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:

Shiny Silvery Things ScrollerSo where would you start if you wanted to assign a label to Cormac O Caoimh? It’s so diverse you would need a bucketload of tags and then you’d spend hours agonising over which order to put them in. Life’s too short, so let’s just go for eclectic. If you take the melodic romanticism of Paddy McAloon and throw in a bit of Neil Hannon’s Gaelic whimsy, you might begin to grasp the completely original sound of Cormac O Caoimh. Prefab Comedy or Divine Sprout? You decide; either way, there are twelve beautifully-crafted songs here that are set like jewels in arrangements and stylings that transform them into, well, “Shiny Silvery Things”.

There’s poetry and mysticism in the lyrics throughout the album and the musical settings range from the lush strings and gorgeous choral harmonies of “Silence and Sound” to the jazz swing and rich baritone vocal of the title track, to the spiky guitar fills packed with accidentals (or should that be deliberates) and free-form jazz sax of “A Parked Car”. And there’s more guitar atonality in “In the Hollow of an Old Oak”, the slightly sour tone contrasting with the spirituality of the lyrics. Along the way, there are a few more gems. “Proud” roars in with an intro that’s somewhere between “Get Back” and “David Watts” before Cormac launches into a one-man call and response vocal, and the gentle “Tea in my Teacup” emphasises the value of the simpler things in life as an antidote to the complicated world outside.

The comparisons with Prefab Sprout are impossible to avoid; every melody’s an earworm, the lyrics are poetic and thought-provoking (there’s even an Atlantis reference) and Aoife Regan’s vocals have more than a hint of Wendy Smith, but there’s also a Gaelic twist to the album that gives it a unique character. Sublime.

“Shiny Silvery Things” is released on Friday April 28.

Drew Holcomb ScrollerHere’s an example of the press release absolutely nailing it. The album’s a souvenir of where the band is at this point in time. It’s on a journey and this is one of the staging points on the way to a destination. There’s no clear direction to “Souvenir”, there are lots of different styles, varied instrumental arrangements and textures, but mostly it feels like trying something on to see if it fits rather than wearing it with pride. It’s certainly not a bad album. I was happy to listen through it several times but it never really felt like the end of the journey.

It’s not difficult to pick out reference points; “California” could have come from the Laurel Canyon clique, “Fight for Love” had a Huey Lewis feel and the piano intro to “Sometimes” evokes Lennon’s “Imagine””. They say there’s nothing new in the world, but these references feel a bit raw as they jump out from the songs. However,there are a few songs that stand out for the right reasons and those are ones where there’s a much greater personal investment.

“New Year” is a tale of annual family get-togethers and the good and bad things that can happen on those occasion, set against a backdrop that features Bruce Hornsby-like piano and some synths that should feel out of context but actually work well. “Mama’s Sunshine” is pure back porch skiffle on the theme of having a young daughter and the way in which the two parents combine to create one new individual, while Nathan Dugger’s country ballad “Yellow Rose of Santa Fe” is a lovely story of a chance romantic encounter that’s never forgotten; it’s a little bit Bobby Goldsboro in the style and vocal delivery. It certainly manages to evoke those bittersweet teenage experiences.

Drew Holcomb’s certainly able to deliver a good song and, when the influences are incorporated more smoothly, he’s going to produce work that will be entirely his own. Now that will really be worth hearing.

“Souvenir” is released on April 21 on Magnolia Music.

stone_foundation_Street_RitualsOK, let’s get this straight from the start. It’s Stone Foundation; not The Stone Foundation. It’s an important distinction because the name has layers of meaning. It’s a reference to the solid bond uniting the core of the band: Neil Jones, Neil Sheasby, Phil Ford and Ian Arnold. But it’s also a reference to the foundations that underpin the band, the songwriting partnership of Neil Jones and Neil Sheasby and the locked-in, rock-solid rhythm section of Neil Sheasby and Phil Ford. That’s not to understate the importance of Ian Arnold’s keyboards or Rob Newton’s congas, but none of it can happen without the purring V8 (I know, mixed metaphors) engine.

And the rhythm section (along with the rest of the band) can turn on a sixpence as well. “Love Rediscovered” has the band alternating tempos and time signatures in a jazz-inflected piece with gentle ensemble horns and some lovely background sax fills. In many ways it’s the least typical song on the album, but it has a strand of the common thread of social commentary running through it. In that respect it’s a lot like the Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield social consciousness albums of the early seventies.

The big ticket news item is always going to be the involvement of Paul Weller as producer, co-writer, player and singer. On the two previous albums, the band have attracted some high-profile guests, but nothing quite in this league. The most obvious influence is in the current single “The Limit of a Man”, which has hints of Style Council, although there are suggestions of Brenton Wood’s “Gimme Little Sign” and Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up” in there as well. It’s a gloriously upful song and should, by rights, be all over the radio.

Paul Weller aside, there are guest appearances from Bettye Lavette on the midtempo “Season of Change”, full of horn stabs and parping baritone sax, and William Bell on “Strange People” with, strings, Hammond, horns, a flute solo and even a bit of cowbell. Both singers still sound fabulous. On the ‘business as usual’ front, Neil Jones’ vocals seem to get better with each album and Neil Sheasby has created some lovely melodic basslines.

Stone Foundation managed something wonderful with “Street Rituals”. They’ve expanded their musical palette by adding flute, more strings and some over-driven guitar to the usual mix of piano, Hammond and horns to create a timeless vibe that’s thoroughly modern while acknowledging its roots. There’s a lot going on with “Street Rituals”; it sounds gorgeous on the first listen, but on repeat keeps revealing more and more. Is there a better British soul band at the moment? I very much doubt it.

“Street Rituals” is released on Friday March 31 on 100 Per Cent Records.

4PAN1TI’m not going to keep you in suspense; I love this album, it’s a very beautiful piece of work. It’s eleven very special songs (more about that later) interpreted by some very gifted musicians that we’ve reviewed over the last few years here (how about Will Kimbrough, Neilson Hubbard and Telisha Williams for starters, not forgetting Carrie’s husband Danny Schmidt). “The Penny Collector” is a set of songs created during a pivotal period for Carrie Elkin that focus on the circle of life; birth, childhood, adolescence (and rebellion), adulthood and death. It’s built around some of popular culture’s timeless themes; family, nature, love and loss and framed by some of the most gorgeous musical settings you’ll hear this year (or possibly any other). There’s a huge variety of musical stylings across the album, pulled together by the quality of the songs and Carrie’s wonderful voice.

The album opens with some atmospheric, almost Ennio Morricone, ambient guitar noises (Will Kimbrough would be my guess) leading into “New Mexico” where the playing is quiet and delicate but the mix is loud; it’s minimal and intimate but in your face at the same time. It’s an indication that you might have to forget about conventions; “The Penny Collector” doesn’t play to any recognised rules.

Throughout the album, Carrie’s vocals are closely-miked and placed right up front and centre; it’s a technique that works when the singer has perfect control, which Carrie has, totally and utterly. There’s a rich poetical seam running through the album (with references to nature, particularly birds), and it’s particularly evident in the adolescent rebellion song “Live Wire” with the line ‘A life half-empty is a life half-spilled’. There’s plenty more to discover but I don’t want to spoil it for you.

As for the musical settings, “Always on the Run” builds up to a Spectoresque climax, the melancholy “Crying Out” is played out over a string section and perfect layers of vocal harmonies and the album’s finale “Lamp of the Body” is a heavily reverbed mixture of mandolin, over-driven guitar and counterpoint vocals creating a sound that’s menacing and gospel-tinged in equal measures.

“The Penny Collector” is a potent mix of Southern American poetry, perfectly subverted musical settings and beautifully controlled vocals. It’ll make you reflect on your own life; the choices you made, the experiences you had, and the support you had from your family and friends. It’s a gorgeous album.

“The Penny Collector” is released on Friday April 7th (CECD07).