TheKorvids_02The Korvids, eh? I’m guessing it’s a korruption of the scientific term for the crow family. Anyway it’s the name given to a project put together by James Grant (surely I don’t have to tell you about his history) and Gordie Goudie (Simple Minds producer and former member of Echo and the Bunnymen and The Primevals). So the obvious collaboration would be a disco album, right? Well, not strictly; it’s certainly a dance album, but there’s a lot more than just disco lurking in “The Korvids”. Is it so far away from the music they’ve made in the past? In James Grant’s case, I would probably say no; he’s always had a bit of a funky element to his guitar playing and he’s not afraid to experiment, so a dance album’s not such a big step. Now a cheerful dance album; that’s another thing entirely.

The album covers a range of styles; the opener ”Bad Faith”, with its four-to-the-floor kick, congas, funky keys, hi-hats, melodic bassline and horns is pure joyous mid-seventies Studio 54. James Grant even throws in an Ernie Isley style guitar solo for good measure. Maybe a hint of the Average White Band in there as well. And that’s just the first song. “Tender Tyrannies” is about old records and the memories attached and has a Soul II Soul feel with a female vocal, squelching synth bass and clipped, funky guitar, “Slouch” has a groove that’s part Steely Dan, part humanistic Kraftwerk and previous single “Beach Coma” has an ambient Goa trance feel with synth pads and swirls and an acoustic guitar hook. Elsewhere, you can hear elements of Massive Attack and Eastern music in “Be My Enemy” and trip-hop in “Are You Bored with Me Baby?”

If you were a clubber in the late eighties/early nineties and you’ve grown up since then, this is the album for you. It feels a bit like the dance production process has been turned on its head; instead of building up from a groove and adding layers to create the finished product, this feels like the songs came first and the backing tracks were written to fit the songs. Either way, it’s a cracking album.

“The Korvids” is released on Friday April 28 on Nang Records.

And while we’ve got you here, how about checking a stunningly good song about Scottish families, another of James Grant’s classics:

Sound-of-the-Sirens-FOR-ALL-OUR-SINS-packshot-300x300[1]The last two years have been a bit of a whirlwind for Sound of The Sirens. Over that period, Abbe Martin and Hannah Wood have risen irresistibly out of the local and support slot circuit to playing major festivals and headlining their own tours. They’ve won many supporters along the way with their superbly-crafted songs, beautiful harmonies and exhilarating live performances. All that’s missing so far is the chance to convert that to national airplay. “For All Our Sins” should be the chance to put that right.

The opening of the first song, the lead track “Smokescreen” is a good indicator of the new approach with the addition of bass and drums and some Spanish style nylon-strung guitar and percussion giving the song an added dimension. It’s not so much a move away from their live sound as a subtle augmentation. The arrangement reminds me of the way Al Stewart was produced in the mid-seventies, an he’s still being played on commercial radio forty years later. Hannah and Abbe’s voices and instruments are still right up there in the mix, but the addition of some more daytime radio-friendly instruments and a few hooks have certainly worked. Jeremy Vine thinks so; he was at the album launch a couple of weeks ago and played the song on his Radio 2 show the following day. That’s a pretty impressive flash-to-bang time.

There are a couple of songs that have been reworked for the album, and it’s interesting to compare the originals with the new versions. Both “Together Alone” and “In This Time” have been smoothed out a little, with the vocals coming down a couple of notches to blend better with the other instruments, and some slight structural changes. Using a drummer has made the transitions between sections smoother, particularly when the tempo changes, and the production team has introduced some studio effects (some dub echo in “Together Alone”) and even created a psychedelic vibe with the ambient sounds, echo, and reverb of “The Circus”.

But all of the studio wizardry’s just window dressing if the raw material isn’t right. Abbe and Hannah’s songwriting is a huge part of their appeal. They write with a darkly poetic romanticism about subjects that are important; mental health in “The Voices”, the impermanence of relationships in “In This Time” and maybe even embittered journalists (amongst other things) in “Smokescreen”. They often explore the elemental side of human experience (“Chaos”) but there’s usually a message of empowerment in there as well. They care passionately about what they do.

With “For All Our Sins”, Sound of the Sirens have succeeded in creating studio versions of their powerful and dynamic songs for mainstream consumption without losing the creative fire in the process. The songs will be there on their upcoming tour and during the festival season in all their dynamic and noisy glory but, for now, this sounds like the next step up the ladder.

“For All Our Sins” is released on DMF on 26 May 2017.

Meanwhile, you can have a look at this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rackhouse Pilfer - 'Love and Havoc' - cover (300dpi)‘Why don’t we open the album with a song about busting out of prison, I mean it worked for Thin Lizzy, didn’t it?”. Well, it certainly did and just as “Jailbreak” set the tone perfectly for the album of the same name, “Dust on the Road” does the same for Rackhouse Pilfer’s “Love and Havoc”. The frenetic banjo and fiddle interplay drives along a tale of freedom or death that’s only resolved with the half-speed coda signifying success. By the end of the song, you know you’re in good hands. Rackhouse Pilfer is an Irish six-piece outfit and, if I can’t use the catch-all term Americana, I’d have to say they play original songs influenced by country, bluegrass and a hefty dose of seventies Laurel Canyon troubadours and another hefty dose of homegrown Irish fun. If you can carry that off, you’ve got something a little bit special and they don’t just carry it off, they heave it into the air and juggle it with one hand. OK, I admit it, we’re a bit behind the curve on this one; it was released in 2014 but it’s just popped up in the Riot Towers inbox ahead of a Rackhouse Pilfer UK tour.

“Another Dirty Joke” rattles along in the same light-hearted way with a theme of drunken and stoned escapism, but it’s not just about the craic; there’s a serious side to the album as well. “Me and a Polar Bear” is an uptempo piece with an environmental theme while “Angela” tells the story of a woman who wants to escape a relationship by murdering her partner. You can hear more traditional string band influences on the slow “A Sailing Song” with its mournful unison fiddle and mandolin and the rollicking “Shady Grove”, which gives all of the players a chance to show off their skills with short solos.

And the Laurel Canyon influence? Well “Two Oceans” evokes early Jackson Browne perfectly; the song, the vocal and even the title could have featured on any of his first three albums. You can hear an Eagles influence in the harmony-laden midtempo country-rock of “Calico Sky” and “I’ll Find a Way” (maybe a hint of Bob Seger’s “Against the Wind” in there as well) and “Bright Lights” could be Bernie Leadon era Eagles.

“Love and Havoc” assimilates a huge number of influences, weaves them into a bunch of diverse and memorable songs and tops the mix off with a touch of Celtic good humour. And I’m willing to bet they do a cracking live show, so maybe you should look out for dates near you on their UK tour.

“Love and Havoc” is out now.

alive in theory scrollerThis combined effort from singer Kirsty Mac, multi-instrumentalists Paul Ayre and Tony Draper, known collectively as Alive in Theory, has a lot going for it. There’s some great playing, the vocal performances are pretty powerful and the songs are mostly pretty strong, so where do we start? At the very beginning, it’s a very good place apparently. Actually the opening song “Alive in Theory” isn’t a bad summary of the album; it’s full of drama, it has a wide dynamic range and a sense of menace. The intro has a feel of “Radio Gaga” and, strangely enough, there’s a little guitar fill which is pure early seventies Brian May. The vocals across the album hint at a Gothic Kate Bush, with maybe a little hint of Kim Carnes in there as well (the eighties drums and brooding synths of “Lightning” have a strong feel of “Bette Davis Eyes”). Now that wasn’t too bad for you was it? But it’s not the whole story because there are a few reservations.

Musically, “Unconditional”, isn’t bad but it demonstrates a few of the album’s downsides. The lyric has a feel of a rhyming exercise that doesn’t convey too much meaning, the vocal is a bit melodramatic and it follows a format that’s repeated through the album of a gradual layer-by-layer build-up of songs. It’s not that any of these things make it a bad album, more that without them, it could have been a better album. Glad we got that out of the way.

On the upside, the driving power of “Bethany” and the combination of distorted guitars and synth sequences works well and would fit in well in a vampire TV series while using an apocalypse as metaphor for a broken relationship in “We Are All Alone” is fairly effective. The album’s closer “The Other Side” stays just the right side of the bombastic line with channel-hopping synths, pumping bass, some Doors-style piano and a final dramatic held vocal note. If you like a bit of drama, musically and lyrically, you’re in the right place.

“Abandon” is released on Friday March 3 on Ultraviolet Records (ULTRA001-2017).

Levi Cuss ScrollerLevi Cuss has quite a back story. He’s lived an eventful life, done things that he regrets and done some time as a consequence, but ultimately it’s all grist to the mill. He’s living a more conventional life now (if writing and performing songs can be called conventional), using some of the experiences from earlier days as material for his songs and using music as a means of redemption. And that’s all very well, but is the music any good? Well, it is, as it happens; the songs are strong and the musical settings are always interesting. Producer Steve Dawson has brought in some vintage (seventies mainly) instruments and soundscapes to bring a sense of historical perspective to the narratives.

The songs are across a range of styles, but the musical settings are firmly rooted in the early seventies; the lively JJ Cale cover “Bring it Back”, a story about bringing contraband across the Mexican border which probably won’t be released as a single in the current climate, is part “Spirit in the Sky” and part Canned Heat’s “Let’s Work Together”. It’s raucous and great fun.

Without sounding derivative, the album is infused with seventies references. The opening song “Red City River” hints at Dylan and The Band, “Cut my Teeth” is country-rock and “Pills” is pedal steel-laced country about the twisted logic of assuming that pills are better than alcohol because ‘Pretty  few songwriting people they take pills’. There are a few songwriting twists, “Saturday Night” is a laid-back, rather than lively take on the party night and “Grandma” is a tribute that celebrates a real life without sanitising it.

And that leaves a couple very interesting songs indeed. “Tecumseh” is a love song with a twist; where a man builds a relationship with the sister he murdered, and the closing song “Utumbo” which recreates a spacey retro synth mix of Pink Floyd and The Animals. It’s quite a way to close out an album that moves easily between retro styles with songs that have a strong autobiographical feel.

“Night Thief” is released on Friday March 10 and Levi Cuss will be touring the UK later in the year.

The Most Ugly Child ScrollerYou’ve heard the phrase ‘Damning with faint praise’. Yeah? The press release for “Copper and Lace” refers to the drummer and bass player as ‘the tightest rhythm section in Nottingham’, which is a bit like saying that they’ve headlined every honky-tonk in Hockley. It doesn’t really do justice to Matt Cutler and Max Johnson who are indeed a very tight and versatile rhythm, confidently changing style and emphasis mid-song to move songs up through the gears. In fact, the playing is perfect throughout with telling contributions from Nicole J Terry (fiddle) and ‘Big’ Jim Widdop (dobro and pedal steel) helping to create an authentic country feel to “Copper and Lace”.

There’s energy to spare as well; the album’s opener, “What Might Have Been”, comes roaring through like an eighteen-wheeler jokingly telling the loser’s story of missed opportunities. It’s a great way to kickstart the album and a contrast to the raw emotions of the beautiful “Just Another Lesson in Pain” and “Roses”, which pushes all the emotional buttons (it even finishes with a brass ensemble playing “The Old Rugged Cross”). It just about stays the right side of maudlin, but the flirtation with the over-sentimental is pushed beyond breaking point with the album’s closing song “My Pony” taking its cue from the tear-jerker ballads that gave country such a bad reputation in the UK in the sixties and seventies. It’s basically “Old Shep” but given an East Midlands mining twist by making a pit pony the subject of the song. Too cloying for my taste, but I can imagine a certain generation crying into their Mackeson as this plays on the jukebox. Maybe the position at the end of the album places too much emphasis on the song.

And that’s a shame because there’s plenty to like on this album. Daniel Wright and Stevie-Leigh Goodison’s vocals are spot-on throughout and there are some interesting modern takes on the standard country themes of drinking, broken relationships and death.

“Copper and Lace” is self-released on Friday February 24.