Campfire Tales: February 2014

Whew! Just caught the deadline! A strong month of new releases with a mix of hard-edged country, southern rock, acoustic Americana, and Welsh folk-pop. You might find a couple of these albums on the year end top tens, and we’re still only in February. So get clicking on the videos, get searching on the streaming, and listen to some cracking new music.

First up, Welsh folkers Paper Aeroplanes treat us to a follow up to last years Little Letters in the shape of an EP, The Circle. The only brand new song, the beautiful ‘Ribbons’, is the pick of the five tracks, with Sarah Howells’ light and tender vocals proving to be entrancing. A piano only version of older track ‘Same Mistakes’ is soft and different enough from the original to be worth including. The final two ‘new’ tracks are dance versions of album tracks from their 2013 release, more intense than the folk pop of the originals they take the duo in a different direction.

Arriving on a wave of ultra-positive reviews, Marissa Nadler’s sixth album, July is initially as unimposing an album as you’ll hear this year. You could list the cliches: acoustic guitars, haunting vocals, two part harmonies, but that would be to miss the subtlety of the record. It's not an album to smack you in the face; layers get revealed on each listen, be it the soft slide guitar of 'Drive', the dark fairytale feel on '1923' or the sheer purity of 'Firecracker'. Throughout Nadler's voice is dominant, if melancholy, the layers of production building a world around her. July doesn't feel like a massive leap from her previous stuff, more of a refinement. For those of us that like our hearts to be broken.

Slightly simpler is the four track EP of acoustic country, Songs From Willow St from Jarrod Dickenson. The love song 'Your Heart Belongs To Me' sets the tone for a gentle ride. Gently strummed guitar and a voice with a touch of wear give it all the smallest bit of edge.

Someone with a lot more edge is Sturgill Simpson. Labelled various things including the latest 'outlaw country' music star, his High Top Mountain is an all too rare debut - one that lives up to the hype. Calling your opening tune 'Life Ain't Fair And The World Is Mean' suggests everything about your world view. Simpson's strong Kentucky twang and the versatile slide guitar bring the country on strong. 'Railroad of Sin' is a leg shaker that rattles along at exhilarating pace. He proves he can slow it down as well with 'Water In The Well' and 'Hero', but Simpson is at his best when he's at full gallop. Make no mistake, this isn't made for country music radio (which gets addressed on 'You Can Have The Crown') this is real country music, 2014 style.

Another band on the harder edge of country (they’re more often labelled southern rock) areBlackberry Smoke. Their first official UK release, The Whippoorwill, arrives on these isles almost two years after its Stateside release but is worth the wait. There’s pretty much something for everyone, from the radio-friendly ‘Pretty Little Lie’, to the lament on a lifetime in small town USA that is ‘One Horse Town’. The riff heavy rock of ‘Crimson Moon’ is a highlight. Frontman Charlie Starr has a vocal sound from the south, although Atlanta rather than Alabama, and while there’s no slide or steel guitar there is plenty of electric. A lazy comparison would be Allman Brothers or Lynyrd Skynyrd; despite floating pretty close to that classic sound they’re not pale imitations, they’re hard touring, hard playing rockers, and there still aren’t enough of those around.

From Atlanta, Georgia to Exeter, Devon - that’s how we roll in these parts. The Devonian quintet Cut Purse Rascals have just released their debut EP The Heavitree, a collection of songs on the theme of the south-west, in the style influenced by folk and roots music. The title track is the best summary of what the band are aiming for; the song is about the site of public executions in Devon, sung in a country-folk fashion that could be straight out of Nashville. There’s still some work to be done but the quality is high and the blend of south-west storytelling and wild west musicality is rather compelling.

Dallas group The O’s tackle things from a folk-pop angle and sound very similar to The Lumineers. Their success shows there’s a market for this populist take on Americana and ‘Outlaw’ is a practical photocopy of ‘Ho Hey’ and it won’t be a surprise to hear some of these tracks accompanying a mobile phone television advert or being played at festivals. For a duo they create a full sound with kick drums and a couple of guitars going on - it's pretty impressive stuff. Just as impressive is their way with a tune. The energetic 'Cicerone' is great fun, and the contemplative 'Levee Breaks' has real heart.

Shinyribs are something a little different. More soulful that anything else this month, they're also a little more eclectic than anything else. Created and led by Kevin Russell (formerly of The Gourds) they've made Gulf Coast Museum a unique listen. There's tuneful and heartfelt on 'Somebody Else'; 'Sweeter Than The Scars' is straight out of the 70s folk rock movement (and in the best way). 'Take Me Lake Charles' and 'Sweet Potato' could have been blueprints for Plan B's soul period. And what could a song called 'Song of Lime Juice & Despair', that includes yodeling, be other than slightly crazy? But it works. Then just when you think it can't go anywhere else they cover a song made popular by Simply Red. Acoustically. Thrilling, fascinating, head scratching, and thoroughly recommended!

Finally this month Jessica Clemmons is another recent country-pop singer off the Nashville production line. Her EP, What If is a texbook example of how to do big voiced, mainstream radio, country music. The themes (love) and her big voice are the centrepieces. 'Love Like That' has a perfectly placed mini-guitar solo, 'She Ain't Me' grooves it up a little, and the title track is the big ballad. It's all immaculately produced and Clemmons sounds great. There is a cynical review in here somewhere but let's not go there. It's pretty not gritty. It's polished not rough, and it plays to the crowd - yet somehow it's really very crowd pleasing. Go figure.

Paper Aeroplanes - The Circus EP 6/10
Marissa Nadler - July 7/10
Jarrod Dickenson - Songs From Willow St 6/10
Shinyribs - Gulf Coast Museum 8/10
Sturgill Simpson - High Top Mountain 9/10
Blackberry Smoke - The Whippoorwill 8/10
The O's - Thunderdog 7/10
Cut Purse Rascals - The Heavitree EP 7/10
Jessica Clemmons - What If 6/10

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