Well, 2019 is certainly going out with a bang. In a period that’s normally characterised by back catalogue compilations and TV stars covering standards, the roots and Americana scene is still alive and kicking, particularly on Steve Dawson’s Black Hen label. “If Wishes Were Horses” is Alberta-based Matt Patershuk’s fourth album and it’s a very fine piece of work indeed. At first glance it appears to weigh in as a bit of a heavyweight with fifteen tracks, but it features four short instrumental fragments with the same leitmotif (more about that later), giving the album a fairly standard twelve-song running time.

Matt’s songs tend to simplicity on the surface, while tapping into universal truths about life, love, work and loss, but he likes to look at things through a different lens, lyrically and musically, creating a patchwork quality to the album, which is knitted together by the four short instrumental fragments (titled “Horses” and representing wishes). Each of these fragments weaves a different arrangement around a common melody; all are atmospheric with a cinematic quality using a variety of instruments and textures to create the links pulling the album together. “Horse 1 (For Bravery and Good Fortune)” is an interesting mix of Dick Dale and Ennio Morricone topped off with some very Sixties-sounding organ lines; the other wishes are equally enigmatic.

The album is packed with intriguing and memorable songs across a range of styles from old country to sweaty blues and it’s difficult to pick favourites, but let’s give it a try. The two songs telling stories of Ernest Tubb and Albert King (“Ernest Tubb had Fuzzy Slippers” and “Velvet Bulldozer”) are beautifully-drawn evocations of different stages in the musician’s journey. “Alberta Waltz” highlights the contrast between what people do to live and how they escape from it – ‘Dancing is for dreamers and lovers and fools’, while “Circus” describes a world where the everyday routine is grotesque and fantastical, but people still fall in love and get married. And let’s not forget “Let’s Give This Bottle A Black Eye”, which could only ever be a country song in the Merle Haggard vein.

“If Wishes Were Horses” is a satisfying complete album, featuring a great bunch of songs, superb arrangements and a voice that works perfectly across a range from slow country ballads to greasy Southern Blues. Matt Patershuk deserves to be much more widely known.

The album is released in the UK on Friday November 29th on Black Hen Music (BHMCD0090). In the meantime have a quick look at these videos:

Big Dave McLean is that rare thing – a prophet that is actually recognised in his country. In the same week that Southside Johnny was inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame, it’s been announced that Dave will receive an appointment to the Order of Canada. The comparison with Southside Johnny isn’t just plucked out of the air; they’re both people who are passionate about their music, they both love their blues and they both came to recording significant numbers of their own songs late in their careers. Dave has nine of his own compositions on “Pocket Full of Nothin’” alongside three covers and all of the originals have all earned their place. So you take all of that and add Black Hen’s Steve Dawson as player and producer and you already have something a bit special, but there’s a little bit more.

Not only was the band fully tooled-up for country and urban blues, but the addition of a horn section and Hammond added more of a Stax feel as well (I’m trying not to labour this, but hints of Southside Johnny again) and they were ready for the big one. You’ve got the songs, you’ve got the chemistry, why not just do the show right here kids? And they did; most of “Pocket Full of Nothin’” was recorded live on the studio floor over a few days, and because of that, it sounds fresh, almost raw, and dynamic. The arrangements sometimes feel a bit unusual (you don’t often hear resonators and horns together) but Dave’s raw country blues shouter voice pulls all of the elements together perfectly for this bunch of songs that takes the blues idiom as its jumping-off point on “Songs of the Blues” with a fairly smooth twelve-bar arrangement filled out with the horn section, contrasting with Dave’s rough-hewn voice. The styles pan out across the blues spectrum from the swampy Southern groove of “Don’t Be Layin’ That Stuff on Me” to the good time jump blues of “All-Day Party” and the raw country blues of “Pocket Full of Nothin’”.

Which is what you would expect from a lifelong blues player, except there’s a bit more. The album’s two closing songs, “Manitoba Mud”, in praise of the literal and metaphorical mud that pulls people to the city and keeps them there and the simple gospel-tinged optimism of “There Will Always Be a Change” bringing the album to a hopeful end.

This album moves Big Dave McLean from the role of respected bluesman to genuine songwriting talent.

“Pocket Full of Nothin’” is out now in the UK on Black Hen Music (BHCD0091).

It’s fair to say I’m not a prolific reviewer; it’s all about the process. The first listen to an album decides whether it moves me enough to review it, then it gets another five or six listens before I make some notes, track by track. Then I look at the press release and lyric sheets, sleeve notes and anything else that came with the songs. It’s just the way I do it and it throws up some interesting little insights. And there are some artists that you look forward to reviewing because they always make you think very carefully about their work; Ed Dupas is one of those artists. He writes a lot of songs about relationships, happy or sad, but you know that each album will have one song that digs deep and pulls out a reaction to the world that surrounds us. We’ll get to that in a while.

Most of the songs on “The Lonesome Side of Town” fall into genres that can be labelled as country, rock or some combination of the two. Country’s the dominant force on this album with arrangements featuring pedal steel, lap steel, banjo and resonator, but the addition of a Hammond B3 adds another dimension, taking the sound into The Band territory. And let’s not forget the Merseybeat feel of “Love Me Right”, with its chiming guitars and sus4 chords.

Of the eleven songs, ten are deeply personal, dealing with aspects of a relationship breakdown and one, “State of the Nation”, placed in the dead centre of the album, is the zeitgeist song. Ed Dupas doesn’t do a lot of these, but when he does, they hit, and they hit hard. “State of the Nation” is an out-and-out rocker about the divide between the people who work and the people who benefit from that work. It’s no frills rock ’n’ roll fired out in less than three minutes and it brings to mind Bob Seger’s 1978 song “Feels Like a Number” – well, Ed does live in Ann Arbor, Michigan. As an example of the level of detail in the production, rather than crashing the over-driven guitar in at the beginning of the second verse, it’s faded in just before the beginning of the verse so that it reaches the right level just as the verse begins; just a little touch, but it works perfectly.

But that’s not to belittle the rest of the album. The title song sets the mood for the album as it tells the familiar story of a relationship with a performer, while “It All Sounds like Leaving” could only ever be a country song, particularly with the line ‘Let’s get on with the grieving, cos it all sounds like leaving’. Ed admits to agonising over the track order and losing one song that didn’t fit, and that confirms the message that it more than just a bunch of songs – it’s an album and there are subtle links between the songs. There are three references to ‘within’ or ‘between the lines’ and “On my Way” refers back to “It All Sounds like Leaving”. The more you dig, the more you find.

“The Lonesome Side of Town” is a beautifully-crafted set of songs coming out of a difficult situation. There are songs of heartache, a song of anger and some songs of redemption and moving forward. They are all songs of passion.

“The Lonesome Side of Town” is released in the UK on Friday October 25th on Road Trip Songs.

First of all, let me say that this is only available in 375ml bottles rather than the standard 750ml, but it comes in two packages: plastic with a screwtop and glass with a genuine cork. But we’re more interested in quality than quantity aren’t we, so let’s have the tasting notes. Well, I’m getting leather jackets with studs and MOFO patches on the back, shoulder length hair, well-worn Levis and cowboy boots. The ambience of The Midland Hotel Bar in Mansfield in 1973 and Metal Mickey’s rock sessions downstairs in Nottingham Palais in the mid-eighties. It’s a robust flavour with the nuances of Deep Purple, Thin Lizzy and Wishbone Ash (with just a lingering aftertaste of Black Sabbath) and none of the thud and blunder of some of the less subtle bands of the era. It’s Austin Gold’s second album (or mini album) and it’s only available on vinyl or as a download.

There’s no denying that Austin Gold are influenced by seventies rock and that can be a blessing or a curse. For every band with twin guitars in harmony, memorable melodies, concise delivery and keyboards enhancing the guitar attack there were equal numbers of lumbering four-to-the-floor units, pretentious lyrics purveyors, over-long solo show-offs and big light shows that masked the defects of the materials.

You know where this is going; Austin Gold personify all of the elements of seventies British rock that I ever bought into while avoiding all of the elements that totally turned me off. The songs are melodic, they all come in about four minutes, there are no ten-minute solos (in fact no guitar pyrotechnics at all) and the drumming doesn’t rely completely on bass and floor tom. Absolutely nothing’s overdone; the songs run their course, maybe with a solo or two and they end. The Hammond and keys contribute to the overall sound rather than standing front and centre and the guitar riffs are simple, loud and effective. And they know how to write an anthem or two.

It’s definitely Côtes du Rhone rather than Beaujolais Nouveau.

“Austin Gold” is out now on Jigsaw (SAW 8).

It happens every couple of years; we get a new Bob Bradshaw album, and they’re always worth waiting for. Bob’s a very credible singer with a voice that can bristle with taut emotion or smoothe off the edges to demonstrate a rich baritone for the ballads that has a hint of later-period Elvis Costello. The varied arrangements seem almost effortless and always work to emphasise the qualities of the songs, which are also a rich and varied selection of musical and lyrical styles. As you make your way through “Queen of the West”, the pieces of the puzzle begin to fall into place. It’s not a linear narrative, the album opens somewhere in the middle of the story before bouncing back and forth through various critical episodes in the life of Ruby Black, Queen of the West before the album ends with a trilogy of relationship songs which may or may not feature Ruby, closing with tragic story of a boatload of refugees burnt out within sight of the shore – close enough to hear the sounds of the children singing.

And what about those varied styles? Well, the album opens with the beautifully atmospheric and, appropriately widescreen, title song building the atmosphere with floor toms, shimmering guitar and strings as the narrative opens with a tentative reunion for Ruby. It’s a seductive start that sets the scene perfectly for the rest of an album that impresses with its quality and innovation. As an example, three songs in, “Ruby Black”, with its atonal, angular guitar riff pulls together Ruby’s prayer to the saints for her sick child with reminiscences of her musical career, ending with a choral reply from the saints. Which then leads into the almost vaudeville style of “1-800-SOSAINT” pitching the saints as options on a prayer helpline – it’s clever, original and masterfully delivered. Other favourites? Pretty much anything really, but the incredibly catchy “High Horse” and the laconic “Story Goes” have been heavily praised here at Riot Towers.

There’s a lot of chatter about the demise of the album these days and “Queen of the West” is a great example of a piece of work that’s well-written and structured in a way that keeps you engaged throughout. The character of Ruby is developed in a way that pulls you in to her story, crying at the heartache and smiling at the diamond-hard public persona. “Queen of the West” is designed to be listened to as a single piece – it’s a rewarding experience.

“Queen of the West” is out now on Fluke Records (FR10).

It’s fair to say that the music scene in the Irish Republic has always been distinct from that in the UK. It’s not uncommon for bands to be massive, having Number One hits in Ireland while being unknown in the UK and that’ s the way it is with Keywest. They’ve had two Number One albums in Ireland already and now they’re out to conquer the UK with their first album release here, “Ordinary Superhero”. It’s fair to say that in (fairly) recent years, bands taking this route have been aimed at the teen market and the pop charts; while Keywest have some radio-friendly tunes, there’s a lot more to this outfit than pop songs.

They got together busking in Ireland, honing their craft in front of a constantly changing audience on the streets; it’s a harsh learning environment, but the survivors have to be good and they have to know how to hold an audience. I’ve seen Keywest live a couple of times and I know for sure that they’ve achieved both of those goals. It was a live performance in Camden in 2018 that led Steve Tannett, head of Marshall Records to sign them to the label in the UK.

“Ordinary Superhero” is a pretty good representation of where the band is at the moment. They’ve taken all the lessons learned from playing to audiences whose attention they had to grab instantly and created ten songs that fuse influences from pop, folk, rock, Celtic traditional and world music rhythms. The arrangements are built around big choruses and an effective use of dynamics with some Edge-style guitar parts (U2 had to get in there somehow) and emotive Andy Glover vocals, creating a wide soundscape with constant variations.

If you’re looking for standout songs, the floor tom-driven opener “Somebody to Love” with Big Country (or maybe Bryan Adams) guitar hooks is right up there. The title song praises mothers bringing up families in dire social conditions; it’s about an Irish mother, but the message is universal. “This is Heartbreak” features a standout vocal performance, pulling out every nuance of the immediate impact of a broken relationship perfectly.

Just one more thing. The album’s packed with great songs and performances, but it’s not the best way to get the Keywest experience. To get the best from Keywest, you need to see them live. They’re touring the UK in October to promote the album and the live experience is just something else.

“Ordinary Superhero” is released in the UK on Friday September 27th on Marshall Records (CD – R910.022, Vinyl – R920.009).

A new Rod Picott album is always something to look forward to. He’s an exceptional songwriter and his voice is a very effective vehicle for delivering those songs. It’s a voice that’s frayed around the edges and at times crackles with emotion. On “Tell the Truth and Shame the Devil”, Rod has stripped his delivery back to just guitar, harmonica and voice; oh, and the songs. Just to give this some context, the album was recorded after a health scare Rod had over the last winter (although not all of the songs are contemporary) and has a stark, sometimes brooding, feel mingled, unsurprisingly, with intimations of mortality, including the opening song “Ghost”, a brutally honest assessment of Rod’s current situation, and that of many others in similar positions. Confessional, hard-hitting singer-songwriter isn’t a particularly lucrative career path these days.

Rod recorded the entire album alone, without an engineer, before handing the tapes over to Neilson Hubbard (you might remember him if you’re a MusicRiot regular) for final production. If you want a benchmark, the finished article has the same feel as The Boss’s “Nebraska” and has similar lyrical themes of family, poverty and alienation. The result of this method is that the songs are stripped to their very essence with no distractions, emphasising the stories they have to tell and, as always with Rod Picott, they’re striking and memorable stories.

As a writer, Rod likes a metaphor; the murder ballad “Too Much Rain” uses a barren landscape to represent the failure of a marriage to blossom, while “Bailing” uses the idea of bailing literally and metaphorically, referring back to a flooded childhood cellar as a metaphor for the futility of activity that only serves to keep us in the same place. Rod also likes to bring a bit of autobiography into the mix; “Mark” is the story of an unexplained teenage suicide, while “Spartan Hotel” is that bar in any town where anything goes if you can pay the price. And don’t forget the social comment; “A Beautiful Light” aims straight the heart of those songwriters who try to glamourise the drudgery of blue-collar life as a means of social control.

This is the third Rod Picott album we’ve reviewed here and they’re consistently powerful pieces of work blending punchy stories of small-time America with haunting melodies in a voice that is both emotive and vulnerable. It’s probably the most personal of his recent albums and well worth a listen.

“Tell the Truth and Shame the Devil” is out now Welding Rod Records and Rod will be touring the UK in October.

It’s easy to be cynical about the whole remaster/rerelease game – it’s been abused by the music business for so long as a way of making the same material pay its way several times over. And then a 20-year anniversary of something like “Johnstown” comes along with a couple of really good reasons to make the effort. The technical one is that the vinyl release would demand a remaster and the commercial reason is that there are music-lovers that would have completely missed this in 1999 who are blown away by it in 2019; I’m right at the front of that queue.

In common with her autobiographical 2017 album “A Girl in Teen City”, “Johnstown” has a strong sense of place – the scene is set for the twelve stories against a backdrop of a town that has lived for decades with the ominous threat of floods. And just to ramp up the feeling of impending doom, the album opens with a minor-key murder ballad underpinned by distorted and menacing guitar. So that’s just the title song and I’m buying it already.

There genuinely isn’t a mediocre song on the album; they’re all right out of the top drawer and they’re a varied bunch in terms of themes and arrangements; “You’ll Always Be” is a relatively straightforward love song until an edge of shadow is added with a superbly atonal piano solo, while the hauntingly beautiful triple-time ballad “Alabaster” is wrapped in a minimalist arrangement that emphasises the individuality of Susie Ungerleider’s voice and the octave leaps that give the voice its unique quality. And so it goes, right up to the album’s final song, in triple-time again, the gorgeous “Tangled & Wild”, embellished by some keening pedal steel and bringing the album to a gentle close; but not quite.

That’s where the original album ended, but there are a few little surprises in the shape five stripped-back demo-style versions of songs from the album. I’m also cynical about the addition of ‘bonus’ tracks that are added to tempt the completist collector, but the additions here work well and they have all been previously commercially available as an EP. “Johnstown” proves that the song works without the album arrangement and “Alabaster” (which finally closes the album) is perfect as a solo piece. This is an album that I genuinely wish I’d heard twenty years ago and I’m sure I’ll be listening to in another twenty years.

“Johnstown” is released in the UK on Friday August 30th on Continental Song City (CSCCD 1164) and Oh Susanna will be touring the UK in early September.

I guess this is one that was inevitable; a live album that was recorded almost by accident, just because they could, and what an interesting piece of work it is. Unusually, this didn’t grab the attention at the first listen and it wasn’t a grower. On about the fourth listen, the power of the lyrics suddenly hit home and everything started to fit together. Sam Baker’s songs are self-contained stories, told with perfect economy; there isn’t a superfluous word as he tells us about the kind of people we’re all surrounded by, whether we know it or not; the single mothers, the alcoholics, the drug addicts, the widows and the guilt-ridden all doing their best to make it through another day. It’s the life of a small Texas town told in twelve small but perfectly-formed chapters.

The delivery as a live performance matches up perfectly with the stark subject matter. Sam Baker relates the tales in a sung-spoken style that has hints of Tom Waits and an interesting minimalist picked electric guitar style (more about that later), plus a wooden block to tap out the tempo with a foot. It works perfectly because the stark arrangement focusses all the attention on the power of Sam’s writing and the stories of despair and injustice but, ultimately, hope.

Back to that thing about the guitar style. After surviving a terrorist bombing of a train in Peru, which nearly ended his life, Sam’s long and painful recovery eventually led to using his music as a therapy, which included learning to play an upside-down guitar to adjust to the loss of a large part of his left hand. The playing style he’s developed strips all of the arrangements back to basics, shining a spotlight on the beating, bleeding heart of each of the songs.

Highlights? “Mennonite” is a poignant story of an unlikely relationship and forms the centrepiece of the album, “Boxes” is a heart-rending tale of a Vietnam widow and “Odessa” deals with the tragic fallout from a spoilt, entitled upbringing. Seriously though, it’s all good and you get the chance to hear it live in the UK early next year.

“Horses and Stars” is released in the UK on Friday August 23rd.

Buford Pope’s American influences shine through on “The Waiting Game”. His introduction to American music was Bob Dylan but the most obvious comparison vocally is the high register vocals of Neil Young. There’s a reference in the album’s second song, “Hey Hey Aha”, to the difficulties of songwriting (and a subtle nod to Shakey again) and writer’s block, but the songs all worked out fine in the end and the calling card for “The Waiting Game” is the way they have been arranged. And that’s apparent from the very start. 

America” (a lyrical co-write with Mark Drake) is the collaboration that Neil Young and The Blue Nile haven’t quite got round to yet. It’s an atmospheric love song to America with a big bassline and a new frontier theme with songsters replacing pioneers. The high tenor range of the voice, the melancholy subject matter and the country-rock feel of “Hard Life” make vocal comparisons with Don Henley difficult to avoid, but it’s difficult to see how that’s a bad thing. I mentioned arrangements earlier and the most innovative has to be “A Hundred”. 

The minimalist production is built around a bass drum on one and three and a layered handclap on two and four which repeats remorselessly throughout the song as the blues builds up with the addition of bass and banjo. It hints at the foot stamps of Brian May’s percussion innovation for “We Will Rock You” (a reference you might not expect to hear on an Americana album). Incidentally, a country, honky-tonk reworking of the song, listed as “Ninety-Nine” closes out the album. 

It’s the kind of album that you get when an someone without the baggage of a ‘scene’ or ‘movement’ to contend with (living in a remote part of Sweden) can concoct by taking original American influences and subject matter and melding them with elements from outside this genre to produce something that’s unique. It’s an intriguing listen. 

“The Waiting Game” is out now.