ALBUM REVIEWS

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN - ONLY THE STRONG SURVIVE

Only The Strong Survive

My friend always said that to fully understand rock ’n roll you needed to be in a car with the roof down, speeding down the California Freeway, Route 101, with the volume turned up. This is an album for such an occasion. Bruce is going summer music from the old soul classics. It reminds me of the joy of Bowie and Jagger’s Live Aid single Dancing In The Streets. 

As it seems far more for sunny smiley days I am surprised that it has come out in dark November, though of course I am sure the sun is still shining on Santa Monica Boulevard! 

There’s a bit of weather on Only The Strong Survive. There’s The Sun Doesn’t Shine Anymore and I Wish It Would Rain making me wonder if the Boss wants to move to Ireland. Personally I’m not sure it was his best decision to attempt out sing Scott Walker and the boys. I Wish It Would Rain works better.

Most songs do. The quality of Bruce’s Covid pastime is not in question. The production is as good as a soul album, looking back but right here in the present, could be. Springsteen long time producer Ron Aniello seems to have done the hard graft on these tracks with Bruce arriving to add not much more than his vocal.

Those vocals though. My word. It is as though Bruce realised how good his chops were at 73 and wanted to show them off. An album of soul songs will do it. It does. 

Much as I am enjoying these songs I am unconvinced how deep the traction is going. I am sensing that Bruce’s 21st album is a belter but it’ll not last too long on my Springsteen playlist. A wonderful collection of songs that remind us of the joys of our Jersey Devil covering songs right through his career but no substitute for a follow up to Letter To You.


BONNY LIGHT HORSEMAN - ROLLING GOLDEN HOLY

BLH

I use the word sublime too freely. That might be annoying for the reader. I promise you that it is even more annoying for me when an album like this one comes along. It leaves me wishing I had never used the word ever before…

Rolling Golden Holy is utterly sublime. It is beautiful. There is not a note played that does not make its gentle holy mark. The vocals have an other worldly ethereal feeling. 

The songs? Well, you see I think they take you back to more classic, maybe folkier times BUT when I heard Summer Dream and its references to Van Morrison I thought that that is the avenue they have gone back in time through. 

On top of this heavenly sound there are spiritual questions to be asked about who we are, why we are here, how love works and what might happen beyond it all. 

I came to Rolling Golden Holy without having heard the debut record, not that my friends didn’t warn me. It has come as the sweetest surprise as the year flows towards best of lists. One of the first records of 2022 to be up for that list was Anais Mitchell’s eponymous album. Here at year’s end Mitchell’s supergroup collaboration with Josh Kaufmann who has played with The National, Josh Ritter and Taylor Swift to name a few Eric D Johnson of shins and the Fruit Bats is pushing herself close.

Surely on everybody’s list. Certainly on mine. An utter beaut!

 

 


LEONARD COHEN - SIX TRIBUTE ALBUMS

LC 2

HERE IT IS

Of the half dozen Here It Is is the most recent. It is also the classiest. The proof is written on the front of the cover - Blue Note. 

Close friend of Cohen’s, Larry Klein, has put a top quality jazz band together and then chosen some of the world’s top singers to set Cohen songs on top of the band’s gentle breeze. 

It is so good with nearly too many highlights to name - Norah Jones on Steer Your Way, Gregory Porter on Suzanne and Mavis Staples on If It Be Your Will.

The surprises for me are Peter Gabriel who shifts sonic backgrounds on a measured Her It Is, Nathaniel Ratelift’s disciplined Famous Blue Raincoat and Iggy Pop’s menacing You Want it Darker.

Perhaps after the overexposure and far-too-many covers of Hallelujah we should give a special word to Sarah McLachlan for a sublime version of that old hymn!

 

WHO BY FIRE

First Aid Kit curate an evening of the Canadian sage’s poetry and songs and then invite actors and singers and musicians to put it together sublimely.

There are deft touches elsewhere, adding just a dash of Anthem to Famous Blue Raincoat, a male voice to shift the spiritual lightsome on Show Me The Place. You Want It Darker into If It Be Your Will brings more depth of spiritual reflection. The Future with spoken word weeks out it’s prophetic breadth.

There are a plethora of ways that this is great. If you’re a First Aid Kit fan, you’ll love it. If you are Cohen fan, you’ll love it. If you want a musical night at the theatre you’ll love it. If you want to take Leonard Cohen into some place of spiritual retreat then you’ll love it.

 

FAMOUS BLUE RAINCOAT - JENNIFER WARNES

Jennifer Warnes’ finest hour, Famous Blue Raincoat probably relit Cohen’s reputation in 1986. Warnes did such an immense job, particularly on Bird On A Wire, Ain’t No Cure For Love and Came So Far For Beauty. Warnes even co-wrote the beautiful Song Of Bernadette and introduced to the world First We Take Manhattan.

 

I’M YOUR MAN - The Film Soundtrack

The live performances from a concert film tribute. Heavily Wainwright heavy. Martha’s Tower of Song and The Traitor are gathered with her brother’s Chelsea Hotel #2 and Everybody Knows and her mum and aunt’s Winter Lady. Best of the others has to be Nick Cave’s I’m Your Man and the very best of all a collaboration of the man himself and U2 on Tower of Song.

 

TOWER OF SONG

The shiny sheen one. Elton John, Billy Joel, Still et all. All a little perfect for me. Bono’s spoken word Hallelujah might be the best of all, experimented with long before it was in the American Song Book!! Suzanne Vega’s Story Of Isaac might be the other best thing.

 

I'M YOUR FAN

The original Tribute from 1991 had the mighty REM to lead it off and all the indie stars of the day in it, The Pixies, The Fatima Mansions and That Petrol Emotion among them. Nick Cave’s Tower Of Song was like him starting to reach for the mantle. Among my favourites were The Lilac Time’s Bird On A Wire, Lloyd Cole’s Chelsea Hotel and John Cale’s Hallelujah.


MARCUS MUMFORD - (self-titled)

(self-titled)

Mumford & Sons fans might debate whether the time is right for a Marcus Mumford solo record but the content of (self-titled) tells it own tale. This is not a communal piece of writing though collaborations arrive in its working out. This is the work of a man talking about himself, dealing with his own personal pain, and finding some solace in the trauma. 

This is Marcus Mumford’s Blood On The Tracks. His Blue. No, these songs are not about romantic break up or divorce but they are the art of a human being wearing a damaged heart on his sleeve, baring his very bruised soul.

The opening Cannibal lays it out with the minimalist menace of the music and lyrics that forced the paternal warning etched on the front sleeve. It’s X-rated in lyric and content and feel. One human is preying upon another, using and abusing their preciousness and innocence.

The final track is my favourite in every way. It’s a crafted songwriter song with an early 70’s naked acoustic strum. it has Brandi Carlile singing harmonies. Beautiful. I have never known a reprise of a last song on the first song but How’s chorus had already been sneaked into Cannibal. 

How reaches for the spiritual healing in the release that forgiveness brings. Forgiveness is a controversial word and concept. Do we add to a victim’s trauma by suggesting that they have to forgive or is forgiveness the victim’s key to redemption? Books have and are being written. Mumford believes it is a positive force though asks all the how questions.

In between these two song-ends Marcus Mumford deals with his experience and attempts to make sense of how it has impacted his mental, spiritual, emotional and relational life. He’s honest. You feel his pain and you can hear him reaching deep into his spiritual heritage for grace and hope and new beginnings.

You sense that he has had many companions who have walked with him, helped him face the brokenness and help him walk towards light. He dedicates the record to his wife. The need for others on such a journey is illustrated in the musical collaborations here.

I’ve mentioned the wonderful Brandi Carlile but there is also Clairo, Monica Martin and the genius that is Phoebe Bridgers on my other favourite track Stonecatcher. On this latter Mumford digs into the Gospel story of the woman caught in adultery and the religious leaders want to stone her. Jesus suggests that he who is perfect should cast the first stone. They drop the stones. Here, Mumford wants to catch the stones thrown in judgement rather than throw them.

(self-titled) is certainly an album worth returning to in every aspect but for those who love to find theology and Bible stories in their songs there are a good few lyrics to get you excited here. 

Time will tell whether (self-titled) is seen as one of the best or most successful albums of 2022. Whatever, I would suggest that it is one of the most important and hopefully most helpful to any who have suffered the abuse that Marcus Mumford has. We should thank him and pray for his on going healing.


PJ MOORE & CO - WHEN A GOOD DAY COMES

PJ 2

"When a good day comes/Rest and be thankful/for that we’ve got…” and listen to the new collection of songs from PJ Moore & Co from which such a directive comes.

This is a most mature slow burn beauty of a record, light and lush yet somehow at the same time weighty in depth of quality. 

The journalists will flock around the PJ Moore part of the story. Moore was one of the three quiet and often elusive Glasgow men who formed Blue Nile in the early 80s and made records with little commercial hype but with massive critical acclaim. 

Four records from 1983 to 2004 produced 33 songs and very few live gigs. Yet those albums are timeless and loved in copious amounts more than they sold.

So anything Blue Nile is a gasp of joy from fans like me. Here, 18 years later one of the three is releasing a record. Paul Buchanan’s only solo album is ten years ago and I am not aware of anything by Robert Bell. So, you can understand why the press and us fans would concentrate on the Blue Nile link with this.

And for Blue Nile fans like me you’ll not be disappointed. Moore wasn’t a writer in Blue Nile days but his writing is of the finest quality and the material he works from is right off the rich precious Blue Nile seam.

If the origins of When A Good Day Comes are Paul Joseph’s, then his role as enabler in Blue Nile is taken on here by Malcolm Lindsay. Lindsay was there for the early skirmishes of Deacon Blue but became a composer, arranger and producer. You’ll have heard his work across TV drama and documentaries.

Fortuitously Lindsay moved house and found himself Moore’s neighbour. It would seem that before the musical collaboration that Lindsay was a pastoral encourager gently forcing Moore to follow his muse. Knowing Lindsay and his work you could be sure that what he was hearing in Moore’s studio had to be good or he would not have been egging it on. 

The two are a perfect combination and the dreamscape sounds that they have conjured needed a perfect voice singing over the top. If they had asked me I might not have endorsed Mike McKenzie. Yes he was Scottish and yes he won the 2019 BBC Singer Songwriter Award but he was younger, apparently wasn’t aware of Blue Nile’s work! 

I am glad they didn’t ask because McKenzie is perfect and with the three units locked in PJ Moore & Co have made an utterly stunning album that’ll help us in the early days after the lockdown experience we have all been through but in 20 years time won’t need us to link it with that pandemic. 

The songs here are full of the created order and the weather. I am thinking of where might be a best place to get its full effect. Yes, a candle and glass in the late hours but I am thinking of headphones on the beach as the sun sets. Hypnotic. Meditative. Spiritual. It is drenched in the mood for surmising.  

"When a good day comes/Rest and be thankful/for that we’ve got…”   


JULIAN LENNON - JUDE

JULIAN_LENNON_JUDE+-+RSD+STORE+EXCLUSIVE+OLIVE+GREEN+VINYL+-+SEALED-797856

When it comes to his music, Julian Lennon has not had it easy. It is why he has released albums intermittently and this new one is eleven years after the last one, Everything Changes. 

You can understand. Either his work is being compared to his father’s, and let us face it no one can stand in a comparison with such a father, or I am wondering if he wasn’t John’s boy would I be buying his new record, Jude.

That Julian called the record Jude, after that song by his dad’s band, written about him by his “Uncle” Paul, is a sign that the oldest Beatle son has come to terms with his legacy. At 59 he seems to be more content in his own skin.

Jude is a fascinating work in that it has been written and recorded over a thirty year period. Some of these songs re-appeared when Lennon’s former manger sent him tapes and demos that he was about to throw out. The first success of Jude is that an album written over such a period of time sounds so cohesive.

As a result we might have an accidental concept album of a man raised in unique circumstances finding his way to finding himself. Being a Beatles’ son might have been enough but when said Beatle leaves your mother and you when you are about 5 years old and is then murdered when you are just 17. Goodness, that is a turbulent life to navigate.

So across these songs we find themes of salvation, freedom, love and hope scattered all across a strong collection that shift shades from the opening hypnotic build of Save Me to the piano and strings ballad of Love Never Dies to the deep groove drive of Every Little Moment and then the experimental closing Gaia, an experimental collaboration with French singer Elissa Lauper with added vocals by Blue Nile’s Paul Buchanan. 

Back to that opener Save Me beginning like a tentative stream and ending like a full waterfall crashing into a big big life. This album declares in humble, vulnerable but also confident ways that Julian Lennon has found his life and made his lifework. The proof is within the vinyl groove! 


RICKY ROSS - SHORT STORIES VOL. 2

Short Stories 2

Only the second in the series of Short Stories but already a coveted extra slice of imaginative songwriting creativity from Ricky Ross.

Ricky is best known as front man and main songwriter in Deacon Blue. With the band his songs soar across stages in anthemic hopefulness, the likes of Real Gone Kid, Fergus Sings The Blues and Dignity teasing crowds to sing their lungs out.

These Short Stories records have given Ross a whole other outlet. Here he sits at the piano and with any lack of clutter gives us surmises on home and work and faith in more of a downbeat way.

This second volume has a couple of interesting contributions. First, that it was recorded in lockdown. The shadowy covid years has these songs yearning for space and the outside, walking mountains and finding The Unpath. Ricky had his Spanish Shoes ready to go when restrictions lifted into a New World - maybe not up those mountains though! 

Secondly, as he was conjuring these songs he was also writing his first memoir Walking Back Home. As a result we get stories of family and loss. 

Still Walking has both. A camping trip with his son, turns into a special moment that ends with a daughter on a train heading away from home. I sensed his relationship with his father dropped in too - “Still feeling the hand of the Lord, resting on my shoulder”. I love the geographical details. Just like the memoir I am surmising my own family relationships. 

As with Vol. 1 we get a few old Deacon Blue songs refreshed and revived. I Am Born originally on the rather half baked Homesick needed fully cooking. Bethlehem’s Gate and Your Swaying Arms maybe not so much. These are such quality songs and they sit beautifully here.

We have had a piano version of Bethlehem’s Gate before as a b-side but surprisingly this is the first such version of Your Swaying Arms. I think I even have an Acapella vision of that. A beautiful song that incorporates all of Ross’s strengths - story, sense of place, romance and little lyrical depth charges - “the love we squandered”. I surmise that one a lot.

Short Stories Vol. 2 is a slow burn of an album crammed with the finest of songs. Every return brings a surprise of piano melody or poetic line. Bring on Vol. 3 and in my dreams Surprised By Joy and Thunder Road as performed side by side in The River Tent at Greenbelt in 1990! 

 

Ricky Ross plays Fitzroy, Belfast on November 25th, 2022 - TICKETS HERE


PAULO NUTINI - LAST NIGHT IN THE BITTERSWEET

LNATBS Nutini

So, I never took Paulo Nutini seriously. Oh I liked the catchy novelty of Pencil Full of Lead but I never considered him as a serious writer.

Last Night In The Bittersweet however has all my attention. I stuck Children Of The Stars and Shine A Light on a family travel playlist and was mesmerised by them particularly Shine A Light that has this late 60s psychedelic blues groove that I cannot get enough of.

The entire album indeed sounds like Nuntini’s Exile On Main Street sprawling to 16 songs of across genre and vibe. There’s that soul voice on the yearning Through The Echoes, there’s a nod to Irish contemporaries Fontaines DC on the spoken word Lose It. There’s 70’s New York new wave energies of Petrified In Love. Still in New York, there is the hypnotic near Velvet Underground heavy groove of Everywhere. Then there is Julianne, the beautiful piano ballad.

Nutini seems a thoughtful young man. He’s not claiming to have  any answers but he seems to be keen to go deep in the questions. He declares himself in the final track, Writer, as some conduit to all our surmising. On these 16 tracks he does it so well.

 

I am your writer who bleeds indecision

Your lover, your waiter, your saddest addition

Your fighter, your taker, your old patience breaker

Your mover, your shaker

The one who can make you feel like a giant in the morning

And so little by noon

For sure drowning in the sunrise and you froze on the moon 


MATT MCGINN - TIME WELL SPENT

McGinn

I have tried time after time to fall in love with Matt McGinn. A Nordie Irish songwriter who always seems to be hanging with Anthony Toner and Ken Haddock. Somehow it never happened. With my interest in peace and social justice issues I was sure his last album Lessons In War would be the one. But no…

Then the more personal Time Well Spent, an ambitious beaut of a record in its musical breadth and lyrical depth, lands and I am a fan. Oh I am a fan. This is wonderful stuff,

McGinn is a traditional folk songwriter. To put a paper weight such a thought, Aoife Scott daughter of Frances of the Irish Black dynasty duets the title track and Eliza Carthy daughter of Martin Carthy and Norma Waterson King and Queen of the England folk scene plays the most delicious viola on the title track. 

With Matt McGinn, you think you should be hearing him with a peat fire lit behind him and big black creamy stouts in the tables around about.  Yet, do not confine McGinn’s pigeon hole. 

Oh there are pipes and boxes and fiddles stern across but this is a varied array of styles. Yes, Killahalla is pure Mourne Mountain folk, sitting with emigrant songs like Luka Bloom’s Chicago and Paul Brady’s version of Hills Of Donegal. I hear Declan O’Rourke’s sublime Stars Over Kinvara in there too.

Before we know it, the next track has us in romantic happy waltzing France, Le Ciel Eat Bleu. Elsewhere Something drives along, fiddle fuelled and Lighthouse Joe after it. Keep Your Hands Off My Summer could be Anthony Toner attempting a cross between The Sawdoctors and Paul Brady. Woman echoes the sound  of north Antrim’s Bob Speers and rightfully declares the importance of the woman in all of our lives. Annie (Many Moons Ago) is a fascinating and very original love story about a mother leaving husband and daughter and all that followed. 

Best of all is that title track. The sound is like that 90s sound of Mary Black covering another Jimmy McCarthy classic. But it is not a McCarthy song but McGinn’s very own. The most beautiful of simple love songs, perfectly executed. It’ll be the soundtrack of tonights walk on my holiday beach:

 

Like you and me at the water’s edge... waiting... watching...

The sun go down as the world relents 

Time with you is time well spent

As the sun goes down and the world relents 

Time with you is time well spent

 

Matt McGinn - I am a fan!


DARDEN SMITH -WESTERN SKIES

Western Skies

Around the very week that I fell in love with my wife Janice I bought an album by one of my favourite writers of the time. It was 1989. It was Deacon Blue, Aztec Camera, Lloyd Cole & The Commotions, Martin Stephenson & The Daintees, Prefab Sprout and The Bible!. The writer was Boo Hewerdine from The Bible! who had an exclamation mark to start.

What was interesting was that this was not a Bible! project but with some guy called Darden Smith. I knew nothing about Smith but soon I was leaving my beloved to her work in Wimbledon before catching the train into Waterloo and on to the second hand record shops, like Steve’s Sounds near Leicester Square and Cheapo Cheapo Records in Soho. It was indeed in the latter that I picked up that very Hewerdine and Smith record Evidence.

I’d sit on that train, a small town boy loving his first time exploring the big city, and press play on my walkman. I have vivid memories of the utter joy of new love and big adventure every time that Out Of The World came on - “Out of this world she sends me out of this world”.

Over half of my life later and I am listening to Darden Smith’s new record Western Skies and thinking that that man is soundtracking my life again.

Now he really shouldn’t be. Western Skies is Texas-centric and I have never felt a great affinity with that particular state. Here I am in Belfast, half a planet away. 

Western Skies is more than the songs on a new record. They come with a coffee table sized book of photographs, essays, poems and the lyrics of the songs. All are inspired and researched din the landscapes of that big huge state that rarely votes as I’d like. 

It seems that Smith found a Polaroid Camera in his garage in the midst of the pandemic. He’d venture out in his car and take snap shots of the landscape that formed him. It not being a digital camera he had to decide whether the shot he was about to click was worth the price of a coffee. 

All of this swirled around and suddenly we had a book and a record. It is a veritable bombardment of stimuli for eyes and ears and heads and hearts and souls. 

There’s a song on the record that might be a centre of the soul’s mapping in the project. Running Out Of Time puts it well:

 

If these days are really numbered

If there´s and end to the line

Then I´m gonna love you

Like I´m running, like I´m running out of time

 

If I am finding a conclusion in Smith’s deep dive into his Texas roots. It is about living the now to its fullest potential. An essay in the book called The Comet And The Train concludes thus:

“We make such a big deal of the present. Lost in our assumptions and wrong headed constructs that what is occupying our vision is a static, forever thing, when really there is always a grander motion. We’re surrounded by stars, a comet hangs in the sky, and we instead let ourselves be overwhelmed by the train.”

It sounds like a Psalm, more modern in format than Nick Cave’s Seven (Psalms). 

Of the album, it is such a solid body of craft. A fine mature wine of Americana. Loose arrangements with a precision of melody and Smith’s warm voice wrapping itself around that wisdom that this review suggests already. 

Most immediate of all is a meditation on Jesus wisdom in the Sermon on the Mount:

 

‘Cause it don’t make you taller to bring somebody down

Make me think of Jesus with his thorny crown

Talking about loving one another as you love yourself

Just keep reaching down to help the meek

Show a little mercy and forgiveness

In what you and what you say

And turn the other cheek”

 

Western Skies is wonderful stuff.