HA HA TONKA
Heart-Shaped Mountain (Bloodshot)
Named after a park in their home state of Missouri, after releasing an album every two years since 2007 (which is also when they changed their name from Amsterband), the five-piece have taken the time, some four years, with this, their fifth for the Chicago-based label. And it almost never happened when a hardware crash in the studio deleted everything they’d recorded. However, they regrouped and began again, turning catastrophe into opportunity by approaching the songs from different perspectives and arrangements.
Describing it as an album about love and growth at a time of divisiveness, as you might imagine, even when the lyrical content may have dark clouds, it’s a fairly upbeat affair, that note of positivity encapsulated in the infectious blurry pop melody that carries opening track Race To The Bottom, the equally jaunty The Party with its whistling hook, the mandolin strummed folksy chug of Favor and the tumbling melody lines and chiming chords of the optimism drenched Everything with its hints of Tom Petty.
Although there there’s no ballads as such, there are slower tracks, most notably the catchy All Of You with opening notes that recalls The Beach Boys’ Sloop John B and keys-backed gradually swelling album closer Telluride. But it’s the rush that impacts the most, riding the waves with Height of My Fears and jangling Southern rock surge of Arkanasas with its crowd call back friendly line ‘we broke every law in Arkansas’. They’ve not really registered on the public consciousness on an international scale, but this could well be the one to change that.
Wild Side (Self-Released)
Another solid example of how Sweden can take on Americana at its own game. Hometown Marie are a four piece from Mariestad, but, given they only have a Facebook site that’s singularly lacking in any information, there’s not much more I can tell you other than, founded by frontman Oskar Ostman and drummer Simon Peterson, they’ve been going for three years. There’s also no indication as to whether this four track EP is their debut or not, but either way it makes a solid alt-country noise, opening with the slow marching Like We Used To which wears its Son Volt influences on its sleeve, adding the mandolin-introed Eagles-ish Yours Tonight, mid-tempo pedal steel laced ballad Run To You and. mandolin back in action, the closing title track rocker. It’s bar band territory, but you’d certainly want to drink where they’re playing. Hopefully, a full album won’t be too far down the line.
THE GREEK THEATRE
Broken Circle (Sugarbush)
Stockholm duo Sven Froberg and Fredrick Persson made an auspicious debut back in 2013 with Lost Out At Sea and this more than delivers on the promise, immersing itself even further in 60s West Coast psychedelia. Again featuring assorted other musicians, it opens with its longest track, the seven minute Fat Apple (at About Noon), starting quietly with acoustic guitar, tinkling bells, clarinet and recorder, like something from early Mike Oldfield, gradually swelling to introduce jazzy drumming and pedal steel before the vocals finally arrive at the three minute mark and shades of Ummagumma era Pink Floyd swirl through.
Two tracks originally appeared on the between albums EP The Sunniest Day and reappear here in new arrangements Paper Moon is again all swirling clouds of sound with close harmony folksy vocals, acoustic guitar, muffled drums and electric guitar passages that call Dave Gilmour to mind, while the shuffling rhythm and tumbling chords of the sunny pop Stray Dog Blues has a sort of Erik Satie feel to the melody, the vocals here complemented by flute and harp plus the addition of a female voice courtesy Linda Heiling.
Clarinet resurfaces on the dreamily floating Still Lost Out At Sea with its soft, echoey vocals before the two-minute 1920 marks their first instrumental foray, Oldfield once more coming to mind in its effective marriage of Spanish acoustic and electric guitars creating the atmospheric Andalucian cocktail of calm and urgency.
The title track follows, building on electric guitar waves, a tribal drumbeat and psychedelic organ but also shifting to a sudden nakedly acoustic passage before the vocals, echoey with Gregorian choral tones giving way to whispers and the harmonised line "And though the road is rough and rocky, rest assured it'll lead to home" before the sonic momentum builds once more.
Heading into the final stretch, a concise Ruby-Khon sports ethereal soothing wordless vocals before the album returns to epic form on the six minute Kings Of Old, its hushed, muted introduction giving way to a storm of bass, muscular drums and unfettered guitar.
After the tumult it ends on a quiet and positive note (“I saw you smile”) with the waltzing Now Is The Time striking an almost musical box tone (in places it reminds me of the UK folk-psychedelia outfit Kaleidoscope), the hushed layered harmonies and tinkling chimes embellished by boudran and a trumpet arrangement. In its chosen genre, it’s going to be a hard act for anyone to follow, but it also has a beauty and appeal that could easily cross into less niche tastes. They’ll have to be quick, though, apparently its limited to just 300 copies, pressed on grey vinyl and available by mail order only from http://www.sugarbushrecords.com.
People We Become (Chief)
A follow-up to 2013 debut 2013 debut album Dirt On My Tongue, this finds the Devon songstress again steeped in Southern blues and soul, her voice again conjuring comparisons with Annie Lennox. The two opening tracks pretty much set the template for what follows, No One Left To Blame a crunchy gospel tinged groove with a steady driving rhythm and fierce guitar work while Silhouettes of You is a softer blue eyed soul ballad with piano and strings arrangement. As such, while there’s stylistic variety there’s no real surprises as she steadily makes her way through piano ballad Lend Me Your Love sitting alongside the soaring pop soul of Unchanged And Alone, the work song rhythms of the percussion and handclaps driven The Reformation with its raspy blues guitar and massed choral backing, the dreamy break up piano ballad Changing of the Guard and the late night jazzy vibe infusing the whispery Person of Interest.
Michael McDonald puts in an appearance on When We Were Young which sounds like, well The Doobie Brothers actually, and throughout Harmon benefits from some of Nashville’s best sessioneers who give everything a classy polish. It doesn’t take any real risks in a Joss Stone manner and it’s not going to give Adele any sleepless nights, but it does what it does faultlessly.
Mike Davies (not the one who co-writes her songs)
Let Out of the Dark (Ragged Road)
An acoustic folksy strum about getting your heart bruised, Home, the opening track on the sophomore album by the Scottish-Italian singer is a little misleading. Those expecting more in a similar vein are quickly disabused of such notions when Hear It From You bursts out of the speakers with Ross McFarlane’s driving drum beat and Stuart MacLeod’s circling electric guitars, the attack maintained, if slowed down, with the refugee-themed (if somewhat lyrically cumbersome) See Another Day.
A familiar theme about trying to maintain a relationship while working as a touring musician guides the acoustic ballad Two Steps, then, still dealing with relationships ending, things get broodier again on a blues shaded The Same Drum. What remains treads the same paths, alternating between guitar driven rock (The Fall, Disease) and stripped down folksy acoustic (Don’t Recognise Me, Sparkle), ending on yet another post breakup number with just her and acoustic guitar on Where Are You. She has an appealing voice with an engaging catch, but, to be honest, the songs simply aren’t strong enough for this to bring her into the light.
Night Thief (Self-Released)
Hailing from Red Deer in Alberta, Canamericana singer-songwriter Cuss sounds almost like a musician with a troubled past cliche, what with drugs, jail, marriage and divorce en route to redemption and renewal through music. Appropriately burly, he also has the almost obligatory bush beard and life stained throaty voice, not to mention a keen hint of Neil Young here and there. Naturally, all this darkness feeds into his music which is bluesy, rootsy and raw as he delves into an insalubrious, if not salacious, life, kicking off with the southern drawl of Red City River with its line about the swelling river coming to get you, “dangerous as barbiturates, stinky as cocaine.” Things don’t get much lighter, the snarling guitar of Cut My Teeth bolstering a slow swayer where he sings how “I just cut my teeth on the hands that feed me” or Pills, pedal steel underscoring the dark melancholy of the spoken tale of a girl who turned to drugs after constant abuse by her father, the refrain “Pretty people, they take pills” pretty much summing up the fatalism.
Elsewhere Bringing It Back is a driving Spirit In The Sky styled blues boogie cover of JJ Cale’s song about doing time after being busted for smuggling drugs, prison also looming large on the mid-tempo ballad Tecumseh, though here the love of a good woman (who also happens to be the sister of the man he murdered) staying by him offers salvation, while Murder of Crows, the moody Saturday Night, Tongues and the organ backed sexual prowl Divide all pile on the dark- limned blues.
The problem is that, save for the choppily fingerpicked, swamp- blues organ backed Grandma, a fond farewell to an old dear who seems to have been as a hard living, ornery and rebellious as him, and the six minute retro spacey psychedelic vibe of the closing Utumbo, it tends to remain very much on the one level, both musically and lyrically, more rewarding to dip into that consume at a single sitting.