ALBUM REVIEWS

GARETH DAVIES-JONES - TRUTH, TRADITION, PROPHETS & LOSS

GDJ

Gareth Davies-Jones has been perhaps one of the most underrated songwriters on these islands over the past 15 years. A Northumbrian (where he lives) or Northern Irish (where he’s from) Martyn Joseph is the best way to describe him, very solid craft in the classic songwriting tradition, oozing deep content of truth, tradition, prophets and loss as the title to this his tenth album declares.

Like Joseph, Davies developed late and this record for me is his most satisfying piece of work. It has to be said he tested himself. If you want to find out how good your writing is then set your songs alongside some of the strongest songs ever written. 

T,T,P&L has five trad songs alongside Davies-Jones originals. Gareth’s Irishness comes through in Raglan Road and Ulster’s finest My Lagan Love. Peggy Gordon gets a beautiful working and I found his arrangement of Isaac Watts’ My Shepherd you Supply My Need opened the familiar Psalm 23 like a flower in bloom.

The arrangement of that Psalm could actually be the anchor of this collection. The album title Truth, Tradition, Prophets and Loss is a good name for Gareth’s work in general but this album was much more pastoral for me, like a meditative retreat beside the quiet waters King David mentions in that Psalm. Karine Polwart kept coming to mind.

We find ourselves on the Wild Atlantic Way, along the River Lagan, up Warden Hill. We are in the presence of the majestic curlew birds. I happen to be watching Autumn Watch as I type and those curlews of More Than Memory in juxtaposition with Kavanagh’s autumn leaf falling on Raglan Road is perfect.

There is ever a spirituality embedded in Davies-Jones work. It is not preachy. There are no handbrake turns to squeeze it in. On this record it like that Palm 23, a resource to understand the world around but also bringing hope and resilience in challenges like Coronavirus. From No One Else to In Company there is a sense of presence on this, the first record that Gareth had the confidence to play everything and do the recording and production too.

Not just good but good for the soul. 


KARINE POLWART & DAVID MILLIGAN - STILL AS YOUR SLEEPING

Polwart Milligan

Karine Polwart has been the unofficial Scottish songwriter laureate for some time. Her most recent album of original songs, Laws Of Motion, was my Record Of The Year in 2018 and I loved her reworking of the best 80s pop songs of middle Scotland, Scottish Songbook, from a year later.

What we have come to learn over the years is that Polwart on the cover means quality guaranteed and there is likely an artistic raison d’étra beyond a collection of songs. There is the likelihood of a fascinating collaboration too.

David Milligan is just that. An artistic and versatile piano player the words composer, arranger, musical director and educator need added to quantify what he is.

I have always loved the stripped back, raw and organic song. I remember simply loving the mid 90s unplugged obsession and all of the acoustic versions that were available on the very loved CD single. I would put together cassette tape compilations (the old timer’s playlist) called Stripped Naked. Such a racey minister!!

So to a first class honours record in stripped back. All we have on Still As Your Sleeping is Polwart’s voice and Milligan’s piano. Those are all the frills you need. Milligan’s piano has more than enough imagination to give Polwart’s voice well enough intrigue underneath.

The songs as is Polwart’s want are drawn from traditional folk, modern folk and original. There’s a beautiful Parting Glass, Dick Gaughan’s Handful of Earth and Alasdair Roberts’ Old Men of the Shells. The late Michael Marra’s Heaven’s Hound is a poignant choice. Kate McGarrigle’s Talk To Me of Mendocino takes us geographically further afield and there is a version of Richard Fariña’s The Quiet Joys of Brotherhood, to the tune of My Lagan Love which pleased this Belfast boy.

There is a theme of travelling, of parting and of moving on. This theme is best dealt with in two originals. That these two originals are perhaps my favourites in such a solid catalogue of songs says it all.

Travel These Ways commissioned by a Dementia charity is about the moving on of aging:

 

Wherever we go

Wherever we bide

Whatever the wind and weather

Wherever we go

Wherever we bide

We’ll travel these ways together”

 

Best of all is The Path That Winds Before Us with always drowse me to think of the Old Testament Psalms with its all for stillness and contentment no matter what the days ahead bring:

 

Don’t worry, Don’t hurry 

The seed will take its time to grow, 

One step and then another 

Is the only place we have to go.”

 

Like all Karine Polwart records the songs delve inside the individual soul but look around at community and society too. An album about the uncertainty of movement while bringing some assurance is a perfect gift to us in these various seasons of Coronavirus times.


FLAG DAY SOUNDTRACK - GLEN HANSARD, EDDIE VEDDER, CAT POWER & OlLIVIA VEDDER

Flag Day

Don’t miss this little pleasant of surprises. Eddie Vedder, Glen Hansard and Cat Power team up to record a soundtrack of songs for Sean Penn’s movie Flag Day.

Back in 1991 Vedder was going mega-massive in Seattle grunge band Pearl Jam and Glen Hansard was moving from busking on Grafton Street to lighting up Dublin venues with The Frames. The idea that 30 years later they’d be collaborators would have been hard to take in back then. Two very different trajectories but here they are, sounding nothing like they did in 1991 but it sounding fabulous.

If you are wondering what the blend sounds like it has probably more recent Hansard than Vedder. You could hear these songs on any recent Hansard record in sonics and quality. It’s a long way from grunge. Perhaps Vedder’s cover of REM’s Drive is most like his DNA but it’s a little respectful. It’s a long way from grunge.

Cat Power also contributes a few songs too. They are beautiful and unadorned. She makes her voice so haunting and spooky. Maybe best of her four is a cover of KK’s I Think Of Angels.

It is all downbeat and atmospheric as you would expect a Sean Penn movie soundtrack to be. Considering the very different styles of songwriting, it is a very cohesive piece of work. It doesn't need a movie to have a reason to be an album.

Best of all are two performances which sees Eddie’s daughter Olivia Vedder first releases. Stunning voice delivered with emotive maturity. Father’s Daughter is a favourite of this particular father. 


FAB GEAR - NEW MOJO CD OF BEATLES' COVERS

Fab Gear

Less than six months after I reviewed a free Bob Dylan covers’ CD from Uncut magazine I am raving about another. This time it is The Beatles who get covered. It is called Fab Gear and says “Mojo presents 15 customised Beatles covers”(available with Mojo, November 2021). 

Customised is the word. This is a CD packed with reinventions of the familiar, filled with a plethora of the most pleasant of surprises.

From the opening She Said, She Said rocked up by The Black Keys to the closing Let It Be reimagined in jazz, Joshua Redman’s saxophone giving that beautiful familiar tune soaring gospel and a good deal of improvisation too, we get new ways to see these songs.

Don’t Let Me Down gets dub treatment, She & Him go near calypso with I Should Have Known Better, Damon and Naomi give us an airy almost religiously meditative While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Jim James doing the same to another Harrison Long Long Long and The Melvins go grunge on I Want To Hold Your Hand. 

Personally I have been a long time fan of African American shadings of Beatles’ songs. I love the two volumes of Black America Sings… And so here Swamp Dogg’s Lady Madonna is outrageously good, all positive funked up rush with brass and hammond organ. 

PP Arnold brings a Gospel feel to Eleanor Rigby surely one of McCartney’s greatest moments. With Macca I imagine that priests, church and people getting saved are all incidental to his story line. Not so with PP. She reaches soul that white Liverpool boys might never even have seen in their psychedelic trips!

Best of all in its customising is Bettye LaVette’s The Word. Funked up it gives some spiritual clout to some Beatles, probably mainly Lennon, preaching. This is the song at the fulcrum of The Beatles style and content, where Rubber Soul shifts the choruses from boy/girl to universal when it comes to love.

As Steve Turner points out in his book The Gospel According To The Beatles, Lennon was the only Beatle to be confirmed in the church and by his own choice. When Lennon starts to head down Dylan’s avenue with message songs then it might be obvious that he would. Here words like light and free and word and spreading the word could all be sung in Church.

Off piste and my own thoughts mingling The Bible says that Jesus is the Word and God is love. 

Back To Fab Gear. The gear here are the songs from the greatest songwriting canon in music. They get fab re-customisations that eek out even more wonder than we thought they add. It’s a blast.  


LINDSEY BUCKINGHAM - LINDSEY BUCKINGHAM

Lindsey Buckingham

It seems to me that Lindsey Buckingham’s eponymously named seventh album is as much about the drama of Fleetwood Mac as it is about the music. Three years after getting sacked from Fleetwood Mac, Buckingham lays down his most Fleetwood Mac sounding solo record and kind of says, “See what you missed?”.

Let’s look back at the drama…

The 1973 album called Buckingham Nicks set it all rolling. Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, very much a couple, had made a record of harmonious songs but were already fighting over the naked cover photograph.

All that the two artists would become is right there on the tracks - Lindsey Buckingham’s instrumental invention and Stevie Nicks mystical voiced sugar coating. Crystal even found itself onto the couple’s first Fleetwood Mac record after Mick Fleetwood hears Frozen Love over the speakers of a studio he was testing and head hunts Buckingham immediately. He won’t jump without Nicks. I wonder how many times he looked back at that decision!

Rumours is the new amalgam’s iconic piece but as it is well documented the seeming harmonious west coast sound is coming out of love stories of utter disharmony. Go Your Own Way or Never Going Back Again. The message was clearly heartache even if the sound was almost joyous! 

Fleetwood Mac’s career since has attempted to out do the interpersonal dramas of Crosby, Stills Nash & Young. Original members Mick Fleetwood and John McVie, who Peter Green named his band after have kept the back beat while one minute Nicks, for 16 years Christine McVie and for a time Buckingham have huffed, stayed away, gone to rehab or got sacked!

The 2017 Buckingham McVie record that should have been Fleetwood Mac, had Nicks not boycotted, was followed by Buckingham getting sacked. That was the last move. Fleetwood Mac touring with Heartbreaker Mike Campbell and Crowded House’s Neil Finn instead of their prime sonic consultant, arranger, producer.

So, Buckingham who has always called his own work “esoteric and a little left field’ brings ten songs right into the centre and makes them utterly Fleetwood Mac accessible. So accessible that Time is almost Pat Boone croon and Dancing is more fragile than anything he has ever done, ending the whole thing with a hushed whisper.

I Don’t Mind and Blue Light have the rhythmic signature finger picking while On The Wrong Side has the shiny guitar solo fade out. You can almost hear Nicks and McVie harmonies on Santa Rosa.

That last comment might sum it all up. This is a fabulous record. Yet, you feel that it could have been even more brilliant. As Buckingham screams “look what you missed by sacking me” there is a kind of echo that says “How good this could have been if they’d all been getting on in this particular year”. 

Oh the drama.


BIG RED MACHINE - HOW LONG DO YOU THINK IT'S GONNA LAST

How_Long_Do_You_Think_It's_Gonna_Last_by_Big_Red_Machine

As I listen to this surprising treat of my late summer I am imagining Aaron Dessner and Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) sitting at the sound desk. As they sit scheming a sound Vernon pulls his fader down and Dessner pushes his up.

Dessner is usually happy to stand behind Matt Berninger in The National or in the producer chair of Taylor Swift, Sharon Van Etten, Frightened Rabbit, Ben Howard and Lisa Hannigan, all who appear here as well as Fleet Foxes, Anais Mitchell, Ilsey, Naeem, Shara Nova, La Force and This Is The Kit.

Anchored in Dessner and Vernon, Big Red Machine is very much a collective. But on this their second album Dessner has stepped out of the shy shadows, stuck up his fader button and given a deep foundation to the entire piece. He even sings for goodness sake!

There’s a gentle strength coming from Dessner’s piano. Overall it is a thing of beauty with Dessner’s fader up and intriguing enough when Vernon nudges his back up on songs like Renegade or more particularly the sonic experiment of Sabotage.

All of the others invited in play their role. None more perfectly than Anais Mitchell, Taylor Smith and Fleet Foxes’ Robin Peckfold. The songs are reminiscing (Brycie, about Dessner’s brother and The Ghost Of Cincinnati a tour around that city), lamenting (Hutch, about Scottish front man of Frightened Rabbit who we sadly lost a year or two back) and personal introspection (Latter Days). 

All in all How Long Do You Think It's Gonna Last has a soothing healing quality and I feel that it will be around for quite a long time indeed. 


THE WALLFLOWERS - EXIT WOUNDS

Exit Wounds

I remember discovering The Wallflowers first record in a Record & Tape Exchange, probably Camden or Notting Hill. They were well under the radar but it was Dylan's boy so worth the cheap price tag and I liked it very much.

A few years later and young Jakob's band was selling copious amounts more than his dad with hits like One Headlight and The Difference. It was all had too much sheen for me. It had lost an authenticity of the debut.

It might be just me but I feel that the authenticity is back on Exit Wounds. I sense the influence of two solo albums where he stood back from the full band thing and his soundtrack for the Echo In The Canyon documentary where he covered that great late 60s Californian pop/rock/country of Beach Boys, Gram Parsons, Buffalo Springfield et al.

As a result it sounds like of all his dad’s buddies he has most imbibed the sound of Tom Petty. Exit Wounds might be The Wallflowers Wildflowers. It rocks in that laid back organic kind of Californian way.

Lyrically Jakob has never tried to compete with his Nobel Poet laureate father. Do not kid yourself though, the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree. He still conjures great lines, vivid images and clever couplets throughout. 

Content wise these songs are dealing with change, shifts in our lives and the nation. There are bridges and searches for ways out, there is pain and longing for escape. ‘I can hear the ocean when I would rather hear trains.’ Exit Wounds indeed. 

To make it even more yearning Shelby Lynne adds emotional vocals across four tracks. She’s a perfect addition to the Americana feel. For me she is particularly powerful on Darlin’ Hold On. 

For me, Exit Wounds is the most satisfying Wallflowers’ record yet.


THE KILLERS - PRESSURE MACHINE

Killers Pressure Macine

There’s been a lot of talk about The Killers’ seventh studio album Pressure Machine. It’s different. It is their version of Springsteen’s Nebraska. I am not arguing with most of the opinions but I would say that for me it sounds like an entire album built around the characters of Springsteen’s song The River rather than the more fictitious album Nebraska. 

The River is Bruce looking around at his family and those that he grew up with. He is looking at the dreams and promises that they are made in their everyday lives.

Pressure Machine is about such. It’s about those ordinary small town things of work and family. It is about hopes and fears and promises and whether they will be broken or not. It is the everyday ordinary life in the midst of the American dream of things and happiness that consumes. 

There are also echoes of U2’s Songs Of Innocence idea of going back to childhood to find inspiration for a record. Like Bono there are hints of Flowers’ own childhood in these songs, particularly how his parents taught him how to work hard whether a blue collar worker or a songwriter. 

In the main though Flowers is writing little four minute vignettes of fiction. That’s where the Nebraska comparison comes from. However, unlike Springsteen, who set his characters in a far away State, Flowers locates scenes around the Utah town of Nephi where he grew up. There are even little speeches from Nephi before each song. Initially irritating I got over it and see them now as part of the artistic deal! Flowers does a great job at continuing to tell their stories. 

The other obvious influence for me is novelist Flannery O’Connor. If Flannery had fronted a neon lit up Las Vegas stadium filling rock band this might be her best work. Pressure Machine is God haunted from the very album cover art - 3 crosses across, behind a barbed wire fence on a bleak an American landscape.

The lyrics are God haunted too:

 

And if there is a judgement 

When He pulls my chart

He'll reject my actions

And He will know my heart" (Quiet Hills)

 

In this quiet town, they know how to live

Good people who lean on Jesus, they're quick to forgive

In this quiet town (Quiet Town)

 

Around here, we all take up our cross and hang on His holy name

But the cards that I was dealt will get you thrown out of the game (Terrible Thing)

 

 

So who's gonna carry us away?

Eagles with glory-painted wings?

We keep on waiting for the miracle to come

Pour down the mountain like a heaven-fed stream (Cody)

 

 

Leave the mountainside cold and bare

But when the longer days of sun appear

They'll be rising like an answered prayer and I know that (Sleepwalker)

 

Like runaway horses, it's a long way back home again

When every step is a silver prayer in the face of a hard wind (Runaway Horses)

 

We got a place with a fence and a little grass

I put this film on the windows and it looks like chapel glass

But when she turns, it's like the shadow of the cross don't cast

No blessing over our lonely life (In The Car Outside)

 

Hope'll set your eyes agleam

Like four feet dangling in the stream

But the Kingdom of God, it's like a pressure machine

Every step, gotta keep it clean (Pressure Machine)

 

Green ribbon front doors, dishwater days

This whole town is tied to the torso of God's mysterious ways (Just Getting By)

 

God drenched! And all of it has me asking big questions. What is the miracle that we all want? Is it anything like God’s dream for us? Or is is all caught up in some other futile happy materialist dream? 

I guess for fans looking at our perfect Killers’s live set lists we might hurry to pick out songs from other albums. Not that I can’t hear crowds singing along from this one too - 

 

Everyone is afraid of losing

Even the ones that always win

Hey, sleepwalker, when the mountain comes back to life

It doesn't come from without

It comes from within (Sleepwalker)

 

Or that phone lights won’t be swaying in the dark as Phoebe Bridgers guests on Runaway Horses. In A Car Outside too seems as British 80’s popped up and stadium ready as anything on any other record. 

Pressure Machine might always be the black sheep in The Killers’ shiny indie rock catalogue. Yet if I had to listen to an album all the way through, it might end up that this one is the most cohesive, slow burning, long lasting album of all! 


JACKSON BROWNE - DOWNHILL FROM EVERYWHERE

Jackson Downhill

Almost 20 years go I wrote a book called The Rock Cries Out: Discovering Eternal Truth In Unlikely Music. My Publisher Relevant Books picked the name and I was happy with that. My working title was Secular Saints. 

I argued that artists with no faith or at least with no Christian faith could say things that followers of Jesus could caress and collide with. Joni Mitchell, Kurt Cobain, Radiohead, Bob Marley and George Harrison were among the final choices. 

Of course Jackson Browne was in there too. Indeed, if one single artist could have defined for me what a Secular Saint was it was Jackson Browne. I am talking about an artist who’s music encompassed the personal and societal transformation that Jesus was on about in his incarnation. 

From the very beginning of his career Jackson Browne’s songs bombarded the listener with introspective challenges and inspirations for heart and head and soul. He was also sharp with the social or political. I learned to think about social justice in the 80s with Jesus and the Old Testament prophets in one hand and Jackson Browne records in the other.

I remember standing watching Browne in Botanic Park in 1996 and being utterly inspired as he sang “I want to live in the world, not behind some wall/I want to live in the world, where I will hear if another voice should call”. It seemed like the kind of call Jesus was giving to me.

Downhill From Everywhere comes from a man who is for much alive in his world. He asks us all on Until Justice Is Real:

 

It's a good question to be asking yourself

What is well being, what is health?

What is illusion and what is true?

What is my purpose - what can I do?

 

Here is a man in his 70’s hearing the voices of God’s damaged creation and broken humans and seeking to encourage those with ears to hear to do something about it. 

There are many questions on Downhill From Everywhere. It provokes soul and society. It walks through the valleys of shadows and always finds that light and inspiration to keep going in bringing something better.

Maybe one of the two songs on the record written about Haiti puts this best. In Love Is Love, a lifetime creed, of Browne tells us about Rick:

 

“Rick rides a motorbike through the worst slums of the city

The father and the doctor to the poorest of the poor

Raising up the future from the rubble of the past

Here they say - L’espua fe viv – Hope makes life”

 

Rick is a Catholic priest who came to Haiti after the 2010 Earthquake and realised that the people didn’t need a priest but a doctor. So he went home and studied to be a doctor and returned - “The father and the doctor”. It is that wow of love where hopelessness could reign that makes me love Jackson Browne.

I am also loving Human Touch, written with Leslie Mendelson who I heard a few years back supporting Deacon Blue and Steve McEwan for the film 5B about the first Aids hospital ward opened in America in the early 80s. McEwan has been a favourite writer of mine since his late teen days with South African band Friends Again. I loved his band Unamerican. He also wrote the very popular worship song Great Is The Lord. In Human Touch he provokes a self righteous Church and sneaks in a wee bit of 1 Corinthians 13! 

There are so many good songs here. It is musically so vibrant and there are no fillers or anything half baked. It is an incredibly strong Jackson Browne collection. I might dare to suggest that it is up there with some of his best. Good music that is good for something. What Secular Saints do!


DANI LARKIN - NOTES FOR A MAIDEN WARRIOR

Larkin

Dani Larkin is a young lady with some range. 

Her debut record Notes For A Maiden Warrior has a historical range from the influence of ancient myth to personal pondering under Belfast’s Samson and Goliath, that plays poetically with Biblical text and modern Belfast context and adds Larkin’s own introspection. It’s pretty epic.

It has a musical range too, from Irish trad to John Martyn guitar driven early 70s folk to standing with Joshua Burnside in contemporary Irish song imagining. 

Listen too with wonder at the range of her voice, which is a wow; it’s strong and delicate. Go to the closing Three Wise Women for more than enough proof. 

Larkin’s guitar playing is ridiculously good. Magpie reminded me of Iain Archer’s playing around 1996, highlighted in his Crazy Bird record. I name check John Martyn again, certainly he influenced Archer.

Growing up on the Armagh/Monaghan border Larkin was steeped in the traditional Irish music and story. I particularly love the way she has taken that old traditional folk song structure and played with it creatively, making something new, without losing the essence. Too many of her peers have deconstructed too much without bettering in their reconstructions.  

The Nordy magazine Dig With It review tipped me off to Dani Larkin and the more I have listened this summer, the more I have come to love it. It impresses on first listen but it reveals itself with every listen. I cannot see it being far from the top of my best of 2021.