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!)

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