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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I See Hawks In L.A. On Our Way

Stuck in pandemic land, I See Hawks In L.A. essentially underwent a crash course in remote recording for their latest album, On Our Way. As the band say, they “began the studio game. ProTools, trial by error, error in abundance…Can we use an iPhone recording?”  Well, it’s graduation day today as they unveil the album and we can safely say that, were we marking it, it would get an A+.

On Our Way maintains the high standard set on previous releases by these wayward California hippies with their signature notes of high tide lines left behind by the likes of The Dead remaining intact. There is cosmic country, as on the pedal steel infused Geronimo, laid back musings on Stealing (which recalls classic Laurel Canyon days) and even some grungy junkyard ramblings on Mississippi Gas Station Blues which sounds like a mash up of Los Lobos and The Doors.

They set their stall out quite firmly on the flighty country rock of the opening song, Might have Been Me, which ripples along quite excellently and which is followed by the title track which has a slight touch of The Byrds to it in its chime. There’s a lengthy and somewhat freaky fiddle intro to Know Just What To Do which eventually subsides as the song sweetly flows into a fireside like homily. Warm and comforting for sure, but that fiddle buzz eventually returns as the song wavers between comfort and sonic malevolence. It’s as if John Cale had happened upon a David Crosby recording session. This sense of adventure is highlighted on the closing number, How You Gonna Know, an elongated eight minute trip dominated by intricate drum patterns accompanied with antipodean interruptions which eventually erupts into a tribal whelp.

Much more straightforward is the impressive Kentucky Jesus, a song which celebrates Muhammed Ali’s anti draft stance, and drummer Victoria Jacobs offers us the paisley patterned psychedelia of Kensington Market, revisiting territory she explored on the Hawks last album. If it’s Americana then there has to be a travelogue song and the band deliver another excellent slice of cosmic country rock on If I Move which swoops along quite excellently name checking fast food joints chock-full of memories of a lost love, the narrator lost in an endless highway, fuelled by despair. Quite wonderful.

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Bard Edrington V. Two Days In Terlingua.

Terlingua, situated in south Texas, might only have a population of 58 but it has featured in movies (including Paris, Texas) and has acquired the title of being Texas’ ghost town. Its abandoned mine works are a tourist attraction for hardy tourists, willing to endure the desert heat and, amidst its parched buildings, there’s a one hundred year old church still standing. This church was the location selected by Bard Edrington V to record this album in as live a manner as he could. The songs were all recorded live in a matter of two days, the band in a circle, playing to each other, no overdubs, the real deal.

Edrington has, over the past couple of years, proved himself to be quite a superior songwriter, both on solo outings and as one half of the Hoth Brothers. Here he excels himself. Having gathered a tremendous set of players to accompany him (Karina Wilson on vocals and violins, brothers Bill  and Jim Palmer on bass and drums, Alex McMahon on pedal steel, banjo and guitar and Zoe Wilcox on backing vocals) he digs deep into traditional American folk themes and comes up with a startling selection of songs. The band meanwhile gel so well it’s difficult to believe that this is a “fly on the wall” recording and, while there are moments which recall the likes of Townes Van Zandt, there are others where the band delve into electric folk blues as practised by The Cowboy Junkies on their acclaimed Trinity Sessions album.

Opening with Ramblin’ Kind, a title which surely nods towards to Hank Williams, Edrington leads the band on a jaunty folk number with twirling fiddle to the fore which introduces a character who seems to haunt much of the album. A drifter – jobs here and there, sleeping rough and prone to wallowing in booze. He’s an American Everyman, down on his luck, and much of the album is about his compatriots and their share of bad luck and struggle. The mood darkens on the grungy Dylan like Property Lines which has Wilson sawing away like Scarlett Rivera as the band plunge into muddy waters, guitars wailing and flailing away to keep from drowning. It’s an epic song and is given an epic treatment.

Similar tales of bad luck and trouble fall into place throughout the album such as on the bittersweet country styling of Shut The Screen Door, the loping country blues of A New Day On The Farm and the stark death rattle of Black Coal Lung. All of these are quite excellent but Edrington tops them with a couple of songs which just about defy description. Nevertheless, here we go. Bard And The Bears is an ancient sounding song of the type we are used to from Michael Hurley. The song scrapes along as Edrington inhabits the flora and fauna of his youth while the band slowly pile in with jagged guitar and an insistent fiddle motif gradually taking over. Strange Balloon meanwhile finds Edrington musing on the night sky and the possibility of life out there, over a quite intoxicating rumble of guitars, fiddle and percussion.

Coming back to earth, Masterpiece Of St. Mark’s Square seems to be an impressionistic painting of some happy times in Venice while Athena’s Gaze is a full blown flowing folk rock number which alludes to the power of ancient Greek myths. A more recent past is visited on Dog Tags 1942, a song written by Edrington’s grandmother about her son going off to war. It’s a fine front porch slice of Appalachian music and it’s followed by the album closer, No Reason, which meanders through its seven minute duration quite wonderfully as Edrington burrows into his very own happy place while the band expertly nudge him along. Their telepathic playing is a Texas equivalent of the groundbreaking sounds conjured by Fairport Convention when they unleashed A Sailor’s Life. It’s a perfect way to close a brilliant album.

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Mark & The Clouds. Waves. Gare du Nord Records

Marco Magnani is an Italian who, since the 90s,’ has been surfing the London neo psychedelic scene. I don’t know too much about this scene but presumably, it’s centred around small pubs populated by folk who buy magazines such as Shindig, in itself, no bad thing. The question here is can Marco (or Mark) cut the mustard on disc so let’s find out.

A basic trio with several guests adding additional colour, Mark & The Clouds kick off the album in fine fashion on the trippy You & Me In Space which reminds one of The Rain Parade’s debut album, a definite plus in this reviewer’s opinion. With guitars which sound like sitars played backwards along with church like organ and cymbal splashes galore, it’s the real deal. It’s the high point (if you get my drift) of the album as thereafter they roam throughout various styles – harmonic psych pop, pastoral revelries and beat freak all feature. Overall they manage to satisfy that sixth sense which most folk who experienced either the first wave of psychedelia, the so called Paisley Underground or the new wave of psychedelic rock (hands up if you own a copy of A Splash of Colour) have.

So, take your pick from the floating vocals and swooning guitars of Free Me Now, the acoustic tapestry of the title song or the punchy San Francisco punk of Peace Not Religion for a quick fix, and then relax amidst the cosmic strains of Back In Time and the harmonies of The Same Old Dream. These are all quite fine in their own right and the band are quite acute in their recall of classic psychedelic pop. Ultimately however, they never match that tremendous opening song although the closing galloping guitar epic, Somebody Else, has the makings of a great live favourite.

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Kimberley Rew and Lee Cave-Berry. Purple Kittens

Purple Kittens is the latest album from ex Soft Boys/Katrina & The Waves Kimberley Rew and his partner, Lee Cave Berry and, as expected, it’s packed with excellent songs and some really groovy guitar. The latter is apparent from the off as Rew corkscrews some tremendous soloing into the album’s opening track, Penny The Ragman. On a song which is as quintessentially English as The Kinks’ Village Green Preservation Society, Rew celebrates a relative who was the cornerstone of her village’s social life and imbues it with a tremendous sense of mid sixties rock with its freak beat ending.

There’s much of the album which recalls earlier days. The flute which warbles amidst the slow-burn groove of Wrong Song recalls Traffic and Raspberry Ripple Ice Cream, with its circular riff and repetitive lyrics, is Rew’s attempt to emulate early sixties dance crazes which were often, for some reason, named after food or drink. I’m not too sure if you could actually dance to this as there’s a lengthy guitar solo, seemingly beamed  in from Mars, midway, but it certainly rips and roars and, who knows, it might be, right now, a dance hit in a Martian night club as they probably have different moves. Lee Cave Berry leans into this retro love as she lays out I Can Be Any Woman which was apparently inspired by her love of early Star Trek and which finds her in a sultry Eastern mood. Fittingly, here the band hit the Orient with Carnatic guitar and modalities, meandering into Donovan territory (without the tweeness) while Cave-Berry comes across as a less menacing Grace Slick. Digging in to his own past, Rew also unleashes a rabid cover of that Soft Boys staple, Kingdom Of Love with his guitar unearthing new sonic possibilities excavated from the original.

Elsewhere, the pair can delve into folk as on Too Much Love or pet loving whimsy on Unsatisfactory Cats while Growing Up Song is an acute and tenderly delivered rumination on the perils of instant digital gratification as “enjoyed” by the kids of today. Speaking of the kids of today, there’s a song here which speaks to recent losses due to covid. Black Ribbon is a gnarly rock’n’roll roustabout based on lyrics written by the grand kids of a friend of the duo who had succumbed to Covid. The words describe their grand dad well and Rew and Cave-Berry hopefully do them proud on this rendition. It is a homely element in this swell collection of songs which deserves to be heard far and wide as Rew and Cave-Berry continue to carve their idiosyncratic career.

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The Poppermost. Hits To Spare

If you’ve got any old Beatles’ wigs or plastic sixties paraphernalia stashed in your attic, then get them out and get in the mood for this FAB album. Hits To Spare is a fantastic (and loving) tribute to John, Paul, George and Ringo, played, quite amazingly by one man. Glaswegian Joe Kane is essentially The Poppermost and he recorded the album in his own studio (Fabbey Road, fact fans!) using his collection of vintage instruments (many as used by the band themselves). Unlike, say, The Rutles, Kane doesn’t attempt to ape the moptops’ career, preferring instead to concentrate on the early times from The Cavern days to Help! He does however share with The Rutles’ Neil Innes, the uncanny knack of writing songs which capture the essence of The Beatles while also being able to stand on their own two feet. In addition he’s not’s above taking a pop at them as on the humorous One Of Those Gerrllss which is a skifflish number featuring Lennon’s Scouse accent and which actually sounds like Freddie And The Dreamers singing a Beatles’ cast off.

The album opens with Egg & Chips (which could be a title on the Rutles album); a nod to George’s supposed favourite food. It’s a lovingly ramshackle (take 78 according to the spoken intro) foray into primitive rock’n’roll although there are glimpses of their familiar harmonies featured. It serves to remind us that The Beatles were once four fresh faced lads in love with rock and soul who were having fun in the studio. Yes It’s True is much more solid with Kane nailing the sound of With The Beatles, their second album, while Can’t Take That Away is more akin to their first album and much of the remainder of the disc hovers within this time frame. Call To Me and What A Wonderful Love are romances of the type which had teenage girls screaming in the aisles while Goodnight Georgia Peach is a McCartney like rocker which, appropriately enough, pays tribute to the late Little Richard.

The album is essentially great fun and Kane really hits the button on more than one occasion. Cry For Another is a stone cold Merseyside belter and yet again, a reminder of how The Beatles swept into the nation’s conscience in the early sixties with similar well-crafted pop extravaganzas. The title song is another punchy number with its lyrics alluding to the habit of lesser pop stars riding on the coat tails of the fab four while the most brazen number here is the amusingly titled Park And Ride which is a hair’s breadth away from Ticket To Ride. Hits To Spare closes on a high note with the excellent Well I Will which, simply put, is simply thrilling as Kane’s version of The Beatles soar over an excellent garage band backing.

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Don Gallardo. All The Pretty Things

Back when Covid hit, Don Gallardo was in the eye of the storm, frantically looking for flights back to the USA after a short tour of European countries. He got back but caught Covid on the flight and was ill for a couple of weeks while isolating in his cellar home studio. Next, as for all of us, there was a long stretch of enforced distancing and (as with all musicians) no gigs to play. Gallardo has used that long stretch to record an album which relates to his experience.

All The Pretty Things began as a series of songs written by and recorded by Gallardo in his home studio but, with time on his hands, he reached out to some friends remotely to spruce the recordings up. Chief of these was Andrew Sovine (grandson of Red Sovine) who has added all manner of instrumentation to the album while Darren Nelson’s vocals weave around, over and under Gallardo’s voice. The result is a gorgeous and laid-back listen which has Gallardo musing on the effects of the virus and, ultimately, offering some hope that life can get back to normal.

He tops and tails the album with two songs which portray the uncertainty which gripped the world as it shut up shop. “All right, here we go…” he says, when Lost Hope launches the album with its gossamer like frailty as he goes on to sing, “I wonder who I am these days.” The closing song, Gypsum – a cover of a Virgil Shaw number – while written well before the pandemic, acts as a parable of sorts for that time when we were all somewhat driftless amidst the miasma of conflicting scientific and political claims. Midway through the album, The Urgency, a truly cosmic swoon of a song with a slight Beatles touch to it, finds Gallardo advising all to relax, that what goes down can also come up. The title song, a breezy Wilco like number, echoes this sentiment while Dear Friends is Gallardo’s love letter to his fans and friends abroad as he sings about all he misses on his continental jaunts and it has a fine old Grateful Dead American Beauty like lilt to it.

It has to be said that Gallardo, Sovine and Nelson gel wonderfully throughout the album. The Dreamers Of the World, which is kind of like a Covid dream song, is quite sublime with its multilayered vocals and filigreed tapestry of ornamental keyboards. Time’s Not Lost On You is truly in cosmic country territory as Sovine lets rip a glorious fuzzed guitar solo midway and Stuck On Love, a song which alludes to Gallardo’s flight from the virus back to home, hearth and family, is quite affecting in its yearning quality. Altogether, the album is perhaps the most mellow disc Gallardo has recorded but it’s infused with warmth and a healthy regard for the human spirit.

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Various Artists. Snockument – Songs by Michael Hurley. Blue Navigator Records

Long rumoured to be in the works, an album of Michael Hurley songs performed by others has finally emerged, blinking, into daylight. For those not aware of him, Hurley is one of the surviving links to, as Greil Marcus has it, that Old Weird Americana. From his first recordings in 1965 for Folkways, up until the present, Hurley has inhabited a domain where country, blues and folk collide and he has peopled it with an amazing array of characters, some grim and doomed such as his famed werewolf, others, cartoonish, bawdy and, at times, lascivious – check out Boone and Jocko. Above all, Hurley allows us to view his world via some stunningly beautiful songs. Some are raw, gnawed from his hinterland, while there are several which have a rich groove and then others which are just quite achingly tender. It’s no surprise really that such a unique artist has rarely troubled the mainstream but, equally unsurprising, he has gathered a cult following which has included a good number of musicians over the years.

Many of those musicians have paid tribute to Hurley on their respective albums, covers of his songs abound, especially amidst the weird folk movement pioneered by Devandra Banhart. Snockument, punningly named after one of his many alter egos, is however, the first bona fide collection of cover songs. It has Hurley’s stamp of approval, an important issue as previous attempts at delivering such an album were nixed by him. As he declared of one of the earlier submissions, “He didn’t have the melody, he didn’t have the words, so what did he have…? I didn’t want the song represented that way. I figured, ‘This is one of my best songs and I want it out there in the public like it is’.” So, the album gathers some songs from those previous attempts which did make the cut along with a couple of previously released covers and some recorded specifically for what we might call “Snockument – Take 3.”

Despite such disparate origins, the album is a joy to listen to and it flows wonderfully. Hurley has selected the songs and sequenced them such that there are no joins to be heard between sessions recorded back in the 1990’s to the present day. The 10 songs here are but a dip into Hurley’s immersive world but they will be more than familiar to fans and all are delivered with what appears to be a great sense of affection and connection with the man. There’s reverence and ribaldry here, quite fitting.

Cat Power’s version of Werewolf is probably the song which most folk will gravitate to immediately. Plucked from her 2003 album You Are Free, it is suitably spooky while Power deftly switches the werewolf’s gender so that it is a she who “loves the young man as I tear off his clothes.” If this sends folk back to Hurley’s stunningly crepuscular original version then the album has done its job. There are other familiar names on board. A 2004 Calexico offer a finely laid back Rue Of Ruby Whores which slides down the neck as easily as a glass of Knockando while Yo La Tengo transform Polynesia into a shimmering languid dream state and Cass McCombs, with guitarist Steve Gunn in tow, follows the original template of Sweet Lucy quite faithfully.

As befits Hurley’s underground reputation however, several of the acts involved here are hardly household names. Little Sue, a Portland singer, captures Hurley’s old time essence in her version of  Somebody To Say Goodbye To and another Portland outfit, The Hackles, hack excellently into Hurley’s sense of wonder on Oh My Stars. The Chicken Chokers give Watertrain a fine string band delivery and Chicago’s Vernon Tonges packs some punch vocally into his bracing and slightly lop sided version of I Still Could Not Forget You Then. Perhaps the most imaginative cover comes from Manchester’s Daniel Bridgwood-Hill, recording as dbh. He takes Hurley’s saw fiddled Hog Of The Forsaken (as heard on TV’s Deadwood) and transforms it into a guitar, fiddle and whistled Antebellum lament which reminds one of Jay Ungar’s Ashokan Farewell. It’s just lovely.

So there we have it, finally. Snockument comes in vinyl, dressed in a sleeve featuring a Hurley painting and with an illustrated gatefold booklet. There may be a CD release in the near future which might include an expanded set list but in the meantime, this handsome and very desirable limited edition is available from Dublin’s Blue Navigator Records

Michael Hurley