13 Music Reviews
by john stacey
Weather Systems has already been voted Americana Album Of The Month in one respected journal, so how do I top that? Well, only to concur. But calling Weather Systems Americana is too easy; this is too good to be bracketed among the hee-haw footstompers and big-hats that churn out the same easy listening year in year out. No, Andrew Bird is better than that; imagine someone with the integrity and ingenuity of Peter Gabriel going down this dusty road. OK, Americana is what it says on the signpost, but we're a long way from the Ol' Opry. Weather Systems is at times an uncomfortable melange of many musical styles; a queasy marriage of folk and rock and country and indie. Second track, "I", weaves about like a drunken fiddle-player while fifth track, "5", is almost ambient, though lovely with it. The violin, of course, is Bird's instrument, and he plays it like a guitar, plucking and caressing the strings to a quiet create dissonance and discordant, alongside conventional drums, bass etc. Standout tracks are the almost nursery rhyme-like ballad "Sovay" and the title track, which begins with a Pagannin violin solo before giving way to Bird's high, sweet voice. On Weather Systems, Andrew Bird is setting new boundaries, breaking rules until his music coalesces into something stark and original and quite beguiling.
Jim Byrnes, Fresh Horses (Black Hen)
For every boy band that flares briefly into the night sky then dies equally quickly, there are guys like Jim Byrnes out there, peddling their craft, making music that has more integrity, soul, meaning and passion than anything a shipload of Westlifes could muster in half a minute. And, sad to say, bands like Westlife get the fame and the money for pumping out tons of pap while guys like Byrnes press on, earning plaudits but usually not great amounts of money. And that's a darn shame, because the world needs albums like Fresh Horses - if only to remind us that there is room for blues in the great popular music encyclopaedia. Fresh Horses, recorded live - and it shows, in the spacious, closed-mike production - is 12 tracks of smouldering, heartfelt, immaculate blues-soul, mainly written or co-written by Jim, excepting Dylan's "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" and "For The Turnstyles" by Neil Young. Byrnes, who handles lead vocals - sounding like Beefheart, Waits and any other grizzled baritone America has thrown up over the past coupla decades - and guitar, has been in the business since the age of five, when he learned the piano while growing up in St Louis, Missouri. A musical education that has included him playing with the likes of Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Albert Collins and Robert Cray, has given him the history - and the chops - to do his thing. Fresh Horses takes all those influences and adds Byrnes' own identity, of a grey-beard, grizzled bluesman who has got a lot to say.
Caramel Jack, Songs From Low Story (World Of Furr)
This lot are from Brighton, England, but you wouldn't believe it, listening to Joe Doveton's world weary vocals. Caramel Jack align themselves loosely to the Americana side of rock but aren't afraid to take things a step further by utilising elements of Vaudeville, electronica and straight pop. Throw in the odd cello, flute, sample, charango and trombone and what you get is an intriguing mix that manages to satisfy on many levels. For those readers with (ahem) longer memories, what acts as the clincher is pedal steel legend BJ Cole, who weaves his magic on two tracks - "My Secret Side" and "Living And Dead Singers." Delving deeper into Songs From Low Story you realise that, like fellow British band Grand Drive - who have produced three wonderful 'Americana' albums in recent years - Caramel Jack have taken roots(ish) music from the yanks, added their own twist and produced something that stands comparison with anything done on the other side of the pond. The title track along, with is brass interlude and slide guitar, is a wonderfully atmospheric creation that should, if there is any justice in the world, be snapped up by a TV documentary maker and used as a soundtrack. Then the lads might get a decent payday, which is what they deserve.
John Cunningham, Happy-go-Unlucky (Parasol Records)
I sat up when I first played this CD. Had I suddenly stumbled upon a missing Paul McCartney album? Was this something Macca had brought out before his first, eponymous album? I listened with barely-contained glee as song after song unfurled; this is a McCartney/Beatles heaven. Each song is a polished gem and, after a while, you start to forget the Beatles references (there's a bit of Lennon in there, too) and marvel at the sheer melodic genius of this guy. Apparently, this is his fourth album and I wish I'd heard him before. Happy-go-Unlucky has everything: notwithstanding the McCartney bias, Cunningham has a fine ear for a great tune and builds the songs with layers of piano, harmonies, brass etc. Happy-go-Unlucky is the sort of album the Beatles might have produced if they had put their differences behind them and gone back to basics. Forget Let It Be - Happy-go-Unlucky sits quite nicely as the obvious follow-up to Abbey Road. This is beautiful, spirited, lovely and utterly delightful stuff. Do grab a copy and make an old Beatles fan very happy.
Maggie Holland, Circle Of Light (Irregular)
Circle Of Light is the fifth album from Maggie, in which she performs 15 songs that cement her position as one of the country's foremost interpreters of modern folk music. Throughout, Maggie's Hampshire accent is in evidence; often multi-tracked. The songs - from the likes of Billy Bragg, Al Stewart and Bob Dylan - showcase Maggie's ability to turn her hand, or rather voice, to the demands of a different writer. Discreet instrumentation from Malcolm Ross on slide and lap-steel, Wendy Weatherby (cello), Lester Simpson and Carol Laula bolster Maggie's voice which often carries the song on its own. On Circle Of Light Maggie has selected songs from different genres but manages to maintain her own individuality. Fans of Maggie's work will welcome this new album; anyone interested in hearing a pure English voice will not be disappointed.
Rich Hopkins And Luminaroos, Ka-Ju-Tah Blue Rose)
"Red, White & Blue" kicks off Ka-Ju-Tah, and is a rollicking blue collar piece of classic rock that pushes the right buttons. With a naggingly insistent lead guitar/chorus, you know you're in Springsteen/Earle territory with Hopkins railing against the so-called ultra-patriotism of Bush's America. While there is always going to be plenty of this kind of stuff doing the rounds, Hopkins has mastered the art of the angry American armed with a Fender and firing off shards of vitriol against all that is wrong with his country. Generally it's steadily predictable, but in a way that makes you want to continue listening. Hopkins, a former member of the Sand Rubies and the Sidewinders, and started the Luminaroos as a side project. Now it's taken over his life, with Ka-Ju-Tah being the third Luminaroos album since 1994. So Rich has had plenty of time to get it right and, indeed, this alum does contain plenty of good stuff - a heady amalgamation of rock and blues and country. Hopkins used guitar, keys, drums, bass etc - and the sound of a rooster on La Reina de la Calle. Oh, and why Ka-Ju-Tah? It's all to do with native Americans, dreams, visions and such. A very American thing, obviously.
John Guilt, The Mirrors And Uncle Sam (Munich Records)
You can tell this is something special from the opening chords of first track, "Absence Makes The Heart Bleed." Sparse, strummed electro-acoustic guitar, crashing cymbals and saxophone combine to create a spectral kind of music that has one foot in a tumbleweed-strewn desert and the other at the cutting edge of modernity. The pace is tombstone slow in places, and the instrumentation positively elemental, but each if the 12 songs build up a head of steam to prove irresistible and quite melodic. I remember an old recording industry maxim: put the best track on first to hook in the viewer. John Guilt haven't done anything quiet so cynical; instead they have let the quality of the songs entice. Upon repeated listening, what initially appears to be difficult stuff actually isn't. Indeed, red/white/blue has a swelling majesty worthy of other, more well-known bands. The Mirrors And Uncle Sam is a ghost made flesh and blood; with main man Andy Goldman on vocals, guitars and keyboards synthesising jazz, folk, country and rock into an appetising stew. I can't wait for their follow-up; I suspect there may be a little more flesh on them bones and John Guilt will have recorded a corker. There is vast potential here. As we once said, things can only get better.
Quiet Loner, Secret Ruler of The Word (Circus65)
Melancholy, elegant, exquisite...Quiet Loner have produced the perfect antidote to a life spent racing and chasing. This is an album that deserves to take pride of place in anyone's Best Of lists at the end of the year, it simply is that good. From the sweet-as-honey pedal steel of the opening track, "Henri," to the classic country drama of closing number, "Complex Messiah," Secret Ruler of The Word is a real find, a treat for lovers of carefully-executed Anglophile Americana that wears its heart on its sleeve. Quiet Loner (the group) is the brainchild of singer-songwriter Matt Hill, who released a series of EPs three years ago and secured support slots with the likes of Lambchop, John Rouse, Chris Mills, Richard Buckner and Neal Casals. So you can see that he's been in good company. And it shows, in the quality of the playing and the depth of his writing. Hill's acutely-observed lyrics have a sharp, refreshing honesty but are shot through with an optimism that sets him apart form his contemporaries. Musically, Quiet Loner can boast the talents of pedal steel player Alan Cook, who has worked with The Good Sons, and twins Mike and Dave Harries, the Hired Gun rhythm section. Standout track for me is "God Knows I'm Leaving," a beautiful tale of drunken loss and hopelessness that features Kirsty McGee on flute and backing vocals. It's a classic country track, one you could imagine the likes of Emmylou covering. 'When the pubs are all closing/ they spit out the bones/ of shrivelled up and tired old souls/ the loveless and lonely/ in staggered despair/ with nothing to cling to but the lips of a prayer'. That lyric alone, and the sublime melody and chorus that accompanies it, is worth the CD's price alone. Quiet Loner (Matt Hill) has garnered plenty of positive reviews in recent months and I'm happy to add mine. If there's any justice, Matt should swap his flat in inner-city Manchester for a ranch New Mexico - bought with the proceeds from this platiunum-selling disc.
Jesse Sykes & The Sweet Hereafter (Fargo)
Jesse Sykes's latest album has a stately grandeur. It is a slow-burning, dark, brooding masterpiece that curls its crystalline fingers around your heart and tugs the strings one by one. Jesse's deep, dark-as-molasses voice seduces and entreats, pulling you closer in a suffocating, claustrophobic embrace that you cannot deny. The Sweet Hereafter - violinist Anne Marie Ruljancich (Walkabouts), upright bass player Bill Herzog (Neko Case, Joel Phelps and the Downer Trio, Citizens Utilities), and drummer Kevin Warner (Evangeline), and of course Phil Wandscher (of Whiskeytown's original line-up) - perfectly complement Jesse's tortured outpourings. The pace is, in the main, slow, the songs twisting and writhing, like third track "Twisted Soul," with its sombre waltz pace perfectly complementing Jesse's anguished howl. The band aren't afraid to 'rock out', as it were, with "The Dreaming Dead" full of steely, tremelo guitar and "Tell The Boys"' positively upbeat and featuring lovely, gospelly organ. Fans of the Cowboy Junkies or The Walkabouts should listen to Jesse Sykes & The Sweet Hereafter; its slow-burning, bleak balladry and lovely instrumentation are worthy of investigation.
James Varda, In The Valley (Small Things)
Sometimes all you need is a voice and a guitar. Sometimes plain, unadorned music, free of artifice, is sufficient. Sometimes the sound of one man strumming an acoustic guitar and singing songs in a clear, heartfelt voice, is enough. Enough to help slough off the cares of the day as the music effortlessly envelops you. Such is the case with James Varda's exquisite In The Valley. Ten simple songs, recorded with care, that are uplifting and satisfying and bear repeated listening. Fans of Varda, of course, will appreciate that they have had a long wait to hear more of his work. For this release comes a mere 15 years - that's right, 15 years - after his previous work, Hunger. Since those heady days of his first album Varda has support artists like Roy Harper and Townes Van Zandt and appeared at the Cambridge Folk Festival and the Reading Festival, plus doing various TV and radio performances. All that was a long time ago. To say the guy has, as his publicist says, kept a low profile most be the understatement of the century. Hunger was produced by John Leckie back in 1989, but this time Varda has opted to do it himself, creating a simple, spacious, warm sound. Some have compared him to Nick Drake, but Varda's work contains a degree of inherent optimism that Drake was not exactly renowned for. Standout tracks are the five-minute "That's The Time," a gorgeous rumination on ageing, the passing of time and the realisation that maybe you haven't achieved what you might have done. 'When you're weary and heavy and in need of a rest, and you finally realise that you won't be blessed, that's the time to give some thought to when your race is run.' Into The Valley is a lovely, sincere, at times moving piece of work. I only hope we don't have to wait another 15 years for the follow-up.
The Volebeats, Country Favourites (Turquoise Mountain)
They're a pretty eclectic bunch, The Volebeats. Are they retro Merseybeat? Are they country-rock? Are they Abba in disguise? Who knows, who cares? What matters if that you'll find yourself laughing when you listen to Country Favourites - and not necessarily at the lugubrious version of the Abba hit "Knowing Me, Knowing You," which sounds like Alan Partridge singing karaoke and taking it very, very seriously. Country Favourites have captured the essence of classic rock 'n' roll and country and pop and freeze dried it, then served it up with their own special dressing. A dollop of twang, a pinch of psychedelic, a smattering of Hank Williams. "Hold On," "Hamtrack Mama," "I Had To Tell You" and "Maggot Brain" are as diverse a selection of songs you'll hear anywhere. Featuring members of Outrageous Cherry and Electric Six, Country Favourites is the only album you'll ever need. Now for the triple gatefold next year!
Amy Wadge, Woj (Mankaton)
I didn't expect to like this album; it arrived unsolicited and, to be honest, the rudimentary cover wasn't exactly enticing. And the opening track, with its predictable power chords, didn't particularly excite. But things got brighter with the second track, Scream, a delicate piece full of acoustic guitars and gentle finger-picking solos. By the thid track, Anywhere, Amy had got me hooked. And the reason? Well, for a start she's got a great, raw, earthy voice; secondly, she's surrounded herself with a top backing band - Aled Richards (Catatonia); Dave Bronze (ex Eric Clapton) and the great Robbie McIntosh on lead guitar. The choice of musicians shows; Amy might be a relative novice in this game, but she punches above her weight and the 13 self-penned songs proves she has real talent. That much is true, because she won Best Female Solo Artist at the Welsh Music Awards in 2002 - beating Charlotte Church into the bargain. Since then she has honed her craft, appearing at Glastonbury, Cambridge Folk Festival and touring in Australia and the Far East. By rights, Any should be snapped up by a major label, who should be able to elevate her further. Woj (which is how you pronounce her name, incidentally) has traces of Bonnie Raitt in its rootsy, bluesy stylings - and that is no bad thing. If you find this CD buried away somewhere, spend a few quid on it and show everyone that there's more to Wales than Cerys Matthews.
Jenny Whiteley, Hopetown (Black Hen)
And onto the track in the great female singer-songwriter race comes Jenny Whiteley, who positions herself just to the left of Lucinda Williams, a little behind Bonnie Raitt and within touching distance of Dolly Parton. That's not to say Jenny sounds like any of these musicians, but the analogy gives you a feel of where Jenny's coming from and where she's likely to go. Hopetown straddles plenty of fences - country, bluegrass, blues and rock - but has one standout commodity, Jenny's weary, can't be f**ked voice. Indeed, I'll swear there's a touch of Emmylou Harris there - try Halls Of Fulsom for starters, with its mandolin, crashing backbeat and waltz step rhythm and lyrics about not wanting to leave prison. Then there's Drive Anywhere, a back-slapping two minutes of pure country fun. Back home in Toronto, Canada, Jenny has already earned a Juno award for Heartbreak Hill and won a Best Roots/Traditional prize for her previous album, Jenny Whiteley. In the end, Hopetown stand or falls on three things: the quality of the songs, the quality of the playing and whether there is a place in the starting line for a Canuk with a Deep South fixation. I'd say yes to all three.