Caleb Caudle. Carolina Ghost. This Is American Music

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As Mike Nesmith said back in the days, “and the hits just keep on comin.” Nesmith was back then an unrecognised country music pioneer, a pop musician finding his roots and accidentally leading some folk into the world of country music. Here Caleb Caudle stakes his claim to be the latest in the run of young guns who are similarly revitalising the genre. Caudle, from North Carolina, gained some acclaim for his 2014 album, Paint Another Layer on My Heart. On Carolina Ghost, recorded following a return to his homeland and a decision to give up alcohol (18 months clear now), Caudle digs deeper into his country vein, the music creamy with pedal steel, gurgling guitars and a Southern bedrock of organ and piano.

This new wave of country music is a multi headed hydra. Some head into Hank territory, some dig Waylon and Willie while others hark back to the Countrypolitan sound. Caudle seems to be divining the smooth radio friendly sound of 80’s acts such as Randy Travis and George Strait with a nod to the seventies in the shape of Gram Parsons and the Eagles (back when Bernie Leadon was a member and before they cryogenically altered their nasal passages). As such some folk might think that this is somewhat lightweight music but a couple of listens allows one to see some muscle in here, lyrically Caudle is darker than one suspects while the music, sweet as it is, is a honey trap.

The trap opens with the honeyed melody of Gotta Be with Brett Resnick on pedal steel to the fore as the song sweeps along as Caudle sings with some yearning of his perfect lover. He then muscles up on the gritty Piedmont Sky, a song that seems to about his travails over the years singing,”waiting on an agent to call my number,” before heading back to his hometown. Carolina Ghost is sublime, a whisp of a song carried along on gliding pedal steel and subtle keyboards, Caudle hymning his native soil as he recalls earlier days with a hint of mystery. Broken Hallelujah flies on a similar breeze, again the song flows sweetly, the guitars just so fine, the pedal steel keening expertly over a cracking rhythm section as Caudle begs for a second chance. Midway through there’s some very fine duelling between the pedal steel and guitar, elevating the song somewhat.

There’s some honky tonk swing on the broken love song Wasted Thursday while Dobro dominates on the classic melody of White Doves Wings, the strained teardrop of Steel & Stone and the closing valediction of The Reddest Rose, a song that recalls John Stewart in his prime. In the midst of this feast Caudle offers the most heartfelt moment of the album, the bruised ballad that is Tuscaloosa. Here Caudle comes across like an Alabama Springsteen as he captures the languid flow of the South while he also evokes memories of Joe Ely and his Flatlanders pals flying into Dallas.

Carolina Ghost has the rebel sense of 70’s rockers discovering country music and finding out that radio folk actually liked it while at the same time it provokes a sense that Caudle, like Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson is rescuing country music from the pop orientated pap so popular these days. If justice prevailed these songs would be wafting from the airwaves

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Have Gun, Will Travel. Science From An Easy Chair. This Is American Music.

Florida band Have Gun, Will Travel make no bones about their fifth album, Science From An Easy Chair, being a good old-fashioned concept album. It’s fashioned around the story of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ill fated 1915 attempt to cross the Antarctic, a venture which failed but with typical British aplomb was turned into a triumph as despite incredible hardship Shackleton and his men survived. An odd choice for an “alt-country” band from Florida to consider but apparently having written a song called True Believers Matt Burke sang it to his fianc√© who thought the spirit of the song reminded her of a book she had read about the Shackleton venture. Burke read the book and transfixed decided to write some more songs based on the story eventually leading to the album as it stands. Having said that the album is not a linear telling of the story, rather Burke leads the band through the phases of the expedition, the gung ho we can do it bravado, the reality of being stuck in pack ice and losing their ship, the perilous journey thereafter and the eventual rescue with some songs descriptive, others impressionistic.

The good news is that the band are not shackled by the story and there’s no attempt to have a faux historical feel and no sea shanties. In fact, there’s little to differentiate much of the music here from their 2013 album, Fact, Fiction or Folktale other than the salty instrumentals Surrounded by the Pack and Fortifying The James Caird. Burke’s acoustic guitar and his voice lead the rhythm section while Scott Anderson’s excellent electric and lap steel guitars weave in and out throughout. There’s some extra layers in the form of mandolin, trombone, viola, trumpet, cello, harmonium and flute adding colour to the instrumentals and the opening (overture?) By Endurance We Conquer. Here the voice of Shackleton himself, setting out his aims, is accompanied by attractive rippling guitar and LA canyon harmonies before an insistent cello thrust adds some edge. On the remainder of the songs Have Gun, Will Travel manage to carry the thrust of the narrative while remaining distinctly an American band, singing about the frontier but this one’s the frozen south, not the Donner Pass. Spirit Of Discovery weighs in with some wicked lap steel on a supple Southern rocker that could have come from Tom Petty or the Drive By Truckers while True Believers belts along like a trucking song with the truckers replaced by a one for all and all for one shipshape lusty crew who bellow out the refrain over some turbo charged guitar licks. A banjo and wheezy accordion with sound effects breaks the mood as the ship is Surrounded By The Pack before the nervy thrust of Madhouse Promenade scoots into view. Another fast rocker it’s an adrenaline fuelled yelp which is variously frenzied and defiant as Burke sings
“this can’t be happening, won’t make it home again, we’ve got no chance of escape. We’re off the map again looks like we’ve reached the end, could this be our resting place?”
Despite this the defiant crew repeat their lusty refrain from True Believers and the explorers adjust to their predicament spending their time reading popular science essays of the time (a fact, they had a copy of biologist Ray Lankester’s collected essays which was called Science from an Easy Chair, hence the album title).

The album shifts mood thereafter reflecting the explorer’s experiences. As the ice pack eventually crushed and sank their ship they could only stand by and watch. The stoical farewell is captured to perfection on the sombre Goodnight Sweet Chariot with its curling guitars and organ fills. A beautiful song, its martial drumming and nod to the spiritual, Swing Low Sweet Chariot, summon up peril and death but the delivery is a delicate wonder and reminiscent of bands such as The Jayhawks and The Byrds (in Chestnut Mare times). There’s more delicate murmurings at the beginning of The Rescue Party which is a rich tapestry of guitars and slow weeping strings. The first step to rescue as Shackleton heads off for help, the song picks up pace towards the end as if the wind were carrying the song along with zephyrs of guitar spiralling upwards. For those left behind (read the story¬†here for those who are lost by now) Despair & Redemption on Elephant Island imagines a Morricone styled exile with guitar shards firing over a desolate rhythm eventually giving way to an ecstasy of redemption as the crew again are able to sing their refrain. There’s a wonderful curtain call on the final song Bottom Of the World which retells the tale in summary with a fine folk like feel, spidery slide guitar and accordion along with a memorable chorus allowing it the sense that one might be in a tavern listening to one of Shackleton’s men recalling his adventure.

Overall Science From An Easy Chair is a bold adventure. There are songs in here that stand out well away from any concept with Goodnight Sweet Chariot the main contender. However there’s no denying the skill with which Matt Burke has woven the story into the songs (or vice versa) and at the very least having listened to the album and read the notes one is somewhat elucidated on a small part of polar exploration history. Apart from that it’s a crackingly good album.

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Mark Utley. Bulletville. Sleep Cat Records. This Is American Music

Blabber’n’Smoke first came across Cincinnati’s Mark Utley when we reviewed Magnolia Mountain’s album Town And Country back in 2012. A double album that spanned the breadth of country rock from folky roots to grungier grooves Town and Country was followed by Beloved which delved into a Muscle Shoals direction while Utley simultaneously released a solo album that hankered more to his country leanings. His next step was to form a band that would perform the country songs from the solo album and hence Bulletville was born. A splinter group of sorts Bulletville features Magnolia Mountain members Renee Frye (vocals), Jeff Vanover (guitar), and Todd Drake (drums) who are joined by bassist Ken Kimbrell, keyboardist Ricky Nye and pedal steel guitarist John Lang. Here they deliver a solid package of tear stained and heart wrenching country songs that run the gamut from George and Tammy like laments to beer fuelled honky tonking gut busters fuelled by lashings of pedal steel.

The album opens with the loping bass into to Good Timin’ Girl, a breeze of a song with a classic bittersweet country tale that could have been written by Dolly Parton and sung by Kenny Rogers, in fact if Rogers or any of his ilk ever took this on then it would be a guaranteed hit. As it is the performance here is exemplary, Utley almost croons the words while Frye adds a multtitracked refrain, the pedal steel is sweet and honeyed and Nye offers up a fine piano solo. Wish You Were Her however steers well clear of the charts and heads for the bars as the band sway into Ameripolitan territory and the guitars grimace instead of smile. A woozy waltz time lament with a seventies feel courtesy of the electric keyboards and fuzzy bass line it sees Utley and his partner sharing a table but separated by miles of estrangement. The album is packed full of these wonderful odes to lost or failed love with Utley mining the past and coming up with new treasures such as the classic couplet “I just can’t remember to forget” on the honky tonk tones of Remember To Forget while Honey I’m Home weeps wonderfully as Utley swaps the family home for the local pub in an attempt to drown his sorrows. One Heartbeat At A Time is another break up song but it’s delivered with the commercial heartbeat that John Hartford sounded out on Gentle On My Mind and is another example of the commercial potential contained herein. While all of the band are in excellent form here Renee Frye in particular sparkles with her harmony support with Only In Our Minds an excellent country duet. She has two showcases here, the rolling and tumbling boogie Firecracker where she is as sassy as Loretta Lynn while The Only Thing is another tear jerking lament offering the female counterpoint to Utley’s songs of loss.

If this were all the album would be a winner but they throw in a couple of belters just to up the ante. Four In The Morning swaggers in with a muscular swing as beefy pedal steel and swirling organ churn and boil over a menacing rhythm producing a song that has the heft of a Joe Ely song back when he was a pal of The Clash. Jesus Wept is simpler in its delivery with some Bakersfield country in the twang guitars as Utley sings “I’m broke as hell, all my bills are due, My girlfriend’s mad and my wife is too” on a song that just about encapsulates the stereotype of red necked country music lovers. It’s a bit of a hoot. Utley closes the album with the only cover, a version of fellow TIAM artists, Great Peacock’s Bluebird which he dresses up in warm vocals and sweet pedal steel murmurings, a sweet end to a meaty album.

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Fire Mountain. All Dies Down. This Is American Music.

Blabber’n’Smoke got all fired up over Fire Mountain’s EP, Of The Dust, way back in 2011. Since then main man Perry brown has been posting demos via Facebook before launching a Kickstarter campaign for this album. Sadly there was a shortfall and for a while it looked as if the demos would have to suffice for the time being. A pleasant surprise then to find out that they’re the latest addition to This Is American Music‘s roster with their debut album All Dies Down. On the EP we compared them to Fleet Foxes but here they’ve taken some giant strides while expanding their scope with a chunkier, beefed up sound, the result being a fine collection of strained ballads and sparkling countrified jaunts. Singer and songwriter Perry Brown remains a fine singer with his voice a well stained husky instrument in itself while the band (Ryan Richburg, electric guitar, Walter Black, bass, Bryan Segraves, keyboards and Adam Vinson on percussion) whip up a fine storm on occasion. There’s a Springsteen like muscularity to some of the tunes with much of this down to the keyboards while the guitars alternately ripple or spark with some feedback fury thrown in.

The album kicks off in fine fashion with Be Your Eyes, a fine mid tempo piece that recalls Whiskeytown, a perfect summer song with its rippling guitars and melodic joy. Anchor Iron weighs in with a whiff of Wilco circa Summerteeth and by now it’s apparent that as a band they have stepped up a pace with the arrangement here just short of wonderful. The rhythm section is taut while a tough guitar line chops across what appears to be a vibraphone as Brown sings with an almost hoarse weariness. The song bustles towards a busy middle eight before the choppy guitar and keyboards wind it down to the end, a great song and one that I reckon would please fans of Danny and The Champions Of The World. In fact there are times throughout the album when one can imagine Fire Mountain to be working at the same coal face as Danny and his Champs. Factory Line showcases the band’s new muscle with a guitar riff descended from Secret Agent Man that mutates into a churning country rock stew with added organ swirling throughout. Brown is ferocious as he spits out the words as the band pummel on. While it’s difficult to make out what the song is about it conjures up a neon lit strip peopled with hookers and full of danger. In any case it’s grade A Americana noir.

Time for a breather with the gentle strum of At The Seams , a song that is gently energised by a softly propulsive bass and drums with rippling piano before it takes wings and flies. Doing Fine has a Stray Gators pulse beat with guitars shimmering in the background and an excellent piano solo as Brown paints a picture of ennui in a small town while Traces just about stumbles into view with a Stones’like woozy swagger, the beat just behind the guitars while Brown is joined on vocals by Janet Simpson-Templin. The outro here is majestic and does recall Jagger and Richards’ finer forays into the country genre. They cap it all with the final song, Moving Target, opening with Brown crooning over first acoustic and then electric guitar filigrees before the full band pitch in leading to an organ and feedback drenched climax. Tremendous.

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Doc Feldman & The LD50. Sundowning At The Station. (This Is American Music.)

It’s been a while since we’ve come across a record label has the feel of being a trademark of quality in that it’s a fair bet that if they release a disc then it’ll be well worth exploring. Elektra, Stiff, SST, Bloodshot have all had their moments in the sun when this was true of them. This Is American Music (or TIAM), a labour of love for some Americana fans in the deep south has in the three years it’s been running built a solid reputation with releases from Glossary, The District Attorneys, Great peacock and Hurray For The Riff Raff. They’ve a slew of new releases hammering to be heard including Bonnie Whitmore, Have Gun Will travel and this offering, as fine a slice of dusty deadbeat songs as we’ve heard in a while.

Based in Kentucky Doc Feldman is a local veteran of several bands and Sundowning At the Station is his solo debut following the demise of his last band Good Saints. We say solo but he’s assembled a studio crew called the LD50 (go look it up) consisting of James Jackson Toth (AKA Wooden Wand), David Chapman and Jeremiah Floyd and produced a minor masterpiece of reproaches and recriminations. With Feldman at the helm proclaiming like a soiled preacher the band offer a muted support sounding like a wounded Crazy Horse (on Alive For Now) or lost in a sea of fuzz (Battle Hymn), overall there’s a sense of numbness, of howling at the moon, railing against life’s calamities.

Ready opens the album, a banjo riddled riposte to the country rock popularised by Neil Young’s Harvest taking Young’s sound and diving headlong into the ditch as Feldman pleads to be given a lethal dose to end it all. Texas Moan is a novel in miniature as the band conjure up the sound of Little Feat on Sailing Shoes. Alive For Now opens with portentous guitars and drum washes before settling down into a pared down cousin to Neil Young’s Zuma as guitars slow burn and the rhythm section churns away like the muddy Mississippi. On some of the songs the sound is pared back leaving Feldman to stand naked as it were with Let It Go recalling Steve Earle in his rehab days while Cold Tile Floor brims with menace. There are snatches of found sounds scattered throughout the album but they are most effective on the solo dirge that is Only Light where Feldman picks up his guitar and delivers a magnificent mea culpa.
Downbeat and dreary may be the order of the day here but ultimately the delivery is exciting with some shiver worthy moments and as we said earlier a fine addition to the TIAM catalogue.

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