record reviews july 2014


The Funabulist: Songs from the High Wire (Ugly Cat Music)


An Austin-based Italian, Millanta is an intriguing proposition, singing not just in English and Italian but also French and Spanish. Her combining of cultures in the textures of her rootsy acoustic pop is reflected in the album’s title, taken from the term for a tight rope walker, which she adopts to explore the art of balancing, be that languages or life.

The approach is deftly encapsulated in the opening Ma Voix, where she mingles French and English in a swaggering, piano backed cabaret style number, moving on to twangy guitar for border-country tango Lost In Space, going Latin for the flamenco-ish  Il Grande Fratello, marrying  Morricone and Piaf with Gerbere while  Lievatelo a La Luna, a  spoken-intro track that incorporates Eastern influences, dry percussion, fluttering guitar distortion and ends sounding like the theme to some Spanish  version of a Bond movie.

Singing in English, she takes a mid-tempo rock approach How Does God Sleep At Night that will inevitably conjure Joan Osborne comparisons, while upright bass and piano shade the jazzily minimalist moodiness of Please Come Visit and Come Visit is a cello accompanied heartfelt ballad. With other highlights in the dry desert ambience of Could Have Been My Father, a bluesily chugging Run As Fast As You Can and a lovely, waltzing strings-arranged acoustic cover of Husker Du’s She Floated Away, it’s an album full of delights and surprises, closing up with the theatrically spoken title track, where, against classical influenced piano, she talks of the vertigo of the unknown and the balance between wisdom and madness. She’s music’s answer to Charles Blondin. 

Mike Davies



Ragged Hearts (Temple Ward Music)

eddie s

Being described in one review as a cross between John Mellencamp and The Rolling Stones and as somewhere between Springsteen and Earle in another should give a pretty good idea of what to expect from the New England alt-country singer-songwriter. A seasoned session musician and sideman,  this, his third full length album under his own name (he’s also leader of Steel Rodeo), is a solid collection of alt-country that, while perhaps never truly outstanding, is consistently very good in terms of both performance and material.

Although he kicks up the dirt on the gutsy swagger of Love’s Got A Hold and a country rocking  I’m Pacing Myself (shades of Seger) and the mandolin-backed A Crooked Mile, he mostly hits a mid-tempo or ballad trail, etching out particular highlights with the saloon waltzing storysong Ashes To Ashes, the pedal steel laced Dougie’s Blues (a track you could imagine early Dr Hook doing) and the honky tonk flavoured, pedal-steel and banjo coloured  The Queen of Kerosene. It may not be up there in the same league as those to whom he’s likened, but it certainly warrants your attention. 

Mike Davies



Running With Scissors (Insomnia Music)


Titled after  the 2002 memoir by American writer Augusten Burroughs (and also the title of an album by Weird Al Yankovich), this is the long delayed debut album  from the  County Tyrone born fifth placed finalist of the 2011 X-Factor, she of  the waif-like elfin looks and fragile nasal warble.

Well, sort of. Initially funded via Pledge Music, a version was released to pledgers last year under the title of Hide & Seek, but then Devlin decided to scrap that, replace some of the songs and re-record the others from scratch over a  period of six weeks. Disappointingly, that has seen the unfortunate disappearance of  the Jack Savoretti co-penned swaggery r&b Working For The Man, the  indie country pop of Pick Me Up, Celt-rocker Who Am I to You, tender piano ballad Walk Away and the Dolores O’Riordan-like ballad Crown Of Thorns.

Fortunately, the three Newton Faulkner co-writes, the bouncy Motown soul prepped Wonderful, the poppy Creatures Of The Night and the original title track (on which he also appears) with its Ellie Goulding echoes., have made the remake, as has  the standout Things We Lost In The Fire, a song about the  collapse of her first deep relationship, although the hissing scratchy beats and pizzicato strings have been replaced by simple piano.

However, the remaining six songs are all new additions, kicking off with  the bustlingly catchy  folk pop House of Cards, a track that should endear her to Mumford & Sons fans, and including the Jack Johnsonesque  jaunty campfire strum styling of Lifeboat, a swayalong Delicate  (shades of early Avril Lavigne), the breathy,  big building regret-stained When You Were Mine and album closer Whisky Lullabies, which gathers from its opening music box tinkling to a sweeping, strings-lashed crescendo and final fade.

It’s an impressive debut that deserves far more than its brief X-Factor curse one week chart appearance peak at #43 and Devlin is clearly an artist with a considerable amount to offer as both writer and performer while her naïve (in a good way), shimmering acoustic, strings-backed version of  The Cure’s Friday I’m In Love is the stuff of which crowd-pleasing festival showstoppers are made. 

Mike Davies



Rose Queen (Blue Rose)

william cg

Another rising name on the Texan country scene, like many of the breed Green’s easily referenced to the likes of Earle and Mellancamp, and worthily so.  This, his third album, apparently cuts to the personal quick (so much so, it apparently saw his father complain about parading family matters in public), notably so on the Welcome To The Family (brother’s back in jail, gran’s in hospital, dad’s got heart trouble), the self-mirroring Dead Or In Jail, and the relationship disintegration at the core of Drowning, the alt-country rocking  It’s About Time and the swaggery title number’s doomed across the tracks love affair.

Not that you need any insights into his demons or heartaches to appreciate the music which ranges from the frisky bounce of Let’s Go and the chugging get out of town Hanging Around (with a guitar line echoing The Cars’ Just What I Needed) to the poppy She Likes The Beatles, a honky tonk waltzer about making things work despite your differences. It could, perhaps, have done with at least one ballad to highlight the emotional grit in his voice, but it’s still one that should see his name start to spread far beyond his Texas borders. 

Mike Davies



Exodus of the Deemed Unrighteous (Blue Rose)


Opening with the worksong blues moan of Ballad Of A Prodigal Son, Durhan draws equally on the influences of Waits, Cave and Son House to etch the Southern Gothic folk/gospel that imbues the ten tracks here. He clanks his way through Beautifully Sewn, Violently Torn (a tale about an abusive father, drunken mother and vengeful daughter),  the steamrollering Sinner (sin looms large throughout) the swampy Creedence-like Rise In The River and the brief harmonica wailing stomp of Strike Us Down.

Relatively ‘gentler’ moments can be found on the kalimba accompanied Mama and a lyrically tender, intimately sung Keep On Allie, but otherwise this is sweat-drenched, passionate  and raw, the darkness oozing from out of both the banjo playing on Exodus Waltz and the lyrics of Annie Departee, the part-narrated  tale of a woman with “ a nasty reputation” who ‘just can’t seem to quit killing men’, though her pistol may be rather more metaphorical than actual, on which he plays a broomstick stuck in a cigar box with a  G string on it. A fact that tells you pretty much all you really need to know about the sort of experience he delivers. 

Mike Davies



Acoustic Classics (Beeswing)


Although he’s been regularly playing acoustic tours, Thompson’s not released a wholly acoustic solo album since Small Town Romance, 30 years ago. Thus, this kills two birds with one stone by providing one man and a guitar acoustic reimagined versions of some of the ‘greatest hits’ that populate the shows.

Although there’s no quibbling over the guitar work, I’m not sure all of them work, the opening I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight sounding particularly perfunctory. And, perhaps saying something about his audience, the bulk of the material come from his earlier years, indeed five songs (among the Walking On A Wire, Down Where The Drunkards Roll and a fine version of Wall Of Death) are all from Richard & Linda Thompson albums. In fact the most recent number, One Door Opens, dates back to 2003’s Old Kit Bag.

Thompson’s swallowing-style enunciation can be divisive, all the more so when it’s so upfront and exposed as in such settings, but while that makes Valerie a little uncomfortable for the less committed, it also serves to bring a naked emotional edge to  From Galway To Graceland (one of the standouts here) and the little heard Persuasion. And, never a personal favourite in its original form,  the acoustic 1952 Vincent Black Lightning becomes utterly transformed. However, going back to 1975’s Pour Down Like Silver, he saves the best for last with a heart-bruised reading of Dimming Of the Day, although I still think that the definitive version belongs to Clive Gregson and Any Trouble.

Mike Davies



Elements (Liberator)


The Japanese-American singer clocked up over four million views on YouTube for her  In Your Arms video, a stop motion animation made using 288,000 jelly beans while Radio 2 gave extensive airplay to her Valentine single a few years back, leading to a revised  reissue of the critically well-received Stairwells. Now comes her fourth album, and there’s no a huge departure from her brand of easy on the ear acoustic chilled pop, blessed with a slightly warbly but soft  and warm voice that’s likely to prompt Colbie Caillat and Lissie comparisons on her marriage of country, folk-pop and soul.

The songs are the stuff that American young adult drama series are made of and it’s easy to imagine the likes of  My Dear, the acoustic picked self-harmonising Little Worrier  and Maryanne soundtracking some emotional montage on Grey’s Anatomy. It kicks off with its most immediate track, Dear River, a relaxed tumbling acoustic number with rolling distant percussion and immediate thoughts of Eddi Reader, moving on to the  soft, soothing melancholia of  This Far, Winter, My Own and Forever Blue, occasionally, as with The Fire and Write It On The Sky, picking up the tempo and fleshing out the sound to  entice stray Passenger fans. Ultimately, it’s a little gossamer and bloodless, but you can’t deny it’s a very pretty confection. 

Mike Davies

© 2014