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.

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).

Mockingbird Soul ScrollerApparently they’ve worked together and been friends for years, Will Kimbrough and Brigitte DeMeyer, and their first duo album “Mockingbird Soul” was the logical place for that friendship and working partnership to go. As a duo, they’re a formidable force; both have outstanding voices and long pedigrees as songwriters and Will Kimbrough has a reputation as a master of pretty much any fretted instrument. If he played fiddle, we’d be comparing him to David Lindley (or maybe he does and he’s kept it quiet). That’s an awful lot of talent shared between just two people. And shared is exactly the right word; the songwriting’s shared in all sorts of combinations (with the exception of the Incredible String Band cover, “October Song”) and the lead vocals are shared. Did I mention the harmonies? They’re gorgeous.

With a few exceptions here and there, this is just about two voices and Will Kimbrough’s array of stringed instruments and harmonica (did I forget to mention that?). It’s not a big production number, it’s all about capturing the magic of two artists working together, doing what they do best and having fun. Brigitte’s the acknowledged singer of the pair and takes most of the lead vocals, sounding equally at home with the gospel feel of the title track and raw acoustic country/soul hybrid of “Rainy Day” which is part Bobbie Gentry/part Dusty Springfield.

The duets, including the opener “Everything”, are close harmony at its very best; the two voices apparently locked together through the melodic twists and turns. The lovely “I Can Hear Your Voice” is a perfect example, the harmonies emphasising the song’s message of wisdom passed on from generation to generation. And there are a couple of Will Kimbrough lead vocals as well, just to show that it’s not just about guitars and harmonies. He has a strong voice in the high tenor range, which has more than a hint of Randy Meisner and works perfectly on the country rock of “Broken Fences” and swamp ragtime of “Running Round”.

The album’s a great demonstration of everything that Will Kimbrough and Brigitte DeMeyer do so well; strong songs across a variety of roots styles, outstanding vocal performances and playing that’s often understated but always superb. Predictably, I’m going to say that you should see them live, and you’re lucky because they’re in the UK to support the album in March and they’ll be playing these dates:

Thursday March 23                         The Kenlis Arms, Barnacre, near Garstang

Friday March 24                               The Argyll Hotel, Glasgow

Saturday March 25                         Haile Village, Cumbria

Monday March 27                          Green Note, Camden

Tuesday March 28                          Kingsmead House Concerts, High Wycombe

Wednesday March 29                    St John’s Church Music Club, Farncombe, Surrey

Friday March 31                              St George’s Hall, Bewdley, Worcestershire

“Mockingbird Soul” is released in the UK on Friday February 17 on BDM Music.

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:

Willow Springs ScrollerIt’s only a few weeks since I was raving about the latest album from Michael McDermott’s band The Westies and he’s now releasing an album under his own name using most of the same musicians that played on The Westies album. Let me just cut straight to the chase here and say that “Willow Springs” is every bit as good as “Six on the Out”. It’s packed with powerful songs and creative but unfussy playing from Heather Horton, Will Kimbrough and John Deaderick; it’s every bit as powerful as “Six on the Out”, but “Willow Springs” is a very different musical approach to similar themes.

The album has a more intimate feel than the companion piece by The Westies; the album credits don’t list a drummer and although “Let A Little Light In” has all the punch of a mid-eighties Springsteen anthem, it’s not typical of the album. There’s a lot of acoustic guitar, banjo, fiddle and harmonica, but also some subversive touches like adding synth pads to fill out the sound. There’s a desire not to be stereotyped and packaged, which is explicit in “Folksinger” particularly.

“Willow Springs” is, more than anything else, a deeply personal album, springing from a turbulent period around the death of Michael McDermott’s father. There are references to his heritage on “Six on the Out”, but here it’s right out in the open. “Shadow in the Window” is a painful look at the death of a parent and the soul-searching that follows in its wake. The song ends with the keening repetition of ‘I Love you’ gradually fading and slowing before “Willie Rain” opens with the spoken ‘I love you Daddy’ leading in to a relentlessly upbeat stringband arrangement of a song about his daughter. Placing the two songs together demonstrates the circle of life and the ultimately uplifting feel of the album. There are sombre tales, plumbing the depths of addiction (“Butterfly”) and small-time larceny (“Getaway Car”), but the final two songs of the album both look to the future with optimism.

It’s almost inevitable that Michael McDermott will be compared with Dylan, Springsteen and others; maybe that’s flattering but it’s not the whole picture. When he writes, sometimes in a very matter-of-fact way about gangsters, prison and drugs, you know it’s coming from first-hand experience. “Willow Springs” is the sound of that experience being processed and used up before moving on to the next stage; it never sounds less than authentic. Maybe the time has come for the next American songwriter.

“Willow Springs” is released on Friday July 22nd 2016 on Pauper Sky Records. Michael McDermott will be touring the UK later this year.

And if you won’t take my word for it, have a look at the video for the title track:

The Westies - 'Six On The Out' - cover (300dpi)It might be a bit premature to say this in May, but “Six on the Out” is already a strong candidate for my album of the year. Michael McDermott’s dark urban poetry of the dispossessed, the dying and the damned is big and ambitious piece of work. The characters that inhabit the songs live in a twilight zone where ‘The flawed and the favoured, the outlaws, the saviours, all work both sides of the line’ and there’s always a risk of paying with your liberty or your life. There are elements of autobiography, but they’re used as jumping-off points to create alternative pasts and futures where single decisions change the course of many lives. It’s harrowing and the pathos is almost unbearable at times; it’s the work of someone who’s been there and lived to tell the tale.

If you want to know where he’s been, have a look at the bio page on his website and you’ll start to get some idea. The core of The Westies is Michael McDermott and his wife Heather Horton, who plays fiddle and takes the lead vocal on the beautiful, sixties-sounding, “Like You Used To” which is immediately answered by McDermott’s exhilarating, Dylan-channelling “Everything is All I Want for You”. Along with the folky ballad “Henry McCarty”, McDermott’s take on the Billy the Kid story, the three songs in the middle of the album are an interlude offering a contrast with the despair of opening and closing songs.

The album opens with “If I Had a Gun”; subtly menacing acoustic and slide guitars create a brooding atmosphere for the first of several takes on the prisoner returning to society (“Parolee”, “Once Upon a Time”, “This I Know” and “Sirens” all explore different aspects of the same theme). It sets the tone for the album; you can deal with it, but you have to make the right choices. It’s only on the album’s bleak closer “Sirens” that McDermott allows the despair to triumph, but it’s only one of the possible outcomes of life in the margins; you can choose but the consequences are with you forever.

The musical stylings range from the full-band sound of “Pauper’s Sky” and “Santa Fe”, with drums and pounding bass evoking eighties American rock, to the lilting Celtic folk of the waltz-time “The Gang’s All Here” and the dovetail perfectly with the lyrical themes. Michael McDermott’s influences illuminate the album but he’s taken those and his own experiences to create a powerful piece of work that tells of desperate times and people without either condemning or praising. It’s not comfortable, and you’ll feel wrung out by the time “Sirens” ends but you’ll want to hear it again.

“Six on the Out” is released on June 3rd 2016 on Pauper Sky Records.

Michael McDermott will touring in the UK later in the year.

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.

As you can see from the piece below, Dean Owens has had a pretty eventful 2015 (including four London gigs, the release of his album “Into the Sea” and the two major events at the end of the piece). We’re pleased he’s had a chance to slow down a little and tell us about some of his personal highlights this year. Dean’s also given us a substitute for his five-a-side team, so we’ve decided to include that as well.

 

All the Light we Cannot See“All the Light we Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr. A really poignant and moving story, beautifully written.

 

 

 

 

Doug SeegersA gig I really enjoyed was Doug Seegers at the Southern Fried Festival in Perth. Kind of took me by surprise. His is a great story of survival. Check out his debut album “Going Down to The River” which was produced by my friend Will Kimbrough.

 

 

HeartsA big highlight for me was seeing my team Heart of Midlothian win the league and promotion. It was great to be at the matches with my dad (the inspiration for Dean’s beautiful song “The Man from Leith”).

 

 

 

Ambrose SalvonaVisiting the grave of my great, great Grandfather Ambrose Salvona (the lion tamer) with my dad in the Scottish Highlands. Ambrose features in the song “Dora” from my new album “Into the Sea”. It’s a great story.

 

 

Bob HarrisFinally doing a session for legendary presenter Bob Harris at BBC Radio 2 was special. It was kind of strange sitting opposite the great man and singing a couple of songs for him. Strange in a nice way.

 

 

 

Dean  ScrollerOpening for Roseanne Cash at Union Chapel in London was one of the best shows I’ve ever played. Such a beautiful venue. It was a magical evening. (This event also got a mention in one of Allan’s High Fives this year).

Waiting on You TitleIt’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).

 

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.