Monday, 28 January 2013

Gilded Palace Radio Show (Jan 21st - Feb 4th 2013

I'm more excited than normal about the latest show, featuring as it does a track from the forthcoming new album from The Rockingbirds. Only twenty-one years since their debut (and a less totemic 18 years since their second)! It warms my heart to see them recording again: without a doubt, one of the major reasons why I'm still into the music I enjoy. Along with The Jayhawks, Uncle Tupelo and Green On Red et al they were a seminal influence (and the main - only? - one from the UK). 

The album, The Return Of The Rockingbirds is out on Loose Records on February 25th. I've so far played my promo copy as often as my family's collective sanity and patience will allow. Luckily 'Mrs. Scorcher' is also a big fan from back-in-the-day too :-)

Here's a video from when they (we!) were 'ickle': before we all had video cameras in our phones. So glad someone had the foresight to capture this...

The Rockingbirds at The Diorama, London... '91? '92?:

Also, completely bowled over by the new track from TMGS. They're from Antwerp, Belgium and you can download the featured track (Headed Home) from their website They don't even tap you up for your email address - how generous! You'll want to keep in touch though.  I'm really looking forward to hearing the album, 'Rivers And Coastlines: The Ride' - available on CD from Green Cookie and on vinyl from I Have A Tiger.

TMGS: Headed Home (from the album Rivers And Coastlines: The Ride'):

Playlist for the Gilded Palace Radio Show (Jan 21st-Feb 4th 2013):
Slobberbone - Write Me Off - New West
The Rockingbirds - Brand New Plan - Loose
Kevin Deal - There Goes The Neighborhood - Blindfellow Records
Larkin Poe/Thom Hell - Leave - Edvins Record
Vanessa Peters - Grateful -
Anders and Kendall - Dreamers On The Ground - Nine Mile Records
Bean Pickers Union - Tranquility -
Adrian Crowley - Alice Among The Pines - Chemikal Underground
Willard Grant Conspiracy - The Great Deceiver - Loose
Matt Andersen - Make You Stay - Bustedflat Records
Kelly Joe Phelps - Spit Me Outta The Whale - CRS/Black Hen (UK tour cancelled: get well soon, Kelly Joe!)
Fred Eaglesmith - Cigarette Machine - AML (on tour in the UK February 2013 - including Brighton show at the Palmeira on Feb 15th: tickets here)
David Bazan - Harmless Sparks - Undertow Music (Brighton show Jan 31st!)
Southern Tenant Folk Union - Chest Freezer - Johnny Rocks
James Yorkston - A Short Blues - Domino (on tour March 2013)
TMGS - Headed Home - Green Cookie/I Have A Tiger (download this track at
The Wooden Sky - Child Of The Valley - Loose
Dave Harding (Richmond Fontaine) - Wayfarin Blues - El Cortez
Thea Hopkins - Lilac Sky -
Jason Eady - Forget About The Truth -
Old Tire Swingers - 1838 -
Birds Of Chicago - Humbolt Crows -
Rose's Pawn Shop - Danger Behind The Wheel -
Glossary - When Easy Street Gets Hard To Find - (Glossary are on tour in the UK - you really should not miss them! They're opening for Austin Lucas and then playing as his band. Been a long time coming ... Brighton tickets here)

Saturday, 19 January 2013


Scott Cook - All My Moonlit Rambles (Groove Revival)

I hadn't heard of Scott Cook before receiving this (his third) album. I’m setting about acquainting myself with the other two.

Lyrically I think he’s up there with the likes of Prine or Smther as well as  contemporaries like Adam Carroll and (fellow Canadian) Old Man Luedecke. He has a snappy, witty, unpretentious way with words.  At times he also reminds me of NQ Arbuckle (although his singing register is higher).  They have the same easy but acerbic wit (see ‘The Lord Giveth and The Landlord Taketh Away’)

There’s an easy, laid-back feel to the album as if the songs came effortlessly. They’re not lightweight though: ‘Song For The Slow Dancer’ and ‘The Lord Giveth (And The Landlord Taketh Away)’ are the standout tracks, both with a strong thread of politics running through them. It’s the politics of the layperson though: those of us who are continually perplexed at the ways of the world, with a sense that the majority of us are not the central concern of those few in charge.
“We just hang around, drinking coffee from a paper cup. They say it’ll trickle down, but it just keeps tricklin’ up”… sounds about right to me!

‘Go On Ray’ is another stunner. A eulogy to Scott’s grandfather, which any of us with a much-loved grandparent can identify with. It has the feeling of someone retelling their favourite stories, and in being so specific and personal reminds me of plenty of stories about my own grandfather. I think if it had been less specific it could have come off as mawkish (you know, all bland sentiment) but instead it’s incredibly powerful.  Remember that Prine fella I was talking about…? Yeah, that one.

Listen: (selected tracks including some from Moonlit Rambles)
Buy: (CD prices in Canadian dollars)

Anais Mitchell - Young Man In America (Wilderland)

I’m a late arrival at the Anais Mitchell party. Guess there’s only so much time and so many records to listen to. Whatever, I’m in with both feet now. This is a stunning, magical record.

Reminiscent of Elle Osborne's Slowly Slowly Got She Up (Folk Police) for the clever way in which arrangements elevate the songs to something unique and compelling. Reminds me too of the mood and inventiveness of Laura Gibson’s Beasts Of Season. Producer Todd Sickafoose (that man again) does an excellent job, and his production doesn't ever overwhelm the songs.

For the most part, the music has as much to do with texture and mood than ‘traditional’ concerns like rhythm or melody. Scratching violins, shuffling tambourines, breathy wind instruments (so sparse it’s not really clear what instrument it might be). Although you wouldn’t describe it as a ‘happy’ record can imagine they had some fun recording the album: “Oh wait, let’s try this!”

When they want to they strip things right back: for instance, when she sings on ‘Coming Down’, " I never felt so high...I never laughed so loud", it's her voice that captivates you. There's very little else, save for sparse piano.

There are almost too many ‘hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck’ moments to count. I could (and have) happily listen to this record over and over again in one sitting. Just don’t plan to do anything else when you put it on. In a word, beguiling.

Listen: (oddly no audio on Anais’ site, but a few videos of Young Man tracks including a cover by Bon Iver)

Damien Jurado – Maraqopa (Secretly Canadian)

This is Damien’s second album working with Richard Swift and the partnership continues to expand the scope of arrangements and broaden his palate. Often likened to a modern Nick Drake, even that comparison doesn’t do him justice. The psychedelic ‘Nothing Is The News’ harks back to his (sonically) heavier material, but what follows is (stylistically at least) all over the map.   

Be it bossa nova on ‘This Time Last Year’, call-and-response children’s choir on ‘Life Away From The Garden’, Spector-producing-Kraftwerk on ‘Reel to Reel’ – all are excellent. Once in a while the production is pared back (a bit) to remind us that at the core of all this playfulness sits Jurado’s magnificent heart-melting voice and songs ('So On, Nevada' might be my favourite on the album)

For me, he rarely puts a foot wrong, on record or on stage (his solo show at Take Root in 2010 is still one of my favourite ‘live’ performances: stunning…). I guess it still frustrates me that others get most of the attention, but if you like Father John Misty you really should check out Damien Jurado (Damien was a big champion of J Tillman before the latter’s stint with Fleet Foxes brought him to wider attention).

The sessions were evidently productive: there is a wealth of additional material, not on the album but available elsewhere. Emusic has a Maraqopa Sessions ‘ep’ and there were a trio of seven-inch releases around ‘Record Store Day’ last year. All deserve to be tracked down.

AJ Downing – Good Day (Charkansas)

Ah, that fine Texan tradition of great songwriters with three names (Ray Wylie Hubbard, Jerry Jeff Walker, Billy Joe Shaver et al). AJ Downing bucks that trend only slightly, keeping the forenames to initials – but he does not come up short on the songs. If like me you felt a little let down by the last Hayes Carll album (overbearing production, buried vocals…) then AJ Downing’s Good Day is for you too.

Opener ‘My Wagon Just Wont Roll’ makes for a perfect start: drawling vocals, excellent guitar playing, references to Davy Crockett and a tongue wedged as far into his cheek as it’s possible to get without choking.

I already mentioned the great guitar playing, and the whole band sounds tight: pedal steel from Kim Deschamps and piano from Ian Maclagan both deserve a mention. The songs range from Todd Snider doing honky-tonk to something approaching swampy, dark Ray Wylie Hubbard  - ok, not tremendously eclectic, but I wouldn’t want them any other way, and I doubt fans of either of those two would be disappointed with this album.

Lyrically it’s not all light-hearted. He gets the bit between his teeth more than once. ‘American Junkie’ is a great example. “... but I ain’t hooked on drugs, I’m hooked on schemes and dreams and never having enough’. Another example (and the song on the album that will undoubtedly garner most attention) is ‘Willie Had We Never Been High’. In its chorus he sings about the desire to smoke weed with the Red-headed Stranger. Hilarious, but as he points out – if you think this song’s about dope, I’m afraid you ain’t got no hope. Instead it’s a brilliantly funny metaphor about achieving your goals before your days are up…

This is AJ’s third album. Once again, it’s the first I’ve heard. I really have got some catching up to do.

James Hand - Mighty Lonesome Man (Hillgrass Bluebilly)

James' story still bears telling, although long-term followers of GPOS will know it. After a lifetime making music in his hometown of West, Texas (pop. 2,500) James Hand released his first internationally available album in 2006 - at the age of 54. It was an honour for us to be allowed to play a part in James’ first visit to the UK later that year. The show he and his band played at the Hanbury still ranks among the best and most memorable we hosted.

So I was delighted to receive news that James had a new album out this year. I was even happier, upon hearing it, to find it stuffed with great tunes. There are no surprises, no curve balls: this is straight down the line, classic country music.  James has always known how to write great ‘relationship’ songs. He’s lost none of that knack here – ‘Mighty Lonesome Man’ and ‘Lessons In Depression’ retain enough self-deprecation to stop them being maudlin. ‘Please Me When You Can’ is laugh-out-loud funny, thanks to his disarming delivery. The revelation on this album is his handle on the human impact of social concerns. ‘The Drought’ is something special, but ‘Old Man Henry’... wow! A true show-stopper, and a life-lesson lyric the likes of Chris Knight would be proud of. I won’t spoil the story but I reckon we’re now going to have to start comparing him to Johnny Cash (as well as Lefty Frizzel and Hank Williams).

Apparently there’s also a film dramatising his life already in production (there is a darker story to tell, although it’s not one James has ever relied on to sell records). And the stars continue to champion him – Willie Nelson and Dale Watson were already fans, now Kris Kristofferson has joined the chorus. In spite of all the potential hoop-la, I still can’t imagine James courting the media spotlight: rather like Malcolm Holcombe, he’s almost too humble to be a star.

PS The CD has two 'bonus' tracks not on the vinyl release – one a diverting but unnecessary cover of ‘Get Rhythm’. Rather like the cover of ‘Mona Lisa’ on the last album (Shadows On The Ground), I guess they’ll please some more conservative listeners, but to my ears these covers have potential to diminish the value of James’ own songs.  I’d leave them out if there were ‘Slim’ originals to take their place.

Sunday, 13 January 2013


Thanks to those of you who've taken the time to listen (and comment): appreciate it. Here's the next batch of belters. You can still hear the accompanying Gilded Palace Radio Show broadcast at Totally Radio. The final five will follow on Monday. Have a great weekend!

Malcolm Holcombe - Down The River (Gypsy Eyes Music)

There’s no sticker on the sleeve announcing the appearance of Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Darrell Scott or any of the other fine guests. That's not Malcolm's style. Never one to court the media (frustratingly so, sometimes!) he’d rather let the music do the talking. This kind of humility could come off as false, but I honestly believe that Malcolm is just grateful to be reaching an audience.  Given his history (again something he shys away from in interviews), it is something that Malcolm is still with us and still making music.

Malcolm has always had a knack of dealing with our more melancholy emotions – and continues to do that on Down The River. 'The Crossing', 'Empty Jar',  'InYour Mercy' are all breathtakingly beautiful songs. With this album, he begins to broaden the focus of his songwriting – as if he can’t ignore injustice any longer, but also as if he’s finally found the voice (and the clarity of thought) to do so. 'Butcher In Town' opens the album with Malcolm growling and spitting his way through the song. While he never names the target of his ire, it’s clear he’s pissed off (“You ain’t from here when the shit hits the fan”).  

The title track closes the album and picks up a (kind of) gospel mantra – people pulling together while 
”the ones that buy and sell the rest 
of us down the river” are busy making “laws 
to suit themselves”. Even with such weighty concerns, Malcolm reminds us that the simple things are often most important.

Listen: (Malcolm performing three songs from the album ‘live’ and interviewed by Trevor Dann)

Wussy – Buckeye (Damnably)

A compilation, but it's my list, so there... :-P 
Yes a compilation, but as their first UK release it's most likely the first chance a UK audience has had to hear Wussy. Props to Damnably Records for pulling together an excellent selection from Wussy's five albums - can't have been easy whittling it down.

There was a audible buzz of excitement around their trip to the UK this year. The largely faultless ears of Messrs. Coe, Lamacq and Riley on 6Music championed them, and not even the news that they were to be trimmed to a duo (financial constraints?) dimmed the response from those who saw them play. Fate (cruel or fickle) saw me on the road at the same time and I missed every one of their shows: as a long-time fan of both Wussy and Chuck Cleaver's previous band, Ass Ponys, missing them has to go down as one of my (musical) lows of 2012.

Anyone versed in late-80's American 'college rock' will feel right at home listening to Wussy. You'll hear Guided By Voices, early REM, Pixies, Throwing Muses (and 'next generattion bands like Belly and Breeders). But they're not simply revisionists: Ass Ponys were part of the scene back then (yeah, he's that old), which makes Wussy what reviewers like to call the 'real deal'. If Chuck is the Robert Pollard/Black Francis here, Lisa Walker is the Kim Deal/Tanya Donnelly - the best part of Wussy is you get all of those great bands in one. Buckeye demonstrates the consistent quality of their songwriting (honestly, ‘Maglite’, ‘Pulverised’ and ‘Motorcycle’ would have been touchstone tracks had they been recorded at Fort Apache back in the day. Even Chuck's minimal backing vocals on ‘Muscle Cars’ send shivers down my back. Oh, and the bassline...? Swooning, woozy perfection.

And, yes, ‘Funeral Dress’ nicks the melody and riff from ‘Teenage Kicks’, but does so shamelessly, knowingly, and is therefore a classic in its own right - so there!

Buy: (Damnably currently has a 2 for £10 sale – advise picking up the Geoff Farina album too!)

Richard Dawson - Magic Bridge (Pink Triangle(CD)/Box (vinyl))

While there are comparisons to be made (start with Daniel Johnston or the mythical Michael Hurley and continue on your own path - although I insist you journey via Vic Chesnutt) Richard's is as unique a voice as Iris Dement, Malcolm Holcombe or Anais Mitchell. The longer I listen to music, the more important I find it is to hear new voices - something unfamiliar to jar you out of whatever comfort zone towards which old age might be lulling you. Too often lately, I'm left underwhelmed by the nagging sense that few artists are brave enough to wipe the slate clean and strike out on their own path. The cliches are too obvious, the reference points too blatant - even when I like the source... that, or I'm too bloody picky.

I probably heard Richard Dawson first on the excellent Simple Folk Radio show, but was really only made aware of him when inspired billing by the promoters saw Richard opening for Malcolm Holcombe in Newcastle in 2011.  While Richard may have little in common with Malcolm musically/stylistically, their passionate, hell-for-leather performance belies a kinship at a primal level. So it was that, for the first few songs of Richard's set, I sat dutifully at Malcolm's merch table, thinking, "What on earth has the promoter booked here...?" and then - with 'Wooden Bag' (on this album) I fell in. Up to my neck. He's making music for no-one but himself, singing about stuff that matters only to him (that wooden bag, for instance) and I love the vicarious thrill of listening to him do so.

Battering away on acoustic guitar (like Malcolm, the vigour of his performance can't disguise the skill of his playing), his vocal melodies sometimes apparently following a different tune. ‘Black Dog In The Sky’ evokes comparisons with the now-defunct Men Diamler: striking, semi-vulgar lyrical imagery, coupled with forceful, fingerpicked and over-driven acoustic guitar.

I wouldn't be surprised if he left that Malcolm Holcombe show having made few new converts. He probably could have cared less. That I haven't seen him play since - despite numerous trips back to Newcastle - only serves to heighten my anticipation of seeing him again… that, and immersing myself in this truly idiosyncratic and (unadornedly) beautiful record.

PS Actually a 2011 release, but I wasn’t aware of its existence until the vinyl issue of 2012 - so stat-fans can rest easy. Like I said before, my list..

Iris Dement - Sing The Delta (Flariella)

Comeback album of the year? Not 'alf! After so long, it was inevitable that Iris Dement's new album would get country fans excited. Admitedly, it wasn't a given that she'd make a great record: after all, sixteen years is a long time between albums. Not to worry: she still has a voice that sounds like no-one else and pulls out song after song to do it justice.

The album opens with the strident piano of 'Go On Ahead and Go Home', and immediately you know she’s still a force to be reckoned with.  She’s still at odds with religion (which will please the bigots who’ve railed against her in the past), but still careful to put her ‘heresy’ into context. ‘The Night I Learned How Not To Pray’ is a compelling attempt to reconcile a child’s prayers going unanswered.  On ‘Living On The Inside’ she “don't wanna know about nothin' unless it's something I can see or touch”. 

Just once or twice when listening I’ve wished the instrumentation was a little less prevalent: there are a couple of occasions where her voice is lost behind the band (Whole Lotta Heaven), but it’s a small complaint (more about deciphering lyrics). I still enjoy the songs. And the best is saved until last: the epic 'Out Of The Fire' would be just as awe-inspiring as a spoken-word peformance. The lyrics are pure poetry and conjour images that last long after the song has faded (and it’s almost eight minutes long at that!).

It’s so good to have her back.  Hopefully she won’t go away for another 16 years, but if she does we have another stunning collection of her work.

Listen: (clips of all songs)

Yarn - Almost Home (Yarn Music)

The third album from Brooklyn's Yarn; the fifth, if you count their 'outtakes' releases (Leftovers Vol. 1 and 2) – and their third collection of original material released in 2013. 

You might criticise many artists with a similar rate of output for a lack of quality control, but that’s not an accusation that could be levelled at Yarn.  As Almost Home demonstrates, their songs simply ooze class – I’m just baffled as to how they come up with so many of them!

While the lyrics are as world-weary as they come, the songs don’t lack energy. ‘Soft Rock Radio’ (great title) isn’t the only track to feature a guitar solo to keep fans of Deep Dark Woods very happy. Appropriating its title from the Stones, ‘It’s All Over Now’ tops ‘Soft Rock’’s guitar with some belting mandolin. The title track has become one of my late-night-sing-alone-in-the-van favourites. Seems Cosmic American Music is not only alive and well – it is living in Brooklyn. I for one wouldn't mind it paying a visit to the UK

An unashamedly country-rock album, then, and one that trades on familiar themes like love, loss and liquour, so why get excited? Maybe I’m growing up, getting old (I have been spending quite a bit of time with Eggs Over Easy lately - ). Although I’m not the biggest Dire Straits fan, they are another comparison that springs to mind. Elsewhere, 'I’ve Seen The Difference' is a ringer for the Grateful Dead’s ‘Ripple’. With references to Jim Croce here too, you’d be forgiven for thinking the past forty-odd years haven’t made much of an impact on Yarn. I for one am grateful for that.

Buy: - right now, they have a 'sale' on all 6 CDs for $55 - trust me, there's not a dud amongst them (although UK users watch out for the import tax!)

Wednesday, 9 January 2013


Here's the first batch of commentary on my favourite albums of the past year. Others will follow (five at a time, I reckon). Hope you find something new to enjoy amongst them. I'd be keen to hear what floated your boat - beside the obvious, that is (I read the music press too, just didn't find a lot of what was being touted actually lived up to the hype). You can listen to the radio show at Totally Radio. Still, the easiest way to listen is clicking the 'beta player' on the home page and scrolling down the list of show until you see the 'Gilded Palace' name.

As well as albums, I wanted to mark a couple of other notable events in 2012. 

Single Of The Year: without a doubt this would have to be THE ROCKINGBIRDS' 'Til Something Better Comes Along' (Spring Records): it sounds as if they never went away - superb country-rock from Alan and the boys. I was excited when they got back together for a few dates in 2011 and daren't hope that they would make it a more permanent arrangement. They did! Better still, a new album is about to be released on Loose (in Feb/March). Hmm, looks like the 2013 chart is already writing itself...

Gig Of The Year: I've seen a few(!) and was beginning to think I was getting harder to please. The ever-remarkable Malcolm Holcombe remains the person I would see if you ever compelled me to give up live music, but I could not have been prepared for the exhilarating spectacle that was LARRY AND HIS FLASK at The Hydrant in Brighton. I'd been forewarned (by our departed, lamented Tom Sheriff after he'd seen them in Canada - 'best live band I've seen'). Still, I was overwhelmed: not only do they out on a great show, but they have the songs and the chops (oh, the harmonies!) to back it up. I've been reliving the show ever since. Like nothing else I've seen before - and I cannot wait to see them again! You should make it a priority for 2013:

So, on with the albums...

ALBUM OF THE YEAR: The Spook Of The Thirteenth Lock - The Brutal Here And Now (Transduction)

The Brutal Here And Now is the second album from Dublin’s The Spook Of The Thirteenth Lock. Still, nine months after I first heard it, The Brutal Here And Now is unlike anything else I heard this year. That first listen was a truly memorable experience: utterly mesmerising, at times frighteningly so.  I was almost scared to listen again in case it wasn’t as good. It was – and still is.

Not just a distillation of all great Irish music and - as if that wasn't enough - a little Italian too. There is enough here to remind you of their heritage, but still they are in a league of their own. Most clearly, they still call to mind Lift To Experience (as they did on their self-titled debut), then again, on ‘Black Diaries’ they sound like Clutch, on ‘Rattling Hell’ like The Dubliners. Though the influences are many - and hugely varied (Gaelic, krautrock, folk and hardcore) -  the net result bears comparison to so few of the bands they've probably listened to. 

The album was released only recently in the UK, but has been out in Ireland for the best part of the year. Already they've had excellent reviews - notably one from Robin Denselow in The Guardian, four stars in Mojo and three in Q.

Cory Branan – Mutt (Bloodshot)

I’ll wager Cory Branan's motto is "...why not?" Why not have bare breasts on the album cover? Why not give it a title potentially taunting critics to compare it to a dogs' breakfast? Why not completely lift the riff from Jack & Diane - and why not call the track 'Yesterday'? Why not have Tom Waits horn player on the most Waits-ian song on the record? 

Whether intentionally or by force of circumstance, Cory Branan doesn't make records in a hurry. This (his third) comes six years after the last: rather like waiting for a John Prine album, you're impatient to hear more and wish he'd up the pace a little, but never tire of listening again and again to what you can get.

Don’t think he  doesn’t care, though: the craft is evident in the treatment of the songs. When he decides Bad Man is going for a  Springsteen feel, it’s done with kitchen-sink gusto, all stabbing piano and grooving saxaphone. There There Little Heartbreaker is a lullaby as sweet/scary as anything Danny Elfman might pitch for the next Tim Burton movie (it’s only one night alone, just keep away from the windows and stay well away from the phone). Following this (a song featuring harp as its lead instrument) he happily brings clarinet and violin to the fore on The Snowman (that Waits song I mentioned). You can bet that punk audience he’s been courting on tours with the likes of Chuck Ragan has heard little like this.

As with previous albums (The Hell You Say and 12 Songs) the songs on Mutt are varied enough to make it hard to pigeon-hole the album into a genre. Some of them have been aound for a few years (if you’ve caught a Cory Branan live show you were likely familiar with The Corner and Survivor Blues when the album arrived, and there are video performances kicking around dating from at least two or three years ago). What’s remarkable is how fresh the songs still sound. This is in large part down to Cory’s exceptionally dynamic playing and singing: a beautiful trilling riff will suddenly crash to a halt with him dragging as hard as a hammer on the strings, his voice cracking (perfectly) on the high notes. I see a lot of similarities with Malcolm Holcombe in the guitar playing (I know Cory’s a fan) and really he wouldn’t need anyone else to back him up. Tim Mooney’s production is all the more remarkable, then, for adding to (rather than muffling) the textures of Cory’s writing. It is a real tragedy that Tim worked on some of his most highly-regarded albums right before he died (check out reviews for John Murry’s album too). Music will miss him.

There are other notable contributors: Chuck Prophet, Luther Dickinson, Amanda Shires, Jeffrey Luck Lucas (new album please, Mr Lucas) but my favourite moment on the whole record is on opener The Corner when Jon Snodgrass (Drag The River) adds his burred, bruised harmonies to the chorus. Beautfiul. Guys, you send me…

Chris Smither - Hundred Dollar Valentine (Signature Sounds/Continental Record Service)

I happened to be on tour myself when Smither played London this year, so thought I'd have to miss him. When the schedule came in, however, I was excited to see that we had a day off on Feb. 29th, and needed to make our way from Liverpool (north-west of England) to Chelmsford (south-east). Even a cursory glance at a road atlas would tell you that passing London is the obvious route. The plan was sealed when we found both a cheap hotel and a much-needed amp repair guy within 20 minutes of Cecil Sharp House, where Chris would be performing. Bagging one of a handful of tickets remaining online, I jumped the Northern Line tube with half an hour until stage time. The venue was packed by the time I arrived. I was resigned to perching at the back on the odd, low-rise bleachers that ring the hall (they hardly afford a better view), but thought I had nothing to lose by taking a look near the stage. "Is this seat taken?", I asked, pointing at the vacant chair between two couples on the front row. Answered in the negative, I set myself down as hurriedly as if winning the last round in a game of musical chairs. I couldn't have been happier - or closer to the man who tok the stage minutes later. Nor could I stop myself grinning like a loon throughout the show.

Listening to Hundred Dollar Valentine elicits the same loon-grin, the same irrepresible laughter at the ain’t-life-a-smack-in-the-chops lyrics, the same tingling thrill at his beguiling guitar-playing. As often as losing myself in this album makes up for not seeing him again in concert, it also makes me look forward to it all the more.

Nels Andrew - Scrimshaw (

I tried again (unsuccessfully - again) to read Moby Dick this year. It's been sitting on my shelf for a while now. Can't get past the feeling that Ishmail is a bit full of himself - although maybe that's the point. Either way, at least I knew what “scrimshaw” meant when this album arrived.  Although I had heard of Nels Andrews before, this is the first I've heard of his three albums to date. I think I'm going to find the others easier to enjoy than Melville's 'classic'.

It took a few listens for the songs to sink in. I initially thought there was a seafaring theme running through - the album’s title, song titles like Tridents Starboard and Flotsam. The predominance of three-four time signatures only adds to the swelling, swimming feel of the songs. The whole album has a classic, stately feel (like hearing Justin Rutledge's No Never Alone - without pedal steel). Like Rutledge, the enduring strength of the songs here is in the literary lyrics. Metaphors can be clumsy (you're reading this, right?) but in the right hands they carry just enough weight to add to the resonance of a thought or a story. Nels Andrews demonstrates this beautifully. I may be underestimating the effort required to hone these lines, but the end result suggests he has an effortless gift.

It was also the first time I'd noticed producer Todd Sickafoose's name on a sleeve - and then later he also popped up on Anais Mitchell's new one. Not a fluke, then - he really does know how to get the best from the songs. Never showy, he always seems to pull away from a crescendo or climax; the production never overwhelms the music, and vocals and instruments are perfectly balanced. I really can't imagine this album sounding any better than it does.

Nels will be touring the UK in 2013, towards the end of April. Dates confirmed so far include April 18th at The Old Queens Head, Islington, 24th at The Musician in Leicester and 25th at Admiral Bar in Glasgow. Check here for updates:

Buy: - or from Nels himself on the UK tour

Chris Knight - Little Victories (Drifters’ Church)

Little Victories album cover
 Not biased to include this simply because John Prine puts in an appearance, although I'll admit to a leap of joy when his voice comes in on the chorus of the title track. It’s so good to hear him singing new music (even if it is someone else's).

No, there are plenty of other reasons why Little Victories is here. Chris Knight records are bleak affairs pitted with nuggets (or pellets?) of hope - well, not so much hope as reasons to carry on. To paraphrase  a couple of other songwriters, things aren't necessarily going to get any better, but perhaps they won't get much worse.

At times, one wonders about the political outlook of the protagonists in the songs. I’m fairly left-leaning in my own views, and I wonder if I’d see eye-to-eye with one or two of them. Despite this, he draws his characters so well, so sympathetically, you're rooting for them (even if it's as simple a challenge as getting the car to top speed - without the family groceries onboard).  Frankly you won’t find a collar more blue, nor more dirt under fingernails than in a Chris Knight song – and I can get with that.

PS If for no other reason, this album would make my list for the guitar solo on ‘You Lie When You Call My Name’. Is it Dan Baird? Maybe it’s Buddy Miller? Regardless of who’s playing, it tops even anything Chuck "TBGPOTP" Prophet pulls off on his album... but probably because they didn't fade it out.