Michael Weston King. The Struggle. Cherry Red Records

the-struggle

Most folk reading this will be familiar with Michael Weston King as one half of the excellent My Darling Clementine, the on stage bickering husband and wife team who have released a series of excellent albums which explore and update the dynamics (and the wonder) of country duets. Most recently, they added their chemistry to a selection of Elvis Costello’s “country darkness” songs on an acclaimed trilogy of EPs which also featured Steve Nieve, Costello’s long-standing keyboard foil. Now, taking time out from My Darling Clementine duties, Weston KIng has released his first solo album in a decade, The Struggle.

Recorded in a remote Welsh studio, The Struggle features Weston King accompanied by Clovis Phillips, a multi instrumentalist (and the studio’s owner) with additional parts added by a fine ensemble of musicians remotely. A world away from the Tammy & George like marital world of My Darling Clementine, Weston King here has looked back to that classic late 60s, early 70s singer songwriter period, seeking inspiration from the likes of Jesse Winchester, Dan Penn, John Prine and even Van Morrison in his high kicking Caledonia soul days.

 It’s a wonderfully accomplished album, suffused with elements of growing older, of remembering past times and, on occasion, bitingly contemporary. The title, Weston King says, is not a reference to the hardships of Covid but to the more elemental and ongoing concerns which we all face in our day-to-day existence and which will remain long after Covid is but a sniffle. It’s also a reference to a stout hill climb in Cumbria which has stuck in his mind for some time.

The album opens with the most contemporary song, Weight Of The World. It was written after Weston King watched, appalled, Donald Trump marching to St. John’s Church in Washington to brandish a bible, having had his troops brutally remove Black Life Matters protestors who were in his way. Weston sings it as a policeman who, having voted for Trump, sees the reality of this most heinous of characters finally unveiled. It’s a grand protest song which doesn’t point fingers but tries to understand why some folk can be fooled and fooled again and there’s a remixed version at the end of the album which really roots around in a Dan Penn/Spooner Oldham fashion. It’s followed by Sugar, a song co-written with Peter Case and the most “Americana” like song on the disc with its mandolin trills and sly slide guitar.

The heft of the album is in a brace of songs, some personal, some less so, which have a vein of nostalgia and loss running through them. The Hardest Thing Of All is a fine soulful account of solitude while Another Dying Day drips with weariness and, yes, struggle. The nostalgia is lit large in the wonderful waltz time The Old Soft Shoe which is a very affectionate and quite moving snapshot of the surviving partner of a dancing couple retracing their dance steps, “I live here alone and nobody knows, that I dance each evening, all on my own.” A mournful trombone and Barney Kessel like guitar licks set the scene and Weston King sings it quite beautifully. Valerie’s Coming Home is Weston King’s memoriam to Lou Dalgleish’s mother who passed away shortly before these viral times and he paints a fine portrait of her with a wonderful sense of delicacy. Finally, Me & Frank tells of a childhood friend who, it seems, was a bit of a lark, with Weston KIng transposing red dirt country tales to the badlands of a seemingly endless Southport beach.

The Final Reel finds Weston King paying tribute to his late friend, Jackie Leven. It’s appropriately windswept and full of Celtic romance with a roaring chorus. A fine send off but Leven appears again on Theory Of Truthmakers, a song written by Leven but never recorded. Given the lyrics by a mutual friend, Weston King dresses them in a glorious arrangement, assisted by Mike Cosgrove (a long time associate of Leven’s) on strings and with Lou Dalgleish (and daughter Mabel) on vocals. There’s a sense of the quiet majesty of Jimmy Webb here, the soft ebb and flow of the strings, the nylon guitar, the sweep of the chorus. It’s quite magnificent and it’s the topping on what is a mature, thoughtful and very engaging album.

Website

Karen Dalton. In My Own Time. 50th Anniversary Reissue. Light In The Attic Records.

In My Own Time, Karen Dalton’s second and final album was released 50 years ago and this week Light In The Attic reissues the album in various formats, including “deluxe” editions, which contain previously unreleased alternative takes and a very rare live appearance. It has to be said that the Super Deluxe vinyl version is incredibly tempting and, while it might appear a tad expensive, it contains a bumper load of goodies. The good news is that the basic CD edition has all of the music and that’s really what it’s all about, so let’s dive in.

While Dalton’s reputation has slowly grown over the years, she remains hidden from popular view. She’s mentioned in Dylan’s Chronicles – “My favorite singer in the place was Karen Dalton. She was a tall, white blues singer and guitar player – funky, lanky and sultry. Karen had a voice like Billie Holiday’s and played guitar like Jimmy Reed, and went all the way with it.” Fred Neil also championed her. Dalton was reclusive and prone to mood swings with various drug habits which meant that she didn’t release an album (It’s So Hard to Tell Who’s Going to Love You the Best) until 1969 and even then, it was a recording of an impromptu session which piggy backed on studio time booked for Fred Neil. To say it sank without notice is probably an understatement. Nevertheless, another fan, Michael Lang, the fresh faced impresario behind the Woodstock Festival, flush with money for a short while, set up the sessions for In My Own Time, an album which, in comparison to its predecessor, has fully fledged band arrangements. It too sank and Dalton disappeared from view, falling further into drug use and dying in 1993.

In my Own Time was recorded at Bearsville Studios in Woodstock with Harvey Brooks producing and a host of Woodstock musicians (Amos Garrett, Bill Keith, Bobby Notkoff, John Simon) playing. The song selection includes several Dalton had been playing since the early 60s along with covers of soul classics (When A Man Loves A Woman, How Sweet It Is) a Richard Manuel song (In A Station) and the opening number, Dino Valenti’s Something On Your Mind. The result is an album which, on listening today, sounds much more pertinent than many of its peers released at the same time. There’s a fine sense of country and funk in the arrangements along with some skeletal folk, not dissimilar to hit records by the likes of Maria Muldaur at the time. A possible barrier might have been Dalton’s voice which is quite singular and, for some folk quite challenging. She’s been compared to Billie Holiday and that is in there but she really is quite unique. It may be a cliché but I reckon you can hear all of the hurt in her life in her singing.

It’s quite gratifying to say that the three alternative versions of songs from the original album are well worthy of inclusion here. Something On Your Mind is given a more spritely run through while In My Own Dream meanders wonderfully past its originally allocated time. Katie Cruel, one of the pivotal songs on the album, loses its fiddle solo, replaced by someone (presumably Dalton) whistling. These are followed by the primary lure here, six songs recorded live on an ill-fated 1971 European tour (with Dalton opening for Santana!). The sound quality is acceptable and the band are good quality country rockers, only a few bars removed from Neil Young’s Stray Gators. Two are from Germany’s Beat Club with Dalton sailing effortlessly on One Night Of Love and then delivering a killer lonesome wail on Take Me. The four songs recorded at the Montreux Golden Rose Pop Festival are more lo-fi. Something On Your Mind is a bit of a muddied acoustic scramble but it’s a real treat to hear Dalton singing Neil’s Blues On The Ceiling with its warbling guitar solo. One Night Of Love has a kind of early Jefferson Airplane vibe to it but the halting, wearied and wheezing version of Are You Leaving For The Country is quite brilliant in its fragile construction, a very early version of weird folk music.

With liner notes from Lenny Kaye and Nick Cave along with a host of fine pictures, this is an attractive package. I’d hazard that if you haven’t yet heard Karen Dalton, it’s well worth investigating. For Dalton fans, it’s essential.

Website

Steve Dawson. Gone, Long Gone. Black Hen Music

A Canadian, now based in Nashville where he has his own Henhouse Studios and record label Black Hen Music, Steve Dawson has produced and played on umpteen roots album over the past ten years along with several well-regarded solo albums. Live, his most recent notable stint was as the third leg in Birds Of Chicago, playing well over 200 shows with them before live music was stopped in its tracks. Reactions to this clampdown varied but, like some of his peers, Dawson doubled down in his studio work to the extent that he now has three albums worth of music set to be unleashed this year, Gone, Long Gone the first of the three to be released.

Dawson’s 2016 album, Solid States And Loose Ends, drew comparisons with Ry Cooder and it’s true that Dawson shares similarities with Cooder in that he’s an expert in all manners of slide and roots guitar. Solid States And Loose Ends was in the same territory as Cooder albums such as Get Rythym and Bop Till You Drop but Gone, Long Gone, while still containing bluesy wallows -gutbucket and swampy at times – also has a brace of numbers which are more constrained while retaining Dawson’s affection for roots music. Perhaps the most obvious example is on the instrumental, Kalaniapa Waltz. Here Dawson plays electric and National guitar, a Weissenborn and ukulele on a number which has a Hawaiian influence in its stately and intricate tapestry of strings and things while Chris Gestin’s pump organ adds to its quiet majesty. The title song is another departure as Dawson turns in a song which is light and airy, his nimble picking and sweet pedal steel playing backed by a small string section with the song coming across as if Pentangle were playing a Jimmy Webb number. The lyrics do have that Webb like prairie lonesomeness to them and it’s pertinent here to note that most of the songs on the album are co-written with Matt Patershuk, a great songwriter whose albums Dawson has produced.

The album opens with a firm declaration of intent on Dimes with slide guitar sputtering into action before a horn section weighs in and Dawson, accompanied by Allison Russell on vocals, delivers an excellent Little Feat like slice of rock’n’roll gumbo. Russell (of Birds Of Chicago) sings on several of the songs on show here, adding a great soulful vibe to Dawson’s voice. There’s the tub thumping gyrations of I Just Get Lost, a song which twists and turns quite wonderfully recalling any number of late 60s combos who tried to combine blues, psychedelia and gospel into one big happy hippy tent. Six Skeletons In A Car vamps along with Dawson’s guitars in particularly wicked mood, twisting and snaking throughout and Bad Omen is a startling and snarling acoustic guitar blues number, full of  menace and voodoo vibes as the band inhabit a loose limbed New Orleans backdrop with groovy organ and skeletal drums. And, going back to that Cooder vibe, how can one resist a song dedicated to King Bennie Nawahi, a Hawaiian street performer, which is called King Bennie Had His Shit Together. Fats Kaplin’s fiddle and Kevin McKendree’s piano roll all over this loose-limbed frolic while Dawson’s slide playing snakes throughout.

There’s one cover song on the album. Ronnie Lane’s revered Ooh La La is given a reverential and somewhat restrained reading, which, for those familiar to the song, might take some getting used to. Ultimately however it does sink in, especially on the chorus (and you will have to join in) and Dawson’s guitars, Russell’s brilliant vocal accompaniment and the band’s skilful shuffle will eventually win you over. And, persevere to the closing number, Time Has Made A Fool Out Of Me, to see if those comparisons to Ry Cooder are ill judged. Dawson’s slide guitar here is quite sublime as he makes it throb and quiver with echoes of Pop Staples on a song which, surely, The Staple Singers would have taken on board.

Gone, Long  Gone is an excellent album and highly recommended. As we said above, it’s the first of three Steve Dawson albums due for release in the forthcoming months and, if they are anything like this, then we are in for a treat.

Website

Massy Ferguson. Joe’s Meat & Grocery

a0623459071_16

Seattle’s Massy Ferguson roar back into action with another album which is the musical equivalent of what you might expect to find in a store called “Joe’s Meat & Grocery” – no fripperies, just the basics, good, solid, and nutritious. Over several albums, the band have consistently delivered the goods, hard driving rock music with an occasional alt-country edge. Looking back over past reviews we’ve mentioned the likes of Uncle Tupelo, Drive By Truckers and The Lemonheads in comparison and this remains the case here.

The opening Miles Away arrives amidst a haze of guitars before erupting into a powerful organ and piano fuelled cry of despair (and, ultimately hope) that doesn’t seem a million miles removed from the strictures of the pandemic. As a song it soars, it’s of a type which one usually hears at the end of an album but here it stamps the band’s authority as they end it with an almighty thrash. There are several songs in a similar manner, foreboding, powerful, epic if you wish. Backspin has thunderous percussion and portentous, almost apocalyptic lyrics as the band pummel away reminding one of The Hoodoo Gurus while Sister Roll Up is a claustrophobic ride with squirrelling blues harmonica echoing throughout the tunnel. In contrast, The Road Ahead is panoramic as it builds to a thunderous climax with singer Ethan Anderson painting a picture worthy of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road before Anderson recalls his Pentecostal upbringing in the barrelling rock’n’roll of The Hard Six. With Anderson playing flute here and with Fred Slater flying on piano, the song is a bit of a blitzkrieg.

No less listenable, several of the songs dial back the thunder. Save What Couldn’t Be Saved is a tumbledown saloon bar tale of those cast out from the American dream – made redundant, hooked on drugs, lost and lonely. I Don’t Know Why does remind one of The Lemonheads with its wistful mix of thrash and pop hooks allied to a rush of jangled guitars and there’s more jangle on the country rock of Off To See Rose, while they close the album with a song which, live, could become a boozy sing-along on You Don’t Bother Me At All.

Website

Stereo Naked. Unseen Course. Independent

a2497193689_16

Released at the tail end of last year, Unseen Course kind of got lost amidst the host of Christmas releases and end of year lists which tend to dominate December. Of course, it’s now the tail end of February and we are only now getting down to writing about it and for that we offer our apologies as it’s an album which has been a keen listen recently.

Stereo Naked are a Cologne based band with a flexible line up arranged around core members, Julia Zech (late of Fierce Flowers) and Pierce Black. They play a modern hybrid of bluegrass, country and folk with Zech on banjo with Black on double bass while they share vocals and harmonise quite wonderfully. This is immediately apparent on the almost acapella opening song Dive Right In where the voices dominate on a soulful, almost gospel like finger popping arrangement. It’s the most pared back number on the disc as the remainder finds the pair’s playing embellished with guitar, pedal steel, percussion, strings and horns allowing for a full band sound.

While the banjo driven numbers, Would You and Love Song Nr. 3 certainly can be considered as a form of bluegrass, much of the album heads into into different territory with a contemporary mix of quirky upbeat numbers such as Sanity (“Let’s dance like chickens with our heads cut off,”) and mellower, almost jazz like, ballads. On Old Solo, they turn in a chilling seaborne folk song which creaks and wheezes with authenticity in a manner reminiscent of Anna & Elizabeth. They also have great fun on the closing song, Take The Money And Run. It’s a cowboy ballad given a full cartoon like makeover and a cinch for inclusion on the soundtrack if the Coen Brothers ever decide to film another ironic Western movie. Overall, Unseen Course is a delightful album, airy for the most part with Black’s supple and inventive double bass playing ensuring the songs don’t float away into the ether.

Website

Daniel Meade. Down You Go. Independent

a4068596248_16

What to do if you have to self isolate for a week after catching that nasty Corona virus bug thing? Well, if you’re Daniel Meade, once the first couple of days of (thankfully) mild sniffles are over, you sit right down and record your latest record. And so it was that in early January Glasgow singer and songwriter Meade, in covid house arrest, recorded Down You Go, six original songs and two covers in a stripped back manner which we last heard from him several years ago.

Forced to go back to basics, Meade reminds the listener of what a fine performer he is on his own, away from the raucous rock’n’roll of his band the Flying Mules and the pyrotechnics of his last couple of albums. Indeed, you need to go back to his earliest releases to find him in a similar compact and relaxed vein. And, while the album is home grown, Meade is quite the master at home recording so there’s no lo-fi nonsense here, the recording is clear and vital, his voice and guitar up close and intimate. In some ways it’s a perfect bedsit album, draw the curtains, and wallow in the sounds.

The album opens with the simple guitar strums and rippling piano of Fixing Quicksand with Meade inhabiting Jayhawks territory on a bittersweet love gone wrong song, a relationship with shakey foundations.  Contrary wise, If I Didn’t Have You, is a song of love and salvation with Meade giving thanks to his soulmate and confessing his past sins. Its simple melody, plucked guitar, slight percussion and strings remind one of very early Townes Van Zandt and Meade’s voice has a similar world weary  manner to that of Van Zandt’s. Meade continues in this vein on Down You Go although the theme is darker with a hint of Hank Williams thrown in. The jauntiest song on the album, Cocaine Jane, is beautifully simple. A strum along country roots song which follows in the footsteps of Johnny Cash, The Grateful Dead , Davey Graham and such, it’s a grand listen in a fine tradition.

Moving from Cocaine country to troubadour land,  Meade turns in an excellent exercise in wintry melancholy on Will You Still Love Me When It Rains, an incredibly moving song which, while once again reminiscent of some of the most sage singer songwriters around,  has Meade singing quite brilliantly, no mid Atlantic voice mannerisms here. Aside from his own songs, there are two covers on the record. There she Goes was written by Mark May, a Glasgow musician who died far too young. Meade played in May’s band while still in his teens and this is his affectionate tribute to a mentor. It’s a lovely song which has a hint of Gene Clark in its genes. The other cover is a bit of a surprise. Having watched that Bros documentary, Meade was inspired to take on their hit, When Will I Be Famous. Here he strips it back to the bone and reveals it as something like a cry for help. There are wisps of Leonard Cohen and The Proclaimers flitting around the delivery as Meade sings quite authoritatively and yet plaintively within his Covid imposed exile.

Down You Go is available as a download and extremely limited edition CD here.

Dean Owens. Sinner’s Shrine. Eel Pie Records

Good things come to those who wait and for Dean Owens and his fans, the release of Sinner’s Shrine has been a long time coming. Recorded two years ago but put in abeyance due to Covid, Sinner’s Shrine is the latest episode in Owens’ increasing immersion in American music. From his days in Edinburgh’s The Felsons, followed by a series of increasingly popular solo albums and collaborations, Owens has never shied away from his love of and indebtedness to the songs and culture of The States while always retaining elements of his Leith family roots. Look to the swampy Southern Wind (co -written with Will Kimbrough and winner of the AMAUK’s song of the year) which rubs shoulders with Elvis Was My Brother, a fine epistle to a childhood friend on 2018’s Southern Wind album. His collaborative album, Buffalo Blood, released a year later, was a full-blown American trip, recorded in the deserts of New Mexico and now, he returns to the arid southwest as Sinner’s Shrine finds Owens, this time in Tucson, giving full expression to his love of that border country’s music and myths.

The icing on the cake here is the presence of most of Calexico, perhaps the chief purveyors these days of those sun-blistered environs. A chance meeting with Calexico’s Joey Burns ended up with Owens travelling to Tucson with a handful of songs inspired by the polyrhythmic sounds of Calexico and his knowledge of the local lore. It’s a match made in heaven as Owens cleaves to the exotic sounds conjured by Burns and his compadres. With fellow Calexicans, John Convertino, Sergio Mendoza and Jacob Valenzuela all on board and with other Tucson luminaries on tap, Sinner’s Shrine is certainly the epitome of Owens career so far. It’s expansive, thrilling and, above all, authentic. That signature Calexico sound is ever present but is helmed by Owens’ ownership of the songs and this is perhaps most apparent in the reworking of New Mexico, a song originally recorded by Owens on his first solo album. Back then it was a low-key acoustic number, here it blossoms into a fully-fledged border ballad with grumbling guitar and soaring trumpet.

The history of, the romance, and the reality of living in these borderlands inform several of the songs. The opening song, Arizona, has a cluster of instruments including pedal steel (from Paul Niehaus) appearing as if through a heat haze as Owens explores the territory – the barrio, the titular sinner’s shrine – essentially the heart of the border music he has long admired and he admits that it has cast a wire around his own heart, drawing him in. Despite the notion of wide-open desert vistas, Arizona is quite claustrophobic in effect with the band coiled, but ready to strike. And strike out they do over the rest of the album. The Hopeless Ghosts, a song inspired by a Townes Van Zandt quote, is a tale of wanderlust, of dusty trails full of memories, while the aforementioned New Mexico positively jumps out of the speakers as Owens gets more romantic, singing of his “Sweet Maria,” a long lost lover. He gives it a lusty rendition on a song which one could easily imagine Johnny Cash singing.  Summer In Your Eyes is another romance which, with its mariachi horns, elegant piano and sleek guitars would not be out of place on a Mavericks’ album. Meanwhile, the short interlude which is Here Comes Paul Newman is Owens’ affectionate nod to the cowboy movies he loved while growing up. While it’s  Newman’s Hud he mentions in the notes, it’s Morricone’s spaghetti western soundtracks which he perfectly captures here with his assured whistling.

The title of the album is mentioned in the opening song but the sinner’s shrine also informs Compañera, a beautifully realised lament which is soaked in memories and tradition. Here, the band wallow wonderfully over a string arrangement which certainly pulls at the heart strings while Tony Pro, from the Mariachi band Luz De Luna, on guitarron, adds some gravity. Going back to cowboy movies, Compañera stands comparison to Dimitri Tiomkin’s score for that old John Wayne film, The Alamo, a favourite of mine when I was a kid.

Whilst it’s quite wonderful to wallow in Owens’ excellent capture of the romance and history of Tucson and the surrounding area, at the heart of the album there is a darker tone. On The Barbed Wire’s Still Weeping, the vocals are distorted, disembodied, while Burns and his cohort pull out the big guns. The song deals with the plight of the migrant population on the US/Mexico border, a theme common to both Owens and Burns, and they portray a parched and dread landscape with a thunderous sense of menace. La Lomita is in similar territory with Owens singing of a refuge on the border which was in danger of being demolished to make way for Trump’s infamous wall. The song is a full blown spectacle with Mendoza adding just about everything but the kitchen sink from his percussive box of tricks as it sways magnificently with stabs of trumpet and staccato guitar. It’s the most “Calexico” sounding number on the album and proof, if it be needed by now, that this pairing is just about perfect. Further proof of that perfection is to be had when Burns called in the Guatemalan singer, Gaby Moreno, to add her glorious voice to the sensuous swirl of Land Of The Hummingbird. Inspired by the rhythms of Cumbia it’s sexy and sultry while Mendoza’s piano playing reminds one of the majesty of the Buena Vista Social Club. That signature Calexico sound is given another airing on the tremendous thrust of the Farfisa infused We Need Us before the album closes with a nod to Owens’ past on After The Rain. A song which dates back to The Felsons, it was originally inspired by an Ansel Adams photograph and having heard Owens sing it, Burns demanded it be on the album. Here, it retains its quiet majesty while turned down a notch or two in terms of Owens’ singing, but it’s a fine valedictory to what is an extraordinarily great album.  

Website

The Delines. The Sea Drift. Decor/El Cortez Records

a3713211486_16

After the triumph which was The Imperial, an album which marked not only Willy Vlautin’s new band as a pitch perfect setting for his emotionally raw vignettes but also served as proof (if needed) that singer Amy Boone amply rewarded Vlautin’s choice of her as his new voice with her wonderfully languid delivery. The Sea Drift is yet another winner for the band. On paper, it might be considered more of the same as Vlautin continues to portray a cast of drifters and grafters with some acuity and Boone breathes life into them, her voice hurt and bruised while the band lay down a soothing, soulful groove. However, this time around there’s more emphasis on the horn and string arrangements, a subtle shift but one which adds another layer to The Delines‘ take on “retro country southern soul,” adding a film noire element at times. While The Imperial centred on a downbeat motel, here the album takes place on the Gulf Coast, an area not too often captured in song. The album title recalls a section of Walt Whitman’s poetry collection, Leaves Of Grass, a section pertaining to the shore. The contrast between the presumably desirable coastal locations and the reality that life there is often grim hovers throughout.

The first two songs have the advantage of having been previewed earlier, accompanied by a pair of excellent videos. Little Earl is nothing less than the epitome of Vlautin’s spare writing style, its four short verses painting a picture which leaves one dying to know the full story of how a short assed kid – “Little Earl is driving down the Gulf Coast, sitting on a pillow so he can see the road” – while his brother lies bleeding in the back. It has a similar unhurried approach as many of the songs did on The Imperial and this continues on much of The Sea Drift but the next song, Kid Codeine, is one of their brisker outings. The heroine, always cool and easy, breezes through the song accompanied by horns, strings and a female chorus which all recall late sixties easy listening pop arrangements. Despite the “upbeat” arrangement there’s still a heart of darkness in the song and from here on in Vlautin really does dig deeper.

Drowning in Plain Sight is like an aural version of Diary Of A Mad Housewife, transposed to the working class south. Dolly Parton could take this song and make a hit of it but it wouldn’t be a patch on The Delines’ glacial delivery and Boone’s desperation. All Along The Ride is, if anything, even more desolate and again, Vlautin sets a scene perfectly, leaving us to imagine the intro and outro to this particular couple’s current isolation from each other. The delicate Spanish guitar which introduces Surfers In Twilight, an arresting tale with its very own Garden of Gethsemane denial moment, is joined by a mournful horn section giving the song an air not dissimilar to Miles Davis’s forays into Spanish themes and Davis is brought to mind on the two instrumentals written by trumpet and keyboard player Cory Gray. Lynette’s Lament and The Gulf Drift Lament both recall Davis on Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud.

Hold Me Slow captures the languor and enervation of a love tryst in a humid sub tropical location while Past The Shadows is a reminder that several of the songs here are about escaping. This Ain’t No Getaway does offer a glimmer of hope as a woman gets out of a troubling scenario but she seems to accept that she’ll soon be in a similar position. The last song on the album, Saved From The Sea, is a torch song in effect with Boone crooning about a saviour of sorts, someone who “Makes me feel like my life ain’t been wasted, like my life ain’t just slipping away.” Here, it seems, Vlautin is saying that the proximity of the sea and the temptation to surrender to its depths is the get out clause for those ground down and wearied Southerners.

Ultimately, The Sea Drift finds The Delines with a fuller and richer sound and, while it’s in no way a concept album, listening to it is somewhat akin to reading Vlautin. Most of these songs could easily become short stories or even novels and perhaps some will. None of them are far removed from the subject of his latest book, The Night Always Comes, or indeed, any of his writings. But, with the help of Cory Gray, Freddy Trujillo, Sean Oldham, producer John Morgan Askew and especially Amy Boone, his words are brought to life here.

Website

Johnny Dowd. Homemade Pie. Brother Jinx Records

jd_homemadepie_cover_forsm

Another slice of Johnny Dowd’s dearly beloved mutant music is always worth celebrating and Homemade Pie is no exception. The 13 songs here are all gloriously fucked up – stewed in a hotchpotch of 60’s garage band riffs, off kilter country, badass guitars and kaleidoscopic killer clown like melodies – just another day in the Dowd household we’d love to imagine.

Anyhow, Homemade Pie picks off from where 2019’s Family Picnic left off, with Dowd sticking to the basics and eschewing the even weirder homemade electronica which featured on albums such as That’s Your Wife On The Back Of My Horse and Do The Gargon. With his regular crew on board (Mike Edmondson on guitars and keyboard, Willie B on drums and the wonderfully dead pan vocals of Kim Sherwood Caso), Dowd stands proud on the rubble of his songs, waving his freak flag high.

That said, Dowd’s songs, for all their waywardness, have a way of worming themselves into your brain. He grabs a genre, subverts it and launches it right back at you. It might have been put through a mincing machine in the process but there’s still a whole load of nourishment to be had. Gone is a fine example as Dowd writes a tour diary of sorts in the manner of Bukowski while the band deliver a skewed 50’s like doo-wop feel. Silk Scarf is another nod to past rock’n’roll with Dowd’s droll delivery perfectly matched by Sherwood Caso’s cool injunctions while You Can Call Me The Wind takes the likes of Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra’s duets into another dimension. Uncle Jimmy kicks off with the melody from Benny Spellman’s Fortune Teller and pounds it into submission, aided by a stabbing organ riff and sulphurous guitar as Dowd merely repeats the one line lyric throughout. The opening title song is a grand slice of Nuggets type garage rock with Dowd a travelling salesman doomed to dwell in a Flannery O’Connor story.

With its woozy fairground delivery, Out For Blood is a menacing tale which kind of takes the story of Badlands and transposes it into a meeting of an itinerant singer and an obsessed fan. That fairground waltz is repeated on the surreal ramblings of Rick Ross, a song which is probably the weirdest ever about a man and his dog (or his God as he wonders). God himself has abandoned Dowd on the claustrophobic cluster which is Shack and the closing song, Do Me Do is perhaps the most broken down and fractured lost love song you will hear this year. Even the guitar solo here sounds broken hearted. We do have to mention the behemoth, nestled within the album, which is the fully pumped up garage band workout, Rise Up. A splendidly raucous song with Dowd at his snarling best, he insists he loves his country, right or wrong while describing the desecration of its values, all the while rising to the declamation, “Fuck Donald Trump, Donald Trump is a fool.” No pussyfooting here (and no radio play) but at least it’s nice to know that Johnny Dowd is on the side of the righteous  and long may he deliver his missives from the USA’s underbelly. They are songs from the gutter, staring at the stars.

Website

John Mayall. The Sun Is Shining Down. Forty Below Records

I have to admit that the last time I listened to a “new” John Mayall album was in the early 1970s. At that time Mayall was already considered the godfather of British blues and a bit of an elder statesman. Having helmed The Bluesbreakers, famous for their successive triumvirate of guitar heroes (Clapton, Green and Taylor), as the 60s waned he moved to LA, became somewhat mellower and funky on albums such as Turning Point. That’s around where we parted company as Mayall kind of fell off the weekly music press radar and a fickle teenager like me had found new acts to follow.

Mayall, now 88 years old, has of course released a slew of albums in the interim and retained his reputation, certainly within the blues community. The Sun Is Shining Down however has been given a push, perhaps due to his recent announcement that he is retiring from live shows (he’s 88, god bless him) and perhaps due to just sheer disbelief that he can still deliver the goods. I was certainly curious when I loaded this into the CD player and then quite astonished that, in the first instance, Mayall just about sounds like he did some fifty years ago, and also, that it’s a bloody good album.

His voice is just that little bit more weathered (heck, he sounded old way back then) but there’s no sense of strain or easing in while he remains a wizard at blues harmonica. With his regular band of several years standing (bassist Greg Rzab, drummer Jay Davenport, and guitarist Carolyn Wonderland) stoking the engine, Mayall pulls a fine trick in inviting several guest players including guitarists Buddy Miller, Mike Campbell, Marcus King and Melvin Taylor, violinist Scarlett Rivera, and ukulele player Jake Shimabukuro to sit in. The result is ten songs which, while rooted in the blues, all carry their own unique signature with the guest artists all given their solo moments to shine in.

So, there are amped up horn driven roustabouts such as Hungry and Ready and the superb squall that is Driving Wheel along with more traditional blues as on A Quitter Never Wins. I’m As Good As Gone (written by Grammy winner, Bobby Rush), with Buddy Miller’s baritone tremolo guitar burbling away amidst Mayall’s swirling Hammond organ, is simply superb and when Rivera comes on board on Got To Find A Better Way, one is transported back to Mayall’s early 70s sojourn with Sugarcane Harris. The steady but sure One Special Lady is given an unexpected lift when Shimabukaro weighs in on an electric ukulele, delivering a solo which definitely is unlike any ukulele sound these ears have ever experienced as it buzzes and burns.

Mayall closes the album with the title song which recalls his work with Mick Taylor on Blues From Laurel Canyon. Whether it’s a valediction we have to wait and see but it’s the sound of a man contented with his surrounds and it provides his guitar player, Carolyn Wonderland, an opportunity to show that she is no slouch as she delivers a wonderfully sinuous solo which is the equal to those of the star guests. If you haven’t bought a John Mayall album in the past fifty years, you should buy this one.

Website