Ten Albums of 2019 Recommended – No. 1

The Delines – The Imperial

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Beautiful Weariness

The seemingly hopeful exhortation for Charley to ‘cheer up’ in the album’s opening song is surely as empty as a recession-closed mini-mall car park? Is it remotely possible that this sad man has never heard the full story before?

Don’t believe it Charley; don’t imagine reality is ever other than narrated as it is.

Ill fortune and fortuity are far too persuasive in this real world for false hopes. No matter how good and positive things might have been, the bad cousin will visit and spoil it all, as in Imperial Apartment 315, a habitation for everyperson.

Sonny knew this. Sonny just disappeared. What is the point? How can there be a way out when a scene of sudden dislocation is accompanied by

A woman carrying a baby walks by
Next to me there’s an old couple
Whose car won’t start
And the snow keeps drifting down

In these opening three songs – Cheer Up Charley, The Imperial, Where Are You Sonny? –  the horns of Cory Gray and Kelly Pratt fill the plaintive role normally supplied by pedal steel, though that is sure to come. This is exemplified further in the blues of fourth Let’s Be Us Again with its repeated yearning for a return to better times that cannot possibly be retrieved, despite the dreaming.

And once more, as with most Vlautin songs, this thematic certainty is reinforced in Roll Back My Life with such a melodic beauty that as listeners we somehow manage to keep our heads just above annihilation, the lyrics as spare and yet complete as always,

Roll back my life
Past all those years
Of just scraping by
And pour me a drink
Turn down the lights

And roll back my life
Roll back my life
So I can see where not to stall
I can see how not to fall
For those who I did fall
Roll back my life

In Eddie and Polly there is musical irony in its early 60s echo, a hint of the upbeat with the jingle of bells and a repeat chorus of can’t you see?, but in a storytelling that ends with such potent imagery as this is how the hurt become maimed we are in familiar territory, that pedal steel here now, it too ironic in ostensibly eschewing the lamentation.

It is wonderful to hear Amy Boone gracing the dark with her light, a vocal that speaks to the truth of each song’s narrative, not spoken but there are no lavish runs, and this clear-as-truly-felt delivery adds an authentic stoicism as well as tender understanding. Wonderful too that she has returned to performance from injuries sustained in a car accident.

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One of the most dramatic of songs, musically speaking with its crescendo of determination, is That Old Haunted Place, a tale of failure and blame and the recurring theme of trying to move on from the inevitable, here a decision-making from someone who left home at sixteen who might just make it, away that is but likely not from the unavoidable to come.

Penultimate He Don’t Burn for Me is painfully simple and true, a soulful song of regret at the loss of love painted in the description of ordinary and everyday heartbreak. And oh those horns, swaying together in the melodic line to just about hold us all from falling, a final burst as the song finishes to massage as much as is humanly possible.

Closer Waiting on the Blue is the poetry of late night inevitability, the slow sad keyboard of Gray wrapped tight with Boon’s beautiful weariness, the horns like distant sirens called out to the painfulness.

This is another memorable album from Vlautin, Boone and fine band.

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Ten Albums of 2019 Recommended – No. 2

Sarah Jane Morris – Sweet Little Mystery [The Songs Of John Martyn]

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John Would Love This Too

It would be impossible trying, and wrong as well, to divorce the indelible songcraft of John Martyn from the quality of performance in those who cover any of his songs. And there is solid evidence of how covers of Martyn’s glorious songs over the years resonate from their inherent excellence and memorable sound: an obvious example would be the 2011 compilation Johnny Boy Would Love This….A Tribute to John Martyn; and if you go on YouTube there is an abundance of recorded/live versions of his songs by a wide range of artists and interpretations that have at their core attraction the Martyn melodies before we get to the cover nuances.

Sarah Jane Morris and Tony Rémy surely earn an endearing and enduring place in that lineage of covering John Martyn with their distinctive album Sweet Little Mystery. I say ‘distinctive’ in that very context of Martyn’s central place – always – in versions as outlined above: Rémy’s precise yet varied guitar work and Morris’ deep, powerful vocal establish themselves throughout the portrayals of a range of Martyn’s songs, from his early sweetness to later jazz sass.

Opener Fairytale Lullaby presents these in its perfect, simple essence – acoustic guitar and voice unified on the melodic line. This is followed by an orchestral Couldn’t Love You More where an expansive sweep of sound rides this beautiful expression of love. I can imagine those uncertain at the orchestrating, down to the 60s horn swathes a la Herb Albert and female pop chorus, but it works.

The big test for me is third Head and Heart, my favourite all-time Martyn song. Again Rémy begins with guitar picking out the melodic line until Morris joins on to it with a force that carries conviction and empathy. It breaks to a percussive and bass-led instrumental that again works, especially when Morris rejoins at this increased pace, the slight funk taking the song to a new place that asserts the promise in its lyric/title: love me with your head / love me with your heart, again and again, Rémy riding this out in a controlled, tight solo.

Call Me is Morris sultry and soulful, Rémy soloing with acoustic precision. Over the Hill – what a sublime selection – is again funked-up [so to speak], certainly an upbeat take on what is a ‘folk’ classic in Martyn’s early work, this version introducing a gospel-esque tangent, the female chorus rousing in its climbs. Superb.

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Then it’s Solid Air, so fan expectations will be high, whether that is the hyper-stalwart anticipating failure; others perhaps demanding a fidelity that misunderstands the purpose of interpretation, or, like me, just waiting for more of this perfect homage. Morris is in fulsome vocal here, emotive and inflected slightly in that way Martyn began to vocalise instrumentally, and deeply mimetic on You’ve been getting too deep. Rémy’s guitar is yet again precise and controlled, the bass line throbbing the drive onwards. The song ends on a long adamant repeat You’ve been walking your line / you’d better walk in your line that Morris growls menacingly/passionately at the final.

One World is again funked-up jazz-cool. And it’s always the song shining, but without question this interpretive take also glows. The title track is adorned with some organ, and Morris yet again occupies the centre with such a soulful singing. By this stage you become aware of just how much light has been shed on these songs, this essentially about the darkness of being alone and yearning for a past long gone. And the illumination isn’t incongruous, surprisingly perhaps, having been the default throughout.

Did I suggest light, and upbeatness! Well, May You Never gets a Free-esque [Andy Fraser] cover, and I love it, this Martyn anthem strutting its bar room fights and behind your back dirty talking. Penultimate Carmine is a fine rocking take, Morris making musical mischief in the title’s name and lyric, turning turning the screw into a playground chant that rolls out to a scorching guitar.

Closer I Don’t Wanna Know is the song I first heard from these two a while back. I remember being excited and complimentary then about the homage so clearly heartfelt as well as independent and creative. Here horns again burst out the love, and a chorus sings the soul of the song’s mantra. Rémy on another scorching solo never apes Martyn’s playing on the whole collection and that has been such a good call, Morris reminding in more vocal squeals the muscular impact she brings to bear on so many of these originally acoustic and sombre songs.

If a John Martyn fan I think you owe it to yourself and his memory to get this excellent, vibrant and honest tribute. And of course get it if you like great songs brilliantly performed.

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[No. 1 posted this afternoon]

Ten Albums of 2019 Recommended – No. 3

Bruce Springsteen – Western Stars

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Pedal Steel and Strings

He is the Boss. He can do what he likes. He has.

One of those ‘likes’ is to set up a battle between pedal steel and pop orchestration. I will need to listen to the whole album a few times to acclimatise myself to this conflict, and to decide if the dichotomy is less so and more a synergy. We shall see.

Opener Hitch Hikin’ is a remarkably simple melody, plucked banjo in the back, a rise up and down made great by the distinctive vocal, beautifully sung. Strings do sweep with the sway, but this is carried on the homely highway bound, dashboard picture of a pretty girl narrative of all our nostalgic listener’s hitchhiking memories. Second The Wayfarer foregrounds more string sweeps and a punchy piano start, a breezy popish tune embracing the Springsteen drawl and then string surges that surprise. Remember, this is an early response. I am on the second listen and I’m not swept away yet. Horns have just joined the wayfarer’s pop sojourn. It could be a 60s Western film score. Third Tucson Train has Springsteen in more strident vocal, horns a little pretty in the mix, but an echoing guitar anchoring to expectations. Its storytelling builds into the whole and is emboldened by it.

The album’s title track is fourth on the album, and we are in Nebraska, that’s Nebraska-esque musical territory. Chug-strummed acoustic guitar. I don’t know if that’s a term, but it is those forward, percussive strums. Pedal steel haunts. This is beautiful.

Here’s to the cowboys, and the riders in the whirlwind
Tonight the western stars are shining bright again
And the western stars are shining bright again

Tonight the riders on Sunset are smothered in the Santa Ana winds
The western stars are shining bright again
C’mon and ride me down easy, ride me down easy, friend
‘Cause tonight the western stars are shining bright again

I woke up this morning just glad my boots were on

This is a man/artist glad to be alive and recalling and sharing and so are we. Fifth Sleepy Joe’s Café celebrates I hope a great place because the gesture will be more memorable than the music.

Then it’s Drive Fast (The Stuntman), another persona narrating a life lived hard, survived and again glad to be alive, carpe diem as a means of forgetting the scars because that is in the past. Pedal steel drives here too, as it should. Seventh Chasin’ Wild Horses is going to be a favourite, a classic Springsteen descending melody, the vocal matured in its storytelling, and yes, pedal steel a yearn of sound remembering as well. Banjo too. Simple plucks, but announcing the first contest where orchestral strings swarm all over the pedal steel’s lamenting, a pop sweetness I might learn to lose myself in, but not just yet as a further soar seems too paradoxical with its portentous timpani roll and then horns – and wait for it, the pedal steel comes in at the end like a slow train passing by. This seems to segue seamlessly into next Sundown, a clear echo of Campbell and Webb, something filmic in the breezier pop orchestrations of this accompaniment. This isn’t the anthemic sound of Born in the USA where the big build has a different depth and punch; and it isn’t wall of sound either – I don’t think – but with the chorus and its vocal/lyric mirrors there is a pop sensibility winning.

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Therefore, aware perhaps of my and others’ questioning, next Somewhere North of Nashville is back to Springsteen in emotively strained voice, pedal steel having pushed the entire orchestra aside.

Stones is the tenth track and as yet there isn’t a stand-out but there is a sustained quality, as we would expect, despite the ‘battle’ of backgrounds I have set as the ruse for this review. Though I have quoted lyrics from the title track and narrative hints from others, this is another element that grows with listening. On this track, strings again feature as an orchestral feature that I don’t get. They aren’t – and probably can’t be – adornments to songs in the way George Martin worked it all those years ago. And here a solo violin is accompanied by a ‘cowboy’ twang of guitar, that Campbell/Webb influence again. It does seem incongruous.

There Goes My Miracle is the most perfected as a pop ballad, a strange vocal echoing of the main line, and a sense of grandeur attempted from the late Scott Walker template, though not as resonant in tone or execution. Perhaps I have the reference point wrong – the precursors are many and anathema. It is pleasant enough. The penultimate track is Hello Sunshine and an up/down bass line precedes pedal steel that comes around like a welcome touchstone of history. Strings sweep through again as an inevitability. Robert Frost would smile at the lyrics, and there is no harm in this, though having invoked the poet I am not sure he would lean all that far to the hopeful philosophy.

So the acoustic pluck of closer Moonlight Motel, matched along the melodic line by Springsteen’s gentle singing, pulls me in again to what I want and like the most. And pedal steel wins here, though the competition doesn’t exist anyway. Cymbals shimmer instead. Lovely.

In the middle of writing this review, my vinyl copy arrived, a great picture of Springsteen averting his gaze on the back, Stetson-of-sorts pulled down with a bowed head as well. It will probably stay wrapped for keeping, those strings unlikely to take on a more fulsome and welcome existence by the turntable’s playing.

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[What follows is a subsequent, brief review which would go some way to explaining how this albums makes my No.3]:

 Bruce Springsteen – Western Stars, the film version

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Orchestral Cowboy

The introductory orchestral sweeps seem to be announcing widescreen blockbusters at the drive-in, and you can hear the Country guitar-twangs even though this is only strings.

My initial reaction to Western Stars was a little reserved, probably a little critical, but that was down to interruptus expectation, and as is often the case with great albums [I’ll mention now Neil Young with Crazy Horse Colorado which sounded at first insubstantial but is in its simplicity and after further listening totally gorgeous] Springsteen’s latest has grown hugely on me.

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This has been furthered with this filmed-in-a-barn live set, again with orchestra and backing singers and cowboys riding all over the strawfloor’n’plains metaphor, and each by now familiar symphonic intro and/or sudden interjection signals that great personal delight.

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Ten Albums of 2019 Recommended – No. 4

Baby Rose – To Myself

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Mode of Cool

Baby Rose [Rose Wilson] is a 25 year old singer-songwriter with the time-burred vocal of someone steeped in many more years of experience. Whilst pleasingly generic in terms of its soul/R&B songwriting, along with overlaying and other effects – like the malleable/bending piano chords and percussive beats to Artifacts – it is the voice that establishes the enduring quality of this debut.

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Opener Sold Out starts with a car-starting-and-moving-off sample when Rose’s jazz-soul vocal then fills the vacated space with resonant, warbling vocal depths, these adorned with other harmonies and soothing grooved instrumentation; next Borderline is a punchier but again smoothed-out affair, the vocal ‘accent’ that slight affectation [a la Amy Winehouse] I find unsettles these ears, but for many it is obviously a requisite style. That Rose’s singing rises above everything in its impressive presence is the great capture of this album, All to Myself a passionate and breathy lament; penultimate Over a hypnotic swathe of matured vocal mastery, and closer Show You a light orchestral number in the Burt Bacharach mode of cool.

Being one of my most listened-to albums of the year exemplifies how any ‘unsettled’ initial response has been overtaken by the abiding groove, soul and vocal warmth/depth of its revisiting.

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Ottery’s Aeolian Harp

colour cover

Ottery’s Aeolian Harp exists for now as a digital chapbook, probably complete, and written in celebration of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge with many references to the home of his birth, Ottery St Mary.

It may get produced in the new year as a hard copy – definitely so if someone would like to publish – at which point it would be sold to raise funds for the Coleridge Memorial Trust STC statue project.

For now, as an end-of-year taster, read and download here: Ottery’s Aeolian Harp

Ten Albums of 2019 Recommended – No. 5

Lucy Rose – No Words Left

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Admirable Art

This is a delicate and sweet collection of songs, the essence of pretty but with a clarity that defies affectation – what I mean is Rose has a voice that is effortlessly pure and is so across a range of the gentle to soaring, as in tracks Pt 1 and Pt 2 of the album’s title where the wordless expression across piano and then strings coalesce in a simple but powerful beauty.

Song after song after song all about me and my misery Rose is honest and direct in her lyrical introspections, and the harmonising choruses with occasional light orchestrations can be pop-perfect or more jazz inflective, either quite distinctive. Opener Conversation is sublime in its fine melodic lines and lyrical honesty – no one lets me down like you do – and the harmonising with again strings in comforting lament and some emotive energy at times. The piano and vocal mapping on Solo(w) is plaintively gorgeous, this with its shadow of saxophone setting the jazzier trajectory and an incantation of solo to intone deep personal feeling, this augmented by and I’m afraid and I’m scared and I’m terrified how these things won’t ever change for all of my life in the following track Treat Me Like a Woman.

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[the following is a ‘bonus’ live review]

Consummate Collective 

Lucy Rose’s album Something’s Changing is one of my top three of 2017 – quite likely the number one – and that is in a whole year of, as ever, outstanding music. When I heard she was playing Exeter I had to go to the gig. My only concern was whether she could deliver such sublime singing live, though additionally the supporting harmonies and instrumentations that complement her fine voice so well on the record.

From her opening song at The Phoenix, Intro, the same as on the album which she performed nearly if not in its entirety, the vocal was exquisite [and I have noticed in other reviews that the words sublime, exquisite and delicate often occur, so we concur] but the band was as perfect an accompaniment live as on record. And the entire gig was a flawless encapsulation of the singer-songwriter in command of her crafting and on-stage delivery.

In my album review I namechecked Joan Wasser as a contemporary touchstone, as well as Joni Mitchell from the past, both to which I still adhere. I’d add Feist to the contemporary highest ranks of Rose’s vocal company, and it was pleasing to read somewhere that Rose cites Neil Young and Joni Mitchell as influences.

In conversation with the audience, which is clearly an important connection for Rose – especially in gauging a liking for what she is playing – there was genuine warmth but also a vulnerability in her confidence, an artist’s uncertainty about how far people are communing with her music. It is clear she has over the years encountered fans who want to share their own stories, relating these to the often plaintive narratives of Rose’s song-writing. This need to empathise seems to be as strong for Rose as it is for fans, and The Phoenix was packed with a knowing audience to – for last night at least – assuage whatever artistic fragility seems, ironically, an important element of Rose’s personality and performance.

The stand-out of the evening was I Can’t Change it All, a signature melody, but in this song’s rising shifts and volume, Rose and band were a consummate collective.

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