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.

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