Tim Grimm released the single “Gone” at about the time of the American election last year as the third of a trilogy of singles about the Trump era. It could have been a very angry song, but Tim pitched it as a regretful look at the hypocrisy and viciousness given free rein by the contentious president number forty-five. Now it’s one of the pillars of an album that’s suffused with loss and leavened by a sense of rebirth and renewal.

The one exception to this mood is the (presumably) autobiographical “Cadillac Hearse” which rattles along in the style of vintage Johnny Cash with acoustic guitar and mandolin fills and walking bass and tells an uplifting coming of age story set in rural community in America in the sixties where the hearse doubles up as an ambulance. It’s the bit of rollicking fun that throws the rest of the album into a stark contrast.

The album opens and closes with a full arrangement and a stripped-back version of the song “A Dream”, which establishes and then reinforces the theme of the album. “A Dream” is a poignant, elegiac story of loss, linked to the song “Laurel Pearl” by the lyrical reference to ‘the girl with the funny name’. “Laurel Pearl” moves on from a dream evocation of loss to a genuine story of a life ended too soon. This isn’t the only link between songs on the album; “Joseph Cross”, the story of the death of a Native American man with an incredible history, was written by Eric Taylor, one of the three songwriters mentioned in “Dreaming of King Lear”, who died during the pandemic.

The other two songwriters Tim pays tribute to in “Dreaming of King Lear” are Michael Smith and David Olney (who quoted the ‘blasted heath’ speech from “King Lear” on his final album “Whispers and Sighs”). The opening line of the song also echoes the opening of Jackson Browne’s “Before the Deluge”. “Laurel Pearl” is the heartbreaking story of the death of a child, which feels strongly linked to “A Dream”. The message isn’t entirely sombre; the line ‘you’re part of every living thing’ hints at renewal and the happy memories live on. The sense of peace and renewal reverberating from the previous song “25 Trees” (where the tree planting represents things that will carry on after us, while books on a shelf represent a history that has already endured) is strengthened. And there’s the obvious link between trees and paper.

“Cadillac Hearse” aside, “Gone” is a very gentle album with delicate folk stylings that allow the lyrics to shine through and the themes of renewal and moving on are enhanced by having the next generation, Connor and Jackson (Tim’s sons), contributing to the album. It was never part of Tim Grimm’s plan to release an album in 2021, but “Gone” is timely. There’s regret and a bit of anger for the events of 2020, but also a calm realisation that we must move on and create our future. That’s a message I’ll happily endorse.

“Gone” is released in Europe on Friday September 10th.

Here’s the video from “Dreaming of King Lear”:

You can’t deny that the last couple of years have been difficult times for musicians, but the creative impulse won’t be stifled. Artists will take the clay that’s available and use it to fashion their creations. The Trump years spawned many memorable albums, then musicians found different ways of working through a pandemic with very little personal interaction to help the process. Steve Dawson’s raw material for “At the Bottom of a Canyon in the Branches of a Tree” came from a different place. Following a family tragedy, he took an extended sabbatical to decide whether he wanted to continue writing and performing. A songwriting retreat with Richard Thompson and Patty Griffin gave him the answer he needed and he found his clay (mainly) in his own personal experiences.

The album’s quite unusual in that it’s almost entirely the work of Steve Dawson; there are no co-writes or covers and only three other musicians make cameo appearances. Apart from Alton Smith’s piano on a couple of songs, Michael Miles’ banjo on “The Spaces In Between” and a Diane Christiansen vocal on “We Are Walking in a Forest”, every hook, lick and vocal is Steve Dawson. Quite apart from the instrumental versatility, showcases Steve’s vocal range from the easy, languid tenor into high falsetto. Steve’s voice evokes the classic American west coast country rock bands, sounding at times like Don Henley or Randy Meisner and there’s the occasional nod in the direction of Jackson Browne as the album pulls off the trick of sounding vaguely familiar while constantly introducing new ideas and sounds.

The settings for the songs are pretty laid-back, with nods towards sixties/seventies soul in “This Is All There Is”, psychedelia in “Beautiful Mathematics”, Crazy Horse in the title track and Jackson Browne on “Hard Time Friend”, which has a breakdown and restart two-thirds of the way through that feels a lot like the last section of JB’s “The Late Show” (one of Springsteen’s favourite recorded moments). The musical settings are incredibly varied, with some interesting keyboard instruments appearing (mellotron and dulcimer for a start), creating the perfect ambience for each of the songs.

The album could easily have been a fairly depressing experience, with songs about COVID deaths and forced positivity (“This Is All There Is”), dysfunctional families (“She Knew”) and the limitations of the forgiving gesture (“Forgiveness is Nothing Like I thought it Would Be”), but Steve leavens the mixture with the resoundingly upbeat “22 Rubber Bands”, a song about his love for his daughter, and “Hard Time Friend”, dedicated to his friend Diane Christiansen, celebrating the friends who are with us through times that are good or bad, happy or sad. There are two bonus CD and download songs which didn’t make the vinyl cut for reasons that have nothing to do with quality; “You’re Trying Too Hard”, which nails fake authenticity, and “However Long it Takes”, a reminder that we can always choose to see the good things in the world rather than the negativity which so often surrounds us.

Twelve tracks, fourteen if you buy the CD or download, and each one with an interesting arrangement and lyrics conveying ideas that are important to Steve Dawson, as they should be to all of us. It’s ironic to think that this bunch of songs were created by someone who had started to doubt his creative abilities.

“At the Bottom of a Canyon in the Branches of a Tree” is released on Pravda Records (PR6419) on Friday July 16th.

Here’s the animated video for “22 Rubber Bands”:

Authenticity’s something that’s often claimed but not always delivered. Not in this case; “Shadow Land” is a powerful and often disturbing collection of songs with a wide variety of themes. And the authenticity isn’t just in the lived experience of Ben de la Cour, although his life suffuses the songs. It’s also in the way the album was made; virtually all of it was recorded live. Brave, perhaps, but vibrant and raw when it’s done well. On “Shadow Land”, it’s done very, very well.

This isn’t a gentle, introspective album of reflective songs tinged with melancholy like Jackson Browne and James Taylor in the seventies. Their hell-raising generally didn’t make it directly into the songs (unless you count “Cocaine” on “Running on Empty”). With Ben de la Cour, it’s a different matter. It doesn’t matter how deep the barrel is, he’ll siphon out the most bitter dregs, then create potent songs from them. If you wanted a more current comparison, Ben has a lot in common with Michael McDermott both in the life lived and in the breadth of musical stylings they use to get the songs across.

“Shadow Land” moves effortlessly from the gentle triple-time pathos of another barely-mourned suicide in “Swan Dive” to the terrifying, hallucinatory “Harmless Indian Medicine Blues” sounding like a half-speed, minor key “Telegram Sam” played by Black Sabbath, with a side order of raw sax. And while we’re on the subject of terrifying, “Basin Lounge” is a full-on, full band romp through the story of a night in one of those bars that sensible people don’t visit, complete with cocaine references. It’s on the edge of falling apart at any time and conveys the stimulant headrush perfectly when the manic guitar solo kicks in.

The album isn’t just about the personal. There’s a smattering of murder ballads in there as well. The album opens with “God’s Only Son”, the tale of double-crossing bank robbers set to an Ennio Morricone-style arrangement, complete with whistling and mandolin while “Amazing Grace (Slight Return)” is a much more mellow take on a hushed-up murder in a small town. There’s also a takedown of corporate greed in the swamp-rock of “In God We Trust … All Others Pay Cash”, but the focus is mainly on the searingly honest depictions life in general and of the Janus faces of dependency and recovery in particular.

Two of the standouts in this vein are “The Last Chance Farm”, a gentle, bleak story of two characters meeting in rehab and the title song with its dystopic alienation and a perfect description of eternal damnation: ‘The Revolutionary Suicide Jazz Band plays all night long’. It certainly sounds a lot like Hell to me.

“Shadow Land” isn’t an easy listen; it’s not meant to be. It’s the product of a difficult life and Ben de la Cour doesn’t shy away from honest depiction of this life. The musical settings are perfect for the subject matter of the songs from the terrible clarity and Jack London references of “Valley of the Moon” to the raw rock and hedonism of “Basin Lounge”. You never know quite what’s coming next; it could be Townes Van Zandt, it could be Nick Cave. Whatever it is, it won’t be dull.

If you like your albums spiced with a murder ballad or two, a touch of the supernatural, terrifying stories of substance abuse, suicide, alienation, Armageddon and cross-dressing, then it’s your lucky day.

“Shadow Land” is released in the UK on Friday April 9th on Flour Sack Cape Records (FSCR-0010).

As a special treat, here’s the video clip for “Harmless Indian Medicine Blues”:

It’s drizzling, freezing and absolutely miserable in the UK at the moment, so that would be the perfect time to listen to an album straight out of 1970s Laurel Canyon via 2020s British Columbia. There are more influences on the album than the Jackson Browne/Eagles/Linda Ronstadt coterie but the album still glows with sunshine of The Golden State, even though its creators Heather Read and Jonny Miller have fairly nebulous Californian connections but, hey, the first two Eagles albums were produced by Glyn Johns at Olympic Studios in London, while Peach & Quiet’s “Just Beyond the Shine” was put together with the help of producer and multi-instrumentalist Steve Dawson in Nashville, Toronto, Vancouver and Victoria. All of the songs are written by Heather, Jonny or both apart from the album’s closer, “Seven Daffodils”, written by Lee Hays and Fran Moseley.

The sun breaks through from the opening notes of the Byrds/Tom Petty-inflected opener, “Empty to Fill” and its poetic exploration of the contradictions and complexity of human beings. From there it’s almost constant Oakley and Ray-Ban stuff, with the exception of the slightly menacing Southern-influenced “Shoreline After A Storm” likening a bad relationship to a storm – they can both inflict terrible damage and leave a messy aftermath. There’s a little hint of “I Put A Spell on You” in there as well.

The songwriting is superb throughout, from the fairly straightforward love song “There’s A Very Good Chance” with its lovely Everlys harmonies to the more complex “Flowers”, which is based on the children’s book “Mr Cat and the Little Girl” which deals with love and loss which has a folky Byrds styling with a relatively complex arrangement that even features a bit of glockenspiel, courtesy of Steve Dawson.

There are themes running though the album; lyrically it’s all about love, whether it’s love for a partner who’s on stage every night (“Lucky in Love”) or for a place (“California Way”). The song arrangements are in the Eagles/Linda Ronstadt mode with layers of electric and acoustic guitars and some absolutely gorgeous harmonies, either as duets or as multi-tracked layers. There’s absolutely nothing out of place on this album.

And, as I finish this review, there’s no rain, and the sun is shining; that was pretty impressive work, guys. This album’s combination of superbly-crafted songs and subtle Laurel Canyon-era  arrangements is the perfect antidote to winter on either side of the Atlantic.

“Just Beyond the Shine” is released on January 15th 2012 on Peach & Quiet Music (P&QCD001).

Here’s the video for “Empty to Fill”:

 

Andy Fleet isn’t the most prolific of album artists; his last album was in 2013. Which doesn’t really matter; his musical world is not ruled by release schedules, so why not release albums when you’re happy you’ve created something that people will want to listen to and appreciate. And I need to apologise here, this album has been out since March but somehow managed to avoid my attention until now and that’s my loss because “The Sleepless Kind” is a little gem of an album, the kind you want to listen to again and again. Even the cover is a nice piece of art by Alban Low inspired by the song ”Through Closed Eyes”.

The title tells the story; the theme of the album is the night and particularly the musicians who try to scratch a living in those hours of darkness, and those who make the bleary-eyed commuter journey to a day job that enables them to play another night. “The Sleepless Kind” is a tribute to those people who make music because they love making music. Is there a better reason?

The Sleepless Kind” (which tops and tails the album) is a dreamy instrumental that sounds like it should soundtrack a Raymond Chandler story: gentle piano and moody, muted trumpet of Andre Canniere combine to paint a picture of a jazz club in the early hours, when you stop worrying about the last train and start thinking about the first train.

The remaining seven songs demonstrate the wide variety of influences feeding into Andy Fleet’s unique style. The band is superb with the slower, more evocative songs but goes up through the gears really smoothly for the more uptempo songs , such as “Been There, Drunk That” and the rollicking seventies, horn-driven groove of “Love’s Enemy”, which tells the story of a collector in a style that hints at Al Stewart and maybe even Gerry Rafferty. “Stolen Years”, a John Lennon tribute, hints at Thunderclap Newman, but “The Hobbyist” and “Through Closed Eyes” are the absolute pivot of the album.

The Hobbyist” is a powerful tribute to Andy’s friend, the late Iain Bull, opening with some Jackson Browne-like piano, while “Through Closed Eyes” opens with a with a fairly traditional jazz set-up of keys, bass, drums (with brushes, initially) and trumpet and spins out its groove for nearly eight gorgeous minutes, telling the story of the London night from the perspective of an owl, silently watching over the neon-lit streets.

Mainly jazz-orientated, “The Sleepless Kind” also hints at blues, rock, pop and soul. The musicianship is superb throughout, never over-played, and the songs are well-constructed and meaningful. The album oozes class and rewards close attention. One to listen to in the small hours with a single malt close at hand.

“The Sleepless Kind” is out now on Low Vinyl Records (LV1608).

And here’s a little video snippet for you:

 

If you want reference points for “Pigeon and the Crow”, I’d go for something between “Sweet Baby James” and “Graceland”. It has the simple, laid-back feel of James Taylor and the experimental rhythms and instrumentation of Paul Simon’s classic. There’s a lot going on, but it never feels cluttered or claustrophobic. There’s something that sets this album apart from the two classics, and it’s the lyrical invention of Nels Andrews’ songs, which are mostly allegorical and metaphorical rather than following straight-line narratives and it makes for a very interesting mixture. It’s a compulsive and beguiling set of songs. And before we move away from the comparisons, you could say that there are hints of Jackson Browne, and Nels’ voice at times sounds a lot like Ian (or Iain) Matthews at the time he was trying to crack the American market in the seventies.

The press pack for the album contains a lyric sheet for the album (it’s in the album packaging as well), but also a very helpful set of writer’s notes for each song, which share the sort of detail you would never pick up on otherwise. “The Lion’s Jaws” is based on the story of an in-law who, at one time, was the only Jewish lion-tamer in history, which is an interesting coincidence, given that Scottish singer-songwriter Dean Owens (recently reviewed here) has also written about a not-too-distant ancestor who was a lion-tamer.

To get some idea of the musical variety of the album, you only need to take a look at the credits. There are thirteen musicians involved and a list of fourteen instruments (not including the many under the umbrella of percussion) from various musical traditions including kora, steel pan, harmonium and flute; it’s not just a lot of instruments, it’s a lot of musical styles melding together seamlessly by producer, flautist and singer Nuala Kennedy.

Highlights? The title song’s hard to beat, with its supernatural love story theme and its lilting Gaelic feel; the opener “Scrimshaw” in triple time and with mid-life memories of happiness and regrets is a perfect evocation of the singer-songwriter genre, and the slightly rockier “Table by the Kitchen” is a fiddle-led, fear-of-missing-out anthem satirising the me generation. What remains in the memory when you reach the end of the album, is the sheer variety of musical settings used to project these songs and support Nels’ mellifluous voice and the way that none of it seems out of place.

“Pigeon and the Crow” is out now.

“Blood Brothers” has a very familiar sound; it’s the sound of 1970s Laurel Canyon. That’s not a criticism; the Canyon was a creative hub in the seventies California music scene and it’s no coincidence that Don Henley, a member of that scene covers Jeffrey Foucault’s songs in his live sets. The arrangements and stylings all have the feel of those classic Elektra/Asylum albums of the early 70s. Jeffrey Foucault also has a voice that’s straight out of that era with hints of Randy Meisner and Jackson Browne in there. And, like those albums, the musicianship is of the highest quality while being largely understated. No flash, just perfect settings that allow the ten songs to breathe and shine. And the whole thing was recorded directly to tape over three days in Pachyderm Studios in Minnesota.

The opening song “Dishes” sets the tone for the album lyrically and musically. It’s gentle, laid-back and extols the virtues of domestic simplicity, whereas the second song, the apocalyptic, end-of-days “War on the Radio” is less typical. It has a country-rock feel with more of an emphasis on the rock, and is driven along by fiddle fills as we look into the abyss.

The rest of the album has the same DNA as “Dishes”, gentle arrangements pulling out the best in stories of domesticity in small-town America peopled with the characters that we can all relate to: the frustrated singer-songwriter in ”Cheap Suit” and the father looking back at his wedding day (with the album’s second reference to washing dishes) in “Little Warble”, with its clever lyrical device of ‘warble’ appearing at the start of the song in relation to the car’s tape player and at the end in relation to the singer’s heartbeat.

“Little Warble” has a country feel, while the rest of the album is Elektra/Asylum (you’d swear David Lindley was there) apart from the Neil Young-tinged “Blood Brothers” and “Rio” which is pure “Harvest Moon” with picked guitar, drums with brushes and pedal steel. If you’re a fan of the Eagles/Jackson Browne school of music, then you’re probably going to enjoy this album.

“Blood Brothers” is out now on Blueblade Records (BB-006).

This album should display a warning sticker. Not the PMRC nonsense; it should be a health warning, with the wording ‘Danger – Earworm Infestation’. It’s a couple of days since I last heard “Great Divides” and I’m still trying to disentangle the musical and verbal hooks from my consciousness but it’s a bit like “Whack a Mole”; everyone time you knock one on the head, another pops up. This is going to take a while and, by the time I succeed, I’ll be defeated again when I go to see them play live.

The guys in Massy Ferguson will self-deprecatingly refer to themselves as a bar band but, hey, so does my favourite band ever. To me that description is synonymous with superb musicianship, a huge repertoire and an ability to read and entertain an audience and I’ll go for that any day of the week. Throw in some great songs and you’ve got the finished article.

And how about those songs? They divide quite neatly into the abstract imagery of the riff-driven “Drop an Atom Bomb” and the straight-ahead autobiographical narrative of “Momma’s in the Backseat”; they’re all powerful lyrically and the musical settings pull out all of the songs’ nuances. “Maybe the Gods” (a duo vocal with Adra Boo) is driven along by a guitar line that evokes the much-missed Stuart Adamson, while “Saying You Were There” is more contemplative with a haunting refrain of ‘Passengers on the left’. You can hear many influences in the songs, some have a very Seattle edge with power chords and booming floor toms while there are country influences and a bit of mainstream rock in there as well; whatever else is going on, there are memorable melodies and hummable hooks.

“Great Divides” is a very rounded, complete album with songs reflecting the maturity that age and experience bring while still sounding lean and hungry and very rock ‘n’ roll. And I just have to say that Ethan Anderson sounds unbelievably like Jackson Browne at times; and I’m not complaining about that.

“Great Divides” is released in the UK on Friday June 7th on North and Left (NL001) and the band will be touring the UK throughout June.

“River of Light” is one of those albums that constantly surprises; you never know what’s coming next. It might be a nice understated guitar fill or it might be a lyric that stops you in your tracks with its brutal honesty and intensity. More about that later, but let’s just get this out of the way now; Kristina isn’t a singer’s singer. She uses her voice very effectively as one of the instruments in the mix, but it is another instrument, not a focal point. She creates varied and interesting sounds and examples are dotted throughout the album of her use of studio techniques picked up from her career as a sound engineer.

Where Kristina really excels is in creating enthralling soundscapes where every element is important. And while we’re talking about the elements, just have a look at the talented musicians she’s pulled together for this project: MusicRiot favourite Steve Mayone and Val McCallum (guitar player with Jackson Browne) for a start. The soundscapes move from the resolutely lo-fi twelve-bar country blues of a “I Like a Hard-Hearted Man” through the string band and guitar atmospherics of “Walking These Ridges” (with a bit of accordion thrown in for good measure) to the album’s closing piece, the instrumental “Godspeed”, which is cinematic with clusters of echoing piano triads and an acoustic guitar melody. It would fit perfectly on a Sigur Ros album.

Did I mention the lyrical themes? No, not yet, let’s pick out a couple of examples. “Waging Peace” (once you get past the “waging war” reference) is a post-apocalyptic vision of Albert Einstein’s Fourth World War being fought with sticks and stones. “Caught by the Heart” is a terrifying vision of domestic violence that repeated listening just won’t soften; it’s harsh and brutal, no punches are pulled and you can’t ignore the impact.

I’m just going to add that Kristina is hugely inspired by Jackson Browne; that’s a recommendation for me any time.

“River of Light” is released in the UK on Thunder Ridge Records (TRR025) on April 5th 2019.

So, where would this little Ben Kunder gem sit in the racks of your local music store? It’s almost impossible to say but I guess it’s going to land in that current catch-all, the Americana section because it features that well-known roots instrument, the synthesiser. The lasting impression of the album is of positivity; the two words of the title cropping up across various songs. It certainly ends on a positive note with a celebration of the birth of a baby in “Night Sky”. Lyrically, the album falls squarely into the introspective singer-songwriter category, but the stylings vary dramatically across the nine songs; let me explain. 

While “Fight for Time” “Better Days” and “Hard Line” fall in to fairly standard arrangements for this genre (okay “Hard Line” features a string section towards the end), “Jessi” has the feel of a eighties drive-time classic driven with some insanely catchy synth hooks thrown in for good measure. In common with the rest of the album, there are hints of Jackson Browne in the writing and the vocal intonation. “Lay Down”, however, is pure E Street Band with perhaps a few hints of Bob Seger in there as well. It’s over five minutes long and the combination of piano and organ from the beginning set the tone; maybe there are hints of The Band in there as well. As the song builds, no opportunity’s missed to gild this particular lily, with extra percussion from congas and tambourine, a falsetto vocal and a huge slide solo. The frantic drumming towards the end sums up the production; if it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing. “Come On”, which follows immediately, is a welcome chance to catch your breath before the album closes with the lovely “Night Sky”. 

“Better Human” is an immensely uplifting album, focussing on the ways we can make things better for ourselves and each other. The fact that the sentiment is helped along by interesting and innovative arrangements lifts it well above the ordinary run of singer-songwriter albums. 

“Better Human” is released on Comino Music (BKBH002) on Friday September 28th.