Allison Russell and JT Nero are, collectively, Birds of Chicago. The press release refers to Americana and roots but, even by current standards, that’s stretching the definition. Is that a criticism of this album or Birds of Chicago? Hell, no; the truly great creatives never stand still. Birds of Chicago has evolved into a blend of deep soul, funk, roots and gorgeous melodic pop that defies classification and picks up influences from a dizzying variety of musical styles, blending it into a blissful musical confection. You are getting the message aren’t you? I love this album.

Not one single song that I want to skip and at least two that I want to listen to again and again. I think I’ll concentrate on those two. The title track is a slow, soulful ballad with a moody organ intro and superb use of the impassioned male and female vocals. The “Love in Wartime” title is a metaphor; the theme is the miracle of existence and perseverance, whatever the circumstances. It’s nearly six minutes long, but you just don’t want it to stop; every part of it is so perfect.

“Try” is just over five minutes long and the combination of perfect soulful vocal duet with a steadily building arrangement and a lyric that tackles the difficult subject of loss of motivation and vitality with age and the need to avoid complacency in our relationships and life in general. It’s powerful stuff, musically and lyrically. There is a lot more to the album than the two huge ballads; “Baton Rouge” has a lovely female lead vocal, some French lyrics (of course) and a clarinet solo appearing out of nowhere.

You want me to pick out a few more? Ok, with such a huge mix of influences, it’s pretty much inevitable that you’ll pick out a phrase now and then that evokes something else. “Never Go Back” has a feel of the Stevie Wonder classic “For Once in My Life”, while “Lodestar” evokes The Clash’s “Lost in the Supermarket”. I like to think of it as creative recycling. Don’t even try to impose categories on this album; its heady mix of vocal and instrumental styles is unique.

“Love in Wartime” is released on Friday May 4 on Signature Sounds Recordings.

Twenty songs over a double CD (well, nineteen actually, one’s a bonus download); you’re never quite sure what message that sends. The official line is that some songs work with band arrangements, some are best as solo/duo arrangements and that’s the way they’ve been split. Personally, my response to studio double albums is one of wariness; could it have been better as a single? We’ll see.

The common theme across the two albums is obvious. It’s not just Texas, but the southern states and the mentality of small-town America. The melodies are good, Jeb Barry’s voice is striking, cracking with emotion at times, but the real power is in the lyrics. He knows how to tell a story and how create a memorable phrase, a lyrical hook that’s as potent as the melodic ones. In “El Paso Sucks”, there’s a reference to the woman being ‘sideways on champagne’ while “Southern Oak” (taking the opposite tack from the marvellous “Speedtrap Town”) makes the observation that ‘hell and high water make good roots’. And let’s not forget the observation from “Miss Mississippi” that ‘drunk and stupid’s no excuse’.

The playing on the album is all in the service of the songs. You won’t find any lengthy solos or massive riffs, everything’s there to get the message of the song over, whether it’s lovely harmonies or the good old sus4 to create a Byrds/Tom Petty feel on “If This Heart Had Walls”. There’s nothing to take a strong dislike to and there are plenty of strong songs. The download-only song “Speedtrap Town” is a real standout, warning of the literal and metaphorical dangers of straying away from the highway.

And that thing about double albums? Well, I’m still not convinced. I would love to hear a single album edit of this set of songs, but I wouldn’t want to fall out about it.

“texas, etc.” is released on April 27th on Dollyrocker Records (DR-2018-01).

It’s difficult enough working out where to start a Phil Burdett review at the best of times without having to contend with an album that doesn’t actually start or finish anywhere. The clue’s in the song title “Sisyphus on Denmark Street”; the songwriter condemned forever to push a stone uphill. It could be worse; look what they did to Prometheus. The album cycles continuously from the birth of the dawn in “Net of Joy” to the dusk and senescence of “Dotage Train” and back to the beginning again, linked by the phrase ‘heavy miles to go’ in each song. Reincarnation without any upward or downward mobility and inspiration from the unholy poetic trilogy of William Blake, John Clare and Arthur Rimbaud.

If you’re part of the generation that doesn’t listen to albums, this isn’t for you; “Psychopastoral” is designed to be heard in a certain order, start to finish and then again and maybe once more, just to be sure that it is actually a work of genius. Phil’s taken a simple approach to ensuring we listen to everything in the intended order; the entire album’s one track with songs connected by musical and lyrical fragments. Does it work? Bloody right it does; at just under an hour, the images, fragments and melodies rush past at breakneck speed then start all over again bringing fresh musical and verbal marvels to discover.

I could spend hours going into minute detail about every aspect of this album, but that’s not going to help anyone, so I’ll try to pick out some of the attention to detail that permeates every aspect of this beautiful piece of work. How about the musicians? The core of this ensemble has been with Phil for a few years now and each one brings their own individual talents to a great ensemble sound. John Bennett (guitar) is one of my local heroes; comparisons with Steve Cropper are more than justified – not showy, but everything fits perfectly. Steve Stott adds colour and texture with bright mandolin and melancholy fiddle and Colleen McCarthy’s backing and lead vocals are a pure and clear foil for Phil’s soulful growl. And of course, Russ Strothard’s melodic bass playing, Lyndon Morgan’s spoken word contributions and the samples and programming contributed by Al Franklinos.

Phil’s voice sounds as good as I’ve ever heard it and the words are as densely packed with meaning and allusion as ever. I’m not going to bore you with my amateur literary criticism, you can delve into the layers of meaning for yourself (there’s a lyric booklet as part of the CD package); you’ll find it packed with autobiographical references both pleasurable and painful alongside the odd skewed musical reference (‘needles of death and the damaged rum’ from “Sisyphus on Denmark Street”).

I’m a huge admirer of Phil’s work, particularly from “Dunfearing and the West Country High” onwards and with “Psychopastoral”, he’s made an unflinching, uncompromising album that flies in the face of convention in its stance on sequencing and playback. There are some memorably catchy songs embedded in the piece, and Phil’s determined that they stay embedded and we hear them as part of the overall creation. It’s an ambitious project, but it’s perfect in every little detail. Favourite album of the year so far? I think so.

“Psychopastoral” is out now you; can order it direct from Phil’s website.

You have to love Green Note. With my photographer’s head on I whinge about the lighting, but I’ve taken some of my favourite shots in there. Anyway, it’s about the overall ambience, and that’s unbeatable. There aren’t too many places that could drag me out of a lovely warm house on a bitter winter night without even the consolation of industrial quantities of alcohol but, within minutes of arriving at the venue and grabbing a coffee the effort felt worthwhile. And that’s before The Lynn(e)s even got near the stage.

Lynne Hanson and Lynn Miles are two Canadian singer-songwriters. They decided to team up for their current “Heartbreak Song for the Radio” project (which is superb, by the way) and a tour featuring songs from the album and from their previous solo projects. They both have superb voices and play beautifully, although the Americana technology police might want to have a look at some of that hardware.

So, what was so good about this particular Sunday?  Well, some of the usual things; a bunch of powerful songs, two exceptional and complementary voices, some interesting twists on the arrangements (including a bit of electric twang and some haunting ebow effects) and a great rapport with the audience between sons. Stack all of that up and you have a pretty memorable night.

The tour was mainly about promoting “Heartbreak Songs…”, but, with two sets to fill, the Lynn(e)s featured songs from their albums either solo or as a duo. The quality throughout the two sets was one hundred per cent, but I’m going to try to pick out a few highlights. The gorgeous “Heartbreak Song for the Radio” has a very Carpenters feel and works perfectly in the live setting while the harmonies on “Cost so Much” are just superb, but there was one final trump card Lynn and Lynne had to play.

I’ve seen a few impressive unplugged encores at Green Note, but this one was sublime; after the first verse Lynne Hanson moved towards the bar while Lynn Miles stayed in front of the stage and the duo created perfect two-part harmonies across the venue on the lovely “Gotta Have Rain”. I’ve seen a few gigs at Green Note, but I’ve never seen an ending quite like this. Have a listen to their individual albums, but make a point of listening to this. You won’t regret it.

 

Sure, the melodies and the arrangements are important; they must be if Neilson Hubbard and Will Kimbrough are involved, but with Rod Picott, the stories are always front and centre. “Out Past the Wires” is no exception, in fact it takes the narratives a step further. In addition to the album, Rod’s also publishing a book exploring the stories of some of the characters that appear on the album. Listen to the beautifully-crafted vignettes studded through the twenty-two songs (that’s right twenty-two songs; hope you brought a packed lunch for this one) and you feel that you’re just scratching the surface of their lives. The ageing racer in “Primer Gray”, the teen queen in “Hard Luck Baby”, the struggling musician in “Straight Job” and the labourer in “Store Bought”; you really want to know the back story, or where they move on to outside this particular moment. Listen to the album(s) and it all makes perfect sense.

Credit where it’s due to the other musicians on the album as well (Lex Price, Evan Hutchings and Kris Donegan) for creating settings that allow the songs to sparkle and shine, whether they’re sprinkled with underplayed atmospherics or a full-on, full-band workout. Whether the backing is a gently finger-picked acoustic, intertwined electric guitars, Lennonesque harmonica or a brooding rock feel with heavily-reverbed guitar. And then there’s Rod Picott’s voice, weaving its raw fibres through the fabric of the songs to conjure up passion, pain and even aspiration. He even manages to ease back to mellow with a touch of falsetto on “Blanket of Stars”.

At a time when ten-song albums are becoming increasingly common and EP or double EP is rearing its ugly head, it’s an utterly audacious move to release a double album, but it works. The standard of the songs is uniformly high across he two discs, but I’m going to hit you with a few that caught my personal sweet spot. “Primer Gray” evokes “Nebraska”/”The River” era Springsteen with the battered car symbolising the central character, “Hard Luck Baby” spins the downward spiral from teen beauty into drudgery and “The Shape of You” is a lovely poetic take on the void left in a life when a relationship ends. Listen for yourself; the choice is huge and I won’t be offended if you disagree with my choices.

“Out Past the Wires” is released on Friday February 16th on Welding Rod Records (CD, LP or download).

If you want to see Rod live, he’s touring Europe and the UK from March.

Here’s a little taster for you:

It’s about time we had a new album from Dean Owens, isn’t it? It’s been two and a half years since “Into the Sea”, not that he’s been resting on his considerable laurels, that’s not his style. He’s been involved in production, collaboration and loads of touring and somehow managed to fit the “Southern Wind” sessions in to the mix. Although the album’s released under Dean’s name, it’s fair to say that it’s more of a collaboration with his guitar-slinger of choice (and mine), Will Kimbrough. The musicians and production team are Dean’s regular Nashville crew and they all do the usual superb job, but the creative thread running through the centre is “Southern Wind” is the Owens/Kimbrough partnership.

They bonded over, among other things, a mutual love of Ronnie Lane and that’s the starting point for the album. “Last Song”, the album’s opener, wouldn’t feel out of place on any of the Faces albums with its loose rock feel and characteristic melodic basslines. It’s an homage and a tribute and it’s loads of fun; proof that Dean and Will can write an upbeat song (and it’s not the only one on the album).

Although the title track and “No Way Around It” have a slightly menacing Delta feel, “Southern Wind” still has very strong sense of time and place in twenty-first century Scotland and the stories of its inhabitants in difficult social and personal circumstances. “Elvis Was my Brother”, “When the Whisky’s not Enough” and “Bad News” all fit into this category, while “Famous Last Words” is a typical Dean Owens slant on the longest day of the year; that things can only get worse from here on in. Nights are fair drawin’ in, eh? “Anything Helps”, another Will Kimbrough co-write, fits neatly in to this little group with its Ronnie Lane solo era stylings and one of the album’s greatest lines ‘Took a swing at life and missed’.

There’s a place here for the intensely personal as well; the gorgeous “Madeira Street” looks back to more innocent times through a prism of grief and celebration, while “Louisville Lip” celebrates the life of Dean’s hero Muhammad Ali. “Mother” is a light-hearted sixties pastiche (just imagine it on the soundtrack to “Inspector George Gently” or “Call the Midwife”) with clipped guitar and a hint of Phil and Don, while “Love Prevails”, closing the album, channels The Chordettes’ “Born to be With You”, particularly in Will Kimbrough’s laid-back solo.

Dean Owens has that rare poetic ability to fashion perfect songs from life’s everyday stories and the ability to deliver powerful, plaintive performances of those songs. On this album, the partnership with Will Kimbrough and producer Neilson Hubbard has created perfect settings for both the melancholy and the upbeat songs. ”Southern Wind” is a fine piece of work from one of Scotland’s finest songwriters.

“Southern Wind” is released on Friday February 16 on At the Helm Records.

 And here’s a special little treat for you:

Buffy Sainte-Marie, wasn’t she one of those protest singers back in the black and white days?”

‘Yep.’

‘And she’s still around now?’

‘Yep.’

‘So what’s she protesting about now?’

‘Exactly the same things she was protesting about back then. Been lots of fine words spoken and written about indigenous peoples across the world but nothing’s changed. We’re still fighting wars, the environment’s still being exploited by the suits and it’s still acceptable to brush aside Native Americans, Aboriginal Australians and Inuit when there’s a profit to be made. Just look at Standing Rock. Guess Buffy Sainte-Marie’s still as relevant fifty years down the line.’

Buffy thinks so as well. “Medicine Songs” is an album for these times. Some of the songs are over fifty years old and there are only two completely new songs, but “Medicine Songs” is something very special. Buffy Sainte-Marie has taken the older songs, given them new treatments for the twenty-first century and, in her words, ‘put them to work’. It’s just possible that some of them are even more relevant now. The album’s thirteen songs long, but the digital edition (which you get as a download code with the vinyl or CD) has an additional seven songs, so you get twenty songs in total (including two very different versions of “The War Racket”). Where do I start? Well, I’m going to pick a few of my personal highpoints.

The two songs that open the album embody its two main themes. “You Got to Run”, featuring Tanya Tagaq, with a barrage of floor toms and Native American choral backing vocals, emphasises positivity and cooperation, while “The War Racket” denounces the obscenity of warmongers making huge profits from conflicts that they dress up as virtuous interventions. The protest songs make up the majority of the album, but there’s enough of a positive message with songs like “Carry It On” and “Starwalker” and “Soldier Blue” which celebrate indigenous American culture, and the gorgeous, poppy “Fallen Angels”, to add some contrast to the picture.

Of the earlier songs, “My Country ‘Tis of Thy People You’re Dying”, “Universal Soldier” and “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone” are given a sixties/seventies solo acoustic treatment, while “Generation” gets a mid-tempo rock production with a military drumbeat in the breakdown. “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” is transformed into a rock/reggae hybrid with a heavy emphasis on the off beat and a big distorted guitar sound to punctuate the lyrics while “No No Keshagesh” is a huge production with pumping bass, raw overdriven guitars, sampled backing vocals and a lead vocal echoed by synth lines. And, if you’re more at home out on the floor, “Power in the Blood” gets the four–to-the-floor treatment with a huge production built around thunderous bass and floor toms, while “Working for the Government” is a slightly more subtle “Professional Widow”-style reworking; both stylings refresh and reinvigorate the songs. Have a listen for yourself by clicking on any of the links.

If there was ever a time for these songs to be heard, it’s now. Many of them were pertinent at the time of release but considered too controversial for airplay; songs exposing corporate greed, militarism, historical revisionism and the problems still facing the indigenous population in Canada (it’s not specifically referenced on the album, but the CD booklet features a picture from the Red Dress Project). “Medicine Songs” is about as far as you can get from the vanilla choking the airwaves at the moment (that’s a recommendation in itself) and it comes when we most need it. 2018 is shaping up as the year of the protest singer; if it’s all this good, bring it on.

“Medicine Songs” is released on True North Records (TND681) on Friday January 26,2018.