ALBUM REVIEWS

LUKA BLOOM - BITTERSWEET CRIMSON

Luka Crimson

Luka Bloom is nowadays like the poet Laureate of the west of Ireland if not indeed the Republic Of Ireland as a whole. Christy Moore’s brother got the songwriting skill in the genes and for decades has been troubadouring his reflections on life and Ireland and many other countries all around the globe. Yet, in recent years he has made his home in North West Clare and his work reflects his love for land and sea and all living things.

Bloom had been a friend of John O’Donohue before the mystical poets untimely death in 2008 and O’Donohue’s influence is very real which is a very good thing indeed. 

The Old Oak Fell on the record is about the passing of another Irish poet Seamus Heaney. Bloom sings, perhaps to himself:

 

“I hope we’re digging deeper

Since the old oak fell.”

 

O’Donohue and Heaney’s love of earth and sea and sky are most evident on the meditation on life that is My Old Friend The Oak Tree and Who Will Heal The Land which is concerned that the earth is in danger:

 

“Embers are falling in Eden

The great burning time is on

Who will hear the dreaming

When all the wild birds are gone"

 

Bloom like Heaney certainly digs with his pen but his other tool is that trademark rhythmic guitar. To his own innovative playing he adds the improvisation of Steve Cooney’s too. Adam Shapiro's fiddle shines and Sligo’s Niamh Farrell’s voice is a beautiful revelation.

Though he name checks Bruach Na Haille, Gleninagh and then various places in the famine song The Hunger, don’t think that Bloom is confining himself to the west of Ireland. Mali and Palestine get songs as well and Bloom music seems influenced by such far away lands too. 

In the end Bittersweet Crimson is about as one songs puts it, the beauty of everyday things. The song finds that beauty in a the blackbird’s song, a joke with the postman, a hurler playing like Christy Ring and diving into the sea. Everyday things. That’s what he said!

You won’t listen to Bittersweet Crimson on your favourite streaming sites or buy it there either. Bloom feels his financial investment deserves a better cut. It does, so go and seek it on Luka’s website. Old school in every positive kind of way. 


KATHLEEN EDWARDS - TOTAL FREEDOM

Kathleen Edwards

If there are any artists out there who feel that the muse has gone stale or feel that they are not getting the deepest gladness out of their art then Kathleen Edwards has the answer. Give it up. Walk away. Open a cafe.

That is what Edwards did. Eight years ago she had a critically acclaimed record Voyageur produced by the coolest of cool songwriters Justin Vernon. She was fed up while touring it and went off to the Stittsville, Ontario and set up a cafe called appropriately Quitters.

I have no idea how that has worked in a business sense but as an artistic move it has proved genius. 

Total Freedom sounds just that. Here is a songwriter who cleaned the slate and has come back with an album of free flowing lyric, melody and Americana groove (is there a Canadana groove?!).

Edwards might be described as a direct peer of Jason Isbell or in the slipstream of her countrymen Blue Rodeo or maybe more accurately, in a less than accurate sense, the sound that would have been made if Suzanne Vega or Jonatha Brooke, instead of Stevie Nicks had been the associate member of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers. It’s guitar. It’s great songs. It’s poetic lyrics.

This collection is personal, Glenfern about her old days on the road, Hard On Everyone about an abusive boyfriend, Fool’s Ride about the same scoundrel, Simple Math is about the better values of friendship that faithfully lasts from childhood and Who Rescued Who about the spiritual benefits of having a dog. It all ends with the acoustic strum of the cathartic ballad Take It With You When You Go.

It is as a consistent piece of work as Edwards has released. She seems in a good place. A place to look back and around her and make sense of it from a place of freedom. Total. 

Quitters in Stittsville. I’ll take mine black with same coloured vinyl!


THE KILLERS - IMPLODING THE MIRAGE

Killers Mirage

The Killers are a conundrum. I really shouldn’t like this band. They are influenced by bands I do not love like The Smiths and The Cure and some bands I really do not like, like Pet Shop Boys and Depeche Mode. 

Lead singer Brandon Flowers is all bombast and sequinned shoulder pads with feathers! That K on the stage is all light bulbed up. The last time I saw kitsch like that I was driving down the main strip of Vegas with my mates Dave and Dave.

It should not work, at least for me. Yet, it so does. These guys are so intoxicatingly good. Imploding The Mirage is a great surge of a stadium sound, almost from beginning to end. Your ears and heart and soul ride a tidal wave of big brash songs.

It should not work. Yet, it so does. Why? I have been asking that as I have played this record over and over again and I think I might have my personal answer. 

Below the the synthed up 80s sounds, the bombast and Vegas kitsch is Brandon Flowers songwriting brilliance. First, he has these melodies. They are utterly crash bang catchy. 

On top this melodic bounce Flowers is simply an excellent lyricist. I love how clever he is, conjuring words and rhymes.

Then, as well as the melody and poetry Brandon Flowers adds soul. Soul is about feeling deep down. It is when the song reaches in and touches you deep. It is when the band are not just playing but creating and drilling far enough down to strike the emotional and for me best of all, the spiritual. This is what shifts the names in reviews from Pet Shop Boys to Bruce Springsteen!

Imploding The Mirage is spiritually drenched. The opening My Own Soul’s Warning is worth the entrance price alone:

 

If you could see through the banner of the sun

Into eternity's eyes, like a vision reaching down to you

Would you turn away

What if it knew you by your name

What kind of words would cut through the clutter of the whirlwind of these days

 

Flowers calls it a song of repentance. 

That whirlwind is on the cover painting Thomas Blackshear’s Dance Of The Wind and Storm which the band says influenced the choice of songs. The painting and the record seem to me about finding the eternal in the midst of the world’s clutter.

Fire In Bone is a wonderful retelling of Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son:

 

When I came back empty-handed

You were waiting in the road

And you fell on my neck

And you took me back home

After all that I took from you

After all that I put you through

Here I am”

 

Running Towards a Place is says that perfect. A song of eternity but seeking to not have to wait to find all the wonder. He’s not the first rock star to quote William Blake:

 

Can you see the world

In a grain of sand?

Can you find heaven in a wildflower

Hold it in the palm of your hand?

The moment we met

 

Because we're running towards a place

Where we'll walk as one

And the sadness of this life

Will be overcome

 

Flowers is a Mormon and I am a Presbyterian but I have never heard any of his spiritual utterances that I cannot embrace. The nature of the sound that The Killers make gives a spiritual exuberance like U2 created way back on October. It make the music so hopeful.

As I listen to Imploding The Mirage I wonder if it stands up alongside Hot Fuss. I think over time that it might. For me there was dip to Battle Born and then the graph rises again and all of these ten songs might be pushing for places in the live set list for some time to come.

It is all very signature The Killers. Yet to add tweaks there is War On Drugs, Weyes Blood and even KD Lang and Lindsay Buckingham adding breadth and other hues to the unbroken formula of 16 years. 


SNOW PATROL & THE SATURDAY SONGWRITERS - THE FIRESIDE SESSIONS

Fireside Sessions

Here’s another mark of the talent and relational charm of Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody. Not long after lockdown in March he was one of the first to start Instagram gigs to see us through. When he suggested a songwriting night I sensed train crash carnage. How on earth could you write a song of any use with thousands of strangers on Instagram?

Well, The Fireside Sessions is far from any kind of crash. Considering the circumstances of its inception this is quite an achievement. Gary wrote twelve songs with his Instagram public. The Fireside Sessions give us five. There might be more on to come later Bandcamp.

It seems that in the hour after the Instagram suggestions of chords and lyrics, Lightbody worked for an hour to create the song. He then sent them to producer, and associate Snow Patrol member, Iain Archer who worked night and day to create this EP that could sit comfortably alongside the Reworked record that Archer also worked on.

My particular favourites are The Curve Of Earth and Light Years, the latter benefitting so much from Miriam Kaufmann vocals. Kaufmann’s harmonies are becoming a Snow Patrol hidden secret. More of it.

It is the lyrics that most impress me. Take the chorus from the first song written, Dance With Me:

 

The loudest silence brings a list of all our longing

Alone together in the dark

We'll ride this storm out in this quiet isolation

But the math, it can't explain our love

 

Or on Light Years:

 

Bright lights in time of darkness

Incandescent, uncompared

You could be two meters away from me

But it seems light years sometimes, dear

But even distant, I'm with you

 

These lyrics touch on the Covid 19 lockdown but not to such an extent that it won’t stand on its on long after. They songs have catalogued the time without getting captured in it.

When I had the privilege of interviewing Gary Lightbody at the 4 Corners Festival in February he quickly dismissed my suggestion that he was first and foremost a poet. I do think though that the English teacher at Campbell College, Mr McKee, who inspired him so much gave Lightbody’s lyrics as much Seamus Heaney as he did Van Morrison or Bob Dylan.

What I am fascinated about here is how much the lyrics of Lightbody have influenced his Instagram strangers. When someone looks across the Snow Patrol catalogue in 25 years time they will not see much difference in the lyrical style of The Fireside Sessions and the rest.

So this is a lovely little extra release for Snow Patrol fans, tiding us over until this is all done and the band can get back with Jacknife Lee for the follow up to Wildness. It is another little light to come out of the shadows of lockdown. Lightbody has used the time well. Apparently he has an album or two tucked away!

Not only is The Fireside Sessions good but it is good for something. All proceeds will go to the anti-poverty charity Trussell Trust doing so much with Food Banks in these difficult times.

Good works boys… and Miriam! 


BOB DYLAN - ROUGH AND ROWDY WAYS

Rough and Rowdy

In David and Caroline Stafford’s biography of Randy Newman they quote Bob Dylan talking about Bob’s favourite Newman song Burn Down The Cornfield. Dylan says, “His style is deceiving. He’s so laid back that you kind of forget he’s saying important things”.

I am not sure that Bob Dylan ever thought we would be deceived into forgetting that he was saying important things but the line jumped off the page at me as I was reading it while digesting Rough and Rowdy Ways. 

The music is deceptively simple. Early blues and most of them in laid back shuffle mode. The band is definitely staying out of the way of the important things but I find it to be as beautiful a sonic base for Dylan’s poetry as I have heard in a long while. 

I Contain Multitudes could be from Oh Mercy. False Prophet from Time Out Of Mind and everything in between from those records though no Daniel Lanois on production this time.

Dylan’s voice is a bit like the later Leonard Cohen and Jonny Cash, what he has lost in range he more than makes up for in intonation and deliberation. The sound of his voice is fantastic. Everything is set for those important things.

The lyrics are brilliant on Rough and Rowdy Ways are everything a fan dreams, intelligent literate lines full of cultural references and intrigue. They are objective and subjective about the state of the nation and the state of the soul. We will be discussing these songs for decades!

Of course I am always seeking out the spiritual and there is much to find. I Contain Multitudes is of course pilfered from Walt Whitman’s Song For Myself and could be a Pauline confession of “all have sinned and fallen short…” but there is something of the multitude facets of American in there too.

I might be contriving it but My Own Version Of You might be amongst other things our human penchant for creating God in our own image.

I can almost hear I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You on Saved from Dylan’s “Christian Trilogy” especially with its’: 

 

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

 

Goodbye Jimmy Reed is a little more driving but again:

 

For thine is kingdom, the power, the glory

Go tell it on the mountain, go tell the real story

Tell it in that straightforward, puritanical tone

In the mystic hours when a person's alone

Goodbye Jimmy Reed, godspeed

Thump on the Bible, proclaim a creed

 

Then there is Crossing The Rubicon nodding at the cross for salvation:

 

Three miles north of purgatory

One step from the great beyond

I prayed to the cross, I kissed the girls

And I crossed the Rubicon

 

And seeking the Holy Spirit too:

 

I feel the Holy Spirit inside

See the light that freedom gives

I believe it’s in the reach of

Every man who lives

 

Oh, as I have said, we’ll be listening for a long time and finding new nuggets in the couplets every time. When David Mitchell wrote, in his new novel Utopia Avenue, "One spoon of Dylan makes a gallon of meanings" he could have been describing Rough and Rowdy Ways. Isn’t that we want in a great Bob Dylan album?


PAUL MCCARTNEY - FLAMING PIE (Archive Edition)

Flaming Pie

Paul McCartney’s tenth album under his own name arrived when his stock was as high as it had been since Tug Of War back in 1982. Not only had The Beatles Anthology series brought him to a younger audience but the biggest band of the day was pretty much a derivative Beatles tribute band - Oasis!

Listening back to The Beatles as they not only edited material but actually wrote new songs and hearing that same Beatles’ sound all over the radio, McCartney got his guitar out and retro rocked some old sounds that were now contemporary again. Jeff Lynne does his job as producer by scattering sweet sheen across it.

Flaming Pie might actually be the very best of Macca’s solo records. It is song after song of great writing, looser in atmosphere than most others, rocks when it wants to rock and goes all reflective too. 

The title track has that mid 90s retro Beatle guitar riffing as does The Young Boy and If You Wanna, the latter two beefed up by Steve Miller as collaborator.  If you listen closely enough to Miller’s third contribution Used To Be Bad you might even hear echos of Rory Gallagher! 

On the other side of McCartney’s palate, Calico Pie is a beautiful continuation of the finger picking beauty that started with Blackbird. Little Willow is prettiest melancholy, written for Ringo’s children when their mother Maureen passed away. Even more poignant when Linda McCartney died less than 18 months later. 

I love the Archive Series, not so much for their remasters as their extra tracks. Here, that is a CD full of home demos that in the stripped back and raw form reveal the quality of McCartney’s melodies and show how they metamorphosed in the studio. It is very bespoke, intimate enough to have phones ringing and people walking around. We also get a rough mix of the rarity Whole Life a co-write with Dave Stewart. It is actually very like the Anthology songs, the different take on the by now familiar.

In the notes in the accompanying booklet George Martin is quoted as saying, “When I heard Somedays it immediately reminded me of vintage Paul. It’s quite difficult writing hits. Even when you’re the greatest hitmaker of all. It was nice to see that Paul was getting back to his roots. Because I think Somedays is a classic song. I think it’s one of those simple ones, deceivingly simple, very difficult to write. I loved it.’

Sir George has said it all. On Flaming Pie Paul McCartney’s mojo was back. Flaming Pie has deceivingly simple difficult to write classics strewn right the way through it. For me the extra CD might be my favourite of the entire Archive Series. There are box sets of this for hundreds of pounds. Rip off me thinks. The double CD will do me fine!


RORY BUTLER - WINDOW SHOPPING

Rory

Listening to Rory Butler’s debut album Window Shopping, I couldn’t help but think that he has been influenced by his influencers influencers.

Let me explain. When Rory Butler was about 3 or 4 I spent a little time in his house. I was amateurishly managing Iain Archer at the time and had convinced Rory’s dad Steve and music business partners that they needed to release Iain’s first album. They had a house in Dalry, Ayrshire with a studio in the basement.

Sticky Music eventually released two Iain Archer records, Playing Dead and Crazy Bird. As those were recorded Rory took a shine to “Archie” as he called him. It is a relationship that continued. I watched as a twelve year old Rory played live with Iain at the Greenbelt Festival.

Butler’s debut album has many of the hallmarks of those two Archer records particularly the more acoustic Crazy Bird. Butler has the same guitar playing fretboard dancing style as Archer. It is mesmerising and thankfully disciplined enough to not clutter up the songs.

I did say though that Butler was more influenced by Archer’s influencers. I remember first meeting Iain Archer and being captivated by his versions of John Martyn’s Over the Hill and May You Never. He actually released the latter as an extra track on his first Sticky Music single Wishing. We eventually got Archer on a John Martyn tour.

Rory Butler’s voice has that laid back languishing vocal style of John Martyn and of course he is also Scottish. Though I liken it to Martyn to leave it there would be an injustice. It is Butler’s very own voice and it draws you in with a warmth, an intimacy and that accent adds authenticity.

The other influence of an influence is his dad’s love of Jackson Browne. Rory’s dad Steve fronted early 90s band Lies Damned Lies that had a brief spell signed to Siren Records back in the day. They continued to make albums of utter tastefulness in that studio that Rory toddled about in. 

Steve Butler made a few solo records too and Jackson Browne can very much be heard in their DNA. Where Rory is channeling his dad’s Jackson influence is in the content of the songs. Rory doesn’t sing so much Browne’s introspection as his social critique of his times. 

Window Shopping is to the generations 20-somethings what The Pretender was for that age group the mid 70s. The title track does seems autobiographical. Introducing it a while back at a SoFar gig Rory spoke about moving from Edinburgh to London to become a musician and ending up a Vegan Barista, working in a cafe “underpaid and over qualified.” It is personal but no Late For The Sky.

A quick study of Cameron Watt’s evocative album cover reveals that the influence of smart phones and screen time is very much on Butler’s mind. Mind Your Business is about “living on line… every single second on it”. He’s questioning a world that “makes you feel good when you’re on display.”

On the other side of the story Butler realises that social media has been the source of wake up calls for social justice across the world. This Side Of the World was inspired by the the photo of that Syrian child refugee washed up on a Mediterranean beach. That we cannot get “in” to the world that so much of our world lives through. Powerful song.

Tell Yourself is the antithesis of screen addiction and social media. A song about friendship being the best source of residence and self worth. 

This record is a refreshing piece of work. Reviews are labelling it folk. I can see why with the finger picking acoustic foundation and Martyn-esque flair but that would be a lazy pigeon hole for an album of contemporary reporting with a contemporary vitality and urgency. It is so much deeper than Ed, George or Sam. It is so good.


STARLESS - EARTHBOUND

Earthbound

This has been my biggest pleasant surprise of the year. I cannot even remember how I came across it. I am now absorbed in it. 

In the late 80s and early 90s I was Glasgow-centric in my music loves. I mean Deacon Blue. Aztec Camera, Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, The Big Dish, The Bathers, Bloomsday, Friends Again, Hipsway, The Pearlfishers, Lies Damned Lies and Big Sur. It was a astonishing time and a lot of it seemed to fall away in the mid 90s.

Paul McGeechan fell away. He was in both Friends Again and Love and Money but got more involved in engineering and production. 

Finding Starless and discovering McGeechan had new music out had me scuttling off to listen. When I did it was even better than I could have imagined. Not the singer in Friends Again or Love and Money, McGeechan has used The Bathers’ Chris Thompson, The Big Dish’s Steven Lindsay and Hipsway’s Grahame Skinner as well as Julie Fowlis, The Delgados’ Emma Pollock and Jerry Burns. 

I was particularly delighted with Burns. Her Columbia debut in 1992 suggested she’d be huge but like Canadian Mary Margaret O’Hara she seemed to disappear but for a guest spot on a Craig Armstrong album.

I guess a good comparison to this Starless project would be Peter Gabriel’s Ovo where he was the sonic shaper but used the likes of Blue Nile’s Paul Buchanan (who sang on the first Starless record) and other for vocalists.. 

After all that I should finally get to the record. It is ambitious in its breath and depth. The singers aforementioned and their co-written songs get laid over with McGeechan’s piano and the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra add a dramatic warmth. Then McGeechan adds the sound of the sea lapping shores of Scottish Islands and a dollop of Scottish Gaelic with Julie Fowlis and Karliene giving ethereal celtic vocals to the song and a sense of land and sea and sky to the theme.. 

It is no surprise that over all it sits snugly beside The Bathers and late Love and Money. I particularly love Chris Thomson and Steven Lindsay’s contributions, the former coming on as a Glaswegian Nick Cave on Calvary and the latter’s new version of Breakdown originally on his second solo album Kite. 

Earthbound is a very gorgeous piece of work. It is the second album in a trilogy. I am excited to discover the first one and cannot wait for the third. I also have my Bathers’, Big Dish, Love and Money and Jerry Burns records back out and have discovered one or two records that even the eagle eyed me have missed. 

The sweetest surprise that has prised open a treasure trove!


RAY LaMONTAGNE - MONOVISION

Monovision

After a few albums where he has experimented with his sound, using producers such as Dan Auerbach from The Black Keys and Jim James from My Morning Jacket, Ray LaMontagne has gone back to basics and not only produced Monovision but played everything on it. I have enjoyed those last three records but this one might be his best of all.

As well as going back to basics LaMontagne goes back to the early 70s for his influence. Strong Enough is all Creedence Clearwater, Summer Clouds could be Joni Mitchell and Misty Morning Rain is Van Morrison circa Tupelo Honey. Right across the album are echoes of Neil Young, that lonesome harmonica and rustic strum of the Comes A Time record.

In it all, LaMontagne remains somehow himself, the real songwriting McCoy in a world of big voices who wish they had LaMontagne songwriting chops. 

Everything here is pastoral in the sense of land and sky but also pastoral in how we might get ourselves through Coronavirus Times. We’ll make It Through says all that we have been feeling:

 

I know you’re scared ‘cause you can’t see the light

Youtossandturn through thenight

Holding me, andI’m holding you

And together, we’ll get through

We always do

 

This is a song and this is an album to help us through these strange 2020 days. It’ll be on my playlist for a long time.


STOCKI'S FAVOURITE 10 RECORDS OF THE FIRST HALF OF 2020

Rough and Rowdy

As June comes to an end here are my favourite albums of the first half of 2020. The quality of records released has been excellent, especially coming out of our own wee country.

 

1. BOB DYLAN - ROUGH AND ROWDY WAYS

I haven't reviewed this one yet. Not sure I can do it justice. It is a long time since he was so lyrically engaging, socially acute and cultural aware.)

 

2. SAMMY BRUE - TEENAGE MAYHEM

From a 79 year old at number 1 to a 19 year old at number 2. Brue with the help of co-writer and producer Iain Archer has come cup with an album that respects the past and energises the present with an eclectic mix of styles. 

 

3. JASON ISBELL - REUNIONS

Between Dylan and Brue in age lies Jason Isbell, maybe the best songwriter of his generation.

 

4. THE AIRBORNE TOXIC EVENT - HOLLYWOOD PARK

Main man Mikel Jollett's Memoir of the same name might see this accompanying record getting lost in the rightful critical acclaim of the book but this is Californian indie guitar rock at its best with perhaps the most poetic writer in that genre. 

 

5. DEACON BLUE - CITY OF LOVE

Deacon Blue get better and better. An album about Glasgow and the stories of love within it. Could be your city or mine. Crafted songs that I cannot what to see come alive live!

 

6. RAY LAMONTAGNE - MONOVISION

This might be Lamontagne's very best record. My review is coming but there are echoes of Morrison, Mitchell, Fogerty and Young. Rustic and true. Woodstock 69 revisited, not the Festival, the town.

 

7. DENISON WITMER - AMERICAN FOURSQUARE

An utterly utterly beautiful record of the gentlest mediations on small life America. 

 

8. MALOJIAN - HUMM 

Stevie Scullion teams up with Jason Lytle from Grandaddy, a perfect match for the song writing craft and instrumental layering. Sumptuous!

 

9. ARBORIST - A NORTHERN VIEW

Can a good thing come out of ballymena. Also-flippin-lutely. This is an imaginative look at Northern Ireland's place in the Brexit fragmentation. Stunning collages of sound with a Heaney-like sense of land and sky.

 

10. ANTHONY TONER - GHOST SONGS VOL 1/ THE PRESLEYS - EMBRACE

Two more Northern Irish albums. I needed to squeeze them both in. Anthony's covers record is wonder4ful in its breadth of choice and stripped back arrangements. 

The Presleys is a side project of Brian Houston's. Heavy on the blues with a spiritual underbelly and seems more set in urban America than East Belfast. Another successful musical adventure from Brian.