Underhill Rose - 'Live' - ScrollerWhy do a live album? Well when you’re as good live as Eleanor Underhill, Molly Rose and Salley Williamson, the prospect of being recorded live holds no terrors. They can even play without any amplification if they have to. “Live”, recorded in Asheville, North Carolina, over two nights was an attempt to let a wider audience hear the songs in their live incarnations: three voices and four instruments (including Eleanor’s harmonica). And it’s a highly successful attempt; the quality of the performances is superb and with fifteen songs, no-one can complain about quantity.
The mix of songs is fairly representative of the live experience, featuring songs spanning their studio albums and a couple of interesting covers, “These Boots are Made for Walking” featuring Salley Williamson’s vocal and upright bass, and a deft stripping-down of the eighties classic “Bette Davis Eyes” that shows exactly how powerful the song is without the synthesised eighties percussion.
Throughout the album, the harmonies are perfect and the recording captures the warmth and intimacy that’s a huge part of any Underhill Rose show, highlighted in the celebration of community and friendship, “They Got My Back”. There’s no inconsistency; the performance is perfect throughout. If I had to pick standouts, I would go for the sultry “Whispering Pines Motel” or the combination of photographic imagery and reminiscence of the lovely “In Color”. If you haven’t seen Eleanor, Molly and Salley live yet, this is the next best thing. If you have seen them, it will bring those memories back.
Now let’s wait for Tony Visconti to tell us it was eighty percent overdubbed.
“Live” is released on Friday June 30.

I Hold Gravity scrollerThis one’s going to need a little historical perspective; I’ll try to keep it brief. Young guitar-slinger/singer starts to create a buzz in the early seventies, takes half a lifetime out to raise a family but never stops playing and writing, eventually comes out of self-enforced retirement to take up a writing and performing career with his wife, teams up with I See Hawks in L.A. to make an album. The context is important here, because musical influences and stylings that underpin the album from the late sixties/early seventies are married up with stories of rural America. There are little hints of Harry Nilsson, maybe Jim Croce as well in some of the arrangements, but the influences don’t stop at folk and country.

“Be Nemanic” opens up as a barrel-house blues which morphs into a Stax brass-driven stomper (á la Otis and Carla’s “Tramp”) telling the story of the granite-hewn immigrants who helped build the United States; it’s a rousing story of pride and a hint of a warning. There’s a similar raw edge to the opening song “Dirt” but with a raucous chain-gang feel, as the song explores the futility of mineral exploration. There’s a lot of humour in there too in the zydeco-tinged story of two knowing drug mules and the everyday day tale of country jealously, “Mr and Mrs Jones” with a rockabilly beat, some lovely Hammond and some very Steve Cropper-like guitar fills.

The title song, “I Hold Gravity”, is a love song, pure and simple, made achingly poignant by the fact that Gerry’s wife and songwriting partner Susan died as the album was nearing completion and the album’s closer “Into the Mystic” evokes a sense of deep loss before consolation is sought in communion with nature and the desert.

The ten songs on “I Hold Gravity” will pull you through a wide range of emotions. You’ll smile at “God Lubbock”, laugh out loud at “Mr and Mrs Jones”, yearn for the idyllic setting of “Here In the Pass” and cry at “I Hold Gravity” and then you’ll want to put yourself through that emotional wringer all over again; it’s that good.

“I Hold Gravity” is released on Friday June 23.

Sam Baker Land of Doubt ScrollerStraight up front, you need to know; this album won’t be for everyone. I have a strong suspicion that this is deep into Marmite territory, that it’s an acquired taste. Texan Sam Baker is one of those songwriters who is revered by his peers (Malcolm Holcombe’s another) who understand the journey he’s on and appreciate the craft involved in his work. One of his aims with “Land of Doubt” is to tell the stories or convey the feelings to his listeners in the most economic way possible without losing any of the nuances. Stripping back music usually involves leaving out instruments that add texture to arrangements, keys, horns, even electric guitar and bass. The approach Sam Baker has taken is to work out the minimum of sounds necessary to create the feeling he wants to evoke and to add nothing extraneous to it.

The economy isn’t just applied to the instrumentation. The melodies and the rhythms are kept sparse and simple and even the number of words is restricted, a bit like applying the haiku discipline to every aspect of making an album. Producer and drummer Neilson Hubbard, guitar player Will Kimbrough and cool jazz trumpeter Don Mitchell create perfect minimalist arrangements that allow the songs plenty of space; each of the elements is honed to perfection like a setting designed to emphasise a perfect gemstone, but not to overpower. There isn’t a hint of a standard format or template here. Each song gets exactly the instrumentation it needs; nothing more, nothing less. The percussion ranges from the almost non-existent on the country waltz “Love is Patient” to loud drums competing with the vocal on the swampy “Moses in the Reeds” and the military beat of “Some Kind of Blue”, telling the story of a Vietnam veteran who looks back to the war as the happiest time of his life.

At first glance, the track listing seems a little long, but ten songs are interspersed with five instrumental interludes that help to alleviate the sombre mood of the songs while additional colour and texture come in the form of Will Kimbrough’s ambient atmospherics, some piano and harmonium and some deft Chet Baker-style trumpet from Don Mitchell, particularly on “Say the Right Words”, the story of parents who disapprove of their daughter’s choice of partner but are too scared or smart (you decide) to tackle the matter head-on. One of Sam Baker’s strengths is in picking out these little tragedies from the background noise we’re surrounded and showing us the importance they have to the protagonists. It’s not always comfortable, but you can’t stop listening.

As I said at the top of this piece, it won’t be for everyone, but if you like the craft of the songwriter and the arranger, then you won’t be disappointed.

“Land of Doubt” is released on Friday June 16.

Gold Rush Scroller“Gold Rush” is Hannah Aldridge’s second album and it moves Hannah in a slightly different direction. Her debut “Razor Wire” (and an excellent debut too) was built around a set of country-inflected, mainly acoustic, guitar songs with the emphasis on personal experiences. That emphasis is still there on the second album but Hannah’s added a rockier edge which is evident in her switch from acoustic to electric guitar (Telecaster if you must know) and her description of her newer songs as Southern rock. “Razor Wire” was a huge favourite with the Riot Squad, so how does “Gold Rush” compare?

The title song, which closes the album, is a work of rare beauty; it’s more delicate than most of the new songs and deals with the idea of being at a point in time when looking forward and looking back are equally painful. When a writer can create the line ‘I don’t know if this is living or slow motion suicide’, you know you’re hearing a special talent. But “Gold Rush” isn’t about one song, there are nine more and they’re little firecrackers. The album’s first song “Aftermath” kicks open the doors with tribal drums and a tight rhythm section dragging “Jumping Jack Flash” into the twenty-first century. “Dark-Heated Woman” is sinister and menacing with a guitar solo that Neil Young would be proud of and “Living on Lonely” is plaintive, almost heart-breaking, with huge choral backing vocals. “Burning down Birmingham” is Southern rock with the trademark slide guitar hook and an insanely catchy chorus while “Shouldn’t Hurt So Bad” draws heavily on the Merseybeat/Byrds/Tom Petty jangly guitar stylings. And so it goes on, there are ten very good songs and a huge dynamic range.

Everything fits into place perfectly as Hannah moves effortlessly from the slower, more controlled, vocals to the raw and raunchy rockers. She ticks all the boxes; the songs are powerful, heart-rending, even harrowing at times, her voice is stunningly good and she has tremendous live presence. “Gold Rush” is an album created by someone who has seen and done too many things in a short life; it’s shot through with substance abuse references and some regrets, but no self-pity. The overall message is that this a testament from a survivor and we should all feel grateful for that. And one final great line for you, from “I Know Too Much”: ‘I don’t need another reason to hate myself, I don’t need another bad tattoo’.

This is a beautiful album that you will go back to again and again.

“Gold Rush” is released in the UK on Friday June 16 and you can find Hannah’s July UK tour dates here.

Malcolm Holcombe - 'Pretty Little Troubles' - cover (300dpi)“Pretty Little Troubles”; it’s a lovely example of irony. Malcolm Holcombe’s troubles are never little and they’re rarely pretty. The subjects of his songs may be everyday events, but they have huge significance to the protagonists. It’s fair to say that he’s revered by fellow artists and songwriters for both live and recorded work and this album’s another demonstration of the passion and unshowy skill of his songs. His style is firmly in the country/Americana tradition with hints of other roots showing through occasionally in the lilting Celtic- styled “The Eyes O’ Josephine” where the bass doubles up the guitar riff and the song’s completed with a penny whistle solo and the European-influenced story of an encounter with a female busker playing a concertina, “South Hampton Street”. Both songs evoke the setting perfectly without tipping over into pastiche. 

The transatlantic folk/roots community has almost unanimously distanced itself from the alt-right and Malcolm Holcombe’s affirmation of that stance comes in “Yours No More”, a hymn of praise to the immigrants that helped to build America. It’s not in-your-face radicalism, it’s a gentle reminder that we can all use a bit of historical perspective at times. His rough-hewn, two-packs-a-day voice rasps through the rockier numbers, but adds pathos to the more contemplative stories of the numbing grind of everyday existence, such as “Damn Weeds” and the album’s closer “We Struggle”; the problems may be small in the grand scheme of things, but they can seem like insurmountable objects when you get right up close and personal. 

There area couple of great turnaround songs on the album as well. The uptempo “Good Old Days” feels like a nostalgic romp until the lyrics turn to exploitation, disease , alcohol and dead babies and “Bury England” paints a stark picture of life as a travelling musician, depicting all the minor frustrations (terrible coffee) which are displaced by hearing great music on the house PA (in memory of Guy Clark) then going on to play a great gig with Jared Tyler. Malcolm Holcombe has the songwriter’s skill of creating a perfect vignette from a seemingly mundane series of events and even the title is an ironic play on the phrase ‘Merry England’. 

It’s raw at times, but “Pretty Little Troubles” is packed with lovingly-crafted and passionate songs played in atmospheric and uncluttered settings. It’s a lovely piece of work. 

“Pretty Little Troubles” is released on Friday May 26 on Gypsy Eyes Music.

Redwood-Mountain-Side-1-ALT-desat-40[1]If everyone was rewarded fairly for talent, creativity and pure hard bloody work, Dean Owens would be a very wealthy man. If the day job is being Dean Owens, singer-songwriter, the part-time jobs include his full band Whisky Hearts, his Deer Lake collaboration with Larry Lean, his Buffalo Blood project with Neilson Hubbard, production duties for Ameripolitan singer-songwriter Ags Connolly and the occasional project featuring covers or, more accurately, interpretations of other people’s songs (Johnny Cash for example). It’s fair to say that he doesn’t have a lot of downtime.

With all of those projects simmering away, why not do something else to stave off boredom? So what’s next? What can we cram into that fifteen minutes of the day that’s left? Well, someone gave Dean a copy of Alan Lomax’s “The Book of American Folk Songs” and Dean, having a bit of down time, decided that it would be a great idea to give some of the lyrics new musical settings and record the resulting songs with Whisky Hearts fiddle player Amy Geddes and bass/piano player Kevin McGuire. Although the project was about creating new settings for existing lyrics, Dean and Amy managed to sneak a few of their own compositions, which fit perfectly with the originals. Amy’s “Amang the Braes O Gallowa” has the Celtic authenticity of early American folk tunes, while Dean’s “Take it Easy, but Take it” is a perfect lyrical fit with the Lomax collection. There’s even that very rare beast, a Dean Owens instrumental, “The Two Davies Waltz”. As a creative concept, it works perfectly.

The minimalist arrangement of the songs (two voices, guitar and fiddle, with occasional piano and bass) works perfectly, Amy’s plaintive fiddle reinforcing the melancholy tone of the album while her vocal harmonies lighten the lyrical harshness that play such a large part in these folk ballads. The quality of the album’s so high that it’s difficult to pick favourites, but I loved “On the Range of the Buffalo” and “Rye Whiskey”.

Redwood Mountain is a little gem of an album and it’s out now.

Harrow Fair - 'Call To Arms' - cover (300dpi)Harrow Fair comprises Miranda Mulholland (vocals, violin and percussion) and Andrew Penner (vocals, guitars, drums, piano, bass, organs, synths, vibes, glockenspiel, banjo and percussion); just another Americana duo? I don’t think so. Just one look at the instrumental credits will tell you that. Miranda and Andrew have all the traditional skills for the duo line-up; they play a variety of stringed and percussion instruments, sing beautifully and build great harmonies, but they’re not content to stop at that. “Call to Arms” is experimental Americana. The opening song, “Hangnail”, gives you a few clues to the direction that they’re taking with its overdriven guitar, fiddle refrain and thudding percussion taking a decidedly lo-fi direction. 

As the album progresses there are more unexpected instrument sounds; there are a few songs with some evil distortion on the fiddle sound and “How Cold” has the feel of a Gaelic dirge with a constant drone, but with overlaid synths and some thunderous bass. The disparate elements gel to create a satisfying song. The preceding song, “Harrow Fair Pig Auction” isn’t quite so successful, featuring a recording of two auctioneers overlaid with freeform improvisation, but that’s experimentation for you. Definitely worth a listen for the bending and warping of musical forms.

 “Call to Arms” is released on May 19th on Roaring Girl Records.

 

A Girl in Teen City ScrollerNot so much a concept album as a themed album; Suzie Ungerleider (Oh Susanna) has produced a wonderfully moving album set in her teenage years in 1980s Vancouver. As the album unfolds, the sense of time and place are reinforced by the musical references (mainly second generation punk) and geographical references to Vancouver and her birthplace Northampton, Massachusetts. Don’t think for a minute that it’s all rose-tinted nostalgia; there is a bit of that, but Suzie doesn’t ignore the darker side of adolescence. “A Girl in Teen City” is a gorgeous piece of work and one where the musical settings are perfectly matched to the lyrics; there are lots of contributors, but the production always feels really uncluttered, leaving Suzie’s beautiful voice plenty of space to deliver her moving and poetic lyrics (‘We’d dream in black and white and chocolate’ from the haunting “Puget Sound”). 

The songs are sequenced in roughly chronological order, beginning with the innocent friendship of “Flashlights”, working through the sexual experimentation of “Darkroom at the School”, drugs, booze and bands in “Getting Ready” and “Tickets on the Weekend”, to the Springsteenesque street sleaze, disillusionment, and finally acceptance of “My Old Vancouver”. And there’s humour as well, in “My Boyfriend”, the true story of an ex-boyfriend chosen for a band because of his looks, who couldn’t actually sing. It’s a feminist message as the young woman who can actually sing sits it out and watches the audition. “Thunderbird” is an “American Graffiti”-style story about the cool factor of working to pay for, and falling in and out of love with a broken-down T-Bird. 

Apart from the perfect songs and the understated playing (no solos, well, just one guitar break), the lyrics are shot through with references to the music of the era, with mentions (directly or indirectly) of The Ramones, Teenage Head, DOA, Prince and Camper van Beethoven (very indirectly). There’s something here for anyone who appreciates the art of songwriting and great musicianship. I haven’t heard a better, or more complete, album this year so far. 

“A Girl in Teen City” is released on Friday May 12 on Continental Song City (CSCCD1142).

TheKorvids_02The Korvids, eh? I’m guessing it’s a korruption of the scientific term for the crow family. Anyway it’s the name given to a project put together by James Grant (surely I don’t have to tell you about his history) and Gordie Goudie (Simple Minds producer and former member of Echo and the Bunnymen and The Primevals). So the obvious collaboration would be a disco album, right? Well, not strictly; it’s certainly a dance album, but there’s a lot more than just disco lurking in “The Korvids”. Is it so far away from the music they’ve made in the past? In James Grant’s case, I would probably say no; he’s always had a bit of a funky element to his guitar playing and he’s not afraid to experiment, so a dance album’s not such a big step. Now a cheerful dance album; that’s another thing entirely.

The album covers a range of styles; the opener ”Bad Faith”, with its four-to-the-floor kick, congas, funky keys, hi-hats, melodic bassline and horns is pure joyous mid-seventies Studio 54. James Grant even throws in an Ernie Isley style guitar solo for good measure. Maybe a hint of the Average White Band in there as well. And that’s just the first song. “Tender Tyrannies” is about old records and the memories attached and has a Soul II Soul feel with a female vocal, squelching synth bass and clipped, funky guitar, “Slouch” has a groove that’s part Steely Dan, part humanistic Kraftwerk and previous single “Beach Coma” has an ambient Goa trance feel with synth pads and swirls and an acoustic guitar hook. Elsewhere, you can hear elements of Massive Attack and Eastern music in “Be My Enemy” and trip-hop in “Are You Bored with Me Baby?”

If you were a clubber in the late eighties/early nineties and you’ve grown up since then, this is the album for you. It feels a bit like the dance production process has been turned on its head; instead of building up from a groove and adding layers to create the finished product, this feels like the songs came first and the backing tracks were written to fit the songs. Either way, it’s a cracking album.

“The Korvids” is released on Friday April 28 on Nang Records.

And while we’ve got you here, how about checking a stunningly good song about Scottish families, another of James Grant’s classics:

Sound-of-the-Sirens-FOR-ALL-OUR-SINS-packshot-300x300[1]The last two years have been a bit of a whirlwind for Sound of The Sirens. Over that period, Abbe Martin and Hannah Wood have risen irresistibly out of the local and support slot circuit to playing major festivals and headlining their own tours. They’ve won many supporters along the way with their superbly-crafted songs, beautiful harmonies and exhilarating live performances. All that’s missing so far is the chance to convert that to national airplay. “For All Our Sins” should be the chance to put that right.

The opening of the first song, the lead track “Smokescreen” is a good indicator of the new approach with the addition of bass and drums and some Spanish style nylon-strung guitar and percussion giving the song an added dimension. It’s not so much a move away from their live sound as a subtle augmentation. The arrangement reminds me of the way Al Stewart was produced in the mid-seventies, an he’s still being played on commercial radio forty years later. Hannah and Abbe’s voices and instruments are still right up there in the mix, but the addition of some more daytime radio-friendly instruments and a few hooks have certainly worked. Jeremy Vine thinks so; he was at the album launch a couple of weeks ago and played the song on his Radio 2 show the following day. That’s a pretty impressive flash-to-bang time.

There are a couple of songs that have been reworked for the album, and it’s interesting to compare the originals with the new versions. Both “Together Alone” and “In This Time” have been smoothed out a little, with the vocals coming down a couple of notches to blend better with the other instruments, and some slight structural changes. Using a drummer has made the transitions between sections smoother, particularly when the tempo changes, and the production team has introduced some studio effects (some dub echo in “Together Alone”) and even created a psychedelic vibe with the ambient sounds, echo, and reverb of “The Circus”.

But all of the studio wizardry’s just window dressing if the raw material isn’t right. Abbe and Hannah’s songwriting is a huge part of their appeal. They write with a darkly poetic romanticism about subjects that are important; mental health in “The Voices”, the impermanence of relationships in “In This Time” and maybe even embittered journalists (amongst other things) in “Smokescreen”. They often explore the elemental side of human experience (“Chaos”) but there’s usually a message of empowerment in there as well. They care passionately about what they do.

With “For All Our Sins”, Sound of the Sirens have succeeded in creating studio versions of their powerful and dynamic songs for mainstream consumption without losing the creative fire in the process. The songs will be there on their upcoming tour and during the festival season in all their dynamic and noisy glory but, for now, this sounds like the next step up the ladder.

“For All Our Sins” is released on DMF on 26 May 2017.

Meanwhile, you can have a look at this: