How’s everyone doing? We’re almost a third of the way through the year now and it’s about time to look at how things are shaping up and to give you some news about the direction we’re taking here at MusicRiot. Over the years we’ve evolved from reviewing everything that popped through the letterbox (and now it pops in to the inbox) to our current approach of only reviewing things that we really believe in and want you to hear (and there’s plenty of that to keep everyone busy at Riot Towers). And we don’t like negativity; you can get enough of that in the NME or letters/comments pages of the specialist music magazines and websites. So, if you think there aren’t many one or two star reviews, that’s the reason. There’s so much good music out there that we want to focus on, whatever the genre.
And we’re having a pretty good year so far. Of the 2017 predictions, Ags Connolly has released a very good and critically-acclaimed second album, Stone Foundation signed to 100 Per Cent records and charted nationally at 25 with their “Street Rituals” album, Sound Of The Sirens have their album “For All Our Sins” released at the end of May on DMF Records and they’re playing the Fields of Avalon stage at Glastonbury. Hannah Aldridge’s stunning second album “Gold Rush” is out on June 16, and Dean Owens has delayed the release of his latest album “Southern Wind” until (probably) early 2018 to focus on yet another side project named Redwood Mountain with traditional fiddle player Amy Geddes. Watch this space for more on that one.
As for MusicRiot, we’re going to launch a new review feature very soon called “Sound Bites”, where we take a brief look at albums and singles that are interesting and worth listening to but don’t quite get the full review treatment. No star ratings, no judgements, just a recommendation to give it a listen.
That’s about it for now. Keep your eyes, ears and mind open and check out our Facebook page to find out what we’re up to.
It’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).
2016 brought more than its fair share of challenges but also a respectable amount of great music, live and recorded. With 2017 knocking on the door, this is probably a good time to start looking forward again. I’m not making any rash predictions this year; I’m just going to highlight a few things that you should look out for.
Ags Connolly has his second album, “Nothin’ Unexpected”, out in February and I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy. It’s produced once again by Riot Towers favourite Dean Owens (more about him later) and it should capture Ags in fine form, delivering his fine Ameripolitan songs in his rich, smooth baritone voice. Since his debut “How About Now”, Ags has been touring extensively in the UK and across the pond, including a high profile support slot for Rosanne Cash in 2014 and he’s never been on better form. We should be reviewing this one very soon.
These guys have been working their butts off for years now pursuing their new soul vision with a combination of hard work on the gig circuit to build up a devoted following and release some quality albums. They’ve raised their profile year on year and been rewarded with a record deal for their upcoming album. Each of their albums has been a progression from the previous one, so this one should be a bit special. They also have a reputation for attracting some interesting special guests, so we’re eagerly anticipating this one.
I know, this starting to sound like a broken record (whatever that is), but you really should be listening to Hannah Aldridge. Like many artists, she’s gone down the crowdfunding route to get her new album made. It’s her second, following her superb debut “Razor Wire” and Hannah tells me that the style has shifted towards a more rock sound (she did a lot of the writing using a Telecaster rather than an acoustic) and from the songs she’s played live already, it sounds like another outstanding album’s on the way, with an eta of June 2017.
Dean Owens – “Southern Wind”
Another example of 2016 crowdfunding; Dean Owens wrote most of the album before raising the money to record it in Nashville with his dream team, including producer and guitar player extraordinaire Will Kimbrough. Dean’s been working incredibly hard, over the last couple of years particularly, to get some attention for his songs and he’s been rewarded by national exposure from Bob Harris and a support slot for Rosanne Cash. Here’s hoping “Southern Wind” pushes him into the mainstream.
Sound of the Sirens second album
Oh god, he’s not still going on about Sound of the Sirens, is he? I am, and like everyone else featured here, the reason is that they’re very good. Despite playing just about every festival in the UK this summer, Abbe and Hannah still found time to record an album. I’ve tried to get some details, but the Sirens are staying schtum, apart from the fact that it’s a bit different. If the new songs I’ve heard live are any indication, it’s going to be very good. Onwards and upwards. 2017 here we come.
Ags is a regular contributor to this feature, bringing a unique Ameripolitan twist to the proceedings. We always like to hear what he has to say about music in general, so here are some of his favourite things from 2016. Oh, and by the way, Ags has his second album coming out in February and it’s produced that other Riot Towers favourite Dean Owens.
In no particular order…
Show w/ Jack Grelle and Ryan Koenig at Off Broadway, St. Louis MO, 28th February
In February this year I undertook a US tour with a full band, including co-headliners Jack Grelle and Ryan Koenig. Jack and I toured the UK and Ireland in 2015 so this was the ‘return leg’ for me. The band included Jack’s bass player Brice Baricevic, Pokey LaFarge’s drummer Matt Myer and Ryan himself, who is also an integral part of Pokey’s band as a multi-instrumentalist sideman. Jack played lead guitar when I was on stage. Needless to say the band were superb and over the course of 16 dates around the South and South East we honed our act until the final show of the tour – a homecoming for the band at Off Broadway in St. Louis. A nice crowd turned up including the other members of Pokey’s band (and the man himself) and we played our tightest and most enjoyable show of the tour. Probably one of my favourite gigs ever, in fact. I hope I’ll have the chance to play with these fellas again.
Jack Grelle – “Got Dressed Up To Be Let Down”
Speaking of Jack, in October this year he released his second studio album (under his current solo guise). It may seem biased for me to include this in an end-of-year list but, having played countless shows with Jack and heard these songs many times, I think I’m well-placed to say whether they stand up to scrutiny or not. And they do. Along with the title track and all the other country/honky tonk/Cajun etc. sounds on this album, I love the song “Birthday Cards” about his Grandmother, which he’d mentioned to me during its writing. It could’ve been written by John Prine or any of the great country singer-songwriters you care to mention. Listen and find out.
Luke Bell – “Luke Bell”
Luke is a guy I discovered a while ago, and later found out, as coincidence would have it, that he is a friend of Jack Grelle’s. His self-titled album released this year includes some of the songs that featured on his previous effort ‘”Don’t Mind If I Do”, presumably to ensure they reached a wider audience. Luke has one of the most engaging and natural sounds of all the new breed of country traditionalists. I was due to meet up with Luke in Nashville last year but he was too busy opening for Willie Nelson. If there is any justice he’ll be kept busy like that for a good while.
Mo Pitney – “Behind This Guitar”
It’s not often the current young darlings of the modern Grand Ole Opry would make it onto any positive list of mine, but Mo Pitney is an exception. A young, skinny -as-a-rake lad in his early twenties, Mo is unquestionably the heir apparent to Randy Travis, Alan Jackson and every other neo-traditionalist that was left in the dust by pop music. His voice and the songs he’s put together with other excellent writers demand attention. His first album has been a long time coming but was worth the wait.
Robbie Fulks – “Upland Stories”
Robbie Fulks’ last album, “Gone Away Backward”, was one that grew on me and became one of my favourites. In fact, a lot of Robbie Fulks’ albums are my favourite albums. 2005’s “Georgia Hard” is a case in point. With “Upland Stories” Robbie revisited the sparse arrangements of “Gone Away Backward” and mixed it with his always exceptional songwriting. It was recently announced that this album has been nominated for two Grammy Awards, a better-late-than-never slice of recognition that will hopefully bring a new audience to this songwriter’s songwriter.
Ags is way too polite to mention this, but his second album “Nothin’ Unexpected” will be out on February 3rd on At The Helm Records.
One of our Riot Squad favourites has been incredibly busy this year. Dean Owens has playing gigs around the country, solo and with his band The Whisky Hearts, but that’s just the start of it. He’s been in Nashville recording a new album with his old collaborators Will Kimbrough and Neilson Hubbard and playing some gigs. The album’s well on the way to being ready and he’s launched a crowdfunding appeal on GoFundMe to cover the costs of travel, recording and accommodation costs. Have a look at the GoFundMe page and see if you think you can pitch in with a few quid; every bit makes a difference.
But that’s not all. He’s been producing the second album for his Drumfire Records label-mate Ags Connolly (who hasn’t exactly had a quiet year himself) and putting together a deluxe edition of his previous album “Into the Sea”, with four new songs, “Alison Wonderland”, “Cotton Snow”, “Forgotten Shadows” and “Keep Me in Your Heart”. And still only a tenner.
You can catch him live before the end of the year in the following places:
Sunday October 30 Green Note, London
Friday November 18 The Live Room, Saltaire
Sunday November 20 The Maze, Nottingham
Friday November 25 Drygate Brewing Company, Glasgow, (with The Whisky Hearts)
Friday December 2 The Tolbooth, Stirling
Saturday December 3 The Weem Inn, Aberfeldy
Monday December 12 Traverse, Edinburgh (with The Whisky Hearts)
And there’s a new single, “Virginia Street”, out at the moment:
The next contributor to 2015’s High Fives is on one of my favourite independent UK labels, Drumfire Records, along with Dean Owens and Phil Burdett. Ags Connolly has had a pretty good year as word has spread about his 2014 debut “How About Now” and he’s played just about everywhere. As Ags hasn’t said anything about this in his contribution, I’ll just mention that he supported Rosanne Cash and John Leventhal in Leeds earlier this year.
I’d already been enjoying Doug’s album “Down to The River’” so I was glad to see his UK debut would be at Southern Fried, a few hours after my set opening for Dean Owens. Doug’s live show was, in my view, even better than his star-heavy, Nashville-produced album. An interesting line-up of bass, drums and fiddle behind vocal and guitar gave a surprisingly big sound and Doug’s vocals were excellent. Doug is absolutely huge in Sweden and I tried to persuade him and the band to try the rest of the UK soon. Let’s hope they do.
I’ve been aware of John Moreland since his album “In the Throes” began to bubble under in 2013. He is easily one of the best new songwriters I’ve heard in years. I was excited to hear his new effort, “High on Tulsa Heat” and it didn’t disappoint. It’s filled with strong melodies and excellent lyrics. I do think his previous album was marginally better, but that’s a bit like comparing a massive box of sweets with another massive box of sweets. Looking forward to seeing John open for Jason Isbell over here in January.
In February I made my first trip to the Grand Ole Opry and I picked a pretty good date. A country radio seminar was keeping a lot of the more modern acts busy that week so we were treated to a show including older legends such as Ralph Stanley, Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs, John Conlee, Bill Anderson, The Oak Ridge Boys and Jim Lauderdale. It was a very enjoyable experience and showed, reassuringly, that country music as we used to know it is still alive in some corners of Nashville.
Justin Trevino – “Sings Johnny Bush”
If you put a gun to my head and asked me to name the best traditional country singer alive today I’d say Justin Trevino. I’d probably say it without the gun, to be honest. This new album of him singing songs he learned from his hero, Texas legend Johnny Bush, is possibly his best. The opening track is the self-penned “One Night at a Johnny Bush Dance” and it fits perfectly with classics like “Whiskey River”. Trevino is about as staunchly traditional as you can get, and this album is one of my favourites this year.
This October I had the pleasure of hosting and playing two shows with Ohio/Kentucky artists Jeremy Pinnell and Max Fender (lead singer of the band Alone at 3am) on their UK and Europe tour. I was already a fan of both guys but seeing them live was special. Jeremy reminded me of Guy Clark while Max was somewhere between Jon Dee Graham and REM. Both deserve a wider audience and I hope they make it back soon: credit to their road manager and label owner Mike Montgomery for getting them over here this time.
Two of Allan’s High Five albums this year were released on Drumfire Records so it was a ridiculously obvious choice to ask the owner of the label (and live music promoter) Phil Penman to contribute to this feature. Once again, we got some really interesting choices.
When Allan ask me to contribute to High Fives, I thought that it would be easy – just pick five albums, I thought. But I wracked my brains and (not including Drumfire Records releases) I could not come up with a single 2014 album I thought was truly ‘great’. A dozen or so ‘good’ albums but nothing to change my life. Maybe I just haven’t found them yet. So what did excite me in 2014?
The Sound – “Box Set #1” (“Jeopardy”, “From the Lion’s Mouth” and “All Fall Down”). Privileged to work on this and truly delighted with the results, and even happier to be working on a second box set for Feb 2015 release. Adrian Borland is sadly missed. The music from this great band has really stood the test of time. Consistently high standard.
Not from 2014, but new to me. John Grant – 2 albums of enormous beauty that I’ve listened to more than any others: “The Queen of Denmark” and “Pale Green Ghosts”. It was hearing these that made me realise how much I crave music that is new to my ears and not just the latest in a succession from artists I already know and love.
Great to see local boys The Carnabys release their debut album “No Money on The Moon”. Great hard working lads, winners of Hard Rock Rising and an album that really exudes the energy and honesty they deliver live. These boys perform with smiles on their faces, which is so refreshing – not po-faced, earnest trying-too-hard-to-be-trendy. Not ground-breaking perhaps, but if you get a chance, see them live. With the right breaks they could be huge. Accessible rock.
Proving that quality can go on and on, the only time this year when one song had me running to the shop to buy the album. Half Man Half Biscuit’s “Westward Ho! –Massive Letdown” was that song. “Urge for Offal” is a good album, which also contains my lyric of the year: ‘‘Cresta! What the fuck were we drinking?!’
Ok, so I couldn’t not mention it. Drumfire released two albums in 2014 and both made Allan McKay’s High Five. We made our first ever piece of vinyl – Ags Connolly’s ‘How About Now’, we hosted great shows with Dean Owens, Martin Stephenson, and Clive Gregson…. but my favourite thing? Phil Burdett’s launch show in Westcliff. I’d only ever seen Phil perform solo. The launch show with full band made me fall in love with his music all over again. World, you don’t know what you are missing.
In parting, I’ll add that I’ve really tried to find new music, and the following half a dozen albums definitely deserve honourable mention (and barely a country album in sight): FKA Twigs, Future Islands, Sturgill Simpson, Royksopp, Strands Of Oak, Honeyblood.
We loved Ags Connolly’s debut album here at Riot Towers. We’re partial to a bit of country (or Ameripolitan to be more accurate) and “How About Now” is a great album. For our High Fives feature, Ags shares his favourite recorded and live moments of 2014.
It’s been a huge year for Sturgill, with coverage in every major newspaper and US TV show propelling him to the high end of cult status. This gig was before all that though, in front of 30-40 people in a tiny church. Sturgill played solo and his voice and guitar were laid gloriously bare. I met Sturgill twice later in the year, and he proclaimed this gig to be one of his favourites. I of course agreed.
John Fullbright – “Songs” album and live at St. Albans Church, Oxford.
I’ve been aware of John Fullbright since his Grammy-nominated debut “From the Ground Up”, and this follow-up has taken him to a higher level in my view. His songwriting is incredibly mature and rounded for someone so relatively young. He reminds me of Randy Newman which is about as good as it gets in my view. The show of his I caught in Oxford was one of the best gigs of any type that I’ve seen in years.
There are a reassuring number of genuine, authentic country acts emerging at the moment, and JP Harris is at the head of the pack, having released his first album in 2011. This follow up is a full-on honky-tonk gem which deserves a bigger audience. Not a dull moment.
“Steering Me Away” album -- Jack Grelle
On the subject of real country artists who deserve a wider audience, Jack Grelle from Missouri made a terrific album this year. Having previously made old-time country /folk albums, Jack has decided to go hillbilly and the results are superb. Even if this album wasn’t great it would be worth checking out for the unexpected saxophone on “Chase You ‘cross This Country” alone.
“Daylight and Dark” album -- Jason Eady
Earlier in the year I named this my favourite album of the first half of 2014. It’s a concept album in the vein of ‘Phases and Stages’, but it stands on its own two feet. Another artist who deserves wider acclaim, Jason Eady has been around for a while but I think this album will be considered his best work so far.
So, purely in alphabetical order (by album title) because there’s no way I’m trying to rank these in order of preference. They’re all very different and I can recommend any one of them to any real music fan; these are my five favourite albums of 2014.
Phil Burdett’s latest album (on Drumfire Records) was a complete surprise for me. I’d heard Phil play a solo acoustic set a couple of years ago on a night out with the Riot Squad, but this was a completely different beast. “Dunfearing…” is the first part of the “Secular Mystic” trilogy, which should be completed with the release of parts two and three in 2015. It’s an album that sounds gorgeous; you could just sit and let its mix of folk, rock, country and a bit of jazz wash over you, but a little bit of extra effort and careful listening brings out all of the detail that Phil and the musicians have packed in to it; and there’s a lovely tribute to the late Jackie Leven. After reviewing the album, we also managed to grab an interview with Phil during the summer, which is a fascinating insight into a great songwriter.
By sheer coincidence, also on Drumfire records, was the debut album from Ags Connolly, “How About Now”, which is now also available in a lovely limited edition vinyl pressing. Ags is based in Oxford but his roots are deep in the American South and his genre is a country offshoot known as Ameripolitan. He takes the outlaw attitude of artists like James Hand, Willie Nelson, Johnny Paycheck et al and gives it a personal twist with some very poignant songs. The album was produced in Edinburgh by his Drumfire labelmate, Dean Owens, and works well with full country band arrangements as well as the powerful solo acoustic guitar backing of the closing song “How About Now” (which was a genuine one-take recording).
“New York Horns” – New York Horns
I know; you’re surprised that I’ve picked a jazz album. Truth is that I love to hear a good horn section, and most horn players away from the day job like to stretch themselves with a bit of jazz. The horns in question are John Isley (saxophone), Chris Anderson (trumpet) and Neal Pawley (trombone), better known as the horn section of The Asbury Jukes, aided and abetted by Jeff Kazee (keys) and Glenn Alexander (guitar). There isn’t a bad, or even a mediocre track on the album and with moods ranging from the blues of “Strollin’ with Sean” through the evocative, mellow “Morningside at Midnight” to the 24-carat soul of “Can’t Stand to See You Cry”, there’s something for everyone.
And continuing on the soul theme, how about some genuine home-grown English West Midlands soul? Stone Foundation has been steadily building up a devoted following for about ten years now, but “To Find the Spirit” may turn out to be the game-changer for them. The band takes influences from all over the soul spectrum to create a sound very much of this century but which appeals to very disparate groups of fans. The album grabbed me from the first few bars with the Hammond and horns intro of “To Find the Spirit” and impressed from start to finish. After 10 months (and seeing the band live three times), the standout song is definitely “Don’t Let the Rain”, driven along by Neil Sheasby’s slinky bass groove but, again, there’s no filler here.
Now the reason this one’s here is that Pete Kennedy (one half of one of my favourite groups, The Kennedys) decided to pay tribute to the pioneers of the electric guitar prior to the rock ‘n’ roll era; the guys who had grab the interest by using technique and melodic invention rather than volume and a thudding 4/4 beat. Pete is a superb technical musician and “Tone, Twang and Taste” is so obviously a labour of love; every song is played with immaculate attention to detail and they all sound like they were great fun to do, particularly Pete’s ukulele version of “Rhapsody in Blue”. The commercial possibilities for this album were always very limited, and that’s one of the reasons I admire Pete so much for producing something that made me smile from start to finish.
You can read the original reviews of these albums on the site complete with all of the links to the songs on Spotify or Youtube; just type the title into the search box and you’re away. Go on, have a listen; they’re all great albums.
Earlier this year I reviewed Ags Connolly’s excellent first album, “How About Now”, which was produced by Dean Owens. The album opens with “When Country was Proud” and it’s a pretty good choice as the lead track for the EP as well; it’s very accessible (if you have the slightest leanings at all towards country music, you’ll be singing along) and it’s a manifesto for Ags and the Ameripolitan movement generally. The song harks back to the glory days of country with references to Johnny Paycheck, David Allen Coe, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Hank Snow, contrasting the outlaws with the sanitised state of modern popular country, and it’s difficult to disagree. On an album that’s absolutely packed with great songs, this one stands out as a single.
The remaining two songs on the EP are from a solo session Ags did for Resonance FM earlier this year. “She Doesn’t Need Anyone Anymore” is a slow ballad about losing touch with a good friend, while the more uptempo “Trusty Companion” with its 60s sounding sus4 chords is a more hopeful look at relationships and possibly a companion piece to the album’s beautiful closing song “How About Now”. It’s interesting to hear these stripped-down live versions because they highlight the strength of the songs; if they work in that format, there’s no doubt that they’re good. The format also shows that Ags has a truly great voice for country music; with only an acoustic guitar for backing he sounds flawless.
The single is certainly worth adding to your collection for the live session, but if you really want to treat yourself, get your hands on the 180g vinyl version of the album which is released on Monday November 10.
“When Country was Proud” is out now on Drumfire Records.