First of all, let me say that this is only available in 375ml bottles rather than the standard 750ml, but it comes in two packages: plastic with a screwtop and glass with a genuine cork. But we’re more interested in quality than quantity aren’t we, so let’s have the tasting notes. Well, I’m getting leather jackets with studs and MOFO patches on the back, shoulder length hair, well-worn Levis and cowboy boots. The ambience of The Midland Hotel Bar in Mansfield in 1973 and Metal Mickey’s rock sessions downstairs in Nottingham Palais in the mid-eighties. It’s a robust flavour with the nuances of Deep Purple, Thin Lizzy and Wishbone Ash (with just a lingering aftertaste of Black Sabbath) and none of the thud and blunder of some of the less subtle bands of the era. It’s Austin Gold’s second album (or mini album) and it’s only available on vinyl or as a download.

There’s no denying that Austin Gold are influenced by seventies rock and that can be a blessing or a curse. For every band with twin guitars in harmony, memorable melodies, concise delivery and keyboards enhancing the guitar attack there were equal numbers of lumbering four-to-the-floor units, pretentious lyrics purveyors, over-long solo show-offs and big light shows that masked the defects of the materials.

You know where this is going; Austin Gold personify all of the elements of seventies British rock that I ever bought into while avoiding all of the elements that totally turned me off. The songs are melodic, they all come in about four minutes, there are no ten-minute solos (in fact no guitar pyrotechnics at all) and the drumming doesn’t rely completely on bass and floor tom. Absolutely nothing’s overdone; the songs run their course, maybe with a solo or two and they end. The Hammond and keys contribute to the overall sound rather than standing front and centre and the guitar riffs are simple, loud and effective. And they know how to write an anthem or two.

It’s definitely Côtes du Rhone rather than Beaujolais Nouveau.

“Austin Gold” is out now on Jigsaw (SAW 8).

It happens every couple of years; we get a new Bob Bradshaw album, and they’re always worth waiting for. Bob’s a very credible singer with a voice that can bristle with taut emotion or smoothe off the edges to demonstrate a rich baritone for the ballads that has a hint of later-period Elvis Costello. The varied arrangements seem almost effortless and always work to emphasise the qualities of the songs, which are also a rich and varied selection of musical and lyrical styles. As you make your way through “Queen of the West”, the pieces of the puzzle begin to fall into place. It’s not a linear narrative, the album opens somewhere in the middle of the story before bouncing back and forth through various critical episodes in the life of Ruby Black, Queen of the West before the album ends with a trilogy of relationship songs which may or may not feature Ruby, closing with tragic story of a boatload of refugees burnt out within sight of the shore – close enough to hear the sounds of the children singing.

And what about those varied styles? Well, the album opens with the beautifully atmospheric and, appropriately widescreen, title song building the atmosphere with floor toms, shimmering guitar and strings as the narrative opens with a tentative reunion for Ruby. It’s a seductive start that sets the scene perfectly for the rest of an album that impresses with its quality and innovation. As an example, three songs in, “Ruby Black”, with its atonal, angular guitar riff pulls together Ruby’s prayer to the saints for her sick child with reminiscences of her musical career, ending with a choral reply from the saints. Which then leads into the almost vaudeville style of “1-800-SOSAINT” pitching the saints as options on a prayer helpline – it’s clever, original and masterfully delivered. Other favourites? Pretty much anything really, but the incredibly catchy “High Horse” and the laconic “Story Goes” have been heavily praised here at Riot Towers.

There’s a lot of chatter about the demise of the album these days and “Queen of the West” is a great example of a piece of work that’s well-written and structured in a way that keeps you engaged throughout. The character of Ruby is developed in a way that pulls you in to her story, crying at the heartache and smiling at the diamond-hard public persona. “Queen of the West” is designed to be listened to as a single piece – it’s a rewarding experience.

“Queen of the West” is out now on Fluke Records (FR10).

It’s fair to say that the music scene in the Irish Republic has always been distinct from that in the UK. It’s not uncommon for bands to be massive, having Number One hits in Ireland while being unknown in the UK and that’ s the way it is with Keywest. They’ve had two Number One albums in Ireland already and now they’re out to conquer the UK with their first album release here, “Ordinary Superhero”. It’s fair to say that in (fairly) recent years, bands taking this route have been aimed at the teen market and the pop charts; while Keywest have some radio-friendly tunes, there’s a lot more to this outfit than pop songs.

They got together busking in Ireland, honing their craft in front of a constantly changing audience on the streets; it’s a harsh learning environment, but the survivors have to be good and they have to know how to hold an audience. I’ve seen Keywest live a couple of times and I know for sure that they’ve achieved both of those goals. It was a live performance in Camden in 2018 that led Steve Tannett, head of Marshall Records to sign them to the label in the UK.

“Ordinary Superhero” is a pretty good representation of where the band is at the moment. They’ve taken all the lessons learned from playing to audiences whose attention they had to grab instantly and created ten songs that fuse influences from pop, folk, rock, Celtic traditional and world music rhythms. The arrangements are built around big choruses and an effective use of dynamics with some Edge-style guitar parts (U2 had to get in there somehow) and emotive Andy Glover vocals, creating a wide soundscape with constant variations.

If you’re looking for standout songs, the floor tom-driven opener “Somebody to Love” with Big Country (or maybe Bryan Adams) guitar hooks is right up there. The title song praises mothers bringing up families in dire social conditions; it’s about an Irish mother, but the message is universal. “This is Heartbreak” features a standout vocal performance, pulling out every nuance of the immediate impact of a broken relationship perfectly.

Just one more thing. The album’s packed with great songs and performances, but it’s not the best way to get the Keywest experience. To get the best from Keywest, you need to see them live. They’re touring the UK in October to promote the album and the live experience is just something else.

“Ordinary Superhero” is released in the UK on Friday September 27th on Marshall Records (CD – R910.022, Vinyl – R920.009).

A new Rod Picott album is always something to look forward to. He’s an exceptional songwriter and his voice is a very effective vehicle for delivering those songs. It’s a voice that’s frayed around the edges and at times crackles with emotion. On “Tell the Truth and Shame the Devil”, Rod has stripped his delivery back to just guitar, harmonica and voice; oh, and the songs. Just to give this some context, the album was recorded after a health scare Rod had over the last winter (although not all of the songs are contemporary) and has a stark, sometimes brooding, feel mingled, unsurprisingly, with intimations of mortality, including the opening song “Ghost”, a brutally honest assessment of Rod’s current situation, and that of many others in similar positions. Confessional, hard-hitting singer-songwriter isn’t a particularly lucrative career path these days.

Rod recorded the entire album alone, without an engineer, before handing the tapes over to Neilson Hubbard (you might remember him if you’re a MusicRiot regular) for final production. If you want a benchmark, the finished article has the same feel as The Boss’s “Nebraska” and has similar lyrical themes of family, poverty and alienation. The result of this method is that the songs are stripped to their very essence with no distractions, emphasising the stories they have to tell and, as always with Rod Picott, they’re striking and memorable stories.

As a writer, Rod likes a metaphor; the murder ballad “Too Much Rain” uses a barren landscape to represent the failure of a marriage to blossom, while “Bailing” uses the idea of bailing literally and metaphorically, referring back to a flooded childhood cellar as a metaphor for the futility of activity that only serves to keep us in the same place. Rod also likes to bring a bit of autobiography into the mix; “Mark” is the story of an unexplained teenage suicide, while “Spartan Hotel” is that bar in any town where anything goes if you can pay the price. And don’t forget the social comment; “A Beautiful Light” aims straight the heart of those songwriters who try to glamourise the drudgery of blue-collar life as a means of social control.

This is the third Rod Picott album we’ve reviewed here and they’re consistently powerful pieces of work blending punchy stories of small-time America with haunting melodies in a voice that is both emotive and vulnerable. It’s probably the most personal of his recent albums and well worth a listen.

“Tell the Truth and Shame the Devil” is out now Welding Rod Records and Rod will be touring the UK in October.

It’s easy to be cynical about the whole remaster/rerelease game – it’s been abused by the music business for so long as a way of making the same material pay its way several times over. And then a 20-year anniversary of something like “Johnstown” comes along with a couple of really good reasons to make the effort. The technical one is that the vinyl release would demand a remaster and the commercial reason is that there are music-lovers that would have completely missed this in 1999 who are blown away by it in 2019; I’m right at the front of that queue.

In common with her autobiographical 2017 album “A Girl in Teen City”, “Johnstown” has a strong sense of place – the scene is set for the twelve stories against a backdrop of a town that has lived for decades with the ominous threat of floods. And just to ramp up the feeling of impending doom, the album opens with a minor-key murder ballad underpinned by distorted and menacing guitar. So that’s just the title song and I’m buying it already.

There genuinely isn’t a mediocre song on the album; they’re all right out of the top drawer and they’re a varied bunch in terms of themes and arrangements; “You’ll Always Be” is a relatively straightforward love song until an edge of shadow is added with a superbly atonal piano solo, while the hauntingly beautiful triple-time ballad “Alabaster” is wrapped in a minimalist arrangement that emphasises the individuality of Susie Ungerleider’s voice and the octave leaps that give the voice its unique quality. And so it goes, right up to the album’s final song, in triple-time again, the gorgeous “Tangled & Wild”, embellished by some keening pedal steel and bringing the album to a gentle close; but not quite.

That’s where the original album ended, but there are a few little surprises in the shape five stripped-back demo-style versions of songs from the album. I’m also cynical about the addition of ‘bonus’ tracks that are added to tempt the completist collector, but the additions here work well and they have all been previously commercially available as an EP. “Johnstown” proves that the song works without the album arrangement and “Alabaster” (which finally closes the album) is perfect as a solo piece. This is an album that I genuinely wish I’d heard twenty years ago and I’m sure I’ll be listening to in another twenty years.

“Johnstown” is released in the UK on Friday August 30th on Continental Song City (CSCCD 1164) and Oh Susanna will be touring the UK in early September.

I guess this is one that was inevitable; a live album that was recorded almost by accident, just because they could, and what an interesting piece of work it is. Unusually, this didn’t grab the attention at the first listen and it wasn’t a grower. On about the fourth listen, the power of the lyrics suddenly hit home and everything started to fit together. Sam Baker’s songs are self-contained stories, told with perfect economy; there isn’t a superfluous word as he tells us about the kind of people we’re all surrounded by, whether we know it or not; the single mothers, the alcoholics, the drug addicts, the widows and the guilt-ridden all doing their best to make it through another day. It’s the life of a small Texas town told in twelve small but perfectly-formed chapters.

The delivery as a live performance matches up perfectly with the stark subject matter. Sam Baker relates the tales in a sung-spoken style that has hints of Tom Waits and an interesting minimalist picked electric guitar style (more about that later), plus a wooden block to tap out the tempo with a foot. It works perfectly because the stark arrangement focusses all the attention on the power of Sam’s writing and the stories of despair and injustice but, ultimately, hope.

Back to that thing about the guitar style. After surviving a terrorist bombing of a train in Peru, which nearly ended his life, Sam’s long and painful recovery eventually led to using his music as a therapy, which included learning to play an upside-down guitar to adjust to the loss of a large part of his left hand. The playing style he’s developed strips all of the arrangements back to basics, shining a spotlight on the beating, bleeding heart of each of the songs.

Highlights? “Mennonite” is a poignant story of an unlikely relationship and forms the centrepiece of the album, “Boxes” is a heart-rending tale of a Vietnam widow and “Odessa” deals with the tragic fallout from a spoilt, entitled upbringing. Seriously though, it’s all good and you get the chance to hear it live in the UK early next year.

“Horses and Stars” is released in the UK on Friday August 23rd.

Buford Pope’s American influences shine through on “The Waiting Game”. His introduction to American music was Bob Dylan but the most obvious comparison vocally is the high register vocals of Neil Young. There’s a reference in the album’s second song, “Hey Hey Aha”, to the difficulties of songwriting (and a subtle nod to Shakey again) and writer’s block, but the songs all worked out fine in the end and the calling card for “The Waiting Game” is the way they have been arranged. And that’s apparent from the very start. 

America” (a lyrical co-write with Mark Drake) is the collaboration that Neil Young and The Blue Nile haven’t quite got round to yet. It’s an atmospheric love song to America with a big bassline and a new frontier theme with songsters replacing pioneers. The high tenor range of the voice, the melancholy subject matter and the country-rock feel of “Hard Life” make vocal comparisons with Don Henley difficult to avoid, but it’s difficult to see how that’s a bad thing. I mentioned arrangements earlier and the most innovative has to be “A Hundred”. 

The minimalist production is built around a bass drum on one and three and a layered handclap on two and four which repeats remorselessly throughout the song as the blues builds up with the addition of bass and banjo. It hints at the foot stamps of Brian May’s percussion innovation for “We Will Rock You” (a reference you might not expect to hear on an Americana album). Incidentally, a country, honky-tonk reworking of the song, listed as “Ninety-Nine” closes out the album. 

It’s the kind of album that you get when an someone without the baggage of a ‘scene’ or ‘movement’ to contend with (living in a remote part of Sweden) can concoct by taking original American influences and subject matter and melding them with elements from outside this genre to produce something that’s unique. It’s an intriguing listen. 

“The Waiting Game” is out now.

This album should display a warning sticker. Not the PMRC nonsense; it should be a health warning, with the wording ‘Danger – Earworm Infestation’. It’s a couple of days since I last heard “Great Divides” and I’m still trying to disentangle the musical and verbal hooks from my consciousness but it’s a bit like “Whack a Mole”; everyone time you knock one on the head, another pops up. This is going to take a while and, by the time I succeed, I’ll be defeated again when I go to see them play live.

The guys in Massy Ferguson will self-deprecatingly refer to themselves as a bar band but, hey, so does my favourite band ever. To me that description is synonymous with superb musicianship, a huge repertoire and an ability to read and entertain an audience and I’ll go for that any day of the week. Throw in some great songs and you’ve got the finished article.

And how about those songs? They divide quite neatly into the abstract imagery of the riff-driven “Drop an Atom Bomb” and the straight-ahead autobiographical narrative of “Momma’s in the Backseat”; they’re all powerful lyrically and the musical settings pull out all of the songs’ nuances. “Maybe the Gods” (a duo vocal with Adra Boo) is driven along by a guitar line that evokes the much-missed Stuart Adamson, while “Saying You Were There” is more contemplative with a haunting refrain of ‘Passengers on the left’. You can hear many influences in the songs, some have a very Seattle edge with power chords and booming floor toms while there are country influences and a bit of mainstream rock in there as well; whatever else is going on, there are memorable melodies and hummable hooks.

“Great Divides” is a very rounded, complete album with songs reflecting the maturity that age and experience bring while still sounding lean and hungry and very rock ‘n’ roll. And I just have to say that Ethan Anderson sounds unbelievably like Jackson Browne at times; and I’m not complaining about that.

“Great Divides” is released in the UK on Friday June 7th on North and Left (NL001) and the band will be touring the UK throughout June.

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).