Rackhouse Pilfer - 'Love and Havoc' - cover (300dpi)‘Why don’t we open the album with a song about busting out of prison, I mean it worked for Thin Lizzy, didn’t it?”. Well, it certainly did and just as “Jailbreak” set the tone perfectly for the album of the same name, “Dust on the Road” does the same for Rackhouse Pilfer’s “Love and Havoc”. The frenetic banjo and fiddle interplay drives along a tale of freedom or death that’s only resolved with the half-speed coda signifying success. By the end of the song, you know you’re in good hands. Rackhouse Pilfer is an Irish six-piece outfit and, if I can’t use the catch-all term Americana, I’d have to say they play original songs influenced by country, bluegrass and a hefty dose of seventies Laurel Canyon troubadours and another hefty dose of homegrown Irish fun. If you can carry that off, you’ve got something a little bit special and they don’t just carry it off, they heave it into the air and juggle it with one hand. OK, I admit it, we’re a bit behind the curve on this one; it was released in 2014 but it’s just popped up in the Riot Towers inbox ahead of a Rackhouse Pilfer UK tour.

“Another Dirty Joke” rattles along in the same light-hearted way with a theme of drunken and stoned escapism, but it’s not just about the craic; there’s a serious side to the album as well. “Me and a Polar Bear” is an uptempo piece with an environmental theme while “Angela” tells the story of a woman who wants to escape a relationship by murdering her partner. You can hear more traditional string band influences on the slow “A Sailing Song” with its mournful unison fiddle and mandolin and the rollicking “Shady Grove”, which gives all of the players a chance to show off their skills with short solos.

And the Laurel Canyon influence? Well “Two Oceans” evokes early Jackson Browne perfectly; the song, the vocal and even the title could have featured on any of his first three albums. You can hear an Eagles influence in the harmony-laden midtempo country-rock of “Calico Sky” and “I’ll Find a Way” (maybe a hint of Bob Seger’s “Against the Wind” in there as well) and “Bright Lights” could be Bernie Leadon era Eagles.

“Love and Havoc” assimilates a huge number of influences, weaves them into a bunch of diverse and memorable songs and tops the mix off with a touch of Celtic good humour. And I’m willing to bet they do a cracking live show, so maybe you should look out for dates near you on their UK tour.

“Love and Havoc” is out now.

alive in theory scrollerThis combined effort from singer Kirsty Mac, multi-instrumentalists Paul Ayre and Tony Draper, known collectively as Alive in Theory, has a lot going for it. There’s some great playing, the vocal performances are pretty powerful and the songs are mostly pretty strong, so where do we start? At the very beginning, it’s a very good place apparently. Actually the opening song “Alive in Theory” isn’t a bad summary of the album; it’s full of drama, it has a wide dynamic range and a sense of menace. The intro has a feel of “Radio Gaga” and, strangely enough, there’s a little guitar fill which is pure early seventies Brian May. The vocals across the album hint at a Gothic Kate Bush, with maybe a little hint of Kim Carnes in there as well (the eighties drums and brooding synths of “Lightning” have a strong feel of “Bette Davis Eyes”). Now that wasn’t too bad for you was it? But it’s not the whole story because there are a few reservations.

Musically, “Unconditional”, isn’t bad but it demonstrates a few of the album’s downsides. The lyric has a feel of a rhyming exercise that doesn’t convey too much meaning, the vocal is a bit melodramatic and it follows a format that’s repeated through the album of a gradual layer-by-layer build-up of songs. It’s not that any of these things make it a bad album, more that without them, it could have been a better album. Glad we got that out of the way.

On the upside, the driving power of “Bethany” and the combination of distorted guitars and synth sequences works well and would fit in well in a vampire TV series while using an apocalypse as metaphor for a broken relationship in “We Are All Alone” is fairly effective. The album’s closer “The Other Side” stays just the right side of the bombastic line with channel-hopping synths, pumping bass, some Doors-style piano and a final dramatic held vocal note. If you like a bit of drama, musically and lyrically, you’re in the right place.

“Abandon” is released on Friday March 3 on Ultraviolet Records (ULTRA001-2017).

Levi Cuss ScrollerLevi Cuss has quite a back story. He’s lived an eventful life, done things that he regrets and done some time as a consequence, but ultimately it’s all grist to the mill. He’s living a more conventional life now (if writing and performing songs can be called conventional), using some of the experiences from earlier days as material for his songs and using music as a means of redemption. And that’s all very well, but is the music any good? Well, it is, as it happens; the songs are strong and the musical settings are always interesting. Producer Steve Dawson has brought in some vintage (seventies mainly) instruments and soundscapes to bring a sense of historical perspective to the narratives.

The songs are across a range of styles, but the musical settings are firmly rooted in the early seventies; the lively JJ Cale cover “Bring it Back”, a story about bringing contraband across the Mexican border which probably won’t be released as a single in the current climate, is part “Spirit in the Sky” and part Canned Heat’s “Let’s Work Together”. It’s raucous and great fun.

Without sounding derivative, the album is infused with seventies references. The opening song “Red City River” hints at Dylan and The Band, “Cut my Teeth” is country-rock and “Pills” is pedal steel-laced country about the twisted logic of assuming that pills are better than alcohol because ‘Pretty  few songwriting people they take pills’. There are a few songwriting twists, “Saturday Night” is a laid-back, rather than lively take on the party night and “Grandma” is a tribute that celebrates a real life without sanitising it.

And that leaves a couple very interesting songs indeed. “Tecumseh” is a love song with a twist; where a man builds a relationship with the sister he murdered, and the closing song “Utumbo” which recreates a spacey retro synth mix of Pink Floyd and The Animals. It’s quite a way to close out an album that moves easily between retro styles with songs that have a strong autobiographical feel.

“Night Thief” is released on Friday March 10 and Levi Cuss will be touring the UK later in the year.

The Most Ugly Child ScrollerYou’ve heard the phrase ‘Damning with faint praise’. Yeah? The press release for “Copper and Lace” refers to the drummer and bass player as ‘the tightest rhythm section in Nottingham’, which is a bit like saying that they’ve headlined every honky-tonk in Hockley. It doesn’t really do justice to Matt Cutler and Max Johnson who are indeed a very tight and versatile rhythm, confidently changing style and emphasis mid-song to move songs up through the gears. In fact, the playing is perfect throughout with telling contributions from Nicole J Terry (fiddle) and ‘Big’ Jim Widdop (dobro and pedal steel) helping to create an authentic country feel to “Copper and Lace”.

There’s energy to spare as well; the album’s opener, “What Might Have Been”, comes roaring through like an eighteen-wheeler jokingly telling the loser’s story of missed opportunities. It’s a great way to kickstart the album and a contrast to the raw emotions of the beautiful “Just Another Lesson in Pain” and “Roses”, which pushes all the emotional buttons (it even finishes with a brass ensemble playing “The Old Rugged Cross”). It just about stays the right side of maudlin, but the flirtation with the over-sentimental is pushed beyond breaking point with the album’s closing song “My Pony” taking its cue from the tear-jerker ballads that gave country such a bad reputation in the UK in the sixties and seventies. It’s basically “Old Shep” but given an East Midlands mining twist by making a pit pony the subject of the song. Too cloying for my taste, but I can imagine a certain generation crying into their Mackeson as this plays on the jukebox. Maybe the position at the end of the album places too much emphasis on the song.

And that’s a shame because there’s plenty to like on this album. Daniel Wright and Stevie-Leigh Goodison’s vocals are spot-on throughout and there are some interesting modern takes on the standard country themes of drinking, broken relationships and death.

“Copper and Lace” is self-released on Friday February 24.

Mockingbird Soul ScrollerApparently they’ve worked together and been friends for years, Will Kimbrough and Brigitte DeMeyer, and their first duo album “Mockingbird Soul” was the logical place for that friendship and working partnership to go. As a duo, they’re a formidable force; both have outstanding voices and long pedigrees as songwriters and Will Kimbrough has a reputation as a master of pretty much any fretted instrument. If he played fiddle, we’d be comparing him to David Lindley (or maybe he does and he’s kept it quiet). That’s an awful lot of talent shared between just two people. And shared is exactly the right word; the songwriting’s shared in all sorts of combinations (with the exception of the Incredible String Band cover, “October Song”) and the lead vocals are shared. Did I mention the harmonies? They’re gorgeous.

With a few exceptions here and there, this is just about two voices and Will Kimbrough’s array of stringed instruments and harmonica (did I forget to mention that?). It’s not a big production number, it’s all about capturing the magic of two artists working together, doing what they do best and having fun. Brigitte’s the acknowledged singer of the pair and takes most of the lead vocals, sounding equally at home with the gospel feel of the title track and raw acoustic country/soul hybrid of “Rainy Day” which is part Bobbie Gentry/part Dusty Springfield.

The duets, including the opener “Everything”, are close harmony at its very best; the two voices apparently locked together through the melodic twists and turns. The lovely “I Can Hear Your Voice” is a perfect example, the harmonies emphasising the song’s message of wisdom passed on from generation to generation. And there are a couple of Will Kimbrough lead vocals as well, just to show that it’s not just about guitars and harmonies. He has a strong voice in the high tenor range, which has more than a hint of Randy Meisner and works perfectly on the country rock of “Broken Fences” and swamp ragtime of “Running Round”.

The album’s a great demonstration of everything that Will Kimbrough and Brigitte DeMeyer do so well; strong songs across a variety of roots styles, outstanding vocal performances and playing that’s often understated but always superb. Predictably, I’m going to say that you should see them live, and you’re lucky because they’re in the UK to support the album in March and they’ll be playing these dates:

Thursday March 23                         The Kenlis Arms, Barnacre, near Garstang

Friday March 24                               The Argyll Hotel, Glasgow

Saturday March 25                         Haile Village, Cumbria

Monday March 27                          Green Note, Camden

Tuesday March 28                          Kingsmead House Concerts, High Wycombe

Wednesday March 29                    St John’s Church Music Club, Farncombe, Surrey

Friday March 31                              St George’s Hall, Bewdley, Worcestershire

“Mockingbird Soul” is released in the UK on Friday February 17 on BDM Music.

Ags ScrollerIt’s been three years since Ags Connolly released his debut “How About Now”. A long time maybe, but “Nothin’ Unexpected” reflects the work Ags has put in during that time, getting himself out there, playing gigs here and in the States, headlining and supporting, and writing and honing this bunch of songs. It’s an album of interesting combinations; songs influenced by music from across the Atlantic, written and sung by someone from Oxfordshire and recorded in Edinburgh with a bunch of Scottish musicians. And that’s just the start.

“How About Now” was a very good debut album; “Nothin’ Unexpected” is a superb follow-up. The opening song’s a good indication of what’s coming on the rest of the album; the title “I Hope You’re Unhappy” sounds bitter, but the twist in the lyric is that it isn’t bitterness, it’s longing to rebuild the relationship. The album’s full of contrasts like that, on the surface the songs are robust reflections of everyday life, but dig a little bit deeper and they’re full of clever, delicate ideas; “Fifteen Years” would still be a great song it told the story of one relationship, but it’s actually the story of three different interwoven relationships. The deeper you dig, the more gems you unearth.

The songs are pure quality, featuring some regular Ameripolitan themes like the lone drinker, bars in general (with a particularly British twist on “Haunts like This”) but it’s when Ags applies his own poetic twist to songs like “Do You Realise That Now?”, intertwining the idea of his lyrics about a lover being heard a century later and having the same power, with a Latin-tinged arrangement that could have come from “The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle”, that you realise how good he really is.

And while we’re talking about arrangements, the production on the album is flawless. Whether the ideas came from Ags, producer Dean Owens, or the musicians involved, particularly Stuart Nisbet (playing just about every fretted instrument known to man) every song receives exactly the right treatment. Apart from the full band near-rockabilly of “Neon Jail”, the Nashville feel of Loudon Wainwright’s “I Suppose” and the Appalachian string band styling of “Slow Burner”, the songs are generally allowed plenty of room to breathe, with judicious addition of just the accordion on “When the Loner Gets Lonely” and acoustic guitar and vocal treatments of “Fifteen Years” and the album’s closer “I Should’ve Closed the Book”. It’s the perfect demonstration of the power of the songs that they don’t need huge amounts of embellishment to bring out their power.

Well, that’s the difficult second album out of the way.

“Nothin’ Unexpected” is released on Friday February 3rd on At The Helm Records (ATH198214).

DM001_Digi_LR_templateThe more I hear of Martin Harley and Daniel Kimbro, the more I realise how perfect the combination is; it was a good day for fans of real music when these guys first met up. Not only are they supremely gifted individuals, but when they play together the total is much more than the sum of the parts. Martin Harley’s developed a well-deserved reputation as a Weissenborn player, but this album constantly reminds you that he has a cracking blues/soul voice that puts him in the top division of singers in that genre. I don’t think Otis Redding’s too fanciful as a comparison, or maybe Frankie Miller if you want something a bit closer to home. And that’s just Martin Harley; Daniel Kimbro’s a master of his craft as well, plucking, bowing, rasping, slapping and generally coaxing some very interesting noises out of his stand-up bass while backing up Martin’s voice with some sweet harmonies. I don’t often look forward to bass solos, but I make an exception in Daniel Kimbro’s case. Every time.

The songs then; they must be the weak point, no? Afraid not; this isn’t just about showcasing some excellent playing, Martin’s writing’s spot-on as well, pulling in influences from all over the world and melding them into authentic twentieth-century roots music that includes love songs like the Southern soul-tinged “My Lover’s Arms” with its lovely guitar fills running through the song and even some honky-tonk piano, and the poetic “Postcard from Hamburg” with lines like ‘The sky’s crying diamonds’.

The honky-tonk feel of the album’s opener, “One-Horse Town” and the uptempo country blues of “Feet Don’t Fail Me” ease you gently in to the album with some lyrical and instrumental invention before giving way to the homesick blues of “Postcard from Hamburg” and the ominous, louring despair of “Gold” and its escape into a soaring solo. I could tell you more about the wizardry of “Dancing on the Rocks” and the claustrophobic atmospherics of “Mean Old City (Part 2)”. I could go on about how good this album is, how it’s a perfect combination of two players (and singers) at the top of their game, and about the great understanding they have and how I don’t understand why people aren’t raving about Martin Harley, but I have a better idea. Instead of taking my word for it, go out and see them on their tour of the UK, Europe and Canada (details on the Martin’s website). That’s better than any recommendation from me, and then you’ll definitely buy the album.

“Static in the Wires” is released in the UK on Friday February 10th on Del Mundo Records.

Stephen Fearing - 'Every Soul's a Sailor' - cover (300dpi) (1)Do turbulent social and political conditions create a fertile environment for artists? It’s a theory that’s had some support and I suspect we’re about to see and hear a lot more evidence over the next few years. The inauguration hasn’t taken place yet but I’ve already heard a couple of anti-Trump songs. Rita Hosking has replied to the infamous pussy-grabbing comments with a song that suggests a prompt and effective remedy of a toecap to the testicles, and Stephen Fearing’s song “Blowhard Nation” on “Every Soul’s a Sailor” neatly skewers the braggadocio of the president-elect and the motives of his supporters. The Merle Haggard/outlaw country arrangement of the song stands apart from the rest of the album, highlighting the song’s message as a contrast to the gentler themes elsewhere.

Stephen Fearing is a genuinely great singer/songwriter/guitar player with an equal emphasis on all three elements. The lyrical themes of the songs range from the elegaic “Gone but Not Forgotten”, through the melancholy regret of “Red Lights in the Rain” (as powerful an image as I’ve heard for leaving a relationship) to the regret for a passing era of “Things We Did”. The musical stylings are equally varied, from the AOR feel of the opener “Put Your Money Where your Mouth Is” to the raucous, rambunctious rebel stylings of “Blowhard Nation” which has maybe a hint of uptempo Jim Croce stylings thrown in as well. Each song has the perfect arrangement to emphasise its lyrical content and, whether it’s the skiffle/rockabilly feel of “Love Like Water” with acoustic guitar and stand-up bass, to the album’s closer “Every Soul’s A Sailor” with a close-miked vocal, two electric guitars and no bass or drums. It’s an unusual voicing, but it’s just right for the song, and that’s what it’s all about.

This is an album where the standards are high throughout whether you’re interested in well-constructed and inspired songs, evocative arrangements or outstanding vocal performances. There are no weak spots and dozens of highlights.

I’ll leave you with a lyric from “Blowhard Nation” concerning politicians generally:

Make no mistake, when they’re showing you the cake, they’ll never let you eat it now’  We might just be entering a new era of protest songs.

“Every Soul’s A Sailor” is released on Friday February 3rd on LowdenProud Records (LOWD60161)

photo[1]Let’s just say that my preconceptions have been well and truly shaken up. Two songs in to the latest offering from Wille & the Bandits, and I was on the verge of filing it under ‘generic Southern rock/slide guitar’, but we don’t give up that easily at Riot Towers. Actually, there’s nothing wrong with the slide and Hammond (courtesy of Don Airey) of “Miles Away” or the Dire Straits meets Pink Floyd of “Hot Rocks”, with its congadelic breakdown, but they have the feel of a starter before the main course, “Scared of the Sun”, which brings all of the elements at the band’s disposal into play.

The dynamics are perfect, from the quiet intro with gentle keys and to the full-on anthemic chorus. We hear the full range of Matt Brooks’ six-string bass, particularly at the upper end of the register acting as a second guitar part, Andy Naumann’s drums power the verse and chorus along and Don Airey adds some Vangelis-like like sounds to the mix. Meanwhile Wille Edwards is doing his guitar thing (ok, things with electric, acoustic, lap steel, Weissenborn and Dobro) and delivering a vocal that’s as close to very early Bob Seger as anything I’ve ever heard. And here’s the real surprise; it’s a song about global warming. I’m not an expert on Southern ‘rawk’, but I’m guessing that environmental concerns aren’t high on the list of lyrical topics. It’s probably quite a way behind highways, Harleys, guns and Saturday night.

The instrumental inspiration for the album is the American south in the seventies, so the song “1970” should come as no surprise; driven along by drums and a pumping bass, it mourns the passing of that era while extolling its virtues (‘Good times, love and peace’) in a seventies rock style. If the environmental concern wasn’t enough of a shock, there’s a song written from the point of view of a refugee from a war-ravaged country. “Crossfire Memories” begins with quiet acoustic guitar and builds through the addition of a Matt Brooks string arrangement and slide fills to a big slide solo to close out the song; it’s powerful stuff.

The playing is every bit as good as you would expect from the people involved in this album, and it’s worth listening to for that alone, while the presence of some lyrical content that steps out of the usual limits of the genre gives it an undeniable edge. I have a sneaky feeling these guys will sound even better live.

“Steal” is released on Friday January 20th on Jigsaw (SAW 6).

the-grahams-scrollerIt’s a bit of a thing at the moment, the ‘live in the studio’ album, and why not? If you’re good enough and the engineer’s good enough, you’ll have the satisfaction of creating something the way we did in the good old days before that pesky Les Paul invented multi-track recording. And with a bit of luck it might capture a bit of magic that would be lost in a song built up part by part. The Grahams have taken a slightly different direction with the concept; they’ve taken a bunch of songs from their “Glory Bound” album/“Rattle the Hocks” film project and re-recorded them in the studio with some friends, taking the opportunity to rearrange and rework the songs (sometimes more than once). And those friends: well, John Fullbright, North Mississippi Allstars, Alvin Youngblood Hart and David Garza are a pretty good start.

The songs from this collection have already featured on two US albums by The Grahams, but none have been released in the UK in these versions, and I hope you all got that, because I’m not repeating it. Does the idea work? Well, mostly. “Glory Bound” is the obvious opener for the album, introducing the theme of the railroad with its ‘clickety-clack of the train on the tracks’ rhythm, stripped-back acoustic guitar, bass and drums arrangement and harmonies imitating a train whistle. Most of the original “Glory Bound” songs are reworked on this album, with the notable exception of “The Wild One” (for my money the best song on the album) and the gradual build-up of the beautiful ballad “Lay Down” to a massed choir ending, the gospel treatment of “Mama” and the counterpoint vocals at the end of “Blow Wind Blow” are all particularly effective.

The supernatural ballad “Tender Annabelle” comes in a couple of different flavours, first with a mournful, menacing harmonica, electric piano and heavily-reverbed backing vocals, then with New Orleans horns to close the album. There’s a lot to be said for each treatment, although the first appearance of the horns on the rollicking “Kansas City” seems to lack a bit of punch.

Minor quibbles aside, this is an album that’s worth listening to whether you’ve heard “Glory Bound” or not. The songs are powerful however you arrange them, and the live recording process catches some genuine moments of magic.

“The Grahams and Friends (Live in Studio)” is released in the UK on Three Sirens Music Group on Friday January 27th 2017.