Campfire Tales: September 2014

It's a daunting time when you have a pile of CDs and a long list of downloads staring you in the face all expecting justice in the form of a paragraph or two. When they’re as uniformly excellent as the deluge of releases this month are though, it’s a delight rather than a chore. So let’s pull up our britches and ride into the fray.

The singer-songwriters

Mainstream country music has a bit of a fight on its hands at the moment. The fringes, or old country, outlaw country, whatever you want to call it, is making a comeback. In the middle of all this is the likes of Brad Paisley who almost straddles the line between the two worlds. Partially responsible for the image of drinking and partying that’s become synonymous with chart country, Paisley doesn’t stray too far from those roots on his eleventh album, Moonshine In The Trunk.

The US country giant is nothing if not prolific, and after 2013’s 17 track Wheelhouse Moonshine… carries another 14 songs taking in mostly obvious themes: booze ('Crushin' It' ("If you want a margarita / I'll get tequila and ice / I'll be crushin' it"), the title track, 'Limes'); trailer park life ('High Life') and flag wavin' (the suite 'JFK 1962' and 'American Flag On The Moon', 'Country Nation'). Ultimately, what matters are the songs and Paisley writes a damn good country song. Forget the talk about old and new, booze and girls, and listen to the crowd-pleasing melodies, soak up the slide guitar, and take it for what it is - slick, polished, mega-selling country music.

The other side to established country is Lee Ann Womack who returns after six years away with a collection of more traditional, yet still mainstream, country tunes. Her eighth studio album, The Way I’m Livin’, covers all the bases with groovy (‘All His Saints’), ballad-y (‘Chances Are’), and rocking (the wailing guitars of the title track) all covered in short order. It’s a welcome return for a staple of trad. country but the genre has moved on since she’s been away and it’s all a touch old fashioned. Yet there’s anything wrong with that - after all, it’s what makes country such a wide-ranging genre.

Crow Moses has a great name, let’s just get that out of the way. He’s also got an album that veers from lithe country to muscular indie-rock. Horse Heaven Hills is the vehicle for the man formerly known as Musikanto and his version of American music. His debut album under his new moniker has been produced by royalty Gary Louris (of The Jayhawks) and has a mild sense of schizophrenia as Moses bounces between styles - the Americana of ‘Mad Horses’, the folk of ‘Bank Lights’ and ‘Water Mains’, the 90’s rock of ‘Fog Behind The Mile’ (complete with guitar riffs). As eclectic as it is, it’s mostly successful - bar the odd lightweight folk-popper.

Catherine MacLellan

’s Nashville-recorded latest The Raven’s Sun is just delightful. The Canadian’s delicate tone perfectly complements the well written music, and on a number of tracks (notably ‘Jack’s Song’ and the beautiful tale of childhood friendship ‘Beneath The Lindens’) are complemented by the fiddle playing of Nashville’s finest, Andy Leftwich. Subtle harmonies add depth on songs like ‘Tell Me Luella’, and the whole record has a timelessness to it that only adds to its allure. It reminds me of Rosanne Cash’s masterpiece from earlier this year.

Like many Oklahomans, Parker Millsap was brought up in a religious environment, which means the focus of his self titled debut album is a perhaps inevitable response to that. Sounding musically similar to that other Oklahoma native John Fullbright - hear the harmonica intro to ‘When I Leave’ - Millsap has produced ten tracks of good old fashioned rollicking roots. The lush acoustics, fantastic rough-edged voice and playful nature of ‘Old Time Religion’ sets the standard; strings and electric guitar kick ‘Truck Stop Gospel’ into action, while ‘Forgive Me’ and ‘The Villain’ slow down and contemplate things. And that’s just the first four tracks. Double bass and harmonica kick ass on the nursery rhyme pilfering ‘Quite Contrary’ (“Mary Mary quite contrary / How’d ya get your eyes so scary”) while great guitar work on the lightly political ‘Land Of The Red Man’ rounds things off in style. This is some debut from the Okie born singer: it’s foot tapping, head nodding, and at times, cerebral stuff.

From a promising new talent to an established talent - and former wild man of Americana - Justin Townes Earle who has matured somewhat over recent years; as a father and in a now-settled life of sobriety, he’s come up with his most mature records yet. Even at 32 his voice is laced with experience, the lazy slide guitar playing against it on the laid back ‘Worried Bout The Weather’; there’s something of the great bluesman Van Morrison about it and indicates the purposeful direction of the new record as a bluesy take on Americana. ‘My Baby Drives’ is a punchy two minutes of regular guitar, before the slide guitar makes appearances throughout, notably on ‘Today And A Lonely Tonight’ and ‘White Gardenias’, two desolate, sad songs which sum up the mood on Single Mothers. Despite the downbeat nature, this may just be the sound of a man finally at ease with himself and the world around him - long may it continue.

The latest from Amanda Rheaume also showcases an artist that’s been maturing through her career before arriving at Keep A Fire, the perfect showcase for the Canadian's strong clear voice - and some damn fine guitar breaks. ‘Strongest Heart’ and ‘Keep A Fire In The Rain’ are solid and a good encapsulation of the whole. It’s a consistent record: quality, but lacking that certain something. It needs a track or two to really grab hold, though ‘Not This Time’ is a fine song.

Always a man that does things his way, Shooter Jennings has dropped the first half of his new two-part project, Don’t Wait Up (For George). Running his own label means he can do what he likes and this hard rocking mix and match EP, including originals and George Jones covers, would likely never have been OK-ed by a mainstream Nashville label. Happily for us, the rock-era classic Queen sound of ‘The Door’, is melded with the traditional country of ‘If Drinkin’ Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will)’ and the electronic-country mashup that is ‘Don’t Wait Up (I’m Playin’ Possum)’, or the fantastic, 'no regret' attitude of ‘She Thinks I Still Care’ (“Just because I rang her number by mistake / She thinks I still care”). Go find this now - it’s a great reminder of what talent can do when left to their own devices.

Brad Paisley - Moonshine In The Trunk (25th Aug) 7/10
Lee Ann Womack - The Way I’m Livin’ 6/10
Parker Millsap - Parker Millsap 9/10
Shooter Jennings - Don’t Wait Up (For George) 8/10
Justin Townes Earle - Single Mothers 7/10
Catherine MacLellan - The Raven’s Sun 7/10
Crow Moses - Horse Heaven Hills 8/10
Amanda Rheaume - Keep A Fire 6/10

The duos

Alabama husband and wife duo Shovels & Rope return with another ragtag confection of American roots, Swimmin’ Time. This follow-up to their 2012 release O’ Be Joyful is a darker, twistier take on the genre, with less knee slapping and more broody thinking. The tale of two misfits that is ‘Evil’ shows this more than any other track, whilst ‘Coping Mechanism’ (surprisingly one of the less heavy sounding tracks), is actually a tough story of substance abuse. Weighty themes then.

Shovels & Rope - Swimmin’ Time 7/10

The bands

Erland and the Carnival

made their name on their 2010 debut album by taking ye olde tyme folk tales and adding modern day stylings to those lyrics. In the four years since though, they’ve lost some of that magic of that record. Their latest, Closing Time, isn't bad, you just hoped for different. It doesn’t deliver the quirkiness or the promise of that debut; the sound is one of a band striving to sound normal. Only on ‘I Am Joan’ do they start to remind you why they were so welcome in the first place. What’s needed is the return of the carnival and all the weird that entails.

Ten years into their career Red Molly are still blurring the genre lines with their latest, The Red Album. Their first Nashville-produced album has bits of country in the slide and themes of ‘You Don’t Have The Heart For It’; there’s a big-voiced soul tune in ‘I Am Listening’, and covers of ‘Homeward Bound’ - lusciously done - and ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning’. The three singer-musicians Laurie MacAllister (bass), Abbie Gardner (dobro) and Molly Venter (guitar) also show they can do dark and sultry on ‘When It’s All Wrong’, and they’re in excellent voice throughout. There is something missing though, maybe just a thematic or musical thread.

Also giving the sense that something’s missing is When The Ink Dries, the second album from Canadian four piece West My Friend. It’s a chameleonic record if ever there was one, shifting even within a song, as on ‘The Tattoo That Loved Her Anyway’. ‘Missing You’ has echoes of Yorkshire in their use of the brass section; there’s the Disney-esque ‘The Cat Lady Song’; ‘Lady Doubt’ is show tune-y, and a hint of cabaret helps ‘Dark And Deep’ along. Musically it’s all very good, the voices are clear, singing pure, and the instrumentation is fab, in fact it's on the verge of brilliance, but it all doesn't quite hang together.

A band that had their style and identity nailed down are the wonderful Brits Danny & the Champions of the World. Some bands are just made for the live arena and aren’t able to recapture that in the studio. Now, whilst you wouldn’t go so far as to say that about these guys they do have a live reputation that outstrips their record sales, and double CD Live Champs! proves why. It’s bloody brilliant! From the opening tracks of both discs, ‘(Never Stop Building) That Old Space Rocket’ and ‘Other Days’, where the band sound like Bruce & the E Street Band in their pomp, to the terrific ten minutes plus of ‘Colonel And The King’ (which moves seamlessly from huge guitar solo to sax led jam) through to the singalong of ‘Henry The Van’, the band show how to do a live album. Across the 13 tracks you can see why they’re such a live favourite and why they’re representing the UK in an official showcase at the 2014 Americana Music Festival. Live Champs! indeed.

There’s more live stuff from Southern rockers Blackberry Smoke who’ve forged their careers in the US out on the road. The hard touring, hard rocking band are on fine form on the double length record Leave A Scar. It’s well worth picking up before they play some UK dates in October.

Erland and the Carnival - Closing Time 6/10
Danny & the Champions of the World - Live Champs! 9/10
West My Friend - When The Ink Dries 7/10
Blackberry Smoke - Leave a Scar (Live) 7/10
Red Molly - The Red Album 6/10

And breath. That's it for this month, there's mucho music for October too with releases from big guns Kenny Chesney, Lucinda Williams, and Tim McGraw on the list of ones to watch out for.

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