The opening line of the press release for “Little Thunderstorms” introduces KB Bayley succinctly: ‘Guitar player, songwriter, composer. Lover of wood, steel, valves and song.’ It’s good as far as it goes but it’s far too modest; there are a few superlatives missing in the first sentence for a start. KB’s a stunningly good player who knows what to play (and what not to play) to accompany his vocal. There’s quite a list of musicians playing on the album, but none of the arrangements feel cluttered as the players are used sparingly to create moods and atmospheres, such as the melancholy pedal steel on “Throw It in the River” and the muted trumpet three-in-the-morning jazz club feel of “Night Dogs”.

The songwriting’s powerful and personal and it’s obvious that KB has a keen interest in the art of the song and great writers. “Night Dogs” in name and arrangement is a nod in the direction of Tom Waits, while the album’s opening song “Cold Rain” turns around Leonard Cohen’s line from “Anthem” to ‘someone said there’s a hole in the sky where the night gets in’. Despite KB’s reputation as a session guitar player, the songs aren’t dominated by guitar gymnastics; they’re individual works of art where the words, melody and instrumental backing work together to evoke strong feelings and sometimes painful memories.

Blood Red Lullaby” aside, with its initial setting in Dallas and JFK reference, “Little Thunderstorms” is a very British album, packed with references to the north-east of England, where KB grew up, and the south coast where he now lives. The sea and the shore are the constants that will always pull us back regardless of how far we leave them behind, and the little thunderstorms are the things that happen to us between leaving and finding our way home again.

Almost inevitably for a touring musician, there are a couple of road songs, the laid-back jazz of “Night Dogs” telling the ‘same hotel, different town’ story, while “Time to Leave Town” is the ‘same partner, different town’ story. Of the album’s eleven songs, there are nine originals plus Jeffrey Foucault’s “Cheap Suit” (a beautiful song about the persistence of a dream that hints at passing the dream to the next generation) and a slide resonator version of the traditional “Wayfaring Stranger (Redux)” that has echoes of Mark Knopfler’s acoustic work – maybe it’s a Geordie thing.

“Little Thunderstorms” straddles the world of the seventies folk singer-songwriters (post-Judas era Dylan when you could use more than an acoustic) and the grittier sound of modern Americana where any mix of styles and instruments is acceptable, and encouraged. The songs are a potent mix of memories where the melancholy outweighs the happy and the vocal is just the right side of raw to pull out the emotion in each one. If that’s your thing (it’s certainly one of mine) then this is the perfect way to start 2021.

If you want a quote to sum up the quality of the writing and the album’s message, how about this: “someone wrote a sign saying ‘jesus lives today’, I look around, I think he moved away” from “Throw It In the River” (check out the video below as well).

“Little Thunderstorms” is released on Friday February 5th on CD, LP and download and streaming services.

We first reviewed one of Anna Laube’s albums in 2015. She’s grown since then; since her 2016 album “Tree”, she’s now Anna Elizabeth Laube and her latest album, “Annamania” is a compilation of songs from her four previous albums dating back to “Outta My Head” in 2006. The song choice is heavily skewed towards the newer material from “Anna Laube” (2015) and “Tree” (2016) and also includes three songs previously either not released or given a limited release, including Anna’s reimagining of Tom Petty’s “Time to Move On”. Apart from this, it’s originals all the way.

The Tom Petty cover is a great example of making a song your own. Tom Petty’s original sounds like, well, Tom Petty, but Anna gives it a different spin, creating a piano arrangement with a Rickie Lee Jones twist and adding French horn tracks for an even more distinctive feel. It’s perfect.

The album has the variety and pacing that you would find on any of the previous four albums as Anna demonstrates her instrumental versatility and ability to move effortlessly from a pure, unadorned vocal (as on the album’s opener “Sweet Boy from Minnesota”) to the rasping, lo-fi twelve-bar blues of “If You Build It”.

“Annamania” is a perfect showcase for Anna’s work. It demonstrates her multi-instrumentalism, her perfect voice and her ability to create memorable songs across a wide range of subjects, from the innocent love song that opens the album to the environmental message of its closer, “Tree”. Her geographical and musical wanderings have all contributed to the eclecticism of this and Anna’s four previous albums. There are hints of Rickie Lee Jones in the Tom Petty reworking and also in “Oh My! (Oh Me Oh Me Oh My)” a mid-tempo shuffle that evokes Rickie Lee’s “Danny’s All-Star Joint” from the eponymous first album. The achingly beautiful “Please Let it Rain in California Tonight” even has a nod in the direction of Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven” in the chords leading into the verse. There’s a lot to love about this album.

If you haven’t listened to any of Anna’s previous albums, “Annamania” is a pretty good place to start. The songs are strong and the album clearly shows Anna’s variety of vocal stylings, multi-instrumental skills and studio expertise. Anna Elizabeth Laube is a unique talent and “Annamania” is a perfect introduction.

“Annamania” is released to download and stream on Friday January 22nd.

We reviewed Gerry Spehar’s latest album, “Anger Management”, about eighteen months ago. At the time, Trump was still in his third year in the Oval Office. He’d done enough in that time to alienate millions of Americans and Gerry was one of them. “Anger Management” was an angry album and it was all about the damage Trump had done to the American people. It was also a classic example of the protest album, packed with well-crafted songs that are full of fury. It’s just as relevant now and it’s one that I keep coming back to.

The “Lady Liberty” EP is coming from a different place. There’s still some anger, but the focus has shifted; Trump himself doesn’t get a namecheck, but there are still a couple of references, one in the title track and one in the second song “Laura Dean”.

“Lady Liberty, Day One” is set in the very near future on Inauguration Day and combines the celebration of a new, hopefully more inclusive, politics in the United States with the familiar Gerry Spehar themes of immigration and the refugee experience. It’s a brief look back to darker days, but a much lengthier and more positive look forward to the escape from Trumpism. The musical setting is a complex, swirling, trippy prog arrangement in 6/8 time that emphasises the random, hallucinogenic events of the last four years. Bear in mind that this was written long before Trump showed his true colours with events in DC last week. It’s a powerful song with a powerful message; the people make the choice between cruelty and kindness.

Skipping past the second song for a moment, the EP ends with “The Immigrant Suite”, three stories of attempted flight from Mexico to the USA (two kids make it, one doesn’t). “Barrier Reef” has a Latin tinge with violin and trumpet overlaying some Eastern European touches. “Boy and Beast” has an acoustic guitar suggesting the sounds of a train while the fiddle suggests the whistle moaning heads north to meet his mother in LA; both the main characters of these songs make it across the border. “Meet Me at the Moon” is based around Latin rhythms and is partly sung in Spanish; it’s the story of a twelve-year-old daughter who doesn’t even make it out of Mexico to join her father. All three songs are powerful evocations of the complex human issues of cross-border movement.

Which brings us to “Laura Dean”. It’s much more simple than the title song, just finger-picked country acoustic and lap steel, but it’s every bit as powerful. Gerry Spehar writes very convincingly about individuals in difficult situations and “Laura Dean” is up there with his best. It tells the story of a true hero, a nurse dealing ceaselessly with dying patients while her kids’ grandma is dying at the other end of a Zoom call. This is all powerful stuff, but Gerry also contrasts it perfectly with the behaviour of Trump (un-named) and his hypocritical hijack of Easter 2020. This one will stick with me for a long, long time.

Following Trump’s election defeat, Gerry Spehar has moved on from the white-hot fury of “Anger Management” to a desire to return to the values of Emma Lazarus’s Statue of Liberty poem “The New Colossus”- Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’, which is referenced in the title song. The remaining songs on the EP contrast the human stories of the USA and its neighbours with the current upheaval to create the balance of personal and political that runs through our daily lives.

The “Lady Liberty” EP is a heartfelt piece of work that highlights the damage already done to the Unite States while pointing the way to a more understanding and inclusive future. It’s brave and powerful and I recommend that you listen to it.

The EP is released on Inauguration Day (Wednesday January 30th) to download and stream.

It’s drizzling, freezing and absolutely miserable in the UK at the moment, so that would be the perfect time to listen to an album straight out of 1970s Laurel Canyon via 2020s British Columbia. There are more influences on the album than the Jackson Browne/Eagles/Linda Ronstadt coterie but the album still glows with sunshine of The Golden State, even though its creators Heather Read and Jonny Miller have fairly nebulous Californian connections but, hey, the first two Eagles albums were produced by Glyn Johns at Olympic Studios in London, while Peach & Quiet’s “Just Beyond the Shine” was put together with the help of producer and multi-instrumentalist Steve Dawson in Nashville, Toronto, Vancouver and Victoria. All of the songs are written by Heather, Jonny or both apart from the album’s closer, “Seven Daffodils”, written by Lee Hays and Fran Moseley.

The sun breaks through from the opening notes of the Byrds/Tom Petty-inflected opener, “Empty to Fill” and its poetic exploration of the contradictions and complexity of human beings. From there it’s almost constant Oakley and Ray-Ban stuff, with the exception of the slightly menacing Southern-influenced “Shoreline After A Storm” likening a bad relationship to a storm – they can both inflict terrible damage and leave a messy aftermath. There’s a little hint of “I Put A Spell on You” in there as well.

The songwriting is superb throughout, from the fairly straightforward love song “There’s A Very Good Chance” with its lovely Everlys harmonies to the more complex “Flowers”, which is based on the children’s book “Mr Cat and the Little Girl” which deals with love and loss which has a folky Byrds styling with a relatively complex arrangement that even features a bit of glockenspiel, courtesy of Steve Dawson.

There are themes running though the album; lyrically it’s all about love, whether it’s love for a partner who’s on stage every night (“Lucky in Love”) or for a place (“California Way”). The song arrangements are in the Eagles/Linda Ronstadt mode with layers of electric and acoustic guitars and some absolutely gorgeous harmonies, either as duets or as multi-tracked layers. There’s absolutely nothing out of place on this album.

And, as I finish this review, there’s no rain, and the sun is shining; that was pretty impressive work, guys. This album’s combination of superbly-crafted songs and subtle Laurel Canyon-era  arrangements is the perfect antidote to winter on either side of the Atlantic.

“Just Beyond the Shine” is released on January 15th 2012 on Peach & Quiet Music (P&QCD001).

Here’s the video for “Empty to Fill”:

 

This is the final album review of the strangest year I’ve had in a very, very long time. It’s quite unusual to release albums of original material in December; it’s normally a time for retrospectives, compilations and TV personalities singing Christmas songs. This year, however, all bets are off as the virus has closed so many doors while opening a few new ones. Musicians have been adapting to a rapidly-changing environment throughout this century, so what’s the big deal about a pandemic? Home studios have been with us for a long time and it’s routine now to share huge audio files online; you can make an album with dozens of musicians without ever meeting them.

The album “Mayone”, by songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Steve Mayone, has a couple of reference points. The uncertainty generated by COVID 19 gave the Steve the impetus to get this album together, and the first Paul McCartney solo album “McCartney” (fifty years old this year) gave him the inspiration. The parallels between the two aren’t just around the experience of working alone in the studio alone as therapy; Steve has echoed the ebb and flow of Paul McCartney’s album, and some of the themes as well (more about that later).

The first listen to this album left two lasting impressions; that it was a guitar player’s album and that it had a very seventies feel. Before reading the press release, I felt that the album had the feel of a solo Beatles project (right) and that the solo Beatle was George Harrison (wrong). It’s definitely a guitar player’s album, though; there are multiple layers of acoustic and electric guitars throughout the album, with the additional spicing of mandolin, banjo, ukulele and lap steel. I’m sure one of Steve’s aims was to make people revisit “McCartney”; it worked in my case and I’m recommending it to you as well.

“Mayone” has thirteen tracks (as does “McCartney”) and mixes up instrumental soundscapes with some beautifully-crafted songs. The instrumentals are perfect little vignettes scattered across the album, starting with the finger-picked acoustic, “The Sweet Suzanne” referencing McCartney’s “The Lovely Linda” even down to the alliteration in the title; Steve Mayone is paying serious attention to detail here.

There’s a huge variety to the songs here, from the no-prisoners-taken rock of “Sweet Little Anchor”, hinting at Bob Seger and Tom Petty to the melancholy “Airport Goodbyes” and the archetypical Christmas song (with an ironic drunken stupor twist), “Happy Alcoholidays”. These are all great songs but the perfect McCartney match is still to come. “Stuff” is a takedown of consumerism on a personal and global level that moves McCartney’s “Junk” on by fifty years, but Steve takes it a stage further. The McCartney “Junk” appears in a vocal version on track six and as “Singalong Junk” (an instrumental) on track eleven; guess the track sequencing of the “Stuff” vocal and instrumental on Steve’s album?

Steve Mayone has created an album of material that’s totally original, while cleverly referencing and emulating McCartney’s “McCartney”. “Mayone” is a 2020 classic; let’s hope it lasts as long as “McCartney”.

“Mayone” is released in the UK on Friday December 18th on Mayone Music.

 

I always thought that hanging on in quiet desperation was just the English way. Apparently not; Jeb Barry of the Pawn Shop Saints has created a collection of nine songs, one a Jason Isbell co-write, that tell the stories and introduce us to the characters of forgotten America. The places that have lost their industries, jobs and hope, but not their self-respect. “Ordinary Folks” is also the sound of someone examining their own prejudices in an attempt to understand the lives of the people that he wouldn’t normally meet day-to-day; it’s a timely reminder that progress doesn’t necessarily benefit everyone. We understand that fossil fuels damage the environment, but that’s no consolation to the mining communities that have been wiped out. It’s not a cheerful album, but it’s uplifting; we see individuals and communities that refuse to be broken whatever the world throws at them.

Musically, the stylings are string band-orientated with some nice twang guitar as a bit of occasional seasoning (although there are nods in the direction of gospel and skiffle as well) and fairly minimal and muted percussion throughout. There’s enough going on to embellish the songs, but not so much that the power of the lyrics is diluted. And they are certainly powerful lyrics.

The songs are roughly split between social comment and personal reminiscence and there are a few themes that run through the album. The personal stories include the autobiographical high school outsider tale of “Lynyrd Skynyrd” and the tragedy of a life that is only made bearable by cigarette breaks and a beer or two told in “Pack a Day”. Taking a wider perspective, while the album’s first three songs, “You Don’t Know the Cumberland”, “Old Men, New Trucks” and “Body in the River” all deal with the loneliness, isolation and alienation of life in forgotten towns, passed through by the politicians, and against the backdrop of the constant threat of flooding.

“Ordinary Folks” is a grainy black and white photo of life in the towns after the vultures have picked the bones clean and moved on. And somehow people still hope.

The album is released on Dollyrocker Records (DR20201) on Friday December 11th.

It’s a logical progression I suppose. I’ve heard a few stripped-back lockdown singer-songwriter albums recently, usually the one voice/one instrument variety and they’ve all been very good. Iago Banet takes it one step further; just guitar, no vocal. Iago’s been playing live around the UK and particularly the south east for a few years now, solo and as guitar player with ColorColour (formerly Deep Blue Sea). With the band, he’s the Les Paul-toting, all the way to 11, rock guitar player and he’s a great player. The solo material’s also very good, but very different from the band dynamic.

For a start it’s all instrumental and it’s mainly acoustic; there are hints of influences from a huge variety of musical styles but it’s all built around Iago’s Galician finger-style playing, a combination of finger-picking, flamenco and soundboard tapping and slapping. And that’s the groundwork right there for Iago’s second album, “Iago Banet”. The album has nine tracks, eight originals and one very interesting (and brave) cover and it demonstrates Iago’s ability to evoke a scene or a feeling with his writing and playing. Here’s a quick run through a few of the album’s highlights.

Sitting right in the middle of the album is “Octopus One”, probably the least typical track. It has a much more jazz/blues feel than the rest of the album and it’s a load of fun – it’s the sound of a guitar player cutting loose and having a good time. Where Iago excels is in capturing and evoking a mood or a scene, whether it’s the slow, moody, delicate finger-picking and soundboard slapping of “Morning at Greenwich Park”, the frantic flurries of notes evoking the bustle and madness of “Rush Hour” in London or the Chet Atkins styling and jazz/country fusion of “There’s a Mouse in My Kitchen” capturing the movement of a mouse skittering across a kitchen floor. Which brings us to the cover version of “Moondance” – yes, that “Moondance”.

This cover demonstrates Iago’s range of techniques with percussive picking pulling out the bass, the melody and rhythmic chords and progressing to Galician finger-style, string slapping and harmonics. Like the Van Morrison original, it swings and it’s another bit of fun to end the album.

So there you go; nine tracks of guitar artistry. The guitar techniques alone make this a stunning guitar player’s album, but it’s the mastery of melody and rhythms and the ability to paint a picture of a scene that make this an album for everyone. It’s a perfect stocking-filler for the music lover in your life and you can get a CD copy here.

“Iago Banet” is out now on all platforms. And while we’re on the subject, Iago’s first album “A Sunset Wine” is also available on his website and I thoroughly recommend that as well.

When things get back to something resembling normal, you really should make the effort to go and see Iago live; you won’t regret it.

One voice, one guitar; it can be that simple, but only if the songwriting, the playing and the voice are good enough. You’re in luck here because “Lamentations” is a set of twelve superb songs by an internationally-renowned writer, who plays acoustic guitar with flair, superb technique and finesse and has a rich and mellow voice that works perfectly for the folk troubadour style of this album. Rupert Wates takes the simplicity a stage further here – the twelve songs on “Lamentations” were recorded in one evening with no overdubs, creating the warmth of a live gig recorded faithfully at studio quality. It’s a challenge to create variety across twelve songs without any band arrangements, harmonies or studio trickery but Rupert Wates aces it with “Lamentations”.

“Lamentations” isn’t a concept album as such, but there are themes that run through the whole piece. The opening song, “The Carnival Waltz”, weaves in the first theme of the circle of life in the form of the carnival carousel endlessly repeating the same cycle with different riders. It’s life; some of us are on the way in and some are on the way out, some of us are going up and some are going down. The guitar backing is finger-picked in 3/4 time, which captures the motion of the carousel perfectly and it demonstrates the way Rupert creates intricate rhythms with his picking styles throughout the album. The circle of life theme is reinforced with songs representing the various phases of life, including birth, which feeds into the theme of songs for Rupert’s new son, Gabriel, passing on the lessons of experience.

Two end-of -life songs towards the end of the of the album demonstrate the versatility of Rupert’s playing. Most of the album is finger-picked, but the lament “Now The Harvest” is strummed, or hit, to imitate the rhythm of a funeral march; it’s a dirge in the true meaning of the word. “Farewell and Adieu” is a fairly simple strummed rhythm pattern backing a poignant farewell to old friends that will never be seen again. “Waiting for a Friend of Mine” backs up the vocal with picked arpeggios in 6/8 time that give a nod in the direction of “House of the Rising Sun” while the intricately-picked “Lamentations” might yet be an epitaph for Donald Trump; who knows?

The two songs written for his new son, “From Where You Are” and “And You Shall Have the World”, both feature master-class finger-picking. The first imagines the jumble of impressions meeting the newborn and a promise to help and support, while the second is an exhortation to avoid materialism and focus on the things that make you happy. I could go on, but I’d really like you to check this out for yourself.

Taking the most basic elements in the performer’s toolkit, one voice and one instrument, Rupert Wates has created an album that fizzes with acoustic guitar mastery and beautifully-crafted songs. Check out some of the individual links here or even the entire album. It’s pure class.

“Lamentations” is released in the UK on Friday December 4th 2020 on Bite Music (BR12115).

Here’s another remote working pandemic project for you. This isn’t a high profile, multi-screen Zoom video collaboration; Los Brujos  is a much more intimate and personal thing involving (mainly) Chuck Melchin of Bean Pickers Union and Michael Spaly of Green Monroe. The two obviously have a chemistry and have collaborated on projects over the last decade. The difference with this one is that everything has been done in their respective home studios in Michigan and New Hampshire and stitched together by producer Dave Westner in Massachusetts.

The “Alchemy” EP is five songs featuring mainly string band arrangements and some gorgeous four-part harmonies, played with great subtlety and style. What it definitely isn’t is a happy, cheerful listening experience, but I’m partial to a bit of melancholy in my music and it’s appropriate for the times we find ourselves in at the moment.

The atmospheric opener “Reckoning” features some nice harmonies to contrast with the brooding, haunted feel of the tale of a place filled with ghosts, while the gentle country feel of “Bronco” (the car, not the horse) typifies the EP with its story of a relationship break-up finalised by the ex-partner packing her belongings into a Bronco.

“Everything I Can” feels like a Leadon-era Eagles song with its gentle pace and banjo and fiddle fills, telling the story of a break-up caused by a desire to break out of stifling surroundings; it’s an apology delivered while looking in the rear-view mirror. “High Times” is the only question mark for me; it continues the previous track’s theme of the small-town outsider and the early part of the song features some tight four-part harmonies which, towards the end, become a bit too processed and psychedelic for my taste.

And the final song, “Bitter Blue”, is back to slow, laid-back country rock telling the story of the man compelled to keep making the same relationship mistakes. There you go; as Jim Steinman might have said, four out of five ain’t bad.

Five beautifully-crafted songs with lovely harmonies and some delightfully understated playing; I’ll take that any time.

“Alchemy” is released in the UK on Friday November 6th on Inseam Records.

2020’s been a funny old year for album releases. It’s difficult for artists to decide what to do with their new material; postpone and wait for the opportunity to tour in support of the album or take advantage of period when there are fewer albums to compete with. Or maybe after the album’s complete, there’s an urge to just get it out there. “Falling Away from Me” was released across the pond in February 2020 and presumably the intention was to release it here to coincide with a summer tour. And along came COVID. Whatever the reasoning, after a lengthy musical apprenticeship covering many different countries, Sandra Bouza has decided to release her first album, “Falling Away from Me” in October 2020.

It’s an album that proudly displays its creator’s influences throughout. There are elements of pop, jazz, blues and rock, but the foundation of the work is its tight funk rhythms created by the understated combination of guitar, bass and drums with occasional seasoning of keyboards, a sample or a piece of electronica. Without ever sounding derivative, the album hints instrumentally and vocally at a number of artists; more on that later. The individual stamp that defines the album, is the highly personal and confessional lyrics of the eight songs, dealing with bad choices in lifestyle and relationships. It’s an album of funky torch songs.

The mid-tempo jazz-blues of “Not Like Me” is a nod in the direction of Robert Cray’s “Right Next Door”, which features not only a powerful lead vocal, but some lovely layered and ethereal backing vocals as well, while “Stone Junction” is a bit more robust with a punchy bassline and some clipped Steve Cropper-like guitar backing up a tale of misplaced nostalgia for a corrosive past. “Human Connection” has some electronic percussion and a pumping bassline that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Pet Shop Boys song and the backing vocals towards the close are reminiscent of Clare Torry on “Great Gig in the Sky”.

The songs demonstrate Sandra’s vocal versatility across a range of dynamics; at times she has a hint of Chrissie Hynde, “Losing You” has the delicacy of Judie Tzuke and the highly personal closer “Wrong Songs” is a nod towards Sade; there’s even a touch of Ella’s scat singing towards the end.

The album is a strong collection of songs pulled together with an autobiographical thread that gives Sandra Bouza an opportunity to demonstrate her vocal and songwriting abilities and it certainly achieves that goal. When things get back to whatever the new normal is, I’ll be keen to see Sandra Bouza playing live in the UK.

“Falling Away from Me” is released in the UK on Friday October 30th on Sabucedo Records (SB003).