Matthews Southern Comfort. Like A Radio.

matthewssoutherncomfort_likearadio_300px72dpiThe name certainly transports us back to 1970 when Matthews Southern Comfort hit the number one spot in the charts with their cover of Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock, perhaps the first record featuring pedal steel that Blabber’n’Smoke bought. A rare moment in the spotlight for singer/songwriter Iain Matthews, Woodstock is merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to his illustrious career. A founder member of Fairport Convention, he released three albums under the Southern Comfort band name before going solo and releasing a magnificent series of solo albums commencing with If You Saw Thro’ My Eyes including a collaboration with Mike Nesmith on Valley Hi. Alongside this he was a member of Plainsong who released one of the best “forgotten” albums of the seventies, In Search Of Amelia Earhart, (do search it out) but as time progressed changing fashions and record label shenanigans led to him take more of a back seat in the industry. Moving to The Netherlands in the early noughties Matthews has been involved in various reincarnations of his past bands over the past decade and this album finds him working with guitar wizard B.J. Baartmans along with Bart de Win on keyboards and guitarist Eric Devries.

It’s a mellow affair, the band affecting a late night vibe for the most part aside from the clumsy opener, The Thought Police, a diatribe against the sort of Big Brother situation we are in these days but lyrically kind of stuck in an early seventies agit rock rant, Edgar Broughton could probably punk it up well but here it kind of sticks out. The title song follows and it’s more successful although it still cleaves to an earlier age, its jazz cool and slight LA funk reminding one of Ben Sidran while de Win’s piano playing adds a touch of class. While there are some asides to folk and jangled pop scattered throughout the disc Like A Radio sets the template for much of the album. It’s well played and thoughtful music with Matthews in fine voice but several of the songs fail to quicken the pulse.

There’s some fine stuff here mind you. Bits & Pieces is an excellent band performance,  Been Down So Long (a nod to Richard Farina) tackles oppression from a historical viewpoint and manages to raise some sparks while Phoenix Rising benefits from Baartman’s sinewy guitar lines while Matthews’ vocals recapture some of his seventies recordings. He actually revisits the original Matthews Southern Comfort albums with a new version of Darcy Farrow (recorded on Second Spring) which is delivered with a sparse arrangement allowing his voice to shine while Carole King’s To Love is given a sparkling new arrangement with Baartman throwing out some slinky guitar solos. Our review copy has three bonus songs with James Taylor’s Something In The Way She Moves (again recorded on Second Spring) just sublime, Matthews’ voice as clear and unsullied as all those years ago while the band play it beautifully.

It’s nice to hear Mr. Matthews again and while the album doesn’t break new ground it’s a grand late night listen and a fine opportunity for folk to catch up with him.

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Andrew Combs. All These Dreams. Loose Music

First thing to say about this album, the second from Nashville artist Andrew Combs, is that we were expecting some kind of Roy Orbison doppelganger to come soaring from the speakers. Seems that comparisons to Orbison have been bandied about all over when folk write about the album but the similarities (if they are there) largely passed us by. Instead we were reminded of the lush arrangements of songs such as Gentle On My Mind and Everybody’s Talking as rippling guitars and sweet strings swept over the two opening songs, Rainy Day Song and Nothing To Lose. Throughout the album there’s a sense of late sixties popular country pop with Strange Bird recalling Mike Nesmith’s latter efforts with The Monkees before flying solo, poppy with hooks galore but with a sly intelligence in the lyrics (and some inspired whistling). On the title track Combs continues to deliver a radio friendly sound on another song that flows effortlessly with strings and a slightly twangy guitar in the middle eight while his slightly weathered voice, attractive throughout, has a passing comparison to Ryan Adams. We have to admit here that the song All These Dreams shares with Orbison’s latter efforts a sense of drama, however it’s the Orbison who was the senior figure in The Travelling Wilburys and of Mystery Girl who’s recalled here and much of that sound was down to Jeff Lynne. Whatever, the worst that can be said here is that Combs has the ability to write hooks as catchy as Lynne and that can’t be all bad.

The latter half of the album steps out from under the Nashville pop umbrella and is all the better for that. The ballad, In The name Of You stands tall next to similar efforts from John Fullbright while Slow Road To Jesus opens like a dusty Kristofferson song before heading into a mock baroque gospel tinged lament. Here Combs’ voice is hesitant and searching while the arrangement is wonderful, the guitars, keening pedal steel and spare percussion perfectly balanced with the swooping strings and brass that adorn the bridge. This is Jimmy Webb or Harry Nilsson territory and it’s executed brilliantly. Month Of Bad Habits has a slight bossa nova feel allied to a deep south sultriness and again it flows sweetly with a hint of menace in its undertones albeit sweetened again by the string arrangements. When the guitar and pedal steel cut loose halfway through the song toughens up and the extended outro is not a million miles away from some of Calexico’s work. Combs closes the album with another understated ballad, Suwannee County that is swathed in warm pedal steel work (from Steelism’s Spencer Cullum Jnr.) and demonstrates that while he’s a dab hand at channelling 1960’s Countrypolitan Nashville pop his stronger hand lies in darker territory.

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Norrie McCulloch & Iain Sloan with Howie Reeve and Michael Anguish. Seven Song Club. Tron Theatre Glasgow. Friday 13th February

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Norrie McCulloch’s Old Lovers Junkyard was one of Blabber’n’Smoke’s favourite home grown albums of 2014. Its honeyed country stylings coupled with McCulloch’s warm rasp of a voice and his fine song writing all added up to a winner, an album that’s been receiving ongoing radio plays and gathering new followers; certainly anyone we’ve recommended it too has been quite effusive in their praise. Friday was our first opportunity to see McCulloch in action as part of a trio of acts appearing at the Seven Song Club in one of Glasgow’s hidden treasures, The Victorian Bar at The Tron Theatre. All warm and woody it was a perfect setting for his heartfelt songs. An added attraction was that McCulloch was appearing accompanied by Iain Sloan of The Wynntown Marshals playing pedal steel guitar, an instrument he uses not only for the Marshalls’ jangled rock but also as the current dreamweaver for progressive rock band Abel Ganz. An intriguing set up we thought. Old Lovers Junkyard wallows at times in the pedal steel yearnings of Dave McGowan but a two man show, acoustic and pedal steel only remains a rare beast. Willie Vlautin and Richard Buckner have appeared thus in live situations but on record we can only recall the magisterial And The Hits Keep On Coming, Michael Nesmith’s 1972 album recorded with just him and Red Rhodes on board. While there’s a recording of Nesmith and Rhodes playing live live on The Amazing Zigzag Concert box set this set up is not one that you would generally come across. It intrigues in two ways; pedal steel is apparently difficult to master and naked might miss a tight rhythm section to bolster it. However, with its ability to change pitch and harmonics it’s almost unique in its ability to accompany human voice, to echo, support and cosset the singer.

Anyhow, waffle aside, McCulloch and Sloan fitted together like bread and butter. Seven songs, as advertised, wafted around the room, McCulloch assured, warm throated and ebullient, Sloan caressing the songs, creating wafts of billowing buttered sounds and occasionally soloing with a deftness and warmth that demonstrated the emotional capabilities of the instrument that Danny Wilson (of Danny & The champions Of The World) describes as the ironing board of love. Indeed as McCulloch sang Sloan appeared to be almost caressing his instrument, coaxing it into life, a winning combination indeed. As for the songs there was a fine mix of old and new, four from Old Lovers Junkyard and three from McCulloch’s current recording sessions. Old Lovers Junkyard itself was given a desolate and yearning feel with Sloan’s pedal steel weeping along to the forlorn lyrics while Too far Gone had some heart breaking pedal steel glissandos on this bitter sweet tale. Call Me Home was a lesson in frailty, the pedal steel keening away, McCulloch’s voice halting, reminiscent of seventies singer songwriter neurosis, questioning and wondering and adorned with an excellent steel led outro. Still Looking For You , the closing song on Old Lovers Junkyard and the closing song tonight had a warm, laid back country feel to it. Of the new songs New Joke was a hard luck tale written while travelling home from Bridge Of Allan had a harsher edge to the vocals with the pedal steel adding some bite. McCulloch was inspired to write These Mountain Blues on a road trip to see Townes van Zandt’s grave in Texas and the song does indeed inhabit TVZ territory as he sang about an oak tree next to the grave, achingly evocative it offered an opportunity for Iain Sloan to deliver his finest solo playing of the night. The other new song of the night bridged whatever gap there is between Ayrshire and Texas as McCulloch went solo and off mic to sing a song inspired by his grandfather’s toils in the mines, Black Dust. A powerful piece, this was the folkiest moment of the night as he sang, “he didn’t know he was digging his own grave” with guitar and harmonica and gusty vocals in the working class folk tradition.

A short set perhaps but throughout the show the audience appeared mesmerised, the combination of the songs and performance transfixing, McCulloch affable and commanding on stage in between songs. The queue for his album afterwards testament to the quality on show.

A mea culpa here regarding the other acts, both new to Blabber’n’Smoke but Howie Reeve was very impressive as he delivered a set of fairly challenging aural assaults, played on an acoustic bass which he banged, clattered, tweeked and plucked at times with some ferocity, at others a surprising tenderness. With lyrics that recalled the absurdities of Ivor Cutler or the surrealism of Robert Wyatt he was incredibly engaging, a cross between R M Hubbert and Eugene Chadbourne and he deserves some delving into his catalogue. Michael Anguish closed the night with a full band set that portrayed him as a fine performer who strays into Avett Brothers company at times. Loose limbed Americana styled songs flowed from the band with one in particular reminding us of the long lost Granfalloon Bus while there was also an element of 1970’s folk weirdness in the mix on the closing song.