How’s everyone doing? We’re almost a third of the way through the year now and it’s about time to look at how things are shaping up and to give you some news about the direction we’re taking here at MusicRiot. Over the years we’ve evolved from reviewing everything that popped through the letterbox (and now it pops in to the inbox) to our current approach of only reviewing things that we really believe in and want you to hear (and there’s plenty of that to keep everyone busy at Riot Towers). And we don’t like negativity; you can get enough of that in the NME or letters/comments pages of the specialist music magazines and websites. So, if you think there aren’t many one or two star reviews, that’s the reason. There’s so much good music out there that we want to focus on, whatever the genre.
And we’re having a pretty good year so far. Of the 2017 predictions, Ags Connolly has released a very good and critically-acclaimed second album, Stone Foundation signed to 100 Per Cent records and charted nationally at 25 with their “Street Rituals” album, Sound Of The Sirens have their album “For All Our Sins” released at the end of May on DMF Records and they’re playing the Fields of Avalon stage at Glastonbury. Hannah Aldridge’s stunning second album “Gold Rush” is out on June 16, and Dean Owens has delayed the release of his latest album “Southern Wind” until (probably) early 2018 to focus on yet another side project named Redwood Mountain with traditional fiddle player Amy Geddes. Watch this space for more on that one.
As for MusicRiot, we’re going to launch a new review feature very soon called “Sound Bites”, where we take a brief look at albums and singles that are interesting and worth listening to but don’t quite get the full review treatment. No star ratings, no judgements, just a recommendation to give it a listen.
That’s about it for now. Keep your eyes, ears and mind open and check out our Facebook page to find out what we’re up to.
2016 brought more than its fair share of challenges but also a respectable amount of great music, live and recorded. With 2017 knocking on the door, this is probably a good time to start looking forward again. I’m not making any rash predictions this year; I’m just going to highlight a few things that you should look out for.
Ags Connolly has his second album, “Nothin’ Unexpected”, out in February and I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy. It’s produced once again by Riot Towers favourite Dean Owens (more about him later) and it should capture Ags in fine form, delivering his fine Ameripolitan songs in his rich, smooth baritone voice. Since his debut “How About Now”, Ags has been touring extensively in the UK and across the pond, including a high profile support slot for Rosanne Cash in 2014 and he’s never been on better form. We should be reviewing this one very soon.
These guys have been working their butts off for years now pursuing their new soul vision with a combination of hard work on the gig circuit to build up a devoted following and release some quality albums. They’ve raised their profile year on year and been rewarded with a record deal for their upcoming album. Each of their albums has been a progression from the previous one, so this one should be a bit special. They also have a reputation for attracting some interesting special guests, so we’re eagerly anticipating this one.
I know, this starting to sound like a broken record (whatever that is), but you really should be listening to Hannah Aldridge. Like many artists, she’s gone down the crowdfunding route to get her new album made. It’s her second, following her superb debut “Razor Wire” and Hannah tells me that the style has shifted towards a more rock sound (she did a lot of the writing using a Telecaster rather than an acoustic) and from the songs she’s played live already, it sounds like another outstanding album’s on the way, with an eta of June 2017.
Dean Owens – “Southern Wind”
Another example of 2016 crowdfunding; Dean Owens wrote most of the album before raising the money to record it in Nashville with his dream team, including producer and guitar player extraordinaire Will Kimbrough. Dean’s been working incredibly hard, over the last couple of years particularly, to get some attention for his songs and he’s been rewarded by national exposure from Bob Harris and a support slot for Rosanne Cash. Here’s hoping “Southern Wind” pushes him into the mainstream.
Sound of the Sirens second album
Oh god, he’s not still going on about Sound of the Sirens, is he? I am, and like everyone else featured here, the reason is that they’re very good. Despite playing just about every festival in the UK this summer, Abbe and Hannah still found time to record an album. I’ve tried to get some details, but the Sirens are staying schtum, apart from the fact that it’s a bit different. If the new songs I’ve heard live are any indication, it’s going to be very good. Onwards and upwards. 2017 here we come.
Even when a gig’s going really well, there’s sometimes a very special moment when all the stars align to produce a musical epiphany (as the NME described Thin Lizzy’s seamless shift into “The Boys are Back in Town” on “Live and Dangerous”). These perfect moments can have many forms and they aren’t always strictly about the music. Let me explain.
Wade Bowen and Willy Braun @The Borderline
Towards the end of a great set where Wade and Willy took turns to perform their own songs and a few covers, Wade started to play the audience a little by asking who had travelled furthest to see the gig. The audience managed to cover a fair chunk of England, but then Wade stopped in his tracks and repeated the question to someone right at the front of the stage who confirmed that, yes, he did say Spain. Luis, and his son (also Luis) had flown from Spain that day and were flying back straight after the gig. Wade made sure that they got a huge ovation and, judging by the beaming grins, topped off a perfect night for father and son. Next time I think that I can’t be bothered to go all the way to Camden or Shepherds Bush for a gig, I’ll remember Luis and what dedication to live music really means.
Hannah Aldridge @The AMA UK Showcase, Hackney
The acoustic room at this showcase was truly acoustic; no amplification at all for vocals or instruments. All the artists, including Dean Owens and Danni Nicholls rose to the occasion, and Hannah Aldridge played a flawless set to a spellbound and appreciative audience. The night peaked when Hannah introduced a new song from her upcoming second album. The song was “Gold Rush”, a haunting tale of growing up and growing old in small-town America that transfixed the audience from start to finish; not a whisper and barely a breath until the song was over. Hannah’s the real deal: singer, player and superb songwriter.
Sound of the Sirens@ Bush Hall
This was a big deal for Abbe Martin and Hannah Wood, headlining their own show at the prestigious Bush Hall in Shepherds Bush. Following great performances from Sadie Horler and Wildflowers, Abbe and Hannah soon hit their stride and demonstrated their dynamic range and exquisite harmonies. They featured a cover that I’ve heard them play before, the Simon and Garfunkel song “Sound of Silence”. Something about the ambience of the room, the pure and perfect harmonies and the way song highlights Abbe and Hannah’s vocal and instrumental power created a moment of magic in west London on an October night.
The Mighty Wah! @Water Rats
Start to finish, all killer no filler. Pete Wylie still has it and his fans still adore him. The band didn’t need to win over the crowd but they still gave it the beans. Pete joked about hoping that musicians would stop dying soon, because Wah! were constantly adding songs to the set as tributes. All of the anthems appeared in all the right places, but just as “Sinful” was simmering away nicely something almost mystical happened; fans looked at each other in disbelief as the song morphed seamlessly into “Heroes” as a tribute to the Thin White Duke. No big fanfare, just an effortless transition from one anthem to another.
Underhill Rose @Green Note
This was already a memorable occasion. A local power cut in Camden, the room lit by candles and tea lights and a completely unplugged set by Eleanor Underhill, Molly Rose Reed and Salley Williamson meant that no-one would forget this gig in a hurry, but the most surreal part was still to come, with a cover of “These Boots Were Made for Walking” featuring a lead vocal from bass player Salley Williamson and a spontaneous eruption of clapping, singing and whooping all through the room. This was a band and a crowd that were determined to have a good time whatever it took.
Well, after spending a morning trying to pick my five favourite photos of female artists this year, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m either very indecisive or a rampant egomaniac (answers on a postcard please). After a lot of soul searching, I managed to narrow it down to ten photos that I really like, so I’m going to split them over two days. I hope that doesn’t make me a bad person.
Gabi Swiatkowska (Tildon Krautz) @Green Note
I’ve spent a fair amount of time at Green Note this year and I’ve now stopped moaning about the lighting. I know what it’s going to be and I’ve actually had some great results there. So why complain. This was a Josh Harty gig and he was supported by Tildon Krautz, a surreal and incredibly entertaining string band. The image of Gabi dwarfed by the upright bass was too good to miss, but it took a few attempts to get the perfect angle and even more attempts to get a shot where the neck of the bass wasn’t in front of Gabi’s face. The lighting at Green Note always gives muted colours on stage, so black and white was always the way to go with this one. You can see the whole gallery here.
Dani Sylvia @The Unsigned Music Awards
I was really pleased to be invited to photograph the UMA’s at The Troxy in Limehouse this year. The discipline was very different from either the first three songs only for major venues, or complete freedom at smaller venues. Each artist did one live song and the photographers had to move away from the front of the stage before the end of the song to avoid being caught by the TV cameras as they moved from the main stage to the awards stage. Dani Sylvia’s performance was so visual and colourful that it would have been difficult to take a bad photo. This one captured the atmosphere and ambience perfectly and I was really chuffed that Dani liked it. Result.
Hannah Aldridge @Green Note
If you’ve read any of my random ramblings about music, you might have worked out that I’m a huge fan of Hannah Aldridge. She’s a singer-songwriter from Muscle Shoals, Alabama and her astonishing first album grabbed my attention immediately. Hannah’s songwriting and live performance are absolutely exceptional, but she also understands the value of the visual image. I’ve photographed her in several settings now and always produced something I was really happy with, but this shot from Green Note (again) in black and white (again) had the look of a promotion photo for a silent movie star from the forties. Once again, I was really pleased that Hannah loved the shot as well.
Mollie Marriott @Time Out Rising Stars
So it’s Mollie again. A bit like Hannah, I find it almost impossible to take a bad, or even ordinary, picture of Mollie. When she sings, she gives it everything, every time, and that passion is clear in every shot. There were two shots of Mollie in my (not so) shortlist for this selection and this made the cut because she’s so obviously singing her heart out and the purple backlighting creates a lovely halo effect on her hair. With Mollie, I’m not sure I can even take any credit for good photos because every time I’ve seen her (and that’s quite a few times now) I’ve managed to grab some exceptional shots. Here’s the original gallery, and you really need to listen out for Mollie’s debut album which will be released in early 2017. And thanks to Ray Jones at Time Out for the invite.
Sarah Kayte Foster (Daisy and the Dark) @Ace Hotel, Shoreditch
For various reasons, this year I tried to get along to every gig that I was invited to and this one came about because of an invite from Quite Great PR. I’d never visited the venue before and I hadn’t heard anything from Daisy and the Dark. The lighting wasn’t great in this basement venue, which meant that black and white was favourite, a decision that was helped along by Sarah’s very sixties hairstyle. This was a gig that I could have very easily missed and it’s a great advert for taking every opportunity that comes your way. It was a challenge to navigate around the video camera setup, but it worked out perfectly in the end. Here’s the original gallery.
More to come soon.
I had the opportunity to meet up with MusicRiot favourite Hannah Aldridge just before her sold-out show at Green Note in Camden which is part of her current tour with Lilly Hiatt, taking in Northern Europe, England and Scotland. We talked about her new album, her previous album “Razor Wire” and a lot of other things along the way:
Allan – Good to see you again, Hannah.
Hannah – Good to see you too.
Allan – Back in the UK and you’ve been doing a European tour as well.
Hannah – I have, yes.
Allan – How did that go?
Hannah – It’s been really good actually. We did the Netherlands; I went back to Hamburg and played and I’ll be doing Norway at the end of it. It’s always fun to do Europe in general but it was fun this time because I explored a new market, which was the Netherlands. I haven’t played there before; it’s definitely different and it’s good to keep moving forward and forge new territories, so that was the goal this time.
Allan – I think Northern Europe really gets Americana doesn’t it?
Hannah – Well, I think from my perspective, the people who really appreciate what I do are people who can speak English well enough to understand the lyrics because, as much as I don’t want to admit this, my music is not quite as interesting without the lyrics. I wouldn’t call myself a really interesting guitar player or anything and I wouldn’t want to listen to me if I couldn’t understand what I was saying. That’s such a big part of it, and what I’ve noticed is that people who speak English fluently are the ones that gravitate towards what I’m doing.
Allan – And you’re doing a mini tour of Scotland this time.
Hannah – I am doing Scotland. I was trying to think if I’ve ever done a show in Scotland. I’ve been there, but I don’t think I’ve ever played there.
Allan – I think, like Northern Europe, Scotland really gets Americana as well and I don’t think country ever really went away in Scotland.
Hannah – It’s really interesting the UK how every country has subtle differences in the music they like. Ireland is very different than England in terms of musical taste and Scotland I assume would be the same, but I’m not really sure what to expect because I haven’t played there.
Allan – Well I grew up in Scotland, and Scots like good songs. They like a good melody but they like a message as well.
Hannah – Well that’s good to know; hopefully they’ll like what we’re doing.
Allan – And I think the rooms that you’re playing tend to attract appreciative crowds.
Hannah – I’ll look forward to it; that makes me feel good about it.
Allan – Just to go back in time a bit, which artists would you say influenced you when you were growing up.
Hannah – That’s interesting, because I didn’t really start writing music until my early twenties, so nobody really influenced me growing up because I didn’t want to be a musician until my twenties. That being said, there were a lot of artists that I listened to growing up that now influence me, Bonnie Raitt being one of them and Tom Petty being another. I was thinking earlier, someone asked me in an interview what three artists have shaped me as a musician and I looked at him and said Gillian Welch, Bonnie Raitt and Tom Petty.
It’s interesting because sometimes I actually feel like I’m writing something that sounds like a mix of those things, so I do think those people do heavily influence me but, at the same time, there’s so much I’ve listened to since that really shaped me too. I think Gillian Welch gave me permission as a female to write like a man and I didn’t discover her until later; she was very influential. And Bonnie Raitt gave me permission to play with the boys too and to stand up and be respected the same way that a man is and if there are any female musicians I can think of that men are shamelessly devoted to in terms of musicality, it would be Bonnie Raitt and Gillian Welch, and that’s pretty cool because a lot of the time you’ll hear ‘I don’t know, it’s a girl, I don’t like girls with a guitar’, but Gillian Welch and Bonnie Raitt seemed to break out of that, so that was cool for me too.
Allan – And what about your Dad (Walt Aldridge, Muscle Shoals songwriter and performer), did he influence you either way?
Hannah – In my decision to be a musician or in my musical pedigree…
Allan – In your decision to be a musician…
Hannah – He strongly tried to influence me not to be a musician and, because of the personality I am, that actually pushed me in the other direction very hard and I thought ‘OK, we’ll see’. He’s really tough about that kind of stuff – he’s not easy to impress and it’s a different level when it’s your kid. It’s really hard to be objective about what they’re doing so he really, to this day, he calls and says ‘Why are you doing this? You can do things that pay a lot more’ and I say ‘The same reason you did it’.
It’s really interesting that what I’ve learned with him is that we function better when we don’t talk about music because we have such different opinions on it and we’re in such different markets. He was making music at a time that it was just totally different.
Allan – So, if you had to put a label on your music, what would you call it?
Hannah – I wouldn’t call it Americana, because I don’t really know what Americana is and it’s really hard for me to justify putting myself in a genre where I go ‘I don’t know what this is’, but in the same way, whatever genre you would put Ryan Adams and Bonnie Raitt and Gillian Welch in, whatever box you put them in, I guess I would fit in the same box. I think my description of my music is probably very different than other people’s, which is strange too. My description of it would be Southern rock, something like that. Singer/songwriter, Southern Rock; I’m a confused person. I’m confused when I walk out of the house every day about what to wear because I don’t know who I am half the time, so maybe some days I look like this and some days I look like that and it’s the same with writing. I think I’m constantly on a journey to figure out who I am in general but also as a musician so that makes it really hard for me to say ’This is what kind of music I do’.
Allan – I noticed you’ve created a lot of different visual identities over the years…
Hannah – I have, and think it’s become a part of the whole thing in that I‘m constantly trying to figure out what works for me as a person, and I think, more than any kind of steady identity I could give, that’s actually more reflective of me as a person than anything, that I’m constantly trying to figure out who I am and where I fit in to the world and I think that does change a lot for me. I played a show in Nashville a while ago and a big booking agent came out and they said to me ‘You know, I really, really like your music, but the look just doesn’t go with the music.’ And I laughed and said ‘Really, what is the look supposed to be, because I’ve been trying to figure that out for twenty-eight years.’ (Laughs). I think I’m just always going to be trying to reinvent myself, and I think Ryan Adams gave me permission to do that. He’s made it work, musically, and I hope to do the same.
Allan – Do you see more as a writer or a performer?
Hannah – A writer, absolutely a writer because what I really wanted to be was a staff writer. What I really wanted to do when I started this whole thing was to be a writer for film and TV. I wanted to be the person that sat in my room in my pyjamas and a bowl of cereal and made really dark music for horror movies, you know. It’s really interesting how fate, or whatever you may call it, pushed me down this path of being an artist and I reluctantly was like ‘I don’t wanna do this. I hate being on stage’. I was joking with Lilly (Hiatt) that, literally, before big shows for the first couple of years performing, I would watch Michael McDonald videos before to keep me from having anxiety, because you can’t have anxiety while you’re watching “Ya Mo Be There”, you just can’t. I would really have to push myself to do these things because I felt uncomfortable. Now, I love performing, I think it’s great and I see all the wonderful things about it, but it was definitely not something that just came naturally to me. I felt very intimated buy it and really I‘ve always enjoyed the process of being creative. So, I think in that way, I’m definitely more of a writer than a performer, you know.
Allan – “Razor Wire” (Hannah’s debut album) felt like a really personal album and it felt like there was a lot of autobiography in there as well…
Hannah – “Razor Wire” was an autobiography of where I was in my love life in a lot of ways. At that point in my life I was going through a divorce and I was trying to find out if I was capable of ever loving again and what that meant and if was a complete screw-up and all of these things and meanwhile also writing about my experiences with these other guys I was going out and dating and then at the same time. Songs like “Black and White” were what was going on in my personal life with Jackson (Hannah’s son), being a young mom, those kind of things. “Razor Wire” was definitely very autobiographical.
My new record that I’ve been writing also is, but in a very different way. I kind of went backwards and started writing about my life before that when I was a really heavy drug user and a really bad drunk and everything that led me to that point and trying to sort through all those feelings, growing up super-religious and feeling alienated by that and also fast-forwarding a bit to the age that I am now, approaching my thirties and being fearful of that. So that chunk of time was “Razor Wire” and I think the new record is a bit of a prequel to that. I think it’s what I write best; I’m not good at that third person stuff, so it was definitely a very personal record.
Allan – I played a copy of “Razor Wire” to a friend in radio and he said that there were three hits, if you could actually get them out there.
Hannah – That’s the thing that’s tough about it. It’s all about PR when you get to the point that I’m at now. It’s about somebody recognising that you’re worth putting money into because you’ve got the songs and you’re slowly building up to that point, but I watch it happen with people all around me and you go ‘Well, I’ve got good songs too’. All you can do is just (Lilly and I have talked about this a lot since we’ve been on the road together) stay focused and say ‘I’m gonna keep writing good songs’ and know that it’s not about me, whether or not it’s a hit. It’s about the fact that I don’t have millions of dollars to put into promotion. One day maybe I will, but until then all I can do is continue to write great songs.
Allan – If the catalogue of songs is there and the break comes…
Hannah – Absolutely. You can have the publicity but without the songs it doesn’t work very well. I’ve seen that happen a lot with people around me too where they get that shot and they don’t have the material to back it up. I’m not saying I absolutely have the material, but I think that it’s important to really focus, until you get your shot, on working up to that so that you’re ready for it. If I had the opportunities I wanted when I first released “Razor Wire”, I probably wouldn’t have performed well on Conan O’Brien or performed very well at The Ryman, which are the dreams that I have, but I have to recognise that I have to put in the time to get there so that when I do have those shots, I really kill it and that takes time. All of this takes a lot of patience.
Allan – I guess Maverick (festival in Suffolk) is one of those opportunities isn’t it?
Hannah – Sure. Maverick is really cool. I love playing there because it’s one of those things where I get to connect with a lot of different artists and the other thing that’s really cool about is that everybody that I see around England, I can see them all in the same place and that’s really cool. I see some really devoted fans, the promoters that have helped me so much, the Americana UK people and artists and it’s really neat for me because it’s everyone in one vicinity and I really enjoy Maverick Festival every single year.
Allan – You mentioned the new album briefly. How’s that going at the moment?
Hannah – It’s going awesome. I’ve got everything written and I’ll be recording as soon as I get home and I’ll be done by July 30th and from there it’ll just be setting a release date. I think it’s gonna be great; it’s funny because the producer the producer that’s doing the record this time around, I wrote “Save Yourself” with, he’s someone I’ve played with and he’s someone I’ve written a lot of songs about as well. We grew up together actually and he’s so in tune with my music that it just made sense to get him to produce the record and he’s taken the songs and shaped them in a way that I can’t do. That’s really cool because I’ve never had that before where I wrote a song and gave it to somebody else and let them manicure it a little bit. It’s like adding a whole new level to the songs and that’s really cool. I’m really excited to hear how they all end up.
Allan – Well the one that I’ve heard, that you played here last time, “Goldrush”, hit me instantly and it’s rare that a song does that.
Hannah – I’m glad that you like that. I really like that song. Usually I have a good gut feeling about a song when I like one or, if it makes me a bit teary when I sing it the first couple of times, I know it’s good. Actually I had two killer co-writers on that song and that concept was so complicated for me to sort through in my mind that I called two people that I thought ‘I know they can help me’ because I don’t want to take that song idea to just anybody because I knew it could be a really cool song, so I called up two people I knew could really help me tie up the loose ends on it. I sat and talked to them about the idea and said ‘This is what I’ve got written and I don’t know how to tie this in’ and they helped me put that together so I’m really grateful for them helping me do that. I do love that song. I think it’s a good one, I think it’s meaningful and I think it approaches a topic that people don’t wanna talk about, which is getting older, so I’m glad that you like that one.
Allan – And you’re going electric this time round…
Hannah – I am going electric this time round. I was nervous as could be. I had dreams before this tour that I got out on the road and my electric didn’t work, because I’m so comfortable with my acoustic guitar, but I’m making a point with this record to really push myself and I’m trying to push out of that box that people are putting Americana in because I don’t have to be this certain thing because you’re put in Americana, it’s so broad, you know, and I really wanted to push the boundaries of what people thought of me as an artist and maybe what they think I’m gonna put out musically. I wanna stay within reason and not get too crazy, but try to get myself out of my comfort zone. I felt like a lot of these songs are meant to be played on electric and it doesn’t make sense to go out with an acoustic and try to play them; they just don’t translate so I’m literally learning in front of people on this tour how to deal with this electric guitar because I play it at home and I write on it, but I don’t go on tour with it very often, and if I do, I have a band behind me, it’s not just me standing up there with an electric. At this point in the tour, I feel really comfortable. The first day or two, I was sweatin’ bullets up on stage trying to figure out how to do everything, but it’s fun and it adds something interesting for me because it’s so easy to get bored when you play songs hundreds and thousands of times and you think ‘I don’t wanna play this song anymore’, but it’s been fun to revisit “Razor Wire” on the electric.
Allan – One final question. Have you got a song, yours or someone else’s that makes you cry?
Hannah – I have some of mine that make me cry. Other people’s songs? Pretty much any John Moreland song ever written; those make me cry. “God’s Medicine”, “Cherokee”; pretty much all of his songs are so damned good, I would say every John Moreland song and “Hallelujah” does as well; that song always gets to me too because there’s a couple of lines in there that really speak to me on a lot of levels.
Allan – Thanks very much Hannah.
Hannah and Lilly will be playing the Voodoo Rooms in Edinburgh on June 21st, The Blue Lamp in Aberdeen on the 22nd and Music in the Suburbs in Glasgow on the 23rd.
It would be so easy to make this a rant about the music business and how terrible it is these days; not like when we were younger and any artist could get multi-album deals. Here’s the reality check; there are a couple of generations out there who don’t even get the concept of paying for music and the only artists with contracts are the homogenised and ultra-safe packaged pop and stadium fillers. The music industry is just about irrelevant to anyone making genuinely creative music today and it’s sad that it’s not even contentious to make that observation.
But the world moves on and people are still making music and trying to work out the best ways of getting that music to an audience. If you can make a living from it as well, then that’s a bonus. If you want to make an album, you can self-fund it (maybe calling in favours from other musicians) or maybe go down the crowdfunding route, offering fans the opportunity to make an investment in your work in return for a reward. This is the route that Hannah Aldridge has taken to bring her second album to the world.
In 2014, Hannah released her magnificent debut album “Razor Wire”, packed with powerful, sometimes painful, autobiographical songs and impassioned vocal performances. It was one of the best albums I heard in 2015. Hannah toured the US and Europe with the songs, playing with a band when she could, but not afraid to strip the songs back to voice and acoustic guitar when performing smaller venues in the UK. On that tour, she introduced one new song, “Goldrush”. It didn’t need any incubation time; I was hooked straight away by the stark beauty of the solo performance and I knew instantly that Hannah Aldridge was no one-album-wonder. I’ve heard a few more songs since and this second album is sounding like a great piece of work.
Have a look at Hannah’s Indiegogo site for more information on the project and a list of perks. You can contribute anything from $15 to $5,000 for a wide range of rewards, and the knowledge that you’ve helped to launch a great album.
Me, I’ll be putting my money where my mouth is.
Every year we seem have another ‘death of the album’ story as the established music business struggles to keep up with (or buy in to) services trying to maximise profit for the industry at the expense of the artist. But this year something strange has happened; sales of vinyl and record decks have risen dramatically. OK, the baseline’s still low but as CD sales plummet, it’s a good sign that people are investing in the hardware to play an analogue album format. Meanwhile, thousands of artists and bands are ignoring the established music business, funding their own recordings and using whatever methods they can to get their music out there. All of my High Five albums this year have been self-funded by artists who are making music because they believe in what they do and hoping that they can find an audience. I had seven albums on the shortlist for this selection, so there are a couple of honourable mentions as well.
It’s been another good year for Stone Foundation. They’ve signed up to a couple of overseas labels, toured Japan again and released “A Life Unlimited”, an album that moves their search for the new soul vision onward and upward with hints of jazz, house and Latin disco (and even guest vocal performances from Graham Parker and Doctor Robert). Songwriters Neil Jones and Neil Sheasby have produced another set of classic songs while the band line-up has evolved with the permanent addition of congas and baritone sax replacing trombone in the horn section to give a slightly harder sound. This album (like its predecessor “To Find the Spirit”) is all about a group of musicians working together to create a very British soul sound; no egos, no big solos, just a bunch of guys pumping out perfect grooves. You can read the original review here.
You have to admire someone who’s been singing for over forty years, come through some difficult times and still gets fired up about recording and performing songs. Since cutting his ties with the corporate music business, and setting up his own label around fifteen years ago, Southside Johnny has undergone a creative renaissance, becoming more involved in songwriting (with co-writer Jeff Kazee) and exploring new musical areas (including Americana with his second band The Poor Fools). “Soultime!” is the work of an artist who isn’t bound by a release schedule and a cycle of album and tour. This album is inspired by some of the soul and rhythm and blues greats of the sixties and seventies, and evokes the era joyously without ever becoming a pastiche. It’s an album that’s great fun to listen to and sounds like it was fun to make. It’s essential listening and you can read the original review here.
This is an album that had a long gestation period. Pete has been working on it for about ten years and there are a couple of reasons why the album took so long to make. Pete and Maura Kennedy have a very busy schedule with their other projects but, more importantly, this album could only be released when everything was absolutely perfect. “Heart of Gotham” is a song cycle about Pete’s love for New York City, delving into the city’s history, geography and ambience against a backdrop of Pete’s outstanding musicianship (playing all the instruments on the album) and some beautifully-realised arrangements. Pete’s multi-layered guitars and gravelly vocal delivery create an atmosphere that’s unlike anything else I’ve heard this year. You can read the original review here and you should also read Pete’s contribution to this year’s High Fives, which links in to the album.
This was a debut album with instant impact. Hannah puts together all of the classic singer-songwriter elements perfectly; she has a powerful, clear voice and she sings intensely personal songs with conviction and emotion. Everything on the album is inspired by life events, apart from “Parchman”, the story of a woman on death row, who has no regrets about the crime which put her there. There are songs about jealousy, revenge, addiction and inappropriate relationships, but there’s also a counterbalance, particularly with the nostalgia of “Black and White”. The album visits some very dark places but there are enough positive moments to create balance between the dark and the light. Hannah’s always been inspired by Jackson Browne; I’m sure he’d be pleased to hear the fruits of his influence. You can read a live review from Hannah’s Green Note gig in July here.
Black Casino and the Ghost (can we just say BCATG from now on) are a four-piece based in London and Essex and “Until the Water Runs Clear” is their second album. They’ve been Riot Squad favourites since their first album was released over two years ago. It would be easy to focus on the stupendous voice of singer Elisa Zoot and the guitar virtuosity of Ariel Lerner, but bass player Gary Kilminster and drummer Paul Winter-Hart play their part as well, with Elisa’s keyboards adding even more possibilities. “Until the Water Runs Clear” has drawn in many influences from sixties pop to trip-hop, mutated them and thrown them in the blender to create something that alternately sounds familiar and completely original. There’s also a lyrical dark side that runs through the album, creating sinister undertones and a hint of paranoia; maybe you shouldn’t skin up before listening to this one. The end result is an album which keeps you guessing; you’re never quite sure where it’s going, but you don’t want to miss a second of it. You can read the review here and see a few photos of the band at The Finsbury here.
And there are a couple of honourable mentions for the Dean Owens album “Into the Sea”, which was recorded in Nashville and packed with memorable and very personal tunes, and Bob Malone’s “Mojo Deluxe” featuring some keyboard virtuosity and a bunch of great tunes across a wide range of musical styles.
It’s not so long since this feature would have been ‘Top Five Singles’, but the concept of a single seems almost irrelevant outside the Radio 1 bubble and my friends in real radio call them ‘lead tracks’ now, so I’m picking my own lead tracks from some of the albums I’ve reviewed this year. These are five songs that grabbed me at the first listen and left me either elated or emotionally drained. If you don’t listen to anything else I’ve recommended, give these a spin; they all come from good or great albums, but they’re standout examples of superb songwriting, performance and production. They aren’t in any particular order, so where do we start?
Simon Murphy’s debut album, “Let it Be”, was released in September of this year and it’s packed with songs that are well-crafted musically and lyrically. “Not in My Name” stands out as one of the simpler songs on the album, but it packs an emotional punch made even more potent by the events of the last few weeks. It could easily be a very angry song, but Simon’s delivery has a much more world-weary feel, hinting at fatigue rather than anger. This is a song that could easily be an anthem but works so well because it doesn’t go down that route.
This is another song from a debut album. Hannah is from Muscle Shoals, Alabama and her stunning debut album, “Razor Wire” is packed with autobiographical, emotive and often harrowing songs; “Parchman” is an exception. It was inspired by a TV documentary about a woman on death row in Mississippi State Penitentiary (or Parchman Farm) awaiting execution for the murder of her abusive husband. For the first time, her life has a structure and she knows how it will end. I won’t pretend it’s an easy listen, but it’s a superb song. When Hannah played it live at Green Note in July, she told the audience the back story and went on to say that she would probably have taken the same way out of the situation; how many of us would say exactly the same?
Pete’s much-anticipated masterpiece “Heart of Gotham” was released this year; the album took about ten years to make as Pete worked on it between various other projects, including albums by The Kennedys, his own guitar album “Tone, Twang and Taste” and work with Nanci Griffith’s Blue Moon Orchestra. The entire album is a fabulous piece of work, and “Union Square”, as the opening song, is a perfect example of Pete’s work. If you can imagine The Byrds fronted by Springsteen, then you probably have a good idea how this sounds. Pete’s crystal-clean guitars contrast beautifully with his rasping vocal delivery as he sings a song packed with literary and historical references to his favourite city. Although the song has an immediate musical impact, each subsequent listen will reveal a lyric that passed you by originally; I can listen to this again and again.
“Flag” – Ed Dupas
From the album “A Good American Life”, this is a classic example of a turnaround song (I’m going to admit here that the final two songs will both pull on your heartstrings if you have a heart). Musically, “Flag” is pretty straightforward and the lyrics appear to tell the story of an idyllic American town overlooked by the flag and a hint of patriotism with the refrain ‘red, white and blue till their dying day’. The sting is in the final verse; as soon as Ed sings about the flag being folded, the tone changes and you know that it’s about a dead serviceman and a bereaved family. It still brings a tear to my eye every time I hear it.
Dean’s latest album, “Into the Sea”, is an intensely personal and nostalgic piece of work, looking back to more innocent times and plotting the erratic courses (sometimes happy, sometimes tragic) of old school friends. “Sally’s Song”, over a Pachelbel’s Canon-style backing, uses the demolition of an old housing scheme as a trigger for memories of old friends doing well and badly. It’s a particularly Scottish song, making references to Billy Mackenzie and Michael Marra and it pushes all of my buttons, every time.
I’ve picked out individual tracks from five albums, but, honestly, you should have a listen to all five albums as well.
2014 wasn’t a great gig year for me, so I decided to catch up in 2015 by getting my cameras along to every gig I could possibly get to. It obviously worked; when I had to pick my favourite five photos of the year, I had difficulty narrowing it down, so I decided to cheat. I’ve seen a lot of female singers this year, so I decided to create a High Five dedicated to them. As always, in no particular order.
Mollie Marriott at The Half Moon – By the time I saw this gig, it felt a bit like I was stalking Mollie. I’d seen her play live three times in three months. This gig was her second at The Half Moon with her full band and it wasn’t quite as busy as the first so there was a bit of space to pick some nice angles and just wait for Mollie to get completely absorbed in her songs and try to catch some special moments. She’s a singer who totally commits herself to the song and all you have to do is press the shutter release at the right time.
Elisa Zoot of Black Casino & the Ghost at The Finsbury – I’ve loved this band since I was introduced to them by John O’Sullivan of Red Adore Music. They’re totally original and Elisa has a phenomenal voice. It’s a little bit weird when you suddenly transform from two people talking in a pub beer garden to a photographer and a performer within fifteen minutes, but it’s always good to get a chance to get to know the artist. The lighting wasn’t great, but there was a lot of contrast, so black and white was the way to go. It’s good to know that Elisa likes this photo as well.
Rosanne Cash at The Union Chapel – I have to say I got a very lucky break here. When I discovered that Dean Owens was playing as support to Rosanne Cash, it was full-on grovel mode with Dean’s manager, Morag to try to get a photo pass but, as always, Morag came up with the goods. It’s always an interesting shot at this venue if you can get the stained glass window in, but Rosanne Cash happened to look heavenward at exactly the right time to make this work. Maybe I need to rethink the atheism thing.
Nova Twins at FTFH, Birthdays, Dalston – FTFH is a monthly event at Birthdays promoting female performers and Nova Twins were topping the bill with their intriguing and eclectic mash-up of rock, hip-hop and punk attitudes. The lighting was decent and Amy and Georgia’s style and stage presence made it pretty much impossible to take a bad shot. I finally settled on this picture of Amy because of the attitude and power and the nice mix of colours in the background, but I could have chosen any one of a dozen shots from this gig.
Hannah Aldridge at Green Note – Green Note’s a venue where you have to put in a bit of effort to get a good shot. I went along to this gig on the strength of Hannah’s stunning debut album, “Razor Wire” and I wasn’t disappointed. I had just moved around the stage to get a slightly different viewpoint when Hannah introduced a new song “Gold Rush” which was incredibly powerful and completely enthralled the audience. I think the shot just about captures the emotion she was pouring in to that song.
Just click on any of the thumbnails to see the picture at full size.