session-americana-with-jefferson-hamer-great-shakes-scrollerReview this album in one word? Gorgeous; ten beautifully-crafted and perfectly-arranged songs, six highly-gifted players and vocal harmonies to die for. If you’re looking for reference points, most of the songs here sound like they could have come from the late sixties/early seventies country-rock scene with understated playing, crystal clear production and those heavenly harmonies. “Great Shakes” is a perfect demonstration of the chemistry that great musicians can create when the stars are perfectly aligned. The album isn’t about the individual musicians, it’s about the contributions they make towards creating the best possible version of each song; in those terms, it’s a complete success, with each instrumental fill making each song that little bit more memorable.

The members of Session Americana are Billy Beard (drums), Ry Cavanaugh (guitar), Kimon Kirk (bass), Jim Fitting (harmonica), Dinty Child (multi-instrumentalist) and Jefferson Hamer (guitar) and this is their seventh album as a collective, although it has a coherence that suggests a long-established band, rather than occasional collaborators. The album opens with the delicate country-rock feel of “One Skinner”, a story of a long-standing friendship with a musical setting featuring pedal steel and harmonica and a lead vocal with a vulnerability that suggests Neil Young or Iain Matthews and blossoms out into a hugely varied set of songs with subjects as varied as American history (“Great Western Rail”) and an umbrella (“Bumbershoot”). Five of the members contribute songs in different styles but always of the highest quality and usually with an interesting twist.

There isn’t a bad or even indifferent song on the album and there are a few that stand out. “Big Mill in Bogalusa” is a bluesy shuffle with some raw harmonica and harmonies from the whole band; it’s catchy and full of the feelgood. “Mississippi Mud” is a historical Southern story built around an over-driven guitar riff which morphs into an Allman Brothers boogie in the choruses and it leads into the album’s most poignant song, “One Good Rain”, with the message that every relationship, no matter how strong, can be vulnerable. Just the line ‘One good rain is all it takes to break the dam that love can make’ is one of the saddest things I’ve heard this year.

This album will wrap itself around you like a comfortable jumper on a winter night. It will make you smile at times and it might even make you cry, but you’ll certainly feel uplifted and full of admiration for the quality of the playing.

“Great Shakes” is released on October 14th.

Simon Murphy TitleIt’s fair to say that it’s been a while since we featured an artist from Northern Ireland, but equally fair to say that Simon Murphy is one that’s worth waiting for. “Let it Be” is Simon’s debut featuring twelve songs that exude the assurance that comes when they’ve been well and truly tried out and developed in a live setting. Nothing feels out of place on the album, which has a wide variety of instrumental stylings to support songs that are sometimes heartfelt, sometimes witty, but always superbly crafted. The songs are good enough to work with only acoustic guitar as backing (as “The Idiot” does on the album), but contributions from Anthony Toner (slide, lap steel and electric guitars), Linley Hamilton (trumpet) and Kaz Hawkins (vocals) all help to create perfect backdrops for Simon’s songs.

The album’s opening song, the uptempo “Once Upon a Time”, grabs the attention immediately with an outrageously infectious chorus and catchy trumpet hooks and from there on it’s a bit like Thunderbirds: ‘anything can happen in the next half hour’. “Not in my Name”, “Here Goes Nothing”, “My Baby” and “2 Ghosts” are all built around acoustic guitar and either violin or cello while the beautiful “The Idiot” is stripped back to just guitar and vocal, the perfect backing for the song with no distractions, allowing lines like ‘Girls are from Venus, boys they’re from bars’ to stand out. “Evergreen” has similar instrumentation but the Nashville styling also brings in lap steel and some lovely harmonies from Charlene Law, who complements Simon’s voice perfectly adding honey to each song she appears on; you just have to love the irony of ‘Teach me patience, but do it fast’.

The Life of Brian’s Son” and “I Smell a Rat” both have a much rockier feel (a hint of The Cars, maybe) and poke fun at the ‘all style, no substance’ pop culture and its adherents. “The Life…” upends positive clichés to create some of its impact while “I Smell a Rat” melodically sticks the knife in to a serial self-promoter. It’s a pretty effective way of dealing with the inevitable chancers you meet in the music business; don’t get mad, get melodic.

Meet Me on the Other Side” and “Lone Star Heart” are delivered in a country rock style with chiming guitars and perfect backing vocals which evoke The Gin Blossoms’ “New Miserable Experience” (a classic of its time, or is that just me?) and the primal stomp of “I Have a Voice” benefits hugely from the voice of Kaz Hawkins. The album is twelve great songs played well and sung convincingly.

If you like a bit of melancholy in your music (me, how did you guess?), then this just might appeal to you. Simon has a voice which conveys emotion without using any of the diva tricks, evoking Gin Blossoms’ Robin Wilson, Rob Thomas and my old favourite Iain Matthews, and a bunch of great songs to play with; “Let it Be” certainly does it for me.

Out now.

Dance a Little Closer CoverSo here’s the latest offering from The Kennedys and it’s a live one, whichever way you look at it. It’s another symptom of the ways things are moving in the world of music today that more and more bands are releasing live CDs. It’s so easy to do now that it’s become another part of the tour mechandise package but it can still be something special, immortalising a unique performance in the way that certain live vinyl double albums did in the 70s. “Dance a Little Closer” is one of those albums.

Pete and Maura Kennedy have a long-standing professional relationship and friendship with country singer Nanci Griffith, who brought them together on stage in 1993 as members of her Blue Moon Orchestra and the “Dance a Little Closer” tour was a tribute to Nanci and her songs. The Kennedys took a selection from Nanci’s huge body of work and created arrangements for two voices and two guitars, proving that a great song is great song whether backed by a band or single guitar. “Dance a Little Closer” was recorded towards the end of the American leg of the tour at The Turning Point in Piermont, New York in April 2014.

The pacing of the album is perfect; after the mid-tempo opener, “I Wish it Would Rain”, the slower songs like “Late Night Grande Hotel” and “From a Distance” are mixed up with the medium tempo “Across the Great Divide” and “I’m Not Driving these Wheels”, and the faster, driving, “Love Wore a Halo” and the album’s closer, “Hell No, (I’m Not Alright)”, co-written by Maura and Nanci. “Trouble in the Fields” was written in the 80s, comparing that time to the Great Depression, but seems equally valid in the second decade of the twenty-first century with Pete’s understated intro and solo emphasising Maura’s poignant vocals. “Lone Star State of Mind” is a nostalgic romp through good old Texas memories, while the wistful “There’s a Light Beyond these Woods” is a perfect evocation of a lasting childhood friendship. “Gulf Coast Highway” is another story of ordinary people getting by with some lovely vocal harmonies from Pete which give the chorus a very plaintive edge. “Ford Econoline” is a rockabilly (almost skiffle) run through the story of a housewife leaving everything behind her in Utah to take to the road and a singing career; you can almost hear Pete and Maura grinning at times.

The album’s title comes from a line in “Love at the Five and Dime”, a classic ˊlove conquers allˋ song where the main characters are musicians. Pete’s finger-picking and Maura’s vocal are reminiscent of the first Rickie Lee Jones album (always a plus for me), while the song reminds me slightly of Richard Stekol’s “Yank and Mary” as covered by Iain Matthews (an even bigger plus). It’s a beautiful song and a perfect rendition here. The instrumental and vocal performances throughout the album capture the mood of each song across a range of moods from melancholy through wistful to celebratory. All that with two guitars and two voices.

And then, there’s the songs. As Pete Kennedy’s sleeve notes tell us, these songs are a road map of America, from Nova Scotia to the Gulf of Mexico, but they’re also about real American people and issues and they have an impact which goes far beyond three minutes of music. The album’s a limited edition but there are still some copies available on The Kennedys website.

HidingIn the days following the sad and untimely death of Phil Everly, one of the musicians who was regularly interviewed was guitarist Albert Lee.  I’m willing to bet that most people watching and listening had never heard of Albert Lee, despite his long relationship the Everly Brothers.  The fact that he had decided early in his career to play a style of music, country, that has rarely, if ever, been fashionable in the UK meant that he had to move to the USA before achieving real recognition, joining the Crickets in 1974, then replacing the legendary James Burton in Emmylou Harris’s Hot Band in 1976.  Anyway, for a few days in early January 2014, all of the old Everly Brothers songs were played across the media.  I’m always happy to hear old classics reach a new audience, but the contrarian in me wanted to hear Albert Lee again, so I dug out my old vinyl copy of his second solo album, “Hiding”.

Somehow, in 1979, a single from this album managed to grab a bit of airplay, probably as a result of a particularly persistent plugger, or perhaps it was just a bit of a novelty.  “Country Boy”, which opened the album, wasn’t ever going to win an Ivor Novello; it was a lyrical throwaway which showcased Albert Lee’s stunning guitar virtuosity.  Throwaway or not, it grabbed my attention immediately and I scuttled off to BG Forbes to buy a copy of the album.  Then back to the flat as quickly as possible to introduce vinyl to stylus while avidly reading all of the credits and sleeve notes (even an insert in this case) while listening to the album.  I’ve bought many albums on the strength of one song, and I’ve been disappointed almost as many times; nothing else on “Hiding” sounded like “Country Boy” but that didn’t matter because they were all great songs.

Looking at the playing and writing credits, there were a few surprises, even with my limited knowledge of the country scene at that time.  Names like Emmylou Harris and Don Everly stood out even then, but looking back with a historical perspective and greater knowledge, Buddy Emmons, Glen D Hardin, Ricky Scaggs, Rodney Crowell, Hank DeVito and Buddy Emmons were highly-respected country players at that time.  More of a surprise was the inclusion of songs and performances by Chas Hodges and Dave Peacock who, after nearly twenty years as backing musicians, were now carving out a career performing cockney novelty songs.  Actually I wasn’t surprised; I was gobsmacked, particularly after hearing the album’s second song, “Billy Tyler”, a Hodges/Peacock country original.  I loved the song from the first time I heard it and I still love it now.  I know Dean Owens will probably disagree with me here, but I think it’s the best song they ever wrote.  And those are only the first two songs on the album.

“Are you Wasting my Time” is a tasteful cover of the Louvin Brothers classic with Albert Lee taking lead vocal and harmonies alongside Ricky Scaggs.  “Now and Then It’s Gonna Rain”, with backing from Chas and Dave, is a country/rock song which hints at earlier Eagles material and side one closes with the beautiful Rodney Crowell ballad “On a Real Good Night”.

The side two opener is “Setting me Up”, a riff-based country/rock song written by the relatively unknown (in 1979) Mark Knopfler which is followed by another Rodney Crowell song “Ain’t Living Long like This”, a shuffle with a hint of the Buster Brown classic, “Fannie Mae”.  The album’s title song is another ballad, written by Steven Rhymer (what a great name for a songwriter) and featuring backing vocals from Don Everly.  The album closes out with the slow rocker, “Hotel Love”, and “Come up and See Me Any Time”, another Chas and Dave song featuring the dynamic duo themselves on piano and bass.

The album’s a classic because Albert Lee does all the things he does best; he plays guitar, sings lead and harmony vocals and chooses some tremendous songs and players to help him display these talents.  There’s only one writing credit for him on “Hiding” but his interpretations of songs by other writers are arranged and played to perfection.  You can hear suggestions of other artists including Iain Matthews (another wonderful interpreter of songs) and Eric Clapton but the overall sound is pure Albert Lee.  I guess it’s not difficult to see why it wasn’t a hit in the UK in 1979 as post-punk took over from punk, but it has aged very well over the thirty-five years since its release.  Even if you don’t normally follow links these articles, have a look at the live performance of “Country Boy” with Vince Gill.   It’s not just about the great playing; the audience love it and you can see that the band loves it too.  Give it a listen.

Noel Cowley thumbnailWell, it’s not even halfway through January yet and this is the second very, very good single I’ve reviewed.  Noel Cowley is a singer-songwriter with roots in Derry, Dublin and London and the songs and arrangements on this EP are in a tradition that extends back to the highpoint of the genre in the 70s.  Noel recorded these songs (co-written with his brother Ewan, who also plays piano and guitar) in Manchester with some help from Paul Burgess (10CC) on drums and Tracey Browne on backing vocals.

The songs on this EP are moving and introspective, from the opener “If Nobody Told You” with its positive advice to be yourself set against a band arrangement with strings, to the closing song “Station Road” with its sparse acoustic guitar arrangement and Van Morrison-like childhood reminiscences.  The two central songs, “Wherever I Go” and “Sunday on the Quay”, are perfect in every way, from the nostalgic lyrics to the powerfully catchy choruses delivered in Noel’s strong, clear tenor voice, which has a strong feel of Iain Matthews, a long-time favourite of mine.

If you want an antidote to the instant stardom, X-Factor pap that clogs up the charts at the moment, then you could do a whole lot worse than listen to this.  There’s no over-the-top production, no clever samples, just songs that stand up on their own with very simple, even basic, arrangements played on real instruments; what a great start to the year.

Release date January 14th, 2014

 

HomeWhen I’m reviewing music I always focus primarily on the quality of the vocal, the quality of the playing and the quality of the lyrics.  With blues albums I expect the playing to be good and if you get a great vocal performance as well, that’s a bonus.  Lyrically, it’s easy to fall into old blues clichés and I guess it’s understandable in a musical form that places such an emphasis on performance and improvisation.  On this album, Aynsley Lister nails the playing, the vocals and the lyrical themes; that’s why “Home” (his tenth album) is a great modern blues album.  I mean where else are you going to hear a song inspired by “Life on Mars”?  And I mean Gene Hunt, not David Bowie.

Aynsley has responded to the implosion of the music business (referenced in the album’s second song “Broke”) in the same way as many other performers; he decided to bypass it completely and record and release material on his own label (Straight Talkin’ Records).  He’s an accomplished songwriter and a inspired lyricist, tackling some of the standard rock themes on “Home” and “Insatiable” with a creative, poetic twist and moving into less conventional subjects with “Broke”, “Hyde 2612” (the Gene Hunt song) and “Free”, the very moving tribute to his friend Rod Thomson.  He covers a wide range of blues styles, but the lyrical themes on “Home” are pushing at the boundaries of the blues/rock genre and that has to be a good thing if the genre aims to survive the music industry meltdown.

The album features a couple of covers, placed together in the running order.  The first, the James Morrison song “You Make it Real”, shows that Aynsley isn’t afraid to put his own stamp on a contemporary song while the Leslie Bricusse/Anthony Newley standard “Feeling Good” is pitched somewhere between the Nina Simone and Muse versions with robust guitar work and a powerful vocal.

And that brings me quite neatly to Aynsley Lister’s vocals.  His reputation is built around his playing (which is faultless), but he has a fabulous voice which isn’t always in the characteristic blues style.  His vocal style is very radio-friendly with a hint of plaintive melancholy which nudges into the territory of Rob Thomas (former Matchbox Twenty frontman) at times and maybe (for those of you with very long memories) he has a hint of Iain Matthews.

So we’ve got some sensitive and quite radio-friendly songs but if you’re into the heads-down, no nonsense mindless boogie there’s a bit of that as well with the barrel-house boogie-woogie of “Sugar” and the album closes with the jazzy “Straight Talkin’ Woman”  where eight bars of stuttering, staccato guitar develops into a powerful flowing solo.

The band is superb throughout.  Andre Bassing (keyboards), Steve Amadeo (bass) and Wayne Proctor (drums) are perfectly at ease with the album’s varying musical styles and provide a rock solid foundation for Aynsley’s guitar and vocals.  I’ve reviewed a few good new British blues/rock albums over the last few months, but “Home” stands above the rest because of its variety, songwriting quality and willingness to move the blues forward in the twenty-first century.  This is classy, blues writing, playing and singing of the highest order.

Out now on Straight Talkin’ Records (STR 2612).