‘High Pine Steeples’ is a love song with a difference. The object of James Combs’ love is California’s redwood groves which and the relationship dates back to the time when he first moved to California. On this song, James is joined by The Well Pennies, Bryan and Sarah Vanderpool, long-time friends from the California scene.

The song portrays the redwood groves as natural places of worship, not just through the lyrical content, but also the way it’s arranged and produced. The arrangement is spare with minimal percussion and lovely harmonies and the production bulks out the sparsity by using a lot of reverb to create a lo-fi and dense texture with instruments and vocals bleeding into each other that evokes both the natural beauty of the trees and the grandeur and claustrophobia of the giant trees; it’s almost a tone poem in triple time. It’s definitely worth investing three minutes of your time on this.

‘High Pine Steeples’ is out now to download and stream.

Here’s the official video for the song:

Why release two singles on the same day? Well, you could equally ask why not. In a week when Taylor Swift holds the top ten positions in the singles chart with album tracks, it’s obvious that the model of releasing a single to trail an album isn’t relevant now. So if you have two cracking tracks ready to go and you’re not creating physical copies, why not just get them out there online and see what happens. And that’s where we are with ‘My Mystery’ and ‘Only Two Ways’.

The core of Great Willow is Erin Hawkins (vocals, and also cello on ‘Only Two Ways’) and James Combs (songwriter, vocal, guitar and piano) joined by Jimi Hawes (bass) and Ed Barguiarena (drums and production), joined by Abby Posner (mandolin and banjo) and Paul Lacques from I See Hawks in LA adding some very evocative lap steel on ‘Only Two Ways’.

The playing on both songs is laid-back and immaculate, evoking the Laurel Canyon artists of the seventies (you can feel the sunshine, which is more than welcome in a British November). Both songs have a country rock feel, but they have other influences shining through as well. ‘My Mystery’, telling the story of a lover’s sudden desertion has overtones of neckerchief rock, with an intro not a million miles away from Ronnie Lane’s ‘How Come’. Erin Hawkins’ vocal emphasises the vulnerability of the deserted lover, particularly when she drops towards the bottom end of her range, while the vocal harmonies add a touch of sweetness.

‘Only Two Ways’ has a very simple message, encapsulated in the first two lines: “Only two ways to go, And one of those ways is back”. James Combs lead vocal hints at Neil Young, enhancing the melancholy and the production then adds a couple of the saddest instruments from the arranger’s palette, cello and lap steel (the latter evoking bird cries towards the end of the song).

‘My Mystery’ and ‘Only Two Ways’ are perfect examples of the songwriter’s art and the arrangements allow the songs to breathe while using subtle fills from the guest players to enhance the mood.

Both singles are out now.

Here’s a video for ‘Only Two Ways’:

It’s always good to review a debut single by a genuine talent. Even in this world of social media overload, Kat as a singer-songwriter is still a fairly well-kept secret (although we did feature her as an up-and-coming talent last year). She’s been doing a few gigs around north London (including a sold-out headline gig at The Camden Chapel nearly a year ago) as she’s been developing songs and preparing for her big launch. The good news is that the big launch is imminent. Here’s a bit of background for you.

Kat’s built a career as a journalist, actor and presenter on London Greek Radio and she’s now exploring the world of songwriting. The great news is that the songs are strong melodically and lyrically and Kat’s voice is striking and powerful. The songs come mainly from a difficult period in Kat’s life, as so many great songs do, although there’s no self-pity on display; Kat’s made of much stronger stuff and she’s coming out fighting. The upcoming EP, featuring this debut single ‘Liar Liar’, is ‘Warrior Heart’, which should give you a clue.

‘Liar Liar’ is uncompromising; it’s a woman taking control of a bad relationship and pressing the delete key; no regrets, no backward looks. Musically, Kat’s been compared to Avril Lavigne, but you could go back further to Pat Benatar and maybe Heart for the raunchy rock arrangement, empowering lyrics and powerhouse vocal.

We’ll share a link to the video when it’s released on Friday; until then, here’s a still from the video shoot:

Copyright Allan McKay 2022

And, if you’re in London you can still get tickets for the ‘Liar Liar’ single launch at Piano Smithfield on Wednesday September 28th. Here’s a link to presave the single.

One of those strange phenomena arising out of the pandemic is that many artists have spent a lot of time writing and maybe even recording but haven’t released too much material. It makes sense to keep the material under wraps while there’s no way of promoting it by touring; now that artists can tour again, there’s a lot of material waiting behind the floodgates and it’s starting to break through now. Banjo player and multi-instrumentalist Mary James (Mean Mary) must have a huge number of songs pushing at the dam; she’s just released the first of two albums of songs and four weeks later she’s releasing the first of four EPs. The albums are being released under her Mean Mary solo identity, while the EPs are under the imprint Mean Mary & The Contrarys with bassist David Larsen and drummer Allen Marshall and have a more electric feel with Mary playing electric guitar, electric banjo and keys in addition to her usual acoustic banjo. Of the four songs on ‘Hell & Heroes (Vol 1), three are co-writes with her mother Jean, while the opener, ‘Penelope Rose’ is a solo effort.

And that’s a good place to start. ‘Penelope Rose’ is driven along in a country-rock style by a banjo riff and a melodic electric bass line as it tells the story of the archetypal criminal woman of mystery who enthrals everyone including the detective sent to bring her in. ‘Fugitive’ combines a relentless driving and menacing arrangement with a pure, clear vocal at the high end of Mary’s as it deals with another folk archetype, the kid who develops an obsession with guns and loves a woman who inconveniently has a lover already. It ends the way you would expect after a musical journey that features over-driven and wah-wah guitar solos and hints of Western film themes.

And while we’re talking about folk archetypes, ‘Seven League Shoes’ taps into the European folklore idea of seven league boots, relating it to the need to keep moving fast in today’s music business in order to stay ahead, or sometimes just to stand still. Mary’s banjo drives the piece along in a country style up to the coda where the change in speed represents the frantic running, even including a stumble, as the piece rushes to a close.

‘Sparrow Alone’, which also appears on Mary’s album ‘Alone’ closes the EP. It’s played in a traditional folk style with instruments that would be more at home on a rock piece, including keys, and it features another folk archetype, the plucky little sparrow small enough to escape the violence of the storm. In the second half of the piece, the band evokes the power of the storm before the closing banjo solo lifts the mood and takes us to a place of survival and renewal.

‘Hell & Heroes (Vol 1)’ is an interesting shift in direction for Mean Mary. The quality of the songwriting and Mary’s playing is as high as ever and the band dynamic creates new ways of interpreting the songs. It’s an impressive start to the project and whets the appetite for the following three volumes.

‘Hell & Heroes (Vol 1)’ is out now on Woodrock Records (WDRK-4304).

Here’s the video for ‘Penelope Rose’:

Our first review of 2022 and we thought we should start with a bit of confusion. Of the two Steve Dawsons that we now seem to feature regularly (because they’re both very, very good at what they do). This is the Chicago Steve Dawson as opposed to the Nashville Steve Dawson; the one who released the excellent “At the Bottom of a Canyon, In the Branches of a Tree” in June 2021. Steve had enough finished songs for a double album but “Canyon” was released as a single album; this left an album’s worth of oven-ready songs that Steve now intends to release as singles and possibly an EP. He’s releasing “A World Without You” to coincide with his British mini-tour starting at the Americana Music Association UK showcase in Hackney on January 25th.

The song is an example of a classic understated arrangement. It’s a simple, slow triple-time ballad, with a traditional four-piece backing given an added soulful edge with a sprinkling of piano and organ (courtesy of Alton Smith) and some lovely descending guitar arpeggios. Steve’s notes on the song tell us that he was aiming for a Merle Haggard feel with the song, but there’s also more than a hint of sixties/seventies Southern soul in there as well, Stax ballads or James Carr, maybe. Lyrically, you can interpret “A World Without You” as a straightforward break-up song, but Steve feels it’s more influenced by the loss of his in-laws. Either way, it’s a beautiful soul/country ballad.

“A World Without You” is released the UK on Friday January 21 on PravdaRecords.

You can see Steve Dawson in the UK at these places and dates in January:

Tue 25               London Hackney Social, AMA UK showcase

Wed 26              Leicester* The Musician

Thu 27               Birmingham* Kitchen Garden Cafe

Sat 29                 Sheffield* The Greystones

Sun 30               Carshalton Cryer Arts Centre

*with The Fargo Railroad Co.

Time for another single, this time from the London-based acoustic folk duo Copper Viper, which is Robin Joel Sangster (vocals and guitar) and Duncan Menzies (vocals, bouzouki and violin), except it isn’t this time because the duo’s a quartet for this release, and they sound very different. The two additional personnel are Issy Ferris (backing vocals) and Archie Sylvester (backing vocals, drums, bass and electric guitar). That’s Ferris and Sylvester, of course, known for their dynamic live performances and Archie’s also the producer for this single.

So this is Copper Viper, Jim, but not as we know it. “Opal and the Bear” opens with an atmospheric, Ennio Morricone-tinged intro, leading in to a first verse that could almost be Copper Viper au naturelle. The first chorus gradually builds to a second verse with the full band and a second chorus with the addition of electric guitar as well. There’s an acoustic solo that’s part Morricone/part Django Rheinhardt before a breakdown into an almost a cappella chorus and a final build-up before an acoustic guitar outro.

This single is dynamic and anthemic and it’s a perfect example of a seemingly unlikely collaboration creating a truly original piece of work.

“Opal and the Bear” is released on Friday January 29th on Under the Bower Records to download and stream.

There’s a music business orthodoxy that new singles and albums are released on a Friday. This is increasingly being challenged, mainly by artists outside the mainstream as new releases are popping up at times that work for the song, album or artist rather than the dictates of the music industry. Abby Posner’sDear 2020” is a perfect example. It’s available as a download or stream so there’s no reason why it couldn’t be released at any time. The song’s theme is saying goodbye to 2020 and was released on December 31st, which is entirely appropriate.

The finger-picked guitar intro and Abby’s voice give “Dear 2020” a rural blues feel, while the addition of a second guitar shifts the song to a more contemporary setting, and the upbeat rhythm creates a positivity that fits the overall mood of the song.

The basic message of the song is positive because Abby’s encouraging us to carry hope with us into 2021. There’s an acknowledgement that, for most of us, 2020 was awful but also that most of us have something to take away from the year (new skills, new friends, new audience) and build on into 2021; I’m totally behind that and “Dear 2020” is perfect accompaniment to a positive start to the year.

“Dear 2021” is out now on download and streaming platforms.

We seem to have an outbreak of singles this year; mostly it’s albums coming through the letterbox or into the inbox, but 2020 has seen a few singles, notably three from Danny Schmidt over the summer and one from Tim Grimm in October. In turbulent times, artists will respond with creativity and these have been turbulent times on both sides of the Atlantic. There’s been plenty to write about from both a social and personal point of view and it’s a challenge that’s been taken up by Danny and Tim, and now Ed Dupas.

Just so you know, I’m a big fan of Ed Dupas; he’s a superb songwriter with a rough-hewn, lived-in voice and a good acoustic and electric player. We’ve reviewed three of Ed’s albums here over the last few years and generally the songs lean towards melancholy and are very personal, with a few notable exceptions (the stunning “Flag”, “Too Big to Fail” and “State of the Nation”); “This Old Heart” is very different. It’s a mid-tempo song with an uplifting cajun feel (with a synthesised accordion sound, apparently) and it’s a song of immense hope.

The song was started at around the beginning of the COVID outbreak and then set aside until it began to reassert its presence several weeks later as a song of renewal and redemption. The pandemic is far from over, but the presidential election might offer some hope of healing. Who knows? It’s certainly an opportunity.

“This Old Heart” opens and closes with symbolic sounds – it begins with highway noise and an engine igniting to represent the start of the journey, builds up from an acoustic intro to a full band sound, and closes with a heartbeat. What happens in between is the shift from a time of no hope (‘It’s been a long night for a long, long time’) to a future where we might just be able to help each other along. I’ll raise a glass to that.

Check out Ed’s website as well. In addition to the regular music site items, there’s also a blog featuring Ed’s thoughts on many other subjects, which is thoughtful and fascinating.

“This Old Heart” is released in the UK on Friday November 20th.

I’m fascinated by the way current affairs are reflected in the arts generally and music in particular. The last few years have seen the resurgence of the protest singer and the protest song and, to use pandemic terminology, in 2020 the resurgence has been exponential as the time approaches when America has to make another choice of President and the majority of creatives are making it clear where their support lies. The trajectory of Tim Grimm’s trilogy of Trump singles (“Woody’s  Landlord”, “Gonna be Great” and “Gone”) reflects the response of many of the many American artists I’ve seen or heard over the last four years – from amusement at Trump’s candidature, through disbelief at the election result to horror and despair at results of four divisive and confrontational years.

“Gone” is where the rope runs out, in the middle of a botched response to a pandemic and the most unprincipled and vicious American presidential election campaign in living memory. This could have been a very angry song, but Tim takes a different path. “Gone” emphasises the despair felt by some Americans at the state of their country. It would have been very easy to push the highly emotive buttons, but Tim doesn’t do that, musically or lyrically. “Gone” is a sparse, slow, unshowy country-rock arrangement with lyrics that are allusive; no names are mentioned although we know it’s about Trump and we know that ‘And the man who brought us Paradise has laid down his guitar’ is about the loss of John Prine.

Subtlety is crucial here, probably as a deliberate contrast with the methods of POTUS. We don’t need to have everything hammered home in detail; we should be able to connect the dots and see the patterns ourselves. It’s an important message in an era where aggressive confrontation seems to be the accepted norm and it’s a welcome respite.

“Gone” is out now on Cavalier Recordings (CR255931).

And here’s the video:

Occasionally, just occasionally a song can be so powerful and visceral that it strips away my natural instinct to ‘give it another listen or two’ before trying to write about it. Danny Schmidt has already done that to me a couple of times this summer with his two ‘state of the nation’ singles, “A Prayer for the Sane” and “2020 Vision”. After listening to the new single “Black & Blue” once, I’m ready to tell you that it’s something you need to hear.

Danny, inspired by the very early civil rights campaigner and escaped slave, Frederick Douglass, looked at the American constitution as a work in progress and, in the light of the George Floyd murder, assessed how far the USA still has to go; it’s a long way. Danny wrote and recorded the song at the end of June and released it on July 4th. On its own, the song is forceful and emotive, but the images Danny has put together for the lyric video ram the message home that this annual review is far from satisfactory.

“Black & Blue” is a heart-rending indictment of the state of affairs in the land of the free today and it’s out now. Don’t take my word for it, just watch the video: