You get to the end of an extensive tour, your band have been taking the roof off every night, but now they’re world-weary and road-raddled; they just want to go home and spend time with their families, so what do you do? Well, you book a studio for a couple of days to catch them while they’re still hot and blast through some of your favourite old blues songs. Well, that’s what Canadian bluesman Colin James did, and the result is “Blue Highways”, recorded live in the studio in two days at the end of his last tour. It captures the raw energy of live performance with studio quality without compromising either side of that delicate balance.
What about the material? Well, it’s thirteen of Colin’s favourite blues(ish) tunes covering a pretty good chunk of the blues canon, from the opener “Boogie Funk” (more boogie than funk, I think) with harmonica, Hammond, a simple electric riff and the classic guitar/Hammond solo interplay to the solo acoustic closer “Last Fair Deal”. It’s a pretty good demonstration of Colin’s feel for the whole blues spectrum. The Muddy Waters song “Gypsy Woman” evokes, well, Muddy Waters, as does the honky-tonk “Hoodoo Man Blues”, sounding like seventies McKinley Morganfield with his sidekicks James Cotton and Pinetop Perkins.
“Lonesome” is a jazzy uptempo shuffle with some lovely guitar fills and “Big Road Blues” is great fun with a slide riff and two lead guitars, but it’s when the band moves away from the standard blues that things get really interesting with the acoustic blues of “Last Fair Deal” and the harmonica-driven “Riding in the Moonlight”; the electric material’s good, but the acoustic songs really stand out. Finally, it’s a brave singer that takes on a song that’s been performed superbly by Otis Redding and William Bell in the past, but Colin’s slow soul take on “Don’t Miss Your Water” is a creditable effort, with a vocal that has hints of the UK’s own Aynsley Lister. It’s not breaking any new ground, but it’s a good demonstration of a band at the top of their game.
“Blue Highways” is released on True North Records of Friday November 25.
We’ve reached the point in the year where traditionally no-one releases serious music; it’s all about seasonal tunes and greatest hits for the dad market, so it’s really refreshing to hear another contender for High Fives 2016 (coming soon with even more guest contributions) released in November. Winter Mountain is the nom de guerre of Joe Francis and “I Swear I Flew” is his second album. Let’s get this out of the way right now, it’s a stunningly powerful and beautiful piece of work packed with ethereal and evocative songs, blowsy and blustering songs, and intricately woven arrangements mostly played by Joe, but helped out by Seth Lakeman and a few others. I think it might even be new genre; Kernowcana, anyone?
“I Swear I Flew” is a potent cocktail, mixing up influences from the great late twentieth century American songwriters with twists of Celtic and English folk styles. It’s all blended perfectly to create a confection that feels smooth on the surface but has plenty of bite underneath. Even the quiet, contemplative songs have a widescreen feel to them; the breathy vocal on “Dragonfly” is underpinned by delicately picked acoustic guitar, bass and cello, but the sound is full and resonant. By way of complete contrast, the next song, “Before the Flood” features a full band (and then some) with thudding bass and drums and then keys, harmonica, fiddle, tenor guitar, banjo and pedal steel. And it’s all topped with a great vocal performance that has a few hints of Don Henley at his very best; it’s a big, beautiful beast of a song.
No filler at all here, and definitely a couple more to single out for attention. “The Morning Bell”, which gives the album its title, is (almost) a solo acoustic lovelorn ballad packed with the natural imagery that permeates the album, contrasting starkly with the full band songs. “Fireworks Night” (Promises we Make) is an absolutely gorgeous five minutes that pulls off the spectacular trick of starting like Springsteen and morphing into what I can only describe as a stripped-down acoustic version of The Blue Nile. I defy you to remain unmoved.
This album is inspired by the greats of rock, roots and folk, twisted together until they form something shiny, beautiful and new. It’s a lovely piece of work.
“I Swear I Flew” is released on Friday November 18 on Astral Fox Records.
“Red Mountain Blues” is the sound of a bunch fabulously gifted ensemble musicians playing across a wide variety of styles in the Americana canon from bluegrass to modern Nashville country, led by Chris Murphy’s fiddle virtuosity. Chris moves seamlessly from traditional-style string band instrumentals to the menacing gangster voodoo of “Chickasaw Freedman” where the only backing is his fiddle and a stompbox.
Chris has a knack of writing original tunes, particularly instrumentals, that evoke memories and hint at earlier classics. It may only be a chord progression and a few similarities in the melody, but the album’s closing instrumental, “The Lord will Provide“, has a feel of the Leadbelly classic “Goodnight Irene”, while the mournful, elegaic “Walt Whitman” evokes the era of cowboy country and demonstrates the perfect ensemble playing of the band; when they play together, whether it’s unison or homophony, the players are completely together for every note and shift of emphasis. It’s a beautiful thing to hear when it’s done well like this.
The traditional string band numbers cover a wide range from the emotive and controlled slow pieces above to the frenetic energy of “Cast Iron” and the jazzy tinges of “Buckwheat Pancakes” as the players weave in and out of the texture, playing duets and taking solos in turn, making the incredibly accomplished playing sound like the most natural thing in the world. When you move away from the instrumentals, you’ll still plenty of variety; “”Dirt Time“, and “Dig for One Day More” are traditional tales of working men, while “Black Roller” evokes Steinbeck’s dustbowl-era classic “Grapes of Wrath”. “Kitchen Girl” is a bittersweet story of unrequited adolescent love, while “Meet me Tonight” is good-time honky-tonk and “Dry County” is a piece of road fun with some beautiful, keening Appalachian harmonies.
The playing is superb, yet uncluttered throughout and the huge variety of styles, helped by the track sequencing, means that there’s something different around every corner. This album is proof, if you needed it, that good songs and great playing transcend genres.
“Red Mountain Blues” is released on Friday November 11th on Teahouse Records.
Where do we start with this one? Well. It’s not a cover of the Edwin Starr disco classic. It’s project, featuring music and video, dealing with the alienation in modern technocratic society and trying to encourage us to reconnect with nature and each other by stepping away from the machines. Sokol (Czech for falcon, apparently) crowd-funded “Contact” by going out on the streets with a t-shirt and a piggy bank to advertise the project.
The song is built on a thudding bass line, shimmering indie guitar sounds and some of the dirtiest synth gurgles you’re likely to hear. It builds to a peak, breaks down before building again to a climax with some heavenly harmonies. It’s a very listenable piece of guitar pop/indie. But you really need to watch the video.
It was shot in Mongolia and has the production values of a BBC nature documentary. It’s a stunning piece of filming, showing the sheer joy of a father and son on horseback hunting with eagles. It meshes perfectly with the song’s message of disconnecting to reconnect, creating a hauntingly spiritual audio-visual experience.
“Contact” is released in the UK on November 11th, but here’s a sneak preview:
I can’t seem to escape from banjos at the moment; they’re everywhere, like those killer clowns but slightly less dangerous. What’s different here is that the banjo isn’t just used for the odd solo or some percussive background sounds. On the O’s fourth album “Honeycomb”, the banjo’s taking the role that a lead guitar would in a rock band; it’s right up there, front and centre. It’s even got its own set of stomp boxes; that’s a banjo with attitude and then some.
The O’s are John Pedigo and Taylor Young, and between them, they play everything on the album, although Del Amitri’s Justin Currie makes a guest vocal appearance on “Woken Up”.
So what kind of music are they making? Well, most people are hedging their bets by referring to it as ‘roots’, but, electric banjo aside, there are a lot of influences washing around in their sound. They’re playing country/roots instruments, but they have a definite rock band attitude; listening to the album’s opening song, “Fourteen Days”, hinted at The Waterboys, where Mike Scott fused elements of Celtic folk, pop and rock to create an unlikely commercial success, but this album’s so diverse that everyone’s going to have a slightly different take on it.
You could pick out some John Lennon harmonica on “Halfway Sideways”, some pedal steel on “The Reaper” and some big widescreen productions on “Burning Red” and “Shooting Star”. It’s full of great harmonies to sweeten up the sound, and a lead vocal that’s powerful with a hint of vulnerability. If you’re looking for a rock comparison, Matchbox 20 wouldn’t be too far off the mark.
If someone told you this was Americana and listed the instruments that are featured, you might expect some self-effacing acoustic songs, delicately played; you’d be in the wrong place. “Honeycomb” is full-on and in-yer-face with a warning that those acoustic instruments can go all the way up to eleven as well. It should carry a sticker, ‘Danger; banjos may bite’.
“Honeycomb” is released in the UK on Friday October 28th.
If you like a bit of raw energy and drive in your music, then this one should hit the spot. The Blinding Lights are brothers Callum, Theo and Jack Lury (piano/vocals, drums and guitar respectively) and bass player Will Lord. Their influences are hugely varied, although early Springsteen and various E Streeters crop up regularly. Strangely enough, the overall sound of “I Can’t Get Enough” reminds me much more of Bruce’s old Asbury Park compadre Southside Johnny, particularly in the way the horns are used from the first chorus onwards. There’s a hint of Dexy’s Midnight Runners in there as well.
The song’s driven along through the verse by a pumping one-note bass and a piano motif that’s echoed later by the brass as the song powers on like a juggernaut, running red lights and terrifying pedestrians to get to the girl (OK, it’s a bus really, I just got carried away with the image). The structure’s a lot like an old R’n’B thing where there’s a countdown (say, Edwin Starr’s “25 Miles”) and a breakdown before rebuilding and powering through to the end. Callum’s great rock’n’soul voice (maybe a bit of Steve Winwood in there) rides the rhythm with ease as his story of a lustful encounter builds to a climax.
It’s a thrill-ride from start to finish.
“I Can’t Get Enough” is released on November 4th, meanwhile you can have a look at the video here: