Last time Blabber’n’Smoke encountered Bob Collum, born in Oklahoma and now based in Essex, we remarked on his similarity to the pioneering efforts of bands such as Roogalator, The Kursall Flyers and others who paved the way for the likes of Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe. This Heart Will Self Destruct retains elements of his affinity with those heady days of proto UK country rock roots music, but adds a healthy dash of more country flavoured numbers and Bob Wills’ styled Western Swing.
There’s a fine and gentle introduction to the album as Parachute glides in with a foot-tapping country rock sway, enlivened by Mags Layton’s fiddle break. Guest guitarist, Martin Belmont, adds some delicious licks towards the end of a song which is quite a palate cleanser. Another guest, this time Peter Holsapple, is on fine and funky form on B3 Hammond organ adding a Garth Hudson like presence to the slinky soul of Spare Me, one of the album’s highlights. Tall Glass Of Muddy Water is up next and it’s another standout as Collum and the band vamp their way through a song which variously recalls chain gang work songs, New Orleans voodoo hoodoo and good old fashioned film noir menace.
A raucous and hugely enjoyable romp through Leiber & Stoller’s Saved allows the band to let their hair down before they launch into a darker theme on From Birmingham. It’s a fulsome country tearjerker song with weeping fiddle and mournful accordion leading the way as Collum sings of a frustrated love affair and more of this on future recordings would be greatly appreciated. As it is, the remainder of the album returns to more upbeat tempos with the title song reviving the toe taps of the opening number while Giving Up is perhaps the song best suited here to sum up Collum’s ability to update the nervy new wave approach to country music. And just as those ex hippies tucked into skinny jeans matured and perfected their craft, two songs towards the end of the album allow Collum and the band to show how well they manage their version of country rock. Second Fiddle comes out of the country gate, approaching rock with its muscular rhythm section while sounding for all the while as if it were a song by The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band while Shake It Loose is a hip swaying dance song with twang guitar duelling with Layton’s excellent fiddle playing.
It’s been a while since we heard from Son Of The Velvet Rat, the intriguingly named duo of Georg Altziebler and Heike Binder, originally from Austria, but ensconced in the Mojave Desert’s Joshua Tree for several years. Their 2017 album Dorado was a fine set of noirish (and beautifully sluggish) songs which transported a European sense of faded grandeur into a gothic American landscape with hints of The Walkabouts and The Handsome Family allied to visions of David Lynch movies.
Solitary Company finds the pair digging deeper into their new American roots while retaining a foothold in the old country. They open with Alicia, a song which recalls Leonard Cohen, both in its arrangement and its lyrics as Altziebler’s wizened voice intones, “I’m the paint brush, not the painter…I am just the singer not the song” – a more Cohen like set of words we’ve yet to hear. The title track follows and immediately we’re in deeper territory as the dense arrangement (including hammered piano, glockenspiel, violin and viola) is hypnotic and bewildering with the band sounding as if they were Calexico suffering from an attack of the bends having dived too deep. Calexico come to mind again on the whistled intro to Stardust but, as the band rattle on, it’s more the dry and dusty desert rock of the much-missed Thin White Rope which is the template here. Whatever, it’s a full throttled driving rock song and they repeat this later on when the funky beats of Beautiful Disarray heave into view. Borne aloft by some tremendous organ and harmonica interplay, this could be a hit on a hip radio station with its sinuous savvy.
Altzbeiber’s voice is well worn and not a million years away from that of Bob Dylan’s these days and as such it’s difficult not to imagine some of the songs here as being drawn from the same well as Dylan sucked from on Rough And Rowdy Ways, albeit with a fuller musical palette. When The Lights Go Down is a twilight song to delight with lonesome harmonica, slow shuffling beat and guttural guitar grunts, as Altzbeiber creates a wonderful crepuscular world. Remember Me limps along wonderfully with Binder conjuring some amazingly atmospheric sounds from her assorted keyboards while 11 & 9 (the date of Altzbeiber’s and Binder’s wedding) draws also from Dylan although here it’s more akin to his New Morning period. All in all, Solitary Company deserves a listen from anyone interested in a kaleidoscopic immersion into Americana’s hinterlands.
While it doesn’t get the acclaim afforded to Nashville, Arizona’s Tucson is home to a vibrant musical community and has been the launch point for a host of Blabber’n’Smoke favourites including Giant Sand, Rainer Ptacek, Calexico and, more recently, XIXA. We were intrigued therefore when we heard of a new collection of songs recorded by a host of Tucson musicians in order to raise funds for Al Foul, a local legend, who was recently diagnosed with cancer and faced a hefty bill for medical treatment.
Al Foul – A Tribute To The One And Only is a digital album available from Bandcamp and features 29 songs, most written by Foul, performed by familiar names such as Howe Gelb, Jesse Dayton, Calexico, Kid Congo Powers and Gabriel Sullivan, along with a variety of acts previously unknown to us. While all were recorded in the past few weeks, there is also the poignant presence of a performance by Rainer Ptacek who succumbed to a brain cancer back in 1997.
Al Foul himself has been a fixture of Tucson’s music scene since moving there from Boston in the late 1990’s, playing in a rockabilly/ hard country style, often as a one man band. Like many US musicians, he also has a loyal following in some European countries, in particular France. When he disclosed his diagnosis recently, Tom Walbank, a friend and, like Foul, an immigrant to Tucson where he has established himself as a blues artist, reached out to fellow artists and began collecting the songs which make up the album. Local studios (including Gabriel Sullivan’s Dust + Stone and Jim Waters’ Waterworks) opened their doors and donated free time to record while Walbank comments, “I realized that because it’s a pandemic, not everyone wants to go to the studio and not everyone had a home studio, so it was a little tricky. So there are some songs which are done very intimate on iPhones and stuff like that.”
One of the many musicians contributing is Naim Amor who appears on two songs. French born, Amor relocated to Tucson in 1997 and he has since released several solo albums and soundtracks and has also played live with and appeared on record with too many acts to mention here. He has had a long association with Foul and he was happy to talk to Blabber’n’Smoke to support the tribute album’s release. First off, we asked him about Al as he’s not that well known over here in the UK.
Al’s originally from Boston, he moved to Tucson as a young adult. Although I’m not sure of the year, it was around the time I moved out here so he has been part of the Tucson music scene since the early 90’s. He is known a bit in France because of particular connections and friends. He can go to France and actually make money, he never had any offers in the UK that would make it worthwhile. Al plays as a one-man band, it largely depends on budget… he could have a bass player or a guitar player or both. Sometimes it’s a four piece band with drums. I have been Al’s friend since the late 90’s and started playing with him in the mid 2000’s. I also recorded several of his albums.
You appear on two songs on the album. Where did you record them given Tom Walbank’s comments on the general rush, in the midst of a pandemic, to get the recordings done?
I have a recording studio on my own that is located at Jim Waters studio (Waterworks). We have lots of space here, lots of studios.
Your first appearance is with Lola Torch on Shitty Little World. From what I’ve read about Al it seems somewhat autobiographical and his original is very like Johnny Cash singing a Shel Silverstein song but I love the way you and Lola perform it. How did that come about?
Lola is a friend. She is a singer, a burlesque performer and a seamstress (Hi Tiger Lingerie). She wanted to do that song, but she had no plans on how to do it as she doesn’t play any musical instruments. I immediately thought about a song which we quite often cover together “ Is That All There Is “ by Peggy Lee. I thought we could give Al’s song the same treatment and that worked out nicely. We thought about changing the person singing to a “He” instead of “I,” given it’s the story of a boy. But Lola decided to keep it in its original gender which in turn bends the gender in a surprisingly very natural way.
You also perform Flying Saucer with Thoger Lund and John Convertino. Why did you choose this song?
Well, there’s a limited number of songs and they had to be recorded pretty quick. But I always loved that song, I can give it a bit of a swing feel, jazz it up. It’s also a sweet song that is so typical of Al’s humor.
I was quite impressed by the wealth of collaboration on show on the album. Is Tucson the kind of place where all the music acts know each other and there’s a lot of cross-fertilization in terms of playing together?
Definitely! It’s not a really big city, but it’s an American city, 1 million people. However, the music community feels like a village. Lot’s of people play in different bands. It ends up creating a culture of how things happen, how people work.
On that note, how is the music community in Tucson coping with Covid and how have you been spending your time?
There’s no live music so people record, practice, start new projects. That’s my case, I have been practicing guitar like crazy and working with my jazz Trio, I learned and memorized nearly 90 jazz standards. We play in backyard. I also recorded an album with John Convertino last summer (Correspondents) that was released in Japan in the fall. Shaun Hendry is talking about putting it out in the UK on vinyl. I’m currently recording a project with Kid Congo Powers, a “rockabilly/drum machines” kind of thing.
Both of Naim’s contributions to the album are pretty swell but the same can be said of all 29 songs, all of which point to Foul being quite a pointed and direct songwriter. There’s delta blues, rockabilly, country and swamp rock and a good dose of Tucson idiosyncrasy. The album is available for the measly sum of Ten Dollars on Bandcamp and all proceeds go towards Al Foul’s medical expenses. We’ll leave the final words to Foul himself.
“The thought of everyone getting together to produce this tribute for me is beyond touching. Often people share negative memes on social media or express the attitude that choosing to be a working musician is some form of folly or a loser’s game…driving to the ends of the earth for nothing. But the outpouring of love I have received proves to me, that is absolutely wrong. Now I see that thirty years of playing music has left me with something so absolutely pure, beautiful, and beyond priceless that I will never see the craft the same way. I am so humbled by the love that I feel now. Those words ring true more every day.”
Al Foul – A Tribute To The One And Only is available here.
Here’s Al Foul singing Shitty Little World
And here’s the version by Lola Torch and Naim Amor
A short while ago, Blabber’n’Smoke praised Set Your Sights Towards The Sun, a delightful album from The Lost Doves, a collaboration between Ian M Bailey and Charlotte Newman. Now we have to hand an EP recorded by Bailey and which snuck out in January. The title suggests that Bailey still has his controls set for the heart of the sun, not in a Pink Floyd context, but delving ever deeper in the sun infused pop and rock of California in the ‘60s and early ‘70s.
As with Set Your Sights, Bailey has worked in collaboration with another musician, in this case Glasgow’s Daniel Wylie, ex of Cosmic Rough Riders and no slouch himself when it comes to delivering sun speckled jangly rock. While it’s Bailey who sings and plays all the instruments on the four songs here, all are co-authored with Wylie, with Bailey giving Wylie credit for the initial seeds which eventually flourished into what we can hear now.
Unabashedly retro and with 12 string Rickenbacker often to the fore, the songs here are genuine nuggets, although there is enough variety on show to enable each one to stand alone. The opening track, Take It Or Leave It, has its chiming 12-string surge but is also adorned with piping organ providing brass like flourishes allowing for a kind of melange of baroque pop and new wave energy. What’s happening Now is much more mellow as it floats along with an ethereal air, recalling elements of David Crosby circa Younger Than Yesterday with Bailey adding a lovely backwards sounding guitar solo midway. His three part harmonies here are spot on and, in a blindfold test, it would be hard not to consider this a long lost ‘60s gem.
Slow Down River packs more of a punch as it zips along, recalling the likes of Teenage Fanclub or Dropkick in its zest and handclapping propulsion but it kind of pales in comparison to its companions, especially the excellent closing number. Everything Will Be Alright gathers together much of what made early ‘70s LA rock so popular and in particular, it hones in on a band, America, who were initially considered copyists even back then with their Neil Young sound-alike songs. Hitching a lift on Ventura Highway, Bailey positively glides along this sun blissed two-lane blacktop with joyous inspiration.
This immensely talented and hugely enjoyable trio are a timely reminder of the recuperative powers of music. Tell Me How You Feel, the Hoth Brothers Band‘s second album, is not only a joy to listen to but leaves the listener in a much better place after listening, kind of like a back porch Zen session. It’s string band music – acoustic guitars, banjo, mandolin, double bass all to the fore, along with occasional percussion and some very impressive harmony singing. It’s also old time music despite all but one of the songs being written by band members Boris McCutcheon and Bard Edrington V. Absent from the writing credits but as much of a brother as her bandmates is Sarah Ferrell whose bass playing is impressive and who contributes hugely to the vocal interplay.
Hailing from New Mexico, the trio have been known to describe their music as “Salt Cured New Mexicana,” a term which works for us. Fittingly the album closes with a tribute to the late New Mexican songwriter Lewie Wickham on a cover of his autobiographical song, Rough Ragged Edge. Beautifully delivered on guitar and mandolin, the song evokes the old wild western spirit of this rugged landscape. However, while New Mexico pulsates throughout the album the trio roam freely throughout the States in various styles including acoustic blues, Appalachia and Child ballads while evoking memories of acts such as The Carter Family and The Band.
Just as New Mexico is the setting for the closing song, they open with another paean for the wide open spaces of their home state on Judith, which tells the tale of a New Mexico artist living in a mountain village who refuses to go to the city to be cared for when she falls ill. It’s a breezy introduction to the album, a wonderful ripple of acoustic instruments and Carter Family like harmonies and it nails firmly to the mast, the Hoth’s preferences for the wide open spaces where “every day is a holy day,” as opposed to a place where “people wearing dark clothes, looking down, (are) running to the subways underground.” The joys of nature and sunshine are evident in the delightfully delicate Cliff Fendler and the old time jollity of Honeyguide but the magnificent country rock of Slickhorn has a much more elemental feel coursing through its veins. Here the band sing of the rocks and canyons and mystery of the ancient Anasazi settlement of Slickhorn canyon in the Cedar Mesa with the same depth of feeling and sense of history one remembers from The Band.
Whether they are delivering a dust bowl ballad on Poor Man’s Light, recalling the river men of the frontier on Sam Hill or kicking up some Texas dust on the waltz time Dyin’ For Diane, the trio are ever impressive and the songs a delight. Ferrell has an opportunity to sing lead on Wilding Of Robby which is a prelude of sorts to the band’s outlaw ballad, Wild Robby, which appeared on their first album and which should surely point to her getting more opportunities to sing lead as the band progress. Elsewhere, Passage is a haunting and pataphysical rumination on freedom and fear which recalls John Hartford in its gentle delivery while Boogieman Mesa is a grand and cantankerous junkyard of jagged folk blues.
Finally, just as on their first album, Workin’ And Dreamin’, there is a dash of up to date social commentary. They ragged on Trump back then but on this occasion, their target is the Corona virus. One Hard Rain is delivered acapella, three voices in harmony as they sing of the virus flying over the world like Santa Claus and highlight our precarious position in nature’s pecking order.
Tell Me How You Feel, like its predecessor, is a lengthy album, but its 17 songs flow so well that before you know it, it’s over. That we felt compelled to listen again, not once or twice but oftimes, is a measure of how good this album is. And it is indeed, a solid balm for these troubled times.
When you consider the list of topics which routinely pop up in albums we review, it’s mostly a litany of love stories, often lost love with loneliness and sorrow following in its wake. There’s also plenty of drinking and searching and travelling, highs and lows and sometimes jubilation. Cowboys, cosmic or otherwise, often pop up, but the fate of the American Native tribes is relatively rare, so this album, the second solo release from ex-Pines man, David Huckfelt is a welcome addition to those few we have had occasion to cover.
Huckfelt, a former theology student, already had an interest in “spiritual” themes when he met and became friends with the late John Trudell in 2005. Trudell was a Native American activist, musician and writer and he infused in Huckfelt an appreciation of Native American culture and beliefs, many of which have informed this album. Huckfelt is at pains to say that Room Enough, Time Enough is not a concept album but rather, “a “tribute” to Native history, politics, and spirituality that integrates the “vocabulary of American folk music” with the rich vision of Native life.” In particular, he notes that modern America has lost sight of traditional values as espoused by Native Americans and the immigrants who created American folk music. He treads here in the footsteps of Johnny Cash who released an album inspired by Native American lore, Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian, back in 1964 and it is indeed, bitter, that Native Americans are still under attack by the state over issues such as water rights.
Huckfelt recorded the album in Tucson, close to the traditional territory of the Navajo, their name for that territory giving the album its title. There are familiar names from the Tucson musical community involved, including Howe Gelb, Billy Sedlmayer and Winston Watson from the Giant Sand axis while erstwhile Calexico players, Jon Villa and Connor Gallaher are onboard. Importantly, Huckfelt invited several Native American artists to cement the line up, primarily Keith Secola, who contributes lyrics to several of the songs, Jackie Bird on vocals, and, a major foil of the late Trudell, the Warm Springs Nation Native singer Milton “Quiltman” Sahme whose vocal chants are the most obvious connection to Native American influences.
The album itself is quite exquisite. Huckfelt sets the scene from the off with the mellow Better To See The Face which positively glows with that ambient sound one associates with Daniel Lanois, a glimmer of guitar effects over a sturdy country folk backing with Huckfelt’s deep vocals summoning up nature and spirits. This lambent feel is repeated on several songs such as the cover of Satisfied Mind and especially, on the magnificent Book Of Life, written by Secola and which is the centrepiece of the album, while Land of Room Enough, Time Enough is a Dylan like epic with a pedal steel solo and is quite cosmic. Dylan’s shadow can be glimpsed again in the tangled guitars and Gypsy violin of Gambler’s Dharma and his forebear, Woody Guthrie, comes to mind on the frontier tale which is Cole Younger where Huckfelt shares vocals with Billy Sedlmayer whose voice sounds as old as the hills. The old west also features on a grand take of Bury Me Not On The Lone Prairie which bustles with the cinematic grandeur of Calexico at their best, guttural guitars and soaring horns all in place while Journey To The Spirit World is a fine slice of unhinged desert rock
Lyrically, Huckfelt cleaves close to themes regarding the environment and the ancient tribal beliefs throughout the album but his dedication to a Native American philosophy is most clearly pronounced towards the end of the album. He covers Patti Smith’s Ghost Dance, a song inspired by the Lakota Sioux rebellion of the 1890s, and which, with Quiltman’s chants heavily featured, packs a much more powerful punch than the original. Finally, Calling Thunderbird Blues is a ferocious polemic which recalls John Trudell’s work as it drills into a jagged blues meltdown of distorted guitars, wailing harmonica and, the last voice to be heard on the album, Quiltman, singing for his ancestors.
Initially released on last November’s Record Store Day, on clear vinyl, 38 MacDougal was considered by some Fred Neil fans as something of a holy grail. An intimate glimpse of the man back in 1965, recorded in a friend’s apartment as Neil was in the throes of recording his official solo debut. It’s now being given a CD and digital release for those who weren’t able to grab a copy in the first instance.
Neil was the most enigmatic of the Greenwich Village singer/ songwriters who followed in Dylan’s footsteps and, in comparison to Tim Buckley, Phil Ochs and Tim Hardin, his recorded output is minimal. After an initial joint album with Vince Martin, released in 1964, he released two other studio discs and a live album before retiring to Florida in the early ‘70s to work with his dolphin research project. Despite this, Neil was a major figure in the sixties music scene and several of his songs have achieved fame after being covered by other artists. Chief among these is of course, Everybody’s Talkin’ due to Harry Nilsson’s take on it on the soundtrack to Midnight Cowboy.
38 MacDougall was recorded on a reel-to-reel tape in a New York apartment shared by Neil’s long time buddy and accompanist, Peter Childs and John Sebastian of The Loving Spoonful. Neil, reportedly, had fallen out with his producer, Paul Rothschild, and was threatening not to finish his album, Bleeker & MacDougal. Childs reckoned the best way to calm Neil down was just to play some songs together before coaxing him back to the official recording sessions. The tapes feature Neil on 12 string acoustic guitar with Childs on acoustic and electric guitars. Of the eight songs, five were to appear on Bleecker & MacDougall, and it’s instructive to hear them without the studio embellishments of the released record. Gone Again in particular has Childs on a wiry dobro giving the song much more of a “hobo” touch to it while Candy Man finds Childs scrubbing away on electric while Neil introduces the song with an ironic shout out to Dick Clark’ hit TV show.
Of note are the three songs here which didn’t appear on the studio album. Once I Had A Sweetheart finds Neil reaching back into tradition much as his contemporaries in the UK, Bert Jansch and such, were doing. Sweet Cocaine, later released on his 1966 self-titled album, loses the harmonica and is quite appealing in this rawer version. Finally, there’s Neil’s rendition of an old spiritual song, Blind Man Standing By The Road And Crying, a song he would perform live but never captured before on tape. This rendition is just perfect, with Neil’s deep baritone voice digging into the lyrics and sounding soulful and powerful, a post beat, Greenwich Village version of Paul Robeson.
Having released around 16 official albums, Dropkick, the premier sunshine power pop band from Scotland’s east coast were somewhat spoiled for choice when it came to compiling a best of album. So spoiled for choice in fact that they’ve only gone and spoiled their fans with a 27 song set (30 on a limited double disc vinyl edition) which, given that no one is going on holiday this year, will be a perfect substitute for those desiring some sunshine in their lives.
Over the years there have been several line ups of the band (although it’s intriguing to note that essentially there have only been eight members including some who left and then rejoined) and it’s tribute to Andrew Taylor, the primary songwriter, that there’s a signature Dropkick sound portrayed throughout. Sure, enough, their roots are in bands such as The Byrds and Big Star, but Taylor et al can stand on their own two feet and this dig through their past more than proves that point. How they cherry picked the selection is not known to us but their first three albums are conspicuous in their absence, the earliest selection here being Dog And Cat from 2006’s album, Obvious. To be honest, we haven’t heard those first three albums, but Dog And Cat portrays the band setting out their stall, firmly in thrall to jangled pop with a mandolin providing much of the jangle. There’s a refreshing sense of innocents setting out into the fray here but, one year later, on Give It Back, the band have fleshed out and flex their muscles somewhat, the song a harbinger of much to come especially with its sinewy guitar solo.
This writer’s first exposure to Dropkick was the 2008 album, Dot The I and by then they were just about fully formed. Good Vibes remains quite spectacular especially when it channels The Beach Boys towards the end, while Figure It Out reminds one that the band can turn their hand to melodic pop in the vein of McCartney and Gerry Rafferty. They can also pack some heft which was more to the fore on Abelay Hotel which had a much more chunkier element to the songs. Have a listen to Choose and admire the chiming guitar riff which grounds the excellent harmonies and imagine this was actually Graham Nash and The Hollies with George Harrison on guitar, it’s not too far fetched actually.
With such an abundance of songs included it would be somewhat tiresome and tiring to go through all of them. Rest assured that the eight albums which followed on from Abelay Hotel are all represented, each one’s individuality able to stamp its presence. Whether it’s the appearance of a mighty organ groove amidst the clangourous guitars of Hold On, the pedal steel inflected Come Home or the Beatles’ like guitar harmonics and swelling organ notes of I Wish I Knew, with a fine McGuinn type guitar solo at its centre, Dropkick maintain a kite mark of quality throughout. I’m Over You, Goodbye brings us bang up to date, plucked as it is from the 2020 album, The Scenic Route, and it finds Dropkick in rude health.
As mentioned earlier, The Best Of Dropkick is available in several versions, all available here. No matter which format you may go for, the songs are not presented in chronological order allowing for a fine sense of variety throughout. It’s a cracking collection and quite impressive given that Dropkick are not exactly what you would call a “stadium” band (they’ve really pulled all the stops out for the vinyl edition). If you are new to the band then prepare to be impressed, for those in the know, this is a handy pocket book edition of some of the best songs to have come out of Scotland.
Normally a “blues” album wouldn’t be at the front of the queue for a review on Blabber’n’Smoke. Sure enough, we do love some down and dirty slide guitar and where would we be today with the likes of The Wolf, Muddy Waters and their likes who amped up one of the main strains of American roots music? Anyhow, Kat Danser demanded our attention for two reasons. Firstly, she’s a she and it’s been a long time since we heard anything bluesy which wasn’t loaded with testosterone and in addition, she has a Ph.D. in Ethnomusicology so we reckon she knows her stuff. Secondly, the album is released by Black Hen Music, a badge mark of quality these days, and sure enough, Black Hen lynchpin, producer and guitarist Steve Dawson, is involved.
Danser has one of those “take no prisoners” voices, earthy, sassy and proud. In addition, she swings, and the album swings with her. This is no twelve bar blues workout. Rather, Danser roams around blues, gospel and soul while adding some fine seasoning derived from New Orleans and Cuba. Two saxes and a trumpet power through many of the songs while Dawson excels on guitar.
The album kicks off with the steady rolling strut of Way I Like It Done. The horns and delightful barrelhouse piano drive the song as Danser sets her stall out with some humour. Lonely & The Dragon next prowls into view, a crawling king snake of a song with opium undertones, it allows Danser to intoxicate the listener amidst some very cool organ riffs. Had she followed up with more songs in a similar idiom then we would have been quite satisfied but instead Danser diversifies. Bring It With You When You Come is a cover of a Gus Cannon song given a Jelly Roll Morton like delivery and New Orleans looms large in the swaying syncopation of Frenchman Street Shake with Dawson’s slide guitar recalling Ry Cooder. Jesse Mae Hemphill’s Get Right Church meanwhile sees Danser heading into a Mavis Staples’ direction and here, we really have to say that the arrangement, the guitar and parping horns, are quite magnificent. Also recalling the Staples, and in particular, Pops’ last album, End Of Days is another soulful slice of brilliance with a perfectly judged and excellently played arrangement.
Please Don’t Cry harks back to early sixties romance with the band playing in a manner which is reminiscent of those Louisiana pop records compiled by Charlie Gillett on Another Saturday Night while the closing Mi Corazon heads further south with its Cuban inspired rythym. Altogether, this is quite excellent although there is one song on the album which, to our mind, is somewhat out of joint. One Eye Closed finds Danser diving into a 1976 punk inspired rant with the band following suit sounding for all the world like a second division punk band. Sorry to say but had this been tucked in at the end as a “hidden” track, then it wouldn’t have been as obtrusive.
It’s not often that you’ll come across an album which claims to channel influences as diverse as Marty Robbins and Pentangle, but that’s what Tele Novella, a duo from Texas, claim were the starting points for this oddball and enticing slice of wax. You can almost guess from the pair’s given occupations prior to teaming up (Natalie Ribbons owns a vintage shop, Jason Chronis collects rare records) that the album is going to be somewhat leftfield but suffused with nods to vintage pop and rock.
Methinks that the mention of Robbins and Pentangle is but a PR hook as a listen reveals a much more esoteric range of predecessors. These include Judy Henske and Jerry Yester’s gothic folk album, Farewell Aldebaran, the psychedelic whimsy purveyed by the avant garde ‘60s combo, The United States Of America, the proto freak folk of Pearls Before Swine and the spacier moments of Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra. In addition, there’s an undeniable whiff of another odd pair, The Handsome Family, running throughout the album, although Tele Novella have a sunnier disposition.
Essentially, Ribbon’s voice, an emotive blend of melodrama and hushed wonder, rings out over an assemblage of sounds conjured into being by Chronis. There’s a basic skeleton of acoustic guitar over which are laid a cornucopia of odd keyboards sounds which include harmonium, autoharp, Optigon, vibraphone, and a yard tool known as the Garden Weasel. The songs were recorded originally on an 8-track cassette recorder and then fleshed out with the assistance of engineer, Danny Reisch, who has given the album a fine sheen, belying its lo-fi beginnings.
Their mock medieval balladry is quite beguiling. There’s a sparkle in the delicate spinnings of the assorted keyboards on Never and One Little Pearl is like a rondel performed within a Grimm‘s fairy tale. A Lot To Want owes much to its spooky organ sound which is plucked from Tom Rapp’s Swine while Ribbon never sounds better as she sings as if she’s in a hall of distorted mirrors which has no exit (and I know that doesn’t really make any sense but that’s what came to my mind). Desiree, meanwhile, is iridescent in its dreamlike charm.
Going back to Marty Robbins, there’s a definite cowboy clip clop to a couple of the songs. Wishing Shrine kicks off with Morricone whistling before Ribbon recounts a trip to a friend in the desert before ending the night placing wishes in an adobe wall, recalling the legend of Tucson’s El Tiradito. Crystal Witch is adorned with church bells and laden with portentous guitar glowerings which, again, recall some of Morricone’s most epic offerings while the closing song, Technicolor Town, trots into view like an opening shot of a Western movie. It has a wonderfully wheezy and kaleidoscopic turn to it with the percussion huffing and puffing as Ribbon canters away quite wonderfully.
Merlynn Belle is such a unique album which makes it hard to describe. However, if any of the above has whetted your appetite, give it a listen. It really is quite captivating in its singular approach.