Islands and Islands (Stars And Letters)
Otherwise known as Sarah Kelleher, the London based New Zealander’s debut album is a ghostly electronic chill-out excursion into contemporary trip hop that keeps the beats drugged and her breathy voice strung out, creating a sexually narcotic fog that snakes its tendrils around such titles as Sugar C, Ghost Me, Queen Love Zero and Pool House where you can almost sense still waters being rippled by the low frequency bass vibrations from the speaker. Barely anything registers any sign of a pulse, though Valleys does put its head above the barricades for a sort of enervated motorik drone, but the end result is rather like taking a warm spa bath at the top of a snow covered mountain.
The Commitments Years And Beyond (DixieFrog)
When Andrew Parker’s film The Commitments was released back in 1991, then teenage Dubliner Strong was hailed as the great new voice of r&b, Ireland’s Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett rolled into one. Duly signed as a solo artist, he released his debut album, Strong, two years later to resounding apathy. It failed to make the Top 100 and he was duly let go from his major label deal. Two further albums followed, both meeting a similar fate and, save for a rather optimistically titled Greatest Hits collection, almost nothing’s been heard of him since. He’s never been part of the Commitments tribute act, although he did join them for a Dublin 20th anniversary show, and rarely plays live himself.
However, he did take to the stage in St-Girons, France, last July where this set was recorded. As you’ll gather from the title, it features songs from the film and a generous helping of other soul and r&b classics with Strong backed by a punchy French band with a ballsy brass section. The voice is as powerful as ever even if there’s a hint of generic soul revue about the performance as he beefs his way through the likes of Mustang Sally, Hard To Handle, Take Me To The River and In The Midnight Hour.
Try A Little Tenderness is a bit overcooked, but he shows his soul ballad finesse with a fine version of Dark End Of The Street while covers of Born To Be Wild, Hendrix’s Fire and Kid Creole’s Yolanda provide unexpected departures from the genre staples. The album also comes with a bonus 3 track disc featuring studio recorded (the first officially available in over a decade) covers of I Got You, Soul Man and a decent fist of I Heard It Through The Grapevine , a duet with French bluesman Nico Wayne Toussaint. It’ll doubtless sell better in Europe (and Ireland) than it will here, but it’s good to hear he’s still around.
The Happiness Waltz (Yep Roc)
Life seems to have been bliss since Rouse relocated to Valencia with his wife and had two kids, something that informs pretty much every note of his latest album even if he’s put the Spanish guitars to one side and returned to the alt country sounds of his early releases.
It opens with Julie (Come Out Of The Rain), a 70s Laurel Canyon Simon sounding number with a ridiculously hummable chorus, lap steel and dreamy melody. And that’s pretty much the mood in which things stay for the following 11 tracks which sport such titles as Start A Family, Our Love (where he declares his intention of staying where he is even if' City People, City Things is a love letter to New York), A Lot Like Magic and It’s Good To Have You. The only time he approaches anything like downbeat is when he complains This Movie’s Way Too Long. He sounds like Paul Simon on happy pills.
It’s an almost impossibly dreamy, contented and positive album and no one would begrudge Rouse his good life and happiness, but those who fell for him when he was singing Dressed Up Like Nebraska, A Woman Lost In Serious Problems and Ugly Stories might wish for just a moment of passing angst to inspire something with the same bite.
Long Live All Of Us (XtraMile)
Hailing from Tennessee, the quintet’s Southern country soul/rock with its pedal steel is a bit of a departure from the label’s more usual indie rock and folk-punk signings. The first for their new UK label, this is actually the band’s seventh album, released back in 2011, but it should serve as a useful introduction to unfamiliar ears.
Their influences are many, most steeped in the heritage of their southern roots , so you’ll hear traces of Memphis soul, the Allmans, Dan Penn, The Band and, more recently, Wilco. Unfortunately, while there’s some gems here, the album’s less than the sum of its parts. Tracks like Trouble Won’t Always Last (which starts off like it’s going to become Higher And Higher and turns into something more akin to Robbie Robertson and co), the brass swaggering A Shoulder To Cry On, a country loping The Flood and Ghosts In The Vapor’s desert nights slow burn are highlights, but too many (for example, the rocking When We Were Wicked, gospel soul ballad Nothing Can Keep Me Away) sound like you might expect from the seventh album by a band who’ve long since settled into their groove. Great if you’ve travelled the road with the, but not what you need to get a whole new audience on board.
Miracle Temple (Merge)
Hailing from North Carolina and fronted by Heather McEntire, unlike such label-mates as Arcade Fire and Neutral Milk Hotel, Mount Moriah pray at the altar of country rather than indie, McEntire often calling to mind Dolly Parton without the excess yodelling trill while Jenks Miller keeps his guitar work anchored in a Southern rock tradition.
For a region haunted by the past, it’s not too surprising to find the songs looking back rather than forward, always keeping today rooted in memories of yesterday, or, as she sings on sparse, bluesy slow waltz Connecticut To Carolina (one of three to feature Indigo Girls Amy Ray on backing vocals), “show me where we’ve been, where we started".
Their sound dry but never arid, they like to keep things simple with pared down arrangements and melodies that wear work-clothes rather than Sunday best, mixing mid-tempo moments such as Younger Days, Rosemary and the gospel chugged Bright Light with slow numbers like Miracle Temple Holiness, Union Street Bridge (co-written with poet Sarah Messer) and, getting on for six minutes, the brooding clouds of Telling the Hour almost dirges.
They’re at their prettiest with Eureka Springs, where Jenks gets to showcase his six string skills, and the slow swaying I Built A Town brings violins into the blue collar romanticism mix while both the observed tiny details of the alt-country styled White Sands and the ‘vodka-tonic complements’ in the regret-stained Those Girls offer perfect illustrations of McEntire’s lyrical prowess as she unfurls her tales of transition, loss and loneliness. Go worship.
THE KINGSBURY MANX
Bronze Age (Odessa)
Out of North Carolina, after early hushed albums that radiated the somnambulant air of a bucolic late 60s summery day in an English meadow, after a four year gap since the last release the Chapel Hill quartet aren’tworried about turning up the volume these days. Nothing frighteningly noisy, of course, and their music still more evokes pastures rather than pavements, but where they previously seemed too chilled to unleash the power beneath the surface, now Future Hunter, Solely Bavaria, and Custer’s Last come with distorted guitars, snarling synths and prog rock workouts.
Even so, it’s their quieter moments that prove the more effective: the strummed acoustic Glass Eye with its 60s harmonies, Handsprings’ sunny piano led shuffle calling to mind Harpers Bizarre, a water rippling Concubine and the six minute organ backed sway of How Things Are Done. Even a rock sounding number titled Weird Beard & Black Wolf turns out to be a bubbling front porch bounce with brushed snares, cascading piano runs and soft harmonies. The dichotomy may not make it an easy sell to new ears, but those who’ve grown along with them will appreciate the light and shade.