record reviews november 2013


Silver Bell (A&M)


Two albums in to her record deal, Griffin recorded this in 2000. However, before anything could happen there was a major label upheaval and the new bosses, influenced perhaps by the fact her rock biased 1998 second album, Flaming Red, hadn’t been as critically well received as her debut, neither of which had been commercial successes, shelved the release indefinitely and she eventually left the label, the album languishing in the vaults. Persuaded that she should focus on the quieter side of her songs, she slowed things down and it would be seven years before Children Running Through Time saw her cut loose again, and provide her with an overdue breakthrough. Today her cachet in the roots rock genre is at its highest, not least for her work with Robert Plant, so it’s perhaps no surprise that the cobwebs have been dusted off and the Bell is finally being allowed to ring.

Two of the songs here were re-recorded for 2004’s Impossible Dream, Mother Of God and, most notably, Top Of The World, a song that had already been picked up, along with Truth #2, by The Dixie Chicks for their 2002 Home. As their cover was close to the original arrangement, Griffin reworked it for the re-recording, so it’s good to finally hear the original – and definitive – version. Earlier this year, the trio’s lead singer, Natalie Maines, dipped into the well again to record the title track for her solo debut.

Actually, this isn’t the album as it stood in 2000 (it’s been remixed by Glyn Johns, for one thing), back then it featured Making Pies and Standing, both of which also resurfaced on subsequent releases, the former on her ATO debut, 1000 Kisses, and the latter joining the other two songs on Impossible Dream.  In their place are two other numbers from the same session, the mid-tempo pulsing Fragile with its hints of Stevie Nicks and So Long, a front porch waltzer with plucked banjo.

In many ways they serve as a snapshot of the album which has no clearly defined pattern, roaming from the brooding, spooked Little God where she touches on a Me And A Gun Tori Amos sound to the Sheryl Crow rock of Boston and a drum machine beat Driving to the distorted belching guitar and Manzarak keyboards underpinning Perfect White Girls, all of which stand in sharp relief to the southern soul of Sooner Or Later and the smoky torch country that is What You Are.

It’s an admirable display of diversity but you can also imagine the marketing department wondering how on earth to pitch it. More an indication of how far she’s come than a misunderstood classic, even so it’s good to finally be out there to complete the pathways of her journey to date. 

Mike Davies




The Coincidentalist (New West)


Along with Thin White Rope, Gelb’s band, Giant Sand, were pioneers of the parched desert alt country sound but as the year’s passed they seemed to be increasingly trapped within their own box.  The same’s true of his solo albums, despite bringing other musicians to impact on the sound. If you’re partial to that dry groove and Gelb’s languid dusty murmurings, then you’ll find much to delight here, kicking off with a Will Oldham duet on the electric piano backed Vortexas. Elsewhere Andrew Bird contributes violin to the wearied title track where Gelb comes across as a Reed/Cohen hybrid while K.T.Tunstall trades verses on the piano accompanied saloon bar cigarette and a whisky storytelling of The 3 Deaths of Lucky, these and the rest of the album underpinned by Giant Sand bassist Thøger Tetens Lund, Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley and M Ward on lead guitar.

Although Unforgivable gets a touch freaked with its Velvets border twang and the waltzing An Extended Place Of Existence with its electronic whines visits the David Lynch lounge, there’s very little variation across the 11 numbers, the best of which include the often whispered Picacho Peak where, to a Tom Waits saloon piano and gospel crooned female harmony backing, the Cohen comparisons are strongest.

It’s not going to make any new converts, but those who’ve sailed with him so far should find no reason to abandon ship now. 

Mike Davies



Northcote (XtraMile)


A new signing to the label, Matt Goud is pretty much Canada’s answer to The Gaslight Anthem and Dave Hause, the album full of ringing acoustic guitars, rebel yell protest folk punk  melodies, big hooks, rousing choruses and plenty of emotional punch to the vocals and lyrics. Like his above-mentioned peers, there’s not a huge diversity of sound on the album, many of the numbers relying on a similar melodic formula – Knock On My Door and Speak Freely providing the obligatory acoustic Springsteen styled ballad – and while the closing Only One Who Knows My Name is supposed to sound like a loose, all join in and clap along campfire singsong, it’s actually a bit of a mess. That said, with songs like How Can You Turn Around, the trumpets accompanied Hope The Good Things Never Die, Burn Right Past Them All and Counting Down The Days all striking the same chords (emotionally and musically) as The 59 Sound and American Slang, he’s likely Goud to go. 

Mike Davies



Roses At the Top (Own Label)


 Formerly one half of  folk duo Pooka, although she’s variously collaborated with the likes of

 Orbital, 1 Giant Leap, The Climbers album The Good Ship and Anais Mitchell, it’s taken her nine years to get round to her sophomore solo album. Largely arranged for piano with the occasional flourish of trumpet, woodwinds, strings, harp and pedal steel its constructed around songs of searching, longing and transformation, about love and, notably in the title track, self-discovery with Lewis’ sweet, clear feathery tones floating over the soothing soundscapes.

Her imagers encompass roses, cornflakes, breakfast in bed, cherry stones, leaves, and birds, but while still within the same pastoral pastures as Pooka, this is almost the opposite of their dank, goblin folk. Gentle, calm and soothing, her voice quivering over emotional notes, things like In That Way, the languidly bluesy Sweetheart, the folk hymnal tones of Kings And Queens and Waiting Game with its soaring pop chorus balanced against the reflective verses all have a caressing touch that encourages you to lie back and soak up the sounds. Blooming good. 

Mike Davies



A Little Blood (The Little Red Recording Company)


Variously likened to The Jayhawks and a meeting between Springsteen and The Who, the Bedford-based trio have, with Ben Haswell making the switch from guitar to replace bassist Taff Thatcher, shifted away from their previous alt country sound into more rocky territory, a move signalled from the outset with the fuzzed up guitar drive of Cheating Heart,  the amped up Petty of A Little Blood and the urgent, piano propelled The Crow’s Caw with its snarly guitar solo.

They haven’t forsaken their roots rock past entirely, frontman Dave Banks still has the Americana twang and whine hint to his voice (even if The Cure sounds more like something from Toto) and The Band Counts Four has a Southern country vibe while Kick is all jangling 12 string, Before I Let You Down is solid Damn The Torpedoes era Petty and, while not a great song in itself, Til The Storm Has Gone has that chugging mid 70s country rock sound.

At 14 tracks, the quality level needle slips into filler a few times and Meet At The Bandstand is a disappointing damp squib of a sub-Springsteen ballad to end on, but there’s enough here to keep their wings beating for a while yet. 

Mike Davies



Listening (Iris)


It’s never easy when you’re the son of a famous singer, either you’re accused of sounding like them or accused of trying too hard not to. As Adam Cohen, Harper Simon and Jakob Dylan will tell you, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

For those for whom father James has become a byword for snoozefest, the good news is that Ben doesn’t sound much like dad. The bizarre thing is that, certainly on the choppy soulful Oh Brother and Vespa’s Song  he does sound like latter day Paul Simon while the social commentary America has a definite lazy Jack Johnson groove with just a little more sand to the voice. It’s warmly laid back without being soporific, Giulia a breezy love lost goodtime jaunt, World’s Are Made Of Paper a dreamy soul marriage of McCartney and Ben E King and album closer Next Time Around a laid back slow dancing lullaby that draws on old time country folk to winning effect. An easy listen with well crafted lyrics, it may make him sound a lot older than  his 36 years but it’s definitely mellow with age. 

Mike Davies


Botle Rockets (Bloodshot)


 Singer Brian Henneman used to roadie for Uncle Tupelo and clearly picked up a few tips while humping the gear. He probably spent a lot of time listening to Neil Young and Woody Guthrie on the tour bus too. Formed in 1992, with drummer Mark Ortmann also still remaining from the original line-up, they’ve released 10 studio albums and, despite little commercial success, have long been regarded as one of the leading names of the 90s roots rock revival. Their most recent album, Not So Loud, appeared two years back so a new release is likely due sometime next year. Meanwhile, this two disc set brings together  remastered versions of their long out of print eponymous 1992 debut and 1994’s follow-up, The Brooklyn Side, along with a 40 page booklet featuring contributions from, among others, Steve Earle, Patterson Hood and Lucinda Williams as well as 19 previously unreleased tracks, largely Henneman demos (four of which feature both Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar), acoustic band demos, some radio and live recordings, an unreleased 1994 studio cut and six cranked up versions of songs from their pre-Bottle Rockets days as Chicken Truck.

Although the debut opens with the banjo bluegrass folk of Early In The Morning and Hey Moon nods to Gram, the rest of the tracks are very much guitar driven alt-country with a ragged rock edge, numbers like Gas Girl, Wave That Flag, Trailer Mama and Lonely Cowboy (with an opening riff that recalls The Turtles) all stand outs. The second album proved their biggest success, earning them a brief deal with Atlantic and national exposure, the single, Radar Gun (surely partly influenced by Golden Earring), scoring them a #27 place on Billboard’s rock charts and the album itself veering between similarly rocky numbers and more country sounding material.

With the bonus tracks including an acoustic demo of This Is What It Sounds Like When You’re Listening to Lindsey Buckingham and Thinking of Your Friend’s Girlfriend at the Same Time, the rock numbers mean the sophomore release sounds slightly more dated than the debut, but as a useful chance to catch up on part of alt-country’s largely unsung history this is a valuable reissue. 

Mike Davies

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