3 Shots (Blue Rose)
They may take their name from one of his songs, but, led by the tenor vocals of Mike Montali, the New York-based quintet don’t actually sound anything like Dylan, favouring instead a cocktail of power pop, 60s garage, Americana and 70s FM country rock.
That said, the strummed acoustic guitar opening number, Cathedral, is actually more of a folksy tune while the title cut hints at early Eagles, right down a Glen Frey styled guitar solo and the seven minute John Wayne suggests one of those sparse, yearning Neil Young desert ballads, at least until it erupts into a sonic storm of guitars quall around the three minute mark.
One of the album’s several strengths is the diversity of sounds and moods while sustaining a cohesive band identity, so that it can shift from the shuffling country boogie of Highway 1, a duet with rising alt-country star Nikki Lane, to Lennon-like piano ballad Death of an Actress and the part Mexican sung Texicali acoustic strum Mi Amor without feeling like a collection of parts. It also boasts a unique collaboration with the late rock n roll legend Bo Diddley, the riffing blues Rain Dance built around a distinctive but previously unissued rhythm track, recorded by Diddley in his home studio. That their contribution to Record Store Day was a song by song recreation of the Velvet Underground’s Loaded tells you something about the era in which their roots lie, but the music they make has a timeless quality.
There is a tendency to regard Thompson as a god who can do no wrong. The truth is that he can be as inconsistent as anyone and, while no one is going to dispute his standing as one of the world’s finest guitar players, his frequently semi-swallowed vocal delivery doesn’t always work in favour of the material and some of his ‘rock n roll’ outings feel too disciplined and constrained to really cut loose.
There are, of course, some of his albums that are unassailable, both in terms of the songs and the performances, but equally others can be a bit hit and miss. This, produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, falls into the latter category. It is fairly typical Thompson, some dark folk intensity intermingled with livelier patches, opening with one of the highlights and a potential addition to the list of Thompson classics, the Celtic closing time sway of She Could Never Resist A Winding Road. Equally potent are Josephine, a stark, moody acoustic troubadour number with medieval roots (including the word ‘tryst’), the tumbling Beatnik Walking with a walking guitar line that sounds like a cousin to Solsbury Hill, and the percussive tumbling staccato tribal rhythm urgency of Pony In The Stable. Two lyrically powerful numbers, the jittery, bluesy Broken Doll, about mental illness, and the somewhat ploddingly formulaic moodiness of Dungeons For Eyes, a moral dilemma about being civil to someone with blood on their hands, feel disappointingly undercut by the arrangements.
Elsewhere, Patty Don’t You Put Me Down, No Peace No End and All Buttoned Up are regulation Thompson rock while Long John Silver is a lyrically playful but wholly forgettable throwaway uptempo rocker. The real Marmite track though is seven and a half minute album closer Guitar Heroes, an autobiographical account of learning to play guitar on which Thompson pays homage to his influences with musical quotes from Django Rheinhardt, Les Paul, Chuck Berry, Dale Hawkins and The Shadows, adding himself to the list, false modesty notwithstanding, in the process. It’s inconsistent, both lyrically and musically, but 22 solo albums down the line, Thompson’s inconsistency would still be a career high for lesser artists.
Wasting Away and Wondering (Elefant)
An eight-piece outfit from Cardiff, fronted by Liz Hunt, this is their third album and clearly something that should be high on the listening list of anyone into 60s girl pop (and, when they get into the reverb, The Raveonettes). Hunt has an airy, trebly voice that, not unlike Zooey Deschanel, sounds like the aural equivalent of freshly laundered cotton, the songs (all of which she wrote) conjuring thoughts of such 60s names as Lesley Gore, Billie Davis and, on the echo and reverb-laden, He’s Gonna Break Your Heart One Day, the Shangri-Las.
It’s all pure pop, variously nodding to Spector, Bacharach & David and the Motown Sound, ripe with jaunty guitars, shimmering strings, vintage pop drumming and, as on ‘Til You Belong To Me, occasional splashes of brass.
Save for the previously mentioned Shangri-Las homage and the piano and strings dressed Don’t Worry Baby (I Don’t Love You Anymore), which does indeed hint at the Beach Boys classic, it’s all uptempo stuff, particularly bright and bouncy on album opener Every Day, the Tom Jones referencing Love Is Anywhere You Find It, the Northern Soul styled Do I Love You? and, with everyone piling in on vocals, the closing My Arms, They Feel Like Nothing. Ideal retro summer listening.
MICHAEL HEAD & THE STRANDS
The Olde World (Megaphone)
You may not recognise the name, but you should be familiar with the two Liverpool bands he founded and led, undervalued 80s outfit The Pale Fountains and the slightly more successful Shack whose post-reformation 1999 album, H.M.S. Fable, made the Top 30. Although Head resurrected the Pale Fountains for two shows in 2008 and Shack got back together for a charity gig in 2010, since 2008 he’s been recording and performing as Michael Head & The Red Elastic Band, releasing a ltd edition single earlier this year.
However, back in 1997, he and brother John formed Michael Head & The Strands, releasing the critically acclaimed (but inevitably commercially unsuccessful) The Magical World of the Strands.
Not a million miles away from the delicate, druggy, sound of his other bands, its pastoral folk fop filtered through 60s West Coast psyche-rock (Love was a major influence), while it may have sunk without a trace, those who discovered it (either at the time or through subsequent word of mouth down the years) will talk passionately about songs such as the gently rippling Queen Matilda, , the heroin-themed X Hits the Spot where the Velvets go folk, the Arthur Lee influenced The Prize and the bucolic ambience of Harvest Time.
The album is being reissued in mid July, complete with two bonus cuts, Green Velvet Jacket and the demo version of Queen Matilda, from their 1998 single, the languorous, strings-adorned ballad Something Like You, and is complemented by the just released The Olde World, a collection of hitherto unreleased recordings from the same sessions, including different versions or (usually acoustic) mixes of It’s Harvest Time, And Luna and a strings-only Something Like You alongside unheard gems like Fin, Sophie, Bobby and Lance (which surfaced in more folksy form on Shack’s The Corner of Miles and Gil), Poor Jill, Lizzle Mullaly (also later reworked for Shack) and the title track itself.