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.

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Doc Feldman & The LD50. Sundowning At The Station. (This Is American Music.)

It’s been a while since we’ve come across a record label has the feel of being a trademark of quality in that it’s a fair bet that if they release a disc then it’ll be well worth exploring. Elektra, Stiff, SST, Bloodshot have all had their moments in the sun when this was true of them. This Is American Music (or TIAM), a labour of love for some Americana fans in the deep south has in the three years it’s been running built a solid reputation with releases from Glossary, The District Attorneys, Great peacock and Hurray For The Riff Raff. They’ve a slew of new releases hammering to be heard including Bonnie Whitmore, Have Gun Will travel and this offering, as fine a slice of dusty deadbeat songs as we’ve heard in a while.

Based in Kentucky Doc Feldman is a local veteran of several bands and Sundowning At the Station is his solo debut following the demise of his last band Good Saints. We say solo but he’s assembled a studio crew called the LD50 (go look it up) consisting of James Jackson Toth (AKA Wooden Wand), David Chapman and Jeremiah Floyd and produced a minor masterpiece of reproaches and recriminations. With Feldman at the helm proclaiming like a soiled preacher the band offer a muted support sounding like a wounded Crazy Horse (on Alive For Now) or lost in a sea of fuzz (Battle Hymn), overall there’s a sense of numbness, of howling at the moon, railing against life’s calamities.

Ready opens the album, a banjo riddled riposte to the country rock popularised by Neil Young’s Harvest taking Young’s sound and diving headlong into the ditch as Feldman pleads to be given a lethal dose to end it all. Texas Moan is a novel in miniature as the band conjure up the sound of Little Feat on Sailing Shoes. Alive For Now opens with portentous guitars and drum washes before settling down into a pared down cousin to Neil Young’s Zuma as guitars slow burn and the rhythm section churns away like the muddy Mississippi. On some of the songs the sound is pared back leaving Feldman to stand naked as it were with Let It Go recalling Steve Earle in his rehab days while Cold Tile Floor brims with menace. There are snatches of found sounds scattered throughout the album but they are most effective on the solo dirge that is Only Light where Feldman picks up his guitar and delivers a magnificent mea culpa.
Downbeat and dreary may be the order of the day here but ultimately the delivery is exciting with some shiver worthy moments and as we said earlier a fine addition to the TIAM catalogue.

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