Every so often, an album comes along that isn’t just a great collection of songs played beautifully; an album that pushes a few personal buttons and maybe touches a few raw nerves as well. Rod Picott’s ‘Paper Hearts and Broken Arrows’ is one of those albums that creates a very personal connection. Maybe it’s an East Coast thing between Maine in the USA and Fife in Scotland; you don’t need to look too hard to see the parallels and ‘Washington County’ paints a picture of an area where genteel resorts sit side by side with poverty-stricken former industrial towns and villages. They’re three thousand miles apart, but it’s the same experience.

Just taking a step to one side for a moment, as music has moved into the digital realm, so have some of the ways of getting it out there and letting people know about it. It’s not so long since review copies arrived as CDs (or vinyl if you want go back a bit further) with an A4 press release, through the letterbox. Now they arrive in your inbox and an artist or PR team can include much more material with no extra distribution costs. Which means that artwork and credits, additional photos and lyric sheets are fairly common now and there’s a relatively recent addition of the artist’s ‘track-by-track’ notes. Reviewers should rely more on their ears and instincts than press releases, but you can sometimes pick up a useful insight into the artist’s vision. In the case of Rod Picott, there’s always something worth reading when he puts fingers to keyboard.

The story behind ‘Valentine’s Day’ on this album is a perfect example. It’s a very honest song, painfully so, that’s stripped back to the raw basics of acoustic guitar and cracked vocal. Rod’s notes tell us that the original recording was a full band version that sounded “wonderful – and completely wrong”, like “an Eagles track with a guy that can’t really sing”; the arrangement was too perfect and in Rod’s words again, “for me, perfect is almost always wrong”. Producer Neilson Hubbard liked the stripped-back version and three takes later it was in the can.

There are a couple of strands that run through the album, Rod’s acceptance of a spell of single life that surfaces in the opening song ‘Lover’, ‘Valentine’s Day’ and ‘Mona Lisa’ where the loneliness exists for creatives even inside a relationship, and the autobiographical songs ‘Lost in the South’ and ‘Mark of Your Father’ which both reference his background and his father with ‘Lost in the South’ using his father as a jumping-off point for Rod’s early experiences in the South, while ‘Mark of Your Father’ explores the complicated nature of father-son relationships using Marvin Gaye as an example of how bad things can really get.

And then there are a few songs taking their inspiration from other areas. The dark and menacing ‘Revenuer’, with its dirty guitars and screaming slide solo is inspired by a Taylor Brown novel and explores that thin line between right and wrong when your choices are limited and times are hard. ‘Frankie Lee’ is an outlaw song where the main character always accepts his ultimate fate as the electric chair and, like a lot of Rod’s more stark songs, wouldn’t sound out of place on The Boss’s ‘Nebraska’ (and I know I’ve made that link before).

Rod’s a fan of boxing and ‘Sonny Liston’ is a song that pulls at some of the threads running through a lot of Rod’s work. Sonny Liston was a complex character, torn between the world he came from and the dubious world of professional boxing and gangland connections that he joined without ever gaining the respect of either. The man who took his world title, Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali is better remembered now, but the Sonny Liston story is full of loose ends, links to organised crime, drugs, sudden death and astonishing sporting prowess. Rod weaves all of these strands into a powerful and economic narrative with a simple alliterative and assonant chorus: “Two big fists pumping like pistons, nobody punched like Sonny Liston”.

Fourteen albums in, Rod Picott is still pushing at the boundaries of his craft, still looking for ways to create songs that mean something, to him and to his audience. Let’s not use the word ”perfect” to describe ‘Paper Heart and Broken Arrows”; let’s go with an outstanding collection of beautifully-crafted songs delivered by outstanding musicians and a singer whose voice cracks with power and emotion. OK with you?

‘Paper Hearts and Broken Arrows’ is released in the UK on Friday June 10on Welding Rod Records.

No videos yet for songs on the album, but here’s a link to a live performance of the fabulous ‘Rust Belt Fields’:

‘Leo’ is the third instalment in the ongoing collaboration between songwriter Pete Gow and multi-instrumentalist Joe Bennett. The previous two albums ‘Here There’s No Sirens’ and ‘The Fragile Line’ have a signature sound that features Joe’s string arrangements; on this album, he’s moved further back into the orchestra to add some horns to the mix, creating a wider palette and a much punchier sound to frame Pete’s (mostly) personal songs. The songs are given a widescreen treatment that nods in the direction of “Born to Run”-era Springsteen, but there are a few other comparisons that maybe aren’t so obvious.

In 1978, a Scottish songwriter living in London released an album featuring a few songs about working in the music business and the characters touching it at tangents that you meet in bars and clubs. ‘City to City’ was a classic Gerry Rafferty album, marrying classic songwriting with interesting arrangements and “Where Would We Be Going” is in the same mould, creating perfect settings for the emotional tug of Pete’s soulful vocals.

The album’s eight songs (‘Where Else Would Be Going?’ tops and tails the album in an upbeat and then a more reflective version) all reward repeated listens. There’s a lot to recommend and to write about every song, but I’ll concentrate on three that cover most of the bases.

‘Side III of London Calling’ is a seedy story of a musician trying to get wired and laid after the gig’s over, set against a mid-tempo groove that nods in the direction of The E Street Band. It’s authentic and gritty and compares the perfection of the woman being pursued to, guess what, ‘Side III of London Calling’. The lyrics keep your attention as wait to hear the outcome and the tune is an absolute earworm. There’s a hint of Elvis Costello/Sam & Dave with a falling down reference and a classic turnaround in the final chorus when the central character describes himself as “just about as welcome as Side V of Sandinista”. It’s great fun.

‘Leonard’s Bar’ is another beast entirely; it’s the centrepiece of the album, it clocks in at over seven minutes and it’s not autobiographical unless Pete has a secret career as an armed robber that he’s not telling us about. It’s difficult to resist the comparison with The Boss’s ‘Meeting Across the River’ as the story unwinds of the career petty criminal coaxed into one last job. The song weaves its way through tempo changes as it builds to the heist section before closing out with The Leo Horns.

‘The City is a Symphony’ is a Joe Bennett co-write that uses the full dynamic range offered by a rock band plus horns and strings as a setting for a lyric that intertwines the pathos of the present with a flashback to a time with a former lover. Joe’s arrangement blends all of the instrumental elements perfectly to create a symphony in miniature that blends seamlessly into the final song, the reflective version of ‘Where Else Would We Be Going?’.

‘Leo’ is a marvellous combination of the important elements of songwriting and production, pulling in ideas from all over the place, including musical references from The Clash to Clapton to create an album with earworms aplenty and a wide range of musical textures that emphasise the power of the lyrics. I’ve not reviewed a better album this year.

‘Leo’ is released on Friday April 22nd on Clubhouse Records.

Here’s the album’s opening single ‘Where Else Would We Be Going?’:

We’ve seen artists cope in many different ways with the pressures of the pandemic and lockdown; here’s another one. Chuck Melchin has already done the long-distance collaboration thing with Michael Spaly of Green Monroe as the Los Brujos project in 2019, so now he’s pulled together another project. It’s a Bean Pickers Union retrospective, pulling songs from the albums “Potlatch” (2007), “Better the Devil” (2012), “Caterwaul” (2017) and “Archaeology” (2019), As an added bonus, there are four unreleased bonus tracks. With a total of eighteen songs, it’s into double-album territory; fortunately there’s so much great material to choose from over the fourteen-year period that the album has a very cohesive feel that retrospectives often lack.

Describe the album in one word? Varied; there’s a long list of players and an even longer list of instruments used. The arrangements and stylings cover most of the Americana spectrum and a bit more besides; “Independence Day” is a full-on rock band arrangement with over-driven guitars and keyboards, hinting at Bruce and the E Street Band musically and even lyrically with a story of cars, girls, beer and marriage in a small American town. Chuck Melchin is a songwriter who knows how to tell a story in a 3-minute song and has a sure touch with his subjects, picking out uncommon themes that are still relatively easy to relate to.

A perfect example is “Philemon”, the story of a survivalist left stranded in the wilderness when Armageddon didn’t actually come. The minimalist backing sets the tone beautifully for the quiet desperation of a man left with only his bible, his ammunition and his shattered illusions. The menacing “Reaper”, starting with sampled surface noise, is a murder ballad telling the story of two friends who take different paths with tragic consequences and ends with violent death. “Warrior” is, on the surface, the tale of a Confederate soldier returning after the Civil War. The martial drums set the tone for the piece, while the intro hints at Al Wilson’s soul classic, “The Snake”. It’s a familiar tale, and a very angry one, of the wounded warrior spurned by society that still happens today with veterans from Vietnam, the Gulf and Afghanistan.

These offbeat tales are mixed with personal material and acute observations, leaving a very rounded and satisfying impression. It’s eighteen well-crafted songs covering a wide range of styles and themes and that’s more than enough to keep any serious music fan happy.

“Greatest Picks” is out now.

Here’s the video for “Warrior”:

When we’re inviting people to contribute to our occasional features, there are two questions we ask. Do they have experience of the subject? Can they write about it in an interesting way? Ray Jones, CEO of Talentbanq , formerly Business Development Director at Time Out qualifies on both counts. He is passionate about live music and he knows how to write. It’s also fair to say that he’s seen a few gigs as well. So here’s what he came up with when we asked him to write about a memorable gig (and we certainly will be inviting him back):

 

“The Windshield Wipers Slapping Time” – it was pouring as we waited in line to board the ferry to the Isle of Wight. 

“I’ll take the 4×4” said my mate Bilko – and thank God he did. We were about to experience mud that made Glastonbury look a picnic. Fortunately we were also about to experience one of the best festival lineups of all times. The American Trilogy with nightly headliners – Tom Petty, Pearl Jam and The Boss.

With the ferry queue moving slowly – my 16 year old son CJ – heading for his first festival with dad, jumped out of the car with Bilko to get hot coffees.  “Forward” shouted the guy from P&O so I jumped into the front and drove onto the ferry – and sailed away – without them.

The first of many memories from that wonderfully soggy weekend. Cars were being towed INTO Car Parks – tents were afloat on a sea of mud and wellies were getting stuck in the quagmire. And yet in amongst the mud, the blood and the beer were the smiles of people soaking up GREAT music.  

Tom Petty on Friday night was a masterclass. The discomfort of rainwater trickling down our backs ignored as we took in the genius on stage.

I can’t remember when we saw Black Stone Cherry but they ripped it up, while the steamy wood-chip floor of The Big Top marquee seemed to be fermenting.

We met up with more friends. I have known Damian since we walked to primary school together. He and his wife were in one of those pre-sited Yurts. That’s the equivalent of The Ritz at IOW – and we did not let them forget it.

We partied quite hard to Madness on Saturday and Noel Gallagher was a fine warm-up on Sunday for what happened next – and that’s really what I had to share.

I’ve seen The Boss at Wembley, Hyde Park, The Olympic Park, Paris on the 4th of July and most memorably in his home state of New Jersey, but when he and the East Street Band walked out on stage at IOW2012 something magic happened.

The next three hours are a blur of singing, hugging, drinking, dancing and total admiration for a man and his band that delivered way beyond 100%.

We were exhausted when Mr Springsteen announced with a broad smile “We have a fucking boat to catch”

I have no idea if he made it because he broke into a massive, firework-festooned finale of “Twist and Shout” that had about 100,000 people partying in a way I had not seen at a festival before.

As we walked back to our tent my son said “Hey dad, this weekend has been the best thing I’ve ever done”

You can’t buy memories in Harrods! But you can make them at great festivals.

Thanks to wonderful people like John Giddings at Solo and Sarah Handy at Hard Rock I have many more memories of good times spent on the Isle of Wight, but those stories will have to wait. Maybe Music Riot will invite me back. 

And here’s a little bonus from The Boss:

 

 

It’s quite a story; Michael McDermott’s short rise and relatively successful start to a career in the early nineties, through a long downward spiral ending in addiction and jail and, ultimately, recovery and redemption. His previous four albums “Six on the Out” (as The Westies), “Willow Springs”, “Orphans” and “Out From Under” cover those themes pretty comprehensively, although Michael McDermott isn’t showing signs of running out of inspiration any time soon. He’s a songwriter who’s equally at home writing pieces that are intensely personal, straightforward love songs, observational songs, fun songs and, on this album, a couple of powerful songs inspired by the state of America in 2020. Whatever he’s writing, he’s never less than totally honest and always completely believable.

The furious rush of the title song opens the album, pulling no punches as it tears through the state of the USA today, melding the lyrical helter-skelter of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” with the musical punch of “Born to Run” in a scathing attack on the Trump vision (and we’re done with the Dylan and The Boss references now).

The musical stylings are what you would expect from a Michael McDermott album; there’s a lot of variety. From the headlong charge of “What in the World”, through the finger-picked guitar on “Positively Central Park” and “New York, Texas” to the Motown bounce of “Contender”. The album certainly isn’t one-paced and, as always, demonstrates Michael’s range and versatility. As ever the musicians do exactly what’s needed to get the message over, without ever sounding showy.

Lyrically, the album’s a step away from the quartet mentioned above. The title song and the heart-rending “Mother Emanuel” are both protest songs, while the rest of the album focusses mainly on a couple of themes; the post-addiction space that Michael occupies now, and an exploration of some of the events in his personal history that may have been triggers for the dark period. This isn’t about self-justification, it’s more in the nature of a warning to others of the treachery of that particular slope.

So, which songs pushed my buttons? Obviously, the title song with its stinging attack on USA 2020, including the unequivocal message: ‘It’s not to hard to see The Presidents’s a criminal’ is right up there. “The Veils of Veronica”, the story of someone with too few skins to deal with the world is heart-rending, and the gentle “Blue-Eyed Barmaid” turns the tables on the cliché of the customer pouring out his troubles to the long-suffering barmaid. With eleven new songs (plus a bonus of the acoustic demo of the title song), there’s so much to love here; the songs are intense and Michael’s vocal delivery is impassioned, as always. It’s a grim reality of the music business today that Michael McDermott is unlikely to become rich, but that won’t stop him making music and we’ll all benefit from that.

“What in the World” is released in the UK on Friday June 12th on Pauper Sky Records.

BTW, it passes the Will Kimbrough test as well; he’s on pretty much everything I’ve loved over the last five years and he’s also doing his thing here.

A producer, a photographer and two musicians walk into a pub. Sorry, there isn’t a punchline to this; it’s just what happened. A quick pre-Christmas beer with some music business friends to chew the fat; what do you think we talked about? As always with these semi-unplanned sessions something good came out of it. We’ll leave it to Graeme Wheatley, bass player and songwriter with the band Deep Blue Sea to tell the story, enhancing it with some music trivia. You might want to start this piece whenyou have about an hour to spare because it’s a bit addictive, especially after Riot Towers made a contribution,

 

Sitting in The New Cross House pub the other night with Allan McKay (something that could very easily become habit forming), we were talking about his series of guest articles “High Fives” in Music Riot – sign up now if ya haven’t already!

I’ve written a few before and always like rambling on about whatever, so I was happy to quickly volunteer to write one for this Christmas – even before Allan gave me my first pressie of the year – even if I had no idea what to waffle on about.

We were with Iago Banet, a guitarist from a band that I’ve heard are not that bad and we were talking about a gig we did a few weeks ago. Our singer, Dre Smith, had lost her voice and we were doing the gig as a 3 piece – playing songs we’d never played before. I proudly boasted that I’d sang the entire lyric to “Blinded By The Light” by Brucie without a single rehearsal. Allan asked if I liked Manfred Mann’s version or the original best, then Iago reminded me that after 3 attempts we’d had to abandon “All Along The Watchtower” because I kept getting the first line wrong!!! Pride comes before…

Anyway, this conversation led to the topic of this High Five.

Five covers that I think are better than the original.

Only my opinion here – but when I got to thinking about it – there’s maybe 20 or 30 I could muse about. So, I thought I’d kick it off with two people who I consider to be un-betterable – but concede that in these two occasions, they are bettered.

 

Song 1

All Along The Watchtower – Bob Dylan – Jimi Hendrix

OK, if you know me at all, you may have heard me at sometime mention the name Bob Dylan. He’s the cat, the verbal acrobat-tery, the lyrical dexterity and temerity in all sincerity. A couple of weeks ago we were playing Bude R&B Festival, which involved a good 4 hour drive back and forth. Amanda Dal, our wonderful drummer, asked me, unprompted, to play the three albums Bob recorded in 1965 that “invented Rock Music as we know it”. Much to Iago’s horror. So we had a great journey back and forth listening to Bob. It’s Amanda’s turn next, so I am going to get 4 hours of singer songwriter LP. The fact that she’s a ringer for Bob makes me favourable disposed to her from the get go – so – I’m ok with this!

Anyway, some people say (fools that they are) that any cover of a Bob song is going to be better than Bob’s version. BUT THEY ARE WRONG!!!! This has only ever happened once in the whole wide universe since the beginning of time. And only one person could a done it. Jimi. Y’know, I’d love to be able to wipe the tape and hear Jimi’s version of Watchtower again for the first time. Can you remember that moment? I can’t. But listen to it now. The swagger, the invention, the sass, the sheer coolness.  Four minutes of perfect cool. If Jimi hadn’t recorded it, would we remember the original? Was it just a fairly average track on a subdued and pared back album from Bob who might have been wondering at the time where he was going next. Recorded in 1967 after the “fall” it was a total turn away from the more blues inspired electric albums and a return to his more folkie side, but Jimi took this track, rocked it up, funked it up and delivery to my mind one of the greatest little guitar pop songs of all time.

Oh, BTW, the title of Bob’s album, John Wesley Harding. It was named after a Texan outlaw of that name – only they spelled it wrong!!! He was called John Wesley Hardin.

Compare and contrast:

 

Song 2

Nothing Compares 2U – Prince – Sinead O’Connor

I was a big Prince fan. Still miss the guy. He might have had demons and might have been just a tad obsessed but look at the catalogue of pop songs. Inventive, fun, joyous, rude, rock and raunch and lovesexy. He made pop a bit dangerous, a lot of fun and a lot of cool – combined a bit of Jimi, a bit of Marc, a bit of James Brown and a lot of genius. Until Sinead covered this song I would not have thought anyone could touch the little chap at his own game. I kinda thought Prince songs were indelibly stamped with Prince’s logo. You can’t touch this….

I wuz wrong. The frailty and fragile nature of the song fits Sinead and both somehow meld. She is the song, the song is her. That just doesn’t happen very often – if at all. That revolting phrase “you owned it” churned out on brain dead TV talent shows ad nauseam for once applies. You can’t think of the song without thinking of Sinead and vice versa. They might be so entwined that it overshadows her career.

OK, that’s two down and just to sum them up, nobody else has done a cover of a Prince song better than Prince and ditto Bob. Argue away, I’m not listening.

Compare and contrast:

Song 3

With A Little Help From My Friends – The Beatles – Joe Cocker

This is weird. The Beatles FFS? The greatest band ever. The greatest song writing partnership of the 20th century. The band that wrote the book (and the sequel). Have you heard some of the covers? “Hey Jude, Hey Bing”? Trust me, it was an album. My dad had it. Can you imagine the scene in our house? He was a jazz musician and I think he made this one attempt to be down with his son. He’d spent some futile time trying to tell me that all of this pop music stuff was nonsense and real music would eventually come into its own and Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington et al would be on Top of the Pops (Pops in this case being hep cat chat for Dads). Suffice to say most covers are cheesy in the extreme or just for shock value with nothing of value added. From Matt Monroe to Siouxsie Sioux. But, Joe? That voice. That presence. That simple honesty and stripped back truth. It’s a song, dare I say, that Paul didn’t really think was the Dog’s Bs so he suggested that Ringo sang it as a little bit of fun “What would you do if I sang out of tune?” and the whimsy fitted the feel of Sgt Peppers. But it was far from a stand-out track.

Now, fast forward a mere year or so. On stage at Woodstock and Joe says “the title of this song says it all”. The song is imbued with something more. A part of the hippy dream is captured in the performance. It’s a time piece. Oh and that voice? Come on. Just go have a listen. Band ain’t too bad either.

Song 4

Respect – Otis Redding – Aretha Franklin

Like Joe, this cover takes the song into places the original didn’t. Like the others too I guess. But with this one, you start pretty high up – with that voice, Otis. A voice that can quite easily make you cry. My Girl? Try A Little Tenderness? I Been Loving You Too Long? I’m tearing up now. And I’m a tough guy…

But Aretha takes a lyric that just might veer towards a bit misogynistic these days – y’know, man works all day – comes home to little lady cooking for him and expects a bit of R – E – S – P – E – C – T – and she makes it the first bona fide feminist mega hit defining moment of the decade. Oh yeah, and it was her major first hit after 10 years fighting against “the man”!!

What Aretha did changed the world. A cover version of a pop song changed the world? Yes, that’s what I said. Made a massive difference to the feminist movement and the civil rights movement. The impact of this little pop song can’t be ignored. That’s how deep my love is.

Oh, BTW, Otis didn’t really like the cover – but learned to live with it when the dosh rolled in – and also – listen to his version – most people think the lyric “R – E – S – P – E – C – T find out what it means to me” is part of the original.

Song 5

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun – Robert Hazard – Cyndi Lauper

For years I’d thought Prince wrote this especially for Cyndi. Someone told me some Fake News and I never questioned it. It’s a great song and it seemed believable. It’s my wife’s favourite “getting ready for Friday Night” song – so I had to include it for her.

There’s not a great deal to say about it other than, in Cyndi’s hands and voice, it’s perfect pop. In Robert Hazards? Well, have a listen to the song below. My main question is, How did Cyndi hear this very very average song and say “I can make this song a mega hit that will last generations and become Graeme’s wifes’ favourite “getting ready for Friday Night song” for all time”? I dunno the answer but one thing I will point out is, the song lasts 2 minutes and 30 seconds and the actual track lasts 4 minutes and 30 seconds. And by strange coincidence, when my wife says she’ll be ready in 15 minutes… you can fill in the rest.

Just before I trot off to have a mince pie, there were a couple of things I considered but rejected and hopefully some of these will incite you to invective 🙂

  1. Leonard Cohen covers – it’s easy to say other people sing them better than Lenny. That’s not the point. We can all say a photograph of a tree looks more like a tree than a Van Gogh painting of a tree. I don’t know where I’m going with that – other than Lenny is the Van Gogh of pop – funny, sad, dark, deep, tortured and Chaplinesque – there’s a crack in everything – that’s how Lenny gets in. I like his cracks. In his house there are many flaws – all of them interesting.
  2. Led Zeppelin – when you actually claim to have written all your covers yourselves – it doesn’t apply.
  3. Anyone covering Tom Waits with a gravelly voice – don’t be silly (Sir Rodney).
  4. Anyone covering Tom Waits with a lovely voice – as above.
  5. The Blues – it’s totally impossible to compare Crossroads – Robert Johnson to Cream. Both are wonderful in their own way – and I bet you can think of lots more examples. So, off you go, your challenge is now to name 5 blues songs that have brilliant originals and brilliant – but significantly different – covers.

Many thanks to Allan for allowing me to stop work for 3 hours to write this 🙂

Have yourselves a merry little Christmas, if the fates allow.

Cheers

Graeme

Written before the election December 2019 (I might not be in such a frivolous mood after that).

Sorry Graeme, but we need to have the last word here (not about the election, not even going there), especially after squeezing in two High Fives in one piece, but we did mention another song, which was a band covering their own song. Thin Lizzy’s “Nightlife” version of “Still In Love With You” should have pushed all the buttons as a duet between Phil Lynott and the wonderful Frankie Miller, but it was a bit of a mid-tempo plodder. Someone obviously worked out that it was a potential anthem, slowed it down, stuck a truly wonderful Brian Robertson solo in there and, voila, rock classic.

A new Rod Picott album is always something to look forward to. He’s an exceptional songwriter and his voice is a very effective vehicle for delivering those songs. It’s a voice that’s frayed around the edges and at times crackles with emotion. On “Tell the Truth and Shame the Devil”, Rod has stripped his delivery back to just guitar, harmonica and voice; oh, and the songs. Just to give this some context, the album was recorded after a health scare Rod had over the last winter (although not all of the songs are contemporary) and has a stark, sometimes brooding, feel mingled, unsurprisingly, with intimations of mortality, including the opening song “Ghost”, a brutally honest assessment of Rod’s current situation, and that of many others in similar positions. Confessional, hard-hitting singer-songwriter isn’t a particularly lucrative career path these days.

Rod recorded the entire album alone, without an engineer, before handing the tapes over to Neilson Hubbard (you might remember him if you’re a MusicRiot regular) for final production. If you want a benchmark, the finished article has the same feel as The Boss’s “Nebraska” and has similar lyrical themes of family, poverty and alienation. The result of this method is that the songs are stripped to their very essence with no distractions, emphasising the stories they have to tell and, as always with Rod Picott, they’re striking and memorable stories.

As a writer, Rod likes a metaphor; the murder ballad “Too Much Rain” uses a barren landscape to represent the failure of a marriage to blossom, while “Bailing” uses the idea of bailing literally and metaphorically, referring back to a flooded childhood cellar as a metaphor for the futility of activity that only serves to keep us in the same place. Rod also likes to bring a bit of autobiography into the mix; “Mark” is the story of an unexplained teenage suicide, while “Spartan Hotel” is that bar in any town where anything goes if you can pay the price. And don’t forget the social comment; “A Beautiful Light” aims straight the heart of those songwriters who try to glamourise the drudgery of blue-collar life as a means of social control.

This is the third Rod Picott album we’ve reviewed here and they’re consistently powerful pieces of work blending punchy stories of small-time America with haunting melodies in a voice that is both emotive and vulnerable. It’s probably the most personal of his recent albums and well worth a listen.

“Tell the Truth and Shame the Devil” is out now Welding Rod Records and Rod will be touring the UK in October.

It gets kind of personal here. I first heard of Michael McDermott in 2016, just before the release of “Six on the Out”. I was at a bit of a professional low point and I was blown away by the searing honesty of Michael’s songs. And where do you go from a low point? Well, obviously, it’s upwards and I’m pleased to be moving in the same direction as Michael McDermott. And that album as The Westies wasn’t Michael’s only release that year; he released the more contemplative solo piece “Willow Springs” a couple of months later. I’ve been passionate about music for a long time now and I don’t think I’ve ever heard two albums from one artist that were so complete released within two months of each other.

Three years on, Michael McDermott’s creative flame still burns magnesium-bright; the proof is in “Orphans”, Michael’s latest album. Songwriters don’t like to let anything go to waste, and this is a bunch of songs that didn’t quite fit on “Six on the Out”, “Willow Springs” or the equally-superb “Out from Under”. Doesn’t mean they’re not good songs; Southside Johnny’s first three albums, “I Don’t to Go Home”, “This Time It’s for Real” and “Hearts of Stone” are laced with stunningly-good Springsteen songs that wouldn’t have worked on “Born to Run” or “Badlands”. And I’ll seriously fall out with anyone who says that “The Fever”, “Talk to Me” and “Hearts of Stone” aren’t classic examples of the songwriter’s art.

But back to Michael McDermott (although The Boss isn’t an inappropriate reference to throw in here); the songs on “Orphans” are the niggling doubts; those songs that just wouldn’t let go, even after the albums were out there. These songs are seeing the light of day because they deserve to, and because they complete the picture painted by “Six on the Out”, “Willow Springs” and “Out from Under”.

“Orphans” pulls in elements from all three of those albums. These aren’t out-takes; these are great songs that refused to die. The album opens with “Tell Tale Heart”, a song that, in one line, made me question my orthodox view of British socio-political history; that’s not a bad start to an album. Of the remaining eleven songs, there isn’t a bad one and “Sometimes When it Rains in Memphis”,Full Moon Goodbye” and “Los Angeles a Lifetime Ago” would grace any album. And these are the songs that didn’t make the original cut.

“Orphans” is the missing piece in the jigsaw of the three previous albums, completing the journey from success through degradation to redemption and it’s absolutely essential. It’s out now on Pauper Sky Records and Michael will be in London in early May to launch the album. In the meantime, just have a look at this:

 

As ever; songs, not singles. These songs are all from albums that we’ve reviewed this year (that’s Stone Foundation ruled out again – sorry guys). There’s something else, apart from greatness, that links all these choices; they’re not the only songs from the albums they feature on that could have made this list. The albums are all wonderful pieces of work taken as a whole, but they all feature at least two standout tracks that would have been seen as singles in a different musical era. There were difficult choices but ultimately it had to be whittled down to five songs. In no particular order, here are Allan’s favourite five songs of the year; the songs that made his heart soar or made him cry, but definitely made him hit the repeat button.

 

“The Last Song” – Dean Owens

Just to be contrary, it’s actually the first song on the album, ”Southern Wind”, which was a collaboration with Will Kimbrough. One of the things Dean and Will bonded over was their love of Ronnie Lane, whose influence is all over this one. Having heard it live a few times, where it tends to appear towards the end of the set, confirms the power of the song and allows Dean to riff on repeated choruses by throwing in lines from, for example, “Ooh La La”. It’s fun and it’s memorable; if you don’t love this, you’ve got icicles for ventricles.

 

“Love in Wartime” – Birds of Chicago

Absolutely gorgeous. This clocks in at about the six minute mark but you just want it to keep going. It’s one of those that seduces you in with a gentle intro then builds and builds to the first chorus. And by that time, you’re hooked; you’re there for the duration. Maybe there’s a nostalgia thing there; the feel, the chord progressions are a lot like classic mid-seventies era Bob Seger. The melody’s hummable, the harmonies are superb and it’s hugely uplifting. I dare you not to be moved by this.

 

“Out from Under” – Michael McDermott

This is a song where you just have to accept the Bruce Springsteen comparison because this is a stadium rocker in the mould of “Born to Run”. It’s a monstrous ‘wall of sound’ production driving along by pounding, relentless floor toms and a huge full band arrangement. In the context of the album, it’s the song that represents the start of the upward turn in Michael’s rehabilitation and the uplifting lyrical message is carried along on the tide of a widescreen musical setting. Taken out of the context of the album, it’s a song that FM radio in the States would have been all over in the 80s – not just a powerhouse arrangement, a potent message as well.

 

“Son of an Immigrant” – Gerry Spehar

A perfect example of the song that leads you in a certain direction before pulling the rug from under you and twisting the point of the narrative. It’s not just an example of a clever narrative trick; like the rest of the album, this is a powerful commentary on the current state of the USA, and its current leader. The song has a very clear message; if you go back far enough almost everyone’s an immigrant in the land of the free. Like “Out from Under”, it sits perfectly within the context of the album without needing that context to shine as a great song.

 

“The Shape of You” – Rod Picott

Sometimes a song just needs to find the point in your life where it fits. This one happened for me on the Tube on the way back from a gig at Green Note. I’d already heard it a few times but this time it suddenly hit home. It’s about the realisation that someone has become a part of you. In this case because that person has gone, but I guess the image works if they’re still around. The song opens with the image in the title, then develops that image. It’s a really simple idea but beautifully effective. The arrangement’s sparse, with mainly acoustic guitar and vocal with some very subtle Will Kimbrough guitar atmospherics just lurking in the background. Delicate and gorgeous.

There are many other songs that could have been on this list; there’s so much incredible music out there, but these were the ones that were buzzing around my consciousness when I put this together. Have a listen, and I hope you enjoy.

Just imagine a world where everyone placed a value on music – let’s go the whole hog; all of the arts. A world where everyone was willing to pay for the privilege of listening to music that was lovingly crafted by gifted individuals. A world where ‘making it’ isn’t about being the least mediocre Whitney wannabe on a Saturday evening TV show before milking your fifteen minutes (which has probably been devalued to about six and a half minutes now). In that world Joe Francis would be playing packed-out stadium gigs with a ten-piece band and selling albums by the container-load. But that’s not where we are

Where we are is the last knockings of 2018 in the basement of The Slaughtered Lamb in Clerkenwell. Joe’s stripped back the Winter Mountain song arrangements to a duo format and he’s accompanied by Cornish guitar virtuoso Sam BF. But I’m getting a little bit ahead of myself now, before the Winter Mountain duo do their thing, we have not one but two support artists, Kira Mac and Polly Money.

Kira’s a country singer-songwriter from Manchester; she’s completely engaging live, combining originals and covers. “My Tiny Town” and “Bad News” hold their own against Dolly Parton, Katy Perry and Fleetwood Mac covers. Apparently her band doesn’t like the new song “Bad News”; ignore them Kira, it’s a great song.

Polly Money, from Cornwall apparently, delivers something completely different. While Kira’s backing was acoustic guitar, Polly (dressed in all white) wields a white Strat and weaves some lovely picking through her beautifully soulful vocal lines. The guitar sound is gorgeous, clean and thickened up with a chorus pedal; can you imagine the guitar of John Martyn and the vocal of Corinne Bailey Rae? That’s as close as I can get. And on to Joe.

From the opening notes of the Springsteenesque “Sunlight, Good Roads”, it’s a blast. This is the real thing, the genuine article. With Joe’s powerful rhythm guitar and Sam BF’s hooks, fills and solos. In a small venue like this, who needs drums and bass? And what about Joe’s voice? It’s powerful and impassioned; sometimes you can hear Mike Scott, sometimes you can hear Bruce Springsteen but mostly you can hear Joe Francis. What you always hear is total commitment.

It’s not just a runthrough of Winter Mountain greatest hits; Joe loves to wing it and throw in the unexpected. Alongside “Girl in the Coffee House”, “Banba’s Crown”, “The January Stars”, “Things That I’ve Done Wrong” and “Kissing in the Rain” (all classic songs), he throws in the Paul Simon classic “Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes” and quick references to the Bruces, Springsteen and Hornsby (oh, and Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog”). It’s powerful, emotional and cathartic; you really should really try to catch Joe live whether it’s solo, duo or with the full band.

How elated was I after the gig? I swear I flew.