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.

We love the way different artists interpret the High Fives brief. Yesterday we had post-gig diners, today we have something very different. Allan reviewed and loved the last two Ed Dupas albums, but even he was surprised by the effort Ed put into this piece. It’s an artist’s appreciation of artists and great piece of writing. This hasn’t been edited in any way, we only had to paste it in:

Ed Dupas: Top Five Conscious Musical Artists

Throughout my life, I have watched the value of the arts decline, whether in schools, synagogues, or in matters of social priority. In a world ever more driven by technological advancement and headless growth, strong, conscious artists are in dire need. The role of the artist is no triviality, despite modern devaluations. True artists live on the front lines of evolution, travelling beyond their comfort zones in hopes of gaining new perspectives which, once filtered through the lens of their unique consciousness, become gifts which they offer to society. These gifts give us hope, act as beacons, and help us make sense of our own lives in the face of turbulent times. In this way, true artists do not seek fame or fortune, they seek to make gifts of their lives, gifts of themselves. Here are five such artists that have been gifts to my life.

Dar Williams

“It’s funny how life at its best expands, explodes, and it overspills

But we try to fit it all in a grid, and we say it’s the strength of our will”

This legend of the folk genre has been a favorite of mine since the 90s, when an old college girlfriend dragged me out to one her shows. My defenses were up as I entered the venue, but Williams, standing alone on stage in her then trademark chocolate brown dress, dismantled them. She was poignant, thoughtful, talented, open, and honest. She was herself: at ease in her own skin, even when she wasn’t. Her openness and grace allowed her to make an authentic connection with the audience and, as the years have passed, I have found her music to be both a friend and an ally. For my own part, I have watched life’s circle fold in upon itself as only it can, eventually finding myself standing on stages and talking to crowds. As I do so, I remind myself of that Dar Williams show, and I do my best to give to people in the way I watched her do it so many years ago.

 

Sturgill Simpson

“Woke up today and decided to kill my ego

It never done me no good no how”

In observing the rise of Sturgill Simpson, I’ve likened the Kentucky-born artist to a battering-ram: an irresistible force hurtling headlong into an immovable music industry. At the present moment, there is no musical story more compelling to me than Sturgill’s. Not because he writes great songs or sings well, although both are true. What intrigues me about Sturgill is the way he moves through the world, his dogged adherence to honesty and authenticity in an industry defined by plastic songs and copycat artists.

Contemporary music is largely defined by competition, yet, that is not the game Sturgill appears to be playing. In contrast to the industry at large, Simpson seems to view things through an altered lens, seeing himself as his greatest barrier to success, rather than other musicians. Approached this way, one’s artistic journey isn’t defined by besting the competition – but by competing to be one’s best self. For an artist, this takes the form of constant self-assessment and self-creation. One who understands the nature of art to be uniqueness, knows that true art has no natural competition. This being the case, I respect artists who aren’t concerned with trends or sounding relevant, but with being better versions of themselves — with digging a little deeper. In this way, they create trends. In this way, they are relevant. Sturgill is as good an example of this as any.

 

Bruce Cockburn

“Nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight

Got to kick at the darkness ’til it bleeds daylight”

Bruce Cockburn sets an important example in the way he manages the weight of his artistry. In modernity, we place a great emphasis on physicality, to the extent that in some scientific circles, what cannot be measured is not be considered relevant. Artists do not have the luxury of such beliefs. Mystic tradition speaks of thought, word and deed, illustrating an oft overlooked mystery regarding the nature of matter, and underscoring the reality that every physical creation was once just a thought in someone’s mind. In other words, everything physical arrives at that state via non-physicality. Artists are those who inhabit in that gap, wrestling with feelings, shaping them into dreams, and leveraging those dreams towards creative action. Cockburn’s Stab At Matter takes a playfully arranged look at this process, suggesting not only its relevance, but its centrality to the human experience.

Artistic pursuits can be isolated and troubling, for the artist’s journey is by nature one of solitude. Cockburn, to his credit, has walked an authentic path while remaining largely transparent regarding the challenges of a life dedicated to creation and honest expression. His songs present as timeless, each one illustrating a particular aspect of human struggle in the modern age. A song such as If I Had A Rocket Launcher explores the limitations of a pacifist ethos in the face of oppression, while Pacing the Cage gives voice to the weightiness of existence itself. Bruce Cockburn stands his ground, tackling tough subjects, while holding firm to his place and openly owning his limitations. Artists such as Cockburn provide solid examples for the rest of us, viewing the world through unfiltered eyes, giving a voice to the voiceless, and painting pictures from a more enlightened perspective, one we may learn hold together someday.

 

Leonard Cohen

“Ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen exemplified a spirit of curiosity, openness and honesty. His fourteenth and final album, You Want It Darker, was released just 19 days before his death in 2016. Cohen’s lyrics betray a mystic, wandering spirit, typical of artists. In his song, Suzanne, Cohen opines as to Jesus’ intentions, “and when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him, he said all men will be sailors then until the sea shall free them.” In a similar vein, Anthem states, “every heart to love will come, but like a refugee.” In broad, heartfelt themes, Cohen sings of bravery and solitude, requirements for any person seeking to possess an open-heart and a free mind. Cohen paints this journey as one each person must make alone: a passage into darkness that gives way to light in some circular, counter-intuitive fashion. This theme is reminiscent of Sting’s All This Time, “men go crazy in congregations, they only get better one by one.” Interesting that Cohen, with his final effort, left us with such a striking, parting message: You Want It Darker.

 

Jackson Browne

“Just do the steps that you’ve been shown, by everyone you’ve ever known

Until the dance becomes your very own“

In the 1990’s (during my plaid-coat-wearing, barista days), I found that I wasn’t quite up for the intensity of the grunge scene, despite proudly wearing the uniform. While friends listened to Pearl Jam, The Smashing Pumpkins, and Nirvana, I lost myself in the singer-songwriters of the 70’s such as: James Taylor, John Denver, and Jackson Browne, to name a few. As the decades passed, I moved away from much of that music, even coming to embrace grunge, more or less. However, Jackson Browne has remained a fixture in my music collection.

Browne’s songs manage to be thoughtful and introspective while possessing an activist sensibility in keeping with his generation. In his song Looking East, Browne critiques his homeland as being a place “where the search for the truth is conducted with a wink and a nod, and where power and position are equated with the grace of God.” As is the way of the artist, Browne seeks to understand his place in the world more clearly through his songs, “I’d have to say that my favorite thing is writing a song that really says how I feel, what I believe – and it even explains the world to myself better than I knew it.” In living and creating this way, Browne not only helps and serves himself, but his fellow humans as well — myself included.

 

 

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).