Review this album in one word? Gorgeous; ten beautifully-crafted and perfectly-arranged songs, six highly-gifted players and vocal harmonies to die for. If you’re looking for reference points, most of the songs here sound like they could have come from the late sixties/early seventies country-rock scene with understated playing, crystal clear production and those heavenly harmonies. “Great Shakes” is a perfect demonstration of the chemistry that great musicians can create when the stars are perfectly aligned. The album isn’t about the individual musicians, it’s about the contributions they make towards creating the best possible version of each song; in those terms, it’s a complete success, with each instrumental fill making each song that little bit more memorable.
The members of Session Americana are Billy Beard (drums), Ry Cavanaugh (guitar), Kimon Kirk (bass), Jim Fitting (harmonica), Dinty Child (multi-instrumentalist) and Jefferson Hamer (guitar) and this is their seventh album as a collective, although it has a coherence that suggests a long-established band, rather than occasional collaborators. The album opens with the delicate country-rock feel of “One Skinner”, a story of a long-standing friendship with a musical setting featuring pedal steel and harmonica and a lead vocal with a vulnerability that suggests Neil Young or Iain Matthews and blossoms out into a hugely varied set of songs with subjects as varied as American history (“Great Western Rail”) and an umbrella (“Bumbershoot”). Five of the members contribute songs in different styles but always of the highest quality and usually with an interesting twist.
There isn’t a bad or even indifferent song on the album and there are a few that stand out. “Big Mill in Bogalusa” is a bluesy shuffle with some raw harmonica and harmonies from the whole band; it’s catchy and full of the feelgood. “Mississippi Mud” is a historical Southern story built around an over-driven guitar riff which morphs into an Allman Brothers boogie in the choruses and it leads into the album’s most poignant song, “One Good Rain”, with the message that every relationship, no matter how strong, can be vulnerable. Just the line ‘One good rain is all it takes to break the dam that love can make’ is one of the saddest things I’ve heard this year.
This album will wrap itself around you like a comfortable jumper on a winter night. It will make you smile at times and it might even make you cry, but you’ll certainly feel uplifted and full of admiration for the quality of the playing.
“Great Shakes” is released on October 14th.
Keegan McInroe seems pretty relaxed about the whole process of touring, in fact he seems pretty relaxed all round. If you listen to his latest album, “Uncouth Pilgrims”, you’ll know that he’s travelled extensively and used his experiences to create some great songs. It’s obvious from the moment you open the door of The Lighthouse on Battersea Park Road that it’s not the ideal gig for a singer/songwriter. It’s Friday night, noisy and full of the ‘few beers after work’ crowd, but Keegan doesn’t seem too bothered; it’s a gig he’s done since his first tour here in 2004 even though the pub has changed hands and function since then. Having a quick chat before the gig, he’s remarkably unfazed by the audience, explaining that he’ll just play a few more covers than usual and some of the songs from the new album.
And that’s just what he did. His own material, mainly from the new album, was slotted fairly evenly into the two sets and included “Lumberjack Blues”, “Give Me the Rain”, “I Got Trouble”, “Flower Song for Barefoot Dancers”, “Nikolina” and “Lay Down”. The stripped-down versions worked beautifully live and the audience didn’t distract too much; there was even a fair smattering of applause around the room.
As for the covers, well, he didn’t put a foot wrong; he even played a couple of unexpected old favourites of mine. There were songs by the songwriting giants (Tom Waits, Townes Van Zandt, Willie Nelson, Neil Young and a tribute to Merle Haggard) and a few less predictable choices. Only three songs in, he made the brave choice of tackling Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia” and, despite a fairly noisy crowd, he made it work. The more esoteric song choices added the spice that made the evening unique; Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Life by the Drop” and Warren Zevon’s “Carmelita” (both stories of addiction) introduced an element of pathos, while Muddy Waters’ “Champagne and Reefer” and Elmore James’ “Dust My Broom” (which closed the second set) gave Keegan the chance to demonstrate his blues licks.
If this gig had been in an established ‘listening room’, the audience chatter would have been hugely distracting, but it was a free gig in a local pub and Keegan took a pragmatic view of the situation, playing to the people who were interested and tuning out those who weren’t. His own songs are well crafted and worked perfectly in the stripped-down format. He’s also a really nice guy.
“Uncouth Pilgrims” is released on Friday May 27th
We’re officially giving a big thank you to Phil Burdett for this contribution. Phil should have been playing a launch gig for his two (yes, two) new Drumfire Records albums tonight, but he’s spent a few days in hospital this week and he’s at home now recovering. Despite that, he still managed to write about his five favourite things this year for us; we salute you Mr Burdett and we hope that your recovery is swift and complete.
The fabulous set of out-takes from the Zimmerman back catalogue is a fascinating peek through the studio door as his muse churns & twists words & phrases to fit the evolving music. A must for any Bobcats still stuck in his anorak pocket.
A new breath of fresh air that I only got into after going on a local radio show during which they played me songs I’d probably hate to get me to slag them off. I did and got banned but this one I liked. Has a DIY, Rough Trade, shouty, 1978 kinda vibe & I’m into that kinda vibe, y’know?
Somewhere at a party thrown by Roky Erikson through amps designed by Neil Young, the bastard child of Captain Beefheart & a tequila-wrecked lay preacher from San Jose testifies…strictly late 2014 but I missed it.
Grumbly little shards of country lo-fi that either intrigue or delight in equal measure, both of which are fine by me.
Bunch of so called experts judging people who are only in it for how much money they’re gonna make…Mind you, that X Factor’s just as bad…
Now, 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.
It’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.
Well, 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.
So, another week in the music business and the hot topic is copyright again; that’s surprised everyone hasn’t it? Apple announces its new streaming service and a great introductory three month deal which it proposes to fund by not paying any royalties to artists. Predictably enough the Anne Robinson of digital rights management rides to the rescue. After taking on Spotify last year, Taylor Swift took aim at Apple this time with an open letter which has forced Apple to rethink its strategy of giving away other people’s earnings. Predictably again, it sparked off an online debate about hypocrisy when a photographer sent Ms Swift an open letter about photographic rights. It’s amazing how quickly these ‘debates’ descend into playground name-calling and tribalism; have a look for yourself but it’s not for the faint-hearted. Anyway, it’s all happy now because Apple has backed down and the artists will be paid.
While all that was going on centre-stage, you could easily miss another bit of copyright news being made which wasn’t attracting the attention of the popular and powerful Ms Swift. Various British music industry bodies, Musicians Union (MU), UK Music, and British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors (BASCA) if you must know, have combined to request a judicial review into the creation of Section 28B of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. Now that’s a real headline grabber isn’t it? In really simple terms, the government has inserted a clause (Section 28B) in the legislation, to take effect from June 2015, which made copying of CDs legal for personal, private use although you probably thought it was fine to do that anyway. The judicial process is far from over, but Mr Justice Green has upheld the review application.
On the face of it, these industry bodies are using the same principle as Taylor Swift, claiming that artists are losing royalties and that the industry shouldn’t allow this to happen, which is very noble of them, but if that’s true, then why take twenty years to decide that we shouldn’t be allowed to rip our CDs so we can listen to them on the train or create playlists for parties. Unless it isn’t just about that.
One of the remedies suggested by the music industry is a levy on recordable media (CDs, hard drives and so on), which has been tried in other European states. So call me an old cynic if you like, but surely their real concern is that the blank media industry is reaping the benefits of digital copying and the music industry isn’t getting its share. The UK proposal is a levy on blank media collected by an agency and shared out with artists. You don’t need a PhD to see that there’s absolutely no link between which songs are copied and the money coming in, so a huge and unnecessary bureaucracy has to be created to work out the collection and distribution process (supervised by the UK music biz). Anyone think that’s fair? And there’s an assumption that all digital media sold is being used for copying music; you can call me paranoid, but I have several hard drives and countless DVD-Rs full of original photos and there’s no way I’m paying duty on those so some chancer can copy Celine Dion’s Greatest Hits to flog in the market at Elephant & Castle. It’s like the whole class having to stay behind because the teacher doesn’t have the bottle to take on the bully.
So, how about an extra charge on every CD to account for a certain amount of ripping and copying? Well, one side of the argument is that no-one wants to pay for something that they can’t play on a device they use on the move, while, on the other hand, why should you pay extra if you have no intention of copying a CD? You could apply a charge when a CD is copied (or format-shifted) but who’s going to be happy about buying a CD from the artist’s website or at a gig to maximize the artist’s cut only to find that you then have to pay someone else for the privilege of listening to it on your media player. It’s equitable, but music buyers are going to be reminded of the cost every time they rip a CD (which is why MU, BASCA and UK Music don’t like it; they don’t look like the bad guys if you pay extra for a hard drive, rather than your music).
If the CD format is dying, and I’ve already bought a black tie, is this an attempt to accelerate its demise? If you’re buying a physical copy mainly to listen to it on a mobile device, why not just get rid of the middleman and buy it in a format you can load on to your media player? If there isn’t a physical copy you can eliminate the costs of artwork, packaging, storage and distribution and companies don’t need to worry about size of production runs when they sell on demand. If your album’s aimed at that hardcore who still want a physical package, then you can sell it on vinyl at a premium price and you can even throw in a digital download code, because it won’t increase your costs.
Let’s be completely honest about this; the music industry is going for the soft target again. Rather than try to take on organised counterfeiters, they’re trying to recoup their perceived losses by hitting, and alienating, music fans who have no objection to paying for a product. The business was quite happy to reap the benefits of digitisation in the production and distribution process but doesn’t like to see the customers using the same technology to shift formats for the user’s convenience. It certainly puts the eighties ‘Home taping is killing music’ campaign into perspective.
As always, the UK music establishment is frantically trying bolt the door when the stables have been empty for years while. Perhaps it’s one last cynical attempt to cash in on the punters who realise that they need to copy their CDs before the indestructible format vanishes and, ultimately, so do the CD players. So, if you’re one of those strange people that still believes in paying for music, you’ll have two choices: cheap and cheerful download or premium price (currently about twice the price of a CD) vinyl copy. As for streaming, well no artist I know is happy with their level of reward from Spotify, but the establishment’s comfortable with a lower percentage of an increasing volume for very little investment and the big players are now buying in to streaming services for their mass market activities.
Are there any alternatives to accepting the lower sound quality of MP3s and the high price of vinyl (and something to play it on if you didn’t save it from the first time round)? You could try uncompressed audio; Neil Young’s been touting his Pono format for a few years (other formats are available) and better internet bandwidth and bigger hard drives are making that more attractive now. Sound purists love it, but it’s a digital format and there’s no tactile packaging, photos or sleeve notes, and you could see it as just another way to resell back catalogue (again) in another format. Or maybe Cooking Vinyl MD, Martin Goldschmidt was right five years ago when he predicted the CD ‘will actually become a minority (non-mass market) format in the way that vinyl has’. Wouldn’t that be ironic?
OK, 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.
If you’re after an album that’s safe and unpredictable and you know exactly what’s coming next, then “Be the Media” is definitely not the album for you. Annabelle Chvostek’s fifth solo album moves away from the folky sound of her two previous albums “Rise” and “Resilience” to a sound that is lo-fi and embraces styles from indie thrash to psychedelia with several stops and detours on the way. It’s fair to say that with this album, you never know what’s coming next. Annabelle’s roots are in Canada, which may go some way to explaining the affinity to and parallels with Neil Young, who’s also had the odd change of direction along the way.
The album is built around live-band recordings with some overdubs added later and the raw, Stooges-like, power of the title song gives some idea of the direction the album’s taking, but there are still plenty of surprises to come. “Jerusalem” is mournful lyrically and musically with the added melancholy of some Middle-Eastern violin to season the mixture. “Black Hole” sets the controls for the heart of the sun with the simple, if bleak, message that we’re all irrelevant compared to the vastness of the universe, delivered over a soundscape that’s part early Pink Floyd and part Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane”; it’s certainly dramatic. “This Night” is the closest the album comes to a love song, if you count ‘Your hand is the hand I hold to jump out of the burning tower’ as a lyric. Powerful yes: cheerful no.
“Carnal Delights” is the perfect example of the albums’s twist and turns. From a doom-laden minor key verse, the song bursts into chorus in 3/4 time that’s straight out of a sleazy 1930s cabaret routine; and yes, that is someone playing a saw (Lisa Gamble, actually). It’s an odd one, but the contrast works perfectly. “You Can Come Now” is probably closest to Annabelle’s earlier work with gentle electric guitar and a vocal that isn’t pushing at the edges her voice’s power; it’s very different from the songs it’s surrounded by. As if to cement the Shakey connection, there’s a stripped-back cover of “Like a Hurricane” featuring mainly mandolin and piano with a touch of guitar. It’s very different and it works.
“Inside the Scream/Screen” returns to the spiky guitars and claustrophobic technophobia of the title track before another change of pace to “Say it Right” which has a hint of Television-styled guitars and the album’s only example of swearing; one use of ‘fucking’ for emphasis and a bit of shock value is so much more powerful than using it in every sentence.
So Annabelle Chvostek, Tony Spina (drums), Jérémie Jones (bass and organ), Lisa Gamble (saw and backing vocals), Jordi Rosen (backing vocals), and co-producer Jeff Oehler have created a piece of work that moves from menacing to mournful to manic but never loses its grip on your attention; you may not know what’s round the corner, but you can bet it’s going to be worth hearing.
“Be the Media” is released on June 1 on MQGV (ABC123).
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).