A to Z Album and Gig Reviews


Daniel Rachel - A Simple Twist of Folk (Dust)

In his previous Birmingham band incarnation as Rachel's Basement (whose excellent Quit Your Low Down Ways is included here as a hidden bonus track), Rachel found himself courted by any number of labels looking to get themselves their own Ocean Colour Scene. After all, the bands were regular gigging acquaintances and Rachel's warble didn't sound a million miles away from that of his mate Simon Fowler. However, labels being what they are, dithering took hold and when OCS began to show signs of losing a little lustre interest cooled. Rachel retrenched, disbanded and reconstructed himself as a singer-songwriter plying the acoustic circuit. A further clutch of demos and a series of London dates earned him sufficient good notices to prompt this own label solo album debut, stripping the sound back to the simple voice and guitar format.

The strangled treble of Meet Met At The Bridge and Need To Be Somebody ensure the Fowler comparisons won't die away yet awhile, but Letter To A Soldier, the yearningly wonderful Ragged Smile and The Sound of The Silence now give access to such influences as Loudon Wainwright, Dylan, early Donovan, McGuinn, and maybe even Ralph McTell, though perky domestic love song Saturday Morning, Sunday Night suggests he may also possess a Harry Nilsson album. Like all folkies, he's not averse to incorporating a few unacknowledged borrowings into the work, the Desiderata lines of Child Of The Universe or the 'keep on moving, keep a searching' phrases of Hawaiian lilting Mamma Cha Cha (a wink to ex Specials guitarist Roddy Radiation apparently) for example. But at least he nicks them to good effect. Aided and abetted by Goldfrapp drummer Rowan Oliver and Damned pianist Joe Atkinson, musically he exhibits a decent diversity within the limits of instrumentation, dropping in ska ripples, African flavours, and, on Free My Mind, psychedelia chops, and his gentle melodies are often truly beguiling. Thematically, fame, failure, rejection and ambition provide the building blocks of songs that flag up a never surrender self-belief though it has to be said that in the cold light of the lyric sheet lines like 'need to go somewhere soft where you can bathe the goose' are quite frankly barking.


Mike Davies

Rachel & Lillias - Dear Someone (Fellside)

Like many talented young musicians in the currently-well-subscribed "rising star" category, harpist/singer Rachel Newton and flautist Lillias Kinsman-Blake met while studying for their BMus at Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Both currently play in the group The Shee (whose debut album A Different Season has just arrived for review), but their work as a duo is the focus of this CD, on which they present fleet-footed, fresh-toned and clear-textured performances of songs and tunes in sensible (and roughly equal) proportion. Rachel's singing voice is pure in tone, yet also has depth, excellent diction and an impressive range, with an equally impressive supple maturity of phrasing that engages attention from the outset. Of the six songs on the disc, two were learnt from Maeve MacKinnon of Barra, and are delivered proficiently in Gaelic (Rachel's a fluent Gaelic speaker), while the remainder of the songs, sung in English, are with one exception (the Gillian Welch-penned title track) drawn from the tradition and learnt directly from recordings of source singers. These include a beguiling treatment of Young Horseman, which shares with the aforementioned Gillian Welch cover an interestingly jazz-inflected instrumental setting. As for the instrumental tracks, these include both some extremely competent self-penned tunes and a fine selection of modern and traditional items, all played with a persuasive immediacy and lively zest that you perhaps might not immediately expect to encounter from this particular instrumental combination (one that's normally beset with the tag of refined, overly genteel neo-classical preciousness). Both Rachel and Lillias exhibit in their playing a lithe and nimble quality allied to an expressiveness that their lightly-worn virtuosity can all too easily belie; they also share a feel for carefully judged use of syncopation. In that context, on five of the tracks some percussion embellishments from guest musician Paul Jennings impart deft cross-rhythms that serve to point up that very element of the lasses' playing while enhancing the demonstration of their precision of line and ensemble. Through the entirely unaffected breeziness of their playing, Rachel and Lillias display a delightfully unpretentious calm contentment and joy that proves both appealing and uplifting for the listener too, and a welcome new addition to Fellside's illustrious roster.


David Kidman September 2008

The Radar Brothers - The Fallen Leaf Pages (Chemikal Underground)

The California trio of Steve Goodfield (drums), Senon Williams (bass) and vocalist/pianist/guitarist/producer Jim Putnam finally get round to following up And the Surrounding Mountains with much of the same shimmeringly melancholic alt-country post rock psychedelia with its hints of Pink Floyd, Neil Young, the Velvets and the druggier moments of The Beatles. Dark, ruminative, dreamy soundscapes roll across the 13 tracks here, sometimes fragile like We're Not Sleeping and Faces of the Damned, sometimes gathering in sonic power as the song builds on tracks like Papillon, the carousel waltzing To Remember (with its Perfect Day borrowings), and the Brian Wilson echoing Dark Road Window.

There's not a huge degree of variation across the album, the overall effect veering on a somewhat of a trace-like drone. But, taken individually numbers such as the Neil Young like Breathing Again with its slow rush of reverb guitars, the sunny day neurosis Government Land and the nervy pulsing brooding noir and whistle of the oddly titled Like an Ant Floating In Milk that calls to mind a deranged cousin of Jellyfish, all enfold you in the cumulative cold beauty of their poetic meditations on regret and loss.


Mike Davies, February 2006

The Radar Brothers - and the surrounding mountains (Chemikal Underground)

Not siblings, but the California trio of Steve Goodfield (drums), Senon Gaius Williams (bass) and vocalist/pianist/guitarist/producer Jim Putnam have a definite blood kinship when it comes to crafting simple melancholic alt-country melodies that hum with a mix of sadness and hope.

This, their third album, preceding a small UK tour supporting the reunited Breeders, still bears traces of the Neil Young and Beatles influences identified on their 1995 debut EP, but these days songs such as This Xmas Eve, Rock of the Lake, The Wake of all That's Past and Mountains would undoubtedly also draw comparisons to the post-rock country genre that serves as home to the likes of Will Oldham, the Pernice Brothers, and Sparklehorse. They could do with a little more variation on the musical moods, but otherwise this minimalist intimacy makes for an impressive landscape.


Mike Davies

Jessica Radcliffe - Night Blooming Jasmine (High Bohemia)

This beautifully atmospheric new release from Jessica R (who's better known as partner of master guitarist Martin Simpson) showcases seven self-penned songs directly inspired by her discovery of New Orleans as a spiritual home. As she writes in her liner notes, she's lived there "as a lover, enchanted, observant, frightened, wanting more". This complex mix of emotions is well conveyed in the strangely confident vulnerability of the musical soundscapes, which are most affecting and in the end prove quietly compelling. Admittedly, Jessica may not be a top-drawer singer, and many listeners have found her tremulous timbre offputting, but I find the compensation is that there's a strength of conviction within the fragility of execution that by and large overrides the deficiencies in her vocal technique. And in the end what matters is that there are some lovely songs here - I particularly liked the entrancing intimacy of Sweet Unfinished Things and Candlelight and the smoky blues of Sleepy Little Woman. Inevitably perhaps, she's accompanied mostly by Martin himself on various guitars and backing vocals, while a select few other friends (Chris Parkinson amongst them) contribute occasional instrumental and vocal touches to good effect. It's Martin's superlative, bourbon-soaked playing that pervades the album and gives it its dominant musical character, but (as on the couple's previous recorded collaborations) you'll hear that his own artistry proves the ideal counterpoint to Jessica's, which taken on its own can be more of an acquired taste. Martin even contributes a brief solo (blues instrumental) cut to the proceedings too. Shame, then, that the whole CD gives such short measure at only 37 minutes.


David Kidman

Tim Radford - George Blake's Legacy (Forest Tracks)

This CD may on the face of it sound an unlikely candidate for wide acclaim, aside from within the relatively narrow specialist field of English traditional folk song. Its 28 tracks present the majority of the complete known repertoire of one particular Hampshire singer, George Blake, as collected by George B. Gardiner in 1906-07, in performances by a present-day Hampshire-born singer, Tim Radford, who, though like Blake was brought up in the New Forest region of that fair county, now happens to live in America.

The disc is enclosed within a DVD-case accompanied by an exemplary 52-page booklet containing Tim's own erudite introductory essays and detailed notes on the 48 pieces on the disc, together with full texts, melodies and notes for the remaining 21 songs in George's repertoire (excluded from the disc simply on the grounds of being already "fairly commonly found elsewhere"); there's also a Blake Family Tree and a selection of photographs of local places. The standard of the booklet is indicative of the loving care and attention to detail which Tim has lavished on the whole project, and this extends to the disc itself.

Some of the songs are mere fragments as collected, and these are given as musical interludes between Tim's own acappella renditions of the complete songs, in well-managed, idiomatic instrumental performances by guest musicians Jeff Davis and Jan Elliott. As regards Tim's own singing, he's blessed with an attractive voice, with a clear and even tone and an appealing Hampshire "burr", with a slight element of vibrato here and there. Tim's is very much a "revival" voice, with - in some of the songs - an additional florid quality, a hint of conscious "performance" that you wouldn't necessarily expect to find in a source singer of this kind of repertoire. Tim's approach works well enough, and his are admirable performances, but their very evenness sometimes engenders a kind of four-squareness or else a certain lack of dynamic contrast and a feeling that there could be a greater degree of dramatic response on occasion - particularly when you listen to a longer sequence than three or four songs.

Of course, it's not possible to ascertain how closely Tim's singing might approximate George Blake's own delivery; yet even so, the breadth of the repertoire on this disc may well suggest that a broader measure of expressive or interpretive variety is called for, certainly over the course of an evening's entertainment. Having said that, nowhere do I feel that any of Tim's renditions are at all lacking in terms of understanding of the text.

The songs themselves are an interesting bunch: some (like My Bonny Bonny Boy, George Collins and Adieu To Old England) are relatively well-known, though not necessarily quite in these variants (the item here named Maria is a version of Through The Groves, for instance). Tim also turns in a stirring performance of In A British Man O' War. But the most valuable aspect of the disc for many enthusiasts of traditional song will be the more unusual or rarely-heard items, among which there are several songs I'd not come across before (like Young Taylor, Hussa and the long ballad I Am A Sailor, which here forms a centrepiece to the collection). Finally, in truthfully representing the wide range of George Blake's repertoire, Tim also includes on the CD a whimsical moralistic recitation and a handful of brief toasts.

I hope I've managed to convey the artistic and historical importance of this release, for it's a superbly presented labour of love on Tim's part, no less (the culmination of many years of research), and richly deserves your close attention.


David Kidman January 2010

Radiotones - Bound To Ride (Scratch Records)

Scotlands self-styled alternative blues terrorists return with their third album of work hard, play hard, no nonsense urban songs. They have gone electric and added drums but the classic Radiotones sound is still there. Every track has the utmost effort put into it and the hard work is well rewarded in Bound To Ride.

The album opens with the brooding 'Troubled Mind' which, I'm sure, will become a live favourite for years to come. There are only two tracks that are not written by the band and the first is a stunning version of the Frankie Miller song, 'One More Heartache'. The other is 'Hot Muscle Jazz' and this has, quite simply, Radiotones written all over it.

It could be said that the Radiotones only have two speeds, fast and VERY FAST but they do it so well. 'Bring My Baby Back' and 'Devil Got My Woman' are cases in point. Both are played at breakneck speed with the former already a live favourite and excellent choice for a single and neither losing any quality because of the tempo.

The title track is a classic blues them in the style of Robert Johnson as is 'Good Friend Blues' which has some of the best guitar work that Dave Arcari has produced. 'Journeytime Is Over' is another that has already made it into the live set with its catchy hook and it is followed almost seamlessly by the only disappointing track 'You Oughta Know'. This is just not up to the high standards that the band has previously set.

There are a couple of re-workings (addition of drums etc) of old songs here in the shape of 'She's Gone' and 'Close To The Edge'. Both are concert favourites but the new versions have achieved different results. 'She's Gone' hasn't improved but then, there wasn't much to improve on in the first place but the addition of skins on 'Close To The Edge' has given it a more frenetic, fervent quality.

The last two tracks (actually the third last and final tracks) are 'Small World' and 'Another Chance'. The former has a driven beat much akin to Taj Mahal and the latter rounds off the album perfectly, albeit with a quirky beat, in classic Radiotones style with the National guitar firmly to the fore.

Radiotones are improving with age and long may it continue.


David Blue

Radiotones - Whiskey'd Up (Buzz Records)

Scottish blues from Perth's finest. The opening track Don't Stop sets the scene with frontman Dave Arcari growling out the vocals with wailing harmonica, pounding bass and acoustic slide backing him. Arcari's vocal style takes a bit of getting used to but by the end of the album he won me over. Close To The Edge is a Celtic-tinged rockabilly sing-a-long and he's Gone is another that sounds like it will be a live favourite.

Slide guitar is also provided by Mr Arcari and he is complimented by Jim Harcus on harmonica and Adrian Paterson on bass. Wherever I Go is a good example of all three in full flow. Muddy Waters' Can't Be Satisfied is one of only four songs on the album not written by the band themselves. Cool It provides Harcus with a showcase for the harmonica and he comes up with some of the best playing on the album ably backed by Paterson. Arcari is back with National guitar for the first of two Willie Johnson songs Going To See The King and quickly follows it up with the other one, Nobody's Fault But Mine. The guitar work on both tracks shows how good Arcari can be.

Three more self-penned offerings follow, No More Mr Nice Guy, One Side Blind and Day Job. The first two are blues through and through whilst the last of the three goes back to the rockabilly style. The album finishes with a nine minute version of Robert Johnson's Preachin Blues' with trademark guitar licks and Arcari's twist on the vocal all done in the best possible taste. The Radiotones certainly don't hide their lights under a bushel and I'm sure that we'll be hearing more from this trio in the future, maybe even with the addition of a drummer.


David Blue

Joel Rafael Band - Woodbye: Songs of Woody Guthrie (And Tales Worth Telling) Volume 2 (Appleseed)

Singer and songwriter Joel Rafael has at last managed to get to pay tribute to one of his formative inspirations, Woody Guthrie. First by releasing an album (Woodeye) on Jackson Browne's Inside Recordings label back in 2003. I never even got to hear about that one, let alone hear it, but if it's as good as the sequel, Woodyboye, it'll be worth seeking out. Woodeye contained twelve of Guthrie's compositions, both familiar and rare, but Woodyboye goes a stage further in incorporating, alongside five complete original Guthrie songs, four songs (out of literally thousands) which Guthrie didn't get to publish which now have tunes by Joel Rafael himself, then one further unpublished song with a tune by Billy Bragg (inevitably perhaps, it's Way Down Yonder In The Minor Key) and one Joel Rafael original very much in the spirit of Guthrie which could almost pass for authentic Woody (Sierra Blanca Massacre). Joel calls upon a few illustrious guests to flesh out the backings of his small band (just a trio), including Van Dyke Parks (who plays piano or accordion on several tracks) and Matt Cartsonis (on occasional banjo or mandolin). In addition, Joel's fellow-Guthriephiles Jackson Browne and Jimmy LaFave trade verses on Stepstone, the Burns Sisters contribute to the gospel-inflected Heaven My Home and Jennifer Warnes sings and arranges the extra vocal parts on Love Thyself. The musical settings are for the most part admirably simple and unaffected, though I also really liked the slightly fuller string arrangement (by Joel's daughter Jamaica) on Your Sandal String. OK, I could've done without the "nature noises" on Way Down Yonder…, and maybe Joel should've avoided doing a retread of the extremely well-trodden This Train (do we really need another? - there's not much new can be said about it, surely?), otherwise Joel really hasn't put a foot wrong in his delightful, affectionate and accurate evocation of the essence of Guthrie - the writer, songsmith and balladeer, the man and the legend.


David Kidman

Gerry Rafferty - Life Goes On (Hypertension)

A legend in his own lifetime, formerly of The Humblebums (with Billy Connolly), Stealers Wheel (with Joe Egan) and then a major 70s solo artist in his own right (nobody could forget the iconic Baker Street!), Gerry continued to record new material right up to the millennium, but disappeared from the scene entirely for eight years thereafter. His gift for writing melodic and memorably catchy observational songs remained with him throughout that 30-year span, ensuring him a place among the pop giants.

To everyone's surprise, Gerry's now emerged from the shadows again with the release of Life Goes On, a comeback of sorts on which he presents an expansive 18-track collection that intersperses half-a-dozen brand new recordings with various tracks taken from his last three albums (six from 1993's On A Wing And A Prayer, two from 1994's Over My Head and four from 2000's Another World), six of these in personally re-mastered versions.

You might know what to expect, then, and I'd imagine you'll be neither disappointed nor surprised – it all sounds exactly like you want it to. Gerry's distinctive (if stylised), smooth-textured and passionate voice is strongly in evidence on every track, and it sounds just like he's never been away since y2k, right down to the glossy, polished, programming-rich and often decidedly over-lush arrangements that surround that voice, some naturally featuring that trademark swooning saxophone riding high in the texture. The best of these have an undeniable attraction, but it's also indicative that time appears not to have moved on much in Gerry's universe, and several of these tracks are now simply too much, too overbearing, too syrupy and/or bland for us roots-conscious souls.

The new recordings are a strange mixture indeed: a prefatory tolling, chiming take on a Mozart Kyrie Eleison, two passably pleasing, if slightly sugary arrangements of Christmas carols (Adeste Fidelis, Silent Night), a harmony-rich homage to the Beatles' Because, an over-cultured version of the traditional Maid Of Culmore and a self-questioning new composition Your Heart's Desire. The latter's a standout cut for me, and as a bonus it features some excellent playing from a bunch of "real musicians" (as opposed to just programmed sounds) including Jerry Donahue, Mel Collins, Ken Craddock and Alan Clark. On the whole, the album tends to leave a bit of an impression that awareness of mortality might now be a burning issue for Gerry.

The disc's impeccably packaged, with full lyrics and production credits within the lavish booklet. If you're incurably addicted to Gerry's voice (and I can understand why!), and you're comfortable with this kind of polished produced pop sound, then you'll be able to accommodate this disc on your shelves, where it will "sleep in heavenly peace" no problem.


David Kidman January 2010

Gerry Rafferty - Another World (Hypertension)

There's a history to Another World, Gerry (Stealer's Wheel) Rafferty's first studio album since 1994's Over My Head. In 2000 Rafferty decided to bypass the industry Label schtick and sell his CD via the internet on his own Icon label. Having been a fan of the excellent Mr Rafferty since the 70s, it was from there, after whispers on the grapevine and some serious searching, that I found and purchased it. But I can't think that many did - so a rethink, a new running order for the tracks, a deal with prestigious German label Hypertension and a relaunch in March 2003.

Gerry Rafferty is one of this country's most masterful songwriters and the album has been recorded and produced with equal care and attention. It was at least a couple of years in the making - in Barbados, Scotland, France, Italy and London - and produced by Rafferty himself, with guest musicians including guitarists Mark Knopfler, Bryn Haworth and Julian Littman, and bass players Mo Foster and Pino Palladino. Like a sculptor Rafferty crafts his songs in the studio - bringing in musicians to add rich layers of colour to the tracks as he creates them.

It's a smooth collection with hidden depths and secrets. Lyrics reflect his interest in poetry, arts and things spiritual. (Rafferty collects Icons and he comments tellingly on his website "For me, Icons are representations and reminders of the unseen".) More obviously there's that immediately recognisably 'Gerry Rafferty' voice - and there's a contemporary dance feel this time with keyboards and organ (Kenny Craddock), a touch of saxophone, programmed percussion and (at times) bass. I'm sad that he's dropped the rootsy, cajun-influenced foot-tapper La Fenetre from the 2000 release and replaced it with the less memorable Keep It To Yourself. Opening and closing the album are spoken words from 13th century Sufi poet Rumi. And there's a hidden track Goodnight Mrs Grinch (sp.?)

The stand-out song (and forthcoming single) is the rocking All Souls with guitar work from Mark Knopfler and (uncredited in the liner notes) slide guitar by Bryn Haworth. The wonderful, soulful, 70's written (Egan/Rafferty) You Put Something Better Inside of Me is a joy to hear again and although there is nothing quite as outstanding as Baker Street or Stuck In The Middle With You, the album is a mature collection from an artist still very much in his prime.


Sue Cavendish

The Songs of Bob Rafkin (Lake Ridge Records 2006)

If you like the live sound of Tom Pacheco, John Prine or Tom Russell there's a good chance you'll love these 12 road tested & refined regulars from Rafkin's live set. Stripped back to just voice & acoustic guitar, the deceptively simple & casually accomplished songs have space to breathe & hint at jazz, ragtime, blues, country rock & folk rather than beating you about the ears with full band arrangements.

Rafkin's nimble & sweet toned finger picking is much in evidence. The arrangements make original and subtle yet powerful settings for the endearing mid-pitch, time burred voice with a some nasal tones & vibrato reminiscent (in a good way!) of a young Billy Joel.

Many of the characters in the songs could have stepped straight out of Norman Rockwell painting to look you in the eye & deliver their monologues, dreams, life stories & wry observations of everyday life. The album could be an object lesson in the craft of the understated American singer-songwriter.

Of course, none of this is more than would be expected from a mature player who features on work by Tim Buckley, Arlo Guthrie & The Everly Brothers to pick just a few names from Bob Rafkin's astonishing CV.


James Hibbins, October 2006

Mícheál Ó Raghallaigh - The Nervous Man (MOR Music)

Subtitled "traditional Irish music on concertina", but such a relatively bald, bland tag belies the richness of invention and marvellous playing to be found therein. Actually, now that I come to think of it, there haven't been terribly many decent concertina records of specifically Irish repertoire (Mary MacNamara comes to mind as one of the latest), so this new release would be welcomed for its relative rarity value in any case. But the quality is so utterly excellent that it deserves the widest possible currency outside the squeezebox specialist market. Michael O'Reilly (to use his anglicised name for convenience) has recently been acclaimed as the driving force behind the band Providence, who have released two extremely fine albums so far. But copious thanks must go to those "confused souls" (Michael's own words!) who suggested he produce a solo effort, for this is simply one of the most consistently listenable concertina-based albums I've had the pleasure of encountering.

The focus is fairly and squarely on Mícheál's superbly musical, articulate, fluid, confident and infectiously animated playing (nervous? – no way!), but the sensitive and understated accompaniments from guitarist Eoghan O'Brien (formerly of Déanta), Michael Rooney (harp) and Frank McGann (bodhrán) are absolutely masterly in their own right. Having said that, Mícheál's matchless solo interpretation of Lone Shanakyle (An Páistin Fionn) is a highlight of the album for me, with its inspirationally wild feel and rhythmic flexibility lending the tune a fresh poignancy. The faster selections are taken at a speed that's invariably very sensible, letting the contours of the tune carry the message, and although there are always plenty of notes being played you never get to feel that the tunes are being rushed through their paces; this must be largely down to Mícheál's innovative approach to parallel fingering and his perennially subtle but highly inventive ornamentation. There's so much going on in Mícheál's playing, it's truly breathtaking (in a relaxed kind of way), and this extraordinarily fine release will undoubtedly repay ample repeated listenings for many years to come.

And by the way, Mícheál's insert notes purvey that ideal combination of model informativeness as regards the sources of the tunes and an enthusiastic and witty advocacy of the music. This release is a total delight throughout its 48 minutes.


David Kidman

Railroad Bill Skiffle Group - Still Rollin'... (John John Records)

Skiffle's long been regarded as something of a poor relation, almost not worthy of serious attention (at least compared to blues or jazz), and invariably tarred with the unfortunate brush of novelty-only appeal. It's always been scoffed as being not the province of "proper musicians" - but hey, that's where so many "proper musicians" started out, after all!… And I'd prefer to view skiffle as a kind of punk precursor of rock'n'roll: a rowdy, often ramshackle anything-can-happen music that's raw, fast and gutsy. So in all those respects, Cardiff's Railroad Bill Skiffle Group are the real deal, authentic as they come. They do what the tin says, to the manner born and with every ounce of energy they can muster in their right-in-yer-face, upfront delivery. Rough and very much ready, this CD was recorded in a two-day studio session, and has an admirably spontaneous live edge. They've been described as "Lonnie Donegan on speed", and there's more than a grain of truth in that - often pretty fast and furious, breakneck, a bit like the Hayseed-Dixie of skiffle but not so hectic that they're in danger of getting carried away. Also very obviously damn good fun (for them and for us) with an occasional zany, madcap Brett-Marvin-meets-the-Bonzos feel. The drawback of that is that some of the singing (or shouting) and musical effects can feel a bit over-the-top (I'd guess they're done that way for maximum live impact) and one or two gimmicks can wear thin on disc (I'm thinking especially of the over-use of the train whistles on a couple of the numbers and some wilfully over-exaggerated vocal gestures that exceed just plain good-time horsing about). That said, there's much to enjoy about the RBSG's cheerfully managed skiffling, with their adept full-steam-ahead prowess on those iconic instruments of the genre like washboard, tea-chest bass, twang guitar and mandolin. We don't quite get Rock Island Line here, but there's plenty of railroad-related songs (Streamline Train, Old Train, Workin' On The Railroad), alongside tales of gambling, drinking and prison, all done in the approved manner with gruff, authentic feeling (they even turn in a superb 6-5 Special). So by and large, Railroad Bill are on the right track… so let the train take the strain!


David Kidman January 2009

Peter Jack Rainbird - Unravel (Own Label)

It's three years to the month since I reviewed Rainbird's outstanding debut Dust: Fragments From A Journey, an album of brooding, yearning widescreen folk rock that, on the strength of the magnificent Stand In Beauties Way alone, should have showered him with critical acclaim and elevated him to the ranks of international acclaim.

Frustratingly that proved not to be, and he became despondent, drifting around Canada's West Coast and, for two years, not even picking up a guitar. Then, in summer 2010, the music began to resurface. Except without words. He started performing again, playing at festivals, spending the summer playing at a beach club. Audiences were enthusiastic and kept asking if there was a CD of the music. There wasn't. He simply didn't have the money.

But, to paraphrase Field of Dreams, if you play it they will come. And so support rolled in. That autumn he took a boat out to a studio on Protection Island in British Columbia to record the album in one take with no overdubs. Itself inspired by the landscape of Vancouver Island, the music is also paralleled by the cover art, taken from the animation work of Israeli artist Ariel Malka, his Sea Of Chaos a topographic landscape that unravels from a single line. Likewise, Rainbird described his piece as "the recording of a single live performance from a guitar, a mono signal, down a black guitar cable, the series of chords is then looped live and layers of melody and chords are layered to expand the sonic landscape that unfolds."

Translate that into layman's terms and what you have is a five movement piece of eerie, peaceful ambient ebb and flow guitar drone that at times resembles whale calls, at others the melancholic sigh of a church organ.

Listen to the Dust album and you'll hear the template, echoing with the influence of Daniel Lanois, but here they step forward to form a spiritual organic beauty that opens with the nine minute Signals and pulsates seamlessly through Ariel and With You to form a 25 minute movement before a brief silence gives way to the more chiming, cascading notes of the eight minute Easy Now like morning rainfall in forests or mist over a lake, and from there to the final piece, the serene haunting 11 minute Meko which paints a tapestry of stars in the night sky.

It's an amazing piece of work that should warrants attention by folk audiences, Sigur Ros fans and devotees of contemporary New Age experimental alike. Maybe this time, the world will sit up and pay attention.


Mike Davies January 2011

Peter Rainbird - Fragments From A Journey (own label)

Ladies and gentlemen, will you please be upstanding for the first great album of 2008. Of Irish-Nordic extraction, Rainbird cut his teeth playing the London clubs, the coffee houses of LA and San Francisco and any number of dispiriting venues on tours across the UK, Ireland and Canada. Recorded with Bob Lanois (brother of Daniel), his debut release, the four track Dust EP, picked up BBC radio play but failed to generate much interest. Undaunted, Rainbird bid London farewell and returned to Toronto to work on a full length album. Recruiting musicians that, among others, included legendary bassist Tony Levin, percussionist and tabla player Pete Lockett and drummer Paul Brennan, he set to work crafting the material that now appears here, two songs recurring from the EP, two reworked from the Instinct Overides EP sold during the early tours, with six previously unavailable numbers.

Often evocative of Bruce Cockburn in his warm folk-tinged soaring vocals and the textured arrangements of the songs, but also with atmospheric hints of Peter Gabriel and Daniel Lanois, the album's imbued with a burnished spirituality, sensuous physical images, a sense of those wide open Canadian spaces and a deep, soulful yearning.

There's two non-originals. Waiting For A Miracle is Rainbird's new seven minute setting of Cohen's lyrics, the chiming guitars conjuring an atmosphere that can best be described as the musical equivalent of the aurora borealis. The second is a dark, plangent guitar and percussive rumbling treatment of the traditional She Moved Through The Fair, a heady brew given deeper intoxication courtesy of Lori Anna Reid's harmony duet. Her voice figures too on Burn, a song of swirling sexual desire with lyrics by Sharon Lewis.

Everything else is pure Rainbird, opening with the magnificent, widescreen chiming soulful folk rock of Circling taking supplicant's wings to the heavens with its vivid images of beads of sweat on exposed skin before moving on through the tumbling melodies and aching chorus of the spine-shivering Stand In Beauties Way and the Eastern-shaded musical palette of Wings & Weapons with its mantra rhythms, throaty guitar and tabla.

Completing the picture with tenderly bruised swaying ballad Opium Mouth, the shimmering night sky patterns and lullabying crescendos of When We Arrive, a bluesily, muscular folk rock Altogether Elsewhere and the climactic, open heart and welcome hands minor key anthemics of Come In, this persuasively claims its place in the debut albums hall of fame and fully deserves to earn Rainbird the international acclaim that is his due.


Mike Davies January 2008

Rainbow Chasers - Some Colours Fly (Talking Elephant)

Back to Hutchings the Enabler and Talent-spotter for this latest offering, on which the remarkable sexagenarian has surrounded himself with fresh talent for his new band venture.

Clearly his three chosen young musicians have had the desired effect of reinvigorating Ashley in the group context (many had remarked on the tired-sounding nature of much of the latter-day output of the final Albion Band lineups), indeed possibly given him a further new lease of life. Certainly Some Colours Fly is a rather fine disc, heaps better than I'd expected, which communicates a tangible excitement on a neat range of material which almost incidentally provides the perfect link to the contemporary-folk-inspired strand of the Albion days.

Let's forget the needless gimmick of titling the album in lower case and concentrate on the music, shall we? Good. Who are these bright-eyed and bushy-tailed newcomers then? Ruth Angell (violin, guitar, vocals) and Jo Hamilton (viola, guitar, keyboard, vocals), both graduates of the Birmingham Conservatoire (though since then Jo was involved with the final Albion Band tour and Ruth has worked with Jim Moray) and Mark Hutchinson (guitars, mandolin, keyboards, vocals), who's currently playing within that "so much more than a ceilidh band" Tickled Pink. There I can't resist immediate reference to one of the true Albion pinnacles, the classy (and classic) Albion Heart lineup with both Chris While and Julie Matthews – and hell, as others have already remarked, there's a marked similarity and ready-made sound comparison on several of the tracks (notably Brambles On A Hill, Knitting Song, Those Broad Shoulders and About Dawn). Ashley's mature vocals and important bass underlay impart an air of authority to the record which I'm not for a moment suggesting wouldn't otherwise be there - but his contribution is vital nonetheless, anyone can recognise that. He's also taken a compositional hand in almost all of the album's twelve tracks, and yes they bear the Hutchings stamp of assurance in spades.

But let's not underestimate the virtues of the young musicians as co-composers, for Ashley has evidently brought out the best in them - new songs like The First Europeans and When I Jumped Ship stand more than favourable comparison with the best of the Albion Band material, and there aren't really any tracks that I could call "Hutchings-in-disposable-mode" on this disc (though I'm not playing New Blue Stockings or Under Surveillance as much as the rest of the tracks). At the risk of underselling Mark's vocal abilities (which I don't intend), both lasses have enviably fine voices, with contrasting timbres and individual qualities that make them clearly ones to watch. There's a mesmerising quality to songs like Ghosts In The Rain that hits the mark right away for me. The instrumental complement allows for some really sensitive arrangements, particularly of the stringed variety - and Given Time is even blessed with an arrangement by Robert Kirby (so fittingly, for a song dedicated to the memory of Nick Drake, to whose LPs he'd so memorably contributed).

Two little (non-musical) complaints regarding the actual package though - wot, no track listing on the back box cover? And having the lyrics in the booklet would've been nice…


David Kidman

Rainer - The Westwood Sessions Volume 1 (OWOM Records)

10 years after his death, Rainer still has a great affect on those who listen to his music. This album, made from tapes recorded 20 years ago and recently discovered in Tucson, sounds as fresh as music being made today. It can be safely assumed that some of these songs were to be included in a follow up to the 1984 album, Barefoot Rock but they were presumably put away somewhere safe and forgotten about when he finally did release his next album in 1992.

The opener, Voodoo Music, confirms that Rainer had his own style but this is just guitar and voice. He does produce a full sound, however, on this straightforward start. Mellow Down Easy has him moving onto electric and with a full band. This has a rockabilly feel to it and all of his eccentricity is here. Wayfaring Stranger is a blues rock with a wailing vocal. It builds well and he keeps his guitar understated as he was not one for big solos. Backwater Blues is so energetic and has great slide guitar whereas Mush Mind Blues is the complete opposite of the preceding track. This is a slow, throbbing blues with the only constant being the high standard of slide guitar. It begs the question - was Rainer the inventor of Alt.blues?

All Done In sees a return to acoustic and a bit of Alt.country this time. He plays it pretty straight on this and produces a great song. He funks it up big style on Fear and it comes out as Talking Heads with slide guitar - very catchy. The very short Just A Little Bit is a shuffling blues version of the famous song covered by many. This is better than most of the versions that I have heard. There is no doubting his feelings on the very atmospheric Zealots Serve Dogmas (acoustic) although it is instrumental only. Every Body Wants To Go To Heaven is an amalgam of David Byrne, Mark Knopfler and Bob Dylan in the vocal delivery and is an excellent song, well executed. Zealots Serve Dogmas is electric this time and is with a full band. Bruce Halper's drums add that extra dimension. He saves the best for last and I Am A Sinner is a spiritual, powerful blues that demonstrates a certain vulnerability before his guitar comes more and more to the fore.

I can't wait for Volume 2!!


David Blue September 2008

Rainer - The Westwood Sessions Volume 1 (OWOM Records)

10 years after his death, Rainer still has a great affect on those who listen to his music. This album, made from tapes recorded 20 years ago and recently discovered in Tucson, sounds as fresh as music being made today. It can be safely assumed that some of these songs were to be included in a follow up to the 1984 album, Barefoot Rock but they were presumably put away somewhere safe and forgotten about when he finally did release his next album in 1992.

The opener, Voodoo Music, confirms that Rainer had his own style but this is just guitar and voice. He does produce a full sound, however, on this straightforward start. Mellow Down Easy has him moving onto electric and with a full band. This has a rockabilly feel to it and all of his eccentricity is here. Wayfaring Stranger is a blues rock with a wailing vocal. It builds well and he keeps his guitar understated as he was not one for big solos. Backwater Blues is so energetic and has great slide guitar whereas Mush Mind Blues is the complete opposite of the preceding track. This is a slow, throbbing blues with the only constant being the high standard of slide guitar. It begs the question - was Rainer the inventor of Alt.blues?

All Done In sees a return to acoustic and a bit of Alt.country this time. He plays it pretty straight on this and produces a great song. He funks it up big style on Fear and it comes out as Talking Heads with slide guitar - very catchy. The very short Just A Little Bit is a shuffling blues version of the famous song covered by many. This is better than most of the versions that I have heard. There is no doubting his feelings on the very atmospheric Zealots Serve Dogmas (acoustic) although it is instrumental only. Every Body Wants To Go To Heaven is an amalgam of David Byrne, Mark Knopfler and Bob Dylan in the vocal delivery and is an excellent song, well executed. Zealots Serve Dogmas is electric this time and is with a full band. Bruce Halper's drums add that extra dimension. He saves the best for last and I Am A Sinner is a spiritual, powerful blues that demonstrates a certain vulnerability before his guitar comes more and more to the fore.

I can't wait for Volume 2!!


David Blue September 2008

Rainer - The Farm (Glitterhouse)

On Nov 12, 1997, German born, Chicago raised roots-blues guitarist Rainer Ptacek died of brain cancer. It had been thought that the tumour was in remission and he'd worked hard to overcome his problems, teaching himself to play again and making some of the best music of his career. But earlier that year it had returned and it was clear there wasn't long left. To help ease the pain and take his mind off things, his friend Howe Gelb (who had organised the tribute album * featuring Robert Plant, Emmy Lou Harris and PJ Harvey) persuaded him to relearn his guitar again and return to the studios. Over a couple of weeks he spent four days recordings before it became impossible for him to make sense of what he was doing. These tracks are the result.

You'd expect it to be morose, downbeat stuff but while reflective melancholy is present and things like Where We Are's meditation on mortality and Hard To Remember takes on a fierce poignancy, there's no woe is me here. Rather there's a joy in life and the simple fact of playing his slide guitar, obviously so on the various instrumentals they laid down in that short time. Let's Pretend To Be Happy he sings on the final track. Death or not, there's no pretending here.


Mike Davies

[Ed: * The rather wonderful The Inner Flame (Atlantic 1997)]

Rainer - Alpaca Lips, The Texas Tapes, Worried Spirits (Glitterhouse)

'Alpaca Lips': to get things in order, this was the follow-up to the hauntingly beautiful 'Nocturnes'. It's Rainer stripped down to the bare essentials and it sounds great. That voice, with just a touch of 'Time Out of Mind' Dylan in it, confident slide on his beloved National, a little bit of bass. All the songs written by Rainer apart from Greg Brown's 'One Wrong Turn', his pal Howe Gelb's 'All Done In' and Stevie Wonder's 'Pastime Paradise' which is as much an experience as a song. 'Rude World' is here and 'Rudy With a Flashlight', Evan Dando covers it on 'The Inner Flame' (produced by Robert Plant and Howe Gelb) tribute. I could go through this album track by track but it's such an emotional experience to listen to Rainer, he really demands all your attention, much in the same way as Ramsay Midwood, rough-hewn, chugging along relentlessly, that voice, the stinging National, the slight middle Eastern influence and the songs, yes, the songs.

One thing about Rainer's albums is that you can put it on and forget about it because you don't get crap tracks, it's all from the heart. Be careful, you'll get drawn in and want all the CDs! Featuring two out of three from ZZ Top and produced by Billy Gibbons, 'The Texas Tapes' is Rainer Ptacek all wired up and ready to rock; oh yeah, and does he rock. This is an album that really has some 'snap' about it and Rainer in 'full on', volumed up to '11' on the Marshall/Richter scale. The collaboration breeds a heady mix that has elements of ZZ, Rainer and Chuck Prophet. Listen to 'One Man Crusade' and melt, it's monumental in the world of rock. If guitar blues/rock is your poison then this is right up your street, that nagging, riff-laden slide is ideal over the ZZ rhythm section; yet in a moment he can be playing the most sophisticated instrumental, like 'Merciful God'. On the opening track, 'Power of Delight', two bars in and Rainer says 'oh yeah', like he's recognised what's going on, it's like a lightbulb in your head and you immediately know he's one of those musicians whose pleasure it is to take you on a musical journey, he wants you along with him because he feels sure you would love the experience - Hendrix was the same. Just take the brakes off your brain and boogie with '(Making the) Trains (Run on Time)', chug along with Rainer and ZZ Top, can't be bad. Nothing spare here. Finally, in this trio of Rainer albums - don't worry there's more to come - 'Worried Spirits', recorded in the Arizona Desert in 1992, made in two days, just Rainer and his trusted National. He had the strength to believe in his own material and no wonder, it is THAT good. When he covers other songwriters then he chooses his material carefully, Greg Brown is represented here again with his 'Poor Backslider', Roosevelt Sykes' 'New World', 'Long Way To the Top of the World' is unknown and in the public domain, 'Life is Fine' and 'Waves of Sorrow' are adapted from Langston Hughes poems.

The word 'genius' always seems to be bandied around the 'musos' circle far too often, but I'll ask you something - find me something better. Most of all you get the feeling that you want to know the man who made such beautiful music and since he's passed on you'll have to wait a while. In the meantime all three albums are 'must haves'.


cj holley, Get Rhythm magazine

Rainer - Live At The Performance Centre (Glitterhouse)

Ah! the deceptive simplicity of it all. One man, his National steel guitar and the blues played live. Rainer imparted throughout his musical life how much more can be brought to the blues; that feeling of raw danger and vulnerability; that 'twang', using every colour in the musical palette to build layers of strum and slide. Seldom has one white man immersed himself in the dark and dirty depths of the blues and made it his own personal statement. He's 'sitting on a powder keg, lighting up cigarette'. Sparks fly. No classic blues covers here, all freshly pressed to make a fashion statement, this is seminal and essential.

'Live At The Performance Centre' can be appreciated on several levels. There's the technical fluency of his playing, the mesmerising originality of his songs, the deeply moving fact that this was a musician in his prime in remission from the cancer which killed him soon after, and, for those lovers of the 'live' recording, the intimate moment captured with all its dynamic power in infinity.

His own songs and those of J.B Lenoir, Billie Holiday, George Harrison, Greg Brown and Willie Nelson are performed here, individually interpreted, using those looped riffs of his which haunt the listener.

Although we weren't privileged to be at The Performance Centre in Tucson in 1997, this 75 minute/20 song album will take us there. The spirit of Rainer lives on. Spine-tingling and wonderful. Buy it.


Sue Cavendish

Rainer Ptácèk - Haunting Blues

Rainer Ptacek

It is with gratitude to Glitterhouse, who are reissuing his back catalogue and three previously unreleased albums, that I write this for those who will learn of his music for the first time. He has long been a secret, but mention the name 'Rainer' to an obsessive lover of original contemporary blues or National Steel guitars and there will be an awed silence.

Rainer was loved and revered. Rainer died aged 46 of an inoperable brain tumour on November 12, 1997 in Tucson, Arizona. He released four albums during his lifetime: Barefoot Rock (first released by Making Waves), Worried Spirits, Texas Tapes (originally available on Demon) and Nocturnes (Glitterhouse). His musician friends, including Howe Gelb, Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, Emmylou Harris and Jonathan Richman, released a benefit album of his songs, The Inner Flame (Atlantic), recorded whilst his illness was in remission and he was able to participate. As an all-star testament to their friend it is exceptional and as a tribute to his songwriting it is unique. All are treasures in my collection. The wonderful news is that three previously unreleased albums of Rainer's work will be available in 2000, the first of which, Alpaca Lips, is out now.

Rainer was influential in that way that quiet, special people with music in their bones so often are. His blues are as raw and intense as you can hack it. Listening to his repertoire is as personal an experience as you can have with another's music without living it. With no pretensions, he sculpts his songs with steel as keen as a new blade. It's so hauntingly distinctive that vibrations linger on in a nerve-tingling after-shock. That National Steel guitar soars up as hot, dry desert rockers, then plunges into the dark, screaming places of the soul. Scary. It's blues beyond 'colour' and Rainer's voice, weary with a certain mumbled hesitancy, is idiosyncratic and perfect for his songs.

Searching for information about Rainer's life has not been easy. Of Czech origin, Rainer was born in Berlin, brought up in Chicago, moved to Tucson, Arizona where he lived modestly, working in a store repairing guitars. He was happily married to his wife Patti, had three children. One can't talk of Rainer without mention of his good friend Howe Gelb who first met him in the '70s. The Giant Sandworms were formed in Tucson, Arizona in 1980 by Gelb, with Rainer, Billy Sed on drums and Dave Seger on bass, but moved to New York, where Gelb later disbanded the project in 1984. Returning to Arizona, he formed the Band of Blacky Ranchette and eventually Giant Sand. Rainer collaborated with him on many occasions up until his death. Gelb assembled the benefit album The Inner Flame, which was co-produced by Robert Plant who had noticed him playing years earlier in a London pub and invited him to record on Fate Of Nations and later write with him.

Of Rainer's own recordings, the earliest are on Barefoot Rock, Rainer And Das Combo; Rainer is accompanied by Nick Augustine on bass and Ralph Gilmore on drums on tracks 1-3, recorded in 1992. Tracks 4-14 were recorded in 1985 with Augustine on bass, Will Clipman on drums and produced by Howe Gelb. This is rough-rocking band blues with tracks as diverse as the opening Mellow Down Easy (Willie Dixon), Around and Around (J.B. Lenoir), The Last Fair Deal (Robert Johnson). Rainer's funky blues groove on his The Unseen Enemy previews what was to come in his later work. It's moodily unsettling and sparse. In Around and Around and That's How Things Get Done, his National Steel guitar is at its most vibrant; meanwhile all through the album the chugging rhythm section punches it forward.

Worried Spirits was produced in 1992. Rainer, eyes down and alone on the album cover, with National Steel guitar and wide blue-sky desert backdrop, are all the sleeve notes needed. As a primer of delta blues, original and old, this album has it all. Just one man and his guitar and songs of lean beauty, "... Spare, sad and at the end of his tether, this album showcases someone who has really got under the skin of the blues." (Matt Snow, Q)

The Texas Tapes, Rainer And Das Combo, was recorded prior to Worried Spirits and features a certain two-thirds-bearded boogie combo from the Lone Star State. It was released in 1993. The opening "Oh Yeah!" and mighty-force slide work, with that unmistakable ZZ vibe, take you through nine tracks, followed by three solo pared-down, deep-delta blues numbers, including Big Joe Williams' Another Man.

Nocturnes, 1995, was recorded without overdubs with a portable DAT-machine during seven days in 1994 in the abandoned Sonoran Desert's San Pedro Chapel (fittingly also the place for his memorial service). Rainer recorded alone with just his battered 1933 National Steel guitar, Dobro and tape loops. Thirty hours of material was edited down to six instrumental tracks of ambient and haunting purity. Ode To N2O, is given a 12-minute trance/dance remix by The Grid!

Alpaca Lips: Rainer was working on this material before his first seizure in early '96. Musicians John Convertino and Joey Burns (both of Calexico) join him on a cover of Stevie Wonder's Pastime Paradise, but the rest of the album is just Rainer and his Dobro. Included are his own rendering of songs which appear on The Inner Flame. Unseen Enemy, previously included on Barefoot with Das Combo, is also given the solo treatment. The final track, ll Done In, tears you apart. "His skillful playing and intimate singing make for a set of evocative, emotional desert-baked blues."

The other posthumous releases are Live At The Performance Center. "An intense live concert. Just a battered, battle-scarred National Steel metal-bodied six string guitar, a tin of stones, and his haunted, intense vocals. That's all you need." And finally, The Farm, "the very last recordings done days before his death. There is something in there that allows us all a glimpse of the brink. And with no better guide than Rainer the pathfinder. Chilling and sweet". (His friend Howe Gelb of Giant Sand.)

As Rainer's albums are re-released and reviewers discover his work or look at it with the perspective of time, much more will be written. As one who was captured by his music without having met him, it is with no apologies I look to Howe Gelb for a last word, "Him being gone is not good." That's how it is.


Sue Cavendish

Bonnie Raitt - Bonnie Raitt And Friends (Capitol)

Me an' Bonnie go back a long way. We first met back in '71 and we've been tight ever since. It's been an odd relationship, she's hooked up with all kinda other folks over the years, whilst I took solace in her regular communications via the nearest record store. And yet by and by it's been a cool relationship, there have been moments when what she was doing didn't quite hit the spot and for a while after she hit the big time with Nick Of Time it seemed like she might have selected the easy life in the middle of the road. Thankfully on her last couple of albums songs like Hear Me Lord and God Was In The Water have demonstrated that she's still got her musical curiosity and the fire to ignite it. Her one great constant is her bottleneck playing which is simply superb,surely on a par with her one time mentor Lowell George.

This new album makes clear the long strange trip that Raitt has taken over the past three and a half decades. Her debut album was recorded in an off season summer camp on a four track machine to capture the spontaneous nature of the performance. Her guests on that occasion were blues veterans (and now legends) Junior Wells and A.C. Reed. For this new live album and DVD package Bonnie set up camp at Donald Trump's Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, New Jersey (and let's take a moment to contemplate the grand conceit of building a hotel and casino complex in New Jersey and calling it not just the Taj Mahal which would have been pretty risible, but Trump Taj Mahal! I wonder if the Don knows how trump translates in Brit schoolboy slang!). There's a lot more than four tracks in use this time as the DVD comes in pristine 5.1 surround sound and the guests come not just from roots respectability but the top of the tree. Welcome Norah Jones, Ben Harper, Alison Krauss and Keb'Mo'.

The final thing you need to know is that the package represents the commercial release of a VH1 TV special from their Decades Rock Live (which accounts for the dreadful logo ridden packaging that blights this release). Sadly the decades in question are largely ignored as the performance is more new Bonnie than old flame. That's no complaint, the band is hot with Jon Cleary's New Orleans flavoured keyboards, a fabulous rhythm section of bassist Hutch Hutchinson and one time Beach Boy Ricky Fataar and guitarist George Marinelli offering both bombproof support to and a fine foil for Raitt's assured vocals and guitar work. And what a voice she has; it's possibly a dodgy comparison to make given the lady's well documented past indulgences but it really is like the best of single malts matured to perfection in the finest of woods whilst her guitar playing as previously noted is exquisite. Up against Harper, Keb'Mo' and the excellent Marinelli she more than holds her own with simple grace and buckets of soul.

Indeed whilst the guests are not redundant, it's Raitt that holds both eye and interest, the main impression I get being that Jones, Krauss et al are here to praise and enjoy rather than hoping to make any mark of their own.

And if this praise seems a bit lavish (can you be too lavish for Trump's Taj Mahal!!) let me just say that I really thought that the combination of an old hero, a great old folk blueser from Cambridge Mass. that hung out with Junior Wells and covered Sippie Wallace tunes, playing the up market gambling den supper club for A TV special was going to be breaking point for me an' Bonnie. Instead I'm happy to tell that we' seem to have a few good years ahead of us yet.


Steve Morris December 2006
The Beat

Bonnie Raitt - Souls Alike (Capitol)

These things are all subjective but for me Bonnie Raitt nailed the love song once and for all with I Can't Make You Love Me, anything you need to feel is right there in that song.

But even great words and music need something almost indefinable to make the magic and that is Bonnie Raitt's real talent. Like a master sculptor with a piece of marble, she takes the formless and chips away until she creates something beautiful, something only she could initially see.

Acknowledged as one of the finest singers of country blues now, with Souls Alike, she has added jazz and soul to the long list of things she does very well.

But it's her willingness and even eagerness to seek out new challenges that keeps her music fresh after 18 albums. Indeed the Souls Alike of the title must refer to the partnership of Raitt, her band and the songwriters whose work she has taken, cossetted, nurtured and brought to fruition.

You'd half expect that after 18 albums - 9 of which have won Grammys - and a host of star collaborations, a creeping reliance of going with whatever works would develop. However, while the core of the album is pure Bonnie Raitt she has woven new treasures around her talent.

So, while I Will Not Be Broken is, on the surface, trademark Raitt, soulful and enchanting, dig a little deeper and you find that the spirit of adventure burns bright, the flames of that spirit are fanned by God Was In the Water, which has a deep, dark groove sweeping everything along. But, with these two opening tracks Raitt was merely getting into her stride for the steamy, heavy sensuality of Love On One Condition (only the one?) and Trinkets.

As anyone who's heard Bonnie Raitt before will know, an equal partner to the blues singer is the musician who can take a love song and rip your heart out through the speakers, that moment on Souls Alike arrives with So Close. Any doubts that Bonnie Raitt is not pushing ahead on Souls Alike, are shattered by Crooked Crown and Deep Water, the angular funk of both songs play nicely with the narrative lyrics, the one igniting the other.

And although Bonnie Raitt is forever pushing and probing, she hasn't completely forgotten the building blocks that brought her to this lofty position and such an experienced performer knows the value of a certain amount of continuity. The aptly-titled I Don't Want Anything To Change could slip easily between the covers of any of her previous 18 albums and nestle there quite happily.

It should come as no surprise that Bonnie Raitt has come up with an energetic and fresh album, nor should it be a shock that she can fit comfortably into whichever genre she chooses, the truly great singers always can and do.

However, at the heart of Souls Alike is the same thing that has always been the driving force, the almost immeasurable singing talent of Bonnie Raitt.


Michael Mee

The Ram Company - Waltzers & Wonders: The Wakes Is In Town (ADA Recordings)

Waltzers And Wonders is a linked suite of 17 songs celebrating the special English experience of The Fairground: originating in the Muckram Wakes' show The Wakes Is In Town written in the early 1980s by Chesterfield-born Ian Carter, which was shelved when the group disbanded and Ian emigrated. More recently, on Keith Kendrick's initiative, a new band was assembled, and when Ian returned to the UK it was agreed the songs would make ideal material for this ensemble to work up and tour, as the first in a series of locally-themed stage shows. Last year's Derby Traditional Music & Arts Festival was the venue for the world première performance of the newly-expanded suite, and now here's the "almost-soundtrack" album (omitting only the recitations and spoken links and – less logically – one song, The Dancing Booth, which is downloadable from the Ram Company's website). Although the suite has something of the feel of one of Ashley Hutchings' concept shows in live performance (lasting over 75 minutes in its stage incarnation), the CD is necessarily more of an episodic experience, one's progress through which is rather like taking a leisurely perambulation through the various booths, each "attraction" having its own story to tell. Led by Ian the proud "fairground owner", The Ram Company (comprising Keith Kendrick, Sylvia Needham, Alan Squires, Howard Mitchell and all four members of Derbyshire's excellent Cross O'Th Hands) performs with evident affection, musical and vocal accomplishment, and keen commitment to Ian's vision. Instrumental colours (concertinas, melodeon, violin, viola, hurdy gurdy, mandolin, guitar, brass, double-bass, keyboard and drumkit) are imaginatively deployed, while the individual "sideshow" cameo character-sketches are nicely turned: particularly, I thought, Sarah Matthews' poignant portrayal of Mary Ann The Tattooed Lady, Keith's lusty Helter Skelter merchant with his Barker's Shanty, Sylvia's wistful depiction of Madame Zaza (a lady Looking For Love), and Michelle Short's sad, lilting waltz for the forlorn House Of Wax. Sarah's heart-rending tale of Julie's Chance (her own composition, and one of the show's three songs not actually penned by Ian) forms another outstanding contribution, while the epic tale of Hackett's Golden Gallopers captivates (more so on CD than on stage), and John Tams' Pulling-Down Song (a key inspiration for Ian's original show) is performed with the ideal combination of respect and fresh paint. There are moments when one's attention mildly drifts, but by and large this beguiling and evocative disc succeeds in bringing you, in the best of traditions, all the fun of the (folky) fair.


David Kidman January 2009

Bo Ramsey - Fragile (Rounder)

Still best known maybe for his excellent axe-work on Lucinda Williams' Car Wheels On A Gravel Road album and his playing on records by Greg Brown, Bo's a brilliant and imaginative solo artist in his own right. Although he proved beyond a shadow of doubt on his last album Stranger Blues that he's much more than a session guitarist and "hired gun", he takes all that into another dimension with Fragile, his first album of new original songs (all self-penned or else co-written) in ten years. Now if ever any album title was a misnomer! for it's a strong set by any standards, one that bears testament to Bo's personal journey. Bo's Mid-West-based support crew includes drummer Steve Hayes, bassist Jon Penner, and keyboardist Ricky Peterson, who all do him proud. Rising star Pieta Brown repays Bo's loyalty by co-producing the album as well as co-writing six of the tracks, and its signature sound bears a glistening slowburning bluesiness that ideally couches Bo's moody, smoky, restless vocal. A bit Knopfleresque at times perhaps, it's one of those records that's consistently good but with no specific highs and lows, which makes it hard to say much about it other than it's well worth your time. The nine new songs are complemented by two brief instrumental sketches (Away and In The Woods). My personal preferences lie with the more atmospheric cuts like Dreamland, Burn It Down, Can't Sleep and the coolly droning title track, but as I said its artistic consistency is its strength.


David Kidman May 2008

Bo Ramsey - Stranger Blues (Continental Song City/Rounder)

No stranger to the blues, Mr Ramsey! Robert Franklin "Bo" Ramsey's much in demand as a session guitarist and "hired gun" for touring bands, also contributing significantly to albums by Lucinda Williams, Kate Campbell, Pete Seeger and Iris DeMent and latterly in a fruitful long-term collaborative partnership with Greg Brown. Stranger Blues, however, shows him to be a vibrant solo performer in his own right who's more than capable of delivering a whole album full of vital personal takes on even the most well-worn of blues material alongside inspired arrangements on choices of less often heard pieces. Although Bo takes his inspiration from a variety of classic blues sources and templates, and is as likely to be heard purveying downhome dirty funk-blues as moody swamp-blues (the title track), Willie Dixon crawl (Crazy Mixed-up World) and John Lee Hooker stride (Hate To See You Go), he also turns in some extremely tasty slowburners which here prove album highlights: a lazy-glistening Sitting On Top Of The World, Muddy Waters' Little Geneva, and the world-weary closer When The Sun Never Goes Down (a fine adaptation of a traditional lyric). And Bo's gently shuffling take on Freight Train is both supremely deft and wholly delightful. In more uptempo mode, Bo still delivers the goods tho', and how - getting restless on Jesse Mae Hemphill's Jump, Baby, Jump and Chester Burnett's No Place To Go for instance. Along with Bo, featured support comes from Greg Brown, Ricky Peterson, Pieta Brown and Alex Ramsey - what a team, complementing Bo's musical vision perfectly. This is a robust and uncompromising collection, and well worth both the long wait and your investment.


David Kidman March 2007

Rancho Deluxe - True Freedom (own label)

Southern California country with a tweak of Bakersfield and Nashville are the order of the day for the duo's latest offering, among whose guest musicians numbers Gram Parsons steel alumni Jaydee Maness.

Sitting somewhere between the Burritos and the Eagles with a goodly supply of twang, familiar Nashville country guitar and the occasional bluegrass flourish, it's sturdy rather than inspired and doesn't nudge any envelopes but nor does it prompt any urge to reach for the skip button.

A tale of a friend's death, Too Late opens proceedings in southern bluesy country rock mood with a chugging riff while Maintenance Man sees Maness let rip while Greg Harris brings his banjo to the party for the final breakdown stretch. But to these ears it really hits its stride on the keening, close harmonies of Valley Of The Bears, a trucking tale of a family heading West with Megan Lynch supplying yearning fiddle, building the momentum with the Bakersfield rebel rock n rolling Ghost Town and the regret stained Semi-Cool Cube with its lines about selling your soul to make a little more money.

A couple of kick up the dust instrumentals, Templeton Gap and Bone Rock Breakdown let them show off their fiddle, banjo, and slide in frenzied fashion, while I'd direct your ears to the major chord anthemics of True Freedom's five minutes of facing up to letting go. I'm a little less eager though about recommending the similarly lengthy closing song, the slow lurching marriage screw up of Whiskey And Saturday Nights which sounds like it's trying too hard to demo for a Willie Nelson album. But, self-produced by guitarist Jesse Jay Harris, as a whole it's going to sound well enough with a bowl of corn chips and some cold Buds.


Mike Davies January 2009

Jon Randall - Walking Among The Living (Epic)

If Jon Randall's legacy to music were to be only one song, then the gift of Whiskey Lullaby is quite something to leave behind. Most notably performed by Alison Krauss (who guests here on Southern Comfort) and Brad Paisley, Whiskey Lullaby wasn't just deservedly song of the year, it has queered the pitch for country love songs for some time.

But Walking Among The Living shows that Randall is more than a one-trick pony. It may well feature Whiskey Lullaby (would you leave it out?) however it also contains a whole lot more.

Born into a family where his policeman father played in a bluegrass band and mum played the Dobro, Randall got his first guitar aged six and began writing songs from then on.

Quite naturally he was drawn to Nashville and became the only 'unknown' to play in Emmylou Harris's band The Nash Ramblers, on the 1992 album The Ryman. A series of frustrating studio experiences made him a reluctant recording artist, preferring to become a session singer and guitarist.

His reticence is made all the more difficult to understand when you listen To Walking Among The Liuving. Who better to get the most out of the songs than the man who wrote them?

Like Jimmy Webb and Glen Campbell, Randall shows the difference between an artist moulding and tailoring a song into a performance, and the author setting it out as it was conceived. The songs are more basic and simple, and the contrast shows the development process of a song from pen to, hopefully, CMA award.

It's impossible to avoid being captivated by Randall's songs and, reluctant a performer he may be, Walking Among the Living shows him to be far more than simply a country singer and songwriter. In fact the early part of the album has far more in common with James Taylor than anyone else, there's a relaxed intelligence about In the Country and North Carolina Moon. It's not until the aptly titled Austin that there is anything definitively country.

But Walking Among The Living shows the art and appeal of a songwriter bringing his own songs to fruition, it's not glitzy and the songs are not 'arranged', here they are presented almost as written and it's a joy.

But the last word has to go to Whiskey Lullaby, if there is a better opening than 'She put him out like the burning end of a midnight cigarette', then answers on a postcard please.


Michael Mee

[ED: This album has a little piece of spyware which Sony/BMG have sneakily inserted on 52 of their recent 2005 US releases. If you have this album as a US Import, don't play it on your computer)

Random - Toadstone (WildGoose Studios)

"Electric ceilidh music with guts" quoth the back cover... so, if by "electric" we mean a backbeat from bass and drums, and by "guts" we mean a growling trombone rasping its way through a small forest of melodeons, then that's wot ya got mate! But Random have more intelligence than that bland generalisation implies - even if it's not always obviously being used for the benefit of the non-dancing listener. And lest that sound like a back-handed compliment, what I mean is that Random seem to decide on a sound and stick to it without bothering much to change its basic envelope. And that uniformity doesn't always profitably last the course of a whole CD. But there are still positive elements in Random's favour - notably the spirited box playing, courtesy of the twin-melodeon front-line of Saul Rose and Paul Nye, whose joyous weaving harmony and counterpoint is pretty amazing when allowed free rein. Set against the squeezers, there's the guitar of Ian Woledge (which doesn't seem to be terribly audible I'm afraid) and the aforementioned three "raspers and thumpers" all plying their merry trade quite infectiously thankyou, on a sequence of tracks that happily mix traditional tunes with ones composed by the likes of Nigel Eaton and Tim Van Eyken, in the by now approved manner. Tracks like Rose Of Liseaux, though, bring in the aspect of Random that I'm less happy with as a mere listener (as opposed to a ceilidh-goer): the jarring harmonica interjections on several of the tracks, which don't seem to belong to the arrangement of the dance (and sometimes appear to have been drafted in from a Dylan song!). And "fun" gimmicks like the scratchy repro-wax-cylinder on Waiting For A Partner pall on repetition, I find. All in all, in spite of the great joy that Random evidently derive from their music-making, I do get the feeling that something's lost in the transition to CD and that Random are at their best live, as 55+ minutes of their music (which includes a "hidden" reverb-dub-style mix track, to hear which you have to fast-forward, or else sit through, four minutes of silence), however entertaining, can all too easily wear a bit thin on the ears after four or five tracks executed with broadly similar method. The pair of waltzes at track 6, where the two melodeons take centre stage for solo playing, come at an appropriate moment in the scheme of things and thus provide a delectable album highlight.


David Kidman

The Rankin Family - Reunion (Western Songs)

The band known as The Rankin Family has since the end of the 80s been something of an institution in their native Canada. Originally comprising siblings John Morris, Raylene, Heather, Cookie and Jimmy Rankin, the group ruled the musical roost with their special blend of Celtic and contemporary folk, garnering close on 30 prestigious awards during the 90s. Their seventh, and final album, Uprooted, came out in 1998, and the very next year the group members went their own separate musical ways.

Tragically, John Morris was killed in a road accident in 2000, and it was several years before even a cautious reunion of the other four members could be broached. A reunion tour was met with wide public and critical acclaim, and seen as proof that the family could reinvent itself more than credibly. The ensuing "reunion" CD, which was released in Canada in 2007 (and provided the impetus for a further cross-Canada tour), is now available in the UK for the first time; its title is a bit of a misnomer, however, for it's less a new album from the reunited lineup and more of a compilation that brings together eight tracks recorded "live in the studio" during 2006 with (presumably as makeweight) a disparate bunch of earlier recordings dating from 1990, 1996 and 1997, which I'd assume to be previously unissued.

Taking the latter first, we find two spirited instrumental tracks (a Cape-Breton-style piano-led canter through the traditional Johnny Cope and a fine jigs-and-reels medley), a wonderfully poised solo acappella song (Hush The Waves) from Heather, and a gutsy, impassioned performance of Jimmy's Our Time Is Tonight. Even allowing for these variances, the remaining (2006) tracks don't quite hang together either as it happens, with group compositions embracing the would-be anthemic (Jimmy's Departing Song), the gorgeous rolling country-tinged Sunset (which features Molly Rankin guesting on lead vocals), Raylene's delicate, charming Sparrow and Heather's torchy ballad (Nothing To Believe) alongside some really fine, and interestingly different, covers (a brilliantly harmonised – indeed, uncannily McGarrigle-like – take on John Hiatt's Gone, a distinctly folk-rock treatment of David Francey's Sunday Morning, and a refreshing account of Gordon Lightfoot's The Way I Feel). Well, I wouldn't say that Reunion was quite rankin' up there with the group's best, but it sure has its moments nevertheless.

Postscript: on checking out the band's website, I learn that they've since produced a further new all-acoustic album (These Are The Moments) and undergone a further tour… news evidently travels fast - or else nobody has seen fit to inform us of any of these developments.


David Kidman November 2010

Rattle On The Stovepipe - No Use In Crying (WildGoose Studios)

The stovepipe is well and truly rattled here by this versatile and spiritful trio comprising Dave Arthur (guitar, banjo, vocals) and his compadres Pete Cooper (fiddle and vocal) and Dan Stewart (banjo and guitar), the latter having now taken the place that guitarist Chris Moreton filled on the previous ROTS CD Eight More Miles.

Like its predecessor, No Use In Cryin' proudly presents a wide-ranging collection of tunes and songs that through history have crossed back and forth, here given appealingly and refreshingly in versions from either or both sides of the pond. In healthy juxtaposition, we encounter fiddle tunes from Kentucky, West Virginia and Seattle nestling companionably under the same roof as that good ol' O'Carolan morris tune Princess Royal and a fun medley that bestows a "transatlantic melodic overlap" on D'Ye Ken John Peel, all played in the easily-expert, deft-yet-passionate manner of the genuine old-time enthusiast eager to share his discovery of a good rousing tune.

The instrumental items on the disc (six out of the 14 tracks) are neatly balanced by a satisfyingly varied complement of songs that includes country/jugband standard Red Apple Juice, ballads both broadside and Child in origin (Willie Moore and The Two Brothers respectively), and an unusually upbeat, genially swinging treatment of the shanty-crew classic Roll Alabama Roll. There's also a couple of items of more recent provenance: the Carter Family's mid-30s classic You've Been A Friend and Dick Connette's affectionate tribute to North Carolina singer Dillard Chandler (which, interestingly, Dave acquired from a Roy Bailey recording).

As on Eight More Miles, Dave and Pete each take roughly equal turns with the singing, and both (albeit in contrasted vocal styles) invariably prove themselves well up to the task of authentically and enthusiastically conveying the essence of the texts without any sense of contrivance. The winning formula of the earlier disc is reprised with the approach taken to the provision of the liner notes, for once again these are both succinct and splendidly informative.

This disc possesses a winning combination of erudition and informality in its delightful music-making; in doing so, it proves a real treat for lovers of that fertile territory where old-time traditions from both sides of the Atlantic collide.


David Kidman January 2010

Rattle On The Stovepipe - 8 More Miles (WildGoose Studios)

This release is a kindof followup to an earlier WildGoose release Return Journey (which was at the time billed as a Dave Arthur album but actually featured the same three musicians: on 8 More Miles, we get Dave on banjo, guitar and, on some of the "band" tracks, melodeon; Pete Cooper on fiddle; and Chris Moreton on guitar and a touch of mandolin). Like Return Journey, it presents an English (though I hasten to add not "Anglicised"!) take on good ol' string-band music, with authentic versions (culled from both sides of the pond!) of tunes and songs that crossed the Atlantic and became old-time staples. These include some classic balladry and songs (yes, even including some that "everyone and their dog has recorded!") as well as some suitably vigorous dance tunes. The latter include not only the joyful swing of The New Rigged Ship/Green Willis and the proud strut of Fred Pidgeon's No. 1/Jenny Lind Polka, but also the transatlantic twist to Northumbrian piper Tom Clough's Nancy. Over the range of tunes presented, each of the three musicians displays an amazing degree of stylistic versatility, one you wouldn't necessarily expect to find in performers in this field. With the songs, the highlight for many listeners will be Dave's totally solo outing at the heart of the CD - an absolutely compelling 8½-minute rendition of Willie's Ghost that never for a moment palls. But the RotS treatment of various other songs also gives rise to many more delights: there's a spirited Sail Away Ladies as a finale, for instance, and Chris turns in a fine rendition of the Bill Monroe classic Footmarks In The Snow, while I also liked the deliciously relaxed pace of The Light Dragoon (here, such a change from the flippant "tongue-tripping excuse to show off" that the song normally gets saddled with), with a lyrical fiddle line in counterpoint - pity about that rather swift fade on the appended reel, though... Perhaps Pete's interpretation of The Lakes Of Pontchartrain won't quite silence those who say they never want to hear another version of that over-travelled tale of uncertain origin, but it's still a respectable reading that comes near the top of the list of available recordings. Finally, the presentation is exemplary, with Dave's incredible degree of knowledge and depth of understanding on full display in his supremely informative insert notes, which tell you everything you need to know about the pieces and their sources - and much more besides (at least three of the selections are blessed with around a whole page's worth of mini-essay, and believe me, you won't want to skip a word of it!). And even within a product crammed full of excellence (for here am I leaving the best observation till last!), the CD has a splendid feel of immediacy, of the three musicians right there in the room performing for you, communicating so very well the music in which they clearly believe 150-percent.


David Kidman, July 2006

Rattle The Boards - The Parish Platform (Doon Productions)

Rattle The Boards is a foursome formed by ace young box player Benny McCarthy (of that remarkable Irish supergroup Danú) and local Tipperary musicians Pat Ryan (fiddle, mandolin, banjo) and John Nugent (guitar), along with vocalist John T. Egan, expressly to play music for dancing (and for fun, to be sure!). Rattle The Boards have been playing together since 1992, yet there's been a gap of a whole decade since their debut CD – probably due as much to Benny's own touring commitments with Danú as their involvement in artist Des Dillon's popular TV show Teac A Bloc. This new CD is an unashamed attempt to get the listener dancing ("reviving the days of parish platform dancing") with a series of totally unpretentious and gimmick-free performances of familiar Irish traditional tunes (with a couple of songs thrown in for good measure). The lads are clearly having great fun making this record, as much fun as you'll have listening to it – for it includes thoroughly infectious renditions of old favourites like Off To California, The Mason's Apron and Irish Washerwoman as well as a generously whirling set of polkas, a splendidly chucklesome set of two hornpipes and a glorious showband-meets-ceili-band take on the quickstep Whistling Rufus which is also given an unexpected kind of lift by Decky O'Dwyer's swaggering Dixieland trumpet. RTB also invite a few more guests along to the party: Benny's Danú colleague Donnchadh Gough brings his bodhrán onstage for the majority of the album, and there are spiritful contributions from Paul Ryan and the aforementioned Des Dillon (harmonica), while Jon Kenny sings his party-piece St. Patrick Was A Gentleman (a quirky Cork stage-Irish song) with all due abandon. And a moment of thoughtful repose is provided by the delectable air The Autumn Sky (written by Quebec fiddle maestro André Brunet). But for the rest of the disc's 39 minutes, that grin remains firmly planted on your visage; so shake away those cobwebs, step it out Mary and rattle those boards indeed! (Available from Copperplate Distribution.)


David Kidman July 2008

Dave Rawlings Machine - A Friend Of A Friend (Acony)

After around a dozen years spent in the "light hidden under a bushel" role of touring, recording and writing partner to Gillian Welch, also playing sideman on projects for Ryan Adams, Old Crow Medicine Show and Jay Farrar, the abundantly self-effacing David finally gets round to releasing a record under his own name!

It's very much a song-based record, with little in the way of opportunity to specifically spotlight David's matchless instrumental prowess, and although that signature exquisite and beautifully economic guitar picking appears somewhere on every track, it's not generally allowed to become a key feature in the mix. Neither is the voice of Gillian Welch herself always prominently audible, although she bestows backing vocals on virtually every track and her presence is (naturally) felt everywhere: additional contributors (whether they can be termed DRM band members or not isn't clear) include Ketch Secor and other members of OCMS, Heartbreakers' Benmont Tench and Bright Eyes' Nate Walcott. The general feel is of a fairly informal Basement Tapes kind of drop-in session, although at the same time it's evident that care has been taken with a certain level of instrumental arrangement.

The album's songs are mostly Rawlings originals (five are co-writes with Gillian), albeit of varying vintage. Some are revisits of songs David had already recorded with other artists on their own albums: for instance there's To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High) from Ryan's Heartbreaker debut, here turned into a scratchy-fiddle-ridden string-band hoedown, prefacing I Hear Them All, which receives a tender reading worlds away from the OCMS setting (Big Iron World) which it originally graced. The familiar stripped-down Rawlings-Welch soundscape makes its first appearance on the record with the fourth track, a stretched-out ten-minute medley of Conor Oberst's Method Acting and Neil Young's Cortez The Killer, the latter segueing very naturally from the former and Neil's lyric being especially effectively conveyed in this sparser setting. The playfully wry Sweet Tooth resonates staple oldtimey addiction songs, while the rueful How's About You reflects on hard times just like one of those timeless Jimmie Rodgers/Hank Williams honkytonkers and It's Too Easy brings back the rough-house combo for some double-edged uptempo bluegrass, a mood which extends into David's back-to-basics yet careful cover of Jesse Fuller's Monkey And The Engineer.

The album's bookended by a pair of tracks featuring a string section (sensitively arranged by none other than Jimmie Haskell): the opener Ruby comes over like Gram Parsons meeting up with Sam Cooke, Burritos turning country-soul (the melody even resembles that of the old Chi-Lites hit Oh Girl), while the closer Bells Of Harlem (with its initial uncanny resonances of What A Wonderful World) is a dreamy, almost contented reverie that drifts into an autumnal chamber-textured coda. On first hearing, the album seems to present quite a disparate stylistic mix, but once over the initial shock I found it gelled together.

David's distinctive, slightly reedy vocal style, with its sure grasp of phrasing, together with the legendary symbiotic teamwork of David and Gillian, and the standard of musicianship, all typically refuse to get in the way of the lyrics, which may explain why the individual songs don't always tend to make their mark on early playthroughs in the way that, say, those on Gillian's albums do. Having said that, by four or five plays the record gains a healthy cumulative stature as the set as a whole starts to make more sense: with each successive acquaintance the disc grows closer to you than the remoter "friend of a friend" of its title, I'd say.


David Kidman December 2009

The Rawmarsh Mashers - Deliberate Mistake (Own Label)

Who on earth? What on earth? What the hell? Answers to all these and many other burning questions are available on the below-mentioned link, but as for the basics, The Rawmarsh Mashers are (is) best described as a good-time folk (-ish) duo based near Rotherham (deep in the Republic Of South Yorkshire), whose totally admirable credo is to play live, to entertain and to have fun. No fancy arrangements, no pretensions to great art or deep philosophical statement: just good honest old-fashioned fun-folk - supremely raw, loud, lively and above all ultra-enthusiastic - and yet not without a certain level of right-on political stance that appeals greatly to my own nature and sensibilities. Together, the redoubtable Mashers - Richard (lead vocals and rhythm guitar) and Myke (lead guitar and backing vocals) - provide the necessary antidote to the sides of folk that continually threaten to become over-serious. They've a distinct kinship with groups like the (Liverpool) Spinners or Fivepenny Piece, or at any rate how they were before they got too "popular" (and too polished and too sentimental). And although based in Rotherham, they're both exiles from further south (the Gosport and Portsmouth area being Richard's early stamping-ground, whereas Myke hails from Cheshire) and clearly they love the North (sensible fellas!). You might say the Mashers' choice of material is unashamedly populist, but in the nicest possible way. Aside from a host of 60s pop classics (not represented on this CD), they trade mostly in songs irreverently reflecting the vagaries and idiosyncracies of life itself, whether directly comedic or genially wistful, and generally of the pub-singalong variety, with a smattering of crowd-pleasers (traditional fare like Two Recruiting Sergeants and Whip Jamboree, and the Dambuskers' Drink Down The Moon) nestling in amongst a deceptively canny selection of modern-day works loosely in the folk-satire category, from the pens of often underrated writers like Matt McGinn (Three Nights And A Sunday Double Time), Jon Isherwood (My Health Dear), Robb Johnson (Be Reasonable) and Tony Miles (Bloody Rotten Audience). The Mashers even have a theme song that sets out their stall pretty directly and persuasively (perhaps that should've been placed first on the CD?)! They also creditably exhume the traditional tale of Jessie Munroe and do a nice line in justified righteous anger with a passionate take on Peter Hames' Ordinary Man, while on the other hand who can possibly resist their customised "slight corruption" of Bernard Wrigley's The Martians Have Landed In Rawmarsh?! And so what if some of the jokes are at times toe-curlingly predictable?! This CD, a totally WYSIWYG affair, although "produced" by Brian Bedford, is unadulterated Mashers – by which I don't mean it's childish, but that it's utterly devoid of any studio enhancements. It's exactly as the Mashers sound live, down to every last "deliberate mistake". Actually (and the Mashers probably won't like me for saying this!), there's a bigger degree of accomplishment here than I've heard in some "professional" recordings, it's just that it's unassumedly worn and kept under wraps somewhat, for the Mashers' overriding concern is that both they and their audience enjoy themselves. They're good at what they do, they have their niche, they stick to it – and good for them! So any critical review that might castigate them for a few wrong words here or a duff chord-change there, an off-key vocal or a crap entry, is just not appropriate – and in any case, anything in the first-mentioned category (most likely mis-hearings or mondegreens!) is all part of the time-honoured folk process in the end, right? And anyone who through the Mashers' brazenly brash and purposely no-frills presentation gets the impression that they're just taking the p*** and have no respect for their material or their audience, well they're missing the point entirely: they do care, and to a perhaps surprising extent. Don't expect jaw-dropping instrumental technique, cutting-edge musical adventures or sensitive expression - instead, just go with the flow (yes, there is one!) and you'll have a great time. Just like I did. And nowt wrong wi' that, guv!


David Kidman December 2008

Ray - Death In Fiction (Pito)

Those coming to the third album by the London-based four-piece led by brothers Nev and Mark Bradford expecting to find more of the Blue Nile, Aztec Camera and folk echoes of the previous releases are in for a surprise. A pleasant one though, to be sure.

The big music, widescreen canvas is still there, but these days they're painting it with cranked up swirly psychedelic rock that more recalls a cocktail of The Doors, Nick Cave, Echo and the Bunnymen and, often, The Dream Syndicate.

They parade their new colours from the opening track, the surgingly black veined Five Miles Cursed where the guitars circle the skies like brooding eagles surveying a desert landscape and Nev sounds like Scott Walker fronting the Bad Seeds. It's an immediate shock to the system but once you've recovered your breath, you'll find it's already embedded itself in your mind and you're lusting to hear more.

Described by the band as "a true-life birth to death tale of a luckless hedonist who rejoices in all things fictional at the expense of living his own life", as you might imagine, it's steeped into dark lyrical colours to match the music's gathering clouds.

The foreboding themed Days To Come billows with Doors reference points while the title track with its swellingly melodic chorus couches Nev's Pete Atkinish intonation and the songs folky bedrock within guitar work that recalls both Steve Wynn and Quicksilver Messenger Service's John Cipollina.

There's more vintage Scott Walker touchstones to This Is A Wave and A Little Joy (where they conjure his interpretations of Brel) while the five minute Roulette Sun unfolds like a Pink Floyd epic written in the heat of Death Valley with images of bleached out skies and long dead highs. Elsewhere the majestic Great Strange Dream utilises Bunnymen-esque phased guitars while Nev's voice reaches out to grab the shards of a fragmenting universe, Sound Of The End pulls it back to a slower, melancholic psychedelic blues rock ballad and the album builds to Cut Out's tumultuous climax of death, catharsis and rebirth. Quite frankly, awesome.


Mike Davies May 2008

Ray - Daylight In The Darkroom (Pito)

A swift follow up to 2005's Deep Blue Happy finds brothers Nev and Mark Bradford both consolidating their melodic melancholic 80s pop and reaching out across new musical landscapes. There's even a couple of numbers where they pitch straight in on the vocals rather than laying down lengthy instrumental intros.

There's a swirly folk darkness to the opening Here Is The Night that suggests Nick Cave fronting Aztec Camera, a mood sustained on Mountain Song and Greatest Race For The Sun where Nev takes on an almost Neil Diamond timbre as his brother's liquid guitar paints a tapestry of sound upon which to stitch the words.

As before, this is big, music but never bombastic, the guitars etching lush cinematic backdrops that bring light to contrast with the often darkly downcast lyrics of numbers such as the enigmatic Fall On Your Dagger, the sorrowed war-weary Dead Eyed Angels and Gold Magnolia's dankly bucolic portrait of a six month old girl's grave.

But while broken eyes, broken hearts, and the death of summer may vein the songs, there's a spark of light and hope here too. Mountain Song finds Bradford thawing in the warmth of love while Highlight talks of bright eyes flickering 'the highlight of this day' and the closing languidly burnished Silence Returns (where Nev sports his Pete Atkin voice) finds peace in silence and 'the beginning of something new'.

I'm not sure it's going to suddenly open the doors to a flood of commercial success, but anyone who treasures The Blue Nile will find life incomplete until it's nestling in their collection.


Mike Davies, July 2006

James Raynard - Strange Histories (Unearthed)

So who's this James Raynard then? Well he's a folk singer based in Sheffield, and his debut CD, which has been produced by Jim Moray, appears on the new folk imprint of the cool indie record label One Little Indian. That information might for some signal a degree of caution in approaching James, since Jim Moray's own debut was greeted with some distinctly hostile press (I found it a bit of a curate's egg too); however, such doubters need have no such worries, for James brings us an altogether more orthodox view of folk music.

James's singing, in particular his approach to phrasing and rhythm, is it must be said heavily influenced by his hero Martin Carthy - no bad thing, sure, and he's not exactly a slavish imitator, but it's very noticeable nonetheless on some of the songs on the album. For instance, hearing James's rendition of the obscure Child ballad The Loathsome Worm And The Mackerel Of The Sea, I was surprised when I checked back to find it's one that Mr Carthy himself hasn't tackled! Leaving aside that obvious influence then, what James also possesses in his singing is a confidence that might only a few years back have been unusual in someone so young but which is now becoming the norm in the new wave of revival singers (many of whom like James are steeped in folklore degrees and suchlike and clearly appreciate the rich legacy of traditional sources).

His is an attractive baritone, and he sings in a refreshingly direct and uncomplicated style which heard to best advantage perhaps on the long-breathed lines of such songs as We Be Soldiers Three, but his considered rendition of The Grand Conversation On Napoleon has much to say in its mere four-minute span (providing an interesting contrast with - if unfortunately not serious competition for - Barry Dransfield's recent epic reading on his Unruly album). James also turns in a simple yet appealing "Anglicisation" of Jock O' Hazeldean, though this suffers a bit from a somewhat leaden piano accompaniment; closing the CD, that song follows on well from James's version of The Outlandish Knight, which - unlike many one hears - really does compel you to listen through to the end. Here, James's undistracting guitar accompaniment has a sparse demeanour (rather like a lute-song?) which seems to reverberate in and reflect the antiquity of the ballad.

That brings me to remark that James is also a more than reasonable guitar player and fiddler, with an approach to rhythm that owes much to his experience of accompanying dance. The weightier items on the menu are tempered with a sprinkling of pieces drawn from what one might term the "early music" repertoire - for instance, a multi-voice catch (Yonder He Goes), two songs set to Playford tunes (Begone Dull Care, Cuckolds All Of A Row) - and, towards the end of the CD, an attractive little tune (The Cat With The Cream) written by James himself and inspired by the musicianship of gifted (and criminally underappreciated) fiddle player Gina LeFaux.

Strange Histories is a definite harbinger of greater things to come for James, but, dare I say it, first he needs to shake off the over-obvious Carthyisms and develop his own voice if he's to succeed in the folk arena he so clearly intends to espouse.


David Kidman

Chris Rea - The Blue Jukebox (Navybeck)

Having lost much of the MOR audience who gave him such hits as Stainsby Girls, The Road To Hell and Let's Dance when he released his post cancer treatment Delta blues double album Dancing Down The Stony Road, Rea's remained true to his rediscovered roots. Last year saw the jazzy Blue Street last and now he continues the mood. letting his slide guitar and gravelly voice loose over another world weary jazzy blues collection of self-penned numbers. Occasionally reminiscent of Tom Waits and Mark Knopfler, this is what he should have been doing all along instead of wasting his time recording things like Driving Home For Christmas, throwing away his money producing and starring in vanity project movies and making an arse of himself for the camera with Michael Winner. If you're still locked into the image of Rea performing On The Beach, then lend an ear to the jazz soaked duskiness of Steel River Blues, the barrelhousing sax wailing blues boogie The Beat Goes On, the early hours whisky soaked Paint My Jukebox Blue and throbbing shuffle of Speed and grab an earful of revelation.


Mike Davies

Kath Reade - Passionate Nature (Splid)

Kath's a Central Lancashire-based singer-songwriter who's been all too modestly building herself a quiet reputation for her work over a period of some ten to a dozen years. She's a regular and ever-welcome performer at Skipton Folk & Unplugged, but she's also known for winning the Songwriting (Keith Marsden Memorial) Trophy at Saltburn Folk Festival not all that many years back.

Her songs are characterised by a deep sense of humanity and a warm and involving passion for life and nature, expressed in simple and responsive language through well-crafted stanzas that sit well with her voice (and sing comfortably for those wishing to join in the choruses!). Kath's singing voice is most pleasing, indeed I'd say gently captivating: blessed with a keen songwriter's sense of line and phrasing, her technique is self-evidently accomplished without drawing attention to itself through unnecessary mannerism or over-expression. An occasional air of slight understatement in her vocal delivery (not a bad thing, I hasten to add) extends to her writing too, and yet you never feel that she needs to say anything more in any given song, the thoughts and feelings are complete and satisfying just as they are.

Particularly strong are Jenny (which gives sympathetic yet forthright advice to a friend being abused by a man), Goldfinches (which charmingly – pun intended! – expresses a revival of spirits, nay epiphany, on the sighting of a group of these beautiful birds), Song Of Irish Exile (self-explanatory, but powerfully characterised), Miner Of The Coal (not an industrial song, but instead a delicate, almost Carteresque expression of love couched in a universal philosophy), You Know Me (directly and tellingly expressing the bond that two close friends share) and Coyote (another example of how a comparatively small-scale experience of nature can acquire significance way beyond that moment). And the acappella On A Viking Sailing Ship is attractively bookended by an idiomatic guitar prelude and postlude.

I know I've namechecked over half of the album's tracks already, but that only emphasises that Kath's personal quality-control filter is pretty reliable and there's not a weak song here at all – even the most obvious, the standardised political rant of Privileged Man, is lifted by its imaginative setting and delivery.

Over the years, Kath's songwriting, though remaining intrinsically folk-based, has been increasingly influenced by Americana, and this development is reflected – and accentuated – in the change of producer for her latest album. In breezes the companionable David Crickmore, that wiz multi-instrumentalist, audio engineer and radio star (!), who stamps that enviably classy rootsy Durbervilles sensibility on the proceedings and almost incidentally gathers together to enhance Kath's songs an assortment of deliciously apt cameo appearances from muso mates Damien Barber, Gordon Tyrrall, Shaun Reade, Sarah Smout and Emma Crickmore, with fellow-Durbs Ruth Wilde, Gus Taylor and Mark Boyce providing further constant support.

The arrangements are very tasty indeed, invariably convincing without ever intruding on the songs or swamping Kath's magnificent voice; what's more, scoring extra points when many of the finer details and imaginative instrumental touches emerge on successive plays. Accordion, lap steel, dobro, mandolin, autoharp, piano, recorders and genial rockin' electric guitars: all these individual textures have their little part to play in the success of these songs, and Kath and her producer have evidently given much careful thought to their deployment. The two clearly work very well together, with David both understanding and accurately conveying the measure of Kath's talent and artistic vision, and the result is a well-rounded and highly persuasive CD (complete with really appealing cover artwork too) that is sure to enhance Kath's standing.


David Kidman August 2010

Ann & Dave Reader - Scarecrow (Own Label)

This accomplished Midlands-based duo deserve wider recognition for their work, which with the release of this CD will hopefully be faster in coming. However, unless you've frequented the festivals further south, you're unlikely yet to have encountered Ann and Dave, although you may well have heard at a quality singaround the occasional song penned by either of them, for over the past few years they've written some fine ones. Ann (née Mathews) and Dave Reader teamed up after meeting at the Banbury Festival in 2001; prior to that, Ann (originally of Priory Hard, Southampton) and Dave (formerly of the celebrated West Midlands group The Laners) were both beavering away writing and performing their own songs. Now a permanent (and happily married) team, their individual writing and performing styles both contrast with and complement each other. Each is an interesting solo singer, yet their voices harmonise together uncannily well too (although their choice of harmonies is often strikingly imaginative and may sometimes sound more tentative than it in fact is). A significant proportion of this CD is acappella, but the value and effect of their skilled yet unfussy accompaniments (guitar and mandola), when used, should not be underestimated. All 21 of the songs here are self-penned (nine apiece and three jointly), and the idiom is predominantly folk-traditional rather than contemporary. Ann and Dave both clearly have a strong feel for folk tradition and many of their songs feel genuinely traditional (however that may be interpreted). Although each writer covers a broad spectrum of subject-matter and styling you could say that generally speaking Ann writes potently of folk traditions, customs, the seasons, nature and suchlike, whereas Dave deals in magic and mystery, gently humorous fable and cutting commentaries (in the latter category, Walsall – which uses the form of a street-seller's cry to reflect on so-called "progress" – and the cryptically-titled Muesli are especially persuasive). A couple of tongue-in-cheek bluesy meditations and a pastiche shanty form the exceptions to the above rule. The opening round Join Us In The Dance is a celebration of midsummer, whereas Ann's Keep The Dark Away is an exhortation to the spirit of the Hallowe'en time of autumn and Take A Little Drop To Keep The Winter Out is a delightful (and self-recommending!) piece of advice. Banbury Town is another of those catchy little broadside-style pieces you feel you've known for ages (and just a bit reminiscent of Graeme Miles' Yarm Fair too). There are no less than three songs about scarecrows (an unhealthy obsession? Nah! they just make for good songs!); these range from the eerie, haunting title-song to Scare-D-Crow, which is described as "a true story told to Dave by a crow", and the briefer Another Scarecrow Song which patters along more wistfully. The CD's highlight for me, though, is the enigmatic Lullaby, which considers the notion of being able to choose one's dreams; this song, together with Lonewolf in particular, reminded me strongly of the beautiful writing of Anne Lister. But Ann and Dave both have the knack of writing straightforwardly well-constructed songs couched in simple folk imagery (no tricky rhythms or complex metaphorical statements), and they're the more powerful for all that. Two of the jointly-penned songs (Scarecrow and Witches), representing the earliest (indeed, the very first) and the most recent of their writing collaborations respectively, serve to demonstrate their consistency of vision over time. Performance-wise, there are occasional instances of slightly insecure vocal intonation, but these don't get in the way of appreciating the high standard of the songwriting, and indeed (as with Ann's earlier solo CD Stolen Kisses) I'm left feeling really puzzled as to why many of these songs aren't more widely known within the folk corpus. Do try to hear this one, you'll not regret it.


David Kidman July 2008

Eddi Reader - Eddi Reader Sings The Songs Of Robert Burns (Rough Trade)

When the majority of this collection first appeared, in 2003, I was more than pleasantly surprised by its freshness, both in terms of Eddi's own interpretative insights and in terms of the tasteful, if quite fulsome and romantically-inclined, musical settings employed. I'd kind-of expected an incongruous cash-in, but the excellent playing (from the likes of Messrs Carr, Cunningham, McCusker, Hewerdine and Vernal) and some really skilled arranging definitely really set the seal on Eddi's accessible yet sensibly expressive treatments of the oft-travelled texts. Perhaps unexpectedly, Eddi's charming and well-considered performances on this disc justified her claim to penetrate naturally to the "ordinary humanity" of Burns' poetry, and in that context I've returned often to the CD in the intervening years.

The occasion of Burns' 250th birthday this very year has provided Rough Trade with a good opportunity to reappraise the disc and to add to its already generous measure a few extra drams in the shape of seven more tracks of "Burns treasure" which Eddi has recorded since the original release. Of these, three are taken from Eddi's lovely 2005 CD Peacetime, whereas a further three (Green Grow The Rashes O, Dainty Davie and Of A' The Airts), all previously unreleased, would appear to emanate from the same sessions as the original 2003 album (listed personnel being identical). Finally, the set's most let-the-hair-down contribution Comin' Through The Rye, also previously unreleased, employs a spirited ensemble comprising accordionist Mairearad Green (the composer of the tune that interleaves the song here), also Jen Butterworth, Anna Massie, Hamish Napier, and John & Stephen Douglas. No doubt the initial run of Eddi's Burns collection will have been long deleted, so it's worth acquiring this deluxe edition before it too disappears - but at over 75 minutes it's an abundantly generous and thoroughly recommendable disc on grounds of value-for-money irrespective of its strong claims on purely artistic grounds.


David Kidman July 2009

Eddi Reader - Love Is The Way (Rough Trade)

Having re-issued her celebration of Scottish poet Robbie Burns with a further seven numbers to mark the 250th anniversary of his birth. Reader's next project was to record a couple of new original numbers for a proposed Best Of set. However, the sessions went so well and the songs emerging were so strong, she decided to press ahead with a complete new album.

Good news all round then, given that with three self or co-written numbers and further clutch of glittering nuggets from the pen of Boo Hewardine, this is a yearningly lovely follow up to 2007's Peacetime, full of understatedly lilting folksy pop love songs and accordion laced melodies that evoke 50s Parisian cafes on the banks of the Seine.

Hewardine's airly waltzing Dragonflies opens the album in light as a father style, floating its way into the heart to be followed closely behind by his second contribution, the equally swayingly sublime, ukulele strummed Silent Bells. Hewardine's also the author of Dandelion, another stand-out track with a bubbling arrangement and piano parts that harks to the elegant big band ballroom romances of the 30s and 40s, and co-writer with Reader of the similarly period flavoured kiss me quick playfulness of Over it Now.

Ukulele player Jack Douglas provides three numbers, among them tumbling co-write Roses (which has Heidi Talbot on harmonies and John McCusker on cittern) and, soaring like balloons over city skyline rooftops, New York City, a waltzing love song to the Big Apple that can stand comparison to Billy Joel's finest odes to Manhattan.

It's an album stuffed with highlights, Declan O'Rourke's title track and guitarist Jack Maher's Fallen Twice both worthy of honourable mentions, but it would be remiss not to draw particular attention to two covers. With a lyrical rewrite to mention Kilmarnock, Never Going Back Again (Queen Of Scots) puts a musical piano jogging oom pah spin on the Fleetwood Mac classic and the title of It's Magic pretty much sums up her dreamy cocktail lounge woozy reading of the Sammy Cahn evergreen. Looks like, she ended up making a best of album after all.


Mike Davies April 2009

Eddi Reader - Peacetime (Rough Trade)

Though Eddi's new album is being marketed as a followup to her acclaimed disc of Songs Of Robert Burns, this time only three of its 14 tracks are actually Burns settings. But even so, on the third of those, Lezzie Lindsay, it's only the chorus that was actually written by Burns; the verses are Eddi's own, co-written with Boo Hewerdine (and they're a considerable improvement on the dreadful "Ronald MacDonald" text we normally hear!). As for the two "real" Burns songs here, Aye Waukin-O and Ye Banks And Braes, these are nicely done, and prove worthy companions to the earlier disc. Throughout, Peacetime benefits from some attractive, sympathetic and involving musical arrangements courtesy of John McCusker and various permutations of his "usual suspects" (Messrs McGoldrick, Carr, Cutting, Vernal, Mackintosh et al.). Peacetime's a unified set that echoes the sentiments and sensibilities of the Burns songs, reflecting Eddi's own life-journey, her peace within herself and the finding of faith and hope amidst all the heartaches of the contemporary world. This emotional climate is represented by a clutch of fine songs including Johnny Dillon's The Afton, the title track and Muddy Water (both by Boo), Safe As Houses (co-written with Boo) and two beautifully simple compositions by John Douglas. Eddi also turns in thoughtful settings of the traditional Baron's Heir and Mary And The Soldier, while her fun version of The Calton Weaver (Nancy Whisky) forms the album's bonus track. The mood of comfort and promise is well conveyed by Eddi's assuredly passionate singing and the sensitive backdrops, my only reservation concerning the brass-choir on The Shepherd's Song (the effect of which I find slightly mawkish, in contrast to the gorgeous string arrangement she brings to Declan O'Rourke's Galileo later on the disc).


David Kidman January 2007

Richmond Fontaine - We Used To Think The Freeway Sounded Like A River (Decor)

Having recently published his third novel, here's further evidence that Willy Valutin is one of the most accomplished storyteller in contemporary American music, his writing well deserving of the regular comparisons to that of Raymond Carver.

Born out of mourning for the sudden passing of his mother, two years ago, the band's eighth album turns its homespun, dusty Americana to thoughts of love and loss, viewed through the respective prisms of regret and celebration.

Like all great writers, it's not easy to tell where autobiography ends and storytelling begins, but when, on the title track he recalls an abandoned house where he and childhood friends would play and of coming home to find their home robbed, the particulars of the personal shade away into a pithy image about loss of innocence.

That sense of losing something intangible but vital informs several of the tales here. The Pull is a melancholic story of a gave up drinking and quit talking because "when he was sober he didn't know nothing". Forced to give up a boxing career because of injuries, he now runs to keep from thinking.

Then there's the middle-aged divorcee of 43, with his mom in a home, his ex wife being abused by her new cop husband and the sense of the world crushing down, Lonnie, about whom all the horrible things they say are true, and, in The Boyfriends, all the no good guys you promise yourself you'll never turn in to. Or, in the case of Two Of Us, not running out on commitments 'just like your dad.'

By the time you get to Ruby & Lou's snapshot of two losers who thought they'd found escape in each other only to have life turn to crap when a homeless youngster accidentally blows his brains out with Lou's gun, you might feel like slitting the wrists. Yet, oddly, there's a glimmer of light in the couple's determination not to sink, while Valutin's inner bruised romantic peeks through the cracks on the pedal steel keening country rock swagger of Maybe We Were Born Blue and the closing A Letter To The Patron Saint Of Nurses, a spoken account of a loving relationship that finds salvation and joy in the small moments and the awareness that the lives of others can be so much more lonely.

Punctuated by short instrumentals bearing titles like Sitting Outside My Dad's Old House and Walking Back To Our Place At 3am, it's a moodily atmospheric late night wander through the darker shadows of life's fears and alienations, but, at the end of the day, however wrecked and broken that house by the freeway may be, Valutin reminds us that somewhere, someone misses and needs you and, as the song says, You Can Move Back Here.


Mike Davies August 2009

Richmond Fontaine - $87 and a Guilty Conscience (Decor)

Those who bought the Thirteen Cities album will recognise the title track (or to give its full wack, $87 And A Guilty Conscience That Gets Worse The Longer I Go) as one of the highlights. And here it is again, as the lead track on a mini-album of previously unreleased material recorded at the same sessions. Well, save for Kid From Belmont St. Ends Up On Colfax Ave, Denver, Co, which is pretty much a jazzy late neon night instrumental take on The Kid From Belmont St while $87 A Week With A Girl Named Bonnie Sparks is an instrumental variation on,,, well, you get the idea. .

So, with The Gits have been included on a Hurricane Katrina benefit compilation, there's essentially just four new numbers for the money. The good news is that Song For James Welch and the jogging The Water Song are classic Willie Vlautin's melancholic loser storysongs and Wilson Dunlap a parched voice memoir of a small town cranky wife abuser that unfolds into a pleading love song.

Annoyingly, the talking blues Moving Back Home #1, an autobiographical tale of Vlautin's first girlfriend and first heartbreak, cuts the story short just as it gets to the wallowing in drunken misery bit. Maybe #2 continues the story. Good then, but really just for the completists.


Mike Davies October 2007

Richmond Fontaine - Thirteen Cities (El Cortez)

Having concluded their trilogy with 2005's The Fitzgerald, Willy Valutin and the boys return for their seventh album, relocating from Oregon to record amid the desert landscapes of Tucson, Arizona, producing a conceptual set of thirteen songs, each set in a different city and following the aimless, lost drifting of the various characters involved.

After the last album's stripped back minimalism, it's a change to hear the band, augmented by Howe Gelb and assorted Calexicos, with a fuller sound and more diverse instrumentation and arrangements that variously embrace horns, mandolins, glockenspiels and accordions. There's a more upbeat musical mood to several of the numbers too; the scuffle along cantina country of Moving Back Home #2, the slow swaggering alt-country drawling beat that kicks along Capsized and the spacey rock sensibility underpinning Four Walls.

But all share the same atmosphere of dry deserts and star-flecked night skies, a perfect setting for Valutin's noirish storytelling and haunting and haunted songs such as I Fell Into Painting Houses In Phoenix, Arizona, A Ghost I Became, $87 and a Guilty Conscience That Gets Worse The Loner I Go or the short, spoken St Ides, Parked Cars And Other People's Homes about blue collar men lost in rusted dreams, bent with rueful regrets, forever reaching out to connections they can't make, consumed by anger and resentments eating away at their soul.

Pushed to pin down standouts, they'd likely have to be the early hours shivers of The Kid From Belmont Street where an old man tries to stop the kid not to make the same mistakes, the closing piano and trumpet call for salvation of Lost In This World and The Disappearance of Ray Norton, a spoken narrative childhood memoir about a man whose racist attitudes to Mexicans cost him friends and family. But everything here pretty much qualifies as a work of genius.



Mike Davies February 2007

Eddi Reader - Eddi Reader Sings The Songs Of Robert Burns (Rough Trade)

Here's a CD which I enjoyed rather more than I expected to. Born out of two concerts at last year's Celtic Connections, where Eddi was backed by string players from the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, this album recreates the fairly lush sonorities and further adds the instrumental expertise of Ian Carr, Phil Cunningham, John McCusker, Boo Hewerdine, Colin Reid, Ewen Vernal, Christine Hanson and Roy Dodds. You might feel that the effect of this all is to make the intimate Burns lyrics into something incongruously cinematic, too large-scale, but surprisingly Eddi's vocal treatments combine with the tasteful (if necessarily "romantic") arrangements and finely-textured production to produce something that grows on subsequent plays and actually comes to sound much in keeping with the heart-on-sleeve romanticism of the poetry. And after all, as Eddi herself points out in her notes, many of these poems form part of the soundtrack to one's growing-up. No matter that the majority of the songs covered are in the "most well-known" category among Burns' large output; several of them are further spiced up by the interpolation of tunes, to good effect. And there's even one original song here - John Douglas' Wild Mountainside, which proves no disgrace to the Burns pieces which surround it. Eddi shows herself to be in tune with the sentiments and contours of Burns' poetry, and turns in credible interpretations all round. Some of her treatments surprise on first hearing, especially given the nature of the more-oft-heard renditions. Charlie Is My Darling has a cheeky, insouciant busker-like charm, for instance, and Eddi's fine version of Ye Jacobites is intriguingly dour, and a highlight of the whole album for me. Give Eddi the benefit of your doubts - you'll not regret it.


David Kidman

Eddi Reader - Simple Soul (Rough Trade Records)

This is possibly Eddi's best work to date, certainly some of her best songs. She and her collaborators, notably Boo Hewerdine who co-wrote nine of the eleven tracks, have further mined the 'down-home' acoustic seam at which they're experts. Homely or not (it was recorded in Roy Dodds' flat), the results are sophisticated, bright, melodic and probably timeless (the great benefit of real-time acoustic recording). There's more than one classic Reader here.

Her vocals are pure quality, her interpretations masterly. The input of Hewerdine, along with Teddy Borowieki on keyboards and veteran Reader kershuffler, Dodds, is quintessential. Eddi has always attracted the best of talent. Today she has a squad big enough for Europe. But at its spine are these three men: Hewerdine, a sophisticated pop brain with an acoustic guitar cooking on low level; Borowieki, a keyboard Puck commissioned to girdle the earth; and Dodds, the shaker king. Its a very focused album with one coat and many colours.

The overture is 'Wolves', a lovely song. Its memorable and a good example of Reader and Hewerdine skating like Torvill and Dean across the folk-pop ice. Yeah, well.

'Lucky Penny', another keeper, another affirmation of the human spirit. Its what Eddi does best. It's there on the title track, aided (as all over the place) by Borowieki's soundscapes. Theres some great guitar from Adam Kirk on 'Adam', another fine track; and an excellent love song, 'I Felt A Soul Move Through Me'. Top grade stuff and I bet it works in all conditions.

You can tell the songs are good, you could produce them a thousand ways. None would probably last as long as this though. Is there anything that doesn't work for me? Yes, the booklet. It's got magic picture lyrics and the look of a Dulux summer collection. But I'll tell you what, you should buy it.


David Hughes

Ashley Reaks - Here's To The Good Life (own label)

Formerly erstwhile sideman for Francis Dunnery and singer with Human League like electropop outfit Younger Younger 28s (when he went by the name of Joe Northern), Harrogate based Reaks has taken a considerable swerve since then. These days he's a poet, comedian and artist (specialising in collage and mixed media) as well as a musician.

In which capacity he's released two albums, Children Rule! and Melancholia, both fairly dark and eletronic-focused. This is his third and a more diverse collection of sounds and styles that stroll between the brassy ska-mod shaded Hate Me (And I'll Hate You) with its Madness hint, Ghost Town In My Heart's synth pulsing Specials bossa nova with its forlorn sax and imagery that echoes Jerry Dammers' vision of Coventry, and the border country twang and jogging rhythms of the lyrically playful In The Rubbish Bin that wouldn't sound out of place in a Hank Wangford set.

He's not the sunniest of writers. The folk-blues flavoured Brother Joe is based on the true story of a preacher abusing his daughter, tracing influences of Ray Davies and Roy Harper the brooding Monster Of Suburbia paints a chilly portrait of a serial killer with "the world destruction blues', while the finger-picked Elizabeth's Loneliness is a poignant snapshot of a broken-hearted recluse. An Eleanor Rigby for the modern world.

Mind you, she's positively sunnily well-adjusted compared to the broken doll wracked by drugs and anorexia that is Serena. It comes as no surprise either to find the bluegrass mountain music strummed She Left Me For A Dead is a list of all his exs. Still, as the final verse shows, he has a sense of humour about it.

Thankfully it's not all downer. Here's To The Good Life is a suitably bouncy rockabilly skipalong with train rhythm shuffle and twangy country guitar and lap steel and Every Day Is A New Beginning, the jangling guitar, steel pealing pop-folk ballad duet with Maria Jardardottir, does at least close the album on an optimistic note before the hidden jug band, kazoo blowing, tambourine banging swing n stomp reprise complete with vinyl crackles.

Reminding me at times of Ralph McTell, at others Stephen Duffy, Martyn Joseph and Gerry Rafferty, he's a bit of a musical butterfly, always exploring different styles and territories so there's no knowing whether this might prove a one off or the basis of a continuing approach. Either way, he's a 21st century renaissance man who's well worth the discovering.


Mike Davies December 2010

Real Time - Hell And High Water (Big Sky)

There've been changes a-plenty in the Real Time camp since their debut release (a live album) a mere two years ago, but I'm pleased to report that these changes don't work to the detriment of the sound or to the group identity. Happily, Real Time's core members - Judy Dinning and Kenny Speirs - remain. But there's now a new fiddler, another exceptionally talented young player (they sure can pick 'em!), the award-winning Iain Anderson (he replaces Joe Wright, who's decamped to the latest John Wright Band), whose lyrical style has just the right measure of grace and virtuosity. Also, master keyboardist (and studio wizard) Tommy Roseburgh joins the roster as a virtually-fulltime member, to fill out the already fulsome band sound a little further - and very tastefully he manages it too. Without wishing to generalise, it's probably fair to say that the group's performing style and general musical direction can now arguably be termed more truly Celtic than hitherto, for whereas previously the emphasis had been mostly on the juxtaposing of Judy's own compositions with those of other contemporary writers, the latest album intersperses the latter with straightforwardly traditional material (four songs, a slow air and a vigorous set of reels). As far as the group sound is concerned, the current mix of primarily Scottish and Northumbrian musicianship proves alert and positive, while producing an appealing and accessible overall sound. Real Time still manage to cover a wide spectrum of songs by contemporary writers, songs that by and large well suit Judy's style of delivery and her innate aptitude for honest expressiveness; these include Lal Waterson's Make You Stay, Enda Kenny's Angel Of The North, Joni Mitchell's Carey, Isaac Guillory's poignant Ship In The Window, and the timeless Fairport classic Crazy Man Michael (here given a stirringly dramatic new arrangement). Real Time have also taken advantage (in the nicest possible sense!) of the chance to augment their sound even further, albeit selectively, with multi-instrumentalist Brian McNeill, percussionist Steve Lawrence, bassist Neil Harland and accordionist Gary Forrest - inordinately fine musicians every one of them, who prove fully in tune with the band themselves. One thing hasn't changed for Real Time though - they're still under-using Kenny's talents, for though he's a lovely singer his vocal contribution's again reduced to occasional harmonies on a mere handful of tracks on this new album. But whatever, Hell And High Water certainly proves that Real Time are still serious contenders on the scene and they've settled perfectly into their revised musical direction.


David Kidman

Real Time - Real Time (Big Sky)

Since their formation only at the start of 2002, this trio has been gaining a grand reputation for its live appearances on the folk scene, at both festivals and clubs. Of course they had a head start - a lineup two of whose members are already well-loved musicians and singers (Kenny Speirs, ex-John Wright Band singer and guitarist, and Judy Dinning, formerly with Jez Lowe's Bad Pennies and Lucky Bags). But with the third member (for many, the unknown quantity) being an amazingly talented young fiddle/mandolin player, Joe Wright, it's clear this band could do no wrong - and so this album proves. With a repertoire that moves effortlessly between songs (mostly contemporary, a handful of traditional) and tunes played with an easygoing instrumental virtuosity, it sure is a winning combination. The buoyant effervescence and total involvement of the trio's live performances translates pretty strongly to CD on this, their first recorded offering, so the decision to issue a live set rather than a studio-recorded CD has evidently paid off in that respect, although I admit I tend to find the incidentals of live recordings (applause, intros, etc) less satisfying for repeated listening. Opening with a Judy Dinning composition (Maybe, one of seven examples on the CD - and I hadn't realised Judy was such a prolific, and fine, songwriter) proves a good gambit, setting the scene admirably, with its vital, driving guitar and fiddle and soaring vocal line and providing a sensible contrast with the next track, Best Kept Secret, another of Judy's. Kenny then takes lead vocal for a cover of Richard Thompson's When I Get To The Border (which had also graced his first solo album Border Song) before Joe steps into the spotlight for a pair of traditional tunes (Snow On The Hills and The Swallowtail Reel), which demonstrate the poetic fluidity, natural verve and unassuming maturity (already!) of his playing - whether at slow or fast tempo. And so the album proceeds, as does the band's live set, every selection a highlight in its own way. I've already said that Judy's own songs are particularly impressive, songs about relationships, the acquiring and the parting, that are deceptively simple but embody a uniquely wistful passion - and I'm sure we're destined to hear more. Finally, I must mention Real Time's sensible cover of Lal Waterson's Fine Horseman - not an easy song to bring off, but Judy does a great job. OK, so I'd like to hear more of Kenny's singing, but that's probably the only perceivable imbalance in Real Time's act as represented by this CD.


David Kidman

Reckless Kelly - Bulletproof (Yep Roc)

Fronted by brothers Cody and Willy Braun, the Texans have been swaggering through their roadhouse country-rockers for over a decade, but it may just be the time for them to find overnight success with this set of hook friendly, head down the highway guitarslingers that hit home like Steve Earle on a full chamber.

Opening as the intend to continue with the rolling wheels of Ragged As The Road, they fire off further tequila laced chords and rebel rhythms on Love In Her Eyes, the punchy anti-war/pro-troops American Blood, Passing Through, Wandering Eye and One False Move. Curiously, A Guy Like Me even sounds like a country-rock reincarnation of Iggy's The Passenger while the closing title track brings some Guns n Roses guitar fire to the party.

They don't have to toss around grenades to make explosions though. The moody, organ-growled one night stand come on You Don't Have To Stay Forever, mid-tempo steel keening How Was California and the scraped fiddle burnished Mirage all crank up an equal power that calls to mind long forgotten and late lamented 80s rebel country rock outfit The Unforgiven.

With God Forsaken Town, a Robert Earl Keen co-write that addresses those displaced by Katrina and the looting that followed, providing yet another high spot, it's high time Willy Braun and his boys became as synonymous with Texas as a cold Bud. They certainly have the same kick.


Mike Davies July 2008

Reckless Kelly - Wicked Twisted Road (Sugar Hill)

For Wicked Twisted Road, the renowned Texas quintet have once again teamed up with crack producer Ray Kennedy, cementing the healthy working relationship they'd established while working on their previous album Under The Table And Above The Sun. Compared to that earlier offering, though, this new CD starts out deceptively lazily, with both the title track and Dogtown seeming content to mosey along at a leisurely small-town pace with an attractively lightly-scored backing. Only when the band decide to hit the trail for a pub crawl (Seven Nights In Ireland) does a fuller band sound and greater attack assume more importance; thereafter they certainly go all out to prove they'll easily go the whole distance, with the jangly electric country-rock of A Lot To Ask and Broken Heart, the Steve-Earle-brand of bitter bad-girl honky-tonk on the standout cut Nobody Haunts Me Like You, and the strange transformation from Burritos to blistering Southern rock and back again during the course of Motel Cowboy Show (this one named, no doubt, in tribute to Pinto Bennett's band the Motel Cowboys whom Reckless Kelly acknowledge as a big influence). There's a punchy Springsteen-like guts and drive about Reckless Kelly at their most potent, as even a cursory listen through the melodic bravado of (say) These Tears will straightway bring to your notice. And when Reckless Kelly choose to rock on and out, as on the wailing Stones strut of Wretched Again or, even better, the extended Sixgun, there's no stopping the motor, even at a roadblock (apparently one of the band's earlier releases includes a 16-minute version of Zep's Whole Lotta Love... hmm, now that I just gotta hear!). No lack of dynamism or muscular energy here - just a tingling, almost visceral pleasure to be gained from the band's loud and commanding inventiveness. Oh, and the disc also contains a bonus item - a ten-minute video made during the recording of the album.


David Kidman

Reckless Kelly - Under The Table And Above The Sun (Sugar Hill)

Reckless my foot! A neat, well controlled burst of rootsy country-rock pounds out of the speakers, sweeping all along with it, on Let's Just Fall, opening track of this, the third studio offering from this Austin-based outfit. The band comprises brothers Willy and Cody Braun (axe-slinger and fiddler respectively), drummer Jay Nazz, guitarist David Abeyta and bassist Jimmy McFeeley - all new names to me I'll admit, but hey, if Robert Earl Keen gets off on their playing then that's good enough for me! On many cuts, hard-edged guitar lines and powerhouse drumming cut right on across a basic alt-country/rock'n'roll texture, alternating with the more sparse acoustic-driven settings of cuts like Snowfall and Desolation Angels (a loving homage to Kerouac's book of the same name). Sibling vocal harmonies (courtesy of Willy and Cody, natch!) top out the Reckless Kelly sound, while there's also guests on occasional pedal steel or dobro, smidgens of keyboard from album producer Ray Kennedy (who brings a kinda Steve Earle-punchiness to the proceedings), harmony vocals from Kim Richey on the perfect closer (May Peace Find You Tonight), and well, even a fun guest appearance by Rosie Flores (not what you think!). What more could you want? Well, some of the songs mightn't grab immediately, but by third or fourth play you're hooked right enough. But the back-to-basics thrust and drive of this band is infectious, no question, no matter what tempo - check out the majesty of Vancouver for instance, you'll not be disappointed. Oh, and the general upbeat vibe of the album is accentuated by the inclusion of two songs about skiing (I kid you not!) - now there's a first for an alt-country record, I bet! A very tasty album, this.


David Kidman

Redbird - Redbird (Redbird)

OK, so the title line tells you most nothing! Redbird is the collective name for the teaming-up of the trio of individual American singer-songwriters that made such a splash with the Chautauqua Tour here in the UK last year - they got on so well together on that tour that the same folks went back out on the road again this year. Their eponymous album was recorded direct to DAT "in Mark's living-room" last August, and sees them just hanging in there on a well-judged mix of covers and originals. These range from songs from major league writers (Greg Brown, Dylan, Tom Waits and Willie Nelson) to less wellknown names (Mark Sandman, Paul Cebar, Ry Cavanaugh) to a couple of traditional items (Sally Garden, Moonshiner), through to a handful of originals (one each from the three writers). They're joined by their pal "Goody" (David Goodrich) whose guitars and mandolin boost the instrumental complement without overshadowing the delicately balanced contributions of the three main performers; he also contributes a brief instrumental piece of his own. Highlights are evenly spread - I specially liked Kris's singing of Peter's Ithaca, Peter's tender rendition of Kris's Lullaby 101, the ensemble versions of REM's You Are The Everything and the Mitchell Jayne/Joe Stuart song The Whole World Round and Jeffrey's own Drunk Lullaby. There are times where the relative imbalance between the various vocal contributions can be a mite offputting perhaps, but the whole exercise actually hangs together pretty credibly, with a real sense of intimate and unpretentious music-making. Nice!


David Kidman

Red Box - Plenty (Cherry Red)

It's surprising how life can turn full circle. Back many years ago, when I and a friend were starting up a regional music PR company, our first client was Cherry Red Records. As such one of the early records we promoted to press and radio was Red Box's 1983 debut single, Chenko. It wasn't a hit, but the reviews and airplay it received attracted the attention of Seymour Stein who signed them to Sire. Two years later, now a duo of founder members Simon Toulson-Clarke and Julian Close, they charted with Lean on Me (Ah-li-ayo), the track staying in the UK top 3 for a month and reaching #1 in several territories. Follow up For America proved another Top 10 UK success, but the underperformance of The Circle & The Square album led to strain between band and label, eventually seeing them relocating to East West for sophomore release Motive.

At this point everything fell apart as conflict between the duo and the new label saw the Train single recalled and the album released with no publicity. Parting company by mutual agreement, the band went into cold storage.

Interest remained however, prompting a new recording of Lean On Me in 2007 and the re-issue, via Cherry red, of the debut album a year later. Now Toulson-Clarke has revived name, recruiting Steve Carr, Derek Adams, Simon Cole and Paul Bond as his core backing musicians with other contributors including Emily Maguire on strings, for this 'comeback' album.

Aside from a vocal passage on The Sign, there's none of the pulsing tribal rhythms with which they made their name, rather it's an elegantly muted, predominantly acoustic singer-songwriter album with Toulson-Clarke's soft, caressing vocal spreading a web of warm melancholy stylistically reminiscent of Messrs Hawley, Harcourt and the folk-soul of late period Paul Simon. Things do get musically upbeat on Hurricane which adopts a quite build verse to epic chorus flourishes template and the five minute mid-tempo Let It Rain where soaring strings gather the vocals up in their arms, but otherwise this is moodily atmospheric in a manner that sometimes recalls Blue Nile.

Backed by Adams on mandolin and Maguire's viola, the gently melodic, romantically bittersweet Brighter Blue is one of several highlights that also include the slow waltzing Plenty, I've Been Thinking Of You, piano ballad Green and the haunting, dusk falling, strings burnished lullaby Never Let It Be Said with (harking back to one of Toulson-Clarke's long standing influences) its Buffy Sainte-Marie sample.

Will it prove a Lazarus-like career resurrection? Probably not, but anyone looking for classy late night listening should find, ahem, plenty to savour.


Mike Davies October 2010

Paul Reddick - Revue: The Best Of Paul Reddick (Northern Blues)

Long feted as Canada's finest bluesman, Paul formed his groundbreaking band The Sidemen in 1990, and he and the band toured hard for upwards of ten years before releasing the landmark Rattlebag album in 2001. Rattlebag, described as a masterpiece of "hard blues for modern times", marked the start of Paul's serious attempt to rework blues traditions with an emphasis on poetic forms and techniques, combining the mystery of the blues and its landscape with the powerful spell cast by its poetry. Villanelle, Paul's 2004 followup album, cut with Colin Linden, was also well received in the blues community, while over the past few years Paul's music has also been increasingly in demand for use in film soundtracks and commercials, such is its moody, atmosphere-laden power.

The impetus for the release of Revue, Paul's first retrospective collection, was the featuring of its lead track, I'm A Criminal, on a Coca-cola TV commercial, but Revue is emphatically not a series of ad-tracks cobbled together to make a fast buck, but instead it's a seriously fine compilation that gives a good idea of just why Paul's picked up award nominations galore for his daring, highly expressive and deeply committed approach to the blues tradition. Revue boasts 18 tracks and a playing-time of over an hour; it draws first and foremost from those two aforementioned widely acclaimed albums (four each from Rattlebag and Villanelle, as far as I can ascertain), and rounds out the picture by including, alongside three magnificent cuts Paul recorded with Paul Neufeld's Rhythm & Truth Brass Band, a handful of items from Paul's other albums with the Sidemen including two recently unearthed, previously unreleased recordings (You Know It Ain't Right and Sidemen Boogie), which close the disc in blistering, pounding, stormalong style. There's also Paul's excellent cover of Train Of Love, which originally appeared on the Johnny Cash tribute album Johnny's Blues, and his finely idiomatic arrangement of Son House's Am I Right Or Wrong.

Through all the cuts, though, it's Paul's extraordinary vision that convinces - it's a uniquely image-driven take on the blues, whether lowdown and dirty (Smokehouse, Big Not Small) or downhome pre-war acoustic (Villanelle, Winter Birds) or rough-house R&B, and always casts a potent spell. And Paul's vocal work fully complements that vision at all times, whether gruff and growling (almost like Tom Waits), or conspiratorial, or mellow and reasoned (Hook's In The Water comes on like a distorted electric Chris Smither!). Paul's take on his blues heritage is inspired, intensely individual and in the end really rather special, and every single song takes you on a highly imaginative journey through the landscape of the blues.


David Kidman October 2007

Jon Redfern - What Else But Love? (Reveal)

My initial reaction to singer/songwriter Jon's second proper full-length album (I don't count the stop-gap Acoustic set) was quite similar to that which his first solo disc provoked: it's a slow-burner, and equally elusive at times in its appeal. The key to its appreciation seems to be not to expect too much in the way of immediately memorable melodies or overly catchy hooks, but instead to take the songs very much as they come and not to force a reaction, and then they will prove their worth many times over. That state of mind's not an easy one to achieve in this world of instant musical gratification, but the rewards are there for the taking. What Else But Love? is a collection of new self-penned songs firmly in the intelligent-introspective vein familiar from May Be Some Time. Each of the nine songs is a deceptively understated emotional statement on an aspect of Jon's psyche: Temporary deals honestly with the issue of loss, and Play Of Fear deals with different aspects of Jon's personal fear of death, while Part Of You concerns Jon's own troubled past, where he travelled alone on the fringes of society to escape an unhappy home life, and Troubadour concerns the story of a friend with whom Jon was only recently reacquainted. Vocally too, Jon's on splendid form here, and on the casually jazzy demeanour of Future Lies he put me in mind of Robert Wyatt. The closing song, Don't Worry, is a concise but touching, simple yet beautifully-managed duet with the Winterset's Becky Unthank. The apparent ease with which these new songs worm their way into your brain belies their careful construction, and your appreciation is aided by the surprisingly busy settings, which feature a basic ensemble of Patrick Durkan (keyboards), Joss Clapp (bass) and Sam Murray(drums), with Pete Tickell (fiddles) augmenting that lineup on three of the tracks. A satisfyingly hypnotic set of songs, which grows enormously on subsequent plays; and it's extremely well recorded too. I do, however, find one particular aspect of the presentation rather irritating: the way the tracklisting and credits are printed (is the term pseudo-embossed?) on the arty fold-out booklet... they're all but illegible unless held up to the light at a particular angle, and even then not ideally readable.


David Kidman October 2008

Jon Redfern - May Be Some Time (Redfern Recordings)

Jon's probably best known (at any rate in folkier circles) as erstwhile member of that dynamic young Borders outfit Tarras, who turned heads not so many years back by scooping several major awards. Tarras made just two well-regarded albums before disbanding barely three years ago, shortly after which Jon took time out to explore the discipline of solo songwriting, drawing additionally on musical influences well outside the folk ambit. Teaming up with multi-instrumentalist and arranger Patrick Durkan, Jon recorded May Be Some Time, his debut solo album, which distils his many influences and inspirations in a multi-faceted set of original songs which, while untethered to any particular genre, are nevertheless characterised by a lively intelligence and a satisfying emotional depth. Although Jon's personal songwriting style resembles that of John Martyn or even Nick Drake in its shifting, restless gait, Jon's musical reference points move out beyond those to embrace John Coltrane and Pink Floyd, and even composers Steve Reich and Michael Nyman (the opening to Lost is one obvious passage that betrays their Minimalist inspiration) and Edgard Varèse (the percussion work on Demons). Jon's approach to rhythm is interesting too, with shifting time-signatures that sometimes add to the emotional unease, yet strangely you do sense that he's always in control (Patrick's unerringly precise percussion contributions are a significant factor here, I feel). Jon's singing has an element of cool detachment that can seem reminiscent of Robert Wyatt (check out the opener I'm Still Young) or Becker/Fagen aka Steely Dan (on Am I Fool). Then again, Jon's guitar playing, while not especially demonstrative (and it doesn't need to be in this context), is very accomplished, and carries echoes (but that's all!) of artistes as diverse as George Harrison, Roy Harper, Jimmy Page and John Renbourn. All told, it's not at all easy to put across in words the appeal of the music on this CD, for although the often static nature of the vocal lines can give the impression of a state of mind (and a music) that's largely ethereal, the busier backings provide a tension that enables the seemingly imperfect picture to be completed. Relatively unusual instrumental colourings and groupings (small brass ensemble or string quartet) are utilised with real imagination, and as I said above the percussion interlacings are particularly notable; Jon has also enlisted Peter Tickell (Kathryn's brother), former Tarras colleagues Rob Armstrong and Theo Clapp, pianist Ian Thorn, and some excellent session musicians including Roger Illingworth (sax). Jon has a real feel for texture, and his intuitive compositional skill and musicality is strongly evident in each of the album's dozen contrasted tracks. I did find, however, that some of the songs took a few plays to make their mark (I freely admit to having to put the CD aside for some weeks between listens, and the second set of plays was to reap considerably greater rewards). And so the CD title's really very much prescient - in that although it "may be some time" before you get the full measure of Jon's talent, it really is worth persisting.


David Kidman, July 2006

The Red Flags - Hundreds Of Sunshine (Folkwit)

The Red Flags is a duo project that's based around the talented Wiltshire-based country-blues singer-songwriter Keith Mouland. He's been around the alt-country scene for a few years now, even occasionally getting together with other musicians in that genre, whereas his recent solo album Astro Country did the biz and garnered some real good reviews. Now, with bassist K.C. (Harry) O'Shea in tow, Keith proves again that less is more with this set of 15 economical original songs, each one a classy and evocative little short story or recounted experience that makes its own impact in a gently thought-provoking way. Though augmented by touches of accordion, piano and harmonica (and an uncredited drumkit), Keith and his guitar do solid service in expressing Keith's keenly-observed visions of life and its characters. For quite a few of the songs, it's the titles that tell it like it is (Down Across The Border, Lazy Song, Cool Canyon) - in that respect, no real surprises, except in that it's perhaps mildly surprising that Keith still finds so much to say within a genre that for years has spun its own clichés. On each song Keith invests the familiar with something special, a directness and simplicity that's refreshing, but the extra poignancy of the most outstanding of his songs (like Funeral Song, Haunted House and the curiously-named Ambient Lemon Song) cuts to the quick. Yes, Keith does a very fine line in authentic stripped-down acoustic Americana of the Steve Forbert/Ron Picott variety, quite low-key and understated but - especially in this crowded marketplace - certainly proving worth your valuable time. Real nice.


David Kidman April 2007

Lisa Redford - Lost Again (Parrot Records)

I tend not to trust the unsolicited package, the "sent you this CD because I thought you might like it" approach, unless it comes from or via the recommendation of someone I respect - which in this case it did. And thanks aplenty, for it's probably one of the most captivating records of its kind that I've received for review this year. Bald facts then: Lisa's a singer-songwriter; she's based, so far as I can tell, in Norfolk, although this, her second, CD was recorded in Manchester, at Airtight.

It's a different animal to Lisa's first release, 2003's self-produced and self-financed Slipstream, which made a virtue of a compellingly natural acoustic-based performance in order to showcase her rapidly developing songwriting skills (even though it featured a small handful of other musicians). Although Slipstream's special qualities and virtues were rightly praised by the music press and Bob Harris, Lisa has decided to adopt a different approach for the followup; so, while Lost Again is manifestly a continuation in terms of Lisa's deeply felt yet recognisably smart songwriting, and its basic idiom remains exquisite melodic country-tinged acoustic pop, the album is definitely and consciously more "produced", with significantly increased instrumentation and beautiful (and imaginative) arrangements to envelop Lisa's trademark stunning voice and acoustic guitar and complement her reflective, heartfelt and emotionally-charged (without being overwrought) lyrics.

The signature guiding hand on the production is that of ex-Guthrie Gabriel Minnikin, who contributes audibly too by playing an enormous number of instruments including guitars, mandolin, accordion, banjo, pump organ and even theremin, as well as doing some backing vocals. He's summoned a further cast of musicians that include the superb Alan Cook on steel guitars (pedal and lap) and dobro, with others on piano, bass, drums, clarinet and even a string trio. There are occasions when Lisa's voice gets a little lost in the mix, and this is a time when a lyric sheet could usefully have been incorporated into the booklet I feel, but by and large these at times almost indescribably lush musical settings don't swamp but actually enhance Lisa's glorious tones, and the end result is heart-meltingly good.

Almost every song (there are 11 of Lisa's own on the record) is blessed with a different, and highly individual, musical character; the opening (title) track's a delicious and radio-friendly slice of country-inflected pop, with Lisa's gorgeous voice invitingly sidling up against the texture of pure steel twang. Next song, Dragonfly, is a gentler, string-backed piece that shares a delicate yet intense majesty with the sound-world of Nick Drake, whereas gently driving cuts like Why and Love You Anyway just swoon by and right through you on their way to emotional fulfilment. The achingly intense ballad When You Go brings another dimension to Lisa's writing, as does the inspirational Mountain Hideaway and the seemingly ambivalent "heavenly choir" angle of Universe. The album's closing track (a cover of Neal Casal's Fell On Hard Times) is the exception to the rule this time, rings the changes as it reverts to a raw voice-and-guitar template. Play this rapturously good CD just once, and you'll definitely want to get lost again (and again, and again…) in its charms, I just know it!


David Kidman

Jean Redpath - The Songs Of Robert Burns, Volumes 1-7 (Greentrax)

Long recognised as one of Scotland's premier traditional singers and a leading authority on her heritage, Jean is as widely respected as a teacher as a performer and interpreter of the oral tradition. While a student at Edinburgh University, over forty years ago, she was introduced (by Hamish Henderson) to the American composer Serge Hovey, with whom she was to collaborate on this major project. After extensive research, Serge was able to match over 320 of Burns' lyrics with the tunes for which they had been originally penned. He then composed arrangements of these for small ensembles, with Jean as singer; these were recorded over a period of nearly twenty years, and issued (on LP and cassette) on Rounder's Philo imprint, finally being reissued on CD, firstly in 1996 (to commemorate the bi-centenary of Burns' death) and now once again (for the 250th anniversary of his birth-year), on four generously-filled discs. The final volume was recorded just three weeks after Serge's death in 1989, and forms a fitting double-homage.

The instrumental accompaniments Hovey devised for Jean's robust mezzo are distinctive and stylish, if at times also quite lavish (in a classical-chamber fashion). Some employ just a piano backing, others a piano trio, while some bring in larger ensemble settings involving strings and wind instruments. But what is remarkable throughout is the sense of true response from both of the main participants, a quality which Hamish Henderson himself brilliantly described as "an amalgam of creative flair and scholarly exactitude". Jean's devotion to the cause, her affection for the lyric poetry and the power of the song, not to mention her superb stature as a singer, comes across fully in these performances, and in many ways they can be considered a backbone, a benchmark of Burns interpretation. There have of course been notable interpretations of many of the individual songs by other folk-scene performers, but a principal virtue of this set is its sheer consistency of artistic vision. Some of the more traditionally-minded folk enthusiasts may not immediately warm to the arrangements, which will inevitably be less rugged, more refined than they're used to perhaps, but once the basic approach has been taken on board and assimilated there's an abundance of charm within and many felicitous discoveries to be made - not least the incredible range of emotional expression and subject matter over the course of the lyrics, which encompasses romance, death, national pride, womanhood, even political commentary. There's much more to Burns than the conventional image conveys, and here is an ideal place to embark on your own voyage of discovery and hopefully a reassessment of his place in Scottish culture.

You may be interested to learn that Jean also recorded a further series of Burns settings over roughly the same period of time as the seven volumes of Hovey arrangements (not to be confused, these are mostly acappella or with plain guitar accompaniment and should still be available separately). But many listeners will justifiably regard the Greentrax discs under review here as a definitive collection, possessing as it does a striking degree of artistic unity and exemplary performances from all concerned.


David Kidman January 2010

Jean Redpath with Abby Newton - Will Ye No Come Back Again?: The Songs Of Lady Nairne (Greentrax)

Jean has been at the forefront of Scottish traditional song for well over 40 years, both in terms of performance and research, and as a respected singer has been involved in a comparable number of album releases, including the groundbreaking Songs Of Robert Burns series. Over twenty years ago, in 1986, Jean recorded the album Songs Of Lady Nairne for Rounder's Philo label; this collected 14 "Jacobite" and other songs written by Lady Nairne (Caroline Oliphant), "the flower of Strathearn" in the late 18th/early 19th century; many of these songs, including The Rowan Tree, Caller Herrin' and The Auld House, not to mention the disc's title song, have long been considered traditional, so it's good to find Jean putting right the misconception. Since the original record was never widely available in the UK, Greentrax has now licensed it for re-release in its glorious entirety. This is a cause for celebration, for it's a classic of its kind, bringing us what might be regarded as definitive performances of these songs.

The recording has a well-defined atmosphere all its own too, which stems primarily from the wonderful combination of Jean's beautifully pure, lyrical singing and Abby's smoothly expressive, delightfully contoured playing (there's also a modicum of fiddle support from David Gusakov, and just occasionally, as on Charlie's Landing and The White Rose Of June, Jean herself provides a gentle guitar part). The oft-derided title track is given here in a totally believable rendition that restores its currency at a stroke – I can't bear to listen to any other version!… A small handful of the songs are performed unaccompanied by Jean: and matchlessly too. Quite honestly, these performances are peerless, and everything you could wish for in this repertoire. And to top it all, this Greentrax reissue comes complete with state-of-the-house booklet, freshly re-designed and containing full texts and helpful glossary. Sheer delight.


David Kidman July 2009

Red Shoes - All The Good Friends (Cedarwood)

It took 25 years to make their well-received debut album a reality. With the support of a burgeoning fan base, Pledge Music and the good friends they've made along the way (including Bill Caddick's wife, Katherine, who did the cover painting), the follow up arrives in a mere three, during which time the duo of Mark and Carolyn Evans has become a quartet with the addition of Bert Priest on percussion and guitarist Tony Kelsey. This time round, Mick Dolan (whose CV includes Winwood, Jagger and Show of Hands) is in the producer's chair, but Dave Pegg's still present on bass, joined by fellow Fairport alumni Chris Leslie, Ric Sanders and Dave Swarbrick as well as former Wizzard man Bill Hunt on French horn and Move/ELO drummer Bev Bevan.

With the first album, I'd lived with most of the songs for many years. Here many were, while familiar, still relatively new, their incarnations changing from demo to demo, gig to gig. Indeed, I'd never heard the opening number, Red Coat Ride, until the first time I played the album. Yet they already feel timeless.

Heralded by horn with Sanders on violin and Leslie on mandolin, built around a trad sounding tune Red Coat Ride is an anti fox hunting number but it also resonates with themes that are woven throughout the album, of mortality, ageing and loss. Tellingly the individual photos in the booklet are all of them as children.

One of the first high points, the chorus of The Well picks up the blood sports image in its line 'he held a gun to a frightened deer' (though were talking metaphor more than animal here) while the second verse talks about the 'wooden box' in which we're carried off. A slow build number of dark power, it's hard not to listen to Carolyn and not think of Sandy Denny, a comparison accentuated by the bittersweet last farewells Sunday Afternoon which shares both a theme and a melody with Who Knows Where The Time Goes. The passing years weigh heavy too on the album's closing number, sad slow waltz The Last Dance where a lonely woman in a ballroom looks to 'dance away my ageing years'.

If there's deep sadness there, the movingly autobiographical Hidden Name addresses mortality with affecting tenderness, Carolyn reminiscing on her mother and singing 'hold me' as Leslie's bamboo whistle conjures an airy, golden summer afternoon.

As before, Mark takes the vocal spotlight on two numbers. The self-penned If This Is Life is probably the oldest song on the album, a catchy chorus friendly folk-pop number with a melody reminiscent of Something Wicked off the debut and a lyric about not being pulled into the world of those who hold on to self-martyring resentments, while, sounding as though inspired by Remembrance Day, Every Blade of Grass is a fairly straightforward anti-war number.

I should, at this point, declare my one reservation in Through The Window which, although as well sung and played as anything here, feels too cliched in its broken relationship lines about 'home is where the heart is' and 'love don't live here anymore'. They're far better writers than that.

It's followed, however, by Swansong. Written by Mark, a jaunty, Morris dancing stomp with ukulele bass and mandolin, it's this album's equivalent of Ring Around The Land. Another farewell song, yes, but, with gilded with the hope of finding better places, better times and a rousing all join in chorus sounds custom built to lift the spirit of any folk festival going.

Placed back to back, the two remaining songs deal with loss. The first is an inspired rework of The Move's Blackberry Way which, with Bevan on backing vocals and Sanders providing funereal violin, takes the tempo right down to transform it into a sombre folk ballad that, Carolyn on tremendous vocal form, wrings every atom of pain from the lyrics. Then comes River Rea, a song that, titled for the Birmingham river, has been a highlight of the live show since they first started performing it and which is the even minute electrifying heart of the album.

Bournville-born Carolyn's anger at the Kraft take-over over Cadbury's is translated into a harrowing loss of innocence allegory of a young girl molested while on her way to school by a man who 'smelled of cocoa'. Although original plans to feature a gospel choir picking up the chorus for the a cappella ending of the live shows disappointingly didn't come to pass, it still makes the hairs on your neck tingle as it ends with the repeated line 'I was a child please take me home', quite possibly the most heartbreaking refrain you'll ever hear in a song.

A mature, confident album that builds on the strengths of the debut and should deservedly bring them to the attention of an ever growing audience, these songs aren't just good friends, these are family.


Mike Davies December 2012

Red Shoes - Ring Around The Land (Cedarwood)

I've been waiting a quarter of a century to write this review. Once a Birmingham folk rock group, now guitar playing husband and wife singer-songwriter duo Mark and Carolyn Evans, I was blown away the first time I heard them, won over by early songs such as Jumper Of Love (knitting as an inspired metaphor for romance) and All Fall Down, not to mention electrifying live performances.

To this day the passion and power of Carolyn singing Somerset remains embedded in my memory while her spine shivering version of Who Knows Where The Time Goes deservedly saw her hailed as another Sandy Denny. However, a combination of music business indifference and personal circumstances, meant that they never got to fulfil their true potential. Until now.

Championed and produced by Fairport's Dave Pegg (who joins Chris Leslie and PJ Wright as backing musicians), they've finally been given the chance to make the album that will prove them one of this country's finest folk rock names.

Pegg's mandolin and Leslie's fiddle rippling in the background, the joint-penned Celtic Moon provides a perfect opening, conjuring images of star-kissed balmy harvest evenings while its lyrics spins a bittersweet memory of a lost perfect romance. The first of Mark's five numbers, Keep On Loving You maintains the note of romantic ache, a catch in Carolyn's throat as she pledges faith to a lover beset by black clouds while Leslie's violin weeps.

Taking its title and tale from the Ray Bradbury story of failed fathers and damned carnivals and with PJ Wright on wailing harmonica, the jauntily strummed country rock Something Wicked This Way Comes (one of only two tracks to feature drums) showcases Mark on vocals, underlining the fact that this is very much a marriage of equals.

Three numbers offer concrete proof that the pair can mesmerise with just voice and fingerpicked acoustic guitar; waltz time swayer Only A Fool, the heartaching steadfast devotion of Woman In Love and Diamonds She Once Wore's poignant tale of a girl growing through the pain of lost love to become woman and mother.

The song that first garnered MySpace attention marks the album's emotional anchor. Written by Carolyn, its tune echoing Greensleeves and Liverpool Lullaby, My Father's Green Beret is a heartbreaking lament for her father, a war hero who died of hospital contracted MRSA. Accompanied by double, bass and violin, with daughter Megan arranging and playing piano, it's a thing of stark beauty infused with pride and anger alike that perfectly chimes with the nation's Help For Heroes campaign. Try listening without a lump coming to the throat.

Leslie taking charge of mandolin, the only cover comes with Swarbrick's waltzing classic, White Dress. Immortalised by Denny, suffice to say this stands shoulder to shoulder with the original, Carolyn's delivery equally capable of bringing grown men to their knees.

They keep the mood intact for the slow paced Someday We'll Meet, its emotional yearning mirrored by Leslie's terrific, understated fiddle accompaniment before picking up the tempo with Mark on vocal duties again for the jangly Americana folk Keep A Hold On Me.

Having known Seeds when it was an uptempo folk rocker with a belting chorus, it's taken a while to get accustomed to its rearrangement as a two and half minute slow swaying shanty. But with Pegg on bass and Megan providing electric piano, I've now fallen under its spell as Carolyn draws out the song's resigned sadness.

Signing their love of traditional folk, Two Sisters is a rewrite of the trad murder ballad Twa Sisters, its dark storyline couched in a deceptively light, almost lullabying melody picked out on acoustic guitar while Leslie takes up the lyrics' gruesome fiddle narrative.

They keep the best for last, though, with the celebratory title track, a joyous May Day morris dance for trysting lovers, bells, mandolin, fiddle and its 'bright blessings will ring around the land' mass chorus spilling over with exactly the sort of sunny optimism these troubled times need. Fading away with bodhran and fiddle on the traditional Shepherd's Hey, it's the new folk anthem for the 21st century. That it's my folk album of the year is a foregone conclusion. It could well be yours, too. And with stunning new material already appearing on the website, they're clearly readying a repeat performance.


Mike Davies June 2009

The Red Stick Ramblers - Bring It On Down (Memphis International Records)

Linda Ronstadt said, of the Red Stick Ramblers, that they are pure joy. Listening to Bring It On Down you will understand why. The eponymous title track sounds a little like They're Red Hot by Robert Johnson and they give this old favourite, learned from Bob Wills, a great old time country/blues treatment. From the first bars of this the listener is shown how tight a band they are. Main Street Blues has plucked guitars and mandolin, giving a strangely Mediterranean feel. However, the addition of fiddles adds the Americana ingredient. What Do I Do? takes us back to the days of crooners and innocence for a tale on how relationships can take many turns.

Stay All Night is old time country with slap bass, fiddles and a sing-a-long chorus. This is one for getting the audience up to dance. Belle is Cajun music but I have one gripe, where's the accordion? I got my wish on Two Step des Condamnes, a brilliant Cajun two-step with Steve Riley on the squeeze box. Rattle My Cage is contemporary Americana and its stilted vocal and wailing fiddles make it another standout. The Ramblers can turn their hand to other styles and the jazzy instrumental Django Reinhardt song, Blue Drag, confirms that ability. Chas Justus' acoustic guitar solo is wonderful.

The old standard Dinah is up next and its up-tempo, jazzy delivery suits the Ramblers to a tee. Parting Waltz features twin Louisiana fiddles and Celtic influences that make up a fine Cajun dirge. It's just fiddles and voice and is another standout. The famous 16 Tons is given a Cab Calloway style treatment before the band finish on When The Sugar Cane's Tall. There's just something about those fiddles. This could only be American music and it's a cracker to finish with. For Red Stick read Red Hot!


David Blue

The Redlands Palomino Company - Don't Fade (Clubhouse)

It's been four years since the release of Take Me Home, half of which saw them off the road starting families, moving house, and working on side projects between putting this together with singer-guitarist Alex Eton-Wall cutting his teeth as producer, preferring not to rush things in order to ensure they got it right. The album was actually completed over a year ago, but then they had further delays sorting out a new label.

Finally, however, it's finally here and he, singer-songwriter wife Hannah, pedal steel player David Rothon, drummer Don Tilbury, guitarist Tom Bowen and bassist Rain can congratulate themselves on a job well done.

Ringing guitars open Call Me Up before Alex's dusty croak and Hannah's sweeter tones trade verses while pedal steel underpins the country rock drive, so it's a pity they decided to follow with Brass Bed, a Hannah-fronted ballad that pulls the momentum up sharp. It would have been better to swap the running order to make 1879, a mid-tempo chiming guitar, steel and organ star-crossed lovers number that evokes memories of Gram and Emmylou, the second. But this and the decision to strike an alternating balance of lead vocals are minor quibbles given the quality of the material and the performances. Since both husband and wife are strong singers, it's impossible to weight one's contributions against the others and both have their share of album highlights, Hannah shining on the title track, Alex punching up the Stonesy swagger of Siren, while a fine cover of the Dillards' One A.M. with Bowen and Rothon providing the muscle, is a perfect example of their fantastic harmonies.

In some ways. it's a rather safe country rock album, but when you're this good why flirt with danger just to keep the critics happy!


Mike Davies June 2011

The Redlands Palomino Company - Take Me Home (Laughing Outlaw)

British bred alt-country Americana, the RPC are built around the twin vocalists guitarist Alex Elton-Wall and singer-songwriter wife Hannah, ably supported by pedal steel man David Rothon and the rhythm section of Jamie Langham and Rain. Listening to the 12 string jangles of the cheating on a relationship Wasted On You and the childhood reflecting Coastline, it's not too difficult to discern influences that embrace Gram and Emmylou, The Jayhawks, The Byrds, Burritos and Ryan Adams. But having said that, with Alex taking throaty lead, Pick Up, Shut Up harks to a mix of Creedence and Faces vintage Rod Stewart while She Is Yours flirts with a keening marriage of pedal steel country and power pop, inviting Gina Villalobos to share vocals, and Hannah's aching title track suggests she may well have listened to a Kathy Mattea or Linda Thompson album at some time in the past. But these are no great departures from a blueprint they've already proven they can do as well as anyone born to the breed, and while the lyrics may be veined with reflection of regret and tales of loss and love gone wrong, the actual songs generally come with an upbeat kick. The highlights never end, chugging along for Please Come Running, circling the honky tonk with Burning It Down and kicking over the empty bottles with the Gram meets Merle Friends In The Dark, complete with plangent guitar chords and steel and fiddle duel. Bidding farewell with a strings glistening instrumental reprise of Take Me Home, one final chorus of Hannah fading away into the night, these Palominos can come and ride my range anytime.


Mike Davies February 2007

The Redlands Palomino Company - By The Time You Hear This . . . We'll Be Gone (Laughing Outlaw Records)

Going by the name The Redlands Palomino Co. sounds like it should be one of those denim and baseball-cap wearing Southern rock bands, the kind that fall out of the bar and on to the stage.

I suppose that if, like me, you live in the north, then London is the South. But, believe me, 'the smoke' is not the first place that comes to mind from listening to this excellent album.

Sometimes it's easy to spot a good band by the effortless way they switch, mix and marry styles. So it is with The Redlands Palomino Co. While By The Time may have the purists and zealots scratching their heads and muttering darkly about 'deserting the true path' of American country/rock, the more objective music listener will enjoy the freshness and originality.

Fronted by twin vocalists Alex and Hannah Elton-Wall, and the band exploit the difference between the two quite beautifully.

On the opening and title track, Hannah's vocals chill and haunt in the same way as Gillian Welch and Alison Krauss. Her voice shines through the darkness of the song, like a pinpoint of light. When that is followed by Alex's 'redneck rocker' Temptation, the first of many twists and turns has been met and appetites are whetted.

When the two combine, as they do on Goodbye Love and Get On The Train, they produce some lush, hooky harmonies. With David Rothon on pedal steel guitar, Jamie Langham on drums and Rain on bass ( what is it with bass players and names?) the best way to describe the sound is 'complete'. It all sounds 'right', nowhere do you ever think 'now if only'.

The contrast and friction created by the harshness of This One's For The Heartache and Devil In My Head, the aching If You're Down and the lonely sweetness of Pony Song, creates a spark that becomes the flame that sets the whole thing alight.

Rarely do you come across an album that doesn't haven't at least a trace of formula. Here the band bend to the will of the song, there's even a kind of 'cleaned up Pogues' feel to Doing It For The Country, which is great fun.

With a pedal steel guitar so prominent, it is hard to get away from the country entirely and, truth be told, that's what's at the heart of all this. One thing is certain though, By The Time Your Hear This . . . you'll be hooked.


Michael Mee

Red Meat - We Never Close (Ranchero)

I have to say that "Red Meat" is the least attractive name for a band I've heard since the gory days of punk. Maybe it resonates differently over in California; come to think of it, maybe it's just a wind-up for all those self-righteous right-on middle class vegetarian professionals... or something like that. Anyway, an unpromising name, an unpromising cover shot of aging urban cowboy musicians, and an unpromising track-listing of standard honky tonk titles all hide an album of some surprising jolliness. Uncomplicated, for sure, with lyrics that expect no difficulty getting themselves over to a bar crowd, but they vary the menu adroitly, getting us all dancing with "Moonrock", guitarist Michael Montalto's instrumental, and chucking in last dance numbers like "Sunday". Sharing the vocals around the band with Jill Olsen and Smelley Kelley contrasting particularly well, and varying the sound from classic rocking honky-tonk to the swing-come-dixieland of "High Maintenance Babe", eveything is performed with a whole-hearted professionalism that never ever forgets that this is all about fun. And if you're looking for further recommendation then look no further than the producer credit: none other than the mighty Dave Alvin.


John Davy September 2007

Gill Redmond & Sarah Matthews - Personally Speaking (Coth Records)

Just lately, Sarah Matthews has been somewhat busy with her extra-curricular activities outside of her membership of the Derbyshire quartet Cross O' Th' Hands! Released around the same time as Sarah's duo album with Doug Eunson (Proper Swell), Personally Speaking is a beautiful and very listenable collaboration with cellist Gill Redmond (who you may recall touring the better class of folk festivals of late in tandem with songwriter Graham Moore). Violin/viola and cello is a rather special combination of instruments you don't often find duetting on a folk album, indeed not generally outside the classical field. And even though Sarah's blessed with a lovely singing voice, this is a predominantly instrumental disc. It presents a generous selection of dance tunes which originate from England, Wales and Sweden, with originals by Jon Swayne, Pat Shaw and Sarah herself. Sarah has a great knack of rearranging tunes into a different metre from how they were originally composed - her intelligent reworking of a mesmerising little tune by Eelgrinders' fiddler Helena Torpy into The Attingham Waltz is brilliantly conceived, for instance. Only two of the album's 11 tracks feature Sarah's vocals: the bright and breezy Derby Miller, and Great Tom Is Cast - a delectable chiming "round" celebrating the largest bell in Tom Tower at Christchurch College, Oxford, that's creatively used as a prelude to the Playford tune Christchurch Bells. The playing is abundantly sprightly and lively when the music demands it, with loads of energy in the attack from both musicians in consort, and there's some particularly snappy use of syncopation, as in the hornpipes set (track 8). However, this still manages to be an admirably intimate disc. For Sarah and Gill do a nice line in stately too, as the gorgeous bardic melody Glwysen and the aforementioned Attingham Waltz demonstrate, with exquisitely shaded and supremely attractive playing throughout. Another big plus is that the timbres of the three instruments are faithfully conveyed, with plenty of presence yet none of the needless artifice and over-equalisation that sometimes comes with state-of-the-art "classical" recordings. Some listeners who are more comfortable with a group sound may find that the comparatively restricted tonal palette of the two stringed instruments alone is a little too chamber-music-like for their tastes, but I'd consider that its quality of joyous intimacy one of its many virtues, and in truth the two players here make a fuller, richer sound than many a larger complement. For me, this disc proves a constant delight - especially on repeated plays.


David Kidman December 2006

Red Star Belgrade - Telescope (Checkered Past)

Naming yourself after a Serbian football team is an unusual way to start your musical career but that's what one-time rock critic Bill Curry has done. Of all the former Iron Curtain sports teams available to choose from, at least he chose a pronounceable one! There the sports connection ends for this rocking and (very) alt.country trio. You won't be playing RSB for a cheerful forty-six minutes of uplifting lyrics but it will get your feet tapping; in fact you probably won't realise to begin with what he's actually singing about. Curry's songs are literate and caustic and dwell on the alienation side of life; political and personal. The catchy 'On The Highway To Hell' has you singing along too. Curry's entire dark and depressing collection fairly breezes along with its up-tempo rockin' rhythm section and punchy and slidey guitars. The energy level is high with musical breadth from piano, organ, mandolin, ebow, melodica from Curry. His wife, Graham Harris Curry, features on drums and percussion. Quirky, intelligent and totally compelling, this is an album with teeth.


Sue Cavendish

Flora Reed – Settle Down (Soft Alarm)

Here's another CD that's been laying around the place for too long, intermittently hopping on and off the player for the past few months or so and giving me a lot of pleasure, but that I've not gotten around to writing home about! Very remiss of me, that – as it's another gem that deserves your attention. Now normally I'd shy away pronto from any album made by a record-company publicist, but this one proves that instinct wrong on all counts. For it's no mere vanity outing that was even made at all simply because Flora's surrounded by some uncommonly fine artistes who might owe her a favour (that little ol' label Signature Sounds has a roster to die for!). Settle Down is a considered product, oozing integrity and full of astute writing, characterful singing and neatly judged playing. Maybe the opening's a little deceptive tho' – pipsqueak organ chords wheezing in all the way across from Strawberry Fields, succeeded by Flora's compelling, seductive, cooing vocal line, all in all a frothy and (unexpectedly?) un-folky arrangement, but hey, it sure works for the song. Most of the songs on the album, in fact, come blessed with instrumental accompaniments that show their strength in their careful minimalism – which shouldn't be taken to imply a bare canvas, far from it; Flora achieves her goal of creating "a variety of sounds and atmospheres", but she also creates a sense of balance. Album producer Dave Chalfant (who's worked wonders for Erin McKeown, you may recall) and drummer Dave Hower do a splendid job, and guesting too are Gideon Freudmann (cello) and Katryna Nields and Rose Polenzani (occasional backing vocals). Having said all that, Flora's choice for her closing track – an acapella version of Björk's Joga – is both astute and breathtaking. Flora's own lyrics have been described as "fiercely written poetics", which to me means they're urgent yet literate, for that canny quotable tag both evokes and represents her writing voice pretty accurately while incidentally serving to characterise her singing voice too. Her music almost never falls into the standard singer-songwriter template; it's graceful yet quietly dynamic, creating an impression while not shouting at you or grinding on your ears – much in the manner of Beth Orton, say, though Flora's voice has quite different tonal qualities. Flora's songs prove the virtues of being both down-to-earth and deep; the most striking examples in this collection, perhaps, are Beloved and Sweetly Said, but there's not a single weak cut. These songs get in your ear, and then really do haunt you, and though they may float by quite innocuously at times they're insistent in their own sweet way and thus damnably difficult to dismiss from your consciousness. There's a distinct sparkle, a refreshing and clear-headed vibe to her music that marks her out as a performer and songwriter who's impossible to ignore – in the nicest possible way. Indeed, in the words of Just Ask, "there's nothing I can do but be strangely moved".


David Kidman

Lou Reed - The Raven (Reprise)

A major fan (like all good unreconstructed goths) of Edgar Allan Poe's horror novel about death, love and loss, Reed's been obsessed with creating a musical interpretation for some time. Finally he's got round to doing something about it, recruiting collaborators such as Willem Dafoe, Steve Buscemi, Bowie, Ornette Coleman, Amanda Plummer, the Blind Boys of Alabama and Laurie Anderson (aka Mrs Lou) for a double CD mix of spoken word and song that, based on his and Robert Wilson's arty musical POEtry, not only embraces the title classic but also other Poe works The Tell-Tale Heart, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Cask and The Imp of the Perverse.

Despite the occasional overkill of the electronic wallpaper and squally guitars, the former elements work well, Messrs Buscemi and Dafoe no strangers to knocking up a bit of evocative thesping and these tracks play like solid radio drama, despite the fact you need to have a working knowledge of the story to work out what's happening physically. The songs though.

Well, the good news is that Reed's revisited his own haunted past to resurrect suicide anthem The Bed from his 70s Berlin album, there's a spine-tingling alt-cabaret rework of Perfect Day sung by someone of indeterminate sex called Antony backed by spectral keyboards, while Vanishing Act, The Science of the Mind and the closing Guardian Angel hark back to the languid, strung out narcotic ballad days of Pale Blue Eyes. Elsewhere there's plaudits too for Kate & Anna McGarrigle on the twee lullaby-like one minute long Balloon and Buscemi gives good seedy lounge on Broadway Song, but what to make of Reed and Bowie getting together for the dreadful Hop Frog which sounds like some abortive Men Without Hats folk-prog fusion or the frankly unlistenable noise when Lou sends the guitars and electronics off in a strop. One for the committed.


Mike Davies

Ben Reel - Time To Get Real (own label)

This may be his fifth album in a career that stretches back 20 years, but the County Armagh singer-songwriter will still be a new name to most, even back home in Ireland. He may sing about Irish weather on the bluesy jog along opener Rainy Night, but there's little Celtic infusion to his sound, his musical roots firmly across the Atlantic. Indeed, it's not hard to spot the influences with Summers Always Here featuring a distinctive Willie warble, Time Slips Away firmly in Johnny Cash ballad mode, and Old & Wise suggesting hints of Steve Goodman and John Prine while Keep On Drivin' leans on the Nashville groove of Hal Ketchum.

Never less than listenable, elsewhere, he gets gospel bluesy on Who Are You, cruises the swamps with Feel Alive, rides freight train rhythms with the pedal steel picking Looking For A Lost Horizon, cranks up country rock twang for Time To Get Real and does soulful and reflective on the swaying closing time Frankie Millerish Old Bog Road. But, while there's an earthy warmth and a hidden version of Keep On Driving shows he's got some funky live chops, the songs themselves don't have that special magic to fan the flames to burn him into your heart.


Mike Davies November 2009

Reels - Reels (MAPL)

This is definitely not another of those Celtic tune-session bands. No sir, for this 23-minute EP (for I suppose it must be called such) by Halifax (Nova Scotia) band Reels presents eight fully-formed gems of swirling country-acid-garage-rock that could've come straight from Dr Byrds & Mr Hyde or (in one or two cases) from proto-HM Zepp or Purple outtakes. Favourite track at the moment is the pedal-steel-drenched The Straw That Broke The Camel's Back, but Clearer, Today is another strong cut and in fact on this brief showing Reels convince on almost all fronts. The core band is Craig Buckley, James Cunningham and Dan Carnat, who let themselves get augmented by ex-Guthries Ruth Minnikin and Dale Murray to come out the other side with a persuasive and rather promising debut CD whose appealing intensity is (I say with cautious optimism!) such that I hope it won't signal a swift burnout by the time they get round to making a followup. Liked the Stargate-SG1-inspired cover art too.


David Kidman

The Reels - Bare-Bone (Blue Raven/PacificSol)

This opens with the high volume R&B of Jet Black Ruby Red and is as good a start to an album that you could wish for. Lanny Ray gives it his all on vocals and guitar with pounding drums from Dylan Sardo and thumping bass from Pat Anthony. An atmospheric cover of Howlin Wolf's Who's Been Talkin' follows and Me & My Baby shuffles along with more stunning guitar work from Ray. Movin' Up To Malibu is a slow, earthy blues paying much homage to Muddy Waters and the afore-mentioned Howlin' Wolf.

The majority of the album is self-written and Baby Don't Worry is a fine example of the bands craft whereas Soul Blue is a slow electric blues to die for. Fuzz and distortion are the order of the day for I Want You and Ray is on howling form. I'm not surprised to be so taken with him as a guitarist when I see that he has played for Big Joe Turner, T-Bone Walker and Jimmy Reed. This guy has got class. Everybody's Got The Blues is slinky and just glides over you and Early In The Evening will bring you back to earth with its Stray Cats style execution. Robert Johnson's Walkin' Blues is the only other cover on the album and this is the second best (sorry boys) version that I've heard, closely beaten by Scotland's own Radiotones (check them out).

The bass-led Hold On is a standard blues-rock song and maybe would have been better placed in the middle of the album rather than as the penultimate track and the final song is a strange one to finish with after all the high-powered electric blues. Baby, Baby is slow, acoustic and laid-back, not what I've become to believe what The Reels are all about. The guitar solo is excellent as you would expect and I suppose they are just showing their range so I should not be too critical.

This is top class album by a power trio that deserve wider coverage. It shows what is out there if you can just be bothered to go out and look.


David Blue

The Refugees - Unbound (Wabuho)

In 1985 Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings came together as The Highwayman, releasing the first collaborative album by already established singer-songwriter performers. Having attempted to get it together in 1978, technically Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton beat them to the punch, but they abandoned the project and it wasn't until 1987 that it finally came to fruition with the release of Trio. Then, in 2000, although, they never kept things going, Harris, Gillian Welch and Alison Krauss teamed up for the soundtrack of O Brother, Where Are Thou?

Now comes the latest female collective, bringing together Wendy Waldman, Deborah Holland and Cindy Bullens, all of whom have, over the past three decades, made their name individually as writers, singers and, in Waldman's case, producer. Coming together in 2007 (and, originally, briefly a quartet with Jenny Yates), the trio blend rock, folk, jazz, blues and Americana, all of which inform their debut album.

Both their lead vocals and fabulous harmonies are spotlighted on the opening title track, a mandolin jogging slice of acoustic bluegrass country, one of two numbers on which all three share writing credits. Moved along by Holland's walking bass, the other's the smoulderingly upbeat bluesy Stickin' With My Baby's Love, a playful little number with a sexy groove, but one which is probably more effective live. Sharing lead vocals, their voices contrasting and complementing, Waldman and Bullens also co-wrote the gospel feeling All My Angels, but these are the only three new songs on the album, the remainder all drawn from their back catalogues.

However, while it would have been interesting to hear more material sparked by their union or for them to sing each other's songs, there's no complaints about what you get.

Bullens brings three dusty Americana numbers to the party; harmonica wailing ballad I Gotta Believe In Something from Somewhere Between Heaven & Earth and, both from Dream #29, the standout Eagles-ish Jellico Highway and a Pettyesque ringing Box Of Broken Hearts.

Holland digs back to her Animal Logic days with Stanley Clarke and Stewart Copeland to reprise (There's A) Spy In The House of Love with dulcimer and mandolin imbuing it with a folksier sound and, from her own Bad Girl Once, comes leaving song On My Way (itself co-written by Waldman) with Bullens on mandolin, and the harmonica burping bluesy The Violin Song sung from the perspective of a girl pleading with mom to give up her lessons.

Waldman, too, revisits three from her impressive repertoire. Originally done by the Nitty Gritty Dirty Band, Fishin' In The Dark is a swaggery southern country funky invitation to some romantic hanky panky under the stars while You Plant Your Fields (covered by Kathy Mattea among others as well as appearing on Waldman's My Time in The Desert) is a solid old school Appalachian folk tune about working the land. Her third contribution's the appropriately titled, much covered emotionally poignant final track, Save The Best For Last, formerly a massive hit for Vanessa Williams but here utterly reclaimed (and the first time Waldman's recorded it) in a stunning three part a capella rendition that sends shivers down the spine. They trio have garnered wide acclaim, so hopefully this will prove an ongoing project with the next album heavier on material sparked by their shared creativity.



Mike Davies June 2009

Fionn Regan - The End of History (Bella Union)

The latest name on the acoustic singer-songwriter scene to find himself draped in the new Nick Drake/Elliott Smith cloak depending on your age and reference points, Regan hails from Dublin and picks a rather fine guitar that suggests he's also not unfamiliar with the collected works of Bert Jansch and John Fahey. He also has an open hearted voice that will conjure comparisons with Damien Rice and Conor Oberst but also Loudon Wainwright (Hey Rabbit's lament for the destruction of nature) and Paul Simon (Snowy Atlas Mountains).

What's also caught the attention of starspotters is his way his often skeletal arrangements are accompanied by original lyrics steeped in melancholy, despondency and, in some instances (as with 'my jumper is soaked in pig's blood' on Snowy Atlas Mountains), downright disturbing weirdness.

Many of his images are plucked from rural nature. On the darkly urgent Hunter's World he uses a fox in a trap as a twisted romantic metaphor, childhood memories of a tongue-tied school friend return to 'the insect filled jars in rows' in the backporch bowing lament The Cowshed and even end of relationship song Put A Penny In The Slot sees him 'sit like a doc leaf sit beside a stinging nettle'.

The same song bears witness to his sense of wit as, having broken up with his lover he apologises for having "arrived home with items in my bag from your house, there's some cutlery, a table cloth, some Hennessy and a book on presidents deceased." It also marks his literary sensibilities but referencing Paul Auster's Timbuktu and Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March. Did I mention the album title's taken from an essay by Francis Fukuyama?

And if he's not dropping names or lifting words from bucolic pastures, he still turns a memorably original poetic image; to the accompaniment of effortless arpeggios The Underwood Typewriter finds him singing "I'm changing the ribbon, in this old Underwood. Step out of your dress and I'll wear you like a hood. For a hood is a home, for someone who lives alone", while the opening Be Good Or Be Gone ends with the heartbreaking line "I have become, an aerial view of a coastal town, that you once knew."

It doesn't always come off; the bit about needing a full stomach to drill for oil on the political themed Campaign Button bonus track feels forced as do some of the rhymes on the sprightly strummed Blackwater Child, while 'the forecast is going down a storm' from Noah is just lazy punning. But these are minor quibbles when faced with an album and an artist you know you'll still be able to listen to long after the fashion parade has passed by.


Mike Davies, August 2006

Colin Reid - Swim (Topic)

The breathtaking ripple of Colin's exquisitely turned phrasing on his own quirky little composition Samson And Delilah opens this CD in fine style, setting a new benchmark for "blink and you'll miss a note" acoustic guitar playing you might say. A mere two minutes in duration the track may be, but there's a lot of substance in there to keep the notes company. Swim, Colin's (typically enigmatically) minimally-titled third offering, continues the trend set by its predecessors in assembling forty or so minutes of genre-resistant music driven along (and the word "driven" applies at whatever tempo!) by Colin's own virtuoso playing. Forget the tags jazz, blues, folk etc – Colin uses the chords that "sound right" whatever their provenance or connotations. Sure, at times there's (still) that tiny soupçon of "so what?!", just a hint of unwarranted coolness, that I'd noted on his eponymous debut CD back in 1999, but this soon passes when you're caught up immediately in the freshness and quiet dynamism of the playing and Colin's obvious feel for creating and sustaining a mood with subtle power, all allied to an attractive, almost neo-classical (Satie-esque?) economy of expression (no track outstays its welcome in the slightest). On just under half of the album's twelve tracks, Colin performs solo; for the rest of the time, he's backed by between one and five other musicians (Brian Connor on piano or Wurlitzer, Neil Martin or Becky Joslin on cello, Alan Shields on double-bass, Buffy North on violin, Liam Bradley on kit). Evocative, gently atmospheric yet transcending the purely ephemeral, Colin's music is irresistible; a major factor in this is probably that unlike some virtuoso players one might mention, Colin's no stranger to melody. He can forge ahead or he can pull back, tunefully and with equal aplomb. And by the by, shamelessly adopting the famous "Beefheart gambit", one track on Swim is even entitled Tilt! Go figure…! So, does Colin sink or swim on this "difficult third album"? – well, emphatically, I'd say a gold medal for the latter.


David Kidman

Colin Reid - Tilt (Topic Records)

On the whole, I'm not the greatest fan of instrumental albums. They never really offer us more musically challenged wannabes the chance to express ourselves; they rob us of the opportunity of wrapping our larynxes around a good chorus or of imitating the stylised wailing of our particular rock-god vocalist. And there's always the sneaking suspicion that a whole album of tunes is a bit of an ego-stroking exercise for the muso(es) involved who can't really cut the mustard in either (or both) the playing and writing departments, if truth be told.

Well, I'm glad to say that Tilt fails on each of the above fronts. It's not entirely instrumental; although it may say Colin Reid on the cover, he gives his fellow players ample room to strut their stuff; Reid's own playing can't be faulted; and the dozen tracks (ten composed by Reid) offer a wealth of variety and cover enough styles to hold the attention of even the most pre-occupied. This is the second album form the virtuoso acoustic guitarist from Belfast and, as he says himself: "There are a lot more ensemble pieces on Tilt, so I don't see it as a 'guitar record' in quite the same way as the debut". The album kicks of in particularly sprightly fashion with one of those ensemble pieces, "Rocket". It motors along furiously with Reid leaving plenty of room for the string quartet of John Fitzgerald, Oleg Ponomarev, Maire Breatnach and Neil Martin to put a considerable amount of meat on the bones of the tune and to step up to the mic to take the lead for a few bars.

Just as you think breath is to be drawn on track two as Reid's lone guitar picks over the contemplative intro to The Penguin Cafe Orchestra's "Music for a Found Harmonium" the tempo picks up its skirts as the tune becomes a hell-for-leather race of digital dexterity to the finishing post of the final note. Breath does, indeed, need to be drawn after that opening flurry and the beautiful "The Queen of Two Rooms", with Reid joined by the violin and cello of Breatnach and Martin, does provide five minutes' welcome repose.

One of the major surprises of the album comes in the form of the Linsey Buckingham's "Never Going Back Again" made famous, of course, by his band Fleetwood Mac. Reid's pal Eddi Reader takes the vocal and Reid shares guitar chores with another mate, Boo Hewerdine. Gino Lupari helps the song along with bodhran and shaker. Hewerdine also features, on guitar and vocals, on his own "Seed on the Wind" , a gentle love song embellished by Reid's guitar, Martin's cello and Reader 's harmony vocals. Almost alarmingly, one of my favourite tracks here doesn't feature Reid at all, other than for the fact that he wrote it. "Crimes Against Music, Pt II" has a tinge of the decadence of 1930s' Berlin about it as Brian Connor's piano provides the jazzy melody backed by Alan Shields on double bass and Andrew Lavery's drums. A similar feel enthuses "The Clay Pigeon Rag" on which Reid's guitar and Ponomarev's violin dance surefootedly around Martin's cello and Shields' bass.

I really like this album, a hell of a lot more than I would possibly have expected to like a (mainly) lyric-free collection. Reid's playing is world-class throughout and his willingness to let his collaborators shine is commendable and refreshing. And, so what if you can't sing along - you can whistle, can't you? Just put your lips together and blow.


Fred Hall

Jenna & Bethany Reid - Escape (Lofoten Records)

This is an unusual release: a one-off concept piece built around a little-known episode of World War 2 history, taking the form of a narrative punctuated with original music composed by two young Shetland sisters whose pedigree includes work with bands as diverse as Filska, Deaf Shepherd and Dochas and (for Jenna) work on the prestigious Transatlantic Sessions TV programmes.

The story concerns the incredible escape of Jan Baalsrud (a member of the Norwegian Resistance exiled on the Shetland Islands) from the Germans in 1943, at the time of the secret Shetland Bus operations across the North Sea (which avoided land crossings entirely), and the narrative sections, authentically intoned by native Shetlander Phil Goodlad, are certainly gripping, vividly conveying Jan's lengthy and gruelling ordeal with the help of atmospheric soundscapes.

The various musical sections are expertly crafted mood pieces largely inspired by traditional Shetland music, and the vital playing of the sisters (fiddle and piano) is augmented by that of flautist/piper James Thomson, percussionist Iain Sandilands and double-bassist James Lindsay. The narrative is well reflected in the musical depiction of the various episodes, which range in style from the rushing flight-ridden cascades of Escape/The Double Cross to a depiction of beauty of landscape (Brattholm), the staccato virtuosity of the Firefight reel and the sheer powerless resignation (enforced by the removal of his own toes) of Desolation, culminating in the triumphant dance of Freedom In Sweden, and finally the fulsome and rich Jan's Return which evokes the present-day commemoration of Jan's exploits.

Its all very moving, harrowing at times in fact, and invokes the indomitable spirit of the man in music and narrative of considerable power, although I suspect the whole suite is by its very nature not necessarily an audio experience you'll feel like repeating all that often, and its not possible to access the individual sections of the instrumental suite as they're not cued separately from the relevant parts of the narrative.


David Kidman October 2010

Jenna Reid - Laughing Girl (Footstompin')

No wonder that young Shetland fiddler Jenna is laughing, for all the while she's still playing with the bands Dòchas and Filska – and also appearing on Transatlantic Sessions 3 - she's now finding time to tour to promote this, her second solo album. We can conjure up plenty of suitable "F-words" to describe her playing on this occasion: feisty, fiery, free-spirited and frisky being just a few! During the course of eleven tracks, Jenna proves her versatility on a suitably varied mix of sets of tunes with a couple of songs thrown in. The tunes include Irish and Scottish (Shetland) traditional, others by the likes of J. Scott Skinner and Simon Thoumire, and a handful composed by Jenna herself. One of the most persuasive tracks, and an antidote to the faster items, is a beautifully controlled rendition of Niel Gow's Lament. Other particular instrumental successes include a forthright jig-and-two-reels combination (track 6, the illogically-named Janine's Reel), The Five Mile Chase set and the opening title track. The two vocal tracks don't fare badly either: one's a paean to a remote area of Shetland penned by Jenna's mother Joyce, the other's a song by Mary Ellen Odie from the island of Yell. Jenna's playing is full of presence throughout: capturing all her special qualities, well recorded and necessarily to the forefront, but her support crew on this album is just fine too. She's retained Kevin Mackenzie (guitar) and Duncan Lyall (double bass) from With Silver And All alongside Bethany Reid (piano, fiddle), James Thomson (flute) and Iain Sandilands (percussion, and vibes on Da Cappie Stane - an unusual touch), while bodhránist Martin O'Neill (from Dòchas) joins Jenna as special guest for the Five Mile Chase set (Martin's the only individual credited for a particular track, so it's not always easy to ascertain who's playing what elsewhere). All told, Laughing Girl is no disappointment, even if there's no radical progression from Jenna's debut – but it clocks in at barely forty minutes, so a couple more tracks wouldn't have gone amiss.


David Kidman March 2008

Jim Reid - Yont The Tay (Greentrax)

You might well know Jim's name, if only through his having composed the Norland Wind tune to the sad but magical classic The Wild Geese (a setting of words by Violet Jacob) and possibly also Up The Noran Water (Helen Cruickshank's poem). But this man of Angus also possesses a very attractive singing voice, as this album subtly and quite effortlessly proves (and I'm so glad to hear just now that only last December Jim received the 2005 Scots Singer Of The Year award). Jim served his singing apprenticeship in groups such as the Foundry Bar Band and the Taysiders, and has always maintained a lively interest in the music and singing of the travelling folk. Some may say that like them, his own voice, too, may not be the most technically perfect in terms of delivery, but what matter that, for it has a sensitive, gently heartfelt, vulnerable and lived-in quality that's well complemented in the unfussy yet precisely ringing instrumental accompaniments courtesy of Aaron Jones (cittern), Frank McLaughlin (guitar), Marc Duff (whistle & bodhrán) and Sandy Brechin (accordion) which augment Jim's own guitar and moothie. There's contrast aplenty among Yont The Tay's 15 tracks, from the comic patter of Daft Donal (what a delightful opener) to the poignant First World War tale of The Sodgers' Cairn (written by Mary Symon with music by the album's producer Dr. Fred Freeman "with Jim in mind", apparently). The epic tale of Cairn O' Mount proves another highlight of the CD. There's just one track here which is not actually new to record, however - Jim's treatment of Hamish Henderson's celebrated Freedom Come All Ye; this had first appeared on the Henderson tribute album A' The Bairns O' Adam (which I reviewed on these pages last year). This is a CD of gentle yet spirited delights, which should appeal to all lovers of Scottish song and Scottish singing.


David Kidman

Patsy Reid - Bridging The Gap (Vertical)

Perthshire-born Patsy is currently violinist with the award-winning Breabach, and her second solo record (coming several years after 2002's With Compliments – she's been busy!), presents in its entirety a live recording of the 50-minute piece she was commissioned to write as part of the Celtic Connections New Voices series in January 2008. Such was the glowing reception it got that a CD release was both heavily requested and in the end inevitable.

The composition's title stems from Patsy's very real love of the two disciplines of folk and classical music, and her constant bridging the gap between them, so it's best to get the technical explanation out of the way first. The work is in effect a kind of violin concerto, cast in three movements, which employs a soloist (Patsy on fiddles and loop station) and an "orchestra" – in this case an eleven-piece ensemble consisting of Aidan O'Rourke (fiddle), Anna Wendy Stevenson, Deirdre Morrison and Lydia Whittaker (violins), Iain Hutchison and Mairi Campbell (violas), Natalie Haas (cello), Mhairi Hall (piano), Duncan Lyall (double bass), Michael Bryan (guitar) and Iain Copeland (percussion).

The main meat of the piece lies in its nine original melodies, the majority of which are individually based on one of the seven modern modes of music. Each of these modes has a different and distinctive flavour, character and colour of its own; the Mixolydian and Dorian modes are particularly Scottish-sounding, while the Phrygian and Locrian modes are more harmonically unstable and thus rarely used as the basis for musical composition (here they share an invigorating strathspey near the start of the final movement). The second movement is especially persuasive; it begins with a gorgeous slow air (The Strath Sunrise) in the Lydian mode, which leads to a stirring march in the Mixolydian. The final movement is especially exciting, with a wonderfully funky reel at its centre; it also contains two extra sections, one being a recapitulation of the first movement's opening reel (for unity), the other being a composition At The Edge which is not channelled to any particular mode.

Don't feel intimidated by the technical details, for the dramatic musical journey that is Bridging The Gap is a stimulating experience that will reward your effort.


David Kidman December 2010

Patti Reid - Patti Reid (Fellside)

The press release accompanying this reissue of a 1987 LP quotes a contemporary folk magazine review thus: "This lady has a beautiful voice, and I cannot offer her vocal ability enough praise. Her material is traditional and well chosen." And yes, in my opinion, this recording has definitely stood the test of time and is fully deserving of reissue, especially since Patti is still around and singing strongly (she released a new CD, Pink Sand, only a short time ago - reviewed in this mag - and this early CD stands comparison extremely favourably). Patti's singing style is clear, with a sure and forthright sense of line; there were occasions (especially the longer ballads Bonnie Annie and Craigie Hill) when I was reminded of June Tabor (more in the unerring sense of poise and the at times slightly cool timbral quality perhaps). Although Patti employs a modicum of decoration, this never distracts the listener or compromises either the melodic flow or the telling of the story. Patti also employs some delicious syncopatory tricks (listen to Garden Gate and Cold Haily Windy Night in particular). The only minor distraction comes in the form of a tendency to aspirants on a few of the songs (Ten Thousand Miles for instance). Her choice of material is stylish if not containing anything too unusual by today's standards (though tut tut, one black mark for crediting Mr Thompson's Farewell Farewell as trad!). Around half of the songs are sung unaccompanied, while the remainder have the estimable Gordon Tyrrall in the role of sessioner (guitar, and, on one track, flute). The aforementioned press release gives the rationale for this reissue as "music should be out there and not languishing in archives", a sentiment with which I agree 100%. There's a strong hint here that, as part of Fellside's 30th anniversary release programme, more goodies might be due for imminent exhumation - if so, that's great news indeed.


David Kidman July 2006

Tony Reidy - Hayshed Days (Own Label)

Westport songwriter Tony last featured on my radar with his fourth album A Rough Shot Of Lipstick, which I reviewed almost exactly four years ago. I found it a disc of ready and easy appeal: a quality which proved deceptive, belying both the depth of emotion and the extent of the invention and craftsmanship within.

If anything, his latest set, Hayshed Days, is even more charming a proposition, an initial impression that's strengthened by the wondrous lightness of touch Tony and his collaborator Seamie O'Dowd together bring to the proceedings; this makes great capital out of the wonderfully gentle scoring that gives the album its special sonic signature. This unassumingly delicate musical backdrop fairly rings and chimes, with the dulcet tones of mandolins and guitars most prominent, with some heartwarming embellishments from banjo, harmonicas, dobro and fiddle and all softly underpinned by a believable and simply judged bass guitar part; the deliciously intimate palette betokens a kind of timeless backroom music-making magic.

The dominant theme of Tony's latest batch of original songs seems to be the recollection of what seemed innocent times, a process that's keenly laced with simply expressed yet insightful (and hindsightful) observations on the here and now, all delivered in Tony's inimitable, companionable Irish brogue. The musical journey begins this time with an affectionate little tribute to Anthony Raftery, the blind and illiterate Co Mayo poet who was active in the early years of the 19th century, whose spirit lives on in the practice of spontaneous minstrelsy. It's hard to get the song's catchy refrain Lán dóchas 's grá ("full of hope and love" - taken from Raftery's own self-portrait poem) out of your brain, but truth is, each of the disc's eleven songs has some kind of hook that lodges itself in your consciousness. Skip onward a few tracks, to the cheeky nursery-rhyme paraphrases of the country-flavoured Too Many Diddles In The Dye, and you'll hear what I mean!...

Tracking back again, though, there's caution to be exercised in the practice of looking-back, so "Forget about the past, Nothing ever lasts, They're just rose-tinted glasses anyhow", as Tony sings on Back To The Well; we can all locate and identify with that double-edge to the nostalgia. The fetching waltz-time setting of Innocent Times, an autobiographical snapshot of mother and son out on a cycle ride, may be kinda Thompsonesque (even emulating the rhythmic pattern of 1952 Vincent in phrases like "my Brownie 127,'twas in 1962"). The proud bravado of Willie, the coming-of-age kid from just down our street, is set to a jaunty skanking swagger, while Tony's first songwriting inspiration, Bob Dylan, raises its head in the repetitive melodic stylings of No News Is Good News. The motoric Closer To The Truth closes with a fiddle solo that's about the most frenzied instrumental work on the entire album. This song's seemingly over-obvious message is tellingly followed by the masterly, if oblique I Pick Myself A Rose, a disc highlight, whose restless and uneasy guitar figure flatters to deceive in underpinning the understated yet palpable desperation of the lyric which seems to allow no room for hope.

The Song Of The Crow closes the album in a quite desolate (almost Leonard Cohen-esque) mode, conjuring up a music-themed tableau much like one of those marvellously dark and menacing sequences towards the end of Disney's Fantasia. As Tony and Seamie prepare to finally fade into the ether, Tony entreats us to "Rally round a Sound, Make it harmonise, Sing it in your houses And turn down the Noise"; for we believe in the power of making music to conquer all ills. Just as Tony's quiet magic will immediately exert its spell on you, to be sure.


David Kidman December 2010

available from CDBaby

Tony Reidy - A Rough Shot Of Lipstick (Own Label)

Born in a small village near Westport, Co Mayo, Tony's introduction to songwriting came on hearing Dylan's Like A Rolling Stone and he's been writing ever since! But his first CD didn't appear until 2002; The Coldest Day In Winter was an impressive debut by any account, featuring an attractive body of work that focused thoughtfully and compellingly on human interaction with country life. Album number two here continues that strand of writing, with if anything a little more in the way of contemporary edge, on 11 brand new typically insightful songs. Tony's particularly strong suit is the heartfelt, as on Seventh Son and Hard Hat Soft Heart, both of which in subtly different ways explore and lay bare the emotions that hide not far beneath the surface of an outwardly strong character, and the touching (if ultimately ambiguous) quasi-love-song Fool For You. Perhaps Tony's darkest thoughts on this disc come with the desperate meditations of If This Is Progress and God Knows. But he's also a master of quiet observation, as Sean Na Sagart, the tale of an informer against priests (with an apt and appealingly modal setting) and Island Boys, which simply yet sensitively examines the emotional situation of local lads sent to school on the mainland, both prove. Tony can let his hair down too though, as on the delicious "bog bayou" of I'm A Mayo Man, which takes a different (more humorously self-deprecating) slant on his sense of local pride. Tony's got a distinct talent for finding a natural musical rhythm in his lyrics (does this emanate from his gaining inspiration from Dylan I wonder? - the title track sounds a bit like His Bobness essaying a Parisian chanson style), but I also hear shades of Al Stewart in Tony's facility with melody and overall approach to phrasing, as on The Boy In The Gap. Not only is Tony's way with words very attractive, but his fluid and conversational expression of those words (he has a naturally musical singing voice) will instantly win him admirers I'm sure. Instrumental support for Tony is extremely effective, albeit from just three fine musicians: the multi-skilled Seamie O'Dowd (guitars, mandolin, fiddles, harmonica), Kevin Doherty (double bass) and keyboardist Paul Gurney (who's also responsible for the wonderfully clean production). This is another of those CDs whose easy appeal is deceptive and belies the depth of the craftsmanship within; it's also a very satisfying disc to revisit, which I've done often in spite of more pressing engagements!


David Kidman

Tony Reidy - The Coldest Day In Winter (Own Label)

This fine singer-songwriter from the west of Ireland was a completely new name to me prior to the title track of Ceide's recent Like A Wild Thingalbum, but on this evidence he's got a lot to say in his distincitively gentle and undemonstrative way. Invariably, Tony's writing positively exudes the country air, in this case that of his native Co. Mayo, though the genius loci it evokes isn't exclusive or difficult to appreciate, as he focuses naturally but compellingly on the human interaction with country life, with elements of which we can all identify. A certain resigned melancholy predominates, but the effect is life-affirming rather than depressing. Men can respond to their assigned lot in different ways: The Country Man's farmer's contentment contrasts with the devil-may-care fierce independence of The Mountainy Man, while Woman Sitting In A Dark Café is frozen in time and her thoughts. There's room for humour too, as in the laconic Black Pudding Music, which sets sly observations of the work of a jobbing musician to a sneaky texmex-style backing.

Elsewhere, the starkness of Tony's guitar work strongly recalls Nick Drake, particularly on tracks like Kitonga, a poignant exploration of the gulf in perception between an Irish country innocent and a Kenyan boy, but Tony easily retains his own individual musical voice. His songs here benefit from a limited, but nicely characterised and well-recorded, instrumental backing which includes contributions from no less than three members of Ceide as well as some lovely string and clarinet arrangements by local classical musician Patrick Early. The only minor blemish in this package is the lack of translation for Sean O'Riordan's Cul An Ti (the only non-self-penned song on the entire album). I do hope we hear more of Tony, as his songs and performing style are both highly attractive and genuinely lasting in impact. This is a very impressive album indeed, and well worth seeking out.


David Kidman

Maggie Reilly - Rowan (Red Berry Records)

Remember Maggie? I needed reminding of the name, and couldn't immediately place her voice beyond it being very familiar from somewhere - but yes, she was "the voice" of Mike Oldfield's Moonlight Shadow and Family Man. And what a lovely voice too, with a mesmerisingly beautiful tone and superb control and flexibility. This disc, a solo album representing Maggie's return to recording, has actually been around for a few months, but I admit to taking a time to get into it. The opening track's one of those soft-focus nouveau-Celtic forays Away Wi' The Faeries, with smooth, laid-back, gently funky texturings, ubiquitous glittering percussion etc - a little too mellow for me, so I didn't venture any further while I had more pressing reviews to complete. My mistake, it turns out, for the remainder of the disc contains some delightful music: nothing cutting-edge, just a pleasing sequence of songs given the distinctive Maggie Reilly vocal treatment. Instrumental arrangements are by Maggie with Stuart MacKillop, who also plays guitar and keyboards and co-engineers the disc, and other musicians involved include the versatile Andy Roberts (guitar, bouzouki, bodhrán), Simon Little and Steve Taylor. During the course of the disc, Maggie shows herself to be capable of tackling a wide stylistic range, certainly, although just over half of the chosen songs are traditional in origin; Once I Had A Sweetheart and Trees They Do Grow High both benefit from a straightforward, uncluttered, simple backing, and the rhythmic vitality of Cam Ye O'er Frae France is extremely infectious, but her closer Wild Mountain Thyme is just a little bland. Most successful, I feel, is Maggie's stripped-down, slightly Latin-syncopated rendition of Who Knows Where The Time Goes?, while she also turns in a thoughtful version of Alasdair Robertson's The Star. Maggie's own joint compositions with Stuart comprise just under half of the album's eleven tracks: they range from the impassioned Heartsong to the tripping, lilting Promises, but Miss You lets the side down by being glutinously over-orchestrated. The disc's digipack packaging is attractive, though unfortunately the track titles on the back cover are virtually unreadable due to the red-on-grey colour scheme.


David Kidman June 2007

The Reindeer Section - Son Of Evil Reindeer (Bright Star)

Snow Patrol frontman Gary Lightbody clearly has a lot of mates. His second side project has seen the line-up swell from a modest 15 to some 27, though presumably never all congregating in the studio at the same time. Flowing with Glasgow based, predominantly Scottish musical blood, assorted contributors hail from such quarters as Astrid, Alfie, Mogwai, Belle & Sebastian, Idlewild, Teenage Fan Club, and Arab Strap. And as that might suggest, there's not much room here for strident noisy guitars. Rather, in keeping with Lightbody's leaning towards leafy Nick Drake groves, it's all delicate and hushed folksy pop, slightly ramshackle at times, but consistently imbued with the acoustic grace and beauty of bruised but beating hearts set out from the get go with the opening Grand Parade.

Dipping in at random, the aching Budapest drifts along on piano and cello, You Are My Joy soars on wings of pure pop, the lopingly lovely Cartwheels has your heart turning just that, Eva's Jenny Reeve takes lead vocals on Strike Me Down which has the airy skip of Harper's Bizarre and Your Sweet Voice dribbles lap steel guitar, shuffling percussion and sad cello all over its affectingly simple tale of a broken heart, the album shutting up shop with Arab Strap's Aidan Moffatt taking lead on his own love and whiskey slurred Whodunit. Well worth hooking up your sleigh.


Mike Davies

Jim Reynolds - If Only (PI)

Guitarist and singer Jim is renowned amongst cognoscenti for being a very fine musician, which explains why he's been in demand for the past twenty or so years for sessions and touring. He's worked with many of our most respected acoustic music icons, from Phil Beer, Steve Tilston, Mike Silver, Wizz Jones, Chris Newman and Isaac Guillory to Maggie Boyle and the late George Melly.

But in spite of his intense versatility, he's never seemed to receive the approbation or wider "namecheck" status of those folks. This is even more unfathomable when you get to know his songwriting, which, though equally versatile stylistically, always manages to be accessibly intimate, his wry yet deeply felt observations on life and love almost always leaving the listener with a feeling of hope. In the latter respect he's clearly learnt much from his own admitted idols, in my opinion particularly Ralph McTell and John Martyn; I also sense the influence of Gerry Rafferty in there somewhere. Whatever Jim's inspirations, though, his songwriting is classily wrought and his humanity never in question, although it can take a while – and some close listening – for the special qualities of Jim's art to reveal themselves. His talent can at times seem altogether too subtly deployed – but then again, why should he need to shout? He will always have something to say, but he's not a protest singer; even so, he's been through the mill countless times, and his sanguinity and optimism have enabled him to survive.

On If Only, which I think is Jim's sixth proper solo record (there've also been two as part of the trio Smile with Stuart Gordon and Dave Griffiths), the relaxed well-craftedness of his songwriting is brought into focus anew. Its tender, loving vibe is attributable to Jim's latest creative resurgence, itself largely down to a joyful and inspirational rekindling of a friendship with violinist Gina Griffin, whose magical, uplifting playing graces a majority of the album's tracks. When she's duetting with Jim's guitar, closely mirroring the flowing melodies, it's impossible for any sensitive listener to fail to respond to the heartfelt empathy of the playing, on the instrumentals Sorry and On The Way Home in particular (the latter employing a mildly extended structure and breezy interludes).

Jim gets plenty of opportunity to display his facility to move between accepted styles, from songs of wistful pleading (Keep Your Distance) and gentle regret (Elfreda) to the laconic bluesy ragtime of Perhaps, Yes, No, Well, Maybe (this number harking back to his fun days with Pigsty Hill), via flights of fancy that (like life itself) turn from slightly silly to deeply pensive within the space of a couple of verses (the title track). The tender reassurance of Whatever You Want has something of the air of John Martyn's May You Never, while the lovely melody of Stay Out Of My Dreams almost belies its lyric's melancholy message. Jim's deft, lovingly crafted acoustic guitar accompaniments are miracles of understatement, but sure make their impact, while he also reaps the benefit not only of Gina's musicianship but that of three other guests on a small handful of tracks: Kit Morgan (electric or Spanish guitar), Sally Barnett (cello) and Matt Taylor (bass or tuba).

Yes, by around fourth or fifth playthrough this CD really gets under the skin, and it's hard to resist hitting he replay button after almost any of its 11 tracks. Jim's achievement here is considerable, and it would be a shame if the fruits of his labours were to fall at the first hurdle when listeners don't – or won't – make the time to give his music more than a cursory skim or glance, a fate which by its often unassuming character it is rather in danger of suffering. I might say "if only…"


David Kidman May 2012

John Reischman & The Jaybirds - Field Guide (Copper Creek)

Many of us first heard the name of John Reischman back in the 80s, when we enquired into the owner of that incredibly full-toned mandolin that graced Tony Rice's acoustic jazz albums that were very much the vogue during that decade. Since then, John did a stint with the Good Ol' Persons, then made a solo album (North Of The Border) which provided further evidence of his complete mastery of a wide variety of musical styles, from old-time right through swing and on to Latin jazz. His latest venture is as leader of bluegrass band the Jaybirds, from which combo Field Guide is the second record to come my way. They're hot property alright, though their easygoing affability (entirely typical of their leader by the way) is deceptive, hiding a considerable degree of musical adeptness. I must come clean and say that when I first heard the Jaybirds' debut I found it just a little polite in parts, but Field Guide seems to sparkle brighter initially and capitalise on the no-nonsense qualities of the ensemble's delivery and move the gears up a notch to produce a whole CD full of understated creativity. It's brought me back to that debut, and I find I'd underestimated it somewhat, notably in respect of John's own vocal contribution and the rich and inviting quality of his voice that so well counterpoints bassist Trisha Gagnon's own tenor. There really isn't a weak cut on this latest offering, and its 16 tracks, an intelligent mix of arranged traditional material (with a few genre standards from the likes of the Carter Family thrown in) and brand new compositions from band members, including a sprinkling of instrumentals. So OK, the Jaybirds' native Pacific Northwest may be a far cry from Kentucky, the birthplace of bluegrass, but there's no mismatch of idiom or sensibility in the classy playing and singing on offer here.


David Kidman

REM - And I Feel Fine...The Best of the I.R.S. Years 1982-1987 (EMI)

It's hard to imagine that anyone with even a passing interest in REM doesn't already own some sort of compilation of the band's early (and some would say best) work. But just in case, this is pretty much a definitive collection of all the formative gems, 21 tracks that kick off with Begin The Begin and works its way through the like of such classics as Radio Free Europe, Pretty Persuasion, (Don't Go Back To) Rockville and So,Central Rain (I'm Sorry) to The One I Love and It's The End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).

That's all available as a single disc and essential enough but what makes this more interesting, for latecomers and stalwart devotees alike, is the 2 CD Collector's Edition which throws in another 21 cuts of rare and previously unreleased tracks from the studio vaults, including alternate takes and mixes, concert recordings and an acoustic Swan Swan H from the Athens GA documentary.

As such there's the rougher edged Hib-tone version of Radio Free Europe, a marvellous slower electric demo of Gardening At Night, an early version of All The Right Friends later to be featured on Vanilla Sky, demos of the hitherto unreleased Mystery To Me and Hyena, and, I'm pleased to find, their B side cover of Superman by cult 60s bubblegum outfit The Clique.

As well as track by track annotations, each of the four original band members has selected a personal favourite for the bonus disc, Pilgrimage by Mike Mills, the typically REM rousing These Days by Bill Berry, the hypnotic Disturbance At The Heron House from Peter Buck and, eclectic as ever, the Eastern flavoured echoey psychedelia of Time After Time (annElise) from Michael Stipe.

Worth noting too that there's also a tie in DVD, When The Light Is Mine, that includes 11 IRS promo videos (including the hitherto unavailable Wolves, Lower) alongside unreleased live footage from The Tube and Old Grey Whistle Test, interviews and performances from MTV's The Cutting Edge and, clocking up the running time to some two hours, the 20 minute film Left of Reckoning.


Mike Davies, Sept 2006

Betsy & Charlotte Renals and Sophie Legg - Catch Me If You Can (Veteran)

Subtitled "Songs From Cornish Travellers", this CD is a sensibly expanded reissue of a collection of field recordings made by Pete Coe of the singing of Sophie, Betsy and Charlotte, who were born into one of the best-known of the West Country travelling families (the Orchards). Sophie, Betsy and Charlotte are mother and aunts respectively of that incorrigible Cornish singer Vic Legg, who acknowledges the three as primary sources for much of his own repertoire. Pete's own personal quest for the sources of the interesting and unusual songs he'd heard Vic sing on his home territory (Bodmin Folk Club) in the 1970s finally led to him being granted the privilege of recording the ladies in March 1978; at the time, the three were aged 60, 78 and 77 respectively, but all were still in good – and distinctive – voice, considering their years, Sophie's understated fragility perhaps being especially captivating. These recordings, originally released on cassette, are augmented for this fulsome (76-minute) CD reissue by the inclusion of no less than seven extra tracks recorded at the same time, all previously unreleased. The songs presented here embrace many that either stem directly from the traveller tradition (like the "catchy" title track) or carry down within that tradition their own, often unique variants, alongside some oft-collected ballads (Dark-eyed Sailor, Bonny Bunch Of Roses, Sailor Cut Down In His Prime) and a few of either definite or probable music-hall origin (Standard Bread, The Lonely Widow, Just Beginning To Sprout). This is an enchanting disc: a useful and invaluable record of songs sung in this particular tradition, which in this new incarnation will surely also provide plenty of source material for many a revival singer for a long time to come. The excellent and insightful booklet notes prove of considerable assistance in this respect, of course; no texts are provided, though you'll probably not need them, as the singers' diction is virtually faultless.


David Kidman

John Renbourn Group - Live In America (Castle)
John Renbourn's Ship Of Fools (Castle)
John Renbourn & Robin Williamson - Wheel Of Fortune (Castle)

Here's three more timely Renbourn reissues from the Sanctuary group. First up is the rarely-heard Live In America album showcasing John's increasingly adventurous post-Pentangle exploration, with the aid of like-minded musician friends, of both the Anglo-European and Indian classical traditions, encouraging the bold interaction of these traditional musics. The John Renbourn Group was a landmark five-piece ensemble which was together for just three short years; as evidenced on this live set (recorded in San Francisco and Santa Monica in 1981) it reunited John with ex-Pentangle vocalist Jacqui McShee and long-term collaborator and fiendishly talented woodwind specialist Tony Roberts, this trio being augmented by multi-instrumentalist John Molineux and tabla player Keshav Sathe (veteran of John Mayer's Indo-Jazz Fusions project). The Group was a fearless vehicle for catholic experimentation with folk, jazz and ethnic influences very much following the pioneering lead and notable example taken by the "folk roots, new routes" of Davy Graham a few years earlier. A highlight of the album was the eleven-minute extended improvisation Sidi Brahim, but its 70 minutes contains some scintillating music-making which even then proved genuinely groundbreaking. Performances by all five participants are first-class, but if anything Jacqui's represent arguably one of her finest hours (she turns in an electrifying but simple version of Cruel Mother here for instance). It wouldn't be overstating things to say that this album, in covering material from everywhichwhere on the world radar, forms an essential link in the chain binding the experimental folk music of the 1960s with the nascent world music boom of the 80s and 90s, and its appearance on CD on a widely-available label (at long last, having only previously been issued on Flying Fish in the States as far as I'm aware) is to be enthusiastically welcomed.

Over the years, and particularly outside of the demands which regular group work made on him, John has always been keen to take advantage of opportunities to work with musicians whose work he admires, and Ship Of Fools was the band that carried on where the John Renbourn Group left off. It was formed by John expressly for a concert during the 1987 summer season in New York's Central Park. For this occasion he recruited Steve Tilston and Maggie Boyle – two exceptional musicians who were then just beginning to establish a duo career of their own – to augment his old friend and longterm collaborator Tony Roberts from the JR Group. Although this particular lineup was short-lived, it produced some memorable Celtic-tinged acoustic folk-fusion (for want of a better term), and the lone album the group recorded is very fine indeed. Originally it came out on the obscure small label Run River (the same imprint that had issued Maggie's wonderful solo album Reaching Out and Steve's landmark instrumental album Swans At Coole), then was taken up by the American label Flying Fish; this Castle reissue is, as far as I can tell, its first "proper" UK release. It's a masterful record, consisting mostly of inventive and attractive arrangements of traditional songs and tunes, and it was clearly great fun to make. OK, if you're familiar with the various musicians' activities since then, you'll acknowledge and readily forgive any comparative minor inadequacies, but in the scheme of things these are largely insignificant and the whole record definitely qualifies for the description of "neglected masterpiece".

Finally, the joint album made by John with former Incredible String Band frontman Robin presents a series of live recordings taken from the first tour ever undertaken by that particular partnership, back in 1993. Wheel Of Fortune really captures the enchantment of that tour and confirms just how well suited in temperament and sensibility the two musicians were (and still are, for they continue to tour together sporadically to this day). Robin's Celtic harp and whistle add an extra dimension to John's dextrous and often other-worldly guitar traceries, while his distinctive voice tells spellbinding tales from a realm where John had hitherto feared to tread. Then again, John's more earthbound musical predilections such as the country-blues and medieval music prove both admirable foil and necessary anchor for Robin's more esoteric passions. Both musicians, of course, had shared a common grounding and heritage in the bohemian English and Scottish folk clubs of the mid-60s, and the wheel of fortune had now turned a full circle and united them again. This expectedly eclectic set ranges from traditional Irish tunes and traditional songs to fabulous original compositions like Robin's Lights Of Sweet St Anne's to the jazzer's tribute Little Niles, and there's even one of Robin's delightfully puckish stories thrown in; the whole set shows the two musicians at their best. Definitely one for the collection if you don't already have the original (Demon) CD reissue (this new one does however sport extra notes, if no bonus tracks).


David Kidman Sept 2006

John Renbourn - So Early InThe Spring / Live In Italy (Castle)

Here's two valuable additions to the ever-expanding catalogue of John Renbourn recordings being made available by Sanctuary. So Early In The Spring is a particularly fine set, recorded by John in Tokyo in (the early spring of) 1979 during two days when he found himself with time off between gigs (!). This marks the album's first ever appearance in Europe, not only on CD but in any form (it was only ever available in Japan and on vinyl, and even many Renbourn fans had been unaware of its existence). It presents a healthy selection from his then-current repertoire, played (and sung) with an intensity and immediacy that communicates the white-heat of an artist at his peak and completely self-assured. The opening (title) song is an intriguingly different reading of the song which fellow-Pentangler Jacqui McShee had so memorably performed unaccompanied some ten years earlier; thereafter John ranges far and wide through his repertoire, from scintillating arrangements of traditional songs like Banks Of The Sweet Primroses (with some breathtaking fingerwork) to contemporary classics (Jackson C. Frank's Blues Run The Game, Archie Fisher's Lindsay), and even a rare self-penned item (In Glastonbury). There's also a splendidly invigorating tune-set which pairs The Mist Covered Mountains with The Orphan, and wherein John created a magical duet by playing two guitar parts (this, along with this album's subsequent instrumental cut The English Dance, would soon resurface on the Black Balloon album). Aside from an excellent cover of Dylan's Buckets Of Rain, the later tracks from the session lean towards the rural-blues side of John's repertoire, and he also turns in a gentle and easygoing treatment of Joseph Spence's Great Dreams From Heaven. This standard has featured in John's repertoire for some forty years, so it's possibly no surprise to find it cropping up on the Live In Italy set too (along with Mist Covered Mountains and Lindsay, incidentally). But don't fret, I feel sure you'll want both albums!

For Live In Italy, a memorable solo set recorded live at The Folk Studio (a famed, though dingy, folk-music cellar in Rome) around 1988/89, turns out to be another UK first. It contains a further cross-section from John's exhaustive repertoire, including some of his own special favourites. It kicks off with the perennially fascinating Lord Franklin, then moves on to a pairing of the air South Wind and the Blarney Pilgrim jig which five years later was to appear on John's joint album with Robin Williamson Wheel Of Fortune. Another selection to meet the same "fate" was Randy Weston's jazz piece Little Niles, but this intimate live rendition is in a class of its own. Along the way, John also weaves an intricate tapestry around Dave Goulder's celebrated Sandwood Down To Kyle, while the set ends on a suitably showy (and funky) note with the Booker T number Sweet Potato (which is here, as John himself describes it, "liberally peppered with Davy Graham-isms"!). Both of these latest issues in Sanctuary's admirable series come complete with fine booklet notes by David Suff and JR himself.


David Kidman

John Renbourn - John Renbourn/ Sir John A Lot/ Faro Annie (Castle)

Three new reissues of early Renbourn material, of which the first and second have appeared on CD previously under the aegis of other labels (Demon and Wooden Hill) whereas the third makes its CD début here. (A fourth, companion, reissue, of John's second album Another Monday, has so far eluded my net.) Taken together, these three provide an instructive survey of John's progress from talented but bog-standard folk-blues troubadour (on the first album) to Pentangler and reconstructed medievalist (Sir John) to increasingly eclectic reinterpreter of traditional song. That eponymous first album is a standard of its kind, of which little more need be said except that if you don't already have it in your collection then this issue, with a couple of bonus tracks, is probably the edition to have. Sir John A lot… is an exclusively instrumental offering, almost exactly contemporary with the first Pentangle album, and marks the first public pronouncement of his penchant for playing early music, exploring what he was to term the linear, jazz-based approach to modality. (This predilection even extended to the uncredited appearance of David Munrow as guest on the album.) But the menu isn't exclusively a medieval banquet (there's a cool arrangement of Trees They Do Grow High, for example) and none of the tracks prove a mere straightforward (if faithful) re-creation of the source tunes, for the place John takes them off to is astounding in sheer inventiveness. John's increasing quest for perfection is reflected here in the appearance on this issue of three previously-unissued bonus tracks comprising alternate takes (one cut had run to thirteen!). Faro Annie, dating from 1971 at the very end of Pentangle's career, is possibly the most interesting and enduring of the three. Reflecting a "back-to-basics" ideal, it brings together bluesy and folky material in a seamless whole, with playing and singing that fully reflects the effortless maturity that John had brought to his personal style through his Pentangle experience and musical explorations since that first album. John's often understated acoustic guitar work provides the perfect foil for his singing; on two tracks he also plays sitar, and on Kokomo Blues and the title track even wah-wah electric guitar. He's backed by Danny and Terry from Pentangle, with appearances from former girlfriend Dorris Henderson (backing vocals), Sue Draheim (fiddle) and Pete Dyer (harmonica).

www. johnrenbourn.net

David Kidman

Tallulah Rendall - Libellus (Transducer Records)

Libellus, London-based Tallulah's debut full-length offering, is a singer-songwriter release with a difference: it comes as a sturdy and beautifully-conceived 50-page illustrated hardback book with CD insert. It displays both artistic and literary pretensions, and yet does so with an uncompromising sense of purpose, embodying a vision of innate integrity that both transcends transient trendiness and to my mind rebuts any potential charge of mere attention-seeking gambit. As a performer, Tallulah's quite an individual too, with an enchanting, gently resonant singing style that encompasses a range of emotional expression without sounding unnatural or forced. Having said which, and notwithstanding Tallulah's admission that Patti Smith's a major influence, there are instances when the more theatrical elements in Tallulah's delivery may instead distinctly recall Kate Bush or even Siouxsie (though in their less outré moments)… all of which proves no bad thing, and certainly doesn't detract from the power and originality of Tallulah's genuinely indie-spirited, honestly left-field artistic stance. Her music enchants and seduces, worming its way into your inner recesses before you know it, and inspires with its enigmatic yet eerily confident poetry and its unsettling knack of teasingly focussing on the barest, yet deepest essentials of emotion. This is music that (despite its surface contradictions) provokes a core response, yet takes its time to play with your mind first: superficially simply constructed, yet with labyrinthine contours mapped out in its intense poetry, taking the listener on a perilous yet fulfilling journey from the edgy riffs and glistening humming interludes of Time Fades through the west-coast-psychedelia forays of the extended, episodic Black Seagull, the bewitchingly lounge-jazzy lay-yourself-back caresses of Lay Me Down and the coruscatingly breathy chaos of Only You to the haunting vulnerability of Lost In The Morning, the ominous pounding rhythms of Hope Tonight and the deliquescent balladry of Time Away and Wake Up, finally to Rest In Peace (this final song being a touching epitaph for Tallulah's grandmother). A further noteworthy aspect of Libellus is the ingenious and imaginative musical settings, conceived by Tallulah herself in collaboration with Matt Ingram and Marius DeVries: as far removed as you can get from the home/bedsit-acoustic that's inextricably associated with the s/s genre, with thoughtful use of electric instruments (guitars, drums), together with piano, cello, mandolin, double-bass and synth to generate a series of compelling chamber-textures. The book itself is described as "a small book of poetry that comes to life"; its method of presentation was, Tallulah tells us, provoked by Iris Murdoch's novel The Sea, The Sea. It takes the form of a personal account of the album's songs, within which each lyric is illustrated with its own dedicated painting (by Beshlie McKelvie); these are interpolated with cool photos and reproduced extracts from works that inspired Tallulah (Rimbaud, Neruda, Hesse). Libellus is both an important artistic statement and a spell-binding collection of songs.


David Kidman May 2009

Cheryl Renee - I Believe You Know The Blues (Chickenbutt Records)

Blues fans in the UK may not be familiar with the name of Cheryl Renee Smoot but if I tell you that she appeared at the opening night of the original House of Blues in Massachusetts then you will realise the quality of the artist. She has not written any of the ten tracks on this album but what she does do is she adds her own personality on some well-known and some less well-known songs.

The opener, In My Girlish Days, shows Cheryl's full vocal range and has her on electric piano with some intricate guitar supplements from Howard Randall. The standard, Roll With Me Henry, is given an energetic treatment with Cheryl Renee pounding the keys and harmonica from Henry Perry. That's A Pretty Good Love is a rolling blues with a rocking band and strong vocals.

Cheryl Renee shows her soulful side on Never Make A Move Too Soon but immediately returns to the blues with an emotion-filled version of the Junior Wells classic, Come On In This House. The big-name songwriters continue with Sonny Boy Williamson's I Don't Care No More. This is a rocking blues and shows the band in fine form. I'm Getting' 'Long Alright and Down Girl, Down are a standard blues and an upbeat piano boogie respectively.

Lowell Fulsom's Tramp is given the full treatment and suits Cheryl Renee's voice down to the ground. So much so that the song could have been written for her. Listen out for the excellent sax solo by Dirk Weddington. The closing track, The Blues Is A Living Thing, is earthy and hypnotic and Cheryl Renee turns in another powerful vocal. If her live performances go close to matching this album then I, for one, am looking forward to catching her in concert.


David Blue

Ed Rennie - Narrative (Fellside)

Ed's name won't necessarily be familiar to you unless you frequent the English country dance/ceilidh scene. Ed's but one member of the justly famed Bismarcks, in fact, but a key member nevertheless, and an extremely talented singer and musician in his own right, as this entirely solo album proves without a shadow of doubt. In fact, this release could well do much to kick-start Ed on a parallel career as a soloist, for it's a very attractive product. It mostly consists of traditional songs and ballads, but with three short purely instrumental tracks (played on the melodeon) thrown into the running order to provide a little more contrast (even though I honestly feel there's variety and contrast aplenty in the vocal tracks). The main surprise, then, for those who know Ed only as a box player will be his singing voice, which is strong and clear with a forthright yet quite laid-back method of expression (not the contradiction in terms it might seem). By making his own personality subordinate to the needs of the song, Ed demonstrates his wholly natural skill in communicating the essence of a text, with an admirable minimum fuss and no hint of over-statement, as you can hear in his rendition of Lord Bateman for instance, or In Bruton Town or The Cruel Mother (these ballads may be quite lengthy, but you don't notice the time passing). Ed's concise insert notes give just the right amount of detail on his sources and inspirations, and the booklet artwork is both fittingly stark and evocative. Of the CD's nine vocal tracks, three (though not including any of the "big" ballads) are sung unaccompanied, whereas for the rest Ed accompanies himself on either guitar or cittern, entirely unflashily and with no need of any distracting studio gimmickry or unwanted "enhancements". This CD really is a breath of fresh air blowing through the sometimes needlessly dusty corridors of traditional song.


David Kidman

The Revivals - The Revivals (Crushed Roc Records)

Dr Who's back on the telly and if we still had turntables then, courtesy of The Revivals, a pure unadulterated celebration of all things rock would be back on that as well. The Revivals leapfrog the spandex 80s and the various NWOBHM to draw inspiration from the real things, the bands that exploded the love and peace generation of the 60s and turned them into the rough and raunchy rockers of the early 70s.

So brainwashed are we to see music as a product, that anything like The Revivals has us spending half our time looking for the irony and the rest trying to work out who the music is a tribute to.

Save yourself the time, it may have everything in common with the blues rock of Free and Led Zeppelin to name but two, and what heady names they are, but the The Revivals are their own men.

For an album that is built around the pace, energy and guitar riffs there are some deft moments, The Revivals never gets too big or theatrical for its boots, the influence of the blues gives it a solid grounding.

Much of the credit for that has to go to singer Ian Hutchison, he has a voice made for rasping, kicking and screaming rock n roll and yet, while he'll never be a tuxedoed nightclub crooner, he manages to avoid vocal excesses. Everything about the album is directed towards one purpose, the music.

Songs like Real Love are driven from the pit of the stomach, while on the 'ballads' like Rollin, there is a real tenderness and genuine warmth. But it's the anthems that The Revivals will be remembered for and on Holding On the band indulges itself hugely, it's real foot on the amplifier stuff and great fun to boot.

Taken as whole, the album is much as you would expect and nothing on it hasn't been heard before and that's not a criticism. But that doesn't do The Revivals proper justice, they have grabbed guitar rock by the scruff of the neck and shaken the life back into it.


Michael Mee

Kimberley Rew - Essex Hideaway (Bongo Beat Records)

If you were under the impression that music was in danger of taking itself too seriously, then former Soft Boy and Wave, Kimberley Rew is here to reassure you. Essex Hideaway, only his fourth solo release in 25 years, is music with a smile plastered all over its face but behind that smile lurk teeth with more than a little bite.

As a writer of pop songs his CV is impressive. Not only did he pen the Katrina and the Waves hits, Walking On Sunshine and Love Shine A Light - surely the best Eurovision song since Waterloo, not a crowded category I know - but the Bangles' Going Down To Liverpool was one of his. This is a man with an uncanny ear for a hit.

But Essex Hideaway is no mere repository for pop songs, however good, instead it offers the listener far more than that. It opens up the multicoloured world of a musician with a limitless and slightly eccentric imagination. Rew is cast very much in the mould of The Kinks and, perhaps more accurately The Small Faces. If, like me, you can remember the sheer joy that Steve Marriott brought to everything he did, then you'll be happy to find it echoed here.

Rew's eccentricities aren't long in surfacing, the album begins and ends with a choral blessing, for whom I'm not quite sure as we, the listeners, appear to be in good hands. Phoenixstowe, the album's 'proper' opening explodes into the best guitar riff this side of the 60s. The die is cast this is an album to intrigue and excite in equal measure.

And it's the sheer difference of it all that transfers the pleasure from author to listener. Few songs can ever have invoked that literary giant Winnie The Pooh, wrapped it in the most traditional British folk music and combined these two most benign elements to deliver a darker message with the force of a jakhammer, but that's exactly what Rew does on Arterial Road. He follows that with the hugely entertaining That's Soft Boy, which could have been plucked straight from a Lionel Bart musical. What next, Max Miller? No that enviable task is left to the power pop/rock Ballad Of The Lone Guitarist. To ask the listener to follow the myriad of twists and turns is almost too much but the rewards far outweigh the effort.

In these days of shrink wrapped 'units', the truly original artist is increasingly becoming an endangered species. Music fans must fight to preserve labels like Bongo Beat if only to ensure that artists like Kimberley Rew have a home.


Michael Mee

Kimberley Rew - Tunnel Into Summer [Hypertension]

He may not be a household name but songwriter and guitarist Kimberley Rew was a founder-member of Katrina & The Waves and the highly influential Soft Boys. He was the writer of pop anthems "Walking On Sunshine" and "Going Down To Liverpool". His song, "Men", is one of the four finalists for this year's UK Song For Europe entry for the Eurovision Song Contest! His 1997 entry, "Love Shine A Light", won the Contest for Katrina & The Waves.

Tunnel Into Summer" is his first solo album. His previous album was in 1982, "The Bible Of Pop Press", a compilation of his songs with previous bands he'd worked with, Soft Boys, the dBs and Katrina & the Waves.

His is a brand of melodic pop with a Byrds/Kinks flavour, witty, entertaining lyrics and great musicianship and harmonies. It may not be cutting-edge but it's warm easy-listening. It's sunny, English fare with a touch of Country and Rew serves it up with great enthusiasm and charm. There are also musical puns to listen for - and surprises, particularly "The Truth", a John Lee Hooker foot-tapper/Kevin Bloody Wilson vocal-delivery odd-ball entertainer.

Mention must go to producer Andy Metcalfe. Also a member of Robyn Hitchcock's Soft Boys and Egyptians and late '80s reformed Squeeze, he worked with Glenn Tillbrook on the final mix on Nick Harper's "Harperspace". He also contributes bass, organ and piano. Other musical contributors of note are from Julian Dawson, Glen Tilbrook, Robyn Hitchcock and particularly Dave Mattacks on drums.


Sue Cavendish

Jessica Rhaye - Short Stories (Own Label)

Singer-songwriter Jessica was a one-third component of the recent "Canadian Frost" tour with fellow Canadians Dave Gunning and Matt Andersen, which I didn't manage to catch. On the evidence of this, her sophomore disc, she has talent - even though it's not always easy to divine her own musical personality or creative vision while either element is largely swamped by the overproduction of the album as a whole. This is down to producer Ed Woodsworth, I suspect, who seems to have a mission to turn Jessica and her often quite intimate songs into pop products, and in doing so has enabled settings that reek heavily of effects and keyboards and programming, to the extent that they dominate with a sickly glimmery sheen that seems inappropriate for the material. Songs like Wild Flowers are too cute anyway, but sound worse for their excessive clothing, whereas the more revealing, starker songs just sound heavily burdened. And nobody wants to listen to a dentist's drill in a song (do they?) - that means skipping Where It All Begins, where that effect (or one rather too like it) is at the "root" of the problem and certainly touches a raw nerve... Just occasionally the electronica do enhance the lyrics: Crazy Jayne has an attractively eerie aura, and Holding Out makes capital of its funky banjo riff; when acoustic instruments get the chance to break through the gloss it can be very refreshing. Jessica has a singjng voice which has considerable capability, but she tends at times to over-emote (as on Wonderful To Me); this makes me feel that if she goes all-out for a punchier pop market she might make the grade - but she needs to decide which side to bat for, otherwise I fear that her songwriting prowess will pass us by unnoticed. This disc is just a "manufactured" product, and it makes me wonder whether she came across better on the aforementioned tour.


David Kidman December 2007

The Rheingans Sisters - Glad Gold Hearts (RootBeat Records)

Derbyshire-based fiddle-singer sisters Rowan and Anna enchant and mesmerise on this their debut album, a richly satisfying disc on which songs and tunes occur in just about equal proportion. Although the repertoire has an overall bias towards Scandinavia, source material is drawn from all parts of the sisters' musical heritage.

They play on instruments made by their father Helmut, and the sound they produce is gorgeously full yet intimate, the impact enhanced by Andy Bell's superbly clear and well-balanced live recording that intuitively mirrors the sensitivity and close responsiveness of the musicianship within. In which context, I refer you at once to Bruce Molsky's uncannily astute observation: "the best music is played in the moment, when the musicians are leaning into each other and outside of themselves".

This much is clear right from the first track, an intriguingly natural amalgam of Sorry The Day I Was Married and an Estonian dance tune. The basic tonal palette of just two fiddles and two voices might, on paper, sound thin and insubstantial, even rarefied, and potentially insufficient for carrying one's interest, but this proves emphatically not to be the case over the course of the disc, even without the strategic augmentation by a cello (on three tracks), or banjo, concertina or bansitar.

The signature quality of the playing and singing accords well with the album's title, which is taken from the lyric of arguably its least typical item, a version of Robin Williamson's priceless October Song which is done in an attractively banjo-frailed Appalachian mode, but where the accompanying quite brisk delivery of the poetry seems a touch matter-of-fact for the song's gentle majesty, especially on first acquaintance. But then again, the qualities of gladness and gold-hued closeness of heart are so well caught by Elly Lucas's affectionate photographic portrait of the sisters which adorns the digipack.

The remaining vocal items on the disc are a version of the traditional American song The Factory Girl (not the song of the same name covered by Rowan's other band, Lady Maisery, on their Mayday CD), and Bread And Roses, a setting by Rowan of a James Oppenheim poem associated with the 1912 women textile workers' strike in Massachusetts.

The sheer grace and beauty of the sisters' singing also informs their playing on the tunes that comprise the remaining six tracks, which range from lively Swedish polkas to a Norwegian travelling tune learnt from a hardanger fiddle player (here especially inventively arranged and sporting a wordless chorus part); there's also an irresistible pairing of old English tunes on which the sisters are joined by bagpipes and clarinet (John-Francis Goodacre and Jo Veal). All these tunes are absolutely hypnotic, but the miraculous closeness of the sisters' playing is perhaps best sampled on the intimate duet on the more reflective Vardag/Himmelsbacken set (track 5).

This is a real gem of an album, whose true depth may be belied by its sparse scoring yet is most strongly evidenced by the richness and freshness of the musicianship and arrangements.


David Kidman July 2013

Bill Rhoades & The Party Kings - Voodoo Lovin' (White Owl Records)

Produced by Terry Robb - four words that get my attention straight away. Terry's reputation for good quality blues and roots ensure that what follows is bound to be top grade. Bill Rhoades opens up with Waiting And Worrying with wailing harmonica and a Howlin' Wolf feel overall. This is followed up with She Walks Right In, a high-paced jump boogie with a rather contrived chorus but it does give the guitar of Michael Osborn, do you recognise the name, the chance to shine. The reason I ask is because Michael was John Lee Hookers guitarist for 13 years. I'm trying is a chugging blues with a clear vocal and Bill's voice is strangely familiar. It's a comfortable voice and he supplements it with excellent harp playing. JB Hutto's Now She's Gone is classic Chicago blues played in the classic style and you just can't beat it. Distorted harp and growling guitar, give me more! I got my wish on Temperature 110 as Bill lifts the pace again and shows that he's one of the best harmonica players plying his trade today. This is another highlight. Hurt Again is a slow, shuffling 50s style rock and roller and Voodoo Lovin' slightly disappoints. Voodoo gets used a lot in song titles and tends to conjure up an image. For me, that image is Jimi Hendrix, Howlin' Wolf and magic. Unfortunately, this song fails to take on any of these although guitarist Michael Osborn does give a good account of himself.

Cindy Ann is a classy instrumental where harmonica and guitar trade licks before going off on their own showcase. Rhoades again shows again just how good a harp player he is. Grungy slide guitar introduces She Moves Me, which moves off into a slow, thudding electric blues. I haven't yet commented on Rhoades' vocals and, although he has been good throughout there isn't really any evidence of a good range. The harp is, as ever, excellent. Kidney Stew has another harmonica and guitar introduction and during the song he refers to his girlfriend as 'not the caviar kind, just plain old kidney stew' - she must be pleased!! Meanwhile, the song is a good, medium paced boogie. Early In The Morning is another ponderous blues with all the classic elements and refers back to Cindy Ann as his girl. It's fine by 12 bar standards but Osborn does add that stinging guitar and that makes the difference. The penultimate track, the fast paced Don't You Lie To Me would have been an ideal closing song but Clarence Lofton's songs need a stronger singer. However, the track is strong and the harp and guitar are the stars again. Bill chooses to close with the two minute harmonica instrumental, Sixes And Sevens. On this, he manages to get the impression of bagpipes - no kidding, just listen. Whether you like this or not you will just be in awe on the amount of effort that the man puts in.


David Blue, June 2006

Kimmie Rhodes - Miracles On Christmas Day (Sunbird)

Ah, my first festive album of the year. Most artists who look to tap into the seasonal spirit of the cash tills tend to start readying their Christmas offerings mid-summer. Not Rhodes. She began recording this last December. Nothing like thinking ahead. Mind you, assuming the story's correct, it did take nine years to get to that point.

Apparently, after seeing Willie Nelson unwrapping a pile of platinum discs for covers of his Pretty Paper, she decided she's write some Christmas songs too. At a rate of one a year as presents for her friend David Conrad. Since the other three numbers are covers, I assume she either decided not to put things off any longer or ran out of holiday ideas.

While lyrics do include mentions of giving hands, santa, perfect gifts and guiding stars, it's mercifully devoid of the such Nashville country Christmas chestnuts as sleigh bells (there are bells but they don't jingle) and choirs, the music mulled with pedal steel, hurdy gurdy, clarinet, sax, harp, accordion and cello while the angel atop the tree is Rhodes' voice.

Opening with the snapshots title track, the arrangements and her soft, whispery vocals ensure the mood throughout is that of a log fire, crisp snow trod underfoot, icicles hanging on branches and laughing children wrapped up warm. Although country's the default genre, there's a couple of sidesteps too to the self-penned material, Featuring John Mills on clarinet, Little Touch Of Christmas is an old fashioned jazzy blues crooner while Wake Up Sleepy Town welcomes Joel Guzman's accordion for some TexMex snowflakes and the lullaby Sleep Baby Sleep is arranged in courtly medieval style.

Highlights among her own songs would have to include the lovely Angel Unawares, an Emmylou-ish storysong of faith, hope and charity, and the joyous closing A New Song, a sure contender for the 21st century book of carols.

The three covers are standouts too. Taken at a slow marching beat, Mary is Patty Griffin's poignant hymn to the trials, sacrifices and love of motherhood, considerably less over the top than the Bocelli and Blige version, What Child Is This is the 1865 composition by Bristol born hymn writer William Chatterton Dix that was subsequently set to the tune of Greensleeves while, even older, Carol of the Bells is vocally multi-tracked to reflect the original 1912 choral work of Russian composer Mykola Leontovych whose four note motif was taken from an ancient pagan Ukranian chant.

None of them are likely to supplant White Christmas or Merry Xmas Everybody at the party singsong, but when you feel you really can't listen to Stop The Cavalry one more time then this makes a very welcome change.


Mike Davies November 2010

Kimmie Rhodes - Ten Summers (Sunbird)

It's catch up time to either fill in the gaps or gather favourite moments under one roof with this compilation of 14 tracks from the six albums the Lubbock singer-songwriter released between 1995-2005; a sequel to Jackalopes, Moons & Angels which covered the previous five years.

From West Texas Heaven to Windblown, it's actually a reissue from four years back that's been resurrected to coincide with her brief UK tour this April/May, so chances are you may already have it anyway and I wouldn't want you to buy it twice by accident.

Still, if you don't or if you're only just discovering her then, be advised that this opens with the title track of 1996's West Texas Heaven and closes with the title track of 2005's Windblown, taking in duets with Waylon (Maybe We'll Just Disappear), Willie (Love Me Like A Song), Townes (I'm Gonna Fly) and Emmylou, both alone on Love & Happiness For You and with Beth Nielsen Chapman on Send Me The Sun.

Her most recent album, Walls Fall Down, was a politically charged affair that also found her getting raunchy on Sex & Gasoline, but the material here is mostly in far more wistful and emotionally poignant mood, notably so on the aching I'm Not An Angel and Rich From The Journey. A slightly smoothed out version of Nanci Griffith or Emmylou perhaps, but as these songs show, still an estimable, if overlooked, contribution to the Texas country canon.


Mike Davies April 2009

Kimmie Rhodes - Walls Fall Down (Sunbird)

Sometimes things just slip through the cracks. How else to excuse the fact that, despite a cv that includes 10 studio albums, one a collection of duets with Willie Nelson, soundtrack contributions, a play, a musical, co-writes with Emmylou, Beth Nielson Chapman and Waylon Jennings, the Lubbock reared, Austin based singer-songwriter and artist has never been reviewed on this site.

Time to make amends with her latest, a collection of covers and new self-penned or co-written material that makes fully appreciate what we've been missing. Taking the covers first, Townes Van Zandt chestnut If I Needed You gets a plaintively straightforward reading that deftly illustrates the little girl side of Rhodes' vocals, a stark contrast to the following treatment of new Southern swampy Rodney Crowell tune Sex & Gasoline where she turns on the slinky raunch you might imagine from the title. The remaining non-original is a simple, acoustic multi-tracked harmonies version of The Fool On The Hill, modest but graceful.

There's three co-writes with Kieran Goss, a gentle summery Beautiful, the Emerald tinted backwoods Americana cornfields shuffling Make The Morning Shine and the similarly inclined gingham and rippling creek mood of Shining Like A Sun. The remaining collaboration, I've Been Loved By You, has more old school country colours, the sort of chiming mid-tempo number you could hear Emmylou and Gram doing back when,

Interestingly, her own material is often of tougher lyrical stuff. Conjuring musical thoughts of Petty's I Won't Back Down, the opening Walls Fall Down sounds an eco theme, a punchy Southern-rock There's A Storm Coming uses flood imagery to address America's gathering economic gloom while the moody, politically veined Your Majesty is a far from thinly disguised swipe at George W.

She can, of course, write in a softer key, finely illustrated by the album's whisperingly apocalyptic play-out track, the tick tocking swayingly Lennon-esque Last Seven Seconds Of The Universe. "Everything is coming to an end", she purrs as the chorus line repeats. I could think of worse singalongs to send us all off into cosmic oblivion.


Mike Davies January 2008

Lou Rhodes - One Good Thing (Motion Audio)

There's no news whether last year's Lamb festivals reunion is going to be repeated, but it's a promising sign that Rhodes and Andy Barlow have collaborated on her third solo album. After Bloom's more experimental groove and elemental folk, it marks a return to her spare, sombre acoustics while the long-standing Nick Drake influences remain constant. Once again it's a highly personal affair, not least on Janey, a heartbreaking simply stated lament for her late sister and the despairing Melancholy Me, undoubtedly part of the fall out from a major relationship collapse.

It's not all such wrist-slashing stuff; There For The Taking and the strings-adorned title track (where she sound a little like a cross between early Joni and Melanie) marry optimism to their fingerpicked rippling stream guitar lines, but generally speaking you won't be listening to this to find sunny singsongs. However, her beautiful voice and sensitive arrangements of guitar and strings (shown to fine effect on the bluesy Baby) make the comedown sadness an irresistible experience.


Mike Davies April 2010

Lou Rhodes - Beloved One (Infinite Bloom)

Lou has arrived at this release, her first solo record, by a circuitous route. Prior to 2004, Lou had spent close on ten years making music with that extraordinary trip-hop outfit Lamb, wherein her sensual vocals and intimate, mysterious lyrics provided an imaginative (if seemingly illogical) emotional counterpoint to the starkness of the electronica generated by her production partner Andrew Barlow. After the band - and their working relationship - disintegrated, Lou took to the road on a journey of self-discovery, finally coming to rest at Ridge Farm studios, where this album was recorded. Simple, luminous and yet beautifully ornate acoustic textures are the order of the day, entirely supplanting her former drum'n'bass ambit; her own guitar is omnipresent, and assistance is given by a small number of extra musicians playing hand percussion, cello, Chinese instruments (erhu/violin, bamboo flute), Tuvan guitar and double-bass. Here, Lou's life philosophy and life struggle is inseparable from her songs and her music; she's a survivor, and Beloved One betrays an honesty, intimacy and profoundly close-up involvement that at times is quite spine-chilling. Within Lou's stark confessional writing, despite the positive strength of the imagery there's a sense of instability, of emotional fragility and intense vulnerability, as well as an innocence that isn't quite unknowing; this is conveyed as much by the distinctive qualities of Lou's slightly breathy, cosseted voice as by the condensed yet spacious textures of the settings (in this respect, Lou's titling of her label Infinite Bloom seems very apt indeed), which are nothing but entirely natural in both content and context. It's not easy music to describe, for it so modestly and quietly demands to be heard - but you really must respond to that demand. Oh, and I love the tiny little hidden track, a delicate acappella lullaby ...


David Kidman March 2007

Rhonda Harris - Tell The World We Tried (Auditorium)

They're not a person, they're a band, they're Danish and they have a floating line up based around Nikolaj Norlund who was part of Trains Boats and Planes. This time the roster includes Jakob Heyer and Anders Christensen of The Raveonettes. And the album is a collection of songs by Townes Van Zandt.

Growing out of recording a couple of tracks for a single it's not, they say, a tribute album, rather an album of songs by one person who just happens to be a dead iconic Texas singer-songwriter. Stripped to the bones, ruminative, darkly brooding and infused with Zandt's own doomed soul spirit, it also tends to steer clear of the more frequently covered numbers. Certainly you get a nerve fraying and despairing If I Needed You, mountain gospel steam hammered Lungs, the fragile Tecumseh Valley , and an echoey No Place To Fall, but there's no Pancho And Lefty or For The Sake of the Song which everyone who sings Townes usually feels obliged to cover, Instead here's a spooked desert night with Saint John The Gambler, a ghostly carnival ride Waiting Round To Die, and a barely there strung out version of the fairly obscure Rake. Obviously, if you want to hear Van Zandt songs you should really go to the source, but this serves as a tempting introduction.


Mike Davies March 2007

Damien Rice - 9 (Heffa)

His debut album was titled O, the follow up turns the knob up a few numbers but remains within the sphere of nakedly confessional emotions, Celtic soul, burning anger and trembling anguish. Yet, it's Lisa Hannigan's aching voice that's the first to be heard on the opening 9 Crimes, one of several numbers documenting a relationship falling apart, unfolding with a prickly sweetness.

Like Van Morrison, to whom he surely owes a musical spiritual debt, Rice can be a moody bugger, a self-confessed depressive for whom the glass is generally more half-empty than half-full. And yet, while Rootless Tree lulls you into a reverie before exploding with four lettered rage, there's heart-splintering tenderness blanketing much of the material here. Listen, for example, to the fragile, tentative bruised and raw Accidental Babies, a piano ballad of illicit love where he asks 'does he drive you wild? Or just mildly free?' Or the painfully fractured Elephant, a stripped down cry of loneliness that practically has a nervous breakdown in front of your face. Or again its relationship companion piece The Animals Were Gone, a Cohen-like song in which he gazes around a house now made empty by the departure of a lover, sadness and happy memories wistfully entwined in the line 'I love your depression and I love your double chin.'.

The sexual angst exploding all over the ragged squall into which Me, My Yoke and I erupts might prove a bit much to take for those who prefer their Rice less grainy and gritty, but, like the skittish strummed pop of Coconut Skins with its opposing tugs of lust and God, it shows he's not confined to just curling up in the foetal position he occupies on Grey Room. Whether this, slightly more experimental and less comfortingly radio friendly album proves as accessible and successful as O remains to be seen, but it assuringly confirms Rice as a major if at times difficult talent. A 9 out of 10, indeed.


Mike Davies November 2006

Damien Rice - O (DamienRice Records)

Dublin born Rice's childhood days spent fishing and thinking on the banks of the River Liffey have clearly seeped into his songwriter's soul. His debut album has already gone platinum back home and earned him four Irish Music Awards nominations, and it can only be a matter of time before the rest of the world is as equally awestruck. Those looking for quick tags can label him the new David Gray, sharing as he does the same affinity for Van Morrison records, shrugged emotive heart-exposing confessionals and naked honesty married to lyrical folk hued melodies.

But such comparisons are just easy reference points and come nowhere near being able to capture the way his stripped back acoustic music embraces the Celtic twilight, swelling cello, 3am barroom desperation, Cohenesque soul affirming sadness and Gregorian chantings or the unbridled heartfelt brilliance of songs such as The Blower's Daughter, Amie (arranged by David Arnold), Older Chests (featuring the voices of schoolkids), Cold Water (which features the voice of God, no really) and Eskimo which goes from cracked fragility to soaring Intuit operatics that throw open heaven's gates to let the light pour out. All that and two bonus hidden tracks, generously including a bitter and broken end of relationship rewrite of Silent Night hauntingly sung by backing vocalist Lisa Hannigan. It's like being given the key to heaven's own jukebox.


Mike Davies

The Dave Rich Band - Overload (self produced)

Like all good things, it took a little time before Overload fully gave up its treasures.

First impressions were that the five-piece from Tavistock Devon were walking the same melodic, 'soft rock' streets as American supergroup The Dave Matthews Band, and apart from the difference tens of thousands of dollars make to production, the two are not that far apart.

That impression was reinforced by the title track and Simply Falling, both of which echo the kind of pleasant, non-threatening sound that is the trademark of Matthews, leader of a band who fill stadia in the US but walk the streets largely unnoticed over here.

However, subtlely but definitely, Overload began to transform itself. While singer Dave Rich has the kind of voice that sits comfortably in the mix rather than soaring above it, he extracts every last ounce out of the changes of mood that make Overload an intricate and delicately fascinating piece of work. From being a slice of mid-Atlantic rock, the tone of Overload shifted and Wish The Nights Were Days, heralded the arrival of a more British, quirky, folk-influenced Overload.

From this point, it was if the band had discovered its true voice and the album grew and blossomed, by the time Nobody's Perfect arrived not only was it a defining moment for the band, it was in the context of the album, a contradiction.

The Dave Rich Band may draw on many influences but if Overload proves one thing, it's that when you put your trust in your own talent, the results are magical.


Michael Mee, Editor, Hawick News

Cliff Richard - Just About As Good As It Gets! (Smith & Co.)

Yes, really! This exceedingly well-filled 71-track two-disc set is subtitled The Original Recordings 1958-1959, which gives the best clue to its usefulness and importance. Many of us have always felt that Cliff's was a similar story to that of Elvis, in that Harry Webb's finest recordings were the earliest ones - i.e. when he was a real rock'n'roller rather than a manufactured crooner, tin-pan-alley balladeer or Christian crusader. Hence the arrival of this new release, which purports to collect together all of Cliff's fifties recordings (I dimly recall an earlier EMI Cliff compilation called something like Rock'n'Roll With Cliff, but whether this was genuinely complete or just an opportunist marketing exercise I'm not sure).

The two discs are sequenced credibly enough, but not quite chronologically, which is a mite puzzling - although it was a sound decision to end the second disc with the eight tracks from Cliff Sings (his second album release), which heralded the start of the slippery slope into saccharine with the arrival of the dreaded String Section. It's clear that from the start, young and inexperienced though Cliff was, he had a flair for rock'n'roll without having to attempt to directly mimic Elvis (although he was evidently in thrall of Elvis, who inspired his formation of early school bands). Other nascent British rock'n'rollers were being swiftly sanitised by their record company moguls, and Cliff was also to succumb in due course, but for the time being (the odd embarrassment like Schoolboy Crush notwithstanding) he came up with some surprisingly convincing goods that captured something of the spirit of authentic rock'n'roll, if at times inevitably a touch tame in execution.

A key factor in the strength of Cliff's identity was the presence from an early stage (after the first few singles) of a cohesive and talented backing band, the Drifters (soon to be renamed The Shadows of course) with their amazing guitarist Hank Marvin more than ably supported by Messrs Welch, Harris & Meehan (a handful of solid Drifters instrumental cuts are scattered through the set, should you require further proof of their talent!).

The turning point in Cliff's approach, as regards emphasis within repertoire, came with the transmutation of Livin' Doll from rocker into teen ballad, from which point on most of Cliff's single releases would feature a ballad coupled with a rocker. This latest collection scores above its predecessors by including some enticing rarities, Cliff's contributions to the films Serious Charge (the rockin' variant of Livin' Doll included, complete with some crazy dialogue!) and Expresso Bongo, his eight tracks from the Oh Boy TV show soundtrack album (along with three "off-air" recordings from the show), all of the singles cuts, and the first two LPs (the eponymous first being an impressively energetic live-in-the-studio phenomenon with screaming fans in tow!), together with an assortment of stereo and alternate versions. Completeness or wot?!

Taken together, it's a great and surprisingly varied collection that embraces some convincing rockabilly (Twenty Flight Rock), moments of controlled aggressive wildness (Dynamite, Never Mind, Move It, and a more-than-respectable cover of Blue Suede Shoes), 12-bar rock (Mean Woman Blues), Cash-style country (the sublime Travellin' Light, I'm Walking, and I Gotta Know – the latter pre-dating Elvis' recording) and the aforementioned teen-ballads. Not to underplay the role of the Drifters-cum-Shadows or the guiding hand of Norrie Paramor, both crucial elements in the establishment of Cliff's persona.

This excellent new collection - with fine booklet notes by its instigator Dave Travis - does indeed demonstrate that those early Cliff recordings were "just about as good as it got" for home-grown British rock'n'roll at the tail-end of the 50s.


David Kidman January 2010

John Richards - Behind The Lines (Working Joe)

John's a significantly unheralded - but indisputably significant - songwriter whose unassuming name may not be overly familiar even to those who've registered that his songs have been covered both by the illustrious (eg. Fairport Convention, Damien Barber, Steve Knightley, Phil Beer and Paul Downes) and by us mere mortals who've responded to the depth and quality of his writing.

And now this unerringly fine CD, incredibly John's first solo recording, should - – if given the profile it deserves - bring his work to the attention of a wider public. John started writing over 25 years ago, but had always pursued band interests (eg. Maurice and the Minors) rather than individual recognition; Robin Dransfield covered The Battle, Bill Caddick Shine On, and slowly more of John's songs began to trickle out into the public arena, but the crowning irony was that John himself had never recorded any of them. Until now that is; "now" being March 2001, when he was lured into the studio by producer Mick Dolan, joined by his daughter Emma, and granted sterling instrumental support from eleven other musicians including Phil Beer, Paul Downes, Bev Ball and Jim Sutton. The result is a set of "composer's own voice" recordings of just a dozen of John's stunningly good (if almost uniformly downbeat) songs, pretty firmly in the most passionate folk-rock mould and embodying a strong conscience and right-on moral viewpoint.

The conviction of the words is matched by the soaring lyrical passion of the melodies, the stature and shape of the lines putting me in mind of John Tams, whose vocal delivery this John's also sometimes resembles (that's a compliment!). Several of the songs here – Did You Like The Battle Sir?, (Don't Despise) The Deserter, The Unknown Soldier – creatively address (and, naturally, cuttingly condemn) the horrors of war, while Honour And Praise deals poignantly with having to live with the fallout from sacrificing the wellbeing of others for personal gain. Polly allies a contemporary compassion to a timeless theme in the style of a traditional ballad. Then there are two compellingly beautiful, simple but thought-provoking songs – The Moth and Night Train – which examine the mixed emotions love can engender, while Shine On rather appropriately ends the album on a more hopeful note, by what John describes as trying "not to share the theory that the light at the end of the tunnel may be an oncoming train". A really superb – if long overdue – release that is a must for your collection.


David Kidman

Lisa Richards - Mad Mad Love (Lisa Richards Music)

It's five years since my last experience of Lisa's music, the compilation Not Quite So Low which alternately satisfied and tantalised but above all made me keen to hear what she would do next. This new album was recorded in the US (Lisa has been based in Austin, Texas since 1998), and (you could say, in common with a lot of other albums!) explores the subject of love in all its forms. The songs - all but two Lisa's own - are characterised by an honesty of expression which is born of evident experience and first-hand understanding. This manifests in music which mirrors love itself, as it can often be headily rapturous (the title song), sometimes tough (Whose Chain), sometimes puzzling (You And Me) - but invariably stimulating in some way or other. At times love can be distinctly unsettling and offputting too, especially at first, and again the music mirrors this, not least in that some tracks took a fair amount of acquaintance-time before I could properly "get on" with them. After a lot of thought I'd put that down to the arrangements, which for several songs rely quite heavily on a floating, ethereal, almost pop-oriented keyboard/programmed texture washing over the sparer acoustics providing the backbone. Lisa seems to have given Brooklyn producer/co-writer/multi-instrumentalist Tom Bright his head in this regard, and at first it's hard not to find the arrangements over-dominant, at least part of the time. Once that hurdle's over, though, it's only the occasional suspicion of technical "enhancement" in the actual sound of Lisa's vocal performance that gets in the way of the songs. And these are both catchy and captivating, with not a weak one among them; even if those I found easiest and most immediate to appreciate were those with the least pop-friendly settings. The ingenious combination of loops and multi-layered guitars with strings works well on Dance and there's a kind of latterday-Emmylou feel to Portrait Of A Lover (these two cuts were produced by Billy Masters), whereas the grittier drive of Daddy Please and the disturbing (if slightly infuriating) nagging repetition of Why? (complete with its enigmatic runout-track sample) provide highly believable emotional responses. The two covers are diverse too: the old Nina Simone number Rags And Old Iron is given an attractively raunchy treatment, but Lou Reed's Satellite Of Love is spoilt by its sickly synthy sheen. I still think Lisa's got a lot to offer, she's quite a unique talent in many ways, and yet I'd still like to hear her perform more in a sympathetically stripped-down setting some time.


David Kidman November 2007

Lisa Richards - Not Quite So Low (Laughing Outlaw)

Born and raised in north-east Australia, Lisa started her performing career in Sydney where she did a stint with The Cavers group, then relocated to New York in 1993, finally - in 1997 - releasing a CD with the very same title as this here one. Confused? Read on… Based in Austin, Texas since 1998, Lisa has gained quite a name for herself, twice reaching finalist status at the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival and playing alongside Slaid Cleaves, and supporting Chris Whitley at Antone's. Her second CD, Undergroundling, was released last year, and the current release on Australian label Laughing Outlaw is an 18-track, 68-minute compilation from Lisa's two earlier albums, though it's a pity that the insert credits don't identify which tracks emanate from which, neither do they indicate whether both albums are included complete. No matter, for this is a creditably diverse collection, almost too much so to gain its measure in a few plays. Tags such as alt-pop-folk-country prove meaningless, as in a strangely logical way its very diversity proves its unifying thread, in accordance with Lisa's credo - a belief in "the power of music to express the inexpressible, to affect people, hopefully in a positive way… and the things I write about - I never know what's going to come to the surface". That unpredictable serendipity is responsible for many of this collection's delights. Several of the first few cuts embody a distinct twangy country influence, complementing the incisiveness of her lyrics; the production is quite straightforward, though I had a sneaking suspicion that the pitch of Lisa's vocal had been enhanced on one or two cuts (eg I Can See Love).

This CD seems to take off in its second half (whether this is a marker point delineating the change from one album to the other I don't know), with a stark, virtually unaccompanied Plain Gold Ring that sounds like an old traditional ballad, and a sequence of superior jangly poppy excursions, some with Eastern influences (First Kiss, Simon) others with an attractive and haunting late-60s feel (Everywhere). The production's more ambitious too, with a lot going on beneath the surface. The collection closes with two more overtly confessional cuts, just Lisa and her guitar. These confirm earlier impressions, that Lisa's a really good singer too, with a direct and sincere delivery that has no staggeringly obvious comparisons; here and there I hear shades of Tori Amos or Amy Rigby, although the press release describes her as "providing the missing link between Ani Di Franco and Bjork"! Make up your own mind - but whatever your reference points, Lisa's worth your attention.


David Kidman

Will Richards - One More Chance (Orange Dog)

The country is full of talented singers and musicians like Wakefield's Will Richards, struggling to raise the money to make records and release them on their own label, attracting decent reviews in small circulation magazines and hometown publications and building a loyal local following but somehow never managing to get the attention of a wider audience.

Playing drums, piano and guitar, he's taken two years to put together his second album, taking a stripped down approach that likely has as much to do with economics as wanting a more 'organic' sound than his Ready To Talk Now debut. Indeed, one track, You Always Do, was apparently recorded live in his kitchen.

With a solid backing band and guest contributions from Demon Barbers' violinist Bryony Griffith and lesser known but locally feted fellow Leeds folkie Ric Neale (who also co-produced), it's a mixture of pop, folk, MOR, country, and rock respectively illustrated by One More Chance, I Still Love You England, They Don't, So I Won't, I'm A Superhero..But I'm Not Saving You and the psychedelic Laundry Man. Six minute closer Wake Me When It's Over even combines most of the above ingredients with a dose of vaudeville, Latin and even thrash.

His voice strains in parts, but the melodies are hardy, the humour sly and satirical and the eminently listenable songs suggest he's probably an entertaining live performer. It's unlikely to do much to change his current position on the music ladder, but it certainly deserves to receive more attention than it will.


Mike Davies July 2010

Kim Richey - Wreck Your Wheels (Lojinx)

Kim's sixth album brings her back closer to a signature Americana sound, though not without a certain measure of what might be termed pop sensibility; returning to Nashville, Kim has employed the same band she'd first gathered in order to tour her acclaimed Chinese Boxes album (embracing the talents of Neilson Hubbard and Kris Donegan within its ranks), and imparted a clear, ungimmicky and organic feel to the recording. This minor change in emphasis is not necessarily concomitant with any decrease in the intimacy of her songwriting. And yet the more immediate and user-friendly impact of the settings generally doesn't mean that the songs themselves are quicker to make their mark on the consciousness - it seems to work the other way, for some reason I can't quite divine, while taken individually each song could well be described as (at worst) a very pleasing gem. The gentle pained opening (title) track is blessed with a keening pedal steel motif, while an insistent bass line accentuates the sense of regret that's nagging at the singer; it's a masterly arrangement, if slightly underplaying the emotional content. Careful How You Go, co-written with Will Kimbrough, delicately broods with a burnished string arrangement, as does the beguiling Back To You, while the laconic Keys is given a somewhat pretty acoustic musical setting that belies its lyric's desperate frustration (this is the first of two beautiful songs which Kim co-penned with Boo Hewerdine, the second being Word To The Wise, the disc's sensitive closer). The bouncy funky hoedown of When The Circus Comes To Town and the breezy singalong Once In Your Life are both almost too catchy for their own good, whereas the bluesier For A While and the jazzy 99 Floors both take a while to convince. But even so, Wreck Your Wheels doesn't contain a single track that could be considered a weak link, so if you've ever responded to Kim's musical vision in the past then you can invest in this latest set with renewed confidence.


David Kidman June 2010

Kim Richey - Chinese Boxes (Vanguard)

It's quite simple really, Kim Richey's latest release Chinese Boxes is a stunningly beautiful collection of songs, presented in an equally stunning and simple way. There is not the slightest whiff of anything brash, flash or remotely commercial to sour the atmosphere.

Richey, and producer Giles Martin (son of Sir George), have lavished such care and attention on each one of the tracks - the former in their creation, the latter in knowing when to leave well alone, that you have to wonder why everyone doesn't do it this way.

Standing in the centre of all this magic is Kim Richey, who left her native Nashville - and all the musical baggage it brings - and headed for London to record Chinese Boxes. It was the perfect place because this is an album that celebrates the best traditions of British folk/pop. It's as emotionally deep as folk but a deal more accessible. Songs like Drift ebb and flow like the gentle tide, the power of the songs is in the clarity and integrity of the lyrics.

Listening to Chinese Boxes creates the same sensation as riding a roundabout and looking at the sky. You lose all sense of direction and for these moments all that is real comes from Chinese Boxes. Kim Richey doesn't just present her music to an audience, she invites them to be a welcome part of it.

It is easy to imagine Kim Richey writing and co-writing songs for Trisha Yearwood, Mary Chapin Carpenter and, perhaps more bizarrely but certainly more lucratively, James Morrison, she is a truly great songwriter. However, it is nearly impossible to imagine her emulating their stardom, her music belongs in an intimate, personal place. Also there is a charming absence of the over self-confidence that often accompanies commercial success, as if Richey is not quite sure how her talent will be received, she needn't worry but the slightly faltering performance of Jack And Jill only adds to its lustre.

But like the Chinese Boxes of its title, the real joy comes as Richey reveals hitherto hidden emotion after emotion, it allows Richey to colour the almost blank canvas of tracks like I Will Follow in delicate pastel shades.

The appeal of Chinese Boxes doesn't surface easily, so deep does Kim Richey mine her soul for Something To Say, that it requires the listener to invest a little of themselves.


Michael Mee March 2008

Kim Richey - The Collection (Lost Highway)

Kim's intriguingly introspective style of songwriting first came to my attention with her fine album Rise, released a couple of years ago. At the time I expressed the desire to hear Kim's three previous releases, and now along comes The Collection, which provides a tantalising taster of Kim's earlier recordings (all made for the Mercury label) along with two previously unreleased, brand new tracks, one of which is a nicely understated live acoustic performance with Pete Droge of her song Electric Green. What we get here is a chronological "best of" survey, with three tracks taken from Kim's eponymous 1995 debut, four from her 1997 followup Bitter Sweet, two from her third album Glimmer (1999), and four from Rise. Although the quality is both consistent and high, I feel just a little shortchanged in that even Kim's apparently least successful record, Glimmer, very possibly deserves to be represented by more than just two tracks. And the first of the two previously unreleased cuts, Break You Down, isn't particularly interesting perhaps. But as an incentive to purchase Kim's first three albums, The Collection works for me. It's intelligently compiled too, in that the tracks form a kind of journey as well as a developmental commentary on Kim's artistry. Even at the start, Kim's vocal confidence and rounded tones were right in there alongside the occasional country twang, and she managed to clothe her songs in arrangements that were inventive and forward-looking without being unduly gimmicky or attention-seeking, already utilising musicians from the Nashville "A-List" (for the first two albums). And the other thing you notice when playing through this collection is that Kim's written a hell of a lot of good songs outside of those she's known for through covers by artists like Trisha Yearwood and Patty Loveless. A useful collection, then.


David Kidman

Kim Richey - Rise (Lost Highway)

Bluesy country, dark Appalachian folk, slouching scuffed rhythms, moody introspective songwriting, smouldering sultry vocals, a dash of twangy strut, a flicker of torch, a splash of pop rock, emotional vulnerability, defiant toughness, love songs, losing songs, leaving songs, living songs. They're all gathered together in the Bostonian singer-songwriter's fourth album, a hypnotic, often snaking collection of get under the skin numbers that prefer to sneak up on you rather than leap out into your face. Girl In A Car throws up the Sheryl Crow reference, but she's probably nearer to Shawn Colvin or a breathier, world seasoned Trisha Yearwood. Arrangements like that on the clattering The Circus Song are miles away from the usual Nashville routine, to which thanks go to producer Bill Bottrell who's also twiddled knobs for Ms Crow, while coming on board for the ride are guest chums Peter Droge and Chuck Prophet, the latter co-writing the punch the air This Love while the former sits in on the co-penned dreamy duet Electric Green. She's been gradually building her profile and following over the six or so years since her debut and this could be the one that deservedly kicks her up to the next level.


Mike Davies

Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers - Roadrunner, Roadrunner: The Beserkley Collection (Sanctuary)

Sanctuary has already re-released all of Jonathan's individual albums with the Modern Lovers, and if you always found Jonathan's alt-pop anti-hero whimsy easiest to take in smaller, less sustained doses, then you're likely to enjoy this compilation even more. It claims to be the definitive collection of his early work (ie. prior to his temporary retirement from the scene in the late 70s), and as such it can't really be bettered, containing as it does all the hits Roadrunner (yes, twice of course!), Egyptian Reggae, Morning Of Our Lives and so on. The set admirably charts Jonathan's progression from Velvets-style garage metal through nascent punk to ersatz-primitive teen rock'n'roll and weird silliness. The two versions of Roadrunner provide a good illustration of the poles of Jonathan's musical style-borrowings. Most of those unforgettable, playfully fun cult classics like I'm A Little Airplane, Hey There Little Insect and Here Come The Martian Martians are present and correct here on this two-disc set (though I was surprised not to find Abominable Snowman In The Supermarket on the tracklisting), although I always felt that Ice Cream Man got tedious and outstay its welcome in its live incarnation…


David Kidman

Richmond Fontaine - Thirteen Cities (El Cortez)

Having concluded their trilogy with 2005's The Fitzgerald, Willy Valutin and the boys return for their seventh album, relocating from Oregon to record amid the desert landscapes of Tucson, Arizona, producing a conceptual set of thirteen songs, each set in a different city and following the aimless, lost drifting of the various characters involved.

After the last album's stripped back minimalism, it's a change to hear the band, augmented by Howe Gelb and assorted Calexicos, with a fuller sound and more diverse instrumentation and arrangements that variously embrace horns, mandolins, glockenspiels and accordions. There's a more upbeat musical mood to several of the numbers too; the scuffle along cantina country of Moving Back Home #2, the slow swaggering alt-country drawling beat that kicks along Capsized and the spacey rock sensibility underpinning Four Walls.

But all share the same atmosphere of dry deserts and star-flecked night skies, a perfect setting for Valutin's noirish storytelling and haunting and haunted songs such as I Fell Into Painting Houses In Phoenix, Arizona, A Ghost I Became, $87 and a Guilty Conscience That Gets Worse The Loner I Go or the short, spoken St Ides, Parked Cars And Other People's Homes about blue collar men lost in rusted dreams, bent with rueful regrets, forever reaching out to connections they can't make, consumed by anger and resentments eating away at their soul.

Pushed to pin down standouts, they'd likely have to be the early hours shivers of The Kid From Belmont Street where an old man tries to stop the kid not to make the same mistakes, the closing piano and trumpet call for salvation of Lost In This World and The Disappearance of Ray Norton, a spoken narrative childhood memoir about a man whose racist attitudes to Mexicans cost him friends and family. But everything here pretty much qualifies as a work of genius.



Mike Davies February 2007

Richmond Fontaine - The Fitzgerald (Decor)

You'll need a glass of water to hand listening to this, their sixth album, because singer Willy Valutin's voice sound so dusty and parched you'll likely dehydrate before the album ends. It's the result of two weeks spent in a room at The Fitzgerald Casino Hotel in Reno, a stripped down, stark acoustic movie about the losers, the "alcoholic, the ruined and the framed" who live in the shadows of casino town.

Opening track, The Warehouse Life, sets the scene with its story of a gambler who runs in to bookie to whom he's in debt; it's not a happy encounter. Likewise Welhorn Yards follows on with a similar cinematic scenario set in night time railway sidings of a man finding that owing money and deals gone wrong aren't the path to a long, healthy life while the more uptempo Don't Look And It Won't Hurt details how a woman escapes her abusive boyfriend only to end up alone and lost in a motel room.

This is a world so laceratingly bleak it makes even Bukowski's stories sound like Disney fables.

Casino Lights "only bring darkness to the night" observes Valutin of a brother and sister's fall into despair over a simple acoustic guitar that will ensure a clutch of Nebraska references, the more uptempo Exit 194b tells of the AWOL soldier returning home to live in hiding in the darkness of his cousin's house haunted by the ghost of the narrator's little brother. The darkest point though is reached with Incident At Conklin Creek, the vividly told story of finding a youth's body in a shallow grave, 'black eyes broken nose, teeth missing.. no pants ...probably only been dead last couple of days 'coz there was no smell'.

There's shards of hope here and there on the thorny ground, the feet shuffling paced The Janitor for example finds a desperate connection between a hospital porter and a battered wife while after Laramie, Wyoming recounts the nightmare experiences of a runaway, it does have a vaguely happy - albeit permanently traumatised - ending as he reaches his aunt's house.

The album closes with the Making It Back, a title that hints at salvation as the narrator stumbles home into his kitchen at 3am to seek comfort, human contact and the sound of a loving voice, but you have little faith that come the morning the darkness won't still be gathering thick.


Mike Davies

Richmond Fontaine - Post To Wire (El Cortez)

Latest Americana messiahs, while the latest album takes its title from the term for a horse that leads a race right up to the finishing line, it's the losers like the down and out from whom they took their name that occupy frontman Willy Vlautin's thoughts.

With a cracked yearning and dusty voice that fuses Lou Reed, Gram Parsons and Miracle Legion's Mark Mulcahy and musical sensibilities that embrace Uncle Tupelo, American Music Club and The Band, with pedal steel, they inhabit a landscape of desert towns and backroads populated by ruined lives. Indeed. It plays out like a mini narrative with three spoken postcards providing updates on the lead character, Walter, who's travelling across the mid west having pawned best friend Pete's tv and and his folks' wedding rings, encountering an array of colourful characters, getting beaten up and trying to figure a way to pay the debts he left behind.

Between these are snapshots of Walt's experiences, spun out like Raymond Carver stories with their richness of place and character and set to songs that veer between the gunslinging Sprinsgteen-esque guitar rock n roll of Montgomery Park, the twang n burr country rocking title track duet with Deborah Kelly and the stripped down speak-sing acoustic ache of Broken Hearts where two shattered hearts may just make one whole. And if there's desolation seeping from the pores of Hallway, The Longer You Wait and the broken lives documented on Always The Ride, there's also a sense of connection - however brief - filtering through the likes of Polaroid where the bartender pins a photo on the wall and time is frozen in a moment of happiness, Barely Losing where the couple walk the railway tracks at 5am in a moment of calm between the storm gathering around or Allison Johnson with its hopes of a family future. Amid tales of loss and absence, of loneliness and disappointment, rising up from the squalls of electric guitars on Hallway or filtering through the cracks in the quiet of the closing instrumental Valediction, there is a chink of light seeping from the hearts of those who hang on to the hope, or as on the broodingly intense and oppressive seven minute Williamette, a missing brother's leather boots, horse shoe chain and unsent letters, that perhaps somehow you can sit on the banks of a polluted river and, just maybe, piece together lives in a better time, a better place. Pretty damn stunning really.


Mike Davies

Tommy Rickard - Dream California (Own Label)

Raised in Northern California, Rickard's graduated from punk rock, glam, metal power pop and alt country alongside session drummer work with the likes of Linda Perry, Michelle Shocked, and Christina Aguilera to arrive at his debut solo album.

When a move to LA brought a year of tough times, he picked up a guitar and started writing. For inspiration he drew on the music of his youth, a mix of California surf guitar, Johnny Cash, Beach Boys and Eagles alongside such other diverse influences as the Stones and The Verve. You'll certainly hear Jagger and co hanging out with the Jayhawks on the opening strut n twang of Make You Mine while a stew of Ryan Adams, Eagles, Wilco and Yoakam can be found bubbling on numbers like the sun-stroked easy rolling title track, Roll On and Who Would You Be? And if he doesn't mention Petty you can still find hints in Company We Keep.

He meanders somewhat on the drawled Dylan titled mid-tempo Tell Me What You Want and the Velvets coloured Give In goes nowhere in particular, but Jackie's a prime slice of Skynyrd stadium anthemics and the Waiting winds things up in a loping TexMex cantina with brushed snare and accordion.

A journeyman's album in the best sense, it won't make him an overnight star but it's a good first step along the path.


Mike Davies September 2010

Mia Riddle - Tigers

She's enigmatic, is Ms. Riddle. This beautifully presented cd is illustrated, not with a photo of the artist, but with cartoonish pictures of people in oversized animal masks: a reference to the title track which itself is oblique in its meaning. Information on the cover is limited to song titles, and musician/production credits. A website address is the only, indirect, invitation to find out more about this intriguing performer. When I looked up miariddle.com I was absolutely astonished to discover she's a New York-based Californian. Everything about her singing and songwriting sounds British to me - the accent and the style seem entirely so, and it was only the occasional lyrical reference that had made me wonder if she might be Canadian. She describes her songs as "indie-torch", and several reviewers have described the sound as rock. Well the band can clearly rock if they want to, but she started as a solo acoustic performer, and, really, the band is embellishing that basic sound without drowning it. Just as well, because her voice and singing style - a kind of fractured delicacy - would be lost if her band was less sensitive and restrained. Her lyrics, not always easily deciphered, seem to discuss a young woman's life in oblique but thoughtful terms, a sense of detachment generally pervading things, so not really the kind of overblown emotion that I, for one, would associate with "torch" songs. That delicacy in the singing and playing, however, is spun around a core of steel - the songs don't seem to have hooks, exactly, but nonetheless become distinctively memorable, each with it's mood built up from deceptively simple elements. Good stuff, then, maybe a Janis Ian for a new generation.


John Davy January 2007

Riders In The Sky - Public Cowboy # 1: A Centennial Salute To The Music Of Gene Autry (Rounder)

Riders In The Sky are described as the modern-day standard-bearers of the grand and sweeping western music tradition, and here proudly celebrate the music and career of "singing cowboy" Gene Autry, veteran of countless films, radio, TV and other appearances. Closest thing to a Gene Autry tribute band, they perform Gene's theme song (Back In The Saddle Again), together with all the classics associated with or loved by Gene (Ridin' Down The Canyon, The Last Roundup, Sioux City Sue, You Are My Sunshine etc), in properly authentic fashion. The Riders remain true to the classic Autry sound which both swings and croons, and their assorted vocal and instrumental capabilities enable them to recreate that sound to absolute perfection. The CD comes complete with affectionate and accurately detailed notes on the songs and their context within Autry's career, so if this is your bag then go saddle up right now…


David Kidman October 2007

Ridgeriders @ Tower Arts Centre, Winchester - 1st February 2001

I'm amazed that nobody has posted a review of the Ridgeriders mini-tour yet. Even considering the mighty talents involved, it looks like many people ignored the tour - not all venues have been sold-out. Oh ye fools! OK, so the Ridgeriders TV program has a limited broadcast spread (Meridian, the southern England commercial channel and some satellite channels) and even if you can see the programmes, you often get less than a full song, notwithstanding the fact that they were purposely written to be short and punchy for TV.

But the Ridgeriders album (HTD Records) is a magnificent collection of 'modern' folk songs, some with acoustic instruments, some with a full band (the Albion Band plus Julie Matthews). Live, it was just Chris While, Phil Beer and Ashley Hutchings. Come on folks! If this was the 1970s, that would be a supergroup of major proportions.

This was a purely acoustic tour. The yellow min-van wouldn't have been full and more than half the space that actually was used would be taken up by Phil's guitars, fiddle, mandoline, mandocellos, etc. Chris had two acoustic guitars, Ashley just one acoustic bass. With such stripped-down accompaniment, the songs and the singing could be heard in their glory. Ashley's lyrics provide a link between the historic tradition and the present day and Chris and Phil's melodies have the simplicity and beauty of the best traditional folk tunes. Some of the vocal harmonies between Chris and Phil were so amazing, I found myself holding my breath as if I didn't want anything to intercept the sound waves heading my way.

The performers were seated throughout, 'like sitting in their front room' as Ashley said. They swopped introductions to the songs, including often hilarious stories about the making of the programmes and they were all clearly getting a kick out of singing and playing with each other. They played most of the songs from the album, in the latter part of the tour dropping the Dorset Cursus from the set (much to my sadness, it being one of my highlights from the album). They added a couple of instrumentals, including the theme tune to the TV programme (an old Albion tune - Up The Crooked Spire) and they played six or seven new songs, most of which will be performed in the new six-part series which will be broadcast on Meridian from around the end of May.

The new songs were every bit as good as on the album, especially Ill Omens, Tan Hill Fair, I Am A Humble Bridge and a fantastic set closer, the unaccompanied These High And Wild Places. A comment from Phil at one gig showed they were recording the shows - we can but hope they are considering a live album. Ashley also said that they have enough material for a follow-up studio album but they haven't decided if they'll do one yet. Finally, Chris suggested the possibility of another Ridgeriders tour next year.

If some or all of these come to pass, well, only then will you truly crazy people who missed this tour get the chance to experience the aural ecstasy of Chris While, Phil Beer and Ashely Hutchings.


Martin Drury

Rachel Ries - For You Only (Waterbug)

Rachel hails from the "inspiring, vast expanses" of South Dakota, but has now relocated to Chicago's west side. For You Only is her second CD, as far as I can make out; her first, Shrine, came out in 2000, and her other past accomplishments include work with members of the Goldmine Pickers, and more recently with Anaïs Mitchell and the songwriters-in-the-round package Tin Pan Caravan. Rachel's one of the less immediately classifiable singer-songwriters; although she was classically trained (voice, piano, violin and viola), her present mode of expression stems mostly from stripped-down country/Americana, but with an intimacy and delicacy of personal thought that the more world-weary s/s of that sub-genre don't tend to achieve. Rachel's singing voice is sweet (though not sickly) and very often tinged with a true sadness, as befits her songs; these are at their most effective when they creatively juxtapose simple poetic imagery with personal truths and disturbing reflections which then lead back to equally disturbing concrete images, as on Sad Saturday and Summer Came, A Warning. There's often a sinister overtone to the ostensibly idyllic reminiscences that lace Rachel's songs, indeed, as We'll All Be The Same proves, and there's a discreet intelligence at work here. But all of Rachel's songs have something special to say in their appealingly minimalist way, and her simple and affecting guitar work is boosted just that little bit - and in just the right measure - by some extra banjo, fiddle, guitar, pump organ, accordion, piano and gentle percussion (Andru Bemis, Drew Lindsay and Mike Reeb). The production's also suitably down-home and intimate, lending a really special atmosphere to Rachel's supremely economic creations. A strange and stimulating release.


David Kidman

Amy Rigby - Little Fugitive (Signature Sounds)

Another album another label. Three now deleted albums and an anthology haven't yet overcome public indifference to establish Rigby as the rightful queen of single parent fortysomething pop, but hopefully this might go some way to edging her a few steps closer to the throne. "I'm like Raspuutin I keep coming back" she sings on the opening Rasputin, a defiant message of self-affirmation that also sets the scene for the album's bright, melodic pop and smart lyrics. Not unfamiliar with divorce and remarriage as the former Mrs Will Rigby, she surely draws on personal experience when she sings of her new husband's annoyingly nice ex-wife ("she's hugging me instead of stabbing my back") on the perfect 60s tumbling pop chorus of The Trouble With Jeannie.

Oh yes, she knows her way around a catchy tune all right. It's hard to stop your feet itching to Dancing With Joey Ramone, a strutting fizzy sherbert fuzzy guitar and handclaps retro punk pop gem that namechecks such Nuggets nuggets as Needles and Pins, Gloria, Be My Baby and He Hit Me And It Felt Like a Kiss, while the witty Needy Men skips along on a classic Tin Pan Alley rhythm and It's Not Safe? chugs along on a plinketty Mersey beat. She knows her record collection too, borrowing from Tomorrow Never Knows for the intro to So You Know Now while, having earlier namechecked 60s garage psychedelic r&b crew Shadows of Knight, I Don't Wanna Talk About Love pens its own fan letter to their sound.

Soured love's a popular theme here, but like Year of the Fling and the chimingly wonderful mid-tempo Girls Got It Bad (think Tracy Ullman singing Weezer) she's obviously not one to mope in misery or self-pity. Well, okay, except for Always With Me that is. But, as epitomised by her first ever cover, Lenny Kaye's 60s folk-pop The Things You Leave Behind (which sounds a lot like old Grassroots hit Where Were You When I Needed You?), she knows that whatever bruises unfulfilling affairs and knotted memories may throw at her, in the end she'll make it to the end of the line with a legacy of friends and songs left behind. This is definitely one for the memory box.


Mike Davies

Amy Rigby - Til The Wheels Fall Off (Signature Sounds)

On this showing, it'll be quite a while til the wheels fall off Amy's wagon - for, having migrated from the sprawling Koch empire to the reputable and healthily adventurous independent label Signature Sounds, Amy's turned in yet another great set, following on from the consistent excellence of The Sugar Tree, Middlescence and Diary Of A Mod Housewife in archetypal Amy Rigby fashion. In other words, vital power-acoustic with attitude and more than a dash of pop sensibility in the production, although this time round the acoustic instruments are a fair bit more upfront generally within the overall mix and the retro-sixties feel marginally less to the fore. The recordings for this new album were made in different studios, with different co-producers, yet the whole album has a striking aural consistency that parallels its artistic consistency. Amy demonstrates once again just how honest and level-headed a songwriter she is too, and there's no weak track on this new collection. At once highly worldly and sensitive, Amy's wittily perceptive writing still ranges as wide as ever, from the cheeky, spiky humour of the cutting-but-fun Are We Ever Gonna Have Sex Again? to the often painful home truths of Don't Ever Change, which examines a time-honoured theme but with a fresh poignancy. There's sometimes a gentler, almost reflective feel to this new album, at least compared with the more directly smart, street-wise cracks that characterise many of Amy's earlier songs, where she needed to make her points real fast. Having said that, neither has she lost any of her innate gift for catchy wordplay or equally catchy melodic hooks.


David Kidman

Amy Rigby - 'Til The Wheels Fall Off (Spit And Polish)

Ain't she just a girl! The records of Amy Rigby have always shown a nifty line in tunes but it's the lyrics that get you. Her perceptions have an ability to amuse with their 'been there, seen that' take on relationships. One might ask why she exposes her innermost feelings to the listening public or, as she puts it, 'why do I pull wings off butterflies, look for things that hurt my eyes, I kiss the boys but I'm the one that cries'. With a feel for lyrics like that, you can imagine that there is plenty to entertain here. Add that to music that is strong enough to attract players who normally line up with Lucinda Williams, John Prine or Buddy and Julie Miller and you have an all round top quality record. So, the gist of it is that she can't stop 'Shopping Around' for her fellas which she'll probably do 'Til The Wheels Off' or she puts on her 'Breakup Boots'. Looking round for that elusive 'perfect' man, she wonders (on 'O'Hare') why he talks to her 'like he's handling the Dead Sea scrolls'. You'll find that when she gets her fella nailed down, she might wonder 'Are We Ever Going To Have Sex Again' or beg that he 'Don't Ever Change'. Later, the sight of an old lover might cause her to say 'Here We Go Again' as she gets a rush of blood to the head (and elsewhere). Ultimately, she's hoping for that moment of 'All The Way To Heaven' mixed with an ability to 'Believe In You'. It's marvellous observational stuff that will have you thinking, yes, been there, recognise that. Some will argue that she's covered the ground before but there is, after all, plenty of ground to cover. Furthermore, 'Til The Wheels Fall Off' indicates that Amy travels this ground with increasing style.


Steve Henderson

Amy Rigby - 18 Again (Koch)

An anthology it says on the cover in the small print, which given she's not exactly been able to retire on her previous three (now deleted) albums' sales, will serve as a useful calling card to the criminally indifferent mass public and A&R men now that she's been dumped by the label. If Sheryl Crow or Alanis were single parent thirtysomethings playing pop, country and folk then they might be Rigby, the ex wife of dB's drummer Will who made her debut in 1996 with the critically acclaimed bohemian domesticity insights of Diary Of A Mod Housewife and her grown up songs about being a grown up woman living a life surrounded by arseholes who can't see past her breasts.

There's half a dozen cuts from Diary here, among them Beer And Kisses, the brilliant blue collar love song duet with John Wesley Harding, along with the best numbers from Middlescene and Sugar Tree, of which The Summer of My Wasted Youth where she sings of "Summertime of '83. The last time I took LSD. But listening to Patsy Cline and Skeeter Davis really blew my mind and Balls with its great lin, "You've got a lot of balls, you don't even care. Wish I could grow a pair," are certified dyed-in-the-wool classics. In addition to culling her three albums, there's the obligatory bonus numbers. Not, unfortunately, quite the treasure trove that the blurb on the sleeve leads you to expect since the previous unreleased songs and demos turn out to be just one of each, a plaintive acoustic guitar and vocal demo of Magicians (where she conjures thoughts of an earthier Melanie) and 2000's outtake Keep It To Yourself, a Suzanne Vega sounding bitter ballad in which she gives the name, address, car make and pager number of the guy who screwed her up to her new macho boyfriend. It's a wonderful slice of adult anti-romance that makes Ms Morrisette sound like someone throwing her toys out of the playpen. Give this woman a deal and make her world famous someone.


Mike Davies

(Ed: We are happy to report that all three of the Amy Rigby albums Mike Davies refers to as deleted are now available to download in their entirety - legitimately too - from emusic.com)

Amy Rigby - The Sugar Tree (Koch)

Amy's previous two albums (Diary Of A Mod Housewife and Middlescence) displayed a distinct progression and increasing maturity. The Sugar Tree, however, seems - at any rate on first few plays - to represent a marking-time stage rather than an further artistic development per se. Nothing wrong with that, as it's still streets ahead of most of the contemporary singer-songwriter product that comes our way with the backing of a more substantial promotional budget. So perhaps The Sugar Tree is just a brilliant consolidation of Amy's distinctive talent for writing hard-hitting and perceptive songs with real attitude and insidiously, definitively catchy hooks, given driving and inventive arrangements that display an acute pop sensibility. In all these respects, the nearest comparison I can muster is our own feisty Thea Gilmore……. (Check out the acoustic You Get To Me, so aptly followed by the acerbic Balls, for instance.)

Production duties have this time fallen to bassist Brad Jones, who has taken the sound a mite closer to country at times, supplanting the more obviously retro commercial pop gloss of Elliot Easton who produced Amy's first two albums. Perhaps the incursions into doo-wop and Jerry Lee territory are a bit over-the-top and constitute minor artistic misjudgements, but otherwise the musical references are appropriate and spot-on. The darkly and deceptively demure, provocatively low-lit cover shots of Amy mirror her music (and perhaps this album in particular), in that further careful inspection reveals a considerable degree of subtlety at work therein. Consolidation it may be, but this is still a damn superb album.


David Kidman

Tom Rigney & Flambeau - Off The Hook (Parhelion Records)

Tom Rigney and the members of Flambeau are well known blues/Cajun/zydeco artists in the USA and this, their ninth album and first since 2004's A Blue Thing, is one of the reasons why. They open up with the promising My Baby, a smooth swinging blues that highlights vocal harmony amongst many other attributes. Rigney unleashes his fiddle on the eponymous title track which is a fast paced Southern country style instrumental that has him and guitarist Danny Caron trading licks a plenty. Never Let You Take It Away is classic country and is competent enough if not my kettle of fish. Forbidden Fruit is another fiddle led instrumental, well played but lacks excitement. He's back into old fashioned country again on Let Me Be Your Fool Tonight but this one is saved by the good interplay between fiddle and guitar. Having Caron on guitar is a bit of a coup as he was bandleader for the great bluesman Charles Brown for twelve years. La Porte En Arriere (The Back Door) is unashamedly Cajun class. Rigney's roots start to show on Farewell Waltz but where he says he has Irish roots I feel that this is straight out of Scottish country dance music. Nevertheless, a great tune for a celeidh. It's Cajun again for Cocodril Stomp and its infectious feel just makes you want to dance. I could do without the country tacks such as I Won't Be Sad Tonight but each to their own, I suppose. Back to business on Pont De Vue and although this isn't as good as the other Cajun tracks it's still a better class than Tom's country offerings. The band slips back into the blues with the atmospheric instrumental Insomnia. This is a moody fiddle led song that keeps up the high standard of the back end of the album. Thankfully, Tom chooses a Cajun finish with Tes Parents Veulent Plus Me Voir, which my schoolboy translation comes up as Your Parents Want To See Me More (I'm sure that someone will correct me). Excellent way to finish and I've only got two complaints more Cajun and more vocals!


David Blue, July 2006

Rig The Jig - Live In Dublin (DVD & CD) (Toucan Cove/Universal)

Last year I reviewed a CD by The Baileys, which contained straightforward yet highly satisfying performances of best-known Irish songs by two of the members of Rig The Jig, Michael Banahan and Anthony McDermott. Here we find those two same musicians captured in finest fettle and fine company back in the fold of the full eight-piece band, all shoehorned into a long straight line on the notoriously skimpy stage at Dublin's famous Wexford Street venue, Whelan's, on a rainy night last December.

It was a tremendous gig, one which showed exactly why Rig The Jig have such a fearsome reputation, where they presented an often quite unpredictable and sometimes unashamedly off-the-beaten-track choice of material (at least in Irish music terms), eclectically encompassing anything from Irish trad to Lennon & McCartney, with a generous helping of classy (and classic) roots Americana along the way. In fact, I could best liken Rig The Jig to an Irish version of a Transatlantic Sessions team, primarily string-band-based with much mando mastery alongside two guitars, banjo, fiddle, whistle/uilleann pipes and bass/keyboard, and all in glorious celebration of their chosen music.

But they're not just a bunch of top-grade high-octane belt-it-out session-tunesmiths, although (as the opening Lark In The Morning set demonstrates) they can adopt that role with consummate and wholly enviable ease. That particular set at first seems so breakneck it almost threatens to derail on a couple of the corners, but the octopus is in fact firmly in control of all its moving parts and the ride is invigorating and intensely enthralling to say the least. A similar edge-of-the-seat reaction is engendered by virtually all of the gig's purely instrumental items, especially the Jackie Coleman's Set which is led by the horns and steered along its perilous course by young Aoife Kelly's ferociously assured fiddle playing, and Ian Kinsella's utterly brilliant banjo-driven rendition of The Moving Cloud. And yet they can slacken the pace credibly too, as when mandolinist Brendan Emmett chips in with a gorgeously deliquescent own-composition A Song For Molly for which he takes up the acoustic guitar.

All the individual components of Rig The Jig's arrangements weave their own vital magic, from Noel Carberry's intense, keen whistle playing and hauntingly phrased piping to Paul Gurney's fluent and adaptable keyboard and electric bass work, Aoife's incredibly exciting (and yet flawlessly executed) bow strokes to the unerring pulse of Anthony's guitar and Brendan's rippling mandolin fills. Highlights come thick and fast, inevitably so on the various showcases for individual band members (Aoife's spellbinding rendition of Monti's Czardas - not trad by the way, as credited! - which effortlessly twists into The Mason's Apron; Noel's whistle extravaganza The Sandymount Set; and Paul's excursion into high-speed Chaplinesque barroom-ragtime on The Showman's Fancy).

But arguably even more so with some of the vocal numbers, which comprise 12 out of the 21 items on the DVD. Half of them are taken by Michael, and include well-considered takes on songs by John Prine and Townes Van Zandt and a surprisingly finely-wrought Let It Be. Four contrasted songs are taken by the excellent Patricia Lane, who has a supreme command of the more upfront style of Irish singing with an attack and timbre that uncannily reminds me of Anna Shannon, especially on her passionate rendition of Briege Murphy's Clohinne Winds, another set highlight. Patricia also tackles the Patti Page classic Tennessee Waltz, Ola Belle Reed's High On A Mountain and the traditional Pretty Fair Maid (aka As I Roved Out), whereas Aoife brings her own confident (if distinctly pop-inflected) brand of singing to Radiohead's High And Dry and George Michael's Faith (the encore, for which she inexplicably decided to don a jacket!).

The recorded sound is top-quality, the camerawork sensible and undistracting (if at times focussing a touch adrift of the principals), and the energy and enjoyment of the performers very well caught (although clearly a lot of banter has been edited out). The accompanying 70-minute CD gives us audio-verité of 16 of the DVD's 21 tracks, in the same sequence (tho' pity it omits High On A Mountain). You really can't resist Rig The Jig's uplifting, energetic and supremely controlled performance, nor can you carp at their at times wilful-seeming eclecticism when it's all so persuasively done as this.


David Kidman July 2010

Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys - Best Of Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys (Rounder/Decca)

Perhaps the most surprising thing about this 2CD set is that it comes from a band that has been making music for two decades. Adjectives like retrospective and even 'Best of' somehow seem to mundane to be applied to an album that is fresh and exhilarating.

When it's played with such joy, then surely no genre can match the atmosphere created by the Cajun rhythms and passion. It may well be fanciful but you can almost smell and taste hot, exotic spices as Steve Riley and his appropriately-named Mamou Playboys launch their assault on all the senses. But while Cajun music may be at its best when it's accompanied by an explosion of electricity, at its best it's still built on solid foundations and Riley carries the best traditions of the genre with him in this collection.

The band gets the part started with the distinctly Gallic-flavoured Tiens Bons ( Hold On) and right from the first notes of Riley's accordion and the fiddle of David Greely, the hook is in for good. In fact the three Grammy nominations the band has received over its career quickly seem scant reward for such wonderful entertainment.

Too much rich food, however tasty, soon dulls the palate and, in that two decade career, Riley has perfected the art of introducing a myriad of shades, Menteur (Liar) is heavy and sultry while Katherine is enchantingly and touchingly simple.

This delicately blended stew of Cajun, Zydeco, Creole and swamp-rock is also irresistibly romantic, you don't have to speak French to know that the likes of Katherine is about love and, on the off chance it's not, it does a pretty convincing imitation.

While it's all too easy and tempting to become blinded by the headlights of exotica that Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys seem able to summon up at will, Pointe aux Chenes (Oak Point) is down-to-earth, honest, gutsy, bluesy rock n roll. This is a band that is as capable of grinding it out, as it is of weaving together the threads of Vini, Jille (Come Jille) or touching the listener's soul with La Toussaint (All Saint's Day).

In the collision of styles that creates the magic, the skill and talent of the musicians could well be overlooked but for Riley, Greely, Sam Broussard, Brazos Huval and Kevin Dugas to have this much fun they have to be very, very good or else it all falls apart and quickly. The Lawrence Walker Medley, which opens CD2 is the perfect showcase for their respective talents, there may be no lyrics but the effect is equally stunning. Riley also finds room for a little slice of good-old fashioned country. Close your eyes during Lover's Waltz and you're instantly whisked back a couple of centuries.

There is an initial attraction to the music of Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys simply because it represents a completely different, brighter and more appealing culture. Were that all, the novelty would surely soon wear off. However, this stunning collection will be long-remembered for all the right reasons, its sense of fun, its heart, its intelligence, the towering talents of the various musicians involved but most of all because it makes you feel glad to be alive.


Michael Mee September 2008

Jason & The Scorchers - Halcyon Times (JCPL)

I well remember when JATS burst on the scene 27 years ago with their rebel rousing, tear it up cover of Absolutely Sweet Marie, swiftly consolidating with accompanying album Fervor and follow up Lost & Found and such alt country rocking and Southern honky tonk diamonds as Hot Nights In Georgia, Harvest Moon, Broken Whiskey Glass, Blanket of Sorrow and Shop It Around.

Despite songs like Golden Ball And Chain and Bible And A Gun, they never again managed to produce albums of such sustained brilliance and excitement and, while they never officially disbanded, there's been little evidence of them since the 1998 live set Midnight Roads & Stages. Indeed, rhythm section Perry Baggs and Jeff Johnson are no longer part of the intermittent line-up.

However, 14 years on from Clear Impetuous Morning, guitarist Warren E. Hodges has persuaded frontman Jason Ringenberg back into the studio alongside new players Al Collins and Pontus Snibb for an album that, if it doesn't actually contain any stone classics, does go quite a way to recapturing old glories.

They can still rip it up with a frantic rock n rolling pace, ably demonstrated on the opening Moonshine Guy and its Releasing Celtic Prisoners rowdy jig midsection, the vintage Southern country cowpunk Mona Lee with its 19th Nervous Breakdown riffs, bluesy swagger Deep Holy Water and the breakneck Getting Nowhere Fast. Elsewhere, Land Of The Free keeps the muscle pumped but takes the tempo down to a Neil Young electric bluesy burn and Days Of Wine And Roses jangles with soaring memories of The Byrds.

The album also serves reminder that the band can turn on the keening high lonesome ballad with the best of them. Listen to the plaintive ache of Beat On The Mountain miner's lament and Mother Of Greed which traces the Ringenberg family history from the coal seams and factory closures of 1910 North Wales to contemporary Alabama.

More than anything, though, crackling with their live energy and the volume cranked up loud, it makes you want to pull on your jeans, grab a beer and raise hell. And such legacies are worth cherishing.


Mike Davies February 2010

Jason Ringenberg - Best Tracks and Side Tracks 1979-2007 (Jerkin' Crocus)

What it says on the tin, basically. A gathering of recording by Ringenberg culled from both Jason & the Scorchers and his solo releases. Except it's not strictly the originals, since he's reworked or remastered some of the material. Which, means it's not cheating completists who want the rare stuff but already have everything else.

As you'll likely know, Ringenberg's staple musical diet is rebel rock country with gunslinger guitars, yeehaw vocals and basic good time tunes interleaved with more melancholic balladry. And it's well served here. The Best Tracks set opens with a rework and rewrite of Scorchers classic Shop It Around which works well unlike the new slower bluegrass version of Broken Whiskey Glass with The Woodbox Gang. Along the way you get re-recording of Life Of The Party (because he couldn't licence songs from One Foot In The Honky Tonk), and a remix of Farmer Jason's Punk Rock Skunk. Otherwise, the rest of the disc, featuring such tracks as Steve Earle duet Bible and the Gun, Wildhearts collaboration One Less Heartache, She Hung The Moon, Born To Run (the Paul Kennerly one not Springsteen's) and Chief Joseph's Last Dream are all taken from the original recordings and sound, for the most, as fresh as the day they were minted.

Side Tracks is a rather more uneven proposition. Personally curated by Ringenberg, it's a set of rarities, some of which (a rockabilly pre-Scorchers Help There's A Fire, Who's Gonna Feed Them Hogs?, rejected for a Tom T Hall tribute as being 'horrid' and the 'eccentric' Lovely Christmas with Kristi Rose in which he clatters a punk chorus between the crooned verses) should probably have remained so. But you do get a little more Webb Wilder for your money on the Farmer Jason meets Sam The Sham Moose On The Loose, a live honky tonk weepie version of Cappuccino Rose, a fine live radio show take cover of John Prine's Paradise with RB Morris and Tom Roznowski sharing verses, and a hitherto unreleased The Sailor's Eyes which ranks with the best stuff he's ever done. Interesting, but probably not the best place for newcomers to begin.


Mike Davies May 2008

Farmer Jason - Rockin In The Forest (Laughing Outlaw Records)

Children are just like any other listener, serve them up patronising rubbish and they'll smell it a mile away. But, as Rockin' In The Forest shows, the reverse is also true.

It helps that Farmer Jason is the alter ego of one Jason Ringenberg, the Jason of Jason and the Scorchers, the inspiration behind the fusion of punk rock and country that became known as 'cowpunk'.

Rockin In The Forest may be primarily aimed at children, the idea coming from Ringenberg's own two children, but it goes way beyond the archetypal simplistc children's album, it's a thrilling, funny, optimistic ride. Farmer Jason hasn't quite cast off his energetic, slightly rebellious former self, Punk Rock Skunk does not come from any Disney film I've seen But back to the children, what kid wouldn't want to be a part of Oppossum In A Pocket and He's A Moose Loose on the Loose, on which Todd Snider lends a (farm) hand.

But it's the manner in which Ringenberg goes about being Farmer Jason as much as anything. He hasn't treated this as some amusing side project. If all he did was this, he'd still be a lot better than most.

There's a slightly anarchic engagement about the album, Farmer Jason slips easily into the role of naughty older brother.

And while the kids are sure to be delighted by tales of woodland animals set to rock n roll. The older 'children' can sit back and enjoy the intelligent wit that Ringenberg has poured into the album plus that that their kids are being 'exposed' to the very best music, has to offer. Not only is Rockin' In The Forest hugely entertaining, it's the best musical start in life you can offer . What parent wouldn't want to do that.


Michael Mee April 2007

Jason Ringenberg - Empire Builders (Spit & Polish)

Following his kiddie album as Farmer Jason, the former Scorchers frontman returns to grown up concerns with this album about the nightmare that has overtaken the American Dream. Drawing on his own experiences as an American abroad encountering the attitudes and reactions these times of Bushwhacking foreign policy have spawned, such songs as the tuba oompahing marching beat New-Fashioned Imperialist, the mournful Chief Joseph's Last Dream and a moody swampy Tuskegee Pride variously addressing the new brand of ugly American, the betrayal of the Native American and the despicable treatment of the African-American fighter pilots who could go off and fight for freedom but were still denied civil rights back home.

It's not a hectoring approach though, the clanking American Question may note that his nation can bomb other lands to hell and then send them Big Macs but it does so with dry lyrical and musical wit while the good ole boy rousing Rebel Flag in Germany recalls his embarrassment at seeing the Confederate flag flying over a building in central Germany, with all the resonances that it carries. And it's hard not to note the bitter irony that underscores the inclusion of his cover of Merle Haggard's naive vision of a postwar unit in Rainbow Stew.

It's not all diatribe. Jim Roll's contribution, Eddie Rode The Orphan Train is a hymn to human dignity, She Hung The Moon (Until It Died) a simple love song (or allegory about America?), Half The Man a tribute to his father and the rock n roll growling guitar driven Link Wray is, as you might have guessed, about, er Link Wray.

It's probably not his most commercial release nor, musically his strongest, but, closing with a live recording of American Reprieve where, over a jazz drum and upright bass backing, he speaks a poem of hope that America may yet find peace with itself and by extension the rest of the world, it's clearly his most passionately felt.


Mike Davies

Jason Ringenberg - A Day At The Farm With Farmer Jason (Yep Roc)

Well here's something different. One for the country kiddies, this is a children's bluegrass singalong album with Ringenberg putting the straw between his teeth, pulling on the dungarees and taking the sprogs on a tour of the farm and its animals, y'all. Each song gets a spoken introduction in good old Texas Play School fashion and lyrically they're all around pre-school standard as Jase gives us The Doggie Dance, He's A Hog Hog Hog and Little Kitty. But musically it's all down home bluegrass and Texas country rock n roll with - as on The Tractor Goes Chug Chug Chug - the sort of twangy guitars and rebel rouser melodies you'd expect from a 'normal' Ringenberg set while A Guitar Pickin' chicken is pure Western Swing and Hey Little Lamb a rousing fiddle driven dance tune. If your kidlets are a bit young for moonshine parties and honky tonk weekends, this is a good way to keep 'em country in those dangerous S Club 8 and Tweenie years.


Mike Davies

Jason Ringenberg - All Over Creation (Spit & Polish)

It's been a while since Jason and The Scorchers burst on the Nashville scene in the mid 80s touted as country rock's next big thing. It was never going to be of course, they were far too Southern rock n roll rebel rousers for that, but before they fell apart they'd notched up some great tracks, among them Broken Whiskey Glass, Blanket Of Sorrow, Hot Nights In Georgia and their tear it up versions of Absolutely Sweet Marie and Lost Highway. Following a reunion in 91 they've continued an intermittent career alongside Ringenberg's solo work. With the band currently on another extended hiatus, it's in that capacity he's over here promoting All Over Creation (Spit & Polish), an album of duets and collaborations that include a Civil War themed rework of Steve Earle's Bible And A Gun with the man himself handling duties for the second verse.

Belying the man's yes ma'am gentleman personality, it's a collection of hell raising honky tonking beer jug of rockabilly, Western swing, bluegrass, and punk country that opens up with a Creedence Clearwater styled Honky Tonk Maniac From Mars featuring Hamell On Trial and goes on to introduce such other notable guests as BR549 for a yeehawing fiddle waltzing cover of Loretta Lynn's Don't Come Home A Drinkin' (With Lovin' On Your Mind), Paul Burch helping out on his own train rhythm stomper The Sun Don't Shine, Erin's Seed (another Civil War story about Irish immigrants who died on both sides at the battle of Fredericksburg) with Lambchop, the witty rockabilly slapper James Dean Car duet with Todd Snider and, bourbon shots fully charged, a great teaming with The Wildhearts for One Less Heartache. Perhaps one of the best collaborations though is the good timing mountain music work out of I Dreamed My Baby Came Home (written by the unlikely combination of George Jones and Johnny Mathis) with the little known Pulp Country husband and wife duo Kristi Rose and Fats Kaplin.


Mike Davies

Luke Ritchie - The Water's Edge (Angel Falls)

A London based singer-songwriter, when an EP deal fell through Ritchie decided to record a song and week, posting each of them as podcasts. After six months, he'd racked up 8500 downloads. The podcasts eventually reached the ears of Nico Muhly, the classical composer who'd previously worked with Björk and Anthony & the Johnsons. They began working together, turning the sketches into fully formed songs, Muhly composing pieces for five of the songs, arranging the material and playing the piano and harmonium.

The two opening numbers, the moody atmospheric Lighthouse and the more gutsy Shanty, have echoes of John Martyn with jazz vocalist Nia Lynn adding an extra dimension, but then the bluesy Cover It Up introduces Paul Simon into the Martyn mix while the spirit of Nick Drake informs the delicate Off Your Guard with its intricate fingerpicked guitar work as well as merging with the Simon echoes in Northern Lights.

Yet on piano and strings ballad Words, you might be more reminded of Peter Gabriel whereas Butterfly jogs along on a roots country shuffle driven by Ritchie on guitalele and Lonely Second is more straight ahead folk pop troubadour strum with catchy hooks and lively rhythm. Then, just to ring the changes again, Looking Glass devolves into an organ drone that's picked up in the ghostly desert moan that introduces the dark, introspective acoustic guitar traditional folk of Right There And Then's sudden self-awareness epiphany.

The lyrics reveal a poetic sensibility streaked with images of light, heat and the natural world and repay reading as well as hearing, and together with his delivery and melodies make this a a solid introductory calling card.


Mike Davies December 2011

Simon Ritchie & The Band That Time Forgot - Squeezebox Schizophrenia (X-Tradition)

I suppose that at first glance you could say this new release purports to be to the melodeon what the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain's Secret Of Life (also reviewed on NR) was to the humble uke. On it, the Posh Band's melodeonist is let loose to deliver, in the guise of his second solo album, a "compilation of requests that were recorded at home over a period of time" (Simon plays virtually all the instruments himself), comprising a series of highly individual "treatments" of an almost obscenely wide range of material, most of which traditionally wouldn't be associated with, or seen dead anywhere near, a melodeon! And that's aside from considerations arising from the intricacies of key transposition arising from the distinct limitations of the various members of the melodeon family – which I shouldn't need to go into… !

There's a few comparatively orthodox, and typically boisterous, selections – a brief step set (with the dancing feet of Lenny Whiting), a rousing version of Roving Gypsy (from the repertoire of Fred Whiting), the Eel's Foot classic Duck Foot Sue, and a variant of Edmund In The Lowlands Low (featuring Bob Davenport and Roger Digby). And an arrangement of a movement from Elgar's Nursery Suite. Outside of these tracks, though, Simon ventures into the hitherto uncharted (for the melodeon) territory of adapting pop and rock tunes. (Well I say uncharted, but I know Brian Peters had introduced certain Rolling Stones numbers into his folk club sets some time back.) Anyway, Simon does an amazing job in fitting these tunes round the keys of the melodeon, albeit with varying degrees of artistic success. But most of them come off without too much of a hint of artifice or excessive shoehorning.

The opening track, Move Over Darling, jars at first, and it takes a while to get used to Simon's cheerfully self-admitted vocal shortcomings at times on some tracks, but his forthright and sometimes irreverent approach has a kind of delirious Kirkpatrick-like charm amidst the lusty bluster, and you can't help but smile and/or join in with gusto. The old Searchers hit Sweets For My Sweet booms out as from a cavernous ceilidh-hall at the end of the dance when the band are too drunk to care whether anyone's still on the dance floor, pumping out that time-honoured Louie, Louie riff like nobody's business. And the Pistols' Anarchy In The UK (bet you never thought you'd hear that on a folk record!) is set to a loping, kinda doowop rhythm, but hey, it works! Other successes include Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah, but I wasn't quite convinced by Tangled Up In Blue or Tracks Of My Tears, and I felt The Rivers Of Babylon (originally recorded by the Melodians – sic ! – cute coincidence that!) outstayed its welcome. But let's not quibble – this CD really is enormous fun.


David Kidman

Josh Ritter - The Beast In Its Tracks (Yep Roc)

When Ritter released his last album, So Runs The World Away, he'd just got married yet, perhaps prophetically, a track titled The Curse explored the malignancy into which love can turn. By the time he came to record this follow-up, he'd got divorced, fallen in love again and become a father (as well as writing a novel), experiences that inevitably feed into the songs it contains.

Unlike many a break-up album, this isn't awash with vitriol and bitterness and while he tracks an arc of heartbreak he does so in largely even-handed manner. On the the tick tocking scurry of Evil Eye he moves from the 'someone must really have it in for him' stance of the wounded party to a realisation that he can't go around seeing bad in everyone because of his own experience. On Hopeful, his words tumbling out, the song documents the moment "the whole world stopped spinning and just went up in flames" and gets in a snide dig when he says how little love there was she packed in her bags as she left, but still acknowledges his wife's explanation that she wasn't the woman he thought he wanted. By the end of the song, he's met someone new who's had her own hard times and he's 'coming out of the dark clouds'.

As such, the songs are more about new love discovered than old love lost, even if, on the brief opener Third Army he declares "last night I saw someone with your eyes, someone with your smile' and on A Certain Light he qualifies "I'm happy for the first time in a long time" with "she only looks like you in a certain kind of light." Letting go may be necessary to move on, but it's obviously not easy for the wounds to fade. Even so, on the Dylanesque New Lover he's magnanimous to hope his ex finds someone else who makes her happy too, even if, he candidly adds "but if you're sad and you are lonesome and you've got nobody true, I'd be lying if I said that didn't make me happy too",

Inevitably, the album's subject matter's somewhat constrained by what he's been through but there's more than enough variation of emotion and observations for it not to feel like everything's on a lyrical repeat cycle while the likes of the tumbling Heart's Ease, the Paul Simon-like touches to the hiccupping Nightmares and a flurrying Bonfires, the jangly, echoey folk-pop In Your Arms Awhile and the hushed, fragile Lights ensure the music is also far from one note.

Considerably easier to listen to than your usual divorce album, which generally try and make you bleeds along with the singer's heart (though songs written immediately after the split he rejected as too poisoned), there's a loose, almost contemplative feel to things reflected in the mostly simple arrangements. "Joy to the many, joy to the few, joy to you baby, joy to me too", he sings. The album ensures it.


Mike Davies March 2013

Josh Ritter - The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter (V2)

Josh's fourth CD marks a striking development, even from the assured and increasingly confident writing on last year's offering The Animal Years. Its opener (To The Dogs Or Whoever) sets the tone, being a raw, exuberant parade of imagery set to a tumbling, skittering backdrop that seems just thrown together with little concern for nicety of arrangement – an impression that's accentuated on the second track, Mind's Eye. The whole record feels like an explosion of ideas rather than a collection of organised songs, which on first acquaintance isn't always necessarily a good feeling. There's at once a more expansive and more concentrated, cluttered feel to this new record, with significantly more ambitious instrumentation on some tracks; production's by Sam Kassirer, Josh's keyboard player, and other featured musicians include percussionist Liam Hurley and the Great North Sound Society Orchestra. It's interesting to learn that the lyrics were almost always written after the actual melodies were put down. As a general comment, when the sound is stripped down and opened out from the inside, as on the tender Still Beating and the amazing nuclear rumination The Temptation Of Adam, the songs are given room to breathe and make considerably more impact. The quirky nature of the arrangement on Next To The Last True Romantic threatens to spin out of control, but remains likeable, whereas a couple of drive-time pop tracks (Right Moves and Real Long Distance) seem out of place in Josh's world somehow. Ditto the somewhat irrelevant "Give-Peace-A-Chance-singalong" mix of Wait For Love that closes the disc. And at other times, as on Rumors, Josh seems almost obsessed with a McCartneyesque free spirit (Ram was apparently a major influence on Josh) and a desire for sonic obfuscation by layering on strings and horns; this all gives the imagery a heady, dizzying aroma that doesn't quite reflect the words used. Sure thing, there are some startling songs here, and yet the jury may still be out on whether this is Josh's finest hour, but there's no denying that he's produced a new record that, whatever its vagaries and imponderables, demands your undivided attention through its sheer ebullience. Even so, I'm not sure I'd class it as a conquest.


David Kidman November 2007

Josh Ritter - The Animal Years (V2)

His first since inking a major label deal, Ritter's latest rings a few changes in terms of both musical style and content. Produced by Brian Deck, tentpole producer of Chicago's alt-folk scene, it bears both a rougher musical edge and a more mainstream accessible approach while equally loading up with literary emboldened and lyrically hard hitting tracks (much inspired by the likes of Mark Twain and Thomas Jefferson) that reflect his anger and confusion at the current political state of his country.

Thus the opening Girl In The War is a chiming piece of weary Springsteenesque folk-pop about Iraq that reverses the usual man at the front girl back home scenario while Thin Blue Flame is a near ten minute track that unleashes his frustrations with the Bush administration, an absent God and the general self-destructive nature of a world where religious has become a battle cry for war while, as the song builds to a climax, trying to find the moments of hope to hold on to.

It's not all so earnest and righteously angry, Idaho is a simple largely unaccompanied hymn to his home state that evokes Springsteen's Nebraska and Young's Harvest while the rootsy old school Americana of a Dylan-like Lillian, Egypt and the train chugging rhythms of A Good Man offer relatively straightforward love songs.

But perhaps the two most accessibly radio friendly and best numbers here are Wolves and Monster Ballads. The latter, with its brushed snare and organ hum, sounds not a million miles from I'm On Fire, casting Ritter as a Springsteen from those nostalgia hued sepia days while the former (an animal image that also crops up in Idaho) is a joyous song of love recalled in time of duress, remembering "the time when we were dancing ....to a song that I'd heard. Your face was simple and your hands were naked, I was singing without knowing the words", while the wolves gather at the door.

"Tell me I got here at the right time" he sings on the closing emotional notes of Here At The Right Time. He did, he has.


Mike Davies, March 2006

Josh Ritter - Hello Starling (Setanta/Signature Sounds)

Tousled hair with looks somewhere between Jeff Buckley and Steve Forbert, the Idaho born Ritter's star is on the fast track. Two years on from the shoestring budget recording and self label release of his Golden Age of Radio debut, he's landed a label deal, had the title track featured over the end credits of Six Feet Under, been feted with glowing reviews, toured with such names as Beth Orton, Gillian Welch and Joan Baez, and sold out a headline tour of Ireland where his Me & Jiggs single made the Top 40.

Now comes his sophomore outing, recorded in old French dairy barn over the course of 14 days and produced by David Odlum who twiddled knobs for Gemma Hayes. The influences are clear; the young Greenwich Village folk singer Dylan and Don't Think Twice It's All right shining through You Don't Make It Easy Babe, the Springsteeneque touches of Man Burning, the haunting acoustic ballad Wings (already covered by Joan Baez on her new album) where Townes Van Zandt meets Leonard Cohen amid religious imagery and American gothic, the uplifting love after a long winter Snow Is Gone with its title line lyric and shades of John Prine while Bright Smile blends the fragile folk of Nick Drake with Cat Stevens.

But Ritter's far more than the sum of his references. A blessed with a warm and weary earthy voice and a gift for lilting, unassuming but infectious melodies he's also a superb poetic lyricist and storyteller, whether he's waiting around at a party to drive home the prettiest girl in Kathleen (very David Gray), observing the end of a relationship in The Bad Actress or getting metaphysical in the brilliant Bone Of Song whether he talks of the artist's desire for the song to be remembered even if the writer is forgotten.

A shimmering, confident, relaxed and emotion drenched album full of yearning for times to come, nostalgia for times lost and an awareness of the beauty of the moment, it confirms Ritter as one of those rare artists for whom the term timeless was created.


Mike Davies

The River Detectives - King of the Ghost Train Ride (Neon Tetra)

It's a staggering 13 years since Sam Corry and Dan O'Neill released sophomore album Elvis Has Left The Building, but, four years after calling it a day the Motherwell duo have got bak together and dragged themselves back into a studio to record a third. Not a huge amount has changed in the interim, they still make acoustic based folk pop about love and journeys both literal and emotional, rippling with catchy melodies and lines about, well, trains. And they're still pretty damn good too.

A mixture of old songs and new material, some are written about life on the road, some (the Simon & Garfunkle likeCapetown To Glasgow especially) about longing for home and some are very specific (Philip concerns a schoolfriend's suicide, I Love Your Love is about Corry's wife, Speedy Mullen's House of Fear relates to a dodgy Belfast IRA watering hole), but all of them testify to the strength of the writing and the harmonies that deliver them. To be honest, it's unlikely to return them to the heights they enjoyed with their silver selling debut album back in 1989, but if The Proclaimers can sustain a healthy career without the benefit of hit singles or albums, there's no reason why the likes of the catchy Blue Collar Love Song or the lovely country heartacher The Dance Is Over shouldn't ensure the river keeps flowing for a while yet.


Mike Davies

A. J. Roach - Revelation (Waterbug)

This is one of those exceptional and immediately impressive singer-songwriter albums that throws that hoary tag up into the air and waits to see where it might settle. A.J., though now based in San Francisco, was raised in Scott County, Virginia and steeped in that region's traditional mountain music, which lends a distinct urgency of expression and a particularly yearning, authentically heartfelt tone to his own compositions. You just know he means business when his piercing, drawling vocal grabs your ear right away against the driving, purposeful rhythms of the opening suicide-ballad Clinch River Blues. An altogether softer and funkier side to A.J's vocal technique comes through on the organ-drenched Devil May Dance (which with its introductory cooing harmonies in a curious way put me in mind also of CS&N), while the sparser, achingly ambivalent observations of Fashionistas really hit a spot and Streets Of Omaha is strikingly haunting. As are the wistful, poignant Weathervane and the tender Hazel Blue, both of which songs can only be described as intensely, delicately beautiful. Equally intense in its own way is the stark Freezing Car, which you can readily forgive for having a melody line sneakily similar to After The Goldrush! The gospel (as opposed to Gospel) permeates much of the album, but in particular A.J.'s unique take on southern gothic on the thumping sermon of the title track (which is full of weird little instrumental touches) and Chemicals, which cheekily but memorably paraphrases the 23rd Psalm for the benefit of alcoholics. A.J's instrumental accompaniments are lean and spare, yet ideally judged and absolutely classic, embracing fiddles, guitars, mandos, banjo and a host of other interesting textures. In summary, this abundantly honest and extraordinarily compelling album, which turns out to be only A.J's second release, is a revelation indeed: one which demands instant replay.


David Kidman March 2008

AJ Roach - Revelation (New Folkstar Records)

First time round, with "Dogwood Winter", I didn't really get AJ.'s thing; it was all a bit low-key and introspective for my taste. Well, now I can make up for lost time because "Revelation" has grabbed my attention in a big way. This man grew up with Appalachian folk and gospel music all around him, but flirted with rock and relocated to California before rediscovering his roots and started producing his own music springing directly from those roots."Revelation" opens with "Clinch River Blues", a suicide song in the fine tradition of all those old murder ballads, delivered with a pace and intensity that grips you tight, and you think to yourself that this guy means business. The guy in the song takes the notion of washing away your sins in the river to an extreme length and the religious imagery returns throughout the album, as does the self-loathing; the song "Chemicals" celebrates the healing power of whisky as it riffs on "The Lord Is My Shepherd":

"So whiskey's my shepherd/Oh and I shall not want/It maketh me lay down/ In a strange woman's bed/ It maketh me talk/ Out of both sides of my mouth/ Maketh me feel/ Like I'd be better off dead".

Whereas Dog wood Winter's songs tended to meld together with the similarity of their arrangements, here AJ's assembled some pals to colour in the background, and multitracked his vocals to give some depth to the performance. The big surprise is "Devil May Dance" which owes it's sound far more to Crosby Stills and Nash than to Appalachia, and is quite sumptious. Otherwise AJ's gift to us is to bring us elements of that mountain gospel music and the famed "high lonesome sound" without ever getting po-facedly "authentic" about it; for a tradition to live and breathe it needs writers and performers who are prepared to innovate from within the tradition.

The most impressive thing with this collection of songs is the immense care taken over the writing; he uses pretty strict rhyming schemes with his lyrics but the rhymes never seem to obstruct the flow of his story, but rather give it a rhythm that he emphasises with his singing. The words play tag with each other, too; a word will be re-used in a new context in successive phrases so that the listener's brain has got the rhythm of the rhyme as well as the rhythm of the repeated word to engage with. Clever, well-worked stuff that rewards close attention and many hearings.

"Revelation" is the closing song, and is a storming sermon on the subject of the day of judgement, when "every man is judged/ by what he's really worth". You don't have to share the creed to be impressed by the ferocity of the message, with the whole band going full tilt. Fantastic stuff, and well worth the three year wait. AJ's playing around Britain this October and November with Nels Andrews; can't wait, myself.


John Davy, October 2006

The Road Hammers - The Road Hammers (Airstrip Music Inc)

The hardest thing about listening to The Road Hammers, is to take them as seriously as they deserve,. You're so busy having a good time that it's easy to overlook just what great musicians they are.

However, much of the fault for that, lies fairly and squarely on the collective shoulders of the band. What do you expect when you make an album of blistering, country rock based around the romance of the internal combustion engine? Even if it is full of high-octane guitar riffs (see it's impossible to avoid bad puns).

The Road Hammers is the brainchild of 2004 CAMA vocalist of the year Jason McCoy and he gathered round him like-minded individuals Clayton Bellamy and Chris Byrne.

What this eponymous debut does offer is salvation for all those 'new men' who indulge their late night guilty secrets by whooping and hollering to Smoky and the Bandit. You can now come out of the shadows because your house band just got into town, there's a cover of East Bound And Down from the film on here.

But The Road Hammers are much more than some 'good ol boys' having a 'good ol time' singing about girls and cars. The album's themes are immaterial because this is tub-thumping, paint-scorching, old-fashioned, full throttle Southern rock n roll.

However, if you're going to open yourself up to every known cliché and pun by writing songs with titles like Overdrive and Keep On Truckin and lines like 'I need a heart with 4-wheel drive' you'd better be good or duck. The Road Hammers carry it all of with great style, in fact the album never once comes close to parody, it's honest and its fresh. It's impossible to avoid being captivated by an album that's written from the guts and played with a smile on its face.

If you're in the market for artistic introspection and reflection you'll be sorely disappointed but, if you're looking to stamp your feet to some red-hot, hell raising rock then be glad the Road Hammers rolled into town.


Michael Mee

Roam - Ragged In The Rain (Bedspring)

Roam, a Manchester-based four-piece acoustic outfit working on the fringes of the folk scene, released their début CD Count The Stars a couple of years ago, since when their line-up has undergone a major change - violist Jayne Coyle has departed, and been replaced by Ben Walker, a fine young musician who majors on whistles, flutes and uilleann pipes. While this very obviously affects the ensemble's overall tone-colouring, it manages to retain its characteristic, predominantly gentle ambience and delicacy of instrumental palette. To be fair, this feature can give an initial impression of feyness; however, this is soon won over by attentive listening, and the impact is riveting in a live context. Even if you're not familiar with Count The Stars, you're likely to find Ragged very attractive, and in many respects it corresponds closely with the former; one key element is the highly persuasive vocal work of Rachael Anne Davies, who (I can't resist the comparison here) shares with John Wright that uncanny ability to totally captivate through clear, direct performance with assured control of phrasing and enviably measured, thoughtful and considered expression. Another important element is the deft and understated guitar playing of Colin Rudd, who writes most of the group's material (songs of hope and love from a universal perspective), whereas the rippling accompaniment provided by Chris Knowles (on Celtic harp, bouzouki) features more prominently than on the earlier album, providing a finely judged counterpoint to Ben's distinctive contributions. Other parallels with the band's earlier release are the sequencing of tracks (with again an apparent initial reluctance to showcase the more uptempo material), even to the extent of placing the album's "showpiece cover" (here, a compelling rendition of Phil Ochs' No More Songs that arises naturally out of an instrumental lament) as penultimate track. (And in the tradition of Beefheart and Safe As Milk, the first album's would-be title track turns up on the second, here in the guise of a deliciously country-flavoured coda!) The pacing of the album makes it a bit of a slow-burner, for most of the variety comes in its second half, with the first half's repose offset by the defiant Toss About You and the jazzier Student Days. In general, Ragged In The Rain compares favourably with Count The Stars, especially in terms of broader and better utilisation of instrumental resources (though I do miss the autumnal wistfulness of the viola and feel that on occasions the texture is a little insistently over-bright). Mostly, the songwriting is up to the high standards already set, although there's less emphasis on the mystical (aside from a superb Arthurian-inspired sequence of songs early in the album), there are no Tolkien settings this time round, and I did find one or two of the songs on this new collection a trifle mundane or "template-conscious" by comparison. There are two purely instrumental tracks; the Carolan set fares well, while the set of reels (track 6) has a couple of "awkward corners" and sounds a tad rushed in execution, which one more take may well have cured. As before, the admirably clean and careful production is by Artisan's Brian Bedford, whose faith in Roam is clearly not misplaced.


David Kidman

The Roaring Forties - Life Of Brine (Roaring Forties)

There happen to be two different groups named "Roaring Forties" on the specialist maritime branch of the folk circuit. The seasoned five-piece under review here are Australian; in fact they're widely regarded as Sydney's foremost shanty group. They comprise (in alphabetical order) Don Brian, Robin Connaughton, Tom Hanson, Margaret Walters and John Warner (the latter you'll likely know as author of the beautiful song Anderson's Coast, but there are plenty more of his creations informed by as keen a sense of history).

This pseudo-Pythonically-titled CD lives up to its title indeed, for it's filled with abundant life and salty good cheer; it presents a grand selection of shanties (work songs) and forebitters (songs for the off-watch periods sung "fore of the bitts", ie. at the bow), a decent quota of which have a specific Australian focus, whether thematically or in the authorship or musical setting. So it's emphatically not a case of "same old shanties sung with an Australian accent", but a living, lustily breathing collection, well sung by five experienced and very capable singers who have a definite feel for this material and - crucially - its history and context. Their approach involves some harmonies, but these are sensibly-managed and well-blended as not to detract from the thrusting forward momentum of the music or the power of the texts set.

The Forties are an equality-conscious crew too, with each member given several good and suitable opportunities to take the shantyman's role; I particularly liked Margaret's five superbly sturdy lead contributions, and those sporting Tom's melodious bass voice. Maritime enthusiasts are likely to be familiar with a goodly handful of the titles on offer; there's rousing fare like Bully In The Alley, Johnny Come Down To Hilo, Yarmouth Town, Randy Dandy O, John Cherokee and Stormalong, for instance, all given a good airing here. These items are set alongside some now-classic modern originals (Dillon Bustin's Shawneetown, Hughie Jones' Marco Polo, and the pair of Harry Robertson compositions Balina Whalers and Heave Away To The South) and John's own account of the voyage of the Batavia. The disc is neatly punctuated by settings of poems by Cicely Fox Smith, variously by Barrie Temple (Wool Fleet Chorus), and John himself (A Channel Rhyme, Mainsail Haul); there's also CFS's stirring Lee Fore Brace, here set to the tune originally composed by fellow-Australian Gerry Hallom for Henry Lawson's poignant Outside Track. Maybe, just maybe one or two of the songs (eg the doomy Davy Lowston) lack a little gravitas in the Forties' arrangements, and one or two of the shanties don't quite "stomp and go" as they might, but nobody will be seriously disappointed by any of the highly enjoyable performances on this generously-filled disc. And the whole proceedings are brought to a thoughtful close by a robustly harmonised rendition of the Seamen's Hymn written by Bert Lloyd for a documentary on the 150th anniversary of Trafalgar.

The whole disc is sympathetically engineered – close and immediate without barking in your ear, and with a warm presence - and has an informative accompanying booklet, so it can be heartily commended both to existing enthusiasts of maritime music and to those folk music lovers seeking fresh adventures.


David Kidman January 2010

Roaring Jack - The Complete Works (Jump-Up)

This compendium release collects together on just two CDs all the records made by that estimable yet largely unheralded agit-punk-folk outfit Roaring Jack. Yes, who they? you might well ask, for unless you're familiar with the Australian political folk scene of the tail-end of the 80s and/or the songs and singing of the distinctive expat Scot Alistair Hulett, who six years ago returned to his native Glasgow and has since built a solid reputation for his excellent gigs both solo and in duo with ace fiddler Dave Swarbrick. Roaring Jack was the band that Alistair fronted back in Australia; veterans of innumerable political campaigns, their gigs were legendary for the good-spirited revelry that ensued as politics and drink flowed in equal measure, and by the time the band split up in 1991 they had acquired a fearsome live reputation and produced three LPs (two full-length – The Cat Among The Pigeons and Through The Smoke Of Innocence – and one mini-album, Street Celtability) and a small clutch of singles (the non-album B-sides of which are naturally included on this new set for completeness). Roaring Jack was indeed a band to be reckoned with, and included within its ranks Steph Miller, Rod Gilchrist, Davey Williams and Rab (Bob) Mansell, also (pre-Smoke) Steve Thompson; this set marks the first appearance on CD of the group's legacy, and is dedicated to the memories of Steve and Rod. As you might expect, the musical idiom is very much akin to the Whisky Priests and Pogues, with buckets of vitality and abundant conviction, passionate commitment allied to barricade-storming vocals and a high level of instrumental expertise (blazing accordion, swirling electric guitar, driving bass and drums, with mandolin, whistle, even bombarde on occasion – a stirring sound allright). While the "oi" factor's well catered for, melody's not overlooked though, for the albums have their less frenetic moments too, which are carried off with flair. These early albums are of additional interest to Alistair Hulett devotees for containing the original versions of songs which have latterly appeared on Alistair's solo records, some indeed having been covered by other artists – the mighty Destitution Road and Swaggies to name but two. The Street Celtability tracks would appear to have been mastered direct from the original vinyl, for there are some noticeable clicks and pops, but nowhere is the sound quality unacceptable and everything sounds as great and in-yer-face as it should. Maybe you didn't have to be there after all, for these recordings are Alive! Played loud for maximum impact of course.


David Kidman

Ian Robb - Jiig (Fallen Angle Music)

Englishman (of Scottish descent) Ian, who's now living in Ottawa, is one of North America's most respected revival singers of English traditional repertoire, and, when not singing with the harmony trio Finest Kind or the "concert-party" The Friends Of Fiddler's Green, he's noted for his solid, rhythmic playing of dance tunes on the English concertina (and he's also a classy - if altogether too occasional! - songwriter). Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, Jiig turns out to be not so much the solo album Ian had originally intended and more of a collaboration with backing musicians James Stephens, Ian Clark and Greg T. Brown, hence that acronymic title (Ian's own initial being inserted to produce the weird-looking "double i" - so now you know!). There are also chorus contributions from fellow Finest Kind-ers Ann Downey and Shelley Posen, and appearances from a few other musicians and singers. This 61-minute collection sports a healthy mixture of songs and tunes which are for the most part traditional in origin, the exceptions being one song by Ewan MacColl and a pair of compositions by the late, great Cyril Tawney near the start of the CD. Ian's singing is firm and clear, and it's evident at once when you listen to his unaccompanied singing (eg his grandly managed version of the epic Rose In June), why Ian has such an enviable reputation as a singer and interpreter. To some small extent I find this strength is sublimated, even occasionally diluted, by the classy instrumental accompaniment on much of the album, but those whose taste inclines more towards accompanied than unaccompanied song will almost certainly find Jiig completely satisfying (for even my own limited reservations must be put into perspective as they're based more on my own predilections than on the undisputed high quality of the product). I was a tad uneasy about Ian's highly syncopated treatment of Chicken On A Raft (which, Cyril's own version aside, I've always preferred to sing, or hear sung, unaccompanied!). But the most overwhelmingly positive aspect of this CD is that Ian's interpretations allow for both expressive gentility and stentorian robustness, and I particularly enjoyed his takes on The Gallant Frigate Amphitrite (some great fiddle accompaniment from Greg on this one!) and MacColl's Sweet Thames Flow Softly, while the closing track, an elegant version of The Rose Of Allandale which flows nicely into an old-time waltz, provides the perfect end to this accomplished and listenable disc. And I find I've not mentioned the three purely instrumental tracks here, of which the most sparkling is a superbly vibrant old-timey-Cajun-swing medley comprising Angeline The Baker and Abe's Retreat. All in all, Jiig is a delightful product that puts a number of our own well-regarded home-grown albums of traditional song in the shade.


David Kidman

Terry Robb - Resting Place (Yellow Dog Records)

This is Terry Robb's debut for Yellow Dog but don't let that make you think that he is a mere novice in the music world. Robb is a seasoned campaigner, a winner of the Cascade Blues Association's Muddy Award no less than 16 times, produced albums for John Fahey, released a number of his own albums in the 1990s and played with Buddy Guy & Steve Miller. This stunning album opens with the Arthur Crudup song, made famous by Elvis, My Baby Left Me. From the opening bars of this you know that you are in for a musical treat as Robb produces some sublime guitar playing. My Mind Is Trying To Leave Me is a superb contemporary blues and I just love the title. If anything, the guitar playing is even better on this one. The instrumental Madison Avenue Shuffle is, as the title suggests, a rhythmic, metronomic blues and Robb is fast becoming one of my favourite acoustic guitarists.

There's a J.J. Cale feel to the smooth swaying blues of Louise, a Robb arrangement on a traditional song and the title track is acoustic slide guitar played by a master of the art and Charlie Wood on piano is the perfect foil. Hesitation Blues/Knowing What Blues is a country blues that drifts off into ragtime – not surprising, as his uncle was a swing musician who taught him ragtime, blues, country and jazz. Back To Memphis is a Chuck Berry song and this version is quite different to Chuck's. Terry's backing band of Stax veteran Willie Hall (drums), the aforementioned Charlie Wood and Paul Taylor (bass) provide the building blocks for his excellent slide guitar.

Like Merle is a country blues played to the now customary brilliance and leads into the laid back blues of Cassie, both are self-penned and are fine examples of Terry Robb's songwriting skills. Another of the classy covers is Doc Pomus' Lonely Avenue, which was made famous by Ray Charles. Robb plays this in a shuffling style and gives us a staccato solo that confirms his status in my top 10 guitar players. Joe Kirby Blues is a John Fahey slow blues, played exquisitively. Fare Thee Well Blues is a country blues that will stand up to all the old classics and we are treated to a Booker T & The MGs track to finish with. My Sweet Potato has funky bass from Paul Taylor and gives a final chance for Robb to show his virtuosity on acoustic guitar. I am in awe!

This is a stunning debut for Yellow Dog who are fast becoming the label to sign for.


David Blue

Alasdair Roberts & Friends - Too Long In This Condition (Navigator)

It might be seen as a risky exercise, Alasdair following up such a radical collection as Spoils with a further no-prisoners excursion into the murky world of folk balladry (all of five years on from his 2005 set of murder ballads No Earthly Man). But Too Long In This Condition couldn't be more different in demeanour, for this time round there's a distinctly jaunty, playful air to the proceedings that's almost diametrically opposed to the doleful, quite bleak aura of No Earthly Man.

Sure, the actual timbre of Alasdair's voice won't have changed – some might take the view that it's as dour as ever - but in truth it's the chipper settings that mark the biggest difference in climate here, which, although to a significant extent retaining Alasdair's trademark starkness and intimacy, radiate a charming, almost Pentangle-inspired quasi-baroque aura, characterised by a wispy filigree delicacy and deftly brushed percussion input that lifts the textures out of the potential gloom with an almost infectious bounce. Even so, an initial acquaintance with the album suggests you're still not in for a session of easy listening, not least due to the slightly challenging nature of the basic source material.

The selection generously encompasses several of "the big ballads" of time-honoured tradition: the decidedly grisly Loing Lankin and What Put The Blood… (a variant of Edward), along with one of the chirpier Binnorie versions of The Two Sisters, the less-often-heard Burning Of Auchindoun and the curious Little Sir Hugh. All ten ballads have been in Alasdair's live repertoire almost since the last CD, and as it turns out he'd been keen to record them for some time. By now, of course, his interpretations have had time to settle, and his knowingly genial delivery is almost like a balm, soothing in its own special (if sometimes quite peculiar) way. Alasdair calls on a number of other instrumentalists to support his freshly-pleading-the-case takes on these ballads; these include Donald Lindsay (uilleann pipes), Christine Hanson (cello), Alastair Caplin (fiddle), Ben Reynolds (lap steel), Bill Lowman (Ozark harp), Stevie Jones (basses) and Shane Connolly (drums), with Emily Portman providing exactly the kind of precise and gently scary vocal harmonies necessary to bring out the delicious nuances of Alasdair's storytelling.

Exactly midway through this otherwise uninterrupted menu of traditional ballads, we find an animated little hoot of a jig composed by Alasdair's father Alan, Kilmahog Saturday Afternoon (by some weird trick of fate I myself may well have also been at that very hamlet on a Saturday afternoon in 1998!) – although this amicable interlude provides barely enough time to brew a cup of tea!

Alasdair has contributed careful and thoughtful background notes to the songs and the particular sources from which he learned them, while the cover paintings and other illustrations are both distinctive and entirely apposite. It's entirely fitting too that the CD should be primarily dedicated to Perthshire poet Annie Jenkins and the late great songwriter and activist Alistair Hulett.


David Kidman September 2010

Alasdair Roberts - Spoils (Drag City)

After the mildly lighter interlude of 2007's The Amber Gatherers, the brilliant Glasgow bard returns (at least to some extent) to darker introspection and doomier climes with Spoils, a fresh collection of self-penned songs that are very clearly informed by the tradition, its modes, schemes and structures, recognisable but distorted and twisted; they turn out strikingly individual in their linguistic and musical expression – remaining significantly original and highly uncompromising (thus maybe not to everyone's taste – there's the obligatory health warning over…!).

Alasdair's a true individual who really does sound like nobody else, his distinctive Scots accent being but one facilitator for the acute and persuasive expression of his vision: sometimes dour, oft-times laced with a generous, if dry humour. In the past, I've commented on the peculiar kinship between Alasdair's music and that of the ISB and Dr. Strangely Strange, whereby a quirky charm and capricious delivery often belies the deeply serious intent and powerful (if often elliptical) content. For it often seems that Alasdair's got a handle on opening doors of perception that for others (even born storytellers) tend to remain firmly closed or barricaded, for his cryptic narratives are couched in unusual, imaginative and playful language and lean, tautly strung melodies that allow for no aural wastage or overdue elaboration.

The set of eight admirably disturbing new songs that comprise Spoils is no exception, and the disc gets off to a strong start with the allegorical epistle of The Flyting Of Grief And Joy (Eternal Return), a compelling and gently electro-folk piece with all the approved elements intact but bringing just that extra dimension of challenge for the listener. You Muses Assist displaces the central exhortation with some decidedly grungy touches in its cascading instrumentation. If you didn't know otherwise, you'd swear So Bored Was I (Dark Triad) was traditional (so keen is Alasdair's grasp of the idiom) – that is, until you hear the line "I was bilious, I was saturnine"…! The scary imagery of Hazel Grove could I guess be likened to Henry The Human Fly trapped in a particularly awesome aspic, while the intense and arcane rhythmic incantations of The Book Of Doves provide another instance of Alasdair's gift for absorbing and emulating the intrinsic darkness and potent atmosphere of ancient tradition in a setting and context that prove both innovatively contemporary and timeless. A further key factor that greatly assists Alasdair in realising his vision and message is the alert and supremely edgy musical backdrops that come courtesy of his mates Tom Crossley and Gareth Eggle (formerly of Appendix Out), adventurous freeform percussionist Alex Nielson and expert baroque guitarist Gordon Ferries (not to omit mention of the contributions of Emily MacLaren, Niko-Matti Ahti, David McGuinness and Alison McGillivray). Antique and curious textures are shamelessly deployed alongside bursts of febrile or glistening electric guitar and scatterings of skittering, hyperactive percussion, cocooning Alasdair's involving, tenderly enchanting vocal lines.

In the end, the hunter after spoils of musical treasure emphatically does not come home empty-handed… for to describe these latest Spoils as the product of genius is not in my opinion a shred of understatement.


David Kidman June 2009

Alasdair Roberts - The Amber Gatherers (Drag City)

This new album from Alasdair is at once unmistakably Alasdair and somewhat of a change. Given that Alasdair's been labelled as a bit of a gloom merchant in the past, the distinctly bright ambience of much of this new album (there's even some comparatively uptempo tracks!), may come as a refreshing surprise. It's like the other side of the coin, the antidote to the tragic balladry of his previous album No Earthly Man (excellently atmospheric though that disc was), where now Alasdair's seemingly cocking a snook and playing tag with death rather than accepting (or celebrating) its all-pervasive omnipotence. But equally, The Amber Gatherers is still a fine set of songs that won't disappoint Alasdair's existing fanbase and - especially following his success as support artist on Joanna Newsom's recent mini-tour - should definitely win him some new admirers. All of the eleven songs here are Alasdair's own compositions, but some are very close to their traditional models indeed, not least in aspects like their structure and rhyme-scheme; The Old Man Of The Shells uses the time-honoured "as I roved out" device (and melodically at least is a bit reminiscent of The Verdant Braes Of Skreen), Riddle Me This conjures up associations from countless riddle-songs, and The Calfless Cow echoes (and twists) traditional night-visiting and parting songs. And I just love Alasdair's voice, his delivery, his quiet laid-back passion, his sensitivity in expression. On The Amber Gatherers he's backed by a superbly deft, tight band (uniting his ex-Appendix Out colleagues Gareth Eggie and Tom Crossley together with Teenage Fanclub's Gerard Love), and the result is absolutely charming, with all the playful capriciousness of vintage Dr Strangely Strange. This impression is accentuated by the often bouncy use of percussion elements that gild many of the tracks. Nursery-rhyme-type fun is evoked by I Had A Kiss Of The King's Hand and the infectious handclapping rhythms of Firewater. River Rhine is a gentle, simple love song, whereas Let Me Lie And Bleed Awhile, contrary to what the title might lead you to expect, is a believable triumph-over-adversity piece. I Have A Charm (which, believe it or not, employs a twelve-bar blues format) includes some passages of raggedy ISB-style vocal cacophony. The Amber Gatherers may not plumb the sepulchral depths of Alasdair's previous solo albums, No Earthly Man in particular, but it's still a very satisfying and appealing set that has significant levels of depth and thought in its memorable original compositions.


David Kidman February 2007

Andy Roberts & The Great Stampede - Andy Roberts And The Great Stampede (Fledg'ling)

This LP was not readily available in its original vinyl incarnation (on Elektra), in fact I was one of the many who missed out completely on it at the time, so this current CD reissue affords me too a welcome chance to reappraise guitarist Andy's big-country-rock-band excursion from mid-1973 - and it's a good 'un alright, one which Andy himself is, justifiably, "still immensely proud of". It was Andy's intention with this album to "get away form the acoustic guitar-picking-hero stuff of the previous albums, and to just be the guitarist in the band". And what a band - Zoot Money (piano, organ), B.J. Cole (pedal steel, dobro), Pat Donaldson (bass), Gerry Conway (drums) and Mick Kaminski (electric violin), with guest cameos from Ollie Halsall, Sonny Francis and Ray Wehrstein. The nine tracks refreshingly run the gamut from classic country-rock (with not a trace of blandness) to folk-rock and pop-rock, with some Jamaican reggae influences thrown into the pot along the way. Their lyrics (all Andy's own) form a kind of diary, charting Andy's recent musical career (leaving Plainsong, touring with Grimms) and life (getting into Jamaican reggae, falling in love and seeing friends being destroyed by drugs). Grand songs they make too, and offset by some splendid musicianship: especially satisfying are the folky love song Home In The Sun, the violent bluesy Kid Jealousy and the ecological commentary Lord Of The Groves, but in truth every track's a winner, and Zoot and the rhythm section excel themselves in particular. And even better, not only does this expanded reissue present the original album in all its pristine glory, but we also get five bonus tracks in the shape of "curios from my personal collection" (Andy's words), all recorded around the same time or close thereby: these include Home At Last (with Neil Innes), a respectable cover of Hank Williams' Lost Highway, a ganja-soaked demo Living In The Hills Of Zion and a tasty reggae version of Sam Cooke's Having A Party. Classy stuff that really complements the band LP - as do the extensive sleeve-notes (amazingly detailed reminiscences from Andy himself) and excellent booklet and package (a typical Fledg'ling design triumph).


David Kidman January 2008

Andy Roberts - Just For The Record (Castle)

The time has been ripe for a long while now, for this enigmatic, extraordinarily talented yet underrated musician to receive due recognition. He's enjoyed a certain measure of critical acclaim at times during his long innings to date, but his own solo career has always been unfairly overshadowed by his work as session player or sideman with other artists (these have ranged from Neil Innes, Iain Matthews, Plainsong, Richard Thompson, the Liverpool Scene and Scaffold to Pink Floyd, Roy Harper, Hank Wangford and even Spitting Image!). Andy's always brushed shoulders or more with the richer and famouser though! This brand-new compilation charts the early part of Andy's solo career, spanning the years from 1969 to 1976 and largely drawing on his first four solo albums (Home Grown, Everyone, Nina & The Dream Tree and Urban Cowboy).

Hearing the 33 tracks assembled on these two packed CDs, some for the first time in over 25 years, I was quickly persuaded of the desirability of reissuing these albums in their entirety as soon as practicable! The music really is that good! Any compilation such as this has to steer a course through a minefield of licensing difficulties, not to mention sourcing the various alternate versions of the albums (Home Grown, for instance, the most interesting of these, has been issued in no less than three variants - one on RCA and two on B&C!), a confusing process at the best of times. And of course there's the serendipity element in presenting a handful of previously unissued demos, as here with the first of these, The Raven, a caustic and surreal little song which had originally surfaced on the Liverpool Scene's avowedly patchwork Bread On The Night LP. So, to round off the portrait of those early solo years, this compilation also includes a track from 1973's Andy Roberts & The Great Stampede album (for which a full CD release is planned), a previously unreleased reggae-influenced cut Living In The Hills Of Zion, and a beauteous 1976 Grimms track. The important thing is that Andy's eclectic artistry is represented at its best on virtually every track here, from lithe folk-style picking to modal improvisation to solid country-influenced axe-work. With excellent liner notes from Colin Harper too, hopefully healthy sales for this overdue anthology will act as the catalyst for speedy completer reissue of more of the albums in which Andy had a direct involvement (and to which, we learn, the rights have now reverted to Andy himself).


David Kidman

Kathryn Roberts & Sean Lakeman - 1 (I Scream)

Although, despite three fine albums, Equation have never managed to convince the homegrown audience, the Americans have gone overboard for their brand of folk-rock trad and contemporary with enthusiastic comparisons to The Cranberries, Fairport, 10,000 Maniacs, and Indigo Girls. However, as irony would have it, following former band members Cara Dillon and Sam Lakeman on the duo path, Roberts and Lakeman's decision to return to the wellspring of their trad folk roots and the intimate club circuit Roberts first trod with Kate Rusby, has sparked a surge of interest among folkie circles.

Understandably so in the light of their acoustic album which expands on the band's unplugged The Dark Ages EP collection of five trad tunes (two of which feature here) and includes their uncluttered versions of Granite Mill, Once I Had A Sweetheart, The Lamb On The Green Hills, the evergreen Drowned Lovers where Roberts sings unaccompanied harmony with herself, a jazzed up Lovely Nancy and, for fans of roving out songs, The Maid With The Bonny Brown Hair. Pushed to nominate one to shout for though I'd go with child death song Georgia Lee where Lakeman's melancholic guitar and Robert's regret stained innocence and experience voice come together to achingly wonderful effect.


Mike Davies

Kathryn Roberts & Sean Lakeman - 2 (I-Scream)

Naturally enough, 2 is the follow-up to 1, the duo's first CD, and (in contrast to that offering's lightness of touch and eagerness to please) it's an altogether more considered affair, with a mature seriousness of purpose that captivates right from the outset, the dark clarinet and brushed percussion tones of the opening track Rosie Ann. (Not to be confused, by the way, with the closing track Rosie Anderson - neat or wot?!) The musical contrasts on this new album are more believable, with less of an obvious desire to show off what the duo are capable of. Kathryn has improved much as a singer over the intervening years too - not that she was ever immature, but her control of light and shade is even better now and her mastery of expressive tone is more complete. The non-traditional songs on 2 (three out of the album's ten tracks) demonstrate this well - Lifetime Of Tears (written by Tony Recupido and Dennis Witcher) is given its full weight without becoming ponderous, while Kath's interpretation of Lowell George's 20 Million Things (recorded live at Bodmin Folk Club last February) is shot through with authority and understanding, as is her account of Geoffrey Lakeman's Rule And Bant (a fine modern mining song, much in the vein of Steve Knightley's Cousin Jack perhaps). The remaining, traditional cuts prove that Kath and Sean have a winning way with, and a genuinely-felt response to, the songs (and a feel for unearthing, and doing justice to, some unusual material), and so what if there's the occasional nod to the approach of the celebrated Rusby Band (particularly on Sir Arthur)! Kath and Sean's instrumental prowess can be taken for granted almost, but they've sensibly recruited Ian Goodall (drums), bassists Ben Nichols and Darren Edwards, and Sean's brother Seth (violin) to selectively fill out the basic duo sound on several tracks. This is an impressive second album, packing a lot of interest into its 38 minutes for the satisfaction of the listener.


David Kidman

Ailie Robertson - First Things First (Lorimer)

Young Scottish harpist Ailie's pedigree is already impressive: five times National Mod Gold Medallist, erstwhile member of the Scottish Harp Orchestra, Na Clarasairean, and currently member of international six-piece band The Outside Track (who have been delighting UK festival audiences over the past year, and whose CD I reviewed in Stirrings 133). Inevitably, Ailie's debut solo CD is a more intimate affair, with an at times quite laid-back atmosphere that's both soothing and invigorating. Ailie's instrument is the clarsach (the small harp whose recent resurgence has been led by the likes of Corrina Hewat and Patsy Seddon), and its unique and definitive sound-world is captured here in a demonstration-class recording that manages to convey all the relevant nuances and timbres in due perspective without sounding at all clinical or sterile. Each of the eleven tracks brings its own special delights, starting with the almost jazzy insouciance of the opening set of jigs, where the rippling joy of the harp line offsets James Ross's classy piano embellishments and the crisp, busy percussion backing (Paul Jennings on cajon). The playing is sprightly, yet with an enviably relaxed precision of attack that holds the listener's attention throughout - and this quality applies equally to the slower-paced items on the disc, notably the gorgeous slow air Spirits (co-written by Angus Lyon and his father), which forms its centrepiece. The Irish and Scottish hornpipes that are wedded together on the gently swinging Marry Me Now set are a model of delicate playing, with Ailie's deft syncopations and skilfully bent "blue notes" enticingly complemented by guitar (Ewan Robertson) and bass (Duncan Lyall); these same two musicians bring an exhilarating sense of drive to the tricky time-signatures of Ailie's own tune Good Spirits in the ensuing set. Ailie's slower-than-customary treatment of The Favourite Dram brings out its inherent beauty in a way I've not heard on any other recording of the tune, while her own composition Sands Of Hosta (written after a long beach walk on North Uist) is both genuinely tranquil and introspectively evocative. And you can hear Ailie taking the harp technique into hitherto-uncharted areas of innovation and expertise on tracks such as the infectious Angus Jigs set: the closer you listen, the more detail there is to revel in. First Things First is a thoroughly charming disc, replete with both a consummate finger-dancing intelligence and an irrepressible joie-de-vivre.


David Kidman August 2008

Sherman Robertson & Blues Move - Guitar Man (Live) (Movinmusic Records)

Sherman Robertson has spent the last three years with his European tour band, Blues Move honing his new songs and re-establishing himself as a potent force in the world of blues. This album, recorded live at the Kwadendamme Blues Festival reminds us of the talent that was first spotted by Clifton Chenier and that contributed to Paul Simon's massive Graceland album. They open with Out Of Sight Out Of Mind and Sherman's smokey vocal immediately grabs you. It's a funky R&B start and Julian Grudgings organ work compliments Sherman's vocal perfectly. Long Way From Home is literally electric. Robertson's stinging guitar on the introduction, and in the main solo, is outstanding. They play this at breakneck speed and there's so much energy about the music with Mike Hellier on drums pounding like a steam train. There's plenty of audience participation, especially on the shake, rattle and roll chorus.

The title track is the second, and final, self-penned song (Long Way From Home being the other) and this has a strong riff running through it. Dust My Broom Sherman style follows in the form of Dust My Broom (Voodoo Dust). Attributed to Robert Johnson, this is nothing like the original. There's a stunning guitar solo introduction that leads into ten minutes of scorching electric blues that matches anything currently on offer. Home Of The Blues is a funky offering and allows Sherman to show off all his facets. The highlight of the album (a very difficult choice) is Linda Lou which is an explosive Texas blues played by a master of his craft. He is in the same class as Buddy Guy and Albert Collins and he unleashes a guitar solo to die for. Technically brilliant, he plays from the heart and that's a winning combination in anyone's book.

He does play some slow ones every now and then and Make It Rain is one of those. Having said that, he still can't help himself and turns on the full power before finishing on another slow one, Tin Pan Alley. This is eleven and a half minutes of sheer joy. He manages to summon up the energy and power of two guitarists and retains the quality of his vocal throughout.

Sherman Robertson is one of a number of current blues guitarists that can quite rightly be classed as premier division.

Sherman Robertson


David Blue

Janet Robin - Everything Has Changed (Hypertension)

Swaggery Southern country soul burns out of the speakers on the sassy View From Above, the opening track of Robin's fifth album. A former touring member of both Lindsey Buckingham and Meredith Brook's bands, the deserves to be known as more than some side(wo)man and, produced by John Carter Cash (son of JC and JC), this might be the one that opens her up to a wider audience.

Blending acoustic and gutsy rock n roll on songs that deal with the heat of passion and pride, as numbers such as Bow & Arrow, the choppy Clean Getaway and Rumor illustrate, the blues provide the underpinning spirit. But, to show the range of her musicianship, PJ Harvey's This Is Love becomes Skynyrd-like hard rock while the (naturally) Eastern European flavoured Everybody Falls In Love In Prague provides a showcase for her prowess on classical acoustic guitar.

As the solo instrumental CHR Number 137 confirms, she's probably a better guitarist than she is a vocalist, but she delivers the sass and the sensitivity with equally persuasive conviction and her slinky and sensually soulful cover of vintage Orbison hit Dream Baby is positively goosebump inducing.


Mike Davies February 2010

Graham Robins - The Shipping News (Own Label)

Dressed in black hat and Barbour style coat, the late-fiftysomething Watford-born singer looks like a cross between Van Morrison and Meat Loaf. Fortunately, he sounds more like the former and has the same songwriting magic too.

With a journeyman career spanning four decades, he's opened shows for dozens of R&B greats as well as releasing two albums and, recently touring and recording with Morrison's daughter Shana. She doesn't appear on this but her dad's frequent keyboard player, Dave Baldwin, does. He must have felt right at home on the opening track, Back to The Heartlands, with uillean pipes underscoring its Celtic soul feel and sounding as though it could be an outtake from one of Van's early albums.

It's a superb introduction to Robins and the album, which, self-produces, proceeds to impress further with every track. From the upbeat, foot tapping Celtic and country Walking In Silence with its reference to the rolling hills of Caledonia and spiritual imagery and the pedal steel backed Now All Of The Heartache's Gone (which reminds me of the country side of Long John Baldry) to Snow Blind with its upright bass and finger clicking intro and a Memphis country soul vibe reminiscent of Marc Cohn.

By the time it gets to the title track, where, 'trying to find my way back home', he calls upon Columbus, Vasco Da Gama, French navigator Samuel DeChamplain, Ahab, Noah and Irish pirate Grace O'Malley, it's patently obvious you're in the company of a long overlooked outstanding talent and an album of the year. And you're still less than half way through.

He shifts the mood for A Letter from Paris, a jazz blues swing built around bass, drums and piano with congas for added spice, that namechecks Toulouse-Lautrec and James Joyce and sounds like something that takes off into a live jam session before bringing it back to the aching gospel soul of Drown In Your Eyes with Jade Rhiannon Ward on harmony, Cliff Ward on violin and Mark Burr on the brushes while Robins sounds like Sam Cooke after years of honey and nicotine.

Demonstrating his ease in different styles, The Gangsters of Rock n Roll shifts gear to a pedal steel led TexMex shuffle before the Morrison-esque Roll Back The Years' nostalgic memories of In The Heat Of The Night, Ready Steady Go and Radio Caroline, the harmonica blowing folk-soul of The Comfort Zone where Van and Bruce hang around the street corner, The Heights of Abraham's hammond backed, flute streaked vision of lovers watching sunrise across the dales, and Waiting On The Healing's journey into the mystic bring the album to a magnificent close.

How this man has gone unheralded for so long defies belief, but hopefully this will throw back the veil of obscurity and bring him the acclaim and the audience he so richly deserves.


Mike Davies November 2011

Robinson - England's Bleeding (Palawan)

Apparently, 20 minutes after having seen Worcester singer-songwriter Andy Robinson perform in a Hungerford pop, former Bee Gees and Shakespears Sister manager John Campbell had signed him to a record deal, flying him to his Oregon studio to lay down tracks. Campbell says he has great hopes about establishing him as major international artist and, while that seems unlikely, this debut album should win him an enthusiastic following.

Indeed, Robinson doesn't seem to have huge desires for global dominance. On the opening Forget About It All he says he just wants 'to be free like a Romany gypsy' and how he doesn't 'want to work just to buy a bigger telly' while the big strum That's All I Really Want sees his ambitions extend no further than 'a place by the sea with a record player and an old beaten up guitar, with a pub down the road just to stumble back home.'

It's that busker soul, you see, a distillation of such influences as John Martyn, Nick Drake, Tom Waits and, one suspects, Donovan, although the press release would like to point out that 60s Motown, Bulgarian gypsy music and the harmonies of the Mamas and Papas play a significant part in the fabric.

Although Robinson plays clarinet, sax, glockenspiel, banjo and accordion on the album, it's mostly about his plaintive, husked folk-bluesy voice and his acoustic guitar as he strums an introspective path through such songs as Always Talk To Strangers (don't try that at home kids), Dance, the ragtime tinged Stuck in Town, the gospel flecked Sunshine When it Rains (where you'll certainly hear hints of The Temptations) and Little Ms Darling.

He gets a bit stroppy on the state of the nation title track (ah there's those Waits and Bulgarian influences) where he moans about how the country's in the pocket of America's mother, the kids are all pregnant and drunk and Johnny Rotten's a 'sold out punk', but otherwise it's all either bucolic melancholy or (as on First Time) about being so happy because your new lover's making 'the best eggs in the world'.

Worldwide demand probably won't be huge, but he'll certainly have no problem with a warm welcome down that seaside local pub.


Mike Davies April 2010

Dana & Susan Robinson - American Hornpipe (Threshold Music)

The release of the charismatic Asheville (North Carolina) -based duo's fourth CD together was intended to accompany a UK tour, now unfortunately cancelled due to Dana having broken his wrist. But hey, it's easy to see why the couple commands loyal audiences and manages to steadily increase its following on each successive visit to the UK (this year's, incredibly, would have been their eleventh!).

Dana and Susan's very special brand of music has been described as "new-time old-time", since it both references and draws on the various old-time traditions, fusing them with gentle world influences and making them relevant to today. This encourages a healthy stylistic versatility that you don't always get with contemporary exponents of old-time, naturally displaying several strands to their seemingly effortless musical expertise.

Firstly, we're treated to freshly-minted takes on a handful of songs of traditional origin. The disc opens with chunky, funky mando joined by tasteful electric guitar on an unusually uptempo setting of Who Killed Cock Robin?, then later really delivers on a defiantly foot-tapping version of Raleigh And Spencer (Dana rightly credits Geoff Bartley's arrangement here, but the infectious groove of this track is just as much down to the playing of Dana and Susan's neat little rhythm section, River Guerguerigan and Eliot Wadopian, as to the fancy yet unassuming fretwork of Dana and Susan themselves).

The couple also bring us a thoughtful and well-harmonised rendition of Pete Sutherland's unusual arrangement of Will The Circle Be Unbroken that takes the song into an entirely different dimension from the table-thumping session-staple we know and love; there's also an affecting performance of Lazy John, and Susan turns in an economical acappella Fair And Tender Ladies for good measure.

But many listeners will consider Dana's lovely original song The Invitation the highpoint of the disc; this reminiscence of three days spent in an old farmhouse to just "unplug and recharge" proves a wistful little masterpiece. Indeed, if I've any criticism of this fine record at all, it's that I'd have liked to've seen one or two more of Dana's compositions on board! But there's still plenty of goodies to savour, not least (and quite literally, as it turns out!) on the delightful Farmers' Market A-Z, penned by Lui Collins, a culinary catalogue that suits Susan's charming singing voice down to the ground. Dana and Susan also make a very good fist of Fashioned Of The Clay, Chris Coe's canny (and memorably catchy) twist on The Grey Cock ballad.

Finally, the disc's five instrumental cuts provide a salutary reminder of the duo's quiet accomplishment as instrumentalists (between them playing an assortment of guitars and banjo, and Dana adding mandolins, fiddle and harmonica to his armoury as a sizeable bonus); the refreshing hallmarks of their playing are a supremely elegant control of nuance and dynamics and a characteristically unhurried gait that almost undersells (while not actually concealing) the duo's entirely winning, and perennially artful, virtuosity.


David Kidman August 2012

Dana & Susan Robinson - Big Mystery (Threshold Music)

Released late last year (thus in plenty of time for this spring's UK tour!), this thoroughly unpretentious disc continues Dana & Susan's run of lovely releases (it's their third as a duo). Its loose theme is the enduring beauty and prolific life force that exists all around us, and musically speaking it's the customary highly convivial mix of old-time, traditional and self-penned material, with some tunes thrown in too for good measure.

The disc is framed by a couple of delicate acoustic-pop-style creations. Big Mystery is described as "a love song to Vermont during the month of May", fresh and understated, while Dog's Life is an entirely affectionate first-person account with a gentle, kinda-catchy Buddy-Holly feel. Zephyr Wind brushes in on the breeze with deeper reflections triggered by a hike, while Dana's deceptively sophisticated observational skills come into their own on the Guthrie-esque Cairo (which both evokes and explores a once-grand confluence that's now but a fading American infrastructure) and Delta Queen (which lovingly remembers the vintage Mississippi steamboats). Gone But Not Forgotten, a standout track, is a supremely idiomatic rendition of Lui Collins' authentically ancient-sounding ballad, while in an entirely different vein there's Susan's charming interpretation of Bill Steele's touching take on the Cinderella story (Griselda's Waltz). The disc's three instrumental items speak volumes for Dana & Susan's accomplishment as musicians, always elegant yet with enough fire to bring alive the soft and carefully considered textures and shadings; Waiting For Gordon, composed by Dana on the Isle Of Mull, really does evoke the mysterious and slightly exotic beauty of that location and the unhurried pulse of its life.

Throughout the disc, I'm stunned, albeit ever so nicely, by the impact of Dana and Susan's uniformly stylish playing and singing, their deft eloquence and unfailing rightness of judgement, where and how the ideal balance should lie and exactly the right colours to employ. Their own quietly confident skills on guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolins and harmonica are suitably enhanced by Chris Rosser (piano and dotar), Eliot Wadofian (acoustic bass) and River Guerguerian (percussion).

As an entity, Big Mystery certainly charms the listener indelibly on first acquaintance, but (exactly as with Dana's earlier work) its clean, simple values and general air of easygoing whimsy may initially conspire to undersell the product to the less persistent soul. To me, there's no big mystery about its appeal, and after you've experienced the couple on tour (starting early March) you're bound to agree.


David Kidman February 2010

Tom Robinson Band - Power In The Darkness/ Tom Robinson Two TWO (EMI)

A timely re-release for this pair of classic albums from the heady days of the late 70s when punk-rock gave more than a kick up the backside to the fast-stagnating music scene in the UK. Of all the politically-oriented bands of the era (the Clash, SLF et al), none was arguably more political than the TRB; Tom's lyrics "burned with apocalyptic visions of coming revolution and they seethed with real anger and resentment over injustices of all sorts" (says the booklet note - wow!). But the hard-hitting lyrics were, unlike those of the other bands mentioned in parentheses above, clothed in a relatively accessible (though still hard-driven) musical idiom that owed more to pop-rock than punk-thrash. This approach for many listeners diluted the impact, and some (myself included) had tended to quite unfairly write Tom's work off at the expense of that of the thrash merchants. Getting the chance to hear these albums - and a hefty clutch of related singles not on those original LPs - from the perspective of nearly 30 years in the future we never thought we had, well it's a revelation. Not only is the music considerably harder-edged than I remember it (tracks like The Winter Of '79 and Power In The Darkness aren't the only ones to include some blindingly good guitar work alongside the powerful lyrics), but the guys can really play their instruments (that's not the back-haned compliment it might seem!) and there's a musical intelligence at work in their strong accompaniments. The overtly rousing, air-punching pop anthem 2-4-6-8 Motorway was, let's be honest, slight and decidedly non-political, and (along with what I felt was a so-so cover of I Shall be Released) certainly gave me a false impression of TRB's worth. It's also all too easy to tag TRB as a mere posturing act on the basis of Glad To Be Gay (also included here as a bonus track, along with the rest of the original EP release), but the points were well made. The band's second album built on the songwriting strengths of the first, although it never quite recaptured the angry thrust and parry of much of the first. Its reissue comes with the contents of two extra singles and five previously unreleased tracks, including a demo, and the enhanced CD also contains a pdf file of press clippings. The booklet notes for both reissues are good too, with evocative essays setting both the music and the politics in sensible balance and context.


David Kidman

Craig Morgan Robson - Hummingbird's Feather (Reiver Records)

One of the country's finest all-female vocal groups has come up trumps again with this exceptional new collection, their third, which like its predecessors persuasively presents the listener with an enterprising choice of material from traditional sources. Unlike the previous two albums, however, it feels like an exclusively traditional collection – there are no contemporary compositions aside from the very-much-traditional-sounding Guist Ploughman by Mike Barber (Damien's dad) and two components within the Mining Trilogy (Johnny Handle's Guard Yer Man Weel and Billy Ed Wheeler's Red Winged Blackbird).

The disc begins most stylishly, with a standout version of the Child-related riddle song Cambric Shirt learned from the singing of Lori Fassman of Boston, Mass., and ends with Down The Lane, a variant from the Maiden's Complaint/Holmfirth Anthem song-family which may well be familiar to Axford Five aficionados. In between these bookends, the trio make equally good capital of My Bonny Moorhen and Beautiful Star Of Bethlehem (a standard Christmas item in the bluegrass repertoire, we learn), then they capably engage less well-known melodies for The Bitter Withy and The Drowned Lovers before tackling another Copper Family Songbook classic Claudy Banks, with typical aplomb and assurance of line. With each successive track, the listener can revel in the appealing and varied harmonisation the three ladies achieve (they make it all seem so easy!), and share at close quarters the ladies' evident delight in singing - what marvellous voices!

The disc's run of continuous acappella is broken by three "solo" tracks, although these turn out to be instrumentally accompanied: Carolyn's idiomatic rendition of The Sandgate Lass On The Ropery Banks utilises a chordal parlour-piano accompaniment (Andy Johnson), Sarah's personal take on Lord Bateman employs Jeff Gillett on guitar, and, best of all, a wonderfully lyrical cello part (Rachael Drayson) enhances Moira's compellingly phrased rendition of It Was All For Our Rightful King (credited to Burns).

Ably conveying the ladies' real joy in music-making and harmonising too, this is a most pleasing and satisfying disc that successfully demonstrates how to freshen well-travelled repertoire through judicious research and thoughtfully-managed vocal arrangement.


David Kidman November 2009

Eric Roche - With These Hands (P3 Music)

Though born in the States and raised in Ireland, Eric's been based here in the UK since 1990, quietly and unassumingly developing his very own formidable playing technique. Eric being a guitarist par excellence, this, like its two predecessors The Perc-u-lator and Spin, is unashamedly a guitarist's album (and given that he's a respected guitar tutor and writes a regular column for Guitar Techniques magazine, this ain't exactly surprising either!). But Eric's perennially thoughtful, intelligent approach ensures that a whole album full of his playing isn't just 53 minutes of soulless, overbearingly technique-driven doodling that can only (if at all) be appreciated by fellow-guitarists. In Eric's case, even his late-90s debut release (The Perc-u-lator) was a pretty outstanding offering, and its impressive assurance won him many fans, this impression sealed by those lucky enough to catch him performing at the 2001 Cambridge Folk Festival; similarly with Spin, which increased his following many-fold. Need I say then, that With These Hands dazzles anew, right from the very opening riff of Bushwhacker. There's a high "how on earth is he doing that?" factor to Eric's playing; much in the manner of the great classical guitarists, one might say, he seems all at once to be covering all bases and components (lead, rhythm, bass and percussion) in his breathtaking interpretations. Indeed, one specific determining feature of Eric's highly personal style is the unique percussive device he uses - a kind of slap that punctuates the rhythmic pulse; the curious thing is that it adds to, rather than detracting from, the listening impact of the tunes he tackles. These range far and wide across the spectrum of rock, folk, blues and country yet end up stylistically indescribable! Miles Davis' Blue In Green, Stevie Wonder's Higher Ground, Eddie Van Halen's Jump - all worthy companions to Eric's own consummately musical compositions. Fellow-guitarist Martin Taylor's production faithfully captures every last nuance of sensitivity in Eric's playing. There's an outside chance that some of you might find much of this CD a bit relentless in terms of pace - even though there's plenty of internal contrast - for the only moment of relative repose after the Miles Davis is the final track, the title number, which weighs in at a mere 2:47. But mental exhaustion ain't par for the course for this seriously accomplished fingerstyle guitar maestro; I found it all immensely stimulating listening.


David Kidman

Eric Roche - Spin (Inner Ear Music)

Eric Roche knows his way round the acoustic guitar like few others. He uses every inch to generate instrumental music of astonishing virtuosity, power and tenderness. This is the young Lowden demonstrator, Guitar Techniques columnist and masterclass teacher, Roche's second album and follows his excellent debut, The Perc U lator. Spin brings us eleven tracks of musical poetry in a variety of styles and influences, sometimes combining flute, tablas, kaval, accordion, bass, drums, saz, darabuka and a whole host of other instruments, whilst never detracting from the sheer brilliance and effortless dominance of his playing.

Right away Roche the technician makes you aware of the guitar's potential but, beyond the immediate impact of speed and fireworks, there is spellbinding beauty and 'lyrical' depth. Roche has a Celtic poet's soul and his compositions communicate warmth, memories and passion without the need for words. The jaunty 'Porcupine', the spine-tinglingly driven beauty of 'Spin', the romantic 'Eight Years', 'Never Give Up' (when for once Roche uses his own voice), the hypnotic 'Spin (the Mandala Mix)' and a live version of 'Roundabout' and more, allow Roche to explore and entertain. And listen to his arrangements of 'While my Guitar Gently Weeps' and '(smells like) Teen Spirit' - you'll experience how superb an interpreter he is of other songwriters' work.

Eric Roche can take you any place you want to be and, after seeing and hearing him play, you'll never feel the same way again about the acoustic guitar. I recommend you do both as soon as possible.


Sue Cavendish

Helen Roche - Shake The Blossom Early (HR Records)

Helen comes from a Liverpool-Irish background; her formative musical years embraced eclectic tastes (including interest in Eastern European singing traditions) and spells as singer-songwriter and rock bassist, but has more recently returned to her roots, spending the past three years gaining an increasing reputation on the London Irish music scene. Shake The Blossom Early may well be her debut release, but you wouldn't think it from its level of accomplishment and sheer good taste. It's a collection of love songs from the Irish tradition, many from the north of the country, performed with minimal – yet undeniably effective – accompaniment that allows for a sensible degree of concentration on Helen's considered interpretations of the texts. The opening Green Grows The Laurel is probably the exception, in that it utilises (juxtaposes) a mazurka in counterpoint to the verses of the song itself; elsewhere, the sparse instrumentation provides just the right amount of complementary aural interest or embellishment where necessary, whether just bodhrán (The Dark-eyed Gypsy) or deft guitar and cello (As I Roved Out) or harp and uilleann pipes (The Irish Maid). Her supporting musicians (Colman Connolly, Harriet Earis, Conán McDonnell, Michael Lempelius, Richard Bolton, and the CD's producer Andy Metcalfe) do a grand job, admirably restrained yet abundantly sympathetic. Within the context of the simplicity of the arrangements, there are some unusual ideas too, like the use of piano accordion as a drone on The Lisburn Lass. Though there's an attractive lilt to Helen's singing, she never sounds twee or "pretty", for the timbre she achieves is satisfyingly full-bodied. It may seem a contradiction in terms to say so, but Helen's mastery of unobtrusive decoration within a fairly direct vocal delivery is a notable feature of her singing style – of the three unaccompanied tracks here, her rendition of Lovely Annie (learnt from the singing of Paddy Tunney) perhaps provides best evidence of this. Helen's a singer with genuine responsiveness to the texts; hers is an enchanting presence, and your 50 minutes will be well spent in her company. This is a very lovely album, one of whose selling-points could well be its quality as an antidote for those who prefer to avoid the prettified tones of the "Mike Harding babes"…


David Kidman

Suzzy and Maggie Roche - Zero Church (Red House)

This rather special album marks the first release by Suzzy and Maggie as a duo. It arises out of their stint, during 2000, as but two of the Artists-in-Residence on a project at Harvard University's Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue. This project entailed asking course participants to share a prayer with them which they could then set to music; they received an extraordinary variety of texts, including some which were meditations rather than actual prayers, and others which were writings that had given spiritual comfort, and this variety is reflected in the musical settings adopted. As is the project's refreshing lack of religious dogma or bias reflected in the album's very title (although, intriguingly, we learn that the address where the Institute's meetings took place was 0, Church Street, Cambridge, Mass. …)

Musically, the settings range from straight gospel through to the distinctly contemporary, all unified in purpose and each one totally convincing. The sisters' ability to straddle and move through the cracks between musical genres is a distinct asset for such a project, and so the occasional juxtaposition of different idioms within individual settings proves extremely effective - listen to Hallelujah, which moves naturally from modal-churchy to country-folk, for instance. Simplicity and sincerity are the dominant traits here though, and tracks like A Prayer (words by Vietnam veteran Bill Barbeau with a basic piano backing) are especially moving. It's significant too that the album's release date (planned for 11 September 2001) was delayed in order to include Suzzy's own touchingly simple tribute to the heroes of that momentous and tragic day (New York City).

The album also features guest performances by other singers and musicians who attended the Institute, including Ysaye Barnwell (of Sweet Honey In The Rock, on Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray), the superb DuPree (who leads on the vibrant Teach Me O Lord) and Ruben Martinez. Even so, Suzzy and Maggie singing acapella on Together With You and the brief Shaker hymn This Gospel How Precious, then with Joel Bard on the orthodox Jewish chant Aveenu Malcainu provide but three of the album's highlights. The production, by Suzzy herself with Stewart Lerman, is first-rate and unobtrusive. As befits an honest and life-affirming release that defies categories and preconceptions in the healthiest possible way, and conveys directly to the listener (in Suzzy's own words) "something real about compassion, kindness and tolerance".


David Kidman

Rock Plaza Central - Are We Not Horses (Yep Roc)

"I am an excellent steel horse", warbles Chris Eaton like some whisky soaked rural church preacher on the title lines of the wonderfully drunken lurching opening track before a Salvation Army Band's funeral march horns stride in. It's just one of several tracks on the Toronto septet's quasi concept album about an apocalyptic future where humans and angels duke it out and robotic horses have an existential crisis. No, hang on.

Drawn from Eaton's post modernist short stories about a race of six legged robot horses that teach humanity about truth and love after being betrayed by the humans; and yes, the rest of the band were as bemused as you are.

You don't have to particularly buy into the allegorical lyrics though, because the whole organic, dust coated feel of the album is intoxication in itself. The music's been described as a meeting between Neutral Milk Hotel and the Band, the combination of guitars, banjo, violin, drums, bass and brass evoking Southern travelling carnivals and medicine shows.

It seems a pretty fair description, Eaton's scratched emotive voice trammelling through the anthemic likes of the hymnal When We Go, How We Go, the inspirational waltzing Our Hearts Will Not Rust, the devil's blues stomping How Shall I To Heaven Aspire? and My Children Be Joyful which sounds like a backwoods version of The Polyphonic Spree.

And then there's the quite marvellous folk-blues mazurka spiritual Anthem For The Already Defeated which boasts the great line "we'll shake our rumps with bloody stumps and we cannot be defeated.", suggesting Eaton might also be a Monty Python & The Holy Grail fan. We've Got A Lot To Be Glad For they carouse on the final track. And so does anyone who stumbles upon this utterly barking but quite, quite wonderful collection. Saddle up and ride.


Mike Davies July 2007

Rock Salt & Nails - Live & Hazardous (Park Records)

I first encountered Rock Salt & Nails at Ronnie Scott's in London at their debut CD launch and thought at the time they've got it just about right with their attitude sharpened approach to the music. This, if you've seen them before is due in the main to the band's front-man and damn fine vocalist, guitarist/banjo player Paul Johnston. In many ways I feel they're a more folk friendly version of The Proclaimers with touches of jazz and lyrics that sound as if they could have come from a bygone era. There's also a certain feelgood factor that sets them apart from other artists in the folk-rock fraternity. With lead lines dextrously performed by fiddler Linda Irvine, the keyboards of Fiona Johnston, John Clark's bass and Ryan Martin's drums the band can seriously rock when required. Although some might accuse them of being a little light-weight without the energies of a dirty rock guitar to drive things along you won't find that from me as I've always preferred a more organic, acoustic sound. Also, if 'entertainment' is a dirty word I suppose that live they could be accused of that as well – but trust me, it's this spontaneous energy from Paul that drives the whole thing. Johnston's own song-writing accounts for a majority of the set but he's also astute enough to make a nod in the direction of Lennon & McCartney and Jason Feddy's excellent 'Even the Rain'. It sounds like the band and the audience had a grand time and as captured by engineer Richard Holfield this will prove a must have souvenir of the show.


Pete Fyfe

Rock Salt & Nails - Midnight Rain (Park)

The first thing that's noticeable on this, Rock Salt & Nails' sixth album (and first for Park Records), is a maturity in the songwriting and selection of covers. Gone is the freneticism of earlier RS&N albums, to be replaced by a willingness to let the songs unfold at their own pace, guiding the listener along, rather than pushing impatiently from behind.

That's not to say, however, that the Shetlands band has forgotten how to kick up the sawdust when called upon to do so. The ability to provide the soundtrack to a right old knees-up is most evident on the album's two sets of tunes - Linda's set and The patterned carpet set - both of which heavily feature some fine fiddle-playing. Hardly surprising, really, as three of the seven musicians present tuck their instruments under their chins.

But it's the songs - and their execution - that stand out on this 11-track collection. Sweetness starts things off confidently, featuring the voice and guitar of Paul Johnston, who, with wife Fiona (keyboards and vocals) and Emma (fiddle and vocals) is one of three Johnstons in the RS&N line-up. In my head, written by Paul J, follows the opener with a piano and guitar intro and the two Johnston women joining him for pleasing harmonies on the chorus and, as across most of the album, it's the three-fiddle attack of Emma J, Paul Anderson and Linda Irvine that gives the song an added impetus. They play with fire and enthusiasm, obviously relishing the chance to tackle the new material.

Influences can be heard on several tracks; the traditional There is a happy land, set to a bright and lively arrangement of the tune The cuil adahone, brings The Proclaimers to mind. Classic Al Stewart can be heard lurking among the lyrics of Johnston's She's just a girl; and some wonderful swing-style fiddle is reminiscent of Fairport Convention's Ric Sanders on Got to go, which benefits from some nifty snare-tickling from drummer David Jamieson, who, with bassist and founder member John Clark, forms a solid, dependable rhythm section. The jazzy feel is echoed on You wouldn't do that to me, a blindly optimistic song of a man who can't accept the glaringly obvious fact of his woman's infidelity.

Midnight Rain is a fine album full of an eclectic blend of folk, rock, pop and subtle jazz nuances that is enriched by that very diversity and enlivened by first-rate musicianship throughout.


Fred Hall

Rock Salt & Nails - Midnight Rain (Park)

Five albums in, the Shetland acoustic folk rockers have established a solid reputation and following on the circuit but still haven't found the route to the sort of crossover and profile enjoyed by, say Oysterband. The situation's not likely to change with new album Midnight Rain, though that's no observation on the music it contains. With just two instrumentals showcasing their penchant for fiddle or banjo driven reels (unfortunately lacking the fire they can whip up live), this is very much song and vocal driven, Paul Johnston's sweet warm vocal put to the service of numbers that use the band's folk roots as a base from which to explore pop and jazz moods.

Opening track Sweetness is a typically catchy simple love song which, like the dreamy Blyde wouldn't sound amiss in the company of Deacon Blue or Neil Finn while Got To Go leans into folk swing, the dark lyric singalong There Is A Happy Land sways to shanty town calypso and barn dance melodies, You Wouldn't Do That To Me sits in on a brushed hot club jazz lounge shuffle and Even The Rain paints its bluesy folk tones with the tang of salty sea air and mountain mists. The stand out though is the muscular swirling Dark Outside which with its stormy raging fiddles, urgent guitars and clattering drums conjures thoughts of Men They Couldn't Hang, the sort of rousing stomper like to lift the roof live and leave everyone thoroughly exhausted.


Mike Davies

(The Best of) Lee Rocker - Burnin' Love (Hypertension)

Burnin' Love is one high-octane roadster of an album from the double-bass rockabilly master Lee Rocker. The pedal's to the floor and there's no speed limit for nearly 70 minutes with tracks taken from Rocker and band's Atomic Boogie Hour, Big Blue, No Cats, Blue Suede Nights, unreleased studio and live tracks - and a nice plus, a Multimedia bonus of Blue Suede Night (clip) and Bulletproof and Evil (live). The album's 23 rocking tracks include old favourites Burnin' Love, Viva Las Vegas, That's Allright, Blue Moon Of Kentucky and Rag Mama Rag as well as songs by Rocker himself.

It's hard to believe that the already legendary ex-Stray Cat Rocker was only 17 years old when the group formed in 1979 and rode the road of rockabilly revivalism to a massive 7 millions album sales. But rock 'n' roll don't fade away. Rocker exuberantly pursues his own career; slapping and surfing his double bass and recording albums which will doubtless become the classics of tomorrow.

So, file him with your best party music; Elvis during his Sun days, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. Grease your hair, ease into that drape jacket and those leopard skin brothel creepers - and liberate your inner Lee Rocker.


Sue Cavendish

To see a young Lee Rocker playing with the best, get hold of Carl Perkins and Friends - Blue Suede Shoes: A Rockabilly Session (Snapper Music DVD). Recorded in London's Limehouse Studios in 1985, it's a live session with Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Ringo, Dave Edmunds, Rosanne Cash and others playing backing group to the god-father of rock 'n' roll - and having the time of their lives! 5 stars!

Lee Rocker - Blue Suede Nights: Live Rockabilly (Hypertension)

This is Carl Perkins territory and a homage to him. It's 'live' rockabilly, redolent of smoky pub back rooms, hot jive clubs and memories by the score to carbon date the listener (the 50s or the 80s). You missed them? Shame! They were the real rock'n'roll times when many young musicians honed their chops for fun, to 'pull the chicks' or, if nothing else was available, a percentage of the bar!

Lee Rocker will be remembered as the slapper of the stand-up bass in rockabilly revival band Stray Cats. The Cats formed in New York 1980, then moved to London where they were signed, produced by Dave Edmunds, charted and sold seven million albums. Umpteen albums later and back in America, the Cats finally disbanded in 1994.

Along the way, Rocker (real name Drucher) had appeared in the Carl Perkins 1985 TV special 'Blue Suede Shoes' with Perkins, Edmunds, Rosanne Cash, George Harrison, Eric Clapton and Ringo Starr. Perkins had seen something special in Rocker, calling him "a young legend", and had been working with him on various projects over the years until his death in 1998.

Blue Suede Nights is 'son of Perkins' with songs by Perkins, Authur Crudup, Hank Williams, Leon Russell and Rocker himself. It was recorded over a series of gigs in Southern California featuring Brophy Dale and Adrian DeMain on guitars and Jimmy Sage on drums. They sound like they had a real good time!


Sue Cavendish

The Rocky Athas Group - Miracle (Armadillo)

Rocky Athas is an inductee of Buddy Magazine's Texas Tornadoes, an honour he shares with Stevie Ray Vaughan, Johnny Winter, Billy Gibbons and Stevie's brother Jimmy to name but a few. An auspicious lot you will have to agree. In fact, Rocky achieved this status two years before Stevie Ray and it has been said that he influenced Brian May with his finger tapping style, later taken up by Eddie Van Halen. This is some billing to live up to and this latest album, Miracle, will go a long way to helping him to gain the recognition as those mentioned above.

The subdued opening title track has a kind of Bird Of Paradise vibe going on, especially in the chorus but the signs are there for the blistering fretwork to come and Larry Samfords smokey vocals set the scene for the rest of the album. Athas opens up on You Move Me, a straightforward blues-rock offering before slowing the pace down again for No More. This has a distortion-laden solo that is worth listening to the song for alone. The Long Run is electric blues through and through with Riley Osbornes keyboards adding an extra dimension. The electric blues, Chicago style, continues with Bluesville, with snappy guitar fills and the obligatory driving solo.

That Was Then, This Is Now is a departure from the blues based songs. This is essentially an acoustic rock song that contains a couple of riffs for budding guitarists to cut their teeth on and it contains one of the best solos on the album. The first song that neither Athas or Samford has a songwriting credit on is High Cost Of Loving, covered by Gary Moore during his short lived BBM project with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker. Athas' guitar playing here is more than the equal of Moore's. One Heartbeat is another slow track, which, although it doesn't really go anywhere, is not sore on the ears.

One of the highlights of the album is the cover of Tommy Bolin's Slow Driver. It seeps into your subconscious with its innuendo filled lyric – I'd like to drive you all night! Pounding drums and bass from Johnny Bolin and Robert Ware respectively set the song up perfectly. Play this one at full volume. This is quickly followed by excellent blues-rock of Real Bad Feeling and I Wish I Could Be That Strong. The album finishes with a trio of disparate songs, the slightly funky I Love You, the piano based That Magic and another of my favourites Long Time Gone, which is good-time blues with the message of good riddance to someone that's not wanted – not a message that we would want to send to Rocky Athas.


David Blue

Rodriguez - Coming From Reality (Light In The Attic)

Detroit-based Sixto Diaz Rodriguez's 1971 follow-up to the previous year's debut Cold Fact was to be his last.

Decamped inexplicably to London's Lansdowne Studios he lucks into sterling support from session guitarist Chris Spedding, bongo wallah Tony Carr (Magna Carta, Donovan) and sundry members of period chart pop act The Family Dogg, while Steve (Pretty Things, PJ Proby) Rowland deploys his production skills well on a consistently strong set of wry, socio politically-observant songs spanning upbeat pop-rockers to Jimmy Horowitz's rich to syrup string-accompanied ballads by way of acoustic guitar-picked mid-tempo numbers, rounded off on this welcome reissue with three previously unreleased bonus tracks recorded in 1972 with Cold Fact collaborators Mike Theodore & Dennis Coffey.

Less hard-edged than its predecessor, the funky Bill Fay cited Coming From Reality as his vision of a 'perfect pop album'. But then Rodriguez was no shy and retiring violet: still upbeat, in the reissue press blurb we find him in a ruminative state over his rediscovery, akin he feels to that of Picasso and Monet.

August company indeed. But then opener 'Climb Up On My Music', with Spedding's memorably nagging guitar hook, is less a plea than a call-to-arms.

Whilst the album's exhumation cites it 'lost classic' status, this much bandied and abused accolade is closer to task here than for most of the seemingly endless singer-songwriter reissues of the day.


Peter Muir August 2009

Carrie Rodriguez - Give Me All You Got (Ninth Street Opus)

If there's a vacancy for a rootsier, post-Raising Sand Alison Krauss then all other candidates should gracefully withdraw, the position is filled.

That's not damning Rodriguez with faint praise merely accepting the fact that her harder edged cocktail of country, bluegrass and pop - Sad Joy, Devil In Mind - occasionaly filtered through the sensibility of Daniel Lanois - Cut Me Now - and even a measure of southern rock as in the instrumental reprise of Devil In Mind.

But what holds it all together, aside from exemplary musicianship throughout and the playfully attractive quality of Rodriguez' vocals, is the quality of the songs. Rootsy they may be, but they have a pop sensibility that sticks to the mind after very few plays. Rodriguez has a hand in all of them and thus it would be reasonable to assume that she paid close attention during her time as musical partner to Chip Taylor, a man with an admirable track record in that particular arena. What is surprising is reading the liner to find that that erstwhile partnership is far from dead as Taylor actually co-writes on almost half the album. Frontman and muse changing roles perhaps?

So, as suggested at the top, if you want something like Krauss but with a little more grit, you'll love this and as it sits at number two in the AMA chart as I write plenty of folks clearly do.


Steve Morris March 2013

Carrie Rodriguez and Ben Kyle - We Still Love Our Country (Ninth Street Opus)

After three studio and two live recordings with Chip Taylor, Rodriguez decided to spread her wings and fly solo. Now, after three studio albums under her own name she's back in a partnership again, this time with Ben Kyle, Belfast born frontman for little known Minnesota outfit Romantica.

Not that she's entirely left Chip behind. Having previously recorded it for her Seven Angels On A Bicycle album, she now revisits the Taylor penned Big Kiss in Kyle's company. It's two minutes shorter but, varying the tone rather than maintaining the same note throughout, it's an even better version that will inevitably prompt the usual Gram and Emmylou comparisons.

All the more so since they end the set with their take on Love Hurts. It doesn't match the one on Grievous Angel nor does it seek to emulate it. Rather the duo invest themselves in it and emerge with a very creditable cover.

There's some other fine choices here too. Townes Van Zandt's If I Needed You has become a staple, but with Rodriguez introducing her fiddle into the song and the two voices coming together so well, they make it sound totally fresh.

Likewise the John Prine/Robert Braddock penned Unwed Fathers where Rodriguez provides harmony and mournful fiddle to Kyle's lead while the two remaining covers, the old Louvins hit My Baby's Gone (on which they share verses and which features some lovely Sweep Out The Ashes pedal steel) and classic honky tonker You're Still On My Mind (immortalised by both The Byrds and George Jones), both earn them a place in the league of great old school country boy/girl duos.

But then, with a bit of care, a good producer and a crack band (Ricky Fataar is on drums for a start), if you've got the basic vocal talents it's not too hard to turn out a solid set of country covers. What distinguishes this is the fact it also includes a couple of knockout original numbers, the jaunty co-penned Fire Alarm (where they each list the other's faults) and Kyle's Your Lonely Heart honky tonker has all the hallmarks of a future much covered favourite, especially down those line dance hang outs.

I'd like to have heard Rodriguez upfront a little more, but if this is just the start of a new partnership, hopefully there'll be plenty of albums ahead for that.


Mike Davies October 2011

Carrie Rodriguez - Love And Circumstance (Ninth Street Opus)

There's cover versions and there's cover versions. Some are faithful versions of the original that may sound great but bring nothing new to the song or the singer. They're the equivalent of someone picking up a guitar at a party and taking requests. Then there's those that honour the craft of songwriting by revealing a new perspective to the song. They're a bit like cosmetic surgery, peeling back the skin and reassembling the bones into a different shape while retaining the constituent parts.

And then there's those in which the singer pays respect to the material but imbues it with their own spirit so that, unless you knew otherwise, you'd believe they'd written it. Such is the case with Rodriguez's third solo album, a collection of love songs by artists she counts as inspiration and influences, produced by Lee Townsend, recorded with her regular band and featuring guest contributions by Bill Frisell, Buddy Miller, Greg Leisz, and Aoife O'Donovan. After two previous albums, it also underlines her increasing confidence and strength as a vocalist, finding both tenderness and muscle in equal measure.

She makes interesting choices too. There's been many a John Hiatt cover, but few have gone to the well of his Little Village one-off with Ry Cooder and Nick Lowe. She puts that to right with opening track, a slow treading, big building version of Big Love. It's a potent benchmark, but one she has no problem following. Miller steps up to provide harmony vocals on his and his wife's own Wide River To Cross, one of four tracks that find Rodriguez on electric mandolin.

Having first come to notice, scraping the bow with Chip Taylor, she's not forsaken the fiddle. It figures on two numbers here, a homespun bluegrass take on M. Ward's Eyes On The Prize and a wonderfully melancholic twangy reading of Richard Thompson's Waltzing's For Dreamers.

As you might expect from her musical roots, there's a veritable country hall of fame among her chosen writers. Miller again lends harmonies while Leisz provides pedal steel for a waltz round the honky tonk with Merle's I Started Loving You Again, Bill Frisell provides simple bluesy guitar backing to Carrie's mandolin on the starry prairie night reading of Hank's I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry while Crooked Still's O'Donovan provides the harmony on Townes' Rex's Blues.

Frisell guests too on a brace of songs from more contemporary names, providing a solid spine on a sterling shimmering cover of Lucinda's Steal Your Love and delivering a gutsy solo for Rawlings and Welch's I Made A Lover's Prayer.

But it's not just choice cuts from known names. The hushed, breathy I'm Not For Love with its tremolo guitar ripples comes from the pen of little known Australian singer-songwriter Sandrine Daniels. Given she's yet to record it herself, it shows Rodriguez clearly has her ear to the ground.

The remaining two cuts are also unlikely to ring many bells. Sung in Spanish, in recognition of her heritage, the closing La Punalada Trapera was written by the late celebrated Mexican ranchera music composer Sosa Tomas Mendez and, in her live set for a few years now, was probably learned from her great aunt, 50s singer Eva Garza. There's also a family connection to When I Heard Gypsy Dave Sing. Featuring pedal steel, brushed drums and a gorgeous meld of Rodriguez and O'Donovan's voices, it's penned by Carrie's father David and, as such, features the album's most emotionally invested performance. Like the whole album, musically and thematically, it's a labour of love.



Mike Davies August 2010

Carrie Rodriguez - She Ain't Me (Continental Song City)

Her second solo album and the first since dissolving her musical partnership with Chip Taylor, the Mexican-American fiddle player has put the violin to one side (she plays on only three tracks here), taken up the pen (Taylor wrote her debut but she's credited on all but one of the 11 tracks) and found her inner Lucinda Williams (the real thing duetting on the religion-questioning Mask of Moses) for an album that finds her getting into ballsy, bluesy Southern fried Americana.

Produced by Wrecking Ball's Malcolm Burn, you're left in no doubt that she's redefining herself from the opening Infinite Night, a Gary Louris co-write (with his harmony vocals) that announces itself with images of 'drug lords, crooked cops, and thieves' and proceeds to provide a muscular musical setting of snarling guitar and steamrollering rhythm to go with the steel rimmed lyrics.

The pop sassy title track (co-penned by Semisonic's Dan Wilson) lays it out again with oodles of self-confident swagger as she lets some cheating lover know she's nobody's fool and there's more of the same molten maturity of form and content on Absence, a fiddle scraping swampy blues that shares credits with Mary Gauthier, El Salvador with its low slung strummed bluesy groove, barroom piano boogie and drawled semi-spoken delivery, and a smouldering Lucinda-streaked El Dorado.

There's some effective simple strokes to the pedal steel stained heartache waltzer Rag Doll and, the other Louris co-write, soulful album closer Can't Cry Enough, while both the spare self-written Let Me In with its minimal plucked fiddle and burst of reverb guitar and the easy rolling Southern swampy blues A Big Mistake demonstrate an ability to paint with rich colours from a deceptively unfussy palette.

No longer playing, ahem, second fiddle, Rodriguez has revealed some hitherto unsuspected strings to her bow.


Mike Davies May 2009

Carrie Rodriguez - Seven Angels on a Bicycle (Trainwreck)

Having made three albums duetting with Chip Taylor, the Mexican-American fiddle player now makes her solo debut. Not that she's entirely flown the nest, since seven of the 12 tracks are written by Taylor while four of the others are co-writes. No problem with that since Chip's come up with a solid collection of material (even if writing such sexually upfront numbers for her to sing seems a bit dubious) while the arrangements move fluidly between the expected acoustic strummed bluegrass and Texicali country and more surprising shades of jazz (well, Bill Frisell is the guitar man) and blues.

She sweats things up with the bluesy hoe down Never Gonna Be Your Bride, waltzes with Border town attitude on I Don't Wanna Play House Anymore and 50s French Movie is a sleazed blues rock groove slink, but mostly the musical moods here are sultry and melancholic, languidly heated and slouched.

She's not got the strongest of voices, but she knows how to sock a number across, investing the ghost boned sensuality of Dirty Leather, the moody title track (written in memory of a friend killed by a truck while riding his bike), the wistful Got Your Name On It and the haunting He Ain't Jesus, a song about an abusive relationship, with lived in character and real rich blood. She'll make better albums, but for now this is an impressive debut that well warrants a spin on the saddle.


Mike Davies, Sept 2006

Nathan Rogers - True Stories (Halfway Cove Music)

Having quite often been sorely disappointed by the creative endeavours of the progeny of famous musical figures, I was understandably reluctant at first to even approach this debut CD by the son of the iconic Canadian singer-songwriter who so tragically died in a plane accident in 1983. However, it's a pleasure to report that my misgivings are unjustified. Though only just past his mid-20s, Nathan clearly has the gift for songwriting, although it's a developing gift rather than one emerging fully formed. And although vocally Nathan can definitely be heard to be, if not a dead ringer, surely "quite a chip off the old block" (especially in matters of tonal attack and phrasing), he's equally clearly his own man. Like his father, he has a keen interest in Canadian life and history, which most powerfully surfaces on Mary's Child (which deals with the harrowing impact of French missionaries on the people of Ste. Marie); Hibbing (which has a bit of a James Keelaghan feel) depicts the lives of iron-ore miners, and Tuesday Morning concerns New York firefighters. The cryptic philosophy of The Rising Tide is an oddity, but an intriguing one. Nathan's talent for (often quite savage, biting and satirical) social commentary is demonstrated in Hold The Line and the eastern-inflected Kill Your TV. Nathan's musical idiom vacillates with the song, and can equally easily encompass deft Americana, bluesy shuffle and tender folk balladry: even the tasty twelve-bar of Can't Sit Still isn't the throwaway its lyric might indicate. And importantly, Nathan's own keen musicianship is not in any doubt whatsoever – he's a pretty impressive guitarist – and he's able to command some high-quality support (from Richard Moody, J.P. Cormier, Christian Dugas, Gilles Fournier and others, with special mention for Nicky Mehta's backing vocals). I'll admit the CD begins inauspiciously with a rocking-country version of Ballad Of Duncan And Brady, a strange choice for a lead-track for a singer-songwriter, but the disc's other cover is a splendid rendition of his uncle Garnet's setting of Charles Kingsley's Three Fishers (previously recorded by Stan on his For The Family LP). Sure, even as a debut CD True Stories might seem mildly inconsistent in tenor and motive, but it contains enough indicators that Nathan's an impressive talent in his own right, and it will be worth catching one of his infrequent UK appearances, at York's award-winning Black Swan folk club on 18th June.


David Kidman May 2009

Roy Rogers - Split Decision (Blind Pig Records)

Roy Rogers is one of the finest slide guitarists around today. Always in demand, he has a number of credits to his name, Grammy nominations and awards. He was a member of John Lee Hooker's Coast To Coast Blues Band and producer of four of his albums. You will have heard his talents if you have ever seen the film One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest as he features on the soundtrack.

His sixth solo album begins with Calm Before The Storm, a grinding, shuffling opener with Rogers' signature slide. Patron Saint Of Pain features his swinging, laconic delivery and Little Queen Bee is a bouncy boogie. Bitter Rain is another shuffling blues based rocker and confirms that Rogers improves with age. Someone Like You shows more of a country influence but is a little weak. The jazzy Rite Of Passage has an excellent sax input from George Brooks but the follow up Rivers Of Tears is a bit nondescript. Your Sweet Embrace is a gentle acoustic instrumental whilst Requiem For A Heavyweight is just bog standard by Rogers' standards. I Would Undo Anything is unashamedly country and won't offend anyone but he's back to what he does best on Holy Ghost Moan. This electric slide boogie is played in a CCR style. It's good fun and it's the highlight of the album. Rogers closes out the album with the grinding rock of Walkin' The Levee. Brooks' sax and Rogers' guitar vie for top billing but there can be only one winner. Many take on the slide guitar but only a few become masters. Roy Rogers is most certainly in the latter group.


David Blue November 2009

Roy Rogers & The Delta Rhythm Kings - Live At The Nevada Brewery Big Room (Chops Not Chaps Records)

Roy Rogers is regarded as one of the worlds top slide players and the evidence is here on this new live album. He opens with Ever Since I Lost You, a showstopper and it's only the first track! The Delta Rhythm Kings (Steve Ehrmann on bass and Jim Sanchez on drums) are as tight a band as I've heard for some time and the audience just know that they are in for a special night. Lieber and Butler's Down Home Girl is a charming upbeat blues and Rogers unleashes a scything guitar on Mellow Apples, which eventually gets going but is a little fragmented. Willie Dixon's Built For Comfort is played with barrelhouse piano and this is a brilliant combination with Rogers' superlative guitar – if you want authentic, you got it. There's a funked up version of Robert Johnson's Terraplane Blues to follow and Rogers uses his formidable prowess to change the song completely. You are in for a surprise, believe me. Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee's I'm A Stranger Here is turned into a slinky blues with added vocal from Shana Morrison. It's just their voices and guitar only and sometimes the simple things are the best. Gertie Ruth is a rhythmic blues with Southern fiddle from Tom Rigney and good vocal harmonies. Down In Mississippi has lightning fast guitar and is quite simply a joy to listen to. Vida's Place is a punchy, throbbing blues and Duck Walk is a short, up-tempo instrumental with more of Rogers' superb guitar. Shake Your Moneymaker has me running out of superlatives for his guitar playing and the rest of the band match his performance on this Elmore James classic. Norton Buffalo on harmonica blows his lungs out and the pianist, Philip Aaberg, tries to outdo him. Both vocalists turn in a majestic piece and, did I mention that this is superb? The set finishes with For The Children and Rogers shows his virtuosity on this touching instrumental, showing that he has a soft side too.

Roy Rogers is a guitar player's guitarist, listen to this and you'll understand why.


David Blue June 2007

Roy Rogers - Slideways (Evidence)

Sheer genius! From the opening track Avalanche you know Roy Rogers is back with a vengeance, with an outstanding all-instrumental album of slide guitar, sharp enough to slice, dice and fry you alive. Slideways is not about laid-back twelve-bar blues - here are 56 minutes of tight, hard-driving rhythm and grooves, funk and soulful melodies, all shot through with Roy's searing slide - and there's not one 'filler' in this diverse collection. It's as good as anything he's ever recorded - probably his best.

Such power and intensity is not what you might expect from someone who's been playing the blues for the past 30 odd years. During part of them he was John Lee Hooker's guitarist and band member and producer of JLH's last four albums - the Grammy winner The Healer and Mr Lucky, Boom Boom and Chill Out. And his creative prowess has not mellowed one iota despite the fact he's touring much of the year with various combinations of 'friends'.

'Friends' on Slideways, giving a helping hand, are his sometimes recording partner Norton Buffalo on harmonica on six tracks. Then there's Scott Mathews (who co-produced the album with Roy), Jim Sanchez, Francis Clay and Joseph Zigaboo Modeliste who share the drumming/percussion honours; piano/keyboards from the excellent Phil Aaberg; plus Freddie Roulette, master blues lap-steel guitar who's there on a couple of tracks, and Steve Evans lays it down and keeps it together on bass. "We wanted this recording to have an edge throughout - I think it does". It does!

Roy Rogers is one of the nicest guys around - he's also one of the best rocking blues guitarists you'll ever hear but have probably never heard before. But you can do something about that right now.


Sue Cavendish

Norton Buffalo & Roy Rogers - Roots Of Our Nature (Blind Pig Records)

World renowned slide guitarist Rogers and acclaimed harmonica player Buffalo join forces for an album of original songs that brings simplicity back to music. This is their third album together and what they have produced is a seemingly effortless set that, on the whole, is as laid back as you can get.

Tracks such as the opening Don't Throw Your Changes On Me and Under The Rug are perfect vehicles for their collective talents. Requiem chugs along with railroad rhythm whereas they change the tempo completely for If I Were A King with its tale of everlasting love. The duo share lead vocals throughout and although they don't have the greatest singing voices on the planet what they do is make the listener think 'Hey, that could quite easily be me singing there'.

There are two instrumentals included. The first, Ritmo De Las Almas (Rhythm Of The Souls), is a Latin tinged effort which has Buffalos mournful harp and Rogers rhythmic guitar vying for prominence. Making New Love Out Of Old is a straightforward country song - check out the title for a start!

It's difficult to pick out favourites from this album but the gentle Long Hard Road has to figure. There seems to be a religious strain running through the album and Trinity continues the theme although this song shows up mans ability to use it for a reason for war.

A return to a more up-tempo beat and a New Orleans style shuffle brings us to Deny And Down The Distance with Rogers on his 12-string and mandolin. The 12-string is also used to good effect on All I Want and Seven Hearts and gives a fuller sound. The album finishes with Highway Bound and the second instrumental, Happy Go Lucky. The former is a funky saga of man leaving woman and hitting the road while the latter is exactly what the title says - a fast moving, not a care in the world, ripsnorter.

Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee for the 21st century? You'll have to decide but I'm sure that the old masters would approve of the easy on the ear, country blues of Norton Buffalo & Roy Rogers.


David Blue

Roy Rogers & Shana Morrison - Everybody's Angel (Roshan)

Here is a surprise pairing: Roy Rogers, one of the greatest slide guitarists in the world, John Lee Hooker producer and sometime band member, and Shana Morrison, Van Morrison's daughter and new emerging songwriter talent. Together they have released an excellent album. Sassy-voiced Shana's jazzy blues delivery and Roy's country-edged vocals work warmly together - and those arrangements, wow! The darkly laid-back opening track 'Molly O & Dog Boy' with its steel guitar touches and acoustic percussion leads you into an album which demonstrates the incredible versatility of Rogers' guitar and confirm what many know - that Roy is a superb producer.

Previous albums from Roy can flay you alive with their slide riffs. Here he is never bludgeoning, never subservient, just scarily perfect in his discretion and appropriateness. Tight musicianship: drums and percussion from Jimmy Sanchez, accordion and keyboards from Phil Aalberg, bass from Scoop McGuire, Dana Pandey's tabla and Robert Powell's pedal steel, underpin a great collection of songs and a must-have album. What can I say? It's so good I bought it twice.


Sue Cavendish

Stan Rogers - The Very Best Of Stan Rogers (Borealis)

Stan Rogers was unquestionably one of the finest folk-oriented songwriters to have come out of Canada, and his death in 1983 (at just 33) in a fire aboard an airplane was one of the great tragedies of music history. So many of his impressive canon of songs have achieved wide currency on the folk scene (there's over half-a-dozen of them in my own repertoire!), and yet his handful of albums (on the Fogarty's Cove label) have been only intermittently and/or unreliably available in the UK.

Even more reason, then, to welcome this new compilation with the openest of arms. It provides what I'd regard as a genuinely-very-best selection of 16 of Stan's performances in splendidly-well-remastered state, and furnishes today's often hyper-critical folk audiences with an opportunity to catch up and/or re-evaluate Stan's output (and start from there, indeed). The selection, made by Stan's widow Ariel in collaboration with his album producer Paul Mills, covers all the bases, from heartfelt love songs (45 Years) to passionate declarations of pride in his Canadian heritage (the anthemic North-West Passage), supremely sensitive portraits of life in the Maritimes (Make Or Break Harbour, The Jeannie C), the Great Lakes (Tiny Fish For Japan, Lock-keeper) or the Prairies (Field Behind The Plow, Lies), stirring narrative songs (The Flowers Of The Bermuda) and inspirational songs that just happen to have some of the most rousing choruses in Christendom (The Mary Ellen Carter of course, but also Barrett's Privateers, written to order for a singing group Stan used to frequent – and subsequently parodied by one of the group's members in tribute!!).

Stan's songs can be described as nothing less than masterly, and while embodying his personal passions they display considerable insights into the lives of those he wrote about (whether fictional or not, Stan's research was always impeccable and the resultant songs never less than totally authentic in conveying the relevant experiences). Stan was a songwriting genius, with a true gift for melody that set the seal on the simple intensity and boundless humanity of his lyrics. In the opinions of many, no other songwriter has more truthfully captured the essence of life in the situations and places he describes in his songs.

For his own performances, Stan was fortunate in securing and retaining the musicianship of his younger brother Garnet, who with bassists Jim Morison, guitarist Curly Boy Stubbs (a cheeky pseudonym for producer Paul Mills) and other compadres including Grit Laskin, David Woodhead and Ray Parker, provide the majority of the backings for the various album sessions. Stan's rich, glorious and mighty deep-baritone voice soars right through, unmistakable and distinctive, and proves the saving grace for the occasional tendency to over-indulgence in the arrangement department that for me mars (and rather dates) some of the later studio-recorded tracks. Three of the 16 have been culled from the celebrated live set recorded at The Groaning Board, Toronto in April 1979.

As for the decision of which 16 songs to include, well I really can't quibble, for it's near ideal; putting it this way, there's absolutely none of those that I'd have chosen to exclude, but were it not for the inevitable playing-time considerations I might also have squeezed in a couple more favourites (Turnaround and the multi-hankie First Christmas, for instance). So – here we have a splendid, genuinely no-complaints compilation that's both the best of introductions to Stan and his writing (and a perfect encapsulation of the essence of the man), and a great-sounding taster for Borealis' remastered reissue of the entire Stan Rogers catalogue. Oh, and a compelling listening sequence in its own right, outwith the context of the original recordings – and not many such compilations can boast that. A winner through and through.


David Kidman May 2011

The Rohan Theatre Band - Perfect World (Hobgoblin)

When I undertake to review albums for NetRhythms, I'm sometimes apt to say "the weirder the better, throw 'em my way!" - and generally speaking I mean just that, for quite often it's the weirder musical experiences that yield the richest results. And this one proves the point... It's outlined in the beautifully detailed expositional liner notes (rather resembling one of those learnèd April 1st leaders in The Guardian newspaper) that the manifesto of the Rohan Theatre (the collective name for an exceedingly obscure turn-of-the-20th-century underground cultural group of radical artists) was allegedly to create a new kind of theatre where life imitated art rather than the other way round: its Theatre Band is the direct artistic creation (or but one alter-ego?) of a certain Rohan Kriwaczek (a man so obsessed with the received aesthetic of the Rohan Theatre that he changed his name by deed poll from Toby Woollcott), a classically trained musician, composer and writer (and - some say - con-man) who's previously collaborated with folks as diverse as Damon Albarn, Sandy Dillon, Willie Russell, HardKandy and Pressure Drop. So now we get serious, then... Rohan may look like a deranged undertaker, but he inhabits a quite sensible (and strangely logical) "perfect world" all his own, a carefully constructed sanctum from where he provides unique, deliciously grim commentaries on the fate of our society and culture, haunting and ingenious creations which are "noted for their acerbic wit and inner darkness" and their seemingly warped but pithily truthful philosophical stance. Rohan's sanctum is a place where Tom Waits meets Kurt Weill with a dash of klezmer, or so you might say if you're searching for a musical reference point. (Oh, and Screaming Lord Sutch maybe - just listen to The Undertakers' Ball: or is it possibly a distant deceased cousin of Boris Pickett's Monster Mash!? And yes, there's a song called My Russian Blonde which really does sound as though Tom W is gargling his heartbreak through his own twisted take on Are You Lonesome Tonight!...)This CD is a licensed compilation mostly taken from recordings which had originally appeared on two of Rohan's previous RTB releases: here he performs 15 of his own songs, accompanying himself on violin, clarinet, piano, accordion, guitars, bass, sax, banjo and assorted percussion - and they're very probably like almost nothing else you'll have heard, certainly not in the standard singer-songwriter ambit. Rohan places a direct curse on those of feeble mind and cowardly mental processes, as we discover in his cabinet of curios the contents of many a freak-show. Many of his songs (for which full lyrics are thoughtfully provided in the copious accompanying booklet) read well outwith the purely musical context, and their lyrics sometimes belie the tunes to which they're set, taking on a character all their own when read in isolation; but it's indicative of Rohan's inventiveness that they do work in both modes (read and sung). Considering the disparate sources (two separate albums and three newly-recorded songs), there's an impressive degree of unity of musical vision on display throughout Perfect World. Extraordinary, brilliant and original - even if Rohan's uncompromising vocal style (akin to the aforementioned Mr Waits with a deep throat infection) very probably makes his music an extreme example of what one might term an "acquired" taste.


David Kidman December 2007

Roll A Penny - Swingin' Hinnies (RaP)

Already I hear readers' cries of "Oh no, not another brat-pack of self-evidently mega-talented youngsters from the north-east!" - but Roll A Penny aren't merely following in the illustrious footsteps of 422, Ola etc etc. They're prominently endorsed by none other than Kathryn Tickell, and rightly so – for this, their debut CD, shows more than early promise as they're already well on the way to becoming recognised with recent showcase slots, eg at The Sage Gateshead and the Black Swan in York (at one of that folk club's prestigious Young Performers' Nights, naturally!). Roll A Penny (aka Katie Doherty, Roger Purves and Andrew Cadie) achieve an amazing degree of variety and power within a seemingly basic fiddle/trumpet-mandolin/bouzouki-piano lineup; their playing is notable for its spirit and attack yet they don't appear to feel the need to compete with the speed merchants to make an impact. For instance, there's a dynamism in Katie's piano playing that allows the rhythm and melody aspects to coexist credibly (no junior-school plonkery here!), while Roger's fluid bouzouki and mandolin work proves the perfect mid-range foil between Andrew's fiddle and Katie's piano. Swingin' Hinnies contains among its ten tracks just four tune-sets; these are mostly trad-arr as far as repertoire goes, yet taken pretty quirkily all-told with a distinct knack for refreshingly innovative twists and turns in their ongoing presentation. Additionally, a reel also gets interpolated into Buy Broom Bezzums to good effect. As regards the six songs here, well no less than three are composed by Katie herself - and very fetching pieces these are too; I particularly liked the way Katie's songs take an adult, and quite pensive, view of a traditional situation or concept when bringing it into the contemporary world. Vocals are shared between Katie and Andrew. The only arrangement that didn't entirely convince me was Black Is The Colour, which is taken at somewhat too rushing a tempo. Summing up, RaP are unusually imaginative for such a young outfit (and I don't mean to sound at all patronising when I write that), and they have lots of good ideas; I await their second CD with great interest.


David Kidman

Rolling Stones - 40 Licks (ABKCO)

Just another Stones compilation? Well not quite – this is actually a fairly handy gathering-together of tracks from virtually the whole of the band's lengthy career, a feat not before accomplished (the twain of the Decca and EMI/RS years never previously allowed to meet). The first disc covers 1964-71, the second 1971 to the present day (Wild Horses and Brown Sugar providing the useful link between the two discs). Both discs mix hits with album tracks, all claiming to have been remastered (although I didn't notice great differences generally, except for obvious details like the longer take of Paint It, Black, say); it's perhaps curious that the second disc probably achieves greater stylistic consistency if at the expense of purely musical interest or innovation. The liner notes trumpet somewhat brazenly, but there's no denying that "such eternal songwriting collaborations as Satisfaction, Jumpin' Jack Flash, Honky Tonk Women and Brown Sugar are required listening for any Rock 'n' Roll 101 course load and every worthwhile post-graduate seminar as well". But it's equally hard to justify the apparently random sequencing of the tracks, which satisfies neither as a chronological survey nor in respect of balanced tempi. Having said that, this collection might save some fans from purchasing whole albums just to get at the later nuggets hidden within what latterly has become an increasingly uneven musical output (although one can admire their longevity of course) where technological gloss is no substitute for raw creative energy. Cynically, one might observe that the true marketing purpose of this package is to persuade Stones completists to purchase it just to acquire the four "new" tracks that appear scattered through disc two. Although these new offerings aren't exactly a disgrace to the Stones brand-name, and the latest single Don't Stop in particular inhabits an attractive enough retro groove, by and large it must be said that these most recent tracks are unlikely to overly inspire any die-hard Stones fan, and the choice of the untypical barroom ballad Losing My Touch (complete with Keith Richards' cracked, Lou-Reed-wannabee vocals) as an album closer probably says it all quite unintentionally ironically – nay, prophetically … But, if regarded as The Rolling Stones Story, a kind of overview, this set will doubtless provide more than a modicum of satisfaction, though I really don't feel it can be regarded as "definitive" like the box sticker claims.


David Kidman

Gifford Rolfe - Dark Hearts & Strange Angels (Gifford Music)

Gifford's an accomplished singer and songwriter who's been around the Wakefield (West Yorkshire) scene for some years, but he's remained very much on the fringe, both in terms of exposure and acceptance, since his special brand of performance doesn't easily fit into either the traditional folk club or the burgeoning modern acoustic scene. For all I know, he probably started out playing Dylan covers - he has an obvious and wholly natural feel for that type of material, as he shows on the one non-original on this well-filled CD (Girl Of The North Country), where he brings his own beguiling stamp to the interpretation. On his own material, though, Giff's much more of a chansonnier by nature. He's a talented artist too by the way (one of his paintings forms a backdrop to the box cover); this artistry informs his songs, which are strongly visually evocative in the way they depict characters and their experiences. As the insert blurb proclaims: "it is an album of light and shade, where legend and fact are overlaid in carefully crafted songs and stories". Nowhere is this more apparent than on the opening track, Northernsong, where Giff's attractive, drawling delivery creates and maintains a mood that's very akin to the weary, pensive dusty troubadour ambit of early Michael Chapman.

Giff's voice may not have quite the richness of the gruff timbre of Chapman nor the wild cutting edge of Dylan, but he's no bad singer either! The other side to Giff's coin is his clear, deep and honest affection for certain stage and screen idols, whose characters he chooses to explore in song (Piaf, James Dean In The Rain), though the more uptempo offerings (like Chaplin and Harry Houdini) seem (at any rate by comparison with the others) a touch lightweight, even simplistic maybe in their choice of imagery and expression. Throughout, the instrumental settings are admirably restrained, and fully in keeping both with Giff's performance style and his chosen subject-matter - principally just his own guitar with harmonica embellishments, but creatively augmented by Ian Fairbairn (wonderful swooping fiddle work on She Didn't Come Home and finely judged mandolin, lead acoustic or electric guitar elsewhere), and cameo appearances by Michael and Rosie of the illustrious Doonan Family, also Dave Rogers and Leah Powell. And the sterling guiding hand of producer Alistair Russell, at whose studios the album was recorded, adds a further imprimatur to Giff's artistic credibility.


David Kidman

Roman Candle - The Wee Hours Revue (Hollywood Music 2004)

Anyone who has heard North Carolina's Roman Candle on Bob Harris will know this album as Says Pop. The Wee Hours Revue is the remixed version, on another label and it will be The Wee Hours Revue which will be released in the UK.

Now we know where we are, how we got here is far more interesting. Formed in 1996 by brothers Skip and Logan Matheny, the band produced 300 copies of an eight-song demo using a CD burner and cutting out the artwork themselves. In time-honoured tradition, by 2001 Skip Mathany was working in a warehouse while his wife Timshel, who had joined the band, was employed as a dishwasher.

It was then that fate and football (the American kind not real football) took a hand, in the shape (very large would be my guess) of Denver Broncos defensive tackle Trevor Pryce who heard that demo on a website and, as luck would have it, had just started his own label. The rest, as they say, is history.

While the birth of The Wee Hours Revue is fascinating it's what's under the covers that's really important and this release shows that not only can Pryce play football he can spot a band as well.

With the word 'pop' lurking in the background, many may be put off. Don't be, this has absolutely nothing in common with the homogenized goo that passes for pop music these days. The Wee Hours Revue is bright, fresh and highly original.

It is also the album of a young band ready and eager to stake their claim. The fact that this is second time around for the songs and that Roman Candle toured the album for a year, hasn't dulled their enthusiasm, it has tempered both the band and sound.

The Mathenys also have more in common with 60s Britain than they do with their own country. As they say on Merciful Man they have 'London in their lungs'. And it's the London of the Stones and The Kinks. New York This Morning is ripped from the same heartache as Angie, while Help Me If You Can and Baby's Got It In The Genes displays the same lyrical razor's edge of Ray Davies at his angry young man best. And on Winterlight and I Wish the vocals have the same hard-edged, cynical snarl of a young, hungry Jagger. As a band Roman Candle can point to illustrious parentage.

But it's the fullness and richness of sound that the band capture that is the hook. They never let you rest for a minute, prodding and poking the listener with a driving guitar riff or an incisive lyric. But it's not just wave upon wave of noise, Something Left To Say - which opens the album - is powerful without being overpowering.

Are Roman Candle a pop band? Yes, in the same way that Travis and Coldplay are. But with Wee Small Hours Revue they are a band ready for the fight and that makes them a dangerous and exciting prospect.

Make no mistake this is not the debut of a band full of promise, it's just the first in a long line of great albums.


Michael Mee, Editor, The Hawick News

Janie Romer - Darkest Before Dawn (Terrapin World of Arts)

Some sixteen years ago, having quit her job as graphic designer and stylist for New York Vogue, Romer was working as a commodities broker in the Twin Towers and doing occasional session vocalist for musician friends in her spare time. Which is where she was when a call came asking if she'd fancy adding backing vocals for a Chas Jankel song. That became a hit which led to live dates which led to Romer joining Cajun outfit Loup Garou which led to her own group, Romer. Then suddenly marriage and motherhood came along and music took a very back seat.

Now though she's back. Encouraged to learn guitar and get her writing juices flowing again by Bert Jansch who'd discovered her via a cassette-book of children's lullabies she'd done, they started playing together, Romer winding up providing backing vocals on his When The Circus Comes To Town on which he also included one of her songs, No-one Around. From here contacts led her to meet Wes McGhee which brought a country flavour to her writing and his involvement as her comeback album's co-producer and guitarist. Jansch is there too, lending his distinctive jazz-folk acoustic guitar playing to a couple of tracks, including Romer's own version of No-one Around, originally written 15 years ago for "some cool guy" in New York.

Drawing on a variety of styles but mostly hovering around a country-folk axis, they'e basically variations on finding, losing, missing or desiring lovers, including one which cleverly compares life's turbulence with white water rafting. Her dark, sometimes Judy Collins, sometimes Emmylou meets Sandy Denny tones are deep and pure, veined with a longing and an ache, McGhee's various guitars understated but evocative, especially the moody Spanish tones of the mournful title track and the TexMex flavours of Fool's Gold. Dizzy kicks up a pair of dance heels that likely harks back to her Loup Garou days, but otherwise the approach is slow waltz melancholy, beautifully rippling through Jasmine, shuffling through the rays of dusk on a breathy Surrender, Unsuitable Boy conjuring wide open prairie spaces and mountain streams.

With more time now to record and perform, she says she's ready to be seen and heard. She's ready. You should be waiting.


Mike Davies

Linda Ronstadt & Ann Savoy (The Zozo Sisters) - Adieu False Heart (Vanguard)

2002's Cajun tribute album Evangeline Made, produced by Ann and featuring some collaborations with Linda, was a stunner, and the two evidently got on so well that they decided to record a full duet album as the Zozo Sisters - and it turns out to be every bit as good. The two ladies' voices do indeed soar like the Creole "little bird" of their epithet, and they blend so darned well you'd have thought them born just for singing with each other and sharing their emotions so closely. And the choice of material on this new collection is second to none; based around the theme of love in all its forms and its tender place in our hearts, the set includes a few songs that Ann admits to having sung around the house for years, like the 30s hit Parlez-Moi D'Amour. Amongst the highlights are the sturdy yet achingly plaintive bluegrass of Chas Justus' Rattle My Cage, the equally plaintive title track (a gorgeous setting of a traditional ballad originally popularised by fiddler Arthur Smith) and a deeply engaging cover of Kevin Welch's Too Old To Die Young. There's also fine covers of two Richard Thompson compositions (King Of Bohemia and Burns' Supper). At least some of the album's distinctively sumptuous ambience is down to the wondrous lustre of the vocal blending, of course, but almost equal credit must be given to the rich musical settings provided by the backing crew (Nashvillers Sam Bush, Andrea Zonn, Dirk Powell, Byron House, Stuart Duncan and Sam Broussard) with fabulous string textures that arise from an extension to the traditional string-band complement by dint of classical violin, viola and cello and bass (arranged by Kristin Wilkinson) that enhances tracks like Linda's really refreshing new take on Walk Away Renée. The unusual timbres of resophonic viola and David Schnaufer's bowed dulcimer complement the low-tuned guitars to impart a uniquely mournful sound-world that perfectly accords with the sentiments expressed in the songs. Buddy Miller guests on Linda's sublime rendition of Julie Miller's I Can't Get Over You; and then, on the lusty Cajun waltz of Plus Tu Tournes, Ann brings on her brother Joel and Christine Balfa who naturally are utterly steeped in authentic Arcadian tradition. This is one brilliantly conceived and executed thematic album that I can't praise enough, a real peach of a disc, and I hope it sells enough copies to ensure a successor in the not too distant future, for Linda and Ann are ideal collaborators.


David Kidman December 2006

Linda Ronstadt - Hand Sown..Home Grown/Silk Purse/Linda Ronstadt/Heart Like A Wheel (Capitol)

There's sadly no bonus rare or unreleased material, but this is still a welcome CD reissue of Ronstadt's first four solo albums following her 1968 departure from LA folk outfit the Stone Poneys with whom she'd scored a Top 20 hit covering Mike Nesmith's Different Drum.

Never a songwriter herself, these albums are testament to her and her producers (in chronological order Chip Douglas, Elliot Mazer, John Boylan and Pete Asher) to pick the best songs by the cream of America's finest contemporary songsmiths, and her ability to make them her own.

Looking on the back sleeve like a refugee from a Melanie impersonators contest, her solo debut was a fairly tentative move towards country, playing safe with such chestnuts as Silver Threads and Golden Needles, John D Loudermilk's Break My Mind and The Only Mama That'll Walk The Line. To be honest it wasn't the most auspicious debut but even here there's signs of her stretching out and taking chances, tackling Randy Newman's bluesy Bet No One Ever Hurt This Bad, giving Dylan's I'll Be Your Baby Tonight a honky-tonk makeover and closing out with Fred Neil's subtly complex The Dolphins.

A year later though her country rock confidence and vocal power had clearly grown, taking Lovesick blues by the scruff of the neck and dragging it round the barroom before making her way through solid versions of Mickey Newbury's Are My Thoughts With You?, Paul Siebel's Louise and, evoking Gram and Emmylou, the Bernie Leadon/Guy Clarke classic He Dark The Sun. There's a couple of misfires, a plodding I'm Leaving It All Up To You (pre-empting Donny and Marie by four years) and a clumsy Spector gone country Will You Love Me Tomorrow that sounds like Mazer was trying to make her a pop Dolly Parton.

Come 1971 though and, a singularly ill-advised version of Fontella Bass hit Rescue Me aside, her eponymous third album had pretty much ironed out the creases. Teamed with a session team that would mutate into The Eagles and sounding far more relaxed, it opened with a splendid cover of Jackson Browne's Rock Me On The Water before proceeding to notch up some classic Ronstadt moments with her takes on I Still Miss Someone, Livingston Taylor's excellent In My Reply, Neil Young's Birds, Eric Anderson's I Ain't Always Been Faithful (with Buddy Emmons on keening pedal steel) and even a slowed down, world weary cover of Woody Guthrie's Ramblin' Round.

1974 though was the year it all came together to produce the seminal fourth album and with it a Best Female Country Vocal Grammy for her cover of Hank Williams's I Can't Help It (If I'm Still In Love With You) with Emmylou on backing. That may have earned her a gong but it's only one of several great performances here. With musicians that include Henley, Frey, Tim Schmidt, Kenny Edwards and, over the album like a rash, Andrew Gold (who's also behind most of the arrangements), she moves from the funky You're No Good to the loose limbed rockier shores of When Will I Be Loved and Little Feat's Willin' but it's the ballads that make this a true classic with heart searching versions of Dark End of the Street, James Taylor's aching You Can Close Your Eyes and, to my ears, the album's two masterpieces, Paul Craft's Keep Me From Blowing Away (with Craft himself on guitar) and, with Maria Muldaur on harmony back ups, the (mistitled) title track, the world's first introduction to the music of Kate & Anna McGarrigle whose own version wouldn't appear until their debut album two years later.

Ronstadt would go on to further explore country rock, AOR, jazz, children's lullabies, standards and even opera before returning to her country roots for her collaborations with Emmylou and Dolly, but it was in these four albums that she laid the foundations for a career that has lasted and flourished for some 35 years.


Mike Davies

Caitlin Rose - Own Side Now (Names)

Releasing her debut EP, Dead Flowers, earlier this year, the Nashville singer-songwriter's being hailed as one of the brightest new stars on the Americana scene. Now, slightly more polished, her debut album t finds her giving old school country a contemporary eye while brushing hands with blues and soul.

Beguilingly simple folk-country opening track Learnin' To Ride shows Iris DeMent comparisons are not misplaced while her keening tones on the similarly old school bruised broken heart ballad Sinful Wishing Well also hint at a young Loretta. Elsewhere the obvious comparison is with the coy little girl purity of Zooey Deschanel, notably so on soulful 50s waltzing torch ballad For The Rabbits (written when she was just 16) and the handclapping, brass backed uptempo rocker Shanghai Cigarettes.

That bouncy side of her comes out too on clomping saloon bar boogie New York City, the choppy harp blowing Nashville country of Spare Me, loping cathouse blues Coming Up and a country twanged cover of Fleetwood Mac's That's All right.

However, it's on the wearier numbers she shines best, the vulnerable slow waltzing country rock title track mining the spirit of Patsy Cline (whose Three Cigarettes In An Ashtray she covered on the EP) to tug at the heartstrings between sips from the beer glass. It's early days yet, but with a playfulness and lack of front to go with the voice, fingerpicking guitar and songwriting abilities, this Rose looks like proving a remarkable and enduring bloom.


Mike Davies August 2010

Eileen Rose & The Holy Wreck - Luna Turista (Floating World)

Building on the gathering praise for her three previous releases, last year's At Our Tables saw the Nashville based Italian-Irish-American singer-songwriter finally gain wider recognition with its cocktail of country, rock and Detroit soul. She makes a swift return now to capitalise on that momentum, accompanied by her now regular sidemen, The Legendary Rich Gilbert on pedal steel and guitar and drummer Nate Stalfa, with guest fiddle and vocals from Joshua Hedley.

Recorded in Nashville and Berlin, it again keeps the musical fabric varied, opening with the ringing, 60s shaded low slung guitar country rocking Simple Touch Of The Hand, riding the Johnny Cash rhythm rails in classic Nashville style with Trouble From Tomorrow (apparently a track reflecting her compulsive anxiety), and rocking out with the bass glowering All These Pretty Things where, the vocals shifting from snarl to whisper and the guitars and drums spitting flames, she could well be talking about controlling record labels ("they tie your feet then want you to dance") as lust or defiant explosive rage.

The sense of a troubled soul in the closing song is echoed elsewhere on an album that's steeped in anger and pain. Gathering around a repetitive piano phrase and keening steel, Sad Ride Home has its roots in the recent deaths of her brother and father to "the cruel design of living" while the plangent, doomy chords of The One You Wanted, the quietly resigned emotions of six minute yearning heartbreak Third Time's A Charm and the swaggering Strange where she sounds like a cross between Sheryl Crow and Dylan (not least because her delivery recalls Like A Rolling Stone), all treat on love desired or denied.

Maybe that's got something to do with her single choice of cover, duetting with Hedley and getting back to the basics of love on the self-examining, world weary but upbeat Luckenbach Texas. It's such a stunner of a version you might even forget the Waylon classic.

It's not the only nod to the music of the Lone Star State. Why Am I Awake?, a 'wake up to reality' railing against talentless 'singing birds', self-interested politicians, bands (well, the Stones actually) who only do it for the money and anyone living in the past or under the delusion they make their own choices, waltzes through the honky tonk to the tune of Hank Thompson's Wild Side Of Life.

All of these make for a career defining album, but all are overshadowed by one track. With Hedley proving harmonies and fiddle, Silver Cradle is a spare, haunting backwoods gospel that moves from self-castigating confessional ("I'm hard at work breeding devils....I harbour jealous angels bound by glamour to my wrist") to a moment of vocal nakedness and a soaring climactic discovery of salvation and the calming balm of faith, a silver ladle "holding water to my lips." Were she never to record again, those six minutes would be an enduring monument. A rare bloom, indeed.


Mike Davies December 2009

Eileen Rose - At Our Tables (Evangeline)

Following on from debut album Shine Like It Does and the ever more impressive follow-ups Long Shot Novena and Come The Storm, the Irish-Italian American singer-songwriter returns with her fourth outing, an album of love and loss, life and death, steeped in the sound of Detroit, from Motown soul to White Stripes rock.

Those looking for her earlier country roots will be pleased to discover the Gram-like swaggering $20 Shoes, a scuffed and skittering bluegrassy Blue Mood Words, two step swayer Jeannie Steps Out and the turning train wheels rhythm of Failure To Thrive. But even these have a sharper edge while Seven Winds is pure dreamy pop, Doesn't Mean A Thing heads down a rock n soul path, Will-O-The Wisp offers a bluesy gospel country duet with Nick Lucassian while The Day Before sees the album climax with a slow building, organ-backed, heart-tearing Maria McKee meets Lucinda Williams ballad. It's taken a while for the word to spread, but this should finally get everybody talking.


Mike Davies March 2008

Eileen Rose - Shine Like It Does (Rough Trade Records)

I guess there are two reasons why I would sit down and write a review which is not going to add to my slimline bank account. Either it's a CD from a big name artist which could be good or bad though, either way, you should know about it. Or, it's a drop dead great CD from a relative unknown.

Never heard of Eileen Rose? Can you guess the rest? OK. The queue forms here behind band members with credentials from Del Amitri to Wreckless Eric (......now, there's an unsung hero). Eileen originates from Boston but is now resident in the UK which probably explains the breadth of influences found on this record. Music described elsewhere as 'twisted folk and bluesy country' actually takes on a whole load of influences. Take, for example, 'Shining' whose lyrics spawn the CD's title. Those girly oo-a-ooh's at the end sound like they've come from tape found lying around the studio after The Stones recorded 'Beggar's Banquet'.

Indeed, good old rough'n'ready rock'n'roll is never far from the surface despite that pleasant interview she did for Radio Four's 'Womans Hour'. From all this, you'll gather that there is a depth and maturity here that surprises for a debut album. I can't find any track that I would call weak and the opening track, 'Rose', is something of a minor classic. It gets followed by a swaggering tale of redemption in 'Still In The Family' before moving into a delightful ballad in 'Silver Ladle'. The latter getting beaten by a nose in the great ballad stakes by the closing track, 'Find Your Way Out'. This skips over the rocking 'Trying To Lose You' which is well worthy of a mention. Also, just in case you think I've forgotten that 'twisted folk and bluesy country' quote, there is a lovely country swing to 'Will You Marry Me?'. On the evidence of a live performance of the latter, a queue of single gentlemen is also forming.

Ladies and Gentlemen, trust me, this record is a worthy investment whether you're single, married or happily partnered.


Steve Henderson

Tim Rose - The London Sessions 1978-1998 (Market Square)

Tim was one of the original American troubadours, celebrated in Mark Brend's excellent book of that title (published by Backbeat). Although his career spanned 40 years, he was actually only active for half that time, for his restlessness prompted him to pursue activities other than music at irregular intervals. His first LP, issued back in the 60s, introduced the public to his powerful voice and equally powerful writing, while performers were queuing up to cover songs of Tim's (like Morning Dew). After a hiatus, a late-70s comeback and subsequent alcohol and marriage problems, Tim finally returned to the UK for a further career relaunch, in 1997 releasing an album mixing live and studio material on a small independent label, but it was not until 2002 that his impressive new studio album American Son was starting to bring him long-deserved recognition; sadly he died shortly afterwards of a tumour. The tracks making up The London Sessions would seem to date mostly from recordings made in the 90s shortly after Tim's return to the UK under the guiding hand of producer Pierre Tubbs, with whom Tim had recorded several times including an abortive project The Gambler (from the 1978 sessions for which just one track here, the throwaway mock-country schmaltzy Lady's Coming Home For Christmas, is taken). These nine tracks consist mostly of covers, which stylistically range widely, fully in keeping with the versatility of Tim's voice in fact - the movie song The Rose, the rock-tinged Like A European and the Bee Gees' I Started A Joke probably being the most successful, the remainder (to my ears at any rate) rarely rising much above the respectable. Tim also revisits Hey Joe (here, as on much of the rest of the session, keyboards/synth textures take the place of guitars and "real" instruments) and It's All Gone Wrong. The remaining tracks on The London Sessions, however, are much more valuable - two pretty fine, yet little-heard recent original compositions, Borocay and The Answer, both recorded in 1998. A mixed bag then, but any admirer of Tim's work will find it worth investigating.


David Kidman

Tim Rose - Snowed In (The Last Recordings) (Cherry Red)

Completed following his death in Sept 2002 , the final album from the gravelly voiced singer-songwriter is a worthy requiem to a career that, as Michael Heatley says in his passionate sleeve notes, was always about more than his debut album and its three classic singles, Hey Joe, Come Away Melinda and (the only one he was actually involved in writing) Morning Dew. Snowed In, penned by producer Colin Winston-Fletcher after a visit to Rose's cramped London apartment, sees him in spoken word mode with a brooding story of a man trapped in his car that seems a fitting metaphor for Rose's career. A stripped down Come What May follows, a simple plaintive banjo giving resonance to its song of regret and defiance. Re-recorded to establish copyright after an uncredited Nick Cave cover, Long Time Man stems from the debut solo album and, like Hey Joe, is a murder ballad steeped in that same echoey darkness. And that pretty much remains the tone throughout; the folksy stark isolation of Time Slips Away, a brooding semi-spoken rumbling take on the traditional Down in The Valley (aka Birmingham Jail) against a stuttering train rhythm, the bible black So Much To Lose and I Need Saving, a revenant mooded Boogie Boogie and The Hanging Tree, another of Rose's darkly ominous tales of death and choices made. It ends on Needle, a chill monologue that could as much be about hospital as junkies, that makes you regret Rose never recorded a spoken word album.

In the reissues that followed his comeback and untimely demise, if someone could put together a compilation of his singles and B sides, so that those of us with now precious but scratched vinyl can finally listen to such lost nuggets as Long Haired Boy, then Rose's sadly underestimated legacy would be complete.


Mike Davies

Roselands - Faded Postmark (Super 8 Recordings)

Roselands is a London-based acoustic roots-folk three-piece that bases itself around Glaswegian singer-songwriter Mark McLaughlin and his world-weary, pensive yet generally positive, largely soft-focus and pastel-shaded view of life and love. Mark's tightly and sympathetically supported by James Byron (on an assortment of guitars and harmony vocals) and Pete Rawlings (on double bass), and his original songs also enjoy further selective instrumental embellishments courtesy of various musician friends, among them Iain Duff (accordion), Nigel Kent (piano), Karen Barnes (cello) and Lorraine Jordan (vocal harmonies and bouzouki).

In fact, it may sound like damning with faint praise, but I do sometimes feel that were it not for the appealing nature of the arrangements and the employment of these extra musicians, this CD wouldn't be quite as interesting, for Mark's songs – though certainly rather attractive when taken on an individual basis – don't seem to have quite enough contrast over the span of a whole album to fully sustain interest.

The best of the tracks are those like Somers Town, Tonight and The First I See, where the gently wistful nature of Mark's lyrics matches his fragile singing voice; at these times he keeps its attractive timbre under control and doesn't overstay its welcome, for there are also occasions when he seems a mite strained and the cracked, lightly pained quality (especially in that telling higher register) feels forced, even slightly mannered. I was getting a little tired by the time I reached the sha-la-las of track 7 (All Saints' Day) and track 9 (Since I Saw The Sea), on both of which songs I suspected Mark had been listening to too much Van Morrison; but the closing number By And By redeems things with its daydreaming, café-waltzing lyricism. By then, the postmark on Mark's personal blog hasn't quite faded from memory, and survives to face another playthrough - which can only be a good sign.


David Kidman August 2011

The Rosellys - One Way St. (Own Label)

The Rosellys are an accomplished Nottingham-based duo who play music that's best described as Americana good 'n' true. Lead singer/guitarist Rebecca Rosewell and guitarist/fiddle player Simon Kelly released their debut CD Drive Through The Night in 2006, and One Way St. is the followup, honed in the studio following wider experience and inspiration gained on a coast-to-coast American tour later that year.

And it really does feel shot through with the authentic vibe of the musical idiom, which Rebecca and Simon clearly have in their veins: One Way St. takes us from genial acoustic-country to contemporary bluegrass to thoughtful balladry (Moon And Stars) and cajun (Redwoods). It comes as no surprise to learn that Simon's been playing fiddle with zydeco/swamp-rock band The Bon Temps Playboys since age 12, while Rebecca is expert on cello and piano as well as guitar (and she comes from a musical family too). At times there's a hint of Alison Krauss in Rebecca's voice, perhaps also Gillian Welch, but Rebecca's gift for phrasing and expression is entirely her own and completely natural: even so, arguably her finest performances on this disc are those where she stretches out emotionally, like the plaintive and touchingly sad Mary, the heartfelt yet succinct Rescue Me and the tenderly hopeful American Dream. Elsewhere, Rebecca cuts it just fine on the uptempo numbers, breezy Caught Me At A Bad Time and the spry opener Only Way She Knows, the latter driven by a killer riff that verges on rockabilly, Rebecca's bold yet seductive vocal increasingly multitracked as the number draws to its close (on two other cuts, including the lovely You Stole My Heart, backing vocals are handled by her sister Natasha).

And in praising Rebecca's singing I wouldn't want to underplay the sheer excellence of her - and Simon's - guitar playing: what a combination! Their own comparatively sparse but tuneful backings are gently augmented by Chris Clarke (double bass) and Alan Kelly (pedal steel, squeezebox) and Rebecca's mother Helena (cello). This disc is a great discovery: one that will doubtless lead me straight to tracking down its predecessor.


David Kidman January 2010

Roseville Band - Little Eyes In The Universe (Tri-Tone)

Featured on the Divided By A Common Language compilation of UK Americana, the sextet led by Andy and Stevie Jones have been dubbed 'the Welsh Kings of Leon'. That's rather overstating things, but it's certainly the case that, while the country influences are there, there's much more of a rock edge to their music than anything else.

The main stumbling block is singer Andy Jones' voice, an adenoidal Southern but Welsh warble that sounds like David Surkamp from Pavlov's Dog, or Joe Pasquale before his voice broke if you're feeling uncharitable. It's an acquired taste, but once you get used to it, you'll be surprised to find it lends a distinctive charm and somehow the songs wouldn't sound the same without it.

They certainly have plenty to offer. Opening track Boxer is a slow, deliberate swagger with circling guitars that makes them sound like a cross between the Faces and the Stereophonics then Out Of Control picks up the pace with some blaring soul brass and KoL boogie, keeping the pub session swing going for the goodtime The Mission which suggests they might have come across a Southside Johnny album at some stage.

The attention wanders during the bluesy soul rock of My Town and Bullet Eyes, but the TexMex flavoured border ballad On Our Way brings the focus back and the album rides to a strong finish with the banjo strummed bluegrassy stomp The Less I Want, Bring Down The Old Empire's horn driven alt-country twang and the anthemics of reverb guitar showstopper crowd singalong ballad Burn All Your Bridges where shades of Spector and Mink DeVille take it swelling to the heavens. That same Hispanic romance flavour fuels the final track Over Again where, driven by the steady drum beat, chiming guitar and mariachi horns, having finally found Jones' vocals irresistible, the only thing to do is follow the title advice and push repeat play.


Mike Davies June 2010

The Rosinators - The Rosinators (PDC Music)

The Rosinators' début CD is a bit of a goodtime classic. Bluegrass, old-time, gospel country, cajun, a smidgen of dusty blues - all confidently well-played and well sung, with loads of lift in the arrangements. The band's pedigree says it all - guitarist/banjo player Paul Castle, original member of country rock outfit Sons Of Fat Harry, has teamed up with cajun fiddlers Fliss Premru (of Joli Blon) and Will Sneyd (of the Ti-fers and Past Caring) and drummer Stuart Crosbie (also of Past Caring) to produce an infectious and satisfyingly listenable set. The band's approach to the material is vibrant and dynamic, and they do some tasty things with the vocal harmonies too. Their versions of repertoire standards like Blueridge Mountain Blues, Orange Blossom Special and Old Joe Clark are interesting, and certainly good enough to stand more than favourable comparison with any others on the market. Their authentic rethink of Hank Williams' I Saw The Light is attractively understated, and they close the album rather fittingly with some early Tom Waits (Poncho's Lament). Also, they revisit some cajun classics (Port Arthur Blues, J'Étais Au Bal) just to prove they're right inside the idiom. Not that they need to prove themselves, as everything they tackle comes across real natural. I specially love the straight-as-a-die true twin-fiddle work by the way. The one group-original on the playlist, Oblivion, is a strange little slice of funky futuristic gospel with an insidiously catchy chorus. And then this enhanced CD has a bonus in the shape of the video track to Cindy's Breakdown. This album's great fun, but I bet the Rosinators are a hoot live too (they already tour a wide range of venues and events, and have already played the major summer festivals including Glastonbury and Broadstairs)!


David Kidman

James Ross - James Ross (Greentrax)

Wick-born James is a classically-trained pianist who after graduating studied under Michael Ó Súilleabháin; he currently teaches piano at the RSAMD. Here on this his debut recital disc (for that's what it is) he gives a superb account of himself in a joyous and lyrical pianistic exploration of a series of tunes that are mainly traditional in origin (and creatively arranged) but with a few of his own compositions thrown in too. On some of the tracks James benefits from a modicum of instrumental backing, courtesy of James MacKintosh (percussion), May Halyburton (double bass), Sue McKenzie (soprano sax) and Martin O'Neill (bodhrán), but this is invariably extremely understated and the focus is firmly on James' sincerely felt, enjoyable and tasteful playing throughout the album's 53 minutes. James really does give another dimension to Scottish traditional music, which due to the nature and timbre of his chosen instrument can make it seem altogether more mellow, laid-back and soft-edged than we're used to perhaps but repays careful listening. James's approach to instrumental transcription works well on pieces from either end of the tempo spectrum: on one hand the stately, jazz-infused treatment of the slow air The Gloom On My Soul, the glorious set of variations James conjures from John Bruce's simple tune for Burns' Whistle O'er The Lave O't, and a generously decorated and heartfelt Flooers O' The Forest (a standout as finale to the whole disc), and on the other hand the fun Iggie And Squiggie reel-set and James Scott Skinner's vibrant, sprightly The Hurricane. As you'll hear, there's ample contrast in mood between the individual tracks, and the production, by Brian McNeill no less, is exemplary: intimate and clear-toned; so no complaints here, for the whole disc is like a breath of fresh air.


David Kidman June 2007

Leon Rosselson with Reem Kelani & Janet Russell - The Last Chance (Fuse Records)

Leon's songs on the topic of Israel/Palestine, holocaust and heritage, will always form a cornerstone of his œuvre, for the obvious reason of his own background and family history (which is exhaustively covered in Leon's splendid liner note). Admirers of Leon's work will recall that a few years ago he released an EP called The Last Chance which collected together four songs on Israel/Palestine; now Leon highlights the continued contemporary relevance by expanding the original EP to a 42-minute eight-tracker.

The magnum-opus that is the heartfelt part-spoken title track remains the primary focus, with Leon's earlier narrative The Song Of Martin Fontasch forming an ideal starter to the disc and My Father's Jewish World the perfect introduction. Leon himself performs all but two of the disc's items; these append to the aforementioned classic Rosselsongs a pair of newly recorded offerings – the sardonic, jaunty Loyal Soldiers ("included in the interests of balance") and the predictive The Third Intifada – together with the passionate They Said… (taken from Leon's 2004 Turning Silence Into Song collection).

Janet Russell's unflinchingly superb 2005 recording of The Song Of The Olive Tree just had to be included, while Reem Kelani's intense composition Yafa! (Jaffa!) – powerfully sung by its writer in the time-honoured Arabic singing tradition of qasidah (an ornamental vocal improvisation, here rendered with a free-flowing, responsive taqasim-style piano accompaniment by Zoë Rahman) quite threatens to upstage Leon's own works in its visceral impact here (I must hasten to add, that doesn't happen!). The Last Chance may not be everybody's cup of tea, but this is intellectually and morally stimulating fare and pretty much essential.


David Kidman November 2010

Leon Rosselson - A Proper State (Fuse)

The estimable Mr Rosselson has been wielding his distinctive sharp pen with a striking degree of consistency over more than 40 years, producing collection after collection of brilliantly constructed songs that straddle the generic barricades and embody the renegade spirits of chanson, social commentary, observational folksong and political satire; Leon's work has variously invoked the hallowed names of Jacques Brel, Tom Lehrer and W.S. Gilbert. His latest set, another triumph of the craft of wordsmithery full of typically nifty and barbed wordplay, proves he's not lost any of his unswerving commitment to activism, proudly retaining his belief in the power of song to unite and further the cause. Whether this be overtly political, as when providing a timely first-hand commentary on the year-long blockade at the Trident nuclear base (Faslane 365), or a Brechtian allegory (The Third Intrada), or shaped as a modern-day parable (the magnum-opus three-act rap of the title song), Leon's weapon invariably locks unerringly onto its target and scores a bullseye. The disc also includes a reappearance of Leon's justly celebrated creation Barney's Epic Homer (taken directly from the venerable, long-deleted 1979 vinyl LP If I Knew Who The Enemy Was, and featuring among its guest musicians Martin Carthy - on jew's harp!); this forms a kind of "Previously..." taster for its sequel Barney's Got A Job Now. Leon's more reflective moments, for example the tender intimation of mortality When They Ask Me, also hit the spot, and there's even a neat little love song at the heart of the disc, a kind of response to the preceding See Life's Road Before You. The final (official) track is a paean to The Power Of Song, written for the 20th anniversary of The Sheffield Socialist Choir who (logically enough) perform it here. It's followed by around eight minutes of (Cagean?) silence, which are turned into song just at the point when you're about to give up and turn the disc off, having wondered what (if any, indeed) joke Leon's playing (the ensuing song turns out to be a piano-backed reprise of Barney's Got A Job Now, by the way). For most of the remainder of the disc, Leon's own twisty-turny guitar figures support his word-pictures admirably, but either Fiz Shapur's keyboards or Miranda Sykes' double bass are pressed into effective service on three of the tracks in total. Another splendid set - so Leon looks set not to lose his inimitable touch for some time yet.


David Kidman February 2008

Michael Rossiter - My Dearest Dear (Folk Theatre)

Welsh-born and now Leeds-based, Michael has been performing his own special, if slightly idiosyncratic brand of folk for around three years, though only now getting around to releasing his first CD: an economical (32-minute) eleven-track collection that gives a good representation of his personal predilections as well as the immediacy of his musical personality and presence.

On this showing, although he's evidently been inspired by figures such as Jansch and Carthy, the strongest influence on his guitar playing would probably count as John Fahey: the opening track, a self-penned instrumental Nameless Lick, certainly resembles one of Fahey's typical ragtime-ramblings, while the final track is a brief slide number that could've graced one of Fahey's many Blind Joe Death outings. Michael later utilises the forward-driven Fahey-style backing for his interpretation of the ballad Edward. Vocally, Michael always seems to be living on the edge, for his singing displays a raw quality that's both refreshing and unassumingly appealing, although its basic tone and attack (and some minor off-key moments) may not please everyone. There are occasions when he reminds me of Alasdair Roberts (the cryptic and plangent nylon-string-accompanied Beautiful His Feet), others where he sounds like a harsher version of early Donovan (Jack Went A-Sailing), then again others where Woody Guthrie seems to be his role-model.

In spite of the eagerness and excited (and excitable) nature of Michael's singing, he can sometimes also seem a little uninvolved (as on The Betrayed Maiden), but on closer scrutiny the latter impression is found to be deceptive, and in any case there's always compensation in the form of his spirited guitar playing. In his doleful rendition of Davy Lowston, Michael boldly transcends the Carthy version from which he clearly derived his original inspiration, bestowing the strange sea-ballad with an intricate yet becalmed fingerpicked accompaniment that really resonates. In general, Michael takes much the devil-may-care, adventurous and quirkily individual approach to the tradition, with two treatments in particular that recall early Incredible String Band: Love Henry, and the weird Kitty Alone And I which begins with a distinctly Williamson-like mandolin intro (courtesy of guest David Broad). And on Michael's potentially good-time (well, slightly yee-ha I suppose!) take on Come My Little Roving Sailor he's backed by two members of The Lovesick Cowboys.

Perhaps there's an overall feeling that this CD was put together a little hastily (although the very immediacy of Michael's performing style may contribute to this feeling), but whatever the case I do hope there's lots more to come from Michael soon.


David Kidman August 2009

R.D. Roth & The Issues - Fear Not The Breakdown (Floating Moon).

Opening with the atmospheric The Fiddler, Roth & The Issues take us on a morose, grungy journey through Americana. The production on the opener is particularly good and the Lou Reed influences are there for all to hear. Once In A Billion is moody, has a powerful chorus and some top guitar fills. More Lou Reed inspired Americana surfaces on The Brentwood before he goes off on another morose tale on Lincoln's Lament. There's some David Bowie in this one and don't expect R.D. Roth to get happy - he doesn't.

When I left gives some expectation of joviality with its jangly country guitars and they lead us into a fine slice of modern Americana but the joviality doesn't last too long as he slips into the depths of despair. Hey All You Hipsters continues Roth's moody, atmospheric delivery which is very effective but takes more than one hearing. This song has become a favourite of mine. Ear To The Ground is grungy, infective and top class. The blues influenced eight ball has distorted vocals and, like the others, is powerfully delivered. Love In The Alley gives us a surprise - horns!! Is R.D. getting slinky? The marching guitars and drums on Robert Ryman Dreams Of Curves just make me think of Franz Ferdinand and who came first? Here Comes The Ground is a tale told in a Neil Young style and he's still not happy. The album finishes with the understated alt. country of Come Down, Too. Crackles have been added for effect but if you are waiting for Snap and Pop then you will be disappointed as this is as happy as he gets.

If you can look past the despair and follow the advice in the albums title then you will be pleasantly surprised.


David Blue

Dave Rotheray - Answer Ballads (Navigator)

The former Beautiful South songwriter may have his name above the title, but this is very much a multi-artist project, a twelve track collection on which he (the words) and his collaborators (the music) seek provide retorts to classic pop songs. Big in the 50s and 60s, mostly in the country genre, answer songs were responses (usually by female singers) to hits of the time from the perspective of the character addressed in the original, thus things like Yes, I'm Lonely Tonight, He'll Have To Stay and Queen Of the House.

Rotheray's recruited a dazzling array of names from the folk world as vocalists and co-writers, kicking off with Lisa Knapp and Mrs Jones' Song, a cooingly sad and tender reply to Me & Mrs Jones before Eliza Carthy roughs it up down the barroom a little for a piano backed Maggie's Song.

Inevitably, perhaps, the numbers reflect the style of those singing them, thus Kris Drever's Daniel's Song has a slow march Scottish folk feel, Mary Coughlan brings a smoky jazz blues cellar vibe to Lucille's Song (co-written by Rotheray and Elenaor McEvoy), Gemma Hayes takes a breathy poppy approach on Pearl's Song' keyboards driven tale of a former star and Jackie Oates and Bella Hardy apply their trad folk talents to the fiddle scraped metaphor laden Mrs Avery's Song and a slow piano waltzing Sylvia's Song, both different character responses to Dr Hook hit Sylvia's Mother.

On the other hand, there's a few surprises. Alasdair Roberts, for instance, puts down the guitar in favour of a simple repeated piano chord for Dino's Song, a reply to The Boys Are Back in Town with more than a hint of Werewolves Of London, while Kathryn Williams shows a spookier, prowlingly feline side on the neurotically pulsing beats of Roxanne's song.

In the persona of Ms McGee, Naomi Bedford offers a bluesy Bobby's Song and guitarist John Smith is on appealing hushed form on the slowly gathering pace narrative of an Americana coloured Billy-Joe's Song (not a reply to Gentry's Ode but rather Cash's Don't Take Your Guns To Town) while I was particularly taken by Josienne Clarke's lovely, Americana-burnished treatment of the heart bruised Marie's Song, recounting how her father never made it home to Memphis Tennessee.

Julie Murphy rounds things off in stately form with the stark and sombre piano and violin ballad Jolene's Song where the protagonist becomes a nun; if the lyrics of Rotheray's answers sometimes beg questions, this is undeniably one of the best and, like all of the tracks, very much has a life of ist own away from that which inspired it.


Mike Davies, October 2013

David Rotheray - The Life Of Birds (Proper)

Although it's the former Beautiful South songwriter and guitarist whose name adorns the sleeve of his first solo album, he takes a back seat for the vocals, handing over duties to an impressive collection of guests.

Apparently things were set in motion when he recruited folk singer Jim Causley to sing on The Sparrow, The Thrush & The Nightingale, a jaunty, whistled refrain jazzy allegory of greed, egos and ambition in the music industry. Rotheray decided to expand the idea and write an entire album loosely based around birds with topics that range from teenage sexuality to mental illness to empty nesters.

Causely resurfaces, duetting with Peak District traditionalist Bella Hardy as Melvin Duffy provides pedal steel, on The Hummingbird On Your Calendar while Hardy herself takes charge of The Digital Cuckoo, a co-penned number Rotheray describes as "a technophobe raging against electric clocks", and the simple acoustic sexual awakening/loss off innocence themed Living Before The War.

Reflecting the creative round, that's co-written by Eleanor McEvoy who, in turn, provided the music and vocals for Almost Beautiful's poignant account of Alzheimer's as seen from the conflicted perspective ("sometimes a pillow over the face.. that's a kind of love too") of the victim's other half.

McEvoy takes co-writing credits on a couple of other numbers, too. Violin and piano ballad The Best Excuse In The World features Irish singer-songwriter and Nick Cave collaborator Jack Lukeman channelling a middle-aged man's regret that, for reasons never made clear, he 'can't be in love'. The other number's The Road To The South, a slow building reflection on friends who've migrated to London, stained with regret by the dark, earthy voice of Eliza Carthy who also handles the equally folk-music hall feel of Cover Your Garden Over's commentary on short-termism.

Of the remaining tracks, the sweet voiced Kathryn Williams sings her co-written old before her time meditation on monogamy Crows, Ravens and Locks while Flying Lessons (a song inspired by interviews of astronauts who've walked on the moon) is handled by smoky voiced Sheffield co-writer Nat Johnson (with McEvoy on guitar and backing vocals and Rod Clements on dobro).

Given appropriate gravity by Julie Murphy with Damon Butcher providing the sombre piano figure, Taller Than Me is a trad flavoured number about a parent contemplating their child's death of old age, Alasdair Roberts offers a similarly trad mood for the Draughty Old Fortress and its metaphor about self-created isolation, leaving Camille O'Sullivan to sweeten the album's second song about Alzheimer's, this time steeped in the irony of it being a blessing for those with only bad memories.

The melody's written by Causley, nicely bringing album and review full circle for The Sparrow And The Thrush And The Nightingale Part II, a year later sequel which finds one considering a reunion tour, one in litigation and one with a lucrative solo career. In the metaphorical aviary, I suspect Rotheray's the turtle dove.


Mike Davies August 2010

Doris Rougvie - My Joy Of You (Own Label)

Perthshire-born Doris is a passionate performer who has won several trophies for traditional singing, and a popular guest singer at festivals and folk clubs around Scotland and Ireland. She's well known for her hosting of "The House Of Song" at Celtic Connections, as a member of Wildfire (with Brenda Frier) and The Keekin-Gless group, and as long-time publicity officer for Glenfarg Village Folk Club and its annual Folk Feast. On this disc, Doris treats us to a set of 14 songs which has a real personal meaning for her. Her voice soars radiantly, whether on traditional or contemporary material: the disc strikes a healthy balance between these, with moving versions of songs by Andy Mitchell (Farewell Indiana), Robin Laing (The Isle Of Eigg) and Jim Douglas (Ewan) – and of course the disc's title track, by Ian Davison – alongside reliable unaccompanied renditions of The Great Silkie, Will Ye Gang Love and Huntingtower (the latter a duet with guest singer Joe Aitken). Other particular successes include Mary Brooksbank's Spinner's Wedding and the spirited Hi Jeannie Hi, not to mention Lassie Of Fashion, a joint composition with her husband Hugh Hoffman embracing a sense of fun that fairly and squarely netted them the Songwriters' Cup at Aberdeen TMSA last year! Doris's deep love of sharing her songs with others is much in evidence on this CD, not least in that she is joined on four of the songs by her seven-strong Festival Friends Chorus, whose contribution is both convivial and complementary: adjectives that could equally well describe the duetting voice of Terry Dey on a further four songs. Doris's own interpretations are always admirably clear-sighted and genuinely expressive, although there are times when I find her innate vibrato a tad omnipresent and even mildly distracting (as on Karine Polwart's Follow The Heron Home). Doris also employs a modest instrumental accompaniment on a handful of tracks, courtesy of Neil Paterson, Irene Watt, Paul Anderson, Shona Donaldson and producer Stuart Duncan. But the most important factor in the success of the disc is that Doris herself so obviously enjoys singing and communicating the songs to her listeners.


David Kidman June 2008

Round The House - Safe Home (Own Label)

Round The House is a four-piece from Tucson, Arizona that has what I might describe as a gently dynamic take on Irish traditional music, with the added bonus of being equally strong in both song and tune repertoires.

The band's lineup comprises two versatile string-merchants Dave Firestine (mandolin, bouzouki, banjo) and Mark Robertson-Tessi (guitar), with lyrical fiddle player Sharon Goldwasser and, last but definitely not least, singer Claire Jamieson Zucker, who also brings an energetic and responsive bodhrán part to the mix. The overriding impression of Round The House's music-making is its bright sparkle, that gleam in the eye and freshness of spirit; there's an enviable deftness in their approach to pacing too, a lightness of touch that doesn't preclude communication of essential energy, while allowing the musical phrases to breathe. The virtue of RTH's approach is that they don't need to forge ahead hell-for-leather or cram as many notes into a piece as possible to make an impact, yet neither is their virtuosity in any doubt. I really like the way the two stringed instruments interweave and respond.

This disc, the band's third CD, presents an attractive collection that alternates instrumental tracks with songs in equal part throughout (the "extra" piece is a lament played with a subtle understatement by Sharon's solo fiddle); the soft-spoken musicality of the instrumental sets is complementary to the straightforwardly expressive communication of the texts within the songs. I wasn't entirely convinced by the Latin shuffle approach of the contradance set, and just occasionally I desired a greater contrast between some of the individual songs, but I appreciate that's not easy to achieve when there's only one lead-vocalist to call upon. It's good, though, to hear Claire singing unaccompanied on Thatch Cabin, where her unashamedly decorative delivery can be savoured. So if you like your Irish music handled delicately and sensitively without losing either its enthusiasm or its essential sense of momentum, this Round The House disc will be a "safe home" for you.


David Kidman November 2007

Carina Round - The Disconnection (Dehisce)

It's been two years since the Wolverhampton born, Birmingham based singer-songwriter released her blistering debut album The First Blood Mystery. That earned her support slots with the likes of Coldplay, David Gray, Ryan Adams (with whom she wrote an as yet unrecorded song) and even James Brown plus a short-lived deal with Dave Stewart's label before it foundered. And while nothing came of that brief liaison, the advance she received did allow her to record a follow-up. Co-produced in what she terms an 'interesting' atmosphere by Gavin Monaghan, even though she calls it a celebration of the things she's discovered about herself, a confrontation and exorcism of anger and pain rather than simply ranting on about them it's still a no less intense experience than its predecessor.

Musically the touchstone probably remains a prowlingly feline PJ Harvey drinking lava with Nina Simone while Zeppelin play Glastonbury in the corner while her writing influences are still firmly seated in the works of Plath, Rimbaud and their like. It's a heady brew that bubbles over the poisoned chalice from the opening Shoot, a confessional sleight of hand where she talks of 'telling stories to hide the stories you cannot tell', peppering it with images of razor blades, striptease hearts and a forest of frozen people as a sparse, bass throbbing voodoo blues snakes around her, erupting into shards of broken guitar glass.

In the final line she talks of igniting a night light and much of the album's often dislocated stream of consciousness lyrics play with images of transitions, from dark to light, night to morning, the 'passing of fire into my blood' as she puts it on the clattering and molten passion fury that fuels the awakening of self that is Into My Blood.

Perhaps the key is Lacuna, a prickly piano nerve ending with a sleazed melody line where she admits 'there's a lot to be said for this morbid self attention' but realises she's been 'sleeping for too long' as she cuts free of some lover "looking for an excuse to call yourself a f*** up' while defiantly embracing her own permanence in the world.

There's elemental forces at work here. The sun, thunder, rain, and fire are repeated images, all reinforcing the album's sense of transfiguration, the 'screaming into a new world' she identifies on the scouring, jittery Monument, one of two tracks to reference New York as perhaps another image of self determined rebirth from the ashes of a heart attack.

It's a sweatily sexual album, its juices staining the emotional grain as nights of entwined limbs and shared cigarettes that give way to mornings where ragged silences speak of the tensions inherent in a relationship where one can't let go and one needs to move on. The melodies smoulder, burn, smoke, and twist, at times oppressively claustrophobic as on the sinewy hypnotic drone of Motel 74 (where Bham outfit The Toques provide backing vocals) at others as open as a cool breeze after the storm as with the gently lapping acoustic Overcome with its Eastern rhythmic colours, the swampfunky Paris where a parping trumpet injects a reggae lope or the ebb and flow goblin folk arrangement and narcotic opium haze of a six minute Sit Tight that eventually heads for the door with its r&b bags packed.

She ends with Elegy, a narcoleptic acoustic bossa nova that channels the ghosts of Plath and Virginia Woolf, heavy with regret for the dead child (the end of an affair, a love that 'though it breathes, can never be made'), aware that some things have to be broken for the light to come through yet understandably scared about what lies beyond as she talks of 'skirting the rim of reality.' It's a terrible yet intoxicating beauty.


Mike Davies

Carina Round - The First Blood Mystery (Animal Noise)

In the five years since she her first gig, the Wolverhampton born Anglo- Italian has carved herself an enviable reputation as a songwriter and live performer, invited to play support at the personal request of such names as Cousteau, Ryan Adams, David Gray, and Coldplay. It would have been easy to rush into the studio but Round's been in no hurry, wisely choosing the let her talent season. The wait's been worth it. It's a brave experimental work that fully captures the darkness and emotional intensity churning within her.

Comparisons are being made to PJ Harvey, but the roots run deeper than that. Her love of Nina Simone serves to fuel the strong sultry Harlem jazz flavours, but so too does Billie Holiday and Rickie Lee Jones while the blue-folk-rock moodiness that underpins her elemental soulfulness throws you in the directions of early Janis Ian, Ani Di Franco and, yes, Robert Plant. If you want to explore the literary map then Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf and TS Eliot seem good places to begin. Working within a basic guitar, bass, drums format, songs are fleshed out with brass, keyboards, even a string quartet, channelled into often dissonant but always melodic moods of brittle spidery tensions by producer Gavin Monaghan. In and around it all hovers Round's sinuous, rich voice, charged with an edgy urgent turbulent emotional quality that borders on the abyss of nervous breakdown. The title derives from psychologist Erich Neumann's three blood mysteries, the first - menstruation - being about woman getting in touch with her creativity.

Message To Apollo opens proceedings in devastating form, a pagan celebration and welcoming of that knowing awakening with darkly poetic spoken passage that'll never make it past the radio censors. From here the quality never dips even if the mood rarely lightens, and while hardly chill out listening the likes of The Waves, a rumbling jittery Let It Fall and Ribbons (a song to send Tori Amos reeling) are mesmerising encounters that leave you battered and drained but somehow also purged. On Leaving brings things to an end in a slow deliberate build from bluesy restlessness into a maelstrom of breathy witchy sensuality and howling rawness that pours primal sexual energy like molten lava from a volcano on heat. Not for the feint-hearted perhaps, but basically your first truly classic debut of the century.


Mike Davies

The Rounders - Wish I Had You (Blind Pig)

Oklahoma City based five-piece outfit, The Rounders are a young band that are beginning to make a splash in the swimming pool of the blues. This, their debut for Blind Pig opens with God Knows I'm Tryin', an uncomplicated, energetic opener with pulsating bass from Dave Spindle. The eponymous title track is another hypnotic one that fits firmly into the blues/rock category. My Getaway is a blues chugger with dual guitars (Ryan Taylor and Michael Stone), one on slide, playing in tandem. There is a Cajun feel to the simply executed You Know Better Than That and Through No fault of my own is a brash, brooding rocker with fuzzed vocal from Brian Whitten and harp. They show us another string to their bow on Oh My Dear Mind, which is fast paced, easy going Country.

When It's Bad is a stomper and so different from the previous track. Ryan and Stone really get down on this blues rocker, ably backed by Stu Williamson on drums. It's back to Country, with a little Cajun beat, for Oh Why. This is happy music - turn it on if you feel down. Let Me Talk At You continues the interchange between Country and rock. This is another with a fuzzed vocal and confirms their comfort in different genres. Their ease with each other is here for all to hear. Wait For Me is more of a straightforward blues, played in a Muddy Waters style. There is that fuzzed vocal again - is it my headphones? Guitar and harp meld well here. Leave My Trunk Behind is an R&B crossover with a 60s feel and It Wasn't My Baby is an old style Chicago blues. They close with the fast-paced Goodbye George and its excellent slide guitar. The Rounders is a good, down to earth band and there will always be a place for them in my collection.


David Blue October 2007

Josh Rouse - El Turista (Bedroom Classics)

Having relocated to Spain five years ago, it's not as much of a surprise as some reviewers have expressed to find Nebraska native Rouse exploring the music of his new home. Nor is the Latin groove something new to his work. Think back to 1972 and you'll remember hearing it in evidence even then on James while bossa nova rhythms were all over Subtitlo just a few years back. However, this time he's gone the whole Latin jazz hog.

Opening the Mediterranean breezes of the instrumental Bienvenido, the first song you hear is the bossa nova Duerme, a cover of a 50s number by Cuban pianist-singer Bola De Nieve that Rouse sings in Spanish. Indeed, he does so on several numbers here, among them Mesie Julian, a reworked second Nieve cover and the songs that set the album in motion, the acoustic guitar led rumba of the self-penned Valencia and the calypso flavoured Las Voces, the lyric translations provided by wife Paz Suay.

He does, of course, sing in English too, but those tracks are still informed by balmy Latin musical textures. He even manages to take Civil War era trad folk tune Cotton Eye Joe and transform it into a dreamily lush sway with brushed drums by Brazilian percussionist Sam Bacco.

Built on a jazz piano figure and woodwind, the lazy shuffling Lemon Tree recalls the Paul Simon comparisons from previous albums, even more so on I Will Live On Islands which takes its musical cue from Afro-Cuban carnival dance grooves and wouldn't have been out of place on Simon's own Rhythm Of The Saints.

Ending the album with the closing chord cycle repeating early hours mood of Don't Act Tough with its fat tenor sax solo courtesy of Jim Hoke, it's certainly an Old World away from the days of Dressed Up Like Nebraska. The title is misleading, Rouse is no musical tourist, he's put down roots and, if this is any indication of what lies ahead, then it would be a stubborn fan indeed who'd urge repatriation.


Mike Davies March 2010

Josh Rouse - The Best of the Rykodisc Years (Rykodisc)

Documenting the eight years, five albums and two EPs he recorded with the label, this dounle disc set is as good a primer as you could want if you're coming new to the Nebraska-born singer songwriter. Disc One runs almost chronologically, opening with three cuts from his auspicious 1998 debut, Dressed Up Like Nebraska, the chiming rootsy pop title track (and probably still his best known song) joined by Invisible and Late Night Conversation.

Following these, there's three from 2000's sophomore release, Home, in the shape of the dreamy Laughter, a poppy Directions and the lush Paul Simonesque 100m Backstroke.

Out of sync is the slightly jazzy flavoured 65, taken from Chester, his 1999 EP collaboration with then neighbour Kurt Wagner from Lambchop. On then to Under Cold Blue Stars, his 2002 narrative concept album about the collapse of a 50s small town couple's marriage. Despite the title track's cocktail lounge flavours and the beats of Nothing Gives Me Pleasure, Feeling No Pain and Ugly Stories are more indicative of the album's warmly melancholic pop.

However, come the following year's 1972 with new producer Brad Jones at the helm, Rouse was very much into the music of the era of his birth, the album's blend of brass shaded soul, soft funk, Latin and folksy pop conjuring echoes of Al Green, Neil Young, Simon & Garfunkel and the Young Rascals. From that you get four tracks, the Brian Wilson meets Randy Newman of Love Vibration, the Al Green infused Comeback (Light Therapy), the early dawn streaked title track and a Steve Robert-like Rise. Sadly there's no inclusion of the album's best number, the emotionally moving Sparrows Over Birmingham with its acoustic guitar and gospel finale.

A bittersweet farewell love letter to his home of ten years following a broken marriage and a run in with alcohol, his last album for the label was 2005's Nashville, an album that positively skips and shuffles with a light West Coast breeze and makes no bones of acknowledging such influences as Eric Carmen, David Gates, Boz Scaggs and Carly Simon on representative cuts My Love Has Gone, It's The Nighttime, and the self-accusatory Streetlights. The fourth choice throws up an unexpected musical reference, Rouse's love of the Smiths manifesting itself on the Bigmouth Strikes Again sounding Winter In The Hamptons.

The second disc is more the one for collectors and completists, opening with all six tracks from 2001's incredibly limited edition Bedroom Classics Vol 1, a largely guitar and keyboards affair which, on A Night In, pre-empted the cocktail flavours on the following year's album. Best bet here though is the near a capella Sad Eyes which shows off Rouse's warm honeyed voice to solid effect.

The remaining seven tracks are variously hitherto unreleased demos and outtakes. The former comprise Nebraska's Suburban Sweetheart and Flair, Be On The Lookout (an early version of Home's Little Know It All), Cold Blue's Christmas With Jesus and Camping In Copenhagen's formative take on Summer Kitchen Ballad. The latter consist of Cannot Talk, which never made the debut album, and Princess On The Porch which, while elbowed from 1972, did surface in a live version on The Smooth Sounds Of, the only Rykodisc album not to be represented here.

After leaving, Rouse was briefly signed to Nettwerk, for whom he recorded Subtitlo, but now releases through his own Bedroom Classics. Last year's Country Mouse, City House album was on CD but his output is now mostly studio or live recordings downloadable from his website, recent postings including Bedroom Classics Vol 3 (which features a cover of Mother Love Bone's Chloe Dancer) and a live set from Brazil this August.


Mike Davies September 2008

Josh Rouse - Country Mouse, City House (Nettwerk)

Recorded, like the previous Subtitlo, in his new Spanish home (but mixed in Nashville), Rouse says this, his seventh album, was conceived as a 'wintry' feel in contrast to its predecessor's summer feel. Maybe so, but there's still rays of musical sunshine playing across the metaphorical snows falling on the themes of death, isolation, loss and love on the brink that blanket the likes of God, Please Let Me Go Back, Nice To Fit In, Italian Dry Ice and London Bridges.

He's still musically rooted in the late 60s and 70s, Hollywood Bass Player's playful tale of a musician looking for the break sounding like a Billy Joel number, the dreamy wide-eyed lovestruck Sweetie all romance drenched Brian Wilson and the electronic sheened, jazz keyboard grooved Snowy all very much a warm-breathed Paul Simon. But who needs to be pushing for contemporary innovation when you can revisit the past to such mellifluous effect.


Mike Davies July 2007

Josh Rouse - Subtitulo (Bedroom Classics)

Written in the first week of his relocating from Nashville to Altea in Spain, this first release on his own imprint finds Rouse in a shimmeringly light and laid back mood, reflecting on a past cut free (Givin' It Up about swearing off the booze) as he embraces a more contented existence.

The vibe's set from the opening track, Quiet Town, it's skipping rhythms and Rouse's relaxed croon evocative of both Paul Simon and Fred Neill. He even whistles. Summertime introduces the album's Latin flavours with bossa nova rhythms strummed out on an unadorned acoustic guitar, an airy, jazzy mood revisited for the percussive sways of His Majesty Rides and Wonderful, though curiously the Spanish titled tracks, the simple strummed and sunny El Otro Lado and the instrumental Las Costa Blanca, bear little of the new musical influence.

Elsewhere It Looks Live Love is gentle soul pop and The Man Who's life seeking change duet with Paz Suay plays like a dreamy Belle & Sebastian like song while the lovely Jersey Clowns sees him back in Simonesque style. It's not his most forceful album and the songs aren't his most memorable, but, mellifluously easy on the ear, it's probably the one that's going to win him his biggest audience yet.


Mike Davies, March 2006

Josh Rouse - Nashville (Rykodisc Records)

I have a confession to make. Despite the jungle drums telling me that he's a rather 'cocky' sort, I reckon that I'm addicted to Josh Rouse. His last album found him taking inspiration from the music of the year of its title, '1972'. Don't even let the thought cross your mind that 'Nashville' will follow the same artistic principle. The title came to him as he flew into his hometown knowing that he was leaving to live in Spain. Any bets on the next one being called 'Altea'?

If you're looking for his inspirations, they are fairly retro in nature. The music of the 60's and 70's certainly has soaked into the Rouse sensibilities. Listen to a track like 'Why' and the opening strummed guitar followed by bass and drums are straight out of 60's pop though the lyric is a painful plea to know 'what's going on with you'. Yes, the break-up of his marriage is the other main influence on this record. The plaintive harmonica that starts 'My Love Has Gone' sets the tone for more tales of feeling like he's 'been a fool'. Mind you, the noodling synth and organ sounds mean that the casual listener will feel gently cushioned rather than wallowing in the music. There has always been a tinge of sadness in Rouse's music that can make it 'down and blue' as he says on 'Sad Eyes' but don't let me leave you thinking that this is a record full of misery. Not in the least. Of course, like any artist, circumstances get mirrored in their work. However as the chorus of 'ba ba bas' blast us into 'Winter At The Hamptons', you realise that he can present a summery feel to the sound just as easily as those down moments. After all, as the closing track says, 'life is good, sometimes it's bad, it has its ups, it has its downs..cos, that's just life'. Simple philosophy but great songs, great music, great album.


Steve Henderson

Josh Rouse - 1972 (Rykodisc)

It's only taken him five albums, but he's finally found his light and sunny side. After his last album's stories of a 50s marriage falling apart, Rouse has shifted song perspective a couple of decades to the year of his birth (and his trusty telecaster) and roped in producer Brad Jones to capture that retro vibe with its echoes of Al Green, Young Rascals, Simon & Garfunkel, Neil Young and co. So plenty of soul, flourishes of brass, shades of Latin and thoughts of days lazing down heat hazed boulevards or hanging out on the beach. He's even got a track called Love Vibration which bounces along with a Randy Newman meets Punky's Dilemma jaunt to its step, followed quickly by the Simon-esque lapping waters of Sunshine's radiant I'm in love song, which in a perverse running order twist precedes the Latin percussion groove (think Santana at their most laid back) of James, the song to which it's apparently a continuation.

And so it goes, Slaveship has handclaps, goodtime piano and buoyant romance, Come Back (Light Therapy) slinks it in Al Green fashion (a love song to the sun!), Under The Charms is a breathy intimate late night Paul Simon but sexual love song to the wife and the title track (inspired by a Spanish girl at a McDonald's drive thru!) not only mentions Carole King but sounds like one of her easy massaging melodies too, dripping with cascading keyboard and out on a date with Felix Cavaliere. Heck, even when he remembers his old melancholic self on Flight Attendant, a story of a bullied, repressed gay kid in redneck territory who grows up to take things out on airline passengers, he dresses it up in a warm rhythmic ripple. And on the almost Steve Forbert-like Rise, written about the lonely drifters on the New York singles scene, he still manages to light a few stars in the early morning sky over the Brill building with a promise of love in waiting. Best of all though (and easily this album's Dressed Up Like Nebraska) is Sparrows Over Birmingham, a simple but wonderful acoustic guitar song about, says Rouse, a paraplegic who comes to marry a preacher in Alabama, its emotional wave carried on the crooning middle eight and the gospel voice big finish.

1972 saw the Olympics massacre, Bloody Sunday, the death of Mahalia Jackson, Watergate, the re-election of Nixon and Jimmy Osmond's Long Haired Lover From Liverpool. With this album Rouse finally gives the year a good name.


Mike Davies

Josh Rouse - Under Cold Blue Stars (Slow River)

Opening with the melancholic brass instrumental prologue Twilight, the third album from the Nebraska born, Nashville based songwriter expands his musical colours to incorporate loops. Keyboards and programming into his basic frameworks. The good news is that it enhances rather than clouds his muse and melodies. A loose concept album, it ties his stories of relationships into the life of a 50s small-town couple, he torn between raising a family and is dreams of playing music, she more grounded and religious. Charting their ups and downs as they struggle with their different values and the curves life throws, it takes in the optimism of a new home (Miracle), infidelity (Ugly Stories), and oppressive despondency (Summer Kitchen Ballad) before finding resolution in death in the closing crooning hymnal The Whole Night Thru'. It's a melancholic album, Rouse's warm but pain-infused vocals investing every song with emotional resonance, drawing you in to these lives. Although the title track itself suggests a trace of the Arthur Lyman cocktail lounge in his blood too, musically, it's primarily pop shaped, tumbling in particularly glorious form with Feeling No Pain, with comparisons to Neil Finn, Lloyd Cole and Ron Sexsmith not going amiss.

Expect it to be gracing many a best of list come Christmas.


Mike Davies

Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band - Legacy (Compass)

Right since his early tenure with Father of Bluegrass Bill Monroe, Peter Rowan has consistently blazed trails across an unsurpassed breadth of musical territory, from straightahead bluegrass through psych-folk, country and tex-mex, but always respectful of his roots. His latest offering, and his first recording for Alison Brown's Compass label, finds him in happy consort (judging by the photos within) with his veteran touring Bluegrass Band (Jody Stecher, Keith Little and Paul Knight), and with a mouth-watering handful of guest musicians – Del McCoury, Gillian Welch & David Rawlings, Ricky Skaggs, Tim O'Brien – who variously make cameo appearances on three of the disc's 13 tracks. Within those confines, Peter delivers an impressive new batch of 11 original songs couched in the very style that launched his career (the remaining two tracks are a Carter/Stanley cover, Let Me Walk Lord By Your Side, and a Stecher-penned instrumental).

The originals range from the classic gospel mode of Turn The Other Cheek and the seriously sublime The Night Prayer, the poignant hymn-like Father, Mother (which sounds like a dead cert for Gillian to cover herself) to the folkier uptempo breakdown The Raven (which has a subtle brilliance in its instrumental fills that could only have been conjured by true masters of the art of unobtrusive virtuosity). It's gotta be the sincerest of tributes to Peter's consummate genre mastery when I term any of these fresh compositions the absolute embodiment of timeless roots bluegrass, and this set has to count among Peter's best in an already illustrious 45-year career.


David Kidman October 2010

Peter Rowan - The Free Mexican Airforce (Roots Collectibles)

This isn't a brand new album release from Peter Rowan, but instead a very welcome reissue package that collects together on one disc virtually the entire contents of his two albums recorded for the Flying Fish label, Peter Rowan (1978) and Medicine Trail (1980), on which could be found his early recordings of songs that have since become repertoire classics: the track that gives the compilation its title, and essential numbers like Land Of The Navajo, Break My Heart Again, River Of Stone and Prairie Lullabye, and Panama Red and Midnite Moonlight from NRPS days. Benefitting from his years of experience playing in bands such as Earth Opera, Seatrain and Muleskinner, then in sundry bluegrass and folk/country outfits (with his two brothers, David Grisman and other stellar names), these two albums were Peter's first nominally solo recordings, but the list of guest musicians was both legendary and exhaustive. These are brave and exuberant records, chock full of the spirit of freewheeling musical collaboration and almost incidentally displaying Peter's deep respect for traditional sources, whether they spring from country, folk, old-time, tex-mex, Native American or blues foundations.

The eponymous Peter Rowan album unashamedly places amongst the studio tracks a couple of rough but incandescent live recordings made at the Berkshire Mountains Bluegrass Festival. Both records include tracks featuring the redoubtable accordionist Flaco Jimenez, and amongst the cast of seemingly innumerable other contributors we find Richard Greene, Jimmy Fuller, Mike Auldridge, Lamar Greer, Barry Mitterhoff, Todd Phillips, Jerry Douglas, Mike Seeger and Roger Mason, and vocalists Estrella Berosini, Alice Gerrard, Laura Eastman and Buck, Sharon & Cheryl White. The arrangements on some tracks of Medicine Trail are a little fuller, some of the playing a touch looser perhaps, but otherwise there's little difference in feel between the two albums. This is a valuable compilation-cum-reissue, restoring to circulation two albums crucial to Peter's development.

The crying shame is that the ship has been spoilt for the proverbial ha'porth of tar, for there would certainly also have been room for the two tracks missing from Medicine Trail (Living On The Line and Blues Come Bother Me, the latter featuring Maria Muldaur), since those tracks together aggregate less than seven minutes' extra playing time.


David Kidman September 2009

Peter Rowan - Crucial Country: Live At Telluride (Rounder)

Luckily the tape was running when Peter and his crack band hit the stage at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival back in 1994 - otherwise we wouldn't have this 68-minute, ten-track CD… From the whiplash delivery of Deal With The Devil and on through Howlin' At The Moon, Tumbleweed and Panama Red, this outfit almost can't put a finger wrong. Do I need to mention the personnel? – suppose so, well there's Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, Viktor Krauss, Larry Atamanuik and Kester Smith - sidemen to drool over! All playing with the white heat of sheer exuberance and total love for the music. The gig's genesis was from recreating the spirit of Peter's famous Crucial Country nights at Music City's World Famous Station Inn during the mid-to-late-1980s, where he drove back to his bluegrass roots in the company of anyone and everyone (even Bill Monroe dropped in!). This tail-end festival appearance fields several blinders during the course of its set (like those gutsy mandolin, dobro and guitar solos on The Walls Of Time), and Peter himself is on splendid form. Maybe, just maybe Land Of The Navajo is shortchanged from the lonesome original studio version, and the pseudo-Jamaican vocal accents on the extended near-on-eleven-minute cover of No Woman, No Cry just don't convince (tho' the track contains some stellar playing in the instrumental workout that ensues as you'd expect), but in all other respects this is a sturdy, exhilarating set that consolidates Rowan's bluegrass and mex influences and it still proves eminently worth documenting and preserving on record.


David Kidman October 2007

Peter Rowan & Tony Rice - Quartet (Rounder)

Peter's 2004 album with Tony, You Were There For Me, was critically acclaimed, and thus spurned high expectations for its followup, which marks the recording debut of his Quartet, a dream lineup wherein Peter and his fellow leading bluegrass guitarist Tony are supported by Sharon Gilchrist (formerly with Uncle Earl) on mandolin and Bryn Davies on acoustic bass - both of whom sing vocal harmonies too. The rather unimaginative titling of the album belies the inventiveness and classic styling therein, for it proves a fine set of songs embracing both contemporary and vintage works. Within the latter tag I include not only staples such as Shady Grove and Cold Rain And Snow, but also no less than five originals by Peter himself that seem to have been around for ages, some (eg The Walls Of Time, Dust-Bowl Children) having a while since become fixtures in my own listening. The imagination and vitality of these new quartet renditions is pretty amazing; there's a scintillating, dextrous interpretative flair about the playing for a start, and it easily references the groundbreaking bluegrass work for which both Peter and Tony have become famous over their long careers. Why not fast-forward to track 5, the Old And In The Way classic Moonlight Midnight, and you'll hear how this lineup can fluidly re-imagine an oft-trodden path and hold a jaded listener's interest through over 7½ minutes without even trying (just check out that soloing at the track's centre – breathtaking ain't the word!). Although the focus is often (necessarily) principally on the fantastic guitar interplay of the two key players, the contributions of Sharon and Bryn should not be underestimated, especially in the harmony-vocal department; and I don't think I've heard Peter himself sing better than here (his tender new rendition of Let The Harvest Go To Seed is a wonderful standout cut for me, as is that of Townes Van Zandt's To Live Is To Fly). But Quartet's an immensely cohesive set - no wonder, as (unlike the 2004 record) it was all recorded in one location. Maybe the title of the final track best sums it all up: Perfection (hallelu...)!


David Kidman January 2007

The Royal We - The Royal We (Geographic Music)

Glasgow-based six-piece gather their crew from all over (LA, Manchester and Sunderland as well as Glasgow itself), and on their debut album give us a spiky, savvy, energetic indie-experimental pop that at its best recalls the Raincoats - but it's way better recorded! Fast-moving and upfront, with screaming violin and girl-power vocals and cascading guitar riffs, the recording clearly marked exciting times for the band, making the kind of immediate thrusting music that takes over a party and leaves it breathless and standing. Aside perhaps from the chancing charm of the flickering Back And Forth Forever, a deliquescent uke-trodden ditty that introduces the disc. The record's far too short, more of an EP in length, but hopefully its sales will ensure a longer followup can be made - well, that's what I wrote before reading in the press handout that the band have since split as singer Jihae Simmons is moving back to LA and others want to move on too. So that looks like all we'll get from The Royal We: oh what a shame, as the chemistry was so evidently there for that brief incandescent flare, so grab a copy and celebrate that moment now.


David Kidman October 2007

Royal Wood - A Good Enough Day (Six Shooter Records)

This is my first experience of this piano-playing Toronto-born singer-songwriter, and the initial - uneasy - impression's of a Rufus Wainwright wannabee, with a slightly cabaret, even torchy, outgoing, impact-making style and a deliberately accessible musical language. Certainly the opening (title) track seems almost too simplistic and sentimental - but then it's only just over a minute long, and we soon get drawn into more meaty writing with the headily romantic Juliet, where Royal Wood's flair for lyric conception and musical arrangement comes into its own, and here, as on several other songs, the piano-with-strings backing becomes a kind of signature sound (although the downside of this is that different instrumental colours and textures only intermittently get a chance to be heard). Occasional songs like A Mirror Without and Step Back turn out a bit more rocky, while Safe Haven and Acting Crazy recall the manner and careful craftsmanship of Randy Newman or Billy Joel, and In A Garden even at times recalls Brian Wilson. In fact, the characteristic quality of carefulness of execution is probably Royal Wood's strongest suit, combining attractively with an acute sense of what makes a good pop song. The melodies of his creations tend to stick with you: that of a song like I'm So Glad, for instance, is virtually timeless, while its turns of melody can, rather than descend into predictability, still delight on repeated play. The more ominous depths of Forever We're Tied are plumbed with conviction, and even the more obviously theatrical gestures of Siren and especially the extended Acting Crazy are conducted with plausibility and an appealing freshness. The curious thing is that over a few plays, some tracks improve and really grow into me, whereas a few others seem more trite and pall with repeated exposure. Royal Wood is clearly a gifted performer, and there are isolated moments on this album (like the tender closer Silently and the ensuing bonus cut My Little Irish Girl) where one can see the relevance of the Ron Sexsmith comparison with which he's been acclaimed, but it's also just possible that the very accessibility of his presentation may count against his music being appreciated by fans of the rootsier singer-songwriters.


David Kidman January 2008

Rubus - Nine Witch Knots (WildGoose Studios)

Rubus is a new band comprising four upcoming young musicians with varying degrees of experience on the British folk scene. The name you're most likely to know is that of Emily Portman, formerly of The Devil's Interval (with Jim Causley and Lauren McCormick), who sings and plays concertina. Connoisseurs will know of excellent guitarist David Newey, who's most recently been seen at folk festivals (Sidmouth, Broadstairs) and playing gigs with Tom McConville. The remainder of the Rubus lineup comprises New York fiddler/singer Christi Andropolis and drummer Will Scrimshaw. Together the four make a sound which is (perhaps surprisingly) quite sparse and understated, which rather suits the material they choose to present: exclusively English traditional songs, mostly of the more dour and uncompromising kind (and why not?). <.p>

The album title comes from the ballad of Willie's Lady, here given a virtuoso performance by Emily (if inevitably not striving to emulate the ultra-theatricality of Cloudstreet's version!). Her relatively unadorned singing style has been compared to that of Shirley Collins, and not without some justification, for she too is able to convey the necessary degree of expression with minimal fuss; but, as you can hear on My Son David and She's Like The Swallow, just a modicum of ornamentation can be equally refreshing in its effect. Continuing the basic theme, several of the songs are significantly spooky in nature, being concerned with witchcraft, the supernatural or blood and death in some way: Greenwood Sidey and Rolling Of The Stones, for instance.

The Rubus renditions tend to possess a trademark softly sinister ambience, which is conjured partly through the timbre of Christi's fiddle and viola playing (incorporating plenty of richness and some double-stopping that's occasionally, as on the darkly beautiful closer Sowing Song, quite reminiscent of Carole Pegg) and partly by careful placing of the instrumental resources. Having said that, the backings manage also to remain spacious, with Christi's characterful, atmospherically decorative and often distinctly eerie fiddle lines both contrasting with and complementing David's intelligently considered and delicate fingerplay; whereas Will's drumming, though owing much to the gentler kind of folk-rock template, nevertheless repays some detailed listening, not least for its often unusual approach to maintaining the rhythmic impetus. Even so, a keen sense of rhythmic pulse is still maintained even on the songs where Will steps away from the stage entirely - particularly impressive in this regard is Sheep Crook, Black Dog, where David's guitar part unerringly escorts Emily's melody line underscored by harmonic drones from Christi.

If I'm pushed, I could mildly criticise the album for being a little too uniform in its overall mood; but it's a compelling mood, exciting in an unobtrusive way - not of the "in-yer-face" variety, but more of an intense, intimate listen, for this is emphatically not background music and thus it deserves both your respect and close attention.


David Kidman October 2008

The Ruby Suns - Sea Lion (Memphis Industries)

When your album embraces African and Polynesian folk music, flamenco, Disney soundtracks, Brian Wilson pop, found natural sounds, and a song sung in Maori, you have every right to be tagged eclectic. But the term hardly does the New Zealand outfit service, their second album a heady brew of mellow psychedelia, sunny veldt landscapes, mountain clouds and blissed out stoner backpackers that, on opening track Blue Penguin alone, hitches from experimental noise effects to lazy hula vibes.

Dropping flamenco under the desert sun with Oh, Mojave, clattering tribal percussion and swaying loas across Tane Mahuta, getting a natural high up Mount Kenya for It's Mwangi In Front Of Me, giving Maasai mates a taste of California out of body flotation with Ole Rinka and surfing around world music waves on an Adventure Tour's recollection of a rainy trip to South Island, it's impossible to resist the sheer sense of joy and Gaia spirituality that glows from every note. So good, you can even forgive the terrible pun of Kenya Dig It? where Ryan McPhun, Amee Robinson and Imogen Taylor distil what a Disney movie song written by the Flaming Lips, wherein Simba, Aladdin and Mulan hang out sharing a pipe on some sunset kissed island, might sound like.


Mike Davies March 2008

Dave Ruch - The Oldest Was Born First (Own Label)

Almost anyone here in the UK could be forgiven for not having heard of Dave prior to his visit to these shores during October, since for many years he's been modestly ploughing his own folk furrow in (the largely rural) New York State, actively investigating the rich body of traditional Anglo-American music - old songs and ballads, fiddle tunes, beer-tray playing etc. (no, honestly!) - that sustained the people who came before him in that area. And for some inexplicable reason resolutely avoiding making any records - until now, that is. And certainly not before time, for this disc is a treasure.

It contains Dave's entirely personable interpretations of eight songs that have "done the local rounds", punctuated by five sparkling instrumental tracks (tunes or tune-medleys). Dave's approach could be likened to that of other favoured revival performers - Sara Grey, Jeff Davis and Jeff Warner are three names that spring readily to mind - who are similarly noted for their sheer dedication to the cause, their enthusiastic and exhaustive research and their proven ability to communicate their findings to the listener accessibly, with a ready smile and ever-reliable (often outstanding) musicianship.

Dave's keen attention to detail is everywhere you look (with tremendous, copiously informative (but not in the least dry) booklet notes enclosed in the package) and listen (a very fine recording by Joel Hurd that totally reflects and complements Dave's musical personality). Dave clearly much relishes the task he sets himself and he positively radiates genuine delight and enjoyment in sharing the music and songs to you.

Dave has drawn his raw material from New York State sources and their vibrant but little-known local tradition; many of the songs reference or directly concern places or matters very much specific to that region, although they also incorporate common base elements recognisable from other traditions (eg a standard Derry Down chorus on The Ballad Of Blue Mountain Lake). One or two of the songs are likely to be familiar to old-time Americana enthusiasts, but not necessarily in these particular versions: check out Bald Headed End Of The Broom (and try to resist a chuckle or three!).

A number of pieces emanate from the vaudeville stage (The Barefoot Boy With Boots On and the Erie Canal song Oh! Dat Low Bridge, for instance), others from old song repositories of various kinds (The Warner Collection, The Flanders Ballad Collection and manuscript collections made by members of the local community), and there are even a couple of rousing acappella worksongs, including a variant of the celebrated E-ri-o Canal (which you'll probably recall the Weavers singing in the 60s).

As well as handling virtually all the lead vocals, Dave plays guitar, mandolins, banjos, spoons and jew's harp (all with consummate skill too), although he also calls in the services of a handful of friends when the occasion demands - notably certified Buffalo NY rock star Alison Pipitone to share lead vocal duty on Wisconsin, one of the disc's standouts. A lively and involving CD, and I hope it turns out to be the first of many from Dave.


David Kidman November 2009

Rupa & The April Fishes - Extraordinary Rendition (Cumbancha)

This is an extraordinary album too, almost entirely unclassifiable either in terms of its musical idiom or of its impact. It's taken me the best part of two months to get the measure of it, but it's certainly repaid my persistence. The band's leader, Rupa, has an equally extraordinary personal history: of Indian heritage, she was born in San Francisco's Bay Area yet moved to Aix-En-Provence (an area with a large Arab immigrant population) at the age of ten. Her sense of cultural and racial "belonging" was, inevitably, a confusing and confused one, and she had a hard time developing her own concept of musical identity. During this process, Rupa began writing in French, which she saw as a way of exploring music through the sound of the words and the melody inherent in the language. She's now back in the melting-pot of San Francisco, which is reflected both in the introductory short sound-collage and in eclectic and often bewilderingly cross-cultural nature of her band's music. Don't be put off by that idea, which might at first tempt you to think it's an aimless pick-and-mix of world musics – although to be sure it contains elements of chanson, folk, Balkan, Latin cumbia, gypsy swing and eastern raga. Each individual track brings forth its own blend: Maintenant fuses tango and chanson, Yaad brings tablas and cellos in behind Rupa's sensuous keening, Les Abeilles is a brooding love song, Mal De Mer a queasy, swaying waltz and Ce N'est Pas D' L'Amour a dreamlike reflection on romance. La Pêcheuse alternates sensually evocative passages with slinky yet gritty R&B, whereas La Peinture evokes its enticing brushstrokes with percussive motifs, Plus Que Moi brings the abandon of a gipsy circus band, and the fragmentary Not So Easy is like a passing hallucination. But perhaps the most curious track of all is the gawky nu-folk Wishful Thinking (the only song written in English). Rupa's music is a true cult classic: engaging, riveting and endlessly fascinating. The uncompromisingly acoustic lineup backs Rupa's guitar with cello, accordion, trumpet, bandoneon and assorted percussion. It's a complex, stimulating and greatly intriguing mix, and one which, almost against all the odds, really does work.


David Kidman July 2008

Rusalnaia - Rusalnaia/ Rusalnaia Live (Camera Obscura/Own Label)

Rusalnaia (named after a mythical, and mischievous, water nymph) is an abundantly intriguing psych-folk venture, a fairly recent collaboration between two noted dark-folk practitioners, Sharron Kraus and erstwhile Reverie member Gillian Chadwick - two intensely talented and creative musical minds in their own right. The disc's eight songs are described as being "influenced in greater or lesser part by Mellow Candle, Trees and Jefferson Airplane" - to which reference points I'd definitely add The Sun Also Rises, Principal Edwards Magic Theatre and the Incredible String Band – but in truth Rusalnaia don't really sound an awful lot like any of them although they share a certain kinship in many ways.

Sharron and Gillian are joined on this eponymous debut Rusalnaia CD by Espers' Greg Weeks (keyboard, bass and acid-guitar) on half of the tracks and on a further two by Fern Knight's Margie Wienk (cello and bass), these extra contributions proving but unintrusive layers of glacé-icing on a richly haunting cake that mostly concentrates on the interplay between the two ladies' beauteous vocals (cool harmonies allied to a disturbing precision and power) and pulsating acoustic guitars.

The opening invocation The Sailor And The Siren draws you in like the siren-call of the whirlpool and holds your attention; this is followed by the remarkable Shifting Sands, with its ritual-percussion-backed voices one minute eerily blending then (just like the sands themselves) shifting apart, to eventually reveal a spectral cello line and discordant pipe flutings weaving away into a mysterious processional coda. Then for exquisite contrast we encounter the graceful (if shadowy), fragile, dulcimer-flecked Kindling, which features Greg's celebrated acid-guitar solo, and the gentle time-capsule of Dandelion Wine, which is one of those lilting, atmosphere-laden sunlit-summer creations that could've been made for Peel's label of that name. The Ravager is a masterly, if necessarily sinister, portrait of an all-too-familiar personal nemesis with a mournful, mystic organ backing. Elsewhere we encounter the hypnotic mantra of the ladies' two uncannily blended voices intoning their enigmatically beautiful lyrics in often surprisingly dramatic fashion, notably on the wilful but incantatory title track and the more cumulative charms of Wild Summer.

The live album is an almost exact counterpart to the above record, at any rate in terms of track listing, with The Ravager replaced by what feels a slightly unsettled (or rather, unhinged) cover of Cream's Strange Brew. There is, however, quite a marked difference in the overall feel of the tracks, with an extra-intense tribal energy which is very likely down to the presence on that occasion of Jim Ayre and four other percussionists. The additional sense of charged atmosphere is no doubt also partly attributable to the fact that the entire set was recorded during a thunderstorm, and yes, it's quite electric at times!… The original album tracks were never weak, but there's an even more compelling sense of pagan drama in these live performances, and the nine-minute finale Wild Summer becomes a living embodiment, everything you'd want it to be, both bold and majestic, driven and trance-like. Unlike many live recreations of recorded repertoire, this Rusalnaia set is genuinely to be regarded as a complementary experience to the altogether more reflective - though no less potent - studio set.

Each album has its own special sense of flow (though the sequence of tracks is quite different on each) and makes the most capital out of its unique aura and its splendid parade of original compositions. And Sharron and Gillian together exhibit so keen an empathy, one that's seriously spinechilling in all its scary glory. Get both albums if you can – each forms a magnificently mesmerising musical experience.


David Kidman January 2010

Kate Rusby - 20 (Island)

To celebrate 20 years of making music, this latest release features Kate's new recordings of her own favourite songs from throughout her illustrious career. Not only are these new recordings, but they also provide chances for her to revisit the songs in the company of several musical heroes and inspirations. Chief among these, of course, is Nic Jones, whose high-pedestal status in the pantheon of Rusby's heroes is both well-documented and unchallenged; he guests here on a tender reworking of The Lark, which, in common with many of the remaining tracks on this set, benefits from the sublime and unfailingly sensitive backing of Rusby's regular accompanists (Messrs. McGoldrick, O'Kane, Sutton, Lyall et al.); others also involve a string quartet or brass players. The very presence of more than 20 of Kate's musical heroes on this set in cameo (usually supporting vocal) roles is itself indicative of the esteem in which she is held – and rightly so. Here are names to conjure with, to be sure – like Nickel Creek's Chris Thile and Sara Watkins; Jim Causley; Dave Burland; Mary Chapin Carpenter; Aoife O'Donovan; Declan O'Rourke, who between them comprise but half of the magnificent roll-call (most of the remainder will no doubt be mentioned in dispatches in due course).

Of course, a lot of water has flown under the bridge since Rusby began her career winning awards for singing traditional songs, and she's not escaped critical backlash for her pure and youthful vocal tones (only the natural quality of her voice, after all) and her chummy accessibility (that's only her natural personality), but her integrity and commitment have never been in doubt; for every single detractor there will be many many more who are generous with praise and ready to recognise her cumulative contribution over the past 20 years to the currently healthy state of the folk scene. And rightly so, for as well as a capable and sensitive reinterpreter of traditional song, she has fairly blossomed as a songwriter, with memorable examples galore on this set to feast your ears on. Key among these are the touching Bitter Boy (with vocal contribution from husband Damien O'Kane) and her lovely tribute to Davy Steele, Who Will Sing Me Lullabies? (featuring Richard Thompson on gentle, bell-like electric guitar and harmony vocal and Radiohead's Philip Selway on percussion). The new version of Sho Heen is sheer magic, with O'Kane's banjo counterpointing Jerry Douglas's dobro and Eddi Reader providing a meltingly wondrous (if slightly under-balanced) harmony part.

There aren't any disasters among the 20 selections, which alone is a tribute to Kate's skill in choosing, persuading and assembling her collaborators. And, persuasive as each selection proves on its own stand-alone merits, maybe the overall sound-picture is just a little too smooth at times, the pace being relatively uniform almost throughout. And maybe some of the revisits are a little too comfortingly easygoing – for instance, Jolly Plough Boys loses some of its former cheekiness, and Dick Gaughan's harmony vocal seems mildly redundant. Elsewhere, Paul Brady seems ill-suited to All God's Angels, and Bob Fox (though an excellent singer) doesn't feel quite the ideal harmony duettist for a loving revisit of Annan Waters, especially considering its all-time-favourite status within Rusby's repertoire. The anthemic Wandering Soul arguably under-uses the guest vocal resources, but it's still a beautiful song, as is the Polwart-like Planets (which features Sarah Jarosz) and the set's one brand new composition, Sun Grazers, for which Paul Weller supplies an earnest, expressive vocal. So, in spite of a few minor miscalculations this is still a well-considered and fittingly celebratory set, for the enterprise of which Kate is to be warmly and very heartily congratulated.


David Kidman October 2012

Kate Rusby - While Mortals Sleep (Pure Records)

I overheard someone carping the other week that Kate only releases records of her own at Christmas, while at all other times of the year she guests on other folks' projects! Well, we can all appreciate the advantage of tying a seasonal release in with a December tour, but the criticism is surely unjustified when you consider that Kate's last seasonal offering was as long ago as 2008 (the enchanting Sweet Bells), and only last year she released an even more enchanting album of self-penned material, Make The Light. So there rests the case for the defence…!

While Mortals Sleep is billed as a direct and unashamed follow-up to Sweet Bells: in many ways, it presents more of the same in that it's mostly comprised of South Yorkshire songs and carols. The strong indigenous tradition of carol singing in Kate's home county, which begins in early November each year, provides a truly joyous and genuinely cathartic experience, one which it's impossible to replicate other than in the immediacy of live performance (usually crammed in a crowded pub!). Having said that, it's the generosity of spirit – and the glorious tunes and settings – that Kate is able to celebrate in her own distinctive, affectionate way here, exactly as she did on the Sweet Bells album. And once again Kate also supplies her own chummy liner notes pointing up the provenance of the various pieces.

Anyone familiar with Sweet Bells may wish to level the charge that the new CD springs no creative surprises, but on the other hand a comforting familiarity with Kate's style and approach is no bad thing. On much of While Mortals Sleep Kate and her merry little band (Ed Boyd, Damien O'Kane, Julian Sutton and Duncan Lyall) are augmented by the warm tones of a brass quintet (whom she'll be taking on tour too in December). Right from the outset, with a cheery, animated, syncopated take on Cranbrook (aka While Shepherds Watched/Ilkla Moor Baht 'at), Kate and the gang ensure that glory will shine all around, then it's back to the fireside and the loved ones for the disc's one self-penned item, the genial, wistful Home. The disc proceeds on its merry way with the brass-fanfare-bedecked Joy To The World, the Seven Day Carol (here titled Seven Good Joys) and First Tree In The Greenwood (one of the many Holly & Ivy variants).

Then, in addition to the actual carols, the set-list includes some other welcome and apt choices – like a thoughtful take on the Holmfirth Anthem and a melodious and well-managed Shepherds Arise – before the final two tracks provide interesting comparisons with particularly celebrated renditions from within the seasonal CD back-catalogue. Kate's arrangement of the mighty carol Diadem compares favourably in its own glory-filled way with the magnificent acappella rendition on CB&S' Fire, Sleet & Candlelight collection (which itself has just been granted a timely reissue by NoMasters), and The Wren with the time-honoured Steeleye Span acappella track The King.

It's almost inevitable, however, that any seasonal-themed disc will have its cringe-moment, and Kate's comes early on here with the kiddie-jingle Kris Kringle – which I'll admit I didn't realise was part of the South Yorkshire carol tradition, but it's an artefact that not even the dulcet tones of Our Kate can redeem for me I'm afraid. After which, not even in her tastefully-arranged, archetypally appealing, gently drifting treatment can she altogether sidestep the age-old associations of sentimentality on Little Town Of Bethlehem.

But this is all a matter of personal taste I guess, and I still find the rest of the album an absolute delight; an attractive proposition for that perennially underfilled stocking!


David Kidman December 2011

Kate Rusby - Mark The Light (Pure)

Maybe it's me, but there always seems to be a seasonal flavour to Rusby's albums, the season depending on when they're released. Those that come out during the summer months are redolent of fresh baled hay, jugs of cider, and meadow frolics while those of later in the year, like this, seem to summon images of breath-hung frosty mornings, mulled wine, holly berries and carousing revellers.

With her Yorkshire vowels and free as air pure voice, she's perhaps my favourite female singer of all who emerged from the BritFolk pack over a decade ago and while she's rarely stepped outside the genre she's consistently released cherishable albums.

This marks something of a departure in that it's her first to feature no traditional material or covers, but rather all self-penned songs. It's also introduces her new band with Kevin McGuire on double bass, Julian Sutton on diatonic accordion, Malcolm Stitt on bouzouki and guitar and partner (and new husband) Damien O'Kane on guitars and banjo.

It'll come as little surprise to find her songs are very much in line with what's gone before, indeed were it not for the credits, you'd easily assume things like the Northern brass warmed Walk The Road and The Wishing Wife, with its sprightly tale of a nee'r do well spouse transformed into a dog, were traditional ballads.

Doubtless illuminated by her recent motherhood, it's a generally optimistic affair with themes of reconciliation, new beginnings and, on Only Hope, a vision of rewards and punishments for the ill-used and the ill-users. Not that there's aren't some dark clouds. The Mocking Bird warns about falling prey to insecurity and the taunts of others, Lately speaks of time forgetting she's around and, while no Dylan, Let Then Fly is a protest song about self-serving politicians.

With notable highlights in Green Fields, which can be best described as if Sandy Denny had written My Old Friend The Blues, and the lovely Fairweather Friend, it may not be Rusby's best album but it'll still warm the heart as you gather round the hearth and its roasting chestnuts.


Mike Davies November 2010

Kate Rusby - Sweet Bells (Pure)

Fed up of Slade, Wham and Wizzard, choirboys not your thing, want a folk alternative to Maddy Prior, then look no further than Rusby's joyously uplifting collection of South Yorkshire carols.

Joined by regular collaborators Ian Carr, Andy Cutting and Andy Seward along with other guests such as Michael Dodds on euphonium, Anna Massie on cittern and fiddle and a redoubtable brass section courtesy of the Grimethorpe Colliery Band, the tunes of the sort of traditional carols that have been sung in Yorkshire pubs such as the Royal Hotel, in Dungworth, Sheffield, representing as the press blurb says (quoting direct from the village carols web page for the Hotel and Hark, Hark, What News) "an oral tradition, constantly evolving, passed down from generation to generation, with roots dating back over 200 years."

Many will be instantly recognisable chestnuts, among them Here We Come A-Wassailing, The Holly and The Ivy, Awake, Arise Good Christians and Hark The Herald (Angels Sing). Rusby, though, has given even such evergreens a lift with her arrangements. Thus Hark The Herald is now a malted slow waltzer while a gently jigging The Holly And Ivy has a totally different rhythm and tempo to the one with which you'll generally found sung at carol concerts.

Less familiar titles include Robert Herrick's 17th century poem Candelmas Eve as well as numbers you might not immediately think of in a carols context, Serving Girl's Holiday (featuring just Kate and Andy's accordion), Poor Old Horse and Will Godwin's aching emigrant's New Year lament The Miner's Dream of Home.

Intriguingly While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night turns up in several forms in the South Yorkshire tradition sung to different tunes, and Rusby includes two here. Hail Chime On and Sweet Bells both use the traditional verses but each have their own chorus, the latter carol also extant in its own right as Sweet Chiming Bells with entirely different verses.

It's a pity there wasn't room to include such titbits on the sleeve booklet, but doing the research was fascinating, especially with Rusby's distinctive tones and conjuring a seasonal atmosphere of holly wreaths, mistletoe bunches, jugs of mead and cinnamon posies


Mike Davies December 2008

Kate Rusby - Awkward Annie (Pure Records)

Album number six sees Kate taking the bold step into the producer's chair (and why not?), with most encouraging, nay quite splendid results and evidently a hell of a lot of confidence. But apparently, according to Kate's own confessional liner note, it's almost a miracle that the album got finished at all ("I ground to a halt more than once and gave up", she says); I for one am so glad she managed to overcome the demons and the "grief beyond words" she's suffered over much of the past two years.

In terms of basic mode and type of material, Awkward Annie is on first impression very much the mixture as before, with trademark mournful ballads alternating with lighter fare, all conveyed in Kate's equally trademark dulcet (I hesitate to over-use the word "pure"!) tones. Five out of the eleven (official) tracks are self-penned, proving the consistency of Kate's ever-developing songwriting craft. But this time there's more to it than that, for it's noticeable that all she's been through personally of late has clearly enabled her to plumb new emotional depths (The Bitter Boy and Daughter Of Heaven especially), often with quite painful self-awareness yet also with the childlike simplicity and playfulness of much of the imagery barely concealing the intense melancholy or even the more sinister nature of events (as in High On A Hill and the title number).

The remaining six tracks are typically acutely-realised arrangements of traditional source material. The jaunty tenor of the tune and setting of The Old Man, for instance, couldn't be anything other than a Kate Rusby creation, but the remainder are also very satisfying. These include a fetching take on The Streams Of Lovely Nancy (nice brass-choir arrangement here) and a particularly rewarding version of Andrew Lammie where Our Kate diverts the familiar tune down unexpected melodic byways and thereby introduces an extra dimension of loss and even unease into the narrative. Kate skilfully employs a string arrangement on Lammie and John Barbury (the latter using the Willie O' Winsbury tune), whereas Kris Drever's tenor guitar also forms a distinctive element within the texture of several tracks. Other contributing musicians include Chris Thile, John Doyle and Lucy Payne, and of course the "usual suspects" (Messrs Cutting, Carr, McCusker, McGoldrick, Vernal and Shaw), and there's vocal assistance from Eddi Reader on a couple of tracks too, but the arrangements are beautifully delicate, also remarkably uncluttered given the number of musicians involved, and Kate's clearly got the feel for fine-honed textures and focused production values. Generally speaking, the feel of the album seems more folksy and intimate than the carefully configured Celticised adventures of yore and on Kate's previous records; I do like the gentle oldtimey feel given by the increased use of banjo too (courtesy of Leon Hunt and Andy Seward).

As for the album's final stretch, well I quite like Kate's Jam And Jerusalem cover of The Village Green Preservation Society, included here as a bonus track (though surely Kate doesn't play electric guitar on that one??), but I do feel that her cover of Blooming Heather (aka Wild Mountain Thyme) smacks rather of over-intentional radio-friendliness with its McCormack-like "light-operatic" guest vocal (John Hudson) - pleasant enough for yer granny, but it doesn't quite fit with the rest of the album. Never mind that, as for the vast majority of its length, Awkward Annie is an abundantly fine record, very probably the best Kate has made so far: she's clearly travelled a long way both emotionally and artistically in the space of ten years, six records and plenty else besides.


David Kidman October 2007

Kate Rusby - Live From Leeds DVD (Pure)

The first, as best as I can tell, of folk's Britpack to release a DVD, Rusby's clearly got her marketing well sussed. Of course it helps that she gives good concert too, crisply filmed and well directed here at Leeds City Varieties Music Hall with backing musicians that include Ian Carr, Andy Cutting and John McCusker (and who get to do their own thing on an instrumental medley). Sporting what seems to be her now trademark look of lopsided grin, white vest top and scraped back ringlets with a rose grip, she proves to have affably witty between song repartee to go with her fragile, haunting Barnsley accented voice and a songwriting ability that's rapidly confirming her as the best of the recent outcrop of young contemporary folk artists. Accompanied by discreet mandolin and guitar with uillean pipe solo by Michael McGoldrick she delivers a wonderfully yearning version of Richard Thompson's Withered and Died but it's measure of her strength that even a song as classic as this is run close by her own Who Will Sing Me Lullabies? Elsewhere in a mix of trad arrangements and self-penned numbers she performs Fairest of All Yarrow, a marvellous version of Cruel (after apologising to the audience for getting it from a book of Lancashire Ballads), the amusing The Yorkshire Couple, Sir Eglamore, William & Davy and, by way of a final coup de grace, her superb Underneath The Stars. The applause is suitably ecstatic But there's more added value with extras that include five acoustic session tracks, behind the scenes footage, interviews with Andy Kershaw (though it's hard to figure why neither of them seem to be looking at each other), biographies and a video diary that features her at what seems to be a beer festival sitting round a table with Kershaw and the lads for an impromptu version of Iris DeMent's Our Town. Essential.


Mike Davies

Kate Rusby - Underneath The Stars (Pure)

After her and John McCusker's soundtrack album for Heartlands, Rusby's finally found time to record her much anticipated follow up to 2001's Little Lights. No major departures lurk in the shadows as the regular line up of Rusby, McCusker, Andy Cutting, Ian Carr and Ewen Vernal working their way through a collection of new arrangements of traditional songs about pining maids, cuckolded husbands and cunning consters such as The White Cockade, The Good Man (known better and lustier as Seven Drunken Nights) and The Blind Harper and a half dozen of Rusby's own trad flavoured numbers.

I didn't say there were no surprises though. Look down the guests and you'll find Eddi Reader contributing la la las to Let Me Be and rather more substantial harmonies on Young James (young bride to be doesn't believe fiance's run off with another) and, rather more unexpectedly, those warbling male harmonies on the chorus of Cruel belong to Ocean Colour Scene's Simon Fowler. He apparently recorded a few tracks up at her studio, so expect other contributions to crop up on any B sides that might appear.

Although the intrusion of Sweet William's Ghost rather spoils the symmetry, the album's otherwise divided into a trad first half with original material in the second, though you'd have to be well versed with the folk archives to spot the join since tunes and themes alike come without any contemporary speedbumps.

As ever, Rusby's unaffected northern accent and pronunciation gives her work a warm, earthy vibe, perfectly complemented by the hay in the fields, heather on the hills, farmhands courting the maids mood of the music and melodies. Andy Seward's banjo brings an extra ripple of gentle melancholy to The Daughter of Megan while both Bring Me A Boat (tune courtesy Phil Cunningham) and the gorgeously sad closing Underneath The Stars are buttered with the sort of brass and euphonium that paint nostalgic pictures of village chapels, sepia postcards and sunsets on the green. As simple and as lovely as an English country summer's day.


Mike Davies

Kate Rusby - 10 (Pure)

It's ten years since Barnsley lass Rusby failed to get a role on Emmerdale and decided to opt for music instead. Since then she's been nominated for a Mercury Music prize, picked up a BBC Folk Award, reaped critical acclaim for her albums, been called one of the top ten folk voices of the century, married fiddler John McCusker and, most recently, provided the music for and had a performing cameo in the forthcoming Heartlands, director Damien O'Donnell's follow up to East Is East.

So to mark the anniversary she's put together a retrospective of key songs from the decade. However, rather than simply slap down previously recorded tracks she's been in the studio to do them again. A few have been remastered - Sweet Bride from Sleepless, Cowsong, previously only available on the EP, Night Visiting Song which featured on McCusker's Yella Hoose album, and Bold Riley from Horglass - but otherwise, all the old stuff is brand new, recorded with various contributions from the likes of Andy Cutting, Ian Carr, Michael McGoldrick and Lester Simpson.

Her and John's arrangement of the trad The Recruited Collier opens the album, a weary but warm version that immediately reminds you how her Barnsley accent brings a special magic to her material. Revisited elsewhere in equally woodsmoke and cobblestone atmospheres you'll find the trad The Fairest Of All Yarrow and her own The Sleepless Sailor both of which feature in Heartlands, Irish trad favourite I Wonder What Is Keeping My True Love, The Wild Goose (the sea shanty she transformed into a love song), The Maid of Llanwellyn, a song she originally recorded with The Poozies and now given a brass injection, the evergreen Botany Bay (again from the rare Cowsong EP), and live versions of Sir Eglamore and Drowned Lovers, recorded on the 2001 tour.

It's all gorgeous stuff (about sex, murder and religion), none contrived into self-consciously different interpretations merely given a buffing with the experience, insights and musical maturity she's gathered over the time. If the past were all this had to offer it would still be a wonderful album, but there's also two brand new songs, both written and recorded for Heartlands. A woman's song of regret for innocent days, I Wish takes its lyrics from Folk Songs of England, Ireland and Scotland, the tune a gentle dance melody (almost a gavotte at times) from Rusby and McCusker with Alison Brown adding catchy banjo colouring and Francis McDonald providing the snare drum foundation. And if the film is half as tender and resonant and the aching slow waltzing Over You Now then it will be a wonderful movie indeed. Happy anniversary, here's to the next ten.


Mike Davies

Kate Rusby Band - Little Light (Pure)

Voted Radio 2 Folk Singer of the Year and one of the century's Top 10 folk voices, Sleepless a Mercury Music Prize nominee and one of Mojo's all time best folk albums, it's fair to say Rusby's doing something right.

Two years and an award laden album on from her last gig with the Poozies, much as her down to earth modesty may blush, the perky, coy yet angelic voiced Barnsley lass is firmly ensconced in the ranks of British folk superstars. To confirm matters her third album breathes an air of newly mown grass through the evergreen Canaan's Land and sublime new tune settings of Merry Green Broom and (one of the many highlights) Playing of Ball, while the self-penned bouncy I Courted A Sailor, moving colliery brass accompanied lament My Young Man and the aching Who Will Sing Me Lullabies for the late Davy Steele, sit seamlessly alongside the traditional as the work of a master songsmith.

And, after her knockout cover of Iris deMent's Our Town, she repeats the trick with a fabulous version of Richard Thompson's Withered And Died, that ay oop Barnsley accent investing it with utterly disarming charm. With a line up of guest musicians that read like a folk hall of fame and include Ian Carr, Danny Thompson, Tim O'Brien, Andy Cutting and John McCusker (who produces with a sure, warm hand), this is truly one little light that is going to shine. Look out too for the bonus hidden track, a kidlet styled sing song through The Big Ship Sails with one young Joshua Rusby Holling and a certain aunt Eddi Reader.


Mike Davies

Tom Rush - What I Know (Appleseed)

Like many, I first discovered Rush via his seminal 1968 album The Circle Game. I'd already fallen under the spell of the single, Something In The Way She Moves and from the moment I first heard him sing No Regrets it was the start of a lifetime love affair with the song. There's been many a cover version, from the big drama of the Walker Brothers to the mangling of Midge Ure, but it's always been the Rush original to which I've returned and which provided the wallowing soundtrack to many a youthful broken relationship.

Having taken The Circle Game to my heart, I set about completing the collection with his previous releases, Got A Mind To Ramble, Blues, Songs & Ballads, Tom Rush and Take A Little Walk With Me.

Smitten by that dusty, slightly cracked emotion stained voice and immaculate guitar playing (listen to Rockport Sunday for evidence), I was at the front of the queue too for his subsequent Columbia albums, 1970's eponymous label debut with his cover of David Wiffen's Driving Wheel, Wrong End of the Rainbow, Merrimack County and Ladies Love Outlaws with its revisitation of No Regrets.

But that was to prove his last release for the label. There's been a few hard to find, long out of print live albums since them but, save for 1994's limited edition cassette Work In Progress, no studio recordings for 35 years. Until now.

I've no idea what got him back into the studio, and nor do I care. It's just great to hear him again, produced by Jim Rooney and sounding in fine form with a new clutch of songs and an A list of musicians that include David Pomeroy on upright bass, Fats Kaplin and Pat McLaughlin. Though barely two minutes long, the self-penned Hot Tonight kicks things off in great goodtime form with a bluesy barroom stomp featuring Bonnie Bramlett on backing vocals. Then it's into the first of the album's covers, Jack Tempchin's East Of Eden on which, delivered in a speak sing style, finds Rush sounding uncannily like Chip Taylor. Among the other non-originals, stand-outs include Stephen Bruton's wistfully reflective Too Many Memories with Emmylou Harris on harmonies, Richard Dean's All A Man Can Do (one of two songs originally featured on Work In Progress), a tremendous dusty blue collar folk roots rework of Lonely, a chugging ride through the trad Casey Jones with Nanci Griffith helping to shovel the coal, riding a reggae tune by Jamaican artist Mishka Frith, the Willie Nelson feel of Ben Miller's No One Else But You and a world solo reading of Drift Away. However, for me, the best of the bunch surely has to be the dreamy late night romantic longing he brings to Eliza Gilkyson's Fall Into The Night.

Rush himself contributes five songs, and if none of them rise to the heights of No Regrets, One Good Man is a solid funky, horns burning Nashville blues boogie with a wryly ironic macho lyric, Silly Little Diddle (again in Chip Taylor mode) is a sprightly throwaway fiddle and banjo bluegrass making up after a fight ditty, What I Know a lazy loping folk-country love song with whistling and, a personal favourite, the weary of wandering chorus friendly River Song.

Sporting a Tom Paxton 'tache, he looks a little more grizzled than the tousled young folk troubadour on the sleeve of his first album, but that voice and relaxed, achingly melancholic careworn delivery has lost none of the magic that beguiled me over 40 years ago. Hopefully, he'll not be a studio stranger again and find a couple of weeks spare for a long overdue tour.


Mike Davies April 2009

Calvin Russell - In Spite Of It All (SPV)

If you like your music slick, nicely packaged and sterile then you'll be mighty disappointed by Calvin Russell's In Spite Of It All because this is music of the the real life, untamed rock 'n' roller.

Born in 1948 he picked up a guitar at aged 12, a year later he was playing in a band fittingly called The Cavemen.

He spent the 80s living the life of a vagabond, including a spell in a Mexican jail. On his release he 'upgraded' to the dirt space underneath a house in Old Clarkesville as he attempted to launch his musical career.

In many ways Calvin Russell is a musician out of his time. Not only has he lived the life of a character from a Hemingway novel or a Woody Guthrie song, he clings tenaciously to the belief that music needs guts more than it needs soul.

This uncompromising approach is as much a product of his Texan environment as a career choice. A child who lives by the sea learns to swim, a boy who loves music and is from Texas plays wild country blues. Russell walks a parallel path to Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark etc., musically they differ, spiritually they are hewn from the same granite.

Even in his late 50s the rebellious streak is strong in Calvin Russell, like Iggy Pop there is no allowance for age, no dimming of the raging fire that fuels his music. And, like Pop, when you play as well and as committed as Russell does then age truly is just a number.

In Spite Of It All is full of hard-driving riffs, it's rock foundations are solid and immovable. Songs like Live Till I Die are rooted in Russell's life and experience. It mirrors and reflects his apparent obsession with being open to, and absorbing, every musical and life influence. It makes for music without fear and, when he sings' he's the President and I don't care' it's not just a line from a song it's a statement of intent.

While the spirit of Calvin Russell remains defiantly unbroken and In Spite Of It All is mainly a glorious white knuckle ride, Over and Over reveals the man behind it all. ' It takes a lot to get excited these days and all of my fun habits got too big in price to pay' are the bitingly honest words of a man who has taken stock of a life lived well if not always wisely, a colourful past comes with a price tag.

Calvin Russell is one of those rare musical treasures, a musician willing to reveal what lies beneath the skin and the rough-edged, roughouse In Spite Of It All leaves no stone unturned.


Michael Mee

Ed: Look out for the hidden track - a dope-dealer's Rawhide - "keep rollin', rollin', rollin', though the nark's patrollin' ...". You get the picture.

Calvin Russell - Rebel Radio (SPV)

Bigger in Europe (read France) than his native Texas, to the extent that this is the first album in years that's actually getting a US release, the grizzled Austin born Russell trades in folk country with a strong streak of blues, his dust-throated voice like a less resonant Johnny Cash. Although he's been writing since he was 21 (and he's several years past that), there's only three self-penned numbers here; old school barroom picker Country Boy, swampy chugger Freight Train Blues and the closing emotionally autobiographical Nothing Is. Since none of them are anything out of the ordinary, maybe it's a good thing that he's favoured covers instead. It's here the album's strengths come through.

Former drinking buddy the late Townes Van Zandt gets three numbers, I'll Be Here In The Morning, the bluesy Ain't Leavin' Your Love and folk-roots album opener (and one of the strongest tracks) Still Lookin' For You. There's a brace from Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, an excellent Barrom Girls and the blues once again on Pass You By. In the same vein he covers Stephen Bruton's loose limbed It Is What It Is while by way of interpretative tangents he turns the Stones No Expectations into bluegrass with a Cash chugging train rhythm and puts a Jim Stafford style spin across Willie Nelson's I Never Cared For You. Best of the bunch takes him back into the honky tonk though with Kimmie Rhodes providing back ups on her own Wild Roses. It's not up to his 1995 release, Dream of the Dog, and seems unlikely to spark a demand for the back catalogue over in his native land, but there's enough notable moments and weary melancholia to make it worth a listen if the name's not familiar.


Mike Davies

Janet Russell - Love Songs And Fighting Talk (Harbourtown)

It's been a long while since Bright Shining Morning, Janet's previous solo record (but at least her earlier collection, Gathering The Fragments, has now been reissued on CD); but Janet's been much in demand for her teaching skills, running activities and workshops and working with community singing groups, so in a way it's a miracle that she's found the time to get into the studio again - but I'm so pleased she has. For Love Songs And Fighting Talk is a typically spirited collection of songs where the lady is definitely not of the winsome spineless kind one finds in so much of folk and popular tradition. Spirited is a word that also characterises Janet's singing, whether truly solo or (as on a goodly number of these songs) multitracked. She's on absolutely splendid form here, displaying an apparently effortless command of her voice. At times I can find no more appropriate term than simply breathtaking: her intonation is impeccable and her control of line, tone and pitch unerring and exemplary. These technique-driven features would count for nought if she did not also show a consummate appreciation (both internally and in practical terms) of the text in all its aspects, and this is manifest in her articulate expression of its import and her understanding of its dramatic contours. There are so many striking examples of Janet's artistry on this disc, but I must highlight just a few. Her passionate, earthy invocation of Dónal Og is one of the finest I know, and her decision to use a "round" treatment of Nancy Kerr's Steely Water to preface it is an inspired move. Her alternation of character vocal timbres on Mary Ambree is unforced and wholly believable. And she also really delights in her unbridled mastery of the tripping patter-mode (and of her natural Scots accent and dialect), which gets plenty of outings here, not least on Waxie's Dargle, the self-penned tale of The Pigeon And The Sparra and three sets which she's put together for dancing which are guaranteed to bring a smile to the face as well as the feet! And as yet I've barely mentioned musical accompaniment, in which matter Janet has taken some brave and at times unorthodox gambles which have really paid off - for example, an already standout performance of her own setting of a poem by Mary Symon, Sodjer's Cairn, is lifted onto an even higher plane by the soaring fiddle of Tom McConville, and Janet's feisty rendition of Mary Ambree is brought into sharper relief by Steve Tilston's percussive guitar brio. Most intriguing of all is Janet's use of tabla (Najam Javed) to provide a hypnotic rhythmic pulse for three of the songs, its cascading momentum building up a fine head of steam on Eppie Morrie in particular. The clichéd critical response to an accomplished disc like this would be to call it art concealing art, but it really is a work of deceptive power and craft, not to be undersold and eminently treasurable.


David Kidman July 2008

Leon Russell - Signature Sounds (Leon Russell Records/Retro)
Leon Russell - A Song For You (Classic Pictures DVD)

Leon Russell - a new CD and a DVD - The images on both covers are like a photo negative of the past Russell: dark top-hatted Rasputin now white of hair and beard and looking more like an ancient sun-glassed wizard or Kentucky Colonel.

The album: this is not a 'best of' taken from Leon Russell's back catalogue, although you might think so looking at the titles and sources on the CD tray. Here are eleven of some of his most famous songs including A Song For You, Masquerade, Tightrope, Stranger In A Stange Land, and, of course, the great Delta Lady, freshly recorded unplugged - just his voice, his piano and an uncredited 'shaky' instrument of percussion. Only Back to the Island is given (uncredited) backing vocalists. (Signature Sounds sleeve notes are minimal.)

Leon Russell is now 60. 32 years on from the first Leon Russell album his voice and his piano are as instantly recognisable as they were in those Shelter Days - but the soulful shriek is mellower. There's less howl and more honey in the intimate production and his songs and arrangements are allowed to relax without his voice having to compete with a full band treatment. If you ARE looking for a 'best of', the 40-track Gimme Shelter: The Best of Leon Russell probably has the essentials from the late 60s to the 90s but focuses on his early 70s material. However, if you'd like to know Russell in the new millennium, Signature Songs is a sparse and beautiful collection of songs.

Leon Russell is a legend in his own right and also as catalyst for some of the very best music of the 70s: Mad Dogs and Englishmen with Joe Cocker, Delaney & Bonnie, Rita Coolidge; his own label Shelter Records with Denny Cordell, signing JJ Cale, Freddie King, the Grease Band, Tom Petty, Don Dix - the list goes on and on ... and brings us to the DVD.

The DVD: this takes the form of a music documentary/biography with 25 songs taken from various Russell's performances over the years and a scripted history. There is excellent quality video footage of Russell and The Shelter People and later performances with Willie Nelson and Edgar Winter, but don't look to see film clips of those other names mentioned above. Russell is very much centre stage (well it is his 'show'!) and stamps his personality on all that he does.

The diversity of his collaborations is impressive in the breadth of artists and genres of music - and fully expanded upon by Paul Gambaccini, the narrator. If I have a problem with the content of the DVD it is this; there's a lot of (rather tiresome and repetitive) name-dropping of the great and good he's worked with who don't appear on the DVD and not enough credit to those who do. I did catch some awesome mandolin playing from Sam Bush during a clip from Russell's New Grass Revival period, confirmed by the Family Tree of Russell's different bands. This useful feature at the end of the DVD helps one work out who and when was whom! But that's a small niggle compared to the impressiveness of the overall production. Apparently a couple more DVD projects are underway - JJ Cale and Edgar Winter. I'm looking forward to those Classics too!


Sue Cavendish

Tom Russell - Mesabi (Proper)

Fallen heroes, flawed or faded legends, derailed dreams, the destructive nature of Hollywood and border laments, all serve to inspire the latest set from one of America's finest songwriters.

Featuring musical input from Will Kimbrough and half of Calexico, the album's titled after the Mesabi Iron Range in northeastern Minnesota, the largest deposit of iron ore in America. Its forbidding nature where work is either hard or impossible serves to illuminate one of the album's themes, but, as the birthplace of Bob Dylan, in the town of Hibbing, "the Bethlehem of the Troubadour Kid" as the song puts it, it's also a prism through which the mythical world of Russell's subjects are viewed.

In the song, serenaded by Mariachi band trumpets and driving guitars, he recalls a childhood listening to Howlin' Wolf, Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and Don't Think Twice It's All Right on the radio 'blasting all the way up from Nogales, Mexico' or on his Uncle George's record player in Hispanic Los Angeles, praying to follow in Bob's rather than his father's footsteps.

His memories remain in that teenager's bedroom for the second song, the melancholic When The Legends Die, remembering posters and photos of 'fullbacks and folksingers' above his bed and recalling Silky Sullivan, an American thoroughbred, better known as California Comet and ridden by Willie Shoemaker, famed for coming from behind to take the race. But the memories turn sour as he's reminded that 'behind the makeup and the guitars and the cowboy hats, there's a human being somewhere'; and they'll always let you and themselves down as the legend develops a life of its own and leaves the man behind. It's the price of fame, or, as he puts it, 'don't pay to get into the dance..if you can't stand the rock and roll'.

Having set the theme, the album moves on to specifics with songs that are in themselves biopics in waiting. With Gretchen Peters on backing vocals and introduced with elegiac horns, the anthemic Farewell, Never Never Land tells the tragic story of Disney child star Bobby Driscoll who first found fame in 1949's The Window for which he earned an Academy Award, before going on to play Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island before acne put an end to his career. Best known, as the voice of Peter Pan in the 1953 animated classic, once he was let go by Disney he struggled to find work and, as the song relates, became an embittered junkie and died of an overdose in 1968. His body was found in weeds on a vacant lot by a couple of kids and buried in a pauper's grave, his identity unknown.

Disney provides a link to The Lonesome Death of Ukulele Ike, the first person narrative (with Fats Caplin on uke) of Cliff Edwards, a 'funny little frog-faced man' who made the transition from playing saloon bars to vaudeville and Broadway with his ukulele playing and scat style singing, had 1920s #1s with I Can't Give You Anything But Love and Singing In The Rain and would eventually become the voice of Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio, singing When You Wish Upon A Star, as well as When I See An Elephant Cry in Dumbo. But again drugs and alcohol too their toll and, as the song says he died "penniless and forgotten in the motion picture old folks home."

With Caplin switching to oud, the third faded movie legend is Sterling Hayden, war hero and tough guy star of such 50s films as Johnny Guitar, The Asphalt Jungle, and The Killing who gave evidence during the McCarthy hearings. Quoting relatively accurately from the autobiography, Russell recounts him saying 'you haven't the foggiest notion of the contempt I have for myself' but he's a little melodramatic in saying he 'kidnapped his kids and sailed 'round the globe'. He actually had custody following the divorce, but, a veteran sailor (as the song notes he spent a while living on a barge in Amsterdam) he did defy a court order and take them to Tahiti in his schooner.

A quickie farewell to Liz Taylor (Furious Love) is followed by the hymnal sounding A Land Called "Way Out There" which opens with reference to James Dean's fatal car crash (the lyrics surely quoting black humour of the day in calling the other driver Donald Turnipspeed rather than Turnupseed) and expands to suggest that what we read in the bible and movie magazines doesn't reflect 'what goes down in the trenches'.

Taken from Monte Hellman's film The Road To Nowhere, the last of the movie themed songs is Roll The Credit's, Johnny, a love letter to the power of cinema to take us away from reality, if only for a couple of hours, to become part of a world where the good guys win and you can kiss the leading lady before dreamtime ends and you step back on to the 'streets of life'.

With Van Dyke Parks on piano and gospel backing vocals from two of the McCrary sisters, Heart Within A Heart serves as inspirational intermission before the thematically connected border trilogy begins as fantasy dissolves and you awake to And God Created Border Towns. With Calexico's Jacob Valenzuela, Augie Meyers and Joel Guzman providing trumpet, piano and accordion backing respectively, its romantic Tex Mex saloon sound at odds with a lyric about the drug cartel wars and kidnapping that have become rife in Mexico. Likewise, the similarly styled Goodnight, Juarez laments how what was once hailed as the City of the Future has become 'a dark and bloody battleground', the most violent place in the world outside of actual war zones, as he hopes the ragged and torn Dove of Peace may yet return before the place goes up in smoke.

That same sense of paradise lost informs the metaphorical Jai Alai with its flamenco guitar and cajon. The title refers to the Basque variation of pelota (like squash but played using hand or basket rather than racquet) , described as the world's fastest game and once hugely popular in Mexico and America but now in decline. I have no idea if the Basque from San Sebastian whose passion for the game was lost to the deadly dance of love refers to a real person, but the Jai Alai fronton referred to is probably the one Russell remembers from 50s Tijuana.

Although, alone with acoustic guitar, he sings about three crosses on the roadside (the graves of migrants attempting to cross the border?), Love Abides ends the album on an upbeat note, remembering the early settlers and with hope for 'the road that lies before us'.

It's a false optimism though, because there's two bonus tracks. A naked and relentlessly bleak duet with Lucinda Williams on Dylan's A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall and the title song from Hellman's noir thriller Road To Nowhere, a highway of despair where 'every day is a day of reckoning' and 'even the weatherman makes you feel scared.'

Disappointingly the album lacks any explanatory notes (hence my going into detail about the characters and places mentioned) and it's probably not the sort of thing to listen to if you're on antidepressants, this is easily his best and most resonant work since Modern Art.


Mike Davies September 2011

Tom Russell - Veteran's Day: The Tom Russell Anthology (Hightone)

One of the great songwriters of American roots music alongside John Stewart, Russell has had a career spanning some 30 years and 20 albums embracing Americana, folk, Tex-Mex, cowboy and country. Beyond St Olav's Gate offered a 79082 best of and The Raw Vision brought together tracks from 1984-1994, but this is the first comprehensive anthology of his work, all 37 tracks handpicked by Russell himself.

There's certainly a wealth of material from which to choose and there'll inevitably be arguments over what's been left off (I mean, how could he not include Walking On The Moon!), but you probably couldn't wish for a better introduction to or, portrait of the man's work.

Personal favourites would have to include Outbound Plane, Gallo De Cielo, The Rose Of The San Joaquin, Veteran's Day and Haley's Comet, but it's pointless listing everything that's here. I would say though that it runs the gamut from the early Joshua Tree recorded with Patricia Hardin through to Who's Gonna Build Your Wall, his contribution to Wounded Heart of America's tribute to his songwriting, taking in duets and collaborations with such names as Nanci Griffith, Dave Alvin (a live version of Blue Wing), Barrence Whitfield and Shawn Colvin along the way. There's even Van Ronk, a cut from Hotwalker, his spoken word homage to Charles Bukowski.

As a bonus for those who already own all the original albums, there's two previously unreleased tracks, an acoustic version of 70s song Dark Angel and the brand album closing new Roll The Credits. I'd rather think of it as an intermission.


Mike Davies October 2008

Tom Russell - Blood and Candle Smoke (Proper)

Last year's anthology, Veteran's Day, drew a line under what Russell regards as the first act of his career. The second starts here with a 12 track collection of songs that look both inward and outward, recorded, not in Austin but in Tucson with Calexico as his backing band and Gretchen Peters sitting in on a couple of numbers, most notably Santa Ana Wind, a duet that evokes seminal influence, Gram Parsons. It looks like being one hell of a show.

Described as the greatest living country songwriter, one magazine even suggested he could take up Johnny Cash's mantle. But the reality is that, even before his death, Russell was firmly established as the one true heir to John Stewart, his novelistic songs documents of American life, landscape, hearts and dreams, and his own involvement with them.

It opens with the strikingly autobiographical, East Of Woodstock, West Of Viet Nam, a TexMex border ballad that recalls spending his youth teaching in Nigeria in the late 60s, mentions Dory Previn and Graham Greene and talks about how he learn to craft his songs.

The same era informs Criminology (in which he graduated from the University of California and taught in Africa), a playful reggae tinged memoir about teaching and performing in Nigeria and Canada and having guns pointed at his head (I don't think it was a critical comment), the bluesy waltzing Nina Simone recounts the first time he heard her sing (a recording of Just Like A Woman on a Mexican jukebox) while Finding You is a simple, hymnal quality love song to his wife.

Moving away from personal reminiscence and focusing on the American experience The Most Dangerous Woman In America is a Springsteen style piano ballad that uses Mother Jones, an early 20th century labour organiser, as a spark for the story of a junkie former miner and ex con returning home to bury his father and robbing a liquor store while the brass soaked soulful Mississippi River Runnin' Backwards conjures a lost America and the flood of 1912 in a vision of a modern Judgement Day. Taking its title from a William Styron novel, Darkness Visible again aches with loneliness, loss and pain in its compassionate snapshot of a carny worker whose lost his "appetite for idle dreaming." Not only is the theme echoed on Don't Look Down, it could even be the same guy, "walking the tightrope for a room and a meal."

Native American references loom large in the Russell canon, and this is no exception. Crosses of San Carlos is a dust dry border ballad about two Apache kids in a stolen car "headed out in search of strong libation" while, less specific, the ecological themed American Rivers recalls those rivers like the Delaware and Blackfoot, named out of guilt after Indian tribes, now polluted, their "old arteries clogged and defiled," winding past 'towns gone to bankers" and "fields gone to seed".

If you heard his duets album with Peters, One To The Heart, One To The Head, you'll already be familiar with the album's remaining number, Guadalupe, the lyrics of which provide the album's title. Inspired by an afternoon spent at a shrine in Mexico City and the spirit of its Indian pilgrims, this time the vocal roles are reversed with Russell's world-seasoned tones taking the lead. It must be said, it's the superior version.

25 years after his solo debut, Russell reckons he's got his second wind and has "at least five to ten" records left in him. On the evidence of this kickstart, they're going to be something special.


Mike Davies September 2009

Tom Russell - Love & Fear (Hightone)

He might not have the same profile as the late Johnny Cash, but Russell's as much an outlaw country storyteller as he was, his dust-caked voice spinning his Western Gothic tales and Texicali barroom waltzes about everyday dreamers and losers for over 40 years and twenty albums.

His latest is another potent journey through the heart of America's bruised, battered and bone weary that, along with regular collaborators Andrew Hardin and Gulf Morlix, sees him joined on several tracks for duets and harmony by the luminous Gretchen Peters.

He opens in muscular form with The Pugilist At 59, a strident portrait of a washed up boxer who's spurred to make it through another day by the ghost of Archie Moore, the boxer who once fought both Rocky Marciano and Muhammad Ali. It is of course, with its 'phone bills, gas bills, electricity, and the mortgage and the junk mail, one old Father's Day card', a metaphor for the fear of lost passion and how love will put you on the canvas)

More real life names surface on Beautiful Trouble, boogie bluesman Champion Jack Dupree and fallen matinee idol Sterling Hayden called as witnesses to the hard life of life trying to entertain the people while Russell notes how a pair of sexy eyes can draw you to hell.

Then there's Stealing Electricity, another affairs of the heart (that goes da da da da da da) metaphor, this time symbolised by a dead Mexican on the power lines with images of the 'poverty of your spirit and the weakness of your flesh'.

The darker alleys of love and relationships form the album's thematic backbone. On All The Fine Young Ladies he draws on T. S. Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock to explore the spiritual bankruptcy and emotional aspergers of a recovering alcoholic while spoken rockabilly blues Four Chambered Heart is a bitingly caustic observation of modern life with ungrateful kids, dysfunctional families, paedophile priests, anger, sadness, hatred, envy, and love destined to consume itself. It's not cheery, but it's got a hell of a driving beat.

Elsewhere the album's populated by lost kids (Stolen Children, 'faces on milk cartons rolling round in shopping carts'), shattered romance (The Sound Of One Heart Breaking), worn out lives hanging on to what dreams they have (KC Violin), and hymns of defeat and defiance (rousing country rock power ballad Ash Wednesday). Yet, after all the body blows, acknowledging that, whatever pain may come, eventually It Goes Away, he closes up with Old Heart, a weary cocktail lounge crooning slow dance where the singer drags himself from bed and gets up to face life another day, looking for another dream, another chance of love. I guess, when it comes down to it, whatever rusty nails might have pierced his heart, Russell's still a hopeful romantic with a bookful of stories you owe it to yourself to hear.


Mike Davies, July 2006

Tom Russell - Hotwalker (Hightone)

Something of a departure for Russell in as much as this isn't an album of songs but it remains firmly within his ongoing documentation of America. A companion piece to his Tough Company book of poetry, short stories and correspondence with Charles Bukowski, it's a nostalgic reminiscence of Bukowski and the post war days of LA's Boho poets and hipsters.

With Russell adopting the role of narrator, the album's an audio movie of Gone America (as he calls it) with archive extracts of Lenny Bruce, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Lenny Bruce, Jack Kerouac and Harry Partch with the now late Little Jack Horton, a carnival-midget from the 60s whose monologues recall his own drinking days with Bukowski and of the night they stole a train.

Not that there isn't music too. There's samples from Von Ronk's Sportin' Life Blues, Gary Davis's Cocaine Blues, a snatch of 96 Tears and three gospel nuggets courtesy Reverend Baybie Hoover and Virgina Brown as well as soundscapes of cool Chet Baker-era jazz, carny music, Tex Mex and twang. Amid references to Buck Owens, Dylan, Lightnin' Hopkins, Gram Parsons and Art Pepper, there's Russell's own spoken contributions too, beautifully accompanied by Andrew Hardin, Fats Kaplin on fiddle, accordion and pedal steel and, most notably Gretchen Peters who lends her vocals to Woodrow (a song that embraces political commentary, Hoover and Brown and another Horton story) and an elegiac closing America The Beautiful.

With extracts from Kerouac reading October In The Railroad Earth, Lenny Bruce's Marriage, Divorce and Motels and Bukowski himself performing On The Hustle, it superbly evokes a time, a place and an ideology of an America where people wrestled with anxieties rather than psychoanalysed them and where a nation struggled against the darkness rather than voted for it.


Mike Davies

Tom Russell - Modern Art (Hightone)

Whether or not the young Russell himself ever snuck in to see Dylan and the Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl, the hayseed goodtiming John Prine-like title track of his new album serves as a captivating snapshot of a generation, born into the Truman presidency in 1945, living through the Cold War and eventually fathering children of their own. With lines like "you grow up and you fall apart," it's a track that, like The Boy Who Cried Wolf's picture of the end of fairy tale when naive innocence gives way to the pain of reality, characterises the album's reflective mood, one that focuses less on the autobiographical but which, filters its stories of and homages to real life and fictional characters through the prism of universal experiences.

Thus while The Kid From Spavinaw may be told through the voice of baseball legend Mickey Mantle, one of Russell's sporting heroes, his weary reflection on his life's achievements and missed opportunities becomes a commentary on the human condition just as the jaunty calypso rhythms of Muhammad Ali celebrates both the boxing hero's triumphs, in and out of the ring, but by extension those of everyone enduring in the face of the blows dealt by a cruel fate.

Not everyone survives the pressure or life's tragedies American Hotel (written by Carl Brouse) records the death of Stephen Foster, the 19th century songwriter responsible for such evergreens as Swanee River, Camptown Races and Oh! Susanna who ended his days a broke and broken drunk while Isaac Lewis recounts the true story of a Welsh sailor who drowned in the 1859 wreck of the Royal Charter, just off the coast of his home village, his body washing up beside his father's house.

There's fictions woven with the facts. Spoken over a TexMex guitar arrangement, Crucifix In A Death Hand is a Charles Bukowski poem about Los Angeles during its metamorphosis into the sprawling city of today, the segue into Warren Zevon's Carmelita, about a doomed L.A. Junkie, leaving you in no doubt as to the point being made.

Expanding the storyteller's role, Russell's love of noir makes itself felt on Tijuana Bible, a tale of a private eye obsessed with the 1958 murder of Lana Turner's gangster lover Johnny Stompanato by her daughter Cheryl while in the gutsy rocking Racehorse Haynes a murder suspect asks to be represented by the real life titular Houson lawyer, a song that subtly speaks of money being able to buy the right verdict.

It's not all so downbeat. The three duets with Nanci Griffith, on Emmylou's The Ballad of Sally Rose, Dave Alvin's new start/last chance love song Bus Station and Griffith's own Gulf Coast Highway, are all tinged with tentative hope for tomorrow, while it probably says much that Russell has included his favourite song, Michael Smith's The Dutchman, a tender, moving song about a crazy old man and his steadfastly loyal wife, its poignant emotions underscored by Eliza Gilkyson's haunting harmonies.

With regular sideman Andrew Hardin providing customarily superlative guitar, Gulf Morlix dropping by to add pedal steel and Russell's warm dustbowl and cornfields prime John Stewart like vocals in fine form, Modern Art deserves a gallery of its own in the living museum of modern roots.


Mike Davies

Man from God Knows Where: Mike Davies makes a break for the border with Tom Russell

Currently to be found out on tour as the opening act for Nanci Griffith as well as playing his own solo dates, Tom Russell may not be a familiar name outside of the Americana scene, but at 51 he's been one of the most significant figures in American folk-roots music for some two decades, regarded by many as a latter day John Stewart or a country Springsteen whose songs have documented the lives of the everyday dreamers and losers of blue collar America.

Growing up in the late 50s and early 60s in California where the family had a small ranch in Topanga Canyon, Russell recalls being exposed to country music and cowboys by his brother (who became a full time rancher) but also seeing shows by such legendary folk and blues names as Mississippi John Hurt, Rambling Jack Elliot, Ian and Sylvia Tyson and the formative Dylan. Eventually stealing his brother's guitar, he began to write his own songs, starting his music career on Vancouver's skid row country bars in 1971 backing strippers and sword swallowers before moving to Austin a couple of years later to form a duo with pianist Patricia Hardin. They released two well received albums before calling it a day in 1979 with Russell abandoning music and moving to New York with a clutch of manuscripts to make his name as a novelist.

The books never materialised, but he did keep writing songs while paying the rent working as a cab driver. One day he picked up Robert Hunter, lyricist for the Grateful Dead and sang him something he'd written, a Tex Mex short story about cockfighting called Gallo Del Cielo. It would become one of his best known songs and so impressed Hunter that he immediately arranged for Russell to open a series of shows for the Dead. Tom Russell singer-songwriter was back.

Through the 80s, working and recording extensively in Scandinavia where, curiously, American folk-roots music has a huge following, Russell released a clutch of albums packed with such magnificent songs as Blue Wing, Veteran's Day, Walking On The Moon (on of the world's finest love songs co-penned with Katy Moffatt), Haley's Comet (about the death of Bill Haley), Navajo Rug (with Ian Tyson) and St Olav's Gate. Written in Norway while he and musical partner Andrew Hardin were playing the Oslo bars, the latter would be recorded by Nanci Griffith, giving Russell his first taste of real success and leading to a collaboration with Griffith on Outbound Plane, a song which in turn became a massive 1993 US hit for country star Suzy Bogguss.

The release of the Poor Man's Dream album in 89 saw Russell's profile start to grow, a reputation consolidated by two albums with soul singer Barrence Whitfield and, in 1995, his involvement with Tulare Dust, a multi-artist tribute to Merle Haggard, one of his seminal heroes, that would top the US country charts. Enhanced by his dust thickened delivery, what emerges strongest throughout all his work is his keen ability as a storyteller, a master of the Western Gothic.

"Maybe it's something to do with the Irish in me," he offers. "But I was also schooled in sociology and criminology which I actually taught in West Africa in the late 60s. I thing that both the desire to understand the social problems of street people and to be a short story writer seeped into my songwriting. I think of the songs almost as films and I do tend to write to a theme, there's usually a story in there somewhere."

It's no surprise to hear him cite Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner (about whom he wrote on William Faulkner in Hollywood) and Raymond Carver as literary influences, all writers attracted to questions of rootlessness, identity and dark struggles with an unforgiving world.

All these came together for Russell on The Man From God Knows Where, an ambitious and often incredibly moving 'folk opera' saga that drew on his own ancestral family background of Irish and Scandinavian immigrants and underlined his interest in the realities behind the mythologies of the West.

"I was absorbed by the strength of character it took to come across the ocean to settle in America in the middle of nowhere. Their history fascinated me and learning about them made me really understand where my father came from."

He was, Russell says in the album's notes, a "horsetrader, furniture salesman, gambler, bankruptee, prisoner, recovered alcoholic, survivor... an American character in a drama played out somewhere between It's A Wonderful Life and Death of A Salesman. He died broke, pride intact, with a few boxes of clothes and photos."

Although there are songs, narco-ballads, about drug trafficking on the border and When Sinatra Played Juarez recalls when a time when this poverty wracked town of two million saw better days, perhaps inevitably after immersing himself in his heritage Russell's new album, Borderlands, finds him picking through his own life.

"It came about from my love to El Paso about four years ago. I knew I wanted to write about the American-Mexican border but gradually my personal life began to seep between the cracks as my relationship broke apart and it also became about the emotional borders between men and women. I hadn't written a lot of personal stuff before but when you break up with somebody after 20 years then as a writer you have to go there. When I started to write Touch of Evil about the Orson Welles film that was set on the border my relationship was fine but I gradually rewrote it to become more specific about what was happening to me."

Imbued with the passion of Mexican music, the album is veined with characters looking for new starts, beginning over, and Russell admits that it's probably a turning point for him too as a writer, a venture into new territory. And, after all these years regarded primarily as an award-winning songsmith, he's also becoming better known as a performer. But after three decades paying his dues would he now want the sort of wider critical and commercial fame that's eluded him so far but has been enjoyed by such contemporaries and kindred spirits as Joe Ely, Steve Earle and Nanci Griffith?

"Well, I haven't written a lot of stuff that could be construed as commercial, but maybe the success of a John Prine and being able to sell a couple of hundred thousand records would be nice. I'm near that now and that would be fine for me. I don't have any desire to be a huge star. I just want to always be able to move forward with what I do."


Mike Davies

The Rusticators - Talking With The Dead (Isart Productions)

The Rusticators are a Virginia-based acoustic duo, Christian Devin Amsler and Abbey Linfert, the former having some 20 years' experience as composer and multi-instrumentalist and the latter being a singer, songwriter and mandolinist with a passion for sunshiney harmonies and melodic storytelling. Talking With The Dead is the duo's second album (the first was released in autumn 2002), and is a collection of variously self-penned songs (four by Abbey, one joint composition and the remainder by Chris) that intermittently sparkles but doesn't quite scale the heights of memorability to render many further plays essential when there's so much great music on the stocks at the moment. The best songs here tend to be those with the more scaled-down acoustic productions, like the doomy folk of Wicked Ways and the attractive opener Big Blue Sky, but some of the rest suffer from over-busy band-style arrangements with fairly prominent or else relatively heavy-handed piano or rhythm parts, and by and large these tracks just don't possess the melodic interest to sustain one's attention; Journey To War and The Passenger, being more powerful, are perhaps the best of them. It doesn't help either that the vocals are sometimes a bit recessed in the mix, making appreciation of the lyrics difficult. The much-touted fact that both members of the duo are Gram Parsons fans doesn't seem to have permeated into their music either, so why mention it?! Oh well…


David Kidman

Rusty Truck - Luck's Changing Lanes (Rykodisc)

Originally released five years ago in a limited edition under the title Broken Promises and now revised and 're-imagined', this is the debut album by Rolling Stone's former chief photographer, Mark Seliger.

As the story goes, he happened to mention to Jakob Dylan that he wrote songs, who then invited him to his studio to demo. From here came a touring band and a show seen by Lenny Kravitz who, impressed by Broken Promises, took them into his studio to record it and persuaded Seliger to put together a whole album.

Seliger then decided to invite various guest artists to do production and collaborate on the tracks which, by and large, slot in the country-pop side of songs that, termed 'lonesome music' by Dylan, draw on distinctly American imagery.

Now released as a 2 disc set featuring Seliger's photos and a RVD with five music videos, gone from the original album are the Rob Thomas produced Candy which Marc Ribot, the Meshell N'degeocello collaboration TKO . In their place comes two new numbers, the slow waltzing Border country flavours of So Long Farewell (a substitute Thomas production) and, ringing a distinct musical change , the reggae loping, shoop shoop back-ups New York Fallen Angel which features Burning Spear, surely the album's most unlikely alliance, on vocals.

Dylan co-produces and does backups on three of the recordings, a catchy, Eaglesy and slightly Latin tinged Malibu Canyon, the Byrdsian Never Going Back and the stand out Every Time which firmly underlines those Jayhawks influences.

Kravitz collaborates on three tracks too. Playing twangy guitar solo on Broken Promises (where Seliger spookily suggests a cross between the young Glen Campbell and Nilsson circa Everybody's Talking), and also involved on the keening rhythmic shuffling Fool and closing track Prey which evokes the parched desert folk-country of America.

Sheryl Crow provides backing vocals for the metronomic T Bone Burnett produced Cold Ground with its noir guitar moods and embittered lover lyrics, Gillian Welch does solid duty on the perky Tangled In The Fence (featuring harmonica maestro Mickey Rafael) and the yearning title track while Selinger duets with co-producer Willie Nelson on honky tonk Hawaiian guitar weeper A Thousand Kisses.

That he impressively holds his own against the often overpowering legend is testament to Seliger's own individual talent and strengths, both as a singer and a writer in what can be an overcrowded field. Although no follow up appears to be in the wings, it's abundantly clear it's not because he's has to wait for another star guest list to give it a boost. Let's hope he gets the motor running again soon.


Mike Davies July 2008

Elin Ruth - Elin Ruth (Korova)

The Swedish singer-songwriter's already got a mantelpiece full of trophies back home where her second album topped the charts. Compared to KT Tunstall, Fiona Apple and, inevitably Joni Mitchell (though she sounds more akin to Gillian Welch) while citing the likes of Dylan and Bright Eyes among her influences, this debut UK album compiles tracks from her Scandinavian releases as a largely impressive introduction to her folksy Americana.

To qualify that, there's a few things that prompt to skip button. Contradictory Cut is let down by the plinketty twee light sugar breze arrangement, Gone, Gone, Gone is an interminable rambling piano ballad and both Dear I and Yellow Me are far too generic bluegrassy skipalongs to really register.

However, when she hits the mark she doe sit dead centre. Listen to the tumbling folksy pop of When It Comes To You, simple acoustic ballad Claudia, the wondrous, emotive Song For Anna with its violin finale or the soft rumbles of Porcelain with its shades of early Janis Ian and you'll be persuaded that, in the not too far future, she'll have an album to figure on the year best ofs over here too.


Mike Davies, May 2006

Justin Rutledge - The Early Widows (Six Shooter)

While, on the more whispery moments of the epic Carry On, I found myself thinking of fellow Canadian Margo Timmins, Toronto singer-songwriter Rutledge has the sort of warm, hushed and vulnerably breathy voice that makes women want to either confess their most intimate secrets or take him home and protect him from the cruel world.

However, on the likes of a plangent The Heart Of A River, the powerful but wounded Be A Man and the anthemic John Prine-like twangy Mrs Montgomery he balances the gender appeal with ringing electric guitar and the muscle of two drums while Snowmen begins with 26 seconds of distortion white noise and features a burst of squally guitars and Dark Side Of The Moon vocal wails that says he's not afraid to let a little abrasion into the circle of bruised tenderness.

The shift away from his past alt-country sound is largely down to producer Hawksley Workman whose shaken things up, retaining the quiet, sensitive melancholy but adding some extra hormones with gospel choir backing here and there and amping up the emotional pull of the pedal steel on the bitterly ironic I Have Not Seen The Light, a co-write with Nashville award winner Darrell Scott.

Rutledge shows a keen ear for melodies that lodge in the bloodstream, whether on the banjo jogging folk roots of Jack Of Diamonds, the more heavily arranged Islands with its pizzicato strings or the simple acoustic strum of All Around This World.

With the latter's lines 'you hang me like tinsel upon your words..you hang me as though crowds would scatter afraid', he also demonstrates the evocative turn of phrase of a consummate and literate lyricist.

His last album, 'Man Descending, was named after a short story collection by Guy Vanderhaeghe while the title of this derives from a character in Michael Ondaatje's novel, Divisadero. Not only that, but Rutdlege says he wrote the songs with that character in mind and Be A Man is actually co-penned by the novelist.

There's another co-write on the album. Released as a single Turn Around is a simple lyric, comprising just the refrain 'turn around my love' and two two word eight line verses, each beginning 'everyone's', but building to a crescendo of choir and tubular bells before a dying fall, it's one of the most plaintively moving.

And I'm delighted to say his collaborator is an old friend of mine, Wolverhampton's Carina Round, with whom he's also been touring and recording, alongside Dan Burns, under the band name of Early Winters. Check out their website and you'll hear the trio's own, stripped down version of the song as well as six others as yet otherwise unavailable.

So not only has Rutledge released one of my favourite albums of this year, but potentially he'll be a third of one of next year's too


Mike Davies September 2010

Justin Rutledge - Man Descending (Six Shooter)

With twangy guitar and a voice of similar timbre to Steve Forbert or, on the moving Chapin-esque St Peter, higher pitched Springsteen, the Canadian singer-songwriter has clearly made some useful friends. Guesting here you'll find Ron Sexsmith adding vocals to piano ballad A Penny for the Band, Oh Susanna singing on the hymnal slow march San Sebastian, and Hawksley Workman doing back-ups for Alberta Breeze's sparse slow building, emotionally exposed love song to a city, a woman and a time gone past.

Not that he needs propping up, Rutledge is patently a potent talent in his own right, crafting understated but memorably melodic songs stained with bruised, battered but unbowed emotions.

The Wire may slightly overload matters with its horn arrangements, but the moment his voice takes back control you surrender to the song, and if This Too Will Pass has you on your knees with its tender acknowledgement of love and devotion then, with its steady drum beat, chiming guitars and a melody that swells from shanty to anthem, Greenwich Time will bring you to your feet in exultation. 'The stern is yours, the mast is mine', he sings. Run up the flag then, and we'll all salute.


Mike Davies June 2008

Cathie Ryan - The Farthest Wave (Shanachie)

Back in the 90s, Irish-American Cathie served her time (seven years) as lead vocalist with Cherish The Ladies, following which she launched out on a solo career and quickly established herself as a captivating singer-songwriter in her own right while continuing to enchant listeners with her crystal-pure voice. The Farthest Wave is Cathie's fourth solo record, and it ploughs much the same kind of musical furrow as Somewhere Along The Road did. And similarly, the majority of this new offering - though predominantly gentle in demeanour and delivery – makes a deep impact on the senses, albeit in a subtle way. Much of the credit for this must surely go to Cathie's gorgeous voice, which warmly and affectionately communicates simple and enduring values. Her delicate, yearning version of the Emmylou classic Rough And Rocky illustrates this to perfection, and two of her own compositions on this disc (The Farthest Wave and Be Like The Sea) certainly run it close. Dermot Henry's adaptation of As The Evening Declines is handled most persuasively too, while Cathie also turns in a superbly poised version of Karine Polwart's Follow The Heron (Karine herself returns the compliment by donating backing vocals to this and a further five tracks). I also liked Cathie's way with the mouth-music of the Dance The Baby slip-jig set and the reel Peata Beag Do Mháthar (both of which she learned from the singing of Páidraigin Ni Uallacháin), though the kids' chorus that chirps in on the second section of the latter track is a mite disconcerting and doesn't quite gel. Finally, Cathie's duet with Sean Keane (

  • What Will You Do, Love?) is an object lesson in singing romantically yet (happily) avoiding sentimentality. That can be a rather awkward line to straddle in this kind of repertoire, and the success (or otherwise) with which this is managed is as often as not more down to the musical arrangements than the vocal work. All too often, "Celtic" record producers insist that beautiful songs get draped in sickly washes of keyboard or string tone or cloying over-instrumentation - so I'm pleased to say that the settings Cathie employs on The Farthest Wave are a model of taste and restraint - perhaps even a little too coyly, sweetly understated on occasion I felt, if at all times ideally suited to Cathie's voice. John McCusker has brought his distinctive signature to this recording, contributing not only production skills but cittern, fiddle and whistles; John Doyle, Phil Cunningham, Kris Drever and Michael McGoldrick also figure large in the accompaniments, while Ewan Vernal, James Mackintosh and Keith Angel turn up occasionally and a small host of other musicians including Johnny Dickinson make cameo appearances. Without intending specious comparisons or wishing to damn with faint praise, it's all very attractively managed and pleasant to listen to, but much as I appreciate Cathie's lovely singing too I can't help being left with the final impression (reinforced by the altogether less satisfying material comprising the final three tracks) that Cathie's underselling her true potential and holding something back, not least by choosing to finish proceedings on such a maudlin note as Home Sweet Home.


    David Kidman

    Mick Ryan & Paul Downes - Away In The West (WildGoose Studios)

    Over the past 20 years or so, Mick's been responsible for some of the finest original songs to come out of the contemporary tradition, for he's always shown a special empathy with historical perspectives and dramatic subjects and narratives. At the same time, his exceptional singing voice has placed him at the forefront of English folk song interpretation. Mick's singing and songwriting are once more brought together most persuasively on his latest CD, which takes the form of a further collaboration with Paul Downes, one of the most respected instrumentalists on the folk scene.

    This time round, all but one of the tracks are Mick's own compositions (although Upon A Field and South Armagh both utilise traditional melodies). No fewer than three songs were directly inspired by Mick's visit to the National Trust Workhouse Museum (two of them, The Pauper's Path and the powerful The Institute, serve to bookend the disc). A theme common to several of the songs is man's courage (personal, moral or universal) and the inspiration derived from it: for instance, Love Is Life was written after the death of Mick's own father, while Fire Against The Cold was informed by how Brian Keenan, a key facilitator in the recent Irish peace process, had earlier in his life coped with solitary confinement. Two of the songs have their origins in Mick's folk musicals (Summer Is A-Coming In from A Day's Work and How Wide's The Ocean? from The Voyage), while the stirring The People Must Be Amused derives from the catchphrase of a Dickensian circus owner.

    The album's closest approximation to a traditional ballad, the seven-minute Jack In Luck, is based on a Grimm's Fairy Tale recalled from childhood; here Paul's mandocello accompaniment comes into its own, but it must be said that throughout the disc Paul's musicianship is brilliant, entirely sound and vitally supportive, always appropriate for the setting (either rhythmic and driving, as on No Evil, or else gently chiming, as on The Bells Rang), while his keen harmony vocal work also ideally complements Mick's own rich tones. Additional, mildly lavish colourings are provided from time to time by Jackie Oates (five-string viola) and Paul Hutchinson (accordion).

    The songwriting is beautifully crafted and entirely consistent with Mick's oeuvre, and while Away In The West might not appear to contain any outright first-time attention-grabbers among its 13 songs, Mick nevertheless still delivers the goods here with another classy and well-coordinated set.


    David Kidman October 2010

    Mick Ryan et al. - The Navvy's Wife (Wildgoose Studios)

    This musical drama is the latest of Mick Ryan's folk-operas, and arguably the finest, for in this instance Mick has a special, and profound, degree of empathy with his subject. Several of the songs were originally written to accompany Ultan Cowley's lecture The Men Who Built Britain, later forming the basis of a show on that theme commissioned for 2006's Chester Folk Festival. For the present revival, and this recording, Mick has gathered together a superb little Company comprising Heather Bradford, Judy Dunlop and Jackie Oates (to portray the all-important women's roles), together with Paul Downes and Roger Watson (for instrumental backing and supporting male roles). Mick is in commanding and glorious voice as Paddy himself, but though his is a key role he doesn't hog centre stage, and the show's most poignant moments are (entirely fittingly) the province of the women, for whom Mick writes with true compassion, understanding and dignity. The songs' timeless styling enables the creative interweaving of a linking commentary and poems; it's all Mick's own work, although a few of the songs are set to traditional melodies. The show takes a loosely historical-chronological approach (the role of the navvy through the industrial ages), through which runs the common thread of the navvy's life, emotions, work and loves, with the tragedies in both the workplace and the personal arena leavened by episodes of broader comedy. The impact on the women in the navvies' lives occupies the sharpest focus however, powerfully examining issues such as poverty, rootlessness, racism and attitudes to death. The ladies' idealism and realism are brilliantly conveyed in The Women's Song and Judy's matchless performance of the show's title-song, while particularly tender moments of personal heartbreak come with Heather's Farewell My Son and Jackie's I Miss Him. Some archetypal lilting-patter is cleverly built into Don't Forget, while the convincing individual character-portraits include Roger's railway contractor (Brassey) and retired navvy Old Tim (Just Like You), and Paul's priest. Great virtue is made of the small instrumental complement by means of the excellent musicianship, with Paul's expert, nifty guitar (occasionally augmented with banjo or mandolin) providing the principal undercurrent, subtly enhanced by Roger's melodeon or concertina and Jackie's five-string fiddle-viola. Mick's supreme achievement in this compelling new show is to give a voice to the men and women whose lives were shaped by the drive to build through the ages; it's a triumph, and proves the worthiest of companions to Mick's previous works in this format. You can catch the semi-staged show at several folk festivals this summer.


    David Kidman March 2009