Amy Speace with The Orphan Brigade. There Used To Be Horses Here. Proper Records

On this follow up to her award winning album, Me And The Ghost Of Charlemagne, Amy Speace delves into her personal space for a truly intimate album which was written in the space between two life changing events, her son’s first birthday and then the death of her father. One event life affirming, the other a loss, a dichotomy which informs the songs here which are suffused in memories, some happy, some less so.

Speace is accompanied throughout by The Orphan Brigade (Neilson Hubbard, Ben Glover and Joshua Britt), the accomplished trio whose own albums lend themselves to place and time and it’s a match made in heaven. Their delicate and impressive colourings caress the songs wonderfully while a string quartet adds to the quiet beauty of several of the songs here. One listen to the magnificent edifice of One Year will confirm that Speace has picked her musical partners well.

The album opens with sweeping strings and gentle mandolin ripples on Down The Trail as Speace heads back in time, recalling family journeys from her childhood. It’s as evocative as a faded old family photograph and sets the scene for much of what is to follow. There are echoes of Joni Mitchell in the writing, and her vocal delivery, from hushed to exclamatory, is quite brilliant. The title song is another snapshot from the past but within it there is a sense of anger as her childhood memories of pastures are confronted by the modern reality of urban blight – her father’s spirit no longer resides there. It does reside within yet another sepia toned memory on Father’s Day which is based on an actual photograph from a day out in 1972 with Speace reflecting on her fear that her memories will eventually fade and wishing that her father was still around to celebrate another father’s day. It was not to be and Grief Is A Lonely Land is an incredibly touching elegy which deserves to be heard far and wide as it knocks any Broadway melodrama off of its perch.

On a more affirmative note, there’s the bustling and bluesy skiffle of Hallelujah Train which can be considered as a kind of a grand send off to the deceased, gone but riding into glory. River Rise is delivered in a similar vein and Shotgun Hearts (with guitar from Will Kimbrough) is a defiant shout out with a little bit of Springsteen hidden within its pulse. Mother Is A Country, the second last song, returns to the personal as Speace waxes poetically on the havens a child can find in its mother’s embrace and love, while allowing for the mother’s sense of emotional turbulence in the wake of giving birth.

The album closes with a warm and cosy rendition of the late Warren Zevon’s Don’t Let Us Get Sick. It’s a come together anthem here, enlivened by the always excellent band playing and a fine two fingers to the pandemic which has blighted all of us. A fine end to an album which is full of the milk of human kindness and which is a glorious listen.

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Buffalo Blood, Buffalo Blood, Eel Pie Records

album-cover-pic-smallBuffalo Blood is the collaborative work of three American musicians and a Scot who set out to capture some of the legend and history of Native Americans, victims of a genocide which rivals that of the Nazi’s against the Jews. The collective – Dean Owens, Neilson Hubbard, Joshua Britt and Audrey Spillman – were drawn to the project after Owens, a man from Leith, raised on cowboy movies but lured to the plight of the Native Americans after visiting their sacred lands, mentioned a batch of songs he had written as a result of his fascination, to Hubbard. Hubbard, a Grammy nominated producer and, along with Britt and Spillman, a member of The Orphan Brigade, a band who seek out unusual recording opportunities, got on board and the newly formed quartet decided to collaborate in the writing and recording of what became Buffalo Blood. A project long in the making, it eventually saw all four decamp to New Mexico, along with sound engineer and photographer, Jim DeMain, to record the album in several iconic locations. Aside from the recording, they captured the outdoor performances on film as they followed what is known as the trail of tears, the historical forced marches of Native Americans from their ancestral lands to reservations. The resulting album is heavy on atmosphere with ambient sounds trickling into the songs, many of which reflect the arid conditions of the New Mexico desert.

There’s no narrative as such although some numbers mention the likes of Custer and Crazy Horse (Land of Broken Promises) while others portray the repressive regime which tried to wipe out their culture as on Carry The Feather, inspired by the habit of forbidding Native Indian children to speak their own language at schools which taught a white curriculum. There are a couple of mood pieces. The excellent Ten Killer Ferry Lake (named after a reservoir on Cherokee land) opens the album and sets the scene perfectly combining a ghost dance like lament and mournful whistling. The whistling (by Owens) returns on Ghosts Of Wild Horses, a tune redolent of spaghetti western soundtracks, a sly nod perhaps to what, for most of us, was our first exposure to the American west via the movies. Whatever, it’s another strongly suggestive piece of music casting up images of sun blasted parched lands, bleached bones and the unique strangeness of the frontier. Similarly, Buffalo Thunder, a wordless chant with ambient wind sounds throughout, transports the listener to late night campfires among the tepees.

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There’s an inherent sense of drama throughout the album. War Among The Nations is portentous, warning of calamity ahead and Reservations bristles with indignity singing of the white men’s lies. Comanche Moon captures the fury of the tribes as they fight back against the white man who considers them “all just savages,” while Buffalo Blood is a powerful number which rings out with a fierce sense of pride amplified by the native chant which surrounds Owen’s strident vocal delivery. There’s a resigned air to Daughter Of The Sun, White River and Bones, songs which reflect the sense of loss and identity suffered by the Native Americans while Land Of Broken Promises just about sums up the series of injustices dealt to them as treaties were torn up and they were moved further westward.

Throughout the album the quartet perform excellently. The primary sound is of acoustic guitars and mandolin with percussion and keyboards filling out some of the numbers. The harmonies are wonderful as the band inhabit the spirituality of well-worn chants brilliantly. Owens says that as they recorded in the desert, under clear skies and amidst stunning red rock formations, they felt the presence of the spirits which permeate the locations. They capture this perfectly on Bones, an excellent song with a mournful organ base which is suffused with suffering and a simmering anger. Overall, Buffalo Blood is a bold venture which sets out to portray a particular injustice but it burns with a contemporary relevance as one realises that the plight of the Native Americans is not far removed from the forced migrations and exploitation of indigenous people which continues to this day. From the pipeline protests at Standing Rock to refugees fleeing brutality in Africa and South America, the story continues.

Buffalo Blood is released on February 15th as a download and, in the UK, a double vinyl album. £1 from the sale of each vinyl album will be donated to the Redhawk Native American Arts Council , an organisation which is dedicated to educating the general public about Native American heritage through song, dance, theater, works of art and other cultural forms of expression.

Celtic Connections will present the live world premiere of Buffalo Blood in performance tonight at The Mitchell Theatre. Details are here while the project’s website is here. For more information on the project check out this interview.

 

 

 

 

Dean Owens (with Dave Coleman). Cotton Snow. Single Release, Drumfire Records.

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With the best reviews of his career so far tucked in his pocket (for his acclaimed 2015 album Into The Sea), Dean Owens saw out last year on a roll and entered the new Year with a bang, supporting Patty Griffin at Celtic Connections. When Blabber’n’Smoke interviewed Owens for AmericanaUK he spoke of his plans for 2016 including a proposed project that reunites him with Neilson Hubbard and Joshua Britt, two thirds of the crew behind the magisterial American Civil War album, The Orphan Brigade (which we reviewed here ). That album was inspired by the history infused into an old plantation building in Franklin, Tennessee and it’s to the Civil War and Franklin that Owens pays attention on this single release which will be available from April 15th.

On a visit last year to the site of the battle of Franklin, one of the bloodiest of the war, Owens was taken by an image mentioned by a participant, Captain Tod Carter. The artillery laying waste to the cotton gins and cotton fields scattered the plant which fell like snow on the soldiers, Cotton Snow. The following day Owens was in Dave Coleman’s (of Nashville band The Coal Men) home studio in Nashville, tinkering around with this idea when Coleman suggesting recording a take on it. Couple of hours later there’s a rough mix, Coleman a one band on drums, tape loops, bass, guitars and pedal steel, Owens with the words down pat. Some transatlantic polishing later and here’s the end result.

It’s a great song and a great recording. Cotton Snow plays to Owens’ ability to invest a song with drama and emotion, to paint a picture with his words. The place names resonate, Chattanooga and Shiloh, previous battles for the progenitor who sees the soldiers, whether clad in grey or blue, inside all the same colour. The surreal image of the cotton snow is amplified by the musical setting, Coleman stirring a twang filled guitar soup that recalls the mystical Americana of Lee Hazlewood. And while Owens doesn’t have the gruff gravitas of Hazlewood here he sings wonderfully, close miked, a slight drawl and a fine giddy up exclamation escaping his lips just before the first guitar solo.  It’s a class act.

Anyway, you can listen to the song below and pre-order it here.

 

 

 

The Orphan Brigade. Soundtrack to a Ghost Story. Proper Records

Two Americans and an Irishman walk into a haunted house… No, it’s not the opening line of a joke but the punch line for the story behind The Orphan Brigade. The three (Neilson Hubbard, Joshua Britt and Ben Glover) have built an album around the tales and histories of characters from the Civil War period, notably Confederates housed in and around a plantation house named Octagon Hall in Franklin, Kentucky, sixty miles north of Nashville. The Hall still stands, spared from immolation by the Northern troops, an antebellum reminder of the horrors of war and slavery and reputed to be the “most haunted house in America.” With a wealth of historical documents to hand (letters, journals, poetry, some written by members of the titular Orphan Brigade, a nickname of the Confederate Army’s First Kentucky Brigade) the trio set up shop in the haunted house to write and record the album with assistance from Gretchen Peters, Kim Richey, Kris Donegan, Heather Donegan, Dean Marold, Eamon McLoughlin, Dan Mitchell, Barry Walsh, Carey Ott, Brad Talley, Zach Bevill, Jim DeMain and Ryan Beach.

It’s a fine back story and the cast tell tales of spooky happenings during the recording, much of it captured on a documentary directed by Hubbard and Britt. However, entertaining as this all is it’s much more than an Americana version of American Horror Story, the good news being that the album stands up to scrutiny whether the listener knows the origins or not. It’s not a retelling of the era in the vein of White Mansions although there are songs that refer directly to the experiences of the historical protagonists. Rather it’s an impressionistic capture of the spirit (sorry) of the times delivered in a variety of styles that gather in musical influences but are rooted in modern music. One could imagine that The Band or a solo Robbie Robertson might have made the album.

The war does loom large on the wheezy accordion tooled I’ve Seen The Elephant, the delicate harmonies of Last June Light and the martial numbers, The story You Tell Yourself, decorated with slight mandolin and throbbing guitar and We Were Marching On Christmas Day which captures excellently the tribulations of the foot soldier in a wintry waste. On a more optimistic note The Good Old Flag points to the reconciliation required after a bitter war and is delivered as an excellent mid tempo ballad buoyed on some fine guitar flourishes and sublime harmonies.

There’s a wealth of styles here, a sea shanty on Cursed Be The Wanderer, an Irish Lament with Paddy’s Lamentation and some slide driven Southern grit on Trouble My Heart (Oh Harriet). Whistling Walk appears at first to be an oddity, a whistled instrumental with a jazzy cornet and guitar it ambles into view with an unexpected jocularity but when one reads that it’s inspired by the fact that slaves carrying food from the kitchen to the table were ordered to whistle in order to prevent them eating any of the food then it falls into place.
As we said earlier, the album stands on its own two feet but there’s a wealth of information to be had for anyone wanting to delve, either into its making or the history it commemorates and is heartily recommended.

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And just because it’s Halloween