Campfire Tales: November 2014

Filling the sweet voiced folk slot this month are two contrasting artists, Michelle Lewis and Jenny Gillespie. Lewis takes the more traditional route with her second release, The Part Of Us That Still Remains. The softly sweet ‘Sorry I Forgot To Write’ and ‘None Of That Now’, along with the slightly twee ‘Just Like A Movie’ summarize the album in a nutshell. Illinois’ Gillespie on the other hand, bends and twists the traditional into something pretty damn weird, yet undeniably intriguing. Things sound out of time: the rhythms are off, and the vocals move across the stereo field, all with the intent of not allowing you to settle. ‘Dirty Gold Parasol’ has electronic whirs and beeps, the affecting ‘Lift The Collar’ melds sweet harp and relaxing strings with jabbing electric guitar chords but is somehow more straightforward. The title track disconcerts, swathing itself in harp and Gillespie’s chanting.

Chamma from Jenny Gillespie on Vimeo.

Covering the same bases for the fellas are purveyor of fine Americana Jim Keaveny and Irish singer-songwriter Cormac O Caoimh. Keaveney’s Out Of Time is his fifth record blending good honest folk and country into something resembling 60s Bob Dylan, especially when the harmonica comes out on ‘Eugene To Yuma’. The prominent use of accordion gives the record something of a European flavour. O Caoimh is more straightforward. Big on drums and guitar there are some strings on ‘Yellow Crumbs’ but the standout title track, ‘The Moon Loses Its Memory’, is playful and idiosyncratic. Yet too many of the fourteen songs are unremarkable. ‘Solid’ and ‘Place A Letter On My Front Porch’ may make you lift your head but the rest are lightweight and forgettable.

If guitar virtuosity is your thing then Tommy Emmanuel’s collection, the aptly - and not too modestly - titled The Guitar Mastery of Tommy Emmanuel is the Christmas gift for you. Obvious staples like ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ and ‘Endless Road’ are backed up by a smattering of live tracks and two new songs. Obviously there’s much to admire here - Emmanuel is a genuine guitar genius - but the one-paced instrumental nature of all 28 tracks makes this for fans only.

Banjo fans should check out Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn, whose self-titled release is something of a shrine to the instrument. The album cover has sumptuous photos of banjos, the liner notes point out which type of banjo is used on each track, and there’s a love note to the instrument in the centre pages. Make no mistake the banjo is the heart, soul, and voice of this record. Washburn contributes vocals but the variety and tone of the banjo lead each track, and as the entire thing is written and/or arranged by the duo it's hard to deny their passion and enthusiasm.

A bit more variety comes forth on the latest from Sarah Borges, her fourth album. Its radio friendly MOR rock presses a lot of the right buttons; in the 90s there were many female artists making this kind of thing. By moving ever further away from her original country sound though - some slight slide guitar on the title track aside - Borges is keeping her options open. Radio Sweetheart is to the point at a touch over 30 minutes, and unashamedly mainstream.

Bluegrass is under-represented in this column; it’s also kind of the black sheep of the country family, harder to grasp than mainstream country, not quite so accessible maybe. Run Boy Run are a case for the defence. The Tucson, Arizona quintet’s Something To Someone is something of a delight, taking the form at a slower pace than many, touching on easy listening in places. The sweet ‘Spin A Golden Thread’ and ‘Oh Momma (Won’t You Tell Me What To Do?)’ are obvious highlights.

Chart heavyweights Little Big town reached a commercial peak on their previous record, Tornado, and follow it with another LP of radio friendly country, Painkiller. In fact it’s so intent on being heard that it’s pushed the original country stylings of the band to the verge of extinction: rock-pop beats and riffs lead the way this time. Still, they’re sticking with country themes (‘Quit Breaking Up With Me’ and ‘Day Drinking’ speak for themselves) and the quartet are great at what they do: slick productions, excellent vocals, and some top notch melodies all mean that album six is their most polished yet.

After husband Garth Brooks’ return to new music, one of the 90s' favourite singer-songwriters Trisha Yearwood has taken the slightly unusual step of re-recording her greatest hits for her first album in seven years, Prizefighter. Adding in some new tracks, including the powerhouse title track (a duet with Kelly Clarkson) really gives the album a fresh feel. For the uninitiated this could be a brand new record, rather than the fine polish of older works that it is.

Oh, Willie! How you’re spoiling us this year! His second release of 2014 after the summer’s excellent Band Of Brothers, Willie Nelson is back, this time with his sister in tow. The first part of a promised series of archive releases, December Days: Willie’s Stash Vol. 1 is a collection curated by the country great and his sister Bobbie. Consisting of Willie’s versions of tracks by the likes of Al Jolson and Irving Berlin, mixed in with plenty of his own compositions, it has an old school feel to it. Very simple and pared back, often just his voice and piano or guitar, it’s beautifully judged and showcases a musician still at the peak of his game, even after decades at the top. If the rest of the archive series contains songs as lovely as ‘Amnesia’ and ‘Summer Of Roses’, and as understated as ‘What’ll I Do’ then they’ll be a treat.

Finally, almost-super group Hard Working Americans release a live album and documentary, The First Waltz - see what they did there? Showcasing their blues-rock backgrounds it’s a decent enough set of tracks that allow them to play to their strengths as a well oiled jam band.

Next month it's Album Of The Year time and we'll be counting down the top ten albums covered under the Campfire Tales moniker in 2014. Join us in early December for the countdown.

Jim Keaveny - Out Of Time 7/10
Cormac O Caoimh - The Moon Loses Its Memory 6/10
Michelle Lewis - The Part Of Us That Still Remains 6/10
Jenny Gillespie - Shamma 7/10
Tommy Emmanuel - The Guitar Mastery of Tommy Emmanuel 6/10
Sarah Borges - Radio Sweetheart 7/10
Trisha Yearwood - Prizefighter 7/10
Willie Nelson & Sister Bobbie - December Day: Willie’s Stash Vol.1 8/10
Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn - S/T 7/10
Run Boy Run - Something To Someone 8/10
Little Big Town - Painkiller 8/10
Hard Working Americans - The First Waltz 6/10

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