2018 was a bit of a year, really. There was a strong showing in the first few months of the year and it felt like the early albums would be difficult to beat. Maybe it was a self-fulfilling prophecy or the fact that, for one reason or another, I wasn’t able to review too many albums in the latter part of the year but the early albums were very difficult to beat. I’m only featuring albums that I reviewed here, so great pieces of work like the magnificent Stone Foundation album “Everybody, Anyone” doesn’t get a mention. Oops, it just did. Anyway, as always in no particular order, here are my five favourite albums of the year.

“Southern Wind” – Dean Owens & Will Kimbrough

I’ve been a fan of Dean Owens since my introduction to “New York Hummingbird” six years ago. Dean’s a consistently great performer whose songs cleverly combine universal themes like love and loss with a particularly Scottish outlook. Over the last few years he’s been increasingly involved in collaborations (with Amy Geddes as Redwood Mountain and the upcoming Buffalo Blood album with Neilson Hubbard and Joshua Britt) and “Southern Wind” was a joint project with the superb and in-demand guitarist Will Kimbrough. The album is a classic; there’s no filler and lots of killer and you can clearly hear the influence of the wonderful Ronnie Lane, particularly in “Last Song”. I wasn’t going to single any particular song out, so how come that just happened. It’s a meeting in the mid-Atlantic between Leith and Nashville and it’s a Thing of Beauty.

Here’s the original review.

“Psychopastoral” – Phil Burdett

Coincidentally, I first met Phil Burdett on the same night I met Dean for the first time (this stuff isn’t just thrown together, you know) and they’ve both had very different journeys since then. If I had to pick one word for Phil’s attitude to his music, it’s uncompromising, and I mean that in a very, very good way. His back catalogue is all worth checking out, but his latest project “Psychopastoral” is something else. It’s a song cycle which tells the story of the journey home spread out over 24 hours. Sounds simple? This Phil Burdett. The songs are linked by spoken-word interludes and (courtesy of Lyndon ‘Songdog’ Morgan) and musical fragments created mainly by Senor ‘Al’ Franklinos. I know, it sounds like it could be a bit pretentious, as I said, this is Phil Burdett; it works perfectly. And Phil’s gone one step further than Pink Floyd by making the whole project one massive track nearly an hour long to force listeners to hear the project the way it was intended to be heard. Didn’t think I’d ever write a sentence with Phil Burdett and Pink Floyd in it.

Here’s the original review.

“Out from Under” – Michael McDermott

We can link this back to Dean Owens as well, because Will Kimbrough plays on this, as he does on a lot of Michael’s recent material. Told you he was in demand. The title song is big in an E Street Band style and, let’s face it, Michael will always get those Springsteen/Dylan comparisons and for all the right reasons. He’s a superb songwriter who understands the American songbook and its highways and byways and isn’t afraid to take a trip down any one of them. The album shifts seamlessly from the pathos of “This World Will Break Your Heart” to the joyful Motown exuberance of “Rubber Band Ring”. I said back in May that I hadn’t heard a better album this year and I stand by that now.

Here’s the original review.

“Anger Management” – Gerry Spehar

I loved Gerry Spehar’s previous album “I hold Gravity”. He’s a natural songwriter with a gift for a telling image. So just combine that gift with an exploration of the state of modern America following the election of Kurious Oranj. It’s political in less direct ways as well; “Bitch Heaven” digs into the story of Woody Guthrie’s campaign against Trump Senior and the Beach Haven property, while “Son of an Immigrant” double-underlines the blindingly obvious truth that the vast majority of Americans are immigrants if you go back far enough, including the current occupant of the White House. It’s an angry album, but Gerry is managing the anger by diverting it into creative channels. This is an important album and we should all listen to it.

Here’s the original review.

“Out Past the Wires” – Rod Picott

OK, quantity isn’t everything, but Rod Picott defied the current trend for shorter albums and EPs by releasing a double album (twenty-two songs in total). If you have the material and it’s good enough, get it out there. It’s good enough, it’s more than good enough. Will Kimbrough plays on it and also Neilson Hubbard (notice a theme here) but it’s not just about the playing arrangements, it’s also about the stories and that’s what Rod Picott is really good at. In fact, the stories are so important that Rod’s also publishing a book following the lives of some of the characters appearing in the songs and that should really be worth reading.

Here’s the original review.

 

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:

It’s about time we had a new album from Dean Owens, isn’t it? It’s been two and a half years since “Into the Sea”, not that he’s been resting on his considerable laurels, that’s not his style. He’s been involved in production, collaboration and loads of touring and somehow managed to fit the “Southern Wind” sessions in to the mix. Although the album’s released under Dean’s name, it’s fair to say that it’s more of a collaboration with his guitar-slinger of choice (and mine), Will Kimbrough. The musicians and production team are Dean’s regular Nashville crew and they all do the usual superb job, but the creative thread running through the centre is “Southern Wind” is the Owens/Kimbrough partnership.

They bonded over, among other things, a mutual love of Ronnie Lane and that’s the starting point for the album. “Last Song”, the album’s opener, wouldn’t feel out of place on any of the Faces albums with its loose rock feel and characteristic melodic basslines. It’s an homage and a tribute and it’s loads of fun; proof that Dean and Will can write an upbeat song (and it’s not the only one on the album).

Although the title track and “No Way Around It” have a slightly menacing Delta feel, “Southern Wind” still has very strong sense of time and place in twenty-first century Scotland and the stories of its inhabitants in difficult social and personal circumstances. “Elvis Was my Brother”, “When the Whisky’s not Enough” and “Bad News” all fit into this category, while “Famous Last Words” is a typical Dean Owens slant on the longest day of the year; that things can only get worse from here on in. Nights are fair drawin’ in, eh? “Anything Helps”, another Will Kimbrough co-write, fits neatly in to this little group with its Ronnie Lane solo era stylings and one of the album’s greatest lines ‘Took a swing at life and missed’.

There’s a place here for the intensely personal as well; the gorgeous “Madeira Street” looks back to more innocent times through a prism of grief and celebration, while “Louisville Lip” celebrates the life of Dean’s hero Muhammad Ali. “Mother” is a light-hearted sixties pastiche (just imagine it on the soundtrack to “Inspector George Gently” or “Call the Midwife”) with clipped guitar and a hint of Phil and Don, while “Love Prevails”, closing the album, channels The Chordettes’ “Born to be With You”, particularly in Will Kimbrough’s laid-back solo.

Dean Owens has that rare poetic ability to fashion perfect songs from life’s everyday stories and the ability to deliver powerful, plaintive performances of those songs. On this album, the partnership with Will Kimbrough and producer Neilson Hubbard has created perfect settings for both the melancholy and the upbeat songs. ”Southern Wind” is a fine piece of work from one of Scotland’s finest songwriters.

“Southern Wind” is released on Friday February 16 on At the Helm Records.

 And here’s a special little treat for you:

Sam Baker Land of Doubt ScrollerStraight up front, you need to know; this album won’t be for everyone. I have a strong suspicion that this is deep into Marmite territory, that it’s an acquired taste. Texan Sam Baker is one of those songwriters who is revered by his peers (Malcolm Holcombe’s another) who understand the journey he’s on and appreciate the craft involved in his work. One of his aims with “Land of Doubt” is to tell the stories or convey the feelings to his listeners in the most economic way possible without losing any of the nuances. Stripping back music usually involves leaving out instruments that add texture to arrangements, keys, horns, even electric guitar and bass. The approach Sam Baker has taken is to work out the minimum of sounds necessary to create the feeling he wants to evoke and to add nothing extraneous to it.

The economy isn’t just applied to the instrumentation. The melodies and the rhythms are kept sparse and simple and even the number of words is restricted, a bit like applying the haiku discipline to every aspect of making an album. Producer and drummer Neilson Hubbard, guitar player Will Kimbrough and cool jazz trumpeter Don Mitchell create perfect minimalist arrangements that allow the songs plenty of space; each of the elements is honed to perfection like a setting designed to emphasise a perfect gemstone, but not to overpower. There isn’t a hint of a standard format or template here. Each song gets exactly the instrumentation it needs; nothing more, nothing less. The percussion ranges from the almost non-existent on the country waltz “Love is Patient” to loud drums competing with the vocal on the swampy “Moses in the Reeds” and the military beat of “Some Kind of Blue”, telling the story of a Vietnam veteran who looks back to the war as the happiest time of his life.

At first glance, the track listing seems a little long, but ten songs are interspersed with five instrumental interludes that help to alleviate the sombre mood of the songs while additional colour and texture come in the form of Will Kimbrough’s ambient atmospherics, some piano and harmonium and some deft Chet Baker-style trumpet from Don Mitchell, particularly on “Say the Right Words”, the story of parents who disapprove of their daughter’s choice of partner but are too scared or smart (you decide) to tackle the matter head-on. One of Sam Baker’s strengths is in picking out these little tragedies from the background noise we’re surrounded and showing us the importance they have to the protagonists. It’s not always comfortable, but you can’t stop listening.

As I said at the top of this piece, it won’t be for everyone, but if you like the craft of the songwriter and the arranger, then you won’t be disappointed.

“Land of Doubt” is released on Friday June 16.

Redwood-Mountain-Side-1-ALT-desat-40[1]If everyone was rewarded fairly for talent, creativity and pure hard bloody work, Dean Owens would be a very wealthy man. If the day job is being Dean Owens, singer-songwriter, the part-time jobs include his full band Whisky Hearts, his Deer Lake collaboration with Larry Lean, his Buffalo Blood project with Neilson Hubbard, production duties for Ameripolitan singer-songwriter Ags Connolly and the occasional project featuring covers or, more accurately, interpretations of other people’s songs (Johnny Cash for example). It’s fair to say that he doesn’t have a lot of downtime.

With all of those projects simmering away, why not do something else to stave off boredom? So what’s next? What can we cram into that fifteen minutes of the day that’s left? Well, someone gave Dean a copy of Alan Lomax’s “The Book of American Folk Songs” and Dean, having a bit of down time, decided that it would be a great idea to give some of the lyrics new musical settings and record the resulting songs with Whisky Hearts fiddle player Amy Geddes and bass/piano player Kevin McGuire. Although the project was about creating new settings for existing lyrics, Dean and Amy managed to sneak a few of their own compositions, which fit perfectly with the originals. Amy’s “Amang the Braes O Gallowa” has the Celtic authenticity of early American folk tunes, while Dean’s “Take it Easy, but Take it” is a perfect lyrical fit with the Lomax collection. There’s even that very rare beast, a Dean Owens instrumental, “The Two Davies Waltz”. As a creative concept, it works perfectly.

The minimalist arrangement of the songs (two voices, guitar and fiddle, with occasional piano and bass) works perfectly, Amy’s plaintive fiddle reinforcing the melancholy tone of the album while her vocal harmonies lighten the lyrical harshness that play such a large part in these folk ballads. The quality of the album’s so high that it’s difficult to pick favourites, but I loved “On the Range of the Buffalo” and “Rye Whiskey”.

Redwood Mountain is a little gem of an album and it’s out now.

4PAN1TI’m not going to keep you in suspense; I love this album, it’s a very beautiful piece of work. It’s eleven very special songs (more about that later) interpreted by some very gifted musicians that we’ve reviewed over the last few years here (how about Will Kimbrough, Neilson Hubbard and Telisha Williams for starters, not forgetting Carrie’s husband Danny Schmidt). “The Penny Collector” is a set of songs created during a pivotal period for Carrie Elkin that focus on the circle of life; birth, childhood, adolescence (and rebellion), adulthood and death. It’s built around some of popular culture’s timeless themes; family, nature, love and loss and framed by some of the most gorgeous musical settings you’ll hear this year (or possibly any other). There’s a huge variety of musical stylings across the album, pulled together by the quality of the songs and Carrie’s wonderful voice.

The album opens with some atmospheric, almost Ennio Morricone, ambient guitar noises (Will Kimbrough would be my guess) leading into “New Mexico” where the playing is quiet and delicate but the mix is loud; it’s minimal and intimate but in your face at the same time. It’s an indication that you might have to forget about conventions; “The Penny Collector” doesn’t play to any recognised rules.

Throughout the album, Carrie’s vocals are closely-miked and placed right up front and centre; it’s a technique that works when the singer has perfect control, which Carrie has, totally and utterly. There’s a rich poetical seam running through the album (with references to nature, particularly birds), and it’s particularly evident in the adolescent rebellion song “Live Wire” with the line ‘A life half-empty is a life half-spilled’. There’s plenty more to discover but I don’t want to spoil it for you.

As for the musical settings, “Always on the Run” builds up to a Spectoresque climax, the melancholy “Crying Out” is played out over a string section and perfect layers of vocal harmonies and the album’s finale “Lamp of the Body” is a heavily reverbed mixture of mandolin, over-driven guitar and counterpoint vocals creating a sound that’s menacing and gospel-tinged in equal measures.

“The Penny Collector” is a potent mix of Southern American poetry, perfectly subverted musical settings and beautifully controlled vocals. It’ll make you reflect on your own life; the choices you made, the experiences you had, and the support you had from your family and friends. It’s a gorgeous album.

“The Penny Collector” is released on Friday April 7th (CECD07).

02) Dean OwensOne of our Riot Squad favourites has been incredibly busy this year. Dean Owens has playing gigs around the country, solo and with his band The Whisky Hearts, but that’s just the start of it. He’s been in Nashville recording a new album with his old collaborators Will Kimbrough and Neilson Hubbard and playing some gigs. The album’s well on the way to being ready and he’s launched a crowdfunding appeal on GoFundMe to cover the costs of travel, recording and accommodation costs. Have a look at the GoFundMe page and see if you think you can pitch in with a few quid; every bit makes a difference.

But that’s not all. He’s been producing the second album for his Drumfire Records label-mate Ags Connolly (who hasn’t exactly had a quiet year himself) and putting together a deluxe edition of his previous album “Into the Sea”, with four new songs, “Alison Wonderland”, “Cotton Snow”, “Forgotten Shadows” and “Keep Me in Your Heart”. And still only a tenner.

You can catch him live before the end of the year in the following places:

Sunday October 30                          Green Note, London

Friday November 18                       The Live Room, Saltaire

Sunday November 20                      The Maze, Nottingham

Friday November 25                       Drygate Brewing Company, Glasgow, (with The Whisky Hearts)

Friday December 2                          The Tolbooth, Stirling

Saturday December 3                    The Weem Inn, Aberfeldy

Monday December 12                   Traverse, Edinburgh (with The Whisky Hearts)

And there’s a new single, “Virginia Street”, out at the moment:

Rod Picott - 'Fortune' - cover (300dpi)I think we need to introduce a new way of evaluating Country and Americana albums. The five star system’s all very well but I think we need another measure. I’m thinking of something like the Kimbrough Count; if Will Kimbrough plays on the album then it’s worth listening to. It certainly worked last year with his appearances on albums by Dean Owens and Sam Lewis, and he shows up again here on Rod Picott’s seventh album “Fortune”, but this is a very different proposition to the albums by either of those artists.

Rod Picott’s songs are intensely personal, zooming in on the lives of ordinary people (Rod included) and everyday events, and delivered in a gruff baritone that often sounds on the point of cracking, but never actually does. More often than not, he performs with just his own acoustic guitar for backing, but, on “Fortune”, he’s added a smattering of musicians including Will Kimbrough and Neilson Hubbard to create a sound that’s still sparse, stark and sometimes downright menacing and intimidating. It’s still a fairly minimal soundscape but it reinforces the powerful lyrics which are poetic but never overblown.

Uncle John” is slightly untypical in that it deals mainly with family and society rather than personal matters, but the instrumentation is unsettling with detuned guitar, clipped notes, harmonics, heavy reverb and a sound somewhere between Dick Dale and Link Wray all underpinning a story of an outsider woodsman who pays the ultimate price for stepping outside society. The two lines ‘Drinks his beer from a can cause bottles break, Nine fingers from one mistake’ paint a graphic and economic picture of the lifestyle and its dangers, while the closing lines (along with the chorus) imply his death without actually making the statement.

The themes of the songs are mainly personal (although “Jeremiah” is written from the point of view of a woman hearing about the death of a soldier she loved), but it’s the moments when Rod steps back from dealing with raw emotion to singing about more general themes, particularly “Uncle John” and the moodily magnificent “Drunken Barber’s Hand” that the album really starts to soar. The album’s full of powerful, gut-wrenching songs that evoke the spirit of heartland America with imagery and playing that are equally powerful and simple. 2016’s looking good already.

“Fortune” is released in the UK on Friday January 15th on Welding Rod Records.

Into the SeaIt’s always been a bit of a mystery to me why Dean Owens hasn’t been more widely recognised as an outstanding British singer-songwriter. Despite a career with his band The Felsons and several solo albums which provided a couple of classic additions to the Scottish songbook (“Raining in Glasgow” and “Man from Leith”), before the release of his new album “Into the Sea”, Dean still wasn’t widely known, even in Scotland. It looks like this is the album to change that. In the run-up to the album’s release Dean has had well-deserved coverage across the media in Scotland and, to a lesser extent, in England.

Maybe there’s a bit of truth in the cliché about suffering for your art; 2014 was a difficult year for Dean for a variety of reasons but he’s used his work to weave the pain, the joy and the memories into an album packed with songs of love and loss; the stories of the people lost forever and the ones who are lost but still with us. “Into the Sea” is the work of a songwriter with experience of real life looking backwards to help make sense of the present, creating a lasting work of art as a result.

Some of the album’s reminiscences are triggered by objects, while others are triggered by events. The opening track, “Dora” is rooted in a family tree and a circus poster and tells the story of Dean’s grandmother and her circus background; “Closer to Home” was inspired by a letter written by a soldier on the way home from The Great War and “Kids (1979)”, a poignant story of diverging paths, is kicked off by an old photo of a school football team, while “Evergreen” starts from a holiday photo. All four songs are mixtures of happiness and sadness, reflecting the lives that most of us live.

The majority of the album’s songs are inspired by situations; “The Only One” (with Will Kimbrough’s vocal harmonies creating a nice Everly Brothers feel) and “Days Without You” both relate to the terminal illness of a friend’s partner, while “Sally’s Song (I Dreamed of Michael Marra)” combines teenage memories with a tribute to one of Scotland’s greatest songwriters. “Virginia Street” is the story of a friend’s nostalgia for happier days while “Valentine’s Day in New York” is an autobiographical piece dealing with the loneliness of spending time away from loved ones. “It Could be Worse” was the album’s problem child, coming together at the last possible moment with a bit of help from Will Kimbrough and also features as an instrumental reprise. The album’s final song (or special bonus track) is a duet with Suzy Bogguss on “I’m Pretending I Don’t Love You Anymore” featuring a bit of whistling from Dean and a nice Roy Orbison “Blue Bayou” feel.

It’s easy to underestimate the quality of an artist’s work when you see and hear a lot of them (and the Riot Squad have seen and heard a lot of Dean Owens over the last few years) so “Into the Sea”, as the first album of original material since 2012’s “New York Hummingbird” was an opportunity to take a step back and refresh the perspective. The songs tap into a rich seam of melancholy memories which work perfectly for Dean’s voice; the lyrics tug at the heartstrings while the band (Will Kimbrough, Evan Hutchings, Neilson Hubbard, Jen Gunderman, Michael Renne, David Henry, Eamon McLoughlin, Joshua Britt, Suzy Bogguss, Kim Richey and Heather Donegan) provide varied and sympathetic settings throughout. This album, for me, is the most complete and rounded piece of work that Dean Owens has produced and should be a part of any music-lover’s collection.

If you’re in the South of England and you want to see Dean playing songs from the new album, he’ll be playing at these venues in June/July:

Monday June 29         The Greys, Brighton

Wednesday July 1      Green Note, Camden

Thursday July 2         Green Note, Camden

Friday July 3               Venue TBC, Twickenham

Saturday July 4           The Hat Club, Beaconsfield

If you can’t get along to any of these gigs and still want to support Dean, why not have a look at the Kickstarter campaign for the video for his next single “Up on the Hill”? There are loads of ways to contribute and lots of goodies available.

“Into the Sea” is out now on Drumfire Records.

 

 

No Man's Land TitleIt’s been a while since the last Dean Owens record, but that doesn’t mean he’s been doing nothing; far from it. Apart from the regular live shows (solo and with Deer Lake) and producing the wonderful Ags Connolly debut album, “How About Now”, he’s also been in Nashville recording his next album “Into the Sea” to be released next year on Drumfire Records. As a little taster for that album, the “No Man’s Land” EP is released on November 10. The timing of the release is significant as the subject matter of two of the songs is the effect of war on ordinary, everyday people.

“Closer to Home” was inspired by a letter written by a soldier returning from the First World War and deals with emotions of returning from a situation where terrible things have happened and the difficulty of dealing with the approaching reconciliations. The verses are sparsely delivered with mainly acoustic guitar backing while the choruses bring in the full band including accordion and a beautifully simple but effective piano hook.

“Seed the Roses” is much more sombre, minor-key piece dealing with the horrors and brutality of human conflict but still carrying the underlying message that, ultimately, flowers will grow on the battlefield. Harrowing, but a superb song all the same. “Forgotten Shadows”, co-written with Neilson Hubbard, is a bitter-sweet reminiscence of a perfect day and another reminder of the transience of human life.

The closing track on the EP is a solo live version of “Lost Time” from Dean’s cracking “New York Hummingbird” album. It’s one of my favourite songs from that album (although, to be fair, they’re all great songs) and it works well with only Dean’s acoustic guitar as accompaniment. The message is simple: ‘You can’t make up for lost time’.

It’s fair to say that the subject matter suits Dean’s song-writing style (as he says himself, somewhere between melancholy and miserable) and the war songs are powerful and, in turn, thought-provoking and disturbing. As a bonus, the cover art, from an original painting by Edinburgh-based artist and photographer, Philip Braham, captures the mood of the EP perfectly. It’s not an easy listen at times, but it is a rewarding one.

Out November 10  on Drumfire Records.