Ags ScrollerIt’s been three years since Ags Connolly released his debut “How About Now”. A long time maybe, but “Nothin’ Unexpected” reflects the work Ags has put in during that time, getting himself out there, playing gigs here and in the States, headlining and supporting, and writing and honing this bunch of songs. It’s an album of interesting combinations; songs influenced by music from across the Atlantic, written and sung by someone from Oxfordshire and recorded in Edinburgh with a bunch of Scottish musicians. And that’s just the start.

“How About Now” was a very good debut album; “Nothin’ Unexpected” is a superb follow-up. The opening song’s a good indication of what’s coming on the rest of the album; the title “I Hope You’re Unhappy” sounds bitter, but the twist in the lyric is that it isn’t bitterness, it’s longing to rebuild the relationship. The album’s full of contrasts like that, on the surface the songs are robust reflections of everyday life, but dig a little bit deeper and they’re full of clever, delicate ideas; “Fifteen Years” would still be a great song it told the story of one relationship, but it’s actually the story of three different interwoven relationships. The deeper you dig, the more gems you unearth.

The songs are pure quality, featuring some regular Ameripolitan themes like the lone drinker, bars in general (with a particularly British twist on “Haunts like This”) but it’s when Ags applies his own poetic twist to songs like “Do You Realise That Now?”, intertwining the idea of his lyrics about a lover being heard a century later and having the same power, with a Latin-tinged arrangement that could have come from “The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle”, that you realise how good he really is.

And while we’re talking about arrangements, the production on the album is flawless. Whether the ideas came from Ags, producer Dean Owens, or the musicians involved, particularly Stuart Nisbet (playing just about every fretted instrument known to man) every song receives exactly the right treatment. Apart from the full band near-rockabilly of “Neon Jail”, the Nashville feel of Loudon Wainwright’s “I Suppose” and the Appalachian string band styling of “Slow Burner”, the songs are generally allowed plenty of room to breathe, with judicious addition of just the accordion on “When the Loner Gets Lonely” and acoustic guitar and vocal treatments of “Fifteen Years” and the album’s closer “I Should’ve Closed the Book”. It’s the perfect demonstration of the power of the songs that they don’t need huge amounts of embellishment to bring out their power.

Well, that’s the difficult second album out of the way.

“Nothin’ Unexpected” is released on Friday February 3rd on At The Helm Records (ATH198214).

The next contributor to 2015’s High Fives is on one of my favourite independent UK labels, Drumfire Records, along with Dean Owens and Phil Burdett. Ags Connolly has had a pretty good year as word has spread about his 2014 debut “How About Now” and he’s played just about everywhere. As Ags hasn’t said anything about this in his contribution, I’ll just mention that he supported Rosanne Cash and John Leventhal in Leeds earlier this year.

Doug SeegersDoug Seegers – Live at Southern Fried Festival, Perth, 1st August

I’d already been enjoying Doug’s album “Down to The River’” so I was glad to see his UK debut would be at Southern Fried, a few hours after my set opening for Dean Owens. Doug’s live show was, in my view, even better than his star-heavy, Nashville-produced album. An interesting line-up of bass, drums and fiddle behind vocal and guitar gave a surprisingly big sound and Doug’s vocals were excellent. Doug is absolutely huge in Sweden and I tried to persuade him and the band to try the rest of the UK soon. Let’s hope they do.

J1545closed_GLUEohn Moreland – “High On Tulsa Heat”

I’ve been aware of John Moreland since his album “In the Throes” began to bubble under in 2013. He is easily one of the best new songwriters I’ve heard in years. I was excited to hear his new effort, “High on Tulsa Heat” and it didn’t disappoint. It’s filled with strong melodies and excellent lyrics. I do think his previous album was marginally better, but that’s a bit like comparing a massive box of sweets with another massive box of sweets. Looking forward to seeing John open for Jason Isbell over here in January.

Grand Ole OpryGrand Ole Opry show, 27th February

In February I made my first trip to the Grand Ole Opry and I picked a pretty good date. A country radio seminar was keeping a lot of the more modern acts busy that week so we were treated to a show including older legends such as Ralph Stanley, Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs, John Conlee, Bill Anderson, The Oak Ridge Boys and Jim Lauderdale. It was a very enjoyable experience and showed, reassuringly, that country music as we used to know it is still alive in some corners of Nashville.

Justin TrevinoJustin Trevino – “Sings Johnny Bush

If you put a gun to my head and asked me to name the best traditional country singer alive today I’d say Justin Trevino. I’d probably say it without the gun, to be honest. This new album of him singing songs he learned from his hero, Texas legend Johnny Bush, is possibly his best. The opening track is the self-penned “One Night at a Johnny Bush Dance” and it fits perfectly with classics like “Whiskey River”. Trevino is about as staunchly traditional as you can get, and this album is one of my favourites this year.

Jeremy Pinnell and Max FenderJeremy Pinnell and Max Fender – UK tour, October

This October I had the pleasure of hosting and playing two shows with Ohio/Kentucky artists Jeremy Pinnell and Max Fender (lead singer of the band Alone at 3am) on their UK and Europe tour. I was already a fan of both guys but seeing them live was special. Jeremy reminded me of Guy Clark while Max was somewhere between Jon Dee Graham and REM. Both deserve a wider audience and I hope they make it back soon: credit to their road manager and label owner Mike Montgomery for getting them over here this time.

Two of Allan’s High Five albums this year were released on Drumfire Records so it was a ridiculously obvious choice to ask the owner of the label (and live music promoter) Phil Penman to contribute to this feature. Once again, we got some really interesting choices.

When Allan ask me to contribute to High Fives, I thought that it would be easy – just pick five albums, I thought. But I wracked my brains and (not including Drumfire Records releases) I could not come up with a single 2014 album I thought was truly ‘great’.  A dozen or so ‘good’ albums but nothing to change my life. Maybe I just haven’t found them yet. So what did excite me in 2014?

The SoundI Love My Job Sometimes.

The Sound – “Box Set #1” (“Jeopardy”, “From the Lion’s Mouth” and “All Fall Down”). Privileged to work on this and truly delighted with the results, and even happier to be working on a second box set for Feb 2015 release. Adrian Borland is sadly missed. The music from this great band has really stood the test of time. Consistently high standard.

 

 

John GrantOne that nearly got away.

Not from 2014, but new to me. John Grant – 2 albums of enormous beauty that I’ve listened to more than any others: “The Queen of Denmark” and “Pale Green Ghosts”. It was hearing these that made me realise how much I crave music that is new to my ears and not just the latest in a succession from artists I already know and love.

 

 

The CarnabysBright Young Things.

Great to see local boys The Carnabys release their debut album “No Money on The Moon”. Great hard working lads, winners of Hard Rock Rising and an album that really exudes the energy and honesty they deliver live. These boys perform with smiles on their faces, which is so refreshing – not po-faced, earnest trying-too-hard-to-be-trendy. Not ground-breaking perhaps, but if you get a chance, see them live. With the right breaks they could be huge. Accessible rock.

 

Urge for OffalReturn To Form (Again).

Proving that quality can go on and on, the only time this year when one song had me running to the shop to buy the album. Half Man Half Biscuit’sWestward Ho! –Massive Letdown” was that song. “Urge for Offal” is a good album, which also contains my lyric of the year: ‘‘Cresta! What the fuck were we drinking?!’

 

 

DrumfireI Love My Label.

Ok, so I couldn’t not mention it. Drumfire released two albums in 2014 and both made Allan McKay’s High Five. We made our first ever piece of vinyl – Ags Connolly’sHow About Now’, we hosted great shows with Dean Owens, Martin Stephenson, and Clive Gregson…. but my favourite thing?  Phil Burdett’s launch show in Westcliff. I’d only ever seen Phil perform solo. The launch show with full band made me fall in love with his music all over again. World, you don’t know what you are missing.

In parting, I’ll add that I’ve really tried to find new music, and the following half a dozen albums definitely deserve honourable mention (and barely a country album in sight): FKA Twigs, Future Islands, Sturgill Simpson, Royksopp, Strands Of Oak, Honeyblood.

We loved Ags Connolly’s debut album here at Riot Towers. We’re partial to a bit of country (or Ameripolitan to be more accurate) and “How About Now” is a great album. For our High Fives feature, Ags shares his favourite recorded and live moments of 2014.

Sturgill SimpsonSturgill Simpson live at St Pancras Old Church, London.

It’s been a huge year for Sturgill, with coverage in every major newspaper and US TV show propelling him to the high end of cult status. This gig was before all that though, in front of 30-40 people in a tiny church. Sturgill played solo and his voice and guitar were laid gloriously bare. I met Sturgill twice later in the year, and he proclaimed this gig to be one of his favourites. I of course agreed.

 

John FullbrightJohn Fullbright – “Songs” album and live at St. Albans Church, Oxford.

I’ve been aware of John Fullbright since his Grammy-nominated debut “From the Ground Up”, and this follow-up has taken him to a higher level in my view. His songwriting is incredibly mature and rounded for someone so relatively young. He reminds me of Randy Newman which is about as good as it gets in my view. The show of his I caught in Oxford was one of the best gigs of any type that I’ve seen in years.

Home is Where the Hurt IsHome is Where the Hurt Is” album -- JP Harris and the Tough Choices

There are a reassuring number of genuine, authentic country acts emerging at the moment, and JP Harris is at the head of the pack, having released his first album in 2011. This follow up is a full-on honky-tonk gem which deserves a bigger audience. Not a dull moment.

 

Jack GrelleSteering Me Away” album -- Jack Grelle

On the subject of real country artists who deserve a wider audience, Jack Grelle from Missouri made a terrific album this year. Having previously made old-time country /folk albums, Jack has decided to go hillbilly and the results are superb. Even if this album wasn’t great it would be worth checking out for the unexpected saxophone on “Chase You ‘cross This Country” alone.

 Jason EadyDaylight and Dark” album -- Jason Eady

Earlier in the year I named this my favourite album of the first half of 2014. It’s a concept album in the vein of ‘Phases and Stages’, but it stands on its own two feet. Another artist who deserves wider acclaim, Jason Eady has been around for a while but I think this album will be considered his best work so far.

So, purely in alphabetical order (by album title) because there’s no way I’m trying to rank these in order of preference. They’re all very different and I can recommend any one of them to any real music fan; these are my five favourite albums of 2014.

Dunfearing and the West Country High“Dunfearing and the West Country High” – Phil Burdett

Phil Burdett’s latest album (on Drumfire Records) was a complete surprise for me. I’d heard Phil play a solo acoustic set a couple of years ago on a night out with the Riot Squad, but this was a completely different beast. “Dunfearing…” is the first part of the “Secular Mystic” trilogy, which should be completed with the release of parts two and three in 2015. It’s an album that sounds gorgeous; you could just sit and let its mix of folk, rock, country and a bit of jazz wash over you, but a little bit of extra effort and careful listening brings out all of the detail that Phil and the musicians have packed in to it; and there’s a lovely tribute to the late Jackie Leven. After reviewing the album, we also managed to grab an interview with Phil during the summer, which is a fascinating insight into a great songwriter.

How About Now“How About Now” – Ags Connolly

By sheer coincidence, also on Drumfire records, was the debut album from Ags Connolly, “How About Now”, which is now also available in a lovely limited edition vinyl pressing. Ags is based in Oxford but his roots are deep in the American South and his genre is a country offshoot known as Ameripolitan. He takes the outlaw attitude of artists like James Hand, Willie Nelson, Johnny Paycheck et al and gives it a personal twist with some very poignant songs. The album was produced in Edinburgh by his Drumfire labelmate, Dean Owens, and works well with full country band arrangements as well as the powerful solo acoustic guitar backing of the closing song “How About Now” (which was a genuine one-take recording).

NYH“New York Horns” – New York Horns

I know; you’re surprised that I’ve picked a jazz album. Truth is that I love to hear a good horn section, and most horn players away from the day job like to stretch themselves with a bit of jazz. The horns in question are John Isley (saxophone), Chris Anderson (trumpet) and Neal Pawley (trombone), better known as the horn section of The Asbury Jukes, aided and abetted by Jeff Kazee (keys) and Glenn Alexander (guitar). There isn’t a bad, or even a mediocre track on the album and with moods ranging from the blues of “Strollin’ with Sean” through the evocative, mellow “Morningside at Midnight” to the 24-carat soul of “Can’t Stand to See You Cry”, there’s something for everyone.

Stone Foundation“To Find the Spirit” – Stone Foundation

And continuing on the soul theme, how about some genuine home-grown English West Midlands soul? Stone Foundation has been steadily building up a devoted following for about ten years now, but “To Find the Spirit” may turn out to be the game-changer for them. The band takes influences from all over the soul spectrum to create a sound very much of this century but which appeals to very disparate groups of fans. The album grabbed me from the first few bars with the Hammond and horns intro of “To Find the Spirit” and impressed from start to finish. After 10 months (and seeing the band live three times), the standout song is definitely “Don’t Let the Rain”, driven along by Neil Sheasby’s slinky bass groove but, again, there’s no filler here.

Tone, Twang and Taste“Tone, Twang and Taste”Pete Kennedy

Now the reason this one’s here is that Pete Kennedy (one half of one of my favourite groups, The Kennedys) decided to pay tribute to the pioneers of the electric guitar prior to the rock ‘n’ roll era; the guys who had grab the interest by using technique and melodic invention rather than volume and a thudding 4/4 beat. Pete is a superb technical musician and “Tone, Twang and Taste” is so obviously a labour of love; every song is played with immaculate attention to detail and they all sound like they were great fun to do, particularly Pete’s ukulele version of “Rhapsody in Blue”. The commercial possibilities for this album were always very limited, and that’s one of the reasons I admire Pete so much for producing something that made me smile from start to finish.

You can read the original reviews of these albums on the site complete with all of the links to the songs on Spotify or Youtube; just type the title into the search box and you’re away. Go on, have a listen; they’re all great albums.

When Country Was Proud titleEarlier this year I reviewed Ags Connolly’s excellent first album, “How About Now”, which was produced by Dean Owens. The album opens with “When Country was Proud” and it’s a pretty good choice as the lead track for the EP as well; it’s very accessible (if you have the slightest leanings at all towards country music, you’ll be singing along) and it’s a manifesto for Ags and the Ameripolitan movement generally. The song harks back to the glory days of country with references to Johnny Paycheck, David Allen Coe, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Hank Snow, contrasting the outlaws with the sanitised state of modern popular country, and it’s difficult to disagree. On an album that’s absolutely packed with great songs, this one stands out as a single.

The remaining two songs on the EP are from a solo session Ags did for Resonance FM earlier this year. “She Doesn’t Need Anyone Anymore” is a slow ballad about losing touch with a good friend, while the more uptempo “Trusty Companion” with its 60s sounding sus4 chords is a more hopeful look at relationships and possibly a companion piece to the album’s beautiful closing song “How About Now”. It’s interesting to hear these stripped-down live versions because they highlight the strength of the songs; if they work in that format, there’s no doubt that they’re good. The format also shows that Ags has a truly great voice for country music; with only an acoustic guitar for backing he sounds flawless.

The single is certainly worth adding to your collection for the live session, but if you really want to treat yourself, get your hands on the 180g vinyl version of the album which is released on Monday November 10.

“When Country was Proud” is out now on Drumfire Records.

No Man's Land TitleIt’s been a while since the last Dean Owens record, but that doesn’t mean he’s been doing nothing; far from it. Apart from the regular live shows (solo and with Deer Lake) and producing the wonderful Ags Connolly debut album, “How About Now”, he’s also been in Nashville recording his next album “Into the Sea” to be released next year on Drumfire Records. As a little taster for that album, the “No Man’s Land” EP is released on November 10. The timing of the release is significant as the subject matter of two of the songs is the effect of war on ordinary, everyday people.

“Closer to Home” was inspired by a letter written by a soldier returning from the First World War and deals with emotions of returning from a situation where terrible things have happened and the difficulty of dealing with the approaching reconciliations. The verses are sparsely delivered with mainly acoustic guitar backing while the choruses bring in the full band including accordion and a beautifully simple but effective piano hook.

“Seed the Roses” is much more sombre, minor-key piece dealing with the horrors and brutality of human conflict but still carrying the underlying message that, ultimately, flowers will grow on the battlefield. Harrowing, but a superb song all the same. “Forgotten Shadows”, co-written with Neilson Hubbard, is a bitter-sweet reminiscence of a perfect day and another reminder of the transience of human life.

The closing track on the EP is a solo live version of “Lost Time” from Dean’s cracking “New York Hummingbird” album. It’s one of my favourite songs from that album (although, to be fair, they’re all great songs) and it works well with only Dean’s acoustic guitar as accompaniment. The message is simple: ‘You can’t make up for lost time’.

It’s fair to say that the subject matter suits Dean’s song-writing style (as he says himself, somewhere between melancholy and miserable) and the war songs are powerful and, in turn, thought-provoking and disturbing. As a bonus, the cover art, from an original painting by Edinburgh-based artist and photographer, Philip Braham, captures the mood of the EP perfectly. It’s not an easy listen at times, but it is a rewarding one.

Out November 10  on Drumfire Records.

How About NowYou might have heard of Ags Connolly if you’re a MusicRiot regular; he’s had a few mentions here and he’s been quietly collecting followers and impressing critics for a while now.  His debut album, “How About Now”, features strong, sometimes very personal, songs, sympathetic playing and arrangements and powerful plaintive, vocals.  I’m sticking with the catch-all term “country” to describe these songs, although Ags prefers “Ameripolitan”, and the roots are much more in fifties and sixties country (or the later” outlaw country”) than in anything you’ll hear on the country charts today.  The overall sound of the album (produced by Drumfire recording artist Dean Owens), certainly reflects these influences.  It’s not the squeaky clean country-pop of Taylor Swift or Kacey Musgraves and the raw lyrical references are reflected in the arrangements and the playing.

The musicians recruited for the album are all first-class players.  In addition to Ags (acoustic guitar and vocals), they are: Stuart Nisbet (electric guitars, pedal steel, mandolin and vocals), Kev Mcguire (stand-up bass), Jim McDermott (drums), Andy May (keyboards), Roddy Neilson (fiddle) and Dean Owens (vocals and acoustic guitar).  I’m a big fan of rehearsing a band to performance level before recording live in the studio to get a very cohesive and immediate feel.  It’s not for everyone but, with good musicians, it can work really well; it certainly has on “How About Now”.  Virtually everything was recorded live with only a few overdubs of mandolin and piano and, incredibly, the title track, with its minimal arrangement and pleading, emotive vocal, was recorded in one take.  Now, that’s impressive.

The album opens with the straightforward honky-tonk of “When Country Was Proud”, listing some of Ags’ influences (mainly early-period Johnny Paycheck) and lamenting the position of country music in the media  today before moving into the melancholy reminiscence of “Good Memory For Pain”, featuring understated backing vocals and some nice fiddle.  “That’s The Last Time”, with its stripped-back production, is the first of a set of damaged or broken relationship songs including the slower “Get Out Of My Mind”, the rockabilly feel of “The Dim And Distant Past” and the slower “She Doesn’t Need me Anymore”, which emphasises Ags’ vocal range.

The album is particularly successful when Ags takes traditional country lyrical themes and gives them a modern English twist.  “I Hoped She Wouldn’t Be Here” takes the “best friend’s girl” theme and sets it in a group of friends in a local pub, while “I’m Not Someone You Want To Know” locates the hard-drinking, morose loner looking back at better times in an English pub.  “Trusty Companion” is a surprisingly uptempo take on the quest for a soul-mate while the mid-tempo “I Saw James Hand” is a very personal fan letter to one of Ags’ more contemporary influences.

This album is a very British version of the type of country music played before the advent of the clean, more poppy Nashville sound.  You’ll hear a lot of nice clean guitar and pedal steel licks here, but there is a raw edge to the production as well.  “I Saw James Hand” features some Hammond and a distorted guitar solo, while “She Doesn’t Need Anyone Anymore” even has some controlled guitar feedback.  The sequencing of the album is perfect, opening with the lively, backward-looking “When Country Was Proud”, working through poignant and nostalgic to finish on four very personal songs set in the present including the beautiful closer “How About Now”; surely that song has to get a single release.

It’s easy to do this kind of music very predictably but Ags Connolly, Dean Owens and a very gifted band have produced an engaging and ultimately uplifting album which looks back to a time when country was less polished musically and lyrically while placing it in a very British setting.  Top album and great artwork as well.

Release date February 24 on Drumfire Records (DRMFR017).

Dean OwensWe asked one of our favourite singer-songwriters, Dean Owens, what he was looking forward to hearing (or reading or seeing) in 2014, and he came up with some very interesting recommendations for us.  Dean’s comments are in bold type.

First on the list was the new Joel and Ethan Coen film, “Inside Llewyn Davies”.  It’s the story of a folk singer trying to get a break in the Greenwich Village folk scene in 1961 and features contributions from the Coens’ long-term collaborator, T-Bone Burnett and also Marcus Mumford.  As Dean says: I love the period in New York history it’s set in and I like pretty much like everything the Coen Brothers have done.

Next up was the new novel, “The Free”, by author (and singer and songwriter with alt-country band, Richmond Fontaine), Willy Vlautin.  This, his fourth novel, is the story of the intersecting lives of three people looking for meaning in difficult social circumstances.  Over to you, Dean: The new Willy Vlautin book should be good. He’s a great writer. I’m guessing there may be a new Richmond Fontaine album on the horizon too.

Very curious to hear the lost Johnny Cash album, “Out among the Stars”. Should be some gems on that.”  The twelve tracks on the album were recorded in 1981 and 1984 and have been in the Columbia vaults ever since; they aren’t demos out-takes or alternative versions, they’re the real deal and they include duets with June Carter Cash.  They were uncovered by Legacy Recordings and John Carter Cash.

I’m very much looking forward to seeing the first album I’ve produced for another artist being released; it’s by Ags Connolly, it’s called “How About Now” and it’s out in February on Drumfire Records.  In November, we reviewed a great gig by Dean and Ags and we’ll be reviewing the album as soon as I can get my hands on a copy.

Deer Lake (who I sing with) should be releasing our debut album this year. I’m excited about that. We’ll also be doing a lot more live work this year.  Dean’s been singing with Deer Lake for some time now, alongside former Annie Christian frontman, Larry Lean and the album will be out some this year.  We’ll keep you posted.

I’ve got a few solo projects up my sleeve this year. Be great to get a new record out and do some touring.  So, it looks like Dean’s got a pretty busy year ahead of him in 2014, both solo and with Deer Lake.  We’ll be trying to keep up with him.