You never know where the next review’s coming from; could be the inbox, could be the letterbox, could be backstage at a gig. Yeah, it’s the last one. A couple of weeks ago, Glenn Alexander slipped this album into my greasy mitt backstage at The Forum in Kentish Town. Glenn’s the guitar player for Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes (amongst other things) and he released this solo album last year produced by the Jukes saxophonist, John Isley. If you’re a Jukes fan and you look at the credits for the album, you’ll recognise most of the names; when you work with world-class musicians in the day job, why not use those guys when you pursue your own vision?

I’m not giving you a detailed biography of Glenn Alexander; you can find that anywhere. All I’m saying is that this album proves conclusively that Glenn is a lot more than just an incredibly good guitar player. The album opens with the fairly straightforward boogie of “If Your Phone Don’t Ring”; it’s great fun, the horns are every bit as good as you expect the New York Horns to be and it’s a joyous start to the show. Without reading the sleeve notes, it’s obvious that the second song “Earl Erastus” is deeply personal for Glenn. It hints at Jerry Reed’s “Amos Moses” and it’s a tribute to Glenn’s granddad, who raised six kids during the Depression; it has huge emotional power and a lovely New Orleans horn coda of his  favourite hymn (I’m guessing) featuring a vocal from Oria Aspen.

From there on in, it’s a melting-pot of the influences flowing over a teenager growing up in the centre of the USA; there’s the funky soul  and Elvis-referencing “Memphis Soul”, the country feel of “I Picked the Wrong Day (To Stop Drinkin’)”, the horn-fired shuffle of “Get A Life” (featuring Southside on harmonica) and the slow blues of “Blues For Me & You”, a duet with Oria Aspen contrasting Glenn’s rough-hewn blues vocal with Oria’s more pure jazz stylings.

You might think that was enough, but there are still surprises to come. The album’s penultimate song, “The Odds Are Good”, proves that Glenn Alexander’s not just about melody and guitar solos; the lyrics are clever, and in the style of Dylan or early Springsteen. This guy is much more than a great rock guitarist, he’s a very gifted songwriter and a pretty good singer in a Joe Walsh kinda style. There’s no real commercial imperative behind this album, it was created for the sheer joy of making music with stunningly good players. Great songs, Hammond and horns; this is the business, what more do you need?

Glenn Alexander & Shadowland” is out now on Rainbow’s Revenge Records.

After his outstanding debut “American Life” in 2015, this must be that difficult second album for Ed Dupas. However difficult its conception (and it sounds like there were a few painful moments), the end result is a fulfilling follow-up to his debut. It’s a progression of course; at times Ed puts his acoustic to one side to add a second over-driven electric to the guitar attack, creating a big widescreen sound that brings to mind early Bruce Hornsby and maybe even “Darkness”-era Springsteen.

And that’s the way the album opens; “Too Big to Fail” is a rocker packed with big, loud guitars delivering Ed’s perfectly crafted song. His lyrics are clever and subtle, combining the “too big to fail” business/sports franchise mantra with subtle allusions to the state of contemporary America; it doesn’t matter how bad things are, ‘love’s too big to fail’. I really hope so. The album’s second song, “Two Wrongs”, continues the two guitar attack with lyrics seamlessly interweaving the increasing isolation of rural America with a short-term, unwise, dalliance; real life might look simple on the surface, but it’s usually messy underneath.

The remainder of the album mixes country and rock stylings to great effect, combining the two perfectly in the title track, which takes up the themes of “The Wild Side of Life” and “Bright Lights, Big City” while giving the story a happy ending (well, maybe). The album’s closer “Hold Me Tight” has echoes of Bob Seger’s acoustic side (well, Ed is based in Ann Arbor) and neatly finishes the journey from the opening rockers to the closing mixture of regret and nostalgia.

I’m rapidly becoming a big fan of Ed Dupas; the delivery is impossible to fault and his songs are superbly crafted with the emphasis on subtle allusion rather than declamation. It’s difficult not to admire a songwriter that trusts his audience to think and interpret for itself and put in a little effort to appreciate the songs.

While I’ve got your attention, I’d just like to point you in the direction of a song from Ed’s 2015 debut album. “Flag” is a beautiful example of the songwriter’s craft and would move the hardest heart. Give it a listen and tell me I’m wrong. Now how about some UK appearances, Ed?

“Tennessee Night” is released in the UK on Friday July 28 on Road Trip Songs.

Steve Mayone - 'Sideways Rain' - cover (300dpi)It’s an album of interesting contrasts where the lyrical themes run the entire range of human emotions, from the joy of becoming a parent to the gut-wrenching agony of losing loved ones. Despite the melancholy considerably outweighing the celebratory, “Sideways Rain” still manages to leave you feeling strangely uplifted and a lot of that is down to Steve’s ability create memorable melodies. Steve Mayone’s influences shine brightly through this album with Jeff Lynne-like string arrangements, Tom Petty jangling guitars and some laconic vocals that reference George Harrison. This could so easily have sounded like a Wilburys tribute, but there’s so much more going on, so many more influences, that Steve manages to create a sound that is his alone. 

The album’s title song typifies Steve’s approach to writing and performance; he takes a real event from his past, uses this as a symbol of the futility of struggling against insuperable odds in our lives (sometimes you just have to hole up and wait until the storm blows itself out), then creates a lovely melody with a sublime chorus which hints at the late seventies work of Ian Matthews. Of the thirteen songs on the album, the only one I wasn’t entirely convinced by was the cheerful and optimistic “So Many People Get it Wrong”, a song about becoming a father for the first time. But hey, it’s one song and the rest more than make up for it, even the raucous, feelgood “The Long Way Home” with the messiest, most joyful guitar solo I’ve heard in a long time. 

“Sideways Rain” feels like a very cathartic album, processing the deaths of close family members, contrasting it with the birth of a son and creating something positive and forward-looking. And the other standouts? Well, the last four songs on the album really. “Pretty Mama” is a slow blues with some lovely horns, “Early Morning Train” is a finger-picked ballad from the viewpoint of a driver in a train wreck, while “Strange Bird” and “Save You” have different takes on suicide. I know it doesn’t sound cheerful, but the final message is positive and the album is life-affirming. 

“Sideways Rain” is released in the UK on Friday June 30 on Janglewood Records

Underhill Rose - 'Live' - ScrollerWhy do a live album? Well when you’re as good live as Eleanor Underhill, Molly Rose and Salley Williamson, the prospect of being recorded live holds no terrors. They can even play without any amplification if they have to. “Live”, recorded in Asheville, North Carolina, over two nights was an attempt to let a wider audience hear the songs in their live incarnations: three voices and four instruments (including Eleanor’s harmonica). And it’s a highly successful attempt; the quality of the performances is superb and with fifteen songs, no-one can complain about quantity.
The mix of songs is fairly representative of the live experience, featuring songs spanning their studio albums and a couple of interesting covers, “These Boots are Made for Walking” featuring Salley Williamson’s vocal and upright bass, and a deft stripping-down of the eighties classic “Bette Davis Eyes” that shows exactly how powerful the song is without the synthesised eighties percussion.
Throughout the album, the harmonies are perfect and the recording captures the warmth and intimacy that’s a huge part of any Underhill Rose show, highlighted in the celebration of community and friendship, “They Got My Back”. There’s no inconsistency; the performance is perfect throughout. If I had to pick standouts, I would go for the sultry “Whispering Pines Motel” or the combination of photographic imagery and reminiscence of the lovely “In Color”. If you haven’t seen Eleanor, Molly and Salley live yet, this is the next best thing. If you have seen them, it will bring those memories back.
Now let’s wait for Tony Visconti to tell us it was eighty percent overdubbed.
“Live” is released on Friday June 30.

I Hold Gravity scrollerThis one’s going to need a little historical perspective; I’ll try to keep it brief. Young guitar-slinger/singer starts to create a buzz in the early seventies, takes half a lifetime out to raise a family but never stops playing and writing, eventually comes out of self-enforced retirement to take up a writing and performing career with his wife, teams up with I See Hawks in L.A. to make an album. The context is important here, because musical influences and stylings that underpin the album from the late sixties/early seventies are married up with stories of rural America. There are little hints of Harry Nilsson, maybe Jim Croce as well in some of the arrangements, but the influences don’t stop at folk and country.

“Be Nemanic” opens up as a barrel-house blues which morphs into a Stax brass-driven stomper (á la Otis and Carla’s “Tramp”) telling the story of the granite-hewn immigrants who helped build the United States; it’s a rousing story of pride and a hint of a warning. There’s a similar raw edge to the opening song “Dirt” but with a raucous chain-gang feel, as the song explores the futility of mineral exploration. There’s a lot of humour in there too in the zydeco-tinged story of two knowing drug mules and the everyday day tale of country jealously, “Mr and Mrs Jones” with a rockabilly beat, some lovely Hammond and some very Steve Cropper-like guitar fills.

The title song, “I Hold Gravity”, is a love song, pure and simple, made achingly poignant by the fact that Gerry’s wife and songwriting partner Susan died as the album was nearing completion and the album’s closer “Into the Mystic” evokes a sense of deep loss before consolation is sought in communion with nature and the desert.

The ten songs on “I Hold Gravity” will pull you through a wide range of emotions. You’ll smile at “God Lubbock”, laugh out loud at “Mr and Mrs Jones”, yearn for the idyllic setting of “Here In the Pass” and cry at “I Hold Gravity” and then you’ll want to put yourself through that emotional wringer all over again; it’s that good.

“I Hold Gravity” is released on Friday June 23.

Sam Baker Land of Doubt ScrollerStraight up front, you need to know; this album won’t be for everyone. I have a strong suspicion that this is deep into Marmite territory, that it’s an acquired taste. Texan Sam Baker is one of those songwriters who is revered by his peers (Malcolm Holcombe’s another) who understand the journey he’s on and appreciate the craft involved in his work. One of his aims with “Land of Doubt” is to tell the stories or convey the feelings to his listeners in the most economic way possible without losing any of the nuances. Stripping back music usually involves leaving out instruments that add texture to arrangements, keys, horns, even electric guitar and bass. The approach Sam Baker has taken is to work out the minimum of sounds necessary to create the feeling he wants to evoke and to add nothing extraneous to it.

The economy isn’t just applied to the instrumentation. The melodies and the rhythms are kept sparse and simple and even the number of words is restricted, a bit like applying the haiku discipline to every aspect of making an album. Producer and drummer Neilson Hubbard, guitar player Will Kimbrough and cool jazz trumpeter Don Mitchell create perfect minimalist arrangements that allow the songs plenty of space; each of the elements is honed to perfection like a setting designed to emphasise a perfect gemstone, but not to overpower. There isn’t a hint of a standard format or template here. Each song gets exactly the instrumentation it needs; nothing more, nothing less. The percussion ranges from the almost non-existent on the country waltz “Love is Patient” to loud drums competing with the vocal on the swampy “Moses in the Reeds” and the military beat of “Some Kind of Blue”, telling the story of a Vietnam veteran who looks back to the war as the happiest time of his life.

At first glance, the track listing seems a little long, but ten songs are interspersed with five instrumental interludes that help to alleviate the sombre mood of the songs while additional colour and texture come in the form of Will Kimbrough’s ambient atmospherics, some piano and harmonium and some deft Chet Baker-style trumpet from Don Mitchell, particularly on “Say the Right Words”, the story of parents who disapprove of their daughter’s choice of partner but are too scared or smart (you decide) to tackle the matter head-on. One of Sam Baker’s strengths is in picking out these little tragedies from the background noise we’re surrounded and showing us the importance they have to the protagonists. It’s not always comfortable, but you can’t stop listening.

As I said at the top of this piece, it won’t be for everyone, but if you like the craft of the songwriter and the arranger, then you won’t be disappointed.

“Land of Doubt” is released on Friday June 16.

Gold Rush Scroller“Gold Rush” is Hannah Aldridge’s second album and it moves Hannah in a slightly different direction. Her debut “Razor Wire” (and an excellent debut too) was built around a set of country-inflected, mainly acoustic, guitar songs with the emphasis on personal experiences. That emphasis is still there on the second album but Hannah’s added a rockier edge which is evident in her switch from acoustic to electric guitar (Telecaster if you must know) and her description of her newer songs as Southern rock. “Razor Wire” was a huge favourite with the Riot Squad, so how does “Gold Rush” compare?

The title song, which closes the album, is a work of rare beauty; it’s more delicate than most of the new songs and deals with the idea of being at a point in time when looking forward and looking back are equally painful. When a writer can create the line ‘I don’t know if this is living or slow motion suicide’, you know you’re hearing a special talent. But “Gold Rush” isn’t about one song, there are nine more and they’re little firecrackers. The album’s first song “Aftermath” kicks open the doors with tribal drums and a tight rhythm section dragging “Jumping Jack Flash” into the twenty-first century. “Dark-Heated Woman” is sinister and menacing with a guitar solo that Neil Young would be proud of and “Living on Lonely” is plaintive, almost heart-breaking, with huge choral backing vocals. “Burning down Birmingham” is Southern rock with the trademark slide guitar hook and an insanely catchy chorus while “Shouldn’t Hurt So Bad” draws heavily on the Merseybeat/Byrds/Tom Petty jangly guitar stylings. And so it goes on, there are ten very good songs and a huge dynamic range.

Everything fits into place perfectly as Hannah moves effortlessly from the slower, more controlled, vocals to the raw and raunchy rockers. She ticks all the boxes; the songs are powerful, heart-rending, even harrowing at times, her voice is stunningly good and she has tremendous live presence. “Gold Rush” is an album created by someone who has seen and done too many things in a short life; it’s shot through with substance abuse references and some regrets, but no self-pity. The overall message is that this a testament from a survivor and we should all feel grateful for that. And one final great line for you, from “I Know Too Much”: ‘I don’t need another reason to hate myself, I don’t need another bad tattoo’.

This is a beautiful album that you will go back to again and again.

“Gold Rush” is released in the UK on Friday June 16 and you can find Hannah’s July UK tour dates here.

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.