You can’t deny that the last couple of years have been difficult times for musicians, but the creative impulse won’t be stifled. Artists will take the clay that’s available and use it to fashion their creations. The Trump years spawned many memorable albums, then musicians found different ways of working through a pandemic with very little personal interaction to help the process. Steve Dawson’s raw material for “At the Bottom of a Canyon in the Branches of a Tree” came from a different place. Following a family tragedy, he took an extended sabbatical to decide whether he wanted to continue writing and performing. A songwriting retreat with Richard Thompson and Patty Griffin gave him the answer he needed and he found his clay (mainly) in his own personal experiences.

The album’s quite unusual in that it’s almost entirely the work of Steve Dawson; there are no co-writes or covers and only three other musicians make cameo appearances. Apart from Alton Smith’s piano on a couple of songs, Michael Miles’ banjo on “The Spaces In Between” and a Diane Christiansen vocal on “We Are Walking in a Forest”, every hook, lick and vocal is Steve Dawson. Quite apart from the instrumental versatility, showcases Steve’s vocal range from the easy, languid tenor into high falsetto. Steve’s voice evokes the classic American west coast country rock bands, sounding at times like Don Henley or Randy Meisner and there’s the occasional nod in the direction of Jackson Browne as the album pulls off the trick of sounding vaguely familiar while constantly introducing new ideas and sounds.

The settings for the songs are pretty laid-back, with nods towards sixties/seventies soul in “This Is All There Is”, psychedelia in “Beautiful Mathematics”, Crazy Horse in the title track and Jackson Browne on “Hard Time Friend”, which has a breakdown and restart two-thirds of the way through that feels a lot like the last section of JB’s “The Late Show” (one of Springsteen’s favourite recorded moments). The musical settings are incredibly varied, with some interesting keyboard instruments appearing (mellotron and dulcimer for a start), creating the perfect ambience for each of the songs.

The album could easily have been a fairly depressing experience, with songs about COVID deaths and forced positivity (“This Is All There Is”), dysfunctional families (“She Knew”) and the limitations of the forgiving gesture (“Forgiveness is Nothing Like I thought it Would Be”), but Steve leavens the mixture with the resoundingly upbeat “22 Rubber Bands”, a song about his love for his daughter, and “Hard Time Friend”, dedicated to his friend Diane Christiansen, celebrating the friends who are with us through times that are good or bad, happy or sad. There are two bonus CD and download songs which didn’t make the vinyl cut for reasons that have nothing to do with quality; “You’re Trying Too Hard”, which nails fake authenticity, and “However Long it Takes”, a reminder that we can always choose to see the good things in the world rather than the negativity which so often surrounds us.

Twelve tracks, fourteen if you buy the CD or download, and each one with an interesting arrangement and lyrics conveying ideas that are important to Steve Dawson, as they should be to all of us. It’s ironic to think that this bunch of songs were created by someone who had started to doubt his creative abilities.

“At the Bottom of a Canyon in the Branches of a Tree” is released on Pravda Records (PR6419) on Friday July 16th.

Here’s the animated video for “22 Rubber Bands”:

Here’s a strange coincidence that brings a bit of musical history solidly back into the present. I had almost finished this piece and was in the process of editing, stepping away from and tweaking when I felt the need to go and photograph some live musicians again. On most Sundays during the summer months, you can catch some solo performers and duos at Eccleston Yards near Victoria Station in London. The gigs are organised by Talentbanq, a company that promotes unsigned musicians, mainly in small venues and you can usually find its hands-on CEO Ray Jones there as compere and sound engineer. The first performer on stage was Erin Bowman, from New Jersey via California, playing a mixture of classic rock interpretations and original material. I was hooked from the start by her laid-back acoustic version of Tom Petty’s “American Girl”, but the last song in the set was the one that did it. In London, in 2021, Erin was doing her version of Bob Seger’s “Against the Wind”, originally released in 1980. Never underestimate the staying power of a great song.

If you’ve been seriously into music for over fifty years, then you’ve had an artist (or a few) that got away. The ones you were convinced would be massive but didn’t make it at all, or only in certain territories. One of mine was Bob Seger, with or without The Silver Bullet Band. I knew he deserved be a UK Top 20 artist, but it took about twenty years to prove me right (sort of).

It’s been a long journey, but where did it start? Nottingham’s commercial station Radio Trent in 1974, I guess. I heard “Get Out of Denver” blasting out of a tiny radio speaker and I was hooked. No doubts, no second thoughts, this was the mutt’s. Was it a Chuck Berry rehash? Of course it was, but Chuck could never have written those lyrics and his laconic drawl wouldn’t have allowed him to fire and spit them out the way Bob Seger did. This was “Tulane” on steroids and I was hooked, although it would take a couple of years before I was finally reeled in.

Bob Seger spent years grinding round the Midwestern circuit building up a massive and loyal live following before first troubling the US singles charts in 1967 and 1968 respectively with “Heavy Music” and “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man” which both went on to become huge live favourites. He was a classis seventies example of building up a live fanbase to help (eventually) sell records. During the period between ‘68 and ’75, his band went through personnel and name changes and moved from Capitol to Reprise and back again. Reprise had tried to break him through into the mainstream, even trying to break the UK, but they were only reaching musicians and the committed (“Get Out of Denver” was covered by Eddie and the Hot Rods and Dave Edmunds and “Rosalie” was covered by Thin Lizzy). So back to Capitol again.

What happened next was really interesting. The first Capitol album, “Beautiful Loser” was the blueprint for what was to come over the next ten years. It was a combination of up-tempo rockers (“Katmandu”) and slower, more nostalgic pieces (“Fine Memory” and “Momma”), the well-chosen cover (“Nutbush City Limits”) and the classic wistful mid-tempo pieces (“Beautiful Loser” and “Jody Girl”). Its peak chart position in the US was 131, but it went on to hit double platinum certification. It wasn’t perfect, but everyone involved knew that this was the template; more of the same would do very well indeed, but there was a way of building up a head of steam before the next studio album. The mid-70s was the era of the double live album; if you had a band that could reliably turn it on live and you put them in front of a friendly crowd you had an instant hit, so that’s what Capitol did.

“Live Bullet” was the clincher; a classic example of a live band at their peak. You got Bob Seger originals, including the classic-to-be “Turn the Page” (later covered by Metallica) and covers of “Nutbush City Limits” and “Let It Rock”. It went quintuple platinum in the US and now no-one was looking back. In the space of a year Bob Seger had arrived, at least in the US. It was always a mystery to me that no-one else in the UK seemed to get this but, with hindsight, it was just too American for the time. In 1975 Bob Seger stood a chance of being bracketed with the better bands breaking out from the pub rock scene, but was doomed in the UK after the insular and inward-looking punk explosion. It wasn’t stopping me; I grew up in a town where any sort of escape, to London or Detroit, was a good thing. And if I’m honest, the inner music snob in me likes to support an artist/band that no-one else has heard of.

As far as the North American continent (and later, Australia) were concerned, Bob Seger had made it. In the US alone, he sold over 30 million albums between 1975 and 1991, and that’s people who went to their local record shop and parted with cash for vinyl, cassette, eight track (remember that) and, towards the end, CD. The stars had aligned; the formula for the albums had been established with “Beautiful Loser”, the songwriting was perfectly honed, the production was superb (and don’t underestimate the importance of the backing vocalists from “Night Moves” onwards), Capitol was 100% behind the artist and The Silver Bullet Band was the perfect vehicle to go out and sell the songs to a live audience. Between 1975 and the peak, when “Against the Wind” hit Number One in the US album charts in 1980, Bob Seger could do no wrong in his home territory, Australia and big chunks of Europe, so why not the UK? Two obvious reasons.

The first one is about economics. Despite a reasonable amount of radio play, only the albums “Stranger in Town” and “Against the Wind” made any impact on the album charts and the singles did even worse. It was the wrong kind of music for the UK at that time despite being huge across the pond. It didn’t really make any economic sense for Capitol/EMI to invest huge amounts in touring the UK if it didn’t significantly add to record sales, and they were probably right. The Silver Bullet Band only played five gigs in Britain and I was at two of those; Glasgow Apollo (14/10/77) and Wembley Arena (21/11/1980). I’m slightly biased, but both were stunning gigs that were well-attended by wildly enthusiastic audiences and they were his first and last UK gigs. Unfortunately, you couldn’t break the UK market with five gigs. If you were counting the beans at Capitol/EMI, why would you invest any more in a territory like the UK when you could tour arenas in the USA and Canada promoting new albums and selling shedloads of merchandise. I understand that completely.

The second point is a bit more controversial, and more stalwart Bob Seger fans might want to stop reading now. I’m still a huge fan, but I couldn’t honestly say that there was one album that I wouldn’t want to skip an odd track on (with two exceptions, coming later). From 1975 onwards, Capitol/EMI were pitching Bob Seger at the traditional album market and they didn’t seem to see that the material wasn’t always even. “Night Moves”, “Stranger in Town” and “Against the Wind” had more than their fair share of classic songs, but they weren’t consistent or consistently excellent. You want reasons for that? Pressure to write brilliant new songs for albums every eighteen months while touring constantly, using the Silver Bullet Band for part of each album and The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section for the other part, or maybe just burnout. The albums had to keep appearing regularly to satisfy the public, whether they were perfect or not. After “Against the Wind”, sales started to slow and gaps between albums increased as Seger’s family life became more important. And that should have meant the last chance for UK success, but you never know, do you?

In the summer of 1996, I was in the Pub on the Pond in Swansea having lunch with my mate Bekky when I heard a familiar voice from the CD jukebox (remember them?). It was Bob Seger and I had to go over and check it out, because it wasn’t a song I’d heard him play. It was a storming cover of the Chuck Berry classic “C’est la Vie”/”You Never Can Tell” and the album was “Greatest Hits”, released in the UK in 1994 which sort of proved my theory that Bob Seger had a huge number of classic songs but they weren’t all on the same album. It reached Number 6 in the UK and also spawned the first UK Top 40 single with “We’ve Got Tonite”. It probably helped that the songs were all FM radio-friendly and continued to be played on pockets of UK radio long after their initial release. There was a certain irony that Brits nostalgic for the 70s were buying into an album that was packed with nostalgia for 1950s/60s America. It’s a near-perfect album and the UK marketing worked like a dream.

There was another Seger album I would happily listen to all the way through, and it was intended to be the swansong. “Ride Out” was released in 2014 and it would have been a fitting famous final scene; it’s a classic album that I would recommend to anyone. Only it wasn’t the final album; as a response to the death of his long-time friend from Detroit, Glenn Frey in 2016, he released one final album, “I Knew You When” as a tribute, in 2017. That was the second encore and Bob Seger had finally left the building.

As a long-time fan, it was a validation that he finally achieved success in the UK even if it was a little late. If the run of albums starting with “Night Moves” had started a year earlier or five years later, things might have been very different, but it won’t keep him awake at night – he sold over 75 million records worldwide, wrote songs that were covered by almost everyone (there are over sixty covers of “We’ve Got Tonite”) and finished his career on his own terms. He wrote classic songs that we could all relate to and, if “Against the Wind” isn’t played at my funeral, will you all please deal with the people responsible. If you already know his work, you’ll probably understand why I’ve written this; if not, you could do a lot worse than check him out anyway. Rock and roll never forgets.

Here’s a safe bet. I’m not going to hear anything even vaguely resembling “The Missing Star” this year; Lunatraktors blend of traditional folk instruments and influences with world percussion and even a Korg analogue synth. And nobody played guitar.

Lunatraktors are Carli Jefferson (vocals and percussion) and Clair Le Couteur (vocals with a four octave range, and harmonium, melodica, whistles, Korg Monologue and piano. On “The Missing Star” they’re joined briefly by producer Julian Whitfield on double bass, and Canterbury legend Geoffrey Richardson provides a string arrangement for a cover of the Leonard Cohen song “Lover, Lover, Lover”.

What’s unique about Lunatraktors is the fusion of what are very disparate musical elements to form a distinctive sound they call broken folk – traditional (mainly) English vocal ballad stylings are combined with complex and fractured rhythmic patterns created using a range of percussion instruments from various musical cultures, ambient samples, and augmented with some superb vocal harmonies. It’s a potent fusion and I’m willing to bet it makes for a stunning live performance.

The lyrics are a mixture of traditional, traditionally-inspired and original, dating from the beginnings of the folk tradition to stories of contemporary Britain. The theme linking the old and the new songs is a simple one: rebellion, whether it’s the cheap trickery of “The Exciseman”, sticking two fingers in the face of authority or the anti-establishment fury of the album’s opener, the harmonium drone-backed “Rigs of the Times”. The current government may have made satire redundant, but this song skewers the lying and the hypocrisy of the Brexit process and the handling of COVID perfectly, setting the tone for the album. The political and social anger runs through “The Missing Star”, which pulls together Conservative and Brexit party propaganda from 2020 to highlight the disdain the government shows for anyone daring to disagree with its policies, while “Unquiet Grave” takes aim at Employment Support Allowance, using the case of Elaine Christian, a woman in Hull who took her own life shortly before a medical appointment to assess her eligibility for benefits.

As for the non-political pieces, they range from traditional ballads like “The Blacksmith” and “Mirie It Is (Anemoia)”, an adaptation of the oldest known English folk song, to the experimentation of “Drone Code” (what it says on the tin, a Korg Monologue drone with Morse code singing bowl percussion) and “The Madness that Soothes” a HAPI tongue drum (not a drum played with the tongue) improvisation. So it should be no surprise when the album ends on a musical setting of lines from the first book of Ecclesiastes.

Lunatraktors have a unique vision, combining old and new, acoustic and electronic, and British and world music. Blend that with a searing critique of the current government and you have an album that you certainly can’t ignore.

“The Missing Star” is out now.

Here’s the video for “Rigs of the Times”:

My first proper exposure to the work of Kimberley Rew was when I reviewed the retrospective, “Sunshine Walkers”, in 2020. There’s a theme running through that collection and “Purple Kittens” as well; a celebration of Englishness. Not the populist, flag-waving, “Vindaloo”-singing Englishness. Not that at all. It’s real ale at a riverside pub with the sounds of a skittle alley and maybe a Morris side performing. That kind of Englishness; the kind that’s celebrated by songwriters like Roy Harper and Ray Davies. So it’s appropriate that the album’s opener is “Penny the Ragman”.

The song’s a tribute to Kimberley’s late cousin, Penny, who, among other things, looked after the uniforms for a Morris side (a position known as Ragman) and was inspired by conversations at her wake. It’s a pretty good companion piece for The Kinks’ “The Village Green Preservation Society” as a celebration of a vanishing lifestyle. However, there’s a lot more to “Purple Kittens” than nostalgia; both Kimberley Rew (guitars and vocals) and partner Lee Cave-Berry (bass and vocals) are natural songwriters in the Nick Lowe mould, creating great songs out of eternal themes or the most mundane events and situations, even out of one repeated phrase.

Which is exactly what “Raspberry Ripple Ice Cream” does. Against a spiky, punky riff, the only lyrics are the title (apart from a slight culinary diversion into rum and raisin) sung by both Kimberley and Lee, and a bass solo. It’s just a bit of fun, but it’s done really well. “Black Ribbon” is more serious; it’s a rocking tribute to Roger Smith, of the Cambridge band Jack, who died of COVID last year. It was written by his two grandsons (aged six and eight) the ribbon of the title isn’t a mourning accessory, it refers to the band he wore round his Panama hat.

The Soft Boys cover, “Kingdom of Love”, is progressive and psychedelic with Kimberley/Lee harmonies in the chorus that evoke Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood, while Lee’s “Unsatisfactory Cats” is a whimsical Kirsty MacColl-tinted exploration of cat behaviour that cat owners/servants will identify with – I certainly did. “Wrong Song” uses the musician’s lot as a metaphor for our daily lives; live performance is a one-off thing and any mistakes are part of your history. You only get one try and you can’t fix it or remix it. There’s also a reference running through the song to Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave your Lover”. Finally, “Daytime Night Time”, which closes the album, runs through the mundane cycle of life, from birth to death, in under five minutes (and that includes extended guitar riffing referencing Chuck Berry and Francis Rossi). It’s a joyous celebration of life and rock ‘n’ roll music.

“Purple Kittens” won’t be troubling the national album charts, but that won’t keep Kimberley Rew and Lee Cave-Berry awake at night. They make albums and play live for the sheer joy of it; that’s what they do and that in itself is worth celebrating. “Purple Kittens” is twelve songs celebrating lives, ways of life and sometimes just cats and ice cream, created and crafted with skill and joy, and a real love for this country. I’ll take that, thank you very much.

“Purple Kittens” is out now on KL Recording (KKL016).

Here’s the video for “Wrong Song”:

It’s been a long time coming; after over twenty years of making music, Afton Wolfe has finally released a solo album. It’s worth waiting for. “Kings for Sale” is an album created by an artist with an intimate knowledge of the underside of the music business; its compromises, its failures and its occasional successes. This is an album of flawless songs (originals and interpretations) delivered in a rasping baritone over a wide variety of musical settings. The scope of the arrangements, the raw vocal and the subjects of the songs make the Tom Waits comparisons inevitable, but you can hear many other influences there, including a nod towards Greg Dulli’s solo soundscapes on “Cemetery Blues”.

There’s a lot happening instrumentally on “Kings for Sale”, although it’s more about atmosphere and ambience rather than a constant presence from the start to the finish of a song. Afton also uses speech samples and sound effects to create the perfect sonic settings, whether it’s spoken word intros or water flowing through a song. Everything’s there for a reason and nothing’s wasted. And this is probably the moment to get this out of the way; the unusual soundscapes and subject matter, and the rough-hewn baritone voice have more than a hint of Tom Waits. There, I’ve said it.

The album swings into action with a full band and horns on “Paper Piano”, a story of growing up poor and using imagination and creativity to deal with the poverty. It’s a great groove to catch the attention from the letter A and even has a Van Morrison-esque piano breakdown before the big finale. At the other end of the album is a song at the other end of the scale. “O’ Magnolia” is delivered in the style of a hymn by a church choir and is an exhortation to the state of Mississippi to change its flag to remove the old Confederate imagery and replace it with something more representative of the 21st century, namely the state flower, the magnolia*.

Between the opener and the closer, there’s a treasure trove of musical styles and lyrical themes from the slow country fiddle and pedal steel of “Carpenter”, using biblical imagery to tell a story of misunderstandings in crowded, alcohol-soaked rooms to the doom-laden grunge of B.W. Goodwin Jr’s “Cemetery Blues”. The lyrics are minimal, but the sonic treatment creates an atmosphere of menace and foreboding; it’s difficult and beautiful. A personal favourite, following on from “Cemetery Blues” is M.J. West’s “Mrs Ernst’s Piano”, a story of the tentative first steps on a journey to racial equality that’s still far from complete.

Nine songs and nothing resembling a damp squib; Afton Wolfe’s own songs and the carefully chosen interpretations combine to create a lovely blend of styles and lyrical themes. And there are a few thought-provoking references. The word ’cover’ appears twice, a reference to the compromises a musical innovator has to make to survive financially, while the opening line of the album, ‘Every good boy does a little bit better’ references the mnemonic used by educators to teach the notes on the treble stave. That’s the level of detail that you can pick out from these songs.

“Kings for Sale” is out now on Grandiflora Records. Here’s the video for “Dirty Girl”, a road trip down through Mississippi to New Orleans:

*The new Mississippi flag was officially adopted on January 11, and it looks like this:

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”:

SEO – search engine optimization; it’s a hugely important factor in having an online presence. This particular John Williams has spent a long (and hugely productive) time under the radar in the music business. Now he’s released an album under his own name and he has to compete with a world-renowned classical guitarist and an equally-renowned film soundtrack composer. John Williams of the John Williams Syndicate has plugged records, produced records and BBC sessions, headed up an A&R department and made his own records. So it’s about time to make a few calls to former clients, and a few new discoveries, and work on that solo project in the shed at the bottom of the garden.

There are a lot of things to admire about “Out of Darkness”; as you would expect, the quality of the playing is masterful and the standard of the arrangements and production is superb. As well as pulling in vocal contributions from Petula Clark and Claudia Brücken and a co-write with the legendary Iain Matthews, John also enlists upcoming singers Slicko DiCaprio, Amber Prothero and Isabella Coulstock for lead and backing vocals on the album. Which brings me to the only minor criticism I have; with so many different singers and varied musical stylings, it’s difficult to find a sense of musical cohesion across the album as a whole, although there is a theme of renewal, springing out from the penultimate song, “Nothing” which, unusually, has some lyrical popular culture references set against a seventies singer-songwriter arrangement (maybe a hint of Al Stewart) with a vocal that hints at Stephen ‘Tintin’ Duffy’s Lilac Time period. Everything else on the album is a consequence of this rebirth.

Picking out a few standout moments, “Spanish Song”, co-written with Adrian York, Isabella Coulstock and Slicko DiCaprio, is the most contemporary pop song on “Out of the Darkness” with a Latin tinge and some interesting Spanish/English counterpoint vocals. The album’s final song, “Don’t Give Up on Me”, also has a Latin feel; the lyrics are minimal, but the playing is outstanding with lots of mini solos, including a sax/trumpet counterpoint solo; it’s memorable. “You Got Me from Hello” is cool jazz with Latin rhythms in a Carlos Santana/Rob Thomas style, while the piano-led “Luminescent”, with programmed percussion, nods in the direction of early Kate Bush.

This album is a serious musical project from a serious player; even the packaging is lush, with a thirty-two page booklet containing credits, lyrics and some Tim Hobart abstract paintings. The contributions from the established musicians are predictably excellent, but it’s even more gratifying to hear emerging talents like Isabella Coulstock, Amber Prothero and Slicko DiCaprio taking the opportunity to shine.

“Out of Darkness” is out on Friday June 6th on Wulfrun Records (WULFRUN 1).

And just to give you a flavour of the album, here’s the lockdown video for “You Got Me From Hello”:

Suitcase Sam – a man with a deliberately cultivated air of mystery. Historical details are sketchy; even his website has him soaking up musical influences three years before he was born. What is clear is that a lot of soaking went on. There are musical elements on the ten songs on “Goodnight Riverdale Park” dating back to the 1920s and covering a wide variety of traditional American musical stylings. A couple of reservations here; this is a very American album and it also looks quite firmly back towards a bygone era. If both of those are your thing, then carry on reading.

In keeping with the retro stylings of the songs, the co-producer of the album, Walter Sobczak eschewed digital recording technology in favour of two and a half inch tape, creating a warmer and slightly rawer sound. More authentic, and that appears to be the main priority with “Goodnight Riverdale Park”.

The album runs through a variety of traditional American styles from the old country feel of “Friday Afternoon” and “Edge of Town” through the string band resonator-led instrumental “The Maple Leaf Stomp”, the Nashville country of “Morning Mail” (a story of waiting for news that never comes), the thirties ragtime feel of “Honey I Know” to the album’s closer, “Tattered Shoes”, a straight-ahead 12-bar blues that builds up to a slide-driven full rock band arrangement that ramps up the tempo for a big final chorus. The album’s opener “Growing Up” and “Frankie and Me” both nod in the direction of The Band with Southern Rock stylings. It’s an eclectic mix, moving effortlessly through styles and pulling in slightly unorthodox instruments such as alto sax, sousaphone, clarinet, piano and organ alongside the more usual string band, resonator, fiddle and pedal steel to provide for Sam’s Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams vocal stylings.

“Goodnight Riverdale Park” won’t be for everyone, but if your thing is authentic evocations of classic periods of American musical history, then give this a listen.

“Goodnight Riverdale Park” is released in the UK on Friday March 28th on Curve Music. Meanwhile, here’s the video for “Frankie and Me”:

Where do you start with an album like this? Probably with the straightforward stuff. Water Tower (formerly Water Tower Bucket Boys) is the creation of Kenny Feinstein trying to realise his artistic vision. If you take songs created in the bluegrass/string band tradition and throw punk and psychedelia into the mix, then you’re getting somewhere close to understanding this album. Just when you think you can see the shape of the curve, it veers off in a completely different direction. And if you’re interested in picking out influences, “Fly Around” is packed with them.

The first three songs wouldn’t sound out of place on any Americana album. “Fromage” is a traditional string band arrangement telling a story of busking in Paris and doing the Jim Morrison and Debussy tourist thing. “Fly Around” is a spirited piece of ensemble playing reworking a traditional tune, while “Bobcats” is a country/rock waltz featuring fiddles and Beach Boys harmonies. And then there’s a seismic shift.

“Come Down Easy” (a Spacemen 3 cover referencing 1987, Kenny Feinstein’s birth year) still has the fiddles and the harmonies but that’s where the resemblance ends. The rhythmic pulse pounds relentlessly through the wall of sound arrangement as a burbling synth line cuts through the murk and drawled vocals. Is it about drugs? Of course it is, it was co-written by Jason Pierce. After the brief interlude of “Town”, another gentle piece of country rock with a bit of synth, on the theme of moving on, the album goes stratospheric; literally. “Mile High Club” sounds a bit like a Steve Miller intro; Shags Chamberlain plays an analogue synth instrumental evoking the flight from Portland to LA that also features some audio samples of announcements from LAX. It’s a complete curveball, but it makes the following song, “Classic Misdirection” seem less incongruous. It’s a rock song that sets out to pack in as many musical and lyrical clichés as possible in just over three minutes and succeeds effortlessly. I’m not going to spoil the fun for you; just enjoy the cliché treasure hunt.

“Fly Abound” is reworking of the earlier “Fly Around” with new words and melody, while the uptempo string band arrangement of “It’s Wrong”, with its harmonies and mandolin solos describes that all-too-familiar feeling of knowing that something’s wrong, but doing it anyway. Which takes us nicely into the closer “Anthem”. The opening guitar chord has more than a hint of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” before the song erupts into furious folk-punk romp that pulls in elements from the rest of the album for a grandstand finish. The song may be about giving up drugs or starting the cycle again; it definitely leads us back to the beginning of the album, where the cycle starts all over again.

“Fly Around” is a genre-bending smorgasbord of musical and lyrical styles that constantly surprises on its journey from cultural exploration and drug abuse through relocation and back to the beginning of the cycle. You won’t be bored.

“Fly Around” is released in the UK on May 21st on Dutch Records (DUTCH016-2).

The pandemic may have decimated the live music scene around the world but it’s shown the resilience and adaptability of musicians and other creatives as they found new ways of working and recording that didn’t necessarily involve being in the same room or even on the same continent. Annie Keating’s eighth studio album, “Bristol County Tides” is a product of the pandemic, weaving together threads of the experience such as displacement, new places and relationships, and the importance of taking the positives whenever we can get them. There are a lot of very personal songs on the album, but it has its lighter moments as well.

The album opens with “Third Street”, introducing the small Massachusetts town where Annie moved to ride out the pandemic, and some of its characters. It’s laid-back country rock with some over-driven guitar fills, nice slide and a slightly raw vocal creating the ambience for the (mostly) intensely personal songs that follow, and introducing some of the local characters. “Hank’s Saloon” is in a similar vein, a waltz that celebrates escape from the everyday grind with beer, songs and friends, and builds up to a singalong finish with the same dynamic as a session in your favourite bar. Apart from the mid-tempo rock of “Lucky 13”, using gambling as a metaphor for life, the remainder of the album is intensely personal songs about the life in the time of a pandemic. This could be a depressing experience but, like many of us, Annie has managed to find some positives, creating songs that tease out some of the happier experiences of a short-time exile.

“Bristol County Tides” is a long album. There are fifteen songs telling the story of an involuntary exile, starting with the scene-setter “Third Street” and working through to the valedictory “Bittersweet”, “Shades of Blue” and “Goodbye”. “Bittersweet” sums up the tone of the album as the keening pedal steel emphasises the melancholy of parting from a place and people that have offered sanctuary while returning to a new normal. Another standout is “Doris”, a celebration of Annie’s mum and also a celebration of the immigration that made the USA the country it is. It’s also a beautiful tribute.

The remaining songs are beautifully-crafted expositions of aspects of pandemic life. “Kindred Spirit” is about the experience of finding a soul-mate, “Marigold” symbolises rebirth and renewal and “Nobody Knows” urges us to seize the day and appreciate the good things we have. There’s also a navigational theme running through the album with “Blue Moon Tide”, “Half Mast” and “High Tide” all alluding to piloting a way through the crisis. And absolutely no filler.

Annie Keating has produced a work that encapsulates her experience of the last year and it should ring true for most of us. The songs are well-constructed and the arrangements and musicians give each song the support and the space that they need to shine. Enough said.

“Bristol County Tides” is out now.

Here’s the video for “Marigold”: