It looks like it may be some time before we escape the influence of the pandemic on recorded music, particularly in the areas of Americana and folk where the traditions of storytelling and reflecting the world around us are important. ‘Falling Under Spells’ isn’t crammed with references to COVID, but it’s certainly the basis for the album’s two closing songs, ‘Everybody Inside’ and ‘Nowhere Fast’, while the problems of twenty-first century America, including its forty-fifth President, are also themes that permeate the album, along with a few magical and mystical references.

The album’s opening song ‘Ruleless Games’ attempts to explain the unfairness of the world to a child and features some of the album’s sound signatures, the muted trumpet sound and the plaintive, higher register, Neil Young-like vocal of James Combs that’s echoed by the Crazy Horse feel of some of the arrangements. The horns are gentle and muted, not the strident stabs that are used to punctuate our soul classics; they’re more mariachi than Motown or Stax and contribute to the mellow feel of the album.

There are a few more nods in obvious and less obvious directions to other musical styles on the album. ‘Spells’ hints at The Byrds with some sixties tremolo guitar and maybe even a touch of The Stones’ ‘The Last Time’ (with added trumpet); all elements that you might have heard in referenced in the Americana canon. ‘Cut and Run’ is slightly different in that the reggae-tinged arrangement has more than a hint of the Gorillaz song ‘Clint Eastwood’ with piano and slide guitar. The title repeats like a mantra through the song as it urges us to abandon America’s twisted priorities (and their hype-man).

Despite the ominous and mystical feel of songs like ‘Strange Signs’ and ‘Spells’, ‘Falling Under Spells’, manages to generate a gentle wave of optimism for the future with songs like ‘True Believer’ and ‘Joy is Allowed’, a reminder that even in the most awful times, it’s ok to find joy somewhere. And any album that’s underpinned by the gentler side od Neil Young is fine by me.

‘Falling Under Spells’ is released in the UK on Friday May 27th on High Pine Steeple Recordings (1001).

Here’s a link to the video for ‘Strange Signs’ (featuring April Mann):

‘Breathe In the World, Breathe Out Music’ is one of those albums where, at first listen, you genuinely have no idea what’s coming next; more about that shortly, but some background first. Mike Stevens is a hugely respected harmonica virtuoso who has played the Grand Ole Opry over 300 times and has experimented widely with his playing techniques to create a unique style. He’s also recovering after a diagnosis of Lyme disease which left him virtually unable to play. It’s the kind of situation that can make you re-evaluate and hit the reset button, which is exactly what Mike has done with this album; he’s playing by feel rather than by experience and practice.

The album’s opening song, and the lead single, gives no clues about what’s coming up on the rest of the album. It’s, well, it’s jaunty; it’s played as an upbeat and offbeat reggae tune with a really positive message, a shiny, polished Polly Harris vocal and even a choir of children coming in at the end. It’s really uplifting but doesn’t even hint at what’s coming up. You have to expect the unexpected and the version of Gordon Lightfoot’s ‘The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald’ is a perfect example.

The 1976 original is in the style of a folk ballad told in seven lengthy verses and it’s all about the story. It’s been covered before, in a pretty leaden version, by the Dandy Warhols, but Mike’s interpretation is very different; it’s an instrumental where the arrangement follows the narrative flow of Gordon Lightfoot’s original. The song starts peacefully with the violining guitar part evoking seagull cries and builds steadily towards the clamour of the fatal storm before the closing calm of remembrance of the dead sailors. It works as a stand-alone piece, but it’s even better if you know the original song. Another example of the unexpected is ‘Amazing Grace’, which opens in a Hendrix Star-Spangled Banner’ style before calming down into a more peaceful version of the hymn. It’s stunning harp playing, technically and creatively.

And you could write endlessly about the creativity that runs like a pulse through the album. ‘Orange Blossom Special’ paints an aural picture with harp and guitar of a train pulling out of the station and building up to cruising speed while the closing track, ‘Put Your Phone Down’, is a freeform harmonica improvisation punctuated by short, almost random, spoken lines exhorting us to celebrate life without the filters of technology. And those are just my personal highlights.

‘Breathe In the World, Breathe Out Music’ is a stunningly creative and innovative album with a surprise around every corner; you think you’ve heard everything the album has to offer, then in comes the zither on the cinematic ‘Jesse’s Request’. This is a genuinely original album.

‘Breathe In the World, Breathe Out Music’ is released on May 20th on Stony Plain Records (SPCD1452).

Here’s a link to the video for ‘Livin’ in Sarnia’, featuring Cory James Mitchell:

‘Ride My Galaxy’ looks like it will be one of three Pawn Shop Saints/Jeb Barry albums conceived in the pandemic to be released in the near future. The thing that unifies this album and will probably unify the remaining two albums is Jeb Barry’s voice. The songs range from the nostalgic West Coast country/rock of ‘Chevy Nova’ to the unrelenting gloom of ‘Ain’t No Mama Here’, but the cracked emotion of the voice that combines the vulnerability of Jackson Browne with the raw power of Greg Dulli is a constant.

There are the trademark Pawn Shop Saints acoustic staples aplenty on the album, but there are also a few elements of pop and rock pushing through the mix. There’s an opening studio chat on ‘Exits’ about getting the song down “mistakes and all” that sets the tone for the album. It’s much more about capturing the feel of the songs, rather than perfect performances. There’s no shortage of nods in the direction of iconic pop and rock figures and songs either. The I-VI chords at the start of ‘diane’ have a hint of Sam Cooke’s ‘Cupid’, while ‘Jenny Why’ has a hint of Danny Whitten’s ‘I Don’t Want to Talk About It’ and an arrangement that’s reminiscent of The Band. The paranoid menace of ‘Wicked’ is emphasised by a band sound that could be Crazy Horse at its most rough and ready. You get the picture; you can pick out the influences, while it’s all held together by great songwriting and Jeb Barry’s voice.

The album opens with a song that isn’t in typical Pawn Shop Saints territory; ‘Chevy Nova’ is unashamed seventies nostalgia. It’s a cars, girls, booze and drugs song, but in an innocent and naïve way. The closing song is firmly back in Pawn Shop Saints lyrical territory with a story of the pain caused by a broken relationship, but with a grungier sound that’s emphasised by a completely live studio recording.

‘Ride My Galaxy’ is an intriguing blend of the hard-edged dirt-poor Americana typified by the floods, crop failures and fever deaths of ’Ain’t No Mama Here’ and some new elements pop, punk, psychedelia and even nostalgia. It’s a good mix and creates a fascinating album.

‘Ride My Galaxy’ is out now Dollyrocker Records (DR20221). Here’s the video for ‘Exits’: