country rock themed Tomorrow In My Mind which has echoes of John Hartford woven within it. A lovely close to a great album.