Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Festive Fifteen 2011 - Down from Good Luck Mountain...

Another year over, and here's what I've done... the fourth Gilded Palace Festive Fifteen is with us! You can hear songs from each of the albums on this list on the current edition of the Gilded Palace radio show at www.totallyradio.com - the show will be free to listen (stream any time!) until December 23rd January 7th (a festive roll-over!). Happy New Year!

1 Good Luck Mountain – Good Luck Mountain (00:02:59)

Songs recorded for Drew Glackin, multi-instrumentalist with(amongst others) Tandy, who were helmed by Mike Ferrio. Drew passed away in 2008. With Drew gone, Mike was unsure what shape or name his future music would take, so integral was his friend and bandmate to the 'feel' of Tandy. It made perfect sense, then, when song ideas started to come which suggested a memorial to Drew was on the cards. And what a memorial! As high and grand and beautiful as (Mike tells us) is the crest in the Adirondacks of upstate New York that lends its name both to the band and the record.

The lyrics don’t really tell a story - not one we listeners can understand anyway. I have a strong feeling that Mike could piece one together for us though. However fleeting, the words do leave an imprint, so that after numerous listening you find yourself reciting lines about tweaking the tail of the Devil or children jumping through waterfalls. Out of context, you might wonder what it’s all about, but in the midst of the 40-odd minutes that this album bares itself, you 'feel’ it all makes perfect sense. In a lyrical and a musical sense, this album is an oasis of calm, affording time to reflect. At first you might set out to reflect on its own content and meaning, eventually - when this has eluded you – you realise just how much of your own experience is invested in listening. It has become ‘yours’ too. I think that’s something Mike (and Drew) would like.

Link track: Good Luck Mountain - The Perfect Circle from Ark PR's Soundcloud page:

Buy from: 00:02:59 Records site (US) on vinyl (limited white vinyl!) and CD Band Website: http://www.goodluckmountain.com/

2 Richmond Fontaine – The High Country (Décor/Diverse Records)

The High Country marks the point where Richmond Fontaine’s musical and literary (Willy’s books) efforts become one. It has been described to me as “Willy’s fourth book”, which in many ways it is. In fact it needs to be approached as such, at least in the first place: sure, there are enough echoes of Fontaine’s already eclectic musical palette (the thump of Safety’s Song For Dead Moon a template for On A Spree, the keening lament of Thirteen Cities’ Lost In This World mirrored in I Can See A Room), so fans can get a foothold, but this album could not be further from last effort We Used To Think The Freeway Sounded Like A River. Where that album was accessible and cohesive, this one is challenging and fractured – both of those are meant as compliments. I like challenging music; music that requires some effort on the part of the listener. No-one will understand this album on first listen; few will get it after the third or fourth. So many of Willy’s songs have been sung in the first person (him recounting what was happening to him – whether real or imaginary); here we get songs from all the characters in the story, whereby the work takes on a cinematic rather than simply literary quality (isn’t it easier to shift the focus between characters in films than it is in books?) So, what’s the story? I’m not telling: you wouldn’t believe me.

The tour undertaken to support the album added material that doesn’t appear on the record – including two of the story’s best songs. Timber Tom and C.H.A.I.N.S.A.W might arguably have stolen the (recorded) show; on stage, they proved that this is after all just a story and that the band don’t take it (or themselves) too seriously. The rest of the world are likely going to have to start doing that very soon...

Link Track: Richmond Fontaine - Lost in the Trees from Trash Aesthetics Soundcloud page

Buy from: Décor Records (UK) on CD - and Diverse Records (UK) on vinyl (superb pressing - and their shipping packaging is the best I've ever seen!) Band Website: http://richmondfontaine.com/

3 Danny And The Champions Of The World – Hearts & Arrows (So/Loose/Diverse Records)

Admittedly, Danny Wilson would probably have to make a drum and bass album for me to give it anything less than top marks. He hasn’t gone quite that far with Hearts And Arrows. I guess it was hinted at on last album Streets of Our Time, where Follow The River got more than a bit anthemnic, and maybe Danny’s tendency to improvise/divert into a Springsteen song or two at gigs should have given us a clue, but he has still made a record quite unlike anything he’s put his name to before. Opener Ghosts In the Wire throws down the gauntlet (If you’re gonna cut me down, you’d better make it count!) and there’s no let up until Danny reminds us he’s not Too Tough To Cry. If this all sounds a bit clichéd, it is: it’s meant to be!

This is a record born out of a love for Graham Parker, Bruce Springsteen, Nick Lowe: rock and roll with an R’n’B pulse (and I mean what Doctor Feelgood called R’n’B, not the hip-hop stuff kids are gorging on nowadays). Tight melody, punchy rhythm section, terrace-chant backing vocals, soaring saxophone solos: it is the E-Street Band by way of Canvey (rather than Coney) Island.

As ever, Danny is at his best when he sings from his heart. Brothers In The Night does that so well here with its passage about pretending to be the Beastie Boys and getting into mosh pits, but the standout track for this and so many other reasons is Every Beat Of My Heart. It’s an anthem for UK alt-country, referencing The Arlenes, Rockingbirds and Bucketful of Brains magazine against a backdrop of a heady, emotional night at London’s Borderline. Maybe I like it so much because I happened to be at the gig in question, maybe it’s just a brilliant song,

It will be interesting to see where Danny takes this next: the band and the songs are so strong it would be a shame not to make another album in this mould, but he’s a restless soul, every Champs album so far has been a little different. Maybe another of these wouldn’t hurt, to let people catch up – I get the feeling a lot more people have heard about him/them in the past six months or so. Next, 2012? Who do we call about the Springsteen support slots…?

Link Track: Danny & The Champions Of The World - Ghosts In The Wire from SoRecords' Soundcloud page:

Band Website: http://www.dannyandthechamps.com/

4 Elle Osborne – So Slowly Slowly Got She Up (Folk Police)

Timing is everything, so they say: so, it was appropriate to discover this record at a time when I was finding myself drawn more and more into English/British (as opposed to American) folk. I had been aware of Elle for a few years, quite liked her last record (we even promoted a show with her, alongside her friend James Yorkston). Hadn't seen her for a while, though, and wondered from time to time where she had got to. I was horrified to discover that she had been involved in a terrible accident in which she and her bicycle got the worse of a speeding car, and spent months recovering from both the physical and mental damage. That she came through that trauma to produce such a terrific record is testament to her strength of purpose and belief in traditional songcraft. Having learnt these songs the old way (first-hand) from the likes of Barry Dransfield and Shirley Collins, Elle gathered around her a cast of stellar (and sympathetic) players, including percussionist, Alex Neilson, (Trembling Bells).

Elle has made a record that is at once traditional but ground-breaking, that moves folk forward and that puts her alongside the likes of Yorkston et al. She deserves to be heard all over Radio 2 and a mooted live partnership (with Neilson and cellist Bella Emerson), could have many followers of Bellowhead and co. drooling with excitement when they see it.

Link Track: Elle Osborne - The Dalesman's Litany (from Folk Police Soundcloud page)
Buy from: Folk Police's Elle Osborne page (where there are also two more tracks to listen to) Website: http://www.elleo.com/

5 Richard Buckner – Our Blood (Décor/Merge)

It would be hard to imagine a record having a more troubled birth than Our Blood: tape machines dying, stolen laptops and homicide investigations bedevilled Buckner over a five-year period. It must have been for the good of the music: it’s hard to imagine him having made a better album. Even the title is appropriate – the feel of the record is a constant, pulsing presence (there are times when it feels so familiar you wonder if a song has been repeated – it hasn’t).

Stylistically, Our Blood shares a lot with other records on this list – in particular, Dolorean and Peter Bruntnell: lyrically it is similar to list-topper, Good Luck Mountain, with phrases appearing out of the mist of the music, becoming clearer (or, rather, having meaning invested in them) the more you hear them. “Near the start, spreading out and stranded somewhere, waving” only start to make some kind of sense when you’re familiar with them – and even then it’s not something you could explain particularly well. With Buckner’s vocals, it’s all in the delivery, his voice dipping and soaring with its customary (almost folk-like) phrasing, bending words as if to find new sounds and syllables. Where I think Our Blood works so well, is paring back the instrumentation to showcase his voice: less maybe is more after all. Perhaps this economy is out of necessity (recorded at the third attempt, time pressing etc.), maybe being forced to revisit these songs again made him realise how simple it could all be. Simple in execution, overwhelming in appreciation.

Arguably, his best record in a catalogue of great records, Our Blood feels like a synopsis of all that’s great about what Richard Buckner does. It has an immersive quality that gives the impression it has lasted twice the short 30-odd minutes it actually takes. Really what I suppose I want to say is I wish it would never end.

Link Track: Traitor (via Aquarium Drunkard site)
Website: http://www.richardbuckner.com/

6 Southern Tenant Folk Union – Pencaitland (Johnny Rocks)

When I first heard this album (on a CD-R, without the benefit of a sleeve or song titles) I immediately had to listen back a second time – I thought I’d heard a fantastic concept album, but was missing out of the story. Turns out I wasn’t (it’s not exactly a concept album) but I kept listening. This is STFU’s most ground-breaking, inventive work yet, and is essential listening – story or no story.

Having undergone substantial line-up changes, it was already interest to fans (like me) to see what STFU would come up with next. The change in line-up has been music’s wider gain, of course – Pete Gow now working wonders with Case Hardin, for starters - but with accomplished songwriters like him and Oliver gone, how would “STFU III” fare?

Good as versions I and II were, III are a revelation. Most surprising is an apparent move away from any Americana or bluegrass stylings they might have displayed before. Anyone who saw STFU I/II in full flight, would probably agree that it was one of the strengths of the previous incarnations. This material is so different and so strong it doesn’t miss the fiery breakdowns of old. Instead, the tempo drops in favour of some quite stunning arrangements: I’m not up-to-speed on the background of the new members, but I can definitely hear the influence of Pat McGarvey’s love of soundtrack music (he’s recently got his film-score band up and running again) – shades of John Barry here, Morricone there... this is definitely more than a ‘folk’ album. I’m reminded of Chatham County Line, another band who do more than simply kick up a belting hoedown, and who are also pushing a ‘traditional’ idiom (in their case, bluegrass) somewhere new. With work like this, STFU are threatening to doing the same with (British) folk. All accomplished players – singers too (some beguiling harmonies on here!) – they seem hungry to do something ‘different’.

So, no concept, then, but a definite ‘feel’ – the plight of the worker (working class) maybe? - maybe not an unusual theme, but here the protagonists speak with such clarity and force. Given the numerous and varied song-writing credits (everyone in the band) it’s further to their credit that they’ve created such a cohesive and consistently excellent body of work. STFU III have set the bar for themselves and everyone else.

PS Don’t worry, they still fire things up nicely now and again (Ida Won’t Go will fit alongside all the old favourites). Lovely bit of gob-iron too ;-)

Link Track: I Dream Of Burning Buildings (from Southern Tenant Folk Union site) Band Website: http://www.southerntenantfolkunion.com/

7 Dolorean – The Unfazed (Partisan/Fargo)

Dolorean do it again: and again, I wonder – more than all the bands that make these (my) lists – why aren’t they huge. They make accessible yet substantial music – easy to listen to, but properly emotionally engaging. That was never more true than on Unfazed’s opener, Thinkskinned, whose piano motif wouldn’t sound out of place on the soundtrack to Grey’s Anatomy or some other HBO-type drama. Rather than the music-as-substitute-for-decent-plot-or-dialogue, Al James has got the lyrical clout to tell the story too.

Maybe it’s as well that last album You Can’t Win didn’t scale the critical heights it deserved: it could well have proved an albatross in creating anything that followed (ha, yes, I’m trying to find positives here!). You Can’t Win is a masterful record – The Unfazed is too, but a more hopeful, resolute one. Whether writing from experience or empathy, Al James has perfected singing the underdog (Your life’s work is making me hurt…”) but here, things are set to change (“…it stops. Tonight!”). He’s moved out, he’s walking away, he doesn’t have to explain…

Instrumentally, too, things are strong: having drafted in Emil Amos for You Can’t Win, the long-standing core of the band (Al, Jay Bennett, Ben Nugent, James Adair) once again recruit stellar guitar chops – this time in the shape of Jon Neufeld (Jackstraw/ Black Prairie/ Laura Viers). It was a thrill to watch him play these songs ‘live’ when Dolorean came over back in February. The five of them work well together, expanding the ‘classic’ Dolorean sound with new ideas (even getting a little dub-wise on Black Hills Gold – excellent on record and ‘live’).

So, guys, you CAN win – you now know the obstacles that will be put in your way – this game isn’t over yet by a long chalk.

Link track: stream tracks from The Unfazed and others from earlier Dolorean albums...

Buy: from Partisan (US)

Band Website: http://www.doloreanmusic.com/

8 Peter Bruntnell – Black Mountain UFO (ManHatOn Records)

Another regular feature on our Festive Fifteen, Peter Bruntnell doesn’t know how to make a bad record. I’ll bite my tongue before I launch into a why-isn’t-he-huge rant and instead concentrate on why he should be – why you should buy this and all of his records!

Proving that you should never judge a book (or CD) by its cover, Black Mountain UFO looks like it will either be a Joe Meek tribute or a collection of B-movie theme tunes. While Peter may be Lost In Space to many in the music industry, he still manages to craft radio-friendly rock like St Christopher, Jack-Johnson-esque acoustica like Black Window and masterful pop like Bruise On The Sky. In the latter, he recounts the story behind the album title (abduction by aliens) and proves that old adage about some of us being able to sing the phone book. It doesn’t matter what you’re singing about (how weird, or how political), it’s nothing without the song. Reggie Perrin (one of two homages to British TV stars, along with Penelope Keith Blue) is simply gorgeous, its arrangement at once densely-textured and feather-light – how does he do it? And the title track is as show-stopping as the Bunnymen’s Ocean Rain (if slightly more restrained).

So, with this album, he moves further away from (mis)categorisation as an Americana artist. Sure, that hasn’t done him any harm, and I don’t think he’s complaining, but after this and (previous album) Murder of Crows, it’s becoming more difficult to label him – psychedelia-folk maybe (does that make him Julian Cope?), but still a rocker (plenty of storming guitar here – both from Peter and long-time foil, James Walbourne – and they will still melt faces when you see them live.

It's so good, I'll even let them off for using Comic Sans on the record sleeve!

Link track: to follow...
Buy: direct from Pete's site... http://peterbruntnell.net/store.php

9 Malcolm Holcombe – To Drink The Rain (Music Road)

Here’s where I try to retain some critical integrity: otherwise, Malcolm would be at the top of this pile. I count myself lucky to have spent three tours with him so far, and can tell you that if I ever in my life have to choose just one last gig to attend, without hesitation I’d be heading for a Malcolm Holcombe show. Totally arresting, you never quite know what he’s going to do (although you can be assured he will play out of his skin). While all his records are played often at Gilded Towers, To Drink The Rain is the first (I feel) that allows Malcolm’s character to come to the fore. His voice and guitar-playing take centre-stage here, both wonderfully expressive instruments. Every grunt, wheeze and growl counts with Malcolm – the struggle to get his starched trousers on so perfectly conveyed on One Leg At A Time: priceless! He’s not all bluster though: tender moments like Mountains Of Home illustrate the importance (to Malcolm – to all of us) in knowing our roots, remembering what makes us who we are. Simple enough? Yes, but it takes an humble soul to sing about these things so honestly, without making them feel insincere. Malcolm is a real poet: he might seem to be singing about nothing in particular (Mighty City, Reckon To The Wind) but when his lyrics hit home, you really feel it. Every time someone mentions even mountains now, I hear that song. Woods? The same (Down In The Woods, almost certainly inspired by the countryside around his North Carolina home and the respite it offers when he’s back from touring).

Credit to Jared Tyler (Malcolm’s dobro player and – here – producer) and Fred Remmert (mix/mastering) for leaving some of the “dirt” on these recordings. Everything serves the song, supports Malcolm – subtle percussion, even traditionally showy instruments like fiddle and (Jared’s own) dobro are only given the spotlight when appropriate. In the end, it’s all about Malcolm – as it should be. Now, get behind me in that queue!

Link track: couldn't resist posting a video...

Buy: in the US/CAN direct from Malcolm or elsewhere distributed by Proper, just ask your friendly local independent...
Website: http://malcolmholcombe.com/

10 Josh Small - Josh Small's Juke (Suburban Home)

This is Josh Small’s second album (his first, Small, was also released on Suburban Home). I never quite ‘got’ Small; it’s as if Juke knew that because… oh, it’s got me!

Brain Van is a diverting enough start, Josh’s trilling, intricate guitar moving things along at a nice pace, builds to a fanfare But nothing could prepare me for Everyone’s Daughter. How do I describe this song? If Brown Eyed Girl had appeared on Astral Weeks, it might have sounded something like this. It is a head-spinning, kitchen-sink arrangement, the joy of which only becomes apparent when it’s almost over and you find yourself grooving to a one-note gob-iron riff.

The song sounds like it’s going to fall apart any minute, though: Small pushes the rhythm as fast as it will go without ‘breaking’ things – it almost sounds like two songs at once, sparring with each other, but it works so well. No matter how often I listen, I don’t think I’ll ever get my head around this alchemical song.

I don’t want to give the impression this is a ‘drum-heavy’ record: quite the opposite is true. Unless I’m mistaken, there isn’t a kick drum anywhere to be heard. Take the waltz-y Grace Inez, for example: straightforward enough start, you’re lulling along to what you think is the beat of the song, then in comes a simple snare rim-shot and hi-hat playing something completely unexpected and it’s a totally beguiling combination – again, don’t know how it works, but it does!

Josh’s voice is pretty unique too: the best I can come up with is a gravely Tim Buckley, so you should probably listen for yourselves. It is a perfect complement to his scuffed. primitive-sounding instrumentation (steel-bodied guitars, banjos).

I could rave about every song… the trippy Sing Song, the almost-African Diver Down (not even two minutes long – and magic!), the tabla-hazy Atonal I Love You, and 15/20 (wow!) manages to cram three ‘movements’ into two minutes ( maybe 15/20 gives us an insight into Josh’s approach to arranging songs… it might well be the song’s time signature). Closer Somebody’s Queen sounds like nothing less than Marvin Gaye sneaking in an outtake from What’s Going On onto Sgt. Peppers. OK, that is almost all of the songs – and at 26 and a half minutes it’s all over far too quickly. I should stop though, for fear of realising I should have placed this way higher on the list. Yes, it makes a mockery of maths in more ways that one…

Link track: stream the whole thing, then just try to resist buying it direct from Sub Home...

Website (of sorts...): http://www.myspace.com/joshsmall

11 Redlands Palomino Company – Don’t Fade (Clubhouse)

A frustratingly long in coming, Don’t Fade has been well worth the wait. Four years since their last record, their third proves ever more strongly that “The Redlands” are making classic alt-country that, by rights, should be whetting the appetite of anyone who claims to like (say) Ryan Adams, Jayhawks and other ‘bigger’ names. Now stabled (sorry, pun intended) at Clubhouse Records, this is another album released early in the year, and which has stood the test of competition in what I believe has been an excellent twelve months for music. This album is stuffed with killer songs – Call Me Up, Don’t Fade, Sirens, 1879... and the vocal interplay between Alex and Hannah (whether harmonising or call-and-response) raises goose-bumps on more than a few occasions. It’s diverse too; going from the tenderness of Sleep Song to the swagger of Sirens shows how confident they are. If the songs and the playing weren’t enough, the clever so-and-so’s produced the record themselves – and made a superb job of it. I wonder how long it will be before we’re seeing A Elton-Wall on the production credits of other artists?

A mention for Clubhouse Records too, who started a little over a year ago. Times are hard, we all know (we’re constantly reminded we’re all in this together aren’t we?) so I’m glad at least that these boys managed to get some money out of their bank before it collapsed. I mean, any bank willing to put it’s money behind starting up a UK-based Americana/country label, has to be two bales short of a haystack, right? Nice work: with Don’t Fade, you showed ‘em. Their money has been well spent!

Link track: from Beat Surrender blog's Soundcloud page, Don't Fade.
The Redlands Palomino Company - Don't Fade by beatsurrender

Buy: direct from Clubhouse Records: http://www.clubhouserecords.co.uk/shop/show/redlands-palomino-co-don-t-fade-album
Band Website: http://www.redlands.moonfruit.com/

12 Cowboy Junkies – Demons (Nomad Series Vol.2) (Latent/Diverse Records)

I count myself lucky to have spent time on the road with Vic Chesnutt (and Elf Power). Already a huge fan (of both bands) it was a treat to watch them play every night, and –during the day – chew the fat with Vic in the front of the van while most of the party slept in the back. After three weeks, there wasn’t much left unmentioned, I thought; even off-hand mentions of his earlier attempts to end his own life. “Oh, Zurich”, as we passed the Swiss city,”that was where I first tried to commit suicide”, shared with as much gravity as one might describe having had a bad meal on a previous visit. So, yes, in an admittedly short space of time we talked a fair bit. I never quite got over the awe of having this incredible songwriter/musician sat next to me, but I came to realise he was pretty awesome as a human being too. He lit up the time on the road, joking, teasing, even taking the piss out of himself (and his disability). He was fun to be with.

It became clear just how many of his peers missed him (tributes flooded in, all heart-felt) and I wondered who might be the first to make a tribute record. I learned around the end of 2010 that Cowboy Junkies, with whom Vic had already collaborated (and it goes without saying, struck up a friendship) would be making a record entirely of Vic covers in early 2011. Anticipation was high, and when I eventually heard the opening chords of their take on the album’s first cut, Wrong Piano, I was overwhelmed. As an opener, it is a show-stopper - Michael Timmins turns in one of THE great guitar performances, both musically and emotionally: it is truly cathartic, and symbolises all the frustration, anger at another’s suicide and sorrow felt by those left behind. It’s also remarkable how the material – taken from numerous albums spanning almost Vic’s whole solo career – feels so cohesive. He was something of a musical chameleon, a serial collaborator (and always seemed to adapt so well to whomever he chose to play with) so here we’re hearing the songs through one filter (as it were). They don’t put a foot wrong, either – even taking on recent compositions from At The Cut. Sometimes they’re faithful to the original arrangement (Betty Lonely, Flirted With You All My Life.. the latter already, bizarrely, one of his most up-beat songs – about suicide).

I do find myself wondering what Vic himself would have made of this: I recall a conversation about an album that had just come out at the time of our tour - I won’t mention names. It was an album of covers, a tribute to one artist. Most of us (me included) were raving about it, but he was insistent that the people concerned should be concentrating on writing their own songs. Maybe he was being Devil’s Advocate (he loved an argument!). maybe he really meant it (he was a serial songwriter himself, never lacking ideas). Maybe it’s appropriate that he’s not here to dismiss this tribute with a typical self-deprecating, sarcastic comment and so it can stand for what it is - as a towering tribute to a magnificent songwriter/composer/musician. I look forward to many more from others who were touched by him, The world will be a richer place for them.

Link track: stream the whole beautiful thing... then buy it!

Buy: From Latent in CAN/US http://latentrecordings.com/cowboyjunkies/demons-pre-order/ - oh, there's a bonus EP too!
Band Website: http://www.cowboyjunkies.com/

13 Deep Dark Woods – The Place I Left Behind (Sugar Hill)

Festive Fifteen regulars (second album, Hang Me Oh Hang Me, and third, Winter Hours, appeared in their respective years of release – we weren’t doing charts when the debut was released!), within the first 15 seconds of opener West Side Street it’s clear that The Deep Dark Woods have lost none of their class with a move to a bigger label. The harmonies, the keening sleep-walking vocals of Ryan Boldt, the flecks of fiddle and banjo, the shuffling drums: they’re all still there. In fact, if anything, this is a record made with a more restricted palette than the previous two: the pace rarely breaks a sweat (no ripping guitar solos to match Winter Hours’ Two Time Loser here). Instead, the variety comes from instrumental changes – organs and piano feature more heavily than (I recall) in the past. There’s what sounds like a Hammond on Sugar Mama that – set against some smooth picking, tambourine and trad/original lyrical motifs – provides a beautiful (dare I say groovy?) modern contrast to the rest of the performance. Existing fans needn’t worry though, the electric guitars still get a run out: the solo on Back Alley Blues wouldn’t shame Peter Green, with its poise and sonic economy.

Two tracks before the close, Dear John is something of a surprise, picking up the pace (to a trot) as well as switching lead vocals, but it’s back to the drama of epic Ballad of Frank Dupree and languid woe-is-me closer Oh What A Life.

Plenty of bands will try and combine banjos with guitar feedback, but few will ever do it with the effortless grace of The Deep Dark Woods. Like I said, this is a laid-back record. They sound like they’re in no hurry; people will catch on in good time.

Link track: Sugar Mama (stream from Sugar Hill's Soundcloud page; you can download the track West Side Street at the band's website in exchange for your email address... fair swap!)
The Deep Dark Woods - Sugar Mama by Sugar Hill Records
Band Website: http://thedeepdarkwoods.com/

14 Joe West – Aberdeen, S.D. (Stocktank Records)

I’m late to the party with Joe West, this being the first record of his that I’ve heard. Any frustration at missing out is tempered by the pleasure gained indulging in this release. Essentially a portrayal of a town and some of its idiosyncratic inhabitants; a musical soap-opera, if you like – and if it “was” a TV show, Aberdeen S.D would be Northern Exposure meets Twin Peaks. Join Joe as he walks to the store to pick up some milk, takes in a keg-party, meets Mark, the hoarder, and visits his storage units stuffed with ‘junk’ like a CW McCall CB box (no CB) and Toto cassettes.

While an over-riding sense of humour pervades the songs, Joe’s off-beat observations still manage to make you empathise with the characters – no-one here is a bad guy, they’re just different. So when he gets around to hanging out with “Old Friends”, you can feel them having a good time, accepting each other for what they are. Here too is where things get a little darker, when we the narrator confesses “the only thing different, the only thing new, we don’t talk about you” and before you know it – two tracks later - he’s pining for “Home”, a song that Willy Vlautin would have been proud to write and one which I can’t help but envisage as the soundtrack to the scene in The Swimmer where Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster) completes his ill-fated journey. It is a gorgeously sad song: I confess a lump appears in my throat. There Goes Brooks does something similar – how can a field recording of a livestock auctioneer have you reaching for a tissue?!

Aberdeen SD is an album that works best listened to as a whole, but unusually for ‘story albums’ has enough songs that work individually. Reminiscent of Jim White’s Wrong Eyed Jesus or something Tom Waits might have come up with if he’d made Mule Variations and Closing Time in the same session. I can’t wait for the TV show!

Link track: two tracks are available to stream at Joe's site - http://www.joewestmusic.com/Aberdeen-SD.html - where you can also buy the album on CD... and cassette!

15 Tom Armstrong – Wine Soaked Heart (Carswell)

I couldn’t help myself: had this album barely a week and just had to include it on the chart. What can I say… some records are born great! I’m further convinced by the knowledge that Tom Armstrong’s last album (released all of ten years ago) remains a bona-fide Gilded Palace classic, and – being in the same vein – has every reason to join its predecessor. Why so, Scorch, you ask? This is tragic-comic honky-tonk firmly in the tradition of Porter Wagoner (and modern-day contemporaries Cornell Hurd and Southern Culture On The Skids). Even the sleeve is a nod to Porter’s celebrated mocked-up album covers (see Skid Row Joe Down In The Alley, The Bottle Let Me Down for references). At least, I hope Tom hasn’t spent the last decade on a discarded mattress with a brown paper bag disguising his whiskey bottle!

Since giving up the booze myself, I’m often at pains NOT to use it as a metaphor for the qualities of music. It’s too easy to call any song with a pedal-steel on it ‘whiskey-soaked’, after all, but there really is nowhere better to assess these tunes than from the bottom of a bottle. Alcoholic references abound: the title track, for starters, Champagne Taste (On A Beer Budget), The Bar With No Name and my personal favourite, Happy Hour (“if you said this was the best part of the day I’d agree, but whoever called it happy hour, never met a man like me).

The music is a perfect companion to the hard-luck lyrics; sympathetically produced by Rob Douglas (Tom’s long-time bass-player) and recorded by Pete Curry (Los Straightjackets). The players have done time with Hacienda Bros, Red Meat, Wanda Jackson and Dwight Yoakham - quality? You bet! A record that could please both country purists and hip young things alike, you’d be as likely to hear this on playlists next to Ray Price or Richmond Fontaine.

Tom’s previous albums ('Sings Heart Songs' and 'Songs That Make The Jukebox Play') were both licensed to Spit & Polish Records in the UK in 2003, and can still be found in discerning record shops and online outlets. He self-releases his music in the US on Carswell Records. The new album is yet to get a UK release, but you can pick it up on CD at http://www.cdbaby.com/Artist/TomArmstrong1 where you can also hear previews of all tracks

Buy: on CD from CD Baby's Tom Armstrong page or digitally at most online retailers...

Other accolades:
Gig Of The Year: Richard Buckner, The Basement, Brighton - 13th November
Reissue Of The Year: Life's Rich Pageant - REM