JOHN McCULLAGH AND THE ESCORTS
New Born Cry (359/Cherry Red)
Signed to Alan McGee’s 359 label and produced by Cast’s John Power, McCullagh may hail from Doncaster and cite Bolan, Weller and Johnny Cash as influences, but he certainly evokes thoughts of 60s Merseybeat, even the name of his backing band has a retro air to it. He’s got a reedy, nasally voice that can get a bit wearing after a while, but you can’t deny the verve with which he and the band deliver uptempo numbers like She’s Calling Me, Towerland Lullaby (on which, like the early Manfred Mann-like Angel of the North and the Dylanish rocking Sal Paradise, he favours 60s musical staple, the harmonica), though the simple acoustic warbling A New Day and the sway of Dead Letters with its hints of bluesier inclinations show he can ease up on the throttle when the need arises.
PHARIS & JASON ROMERO
A Wanderer I’ll Stay (Lula)
When not building in demand banjos at their log cabin in the British Columbia woods, the pair also get to slip into a studio and make a CD, earning themselves a reputation as a sort of old time country Welch and Rawlings. This is their third and follows the same format as its predecessors drinking from the same hillbilly as such pioneers as The Carter Family, the Stanley Brothers, Jimmie Rogers, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and Roy Acuff with a mix of traditional, covers and self-penned numbers, here picked out on her 1943 Gibson and his 1934 Gibson, and two self-made banjos, accompanied by fiddle, pedal steel, bass and drums with Pharis taking most of the lead vocals.
The main difference is that this time round there’s a greater emphasis on their own material, with only two numbers from the public domain, the pair duetting on Charley Willis’s cowboy song Goodbye Old Paint, Jason providing the banjo accompaniment, and an arrangement of Buell Kazee’s 1920s Civil War ballad, The Dying Soldier. Also from the 20s, there’s Luke Jordan’s Cocaine Blues, quite possibly the first example of a cocaine-related blues number, while the remaining cover is likely to be slightly more familiar, the steel-accompanied It’s A Sin To Tell A Lie having been a hit for The Ink Spots, Slim Whitman, Fats Waller, Billie Holliday and, in the UK, Gerry Monroe.
The couple’s own songs fit alongside these so seamlessly, you’d be hard pressed to know they were written this century, New Banjo Blues channelling Bill Monroe, Lonesome & I’m Going Back Home evocative of Patsy Cline, its sentiments offset by the lure of the road in the title track while, maintaining the overall theme, There’s No Companion and Poor Boy echo its acknowledgement that, eventually, there’s a need to put down roots before it’s too late. Or, if you choose to live the loner’s life, “the natural way of man”, as with the character in Ballad Of Old Bill, the acknowledgement of the cost it exacts.
The album’s completed by two instrumentals, Backstep Indi and Old September, solid evidence that Jason can pick a banjo with the same skill that he makes them.
Born Under Saturn (Because)
Having found themselves on the Mercury shortlist with their self-titled 2012 debut, the Edinburgh outfit return with an album that seems likely to repeat the nomination next year, as well as offering the first soundtrack for the summer. It’s still rooted in psychedelia and given to talking about things like vibrations in paradise (Vibrations) and past lives (Life We Know), but it’s also ripe with infection, sunny melodies that often having you thinking of them as a mix of XTC and the Beach Boys. Found You has something of a jungle vibe evocative of John Kongos in its opening moments before transforming into a sort of choral chant and folk ritual procession number from a cosmic remake of The Wicker Man while First Light is a surfing safari in the heat of the sun underpinned by a motorik rhythm, High Moon’s spacey synths shimmer over tropical shores and, with a lengthy instrumental intro that sounds like the theme to some retro interstellar cop movie directed by Tarantino, Shake and Tremble is as throbbing as you might expect from the title, while, as throughout, the vocals meld together in hazily sweet harmonies. As befits the album title, there’s a definite celestial feel and, quite possibly a nod here and there to early Pink Floyd, all of which should, ahem, run rings around the opposition.
Formed while studying at Nottingham University, the five piece clearly have their sights set on stadiums and arena with their debut album, a ten track (and two instrumental interludes) on which I Found, the relatively low-key piano ballad opening number, doesn’t prepare you for the collection of soaring anthemic indie rock that follows, big on melody, hooks and infectious choruses, kicking off with Spark where an indie folk feel billows into a swelling chorus, a fullness of sound echoed in the likes of Noah (the very name built to carry the vocals into the rafters), Pilot, Just My Soul Responding and tumultuous ode to Nottingham closer See You Soon. Wisely balancing the vastness of the canvas with the more intimate moments of the piano ballad title track and Shiver, their dawn is coming up like thunder.