Andy Fleet isn’t the most prolific of album artists; his last album was in 2013. Which doesn’t really matter; his musical world is not ruled by release schedules, so why not release albums when you’re happy you’ve created something that people will want to listen to and appreciate. And I need to apologise here, this album has been out since March but somehow managed to avoid my attention until now and that’s my loss because “The Sleepless Kind” is a little gem of an album, the kind you want to listen to again and again. Even the cover is a nice piece of art by Alban Low inspired by the song ”Through Closed Eyes”.

The title tells the story; the theme of the album is the night and particularly the musicians who try to scratch a living in those hours of darkness, and those who make the bleary-eyed commuter journey to a day job that enables them to play another night. “The Sleepless Kind” is a tribute to those people who make music because they love making music. Is there a better reason?

The Sleepless Kind” (which tops and tails the album) is a dreamy instrumental that sounds like it should soundtrack a Raymond Chandler story: gentle piano and moody, muted trumpet of Andre Canniere combine to paint a picture of a jazz club in the early hours, when you stop worrying about the last train and start thinking about the first train.

The remaining seven songs demonstrate the wide variety of influences feeding into Andy Fleet’s unique style. The band is superb with the slower, more evocative songs but goes up through the gears really smoothly for the more uptempo songs , such as “Been There, Drunk That” and the rollicking seventies, horn-driven groove of “Love’s Enemy”, which tells the story of a collector in a style that hints at Al Stewart and maybe even Gerry Rafferty. “Stolen Years”, a John Lennon tribute, hints at Thunderclap Newman, but “The Hobbyist” and “Through Closed Eyes” are the absolute pivot of the album.

The Hobbyist” is a powerful tribute to Andy’s friend, the late Iain Bull, opening with some Jackson Browne-like piano, while “Through Closed Eyes” opens with a with a fairly traditional jazz set-up of keys, bass, drums (with brushes, initially) and trumpet and spins out its groove for nearly eight gorgeous minutes, telling the story of the London night from the perspective of an owl, silently watching over the neon-lit streets.

Mainly jazz-orientated, “The Sleepless Kind” also hints at blues, rock, pop and soul. The musicianship is superb throughout, never over-played, and the songs are well-constructed and meaningful. The album oozes class and rewards close attention. One to listen to in the small hours with a single malt close at hand.

“The Sleepless Kind” is out now on Low Vinyl Records (LV1608).

And here’s a little video snippet for you:

 

“Windrush” is quite a box of tricks. To say it’s eclectic is a bit of an understatement; Daniel Nestlerode romps through a kaleidoscope of styles, sometimes in unexpected combinations, none more so than the title track.  “Windrush” is a headlong rush of an instrumental, combining elements of folk, Dick Dale and Ennio Morricone in tribute to the spirit of the people who came to United Kingdom from the Caribbean in response to adverts designed to fill labour shortages in the UK after the war. It’s a tribute to the courage that it took to uproot and travel thousands of miles to create a new home in the grey post-war landscape of the UK. The piece evokes the surging of an ocean voyage and gradually builds to a climax employing acoustic and electric mandolin, acoustic and electric guitar, bass, harmonium and percussion.

The album is a combination of personal and socio-political themes, conceived at a turning-point in Daniel Nestlerode’s life. As an American living in the UK with a French spouse and UK-born children, The Brexit vote was a crucial factor in moving and resettling the family in France. His new local music scene, with rock music predominating, also meant that Daniel incorporated some of his earlier musical experience in the US into the mix, bringing in electric guitars and mandolins, drums and bass at various points in the album.

Coming at such a critical point in Daniel’s life in terms of family upheaval, musical rediscoveries and political uncertainty, it’s inevitable that “Windrush” would be a bunch of contrasts; traditional folk meets rock, electric meets acoustic, vocal meets instrumental, beginnings meet endings, personal meets political and old life meets new life. This is an album that’s being pulled in many directions, yet still managing to sound cohesive, and that’s quite impressive.

The album is topped and tailed by the same piece, “White Flower Waltz”, opening as a short intro and closing as the full version. I’ll leave you to guess what the time signature is. The covers on “Windrush” are an interesting selection; “The Vacant Chair” and “The Parting Glass” are American and Irish respectively and the traditional instrumental “Blackberry Blossom” gets a makeover with a few key changes to cause a bit of a fuss with the purists. The really interesting choice is the Victoria Vox song “C’est Noyé”, which has a strong resonance personal resonance for Daniel and neatly ties in with the Brexit references: ‘Et ils nagent, comme des poisons sans frontière, sur cette terre ronde’ or, roughly ‘The fish swim without borders on this round world’. And, if you didn’t know, “C’est Noyé” means “It’s Drowned”.

However, it’s the songs written by Daniel that supply its emotional heft; “Unexpectedly” telling the story of the meeting that led to marriage, “Living the Dream” dealing with the move to France and “Being a Boy” detailing the joys of family life. The songs and settings of “Windrush” are hugely varied and the album has genuine emotional power.

“Windrush” is released on Clunk & Rattle Records (CRLP021) on Friday August 28th.

“The United State” is more than an album, it’s a journey and it’s a journey that we all take, from the cradle to the grave or, more accurately, the womb to the tomb. That’s the way Justin Wells conceived the project; he came up with concept then wrote the songs to fit in with the storyboarded sequence. It turned his normal way of writing upside down, imposing a completely different discipline to the creative process. The recording process was a similar trial, using a host of guest musicians to create some fascinating sonic textures and styles ranging across atmospheric instrumental, a cappella, country, country rock, slow blues and Southern funk to bring the story to life (and death).

The album opens in the womb with a short, atmospheric instrumental featuring slide and ambient guitar sounds and ends with the ethereal a cappella of “Farewell, Mr Hooper” representing death and between the two, there are ten strong and varied songs moving the narrative along. The second single from the album, “No Time For a Broken Heart” is out now; it’s a nod in the direction of The Band and the message is pretty simple – life ain’t easy, but we have to take what it throws at us and get on with it. The electric piano and resonator move the song just a little out of the country mainstream into more eclectic territory.

Other standouts for me are “Never Better”, a four-to-the-floor stomp with a Southern boogie feel given a twist with a touch of electric piano again and the slow blues “After the Fall” with a full band sound, including three guitars and some powerful solos and twin guitar breaks hinting at the stylings of Keith Richards and Mick Taylor/Ronnie Wood. The theme of the song is classic obsession with the ‘fallen woman’ and the inability to walk away. It’s the centrepiece of the album, showcasing Justin Wells’ rasping blues vocal and some classic blues soloing. It’s followed by the Lowell George-tinged “It’ll All Work Out”, which is dominated by keys and some lovely slide playing. The chorus sounds positive but the message is that people will tell you it’ll all work out, but it ain’t necessarily so.

“The United State” is packed with songs that work perfectly well in isolation but, in sequence, tell a universal story; we all know the ending, but the interest is in how you get there and this is a very interesting album indeed.

“The United State” is released on Friday August 28th on SINGULAR RECORDINGS (SNG202001JW).

Ward Richmond’s a great example of the way the music sector (it’s difficult to call it a business or an industry) works these days. After touring in various bands with varying degrees of success between 1998 and 2006, he left live music behind in favour of a more traditional career path. In times past, that would have meant goodbye to music, with its cycle of album releases and tours, but times have changed. It’s more difficult to make a decent living from music now, but it’s much easier to release an album when you have it ready to go. That’s the route Ward Richmond’s gone down; he released “The Warden” in 2016 and four years later he’s releasing “Highly Meditated”.

The album’s a fascinating mix of humour, nostalgia, anxieties and gradual renunciation of vices (all the usual ones) and introduction of virtues (meditation and yoga). It’s a midlife album, but it’s far from a crisis; Ward is weighing up the pros and cons of the old and the new existence through the lens of parenthood. However happy the memories of the past are, it’s a country we no longer live in, and that’s message of “Highly Meditated”.

The musical stylings are mainly country-inflected but with a few notable exceptions, such as the final song “These Days” which opens with a drum pattern that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on an Adam and the Ants single in the eighties before morphing into a rockabilly workout punctuated by a spoken middle eight about the virtues of hot yoga. “I Need A Water Fountain” references another facet of the eighties (and late seventies), FM radio drivetime with maybe a hint of Journey in there, whereas “Hey Levi” looks back a decade further to the sound of The Band at their peak.

Ward Richmond looks forward and backward with a wry sense of humour that’s obvious in the lyrics and sometimes in the musical stylings as well. There’s plenty of self-deprecation in the backward and forward views that, along with humour, somehow underlines the seriousness of the overall message; at some point, most of us actually grow up.

“Highly Meditated” is out now as a download.

It’s quite a story; Michael McDermott’s short rise and relatively successful start to a career in the early nineties, through a long downward spiral ending in addiction and jail and, ultimately, recovery and redemption. His previous four albums “Six on the Out” (as The Westies), “Willow Springs”, “Orphans” and “Out From Under” cover those themes pretty comprehensively, although Michael McDermott isn’t showing signs of running out of inspiration any time soon. He’s a songwriter who’s equally at home writing pieces that are intensely personal, straightforward love songs, observational songs, fun songs and, on this album, a couple of powerful songs inspired by the state of America in 2020. Whatever he’s writing, he’s never less than totally honest and always completely believable.

The furious rush of the title song opens the album, pulling no punches as it tears through the state of the USA today, melding the lyrical helter-skelter of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” with the musical punch of “Born to Run” in a scathing attack on the Trump vision (and we’re done with the Dylan and The Boss references now).

The musical stylings are what you would expect from a Michael McDermott album; there’s a lot of variety. From the headlong charge of “What in the World”, through the finger-picked guitar on “Positively Central Park” and “New York, Texas” to the Motown bounce of “Contender”. The album certainly isn’t one-paced and, as always, demonstrates Michael’s range and versatility. As ever the musicians do exactly what’s needed to get the message over, without ever sounding showy.

Lyrically, the album’s a step away from the quartet mentioned above. The title song and the heart-rending “Mother Emanuel” are both protest songs, while the rest of the album focusses mainly on a couple of themes; the post-addiction space that Michael occupies now, and an exploration of some of the events in his personal history that may have been triggers for the dark period. This isn’t about self-justification, it’s more in the nature of a warning to others of the treachery of that particular slope.

So, which songs pushed my buttons? Obviously, the title song with its stinging attack on USA 2020, including the unequivocal message: ‘It’s not to hard to see The Presidents’s a criminal’ is right up there. “The Veils of Veronica”, the story of someone with too few skins to deal with the world is heart-rending, and the gentle “Blue-Eyed Barmaid” turns the tables on the cliché of the customer pouring out his troubles to the long-suffering barmaid. With eleven new songs (plus a bonus of the acoustic demo of the title song), there’s so much to love here; the songs are intense and Michael’s vocal delivery is impassioned, as always. It’s a grim reality of the music business today that Michael McDermott is unlikely to become rich, but that won’t stop him making music and we’ll all benefit from that.

“What in the World” is released in the UK on Friday June 12th on Pauper Sky Records.

BTW, it passes the Will Kimbrough test as well; he’s on pretty much everything I’ve loved over the last five years and he’s also doing his thing here.

“Searching for the Stranger” follows on from Ben’s highly-acclaimed 2018 album “Better Human”, which was a big favourite here at Riot Towers. The production on the album certainly doesn’t follow the live recording ethos. “Searching for the Stranger” is definitely a product of the studio; multiple vocal overdubs and heavy reverb creating an other-worldly atmosphere that weaves and twists its way around you. It’s definitely not an example of recording the songs and doing very little in the way of studio production; the songs will probably sound very different live, whenever we’re in a position to hear them that way.

The opening song “Berlin” is a good example of the approach to production. The song opens with some processed beats and builds with some sparse and doubled-up lead vocals to an almost epic chorus and big string arrangement towards the close. It’s a deeply personal song that uses Berlin as a metaphor, with the repetition of the line ‘Tear down the walls’ throughout the song. The second song on the album, also the second single, “Strangers”, has a more conventional guitar intro and riffs and more multi-tracked vocals and harmonies – the theme of alienation here is one of the threads that runs through the album, with its remote settings and physical and mental displacement. Without getting in to a track-by-track rundown of the album, the third song “Ghost”, builds up from a lone piano fading in, to a full-band finish and deals with sense of separateness and isolation that accompanies the end of a relationship.

But it’s not all melancholy; following the helplessness of “Tornado”, the album ends with its most hopeful song “Spring”, a celebration of love, renewal and the passage of the seasons and a look forward to the future following the previous nine retrospective and introspective songs. “Searching for the Stranger” is classic singer-songwriter material, with songs about relationships, history and alienation, presented in a way that envelops the listener totally as instruments blend into each other and voices are multiplied into a choral tsunami.

“Searching for a Stranger” is out now on Comino Music (BKSFTS001CD).

This album is like a sea-breeze on a hot summer’s day; it’s cooling and soothing, and once it starts, you don’t want it to stop. Canadian Maya Rae isn’t eighteen yet and she’s already been singing professionally for six years. Six years! She recorded her first album of jazz covers at the age of thirteen, but this is an entirely different beast; it’s a batch of songs co-written with her brother Evan that display a remarkable maturity while still retaining a sense of wonder and innocence. They’re delivered by a set of highly-accomplished musicians, and the end of result is my favourite new album of the year so far. If your interest has been piqued by what you’ve read so far, check out some of the Spotify song links as well. If you want a few quick and easy reference points, try early Joni Mitchell, Norah Jones and maybe even (completely coincidentally) the first Corinne Bailey Rae album.

You would expect someone who’s been singing professionally since the age of twelve to have a good voice and you won’t be disappointed. Maya’s voice is rich and clear, and she has an impressive range as well. We all know that often that isn’t enough; you need the right team and usually you need a good throw of the dice at some point.

This album came about as a result of Maya sending a demo to Canadian uber-producer Steve Dawson, who managed to pull a bunch of musicians together in Nashville to record the album in just three days. The result sounds anything but rushed; it all fits into place perfectly and the arrangements create the perfect picture-frame for all of the delicately-crafted songs. And there are so many insidious hooks. Whether they’re the work of Steve Dawson or the musicians involved in the project, I don’t know, but each one pulls you in to the song, and they come from all directions, violin, guitar, organ, synthesiser; you name it.

I recommend that you give the entire album a listen, but if you twisted my arm, my favourites would be the incredibly catchy opener “Can You See Me”, which talks about the masks we wear to hide our true selves, the optimistic “The Sun Will Come Out Again” and the sinuously funky, Bill Withers-esque, groove of “New to Me”. I could go on, but I really want you to listen to the whole album and then buy it. This classy bunch of songs, beautifully interpreted, and sung with such clarity and precision, is something your collection needs.

“Can You See Me?” is out now on Black Hen Records (BHCD0092).

It’s time for the third Danberrys (Dorothy Daniel and Ben DeBerry) album, “Shine”. The Nashville duo has taken four years over this piece and it’s a marked departure from their more acoustic Americana sound. Just a quick look at the album credits tells you, in addition to the usual guitar, mandolin and even pump organ, there’s another palette of sounds created by the addition of trombone, tuba, vibes, drums and percussion, the last three contributed by co-producer Marco Giovino. The innovative way percussion is used throughout the album is a clear indication of the involvement of drummer on the production team. The instrument tally on the album is impressive, but they’re used sparingly in a minimal and stark production. And let’s not forget the superb vocals, harmonies and counterpoint.

The album’s opener “Shine” sets the tone, building from a sparse primal rhythm to a brooding, supernatural mantra. The message is that we have to continue to shine a light to penetrate the darkness that surrounds us. There’s a melancholy thread that runs through the album although the message is ultimately one of hope; from “Shine” and the simple, folky “Love Conquers War” which references the protest movement and hammers the message home with the final line, ‘We shall overcome’, and the uplifting exhortation to self-belief of the Bo-Diddley-inflected “The Mountain”. The variety of the arrangements means that there aren’t too many reference points, although “Undertow” does hint at Fleetwood Mac.

The lyrics are interesting; they’re very subtle and they’re more about pointing you in a certain direction and allowing you to make your own interpretation. Although there are repeated references to darkness and dying, the album ultimately feels like a positive experience.

“Shine” is a compelling and haunting set of songs with innovative arrangements which holds your attention throughout with its stark intensity.

And here’s a bit of trivia for you. The person playing guitar, trombone and tuba is Neal Pawley, trombone player with Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes and Southside’s Americana project, The Poor Fools.

“Shine” is released in the UK on Friday May 8th on Singular Records.

 

 

It’s heart-breaking to see so many press releases at the moment that tell that a band or artist will be touring to support their new album. This stuff is planned months ahead, and longer, to coincide with the album coming out. The press release for “Blue Sky” refers to band touring through 2020 to promote the album; even with Trump’s best bluster, that’s unlikely to happen now, so one of the few things to do is look out for the good reviews and make sure that you get them out there. But I’m sure that The Reverend Shawn Amos will have that under control, because of his background in digital marketing (among other things). Ok, here’s another one for you.

In a career that’s been characterised by fairly dramatic shifts, “Blue Sky” is no exception. After embracing the broad church of blues, Shawn Amos had very little interest in writing; he wanted to sing and play harmonica. Things changed, however, after his move to Texas from California and a long-term commitment to The Brotherhood (Brady Blade – drums, Christopher Thomas – bass, and Chris ‘Doctor’ Roberts – guitar); he’s also totally committed to writing now as well as performing.

The album’s opening song, “Stranger Than Today”, feels like a bridge between California and Texas. The styling is pure West Coast (synthetic beats aside) although the subject matter is pure blues; the life and death of Little Walter, blues harmonica innovator. And from there on in, it’s blues in its many hues, from the heartbreak blues of “Her Letter” through the New Orleans, gospel settings of “The Job is Never Done” to the straightforward jump blues of “27 Dollars”, harking back to KC Douglas’ “Mercury Blues”, with the theme of buying a Coupe De Ville at all costs. Other highlights include the uptempo rock of “Hold Back”, hinting at the driving Seventies sound of Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band and the album’s closing song “Keep the Faith, Have Some Fun”, which is simply structured, but throws in everything, including Latin horns and gospel call and response vocals.

“Blue Sky” covers most of the blues spectrum from dark, swampy Southern blues to uptempo horn-driven Latin-tinged blues. It’s a collection of great players working together to make great music with a strong political agenda, led by a charismatic and committed frontman. Give it a listen.

“Blue Sky” is out in the UK now on Put Together Music (PTM-00008).

If you want reference points for “Pigeon and the Crow”, I’d go for something between “Sweet Baby James” and “Graceland”. It has the simple, laid-back feel of James Taylor and the experimental rhythms and instrumentation of Paul Simon’s classic. There’s a lot going on, but it never feels cluttered or claustrophobic. There’s something that sets this album apart from the two classics, and it’s the lyrical invention of Nels Andrews’ songs, which are mostly allegorical and metaphorical rather than following straight-line narratives and it makes for a very interesting mixture. It’s a compulsive and beguiling set of songs. And before we move away from the comparisons, you could say that there are hints of Jackson Browne, and Nels’ voice at times sounds a lot like Ian (or Iain) Matthews at the time he was trying to crack the American market in the seventies.

The press pack for the album contains a lyric sheet for the album (it’s in the album packaging as well), but also a very helpful set of writer’s notes for each song, which share the sort of detail you would never pick up on otherwise. “The Lion’s Jaws” is based on the story of an in-law who, at one time, was the only Jewish lion-tamer in history, which is an interesting coincidence, given that Scottish singer-songwriter Dean Owens (recently reviewed here) has also written about a not-too-distant ancestor who was a lion-tamer.

To get some idea of the musical variety of the album, you only need to take a look at the credits. There are thirteen musicians involved and a list of fourteen instruments (not including the many under the umbrella of percussion) from various musical traditions including kora, steel pan, harmonium and flute; it’s not just a lot of instruments, it’s a lot of musical styles melding together seamlessly by producer, flautist and singer Nuala Kennedy.

Highlights? The title song’s hard to beat, with its supernatural love story theme and its lilting Gaelic feel; the opener “Scrimshaw” in triple time and with mid-life memories of happiness and regrets is a perfect evocation of the singer-songwriter genre, and the slightly rockier “Table by the Kitchen” is a fiddle-led, fear-of-missing-out anthem satirising the me generation. What remains in the memory when you reach the end of the album, is the sheer variety of musical settings used to project these songs and support Nels’ mellifluous voice and the way that none of it seems out of place.

“Pigeon and the Crow” is out now.