DUFFY & BIRD Spirit Level [Release date 20.09.19]
You can’t go wrong with a voice and an acoustic guitar. That is, if you’ve a decent singer, a decent song, and decent player. It’s a formula as old as the hills.
In 2019 many like to call it ‘Americana’, but that’s a fairly recent phenomena, and this mini album / EP from Tricia Duffy and Al Bird – the follow up to the duo’s debut album 5 Lines (2017) is, for us old timers, more rooted in ‘folk’.
Originally two fifths of a rock covers band, the pair – now based in Chiswick, West London and Farnham, Surrey (and hailing from Portsmouth and Cardiff) – morphed into an acoustic duo with Tricia eventually turning her hand to song writing, with Al refining the melodies.
Given their covers background, it’s little surprise that their material has a mild pop/rock elements – the opener here, ‘Avenue Of Luck’, having a mild flavour of Mac’s ‘Never Going Back Again’ in the chord structures. To me, they put me in mind of another acoustic duo – from almost 30 years ago, Nothing By Chance – who were as good live, as they were on their only album Ghosts Of Love (1991).
‘Topping Up’ is an up-tempo ‘feel good’ number, which would translate well to a full band format and reminds me of another band that ‘time forgot’ – Katy Lied, who really should have gone on to bigger and better things following their outstanding Winter Lightning album in 2011.
‘Faking A Smile’ is just a gorgeous, haunting song, and the title track ‘Spirit Level’ is another potentially radio friendly number – both having a more commercial edge than the duo’s reflective debut, and the wistful ‘Born To Fly’ that closes the EP out in style.
Let’s not pretend Duffy & Bird will be the next ‘big thing’. The industry just doesn’t work that way anymore. But if they’re ever appearing near you, go along, a good time is assured. ***1/2
Review by Pete Whalley
DREW HOLCOMB & THE NEIGHBORS Dragons
Magnolia Music/Thirty Tigers [Release date 16.08.19]
When reviewing his 2013 release Good Light I observed that Holcomb’s brand of indie singer/son writing could prove be a tad too schmaltzy for British/European tastes. And nothing on his last album – Souvenir (2017) – or his latest offering Dragons makes me think any different.
With a career helped along nicely by major TV placements, this time he’s left his Springsteen Masters degree dissertation to one side and focuses on a writing style that has more in common with Bruce Hornsby and Billy Joel.
But while there’s still a massive audience for that sort of music across the pond, it all feels a little ‘dated’, and a genre that’s being rapidly overtaken by the blossoming Americana roots genre.
The opener ‘Family’ sounds like the sort of number Elton John (or Billy Joel) would have come up with for The Lion King, ‘End Of The World’ is an arena filling ballad with a typically big hook, and ‘I’ll Never Forget The Way You Make Me Feel’ like a Jack Johnson number. And so it goes on … the title track a folk / country number designed for audience choral participation, and ‘Make It Look So Easy’ more Bruce Hornsby & The Range style ear candy.
There’s no denying it’s beautifully crafted, but to my ears there’s no ‘soul’, no edginess, no danger or risk taking. It’s all horribly clichéd, and frankly, depressing. Little wonder then, that when Springsteen comes up with something as iconic as Western Stars that the world sits up and takes notice.
But I’m afraid Dragons breathes no fire, but if you’re looking for ‘slippers and corduroy slacks’ music, look no further. ***
Review by Pete Whalley
TIM GRIMM Heart Land Again
Cavalier Recordings [Release date 11.10.19]
Heart Land Again sees Tim Grimm revisit his debut album of 20 years ago, with the help of sons Connor (upright and electric bass, and vocals), Jackson (guitars, banjo, mandolin, harmonica, and vocals)) and Jan Lucas (harmonica and vocals).
With two news songs on board, he eschews the more mainstream/Americana aspects of recent outings like The Turning Point (2013), and A Stranger In This Time (2017), for a set steeped in ‘classic’ country storytelling.
Beautifully played and produced, the acoustic/piano based songs perfectly complement Grimm’s rich and suitably cracked vocals, but unless ‘old style’ country music is your bag, then Heart Land Again is likely to be a little too ‘wholesome’ for those whose tastes stray little further than a passing interest in the current Americana movement.
Grimm will play a handful of UK promotional dates with son Jackson, in Sept/Oct , but in terms of ‘crossover’ potential, there’s probably only the Chris Rea-infused ‘Sowing On The Mountain’ that will have any appeal for a rock rooted audience.
But if acts like Lady Antebellum tick any of your boxes, you might want to give Heart Land Again a shot. ***
Review by Pete Whalley
BOB BRADSHAW Queen Of The West
Fluke Records [Release date 27.09.19]
Overbearing echoes of mid-career Elvis Costello – both vocally and song construction wise – permeate in this rootsy pedal steel, fiddle and guitar twang infused set from Boston based singer / songwriter Bob Bradshaw.
Originally from Cork, Bradshaw’s been living the American dream for over 30 years and Queen Of The West – his eighth studio album – comes packaged in classic Americana imagery – salt plains, railroads, cacti and Greyhound buses.
Truth be told, it’s a rather dark affair, which will unquestionably have an appeal to a certain audience, although if you’re looking for something more upbeat, look no further than Springsteen’s quintessential Western Stars.
For me, it gets no better than the opener and title track ‘Queen Of The West’ – a psychedelia infused number that wouldn’t be out of place on that other Northern crooner – Richard Hawley’s excellent 2012 offering Standing At The Sky’s Edge.
However, Hawley’s broader catalogue, like that of Costello over the last 30 years, is something of an acquired taste. But if those artists feature regularly on your playlists, then Bob Bradshaw’s thirteen cross-connected redemption seeking songs on Queen Of The West could be worth exploring. ***
Review by Pete Whalley
3TIMES7 Rain In Chicago
Female/female fronted blues rock seems to be a genre absolutely exploding with talent in 2019. Already we’ve had significant offerings from Ally Venable, Elles Bailey, Erja Lyytinen, Hannah Wicklund, Helen Rose, Kat Danser, and Rebecca Downes, to name but a few and with more in the offing.
Written and inspired on a blues pilgrimage road trip that took them from Chicago to New Orleans, Rain In Chicago, otherwise known as duo Jenny Lawrence (vocals) and David Holdstock (guitar),is the duo’s second album. And whereas their self-titled 2016 debut was largely an acoustic based blues rock set, Rain In Chicago sees them experimenting with more diverse material.
‘Money For Nothing’ is a promising opener with plenty of Shaft style wah-wah, an up-tempo funk vibe, and a soulful vocal line, but numbers like the ‘Vaudeville’, ‘I Like It When It Rains In Chicago’, the Imelda May style ragtime’ Knock Knock’ and ‘Back On Beale Street’ jive simply fail to nail the duo’s colours to any one musical mast.
‘Murder On The Bayou’ – a soulful number hints at broader potential, and ‘The Devil In Me’ is imbued with some nice ‘dirty’ sax. But elsewhere Rain In Chicago is fairly standard fodder, ending – somewhat bizarrely – with the charming but somewhat ‘out of place’ Joni Mitchell styled acoustic ‘Get Away’.
It’s all been done, clearly, on a very limited budget, and compared to some of the rising stars in the genre, 3Times7 fall a long way short of breakthrough standard. They’re probably a good, honest working band, and well respected on the club circuit, but to progress further they’re going to need better material and a beefed up production. **1/2
Review by Pete Whalley
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