Keegan McInroe’s last album, “Uncouth Pilgrims”, was very much a troubadour’s set of songs; tales of his travels and celebrations of life. This one’s a very different beast. You can probably guess from the title that it’s full of protest songs, like the ones that Dylan, Joan Baez and Buffy Sainte-Marie used to sing in the sixties and seventies. Since the US election last year, after the initial disbelief, the references to the administration onstage from touring American bands started to become a regular thing. The odd critical song started to appear on albums, but Keegan McInroe has gone all the way. “A Good Old Fashioned Protest” is nine protest songs (well, eight songs and a poem) with media manipulation, environmental exploitation, militarism and hypocrisy firmly in its laser beam.

The album opens with “Talking Talking Head Blues”, a strummed acoustic backing underpinning a headlong rush through the evils afflicted on us by the current US administration (and let’s not think we can be too smug in the UK), including biased news, the surveillance society, dumbing down and smoke and mirrors. The narrative opens with Keegan waking from a dream to hear a talking head on a news show; the dream is from the last song on the album, “Keegan’s Beautiful Dream”, which has all of the anti-establishment protesters banding together to render the system impotent. The album comes full circle and the cycle starts all over again.

I’ve had a beer with Keegan; he’s a lovely guy. He’s witty, he’s well-read, he knows his music and he’s really laid-back, but here the message is anger bordering on rage at the state of the world today. He targets environmental exploitation in “Big River”, militarism in “Bombing for Peace”, hypocrisy and self-righteousness in “Bastards and Bitches” (there’s no token single swear word here to get a parental guidance sticker here, this album is full-on) and the causes of radicalisation in “Timmy Johnson’s Living Brother”. The poem “Nietzche Wore Boots” deserves a special mention; it satirises the way the plutocracy divides and rules and points the way to an apocalyptic ending that will be just another tiny event in the history of the planet. And it’s the pivot before the two songs of redemption that end the album. And they’re still protest songs, just protest songs with a positive message.

Tyrants hate the arts and people involved in the arts. They know that artists and writers and poets are free thinkers who never just accept what they’re told by the establishment. They ask awkward questions and they create works that criticise the status quo because someone has to. Keegan McInroe has done that with this album; he’s pulled together a varied bunch of songs that will pull you in with their rhythms and melodies and make you stop and think about what’s really going on in the world; maybe ask a few questions yourself. That has to be a good thing.

“A Good Old Fashioned Protest” is released on Friday January 12.

This was the first album I listened to on January 1 2018. Kind of appropriate really; after hearing so much beered-up musical stodge over the festive period, this is the perfect aural January detox to accompany the real thing. The Wailin’ Jennys (Heather Masse, Nicky Mehta and Ruth Moody) have been together fifteen years (hence the title), but this is their first album in six years. It’s worth waiting for; it’s gorgeous. They interpret nine very different songs but the common thread running through all of them is those three fabulous voices and the heartbreakingly pure harmonies. It’s possible I might mention that again at some point.

Everything is built around creating a setting for those flawless voices to deliver interpretations that are technically and emotionally perfect. Generally speaking, the musicians have a fairly light touch throughout the album; this is all about putting those three voices straight upfront and centre. When full string band arrangements are used, they tend to build up in layers to push the song to a higher level, which works particularly well on the timely cover of Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers” and the Jane Siberry song, “The Valley”. “Boulder to Birmingham”, Emmylou Harris and Bill Danoff’s plaintive elegy to Gram Parsons has a full band sound with some lovely two-guitar picking and percussive upright bass; none of it threatens to overwhelm the vocals.

For all the subtle and delicate playing, the a cappella or virtually a cappella material that really shines brightly. Paul Simon’s “Loves Me like a Rock” gets the handclap and fingerpop treatment, Dolly Parton’s “Light of a Clear Blue Morning” begins with a solo vocal before the stunning harmonies join, but the best is saved till last. The album’s final song is an a cappella cover of Hank Williams’ “Weary Blues from Waitin’” which not only has the expected beautiful three-part harmonies but features some incredibly precise three-part glissando harmonies. I have honestly never heard that done with such precision.

So now you’re going to ask if I like it, yeah? What a great way to start the year. But you don’t have to take my word for it; a click on any of those song links will take you to Spotify where you can hear it for yourself.

“Fifteen” is released on True North Records on Friday January 5 2018.

If you don’t want to read through three to four hundred words, I’ll tell you upfront. This is a great album and, if there was any justice in the world, Matt Patershuk would be making songs instead of bridges for a living. “Same As I Ever Have Been” is a masterclass in creating memorable songs from a variety of starting points. It can be as mundane as the end of a labouring life and the onset of arthritis in “Hot Knuckle Blues” or as fanciful as the downfall and humanisation of a Titan in “Atlas”. Either way, Matt creates songs that are lodged in the memory long after the last chords have reverberated into the distance.

The variety of lyrical topics is matched by the variety of musical stylings across the album, following the raw guitar and sax urban blues of “Cheap Guitar” straight into the Nashville, pedal-steel-laced title track which has more than a hint of Jim Reeves. It’s quite a contrast, but it works in the context of the album.

There’s a current of melancholy running through the album, starting with the opener “Some Times You’ve Got to Do Bad Things to Do Good” (herd of deer and faithful old dog are dispatched) to the mournful closer “Swans”, telling the story of a family of swans torn apart by a musket ball. The realism of the narration steers well clear of “Old Shep”-style mawkishness while still hefting a powerful emotional punch.

But the piece de resistance, creatively and emotionally, comes in the middle of the album with “Memory and the First Law of Thermodynamics”, a slow waltz commemorating the life of his sister Clare, who was the victim of a hit and run driver. It’s a potent combination of metaphysical lyrics (‘All of you floats about in the blue, you’re just less orderly’) and hearbreakingly emotive pedal steel and trilling mandolin. It captures perfectly the grief we’ll all feel at some time and the strategies we use to weaken its hold.

The album is packed full of melancholy references, but still manages to end with a symbolic message of hope, as the swans set off on their journey to a warmer place. Matt Patershuk explores some of the classic American songwriting themes with little twists reality, irony and pure poetry and creates an album that’s honest, inspired and cathartic.

“Same As I Ever Have Been” is out now on Black Hen Music (BHCD0085).

You want to know the way to listen to this album? Open road, windows down, volume up. It’s just a shame the old Capri shuddered to a halt decades ago. It was about the same vintage as the tunes and bands that inspired “Before Dark Clouds”. It’s released on the Jigsaw label, which specialises in recording to analogue tape as the first step in the production process and I have to admit the process works spectacularly well for Austin Gold. And now you’re going to ask, quite rightly, what type of music this is.

Well, it’s the kind of music that I heard a lot of in my teenage years. I’ll name the influences, you can work out my age. The influences that immediately spring to mind are bands that combined stunning rock guitar players with slightly more soulful Hammond players like Jon Lord and Vincent Crane. Combine that with classic rock vocal stylings hinting at Paul Rodgers and David Coverdale, riffs-a-plenty, strong melodies and the occasional flurry of twin lead guitar and you’ve pretty much got it covered. And let’s not forget the occasional power ballad to for a bit of contrast.

The album’s opener is a statement of intent, with a killer guitar riff, subtle hints of Hammond and a huge seventies rock vocal. The chorus is massive, but the real highlight is the middle sixteen which launches a guitar solo contrasted with Hammond swirls and flurries; it stands up on its own, but it evokes the mood of seventies rock perfectly.

All the bases are covered; “The Reason” is funky and energetic, the title song hints at the melody and dynamics of Boston, “Home Ain’t Home” suggests Dave Gilmour’s guitar tone and “See the Light” could be early eighties American AOR (remember that term kids) by the likes of Journey or Foreigner. I’m not suggesting that “Before Dark Clouds” is derivative; the band picks out various elements, combinations of instruments, tones, melodies and rhythms that hark back to that era in the early to mid-seventies when all sorts of styles were melding and meshing and cross-pollinating to create new genres.

Bottom line: this album is beautifully played and constructed and it’s a whole lot of fun.

“Before Dark Clouds” is out now on Jigsaw.

 

No, there’s no sign of a cover of The Cascades’ 1962 hit here; it’s all very much contemporary Americana. Amelia White’s style is very distinctive, and this is emphasised by the spontaneous feel of “Rhythm of the Rain”, which was made in four days at a very  turbulent time in Amelia’s life. When she growls ‘Don’t think too much, people’ at the beginning of the title song, you can take a literal interpretation or a sarcastic one. Either works, it just depends wahich song you’re listening to. It’s certainly never going to be described a bundle of laughs, with “Yuma” and “Sugar Baby” dealing with addiction and “Sinking Sun” staring into depression.

The musical stylings are pretty diverse, ranging from the adult-oriented-rock feel of “Sinking Sun” and “True or Not” to the laid-back Crazy Horse feel of “Supernova”. The album has a more raw, rockier edge than last year’s “Home Sweet Hotel”; although “Sugar Baby” opens with a menacing, ”Deliverance”-style banjo and eventually moves through the gears to “Sticky Fingers”-era Stones. Then there’s the title song, with a backbeat, swampy texture, and a sense of oppression and foreboding contrasted with the folky string band styling of the album’s closer which is enhanced by some nice Hammond organ.

There’s one song that stands out, even on an album packed with powerful songs and performances, and it’s a co-write with Lorne Entress and Lori McKenna. The skittering rhythms of “Said It Like a King” make the song feel like it’s rushing uncontrollably towards an unpleasant revelation; I may be looking for examples of this everywhere at the moment, but this song does sound like it might have been partly inspired by the leader of the free world. It’s about bullying and pulls together vignettes featuring a bully on the school bus, a hellfire preacher and a general delivering unpalatable messages which are accepted because each one “Said it like a king”. It’s a very clever lyrical idea, but the kicker comes in the final verse. No spoilers, you have to listen for yourself.

“Rhythm of the Rain” is an intense experience; even the opening song “Little Cloud Over Little Rock”, peeping into the lives of smalltown Americans having their Friday night fling to a soundtrack of Merle Haggard and George Jones is underpinned by the quiet desperation of the line ‘his friends are coming to drink their unemployment down.’ Is the album downbeat? Yep. Fraught? Sure. Compelling? Utterly.

“Rhythm of the Rain” is released in the UK on White-Wolf Records on Friday October 27th.

Amelia will be touring the UK in November. Check out the dates here.

It’s a musical ‘all you can eat’ buffet; a long-time outsider’s view of American popular music exploring some of the high protein meat dishes, but meandering through some of the more delicately flavoured and textured dishes as well. To add to the complexity, it’s a set of songs created by a self-taught musician who also happens to have studied for a popular music degree. Sophistication and raw rock power are both on the menu for this musical feast. On his previous album, “Whatever You Wanted”, Bob Bradshaw saved the best (in my opinion) for last, closing the album with the wonderful road song, “The Long Ride Home”. On “American Echoes”, he opens with the lovely, acutely-observed “Exotic Dancers Wanted”; all of smalltown America is there as he melds Tom Waits with Bob Seger’s “Mainstreet” to create a quiet classic of a song about desperation, drugs, booze and pole-dancing. He even throws in a W.B. Yeats reference.

To keep the culinary metaphor on the boil, “American Echoes” is a smorgasbord of musical stylings, or a pick ‘n’ mix if prosaic is your preference. It ranges all the way from the out and out rocker “Weight of the World”, with its huge riff, two guitars and The Who stylings to the acoustic ballad “Stella” with a Chris Izaak guitar sound and a vocal that’s a dead ringer for Elvis Costello in lower-register ballad mode.

There’s a bit of lyrical invention as well, to match the musical melange. “My Double and I” is a modern take on the Jekyll and Hyde theme matched up with a laid-back New Orleans jazz groove (with a nod towards Steely Dan’s “East St Louis Toodle-oo”), while “Working on My Protest Song” combines the kind of rhythms Paul Simon discovered in Africa with a mildly sarcastic dig at musicians who opportunistically appropriate protest movements for their ends. And the list goes on.

The bottom line is that Bob Bradshaw has produced another very fine album indeed. “American Echoes” is packed with great lyrical and musical ideas and gets better with repeated plays.

“American Echoes” is released in the on UK Fluke Records on Friday October 20.

It’s six years since the release of her debut album, but Ciara Sidine hasn’t wasted that time; on the evidence of her second album “Unbroken Line”, she’s been constructing a fine bunch of songs that tackle contemporary issues with a deftness and delicacy of touch that evokes some of the great popular songwriters of our time. She’s not just an average singer, she has a fabulous voice that will melt the hardest of hearts, going all the way from delicate (almost fragile) to the bluesy raunch and double entendre of “Lemme Drive Your Train”.

The opener, “Finest Flower”, sets the tone for the album with its haunting combination of melancholy pedal steel and upright creating the setting for a song tackling the iniquities of the Magdalene Laundries. It also shows Ciara’s willingness to experiment, using some grungy ambient sounds in the leadup to the guitar solo. Definitely no one-trick ponies here. The songs are strong and varied, the arrangements work perfectly for the subject matter, but the real clincher is Ciara’s voice. Her range is impressive and she makes the most of it. The laconic shuffle of “2 Hard 2 Get 2 Heaven” features the husky lower end, while the fatalistic acoustic piece “Woman of Constant Sorrow” features a high, keening vocal before building up to a menacing slide solo.

The band moves effortlessly between styles from the slow jazzy country feel of “Watching the Dark” to the gospel rockabilly of “Wooden Bridge”, hinting at the vocal stylings of Patsy Cline and Imelda May respectively. “Let the Rain Fall” references the Stax sound, particularly the clipped Steve Cropper guitar sounds and “Take Me with You”, featuring some particularly lovely harmonies, could have found a home on any of the first four Jackson Browne albums.

There are plenty of things to admire about this album; the songs, the settings, the individual playing and of course the superb vocals. The subtlety and gentleness of the stylings allows Ciara to push home some uncomfortable messages without introducing any harsh corners and in that respect, it’s a very nuanced and sophisticated piece of work.

“Unbroken Line” is released on Friday October 6th.

Well, I have to say that the name threw me off course. I was expecting a seventeen stone blues shouter, but I was way off the mark. The core of Big Sadie’s actually two people; Elise Bergman (upright bass and vocals) and Collin Moore (guitar and vocals). They’re from Chicago, they’ve been together about ten years, “Keep Me Waiting” is their debut album and it’s a beautiful piece of work which reveals something different with every listen. It has that intimate feel that comes from recording the songs as if the band were playing a gig.

Elise and Collin have amassed a considerable repertoire of traditional songs, but “Keep Me Waiting” is all about their originals, split absolutely equally between the two. The quality of the songs is exceptional; apart from the instrumental “Anni’s Orchard”, each song is a perfectly constructed vignette where the vocal and instrumental arrangements enhance the message of the song. The opener, “Danny“, gives some idea of what’s to come with a neatly-told story of the ex-lover coming back to town and the futility of trying to recapture past relationships, set in a slow arrangement of banjo, upright bass and mournful fiddle. Oh, and gorgeous harmonies.

The two waltz-time songs on the album, “Before Morning” with Collin’s vocal and “Good Woman” with Elise leading, are given a melancholy feel by fiddle parts as they tell everyday stories of breakups and domestic drudgery respectively; the subject matter may be sorrowful, but the delivery is powerfully uplifting. Choosing standouts is difficult, the whole album is pure quality, but I’ll have a go anyway.

Baby it Ain’t You“, is a slow country song with a powerful lead vocal from Elise and some perfect three-part harmonies in the refrain, and the title track acts as a showcase for the band’s individual and collective talents with the usual nailed-on harmonies and lots of solos. The perfect way to end a live set.

“Keep Me Waiting” is a masterful distillation of traditional playing styles and original songwriting across a wide variety of styles, from the Patsy Cline feel of “Baby it Ain’t You” to the pure bluegrass of the title song. The lead vocals and the harmonies are superb throughout and the band is completely convincing. You really should give it a listen.

“Keep Me Waiting” is released in the UK on Friday September 29th on Spindle Tree Records.

And yet another album from an artist with over fifty years of music-making, including thirty albums, behind him. “Bone on Bone” is his first album in six years and it’s a timely reminder of the quality of his acoustic playing and the depth of his songwriting. You wouldn’t say “Bone on Bone” was an easy listen lyrically; there are apocalyptic visions, environmental concerns and religious references alongside Bruce Cockburn’s robust and assured finger-picking. As good as the songs are, it’s his playing that stands out for me as he moves between standard acoustic, resonator and twelve-string acoustic, even including a guitar instrumental, the title track, finger-picked over a relentlessly repeated single note thumbed in the bass. And, as an interesting little aside for you, the lyric booklet is in English and French although only “Mon Chemin” is actually sung in French. If you know a bit of French, you can pick out subtle additional layers of meaning from the translations – the album’s opening song “States I’m In” translates literally as “My States of Soul”.

The album may be dominated by Bruce Cockburn’s acoustic playing, but that doesn’t mean that it’s predictable with styles ranging from the bluesy and slightly sardonic “Café Society” to the gospel feel of “Jesus Train” and the zydeco rockabilly of “Stab at Matter”. And it’s good to hear flugelhorn player Ron Miles adding some mellow brass voicings to the mix. What about the standouts? Well, “States I’m In” is difficult to beat with its almost-stream-of-consciousness lyrics stretching the song out to nearly six minutes, while “3 Al Purdys” is a vision of a manic street orator offering to recite three Al Purdy poems for twenty dollars.

The subject matter of the album is complex and, unlike our politicians on both sides of the pond, Bruce Cockburn doesn’t try to tell us that there are easy answers. There are lots of religious references, but these are much about the artist exploring his own relationship with his faith, rather than trying to sell a particular vision. “Bone on Bone” is a confident and mature album that doesn’t shy away from exploring complexity and resists easy paths. Recommended for anyone that’s happy to put in a bit of effort to get the most out of an album.

“Bone on Bone” is released in the UK on Friday September 15th on True North Records (TND678).

As good as it is to hear music from new artists, there’s something very satisfying about a new album from someone who’s been around for a while. In the case of Paul Brady, ‘around for a while’ is understating slightly. At the age of seventy and with a career in music spanning over fifty years, he’s someone who knows a thing or two about writing a great song and “Unfinished Business” is exactly the album you would expect from an artist with Paul Brady’s reputation and experience. There are eleven songs: two are interpretations of traditional songs and nine originals which are co-writes with either Paul Muldoon, Sharon Vaughn or Ralph Murphy. It’s a thoroughbred of an album; perfectly proportioned and without an ounce of flab. It’s all about delivering the best possible interpretation of every song. 

What about the raw material, the songs? Well, Paul Brady isn’t resting on his laurels; he’d probably get vertigo if he did. The nine originals here are beautifully crafted pieces of work. I hesitate to use the phrase ‘songwriters’ songwriter’ because of its elitist implications, but Paul Brady’s a master craftsman whose work satisfies the professionals and the fans alike as he glides effortlessly across styles on this deceptively simple but gloriously effective album. And, as if that wasn’t enough, he still has a powerful soulful voice as well. 

The album begins with the title track, and it’s a perfect piece of understatement with some delicate jazzy piano, upright bass and gorgeous harmonies in the chorus with a romantic message. The equally enchanting “Once In a Lifetime” towards the end of the album is in a similar vein, with the addition of some plaintive steel; you won’t hear a better pair of love songs on an album this year. 

But it’s not all love songs on “Unfinished Business”; “I Love You But You Love Him” is a funky take on the ‘opposites attract’ theme, “Maybe Tomorrow” is Celtic-tinged rock while “Say You Don’t Mean” is a pulsing, erudite putdown of a bystander critic. The originals are every bit as good as you would expect from Paul Brady, while the two traditional songs are given fairly modern musical settings, particularly the album’s closer, “Lord Thomas & Lady Ellender” which Paul has apparently been playing live for fifty years. 

One word – superb. 

“Unfinished Business” is released on Friday September 8 on Proper Records.