Campfire Tales: June 2014
Onwards through the summer we go and a release scheduled so packed you’d think it was coming up to Christmas. We’ve got X Factor veterans, 80s popsters rebranded, gold standard legends, authentic debuts, producer turned performer, and the long awaited return of a promising talent. Too much music, too little space, so once again, let’s just get down to it.
Folk is so mainstream now that we even have an X Factor act dropping her debut on us and filing it under folk. Back in 2011 the elfen Janet Devlin had all the affectations of a pop star, most notably sounding a lot like Ellie Goulding. Even on the show she took a different route to the usual pretenders, singing the usual songs but in a lightweight folk-pop way. Her proper label debut Running With Scissors is in much the same vein; pleasant enough for anyone who voted for her first time around, but lacking enough character to break through from the inevitable TV references.
One of the pleasures of this genre of music is the ability to discover your own new artists, nothing is rammed down your throat in the world of roots country. This month's discovery is Hannah Aldridge who properly delivers with Razor Wire, her full length debut. Full of great guitar work and with a voice that captures you from the start, 'You Ain't Worth The Fight' is just terrific: the stories grip and the musicianship doesn't let you go. 'Old Ghost' and 'Howlin' Bones' are traditional country and bluesy in turn. Topping things off are the polar opposites of 'Parchman', a quiet, touching study of life of death row with no regrets, and 'Try', a stunning, noisy, balls out rocker of a cover of the Jason Isbell track with the added weight of his band The 400 Unit. A sharp songwriter and a musician not afraid to stretch, this is some start for the girl from Nashville.
After all these years and all these albums what more is there to say about the genuine legend that is Dolly Parton? Not much. Her new album Blue Smoke is everything you’d expect from a Dolly album: lovely ballads (‘Miss You - Miss Me’), duets with other legends (Kenny Rodgers on ‘You Can’t Make Old Friends’), idiosyncratic covers (‘Lay Your Hands On Me’, yes the Bon Jovi song), and down the line country music (most everything else). As an added bonus, or to shift more copies depending on your levels of cynicism, there is a Greatest Hits album included in the package which includes literally Dolly hit you can think of. All in all though an excellent purchase for around ten of your English pounds.
Not yet a legend herself but related to two (Hank and Hank Jr.) is Holly Williams who is back with only her third album in ten years - and it’s a doozy. The Highway is modern Americana at its best. Mixed with a touch of country, a whole bunch of honesty, and some real fine storytelling it’s good to have Williams back. (And not before time too: The Highway has been out since early 2013 in the US.) Produced by Charlie Peacock, the man on production duties for The Civil Wars Grammy winning debut, you can hear what he brings on tracks like 'Let You Go', with those now familiar vocal harmonies. What really grabs you though is the storytelling - tales of addiction and the damage it causes families ('Drinkin' and 'Giving Up'); loss ('Gone Away From Me'), and on the title track, a song of life on the road. By no means as downbeat as it sounds, Williams is still just at the start of her journey.
Poor Pete Molinari. He must sit at home during festival season wondering how on earth his vocal doppelganger Jake Bugg is sub-headlining festivals and supporting The Rolling Stones while he’s on album four, Theosophy, with barely a flicker of recognition in the public eye. Really though, Molinari’s music is much more evolved; he touches on early Kinks on ‘Evangeline’, and Zeppelin-like grooves on the fab opener ‘Hang My Head In Shame’, and there’s more than a hint of The Beatles throughout. ‘When Two World Collide’ though is more original; old fashioned without sounding old. It’s a real mash of sixties and early seventies sounds with today’s production quality and technique, a proper updating of some of the great roots of modern music.
Usually when groups disband it’s the lead singer that goes off and makes similar music, just without his or her old mates. Strangely, Dire Straits bassist John Ilsley has made an album that contains lots of hallmarks of his old band's most popular songs. The Knopfler-esque guitar sounds can be heard clearly, but Ilsley has produced something that edges slightly more towards roots than rock, even if the opening bars of ‘Railway Tracks’ sound suspiciously familiar. And the voice? Well it sounds eerily like Mark Knopfler in places. There’s also the sax heavy ‘Nothing To Do’ adding to the feeling you’re hearing some lost tracks from the 80s. Though the organ is a consistent presence across the eight tracks, and the deeper you get the less you hear those familiar sounds, the quiet steel guitar on ‘Testing The Water’ is the first step away from the known.
One name you might not expect to read about in CT is Paul Young - Yes, he of “Everytime you go away / You take a piece of me with you” fame - singing gruffly on a lighthearted mexicana effort from a London collective. Well, that’s what you get with this second album from Los Pacaminos. Kicking off with the second song of the month called ‘Razor Wire’, a spaghetti western themed instrumental, there’s a playful feel on many tracks, even the ode to an alcoholic ‘Battered and Broozed’. Taking in a host of vocalists across the fourteen tracks - if you’ve come for Paul Young he’s front and centre on just a few tracks, the loose-limbed ‘The Girl From Tennessee’ and ‘A Letter To You’ for example - but there’s a sense of fun that you don’t get to hear that often in these all too serious times.
And talking of serious, that brings us to the second album from uber-producer Ethan Johns. As the go-to guy for Laura Marling, the bloke who’s steered the early career of Kings Of Leon, had both Tom Jones and Paul McCartney call him in to reinvigorate their careers, and had The Vaccines and Paolo Nutini ask to get to the next level you’d maybe not expect a concept album following the story of (the imaginary) Thomas Younger and his adventures in the 1850s. As Younger goes about his travels, John’s The Reckoning follows with the beautifully restrained (‘Dry Morning’ and ‘You Changed’), the intricately played and softly sung (‘The Roses and the Dead’), and the downright raw (‘The Lo Down Ballad of James Younger’ where the protagonist faces his fate). Mostly an acoustic and quiet piece it bursts to life on the two plugged in tracks: the slouching blues of ‘Talking Talking Blues’ and the anger of ‘Black Heart’, and it’s this variation that brings the stories to life. Touching and vividly told, this is the story of a life worth experiencing.
John Ilsley - Testing The Water 6/10
Dolly Parton - Blue Smoke 6/10
Ethan Johns - The Reckoning 7/10
Pete Molinari - Theosophy 7/10
Holly Williams - The Highway 8/10
Hannah Aldridge - Razor Wire 9/10
Los Pacaminos - A Fistful of Statins 6/10
Janet Devlin - Running With Scissors 5/10