James Edwyn & The Borrowed Band. Before We Go

a0980743404_16In the latter stages of recording their third album, Glasgow outfit, James Edwyn & The Borrowed Band, were scuppered (like most of us) by the virus which has swept the world. Having released two highly acclaimed records (The Tower and High Fences) alongside some excellent live performances, the band have been shaping up well and Edwyn has displayed some grand song writing chops. For now, we’ll have to wait for that third album but in lieu of it Edwyn has released this seven-song set of acoustic demos allowing us a sneak peek.

Recorded in a single session without the band, Edwyn proves to be a compulsive listen on his own. While the collective have often been compared to classic LA bands from the seventies (have a listen to Passing San Ysidro), Edwyn here is much more grounded in folk and blues while the one cover, his take on The Band’s The Shape I’m In, superbly picked on acoustic guitar brings to mind a cross between the guitar wizardry of Stefan Grossman and the waxing and wanings of Tim Buckley.

Little Metal Box is a song which could sit quite comfortably on High Fences and one can mentally furnish the band arrangement as Edwyn sings this immensely attractive song which, while melodic, is tinged with an aching regret. Edwyn then spills into the Jacques Brel like lament which is These Days and the stark cri de coeur which is Time Keeps Passing On where he sounds as if he is at the end of his tether. He keeps the best to the end as the closing song, Mother Storm, featuring jagged and spiky acoustic guitar, tunes into the blues along with that whiff of modal tuning pioneered by John Fahey. Sounding as if it has been dredged from a southern swamp, it’s mightily impressive.

Before We Go is currently available as a download from James Edwyn’s Bandcamp page on a “pay what you like” basis. Given that it’s a tremendous listen and that Edwyn and his band are currently stranded, you might consider offering the price of a pint at least. You won’t be disappointed.

Chuck Prophet. The Land That Time Forgot. Yep Roc Records

a1603110784_16It’s been a long time coming, the release date delayed by that pesky virus which also robbed us here in the UK of experiencing one of the best bands around as Chuck Prophet & The Mission Express’s tour was cancelled, but here at last is The Land That Time Forgot. It’s certainly a more nuanced affair than the rockin’ assault that was Bobby Fuller Died For Your Sins as Prophet dials it back somewhat. There’s whacks of sumptuous retro rock harking back to classic sixties sounds, Brill building brilliance, along with a healthy dose of San Francisco beat cool and some creamy pedal steel infused country rock. A true rock’n’roll romantic, Prophet inhales music much as we inhale air and it shows on this superlative set of songs.

The album kicks off with the expansive thrash of jangled guitars, baritone sax and female harmonies which is Best Shirt On, a great mix of sixties pop and Stax riffs. The harmonies are by Prophet’s partner, Stephanie Finch, and it’s gratifying to find her featured prominently on several of the songs here including Marathon. This has a similar robotic beat to In The Mausoleum (on the Fuller album) but it adds funky Farfisa organ and the guitar melody from Mrs. Robinson to the mix adding up to a heady dose of what, for want of a better word, we’ll call freakbeat. Fast Kid meanwhile muscles in with a Warren Zevon like swagger while Love Doesn’t Come From The Barrel Of A Gun, aside from name checking some classic songs, comes across as a yacht rock song if the yacht was crewed by pirates.

High As Johnny Thunders, aside from being a nod to the late rock’n’roll icon, is Prophet at his laconic best as he lays down this tale riddled with  inversions (“If Bukowski was good looking and Napoleon was tall”). It’s Prophet as a Lou Reed like narrator and he revisits this on Willi And Nilli, a tale of star crossed lovers who like to play Metallica loud. Meet Me At The Roundabout is another song about young lovers but here Prophet envelopes the song in an incredibly sweet arrangement with delicate washes of guitar and keyboards. It sets the scene for Prophet’s moving portrait of a teenage runaway on Waving Goodbye which, despite its LA canyon like creaminess, is ultimately somewhat despairing.

Three songs here feature three presidents (two dead, one alive). Paying My Respects To The Train, a wonderfully country stained lament, alludes to Lincoln’s last journey from Washington to Illinois for his burial but Prophet concentrates on the bystanders for whom it’s just a fleeting moment as they get on with their lives. Nixonland looms large as Prophet climbs into a time machine to recall his early days when Nixon was the Prez. It’s a pretty scathing portrait of tricky Dickie, worthy of good old Hunter S Thompson with Prophet picking up on Nixon’s pathological illeism, a grandiose manner of speaking about oneself in the third person. Speaking of which, Prophet closes the album with a direct assault on the current incumbent of the White House. Get Off The Stage is as close to an old-fashioned protest song that Prophet has delivered so far but he does it with some style over a quasi Dylan folk rock style. He casually dismisses Trump with some barbed lyrics and a healthy sense that sometime America will come to its senses.

All in all, The Land That Time Forgot is another stellar album from Prophet, a man who has been on a roll for at least the past decade. So please dig in and listen.

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Jason Molina. Eight Gates. Secretly Canadian

a1519624479_16The last recordings Jason Molina made before his untimely passing, Eight Gates is well above this writer’s expectations and, while not on a par with much of the music Molina made with Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co, the album is a beguiling listen. Recorded in London around 2008, the disc features bare boned solo performances along with some which are more fleshed out (with the assistance of Chris Cacavas and Greg Norman). It’s a short disc, the nine songs clock in at under 30 minutes, but in its desolate beauty, one never feels short changed.

It’s always tempting to imagine the mindset of an artist when listening to a posthumous release and when that artist is Molina, a man who made minor key misery a theme of many of his songs and who died aged 39 from alcohol related illness, then one imagines that he knew this was to be his swansong. Of course, there’s no real way to determine that but in its essence, Eight Gates does have the feel of a self-penned eulogy. The album closes with Molina telling the studio team to shut up and let him sing The Crossroads + The Emptiness his way. It’s a song which could sit (un)comfortably within Neil Young’s ditch trilogy as Molina sings about his birthday as if it were a barrier to overcome.

Several of the songs are bracketed by birdsong, allegedly, field recording of parrots Molina found in his London garden (and fancifully imagined them to be descendents of a pair Jimi Hendrix had released into the London skies four decades earlier). They are the only rays of light here as the album opens with a drone of organ and cello over which Molina plucks spare electric guitar on Whisper Away. His voice sounds pained, searching for solace perhaps. Shadow Answers The Walls is given a more traditional band sound with percussion rattling away beneath a funereal organ, a sound harking back to Songs: Ohia and it remains pretty bleak. It’s a song where the brevity is an issue as it peters out at two minutes just as one was hoping for it to stretch out in the manner of some of Molina’s epics. The most fully fledged of the songs is Thistle Blue, the arrangement of which resembles the opening number but it is allowed to spread its wings somewhat as Molina delivers a song which seems to have been dredged from some ancient folk song.

The remainder are primarily Molina solo although there is occasional cello and organ accompaniment.  In the main dolorous, there’s a delicate beauty in Old Worry and on Be Told The Truth, the latter perhaps the most sorrowful song here.

Whether these songs were ever meant to be assembled in this manner or not, Eight Gates is an album which will surely be snapped up by fans of the late Molina. For others, it’s not the first album one would recommend but it has its haunting beauty and in time might be considered in the same breath as Nick Drake’s farewell album, Pink Moon.

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Elaine Lennon. Uncharted Waters

a3999012289_2Having appeared from nowhere to become one of the most in demand performers on the Glasgow music scene in the space of a year, Elaine Lennon’s debut album, released last January, was universally acclaimed. A winner of a Danny Kyle award at Celtic Connections and noted as an artist to watch by Nashville’s Songwriters’ Association, Lennon inhabits the world of confessional and moving singer songwriters who populated the charts in the seventies with folk comparing her to the likes of Dory Previn and Carly Simon.

As with all of us, Lennon’s plans for this year were cruelly shut down in March, derailing the promotion of her album. However, this Friday, she releases a new song, Uncharted Waters, inspired by the Covid lockdown. All profits will all go to the Paediatrics Unit at University Hospital Wishaw, Lennon’s way of saying thanks to the dedicated staff there who last year successfully treated her son for a tumour on his spine.

It’s a glorious song very much in the vein of the album. Lennon’s voice and piano are supported by a chorus of notable voices including Karine Polwart, Boo Hewerdine, Findlay Napier, Siobhan Miller, Yvonne Lyon and Chris While. There’s also a very moving video to accompany the song which was self shot by Lennon. All in all it’s very moving and should you purchase the song, you’ll know that it’s going to a good cause.

You can buy the song and donate here.

 

Dan Penn. Living On Mercy. Last Music Co.

coversofar-p-500Dan Penn is a legend. There, said it. Songwriter, producer, musician and performer and one of the mainstays of the fabled Muscle Shoals team. Penn wrote numerous songs which were chart hits for the likes of Aretha Franklin back in the sixties and was one of the guiding hands behind Alex Chilton’s first band, The Box Tops. Chances are you have at least one of his classic songs in your collection with the odds on that it’s someone’s version of Dark End Of The Street.

For someone who has been reckoned as a personification of “blue eyed soul,” Penn has, in the main, shied from the spotlight with only a handful of solo recordings behind him. There have been brief flurries of activity on the live front, often in tandem with his song writing partner Spooner Oldham, which have allowed him to demonstrate his self-effacing brilliance (check out the 2006 recording, Moments From This Theatre, for proof) but in general he avoids the limelight. It was a surprise then to hear that, now 79 years old, Penn was releasing his first new album in 26 years. It’s no surprise however that Living On Mercy is quite wonderful as Penn captures once again, the soulful sound he helped create five decades ago.

Recorded in Memphis and Nashville with a crack team (Milton Sledge (drums), Michael Rhodes (bass), Will McFarlane (guitar) and Clayton Ivey (keyboards), along with a full horn section and female harmonies), it’s evident from the opening bars of the title song that Penn can still write songs which pierce to the heart and deliver them with the wearied resignation of a wounded lover. Living On Mercy is classic Penn in the vein of Dark End Of The Street and the band just nail the sound. The album resounds with such echoes as if time has stood still and The Swampers were still around (indeed, keyboard player Ivey was a Swamper) as they romp through Clean Slate, I Didn’t Hear That Comin’, the funky horn driven Edge Of love and the excellent Leave It Like You Found It, another masterful tearjerker.

There are nods to soulful balladeers such as Jerry Butler on I Do and Things Happen but Penn is at his best when he’s singing about heartbreak and one of the highlights of the album is the emotional tug of Blue Motel. A narrative song, it wallows in despair with Penn’s voice comforted by the harmony singers while the band are the embodiment of loneliness with their delicate touch. It’s similar to the sorry tales parlayed by The Delines on their Imperial album but just that bit more soulful. The standout song is Penn’s paean to Nashville’s music row and the many dreams lost and shattered of so many wannabees who got off the bus reckoning they would soon be a star. It crowns an album that is just gorgeous. Penn wears his years well, his voice still in fine fettle, and the arrangements are quite wonderful.

There’s been a bit of a resurgence in country southern soul over the past year or two so why not do yourself a favour and buy this rare album from one of its founding members. Living On Mercy is released on CD on 28th August but there’s a later vinyl release in October for those who really want to relive the good old days.

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Emma Swift. Blonde On The Tracks. Tiny Ghost Records

a0721381643_16Here at Blabber’nSmoke we were first alerted to the talent that is Emma Swift when she supported Robyn Hitchcock at Glasgow’s Mono cafe bar way back in 2015. This Australian, transplanted to Nashville, knocked us out with her superb voice and excellent songs . Her then current release, a self-titled mini album, (reviewed here)  reinforced our suspicions that Ms. Swift was on the cusp of greatness. However, an anticipated follow up album failed to appear until news of Blonde On The Tracks started to trickle out a few months ago. It was a surprise to hear that it would be an album of Dylan covers, but as promotion for the release picked up, Swift revealed that the genesis of the record was rooted in a period of depression and, unable to write her own songs, she turned to Dylan for some kind of solace.

The record’s been long in the gestation with the earliest songs recorded in 2017 but the covid lock down seems to have been the midwife which gave Swift the final push with the final songs recorded via file transfers and email. Indeed, there’s a cover of I Contain Multitudes from Dylan’s latest opus, which brings us bang up to date. Despite this storied history, the album hangs together perfectly as Swift sings some of her favourite Dylan songs, honing in on his romantic bent and wanting to retell the songs with a female voice. In this, she was influenced by the tradition of interpretation, citing forebears such as Joan Baez and Sinead O’Connor who stamped their own personality on their covers of other writers’ songs.

The album opens on familiar territory with an excellent folk rock take on Queen Jane Approximately including a Byrds’ like jangled 12 string guitar break. It’s quite glorious and in its mannered poise recalls Gene Clark as opposed to Roger McGuinn while there are also elements of the early Fairport Convention in its delivery. In contrast, I Contain Multitudes, recorded in lock down, is pared down but Swift’s intimate voice offers much more warmth than Dylan’s venerable stylings. Indeed, over the rest of the album, it’s Swift’s  voice which commands attention as she breathes new life into the man’s back catalogue while the arrangements are, at times, breathtaking.

One Of Must Know (Sooner Or Later) is offered a plangent Laurel Canyon country arrangement with wallops of keening cosmic country pedal steel with Swift reminding one of the late Terry Melcher’s ennui on his ill fated solo album. Simple Twist Of Fate has the hazy feel of Mazzy Star and there’s a lovely blast of Garth Hudson like organ on the sublime The Man In Me. It’s commendable that Swift avoids most of the obvious contenders here, digging deeper into Dylan’s past and it’s a delight to see that she visits Planet Waves for her rendition of Going Going Gone. On this perfectly realised vision of a potential Dylan visit to Muscle Shoals, Swift’s band members really shine as the rhythm section hit a slow groove, the various guitars slip and slide like moccasin snakes in a swamp and Swift inhabits Bobbie Gentry territory.

The epicentre is Swift’s superb rendition of Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands. Equal in length to the original, Swift and her band retain the ebb and flow and mystique and romance of the original. Thus shielded, Swift truly inhabits the song, her voice a plaintive and endearing invitation to enter Dylan’s kaleidoscopic world. It’s like Alice in Dylanland, a glorious tumble down a glorious rabbit hole.

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Charley Crockett. Welcome To Hard Times. Thirty Tigers

albumart_540xLike a modern day Luke The Drifter, Charley Crockett ambles into sight with the title song of his latest album, an introduction to the disc, sung with a wonderfully resigned air, as the band play a fine nonchalant saloon bar blues. As he sings “Welcome To Hard Times” it’s unsure as to whether he is referring to life’s up and downs or to an actual place, one of those one horse towns which peppered the west with names like Tombstone, Slaughterville or even Hell. It recalls Lee Hazlewood’s debut album, Trouble Is A Lonesome Town in some respects and, like Hazlewood, Crockett peoples his Hard Times with a rum bunch, losers in love, gamblers and ne’er do wells. In addition, the album lopes along with nods to classic country sounds and singers. There are hints of Bakersfield and Countrypolitan while the likes of Marty Robbins and Charlie Rich are lurking in the grooves.

Recorded in the wake of serious health issues, Crockett describes the album as an attempt to reclaim the conversation about country music. In the various styles portrayed here, influenced by his own wanderings, he certainly makes a strong case for cleaving tight to tradition while allowing for a more personal interpretation. Heads You Win could be a Hank Williams song with harmonies by The Sons Of The Pioneers while Fool Somebody Else’s harpsichord like keyboards recall Hazlewood’s gift for unique arrangements. This sense is amplified on Crockett’s rendition of Red Lane’s Blackjack County Jail, a wonderful murder ballad populated by a chain gang.

Above all else, the album is a swoon to listen to from start to end. Endowed with sweet pedal steel and honky tonk piano, most of the songs are lonesome ballads although the band do break into a trot on a few occasions. Paint It Blue is a grand frontier outlaw ballad which surely is influenced by Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter and the windswept Run Horse Run has echoes of Morricone’s spaghetti western soundtracks with its church like bells. The ramshackle banjo lilt of Lily My Dear is the earthiest number here while there is more than a soupçon of soul on Rainin’ In My Heart. Finally, Crockett closes the album with a slight return to the litany of woes which opened the album albeit this time with a banjo skiddled country sound on The Poplar Tree. It’s back to our narrative drifter on yet another tale of woe but Crockett makes it personal here as he sings, “Let me tell you a story, it happened this way, it was born out of longing and a man that’s gone astray. I’ve been to the valley in the shadow of death. I’ve crossed many rivers wearing a scar on my chest.” A perfect way to end the show.

While he’s certainly prolific, there’s no sense here that Crockett is churning out made to measure albums. Welcome To Hard Times is quite a contrast to his previous release The Valley in that it has more depth and in our view, it’s the better album.

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The Primevals. Second Nature. Triple Wide Records

a1867572021_16Launched in the midst of a global and deadly pandemic, it’s startling to hear the opening lines of The Primevals’ latest album as Michael Rooney gravely intones, “We die young here” on the opening song of the same name. Launched by spectral organ and twinned evil guitars over a driving beat, the song is a William Burroughs’ like nightmare as played by the electric horsemen of the apocalypse. It’s a compelling introduction to this intense slab of garage band rock which sees Glasgow’s Primevals hunkering down and getting back to basics which, in their case, means a rumble of menacing guitars, hoodoo keyboards and Rooney’s midnight ramblings. As the title hints at, the band are in familiar territory and their slash and burn approach allows for 16 songs in less than an hour.

With Rooney at the helm, Martyn Roger and Tom Rafferty man the guitars while ex bassist John Honeyman is now on keyboard duties. They’re driven by the pile driving rhythm section of Ady Gillespie and Paul Bridges on a set of songs which are less diverse than those on their last album, Dislocation. Here, there’s less swamp rock and more Nuggets and new wave punk attack on show – think Radio Birdman, The Modern Lovers and The Dictators – the latter especially on Best Days. Turned up LOUD this is quite exhilarating especially when the guitarists get to duelling on The Have Nots, giving the song a twist of Flamin’ Groovieness, while the defiant snarl of Hard Core just about defines where the band have been at for the past decade as they fly the flag for load and proud rock’n’roll. Having said that, they also hammer away perfectly on User with its wailing blues harp and on Powershake which has Stooges’ like snakehips. The wonderfully titled Heavy Freakout is an all out assault as the band rev up to top gear with the guitars twanging away and even a brief swerve into Morricone territory in the midst of it all.

On vocals, Rooney prowls over the songs like a harbinger of doom with many of his lyrics pessimistic if not nihilistic. It’s like a bad trip, man, and the band do get quite trippy on several of the songs including P.T.S.D. (which kicks off as if they were Iron Butterfly) and on the mesmerising exotica of Now Is The Time which features sitar and wah wah guitar. There’s more than a hint of The Doors in this and Jim Morrison’s ghost can also be glistened in the bluesy Wanna Be Loved, an antidote to Love Street.

Second Nature is powerful, heavy, trippy and hugely enjoyable. We should give thanks to the likes of The Primevals, bands who have kept the freak flag flying.

Second Nature is available on CD along with a limited edition 12 track vinyl version, both available here. Glasgow folk can also pick up the vinyl from the south side record store, Some Great Reward, and in these times, it’s important to support your local record store.

 

 

 

Richard Davies & The Dissidents. Human Traffic. Bucketfull Of Brains Records

DAXXX2XX.PDFIn these pandemic days, it’s useful to remember that not all infections are ruinous. A ‘50s disease with several names but commonly known as Rockin’ Pneumonia & The Boogie Woogie Flu, has had several waves over the decades with its prime victims being skinny white guys with low slung guitars. Symptoms include photophobia -hence the need for shades – a snarly voice, street-smart chords and a very infectious sense of rock’n’roll joy. Thankfully it’s not fatal, indeed, some early super spreaders are still avoiding quarantine while in their eighth decade and the germ continues to thrive in those lucky enough to have been infected.

Our patient today is Richard Davies, erstwhile guitar slinger for The Snakes, one of the more rocking of the UK Americana scene’s bands. His first solo album finds him stepping up to the mic to snarl wonderfully over a set of songs which have all the fizz and fire of punk, power pop and glam wrapped within. Our world beating track and trace app leads us to the likes of The Flamin’ Groovies, Ian Hunter, The Clash and The Jacobites as probable infectious agents which led Davies to this end and, in all truth, the best bet here is herd immunity. By which we mean you should, as soon as possible, get the album and catch this infectious beat.

Human Traffic is a terrific album. As we’ve tried to say in the somewhat strained paragraphs above, it’s power punk pop and rock with an attitude. Unashamed in its exuberance and its nods to its antecedents, it’s a rush from start to end. Davies sparkles throughout with sparks flying from his guitar while within his voice lurks the true soul of scuzzy rock’n’roll. The title song gets the album off with a bang with its muscular rumble as Davies delivers an anthem for “the last gang in town.” Lay Me Low sounds as if The Byrds had taken lessons from The Replacements while Way Of The Wild scrambles brilliantly with the helter skelter rattle jangle of Nikki Sudden.

There are echoes of the past throughout the album, as on Echo Road which hammers along with an E Street vibe along with No Man’s Land which channels Green On Red’s snarlier moments, but there’s no sense of this being merely a copycat exercise. The jumping jive of 21st Century Man and the clarion guitars of No Master No Guide certainly belong to this day and age and allow one to consider that Davies would pass muster with Chuck Prophet’s recent releases. So, go get yerself inoculated.

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Matt Hill. Savage Pilgrims. Quiet Loner Records

b3aw1sicmvzaxpliiw2njbdlfsibwf4il0swyj3zsjdxq3d3dAfter a well regarded although somewhat under the radar career as Quiet Loner, Matt Hill, a Nottingham raised singer songwriter, has decided to ditch his old moniker, transferring the name to his record label, and proudly presents us his first album recorded under his own name. Hill is quite an intriguing character. Hardly a household name, he has been beetling about the UK Americana community for many years (indeed, his 2004 release, Secret Ruler Of The World was voted the best release of that year by Americana UK) while he has been heavily involved in community projects over the years. This has included stints as ‘songwriter-in-residence’ at the People’s History Museum in Manchester along with work in prisons and, somewhat delightfully, “teaching protest songs to toddlers.” His list of achievements is really too long to mention all here but Hill tells all in this short biography here.

An Elvis fan from an early age, Hill drank in American music through radio and TV as he was growing up and feels comfortable playing in an Americana styled idiom although many of his songs are rooted in a defiantly Anglicised tradition. On the album, he imagines the visionary poet, William Blake, rising from his London grave to haunt the merchant bankers who now infest the ancient square mile while there are several songs drawn from Nottingham and Salford histories. D.H. Lawrence and a 19th century bare-knuckled boxer feature but there’s also a song about the infamous Gary Gilmore asking for a telephone call with Johnny Cash as his last request. It’s tempting to mention here, Grassicana, a term coined by Lawrence County, a Nottinghamshire band who also combine Lawrence references and Americana music, but Hill is actually more akin to the likes of Dean Owens, another songwriter who successfully combines his homegrown roots with a love of American music.

Anyhow, Savage Pilgrims, is brimful of excellent songs as Hill takes the listener through a set of songs which draw on folk, country, blues and gospel. Stone & Bone opens the album in fine style as he rattles along in skeletal rockabilly fettle coming across as if he were psychogeographer Iain Sinclair fronting 16 Horsepower. Save Your Eyes has a sweet Leonard Cohen like lilt as Hill inhabits a local hero at the end of his days and he revisits this Cohen like feel, although with more of a tea dance element to it, on his celebration of a Nottingham meeting point on Four Corners. The Exile Of D.H. Lawrence points to the writer’s exile in New Mexico which is emphasised by Morricone like whistling while Chains is an engaging frontier ballad swept along by a mighty wind as Hill delves into the history of slavery.

There are two songs about boxers, both drawn from history. Billy’s Prayer is the folkiest number here as Hill recalls Fairport Convention’s foray into the past on John Babbacome Lee while Bendingo bustles along like a country cousin to Dylan’s Hurricane. However, the most fully realised number here is the excellent Gary Gilmore’s Last Request. With a nod to Cash’s chicka boom rythym, slowed down with trilling banjo and supple twanged guitar, Hill excels with his deadpan vocal delivery. There’s cowboy noire twangings on Stand Before The Wagon and then a final farewell on the closing number, Roll Me Out, a tender and moving campfire song.

A true wordsmith, Hill’s lyrics are acute throughout the album as he brings the songs to life. He’s a singular talent who has a well-developed sense of social justice and a real grasp on the music and places which have shaped him.

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Matt Hill · Gary Gilmore’s Last Request