ALBUM REVIEWS

VARIOUS ARTISTS: DYLAN... REVISTED - UNCUT JUNE 2021

Dylan Revisited

As Bob Dylan cover albums go this might be one of the very best. It comes from a strange source.

I hate free CDs with music magazines. CDs? Surely streaming has stopped any need for a few taster songs from top and coming albums. Mostly, they are not the best songs. Advertising money can be the only reason.

Yet, Uncut’s June 2021 free CD is a revelation. Just a glance suggests as such. I mean it only needs a glance for proof. Cowboy Junkies, Low, Courtney Marie Andrews, The Weather Station, The Flaming Lips, Richard Thompson, Frazey Ford, Weyes Blood… and more.

But even with a strong bill I can still be suspicious of these darn things hanging off front covers of magazines. My suspicions were well and truly smashed by a stunning collection of Dylan’s songs, tastefully done. Even better is that when they brought all these versions together with a certain 

It is the female vocals that marvel most. Courtney Marie Andrews’s To Ramona, Bridget Mae Power’s One More Cup Of Coffee and Frazey Ford’s The Times They Are A-Changing bring a vocal purity that is surely beautiful and Low’s Mimi Parker is only a little short of angelic on the haunting requiem that is Knockin On Heaven’s Door.

There is a special world music shift in the African rhythms and harmonies that Fatoumata Diawara brings to Blowing In The Wind, an assured addition to our next Ugandan Bus Trip Playlist.

Most intriguing of all are The Weather Station and Cowboy Junkies. The former tells us that she has tried to strip away the Christian parts of Precious Angel, “I found a way to remove some verses and reorder others to make it a secular song”. Bless her heart but Tamara’s caricature of following Jesus is a little out of sorts. She might have removed Jesus but the Holy Spirit is still hanging all over what is still very much a prayerful spiritual.

Cowboy Junkies don’t have Lindeman’s seeming queasiness with Jesus and don’t tamper with the Holy Spirit in I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You. The most recent Dylan song here, a blend of Make You Feel My Love and something from Saved they preach it in that gentle Canadian arrogant free way:

 

If I had the wings of a snow white dove

I'd preach the gospel, the gospel of love

A love so real, a love so true

I've made up my mind to give myself to you

 

The other remarkable thing is that there is not one duff track here. Richard Thompson thinks he has nailed This Wheel’s On Fire better than anyone before him; The Flaming Lips do psychedelic country on Lay Lady Lay; Thurston Moore get’s closest to the original on Buckets Of Rain; Patterson Hood and Jay Gonzalez from Drive By Truckers bring an appropriate southern crawl and drawl then add a little menace to Blind Willie McTell; Joan Shelley’s purity on Dark Eyes with Nathan Salsburg on guitar; Jason Lytle’s stripped back strum and luscious lazy vocal on Most of The Time reminds how good a tune that is. 

After all that the Musical Excellence Award goes to Weyes Blood for her 11 minute Sad Eyed Lady Of the Lowlands, starting in the same Americana ambience as everything else before building to a psychedelic baroque drama of the most beautiful climactic kind.

All this and I haven’t even mentioned that Bob appears himself in a rare track from the very fertile Infidels sessions. Too Late merged eventually into Food Of Pride and still didn’t make the cut. Here, it is an acoustic lash, echoing Dylan’s early Greenwich Village days and has all the lyrical intrigue you would like. 

This does deserve an official release but if that doesn’t happen, get yourself to a shop now and buy Uncut June 2021 and make sure that infernal free CD is attached!


RICHIE FURAY - DELIVERIN AGAIN (50th Anniversary Return to the Troubadour)

DeLIVErin

I came to Richie Furay through his solo record I’ve Got A Reason. It was an Album of the Month in a Christian Record Club! I loved it because it wasn’t the Jesus-per-minute formula of the most of the catalogue. In Furay’s songs, faith was all submerged in the everyday, as I so much prefer. 

I then found a Souther Hillman Furay Band record in a bargain bin. I suddenly realised that Richie was a rock star legend. Mr Furay was  one of the three main voices behind Buffalo Springfield with Neil Young and Stephen Stills. He was also a founding member of Poco, almost a feeder band for their contemporary country rock mates The Eagles.

Richie Furay is one of the few Church pastors who is a member of the Rock N Roll Hall Of Fame. Since 1983 he has been pastor of Calvary Chapel in Boulder, Colorado. He has kept the music going with worships albums, records of the same kind as I’ve Got a Reason - The Heartbeat Of Love and Hand In Hand - and a brilliant live record Alive.

This new double album with the succinct title of Richie Furay 50th Anniversary Return to the Troubadour or preferably DeLIVERrin Again is in musical terms a follow up to that Alive record. 

Furay has built a beast of a beautiful band around himself. Scott Sellen’s guitar playing is exemplary, Richie’s daughter Jesse Lynch brings strong vocals and current Eagle, once of the Poco parish Timothy B Schmit also makes a guest appearance. Dave Pearlman also guests with delightful pedal steel and dobro.

The evening and album is devided in two. The evening’s raison d’étra is to replay the entire Poco album Deliverin’, the band’s third record which was also live. It is the second half of this set and brings that 1971 record alive with a crisp vitality. 

Before that DeLIVErin’ Again set we get Still DeLIVErin’ which makes a powerful statement that Furay is still writing great songs while he also pastors his flock. 

We scan the last twenty years of Furay songs and some of his most recent like We Were the Dreamers, a biographical song about Poco, Wind Of Change and Someday sit perfectly confidently alongside Buffalo Springfield’s On The Way Home and Poco favourites not on Deliverin’, like Go and Say Goodbye and Hard Country, the latter featuring Jesse Lynch on lead vocal.. The more rousing hoe down hymn Wake Up My Soul sneaks in too.

It is intoxicating stuff. Richie Furay seems a very balanced human being. He doesn’t seem prone to feeling the slight injustice that rock n roll did to him. He was always third genius in Buffalo Springfield and Poco always came second to The Eagles. Any listen to this anniversary celebration should remind you of what a major force Richie Furay was. It rocks in the best of country ways.


DECLAN O'ROURKE - ARRIVALS

Arrivals

Is Declan O’Rourke Ireland best singer songwriter? For too long he was leaning on the success of the wonderful Galileo (Someone Like You) for what seemed like a little too long but then came the girth and deftness of The Chronicle Of The Great Irish Famine to make him a more serious contender.

Arrivals arrives with Paul Weller’s name attached as producer. Yet in truth what the legendary Weller does is keep himself out of the way and encourage O’Rourke to go minimalist. A few carefully placed strings are almost that is noticeable apart from the songwriter’s guitar or piano. 

Back to the question of O’Rourke’s singer songwriter standing. Arrivals is like a panoramic gaze across the entire genre. In Painter’s Light sets out the stall. It has that introspective honesty could be Joni Mitchell around Blue. Declan also has that Mitchell knack for throwing in a few syllables that the tune doesn’t seem to have room for. 

The title track itself could be Jackson Browne, piano and all. Then there’s Have You Not Heard The War Is Over. That little political edge brings Crosby, Stills and Nash to mind. 

Of course Declan O’Rourke lives in Galway in 2021, not Laurel Canyon in 1970. He flits through his own family’s generations but a wider history too. Olympian tells the tale of a Syrian swimmer who swims for her very life before going for a medal in the 2016 Rio Olympics. 

Then there is Convict Ways about slavery historical and up to date that has us thinking about 19th century convict John Boyle O’Reilly Irish Republican sent to Australia who escaped and made a career as a writer in Massachusetts. U2’s Van Dieman’s Land is also about O’Reilly. 

This latter song as well as the majestic autobiographical love song The Stars Over Kinvara, the one that I can't stop singing, place O’Rourke very much as an Irish writer. You can hear Christy Moore cover Convict Ways and The Stars Over Kinvara is very Luka Bloom, Christy’s brother who also resides out west.

It is his Irishness that gives O’Rourke his edge, his originality. The gruff Irish depth in his voice covers generations of Irish folk. He sounds like a modern Luke Kelly carrying the tradition forward.

Almost best of all is the closing This Thing That We Share could be Nat King Cole with Chet Baker giving it that midnight jazz ambience. Spiritual, reflective  encompassing our full humanity. It is a perfect closer and might be where Weller has most influence, you can almost hear it on the first couple of Style Council records. 

All in all, Arrivals is just that, the arrival of songwriting force that his peers have been well aware for some years and hopefully the general public will come to acknowledge and enjoy. 


LUCINDA WILLIAMS - RUNNING DOWN A DREAM; A Tribute To Tom Petty

Lucinda does Petty

Now don't let this bundle of utter joy slip through without your noticing. I almost did!

It seems that Lucinda Williams used the year of lockdown to create a few good intentions. With touring time down she had the space to get her bluesy voice around a plethora of cover albums. Literally a plethora. Apparently she had envisioned Lu's Jukebox for some time and now the time was given, the time was right. 

So, if you go searching she has done 6 albums worth, a Christmas one, a classic country one, a Memphis Soul one and then three pearlers - The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Tom Petty.

The Petty one is Lucinda Williams perfect for such an idea. Petty was a Southern man and Williams is a Southern woman. That southern drawl is heaven made for songs like Rebels, Southern Accents and Gainesville that was only recently realised on Petty's posthumous An American Treasure

Yes, we get I Won't Back Down, Running Down a Dream, You Don't Know How It Feels and You Wreck Me but it is these songs about the south that make this essential cover album listening. 

Lucinda's twang as she throws out all the place names in Louisiana Rain is the best argument for the entire project. They should have her do Sat Navs. My other favourite is Down South. What a lyric, delivered with Southern authenticity:

Headed back down south
Gonna see my daddy's mistress
Gonna buy back her forgiveness
Pay off every witness
 
One more time down south
Sell the family headstones
Drag a bag of dry bones
Make good on my back loans
 
There's a world of local history, policies and personal issues in those lines.
 
Every time Stevie Nicks asked she was rebuffed with "There are no girls in the Heartbreakers". On the end of this Stevie wouldn't have been first in line. Of course Petty actually covered Williams when he recorded Changed The Locks for the She's The One soundtrack. If The Heartbreakers want to take Petty's songs out there again they would do worse than having Lucinda Williams as their southern girl. Mind you, Lucinda didn't wait for them to ask and her own band do an awesome job about locating these stories in southern swampland grooves. 
 
Oh... and all proceeds are to help independent music venues through the Coronavirus days. So - BUY, don't stream!

FIRST AID KIT - WHO BY FIRE; A LIVE TRIBUTE TO LEONARD COHEN

First Aid LC

First Aid Kit doing Leonard Cohen. It is a tasty thought. The reality is even better. Don’t get any idea that the Söderberg sisters went into a studio and trotted out their folk pop harmonies on a few favourite Cohen songs. 

That would have been worth a listen of course but this has more thought, craft and drama. What we have here is an evening at the theatre, Sweden’s Royal Dramatic Theatre in fact, where the sisters 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 is nothing lazy about the set list either. As well as songs they use poems from Cohen’s Book Of Longing. The interplay of poems with songs adds nuance and poignancy.

The spoken Prayer For Messiah’s before an acapella version of Bird On The Wire is for cathedral. Taking Cohen’s famous last letter to the dying Marianne and wrapping it around So Long Marianne. Oh my what a poignant farewell note. Gently and heartbreakingly sad with deep love and companionship for the journey off planet earth to some hoped for place down the road.

The musical choices add sweet surprise too. There has to be a sense of jeopardy these days for anyone who tries to take on Hallelujah. Here there is a delicate fragility, even as the music and vocals build - it does feel “broken and cold”.

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. 


NICK CAVE & WARREN ELLIS - CARNAGE

Carnage_(Nick_Cave_and_Warren_Ellis)

 

Nick Cave is mining the very richest musical seam at the moment. Ghosteen was my third favourite album of 2019 and Live at The Alexandra Palace was my favourite live record of last year. He is already throwing down the gauntlet for the high echelons of 2021’s end of year lists with Carnage.

Carnage has some of the traits go Ghosteen yet slightly rawer in sound. Though there are these beautiful grace notes of Gospel choirs, the whole thing hinges on, collaborator on this album, Warren Ellis’s string laden atmospheres that bring to bare visceral emotions in their minimalism.

Cave’s voice, like Leonard Cohen’s before him, and maybe Johnny Cash’s alongside, give the questions of human existence, the emotions, spiritual searching and mental wrestling that goes with the depth that all that deserves.

The lead off track, Hand Of God, lays the mission down: 

 

There are some people trying to find out who

There are some people trying to find out why

There are some people who aren't trying to find anything

But that kingdom in the sky

In the sky

 

It is not that “kingdom in the sky’s” only appearance.

Carnage is, as ever with Cave, deeply personal. It is also political in White Elephant that deals with American racism with a definite reference to the murder of George Floyd. We also get a Jimmy Webb lyrical style look at lockdown in Albuquerque.

A key line to understand the Cave muse these days is:

 

"Reading Flannery O'Connor with a pencil and a plan".

 

Goodness that sounds like a great vocation!

Imagine a songwriter who channels the ghost of O’Connor and ploughs the spiritual poetic sage like furrows that Leonard Cohen might have handed him just as Elijah handed his Old Testament mantle to Elisha millennia ago. That is Nick Cave and I cannot get enough of it. 


LUKA BLOOM - OUT OF THE BLUE

Luka-Bloom-Out-of-the-Blue-album-cover-sm-300x269

I remember the last few months of 1994. I was living temporarily in a flat across the road from the Limelight in Belfast. The great advantage was that five minutes after the encore I could be tucked up in bed.

I remember Del Amitri and maybe even the very next night Luka Bloom. Bloom was a phenomenon. I can still remember the sound he got from just him and his guitar. He hit that thing with such authority and boom. It sounded intricate and intimate but at the same time as loud as Del Amitri. 

Twenty seven years later and I am still in love with Luka Bloom and that guitar sound. Last year’s concert album Live At The Roma reminded me of this big music, check particularly You Couldn’t Have Come At A Better Time. 

Now, a year after that live record, and a second release in 2020 Bittersweet Crimson, Luka has released his first ever instrumental record, Out Of The Blue. It is almost exclusively Bloom and that guitar but the sound takes me into a very different space.

It seems that Luka used his guitar and the playing thereof to see him through the dishevelled unscheduled life of Coronavirus lockdown. Inspired by his long time colleague Steve Cooney’s new album of old harp tunes and the work of Iarla O Lionaird, he spent a time each day exploring old traditional airs through the conduit of his Lowden Classic built in Co. Down.

These were the songs of his youth and the academic John Paul Ledarach has written about Van Morrison’s work being about going back to an idyllic moment from the past to see you through the darker present. Maybe subconsciously that is what Luka was doing as he played those traditional tunes he grew up with in Kildare. 

And so, we get Ashling Gael, The Mountains of Pomeroy and Elanor Plunkett and others alongside some brand new ones. Unlike that incredible live noise of the heat of a concert setting these tunes come across as a swathe of calm, music to find some peace of mind and soul to in the middle of these crazy times. 

It goes without saying that the playing is brilliant. It also needs said that it is spiritually beautiful. We have waited long for a Luka Bloom instrumental record. It seems so obvious I wonder why it has taken until now. Then as you listen, still in disheveled unscheduled lockdown, you realise that it couldn’t have come at a better time… not if it tried!


DECLAN O'ROURKE - CHRONICLES OF THE GREAT IRISH FAMINE

Declam Famine

An astonishing accomplishment.

It seems that Declan O’Rourke started reading John O’Connor’s book about the Irish famine and thought he should write a song about it. As he kept reading one song was not enough and 15 years and 25 books later he had enough for an entire record.

The album is extraordinary, in its writing, arrangements, performances and historical documentation. 

The Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s has a massive role to play in the Irish psyche almost 180 years after the tragedy. The death toll, the migration and the neglect and injustice of Britain towards its Irish colony is indelibly marked.

O’Rourke takes the story of the Famine and makes it personal and political. This is cinematic in setting and personally emotional in its hit. He deals with love and family and tragedy and migration. It is a bleak listen of dying farm workers, refugees on over crowded ships,

There is the tender love and utter heartache of spouse and family in Poor Boy’s Shoes and Mary Kate. There are those fleeing in ships to America on Buried In The Deep and The Great Saint Lawrence River. There is the injustice of how Britain deals with the crisis on Laissez Faire and Indian Meal. Then there is the blood violence of Johnny and the Lantern.

The song that haunts me the most is a Along the Western Seaboard in which O’Rourke gets inside the pastoral heart of a priest. The priest in 19th Century Ireland would have been the pillar of the Catholic society. Here he is in Psalmist mode questioning and pleading with God at the horrendous scenes across his parish. 

This was my silver lining for not finding this record when it was released in 2017. The juxtaposition of listening to a pastor’s prayer during the Famine while bringing a congregation through the Coronavirus pandemic brought it even more alive for me. I could empathise and yet I became thankful for all that my parish had - food, electricity, running water, heat, hospitals and governmental support. The famine priest had none of that and on top of it had a government exporting food while a nation starved.

It is an uncomfortable listen but the music is a stunning listen. O’Rourke’s use of traditional players makes for an authentic setting that allows a modern songwriter to find a mid 19th century setting. 

Chronicles of The Great Irish Famine is a life’s work for Declan O’Rourke and in Ireland should be seen as a national artistic treasure. 


DAVID GRAY - SKELLIG

Skellig

I loved David Gray. Century’s End, Flesh and Sell, Sell, Sell were like a prophet spitting out spiritual depth charge after charge. I remember researching my essay on his work in my book The Rock Cries Out and the abundance of provocative thoughts was so overwhelming that I could only listen to a couple songs at time.

I was so pleased when White Ladder finally took off. I had bought the original Irish release, out before anyone outside Ireland was interested.  It took time. Irish DJ Donal Dineen took Gray on as a crusade and I was so pleased the first time I heard Babylon on the radio. Recognition at last.

Something got lost though. Maybe it was just more subtle but I missed the angsty protest and social critique of Let the Truth Sting, Birds Without Wings and What Are You?. The more popular it got the less I bothered.

Until now. Skellig. Oh my. Skellig is a rough and wild outcrop of rock off the west coast of Ireland. In the 6th Century monks lived in stone beehives upon its dangerous jagged rocky edges. The extreme measures of it caught David Gray’s attention and through it he got mine:

 
"Each heart a burning vessel
Out on a pitch black wave
Chewing the bone and gristle
When it's the flesh of love we crave"
 
That's the sharp, insightful of all that's important about life, David Gray in the very best of his old traditional early 90s ways! 
 

Gray speaks of Skellig, the place, “Pondering that idea, of setting up a monastery in such a remote place, how close to God could you possibly wish to be? It blows my mind anyway, to get so close to God in a contemplative way.”

You can see why I am hooked. The thing is that the entire album seems to have the reflective spirit of those monks. It is as if his meditations on Skellig as he lived through lockdown. The entire album is like seeking the purity of our core humanity, stripping back, finding the wonder. 

Accumulation seems to the antithesis, like a throw back to Sell, Sell, Sell. What we need to find refuge and escape from:

 

Mindless need is loosed among us

In our homes and down our streets

Singing like some mythic creature

Of great Edеns, through the gates

And you can have bеtter suction

Even wanton destruction

And all of this at very competitive rates

 

There is something about the sound of the music that is like a 21st century sound of those monks praying. The album was made over 5 days, like a creative retreat. It is simple, quietly gentle, very organic. Contemplative.

It is beautiful, at times poetry, at times beautiful melody, always engaging. The backing vocals are not at all big but sound as Gray himself puts it, “like a Celtic Choir”.

To these ears it is soothing, interrogating, loving and uncomfortably challenging all at once. Like a Sacred Retreat might be. I am back to those pre White Ladder days when I was sure that it would be revealed that Gray had been brought up in Welsh Presbyterianism. I couldn’t believe it when he hadn’t.

Well, on Skellig it is not so much Presbyterians he is channeling as 6th Century Irish monks that he channeling and prodding my soul again… so beautifully. 


DEACON BLUE - RIDING ON THE TIDE OF LOVE

DeaconBlue Riding

I took the ear plugs out and told Janice that I was listening to Deacon Blue. 

“Oh they were just on the car radio”

“Riding On The Tide Of Love”

“No one of the older ones”.

Welcome to the Deacon Blue story. Hit laden between 1988 and 94 and then almost 20 years of nothing before Hipsters in 2012 set them off mining a rich seam culminating in the stunning City Of Love album just a year ago. It is almost like two bands, two stories even though two thirds of the band are the same. 

The music is the same too, sophisticated songwriting on the fulcrum of rock and pop adding a plethora of other influences to the mix. 

Riding On The Tide Of Love is actually being presented as “a continuation” and “a companion piece” to last year’s City Of Love. Thematically that fits well but don’t think it is just more of the same. Deacon Blue are always adventuring for new nuances.

That title track. This is a whole new Deacon Blue sonic space. For maybe a bizarre reason it took me back to Don’t Let The Teardrops Start from their Ooh Las Vegas record, not in the busking sound but in the loose organic mischievous feel.

As I say Riding On The Tide Of Love is no busk. It is like a Vaudevillian Fairground romp. If Tom Waits and his wife Kathleen Brennan decided to write a song for a radio friendly rock band then this would be it. A unique Deacon Blue original 35 years in.

That one song is enough good reason for an extension to City Of Love in itself but there are no fillers with Deacon Blue. They used to put records together of the tracks they couldn’t squeeze on the official releases. Riding On The Tide Of Love’s other seven tracks offer seven other songs that are Deacon Blue all over but not like any Deacon Blue song before them.

From the stripped back Look Up, showcasing Lorraine McIntosh’s angelic voice in a sober Fairytale in New York, to the Bacharach echoes on It’s Still Early to the Memphis Soul of Send A Note Out to the gorgeous piano lead and brass of She’s Not Gonna Be That Girl.

That latter song is written with Nashville songwriter Tia Sillers and throws another hue. The imagery and storytelling took me back to Raintown closer Town To Be Blamed and perhaps hinted at the 35 years of artistic maturing in this soul filled band.

All in all, these eight songs are more silver linings of Coronavirus lockdown. As an anorak fan of artists I would love to trawl their home studios for the demoed gems we never heard. Imagine these being left on the Ross shelf.

I go back to the beginning. Riding On The Tide Of Love has verses filled with the menace of life’s challenging dark but then takes us to the lightness of a chorus filled with hope and light and love. If there is a vocal sound that best describes such a tide it is that blend of Ross and McIntosh voices, jousting, healing, soaring bringing harmony and beauty to the friction.

Ride on the tide of it when all remains is a city of… love!