Buford Pope’s American influences shine through on “The Waiting Game”. His introduction to American music was Bob Dylan but the most obvious comparison vocally is the high register vocals of Neil Young. There’s a reference in the album’s second song, “Hey Hey Aha”, to the difficulties of songwriting (and a subtle nod to Shakey again) and writer’s block, but the songs all worked out fine in the end and the calling card for “The Waiting Game” is the way they have been arranged. And that’s apparent from the very start. 

America” (a lyrical co-write with Mark Drake) is the collaboration that Neil Young and The Blue Nile haven’t quite got round to yet. It’s an atmospheric love song to America with a big bassline and a new frontier theme with songsters replacing pioneers. The high tenor range of the voice, the melancholy subject matter and the country-rock feel of “Hard Life” make vocal comparisons with Don Henley difficult to avoid, but it’s difficult to see how that’s a bad thing. I mentioned arrangements earlier and the most innovative has to be “A Hundred”. 

The minimalist production is built around a bass drum on one and three and a layered handclap on two and four which repeats remorselessly throughout the song as the blues builds up with the addition of bass and banjo. It hints at the foot stamps of Brian May’s percussion innovation for “We Will Rock You” (a reference you might not expect to hear on an Americana album). Incidentally, a country, honky-tonk reworking of the song, listed as “Ninety-Nine” closes out the album. 

It’s the kind of album that you get when an someone without the baggage of a ‘scene’ or ‘movement’ to contend with (living in a remote part of Sweden) can concoct by taking original American influences and subject matter and melding them with elements from outside this genre to produce something that’s unique. It’s an intriguing listen. 

“The Waiting Game” is out now.

Getting to Birmingham by boat is a bit of a struggle. You have to cover a lot of water the day you set out, as you have quite a few miles of ‘badlands’ to get through before you reach the ‘safety’ of the city centre and Gas Street Basin, which is extremely lovely. Not to mention a steep watery climb up to the summit almost underneath the city itself, which in heavy rain, constitutes something of a challenge. But it is extremely lovely in the way the BBC think ‘heritage’ is really lovely and consequently it is worthwhile getting slightly off the beaten track once safely moored up and in possession of your weekly spending money.

About 600 yards off said ‘beaten track’ stands The Prince Of Wales, an old-school city boozer selling pies, pints and on occasion, there’s a ‘turn’, often at slightly odd times of day and it is with some surprise we stumbled upon a spirited, reggaefied version of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” pouring out of the door. Intrigued, in we went, to be confronted by a pretty much full house of late Sunday afternoon drinkers all giving it plenty and a six piece band (on average) grooving away in a most delightful way. Pete Hyde and The Vieillards may be past the first flush of youth – indeed ‘Vieillards’ are old folks, rather than some strange mythical wossname born on the bayou, but they are warm, sinuous and very much ‘alive’ live musicians. I couldn’t help but feel like I was watching the living embodiment of the lyrics to Dire Strait’s “Sultans Of Swing” as this bunch weaved effortlessly through reggae to blues standards such as “The Thrill Is Gone”, classics like “Summertime” and some rock n roll standards, many illuminated with fine, fruity saxophone fills provided whilst said musician wandered off to the bar, almost as an afterthought whilst ordering a round. Indeed, at one point he was interrupted mid-noodle by someone who had just walked in off the street to enquire where the bogs were (note to person; if you’re going to creep into a pub to enquire the whereabouts of the rest room without purchasing a beverage, perhaps best not to broadcast this by interrupting a band member whilst about their business, even though your business may appear equally pressing) and evocative, rich keyboard work reeking of Booker T Jones at times, Dr John at others, shades of Georgie Fame also.

And not just the flipping obvious in the repertoire. As well as Van Morrison’s “Bright Side of the Road” which is very easily played badly but in this case wasn’t, we are treated to his lesser known but equally lovely “Cleaning Windows”. And the crowning glory for me, Ry Cooder’s magnificent “Little Sister”, complete with that wonderfully ‘aged’ and rubbery guitar sound and fabulously complimentary harmonies.

One of those marvellously ‘accidental’ Sunday gigs where you really didn’t need a drink to appreciate what was going on – but it was very thoughtful of the management to provide some. Bit more Ry Cooder and perhaps some more Toussaint, and maybe some Lee Dorsey perhaps, would have been nice but they’re musicians, not a human jukebox. And between sets, how wonderful to hear Smokey, The Crusaders, The Temptations, etc., underlining the importance of the stuff played in and around a live band’s set to maintaining a groove. And they played for a couple of hours or more. Sultans of Swing, in very deed.

4 Stars and a bit.

One thing to say right from the start, Danny Schmidt is a superb songwriter; a songwriter’s songwriter if you like, practised in the alchemy of creating gold from, well, algebra, statistics and string theory for a start. Unlikely base metals maybe, but Danny Schmidt’s no ordinary singer-songwriter; he’s a poet, a physicist and a metaphysicist. Keith Richards might claim that you just have to pull songs out of the air, but Danny Schmidt is proof that great songs can be honed and crafted till they shimmer if you have the insight, the inspiration and the skill.

Danny Schmidt’s songs cover a wide range of subjects and styles; he’s convincing with the wordy, technical songs (the album’s title track, for instance) and also has complete mastery of the personal, confessional style that tops and tails “Standard Deviation”. The album has wonderful examples of both of those styles; the title track combines a slightly unconventional love story with an interest in various modern scientific concepts. Also, and Danny doesn’t labour this in the lyrics, he highlights the differences between the relationship between the statistical concept of the normal distribution and the day-to-day us of the word ‘normal’. The lyrical beauty of the song is enhanced by a gorgeous arrangement building up to the entrance of the celestial choir towards the end of the piece.

The song that tops the album, “Wait Til They See You” is exactly the kind of song that a doting father writes about his miraculous and beautiful baby daughter while the closer, “We Need Another Word” asks a serious question about whether the word ‘miscarriage’ is appropriate as a description of a harrowing personal ordeal faced my millions of women every year. I think he has a point. “Bones of Emotion” is an exploration of the of the turbulent undercurrents of a family gathering at Christmas, while “Newport ‘65” is a deceptively straightforward look at Dylan’s move away from conventional acoustic folk, which highlights the dangers of being seen as a prophet – acolytes crave certainty and react badly when that certainty is taken away.

“Standard Deviation” is a great example of the songwriter’s art; songs covering a wide variety of styles and topics set in arrangements that make them sparkle and shine.

The album is released in the UK on Friday March 29th on Live Once Records (LOR CD 10) and Danny will be touring the UK in May.

Meanwhile, just bury yourself in this:

It’s the fourth day of the 2018 High Fives series and the contributions from songwriters and performers are starting to come in. it’s always good to have something from Graeme Wheatley, bass player and songwriter with Deep Blue Sea and all-round nice guy. It’s great to see that Graeme has completely embraced the High Five brief – just five of absolutely anything. And there’s even some Shakespeare for you as well. All photos courtesy of Laurence Harvey.

What subject can I pick? Allan will have the gigs sewn up for sure. I think I did albums and musicians before.  I guess my answer is easy – it’s what I am doing right at this very moment. Or rather, it’s what I should be doing – but I am letting Allan’s request for an article distract me. Song writing.

I first thought I’d write a note about my favourite 5 songwriters – but none of them have written anything new this year – and it’s 2 years since Leonard decided to write no more. So I thought I’d write a little about some Deep Blue Sea songs – it might be self indulgent, it might be a bit arsey? But surely it’s not as bad as scoffing an entire tin of Quality Street tho of course, I might do that too.

2018 has been a year of writing songs. Deep Blue Sea started to write as a unit when Dre and Amanda joined Iago and me in March 2018. In the space of 3 months we got together, did a few gigs and then recorded a live album featuring 5 songs that were written in that 3 month creative burst. Since then we’ve probably written about 15 more and we’re in the studio over December and January recording them for a new album in 2019.

Seems like a good idea to take a look at the 5 songs we wrote over that 3 month period. I’m hardly qualified to go into great depth on the music – and the lyrics are totally open to interpretation – but here goes a few words of waffle and title tattle – feel free to disagree. One over-arching observation. A band is a relationship. Relationships start with an intensity. These songs happened fast and are part of the glue that we’ve created – part of the DNA of DBS. I hope you like this little tale –

“A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Rock Star Status

 

Oh. Look at the stars up in the sky – My oh my

Look at the stars waving goodbye – Bye bye bye

 

Everybody here gets Rock Star Status – There’s no point now cos everbody’s famous

It’s nobodys fault But everybody hates us – It’s nobodys fault  But nothings gonna save us

Everybody here gets Rock Star Status – A little applause and admiration

15 seconds of adoration – A lethal dose of adulation

 

Oh. Look at the stars up in the sky – My oh my

Look at the stars waving goodbye – Bye bye bye

 

Everybody here gets Rock Star Status – A pocket full of dreams and a ticket to Vegas

Hold on tight, you’re making the papers – O/D-ed celebrities are coming back to plague us

Everybody here gets Rock Star Status – VIPs in the Palace of Gratis

Take a little taste of the breathing apparatus – A finger on the pulse of the phallic operators

Oh. Look at the stars up in the sky – My oh my

Look at the stars waving goodbye – Bye bye bye

 

All we ever wanted was Rock Star Stuff – Everything now and it’s still not enough

Keep it coming cos we’re Rock Star Tough – Keep it coming til we choke on the stuff

 

Oh. Look at the stars up in the sky – My oh my

Look at the stars waving goodbye – Bye bye bye

So, Iago had this little Stonesy type riff- except as always with Iago – the chords were weird, wired and inspired. I’d been to an art exhibition in Dulwich and there had been a painting I really liked. Couldn’t afford it of course, but there were some postcards of the painting free – so I took a couple. Got home later that day and looked at the picture. Surreal dreamscape with horses. Turned it over and the title was “All I ever wanted was Rock Star Status”. I knew I had a title. The lyrics flew onto the page – it was a job stopping them. When Dre started working on the melody she noticed nothing really rhymed very well. There’s the language barrier for you. You say Status and I say Status!!! We compromised. What’s it all about? You tell me. I’ve been wondering. Oh, by the way, the artist, Kate Pritchard, who painted the picture, came to see the band at our gig last week at 100 Club!!! Circle complete. That was a total new experience for us both – and a really good one. Life eh?

Manic Pixie Dream Girl

 

 

Dark days take pride of place – For the little girl with the smiling face

A smile that hides  – uncertainty

If her face seems so serene – Her hands betray a silent scream

And doubts about  – her sanity

Worlds of distorted noise – Distraction drinking drowning boys

Shaking shame  – and regret

Touch and  hold and then let go – Of something in her overcoat

One thing not – broken yet

 

The manic pixie dream girl is swaying in the breeze

Washed by winds and tossed by tides from all the seven seas

The manic pixie dream girl is shaking like the leaves

Crossed by stars and chained by dreams of

Never being free

 

Black clouds hang down the face – of the little girl with silent grace

Reaching out for – sanctuary

Beneath the stones and dusty bones – words are falling all alone

To mourn – dignity

Might have seen might have beens, hopes are only dusty dreams

Bitter pills – memory

Moments passed nothing lasts, out of reach fading fast

Time kills – vanity

 

The manic pixie dream girl is swaying in the breeze

Washed by winds and tossed by tides from all the seven seas

The manic pixie dream girl is shaking like the leaves

Crossed by stars and chained by dreams of

Never being free

 

She’s

Thrown in all directions – blown by recollections

The manic pixie dream girl is swaying in the breeze

Drawn to all confections – torn by rare infections

The manic pixie dream girl is shaking like the leaves

 

The manic pixie dream girl is swaying in the breeze

Washed by winds and tossed by tides from all the seven seas

The manic pixie dream girl is shaking like the leaves

Crossed by stars and chained by dreams of

Never being free

 “I have almost forgot the taste of fears; The time has been, my senses would have cool’d To hear a night-shriek.”

 Trev Turley writing a review of this song in Blues In Britain called the groove “invisible reggae” – I dunno what it means – but I like it 🙂

 I was driving along in the old band van awhile back, listening to the radio. There was a book review programme on and people were talking and I wasn’t listening until someone said “oh, her, the classic Manic Pixie Dream Girl, it’s no more than you’d expect.” I knew I had a title for a song, but I didn’t know what the person meant by “no more than you’d expect.”

I got to thinking about a friend of mine who I am very happy to say is on the other side of the tunnel from her period as a manic pixie, but there was a time when several friends and I worried about this frail and beautiful butterfly. We saw her floating, we saw her shine and shimmer but we couldn’t do much to shelter her from the storms inside. She was fighting battles we had no weapons. 

 I wanted to try and capture the idea of a moment in time with her – where words don’t always mean what they appear to mean, where things tail spin off into other moments – the uncertainty at the core of a person in turbulence.  I’m so glad she’s still my friend. And in the weirdest ways the manic pixie dream days are not over but no longer laced with the threat of a long, long night.

The Thrill of It All

 

 

The little girl doesn’t know

If she’s alive anymore

No sense of fun – nowhere to run

Once there was a time

Happiness was no crime

Now she’s in a cage – No passion or rage

 

As the light starts to fall

 

She’s walking on the edge

Of everything unsaid

It hurts just to feel, doubt what is real

Standing by the side

Of the days of her life

See the falling tide – what’s left behind?

 

As the light starts to fall

I know she recalls – I know she recalls

I know she recalls – The thrill of it all

I know she recalls – I know she recalls

I know she recalls – The thrill of it all

 

Here under the Sun

Hopelessly undone

How can feelings grow – From seeds she didn’t sow

Mem’ries made of  pain

She cannot explain

A hand in the flame – the nameless game

 

As the light starts to fall

know she recalls – I know she recalls

I know she recalls – The thrill of it all

 

I know she recalls – I know she recalls

I know she recalls – The thrill of it all

 This song grew in the playing. Iago’s guitar solo can take us off anywhere. When Amanda got into the song and the feel of it – she started to push things and take risks. If you listen to the live album, there’s a few moments where we could all really fall on our collective bums as we get perilously close to the edge. I think that’s the one of the great things I love about playing in the band – we are a band. And I think we all love the risks. Nobody stays calm – we’re all in it together. Dre’s melody to the chorus transformed this song. It would not have been on the album if she hadn’t have lifted something special out of the void. I co-wrote the lyric with Emma Holman. I think she put some truly heartfelt emotion into the words and thank her for sharing. 

 Hole in your Soul

 

 

It’s only when u get here  u know this place exists

you’ve taken the wrong turn round every bend and twist.

u finally hit the bottom you have  one more thing to learn

no going back, this is the point of no return

 

When love has lost

There’s a cost

There’s a hole in your soul

 

When the vital spark of life in ev’ry leaf and tree

Is passed un-noticed By eyes that do not see

You look into the darkness – seek solace out of light

Cut out all sensation  – Taste and touch and sight

 

When love has lost

There’s a cost

There’s a hole in your soul

 

I climbed the highest mountain and looked down to the sea

I saw the miracle of life spread out in front of me

I look on all the beauty of night becoming day

When I saw that nothing moved me, I turned and walked away

 

You turn away from friends turn away turn away

Close down your heart. Nothing more to say

 

When love has lost

There’s a cost

There’s a hole in your soul

 

I climbed the highest mountain and looked down to the sea

I saw the miracle of life spread out in front of me

I look on all the beauty of night becoming day

When I saw that nothing moved me, I turned and walked away

 

When love has lost

There’s a cost

There’s a hole in your soul

“I begin to be aweary of the sun, And wish the estate o’ the world were now undone.”

It will come as no surprise to anyone who vaguely knows me that I am a massive Bob Dylan fan. This lyric started life as a Bob type song. The bridge part “I climbed…” – it’s not often that I will say something like that – something I haven’t done. I haven’t climbed the highest mountain to look down to the sea – and I’m prepared to wager that Bob hasn’t either – but it’s something he would claim to have done. So if you are going to tell a porkie – tell a big one, like Bob 🙂

Lyrically, for me, it’s a dark night of the soul song. Make of it what you will. Sara (our previous drummer – from The Pearl Harts) liked this one a lot – said it reminded her of Muse.  The line “This is the point of no return” was meant to have two meanings – but I realise one meaning is far more obvious than the other and unless I add an explanatory note, no one will see it. And who would be so tedious as to add an explanatory note? Duh!!!

All Our Yesterdays

 

 

Welcome to the great escape

No one’s gonna stop this big break

There’s a raging battle

Every single night

Someone’s give me half a chance I’m gonna set this place alight

So long to my sad old days

Don’t look back to those old ways

There’s a storm inside

Burning up my soul

Someone give me half a chance to make my life a whole

 

And the radio plays songs from a different day

Sing that song all night long wash your blues away

And the DJ plays All our yesterdays

So we say This one’s for the runaways

 

Welcome to this point of view

Somethings changed somethings new

Now we’re out the dark

Out into the sun

Some will stay and fade away but we are gonna run

 

And the radio plays songs from a different day

Sing that song all night long wash your blues away

And the DJ plays All our yesterdays

So we say This one’s for the runaways

And the DJ plays

All our yesterdays

So we say

This one’s for the runaways

So we say

This one’s for the runaways

“To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow, Creeps in this petty pace from day to day To the last syllable of recorded time, And all our yesterdays have lighted fools The way to dusty death.”

This wee tale started life as a song I was writing with the ace guitarist Chris Walker while Chris helped keep the band afloat for a year or so, for which I am eternally grateful. It wasn’t easy keeping things going – but we had commitments to honour and he’s a great guy. We also had a dear friend Louise Davies making sure we kept the flame alight – she didn’t give either of us any other option. I nicked my own lyric to drop into Iago’s infectious confection of rockabilly roll. A song called All Our Yesterdays with a rock and roll groove seems to be made for each other and it’s kind of as close as we get to a bit of light relief. This is Dre’s favourite dancing song – which is great for her – cos she can dance – but the other two people standing on stage beside her both have 2 left feet!! We try not to fall over. That is the lesson for today folks. Dance, laugh, be happy, it could be so much worse. Keep your head in the clouds and your feet on the floor and…..try not to fall over.

(all the quotes are from one small page of Macbeth

– the Scottish play – a nod to the McKay:)

The difficulty is knowing where to start here. Michael McDermott’s output over the last two years as The Westies and a solo artist has been prolific and profound. Making up for lost time; who knows? Michael’s four years clean and sober; 2016’s “Six on the Out” and “Willow Springs” made references to his lost years, while “Out from Under” tells the whole story from degradation through rehabilitation to redemption, pivoting around the album’s central song “Out from Under” and the decision to take responsibility for his life.

“Out from Under” isn’t just about the personal narrative; Michael’s been influenced by many different styles of American music and many of those influences surface on this musical journey. This is Michael’s story channelled through the American songbook. With a project this ambitious, you need a great team and it doesn’t get much better than Heather Horton on violin and vocals and Will Kimbrough on, well, anything with strings really.

The album opens with the brooding, menacing “Cal-Sag Road”; it’s about as low as you can get, a tale of drunkenness, sex and murder. It’s underpinned by Will Kimbrough’s atmospheric, ambient guitar sounds and the darkness of the arrangement mirrors the subject matter perfectly. The first half of the album runs through the ragtime resonator and banjo arrangement of “Gotta Go to Work”, the Southern boogie and “Sympathy For the Devil”-like backing vocals of “Knocked Down” to the Tom Petty-esque “Sad Songs”, depicting the malaise and lassitude of the music business. And then you hit the bottom.

“This World Will Break your Heart” is a pathos-packed series of vignettes pulling in dropouts, miscarriages and loneliness in old age. It’s the most heart-breaking song on the album and you know that things have to brighten up from here on in. And they do; It’s big, it’s anthemic and it has a hint of Springsteen. “Out from Under” is a floor-tom-driven monster of a song that’s as uplifting as anything you’ll hear this year. It’s the way forward, pointing the way for the second half of the album beginning with the idyll of “The Celtic Sea” where a sea voyage serves as a metaphor for the beginning of a redemptive relationship; it’s turbulent at first, but the crew pull together and the voyage looks set to succeed.

The three songs which follow are pure, joyous, celebration of love. “Rubber Band Ring” is a horns and Hammond Motown-style stomper, “Never Goin’ Down Again” sets a commitment to reform against a stadium rock background, while “Sideways” combines gorgeous Stax stylings with a lyrical style that leans towards Dylan or early Springsteen. And then you have the gentle acceptance of a new life in “God Help Us”.

“Out from Under” is a hugely ambitious album that follows Michael McDermott’s personal narrative and succeeds in combining an exploration of the highways and byways of American popular music with creative and poetic lyrics. I haven’t heard anything better this year.

“Out from Under” is released in the UK on Friday May 18, 2018.

Don’t take my word for it, listen to it here and then buy a copy.

Keegan McInroe’s last album, “Uncouth Pilgrims”, was very much a troubadour’s set of songs; tales of his travels and celebrations of life. This one’s a very different beast. You can probably guess from the title that it’s full of protest songs, like the ones that Dylan, Joan Baez and Buffy Sainte-Marie used to sing in the sixties and seventies. Since the US election last year, after the initial disbelief, the references to the administration onstage from touring American bands started to become a regular thing. The odd critical song started to appear on albums, but Keegan McInroe has gone all the way. “A Good Old Fashioned Protest” is nine protest songs (well, eight songs and a poem) with media manipulation, environmental exploitation, militarism and hypocrisy firmly in its laser beam.

The album opens with “Talking Talking Head Blues”, a strummed acoustic backing underpinning a headlong rush through the evils afflicted on us by the current US administration (and let’s not think we can be too smug in the UK), including biased news, the surveillance society, dumbing down and smoke and mirrors. The narrative opens with Keegan waking from a dream to hear a talking head on a news show; the dream is from the last song on the album, “Keegan’s Beautiful Dream”, which has all of the anti-establishment protesters banding together to render the system impotent. The album comes full circle and the cycle starts all over again.

I’ve had a beer with Keegan; he’s a lovely guy. He’s witty, he’s well-read, he knows his music and he’s really laid-back, but here the message is anger bordering on rage at the state of the world today. He targets environmental exploitation in “Big River”, militarism in “Bombing for Peace”, hypocrisy and self-righteousness in “Bastards and Bitches” (there’s no token single swear word here to get a parental guidance sticker here, this album is full-on) and the causes of radicalisation in “Timmy Johnson’s Living Brother”. The poem “Nietzche Wore Boots” deserves a special mention; it satirises the way the plutocracy divides and rules and points the way to an apocalyptic ending that will be just another tiny event in the history of the planet. And it’s the pivot before the two songs of redemption that end the album. And they’re still protest songs, just protest songs with a positive message.

Tyrants hate the arts and people involved in the arts. They know that artists and writers and poets are free thinkers who never just accept what they’re told by the establishment. They ask awkward questions and they create works that criticise the status quo because someone has to. Keegan McInroe has done that with this album; he’s pulled together a varied bunch of songs that will pull you in with their rhythms and melodies and make you stop and think about what’s really going on in the world; maybe ask a few questions yourself. That has to be a good thing.

“A Good Old Fashioned Protest” is released on Friday January 12.

Maybe you already know that Allan’s a bit of a Southside Johnny fan. Ok, a lot of a Southside Johnny fan. So, we decided to invite Johnny to contribute to the 2017 High Fives. And he did, with not one but four sets of High Fives chosen by our random category generator. That’s the kind of value you get at a Jukes gig. Take it away, Southside…

 

Steven Van Zandt

5 songwriting heroes

Cole Porter

Tom Waits

Steven Van Zandt

Bob Dylan

Smokey Robinson

 

5 places he’d play every night 

Paradiso Amsterdam

Paradiso, Amsterdam

Shepherd’s Bush, London

Birchmere, Alexandria, Virginia

Stone Pony Summer Stage, Asbury Park, NJ

Anywhere in Cleveland, Ohio

 

5 people he’d like to meet 

Mark Twain

Mark Twain

Big Bill Shakespeare

Barack Obama

Willie Dixon

My mother’s father

 

5 favourite harmonica solos

Little Walter

Big Walter, “Walking By Myself”,

Sonny Boy Williamson “Don’t Start Me Talking”,

Little Walter, “Tell me Mama” and “Lights Out”,

Paul Butterfield, “Born in Chicago” and a thousand others.

 

5 covers he hasn’t done yet

Way too many to list.  Happy New Year!

 

I don’t know why the idea of Scandinavian Americana should have seemed so strange at first; significant numbers of Scandinavians emigrated to the USA in the nineteenth century and it’s reasonable to assume that they brought their own flavours to America’s rich musical stew and that there would still be a cultural connection. Turns out that Americana is big in that part of northern Europe, both in homegrown and imported flavours, and that’s where Buford Pope (real name Mikael Liljeborg) comes in. Although he references Dylan as a touchstone, it’s difficult not to draw comparisons with Neil Young (particularly the Stray Gators phase) because of the high, keening voice and the plaintive pedal steel licks that permeate the album.

For his seventh album Buford Pope has opted for the naturalistic approach; learn the songs, get the right technical set-up and go in and play them once. And it works, although the album’s opening song “Still Got Dreams” is a bit too lo-fi for my taste. The lyrics deal with familiar roots themes: guns, drinking, driving (sometimes both at the same time) and families all feature in the mix. The recording process gives the album an intimacy and immediacy that recording tracks separately can never quite capture and highlights the interplay between the instruments, particularly the combination of slide or pedal steel and piano on “Infirmary” and “No Man’s Land”.

Standout songs? Well, the big chorus of “Freewheeling” and the epic Al Stewart feel of “The Baltic Sea” certainly do it for me.

“Blue-Eyed Boy” is released on Friday September 22 on Unchained Records (BP2017).

Levi Cuss ScrollerLevi Cuss has quite a back story. He’s lived an eventful life, done things that he regrets and done some time as a consequence, but ultimately it’s all grist to the mill. He’s living a more conventional life now (if writing and performing songs can be called conventional), using some of the experiences from earlier days as material for his songs and using music as a means of redemption. And that’s all very well, but is the music any good? Well, it is, as it happens; the songs are strong and the musical settings are always interesting. Producer Steve Dawson has brought in some vintage (seventies mainly) instruments and soundscapes to bring a sense of historical perspective to the narratives.

The songs are across a range of styles, but the musical settings are firmly rooted in the early seventies; the lively JJ Cale cover “Bring it Back”, a story about bringing contraband across the Mexican border which probably won’t be released as a single in the current climate, is part “Spirit in the Sky” and part Canned Heat’s “Let’s Work Together”. It’s raucous and great fun.

Without sounding derivative, the album is infused with seventies references. The opening song “Red City River” hints at Dylan and The Band, “Cut my Teeth” is country-rock and “Pills” is pedal steel-laced country about the twisted logic of assuming that pills are better than alcohol because ‘Pretty  few songwriting people they take pills’. There are a few songwriting twists, “Saturday Night” is a laid-back, rather than lively take on the party night and “Grandma” is a tribute that celebrates a real life without sanitising it.

And that leaves a couple very interesting songs indeed. “Tecumseh” is a love song with a twist; where a man builds a relationship with the sister he murdered, and the closing song “Utumbo” which recreates a spacey retro synth mix of Pink Floyd and The Animals. It’s quite a way to close out an album that moves easily between retro styles with songs that have a strong autobiographical feel.

“Night Thief” is released on Friday March 10 and Levi Cuss will be touring the UK later in the year.

Willow Springs ScrollerIt’s only a few weeks since I was raving about the latest album from Michael McDermott’s band The Westies and he’s now releasing an album under his own name using most of the same musicians that played on The Westies album. Let me just cut straight to the chase here and say that “Willow Springs” is every bit as good as “Six on the Out”. It’s packed with powerful songs and creative but unfussy playing from Heather Horton, Will Kimbrough and John Deaderick; it’s every bit as powerful as “Six on the Out”, but “Willow Springs” is a very different musical approach to similar themes.

The album has a more intimate feel than the companion piece by The Westies; the album credits don’t list a drummer and although “Let A Little Light In” has all the punch of a mid-eighties Springsteen anthem, it’s not typical of the album. There’s a lot of acoustic guitar, banjo, fiddle and harmonica, but also some subversive touches like adding synth pads to fill out the sound. There’s a desire not to be stereotyped and packaged, which is explicit in “Folksinger” particularly.

“Willow Springs” is, more than anything else, a deeply personal album, springing from a turbulent period around the death of Michael McDermott’s father. There are references to his heritage on “Six on the Out”, but here it’s right out in the open. “Shadow in the Window” is a painful look at the death of a parent and the soul-searching that follows in its wake. The song ends with the keening repetition of ‘I Love you’ gradually fading and slowing before “Willie Rain” opens with the spoken ‘I love you Daddy’ leading in to a relentlessly upbeat stringband arrangement of a song about his daughter. Placing the two songs together demonstrates the circle of life and the ultimately uplifting feel of the album. There are sombre tales, plumbing the depths of addiction (“Butterfly”) and small-time larceny (“Getaway Car”), but the final two songs of the album both look to the future with optimism.

It’s almost inevitable that Michael McDermott will be compared with Dylan, Springsteen and others; maybe that’s flattering but it’s not the whole picture. When he writes, sometimes in a very matter-of-fact way about gangsters, prison and drugs, you know it’s coming from first-hand experience. “Willow Springs” is the sound of that experience being processed and used up before moving on to the next stage; it never sounds less than authentic. Maybe the time has come for the next American songwriter.

“Willow Springs” is released on Friday July 22nd 2016 on Pauper Sky Records. Michael McDermott will be touring the UK later this year.

And if you won’t take my word for it, have a look at the video for the title track: