Friday, May 22, 2020

Dion - Blues With Friends

Dion Dimucci is 80.  Let me say that again.  Dion, of ‘The Wanderer’ fame, is 80 years old.  But you wouldn’t know it, listening to Blues With Friends.  He is never betrayed by the quavering pipes of an old codger, but instead owns the songs with the delivery and phrasing of a guy who has kept his primary instrument in full working order.
To be honest, I wasn’t sure I was going to like this album.  But like Topsy, Blues With Friends has growed and growed on me, and I suspect I’ll be returning to its charms on a regular basis.  The tone is set well by the opening ‘Blues Comin’ On’, which shuffles along in easy-going fashion with Dion communicating the vibe perfectly.  Meanwhile Joe Bonamassa does a sterling job as the first guest start turn, adding subtle moanin’ an’ groanin’ slide guitar that fits the character of the song.  Then the following ‘Kickin’ Child’ is a bright but laid back affair that rolls along effortlessly like something from JJ Cale, with twinkling guitar embroidery from Joe Menza.
Dion Dimucci - the smile that comes with a job well done
Pic by David Godlis
These tracks set the tone for the guest guitar contributions that follow on the bluesy tracks that form the spine of the album.  These range from the restrained but effective sparkle-and-twang Brian Setzer adds to the skipping ‘Uptown Number 7’, to the clear-toned Joe Louis Walker breaks that flit around the tune on the Van Morrison duet ‘I Got Nothin’’, the biting and gnawing Sonny Landreth slide on the swaggering ‘I Got The Cure’, and the hand-in-glove conversation between Dion and Samantha Fish’s wiry, expressive playing on ‘What If I Told You’.  This last, in particular, is a blues tune that offers more than your common-or-garden melody, enhanced by Dimucci’s excellent phrasing.
But the departures from the soulful blues core hit the mark too.  ‘Can’t Start Over Again’ may be adorned with some exquisite guitar filigrees from Jeff Beck, but it’s the song that really catches the ear, a simple slice of Americana that Dion interprets beautifully.  ‘Stumbling Blues’, regardless of its title and reliance on a blues progression, sounds like Great American Songbook fare, as Dion croons his way through the lilting, woozy closing time vibe to the hazy accompaniment of Jerry Vivino’s sax.  ‘Song For Sam Cooke (Here In America)’ is an acoustic-led singer-songwriter style duet with Paul Simon on which their voices combine delightfully, complemented by graceful violin breaks from a party I’m not able to credit right now.  And ‘Told You Once In August’ is an absorbing, stripped down folk blues on which John Hammond and Rory Block interweave chiming and moaning acoustic slide over a simple beat, and Block adds some minimalist but spot-on backing vocals.
Not everything is perfect.  ‘Bam Bang Boom’, on which Billy Gibbons guests, feels like it needs a kick in the ass in order to get going, though the groove does generate some toe-tapping in the end.  And the Christian folk leanings of ‘Hymn To Him’ leave me cold, regardless of its pretty tune and the involvement of Patti Scialfa and Bruce Springsteen.
But hey, the strike rate of the material on Blues With Friends is mightily impressive.  Producer Wayne Hood deserves credit too, for the simple, uncluttered sound of the album, and for drawing all those guest contributions into a coherent whole.  The end result is the kind of relaxed but polished affair that’s perfect for kicking back with a beer and chilling out.
I think Bob Dylan puts it best though.  He doesn’t appear on the album, but he does contribute to the liner notes.  "Dion knows how to sing, and he knows just the right way to craft these songs,” says Bob.  “He’s got some friends here to help him out, some true luminaries. But in the end, it’s Dion by himself alone, and that masterful voice of his that will keep you returning to share these Blues songs with him."  Yeah, what he said.

Blues With Friends is released by KTBA Records on 5 June, and is available for pre-order at KTBArecords.com.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Listened to lately - Dana Immanuel & The Stolen Band, Mike Skill, and Jed Potts

Get ready for a real pick'n'mix with this selection of two EPs and a single, folks!

Dana Immanuel & The Stolen Band – Mama’s Codeine

It’s a bold PR person that sends me an EP of banjo-led stuff with hints of gypsy jazz, I can tell you.  But there are some redeeming factors at play with Dana Immanuel and her all-woman band.  For one thing, the cover reeks of Southern Gothic stylings in a way that hints at less than saccharine contents.  For another, the gypsy violin contributed by Basia Bartz is more Gogol Bordello than Stephane bleedin’ Grappelli.  And most importantly perhaps, at least there are no feckin’ ukuleles.

More to the point, Dana and chums actually conjure up some decent tunes on this five track offering.  'Mama's Codeine' the track is as much old-fashioned urban blues (ie the stuff that migrated north in the Twenties, way before Muddy Waters’ country blues) as it is bluegrass. It kicks off with stuttering double bass from Karen Grymm Regester under scurrying banjo from Immanuel, and towards the end they downshift into more languidly angsty terrain.
The following ‘Turn Up The Lights’ also proffers a poppy melody amidst the plinking banjo, and the scraping violin and guitar that provide useful colour to go with the good use of dynamics to convey darker moments.  Meanwhile the wonderfully titled ‘WD40 & Duct Tape’ is a still more brooding affair.  After a throbbing double bass intro it dials down the banjo, leaving room for subtly squealing guitar from Feadora Morris alongside Bartz’s violin, as well as good harmonies and interweaving backing vocals, over tapping cajòn from Hjordis Moon Badford.
‘Shady Grove’, by comparison, is a hurtling traditional hoedown vaguely redolent of Charile Daniels’ ‘The Devil Went Down To Georgia’, on which all and sundry put their foot down, giving vent to some sizzling fiddle and guitar.  Which is all pretty straightforward to the closing ‘Codeine Reprise’, which is a mere scrap of a thing despite the deranged quality of the squawking vocals.
For all that their names sound like they must have crossed paths in some cosmopolitan Greenwich Village dive, Dana Immanuel & The Stolen Band are actually based in England.  And fair play to them for avoiding the kind of tweeness I’ve encountered some English ensembles perpetrating with music in these styles.  And thank god there’s no ukuleles.

Mama’s Codeine was released on 31 January 2020.


Mike Skill – Not My Business

Changing genre entirely, once or twice upon a time Mike Skill was variously lead guitarist and bassist with Detroit band The Romantics, a bunch of power pop New Wavers with a DNA similar to the likes of Blondie and The Cars.  They even had a couple of monster hit singles way back when – but not in Britain, which accounts for the fact that Skill’s name is a new one on me.
Any road, ‘Not My Business’ is his new solo single, and it’s not half bad.  Booming drums shuffle forth as the basis for ringing guitars to churn against each other in engagingly rocking fashion.  The sound is dense in a way that nods towards The Hold Steady, but less in yer face, and there’s a hint of a curled lip in the vocals that falls somewhere between Craig Finn and Jagger.  There’s a decent guitar solo that gets into some different territory, and spiky guitar breaks abounding below the vocals as it whacks you over the head with the hook for a while at the end.  It’s overlong by a good minute, but ‘Not My Business’ is quite enjoyable fare.


Jed Potts – Prospector

Now being honest, this six track EP from Edinburgh’s Jed Potts dates back to 2014.  But I only grabbed a download of it recently, so I have in fact been listening to it lately for the first time.  And besides, this is my blog, so I’ll tell you about it if I like.
Prospector is another curve ball of an offering in today’s miscellany.  Three tracks are what one might call guitar meditations.  On the opening ‘Carthage’ Potts’ steely acoustic picking rolls along hypnotically over sparse, sonorous bass notes.  A couple of tracks later ‘Trail
Riders’ occupies a similarly ambient space, with refrains of rippling guitar notes that shift back and forth between different themes over a low drone in the background.  At times it reminded me a bit of Steve Howe, but then again, not much.  Penultimate track ‘Shapesmith’ – a fitting title, I’d say – is again all undulating, twinkling and mesmeric guitar, counterpointed by occasional spooky bass notes.  When Mike Oldfield was sketching out Tubular Bells on an acoustic guitar, it might or might not have sounded something like this.  Probably not – but you get my drift, yeah?
In between these explorations, the title track ‘Prospector’ finds Potts setting down his guitar in favour of banjo – yes, more banjo folks, but in a different style.  It’s in a more percussively rhythmic vein as a result, but still in a drifting, cinematic kind of mode that goes with the Rocky Mountain-like vista of the cover pic.
‘Stephen & Margie’s’, by contrast, is a patient and halting bluesy rag, amusing if a bit lightweight.  And on the final track ‘I Am The Curse’ Potts delivers his only vocal on the EP, again accompanied by banjo on a brooding tune that’s like an old wagon rumbling along a rocky trail, suitable to accompany some early scenes in There Will Be Blood.
Prospector was an unusual outing for Potts, who is more usually to be found plying his trade in an electric blues setting.  But it’s interesting all the same – a palate cleanser if you like, when you’re in need of a musical change.

Prospector is available from Jed Potts’ Bandcamp page, here.

Monday, May 11, 2020

The James Oliver Band - TWANG!

Well, this is fun!  It may not be a whole lot more than that, but who ever said that rock’n’roll needed to be high art?
And rock’n’roll is very much what we have here on the debut album from the James Oliver Band, delivered with buckets of enthusiasm, brio, humour – all that stuff.  Oh yeah, and it’s well-titled, ‘cause Oliver also scatters a shedload of guitar twang around, like confetti at a wedding. 
‘American Cars’ comes hurtling down the highway in rockabilly chuggaboogie guise, with a
James Oliver does some yakkety-yak
reverb-heavy guitar sound that recalls Brian Setzer.  But it’s not, as you might imagine, a paean to black Cadillacs or any of the vintage gas guzzlers of rock’n’roll lore.  Instead it’s about the more modest kinds of automobile to be spied in Oliver’s native South Wales.  But the sound isn’t nearly so prosaic, with Oliver cranking out a wild solo over the stomping beat.
It’s the first in a string of winners that continues with ‘She Was The One’, a slice of neo-Feelgoodism à la ‘Roxette’, on which Billy Lee Williams adds some toots of harp as a complement to Oliver’s scudding guitar solo.  The bridge feels a misplaced, but I’ll let ‘em off.  Then there a couple of Big Joe Turner tracks, ‘TV Mama’ and ‘Honey Hush’.  The former features ringing slide guitar and a shiverin’ an’ shakin’ solo from Oliver, though it would be better if the guitar didn’t overwhelm Williams’ piano so much in the mix.  No complaints about ‘Honey Hush’ though – it may not quite have the heft of The Pirates’ version, but it’s satisfyingly muscular, and here as elsewhere Oliver rattles out the vocals with confidence.
‘The Missing Link’ is a surfin’ instrumental with loads of scratchy twangery over a locomotive-like rhythm, that accelerates into a hurtling passage reminiscent of Love Sculpture’s take on ‘Sabre Dance’, before downshifting into a mellower section for variety.  Then ‘Mean Little Mamma’ – not to be confused with the similarly-titled Roy Orbison song – returns to effervescent and witty territory, scampering along with its “mamma mamma mamma” backing vocals, in two minutes’ worth of old-fashioned fun.
In truth the back end of the album tails off a little, but ‘Stay Outta Trouble’ is given some zydeco freshness by accordion from Williams to supplement a slithering slide solo from Oliver, and ‘Clean House’ is also pleasingly different with its changes in tempo around a grinding, lurching chorus, a helter skelter slide riff, and a novel drum and bass break courtesy of Shane Dixon and Darren Beale respectively.  And though I’m not sure the world needs another recording of ‘Misirlou’, Dick Dale’s surf guitar twangeroonie instrumental latterly made famous on Pulp Fiction, it’s still well executed, and is doubtless a hit in a live setting.
James Oliver clearly knows his stuff when it comes to this genre, and goes at it with a will, no doubt benefitting from the input of producer Paul Riley, a man whose CV includes work with old-fashioned rockers like Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe.  Cranking out three-minute nuggets of rock’n’roll escapism to a consistent standard is a notoriously tricky business, but for the most part TWANG! holds its end up pretty well.  And like I said - it’s fun!

TWANG! is released on 22 May by The Last Music Company.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

E D Brayshaw - Fire Without Water

My past encounters with E D Brayshaw have been in his guise as guitar-slinging collaborator with Wily Bo Walker, on albums such as The Roads We Ride, typically contributing searing, stiletto-toned solos adding to the epic, cinemascope vision.  But with his debut solo album Fire Without Water, Brayshaw takes the chance to explore some different musical angles.
Opening track ‘Hadn’t Found You’ lives up to expectations, combining guitar tones of Santana-esque purity with salsa-like percussion and prominent, trampolining bass, to create an infectious groove.  Add in his low, groaning vocal and it carries echoes John Lee
E D Brayshaw - sepia-toned guitar wrangling
Hooker’s ‘The Healer’ – well, if Hooker came from Croydon, say.  (I don’t know exactly where the E D fella hails from, but it sure as hell ain’t Louisiana.)
More surprising though, is that he pitches in with several tracks of a rough and tumble pub rock R’n’B hue.  On ‘Say What You Will’ the bass playing – also courtesy of Brayshaw – adds depth to his jangling rhythm guitar, while his solo is brisk and biting.  And if his voice is less well suited to this kind of attack, he more or less gets away with it by virtue of his commitment.  The later ‘I Hear The Rain’ is in a similar vein, with his growling vocal rather more convincing, like a bass Joe Strummer, and it’s easy to be swept along by his squealing, wailing guitar solo.
These two tracks bracket the more moody, mid-paced ‘When The Walls Come Down’.  Gritty guitar chords open up proceedings, before laying back and letting that elastic bass take the strain to good effect.  There’s a neat call-and-response style chorus, and some good dynamics as the intensity drops for a later verse, and Brayshaw’s soloing serves the song well, right through to a blistering second foray that really brings the walls down.  It’s a well-put together offering, sustaining itself for over six minutes.
‘Said And Done’ takes a different tack, with a vaguely Skynyrd feel, laid back and fluid, with Brayshaw’s guitar striking a sweeter note and mandolin tickling away in the background.  He bolsters his vocals by doubling up on them here and there as he opines that “When all is said and done, more is said than done” – though there’s still the odd wonky moment.
The closing two tracks head in polar opposite directions.  On ‘Reckless’ Brayshaw goes for broke, with brisk snapping drums, bubbling bass and funkily flittering rhythm guitar the foundation for some ringing, slashing guitar chords over the top and a lyric that declares “My daddy called me reckless, said I’d have to learn to lose”.  But ultimately it’s a platform for Brayshaw to go guitar surfing with some aliens, as it were, and he really digs in with some sizzling stuff.  To paraphrase Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction, “That’s a pretty fucking good guitar workout.  I don’t know if it’s worth eight minutes, but it’s pretty fucking good.”  Which just leaves the gentle, lyrical ‘Twilight’, an instrumental tone poem, a crepuscular exploration over twanging bass, rolling piano notes like ripples on the shore, and restrained acoustic picking.
In case you haven’t worked it out, Brayshaw plays virtually everything on this album, assisted only by drums from Lee Feltham on a couple of tracks.  And by everything I mean guitars, bass, drums, Dobro, lap steel, mandolin and keys.  He acquits himself damn well in all departments too – especially his classy bass playing – while the songwriting explores different angles with some savvy.  Fire Without Water may not be flawless, but it’s about as solo as an album gets, and damned enjoyable to boot.

Fire Without Water is available on Mescal Canyon Records now, and from Bandcamp here.

Friday, May 1, 2020

Gary Fletcher - River Keeps Flowing

In need of a soothing soundtrack for you to lay back, close your eyes and chill for a bit?  This latest solo album from Gary Fletcher, a founding member and still a stalwart of the Blues Band could be just the ticket.  River Keeps Flowing is a semi-acoustic affair that weaves together strands of folk and Americana as much as the blues.
Gary Fletcher - have guitar, will travel
The eerie opening instrumental vignette carries echoes of Dire Straits, à la the intro to ‘Private Investigations’ perhaps, and that’s a useful touchstone for at least some of what follows, starting with ‘No Shadow On The Wall’, a song that lives up to its enigmatic title, with gentle acoustic strumming and subtle bass and piano contributing to the backing for Fletcher’s hushed vocal, ahead of a steely, sparking acoustic guitar solo.  The patient and‘Hearsay’ is in a similar vein, a meditation on memory and pain that combines subtle banjo from Fletcher, pattering drums, melancholy harp phrases from Alan Glen, and elegantly soaring and dipping violin from Tom Leary, like a bird on the wing.
folky
There’s more of an Americana flavour to ‘Back To Your Heart’, set to a swaying rhythm from drummer Sam Kelly, with Leary’s violin playing in more fiddle-like mode to mesh with accordion from Charlie Hart.  It’s dreamily romantic and hopeful, with harp licks from fellow Blues Band member Paul Jones on this occasion, and an impressive violin solo from Leary, whose playing is also to the fore to good effect on ‘It’s Just Feel’, a simple tune for a contented love song which is given a warmer sound, with Fletcher’s voice taking on a lower, more muscular timbre.
But some songs call for more drive they don’t always find top gear.  The social commentary of ‘Something’s Got To Give’, a Gerry Rafferty-like tune, is gently pushed along and is given some bite by an electric guitar solo, but it would benefit from a more assertive vocal.  And in fact Fletcher’s voice does have its limitations, even if the production does a good job of giving it thickness.  He’s a bit under-powered on ‘Jacob Burkle’, a tale of the slave-emancipating Underground Railroad set to rippling banjo, more swatches of violin, and slide guitar, but feels a little bland until a lift in tempo gives some impetus to its harp and violin solos.  Meanwhile ‘You Can, You Can’ hints at a ‘Take Me To The River’-type groove, pushed along by the bass and drums, but never really acquires enough dig.
‘Don’t You Come Creeping’ is a success in bluesier, more upbeat vein though, with its skipping rhythm and rising and falling slide guitar riff producing a surprisingly perky vibe for what appears to be a reflection on paranoia.  And there are always good moments to savour, even if some of the material begins to sound a bit samey.  ‘You Just Can’t Know’, for example, is nicely delivered if not especially distinctive, until a good instrumental passage lets the violin, guitar and Lol Plummer’s piano flow.  ‘I Couldn’t Be Asking’ has a rather prosaic melody for its ‘Dark End Of The Street’-like narrative, but Glen’s yearning harp is good, there are excellent harmonies on the chorus, and it closes with a tastefully tumbling guitar line.
Fletcher’s lyrics are always thoughtful, whether ruminating on relationship questions or other subjects, and the frequent focus on harmonica and violin in the instrumentation suits the songs well.  Few of the individual songs may knock your socks off, but as a mood-piece to wash over you River Keeps Flowing is a collection with a lyrical charm.

River Keeps Flowing is available now as a CD or download on most platforms, including Amazon and Spotify, and here.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Little Red Kings - The Magic Show Part One

Little Red Kings – who’re they then?
I press play on the latest offering to be winged my way by a PR company to be greeted by a tastefully tuneful piano and vocal intro, and then . . . three tracks whoosh by in ten and a half minutes, borne aloft on a gale of song-led roots rock energy.
I still haven’t got down to the brass tacks of what the opener ‘Harry’s Town’ is all about, so I dunno anything about the identity of Harry or what’s so special about his town, but Little Red Kings make it sound like a good place to be.  There’s kicking drums, rock’n’rolling guitar, sinuous bass lines and playfully delivered vocals, and ultimately a belt-it-out earworm of a chorus that collapses into a hollering terrace chant outro.
Little Red Kings making a big noise
‘Almost Over’ eases into earshot with pulses of organ and throbbing guitar before opening up into another adrenalin rush of booming drums and a big, gutsy chorus.  It’s a well-constructed choon, but the energy still bursts out at the seams until they rein it in for the bridge – and then it breaks loose again, tearing off into an anthemic singalong while some lead guitar bleeps away, making like Angus Young on the intro to ‘Thunderstuck’.  Then ‘That’s What You Do’ has a subtly brooding verse, with a thudding drumbeat and eerily droning keys, before crashing into another mountainous chorus with soaring backing vocals.  It twists and turns teasingly, thrashes along with a post-punk sensibility, and chucks some buzzsaw guitar into the middle eight to add some extra edge.
Who are these guys?
The understated cover of the promo cd, with its peculiar artwork, doesn’t offer many clues.  I take a squint at the accompanying press release, but it doesn’t leave me much the wiser.  It does tell me that The Magic Show Part One is Little Red Kings’ second album though.  It also quotes some reviews that refer to their “consummate blues rock” and such like.  Well yeah, I can see that they deliver blues rock in exactly the same way that Mott The Hoople – didn’t.  Or the Faces, maybe.  Or Springsteen, even.  Or none of them.  Point is, the blues may be in there, but it’s all jumbled up with other strands of rock’n’roll.  Except of course, just to confound my argument, on ‘Mama’s Boy’ - a two and a half minute vignette of Delta-like blues conjured out of nothing more than spooky, scratchy guitar playing and haunted vocals.  
Their rootsiness takes a different turn on ‘Weather The Storm’ though.  The lilting piano and gentle elegiac vocal could almost be Billy Joel until it’s melded with violin (courtesy of guest Rosie Toll) to take a Celtic turn as the lyric starts to reference the Irish Sea and – if I hear it right – Tir Na nOg, the “Celtic otherworld”.  Which sounds appropriately epic as the song swells and the story-telling becomes more strident, before subsiding to a gentle ending.
And the following ‘Peppermint’ gets similarly windswept as it builds from a suspenseful intro, surging rhythm guitar and more of that supple bass to arrive at another BIG chorus.  And a rare guitar solo plays out against the repeated refrain, brief and spiky, cymbals crashing around like waves.  Check out this acoustic performance.
Who the hell are these guys?
They get back on the rockin’ horse with ‘Lose The Light’, which teases again with a subdued
opening, all ticking drums and bumps of bass, before letting loose with a driving rhythm and dense jangling guitars, good harmonies and a romantic turn that sounds like Springsteen by way of The Gaslight Anthem – except British.
So that's who Little Red Kings are.
And then they take a sharp turn and head into left field for the closing two tracks.  ‘Norfolk Border’ is all droning notes and hesitant piano chords as an ambient backdrop for a murmured, half-spoken vocal, like Roger Waters executing some minimalist tale of angst.  Finally ‘Magic Show’ starts off in thoughtful mode, leaning on piano and organ, before swelling into a majestic chorus, then fading back with quirky squiggles of keyboards and more of that sinuous bass playing, plus effects-treated vocal interjections and some circus ringmaster declaiming taking it into Peter Gabriel-like dramatic territory.
WHO ARE THESE GUYS?
The Magic Show Part One is such an eye-opening surprise that part of me doesn’t want to know – just leave Little Red Kings as deadly guerrillas of roots rock, who strike and then sink namelessly into the night.  But nah, I’ve winkled out the info, so let’s roll the credits.  Little Red Kings were founded in Norfolk by singer and guitarist Jason Wicks.  Dougie Archer supplies more guitar and vocals, while the keys are courtesy of Craig Stevenson, and the rhythm section of Harry Wickham and Ben Beach respectively provide the skin-bashing and that springy bass.
Now, I’m not going to tell you The Magic Show Part One is some earth-shattering masterpiece.  But I will tell you that it’s striking enough to have made me sit up and listen damn close – in fact Little Red Kings’ firing on all six cylinders commitment wouldn’t allow anything else.  You owe it to yourself to get an introduction to these guys and their music.

The Magic Show Part One is released on 29 May, and can be pre-ordered here.

Friday, April 24, 2020

The Stevie Watts Organ Trio feat Alice Armstrong - Mission To The Moon

Been to a few blues and soul type gigs in the last few years?  Then it’s odds on you’ve encountered Stevie Watts, the Hammond B3 organ-driver who I've seen playing with Jo Harman, Joe Louis Walker and Ben Poole just for starters.  But whoever he’s been accompanying, you can bet that Watts, with his Modder-than-Bradley-Wiggins appearance (he’s also been known to play with Mod revivalists The Secret Affair), has added some expertly soul-infused va-va-voom to their sound.
Well now here he is releasing his own album, with The Stevie Watts Organ Trio.  Except that  when Alice Armstrong joins in on vocals, they should strictly be a quartet, shouldn’t they? 
The Stevie Watts Organ Trio - yup, there's four of 'em!
Well, however you count ‘em, on Mission To The Moon they’ve done a most satisfactory job of producing something a bit different, thank you very much.
What we have here is soul music that’s tinged with jazziness, a warm sound that’s often infused with a cool vibe.  Opening track ‘Camden Starling’ sets out their stall in pleasing fashion, with Watts trading neat little call and response riffs with guitarist Nat Martin, while Armstrong delivers a soulful, immaculately phrased vocal.
The peak moment – all 11 minutes of it – is the penultimate track ‘No Good’, an almost tearfully sad slowie about loneliness.  Watts lays down low end washes of organ, over which intones a bravura vocal, full of feeling and summed up by the lines “People say that the best ones are taken, but I just can’t stay took”.  Martin matches up to this with a spare, pinpricking guitar solo that contrives some jazzy angles along the way, but still fits the emotional template of the song.
They come pretty close to those heights now and then though.  There’s the melancholy late night jazz lounge intimacy of ‘Just Go’, for example, on which Martin produces another halting, less-is-more solo before he and Watts rouse themselves for some lively organ-guitar interplay, and Armstrong shifts her tone from reflective to assertive.  And contrastingly there’s ‘Honey Baby’, on which Armstrong gets all slinky and sultry over mellow backing eased along by Vinnie Lammi’s laid back, gently swinging drums.
When they get uptempo and funky on ‘In My Stride’ Watts doesn’t half cook up some bubbling bass to go along with Lammi’s tripping drums – a prime example of his contribution in the absence of a bass guitar - and even if he keeps his solo foray brief it’s the kind of Sixties soul sound that’s his trademark from many a gig.
There’s a trio of instrumentals, ranging from the twitchy ‘Tronjevity’ with its declining organ motif and funky rhythm guitar fills, to the hazy and relaxed ‘Memphis Sky’, and the more spiky and agitated jazziness of ‘Dave’ with its nagging, skipping drums.
But they close with the bright and fresh soul-pop of the catchy title track, with Lammi swinging again, Armstrong riding the rhythm with spot on urgent phrasing before Martin cuts in with a stuttering, switchback ride of a guitar solo, and Watts plays around with the melody on a squelchy organ solo.  And when Armstrong concludes matters with a chirpy “See ya!”, you just have to smile.
Maybe a couple of songs are a bit samey, and it could have done with a track packing a bit more punch.  But still, the considerable muso chops of Watts, Martin and Lammi combine stylishly to make Mission To The Moon a refreshing and easy-going treat to go with the spring sunshine – and in the soulful singer stakes Alice Armstrong, I have to say, is a real find.

You can buy Mission To The Moon from Stevie Watts' website, here.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Ruins Barren - Land Of Desolation

Ruins Barren, eh?  Sounds like some death metal band - and that album title, Land Of Desolation fits the bill too.  But no, the album cover depicts Ruins Barren toting an acoustic guitar as he leans against an old stone wall, wearing shades in the gloom, and looking like a misplaced busker offering something windswept and interesting.
Except that when I dropped the metaphorical needle on the opening track, I thought, “I know that voice”.  The Leonard Cohen-esque croak immediately reminded me of Smokin’ Tiglio,
Ruins Barren - could do with an interior decorator
Pic by Marco Cattaneo
the singer in Italian-based, experimental funk-punk-blues outfit Crudelia, encountered previously in these columns.  That’s Smokin’ Tiglio, who was singing in English though apparently he didn’t speak the lingo.  So what gives?
Well, a few minutes investigation reveals that neither Ruins Barren nor Smokin’ Tiglio are entirely for real.  They are both nom de guerres, or alter egos, of a certain Marco Costa, who sings and plays guitar in another band, called Fattore Rurale, where he styles himself as Marco Della Morte – ‘Marco Of Death’!
Whatever.  On Land Of Desolation the mode of expression is, indeed, a melange of country-folk and blues, with yer Ruins Barren fella in multi-instrumentalist mode playing guitars, dobro and keyboards among other things, and getting an occasional helping hand from some pals.  Lyrically, it’s as dark as the title suggests, if not darker – bleak, alienated stuff of a “This is hell, nor are we out of it” bent – for which Barren’s wrecked bass groan is the perfect vehicle.  And on songs like ‘Dancin’ In The Wind’ and ‘A Love Story’ he and his producer Ricky Ferranti add to the dense atmosphere by combining several layers of Barren’s voice, sometimes in a spoken rumble or husky whisper.  Barren’s accented diction isn’t all that great at times, but you’ll get the idea all the same.
Funnily enough though, the music isn’t universally gloomy – there’s often light and shade at work.  On the opening track ‘Chicago Illinois’ the opening may be all gently rippling guitar, toots of restrained harp, and sonorous piano chords, but then it shifts into a higher gear with some Dylan-ish folky acoustic strumming.  ‘A Love Story’ starts off with gentle acoustic guitar and halting vocals, but it gradually swells in romantic fashion around the chorus, aided by sweeps of cello from Elena Castagnola, as Barren intones about how “love goes beyond death”.  And on ‘Crossroad’ the rolling, bluesy guitar-picking picks up into a positively toe-tapping chorus.
‘Charles Wilson Ford’ is forbiddingly dark, to be sure, as the title character sinks into suicidal despondency following his part in the killing of Jesse James by his brother Robert Ford, accompanied by some classical orientated acoustic playing and elegiac cello.  But ‘Damp Lips’ canters along with bright and brisk acoustic strumming and deploys some twanging electric guitar, while ‘Keep Away From The Shed’ manages to be jaunty and dark at the same time as it meshes together at least two guitars, and ‘2nd Floor Room 104’ goes round and round over and interesting, pattering rhythm, with some twanging courtesy of Barren’s dobro, until some slivers of trumpet from Gianni Satta float into the ending from different angles.
With startling synchronicity, Land Of Desolation is stylistically