“The Spirit of God and Madness” is a perfect example of the way music evolves. Viper Central started their musical life as a traditional bluegrass string band, but on their third album they’re pushing the bluegrass boundaries by incorporating some non-traditional elements into the mix. And there’s a pretty clear demarcation as well; the first half of the album features the more experimental material, including the jazzy shuffle of the opening song “Gold Mine” with its honky-tonk piano solo, “Ned Kelly”, dominated by a menacing over-driven harmonica, and the slow, psychedelia-washed, “Say, Say”. That’s before you even get to the manic melange of “Losing my Mind”, blending Mexican trumpets, jazz mandolin and tempo changes.

The second half of the album is, by and large, more traditional, featuring short instrumentals and tales of the frontier era; “I Won’t be Left” tells the story of a young woman who left Ireland for the USA and walked across The Rockies with three young children. It’s open to debate as to whether this collection gels as a complete album but it’s an interesting effort, and that’s the way music develops, morphs and mutates.

“The Spirit of God and Madness” is released on Friday August 4th.

Nik Barrell scrollerWell, it’s an interesting idea, creating an album filled with only cheerful upbeat songs. Not only that, but Nik Barrell decided to record the entire album in one session using only acoustic instruments and no drums. That sounds like a pretty hard sell in world where the term singer-songwriter often means purveyor of melancholy confessionals, so  how successful is Nik Barrell in realising his vision? Well I guess that depends on the point of view of the listener; if you don’t share his vision and you do like a bit of musical misery, then it’s probably not for you. 

Within the limitations he’s set himself, the album works really well. There are slow songs, uptempo songs, the odd one in waltz time and even the raucous “New Orleans” praising the Big Easy in comparison with other American cities. The band, and particularly the female singers, create some sumptuous settings for the songs. And the songs themselves are great musically but the pessimist or fatalist in me finds the relentless cheerfulness just a little bit cloying, particularly on the final song “People are Good”. In fairness to Nik he stuck to his vision and delivered an album full of upbeat songs and if that’s your thing, you’ll probably love it. 

“Growing Peaches in Oxfordshire” is out on Friday July 7.

Pierce Edens - 'Stripped Down Gussied Up' - cover (300dpi)There’s an expression that always rings alarm bells when I read it in connection with musicians: genre-bending. And have you ever heard anyone actually use the expression in conversation? Anyway it manages to insinuate itself in to the press release for the Pierce Edens album “Stripped Down Gussied Up”, which is as contradictory as the title suggests; the arrangements have been stripped back to basics then topped off with a selection of ambient noises and studio trickery. It’s a bit like taking all the bodywork off your car, down to the chassis, then sticking a spoiler on the back end. Pierce has a voice that you might say is original and has character; it’s certainly idiosyncratic and I found it difficult to take over a whole album; you find yourself wanting to give him a bagful of consonants. To give you an idea of what I mean, he manages to out-Waits Tom Waits on his cover of “Mr Siegal”.

There were positives as well; “The Bonfire”, checking in at over six minutes, is powered by relentless, strummed acoustic guitar as the story of a doomed relationship unfolds with a lyrical hint at the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood”. “I Can’t Sleep” runs on the same fuel with the addition of Kevin Reese’s over-driven electric guitar and a quickfire, almost breathless, vocal delivery from Pierce. If you like a bit of aural experimentation and a twisted vocal delivering dark tales of smalltown North Carolina, then this might be just the thing for you.

“Stripped Down Gussied Up” is released on Friday June 2.

1479017278061[1]OK, let’s get this straight upfront; this is a good blues album. It covers a lot of the blues bases; you get slow blues, fast blues, funky blues, hints of gospel and some nice horns here and there. It’s an interesting listen and there’s nothing that makes you want to hit the skip button. It covers a lot of the ground that Robert Cray was covering in the late eighties/early nineties and the comparison stands up fairly well, but there is a problem with that. If that niche still exists, Joe Bonamassa has it well and truly covered and it’s a bit like “Highlander” – ‘there can only be one’. And the blues buffs will no doubt point out exceptions to this but while there are thousands of singer/guitar players out there, there aren’t too many, like the Reverend Shawn Amos, who don’t play.

Having said all of that, if you like your blues without too many rough edges, played and sung with a bit of style and well-written (there are ten originals and two covers, “La Joliet” and “Bright Lights , Big City”), you won’t go too far wrong with this. Standout songs for me were the midtempo shuffle “Hollywood Blues” and the closing gospel ballad “The Last Day I’m Loving You”.

And by the way, he isn’t really a Reverend.

“The Reverend Shawn Amos Loves You” is released on Friday May 19th on Put Together PTM006.

Harrow Fair - 'Call To Arms' - cover (300dpi)Harrow Fair comprises Miranda Mulholland (vocals, violin and percussion) and Andrew Penner (vocals, guitars, drums, piano, bass, organs, synths, vibes, glockenspiel, banjo and percussion); just another Americana duo? I don’t think so. Just one look at the instrumental credits will tell you that. Miranda and Andrew have all the traditional skills for the duo line-up; they play a variety of stringed and percussion instruments, sing beautifully and build great harmonies, but they’re not content to stop at that. “Call to Arms” is experimental Americana. The opening song, “Hangnail”, gives you a few clues to the direction that they’re taking with its overdriven guitar, fiddle refrain and thudding percussion taking a decidedly lo-fi direction. 

As the album progresses there are more unexpected instrument sounds; there are a few songs with some evil distortion on the fiddle sound and “How Cold” has the feel of a Gaelic dirge with a constant drone, but with overlaid synths and some thunderous bass. The disparate elements gel to create a satisfying song. The preceding song, “Harrow Fair Pig Auction” isn’t quite so successful, featuring a recording of two auctioneers overlaid with freeform improvisation, but that’s experimentation for you. Definitely worth a listen for the bending and warping of musical forms.

 “Call to Arms” is released on May 19th on Roaring Girl Records.

 

Madison Violet - 'The Knight Sessions' - cover (300dpi)Brenley MacEachern and Lisa MacIsaac are Madison Violet and they’ve been together since 1999 using the perfect blend of the two voices as the starting point for experiments in musical settings. “The Knight Sessions” is an experiment with different musical settings created with junkshop finds including children’s wooden blocks and old electronics to create interesting sonic textures and ambience without distracting from their powerful melodic songs. Generally speaking it works, creating a hint of spacey trip-hop over the stripped-back instrumentation.

My only reservation is that this approach tends to create a uniformity across the album. There’s an attempt to address this by focussing on the guitars and vocal harmonies in the basic acoustic versions of “Trouble” and “Operator”, which is partly successful. The truly innovative treatment on the album is the roots/Americana dub version of the lullaby “Hush” (also known as “Hush Little Baby” or “Mockingbird”). It’s wonderfully trippy, spacey, disorientating, menacing, and a high point of the album.

“The Knight Sessions” is released on Big Lake Music (Cat. No.471203-2) on Friday May 5 and Madison Violet will be touring the UK in May.

Holy Smoke scrollerBlair Chadwick and Charlie Bateson (Steepways) set out to create an album with the feel of classic seventies singer-songwriter albums and with “Holy Smoke”, it’s mission accomplished. There are nods in the direction of country with “Ghost Walks” and “Pin it on Me”, bluegrass with “Rather be Alone” and even skiffle with “Chaperone” and “The Collector” (which also gives a tip of the titfer to early Kinks). The instrumentation is pure seventies Laurel Canyon with pedal steel and occasional banjo and an occasional glimpse of the classic seventies ornament, the nylon-strung guitar solo. And it’s all done beautifully. The album’s lovely closing song “Dying on the Vine” delicately exposes the evasions of alcoholism, while the lyrics generally lean towards melancholy on a personal scale; life’s minor triumphs and failures. It’s an interesting debut and it reminded me of one artist in particular; Ringo Starr just after the Beatles split. I’d say, on balance, that’s a good thing.

Out on May 5 on Mansion House Records.