If you’re looking for a reliable way of identifying quality roots and Americana, you could try looking for Black Hen Music or the name Steve Dawson on the label. Please don’t tell me you won’t get this information because you don’t buy music in physical formats; we might fall out. Kat Danser’s fifth album scores on both of these counts and, of course, it’s a cracking good listen. It’s an interesting mix of half uptempo electric songs and half in a more contemplative style with a huge variety of stylistic influences. Kat’s an academic ethnomusicologist (Dr Kat Danser, no less), but the approach to the material on this album is practical and pragmatic.

Each of the songs on the album sounds like it was intended to be played live. There’s very little in the way of studio trickery, just great arrangements and even better playing. It’s noticeable that each song has at least one solo and some have several. It’s a great way of keeping really good musicians motivated; play the meat and potatoes stuff and you get the opportunity to improvise and play your solos as well.

The album splits broadly into two halves; the first half uptempo and ranging across rockabilly, country, blues and Southern swamp grooves, while the second half is generally slower and with more of an introspective singer/songwriter feel. It’s also interesting that the first half is generally about movement, featuring trains and cars (OK, I know “Train I Ride” is in the second half of the album), while the second half deals with standing still, establishing roots and telling home truths about “My Town”.

There’s absolutely no shortage of great songs on “Goin’ Gone”; “Train I Ride” menaces with a “Smokestack Lightning” feel to the guitar riff and some close-miked saxophone, “Kansas City Blues” makes a nod in the direction of Chris Izaak, but the icing on the cake is “Memphis, Tennessee”, a swampy twelve-bar love song to the city that references the fabulous Mavis Staples. It doesn’t get a lot better than this.

“Goin’ Gone” is released on Friday October 12th on Black Hen Music (BHCD0087).

So, where would this little Ben Kunder gem sit in the racks of your local music store? It’s almost impossible to say but I guess it’s going to land in that current catch-all, the Americana section because it features that well-known roots instrument, the synthesiser. The lasting impression of the album is of positivity; the two words of the title cropping up across various songs. It certainly ends on a positive note with a celebration of the birth of a baby in “Night Sky”. Lyrically, the album falls squarely into the introspective singer-songwriter category, but the stylings vary dramatically across the nine songs; let me explain. 

While “Fight for Time” “Better Days” and “Hard Line” fall in to fairly standard arrangements for this genre (okay “Hard Line” features a string section towards the end), “Jessi” has the feel of a eighties drive-time classic driven with some insanely catchy synth hooks thrown in for good measure. In common with the rest of the album, there are hints of Jackson Browne in the writing and the vocal intonation. “Lay Down”, however, is pure E Street Band with perhaps a few hints of Bob Seger in there as well. It’s over five minutes long and the combination of piano and organ from the beginning set the tone; maybe there are hints of The Band in there as well. As the song builds, no opportunity’s missed to gild this particular lily, with extra percussion from congas and tambourine, a falsetto vocal and a huge slide solo. The frantic drumming towards the end sums up the production; if it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing. “Come On”, which follows immediately, is a welcome chance to catch your breath before the album closes with the lovely “Night Sky”. 

“Better Human” is an immensely uplifting album, focussing on the ways we can make things better for ourselves and each other. The fact that the sentiment is helped along by interesting and innovative arrangements lifts it well above the ordinary run of singer-songwriter albums. 

“Better Human” is released on Comino Music (BKBH002) on Friday September 28th.

It’s obvious that this is a soundtrack of sorts from the get-go. The first thing you hear is the sound of a film projector running as an intro to the opening track as a gorgeous mournful fiddle theme gradually fades in before the themes of the album (and possibly a film) are established. It’s the soundtrack for a possible film based on a novel co-written my Mary James (Mean Mary) and her mother Jean James and the themes of the film are well established by the end of the opener “Harlequin”. No-one is ever what they seem to be and everyone, on screen or off, is playing a part. And not many people make the grade.

The album is an interesting mix of original songs, instrumentals and a version of the hymn “Rock of Ages” which demonstrates a delicacy of touch in the banjo backing, that’s a few steps away from the virtuoso picking of the instrumentals, and a pure vocal that contrasts the rawer delivery of the rest of the album.

Weighing in at ten tracks, “Blazing (Hell is Naked)” may look a little lightweight, but there’s no doubt about the quality of the playing and the variety of musical styles the album covers from the exhilarating improvisations on a theme of “Rainy” through the string band stylings of “Sugar Creek Mountain Rush” and the tango rhythms and tempo changes of the instrumental “Lights, Gun, Action”. Of the two companion pieces that give the album its title, the instrumental “Blazing” opens with a menacing solo banjo and becomes increasingly frantic as it progresses, while “Hell is Naked” carries a more subtle threat and the message that in a world this wicked, Hell can actually show its face without any attempt at disguise.

“La La Hoopla La”, with its nonsense lyrics underlines the endless vacuity of the Hollywood wannabe experience while the album closes appropriately with “I Face Somewhere”, a gentle sixties-inflected piece with some understated, clipped reverb guitar and the lyrical message that a healthy relationship is so much more important than the Hollywood myth.

The album’s a great demonstration of Mary James’ instrumental prowess and the songs powerfully convey the futility and infantile nature of the La La Land experience. If you listen to it as a stand-alone piece, it works very well. If you look at it as a taster for a novel and a movie, would it make me want to read or watch them? It would, without a doubt, so it’s a winner on all counts.

Out now.

There are a lot of things that go a long way to making a great record, in my humble, and a couple of them are great musicianship (controversial, but I include singing in that) and a sense of joy; this album has both of those in abundance. Track Dogs (the name’s taken from the denizens of the deeps of the New York subway) is Garrett Wall, Dave Mooney, Howard Brown and Robbie K Jones (two Irishmen, an Englishman and an American) who met up in Madrid. You might expect a mashing of influences, but “Kansas City Out Groove” goes way further than that. It fuses reggae, string band arrangements, Spaghetti Western and jazz and even hints of pop.

There’s a rare combination of four great players who also have superb voices, creating stunning individual vocal performances and the almost inevitable perfect harmonies. So where do you even begin to start picking out favourites? The Latin trumpet and rhythms and the nailed-on harmonies of the opener, “The Deep End” set the scene nicely, the lead vocal having more than a suggestion of our great British blues and soul hero, Aynsley Lister, and the hundreds and thousands come with the trumpet solo doubling up to two horns as the song plays out.

And from there on in, anything can happen. My personal highlights are the midtempo “Find Me a Rose”, blending folk song themes of life coming from death with Latin rhythms and constant tempo changes. “I Don’t Want to Ruin It” combines clipped funk guitar parts, a powerful trumpet solo and hints of David Gray’s “Babylon” to question where a relationship should go next and “Born in Love” has a chorus that is pure Steely Dan circa “Can’t Buy a Thrill”. Last, and definitely not least, is “My Big Payday” packed with tempo changes, Chicago/Asbury Jukes horns, a classic swing feel and a whole bundle of fun.

The playing is outstanding, the harmonies are superb and it’s joyful throughout; just give it a listen.

“Kansas City Out Groove” is out now on Mondegreen Records.

OK, I’ll give you this one for free because you’ll never work it out from listening to the album. I don’t think Gerry Spehar likes Donald Trump very much. I’ve heard a few American albums this year that have railed against the state of affairs in America generally and POTUS in particular, but none that have so consistently sustained the attack across a whole album of thirteen songs or, more accurately, twelve songs and a prelude. Gerry’s solo album last year, “I Hold Gravity”, hinted at the power and breadth of “Anger Management” but the actuality is so much more brutal and brilliant.

The album is crammed with compassion, anger, pacifism and scathing attacks on the hypocrisy espoused by America’s current elected elite; 2018 is the year that the protest album finally resurfaced and the timing is perfect.

The album opens with the skewed logic of “Thank You Donald”, set in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s election victory, where a suicidal impulse is overturned by a desire to save family and friends from the impending Trumpquake. It’s set against a traditional string band arrangement featuring banjo and fiddle that creates a comfortable American feel the remainder of the album systematically demolishes.

The arrangements on the album cover a wide variety of musical styles from a wide variety of countries, underlining the impact that outside influences, and immigration, have had on American popular music and society. The impact is underlined in the album’s second song “Son of an Immigrant”, where the occupation of the central character (a policeman) isn’t revealed until more than halfway through the song. The central message of the song is that almost all Americans are immigrants; it just depends how far back you go.

The album seethes with anger at the ills of modern America, the bitter lyrics underpinned by some incredible musical settings. “Carnival” is a perfect example, equating Trump with Lyndon Baines Johnson against a musical setting that evokes cabaret arrangements from 1930s Germany with sour horn fills and wah-wah guitar. It’s a perfect combination, all of the elements emphasising the madness of the present-day USA; laughing at the freakshow as a distraction from the state of the nation. It’s all perfectly summed up by the advice; ‘Just keep on sayin’ the same damn thing and don’t fuck it up.’

Bitch Heaven” is beautifully constructed, contrasting Trump with Woody Guthrie via Trump senior and his property development Beach Haven. Not only does Gerry stand the president nose-to-nose with an almost unimpeachable American musical icon, he also manages to morph the song into the Woody classic “This Land is Your Land”; it’s powerful stuff. And don’t forget the powerful, sarcastic closer “What Would Jesus Do?”, pointing the finger at the double standards and hypocrisy currently infesting Trumpton. In another penetrating insight, the title song nails the distraction technique of medicalising a perfectly natural reaction to events in today’s America.

I’d like you to do two things for me. Listen to this album on this link, and then buy a copy here. We all need to encourage people like Gerry Spehar to create masterpieces like this.

“Anger Management” is released in the UK on Friday 25 May.

 

 

The difficulty is knowing where to start here. Michael McDermott’s output over the last two years as The Westies and a solo artist has been prolific and profound. Making up for lost time; who knows? Michael’s four years clean and sober; 2016’s “Six on the Out” and “Willow Springs” made references to his lost years, while “Out from Under” tells the whole story from degradation through rehabilitation to redemption, pivoting around the album’s central song “Out from Under” and the decision to take responsibility for his life.

“Out from Under” isn’t just about the personal narrative; Michael’s been influenced by many different styles of American music and many of those influences surface on this musical journey. This is Michael’s story channelled through the American songbook. With a project this ambitious, you need a great team and it doesn’t get much better than Heather Horton on violin and vocals and Will Kimbrough on, well, anything with strings really.

The album opens with the brooding, menacing “Cal-Sag Road”; it’s about as low as you can get, a tale of drunkenness, sex and murder. It’s underpinned by Will Kimbrough’s atmospheric, ambient guitar sounds and the darkness of the arrangement mirrors the subject matter perfectly. The first half of the album runs through the ragtime resonator and banjo arrangement of “Gotta Go to Work”, the Southern boogie and “Sympathy For the Devil”-like backing vocals of “Knocked Down” to the Tom Petty-esque “Sad Songs”, depicting the malaise and lassitude of the music business. And then you hit the bottom.

“This World Will Break your Heart” is a pathos-packed series of vignettes pulling in dropouts, miscarriages and loneliness in old age. It’s the most heart-breaking song on the album and you know that things have to brighten up from here on in. And they do; It’s big, it’s anthemic and it has a hint of Springsteen. “Out from Under” is a floor-tom-driven monster of a song that’s as uplifting as anything you’ll hear this year. It’s the way forward, pointing the way for the second half of the album beginning with the idyll of “The Celtic Sea” where a sea voyage serves as a metaphor for the beginning of a redemptive relationship; it’s turbulent at first, but the crew pull together and the voyage looks set to succeed.

The three songs which follow are pure, joyous, celebration of love. “Rubber Band Ring” is a horns and Hammond Motown-style stomper, “Never Goin’ Down Again” sets a commitment to reform against a stadium rock background, while “Sideways” combines gorgeous Stax stylings with a lyrical style that leans towards Dylan or early Springsteen. And then you have the gentle acceptance of a new life in “God Help Us”.

“Out from Under” is a hugely ambitious album that follows Michael McDermott’s personal narrative and succeeds in combining an exploration of the highways and byways of American popular music with creative and poetic lyrics. I haven’t heard anything better this year.

“Out from Under” is released in the UK on Friday May 18, 2018.

Don’t take my word for it, listen to it here and then buy a copy.

Allison Russell and JT Nero are, collectively, Birds of Chicago. The press release refers to Americana and roots but, even by current standards, that’s stretching the definition. Is that a criticism of this album or Birds of Chicago? Hell, no; the truly great creatives never stand still. Birds of Chicago has evolved into a blend of deep soul, funk, roots and gorgeous melodic pop that defies classification and picks up influences from a dizzying variety of musical styles, blending it into a blissful musical confection. You are getting the message aren’t you? I love this album.

Not one single song that I want to skip and at least two that I want to listen to again and again. I think I’ll concentrate on those two. The title track is a slow, soulful ballad with a moody organ intro and superb use of the impassioned male and female vocals. The “Love in Wartime” title is a metaphor; the theme is the miracle of existence and perseverance, whatever the circumstances. It’s nearly six minutes long, but you just don’t want it to stop; every part of it is so perfect.

“Try” is just over five minutes long and the combination of perfect soulful vocal duet with a steadily building arrangement and a lyric that tackles the difficult subject of loss of motivation and vitality with age and the need to avoid complacency in our relationships and life in general. It’s powerful stuff, musically and lyrically. There is a lot more to the album than the two huge ballads; “Baton Rouge” has a lovely female lead vocal, some French lyrics (of course) and a clarinet solo appearing out of nowhere.

You want me to pick out a few more? Ok, with such a huge mix of influences, it’s pretty much inevitable that you’ll pick out a phrase now and then that evokes something else. “Never Go Back” has a feel of the Stevie Wonder classic “For Once in My Life”, while “Lodestar” evokes The Clash’s “Lost in the Supermarket”. I like to think of it as creative recycling. Don’t even try to impose categories on this album; its heady mix of vocal and instrumental styles is unique.

“Love in Wartime” is released on Friday May 4 on Signature Sounds Recordings.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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