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Mesabi by Tom Russell (CD, download)

Review Tom Russell's Mesabi? Oh well, I suppose so.

I don't like giving heroes bad reviews, but I fear this album is one of his dodgier ones. It's streaminghere, so give it a listen and make up your own mind.

The title track is a good opener: setting Bob Dylan's childhood against Tom's and their shared hope of escape through music ('don't let me do the work my father did'), driven by Calexico's pumping brass and a strutting beat, and featuring the fine description of the Mesabi iron range as 'the Bethlehem of the troubadour kid'... But too much of what follows strikes me as either wet or clumsy or both.

Tom's always had a sentimental streak (what country writer doesn't?) but the catch is seldom far from his throat here, along with lines like

Christmas Day can break a man in two

When he's drunk, in the kitchen all alone

And the children don't call...

Come on, lad: get a grip.

The other problem is that he's got a lot of true stories he wants to tell: about child stars, self-loathing actors, the voice of Jiminy Cricket - but interesting stories don't necessarily make great songs. And when prosaic lines like

When Walt Disney terminated Bobby Driscoll's contract

seem to be required a writer's alarm bells should be ringing.

It's something of a relief when Tom goes back to the more familiar territory of Juarez and the borderline - 'Jai Alai', 'Goodnight, Juarez', 'And God Created Border Towns' (and had he not, I'm sure Tom would have done it for him; he must be on commission from the Mexican Tourist Board with all the namechecks...)

It's nice to hear Lucinda Williams duetting on 'A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall', but they take it too slow - it's not one to drag out. Then we're back onto a more even keel with the closer, 'Road To Nowhere', with nice brass, shimmering electric guitar and a bouncing beat - if you ignore some rather hackneyed lyrics.

So, disappointing, all in all. Particularly following his last release, Blood And Candle Smoke,which was, for me, his strongest and most consistent record since the classic Borderland back in 2001. Tom's one of the great songwriters. If you're not yet persuaded of that, those albums are the place to start. And to encourage you on your way, try this..


Tamer Animals

Tamer Animals by Other Lives - (LP, CD, download)

The mysterious cover image is apt: Other Lives are not easy to grip or pigeonhole. The word that seems to come up most frequently in pieces about them is 'cinematic' and there is a Morricone-like soundtrack quality to some of what they do, but that is only part of it.

They come from Oklahoma, and that also seems apt - big sky, cowboy country to drive spacious music, but also unfashionable, out of the mainstream. You have a sense that this is a band that has ploughed its own furrow - got on with building and honing their own sound without following too closely what everyone else has been up to.

And honed is what their sound certainly is. With their second album as Other Lives (there was an initial release back in 2006 as Kunek) there is an intricacy, care and confidence about the way they have put their pieces together.

So, what's going on here? A five-piece playing cello, violin, French horn, trumpet and clarinet between them as well as the more usual rock band staples. And they've roped in some mates to add bassoon and bass clarinet and fill out the string section. Front man Jesse Tabish's vocals and the backing voices are frequently washed with echo to give a choral effect.

There are echoes of Calexico's wide-screen Americana but also of British prog and of classical minimalism. (I have been listening to old Henry Cow albums recently and I don't think it's entirely fanciful to find echoes of the inventiveness, seriousness and rigour of their arrangements here - though without their attraction to discord...) The vocals don't sound particularly American – there are almost Liverpudlian cadences on occasion: I suspect John Lennon's influence.

There are lush melodies to draw you in and complex instrumentation to keep you hooked. I particularly like the arrangements in the lower register, with cello and woodwind often intertwining with the bass leaving you unsure exactly which instrument is playing what. The vocals are sometimes forward, sometimes further back in the mix; the lyrics seldom straightforward. You pick out evocative phrases rather than whole stories:

Solitary motion, in the wake of an avalanche.

Deer in the headlights...

I presume this title song 'Tamer Animals' is a way of describing being human.

Let me describe a few songs, but I'd strongly recommend immersion in the whole album, there's always something different coming along...

'Dark Horse' is a delicate and uplifting opener, with stabbing brass supporting echoed vocals and a bass clarinet or bassoon galumphing underneath. 'We're bringing down the dark horse' Tabish repeats - a relative of the Black Dog, perhaps?

'As I Lay My Head Down' follows, more urgent with a tricksy time signature and a choral sound.

The single, 'For 12'. Their astronaut video feels appropriate - fingerpicked acoustic guitar through electronic swirls, the vocal high in the mix, flirting with falsetto. A descendant of Major Tom? 

It feels like forever

When your mind turns to fiction.

 'Woodwind Loop' does what it says, with a nice interplay between bassoon and clarinet overlaid with strings.

The final instrumental, 'Heading East' sets a hooting French horn against a wash of strings and brings things to a gentle close.

I hope that will have whetted your appetite: do give Tamer Animals a try.


Eels, 6 July 2011

The Dome, Brighton

6 July 2011

Eels are something of a cult, and one that I've never really enrolled in. Lead man Mark Everett and a shifting roster of collaborators have been making music for the best part of twenty years now. My record racks feature one compilation (a present from a full cult member) and a couple of individual albums I've bought - last year's End Timesand a nice vinyl solo set, Transmission Sessions. So a gig in Brighton seemed the ideal opportunity to deepen the acquaintance...

Great band: 2 guitars, 2 horns, bass, drums, along with Mr E. They're all wearing shades and sporting beards - and clearly having fun and in good voice. A full Dome gave them a strong reception, despite being berated for lack of enthusiasm at one point.

There's a but coming. Despite all the strengths, I left feeling rather unengaged and unmoved. I wasn't familiar with most of the material and I didn't get a strong impression from the songs first time around. A few familiar ones - 'My Beloved Monster', 'Novocaine For The Soul', 'I'm Going To Stop Pretending I Didn't Break Your Heart' - fared better, but he doesn't really grab me by the entrails, on record or now live.

And why does he have to change his guitar after virtually every number when he only ever strums 3 or 4 chords in a similarly sounding sort of way? 

Enough grousing: really good bassist, fine honking horns, tight ensemble playing. I might not quite get it, but if you like this sort of thing, it's the sort of thing you'd definitely have liked.


Martin Simpson, 13 June 2011

The Greys, Brighton

13 June 2011

And then, in amongst all the new young pretenders you maybe should be listening to, there's always an old master who's somehow evaded your attention for thirty years or more... Anyone who's bored with music is truly bored with life.

Martin Simpson was a name I was aware of but didn't really know, represented on my record rack with a nice 1980 collaboration with June Tabor (precise picking and that inimitable, glacial, voice; the sleeve a period classic of lengthy hair and longer boots); and on my hard drive a 2007 collaboration with Jackson Browne on one of my all-time favourite songs, Randy Newman's 'Louisiana 1927'. And then there he is on the forward programme for The Greys, a wonderfully intimate venue. Time to catch up.

He is an extraordinary guitarist, blending an ornate finger-style with a wonderful appropriation of the bottleneck to the British folk tradition. It could have been invented here.

But he's no parochial folkie and his wonderful instrumental technique is a means to an end: telling stories. He doesn't have the most distinctive of voices but turns that to advantage, concentrating on getting the message across from a wonderfully eclectic set-list, united primarily by the strength of the stories to be told. The words of every song are crystal clear and absorbed by a rapt, packed audience.

While I don't know his own compositions, they were set in gloriously familiar company and more than held their own, communicated superbly. One in particular, 'Never Any Good', a song for his father, was wonderfully emotional without straying into the sentimental:

You were never any good with money.
You couldn't even hold a job,
Not steady enough for the office,
Not hard enough for the hod...
And you taught me how to love a song
And all you knew of nature's ways:
The greatest gifts I have ever known,
And I use them every day.

Elsewhere, his borrowings ranged from 'Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?' to Bruce Springsteen's 'Brothers Under The Bridge'. He graced us with a lovely 'Louisiana 1927' and moved on to Dylan's 'Boots of Spanish Leather' and Townes Van Zandt's 'Pancho & Lefty'. Tasteful and fearless - and he's right to be so: all beautifully done.

Despite all these transatlantic connections he is undoubtedly firmly in the British folk tradition. (Or maybe because of all these transatlantic connections - the communication lines have always been open, in both directions.) Two of the evening's highlights were renditions of 'Sir Patrick Spens' and 'Little Musgrave' (a variant version of 'Matty Groves'), which inevitably started a Fairport line of thought... Martin Simpson is, for me, quite as good an acoustic guitarist as Richard Thompson (memo to self: hunt down some electric Simpson for comparison) and a rather better singer. But, selfishly, it's great that we can still see him at venues like The Greys. Strongly recommended.


Viper Central, 6 June 2011

The Greys, Brighton

6 June 2011

Another fine musical evening at The Greys on 6 June. I hadn't heard Viper Central before but the combination of a Canadian bluegrass band, the venue and landlord Chris's dependable taste made it seem worth grabbing some tickets - and so it proved. A warm feel; strong, mutually supportive, ensemble playing; and a generally likeable bunch. Nothing particularly ground-breaking and without the jaw-dropping technique a bluegrass label sometimes signals, but that's not always what you need.

They're currently a five piece - fiddle, mandolin, banjo, guitar, stand-up bass - grouped round a shared mike and featuring a lot of vocal harmonies. They mixed traditional and classic material (eg 'I Am The Man, Thomas', Johnny Cash's 'Get Rhythm', a Louvin Brothers number) with their own stuff to good and varied effect, ranging into folkier and gospel areas.

Their own songs were good enough without being knock-out - occasionally a bit generic: 'Down In West Virginia', featuring generalised heartland references to North Carolina, East Kentucky, etc, followed by a rueful admission that most of the band hadn't been to most of the places they were singing about...

Some nice humour, particularly from Winnipeg banjo man Tyler Rudolph (after fiddler Kathleen Nisbet had introduced a singalong number as being in C he added 'Which is not the key of Canada - that is A'. Eh?... )

I'd definitely go and see them again, but probably won't rush to buy their records

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