Well, unless there’s a surprise rush-release in the next few weeks, this is the last album review of 2021 and we’re heading towards 2022 on a high note. “An Honest Effort” is full of stories of people giving it their best shot, even if their achievements aren’t going to change the world. As a piece of work, “An Honest Effort” is much more than that; it’s a collection of beautifully-crafted songs performed economically to maximum effect with sparse arrangements allowing Matt Patershuk’s rich baritone to deliver stories that show life with gritty realism, intelligent insight and a lively imagination; which is a good place to start.

“1.3 Miles” examines fate and random chance by tracing the course of a bullet fired at a coyote. The shot misses, is avoided by a sparrow that suddenly dives for a worm and comes to rest against a missing wedding ring. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that it’s a metaphysical poem set to music. “Jupiter the Flying Horse” (which isn’t the only song on the album, or in the rest of Matt’s catalogue, about a horse) is an equine love song inspired by a Barnum & Bailey poster. It’s also a metaphor for human social inequality. It’s one of those albums that rewards a bit of deep digging. “The 2nd Law of Thermodymanics” follows on from an earlier song, “Memory and the First Law of Thermodynamics”, from his “Same As I Ever Have Been” album and, along with the two songs mentioned above illustrate an unusual aspect of Matt’s songwriting. He’s very comfortable with introducing scientific, metaphysical and even just plain strange ideas into his songs in the same way that Danny Schmidt does currently, and Shel Silverstein did in the 1970s.

It’s noticeable that Matt doesn’t rush anything on “An Honest Effort”; if a story takes five minutes to tell, then five minutes it is. The songs are taken at a leisurely pace for maximum impact and a couple are in waltz time, which seems to feel less rushed. There’s plenty of space to tell the poignant stories of the person that doesn’t fit in (“Johanna”), the abused wife (“Sunny”) before the tempo shifts up appropriately to driving country rock for “Turn the Radio Up”, about growing older physically but not mentally. I’m writing this on my birthday and I completely empathise. And I’m not saying which birthday. The two family songs “Stay With Me” (about Matt’s father) and “Upright” (about his grandmother) are both powerful in different ways, the first poignant and the second celebratory.

Two more songs on “An Honest Effort” hit the sweet spot for me. “Clever Hans” tells the story of a dishonest effort – it’s based on a performing horse from the early twentieth century and Matt cleverly builds up the detail of the con, telling the tale and creating the back story in the voice of the horse’s handler with lovely subtlety. “Shane MacGowan” is a light-hearted celebration of the Pogues’ singer seemingly abandoning his lifelong pursuit of oblivion and finally having his teeth fixed, even though it interferes with singing his songs.

“An Honest Effort” is a great way to end the year for Music Riot. Matt Patershuk’s a gifted, versatile and highly imaginative songwriter who delivers his songs in a delicately dramatic way, using pauses and interjections to heighten the tension before the release and playing only what actually needs to be played. Eleven beautiful songs delivered in a seemingly effortless style. Enough said.

“An Honest Effort” is out now on Black Hen Music (BHCD0094).

Here’s the video for “Turn the Radio Up”:

As we approach the end of this year’s meaningful album releases (obviously not including “Greatest Hits” packages and festive cash-ins), it’s not difficult to find a theme that runs through this year’s albums. The pandemic looms large either as subject matter for the songs or as the impetus to explore different ways of working. Either way, the impact’s impossible to ignore. Abby Posner dealt with the planetary and personal upheaval by creating this album almost single-handedly (with guest appearances from singers Mary Scholz and Fred Newhouse and fiddle player M’Gilvry Allen). Everything else is written, played, recorded and produced by Abby Posner.

About the title; I’ve saved people in the UK the hassle of spending 30 seconds on the internet to discover what it means. It’s a life buoy or ring buoy thrown to someone in distress in the water and it pulls together themes that suffuse the album; themes of stormy seas, of drowning, of rescues and emergencies. The eighteen months before the album’s release was a testing period for Abby Posner and its ten songs reflect the questions posed and the answers found during that period. The songs are intensely personal apart from one exception. I’ll come back to that later.

The musical stylings are restrained throughout the album, focusing the attention on Abby’s ethereal, haunting and often multi-layered lead vocal to enhance the lyrical messages. This approach is taken to its logical conclusion on the album’s closing song, “Digging Corners” which is stripped down to vocal and acoustic guitar to emphasise the message of two people opening themselves up to each other; the risk of hurt set against the hope of love. It’s a lovely positive message to close the album.

The title track is set against gently strummed guitar and acoustic piano and is shot through with disaster and recovery metaphors as well as contrasting physical and digital life – there’s no backup for real life, and no rewind. The quality of the songs and arrangements is consistently good across the album, with enough shifts of style and changes of tempo to keep the interest throughout. And there are even a couple of songs in triple time. Which brings us back to that one exception, “Blind Spots” (also in triple time); it’s a political song sitting amid the personal.

The song’s main focus is the murder of George Floyd. The blind spots of the title have a double meaning; the song starts by using blind spots in the driving sense while looking back instead of forwards before shifting the meaning to things that are plain to see, but we wilfully ignore or fail to see because they’re difficult to deal with. Although Trump isn’t mentioned, the bigotry and hate generated by populist campaigning and his Presidency have done lasting damage. It’s a cleverly-worked song with a powerful message that we need to heed. And that’s surely the final pandemic album of 2021.

“Kisbee Ring” is out now.

Here’s the Zoom-style video for “Blind Spots”:

Photo by Pauline Felstead

Time for an apology here. Things have been so busy here at The Riot House that we misplaced this review for a couple of weeks. Steve Jenner went along to the traditional closing gig of the Leek Blues & Americana Festival and sent us this review of The Achievers and Greg Brice at The Foxlowe. And thanks also to Pauline Felstead for the shot of The Achievers and to JR Mountford and Dave Swarbrook for finding the photo at really short notice. When you read the first paragraph review you’ll see that it’s appropriate that it’s been published the day after the Lord Mayor’s Show. We’re looking forward to October 2022 already. Over to Steve:

It was last night of the proms for the Leek Blues and Americana Festival. It had also been a busy week in radioland; and not really feeling much like it in all honesty I headed for central Leek more in hope than in expectation. The main event had been a couple of weekends back and the town certainly had a feel of ‘After The Lord Mayor’s Show’ about it. However, the Festival had been a triumph over considerable adversity and the gig certainly deserved a show of support at the very least.

Which just goes to show, sometimes when you really can’t be…sometimes you should force yourself out. Just occasionally it pays and this was just such a gig.

Firstly, Greg Brice. Looking like a cross between a primary school teacher and Manfred Mann, an unassuming presence with vocals in the upper range and an absolutely lovely guitar sound, very mellow and ‘rounded’ but also with occasional sharp and genuine stabs of the blues in there. Very slick slide playing once he’d found the tube, and some of his own songs which stood up well. Definitely a class above what I could reasonably expect at this time of night.

And so to The Achievers. Radio 2 like them. Blues and Americana radio jocks are playing their records all over the place. A mixed bag in terms of presentation, they come from Stroud in deepest Gloucestershire and they look a bit like it. However, off we go and it is instantly promising, a situation helped by an absolutely crystalline sound, well done you knob twiddlers. Bit more volume needed for the excellent lead guitar picker for me, he’s good, don’t hide him away – but they sounded great. Really great, and that’s not always the case in small-to-medium venues.

Anybody who writes a song where the central premise is ‘everybody loves you when you’re dead’ is alright by me. The easy charm and twinkling humour of their frontman and lead singer Steve Ferbrache soon wins over the battle-weary and we’re definitely off and running.

And what a vibe they have. It just rolls. Rhythm section is light and tight and they keep lobbing in sub-Motown fills here and there which are delightful to observe. Songs about unrequited groupies and what it is that gets you out of bed. Tea, apparently, in Leek, according to a significant percentage of the assembled. A few songs are lobbed in taken from their latest album ‘The Lost Arc’. They’re funny amusing, and also a great dance band, which is a trick and a half to pull off.

But is it the Blues? Nope, by their own admission. Does it matter? Nope, this is the closer for the Leek Blues and Americana Festival. But is it Americana, then? Well, in bits. There’s the aforementioned Motown tricks and occasional Gospel-style (I kid you not) outbursts and twangy great country slices here and there and a harp blower of considerable elegance, and Lindisfarne keep bursting through the door accompanied by Little Feat and Jonathan Richman but really, this is a classic slice of Britishana rather than anybody else’s ana. Despite the originality of their songs you keep hearing snatches and throwbacks from all over the place; was that the ghost of ‘Back In The USSR’ I heard somewhere in there…and why do I keep referencing Janis Ian part-way through another of their originals?

Had they been ‘around’ in the seventies, they would no doubt have had half a dozen hit singles along with a few top 50 albums and all the rest of it. And in fairness, in the context of a music industry that barely exists any more in conventional terms, they are, well…Achievers. And they are a bloody good night out. So good they kept me away from the wonderful Reefy Blunt and the Biftas who were playing across the road until very late in their set, who on the evidence of a brief visit before taxi time were brilliant fun, which is always the problem you are presented with as a punter during the Festival ‘proper’ but isn’t that a lovely problem to have? So, a brave and unusual way for the Leek Blues and Americana Festival to go out on for 2021. And if the organisers can make such a decent fist of it in this godforsaken year, then this time next year, Rodney…!  

“Mean Old World” is a very thought-provoking album. One of those that will have you firing up your search engine of choice to check out some of the references in the lyrics. It’s partly a political album, but the references aren’t the usual ones we’ve seen over the last year and a half. Gordie Tentrees is from Canada, making Trump references we’ve heard elsewhere less relevant, and there’s barely a mention of the pandemic. What we do get are references to gender identity and issues related to indigenous peoples as well as stories of how mean this old world can be to the loners, the outsiders and the vulnerable. The lyrics lean to a greater or lesser extent on Gordie Tentrees’ life story, including experiences as a foster child and later as a foster parent.

Musically, the stylings are basically string band and a kick drum, with a few additional seasonings of pedal steel and electric guitar and the slightly more exceptional synth that decorates “Lefties” a tale of two women who take an annual road trip together leaving their partners to deal with domestic arrangements. It combines a serious message about gender and domestic roles with a tongue-in-cheek delivery. “Danke” is in a similar vein, telling stories of life on the road while trying to secure record deals. “Twice as Nice”. I did mention political sentiments earlier and “Rosetta” refers to the Canadian legal bill C-92 dealing with the recognition of indigenous people’s jurisdiction over child and family services. Even “Train is Gone”, about an old friend dying, fits in references to equality before signing off with a carpe diem message.

The closing song, “Ring Speed” is a very cleverly-constructed autobiographical song structured as a boxing match in three rounds where the rhythms evoke the speed and the movement of the action in the ring. The song references one of Gordie’s previous occupations as a Golden Gloves boxer and ends on the advice the “Become a folksinger get out of ring”.

There’s a lot happening on “Mean Old World”. There’s a message that this life can be incredibly cruel, but there’s also some positivity and a bit of humour to balance things up. It’s raw and potent and it even has a genuine classic in the stunning closing song “Ring Speed”.

“Mean Old World” is out now .

Here’s the official video for the album’s opener, “Wind Walker”: