Of the original 2010 line-up of Little Devils, singer Yoka (who also plays some very nice sax and flute) and bass player Graeme Wheatley are still with the band, joined by later recruits Big Ray (guitar) and Sara Leigh Shaw (drums and backing vocals) to complete the 2014 version. “About Time” is a seven-track EP showcasing the band’s current material and, partly, creating a comparison with their earlier work. All of the playing is high quality throughout, but it’s Yoka’s superb voice which really sells the songs, from the uptempo belter, “The Waiter”, which appears here in two versions, the older version with harmonica and the newer version with sax, to the slow, powerful ballad, “Another Pack of Lies”.
Two tracks in, listening to “Good Times” (which evokes Springsteen’s “Spirit in the Night”), you could be forgiven for thinking that this EP would be full of fast blues/rock party songs with powerful vocals but the third track, “Hang my Head” disproves that theory both musically and lyrically. It’s a slow/mid-tempo relationship song with clean guitar arpeggios, a nice sax solo, and a lead vocal which proves that Yoka is much more than a blues shouter. “No Love Lost” is mid-tempo and funky with a flute solo to add a slightly different texture.
“Walking Disaster” brought back memories of Marianne Faithfull’s “Why’d Ya Do It?” from her classic album “Broken English”. It covers the same lyrical territory, but Yoka’s vocal on this track also captures the same cracked intensity as Faithfull’s vocal. “Another Pack of Lies” is a standout track, a slow song which builds from a quiet intro to a big finish with perfect vocal harmonies. The song’s theme is social injustice and exploitation viewed from various perspectives and it works perfectly as a contrast to songs like “Good Times”. The EP finishes with the earlier version of “The Waiter” and I’m not sure if it’s a valuable addition or not; decide for yourself.
I’m pretty sure that the “About Time” EP (with its very clever retro seven-inch packaging) is intended as a showcase for Little Devils; if that’s the aim, then it’s a success. The songs here cover a broad spectrum from slow-tempo social comment to uptempo fun and the addition of Yoka’s saxophone and flute creates new textures and possibilities for the band. This is a thoroughly accomplished piece of work from a studio band but, on the strength of this, I can’t wait to see them live.
Released February 20, 2014.
Serbian singer Yoya Wolf (Jovana Vujnovic) was one of the artists who contributed to the Radio (in my) Head tribute/covers album in 2013 with a grungy cover of “Wolf at the Door” and it’s obvious from her interpretation that she’s a very gifted singer with a wide dynamic range. The musicians accompanying Yoya on this single are: Miladin Stojkovic (Bass/double bass); Mladen Pecovic (guitars); Goran German (keyboards); Marko J. Kon and Ivan Bamby Mirkovic drum programming) and Dajana Ivin (backing vocals). “Open your Heart” is the first original release on Bandhouse Records and, as debut singles go, it’s a corker.
The song opens with some echoing piano chords sketching out a trip-hop feel followed by Yoya Wolf’s breathy, delicate vocal and a bass riff resembling Melle Mel’s “White Lines” and pauses for a beat before slamming into a “wall of sound” chorus with bass guitar and keyboards cranked up to eleven (at least). The use of this dynamic pattern is repeated through the song with quiet sections (verses or breakdowns) leading into huge choruses before fading out on the sound of a heartbeat. The playing is superb throughout and the constantly changing settings of the verse and breakdown are always resolved in the power of the chorus. This is a twenty-first century love song (hence the Valentine’s Day release) but lyrically, you won’t find any mooning and juning here because this is dark and maybe a bit obsessive; it’s a proper song for grown-ups.
“Open your Heart” is a very good song and the playing is spot-on but the crucial element is Yoya Wolf’s voice; she covers a huge dynamic range and nothing ever sounds forced. After hearing a couple of her songs, I really want to hear more; we’ll keep you posted on how you can hear more as well.
Just before publication of this review, we had the opportunity to ask her about the difference between recording covers and her own material. Here’s what she had to say:
“When you’re doing covers, you are trying to blend into style and personality of the song you’re covering as well as the artist. That way you experiment with various types and genres, which gives you wide array of possibilities. When singing your own song, you use on subconscious level all that knowledge, but you don’t consciously think about it; you let the words, music and feelings guide you. Singing from the heart is what gives you that special something.”
“Open your Heart” is now available to download here.
You might have heard of Ags Connolly if you’re a MusicRiot regular; he’s had a few mentions here and he’s been quietly collecting followers and impressing critics for a while now. His debut album, “How About Now”, features strong, sometimes very personal, songs, sympathetic playing and arrangements and powerful plaintive, vocals. I’m sticking with the catch-all term “country” to describe these songs, although Ags prefers “Ameripolitan”, and the roots are much more in fifties and sixties country (or the later” outlaw country”) than in anything you’ll hear on the country charts today. The overall sound of the album (produced by Drumfire recording artist Dean Owens), certainly reflects these influences. It’s not the squeaky clean country-pop of Taylor Swift or Kacey Musgraves and the raw lyrical references are reflected in the arrangements and the playing.
The musicians recruited for the album are all first-class players. In addition to Ags (acoustic guitar and vocals), they are: Stuart Nisbet (electric guitars, pedal steel, mandolin and vocals), Kev Mcguire (stand-up bass), Jim McDermott (drums), Andy May (keyboards), Roddy Neilson (fiddle) and Dean Owens (vocals and acoustic guitar). I’m a big fan of rehearsing a band to performance level before recording live in the studio to get a very cohesive and immediate feel. It’s not for everyone but, with good musicians, it can work really well; it certainly has on “How About Now”. Virtually everything was recorded live with only a few overdubs of mandolin and piano and, incredibly, the title track, with its minimal arrangement and pleading, emotive vocal, was recorded in one take. Now, that’s impressive.
The album opens with the straightforward honky-tonk of “When Country Was Proud”, listing some of Ags’ influences (mainly early-period Johnny Paycheck) and lamenting the position of country music in the media today before moving into the melancholy reminiscence of “Good Memory For Pain”, featuring understated backing vocals and some nice fiddle. “That’s The Last Time”, with its stripped-back production, is the first of a set of damaged or broken relationship songs including the slower “Get Out Of My Mind”, the rockabilly feel of “The Dim And Distant Past” and the slower “She Doesn’t Need me Anymore”, which emphasises Ags’ vocal range.
The album is particularly successful when Ags takes traditional country lyrical themes and gives them a modern English twist. “I Hoped She Wouldn’t Be Here” takes the “best friend’s girl” theme and sets it in a group of friends in a local pub, while “I’m Not Someone You Want To Know” locates the hard-drinking, morose loner looking back at better times in an English pub. “Trusty Companion” is a surprisingly uptempo take on the quest for a soul-mate while the mid-tempo “I Saw James Hand” is a very personal fan letter to one of Ags’ more contemporary influences.
This album is a very British version of the type of country music played before the advent of the clean, more poppy Nashville sound. You’ll hear a lot of nice clean guitar and pedal steel licks here, but there is a raw edge to the production as well. “I Saw James Hand” features some Hammond and a distorted guitar solo, while “She Doesn’t Need Anyone Anymore” even has some controlled guitar feedback. The sequencing of the album is perfect, opening with the lively, backward-looking “When Country Was Proud”, working through poignant and nostalgic to finish on four very personal songs set in the present including the beautiful closer “How About Now”; surely that song has to get a single release.
It’s easy to do this kind of music very predictably but Ags Connolly, Dean Owens and a very gifted band have produced an engaging and ultimately uplifting album which looks back to a time when country was less polished musically and lyrically while placing it in a very British setting. Top album and great artwork as well.
Release date February 24 on Drumfire Records (DRMFR017).
How about that? Less than a month into 2014 and I’ve just heard my first great album of the year; it’s by Brothers Groove, it’s their debut and it’s called “Play the Game”. So what’s so great about this album then? All of the songs are well-crafted, but the quality of the playing and the vocals push it way beyond run-of-the-mill British blues. If you want to see how the band describe their influences, you can look at their website, but it’s only going to tell you part of the story; you can list the influences (and you can hear them from the first play), but the craft lies in the way those elements are blended together subtly and tastefully.
The beating heart of Brothers Groove is the interplay between Shaun Hill (guitar, vocals and main lyricist), Nigel Mellor (guitar and vocals) and Deano (bass and vocals). On this album, they’re helped out by Wayne Proctor (drums and production), Bob Fridzema (keyboards), Bennett Holland (piano) and Sam Weeks (backing vocals), but the creative focus of the band is definitely the interplay between guitars and bass.
The band move effortlessly between the crisp funk of “Play the Game (Save your Soul)”, “What’s the Deal” and “Understand Me” (which wouldn’t sound out of place on either of Donald Fagen’s first two solo albums) and the slow, brooding blues of “Treat ‘em Mean”, “Another Girl” and “Will I See you There?” And there’s the jazz-funk of “My Guitar” (a love song about a guitar), the psychedelic feel of “Never Gonna Happen”, the shuffle groove of “Duty Calls” and the soulful “Easy Found Love”, held together by some tasteful Hammond chords and featuring a typically understated wah-wah guitar solo.
This is an album that doesn’t rely on big production techniques or guitar pyrotechnics to get the message over; it’s all about superb technical playing where the two guitars mesh perfectly in a way I haven’t heard since listening to Onnie McIntyre and Hamish Stuart of the Average White Band. The resemblance doesn’t end there, either; the lead vocal sounds uncannily like Alan Gorrie at times and I’m definitely not saying that’s a bad thing. Brothers Groove as players are so good that they make intricate inter-woven arrangements sound incredibly simple; they aren’t, it’s down to ability and dedication. They have the confidence to play without pushing everything to the limit; the quality of the songs and the individual players’ techniques ensure that nothing sounds forced, from the opening guitar riff of the title track to ripple of Fender Rhodes at the end of “Will I see you there?”. To complete the picture, lead and backing vocals are spot on throughout; I can’t find anything to dislike about this album.
The members of the band have obvious influences, but these are woven into the pattern so cleverly that they create something that’s fresh and contemporary. Imagine Steely Dan without the snarky sarcasm or the Average White band without the horns and you’re pretty much there.
Out now on Shabby Toad Records (BRGROOV1). Distributed by Cadiz Digital.
I’ve been hearing a lot about Rosco Levee over the last six months, so I was pretty chuffed when this review copy arrived a few weeks ago. “Get it while you can” is the second album from Rosco Levee and the Southern Slide, following 2012’s “Final Approach to Home”. Coming straight out of the heart of the Medway Delta, Rosco, with Andy Hayes (guitars), David Tettmar (drums), Simon Gardiner (bass) and Lee Wilson (keyboards) play a joyous blend of blues, rock and country with a healthy dose of 1970s southern American rock, but more about that later.
If you want great blues and blues/rock guitar players we seem to have dozens of them at the moment (here and across the pond) but, personally, I’m really fed up of hearing about the new Clapton, the keeper of the faith and the guardian of the flame. There’s no denying that Rosco Levee is influenced by the Allman Brothers and the Rolling Stones (and a few more), but there’s such variety on this album that it stands way above the work of the purists and the one-trick ponies. More importantly, it sounds like the musicians are having a great time.
Before getting really stuck in to this one, I have to say that, on the first listen, I wasn’t too keen on Rosco’s vocals; maybe it was too early in the day. There’s a lesson here; never review anything that you’ve only listened to once because you’ve almost certainly missed something. After a few more plays, the lead vocals became original and distinctive with a hint of Freddie Mercury on early Queen albums or perhaps Squeeze singer Glenn Tilbrook.
So the album starts the way great albums do, with a statement of intent in the blistering “Some Angels Fall”, which throws in everything from a big dirty guitar intro to a huge chorus with a horn section and a couple of kitchen sinks thrown in for good measure. The next two songs are similarly uptempo, the shuffle beat, keyboard-driven “Gambling Man” followed by “Howitzer Eyes”, powered by a bass riff and twin lead guitars before the first hint of a change of tempo.
The next three songs feature Rosco’s acoustic guitar work, “Back to the Banks” adds a bit of piano and has a strong feel of the Stones’ “You Can’t Always get what you want”, “Whiskey Blues Goodnight” starts with acoustic slide and builds into a blues stomper while “My Gospel” has a strong feel of Rory Gallagher’s acoustic sets; the structure of the song’s very simple and it relies on great guitar and vocal performances.
“When the Band Starts to Play” is a slow blues with an impassioned vocal building up to a huge finish with loads of backing vocals, while “I Got my Own Plan” is pure swamp rock. The final three songs, “Redemption Calls”, “Look Out Moses” and “Southern Belle” run through country, spaghetti western themes, Mexican brass arrangements, call and response, tempo changes and varied dynamics.
This album quite clearly displays its influences, but it never feels derivative. The arrangements are hugely varied, from vocal and acoustic guitar to full band with keyboards and horn section, and it all works. It was even recorded direct to analogue tape in the studio by a bunch of people who just want to make great music. So what’s not to like?
Released January 27 2014 on Red Train Records UK (Cat 427002).
As you can see from the star rating at the top of the page, I have some problems with this album. The problems aren’t with the quality of the performances because, predictably, those are all very good, particularly Saiichi Sugiyama and the singer Rietta Austin, who are both superb throughout. The problems I have are about why the album was ever released, and if it’s actually an album in any real sense. It’s only seven songs long and four of those songs have appeared (in different versions) on earlier studio albums, while the remaining three are third-generation (at least) covers of blues standards.
The story behind the album is that “The Smokehouse Sessions” started out as a demo video project which was recorded live in the studio. I’m totally supportive of bands who rehearse a full album’s worth of material before recording live; it brings an immediacy that it’s difficult to replicate with multi-track techniques (although I might make an exception for Henrik Freischlader). That wasn’t what happened here; someone listened to the final mixes of the project and decided that this was worthy of release as an album.
I’ve tried listening to this on a couple of reasonably decent audio systems and I still have to say that the rhythm section sounds really murky. To make the problem even worse, this is most noticeable on “Somewhere down the Road”, the first track on the album; it’s really difficult to recover from that kind of start. I appreciate that, in the current situation in the music industry, it’s crucial to make the most of every opportunity, but I really don’t believe this deserves to be a full album release. As I said earlier, this is no criticism of the performances, particularly those of Saiichi Sugiyama and Rietta Austin. If these seven tracks were released as part of a limited edition disc, it might be justifiable, but this just isn’t on.
If you want to really appreciate Saiichi Sugiyama, then listen to the studio albums, “Saiichi Sugiyama”, “So Am I” or “Saiichi”. Even better, you could go along to a live show and see what he can really do. This might be one for the committed or the late 60s/early 70s blues revivalists, but I don’t think it’s going to win any new fans.
Release date 27/01/14 on Cedar Mountain Music (CMM 25-5762).
We asked one of our favourite singer-songwriters, Dean Owens, what he was looking forward to hearing (or reading or seeing) in 2014, and he came up with some very interesting recommendations for us. Dean’s comments are in bold type.
First on the list was the new Joel and Ethan Coen film, “Inside Llewyn Davies”. It’s the story of a folk singer trying to get a break in the Greenwich Village folk scene in 1961 and features contributions from the Coens’ long-term collaborator, T-Bone Burnett and also Marcus Mumford. As Dean says: I love the period in New York history it’s set in and I like pretty much like everything the Coen Brothers have done.
Next up was the new novel, “The Free”, by author (and singer and songwriter with alt-country band, Richmond Fontaine), Willy Vlautin. This, his fourth novel, is the story of the intersecting lives of three people looking for meaning in difficult social circumstances. Over to you, Dean: The new Willy Vlautin book should be good. He’s a great writer. I’m guessing there may be a new Richmond Fontaine album on the horizon too.
Very curious to hear the lost Johnny Cash album, “Out among the Stars”. Should be some gems on that.” The twelve tracks on the album were recorded in 1981 and 1984 and have been in the Columbia vaults ever since; they aren’t demos out-takes or alternative versions, they’re the real deal and they include duets with June Carter Cash. They were uncovered by Legacy Recordings and John Carter Cash.
I’m very much looking forward to seeing the first album I’ve produced for another artist being released; it’s by Ags Connolly, it’s called “How About Now” and it’s out in February on Drumfire Records. In November, we reviewed a great gig by Dean and Ags and we’ll be reviewing the album as soon as I can get my hands on a copy.
Deer Lake (who I sing with) should be releasing our debut album this year. I’m excited about that. We’ll also be doing a lot more live work this year. Dean’s been singing with Deer Lake for some time now, alongside former Annie Christian frontman, Larry Lean and the album will be out some this year. We’ll keep you posted.
I’ve got a few solo projects up my sleeve this year. Be great to get a new record out and do some touring. So, it looks like Dean’s got a pretty busy year ahead of him in 2014, both solo and with Deer Lake. We’ll be trying to keep up with him.
You certainly can’t accuse Henrik Freischlader of taking time out in 2013. After the release of the superb “House in the Woods” in September 2012, he took his band on tour over the winter to support the album. When that tour finished he went to live in the studio for a few months to produce his four-CD live album, play virtually all the instruments on, and produce Layla Zoe’s album “The Lily”. After that, he went on to record this album, “Night Train to Budapest” which was released in December 2013; he did some shows to promote this album as well. Henrik is self-taught and plays guitar, bass, drums and organ; he also has a great blues/soul voice and writes powerful songs in a second language.
Following the “live band” approach he adopted for his previous studio album, “House in the Woods”, Henrik has reverted to his favoured studio approach with “Night Train to Budapest”, playing all the parts himself with the exception of keyboards which are played by his live collaborator Moritz Fuhrhop. The album begins in the way you would expect, with “Point of View”’s blistering riff and powerhouse solo before shifting through a wide variety of blues-rock stylings and even a ballad, the acoustic-led “Caroline”, which would sound at home on a 70s American west coast album, although it really didn’t need the trucker’s gear change for the last chorus.
There are a few funky blues tunes, “Gimme All you Got” and “A Better Man” (which has more than a touch of Ike and Tina’s “Nutbush City Limits”), the mid-tempo riff-driven “Down the Road”, “Everything is Gone” and “Shame” and the reggae-tingedf “If This Ain’t Love” with its clean chords and over-driven lead guitar.
There are a couple of slow blues songs which demonstrate the control and finesse of Henrik’s vocals and playing. “Thinking About You” is a relationship breakdown song with washes of controlled feedback as the song builds to a climax, while “My Woman” is very slow with a minimal arrangement held together by Moritz Fuhrhop’s Hammond chords, leaving plenty of space to emphasise Henrik’s powerful, clean guitar work. The album closes with the slow, brooding (almost one-chord) menace of “Your Loving was so Good” after just over an hour and eleven very good songs.
It’s a very good album, but that’s what you would expect from a Henrik Freischlader studio effort. His songwriting seems to be taking a more introspective direction over the last two studio albums, with an increased emphasis on loss and loneliness in the lyrics, but it is the blues after all. If you like blues and blues/rock, then I’m pretty certain you’ll like this. If you don’t like those styles, it’s still worth a listen because of the quality of the performances and the songwriting.
Out now on Cable Car Records (CCR 0311-42).
Ok, here’s one that we missed in the pre-Christmas rush but we got there eventually. The Exploding Boy is a darkwave alt-indie band from Stockholm which takes its name from a Cure song and the members are Stefan (vocals/electric guitar), Johan (vocals/acoustic guitar), Nick (keyboards) and Les (lead guitar). Just a quick look at the titles on the album, “Four”, tells you all you need to know about the mood and lyrical content (“Going to Hell”, “Dark City Pt.II”, “Shadows”, “Awful” and “Scared to Death”) but there’s a lot more to it than that. The band takes a lot of inspiration from the late 70s/early 80s post-punk era, with some later Goth elements thrown in. The opening song, “Cracked/Reasons”, sets the tone for the rest of the album with an over-driven guitar riff, huge drums and thunderous bass with some keyboard to add texture. To counteract the dark arrangements and lyrics, however, there are some great melodies, particularly in the choruses.
Most of the influences seem to come from the period when post-punk was at its darkest; you can hear elements of Joy Division, Psychedelic Furs, B Movie and possibly even “White Wedding”-era Billy Idol. The way the keyboards are used reflects this, adding to the overall textures rather than featuring as lead instruments as they did when post-punk morphed into the New Romantic movement.
There’s plenty to like on “Four”; the arrangements are exciting and there’s plenty of contrast between the strong melodies and the dark lyrics dealing with death, darkness and alienation throughout the album. Overall, the album works for me, with a couple of reservations. A couple of songs feel a little raw with arrangements which seem to fall apart rather than finish and some of the lead vocals are a little strained at times. “Four” isn’t perfect, but it’s full of great ideas. Crank it up to 11 and enjoy it.
Out now on Artoffact Records/Drakkar/Sony.