record reviews november 2016


How Cruel The Hunger Binds (Self Released)


One of the new wave of New England singer-songwriters, Strause has been likened to both a young Paul Simon and Josh Ritter, although its perhaps the latter that is more apparent here. It’s a musically (if not necessarily lyrically) upbeat collection, poppily melodic and coloured with horns, woodwind and vibes, opening with the rootsy rolling Americana of The Beast That Rolls Within, a song that, with its reference to riding the Charlie train, may well have to do with addiction and emptiness. Lost love is the subject of the jauntily brassy, chords tumbling Lying In Your Arms, the theme of its poetic lyrics spilling into the folksy pop balladry of The Dove while the echoey, woodwind backed, cabaret drone waltz Around The World is about never revealing feelings.

Featuring sparse piano notes and a jazzy New Orleans funeral march sway, Pennsylvania has a vaguely hymnal feel, the salvationist note of the lyrics is also evident in the organ-led bluesily waltzing Home From The Heartland, although Strause offsets the washing away of sins with the line about “I think about you when I'm praying and I almost break my hands.”

The album title comes from a line in Boy Born To Die, a Bon Ivor-ish shuffle about, in a pre carious world, embracing love while you can, which, in turn, sparks more thoughts of a relationship lost in the wistful, slow waltzing Spring Has Sprung (“I thought I knew how to get over you, didn't think it'd be that hard”) with its striking image of “girls on bicycles legs like icicles”.

The album closes with three further songs about lost love, So Long So Far, a shadowy slow, echoey vocal giving way to a friskier slightly Latin-tinged rhythm, the lazing, rootsy jazzy, brass-embellished swing of Rainy Days and, another slow New Orleans funeral march pace, the wistful lullaby that is The World Once Turning (“your voice once stirred the heavens as heaven once stirred the seas, but now the world once turning stands still to wait for thee”). Mellifluous heartbreak at its finest.

Mike Davies


Tightrope Walker (Thirty Tigers)

The title track (and the philosophy of the album’s genesis) inspired by French high-wire artist Philippe Petit and with instrumentation that includes not just the familiar saxophones and mandolins, but also rain recorded on an iPhone and metallic ironing boards, Yamagata’s fourth album has a frequently experimental bent. It’s also the most intimate yet from the Virginia-born daughter of a Japanese-American father and Italian-German mother.

The breathily-sung title cut sets a laid back, late night sultry, blues-jazz mood, giving way to the tribal rhythm of Nobody with its percussive stomp and off-kilter guitars and EZ Target’s seductive, moody junkyard folk built around instrumentation that includes banjo, piano, chains and cello. Featuring ukulele, wurlitzer, sax, Over strikingly recalls Annie Lennox balladry as does the breathily 60s soulfulness of Let Me Be Your Girl.

Things pare back on Break Part to conjure an early hours vibe, Yamagata’s voice taking on a dreamy narcotic croon, the mood sustained on the six-minute strings-arranged I’m Going Back which, otherwise, just features her on piano and key bass.

Following the piano-based Rainsong (another Lennox-echo), which features French spoken word by Paloma Gil, and the spare, folksy acoustic Black Sheep, returning to its tightrope walking metaphor (life just about putting one foot in front of the other), the album ends on the gradually swelling, strings-adorned Money Fame Thunder, advising that, if you want to experience life to its fullest, then “start looking up and don’t you look down at your feet.” She walks a fine line.

Mike Davies


In Amber (Self-released)

SAD song

Taking time out from occupying the drum stool for Frank Turner, Nigel Powell, formerly founder and frontman of The Unbelievable Truth releases a third album, his first in nine years, a solo affair save for former TUT bassist Jason Moulster, violin and viola by Anne Jenkins and cello from Jo Silverston. A concept album of sorts, its based around stories of people in and around an old people’s home, evolving from the first two songs written, the ebb and flow slow building anthemic Meet You There (which actually closes the album), about a last farewell, and, built around piano and heartbeat pulse percussion, Moment Of Clarity, which, inspired by those he’d known falling victim Alzheimer’s, is sung almost like a liturgy.

As the theme and the band’s name would suggest, it’s not a sunny upbeat affair, although, having said that, the opening track, The Touch Of Us, is a chords-tumbling slice ofchiming indie pop, while Last Dance of the Evening has a jazzily skittering Dave Brubeck feel to the melody and rhythm alongside the familiar hints of Peter Gabriel.

Elsewhere, the striking Beautifully Possessed is a dramatic swelling piano ballad, achingly augmented by Jenkins and Silverton, Legacy Of Love a mid-tempo acoustic ballad that conjures thoughts of The Lilac Time in its cascading chords, The Ones Who Heal another jazz rhythm driven urgent number with fractured drumtime signatures and, featuring cello and Powell slipping into choirboy vocal modeon the high notes, The Only Ones Worth Taking. There’s also the penultimate Unloved, a near, largelysix-minute instrumental featuring string flurries, the repeated sung lines “you couldn’t break me” and “you’ll never stop me” and a (not always entirely clear) raspy spoken word passage by actor Garrick Hogan. It’s been a long time coming, but it’s well worth the wait and makes a perfect companion piece to Vinnie Peculiar’s mental health institution-themed album, Silver Meadows.

Mike Davies


Okey Dokey (Natural Child)


A three piece from Nashville, Wez Traylor, Seth Murray and Steve "Bones" Dessimone are an archetypal southern country rock jam band in the tradition of the Dead and Allmans, setting up a soulful chugging groove on the opening Sure Is Nice and keeping it percolating for the remaining nine tracks. NSA Blues eases it on down even though the lyrics are talking about big brother surveillance and, while Out of Sight may feature some Brian Wilson-like cosmic bleeps and the production have psychedelic overtones, at its heart it remains a choogling blues, things coming back to earth for the barroom piano of the self-criticising Stonesy swaggering Now and Then. Okay, the title track’s a bit of an instrumental wig-out, but even that ultimately hews to southern rock n roll and they surely must have had a sly grin when they slapped the title Transcendental Meditation on a track that essentially brings together Creedence and the Beach Boys. They do fall prey to Dead excesses on the closing nigh seven minute prog jam instrumental It’s A Shame My Store Isn’t Open with its flute flutters and stoner bass throb, but otherwise this rolls as smoothly as a joint.

Mike Davies


Non Canon (XtraMile)

non canon

Previously trading as Oxygen Thief, Barry Dolan’s rechristened himself and swapped sonic guitar noise maelstroms for strings-enhanced folksy strums, aided and abetted by Chris T-T on piano on cello-droning Bad Twin and backing vocals from Ben Marwood and Charlie Barnes. It fits neatly into the Billy Bragg-inspired nouveau troubadour territory loosely occupied by the likes of T-T, Marwood, Beans On Toast, Jim Lockey and Dive Dive, keeping things predominantly acoustic, although Crayola, on which he dreams about himself and the wife meeting younger, A Study In Emerald (a musing on the written word that includes a list of authors) and parts of Eponymous do touch on noisier moments.

He’s not got the most distinctive voice in the world and, stripped of the instrumentation, the songs don’t always have the strongest of melodies, but (while the Bragg influences are often obvious) there is an endearing amateurish-naivete quality to things like The Book of Jasher, Home Alone 3 (this one about singing slow songs, while Splinter of the Mind’s Eye talks about sad ones), though perhaps the best thing here is 1999 In Roman Numerals; which is an acoustic guitar instrumental.

Mike Davies 2020