Campfire Tales: October 2014

Autumn. The time of year that the world’s biggest acts release their greatest hits or latest mega-sellers (including former Nashville girl, but now Miss "I'm only pop", Taylor Swift), X Factor contestants release their latest albums, and everyone else crowds in for a grab at some of that Christmas money. Yet the world of this column is much the same: we’ve got records from country music big hitters, a queen of Americana, and a selection of other up-and-comers.


Country music’s closest thing to a hippy - and leader of No Shoe Nation - is back with his year-in-the-making fifteenth studio album, The Big Revival. Yes, Kenny Chesney follows up 2013’s surfer dude Life On A Rock with a big cheesy grin of a country record. The more cynical would read the liner notes and throw the CD in the bin marked “annoyingly trite country music”. Those who are less damning, with a more open nature, will lap up the life-affirming lyrics of the title track, the chipper ‘Beer Can Chicken’, the standout singalong of ‘Flora-Bama’, and the catchy as hell hit single ‘American Kids’. Who wants to be a cynic when there’s music like this to brighten your life?

Fellow behemoth of mainstream country, Tim McGraw, also returns this month with his third studio album in the last three years. Sundown Heaven Town is a pretty straightforward stab at country rock with few surprises and fewer high points. One of those high points is the CMA-nominated (for the grandly titled “Musical Event Of The Year”) ‘Meanwhile Back At Mama’s’ featuring his wife Faith Hill - hence the event - a song about hometowns and family. Again, nothing original there but its sentiment is nice and it makes a change of pace from the guitars-and-McGraw that makes up most of the album.

If you thought Lucinda Williams peaked with her 1998 album Car Wheels On A Gravel Road then you should be reviewing that opinion right about now. Her latest, Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone, is a career-defining double album of the absolute highest order. Some well chosen guests, including Jakob Dylan and Tony Joe White, bring their respective talents to the mix, but Williams is the heart of everything, whether that’s turning one of her fathers poem into the lovely ‘Compassion’, shouting an impassioned cry on ‘Burning Bridges’, getting into a sleazy groove on the fantastic ‘West Memphis’, or the plaintive longing of ‘Wrong Number’. And that’s just disc one. Williams' confidence means that she’s not scared to give the songs the space they need to reach out and grab you. This long twenty tracker is an epic record in scope and achievement. A career high for sure.

Another of those sparse Americana albums that are all the rage comes along this month in the form of Lori McKenna’s Numbered Doors. The Massachusetts songwriter (McKenna has written songs for Little Big Town and scored a Grammy nomination with Hunter Hayes in 2013) packs her eighth album full of spacious acoustic tracks, ‘Stranger In His Kiss’ and ‘All A Woman Wants’ the best of the bunch. At times it’s one paced but it’s lovingly made and affecting.

Irish songstress (and guitar, mandolin, dobro, keyboards, drums and percussion player) Polly Barrett covers the traditional folk bracket this month. Her little-girl-lost delivery contrasts with the sometimes weighty themes of civil war love (‘The Greater Good’), tarts out to get Jack The Ripper (‘Watch Out, Jack’) but suits the traditional folk of tracks like ‘P Stands For Paddy, I Suppose’ perfectly. Ultimately, Probably Me is rather lightweight but full of well realised stories.

On his debut album three years ago Alejandro Rose-Garcia (aka Shakey Graves) was a one man singing / kick drumming machine. On follow-up And The War Came he dials things back whilst adding depth to his sound. The bass-y drum is there from the off on ‘Only Son’ but so is some intricate guitar and a sense of calm. There’s something of an angry Civil Wars about ‘Dearly Departed’, one of the tunes to which Esme Patterson contributes vocals, and a bluesy vibe to ‘The Perfect Parts’. Rose-Garcia has done a fine job of progressing his sound, but not at the expense of the passion that his debut had. Mark this one highly recommended.

Lori McKenna - Numbered Doors 6/10
Polly Barrett - Probably Me 6/10
Lucinda Williams - Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone 10/10
Kenny Chesney - The Big Revival 8/10
Tim McGraw - Sundown Heaven Town 6/10
Shakey Graves - And The War Came 8/10

The duos

Bringing up the folk quota this month are American duo Dave McGraw & Mandy Fer with their second album Maritime. A strong start with the McGraw-led ‘Helicopter’ and its beautiful harmonies sets their stall early, with ‘Compass’ and the sparse ‘Carillon’ continuing the flow. Recorded on an island in Washington State with a handpicked selection of musicians, Maritime has the heart of a folk album with delivery veering into Americana at times. It’s charming, understated and well worth your time.

Dave McGraw & Mandy Fer - Maritime 7/10

The bands

Why Police Dog Hogan aren’t talked about as much as their more twee, more annoying, more traditional British folk brethren Bellowhead is difficult to fathom. Westward Ho! is great - a true love story to the British south west and full of hugely enjoyable and fun folk rock tunes. The towns of Cornwall and Devon get an especially loving focus on ‘West Country Boy’, and any track that names checks Foy, Melksham and Redruth deserves kudos (“Then the drummer disappeared / Came back in Redruth / Said he’d pulled a girl in Mere”). The band's large number (there are eight of them) is put to good use with a variety of trumpet and fiddle sections that channel the E Street Band on ‘From The Land Of Miracles’ and ‘A Man Needs A Shed’ among others. The record is driven on by James Studholme’s vocals which take charge and dominate throughout, but they’re a band where the parts make the whole; a very British band with a wonderfully British heart.

Coming on like an older more mature version of The Band Perry, the fifth album from Nashville’s Lady Antebellum is as you’d expect. It’s slick, poppy, shiny, catchy, country, and all the other y’s you can think of. A prime example is lead track ‘Bartender’, the kind of well produced country-pop that Nashville does so well these days and songs like ‘Down South’ are the reason that the trio are headlining the UK’s Country 2 Country (C2C) Festival at the O2 next year in London. There are times though when their country-by-numbers take on things makes you wish for a bit more of the spunk that some of their contemporaries bring to the party.

As singer of ‘One Of Us’ in the 90’s Joan Osbourne made the big time and became one of the decade's biggest one hit wonders. Now almost 20 years later she’s turned her hand to bar room blues as part of super-ish group Trigger Hippy, along with assorted members of Black Crowes. The album itself has echoes of the Crowes' blues-rock stylings, and is not afraid to take its time, most tracks are around the five minute mark allowing each tune room to breath; ‘Tennessee Mud’ and its extended outro lead the way. ‘Heartache On The Line’ is a great tune but too often the band fall into a rhythm of verse-chorus-verse-chorus-guitar solo-bit of a jam-verse which betrays their roots as a behind-closed-doors jamming band.

With their ten track split almost perfectly between good old rock ‘n’ roll and Americana, Boston’s Girls Guns & Glory return with their fifth album Good Luck. The band have stated their influence by Eddie Cochran and Chuck Berry and tracks like ‘Be Your Man’, ‘Shake Like Jello’, and ‘C’mon Honey’ are 1960s rock homage all the way. The flip side are the Americana of ‘One Of These Days’ and ‘Centralia, PA’ and the country lilt of ‘Rockin’ Chair Money’. It’s all very serviceable but it would be nice to see the band put some more of their own personality into their music.

Featuring actual brothers (Brad and Andrew), and an instrument they may have made up (a cardboardium?) The Barr Brothers' latest has layers upon layers and from the opening instrumental track they just don’t let up. You can hear the care and attention they’ve taken over the song constructions (the inclusion of a harp amongst the pedal steel on ‘Wolves’, the opening burst of acoustic noodling on ‘Even The Darkness’); it’s deliberate but no less enthralling for it. A touch of Hammond organ on ‘Come In The Water’, the slight Japanese sounds on ‘Little Lover’ and some scathing blues guitar on ‘Half Crazy’ gives you some idea of the vision here; they’ll take on all comers. Despite the breadth of reach the band keep it together and there are enough shared motifs to ensure consistency across the thirteen tracks.

Police Dog Hogan - Westward Ho! 9/10
Lady Antebellum - 747 7/10
Trigger Hippy - Trigger Hippy 7/10
Girls Guns and Glory - Good Luck 6/10
The Barr Brothers - Sleeping Operator 8/10

The tribute

If you’re not familiar with Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears, it’s a concept album focussing on the tales of the Native Americans over the years, shedding light on some of the darker aspects of American history. The clumsily titled remake, Look Again To The Wind: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears Revisited, serves the original songs well and is a beautiful treatment of some deeply affecting stories. A cast of country’s finest take on the songs with the standouts of a strong record being the stunning eloquence of ‘As Long As The Grass Shall Grow’ by Gillian Welch & Dave Rawlings, the spoken word of ‘The Talking Leaves’, the achingly gorgeous vocals of Rhiannon Giddens' version of ‘The Vanishing Race’, and Kris Kristofferson’s emotional reading of ‘The Ballad of Ira Hayes’. A fantastic must buy.

Various - Look Again To The Wind: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears Revisited 9/10

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