OK, I’ll give you this one for free because you’ll never work it out from listening to the album. I don’t think Gerry Spehar likes Donald Trump very much. I’ve heard a few American albums this year that have railed against the state of affairs in America generally and POTUS in particular, but none that have so consistently sustained the attack across a whole album of thirteen songs or, more accurately, twelve songs and a prelude. Gerry’s solo album last year, “I Hold Gravity”, hinted at the power and breadth of “Anger Management” but the actuality is so much more brutal and brilliant.

The album is crammed with compassion, anger, pacifism and scathing attacks on the hypocrisy espoused by America’s current elected elite; 2018 is the year that the protest album finally resurfaced and the timing is perfect.

The album opens with the skewed logic of “Thank You Donald”, set in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s election victory, where a suicidal impulse is overturned by a desire to save family and friends from the impending Trumpquake. It’s set against a traditional string band arrangement featuring banjo and fiddle that creates a comfortable American feel the remainder of the album systematically demolishes.

The arrangements on the album cover a wide variety of musical styles from a wide variety of countries, underlining the impact that outside influences, and immigration, have had on American popular music and society. The impact is underlined in the album’s second song “Son of an Immigrant”, where the occupation of the central character (a policeman) isn’t revealed until more than halfway through the song. The central message of the song is that almost all Americans are immigrants; it just depends how far back you go.

The album seethes with anger at the ills of modern America, the bitter lyrics underpinned by some incredible musical settings. “Carnival” is a perfect example, equating Trump with Lyndon Baines Johnson against a musical setting that evokes cabaret arrangements from 1930s Germany with sour horn fills and wah-wah guitar. It’s a perfect combination, all of the elements emphasising the madness of the present-day USA; laughing at the freakshow as a distraction from the state of the nation. It’s all perfectly summed up by the advice; ‘Just keep on sayin’ the same damn thing and don’t fuck it up.’

Bitch Heaven” is beautifully constructed, contrasting Trump with Woody Guthrie via Trump senior and his property development Beach Haven. Not only does Gerry stand the president nose-to-nose with an almost unimpeachable American musical icon, he also manages to morph the song into the Woody classic “This Land is Your Land”; it’s powerful stuff. And don’t forget the powerful, sarcastic closer “What Would Jesus Do?”, pointing the finger at the double standards and hypocrisy currently infesting Trumpton. In another penetrating insight, the title song nails the distraction technique of medicalising a perfectly natural reaction to events in today’s America.

I’d like you to do two things for me. Listen to this album on this link, and then buy a copy here. We all need to encourage people like Gerry Spehar to create masterpieces like this.

“Anger Management” is released in the UK on Friday 25 May.

 

 

The difficulty is knowing where to start here. Michael McDermott’s output over the last two years as The Westies and a solo artist has been prolific and profound. Making up for lost time; who knows? Michael’s four years clean and sober; 2016’s “Six on the Out” and “Willow Springs” made references to his lost years, while “Out from Under” tells the whole story from degradation through rehabilitation to redemption, pivoting around the album’s central song “Out from Under” and the decision to take responsibility for his life.

“Out from Under” isn’t just about the personal narrative; Michael’s been influenced by many different styles of American music and many of those influences surface on this musical journey. This is Michael’s story channelled through the American songbook. With a project this ambitious, you need a great team and it doesn’t get much better than Heather Horton on violin and vocals and Will Kimbrough on, well, anything with strings really.

The album opens with the brooding, menacing “Cal-Sag Road”; it’s about as low as you can get, a tale of drunkenness, sex and murder. It’s underpinned by Will Kimbrough’s atmospheric, ambient guitar sounds and the darkness of the arrangement mirrors the subject matter perfectly. The first half of the album runs through the ragtime resonator and banjo arrangement of “Gotta Go to Work”, the Southern boogie and “Sympathy For the Devil”-like backing vocals of “Knocked Down” to the Tom Petty-esque “Sad Songs”, depicting the malaise and lassitude of the music business. And then you hit the bottom.

“This World Will Break your Heart” is a pathos-packed series of vignettes pulling in dropouts, miscarriages and loneliness in old age. It’s the most heart-breaking song on the album and you know that things have to brighten up from here on in. And they do; It’s big, it’s anthemic and it has a hint of Springsteen. “Out from Under” is a floor-tom-driven monster of a song that’s as uplifting as anything you’ll hear this year. It’s the way forward, pointing the way for the second half of the album beginning with the idyll of “The Celtic Sea” where a sea voyage serves as a metaphor for the beginning of a redemptive relationship; it’s turbulent at first, but the crew pull together and the voyage looks set to succeed.

The three songs which follow are pure, joyous, celebration of love. “Rubber Band Ring” is a horns and Hammond Motown-style stomper, “Never Goin’ Down Again” sets a commitment to reform against a stadium rock background, while “Sideways” combines gorgeous Stax stylings with a lyrical style that leans towards Dylan or early Springsteen. And then you have the gentle acceptance of a new life in “God Help Us”.

“Out from Under” is a hugely ambitious album that follows Michael McDermott’s personal narrative and succeeds in combining an exploration of the highways and byways of American popular music with creative and poetic lyrics. I haven’t heard anything better this year.

“Out from Under” is released in the UK on Friday May 18, 2018.

Don’t take my word for it, listen to it here and then buy a copy.

Allison Russell and JT Nero are, collectively, Birds of Chicago. The press release refers to Americana and roots but, even by current standards, that’s stretching the definition. Is that a criticism of this album or Birds of Chicago? Hell, no; the truly great creatives never stand still. Birds of Chicago has evolved into a blend of deep soul, funk, roots and gorgeous melodic pop that defies classification and picks up influences from a dizzying variety of musical styles, blending it into a blissful musical confection. You are getting the message aren’t you? I love this album.

Not one single song that I want to skip and at least two that I want to listen to again and again. I think I’ll concentrate on those two. The title track is a slow, soulful ballad with a moody organ intro and superb use of the impassioned male and female vocals. The “Love in Wartime” title is a metaphor; the theme is the miracle of existence and perseverance, whatever the circumstances. It’s nearly six minutes long, but you just don’t want it to stop; every part of it is so perfect.

“Try” is just over five minutes long and the combination of perfect soulful vocal duet with a steadily building arrangement and a lyric that tackles the difficult subject of loss of motivation and vitality with age and the need to avoid complacency in our relationships and life in general. It’s powerful stuff, musically and lyrically. There is a lot more to the album than the two huge ballads; “Baton Rouge” has a lovely female lead vocal, some French lyrics (of course) and a clarinet solo appearing out of nowhere.

You want me to pick out a few more? Ok, with such a huge mix of influences, it’s pretty much inevitable that you’ll pick out a phrase now and then that evokes something else. “Never Go Back” has a feel of the Stevie Wonder classic “For Once in My Life”, while “Lodestar” evokes The Clash’s “Lost in the Supermarket”. I like to think of it as creative recycling. Don’t even try to impose categories on this album; its heady mix of vocal and instrumental styles is unique.

“Love in Wartime” is released on Friday May 4 on Signature Sounds Recordings.

Twenty songs over a double CD (well, nineteen actually, one’s a bonus download); you’re never quite sure what message that sends. The official line is that some songs work with band arrangements, some are best as solo/duo arrangements and that’s the way they’ve been split. Personally, my response to studio double albums is one of wariness; could it have been better as a single? We’ll see.

The common theme across the two albums is obvious. It’s not just Texas, but the southern states and the mentality of small-town America. The melodies are good, Jeb Barry’s voice is striking, cracking with emotion at times, but the real power is in the lyrics. He knows how to tell a story and how create a memorable phrase, a lyrical hook that’s as potent as the melodic ones. In “El Paso Sucks”, there’s a reference to the woman being ‘sideways on champagne’ while “Southern Oak” (taking the opposite tack from the marvellous “Speedtrap Town”) makes the observation that ‘hell and high water make good roots’. And let’s not forget the observation from “Miss Mississippi” that ‘drunk and stupid’s no excuse’.

The playing on the album is all in the service of the songs. You won’t find any lengthy solos or massive riffs, everything’s there to get the message of the song over, whether it’s lovely harmonies or the good old sus4 to create a Byrds/Tom Petty feel on “If This Heart Had Walls”. There’s nothing to take a strong dislike to and there are plenty of strong songs. The download-only song “Speedtrap Town” is a real standout, warning of the literal and metaphorical dangers of straying away from the highway.

And that thing about double albums? Well, I’m still not convinced. I would love to hear a single album edit of this set of songs, but I wouldn’t want to fall out about it.

“texas, etc.” is released on April 27th on Dollyrocker Records (DR-2018-01).