session-americana-with-jefferson-hamer-great-shakes-scrollerReview this album in one word? Gorgeous; ten beautifully-crafted and perfectly-arranged songs, six highly-gifted players and vocal harmonies to die for. If you’re looking for reference points, most of the songs here sound like they could have come from the late sixties/early seventies country-rock scene with understated playing, crystal clear production and those heavenly harmonies. “Great Shakes” is a perfect demonstration of the chemistry that great musicians can create when the stars are perfectly aligned. The album isn’t about the individual musicians, it’s about the contributions they make towards creating the best possible version of each song; in those terms, it’s a complete success, with each instrumental fill making each song that little bit more memorable.

The members of Session Americana are Billy Beard (drums), Ry Cavanaugh (guitar), Kimon Kirk (bass), Jim Fitting (harmonica), Dinty Child (multi-instrumentalist) and Jefferson Hamer (guitar) and this is their seventh album as a collective, although it has a coherence that suggests a long-established band, rather than occasional collaborators. The album opens with the delicate country-rock feel of “One Skinner”, a story of a long-standing friendship with a musical setting featuring pedal steel and harmonica and a lead vocal with a vulnerability that suggests Neil Young or Iain Matthews and blossoms out into a hugely varied set of songs with subjects as varied as American history (“Great Western Rail”) and an umbrella (“Bumbershoot”). Five of the members contribute songs in different styles but always of the highest quality and usually with an interesting twist.

There isn’t a bad or even indifferent song on the album and there are a few that stand out. “Big Mill in Bogalusa” is a bluesy shuffle with some raw harmonica and harmonies from the whole band; it’s catchy and full of the feelgood. “Mississippi Mud” is a historical Southern story built around an over-driven guitar riff which morphs into an Allman Brothers boogie in the choruses and it leads into the album’s most poignant song, “One Good Rain”, with the message that every relationship, no matter how strong, can be vulnerable. Just the line ‘One good rain is all it takes to break the dam that love can make’ is one of the saddest things I’ve heard this year.

This album will wrap itself around you like a comfortable jumper on a winter night. It will make you smile at times and it might even make you cry, but you’ll certainly feel uplifted and full of admiration for the quality of the playing.

“Great Shakes” is released on October 14th.

Vanessa Peters - 'With The Sentimentals' - TitleVanessa Peters released an album in 2006 with her band Ice Cream on Mondays titled “Little Films” and if you wanted a pithy little phrase to describe her songs, that wouldn’t be too far wide of the mark but it’s not quite that simple. Vanessa’s songs describe a world that’s somewhere between Raymond Carver and David Lynch; the songs are vignettes of American life packed with highly visual images and a hint of darkness at the centre. Of the ten songs on the album, six are originals, one is a cover and three are reworkings of earlier album or EP tracks. Three reworkings may seem a bit excessive, but working with The Sentimentals (her European touring band) has created a different perspective on the songs which more than justifies their inclusion on the album.

The Sentimentals are based in Copenhagen and they are M.C. Hansen (guitars), Nikolaj Wolf (upright bass) and Jacob Chano (drums and percussion). They’ve worked with Vanessa on tour in Europe and the States and last year everyone decided that it was time to immortalise the magic, recording the album live in a couple of Danish studios without any overdubs. The band creates a mellow backdrop throughout the album which allows Vanessa to be close-miked, creating a very intimate setting for a voice which is part early Joni Mitchell, part Suzanne Vega and part Lana del Rey.

The opening song, “Pacific Street” is a cover of a Hem song which the band speeds up and builds around a laser-clean guitar figure. It might not sock you on the jaw, but it leads you gently into the album, hinting at the little treasures within. Of the reworkings, two (“Big Time Underground” and “Fireworks” are from “Little Films”) and tell the stories of variously dysfunctional individuals in relationships; the arrangements have more space and feel more intimate than the originals, allowing the narrative to shine through. “Afford to Pretend” (originally from the “Blackout” EP) goes in the opposite direction, replacing a solo acoustic guitar backing with the full band and a military drumbeat.

Fickle Friends” and “Light” are both moody pieces, the former having an almost trip-hop feel, while the latter is heavy on reverb and the visual imagery which runs through the album. It’s fair to say that either song would fit perfectly on “Born to Die”. The remaining four songs are classic Vanessa Peters short stories, telling tales of doomed relationships (“Mostly Fictions”), the partner who’s impossible to get close to (the country-tinged “Call You All the Time”), the impossibility of completely closing the door on a chapter of your life (“The Choice”) and the album’s closing track, “Getting By” which is about – well, I think you can work that one out.

The playing on the album is tasteful without ever breaking into showy territory, apart from the lovely guitar solo at the close of “Mostly Fictions” but the songs don’t really need too much embellishment, just a framework to hang them on. If you like your songs, to use a phrase I nicked from the great Scottish singer-songwriter Dean Owens, “somewhere between melancholy and miserable”, then you’re in the right place.

Vanessa Peters with The Sentimentals” is released on Monday May 11th.

 

Carrie Rodrguez (Photo by Allan McKay)

Carrie Rodrguez (Photo by Allan McKay)

I’ve got to say this; my end of year piece this year will be jam-packed with superlatives.  I’ll have to give the thesaurus a hammering to avoid repetition because I’ve seen so many great gigs and heard so many great new albums this year.  Carrie Rodriguez is easily in the top five live artists I’ve seen this year and her show at The Old Queens Head in Islington was the kind of warm, confident and intimate performance that only a true star can give.

The venue is perfect for this show; an upstairs room at a pub with a good sound system and just enough room for the appreciative and knowledgeable audience.  From the start of the set, Carrie (singing, playing fiddle and the unusual tenor guitar) and her touring compadre Luke Jacobs (playing acoustic, electric and lap steel guitar and supplying beautiful vocal harmonies) gradually extend their intimate working relationship to include everyone in the audience.  I was surprised by the number of stomp boxes on the stage but the two players used them with the same deft touch that they applied to their playing and vocals.

How do you describe Carrie’s genre?  Country, folk, Americana, bluegrass, all of the above?  I think it has to be the latter; it’s also obvious that Carrie is a very gifted writer and the show tonight is full of examples of that.  She’s touring to promote her new album “Give Me All You Got” and the two sets lean fairly heavily on the new material interspersed with some old classics.  The opener “Devil in Mind” showcases Carrie’s powerful voice alongside her wonderful fiddle playing.  I’ve seen many country and folk fiddle players stamp one foot in time to the music, but never in two-inch platforms with a six-inch spike heel.  The two sets are well-paced and the new songs are placed alongside old favourites although it doesn’t seem to matter because the audience seem to know all the songs anyway, old and new.  There’s even a Luke Jacobs song on the Faust theme, “Oh Margherite” which follows the beautiful and poignant “Seven Angels on a Bicycle”.

It’s difficult to pigeonhole a performer like Carrie Rodriguez (and I’m not saying that’s a bad thing), because she does so many things so well, moving effortlessly from the pure country of “I Don’t want to Play House Anymore” to the riff-driven mystery and menace of “’50’s French Movie” and from the upbeat, uptempo “Lake Harriet” to the delicate beauty of “Get Back in Love” with its lovely subtle touches of lap steel.  It’s easy to see why Carrie has a reputation as great fiddle player; she incorporates elements of classical, country, folk and even rock into her playing and has the knack of making the incredibly difficult look really simple.  She also creates a very intimate atmosphere for the show, inviting the audience to be a part of the experience and breaking down the traditional barriers.  There’s also genuine emotion when she talks about her good friend who was the subject of “Seven Angels…” and about her mother before playing “La Puñalada Trapera”.  And all of this makes for a very warm and intimate live experience.

It may be a while before she’s back in the UK again, but you could always listen to the new album (or her previous albums); you won’t be disappointed.