Twenty songs over a double CD (well, nineteen actually, one’s a bonus download); you’re never quite sure what message that sends. The official line is that some songs work with band arrangements, some are best as solo/duo arrangements and that’s the way they’ve been split. Personally, my response to studio double albums is one of wariness; could it have been better as a single? We’ll see.

The common theme across the two albums is obvious. It’s not just Texas, but the southern states and the mentality of small-town America. The melodies are good, Jeb Barry’s voice is striking, cracking with emotion at times, but the real power is in the lyrics. He knows how to tell a story and how create a memorable phrase, a lyrical hook that’s as potent as the melodic ones. In “El Paso Sucks”, there’s a reference to the woman being ‘sideways on champagne’ while “Southern Oak” (taking the opposite tack from the marvellous “Speedtrap Town”) makes the observation that ‘hell and high water make good roots’. And let’s not forget the observation from “Miss Mississippi” that ‘drunk and stupid’s no excuse’.

The playing on the album is all in the service of the songs. You won’t find any lengthy solos or massive riffs, everything’s there to get the message of the song over, whether it’s lovely harmonies or the good old sus4 to create a Byrds/Tom Petty feel on “If This Heart Had Walls”. There’s nothing to take a strong dislike to and there are plenty of strong songs. The download-only song “Speedtrap Town” is a real standout, warning of the literal and metaphorical dangers of straying away from the highway.

And that thing about double albums? Well, I’m still not convinced. I would love to hear a single album edit of this set of songs, but I wouldn’t want to fall out about it.

“texas, etc.” is released on April 27th on Dollyrocker Records (DR-2018-01).

It’s difficult enough working out where to start a Phil Burdett review at the best of times without having to contend with an album that doesn’t actually start or finish anywhere. The clue’s in the song title “Sisyphus on Denmark Street”; the songwriter condemned forever to push a stone uphill. It could be worse; look what they did to Prometheus. The album cycles continuously from the birth of the dawn in “Net of Joy” to the dusk and senescence of “Dotage Train” and back to the beginning again, linked by the phrase ‘heavy miles to go’ in each song. Reincarnation without any upward or downward mobility and inspiration from the unholy poetic trilogy of William Blake, John Clare and Arthur Rimbaud.

If you’re part of the generation that doesn’t listen to albums, this isn’t for you; “Psychopastoral” is designed to be heard in a certain order, start to finish and then again and maybe once more, just to be sure that it is actually a work of genius. Phil’s taken a simple approach to ensuring we listen to everything in the intended order; the entire album’s one track with songs connected by musical and lyrical fragments. Does it work? Bloody right it does; at just under an hour, the images, fragments and melodies rush past at breakneck speed then start all over again bringing fresh musical and verbal marvels to discover.

I could spend hours going into minute detail about every aspect of this album, but that’s not going to help anyone, so I’ll try to pick out some of the attention to detail that permeates every aspect of this beautiful piece of work. How about the musicians? The core of this ensemble has been with Phil for a few years now and each one brings their own individual talents to a great ensemble sound. John Bennett (guitar) is one of my local heroes; comparisons with Steve Cropper are more than justified – not showy, but everything fits perfectly. Steve Stott adds colour and texture with bright mandolin and melancholy fiddle and Colleen McCarthy’s backing and lead vocals are a pure and clear foil for Phil’s soulful growl. And of course, Russ Strothard’s melodic bass playing, Lyndon Morgan’s spoken word contributions and the samples and programming contributed by Al Franklinos.

Phil’s voice sounds as good as I’ve ever heard it and the words are as densely packed with meaning and allusion as ever. I’m not going to bore you with my amateur literary criticism, you can delve into the layers of meaning for yourself (there’s a lyric booklet as part of the CD package); you’ll find it packed with autobiographical references both pleasurable and painful alongside the odd skewed musical reference (‘needles of death and the damaged rum’ from “Sisyphus on Denmark Street”).

I’m a huge admirer of Phil’s work, particularly from “Dunfearing and the West Country High” onwards and with “Psychopastoral”, he’s made an unflinching, uncompromising album that flies in the face of convention in its stance on sequencing and playback. There are some memorably catchy songs embedded in the piece, and Phil’s determined that they stay embedded and we hear them as part of the overall creation. It’s an ambitious project, but it’s perfect in every little detail. Favourite album of the year so far? I think so.

“Psychopastoral” is out now you; can order it direct from Phil’s website.

Korby Lenker is from East Nashville. To say East is a small distinction, but one that means everything to East Nashvillians. Anyway, it’s only marginally relevant because he travelled back to his native Idaho and many other places to record “Thousand Springs”, contrasting the natural settings with the modern technology he used to record contributions from a variety of artists in a variety of places. The process hints at montage or collage, but the final result sounds remarkably consistent considering the disparate nature of the components. The stories he tells, in a voice that almost cracks with emotion at times, are widely varied and have unexpected twists in the tale or the telling; not quite whimsical, but in the same ballpark.

The breadth of styles and subject matter is perfectly demonstrated by two songs that sit side by side on the album. “Last Man Standing” is by far the album’s most raucous song with a driving beat and some meaty guitar fills; it’s a tale of Sitting Bull and it was recorded on the site of his grave at Standing Rock. It’s thrown into sharper focus when it’s followed by the lighter “Book Nerd”, the story of a literary snob that comes on as a literary cousin to “Teenage Dirtbag” and demonstrates the clever, but never self-conscious, wordplay that permeates the album. There are a few twists on tired themes as well; “Late Bloomers” turns the overnight sensation idea on its head, bringing hope to all of us.

The album’s full of songs and arrangements that are clever and memorable but with little twists that are the hallmark of the truly original writer; small but evocative observations about coffee cups rolling around in the van, and the use of unusual arrangements and instruments (baritone ukulele, for example). There are some lovely harmonies throughout the album and contributions from a long list of luminaries of modern American music that help to create a very listenable and, at times, thought-provoking album. I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Twang Town anymore.

“Thousand Springs” is released on Soundly Music on March 16 2018.

Sure, the melodies and the arrangements are important; they must be if Neilson Hubbard and Will Kimbrough are involved, but with Rod Picott, the stories are always front and centre. “Out Past the Wires” is no exception, in fact it takes the narratives a step further. In addition to the album, Rod’s also publishing a book exploring the stories of some of the characters that appear on the album. Listen to the beautifully-crafted vignettes studded through the twenty-two songs (that’s right twenty-two songs; hope you brought a packed lunch for this one) and you feel that you’re just scratching the surface of their lives. The ageing racer in “Primer Gray”, the teen queen in “Hard Luck Baby”, the struggling musician in “Straight Job” and the labourer in “Store Bought”; you really want to know the back story, or where they move on to outside this particular moment. Listen to the album(s) and it all makes perfect sense.

Credit where it’s due to the other musicians on the album as well (Lex Price, Evan Hutchings and Kris Donegan) for creating settings that allow the songs to sparkle and shine, whether they’re sprinkled with underplayed atmospherics or a full-on, full-band workout. Whether the backing is a gently finger-picked acoustic, intertwined electric guitars, Lennonesque harmonica or a brooding rock feel with heavily-reverbed guitar. And then there’s Rod Picott’s voice, weaving its raw fibres through the fabric of the songs to conjure up passion, pain and even aspiration. He even manages to ease back to mellow with a touch of falsetto on “Blanket of Stars”.

At a time when ten-song albums are becoming increasingly common and EP or double EP is rearing its ugly head, it’s an utterly audacious move to release a double album, but it works. The standard of the songs is uniformly high across he two discs, but I’m going to hit you with a few that caught my personal sweet spot. “Primer Gray” evokes “Nebraska”/”The River” era Springsteen with the battered car symbolising the central character, “Hard Luck Baby” spins the downward spiral from teen beauty into drudgery and “The Shape of You” is a lovely poetic take on the void left in a life when a relationship ends. Listen for yourself; the choice is huge and I won’t be offended if you disagree with my choices.

“Out Past the Wires” is released on Friday February 16th on Welding Rod Records (CD, LP or download).

If you want to see Rod live, he’s touring Europe and the UK from March.

Here’s a little taster for you:

It’s about time we had a new album from Dean Owens, isn’t it? It’s been two and a half years since “Into the Sea”, not that he’s been resting on his considerable laurels, that’s not his style. He’s been involved in production, collaboration and loads of touring and somehow managed to fit the “Southern Wind” sessions in to the mix. Although the album’s released under Dean’s name, it’s fair to say that it’s more of a collaboration with his guitar-slinger of choice (and mine), Will Kimbrough. The musicians and production team are Dean’s regular Nashville crew and they all do the usual superb job, but the creative thread running through the centre is “Southern Wind” is the Owens/Kimbrough partnership.

They bonded over, among other things, a mutual love of Ronnie Lane and that’s the starting point for the album. “Last Song”, the album’s opener, wouldn’t feel out of place on any of the Faces albums with its loose rock feel and characteristic melodic basslines. It’s an homage and a tribute and it’s loads of fun; proof that Dean and Will can write an upbeat song (and it’s not the only one on the album).

Although the title track and “No Way Around It” have a slightly menacing Delta feel, “Southern Wind” still has very strong sense of time and place in twenty-first century Scotland and the stories of its inhabitants in difficult social and personal circumstances. “Elvis Was my Brother”, “When the Whisky’s not Enough” and “Bad News” all fit into this category, while “Famous Last Words” is a typical Dean Owens slant on the longest day of the year; that things can only get worse from here on in. Nights are fair drawin’ in, eh? “Anything Helps”, another Will Kimbrough co-write, fits neatly in to this little group with its Ronnie Lane solo era stylings and one of the album’s greatest lines ‘Took a swing at life and missed’.

There’s a place here for the intensely personal as well; the gorgeous “Madeira Street” looks back to more innocent times through a prism of grief and celebration, while “Louisville Lip” celebrates the life of Dean’s hero Muhammad Ali. “Mother” is a light-hearted sixties pastiche (just imagine it on the soundtrack to “Inspector George Gently” or “Call the Midwife”) with clipped guitar and a hint of Phil and Don, while “Love Prevails”, closing the album, channels The Chordettes’ “Born to be With You”, particularly in Will Kimbrough’s laid-back solo.

Dean Owens has that rare poetic ability to fashion perfect songs from life’s everyday stories and the ability to deliver powerful, plaintive performances of those songs. On this album, the partnership with Will Kimbrough and producer Neilson Hubbard has created perfect settings for both the melancholy and the upbeat songs. ”Southern Wind” is a fine piece of work from one of Scotland’s finest songwriters.

“Southern Wind” is released on Friday February 16 on At the Helm Records.

 And here’s a special little treat for you:

Buffy Sainte-Marie, wasn’t she one of those protest singers back in the black and white days?”

‘Yep.’

‘And she’s still around now?’

‘Yep.’

‘So what’s she protesting about now?’

‘Exactly the same things she was protesting about back then. Been lots of fine words spoken and written about indigenous peoples across the world but nothing’s changed. We’re still fighting wars, the environment’s still being exploited by the suits and it’s still acceptable to brush aside Native Americans, Aboriginal Australians and Inuit when there’s a profit to be made. Just look at Standing Rock. Guess Buffy Sainte-Marie’s still as relevant fifty years down the line.’

Buffy thinks so as well. “Medicine Songs” is an album for these times. Some of the songs are over fifty years old and there are only two completely new songs, but “Medicine Songs” is something very special. Buffy Sainte-Marie has taken the older songs, given them new treatments for the twenty-first century and, in her words, ‘put them to work’. It’s just possible that some of them are even more relevant now. The album’s thirteen songs long, but the digital edition (which you get as a download code with the vinyl or CD) has an additional seven songs, so you get twenty songs in total (including two very different versions of “The War Racket”). Where do I start? Well, I’m going to pick a few of my personal highpoints.

The two songs that open the album embody its two main themes. “You Got to Run”, featuring Tanya Tagaq, with a barrage of floor toms and Native American choral backing vocals, emphasises positivity and cooperation, while “The War Racket” denounces the obscenity of warmongers making huge profits from conflicts that they dress up as virtuous interventions. The protest songs make up the majority of the album, but there’s enough of a positive message with songs like “Carry It On” and “Starwalker” and “Soldier Blue” which celebrate indigenous American culture, and the gorgeous, poppy “Fallen Angels”, to add some contrast to the picture.

Of the earlier songs, “My Country ‘Tis of Thy People You’re Dying”, “Universal Soldier” and “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone” are given a sixties/seventies solo acoustic treatment, while “Generation” gets a mid-tempo rock production with a military drumbeat in the breakdown. “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” is transformed into a rock/reggae hybrid with a heavy emphasis on the off beat and a big distorted guitar sound to punctuate the lyrics while “No No Keshagesh” is a huge production with pumping bass, raw overdriven guitars, sampled backing vocals and a lead vocal echoed by synth lines. And, if you’re more at home out on the floor, “Power in the Blood” gets the four–to-the-floor treatment with a huge production built around thunderous bass and floor toms, while “Working for the Government” is a slightly more subtle “Professional Widow”-style reworking; both stylings refresh and reinvigorate the songs. Have a listen for yourself by clicking on any of the links.

If there was ever a time for these songs to be heard, it’s now. Many of them were pertinent at the time of release but considered too controversial for airplay; songs exposing corporate greed, militarism, historical revisionism and the problems still facing the indigenous population in Canada (it’s not specifically referenced on the album, but the CD booklet features a picture from the Red Dress Project). “Medicine Songs” is about as far as you can get from the vanilla choking the airwaves at the moment (that’s a recommendation in itself) and it comes when we most need it. 2018 is shaping up as the year of the protest singer; if it’s all this good, bring it on.

“Medicine Songs” is released on True North Records (TND681) on Friday January 26,2018.

 

Alice DiMicele’s a highly-principled songwriter. She creates songs about the things that matter to her, whether it’s the environment, land rights of indigenous peoples or being in a relationship with an alcoholic. To these powerful themes she adds a wide range of musical stylings to create nine songs (nine song albums, is that a thing now?) that demonstrate a wide range of influences while retaining an organic, rootsy feel. If that wasn’t enough, she has a tremendous voice with a huge range and the ability to work across different styles. All of this and a John Lennon cover to close out the album. Sounds good to me.

As much as I love the elemental, environmental themes of the album, the song that I want to hear again and again is “Lonely Alone”, a poignant ballad that tells the story of life with an alcoholic. It all fits together perfectly, from Alice’s soulful delivery (reminiscent of Etta James’ “I’d Rather Go Blind”) to the Steve Cropper-like crystal-clear guitar solo and even the prominent accordion; there’s not a note out of place. It’s followed immediately by the uplifting “Waiting” with its South African rhythms and a bit of steel pan to add a Caribbean carnival vibe to create a feeling of joy that throws the stark environmental messages into sharp contrast.

Apart from these two songs, the overall sound of the album has hints of The Band (maybe it’s the Hammond B3 and slide guitar) and some interesting string arrangements (on “The Other Side” and “Seeds”) and a lovely stripped-back version of the final song, the album’s only cover. It’s fair to say that “Imagine” isn’t my favourite song, but Alice strips away the overblown elements of the original and, with some delicate finger-picked guitar, harmony vocal and cello; can you believe it, “Imagine” with a cello solo?. It’s only a delicate touch, but the call and response of ‘brotherhood of man’ and ‘sisterhood of woman’ transforms the song completely.

“One with the Tide” is an album full of seemingly effortless performances, thought-provoking lyrics, startling contrasts and superb vocals. Favourite song? Has to be “Lonely Alone” with the perfect soul combination of a sparse arrangement, melancholy theme and Alice’s soaring vocal.

“One with the Tide” is released on Friday January 19 on Alice Otter Music (AO114).

Keegan McInroe’s last album, “Uncouth Pilgrims”, was very much a troubadour’s set of songs; tales of his travels and celebrations of life. This one’s a very different beast. You can probably guess from the title that it’s full of protest songs, like the ones that Dylan, Joan Baez and Buffy Sainte-Marie used to sing in the sixties and seventies. Since the US election last year, after the initial disbelief, the references to the administration onstage from touring American bands started to become a regular thing. The odd critical song started to appear on albums, but Keegan McInroe has gone all the way. “A Good Old Fashioned Protest” is nine protest songs (well, eight songs and a poem) with media manipulation, environmental exploitation, militarism and hypocrisy firmly in its laser beam.

The album opens with “Talking Talking Head Blues”, a strummed acoustic backing underpinning a headlong rush through the evils afflicted on us by the current US administration (and let’s not think we can be too smug in the UK), including biased news, the surveillance society, dumbing down and smoke and mirrors. The narrative opens with Keegan waking from a dream to hear a talking head on a news show; the dream is from the last song on the album, “Keegan’s Beautiful Dream”, which has all of the anti-establishment protesters banding together to render the system impotent. The album comes full circle and the cycle starts all over again.

I’ve had a beer with Keegan; he’s a lovely guy. He’s witty, he’s well-read, he knows his music and he’s really laid-back, but here the message is anger bordering on rage at the state of the world today. He targets environmental exploitation in “Big River”, militarism in “Bombing for Peace”, hypocrisy and self-righteousness in “Bastards and Bitches” (there’s no token single swear word here to get a parental guidance sticker here, this album is full-on) and the causes of radicalisation in “Timmy Johnson’s Living Brother”. The poem “Nietzche Wore Boots” deserves a special mention; it satirises the way the plutocracy divides and rules and points the way to an apocalyptic ending that will be just another tiny event in the history of the planet. And it’s the pivot before the two songs of redemption that end the album. And they’re still protest songs, just protest songs with a positive message.

Tyrants hate the arts and people involved in the arts. They know that artists and writers and poets are free thinkers who never just accept what they’re told by the establishment. They ask awkward questions and they create works that criticise the status quo because someone has to. Keegan McInroe has done that with this album; he’s pulled together a varied bunch of songs that will pull you in with their rhythms and melodies and make you stop and think about what’s really going on in the world; maybe ask a few questions yourself. That has to be a good thing.

“A Good Old Fashioned Protest” is released on Friday January 12.

This was the first album I listened to on January 1 2018. Kind of appropriate really; after hearing so much beered-up musical stodge over the festive period, this is the perfect aural January detox to accompany the real thing. The Wailin’ Jennys (Heather Masse, Nicky Mehta and Ruth Moody) have been together fifteen years (hence the title), but this is their first album in six years. It’s worth waiting for; it’s gorgeous. They interpret nine very different songs but the common thread running through all of them is those three fabulous voices and the heartbreakingly pure harmonies. It’s possible I might mention that again at some point.

Everything is built around creating a setting for those flawless voices to deliver interpretations that are technically and emotionally perfect. Generally speaking, the musicians have a fairly light touch throughout the album; this is all about putting those three voices straight upfront and centre. When full string band arrangements are used, they tend to build up in layers to push the song to a higher level, which works particularly well on the timely cover of Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers” and the Jane Siberry song, “The Valley”. “Boulder to Birmingham”, Emmylou Harris and Bill Danoff’s plaintive elegy to Gram Parsons has a full band sound with some lovely two-guitar picking and percussive upright bass; none of it threatens to overwhelm the vocals.

For all the subtle and delicate playing, the a cappella or virtually a cappella material that really shines brightly. Paul Simon’s “Loves Me like a Rock” gets the handclap and fingerpop treatment, Dolly Parton’s “Light of a Clear Blue Morning” begins with a solo vocal before the stunning harmonies join, but the best is saved till last. The album’s final song is an a cappella cover of Hank Williams’ “Weary Blues from Waitin’” which not only has the expected beautiful three-part harmonies but features some incredibly precise three-part glissando harmonies. I have honestly never heard that done with such precision.

So now you’re going to ask if I like it, yeah? What a great way to start the year. But you don’t have to take my word for it; a click on any of those song links will take you to Spotify where you can hear it for yourself.

“Fifteen” is released on True North Records on Friday January 5 2018.

If you don’t want to read through three to four hundred words, I’ll tell you upfront. This is a great album and, if there was any justice in the world, Matt Patershuk would be making songs instead of bridges for a living. “Same As I Ever Have Been” is a masterclass in creating memorable songs from a variety of starting points. It can be as mundane as the end of a labouring life and the onset of arthritis in “Hot Knuckle Blues” or as fanciful as the downfall and humanisation of a Titan in “Atlas”. Either way, Matt creates songs that are lodged in the memory long after the last chords have reverberated into the distance.

The variety of lyrical topics is matched by the variety of musical stylings across the album, following the raw guitar and sax urban blues of “Cheap Guitar” straight into the Nashville, pedal-steel-laced title track which has more than a hint of Jim Reeves. It’s quite a contrast, but it works in the context of the album.

There’s a current of melancholy running through the album, starting with the opener “Some Times You’ve Got to Do Bad Things to Do Good” (herd of deer and faithful old dog are dispatched) to the mournful closer “Swans”, telling the story of a family of swans torn apart by a musket ball. The realism of the narration steers well clear of “Old Shep”-style mawkishness while still hefting a powerful emotional punch.

But the piece de resistance, creatively and emotionally, comes in the middle of the album with “Memory and the First Law of Thermodynamics”, a slow waltz commemorating the life of his sister Clare, who was the victim of a hit and run driver. It’s a potent combination of metaphysical lyrics (‘All of you floats about in the blue, you’re just less orderly’) and hearbreakingly emotive pedal steel and trilling mandolin. It captures perfectly the grief we’ll all feel at some time and the strategies we use to weaken its hold.

The album is packed full of melancholy references, but still manages to end with a symbolic message of hope, as the swans set off on their journey to a warmer place. Matt Patershuk explores some of the classic American songwriting themes with little twists reality, irony and pure poetry and creates an album that’s honest, inspired and cathartic.

“Same As I Ever Have Been” is out now on Black Hen Music (BHCD0085).