Category Archives: Music

Record Of The Week # 110

South Pacific (soundtrack)

I’ve been sorting out some records. I’ve a pile of LP’s that were my mother’s. What do you do with these old pieces of vinyl? Several were loved and played regularly, sadly leading to them being badly worn and scratched. So the solution is establishing if they’re actually playable. This exercise led me to the stage, and then film musical, South Pacific. I was astounded by how magnificent it was. It seems I had all these melodies and vocals etched into my psyche. The setting is an idyllic island in WW2 where a US base is located. On the island the personnel strut their stuff in high jinx and courtships. In the meanwhile the locals look on with their attractive yet simpler life. All this is set against an imminent deadly battle with the Japanese.

You’ll know many of the songs if not necessarily the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. They created some of the most important popular music of the mid to late 20th Century with Oklahoma! The King & I, Carousel and The Sound Of Music amongst their creations. In addition they wrote with other collaborators; so their canon of work is more considerable and brilliant. If’d you asked me to sing one of the songs I could have probably got most of them but it wasn’t until I spun the disc that I realised I knew them all.

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Record Of The Week # 109

Garrison Starr – Girl I Used To Be

This is a beautiful album of strong heartfelt vocals and sublime melodies, sung over simple arrangements. Starr is well into double figures of album releases but to her credit she’s still turning out music of considerable quality. There’s a definite pop sensibility housed in an Americana sound. My research I found her being interviewed after opening for Steve Earle in 2003; all this suggests a recognition of her talents and circulation, for some time, amongst the luminaries of Americana. 

However the album doesn’t come from an overly confident artist in her pomp, but one whose trauma of dealing with her sexuality in a Mississippi fundamentalist Christian community still haunts her several decades later. The nine songs deal with anger, loneliness, rejection, anxiety, lost time and eventual empowerment as she surfed a wave of hostility related to her identity as a lesbian. A gay female musician is not an unusual story nowadays, especially when you consider her contemporaries. However, it must be a difficult journey and I remember the audacity and bravery of Mellissa Etheridge’s 1993 ‘coming out’ album Yes I Am.

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Record Of The Week # 108

Sara Watkins – Under The Pepper Tree

Multi-instrumentalist Watkins has recorded an album of standards for children….no, no please bear with me it’s wonderful. I must admit on getting the brief from the magazine I wondered what I’d done to upset the mothership. However parking all reservations I dipped in. Covers can be a corruption of your favourite memories but if you look at the track listing it’s certain that at one time or another you’ll have sung several if not all of the songs on the album. If you’re a parent you may have also crooned these songs to placate a fractious offspring in the backseat or as you lie on a bed in the early evening, fighting the pulling powers of sleep, whilst your little precious shows no signs of wearying.

Watkins has a beautiful ethereal voice that immediately sounds like a mother singing to a child with all the tenderness that might have. She’s joined by several guests throughout including Nickel Creek and I’m With Her on a couple of songs. The arrangements are delightful and the sound is acoustic, lush and entirely enchanting. The album progresses seamlessly with the mood maintained throughout as if raising the volume or changing the gentle acoustic accompaniment might spoil the moment (or wake the child).

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Record Of The Week # 107

Mac Leaphart – Music City Joke

Mac Leaphart is new to me and one of the most delightful discoveries I’ve recently had. The recruitment of Brad Jones  (Hayes Carll, Chuck Prophet, Over The Rhine amongst many) as producer is inspired and Leaphart’s accompanying notes, with the album, talk of Jones being a demanding task master who extracted the best out of him. Leaphart has constructed 10 superb stories, some allegories, with exceptional americana country tunes. He’s also the possessor of winsome tubes that reminded me of Boo Ray or Ryan Bingham.

‘She got knocked up and kept on drinking / Smoked a half a pack a day / She didn’t want that baby / But, she had him anyway’ are the first words you’ll hear on “El Paso Kid”, about a child who didn’t have an auspicious start in life but was determined to beat adversity. This story is played out to a traditional country tune with Will Kimbrough playing acoustic guitar and Fats Kaplin weaving sonorous delight on the fiddle. Kaplin has played with a lot of country and americana royalty including John Prine. That connection is pertinent as Leaphart’s lyrics and sound are redolent of this master’s work. 

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Record Of The Week # 106

Esther Rose – How Many Times

Sonically this is an upbeat record, in contrast to the slough of despair that apparently inspired the album. Rose’s third long play release comes on the back of a tough couple of years as regards matters of her heart. However, as you listen closely to songs about failed relationships, the lively americana country tunes roll out. She has the melancholy resignation of a woman who’s been passed up and is now moving on to her next lost cause. She’s quite a collector and relays the stories with honest reflection and deprecation. Her voice is occasionally (and interestingly) off-tone and fragile but mainly fits the mood and her range carries the arresting tunes.

“How Many Times” has her standing in the shower until the water runs cold and taking pills to cope with a broken heart. This single release has her voice over a snappy snare beat whilst the fiddle plays around a chorus of voices to make the melody a little country. “Keep Me Running” is a pacy highlight with the fiddle of Lyle Werner again to the fore. All the tracks on the album are underpinned by an upright bass and give the album an acoustic feel. Throughout Laura Cantrell came to mind because of the short personal stories and the type of acoustic country and roots she purveys.

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Record Of The Week # 105

Lainey Wilson – Sayin’ What I’m Thinkin’

After three years of living in a caravan, hoping for a break in Nashville, Wilson is starting to get traction. The album includes earlier single releases. A check on the internet sees her being identified as ‘one to watch’. This isn’t her first release but now there’s discernible momentum, with a major record label behind her.

She has an expressive and mellifluous voice often backed by harmonies on the chorus. The backing doesn’t lean on traditional instruments and is a pop rock confection with the odd acoustic guitar and mandolin. If that isn’t enough country for you then her voice and breadth of sounds compensate. The triumph of it all is that the ‘session musician catatonic contribution’ with its digital homogenous hard brittle finish is absent and in its place vibrancy, authenticity and funk. It’s hook-drenched and radio friendly.

The alchemist is Jay Joyce: he is amongst the doyen of country producers with Ashley McBryde, Eric Church and Brothers Osborne on his CV. And you can see how His earlier rock career influences his contribution, thoughtfully applied rather than the usual bro-country torpor. Lyrically it tumbles into Nashville storylines of small towns, drinking, partying, ‘single and free’, ended relationships and knee bending for the legends of country music including the song “WWDD” (What Would Dolly Do?).

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Record Of The Week # 104

Midnight Flyer

If this album was a person it’d be banging on your door shouting ‘Let me in’. After gaining entry it’d barrel past you with an impressive swagger. It has it all – a great vocalist with a unique voice, a tight accomplished band and great tunes. However on its release in 1981 it flew beneath the radar and it’s only a 2020 remaster that introduced it to me. It originally appeared on Swan Song Records. This was a label set up by Led Zeppelin’s manager, Peter Grant. By all accounts not an easy man should you ruffle his feathers. This former bouncer and wrestler became a most feared and respected rock band manager. The record label hosted Led Zeppelin, Bad Company, Dave Edmunds and Sad Café. Maggie Bell, the Scottish lead vocalist, was on the label prior to Midnight Flyer. She was the female equivalent of an early Rod Stewart with rough, whiskey soaked tones, capable of a fearsome roar and a blues diva’s interpretative talents. 

Bell came to prominence with a band called Stone The Crows in 1970. Other outings included an appearance on Rod Stewart’s 1971 break through album Every Picture Tells A Story: she’s the female vocalist on the title track. Other claims to fame are as the chanteuse on “No Mean Streets”. This was the theme to the 80s TV detective series Taggart. One way or another she may be a familiar voice to you. I saw her with Stone The Crows at a festival at Charlton Athletic’s ground (with The Who topping the bill). It was another 44 years before I saw her again in Hull with Dave Kelly (from the Blues Band) on acoustic guitar. She was a small frail figure who looked a little bewildered in the small and closely packed club, nevertheless, it was good to see her still in fine voice and making a living. 

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Records Of The Year 2020

So it’s that time of the year where I submit my Top 10 albums of the year. This year I’ve received the usual 200 plus digital downloads: some of it by famous artists eg. Drive-By Truckers, Lucinda Williams, Bob Dylan and Shelby Lynne but most of it by folk you’ve never heard of or I’ve never heard of! The source has been from my man in the USA at The Americana Music Show, Country Music People and my own purchases. I’ve bought about 60 albums during the year. A few were new releases but most were of earlier years. As a consequence my list below includes these.

  1. Joshua Ray Walker – Glad You Came

Enthralling from start to finish. Walker’s comfortable mastery of so many country styles with layered arrangements elevates these fabulous compositions to my No. 1.

2. Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit – Reunions (2020)

My Americana album of the year. Terrific melodies and diverting stories often following his philosophical muse with wry observations. A master at the top of his game. 

3. Will Banister – Everything Burns (2020)

Everything you could hope for in a pure country album. A sonorous baritone linked to a tight band with compelling tunes. Inevitably he was ‘too country’ to dent the US charts.

4. Brandy Clark – Your Life Is A Record (2020)

Humour, philosophy, tearjerkers and love songs. Her lyrics could make a TV box set of every day USA. For me, a journalist highlight was getting complimentary tickets to her Gateshead concert in January to review the gig.

5. Ashley McBryde – Never Will (2020)

Complete ‘ear candy’ as she produces another fabulous set of blue-collar testaments to love, striving and survival over an upbeat contemporary country Nashville soundtrack. 

6. Marshall Chapman – Songs I Can’t Live Without (2020)

Her covers album is an absolute delight with numbers by Leonard Cohen, Elvis, Bob Seger and Carole King. A care worn voice redolent with all life’s experiences and never hurried. Arresting.

7. Public Service Broadcasting – The Race For Space (2015)

After having heard one track off a sample CD I eventually bought the album and was captivated by soundtrack about manned exploration flights into space. They caught the majesty, tension and breath taking bravery of man’s endeavours.

8. Pete Atkin – The Colour Of The Night (2015)

I first discovered Atkin playing Ealing Technical College in 1974. From there I collected all his records until his long hiatus. An internet search threw up this fabulous latter day singer songwriter album with Clive James’ words. For me it was like meeting an old friend.

9. Talk Talk – It’s My Life (1984)

A bit like Martin Peters, Talk Talk or Mark Hollis, were ahead of their time. This is elegant and innovative rock with its rhythms and imposing deep vocals. This band should be more lauded than they are. This turned up from a neighbour’s record collection. Result!

10. Ray LaMontagne – Monovision (2020)

He seldom fails with an album and this is a return to form after Ouroboros. Playing all the instruments his gentle ballads serve up a cathartic, melody fest with that staggering voice that captures you from the first track.

You’ll find album reviews of Joshua Ray Walker, Jason Isbell, Brandy Clark, Marshall Chapman , Public Service Broadcasting and Talk Talk on the website. Just click the links.

Record Of The Week #103

Public Service Broadcasting – The Race For Space

There’s something delightfully quirky and English about Public Service Broadcasting. This three piece band containing two multi instrumentalists and a drummer have embarked on soundtrack albums that use spoken samples from great or profound events over lush and engaging older electronica music somewhere between Jean-Michel Jarre, The War On Drugs and the odd sprinkling of early Pink Floyd. Their last two albums cover the Space race and the demise of the Welsh mining industry.

The album starts with “The Race For Space”. J F Kennedy’s September 1962 speech, in front of 40,000 Texans, is showcased: 

“We choose to go to the moon,” the president said. “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

It’s an awe inspiring declaration of intent that eventually came to fruition when Apollo 11 touched down in 1969 (long after JFK’s demise). A male voice choir builds from a single note to becomes several, albeit with the same sanctity should they be taking vespers, his important words are wrapped in this precious sound. The choir builds the drama and tension. Next with ”Sputnik” we start back at the beginning of man’s exploration of Space with the Soviet’s successful launch of a craft into space in October 1957. No wonder the Americans wanted to catch up. The soundtrack now depends on a low fi throbbing beat whilst a simple melody, played on keys, swirls around the sampled speech of reports of that enormous leap in the Space race. After this we have a track about Yuri Gagarin’s achievement of being the first human into Space four years later.

The concept and song writing falls to the enigmatically named ‘J Willgoose’. He also writes copious notes on the album sleeve and signs off with the information that as of November 2014 he was 32½! Despite the atmospheric nature of the music the band can cut a rug and change gear throughout the album with brass, female vocals and near Latin rhythms to give a sense of celebration and overwhelming pride.

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Record Of The Week # 102

Miss Jenny and the Howdy Boys

Jenny Pape leads a five-piece band from Carbondale. Where? This small town is in southern Illinois; I once spent a couple of days passing through on a bicycle. As I did my laundry and got my steed serviced it didn’t seem like a hot bed of roots music, maybe I wasn’t looking hard enough or simply dazed from dodging 18 wheeled coal trucks. Miss Jenny and pedal steel player, Dakota Holden, wrote or co-wrote the 12 tracks on this country americana album. Fortunately the use of the genre ‘americana’ is the ‘get out of jail card’ that covers the fact that you’ll find some tracks of soul, rock and western swing here. 

Pape has a clear, characterful and mellifluous voice that lights up the album; whilst she’s handy on acoustic guitar she’s expertly backed up by a band that includes an upright bass, electric guitar, drums and the afore mentioned pedal steel. We start with I Used To Call You Mine, a country two-step with flashes of pedal steel and a solid rhythm of bass and drums before an easy paced guitar solo by Kyle Triplett complement Pape’s vocals. Years From Now continues the country genre with Triplett gently picking the banjo as the rest of the band play softly in the background while Pape laments her love life. Superb. 

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Record Of The Week # 101

James Ellis and the Jealous Guys – Country Lion

James Ellis appears to have had a Damascene conversion in Austin, Texas. Whilst spending a month in the USA, four years ago, he was seduced by the siren sounds of honky tonk music (and the two-step dancing he saw). Returning to his native Melbourne he wrote and released his first album, It Ain’t Texas (But It Ain’t Bad) and two years on he releases Country Lion. The album title comes from a sobriquet bestowed on him by BR5-49’s Chuck Mead. Ellis has no idea where the name came from but judging by his prodigious thatch there may be a clue in his appearance.

Teaming up with Nashville’s Alex Munoz and Micah Hulscher, late of working with Margo Price and Jim Lauderdale, they produce and play various instruments throughout. This is a fine traditional country album that engages you with the quality of the eleven self penned songs and lyrics. We open with, “Sixteen Hours”, and as the pedal steel lights the way you know you’re going to be amongst friends while he tells you of his broken heart. In fact he’s a boy with the world on his shoulders judging by all break up and loneliness themed songs. Despite being a path well trodden by country artists he’s way more articulate than most. On the gently rolling “A Little Soul” he opines – “Through the day horizons pass / In the evening, clouds amass / Tis the season for a cold precipitation / And now sodden underfoot / I’ll take my heaving heart to nowhere / Fare thee well my old preoccupation” Eat your heart Luke Bryan, not a pick up or ‘cold one’ in sight.

“Take Me Back In Time” is a beautiful slow ballad with a delicious piano introduction from Micah Hulscher. Over flourishes from Steve Veale’s gentle pedal steel with the brush strokes of Daniel Brates’ drums we hear Ellis’ compelling but hard edged, slightly off kilter, vocals (Gram Parsons meets Robyn Hitchcock) with his Australian pronunciation. This track is one of the nicest things to accost my ears in 2020. With “Forever Close” we pick up the pace and a sound, and rhythm, reminiscent of the rockabilly of Dave Edmunds. It jives along with Tim Baker stepping into the spotlight to demonstrate his guitar chops. “Records In The Summer” is my favourite lockdown lament. Ellis longs for the days when he can resume the very pleasant pastime of meeting with friends and spinning some vinyl. Amen to that. 

There’s a lot here that elevates this honky tonker from an also ran into a contender. Check it out, you will not be disappointed.

Record Of The Week # 100

Talk Talk – It’s My Life

Released in 1984 this undoubted classic has come my way thanks to a neighbour. Karl had some vinyl LP’s he was happy to divest himself of for ‘folding’ and I checked out what his selection included. Amongst some lapses in taste this gem turned up in. Of course I knew this album, I had it on a long lost cassette. I now had to do with a ‘Best of’ CD. Whilst compilations are great for the hits you miss out on the original album’s feel and what the artists were trying to achieve at the time.

The first thing to note is that this came at a time when synthesiser sounds were substituting for conventional rock n’ roll guitar bands. This album floats along on such a foundation with conventional instruments filling in. Padded shoulder fashions, eccentric hairstyles with cool posturing were all the rage. Enter Orchestral Manoeuvres In the Dark, A Flock Of Seagulls, Visage and Tubeway Army amongst others. Talk Talk were hardly New Romantics and with this album only had minor commercial success as it grazed the charts at No 35. Because of this it probably was seen as more credible for music collectors, like me, with their disdain for the superficiality of chart success.

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Record Of The Week # 99

Bonnie Whitmore – Last Will & Testament

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”. 

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Record Of The Week # 98

Elton John (Eponymous)

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.

A classic.

Record Of The Week # 97

Moe Bandy – A Love Like That

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.