At the risk of spoiling the impact of this piece and giving readers the chance to skip out before the end, I’m going to tell you what I think of this album straight away; it’s a lovely piece of work and, if you’re keen on a bit of melancholy (among other things), you’ve come to the right place. “Hi-Line” is Amberly Chalberg’s debut album and a huge amount of inspiration and dedication are evident in the finished work. If you want something to make you cry, you’ll find plenty of that here, but you’ll also find a few things to make you smile as well.

I touched on melancholy earlier and I just want to clarify something here. A lot of the songs on ‘Hi-Line’ are could be bracketed as ‘Heartbreak Country’. I don’t mean the sentimental, maudlin nonsense about having to shoot your horse or your dog, but songs about situations that real people face every day; broken relationships, deaths and fractured families. It’s real heartache and there’s nothing manufactured about it.

And one other thing. I’m a bit cynical about the practice of including a single swear-word to get a ‘Parental Advisory’ sticker; that’s definitely not the case here. There are five songs on ‘Hi-Line’ with swearing featured, and I’d argue that in each case it adds to the power of the lyric, particularly on the cautionary “Slippery Slope” with its economically-drawn connection between ‘needles and dope’ and ‘fucking for dimes’. Throughout the album, no matter how smooth the arrangement may be, there’s a gnarly realism underlying the whole piece, from the bar pick-ups and casual sex of “Whiskey Song” and “Drunk” to the vengefully protective, Crazy Horse-like “Family’s Just a Word”. The album has its lighter moments; “Crazy ‘Bout You” neatly channels “These Boots Were Made for Walking” and “Harper Valley PTA”, while “Lil Bit Country”, with its country-rock feel pokes fun at some of the country stereotypes.

I’m guessing most of us won’t be seeing live music for a while, so you could do a lot worse than have a listen to this great set of powerful songs from an artist who understands how to write heart-breaking songs that you’ll remember for all the right reasons.

“Hi-Line” is released in the UK on Friday March 20th.

If anyone asks, I’ll always identify as Scottish. In terms of music, it’s a heritage that I tap into. There’s a Celtic feel to many Scottish writers and performers that strikes a chord and I guess it’s because of shared cultural references (it applies to books as well; I love Ian Rankin’s novels, among others). But enough about me; this is all about Dean Owens and his latest album, a greatest hits package titled “The Man from Leith”. Many of the themes of the songs are universal, but there’s also a clear Scottish theme that runs through the album (the title might be a giveaway).

Dean’s been releasing work as a solo artist for about twenty years now and, with a release about every three or four years (not including collaborations and side projects), that’s a substantial back catalogue. Although Dean’s an album, more than a singles, artist, there are still standout songs that have been tried and tested live and are consistently popular. These are the songs that Dean has played solo, as a duo with various guitar players and with various band configurations (with some incredible musicians) and they’ve been thoroughly road-tested; they’re all great songs.

Dean imbues his songs with a very clear sense of place, whether it’s Scotland or the arid desert of Arizona and he loves to tell a story. More than half of the songs on “The Man from Leith” are set in Scotland, particularly Edinburgh (with the obvious exception of “Raining in Glasgow”) and Dean has a genuine appreciation of Scottish songwriters who paved the way for the latest generation and might not be particularly famous outside Scotland (including luminaries like Rab Noakes and Michael Marra).

“The Man from Leith” is seventeen songs spanning Dean’s solo career, demonstrating the range of his songwriting skills from the intensely autobiographical (“Man from Leith” about Dean’s dad and “Baby Fireworks” about his daughter) to the anthemic Ronnie Lane/Ian McLagan tribute “The Last Song”, co-written with Will Kimbrough. If you’re not moved by those songs, your heart is a swinging brick and you shouldn’t even be reading this. And “Lost Time”, which closes the album, is a poignant reminder that we don’t get a second chance at life; make the most of it while you can. In fact the album closes with a run of three songs, “Raining in Glasgow”, “The Last Song” and “Lost Time” that bears comparison with any closing trilogy I’ve heard.

While I’m on the subject of song themes, not all songs are written in the first person; I’ve seen one review of this album get that really badly wrong. Great songwriters pull out themes from their own lives but also the lives of their friends and from stuff that they see on the news or in the papers; don’t make the assumption that everything’s autobiographical, there’s much more to songwriting than that. If you see Dean live, chances are he’ll tell you the stories behind the songs. That’s the best way to get an insight and you’ll probably get a laugh as well; Dean’s songs might be somewhere between melancholy and miserable but he has a wicked, dry sense of humour that you can only appreciate if you see him live.

So, is “The Man from Leith” the best of Dean Owens? It captures the breadth and depth of Dean’s songwriting from the autobiographical “Raining in Glasgow” to the historical WW1 song “Closer to Home” and everything else in between. There isn’t anything even resembling a mediocre song here, and I haven’t even mentioned the award-winning “Southern Wind” (co-written with Will Kimbrough) yet. Die-hard fans might pick out other songs that they think should be included, but this is a pretty good selection. If someone gave me this album and I hadn’t heard any of the songs previously, I’d be really chuffed. Is that good enough for you?

If I’ve met you at a gig, I might have mentioned that “The Last Song” is an absolute anthem; I’m more convinced of that every time I hear it live. Things aren’t looking too good for live music at the moment, but this will certainly give a good impression of what a Dean Owens gig sounds like.

“The Man from Leith” is available on CD and vinyl on Eel Pie Records from 20th March 2020.

There are a few people whose work always gets my attention; Sam Lewis is one of those. The first thing you need to know about Sam is that his voice is a phenomenon. He sounds great on the studio material but live he’s something else. His voice is equally convincing with soul, country and blues stylings and he writes a pretty good song as well. He’s been compared with the greats and he’s worked with quite a few of them as well. In a live setting he’s very laid-back, relaxed and happy to shoot the breeze between songs; the whole experience has the feel of someone doing something that he knows he’s really good at and doesn’t have to strain to get right in that environment.

The idea of a live album recorded on the floor at the famous Southern Ground studio has a certain logic to it. One voice and one guitar (plus good acoustics); there’s nowhere to hide and it’s a huge test of the quality of the songs when you take away the studio techniques and leave just the ideas and emotion. If you’ve seen Sam live you know that he can do it, so it’s just a question of getting the recording right and there you have it – bottled essence of Sam Lewis.

I’m guessing that the album is a start-to-finish record of Sam’s set; at nineteen songs, it feels like a single set, coming in at about the hour mark. It’s a pretty good mix of songs from across his three studio albums plus four previously unreleased songs; for any fan, it’s a great souvenir of his work so far and some of your favourite songs are bound to be there. Standouts for me were “3/4 Time” (which isn’t), “Virginia Avenue” and “Waiting On You” (which are all from my favourite Sam Lewis album, “Waiting On You”), but I was also spellbound by the autobiographical “Southern Greek Tragedy” from Sam’s first album, which unsentimentally tells the story of a broken family and an itinerant childhood. High fives to the audience as well; they listen when Sam plays and applaud when he finishes. I’m privileged to see a lot of gigs in ‘listening rooms’ where the audience knows the rules, but I know it’s not always like that.

Fans of Sam Lewis will love this. Sam knows how to pick good musicians to work with, but the bottom line is that he can do this all on his own and keep audiences enraptured; here’s the proof.

“Solo” is out now in the UK on Loversity Records and you can catch the Sam Lewis live experience on his current tour of the UK and Europe (details here).

Stephen Fearing’s thirteenth solo album’s very personal and, at the same time it’s also political, but this isn’t just one for the social theorists because those elements are inextricably linked with the musical settings for the songs. Three of the songs on the album are named for people and there’s a strong vein of nostalgia running through the lyrical and musical stylings of “The Unconquerable Past”, although this isn’t by any means wallowing in the past; it’s much more of a realisation that there’s always a danger of dismissing older musical styles as no longer relevant in the headlong rush to be on-trend. It’s not a new thing, those wonderful old cynics Becker and Fagen nailed it in their own beautifully sleazy way in “Hey Nineteen” in 1980: ‘Hey, nineteen, that’s ‘Retha Franklin, she don’t remember the Queen of Soul’.

To come back to Stephen Fearing, this album is a bit of a departure from his solo material in that, at times, there’s a full rock band behind some uptempo tunes, one of which, “Christine”, goes way back to classic rockabilly styling and it’s a lot of fun. The other notably uptempo song, “Stay with Me” has its roots firmly in drivetime rock that Bob Seger seemed to knock out for fun in the late seventies.

If there’s one theme above all others pulling the album together it’s empathy, particularly where people with differences are dealing with harsh and unforgiving society we live in today. “Sunny” is a great example as the story is gradually revealed of a transgender individual leaving home to eventually find a relationship that works. The writer isn’t judging, and preaches the same tolerance in “Someone Else’s Shoes”; we should always try to understand the pressures someone else is facing rather than rushing to condemn.

Personal highlights are the poignant “Emigrant Song”, co-written with Andy White, dealing with the conflicting tensions of moving and looking back at happy memories, and the title song, with the message that we are products of our past but we don’t have to be defined by it. The album closes out with “No Country”, a solo acoustic ballad that positions the troubadour as a citizen of nowhere at all.

“The Unconquerable Past” is a collection of ten high-calibre songs performed with quality and taste that will make you tap your feet and make you stop and think. Not a bad combination.

“The Unconquerable Past” is out in the UK now in various physical and digital formats of Fish Records (FRCD03).

This is the second time Track Dogs have crossed our paths at Riot Towers and it was always going to be an interesting experience. The line-up of Garrett Wall, Dave Mooney, Howard Brown & Robbie K. Jones (two Irishmen, an Englishman and an American, which sounds like it’s just waiting for a punchline) is resident in Madrid and created a bit of a buzz across European festivals last summer. There’s a reason for that; they’re great players across a range of instruments and three of them take lead vocals on the album as well as creating some lovely vocal harmonies; and that’s before we even start on the quality of the songwriting.

From the 2018 album “Kansas City Out Groove” we learned that you can rely on Track Dogs for esoteric influences and exotic arrangements; “Fire on the Rails” doesn’t disappoint. In addition to the band’s own extensive line-up of instruments, guest artists supply banjo, fiddle, mandolin and strings to create different textures and tonal colour. The net for the esoteric influences seems to have widened since their previous album; “Better Off On Your Own” is driven along by African rhythms and punctuated by a chorus that leans so heavily on the off beat that it’s firmly into reggae territory. The trumpet’s in evidence pretty much throughout the album, evoking South American sounds, muted melancholy and even hinting at easy listening at times on, for example, “On the Last Night”, which subversively creates a deliberately unthreatening arrangement for a song about the apocalypse.

There’s a tribute to Freddy Mercury in “And the Piano Sings” which has the catchiest of catchy hooks and a perfectly-formed trumpet solo, but the band save the best of the left-field inventiveness for the album’s final song. “All Clapped Out” (a play on words) is a cappella throughout with all the percussion coming from handclaps and footstomps and the harmony from the four voices. It’s novel and interesting and it rounds off the album perfectly.

“Fire on the Rails” continues where “Kansas City Out Groove” left off; packed with invention, unusual textures, hooks and memorable melodies. It’s out on in the UK on Friday January 24th on Mondegreen Records (MGR0120).

It’s the first album review of 2020 and we’re gently easing our way into the new decade. “Ohbahoy” (the title is taken from the name of Miles’ imaginary childhood friend) is an example of how to create a varied and very listenable album full of hooks without ever having to resort to vocal or instrumental pyrotechnics. The building blocks of this album are very simple hooks and riffs; the clever thing is the way the jigsaw is put together to create something that’s much more than the sum of the parts.

 

You won’t get very far into the album before realising that Miles has another useful songwriting talent; he knows how to take an influence and turn it into something that sounds vaguely familiar without sounding like a complete steal. And it’s not a criticism. I have a huge admiration for the musical magpies of the world; the people like Jeff Lynne and, more recently, Guy Chambers who recognise the tiny snippet that makes something work and morph it into their own compositions. The album’s opening song, “Hands Up”, is naggingly familiar, suggesting a distant relationship to Steve Miller’s “Abracadabra” (and Steve wasn’t above nicking a riff or two himself, “Rock ‘n’ Me” for starters). The trick with this game is to blend the influences into something completely new, which is exactly what Miles does. There are nods in the direction of many influences, Tom Petty (particularly in the uptempo rocker “Overpass”) and the Beatles jump out instantly, but there are undertones of The Cars, Steve Miller, ELO and probably many others.

There’s a lot to like about “Ohbahoy”. It’s a bunch of strong songs that’s interpreted by a band with enough talent and versatility to make four-part harmonies, twin guitar workouts and perfectly-judged horn parts sound like just another part of the day job. I have a sneaking suspicion that they might just be a bit tasty live as well.

“Ohbahoy” is out now in the UK.

Well, 2019 is certainly going out with a bang. In a period that’s normally characterised by back catalogue compilations and TV stars covering standards, the roots and Americana scene is still alive and kicking, particularly on Steve Dawson’s Black Hen label. “If Wishes Were Horses” is Alberta-based Matt Patershuk’s fourth album and it’s a very fine piece of work indeed. At first glance it appears to weigh in as a bit of a heavyweight with fifteen tracks, but it features four short instrumental fragments with the same leitmotif (more about that later), giving the album a fairly standard twelve-song running time.

Matt’s songs tend to simplicity on the surface, while tapping into universal truths about life, love, work and loss, but he likes to look at things through a different lens, lyrically and musically, creating a patchwork quality to the album, which is knitted together by the four short instrumental fragments (titled “Horses” and representing wishes). Each of these fragments weaves a different arrangement around a common melody; all are atmospheric with a cinematic quality using a variety of instruments and textures to create the links pulling the album together. “Horse 1 (For Bravery and Good Fortune)” is an interesting mix of Dick Dale and Ennio Morricone topped off with some very Sixties-sounding organ lines; the other wishes are equally enigmatic.

The album is packed with intriguing and memorable songs across a range of styles from old country to sweaty blues and it’s difficult to pick favourites, but let’s give it a try. The two songs telling stories of Ernest Tubb and Albert King (“Ernest Tubb had Fuzzy Slippers” and “Velvet Bulldozer”) are beautifully-drawn evocations of different stages in the musician’s journey. “Alberta Waltz” highlights the contrast between what people do to live and how they escape from it – ‘Dancing is for dreamers and lovers and fools’, while “Circus” describes a world where the everyday routine is grotesque and fantastical, but people still fall in love and get married. And let’s not forget “Let’s Give This Bottle A Black Eye”, which could only ever be a country song in the Merle Haggard vein.

“If Wishes Were Horses” is a satisfying complete album, featuring a great bunch of songs, superb arrangements and a voice that works perfectly across a range from slow country ballads to greasy Southern Blues. Matt Patershuk deserves to be much more widely known.

The album is released in the UK on Friday November 29th on Black Hen Music (BHMCD0090). In the meantime have a quick look at these videos:

Big Dave McLean is that rare thing – a prophet that is actually recognised in his country. In the same week that Southside Johnny was inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame, it’s been announced that Dave will receive an appointment to the Order of Canada. The comparison with Southside Johnny isn’t just plucked out of the air; they’re both people who are passionate about their music, they both love their blues and they both came to recording significant numbers of their own songs late in their careers. Dave has nine of his own compositions on “Pocket Full of Nothin’” alongside three covers and all of the originals have all earned their place. So you take all of that and add Black Hen’s Steve Dawson as player and producer and you already have something a bit special, but there’s a little bit more.

Not only was the band fully tooled-up for country and urban blues, but the addition of a horn section and Hammond added more of a Stax feel as well (I’m trying not to labour this, but hints of Southside Johnny again) and they were ready for the big one. You’ve got the songs, you’ve got the chemistry, why not just do the show right here kids? And they did; most of “Pocket Full of Nothin’” was recorded live on the studio floor over a few days, and because of that, it sounds fresh, almost raw, and dynamic. The arrangements sometimes feel a bit unusual (you don’t often hear resonators and horns together) but Dave’s raw country blues shouter voice pulls all of the elements together perfectly for this bunch of songs that takes the blues idiom as its jumping-off point on “Songs of the Blues” with a fairly smooth twelve-bar arrangement filled out with the horn section, contrasting with Dave’s rough-hewn voice. The styles pan out across the blues spectrum from the swampy Southern groove of “Don’t Be Layin’ That Stuff on Me” to the good time jump blues of “All-Day Party” and the raw country blues of “Pocket Full of Nothin’”.

Which is what you would expect from a lifelong blues player, except there’s a bit more. The album’s two closing songs, “Manitoba Mud”, in praise of the literal and metaphorical mud that pulls people to the city and keeps them there and the simple gospel-tinged optimism of “There Will Always Be a Change” bringing the album to a hopeful end.

This album moves Big Dave McLean from the role of respected bluesman to genuine songwriting talent.

“Pocket Full of Nothin’” is out now in the UK on Black Hen Music (BHCD0091).

It’s fair to say I’m not a prolific reviewer; it’s all about the process. The first listen to an album decides whether it moves me enough to review it, then it gets another five or six listens before I make some notes, track by track. Then I look at the press release and lyric sheets, sleeve notes and anything else that came with the songs. It’s just the way I do it and it throws up some interesting little insights. And there are some artists that you look forward to reviewing because they always make you think very carefully about their work; Ed Dupas is one of those artists. He writes a lot of songs about relationships, happy or sad, but you know that each album will have one song that digs deep and pulls out a reaction to the world that surrounds us. We’ll get to that in a while.

Most of the songs on “The Lonesome Side of Town” fall into genres that can be labelled as country, rock or some combination of the two. Country’s the dominant force on this album with arrangements featuring pedal steel, lap steel, banjo and resonator, but the addition of a Hammond B3 adds another dimension, taking the sound into The Band territory. And let’s not forget the Merseybeat feel of “Love Me Right”, with its chiming guitars and sus4 chords.

Of the eleven songs, ten are deeply personal, dealing with aspects of a relationship breakdown and one, “State of the Nation”, placed in the dead centre of the album, is the zeitgeist song. Ed Dupas doesn’t do a lot of these, but when he does, they hit, and they hit hard. “State of the Nation” is an out-and-out rocker about the divide between the people who work and the people who benefit from that work. It’s no frills rock ’n’ roll fired out in less than three minutes and it brings to mind Bob Seger’s 1978 song “Feels Like a Number” – well, Ed does live in Ann Arbor, Michigan. As an example of the level of detail in the production, rather than crashing the over-driven guitar in at the beginning of the second verse, it’s faded in just before the beginning of the verse so that it reaches the right level just as the verse begins; just a little touch, but it works perfectly.

But that’s not to belittle the rest of the album. The title song sets the mood for the album as it tells the familiar story of a relationship with a performer, while “It All Sounds like Leaving” could only ever be a country song, particularly with the line ‘Let’s get on with the grieving, cos it all sounds like leaving’. Ed admits to agonising over the track order and losing one song that didn’t fit, and that confirms the message that it more than just a bunch of songs – it’s an album and there are subtle links between the songs. There are three references to ‘within’ or ‘between the lines’ and “On my Way” refers back to “It All Sounds like Leaving”. The more you dig, the more you find.

“The Lonesome Side of Town” is a beautifully-crafted set of songs coming out of a difficult situation. There are songs of heartache, a song of anger and some songs of redemption and moving forward. They are all songs of passion.

“The Lonesome Side of Town” is released in the UK on Friday October 25th on Road Trip Songs.

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).