As I researched Grelle’s latest release, the difficulties for artists making a living in these lockdown days became apparent. My searches often uncover interviews with major outlets and acres of copy for me to sort the wheat from the chaff to try and understand the person and their music. Not in this case. I found myself watching Grelle’s Facebook Live Post. You’ll see a bewhiskered bloke sat in a box room in front of various signs. These are links for making payments. In the meanwhile he intersperses songs from his latest excellent release by waving T shirts around at tempting prices. It’s not easy out there.
Despite the penury I can find a positive: it enables Grelle to observe the realities around him. He produces four-minute documentaries like “It Ain’t Workin”: a tale about occupants of a run down house with limited access to healthcare or decent accommodation. The earlier, now prosperous, generation has clambered out of this area but don’t appreciate the lot of the folk whose journey they once shared. The lachrymose delivery could be John Prine or Loudon Wainwright III. The song is performedover a picked acoustic guitar until violins, viola and a cello join and make this into one of my tracks of the year. No lectures here just a request that you reflect on those less fortunate.
However, it’s not all profound and he directs his fragile and unique voice to the thorny matter of love. “To Be That Someone” is a passive courtship where he tells her “Don’t you know I’d walk with you anytime. Doesn’t matter how far. And I’d be happy to be that someone”. I’m sure we’ve all been here. Half the 10 album tracks are with a band and the electricity lifts the pace and energy. “Space and Time” hits an irresistible Creedence Clearwater Revival or Stones groove and Josh Cochran, on electric lead, adds some 70s fascination. Similarly “Mess Of Love” with its ska rhythm could have you up and dancing as he ruminates on the couples’ ineptitude in the art de l’amour.
So if we’re back to the T-shirts then Grelle has worn it, seen the movie and written the book. There’s a wisdom that you’ll find alluring: he’s lived every part of these stories. It’s a care worn voice bolted onto a variety of sounds that can be beautiful ballads or hearty rockers with, on occasion, interesting time signature changes. It’s four years since his last release; let’s hope it’s not so long before the next.
Jason Isbell is an artist who can do no wrong. His mantelpiece is probably buckled from the weight of industry trophies. He’s the current involuntary torchbearer of Americana with qualifying credentials which include a catalogue of some fine music, peer worship, an apprenticeship in the Drive-By Truckers and the ‘correct’ political views. In the US media and record industry this combination generally creates an unstoppable, unthinking, commercial momentum and fawning reviews. With such a malaise I’d usually distance myself, however, his seventh release confirms the garlands around his neck are hard won and worthy.
There are no dramatic shifts in sound from his other four releases of original material since 2013. He still captivates with music and lyrics that cover a wide breadth of topics. The topics are usually introspective and acutely personal. Dave Cobb produces again. I like this album for its consistency more than his other three releases.
“What Have I Done To Help” is a fine opening with a bass that underpins a lighter acoustic topping with Isbell self-flagellating over his apparent lack of action to help those he has the ability to help. It’s a recurrent theme for Isbell who laments those less fortunate. He believes either his skin colour or status isolate him from their cruel realities. On this album his guitar gets more fluid and adopts many sounds. Here it wails seductively under a repetitive, yet satisfying chorus. “Be Afraid” turns on his fellow artists who fail to speak out about social issues: their self pre-occupation displays an acute lack of self-awareness. The song is 80s rock with a loping snare drum beat and an anthemic chorus with lots of REM guitar reverb. Terrific.
In the same way “Overseas” hits a heavy rock groove. An insistent and thudding beat eventually gives over to an electric solo guaranteed to sell a few million air guitars. Apparently there are two angles to the story; it was initially spawned out of separation from his musician wife (Amanda Shires) when she embarked on a solo tour. The first opening bars of “Running With Our Eyes Closed” has you again back in the 80s with a Mark Knopfler guitar sound, however, the song broadens out to generic FM Radio rock. All the time Isbell can pick a deft phrase or riff. The voice is uniquely mellifluous; the words, melody, arrangements are perfect throughout.
Isbell can be an open book and his life and family providing fertile predicaments to plunder. He’s been an alcoholic and throughout his recordings he never runs from the struggle. “It Gets Easier” sums up his daily battle “It gets easier but it never gets easy / I can say it’s all worth it, but you won’t believe me”. Likewise he visits the joy and responsibilities of fatherhood on “Letting You Go”. Like Brandi Carlile’s “The Mother”, it’s a song of wonderment and slight awe at this prized possession. Over a slow beat with occasional slide guitar moments he delivers a beautiful tune. Here he moves the timeline along to her eventual flight to lead her own adult life. Touching and articulate.
I said ‘hard won’ because you don’t release such albums without a lot of reflection, graft and inspiration. From the first listen you know you’re in the presence of something important. Wisdom and reflection pour from each song; wrapped up in the most delicate and economic wordsmithery. He now has a run of releases that justify the genuflection. I’m on one knee as I write this.
Anna (first wife) has acquired entry into her seventh decade on Planet Earth. She had a lockdown birthday at the end of April but we tried to make a fuss. A number of her friends did pop round with flowers whilst keeping the mandatory distance. Gals (sorry Favourite Eldest Daughter for this lapse into political incorrectness) are all very social and it was hard for her to let this landmark slip by so tamely especially with the daughters in Manchester. I hope when it is all over we can celebrate it properly. An observation about her cards was how many had a ‘60’ on them, mostly from the women! What happened to being eternally 39?
She’s also been a star shopping for some of the more elderly residents on the street. I have been making a couple of meals for one chap and was able to sell a Black & Decker Jig Saw on eBay for another chap. He had no idea what to do. I was worried after volunteering a selling price that it would fall short. Fortunately it did a lot better. On handing across the dosh he wanted to give us a tenner. That’s not the point of doing all this is it?
These marooned residents need food but they also need company. A long conversation is a kindness and they happily chatter away (even to me!). The chap who’s suffering my meals worked for The National Coal Board. This life of being down the pit now seems too dangerous to contemplate. Health and safety in the 70s and 80s isn’t what it is today. He was telling a story of his interesting life as an engineer when he recounted working at one pit for an awful manager with some stories of his bullying and intimidating behaviour. It sounded Dickensian. I did leave him reflecting on some of my personal experiences…
I was never very good a Physics at school. I’d dropped it by the time I had to pick my O Levels or it dropped me. My recollection of the subject, other than bimetallic strips, was that it could occasionally approximate to maths with homework that involved equations and the like. The day we had to present our efforts involved the master, David Welch, walking around the classroom checking the answers. The seating meant that mine was the first work he inspected.
I made a game attempt at the task but usually came up with the wrong answer. For this I would get hit around the back of my head. The Geography teacher, Mr Hartley, could also deal out corporal punishment for wrong answers. Barbaric really and useless as regards the learning experience. Welcome to the 60s and 70s.
With all this limited movement I’m still driving the Morgan. I pop out for the shopping and make rare excursions in it. I half expected to get flagged down by Plod to justify why I’m out in it! To keep fit I obviously ride my bike, as before, but in addition to walking we do some Pilates classes. (These are configurations of exercises we’ve learned and can remember from a class with an instructor). Anna was introduced to Pilates last year and loves rolling around on the floor. I started about eight years ago and am a lot less keen! It is a good thing to do and keeps us moving and free from some muscular aches and pains. I’m one of the oddities at our weekly class (during normal times) being male. More men ought to do it. I like to think I provide the girls with a little eye candy in what must be their humdrum lives.
Other exercise has seen us walking around the local area. On one such ramble we came across a lady carrying a Nikon camera with a long lens. This native finds locations to perch, mainly in the undergrowth, and then take some exquisite images of the wildlife. She then posts her images onto Twitter. (She can be found at @Natwalk101). The breadth of life she finds near us is a surprise. The biggest draw are the deer who run around a forest nearby. We’ve got a bit blasé about them but I may venture out with my proper camera shortly.
Lund is from farming stock in Alberta, Canada. His continuing foothold in a working life makes his lyrics authentic and authoritative; many are fashioned into stories with pathos or wisdom and others are simply hilarious with fabulous wordplay. His version of modern Western, rockabilly and Alt-Country is a unique sound that’s crafted by a band that has been behind him for over 15 years. The sound is always bordering on live, raw and propelled by Brady Valgardson’s drumming which gives all his releases energy that make you reach to turn the volume up. His 10th release of original material Agricultural Tragic is his strongest album for many years and has a level of consistency that makes it a compelling record.