Carson McHone. Carousel. Loose Music

ff4eb003e6e51612017eae7935b95a41First up, here’s another album added to the list of contenders for best of the year when we start to tally up soon. In addition, we have to add Carson McHone, from Austin, Texas, to the list of female artists who have really injected some fire into the Americana scene of late. McHone, who was playing in Austin bars at the age of 16 has had two previous releases (an EP and an album) but Carousel is her first fully fledged outing which captures in several of the songs an Austin honky tonk sound but in others shows that she is straining at the leash to catapult herself into the top echelons of singer/songwriters working in a country vein.

With producer Mike McCarthy (Spoon, Patty Griffin) at the helm and with a great squirreling country band behind her, McHone delivers her more traditional numbers with style and plenty of energy although she doesn’t follow the rulebook. The opening Sad is rife with pedal steel, twang guitar and fiddle as McHone dips and dives throughout the song which switches tempo from plaintive country waltz to bar room grittiness. Lucky, a grand song about a philanderer is even more pronounced in its division between McHone’s tear-filled laments in the verses and her sardonic and jaunty chorus. There is a fully fledged dive into gutsy country rock on Good Time Daddy Blues with the band barrelling along in best trucker fashion and on Maybe They’re Really Just Good Friends McHone dips into western swing in an excellent fashion.

In the grand tradition McHone sings mainly of women in trouble with the main problem being their men folk but she offers her version of living a life in bars on the spindly Dram Shop Girl which with its rattling percussion, mournful fiddle and woozy guitar solo captures splendidly the sense of seeing life through a glass. Drugs is more direct in its depiction of addiction with the band approximating at times Lou Reed’s VU songs with the pedal steel conjuring up a sense of narcotic euphoria as McHone repeats a mantra singing over and over the line, “I need drugs.” Moving even further from the mainstream the introduction to Gentle sounds almost like The Grateful Dead warming up for a jam with Phil Lesh like bass lines although when the song itself weighs in it is more of a fiddle sawed country lament with some cosmic pedal steel licks adding to its lustre.

McHone closes the album with three songs which really see her moving away from the honky tonks. How ‘Bout It is a spare piano ballad, almost a torch song, where she waxes poetic in a love reverie while Goodluck Man has her voice up close with evocative guitar murmurings, the song approaching the ambient style of Emmylou Harris on Wrecking Ball. Finally, there’s Spider Song which has a creaking harmonium adding a fine patina to a song which sounds as if it’s been dredged from an antebellum age while the lyrics could have come from a Child ballad with their chilling imagery.

While the cohabiting of the more traditional country fare and the latter folkier numbers might have made for an odd combination the album works well as one listens to it. There’s a sense that McHone is set to move on and that this is a transitional album. She says of country music that, “I want to do more with the form, push myself past where I understand it to be.” She’s certainly made a grand start here.

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Courtney Marie Andrews. May Your Kindness Remain. Loose Music

a4286792715_16If many listeners felt that the spirit of Joni Mitchell hovered around Courtney Marie Andrews‘ hit album of last year, Honest Life, the broader palette of this follow-up should be food for thought. True, Andrews can still evoke Joni’s austere tundra ballads but May Your Kindness Remain is of a richer texture than its predecessor, less inclined to wander a folksy trail, preferring instead to delve into Gospel, soul and country rock. Produced by Andrews and Mark Howard and recorded mostly live in a house in LA the organ work and sinewy guitar recalls The Band at times while Lowell George’s Little Feat surely inform at least one song here. As for muses, this reviewer indeed muses that Aretha Franklin and Laura Nyro may have been on Andrews’ mind when she recorded these songs.

If Honest Life was a set of personal observations  then May Your Kindness Remain casts its net somewhat wider as Andrews delves into what she sees as a nationwide malaise with  relentless redevelopment, anti immigration forces, opioid dependency causing untold grief while she also inhabits the personal political with some atypical love songs. Above all she continues to sing in a glorious manner while her songs remain elegantly crafted, each one here pitched to perfection with memorable hooks and intriguing melodies and all wrapped up in a warm production somewhat akin to Daniel Lanois’ infamous ambient feel as on Dylan’s Time Out Of Mind.

The album opens with the elemental surge of the title song couched in Gospel tones as it builds in intensity from its reverential opening into a glowering guitar solo and then soaring to the heavens with CC White’s gospel voice adding some heft to Andrews’ voice. Next up is a song which could easily sit within Honest Life, Lift The Lonely Heart, while at the same time it could as easily have featured on Emmylou Harris’ Wrecking Ball.  Andrews does recall Emmylou here in her singing while the reverbed guitar and swooning organ are evocative of that album. Lyrically Andrews revisits her lonesome travails of the previous album and altogether the song puts paid to any notions that May Your Kindness Remain is a Judas moment for those who wanted a remake of honest Life. In a similar vein Took You Up is a travelogue come love song, a long distance romance with some glorious guitar work from Andrews while Rough Around The Edges is a stark American version of a kitchen sink drama with a saloon bar like piano adding to the desolation.

There’s so much to savour here as Andrews gets into a chunky country rock vibe on the vividly painted death of the American dream that is Two Cold Nights In Buffalo and then slips into Little Feat territory with her tale of a racist sheriff on Border while This House is a homily to the idea of home redolent of sweet memories with a whiff of both Little House On The Prairie and the white picket fences in David Lynch’s blue Velvet. There’s more country soul on the powerful Kindness Of Strangers, a song written after a musician friend died from an overdose, a song of hope despite despair and then there’s the initially upbeat I’ve Hurt Worse with Andrews listing the reasons she likes her honey which soon dissects the relationship portraying it as bereft of mutual respect leaving her stoically enduring his selfishness.

The album closes on a high note with Long Road Back To You which is stuffed full of American yearnings; a road song, a love song, the romance of Kerouac and all who ride the roads waiting for money wired at gas stations and cheap motels. The song glides along with a soulful feel with CC White again on backing vocals and one imagines that it’s a song which could enter the canon as it sums up a scenario as succinctly as the likes of The Last Picture Show did in film. It’s simply superb and a perfect closer to a sublime album which cements Andrews’ status as a major artist.

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Ian Felice. In The Kingdom Of Dreams. Loose Music

sl-117323The Felice Brothers are renowned for their ramshackle update on the kind of sounds The Band were making in the early seventies, recording in chicken coops and barns, a rough and ready bunch indeed. This reputation however has at times obscured how good a band they are and in particular, what a great writer Ian Felice is. Now he’s taken a leaf from his brother, Simone’s, book and delivered a solo album. Unlike Simone who left the band to forge a solo career, In The Kingdom Of Dreams appears to be a side project for Ian; he has the band play on the album and brother Simone returns on production duties. In comparison to The Felice Brothers the album is sparse and reflective, Ian’s voice tethering it to the Felice’s but it’s ultimately a more personal project, a result, says Felice, of basing the songs on, “Memories of my past…the pull between reality and unreality and also how time affects memory.” And while some of the songs are pulled from memories of growing up (In Memoriam recalls the death of his stepfather) others reflect his anxieties on becoming a father while there are some observations on the current state of America.

Aside from a brief convulsion on Road To America with its percussive drive, the album is a spare affair, Felice’s acoustic guitar and keyboards the main instruments. The opening title song sets the scene with a bizarre assemblage of arresting images (At the moonscape hotel the walls feel like hell and I don’t feel well/ I don’t like the moon when it’s a blood red balloon/ in this kingdom of dreams) which have an almost nightmarish quality about them. Like Eef Barzaly, Felice conjures up a surrealist dreamscape, a labyrinth that leads to one’s deepest fears. Will I Ever Reach Laredo is, on the face of it, more straightforward. A traveller, again under a “strangely tinted moon” yearns to get to his destination but is seemingly unable to move on; instead he ponders the possible hues of the moon while glimpsing the glimmering light of a distant city he has to pass by.  This stasis is again a dreamlike evocation, a Borgesian fable with no end in sight and the subtle throbbing guitar motif reinforces this sense of an endless cycle, an oroburus. 21st Century is an absurdist take on the current state of the nation in the States with Felice imagining an alien invasion while playing banjo as if he were on a 19th Century plantation as something like a Theremin hovers ominously. He returns to this topic on the animated Road To America which is stuffed full of plastic American icons such as Disney’s cartoon characters and, “politicians and businessmen placing bids/high as the pyramids,” a Dylan like word poem which contrasts the plastic dream with the realities of the Okies featured in The Grapes Of Wrath.

Amidst this fractured viewpoint Felice hones in on reality with Water Street almost like a diary entry as he sings of his wife and child and his daily chores while In Memoriam conjures up an idyllic past peppered with old ideals (I was walking down the tracks where the communist bees relax …). This mundane reality, his mother watching daytime TV as his step dad collapses and dies is given a delicious gossamer thin fragility in the playing as Felice invokes feelings of loss, personal and universal. Elsewhere, Felice delivers a brace of songs that are bittersweet indeed, fragile ballads that totter on the edge but always pull through. Signs Of Spring is an achingly beautiful love ballad while Mt. Despair is a beguiling threnody that recalls both the work of Tom Rapp from Pearls Before Swine and the stark narratives of Willie Vlautin. Ten To One again recalls the oddness and alt folk leanings of Pearls Before Swine; a mutant folk song of sorts. The closing song, In The Final Reckoning, has a Leonard Cohen  like combination of biblical imagery and bloody knives with Felice in full command of his narrative.

In The Kingdom Of Dreams is one of those records which are idiosyncratic and beguiling. A cult album in the making perhaps but you can get ahead of the future queue by getting it now.

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William The Conqueror. Proud Disturber Of The Peace. Loose Music

william_the_conqueror_-_proud_disturber_of_the_peace_-_vjlp232There’s been a bit of a buzz in the blogosphere regarding this debut from Cornish band William The Conqueror, partly due to an impressive appearance at last year’s Americana Fest in Nashville and a nomination for best song at this year’s UK Americana awards. A listen to the album however begs that age-old question, what is Americana? (Answers on a postcard please) as it draws from and reflects so many other genres. Appearing on Loose Music helps as they are rightly considered purveyors of quality “Americana” music but Proud Disturber Of The Peace is quite idiosyncratic, grungy, folky, lo-fi and even soulful at times, it’s really a trip into a singular vision. The closest equivalent I can think of is the music that emanated from the early days of The Fence Collective, a bunch of folk who tore up the rule book back at the tail end of the nineties.

The trio (Ruarri Joseph, Harry Harding and Naomi Holmes) recorded the album live with few overdubs or post production resulting in an up close band sound, the instruments piling on top of each other. The opening song In My Dreams hurtles in resembling the jangled frenzy of The Velvet Underground and the street busking bustle of The Violent Femmes while the following Tend To the Thorns is a trip into the epic “big music” sound of The Waterboys with some Echo And The Bunnymen thrown into the mix. Third song, Did You Wrong,  is another thrash in the instrumental department although here Joseph adopts a laconic and cool vocal delivery. Thereafter however they settle down somewhat with the remainder of the songs less frenetic.

Pedestals builds on Joseph’s talkin’ blues style (which again is rather laid back although impassioned) as the band vamp along with some horns adding atmosphere. Keeping the horns they plunge headlong into street r’n’b territory on the slippery rhythms of The Many Faces Of A Good Truth which recalls Gill Scott Heron while Cold Ontario continues in a similar vein. Mindful of Joseph’s previous stint as a folk singer Mind Keeps Changing recalls early folk rock a la Greenwich Village with echoes of Tim Hardin although it builds into a muscular keyboard driven rock song by the end while Manawatu, which closes the album, has classic folk harmonica amidst its thrusting instrumental climb to a rousing climax. Best of all perhaps is the title song which gathers much of what surrounds it on the album as the band ride tempo changes, guitars burst into bloom and the rhythm section busks away with some fervour. Over this Joseph almost croons with a cool authority which reminds one of Morphine’s Mark Sandman’s beat vocals.

I guess that looking back on the litany of comparisons up above then William The Conqueror are certainly to be considered in the world of alt whatever. What matters is that the album is a great listen that pushes the envelope somewhat. Give it a shot.

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Rising star Courtney Marie Andrews Discusses Melancholia and “The Crying Machine”

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When Blabber’n’Smoke spoke to Courtney Marie Andrews at the tail end of last year we were awaiting the release of her album Honest Life with the promise of a tour to follow. Four months later and Ms. Andrews is the talk of the town. The album’s been a great success, reaching the number one slot in the Official Americana charts and her performances on her tour with The Handsome Family received critical acclaim. A measure of her success is that she was back in London for a two day stop last week to perform on the BBC’s Later…with Jools Holland, quite a coup for an artist on an independent label given that this show is just about the only televised music show on the Beeb these days.

The day after she recorded her appearance Courtney was gracious enough to talk to Blabber’n’Smoke during a brief coffee break before she set out to perform a short set at Rough Trade West later that afternoon.

 

First off, we should say congratulations to you. The album’s taken off, the tour was a success and finally you get to appear on prime time TV.

Thanks. It’s just been great. I really enjoyed touring with The Handsome Family and loved meeting so many people and then getting on to the show last night was brilliant. They only showed one song last night but we recorded two with Jools playing piano on the second one.

And you were accompanied by BJ Cole on pedal steel, a man who many folk would call a legend.

Yes, he was tremendous. Did you know that he played on Tiny Dancer?

He’s been on so many great records but that’s a great one. I love that scene in Almost Famous when they sing along to it on their tour bus.

Yeah, that’s a classic film.

It’s funny that you mention Tiny Dancer because Bernie Taupin apparently wrote that about his and Elton John’s experiences in California in 1971 and many folk have mentioned how your music reminds them of that time. Just yesterday I saw that you were asked by Albumism to pick a favourite album and you chose The Band’s The Last Waltz. You explain your choice there but I was going to ask you why this period of music talks to you.

Well, although I love classic country songs and singers my influences are mainly in that early seventies sound. The Band took stuff like the blues and old time music and Levon Helm influenced the other guys to write those country type songs. I really think that they were the first “alt country” or Americana band as they were doing this even before Gram Parsons when they sat down and did The Basement Tapes.  And the guys I play with in the band, we all kind of come from that rootsy background that comes across on their records so The Band resonate with me a lot.

Looking back over the past three months it seems you’ve been incredibly busy but you had the time to record a song with Will Oldham, a cover of Nina Simone’s I Wish I Knew How it Is To Be Free.

There’s a project called Our First 100 Days and I wanted to do something with them. I’ve always loved that song and I wanted to do it as a duet and I really like Will Oldham so we called him and he agreed to do it! So the band and I recorded the song and then sent it over to Will and he did his vocals.

So you weren’t together in the studio? I thought that maybe you would have jumped into your old tour bus and searched him out.

That would have been great but we’re too far away from each other for that.

I’m only kidding. I saw the van in the video for Put The Fire Out and it looks really funky but not altogether roadworthy.   Do you really go on the road in that?

Yes, sometimes we do.

Well you need to fix the license plate at the front, it’s falling off

I know, it’s still like that.

In that song, Put The Fire Out you sing that it’s time to let down your hair and have a good time so has this year been fun?

Yes, I’ve been having a lot of fun. It’s been hard work but I’ve been feeling good about it. I’ve been so busy since the beginning of January but when I fly home I have two weeks off.

Some of Honest Life was written in the aftermath of a break up and the album has a somewhat melancholic air about it. In the wake of what’s happened since can we expect the next record to be a happier affair?

I think people will be surprised when the next album comes out, I’ve been writing for it a lot.  I think that I inherently have that melancholia in me regardless but I’m not afraid to explore other emotions. I think it’s important as a songwriter to really go with your feelings and not to stick with just one hyper sad song. Bob Dylan’s written about a wealth of emotions and I really respect it when people can do that so I never put that type of barrier on myself. I hope I can write songs that are not so melancholic but which are still great. I think that if I were to write Honest Life over and over again people would get quite tired of that so it’s important to kind of push yourself.

I was looking at your tour schedule and it looks pretty daunting. Tours of Canada, Australia and New Zealand before you come back to the UK in August and then zoom around Europe.

Well I’ve got a bit of time before I head out again and that will be time to write for the next album but after that I’ll be on tour until the end of the year. I’m really excited to get back to the UK and let folk hear the full band sound and we’re playing again in Glasgow at a place called The Hug & Pint.

Well everyone I know who saw you earlier this year is going to that although it’s such a small venue that once you and the band are on stage there might not be room for the audience. We’re looking forward to the full band experience although your show with Bryan Daste on pedal steel was wonderful. A  Blabber’n’Smoke acquaintance who also plays pedal steel was quite impressed with him and they’re now Facebook buddies.

Yeah, everybody loves the pedal steel and that’s kind of how the pedal steel world works. They have their own little forum where they talk to each other.

One of your label mates on Loose Music, Danny Champ, calls the pedal steel the ironing board of love.

That’s great. I’ve heard so many great terms for it but I call it the crying machine.

And with that we left Courtney to enjoy her coffee before heading off to do her instore show at Rough Trade. You can read a short review of her performance over at Americana UK. In the meantime I’d recommend that if you want to see her later this year to grab your tickets now as it’s unlikely she’ll be performing in such intimate venues again.

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Tour dates

Update: 24/4/17. Due to a huge demand Courtney’s Glasgow show has been moved to a larger venue and she is now appearing at st. Lukes.

 

 

 

 

 

Andrew Combs. Canyons Of My Mind. Loose Music

a0602568844_10Andrew Combs‘ 2015 album, All these Dreams, catapulted him to the forefront of modern Nashville pop music. Away from the turgid embrace of the country bro’s he was mining a rich seam of sixties melodicism inspired by the likes of Roy Orbison and Jimmy Webb. His follow up, Canyons Of My Mind (a nod perhaps to Bob Lind’s mid sixties hit, Elusive Butterfly), is a more complicated affair, a heady mix of his tried and tested melodies with strings along with a tougher, punchier approach. This is evident from the beginning as Heart Of Wonder opens the album in dramatic fashion as his wavering voice proclaims, “I have run through the valley, I have stormed the shore” over a portentous beat. Like a storm cloud the song darkens, Combs glowers like an old testament prophet as a gnarly electric guitar starts to crackle before bursting into an angry solo over a insistent jangled piano. Riding the waves the song dips and rises before bowing out with a fierce sax solo leaving the listener somewhat exhausted.

It’s a bold start, an indication that Combs has something on his mind and it turns out that much of the album is inspired by his readings of the likes of Charles Wright and Jim Harrison, poets who have hymned the American wilderness. So while there are moments of countrypolitan bliss as on the free flowing Rose Coloured Blues (which recalls Glen Campbell) much of the album is darker, informed by ecological concerns and the current state of his nation. The lead single from the album, Dirty Rain exemplifies this as Combs sings of, “Poison River, muddy water…plastic people stacked in towers with nowhere to go.” That he sings the song in a plaintive voice over a building sweep of strings is dramatic, the end result like Roy Orbison singing a lyric by JG Ballard. Blood Hunters is a cold glimpse into a feral dystopia, the song fuelled by jagged shards of guitar while Bourgeois King is a parable which rails against the bourgeois king who wants to build a wall to keep us safe and promises to make the country great again. No prizes for guessing who this is about but Combs delivers it with a huge sonic palette starting the song out as a jagged bluesy wail before it descends into a smorgasbord of unleashed strings and flute recalling the free jazz of the sixties.

These diatribes sit within a brace of songs that continue in the vein of the previous album. Aside from the aforementioned Rose Coloured Blues there’s the Sixties gaslight romance of Hazel, part Greenwich Village, part Parisian chanson. Lauralee is unabashedly romantic recalling the sound of David Gates’ Bread while What It Means To You is a good old-fashioned country styled waltz. There’s a further twist as Combs slips in two songs, Sleepwalker and Better Way, which have a fine full bellied band sound with a prominent bass sound, the latter in particular indebted to the sound of Joni Mitchell circa Hejira. All together they add to the variety on offer but Better Way especially might nod to another direction this eclectic artist might follow.

Canyons Of My Mind is unquestionably a move on from its predecessor, a songwriter flexing his muscles and casting his eye around. Given the results Mr. Comb is shaping up to be considered in the same breath as the likes of Jackson Browne if he continues to forge ahead.

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The Handsome Family and Courtney Marie Andrews @The Fallen Angels Club. St. Lukes, Glasgow. 23rd February 2017

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It was a welcome return to Glasgow for The Handsome Family and a solo debut performance tonight from fellow Loose Records artist Courtney Marie Andrews, the sold out show proof that even on a storm-ridden weekday there’s an audience for quality music in Glasgow.

Not her first time in Glasgow (she previously was here as a backing singer for Jimmy Eat World which she remembers primarily due to a beer swilling “taps aff” fan) Ms. Andrews’ appearance was keenly anticipated, many of the crowd seeming to be familiar with her latest release, Honest Life. Her set was short but compelling, her voice crystal clear, the songs lonesome reflections on life delivered perfectly. There was some tasty pedal steel accompaniment from Bryan Daste on several of the songs with Andrews’ guitar picking confident as displayed on the sublime delivery of Woman Of Many Colors (from her 2013 album On My Page). Rookie Dreaming and Table For One were somewhat sublime, the latter suffused with the loneliness of the long distance traveller and the song tonight that did recall the tundra like epistles of Joni Mitchell with whom Andrews has been often compared to. And while Andrews does court comparison with some sixties and seventies icons (I heard someone even say that in appearance tonight she looked a bit like Melanie) she has surely proved with Honest Life that she has moved on from such forebears,  the emotional heft of Not the End which tonight sliced through the venue proof indeed. There were similarly powerful performances as she sang Honest Life and Put The Fire Out, the audience in her hand and it was a pity that we were allotted such a short time in her company. Whispers are that Ms. Andrews will be returning in the not too distant future, if so be sure to catch her, she is a gem.

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Ah, The Handsome Family, the Morticia and Gomez Addams of Americana, a deliciously dark and twisted invite to visit an America peopled by freaks, mutant animals and fast food addicts getting their fix in lurid plastic palaces; they really have no equal. On record they continue to hone their audio alternative to David Lynch but live they open up with the songs punctuated by the superb (and achingly funny) repartee between Rennie and Brett, almost as if they were in a reality TV show featuring the battling Sparks family. Tonight, in-laws, depressing vacations and Brett’s mixture of lager and Lemsip (or Lemsick as Rennie renamed it) were running throughout the show, the pair bickering wonderfully. It was all hugely entertaining, at times rib tickling, but ultimately the repartee led into the songs which did not disappoint with a fine overview of their many albums including several from last year’s Unseen. They opened with the Gonzo reportage of Gold, a surreal tale of a robbery at their local Stop’n’Go (now closed) and the old favourite (and Christmas themed) Too Much Wine and then headed into the addled The Loneliness Of Magnets with Brett singing like Mel Torme on psilocybin, the song dedicated to an audience member’s birthday.

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The favourites came and went. Back In My Day, Weightless Again, Bottomless Hole, Tiny Tina, all delivered brilliantly, Brett’s deadpan baritone backed by the very fine band setting. Rennie on ukulele bass or autoharp, percussionist Jason Toth and a new family member, Alex McMahon on guitar, pedal steel and plastic organ along with Brett’s dynamic guitar delivered dark Gothic spells and toytown magic equally well. And of course they visited that nugget which allowed them their moment in the sun (surely anathema for such a crepuscular couple) with a fine delivery of Far From Any Road, chosen as the theme song for True Detectives some years back. As Brett said tonight he watched the TV and saw into the future, more people coming to their gigs. Fortunately they  have spurned the silver dollar and continue to purvey such eccentric songs as Octopus and Frogs, both delivered tonight and much more fun than listening to David Attenborough. The Handsome Family remain a singular delight and long may they do so.