Levi Cuss has quite a back story. He’s lived an eventful life, done things that he regrets and done some time as a consequence, but ultimately it’s all grist to the mill. He’s living a more conventional life now (if writing and performing songs can be called conventional), using some of the experiences from earlier days as material for his songs and using music as a means of redemption. And that’s all very well, but is the music any good? Well, it is, as it happens; the songs are strong and the musical settings are always interesting. Producer Steve Dawson has brought in some vintage (seventies mainly) instruments and soundscapes to bring a sense of historical perspective to the narratives.
The songs are across a range of styles, but the musical settings are firmly rooted in the early seventies; the lively JJ Cale cover “Bring it Back”, a story about bringing contraband across the Mexican border which probably won’t be released as a single in the current climate, is part “Spirit in the Sky” and part Canned Heat’s “Let’s Work Together”. It’s raucous and great fun.
Without sounding derivative, the album is infused with seventies references. The opening song “Red City River” hints at Dylan and The Band, “Cut my Teeth” is country-rock and “Pills” is pedal steel-laced country about the twisted logic of assuming that pills are better than alcohol because ‘Pretty few songwriting people they take pills’. There are a few songwriting twists, “Saturday Night” is a laid-back, rather than lively take on the party night and “Grandma” is a tribute that celebrates a real life without sanitising it.
And that leaves a couple very interesting songs indeed. “Tecumseh” is a love song with a twist; where a man builds a relationship with the sister he murdered, and the closing song “Utumbo” which recreates a spacey retro synth mix of Pink Floyd and The Animals. It’s quite a way to close out an album that moves easily between retro styles with songs that have a strong autobiographical feel.
“Night Thief” is released on Friday March 10 and Levi Cuss will be touring the UK later in the year.
Maybe this is a reappraisal that’s long overdue. We live in a society that’s so dominated by the car and its implications of individualism that we now have a long tradition of road and car songs and there’s even a drive-time genre. The railroads in the USA, which featured so heavily in popular culture during the nineteenth century have now been largely replaced by the highways. That is, until Americana duo The Grahams (Alyssa and Doug) decided to ride the rails and re-evaluate the role played by the network in stitching together the tapestry of American music. The time they spent on this project led not only to their second album, the marvellously eclectic “Glory Bound”, but also a documentary film, “Rattle the Hocks”, which is featured at the UK 2015 Raindance film festival.
The album opens with the title track, easing in with acoustic guitar before a ridiculously catchy guitar hook comes in to drive the song forward (along with a huge backbeat in the chorus) with a train-evoking rhythm, which is then followed by the equally raucous Southern boogie shuffle of “Gambling Girl”. Both songs feature Alyssa’s rock voice, but as the album progresses it becomes clear that she can work in a whole range of vocal styles, from the raw emotion in the chorus of “Lay Me Down” to the high, clear flute-like tones of “The Spinner”; it’s quite a set of vocal performances. There’s a wide variety of Americana styles from the folk song feel of the elegaic “Blow Wind Blow” to the bluegrass-styled “Kansas City”, which is short, sharp and sweet but packs everything in including sparkling guitar and fiddle solos and the simple spiritual sound of “Mama”.
The big backbeat reasserts itself on “Griggstown” and the closing song “The Promised Land”, driving the first song on to its destination and the second on a seemingly futile quest while “Biscuits” has a honky-tonk feel and a nice line in double entendre lyrics; all good clean fun. Which leaves “The Wild One”; it’s placed right in the centre of the album and this has to be the single, lead track or whatever radio’s calling it this week. From the moment the organ kicks in you know this is pure musical gold (with a nod in the direction of The Band) as the arrangement complements the tragic but ultimately uplifting story which unfolds. Everything about the structure of the song helps to emphasise the message, including a chorus which is absolutely irresistible; there’s even a “Running on Empty” reference in the first line, unless it’s a huge coincidence. There’s nothing about this song that you would ever want to change.
“Glory Bound” is a great album and it’s made for people who actually want to listen to albums. It has a theme, it starts and finishes on railroad songs, visits places with railroad connections and places an absolute gem of a song right in the centre of the collection. This is one train you really don’t want to miss.
Out on Friday October 2 on 12South Records (GRAM003).
It’s not particularly unusual to find an artist whose work is difficult to pin down to one genre. It’s pretty common to hear of artists mixing blues and country or blues and soul, but Sam Lewis goes the whole way, weaving elements of blues, soul and country into the texture of his songs on his second album, “Waiting on You”. The album was recorded at Nashville’s Southern Ground with a cast of players which included Will Kimbrough (the go-to guitar-slinger for Riot Squad favourite Dean Owens), Darrell Scott, Mickey Raphael, Gabe Dixon and The McCrary Sisters and the combination of a live recording philosophy and absolute top quality players creates a flawless and seemingly effortless backdrop for the songs and Sam’s smooth, soulful voice.
There’s nothing remotely flashy about this album but equally, there isn’t a note or lyric out of place in this atmospheric evocation of a life lived at a less frantic, more relaxed pace. The opening song, “3/4 Time”, sums this up; it’s not about a ¾ time signature, it’s about taking life at a canter rather than a gallop and appreciating your surroundings. From here on in, the album moves through a variety of styles, from the early Van Morrison feel of “Love Me Again” and the slow blues of “She’s A Friend” through the blues shuffle of “Things Will Never Be the Same” and the country blues of “Reinventing the Blues” to quiet contemplation of the finger-picked “Never Again”. It’s all gorgeously listenable and it’ll leave you with a warm glow of satisfaction.
Towards the end of the title song, Sam pushes towards the top end of his range and sounds a lot like Al Green; it’s just one of many examples of a superb voice finding the last ounce of emotion in the song and sharing it with us. Three songs towards the end of the album are perfect examples of Sam’s laconic songwriting and singing style. “Texas” is the story of a man going back to Texas after a relationship fails, although the twist is that the failure happened because, in his mind, he never actually left Texas, while “Virginia Avenue” is a musical snapshot of life in Anywheresville, USA. The closing song, “I’m Coming Home” is as close to anthemic as we get, with an uplifting message and a sound that’s reminiscent of The Band, and that always has to be a good thing.
“Waiting on You” is an album that’s packed full of musical quality; Sam Lewis has an astonishingly good voice and he’s surrounded himself by quality musicians who provide a classy backdrop for his gently evocative songs. It’s a cracking album.
“Waiting on You” is out now on Brash Music (BRH0093-2).
So, here we go with the first of our guest contributions to this year’s High Fives. Phil Burdett is a singer-songwriter from Essex whose album “Dunfearing and the West Country High” was one of Allan’s top 5 albums for the year. He’s a very entertaining interviewee and he’s a great guy to have a beer (or several) with. Anyway, here are Phil’s favourite five musical events of 2014:
Release of Bob Dylan’s complete “Basement Tapes” Read more
Phil Burdett’s album, “Dunfearing and the West Country High” was reviewed here earlier this year and ever since that time I’ve been waiting for the chance to sit down and have a chat with Phil about his music (and many other things). We finally managed to meet up in Leigh-on-Sea on typically miserable British Bank Holiday weekend and had a pretty expansive chat over a couple of beers. Now that’s the way to do an interview. We covered a lot of ground, so the interview is being published in parts over the next few days.
AM – So Phil, tell us a bit about how you got to be where you are now, musically and philosophically.
PB – I take it you don’t mean the bus route down here. That’s a very good opening question and I’ll do my best to answer it. Musically I would say it’s incremental; it started off with my brother when I was five years old with a guitar and my brother Mick used to have a record collection and he’d lend me his older albums and he was one of those part-time hippies in the late sixties. He went to the Isle of Wight Festival, credit for that, and he had loads and loads of folk music and blues music which was all I heard. Everyone at school was into glam rock and everything so I used to have endless school parties when I was older (obviously not when I was five; great progressive school that would have been). All I would listen to was John Fahey, John Renbourn and probably a bit of the West Coast Neil Young, Topanga County kind of people, James Taylor and those sort of things. And I thought great, this is what’s in the charts, this pop music, then I got school and it was Marc Bolan which was fabulous; I didn’t quite reject everything of my brother’s but I thought, this is what I’m meant to be listening to so I suppose in the early times it was a mixture of Marc Bolan and John Renbourn and then my brother expanded as well into other things like The Band and Van Morrison. Actually, I saw Van Morrison first, although he will tell you different, but I saw him on the Old Grey Whistle Test when he did the “Too Late to Stop Now” thing and they broadcast the whole thing live when they used to do those things, in those days, and I just thought it was music from another planet; I’d never heard anything like it. He had a string section, he had a horn section, he was doing soul music, he was doing blues music, he was doing folky stuff and I can remember a shift happened in my head and I thought ‘this is what I want to do’, and that’s when I wanted to write songs. Not so much to write songs, ‘but I want to make this noise, not to play “Caravan” or “Brown-Eyed Girl”; I want to make this noise with these people. I want to have a bunch of people like this behind me and I want to make this noise.’
AM – Was it the variety of instruments that drew you to it?
PB – It was and, in retrospect, I was quite pleased with that because it was just such an astonishing surprise sometimes you go along to a gig, and you know two numbers in what you’re going to get, whether you like it or not. I like the idea that suddenly you don’t know what’s going to happen next; this could be a folk song, he could pull an acoustic guitar out, he could pull a set of bagpipes out. It could be anything; it could be heavy metal and I loved the idea of that and people like Captain Beefheart. Frank Zappa took it to extremes but I used to love Zappa and probably all the people I’ve liked since that, I’ve liked because of that gig where you thought that anything was possible. You see it now and it flows and it seems like a very good and expansive band playing but at the time I thought that one minute it was classical music, the next minute it was folk music and that’s what I liked it was the variation that made it a whole; it hung together because of the variation. It was astonishing; I sat up after it and I just didn’t know what to do. I wanted to everything but couldn’t do anything.
AM -- You mentioned a couple of the musical mavericks there; is there something in you that taps in to that?
PB – I think it all came from that Van Morrison show. Now, I slag off Van Morrison more than anyone does because I think he’s become an appalling thing, an appalling great lump of Irishman. I would rather go and see, and I don’t say this lightly, I would rather go and see a Van Morrison tribute band now than see Van Morrison because it’s the same thing essentially; I think he’s lost the plot or never had the plot and got lucky. His first four or five albums up to “Veedon Fleece” and a little bit beyond were fantastic but suddenly it all went very wrong. When he was inventive and varied, which was probably before I got in to the idea of lyrics, and that’s evolved more than the music side, he was just purely making music and making sounds for the joy of it; I think Van Morrison expresses that if I don’t care about lyrics, because he’s not the greatest lyricist in the world, it’s perfect. “Astral Weeks”, it’s errant nonsense a lot of it but you couldn’t change a word of it. What the fuck is “Veedon Fleece”? What is a Veedon Fleece? But you wouldn’t want it any other way. I’m not religious, I’m an atheist, but I believe that; I want to go and search for the Veedon Fleece when I’m hearing that, so it works. It was that combination of trust in him, you believed in what he did, and his voice, which was peerless at that time. I used to try to do the Van Morrison bit with a bit of Bob Dylan thrown in. My brother tried to get me into Bob Dylan more and I said that Van Morrison was the man, and then suddenly the thing that changed it was Bob Dylan and Robbie Robertson. I heard The Band’s first album and, for no reason whatsoever, I just loved and then I realised that the reason I loved it was because of these words. It’s not the way they were being sung, although that was fabulous, it was these words and I didn’t know what they meant, but they sounded like they meant something and it was probably a combination of those things; Dylan, the Band and Van Morrison.
AM – I was going to come to this a bit later, but the first time I listened to “Dunfearing and the West Country High” I pulled the lyric booklet out and it was obvious that there were an awful lot of lyrics there.
PB – I get hell from record companies for that, especially from the people that type the lyrics out.
AM – But it was doing that and actually reading the lyrics that I realised you’re obviously a writer who is influenced by poetry as well.
PB – In a way, poetry came before lyrics because I used to like poetry before music. When I first heard music, the lyrics were part of the music, of the sound. They could have been singing anything and in some cases they were. People talk about Nick Drake, but I think Nick Drake’s a terrible lyricist. I’ll get crucified for this, but if his music and his sound wasn’t as good as it is, if musically he was someone like Donovan, then the lyrics aren’t that different; it becomes mystical because of the setting rather than the content.
AM – What struck me as well is that the lyrics on “Dunfearing…” actually repay careful listening.
PB – That’s what you want. That’s the reason I want to write short stories, I want to write books, I want to write everything, but I’m writing this music because it’s the only thing I can see, outside of opera, that’s taken seriously (not seriously enough, in my opinion) because it’s a combination of music and lyrics that would not work separately. I’m not a great lover of the idea that lyrics are poetry; I think lyrics are lyrics but they can be good lyrics. Poetry’s another thing; poetry should be able to stand alone. If you have as good a lyric as “Idiot Wind” and Bob Dylan wanted to do that as a poem, I think he would rewrite it, but he shouldn’t rewrite it; it’s got to complement the music.
AM – For the first time in years listening to a new album, I went into sixth form English Literature criticism mode.
PB – My album will be on the curriculum next year; I trust Gove.
AM – You’ve seen the review, it got that reaction because there was so much in there lyrically.
PB – Your review astonished me; my first reaction was that I thought it was a wind-up and that Phil Pavling (described in the sleevenotes as guru and benefactor) had written it or I thought I’d written it and forgotten and posted it to myself. You don’t get that often, you think ‘That’s nice, we’ll use that line for a plug or something’, but this was almost like you knew as much as I did about what was going on, which is very rare.
AM – That was just my natural reaction to the album, really. The other thing was that my wife, who wouldn’t necessarily have chosen to listen to it, being much more into disco, gave it a big thumbs up as well.
PB – My disco album will come a lot later.
And that’s end of part one, more to come very soon, when we get into punk, post-punk and post-post-punk, among other things.