ael-scrollerJust over a year after the release of her eponymous third album, Anna Laube has become Anna Elizabeth Laube and released her fourth album, “Tree”. She’s moved on from the playful experimentation of the previous album and produced a little classic of restrained melancholy where her pure, fluty vocals are set against sparse arrangements creating a lo-fi intimacy that perfectly matches the mood of the songs. With “Tree”, Anna has restricted her palette to sepia tones rather than the vibrant Technicolour of “Anna Laube”, although even the pared-down arrangements allow for some experimentation within the album’s sombre overall mood, which is enhanced with lashings of reverb on vocals and instruments.

The album opens with a Dylan cover, “Wallflower”, a melancholy old-country waltz telling the story of two lonely people in a crowded room, complete with some lovely fiddle fills. And that’s not the last of the songs in three-four time; the imploring “I Miss You So Much” with its wailing harmonica, the love ballad “Longshoreman” and “Lose, Lose, Lose”, the story of recovery from alcoholism, ruined by the reappearance of an old flame (at Christmas of all times). If you spliced together Patsy Cline and Rickie Lee Jones, it would sound like this.

XO” is a gentle finger-picked acoustic version of the Beyonce song, helped along by a trumpet accompaniment, not the usual strident brass, but a muted version with a Mexican tinge. And finally, two absolutely beautiful songs. The title song is the story of a tree and the way it, and other trees, intertwines with our lives. The gentle acoustic arrangement and lovely multi-tracked harmonies are a contrast to the over-driven, but quiet and tasteful guitar solo; all of the parts fit together perfectly. “Please Let it Rain in California Tonight” expands from concern about drought to become a secular Lord’s Prayer with piano backing. It’s a deeply moving piece that is so catchy you’ll be singing along on the first listen.

“Tree” is a flawless album that works with limited soundscapes to create a mood that’s mainly melancholy with a few lighter touches for contrast. It’s a very beautiful piece of work.

“Tree” is released on Aah…Pockets! Records (Aah …Pockets!4) on Friday October 21st.

Alice DiMicele - 'Swim' - TitleIf you still believe in the album format, and Music Riot certainly does, then the sequence of tracks on the album is important and the opening track should set the tone for the rest of the album: it certainly does here. There are no instrumental pyrotechnics on “Soul Fly Free”, no amps cranked to eleven, just a bunch of great musicians laying down a smooth groove overlaid with Hammond and steel guitar that wafts over you like a cool breeze on a still August day. I would normally namecheck most of the musicians, but Alice DiMicele has pretty much used two bands plus a raft of guest musicians to create “Swim”, her thirteenth self-released album so, if you’ll forgive me, I’ll give that a miss this time.

It’s also difficult to pigeonhole Alice; she’s had a couple of attempts herself with ‘organic acoustic groove’ but there are an awful lot of other influences there as well. The album’s closing track “Ripple”, a Grateful Dead cover, is pure country, laid back and with some lovely piano courtesy of the legendary Bill Payne. “When Jane Rides Scout”, dealing with the bond between a woman and her horse, has a trumpet solo which adds a Mexican feel to the song, while “If I Could Move the World” (reworked from the 1994 album, “Naked”) is in a slow jazz styling with muted trumpet which evokes out-of-focus neon lights on a misty night and a vocal which is reminiscent of Rickie Lee Jones.

Alice is renowned as an environmental campaigner and the album features a couple of songs which use human stories as a framework for highlighting environmental concerns. “Old Life Back” sets the controversial practice of fracking (and the ideology backing it up) against the story of a farmer forced to abandon his farm and move to the city. It’s powerful stuff. “School House” combines a narrative about returning to your roots with concerns about the environmental impact of damming the Klamath River in north-western USA. Alice creates a happy ending by looking into a future where the dams have been destroyed and the river is running its natural course again. Vocally, the pathos of “Old Life Back” and the passion of “School House” combine with simple and powerful melodies to create a powerful message.

There are some very personal songs on the album as well. “Inside” deals with the impact of death on those left behind, and the spirit living on in those people, while the uptempo “Open Road” concerns soul mates who are also free spirits and how the apparent contradiction is resolved. “This Love” creates emotion by having Alice sing at the lower end of her range (with a hint of k.d. lang) backed by finger-picked guitar and mellow strings, while “Swim” is unlike anything else on the album. Guitar, bass, Hammond and drums create a swirling, sinuous, funky groove to underpin the vocal, punctuated by stabs and fills from the horn section.

You won’t feel your attention wander while you’re listening to this album; it’s diverse both musically and lyrically. It takes you on an emotional journey for the uplifting “Soul Fly Free” through the harrowing “Inside” to the ebullient and irrepressible “Swim”. It should make you think a little bit along the way as well.

Out on Monday May 4th. Available from CDBaby or iTunes.

 

Wild SkiesWild Skies” is the debut album from Linda Sutti, who is from Piacenza in Italy, but writes and sings in English. Her co-writer and producer on the album is our old friend, Henrik Freischlader, who is German but also writes and sings in English. Following his usual pattern, Henrik not only co-writes and produces the album but also plays drums, guitars and bass. The studio line-up is completed by Omer Klein (keys), Christopher Huber (violin), Cornelius Thiem (cello) and Johannes Krayer (pedal steel).

Linda’s style is conventional singer-songwriter lyrically while the music moves through jazz and light rock and towards a more poppy sound (but definitely without any EDM). Her voice is strong and distinctive and she’s equally effective on the intimate and raucous ends of the scale with touches of Rickie Lee Jones and Norah Jones (who both had pretty memorable debut albums) at various times.

The album’s opener, “Hurry”, does just the opposite; it’s an appeal from a lover to relax and wind down, but the singer isn’t having any of it. It’s a medium-tempo laid-back jazz groove with what I can only describe as a chauffeur’s gear change towards the end; it’s certainly a lot smoother than the truckers’ variety. “Try” is the most obvious single and pop tune on the album, with a hint of Suzanne Vega vocally and a lighters-in-the-air chorus. The title song, “Wild Skies”, and “Every Tick of Our Time” are both from the introspective 70s singer-songwriter tradition with the former featuring some subtle electric piano and a tempo change to emphasise the chorus while the latter has a beautiful string section intro leading into a song backed with only acoustic guitar.

Down on the Road” is the album’s ‘get out of my life’ song with a 60s psychedelic backing that Julie Driscoll and Brian Auger would have been proud of, and is followed by the acoustic piece “For the Thrill” which, for me, is the weakest song on the album. “Silence” is a pretty successful attempt to capture a fleeting moment and features some lovely subtle rhythm guitar from Henrik and a couple of very nice hooks to pull you into the verses. “Prince Coffee” uses stirring a cold cup of coffee as a metaphor for trying to make a relationship work and it just about succeeds, with a little help from the polka-tinted arrangement.

Ordinary Life”, with its minimalist backing deals with a common problem for musicians (or any kind of performing): the paradox of the wisdom and the impossibility of maintaining a meaningful relationship with a civilian, which seems to be resolved in the only song on the album written entirely by Henrik Freischlader, “Dear Mr So-and-So”. The funky guitar and keys along with Linda’s robust delivery create a sound which could be Rickie Lee Jones at her best. The final track, “No Fear”, hints at the 70s pop/folk crossovers of artist like Rab Noakes and Gerry Rafferty (and more recently John Tams) combining folk roots with electric instrumentation to good effect.

Overall, it’s a very varied and listenable album, which you would expect with the involvement of Henrik Freischlader, and there are a couple of standout songs which would work on Radio 2 in the UK. Linda Sutti’s voice is strong and convincing throughout and the strings and pedal steel aren’t overused, which increases the impact when they do feature. My only criticism is that the lyrics could occasionally be a bit stronger, which may be down to both Henrik and Linda writing in a second language; I certainly wouldn’t want to try writing a lyric in French. Putting that aside, there’s a lot to like about this album and I recommend that you give it a listen.

Out now on Cable Car Records (CCR 0311-44).

Dance a Little Closer CoverSo here’s the latest offering from The Kennedys and it’s a live one, whichever way you look at it. It’s another symptom of the ways things are moving in the world of music today that more and more bands are releasing live CDs. It’s so easy to do now that it’s become another part of the tour mechandise package but it can still be something special, immortalising a unique performance in the way that certain live vinyl double albums did in the 70s. “Dance a Little Closer” is one of those albums.

Pete and Maura Kennedy have a long-standing professional relationship and friendship with country singer Nanci Griffith, who brought them together on stage in 1993 as members of her Blue Moon Orchestra and the “Dance a Little Closer” tour was a tribute to Nanci and her songs. The Kennedys took a selection from Nanci’s huge body of work and created arrangements for two voices and two guitars, proving that a great song is great song whether backed by a band or single guitar. “Dance a Little Closer” was recorded towards the end of the American leg of the tour at The Turning Point in Piermont, New York in April 2014.

The pacing of the album is perfect; after the mid-tempo opener, “I Wish it Would Rain”, the slower songs like “Late Night Grande Hotel” and “From a Distance” are mixed up with the medium tempo “Across the Great Divide” and “I’m Not Driving these Wheels”, and the faster, driving, “Love Wore a Halo” and the album’s closer, “Hell No, (I’m Not Alright)”, co-written by Maura and Nanci. “Trouble in the Fields” was written in the 80s, comparing that time to the Great Depression, but seems equally valid in the second decade of the twenty-first century with Pete’s understated intro and solo emphasising Maura’s poignant vocals. “Lone Star State of Mind” is a nostalgic romp through good old Texas memories, while the wistful “There’s a Light Beyond these Woods” is a perfect evocation of a lasting childhood friendship. “Gulf Coast Highway” is another story of ordinary people getting by with some lovely vocal harmonies from Pete which give the chorus a very plaintive edge. “Ford Econoline” is a rockabilly (almost skiffle) run through the story of a housewife leaving everything behind her in Utah to take to the road and a singing career; you can almost hear Pete and Maura grinning at times.

The album’s title comes from a line in “Love at the Five and Dime”, a classic ˊlove conquers allˋ song where the main characters are musicians. Pete’s finger-picking and Maura’s vocal are reminiscent of the first Rickie Lee Jones album (always a plus for me), while the song reminds me slightly of Richard Stekol’s “Yank and Mary” as covered by Iain Matthews (an even bigger plus). It’s a beautiful song and a perfect rendition here. The instrumental and vocal performances throughout the album capture the mood of each song across a range of moods from melancholy through wistful to celebratory. All that with two guitars and two voices.

And then, there’s the songs. As Pete Kennedy’s sleeve notes tell us, these songs are a road map of America, from Nova Scotia to the Gulf of Mexico, but they’re also about real American people and issues and they have an impact which goes far beyond three minutes of music. The album’s a limited edition but there are still some copies available on The Kennedys website.