Best Albums of 2019

From a haunting and cinematic masterpiece about love, loss, grief and existentialism to power-pop, New Wave, pastoral country-rock, Americana, lo-fi Beachboys sounds, psychedelic blues and dark disco, Say It With Garage Flowers chooses its favourite albums of 2019…

2019 was an emotional year for me – I became a dad for the first time. In March, my wife, Susie, gave birth to beautiful twin boys, Ronnie and Roddy, and our world changed forever… I’ve always been over-sensitive, but such a major life event left me feeling even more sentimental and soft-centred, which undoubtedly had a major influence on which album I would choose as my favourite record of the year – Ghosteen by Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds.

The first record he’d wholly written since the death of his teenage son, Arthur, in 2015, and the third album in a loose trilogy, Ghosteen is a haunting and cinematic masterpiece.

Its lyrics tackle love, loss, grief and existentialism and are set to minimalist, otherworldly and ambient soundscapes for synth, piano and strings. At times, the songs are extremely harrowing, but also moving, beautiful and optimistic. A double album, Cave said of the record: “The songs on the first album are the children. The songs on the second album are their parents. Ghosteen is a migrating spirit.”

When I first heard it on an overcast October morning, I was astounded by the stunning opener, the mesmerising Spinning Song, reduced to tears by the second track, the piano ballad Bright Horses, and by the third song, the plaintive and hymn-like Waiting For You, I was in bits…

The album’s closing epic, Hollywood, which clocks in at just over 14 minutes, is one of the most astonishing pieces of music I’ve ever heard. It’s stripped-down, brooding and atmospheric, with eerie electronic effects, a ghostly choir and low, rumbling bass in the background – like waiting for an oncoming storm to strike…  Ghosteen is truly stunning – a career high point.

Several of Say It With Garage Flowers’ favourite artists put out great albums in 2019. We’ve highlighted just a few of them below. There’s also a list of our 40 best albums of the year at the end of the article and an accompanying Spotify playlist – we’re really spoiling you…

English husband and wife duo The Rails – James Walbourne and Kami Thompson – released their best long-player yet. Cancel The Sun – their third record – was produced by Stephen Street (The Smiths, Morrissey, Blur) and saw them moving further away from their folk-rock roots – Kami is the daughter of Richard and Linda Thompson – cranking up the electric guitars and embracing power-pop and New Wave, (Call Me When It All Goes Wrong, Ball and Chain, Waiting On Something); ‘60s-style country-soul (Something Is Slipping My Mind) and Beatlesy psychedelia (the title track).

Hollywood is one of the most astonishing pieces of music I’ve ever heard. It’s stripped-down, brooding and atmospheric, with eerie electronic effects, a ghostly choir and low, rumbling bass in the background’

Their gorgeous trademark harmonies were still in place and there were some folky ballads (Mossy Well and Leave Here Alone), but this time around, James, whose other job is as the guitarist in The Pretenders, really cut loose and pushed his extraordinary playing to the fore.

Cancel The Sun was very instant and direct – it didn’t mess around and had a harder, poppier feel than their last two records. Speaking to us earlier this year, Kami said: “This time, we didn’t rule anything out – we just wanted to make a bigger record.”

Commenting on working with Stephen Street, James said: “We wanted someone a bit different – who would take it forward – and who had perhaps more of a rock edge. We were thinking of the sound of Graham Coxon’s [Blur guitarist] solo records – in-your-face guitar.”

When we told James that we thought they’d made their best yet, he said: “That’s very kind of you – I appreciate that. After you make a record, there comes a point when just you don’t have a f***ing clue about what you’ve just done. This record is a truer reflection of what we listen to.”

James also cropped up on two of Say It With Garage Flowers’ other favourite albums of 2019 – he played guitar on two tracks on Spread The Feeling, the long-awaited new record by the Pernice Brothers, which was a brilliant mix of Smiths and New Order-like jangle-pop, ’80s US  New Wave and melancholy Americana, and also turned in a neat guitar solo on the country-folk song You Can Help Me, which featured on Manchester crooner Nev Cottee’s latest album – the superb River’s Edge, which was influenced by ’70s Neil Young, Crosby, Stills & Nash and Tom Waits, and had an optimistic, mellow and pastoral feel. Produced by Mason Neely (Wilco, Edwyn Collins), River’s Edge was a beautiful album. Highlights included Nightingale, a nocturnal, Tom Waitsian lullaby with piano and brass, and the Nancy and Lee-esque ballad Roses – a duet with mysterious guest vocalist Veronica, who sounded like Nico. The first single, Hello Stranger, was cinematic psych-rock, with a [Cortez the] killer, Neil Young-style electric guitar solo.

‘Nev Cottee’s latest album, the superb River’s Edge, was influenced by ’70s Neil Young, Crosby, Stills & Nash and Tom Waits, and had an optimistic, mellow and pastoral feel’

Talking to Say It With Garage Flowers about the album, Nev said: “I wanted to do something that was acoustic-based and had a few piano songs – to take it into Neil Young territory, but, in the end, it didn’t end up like that, as other influences got in the way. Ultimately, what I found out is that only Neil Young can do Neil Young songs and I’ve got to do mine…”

Cottee was part of the stellar cast of artists who contributed to this year’s two albums by the Monks Road Social collectiveDown The Willows and Out Of Bounds – headed up by Blow Monkeys frontman Dr. Robert. 

Recorded over two 10-day sessions in the residential Monnow Valley Studio in Monmouth, Wales, the records are two of the most eclectic collections of songs you’re ever likely to hear – from jazzy comedown ballads to Balearic beats, to soul, psych-rock, folk, drum and bass, country, blues, indie-rock and funk, they’re a melting pot of musical ideas and feature a seriously impressive line-up of guests.

Over the two albums, Dr. Robert’s collaborators include – wait for it, take a deep breath… singer-songwriter Kathryn Williams; Matt Deighton, guitarist and frontman of ‘90s acid-jazz outfit Mother Earth, who’s played with Paul Weller and Oasis; keyboardist Mick Talbot of The Style Council; drummer Steve White (The Style Council and Paul Weller); UK blues singer Angelina; Dick Taylor of ‘60s rockers The Pretty Things; Northern Irish artist Pat Dam Smyth; Brand New Heavies vocalist Sulene Fleming; London-based singer Samantha Whates; Midlands mod-soul band Stone Foundation; Nev Cottee; orchestral arranger Ben Trigg (Richard Ashcroft and Dexys Midnight Runners) and percussionist and programmer Steve Sidelnyk – to name but a few…

Dr. Robert oversaw the production of the albums and was also responsible for writing – and co-writing – many of the tracks, some of which are new versions of songs that have appeared on his solo albums, while others were penned especially for the project, or brought to the table by those involved. The Monks Road Social collective are playing their first ever live show, in London, at the Jazz Cafe, in 2020, and Say It With Garage Flowers hopes to be there.

‘The Monks Road Social records are two of the most eclectic collections of songs you’re ever likely to hear – from jazzy comedown ballads to Balearic beats, to soul, psych-rock, folk, drum and bass, country, blues, indie-rock and funk, they’re a melting pot of musical ideas’

Telling us about the making of both the records, Dr. Robert said: “We recorded both albums in separate 10-day sessions in Monnow Valley Studios, down in Monmouth.

“They were pretty intense sessions, but since my only vice these days is coffee, I was up for it! I did quite a bit of preparation beforehand, because I knew it would be crazy, and, if I didn’t have a plan, it could have all gone a bit Pete Tong…”

Dr. Robert

He added: “As we began to assemble the players, something kicked in and we were drawn together by intrigue and a mutual love of playing music for its own sake. That bit was important – there has to be joy and a spark – the gold dust is in the groove…”

Isle of Wight-based singer-songwriter Angelina – part of Monks Road Social – released her second album, Last Cigarette, this year.

Written in the aftermath of a failed relationship, it was raw, visceral, menacing and angry – a heavy and psychedelic, garage-rock blues record that was a lethal cocktail of dirt, dust, diesel and Louisiana swamp juice.

Scorching opener, Throw Petrol At The Sun, had an oily, clanking rhythm and manic, trippy flute, first single, Devil’s Wishing Well, was built on a funky, Beck-like groove, See Through Dress was a smouldering, late-night tale of getting revenge on a soon-to-be ex-lover – she takes his last cigarette and stubs it out on the dress he bought her – and the riotous, rock ‘n’ roll gospel-soul of God Bless The Road was inspired by playing a gig in a Berlin biker bar, with bonfires burning outside.

‘Written in the aftermath of a failed relationship, Last Cigarette was raw, visceral, menacing and angry – a heavy and psychedelic, garage-rock blues record that was a lethal cocktail of dirt, dust, diesel and Louisiana swamp juice’

The album saw Angelina reunited with Rupert Brown (drums, percussion, auto harp and backing vocals), who worked on her debut album, 2016’s folky and rootsy Vagabond Saint, but this time around she recruited ace electric and slide guitarist Barrie Cadogan (Little Barrie, Primal Scream, Edwyn Collins), and The James Hunter Six’s Jason Wilson on double bass.

Session musicians Joe Glossop (keys) and Gary Plumley (flute) were also along for the ride, as were five singers from the People’s Choir of St Louis.

Speaking about the influences behind the album, Angelina said: “I love the sound – and the truth – of those early blues artists, like Blind Willie Johnson, Ma Rainey and Charley Patton, but it wasn’t a conscious design to make a blues record – that was just what came out naturally…”

She added: “I always try and walk on the sunny side of the street, but I do have a habit of finding the shadows…”

Another artist who is no stranger to the darker side of life is gravel-voiced Mark Lanegan, who released his eleventh studio album, Somebody’s Knocking, in 2019.

On the track Penthouse High, he sang: “There’s ghosts inside this house…” It sounded as if the place was haunted by the spectre of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, as the Manchester post-punk band – and the outfit they morphed into, New Order – were two of the most obvious influences at work on this record. Name and Number was powered by a doomy, Peter Hook-style bassline, which also sounded like The Cure, Playing Nero was all ’80s synths and drum machines and Dark Disco Jag had a sinister electro groove.

Lanegan also made another album this year – Downwelling, which was attributed to Not Waving and Dark Mark. A collaboration with experimental producer Alessio Natalizia, it explored dark electronic territory and served as a great companion piece to Somebody’s Knocking. 

Now for something a bit lighter… Summer Deluxe, the fifth solo album by Hampshire-based, UK singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, Mike Gale, was one of the most gorgeous records Say It With Garage Flowers heard this year.

‘On the track Penthouse High, Lanegan sang: “There’s ghosts inside this house…” It sounded as if the place was haunted by the spectre of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis…’

Adding samples of strings, piano and organ to drum machines, synths, guitars and harmonies, Mike, formerly of Americana band Co-pilgrim and, before them, cult noughties indie-slackers Black Nielson, crafted a blissed-out, lo-fi summer soundtrack that was heavily influenced by The Beach Boys.

There were pure pop moments (Jump Start My Heart and Shoot Shoot The Needle), wonky synth sounds (You Know How I’m Feeling Now) and jazzy tinges (Every Cloud Has A Cloudy Lining), but lurking beneath the sunny, surf’s up melodies, there was an undertow of sadness and world-weariness.

Say It With Garage Flowers has been championing Canadian singer-songwriter Jerry Leger since we first heard his brilliant double album, Nonsense and Heartache, which came out in 2018. It was one of our favourite records of that year.

‘There were pure pop moments and jazzy tinges, but lurking beneath the sunny, surf’s up melodies, there was an undertow of sadness and world-weariness’

This year’s follow-up, Time Out For Tomorrow, was another album that we fell in love with. From the Dylanesque country-rock of first single Canvas of Gold – with slide guitar and organ – to the melancholy, piano-led ballad That Ain’t Here, the blues-folk of Burchell Lake – inspired by a ghost town in Ontario – and the haunting and cinematic mountain tune, Survived Like A Stone – with fiddle and saw – these were raw, powerful and emotional songs.

Asked about the sound of the new album, Jerry told us: “It’s a nice, short and sweet, lean and mean record. Two records I really dug the sound of that I wanted to capture on this record were Nick Lowe’s The Impossible Bird and one of my favourite Lou Reed albums, Coney Islnd Baby – I love that dry drum sound and the real directness of it. Some of the songs just coast along. I also like a lot of Nick Lowe’s older records with Rockpile, where he doubled the electric guitar solos. I doubled my vocals on some songs.”

Here There’s No Sirens, the debut solo album by Pete Gow (ex-Case Hardin) was a brilliant collection of stripped-down, intimate and very personal songs, with acoustic guitar, orchestral arrangements, brass, piano, drums and organ.

Produced by multi-instrumentalist Joe Bennett, (Dreaming Spires, Co-Pilgrim, Raving Beauties / Paul McClure) at Farm Music Studios in Oxfordshire and released on Clubhouse Records, it was both beautiful and unsettling. Opener One Last One Night Stand set the tone for most of the record – it was a big, honest, relationship ballad with a breathtaking cinematic backing, while the song Mikaela sounded like early Ryan Adams, but with mournful horns and sweeping strings.

‘Here There’s No Sirens, the debut solo album by Pete Gow, was a brilliant collection of stripped-down, intimate and very personal songs, with acoustic guitar, orchestral arrangements, brass, piano, drums and organ’

There were also character songs  – the majestic Some Old Jacobite King was steeped in the storytelling tradition and was inspired by a trip to the remote Isle of Skye, while Strip For Me centred on a guy who treats women in a thoroughly unpleasant way – and it name checked porn actress and stripper Stormy Daniels, who was involved in a scandal with U.S. President Donald Trump. Pete Gow also released a limited edition seven-track mini album called The Fragile Line in 2019 – it too was one of our favourite records of the year.

Another Americana album we enjoyed this year was Carousel, by UK singer-songwriter Luke Tuchscherer. A stark and moody solo acoustic record – guitar, voice and harmonica – that was laid down in one day at a studio in New Jersey, it didn’t shy away from addressing political and social issues and was inspired by Neil Young and Bob Dylan.

Opener, My Darling England, dealt with social issues, including class and national identity – the song was written 15 years ago, but, in these troubled times and with the spectre of Brexit looming over us, it was eerily prescient: ‘Now the streets are filled with shadows, every house has its own ghost. The people are growing restless – never getting what they want the most…’

Violets tackled domestic abuse, Potash was penned during the Iraq War and The Night Tom Petty Died  documented how one of Luke’s musical inspirations passed away just as he’d moved to New York from the UK: ‘Sitting at the bar in the Tribeca Tavern, on the jukebox was Learning To Fly – a beer cost more than I could spend. I wished that I was home…’

‘A stark and moody solo acoustic record that was laid down in one day at a studio in New Jersey, Carousel didn’t shy away from addressing political and social issues’

Luke cited Neil Young and Dylan, specifically The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album, as his reference points for the record, as well as Townes Van Zandt and Elliott Smith, but, at times, it also reminded us of Bruce Springsteen’s 1982 masterpiece Nebraska – our favourite album by The Boss.

2019 was a decent year for new music, but a bad one for politics, however, some good did come out of the current dire state of the UK, as West Midlands-based singer-songwriter Vinny Peculiar was inspired to write While You Still Can – a socio-political album that took a wry look at the situation the country found itself in. This time around, he made a harder, darker and rockier record with a political edge and plenty of social commentary, but he didn’t dispatch with the vintage pop culture references that we know – and love – him for.

Man Out Of Time was rollicking country-blues with a lyric about the ’70s glam rock years of his youth, while Culture Vulture’s Led Zep-inspired riffs were a nod to his Black Country rock roots. The synth-heavy Ministry Of Fate concerned itself with government media blackouts, Scarecrows was Bowie-esque, robotic funk meets plastic soul and the post-punk, heavy indie-rock of Pop Music For Ugly People tackled political opportunism and personal greed.

‘2019 was a decent year for new music, but a bad one for politics, however, some good did come out of the current dire state of the UK Vinny Peculiar was inspired to write While You Still Can – a socio-political album that took a wry look at the situation the country found itself in’

Question Time – Say It With Garage Flowers’ favourite track – was a Smiths-like, jangly pop song, but with a lyric about a missing female politician, told from the point of view of a suspect under interrogation.

In an interview with Say It With Garage Flowers, Vinny said: “It’s impossible to avoid politics nowadays – things are so polarised, opinions so righteous, news feeds ever omnipresent… This album is a reaction, in parts, to all that and from speaking to people on the sharp end of this Government’s austerity programme – teachers, nurses and shop workers. These are torrid times.”

With Brexit looming, who knows what 2020 will bring, but, rest assured, I’m confident that, like 2019, it will be another great year for new music. I’ve already had a sneak preview of three albums that are due out in 2020 – no spoilers here – but it’s safe to say that they’ll be high up on Say It With Garage Flowers’ list of our favourite records of next year…. In the meantime, here’s our 40 best albums of 2019 and a Spotify playlist to go with them. It’s been emotional…

Say It With Garage Flowers: Best Albums of 2019

  1. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Ghosteen
  2. The Rails – Cancel The Sun
  3. Nev Cottee – River’s Edge
  4. Pernice Brothers – Spread The Feeling
  5. Peter Bruntnell – King of Madrid
  6. Richard Hawley – Further
  7. Pete Gow – Here There’s No Sirens
  8. The Delines – The Imperial
  9. Jerry Leger – Time Out For Tomorrow
  10. The Lilac Time – Return To Us
  11. Morrissey – California Son
  12. Pete Gow – The Fragile Line
  13. Vinny Peculiar – While You Still Can
  14. Those Pretty Wrongs – Zed For Zulu
  15. Monks Road Social – Out of Bounds
  16. PP Arnold – The New Adventures of PP Arnold
  17. Angelina – Last Cigarette
  18. Mercury Rev – Bobbie Gentry’s The Delta Sweete Revisited
  19. Mark Lanegan – Somebody’s Knocking
  20. Monks Road Social – Down The Willows
  21. Mike Gale – Summer Deluxe
  22. Luke Tuchsherer – Carousel
  23. The Rockingbirds – More Rockingbirds
  24. RW Hedges – The Hills Are Old Songs
  25. Bruce Springsteen – Western Stars
  26. Steve Gunn – The Unseen In Between
  27. Nocturum – The After Life
  28. Wilco – Ode To Joy
  29. The National – I Am Easy To Find
  30. Elbow – Giants of All Sizes
  31. Jeremy Squires – Poem
  32. Whoa Melodic – Whoa Melodic
  33. Not Waving & Dark Mark – Downwelling
  34. John Howard – Cut The Wire
  35. Edwyn Collins – Badbea
  36. Iggy Pop – Free
  37. GospelBeacH- Let It Burn
  38. Lucette – Deluxe Hotel Room
  39. Hannah Rose Platt – Letters Under Floorboards
  40. Hurricane #1 –  Buddha At The Gas Pump

•Please note – at the time of writing, Spread The Feeling by Pernice Brothers, The Fragile Line by Pete Gow and More Rockingbirds by The Rockingbirds are not available on Spotify.

 

 

 

Best albums of 2017

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This year has been a remarkable one for new music – in fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s the greatest in the history of Say It With Garage Flowers, which launched in the summer of 2009.

Most of my favourite contemporary singer-songwriters and bands unleashed new albums in 2017 and I was lucky enough to interview several of them to find out the stories behind the songs.

Sadly, I haven’t been able to arrange an in-depth chat with the man whose album has made the top-spot in this year’s ‘Best Of’ list, although we did come very close to doing an interview a few weeks ago, but it got postponed at the last minute. I live in hope that we can rearrange it for next year – both of us dearly want it to happen…

In the meantime, I will have to be content with listening to his latest record, A Short History of Decay, which is my favourite album of 2017.

John_Murry_1400_X1400

The second solo record by John Murry – an American singer-songwriter who was raised in Tupelo, Mississippi, but now lives in Kilkenny, Ireland –  A Short History of Decay is the follow-up to his 2012 masterpiece, The Graceless Age – one of the greatest records of the last few years.

Back in 2012, I said of The Graceless Age: ‘It’s a deeply personal work that deals with the darker side of life, including drug addiction, loss and loneliness –  it’s one of those records that’s meant to be listened to on headphones, alone, late at night, as it draws you in with its lush orchestration, gorgeous, spiralling melodies and twisted tales. Misery seldom sounded so sublime.’

Five years later, Murry finally released its successor. It was always going to be a tough act to follow such a brilliant record as The Graceless Age, but for Murry it was doubly difficult. Since its release, he’d had personal problems and demons to deal with, including family issues and the death of his close friend Tim Mooney, of American Music Club, who had produced his first album.

Michael Timmins from Canadian alt-country act Cowboy Junkies came to Murry’s aid. He’d seen him supporting his band in Glasgow and was captivated by his performance – I’ve seen Murry play live 13 times and he is one of my favourite artists to watch in concert. His shows are intense and extremely powerful – you never know what you’re going to get, but it’s always one hell of a ride. He is an extraordinary performer.

‘It was always going to be a tough act to follow such a brilliant record as The Graceless Age, but for Murry it was doubly difficult – he’d had personal problems and demons to deal with, including family issues and the death of his close friend Tim Mooney’

Timmins and Murry talked about making an album together – Timmins wanted to capture the rawness of Murry’s songs – and the result is A Short History of Decay.

It was recorded over five days in Timmins’ Toronto studio with a band comprising of his brother Peter (Cowboy Junkies) on drums and Josh Finlayson  (Skydiggers, Gord Downie, Lee Harvey Osmond) on bass. John brought along Cait O’Riordan (The Pogues, Elvis Costello), whom he’d met in Ireland – she contributed backing vocals to the album.

Talking about the sessions, Timmins said: “I felt that it was important that John got out of his own way and that we set up a situation where he would just play and sing and the rest of us would just react, no second guessing, just react and capture the moment. It was a very inspired and inspiring week of playing and recording. Very intense. And I think we captured the raw essence of John’s writing and playing”. 

They certainly did – A Short History of Decay is looser and much more raw than its predecessor. The wonderful first single, Under A Darker Moon, has fuzzy, fucked-up guitars and punk-rock sensibilities, but, at its heart, is a killer indie-pop tune.

My favourite track on the album is Wrong Man. A dark, stripped-down, Springsteen-esque ballad that deals with the breakup of Murry’s marriage – “I’m the wrong man to ride shotgun on your murder mile” – it makes for uncomfortable listening, but is such a beautiful song, with a simple, sparse keyboard and guitar arrangement. 

A Short History of Decay has its fair share of gallows humour, too. Despite its title, One Day (You’ll Die) is one of the album’s lighter moments  – a weird, mutated, but very catchy, pop-reggae (!) groove, with a guitar solo that sounds like it’s been lifted from the ’50s rock ‘n’ roll instrumental Sleepwalk by Santo & Johnny.

Similarly, Countess Lola’s Blues (All In This Together) is another song with an irresistible, sing-a-long melody, but when the dirty garage guitar comes in, it kicks ass. 

The album’s closing track is a stunning cover of What Jail Is Like by The Afghan Whigs. I will scratch my way out of your pen, just so that I can claw my way back into it again,” sings Murry, over psychedelic guitar sounds.

It’s great to have him back.

This year also saw the return of another Say It With Garage Flowers favourite. Back in 2014, miserablist duo Pete Fij (Adorable and Polak) and Terry Bickers (The House of Love and Levitation) released their debut album, Broken Heart Surgery, which topped my end of year poll.

2017 saw them follow it up with the brilliant We Are Millionaires – an album that I played to death this year. 

As I wrote back in the summer, ‘like its predecessor, it’s full of deadpan humour and dry wit. With influences including John Barry, The Velvet Underground and Lee Hazlewood, and lyrical nods to movies The Third Man and The Birds, it’s like a soundtrack to an imaginary, downbeat, British, black and white kitchen sink-drama-meets spy-film – part Hancock, part Hitchcock – but this time around, there’s even some optimism.’

And while we’re on the subject of Lee Hazlewood, the legendary moustachioed maverick is a huge influence on Manchester singer-songwriter Nev Cottee, whose third album, Broken Flowers, was another highlight of this year. 

His darkest record to date, it was written in the aftermath of a failed relationship. Nev’s rich, baritone voice is backed by lush, cinematic strings and the album moves from twilight country music to bluesy psych-rock and spacey, hypnotic grooves. First single, Open Eyes, sounded like Lee Hazlewood hanging out in Cafè del Mar.

Staying with Manchester melancholy, Morrissey came back in 2017 with Low In High School – his strongest album in years – but, sadly, the record was overshadowed by controversial comments he made in the press. Songs like the brassy, glam rock swagger of My Love, I’d Do Anything For You, the electro-tinged I Wish You Lonely and the epic Home Is A Question Mark would easily find their place in a list of his greatest tracks. 

Ex-Only Ones frontman Peter Perrett surprised everyone by releasing a superb solo album, How The West Was Won, which was loaded with wry songs in the vein of Dylan and Lou Reed.

Husband and wife country duo – and Say It With Garage Flowers regulars – My Darling Clementine – returned with the excellent Still Testifying. Their third album saw them building on the Southern soul sound that they explored on their 2013 record, The Reconciliation? More Delaney & Bonnie than George & Tammy, and with gospel leanings and luscious horn arrangements, it could’ve emerged from Memphis, Alabama or New Orleans, but it was actually made in Tooting, South London.

Another husband and wife duo who are no strangers to country music – The Rails – impressed me with their second album, Other People.

Recorded in Nashville and produced by Ray Kennedy [Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams], it was a darker, heavier and more electric record than their critically acclaimed 2014 debut Fair Warning

Moving away from the band’s traditional folk roots – it had ‘psychedelic’ tinges and  ’60s organ –  it wasn’t afraid to speak its mind and deal with modern social issues.

Gravel-voiced Mark Lanegan’s Gargoyle was also high up on my list of 2017 albums of the year. The latest in a long line of great releases by him, it continued to mine the seam of dark, brooding electronic rock he’s explored over his last few records. 

Singer-songwriter Richard Warren – who’s played guitar for Mark Lanegan and Soulsavers – returned with his latest album, Distentangled. It was less dark than some of his previous releases – more soulful and stripped-down – but still with a nod to the ’50s sounds of Sun Records, melancholy, late-night ballads in the vein of Nick Lowe, Roy Orbison and Richard Hawley, and twangy guitar instrumentals that could be soundtracks to arthouse films that don’t exist yet. 

A debut album that I fell in love with this year was This Short Sweet Life by Nottingham’s Torn Sail – coincidentally an act linked to Richard Warren, who played with them in a previous incarnation.

Written and produced by singer-songwriter Huw Costin, it was a haunting and gorgeous record –  sad, but also uplifting and spiritual – an intimate, late-night soundtrack for the lost and the lonely that reminded me of Jeff Buckley at times.

PP

Two of my favourite albums of 2017 weren’t actually from this year! Soul legend P.P. Arnold and Neil Young both released ‘lost’ long-players.

Arnold’s album The Turning Tide was a collection of songs from ’69 and ’70. Produced by Barry Gibb and Eric Clapton, the album was aborted and remained unfinished. Thankfully the master tapes were finally located, the tracks were completed and the album was issued 47 years later. It’s a great collection of groovy soul-shakers – her blistering versions of Traffic’s Medicated Goo and The Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want are guaranteed floor-fillers – and tender ballads, like the lushly-orchestrated gospel song Bury Me Down By The River. 

Young’s intimate Hitchhiker – it’s just vocals, acoustic guitar and harmonica – was recorded in a single night, in Malibu, California in 1976, but didn’t see the light of day until September this year. I’m so glad it did – it’s up there with his best work.

The dark and menacing title track is jaw-dropping – a staggeringly honest autobiographical tale, which sees Neil on a road trip with just his drug stash for company, before things take a turn for the worse and he ends up a paranoid wreck who has to escape from the L.A. rock ‘n’ roll scene and hole up in the countryside…

L.A. is the home of singer-songwriter Marlon Rabenreither, who, under the name Gold Star, released his excellent second album, Big Blue, this year, and, funnily enough, it often sounds like ’70s Neil Young, as well as early Ryan Adams. 

I’d like to say thanks to Alex Lipinski who invited me to his album launch at Pretty Green in London’s Carnaby Street in November this year – I loved his latest record, the raw and bluesy Alex, with its mix of Dylan and the La’s.

And finally, I must mention the UK label Sugarbush, which continues to put out great jangle-pop, power-pop and psych albums on vinyl – both new releases and re-issues. This year saw Scottish guitar band The Carousels, who are on Sugarbush, release their gorgeous second album, Sail Me Home, St.Clair, which was heavily indebted to the sound of the Byrds’ 1968 country-rock cult classic, Sweetheart of the Rodeo

I’m listening to it now, as I write this article and sail off into 2018… 

Here’s a list of my favourite albums of 2017 and a Spotify playlist to go with it:

1) John Murry – A Short History of Decay

2) Pete Fij & Terry Bickers We Are Millionaires

3) Morrissey – Low In High School

4) Mark Lanegan – Gargoyle

5) Nev CotteeBroken Flowers

6) My Darling Clementine Still Testifying

7) Torn Sail This Short Sweet Life

8) The Rails Other People

9) Peter Perrett – How The West Was Won

10) Neil Young – Hitchhiker 

11) PP Arnold The Turning Tide

12) Gold Star – Big Blue

13) Richard Warren Disentangled

14) The Carousels Sail Home, St. Clair

15) Jeff Tweedy – Together At Last

16) The Clientele – Music For The Age of Miracles

17) Ralegh Long – Upwards of Summer

18) Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit – The Nashville Sound

19) Mark Eitzel – Hey Mr Ferryman

20) Alex Lipinksi Alex

21) Little Barrie – Death Express

22) The National – Sleep Well Beast

23) Juanita Stein – America

24) Martin CarrNew Shapes of Life

25) The Dials – That Was The Future

26) Michael Head & The Red Elastic Band – Adios Senor Pussycat

27) Chris Hillman – Bidin’ My Time

28) Liam Gallagher – As You Were

29) William Matheny – Strange Constellations

30) Cotton Mather – Wild Kingdom

31) Matthew Sweet – Tomorrow Forever

32) Daniel Wylie’s Cosmic Rough Riders Scenery For Dreamers

33) The Jesus & Mary Chain – Damage and Joy

34) Duke Garwood – Garden of Ashes

35) Timber Timbre – Sincerely, Future Pollution

36) Luke Tuchscherer Always Be True

37) Frontier Ruckus – Enter The Kingdom

38) Sophia Marshall – Bye Bye

39) Co-Pilgrim – Moon Lagoon

40) GospelBeacH Another Summer of Love

41) Bob Dylan – Triplicate

42) Papernut Cambridge – Cambridge Circus

43) Luna – A Sentimental Education

44) Steelism – Ism

45) The Len Price 3 – Kentish Longtails

46) Wesley Fuller – Inner City Dream

47) Hurricane #1 – Melodic Rainbows [UK version]

48) Alex Lowe – Rancho Diablo

49) The Blow Monkeys – The Wild River

50) Colman GotaFear The Summer

 

 

 

‘It’s a great relief to finally get this album out’

huw costin - new

This Short Sweet Life, the debut album by Nottingham’s Torn Sail, is one of my favourite releases of 2017, but it’s been a long time coming – it took eight years to make!

Written and produced by singer-songwriter Huw Costin, it’s a haunting and gorgeous record –  melancholy, but also uplifting and spiritual – an intimate, late-night soundtrack for the lost and the lonely.

It’s an album that can you lose yourself in – a collection of six songs that form a cohesive piece of work. You need to listen to this album from start to finish in one sitting and immerse yourself in its other-worldly beauty.

On Leave This World Behind, Treasure and Gains on gains, Huw Costin conjures up the ghost of Jeff Buckley, while opener Birds is a stunning, stripped-down, folk-country song which builds into a soulful, pedal steel-driven epic – complete with Hammond organ and gospel-tinged vocals.

Torn Sail features members of Spiritualized, The Selecter, Bent, and Soulsavers, and the album includes contributions from Mark Lanegan and BJ Smith (Smith & Mudd).

Lanegan described This Short Sweet Life as ‘a masterpiece’ – and you can’t argue with him. He lends his backing vocals to Ricochets – a moody, organ-soaked song in the vein of Tindersticks, Nick Cave or, indeed, his own dark, bluesy barroom ballads.

I spoke to Huw Costin to find out why one of the best albums of 2017 was eight years in the making…

Q & A

It’s coming to the end of 2017. How’s the year been for you? 

Huw Costin: Complicated, hard work at times and rewarding. It’s a great relief to finally get this first album out.

This Short Sweet Life is one of my albums of the year. How do you feel about that?

HC: Good. I get so close to my work that I can easily lose a broader perspective, so it’s a nice feeling when someone else is receptive. It can be a lonely game.

The album came out in December, but you released the opening track, Birds, in 2011! No one can accuse you of rushing your debut album can they?

HC: Um, no.

Why did it take so long to get the record out?

HC: Well, I released another album in 2013 – Something/Nothing – under my own name, which took a bit of time. And I like to try things out – different overdubs, instrumentation and harmonies… A lot of stuff gets recorded, and then changed, then deleted again – it all takes time. A lot of the time there are more questions than answers – a lot of blind alleys.

I also spent a year or so approaching labels and chasing answers. In the end I did it myself. It took a lot of research, and a lot of time. I have a family, have to pay the bills, get the car fixed, so you know, I have to be patient.

I was introduced to Torn Sail by our mutual friend – Matt Hill [singer-songwriter Quiet Loner]. You both come from Nottinghamshire, don’t you? How did you get to know Matt?

HC: I think it was through my friend Emma, who puts on music nights in Retford. Perhaps we played the same night? Eventually he came and played a night I set up in Nottingham. He was brilliant on so many levels. It was one of the best nights I’ve put on, thanks to Matt.

I‘m a huge fan of Mark Lanegan – he features on the track Ricochets, along with E.R. Thorpe, on additional vocals. How did you come to work with Mark? Are you a fan? 

HC: Yes, but really only after I got to know him a little bit. The initial incarnation of Torn Sail was a band called The Cold Light Of Day, which Richard Warren set up to be the Soulsavers, featuring Mark Lanegan. The idea was that we’d support with our own material, and then play the Soulsavers stuff with Mark and a few other musicians. That never happened, but we did spend a week rehearsing with Mark for the All Tomorrow’s Parties bash at Butlins in Minehead.

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Torn Sail

Can you explain the background to Torn Sail? How did it come about?

HC: As The Cold Light Of Day we recorded several tracks and played a bunch of gigs. It was a great band – we recorded some of my songs and some of Richard’s. We got a deal with TV Records, but Richard quit the band and did the record solo instead – and then went off on tour with Soulsavers. I was stunned at the time really, as we’d worked really hard, and Richard is really good at selling a dream…but you know, I get it now. He had to follow his mojo, and all the clues are in the lyrics he and I were singing at that time.

Anyway, the band and I decided to carry on, spent a few weekends laying down some recordings and, eight years later, here we are…

I can trace the roots of this album back to sitting on the stairs, strumming an E minor chord, when I was about 14, and a light melancholy that’s been with me on and off since then’

The album is a beautiful and haunting record. What was the starting point for it? Despite being made over a number of years, it feels like a cohesive record – a mood piece. What were you setting out to achieve with the album? Did you have a definite idea of what you wanted it to sound like? How did it all come together?

HC: Thank you. I can trace the roots back to sitting on the stairs, strumming an E minor chord, when I was about 14, and a light melancholy that’s been with me on and off since then.

There were six or seven tracks that didn’t make the record – faster, busier tracks. They jolted a little in the mix and it was important to me that this record could be sunk into – that there was a grace to the movement and that the album could be enjoyed as simply as a good song – no matter how dark the colours, or sad the melody.

Something/Nothing was, in a way, a series of tangents, so, in part, This Short Sweet Life is a coming back together – the same musicians are playing all the songs and are at the core of the record, so even if their parts might be mixed really quietly on a track, or even removed, their essence is there, or the space left instead of their parts is significant in itself.

‘I spent some formative years living in villages out in Rutland, just me and my guitar and a breathtakingly beautiful landscape, but it was cold and, ultimately, lonely’

Nature is a recurring lyrical theme on the album. Are you an outdoors type?

HC: When I have time, yes – it’s the antithesis of my studio recording process really – locked in a little room in an old terrace on an industrial estate in the city. I spent some formative years living in villages out in Rutland, just me and my guitar and a breathtakingly beautiful landscape, but it was cold and, ultimately, lonely.

Musically and vocally, the album reminds me of Jeff Buckley at times. How do you feel about the comparison?

HC: I’ll take it as a great compliment, but, to be honest, I haven’t listened to Jeff for a long time. There was a time when he, and Nick Drake, were the only people I listened to. Their music takes me back to a place I’m not ready to revisit yet, but I’m sure you can hear their influence.

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What have been your favourite records of 2017? What music – new and old – are you currently enjoying?

HC: Three of my favourite records this year are The Cut by Tenebrous Liar – all their albums are stunning, but I think this is their best –  Broken Flowers by Nev Cottee is gorgeous, and E.R. Thorpe’s Lion EP is spellbinding.

Otherwise, this year I’ve been rediscovering Jefferson Airplane, have really got into John Martyn – too late – and Thomas Dolby, especially The Flat Earth.

Also Hats by The Blue Nile. Simon Fisher Turner’s soundtrack for the film The Epic of Everest has been a calming soundtrack while I’m trying to get the kids out to school, and Dethroned by Jesu – late at night.

Mark Lanegan played a stunning set in Oxford recently, David Thomas Broughton was really clever, funny and moving at the Maze in Nottingham, and Sleaford Mods were invincible at Rock City.

‘There was a time when Jeff Buckley and Nick Drake, were the only people I listened to. Their music takes me back to a place I’m not ready to revisit yet’

Finally, what are your plans for 2018 and when can we expect another Torn Sail record?

HC: I’ve a few gigs coming up and I’m always on the lookout for more. I’m not sure yet if I’ll be doing them solo or with the band. All being well, Nu Northern Soul will be releasing a 7in of Disconnected from the Huw Costin/Torn Sail 2 EP released earlier this year.

I’ve collaborated on a track called Love Not Sex, which will be out on a 10in, on Paper Recordings, I think. There are a few mixes of Treasure from the Torn Sail album coming out on Tummy Touch and Best Works,

I’ll keep working on the two Torn Sail albums that have been on the go for the last two or three years…

This Short Sweet Life by Torn Sail is out now on Cwm Saerbren Records.

Available at www.tornsail.com

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/torn-sail-this-short-sweet-life-music-rock

‘I’m not on a mission to be retro – I’m writing and recording songs in the way that I want to hear them’

Richard Warren lo res (1)

Here at Say It With Garage Flowers, we’ve been fans of singer-songwriter Richard Warren since we heard his 2011 album, The Wayfarer – his second solo record under his own name. In fact, it was our favourite album of that year.

In 2013, we raved about his album Rich Black Earth, calling it, ‘atmospheric, moody and nakedly emotional – evoking Nebraska-era Springsteen’.

His latest release, Disentangled, is certainly going to figure highly in our 2017 albums of the year list. It’s less dark than some of his previous releases – more soulful and stripped-down – but still with a nod to the ’50s sounds of Sun Records, melancholy, late-night ballads in the vein of Nick Lowe, Roy Orbison and Richard Hawley, and twangy guitar instrumentals that could be soundtracks to arthouse films that don’t exist yet. 

We spoke to Richard, who’s played guitar for Spiritualized, Starsailor, Dave Gahan and Soulsavers (featuring Mark Lanegan), about the new album – his first in four years – and found out why he’s trying to simplify what he does, hone his craft and get back to basics in this crazy world we’re living in…

Q & A

Hi Richard. It’s good to chat to you again. I really love Disentangled – I have the limited edition green vinyl version of it…

Richard Warren: Fantastic.

This is your fourth solo album. It’s been four years since your last one – 2013’s Rich Black Earth. How did you approach this record?

RW: It was recorded over such a long time. After the last one, I just carried on recording – I never stop or take a break. I’ve got a studio at home, so the day after I finished the last album, I started on the next one.

Some of the tracks were done a couple of weeks before I finished this album and some were done the week after I did the album before. I think Only Always [the first song on the record] was the last thing I recorded – two weeks before this album had to be delivered. I was in the studio and I did the song in one day.

By the time it came to hand this album in, I’d recorded 50 to 60 tracks! I didn’t set out to do that. There’d been a year in-between each of my other albums. In 2014, I’d got an album’s worth of stuff together – I tried to find someone to put it out, but nobody seemed interested. Four or five of those tracks made it on to this album.

So you have a lot of unreleased material in your vaults?

RW: Yeah – I don’t know whether it will ever see the light of day. I tend to just move on to the next thing all the time.

You produced this album yourself and you played all the instruments on it…

RW: I did – I’ve done that on all my solo albums.

You made the record in your home studio. What’s your set-up like?

RW: It’s got more and more basic – I have Pro Tools and I have some tape machines. It’s a blend of digital and analogue. I like being in an analogue world, but it’s quite difficult…

The new album doesn’t sound as dark as some of your other records. It’s very stripped-down and some of the songs have a real ‘50s feel to them. Last Breath – which is one of my favourite tracks on the album – sounds like a lo-fi Elvis…

RW: Yeah – definitely. I like that three-part harmony, Jordanaires kind of thing. I generally kind of revert to that sound – I love those records. The Sun recordings are up there with my favourite records of all time – the Elvis and Cash stuff is mind-blowing.

‘By the time it came to hand this album in, I’d recorded 50 to 60 tracks! I didn’t set out to do that’

I’m simplifying my set-up and my recording equipment – if you listen to my first album, it’s quite complex. There were a lot of instruments. I’ve got into simplifying things – even the lyrics on this album are about simplifying. There’s a song called Simplify on the record – I’m singing about what I’m trying to do, which is quite odd. I didn’t plan it to be like that. I’m as into production as I am writing records and playing on them. I’m not on a mission to be retro or old-fashioned. All I’m doing is writing and recording songs in the way that I want to hear them – it’s a sound that I love. With this record, I’ve gone very mono – it’s not mono, it’s stereo, but it’s a lot more simplified. I just use Pro Tools almost like an 8-track tape machine – it’s just something to record into. I just try and write a good song.

Less is more… There are some other ‘50s-sounding songs on the album – the gorgeous, melancholy ballads No Way Back and Safekeeping. When we last spoke, in 2013, you said you were influenced by Nick Lowe – in particular, his albums The Convincer, At My Age and The Old Magic. It sounds like those records rubbed off on your new record, too…

RW: Those Nick Lowe records are fantastic – they’re perfect. They changed the way that I wrote songs. I’m trying to write songs that are easy to play – simple songs that just roll out. That’s the Nick Lowe thing for me. He’s a perfect songwriter – his records are a masterclass in songwriting. His songs hark back to Willie Nelson and Cash. Willie Nelson wrote Crazy, which I think is the perfect song – it sounds like the simplest song in the world, but it’s got everything. It has a story – a beginning, middle and an end – and it’s got a key change… it’s got every songwriting trick you can do, but when you listen to it, it sounds simple. That’s what I’m trying to learn how to do. All I’m interested in doing is to try and better my songwriting. With this album, I was a lot harder on myself – I kept rewriting and rewriting things. I’d like to write something faster now…

There are quite a few instrumentals on the album. Would you like to write and record a film soundtrack?

RW: I had quite a lot of instrumentals just lying around. At one point, I decided to make a whole album of instrumentals – I thought I couldn’t write songs anymore. I’m a bit like that – one day, I’ll get up and say, ‘this is rubbish – I’ll trash everything’. To be honest, I hit that point a lot this time…

I would like to score a film – I think it would be interesting, if it was done in the right way. I’ve done odd bits for film and TV before – it’s a really difficult and time-consuming thing to get into – and it has to be exactly what they [the directors] want. I loved the stuff Neil Young did for Jim Jarmusch. I like the idea of just playing along and coming up with stuff in the moment, but I suppose you have to be someone as important as Neil Young to do that… I’d like to try it – anything that stretches my musical horizons is great.

‘At one point, I decided to make a whole album of instrumentals – I thought I couldn’t write songs anymore’

The title track of your album – Disentangled – is an instrumental. Why did you name the record after it?

RW: An album title for me is always something that comes right at the end. Generally, I always find it a bit of a struggle. Some people have the album title at the beginning and they work to that. I do that with songs – I’ll have one line of a lyric, or a title… I’ll have all the songs and then I’ll say, ‘oh, what am I going to call the album?’ I go through all the lyrics and try and find something that sounds interesting. ‘Disentangled’ was a word I read and it also fits with the cover – the photo of a tree. I was inspired by that – as the songs are about simplifying things, it’s like I’m trying to disentangle myself from all that… I think people are trying to simplify things – hopefully it will resonate. It’s a crazy world – it’s so fast – and I want to make music that helps me to relax. I can easily play these songs – they’re laid-back and not too intense.

You’ll be wearing slippers on stage soon…

RW: Exactly. Artists like Nick Lowe are always at their best when they’ve just got an acoustic guitar, they’re on their own and you just hear them play. It’s so relaxed and easy to listen to. He has such control – Kris Kristofferson is another. He’s incredible – his songs are effortless. He is the song. Him and Nick Lowe are the people I’m always trying to emulate.

Let’s talk about your other project – Kings of the South Seas, with Ben Nicholls and Evan Jenkins. You’ve recorded your second album – Franklin – and recently played some preview shows. The record is out next year…

RW: It was supposed to be out now, but it will be out February 2018. It’s a good album – we worked with [producer] Ben Hillier. He’s great – the record sounds incredible. It’s a concept album about the explorer John Franklin.

‘When no one was interested in putting a record out, I lost confidence and I ended up making music for myself, but the songs came out of that’

Can we expect any solo Richard Warren shows?

RW: I’d love to do some, but I struggle to get any gigs. When no one was interested in putting a record out, I’ll be honest, I lost a bit of confidence and I ended up making music for myself, but the songs came out of that.

I’d love to see you play some shows…

RW: I’d like to go out and play this album solo, but the dream is to put a band together. I’d love to do that, but to do those kind of gigs and to get a great bunch of people, you’ve got to pay ‘em well and to pay ‘em well, you need good gigs – you can’t get one without the other. I’ll keep going – I’ll never give up. I started writing the next album the day after I handed the last one in and I’m really happy with how it’s coming on.

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Disentangled by Richard Warren is out now on Hudson Records