Buffy Sainte-Marie, wasn’t she one of those protest singers back in the black and white days?”

‘Yep.’

‘And she’s still around now?’

‘Yep.’

‘So what’s she protesting about now?’

‘Exactly the same things she was protesting about back then. Been lots of fine words spoken and written about indigenous peoples across the world but nothing’s changed. We’re still fighting wars, the environment’s still being exploited by the suits and it’s still acceptable to brush aside Native Americans, Aboriginal Australians and Inuit when there’s a profit to be made. Just look at Standing Rock. Guess Buffy Sainte-Marie’s still as relevant fifty years down the line.’

Buffy thinks so as well. “Medicine Songs” is an album for these times. Some of the songs are over fifty years old and there are only two completely new songs, but “Medicine Songs” is something very special. Buffy Sainte-Marie has taken the older songs, given them new treatments for the twenty-first century and, in her words, ‘put them to work’. It’s just possible that some of them are even more relevant now. The album’s thirteen songs long, but the digital edition (which you get as a download code with the vinyl or CD) has an additional seven songs, so you get twenty songs in total (including two very different versions of “The War Racket”). Where do I start? Well, I’m going to pick a few of my personal highpoints.

The two songs that open the album embody its two main themes. “You Got to Run”, featuring Tanya Tagaq, with a barrage of floor toms and Native American choral backing vocals, emphasises positivity and cooperation, while “The War Racket” denounces the obscenity of warmongers making huge profits from conflicts that they dress up as virtuous interventions. The protest songs make up the majority of the album, but there’s enough of a positive message with songs like “Carry It On” and “Starwalker” and “Soldier Blue” which celebrate indigenous American culture, and the gorgeous, poppy “Fallen Angels”, to add some contrast to the picture.

Of the earlier songs, “My Country ‘Tis of Thy People You’re Dying”, “Universal Soldier” and “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone” are given a sixties/seventies solo acoustic treatment, while “Generation” gets a mid-tempo rock production with a military drumbeat in the breakdown. “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” is transformed into a rock/reggae hybrid with a heavy emphasis on the off beat and a big distorted guitar sound to punctuate the lyrics while “No No Keshagesh” is a huge production with pumping bass, raw overdriven guitars, sampled backing vocals and a lead vocal echoed by synth lines. And, if you’re more at home out on the floor, “Power in the Blood” gets the four–to-the-floor treatment with a huge production built around thunderous bass and floor toms, while “Working for the Government” is a slightly more subtle “Professional Widow”-style reworking; both stylings refresh and reinvigorate the songs. Have a listen for yourself by clicking on any of the links.

If there was ever a time for these songs to be heard, it’s now. Many of them were pertinent at the time of release but considered too controversial for airplay; songs exposing corporate greed, militarism, historical revisionism and the problems still facing the indigenous population in Canada (it’s not specifically referenced on the album, but the CD booklet features a picture from the Red Dress Project). “Medicine Songs” is about as far as you can get from the vanilla choking the airwaves at the moment (that’s a recommendation in itself) and it comes when we most need it. 2018 is shaping up as the year of the protest singer; if it’s all this good, bring it on.

“Medicine Songs” is released on True North Records (TND681) on Friday January 26,2018.

 

Alice DiMicele’s a highly-principled songwriter. She creates songs about the things that matter to her, whether it’s the environment, land rights of indigenous peoples or being in a relationship with an alcoholic. To these powerful themes she adds a wide range of musical stylings to create nine songs (nine song albums, is that a thing now?) that demonstrate a wide range of influences while retaining an organic, rootsy feel. If that wasn’t enough, she has a tremendous voice with a huge range and the ability to work across different styles. All of this and a John Lennon cover to close out the album. Sounds good to me.

As much as I love the elemental, environmental themes of the album, the song that I want to hear again and again is “Lonely Alone”, a poignant ballad that tells the story of life with an alcoholic. It all fits together perfectly, from Alice’s soulful delivery (reminiscent of Etta James’ “I’d Rather Go Blind”) to the Steve Cropper-like crystal-clear guitar solo and even the prominent accordion; there’s not a note out of place. It’s followed immediately by the uplifting “Waiting” with its South African rhythms and a bit of steel pan to add a Caribbean carnival vibe to create a feeling of joy that throws the stark environmental messages into sharp contrast.

Apart from these two songs, the overall sound of the album has hints of The Band (maybe it’s the Hammond B3 and slide guitar) and some interesting string arrangements (on “The Other Side” and “Seeds”) and a lovely stripped-back version of the final song, the album’s only cover. It’s fair to say that “Imagine” isn’t my favourite song, but Alice strips away the overblown elements of the original and, with some delicate finger-picked guitar, harmony vocal and cello; can you believe it, “Imagine” with a cello solo?. It’s only a delicate touch, but the call and response of ‘brotherhood of man’ and ‘sisterhood of woman’ transforms the song completely.

“One with the Tide” is an album full of seemingly effortless performances, thought-provoking lyrics, startling contrasts and superb vocals. Favourite song? Has to be “Lonely Alone” with the perfect soul combination of a sparse arrangement, melancholy theme and Alice’s soaring vocal.

“One with the Tide” is released on Friday January 19 on Alice Otter Music (AO114).

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.