Well, unless there’s a surprise rush-release in the next few weeks, this is the last album review of 2021 and we’re heading towards 2022 on a high note. “An Honest Effort” is full of stories of people giving it their best shot, even if their achievements aren’t going to change the world. As a piece of work, “An Honest Effort” is much more than that; it’s a collection of beautifully-crafted songs performed economically to maximum effect with sparse arrangements allowing Matt Patershuk’s rich baritone to deliver stories that show life with gritty realism, intelligent insight and a lively imagination; which is a good place to start.

“1.3 Miles” examines fate and random chance by tracing the course of a bullet fired at a coyote. The shot misses, is avoided by a sparrow that suddenly dives for a worm and comes to rest against a missing wedding ring. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that it’s a metaphysical poem set to music. “Jupiter the Flying Horse” (which isn’t the only song on the album, or in the rest of Matt’s catalogue, about a horse) is an equine love song inspired by a Barnum & Bailey poster. It’s also a metaphor for human social inequality. It’s one of those albums that rewards a bit of deep digging. “The 2nd Law of Thermodymanics” follows on from an earlier song, “Memory and the First Law of Thermodynamics”, from his “Same As I Ever Have Been” album and, along with the two songs mentioned above illustrate an unusual aspect of Matt’s songwriting. He’s very comfortable with introducing scientific, metaphysical and even just plain strange ideas into his songs in the same way that Danny Schmidt does currently, and Shel Silverstein did in the 1970s.

It’s noticeable that Matt doesn’t rush anything on “An Honest Effort”; if a story takes five minutes to tell, then five minutes it is. The songs are taken at a leisurely pace for maximum impact and a couple are in waltz time, which seems to feel less rushed. There’s plenty of space to tell the poignant stories of the person that doesn’t fit in (“Johanna”), the abused wife (“Sunny”) before the tempo shifts up appropriately to driving country rock for “Turn the Radio Up”, about growing older physically but not mentally. I’m writing this on my birthday and I completely empathise. And I’m not saying which birthday. The two family songs “Stay With Me” (about Matt’s father) and “Upright” (about his grandmother) are both powerful in different ways, the first poignant and the second celebratory.

Two more songs on “An Honest Effort” hit the sweet spot for me. “Clever Hans” tells the story of a dishonest effort – it’s based on a performing horse from the early twentieth century and Matt cleverly builds up the detail of the con, telling the tale and creating the back story in the voice of the horse’s handler with lovely subtlety. “Shane MacGowan” is a light-hearted celebration of the Pogues’ singer seemingly abandoning his lifelong pursuit of oblivion and finally having his teeth fixed, even though it interferes with singing his songs.

“An Honest Effort” is a great way to end the year for Music Riot. Matt Patershuk’s a gifted, versatile and highly imaginative songwriter who delivers his songs in a delicately dramatic way, using pauses and interjections to heighten the tension before the release and playing only what actually needs to be played. Eleven beautiful songs delivered in a seemingly effortless style. Enough said.

“An Honest Effort” is out now on Black Hen Music (BHCD0094).

Here’s the video for “Turn the Radio Up”:

As we approach the end of this year’s meaningful album releases (obviously not including “Greatest Hits” packages and festive cash-ins), it’s not difficult to find a theme that runs through this year’s albums. The pandemic looms large either as subject matter for the songs or as the impetus to explore different ways of working. Either way, the impact’s impossible to ignore. Abby Posner dealt with the planetary and personal upheaval by creating this album almost single-handedly (with guest appearances from singers Mary Scholz and Fred Newhouse and fiddle player M’Gilvry Allen). Everything else is written, played, recorded and produced by Abby Posner.

About the title; I’ve saved people in the UK the hassle of spending 30 seconds on the internet to discover what it means. It’s a life buoy or ring buoy thrown to someone in distress in the water and it pulls together themes that suffuse the album; themes of stormy seas, of drowning, of rescues and emergencies. The eighteen months before the album’s release was a testing period for Abby Posner and its ten songs reflect the questions posed and the answers found during that period. The songs are intensely personal apart from one exception. I’ll come back to that later.

The musical stylings are restrained throughout the album, focusing the attention on Abby’s ethereal, haunting and often multi-layered lead vocal to enhance the lyrical messages. This approach is taken to its logical conclusion on the album’s closing song, “Digging Corners” which is stripped down to vocal and acoustic guitar to emphasise the message of two people opening themselves up to each other; the risk of hurt set against the hope of love. It’s a lovely positive message to close the album.

The title track is set against gently strummed guitar and acoustic piano and is shot through with disaster and recovery metaphors as well as contrasting physical and digital life – there’s no backup for real life, and no rewind. The quality of the songs and arrangements is consistently good across the album, with enough shifts of style and changes of tempo to keep the interest throughout. And there are even a couple of songs in triple time. Which brings us back to that one exception, “Blind Spots” (also in triple time); it’s a political song sitting amid the personal.

The song’s main focus is the murder of George Floyd. The blind spots of the title have a double meaning; the song starts by using blind spots in the driving sense while looking back instead of forwards before shifting the meaning to things that are plain to see, but we wilfully ignore or fail to see because they’re difficult to deal with. Although Trump isn’t mentioned, the bigotry and hate generated by populist campaigning and his Presidency have done lasting damage. It’s a cleverly-worked song with a powerful message that we need to heed. And that’s surely the final pandemic album of 2021.

“Kisbee Ring” is out now.

Here’s the Zoom-style video for “Blind Spots”:

“Mean Old World” is a very thought-provoking album. One of those that will have you firing up your search engine of choice to check out some of the references in the lyrics. It’s partly a political album, but the references aren’t the usual ones we’ve seen over the last year and a half. Gordie Tentrees is from Canada, making Trump references we’ve heard elsewhere less relevant, and there’s barely a mention of the pandemic. What we do get are references to gender identity and issues related to indigenous peoples as well as stories of how mean this old world can be to the loners, the outsiders and the vulnerable. The lyrics lean to a greater or lesser extent on Gordie Tentrees’ life story, including experiences as a foster child and later as a foster parent.

Musically, the stylings are basically string band and a kick drum, with a few additional seasonings of pedal steel and electric guitar and the slightly more exceptional synth that decorates “Lefties” a tale of two women who take an annual road trip together leaving their partners to deal with domestic arrangements. It combines a serious message about gender and domestic roles with a tongue-in-cheek delivery. “Danke” is in a similar vein, telling stories of life on the road while trying to secure record deals. “Twice as Nice”. I did mention political sentiments earlier and “Rosetta” refers to the Canadian legal bill C-92 dealing with the recognition of indigenous people’s jurisdiction over child and family services. Even “Train is Gone”, about an old friend dying, fits in references to equality before signing off with a carpe diem message.

The closing song, “Ring Speed” is a very cleverly-constructed autobiographical song structured as a boxing match in three rounds where the rhythms evoke the speed and the movement of the action in the ring. The song references one of Gordie’s previous occupations as a Golden Gloves boxer and ends on the advice the “Become a folksinger get out of ring”.

There’s a lot happening on “Mean Old World”. There’s a message that this life can be incredibly cruel, but there’s also some positivity and a bit of humour to balance things up. It’s raw and potent and it even has a genuine classic in the stunning closing song “Ring Speed”.

“Mean Old World” is out now .

Here’s the official video for the album’s opener, “Wind Walker”:

There’s no denying the musical lineage of “Mercury Transit”. The melodic style and chiming guitars go all the way back to the Merseybeat scene of the early sixties and the songs have more than their fair share of the sus4 and sus2 chords that characterise that particular era. Taylor Young certainly isn’t the first and probably won’t be the last to be influenced by this purple patch in British pop history; the thread runs through the work of The Byrds, Alex Chilton, Flaming Groovies, Tom Petty, The Pretenders, The La’s and Teenage Fanclub and probably many more. Taylor’s in pretty good company there.

It looks like a step change from Taylor Young’s previous incarnations as drummer in the psychedelic band Hi-Fi Drowning and singer in folk-rock duo, The O’s but, in reality, it’s more of a combination of the two sets of influences with the addition of great harmonies and melodic bass lines to create a new style of twenty-first century power pop. You won’t find any penetrating political insights here, but you will find ten uplifting country-inflected pop songs built around traditional pop themes – love, loss, and drinking, of course.

The album starts with a statement of intent. “Get Around” opens with a La’s-style jangly guitar intro and packs a West Coast punch that doesn’t overstay its welcome at two minutes twenty. A bit like Thin Lizzy’s “Don’t Believe a Word”; if you can pack everything into that time, why add any unnecessary embellishments. The following song, “Make You Wanna Stay” goes right back to the Merseybeat roots of jangle with a melodic bass line, nods to the Fab Four and a slightly hurried vocal delivery that’s typical of sixties UK pop.

Most songs on the album seem to be a hat-tip in the direction of a follower of the jangle-pop style. The optimistic “Five Cents” has a strong feel of James Honeyman Scott-era Pretenders, while “Rattled”, after a synth intro, is pure Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. The album’s closing song “Drinkin’” bucks the trend slightly by sticking to a more country style while Taylor’s voice is pitched slightly lower as he tells the familiar tale of the drinker blaming everyone else for his woes while slipping in a reference to Garth Brooks as well.

This album has unashamedly retro influences while sounding very contemporary. If you’re going to wear your influences on your sleeve, the ones mentioned above are a pretty good set. If this album doesn’t make you feel good, I’ll eat my chapeau.

“Mercury Transit” is out now on Hand Drawn Records.

Here’s the video for “Rattled”:

We’ve seen artists cope in many different ways with the pressures of the pandemic and lockdown; here’s another one. Chuck Melchin has already done the long-distance collaboration thing with Michael Spaly of Green Monroe as the Los Brujos project in 2019, so now he’s pulled together another project. It’s a Bean Pickers Union retrospective, pulling songs from the albums “Potlatch” (2007), “Better the Devil” (2012), “Caterwaul” (2017) and “Archaeology” (2019), As an added bonus, there are four unreleased bonus tracks. With a total of eighteen songs, it’s into double-album territory; fortunately there’s so much great material to choose from over the fourteen-year period that the album has a very cohesive feel that retrospectives often lack.

Describe the album in one word? Varied; there’s a long list of players and an even longer list of instruments used. The arrangements and stylings cover most of the Americana spectrum and a bit more besides; “Independence Day” is a full-on rock band arrangement with over-driven guitars and keyboards, hinting at Bruce and the E Street Band musically and even lyrically with a story of cars, girls, beer and marriage in a small American town. Chuck Melchin is a songwriter who knows how to tell a story in a 3-minute song and has a sure touch with his subjects, picking out uncommon themes that are still relatively easy to relate to.

A perfect example is “Philemon”, the story of a survivalist left stranded in the wilderness when Armageddon didn’t actually come. The minimalist backing sets the tone beautifully for the quiet desperation of a man left with only his bible, his ammunition and his shattered illusions. The menacing “Reaper”, starting with sampled surface noise, is a murder ballad telling the story of two friends who take different paths with tragic consequences and ends with violent death. “Warrior” is, on the surface, the tale of a Confederate soldier returning after the Civil War. The martial drums set the tone for the piece, while the intro hints at Al Wilson’s soul classic, “The Snake”. It’s a familiar tale, and a very angry one, of the wounded warrior spurned by society that still happens today with veterans from Vietnam, the Gulf and Afghanistan.

These offbeat tales are mixed with personal material and acute observations, leaving a very rounded and satisfying impression. It’s eighteen well-crafted songs covering a wide range of styles and themes and that’s more than enough to keep any serious music fan happy.

“Greatest Picks” is out now.

Here’s the video for “Warrior”:

“Going Back to the Sky” runs through a variety of musical styles covering the Americana genre fairly comprehensively but there are a couple of things that remain constant; the first is the theme of the album – it’s the wide open spaces of the centre of America and the people that inhabit this world. The other constant is RB Morris’s smooth, honeyed vocal delivery which feels almost effortless as he delivers his finely-crafted tales of life on the road on what he calls his ’dustbowl record’, speaking metaphorically.

If there’s a single song on the album that exemplifies RB Morris’s abilities to create a powerful song from a trivial-sounding event, it’s “Missouri River Hat Blowing Incident”; on a stop to commemorate his first crossing of the Missouri river, his hat is blown away by a gust of wind. After (eventually) chasing down the hat, the chance comes to look around with wonder at the epic scale of the prairie landscape. It’s a tip of the hat (pun intended) to Tony Joe White, not for the first time on the album, punctuated with Greg Horne’s moody pedal steel fills; it’s the perfect road song. “Montana Moon”, the longest song on the album, also nods in the direction of Tony Joe White, with sparse instrumentation depicting a freezing night on the road, literally and metaphorically running on fumes while using talk and memories of better times to survive the night.

Although at first sight the album looks quite hefty at fourteen tracks, three of those (“Prelude I”, “Somewhere’s West” and “Prelude II”) are tone poems clocking in at under a minute, either setting the scene or, in the case of “Somewhere’s West”, acting as a coda to “Montana Moon”. Interestingly, these are the work of the other musicians on the album, not RB Morris; the songs are the work of a gifted songwriter, but the instrumental settings certainly help them along.

Picking out individual songs isn’t easy, but here we go. “Under the Cigar Tree” is a bit of fun (that happens on the road as well) with mariachi rhythms and instrumentation, while the title song has a country-rock styling and perfect harmonies as it runs through a few tempo changes. It’s also ambivalent; it can mean going back to old haunts or leaving this life altogether.

“Going Back to the Sky” is an album that doesn’t give up all its secrets at once; it’s well worth listening a few times to capture some of the finer nuances of its lyrics and arrangements.

The album is out now on Singular Recordings (NTRB202001).

Here’s the video for “Red Sky”:

Tim Grimm released the single “Gone” at about the time of the American election last year as the third of a trilogy of singles about the Trump era. It could have been a very angry song, but Tim pitched it as a regretful look at the hypocrisy and viciousness given free rein by the contentious president number forty-five. Now it’s one of the pillars of an album that’s suffused with loss and leavened by a sense of rebirth and renewal.

The one exception to this mood is the (presumably) autobiographical “Cadillac Hearse” which rattles along in the style of vintage Johnny Cash with acoustic guitar and mandolin fills and walking bass and tells an uplifting coming of age story set in rural community in America in the sixties where the hearse doubles up as an ambulance. It’s the bit of rollicking fun that throws the rest of the album into a stark contrast.

The album opens and closes with a full arrangement and a stripped-back version of the song “A Dream”, which establishes and then reinforces the theme of the album. “A Dream” is a poignant, elegiac story of loss, linked to the song “Laurel Pearl” by the lyrical reference to ‘the girl with the funny name’. “Laurel Pearl” moves on from a dream evocation of loss to a genuine story of a life ended too soon. This isn’t the only link between songs on the album; “Joseph Cross”, the story of the death of a Native American man with an incredible history, was written by Eric Taylor, one of the three songwriters mentioned in “Dreaming of King Lear”, who died during the pandemic.

The other two songwriters Tim pays tribute to in “Dreaming of King Lear” are Michael Smith and David Olney (who quoted the ‘blasted heath’ speech from “King Lear” on his final album “Whispers and Sighs”). The opening line of the song also echoes the opening of Jackson Browne’s “Before the Deluge”. “Laurel Pearl” is the heartbreaking story of the death of a child, which feels strongly linked to “A Dream”. The message isn’t entirely sombre; the line ‘you’re part of every living thing’ hints at renewal and the happy memories live on. The sense of peace and renewal reverberating from the previous song “25 Trees” (where the tree planting represents things that will carry on after us, while books on a shelf represent a history that has already endured) is strengthened. And there’s the obvious link between trees and paper.

“Cadillac Hearse” aside, “Gone” is a very gentle album with delicate folk stylings that allow the lyrics to shine through and the themes of renewal and moving on are enhanced by having the next generation, Connor and Jackson (Tim’s sons), contributing to the album. It was never part of Tim Grimm’s plan to release an album in 2021, but “Gone” is timely. There’s regret and a bit of anger for the events of 2020, but also a calm realisation that we must move on and create our future. That’s a message I’ll happily endorse.

“Gone” is released in Europe on Friday September 10th.

Here’s the video from “Dreaming of King Lear”:

It’s difficult to review a Rod Picott album without mentioning Raymond Carver. There we go, that’s out of the way now, we don’t have to go back to that, valid as it is. “Wood, Steel, Dust + Dreams” is in the category of ‘Great idea; will it actually work?’ (spoiler alert – it will). The great idea was to take the twenty-five songs that Rod had co-written with childhood buddy and long-time collaborator Slaid Cleaves and rework them as a record of their collaboration. And there’s another interesting idea; the two-disc collection will only be available on CD. No, downloads, no streaming; you buy the album directly from Rod and no-one else takes a slice of it. Or, even better, you could go out and catch him on his UK tour (details below) and put some money in his hand personally in exchange for two CDs. It’s a nice way to get your music fix.

The title of the album sums things up neatly (although ‘rust’ could have featured as well). This album is packed with American blue-collar songs; we’re not taking Manhattan or Berlin, we’re dealing with people doing back-breaking manual labour in the rust belt and busting out at the weekend, drinking, racing cars or gambling and you can feel the authenticity running through every song. Running to twenty-five songs over two CDs, it’s a lot of songs. As our Northern reporter, Steve Jenner, used to say about “Sandinista”, you need a packed lunch for that one. There’s no filler; they’re all great songs and the list of musicians on the album is very impressive – Will Kimbrough, Matt Mauch, Lex Price and Neilson Hubbard are all on board, with Hubbard producing and there’s even a guest harmony from Slaid Cleaves. The production is very light touch, creating ambient soundscapes that pull the attention to the songs and Rod’s ‘groaning wound of a voice’ (his own words) and the raw power of the songs.

It’s subjective and a bit tricky to pick out favourites, but here are a few of my personal highlights. “Rust Belt Fields” tells the story the America sold when corporations discovered cheaper labour in Mexico and China and the impact it had on the workers and towns left marooned as the jobs evaporated; it’s despair and the knowledge that there’s no recognition for hard work. Two songs sitting side by side on CD Two are perfect demonstrations of the power and subtlety of the songwriting; “Drunken Barber’s Hand” is a menacing view of a malign force guiding the world, while “Primer Gray” is a perfect example of a song working on two levels. It’s a straightforward story about someone escaping from the grind by racing his car at the weekend. All the attention is paid to the engine and the body work and paint job is irrelevant because it doesn’t make the car faster. On another level, it’s about the music business (and humanity in general); all the glitz in the world can’t hide a hollow centre.

If you want a masterclass in songwriting and delivery, you don’t need to go any further than “Wood, Steel, Dust + Dreams”. Simple stories about real people delivered with the minimum of fuss and maximum of heart.

“Wood, Steel, Dust + Dreams” is out now on Welding Rod Records.

Where do I start with this one? The obvious I suppose; this is I See Hawks in LA’s lockdown album. This is the one where they discovered all of the ways of working that didn’t involve being in a room together, courtesy of Tim Berners-Lee. Rob Waller, Paul Lacques, Paul Marshall and Victoria Jacobs jumped in at the deep end and explored all the possibilities and opportunities on offer. The change in working methods and the broad church of Americana in the twenty-first century make “On Our Way” a very eclectic album indeed, incorporating elements of psychedelia, sixties pop and Southern swamp rock alongside the more usual country rock and string band arrangements. There’s a strong Byrds influence running through the whole album with twelve-string guitar featuring heavily and some gorgeous harmonies.

The album even has a pandemic song, the incredibly catchy and hook-filled “Radio Keeps Me on the Ground” which builds from an acoustic guitar intro, goes through the gears and finishes with the full band including Hammond B3. It’s an uplifting and optimistic look back at a particularly difficult year. The songs that move away from I See Hawks in LA mainstream are what gives the album its originality and depth. “Mississippi Gas Station Blues” is a grungy lo-fi, Canned Heat-inflected lope with a growling vocal, while “How You Gonna Know”, at over eight minutes long, is a constantly evolving take on a Tuareg chant with ambient sounds and general weirdness. “Know Just What to Do” is a heavily Byrds-influenced piece in triple time with chiming twelve-string and reversed guitar phrases. I’m not saying I’m endorsing this, folks, but these songs probably work better accompanied by some weed.

Victoria Jacobs gets her own song, as a writer and singer, on the album and it’s a little gem with a feel of sixties pop filtered by St Etienne. “Kensington Market” is about a visit to London in the eighties and has a dreamlike quality that works perfectly with Victoria’s vocal. There are a couple of interesting songs about historical figures; “Geronimo” tries to get inside the head of the Native American leader in later life, while “Kentucky Jesus” praises Muhammad Ali for his political and spiritual achievements rather than his boxing. Both are thought-provoking pieces.

“On Our Way” is a fascinating mix of mainstream Americana with psychedelia and a bit of grunge for good measure, topped off with Rob Waller’s mellow lead vocal and some lovely smooth harmonies. You certainly won’t be bored by this album.

“On Our Own Way” is out now on Western Seeds Record Company (WSRC – CD015).

Here’s the video for the title track:

“All About the Timing” is Roland Roberts’ debut album. That came as a bit of a surprise, because there’s a self-assurance about the ten songs on offer (all Roland Roberts originals) that show experience and maturity not often found on first albums. If you want one word that sums up the album, it’s gentle. The musical arrangements, whether they’re string band, country or blues are uncluttered and unrushed, the humorous songs are gently humorous and even the politically-themed “Wake Up”, about America’s profit-driven healthcare system, is less a call to arms than a polite invitation to smell the coffee. And that’s why it hangs together so well; nothing’s forced or strained and everything is there for a reason.

Roland’s wanderings around the United States before settling in Alaska are reflected in his songs with references to Toronto, Colorado, Portland and Lincoln, Nebraska and musical stylings from across the North American continent. There’s even a couple of songs in triple time. The melancholy country song “Don’t Tell Me Goodbye” uses the time signature to emphasise the plaintive feel of the song (along with fiddle, harmonica and pedal steel), while the uptempo string band arrangement of “Keep Movin’ On” uses the triple time lilt to enhance the forward-looking message of the song.

Gentle humour plays an important part in the mix of “All About the Timing”. “Sittin’ in Nebraska” is a light-hearted take on John Fogerty’s “Lodi” theme of being stuck in Nowheresville, “Being Me” is a self-deprecatory piece with a reminder to be true to yourself and “Rambling Joe” is the story of someone taking that advice to its logical conclusion set against a string band arrangement with tight harmonies. “Picture on the Wall” takes a light-hearted look at growing up and growing away, picking up on a theme running through the album that we can’t ever stop moving. Among the other highlights of the album are “Lonely Blues”, featuring some lovely resonating Wurlitzer electric piano and the country rock of the title song with the simple message that, in life and relationships, however well we plan, our plans will be disrupted.

This is an album that’s easy on the ear, seducing the listener with subtle playing and arrangements before slipping in a surprise like the unexpected ending of the final song “Keep Movin On”:

Well your folks never liked me and I never knew why

I’d done nothing wrong, all I could do was try

So imagine my heartache when I found it was true

That the reason that they didn’t like me was you’

“All About the Timing” delivers the lyrical punches when you least expect them, contrasting the realities of life, particularly a musician’s life, with subtle and delicate stylings. It’s a contrast that works throughout the album, creating a piece of work that satisfies on musical and lyrical terms. You can’t argue with that.

“All About the Timing” is out now in the UK on Happy Life Records.

Here’s the video for the title track: