Carrie Elkin. The Penny Collector.

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Carrie Elkin’s first solo album since 2011’s Call It My Garden is as diametrically opposed to its predecessor as one could possibly imagine. While Call It My Garden was full of chuckles and the sheer joy of playing The Penny Collector is a sometimes sombre affair. Written within a tumultuous year that encompassed the joyful delivery of her first child and the sorrowful passing of her father Elkin has delivered a meditative collection of songs with a wonderful production from Neilson Hubbard. Paying tribute to her father on several songs along with ruminations and memories, pain and loss and joy intermingled, the album gives full rein to Elkin’s glorious voice while red dirt Austin country gives way at times to an almost chamber folk sound filled with cello, violin and viola. The arrangements throughout are excellent as are the players. Producer Hubbard wields drums and percussion to great effect while Will Kimbrough on guitar is at times spectacular. There’s a heady mix of yearning ballads (at times reminiscent of Emmylou Harris’ best work), evocative American vistas and in the midst of these some sparkling, invigorating and punchy rock.

The album opens with the impressionistic Americana of New Mexico as a plaintive acoustic guitar is enhanced by Kimbrough’s atmospheric sunset squalls, the stage set for Elkins to embark on her voyage from birth to death as she sings, “I can feel the heart beat in everything around me,” her voice echoed by the harmony vocals of her husband Danny Schimdt. There’s a circle of sorts as Elkin closes the album with a similar sonic feel on the crepuscular Lamp Of The Body , the guitars again ethereal and the voices almost hymnal. In between Elkin revisits her youth on the excellent Tilt-A-Whirl which tilts indeed between quiet passages with Elkin recollecting the past and a defiant chorus suffused with the joy of youth. Live Wire is a tale of teenage rebellion with “daddy’s little girl” running off only to find it’s a wicked world and running back home. With an urgent pulse as the song progresses the band capture perfectly the restlessness and confusion of adolescence, the drums propelling the song, lyrical guitars slowing the flow mid song. My Brother Said rings with more confusion amidst an angry beat that is sweetened by a tremendous confection of keyboards and mandolin before a ferocious fuzz fuelled guitar erupts towards the end.

Elkin address directly the grim reaper on the sweeping ballad of And Then The Birds Came,  a song suffused with imagery that captures the emotions of bereavement, a moment of loss but also leaving space for those defiant saviours, memory and hope. It’s a sense that’s carried into the next song, Crying Out, which finds Elkin surveying her situation, hanging on to the blessings in her life, a man to hold, a baby on its way but still able to express her grief safely ensconced in her family.

The Penny Collector is an album of beauty. Wonderfully arranged and played, the songs nuanced, a mature reflection on the mortal coil. The album title came about as Elkin’s father was a coin collector and on his passing the family found his hoard of 600,000 pennies, all lovingly collected and preserved. As she says in the liner notes, “My dad had a way of finding value and delight in the tiny things that other people might walk past,” and Ms. Elkin has immortalised him with this excellent album.

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Ben Glover. The Emigrant. Proper Records

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Although Blabber’n’Smoke hasn’t previously reviewed any of Ben Glover’s albums his is a name which has cropped up several times.  He co-wrote Gretchen Peters’ wonderful Blackbirds, winner of ‘International Song of The Year’ at the UK Americana Awards back in February and he was one third of The Orphan Brigade who released the very fine Soundtrack To A Ghost Story around a year ago.

An Irishman who has lived in Nashville since 2009 Glover was drawn to consider the theme of migration as he was going through the process of getting his Green Card. Of course Ireland has had waves of emigrations over the centuries but the current political climate, dominated by the plight of refugees across the globe and the ensuing backlash and rise of xenophobia assures that this resulting album has a topical purpose. For all that it’s far from a polemical album. Instead Glover has reached back to popular and traditional Irish songs that evoke feelings of displacement and exile  and to these he has added four songs, three co-written with Gretchen Peters, Mary Gauthier and Tony Kerr, the title song, commenced in Ireland and finished in collaboration with Peters being the starting block for the album.

Co produced with fellow Orphan Brigadier, Neilson Hubbard, the album stays close to its Irish roots, the instrumentation is spare; acoustic guitar, piano, fiddles, Uilleann pipes, whistles the primary instruments. Glover skilfully wrests the traditional and cover songs from any cosy sense of familiarity, the arrangements breathing new life into them while the presence of his own songs prevents the album from becoming a set of “well kent” Irish songs, the album as a whole a powerful listen.

Opening with a stirring rendition of The Parting Glass, the upbeat tempo belying the air of farewell within the song, Glover immediately takes us into an Irish heartland, a fiction perhaps of a jolly lot managing their loss through alcohol, oft posited by numerous screenplays. Aside from a slight return to a toe tapping moment on the traditional Moonshiner, another song with drink at its centre, the rest of the album is a more sombre affair, the reality of alienation and loss hitting hard. A Song Of Home, one of the originals is a magnificent effort, glover’s voice yearning, at times approaching Van Morrison’s stream of consciousness repetitions, the song celebrating the landscapes, mists and mysteries of a remembered homeland. The title song follows opening with plangent piano, a Tom Waits’ like moment considered perhaps but it then swells with Uillean pipes as Glover dissects with his poet’s scalpel the curse of the emigrant, “to be cut loose from all you knew, beyond the pale, beyond the blue…the restlessness, the discontent…” It’s a deeply moving song that stakes its claim immediately to be considered part of the folk canon. The co-write with Mary Gauthier, Heart In My Hand, is a roving fiddle fuelled ramble while Dreamers, Pilgrims, Strangers is a very brief reiteration of the lines inscribed within the album sleeve, Glover’s alternative to Emma Lazarus’ words welcoming emigrants to the USA.

Woven between these bitter pills are the familiars. Ralph McTell’s From Clare To Here, Glover more impassioned than McTell’s original, more bereft. The Auld Triangle wrings out all the emotion it can from this well travelled song with a touch of Shane McGowan to be sure in here. The Green Glens Of Antrim closes the album and again Glover summons up ghosts and memories, an emigrant looking back through rose tinted glasses, delivered here like a Hibernian Tom Waits. Finally Glover manages the almost impossible task of breathing new life into a song that through familiarity has somewhat lost its original impact. He tackles Eric Bogle’s And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda with a raw vocal and a tremendous arrangement, half Waits, half Weill as he snarls and rages, finally collapsing into a bereft croak, the band playing on.

It’s not that often that an album captures such a terrible zeitgeist but Glover here lays down a powerful challenge to those who just see immigrants taking up their council houses and jobs. Several of these songs should accompany news items but that’s too grand to ever happen. Still, there’s social media there to spread his message. On a more local level we should mention that Glover is appearing at next week’s Glasgow Americana Festival performing in the round with Boo Hewardine and Roddy Hart (information here).

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Dean Owens (with Dave Coleman). Cotton Snow. Single Release, Drumfire Records.

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With the best reviews of his career so far tucked in his pocket (for his acclaimed 2015 album Into The Sea), Dean Owens saw out last year on a roll and entered the new Year with a bang, supporting Patty Griffin at Celtic Connections. When Blabber’n’Smoke interviewed Owens for AmericanaUK he spoke of his plans for 2016 including a proposed project that reunites him with Neilson Hubbard and Joshua Britt, two thirds of the crew behind the magisterial American Civil War album, The Orphan Brigade (which we reviewed here ). That album was inspired by the history infused into an old plantation building in Franklin, Tennessee and it’s to the Civil War and Franklin that Owens pays attention on this single release which will be available from April 15th.

On a visit last year to the site of the battle of Franklin, one of the bloodiest of the war, Owens was taken by an image mentioned by a participant, Captain Tod Carter. The artillery laying waste to the cotton gins and cotton fields scattered the plant which fell like snow on the soldiers, Cotton Snow. The following day Owens was in Dave Coleman’s (of Nashville band The Coal Men) home studio in Nashville, tinkering around with this idea when Coleman suggesting recording a take on it. Couple of hours later there’s a rough mix, Coleman a one band on drums, tape loops, bass, guitars and pedal steel, Owens with the words down pat. Some transatlantic polishing later and here’s the end result.

It’s a great song and a great recording. Cotton Snow plays to Owens’ ability to invest a song with drama and emotion, to paint a picture with his words. The place names resonate, Chattanooga and Shiloh, previous battles for the progenitor who sees the soldiers, whether clad in grey or blue, inside all the same colour. The surreal image of the cotton snow is amplified by the musical setting, Coleman stirring a twang filled guitar soup that recalls the mystical Americana of Lee Hazlewood. And while Owens doesn’t have the gruff gravitas of Hazlewood here he sings wonderfully, close miked, a slight drawl and a fine giddy up exclamation escaping his lips just before the first guitar solo.  It’s a class act.

Anyway, you can listen to the song below and pre-order it here.

 

 

 

Rod Picott. Fortune. Welding Records

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Steadily Rod Picott has come up on the inner track to catch up with his better known peers in the school of hard knocks singer/songwriter stakes.  Welding Burns and Hang Your Hopes On A Crooked Nail were very fine albums, Picott weaving blue collar tales with a sense of grit and determination while able also to draw tender portraits of love gone wrong. Fortune builds on the strengths of those albums with Picott attempting to place more of himself into the songs as opposed to his snapshots of the current state of the ragged ass union. Fear not however, this is no exercise in navel gazing as several of the songs here maintain his ability to paint a vivid portrait as on the war widow’s farewell to her dead soldier on Jeremiah and the clattering tribute to the ‘ornery Uncle John.

Recorded quickly as Picott wanted to capture the immediacy of the performances in the studio the album seesaws between his gentler soloish performances and the gutsier band pieces. Here he’s ably assisted by the ubiquitous Will Kimborough on guitars (including oil can guitar!), Lex Price on bass and co-producer Neilson Hubbard (another name that is coming up increasingly) on drums. If there’s a theme to the album (and Picott says that the songs are about the sense of chance) then his view seems to be that we are playing with loaded dice as the players here all seem to be on the losing end. The suitor kneeling before his would be queen on the folky Maybe That’s What it Takes sees his dreams burned down while I was Not Worth Your Love is somewhat akin to a supplicant yelling I am not worthy before an idol not worthy of his praise. In a way Picott is furthering his broken love songs from the Crooked Nail album here, we mentioned back then that Roy Orbison seemed to inhabit the song All The Broken Parts and here Picott again plugs into that raw emotion on Secret Heart, his voice almost a crooner over his delicate guitar and Kimborough’s excellent and refrained shimmerings. Kimborough shines again on the wonderful closing song, Spare Change which, aside from the wonderful playing, captures Picott, the wordsmith, at his best.

There is some rollicking here and some humour. Uncle John “drinks his beer from a can cause bottles break/nine fingers from one mistake.” Elbow Grease has Picott mythologizing his life over a cracking country rock beat (with Kimborough again in fine form) as he recalls his failures and sings on the chorus “How’d a wreck like me even get this far/One more chance is all I need/I got a lucky charm and elbow grease.”  We get some soulful blues on the slinky Until I’m Satisfied and a tremendous rewrite of Hank Williams’ Ramblin’ Man on the apocalyptic and surreal Drunken Barber’s Hand that is somewhat fabulous.

Rod Picott is touring the UK in January and February with a Celtic Connections appearance on 25th January at The Royal Concert Hall. All dates here

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The Orphan Brigade. Soundtrack to a Ghost Story. Proper Records

Two Americans and an Irishman walk into a haunted house… No, it’s not the opening line of a joke but the punch line for the story behind The Orphan Brigade. The three (Neilson Hubbard, Joshua Britt and Ben Glover) have built an album around the tales and histories of characters from the Civil War period, notably Confederates housed in and around a plantation house named Octagon Hall in Franklin, Kentucky, sixty miles north of Nashville. The Hall still stands, spared from immolation by the Northern troops, an antebellum reminder of the horrors of war and slavery and reputed to be the “most haunted house in America.” With a wealth of historical documents to hand (letters, journals, poetry, some written by members of the titular Orphan Brigade, a nickname of the Confederate Army’s First Kentucky Brigade) the trio set up shop in the haunted house to write and record the album with assistance from Gretchen Peters, Kim Richey, Kris Donegan, Heather Donegan, Dean Marold, Eamon McLoughlin, Dan Mitchell, Barry Walsh, Carey Ott, Brad Talley, Zach Bevill, Jim DeMain and Ryan Beach.

It’s a fine back story and the cast tell tales of spooky happenings during the recording, much of it captured on a documentary directed by Hubbard and Britt. However, entertaining as this all is it’s much more than an Americana version of American Horror Story, the good news being that the album stands up to scrutiny whether the listener knows the origins or not. It’s not a retelling of the era in the vein of White Mansions although there are songs that refer directly to the experiences of the historical protagonists. Rather it’s an impressionistic capture of the spirit (sorry) of the times delivered in a variety of styles that gather in musical influences but are rooted in modern music. One could imagine that The Band or a solo Robbie Robertson might have made the album.

The war does loom large on the wheezy accordion tooled I’ve Seen The Elephant, the delicate harmonies of Last June Light and the martial numbers, The story You Tell Yourself, decorated with slight mandolin and throbbing guitar and We Were Marching On Christmas Day which captures excellently the tribulations of the foot soldier in a wintry waste. On a more optimistic note The Good Old Flag points to the reconciliation required after a bitter war and is delivered as an excellent mid tempo ballad buoyed on some fine guitar flourishes and sublime harmonies.

There’s a wealth of styles here, a sea shanty on Cursed Be The Wanderer, an Irish Lament with Paddy’s Lamentation and some slide driven Southern grit on Trouble My Heart (Oh Harriet). Whistling Walk appears at first to be an oddity, a whistled instrumental with a jazzy cornet and guitar it ambles into view with an unexpected jocularity but when one reads that it’s inspired by the fact that slaves carrying food from the kitchen to the table were ordered to whistle in order to prevent them eating any of the food then it falls into place.
As we said earlier, the album stands on its own two feet but there’s a wealth of information to be had for anyone wanting to delve, either into its making or the history it commemorates and is heartily recommended.

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And just because it’s Halloween