Dan Penn. Living On Mercy. Last Music Co.

coversofar-p-500Dan Penn is a legend. There, said it. Songwriter, producer, musician and performer and one of the mainstays of the fabled Muscle Shoals team. Penn wrote numerous songs which were chart hits for the likes of Aretha Franklin back in the sixties and was one of the guiding hands behind Alex Chilton’s first band, The Box Tops. Chances are you have at least one of his classic songs in your collection with the odds on that it’s someone’s version of Dark End Of The Street.

For someone who has been reckoned as a personification of “blue eyed soul,” Penn has, in the main, shied from the spotlight with only a handful of solo recordings behind him. There have been brief flurries of activity on the live front, often in tandem with his song writing partner Spooner Oldham, which have allowed him to demonstrate his self-effacing brilliance (check out the 2006 recording, Moments From This Theatre, for proof) but in general he avoids the limelight. It was a surprise then to hear that, now 79 years old, Penn was releasing his first new album in 26 years. It’s no surprise however that Living On Mercy is quite wonderful as Penn captures once again, the soulful sound he helped create five decades ago.

Recorded in Memphis and Nashville with a crack team (Milton Sledge (drums), Michael Rhodes (bass), Will McFarlane (guitar) and Clayton Ivey (keyboards), along with a full horn section and female harmonies), it’s evident from the opening bars of the title song that Penn can still write songs which pierce to the heart and deliver them with the wearied resignation of a wounded lover. Living On Mercy is classic Penn in the vein of Dark End Of The Street and the band just nail the sound. The album resounds with such echoes as if time has stood still and The Swampers were still around (indeed, keyboard player Ivey was a Swamper) as they romp through Clean Slate, I Didn’t Hear That Comin’, the funky horn driven Edge Of love and the excellent Leave It Like You Found It, another masterful tearjerker.

There are nods to soulful balladeers such as Jerry Butler on I Do and Things Happen but Penn is at his best when he’s singing about heartbreak and one of the highlights of the album is the emotional tug of Blue Motel. A narrative song, it wallows in despair with Penn’s voice comforted by the harmony singers while the band are the embodiment of loneliness with their delicate touch. It’s similar to the sorry tales parlayed by The Delines on their Imperial album but just that bit more soulful. The standout song is Penn’s paean to Nashville’s music row and the many dreams lost and shattered of so many wannabees who got off the bus reckoning they would soon be a star. It crowns an album that is just gorgeous. Penn wears his years well, his voice still in fine fettle, and the arrangements are quite wonderful.

There’s been a bit of a resurgence in country southern soul over the past year or two so why not do yourself a favour and buy this rare album from one of its founding members. Living On Mercy is released on CD on 28th August but there’s a later vinyl release in October for those who really want to relive the good old days.

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Magnolia Mountain/Mark Utley

We mentioned Cincinnati band The Tillers a week ago and this reminded us of another Tri State crew, Magnolia Mountain and the fact that we’ve been sitting on their latest release for far too long so time to unearth and examine it. In fact this exhumation from the pending pile unearthed two albums, Magnolia Mountain’s Beloved and a solo effort by the band’s front man Mark Utley, Four Chords and a Lie. Both albums were released simultaneously back in late summer and one might be surprised by Utley’s work rate if you didn’t know that his last two Magnolia Mountain albums were effectively doubles with 2012’s Town and Country released on a good old fashioned two disc vinyl edition.
We reviewed Town and Country calling it a smorgasbord of delights gathering together as it did “fiddle-laced romps, slide-driven rockers and devilish blues moans.” It’s diversity was a strength but Utley appears to have opted here for a leaner approach with the country side represented by his solo effort allowing the band to slink down south and simmer in a southern stew.
Beloved comes across as very much in the Muscle shoals vein with Utley sharing and at times delegating vocal duties to his co- singers Melissa English and Renee Frye. Their harmonies and duets recall the likes of Delaney and Bonnie or Kristofferson and Coolidge while the band serve up a funky and muscular beat that reminded us of Sal Valentino’s Stoneground with a hint of the Allmans’ thrown in for good measure. While Utley and guitarist Jeff Vanover play some fine licks and occasional gutsy solos its keyboard player Dusty Bryant who flows through the album whether on electric piano or funky organ. Altogether the sound is pretty much rooted in a seventies groove while the predominant theme is of break up and heart break. The peak is achieved on the tearjerker Ain’t Enough of Anything, a slow southern blues with achingly good guitar solos and a stellar female vocal singing “‘cos I can’t find a thing to help with the pain, no whisky or weed, pills or cocaine.Lonesome Train is another downer of a song this time with Utley bemoaning his fate as his sirens call behind him and the band slinks along buoyed some great organ playing. Going Out of My Mind is more up-tempo but again the band strike a fine groove with the keyboard sparkling as the harmonies fly. With a memorable hook and a loose arrangement this one sounds like it could become a stage favourite with plenty of room for stretching out.
There’s a couple of rockers here as well which suffer in comparison to the more soulful numbers but the opener Midnight Man with its crunchy guitar pretty much sets out the agenda as Utley sings “I like to go out drinking, I like to go downtown, I like those pretty women, I like to turn their heads around” as the band limber up and begin to growl. Toss in a Bo Diddley beat on Not That Much which celebrates a love them and lose them philosophy (from a female point of view) and you have pretty much a set which begs to be heard live in a hot and crowded bar or club.
Speaking of bars the opening bars of Utley’s solo album, Four chords and a Lie, set the listener squarely in a honky tonk dive as twangy guitar, barrelhouse piano and pedal steel try to sweep the cobwebs away. Although billed as a solo album there’s a good degree of miscegenation with Magnolia Mountain here as Renee Frye and Jeff Vanover appear on all of the songs. The album is just about 50/50 between stripped down efforts with Ricky Nye adding keyboards to the Mountain trio and the full blown honky tonk experience delivered by his country band Bulletville featuring Jim Gaines on pedal steel. The “solo” songs range from the sinister Little Black Dress where Utley is on the prowl for a bad bad woman to share his lust, delivered with just the right amount of sleaze and menace to Blackbird On the Wire which unfortunately has a strained and unfinished feel to it. He redeems this with the final song Say A Prayer For Me which could easily have been written and delivered by Bobby Whitlock on the Derek & the Dominos album. The Bulletville songs are all excellent with alcohol and bars featuring well to the fore. Waiting On Ruby Raye has Utley salivating over a favourite saloon singer while Not All Right Together is an almost perfect tale of a drunken love tryst. Gaines’ pedal steel shines here as it does on the tearful, beerful lament that is Nothing But Time, a classic country tune that had it been released in the sixties would have had the nation crying in their beers.

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Ciara Sidine. Shadow Road Shining

Dublin songwriter Ciara Sidine’s debut album Shadow Road Shining is a fine example of a writer taking a genre, in this case Americana (a broad church I’ll admit), and adding some local colour. Here the colour is undoubtedly of a Celtic hue. Aided and abetted by a crew of Irish session players including Steve Wickham (Waterboys, violin) and Justin Carroll (Van Morrison, keyboards) her songs are for the most part warm and comforting, cosseted by Carroll’s Hammond organ while Wickham’s violin adds a folky tilt best heard on the lilting The Arms of Summer. The folk roots are well displayed again on Constellations High where she duets with Jack Lukeman on a maritime tale. The meat of the album however resides in the songs which delve into the American south with the Muscle Shoals sound appearing to be an influence typified by the slow burning keyboards and guitar playing of Connor Brady. Mercy Moon has an earthy feel with churning guitar and even a hint of Fleetwood Mac’s Christine McVie. Hollow the Breeze is less successful in its attempt to capture that southern feel but all is redeemed by Sweet Breath On A Lonesome Flame. Here Sidine succeeds admirably in marrying her folk side to a southern groove, a beautiful song.

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Sweet Breath On A Lonesome Flame