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.

I-95; almost two thousand miles from Maine to Florida, if you’re Southbound like J.P. Soars. Not as well known as Route 66, but here’s a coincidence; I’m reading a guitar player’s memoir at the moment (next review up) which references I-95 extensively. And Southbound? Well that’s heading towards Florida and who wouldn’t, particularly in the winter? The title song’s a road song, plain and simple, in the age-old tradition; it’s the story of touring musicians, road dogs, and it’s the most straight-up, no-nonsense song on the album. No matter how sophisticated your tastes and influences get, it’s always fun to throw in a few loud riffs and fills

J.P. Soars is no average blues player. Great players don’t allow themselves to be defined by one genre; blues/rock might be at the centre of “Southbound I-95” but it doesn’t define it. And before we move on, there are fifteen songs on the album, but the funky “Sure as Hell Ain’t Foolin’ Me” crops up in ‘explicit’ and ‘clean’ versions (‘bullshit’ becomes ‘BS’) and “Arkansas Porch Party” reappears as the muted background for a hidden track.

If you’re this good, you don’t just keep recycling the same old licks; you keep moving on and soaking up more and more esoteric influences which then resurface in your work. You might do the Albert King and Muddy Waters covers (and J.P. does “When You Walk Out that Door” “Deep Down in Florida” with style and conviction) but there’s a lot more to it than that. Some of the stylings are fairly standard; “Southbound I-95” opens with a surf-punk guitar sound (think Dick Dale meets Link Wray, “Shining Through the Dark” is sixties pop-soul with a hint of “Hey Baby” while “The Grass Ain’t Always Greener” channels “Great Balls of Fire” and the Gary Bonds stomper “New Orleans”.

Things get a bit more esoteric with the mariachi horns adorning “Deep Down in Florida”, the surf meets Perez Prado sound of “Across the Desert” and the strangeness that is “Troubled Waters” which opens like Lynyrd Skynyrd before morphing into an Eastern-influenced instrumental breakdown with a banjo taking the sitar part and back into Southern rock again.

In a world where the hopes of megastardom as a blues/rock player are minimal (apparently there’s only room for one Joe Bonamassa at any given time) and you have talent to burn like J.P Soars, then you just have to follow your vision and go where it leads you. On the whole, this is a hugely entertaining album; it sounds like everyone’s having a great time and the playing is phenomenal – give it a listen.

Release date Friday March 8th .

And enjoy this:

It’s a phrase that first was first heard in feminist politics in the late sixties – “The personal is political” – and it’s just as applicable in the USA today. Jess Klein’s latest album, “Back to My Green” is the culmination of a period of turmoil that was both political and personal; a new relationship (and marriage) and a certain presidential election in 2016. Both of those things had a massive impact on Jess Klein’s work, and her upheaval is definitely our gain, pushing her out of her comfort zone and into new ways of writing and recording. A stripped-back, raw set of songs morphed over time into a band sound which even stretched to a couple of sixties-style string quartet arrangements.

The album’s rough trajectory is from the personal through the personal/political and back to the more contemplative personal as the album closes and, although the title track has a powerful message, the personal and political strands are knitted together inextricably in the album’s longest and hardest-hitting song “New Thanksgiving Feast” which ties highly personal childhood reminiscences to ancient fishing rights, Native American pipeline protests and the ‘taking the knee’ national anthem protests spreading through American sport. It’s a heady mix and underlines a theme that’s increasingly common in Americana today; depending on whose figures you believe, ninety-nine per cent of Americans are descended from immigrants. Jess Klein only has go back two generations to find that link (a bit like POTUS really, but I bet Jess’s father didn’t attract the ire of Woody Guthrie). “Blair Mountain” also combines the two strands, looking at the impact of rapacious mining on the economics and ecology of a small town while “Gates of Hell” rails at the lunacy of life in the land of the free in the early twenty-first century.

Which brings us to the title song, positioned in the middle of the album. The message is that there can be an escape from the madness if you find the right place. I’ve focussed on the lyrical content, but Jess has also created some memorable melodies and the band creates musical settings that allow each of the songs to shine. The album is studded with interwoven personal insights and social comment married to great tunes. I’ll take that any day of the week.

“Back to My Green” is released in the UK on Friday February 22 on Blue Rose Records (BLU DP0727) and Jess is touring the UK in April-May 2019.

Humour me for a minute. Every so often, a piece of work like this comes along (it’s not just an album it’s a project, maybe even a concept) where every aspect and detail is absolutely perfect. The humouring bit concerns my particular slant on the project. MusicRiot’s gig team, The Riot Squad, are big fans of Dean Owens, the UK representative on the project, so forgive me if I spend a bit of time on Dean’s contribution. It’s fair to say that Dean’s solo material has a strong sense of location; he writes about the area and the people he knows, just like Ian Rankin and Irvine Welsh in their novels and short stories. It’s also fair to say that he’s always been willing to push the boundaries in his collaborations, spreading out into traditional Scottish folk ballads as Redwood Mountain with Amy Geddes, rockier material with his occasional band Deer Lake and his consistently excellent work with Will Kimbrough (more about that later).

Buffalo Blood is something else indeed. Dean teamed up with his Nashville friends and collaborators Neilson Hubbard, Audrey Spillman and Joshua Britt, along with sound engineer and photographer Jim DeMain to spend two weeks deep in the New Mexico desert feeling the forces of previous lives played out there while writing and recording  fifteen songs that tap into the echoes of centuries of betrayal, exploitation and alienation of the Native American peoples. And it’s not just the songs; there’s video and photography as well. The incredibly ambitious aim of the project is to immerse the listener in five hundred years of Native American experience. What’s truly incredible is that they actually succeeded. “Buffalo Blood” is an album that will entrance you, engage you and enrage you; maybe it will even make you take a serious look at the history of the indigenous peoples of the American continent. That’s what can happen when creative artists follow their instincts and beliefs and just create; I can’t imagine any of the major music providers bankrolling this project, but I believe “Buffalo Blood” has a real shot at commercial success; it’s that powerful.

The songs were recorded live outdoors in the desert, the wind and animal noises contributing to the feeling of immersion in an environment that retains echoes of centuries of struggle. The quality of the songwriting is consistently high across the album as Celtic, European and Native American influences combine to create a perfect musical backdrop for a message that is still relevant (Standing Rock ring any bells?).

The album has a narrative flow; it moves from the original contact with European settlers through time to the closing lament “Vanishing World”, which is perfectly suited to Dean Owens’ plaintive voice. This album is a classic, carrying a very potent message through the medium of haunting melodies and flawless performances; get it on your wishlist.

If you needed the album to be ground-breaking in any more ways, it’s the first UK release on the Eel Pie Records label and it’s available as a vinyl gatefold double album or digitally from Friday February 15 (EPRLP001)

Breaking news – Dean Owens won UK Song of the Year at the UK Americana Awards 2019 for the title track from his 2018 “Southern Wind” collaboration with Will Kimbrough. And that’s not the only good news from the Buffalo Blood camp; Neilson Hubbard produced “Southern Wind” and also Ben Glover’s “Shorebound” (UK Album of the Year winner) and “Rifles and Rosary Beads” for Mary Gauthier, who won International Artist of the Year and is up for a Grammy this year. Not a bad haul, and that’s before “Buffalo Blood” is released.

If you need any more recommendations for Buffalo Blood, try this:

First impressions; sometimes you can stake your life on them and sometimes… Well, this was one of those. The opening song, “Let’s Go Back in Time, Man”, screamed out ‘Rockabilly Revival – again’, and we’ve all seen too many of those built around mediocre pop bands. But the album’s twelve songs long, so let’s not be too hasty. Guess what? By the second song I’d admitted to being a bit premature and by the end of the album, the message had hit home; the title of the first song’s ironic and this is about viewing a mid-twentieth century musical phenomenon through a twenty-first century lens. Forget the revival, this is how Rob’s rockabilly rolls in 2019.

Now, with the best will in the world, some of the original UK rockabilly bands were characterised more by enthusiasm than expertise; that’s definitely not the case with Rob Heron and the Tea Pad Orchestra. These people can play and what they are is much, much more than a skiffle band with better gear. And maybe rockabilly isn’t really a wide enough description for the scope of their work. Just look at all the incongruous elements.

The second song, “There’s a Hole Where my Pocket Used to Be” combines  a Spaghetti Western ambience and choral refrain with a Theremin and a clever lyric built around the number six. Don’t look for too many predictable where Rob Heron’s concerned. Song number three, “Life is a Drag”, combines lyrics about the joys of cross-dressing with a jazz arrangement, an accordion solo and lead guitar that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Les Paul record. And so it goes on – “Une Bouteille de Beaujolais” evokes a Paris café with an accordion solo, a gypsy Django feel and wine references. You wouldn’t find either of those two songs in a Crazy Cavan set.

That’s not the end of the invention by a long way. “Fool Talkin’ Man” has a Gallic Jacques Brel feel with some atonal touches creating a slightly menacing feel while the title song has the feel of a seventies American TV theme married to a lyric about unwanted gentrification in our cities. And even if the album’s closer, “Double Meaning, Double Entendre”, is based on a fairly thin premise, it’s still good fun and there’s always a place for that. Give it a listen; even better, go out and watch them on their upcoming tour.

“Soul of My City” is released on Tea Pad Recordings (TPCD006) on Friday February 1st, 2019.

 

Time flies. It’s over three years since we reviewed the last Sam Lewis album “Waiting on You”. Well, he picked up the opening slot on Chris Stapleton’s ‘Traveler’ album tour, which is a long way from the last time we saw him in the basement at Green Note. He’s moved on a bit in terms of his songwriting as well. The voice is as good as ever and, like the arrangements and stylings, it’s in that confluence where the rivers of blues, soul and country meet. It’s quite a voice; for those of a certain age, if you take a touch of rawness away from Frankie Miller, you’re getting somewhere close.

Events in the outside world have had their impact on Sam’s songs (as they have on many other American songwriters during that time) and there’s a move away from the personal in the lyrics towards an exploration life in America in the Trumpton era. It’s certainly darker than his previous work and definitely in tune with the zeitgeist. And there are some great tunes as well.

There’s a theme running through the album of moving from or towards something, but it goes a little further than that. “Great Ideas” references the management theory of disruption as a means of progress and, despite the darker mood of the album, there’s a huge amount of positivity as well. The message of “Do It” is to spread the love around, while the title track is about the idea that unity and diversity can happily co-exist, even today.

Looking at the whole thing, the album is gorgeous. Sam’s voice is as smooth and seductive as ever and the arrangements are perfect, serving the song without ever becoming too showy or obtrusive. The closest we get to a showy guitar solo is on “The Only One”, and even that’s very tasteful, and definitely not ostentatious. Standouts; it’s all very, very good and bears repeated listening, but I think it has to be the title song “Loversity” which stacks the two guitars prevalent throughout the album up against horns and huge choral backing vocals over a Stax-style groove; what more could you want?

“Loversity” is released in the UK on Loversity Records on Friday January 18th.

Meanwhile, feast your eyes and ears on this:

Welcome to 2019. Here’s the first album review of the year for you.

Listening to Gordie Tentrees’ studio output, it always struck me that there was something missing; I couldn’t quite commit to the albums. It appears that many fans of Gordie and Jaxon Haldane’s live shows thought the same, repeatedly asking for an album that was more representative of the live experience. The result was “Grit”, recorded over five separate gigs in five different venues and it’s fair to say I’m convinced now. The press release warns that ‘All songs contain GRIT. The essential ingredient to overcoming adversity’, or, alternatively, the difference between an oyster and a pearl.

The pair function as writing collaborators as well as duo performers, with a couple of their co-writes, “Grit” and “Junior” featuring on the album in addition to a brace of Tentrees/Fred Eaglesmith songs and a number of Gordie Tentrees  solo efforts.

The most astonishing aspect of “Grit” is the variety. The variety of instruments featured (ten between the two players, including the musical saw) and the variety and breadth of the songwriting, which ranges from the social satire of “Craft Beards and Man Buns”, dispensing fashion victim advice to the younger generation, to the moving (but still humorous) account of Gordie’s marriage. There are also a couple of sideswipes at some of the characters that travelling musicians meet along the way. “Sideman Blues” takes aim fair and square at songwriters who are propped up on the road by sidemen who receive little or no credit and not much more reward and, incidentally features some phenomenal playing from both Gordie and Jaxon.

And my favourite song? It’s a two-way choice between the aforementioned “Lost” and the profoundly moving and ultimately uplifting road burn-out song “Junior”. Either one works for me.

It’s a pretty good start to 2019. It’s an album that captures Gordie and Jaxon doing what they do best; performing. They cover all bases instrumentally, melodically and lyrically and do it with a great sense of joy.

“Grit” is released on Friday January 11, 2019 on Greywood Records.

You can find out for yourself how good they are at any of these UK tour dates:

JANUARY

Wed 30

Thu 31

London

South Molton, nr. Barnstaple

What’s Cookin’@ Leytonstone Ex-Servicemens Club

The Plough Hotel

FEBRUARY

Fri 1

 

Wellington, nr. Taunton

 

The Beambridge Inn

Sat 2 Worth Matravers, nr. Swanage The Square & Compass
Sun 3 Worth Matravers, nr. Swanage The Square & Compass                                                          NB. Matinee Show
Mon 4 Brighton The Greys
Tue 5 Bangor, North Wales Blue Sky Café
Wed 6 Southport Grateful Fred’s at The Atkinson
Thu 7 Stroud The Subscription Rooms
Fri 8 East Barsham , Norfolk The Moonshine Club, East Barsham Village Hall
Sat 9 York House Concerts York
Sun 10 Coldingham, Scottish Borders Coldingham Village Hall
Mon 11 Glasgow The Doublet
Tue 12 Dundee Gardyne Theatre
Wed 13 Kelso, Scottish Borders The Tipsy Ghillie
Thu 14 Edinburgh The Bluebird Cafe
Fri 15 Alford, Aberdeenshire Piggery-Smokery
Sat 16 Aberdeen The Blue Lamp
Sun 17 Biggar, South Lanarkshire The Wee Gig, Arcadia Music Cafe

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out now.