ALBUM REVIEWS

THE HEAD AND THE HEART - LIVING MIRAGE

Living Mirage

Five years ago in the Calvin College Sports Centre, The Head and the Heart wowed me and I fell in love with their melodies, harmonies and poetry. I ate up their first two records, the eponymous debut and the follow up Let’s Be Still. I don’t think they weren’t trying to be spiritual but they were to me.

Signs Of Light was the first record they released with me as a fan. I was eager for it and though I wouldn’t say that it was a bad record it didn’t live up to the first two. There was something too major label, too contrived for sales about it.

Living Mirage hits the spot again. It has enough dollops of their more organic first two records to blend more perfectly with the more commercial rhythms and beats of Signs of Light. They get it just right this time.

The tinkling piano underpin of Saving Grace. The downbeat People Need A Melody with the shifting lead voices. The whistle and strum start to the closing lo-fi Glory of Music.

The Head and the Heart’s strength is their unique melodies, original without going quirky, and the layered harmonies that soar in the most organic of ways. On this fourth record they bring all of that to the pop driven shiny beats of See You Through My Eyes, Missed Connection Honeybee and Running Through Hell effortlessly. I Found Love is the perfect blend.

I Found Love might also be the lyrical mission statement:

 

I found out

It's not the love that's in your mind

It's the love that you might find

 

With best west coast philosophy The Head and the Heart is looking for a love as authentic as the music. In the world we are currently living in it might be our Saving Grace along with music (People Need A Melody and Glory of Music). 

In the end they almost confess to be the modern version of Fleetwood Mac by sneaking the word Mirage in to the album title. The musical intrigue of a Lindsay Buckingham and the multiple vocalists make for a good argument. It has the sunny day soundtrack feel of Rumours or Tango In The Night for sure. Maybe in the end, their strongest album to date!

File under West Coast Pop/Rock Glorious!


JOSH RITTER - FEVER BREAKS

Fever Breaks

Josh Ritter and Jason Isbell!? What a tasty collaboration. At least that is what I thought when I first read it. What if though? Could Isbell clog Ritter sweet songs up with dirty American riffs?

Overall no! Isbell does give a weightier guitar girth to Ritter’s sound. The night I discovered Ritter, back in 2001 he was supporting The Frames, he was all Steve Forbert lightness of touch. 

Ritter’s arrangements and instrumentation have increased over the two decades since but Isbell brings even more noise for the buck. This is much more Tom Petty with Isbell’s 400 Units as Heartbreakers and even on Losing Battle Neil Young with Isbell’s 400 Units as Crazy Horse.

There’s always been a Dylan influence in the Ritter DNA and here we get lots of different Dylan eras but Amanda Shires fiddle adds what Scarlet Rivera gave to Desire. 

In the end though the whole thing works. The songs and the playing are too good to get lost under the potential weaknesses.

Ritter’s tunes and melodies are instantaneous and unique to his own rhythmic persona. They drive and soar and float through you. Losing Battles drives, Old Black Magic soars and All Some Kind Of Dream floats.

Ritter’s lyrics are as wordy and clever as ever but it’s the reach of subject matter that is most impressive.

There are two cold blooded murder ballads in what are the opening tracks to both side of the vinyl; Ground Don't Want Me and Silverblade. There’s social and political commentary on, perhaps in the end too wordy, Torch Committee and the more poetically subtle but accurately pointed All Some Kind Of Dream. There’s politics of the heart too in the beautiful I Still Love You (Now and Then).

Most intriguing for me with my spiritual interests are the final three songs.

Losing Battles seems to recognise the weakness within us all to do the good we’d like to do:

 

“Try to do the things I should

Most times its a losing battle”

 

Ritter intriguingly follows that confession with A New Man:

 

In every strangers face, a place of welcome

No matter who you are or where you came from

You won't walk among the dead a moment longer

You won't belong there

 

You will be a new man

You will be a new man

You will be a new man

Change

 

Preach it Josh and then take us home Blazing Highway Home, an addition to that ever increasing number of prayers in the rock music catalogue:

 

Still St. Peter, you don't want to wait

Throw it in gear and roll on through those gates

And know no matter where your soul may roam

That you'll find yourself a blazing highway home

 

Ritter with Isbell at the throttle is a musically intoxicating brew. Definitely worth the experiment that will hopefully open Ritter’s audience up wider. The utter quality of his songs deserves that!


VAN MORRISON - THE HEALING GAME (Deluxe Edition)

Healing Game

Oh what a Van-fest! In this 3 Cd digipack CD box there is a treasure-trove of goodies.

It is the kind of thing that I would be up to with my Playlist series. On the back of the original The Healing Game, which has not been remastered, we get the B-sides of singles from the time. Then we have CD 2 which is a collage of songs from The Healing Game project and various other projects from the era.

So, if unlike me you haven’t already, you don’t need to hoke out - CD singles, Sult, Good Rocking Tonight and The Songs of Jimmie Rodgers, John Lee Hooker’s Don’t Look Back and Lonnie Donegan’s Muleskinner Blues - because the Van tracks from them are here. 

On CD two there are three collaborations that bring some fantastic tunes. I’ve been particularly loving the rocking rhythm and blues of his five songs with Carl Perkins. Four of these have been previously unreleased and one of those My Angel is a co-write. This second disc has ten previously unissued songs including a Morrison original Didn’t He Ramble and A Kiss To Build A Dream On made famous by Louis Armstrong in 1951.

There is more! The third disc is an absolutely pumping live show from Montreux in July 1997. Just a few months after the release of The Healing Game the set list has seven songs from the record. This is the Morrison’s few years with Brian Kennedy bringing backing vocals. Kennedy’s singing added grace notes indeed. That high end voice gets close to angelic and when he and Morrison play off each other like a call and response, it is climactic and electric. 

So, as I say, a treasure trove! In the end though, what the three discs did for me was highlight the strength of The Healing Game in Morrison’s phenomenal body of work. There are six varied versions of the title track here, three versions of Fire In The Belly and Sometimes We Cry. What these versions did was throw different hues across them and the entire album. It rose up my favourite Morrison records list for sure.

Then… and maybe contrived but… these dongs were recorded between the Northern Ireland ceasefires and the Good Friday Agreement. So when I hear: -

 

Don't look back

To the days of yester-year

You cannot live on in the past

Don't look back

 

An' I've known so many people

They're still tryin' to live on in the past

Don't look back

(Don’t Look Back - John Lee Hooker)

 

and

 

Here I am again

Back on the corner again

Back where I belong

Where I've always been

Everything the same

It don't ever change

I'm back on the corner again

In the healing game

(The Healing Game)

 

Morrison used yet another acoustic version of The Healing Game on a fundraising album Across The Bridge Of Hope for the victims of the 1998 Omagh bomb. Morrison always said it was a song from America, doo-wop singing on street corners. Healing is a spiritual thing here and Van was intrigued by it - The Healing Has Begun and Did Ye Get Healed just two other songs on the theme! It’s hard as you listen to some of these versions to not see those corners as the streets of East Belfast where, whatever his geographical place, Van Morrison always seems close to. 

We are still needing that Healing on his Belfast streets in 2019!


LUKE SITAL-SINGH - A GOLDEN STATE

A-golden-state

Luke Sital-Singh’s recent EP gave a few hints to the man and his new location. His covers of Jackson Browne’s Late For The Sky, Graham Nash’s Just A Song Before I Go and Neil Young’s Harvest Moon and Big Star’s Thirteen could have been recorded in Laurel Canyon circa 1970. He shared how driving down the Californian coastline inspired the EP.

Going the full hog, young Luke has now settled in LA with his wife and A Golden State declares right on the front cover his west coast record. There is an early 70s gentleness and sparseness here. Jackson Browne is a good reference. 

It is a warm and intimate listen. There’s a drum beat or a symbol bang here and there but these perfectly crafted songs sit on top of the lightest guitar or piano touches. Silhouette is the only song that runs away with itself. 

Sital-Singh uses the highest part of his vocal range a lot of the time. He used to write with Iain Archer and it is it’s Archer’s voice, not his co-writing or production that has followed Sital-Singh to America. Both my wife and my daughters thought it was the long awaited new Iain Archer album when they heard it… and they are Sital-Singh fans! It has less drama than previous albums. It utterly beautiful throughout.

The songs. I imagine that is the point for Luke. They are about California though not in the Beach Boy’s sense. It is not so much the geography as the relocation that seeps to the top of the content’s intent. These are songs about a couple very much in love, their love is still young and blooming. Yet, they have taken themselves somewhere new and feeling the vulnerability of unfamiliar things. They need each other in that vulnerability. 

 

On Almost Gone:

 

Heavy air, glistening, deep dark listening

Falling's unavoidable to get away from where you've been

I think I have a song, there's a line in it for you to sing

Would you sing it for me?

 

On I Do:

 

I’m cynical of heaven now, but you make me believe

I love the music and the grace in which you move

I love the rhythms that you choose

And the melody of how you said, "I do"

 

We are back to Jackson Browne’s early 70s introspection. You can hear a few of these songs sitting snuggly on Late For The Sky. Particularly for me The Last Day a poetic imagining of the last day of someone’s life. It is an astonishing song for one so young. The inevitability of mortality, acknowledgement of final separation and asks all the questions we should ask in advance. Have we loved enough, lived enough and thanked people we need to thank in time? The song takes us right through the last day and ends with that need of one another again:

 

But I'd hold you close and you'd pray and pray

Whisper everything was gonna be okay

Our final kiss would bring such bliss

And feel just like our first

 

There are many lessons from the melodic exercise as the closing lines conclude:

 

On the last night of my life

Think I'd rather be surprised

Now every night when I close my eyes

I hold your hand so tight

 

These words and rhymes and ideas delivered so tender and touchingly in the purity of Luke Sital-Singh’s voice. Oh, it’s good. Then, just when I think I love it, I listen again and hear more memorable lines and compassionate ideas that I have missed before. 

Good move sir. It’s been a very good move!


PAUL WELLER - OTHER ASPECTS; PAUL WELLER LIVE AT THE ROYAL ALBERT HALL

Weller Aspects

I remember driving Rich Mullins across a few States in America. We had spent some of our time together listening to rough mixes of the soon to released A Liturgy, A Legacy & a Ragamuffin Band. We loved the rawer sound. The strings had not been added yet. When we left Rich to go our separate ways my last words were, “No strings Rich. No strings.” The final mix had strings! 

I remember as a University student turning up The Jam’s Setting Sons and Sound Affects to loud and loving the new wave thud of a three piece rock band at its edgiest best. 

So here I am 26 years after that car journey, nearly 40 after The Jam rocked my world and I am listening to Paul Weller with strings… and brass! Have I gone soft… or matured in my taste to declare that I love it!

Weller’s most recent studio record True Meanings really caught my ear. I loved its near gentle craft. Songs like Gravity set Weller alongside Bacharach et al. Even better the orchestral parts on that record and all over this live album were arranged by a Northern Irish woman Hannah Peel. 

Recorded at the Royal Albert Hall just as critical success was declared over True Meanings it is understandable that the set list concentrates on the songs from that acoustically shaped record. The rest of the set list stayed away from the hits. 

Yes, it would have been wrong to leave out Have You Ever Had It Blue and You Do Something To Me for this kind of reworking, the string on the latter are particularly exquisite, but The Jam picks are Private Hell, Boy About Town and the b-side, brilliant and all as it was Tales From The Riverbank. The solo Wildwood is just gorgeous in this setting. 

it all works beautifully. It’s another musical chapter in Weller’s constant sonic shifts. I imagine that his next work will be loud and experimental but I could take a longer phase of this style for sure. If Fitzroy ever do a Gospel According To… Paul Weller then you can be sure that May Love Travel With You will be up front and centre. It’s the most spiritual of benedictions to this concert set:

 

Have grace to see the virtues

Give thanks to them sometimes

And may love travel with you

Forever and all time

 

Amen!


JONI 75

Joni 75

I love Joni Mitchell and I have shared on Soul Surmise before that I love Tribute albums. I am always posting playlists of covers of artists. Even better is when the album is from a Live Tribute concert! So, Joni 75 is a beautiful thing! I had heard about the gig, then that it would be released as an album and I waited patiently for release. I was not disappointed though for me not every song works. 

Joni Mitchell’s catalogue of work over 50 years is as strong as anyone else in the genre. Of course those 50 years covered a range of sounds. When it comes to songs that can be covered it seems that the earlier ones have always been the most popular. I don’t think that is to do with the quality of the song so much as the intricate arrangements of the later work. 

So with Joni 75. Though Emmylou Harris does Magdalene Laundries from 1994’s Turbulent Indigo, that song was written 27 years after the next youngest song Dreamland from 1977’s Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter. It is no surprise and a delight for me that four of the songs are from 1971’s seminal Blue. My other favourite record Hejira gets two cuts, Amelia and Coyote.

Coyote is of particular intrigue to me. It might be one of the first Mitchell songs I ever heard, her version on The Band’s Last Waltz, and the singer is Dublin’s Glen Hansard. 

Amelia is done by Diana Krall whose previous covers of A Case Of You and Black Crow are particular favourites of mine. I do wish she had done A Case Of You here. I have blogged elsewhere that that might be the best song ever written and Kris Kristofferson, even with the help of Brandi Carlile doesn’t quite eek out its poetry or emotion. 

Noah Jones who worked with Herbie Hancock on his fascinating project River: The Joni Letters sings the same song Court and Spark, James Taylor does River and Woodstock, Rufus Wainwright gives us All I Want and Blue and perhaps the very best vocal of all is Seal's Both Sides Now.

Thrown into the mix of all these Mitchell classics is Graham Nash. Nash does not do a Joni Mitchell song at all but his own Our House which was written in the Laurel Canyon home that Nash shared with Mitchell when they were a couple. It is a beautiful song of domestic bliss and sits perfectly in a concert set list of Joni Mitchell classics both in style and indeed quality.

Songs might actually be as good as the versions of them that other artists do. If that is the case then once again it is clear that Joni Mitchell is one of the all-time greats!

my playlist of my other favourite Joni Mitchell covers here


OVER THE RHINE - LOVE AND REVELATION

OverTheRhine_AlbumCover_IMG_9226-758x682

It would not be news or a surprise to any regular Soul Surmise readers to know that having Over The Rhine play in Fitzroy in March 2017 was a highlight of my life. We were just a few weeks into Trump’s America at that point. They were Americans on tour of Europe. The questions as to “how on earth” can only have added to their gloom. They spoke of the need for songs to see us through and their gratitude for such. 

Love and Revolution is an album of loss and break up. It’s nothing new for Over the Rhine who have been giving us beautiful pieces of heartache for thirty years, this very year. I remember at the funeral of our dear friend Lindsay Emerson how What I’ll Remember Most and Ohio somehow caused even more tears but with also threw us little nuggets of catharsis. When my own mother died I sought solace and soothing in the songs of Over The Rhine.

This collection seems to have been written in an intensity of loss. The lead-off tracks, Los Lunas and Given Road are saddest blue. When on Broken Angels, four songs in, Karin sings…

 

“I want to take a break from heartache

Drive away from all the tears I’ve cried

I’m a wasteland down inside

In the crawlspace under heaven

In the landscape of a wounded heart

I don’t know where to start”

 

… she’s not escaping anywhere soon on this record. 

Not that there isn’t hope as well as Love and Revelation on here. This verse from Let You Down is trademark Over The Rhine wonderful:

 

“If grief is love without a place to go

Well then I've been there, you’re not alone

And if a song is worth a thousand prayers

We'll sing 'til angels come carry you and all your cares”

 

The title track, stolen from the words by which their friend and most recent producer Joe Henry, not available this time, signs his letters and emails calls us to live something of kindness and grace in such a melancholy world:

 

“Baby, it can't wait

Make a little space

Pay a little time

Baby, just be kind

Make a stronger case for it

Extend a little grace

Return, delete, backspace

Do it face to face

And call it…

 

Love and Revelation

You and me and inspiration.”

 

Surely though all of this loss and heartache and disappointment is about the new landscape across Berquist and Detweiler’s beloved America. Songs to help us through. It also fits those of us mourning Brexit and its post vote chaos too. On the final song that has a lyric on the record they sing:

 

There is no land of promise here

There’s only wilderness

You may not recognize this place

You live here nonetheless

 

That is how so many of my American friends are feeling in Trump’s America and I am feeling about Brexit! There are many mourning the loss of values and dreams they hold dear. 

The title of that last song and the last words on the album say a lot about why I love Over The Rhine. It is not their bleakness that intoxicates me. Their realism is a vital ingredient but its their hopefulness, like scattered benedictions, that I love the most - “May God love you like you’ve never been loved.”

It is almost a throwaway line, like a feather but a feather fluttering with the weight of gold. Which is a great description of Over The Rhine in general and this record in particular. Top players on Love and Revelation add their different hues but the entire album floats on gentle acoustic strums and tinkling piano. As always Karin’s voice is angelic across the top and on Love and Revelation the duets with Linford, Let You Down and Betting On The Muse, are particularly strong.

I should mention the instrumental at the end. An American In Belfast suggests I should be particularly thrilled. I am. Th story, as I see it, is that when Karin and Linford played Fitzroy in Match 2017 they had just cancelled two gigs in the Netherlands because of coughs and lost voices. That meant that, instead of me touring them round CS Lewis and Van Morrison sites, they were prisoners in their Dukes Hotel bedroom on University Street. Valuable idle time it seems for Linford to find a tune on his guitar.

30 years. I have been a fan for 27 of them, always thrilled when a new record comes along. It’s been five years since their last studio record. As always… so worth the wait!


ANTHONY TONER - OUR LADY OF THE WIND AND RAIN

Toner W&R

I can understand why Anthony Toner has been described as a cross between James Taylor and John Prine. There are hints of Taylor and Prine across this new collection.

 I understand…. but I hear so much more. The opening That Kind Of Love, my song of 2019 so far, is what Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes might have sounded like if they had been from the opposite coast and fronted by Jackson Browne instead of Johnny - West Coast Jackson and the Malibu Jukes, if you will!

Hello Hello Hello has an Aztec Camera shimmer and suddenly you can hear a lot of Roddy Frame in Toner, like he is north Antrim’s version of south Lanarkshire’s pop poet. 

However, on songs like Apology or the title track, no one sounds like Anthony Toner. Over a string of quality albums over the past decade Toner has found a voice that is very much his own.

It his lyrical dexterity that I particularly love. He is the Lionel Messi of lyricists, nimble, naturally fluid, quick to shift a line or rhyme. His images are original like free kicks no one has ever thought of. They sneak up on me and as they hit the back of the net (ear) I am a little in awe.

Take That Kind Of Love that I have already declared is my song of 2019 so far. Love as a piece of vinyl:

 

“Love that turns like old vinyl

dusty and scratched, but still warm and alive:

The same as it was in 1975

  • it’s that kind of love”

 

GOAL!

Or love as religion:

 

“Love that burns like religion

with its own set of rules that no logic can shake

ten thousand years old, with its own pearly gates

  • it’s that kind of love”

 

You can see what someone like me who loves a good lyric and rhyme is a fan of Anthony Toner.

That Prine-like humour is most vivid on One For The Black Box:

 

“I couldn’t drink another verse

Of that God-awful rhyme

There's nothing like bad writing

for stealing your time

I lost my phone

In the Poem That Time Forgot

I need someone to call my number

And tell me where I’m not.”

 

Such humour in rhyme, particularly in the middle of such supple poetry is not easy. One For The Black Box though is not just a paean for Belfast’s current coolest venue but the entire Cathedral Quarter where it is situated. Maybe all of us can relate to:

 

“On Hill Street its raining hen nights

and high heels as well

they go clacking up the cobble stones

like new born gazelles

and I can’t look

into their Disney Princess eyes.”

 

I cannot get enough and could fill pages on this blog with more deft touch lyrics but let me leave you with the title track. Toner has a penchant for songs of the road, being away on tour and coming home from tour. There’s also a spirituality to his work, even though he holds to no creeds: -

 

“Every time I made it home again

It was a mercy that I can’t explain

Our Lady of the Wind and Rain 

Was watching over me”

 

Anthony Toner is my kind of songwriter and Our Lady Of The Wind and Rain my kind of record. The melodies pull you in, the playing holds you there and then with every listen you marvel again at that line that caught you last time or find a whole new one, every time.


MARTYN JOSEPH - HERE COME THE YOUNG

MJ HCTY

I might have said before but a Martyn Joseph comes guaranteed to be a collection of good songs. For thirty years he has not let me down.

The trouble with his consistent consistency is that you can become complacent. I listened to Here Come The Young and ticked the box of another good record.

Then I listened again. It might have even taken the third listen before I heard one of Martyn Joseph’s best records yet .

Now, that doesn’t mean it has the very best songs though it might have. This Glass has already been a main stay of his live show for a couple of years now. I can hear Loves Majority being around for some time and Driving Her Home To London might replace the classic Cardiff Bay as a grown up version of a song from father to child. 

What lifts Here Come The Young above Martyn’s twenty previous albums is Gerry Diver. In the most modest of touches Diver from a very folk trad background, he studied under Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin an Irish music legend for goodness sake, adds deft touches of banjo, mandolin and particularly violin.

Diver’s folk sounds are unmistakable but they never get in the way of the songs or ever makes you feel that this is Martyn Jospeh’s trad record. That is the genius. There are noises here that you will never have heard on a Martyn Joseph record. They add beauty, drama and intrigue. Yet it is still a Martyn Joseph record. 

To be fair Pete Flood’s drums and percussion deserve a shout out too. Almost an acoustic guitar record gets some beats that lift the songs with energy.

Whatever journalist in Melody Maker suggested that Martyn made Leonard Cohen sound like Julie Andrews simply wasn’t listening. On this record the glass is, as the song suggests half full. A songwriter often bemoaning American Presidents and British politics might have been tub thumping here but no... it is a record full of hope. 

Martyn is particularly taken by the young. The title track looks across the world to Malala campaigning for girls education in Pakistan or the youth in America protesting gun laws or the school children in Europe leaving school to campaigning for environmental issues. 

If you are looking for hope, then look no further than Here Come The Young. There is an active hope all across these songs.  Where there is hope... Martyn Joseph is singing and where hope is hard to find... Martyn Joseph is singing!


BRIAN HOUSTON - HANK

Houston Hank

I don't like the sound of old recordings. Elvis is the first records I can take. It’s a hindrance as I love the songs of Woody Guthrie, early Johnny Cash and Hank Williams. I am always at the mercy of people covering their songs to be able to fully enjoy them.

For Hank Williams songs, I loved the Timeless Tribute album with Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Ryan Adams and Lucinda Williams among others. It was good…

…. but Brian Houston has trumped it. Oh maybe some of you will argue with me over versions, though actually Houston covers a lot of different songs. For me Houston’s Hank is better because of its sense of wholeness. There is a consistency to how Houston executes the collection.

Brian Houston will tell you about hearing the music of Hank Williams, Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash, from his dad's reel to reel tapes, when he was around six years old. At the same time his mate Bobby introduced him to Elvis. Houston’s dad hated Presley but Brian, and his brother Mark, would be lifelong fans.

Being a committed fan of Elvis would lead Brian to The Platters, doo wop and soaring Gospel. Brian attests to being one eyed on this Presley sound until Van Morrison, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan “muddied the waters”.

What Houston has done on Hank is to sneak back through that mud and find the cleanest vision of sound. He takes his father’s country Williams and runs them through his mate’s Presley. Houston doesn’t have the same voice as Presley but he does use his voice in similar ways - the purity, the dexterity, the emotive reach. 

Hank is a beautiful thing. 

 

Brian Houston is performing Hank at Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival on March 10th... TICKETS HERE