Category Archives: Music

Record Of The Week # 92

Jack Grelle- If Not Forever

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.

Record Of The Week # 91

Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit – Reunions

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.

Record Of The Week # 90

Corb Lund – Agricultural Tragic

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.

After last year’s disposable covers album (Cover Your Tracks) Lund declared, “I really worked hard on this album – harder than I ever worked before”. It shows. Over 12 tracks he covers a search for lost mules, tussles with grizzly bears, cowboys’ lives, Western novels, the regret of getting tattoos and debates the merits of whiskey versus gin as a beverage in a knock about duet with fellow Canadian, Jaida Dreyer. Many appear autobiographical or about people he knows: “Old Men” is an observation of generational wisdom – “I want old men making my whiskey, I want old men singing my blues and I want old men teaching my horses. Because there’s some things young men can’t do, like the old boys do”. A thumping bass and attractive guitar from Grant Siemens make this a future crowd pleaser. “Never Not Had Horses” tells the story of an ageing woman coming to terms with her horses also ageing. The sadness of their inevitable and humane end weighs heavily on this near tearjerker.

From sadness Lund can change the mood instantly with several deprecating takes on life. Typically song tempos slow or accelerate as he delivers telling lines. “Tattoo Blues” is spoken and sung but would happily stand alone as spoken poetry. I can imagine audiences knowing this word for word at future concerts. The wordplay is exceptional. “Rat Patrol” is straight good time rock n’ roll as he reveals a pathological hatred of rodents. He’s all for dynamite, gunfire or decapitation to exterminate them. This blood-drenched diatribe is delivered with a call and response with the band. He doesn’t like them!

Terrific fun. He’s a one off and a treasure. Where do I sign?

Record Of The Week # 89

Reckless Kelly – American Jackpot/ American Girls

I’m rather partial to the Braun family. There are four brothers who split into two bands. One is Reckless Kelly and the other is Micky & The Motor Cars. The latter’s Long Time Comin’ release was one of 2019’s strongest. Now in 2020 we get a double album from the older siblings – Willy and Cody. The sound is probably more country than rock and the themes they sing are the well used tropes– love, loss, homecoming and family all often involving cinematic sweeping vistas of the USA.

Willy Braun explains that American Jackpot was already recorded when he pulled the band together again to record American Girls. On both albums Willy wanted to talk about everyday American themes and in part the current political climate in the USA. At this point I might flinch but in fairness it has a light touch. “North American Jackpot” starts with a piano and rock introduction before Willy reflects on the changes in the USA over 300 years from the The Mayflower’s arrival (and America embracing newcomers) through to today where he “watches the fading lamplight that once lit the golden door”. Elegant words for his point of view, which goes onto to celebrate his country and what a fine place it is to live. Other more impactful social commentary comes on “Put On Your Brave Face Mary” where Willy laments, in a ballad, about the suicide rate of the military. Anthemic and impactful.

Most of the albums return to more predictable sentimental themes – “Grandpa Was A Jack Of All Trades”, “Goodbye Colorado” and “42” about the number on a baseball jersey. Throughout Cody offering some interesting, near celtic, flourishes on fiddle. These flourishes are never more evident than on “No Dancing In Bristol” from the American Girls album. This song about homesickness is set on a UK tour. Willy manages to insert ‘pint’ and ‘rain’ into the lyrics and I half expected a reference to “bobbies on bicycles, two by two” or a heavy fog in London. The band has released some epic rock over the years and “Mona” is another one for the catalogue. It starts with electric piano before a compelling guitar boogie unfolds.

Reckless Kelly has issued another couple of interesting albums where musicians comfortable in their skins and masters of their instruments craft another consistent album for fans of country, country rock and rock.

Record Of The Week # 88

Logan Ledger

Ledger’s debut is a prize: pairing his languorous yet captivating voice and lyrics with T Bone Burnett’s production, Ledger’s delivered one of this year’s unexpected delights. The partnership drew this comment from Ledger – “I think we’re each attracted to the more sinister aspects of folk and roots music, and we each have a desire to keep music alive while finding a way to make something new out of it.” You get an album that seems at first listen, a near conventional traditional Country album, but starts revealing some shadowy corners and wider genre sensibilities as you become acquainted.

Burnett has let the voice do the talking and what a siren to follow. Over 11 songs the sound swings from straight Buck Owens (“Starlight”) through to 70s British pop with sci-fi images (“Electric Fantasy”). Burnett’s assembled band played the 2009 Grammy winning Raising Sand for Alison Kraus and Robert Plant. Their accomplished playing here is measured and varied.

“Imagining Raindrops” is standard 60s Country with a slow acoustic rhythm behind the rich baritone and Russell Pahl’s pedal steel. (“I’m Gonna Get Over This”) Some Day could be an Elvis song from one of his 60s GI movies. (The only trouble I have with this interposition is imagining Ledger ever flashing a winning smile. Frankly, he’s far too cool for that). “Skip A Rope” was a 1968 hit for Henson Cargill, which now seems ahead of its time with its tale of morality: “Cheat on your taxes, don’t be a fool, Now what was that they said about a Golden Rule? Never mind the rules, just play to win, And hate your neighbour for the shade of his skin”. Ledger’s version is a faithful rendition with the same important observations over 50 years later.

The more intriguing track “Invisible Blue” elevates this whole release from accomplished pastiche to arresting. His vocal is a deep, wistful croon backed by the sound of pedal steel and twangy guitar signatures; you feel his utter heartbreak. Deep in this noir landscape comes “Nobody Knows”. His melancholic delivery hits hard: “Nobody knows where the lonely goes after the last drink of wine…but I know ‘cause I’m nobody”. Marc Ribot’s electric guitar steps out from the shadows and deftly picks a way to a sombre conclusion. “Tell Me A Lie” demonstrates Ledger’s range and tenderness: “Tell me a lie, it wouldn’t be your first…” Another lugubrious heartbreaker where the sustained ending note is pure Elvis. 

Ledger has his own style and he’s found a brilliant partner to extract and polish this sound in Burnett. This is nigh on three quarters of an hour of bliss. 

Record Of The Week # 87

Caleb Caudle – Better Hurry Up

Caudle’s distinctive voice harbours doom as the band chugs into life on “Better Hurry Up”. This steamy swamp rocker urges alacrity as time slips away with a message about your own personal journey. The simple song structure has a chanting chorus of voices including John Paul White and Elizabeth Cook. “Monte Carlo”, “Dirty Curtain” & “Reach Down” all have that New Orleans swamp vibe and provide a welcome breadth to the sounds on this album.

John Jackson (Jayhawks) handled production responsibilities. He brought a fabulous band and a ‘live’ sound, which enabled each song to have more impact. Much is made in the PR material that the recording was done at Cash Cabin Studios on Johnny Cash’s estate. If the location had a meaningful impact then this small and intimate setting clearly brought the best out of all the players.

The luminaries abound throughout and Natalie Hemby (lately of The Highwoman) co-writes “Regular Riot”. This is back to a more familiar Caudle Country Folk sound with attractive pedal steel (Russ Pahl) signatures on a bright Byrds-esque tune. “Let’s Get” cruises along with Mickey Raphael’s (Willie Nelson) harmonica carrying the tune whilst Dennis Crouch’s (Alison Krauss & Rodney Crowell) thumping deep bass maintains the beat. Courtney Marie Andrews joins the vocal.

“Front Porch” returns Caudle home and places himself back in familiar surroundings reflecting on homely pleasures. He does excel at this type of gentle acoustic ballad with a fine tune and some heartfelt words. On the other hand, “Feelin’ Free” could be an outtake from Honky Chateau and features John Paul White. A splendid economic guitar solo from Laur Joamets (Sturgill Simpson) is the ‘take away’.  

“Bigger Oceans” is a beautiful way to end the album: it’s a memorable and sumptuous tune that works perfectly with his melodious voice. It’s a paean to opening your mind and searching for wider horizons. Elizabeth Cook joins him and his acoustic guitar and pedal steel are the plaintive and simple accompaniment.

This is a fine album. 

Record Of The Week # 86

Bob Dylan – Another Side Of Bob Dylan

If I was bragging I’d tell you I bought my first Dylan album in 1974 – Before The Flood. I say this because we all know that any affection for Bob carries kudos for the follower. It suggests that you are serious about your popular music – its history, construction and icons. However, I haven’t dwelt on his catalogue until the last few years. Of course I knew a lot about Dylan through the 70s onwards. I’d collected a couple of the 60s albums but I’d only played them once in a while. If pressed I’d say that Blood On The Tracks was the meisterwerk. Now I’m starting to truly listen to his catalogue and trying to reconcile all I hear with his own personal development. The earlier stuff is exceptional.

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Another Side Of Bob Dylan was his fourth release and came out in 1964. By all accounts the ‘voice of a generation’, with his protest songs, disappointed the masses by abandoning his rôle as their spokesman. There’s still considerable profundity in most of the songs but none that you can trace back to the upheaval of 60s America. The upheaval came in the form of the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam war, Kennedy’s assassination and the growing non conformity of a generation that regularly protested and abandoned the uniform of dress codes and short hair. Peace and love were just around the corner.

“All I Really Want To Do” is a beautiful tune and the words are still apposite for a boy pursuing a girl. He wants nothing serious or complicated but just wants to be friends. I think he’s underestimated as a leading composer of popular music in the 20th Century. A strength here is that his voice is crystal clear and his phrasing is unique but not yet raddled with age and cigarettes.

The record is still in his folk pre-electric phase. The whole album was recorded in one day and the instrumentation is harmonica, piano or guitar by Dylan. There would be literal tears a couple of years later when electricity crept into his repertoire. Many of the devoted folk music fans thought he’d sold out.

I’m attending an eight week night school at York University where we dissect some Dylan songs for their poetical content (after all he did get a Nobel prize for them). “Chimes Of Freedom” is one such. Over five verses his brilliant use of English conjures up faces, landscapes, traumas and emotions:

“Through the mad mystic hammering of the wild ripping hail
The sky cracked its poems in naked wonder
That the clinging of the church bells blew far into the breeze
Leaving only bells of lightning and its thunder
Striking for the gentle, striking for the kind
Striking for the guardians and protectors of the mind
An’ the poet and the painter far behind his rightful time
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing”

This seven minutes never drags. You savour each line to enjoy the brilliant pairing of words in often powerful or explosive couplets. If you’re not doing that then you are trying to extract a meaning. His acoustic guitar plays the tune with occasional mouth organ.

Another thing to boggle your mind is that this Rimbaud inspired lyric is written by a man barely 23 years old. He was a reader of classic literature but not a scholar or graduate. “I Shall Be Free No. 10” is a satirical talking blues. The “No. 10” is probably an acknowledgement that this tune and style wasn’t original. He covers contemporary topics with mentions of Cassius Clay (Mohammed Ali), Barry Goldwater, Russians and Cuba.

Despite the same instrumentation he’s shifting throughout to different types of melody and lyrical themes. He was a boy who’d absorbed folk music by learning and playing it. He came from the Mid West to NYC to play the clubs and learn from the major folk artists of the day. In fact he didn’t initially record his own songs. Eventually when he started to record you could hear traces of many early musical influences such as English, Irish, Scottish, South American and African American in the sounds he made.

“Motorpsycho Nitemare” is a rambling story. He’s on the road and needs a ”place to stay”. He knocks on a door. After hostility and suspicion a farmer gives him a bed. The generational divide is apparent as this free spirit collides with the middle-aged establishment. Complications arise when Rita, the farmer’s daughter, steps into view looking “like she stepped out of La Dolca Vita”. I think you can guess the plot and it’s complications from here. The album finishes with “It Ain’t Me, Babe”. A song subsequently widely covered. The folk pop song grabs you immediately with its hooks. Its simple melody unfolds as Dylan plays chords on his guitar. Of all the songs this allows the mesmerising quality of his voice to captivate you.

I can tell you from our night school class there’s enough in each of the 11 songs to make it into a potential classic. I‘ve talked about a few here but each one is important.

Needless to say his trajectory was skywards at this stage of his career. It’s easy to see why each album on this path is coveted and still as important today as when they were released.

Record Of The Week # 85

Lynne Hanson – Just Words

Canadian Lynne Hanson has been compared to Lucinda Williams and Mary Gauthier. That alone should be enough to grab your attention. For me it was one of those CDs that was so good it kept creeping back into the player. It certainly shortened a few long drives. I can now add she also reminds me of Mary Chapin Carpenter.

 The opening song on Just Words is “True Blue Moon”. It has all Carpenter’s tunesmith sensibility with a story about a failed relationship and her accumulated cynicism about love’s temporary nature – “happy ever after lasts as long / as a rainbow in June”. Despite her misery the melody is a real earworm and the band’s arrangement layered and slick.

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“Long Way Home” has another great melody and an arrangement that hangs off a steady bass and drum rhythm. Her voice is expressive with an attractive range and timbre throughout. Maybe it’s the recurring theme of the unshakeable grief and longing for a departed lover that makes her vocals yearning and soulful. “Just Words” is about verbal bullying: a modern and topical subject. In alignment with the angry and raw message the sound has rousing yet eerie atmospherics with some discordant notes that amplify the tension. All this builds up to another great guitar solo from Kevin Breit. His CV includes playing with Rosanne Cash, Cassandra Wilson and Norah Jones. Continue reading Record Of The Week # 85

Brandy Clark, The Sage, Gateshead – January 31 2020

I drove 100 miles north hoping to wallow in Brandy Clark’s repertoire about bored or beleaguered housewives, delicious revenge ditties and heart melting love stories. She has a beautiful voice and has written some classic country melodies, not least on her own albums. Previous concerts revealed a consummate but serious, and not particularly engaging artist. She was getting her time in the spotlight after years of stoking the star-making machinery by writing amazing songs for other country Royalty. However on the night, in front of an audience of over 400, we got a relaxed woman at ease with herself and beyond chatty!

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She was playing five European dates debuting her new album – Your Life Is A Record. (This is before a big US tour starting in February and continuing until May) The six songs from the new album were immediate as regards their impact. She’s said that the arrangements are different to her earlier releases, not least, for the inclusion of more strings. To achieve the sound with her backing band she brought along Kaitlyn Raitz on cello. There was a story behind her latest single “Who You Thought I Was”. Here it tells the end of a relationship but the title idea came from attending an award’s ceremony where John Prine was giving one of the accolades. He was taken aback by a standing ovation; with characteristic dry humour he commented, “I’m John Prine, but I’d like to go back to being who you thought I was”! The other five songs she played are a continuation of lyrical themes and quality melodies from earlier records. It’s released in March and you’ll be well rewarded.

The band also comprised Billy Adamson on electric guitar and Ashleigh Caudill on upright bass. They’d all met up in Oslo (at baggage reclaim) for the first time. They fitted in seamlessly: Adamson’s skilful and well placed flourishes and Caudill’s additional talent on backing vocals. Holding this all together was Danny Young on drums and vocals. The set of 23 songs showcased the first two albums equally. It was here that the humour of her take on life shone through with great introductions to favourites such as “Mama’s Broken Heart”, “Stripes”, “Daughter” and “Get High”. On the latter she commented that around the world fans would sidle up to her and tell her that the character in the song was their own sister! Continue reading Brandy Clark, The Sage, Gateshead – January 31 2020

(Not) Record Of The Week # 84

Dustin Lynch – Tullohoma

Duncan Warwick the editor of Country Music People sent me an email asking if I’d review the above Bro-Country album. I responded in a grouchy way as I’d already given him four reviews for the month (and I don’t get paid for all this scribing). However, he wrote back “Sorry, I was getting so depressed by this and everyone thinks I’m a miserable bastard because I’m always slagging this kind of thing off I was hoping someone else might take it on… And I thought I’d give you a try being a bit cheeky. This is the kind of thing that makes me question whether I even like country music”. So I listened to it and wrote this review. It is truly execrable but it’s popularity as a sound is growing. I attempt to explain why:

Dustin Lynch is one of the manufactured male and manicured mannequins who clutters up Country radio. Eligibility for stardom is a serviceable voice, matinee idol looks and an age of around 30. Lynch found his way to Nashville’s Bluebird Café at the tender age of 16 years old. It’s been a journey where he’s had to ‘pay his dues’. It paid off; he had a debut number one album in 2012.

Continue reading (Not) Record Of The Week # 84