Part One

It’s unbelievable, really. We’re already halfway through 2015; how did that happen? Well, however it happened, there’s been an awful lot of it. At the start of the year, we made a few predictions about bands and artists to keep an eye on in 2015 and this seems like a pretty good time to have a look at how they’re getting on and maybe add a few more to the mix. So why don’t we start at the beginning because, apparently, that’s a very good place to start.

BWB Hockley ScrollerThe first of our hot picks to shake some action in 2015 was the Billy Walton Band with “Wish for what You Want”, their first release on American independent label Vizztone in February 2015 after a series of self-released albums. We’ve been watching Billy Walton live since 2010 and he’s been steadily edging up the rankings. The band’s increased in size as well, from a power trio to a six-piece on the latest UK tour and the addition of sax, trombone and keyboards has emphasised their awesome live power while allowing them to move in new directions. Like his fellow New Jersey artists Springsteen and Southside Johnny (Billy has toured as an Asbury Juke in the UK a couple of times), Billy’s fond of taking the show in unexpected directions and these guys are easily good enough to follow him. They should be back in the UK later in the year, so watch out for them in your area.

DSC_0007Dean Owens is another artist the Riot Squad has been following for some time; well since the release of his 2012 album “New York Hummingbird” anyway. Dean has deservedly been acclaimed by those in the know (including Irvine Welsh) for some time now as a singer/songwriter but hasn’t ever managed to get the wider attention he really deserves; it looks like his 2015 album “Into the Sea” on Drumfire Records may have changed that. It’s generated a huge amount of media attention including a Bob Harris interview and live session for Radio 2 and an appearance on the cult BBC Radio Scotland football show “Off the Ball” presented by Stuart Cosgrove and Tam Cowan. The album’s probably his best yet with some highly personal lyrics and memorable melodies backed up by a great group of Nashville musicians.

Kennedys Gallery ScrollerNext up was The Kennedys; Maura and Pete Kennedy are also from the East coast of the USA; New York City is their adopted home. They decided to celebrate their twentieth anniversary by releasing not one, not two, but three albums this year and to tour in support of the albums. Two of the albums have already been released, The Kennedys album “West” and Maura’s solo album (with lyrics from poet B.D. Love), “Villanelle” and they’re both exceptionally beautiful pieces of work. Still to come (in September) is Pete’s long-awaited solo piece “Heart of Gotham” a suite of songs inspired by New York City and its inhabitants. Pete’s poetic sensibilities, huge knowledge of the history of American music and quiet mastery of his instrument (or more accurately, instruments) make this another one to look out for.

04) Gary RollinsWell that’s the story so far, but there’s more to come later in the year. Stone Foundation were obviously on the way up in 2014 when we reviewed their album “To Find the Spirit”, but 2015 has seen them providing the title track for the wonderful short film “Beverley”, trekking across Europe, signing record deals in Japan and the USA and recording the superb “A Life Unlimited” album which is released in the UK on August 7 this year. There’s a UK tour to promote the album, followed by a Japanese tour and some festival appearances over the summer. Pre-sales on the album have been very impressive and this looks like the year that Stone Foundation finally become an overnight success. Keeping the faith seems to finally be paying dividends.

Part Two coming soon…

 

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.

 

 

Dean OwensI’ve seen a lot of gigs in London pubs this year; in basements, back rooms and upstairs rooms.  I’ve seen indie bands, electronic bands and Americana artists, but I haven’t been to a gig that was as much fun as Dean Owens supported by Drumfire Records latest signing, Ags Connolly, at The Cabbage Patch in Twickenham.  If you pay any attention at all to MusicRiot (or even Ricky Ross or Bob Harris), you’ll know that we’re all big Dean Owens fans; he’s always a great live performer and The Cabbage Patch is a lovely venue for an intimate acoustic performance.

Ags Connolly’s opening set featured songs from his upcoming country and Americana-tinged debut album (produced by Dean Owens) on Drumfire Records and was well received by the enthusiastic and knowledgeable audience, setting things up very nicely for the headline act.  I’ve seen arena gigs and festivals this year, but I haven’t experienced an atmosphere as warm as this one.

Dean’s current mini tour is still under the “Cash Back” banner and is partly in support  of his current single from “Cash Back”, “I Still Miss Someone” but, from the beginning of the set, it’s obvious that this is about giving the audience what they want, rather than sticking to a rigid set list.  What we actually get is a mix of songs from Dean’s three latest albums, “Cash Back”, “New York Hummingbird” and “Whisky Hearts” (and that’s a pretty impressive set of songs to choose from) and a few surprises.  Dean’s a very relaxed and accomplished performer, full of self-deprecatory chat and dry Scottish humour between songs.  From the start of the set Dean lets the audience know that requests are very welcome and the audience can play their part in the performance.

At various times during the set we hear “Whisky Hearts”, “Man from Leith” and “Raining in Glasgow” from “Whisky Hearts”, “Lost Time”, “Little Baby Fireworks” and “Desert Star” from “New York Hummingbird” and “I Still Miss Someone”, “Delia’s Gone”, “Cocaine Carolina” and the self-penned “The Night Johnny Cash played San Quentin” from “Cash Back”.  They’re all stripped-down versions relying on guitar, vocal, harmonica, whistling and a few other vocal tricks, but it’s a mark of the quality of the songwriting that they all work perfectly with the minimalist approach.

There’s also an interesting selection of other people’s songs including “Teenage Kicks”  (which Dean played live and acoustic during an interview on an Australian radio station just as the news of John Peel’s untimely death broke), Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire” and the totally unexpected “Heart of Glass” (yes, that “Heart of Glass”).  The evening had everything you could ask for from a gig, great songs, great performances (from Ags and Dean) and an audience that actually wanted to see and hear the performers.  There’s a lot that’s wrong with the live scene in London at the moment (pay-to-play and play for exposure, for example) but when you see a gig like this, you think there just might be some hope.  When everyone plays their part (the performers, the promoters, the venue and the audience) as they did at The Cabbage Patch it can be a truly uplifting experience.  Thanks everyone.

Product DetailsHere’s the first of our High Fives from friends of MusicRiot.  Dean Owens has released 2 albums this year (“New York Hummingbird” and “Cash Back”) and both earned four-star reviews here.  Dean’s Top 5 albums for the year are:

 

“Algiers” – CalexicoProduct Details

Calexico are from Tuscon, Arizona and released their seventh album “Algiers” in September 2012.  The band moved away from their Tex-Mex roots to incorporate some New Orleans influences for this album which has been described as their most accessible and exciting record so far.

“Bloom” – Beach House

“Bloom”, the fourth album from Baltimore-based Alex Scally and Victoria Legrand (who formed Beach House in 2004) was released in May 2012 on Sub Pop.  2 songs from the album, “Myth” and “Lazuli” were also released as singles.

“Fear Fun” -- Father John MistyProduct Details

Released in May 2012, “Fear Fun” is the first album Joshua Tillman (former drummer with several indie bands, including Fleet Foxes) has released under the name of Father John Misty.  Interesting fact for you; most of the development of the songs was done in Laurel Canyon, which was the home of the early 70s California singer-songwriter scene which launched the careers of Neil Young, The Eagles, Jackson Browne and many others.

“Life is People” -- Bill FayProduct Details

“Life is People” was released almost 50 years after Bill Fay’s first 2 albums in the early 70s.  At that time he attracted comparisons with Ray Davies, John Lennon and Gary Brooker but lost his contract after 2 albums.  He has been name-checked as an influence by many performers, including Nick Cave and this album has been acclaimed as his masterpiece by many critics.

“Scrimshaw” -- Nels AndrewsProduct Details

“Scrimshaw” is Nels Andrews’ third album.  He’s attracted loads of praise and songwriting awards and is based in Brooklyn.  His first album reached No. 1 on the US Americana chart in 2005 and he’s now starting to attract attention in Europe as well.

 

Dean also gave honourable mentions to John Hiatt, Richard Hawley and Jack White.  He’ll be touring in Spring 2013 and you can get the dates here on MusicRiot.  Thanks very much Dean for sharing your choices with us.

We’ve heard and read a lot this year about the death of the album as a format.  Well, we’re having none of that at Riot Towers; as far as we’re concerned the album is still alive and kicking (and none of your download nonsense either).  The site contributors have all put together their favourite fives of the year and we’re sharing our choices with you as a little festive thank you.  As the most senior (oldest) contributor, I get to open the batting for the Riot Squad 2012 favourites.  I can’t even attempt to rank these so here we go, in alphabetical order by title.  You can find reviews of all of these albums on the site.

“Devil in Me” – Natalie DuncanProduct Details

This is one of two debut albums in my Top Five for 2012.  Natalie’s a superb singer and a great piano player but the songs are something else.  Some are observational such as the superb “Old Rock” while others appear to be very personal (“Uncomfortable Silence”); what they have in common is that they are all superbly-crafted songs which work equally well when orchestrated on the album or played live with a smaller drums/bass/guitar/piano set-up.  You should really make the effort to see Natalie Duncan live in 2013.

“Good Feeling” – Paul CarrackProduct Details

Paul Carrack has been one of my favourite singers for longer than I care to admit so I approached this with a bit of caution; there’s always a chance that an album like this can disappoint.  I didn’t need to worry because this blend of originals, songwriting collaborations and covers is absolutely superb.  His voice is as stunning as it was 40 years ago and he’s great keyboard player and good guitar player; it’s sickening really.  It’s worth buying for the voice alone, but there’s so much more to admire here, particularly the Nick Lowe song “From Now On” and Springsteen’s “If I Fall Behind”.

“Lilygun” – LilygunProduct Details

Another debut album, this time from a band that defies classification.  I still don’t know whether this is indie, goth, rock, emo or any combination of the above.  What I do know is that it’s melodic, inventive, dynamic and original and the band is great live as well.  My first contact with Lilygun was a review of the single “Moonlight” and I’ve seen quite a lot of the band since.  This is an album where you don’t shuffle the tracks; it’s programmed to tell a story from the first to the final track and that’s how you need to listen to it.  Also featured on the album is the live favourite “Scum”.

“The Hipsters” – Deacon BlueProduct Details

This seemed to come out of nowhere in the autumn of this year.  All of the band members have been doing their own thing for years and the only motivation for this project was love of the music.  Ricky Ross provided the strongest set of songs he’s written in years and they were recorded live in the studio; the result was an album which was fresh, immediate and memorable.  I know you can’t rewrite history, but I wish this had been the second Deacon Blue album rather than the slightly bombastic “When the World Knows your Name” (and I’m not saying that’s a bad album).  The songs here are much more personal; “Is There No Way Back to You?” and “Laura From Memory” are written in the first person and the ironically- titled “The Hipsters” (the best summer song of 2012) is neatly counterbalanced with the more accurate description of “The Outsiders”.  However you look at it, it’s a great album.

“Words and Music” – Saint EtienneProduct Details

This was the soundtrack to my summer this year.  I’ve always loved Saint Etienne but I hadn’t really expected to hear any significant new material from them; This was quite a surprise.  It’s the perfect package; great songs which are nostalgic but never mawkish with enough references to satisfy any pop trainspotter and the best artwork of the year.  From the scene-setting opener “Over the Border”, the album explores the soul of the music obsessive through the great settings of Wiggs and Stanley and Sarah Cracknell’s perfect voice.  As with every other album on this list, there isn’t any filler here but, if I have to pick a few standout tracks then “Tonight”, “Answer Song” and “Popular” should do nicely.

Ok I said Top 5, but I also need to give a mention to Dean Owens who released 2 great albums this year (“New York Hummingbird” and Cash Back”) which were both reviewed as 4-star albums.  Nobody else managed that particular feat.  So, does anyone still want to tell me that the album’s a dead format?

Product DetailsCash Back” is the second album to be released by Dean Owens in 2012, following “New York Hummingbird” earlier in the year and it’s built around a really interesting idea; a tribute to Johnny Cash on what would have been his 80th birthday comprising songs written by, or covered by,  Johnny (with one very notable exception).  It’s also a tribute to Dean’s good friend and mentor, the late Bob Delacy. 

The concept’s great, but the finished article is even better; Dean has tackled songs written by some songwriting legends including Jagger and Richards, Bob Dylan (“Girl from the North Country”), Kris Kristofferson (“Sunday Morning Coming Down”), Johnny Cash himself and our old Riot Towers favourite Nick Lowe (“Without Love”) and the result is a well-rounded, beautifully played and engaging set of songs.

The playing throughout the album is beautiful, particularly Will Kimbrough’s guitar (and various other instruments) and supports Dean’s plaintive tenor voice perfectly.  It’s difficult to pick out highlights from this set because there isn’t any padding, but I’ll give it a try.  The album opens with the lively 1968 Jagger/Richards song “No Expectations” featuring some great playing throughout from Will Kimbrough and has a similar feel to Albert Lee’s “Country Boy” (but a bit slower) before moving in to the more laid-back “A Little at a Time”(which also appears later in a stripped-down bonus version).

The album as a whole is a demonstration of the variety in Johnny Cash’s work, but never more so than in following the heartbreaking, poignant “Give My Love to Rose” with the jaunty nastiness and casual violence of “Delia’s Gone”.  Well, this is the man who sang “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die”.  The traditional ballad, “Wayfaring Stranger” moves the tempo up a few notches from the Cash version and you realise that Paul Weller probably started “Wild Wood” from the same source.

Towards the end of the album, there’s a sequence of songs by truly great songwriters such as Nick Lowe, Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson and David Allan Coe (who wrote the Johnny Paycheck classic ”Take This Job and Shove It”) which almost bring the album to a close.  The first bonus track is a version of “I Walk the Line” which contrasts the original’s baritone growl with Dean’s more vulnerable tenor as the song bounces along for the first three verses.  To add drama to the fourth verse, you might expect a trucker’s gear change or a tempo shift but instead Dean shifts the vocal up an octave towards the top of his range for an even more dramatic effect.

Which leaves one song to tell you about.  As a songwriter, Dean was always going to want one of his own songs on the album and it’s fair to say that it’s a belter.  “The Night Johnny Cash Played San Quentin” is as good as anything else on the album, framing the legendary prison appearance within the story of a death row inmate who was at the show and keeps it as a memory he treasures above everything else on his way to the chair; Johnny would have been proud of this one.

If there’s a country music fan in your life (or someone who likes great music, whatever genre), this album will make a great surprise present for them.  Even better, get out and see Dean performing live on his next tour in the spring of 2013; you won’t regret it.

“Cash Back” is out now on Drumfire Records (DRMFR013).