Sure, the melodies and the arrangements are important; they must be if Neilson Hubbard and Will Kimbrough are involved, but with Rod Picott, the stories are always front and centre. “Out Past the Wires” is no exception, in fact it takes the narratives a step further. In addition to the album, Rod’s also publishing a book exploring the stories of some of the characters that appear on the album. Listen to the beautifully-crafted vignettes studded through the twenty-two songs (that’s right twenty-two songs; hope you brought a packed lunch for this one) and you feel that you’re just scratching the surface of their lives. The ageing racer in “Primer Gray”, the teen queen in “Hard Luck Baby”, the struggling musician in “Straight Job” and the labourer in “Store Bought”; you really want to know the back story, or where they move on to outside this particular moment. Listen to the album(s) and it all makes perfect sense.

Credit where it’s due to the other musicians on the album as well (Lex Price, Evan Hutchings and Kris Donegan) for creating settings that allow the songs to sparkle and shine, whether they’re sprinkled with underplayed atmospherics or a full-on, full-band workout. Whether the backing is a gently finger-picked acoustic, intertwined electric guitars, Lennonesque harmonica or a brooding rock feel with heavily-reverbed guitar. And then there’s Rod Picott’s voice, weaving its raw fibres through the fabric of the songs to conjure up passion, pain and even aspiration. He even manages to ease back to mellow with a touch of falsetto on “Blanket of Stars”.

At a time when ten-song albums are becoming increasingly common and EP or double EP is rearing its ugly head, it’s an utterly audacious move to release a double album, but it works. The standard of the songs is uniformly high across he two discs, but I’m going to hit you with a few that caught my personal sweet spot. “Primer Gray” evokes “Nebraska”/”The River” era Springsteen with the battered car symbolising the central character, “Hard Luck Baby” spins the downward spiral from teen beauty into drudgery and “The Shape of You” is a lovely poetic take on the void left in a life when a relationship ends. Listen for yourself; the choice is huge and I won’t be offended if you disagree with my choices.

“Out Past the Wires” is released on Friday February 16th on Welding Rod Records (CD, LP or download).

If you want to see Rod live, he’s touring Europe and the UK from March.

Here’s a little taster for you:

Alice DiMicele’s a highly-principled songwriter. She creates songs about the things that matter to her, whether it’s the environment, land rights of indigenous peoples or being in a relationship with an alcoholic. To these powerful themes she adds a wide range of musical stylings to create nine songs (nine song albums, is that a thing now?) that demonstrate a wide range of influences while retaining an organic, rootsy feel. If that wasn’t enough, she has a tremendous voice with a huge range and the ability to work across different styles. All of this and a John Lennon cover to close out the album. Sounds good to me.

As much as I love the elemental, environmental themes of the album, the song that I want to hear again and again is “Lonely Alone”, a poignant ballad that tells the story of life with an alcoholic. It all fits together perfectly, from Alice’s soulful delivery (reminiscent of Etta James’ “I’d Rather Go Blind”) to the Steve Cropper-like crystal-clear guitar solo and even the prominent accordion; there’s not a note out of place. It’s followed immediately by the uplifting “Waiting” with its South African rhythms and a bit of steel pan to add a Caribbean carnival vibe to create a feeling of joy that throws the stark environmental messages into sharp contrast.

Apart from these two songs, the overall sound of the album has hints of The Band (maybe it’s the Hammond B3 and slide guitar) and some interesting string arrangements (on “The Other Side” and “Seeds”) and a lovely stripped-back version of the final song, the album’s only cover. It’s fair to say that “Imagine” isn’t my favourite song, but Alice strips away the overblown elements of the original and, with some delicate finger-picked guitar, harmony vocal and cello; can you believe it, “Imagine” with a cello solo?. It’s only a delicate touch, but the call and response of ‘brotherhood of man’ and ‘sisterhood of woman’ transforms the song completely.

“One with the Tide” is an album full of seemingly effortless performances, thought-provoking lyrics, startling contrasts and superb vocals. Favourite song? Has to be “Lonely Alone” with the perfect soul combination of a sparse arrangement, melancholy theme and Alice’s soaring vocal.

“One with the Tide” is released on Friday January 19 on Alice Otter Music (AO114).

Nuala ScrollerSometimes it feels like every time you turn around, another iconic venue vanishes, but it’s not all doom and gloom; some entrepreneurs are bucking the trend and I had the chance see the opening night at a new venue just off Pentonville Road this week. From the outside, 2Northdown looks completely anonymous. Only the presence of security staff hints at something interesting inside; there wasn’t a green door, but I told them Ray sent me and someone laughed out loud but I was in. the priorities of the management team are obvious as soon as you walk through the door. The bar is basic, and cash only, but the sound system is good and the stage is very photographer-friendly with a completely uncluttered black backdrop and some basic but effective white floods to light the stage. Top marks there.

For the opening night of Acoustic Sex, Ray Jones (formerly of Time Out) put together a bill of artists who have been attracting attention for some time now. Nuala’s mix of busker attitude, a huge voice and the ability to incorporate distractions like a phone ringing and breaking a string into her lyrics was a great start to the night. The string-breaking incident gave Ray a chance to hustle a quick guest spot from Steve Young, who also loaned Nuala his guitar to finish the set. Next up was Lisa Marini with her fusion of traditional singer-songwriter and smooth jazz (featuring Arthur Newell on drums and Jack Tustin on upright bass). It was eclectic, with Lisa starting the set with a uke before switching to a lovely nylon-strung Godin guitar for the rest of the set. The audience were completely engrossed and you could have heard a pin drop, or the shutters of half a dozen Nikons on burst mode.

To close the evening out, the final set was from Joe Slater, down from Liverpool for the day, full of cold or flu germs, but still game for a raucous half-hour set. As always, in the words of Ray Jones, he knocked it out of the park. He’s a natural songwriter and his voice and delivery are huge. His penultimate song, “Rainbow”, is what “Imagine” could have been if John Lennon had still been hungry and not living in a mansion in Weybridge; this guy has talent, and the balls to finish with a cover of “Champagne Supernova” which had the entire audience singing along.

Great venue, great atmosphere and great performers; what more do you need to know?

If you want to see some pictures of the event, go to Nuala, Lisa or Joe.

Drew Holcomb ScrollerHere’s an example of the press release absolutely nailing it. The album’s a souvenir of where the band is at this point in time. It’s on a journey and this is one of the staging points on the way to a destination. There’s no clear direction to “Souvenir”, there are lots of different styles, varied instrumental arrangements and textures, but mostly it feels like trying something on to see if it fits rather than wearing it with pride. It’s certainly not a bad album. I was happy to listen through it several times but it never really felt like the end of the journey.

It’s not difficult to pick out reference points; “California” could have come from the Laurel Canyon clique, “Fight for Love” had a Huey Lewis feel and the piano intro to “Sometimes” evokes Lennon’s “Imagine””. They say there’s nothing new in the world, but these references feel a bit raw as they jump out from the songs. However,there are a few songs that stand out for the right reasons and those are ones where there’s a much greater personal investment.

“New Year” is a tale of annual family get-togethers and the good and bad things that can happen on those occasion, set against a backdrop that features Bruce Hornsby-like piano and some synths that should feel out of context but actually work well. “Mama’s Sunshine” is pure back porch skiffle on the theme of having a young daughter and the way in which the two parents combine to create one new individual, while Nathan Dugger’s country ballad “Yellow Rose of Santa Fe” is a lovely story of a chance romantic encounter that’s never forgotten; it’s a little bit Bobby Goldsboro in the style and vocal delivery. It certainly manages to evoke those bittersweet teenage experiences.

Drew Holcomb’s certainly able to deliver a good song and, when the influences are incorporated more smoothly, he’s going to produce work that will be entirely his own. Now that will really be worth hearing.

“Souvenir” is released on April 21 on Magnolia Music.

the-os-honeycomb-cover-300dpiI can’t seem to escape from banjos at the moment; they’re everywhere, like those killer clowns but slightly less dangerous. What’s different here is that the banjo isn’t just used for the odd solo or some percussive background sounds. On the O’s fourth album “Honeycomb”, the banjo’s taking the role that a lead guitar would in a rock band; it’s right up there, front and centre. It’s even got its own set of stomp boxes; that’s a banjo with attitude and then some.

The O’s are John Pedigo and Taylor Young, and between them, they play everything on the album, although Del Amitri’s Justin Currie makes a guest vocal appearance on “Woken Up”.

So what kind of music are they making? Well, most people are hedging their bets by referring to it as ‘roots’, but, electric banjo aside, there are a lot of influences washing around in their sound. They’re playing country/roots instruments, but they have a definite rock band attitude; listening to the album’s opening song, “Fourteen Days”, hinted at The Waterboys, where Mike Scott fused elements of Celtic folk, pop and rock to create an unlikely commercial success, but this album’s so diverse that everyone’s going to have a slightly different take on it.

You could pick out some John Lennon harmonica on “Halfway Sideways”, some pedal steel on “The Reaper” and some big widescreen productions on “Burning Red” and “Shooting Star”. It’s full of great harmonies to sweeten up the sound, and a lead vocal that’s powerful with a hint of vulnerability. If you’re looking for a rock comparison, Matchbox 20 wouldn’t be too far off the mark.

If someone told you this was Americana and listed the instruments that are featured, you might expect some self-effacing acoustic songs, delicately played; you’d be in the wrong place. “Honeycomb” is full-on and in-yer-face with a warning that those acoustic instruments can go all the way up to eleven as well. It should carry a sticker, ‘Danger; banjos may bite’.

“Honeycomb” is released in the UK on Friday October 28th.

Every year there are hundreds of music-related books published, mainly biographies or autobiographies and they range from the very serious to the completely frivolous and from very well written to ‘see me after school’. These might not all have been published in 2014, but they were all on this year’s reading list. These books are all highly recommended if you’re interested at all in the background to the tunes you listen to or bands you go to watch, or even if you just want scurrilous anecdotes about sex and drugs. I’m making no attempt to rank these because they’re all so different, so, in no particular order:

Isle of NoisesIsle of Noises” -- Daniel Rachel

This is the serious one. It’s a series of interviews with famous (mostly) British songwriters which explores the ways in which songwriters work. It’s incredibly well researched (even some of the artists point that out) and obviously a labour of love for Daniel Rachel; if you have any interest at all in how songs are written, this is a great read. Don’t expect to discover the perfect songwriting method because you discover very early on that everybody writes differently. The writers being interviewed cover a wide range of styles ranging from the Sixties to the present day, so the scope of the project is enormous. Every time I meet someone who’s read it, we compare notes about which songwriter comes over as the most pretentious.

Clothes etc“Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys” – Viv Albertine

The stories from the punk era alone would make this worth reading (guitarist in The Slits, friend of Sid Vicious and girlfriend of Mick Jones) and there are plenty of tales of bad behaviour, but the latter part of the book tells us much more about Viv Albertine and her struggles to have a baby, to beat cancer, to survive a failing marriage and to take up guitar again and re-invent herself as a solo artist (her album “The Vermilion Border” was released in 2012). If you need confirmation of the entrenched sexist attitudes of the music and publishing businesses, you’ll find it here.

Chapter and Verse“Chapter and Verse” – Bernard Sumner

It’s difficult to see this as anything other than attempt to address some of the claims made by Peter Hook in his two books, but Bernard obviously feels hurt by some of the things that have been said and wants to let the public hear his (and New Order’s) version. The terse prose style is a stark contrast with Hooky’s “man-down-the-pub” delivery; there’s no grandstanding and a lot of self-deprecation in this memoir. Bernard seems to have a genuine affection for his ex-bandmate (and friend) and the over-riding impression the book leaves is of puzzlement at Hooky’s recent actions. The only jarring note is the inclusion of a transcript of a hypnosis experiment with Ian Curtis; I’m not sure why it happened in the first place, and I’m not sure why it was published. Other than that, a good read.

Man on the Run“Man on the Run – Paul McCartney in the 70s” – Tom Doyle

Tom Doyle has correctly identified a gap in the market for a book dealing with Paul McCartney’s immediate post-Beatles life (Peter Doggett’s “You Never Give me Your Money” focusses on the financial shenanigans of the period and the breakup of the relationship with John Lennon) and, perhaps surprisingly, he got Macca’s full co-operation with the project. Although there are some anecdotes which are excruciatingly embarrassing for the subject, there’s still a nagging little doubt that he’s manipulating the project at times. What the book clearly shows is that during that period, Paul McCartney’s decision-making was inconsistent and sometimes bizarre (trying to take a huge amount of dope into Japan, for example) and that he has a need to control situations and these two things, singly or combined, are the cause of most of the incidents covered. It’s a fascinating read, although it’s still not clear whether he’s man running away from or towards something.

Going Off Alarming“Going off Alarming” – Danny Baker

This is the second volume of Danny Baker’s memoirs and, unsurprisingly, the written Danny Baker sounds very much like the radio and TV Danny Baker. He uses the preface to explain why he won’t be writing a misery memoir and the introduction to explain the reason for the wonky chronology between the two books (after the first book was published, friends and family reminded him of stories he’d left out, including being shot up the arse in Bermondsey). It’s a romp through the crazy world of Danny Baker up to the point where he was sacked from “Pets Win Prizes” and is full of hilarious, mainly self-deprecatory anecdotes about his domestic and professional life. There are some genuine laugh-out-loud moments and it entertains throughout.