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:

2020’s been a funny old year for album releases. It’s difficult for artists to decide what to do with their new material; postpone and wait for the opportunity to tour in support of the album or take advantage of period when there are fewer albums to compete with. Or maybe after the album’s complete, there’s an urge to just get it out there. “Falling Away from Me” was released across the pond in February 2020 and presumably the intention was to release it here to coincide with a summer tour. And along came COVID. Whatever the reasoning, after a lengthy musical apprenticeship covering many different countries, Sandra Bouza has decided to release her first album, “Falling Away from Me” in October 2020.

It’s an album that proudly displays its creator’s influences throughout. There are elements of pop, jazz, blues and rock, but the foundation of the work is its tight funk rhythms created by the understated combination of guitar, bass and drums with occasional seasoning of keyboards, a sample or a piece of electronica. Without ever sounding derivative, the album hints instrumentally and vocally at a number of artists; more on that later. The individual stamp that defines the album, is the highly personal and confessional lyrics of the eight songs, dealing with bad choices in lifestyle and relationships. It’s an album of funky torch songs.

The mid-tempo jazz-blues of “Not Like Me” is a nod in the direction of Robert Cray’s “Right Next Door”, which features not only a powerful lead vocal, but some lovely layered and ethereal backing vocals as well, while “Stone Junction” is a bit more robust with a punchy bassline and some clipped Steve Cropper-like guitar backing up a tale of misplaced nostalgia for a corrosive past. “Human Connection” has some electronic percussion and a pumping bassline that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Pet Shop Boys song and the backing vocals towards the close are reminiscent of Clare Torry on “Great Gig in the Sky”.

The songs demonstrate Sandra’s vocal versatility across a range of dynamics; at times she has a hint of Chrissie Hynde, “Losing You” has the delicacy of Judie Tzuke and the highly personal closer “Wrong Songs” is a nod towards Sade; there’s even a touch of Ella’s scat singing towards the end.

The album is a strong collection of songs pulled together with an autobiographical thread that gives Sandra Bouza an opportunity to demonstrate her vocal and songwriting abilities and it certainly achieves that goal. When things get back to whatever the new normal is, I’ll be keen to see Sandra Bouza playing live in the UK.

“Falling Away from Me” is released in the UK on Friday October 30th on Sabucedo Records (SB003).

 

The last album from Scott Cook to hit my inbox was 2016’s “Go Long”, which shone a beam on the more light-hearted side of Scott’s songwriting. He described it as ‘a bunch of silly songs’, which didn’t entirely do it justice, because it had its serious moments and it was actually a great bunch of songs, whatever the flavour. “Tangle of Souls” is a very different proposition; it was written following a brush with the reaper and reflects the re-evaluation following that experience as well as other, happier, life events. Also, Scott Cook’s a philosopher and an idealist; it shouldn’t be surprising that there’s a sprinkling of social comment on the album as well. There are a lot of targets out there in 2020 and Scott firmly sets his sights on quite a few of them.

Let’s just take a step away from this particular album for the moment to look at albums in general. There’s a school of thought that the album is dead (particularly in CD form) and that a series of singles is the best way to capitalise on your work. Which might work if you rely on streaming or downloads for income; for artists who tour a lot in smaller venues an album or EP to sell at the merch desk is a great way to generate income without the hassle of distribution. What Scott has done with this album (and, to a lesser extent 2017’s “Further Down the Line”) is to go back to an earlier time when the music was only part of the album-buying experience. If you’re of a certain vintage, you’ll remember buying the album and checking out the artwork, credits, sleeve notes and lyric sheets, probably on the bus home. It built up the anticipation before you got the chance to play the album. What Scott’s done with “Tangle of Souls” takes this a few stages further. The album includes a two hundred and forty-page booklet which includes credits, lyrics, chords for the songs, the inspiration behind, and explanation of the songs and some of Scott’s biographical, historical and philosophical writings. It’s even printed on specialist paper with hand-drawn artwork. That’s got to be better than a thumbnail of the artist as you listen to a stream or a download (and yes, I did read all of it, it would have been rude not to).

So to the songs. There are twelve of them and each one of them is memorable, and several of them, for me, are classics. “Just Enough Empties” contrasts a gentler, not-too-distant past, with a lonely and alienated present through one person’s journey down a road of innocence, awakening, degradation and redemption linked by the practical idea of glass bottle recycling; it’s a beautifully-crafted song. “Say Can You See”, with the obvious reference to the “Star-Spangled Banner” in the title, is built around a string band arrangement and is Scott’s most overtly political song so far. It’s political, but in a non-partisan way; the message is that virtually everyone on the Hill (Republican or Democrat) is the enemy of the working people and that draining the swamp should actually flush away all of them (‘It ain’t about right and left, it’s about right and wrong’). Those two songs alone would make this a five-star album for me, but there’s even more.

“Passin’ Through” was written by Dick Blakeslee in the forties and it’s one of those songs that lends itself to verses being changed or added. The narrative structure could have inspired the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil”; Jagger says it was something from Rabelais, but he would say that, wouldn’t he? Scott adds his own verse to the song with a tribute to Victor Jara, the Chilean activist beaten and executed by Pinochet’s thugs in the Santiago Estadio Nacional in 1973. This song attracted my attention even more because, coincidentally, the Manic Street Preachers’ James Dean Bradfield has recently released an entire album dedicated to Victor Jara (“Even in Exile”). It’s worth checking that out as well.

The last of my personal picks is “What to Keep”, a slow piece that interweaves the personal and political in an exploration of the physical and mental baggage that we carry with us as individuals or as nations. The message is that there are always things that weigh us down that we should cut loose to lighten our load, whether it’s personal memorabilia or inappropriate public commemorations of bygone eras; the less you carry, the easier it is to move forward. The remaining seven songs and one instrumental are all superbly crafted and delivered, and packed with interesting and thought-provoking ideas, but I’d like you to listen to some of the album without the dubious benefit of my opinion.

“Tangle of Souls” is an important work from the wider Americana scene this year. It’s a deeply-considered view of individuals and society twenty years into the twenty-first century; the narratives aren’t necessarily cheerful, but the overall message is positive, in line with Scott’s personal outlook after some challenging times (which you can read about in the book).

“Tangle of Souls” is released in the UK on Friday October 9th.

Mean Mary (Mary James) is a renowned multi-instrumentalist and banjo virtuoso, but that only scratches the surface of her talent. She’s also an accomplished songwriter, working on her own and with her mother Jean James (who co-wrote half of the songs on the album). “Alone” is Mean Mary (spoiler alert, I‘ve met her and she’s not really mean at all) actually alone with her banjo, guitar and banjitar, which is exactly what you think it is. The title works on several different levels; it’s a solo performance, but it’s also about the loneliness everyone has been experiencing in recent months and the loneliness of the hard life of a touring musician. Before you get the impression “Alone” is a gloomfest, it has its lighter moments, musically and lyrically.

Mary’s sense of fun shines through in a couple of adaptations of traditional tunes. The blues “Nine Pound Hammer” is updated to “Nine Pound Banjo” while “Little Cindy” gives Cindy a bit of a flirtatious edge as the banjo playing edges into jazz territory. The call and response of the gospel-flavoured “What About Today?” is subverted by a calypso-inflected banjo part that again adds a sense of fun to the song.

Of the more serious songs, “Big Tour Bus” is a look into the totally unglamorous world of a solo touring artist on the road; it’s a bleak and harrowing story that raises the question of why anyone would show such dedication. It’s powerful stuff. The last two songs on the album move away from the humour, nostalgia and road-weariness that dominate the album. “Breathless” is Mary’s take on the Bonnie and Clyde narrative, with the two messages that the wrong turning is all too easy to take and that the end isn’t glamorous at all. “We Never Hear the Song” is a banjo-accompanied anthem to the environment, hinting at the greater purpose behind all of it; the musical arrangement whose complexity we can never comprehend.

The variety of styles across the album’s songs is breath-taking as Mary demonstrates her songwriting versatility and virtuoso picking. There’s gritty realism, unsentimental nostalgia, compelling storytelling and humour in abundance. It’s hard to believe at end of ten songs that the only ingredients are one voice and a couple of instruments.

“Alone” is out now on Woodrock Records.

I have a huge admiration for great songwriters; crafting songs that perfectly convey little slices of life or eternal truths without knowing whether the song will reach half a dozen or millions of people or whether it will hibernate for years and emerge as a shiny (and profitable) hit. Nick Lowe was virtually potless after having a string of hits in the late seventies/early eighties when “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?” appeared on the soundtrack of “The Bodyguard” as a Curtis Stigers cover in 1992. Kimberley Rew’s career took a slightly different trajectory; as a member of Katrina and the Waves, after several years grinding around Air Force bases and Canadian Clubs, he wrote the massive hit “Walking on Sunshine” and Eurovision winner “Love Shine a Light”, and The Bangles had a minor hit with a cover of his song “Going Down to Liverpool”.

After Katrina’s departure in 1999, Kimberley carried on writing and recording with his partner and bass player Lee Cave-Berry. The songs were still superb, but weren’t troubling the charts; this is the period covered by the twenty-one (count them, twenty-one) songs on “Sunshine Walkers”.

Kimberley Rew is a very English lyricist, in the same vein as Ray Davies, Nick Lowe, Chris Difford and Billy Bragg; the songs couldn’t come from another country; there’s a self-deprecation and irony that you don’t find anywhere else. The other thing he has in common with these writers is that they can all conjure great songs out of the most prosaic situations: Chris Difford wrote the lyrics for the Squeeze classic, “Tempted”, on a journey to Heathrow.

And so it goes, on the album’s first song, “The Dog Song”, inspired by seeing dogs on an obstacle course for TV entertainment, is a romp through Chuck Berry territory with humorous lyrics, clever rhymes and perfect harmonies. It gets the album off to a flying start and sets the tone for a bunch of songs covering various musical styles and even a couple of those songwriters’ favourites for occasions that recur annually, “All I Want is You for Christmas” and “Happy Anniversary”.

Of the remaining dozen and a half songs, there’s absolutely no filler and several that push all of my buttons, mainly the quintessentially English ones. “Bloody Old England” is Billy Bragg meets Victor Meldrew homesickness for this grey old country set to a skiffle beat, while the national pride and clever rhymes of “English Road” wouldn’t have sounded out of place on an eighties Rockpile album. And let’s not forget “Backing Singer Blues”; I’m not a great fan of the humorous song, but this one actually works. It slightly exaggerates a situation everyone in the business can identify with, and it’s catchy as all hell.

It’s not often that an album can grab my butterfly attention span for twenty-one songs, but “Sunshine Walkers” did it; Kimberley Rew is one of our national treasures whose talents deserve much more exposure.

“Sunshine Walkers” is out now on KL Recording (KL013).

2020 might be the worst year in the modern era for live music, but we’ve had some cracking albums released, particularly over the last few weeks. Ben Bedford’s “Portraits” is no exception; it’s a collection of twelve powerful songs spanning folk, country, tex-mex and rock styles that will pull your emotions in every direction before coming to a resolution with the album’s final song, “Goodbye Jack”, a rousing tribute to the hard-living author Jack London. Ben Bedford’s a storyteller with a great grasp of narrative and a knack of pulling out historical themes with contemporary relevance.

The songs on “Portraits” aren’t new, although they haven’t been released in Europe; the selection has been curated from Ben’s first three albums “Lincoln’s Man”, “Land of the Shadows” and “What We Lost”, spanning the period 2007 to 2012. The quality of the songs and the common narrative themes create an album that feels like the songs were all written specifically for this project. It works perfectly.

The album’s opening song, “Lincoln’s Man” is pretty representative of the album. It’s a strong narrative; the story of a man from the Confederacy who fought for the Union side in the American Civil War. It’s a long story, clocking in at over eight minutes, dealing with the universal themes of loyalty, family and conscience and contains echoes of the divisions visible in the USA today. The backing is stripped back to mainly acoustic guitar, banjo and occasional cymbal, which focusses the attention on the story and the wider context of the military detail; imagine the writing of Gordon Lightfoot and the delivery of Harry Chapin. This isn’t the only song exploring the military experience on the album; “Twenty One”, with its string band arrangement and harmonium, tells the story of an enlisted farmhand who can only see the destruction that is the inevitable consequence of the war.

Another couple of songs immediately suggest historical parallels and the way in which we refuse to learn lessons. “Migrant Mother” powerfully evokes Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” set during the Great Depression and reminds us that economic migration at the low end of the wage scale is not a novelty, while the gently finger-picked “Land of the Shadows” retells the story of the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till for offending a white woman in a Mississippi store. His killers were acquitted; any of this sound familiar? These songs were written in 2007 and 2009 respectively but have an eerie resonance in 2020.

If this is beginning to sound a bit morbid and gloomy, let me point you in the direction of “Amelia”, a soaring celebration of the determination and courage needed to undertake Amelia Earhart’s triumphant 1928 transatlantic flight. The rapid acoustic finger-picking conveys the sense of motion as the plane slices through the air and the uplifting chorus highlights the achievement against the sexism which is still with us.

Ben Bedford comes from a long line of troubadours in the folk tradition, exploring eternal themes through old stories and new stories, and creating moving and thought-provoking songs linking the present with the past. This curated selection of songs from around ten years ago feels more relevant than ever in 2020.

“Portraits” is released in the UK on Cavalier Recordings (CR 255626) on Friday September 4th.

“Twang”; simple, it does what it says on the tin. OK, front cover, but you know what I mean and, actually, it does quite a lot more than it says on the tin. The twang is certainly present, but there’s a lot more to this album than Dick Dale influences. “Twang” is much more than surf or surf-punk. James Oliver pulls in many more guitar influences including Elmore James, Chuck Berry, Link Wray, Mick Green, Wilko Johnson and George Thorogood. And that’s before we even mention the legendary Dave Edmunds, whose collaborator Paul Riley mixed “Twang”. If you want another Welsh guitar connection, James is from Blackwood, home of the Manic Street Preachers – all part of the service.

The album’s opener, “American Cars”, is a humorous swipe at the role of the car in rock ‘n’ roll music and the conspicuous absence of the American models in the Welsh Valleys, in a similar vein to Billy Bragg’s “A13, Trunk Road to the Sea”, but with more guitar; loads more guitar and plenty of piano as well. It sets the scene for the album; the musicianship is cracking, it’s one hundred miles per hour and there’s a lot of humour running through it.

Did someone mention Link Wray? The instrumental, “The Missing Link” is the surf equivalent of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s version of “Little Wing” as James runs through the various techniques of surf guitar, demonstrating his complete mastery of the genre (and more besides); and just like SRV’s piece, it’s a masterclass.

There are a couple of Big Joe Turner covers, “TV Mama” and “Honey Hush”, where James pulls in a few other references as well; “TV Mama” hints at Dave Edmunds’ 1970 No. 1 cover of the Dave Bartholomew classic “I Hear You Knocking”, while “Honey Hush” hints at a Phil Spector  production, which Dave Edmunds also emulated for a while in the early seventies.

The James Oliver Band is much more than a simplistic tribute to sixties surf music. The stylings are complex; there are multiple tempo and rhythm changes throughout, particularly on “The Missing Link” and “Clean House” and the album’s closer, the Dick Dale classic “Misirlou” winds down with a bottom E string being gradually de-tensioned as the tune winds to a close. These are all examples of a musician with technical expertise and a clinical understanding of how a song is put together.

With the death of Cavan Grogan earlier this, maybe it’s time for James Oliver to make his breakthrough; after all, sixty-five years down the line all Chuck’s children are still out there playing his licks.

“Twang” is out now via The Last Music Company (2REV101).

Here’s a little video clip for you as well:

It’s no surprise that “Life Stories” is autobiographical; the title is a bit of a giveaway. Mary Coughlan’s renowned for her unflinching honesty and this album has its painfully candid moments, but there’s a healthy seasoning of musical and lyrical humour for contrast. I’m using autobiographical a bit loosely here; there are a few interpretations in addition to Mary’s co-writes, but they’re all carefully chosen to fit in with the overall themes of the album.

A perfect example is the album’s opener “Family Life” which touches on dysfunctional families and religion. It’s obvious from the first few bars that it’s a Blue Nile (Paul Buchanan) song but Mary’s incredible voice immediately marks it as her own. And that voice; the obvious and over-used comparison is Billie Holiday, but it’s still valid. The richness and resonance of Mary’s voice and the exquisite phrasing are the magic ingredients that bring the songs to life. That and the quality of the musicians and arrangements. The band moves seamlessly between the slow ballad stylings of “Elbow Deep” and “No Jericho” the swing of “High Heel Boots” and “Forward Bound”, and the sixties chanteuse pop of “Two Breaking Into One” as the album ebbs and flows on its journey. The only aim of the band is to serve the song and to give Mary the best setting for her potent vocal delivery.

Although Mary has the reputation of being harrowingly honest, there’s also a lot of humour running through the album. “High Heel Shoes” hints at “These Boots Were Made for Walking” and the late Kirsty MacColl’s fabulous “In These Shoes”, while George Gershwin’s “Do It Again” is given a cheeky intro with the very short Cole Porter pastiche “Little Dance”. And the album’s closing song “Twelve Steps Forward, Ten Steps Back” takes a humorous swipe at the addiction recovery process. I want to read a positive approach into it because there’s a gain of two steps. The slow ballad “Safe and Sound” also shines a positive light contrasting Mary’s troubled past with the love she feels for her own children and grand-children.

Two of the darker songs on the are interpretations of songs by other Irish writers. “Elbow Deep” is a Karrie O’Sullivan song about the young Irish women abandoned by their families after indiscretions and “No Jericho” is a Susan McKeown song, stripped back to a slow piano and upright bass arrangement that leaves plenty of space for an intimate vocal interpretation.

“Life Stories” is one of the best albums I’ve heard this year. It’s a journey from pessimism to optimism with occasional flashbacks and doesn’t ignore the fact that even the most horrific journeys can have their humorous twists and turns. It’s a fine set of musicians creating settings that make these twelve diamonds sparkle.

“Life Stories” is released in the UK on Friday September 4th on Hail Mary Records (HM002CD).

Andy Fleet isn’t the most prolific of album artists; his last album was in 2013. Which doesn’t really matter; his musical world is not ruled by release schedules, so why not release albums when you’re happy you’ve created something that people will want to listen to and appreciate. And I need to apologise here, this album has been out since March but somehow managed to avoid my attention until now and that’s my loss because “The Sleepless Kind” is a little gem of an album, the kind you want to listen to again and again. Even the cover is a nice piece of art by Alban Low inspired by the song ”Through Closed Eyes”.

The title tells the story; the theme of the album is the night and particularly the musicians who try to scratch a living in those hours of darkness, and those who make the bleary-eyed commuter journey to a day job that enables them to play another night. “The Sleepless Kind” is a tribute to those people who make music because they love making music. Is there a better reason?

The Sleepless Kind” (which tops and tails the album) is a dreamy instrumental that sounds like it should soundtrack a Raymond Chandler story: gentle piano and moody, muted trumpet of Andre Canniere combine to paint a picture of a jazz club in the early hours, when you stop worrying about the last train and start thinking about the first train.

The remaining seven songs demonstrate the wide variety of influences feeding into Andy Fleet’s unique style. The band is superb with the slower, more evocative songs but goes up through the gears really smoothly for the more uptempo songs , such as “Been There, Drunk That” and the rollicking seventies, horn-driven groove of “Love’s Enemy”, which tells the story of a collector in a style that hints at Al Stewart and maybe even Gerry Rafferty. “Stolen Years”, a John Lennon tribute, hints at Thunderclap Newman, but “The Hobbyist” and “Through Closed Eyes” are the absolute pivot of the album.

The Hobbyist” is a powerful tribute to Andy’s friend, the late Iain Bull, opening with some Jackson Browne-like piano, while “Through Closed Eyes” opens with a with a fairly traditional jazz set-up of keys, bass, drums (with brushes, initially) and trumpet and spins out its groove for nearly eight gorgeous minutes, telling the story of the London night from the perspective of an owl, silently watching over the neon-lit streets.

Mainly jazz-orientated, “The Sleepless Kind” also hints at blues, rock, pop and soul. The musicianship is superb throughout, never over-played, and the songs are well-constructed and meaningful. The album oozes class and rewards close attention. One to listen to in the small hours with a single malt close at hand.

“The Sleepless Kind” is out now on Low Vinyl Records (LV1608).

And here’s a little video snippet for you:

 

“Windrush” is quite a box of tricks. To say it’s eclectic is a bit of an understatement; Daniel Nestlerode romps through a kaleidoscope of styles, sometimes in unexpected combinations, none more so than the title track.  “Windrush” is a headlong rush of an instrumental, combining elements of folk, Dick Dale and Ennio Morricone in tribute to the spirit of the people who came to United Kingdom from the Caribbean in response to adverts designed to fill labour shortages in the UK after the war. It’s a tribute to the courage that it took to uproot and travel thousands of miles to create a new home in the grey post-war landscape of the UK. The piece evokes the surging of an ocean voyage and gradually builds to a climax employing acoustic and electric mandolin, acoustic and electric guitar, bass, harmonium and percussion.

The album is a combination of personal and socio-political themes, conceived at a turning-point in Daniel Nestlerode’s life. As an American living in the UK with a French spouse and UK-born children, The Brexit vote was a crucial factor in moving and resettling the family in France. His new local music scene, with rock music predominating, also meant that Daniel incorporated some of his earlier musical experience in the US into the mix, bringing in electric guitars and mandolins, drums and bass at various points in the album.

Coming at such a critical point in Daniel’s life in terms of family upheaval, musical rediscoveries and political uncertainty, it’s inevitable that “Windrush” would be a bunch of contrasts; traditional folk meets rock, electric meets acoustic, vocal meets instrumental, beginnings meet endings, personal meets political and old life meets new life. This is an album that’s being pulled in many directions, yet still managing to sound cohesive, and that’s quite impressive.

The album is topped and tailed by the same piece, “White Flower Waltz”, opening as a short intro and closing as the full version. I’ll leave you to guess what the time signature is. The covers on “Windrush” are an interesting selection; “The Vacant Chair” and “The Parting Glass” are American and Irish respectively and the traditional instrumental “Blackberry Blossom” gets a makeover with a few key changes to cause a bit of a fuss with the purists. The really interesting choice is the Victoria Vox song “C’est Noyé”, which has a strong resonance personal resonance for Daniel and neatly ties in with the Brexit references: ‘Et ils nagent, comme des poisons sans frontière, sur cette terre ronde’ or, roughly ‘The fish swim without borders on this round world’. And, if you didn’t know, “C’est Noyé” means “It’s Drowned”.

However, it’s the songs written by Daniel that supply its emotional heft; “Unexpectedly” telling the story of the meeting that led to marriage, “Living the Dream” dealing with the move to France and “Being a Boy” detailing the joys of family life. The songs and settings of “Windrush” are hugely varied and the album has genuine emotional power.

“Windrush” is released on Clunk & Rattle Records (CRLP021) on Friday August 28th.