Reasons to be cheerful: What a nice surprise when among albums you are to review there is a real find: A band that is right up your street and you wonder how it can be that you did not know about them already. This is what happened when I listened to Shovels & Rope.
This husband and wife duo from South Carolina were new to me, but 'Little Seeds' is in fact their fifth album and they have won two AMA Awards. Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent also had an award-winning documentary made about them, entitled 'The Ballad of Shovels and Rope'.
Their songwriting is top notch. The subject matter is serious yet the album sounds upbeat. The songs are varied, stretching from country to folk and blues and it is all catchy as hell. Listen to the lyrics however and you realise that tough things have been happening in the couple's life.
'Invisible Man' is about Alzheimer's, which Michael's father has. Disguised as a singalong White Stripes rocker, it is a perfect matter-of-fact description of the effects of the disease from the point of view of the patient: “I don't know why, wait, I do know why, I figured it out, but it's gone again before I can open my mouth. When I open my mouth I got something to say, it's the same conversation I had yesterday...” The songs acknowledges the frustration, yet anger and indignation are intelligently absent.
'This Ride' is dedicated to a friend of the couple who died in an accident. First a lady with a charming accent (the friend's mother?) talks about her son being born in a police car. The song then describes life with all its ups and downs. A beautiful synth line plays under the simple melody and the lady returns, stating that she does not want to be sad all the time, after which the song ends with quiet handclaps.
Cary Ann and Michael live in Charleston and the song “BWYR' (“Black lives, white lives, yellow lives, red”) deals with the 2015 church shooting that took place there. The song addresses hate crimes, racism, gun violence and fear. All we hear are echo-y vocals and very little guitar. The song is all the more impressive for it.
If singles were still a thing every song on this album could be one. 'Buffalo Nickel' again brings the White Stripes to mind and is loud, gothic and swampy. 'Johnny Come Outside' is bluesier and is an earworm about a boy who is never happy and never sad; the effects of too much medication.
'San Andreas Fault Line Blues' describes the earthquake-prone zone in California. All the songs describe without judging. The underlying message is very much that life is wonderful despite the difficulties one encounters.
My favourite song on the album is the most country-tinged track, 'St Anne's Parade'. Cary Ann sounds like Tammy Wynette on this one. It is a travelogue, again focussing on the wonders of life: “Don't seem to freeze too much down in New Orleans, but the rain can sure wash out the streets. We crossed the snowline, man it was just in time. They're digging them out everywhere North of the Chesapeake”. To me this is Townes Van Zandt-like simplicity and brilliance.
This brilliant album makes me want to delve further into Shovels & Rope's back catalogue (check out their cover of Bruce Springsteen's 'Johnny 99'!). I will definitely go and see them live when the opportunity comes up. The band will play concerts in the U.K. during February 2017.
And then there was one. When the first Winter Mountain album came out in 2013 the band were a duo. Following the departure of Irishman Marty Smyth this second album sees Cornwall native Joe Francis responsible for the songs, the vocals and most of the instruments. He also produced the album. And beautifully produced it is;
'I Swear I Flew' is a collection of catchy songs with really varied instrumentation: Harmonica, piano, organ and mandolin are all used sparingly and effectively. Folk rock can often sound quite bland and generic, with too many instruments bashing away at the same time, but Winter Mountain manage to avoid this. The sound is crisp and clear. The band moniker is appropriate as there is a wintery feel about this music.
Joe Francis has a sympathetic voice, sometimes reminiscent of Brian Fallon, sometimes John Waite, but most often he sounds like a poppier Jon Boden, which is not a a bad thing at all. Seth Lakeman adds some very nice fiddle parts and guests on bouzouki and background vocals (as per info; I would not have picked out his voice).
Opener 'Platinum and gold' is the standout track. It starts as if heard on a transistor radio; then someone finds a dial and the volume goes up. This is a neat effect. Ballad 'The Morning Bell' is good too; a pretty melody with folky acoustic guitar. Joe's influences come through in the music: 'Things That I've Done Wrong' sounds like Neil Young. The intro of 'Fireworks Night' is so much like 'Thunder Road' that Bruce Springsteen could sue. There are echoes of U2 as well.
Lyrical content is an area for improvement. There is an overload of weather, seasons, mountains and rivers, earth and sky, moon and stars; things burning, glowing, sparkling ("Heaven like a lemon tree grows her diamonds in the sky"). Lots of imagery, but what is it all about? You get the sense that this is a break-up album of sorts. The press release says that the album is a musical diary covering recent events in Joe's life.
'Banba's Crown' is named after Ireland's most northernly building on the mainland, at Malin Head in county Donegal. Joe Francis has spent time in this beautiful part of Ireland while working on his music. Banba was the mythological patron goddess of Ireland. I have visited this spot and it is nice to be reminded of it, however in this song again we get images rather than substance.
Winter Mountain have an impressive touring record, having played support to Guy Garvey, Rosanna Cash, Sara Watkins, Seth Lakeman and Cara Dillon among others. Live seems to be where Winter Mountain really do well and this new album will be a welcome addition to the merch tables.
It’s another great selection of songs from Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. You get a new Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds album and you know what yer paying your money for. It does what it says on the tin. Until you open the tin.
This is more of what we have come to get used to since 'Push The Sky Away'. It’s dark and moody and full of latent suppressed energy with, very emotional and raw feelings for all to hear. Nick Cave singing lyrics" nothing really matters' or 'I need you", it hurts to listen to him singing these words.
These songs were inspired or indeed, affected by the tragic death of Nick Cave’s son during the making of the album. The intersity is energy sapping for the listener, what it must have been like making the album after such tragic events is just mind numbing.
The album does not come with the lyrics included, which makes listening to the songs even better as they take you on one of Mr. Cave’s journeys, and you never know where that’s going to go. The album is definitely a grower, especially if you liked the direction the band was going in with 'Push The Sky Away' and the 'Live from KCRW' album that came out a while after. Skeleton Key, and the Bad Seeds in particular, might seem more subtle, but don’t be fooled by that.
The vocals on the album are not as harsh or hard as we might have had from Nick Cave in the past. Now that he is passed his 20,000 days on earth it seems like he doesn’t need to be as in your face as he sometimes can be (Grinderman?). He instead relies on drawing you in by making you want to listen to what he is saying or singing. And he isn’t always singing. Sometimes it’s more of a semi musical narration. Love songs including references to vomiting in the sink are always going to be a source of intrigue for me.
'Jesus Alone', the opening track of the album is of a similar sound as 'Jubilee Street' from 'Push The Sky Away'. After the first few times of listening this is probably the best track of the album so far. And a good indication of what to expect from the rest of the songs. 'Girl in Amber' is Nick Cave in his best pleading yet threatening tones, with suitable backing vocals.
Another favourite track was the almost spoken word 'Magneto' whichreminds me of Johnny Cash singing "I shot a man in Reno, just to see him die". In Magneto Mr. Cave tells us: "Oh, the urge to kill somebody was basically overwhelming, I had such hard blues down there in the supermarket queues".
Track 5 is Nick Cave looking for the Anthrocene. I had no idea what this was and the nearest thing I could find was Anthropocene, (a proposed epoch that begins when human activities started to have a significant global impact on Earth's geology and ecosystems). It might be a bad spelling or it might be something else completely. Either makes sense and another excellent tune.
On the song 'I Need You', we return again to the earlier themes "When you're feeling like a lover....n,othing really matters anymore I saw you standing there in the supermarket"....
"On Distant Sky" Nick is joined by classically trained Danish soprano Else Torp. Not someone I am familiar with. If asked I would describe this as a duet but I would still feel I might be wrong. The Bad Seeds make it sound like church music which when done right is a beautiful noise. It’s done right here.
Is Nick Cave turning into a Palace Brothers Will Oldham? Skeleton Key lyrics at times reminds me of 'You Will Miss Me When I Burn' from the Bonnie Man himself. You won’t be rocking out or singing along to Skeleton Key, but I will no doubt return to its songs time and time again and then my appreciation of the record will increase each time I do.
To get under the skin of this album it helps to watch the film, 'One More Time with Feeling" as a companion piece.
The prodigious Mr Bonamassa releases his latest live offering as a CD/DVD set following his 2015 "Three Kings" tour of the States, in which he pays tribute to bluesmen Albert King, B.B King and Freddie King. The tour culminated at LA’s Greek Theater, and the 22 track double CD/DVD/Blu-ray is a masterclass of modern bluesmanship.
Tellingly, the DVD kicks off with a mini feature of an actual local TV news feature about the young Bonamassa, where we learn that he “feels comfortable" with a guitar in his hand, and that he started playing at the age of 5 and was playing in nightclubs at the age of 9. Just think about that for a moment....he was playing in front of an audience before he had reached double figures age.
As for the show itself, as usual, he is with his regular backing band of Anton Fig on drums, Michael Rhodes on Bass and Reese Wynans on Keys, but is also joined by a 3 piece brass section and 3 piece female backing singers including the wonderful Mahalia Barnes.
The Boss suit and the shades are in place, and the playing is sublime. This is a 2 hour set in which, at least to this reviewers ear, there’s not a note out of place, by any of the band on show. The playing is also faithful to the originals, and Bonamassa’s discipline is to his credit. His trademark solos are blistering and one can almost take them for granted, for example on Lonesome Whistle Blues or I’ll Play The Blues For You, but the crowd show their appreciation in stunning surround sound if you are watching the DVD.
Born Under A Bad Sign, and BB Kings’ The Thrill Is Gone, close the set and also serve as a poignant moment as King passed away a couple of months before the tour and Bonamassa has gone on to say how much he regretted him not being alive to see the spectacle.
The second disc of the DVD is reserved for special features, including videos, behind the scenes features, picture galleries and most interestingly a fabulous interview with Bonamassa’s parents. Based in Utica, NY, we learn that Mr Bonamassa Sr is also a guitar player, although he admits Jo “walked right by him at the age of 6” and they realised he had an amazing talent.
This is another wonderful addition to Bonamassa’s live releases, and what clearly comes over is this is a real event that the band are enjoying as much as the audience. What a thrill it must have been to be there, but thankfully the DVD is a document for those of us who weren’t.
A big widescreen psych sound is what 'Compulsion Songs' by the Lucid Dream is when it lands on your turntable. Psych driven but, other influences soak into the framework of the songs over the 44 minutes of this, the band’s third album.
The band themselves hail from Carlisle, where vistas of raw Cumbrian countryside surround the city so it's no wonder, The Lucid Dream have come up with such vast musical landscapes themselves.
‘Bad Texan’ with all its raw psych majesty opens the album, followed by a spacey ‘Stormy Waters’. The album itself was recorded at Whitewood Studios, in Liverpool, with Rob Whiteley, and the album was produced alongside longtime collaborator Ross Halden (Ghost Town Studios, Leeds). The more you listen to the record, you find yourself lost in the musical territory of everyone from 13th Floor Elevators to Spiritualized.
Third song, 'I’m a Star in my own right’ carries a reggae and 2-tone vibe encompassed in a psych bubble. 'The Emptiest Place' (which would fit in a Tarantino soundtrack) and '21st Century' are two short/sharp psych mindbenders which, back in the sixties may have been chart singles.
This fine record rounds out with two epic tracks ‘Nadir’ and ‘Epitaph’. The former Floydish and the latter in the land of Wooden Shijps and Moon Duo.
If you are interested in the future of British psych, then check out Compulsion Songs which is released on 23rd September via Holy Are You Recordings
Thursday 22nd September: London The Lexington
Saturday 24th September: Liverpool International Festival Of Psychedelia
Friday 30th September: Cardiff The Moon Club
Saturday 1st October: Manchester Night and Day
Friday 28th October: Newcastle The Cluny 2
Saturday 29th October: Nottingham The Lofthouse
Saturday 12th November: Hebden Bridge Trades Club