Underhill Rose - 'Live' - ScrollerWhy do a live album? Well when you’re as good live as Eleanor Underhill, Molly Rose and Salley Williamson, the prospect of being recorded live holds no terrors. They can even play without any amplification if they have to. “Live”, recorded in Asheville, North Carolina, over two nights was an attempt to let a wider audience hear the songs in their live incarnations: three voices and four instruments (including Eleanor’s harmonica). And it’s a highly successful attempt; the quality of the performances is superb and with fifteen songs, no-one can complain about quantity.
The mix of songs is fairly representative of the live experience, featuring songs spanning their studio albums and a couple of interesting covers, “These Boots are Made for Walking” featuring Salley Williamson’s vocal and upright bass, and a deft stripping-down of the eighties classic “Bette Davis Eyes” that shows exactly how powerful the song is without the synthesised eighties percussion.
Throughout the album, the harmonies are perfect and the recording captures the warmth and intimacy that’s a huge part of any Underhill Rose show, highlighted in the celebration of community and friendship, “They Got My Back”. There’s no inconsistency; the performance is perfect throughout. If I had to pick standouts, I would go for the sultry “Whispering Pines Motel” or the combination of photographic imagery and reminiscence of the lovely “In Color”. If you haven’t seen Eleanor, Molly and Salley live yet, this is the next best thing. If you have seen them, it will bring those memories back.
Now let’s wait for Tony Visconti to tell us it was eighty percent overdubbed.
“Live” is released on Friday June 30.

Temp-5944The band’s name is HVMM (pronounced ‘hum’, you know like Chvrches) and they were playing Camden Rocks Presents at Proud Camden. An early evening slot on the hottest weekend of the year didn’t look too promising, but this band were determined to go on and kill it. HVMM is Sam Jenkins (drums), Andy Teece (vocals), Ebony Clay (guitar) and Jack Timmis (bass) and they’re based in Worcester, which might be relevant because they’ve got a bit of a Peaky Blinders image including some serious facial hair (apart from Ebony).
On stage they erupt in to a six-song set with their upcoming single “Lacerate” and from the outset it’s blindingly obvious that this isn’t some shambolic indie outfit or Shoreditch hipsters. This band means business and they ain’t taking prisoners. Powerhouse drummer Sam stokes things up from the back and alongside bass player Jack builds a platform for Ebony’s monster over-driven riffs and Andy’s manic, demented prowling and half-shouted/half-sung vocals. It’s loud, aggressive and in-yer-face but make no mistake, they’re great players and the songs are all carefully crafted. When they crank out “Pummelling a Monk” and “Modern Pussy” to close the set, you know you’ve witnessed something a bit special. As for musical genre, who knows; it’s hard and heavy but the lyrics are fairly leftfield, maybe nu-metal indie? Anyway, they make a glorious noise and you can’t take your eyes off the stage. That spells great gig to me.

We’ll be down at the front again some time soon, meanwhile have a look at this:

I Hold Gravity scrollerThis one’s going to need a little historical perspective; I’ll try to keep it brief. Young guitar-slinger/singer starts to create a buzz in the early seventies, takes half a lifetime out to raise a family but never stops playing and writing, eventually comes out of self-enforced retirement to take up a writing and performing career with his wife, teams up with I See Hawks in L.A. to make an album. The context is important here, because musical influences and stylings that underpin the album from the late sixties/early seventies are married up with stories of rural America. There are little hints of Harry Nilsson, maybe Jim Croce as well in some of the arrangements, but the influences don’t stop at folk and country.

“Be Nemanic” opens up as a barrel-house blues which morphs into a Stax brass-driven stomper (á la Otis and Carla’s “Tramp”) telling the story of the granite-hewn immigrants who helped build the United States; it’s a rousing story of pride and a hint of a warning. There’s a similar raw edge to the opening song “Dirt” but with a raucous chain-gang feel, as the song explores the futility of mineral exploration. There’s a lot of humour in there too in the zydeco-tinged story of two knowing drug mules and the everyday day tale of country jealously, “Mr and Mrs Jones” with a rockabilly beat, some lovely Hammond and some very Steve Cropper-like guitar fills.

The title song, “I Hold Gravity”, is a love song, pure and simple, made achingly poignant by the fact that Gerry’s wife and songwriting partner Susan died as the album was nearing completion and the album’s closer “Into the Mystic” evokes a sense of deep loss before consolation is sought in communion with nature and the desert.

The ten songs on “I Hold Gravity” will pull you through a wide range of emotions. You’ll smile at “God Lubbock”, laugh out loud at “Mr and Mrs Jones”, yearn for the idyllic setting of “Here In the Pass” and cry at “I Hold Gravity” and then you’ll want to put yourself through that emotional wringer all over again; it’s that good.

“I Hold Gravity” is released on Friday June 23.

Sam Baker Land of Doubt ScrollerStraight up front, you need to know; this album won’t be for everyone. I have a strong suspicion that this is deep into Marmite territory, that it’s an acquired taste. Texan Sam Baker is one of those songwriters who is revered by his peers (Malcolm Holcombe’s another) who understand the journey he’s on and appreciate the craft involved in his work. One of his aims with “Land of Doubt” is to tell the stories or convey the feelings to his listeners in the most economic way possible without losing any of the nuances. Stripping back music usually involves leaving out instruments that add texture to arrangements, keys, horns, even electric guitar and bass. The approach Sam Baker has taken is to work out the minimum of sounds necessary to create the feeling he wants to evoke and to add nothing extraneous to it.

The economy isn’t just applied to the instrumentation. The melodies and the rhythms are kept sparse and simple and even the number of words is restricted, a bit like applying the haiku discipline to every aspect of making an album. Producer and drummer Neilson Hubbard, guitar player Will Kimbrough and cool jazz trumpeter Don Mitchell create perfect minimalist arrangements that allow the songs plenty of space; each of the elements is honed to perfection like a setting designed to emphasise a perfect gemstone, but not to overpower. There isn’t a hint of a standard format or template here. Each song gets exactly the instrumentation it needs; nothing more, nothing less. The percussion ranges from the almost non-existent on the country waltz “Love is Patient” to loud drums competing with the vocal on the swampy “Moses in the Reeds” and the military beat of “Some Kind of Blue”, telling the story of a Vietnam veteran who looks back to the war as the happiest time of his life.

At first glance, the track listing seems a little long, but ten songs are interspersed with five instrumental interludes that help to alleviate the sombre mood of the songs while additional colour and texture come in the form of Will Kimbrough’s ambient atmospherics, some piano and harmonium and some deft Chet Baker-style trumpet from Don Mitchell, particularly on “Say the Right Words”, the story of parents who disapprove of their daughter’s choice of partner but are too scared or smart (you decide) to tackle the matter head-on. One of Sam Baker’s strengths is in picking out these little tragedies from the background noise we’re surrounded and showing us the importance they have to the protagonists. It’s not always comfortable, but you can’t stop listening.

As I said at the top of this piece, it won’t be for everyone, but if you like the craft of the songwriter and the arranger, then you won’t be disappointed.

“Land of Doubt” is released on Friday June 16.

Carrie Elkin ScrollerEvery once in a while a gig comes along that restores your faith in London audiences; this was one of those gigs. The basement of The Slaughtered Lamb was packed to bursting with music fans and every single one of them wanted to listen and pay attention to two superb and engaging performers, Carrie Elkin and Danny Schmidt. Both were on stage throughout the two sets, but the opening set featured Danny Schmidt’s songs with Carrie supplying harmonies while the second set was mainly songs from Carrie’s outstanding new album, “The Penny Collector”. Throughout both sets, Carrie and Danny, singly and as a double act, kept the audience entertained with jokes, anecdotes and outright weirdness as a counterpoint to the beauty of the songs.

Danny’s opening set demonstrated the huge range of his writing and performance, from the barnstorming opener with about half a dozen false endings to the intensely personal song “We Need another Word” and the very wordy closer “Stained Glass”. As a songwriter, he can do the simple, moving songs but also has the more unusual ability to create songs that are packed with witty ideas without sounding self-consciously clever.

For the second set, the emphasis shifted to Carrie and the new album while Danny played guitar and added some gorgeous harmonies to a set of songs written at a pivotal and emotional point in their lives. The context of the album is made fairly clear by the narrative, but in the live setting Carrie and Danny added observations and anecdotes to flesh out the picture; some are poignant, some are just hilarious. Their set featured a couple of covers, Paul Simon’s “American Tune” (featured on the album) and Richard Thompson’s “Dimming of the Day” with the remainder of the set coming mainly from the new album, including “New Mexico”, “Always on the Run”, the hauntingly beautiful “And Then the Birds Came”, and “Live Wire” and “Tilt-a-Whirl” which explore different eras in the process of growing up. Carrie’s energy and good humour would pull you in to her orbit even if the songs were average (they’re not), and the fun between songs acts as a a counterpoint to the seriousness of the material.

Carrie Elkin and Danny Schmidt poured heart and soul into creating a performance that kept the audience transfixed and lifted the spirits of everyone in the room. They even dispelled the gloom of public transport in London late at night. Good work Green Note for promoting the show, and you can still see Carrie and Danny around the UK until Sunday June 11.

Gold Rush Scroller“Gold Rush” is Hannah Aldridge’s second album and it moves Hannah in a slightly different direction. Her debut “Razor Wire” (and an excellent debut too) was built around a set of country-inflected, mainly acoustic, guitar songs with the emphasis on personal experiences. That emphasis is still there on the second album but Hannah’s added a rockier edge which is evident in her switch from acoustic to electric guitar (Telecaster if you must know) and her description of her newer songs as Southern rock. “Razor Wire” was a huge favourite with the Riot Squad, so how does “Gold Rush” compare?

The title song, which closes the album, is a work of rare beauty; it’s more delicate than most of the new songs and deals with the idea of being at a point in time when looking forward and looking back are equally painful. When a writer can create the line ‘I don’t know if this is living or slow motion suicide’, you know you’re hearing a special talent. But “Gold Rush” isn’t about one song, there are nine more and they’re little firecrackers. The album’s first song “Aftermath” kicks open the doors with tribal drums and a tight rhythm section dragging “Jumping Jack Flash” into the twenty-first century. “Dark-Heated Woman” is sinister and menacing with a guitar solo that Neil Young would be proud of and “Living on Lonely” is plaintive, almost heart-breaking, with huge choral backing vocals. “Burning down Birmingham” is Southern rock with the trademark slide guitar hook and an insanely catchy chorus while “Shouldn’t Hurt So Bad” draws heavily on the Merseybeat/Byrds/Tom Petty jangly guitar stylings. And so it goes on, there are ten very good songs and a huge dynamic range.

Everything fits into place perfectly as Hannah moves effortlessly from the slower, more controlled, vocals to the raw and raunchy rockers. She ticks all the boxes; the songs are powerful, heart-rending, even harrowing at times, her voice is stunningly good and she has tremendous live presence. “Gold Rush” is an album created by someone who has seen and done too many things in a short life; it’s shot through with substance abuse references and some regrets, but no self-pity. The overall message is that this a testament from a survivor and we should all feel grateful for that. And one final great line for you, from “I Know Too Much”: ‘I don’t need another reason to hate myself, I don’t need another bad tattoo’.

This is a beautiful album that you will go back to again and again.

“Gold Rush” is released in the UK on Friday June 16 and you can find Hannah’s July UK tour dates here.

Pierce Edens - 'Stripped Down Gussied Up' - cover (300dpi)There’s an expression that always rings alarm bells when I read it in connection with musicians: genre-bending. And have you ever heard anyone actually use the expression in conversation? Anyway it manages to insinuate itself in to the press release for the Pierce Edens album “Stripped Down Gussied Up”, which is as contradictory as the title suggests; the arrangements have been stripped back to basics then topped off with a selection of ambient noises and studio trickery. It’s a bit like taking all the bodywork off your car, down to the chassis, then sticking a spoiler on the back end. Pierce has a voice that you might say is original and has character; it’s certainly idiosyncratic and I found it difficult to take over a whole album; you find yourself wanting to give him a bagful of consonants. To give you an idea of what I mean, he manages to out-Waits Tom Waits on his cover of “Mr Siegal”.

There were positives as well; “The Bonfire”, checking in at over six minutes, is powered by relentless, strummed acoustic guitar as the story of a doomed relationship unfolds with a lyrical hint at the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood”. “I Can’t Sleep” runs on the same fuel with the addition of Kevin Reese’s over-driven electric guitar and a quickfire, almost breathless, vocal delivery from Pierce. If you like a bit of aural experimentation and a twisted vocal delivering dark tales of smalltown North Carolina, then this might be just the thing for you.

“Stripped Down Gussied Up” is released on Friday June 2.