Dunfearing and the West Country HighWhat a great start we’ve had to 2014.  We’ve already reviewed some cracking albums in various genres and now we’ve got another.  “Dunfearing and the West Country High” is Phil Burdett’s first album to be released on Twickenham-based Drumfire Records and it’s very, very good.  If you’ve seen Phil Burdett play live, you’ll know that he has a powerful, rich baritone voice and is an accomplished acoustic guitar player.  He learned to play at the age of six, was in a pre-Depeche Mode band with Martin Gore and has pursued a winding and sometimes messy path through the music scene in the south-east of England ever since.

It’s obvious from the first listen that Phil isn’t just a songwriter; he’s a true poet.  You can find any number of musical influences listed in previous reviews but you should probably add James Joyce and Dylan Thomas to that list.  A quick word of advice here, don’t download this album, buy the CD; the packaging, designed by Fish Inton, is gorgeous and contains a booklet full of evocative photos and all of the lyrics.

 It’s usually a pretty easy job to explain the subject of a song, but it can be a real challenge on “Dunfearing…” as Phil slips sinuously between the mundane and mystical.  Even a song as seemingly grounded as “Small Talk at Sullivan’s Diner” descends quickly from the simple narrative to a deeper and darker examination of tortured souls struggling to cope with real life.  The songs with a clear narrative thread are inspired by the history of Cornwall and the West Country, “Gothic Miner” and “Fate of Pirates”, for example, while “New York City Call” and “Columbus and Hope” emphasise the area’s historical links with the New World.  There’s a batch of songs (“First and Last”, “Song of the Lamp”, “See the Sunset Slow and Beckon True”, “Rimbaud’s Ghost, Chapel Street & Union”  and “Winter Halls”) which take inspiration from Phil’s recent Cornish sojourn, and the fatalistic “It’s Where ye Have to Go”.

Which leaves the album’s closing song, “Night Horses of the Wireless Road” to take all of these strands and pull them into an epic, mythical, stream of unconsciousness.  The entire album is lyrically dense (both in volume and meanings) and the final song typifies this with references to art, music and fables, before moving abruptly into harsh reality with the news of the death of Jackie Leven, to whose memory the album is dedicated.  Musically, “Night Horses…”, has echoes of Neil Young  with Crazy Horse at their most laid back or maybe even John Martyn at his best.  It has the same unsettling, alienating effect as The Afghan Whigs’ 1996 album, “Black Love”, particularly the closer, “Faded”.

I’m not saying this is an easy listen, but it’s worth putting in the effort.  You might even have to do a bit of research on phrases like “mise-en-abyme” (you can look it up for yourself) and some of the more obscure references.  Phil’s rough-hewn baritone voice and acoustic guitar (with a hint of Johnny Cash at times) are sympathetically supported by John Bennett (guitars), Steve Stott (mandolin/fiddle), Russ Strothard (bass guitar), Jack Corder (drums), Dee Hepburn (piano), Colleen McCarthy (backing vocals), Wag Porter (fiddle) and Mark Elliott (percussion) throughout the album; the playing isn’t particularly showy, but it creates a perfect backdrop for the modern folk and slight country leanings of the songs.

If you want a particularly geeky fact to impress your friends with, there are nearly thirty drinking references in the album’s lyrics, including pub names, drink names and general drinking terms, including one reference to rehab; you can take what you like from that, but I’m guessing that Phil enjoys a beer.  This is an album which visits some very dark places, but closes with a heartfelt farewell to a fellow troubadour as part one of  the proposed “Secular Mystic Trilogy” closes.

Out Monday March 3rd on Drumfire Records (DRMFR016).

HidingIn the days following the sad and untimely death of Phil Everly, one of the musicians who was regularly interviewed was guitarist Albert Lee.  I’m willing to bet that most people watching and listening had never heard of Albert Lee, despite his long relationship the Everly Brothers.  The fact that he had decided early in his career to play a style of music, country, that has rarely, if ever, been fashionable in the UK meant that he had to move to the USA before achieving real recognition, joining the Crickets in 1974, then replacing the legendary James Burton in Emmylou Harris’s Hot Band in 1976.  Anyway, for a few days in early January 2014, all of the old Everly Brothers songs were played across the media.  I’m always happy to hear old classics reach a new audience, but the contrarian in me wanted to hear Albert Lee again, so I dug out my old vinyl copy of his second solo album, “Hiding”.

Somehow, in 1979, a single from this album managed to grab a bit of airplay, probably as a result of a particularly persistent plugger, or perhaps it was just a bit of a novelty.  “Country Boy”, which opened the album, wasn’t ever going to win an Ivor Novello; it was a lyrical throwaway which showcased Albert Lee’s stunning guitar virtuosity.  Throwaway or not, it grabbed my attention immediately and I scuttled off to BG Forbes to buy a copy of the album.  Then back to the flat as quickly as possible to introduce vinyl to stylus while avidly reading all of the credits and sleeve notes (even an insert in this case) while listening to the album.  I’ve bought many albums on the strength of one song, and I’ve been disappointed almost as many times; nothing else on “Hiding” sounded like “Country Boy” but that didn’t matter because they were all great songs.

Looking at the playing and writing credits, there were a few surprises, even with my limited knowledge of the country scene at that time.  Names like Emmylou Harris and Don Everly stood out even then, but looking back with a historical perspective and greater knowledge, Buddy Emmons, Glen D Hardin, Ricky Scaggs, Rodney Crowell, Hank DeVito and Buddy Emmons were highly-respected country players at that time.  More of a surprise was the inclusion of songs and performances by Chas Hodges and Dave Peacock who, after nearly twenty years as backing musicians, were now carving out a career performing cockney novelty songs.  Actually I wasn’t surprised; I was gobsmacked, particularly after hearing the album’s second song, “Billy Tyler”, a Hodges/Peacock country original.  I loved the song from the first time I heard it and I still love it now.  I know Dean Owens will probably disagree with me here, but I think it’s the best song they ever wrote.  And those are only the first two songs on the album.

“Are you Wasting my Time” is a tasteful cover of the Louvin Brothers classic with Albert Lee taking lead vocal and harmonies alongside Ricky Scaggs.  “Now and Then It’s Gonna Rain”, with backing from Chas and Dave, is a country/rock song which hints at earlier Eagles material and side one closes with the beautiful Rodney Crowell ballad “On a Real Good Night”.

The side two opener is “Setting me Up”, a riff-based country/rock song written by the relatively unknown (in 1979) Mark Knopfler which is followed by another Rodney Crowell song “Ain’t Living Long like This”, a shuffle with a hint of the Buster Brown classic, “Fannie Mae”.  The album’s title song is another ballad, written by Steven Rhymer (what a great name for a songwriter) and featuring backing vocals from Don Everly.  The album closes out with the slow rocker, “Hotel Love”, and “Come up and See Me Any Time”, another Chas and Dave song featuring the dynamic duo themselves on piano and bass.

The album’s a classic because Albert Lee does all the things he does best; he plays guitar, sings lead and harmony vocals and chooses some tremendous songs and players to help him display these talents.  There’s only one writing credit for him on “Hiding” but his interpretations of songs by other writers are arranged and played to perfection.  You can hear suggestions of other artists including Iain Matthews (another wonderful interpreter of songs) and Eric Clapton but the overall sound is pure Albert Lee.  I guess it’s not difficult to see why it wasn’t a hit in the UK in 1979 as post-punk took over from punk, but it has aged very well over the thirty-five years since its release.  Even if you don’t normally follow links these articles, have a look at the live performance of “Country Boy” with Vince Gill.   It’s not just about the great playing; the audience love it and you can see that the band loves it too.  Give it a listen.

About TimeOf 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.

YoyaSerbian 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.

How About NowYou 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).

Play the GameHow 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.

Get it while you canI’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).

The Smokehouse SessionsAs 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).