Birds of Chicago. Love In Wartime. Signature Sounds Recordings

a0345302836_16On this, their third full studio album, Birds of Chicago firm up what has been called their “secular gospel” sound, the trademark harmonies of Allison Russell and JT Nero still to the fore but with the music slightly more muscular as befits an album which slyly cocks a snoot at the world of fake news and atrocities we currently live in. It’s not a political album nor a collection of protest songs, rather it’s a celebration of life and love, the antidote they believe to troubled times, and not just romance. It’s all kinds of love, maternal, familial, the ties that bind us and shape us. As Nero said to The Chicago Times, “We didn’t want to make a heavy-handed record, but a joyful rock ’n’ roll record while acknowledging that the stakes feel high.”

Joyful rock ‘n’ roll certainly describes the album well. Moving on from the more rustic feel of its predecessor, Real Midnight, produced by Joe Henry, Love In Wartime finds Luther Dickinson co-producing with Nero as the band dip into rock and soul, name checking popular songs from the sixties throughout. The band are tight and well honed from constant touring, Chris Merrill on bass, Nick Chambers, drums, Drew Lindsay, keyboards and Javier Saume-Mazzei on percussion are punchy and perfect but it’s the guitarists, Dan Abu Absi and Joel Schwartz, who get the chance to shine on many of the songs.  On the frontline of course are the voices of Russell and Nero, both superb singers but who really shine when they are conjoined, their evident empathy and affection for each other (they are a married couple) a joy to hear.

The album opens with the brief Intro Now/Sunlight with Russell wordlessly humming over spare piano and banjo, the piece evoking that lazy just awake feeling, the dawn promising a new day. From there clipped electric rhythm guitar launches the joyous soul sound of Never Go Back, a song which brings to mind Donny Hathaway while Nero gets to sing some falsetto and Russell slips in a sensuous verse sung in French preceded by an infectious giggle. This is classic Birds of Chicago territory, playful and uplifting while the production and dynamics are just perfect, the song ending with several powerful keyboard chords punched in over a Stax like drumbeat. Love in Wartime starts off as an achingly beautiful vocal duet as the pair celebrate the humdrum elements of daily life finding beauty in them (“Morning dew on the petal, steam on up from the kettle”) before a stirring slide guitar solo carries the song to a glorious end. It’s just wonderful and here one wonders if this is the album’s peak but that’s not so. There’s another eight songs to go and several of them achieve a similar height.

Travelers is a bright and sunny song with Russell singing of the elements and nature while managing obstacles in life as she sings, “So I roll and I wind, I slip and I weave and I duck and I dive” with the music also ducking and diving and enlivened with a cheesy keyboard solo. It’s followed by the powerful Try, a haunting duet with Nero pleading as the song progresses while Russell wails with a wonderfully soulful presence, the band trickling along with them with a careworn swampers like sound. It’s the most naked song on the album as it acknowledges emotional barricades and the hurt of loss. Nero’s words capture this sense brilliantly singing, “I don’t think that I can carry this heavy load all on my own, but Man if you’re still game you and I can carve our names in hidden caves and giant oaks.” Wringing out their emotions and fears here the song is devastating although it’s leavened by another sweet slide guitar solo.

It’s somewhat sunnier thereafter. Lodestar sparkles from the start, its gently propulsive beat enlivened by slivers of banjo and guitar before building up into a frenzied all out guitar and drum assault. Roll Away is a joyous Gospel tinged number which nods to the closing song as they welcome the boisterous windstorms which can wipe the slate clean while Baton Rouge is a wonderfully languorous reminder of the travails of New Orleans. Superlover garners together the whole aspects of love which weave throughout the album and is a perfect summation. It’s an almost perfect song with Russell immediately evoking Dylan and The Band in the opening words while the band deliver a sumptuous blend of glistening guitars and soulful organ. They close with the sly funk of Derecho, a defiant salute to resilience as the Derecho (a violent windstorm) approaches and they hide out awaiting the calm after the storm. As a metaphor for these troubled times it’s pretty neat and the band imbue it with a fine Sly & The Family Stone bounce. It’s a fine end to what is a magnificent set of songs on what is probably the best album of the year so far.

You can catch Birds of Chicago in May as they are touring the UK and Ireland. All dates here




Best of 2014


There’s a lot or pros and cons when it comes to listing end of year best ofs or favourites. Two years ago Blabber’n’Smoke eventually plumbed for the pros outweighing the cons so this is the third time we’ve presented what, when it comes down to it, is an arbitrary choice of remembered listen. Albums that have stood the test of (a relatively short) time, the ones we’ve returned to or recommended to others in the pub. Above all it’s been fun to look back, read the reviews and see if they still stand. So with this in mind the following are the official Blabber’n’Smoke 2014 picks, in alphabetical order.

Blue Rose Code. Ballads Of Peckham Rye
Birds Of Chicago. Live From Space
Fire Mountain. All Dies Down
Bradford lee Folk and The Bluegrass Playboys. Somewhere Far Away
Cahalen Morrison & Eli West. I’ll Swing My Hammer With Both My Hands
Jim Keaveny. Out Of Time
Parker Millsap. Parker Millsap
Michael Rank & Stag. Deadstock
Sturgill Simpson. Metamodern Sounds In Country Music
John Southworth. Niagara

Random honourable mentions go to

Lucinda Williams Down Where the Spirit Meets The Bone,
The Johnny Cash Native American album reboot, Look Again To The Wind,
Danny and The Champions Of The World’s Live Champs!
Dan Michealson & The Coastguards Distance
Cale Tyson’s EP, High On Lonesome,
Luke Tuchsherer’s debut You Get So Alone at Times It makes Sense,
Petunia’s Inside Of You,
Ags Connolly How about Now,
Chris Cacavas & Edward Abbiati. Me And The Devil along with Abbiati’s band Lowlands who delivered the excellent Love Etc.,
Zoe Muth. World Of Strangers,
Hank Wangford & The Lost Cowboys. Save Me The Waltz .
Grant Peeples and the Peeples Rebublic. Punishing The Myth.
Simone Felice. Strangers.
Bronwynne Brent. Stardust.
Sylvie Simmons. Sylvie (allowing an honorary mention here for Howe Gelb who produced).
The War On Drugs. Lost In The Dream.
Lynne Hanson. River Of Sand.
Gal Holiday & The Honky Tonk Revue. Last To Leave.
And finally John Murry’s EP, Califorlonia which is brilliant and hopefully just an appetiser for his follow up to the majestic Graceless Age.

Digging through the archives it’s been noticeable that there’s been a fine contribution this year from Scottish acts who dip into or draw from an Americana well to a greater or lesser extent. While Blue Rose Code’s Ballads Of Peckam Rye features above the following are all stellar contributions to the local scene.

Dropkick. Homeward
Dumb Instrument. The Silent Beard (with the Scottish song of the year, Suffering from Scottishness).
John Hinshelwood. Lowering The Tone.
The David Latto Band. Here Today, Ghost Tomorrow EP
Norrie McCulloch. Old Lovers Junkyard
The New Madrids. Through the Heart of Town.
Red Pine Timber Company. Different Lonesome
The Rulers Of The Root. Porky Dreams
Ten Gallon Bratz. Tales From The Long Shadows

Although his album, Little Glass Box came out in 2012, Fraser Anderson is a major find of the year while another local lad, Daniel Meade unleashes his Nashville recorded Keep Right Away in January. Hopefully folk will have long enough memories to recall this when it comes to compiling the 2015 lists. In the meantime it can be first on the New Year shopping list.

Birds of Chicago. Live From Space

J.T. Nero and Alison Russell’s Birds of Chicago album was one of the best releases of last year capturing the pair in top form vocally as they wrapped their soulful voices around their excellent songs. Live from Space offers listeners the opportunity to hear the live experience as Nero and Russell, with a five piece band behind them, heave into Evanston, Illinois what must have been a doozie of a night. Recorded warts and all with no overdubs the first impression one has that there are no warts on show, the songs flow, the musicians rise to the occasion and the singing is as well done as in the studio, at times it’s hard to recall that this is a live album. Second impression however is that much of what we hear does not add to the studio recordings and the lack of introductions, tuning, glitches (there must have been at least one) means that there is a somewhat sterile air to the affair. This isn’t Live At Leeds or Kick Out The Jams.

Having said that the album is a delight from start to finish and there are moments when the spirit of the evening is captured with Prairie Lullaby standing out with its loose limbed canter, guitar jabs and tootling clarinet almost adding to a mini jam towards the end of the song. It’s a lengthy album, 76 minutes and 17 songs long and it does ebb and flow much like a live show would. There’s a definite peak six songs in with the aforementioned Prairie Lullaby followed by a superb Mountains/Forests that does gain from the live setting with Nero’s vocals impassioned as he strains to let the words tumble out. The best is kept to the end as the band whip themselves (and the audience) into a mild frenzy. Fever Dream‘s driving bass line develops into a powerful soul stew with a Booker T and the MGs’ urgency as Nero and Russell spar on vocals like Inez and Charlie Foxx. Trampoline gets a soul makeover, losing some of its original sunny disposition but gaining a solid soul groove.

Live From Space is a snapshot of a particular night and as such it does its job. Nero and Russell are the core, the heart and soul of the band and as the sleeve notes say they appear as a duo, trio, a quartet and occassionally, the “Cadillac edition,” seven strong. This is the Cadillac show and its unlikely to appear on these shores so the album is an essential for fans of the band. For newbies it might be best to start with last years album

They’re appearing in the UK this month and next as a four piece we believe, dates below
Thurs 24 Portsmouth The Square Tower
Fri 25 Whitstable The Royal Native Oyster Stores
Sat 26 Lewes The Elephant & Castle
Sun 27 Birmingham The Kitchen Garden Café
Tues 29 Hempstead, nr. Saffron Walden The Bluebell Inn
Weds 30 London Green Note
MAY – Ireland & N. Ireland
Fri 2 Dundalk Vantastival
Sat 3 Enniskillen Ardhowen Theatre
Mon 5 Dingle, Co. Kerry McCarthy’s Bar, Féile na Bealtaine Music & Arts Festival
Thurs 8 Clonmel, Co. Tipperary Raheen House Hotel
Fri 9 Galway Monroe’s co-headline with Liam Ó Maonlaí
Sat 10 Ballybofey, Co. Donegal Balor Arts Centre
Sun 11 Dublin Whelan’s
Mon 12 Ballymore Eustace Mick Murphy’s
Tues 13 Kildare Cunningham’s


Blabber’n’Smoke’s Top Ten for 2013

I succumbed to the idea of a top ten for the first time last year and if nothing else it’s been useful looking back at it over the past few days and comparing it to the list below. Was it a good year for music? I don’t know. Has there ever been a bad year? All I can say is that I’ve enjoyed listening to music this year as much as the last one and the year before that and so on. Many of last year’s list still get regular plays here so at least I liked them and the number one, John Murry’s Graceless Age has had a second wind with its eventual release Stateside. It may seem odd to have an artist with two entries in the list but both albums by Michael Rank & Stag are simply superb examples of what Blabber’n’Smoke would define as Americana; rooted in the country with a frontier outlook and a fierce regard for the common folk. And a happy coincidence to have two works from Howe Gelb mentioned also as he continues to plow his singular field. Both albums have striking images of Gelb threatening to turn him into an Americana icon, part Mt. Rushmore, part Dorothea Lange, for Blabber’n’Smoke, he’s a hero. Anyway, here’s what rocked our boat over the past twelve months.

1. Doc Feldman & the LD50. Sundowning At The Station. This Is American Music

Soiled songs and dusty ballads sounding like a wounded Crazy Horse. A triumph for label of the year, This Is American Music.

And here’s the man himself

2. Michael Rank and Stag. Mermaids. Louds Hymn

Wracked and raw country folk and rock from North Carolina’s Michael Rank. In the space of two years he’s delivered three albums (one a double disc set) that in a fit of hyperbole we said it sounded as if Keef had left the Stones in ’69, joined The Band and recorded with Neil Young frying honeyslides in the kitchen. At the very least it comes close.

3. Israel Nash Gripka. Israel Nash’s Rain Plains. Loose Music

Guitars weave and wander with a ferocity and lyricism that defies description and he repeats this throughout the album and there’s a moment in the title song where the guitars fizz and burn just like the best firework you’ve ever seen.

4. Cam Penner. To Build A Fire. Independent

“Ukuleles, guitars, banjos were strummed. Floors were stomped. Kick drums were kicked. Feet stumbled. Thighs, knees, hands, slapped, clapped. Voices strained and bent. Fingers gripped, grabbed, picked. Arms and hands flung. Skin wrapped tight strained and stretched. Body and sound thrown against wood and metal.”

5. Michael Rank & Stag. In The Weeds. Louds Hymn
No apologies for the second appearance from this tall, stick thin North Carolina rock’n’roll ragamuffin. The sonic slurry he conjures up is nothing less than mesmerising.

6. Sam Baker. Say Grace. Independent

Baker’s wounded heart goes from strength to strength

7. Diana Jones. Museum of Appalachia Recordings. Proper Records.

She’s not well known but whenever we mention her there’s a flurry of activity from folk who recognise Jones’ ability to sound as old as the hills and bang up to date, the thinking man’s Gillian Welch?

8. Birds of Chicago. Birds of Chicago. Independent.

JT Nero makes an honest woman of Allison Russell as they formally pair up for a laid back celebration of harmony singing and some Tupelo honey.

9. Dead Flowers. Midnight at The Wheel Club Hee Haw Records

Dark and deep, vocally and lyrically, a trip through North America and the soul.

Dead Flowers – The Beach from deadflowers on Vimeo.

10. Wynntown Marshals. The Long Haul. Blue Rose.

Local heroes, The Wynntown Marshals survived some turbulent years with band members coming and going. With new crew on board they came up trumps with a bigger, more layered sound and another fine songwriter in the shape of bassist Murdoch McLeod who penned the amazing Tide. Topping off a great year for them the band were snapped up by the very discerning blue Rose label.

Honorable mentions

Howe Gelb. The Coincidentalist
Howe Gelb. Dust Bowl
Mark Collie & his Reckless Companions. Alive At Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary.
J. R. Shore. State Theatre.
The Coals A Happy Animal
Benjamin Folke Thomas. Too Close to Here
Slaid Cleaves. Still Fighting The War
Thriftstore Masterpiece presents Lee Hazlewood’s Trouble Is A Lonely Town.
The Quiet American. Wild Bill Jones
Amanda Pearcy. Royal street
Heidi Talbot. Angels Without Wings
Jim Dead I’m Not Lost
Rachel Brooke. A Killer’s dream
Great Peacock E. P.

Echo Bloom. Blue

Echo Bloom is a vehicle for Brooklyn based songwriter Kyle Evans whose previous releases have featured an album inspired by German photographer August Sanders. Blue is the first of an intended trilogy described by Evans as “chamber pop (Blue), another country/shoegaze (Red), and classic pop (Green).” The songs on Blue are basically acoustic songs performed on guitar and variously feature bass, piano, organ, banjo, mandolin, glockenspiel, autoharp and percussion. The chamber element consists of arrangements featuring cello, violin, viola and French horn which adorn several songs. Most striking however are the vocals as Evans possesses a potentially great voice, cracked and rough hewn, stuffed full of emotion it can be tender or tough. He surrounds this rough diamond of a voice with a brace of singers who offer a choral accompaniment or duet with him and the end result is sometimes spectacular.
Added to this Evans turns out to be a very fine songwriter and some of the moments approach the summit of the likes of Van Morrison at his best. The lyrics of Firecracker are brief but encapsulate a moment so well as he sings
“On the streets of the Capitol the fireworks echo and bloom flowering down into red and then green and then blue and for a second I could see your face near In that moment of light I saw a tear on the side of your cheek you leaned you head onto my shoulder and whispered to me “How’s life so beautiful, and yet so brief?””
Evans surrounds these words with a great arrangement that swirls and eddies under the vocals, a piano plays a stately solo and he ends up scatting just as Morrison might do if this were on Veedon Fleece. It’s not an isolated moment as all of the nine songs here all have flashes of brilliance to them. The opener Annunciation is done acapella and introduces us to Evans’ voice and those of his fine collaborators ( Aviva Jaye, Zachary Stains, Brian Mummert, Steve Sasso, Monica Jo Montany and Kate Vargas). Cedar Beach is a fantasy encounter with a ghost from the sea with bucolic strings and wind and on listening to this I was reminded of the recent album by Birds of Chicago as vocally they inhabit similar territory. Water and the elements feature heavily in many of the songs and The Flood adds an almost biblical dimension while The Returning Of The Doves has allusions to the Noah myth. A remarkable song Doves starts with an acoustic guitar before the band kick in and build to a climax with apocalyptic electric guitar thrashing standing in for a furious mother nature.
Having heard this I really can’t wait to hear the rest of this proposed trilogy and I’d suggest that you grab the opportunity to listen to and download some of the songs the band offer for free on their website before you are compelled to buy the album. On a local note we were impressed that the video for Fireworks was shot on Bute. Hopefully they’ll visit Scotland again sometime soon.


Echo Bloom – Fireworks from Echo Bloom on Vimeo.

Birds Of Chicago

J.T. Nero’s (AKA Jeremy Lyndsay) 2011 release, Mountains/Forests made it into our top ten of 2011 albums with its honeyed capturing of a sun dappled laid back soulful past. Blabber’n’Smoke compared it to early seventies Laurel canyon songsters with a touch of Van Morrison around the time of Tupelo Honey thrown in for good measure. Po’ Girl singer, Allison Russell featured heavily on Mountains/Forests harmonising beautifully with Nero and the vocals were indeed the highpoint of the album. Now Nero and Russell have taken the plunge and come up as a fully fledged pairing under the moniker Birds Of Chicago and huddled within their nest are the majority of musicians (garnered from Po’ Girl and Nero’s band The Clouds) who contributed to the very fine musical backdrop of Mountains/Forests. In essence (aside from the change of name) Birds Of Chicago is Mountains/Forests part two and apart from Russell writing two songs and taking lead vocals on several of the offerings there’s little to distinguish between them, indeed both stand as fine examples of fine song writing and singing.
Having said that there’s a broader palette at play here with some forays into Louisiana territory and a more rustic feel to some of the songs that at times recalls the late Ronnie Lane’s freewheeling celebration of travelling folk best captured on Cannonball where Nero sounds uncannily like Lane. The burbling bass line of Russell’s Sans Souci does recall vintage van Morrison but overall the sound is less reliant on past times as they stamp their own personality on some superb songs.
Trampoline kicks off the album in fine style with both singers swapping verses as the band kick up a funky dust and the vocals coalesce in the chorus. Russell’s Before She Goes is an eulogy for a departed one and introduces the Humboldt crows, perhaps the eponymous birds of Chicago who watch and wait. The crows reappear on the song Humboldt Crows which again appears to be an eulogy this time for Chicago itself. Nero does wax poetically in his writing with the best example, lyrically and performance wise to be heard in the amazing Moonglow Tapeworm that is part savvy street poetry, part surrealism. However the best is saved to last with the closing The Wide Sea where both singers unite with Nero’s cracked delivery perfectly balanced by Russell’s purity as the band surges with the unstoppable strength of a tide coming in.
Nero and Russell will be touring in the UK in April although as far as we can see there are no Scottish dates as yet.

And some video here of some of the songs.

Birds Of Chicago | Audiotree.