Campfire Tales: April 2014

There’s an eclectic mix this month with a couple of late comers from March included. That means you Timber Timbre and your fantastically atmospheric latest. And stop sniggering at the back Sam Brookes and Carrie Tree, you’re late too. Right, enough of the classroom japes - let’s seize the day.

First up, the David Lynch/David Cronenberg/Sergio Leone of music, Timber Timbre, and their remarkable fifth album. They’ve always sailed close to the edge of normality and the Canadian band return after three years away with a fascinating trot through the darkest parts of Americana. ‘Beat The Drum Slowly’ is all slow plod and atmosphere, it almost defies description - and that’s not even touching on the lyrics (“Deco tower / Rainbow fountain showers / Crystal columns / Silver tabloid entry / The celebrity cemetery”). The final two minutes of sci-fi sound effects and distortion and less campfire, more Cape Canaveral.

Basically, this is fantastic. The off kilter lyrics (“I wanna dance / I wanna dance / I wanna dance / With a black woman” on ‘Hot Dreams’) continue, as do the thrillingly spooky melodies, strange 1950s alien vibes (‘Bring Me Simple Men’), Tarantino-esque Grindhouse themes (‘Curtains!’), and twisted Western incidental music (‘Grand Canyon’). Genuinely unique and cinematic in its scope, it’s guaranteed that you won’t hear anything else remotely like Hot Dreams in 2014.

Timber Timbre - Beat the Drum Slowly from Full Time Hobby on Vimeo.

There’s much to like about Home To The Invisible the debut release from Carrie Tree: the lovely melodies, the voice (mostly) and some beautiful music. The Brighton lass is big on sweet, slow and, well, English songs - ‘Sweet Oak Tree’ is an almost perfectly polite example. But there are two problems, and they’re not minor. Firstly, some prudent editing of the tracks wouldn’t have gone amiss, ‘Water Song’ is nearly eight minutes long; ‘Wild Winds’ is great for four minutes, not the six plus it actually is; and most others are near to, or well over, five minutes. An even bigger issue still is her intrusive vocal tic of talking or whispering rather than singing, an affectation which runs throughout. African-influenced lead single ‘Mama Kita’ fares reasonably well, but it really gets repetitive by the time an otherwise fresh and delicate cover of the Portishead classic ‘Glory Box’ comes around.

Unfortunately Sam Brookes struggles too. There’s inherently nothing wrong with Kairos, it’s just not anything new; sparse, acoustic-y guys with guitars are everywhere, and touches of James Blake vocals on ‘Numb’ followed by ‘James’ - which sounds like Asgeir - don’t help. A very of-its-time record, it fails to bring any character to an already over-crowded niche.

Much, much better is the latest LP from South Carolina’s CapsLk heavy NEEDTOBREATHE. Rivers In The Wasteland is a rollocking trip through southern American music, mainstream at heart yet great fun. Similarities to Kings Of Leon on ‘State I’m In’ and ‘Rise Again’, and The Lumineers on uplifting strummer ‘The Heart’ do no harm as they manage to feel authentic, truthful in both music and delivery. ‘Wasteland’ is a slow building stadium anthem in the making, something you’d hear backing the contestants sad stories on The X-Factor if they were a British band. ‘Feet, Don’t Fail Me Now’ is just a foot-stomper of a blues rock tune, ‘Where The Money Is’ another attention grabber. There’s enough variety to keep the album fresh, and enough anthems to keep the crowds happy. Pretty successful for album number six then!

Looking like The Commitments' Andrew Strong, New Brunswick’s Matt Andersen has a big soulful voice to match, and one that blues/soul/gospel aficionados will find to their liking straight away. His tone and control, demonstrated immediately on gospel-tinged opening track ‘I Lost My Way’, is matched by the guitar playing, some by Andersen himself, some by Neko Case sideman Paul Rigby. His voice shines for the entire record, dropping to a softer, richer level on ‘So Easy’ and ‘Let’s Go To Bed’, and blasting its way through the trumpet-driven title track. If there's a weakness, it's that the material don’t hold up to the quality of the performances. ‘Alberta Gold’ kind of trips along and there are a few too many ballads. Still, it’s not often you come across a voice like Andersen’s, so it’s worth sitting back and soaking in the richness on tracks like ‘Drift Away’.

VerseChorusVerse offer a decent stab at Americana; a little watered down perhaps, but enjoyable in spells nonetheless. Former And So I Watch You From Afar frontman Tony Wright brings an rawness with his voice, and early tracks ‘Our Truth Could Be Their Lie’ and ‘No More Years’ are on the money. The harmonica-heavy ‘Help Myself’ and bluesy singalong ‘Big Red Van’ (“What we need is a big red van / To take these plans all across the land”) also have their merits, but outside that there’s a lack of other songs that grab. Acoustic lament ‘Common Prayer’ is honest, and ‘Three’ has a kind of epic sheen but inconsistency troubles half the tracklist.

Any album that braves a David Bowie cover is worth a listen, and Mo Kenney’s second album is definitely worthy of that. ‘Five Years’ appears near the end of of the tracklist and is a delight, almost unrecognisable from the original. Before you get there though there’s plenty to enjoy with Kenney’s pure voice shining throughout and the music by turns soft and sensitive on the uptempo ‘Sucker’; spaciously acoustic on ‘The Great Escape’; and looser on the electrified blues of ‘Scene Of The Crime’ and energetic ‘Deja Vu’. The Canadian has picked up plenty of awards in her native country for her debut album and looks set to receive wider coverage with this self titled follow-up.

Allison Russell and JT Nero, better known as a duo as Birds Of Chicago, have done what all good groups should do at some point and release a live album. Only this isn’t recorded at Wembley Stadium or Madison Square Garden, this is recorded at Space, Illinois in June 2013 and has a unique vibe as a result. Live From Space adds a full band to their usual studio double act, and succeeds in filling out their sound, ‘Prairie Lullaby’ and ‘Cannonball’ sound great, without disrupting the obvious chemistry between Russell and Nero. Considering they only have one studio album, releasing a 17 track live album is ambitious to say the least but the duo pull it off with very little filler, including as they do, songs from previous projects. From the opening acapella of ‘Barley’ to the totally French sung ‘Sans Souci’, the full ‘Kathy’ and sparse ‘Sparrow’ their quality shines through. This is how live albums should be done: intimate and truly special.

Finally an EP, and it’s country music from deepest Hampshire! The Ward Thomas sisters do an excellent job in recreating an authentic central USA sound on their debut EP Footnotes. Travelling to Nashville itself to record the four tracks the sisters wrote three of the songs themselves: the really country-pop ‘The Good & The Right’; the slower, steel guitar-driven title track, and fun ‘Take That Train’. With two great voices this is a seriously good country-pop debut. If they can keep the quality as high for a full length release then these two girls will be going places.

A quick mention for a few tours coming up: the brilliant Hurray For The Riff Raff are touring their 9/10 album, Small Town Heroes in May; Jason Isbell is bringing the 400 Unit with him as he returns for a run of dates, and his wife Amanda Shires also has a small tour. The charismatic Audrey Auld is touring small to tiny venues in May, and Birds Of Chicago are rounding off a UK tour in late April before moving to Ireland for a set of dates the following month.

In festival news, SummerTyne Americana Festival 2014 has announced its lineup, with a stellar set of performers in The Jayhawks, Booker T. Jones, Steven Seagal’s Blues Band, Chuck Prophet and the SummerTyne Strings, John Fullbright, Sarah Jarosz, Cass McCombs, and Smoke Fairies amongst others.

Sam Brookes - Kairos 4/10
Timber Timbre - Hot Dreams 10/10
Matt Andersen - Weightless 6/10
Birds of Chicago - Live from Space 8/10
Mo Kenney - S/T 7/10
VerseChorusVerse - S/T 6/10
Carrie Tree - Home To The Invisible 5/10
NEEDTOBREATHE - Rivers In The Wasteland 8/10
Ward Thomas - Footnotes EP 7/10

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