Ruston Kelly. Dying Star. Rounder Records

rustonkelly_dyingstar_cover_f_rgbBest known for his marriage to country star Kacey Musgraves and for having written hits for the likes of Tim McGraw, Ruston Kelly’s debut album Dying Star indicates that he has the potential to become a star in his own right. He can write songs which recall the musings of Steve Earle or Ryan Adams and sing them in a finely grained voice with an attractive lack of polish. In addition, the songs are delivered for the most part in classic California country rock with keening pedal steel (played by Kelly’s father). They are bathed in melancholia and regret, stained with a faded grandeur as they surround you.

The album opens with a lush California sound on Cover My Tracks, awash with acoustic guitars and pedal steel and sweet harmonies which disguise the somewhat downbeat lyrics. Much of the album concerns the fallout of broken love affairs and the  substances folk turn to to try and mend their hurt, the protagonists painted with fine brushstrokes as they try to make sense of their lives.

Faceplant and Blackout are strongly worded songs of drugs and despair and Big Brown Bus is like a modern version of Willin’ although this time it’s a lost passenger on a bus going through Texas who is using stimulants to keep his act together. The song opens as a pained piano ballad before swelling into a glorious cosmic Americana finale. There’s an almost palpable sense of sorrow and regret on Just for the Record, Anchors and Jericho but it’s on the title song where Kelly excels as his voice almost breaks while the band lay down a tender and enveloping cloud of pedal steel laced melancholia. It’s almost heartbreaking to listen to this song.

Kelly shows here that he is set to join the ranks of those Nashville based artists who are bucking the trend for radio friendly pop tunes as they use tradition to inform their music. In his case it’s to California that he has set his compass and anyone who digs the likes of Jackson Browne should certainly lend their ears to this.

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Willie Nelson. My Way. Legacy Recordings

wn_myway_cd_grandeLest we forget, it was Willie Nelson’s album of standards, Stardust, released back in 1978, which saw him becoming a household name. Of course by then he had a chequered career, writing huge country hits for Ray Price and Patsy Cline (with what is perhaps his most famous song, Crazy) in the early sixties before becoming a country star himself and then fading out somewhat towards the end of the decade. He reinvented himself in the seventies, abandoning Nashville for Austin, Texas, releasing albums which eschewed the Nashville sound and signing up to the Outlaw Country movement with buddies Waylon Jennings, Tompall Glaser and Jessi Coulter. 1975’s Red Headed Stranger was the pinnacle of his wayward battle with Nashville but it was the following year’s Stardust, a 10 song collection of standards, which saw him burst into the pop charts.

Since then Nelson has achieved iconic status while remaining, for the most part, true to his country roots and is still releasing albums at the age of 85. Last Man Standing, released only a few months ago, proved that he remains a vital force in country music while his immediately recognisable voice, rich and supple, remains in fine fettle. The latter is especially noticeable on this album which is Nelson’s tribute of sorts to another golden voiced singer, Frank Sinatra. As on Stardust Nelson takes familiar songs and transforms them with his voice, coaxing and teasing out all the subtleties inherent in what has come to be known as the great American songbook. Nelson and Sinatra apparently were friends and Nelson says that, “I learned a lot about phrasing listening to Frank,” and that is apparent here. His laconic vocals on the energetic opener Fly me to the Moon never show any sense of urgency or trying to match the jump rhythm the band strike up.

There are some lavish string and horn arrangements on the up tempo numbers with A Foggy Day really swinging while Blue Moon has a hip nightclub jazz cool vibe to it and Night and Day is given a slight bossa nova feel. Norah Jones turns up to swap vocals on What is this thing called Love, another swinging number, but it’s on the ballads where Nelson really hits the spot. Summer Wind has the band evoking the birth of the cool while a guitar solo (presumably Nelson playing his guitar Trigger) is just excellent. One for my Baby and One for the Road continues to nestle in its late night bar room wallowing and Young at Heart has what may be Nelson’s best vocal on the album as harp player Mickey Raphael echoes his voice. This reviewer’s favourite moment however is Nelson’s reading of It was a very good Year, perhaps because it’s our favourite Sinatra song but Nelson sings it so well while the arrangement is more supple than on Sinatra’s original. The album closes with a very dignified version of My Way with none of the bombast with which the song has been unfairly burdened with over the years.

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Alejandro Escovedo with Don Antonio. The Crossing. Yep Roc Records

crossingcover-300x300Sometimes a record just accords with the times and so it is with this sprawling and epic collaboration between Alejandro Escovedo, a Mexican-American who was named by No Depression as the Artist of the Decade at the end of the nineties, and Antonio Gramentieri, AKA Don Antonio, the Italian leader of the awesome Sacri Cuori. Both outsiders of sorts who manage each in their own way to capture the spirit of American music while retaining elements of their native culture, the pair teamed up last year when Gramentieri supplied the live band for Escovedo’s European tour and having hit it off they repaired to Italy to record The Crossing.

The album purports to be the story of two immigrants, Diego and Salvo, one Mexican, one Italian (natch) who are both seeking the American dream. They’re not the migrants of Steinbeck or Guthrie, seeking employment picking fruit. Instead, they’re in awe of the pop culture of America, the Beats, the punks, the movies, and as the album progresses they name check many of their heroes while at times aping the sonic attack of bands such as The Stooges and The MC5 (to the extent of having James Williamson and Wayne Kramer play on the songs which name check their bands). The album roams from fiery guitar led outbursts to more atmospheric (and, yes, cinematic) numbers with Gramentieri’s experience in creating pulsating and evocative music sitting side by side with Escovedo’s melodic and muscular rock punchiness.

And the album doesn’t hold back its punches. There’s the spoken word Rio Navidad, written by Willie Vlautin and read by Freddie Trujillo which has a racist Texas Ranger put in his place while on Fury and Fire Escovedo spits out the words, “They call us rapists so we build a bigger wall. We’re gonna tear it down.” On Footsteps in the Shadows  they evoke the nightmare of Diego’s crossing the American Mexico border with the music claustrophobic and haunting while Salvo’s introduction to the American way of life is his encounters with an alienated bunch of rednecks – “bigots with guitars” – on Texas Is My Mother. While our heroes strut their stuff on Outlaw For You which name checks several heroes (Thee Midnighters, The Plugz, James Dean, Alan Ginsberg, Cesar Chavez) over a pumping organ riff,  ultimately their odyssey turns sour with the closing title song a eulogy of sorts. Here they accept that the dream has soured as ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) tighten the screws with Diego lamenting the death of his buddy Salvo.

With 17 songs and a playing time of around an hour the album is a hefty listen but for such an opportune adventure which addresses real time issues it’s well worth the effort. Musically it’s an album to savour as it twists and turns with Gramentieri’s brief interludes allowing him to speak to his own love of Italian music leggera  while Escovedo is allowed to wallow around in the glittered rock kingdom of T Rex on MC Overload. Joe Ely’s Silver City aches with a longing for the promised land (with Ely assisting on vocals) and Cherry Blossom Rain is up there with Escovedo’s excellent tear stained ballads on Thirteen Years. There’s even a rare appearance from former Only Ones Peter Perrett and John Perry on Waiting For Me, a nice nod to UK new wave.

Overall, The Crossing is an album made for our times with Escovedo and Gramentieri  painting a picture of hopes and dreams but ultimately aware of the challenges facing those who are railing against the prevailing wave of populist hate and dogma.

The Alejandro Escovedo Band With Don Antonio commence a UK tour this week playing in Glasgow at Oran Mor this Friday, 26th October, all tour dates are here.


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Carson McHone. Carousel. Nine Mile Records

ff4eb003e6e51612017eae7935b95a41First up, here’s another album added to the list of contenders for best of the year when we start to tally up soon. In addition, we have to add Carson McHone, from Austin, Texas, to the list of female artists who have really injected some fire into the Americana scene of late. McHone, who was playing in Austin bars at the age of 16 has had two previous releases (an EP and an album) but Carousel is her first fully fledged outing which captures in several of the songs an Austin honky tonk sound but in others shows that she is straining at the leash to catapult herself into the top echelons of singer/songwriters working in a country vein.

With producer Mike McCarthy (Spoon, Patty Griffin) at the helm and with a great squirreling country band behind her, McHone delivers her more traditional numbers with style and plenty of energy although she doesn’t follow the rulebook. The opening Sad is rife with pedal steel, twang guitar and fiddle as McHone dips and dives throughout the song which switches tempo from plaintive country waltz to bar room grittiness. Lucky, a grand song about a philanderer is even more pronounced in its division between McHone’s tear-filled laments in the verses and her sardonic and jaunty chorus. There is a fully fledged dive into gutsy country rock on Good Time Daddy Blues with the band barrelling along in best trucker fashion and on Maybe They’re Really Just Good Friends McHone dips into western swing in an excellent fashion.

In the grand tradition McHone sings mainly of women in trouble with the main problem being their men folk but she offers her version of living a life in bars on the spindly Dram Shop Girl which with its rattling percussion, mournful fiddle and woozy guitar solo captures splendidly the sense of seeing life through a glass. Drugs is more direct in its depiction of addiction with the band approximating at times Lou Reed’s VU songs with the pedal steel conjuring up a sense of narcotic euphoria as McHone repeats a mantra singing over and over the line, “I need drugs.” Moving even further from the mainstream the introduction to Gentle sounds almost like The Grateful Dead warming up for a jam with Phil Lesh like bass lines although when the song itself weighs in it is more of a fiddle sawed country lament with some cosmic pedal steel licks adding to its lustre.

McHone closes the album with three songs which really see her moving away from the honky tonks. How ‘Bout It is a spare piano ballad, almost a torch song, where she waxes poetic in a love reverie while Goodluck Man has her voice up close with evocative guitar murmurings, the song approaching the ambient style of Emmylou Harris on Wrecking Ball. Finally, there’s Spider Song which has a creaking harmonium adding a fine patina to a song which sounds as if it’s been dredged from an antebellum age while the lyrics could have come from a Child ballad with their chilling imagery.

While the cohabiting of the more traditional country fare and the latter folkier numbers might have made for an odd combination the album works well as one listens to it. There’s a sense that McHone is set to move on and that this is a transitional album. She says of country music that, “I want to do more with the form, push myself past where I understand it to be.” She’s certainly made a grand start here.

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Oklahoma calling – Annie Oakley & Ken Pomeroy

Only because the review pile is building up but here’s some thoughts on two Oklahoma based acts…

Annie Oakley. Words We Mean. Horton Records

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A three-piece vocal harmony trio from Oklahoma comprised of twin sisters Sophia and Grace Babb on guitars and Nia Personette on violin, Annie Oakley veer between frothy acoustic based folk songs and a somewhat darker electric guitar swelled rockier sound. Words We Mean opens splendidly with Pomp and Swell which merges both these elements. The fuzz toned guitar ballad Good Things along with the gloomy Into The Light shows that they’ve probably spent some time listening to The Cowboy Junkies but overall it’s the more stripped back songs which reverberate. If I Were a Ghost is a delicate glimpse into past times and the sense of loss after a bereavement while Missed Connection’s arrangement is perfectly balanced with haunting vocals, a recurring piano motif and lonesome violin setting the mood with the electric guitar solo finely nuanced. The vocals at times recall The Roches although without their quirkiness and this is most evident on the title song which is the best of the album.

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Ken Pomeroy. Hallways. Horton Records

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Pomeroy is a 15-year-old singer/songwriter from Oklahoma but her voice and writings belie her age as she delivers an assured set of songs here. Sparely recorded, her voice and guitar picking only occasionally augmented by mandolin, keyboards or muted electric guitar the album sits within a singer songwriter context with the music at times recalling the sounds which accompanied Tim Hardin on his early recordings, hard to believe but true. But the real beauty of the album is in Pomeroy’s voice which at times is reminiscent of Courtney Marie Andrews and in her writings. For a 15 year old to write songs such as Three Wonderful Words or River show that she is either wise before her time or that she has studied writers such as Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro to the nth degree. Her song about being homeless, The Sidewalk Song, won the inaugural Jimmy LaFave song writing contest in Oklahoma and listening to it one is again astounded at how accomplished she is. Best of all is the closing song, Living The Dream, which is a weary tale of being on the road and which one might expect from a battle scarred veteran of crisscrossing country wide tours but here Pomeroy totally inhabits the song. She’s certainly one to watch out for.

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The Magic City Trio. Amerikana Arkana. Kailua Recording

magic-city-lp-cover-300x300When a band says that they take their inspiration from pre-war country music, The Carter Family, and the psych-cowboy music of Lee Hazelwood, then the results are either going to be a mess or something a wee bit magical. Thankfully, in this case it’s the latter as this London based trio (who expand when required) turn in a grand listen on their debut album. Truth be told we can’t find too much evidence of The Carter Family here but there are oodles of Hazlewood styled melodramas with an added ingredient of spaghetti western fuzzed guitars to spice it up a little. They also cite “hillbilly noir” writer Daniel Woodrell (author of Winter’s Bone) as an influence with the result that many of the songs are deliciously dark examples of gory gothic Americana not too dissimilar from that of The Handsome Family.

Led by Frank Sweeney who was a member of indie favourites The June Brides the band comprise of Sweeney along with Annie Holder (guitar, vocals and autoharp), Adi Staempfli (bass and vocals) and Charlotte Burke (drums and percussion). Since his indie days Sweeney has obviously become steeped in that old weird Americana (or the Arkana of the title with Sweeney alluding to The Tarot and its themes of death, confusion and justice) which has informed so many great albums. As such there is some old fashioned music on the disc in the form of the banjo driven Oliver Curtis Perry Part 1 which rattles along much like the train which Oliver Curtis Perry robbed back in the 1890’s. Meanwhile their version of Down In The Willow Garden (heard by Sweeney on The Everlys’ Songs Our Daddy Taught Us) roots around in the tradition while adding a wonderful psychedelic folk fug to the arrangement with the song coming across as if it were by Pearls Before Swine.

However it’s the dramatic mix of doomed romanticism, twanged guitar and sweeping orchestral sounds along with the Nancy and Lee like duets which really grab the ear here. Goodbye My Friend is not too far removed from Down In The Willow Garden but it has a much grander cinematic dimension to it. Black Dog Following Me is quite majestic with its fuzz guitar, strings and horns so evocative of images imprinted on us from western movies while the vocals are up there with Some Velvet Morning. That they can repeat this trick several times on Trav’ler, 22 and Dust of Mars just ups the ante for those of us who are suckers for this freaky frontier music (and surely 22 must get the award for the best murder song allied to a jaunty clip clop Mexicali trot if such an award exists). Best of all is Cousin’s War which opens with a gloom laden organ before a banjo clips in urging the song forward as Sweeney opens the proceedings singing, “A summers day, a yellow dress, she wore violets in her hair/She was to marry her own true love, with a love only they could share/But her brother took a hunting knife, He hurt her love full sore/And he is dead by her brother’s hand, that led a family into war.”

If you are interested in murder ballads, border ballads or just plain old-fashioned gory story telling with a cinematic scope then round up a posse and seek out this album, we’re sure you will enjoy it.

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Here’s a whirlwind tour of the album…

And one to savour…

Black Dog Following Me by The Magic City Trio from the magic city trio on Vimeo.

 

 

 

 

JP Harris. Sometimes Dogs Bark at Nothing. Free Dirt Records

jp_album_cover_2f1e6313-ea10-4e85-93db-fe41feac6945_1024x10242xJP Harris modestly describes himself as a carpenter who writes country songs. On his third album, Sometimes Dogs Bark at Nothing, he has indeed carved an excellent benchmark by which the remainder of this year’s releases should be measured. A colourful (and heavily tattooed) character, Harris has lived an itinerant life since leaving eighth grade class in Alabama, riding the rails and hitching lifts for a decade or so picking up labouring jobs for a spell and then moving on. This lifestyle informs several of his songs which he delivers with a raw authenticity whether they be hard driving honky tonkers or gritty ballads and on this album he even tackles some sweet Nashville countrypolitan sounds.

The album opens with the flat out pedal to the metal rocker, JP’s Florida Blues #1. Fuelled by some barrelling organ and fiery slide guitar the songs soars from the outset and with its female harmonies adding a southern swell to the ride this is like The Allmans’ on amphetamines. Anyone who has seen one of Harris’ incendiary live shows will know what to expect here and he delivers more hard drivin’ country on the truckin’ Hard Road which features some tightly coiled guitar and pedal steel licks while Jimmy’s Dead and Gone starts off in hard scrabble skiffle fashion before the band weigh in like a runaway locomotive as Harris turns in the best hobo train song in a long long time. Thrilling stuff indeed but Harris spends more time on the album showing us that he can rein it in and wax poetic in more delicate fashion.

Lady in the Spotlight is the tale of a disillusioned would be starlet that with its rippling guitars and folky melody could have been penned by Shel Silverstein or Tom T. Hall. Runaway meanwhile is a red dirt country slope with some fine Dobro playing as Harris inhabits similar territory as the late Guy Clark and to his credit stakes a fine claim regarding his right to be there adding the next song, Miss Jeanne-Marie, another plaintive ballad in similar fashion, just to be sure. In addition, Harris shows that he can rival Joshua Hedley in the drinking and sinking Nashville sad song category with the excellent pairing of When I Quit Drinking and I Only Drink Alone. Meanwhile the limpid croon of Long Ways Back with its satin smooth guitar  is just superb and it’s hard to believe that it wasn’t written by Willie Nelson.

The album’s curious title comes from the delightful homily of the same name which has Harris posing a series of questions the answer to all seemingly just because they can. A brief song featuring only acoustic guitar and Dobro it’s a fine distillation of Harris’ writing and singing talents which is nestled within an excellent set of songs making up what is essentially a fantastic album.

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