Campfire Tales: January 2015

Is this the most impressive start to a musical year ever? It certainly is for this little 'ole column. January 2015 will be fondly remembered come December when we start thinking about our albums of the year. As always, the UK lags slightly behind our American cousins when it comes to release schedule; no matter, excellent music is excellent music. And already reviewed elsewhere on the site are great records from Ryan Bingham and Angaleena Presley.

Kicking off is Medicine from Drew Holcomb and the Neighbours. Their last record, 2013’s Good Light, was a solid slice of MOR Americana, but something has happened since. The standard across Medicine is high, with the band introducing more country affectations and adding depth to their songwriting; it makes for a hugely pleasant surprise. The songs are of a routinely top standard, from the beautiful simplicity of ‘American Beauty’ and heartfelt ‘Avalanche’ to the catchy roots rock of ‘Tightrope’ and ‘Sisters Brothers’. Even the chirpy Jack Johnson-ish ‘Here We Go’ is great.

2014 was a great year for established female Americana singers, with Rosanne Cash and Lucinda Williams producing career highs. Annie Keating starts 2015 off with a record that doesn’t quite hit those heights - but comes pretty close. Dialling into the current vogue for accessible yet traditional Americana, Make Believing ticks all the boxes: the fiddle-heavy ‘Sunny Dirt Road’; country rocking ‘I Want To Believe’; twangy harmonica of ‘Know How To Fall’. It’s solid stuff.

Mainly introduced by his publicity-friendly backstory (homeless man comes good through a documentary), it might be surprising that Doug Seegers is, and sounds, as authentic as they come. Having finally written and recorded his debut at 62 years old, Going Down To The River is grounded in authenticity. Seegers' voice tells its own stories and his writing on tracks like ‘Lonely Drifter’s Cry’ confidently relies on years of real experience, including the clever-clever ‘Pour Me’ and outstanding swamp blues of the title track. He’s not a total nobody though: his previous time spent in bands means that greats like Emmylou Harris and Buddy Miller (on the blues rocking ‘There’ll Be No Teardrops Tonight’) guest.

As if to prove his newly refreshed mind and body, Justin Townes Earle releases a quickfire companion album to last Autumn’s Single Mothers with Absent Fathers. Moving on from his most recent record's bluesy approach, Townes Earle treats tracks like ‘Why’ to a bit more steel guitar. The country styling means makes things feel lighter this time round too, though the themes of abandonment, relationship woes, and general despair is felt keenly in the lyrics of songs like ‘Farther From Me’, ‘Least I Got The Blues’ and ‘When The One You Love Loses Faith’. Absent Fathers can be a tough listen that means that while there’s plenty to like here, it’s a hard record to actually enjoy.

Andrew Combs' second record arrives from Loose Music on the back of an excellently reviewed Autumn UK tour. All These Dreams is an almost perfect example of a modern Americana record: an understated mix of typically American themes (standout track ‘Pearls’ covers sports stars, whores, and junkies who have more to tell than first looks) and musical styles (the steel guitar of country, and on the slithery, cool ‘Month Of Bad Habits’ the louche vocals of the blues) all delivered with a dose of grit and polish. All These Dreams is a record that is shiny from the off and rewards repeat listens by revealing more of its soul each time.

If gentle, affected English vocals of the kind that’ve been in vogue recently is your kind of thing then Beck Goldsmith is for you; if not read on anyway. Trickier to explain than it first seems, Lustre & Curve has hidden depths and what seems to be another heavily-accented female vocalist turns out to be far more intriguing. Beautifully written folk-pop songs pepper the tracklist, with ‘Night Hours’' soft tones and ‘Know Me No More’ with its Twin Peaks vibe among the highlights.

Mainstays of British music for around thirty years, The Waterboys relocated to Nashville - the town de jour for musicians looking for a career lift - for their latest release. And the transatlantic travel has paid dividends. Whether it’s the new location or the addition of Nashville session players there’s something more confident about Modern Blues. Waterboys main man Mike Scott has put those newcomers to good use, writing some of his most accessible material for a long time. Lead track ‘November Tale’ has been getting heavy radio support and is indicative of the feel here: ‘Destinies Entwined’ is a story of lovers; ‘I Can See Elvis’ re-imagines heaven with The King at the centre; ‘Rosalind (You Married The Wrong Girl)’ is angry and bitter. In fact there’s something steadfastly traditional about it, yet it sees the band hit heights they rarely have in recent times.

A curious project is the return of Southern Tenant Folk Union who, despite their Alabaman-sounding name, are less exotically American and more, well, Scottish. For album six the Edinburgh-based band turn semi-concept: all the tracks on The Chuck Norris Project take their title from Chuck Norris movies - though the idea doesn't extend to their lyrics or themes. It’s a little different and makes the album schizophrenic, though not without its highlights.

Andrew Combs - All These Dreams 9/10
Justin Townes Earle - Absent Fathers 6/10
Annie Keating - Make Believing 6/10
Drew Holcomb & the Neighbours - Medicine 8/10
Southern Tenant Folk Union - The Chuck Norris Project 7/10
Doug Seegers - Going Down To The River 8/10
Beck Goldsmith - Lustre & Curve 7/10
The Waterboys - Modern Blues 7/10

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