Photo by Allan Mckay

It’s that time of year again; time for the ninth edition of the Music Riot High Fives. It’s been another difficult year for everyone involved in making music but that hasn’t stopped the flow of creative juices. Apart from the positive takeaways Rod describes below, he also released a great album in September of this year and had plans to tour the UK until travel restrictions brought it to a grinding halt. Let’s hope it happens in 2022. In the meantime, here’s Rod’s thoughtful look back at some of the positives to come from 2021.

The Dad Reports

 With the passing of my mother in April of 2020 I started writing out my nightly conversations with my father. He is eighty-one and an authentic northern New England character. I write only his part of the conversation and write it out phonetically so that readers can hear his voice as they read. Here is one of The Dad Reports:

The Dad Report:

“So, it was pretty cold and cloudy but they said it was gonna warm up so I waited for my walk. Bandit stays behind me till I get ‘bout halfway ‘round the bird path then Christ he takes off and when he sees the house he’s runnin’ like crazy and he beats me back and he’s waitin’ at the doah. So I says, Jesus I gotta vacuum this place. So I vacuumed the whole house, top to bottom. Got all that damn cat hair up of the sofa. Guess what? The cat started sleeping with me. I get up the othah day and I says “what the hell is that?” It was the cat. Sleeping right up against me. Been doing it every night since. I don’t care long as it don’t do that pawing. It’s funny. I go up, she follows me up. I go down she follows me down. Bandit’s not scratching like he was so I guess that spray worked. I had to do a load of whites and a load of dahks. So I loaded up the dahks first. Got them in the dryer then I says I’m gonna take a ride to Williamsport then I come out on sixteen down by four corners, went back through Milo. I says I’m gonna stop and get a sausage egg and cheese on a English muffin. It was pretty good and the best thing was there was only ‘bout foah people in Tradewinds and I was the only one at Dunkin’ Donuts. Then I went home and switched the laundry and haint done nothin’ since really, but I was glad to get the cat hair offah the couch. No games tonight. Green Bay won last night. I love you. I’ll talk to you tomorrow. You have a good night…”

The Strand Theatre This is a beautifully restored theatre in Lakewood NJ. I’ve played there many times over the years but this year was particularly special. Aside from online shows, I hadn’t played a show in eighteen months. I usually play between one and two hundred shows each year, so these last eighteen months have upended a career I’ve scratched and clawed for. Playing for an audience is the most alive I feel as I walk through my time on this rock. The Strand show was my re-entry after a very long time. The audience was magic. I nervously worked through the first song, heard that applause, threw the lyric sheet on the floor and I was gone – transported to that magical place that can exist between a performer and audience when the air is right. There is nothing like it that I’ve experienced. I’ll always remember this show. It was pure magic for nearly two hours. We were all one.

Listeners And so, what to do with my time as Covid closed the world down? All of my shows were gutted in one single day. Weeks of planning dissipated into thin air. After wringing my hands for a few weeks, I knew I needed to do something, but what that thing would be was outside my vision. Then an epiphany. What would I like to have from my own favorite artists? The answer came quick. I would love for Patty Griffin, Steve Earle, Bruce Springsteen or Jason Isbell to sit down and record a handful of songs just for me. I’d like them to talk to me as they recorded, to feel that profound connection and feel it in my bones – to know that this was my album. What an amazing thing that would be? So that’s what I did. I had no idea how on point I was. I anticipated maybe twenty or thirty folks to be interested enough. It was an expensive price tag because each recording had to be performed one at a time, mastered, printed onto a CD then mailed out – all by my own hand. By the end of the first week, I had more orders than I had time. It was a glorious experience. Most of the folks I recorded for, I at least knew a bit, so it was incredibly fun as well as very hard work. It was a project that kept my head above water and simultaneously kept that personal connection to my listeners. There were glitches and great performances. One day my eighty-year-old father started his chainsaw right outside the window. It all went onto the recording. If I screwed up a song, I simply played it again. Each person received whatever happened while I was recording – all on one long track. My listeners saved me.

My Father We were not particularly close when I was a child. I was a bit of a misfit, uninterested in his world of hunting and fishing, football and dirty jokes. I was a reader, drawn to the arts, incredibly shy and uncomfortable in my own skin. He was a man’s man; easy with cars, tools and the things of the masculine world. My world was my inner world. My father’s world was in his hands and the things he did. I lived inside my head. My mother was a notoriously bad gift giver. She gave me a giant plywood rabbit as a wedding gift and few years ago a stack of used heavy metal guitar magazines for Christmas. It made no difference to me and in fact I found it comical. It was astounding how far from the bullseye she could land with a gift. She’d give a diabetic a cake. When she passed on there was no one at the ready to help my father through the maze of legal issues that inevitably come with death and so I stepped in. I drove twenty-four hours straight to get to him in rural Maine. Then I methodically rounded up the issues to resolve and went through them one by one. I don’t wish this task on anyone. At one point I realized my father needed me. It wasn’t just a matter of helping him. He was utterly lost without my mother and needed me to take care of these things and the universe shifted. My mother’s final gift to me – was my father. Now, I split my time between flashy Nashville Tennessee and dire Brownville Maine. We walk every day. We watch football. He repeats the weather report the weatherman just reported two minutes earlier and I listen. Everyone needs someone to listen.

The Vaccine We all waited…and waited. I am in the firm grasp of middle age but it took time for my date of birth to be eligible. The roll out of the vaccine was not perfect, but in hindsight it was an impressive effort. I know this issue is rife with controversy. Covid continues its cruel march forward after we all hoped the vaccine would take it out at the knees and we would return to normal. It was not to be – as my own cancelled U.K. tour informed me. It was simply too soon and there were too many variables. The protocols seemed to change daily. I will, however, never forget the feeling of getting that first injection. Hope. It was hope that rang through my head. With the second dose an enormous relief and sense of gratitude overwhelmed me for all the people it took to make it happen. From the doctors and scientists to the volunteers who stuck arms all day long, day after day, to the old man directing traffic at the Nashville site, it was pure gratitude. We’re not there yet. But there is hope. Somewhere out there someone is working sixteen hours a day for that silver bullet. And we hope.

It’s difficult to review a Rod Picott album without mentioning Raymond Carver. There we go, that’s out of the way now, we don’t have to go back to that, valid as it is. “Wood, Steel, Dust + Dreams” is in the category of ‘Great idea; will it actually work?’ (spoiler alert – it will). The great idea was to take the twenty-five songs that Rod had co-written with childhood buddy and long-time collaborator Slaid Cleaves and rework them as a record of their collaboration. And there’s another interesting idea; the two-disc collection will only be available on CD. No, downloads, no streaming; you buy the album directly from Rod and no-one else takes a slice of it. Or, even better, you could go out and catch him on his UK tour (details below) and put some money in his hand personally in exchange for two CDs. It’s a nice way to get your music fix.

The title of the album sums things up neatly (although ‘rust’ could have featured as well). This album is packed with American blue-collar songs; we’re not taking Manhattan or Berlin, we’re dealing with people doing back-breaking manual labour in the rust belt and busting out at the weekend, drinking, racing cars or gambling and you can feel the authenticity running through every song. Running to twenty-five songs over two CDs, it’s a lot of songs. As our Northern reporter, Steve Jenner, used to say about “Sandinista”, you need a packed lunch for that one. There’s no filler; they’re all great songs and the list of musicians on the album is very impressive – Will Kimbrough, Matt Mauch, Lex Price and Neilson Hubbard are all on board, with Hubbard producing and there’s even a guest harmony from Slaid Cleaves. The production is very light touch, creating ambient soundscapes that pull the attention to the songs and Rod’s ‘groaning wound of a voice’ (his own words) and the raw power of the songs.

It’s subjective and a bit tricky to pick out favourites, but here are a few of my personal highlights. “Rust Belt Fields” tells the story the America sold when corporations discovered cheaper labour in Mexico and China and the impact it had on the workers and towns left marooned as the jobs evaporated; it’s despair and the knowledge that there’s no recognition for hard work. Two songs sitting side by side on CD Two are perfect demonstrations of the power and subtlety of the songwriting; “Drunken Barber’s Hand” is a menacing view of a malign force guiding the world, while “Primer Gray” is a perfect example of a song working on two levels. It’s a straightforward story about someone escaping from the grind by racing his car at the weekend. All the attention is paid to the engine and the body work and paint job is irrelevant because it doesn’t make the car faster. On another level, it’s about the music business (and humanity in general); all the glitz in the world can’t hide a hollow centre.

If you want a masterclass in songwriting and delivery, you don’t need to go any further than “Wood, Steel, Dust + Dreams”. Simple stories about real people delivered with the minimum of fuss and maximum of heart.

“Wood, Steel, Dust + Dreams” is out now on Welding Rod Records.

It’s all worthwhile when you hear an album as good as this. Rachel Baiman has created a collection of ten songs with a range of Americana musical stylings that is intensely personal while also referencing current social and political issues in the USA (although the album was recorded in Australia). The other thing you’ll notice about the songs is that whether personal or political, they mainly address issues that directly affect women (Rachel herself, her sister, her sister-in-law and her grandmother). They aren’t all happy stories, but that’s the whole point; the various cycles of life have good and bad phases. The mid-tempo title song, with its distinctive layered vocal is a tragic and yet uplifting story of two generations of women from the same extended family binding together in mutual support to deal with a still-birth and then a difficult birth; it’s deeply moving.

The two overtly political songs sit side by side on the album. “Rust Belt Fields” is Rachel’s take on a Rod Picott/Slaid Cleaves song; the song’s ten years old, but still sounds relevant. The minimalist one-bar percussion loop creates the relentless feel of the automobile production line, lost forever to more cost-effective (exploitative) overseas territories. The song is a fatalistic acceptance of the corrosion of the Steel Belt to the Rust Belt and the unmourned loss of the jobs this entailed: ‘No-one remembers your name just for working hard’. “Wyoming Wildflowers” is a Rachel Baiman/Olivia Hally song that uses the theme of diverse colours in nature to skewer white supremacist views. The lyrics are set against a gentle country-rock arrangement and the message is emphasized by the repetition of the final two lines.

There are ten superb examples of the songwriter’s art on “Cycles” including another that pressed all of my buttons, “No Good Time for Dying”, which deals with watching someone you love suffer the indignities of a protracted death; it’s not pretty, but it’s the end of the cycle that starts with the opening song. The album’s final song, “The Distance”, tackles the way we habitually deal with recurring life situations in the same way because it’s easier than thinking about another way.

The Rachel Baiman/Olivia Hally musical arrangements and production on “Cycles” are deceptively simple while featuring ambient instrumental sounds and layers of vocals that always allow the songs plenty of room to breathe. There are hints at times of the vocal stylings of Neil Young, Emmylou Harris, and even Rickie Lee Jones (on “No Good Time for Dying”) but the bottom line is very much Rachel Baiman, teasing out themes of family, work versus relationships, politics and even the “I Will Survive” sentiment of “Hope it Hurts”. This album is complex, sometimes painful and very rewarding.

“Cycles” is released in the UK on Signature Sounds Recordings (SIG-CD-2129 / SIG-LP-7038) on Friday June 11th. Here’s the video to “Joke’s On Me”:

A new Rod Picott album is always something to look forward to. He’s an exceptional songwriter and his voice is a very effective vehicle for delivering those songs. It’s a voice that’s frayed around the edges and at times crackles with emotion. On “Tell the Truth and Shame the Devil”, Rod has stripped his delivery back to just guitar, harmonica and voice; oh, and the songs. Just to give this some context, the album was recorded after a health scare Rod had over the last winter (although not all of the songs are contemporary) and has a stark, sometimes brooding, feel mingled, unsurprisingly, with intimations of mortality, including the opening song “Ghost”, a brutally honest assessment of Rod’s current situation, and that of many others in similar positions. Confessional, hard-hitting singer-songwriter isn’t a particularly lucrative career path these days.

Rod recorded the entire album alone, without an engineer, before handing the tapes over to Neilson Hubbard (you might remember him if you’re a MusicRiot regular) for final production. If you want a benchmark, the finished article has the same feel as The Boss’s “Nebraska” and has similar lyrical themes of family, poverty and alienation. The result of this method is that the songs are stripped to their very essence with no distractions, emphasising the stories they have to tell and, as always with Rod Picott, they’re striking and memorable stories.

As a writer, Rod likes a metaphor; the murder ballad “Too Much Rain” uses a barren landscape to represent the failure of a marriage to blossom, while “Bailing” uses the idea of bailing literally and metaphorically, referring back to a flooded childhood cellar as a metaphor for the futility of activity that only serves to keep us in the same place. Rod also likes to bring a bit of autobiography into the mix; “Mark” is the story of an unexplained teenage suicide, while “Spartan Hotel” is that bar in any town where anything goes if you can pay the price. And don’t forget the social comment; “A Beautiful Light” aims straight the heart of those songwriters who try to glamourise the drudgery of blue-collar life as a means of social control.

This is the third Rod Picott album we’ve reviewed here and they’re consistently powerful pieces of work blending punchy stories of small-time America with haunting melodies in a voice that is both emotive and vulnerable. It’s probably the most personal of his recent albums and well worth a listen.

“Tell the Truth and Shame the Devil” is out now Welding Rod Records and Rod will be touring the UK in October.

As ever; songs, not singles. These songs are all from albums that we’ve reviewed this year (that’s Stone Foundation ruled out again – sorry guys). There’s something else, apart from greatness, that links all these choices; they’re not the only songs from the albums they feature on that could have made this list. The albums are all wonderful pieces of work taken as a whole, but they all feature at least two standout tracks that would have been seen as singles in a different musical era. There were difficult choices but ultimately it had to be whittled down to five songs. In no particular order, here are Allan’s favourite five songs of the year; the songs that made his heart soar or made him cry, but definitely made him hit the repeat button.

 

“The Last Song” – Dean Owens

Just to be contrary, it’s actually the first song on the album, ”Southern Wind”, which was a collaboration with Will Kimbrough. One of the things Dean and Will bonded over was their love of Ronnie Lane, whose influence is all over this one. Having heard it live a few times, where it tends to appear towards the end of the set, confirms the power of the song and allows Dean to riff on repeated choruses by throwing in lines from, for example, “Ooh La La”. It’s fun and it’s memorable; if you don’t love this, you’ve got icicles for ventricles.

 

“Love in Wartime” – Birds of Chicago

Absolutely gorgeous. This clocks in at about the six minute mark but you just want it to keep going. It’s one of those that seduces you in with a gentle intro then builds and builds to the first chorus. And by that time, you’re hooked; you’re there for the duration. Maybe there’s a nostalgia thing there; the feel, the chord progressions are a lot like classic mid-seventies era Bob Seger. The melody’s hummable, the harmonies are superb and it’s hugely uplifting. I dare you not to be moved by this.

 

“Out from Under” – Michael McDermott

This is a song where you just have to accept the Bruce Springsteen comparison because this is a stadium rocker in the mould of “Born to Run”. It’s a monstrous ‘wall of sound’ production driving along by pounding, relentless floor toms and a huge full band arrangement. In the context of the album, it’s the song that represents the start of the upward turn in Michael’s rehabilitation and the uplifting lyrical message is carried along on the tide of a widescreen musical setting. Taken out of the context of the album, it’s a song that FM radio in the States would have been all over in the 80s – not just a powerhouse arrangement, a potent message as well.

 

“Son of an Immigrant” – Gerry Spehar

A perfect example of the song that leads you in a certain direction before pulling the rug from under you and twisting the point of the narrative. It’s not just an example of a clever narrative trick; like the rest of the album, this is a powerful commentary on the current state of the USA, and its current leader. The song has a very clear message; if you go back far enough almost everyone’s an immigrant in the land of the free. Like “Out from Under”, it sits perfectly within the context of the album without needing that context to shine as a great song.

 

“The Shape of You” – Rod Picott

Sometimes a song just needs to find the point in your life where it fits. This one happened for me on the Tube on the way back from a gig at Green Note. I’d already heard it a few times but this time it suddenly hit home. It’s about the realisation that someone has become a part of you. In this case because that person has gone, but I guess the image works if they’re still around. The song opens with the image in the title, then develops that image. It’s a really simple idea but beautifully effective. The arrangement’s sparse, with mainly acoustic guitar and vocal with some very subtle Will Kimbrough guitar atmospherics just lurking in the background. Delicate and gorgeous.

There are many other songs that could have been on this list; there’s so much incredible music out there, but these were the ones that were buzzing around my consciousness when I put this together. Have a listen, and I hope you enjoy.

Allan is a huge fan of Rod Picott. He loves the last two albums, “Fortune” and “Out Past the Wires”, he’s seen him live and was gutted to miss Rod’s latest appearance in London in the spring of 2018. Rod can sing and play with the best but, beyond anything else, he’s a storyteller; the characters in “Out Past the Wires” will be appearing in a volume of short stories in the near future. So it’s absolutely no surprise that Rod’s High Fives for 2018 are literary picks. He’s also very thorough, so he provided all of the cover artwork to use in this piece.

 

“The Flame” – Leonard Cohen

This is Cohen’s final piece of work and in fact he died before finishing. “The Flame” is a loose collection of poems, drawings and lyrics from his later albums. Most of the drawings are of Leonard himself with his aged and jowly face surrounded by small sometimes mystical phrases. The book is revelatory in showcasing the familiar syllabic repetition in much of Leonard Cohen’s work. It’s surprising to see the rhythmic patterns emerge over and over as they bring the reader to a sort of trancelike state. The familiar themes are all here. Love, loss, sex, death, aging and the mysterious relationship Cohen had to life itself. “The Flame” is a wonderful book and an intimate look inside one of the great artistic minds of the last fifty years.

“Gone ’Til November” – Wallace Stroby

This noirish crime fiction novel grabs you from the beginning and Stroby masterfully drags the reader along into a fast-paced mystery that never lets up. This is not the kind of fiction I’m usually drawn to but the “Gone ’Til November” characters are so vivid and the story so compelling that I couldn’t put the book down. The plot unfolds much like a great film and is just as cinematic. Simply – great crime fiction worthy of Elmore Leonard comparisons.

Substitute – Nicholson Baker

The genius of Nicholson Baker can’t be overstated. “Substitute” is a 719-page memoir of Baker’s tenure as a substitute teacher in the public school system of the state of Maine. Baker does something in his writing that is absolutely unique. He writes as a person’s mind works without any nod to plot and without any hint of manipulation. It is a wild and strangely compelling trick that keeps you wondering where his words will go next. There are untamed swings of thought that keep you on your toes the entire time. “Substitute” is basically every thought Baker had during his 28 days as an on-call teacher. Baker’s observations are so sharp and his empathy so present that this project is an incredibly moving journey through what should be incredibly pedestrian territory. In lesser hands this book would never work. A stunner.

Paris Trout – Pete Dexter

This novel is straight up my alley – dark southern gothic filled with vivid intense characters and rich brilliant prose. “Paris Trout” is simultaneously dark, violent and comic and the novel goes places you do not see coming. The main character himself is a racist, wife-abusing storekeeper in the dreamy small southern town, Cotton Point, Georgia. Dexter reveals our common flawed humanity through the townspeople’s reaction to a tragic incident brought on by Trout. Such vicious narrative requires a deft hand and Dexter never leaves the reader in doubt as he drags you into deeper and deeper water.

Trampoline – Robert Gipe

This illustrated novel is a work of absolute genius. The narrative is so vivid that I can recall the story as if I have seen a film. That’s saying something. The book follows the life of wry, restless fifteen-year-old outsider Dawn Jewell. Woven into her story is a larger narrative that addresses the brutal nature of strip mining in her small Appalachian Kentucky town. Gipe’s own loose, scratchy inked illustrations are a marvel of economy and power. The drawings of Dawn are often accompanied by a few carefully chosen words that reveal her inner mind and the conflict therein. Your heart will break for Dawn as she navigates her small world and the inevitable collisions that come with her finding her way to some kind of peace inside the chaos around her. This book is a game-changer we seldom receive in fiction.

 

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:

We reviewed Rod Picott as part of a great bill at Green Note this year and he was superb. We were mightily chuffed when he agreed to chip in to the 2016 High Fives with his five favourite novels from 2016.

01-barkskins “Barkskins” – Annie Proulx

 “Barkskins” is a roaring firestorm of a novel that tears through decades over its 700-plus pages. There are so many characters the book contains two family trees in order for the reader to stay on course. Proulx’s writing is poetic, expansive and intimate simultaneously. Essentially the story of the North American lumber trade from pre-colonial America through to the industrial revolution, “Barkskins” stands as an allegory to the destructive nature of man. The characters enter the novel, wildly tear across the pages and give way to the next generation in this amazing piece of work.

 02-ella-minnow-pea“Ella Minnow Pea” – Mark Dunn

 “Ella Minnow Pea” is a curiously odd political satire written in the form of letters between characters in the fictional island town of Nollop. This strange novel is short, punchy and darkly funny as the letters trace the totalitarian nature of the local government and its banned use of particular letters as they fall from a revered local memorial statue. This short novel is a marvel of invention and imagination.

03-farmerFarmer – Jim Harrison

 “Farmer” is a quiet marvel of a novel. Its protagonist is a rural Michigan teacher caught between two lovers – one, a far too young nubile beauty and the other his lifelong friend and confidant. This description doesn’t come close to capturing the tortured beauty of the protagonist’s journey. Harrison is a poet of a novelist, both literally and figuratively, and “Farmer” is an eloquent telling of the complications inherent in life itself – no matter how simple it appears at its surface.

04-angelas-ashes “Angela’s Ashes” – Frank McCourt

 I’m always suspicious of a read that receives as much praise as McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes”. It’s the iconoclast in me. This novel, however, is stunning. Written in the voice of McCourt’s own poverty-riven childhood, the novel crawls slowly forward across his youth from pain to pain. The mainstays are familiar; the drunken father, driving poverty, the unforgiving judgement of the church and the mother trying against odds to hold the entire mess together as a home. “Angela’s Ashes” is a stunning work worthy of its Pulitzer.

 05-the-ancient-minstrel“The Ancient Minstrel”– Jim Harrison

Three compact novellas makeThe Ancient Minstrel”. I can’t think of anyone aside from Hemingway who writes about the human condition in contrast to nature as effortlessly and effectively as Jim Harrison. That comparison sounds trite and easy but Jim Harrison has the force of a hurricane in his language. These three novellas are brilliant, ruthless, compassionate and brimming with both melancholy and life. Harrison was a master. The best 45 minutes I spent in 2016 was watching Harrison reading his poetry on a YouTube video from a few years back. What a brilliant, funny, unique writer we lost this year in Jim Harrison.

Rod PicottAfter reviewing Rod Picott’s seventh album, “Fortune”, I discovered that he was playing Green Note as part of the run-up to his Celtic Connections show with Kimmie Rhodes on January 25th. It was late notice, and the gig was sold out, but somehow I just managed to squeeze in and I’m really pleased that I did. I have a huge admiration for these artists, like Rod Picott, who travel from town to town and bare their souls on stage with only a guitar for protection. I particularly admire American artists who tour this way in the UK, where it’s sometimes impossible to tell if the audience like you or not.

Slipping on to the stage unannounced, he set out the plan of action for the night; a bunch of songs from “Fortune” to open up with, then some older songs and maybe a few requests. He had a setlist prepared, but there was a suspicion that it wasn’t set in stone; it wasn’t. After the opening “Maybe That’s What it Takes” and “Elbow Grease”, it was obvious that the set would unfold in its own way regardless of any planning.

Rod’s economical (sometimes laconic) lyrical style and his powerfully emotional vocals work perfectly in this room, but his secret weapon is his engaging and self-deprecating manner as he spins out anecdotes between songs. Some are amusing, some are laugh-out-loud and some are poetic (he sums up perfectly the elemental nature of Howling Wolf with the words ‘he looks like he’s the weather’), but they all help to create an intimacy between the audience and performer.

There are no half measures with Rod Picott; his songs are intense and he gives full value when he delivers them live, veins bulging and sinews straining as he wrings the maximum emotion out of each song. It’s sometimes hard to reconcile the laid-back raconteur and impassioned troubadour, but he makes the contrast work for him, gradually building a rapport with a fairly reserved Green Note audience.

There’s a selection of material from right across Rod’s career and the highlights include the rocking “65 Falcon”, “410”, “Welding Burns” and “Mobile Home” (which includes a Bowie reference in the lyrics). From the new album, the menacing “Uncle John” stands out alongside “Until I’m Satisfied”, which prompts a confession that the chord progression it’s based on is the same as the Eddie Cooley and Otis Blackwell classic, “Fever”. Each song is a perfect little story of blue collar delivered with power and passion; you can’t really ask for more than that.