Well, I have to say that the name threw me off course. I was expecting a seventeen stone blues shouter, but I was way off the mark. The core of Big Sadie’s actually two people; Elise Bergman (upright bass and vocals) and Collin Moore (guitar and vocals). They’re from Chicago, they’ve been together about ten years, “Keep Me Waiting” is their debut album and it’s a beautiful piece of work which reveals something different with every listen. It has that intimate feel that comes from recording the songs as if the band were playing a gig.

Elise and Collin have amassed a considerable repertoire of traditional songs, but “Keep Me Waiting” is all about their originals, split absolutely equally between the two. The quality of the songs is exceptional; apart from the instrumental “Anni’s Orchard”, each song is a perfectly constructed vignette where the vocal and instrumental arrangements enhance the message of the song. The opener, “Danny“, gives some idea of what’s to come with a neatly-told story of the ex-lover coming back to town and the futility of trying to recapture past relationships, set in a slow arrangement of banjo, upright bass and mournful fiddle. Oh, and gorgeous harmonies.

The two waltz-time songs on the album, “Before Morning” with Collin’s vocal and “Good Woman” with Elise leading, are given a melancholy feel by fiddle parts as they tell everyday stories of breakups and domestic drudgery respectively; the subject matter may be sorrowful, but the delivery is powerfully uplifting. Choosing standouts is difficult, the whole album is pure quality, but I’ll have a go anyway.

Baby it Ain’t You“, is a slow country song with a powerful lead vocal from Elise and some perfect three-part harmonies in the refrain, and the title track acts as a showcase for the band’s individual and collective talents with the usual nailed-on harmonies and lots of solos. The perfect way to end a live set.

“Keep Me Waiting” is a masterful distillation of traditional playing styles and original songwriting across a wide variety of styles, from the Patsy Cline feel of “Baby it Ain’t You” to the pure bluegrass of the title song. The lead vocals and the harmonies are superb throughout and the band is completely convincing. You really should give it a listen.

“Keep Me Waiting” is released in the UK on Friday September 29th on Spindle Tree Records.

And yet another album from an artist with over fifty years of music-making, including thirty albums, behind him. “Bone on Bone” is his first album in six years and it’s a timely reminder of the quality of his acoustic playing and the depth of his songwriting. You wouldn’t say “Bone on Bone” was an easy listen lyrically; there are apocalyptic visions, environmental concerns and religious references alongside Bruce Cockburn’s robust and assured finger-picking. As good as the songs are, it’s his playing that stands out for me as he moves between standard acoustic, resonator and twelve-string acoustic, even including a guitar instrumental, the title track, finger-picked over a relentlessly repeated single note thumbed in the bass. And, as an interesting little aside for you, the lyric booklet is in English and French although only “Mon Chemin” is actually sung in French. If you know a bit of French, you can pick out subtle additional layers of meaning from the translations – the album’s opening song “States I’m In” translates literally as “My States of Soul”.

The album may be dominated by Bruce Cockburn’s acoustic playing, but that doesn’t mean that it’s predictable with styles ranging from the bluesy and slightly sardonic “Café Society” to the gospel feel of “Jesus Train” and the zydeco rockabilly of “Stab at Matter”. And it’s good to hear flugelhorn player Ron Miles adding some mellow brass voicings to the mix. What about the standouts? Well, “States I’m In” is difficult to beat with its almost-stream-of-consciousness lyrics stretching the song out to nearly six minutes, while “3 Al Purdys” is a vision of a manic street orator offering to recite three Al Purdy poems for twenty dollars.

The subject matter of the album is complex and, unlike our politicians on both sides of the pond, Bruce Cockburn doesn’t try to tell us that there are easy answers. There are lots of religious references, but these are much about the artist exploring his own relationship with his faith, rather than trying to sell a particular vision. “Bone on Bone” is a confident and mature album that doesn’t shy away from exploring complexity and resists easy paths. Recommended for anyone that’s happy to put in a bit of effort to get the most out of an album.

“Bone on Bone” is released in the UK on Friday September 15th on True North Records (TND678).

As good as it is to hear music from new artists, there’s something very satisfying about a new album from someone who’s been around for a while. In the case of Paul Brady, ‘around for a while’ is understating slightly. At the age of seventy and with a career in music spanning over fifty years, he’s someone who knows a thing or two about writing a great song and “Unfinished Business” is exactly the album you would expect from an artist with Paul Brady’s reputation and experience. There are eleven songs: two are interpretations of traditional songs and nine originals which are co-writes with either Paul Muldoon, Sharon Vaughn or Ralph Murphy. It’s a thoroughbred of an album; perfectly proportioned and without an ounce of flab. It’s all about delivering the best possible interpretation of every song. 

What about the raw material, the songs? Well, Paul Brady isn’t resting on his laurels; he’d probably get vertigo if he did. The nine originals here are beautifully crafted pieces of work. I hesitate to use the phrase ‘songwriters’ songwriter’ because of its elitist implications, but Paul Brady’s a master craftsman whose work satisfies the professionals and the fans alike as he glides effortlessly across styles on this deceptively simple but gloriously effective album. And, as if that wasn’t enough, he still has a powerful soulful voice as well. 

The album begins with the title track, and it’s a perfect piece of understatement with some delicate jazzy piano, upright bass and gorgeous harmonies in the chorus with a romantic message. The equally enchanting “Once In a Lifetime” towards the end of the album is in a similar vein, with the addition of some plaintive steel; you won’t hear a better pair of love songs on an album this year. 

But it’s not all love songs on “Unfinished Business”; “I Love You But You Love Him” is a funky take on the ‘opposites attract’ theme, “Maybe Tomorrow” is Celtic-tinged rock while “Say You Don’t Mean” is a pulsing, erudite putdown of a bystander critic. The originals are every bit as good as you would expect from Paul Brady, while the two traditional songs are given fairly modern musical settings, particularly the album’s closer, “Lord Thomas & Lady Ellender” which Paul has apparently been playing live for fifty years. 

One word – superb. 

“Unfinished Business” is released on Friday September 8 on Proper Records.

Let’s get this out of the way right from the start; Sarah Rodriguez, singer and keyboard player with The Hallows, sounds a bit like Kate Bush. There, I’ve said it now. I’m also going to say that she doesn’t do any of the piercing, high-register, polystyrene on a window stuff that Kate Bush inclines towards, so that’s pretty much a win-win. “Of Time and Tides” has an identity and sense of cohesion that isn’t always apparent in early albums. There’s a sense of assurance about the way the album’s produced as well; there’s nothing tentative about this album.

The songs are all strong, well-constructed and with memorable melodies, but the real selling points for the album are the varied arrangements and use of a huge dynamic range throughout. The studio versions of the songs are liberally sprinkled with fairy dust in the form of layered, multi-tracked and counterpoint vocals, strings, samples, acoustic and electric guitars, pianos and synths. Each of the songs has its own distinct character with Sarah’s bold and distinctive vocals creating a cohesive unity for the album.

As you might expect with a trio format of drums (Joe Rodriguez), Dave Pugh (bass) and Sarah Rodriguez (keys and vocals) the basslines are more than just a solid bottom end; there’s plenty of melody there as well. Who needs a lead guitar player anyway? If one song encapsulates the spirit of this album, it’s “Angel”, where strummed acoustic guitars, layered vocals and shimmering guitars give way to an absolutely monstrous bass riff as the band briefly demonstrates its heavy credentials before sliding back into ethereal mode again for the finish of the song.

And a word to the wise here. This isn’t a studio confection; the band’s more than capable of creating a huge sound when they play live and Sarah Rodriguez’s vocals sound, if anything, even better in that situation. You can hear for yourself at these gigs.

“Of Time and Tides” is released on Friday August 25th.

“Angel”? Oh, go on then:

Don’t you just love it when the opening song of an album kicks down the doors and bursts in without even wiping its feet? That’s exactly what “The Hammer and The Heart” does. “Work Hard, Love Harder” is a joyous, uplifting power pop anthem with chiming Byrds/Flaming Groovies guitars and a perfectly simple message; we need more love. You only need to hear it once and you’ll be playing it back mentally for months afterwards. It only needs one tastemaker at Radio Two to get behind this one and millions of people will be singing along; trust me. But I wouldn’t want you to think that “Work Hard…” is the only great song on this album. 

Actually, the term ‘album’ doesn’t really do it justice; the press release describes it as a double album, but it’s really two distinct albums, one uptempo and mainly electric, the other mainly acoustic and with a more contemplative feel. “Work Hard…” opens both albums, with backing from The Bottle Rockets on album one and a string band version backed by The Boxcar Lilies (such a great name) on album two and the two versions highlight the importance of the song to Susan Cattaneo and its place as a pivot for both albums. 

Across the eighteen songs you won’t find even an average one; they’re all superbly crafted and majestically realised and it’s difficult to pick out highlights, but let’s give it a go anyway. “In The Grooves” is a rockabilly stomper looking back to the golden era of the vinyl 45 (complete with Scotty Moore-style guitar solo), while “When Love Goes Right” is a gorgeous duet with Bill Kirchen turning the cliché of young love upside down and telling the story of lasting love. On the folkier second album, you can clearly hear the influence of Joni Mitchell and there are explorations of political and environmental themes in “Eveybody Cryin’ Mercy” and “Field of Stone”. And there’s even a gently-paced Bowie cover (“Space Oddity”) with lovely vocal harmonies to close the second album. 

If you want eighteen classy songs played by some superb musicians, you’ve come to the right place; “The Hammer and the Heart” is an unmissable collection. And how about finishing with a lyric from the album’s anthem: ‘The heart beats louder than the dollar, shines a light in a world gone darker, draws joy in permanent marker’. That’s the message for you; “Work Hard, Love Harder”. 

“The Hammer and the Heart” is released on Friday August 25 2017 on Jersey Girl Records.

“The Spirit of God and Madness” is a perfect example of the way music evolves. Viper Central started their musical life as a traditional bluegrass string band, but on their third album they’re pushing the bluegrass boundaries by incorporating some non-traditional elements into the mix. And there’s a pretty clear demarcation as well; the first half of the album features the more experimental material, including the jazzy shuffle of the opening song “Gold Mine” with its honky-tonk piano solo, “Ned Kelly”, dominated by a menacing over-driven harmonica, and the slow, psychedelia-washed, “Say, Say”. That’s before you even get to the manic melange of “Losing my Mind”, blending Mexican trumpets, jazz mandolin and tempo changes.

The second half of the album is, by and large, more traditional, featuring short instrumentals and tales of the frontier era; “I Won’t be Left” tells the story of a young woman who left Ireland for the USA and walked across The Rockies with three young children. It’s open to debate as to whether this collection gels as a complete album but it’s an interesting effort, and that’s the way music develops, morphs and mutates.

“The Spirit of God and Madness” is released on Friday August 4th.

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.