Not a new release but one that was new to Blabber’n’Smoke when we encountered Les Johnson at a house gig a few weeks ago (which you can read about here). We were very impressed by Johnson on the night, his baritone vocals and seam of dark humour impressive and both are present and correct on the 12 songs contained on 15 Hands, his debut album. Equally impressive are the settings for his songs, in the main delivered by The Shiverin’ Sheiks, a glorious time capsule of reverbed rockabilly, Cash like boom chicka boom and shimmering Tin Pan Alley melodrama with a hint of Joe Meek weirdness. Johnson croons and slowly burns his way through his set of songs with an easy authority equally at ease with the unabashed romanticism of Break Your Heart, a real tear jerker that sits up there with the best of Richard Hawley, the soul stirring country gospel of Beckon Me To The Light and the Celtic lilt of Sweet Promises.
For a man who says he never wrote a song until he was 46 Johnson certainly has a way with words, his more straightforward lyrics packed with arresting couplets such as the chorus on the stumblebum lament Small Time Big where he sings “Oh My Lord you made me your son, I got a god but you’re not the one. No, money is the one I want, ‘cos I ain’t got none, yet.” The aching ballad Someone Who Cares rivals Kris Kristofferson with its descriptions of a troubled man as Johnson sings, “And you can walk wide and slipslide but you still ain’t able to move. With the evil and deeds done to you, you got nothin to lose.” This version of Kristofferson of course would be overweight in a soiled gold lame suit searching for the searchlight in a seedy Vegas nightclub. Elsewhere Johnson’s dark humour is evident as on the title song’s tale of a cowboy’s love of his horse which may go beyond the platonic, at the very least he advises, “Don’t fuck with my baby, she’s fifteen hands.” The Morning After (The Night It All Came Down) is a homoerotic vision of comradeship in the face of adversity while Silver Suit complete with cheesy organ trimmings is an over the top obituary, Elvis in his cups, that celebrates a fallen idol whose showbiz career goes to pot when a man catches fire at the front of his house.
At his best Johnson reminds one of the garish karaoke weirdness of Dean Stockwell channelling Roy Orbison in Blue Velvet but we need to mention the most Scottish song contained here, the wonderful duet with Katie McArthur that is Dear Marvin. Here Johnson and McArthur inhabit George Jones and Tammy Wynette as played by Rab C Nesbitt and his wife Mary Doll, she singing “I’m gonna brain you Marvin” as she lists his defects, he, a Govan Zen master, accepting his fate.
A grand album then and if you’re quick off the mark you can catch Les Johnson tonight as he is appearing at Glasgow’s Broadcast, information here.
Blabber’n’Smoke noted The Hellfire Club’s single release of Sun In The Sky back here. Now the album it’s taken from, Songs For Fallen Stars is being launched this Saturday at Stereo, Glasgow. Produced by Johnnie Smillie the album is jangle packed classic Americana, think REM, The Long Ryders, Grant Lee Buffalo with some Waterboys and Neil Young thrown in for good measure and you’ll have an inkling of what’s contained herein.
The single opens the disc and pretty much sums up the album. Strong and propulsive songs, hooks a plenty with muscular guitar breaks while Nick Ronan’s fiddle work is a fiery Celtic addition to the American influences. All Because Of You has some abrasive mandolin adding a folky feel with the band almost going into jig time on the refrains with fiddle and guitars skirling like bagpipes. Cal dips its toes into Neil Young waters with a melody that recalls Powderfinger at times. It lurches along with a rough and ready feel, the guitars unfettered and snarling while the fiddle is a dervish in the background as Willie and Helen Brown duet, their sweetness contrasting with the din and clatter of the band. Overall the song comes across as a bruised and battered dose of reality without any studio sweetness added; it does recall Neil Young’s maverick attitude to country rock and one wonders if producer Smillie’s well known affinity for Shakey was to the fore here.
Private Campbell is gentler fare initially with its mandolin driven intro although it’s not long before some restrained fuzz guitar starts to breakthrough adding a grittier feel to this tale of a soldier’s grim doom. Again there’s a folky root to this song but the band abandon any folk pretensions for the portentous and eponymously titled The Hellfire Club. An attempt perhaps to create a band mythology it’s a bit of a mish mash of roaring guitars and East Of Eden fiddle driven prog rock but there’s no denying it’s stirring enough and tailor made for live performance especially the climatic ending. We’re on surer ground with the honky tonk country waltz of Absent Friends which boozily weaves its unsure path and the fast-paced romp of Dali’s Clock which repeats the assured country rock of the opening song with the rhythm section on top form. Montgomery maintains this form as the band go on an Odyssey through the old South with lashings of guitar sparking and feeding back over an inventive backdrop that evokes the hope and fears of the civil rights movement as it pitches from jangled melody to discordant chaos. Montgomery closes the album on a high note although it should be noted that there’s a following snippet of old timey fiddle that properly ends the playing, a trick used by the band throughout the album with four of the 13 tracks comprising these snippets.
Overall a strong showing from The Hellfire Club and definitely recommended for anyone interested in home grown Americana. The album launch is this Saturday, 14th March and if you attend you can buy the album for the once only reduced price of £5 and that’s a bargain these days. In addition you’ll see the band play the songs and sets from The Dirt and Les Johnson And Me. In addition you’d be supporting local music, ’nuff said.