Product DetailsCash Back” is the second album to be released by Dean Owens in 2012, following “New York Hummingbird” earlier in the year and it’s built around a really interesting idea; a tribute to Johnny Cash on what would have been his 80th birthday comprising songs written by, or covered by,  Johnny (with one very notable exception).  It’s also a tribute to Dean’s good friend and mentor, the late Bob Delacy. 

The concept’s great, but the finished article is even better; Dean has tackled songs written by some songwriting legends including Jagger and Richards, Bob Dylan (“Girl from the North Country”), Kris Kristofferson (“Sunday Morning Coming Down”), Johnny Cash himself and our old Riot Towers favourite Nick Lowe (“Without Love”) and the result is a well-rounded, beautifully played and engaging set of songs.

The playing throughout the album is beautiful, particularly Will Kimbrough’s guitar (and various other instruments) and supports Dean’s plaintive tenor voice perfectly.  It’s difficult to pick out highlights from this set because there isn’t any padding, but I’ll give it a try.  The album opens with the lively 1968 Jagger/Richards song “No Expectations” featuring some great playing throughout from Will Kimbrough and has a similar feel to Albert Lee’s “Country Boy” (but a bit slower) before moving in to the more laid-back “A Little at a Time”(which also appears later in a stripped-down bonus version).

The album as a whole is a demonstration of the variety in Johnny Cash’s work, but never more so than in following the heartbreaking, poignant “Give My Love to Rose” with the jaunty nastiness and casual violence of “Delia’s Gone”.  Well, this is the man who sang “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die”.  The traditional ballad, “Wayfaring Stranger” moves the tempo up a few notches from the Cash version and you realise that Paul Weller probably started “Wild Wood” from the same source.

Towards the end of the album, there’s a sequence of songs by truly great songwriters such as Nick Lowe, Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson and David Allan Coe (who wrote the Johnny Paycheck classic ”Take This Job and Shove It”) which almost bring the album to a close.  The first bonus track is a version of “I Walk the Line” which contrasts the original’s baritone growl with Dean’s more vulnerable tenor as the song bounces along for the first three verses.  To add drama to the fourth verse, you might expect a trucker’s gear change or a tempo shift but instead Dean shifts the vocal up an octave towards the top of his range for an even more dramatic effect.

Which leaves one song to tell you about.  As a songwriter, Dean was always going to want one of his own songs on the album and it’s fair to say that it’s a belter.  “The Night Johnny Cash Played San Quentin” is as good as anything else on the album, framing the legendary prison appearance within the story of a death row inmate who was at the show and keeps it as a memory he treasures above everything else on his way to the chair; Johnny would have been proud of this one.

If there’s a country music fan in your life (or someone who likes great music, whatever genre), this album will make a great surprise present for them.  Even better, get out and see Dean performing live on his next tour in the spring of 2013; you won’t regret it.

“Cash Back” is out now on Drumfire Records (DRMFR013).

Product DetailsThis collection of mainly new songs is part of the Paradise edition (reissue) of Lana Del Rey’s “Born to Die” album released earlier this year. When I reviewed this album in January I wrote with disappointment about how, after the initial promise of the incredible “Video Games”, the album was samey and, well, a bit dull. I’m pleased to say that these 8 songs come closer to fulfilling the decaying American dream world aesthetic that she has been flirting with since her invention of Lana Del Rey.

The clunky themes that tended to weigh down “Born To Die” still feature in every track here (the pale moonlight, daddies, diamonds, party dresses, drugs, drinks, Elvis and of course death) but with very subtle shading here and there they become less cumbersome as the massive sweep and power of the music and Del Rey’s performance itself utterly convince and take over. Much of this, I’m guessing, is down to a change in producers; Emile Haynie who was in charge of the majority of the original album only has 2 co-productions here and subsequently the noisy but hollow hip hop influence is less obvious. Two brilliant cases in point are the Rick Rubin-produced first single “Ride” and the Rick Nowels-helmed “American”. Both of these feature impassioned vocals (particularly “Ride” with Lana almost howling the ‘I’m sick and tired of feeling fucking crazy’ line) and a warmth and Americana nostalgia that, although not as other worldly as “Video Games”, signifies a move towards something more substantial and moving. “Bel Air” is a further progression sonically with the piano keeping a waltz time,  Del Rey seeing gargoyles and a sample of a noisy kids playground (a trick used with more subtlety by Fiona Apple a couple of months back); it defines the concept of ‘cinematic’ music and is quite beautiful.

The thundering “Gods and Monsters” is the most self possessed vocal performance here and lyrically either the most irritating or Meta depending on how much the Del Rey mythology/invention convinces you, but it is hard to deny its power; ‘In the land of Gods and Monsters, I was an angel, looking to get fucked hard. Like a groupie incognito, posing as a real singer; life imitates Art’. This may just be Lana getting her own back on her record label after the original lyrics of “Born To Die” were changed from ‘fuck me hard in the pouring rain’ to ‘kiss me hard’; who knows. Maybe she goes a little too far in her revenge with “Cola” though, lyrics like ‘my pussy tastes like Pepsi Cola’ are just embarrassingly and pointlessly attention-seeking (after “Diet Mountain Dew”, her second unsuccessful attempt at a song referencing popular carbonated beverages) and “Body Electric” neatly collects all her key phrases in one song bordering on self-parody and is one of the few mis-steps here.

Yayo” is an oddity, originally featured on Lizzie Grant’s now-withdrawn debut album this has been re-recorded as a seemingly structureless song (it does in fact have a definite structure) with Del Rey amping up her bleary-eyed, drugged-out Monroe persona; it doesn’t really work as well as the original recording, oddly enough, but it is a brave decision to introduce something less obvious. “Blue Velvet” is a great cover and my goodness this could have been disastrous; brilliant retro strings burst in before the whole things plunges into Prince-like slow motion beats and Lana does her best Isabella Rossellini impersonation.  It’s fascinating to think that so many listeners will have never heard the original, this version being their first exposure to this truly iconic song.

So if you cherry pick from the original album (“Radio”, “Without You”, “Blue Jeans” and “Video Games” for starters) and lose 1 or 2 tracks from this new batch you actually do end up with one of the best and most original pop albums of the year. After initially threatening to retire musically and work in the film business, Lana Del Rey has confirmed that a second album (third if you include this) will be released and in describing her vision for it (stacked up a capellas, a full orchestra and lots of space apparently) she appears to be someone who fully understands the artistry (or lack of, depending on your view point!) of what they’re doing. But once she has collaborated with David Lynch, the definitive reference point of all of her work, then I for one will be satisfied and she can then put her Audrey Horne, red saddle shoes away in relative peace.                      

Oh no, it’s that time of the year again; Christmas, and I hate it.  No sooner do we get Halloween out of the way than the compilation CD ads start to appear everywhere.  It’s bad enough that we have to listen to the usual festive dross without watching the unsavoury annual spectacle of music business grave robbery; it makes Burke and Hare look like Ant and Dec.  And who do you think is so potless this Christmas that they need to release a compilation to raise a couple of quid so they can enjoy the festivities properly this year?  Only the Rolling Stones, that’s who.

Do you know when the first Rolling Stones greatest hits package was released?  46 years ago in November 1966, just in time for Christmas market.  You won’t be gobsmacked to hear that every track on that album, “Big Hits (High Tide and Green Grass)” , except “Lady Jane” (more about that one later) features on the new 3 CD set “Grrr”.  Now, I like to do my research, but I’m on a deadline here, so I’m going to say that the number of UK Stones hits packages must be in double figures by now, so how many copies of “Jumping Jack Flash” does anyone need?  As for “Lady Jane”, it is possible to get it on “Grrr” if you buy the 4 CD set, which is a bargain at about £100.  You do want Mick and Keith to get those deluxe mince pies, don’t you? Grrr indeed.

But, let’s be honest, the Stones aren’t the only offenders.  If you take a look at the most expensive box sets available from a well-known online and high street music retailer (see, research again), you can find Neil Young very near the top with an eye-opening (or watering) £230 for 4 vinyl albums.  If you’re buying that package I’m willing to bet you’ve already got them on the original vinyl, CD and probably a remastered CD.  What a great piece of marketing that is (please don’t tell me that you also paid to download them on iTunes as well), making the punter pay 3 or 4 times over for the same album.  Did you know you can get a 21 CD box set of Manfred Mann’s Earthband?  Can you name me 5 Earthband singles (not the Manfred Mann 60s stuff)?  No, thought not, and this is 200 or so tracks we’re talking about; how many Dylan and Springsteen covers can you possibly scrape together?

 How much quality control do you sacrifice to stretch out Rufus Wainwright’s work to 13 CDs?  Simple really, you bulk it out with live CDs, previously unreleased material (generally unreleased for very good reasons) and a CD of covers by other artists; all for the cost of a reasonably good guitar.  Who buys in to this nonsense?

And just to stray into unfamiliar contemporary territory, what about “Born to Die”?  It was originally released in standard and deluxe editions, but now Lana’s decided we need the “Paradise Edition” which will be released 2 weeks before Christmas.  It’s a great album but it’s gone beyond a joke now.  Instead of encouraging the media companies in their barrel-scraping, why don’t you go out and watch some live music instead; there’s loads of it out there and most of it affordable without selling any internal organs (unless you want to see the Rolling Stones).

Product DetailsQuick bit of background for you; Tinlin is made up of Alex and Rolf Tinlin and Jake Carrack (son of Paul Carrack); they also get a bit of help on this album from Eleanor Tinlin (oboe and cor anglais) and Steph Bloor (cello).  The Tinlin brothers write the songs, play a variety of fretted string instruments (guitars and mandolins mainly) and sing (beautifully).  There’s also some tasteful electric piano here and there as well.

“Shade of the Shadows” is the second studio album and is a pretty good snapshot of Tinlin in 2012.   There are a lot of things I like about this album, but there are also a few things that I’m less certain about.  Let’s start with the positives.

The playing on the album is very impressive; lots of nice guitar finger-picking and interesting chords, all of which gives the album a bit of a 70s troubadour feel.  After the opener “Do I Deny”, which is fragment from the closer “After the Rain”, “In These Arms” is reminiscent of Al Stewart at his least pretentious, making effective use of a cello to provide some extra bottom end and counterpoint to the melody.  “Steal” immediately reminded me of the quieter side of Extreme (anyone remember them?); lovely guitar work, melodic and with beautiful harmonies.

Play the Game” demonstrates the brothers playing at their best  with an intricate guitar and mandolin arrangement and perfect harmonies, while “Find a Way” is the most uptempo song on the album, the guitar chords creating a jazzy feel  in the intro and verses before a great chorus (complete with the usual harmonies).  “Haunted” opens with a typically understated, but very effective, keyboard riff which underpins the verse before another perfectly-harmonised chorus, and so the album goes on.

Northwest Light” is an acknowledgement of folkier, more traditional, influences in the instrumentation and lyrical themes (with just a little nod to Randy Newman) and is a delicate and fragile little gem.  The final track “After the Rain” includes the fragment “Do I Deny” from the beginning of the album as a coda to the song before a false ending leads to a “hidden” version of “Red Wine State of Mind” (imagine a polite acoustic version of “Mama Told me Not to Come”) which works surprisingly well; and another Randy Newman link for you.

I can’t criticise any of the playing or singing on the album; it’s all excellent and the songs are all well-crafted.  Lyrically, I would love to hear a move away from the traditional singer/songwriter themes of unrequited love, lost love and lack of worth; a bit less diffidence and a bit more bite would work better for me.  While the arrangements are always interesting, there might be a case for simplifying some of them and substituting a bit of attack for subtlety at times.  As a great example of effective interpretation of a Tinlin song, Paul Carrack’s version of “Make it Right” on “Good Feeling” is perfect.  He simplifies the riff to create a vaguely sinister feel while giving the vocal a soul interpretation and creating a cover which more than holds its own in a collection of great songs by great writers.

It’s understandable that Alex and Rolf want to play to their strengths and on “Shade of the Shadows” they have produced a really good set of songs played and arranged well but I’m sure we haven’t heard the best of Tinlin yet.

Product DetailsNow this is a nice surprise. Original (and recently returned) lead singer of the mid nineties and hugely successful trip hop pioneers Morcheeba, Skye Edwards has made a completely electronic chamber pop album and very nice it is too. This is her third solo album and the first to break out of her alt folksy, ‘acoustic with a smattering of beats’ sound; it’s still introspective and quietly soulful but this newly found, machine-made thrust has given Skye a welcome edge if not quite the pop sensibility she may have been hoping for.

The powerful beat and synths along with the tribal chanting of opener “Troubled Heart” immediately confirms a new sound but the warm, uplifting spirit of Morcheeba is still alive, at least at this point, and it’s not really until the third track and first single “Featherlight” that this album really settles into itself and establishes a mood which serves Skye’s angelic voice beautifully. “Featherlight” has a taut pop melody and a sincerity and aloofness that are compelling and, my old argument, this is the kind of song would have, once upon a time, sold in decent quantities. “Nowhere”, with its synthetic strings frantically dicing up a dramatic tension, has some sublime upper range vocals and three different time signatures. “Little Bit Lost” sounds like a Richard X production; an indie very British lo-fi synth sound and “We Fall Down” is a duet with a vocoder (not the dreaded autotune, please let’s be clear about that) and it’s here that Skye resembles Moroder’s early work with Donna Summer; that sublime combination of steel and humanity.

Dissolve” is the album’s big song, sung in a rarely-heard lower register with Skye almost growling ‘onto knees we fall and search unto the sky as we crawl without a reason why’ and it’s great to hear her in such a cold, imposing and ever-changing electronic soundscape. The effervescent final track “Bright Light” is a meditative return to hope; ‘I’ll pull you out again, my rope will lead you there’ and sounds for all the world like a William Orbit production from Madonna’s definitive comeback album, “Ray of Light”. Time and again here the reference point I kept coming back to was turn of the millennium Madonna, in particular the Orbit and Mirwais-produced  “Light” and “Music” where Madonna was at her most riveting both creatively and lyrically . It’s interesting that Skye’s debut solo album “Mind How You Go” was actually co-produced and written by Patrick Leonard, probably Madonna’s best and certainly most returned-to collaborator (and time to make that call again Madge).

What Skye lacks maybe is that pop ‘wink’, the artifice and ridiculousness of Goldfrapp or Kylie, say; I’m not saying that this is her intention but I do wonder who exactly, bar the hardcore Morcheeba fans, this collection will appeal to and that’s a shame as subsequently this venture, sonically at least, could well be a one off. Many of the songs will stand up well to acoustic readings and performed live would incorporate well into a Morcheeba heavy set; I hope that this is exposure enough to enable Skye to keep on experimenting with her wholly exquisite voice and talent. Seek this one out.

Well, first visit to Indigo2 and what a way to start.  The venue is exactly what you should get if you started with a blank sheet and tried to design a flexible, intimate space with a capacity around 2,000 and a great sound.  Add in friendly staff and effective but unobtrusive security and you’ve got a great gig venue which neatly fills the gap left by the closure of The Astoria.

The Ragged Flags filled the support slot with their uplifting blend of Celtic, rock, folk and country influences which got a few toes tapping and they were rewarded with a pretty good response from a very receptive audience.  They even managed to get in a few plugs for their debut EP “Sign Your Name” which is out now.  While the audience were reasonably enthusiastic, they were Paul Carrack’s audience and a sense of anticipation built steadily as showtime approached.

Normally I would give you some background on the headline act, but I did that in my recent review of his new album “Good Feeling” (which you should all buy straight away).  Let me just say that this man has a phenomenal voice, is a great keyboard player and plays a pretty mean guitar as well (not to mention the melodica).  His singing and playing are saturated with soul and he knows how to interpret and sell a song to maximum effect.  The set opened with the title track from the new album, followed by the Squeeze classic “Tempted” (you know he sang on the original, obviously) and that set the pattern for the rest of the evening.

The set was split evenly between classic songs from Paul’s history with Ace, Squeeze and Mike & the Mechanics and material from the new album injected throughout the set.  The “Good Feeling” songs are so strong that they slotted perfectly into the set and most of the audience actually knew them already.  It’s difficult to pick out highlights from such a stunning set, but “Tempted” has always been a favourite of mine, “Long Ago” was brilliant in a Westlife-for-grownups way and it’s always great to hear “How Long” again.

The band were excellent (but who wouldn’t want to play in Paul Carrack’s band) and the pacing of the set was perfect.  After the emotional wringer of “The Living Years” towards the end of the set the band dropped seamlessly into the uptempo, upbeat “When My Little Girl is Smiling” to restore the feelgood factor as the set neared the end.  The final encore was the nostalgic “Marmalade Moon” (co-written with Chris Difford) which allowed the band to give it the beans for 5 minutes before sending everyone home happy.

You can still see Paul on the second leg of this tour and on the tour with Eric Clapton next year and I strongly recommend that you do because he’s a genuine legend.  I don’t suppose Sheffield does blue plaques, but there should be one on the Carrack house.  And I got some really nice photos as well; you can see them here in a couple of days.

Product DetailsThis 4-track EP by the girl on vocals, boy on keyboards Brooklyn based duo conveniently collects all their releases so far, highlighting the newest track “Bones” as the lead-off single. The worst thing I could say about MS MR is that they can resemble thematically, sonically and vocally Florence and The Machine (the year’s most tiresome and frequently used reference) and the best is that these doomed, timeless, high school girl vignettes call to mind a more magnified version of Cat’s Eyes (responsible for one of the very best albums of last year), where all the blurry edges have been rubbed away.

The aforementioned “Bones” is very good, all Bernard Herrmann ‘Psycho’ strings and tripped-out tension, but of all the tracks here is maybe the least effective and is the one where Lizzy Plapinger vocally and lyrically (‘empty churches with soulless curses’) most resembles X Factor goth, Ms Welch but thankfully without the contrived histrionics and harps.

Hurricane” is one of the best pop songs (and it is pop song) of this year, hands down. ‘Welcome to the inner workings of my mind, so dark and foul, I can’t disguise’ so says Plapinger with a swagger and confidence betraying the sentiment in this multi-layered, clanking and creaking cinematic gem and with finger-clicking “Dark Doo Wop” (potentially disastrous song title but fear not!) picture Lana Del Rey and spear it with your stilleto, screw it up and throw it away, that’s the attitude here. Strings quivering in the corner with the refrain ‘This world is gonna burn, burn, burn’ and Plapinger sounding very Sinead O’Conner circa “Troy” with an emphasis on the ‘buuurn’; mental health problems have never sounded so appealing.

Ash Tree Lane” is the most complex and fullest sounding track here, although it’s fair to say that MS MR don’t really do bare, and is probably my favourite. There’s little deviation from the sonic tone already established but the swell of brass wrapping itself around the ‘ooh ohh, woah woah’ wordless chorus and the moment where Plapinger declares her ‘mind is a mess’ and she inhales an audible gasp of breath and the music stops for split second is hugely effective and exciting, creating pitch black vivid imagery.

If MS MR don’t take 2 years to release their debut (which according to the group is coming, it’s finished apparently and they’ve secured a record deal) and can maintain this level of quality then they are truly an exciting prospect and will be something to really look forward to in 2013.  I, for one, can’t wait.