How About NowYou might have heard of Ags Connolly if you’re a MusicRiot regular; he’s had a few mentions here and he’s been quietly collecting followers and impressing critics for a while now.  His debut album, “How About Now”, features strong, sometimes very personal, songs, sympathetic playing and arrangements and powerful plaintive, vocals.  I’m sticking with the catch-all term “country” to describe these songs, although Ags prefers “Ameripolitan”, and the roots are much more in fifties and sixties country (or the later” outlaw country”) than in anything you’ll hear on the country charts today.  The overall sound of the album (produced by Drumfire recording artist Dean Owens), certainly reflects these influences.  It’s not the squeaky clean country-pop of Taylor Swift or Kacey Musgraves and the raw lyrical references are reflected in the arrangements and the playing.

The musicians recruited for the album are all first-class players.  In addition to Ags (acoustic guitar and vocals), they are: Stuart Nisbet (electric guitars, pedal steel, mandolin and vocals), Kev Mcguire (stand-up bass), Jim McDermott (drums), Andy May (keyboards), Roddy Neilson (fiddle) and Dean Owens (vocals and acoustic guitar).  I’m a big fan of rehearsing a band to performance level before recording live in the studio to get a very cohesive and immediate feel.  It’s not for everyone but, with good musicians, it can work really well; it certainly has on “How About Now”.  Virtually everything was recorded live with only a few overdubs of mandolin and piano and, incredibly, the title track, with its minimal arrangement and pleading, emotive vocal, was recorded in one take.  Now, that’s impressive.

The album opens with the straightforward honky-tonk of “When Country Was Proud”, listing some of Ags’ influences (mainly early-period Johnny Paycheck) and lamenting the position of country music in the media  today before moving into the melancholy reminiscence of “Good Memory For Pain”, featuring understated backing vocals and some nice fiddle.  “That’s The Last Time”, with its stripped-back production, is the first of a set of damaged or broken relationship songs including the slower “Get Out Of My Mind”, the rockabilly feel of “The Dim And Distant Past” and the slower “She Doesn’t Need me Anymore”, which emphasises Ags’ vocal range.

The album is particularly successful when Ags takes traditional country lyrical themes and gives them a modern English twist.  “I Hoped She Wouldn’t Be Here” takes the “best friend’s girl” theme and sets it in a group of friends in a local pub, while “I’m Not Someone You Want To Know” locates the hard-drinking, morose loner looking back at better times in an English pub.  “Trusty Companion” is a surprisingly uptempo take on the quest for a soul-mate while the mid-tempo “I Saw James Hand” is a very personal fan letter to one of Ags’ more contemporary influences.

This album is a very British version of the type of country music played before the advent of the clean, more poppy Nashville sound.  You’ll hear a lot of nice clean guitar and pedal steel licks here, but there is a raw edge to the production as well.  “I Saw James Hand” features some Hammond and a distorted guitar solo, while “She Doesn’t Need Anyone Anymore” even has some controlled guitar feedback.  The sequencing of the album is perfect, opening with the lively, backward-looking “When Country Was Proud”, working through poignant and nostalgic to finish on four very personal songs set in the present including the beautiful closer “How About Now”; surely that song has to get a single release.

It’s easy to do this kind of music very predictably but Ags Connolly, Dean Owens and a very gifted band have produced an engaging and ultimately uplifting album which looks back to a time when country was less polished musically and lyrically while placing it in a very British setting.  Top album and great artwork as well.

Release date February 24 on Drumfire Records (DRMFR017).

Well, we’ve had a couple of guest contributions from blues players so far; this one’s from someone who’s a big blues fan.  Steve Jenner is a director and drive-time presenter with  two radio stations in the North Midlands, High Peak Radio and Ashbourne Radio.  He also does media work for the Plain English campaign (defending the apostrophe, now that’s rock’n’roll) and loves messing about in boats.  He’s also someone with a great ear for a tune.  Steve was persuaded to contribute this piece by regular application of single malt whisky.  Over to Steve…

Now I’m quite happy to do this High Fives Album review for Music Riot but be warned, ye music industry at large; this has not been a classic year. There have been some great singles; some amazing live gigs; some very good songs, even, but it has not been a classic year for The Album. In a good year, some of these wouldn’t have made it. But you can only play the opposition who turn up.

So…..

Goin' to the Delta HFNumber 5 --  “Going to The Delta” SAVOY BROWN (Ruf Records)

Up until this morning this was “Magic Honey” by Cyril Neville (Ruf Records) but it has been pushed aside at the very last moment by another Ruf offering, Savoy Brown’s “Going To The Delta”. It probably isn’t as good an album as the Cyril Neville offering which does have some very sticky, sweaty moments like the title track and “Blues is the Truth” but the Savoy Brown offering just has The Swag about it; it’s a bit more nimble, a bit more bite where you want a bit of bite. It is almost entirely predictable, but if you’re a sucker for this kind of Brit R’n’B goes Stateside, it will probably cast a longer shadow over your CD player than it deserves. He’s been doing this sort of thing since 1965 but this album does sound quite fresh, in a rather dated and predictable sort of way. I love it.

Oui Oui Si Si Ja Ja Da DaNumber 4 – “Oui Oui Si Si Ja Ja Da Da” MADNESS (Cooking Vinyl)

It’s sort of like an old – stylee Madness album, this, with larger -- than -- life -- characters, London Beat type Skasville with a daft smile and too much to drink.  “My Girl 2” is an interesting one with what for all the world is a straight lift from The Fine Young Cannibals “Good Thing”, “Powder Blue” is an intriguing song and “Misery” is a stand out; Ooops -- have -- a – banana style good time music with fruity, nay, saucy brass and a greasy sense of fun. Releasing a new album when you’ve just attained “National Treasure” status must be a bit of a risk but, hey, the nutty boys pull it off. Repeatedly.

The Shocking Miss EmeraldNumber 3 – “The Shocking Miss Emerald” CARO EMERALD (Dramatico)

I’m with Mr Lister re Ms Emerald (Aynsley Lister chose a Caro Emerald album as one of his High Fives -- Ed). It’s a bit of a guilty pleasure this one; you just know if there was still Woolworth’s, it would be the pick to click for about 6 months on the instore moozak. As retro as a Lockheed Constellation and almost painfully contrived, it is also massive fun, just what you want to hear early doors on a decent night out, packing wonderfully naughty songs like “Liquid Lunch” and “I Belong To You” with the sardonic “Coming Back As A Man” and the absolutely splendid “Completely”, you’d have to be seriously serious not to crack a smile while this was on your radio. A very clever album, it steadfastly refuses to beat your head in with its own cleverness. Which is cool.

In TimeNumber 2 – “In Time” THE MAVERICKS (The Valory Music Co.)

Look! He’s picked the album by that line dancing mob, etc etc…well.yes. And no. This bunch suffer from Procol Harum Disease; unable to escape ‘The Big Hit’, they are doomed to live in its shadow. Look, you either get Roy Orbison or you don’t and if you don’t, don’t see why I should waste my time talking to you. This is great, sentimental, on occasion almost operatic, country rock’n’roll. Go on, listen to “Born to be Blue’. And you’ll either get it or you won’t.

And finally…the undisputed champion…

Same Trailer, Different ParkNumber 1 – “Same Trailer, Different Park” KACEY MUSGRAVES (Mercury Nashville).

“Same Trailer, Different Park”……..this woman is too young to sing of these things. “Merry Go Round” has to be song of the year -- it is so knowing, so battered by life, so damn tired by it all. And yet it manages to be witty, funny, beautifully observed and played with sumptuously understated perfection by a cast of angels. And that ain’t all; try “Silver Lining”, the album’s opening track for a whole truckload of emptiness, or “Follow Your Arrow” which wins the Rick Nelson “Garden Party” award for ‘do what you like ‘cos you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.’ Delicious. Would have made top five even in a classic year. Which to be fair, this ain’t.