Best of 2017

OK, decorations are coming down, it’s back to work time but before that here’s a short list of the albums that have stood out over the past year. If there’s a link it will take you a review of the album. Looking back it seems that 2017 wasn’t a bad year for music in terms of releases but a total bummer in terms of Tom Petty leaving us. Here’s hoping next year is as good so, all the best for 2018.

Chuck Prophet, Bobby Fuller Died For Your Sins

cp18cdIn the year of Brexit and Trump, Chuck’s sheer love of rock’n’roll shone throughout this album. Coupled with seeing him play two blindingly great gigs this year the album’s been a regular on the stereo and in the car while Jesus Was A Social Drinker is my song of the year.


Jeremy Pinnell, Ties Of Blood And Affection

e2069a_5277bb38e84c4e118495b89d2105a130mv2While Stapleton gets all the notice I think there are numerous others who are bringing out better albums and Jeremy’s second solo album is the best of the lot this year. I was privileged to host a house concert with Jeremy and Ags Connolly and it was a great occasion.


Courtney Marie Andrews, Honest Life

cc752a_ccb74ac415f74324bdde66d0b5f81184mv2An album of glacial purity with glimpses of Joni Mitchell in its shadows.



GospelbeacH, Another Summer Of Love

500x500Jangled sunny California music which stretches from Petty to The Jam in its inspiration.



Nathan Bell, Love > Fear (48 hours in Traitorland)

love-fear-front-coverOld fashioned protest perhaps but Bell is a powerful writer and as good a champion of “blue collar” folk as Rod Picott. And, in concert, he’s funny with it (just like Rod Picott).


Blue Rose Code. The Water Of Leith

the-water-of-leithRoss Wilson continues his journey into the hinterlands of folk and jazz. A wonderful and evocative album.


Eric Ambel, At The Lakeside

61ceyom7fgl-_ss500It took 12 years for Ambel to come up with this one, a bunch of songs he imagined could have been on his pub’s jukebox. Guitar album of the year.


Don Antonio, Don Antonio

cs646897-01a-bigAside from his band, Sacri Cuori, Antonio Gramantieri has worked with Howe Gelb, Dan Stewart and Alejandro Escovedo. This solo album is a magnificent retro stew of sixties soundtracks and Italian cool.


Jaime Wyatt, Felony Blues

jaime_coverA true jailbird, Wyatt’s album is part outlaw country, part Laurel Canyon country rock. For me she just beats Margo Price


Malojian, Let Your Weirdness Carry You Home.

a1294981180_16Irishman Stevie Scullion conjures up a slight psychedelic trip with McCartney like melodies and Harrison’s Blue Jay Way vibes.


Best reissue/compilation

The Wynntown Marshals, After All These Years

a2597450969_16A perfect introduction to the band if you haven’t heard them before. A perfect keepsake for those who are in the know.



Also of note…

Slaid Cleaves, Ghost On the Car Radio

Margo Price, All American Made

Danny & The Champions Of The World, Brilliant Light

Ags Connolly, Nothin’ Unexpected

Robyn Hitchcock, Robyn Hitchcock

Todd Day Wait, Folk-Country-Blues

Whitney Rose, South Texas Suite

Norrie McCulloch, Bare Along The Branches

Russ Tolman. Compass & Map

John Murry, A Short History of Decay

Jim Keaveny, Put It Together

Ian Felice, In The Kingdom Of Dreams

Gill Landry, Love Rides A Dark Horse

Amanda Anne Platt & The Honeycutters

Daniel Meade Shooting Stars & Tiny Tears 

The Sadies, Northern Passages

John Alexander, Of These Lands

There are many others which could/should be mentioned here, apologies to those I’ve either forgotten about or overlooked. In the meantime here’s the song of the year.


Robyn Hitchcock. Robyn Hitchcock. Yep Roc Records

robynhitchcock_poster_mock_sm_1I don’t know if Robyn Hitchcock would appreciate being called a “national treasure” but for some folk his idiosyncratic take on psychedelic rock and his whimsical musings over the past 40 years have certainly placed him on some sort of pedestal.  Of course, being Hitchcock, this pedestal ideally would support a statue that, like Pygmalion’s, would come to life to inhabit a world half Hieronymus Bosch, half Dali, suffused with sea creatures and wondrous insects along with a peculiarly English  vision, all laughing bobbies and trolley buses surveyed through a kaleidoscopic lens. Since his days with The Soft Boys and then The Egyptians and a successful solo career Hitchcock has forged a singular path. His instantly recognisable voice, as English as Beefeaters and pillar boxes, has cut across songs that have tripped the psychedelic light fantastic and others which are delicate acoustic ruminations, all of them an opening into his mind’s eye. For some he’s picked up the baton from Syd Barrett and for a time he was considered a UK equivalent to REM.

This self-titled album finds Hitchcock ensconced in Nashville with producer Brendan Benson and the first thing to say is that it’s his most energetic disc in some years. In fact several of the songs hark back to the youthful vibrancy of The Soft Boys; the tsunami of guitars on Virginia Woolf taking the listener right back to their debut, Can Of Bees while Mad Shelley’s Letterbox has chiming guitars,  sitar like sounds and glorious harmonies that elevate the song to a psychedelic power pop heaven. Detective Mindhorn in particular is classic Hitchcock  as it pounds along in sixties freakbeat  style as he seems to sing of a TV detective with some peculiar powers, kind of like Sergeant Pepper meets Adam Adamant.

The opening I Want To Tell You About What I Want finds Hitchcock setting his wares on the table with some finesse. Here he leads the listener into his weird world, the band providing a muscular background with Hitchcock setting out a utopian/dystopian double barrelled wish list. Sayonara Judge starts out as gossamer spun delicacy with sublime pedal steel before the glistening guitars start to snarl towards the end on a song that makes full use of Hitchcock’s backing singers (who include Emma Swift and Gillian Welch). There’s a wonderful song that’s brimful of nostalgia as Hitchcock recalls a trip with his father on a trolley bus on Raymond and The Wires and this air of nostalgia is transported through the looking glass on the very trippy Autumn Sunglasses which is a perfect simulacrum of late sixties UK psychedelia.

There’s a nod to the Nashville location of the recording on the goofy country of I Pray When I’m When I’m Drunk which tries to marry Hitchcock’s surrealistic words to a honky tonk bar band but essentially it comes across a bit of a throwaway. More successfully, he delves into cosmic country territory with 1970 in Aspic which rings with a degree of authenticity.





Emma Swift

Emma Swift might be a new name to many in the UK, although it’s apparent that she picked up quite a few fans on her recent tour with Robyn Hitchcock, in her native Australia however she was well known as the host of radio shows In the Pines and Saturday Night Country. All the while she was finding her way as a songwriter and performer both solo and as half of the duo 49 Goodbyes before eventually taking the step of locating to Nashville a year or so back. This self-titled mini album is her debut and was released around a year back in Australia but Swift has just relaunched it on iTunes.

Live Blabber’n’Smoke described Ms. Swift thus

…her lachrymose country songs were well received. Her version of Gram Parsons’ Brass Buttons highlighted her aching bittersweet voice while the suicide note that is Rowland Howard’s Shiver was delivered with a fine mix of tenderness and defiance. Her own song, Seasons, marked her as a writer and singer who could be up there with the likes of Lucinda Williams…

The album reinforces this with Swift’s voice in particular commanding attention. She combines the languid manner of Lucinda Williams with the effortless swoon of Linda Ronstadt while also managing the sultriness of kd Laing in torch song mode. In addition she’s a great writer, the five songs here all worthy of attention (in addition there’s a cover of The Motels’ Total Control) and to cap it all the band she’s assembled play some very sweet heartbreaking country music.

She opens with the bittersweet Bittersweet, a soft rock country balm for the soul effortlessly singing over the slow rhythm shuffle with pedal steel and Wurlitzer curling around her voice. Woodland Street has a late night jazz feel to it with Swift vulnerable in her pleading, a sense continued on Seasons, an initially brighter, summery song where again she’s looking for affection (with her voice here reminiscent of Lucinda Williams). Swift manages a neat trick here with the first half of the song optimistic as she waits for her lover in the spring, honeyed pedal steel and sparkling guitar like reflected sunlight on the sea before she fears he’ll be gone by the fall and there’s an almost imperceptible shift in the mood of the music, the guitars sadder, keening instead of honeyed. At the heart of album is the lengthy King Of America, eight minutes of hesitant, slow flow twang guitar and cosmic country tinged pedal steel that recalls the glory days of NRPS and Garcia himself as it weaves an unsteady course over deadpan percussion. Almost as if the Grateful Dead had scored David Lynch’s Twin Peaks Swift offers a portrait of the narcotic pull of the likes of Gram Parsons or Hank Williams as she succumbs to their invitation to dance. It’s a glorious song that places Swift at the forefront of our singer/songwriters today.


Robyn Hitchcock/Emma Swift. Mono Cafe Bar, Glasgow. Monday 8th June 2015


Robyn Hitchcock has always been a singular artist, even back when he fronted The Sort Boys, a psychedelic post punk crew. While they could storm through the nihilistic rant of a song like I Wanna Destroy You he remained calm in the centre, his Home Counties voice cutting through the guitars. His lyrics inhabit a world that’s like a Magritte painting, the mundane juxtaposed with the incredible, peopled with crustaceans and statues with other worlds hidden behind mirrors. While he credits Dylan as his first influence he’s incorporated the psychedelic whimsy of Syd Barrett, the autumnal tones of Nick Drake and the jangled rock of the likes of REM into his work.

It’s a privilege really to see such an artist as Hitchcock in the cosy confines of Mono; close up and unplugged he commanded attention, the audience were rapt throughout, no chatter at the bar just a sense of respect and admiration. The stage was set by Australian Emma Swift who has recorded with Hitchcock and whose lachrymose country songs were well received. Her version of Gram Parsons’ Brass Buttons highlighted her aching bittersweet voice while the suicide note that is Rowland Howard’s Shiver was delivered with a fine mix of tenderness and defiance. Her own song, Seasons, marked her as a writer and singer who could be up there with the likes of Lucinda Williams, a sense reinforced by her recorded version of the song.

Robyn Hitchcock opened without fanfare with a cover of Dylan’s’ Not Dark Yet and it wasn’t until after a devastating delivery of My Wife And My Dead Wife that he spoke to the audience. Thereafter most of the songs were treated to a weird and wonderful prologue with Hitchcock reminiscing about past appearances in the area going back to the lunacy that was the Bungalow Bar in the eighties to the Renfrew Ferry. He recalled the era of the trolleybus, dedicated songs to the brass beer vats to the side of the stage and bamboozled the audience with time shifts and warps reminding us that he would be here at the same time yesterday if we arrive tomorrow or some such tomfoolery. Introductions to the songs were hijacked by flights of fancy, the transition from life to death likened to the difficulties of mastering an I phone.

The audience ate up Hitchcock’s raps which were at times hilarious. He was serious when talking about his forebears, introducing his sensitive version of Robin Williamson’s song, Nightfall as his second twilight song of the evening after the opening Dylan song. With I Got The Hots For You the one nod to the Soft Boys tonight Hitchcock played several songs from his latest album The Man Upstairs that showed he continues to be a most intriguing writer. With Ms. Swift on hand for some excellent harmonies San Francisco Patrol and I Used To Say I Loved You were magnificent before the pair launched into a shiveringly good Queen Elvis. Their rendition of Follow The Money, a Hitchcock song recorded by the pair for a record store day single was an exemplar of harmonised singing and they ended with a superb rendition of Townes Van Zandt’s Pancho and Lefty with Swift and Hitchcock swapping worlds with Emmylou Harris and Gram parsons for a nanosecond. Simply superb.


Decades after his death Nick Drake ploughs on. After several years as a cult artist he was given a posthumous push courtesy of, of all things, a car ad. Alongside a relentless reissue programme that recycled and recollected his small oeuvre, by the mid 2000’s he was a hip name to drop with the value of the original vinyl albums on sites such as Ebay soaring. Thus it was that his sublime, fragile and unique songs found a new audience and influenced a new generation of artists and this album showcases a selection of his peers and new found followers celebrating him.
Way To Blue captures concerts in London and Melbourne that were curated by Drake’s chief torch bearer, Joe Boyd, a legend himself who has produced so many influential albums over the years. Boyd had long toyed with the idea of a tribute to Drake and eventually the idea came to fruition with a moveable feast that over several years performed fifteen shows. Boyd selected the artists stating “Selecting singers has been one of the most rewarding parts of this exercise. One criterion was that none of them should sound like Nick.” With a core band featuring the legendary (sorry about so many legends here but this is deserved) bassist Danny Thompson ( a man who played with Drake, Martyn, Buckley and Jansch, part of his legend), Zoe Rahman on piano and drummer Martyn Barker, alongside a string section with Kate St. John managing Robert Kirby’s arrangements Drake’s sound is effortlessly captured in a live setting.
There are 15 songs, all by Drake, interpreted by a fine line up of singers. Their various takes on the originals adds a to the album. Some are reverential, cleaving to the blueprint, others take off on a tangent imposing the interpreter’s viewpoint. Of these the most successful is Lisa Hannigan’s Black Eyed Dog which transforms the song into a vibrant sea shanty while retaining the original angst of the song. Vashti Bunyon, alongside Thompson the one performer who knew Drake, offers a fragile take on Which Will which perhaps comes closest to most folks vision of Drake as a wounded troubadour. However all of the performances have merit with Australian Zoe Rendell capturing Drake’s vocal mannerism’s excellently while Krystle Warren adds a gospel touch on her offering. While Teddy Thomson, Shane Nicholson and Scott Matthews all pass muster the listener is perhaps more intrigued to hear Green Gartside’s (of Scritti Politti) version of Fruit Tree which he delivers delicately with his reedy voice surrounded by sumptuous strings and Robyn Hitchcock’s Parasite , a wonderful, spectral and spooky offering. Both of these are excellent with the Hitchcock song the standout on the album, a pity he has only the one opportunity to shine.
For a live album the sound is excellent and there is no audience applause throughout allowing one to wallow in the songs without interruption. A great document of what is a fine enterprise from Mr. Boyd, always striving to keep Drake’s memory alive which is what this disc does.

Navigator Records