Willard Grant Conspiracy. Untethered. Loose Music

wgc_untethered_loresIt’s impossible to listen to Untethered without a heavy heart, the album being the last recordings made by Willard Grant Conspiracy’s mainstay, Robert Fisher, before his death from cancer in 2017. Throughout their 25 plus years of recording Fisher and his ever-changing Willard Grant line-ups were always somewhat portentous, his sombre voice offering a spectral foreboding to many of his songs. Although the songs here were recorded after his diagnosis there’s only one written in the wake of it. Nevertheless, it’s difficult not to see the album as Fisher’s farewell to the world. The songs have been “dusted down and brought to life with the care and attention of his longtime compadre David Michael Curry” and Curry has certainly done a magnificent job as there’s no sense of this not being a finished product which would have accompanied the band on their next tour.

Most of the album is stark in its acoustic beauty, the one song which kicks against the prevailing mood being the opener, Hideous Beast, which snarls with bared teeth in a manner not unlike a feral Nick Cave. The remainder is a creaky voyage with viola and cello, a musical saw and occasional guttural guitars driving the songs over laid back rhythms. None more so than on Do No Harm (with Steve Wynn on guitar) as Fisher seems to gather euphemisms for passing on and refers to the titular medical oath as the song progresses as if Charon was piloting the band across the Styx. There’s a tremulous tenebrosity in the saw and sawed instruments of All We Have Left, an instrumental which recalls the melancholy of Nick Drake and the solemn quality of an elegy. It’s a quality the album returns to over its course with  Let The Storm Be Your Pilot casting Fisher in a vulnerable position, his voice lowered to a whisper as guitars slither and squirm while I Could Not almost weeps with a list of unfulfilled ambitions, its ramshackle structure as frail as a dust bowl shack as the storms gather. Untethered, written post diagnosis, recalls Johnny Cash’s glorious bowing out on songs such as Hurt as Fisher delves into portents of death while the closing Trail’s End, another instrumental, comes across as if it were a soundtrack for an apocalyptic Western movie, Morricone mixed with Jodorowsky with juddering guitars and sombre strings.

Amidst the above there’s a brace of songs which are classic Willard Grant Conspiracy fare such as Chasing Rabbits and Saturday With Jane. That we get to hear these is a blessing and a sure indication that Fisher was still at the top of his game as his time here grew to a close. Untethered is a wonderful obituary for the man but in its own terms it stands up with the rest of his catalogue.

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GospelbeacH. Another Winter Alive. Alive Natural Sound

51dnpq5qkhl-_ss500What with the price of coal being what it is, here’s another way to keep warm this winter, a new album from the sun dappled GospelbeacH, purveyors of prime California sunshine jangled pop. Another Winter Alive is not in fact, a full-blown follow up to the excellent Another Summer of Love, rather it’s a collection of songs recorded for that album which didn’t make the final cut, supplemented by a short live set, recorded at The Betsey Trotwood in London. Some might suspect that this is a quick cash in by the band or record company to hoover up some bucks before Christmas but we’d consider it more in the tradition of releases such as The Smiths’ Hatful of Hollow, an attempt to allow fans to hear songs which otherwise would languish in a vault somewhere.

Anyhow. The album kicks off with the five studio recordings beginning with an excellent version of fellow traveller, Neal Casal’s Freeway To The Canyon. This is just perfection, from the jangled guitar intro and the slightly wearied harmonies to the organ fills and trippy guitar solo the song flows as sweetly as a Topanga Canyon stream summoning up visions of latter-day Byrds. Down South is somewhat more baroque with its signature changes and closing honky tonk piano knees up with the guitars here having a George Harrison touch to their slips and slides. Running Blind takes a left turn in a more turbo charged direction with a fuzz toned organ riff leading the charge until halfway through the song spaces out into cosmic Americana territory with pedal steel gliding adrift amidst sound effects and heavenly harmonising. It’s back to the main drag however for the perfect power pop of Change of Heart, a Petty like number which will knock the socks off of you while Dreamin’ is more laidback, an attractive slice of harmony soft rock which is, indeed, sun dappled.

The live songs feature Brent Rademaker, Jonny Niemann and Jason Soda playing in a London pub in a kind of unplugged set up on guitars and keyboard (although one of the guitars is plugged in). There’s a splendidly ragged version of California Steamer, and then a fine reading of Out of My Mind (On Cope & Reed) with Rademaker doing his best Lou Reed impression and the trio out doing the studio version for sheer energy and passion. Miller Lite (originally called Sunshine Skyway on the first album) is a light hearted tale of a bohemian surfing jobs on the road in Florida with Rademaker urging the audience to join in with the great line, “is this a pub or a morgue?” They nail the romance and mystery of In The Desert and finish off with in a similar manner on You’re Already Home, another song which reeks of seventies long haired freedom with the trio harmonising well in the live setting.

As football commentators might say, it’s an album of two halves. The studio songs are excellent, the live songs a very welcome addition. Those new to the band might best be directed to either of the two previous albums but for fans, this is an excellent stocking filler.

Cam Penner & Jon Wood. The Fallen Angels Club @ The Admiral Bar. 21st November 2018

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Shoot! First time an artist has provided Blabber’n’smoke with the opening for a live review but here’s Cam Penner on Facebook just before he hit the stage…

“I wonder what people think when they see Jon and myself walk up on stage. Especially if they have never seen us before. The Bear. Pacing back and forth, machines whirling, ghosts, crashing, pedals creaking, the beat, falsetto, eyes closed. The Conjurer. Feet hovering over lights, notes rising, crooked fingers pulling wire, gripping, colours, coaxing, luring.”

Yip, that about sums it up. Penner’s a large guy and he does wander the stage picking up this and that, banging and strumming, in his element. And Wood does conjure as he deftly coaxes sounds from his set up, tape loops and sound effects which surround the pair and envelop the music. Ah, the music. There’s mystery and menace, love and humility, savage blues and tender romances, sounds one can imagine primitive man heard, allied with tribal ritual and chain gang hollers, delta moans and sylvan murmurs. All summoned up by these two Canadians armed with guitars, a drum kit and tape loops.

The scene was set from the start as Penner did indeed wander the stage before muttering “Come on people” into the mic and then looping it into a chant as the pair eased into Gather Round from their latest album, At War With Reason, the first of four songs from the disc played without interruption. With the looped chant sounding like a Curtis Mayfield refrain the song was hypnotic as Penner urged us to join together to combat the current mayhem before letting loose some on stage mayhem as East Side’s thunderous kick drum and scintillating guitar shards from Wood accurately summed up a state of urban warfare. East Side petered out with a burble of delicate keyboard and eased into the crepuscular Poor You which gradually built in intensity before erupting into a savage rendition of Lights On (High School Musical), Penner’s savage riposte to the spate of school shootings which has plagued America. With guttural guitar from Wood, Penner inhabited the world of rap here, the song briskly executed and ending with him declaring, “For the kids.”

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It was a stunning opening to the night’s set, a suite of songs perfectly delivered with a fierce honesty. Taking time out to tell the audience of his love for Glasgow (and he’s sincere in this), he went on to remind us of his singer songwriter roots without all the sonic trappings on Thirteen before launching into House of Liars, his song which featured in the BBC drama Stonemouth. Ghost Car, a rain slicked road song, and Cool Cool Nights (with Wood on lap steel) were another pair of what might be called conventional songs amidst the night’s primal screams, both outstanding. But it was soon enough that Penner and Wood dived into the swamp with an utterly brutal and eviscerating blend of Can’t Afford The Blues and Honey as the pair of them whipped their guitars into submission, blazing away for an eternity (or at least seven minutes). The night was ending and Penner visited his more tender side for an affecting delivery of Over & Over but the applause encouraged the pair to stay on stage for another visceral blues take on Memphis with his stentorian wailing somewhat akin to Howling Wolf. The skewed, almost Beefheart like, To Build a Fire followed bringing this awesome night to an end.

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Blabber’n’Smoke has seen this duo several times and will testify that their shows are a communion of souls as Penner, a humble and lovely man, and Wood, a musical maestro, take their audience on a trip into the vitals of roots music leaving no one unmoved. With all the sound effects and loops conjured up on the night each show is unique and as good as their albums are it would be mighty gratifying if one day they captured a show on disc in the hope that they also capture some of the magic and mystery they conjure up on stage.

 

Benjamin Folke Thomas. Modern Man. Aveline Recordings

a2015374076_16What’s inside the mind of the modern man? Well, according to Benjamin Folke Thomas, this fellow is a bit of a dreamer, somewhat insecure in his love life (and even prone to occasional fantasies) but deep down he’s a good guy who worries about the environment and rails against injustice. Importantly he also has a sense of humour, witness the back cover art which has Folke Thomas in a space suit patiently queuing with his shopping in a mini mart – an outsider tasked with mundane tasks.

Recorded in his native Sweden, Modern Man bobs and weaves its way through several styles- Neil Young like guitar tourneys, jangly pop rock, and introspective folk  all raise their heads here- with Thomas’ winning voice and his well crafted words the glue which binds the album together. He says of the disc that he “Wanted to get away from just writing about myself and my broken heart… or at least to do it by taking the piss out of myself with sardonic humour.” There is a touch of biography in some of the songs with One Day a poignant number where he recalls his early troubadouring and dreams whimsically of the day he becomes a star. Stuff of Dreams is another night time fantasy with Thomas, an avid pool player, dreaming of meeting Paul Newman in his Fast Eddie Felson persona to play a few breaks and “chew the shit.” Here Thomas’ impish humour is apparent in the heavenly refrain which floats out throughout the song in contrast to Thomas who sings it as if he were Johnny Cash. There’s more oohs and aahs backing the opening song Tasteless and Complacent, a fine jangled number which introduces Thomas’ querying of the human condition (which reappears throughout the album) as he employs a somewhat misanthropic protagonist who has a glimpse of salvation if he can only find some folk who like him. Likewise, Some People has guitar jangles and a driving beat although here Thomas sounds almost like Gene Clark at times as he casts around various belief systems trying to make sense of them.

One More Chance is an affecting portrait of a man pleading for, yes, One More Chance, as his partner packs her bag and sets her ring on his table as she goes off to seek someone with a “better insurance policy.” As a break up song it works magnificently although one can’t help but suspect that it’s written and sung somewhat tongue in cheek. More unnerving is the title song which starts off describing a stalker who follows his prey before zooming out allowing the listener to acknowledge that this man could be any one the male population. The song is set to slow burning electric guitar over a sludge like rhythm, eventually picking up pace before climaxing in a frantic burst of noise, the irony felt in every note. There is some sweet revenge in the murder ballad, Lily Like A Gunslinger, where an abused woman shoots her husband after 14 years of abuse, the words as hard-boiled and lean as in a Jim Thompson story.

Finally, there’s the magnificent guitar epic, Dead Horizon, which has Thomas and his band (The Swedish Folk Mafia) invade Neil Young and Crazy Horse territory as they growl and wail for seven minutes. Thomas points his finger towards populist movements with his words here reminding one of the late Phil Ochs.

With Modern Man, Benjamin Folke Thomas has delivered a mature album which is both personal and significant as he investigates the modern malaise. It’s a grand listen with some humour involved but it’s also deadly serious.

Website

 

The Rulers of The Root. This Sugar Tit Life

amended_front_edessaThe debut album from Glasgow’s The Rulers of The Root was an excellent disc which saw the band roaming around territory populated by the likes of Ian Dury, Captain Beefheart and Nick Cave although they played as if they were a bunch of Martians who had learned their licks via satellite transmission in between watching reruns of Taggart. Some songs were couched in a surreal simulacrum of Americana music with odd snippets of Glaswegiana thrown in, the Broomielaw and The Scotia Bar featuring in Rose of Jericho for example. The follow up album, This Sugar Tit Life, presses on in this direction although it’s a much more focussed album with the majority of the songs rooted in bluesy rock or neon lit late night wierdness with some sixties garage band snottiness thrown in for good measure.

Patrick Gillies, their gravel throated singer and late blooming songwriter, remains at the helm of the ship. His flights of fancy, lyrical conundrums and plain old absurdity command attention throughout while as a singer he is much more in command here – growling, lascivious, lashing the words for all they are worth. Meanwhile his colleague, guitarist John Palmer, paints the songs with splashes of colour with corkscrewed blues, growling rock’n’roll and reverbed twang guitar dashing throughout the album while the rhythm section of Chris Quinn and Stewart Moffat ably adapt to the myriad of forms the songs take on.

At their simplest the band come across as an excellent tight knit combo as on the boogie of Cain Made This Town which belts along as if it just skipped out of Memphis while the title song is a hard stomping blues number with Gillies sounding like Beefheart roaring out on Hard Working Man from the movie Blue Collar. Give The Dog a Bone is a Bo Diddley buzz cut of a song with the guitars slashing and burning across a ferocious beat while Yoker Tam is powered by a taut and driving bass and drums which are almost Krautrock in their precision with a glistening guitar sheen running throughout it.

However, it’s when Gillies lets fly his imagination when the band really take off. Govanhill Lullaby kicks off with a Morricone like spaghetti western sweep as he gathers up the media painted detritus of this much-maligned neighbourhood and spews it out in a Technicolor dream with regular keyboard player Alan French adding some excellent garage band Farfisa stabs. Meanwhile The Lubyanka Blues is an Aesop fable from hell with the band coming across like The Band fronted by Screaming Jay Hawkins. On several of the songs the band slow down and slither through a twilight zone as if they were in a David Lynch soundtrack. The Gap creeps along with a louche touch of evil and Night of the Hunter has some Dr. John voodoo hoodoo about it but the best effort here is the magnificent Face of an Angel. Think of the magnificently stained noirish quality of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil and transport it to Glasgow and you are halfway there. Here Gillies inhabits perfectly a loathsome character who is perversely attractive, narcissistic to the extreme and who, “Feeds amphetamine to his pigeons/yes he’s guilty of that deed/but the doos are his religion and they seem to like their seed.” Just awesome.

The album is released today with a launch gig at Glasgow’s Glad Cafe. Tickets here.

 

JP Harris & The Tough Choices/Miss Tess/ Trusty Buck’s Lone Star Revue. Nice N Sleazy, Glasgow. Tuesday 13th November 2018

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JP Harris tore into town for a night of hard-core country and honky tonk which just about blew the socks off of everyone at the show and dispelled all doubts about the current state of American roots music. Harris, originally from Alabama, is the real deal with a hobo background and who earns his crust by carpentry when he’s not riding the rails with his band. with a cracking new album, Sometimes Dogs Bark at Nothing, under his belt, and sporting one of the finest beards in captivity played a powerful and joyous show full of riveting lyrics and twangtastic guitar to an enthusiastic crowd in the bowels of Nice N Sleazy.

Honky tonk was on his mind as the band swung into Two For The Road with guitarist Justin Mahoney twanging away as pedal steel player Thomas Bryan Eaton deftly laid out his delicious curling licks. There was pure dirt stained country on Badly Bent while I Only Drink Alone, from the new album, was a fantastic nod to the tear stained waltzes so beloved of bygone Nashville artists such as Ray Price but Harris showed that he can shine on poppier material such as the sixties folk sound of Lady in The Spotlight. It’s hard however to imagine any band right now who can hammer through songs such as JP’s Florida Blues #1 and Gear Jammin’ Daddy with such ferocious energy. The latter song received the most enthusiastic response of the night and with Eaton fairly soaring away on pedal steel it was well deserved. With the songs all packing a punch in less than four minutes each Harris and his band roared through the set with commentary kept to a minimum (although he did take a poke at Trump at one point). An encore of Jerry Reed’s Freeborn Man topped the night as they ran through all the red lights with the brakes off, trucking the highway and riding the rails with a fury and, it has to be said, a great deal of gritty country style. As we said earlier, JP Harris is the real deal.

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The evening opened with an inspired set from an impromptu conglomeration, a super group of sorts featuring local musicians from the Holy Smokes recording roster calling themselves Trusty Buck’s Lone Star Revue. A raggle taggle ensemble (composed of members of The Hoojamamas, Harry and the Hendersons, Awkward Family Portraits and Tom McGuire & The Brassholes – do check them all out), they played a short set which ranged from skiffle like numbers to Ronnie Lane inspired rambles. There was a wonderful song about flying to Peru which floated on some inspired lap steel guitar while there was a nod to local hero Les Johnson & Me (who was billed to appear but sadly didn’t) as they covered one of his songs. They finished with a fine version of The Stones’ Sweet Virginia with the audience singing along.

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Squeezed in between Trusty Buck and JP Harris, Miss Tess (who was handling bass guitar duties with the Tough Choices) ran through a short set accompanied by Thomas Bryan Eaton on guitar. An established artist in her own right Miss Tess set the scene well for JP as she had a fine twangy guitar presence along with a finely hewed sense of neon lit sadness as in her opening number Going Downtown. On Moonshiner, with JP’s rhythm section sitting in, she romped through a rambunctious salute to old time rebels with some fine country picking from Eaton.

 

 

Will Oldham, ‘Songs of Love and Horror,’ Domino Records

image003It can be a daunting task trying to compile a definitive discography of Will Oldham, the Kentucky born Americana polymorph who records as Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Palace Brothers, Palace and several other monikers. He’s an inveterate collaborator and has a host of singles and EPs to wade through along with his now lengthy album back catalogue. As far as we can ascertain he has only recorded under his own name on 1997’s Joya so this new release, reworkings of old songs, might be seen as a recap of his quarter century of recording were it not so brief. The true recap is actually in the form of a book of the same name which gathers the lyrics of over 200 songs together with comments from Oldham on their origins and meanings. However, this aural peek into his past is a delightful collection.

Stripped back to just Oldham and his guitar the album is an austere listen with his voice ringing out throughout proving that he has grown into a supremely tender and emotive singer. Choosing just ten songs from his past he sounds at times as he did on the early Palace Brothers albums without the faux patina which offered those albums an air of mystery. This is much more bedsit folk orientated as if early Leonard Cohen were the benchmark (with the title perhaps a nod to Cohen’s album, Songs of Love and Hate). With a fine balance between his better known songs such as I See A Darkness (famously recorded by Johnny Cash) and New Partner along with deeper cuts Oldham is tender, dark and erotic in turn (listen to Big Friday for example).

He veers from his task of revisiting his songs on two occasions. There’s an acappela rendition of Richard and Linda Thompson’s Strange Affair with an extra verse (presumably by Oldham) added. Oldham inhabits the remorse and melancholia of the song excellently sounding as if he were being recorded in the field in some god forsaken past time. The album closes with what purports to be an unreleased 1997 recording, Party With Marty (Abstract Blues) with Oldham definitely sounding younger as he strums his way through a lo-fi haze which sounds as if Jeffrey Lewis was singing a blissed out surfer’s sex fantasy. It’s an odd conclusion to the album but then again it’s Will Oldham isn’t it.

Website

See the book, Songs of Love and Horror, Collected Lyrics of Will Oldham here.