The ACC. Beautiful, At Night

418460083406_500-1So, what happens when two of our favourite Italian Americana artists, Edward Abbiati and Stiv Cantarelli, find themselves at a bit of a loose end? Well, they form a band, The ACC (The Abbiati Cantarelli Conspiracy), get a tough rhythm section in and, bada bing!, record a magnificent set of scuzzy rock songs which owe as much to Husker Du, Gun Club and The Stooges as they do to Neil Young and Crazy Horse. They’re aided and abetted in this endeavour by ex Green On Red keyboard player, Chris Cacavas, and lap steel player Mike “Slo Mo” Brenner, familiar to many from his playing with Marah, and the result is a grand holy mess, a churning broth of snarling vocals, wicked slippery guitars and muddy rhythms. As they sing on I Want You To Like Me, “Turn the music up, I want to freeze my brain.”

It’s not an album for the faint hearted especially as it’s best appreciated cranked up to 11 on the stereo and even then there’s a sense of, “Jeez, what would this sound like live?” but it’s  not just noise as Abbiati and Cantarelli root the songs with  melodious undercurrents and memorable choruses even as the guitars churn and boil in their cauldron, creating a mix of blues, hard rock, alt country and post punk grungy squalls. The opening Dog Beat The Devil snarls with slide guitar as they run pell mell through the song before the sludge like intro to the title song looms into earshot. With ominous organ work from Cacavas it’s like Crazy Horse battling Green On Red with the end result a draw while Richard Hunter’s harmonica work here adds a fly blown texture to the song. There’s a whiff of that so called “desert rock” in the twangy guitar reveries of Never Gave Up which sounds as if it was born out of Giant Sand’s Valley Of Rain album while Saturday Night is like a rumble in a juke joint which has R L Burnside playing on the jukebox as the guitars here flash and twist like switchblades.

They rumble on with I Want You To Like Me an evil sounding Stones’ like kick in the head, Crab Tree alternating between Flamin’Groovies like slide guitar and stoned harmony choruses, and delve into a nightmare world of drunken mayhem on the woozy Life’s Calling. The ace in the deck however is the final song, Old Satan Revisited. Based on an unreleased Townes Van Zandt demo recording, the words certainly have the familiar Van Zandt themes but the band go at it like hounds from hell. Magnificent.

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Cheap Wine. Mary and The Fairy.

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Blabber’n’Smoke has occasionally ventured into the world of American influenced Italian rock music with bands like Sacri Cuori and Lowlands proving that there’s a genuine feel for the sound in the boot heeled peninsula. Some time ago we spoke to Edward Abbiatti of Lowlands about this and he recommended a band, Cheap Wine and weirdly enough the very same crew recently reached out and sent us a copy of their latest album. A live affair, recorded in Pesaro, Italy it portrays the five piece band as a very accomplished bunch of rockers who inhabit that world frequented by the likes of Tom Waits and Nick Cave although they don’t have the gruffness of the former nor the grimness of the latter. In addition the band (named after an old Green On Red Song) have a definite touch of Steve Wynn’s Dream syndicate about them (Mr. Wynn has enjoyed playing live with them in the past) and there is a hint of E Street balladry, Velvet Underground streetsmarts and Waterboys’ epic sweep on some of the songs while their European heritage flickers into life here and there, a cafe come cabaret loucheness stalking them.

Mary and The Fairy (the title derived from two of the songs on the disc) features eight songs from the band’s back catalogue that they thought deserved to be captured for posterity, songs that in concert stretch out beyond the studio versions allowing the instruments space to shine. It’s a great recording, the sound crisp with only occasional audience applause to remind one that this is live music. The majority of the songs sit astride piano driven melodies with Marco Diamantini’s vocals well to the fore, the lyrics all in English, his accent only just noticeable, his voice slightly wearied. As the band stretch out there’s acres of fluid and fierce guitar soloing that adds fire to the songs making for some invigorating listening.

Three of the songs exceed the ten minute mark, all mini epics. Behind The Bars is a showcase for the excellent piano skills of Alesso Raffaelli with the song opening like a Springsteen jailhouse opera. The guitars flail away but the piano solo midway through is mesmerising. Mary opens with Diamantini describing the titular “queen of drop out street” as if he were Kevin Ayers or Lou Reed as the band creep around him creating an atmospheric milieu until a guttural guitar solo weighs in seven minutes into the song shredding away until the end. The Fairy Has Your Wings (for Valeria)  is another seesaw of intimate lyrics and gentle instrumentation interspersed with thunderous bursts of guitar fury with some excellent calm in the centre of the storm in the shape of another fine piano solo from Raffaelli.

Away from the Sturm und Drang of these longer numbers the band offer the effortless stroll of Based On Lies, the autumnal ballad of Dried Leaves and the nocturnal delights of the noirish waltz that is La Buveuse. The oddly named I Like Your Smell (you need to listen to the lyrics here) is a minor masterpiece with the addition of an accordion allowing the band to sound like an Italian version of The Felice Brothers.

For a live album this is a mighty fine listen even for anyone who isn’t aware of the original versions and for this reviewer a sweet invitation to delve into the band’s back catalogue.

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Best of 2014

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There’s a lot or pros and cons when it comes to listing end of year best ofs or favourites. Two years ago Blabber’n’Smoke eventually plumbed for the pros outweighing the cons so this is the third time we’ve presented what, when it comes down to it, is an arbitrary choice of remembered listen. Albums that have stood the test of (a relatively short) time, the ones we’ve returned to or recommended to others in the pub. Above all it’s been fun to look back, read the reviews and see if they still stand. So with this in mind the following are the official Blabber’n’Smoke 2014 picks, in alphabetical order.

Blue Rose Code. Ballads Of Peckham Rye
Birds Of Chicago. Live From Space
Fire Mountain. All Dies Down
Bradford lee Folk and The Bluegrass Playboys. Somewhere Far Away
Cahalen Morrison & Eli West. I’ll Swing My Hammer With Both My Hands
Jim Keaveny. Out Of Time
Parker Millsap. Parker Millsap
Michael Rank & Stag. Deadstock
Sturgill Simpson. Metamodern Sounds In Country Music
John Southworth. Niagara

Random honourable mentions go to

Lucinda Williams Down Where the Spirit Meets The Bone,
The Johnny Cash Native American album reboot, Look Again To The Wind,
Danny and The Champions Of The World’s Live Champs!
Dan Michealson & The Coastguards Distance
Cale Tyson’s EP, High On Lonesome,
Luke Tuchsherer’s debut You Get So Alone at Times It makes Sense,
Petunia’s Inside Of You,
Ags Connolly How about Now,
Chris Cacavas & Edward Abbiati. Me And The Devil along with Abbiati’s band Lowlands who delivered the excellent Love Etc.,
Zoe Muth. World Of Strangers,
Hank Wangford & The Lost Cowboys. Save Me The Waltz .
Grant Peeples and the Peeples Rebublic. Punishing The Myth.
Simone Felice. Strangers.
Bronwynne Brent. Stardust.
Sylvie Simmons. Sylvie (allowing an honorary mention here for Howe Gelb who produced).
The War On Drugs. Lost In The Dream.
Lynne Hanson. River Of Sand.
Gal Holiday & The Honky Tonk Revue. Last To Leave.
And finally John Murry’s EP, Califorlonia which is brilliant and hopefully just an appetiser for his follow up to the majestic Graceless Age.

Digging through the archives it’s been noticeable that there’s been a fine contribution this year from Scottish acts who dip into or draw from an Americana well to a greater or lesser extent. While Blue Rose Code’s Ballads Of Peckam Rye features above the following are all stellar contributions to the local scene.

Dropkick. Homeward
Dumb Instrument. The Silent Beard (with the Scottish song of the year, Suffering from Scottishness).
John Hinshelwood. Lowering The Tone.
The David Latto Band. Here Today, Ghost Tomorrow EP
Norrie McCulloch. Old Lovers Junkyard
The New Madrids. Through the Heart of Town.
Red Pine Timber Company. Different Lonesome
The Rulers Of The Root. Porky Dreams
Ten Gallon Bratz. Tales From The Long Shadows

Although his album, Little Glass Box came out in 2012, Fraser Anderson is a major find of the year while another local lad, Daniel Meade unleashes his Nashville recorded Keep Right Away in January. Hopefully folk will have long enough memories to recall this when it comes to compiling the 2015 lists. In the meantime it can be first on the New Year shopping list.

Lowlands. Love ETC. Harbour Song Records

Over the past few years Blabber’n’Smoke has grown to expect great things from Lowlands. An Italian based band they’ve steadily built up a fine reputation with 2012’s Beyond an excellent Springsteen type album while main man Edward Abbiati delivered a tremendous collaboration with Chris Cacavas earlier this year on Me And The Devil. Love etc. finds Abbiati and the band in a more reflective mood as they ponder on those old perennials, love and loss, a mood influenced by Abbiati’s personal circumstances but, as has happened elsewhere, leading to a peak in the artistic process.

It seems that following on from some emotional knocks Abbiati wrote the title song, an attempt to dump the ballast and resurface and then built the album around this resurrecting songs he had written previously that fit into the theme of loss, bereavement and abandonment. Initially the album was acoustic but a live show with a horn section led to several of the songs being recorded in a single session with the band augmented by the horns. The end result is an album that recalls the loose limbed approach of The Basement Tapes as the band spin woozily throughout the songs with spiralling steel guitars, wheezy harmonica and parped trumpet and trombone fleshing out the sound. While some of the music portrays a sombre mood as on the cello clad You And I and the stripped down Can’t Face The Distance the majority of the album is like an exorcism of bad times as the songs sway and swing with abandonment and the horns are used to flesh out regret or joy.

The opening song, How Many, sets the scene perfectly as the band, curled lap steel and all are enveloped by the horn section who evoke an old fashioned and faded grandeur. This is intensified in the following title song as the horns sound like the Salvation Army and Abbiati swings like a New York troubadour in the seventies with wisps of Tom Waits and even Billy Joel sneaking in. I Wanna Be continues in this vein with Abbiati singing “I walk the streets at night/Try to find me a little light/I learn me a Dylan tune/Then I howl it to the moon.” As he sings this a clarinet homes in recalling Gershwin’s NY threnody creating a bit of a chill. You, Me, The Sky & The Sun uses the horns to create a devil may care attitude, a woozy stagger that is revisited on Happy Anniversary. The happy go lucky country jaunt of Wave Me Goodbye and the joyous trot that is My Baby lift the mood of the album suggesting that despite the clouds there’s some sunshine in Abbiati’s mind.

Overall Love etc. isn’t a gloomy album. There are moments that soar and tear at the emotions but at times there’s a tremendous ramshackle buoyancy about it, no more so than on the excellent Doing Time which sashays along with a winning swagger. There’s even a hint of the late sixties Dylan honey voice on Still I Wonder while the tender Goodbye, Goodnight , with only guitar, voice and accordion serves as an excellent sign off. Almost a lullaby in style it says goodbye to the past with some affection. Above all, it’s a warm, enveloping comfort blanket of an album, one to be savoured. And in case the above is somewhat long winded Chris Cacavas pretty much sums it up on Lowland’s website where he says “This album is fucking good. The best Lowlands yet?”

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Chris Cacavas & Edward Abbiati. Me And The Devil. Harboursong Records.

This album is somewhat of a summit meeting of two (plus two) of the most interesting characters in Americana music today. Chris Cacavas is of course the keyboard player for the troubled troupe that was Green On Red way back in the eighties before releasing a series of essential recordings with his band Junkyard Love. Edward Abbiati is the UK born leader of Italian Americana band Lowlands who have intrigued since their first release, The Last Call, in 2008 with the essence of Bruce Springsteen, Woody Guthrie and Richmond Fontaine in their DNA. Cacavas guested on Lowlands’ debut album and last year he travelled from his current domicile in Germany to North Italy to record Me And The Devil with Abiatti picking up a crack rhythm section along the way, Winston Watson on drums, one of Dylan’s Never Ending Tour stalwarts (as well as past duties with Giant Sand and Warren Zevon) along with Mike “Slo Mo” Brenner, a multi instrumentalist who has played with Marah and Jason Molina who carries out bass and lap steel duties here. Cacavas and Abbiati huddled together and wrote the songs which the band then recorded in a two day burst in a barn close to Abiatti’s hometown of Pavia.

The end result of this “barnstorming” stream of consciousness approach to the record is surprisingly good given that it had all the elements present that could have resulted in an aural equivalent of an essay on “what we did on our holidays.” Instead the ten songs here are all robust with the band firing on all cylinders (with additional input on tenor Sax, cello and harmonica on some cuts) with at least one of the numbers achieving epic status. They open with the rumbling blues of Against The Wall, bass thumping and organ and harp (Richard Hunter) wailing while tenor Sax (Andres Villan) parps away. Like a Native American war dance sung by Morphine this is best experienced cranked up to full volume as the slab of sound hits in the chest and heart. A terrific opener. A chunky guitar rips into the introduction of the title song, a classic heat blasted slice of American music with a sludge like bottom topped by harmonica acrobatics from Hunter and a fierce guitar solo from another guest musician, Stefan Roller. Oh Baby, Please has Cacavas let loose on the organ while the sax drives a sixties garage punk riff that snarls with a pout not heard or seen since The Fleshtones, a song waiting to be discovered by hipsters on dance floors all over Tarantino land, again, play loud and just surrender to the dumb beat.
The Week Song is unfortunately titled as it palls in comparison to its predecessors but the opening chords of Hay Into Gold with a cello abetting the powerful bass and drum highway drive take us back into a dark Americana underbelly, lanced by shards of lap steel as the song creeps along in a disturbing stalking fashion. Long Dark Sky maintains this haunting, even threatening menace. Although it opens with a mighty mid sixties Who like thrash it soon unravels into a neon lit David Lynch nightmare lyrically while at the end the band bring it back to The Who with a mischievous morse code guitar stutter and thrashing Moon like drums. Can’t Wake Up is another dark tale with an acoustic slide driven push but The Other Side then sails into sight, towering above its compadres. Harking back to Cacavas’ early albums it employs a Neil Young slow burn as the guitars roil and boil churning up a menacing stew with Watson’s cymbals crashing away while the song ebbs and flows in magnificent fashion. The only complaint here is that it ends far too soon. I’ll See Ya in comparison is understated. Acoustic and tender it affords a ray of light in comparison to the devilish mayhem that precedes it while the closing song, Rest Of My Life, is another plea, plaintive this time, to be released from the shackles of the heart and given an uplifting feel with some winsome lap steel.

Overall Me And The Devil is a cracking album while the excellent cover art by Deborah Maggioncalda adds to the attraction. Very highly recommended.

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