Son Of The Velvet Rat. Dorado. Fluff & Gravy Records

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The arrestingly titled Son Of The Velvet Rat are husband and wife duo Georg Altziebler and Heike Binder, both Austrian but now domiciled in Joshua Tree in the Californian desert. Like that other married duo, The Handsome Family, Son Of The Velvet Rat inhabit a somewhat gothic twilight zone, a crepuscular portrait of a sometimes dark and eerie landscape with their muted tones reminiscent of rituals and murky deeds. Producer Joe Henry evokes well the atmosphere in his liner notes which portray a motel, part Bates, part Lynch, all mystery.

The songs slouch forward for the most part with Georg’s voice a haunting half sung threnody (which recalls Chip Taylor’s recent efforts) while the music floats on drifts of organ, accordion and splintered guitar with occasional decoration from pedal steel and violin.  A couple of the songs have a pulse beat beyond moribund with Blood Red Shoes a fine upholstered ride along a dark highway with additional vocals from the much missed Victoria Williams while Surfer Joe is like Springsteen taking time out to hang with some Repo Men with an alien in the trunk of their car. Starlight Motel opens with an evocative Spanish guitar trill and spooky harmonica but gradually picks up speed as the gears shift up with Georg on the run from a mystery crime. Part gangster story, part metaphysics, it glows with an evil neon malice, guitars shimmering in the reflection.

The meat of the album is in the slow procession of darkness exemplified by the opening Carry On, a funereal number with weeping violin. Copper Hill is suffused with mournful horns as the song slowly advances again like a funeral but here with a New Orleans like dignity. Love’s The Devil’s Foe rests upon a plaintive organ note before an impassioned plea from Georg to his succubus has the band evoking the elements with splashes of piano and percussion  and Shadow Song creeps along with a sinister bass line with occasional flurries of violin, spooky indeed. Sweet Angela is a love song with a twist as the singer sits in the glow of a TV, his remote control out of reach but deciding that an anonymous woman on the screen would be the perfect replacement for “that bitch in Berlin”. The album closes with the claustrophobic existentialism of Franklin Avenue with Georg reimagining an encounter as the band achieve a perfect sense of bathos, a dreamlike evocation.

Dorado is a dark trip into the American psyche and should delight those who admire The Handsome Family and The Walkabouts, a band who infused a dark European feel into their lonesome laments.

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Terry Lee Hale. Bound, Chained, Fettered. Glitterhouse Records

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Texan born, long domiciled in France, Terry lee Hale is a survivor. Throughout four decades of changing fashions and tastes he’s continued to deliver thoughtful and sometimes meaty deliberations on the plight of man. Like his long time associate, Chris Eckman of The Walkabouts, Hale found that Europe was a more fertile territory for his lean tales and dark folk blues than his native land, his albums in the main released via German labels. His last album, The Long Draw, a thought provoking mix of Dylan like rambles and punchy roots rock was one of our favourites of 2013.

Intriguingly, for Bound, Chained, Fettered, Hale sought out the services of a producer, arranger and guitarist who he had long admired and who is, coincidentally,  a Blabber’n’Smoke favourite, Antonio Gramentieri of Sacri Cuori,  Dan Stuart and Hugo Race fame. Hale ventured to North Italy to record the album with Gramentieri in the producer’s chair, the pair recording live for the most part, Hale on acoustic six and 12 string, Dobro and harmonica with Gramentieri providing bass, electric guitar and lap steel. Unlike The Long Draw it’s an uncluttered reflective album, no raging against the political machine here. Instead Hale seems to be musing on life, relationships, aging and death. Gramentieri weaves his magic through the songs, as a player yes, but more importantly in his assemblage of some of his local cohorts (Christian Ravaglioli, keyboards, Franco Neddei, synth and mellotron, Diego Sapignoli, percussion and Franceso Valtieri, sax) whose spare contributions add a fine light and shade to the songs. Gramentieri has a light touch, the arrangements always at the service of the song and Hale is front and centre throughout, his voice up close; rarely has he sounded better.

Aside from The Lowdown, a raunchy blues number that wanders finely into Tom Waits territory with Gramentieri scowling via his guitar parts as Hale wails on harp and a baritone sax parps, the album is a quiet affair. The opening title song finds Hale sounding like Bill Callahan as he recites his words over a distant guitar grumble and dusty Dobro delivering a back porch Don Juan like philosophy. Acorns belies its gentle, almost breezy, delivery with its cryptic words, a broken love affair, a faltering memory clinging to fleetingly recalled events while the following instrumental, Flowers For Claudia, a brief one minute interlude, does seem somewhat elegiac. Age and memory seem to crop up again on Can’t Get Back (Just Like That), Hale’s guitar given just a dusting of guitar, organ and percussion allowing the lyrics to stand tall although the meanings remain vague.  Scientific Rendezvous is more structured with Gramentieri’s guitars and lap steel somewhat menacing as Hale recalls The Walkabouts’ spookier European moments on a song that is again something of an enigma. Here he could be singing about cloning or artificial insemination but the song’s mention of daddies and mommies does seem to relate to birth while the opposite end of the life cycle is the subject of the following song, Signed Blue Angel. Here he has adapted words written by an eight year old grandchild of an old friend on a death. While this might seem cloying it’s surprisingly fresh and direct, a child’s reference to angels and butterflies given a sincere reading and set within an almost Appalachian melody with gliding lap steel and a hint of cowboy balladry. It’s offset by the following stark threnody of Jawbone, an arching summary of the cycle of life and death and dust to dust. An elemental song given some heft from Gramentieri’s atmospheric guitar stylings and Franco Neddei’s muted synth playing it’s spine tingling as Hale balefully repeats the title towards the end. The album ends with another low down blues number, the slow burn of Reminiscent. More full blooded than The Lowdown, Hale picks forcefully, Gramentieri the gut in the bucket as the song slouches along like a grim reaper looking for his target.

Bound, Chained, Fettered is an excellent listen. Its slow groove, Hale’s fine vocals and words and Gramentieiri’s sonic additions all adding up to a chilling and absorbing adventure. It’s available now and Terry Lee Hale is currently touring on the continent, dates here.

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Glitterhouse Records