The Warden ScrollerWell, there’s a lot to like about this album, particularly the backwards look at outlaw country. These are the kind of songs you would hear in the country bar that Jake and Elwood stumbled into. There songs about drinking, songs about cars, songs about drinking, songs about guns, songs about drinking; you get the picture. The repeated line from “Our Town”, ‘Miller Lites and shots and fights’ just about sums it up and it’s great fun. The Warden is Ward Richmond, a fixture on the Dallas scene for years as a bass player, songwriter and manager and this is his debut solo album.

The songs are mainly autobiographical, stories about youth, irresponsibility, life on the road and even relationships. The musical stylings are mainly in the area between country and rock ‘n’ roll; the honky-tonk style that’s hard and fast and loud because that’s the way you needed to play to get the crowd’s attention in a honky-tonk. For most of the album, you wouldn’t accuse anyone of underplaying, particularly on “High Life”, which is delivered at breakneck speed with some great honky-tonk piano.

The notable exceptions to this rule are the mid-tempo duet with Madison King, “Bullets”, featuring some lovely pedal steel from Burton Lee and the album’s closer, “Dark Clouds”, built around acoustic guitar and pedal steel. For most of the rest of the album, it’s mainly about turning everything up to 11 and throwing in guitar, piano and horns to create a glorious noise; listen to “Sun Goes Down” and you’ll see what I mean.

The album’s a lot of raucous good fun but I’m not sure that Ward’s intention of making the lyrical message stronger by tonking up the music really works; I suspect that the good-time arrangements might actually detract from the lyrical message. My other reservation is that Ward’s voice is ok, but a stronger voice might put the songs over a bit more effectively. It’s an interesting listen, and I think the songs with the full band would make a great live show, but I’ll leave the finally summary to the studio talkback at the end of the lively “Sun Goes Down”: ‘What it lacks in proficiency and accuracy is surely duly matched in sheer moxie’.

The Warden” is out now on Idol Records (IR123).

Shaky Path to ArcadiaEvery time I hear some delusional, no-talent wannabe on a TV talent show (not often, I admit) it should make me despair for music in the twenty-first century. The reason it doesn’t is that I know about people like Phil Burdett, a genuine visionary who’s about as far as it’s possible to get from the epicentre of what masquerades as the music business today. When I interviewed Phil about eighteen months ago in downtown Leigh-on-Sea, he told me that he was working an album to follow “Dunfearing and the West Country High” as the second part of the “Secular Mystic Trilogy”. Not only that but he was also working on another trilogy of that would begin with “Humble Ardour Refrains”. So, on a budget of threepence-halfpenny and some lollipop sticks, he’s recorded two albums for Drumfire Records with some fabulous musicians from the Southend and Canvey area (more about the musicians later) and he’s releasing both of them at the same time.

“Shaky Path to Arcadia” carries on where its predecessor left off, looking west towards the USA from Cornwall, but it’s a metaphorical and musical destination and it’s not the only direction the album goes in, geographically or temporally, before returning to Cornwall to complete the cycle. Without slipping in to ‘sixth-form-literary-criticism’ mode, I’m going to say that there’s a lot going on lyrically and the deeper you dig, the more precious stones you’ll unearth. The lyrics are strewn with references to American music and culture; there’s no mistaking the reference point for “Christmas in Casablanca”, but elsewhere there are references to Joe Hill, Billie Holiday, Dylan, Little Richard and many, many more. There are Dadaist references, travel references (trains, boats and buses and almost a plane) and if you look really closely, a lot of references to Basildon. There’s a lot of autobiography in there, but you need to know where and how to look.

Even without the lyrical content, you could listen to the album and be enthralled by Phil’s rich, powerful vocals and the performances of the band over a wide range of styles. From the mainly acoustic opening song, “Returning to Earth” to the counterpoint vocals in the coda of the album’s closer “I Dreamed I Saw Carl Wilson Last Night”, the band sounds superb. It’s ensemble playing at its finest; particularly on “Hellbound & Innocent” where a melodic bass line from Russ Strothard, an insanely catchy clipped John Bennett guitar hook and Jack Corder’s drums recreate the clickety-clack of the train on the track to perfection. Dee Hunter’s piano is the perfect foil for Phil’s voice on the haunting “Christmas in Casablanca” while Steve Stott’s fiddle on “Come Out Without a Hat (It’s Bound to Rain)” and “New Greyhound Rag” give an authentic country/bluegrass feel to the songs. And let’s not forget Colleen McCarthy’s lovely backing vocals and producer Mark Elliott’s esoteric samples.

“Shaky Path to Arcadia” is an example of how good an album can be when it’s put together by people who love what they do and they do it very, very well. Put the players together with another superb set of songs from the polymath poet of Westcliff-on-Sea and you’ve got a very fine album indeed. Any proper record collection should have some Phil Burdett in it and this is as good a place as any to start. “Humble Ardour Refrains” coming soon.

“Shaky Path to Arcadia” and “Humble Ardour Refrains” are both available to pre-order now from Drumfire Records.

Rod PicottAfter reviewing Rod Picott’s seventh album, “Fortune”, I discovered that he was playing Green Note as part of the run-up to his Celtic Connections show with Kimmie Rhodes on January 25th. It was late notice, and the gig was sold out, but somehow I just managed to squeeze in and I’m really pleased that I did. I have a huge admiration for these artists, like Rod Picott, who travel from town to town and bare their souls on stage with only a guitar for protection. I particularly admire American artists who tour this way in the UK, where it’s sometimes impossible to tell if the audience like you or not.

Slipping on to the stage unannounced, he set out the plan of action for the night; a bunch of songs from “Fortune” to open up with, then some older songs and maybe a few requests. He had a setlist prepared, but there was a suspicion that it wasn’t set in stone; it wasn’t. After the opening “Maybe That’s What it Takes” and “Elbow Grease”, it was obvious that the set would unfold in its own way regardless of any planning.

Rod’s economical (sometimes laconic) lyrical style and his powerfully emotional vocals work perfectly in this room, but his secret weapon is his engaging and self-deprecating manner as he spins out anecdotes between songs. Some are amusing, some are laugh-out-loud and some are poetic (he sums up perfectly the elemental nature of Howling Wolf with the words ‘he looks like he’s the weather’), but they all help to create an intimacy between the audience and performer.

There are no half measures with Rod Picott; his songs are intense and he gives full value when he delivers them live, veins bulging and sinews straining as he wrings the maximum emotion out of each song. It’s sometimes hard to reconcile the laid-back raconteur and impassioned troubadour, but he makes the contrast work for him, gradually building a rapport with a fairly reserved Green Note audience.

There’s a selection of material from right across Rod’s career and the highlights include the rocking “65 Falcon”, “410”, “Welding Burns” and “Mobile Home” (which includes a Bowie reference in the lyrics). From the new album, the menacing “Uncle John” stands out alongside “Until I’m Satisfied”, which prompts a confession that the chord progression it’s based on is the same as the Eddie Cooley and Otis Blackwell classic, “Fever”. Each song is a perfect little story of blue collar delivered with power and passion; you can’t really ask for more than that.

Chris WalkerSo; first gig of the year and let’s see what’s changed and what hasn’t. Well, the problems with transport haven’t changed; because of engineering work and a late start by the headliners, Southbound, I only caught the first three songs of what was shaping up to be a storming set of funky Southern rock and boogie. Sorry guys, I’ll make up for it next time. The other thing that hasn’t changed is people talking over artists at gigs. Why do you pay to see bands, completely ignore them and spend all night having your own conversations? I could ask why the sound engineer doesn’t bump the volume up a bit as well.

So with two acoustic singer-songwriters as the first acts on stage, things didn’t look too good. Hannah Jackson coped pretty well, mainly because of her incredibly powerful voice with jazz and soul inflexions, playing a set which combined her own songs with some covers, including a great version of The Killers’ “All these Things that I‘ve Done” and the Johnny Cash classic, “Folsom Prison Blues”. I think we might hear more from Hannah. Second up, Saraswati, wasn’t quite so lucky. Her delicate songs, including her debut single “Bad Habits”, and her delicate, breathy voice (maybe a hint of Sade there) were all but drowned out by the braying crowd. At times like this, I’m grateful we have strict gun laws.

No such problems for The Likks, though. Their brand of noisy riff-based rock, funky melodic basslines (a hint of The Black Crowes) and Jordan Jay Kennedy’s big voice didn’t stop the talking, but it made it really difficult to carry on a conversation. Within each song there were tempo changes and rhythmic shifts which added variety but also a bit of disorientation. You certainly didn’t know what was coming next; raw but interesting. And so, on to the reason I was out in south-west London on a freezing winter night.

It’s been a bit of a turbulent year for Little Devils (“The Storm Inside”, indeed); following a cabinet reshuffle, they now have a new singer and guitar player, Magda Supel and Chris Walker respectively. I never need an excuse to go and watch Little Devils, but I particularly wanted to see how the new line-up was gelling. It’s all good news; despite having limited time to rework the songs for the Devils Nouveaux, the band sounded great. The rhythm section of Sara and Graeme powered the band along while Magda sung with soul and power (despite being really ill) and Chris looked and sounded like he was having the time of his life; he’s a quality guitar player. They powered through a half-hour set that included Devils favourites “Pay the Waiter”, “My Perfect You”, “Good Times” and Graeme’s growled version of “A Long Time Ago”. The newest diabolical incarnation sounds absolutely fine to me.

And, apart from a few songs from Southbound, that was the end of my first gig of the year. Four stars for the performers, one star for most of the audience.

 

MollieThis review’s going to be different from most of the things you’ll read about Mollie Marriott’s album “Truth is a Wolf” in one important way; I won’t be saying anything about Mollie’s musical heritage. You can read about that elsewhere, and I want to focus on Mollie and the superb team she’s created to deliver her musical vision. As a songwriter and singer she deserves to be judged on her own merits (and on the merits of her writing and performing partners) as she releases her debut solo album. The band deserves a special mention here as well. This isn’t an album put together by a bunch of studio hacks; Johnson-Jay Medwik-Daley (guitar), Sam Tanner (keyboards), Henrik Irgens (bass), Alex Reeves (drums) and Izzy Chase-Phillmore (backing vocals) are Mollie’s live band (in various acoustic and electric permutations)and Sam and Johnson collaborate on songwriting as well. In a live setting, it’s obvious that they’re all great players, but equally obvious that they love working together and they’re good mates.

The other songwriting collaborators include Judie Tzuke, Graham Kearns and Jim Stapley (one of the best voices in rock at the moment) and to add little spice, there are a couple of non-originals; a storming version of World Party’s “Ship of Fools” (Mollie’s first single, released last year) and the title track, written by Gary Nicholson and Bonnie Hayes. Mollie’s channelled a lot of heartbreak through these songs, including the opener “Broken” which deals with a failing relationship, and “Love your Bones” about the death of a good friend, but it’s ultimately a hugely uplifting album, despite the serious themes. So, how does that happen?

There are a couple of reasons; one is Mollie’s huge voice and the other is the incredibly good band. Let’s start with the band. The rhythm section does exactly what it says on the tin (there’s even a few melodic bass riffs thrown in)and creates a platform for the interwoven guitar and keyboard arrangements, which are all beautifully played without ever straying into muso ‘look at me’ territory. The second single, “Transformer” is driven along by Johnson’s infuriatingly catchy, over-driven earworm of a guitar riff while Sam’s smoky keyboard riff is the impetus behind “Truth is a Wolf”. And then there’s Izzy, also a great singer, whose voice works perfectly alongside the lead vocal.

And Mollie’s voice? Well, what can I say? She can do the pop singer thing, hitting all the right notes and sounding crystal clear and that might be enough for a lot of people, but there’s another dimension. When she goes up through the gears, she finds a raw emotional edge that only the best soul and rock singers have, and she can move seamlessly between these styles.

In putting the album together, Mollie’s written about a lot of painful episodes, but she’s managed to create a superb, powerful album from those episodes. This is an incredibly assured debut album packed with personal, well-crafted songs and technically perfect but often under-stated instrumental performances. This sounds like Mollie’s breakthrough.

Oh, and just one more thing, go and see the band live if you get the chance; you won’t regret it.

“Truth is A Wolf” is out in February 2016 on MITA Records.

Rod Picott - 'Fortune' - cover (300dpi)I think we need to introduce a new way of evaluating Country and Americana albums. The five star system’s all very well but I think we need another measure. I’m thinking of something like the Kimbrough Count; if Will Kimbrough plays on the album then it’s worth listening to. It certainly worked last year with his appearances on albums by Dean Owens and Sam Lewis, and he shows up again here on Rod Picott’s seventh album “Fortune”, but this is a very different proposition to the albums by either of those artists.

Rod Picott’s songs are intensely personal, zooming in on the lives of ordinary people (Rod included) and everyday events, and delivered in a gruff baritone that often sounds on the point of cracking, but never actually does. More often than not, he performs with just his own acoustic guitar for backing, but, on “Fortune”, he’s added a smattering of musicians including Will Kimbrough and Neilson Hubbard to create a sound that’s still sparse, stark and sometimes downright menacing and intimidating. It’s still a fairly minimal soundscape but it reinforces the powerful lyrics which are poetic but never overblown.

Uncle John” is slightly untypical in that it deals mainly with family and society rather than personal matters, but the instrumentation is unsettling with detuned guitar, clipped notes, harmonics, heavy reverb and a sound somewhere between Dick Dale and Link Wray all underpinning a story of an outsider woodsman who pays the ultimate price for stepping outside society. The two lines ‘Drinks his beer from a can cause bottles break, Nine fingers from one mistake’ paint a graphic and economic picture of the lifestyle and its dangers, while the closing lines (along with the chorus) imply his death without actually making the statement.

The themes of the songs are mainly personal (although “Jeremiah” is written from the point of view of a woman hearing about the death of a soldier she loved), but it’s the moments when Rod steps back from dealing with raw emotion to singing about more general themes, particularly “Uncle John” and the moodily magnificent “Drunken Barber’s Hand” that the album really starts to soar. The album’s full of powerful, gut-wrenching songs that evoke the spirit of heartland America with imagery and playing that are equally powerful and simple. 2016’s looking good already.

“Fortune” is released in the UK on Friday January 15th on Welding Rod Records.

Jane Kramer - 'Carnival of Hopes' - cover (300dpi)I’ve got this feeling about 2016; any year that starts with an album as beautiful as Jane Kramer’s “Carnival of Hopes” can’t really go wrong. This is a stunningly good album where every detail is right; the arrangements are varied, the melodies are powerful and Jane’s vocal delivery moves effortlessly from pure and clear to cracking with emotion. As for the songs, they’re raw, honest, self-deprecating and poetic, as Jane explains: ‘“Good Woman” is the song you write when your lover kicks you out of the house and you’re half drunk on cheap box wine in a crappy motel room staring at yourself in the mirror under the fluorescent bathroom light, you can’t help but be honest then.’

The album’s two centrepieces, “Good Woman” and “Carnival of Hopes” are its two longest songs; they’re not long because of any self-indulgence, but because that’s how long they need to be to tell the story. Both titles are deliberately misleading; the opening line of the first is “I’m not a good woman” (we might disagree on that) and the second is about a “busted carnival of hopes”. Throughout the album, Jane Kramer uses a lyrical sleight of hand to almost constantly portray herself in a self-deprecatory and even self-denigrating light. The opener “Halfway Gone” sets the tone with the line ‘I walk like a Clydesdale horse – I cuss and carry on’ and the album’s lyrics continue in the same vein until “Truth Tellin’ Lies” and “My Dusty Wings” finally suggest an attempt at redemption and renewal.

The Appalachian instrumentation of banjo and fiddle features strongly on the album along with Dobro, but the stylings vary immensely across the album from a stripped-back version of Tom Petty’s “Down South” with multi-tracked harmonies and a Celtic feel, to the New Orleans horns meets Rickie Lee Jones vibe of “Why’d I Do That Blues” with its trumpet and trombone solos (you could sell it to me on a good trombone solo alone).

The narrative of the album is one of moving forward, starting with lows and moving steadily along to the positive ending, taking in images of frontier life along the way with animals, fishing, maps, engines (and of course drinking) acting as metaphors throughout the superbly crafted and intensely personal lyrics. It may sound laid-back and almost casual at times, but these are the songs of a very gifted and honest writer.

“Carnival of Hopes” isn’t just a great Americana album, it’s a great album where the quality of the songwriting and performance transcend any concept of genre.

Available now at CD Baby.

NightlifeOK, so just to save a bit of time, we all know about Eddie Manion, yeah? Whaddya mean, no? Where have you been for the last forty years? You really should get out more. If you want the whole nine yards, check out his Wikipedia entry, but, just for the moment, his first major gig was with Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, and since then he’s played with Dion, Dave Edmunds, Diana Ross, The Allman Brothers, Willy De Ville, Keith Richards and Bob Dylan and many, many more. He was part of the E Street Band for Bruce Springsteen’s “Wrecking Ball” tour and, more recently, he’s been touring Europe with the Light of Day Foundation raising money for Parkinson’s Disease research. His motto is ‘Have Sax, Will Travel’.

Eddie Manion plays tenor and baritone sax (mainly baritone when working as part of a horn section) as well as having a pretty good voice, which you can hear on his first solo album, “Follow Through”, released in 2004. At the end of the gargantuan “Wrecking Ball” tour, Eddie started work on his second solo album “Nightlife”, opting this time for instrumental interpretations of standards and not-quite-so-standards, rather than his own compositions. It’s a double-edged sword. Both ways you’re going to be judged; one way you’re compared with others’ songwriting, the other way you’re compared with previous versions of the same songs. So how does “Nightlife” shape up?

I guess it’s natural for anyone who’s spent their entire adult life as a professional musician to want to do their own thing once in a while. Eddie Manion’s spent a lot of time playing in horn sections in big bands where nuance isn’t always too high on the agenda, so when the window of opportunity opened, he pulled together a superb bunch of musicians to make an album placing his sax playing firmly stage centre against a backdrop that allows him to interpret songs with style and subtlety. From the album’s opener, a gorgeous version of the theme from the 1961 movie “Town Without Pity”, with its piano triplets and wah-wah trumpet, to the closer “”The Only One, from Roy Orbison’s final album, the album demonstrates Eddie’s ability to create flawless interpretations of jazz standards such as “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and “Stardust” whilst also combining Springsteen’s “City of Night” in a medley with King Curtis’s “Soul Serenade”.

Throughout “Nightlife”, Eddie Manion combines a jazz-styled finesse with a rawer rock edge to create a satisfying and varied set of instrumentals that embody great musicianship and sympathetic arrangements. If you value musical skill and the ability to pick a good tune, then you’ll love this; Eddie’s a superb player and he’s surrounded himself with like minds to produce a real musician’s album. As an added bonus, Eddie’s also a very good photographer and the CD packaging includes some of his own fabulous photos taken mainly on the “Wrecking Ball” tour; it’s the icing on the cake of a lovely album.

You can order it here.

 

Phil PenmanPhil Penman is the MD of the independent label, Drumfire Records, and all-round good bloke with years of experience in the music business. We were really pleased that he was able to contribute to this year’s High Fives and we’re happy to say that he’s going to double Drumfire’s 2015 output very early in 2016; we’ll be bringing you some news about that in the very near future. It’s just possible that Phil Burdett could be involved.

 

 

Into the SeaAlbum of the Year (aka I Love My Label)

In the literal sense Dean Owens’Into the Sea” was my album of the year because it was the one and only release on my label Drumfire Records. It occupied my time, endeavour and thoughts for much of the time, but most importantly of all, it is indeed a great album – Dean’s best to date – and due to his indefatigable manager Morag Neil and my own efforts as well as Dean’s, he’s had a really good year, including supporting Rosanne Cash at London’s Union Chapel, a Bob Harris Country session, 3 consecutive BBC Radio Scotland playlists, and now deserved appearances in a slew of end-of-year best-of lists.

 DartsI Love My Job Sometimes

Last year in this category I talked about how proud I was of my work on the first box set by The Sound. Volume 2 followed and was equally brilliant. I worked on a number of special projects, but the one I would call a labour of love is the 6 CD boxset “The Complete Collection” by my wonderful friends Darts. I managed to bring together all their released recordings for Magnet Records, alongside their self-released Choice Cuts records, and dozens of unreleased studio recordings. Huge Fun.

Sleaford ModsKeeping The Fires Burning (aka One That Nearly Got Away)

Every year I trawl around trying to hear something new; something different; something exciting; something challenging. I am always dismayed by the endless stream of predictability and mediocrity in so-called ‘new’ music. I had resisted listening to this band, convinced by their name, image, and hype, that I wouldn’t like them.  Controversial choice I’m sure, but when I finally stopped to listen to Sleaford Mods, I was hit in the face with the stark aggression, simplistic beats and total listenability.  Honourable mention here also to the folk band Stick in the Wheel for doing it their way.

 Hannah Rose PlattBright Young Thing

One nomination for this category of mine this year.  I met the lovely Hannah Rose Platt in 2014, and in 2015 she released her debut album “Portraits” and we were delighted to welcome her in Twickenham as support for a show we hosted with Martin Stephenson. Her album is well worth getting a copy of. Oh yes, and she also got married this year.

 

Death Cab for CutieReturn to Form

Several albums that I enjoyed this year were I thought not quite as good as previous releases:  John Grant, Jason Isbell, Ron Sexsmith, Patty Griffin – all very good but just a little disappointing. The one I saw as a return to form was Death Cab for Cutie’sKintsugi”.