Campfire Tales: Summer 2014

Summer holidays, eh? Who’d have 'em? Well, we would. Thoughts of being lost in a Vermont forest, high up in the Appalachian Mountains, or with a dry mouth in the Arizonan high desert were tempting. Then it turned out the weather was pretty damn great here and a ton of new releases, of unseasonably high quality too, were waiting to be heard, so a sun lounger was placed on the lawn and we fired up the radiogramme instead.

The singer-songwriter

In the male vocal category we've got the sawdust, whisky, tobacco-stained voice of Malcolm Holcombe. Early on he sings “An eye for an eye / A tooth for a tooth” and it sounds like he’s lived life to that mantra, giving up many teeth over the years. Now while that might not sound the best for a vocalist - and on the opening title track the earthiness of his voice does stun you a little - but Pitiful Blues showcases the 55 year old's well honed musical and lyrical skills. And, really, that sandpaper rough voice just adds an unprecedented level of gravitas to proceedings. As Holcombe growls his way through ‘Roots’ the violin offers a smooth contrast.

(Some breakout reviews this month include Stu Larsen, Richard Thompson, and John Fullbright.)

The duos

The fantastic Goodnight, Texas have released a gem of an album. Their Uncle John Farquhar is a collection of stories from olden times, building catchy melodies and rhythms into a retro (1860’s rather than 1960’s) folk feel. Based on the family history of Patrick Dyer Wolf - half of the band with Avi Vinocur - there are tales of love and death (‘The Horse Accident (In Which A Girl Was All But Killed’)), civil war (the touching ‘Dearest Sarah’, based on a real life letter) and outlaws (‘Moonshiners’). What brings all of these snippets of history together are the evocative lyrics and the light and shade of the music, swinging from the tender ‘I Just Can’t Stop Leaving This Town’ to the deathly ‘Cold Riders’ and the bouncing, gentle ribbing of ‘Hello Nebraska’. Some, ‘Button Your Collar’ and ‘A Bank Robber’s Nursery Rhyme’, are simple banjo flecked folk tales, but they’re just so damn enjoyable. A loose concept album of the highest order, Uncle John Farquhar marries themes from one hundred years ago with production and musicality of today; thrilling and immense fun.

Covering off the garage blues angle are The Ghost Wolves, and if you want it loud then you’ll want to give Man, Woman, Beast a spin. The molasses thick bass will get your bones rumbling, an overwhelming feel of dark lights, still floors, and a rowdy crowd.

Arriving from the Home Counties (Hampshire is a home county right?) are twin sisters Ward Thomas and their Nashville endorsed debut, From Where We Stand. It might sound a strange concept, two girls from just outside Southampton being welcomed with open arms into Music City, but that’s just what happened, and we spoke to them about it recently. It’s difficult to think of a purer country-sounding album released in the last few months, albeit on the poppier end of the guitar string. The duo have caught on in the UK too: they’re a staple on Radio 2 now, even Richard Madeley is enthusing about them… that surely means you’ve made it. As songwriters they’re more advanced than they have any right to be, mixing the rock-pop (lead single ‘Push For The Stride’, ‘The Good and the Right’ and the life lesson of ‘Take That Train’) with the slow and thoughtful (the beautiful title track and ‘Caledonia’, the only track the twins didn’t write). A very accomplished album Ward Thomas have the chops to match the hype.

The bands

The return of Old 97’s has been a long time coming, with the band taking six years out, and this is a proper return to form for the Texans. As a statement of intent, opening track ‘Longer Than You’ve Been Alive’ is ballsy, showcasing the lyrical dexterity of frontman Rhett Miller (“Most of our shows were a triumph of rock / Although some nights I might have been checking the clock”) and his rhyming couplets. Almost a concept album, most of the tracks riff on themes of life as a rockstar and the attendant excesses (beer, whiskey, women), Messed Up is full of rollicking indie Americana songs and wisecracking lyrics, with a whiskey-loosened mentality running throughout.

Folk/bluegrass collective Old Crow Medicine Show are also back, with their latest melting pot of old American styles. Heavy on the fiddle, Remedy is the band veering away from the sound into a more old time sound of straight bluegrass and country. You know what to expect with track titles like ‘Shit Creek’, ‘8 Dogs 8 Banjos’ and ‘Tennessee Bound, and the band don’t disappoint. From the fiddle-crazy tale of prison visits ‘Brushy Mountain Conjugal Trailer’ to the slower, considered ‘Dearly Departed Friend’, and tribute to musical heroes past ‘Doc’s Day’ (“He said if you wanna rock, listen to Doc / If you want the girls better pick like Merle”). An obvious highlight is the Bob Dylan co-written ‘Sweet Amarillo’ which has charm to burn. Old Crow Medicine Show are beyond pushing boundaries of their own music, but they do what they do exceptionally well and are maturing into the finest bluegrass folk band around.

Undeniably the barmiest roots album of the year is Any Way, Shape Or Form by Missouri trio Ben Miller Band, a mental mix of bluegrass, country, blues, vaudeville, rock, and more. Cleverly lulling you into a false sense of security, the band populate the first half of the album with the traditional foot stomper ‘The Outsider’, roaring blues number ‘You Don’t Know’, Seasick Steve on fast forward ‘Hurry Up and Wait’, and the country ballad ‘I Feel For You’. At that point it’s a genuinely brilliant roots album. Then ‘23 Skidoo’, a vaudeville-like tune about fleeting acquaintances and long term loves, before ‘The Cuckoo’ tears up any notion you had about roots music. Oh, and if you want to hear the Pixies do country then ‘Burning Building’ is just that. Bat-shit crazy the whole thing might be but it’s also compelling genius.

With their latest collection of old time music, Newcastle’s Rob Heron and the Tea Pad Orchestra take a trip up the River Tyne on a steamer straight from the Mississippi. Like a Geordie Pokey La Farge they cover ragtime (on ‘Drinking Coffee Rag’), swing (of the kind that Robbie Williams would kill to sound like - ‘Soliel’), blues (by way of yodelling - ‘Small Town Blues’, and more. It hangs together well considering the musical influences and themes it flits between, including musing on the proposed H2 high speed train (on ‘High Speed Train’), and they sound like they’re from New Orleans rather than Newcastle. The only proviso is that you’re either into this kind of thing or you’re not; if not, it’ll grate, but you’ll be as happy as a teenager at Mardi Gras if it is your cup of tea.

Four piece Hunter and the Bear have had a pretty successful twelve months even without the backing of an actual album as yet. Their second EP Before I Come Home continues their folk/soft rock path, with four tracks of the solid kind. More interesting than some, they’re still a middle of the road trio - and it's a tough path to follow.

Coming off the back of 2012’s successful Stars and Satellites album (appearances on David Letterman’s show, a decent spot on the Billboard chart) the Americana of Minnesota’s Trampled By Turtles is evolving. From the sometime frenetic pace of their earlier output into today’s more relaxed form, their latest studio album brings more refinement from the fivesome. When the quality levels are as high as on Wild Animals, this kind of evolution is a good thing. Layered, sumptuous stuff, the fiddle, gently plucked guitars and Dave Simmonett’s plaintive vocals produce quietly affecting stuff on tunes like the haunting title track and ‘Silver Light’. And though the manically paced ‘Come Back Home’ and ‘Western World’ show that they haven’t dumped all of their early verve it’s the lush melancholy of ‘Ghosts’ and the contrasting bass and twang on ‘Lucy’ that really sum up where the band is right now.

Old 97’s – Messed Up 8/10
Ward Thomas – From Where We Stand 8/10
Old Crow Medicine Show – Remedy 7/10
Trampled By Turtles - Wild Animals 8/10
Goodnight, Texas - Uncle John Farquhar 10/10
The Ghost Wolves - Man, Woman, Beast 6/10
Malcolm Holcombe - Pitiful Blues 7/10
Rob Heron & the Tea Pad Orchestra - Talk About The Weather 6/10
Hunter and the Bear – Before I Come Home EP 6/10
Ben Miller Band - Any Way, Shape Or Form 10/10

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