Campfire Tales: March 2014

Alongside the usual reviews this month we have the first in a new semi-regular feature, Questionin’ where one of our favourite artists tells us what they they’ve got to say on a variety of topics. It's exciting stuff! But before that, the usual album reviews!

Melodies, harmonies, and the other trappings of modern day folk-pop are present and correct on the debut release from House Of Hats. What This Love has going for it outside of the genre standards are some great tunes, and two terrific voices. The boy/girl combo is nothing new but this British four piece switch it up a little, with the female vocals used as harmonies in the first half of the album before being let loose in the second part. Starting and ending with very different versions of the title track is a clever twist. ‘King Of The Average Pace’ has all the hallmark of a lead single (which it was), ‘Rivers Will Run’ is lively, ‘Right Behind You’ more considered, ‘Gold’ is harmonious, ‘No Man’ heartfelt and expressive. Considering it follows a well trodden aural path - fiddles, acoustic guitar, swooning harmonies, etc. - This Love is a happy surprise.


In contrast to House Of Hats, Peter Mulvey is no newcomer to the scene, he’s two decades in. So it’s slightly surprising that his latest LP, Silver Ladder, is so refreshing. Like so many albums these days Silver Ladder follows a familiar sound, but there are twists along the way. ‘Lies You Forgot You Told’ grooves along on its bass, with Mulvey’s lived-in vocals painting over the top, before ‘You Don’t Have To Tell Me’ goes all Tom Petty acoustic rock riffs. There’s tenderness here too, the sweetest of songs, ‘Remember The Milkman?’, the acoustic clarity of ‘Trempealeau’, and duet ‘Where Did You Go?’

Ultimately Mulvey’s a craftsman; he knows not to mess with a good solid tune, and as there’s plenty of those here he plays them straight and without fuss. Sometimes that’s not just the best way, it’s the only way.

Continuing the no fuss theme is Old Postcard. The latest from Amelia White is rootsy soft rock with its wandering, crying guitar on ‘Brothers’, echoes of Mark Knopfler on the guitar of ‘Old Postcard’ and the distant steel guitar on ‘Get Your Cowboy On’. Now based in Nashville, White brings a wealth of experience to her lyrics and fully rounded sound. In many ways this is an old fashioned record, but its themes of longing, regret, and of days gone by resonate today. Plus there are enough pointers from modern Nashville to ensure its relevancy.

David Berkeley likes layers. 'Back To Blue' starts with simple vocals and acoustic strumming before building to something more complex and build of layers of guitar sounds. Throughout his eight track album, The Fire In My Head, the constant thread is the gentle start to each track. There are bursts of power though, either by way of vocals, as on the title track, a brass section on 'Oh, The Hedges Are High', or via the guitars.

Robby Hecht has a simple way of doing things. Like David Gray before him he's using his smooth voice, some nice rhymes, and a simple melody to create his music. In fact the parallels with Gray's output are striking. Listening to 'Feeling It Now' and you'd be forgiven for thinking the Irishman had made a comeback. Most of this self-titled album is the same. It's nice and safe, pleasant enough to listen to but rarely exciting. The odd song, 'Soon I Was Sleeping' with its guest vocals and slide guitar, or the touching 'The Light Has Gone' and its trumpets and soft snare drum, change it up a bit. The deeper you go into the track listing the more Hecht grows on you.

If you want something from the noisier end of the spectrum then Chuck Ragan is your man, taking a step back from his day job with Florida punk-rockers Hot Water Music. Ragan delivers Americana country-rock style, the emphasis very much on the rock. Big guitars and a raspy voice take centre stage, with slide guitar, fiddle, and other country trappings very much lower in the mix. Around halfway through the ten tracks the more rootsy elements appear more prominently, on ‘Bedroll Lullaby’ and ‘Gave My Heart Out’ particularly, and it all gets a bit Springsteen b-side on ‘Something May Catch Fire’ and ‘Whistleblowers Song’.

In complete contrast Dawn Landes releases the quiet, contemplative Bluebird which starts softly and introverted with the title track and ‘Try To Make a Fire Burn Again’. These two acoustic driven tracks let Landes’ voice draw you in. Coming off the back of her divorce this is her self confessed “break-up record”, and as you’d expect is full of regret, heartache, and melancholy. ‘Heel Toe’ is the first where she really lets the music loose, the guitar becomes electric and there’s some percussion. A fantastically delicate ‘Oh Brother’ is a highlight, ‘Diamond Rivers’ and ‘Love Song’ are just beautiful. So whilst it might be downbeat in intent, and sometimes in delivery (‘Home’ is bitterwseet) it’s actually a very lovely album.

And finally you've arrived at the new bit! Thanks to Pete Mulvey for being the first on the soapbox for our new Questionin’ section. Pete’s album (reviewed above) has just been released and you can catch him live in the UK right now.

What you sellin'?

I've got a brand spankin' new record out: Silver Ladder, produced by Mr. Force of Nature himself, Chuck Prophet. We made the thing in just a few days. He put a band together, and we had a caffeinated brawl in a studio in Los Angeles. Great crew: Sara Watkins from Nickel Creek, David Kemper (Dylan's road drummer for a stretch), Chuck and his gunslinger from the Mission Express James DePrato. They did great work, and it's the best batch of tunes I've coughed up in a decade or so.

Now I'm headed out on the road with a Martin guitar from the 50s (older than me, younger than my dad) and a head full of songs. I've got five dozen shows over the next couple months or so, some with band, some solo. I'm feeling that revival feeling, the songs feel strong and punchy and it feels good to be in the wind again.

What you listenin'?

Oh, man! Blood Test by Kris Delmhorst, is just killing me. Such a deep, lucid, pure crop of songs, and production by Anders Parker is coolacious. We get to do four shows together in the Midwest of the U.S. just as spring will be fully underway. We rise and fall, this feels like a rising time.

Speaking of rising and falling: Chuck Prophet. While we were driving around L.A. looking for great ramen noodles, I stole a copy of Soap and Water off the floor of his van. Holy smokes! I mean, I knew he was good, but seriously:

"I like the way you freckle
I like the way you peel
I love to see your hair in a mess
It's been a long September
Gonna be a longer winter
Lemme help you out of that dress, 'fore you catch a cold...."

That throwaway line at the end, to mar the rhyme: heck yes! Swagger. Attitude.

What you sayin'?

Live music will never die. Livemusicwillneverdielivemusicwillneverdielivemusicwillneverdie. Everyone's in a tizzy about the collapse of the record industry and I just can't find the bandwidth to give a rip about it. I mean, let's step back a minute: songs, for the first few thousand years we had them, were these mysterious ghosty things that existed utterly (and only!) temporally. You want some songs? Sing 'em, or go find somebody who can.

Then, sheet music. Then victrolas, and radio, and phonographs, and tape, and guys up in the International Space Station covering 'Major Tom' into video cameras. And all that's cool: no tape, no Steve Reich, no Beatles, nobody gets to hear Blind Willie Johnson play 'Dark Was the Night' -- I get it. Media are great, artistically, they open vital avenues of expression. Look at the cover of Houses of the Holy. But cassettes, vinyl, CD, mp3... the medium was never the point to begin with.

Because you could go to the Basque country fifteen thousand years ago and find one of the last members of the Neanderthal tribe, and he'd recognize what's still true today: you want songs? You really want songs? Media are not going to give 'em to you. You gotta sing 'em yourself. Or find somebody who can.

Live music will never die.

Amelia White – Old Postcard 6/10
David Berkeley – The Fire In My Head 6/10
Peter Mulvey – Silver Ladder 8/10
Robby Hecht – S/T 6/10
Dawn Landes – Bluebird 8/10
House Of Hats - This Love 7/10
Chuck Ragan - Till Midnight 6/10

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