Rod Picott. Tell The Truth & Shame The Devil. Welding Rod Records

fullrescoverRod Picott has carved himself a career, a stellar series of albums and consistent touring finally allowing him to give up his day job as a sheetrock hanger. Tagged as a “blue collar” storyteller he has recently branched out into the world of literature publishing his poetry and a book of short stories but he was almost derailed last year following a major health scare. He survived, thankfully, but that brush with mortality gave him pause for thought leading to this, his most stripped back and personal album so far. Tell The Truth & Shame The Devil is not solely about his illness but, as he says in his liner notes, “Confronting mortality, I asked myself a few questions. Who am I? Who have I been?” Some of the songs try to answer these questions, others delve into his past and a few are simply just excellent examples of his song writing as Picott bares his soul on what is a magnificent record.

The album opens and closes with a short rumble of thunder, a portent of doom perhaps, but otherwise it’s unadorned, just Picott, at home with a guitar and a harmonica laying down his truth. The opening song, Ghost, sets the scene as he posits himself as an invisible entity whom no one can hear, trapped in an existential quandary. A 38 Special & A Hermes Purse, a song Picott says was directly related to his heart problem, is a dark meditation on the will to live and the demons who can persuade one to end it all. A Guilty Man is a confessional, past behaviour alienating those around him leading to a lonesome life, although there is a chance of absolution.

These dark and intimate songs are surrounded by some spectacular notes on family memories which are unveiled with the authority of a writer such as Steinbeck as Picott recalls his father bailing out a flooded basement or putting on his Sunday best to go to church. On Mama’s Boy he sets out his family’s boxing heritage, makeshift rings for the kids to scrap in and then watching the likes of Clay and Liston on the family TV, the song becoming a meditation on masculinity as Picott sings, “Gonna turn that boy into a man.Mark is based on a memory of a high school friend who killed himself which Picott sees as a turning point from childhood to the cold reality of grown up life, his sixties benchmarks, Kennedy, The Beatles turning to dust. The song recalls Hunter S Thompson’s famous line on the death of sixties optimism, “You can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look west, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

On a wider plane, Picott has a riposte to the “glamorisation” of working class life on A Beautiful Light (co-written with Ben de la Cour), paints a gritty portrait of the dingy life of a bar band on Spartan Hotel and tries to summon up an angel for his demons on Folds Of Your Dress. Too Much Rain meanwhile is a murder ballad which is informed by his recent immersion in gritty southern fiction.

Packed with excellent songs and expertly mixed from Picott’s raw tapes by Neilson Hubbard, Tell The Truth & Shame The Devil is likely to be compared to the likes of Springsteen’s Nebraska due to its stripped down nature. It’s more than that however. It’s the sound of a master craftsman who has supped with his devil and lived to tell the tale.

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Buffalo Blood, Buffalo Blood, Eel Pie Records

album-cover-pic-smallBuffalo Blood is the collaborative work of three American musicians and a Scot who set out to capture some of the legend and history of Native Americans, victims of a genocide which rivals that of the Nazi’s against the Jews. The collective – Dean Owens, Neilson Hubbard, Joshua Britt and Audrey Spillman – were drawn to the project after Owens, a man from Leith, raised on cowboy movies but lured to the plight of the Native Americans after visiting their sacred lands, mentioned a batch of songs he had written as a result of his fascination, to Hubbard. Hubbard, a Grammy nominated producer and, along with Britt and Spillman, a member of The Orphan Brigade, a band who seek out unusual recording opportunities, got on board and the newly formed quartet decided to collaborate in the writing and recording of what became Buffalo Blood. A project long in the making, it eventually saw all four decamp to New Mexico, along with sound engineer and photographer, Jim DeMain, to record the album in several iconic locations. Aside from the recording, they captured the outdoor performances on film as they followed what is known as the trail of tears, the historical forced marches of Native Americans from their ancestral lands to reservations. The resulting album is heavy on atmosphere with ambient sounds trickling into the songs, many of which reflect the arid conditions of the New Mexico desert.

There’s no narrative as such although some numbers mention the likes of Custer and Crazy Horse (Land of Broken Promises) while others portray the repressive regime which tried to wipe out their culture as on Carry The Feather, inspired by the habit of forbidding Native Indian children to speak their own language at schools which taught a white curriculum. There are a couple of mood pieces. The excellent Ten Killer Ferry Lake (named after a reservoir on Cherokee land) opens the album and sets the scene perfectly combining a ghost dance like lament and mournful whistling. The whistling (by Owens) returns on Ghosts Of Wild Horses, a tune redolent of spaghetti western soundtracks, a sly nod perhaps to what, for most of us, was our first exposure to the American west via the movies. Whatever, it’s another strongly suggestive piece of music casting up images of sun blasted parched lands, bleached bones and the unique strangeness of the frontier. Similarly, Buffalo Thunder, a wordless chant with ambient wind sounds throughout, transports the listener to late night campfires among the tepees.

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There’s an inherent sense of drama throughout the album. War Among The Nations is portentous, warning of calamity ahead and Reservations bristles with indignity singing of the white men’s lies. Comanche Moon captures the fury of the tribes as they fight back against the white man who considers them “all just savages,” while Buffalo Blood is a powerful number which rings out with a fierce sense of pride amplified by the native chant which surrounds Owen’s strident vocal delivery. There’s a resigned air to Daughter Of The Sun, White River and Bones, songs which reflect the sense of loss and identity suffered by the Native Americans while Land Of Broken Promises just about sums up the series of injustices dealt to them as treaties were torn up and they were moved further westward.

Throughout the album the quartet perform excellently. The primary sound is of acoustic guitars and mandolin with percussion and keyboards filling out some of the numbers. The harmonies are wonderful as the band inhabit the spirituality of well-worn chants brilliantly. Owens says that as they recorded in the desert, under clear skies and amidst stunning red rock formations, they felt the presence of the spirits which permeate the locations. They capture this perfectly on Bones, an excellent song with a mournful organ base which is suffused with suffering and a simmering anger. Overall, Buffalo Blood is a bold venture which sets out to portray a particular injustice but it burns with a contemporary relevance as one realises that the plight of the Native Americans is not far removed from the forced migrations and exploitation of indigenous people which continues to this day. From the pipeline protests at Standing Rock to refugees fleeing brutality in Africa and South America, the story continues.

Buffalo Blood is released on February 15th as a download and, in the UK, a double vinyl album. £1 from the sale of each vinyl album will be donated to the Redhawk Native American Arts Council , an organisation which is dedicated to educating the general public about Native American heritage through song, dance, theater, works of art and other cultural forms of expression.

Celtic Connections will present the live world premiere of Buffalo Blood in performance tonight at The Mitchell Theatre. Details are here while the project’s website is here. For more information on the project check out this interview.

 

 

 

 

Neilson Hubbard. Cumberland Island. Proper Records

We continue the sweep up of albums from last year we unfortunately missed at the time…

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Neilson Hubbard is perhaps best known as an in demand producer with Mary Gauthier’s Rifles And Rosary Beads his most recent triumph. He’s also been involved over the past couple of years in what has been a burgeoning cottage industry, working with Ben Glover and Joshua Britt in The Orphan Brigade and with Britt and Dean Owens in a new venture called Buffalo Blood. Cumberland Island, his first solo album in 12 years, has Glover and Britt again involved along with Will Kimbrough but it’s a rare opportunity to hear Hubbard himself over the course of an album.

As with The Orphan Brigade albums, Hubbard has a hook to hang the album on, in this case, a visit to the titular Cumberland Island, an island off the coast of Georgia. Redolent with American history – native Americans, conquistadors and slavery – and with the ruins of a mock Scottish baronial castle (built by the brother of Andrew Carnegie and called Dungeness), the island is now a national park and the visit by Hubbard with his new (and pregnant wife) inspired this collection of low key and beautifully measured songs.

For the most part it’s a contemplative album with only the brisk rockabilly attack of That Was Then raising the pulse while there’s a grand old time country feel to Old Black River with Eamon McLaughlin’s fiddle sawing away over a tugboat rhythm. Elsewhere some of the songs almost stumble from the speakers. How Much Longer Can We Bend, graced with weeping fiddle and restrained piano, shimmers with a spectral beauty while the title song is a haunting evocation of the natural beauty of the island with its feral horses invoked as free spirits. Love, in its various permutations, features in several numbers as on Save You which slowly builds to a climax from its tentative tiptoeing opening as Hubbard’s finely cracked voice offers salvation to his soul mate. My Heart Belongs To You is a tender love ballad reminiscent of a sweeter Tom Waits while Don’t Make Me Walk Through This World On my Own is a magnificently mournful supplicant’s prayer. The spare, piano led songs, Let It Bleed and Oh My Love, stand out in the sense that Hubbard here is baring his soul. The former aches with loss while the latter finds him seeking and perhaps finding hope. Two sides of the coin perhaps but both songs are delivered with a wonderful sense of vulnerability and the musicians excel in capturing this.

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Dean Owens. Southern Wind. At The Helm Records

sw-front-coverLaunched at a fabulous live gig at the tail end of Celtic Connections and officially released last week, Southern Wind is the latest instalment in Dean Owens steady rise towards the top echelons of Scots musicians. As with 2015’s Into The Sea, Owens offers up a robust and perfectly formed album, the songs memorable and excellently played, the mix of punchy rock numbers and more introspective ballads over the course of its length finely balanced. And again, as on Into The Sea, Owens delves into his memories and his family for several of the songs while elsewhere he celebrates the joy of rock’n’roll and, significantly, mines the rich seam of Southern music from the States.

Recorded in the same Nashville studio as Into The Sea with the same team on board (Neilson Hubbard, producer and percussion plus bass, piano and “various bits & pieces, Will Kimbrough, guitars banjo, mandolin and Evan Hutchings, drums along with Dean Marold on bass) there’s one change from Owens’ usual habits in that several of the songs are co-written with Kimbrough and, as Owens recently told Blabber’n’Smoke, “I’d said to Neilson Hubbard, the producer, “I really want to make a swampy sounding record,” and that’s what he does really well. He’s from Mississippi and Will’s from Alabama as is Evan so they have that sound in their veins.” It’s recognisably a Dean Owens album but that Mississippi mud can’t help but seep into several of the numbers here.

The album opens with Owens’ clarion call to some musical heroes including Ronnie Lane, Ian McLagen, B. B. King and The Waterboys on The Last Song.  Given a delirious folk stomp and sounding like The Faces playing a particularly raucous pub gig it’s a delicious opener and acts almost as a bridge from the last album to the present one. There’s a further reflection of the previous album on Madeira Street, written (as was Evergreen) for Owens’ late sister, another example of how he can vividly cast his memories into song and, going further back, he finally offers his mother her own song, a counterpoint to his salute to his dad on Man From Leith, with Mother, a song co-written with Danny Wilson (from Danny & The Champs) and given a lilting, almost calypso beat along with an early sixties teen crooner charm, a rare ray of light in an album that at times is densely populated with loss and regret. Famous Last Words for example is a love song about the end of love while When The Whisky’s Not Enough is a fine addition to the canon of songs about being in your cups but still feeling pain, a real downer, it’s enlivened with zinging slide work from Kimbrough. Bad News is a slow burner with creeping organ and ominous guitars as Owens warns a woman not to go back to an abusive husband.

Owens has written songs inspired by his friends before but probably none as successful as Elvis Was My Brother where he takes on the words from a friend’s letter which explained that his transient childhood only had one true touchstone which was the Memphis Flash. Here, Owens and the band really excel, the song a wonderfully upbeat slice of rootsy pop with curling guitars and a rhythmic groove which recalls the splendid John Hiatt album, Bring The Family.  Owens was in Amarillo when he heard the news that Muhammad Ali had died. A hero of his since boyhood, he wrote Louisville Lip that night hunkered in his hotel room. The barest song here, just guitar and a mournful trumpet,  it pulls together Owens’ memories of watching Ali on the telly as a kid, an experience which led him to pulling on the gloves in his teens. Sentimental but the sentiment is heartfelt,  here Owens avoids any schmaltz with the song quite tugging actually.

Finally, there’s the Southern issue. The album is replete with swampy keyboards and Kimbrough’s snakelike guitar but Owens really dives into the Kudzu ridden culture on three songs here. Love Prevails, which closes the album, is loosely aligned with Rodney Crowell’s memoir, Chinaberry Sidewalks, as Owens summons up a Waltons’ in reverse, a family who fight and squabble but who are held together by their common bond – a universal theme perhaps but dignified by Kimbrough’s guitar licks and the mournful organ – the end result almost hymnal. His deepest delve into the South finds Owens accompanied by the powerful voice of Kira Small whose magnificent wailing elevates two songs here. The title song opens in a portentous manner with Owens evoking nature over interweaving guitars before thunderous tribal drums approach and Kimbrough unleashes his evil guitar sound. The song thrashes on with the guitar like a twister destroying all in its path until Owens, Small (and The Worry Dolls who were passing by) indulge in an orgy of shamanistic wailing. No Way Round It is prefaced by a very brief snatch of slide guitar and moaning (recalling Ry Cooder’s work in Performance) before its strident riff gets into its stride, pulsing like a heart about to burst as it progresses from a banjo driven skip to full throated guitar solo with Owens a lone soul wailing against nature’s barriers aided and abetted by Small’s magnificent voice which plays a similar role to that of Merry Clayton on The Stones’ Gimme Shelter. It’s an absolute belter of a song with Kimbrough’s guitar solo frenzied and outrageous while the dynamics of the song, the shifts from the banjo motif to squalls of sound are just superb. And, having seen Owens play this live with his Whisky Hearts band, we can confirm that it’s just as thrilling if not more so in a live setting.

Southern Wind finds Owens still proud of his roots in Leith but becoming more adventurous in his exploration of American music. That he can tie both ends of this transatlantic bridge with such confidence and, at times, swagger, is testament to his skill and to his ongoing relationship with his extremely talented American friends. We do look forward to the next instalment.

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Rod Picott. Out Past The Wires. Welding Rod Records

12IN_GATEFOLD_JKT_2PKTWhetting our appetite for his upcoming tour of the UK, Rod Picott releases his most ambitious album yet, the sprawling double disc (on CD and also on vinyl!) Out Past The Wires, 22 songs carved from his usual cast of blue collar workers, hard luck losers and folk living on the edge. Picott seems to have been extraordinarily prolific in the last year, the songs on the album whittled down from a long list of 78 to 32 serviceable ones, the ten spare songs expected to surface at some point. In addition he has released a collection of his poetry (God in His Slippers) and is preparing a book of short stories which will expand on some of the characters in the songs here.

Produced by Neilson Hubbard, the album features Picott backed by a studio band which includes Hubbard on percussion along with Will Kimbrough, Evan Hutchings, Lee Price and Kris Donegan with Picott recording his voice and guitar initially before the band set to backing them allowing the fuller band arrangements to rock out with some finesse, a finely nuanced balance of loose limbed spontaneity and excellent playing. There are moments here when they sound like The Faces with the slide guitars on A Better Man particularly reminiscent of Ronnie Wood slashing away while Better Than I Did opens with a Lennon like harmonica trill before the band head into Basement Tapes territory.

With Picott’s more sensitive songs, featuring just him and his guitar with some minimal backing, scattered throughout the two discs, mingling with the full on band songs, there’s no dichotomy between the discs here and, somewhat rare for a double album, no sense that Out Past The Wires would work better as a single disc. Instead it’s a double dose of good medicine with no slump in quality control in sight. He’s by turn joyous and morose, optimistic and pessimistic, angry and resigned. Blanket Of Stars is a beautifully delivered tender song sung by an outsider who’s mother was a teenage bride, his daddy a little bit drunk while Holding On ruminates in a similar manner with Picott in solo folksinger mode, the song grabbing one’s attention just as much as the rockier items here. Dead Reckoning is a perfectly realised love song as is The Shape Of You although here the love is in the past and the singer is drinking away his memories. Alcohol is the devil in Bottom Of The Well, a stark and astute portrait of a descent into addiction but this despair is somewhat redeemed by the following We All Live On, a rare note of optimism from Picott.

It’s a joy to hear Picott and the band gel on songs such as Take Home Pay (one of four co-writes with his buddy, Slaid Cleaves) and Coal which burns with a slowly seething sense of injustice along with a Southern rock swamp vibe while Hard Luck Baby is a rocker in the Mellencamp camp. But the 22 songs here run through a gamut of styles with the common denominator being Picott’s finger on the pulse of today’s America with Hard Luck Baby coming across like a condensed and updated version of The Grapes of Wrath. Overall the album is a triumph with Picott stepping up to the mark throughout and it certainly sets the barrier high for his upcoming shows, a barrier we are sure he will surmount as he’s a seasoned and exceptionally good performer. In addition he’s preparing the companion book with a first sneak peek available here as he fills in the background to Take Home Pay.

Rod tours the UK in March, all dates here

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The Man From Leith Finds Himself in Muddy Waters – Dean Owens & Southern Wind

railway-pic-crop-3Dean Owens unveils his latest album, Southern Wind, at a showcase concert this Friday as part of Celtic Connections. Recorded in Nashville with a crack team of American musicians (including Neilson Hubbard and Will Kimbrough, both part of The Orphan Brigade) the album is a bit of a departure for Owens. Many of the songs were co-written with Kimbrough and there’s a definite whiff of the deep South woven throughout. We spoke to Dean about its making and asked about several of the songs on it.

You’ve recorded several of your albums in Nashville but Southern Wind seems to be more rooted in an American sound as opposed to the Celtic Americana that characterised Into The Sea. While the opening number, The Last Song, sounds like it could have fitted easily into the last record with that freewheeling roustabout swing which is reminiscent of Ronnie Lane’s last Chance, the rest is quite different.

It was hard to follow up an album like into The Sea, a lot of folk really liked that and I think the best thing to do is to go down a different road and try not to repeat yourself. I’ve done that with all my albums I think. If you go back to my first album and follow them thorough I think they are all quite different. Last Song is probably a bit of a connection to the last album, when we sequenced the album we decided to kick off with that one and then head into a slightly different world.

The main difference from Into The Sea is that I wrote most of the songs with Will Kimbrough and he’s from the South and that brought a strong flavour into the album. I was talking to a friend the other night about this and he thought that Into The Sea, although I recorded it with some of the same musicians in Nashville, was much more about my background, looking at me growing up and with lots of family and friends references whereas on this one there are different characters and a different feeling. That has come about through writing with Will and also through spending more time over there. Since I recorded Into The Sea I’ve spent a lot of time over in Nashville and travelling about. Aside from Southern Wind I’ve also been recording this other project, Buffalo Blood  down in New Mexico and I think that, as an artist, you kind of soak up all that stuff.

The instrumental break on When The Whisky’s Not Enough and the opening slide guitar and bluesy moans of No Way Around It are particularly evocative of Southern music.

I’m really pleased with the way No Way Around It worked out. I wanted it to be a big sounding song and that take was the one and only time we played it in the studio. I think we really captured the vibe I was going for, the real spirit of the song and in bringing in Kira Small for the backing vocals, I really wanted to have a good soulful voice in there and she nailed it. I’d said to Neilson Hubbard, the producer, “I really want to make a swampy sounding record,” and that’s what he does really well. He’s from Mississippi and Will’s from Alabama as is Evan the drummer so they have that sound in their veins.

I really wanted  especially to feature Will’s guitar playing on the album and on The Last Song he’s actually playing guitar, bass and piano. He just had that Ronnie Lane type of bass sound on the demo so rather than have the regular bass player Dean Marold play, Will did it and he also played piano on it as he has that rollicking Faces’ like loose way of playing.

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You mentioned Kira Small and her voice on No Way Around It is spectacular. It reminds me of Merry Clayton’s singing on The Stones’ Gimme Shelter.

That’s exactly what I was thinking of when we were recording that, that Gimme Shelter type sound. I’d said to Neilson that I wanted a big soulful voice in there and right away he said that he knew exactly the woman who could that and it was Kira. That’s one of the great things about Nashville, I mean people ask me, “Why go to Nashville? There’s loads of great musicians here.” Well of course there are but in Nashville everything’s on your doorstep. You can say I want that voice or I want that instrument and you’re surrounded by some of the best players and singers who can just come in, almost at a minute’s notice for a session. Kira came in and nailed that on the first take. That’s one of the reasons I love working with Neilson, I trust him and he knows what I want and he knows how to get it.

Earlier you said that much of Into The Sea was informed by family memories but there are a couple of songs here that are also  about your family.

When Into The Sea was being recorded my sister was gravely ill and her passing was obviously a huge blow and although I don’t want to dwell on it, in a way I wanted to, as it were, put that part of me to rest. My sister will always be with me and that song, Madeira Street, is a memory but it’s also a way of moving on. It’s a situation that affects more and more people as we go along. I’ve realised that in the past few years that so many people I know have had similar situations so although the song is about me and my sister I hope that people can relate to it.

You also have a song about your mother.

Well, my parents try to come along to my shows whenever they can and one of my most popular songs is The Man From Leith which is of course about my father and my mum’s always been giving me a hard time about not writing a song for her. So I had started this song (Mother) a while back but I really didn’t know where it was going. I sang it to Will when we were doing a wee song writing session way before we started on the album and he helped me out with some of it. I still felt it needed something else however and when I was touring with Danny & The Champs I was playing it in the dressing room, just as a way of warming up, and Danny asked me what it was as he quite liked it. Anyway, I was staying with Danny the next day and we were messing about with it and I was telling him about my mum and some of the things she was always saying and he said, “That’s it, there’s your lyrics there,” and he helped me to piece it together and encouraged me to put it on the album. Fortunately she loves it, I sang it to her on Christmas Eve and by the time I was finished we all had a bit of a tear in our eyes.

There’s a great rockabilly punch on Elvis Was My Brother.

That’s the song that people seem to be picking up on so far. It was pretty much based on a letter a friend sent me and I asked him if I could use it and he said yes and he’s really happy with the way it turned out. Of course it’s about a huge Southern character, Elvis, so it fitted on the album along with my other song about another Southern hero, Louisville Lip, about Muhammad Ali. Aside from musicians one of my greatest heroes was Ali and although we’ve lost a great many musicians in the past couple of years his death was the one that really hit me. I’ve got some memories of sitting with my dad watching Ali fight Foreman when I was really young and although I’m not sure if it’s what really happened as I was so young, I think that I was mesmerised by this guy dancing around with these really cool white shorts on and I said to my dad that I wanted a pair of those. He said I could only get them if I became a boxer and so later I joined a boxing club and that was a huge part of my growing up.

I remember exactly where we were when we heard that Ali had died; we were in Amarillo, Texas, one of those names that certainly conjures up one particular song. We were in the van coming back from New Mexico when one of the guys read the news on his phone. And when we got back to Nashville I sat down and wrote the song and played it to Will and we decided it had to go on the album. Ali was just my hero and aside from his boxing prowess he was a huge figure in the South in the civil rights era so he deserved to be on the album.

The album launch is on Friday and you’ll be appearing with your own band, The Whisky Hearts. Given that the album was recorded with these American Southerners, how will The Whisky Hearts play the songs?

The songs will sound different when we play them. The Whisky Hearts are all brilliant Scottish musicians and while they’re not steeped in the South like Will and Neilson are, they’ll play the songs with their own passionate take on it. For example, there’s no fiddle on the album but we’ve got Amy Geddes on fiddle so it will sound different.  We did it with Into The Sea, we took the songs I had recorded in Nashville and brought them home and we’ll do the same here, the spirit of the record will shine through.

Dean Owens & The Whisky Hearts are appearing as part of Celtic Connections at the Drygate, Glasgow on Friday 2nd February. Southern Wind is officially released on 16th February with advance copies on sale at Friday’s concert. Dean will also be a guest of Celtic Music Radio‘s Mike Ritchie on Friday afternoon, 1-2pm, talking about the album and playing some songs in session.

 

 

 

The Orphan Brigade. Heart Of The Cave. At The Helm Records

ath201317_cover_artTwo years ago Neilson Hubbard, Ben Glover and Josh Britt got together to record The Orphan Brigade – Soundtrack to a Ghost Story, an album recorded in a “haunted” antebellum mansion on a civil war battle site. Touring the album in Europe they landed in Osimo, Italy, a town with its own ghostly past and a warren of ancient caves under its streets to boot. Taken by the place they returned for a ten day stay later and recorded this album in those caves with Glover explaining, “I had a profound sense that we were stepping into the past, into a mysterious and ancient world.” As on the previous album the trio enlist assistance (Gretchen Peters, Barry Walsh, Kris & Heather Donegan, Dan Mitchell, Dean Marold, Will Kimbrough, Natalie Schabs, Eamon McLoughlin, Audrey Spillman and Kira Small) and while many of the songs relate directly to the history and myths of Osimo they retain their distinctly American sound that resonated throughout the earlier album. Mandolin and softly strummed guitars predominate although there are strings and horns and some wonderful vocal arrangements.

Although it opens with a brace of spritely numbers the album overall is dark and reflective.   The opening Pile Of Bones is a primeval workout, a chant over scrubbed instruments and a tribal thump as a massed chorus sings, “we ain’t leaving but a pile of bones” An invitation to reflect on our mortality and not dissimilar to Patti Smith’s Ghost Dance. Town Of A Hundred Churches is resolutely set in the Italian town they’re in but it swings with a fine mid western breeze and, as the notes state, could as easily have been written about Nashville. Similarly their song about a 17th century local mystic who could levitate, Flying Joe, is given a fine string band gospel arrangement. There’s a return to a primeval stomp on Alchemy but the remainder of the album is of a darker hue.

Osimo (Come To Life) has the pace of a funeral procession and is suffused with images of death being just a gateway to a new life with its final refrain a nod to the many carvings in the walls of the caves. Meanwhile Pain Is Gone, a hushed affair sung over a simple acoustic guitar for the most part, again delves into the mysteries of death. This flirtation with mortality might be partly explained by the fact that as the band were recording the album Italy suffered several earthquakes with loss of life. This may have informed the pair of songs, The Birds Are Silent and The Bells Are Ringing, that sit at the centre, the former has the earth shaking and urgent descriptions of people clawing at ruins looking for survivors in a chilling song that rattles along like a south western bandit ballad full of cinematic drama. The Bells Are Ringing, by contrast, is a firm rejoinder to celebrate the destructive power of nature and is given a rapturous delivery.

The album closes with four powerful songs. Sweet Cecilia is moored firmly in that dark Americana vein populated by ghosts and dead lovers while Meet Me in The Shadows is a dolorous affair, ghostly voices singing from Stygian depths.  That glimmer of hope that death is the not the end is revisited on There’s A Light That Never Goes Out, the one song here that sounds truly cavernous with the piano and percussion reverberating amidst ominous sound effects with the ghost of Leonard Cohen hovering somewhere nearby. Donna Sacra, with a wordless female voice, is a rapture of sorts. A close to the album emphasised by the final sound snippet of an Italian train service announcement as the band come back to the surface.

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