It’s six years since the release of her debut album, but Ciara Sidine hasn’t wasted that time; on the evidence of her second album “Unbroken Line”, she’s been constructing a fine bunch of songs that tackle contemporary issues with a deftness and delicacy of touch that evokes some of the great popular songwriters of our time. She’s not just an average singer, she has a fabulous voice that will melt the hardest of hearts, going all the way from delicate (almost fragile) to the bluesy raunch and double entendre of “Lemme Drive Your Train”.

The opener, “Finest Flower”, sets the tone for the album with its haunting combination of melancholy pedal steel and upright creating the setting for a song tackling the iniquities of the Magdalene Laundries. It also shows Ciara’s willingness to experiment, using some grungy ambient sounds in the leadup to the guitar solo. Definitely no one-trick ponies here. The songs are strong and varied, the arrangements work perfectly for the subject matter, but the real clincher is Ciara’s voice. Her range is impressive and she makes the most of it. The laconic shuffle of “2 Hard 2 Get 2 Heaven” features the husky lower end, while the fatalistic acoustic piece “Woman of Constant Sorrow” features a high, keening vocal before building up to a menacing slide solo.

The band moves effortlessly between styles from the slow jazzy country feel of “Watching the Dark” to the gospel rockabilly of “Wooden Bridge”, hinting at the vocal stylings of Patsy Cline and Imelda May respectively. “Let the Rain Fall” references the Stax sound, particularly the clipped Steve Cropper guitar sounds and “Take Me with You”, featuring some particularly lovely harmonies, could have found a home on any of the first four Jackson Browne albums.

There are plenty of things to admire about this album; the songs, the settings, the individual playing and of course the superb vocals. The subtlety and gentleness of the stylings allows Ciara to push home some uncomfortable messages without introducing any harsh corners and in that respect, it’s a very nuanced and sophisticated piece of work.

“Unbroken Line” is released on Friday October 6th.

Rackhouse Pilfer - 'Love and Havoc' - cover (300dpi)‘Why don’t we open the album with a song about busting out of prison, I mean it worked for Thin Lizzy, didn’t it?”. Well, it certainly did and just as “Jailbreak” set the tone perfectly for the album of the same name, “Dust on the Road” does the same for Rackhouse Pilfer’s “Love and Havoc”. The frenetic banjo and fiddle interplay drives along a tale of freedom or death that’s only resolved with the half-speed coda signifying success. By the end of the song, you know you’re in good hands. Rackhouse Pilfer is an Irish six-piece outfit and, if I can’t use the catch-all term Americana, I’d have to say they play original songs influenced by country, bluegrass and a hefty dose of seventies Laurel Canyon troubadours and another hefty dose of homegrown Irish fun. If you can carry that off, you’ve got something a little bit special and they don’t just carry it off, they heave it into the air and juggle it with one hand. OK, I admit it, we’re a bit behind the curve on this one; it was released in 2014 but it’s just popped up in the Riot Towers inbox ahead of a Rackhouse Pilfer UK tour.

“Another Dirty Joke” rattles along in the same light-hearted way with a theme of drunken and stoned escapism, but it’s not just about the craic; there’s a serious side to the album as well. “Me and a Polar Bear” is an uptempo piece with an environmental theme while “Angela” tells the story of a woman who wants to escape a relationship by murdering her partner. You can hear more traditional string band influences on the slow “A Sailing Song” with its mournful unison fiddle and mandolin and the rollicking “Shady Grove”, which gives all of the players a chance to show off their skills with short solos.

And the Laurel Canyon influence? Well “Two Oceans” evokes early Jackson Browne perfectly; the song, the vocal and even the title could have featured on any of his first three albums. You can hear an Eagles influence in the harmony-laden midtempo country-rock of “Calico Sky” and “I’ll Find a Way” (maybe a hint of Bob Seger’s “Against the Wind” in there as well) and “Bright Lights” could be Bernie Leadon era Eagles.

“Love and Havoc” assimilates a huge number of influences, weaves them into a bunch of diverse and memorable songs and tops the mix off with a touch of Celtic good humour. And I’m willing to bet they do a cracking live show, so maybe you should look out for dates near you on their UK tour.

“Love and Havoc” is out now.

4panel_2halfmoonPockets_EcoWalletIt’s hard to reconcile the fourth Christa Couture album with its accompanying press release; if you’ve read about her personal history and you know that this is a break-up album, then you could be forgiven for expecting Leonard Cohen meets Jackson Browne, but “Long Time Leaving” certainly doesn’t fit that mould. Lyrically, it’s a very honest portrayal of a breakup, tapping in to all aspects of the end of a relationship, including the opportunities for experimentation presented to the newly-uncoupled. Even when a song’s subject matter’s dark, the musical arrangements can be quite upbeat, even jaunty, with an eclectic mix of musical stylings and a clear, intimate vocal hinting at early Joni Mitchell and Tori Amos.

The musicianship is superb throughout the album; Gary Craig (drums) and John Dymond (basses) along with producer Steve Dawson (guitars and keys) with a guest appearance from renowned Nashville fiddler Fats Kaplin, shift seamlessly from style to style as they build an evocative backdrop for Christa’s vocals. “Zookeeper” is a perfect example of this; the arrangement builds around a heavily reverbed guitar to create a dramatic, doom-laden setting for a song portraying a couple’s counsellor as a zookeeper forcing them to face up to the wild animals that symbolise the reasons for their breakup.

Alone in This” is pure Nashville, with pedal steel throughout, topped off with a beautiful solo, while “Lovely Like You” bounces along with help of Fats Kaplin’s fiddle fills and the call and response between fiddle, vocals and slide resonator. These are all elements that you wouldn’t be surprised to find on any Americana record, but there’s a joker in the pack as well. There are occasional flashes of musical theatre breaking through in the instrumental arrangements and the vocal delivery. In the lines ‘The hallways are lined with boxes neatly stacked/this is what eight years looks like packed’ that open “Separation/Agreement”, there’s a one-beat pause before ‘packed’ that’s pure theatre, and it’s perfect.

“Long Time Leaving” pulls together widely varying musical styles linked by Christa Couture’s fluty voice, inventive lyrics and tales of the aftermath of a breakup. One of her aims was to make an album to accompany doing housework and she’s actually managed to make it work. With a few exceptions, the music is catchy, packed with hooks and upbeat, while Christa avoids the obvious pitfalls of the subject matter by steering clear of the blame culture and exploring areas like binge drinking and sexual experimentation. It’s an intriguing roller-coaster of an album and when you step off at the end of the ride, you’ll feel exhilarated and uplifted. You’ll probably get through the ironing twice as quickly as well.

Long Time Leaving” is released on Black Hen Music (BHCD0079) on Friday May 20th.

Domestic Eccentric TitleFor “Domestic Eccentric”, Old Man Luedecke has teamed up with multi-instrumentalist Tim O’Brien to produce an intimate, home-recorded set of songs covering a wide variety of themes and styles. The songs are very, very good (actually, a couple are excellent), the performances are spot on and there’s a really effective mix of traditional bluegrass playing and vocal harmonies with modern lyrical ideas. The inspiration for most of these songs comes from his life as a young parent and the idea of recording almost everything in the home setting creates a very intimate feel.

The Briar and the Rose” (sounding a little like early Jackson Browne with a banjo), “The Early Days”, “Chester Boat Song” and “Now We Got a Kitchen” all give a slightly different slant on settling into a family life, while “Hate What I Say” and “Happy Ever After” seem to belong to a slightly different pre-domestic bliss era. Luedecke likes to bring a poetic sensibility to his lyrics, indulging in wordplay and the fusion of incongruous ideas, which is great when it works well: ‘If it rained forty days and it rained forty nights, Would you be my plus one if we could find the ark?’ (“Wait a While”), but sounds a bit clunky on the opening song, “Yodelady”.

“Domestic Eccentric” is a long way from being a bad album, but the sublime moments are the domestic ones and the eccentricity stops the album from achieving greatness. It’s difficult to maintain the intensity of the personal, autobiographical songs over a whole album and the unconvincing moments on this album tend to come when the mood lightens; the album wouldn’t suffer significantly if the opening song and “Real Wet Wood” (despite the great half-line ‘better to burn out than explode’) were both removed to bring it down to twelve songs, making “The Girl in the Pearl Earring” the opening song.

The album does have some truly great moments and you really should give it a listen.

“Domestic Eccentric” is out now on True North Records (TND 605).

Ed Dupas - 'A Good American Life' - TitleNow, here’s an interesting debut. Born in Texas, brought up in Winnipeg and now based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Ed Dupas has definitely paid his dues, as we oldies say, and he’s released a cracking album. He’s spent years playing acoustic covers in bars around Detroit while writing his own material and the efforts he’s made in writing and performance are evident in the quality of “A Good American Life”. This is an album that doesn’t need any production gimmicks to get its message over; the songs are strong and the simple arrangements and understated vocals are much more effective than any amount of studio tricks.

Two-thirds of the songs on “A Good American Life” have the personal themes that you might expect from an Americana singer-songwriter; “Remember My Love” and “Too Late Now” are about the singer’s perspective on broken relationships, while “With Love You Never Know” (a duet with Tara Cleveland) looks at a breakup from a female point of view and “You Don’t Get to Explain” talks about the kind of betrayal so complete that it leads to total ostracism. Ed skirts around the nature of the betrayal in an oblique style that is used in several songs on the album; it’s a particularly effective device because it reflects the way we tell our stories and it gives the songs a very human touch.

Without You” and “Whiskey Bones” are love songs, powerfully and beautifully underplayed, while “Home in Time” is the story of someone who has escaped being dragged back home by a major event. Again, it’s an oblique reference, but the song isn’t any weaker because the event is unspecified; and it’s a very powerful story. “Until Blue Comes ‘Round” is a look at the cycles of life using a colour metaphor, which is, again, highly effective.

As good as those songs are, and they’re very, very good, it’s the remaining third, including the title track, that really do it for me. It’s acceptable to be a political singer-songwriter these days: Jackson Browne’s been doing it for years, the Boss’s “Wrecking Ball” ripped in to the bankers and Shakey now has the world record for mentions of Monsanto and Starbucks on one album (and a great album, at that) but Ed’s a bit more subtle than that. “A Good American Life” (with a sneaky piano fill reference to the Bangles’ “Manic Monday”) opens the album with a look at the way we come to accept the treadmill of everyday life while “This Old Town” and “Train” explore the themes that Springsteen used on “Wrecking Ball”, the death of towns when industry vanishes and the ubiquity of bankers in modern society.

Flag” is an absolute gem of a song. Ed uses a bit of lyrical sleight of hand with a refrain of ‘red, white and blue till the day I die’ to suggest a gentle song about American patriotism then delivers the knockout punch as the flag’s folded and handed to someone’s widow. It’s a song that’s beautifully put together and incredibly moving; easy to listen to, hard to forget. All of the songs are all perfectly crafted little stories that don’t need any frills, just a gentle delivery and a willing audience. You should join that audience.

Released in the UK August 28 2015 on Mackinaw Harvest Records.

 

Double Mind TitleIt’s interesting that Toronto-based guitarist and songwriter David Celia has chosen “Double Mind” as the song and central theme for his fourth album; it suggests a dichotomy in modern life that might even extend as far as schizophrenia but, for me, the album conjures up a totally different duality. In the old football (or soccer) cliché, this one’s a game of two halves, which splits almost exactly down the middle. If it was split over two sides of vinyl, I would very happily listen to side one and ignore side two completely. So what is it about this album that provokes such a mixed reaction?

The album opens with “Welcome to the Show”, a West Coast, country-rock tinged song which demonstrates Celia’s songwriting and features some lovely guitar work. It’s a scene-setter and it gives a pretty good idea of what’s coming on the first half of the album. Vocally, he has echoes of Jackson Browne or Neil Young and the songs are rooted firmly in singer-songwriter territory dealing with the struggles of modern life (“The Grind”), looking for a soul-mate (“Speak to Me”) and the schism caused by multi-tasking (“Double Mind”). “Thin Disguise” which deals with putting on a brave face after a break-up has hint of Springsteen’s “Kitty’s Back”, particularly the walking bass line, and the album’s first half is high-quality, inventive, introspective songwriting with musical performances to back it up. The only discordant tone is “Tongues”, which moves away from relatively serious territory into something more light-hearted and contains the clunky line ‘Don’t be shy with your region of nether’; it’s not the album’s finest lyrical moment.

The light-hearted (and lightweight) “Drunken Yoga” and “Go Naked” (which mashes up Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock” with Beach Boys harmonies) sound out of place on a predominantly serious album, but not as much as “Princess Katie” which is David Celia’s “Frog Chorus”; it is possible to take the Beatles comparisons too far. The album’s closing track, a German version of the opener doesn’t really add much to the listening experience, either. It’s not all unbridled levity in the second half of the album; “Want You to be Happy” is a break-up song and the album’s longest song, “Smile You’re Alive” again has a seventies singer-songwriter feel ( a bit Neil Young, a bit Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” maybe) although the discordant piano coda feels a little out of place.

Listening to “Double Mind” as an entity is a frustrating experience as it bumps along from the sublime to, well, “Princess Katie”. It’s obvious that David Celia is absolutely fizzing with musical ideas and wants to get all of them out there but I’m not convinced that they all fit together happily here. You could easily cut out the more lightweight songs and transform this into a four-star album with nine or ten very strong songs.

Double Mind” is out on August 21 on Seedling Music and David will be touring the UK in November.

 

Hannah TitleWell, that’s another one for the bucket list. It’s taken a long time but I’ve finally had a conversation with someone who began a sentence with ‘Y’all…’, so thank you very much Hannah Aldridge from Muscle Shoals, Alabama for finally putting that one right for me. I was at Green Note to see Don Gallardo and Hannah on the last night of the UK tour to promote their respective current albums, Don’s “Hickory” and Hannah’s “Razor Wire”. Don’s band for the tour has been Travis Stock (playing bass, mandolin and guitar) and two musicians from the UK on keyboards and pedal steel, while Hannah has been delivering a stripped-back solo acoustic set of songs from her debut album, plus a bit of new material as well.

As always, the Green Note audience on this sold-out night was attentive and appreciative giving both artists a warm response. Don Gallardo played a set featuring songs from his new album including “Diamonds and Gold”, “Carousel”, “Ophelia, We Cry (Ode to Levon Helm)”, “The North Dakota Blues” and the superb “Down in the Valley”. Don’s easy geniality between songs created a warm atmosphere that was perfectly suited to the intimacy of the venue and the set came to a perfect close with Hannah joining the band on a cover of the Neil Young/CSNY song “Helpless”; it was one of many spine-tingling moments on the night.

Hannah Aldridge’s songs on her debut album “Razor Wire” are intensely personal and confessional; at times they’re brutally honest and even harrowing. The band arrangements on the album aren’t obtrusive, so it’s relatively easy to see how the songs would work as unplugged versions in a live setting, but Hannah also has a few curve-balls to throw, which is impressive under the circumstances; she’s been ill throughout the tour and has just started to recover and get her voice back to full power.

From the start of the set, Hannah pitched her between-song delivery somewhere between the real Hannah and the more strident, harder Hannah who appears on the cover of the album; you think it’s mostly a stage persona, but you probably wouldn’t push your luck to find out. She had a setlist prepared but after the opener “You Ain’t Worth the Fight”, all bets were off as the audience had their say and Hannah adjusted the dynamics of the set accordingly. “Rails to Ride” (from 2013) and the superb new song, “Gold Rush” were the only songs in the set not featured on “Razor Wire”.

The entire set was absolutely spellbinding as Hannah poured her soul into “Old Ghost”, “Razor Wire” and “Black and White”, but two songs stood out, for different reasons, from the rest of the set. “Parchman”, unlike most of Hannah’s songs, was inspired by something outside her personal experience; it’s about a female prisoner waiting to be executed at the Mississippi State Penitentiary (known colloquially as Parchman Farm) for the murder of her abusive husband. The song pulls no punches, and had the audience enthralled throughout. For the final song of the set, “Howlin’ Bones”, Hannah left the security of the stage, and amplified vocals, to take the song direct to the audience, moving around the room to deliver a raw and genuinely unplugged version of a powerful song. You couldn’t call it easy listening, but it was raw and compulsive.

Although the entire evening was packed with lovely moments, Hannah Aldridge’s set confirmed my suspicion that she not only has a gift for turning life into art, but she’s also a hugely gifted and empathic performer who can project the emotional power of her songs. We may have missed out on the Jackson Browne cover “These Days” on the night, but this was a stunning solo performance of songs of the highest quality.

Watch out for her next UK tour, but check out “Razor Wire” in the meantime.

Hannah Aldridge TitleHere’s something that we really have to share with you. It’s an album from 2014 by Hannah Aldridge called “Razor Wire” and the title gives more than a hint at the lyrical content; it’s painfully honest and uncompromising, which isn’t so surprising when you discover that her musical hero is Jackson Browne. She describes her music as ‘dark Americana’, which is probably right on the money with musical stylings straddling the country and country/rock genres providing a platform for Hannah’s strong yet vulnerable vocals and confessional lyrics.

The eleven songs on the album, plus a bonus acoustic version of the title song are shot through with melancholy and a willingness to shine a torch into the murky basement of a life that hasn’t always followed a straightforward path. There are references to addiction (“Lie like You Love Me”), taking control of your destiny (“Howlin’ Bones”) and wrecked relationships (“Razor Wire”) although there’s also the more introspective, nostalgic feel of “Black and White”. Despite using so much biographical detail, the person delivering the songs isn’t quite the real Hannah Aldridge, she’s a character who shares the same past but has a different, harder attitude to its reality and to risky behaviour.

This is an album that transcends genres; it’s rooted in Americana, and the Muscle Shoals tradition, but the quality and the delivery of the deeply personal songs create a piece that’s essential listening for anyone remotely interested in high quality songwriting.

You can see Hannah in these UK venues in July:

Saturday 4      Easton, Suffolk           Maverick Festival 2015

Sunday 5         Birmingham                Kitchen Garden Café

Tuesday 7       Nottingham                 The Maze with guest Don Gallardo

Thursday 9      Plymouth                     The B-Bar with Don Gallardo

Friday 10         Bristol                          The Golden Lion with Don Gallardo & The Rosellys

Sunday 12       Winchester                  The Railway

Monday 13      Brighton                       The Greys

Tuesday 14     London                        Green Note co-headline with Don Gallardo

 

We’ll be reporting back from the final show of the tour at Green Note in Camden. Until then, have a look at this:

C1026OK, let me say this right up front; this album isn’t for everyone, but you could say that about Tom Waits, Neil Young and Bob Dylan and it hasn’t done them any harm. Malcolm Holcombe’s voice is an acquired taste but if you already have a taste for anyone mentioned above then it wouldn’t take a lot of acquisition. It’s the voice of a man who’s lived a life and seen a lot of dark sides; it’s the voice of a man who gargles with gravel, spits sparks and tells stories of how life is, not how you think it should be. His music has roots in blues, folk and country but it’s not really any of these; it’s a strand of Americana which weaves in all of these influences without falling neatly into any of them.

The RCA Sessions” is a retrospective with a difference. Malcolm Holcombe has picked out sixteen songs from the period 1994-2014 and re-recorded the lot live in the RCA Studios in Nashville, while filming the process for a CD/DVD package. The band for the sessions was Jared Tyler (dobro, electric guitar, lap steel and vocals), Dave Roe (upright bass and arco), Tammy Rogers (fiddle, mandolin and vocals), Ken Coomer (drums and percussion) Jelly Roll Johnson (harmonica) and Siobhan Maher-Kennedy (vocals), all regular contributors to Malcolm’s work, plus Maura O’Connell who duets on the final track, “A Far Cry from Here”.

This collection weaves its way through various instrumental settings, from the intimate Malcolm Holcombe/Jared Tyler configuration on “Doncha Miss that Water” (with a hint of Jackson Browne and David Lindley) to the full country band sound of “My Ol’ Radio”, the riff-based country rock of “To Drink the Rain” and the two songs featuring Jelly Roll Johnson’s harmonica, “Mister in Morgantown” and “Mouth Harp Man”.

There’s a melancholy lyrical feel to most of the album, from the mournful mood of “The Empty Jar” to the world-weary nostalgia of “Early Mornin’” and “Goin’ Home”. There’s a bit of social comment (“Down the River”) and even a parable (“I Call the Shots”), showing a wide range of subjects and lyrical styles. The imagery is never ornate or flowery; this is the poetry of everyday (and sometimes bone-grindingly hard) life; warts ‘n’ all with no airbrushing, but also incredibly powerful, honest and moving.

The songs on “The RCA Sessions”, selected from the work of twenty years, are strong, potent and evocative and paint a picture of someone who’s lived a life and just managed to survive it. At times you feel he squeezes so much of himself into the songs, you wonder if he can make it to the bridge, never mind to the end of the song, but you could often say that about Neil Young, Tom Waits and Bob Dylan as well. Anyway, Lucinda Williams and Justin Townes Earle are fans and I’m sure their recommendation counts for a lot more than mine.

“The RCA Sessions” is out on June 22 on Singular Recordings/Gypsy Eyes Music.

 

Who?It might seem like a really obvious statement but this album is all about the songs. What it isn’t about is overblown production techniques, flashy solos or drums like cannons. It’s a group of musicians playing live in the studio, trying to get to the heart of eleven songs without bludgeoning the songs into submission. Danny Schmidt is a songwriter from Austin, Texas who fits perfectly into the seventies singer-songwriter mould (often used as a lazy comparison, but this time it’s absolutely spot on) with hints of Leonard Cohen, Neil Young and perhaps even Jackson Browne. On “Owls” (his seventh studio album), his band of Mike Meadows (drums), Andrew Pressman (bass), David Goodrich (electric guitars), Lloyd Maines (lap steel) and Carrie Elkins and Daniel Thomas Phipps (backing vocals) provide a backdrop that ranges from the ethereal, Mexican-accented “Girl with Lantern Eyes” through the Dylan-era Band of “The Guns and the Crazy Ones” to the moody, foreboding and doom-laden “Paper Cranes”. There’s even a bit of a rock ‘n’ roll flavour to the environmental anthem “Soon the Earth Shall Swallow”.

Lyrically, “Owls” is an album that’s worth digging into because not everything reveals itself at the first listen; Danny Schmidt makes extensive use of parable, metaphor and intricate rhyming schemes in his quest to convey his insights, which range from the political concerns of “The Guns and the Crazy Ones” and “Soon the Earth will Swallow” to the very personal “Girl with Lantern Eyes” and “Cry on the Flowers”. These songs will make you sad and make you angry; they might even make you think.

And this is where we get to the really subjective bit. While Danny’s fragile tenor works really well most of the time, conveying emotion and fragility, there are times when the vibrato becomes a distraction from rather than an enhancement to the song. I know some of you might like this, and I’m not saying you’re wrong, but  it’s a bit overdone for my taste. Otherwise it’s a bunch of great songs on interesting lyrical themes played tastefully by a great band providing frameworks which enhance the power of the songs.

Out Monday May 18 on Live Once Records (LORCD09).