It stands to reason that if your last album was called F*** With Sad Girls you’ve got a point of view. Whitmore’s latest release tackles issues that have been on her mind such as suicide, rape culture and pulling together America in these times. She goes on to say “My goal for this record is to inspire people to have hard conversations”. Frankly, I don’t know a popular music record that’s ever changed much but I imagine that if you’re seeking some inspiration for a song then these profound issues are a place to start. Whitmore’s played bass and/or toured with some Americana luminaries such as James McMurtry, John Moreland, Hayes Carll and Sunny Sweeney yet her own music is nothing like theirs but more of a pop rock sound: it’s terrific.
“The Last Will & Testament” starts the album with a thumping electronica bass line and soon we’re deluged with strings and horns as her delightful mellifluous voice adds to the cavalry charge whilst Scott Davis’ electric guitar adds an edge. Some beginning. Whitmore’s written or co-written nine of the ten songs here. All are swamped in melody; the arrangements give an exceptional breadth of sound. It helps if your voice is such a captivating instrument that when you apply it to any tune it holds your attention. “Right/Wrong” attempts to offer a way forward on the conflict that leads to divides in society. If that sounds a bit too serious the song is pop and propelled by horns and spirited drums. Fine is a love song with the same pop sensibilities with a dance rhythm, and an absolute ear worm of a hook – “Would I rather be lonely and change my mind a thousand times? / If you could just hold me, maybe that’d be just fine”.
After this levity we’re back to the dark and troubling “Ask For It” – “So go on and blame the victim! / Why should violence have consequence? / And each time you silence them /Recreates the same event”. The words are delivered over a driving rock beat with occasional frenzied guitars in the background. The profundity of the message contrasts memorably with the light tune emphasising how such violence may not always be taken seriously. “Love Worth Remembering” is a stand out with a 70s ‘blue eyed soul’ feel. This slowed funk ballad has a rumbling base line with short sharp hits of the snare as Whitmore croons sweetly over the top. A heartfelt message of comforting love – just magnificent.
This is such a crafted piece of work where interesting words have been bolted to memorable tunes. After that foundation is laid the work really started in the creation of complex and sophisticated arrangements for their showcasing. A very impressive release.
We all go a long way back with Reginald Kenneth Dwight. This second release saw the light in 1970. This was his first release in the USA. For an artist I now wouldn’t pretend to carry much of a torch for I’ve got 19 of his albums! My interest started with 1973’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and probably finished with 1983’s I’m Still Standing. Now well into his 70s he’s still touring, Covid allowing, but from what I’ve heard the voice has developed a ‘shout’ quality that takes away much of the sweetness and melody that made so many of his songs compelling. I saw him live once, at Manchester’s MEN Arena. It was November 1998. We’d driven across from Yorkshire and shelled out for expensive tickets. He strode on stage uttered something about never playing Manchester again because of something that had happened. He then proceeded to bash through a set without any breaks or talking to the crowd and then stormed off. Lovely.
Inevitably he’s scheduled to be there again in 2021. So he’s a man prone to tantrums and rudeness but a man who has been awarded a Knighthood for his services to charity and music. However, to complain he has one would necessitate dragging others into the conversation such as Rod Stewart, Mick Jagger, Ringo Starr, Van Morrison and Ray Davies of The Kinks: all of whom mystify me with their eligibility (and why not Mick Fleetwood?) But back to the plot there’s no doubt that he had a brilliant decade where the quality of tunes and Bernie Taupin’s words made for a staggering body of work. Out of his early catalogue I didn’t own this until 2020’s Record Store Day. The special release was a double with the second disc being of unimpressive and disposable outtakes. However the first album makes it worth the purchase. When you add, for the collector, transparent purple vinyl what’s not to like?
It starts with “Your Song” and it is one of the most attractive and sincere love songs I know. A self-deprecating reflection on a girl he’s besotted with. For one of Taupin’s earliest classics there are some dodgy lyrics that you’ve all sang a thousand times but never thought about: “If I was a sculptor, but then again no / Or a man who makes potions in a travelling show”.
The whole album is driven by John’s piano. The arrangements sound dated now. It’s drenched in strings and even a harpsichord gets an outing on “I Need You To Turn To”. “Take Me To The Pilot” borders on doggerel as a lyric – “Through a glass eye, your throne / Is the one danger zone” but the honky tonk piano that drives the song is perfectly complimented by the insistent message of ‘take me to your leader’. On later versions not least his live album recorded later in the year in New York (Elton John Live 17:11:70) he really rocks this and ditches the saccharine strings.
In an era when the genre of ‘singer songwriter’ was originated with the likes of Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Jim Croce et al this has many heartfelt simply accompanied songs such as “First Episode at Hienton”. (A quick Google Maps search finds nowhere in the world named Hienton!) A love song about a relationship that started in childhood but failed as she grew to be a woman. Seems perfect ‘bedsit’ material for fellow miserablists Cat Stevens or James Taylor.
“Sixty Years On” is a classic but the album standout where the strings and choral backing works to perfection is “Border Song”. A killer tune drive by his large and hard played chords and that is tinged by gospel. It therefore comes as little of a surprise that Aretha Franklin covered this in 1972. This must have been a significant boost to help John get a wider audience so early in his career. “The Cage’ keeps up the soul with a heavy dose of pop. For consistency the album is solid and provided a wonderful foundation for the next gems of Tumbleweed Connection, Madman Across The Water and Honky Château.
Bandy has teamed up with Jimmy Capps to release an album of top-drawer traditional country songs. Sadly Capps has passed since the album’s completion, however, it’s a fine testament to how well they worked together. Bandy has a vast catalogue and his songs are often synonymous lyrically with the fertile traditional country landscape of dissolute lifestyles, stolen loves and fragmented lives held together by a glass of something dark and strong.
From start to finish it’s a master class that demands your attention. Each song has a beautiful melody and Bandy’s expressive voice delivers the requisite emotional punch. There are a hatful of songs about cheating, getting old, returning home after a long absence, cherishing a long time partner and learning the lessons of life. There is a warm glow surrounding the album making it one with a heartfelt welcoming sound that is completely ‘feel good’. Lyrically it’s the language of an earlier generation, unashamedly, we get references to running with the devil, rodeo cowboys, cherry wine, sweet tea and people having a gay time.
Over the eleven songs Bandy’s rich baritone draws you into his three minute soap operas. The instrumentation and arrangements are pure 1970s with harmony choruses, harmonica serenades and shuffling dance rhythms delivered by acoustic backing. Some old time song writing royalty was hired to provide songs or co-write the album cuts including Bill Anderson, Jeannie Seely, Eddie Raven and Bobby Tomberlin. Bandy’s into his sixth decade of releasing records and judging by his tour schedule and profile he’s working hard and still enjoying being on stage.
I loved all the songs but Tonight Was Made For The Two Of Us, Heartache Doesn’t Have A Closin’ Time and You Can’t Stop A Heart From Breaking were my pick and have been on repeat. Such is his stature, with an important catalogue of accessible music, that former First Lady, Barbara Bush, wrote the introduction to his autobiography. I reckon she doesn’t put herself out unless that person is very special. Bandy is.
It’s hard to believe that this is her fifth solo album; her recent output has been prolific. This Arizonan has now got a wide following in the UK. Touring, mainstream radio and broadsheet exposure has ensured she’s on the way to becoming a major act. Her talents lie in a blissful mellifluous voice and a singer songwriter approach to song composition, no holds barred personal stories and observational pieces that set the scene perfectly before diving in on the target. I cannot distance her from an early Joni Mitchell in sound, song structure and lyrical content. It’s intimidating company but I’m certain she’s worthy of this comparison.
She’s a fine acoustic guitarist and it’s over this instrument she sings 10 songs about her fractured relationship with a former beau. Miserable artists make some great records and in this raw, painful and dislocating setting she reveals the relationship over its nine years with little regard for discretion.
She works with two other musicians – multi instrumentalist Matthew Davidson and James Krivchenia on drums. Andrew Sarlo’s spacious yet, on occasion, atmospheric production helps the vocals whether single or double tracked to draw you in. “Burlap String” starts the album and we’re straight into the melancholy – “Some days are good, some are bad / Some days I want what we had / Some days I talk myself into a lie / I’ve grown cautious, I’ve grown up / I’m a skeptic of love / Don’t wanna lose what I might find”. “If I Told” has the intriguing pump organ: it’s an eerie yet elevating sound. Throughout the album the instrumentation never takes the melody: it’s Andrews’ voice that swoops and soars, and as if in a world of her own, she thinks out aloud.
Whilst the accompaniment can be sparse the touches are memorable, such as the dashes of drum roll on “Carnival Dreams”. Andrews says the title track “Old Flowers” takes its sentiment from the fact that old flowers are beautiful but they’re dead and irretrievable. She ends with acceptance and affection on “Ships In The Night” – “I am sending you a postcard… may it leave you with closure and a little less doubt”. Tellingly she acknowledges many people on the album sleeve including “every friend who let me cry on their shoulder whilst writing these songs.”
I’m so often disappointed when an artist moves on to explore new sounds at the expense of discarding a winning formula. Fortunately Andrews hasn’t; this is ravishing listening.
Walker’s sophomore album is one of the most enthralling releases of 2020. The Texan kicks off this 10 song epic with “Voices”. Riding over a pedal steel, Walker delivers a song about being broken and contemplating ending it all – “I might put this truck in neutral / Let it roll into the lake / First I’ll finish off this bottle / So it looks like a mistake.” With a heartfelt vocal drenched in Dwight Yoakam inflexions, he appears to be past the worst and attributes his rescue to a caring love but the dark shadows remain. “True Love” lights the after burners and Trey Pendergrass’s drumming heralds a change of pace. It’s on this track you’re now convinced that he has a voice that’s the platform for a long career.
There are a variety of sounds and paces on this album. (Kudos to John Pedigo’s production). Nothing is more striking than “Cupboard”. Imagine a rockabilly cover of “Sultans Of Swing”. Some beguiling fast picking guitar from Wade Cofer is an album highlight whilst some B3 organ whistles behind. Along the way we get time signature changes. “Bronco Billy’s” gets more string magic as Walker, on acoustic, and Adam Kurtz, on pedal steel, duel at pace. The song mines traditional country with lightning fret board runs.
Lyrically there are some curved balls in here. “Boat Show Girl” recounts the ennui of women paid to drape themselves across boats for sale at a show. He certainly can write a lyric – “You stand there on your altar / Astroturf beneath your feet / Like a redneck Statue of Liberty / This phrase rings out as you greet / ‘Give me your tired your poor / Your huddled masses waiting on the shore / May you board this fiberglass vessel / And not feel empty anymore’”. “User” is a musing on a relapse into using drugs, with an addictive hook. A brass chorus leads the band as Walker’s jovial delivery precedes his probable demise.
“Play You A Song” adds harmonies to the arrangements along with a traditional selection of instruments such as banjo and fiddle. If there’s a debate as to whether he’s paid his dues at several Texas hoedowns then this is his calling card. On “Loving County” Pedigo twiddles the dial on the electric guitar sound to give it a distant and fuzzy reverb whilst a slow vocal is pure Dwight Yoakam; no complaint on my behalf.
Walker takes a variety of sounds and it’s his comfortable mastery of so many styles and layered arrangements with fabulous compositions that elevate this into a contender for ‘album of year’ category for many Country fans, including this one.
Ted Russell Kamp’s latest release is a joy. This was recorded mainly in his ‘Den’ in LA. The album set off to have a soul feel; in general it’s mission accomplished if you grant him a licence for adding a heavenly slug of rock. To lift the vernacular of the accompanying PR, his day job is “holding down the bottom end for bands as diverse as Shooter Jennings, Jessi Colter, Whitey Morgan, and others”. However, it’s clear he’s a lot more talented than a bass player for hire; this is his 12th solo release. Throughout the songs are interesting, varied and provide a platform for his virtuosity: bass, acoustic guitar, dobro, keys, trombone, trumpet and banjo.
The arrangements and voice have a soulful sway with a rhythm that’ll move your feet. He’s invited friends to share duets including Shooter Jennings on the opener “Home Sweet Hollywood” and Kirsten Profitt on “Take My Song With You”. John Schreffler’s electric guitar lights up many of the tracks. “Word For Word” and “Saint Severin” are memorable for some fluid solos. “Waste A Little Time” heads further south than Tennessee with a Shinyribs’ vibe. A honky tonk piano and horns ignite this nicely; even the words display a certain NOLA insouciance. “Hobo Nickel” stays in Louisiana with some delightful Dixieland trumpet and trombone from Dave Richards.
The full band tracks are top class but when stripped down his ear for a tune and arrangement are outstanding – “Rainy Day Valentine” is a voice over bass melody that Lowell George would have been glad to call his own. “Only Son” is a gentle ballad and starts with Kamp accompanied by his acoustic guitar before the band joins in and the melody is driven by Dan Wistrom’s pedal steel.
This is a very consistent 14-track release engaging throughout and exuding craft and melody. The only negative is that he’s having far too much fun: maybe he’s the antidote to 2020?
If you’ve been making music for as long as septuagenarian Marshall Chapman has, you have earned the right to pick someone else’s songs and make them you own. The South Carolinian released her first album in 1977 and is respected in her own right as a songwriter. Here she visits classics by Leonard Cohen, Bob Seger, Carole King, Elvis Presley and others. On the first listen Betty LaVette came to mind: a careworn voice that is perfectly matched to the selection. It’s redolent with all life’s experience, carrying authority and never to be hurried. Both these ladies bless each cover with a new interpretation and poignancy that makes them convulse with gravitas that simply arrests you.
Neilson Hubbard’s production is terrific. He understands her talents and the essence of each cover to pitch it perfectly. Her voice is set atop a sparse and atmospheric acoustic sound with Will Kimbrough adding deft but important flourishes on electric guitar. She starts with Leonard Cohen’s “Tower Of Song”, only a person of a certain age can sing “Well, my friends are gone and my hair is grey / I ache in the places where I used to play”. Bobby Charles’ masterpiece “Tennessee Blues” is faithfully reproduced, which didn’t need any adaptation; it fits her like a glove. Given her Southern heritage and laid back groove any JJ Cale song would fit, and she picks “After Midnight”.
Arguably the least promising songs deliver the most pleasure – “Don’t Be Cruel” swings. Dan Mitchells’ honky-tonk piano bolted to Hubbard’s snare brushes is uplifting and managed to purge The King’s version from my mind after a few listens. “He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands” reminds me of my youth and maybe the odd campfire and tambourine as it does Chapman who recounts her love of the song starting when she was 8 years old. This last song includes a spoken passage that is homely and delightful over a gospel backing. A fabulous exit from a fabulous album. After only nine tracks may we have volume two, please.
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.
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.