It’s been three years since Ags Connolly released his debut “How About Now”. A long time maybe, but “Nothin’ Unexpected” reflects the work Ags has put in during that time, getting himself out there, playing gigs here and in the States, headlining and supporting, and writing and honing this bunch of songs. It’s an album of interesting combinations; songs influenced by music from across the Atlantic, written and sung by someone from Oxfordshire and recorded in Edinburgh with a bunch of Scottish musicians. And that’s just the start.
“How About Now” was a very good debut album; “Nothin’ Unexpected” is a superb follow-up. The opening song’s a good indication of what’s coming on the rest of the album; the title “I Hope You’re Unhappy” sounds bitter, but the twist in the lyric is that it isn’t bitterness, it’s longing to rebuild the relationship. The album’s full of contrasts like that, on the surface the songs are robust reflections of everyday life, but dig a little bit deeper and they’re full of clever, delicate ideas; “Fifteen Years” would still be a great song it told the story of one relationship, but it’s actually the story of three different interwoven relationships. The deeper you dig, the more gems you unearth.
The songs are pure quality, featuring some regular Ameripolitan themes like the lone drinker, bars in general (with a particularly British twist on “Haunts like This”) but it’s when Ags applies his own poetic twist to songs like “Do You Realise That Now?”, intertwining the idea of his lyrics about a lover being heard a century later and having the same power, with a Latin-tinged arrangement that could have come from “The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle”, that you realise how good he really is.
And while we’re talking about arrangements, the production on the album is flawless. Whether the ideas came from Ags, producer Dean Owens, or the musicians involved, particularly Stuart Nisbet (playing just about every fretted instrument known to man) every song receives exactly the right treatment. Apart from the full band near-rockabilly of “Neon Jail”, the Nashville feel of Loudon Wainwright’s “I Suppose” and the Appalachian string band styling of “Slow Burner”, the songs are generally allowed plenty of room to breathe, with judicious addition of just the accordion on “When the Loner Gets Lonely” and acoustic guitar and vocal treatments of “Fifteen Years” and the album’s closer “I Should’ve Closed the Book”. It’s the perfect demonstration of the power of the songs that they don’t need huge amounts of embellishment to bring out their power.
Well, that’s the difficult second album out of the way.
“Nothin’ Unexpected” is released on Friday February 3rd on At The Helm Records (ATH198214).
The more I hear of Martin Harley and Daniel Kimbro, the more I realise how perfect the combination is; it was a good day for fans of real music when these guys first met up. Not only are they supremely gifted individuals, but when they play together the total is much more than the sum of the parts. Martin Harley’s developed a well-deserved reputation as a Weissenborn player, but this album constantly reminds you that he has a cracking blues/soul voice that puts him in the top division of singers in that genre. I don’t think Otis Redding’s too fanciful as a comparison, or maybe Frankie Miller if you want something a bit closer to home. And that’s just Martin Harley; Daniel Kimbro’s a master of his craft as well, plucking, bowing, rasping, slapping and generally coaxing some very interesting noises out of his stand-up bass while backing up Martin’s voice with some sweet harmonies. I don’t often look forward to bass solos, but I make an exception in Daniel Kimbro’s case. Every time.
The songs then; they must be the weak point, no? Afraid not; this isn’t just about showcasing some excellent playing, Martin’s writing’s spot-on as well, pulling in influences from all over the world and melding them into authentic twentieth-century roots music that includes love songs like the Southern soul-tinged “My Lover’s Arms” with its lovely guitar fills running through the song and even some honky-tonk piano, and the poetic “Postcard from Hamburg” with lines like ‘The sky’s crying diamonds’.
The honky-tonk feel of the album’s opener, “One-Horse Town” and the uptempo country blues of “Feet Don’t Fail Me” ease you gently in to the album with some lyrical and instrumental invention before giving way to the homesick blues of “Postcard from Hamburg” and the ominous, louring despair of “Gold” and its escape into a soaring solo. I could tell you more about the wizardry of “Dancing on the Rocks” and the claustrophobic atmospherics of “Mean Old City (Part 2)”. I could go on about how good this album is, how it’s a perfect combination of two players (and singers) at the top of their game, and about the great understanding they have and how I don’t understand why people aren’t raving about Martin Harley, but I have a better idea. Instead of taking my word for it, go out and see them on their tour of the UK, Europe and Canada (details on the Martin’s website). That’s better than any recommendation from me, and then you’ll definitely buy the album.
“Static in the Wires” is released in the UK on Friday February 10th on Del Mundo Records.
Do turbulent social and political conditions create a fertile environment for artists? It’s a theory that’s had some support and I suspect we’re about to see and hear a lot more evidence over the next few years. The inauguration hasn’t taken place yet but I’ve already heard a couple of anti-Trump songs. Rita Hosking has replied to the infamous pussy-grabbing comments with a song that suggests a prompt and effective remedy of a toecap to the testicles, and Stephen Fearing’s song “Blowhard Nation” on “Every Soul’s a Sailor” neatly skewers the braggadocio of the president-elect and the motives of his supporters. The Merle Haggard/outlaw country arrangement of the song stands apart from the rest of the album, highlighting the song’s message as a contrast to the gentler themes elsewhere.
Stephen Fearing is a genuinely great singer/songwriter/guitar player with an equal emphasis on all three elements. The lyrical themes of the songs range from the elegaic “Gone but Not Forgotten”, through the melancholy regret of “Red Lights in the Rain” (as powerful an image as I’ve heard for leaving a relationship) to the regret for a passing era of “Things We Did”. The musical stylings are equally varied, from the AOR feel of the opener “Put Your Money Where your Mouth Is” to the raucous, rambunctious rebel stylings of “Blowhard Nation” which has maybe a hint of uptempo Jim Croce stylings thrown in as well. Each song has the perfect arrangement to emphasise its lyrical content and, whether it’s the skiffle/rockabilly feel of “Love Like Water” with acoustic guitar and stand-up bass, to the album’s closer “Every Soul’s A Sailor” with a close-miked vocal, two electric guitars and no bass or drums. It’s an unusual voicing, but it’s just right for the song, and that’s what it’s all about.
This is an album where the standards are high throughout whether you’re interested in well-constructed and inspired songs, evocative arrangements or outstanding vocal performances. There are no weak spots and dozens of highlights.
I’ll leave you with a lyric from “Blowhard Nation” concerning politicians generally:
‘Make no mistake, when they’re showing you the cake, they’ll never let you eat it now’ We might just be entering a new era of protest songs.
“Every Soul’s A Sailor” is released on Friday February 3rd on LowdenProud Records (LOWD60161)
Let’s just say that my preconceptions have been well and truly shaken up. Two songs in to the latest offering from Wille & the Bandits, and I was on the verge of filing it under ‘generic Southern rock/slide guitar’, but we don’t give up that easily at Riot Towers. Actually, there’s nothing wrong with the slide and Hammond (courtesy of Don Airey) of “Miles Away” or the Dire Straits meets Pink Floyd of “Hot Rocks”, with its congadelic breakdown, but they have the feel of a starter before the main course, “Scared of the Sun”, which brings all of the elements at the band’s disposal into play.
The dynamics are perfect, from the quiet intro with gentle keys and to the full-on anthemic chorus. We hear the full range of Matt Brooks’ six-string bass, particularly at the upper end of the register acting as a second guitar part, Andy Naumann’s drums power the verse and chorus along and Don Airey adds some Vangelis-like like sounds to the mix. Meanwhile Wille Edwards is doing his guitar thing (ok, things with electric, acoustic, lap steel, Weissenborn and Dobro) and delivering a vocal that’s as close to very early Bob Seger as anything I’ve ever heard. And here’s the real surprise; it’s a song about global warming. I’m not an expert on Southern ‘rawk’, but I’m guessing that environmental concerns aren’t high on the list of lyrical topics. It’s probably quite a way behind highways, Harleys, guns and Saturday night.
The instrumental inspiration for the album is the American south in the seventies, so the song “1970” should come as no surprise; driven along by drums and a pumping bass, it mourns the passing of that era while extolling its virtues (‘Good times, love and peace’) in a seventies rock style. If the environmental concern wasn’t enough of a shock, there’s a song written from the point of view of a refugee from a war-ravaged country. “Crossfire Memories” begins with quiet acoustic guitar and builds through the addition of a Matt Brooks string arrangement and slide fills to a big slide solo to close out the song; it’s powerful stuff.
The playing is every bit as good as you would expect from the people involved in this album, and it’s worth listening to for that alone, while the presence of some lyrical content that steps out of the usual limits of the genre gives it an undeniable edge. I have a sneaky feeling these guys will sound even better live.
“Steal” is released on Friday January 20th on Jigsaw (SAW 6).
It’s a bit of a thing at the moment, the ‘live in the studio’ album, and why not? If you’re good enough and the engineer’s good enough, you’ll have the satisfaction of creating something the way we did in the good old days before that pesky Les Paul invented multi-track recording. And with a bit of luck it might capture a bit of magic that would be lost in a song built up part by part. The Grahams have taken a slightly different direction with the concept; they’ve taken a bunch of songs from their “Glory Bound” album/“Rattle the Hocks” film project and re-recorded them in the studio with some friends, taking the opportunity to rearrange and rework the songs (sometimes more than once). And those friends: well, John Fullbright, North Mississippi Allstars, Alvin Youngblood Hart and David Garza are a pretty good start.
The songs from this collection have already featured on two US albums by The Grahams, but none have been released in the UK in these versions, and I hope you all got that, because I’m not repeating it. Does the idea work? Well, mostly. “Glory Bound” is the obvious opener for the album, introducing the theme of the railroad with its ‘clickety-clack of the train on the tracks’ rhythm, stripped-back acoustic guitar, bass and drums arrangement and harmonies imitating a train whistle. Most of the original “Glory Bound” songs are reworked on this album, with the notable exception of “The Wild One” (for my money the best song on the album) and the gradual build-up of the beautiful ballad “Lay Down” to a massed choir ending, the gospel treatment of “Mama” and the counterpoint vocals at the end of “Blow Wind Blow” are all particularly effective.
The supernatural ballad “Tender Annabelle” comes in a couple of different flavours, first with a mournful, menacing harmonica, electric piano and heavily-reverbed backing vocals, then with New Orleans horns to close the album. There’s a lot to be said for each treatment, although the first appearance of the horns on the rollicking “Kansas City” seems to lack a bit of punch.
Minor quibbles aside, this is an album that’s worth listening to whether you’ve heard “Glory Bound” or not. The songs are powerful however you arrange them, and the live recording process catches some genuine moments of magic.
“The Grahams and Friends (Live in Studio)” is released in the UK on Three Sirens Music Group on Friday January 27th 2017.
If I’m honest, I probably wouldn’t have sought out this album, but there’s a perverse enjoyment in stepping out of your comfort zone and finding out that the world hasn’t ended. The press release didn’t help by referring to Chris’s work as a revival of traditional fiddle music; it’s not so much a revival as someone carrying the torch to pass it on to the next runner. What Chris does, with style and impeccable technique is to create original tunes and songs based on (mainly) British and Irish folk styles with the occasional modern twist. He does a lot of it as well; this is his second album in three months. It’s music that’s created to make people dance, but the sheer quality of the playing and the strength of the melodies means that you don’t have to be whirling around a barn to feel its power. Be warned; it will make you tap your toes, at the very least.
The sleeve notes very helpfully identify the various dance forms each tune’s associated with so you can give yourself a little online lesson in Gaelic music (I did and I know the difference now between jigs, reels and hornpipes – I managed to work out the waltz for myself) while appreciating some truly outstanding ensemble playing featuring fiddle, mandolin, guitar, bodhran, flute, penny whistle and uilleann pipes. The three vocal pieces on the album are a pretty accurate summary of what this album is all about; “Wicklow” and “Cape Horn” have pastoral Irish and seafaring lyrical themes that are straight out of the folk tradition, while “Small Wonder” retains the traditional stylings with modern lyrical references. “Cape Horn” is a great example of the of the influence of Celtic music on modern styles; you can hear similarities to John Fogerty’s “Lookin’ Out My Back Door”, which was in turn influenced by traditional Celtic-infused early American music. There’s also a very slight nod to Chris’s Irish heritage with the beautiful lament “Gibraltar 1988”; if you don’t get the reference, just stick the title in a search engine.
This album is a fascinating combination of the traditional and the modern, with Chris Murphy’s fiddle taking centre stage as the ensemble creates a backdrop with their intricate melodic patterns. I might not be dancing, but I’m certainly listening.
“The Tinker’s Dream” is released in the UK on Teahouse Records (THR003) on Friday January 27th.
Let’s just ease ourselves into 2017 with this little gem of ten superbly crafted songs written by Steve Hussey and arranged by his seventeen-year old collaborator, multi-instrumentalist, Jake Eddy, shall we? I’m not sure if you could call it a concept album, with all the negative baggage that brings, but it certainly follows a narrative, from the person who’s lost and floundering for the first three or four songs, finds his true love, and is redeemed by the album’s tenth song “Sweet”. It’s a simple story economically told and it’s a pretty good way to ease yourself musically into a new year.
The press release describes Jake Eddy as a prodigy and I wouldn’t argue too much with that. At the age of seventeen, he seems to have all manner of musical references at his fingertips from the brooding swamp feel of “Master Your Mind” to the delicate acoustic balladry of “The Miller Girl”, the tipping point of the album where the story transitions from shadow into light. “Into the Ether” could be a seventies rock tune (with banjo neatly replacing lead guitar), while “Better Day” feels like Jim Croce at his best and “Looking for Love” sounds for all the world like Bruce Chanel’s “Hey Baby” with fiddle fills; the multi-instrumental mastery is total.
The album isn’t about breaking new ground, it’s about creating the best art you possibly can with the existing materials and, in those terms it’s a complete success, a minor triumph even. The tunes are memorable, each vocal fits with the melody and the song’s subject matter, and the album takes you on a journey from the depths to the heights. I hope it’s a metaphor for the transition from 2016 into 2017.
Steve and Jake even manage to cook up a bit of fun with “Long List of Goodbyes”, a romp through the failed relationships of the past to lighten the mood before the quest for and acceptance of true happiness gets underway. Only an icy-hearted cynic could be unmoved by the story that unfolds as the album progresses and started life as a set of songs for Steve’s wedding.
“The Miller Girl” is released in the UK on Friday January 13 on Merf Records.
Well, we’ve got to the last of the 2016 crop and what a way to finish. Amanda Rheaume’s “Holding Patterns” is a velvet punch of an album. On the surface it’s a very polished and musically accomplished piece of work with more than a nod in the direction of Nashville, but when you dig a little deeper, it mines some deep lyrical seams. With a variety of musical textures, the element holding everything together is Amanda’s pure, clear and beautifully controlled voice delivering across the musical spectrum from the quiet pathos of “All that You Need” to the raucous energy and amped-up blues harp of “Blood From a Stone”, the album’s Alanis Morissette “You Oughta Know” moment, which references that song in the lyrics.
I’m not normally a fan of albums using a lot of co-writers, but Amanda Rheaume has made it work here, possibly because she went into the project with a very clear idea of the album’s message and every element is harnessed in that cause. There’s a sense of loss that pervades the album, relating to the death of a friend at a tragically young age and the end of a troubled long-term relationship, but that’s what performers do; they make sense of the chaos around them by turning it into beautiful music. Interwoven with sense of loss is a strand of identification with place and family in the true story of a distant relative who survived a landslide at the age of eighteen months (“The Day the Mountain Fell”) and the use of her grandfather’s phrase “Wolf of Time” about the dangers of allowing life to happen around you without taking time to do the things that are really important.
And even after all this, there’s still an ace in the hole. The hauntingly gorgeous “Red Dress” seduces you into falling on love on a musical level while delivering a powerful message about victim-blaming in the cases of indigenous women who are murdered or go missing. The power of the message is amplified by the steady, matter of fact delivery. The album is a triumph of subtle musical settings for historical stories, folk wisdom and the difficulties of human relationships, all delivered by a perfect voice.
“Holding Patterns” is released on Friday December 2 and Amanda Rheaume will be touring the UK in January/February 2017.
When I spoke to Rachael Sage a couple of months ago, we spent quite a lot of the interview talking about this album. At the time I’d only heard two or three tracks that were being featured and we talked a lot about the songs that would appeal to the lyrical dancers that form a large part of her following. I realise now that we talked about less than half of the album. As good as the uptempo ‘colourful chamber pop’ (that’s Rachael’s definition) songs are, there are slower, more introspective songs that have more emotional depth while still featuring inventive textures and combinations of instruments centred around Rachael’s classical piano style.
The album opens with the slightly faster songs such as the whimsical “Heaven is a Grocery Store Clerk” and the weightier “Loreena”, before “Try, Try, Try” pulls you in with its naggingly insistent and maddeningly catchy fiddle hook. The powerful anti-bullying song “I Don’t Believe It” follows the album’s anthem “Home (Where I Am Now)”, which also appears towards the end of the album in a stripped-down, acoustic version. Beyond this, the album moves into darker, more personal songs taken at a slower pace and evoking the American singer-songwriters of the seventies, particularly Carole King, whose song “So Far Away” Rachael covers in almost a Carpenters style to close the album. And talking of the seventies, I thought I caught a scent of Randy Edelman’s pop piano style in there as well.
As the album progresses, the songs range through empowerment (“French Doors”), the end of a relationship (“Clear Today”) and obsession (I’ve Been Waiting”) before finding the tragic emotional depths of “7 Angels”, with its segment of Hebrew lyrics. The only way the album could possibly go from here is the redemption of “It Would be Enough” and a Carole King cover.
If sounds a bit sombre, it really isn’t; when the subject matter of the songs is dark and adult, the instrumental arrangements act as a counterbalance to the lyrics, featuring the usual rock instrumentation plus cello, trumpet, glockenspiel, oboe, English horn and accordion and Kelly Halloran’s melodic violin contributions, which shine out whether she’s playing catchy riffs, counterpoint or a duet with the lead vocal on “It Would be Enough”. “Choreographic” is a hugely varied selection of songs played superbly by a great bunch of musicians. It’s hard to believe most of it was written over a week in a hotel in Camden.
You get to the end of an extensive tour, your band have been taking the roof off every night, but now they’re world-weary and road-raddled; they just want to go home and spend time with their families, so what do you do? Well, you book a studio for a couple of days to catch them while they’re still hot and blast through some of your favourite old blues songs. Well, that’s what Canadian bluesman Colin James did, and the result is “Blue Highways”, recorded live in the studio in two days at the end of his last tour. It captures the raw energy of live performance with studio quality without compromising either side of that delicate balance.
What about the material? Well, it’s thirteen of Colin’s favourite blues(ish) tunes covering a pretty good chunk of the blues canon, from the opener “Boogie Funk” (more boogie than funk, I think) with harmonica, Hammond, a simple electric riff and the classic guitar/Hammond solo interplay to the solo acoustic closer “Last Fair Deal”. It’s a pretty good demonstration of Colin’s feel for the whole blues spectrum. The Muddy Waters song “Gypsy Woman” evokes, well, Muddy Waters, as does the honky-tonk “Hoodoo Man Blues”, sounding like seventies McKinley Morganfield with his sidekicks James Cotton and Pinetop Perkins.
“Lonesome” is a jazzy uptempo shuffle with some lovely guitar fills and “Big Road Blues” is great fun with a slide riff and two lead guitars, but it’s when the band moves away from the standard blues that things get really interesting with the acoustic blues of “Last Fair Deal” and the harmonica-driven “Riding in the Moonlight”; the electric material’s good, but the acoustic songs really stand out. Finally, it’s a brave singer that takes on a song that’s been performed superbly by Otis Redding and William Bell in the past, but Colin’s slow soul take on “Don’t Miss Your Water” is a creditable effort, with a vocal that has hints of the UK’s own Aynsley Lister. It’s not breaking any new ground, but it’s a good demonstration of a band at the top of their game.
“Blue Highways” is released on True North Records of Friday November 25.