2022: The year of the Hollow Heart

Say It With Garage Flowers chooses its favourite albums of 2022 and takes a closer look at the stories and influences behind some of the best Americana records released this year.

2022 was better for me personally than 2021, when I experienced some tough times following the death of my dad, but, on the socio-political side of things, it’s been a difficult 12 months, with chaos in government, a cost of living crisis and general uncertainty casting a long, dark shadow across the country.

Music is always there to get you through the bad times, as well as the good, and the album I kept coming back to in 2022 was Hollow Heart – the fourth offering by London’s cosmic country kings, The Hanging Stars, so I’ve chosen it as my favourite record of the year.

The Hanging Stars

It was uplifting musically, but lyrically it was often tinged with sadness, and it wasn’t afraid to comment on the state of the country – the ‘60s-garage-rock-meets-The-Byrds song, I Don’t Want To Feel So Bad Anymore, was written about being completely helpless at the hands of the Tory government, while the West Coast psych-pop of You’re So Free concerned itself with anti-vaxxers and how Brexit and Trump’s presidency created social divide.

Speaking in February 2022, when he gave me the first interview about Hollow Heart, ahead of its release, the band’s frontman, Richard Olson, said: “There was a lot of sadness. Our default setting is fairly optimistic, but I think the lyrics are the darkest I’ve ever written.”

I think the new record is their best to date. It’s even better than its predecessor, 2020’s A New Kind of Sky, which was a mix of cinematic sounds, psych, jangle-pop, folk and country-rock. Released in the wake of Brexit, thematically that album dealt with the idea of escaping and getting away to a better place.

‘There was a lot of sadness. Our default setting is fairly optimistic, but I think the lyrics are the darkest I’ve ever written’

To make the follow-up, the band and producer/musician, Sean Read (Soulsavers, Dexys Midnight Runners) decamped to Edwyn Collins’ Clashnarrow Studios in Helmsdale, in The Highlands of Scotland, which overlooks the North Sea.

Edwyn offered us the use of his studio – it felt like being anointed – and Sean is one of the two engineers who he lets work there – the stars aligned,” said Olson.

“That happened during the pandemic, so we had to find a window when we were allowed to do it. It was quite a project, transporting six people to Helmsdale, with a bunch of instruments.”

He added: “We drove in two cars and we set to work – we grafted and we were so focused. It was magical from start to finish. When you’re standing in the studio, and the sun’s setting over the bay, and you’re singing Weep & Whisper, that shit makes you think that you’ve made it! We got given this chance and we had to deliver the goods.”

And deliver the goods they did. Opener, the slow-building love song, Ava, is stunning – it creeps in with some gorgeous, haunting pedal steel and twangy guitar, then blossoms into magnificent, blissed-out and anthemic country rock.

Second single, Black Light Night, is irresistible – pairing a seriously dark and foreboding lyric with music that evokes vintage R.E.M – guitars are set to jangle and the harmonies wing their way down from (near wild) heaven.

The dreamy Weep & Whisper – “There’s a girl I used to know. She wore her hair long in an endless satin bow” – is much more subdued – a folky shuffle that Olson describes as a love song to youth. It sounds like it’s been hanging out at Scarborough Fair with Simon & Garfunkel.

The majestic and shimmering Ballad Of Whatever May Be could be The Stone Roses doing country rock, and first single, Radio On, melds the best of Big Star with The Velvet Underground.

Hollow Eyes, Hollow Heart – one of the album’s heavier and darkest moments – is brooding psych-folk in the vein of Fairport Convention.

You’re So Free has Ethiopian jazz piano and echoes of ‘60s West Coast pop group The Turtles, while Edwyn Collins guests on the moving and filmic, Rainbows In Windows, providing spoken vocals inspired by The Velvet Underground’s The Gift.

Opening with a great, jangly guitar riff that Roger McGuinn would’ve killed for back in the day, the sprightly I Don’t Want To Feel So Bad Anymore nods to The See See – the band The Hanging Stars came from – but throws in a unexpected, baroque-space rock mid-section.

“This is probably the most traditional record we’ve ever done – in the sense that we had some songs, we went to the studio to finish them off and we had x amount of time to make the album,” said Olson.

“It was good for us and it was a joy to see everybody flourish in the studio in their own way. It brought out what we’re good at. We also wanted to think about the sonics – Sean came into his own and we had so much fun doing it. We threw the rulebook out of the window – we had to.”

And did Olson think it’s their best album? “Of course it is. You wouldn’t be making records otherwise,” he told me.  “With this album, we had to be The Hanging Stars and I think we did a pretty damned good job of it.”

It’s hard to argue with him.

One of my other favourite UK Americana albums of the year was Leo, the third solo record by former Case Hardin frontman, Pete Gow.

The trademark orchestral sound he debuted on 2019’s Here There’s No Sirens and its follow-up, The Fragile Line – from 2020 – was bolstered by some impressive, rich and soulful horn arrangements courtesy of his producer, multi-instrumentalist, Joe Bennett (The Dreaming Spires, Bennett Wilson Poole, Co-Pilgrim, Saint Etienne).

Leo felt like the natural successor to Gow’s previous two solo records, which were also created with Bennett (bass, piano, organ, vocals, strings, horns) and drummer, Fin Kenny, who, like Gow, are both workhorses of the UK Americana scene.

Photo of Pete Gow by David Cohen

Reviewing the album for Americana UK earlier this year – I gave it 9/10 – I said: ‘Leo is Gow’s most accomplished and ambitious album yet, with Bennett taking his collaborator’s wry story songs about barrooms, booze, rock ‘n’roll and record collections and turning them into widescreen epics, the orchestral and brass arrangements perfectly complement these lyrically deft tales and the lives of the characters that inhabit them.’

Leonard’s Bar, which is the centrepiece of the album and where the record takes its title from, reminds me of one of those Springsteen story songs, written about people and their small town lives, but with a hint of Nick Cave about it, too.

It’s about a former criminal who’s fallen on hard times and finds himself caught up in a difficult situation – one last job – thanks to his brother-in-law, Leo.

Telling me about the track, Gow said: “That song was written about my first trip to the States with my partner and my first trip back to her hometown, which is Baltimore, or thereabouts. I had a notebook with me the whole time and I was jotting stuff down. At the time, her brother was going through a divorce and living at his mum’s – that’s where I met him.”

He added: “The barman in the song with ‘This’ and ‘That’ tattooed on his knuckles was just a guy that served me, my partner and her cousin drinks one afternoon in a Baltimore bar. I saw it and wrote it down.”

Another UK Americana artist with a knack of writing great story songs is Michael Weston King – the record he released this year, The Struggle, was his first solo album in 10 years.

A stunning collection of moving, well-crafted and wonderfully arranged songs, recorded in rural Wales, with producer, engineer and musician, Clovis Phillips, the record saw Weston King stepping away from his day job, as one half of husband-and-wife country / Americana duo, My Darling Clementine (with Lou Dalgleish), and, instead, mining a rich seam of late ’60s/ early ’70s singer-songwriters, like Mickey Newbury, Dan Penn, Jesse Winchester, John Prine, Bobby Charles and early Van Morrison.

Michael Weston King

Mixed at Yellow Arch Studios in Sheffield with Weston King’s long-time collaborator/producer, Colin Elliot (Richard Hawley / Jarvis Cocker), musically, it explores country-soul, Celtic folk and jazz, and lyrically it tackles subjects including the Trump presidency, mental health issues, loneliness, death and the tales of a wayfaring singer-songwriter.

Two of the songs were co-writes. Sugar was penned with US singer-songwriter, Peter Case, while Theory of Truthmakers sees Weston King putting music to unused lyrics by his friend, Scottish songwriter and musician, Jackie Leven, who died in 2011.

Telling me about the idea behind the album, Weston King said: “If I’d had the budget, I wanted it to sound like Mickey Newbury in 1970, but that would’ve meant an orchestra on every track.

‘I certainly wasn’t trying to make an Americana or country record, but country-soul was always at the heart of it’

“One of the songs, Another Dying Day, was the starting point – it was the most Newburyesque song. We put strings on it and approached it in the same way that he’d recorded a lot of his stuff, with a lot of nylon-strung guitar. Some of the other songs happened organically and went off in other directions.”

He added: “I certainly wasn’t trying to make an Americana or country record, but country-soul was always at the heart of it –  a bit of a Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham vibe. We have some Wurlitzer on there.”

There were also some Americana moments on Breaking The Fall, the first solo album by singer-songwriter, Matt James, who was formerly the drummer with ’90s Britrockers Gene.

Although it’s a debut record, it sounds like a best of collection – 10 memorable, varied and, at times, very personal and emotional, songs that embrace folk, country, soul, indie-rock, Spaghetti Western soundtracks and ’60s pop.

Occasionally it recalls Gene –  the country-soul of A Simple Message and the anthemic ballad Different World – but most of the time, it’s the sound of someone experimenting with different styles and enjoying being in the studio again after a long time away. James left the music industry for several years.

Speaking to me about the record in August 2022, he said: “I’m sort of trying everything out – I have thrown it all in there. Perhaps on future albums I’ll take more of a single direction.”

Stepping out from behind the drum kit to put himself in the spotlight for the first time, he relied on some old friends to help him out.

Former Gene band mates Steve Mason (guitar) and Kevin Miles (bass) were along for the ride, as was keyboard player, Mick Talbot, (The Style Council, Dexys Midnight Runners), who played live with Gene and on radio sessions.

I’m sort of trying everything out – I have thrown it all in there. Perhaps on future albums I’ll take more of a single direction’

Production duties were taken care of by former Gene associate, Stephen Street, (The Smiths / Morrissey, Blur, The Cranberries) – sonically, the album is rich, colourful and diverse – and there was some guitar work by James’s friend, Peredur ap Gwynedd (Perry for short), from electronic rockers Pendulum.

Photo of Matt James by Embracing Unique: Laura Holme.

 

Low-key first song, From Now On, is a gorgeous, acoustic folk-country campfire ballad, with an accordion keyboard sound, but it’s followed by the powerful, extremely personal and upbeat Champione – a moody indie-rocker written about James’s father, who was blighted by mental health and addiction issues. Once again, there’s a slight country influence, thanks to the atmospheric slide guitar.

The emotional title track, which is another ballad and sounds quite like one of the more reflective moments by his old band, sees James contemplating his time away from music and creativity: “Don’t leave me in the dark – just take me straight back to the dancing.”

And, on that note, Sad is a big, infectious Northern Soul-style floor-filler, like late Jam or The Style Council, and, appropriately enough, it features Mick Talbot on organ.

The mighty Born To Rule has triumphant Spaghetti Western / mariachi horns on it, the twinkling Snowy Peaks is a festive-themed love song that scales dramatic heights – the choral middle eight sounds like The Beach Boys in church – and the dark, yet ultimately optimistic, High Time, recalls life-changing events, including a near-fatal car crash and a chance encounter that led to the formation of Gene.

From Americana to Canadiana… singer-songwriter, Jerry Leger, describes his latest album, Nothing Pressing, as his ‘deepest artistic statement yet’.

It’s also one of his strongest and darkest records. Largely written and recorded in the wake of a close friend’s death and with the shadow of Covid hanging over it, Leger said it’s an album about survival – mental, physical and artistic.

Some of the songs, like the stark, stripped-down and folky Underground Blues and Sinking In, were recorded in his Toronto apartment, using two SM58 microphones fed into his vintage 1981 Tascam four-track tape recorder.

“I spent a lot of the lockdown writing and demoing using the four-track,” he told me. “I wasn’t writing with the pandemic in mind – and some songs were written before it happened – but the album does have a feeling of isolation, reflection, longing and gratitude.”

He added: “It was spring of last year that I unexpectedly lost one of my best friends. I think it’s unavoidable that things like that seep in. It’s a surreal feeling losing someone close. I wasn’t consciously writing with him in mind, but I can now hear traces of me dealing with it in a few of the songs.”

The raw and punchy Kill It With Kindness,  upbeat rocker Have You Ever Been Happy?, the Neil Young-like Recluse Revisions, the classic country-sounding A Page You’ve Turned, and the Beatlesy love song With Only You were laid down in the studio with his long-time producer, Michael Timmins (Cowboy Junkies), and Leger’s band, The Situation (Dan Mock (bass/vocals), Kyle Sullivan (drums/percussion). There are guest contributions on the album from Tim Bovaconti (pedal steel) and Angie Hilts (vocals).

‘I wasn’t writing with the pandemic in mind – and some songs were written before it happened – but the album does have a feeling of isolation, reflection, longing and gratitude’

The song, Nothing Pressing, which opens the record, and the tracks Protector and Still Patience are solo acoustic, recorded live in the studio with few embellishments, save for Mock’s overdubbed harmony vocals and, on the title track, Timmins’s ukulele.

The follow-up to his 2019 studio album, Time Out For Tomorrow, Nothing Pressing is a great collection of songs – and often painfully honest. On Still Patience, over a sparse backing of guitar and Wurlitzer, Leger sings: “I go drinking by myself, when I got nobody else, for misery is company.”

At times sad and reflective, it’s an album that doesn’t shy away from tackling personal issues, such as mental health, depression and seeking solace in alcohol, but it’s also a record that believes a problem shared is a problem halved.

“I really hope that this record is given the attention it needs. It’s not really an undertaking [to listen to], but it requires a little more work than Time Out For Tomorrow, which was very inviting,” he said,

“It could be very helpful for a lot of people – it’s one of those records that I would go to for a different type of comfort. I need to know that other people are going through all these crazy feelings too.”

It was certainly an album that helped me get through 2022 and, on that note, here’s the full list of records I’ve enjoyed over the past 12 months, with an accompanying Spotify playlist. I hope you can find room in your heart for some of these songs – hollow or otherwise…

Say It With Garage Flowers: Best Albums of 2022

  1. The Hanging Stars – Hollow Heart
  2. Arctic Monkeys – The Car
  3. Matt James – Breaking The Fall
  4. Pete Gow – Leo
  5. Michael Weston King – The Struggle
  6. Jerry Leger – Nothing Pressing
  7. Michael Head & The Red Elastic Band – Dear Scott
  8. Nev Cotttee – Madrid
  9. Johnny Marr – Fever Dreams, Pts 1-4.
  10. Beth Orton – Weather Alive
  11. PM Warson – Dig Deep Repeat
  12. Daisy Glaze – Daisy Glaze
  13. The Magic City TrioThe Magic City Trio
  14. The Delines – The Sea Drift
  15. Nick Gamer – Suburban Cowboy
  16. Duke Garwood – Rogues Gospel
  17. M. Lockwood Porter – Sisyphus Happy
  18. Thomas Dollbaum – Wellswood
  19. Vinny Peculiar Artists Only
  20. GA-20 – Crackdown
  21. Wilco – Cruel Country
  22. Andrew Weiss and Friends – Sunglass & Ash
  23. Jessie Buckley and Bernard Butler – For All Our Days That Tear The Heart
  24. Morton Valence Morton Valence
  25. M Ross Perkins – E Pluribus M Ross
  26. The Lightning Seeds – See You In The Stars
  27. Monophonics – Sage Motel
  28. Andy Bell – Flicker
  29. Spiritualized – Everything Was Beautiful
  30. Leah Weller – Freedom
  31. Pixy Jones – Bits N Bobs
  32. The Boo Radleys – Keep On With Falling
  33. Gabriel’s DawnGabriel’s Dawn
  34. Alex Lipinski – Everything Under The Sun
  35. The Gabbard Brothers – The Gabbard Brothers
  36. Triptides – So Many Days
  37. Ian M BaileyYou Paint The Pictures
  38. Gold Star – Headlights USA
  39. The Chesterfields – New Modern Homes
  40. Kevin Robertson – Teaspoon of Time
  41. The Boys With The Perpetual Nervousness – The Third Wave Of…
  42. Elvis Costello and The Imposters – The Boy Named If
  43. Nick Piunti and the Complicated Men – Heart Inside Your Head
  44. The Senior Service – A Little More Time With
  45. Bangs & Talbot – Back To Business
  46. Monks Road SocialRise Up Singing!
  47. Electribe 101 – Electribal Soul
  48. Ricky Ross – Short Stories Vol.2
  49. The Low Drift – The Low Drift
  50. The House of Love – A State of Grace
  51. Foxton and Hastings – The Butterfly Effect
  52. Graham Day – The Master of None
  53. Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio – Cold As Weiss
  54. Mark E Nevin – While The Kingdom Crumbles
  55. Paul Draper – Cult Leader Tactics
  56. Liam Gallagher – C’mon You Know
  57. Teddy and the Rough Riders – Teddy and the Rough Riders
  58. Brim – California Gold
  59. The Haven Green – To Whom It May Concern
  60. Steve Cradock – Soundtrack For An Imaginary Film

‘We wanted to get back to some ‘60s stuff – good, danceable grooves’

Back To Business is a new collection of groovy, hipshakin’, organ-heavy instrumentals by duo Bangs & Talbot – pioneering acid jazz DJ, musician and producer, Chris Bangs, and mod keyboard wizard and founding member of The Style Council, Mick Talbot.

The two of them have made their first album together in 20 years and it’s a scorcher – just the kind of soundtrack for a long, hot summer.

Talbot lays down some great Hammond, Wurlitzer and Rhodes piano, while bassist and drummer Bangs ensures the tracks always have a great groove – from the jazz club vibe of Sumthin’ Else to the Latino-soul-meets-West-Coast-Beach-Beat-sound of Surf ‘n’ Turf, and the explosive Kookie T, which, with its blaring brass and high-octane Hammond, sounds like the theme to a car chase scene from a Swinging Sixties action-thriller.

Marvin Gaye’s soul classic, How Sweet It Is, has been reinvented as a cool shuffle – Brand New Heavies’ guitarist Simon Bartholomew provides some tasty licks –  while Stingray pays its respects to gospel and evokes the atmosphere of legendary California club P.J’s. 

It’s Alright takes a trip to Detroit, with fuzz guitars, and the jazzy Leela’s Dance has more than a touch of Dave Brubeck’s Take Five about it.

“A lot of our past stuff was influenced by the ‘70s, but Chris wanted to get back to some ‘60s stuff – good grooves that were danceable,” explains Talbot, speaking to Say It With Garage Flowers.

“That’s the great thing about a lot of this album – it’s either head-nodding or dancey. It’s got a lot of different grooves, but most of them are quite immediate.”

He adds: “I’m not always sure what all the influences are because on a lot of the tracks Chris puts an infectious rhythm together – he likes playing bass and he also plays drums, guitar and keyboards. 

“Sometimes he suggests stuff and asks me to adapt it – I’m not precious. He might do a slide on a keyboard on one of his demos,  I’ll get the gist of what he wants me to do and redo it all, and then he’ll say, ‘I really miss my slide!’ So, I say, ‘Put it back then!’ [laughs]

Bangs & Talbot

‘Chris tries to paint a picture with sound – each track is a vignette of a movie’

“Chris does a lot of different things – he’ll give an arrangement to the horn players of him singing what he thinks they should play, so you get a funny demo with him singing, thinking he’s a saxophone.

“He tries to paint a picture with sound – each track is a vignette of a movie. It creates an atmosphere and conjures up an image, but, Chris is so poetic he wants to tell you what that image is.”

Q&A

Did you make the record during lockdown?

Mick Talbot: Yeah – but there were various times when there was a little bit more freedom. We wanted to try and capture the atmosphere of half a dozen people playing in a room, but that wasn’t possible at the time. Chris and I were only in the same room on two occasions – the rest of it was all done [remotely] with musicians we know.

While we were locked down, I did a few remote sessions, but I always go to my friend Ernie McKone’s studio, in Muswell Hill, where a lot of my vintage gear is, like my old Hammond, Wurlitzer, Clavinet and Rhodes –  he maintains them for me.

All those ancient things need care and attention – they get a bit sick if you take them on the road without souping them up – and he’s got the space for them. The colours on my palette are all there – the five or five principal sounds that I gravitate towards.

Mick Talbot

‘All my ancient gear needs care and attention – it gets a bit sick if you take it on the road without souping it up’

I did a remote session for a fella in New York – having been around for quite a while, it’s amazing to me to think I’ve just done something that’s on an album in New York and I didn’t have to go there…

The shenanigans people used to go through when they were doing an international project in the old days – they were scared of putting analogue tape through X-ray machines because you could wipe it quite easily. You couldn’t leave it in your hand luggage. Now I just do a session and, with a little ‘ping’, it’s gone thousands of miles and it’s on someone’s track.

How did you first get into playing keys? Are you self-taught?

MT: I’m a mixture of things. My nan was a piano player and she played by ear. I was quite enchanted by that and I asked her to try and show me some things, and she did, but she couldn’t really show me much because it was hard for her to explain the instinct – she just did it. It felt a bit mystical to me.

She told me there was a lady round the corner who taught piano, but I had the horrors about that because I wanted it to be like how my nan did it – like magic. She said, ‘If you’re keen, you don’t need to stick at it,’ but I did it for three years and it benefited me more than I thought.

Once I’d got the rudiments, and I got more of a personal taste for music, the fact that my teacher was principally a classical one, I wanted to try and apply that to the playing that was on the records I liked to buy. By the time I was about 12, I started trying to form school bands, so I stopped going to piano lessons and tried to develop what I’d learnt.

When you were growing up, were you listening to soul, jazz and funk? Have you always been into that?

MT: I liked all the English ’60s bands as well, but I guess they were R’n’B or soul-influenced. My mum was quite a fan of Motown, so, when I was really small, that was playing a lot.

My dad was more of a modern jazz fan, which I got to understand more as I grew older. He was good at sussing out records that would bring us together – he got me a Sly & The Family Stone album and said, ‘Some people think this bloke is jazz, some think he’s rock and some think he’s soul – they’re having trouble defining him, but I think he’s good and I think you might like him, but I don’t like all your music…’ We bonded over that.

When you and Paul Weller formed The Style Council, people had trouble labelling you too, didn’t they? You embraced so many influences: soul, pop, funk, rap, jazz, house music, European café culture, classical…

The Style Council

 

MT: We were only drawn to things that we actually liked – it wasn’t a calculated thing. We didn’t come into the studio one day and go, ‘We haven’t done anything that sounds like Kraftwerk yet.’

To me, it all seemed to make sense  – the more you look into music and go a bit deeper… The European influences, for instance – elements of Debussy, Ravel or the Romantic Classicists –  a lot of that music, in turn, influenced people like Duke Ellington, Burt Bacharach and Thom Bell of the Philadelphia sound.

‘The Style Council were only drawn to things that we actually liked – it wasn’t calculated. We didn’t come into the studio one day and go, ‘We haven’t done anything that sounds like Kraftwerk yet’.

Prior to forming The Style Council, you were in mod revival band, The Merton Parkas. When you were growing up and listening to soul, was it then a natural step to becoming a mod? What attracted you to that scene?

MT: When I was really little, I can remember that I liked that look, and then, in London, in the mid-’70s, just prior to the punk thing, there was a real explosion of energy with Dr. Feelgood –  they influenced a lot of the punk bands with their attitude and their look. I liked that on the sleeve of their first album [Down By The Jetty], it almost looked like they were from another time, like the mid-’60s.

Fast forward a couple of years and I saw The Jam just before they got signed to Polydor. I thought, ‘Hold on, this is a band for my generation’ – no pun intended – who were more of my age than Dr. Feelgood and they had some affinity with that ’60s mod thing and they were playing a few soul covers in their set.

I did see a lot of the early punk bands, but I thought their image was artificial on some levels – I knew a lot of weekend punks who dyed their hair green with food colouring and washed it out before they went to their respectable job. I thought it would be nice to be someone you could be all the time, and there’s no doubting that there’s a generation of bands who were so influenced by The Jam.

‘I saw The Jam just before they got signed to Polydor. I thought, ‘Hold on, this is a band for my generation’ – no pun intended’

Of the first five bands that surfaced with New Wave or punk, I felt The Jam were the most honest. A lot of them were trying to say it was Year Zero and that they weren’t influenced by anything, whereas The Jam weren’t shy about saying they were influenced by The Kinks, The Beatles or Wilson Pickett. It wasn’t like they’d just been dropped there by a spaceship in 1976.

‘I knew a lot of weekend punks who dyed their hair green with food colouring and washed it out before they went to their respectable job’

And I guessed you carried that approach through to The Style Council, as on the front cover of your second album, Our Favourite Shop, you had a store featuring memorabilia, books and records from some of your favourite writers and musical artists. You were literally wearing your influences on your sleeve…

MT: The visuals on that record had far-reaching consequences – people were trying to find copies of books that were out of print… I’ve met people who’ve said, ‘I think I’ve got three-quarters of what’s in that shop!’

The nice thing about that sleeve is that 90 percent of what was on it was mine and Paul’s and the rest of it was stuff that we wanted that we got our designer, Simon Halfon, to source. It wasn’t put together by a stylist – it came off our bookshelves or out of our lofts. It felt part of our makeup.

I always love reading about who or what influences the musical artists I’m into – it often sets me off listening to them and discovering new stuff…

MT: It’s the same with me. As a kid, I’d read about The Beatles and thought that maybe I should check out The Everly Brothers or Little Richard – whatever they were talking about. I liked The Rolling Stones as well and they helped me to find out about Howlin’ Wolf and Solomon Burke. It’s a nice process – I guess some bands are more open about that sort of thing.

Are you a record collector? How do you listen to music?

MT: I listen to it on any format because the moment you rely on streaming –  I don’t want to get into the politics of that, but they don’t bloody pay you enough – there’s sometimes a grey area. Things are missing, like you particularly like a B-side of a 7in single, but it’s not on Spotify. Why haven’t they got the one I’m searching for? It’s an anomaly.

‘I’m not a music format snob, but I appreciate there’s something about magnetic, analogue tape and vinyl that is just warm and nice’

Wiggle Wiggle, the B-side of the Bangs & Talbot vinyl single, Sumthin’ Else, is on Spotify… What’s your hi-fi setup at home like? Is it a big system?

MT: No – just normal speakers. My brother-in-law found me an old Dansette – sometimes I like to stack up some singles on that. I don’t do it all the time, but it might be influenced by something, like finding a rare record in a little junk shop, and I think ‘I’ll definitely have to get that red plastic thing out again…’

I’m not a format snob, but I appreciate there’s something about magnetic, analogue tape and vinyl that is just warm and nice.

Mick Talbot in the studio for Monks Road Social

You’ve played with so many acts, including Dexys Midnight Runners, Galliano, Gene, Candi Staton, The Blow Monkeys, The Young Disciples, Monks Road Social, Wilko Johnson, Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend… Any collaborations that stand out?

MT: It’s really hard to pick out one. It’s whatever I’m currently working on.

Different things have enchanted me for different reasons – there are people I’ve not recorded with, but I’ve worked with… I did Jools Holland’s Big Band for a while, when his brother, Chris, who plays Hammond, took a couple of years out. That gave me the opportunity to play with Ronnie Wood, Dr. John, Edwyn Starr – all sorts of people. When you’re working with Jools, you’re never quite sure who you’re going to get. It’s quite spine-tingling when you’re playing with a legend.

It was a real thrill for me to work with Wilko Johnson – it was really mad, because I used to see him at Hammersmith Palais in 1976, and then I ended up working with him. He’s so influential.

Through working with him, I got to work with Roger Daltrey, and out of that I got to play with The Who very briefly. I filled in for a charity event – we did a medley. It was thrilling to be sat behind Pete Townshend while he was swinging around – that was a buzz.

‘I did Jools Holland’s Big Band for a while. That gave me the opportunity to play with Ronnie Wood, Dr. John, Edwyn Starr – all sorts of people’

There was one week in 2018 when the second Wilko Johnson album I’d played on came out, as well albums by Roger Daltrey and Ray Davies that I was on. They were all recorded at different times, but it was like three buses turning up at once.

People say to me, ‘What are you up to? Are you still in the music game?’ ‘Well, this week, I’m up to quite a lot, but next week it will look like nothing’s happening…’

Mick Talbot and Matt Deighton (Monks Road Social)

 

I’m really looking forward to the next Monks Road thing coming out, as it’s been put on hold for a while. We did the third album [Humanism] in Spain, but we ended up doing the new one in London, at RAK Studios, in one week. I love that studio – I’ve been fortunate enough to have been there a few times in the past couple of years and, for me, it’s second only to Abbey Road in terms of an old-school studio that still has every option available.

‘It was a real thrill for me to work with Wilko Johnson – it was mad, because I used to see him at Hammersmith Palais in 1976’

We have a mutual friend, Matt James, who was the drummer in Gene. You’ve played on his debut solo album, Breaking The Fall, which is released next month, haven’t you?

MT: Yeah – that was really nice. He had a few of the old Gene boys [Steve Mason – guitar, Kev Miles – bass) involved. It was great to catch up and play on it.

Matt always had that vocal thing going on – I can remember when I was playing live with Gene, they’d sometimes get Dodgy’s drummer [Mathew Priest] in, so Matt was featured more as a vocalist and a guitarist.

It’s great that it’s always been in him and that he’s got round to doing his own album. There’s one song that’s quite Northern Soul on it and a nice one where I played an accordion sound, with a rural or Cajun influence, or a bit like Ronnie Lane.

So, what’s next for you?

MT: I’m halfway through working on an album with an act called BirdSMITH – they used to be called First Congress. They’re the vehicle for a songwriter called Tom Van Can – he used to be a director of independent films. I first met him about 12 years ago, when I did some stuff for a soundtrack. He’s focused on music now. They had a single out called Kiss It Better – it got played on Radio 2 a bit.

I’ve not seen Candi Staton for a while – she’s coming over for a handful of festivals, so I’m going to play with her – and the next Monks Road Social album should be looming soon.

I’m also working on a second album for what I hope is an ongoing project with Chris Bangs, and there’s a Jam and Style Council exhibition on in Brighton [This Is The Modern World]. They’re showing the Style Council documentary [Long Hot Summers: The Story Of The Style Council] and I’ll be there for a couple of days, doing a Q and A.

Nicky Weller [Paul’s sister] is curating it and she tracked down one of our early video directors who had lots of outtakes – there’s all sorts of things. Her partner, Russell, has been editing stuff – he sent me a film of me playing with The Jam at The Rainbow, in 1979. I had no idea anyone was filming it.

Were you pleased with the documentary? I watched it earlier this year, on Sky Arts, and I thought it was brilliant. 

MT: It was good – it was very hard to try and shove everything into one film, but they did a good job. It really reflected the personalities of a lot of people well.

Paul and I did a combined interview – the people who put the film together were hoping there might be a commercial DVD release, because they said they’re sitting on about half an hour of stuff from us that they couldn’t get in that’s really funny. It shone a light on some things, but it didn’t work in the film. I guess it’s all owned by Sky… it’s not my shout.

How was it talking about that time again? The film was pretty candid…

MT: Having to film it over a couple of days and dredge up seven years of your life was kind of exhausting… it was a bit of a blur.

A lot of it was shot at Paul’s studio – while I was down there, I played on three tracks for his album, On Sunset, which he was just finishing. I thought I played on two, but it turns out I’m on three. There was so much going on.

The Style Council got back together to play one song at the end of the film, It’s A Very Deep Sea. How was that? It’s a lovely performance…,

MT: I was really pleased it came together. I saw Paul play in London a few weeks ago and it’s in his set now – I don’t think he’s played it live for a very long time and it’s nice that’s put a new focus on it.

I had concerns about whether or not we should work up three or four songs, in case it didn’t click, as it had been so long, but Paul went, ‘No – just that one.’ He was very definite about it and he said, ‘If it works – it’s great, and, if it doesn’t, we don’t have to use it.’

I was really hoping it would work, but if hadn’t, it wouldn’t have been the end of the world, as nobody knew about it but us.

People might think we sweated over it for a long time – I listened to the song a lot at home – but, when we did it, we started playing it, Paul thought it was really good, his instinct kicked in, and he said, ‘Let’s take it now.’ We only played it through all the way once. It felt good – a real pure performance.

‘Having to film the Style Council documentary over a couple of days and dredge up seven years of your life was kind of exhausting… it was a bit of a blur’

Do you think the film has opened up the Style Council to a new audience? You were so ahead of your time and more groundbreaking than you’ve been given credit for…

MT: It can’t do any harm. I was at a family party the other Saturday and I was quite surprised at some of my wife’s younger cousins who were aware of us. I think a lot of that is down to the documentary.

Some of the political issues you were writing about back in the day are still relevant now, aren’t they? 

MT: Some of Paul’s more pointed lyrics seem like they were written about today, but they’re from 35 years ago. It’s astonishing how little things change.

 

Back To Business by Bangs & Talbot is released on June 17 on Acid Jazz. It’s available on vinyl, CD, digital download and streaming platforms.  

www.acidjazz.co.uk/

For more information on The Jam and Style Council exhibition, This Is The Modern World, click here.

‘Lockdown is a great opportunity to reboot and sort out your priorities…’

Dr. Robert

If you’re looking for a new album to transport your mind somewhere else during these anxiety-ridden days of lockdown, then may we recommend the soulful, jazzy and folky Humanism, which is the third record in a trilogy by Monks Road Social, a collaborative project overseen by Dr. Robert of The Blow Monkeys. 

Recorded in Spain last summer, it’s a warm and colourful collection of songs, featuring an impressive list of guests, including Matt Deighton (Mother Earth), Mick Talbot (The Style Council), Sulene Fleming (Brand New Heavies) and actor Peter Capaldi. It could be just what the doctor ordered…

Monks Road Social, the loose musical collective headed up by Blow Monkeys frontman Dr. Robert, made two of the most diverse and richly rewarding albums of last year – Down The Willows and Out Of Bounds. 

Recorded over two 10-day sessions in the residential Monnow Valley Studio in Monmouth, Wales, both records made our best of 2019 list and we described them as: ‘two of the most eclectic collections of songs we’ve ever heard – 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.’

When we interviewed Dr. Robert last year, he was working on a third Monks Road Social album, which was recorded in Spain, at the height of the Andalusian summer.

The good news is that it’s now done and dusted, is out this month, and, like its predecessors, it’s a stunning and diverse record. It’s called Humanism and, this time around, the Spanish sunshine has worked its magic, as there’s a distinctly Flamenco feel to some of the songs. In these worrying days of lockdown, it’s a perfect soundtrack to ease your mind and take you to a better place.

Special guests include Sulene Fleming (Brand New Heavies), who belts out the frenetic, jazz-funk of Said Too Much and duets with Dr. Robert on the smooth, orchestral soul of Step By Step, and actor Peter Capaldi, who sings and plays guitar on the anthemic Britrock of first single, If I Could Pray, which he also wrote.

Keyboardist Mick Talbot of The Style Council and Matt Deighton, guitarist and frontman of ‘90s acid-jazz outfit Mother Earth, who’s played with Paul Weller and Oasis, also made the trip to Spain. Deighton sings on the warm, folky and pastoral ballad Apricot Glow and shares vocals with Dr. Robert on the gorgeous, acoustic, string-laden Egyptian Magic – both tracks feature Talbot on organ. Deighton’s daughter, Romy, lends her vocals to two songs – Stolen Road and Running Blind.

Also on the album are drummer Crispin Taylor and bassist Ernie McKone – both of whom played with acid-jazzers Galliano; percussionist and programmer Steve Sidelnyk; flautist and saxophonist Jacko Peake (Push) and Neil Jones of Midlands mod-soul band Stone Foundation.

We spoke to Dr. Robert, who was on lockdown at his home in Andalusia, Spain he lives in the mountains, south of Granada – to get the lowdown on how Humanism was written and recorded, and find out how he’s spending his time in the house…

Dr. Robert (picture courtesy of Richard Clarke).

Q&A

How are you coping with the lockdown and isolation?

Dr. Robert: We are doing fine. It’s pretty isolated up here in the mountains anyway, to be honest. We are more concerned about our kids in London, but, thankfully, they are doing okay.

Spain has been hit very badly, especially in the cities. People are used to interacting socially here in a profound way. To take that away from them has been very tough, but they have responded magnificently and, like in the UK, you just have to marvel at the bravery and selflessness of the health workers. We must never call them ‘low-skilled’ and they must not remain ‘low-paid.’ Our value system is all wrong and we can’t go back there now.

Any advice for staying sane? What have you been up to during lockdown?

DR: It’s a great opportunity to reboot. I’m sure everyone says that, but it really does sort out your priorities. It’s the simple things – the way the light bounces off a whitewashed wall, or the birdsong in the morning. It’s like a veil has been lifted. This has changed us – let’s hope we stay awake…

During the lockdown, you’ve been playing some acoustic tracks online, including covers of Fred Neil, Marc Bolan and Tim Hardin songs. Any plans to do some more performances?

DR: Yes, I’ll do more, but I don’t want to flood a crowded market.

Have you been writing any songs during lockdown?

DR: Yes. I was already working on a new Blow Monkeys album for early next year, to coincide with our 40th anniversary, so it’s afforded me more time to really figure out what it is I want to say – without it turning into a triple concept album! And what do I have to say? “Love is all that remains of us,” to quote a poet from Hull.

Let’s talk about the new Monks Road Social album, Humanism – the third in a trilogy. What were the recording sessions in Spain like? 

DR: The album was recorded over about 10 days in the summer last year – August, to be precise. It was very hot – the wind blew in from Africa.

My friend, the producer Youth, has a studio out here, so we did it there. I produced the record, but with so many friends involved it’s never stressful – people like Crispin Taylor and Mick Talbot don’t really need producing. We communicate with a look these days.

The main task is organisation and preplanning. My wife, Michele, is amazing. She manages The Blow Monkeys too. We had a great engineer called Ivan Moreno, who I ended up mixing the whole album with, plus the label boss, Richard Clarke, [Monks Road Records] has a very good antennae and always pitches in with interesting ideas. I’m just the ringmaster.

‘I’ve been working on a new Blow Monkeys album. The lockdown has afforded me more time to figure out what I want to say – without it turning into a triple concept album!’

How do you think this album compares with the other two? There are fewer folk, country, blues and rock/psychedelic songs on it. It has more of a soul and jazz feel, with some Flamenco influences too…

DR: Well, yes – the fact that it was super-hot and we were here in Granada obviously flowed into the music. Plus we had a few local musicians involved: David Heredia, the amazing gypsy Flamenco guitar player, and Juan Carlos Camacho on trumpet.

Also Ibrahim Diakité from Mali played the kamalengoni. Some of the best stuff was after the session, when we were just jamming. It was an unbelievable vibe.

Did you write new songs specifically for this album?

DR: I did – songs like Egyptian Magic and Step By Step – and there were others that I had from before that I thought would work with different singers, like Sulene Fleming doing Said Too Much. 

We are always on the lookout for people to add to the mix. A friend told me his daughter, Belle McNulty, could sing. I said I’d have a listen, but I wasn’t prepared for what I heard. She blew me away.

She did a fantastic job on On The Wings of the Morning and then she wrote the lyrics to a piece of music I had and we ended up with I Wish You Well, which is one of my favourite things we have ever done with Monks Road.

I just love working with great singers like Belle, Sulene, Romy, who is Matt Deighton’s daughter, Ximena and Angelina. It’s such a joy.

Were there any songs on this record that were left over from the previous sessions for the other Monks Road Social albums?

DR: Well, Step By Step emerged out of an remix of I Ain’t Running Anymore, and we had plenty left over from this session too – enough for another album to be honest.

Mick Talbot and Matt Deighton (picture courtesy of Richard Clarke).

Egyptian Magic is one of my favourite songs on the album. What can you tell me about it?

DR: Matt Deighton and I share a love of Tyrannosaurus Rex – the era when Steve Peregrin Took was still with Bolan, but just before he left. Songs like Once Upon The Seas Of Abyssinia and Blessed Wild Apple Girl – all that stuff.

Egyptian Magic was inspired by a tub of hair product that my wife ordered from duty free on a plane! The lyric is a true story, which is unusual for me. Matt is a great player and does amazing harmonies. It’s pretty effortless between us. We hope to do an album one day.

Another of my favourite songs on the record is On The Wings of the Morning. It has some cool, funky ‘70s flute on it…

DR: Jacko Peake played the flute. He’s amazing and was in Push with Crispin Taylor and Ernie McKone, so there was a natural bond there already. I knew Jacko from my time playing with Paul Weller too, so it’s an old friendship.

I’m happy that On The Wings of the Morning turned out that way. I don’t think anybody in the country could play that groove like Crispin and Ernie. They are the best.

The first single, If I Could Pray, was written by actor Peter Capaldi – he also sings vocals and plays acoustic guitar on it. How did that collaboration come about?

DR: I met Peter a few years ago, as he comes to the valley in the summer, with his family. We started to play acoustic together at a friend’s party and our friendship grew out of that.

He was hanging out at the studio and then one day his wife, Elaine, mentioned he had a song. I was thrilled and we did it really quickly, which is always a good sign. He’s a natural – very unaffected.

What was it like for Dr. Robert to work with Doctor Who? So many doctors in the house…

DR: Although he’s obviously well known as an actor,  Peter actually started out doing music, so there was nothing forced. He’s a delight to work with and very funny too.

Peter Capaldi and Dr. Robert (picture courtesy of Richard Clarke).

The song  Said Too Much is a great funk-soul-jazz track – the trumpet, which is played by Juan Carlos Camacho, is fantastic. Where did that song come from? What was the inspiration for it?

DR: Words that cut too deep – spoken out loud in drunken rages. Those days are behind me now – thank fuck! I love that trumpet too – it’s so Spanish. He gently seduces you.

Is Apricot Glow a Matt Deighton song? It’s gorgeous…

DR: Yes – that’s a lovely Matt Deighton composition. We double tracked his vocal and it really seems to suit the song. It’s a fragile beauty.

Any favourite tracks from the album? You mentioned I Wish You Well earlier…

DR: Well, it changes, but I love Sequiso, featuring Funk From Mali – it’s a proper groove. And, as I said, I Wish You Well is a personal fave. City Lights, too, with Neil Jones from Stone Foundation. I get to play bass on his tunes, which is one of my favourite things to do. That song has a great forward momentum and his girlfriend, Celia Carballo, sings really well on it too. Mick Talbot weaved his usual magic on it.

Mick Talbot (picture courtesy of Richard Clarke).

I managed to record a solo track with Mick when he was just warming up – New Arrivals. He was just sound checking my cheap car boot Casio and came up with this amazing piece. I asked him if it was okay to use it, as he wasn’t aware we had recorded it!

You said you had material left over from the sessions. Is there another Monks Road Social album planned?

DR: Yes.We have enough recorded material for a whole new album. It’s up to Richard how he wants to use it.

You were due to play the first Monks Road Social gig at the Jazz Café, in London, this May. Has it been rescheduled and what can we expect from the live show?

DR: It’s been rescheduled for August 25, but that may be optimistic – let’s see. If we have to delay it again, we will. It’s going to be fun – chaotic and possibly messy, but fun. There’s nothing else like it really.

The Blow Monkeys

There’s a new Blow Monkeys album due, too…

DR: Yes – it will be out early next year and will be crowdfunded, hopefully.

What music – new and old – are you listening to at the moment? What’s your lockdown soundtrack?

DR: I’ve been writing lots, so don’t tend to listen to too much, but that Nick Cave album, Ghosteen, is astonishing, and Paul Weller sent me his latest one, On Sunset, which is very special.

Other than that, just a drop of Fred Neil and a pinch of Van Morrison. Oh and the new Dylan single [Murder Most Foul] – all 17 minutes of it. Marvellous.

What are you most looking forward to doing when things return to normal?

DR: Seeing my family.

 

Humanism by Monks Road Social is released on April 17 (Monks Road Records). 

http://monksroadsocial.com/

https://www.theblowmonkeys.com/

For more information on crowdfunding the new Blow Monkeys album, click here.

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.

 

 

 

‘The gold dust is in the groove…’

Dr. Robert

Is there a doctor in the house? There is, actually – it’s Dr. Robert from pop-soulsters The Blow Monkeys, but, this time around, he’s here to tell us about his latest project, masterminding the loose, musical collective that’s Monks Road Social, who’ve made two of the most diverse and richly rewarding albums of 2019…

Down The Willows and Out Of Bounds, the two albums released this year by the Monks Road Social collective, headed up by Blow Monkeys frontman Dr. Robert, have been on the Say It With Garage Flowers office hi-fi a hell of a lot over the past few weeks.

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 we’ve ever heard – 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; Mancunian crooner 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.

Say It With Garage Flowers got an appointment with Dr. Robert, who lives in Spain, and asked him to tell us the inside story of the Monks Road Social sessions…

Q&A

How did the Monks Road Social project come about? Was it your idea?

Dr. Robert: It’s the brainchild of Richard Clarke, the owner of Monks Road Records. I am but a humble midwife. He asked me if I thought it would work. I said ‘no’, but, then, as usual, I slept on it and changed my mind.

I wasn’t sure what ‘it’ was, but, as we began to assemble the players, something else 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…

Both of the albums are very eclectic – there’s folk, soul, blues-rock, psych, Balearic beats, pop, drum and bass… Was the idea to put everything into a melting pot and see what came out, or did you have a definite plan?

DR: No plan. Just let the music lead you. You can’t go wrong, as long as the intention is right. Music for its own sake – then let the universe decide.

Crispin Taylor [assistant producer and drummer – Galliano] plays a vital role in all this, too. He lays down a phenomenal groove, which is a great place to start, but he’s also more than that. I’m always bouncing ideas to and fro with him – he has great instincts.

Monks Road Social (picture courtesy of Richard Clarke)

You’ve worked with a lot of musicians on the project. How did you choose who to collaborate with?

DR: I had a core of friends in mind that I knew would work – people I knew I could get first takes from and who were prepared to wade in a little deeper than was comfortable: Crispin,  Mick Talbot, Ernie McKone [bass player Galliano] and Jacko Peake [saxophonist].

Steve Sidelnyk used to play with The Blow Monkeys, before going on to bigger things, and then there was the masterful Steve White, who I’ve known and worked with many times over the years, and the fabulous Matt Deighton, who I barely knew, but became great friends with.

They are all friends and brilliant musicians. And then I got to meet and work with so much exciting new talent, which I love the most. It shouldn’t work, but it does, as long as everyone buys into the collective idea and lets the music lead them.

How were the recording sessions for both of the albums?

DR: 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!

Matt Deighton in the studio (picture courtesy of Richard Clarke)

There was lots of laughter. Matt Deighton, in particular, is a hoot, and Mick Talbot is a master of the understatement and a fount of knowledge. My main concern was to keep things flowing – there were so many songs and artists in such a short period.

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…

‘They were pretty intense sessions, but since my only vice these days is coffee, I was up for it!’

There’s a mixture of new versions of old songs, including some written by you, as well as brand new material. How did you choose which songs made the final cut?

DR: Well, if I’m honest, one of the things that initially attracted me was the idea of having different singers try my songs, as well as other people’s.

I would talk through the selection with Richard and in the end it was about instinct. Matt brought some great material to the sessions and then people like Pat Dam Smyth and Angelina have their own distinctive writing styles.

Miles Copeland from [record label] Wonderfulsound got involved too, with his unique perspective and his trusty Omnichord.

Is it strange effectively masterminding new versions of your songs and having them reinvented and reinterpreted? Do you enjoy it?

DR: I love it. I always thought Stone Foundation would be perfect for The Coming Of Grace and it was a thrill to hear a song like This Is Nowhere come to life with the beautiful voice of Samantha Whates. It’s the same with Sycamore Tree – Angelina was born to sing that song!

As for OK! Have It Your Way, Sulene Fleming tore it up! Like some lost Northern Soul classic. She also did an amazing job on Bottomless Pit, which takes a certain sensitivity to sing. She has such a range.

Also, I’ve got to mention Kathryn Williams, who popped in for a couple of days. She’s such a genuine person and a great songwriter. It was lovely to sing with her on I Ain’t Running Anymore.

Mick Talbot in the studio (picture courtesy of Richard Clarke)

Do you have some favourite songs from the project?

DR: I was knocked out by the version of Lost In Rasa we did. Ben Trigg, who does the strings, is a genius and Matt’s lead guitar on that track is magical. Golden Day, too, with Angelina…what a voice.

From the new album [Out of Bounds], it’s If It Was All Down To Me from Hague & White – I love Joel’s voice. Also, Honey Rise by Romy Deighton – a neo-soul classic. Matt’s daughter is an amazing young talent. But, honestly, my favourite changes every day. The diversity on the albums is a strength, not a weakness.

Nev Cottee is someone I’ve written about a lot – he’s a great singer-songwriter and a brilliant vocalist. How was he to work with? Can you tell me more about the two songs he sings lead vocals on: Still Got A Lot To Learn and Nobody Knows Anything? They’re two of my favourites from the sessions…

DR: Nev is a bit of a mystery to me. He ghosted in one day to sing on Still Got A Lot To Learn and did an amazing job, so I wrote Nobody Knows Anything with his baritone voice in mind.

He sang it remotely from some distant island in the Indian Ocean, apparently… at least I like to think so… Again, he did a fantastic job. His voice is a wonder – people will make comparisons, but he’s unique and it’s from his heart.

Angelina is another great singer and songwriter…

DR: She was a real light around the place and she makes fantastic cakes, too! I just love her voice – it’s like an Appalachian blues-country singer, from China, via the Isle of Wight.

We bonded over a love of blues and we could sit and jam on two acoustic guitars all day. In fact, we plan to one day soon and record the results.

The Coming Of Grace is one of my favourite songs of yours? Can you tell me more about it? How was it to tackle it again, with Stone Foundation?

DR: I wrote it back in 1993, when Michele [my wife] and I and our two very young kids left London to live in a remote hamlet in Oxfordshire called Newbottle. It was an appropriate name, as I was drinking too much.

The song was originally called Dylan Thomas In Reverse, as I wanted to play with his ‘rage against the dying of the light’ line.

I was out of my depth, really, but somewhere in my subconscious I knew that the ego-driven destiny would lead me up the garden path. It’s a lesson I’m still trying to learn.

I love So Long Soho, from Down The Willows. It sounds like the best song Ray Davies never wrote…

DR: It was written by the wonderful and very talented Pat Dam Smyth and was a piano demo he had that we all added to.

Crispin did an amazing job playing drums over the original demo. Lyrically, it’s brilliant. You’re right about the Ray Davies influence, but it’s way beyond pastiche – it’s heartfelt and special.

Is there another Monks Road Social album in the offing? Volume Three?

DR: Yes – I’m just mixing it now and it’s a corker. It was recorded here in Spain at my friend Youth’s studio, at the height of the Andalusian summer. I can’t say too much yet, but there are some major surprises on it.

‘Brexit was an emotional response and I get it, although I disagree vehemently with it. The retreat to nationalism is depressing and we have to fight it’

As a producer, who else would you like to work with – and why? 

DR: Tom Waits. I’d just look and learn.

Dr. Robert (picture by Michele Siedner)

So what’s next for you? Have you got another solo record planned, or a new Blow Monkeys album?

DR: A Blow Monkeys album, I think. I’m in the mood and I still love playing live with the band – it’s the best thing about it all.

Earlier this year, you released the Cosmic Mayhem EP, which was made up of songs you’d written and played on a vintage Casiotone keyboard. Will you be firing up the instrument again anytime soon?

DR: I may sneak out a Casiotone part two EP, as I enjoyed it so much. I’m lucky – I can do whatever I like right now.

As someone who lives in Spain, and who’s written political songs, what’s your take on Brexit?

DR: Brexit was an emotional response and I get it, although I disagree vehemently with it. The real problem was years of neglect and austerity – not Europe or immigration. The retreat to nationalism is depressing and we have to fight it.

Finally, what music – new and old – are you currently enjoying?

DR: Sons Of Kemet blow me away. I’m rather keen on Sarah Vaughan, too.

 

The Monks Road Social albums Down The Willows (Wonderfulsound) and Out Of Bounds (Monks Road Records) are out now.

For more information:

https://wonderfulsound.bandcamp.com/album/down-the-willows 

http://monksroadsocial.com/