Campfire Tales: February 2015

2015 has been a busy year for roots so far. Is that a sign that its popularity is still on the rise? Certainly the number of Americana acts is high, and country music is making a sustained comeback in the UK. Add to that the blues and bluegrass offerings released or on the horizon and there’s a whole host of music vying for time and money. Here’s our view on this month’s packed schedule.

The first truly great country record of 2015? It’s from a Glaswegian. Daniel Meade’s Keep Right Away does so many things right; a sound honed through relentless touring, then recording in Tennessee. The Scotsman hits the mark with unerring precision, whether it’s the effervescent country of ‘Livin’ On Tootsie Time’, the rowdy ragtime on ‘The Hangman Blues or the fiddle-filled bluegrass of ‘Rising River Blues’. There’s a bit of heartache too: ‘Always Close To Tears’ does a great line in bar room piano blues, and the slower pace of ‘Help Me Tonight’ benefits from the vocal talents of Diana Jones. Keep Right Away is of such a consistently high standard - and Meade is so well versed in the tradition of the music - you can see why he and his band The Flying Mules supported artists like Sturgill Simpson and Old Crow Medicine Show in the UK recently. A timeless record, you suspect we’ll be hearing more of Daniel Meade come year end.

Someone else that impresses this month is JD McPherson with his rollicking roots record, Let The Good Times Roll. Hailing from the wonderfully named Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, McPherson delivers a second album mix of rockabilly and straight out old fashioned rock and roll. Setting his stall out early, the title track and ‘Bossy’ are fast, in your face and catchy. The 37 year old can get lighters in the air too: ‘Bridgebuilder’ is a smooth beast of slowed down traditional blues. Songs like ‘Shy Boy’ show there’s a clear progression from his 2012 debut - a rougher, more rockabilly-heavy record. Let The Good Times Roll is neater, with a more mature sound, though tracks like ‘It Shook Me Up’ keep the essence of the old McPherson and he doesn’t travel too far from his roots.

This month’s entries into the female singer-songwriter category are led by Oxford-based, American born Miriam Jones and Nashville-based South Carolina-born Nikki Lane. Approaching things from very different ends of the spectrum, Jones takes the more generic route: themes of love (the heartfelt ‘Given All’ and ‘Missed You’ ) and well constructed songs like ‘Cracks’ and ‘Unknown’. It’s all well crafted and full of moments but is missing a spark to lift it overall. Lane on the other hand fills All Or Nothin’ with quirky country and layered production from Dan Auerbach, though his heavy-handed approach nearly threatens to weigh things down at times. ‘Seein’ Double’ has Auerbach’s thumbs prints all over it, and the man himself sings on ‘Love’s On Fire’. ‘Right Time’ and ‘I Don’t Care’ feel thoroughly modern whilst hanging on the steel guitar sounds synonymous with traditional country music, and the title track and ‘Sleep With A Stranger’ groove with intent. There are changes of pace (‘Good Man’) and ‘You Can’t Talk To Me Like That’ showcase the thoughtful side of Lane’s writing. This is a record laced with drama and topped by the 22 year old's distinctive voice.

The more established (sixteen albums and counting) Steve Earle also returns with his latest diversion: the blues. Terraplane is a decent stab at the genre but you’re left wishing that Earle would regain some focus and deliver the kind of record he’s properly capable of. Not quite as prolific is Gretchen Peters who is just on her seventh studio release. Making a similar journey to Lucinda Williams’s outstanding 2014 record, Blackbirds is a gritty, and soulful thing. From the opening crunch of the electric guitar and organ, Peters shows a deft touch with pacing as she flits between dark themes of death and loss ('The Cure For Pain' and 'Black Ribbons'); ruminations on hometowns (both adopted on 'Nashville' and childhood on 'The House On Auburn Street') and getting older ('When All You Got Is A Hammer'). Throughout the constant quality of the songs makes it easy to see why the Nashville singer has been recently inducted into the town's Songwriters Hall Of Fame.

In the UK it seems only yesterday that Blackberry Smoke released their last album, but in reality The Whippoorwill had been out Stateside for a couple of years, so follow-up Holding All The Roses is definitely due. And it’s a welcome return, despite never hitting the heights or variety of their previous record and the ponderous early tracks here culminate in track four, the very Status Quo-y ‘ Rock And Roll Again’. Things liven up though with the drama and melody of ‘Woman In The Moon’ and the riff-heavy ‘Payback’s A Bitch’ and Beatles-esque country of ‘Lay It All On Me’ keep things going. Also on the hard rocking road, though garage blues rather than southern country variety, are Lebanese two piece The Wanton Bishops. Nader Mansour and Eddy Ghossein do the deep southern thing with a style and knowledge of the music that belies their age (22 and 23 years old respectively), whether it’s through the banjo on ‘Come To Me’, the heavy rock of ‘Time To Go’ and ‘Smith and Wesson’. Sleep With The Lights On is a triumph, and holds a flame for the days when The Black Keys weren’t massive and garage blues were just that.

American-based Australian Audrey Auld may have left Nashville since 2013’s Tonk but before making the move to the Californian sunshine she recorded the record she talked to TMF about in late 2013. As part of her sessions with inmates in the infamous (thanks to The Man In Black) San Quentin prison she had hoped to turn their lyrics into fully fledged songs. Five of the tracks on Hey Warden are the fruits of that labour and the knowledge that the words are from those inmates gives it an added layer. Despite the Australian turning those basic words into fully fledged songs you can hear both the authenticity of the meaning behind them. 'Poor Joe' is the purest example, a fully rounded character that you know is based on someone real. This is the culmination of her work with the inmates, it just so happens that it's also some of the best work of her career. ‘I Am Not What I Have Done’ is brilliantly clear minded, giving an alternative view on crime and labels, whilst the fearless nature of the record is shown on the reggae of ‘Naked And Nameless’ and the kinda out of place - but strangely fitting - rap sections of ‘Oh Love’.

Elsewhere Duke Garwood’s second album is relentlessly late night. Don’t think that Heavy Love is dark though, it’s warm and welcoming, running on laid back jazz beats (like ‘Suppertime In Hell’) and spaced out Dire Straits-like soft rock (‘Disco Lights’). And there’s a pleasingly louche nonchalance to Garwood’s delivery. Every once in a while an album comes out that’s universally well received; Jessica Pratt’s second album is just one of those. In this case though the love seems misplaced. It’s certainly trying to be a little different: plenty of reverb, lots of empty noise, and Pratt’s own light, nuanced vocals give On Your Own Love Again a DIY feel.

Finally, the Brooklyn trio The Lone Bellow have much to live up to after a better than average debut album and a growing reputation as a live band. They’re a part of the new brand of Americana: roots firmly traditional but arrangements and some of the styling more modern. The opening tracks are shiny and efficiently done: ‘Fake Roses’ almost tries too hard, then ‘Marietta’ comes along with Zach Williams' “I let you in again / I let you in again” pleading refrain cuts deep and you start to feel their music and potential. At times they swing too close to MOR territory - ‘Take My Love’ is very Kings Of Leon - but then tracks as absorbing as ‘Call To War’ and as beautiful as ‘Telluride’, or as bluesy and foot-stomping as ‘Heaven Don’t Call Me Home’ or ‘Cold As It Is’ come along to beguile. Showing much promise the band have some small creases to smoothen, but then they’ll be a force to reckon with.

JD McPherson - Let The good Times Roll 8/10
Nikki Lane - All Or Nothin’ 8/10
Miriam Jones - Between Green & Gone 6/10
Daniel Meade - Keep Right Away 9/10
Steve Earle - Terraplane 6/10
Audrey Auld - Hey Warden 7/10
Gretchen Peters - Blackbird 8/10
The Wanton Bishops - Sleep With The Light On 8/10
Blackberry Smoke - Holding All The Roses 7/10
Jessica Pratt - On Your Own Love Again 6/10
The Lone Bellow - Then Came The Morning 7/10
Duke Garwood - Heavy Love 8/10

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