Cowboy Junkies. All That Reckoning. Proper Records

prpcd149-300px30 years on from The Trinity Sessions and 16 albums along the line the Cowboy Junkies continue to mesmerise with their simultaneously glacial and slow burning sounds with Margo Timmins’ voice and brother Michael’s warm guitar tones their signature. All That Reckoning, their first release in six years, follows what was for them a furious burst of activity when they released four albums in their Nomad series in 2011 -2012. Recorded when the band found themselves without a record deal the four albums showed the disparate faces of the band, each disc with its own personality with two of them based on particular themes. All That Reckoning however irons out these facets with the band adopting an at times sepulchral sound with solid bass and drums propelling swathes of guitar while Margo Timmins voice reaches out from the depths.

The album opens with the spare glowering of All That Reckoning (Part 1) with bass guitar guiding the vocals over a background of muted electronic effects, the song signalling that this is not going to be a sunshine sort of listen. A wash of percussion introduces When We Arrive with Timmins singing, “Welcome to the age of dissolution,” a nod perhaps from writer Michael regarding the new world age we are in currently as nations close their drawbridges. The the song is delivered at a similar pace to the opening song although with a narcotic lushness about it and much of the album is in a similar vein, walking pace songs with stolid bass and drums and Timmins’ ice queen voice although there is variety in the guitar settings along with occasional additional instrumentation.

They do crank up the volume and energy at times.  Sing Me A Song is fuelled with fuzz guitar and incandescent solos as the rhythm section rock out and All That Reckoning (Part 2) stomps angrily all over its earlier counterpart. Meanwhile Nose Before Ear sounds like a tale plucked from the Child Ballads with the band sounding as if they have been listening to Calexico while Wooden Stairs sounds as if it’s describing a hidden story behind the bland facade of Grant Wood’s American Gothic.

The Things We Do to Each Other stands out with its acoustic guitar slightly setting it somewhat aside from the other numbers but it’s essentially another piece in the jigsaw here with the band railing against the populist attempts to segregate against anyone who is not one of us.  Obviously written some time before the furore surrounding America’s recent immigration issues Missing Children is astoundingly prescient.  A huge slab of a song with angry jabs of guitar and violin stabbing throughout Timmins sings sounding like Patti Smith at times as she sings of the indifference of folk to news items regarding the plight of child immigrants. It’s the centrepiece of an album which is indignant regarding the current state of affairs and perhaps the best album the Cowboy Junkies have recorded for some time.






John Murry. John Murry Is Dead.


Don’t worry, that’s not a headline, just the name of the latest EP from Mr. Murry compiled to tie in with his recent short tour down South. Regular Blabber’n’Smoke readers will know of Murry’s trials and tribulations, his past addiction issues and more recent hassles with the recording business. More importantly they’ll know that he is capable of making music that is emotionally direct, his thoughts tumbling out over confessional ballads and scorched earth waves of sounds. His 2012 album The Graceless Age, surely in the running for top ten status at the end of this decade, remains the foundation for most fans but anyone lucky enough to have seen him live in the past few years will testify to his ongoing ability to transfix an audience, even reduce to them to tears with the power of his performance.

It’s not been an easy road for Murry since the triumph of The Graceless Age. Rather than reiterate it here I’d advise you to head over to his revamped website where there’s an eloquent summary written by Oliver Gray, one of the folk who have been unfailing in their support of Murry. The good news is that things are looking up. The follow up to The Graceless Age is as good as in the can, Murry having headed to Canada to record with Michael Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies. He’s been granted residential status in Ireland and is happily ensconced in the small city of Kilkenny, there’s a documentary on him in production and he’s bringing out a graphic novel that will portray episodes from his life so far.

While we await the album John Murry Is Dead is an EP produced to tie in with his recent short tour of England. Hard copies were available at his concerts and it will soon be available to buy digitally via his website. For the most part it’s the result of Murry’s involvement with the Tamalpais Research Institute (TRI) , a state of the art studio and web platform set up by The Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir who produced one of the songs here, Murry’s anguished cover of Jimmy Ruffin’s What becomes Of The Broken Hearted. Cloaked in ecclesiastical organ fills, Murry croons his pain away here. Weir also turns up on the centrepiece of the EP, Murry’s current magnum opus, Oscar Wilde. On a song that most definitely captures the feel and range of those on The Graceless Age Murry describes a society under surveillance, swayed by the media, driven to home grown terrorism as Irish wit Wilde looks down. At least I think that’s what some of it is about but it’s delivered excellently, revisiting The Graceless Age’s “sumptuous narcotic pillows of sound that swirl and beguile the listener.” Piano, organ, violin and pedal steel guitar slither throughout the song as Murry’s voice pleads and intones brilliantly. Weir appears at the very end here on a strangulated and brief attempt to play Dixieland on trumpet.

The Wrong Man opens the EP and it captures Murry at the top of his game. Again his voice shines, he sounds vulnerable, wounded, the music a delightful confection of Wurlitzer keyboards and dreamy guitar over a smattering of cymbals. He then covers Peter Gabriel’s creepy crawly Intruder, the drums here recalling the original but overall it’s much murkier recalling the Manson clan’s habit of invading homes without alerting the sleeping occupants. It’s claustrophobic and menacing. Finally there’s the intriguing One Day, billed here as a Rick Vargas remix of As I Lay Dying (Vargas one of the engineers at TRI and who produced several of the songs here). A blizzard of effects, wonky guitars and keyboards blitz the song , reminiscent at times of Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse  as Murry, buried but still audible proclaims his resurrection from his addiction days but accepts and indeed proclaims that in the end we’re all dust.

A very welcome addition to the Murry canon then and hopefully just a taste of what’s to come. The EP will soon be available here along with a previous EP, Perfume and Decay and an odds and sods collection The Resurrection of John Quixote, both also well recommended.

Here’s an earlier version of The Wrong Man…

The Danberrys

The first thing to strike one about this Tennessee quintet is the source of their name. Led by married couple Dorothy Daniel and Ben DeBerry they amalgamated their surnames to baptise the band. The second and more important note is how good they are. The opening song of this album, Here We Go Round would stand proud on a Cowboy Junkies album with Daniel’s voice as strong and sultry as Margo Timmins. Stately and impressive Here We Go Round has sinewy mandolin and Dobro buttressed by a sombre fiddle and immediately the ears perk up. Rain In The Rock which follows is a fast flowing intricate acoustic romp which has muscle aplenty from the strong vocals to the short acoustic guitar breaks. Third song in and DeBerry takes over vocal duties with Blow On Wind, a classic song in the making which has a chorus to rival that of Old Crow Medicine Show’s signature Wagon Wheel.
An impressive introduction to the album these three songs are as good as any we’ve heard this year. Daniel and DeBerry along with Ethan Ballinger (mandolin, guitar), Christian Sedelmyer (fiddle) and Jon Cavendish (bass) are slick and tight with a fine ensemble sound while Daniel and DeBerry are fine songwriters. There are several other gems to be heard over and above the opening salvo. Over and Over with DeBerry on vocals is a fine dreamlike concoction that reminds one of David Crosby while Annie Wants To Go Home revisits Cowboy Junkie territory with a powerful vocal performance from Daniel.

Celtic Connections: Cowboy Junkies/John Murry. Kelvingrove art Gallery and Museum. 23rd January 2013

Celtic Connections uses a variety of venues spread over Glasgow and the prospect of a show in this venerable Victorian pile was tantalising. Unfortunately, the reality was that as a venue for live rock music it failed dismally. The seating arrangement for anyone in the back half of the hall meant that the view was of some upper torsos of the artists. Worse was the sound, lost in the echoing galleries it was muddy and indistinct, similar to what I imagine the sound in a swimming pool might be like. Nevertheless the prospect of seeing John Murry, high on the acclaim of his debut solo album, The Graceless Age was indeed a tantalising prospect and despite the sound problems he put on a fantastic show. Backed by a three piece band (Sean Coleman, guitar, Michael Mullen, keyboards and Will Waghorn, drums and horn) Murry played several songs from the album and engaged in some lively banter with the audience (or at least the front rows who could hear him). He cut a clumsy and uncoordinated figure in between songs, fiddling with his pedals, at one point unable to choose which guitar to play, but when he played he did so with a passion that burned through the muddy sound and reminded the audience that he has lived the majority of the songs he played. The graceful and well produced elements of the Graceless Age were ditched in favour of a raw naked power with the guitar solos and feedback on Southern Sky raising hairs. At one point he asked if we wanted to hear a thin Lizzy guitar song and blasted into a frenzy of Neil Young like guitar thrashing which morphed into Penny Nails before climaxing with a Thin Lizzy type duel guitar workout. This was tremendous stuff. Murry paid tribute to the late Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse with a tender version of Maria’s Little Elbows but none of the songs had prepared the audience for his final piece. Introducing it as “a true fucking story”, he put down his guitar and sang Little Colored Balloons, a song which documents his near death from a drugs overdose. Without his stringed breastplate he seemed uncomfortable and unsure as to what to do with his hands. However his delivery of this harrowing and beautiful song was spine tingling as, voice wracked with emotion, he seemed to be reliving the trauma. This was raw, close to the edge drama, powerful and unsettling and when Murry abruptly left the stage leaving the band to close the song there was a small niggle at the back of one’s mind wondering if the emotional effort on show was just too much, too close to home. As a performance this was riveting and made one think of Neil Young’s stark Tonight’s The Night tour, teetering between brilliance and disaster. Oh to have seen this in a proper venue.

After the psychodrama of John Murry The Cowboy Junkies were like a juggernaut that ploughed on despite ongoing sound problems. The lengthy blues soaked Working On A Building, all crashing guitars and cymbals, was the template for much of the night with Shining Moon featuring a harmonica solo that seemed to last forever. While there was plenty of Sturm und Drang, supplied by guitar, electric mandolin and drums throughout the set with Sweet Jane introduced by a thunderous rumble and clatter the best moments were when they eased up and laid back a little. With the middle section of the set dedicated to a brace of songs from their recent Wilderness collection two Vic Chesnutt covers, See You Around and Square Room were delivered with an appropriate delicate touch. Damaged From The Start benefited as a mainly acoustic piece and when Margo Timmins, brother Michael and Jeff Bird on mandolin delivered Townes Van Zandt’s Lungs and their own Remnin Park as a trio the instruments sparked as Timmons sang beautifully. Back to a full band they gave a fine rendition of Blue Moon Revisited while the encores, Misguided Angel and Neil Young’s Don’t Let It Bring You Down showed that by then they had got to grips with the sound and had the audience enthralled. A very static band compared to Murry’s hyperactivity The Junkies surely pleased their fans and Margo Timmins was a commanding and gracious presence. However on the way out most folk I overheard were talking about Murry and his astonishing performance.

Celtic Connections: The Leon Hunt n-Tet, The Two Man Gentleman band

It’s coming up for Celtic Connections time again and as usual there’s a hefty wallop of Americana music on show. Blabber’n’Smoke aficionados will already be familiar with some of the acts appearing. John Murry whose album, The Graceless Age, was our No. 1 release of last year appears along with the Cowboy Junkies at Kelvingrove art gallery while another of our top ten faves Petunia & The Vipers hit the Old Fruitmarket accompanied by Woody Pines. A Blabber’n’Smoke night to savour we think. Others we’ve previously mentioned here include the Heritage Blues Orchestra at the Royal Concert Hall, The Lost Brothers(supporting Glen Hansard), again at the Old Fruitmarket and finally a show that promises to be a doozie, Otis Gibbs at the Glasgow Art Club. Gibbs’ Hard As Hammered Hell was another album in our top ten releases of 2012.
This list only scratches the surface of course and it’s serendipitous that all of the above were mentioned here last year. We thought we’d take some time to mention a few others whose albums have fallen into our lap recently and who are also appearing.

The curiously named Leon Hunt n-Tet will be the must go gig for any music loving mathematicians as the n-tet suffix denotes a number that is liable to change (in layman terms they can be a duo, trio, quartet etc) and it’s likely that only boffins will get this. If so the boffins will be rubbing shoulders with bluegrass fans as Mr. Hunt is reckoned to be the UK’s premier 5-string banjo player and can be heard on numerous collaborations with a stellar array of transatlantic musicians. Here he’s promoting his tribute to the late Earl Scruggs. Farewell Blues (Remembering Earl Scruggs) sees him teamed up with three other UK exponents of the high lonesome sound (Jason Titley, Guitar, Ben Somers, Double Bass and Joe Hymas, Mandolin) and it’s pretty much what you’d expect from such experienced hands. The playing is impeccable, vibrant and joyous as they wheel through 12 cuts which range from the whirlwind Foggy Mountain Special to the ragamuffin roll that is Deep River Blues. It’s a joy from start to finish and in a blindfold test you’d swear these guys were raised on a porch on momma’s moonshine liquor. They play St. Andrews In the Square on 26th January supporting Sarah Jarosz


The Two Man Gentleman Band are a different kettle of fish although they also base their sound on a vintage American sound, in this case the very cool, hip and voutereeniest man ever, Slim Gaillard. Gaillard was a blast in the past, hobnobbing with Hollywood royalty and recording some of the daftest and deftest music ever. Most popular in a twin setting (as Slim and Slam then Slim and Bam, perhaps the chaps should rename themselves for Celtic Connections as Slim and Tam) he appeared in movies and was as popular as Louis Jordan. Playing guitar accompanied by double bass Gaillard scatted and jived about food, drinking and at times just nonsense in his invented language, vout. The Two Man Gentleman Band don’t share his language but they do sing about food (Pork Chops, Tikka Masala, Cheese and Crackers) and drinking (Chocolate Milk, Wine, Oh Wine!, Please Don’t Water It Down). What they do manage is the sense of fun, the joy of goofing off on a riff and the almost absurd (think Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes and Bugs Bunny) worldview that on record is engaging but should go down a storm live. They’re at the Glasgow Piping Centre on 26th January.


Melissa Ruth & The Likely Stories.


We were intrigued when a few months back an email popped in from Melissa Ruth inviting us to listen to her brand of what she called “doo-wop twang.” Intrigued enough to enquire more and eventually track down a copy of her album Ain’t No Whiskey and glad we are of that. Ain’t No Whiskey sees Canadian Ruth, now living in Eugene, Oregon, setting up stall with her husband Johnny Leal and brother in law, Jimmy Leal in tow (on lead, slide and bass guitar and drums respectively) as she plays a fine set of songs that were kick-started by her purchase of a 1958 Guild Freshman guitar and some time spent delving through old jazz and blues albums. The trio play with a great sense of intimacy and a simplicity that affords Ruth’s writing and her sultry voice plenty of space to impress. Johnny Leal’s spare playing complements Ruth’s choppy rhythm guitar whether they are laying down some late night vibes or channelling the Tennessee Three (on Dusty Boxcar) and the end result is somewhat akin to early Cowboy Junkies colliding with Mary Gauthier.
While she sings superbly Ruth also writes a mean song with the title piece standing out as a blues lament from a woman who can’t find solace in the bottle. This sad state of affairs continues in No One Said Nothin ‘Bout Dancin, a lazy drink laced waltz that woozily meanders along with a similar feeling to that old chestnut Tennessee Waltz. Willing To Fall completes a triumvirate of drink fuelled misery and lost love with Ruth’s voice melting while Leals’ guitar waxes lyrically.
It’s not all downbeat however as Dusty Boxcar jaunts along in an autobiographical vein while Write Me A Love Song breezes along at a pell mell rate. However they are at their best when investigating the downbeat side of life and Cinco De Mayo is a fine impressionistic account of a young man’s longing for a Mexican girl who may or might not be unattainable. Wonderful stuff although we remain somewhat nonplussed by the lack of doo-wop.


Cowboy Junkies. The Wilderness: The Nomad Series Volume 4.

Back in the summer of 2010 the Cowboy Junkies announced the release of four albums in what they called their Nomad series. On their website they said “For the first time in twenty years we are completely free of any recording contracts and obligations, we find ourselves writing and recording more than we have in years, our studio (The Clubhouse) feels more and more like home, the band now has twenty five years under the hood and is sounding so darn good…and then, added in to that mix, our friend Enrique Martinez Celaya, the brilliant and inspired Cuban-American painter, dropped these four spectacular paintings (a series of paintings called “Nomad”) into our laps, and it became clear that we needed to release four albums, with his paintings as our ground.”
Now almost two years down the line the final instalment is with us, The Wilderness. Having heard its predecessors (and reviewed two of them) it’s fair to say that the band have sounded revitalised across all of the releases whether it be on the impressionistic tales inspired by China on Rennin Park (Vol. 1), the moving tribute to the late Vic Chesnutt that was Demons (Vol. 2) or the furious bluesy wig outs on Sing in my Meadow (Vol. 3).
The Wilderness returns in a sense to what most folks’ perception of the band is, the laid back and intimate sound that catapulted them into the limelight on the Trinity Session album all those years ago. Undoubtedly the recording process has moved on but the glacial yet comforting sound that featured on Misguided Angel is very much present here. With the exception of the closing song, Fuck, I Hate The Cold which might have been best served on Sing In My Meadow the album is a sumptuous pillow of sound with Margo Timmins’ voice a comfort and a balm. Closer listening however reveals an album that explores hurt and loss, none more so than on the opening Unanswered Letter (for JB), a song written after the suicide of a close friend, but which also celebrates the inspirational benefits of solitude on We Are The selfish Ones. Michael Timmins wrote many of these songs holed up in a wintry retreat with the book Gilead (by Marilynne Robinson) to hand and the fragile soundscape of Angels In the Wilderness is inspired by the tale. A beautiful song, Angels In The Wilderness is a graceful and tender message for the next generation. It’s followed by a quartet of songs that are almost as good. Damaged From The Start is a haunting tale of “bruised and battered hearts.” Fairytale has some lilting mandolin from long time 5th band member Jeff Bird while Staring Man expands on a short poem by Elizabeth Bishop while retaining the mystery of who and what is the “Staring Man.” The Confession Of George E has a slow burning Neil Young feel to it with menacing guitar and organ. After this four song triumph the bare bones of I Let Him In is almost an anti climax despite its undoubted charm while the closer Fuck, I Hate The Cold as mentioned before spoils the mood of the album with its chunky guitar chords and slinky rhythm although Margo Timmins’ delivery of the title line is excellent in its repetition. I suppose it could be seen as a valediction to the winteriness of the preceding songs.
Overall a fine end to this brave venture from the band. Each of the albums is well worth getting and there is a proposed box set of all four plus an extra disc of songs gathered along the way in the offing and sounds mighty tempting.


Twilight Hotel When The Wolves Go Blind.

A timely reissue for this third release from Canadian duo, Twilight Hotel as they embark on a short European tour in March and April. They should go down well as the tone of this album is not so much Americana as Europicana (a word I have just coined) in parts. What Do I Know About Love? could be the music for an Apache Dance with its louche accordion and stinging guitar while the title song and Poor and Hungry both hint at the European moodiness of The Walkabouts on their album Train Leaves At Eight. However Mahogany Veneer pulls them back slap bang into the States on an autobiographical tale of the longeurs of touring and their longing to return to their home turf of Winnipeg.
On Ham Radio Blues and Dream of Letting Go the guitar bluster and the harmonies of Brandy Zdan and Dave Quanbury at times recall the recently re-energised Cowboy Junkies. They do however manage to stamp their own identity on the hypnotic Frozen Town and especially on the brooding menace that is The Darkness, a song that could easily illuminate some of the seedier scenes of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.
Overall the sound of Twilight Hotel is dark and menacing, guitars swoop and soar, razor sharp at times with echoes of Morricone, the percussion (by Stephen Hodges, ex Tom Wait player) is dynamic and sensitive, banjo, accordion and dulcimer add a gossamer touch to what is an aural gothic movie. This is perhaps best summed up on the closing song When I’m Gone, a macabre plea not to buried “underground in a wooden box with walls around. Leave my bones bare and I will become a river.” Superb stuff.
As part of their tour Twilight Hotel hit the ABC2 on 18th April.


When I’m Gone