It gets kind of personal here. I first heard of Michael McDermott in 2016, just before the release of “Six on the Out”. I was at a bit of a professional low point and I was blown away by the searing honesty of Michael’s songs. And where do you go from a low point? Well, obviously, it’s upwards and I’m pleased to be moving in the same direction as Michael McDermott. And that album as The Westies wasn’t Michael’s only release that year; he released the more contemplative solo piece “Willow Springs” a couple of months later. I’ve been passionate about music for a long time now and I don’t think I’ve ever heard two albums from one artist that were so complete released within two months of each other.

Three years on, Michael McDermott’s creative flame still burns magnesium-bright; the proof is in “Orphans”, Michael’s latest album. Songwriters don’t like to let anything go to waste, and this is a bunch of songs that didn’t quite fit on “Six on the Out”, “Willow Springs” or the equally-superb “Out from Under”. Doesn’t mean they’re not good songs; Southside Johnny’s first three albums, “I Don’t to Go Home”, “This Time It’s for Real” and “Hearts of Stone” are laced with stunningly-good Springsteen songs that wouldn’t have worked on “Born to Run” or “Badlands”. And I’ll seriously fall out with anyone who says that “The Fever”, “Talk to Me” and “Hearts of Stone” aren’t classic examples of the songwriter’s art.

But back to Michael McDermott (although The Boss isn’t an inappropriate reference to throw in here); the songs on “Orphans” are the niggling doubts; those songs that just wouldn’t let go, even after the albums were out there. These songs are seeing the light of day because they deserve to, and because they complete the picture painted by “Six on the Out”, “Willow Springs” and “Out from Under”.

“Orphans” pulls in elements from all three of those albums. These aren’t out-takes; these are great songs that refused to die. The album opens with “Tell Tale Heart”, a song that, in one line, made me question my orthodox view of British socio-political history; that’s not a bad start to an album. Of the remaining eleven songs, there isn’t a bad one and “Sometimes When it Rains in Memphis”,Full Moon Goodbye” and “Los Angeles a Lifetime Ago” would grace any album. And these are the songs that didn’t make the original cut.

“Orphans” is the missing piece in the jigsaw of the three previous albums, completing the journey from success through degradation to redemption and it’s absolutely essential. It’s out now on Pauper Sky Records and Michael will be in London in early May to launch the album. In the meantime, just have a look at this:

 

Bedford to Nashville; it’s over four thousand miles, but Danni Nicholls somehow manages to connect the two in a way that’s totally convincing and authentic, so let me just say from the start that “The Melted Morning” is an assured, warm and satisfying piece of work. There are lyrical references on the album that relate to both sides of the pond. Sitting happily side by side on the album are “Unwanted”, with its scene-setting American speed limits and vocal that evokes Rosanne Cash, and “Wish I Were Alone” with its London Road reference. And it helps that Danni has a rich and versatile voice that’s equally at home with country or soul stylings.

Danni’s a songwriter who enjoys the process of collaboration with other writers, and there are quite a few of those involved in this project, including Ben Glover, Robby Hecht, Jess Morgan and Amelia White. It’s something that works well, but I’ll come back to that later. The other interesting aspect of this album is that Danni chose to put it together with a predominantly female team for some very good socio-political reasons but also because ‘they were the absolute right people to help bring these songs to life’.

Whether it’s that collaborative dynamic or just that the structure of the songs leads to certain arrangements and stylings, the songs develop and unfold at a leisurely pace (only two songs clock in at under four minutes); nothing feels rushed, the songs are allowed to breathe and it’s not about individual egos. It’s all about the songs, and what beautiful songs they are. Danni and her collaborators spin intriguing tales of unconventional relationships, unrealised ambition and sometimes even just some straightforward, unvarnished love songs. “Hear Your Voice” and “Power to Leave” feel like a matched pair with slightly different takes on the business of success as a musician, while the latter has a soul feel and some gorgeous Latin horns pushing the arrangement along.

And that thing I was coming back to. The album’s packed with collaborations but the songs that really push my buttons are Danni’s solo writes. “Lemonade” is another twist on ‘when life gives you lemons…’, while “Ancient Embers” and “Hopeless Romantic” are both intensely personal. I understand the logic of closing the album with “Hopeless Romantic”; it’s a perfect summation of a beautiful piece of work. Buy the vinyl, stick it on your deck and just let it wash over you; you’ll feel so much better.

“The Melted Morning” is released on Friday April 12th on Danni Nicholls Music (DNM002).

“River of Light” is one of those albums that constantly surprises; you never know what’s coming next. It might be a nice understated guitar fill or it might be a lyric that stops you in your tracks with its brutal honesty and intensity. More about that later, but let’s just get this out of the way now; Kristina isn’t a singer’s singer. She uses her voice very effectively as one of the instruments in the mix, but it is another instrument, not a focal point. She creates varied and interesting sounds and examples are dotted throughout the album of her use of studio techniques picked up from her career as a sound engineer.

Where Kristina really excels is in creating enthralling soundscapes where every element is important. And while we’re talking about the elements, just have a look at the talented musicians she’s pulled together for this project: MusicRiot favourite Steve Mayone and Val McCallum (guitar player with Jackson Browne) for a start. The soundscapes move from the resolutely lo-fi twelve-bar country blues of a “I Like a Hard-Hearted Man” through the string band and guitar atmospherics of “Walking These Ridges” (with a bit of accordion thrown in for good measure) to the album’s closing piece, the instrumental “Godspeed”, which is cinematic with clusters of echoing piano triads and an acoustic guitar melody. It would fit perfectly on a Sigur Ros album.

Did I mention the lyrical themes? No, not yet, let’s pick out a couple of examples. “Waging Peace” (once you get past the “waging war” reference) is a post-apocalyptic vision of Albert Einstein’s Fourth World War being fought with sticks and stones. “Caught by the Heart” is a terrifying vision of domestic violence that repeated listening just won’t soften; it’s harsh and brutal, no punches are pulled and you can’t ignore the impact.

I’m just going to add that Kristina is hugely inspired by Jackson Browne; that’s a recommendation for me any time.

“River of Light” is released in the UK on Thunder Ridge Records (TRR025) on April 5th 2019.

One thing to say right from the start, Danny Schmidt is a superb songwriter; a songwriter’s songwriter if you like, practised in the alchemy of creating gold from, well, algebra, statistics and string theory for a start. Unlikely base metals maybe, but Danny Schmidt’s no ordinary singer-songwriter; he’s a poet, a physicist and a metaphysicist. Keith Richards might claim that you just have to pull songs out of the air, but Danny Schmidt is proof that great songs can be honed and crafted till they shimmer if you have the insight, the inspiration and the skill.

Danny Schmidt’s songs cover a wide range of subjects and styles; he’s convincing with the wordy, technical songs (the album’s title track, for instance) and also has complete mastery of the personal, confessional style that tops and tails “Standard Deviation”. The album has wonderful examples of both of those styles; the title track combines a slightly unconventional love story with an interest in various modern scientific concepts. Also, and Danny doesn’t labour this in the lyrics, he highlights the differences between the relationship between the statistical concept of the normal distribution and the day-to-day us of the word ‘normal’. The lyrical beauty of the song is enhanced by a gorgeous arrangement building up to the entrance of the celestial choir towards the end of the piece.

The song that tops the album, “Wait Til They See You” is exactly the kind of song that a doting father writes about his miraculous and beautiful baby daughter while the closer, “We Need Another Word” asks a serious question about whether the word ‘miscarriage’ is appropriate as a description of a harrowing personal ordeal faced my millions of women every year. I think he has a point. “Bones of Emotion” is an exploration of the of the turbulent undercurrents of a family gathering at Christmas, while “Newport ‘65” is a deceptively straightforward look at Dylan’s move away from conventional acoustic folk, which highlights the dangers of being seen as a prophet – acolytes crave certainty and react badly when that certainty is taken away.

“Standard Deviation” is a great example of the songwriter’s art; songs covering a wide variety of styles and topics set in arrangements that make them sparkle and shine.

The album is released in the UK on Friday March 29th on Live Once Records (LOR CD 10) and Danny will be touring the UK in May.

Meanwhile, just bury yourself in this:

The press release for “Savage on the Downhill” majors on authenticity. Yep, I think we get that. The album absolutely oozes authenticity; maybe it’s the detail in the descriptions of the frontier lifestyle, maybe it’s the affinity for the land, maybe it’s just the searing honesty of the lyrics telling stories of old age and empty nests, poverty and single parenthood, and thwarted nostalgia. Maybe it’s the raw power and stark melancholy of Amber’s voice. Or it’s all of these things twisting together and taking on the added strength of musicianship that’s not showy but creates a perfect backdrop for a strong set of songs.

There’s a little bit of twang in the mix occasionally, but Amber’s style is much more elemental and old-country; more Patsy Cline than Taylor Swift. The musical stylings enforce this; a couple of songs are in waltz time, and the haunting atmosphere and fills come mainly from harmonica and pedal steel.

Amber Cross’s great achievement on “Savage on the Downhill” is that she distils the songs down into their purest form. She tells unapologetic stories of hard times and difficult situations but she’s not asking for our sympathy or even understanding; she’s just telling it like it is. The stories she’s telling are basically her observations of the things she sees around her and it’s not always pretty. And which songs are the standouts?

The standard cop-out is that it’s all good but, if arms were being twisted, “The Lone Freighter’s Wail” is a gorgeous song gently echoing Shakey’s “Harvest Moon”, but it’s not typical of Amber’s lyrical themes. “Tracey Joe” is an uncompromising story of a single parent trying to do the best for her son (with a chorus that you just can’t shake off) and the title track vividly conveys the excitement and the menace of the contest between predator and prey. Then there’s the haunting melancholy of “Echoes”, where two parents find constant reminders of children who have flown the nest.

If you like your roots music served plain and simple, with great stories, strong melodies and arrangements, then “Savage on the Downhill” is definitely for you.

The album’s released in the UK on Friday March 22nd and Amber will be touring the UK and Ireland in April.

I-95; almost two thousand miles from Maine to Florida, if you’re Southbound like J.P. Soars. Not as well known as Route 66, but here’s a coincidence; I’m reading a guitar player’s memoir at the moment (next review up) which references I-95 extensively. And Southbound? Well that’s heading towards Florida and who wouldn’t, particularly in the winter? The title song’s a road song, plain and simple, in the age-old tradition; it’s the story of touring musicians, road dogs, and it’s the most straight-up, no-nonsense song on the album. No matter how sophisticated your tastes and influences get, it’s always fun to throw in a few loud riffs and fills

J.P. Soars is no average blues player. Great players don’t allow themselves to be defined by one genre; blues/rock might be at the centre of “Southbound I-95” but it doesn’t define it. And before we move on, there are fifteen songs on the album, but the funky “Sure as Hell Ain’t Foolin’ Me” crops up in ‘explicit’ and ‘clean’ versions (‘bullshit’ becomes ‘BS’) and “Arkansas Porch Party” reappears as the muted background for a hidden track.

If you’re this good, you don’t just keep recycling the same old licks; you keep moving on and soaking up more and more esoteric influences which then resurface in your work. You might do the Albert King and Muddy Waters covers (and J.P. does “When You Walk Out that Door” “Deep Down in Florida” with style and conviction) but there’s a lot more to it than that. Some of the stylings are fairly standard; “Southbound I-95” opens with a surf-punk guitar sound (think Dick Dale meets Link Wray, “Shining Through the Dark” is sixties pop-soul with a hint of “Hey Baby” while “The Grass Ain’t Always Greener” channels “Great Balls of Fire” and the Gary Bonds stomper “New Orleans”.

Things get a bit more esoteric with the mariachi horns adorning “Deep Down in Florida”, the surf meets Perez Prado sound of “Across the Desert” and the strangeness that is “Troubled Waters” which opens like Lynyrd Skynyrd before morphing into an Eastern-influenced instrumental breakdown with a banjo taking the sitar part and back into Southern rock again.

In a world where the hopes of megastardom as a blues/rock player are minimal (apparently there’s only room for one Joe Bonamassa at any given time) and you have talent to burn like J.P Soars, then you just have to follow your vision and go where it leads you. On the whole, this is a hugely entertaining album; it sounds like everyone’s having a great time and the playing is phenomenal – give it a listen.

Release date Friday March 8th .

And enjoy this:

It’s a phrase that first was first heard in feminist politics in the late sixties – “The personal is political” – and it’s just as applicable in the USA today. Jess Klein’s latest album, “Back to My Green” is the culmination of a period of turmoil that was both political and personal; a new relationship (and marriage) and a certain presidential election in 2016. Both of those things had a massive impact on Jess Klein’s work, and her upheaval is definitely our gain, pushing her out of her comfort zone and into new ways of writing and recording. A stripped-back, raw set of songs morphed over time into a band sound which even stretched to a couple of sixties-style string quartet arrangements.

The album’s rough trajectory is from the personal through the personal/political and back to the more contemplative personal as the album closes and, although the title track has a powerful message, the personal and political strands are knitted together inextricably in the album’s longest and hardest-hitting song “New Thanksgiving Feast” which ties highly personal childhood reminiscences to ancient fishing rights, Native American pipeline protests and the ‘taking the knee’ national anthem protests spreading through American sport. It’s a heady mix and underlines a theme that’s increasingly common in Americana today; depending on whose figures you believe, ninety-nine per cent of Americans are descended from immigrants. Jess Klein only has go back two generations to find that link (a bit like POTUS really, but I bet Jess’s father didn’t attract the ire of Woody Guthrie). “Blair Mountain” also combines the two strands, looking at the impact of rapacious mining on the economics and ecology of a small town while “Gates of Hell” rails at the lunacy of life in the land of the free in the early twenty-first century.

Which brings us to the title song, positioned in the middle of the album. The message is that there can be an escape from the madness if you find the right place. I’ve focussed on the lyrical content, but Jess has also created some memorable melodies and the band creates musical settings that allow each of the songs to shine. The album is studded with interwoven personal insights and social comment married to great tunes. I’ll take that any day of the week.

“Back to My Green” is released in the UK on Friday February 22 on Blue Rose Records (BLU DP0727) and Jess is touring the UK in April-May 2019.

Humour me for a minute. Every so often, a piece of work like this comes along (it’s not just an album it’s a project, maybe even a concept) where every aspect and detail is absolutely perfect. The humouring bit concerns my particular slant on the project. MusicRiot’s gig team, The Riot Squad, are big fans of Dean Owens, the UK representative on the project, so forgive me if I spend a bit of time on Dean’s contribution. It’s fair to say that Dean’s solo material has a strong sense of location; he writes about the area and the people he knows, just like Ian Rankin and Irvine Welsh in their novels and short stories. It’s also fair to say that he’s always been willing to push the boundaries in his collaborations, spreading out into traditional Scottish folk ballads as Redwood Mountain with Amy Geddes, rockier material with his occasional band Deer Lake and his consistently excellent work with Will Kimbrough (more about that later).

Buffalo Blood is something else indeed. Dean teamed up with his Nashville friends and collaborators Neilson Hubbard, Audrey Spillman and Joshua Britt, along with sound engineer and photographer Jim DeMain to spend two weeks deep in the New Mexico desert feeling the forces of previous lives played out there while writing and recording  fifteen songs that tap into the echoes of centuries of betrayal, exploitation and alienation of the Native American peoples. And it’s not just the songs; there’s video and photography as well. The incredibly ambitious aim of the project is to immerse the listener in five hundred years of Native American experience. What’s truly incredible is that they actually succeeded. “Buffalo Blood” is an album that will entrance you, engage you and enrage you; maybe it will even make you take a serious look at the history of the indigenous peoples of the American continent. That’s what can happen when creative artists follow their instincts and beliefs and just create; I can’t imagine any of the major music providers bankrolling this project, but I believe “Buffalo Blood” has a real shot at commercial success; it’s that powerful.

The songs were recorded live outdoors in the desert, the wind and animal noises contributing to the feeling of immersion in an environment that retains echoes of centuries of struggle. The quality of the songwriting is consistently high across the album as Celtic, European and Native American influences combine to create a perfect musical backdrop for a message that is still relevant (Standing Rock ring any bells?).

The album has a narrative flow; it moves from the original contact with European settlers through time to the closing lament “Vanishing World”, which is perfectly suited to Dean Owens’ plaintive voice. This album is a classic, carrying a very potent message through the medium of haunting melodies and flawless performances; get it on your wishlist.

If you needed the album to be ground-breaking in any more ways, it’s the first UK release on the Eel Pie Records label and it’s available as a vinyl gatefold double album or digitally from Friday February 15 (EPRLP001)

Breaking news – Dean Owens won UK Song of the Year at the UK Americana Awards 2019 for the title track from his 2018 “Southern Wind” collaboration with Will Kimbrough. And that’s not the only good news from the Buffalo Blood camp; Neilson Hubbard produced “Southern Wind” and also Ben Glover’s “Shorebound” (UK Album of the Year winner) and “Rifles and Rosary Beads” for Mary Gauthier, who won International Artist of the Year and is up for a Grammy this year. Not a bad haul, and that’s before “Buffalo Blood” is released.

If you need any more recommendations for Buffalo Blood, try this:

First impressions; sometimes you can stake your life on them and sometimes… Well, this was one of those. The opening song, “Let’s Go Back in Time, Man”, screamed out ‘Rockabilly Revival – again’, and we’ve all seen too many of those built around mediocre pop bands. But the album’s twelve songs long, so let’s not be too hasty. Guess what? By the second song I’d admitted to being a bit premature and by the end of the album, the message had hit home; the title of the first song’s ironic and this is about viewing a mid-twentieth century musical phenomenon through a twenty-first century lens. Forget the revival, this is how Rob’s rockabilly rolls in 2019.

Now, with the best will in the world, some of the original UK rockabilly bands were characterised more by enthusiasm than expertise; that’s definitely not the case with Rob Heron and the Tea Pad Orchestra. These people can play and what they are is much, much more than a skiffle band with better gear. And maybe rockabilly isn’t really a wide enough description for the scope of their work. Just look at all the incongruous elements.

The second song, “There’s a Hole Where my Pocket Used to Be” combines  a Spaghetti Western ambience and choral refrain with a Theremin and a clever lyric built around the number six. Don’t look for too many predictable where Rob Heron’s concerned. Song number three, “Life is a Drag”, combines lyrics about the joys of cross-dressing with a jazz arrangement, an accordion solo and lead guitar that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Les Paul record. And so it goes on – “Une Bouteille de Beaujolais” evokes a Paris café with an accordion solo, a gypsy Django feel and wine references. You wouldn’t find either of those two songs in a Crazy Cavan set.

That’s not the end of the invention by a long way. “Fool Talkin’ Man” has a Gallic Jacques Brel feel with some atonal touches creating a slightly menacing feel while the title song has the feel of a seventies American TV theme married to a lyric about unwanted gentrification in our cities. And even if the album’s closer, “Double Meaning, Double Entendre”, is based on a fairly thin premise, it’s still good fun and there’s always a place for that. Give it a listen; even better, go out and watch them on their upcoming tour.

“Soul of My City” is released on Tea Pad Recordings (TPCD006) on Friday February 1st, 2019.

 

Time flies. It’s over three years since we reviewed the last Sam Lewis album “Waiting on You”. Well, he picked up the opening slot on Chris Stapleton’s ‘Traveler’ album tour, which is a long way from the last time we saw him in the basement at Green Note. He’s moved on a bit in terms of his songwriting as well. The voice is as good as ever and, like the arrangements and stylings, it’s in that confluence where the rivers of blues, soul and country meet. It’s quite a voice; for those of a certain age, if you take a touch of rawness away from Frankie Miller, you’re getting somewhere close.

Events in the outside world have had their impact on Sam’s songs (as they have on many other American songwriters during that time) and there’s a move away from the personal in the lyrics towards an exploration life in America in the Trumpton era. It’s certainly darker than his previous work and definitely in tune with the zeitgeist. And there are some great tunes as well.

There’s a theme running through the album of moving from or towards something, but it goes a little further than that. “Great Ideas” references the management theory of disruption as a means of progress and, despite the darker mood of the album, there’s a huge amount of positivity as well. The message of “Do It” is to spread the love around, while the title track is about the idea that unity and diversity can happily co-exist, even today.

Looking at the whole thing, the album is gorgeous. Sam’s voice is as smooth and seductive as ever and the arrangements are perfect, serving the song without ever becoming too showy or obtrusive. The closest we get to a showy guitar solo is on “The Only One”, and even that’s very tasteful, and definitely not ostentatious. Standouts; it’s all very, very good and bears repeated listening, but I think it has to be the title song “Loversity” which stacks the two guitars prevalent throughout the album up against horns and huge choral backing vocals over a Stax-style groove; what more could you want?

“Loversity” is released in the UK on Loversity Records on Friday January 18th.

Meanwhile, feast your eyes and ears on this: