Oisin Leech and Mark McCausland, the Irishmen who sing so beautifully together as The Lost Brothers, headed to the arid lands of Tucson, Arizona for their latest instalment of wonderfully crepuscular songs. The pair have a penchant for choosing a specific location for each of their recordings (including Liverpool, where they started off as a duo, Sheffield, Portland Oregon and Nashville) and often a particular producer, believing that it’s key to attaining the “magic.” For Halfway Towards A Healing they recorded in Dust and Stone Studios with owner Gabriel Sullivan and the legendary Howe Gelb overseeing the production and sure enough, some of the Giant Sand man’s sonic drizzle percolates throughout the album.
There’s no dramatic change in The Lostie’s sound. They’re still the perfect late night accompaniment, their harmonies excellent, the songs almost lullabies, a balm for the discontented and the lonely. They’ve often been compared to Simon & Garfunkel but at times here they approach the melancholic lyrical beauty of Leonard Cohen, the title song here being the premium example (while it also slouches along wonderfully with Gelb’s fingerprints all over it). More Than I Can Comprehend (co-written with Glen Hansard) is a lyrically stark portrait of a relationship blowing up and Songs Of Fire is despair writ large despite its incredibly nimble arrangement. For true melancholia however it would be hard to beat Summer Rain which rambles along wonderfully with Gelb’s idiosyncratic lounge piano allied to a lazy cowboy rhythm.
The opening songs, Echoes In The Wind and Where the Shadows Go, will satisfy those who hold to the Simon & Garfunkel comparison, the former in particular is suffused with Simon’s early style. Come Tomorrow, a song which canters along in comparison to its siblings recalls another sixties songwriter, in this case Tim Rose and his version of Morning Dew. Again Gelb seems to be in the background with gently twanged guitar and occasional sonic splutters making their mark. On working with Gelb Mark McCausland says, “He would pick us up in the morning and take us out into the desert. We’d walk for hours, then he’d drop us back at the studio. We’d go through songs with studio engineer Gabriel Sullivan, then Howe would meet us at the end of the day, listen to what we’d done and work on the tracks. All those trips into the desert were to get the environment into our system.” The Tucson topography looms large in the instrumental, Reigns Of Ruin, a gentle cantina styled strum and Gelb himself has a cameo appearance as he narrates the closing song, The Ballad Of The Lost Brother, a self help manual of sorts which sounds like the sort of thing Travis Henderson (from Paris, Texas) might have said were he a gonzoid Zen like musician from Tucson, an odd end to the album but a delight for any fans of Gelb.
Mark Twain said, “Comparison is the death of joy” but if one were forced to compare Halfway Towards A Healing against their earlier albums it’s tempting to say that this is their best yet.
Well it’s December so it’s safe to mention the C word. For the next four weeks it’s jingle all the way downhill as we get bombarded with “cute” adverts from mega million stores itching to squeeze more money from our pockets and have to endure endless loops of schmaltzy Xmas muzak in shops which are far too full of other people. Bah Humbug indeed. On the music side there’s a well-drilled and finely honed canon, chestnuts roasting and all that, fodder for the folk, the stuff of Christmas specials, funny pullovers and fake snow with some Slade thrown in for the “youngsters” which you can buy on any number of CDs with titles such as Now This Is Christmas Vol. 2014.
As always there’s another side to the coin and while for a time this Christmas underbelly was composed primarily of comic or smutty ditties, over the past few years there’s been a veritable outburst of reasonably fine Christmas songs. Along with this a wealth of blogs spring up around this time pointing folks in the direction of the darker side of the season with Blabber’n’Smoke’s favourite being Big Rock Candy Mountain who delve deep and bring up some astonishing items. Anyway, all of this is just a way of introducing some Christmas music that’s been sent in for review, so eggnog in hand (what on earth is eggnog?) here we go.
Mr. Plow weighs in with the grim noire of The Greatest Christmas Ever Seen that features some festive tropes, mentions of snow and percussion that is faintly reminiscent of sleigh bells, that identify its Christmas status but there’s no Ho Ho Ho here as he tells a tale of domestic violence, a woman battered as “the tills rang out their joyless greed.” Gabi Monk of The Good Intentions harmonises on vocals as the deadpan lyrics describe a Christmas of ambulances and hospital. It’s not going to be number one in the festive chart but all of the proceeds from sales are going to Refuge, a charity that supports victims of domestic violence. Available as a download there’s also a very fine and limited vinyl edition (with cool snow coloured vinyl) available from Pink Box Records that has an excellent wearied rendition of Away In A Manger on the flip side.
David Llewellyn & Ida Kristin offer up their reading of Christina Rossetti’s In The Bleak Midwinter, the song that has snuck Bert Jansch into many a home via numerous commercial Christmas compilations. Llewellyn & Kristin stay true to the familiar arrangement with its wintry air and old-fashioned Dickensian Christmas feel while they both sing well. The pair have their debut album, Songs Around The Kitchen Table out soon but in the meantime you can buy In The Bleak Midwinter here.
Glasgow songwriter, Jim Byrne download only For We Are Born To Doubt is a cracker (sorry) of a song as Byrne hymns the Cartesian way of life with some festive trappings such as a music box melody and heavenly choruses (provided by folk singers, the Linties). Towards the end Stuart Miller of The Linties speaks the chorus with a wonderfully couthy Scots tongue, reminiscent of Ivor Cutler that caps the song with a flourish. Expect to hear the likes of Iain Anderson and Tom Morton playing this in the next few weeks. For We Are Born To Doubt will be available from December 10th here
Finally (and capping a trip around the British Isles with England, Scotland, Wales and now Ireland all represented here) The Lost Brothers have Little Angel, another download only single which captures perfectly their wonderful Everly like harmonies on a song that is the most “Christmassy” one on offer here. It floats along like that flying snowman and evokes that simple sense of wonder and goodwill that films such as It’s A Wonderful Life manage. With brass flourishes building up towards the end it’s a song that will warm the cockles of your heart if you’re not a real curmudgeon. Little Angel is free to download but The Losties are asking folk if they can to donate to UNICEF via a link on the download
Oisin Leech and Mark McCausland, the Irish duo who are The Lost Brothers make beautiful music together. Since teaming up in Liverpool in 2007 they have seemed to be conjoined at the hip (or throat) as their superb harmony singing has graced three albums and led to performances at the infamous Midnight Ramble at Levon Helm’s studio complex and more recently appearing live on Russian television. Invariably they’ve been compared to both the Everlys and Simon and Garfunkel due to the vocal setting but it’s fair to say that the pair are also very fine songwriters who have a knack of teaming up with simpatico producers and players giving each of their discs an individual personality.
Having recorded previously in Portland, Oregon, Sheffield and then Nashville (with Brendan Benson in the producers chair) for their previous releases New Songs of Dawn and Dust finds them back in their old stomping ground of Liverpool with ex Coral guitarist Bill Ryder Jones producing while another Coral member, Nick Power adds keyboards and writes one of the songs here. In contrast to 2012’s The Passing Of The Night which featured an excellent studio country band (including Gil Landry and Paul Brainard) here the music is pared back for the most part with the Brothers’ voices and guitars complemented on occasion by piano and drums and occasional trumpet allowing the harmonies full rein to shine.
The album opens with the gentle and lilting Spanish Reprise, described by the Brothers as “a Mexican sunrise over the Mersey.” Similar in mood to the cantina instrumentals on Willie Nelson’s Spirit album it serves as a bridge from the avowed Americana of the last album to the comparatively muted new world influences on the songs that follow. Day’s Ahead showcases the reasons for the comparisons to Phil, Don, Art and Paul as the Brothers deliver a jaunty acoustic guitar scrubbed cousin to Wake Up Little Susie with Mariachi trumpet adding colour. On Derridae however they take a cowboy lope and marry it to an Irish mysticism as they sing about a girl who weaves spells capturing hearts. It’s a beautiful song that features Leech and McCausland at their best, troubadours of the West and the Celtic heartland. Soldier’s Song is another winner with a simple guitar melody adorned by a mournful trumpet while Poor Poor Man harks back to a rustic and simple ballad form with a Woody Guthrie feel while the trumpet ( by Martin Smith) again adds a forlorn air. Gold And Silver reminds one that the Lost Brothers often refer to dusk and darkness (witness the album title) and is the sparest song here as an evocative and solitary guitar allows their voices to shine with a crepuscular glow as they sing about the lure of riches and the resultant price to pay, “raining down like poison showers.” This sepulchral element is highlighted on the closing song, the stark and majestic Stones Throw which throws up shivers for the listener as Power’s dramatic keyboards echo under the twilight vocals with the end result having a similar emotional heft as Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah.
New Songs of Dawn and Dust is in essence a fantastic album, a mature work from a duo who are well able to deliver these songs in a live setting stripped of the studio trappings. The Lost Brothers will be touring on the back of the release with some Scottish dates included. See here.
It’s coming up for Celtic Connections time again and as usual there’s a hefty wallop of Americana music on show. Blabber’n’Smoke aficionados will already be familiar with some of the acts appearing. John Murry whose album, The Graceless Age, was our No. 1 release of last year appears along with the Cowboy Junkies at Kelvingrove art gallery while another of our top ten faves Petunia & The Vipers hit the Old Fruitmarket accompanied by Woody Pines. A Blabber’n’Smoke night to savour we think. Others we’ve previously mentioned here include the Heritage Blues Orchestra at the Royal Concert Hall, The Lost Brothers(supporting Glen Hansard), again at the Old Fruitmarket and finally a show that promises to be a doozie, Otis Gibbs at the Glasgow Art Club. Gibbs’ Hard As Hammered Hell was another album in our top ten releases of 2012.
This list only scratches the surface of course and it’s serendipitous that all of the above were mentioned here last year. We thought we’d take some time to mention a few others whose albums have fallen into our lap recently and who are also appearing.
The curiously named Leon Hunt n-Tet will be the must go gig for any music loving mathematicians as the n-tet suffix denotes a number that is liable to change (in layman terms they can be a duo, trio, quartet etc) and it’s likely that only boffins will get this. If so the boffins will be rubbing shoulders with bluegrass fans as Mr. Hunt is reckoned to be the UK’s premier 5-string banjo player and can be heard on numerous collaborations with a stellar array of transatlantic musicians. Here he’s promoting his tribute to the late Earl Scruggs. Farewell Blues (Remembering Earl Scruggs) sees him teamed up with three other UK exponents of the high lonesome sound (Jason Titley, Guitar, Ben Somers, Double Bass and Joe Hymas, Mandolin) and it’s pretty much what you’d expect from such experienced hands. The playing is impeccable, vibrant and joyous as they wheel through 12 cuts which range from the whirlwind Foggy Mountain Special to the ragamuffin roll that is Deep River Blues. It’s a joy from start to finish and in a blindfold test you’d swear these guys were raised on a porch on momma’s moonshine liquor. They play St. Andrews In the Square on 26th January supporting Sarah Jarosz
The Two Man Gentleman Band are a different kettle of fish although they also base their sound on a vintage American sound, in this case the very cool, hip and voutereeniest man ever, Slim Gaillard. Gaillard was a blast in the past, hobnobbing with Hollywood royalty and recording some of the daftest and deftest music ever. Most popular in a twin setting (as Slim and Slam then Slim and Bam, perhaps the chaps should rename themselves for Celtic Connections as Slim and Tam) he appeared in movies and was as popular as Louis Jordan. Playing guitar accompanied by double bass Gaillard scatted and jived about food, drinking and at times just nonsense in his invented language, vout. The Two Man Gentleman Band don’t share his language but they do sing about food (Pork Chops, Tikka Masala, Cheese and Crackers) and drinking (Chocolate Milk, Wine, Oh Wine!, Please Don’t Water It Down). What they do manage is the sense of fun, the joy of goofing off on a riff and the almost absurd (think Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes and Bugs Bunny) worldview that on record is engaging but should go down a storm live. They’re at the Glasgow Piping Centre on 26th January.