String bands, bluegrass generally; it’s not for everyone and I guess most bands making music in this genre today must be trying to attract a few new listeners, but how do you do it? You can try playing traditional tunes and be better than anyone else, but that’s not likely to bust you out of the genre. You can write new songs in the bluegrass idiom, but that’s risky unless they’re very good. The third way is to cover familiar songs in the string band style, and that’s the way The High Bar Gang have gone with their previous album of gospel songs and this album of heartbreak and death country songs. And they did one more revolutionary thing; they recorded the album in stereo, as opposed to using the traditional one–mic technique.
Despite a few lovely guitar solos, particularly on the opener, Dolly Parton’s “Silver Dagger” and the penultimate “Rock Salt and Nails”, the sound of The High Bar Gang is built on a solid basis of ensemble playing, the interplay between bass and guitar and the more percussive mandolin and banjo creating the rhythms that drive the songs underpinning a rich and varied series of textures and melodic settings created by seven players with various combinations of guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle and upright bass. There’s even some time signature variation, with almost half of the songs in ¾ time.
And then there’s the voices, working together in all sorts of combinations; two-part and three-part harmonies featuring in “How Many Times Have you Broken my Heart?” and “She’s More To Be Pitied” (sounding like a reply to the Arlie Carter and William Warren classic “Wild Side of Life”) and the male/female duet combination of “Branded Wherever I Go”. They all have that seemingly effortless lustre that only happens when a true gift is polished to perfection.
If you look at this as an experiment in adapting songs to a string band style, it’s a complete success; it should win over a few more fans to a genre that’s almost a polar opposite of everything we hear on mainstream radio. There are lovely interpretations of classic songs by Dolly Parton, Earl Scruggs, Roy Acuff, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, all accented with perfect harmonies and melancholy fiddle fills. Who knows, it may even help them earn a well-deserved breakthrough to a wider audience.
It only seems like ten minutes since the last Dana Immanuel album, “Dotted Lines”, was released and now we’ve got another one. “Come with Me” is Dana’s third album, although it’s being described as the debut of Dana & The Stolen Band, so the fairly equal split between songs from each of Dana’s two solo albums and new songs seems about right. Apparently it was recorded live-ish to catch the chemistry of the band’s interesting instrumental line-up featuring Dana (banjo, vocals and guitar), Feadora Morris (guitars and banjo), Blanche Ellis (vocals, washboard and thimbles), Maya McCourt (cello, vocals and upright bass) and Hjordis Moon Badford (cajon and foot tambourines).
What Dana and the band have achieved on “Come with Me” is to subvert the macho culture of Outlaw Country by showing that the sisters can do it for themselves, competing with the boys in the bad behaviour stakes whether it’s the cocaine of the claustrophobic title track, playing the casino tables (“Devil’s Money” and “Viva Las Vegas”) or misguided sexual encounters (“Clockwork”). There’s no holding back lyrically and even the musical arrangements subvert the genre by using cello to round out the bottom end of the sound and contrasting the tones of cello, banjo and distorted guitar. The line-up of the band falls somewhere between a bluegrass string band and a rock outfit, creating possibilities for unusual textures not normally heard in either genre.
If you like your tunes to swing a little, there’s a bit of that in the jazzy stylings of “Achilles Heel” and “John Wayne” and the vocal harmonies add yet another dimension on “Nashville”, and particularly the a cappella counterpoint in the coda of “Going to the Bottle”. The album’s closing song, a new take on “Viva Las Vegas”, usually tackled as a cover version with macho posturing and bluster, is driven along by a cello riff and the usual Stolen Band harmonies, distancing it from the Elvis or Springsteen versions.
At times this album’s tough and uncompromising, but there’s always a sense that the entire band’s having a blast just doing this stuff, and not sticking to any arbitrary rules. Combine that with great musicianship and the result’s always going to be interesting. And I’m grateful that the press release warned me about the ‘explicit!’ lyrics to “Motherfucking Whore”; I’d never have guessed from the title.
“Come with Me” is released on Friday August 5th and the band’s touring throughout the summer.
“Deranged to Divine”; what a great title for a retrospective, and much better than “Wolverhampton to California”, the journey that Carina Round has made over the last fifteen years. The album’s a retrospective covering her career so far, a generous eighteen tracks on one CD or double vinyl and includes songs from her four albums, her “Things You Should Know” EP and two previously unreleased songs, but there’s more than quantity to distinguish this album. It’s packed with powerful songs and even the packaging is gorgeous, a 28-page booklet with complete lyrics and some classy studio photos taken over the period of collection.
Since 2001, she’s collaborated with Brian Eno, Dave Stewart, Lou Reed, Ryan Adams, Billy Corgan and many others, producing an eclectic body of work that’s held together by the quality of her intense and unflinching lyrics. She’s the type of artist that attracts a fanatical following; those fans will buy this for the two unreleased tracks, but the appeal is so much wider than that.
There’s no attempt to create a sense of chronological perspective; the songs are sequenced in the way that Carina wants you to hear them. The older songs from 2001, positioned in the middle of the album, have a an organic feel. “Message to Apollo” has a Latin rhythm with one-note piano, a claustrophobic mix and a Patti Smithesque vocal while “How I See It” is a jazzy, waltz-time piece with plucked bass, strings and a muted trumpet solo. The two songs from 2012’s “Tigermending” that close the album are very different; “Mother’s Pride” is a quietly menacing story of lost innocence while the slow, atmospheric synth washes of the Brian Eno/Dave Stewart collaboration “The Secret of Drowning” are genuinely divine. Among the rest of the highlights, the unreleased “Gunshot” from 2006 is a slightly skewed take on country and the intimate “For Everything a Reason” depicts the breakdown of a relationship.
Carina Round has a multi-faceted appeal; she’s not afraid of different approaches or pushing the boundaries. The lyrics can be raw and even shocking at times, but the sublime voice, tackling high and low registers and multi-tracked backing vocals with ease, and the varied arrangements work to create songs that are complete and satisfying. With quality of her songs and ability to sing convincingly in so many different styles, it’s difficult to see why Carina Round hasn’t had success on the same scale as Natasha Khan and Florence Welch. Maybe this time…
“Deranged to Divine” is released on Dehisce Records, distributed by Cargo,(DV1017CD) on Friday July 29th.
If you want to see Carina live, she’ll be play (with special guest She Makes War) here are the dates for her UK tour:
Wednesday 3rd August The Globe, Cardiff
Thursday 4th August Hare & Hounds, Birmingham
Friday 5th August The Lexington, London
Saturday 6th August Factory, Manchester
Sunday 7th August King Tuts, Glasgow
Tuesday 9th August The Loiusiana, Bristol
Wednesday 10th August The Craufurd Arms, Milton Keynes
Thursday 11th August Green Door Store, Brighton
Just when I was beginning to wonder what had happened to happy and spangly albums, along comes New Yorker Annie Keating with an album that’s so shiny and sparkly at times that I needed Oakleys and factor 50 just to listen to it. I knew there was a reason for holding on to those. It isn’t quite wall to wall shiny, happy people, but there’s plenty of jangly guitar and horns in the mix to make the album as a whole a very uplifting experience; it’s understandable that she’s already caught the attention of Bob Harris and The Telegraph in the UK.
The album’s opening song, “You Bring the Sun” sets the tone with Byrds-style chiming electric guitar driving the song along, reinforcing the positivity of the lyrics. While the musical settings constantly vary across the album, lyrically it’s almost a concept album with themes of rebirth and regeneration woven through the album’s shimmering fabric.
If you’re partial to waltz time, there are a couple of songs in ¾, “Slow Waltz” (unsurprisingly) and “Fool for You”, a tale of unrequited love where the melancholy is deepened by pedal steel and horns. It’s a rare example of a sad song on the album whose title track, about riding a bike at the age of eight, and the sense of exhilaration that brings, is straight ahead rock with a driving beat and sense of pure joy.
The album’s final three songs are an uplifting finale. ”Creatures” bounces along like an update of “Feelin’ Groovy” while “Growing Season” emphasises the theme of rebirth in the spring when nature is starting a new cycle, but final track surpasses everything that’s come before. “Phoenix” (did I mention rebirth already) starts quietly but builds with a skittering drum pattern to a breath-taking choral arrangement to close out the album.
Annie’s voice is quirky and interesting and lends an edge to the musical arrangements while emphasising the slightly offbeat nature of some of the songs. “Trick Star” opens with a positive message and hammers it home with the heavenly choir of the album’s final song; you can’t help but smile at the audacity of it.
“Trick Star” is released worldwide on Friday July 29th.
Every time I visit The Half Moon the evening starts out with something a bit surreal. This time it was a Scottish musician at the bar asking for a pint of the weakest bitter they had. And before I get complaints, I’m Scottish and I’m allowed to make those jokes; it’s called self-deprecation apparently. The headliner this time was Lisa Mann from West Virginia via Portland, Oregon on her first UK tour supported by (fairly) new kid on the block Katie Bradley, each offering their own their own particular take on twenty-first century blues and its offshoots.
Katie’s band kicked off with a statement of intent, a storming version of the Jimmy Reed classic “Baby What You Want Me to Do”. With two lead guitars, one fairly clean and jazzy and the other over-driven and rocky plus Katie’s harmonica, there was plenty of variety throughout the set. Although Katie’s the lead singer, the vocals were shared with the two guitarists as the band ran through a set of slow blues, jazzy blues and funky blues that included the BB King classic “Thrill is Gone” and lovely duet of “Tennessee Whiskey”. Any headline act would be grateful for a support that warmed the audience up as thoroughly as this.
What strikes you immediately as Lisa Mann and the band take the stage is the contrast between the giant Dudley Ross making his Telecasters look like toys and the petite Lisa Mann with a six-string bass slung John Lee Hooker-style over the right shoulder. The band line-up highlighted a slightly different emphasis after the mainly blues-based opening set. The combination of Dudley Ross’s crisp clean guitar and Steve Watts’s keys created a soulful sound more in the vein of Stax than Chess, offering the perfect complement to Lisa’s powerful vocals and melodic basslines.
The ninety-minute set took in blues, funk, soul and even had a jazz-funk interlude to allow Steve Watts a chance to shine, and showcased excellent songs from Lisa’s five albums including “Doghouse”, “Big Long List” and the closer “Hard Times, Bad Decisions”. The playing was spot on throughout, making it easy to forget that the band had very little rehearsal time together before the start of the tour; only the very good ones can do that and make it look so effortless. Let’s hope it’s not too long before Lisa Mann’s back in the UK again.
You can see some photos from the gig here.
It’s only a few weeks since I was raving about the latest album from Michael McDermott’s band The Westies and he’s now releasing an album under his own name using most of the same musicians that played on The Westies album. Let me just cut straight to the chase here and say that “Willow Springs” is every bit as good as “Six on the Out”. It’s packed with powerful songs and creative but unfussy playing from Heather Horton, Will Kimbrough and John Deaderick; it’s every bit as powerful as “Six on the Out”, but “Willow Springs” is a very different musical approach to similar themes.
The album has a more intimate feel than the companion piece by The Westies; the album credits don’t list a drummer and although “Let A Little Light In” has all the punch of a mid-eighties Springsteen anthem, it’s not typical of the album. There’s a lot of acoustic guitar, banjo, fiddle and harmonica, but also some subversive touches like adding synth pads to fill out the sound. There’s a desire not to be stereotyped and packaged, which is explicit in “Folksinger” particularly.
“Willow Springs” is, more than anything else, a deeply personal album, springing from a turbulent period around the death of Michael McDermott’s father. There are references to his heritage on “Six on the Out”, but here it’s right out in the open. “Shadow in the Window” is a painful look at the death of a parent and the soul-searching that follows in its wake. The song ends with the keening repetition of ‘I Love you’ gradually fading and slowing before “Willie Rain” opens with the spoken ‘I love you Daddy’ leading in to a relentlessly upbeat stringband arrangement of a song about his daughter. Placing the two songs together demonstrates the circle of life and the ultimately uplifting feel of the album. There are sombre tales, plumbing the depths of addiction (“Butterfly”) and small-time larceny (“Getaway Car”), but the final two songs of the album both look to the future with optimism.
It’s almost inevitable that Michael McDermott will be compared with Dylan, Springsteen and others; maybe that’s flattering but it’s not the whole picture. When he writes, sometimes in a very matter-of-fact way about gangsters, prison and drugs, you know it’s coming from first-hand experience. “Willow Springs” is the sound of that experience being processed and used up before moving on to the next stage; it never sounds less than authentic. Maybe the time has come for the next American songwriter.
“Willow Springs” is released on Friday July 22nd 2016 on Pauper Sky Records. Michael McDermott will be touring the UK later this year.
And if you won’t take my word for it, have a look at the video for the title track:
Another Friday night, another new venue in Shoreditch. Deep in the basement of the Ace Hotel on Shoreditch lurks a bar called Miranda with a small stage, nice sound system and reasonable stage lighting. The audience was a bit of an eye-opener as well; sparkly dresses and bright eye make-up as opposed to the jeans, cowboy boots and faded tour t-shirts I usually see. The reason for all the finery was the launch of the first EP by Daisy and the Dark, the latest incarnation of Sarah Kayte Foster, a former Mediaeval Baebe.
Not surprisingly, Sarah has a superb voice and she’s surrounded herself with quality musicians, including Keltrix violinist Sharon Sullivan to create a full live sound augmented by backing tracks and accompanied by back projection and four dancers; not so much a gig as a multi-media event. Opening with the EP’s lead song “Circus”, the set was well-paced and demonstrated Sarah’s stunning voice in a variety of musical settings as well as across a huge dynamic range.
If you like your live music with a bit of theatre and glamour, this is for you. There’s a lot going on, with guitar, drums, two backing singers and four dancers, not to mention the illuminated, flashing hula hoops. All of this is cleverly woven in to the songs themselves and it works in the same way that a Kate Bush or Bjork show does; there’s always plenty to watch. Sarah has a voice that has been compared to both of those singers (and Florence Welch), but a setting like Miranda also gives her the chance to relate to the audience and create a more intimate experience.
It’s been a while since I saw anything quite like this; a spectacle rather than just a gig, but Daisy and the Dark do it very well indeed and by the end of a short set, the audience was hooked and I was impressed by Sarah’s new material. It’s time for this Daisy to see some daylight. Here are some photos from the gig.
Have a look at the video for “Circus” to get some idea of what it’s all about: