The more I hear of Martin Harley and Daniel Kimbro, the more I realise how perfect the combination is; it was a good day for fans of real music when these guys first met up. Not only are they supremely gifted individuals, but when they play together the total is much more than the sum of the parts. Martin Harley’s developed a well-deserved reputation as a Weissenborn player, but this album constantly reminds you that he has a cracking blues/soul voice that puts him in the top division of singers in that genre. I don’t think Otis Redding’s too fanciful as a comparison, or maybe Frankie Miller if you want something a bit closer to home. And that’s just Martin Harley; Daniel Kimbro’s a master of his craft as well, plucking, bowing, rasping, slapping and generally coaxing some very interesting noises out of his stand-up bass while backing up Martin’s voice with some sweet harmonies. I don’t often look forward to bass solos, but I make an exception in Daniel Kimbro’s case. Every time.
The songs then; they must be the weak point, no? Afraid not; this isn’t just about showcasing some excellent playing, Martin’s writing’s spot-on as well, pulling in influences from all over the world and melding them into authentic twentieth-century roots music that includes love songs like the Southern soul-tinged “My Lover’s Arms” with its lovely guitar fills running through the song and even some honky-tonk piano, and the poetic “Postcard from Hamburg” with lines like ‘The sky’s crying diamonds’.
The honky-tonk feel of the album’s opener, “One-Horse Town” and the uptempo country blues of “Feet Don’t Fail Me” ease you gently in to the album with some lyrical and instrumental invention before giving way to the homesick blues of “Postcard from Hamburg” and the ominous, louring despair of “Gold” and its escape into a soaring solo. I could tell you more about the wizardry of “Dancing on the Rocks” and the claustrophobic atmospherics of “Mean Old City (Part 2)”. I could go on about how good this album is, how it’s a perfect combination of two players (and singers) at the top of their game, and about the great understanding they have and how I don’t understand why people aren’t raving about Martin Harley, but I have a better idea. Instead of taking my word for it, go out and see them on their tour of the UK, Europe and Canada (details on the Martin’s website). That’s better than any recommendation from me, and then you’ll definitely buy the album.
“Static in the Wires” is released in the UK on Friday February 10th on Del Mundo Records.
I’ve listened to a lot of new albums this year and a huge chunk of those have been very good indeed. I’ve reviewed a lot of Americana/country/roots albums, but there’s been thrash metal, blues, London indie, British folk, jazz instrumental, European electronic pop and one or two that defied classification. Here, in absolutely no order are my five favourite albums of this year; theses the ones that stayed with me, refusing to be replaced by new kids on the block. I’m including links to them where possible so that you don’t have to trust me, just click and listen for yourself.
“Shaky Path to Arcadia” – Phil Burdett Group
Phil Burdett released two albums almost simultaneously at the beginning of the year, leaving me with a really difficult choice about which to include (not the only example of that dilemma this year) and I think it’s “Shaky Path to Arcadia” by a hairsbreadth. It’s a great example of Phil’s work pulling together lyrical references from the American popular songbook, Dada,travel across the American continent, and Basildon (where Phil grew up and was in a band with a pre-Depeche Mode Martin Gore). Match up a breathtaking range of references with pure poetry and some lovely ensemble playing from Southend’s finest and you have an album that’s a thing of rare beauty. I really can’t understand why the world has never discovered this singer/songwriter/poet/renaissance man. Maybe this year. No Spotify link for this, but check out the first album in the trilogy “Dunfearing and the West Country High”
“Six on the Out”- The Westies
The Westies is Michael McDermott’s band project, running parallel with his solo work as Michael McDermott. In 2016, within the space of a few weeks, he released this Westies album, followed by the “Willow Springs” solo set (which could easily have made this list). “Six on the Out” is mainly the darker side of his past; the twilight zone inhabited by losers, petty criminals, addicts and misfits. It’s a dark and almost unrelenting journey through the things that did happen and the things that could have happened at the whim of fate. The ideas and the inspiration behind the songs are solid, but Michael’s lyrics (inspired and informed by the likes of Dylan and Springsteen) turn them into perfect little vignettes. When an album opens with the song “If I Had a Gun”, you know it won’t be easy listening; “Six On the Out” will leave you emotionally wrung out but elated to be in the presence of songwriting greatness.
“Double Take” -- Frankie Miller
Frankie Miller; best soul singer ever from the UK? No contest. Frankie had a massive brain haemorrhage in 1994 which incapacitated him for over a decade and from which he’s still slowly recovering. Around four years ago a batch of seventies demo tapes of unpublished songs resurfaced and Frankie’s supporters (with some firm guidance from Frankie) decided that they were suitable for release and that the perfect way to get them noticed would be to create duets with other singers. Not surprisingly there was no shortage of takers, including Rod Stewart, Paul Carrack, Kim Carnes and Willie Nelson and “Double Take” was born. But it’s not those cameos that make it great; it’s a whole bunch of great three-minute songs, simple and effective, and that phenomenal voice. The quality of the vocals is so good that it’s hard to believe that these are demos; this is the business. The duet idea’s been handled fairly well, none of them sound jarring, and Elton John sounds like he’s having a great time, but the highlight for me is still the three band demos with “Full House” proving what a superb rock ‘n’ soul outfit they were.
“Big Sky Country” -- Sofia Talvik
In a year when I reviewed a lot of Americana , “Big Sky Country” stood out from the crowd because of the way it blended American and Scandinavian influences to create a voice that’s uniquely Sofia Talvik. The album was a result of a lengthy tour of the USA and manages to capture the vast open spaces of the deserts and prairies while keeping the intimacy and melancholy of tales of broken relationships and depression. Sofia’s pure, ethereal voice floats gently above a variety of musical stylings, creating an atmosphere that’s widescreen and ethereal, grandiose and mundane, summed up by these lines from the title song : ‘I’ve seen the Blue Ridge Mountains rise tall, I’ve heard the San Francisco sea lions call, I left my heart in a dirty old bar, in Laramie, Wyoming, I slept in my car’.
“Truth is A Wolf” -- Mollie Marriott
This one’s the album that never was. I had a review copy for months, played it to death in the car. Loved the songs, the singing, the playing, the whole lot. As the release date kept slipping, I held off publishing the review until I just had to get it out there. Apparently the album won’t ever be released in that form, but some dodgy reviewers have been selling copies on eBay. Mollie has a tremendous voice that’s backed up by impressive songwriting (and choosing her collaborators well) but the album works so well because you can feel that it’s a real band. They’re all great players, but it’s more than that, you can feel a sense of unity running through the entire album. I’d love to be able to share the album with you, but the best can do is share this single video for “Ship of Fools” and point you in the direction of YouTube:
The promotion campaign for “Double Take” features some of the artists involved (Rod Stewart, Paul Carrack and Huey Lewis) talking about the first time they saw Frankie Miller. Now, that’s a great idea.
Freshers’ Week, Dundee University, 1976 and the first gig of the year was Frankie Miller’s Full House. I went to the gig with my new mate Steve (still a mate and writing great reviews for MusicRiot). The band were superb and we left the gig raving about Ray Minhinnet’s guitar work, Chrissy Stewart’s bass playing, but most of all about Frankie’s stunning soul voice. He started the ballad “With You in Mind” a cappella, and with perfect pitch, before the band dropped in underneath the vocal; I was completely hooked from that moment. I’ve seen an awful lot of gigs since then, but I’ve never heard a band that nailed it so completely, song after song.
So let me put “Double Take” into some kind of personal and historical context. As Frankie slowly fought back from the brink after a brain haemorrhage in 1994, you would hear occasionally from friends on the Scottish music scene about his progress; not frequently, but often enough to know that things were gradually improving, and it carried on like that until 2012 when word started to leak out that a project with Frankie’s old demo tapes was in progress. It’s taken over four years and probably a few unexpected twists and turns, but the final result is “Double Take”, nineteen unreleased Frankie Miller originals reconstructed from demo vocals, and all but one reimagined as duets with singers that wanted to be involved with the project. Although Frankie’s biggest chart hits (“When I’m Away From You” aside) were interpretations of other people’s songs, he also wrote a shedload of great songs for himself and other artists.
The nineteen songs on “Double Take” are pretty representative of Frankie’s songwriting output, covering soul, blues, rock, country and ballads. And that’s the staple diet of Scotland, right there; forget your deep fried Mars Bars. All of the songs have been arranged around the original demo vocals (with Frankie involved in quality control), but the quality of the voice is so good that almost everything sounds like a full-scale production. To be honest, given the choice, I’d rather listen to Frankie Miller demos than most singers’ finished product.
The guests on “Double Take” are a mix of megastars and people that Frankie knew and worked with in the past. Without listing the whole lot, how about Joe Walsh, Elton John, Kid Rock, Delbert McClinton, Kim Carnes and Willie Nelson. Add those to the ones listed at the top of the article and you’ve got a huge amount of respect across musical styles for Frankie’s work. Great news for fans of Frankie from the mid-seventies is that Full House appear on three songs in the middle of the album. “When It’s Rockin’” (with Steve Dickinson) is a horn-driven rocker, “Beginner at the Blues” (with Delbert McClinton) is a slow blues and “To Be With you Again” (with Kim Carnes) is a mid-tempo ballad. For a while there, I was back in that night in1976.
With so many songs and such a variety of arrangements, it’s difficult to pick standouts, but the gospel choir of “Where Do the Guilty Go” (with Elton John) and the country ballad “I Want to Spend My Life with You” (with Willie Nelson) are hard to beat, while the hauntingly simple “I Do”, with only Frankie’s vocal over a sparse arrangement is the perfect closer for the album.
This has been a long journey for some very dedicated people, culminating in an album that can only add to Frankie Miller’s legacy by bringing those powerful vocal performances to a wider audience and unearthing so many unreleased songs. This is a classic.
“Double Take” is out on September 30th on Universal.
Here’s a sneaky little peek for you:
I reviewed Jim Stapley’s debut album in May and since then I’ve been waiting for a chance to see him sing live. Kenny Jones rates him very highly and so do many musicians I know. Actually that’s an understatement; the ratings usually start at ‘great singer’ and finish at somewhere north of ‘fuckin’ awesome’. But I’m not taking anyone else’s word for it; I want to hear it for myself and that’s why I’m blanking the curry house touts on Brick Lane in the pouring rain to get to 93 Feet East. And I’m soaked because umbrellas really aren’t rock ‘n’ roll, are they?
The opening act is Johnson-Jay (who later reappears as guitarist in the Jim Stapley Band) performing with Jennifer Clarke as The Junipers, a two guitars/guitar keyboards duo. It’s a lovely laid-back set with strong songs and superb harmonies throughout, particularly the closer, “Can’t Take it With You”; a perfect start to the evening. Jay Scott and the Find come roaring out of the blocks for the second support set but, and this is just my opinion, don’t really consolidate as the set progresses. Sorry guys, maybe I just really wanted to see Jim Stapley. So, nearly six months after hearing the album for the first time, I’m about to hear that voice live.
Even as the band do the final preparations (placing the set lists and drinks), it’s obvious that there’s a great camaraderie there and they get a real buzz out of being together. From the relatively low-key opening bars of “Out of Sight” with drums and acoustic guitar, you know that it’s a great band out there and that they’re stoked just to be there doing what they do best. It’s difficult to pick out individual performances from the band because it’s all about showing off the songs and providing a solid platform for Jim’s stunning rock voice to soar to the heavens. At a time when vapid mediocrities are hyped to the hilt and superlative proliferation has become a way of life, it’s such a great feeling to hear a real rock singer with plenty of soul working with such a tight, professional band. Jim’s voice harks back to the 70s and singers like Paul Rodgers and Robert Plant but there’s also a soulful edge which takes it in to the territory of Steve Marriott, Frankie Miller, Joe Cocker and maybe even John Waite. I’ve heard a lot of great singers, live and on record, and Jim Stapley is right up there with the best.
The set is perfectly paced and features almost everything from the debut album, “Long Time Coming” plus the non-album song, “Somewhere” as Jim and the band switch easily between styles and dynamics. The power ballad “Laid to Waste” is followed by the slower “Heartstrings” (both on the first single) before the first out-and-out rocker “My Way Home”, which is followed by the country stylings of “Shield”. “New Religion” builds from a solo piano backing to a huge full band sound with gospel backing vocals and then it’s into a cover of “We Found Love” which Jim and the band tackle very much in their own style (juge for yourself from the clip) before blasting into the 80s style “Made of Stone”, with its massive guitar riff and epic chorus.
The wind-up to the big finish starts with “Hurricane”, a slow ballad with another big chorus, builds up with the album opener, “No Good Reason” (and another monstrous guitar riff) before “Breaking Out” begins with an acoustic intro, builds as the band join in and finishes with everyone (particularly the backing vocalists pushing it to the limit. And that’s yer lot, apart from a quick chat with the man himself on the way out. Turns out he’s also a bloody good bloke.
So, I’m going to make some recommendations for you. If you like great rock music and appreciate a true rock voice, you should check out “Long Time Coming”. Then you should buy a copy at a decent record shop or here. Then you should find out when they’re playing near you, get a ticket and prepare to be amazed at the quality of the band and Jim Stapley’s astounding voice. That’s not too difficult, is it?