Monday, 15 May 2017

Ray Davies-Americana

Americana, the new Ray Davies solo album is a musical companion piece to his 2013 autobiography of the same name. The album reveals a deep fascination with American culture and his own experiences traversing its endless highways as a member of The Kinks. Davies is ably assisted on his journey with The Jayhawks providing subtle and sympathetic backing, it's an inspired choice that really enhances the record.

The title track delves into Davies' fascination with American culture, reminiscing on his childhood memories of American movies and his desire to escape his inner London surroundings for the uncertain expectations of the endless American highway. "Runnin high on inspiration, taken from those wile west heroes. Full of expectations of the road, on that windin trail to somewhere. Young and foolish though he did not care what dangers lay in store and so."

The acerbic The Deal is Davies at his best, with his tongue firmly in his cheek as he skewers the shallow falseness of Los Angeles. Even in his contempt of what he sees around him he still views the city through a romantic lens, "Isn't it wonderful, marvellous, utterly surreal. Totally fabulous, fraudulent, bogus and unreal. This is my lucky day, I'll travel to L.A and get myself a deal."

Message from The Road is the album's highlight a poignant heartfelt reflection on The Kinks first visit to the U.S in 1965. Newly married and with a newborn daughter at home Davies ruminates on the loneliness and isolation he feels as the band travel from town to town on that endless American highway. With the glittering lights upon him Davies feels the pull of the rock and roll lifestyle and the guilt that it comes with. Davies duets with the Jayhawks' Karen Grotberg and her amazing delicate vocals add to the emotional depth.

Worn and weary from the journey along the endless highway Davies asks the question where do the rock 'n' roll cowboys go when the road runs out, is there a new horizon or do you wind up on a shaky bar stool at the Last Chance Saloon. In the twilight of his life Davis still has questions to ask and mysteries to solve. "Rock 'n' roll cowboys on the ol wagon train, you had your time but it won't come again. You rode the prairie and always stood proud, so tall in the saddle and your was not bowed."

A Long Drive Home To Tarzana has Ray searching for stability, the endless highway is desolate and disconnected but where is home? The glorious sunshine of California beckons the utopia that is Tarzana, open space and tranquillity, it's been a long drive home but the experience has been worth it. The Great Highway is the perfect definition of the ethos of Americana, the widespread vista with its illusions of hope and promise, an intoxicating promise for a young man from North London. "The great illusion it may be but always something there to see. Always some hick little down to pick you up when you are down. Another day, another shake, malted with a slice of cake."

Americana is Davies doing what he does best, creating a vintage panorama, where once the lens was turned towards the peculiarities of English life he now casts his light upon the great highways of America. These roads weren't often kind to him and the Kinks in the early days but they never diluted his sense of romanticism and enthusiasm for the American Dream.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Father John Misty-Pure Comedy

These strange, curious times are made for an artist like Father John Misty aka Josh Tillman, life as we know it is a strange circus with all manner of freaks and sideshows taking centre stage. To look at it there is a sense of bewilderment that this is being passed off as normal transmission, folks don't adjust your sets. Pure Comedy the third instalment from Father John eviscerates modern society taking aim at everything from political power to our pre-occupation with the latest mind distracting gadget. Father John has this incisive knack of tearing the modus operandi to shreds, ripping open the curtain and exposing it to his special brand of ridicule and condemnation. Pure Comedy is grandiose and bombastic in equal measure, Father John treads a highwire carefully avoiding the pitfall of self indulgence. Articulate and forthright in dissecting the current state of the human landscape Tillman is brutal in his assessment of modern society, set against a dramatic musical backdrop where the sombre tones of a piano dominate.

The title track portrays life as some sort of sadistic tragi-comedy, with humans at the centre of this dystopian nightmare from the moment we exit the womb. Tillman lights the blowtorch on the insidious nature of ideology the concept of religion being a type of moral subjugation where it's not permissible to question the content or context. The song has a claustrophobic feel to it, heightening the sense of fear at its core, producer Jonathan Wilson has stripped it all back so that Tillman and his piano are centre stage.

"Oh comedy, their illusions that they have no choice but to believe,
Their horizons that just forever recede,
And how's this for irony, their idea of being free is a prison of beliefs,
That they never have to leave."

Total Entertainment has an Orwellian fear to it, the concept that we are becoming trapped in an alternative state of constant gratification through technology. Our reality is becoming more distorted, more controlled by the technology that we embrace there is a growing desire to be constantly distracted and entertained.

"Can you believe how far we've come
In the New Age
Freedom to have what you want,
In the New Age we'll all be entertained,
Rich or poor the channels are all the same,
You're a star now, baby, so dry your tears
You're just like them
Wake on up from the nightmare."

The sombre Ballad of The Dying Man features stripped back surroundings with the focus on a haunting piano melody, it's a stinging riposte on all those that commentate and judge in our society, those that falsely predict and analyse.

The highlight of the album is the 13 minute epic Leaving LA, a brilliant vast landscape with an eerie cinematic tone, it's like Father John is standing under a spotlight in a suit with the orchestra in the pit below. It begins as a scathing critique of the shallowness of L.A, "leave under the gaze of the billboard queen's. Five foot chicks with parted lips selling sweatshop jeans." He then turns inward with a self deprecating examination of his own career and the way in which he is portrayed in the mainstream musical press.

When the God of Love Return There'll Be Hell To Pay finds Father John once again at the precipice, the looming dawn of judgement day is here and it's time to ask the question of what has mankind achieved. Within the setting of solitary piano and a ghostly choir the answer is not much, and we say it's just human, human nature. This place is savage and unjust, we crawled out of the darkness and endured your impatience. We're more than willing to adjust, and now you've got the gall to judge us".

Two Wildly Different Perspectives is the most overt in terms of it's analysis of our current political climate, there is a certain sense of despair in the reality that we are caught in the mire of an ideological divide. A divide that is more like a chasm that no longer allows for rational discourse, Misty draws a line where the only common thread is the polarisation of both sides. "One side says, "Man take what's yours", the other says "live on no more than you can afford". But either way we just possess and everyone ends up with less, on both sides."

For some it feels like Father John is pushing the listener to the edge, Pure Comedy is a lot to consume, the beauty of this record is it's reach is cerebral. Delving so deeply into it you start to ask questions and peak behind the curtain of this charade, what you are confronted with is unappetizing but at least you now know.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

The Jayhawks-Paging Mr Proust

Paging Mr Proust is the eagerly awaited new studio album from The Jayhawks, it’s an ambitious undertaking whilst still preserving that familiar melodic framework of their previous albums. With ex REM guitarist Peter Buck producing the Jayhawks create a vast and changing sonic landscape that retains its cohesion with sterling musicianship and great songwriting from Gary Louris.

Quite Corners & Empty Spaces evokes the jangling pop guitars and harmonies of Big Star and early REM. Louris who is now the bands principal songwriter displays a literary bent, each song a vignette of lives passing by and a distinct sense of isolation and withdrawal. Lost The Summer is the Jayhawks at their most ragged, clashing guitars and defiant vocals frame a song about alienation and anger. Lovers of the Sun sounds like the Byrds’ during their mid 60’s heyday it’s upbeat sound beguiles a sense of the futility of running from life. Leaving The Monsters Behind draws on a similar theme, the fallacy of trying to escape from the past.

Isabel’s Daughter is a superbly crafted tale of the possibilities and pitfalls of the young as they stand on the precipice of adulthood. Ace sees the band exiting their comfort zone, employing elements of electronica and lo fi distortion it provides a nice contrast to the more bright melodic structure of the album. The Devil Is In Her Eyes has a stream of consciousness feel, it’s inspiration appearing in the second verse, “David Wallace Foster said what goes on inside your head is too complicated to be said.”

Comeback Kids is the most overt display of the REM influence, the melodic guitar lines and the tight harmonies. Another vignette that binds itself to a thread that runs throughout the album, this time a more exuberant reflection of the past. The Dust Of Long Dead Stars traces the darker side of Los Angeles, the broken dreams an unfulfilled ambitions. Lies In Black and White sifts from the personal domain to a caustic examination of what we read in our newspaper. Referring to the more conservative strand of the American media where information is often wrapped in a warped bias.

Paging Mr Proust is a step forward for the band, each song delicately carved with lyrics that read like novels. Casts of characters experiencing the turmoil and uncertainty of life against a backdrop layered harmonies and precise melodies. There are moments where the band push beyond the ornate beauty to something more stripped and rough and there is true magic in those moments.

Saturday, 30 April 2016

Charles Bradley-Changes

Changes, the third studio album from the screaming eagle of soul himself Charles Bradley is his most consistent and cohesive album to date. Backed by the Daptone studio house band featuring members of the Menahan Street Band and the Budos Band, Changes is built on a bedrock of lean funky rhythms and soulful melodic grooves. Its gritty nature conveys the uncertainty of life and there is no better singer to capture that feeling than Bradley.

Opening with the patriotic fervour of God Bless America with Naomi Shelton and The Gospel Queens providing uplifting harmonies, Bradley extols the virtues of his homeland in a heartfelt half spoken tribute. Good To Be Back Home is barnstorming funk recalling the heady days of James Brown in the late 60’s.  Nobody But You is classic mid tempo Northern Soul, the horn refrain recalls the seventies classic Summer Breeze. Ain’t Gonna Give It Up is a great vehicle for Bradley’s almost tortured sounding vocals, impassioned and urgent Bradley always makes you feel a deep undercurrent of emotion with his performance. Producer and guitarist Thomas Brennick is the master of understatement on this album, allowing Bradley’s voice to be front and centre, he creates a tasteful soundscape where the horns create an impact but you hardly know they are there.

The title track is a cover of a Black Sabbath song and would seem an incongruous choice for a cover but Bradley takes it and owns it. The song builds slowly with Brennick channelling Curtis Mayfield in his opening guitar part before unleashing the horns in the chorus. Ain’t It A Sin is pure party funk with an insistent pulsing rhythm, it also displays Bradley’s virtuosity he is just as comfortable with the uptempo tunes as he is with the slow burners. Things We Do For Love sounds like classic Chicago male vocal group soul from the mid 60’s, whether it’s the Radiants, the Impressions or the Marvelloes.

You Think I Don’t Know has a more expansive sound with the Gospel Queens adding their crisp harmonies. Change For The World harks back to the more politically conscious work of artists like Sly Stone and Funkadelic. Bradley has seen many ups and downs in his life, it’s reflected in his music there is an aching sadness in his voice but also a determined sense of acceptance for all that is happened. It’s that ethos that shapes his songs, it’s perhaps part of the reason why he continues to build a loyal and ever growing following.

Friday, 29 April 2016

Sturgill Simpson- A Sailor's Guide To Earth

A Sailor’s Guide To Earth is the brilliant third studio album from Sturgill Simpson - an artist who deftly defies musical category. Where his previous album Metamodern Sounds in Country and Western gave Nashville a psychedelic twist, his new album explores the musical territory beyond the confines of Nashville or country music in general. This is a work with a purpose. Constructed as a concept album A Sailor’s Guide To Earth sets out a framework of life lessons for Simpson’s young son. Simpson was partly inspired by the work of Marvin Gaye, especially his masterpiece What’s Going On, a song cycle that ruminated on the Vietnam War, poverty and racism. It’s a brilliant collection of songs. Simpson is in a wistful, reflective mood. His bond with his son and his desires for his future are palpable. Concept albums are difficult, trying to create a cohesive message both lyrically and musically is a challenge, but it’s one that Simpson meets with honesty and an impeccable musical vision. Not one to play it safe Simpson continues to push himself as an artist, and the fruits of that are on display.

The opening track Welcome To Earth (Pollywog) is a perfect sucker punch for the curious listener, with its prog adornment you might be thinking you are at the start of an epic ride. You are but the ride doesn’t turn out exactly like you thought. As it reaches a mid point crescendo suddenly you are transported to the swamps of Muscle Shoals with soulful horns and Simpson sounding like a southern soul shouter. Breakers Roar is a lament on the life of a professional musician, “how easy it is to drown in a dream” that becomes reality and then offers up conflicting priorities. Becoming a father has had a profound impact on Simpson and caused him to question the decisions and paths he has taken.

The wry Keep It Between The Lines is a sublime slice of country funk with some blasting horns courtesy of the crew at Daptone in New York. Here Simpson provides some guidance for his son during his formative years declaring “keep your head out the clouds, and remember to be kind, and just stay in school, stay off the drugs and keep between the lines”. Sea Stories provides a back story for Simpsons’ young son detailing his time serving in the United States Navy. Musically it shares a connection with Metamodern sounds with its strident country rock sound. Taking risks is ingrained so taking on Nirvana’s In Bloom seems in keeping with that method. Stripping the song away to its bare elements gives it added effect, and slowly Simpson builds an aching soulful melody for a song that had an enormous impact on him during his early teens.

Brace For Impact is a daring mix of country and prog rock with an insistent pounding synth line an incongruous mix that just works. Along those dark musical edges Simpson has another message to his son, make to give a little and make to live a little. All Around You is another Muscle Shoals throwback, Simpson telling his young protégé “there will be days when the sun won’t shine. When it seems like the whole world is against you. Don’t be afraid, life in unkind, you can let go of the pain if you choose to”. The album closes with the barnstorming Call To Arms and Simpson tells it like it is.  The ills of the world are laid open bare. Effortlessly mixing his spaced out country rock with elements of soul and funk this is an amazing end to the record. In a similar vein to What’s Goin On the album ends on a note of brutal honesty about the state of the world. Already this album is generating a buzz you rarely see for an artist who is only just beginning to emerge from the shadows. 

Margo Price-Midwest Farmers Daughter

Midwest Farmers Daughter is the striking debut from Nashville singer songwriter Margo Price. Conjuring up the same aching honesty and fierce defiance as Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette this album blazes a new path from the more sanitised country music that comes out of Nashville. It’s at times heartbreaking and harrowing in equal measure. Recording at the famed Sun Studios in Memphis gives this album an added depth. It seems appropriate that with the anti Nashville corporate sentiment predominant throughout the album that she should find a home with Jack White’s Third Man Records.

Hands of Time is one of the most poignant autobiographical songs you will hear.  It details with remarkable candour her early years growing up on a farm that was re-possessed. It also casts an eye on her early days in Nashville where she was used and abused by the industry, before settling down to raise a family only to endure the terrible hardship of losing her son to a heart ailment. Despite all the torment she has lived through, the one thing she truly wants is to buy back the farm for her parents. About To Find Out is a provocative statement perhaps directed at the Nashville establishment, or for those within its confines that are brimming over with confidence. As a songwriter Price has mastered the economy of words and how to gain the most impact from them.

Tennessee Song is a tribute to the simpler aspects of that state, being far removed from the hustle and schemes of Nashville.  Living off the land away from the poison of city life it’s all about the traditions of the southern life. Four Years of Chances is a slice of sprightly country funk with a great rumbling bass line that opens the song. It harks back to the themes first explored by the likes of Loretta Lynn, the wife pushed to the brink only to find her strength in her moment of despair. This Town Gets Around is a stinging indictment of the Nashville music scene, where as a young artist it’s clear that Price was taken advantage. It’s a story that is as old as Music Row but it’s refreshing to hear it told like it is.

Hurtin (On the Bottle) harks back to more traditional country fare - the battle with the bottle. World’s Greatest Loser shows Price at her most vulnerable. Her voice is amazing against the backdrop of a lilting acoustic guitar. It’s a short song but it links up with Hands of Time, where she had suffered so much loss there was only the love of her life to hold on too. The album closes on the down and out Desperate and Depressed. It’s a haunting tune that is a chronicle of struggle, it’s emotional sentiment is very visceral.
Midwest Farmer’s Daughter is a remarkably mature debut album, the writing is forthright and candid. Price opens up about the challenges she has faced but she meets those challenges with resolve, defiance and a sense of humour. 

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Jason Isbell-Croxton Hotel bandroom 01.04.16

It was a treat to see an artist like Jason Isbell in an intimate setting like the Croxton band room. I was immediately struck by the ease with which he makes a connection with his audience, the honesty and realism of his songs continue to build him a devoted following.

His new album Something More Than Free showcases a songwriter becoming more at ease with himself and looking at the world around him, especially the insular world of small town America. That album featured prominently in his live set, 24 Frames finds an appreciative response from the crowd. Isbell dips into the past with a powerful version of Decoration Day from his days with the Drive By Truckers. His band the 400 unit featuring guitarist Sadler Vaden, bassist Jimbo Hart, keys player Derry Deborja and drummer Chad Gamble are an exceptional backing unit, Vaden and Isbell traded guitar licks throughout the gig.

Isbell brings the temperature down with a trio of songs that capture the dissolute nature of a lot of his characters, Different Days, Hudson Commodore and The Life You Chose. Isbell performs them with a restrained sensitivity, he opens things up on Cover Me Up his voice is remarkably powerful. Another classic from Southeastern, Stockholm closes the show, I've been lucky to have caught some good Bluesfest sideshows this week and this gig was a standout. There are few performers like Jason Isbell touring around these days so if he is in your city make sure you check him out.