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).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile, just bury yourself in this:

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

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

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

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

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

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