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.

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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.

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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’

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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

Best Albums of 2015

 

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As we approach the end of the year and overindulge in festive celebrations, hangovers are a daily occurrence.

They also played a major part in the making of Say It With Garage Flowers’ favourite album of 2015 – Minesweeping by O’Connell & Love.

One of the most eclectic and richly rewarding albums of recent times, it’s a collaboration between Larry Love, the lead singer of South London country-blues-gospel-electronica outlaws Alabama 3 and songwriting partner Brendan O’Connell.

As Larry told me when I interviewed him about the making of the record: “What was interesting with Minesweeping was the use of hangovers in the recording process. Brendan was financing the project and, basically, at the end of the night, we’d chuck some drunken ideas down, but the most important stuff was done in the morning after. I knew that unless I did some songs in the morning, Brendan wouldn’t buy me a pint in the afternoon.”

Reviewing it earlier this year, I described it as, ‘a hung-over road trip through the badlands, stopping to pick up some hitchhikers on the way – namely guest vocalists Rumer, Buffy Sainte-Marie, June Miles-Kingston, Tenor Fly and Pete Doherty.’

The record opens with the moody, Cash-like, acoustic death row ballad, Like A Wave Breaks On A Rock, visits Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood territory for the drunken, playful duet Hangover Me (feat. Rumer), travels across Europe for the sublime, blissed-out, Stonesy country-soul of  It Was The Sweetest Thing,hangs out by the riverside for the gorgeous pastoral folk of Shake Off Your Shoes (feat.Rumer) and heads out to the ocean for the Celtic sea shanty-inspired Where Silence Meets The Sea.

Larry Love and Brendan O’Connell

It’s an album that wears its influences on the sleeve of its beer-stained shirt – it’s like rifling through a record collection of classic rock and roll, folk, blues, country and soul.

There are nods to late ‘70s Dylan (The Man Inside The Mask), Motown (Love Is Like A Rolling Stone – feat.Tenor Fly ), Leonard Cohen (Come On, Boy – feat. Junes Miles-Kingston) and The Band (If It’s Not Broken).

I’m really looking forward to seeing O’Connell & Love play this record live in 2016 – according to Larry, there are plans for a UK tour.

In the meantime, I’m going to pour myself a large glass of something dark and strong and lose myself in Minesweeping.

One for the road, anyone?

As albums of the year go, singer-songwriters, alt.country, power-pop and Americana dominate my list.

Richard Hawley turned in a classic with Hollow Meadows, which was less psychedelic than its predecessor, Standing At The Sky’s Edge, and largely rooted in country, folk and the lush, late-night, ‘50s-tinged melancholy ballads that dominated his earlier albums. Although there was still room for some bluesy-garage rock (Which Way) and anthemic, widescreen guitar pop (Heart of Oak).

I was lucky enough to meet Richard after one of his gigs this year and when I told him that I preferred his new album to the one before, he simply said, ‘Well – you can’t please everyone, Sean…’

Other singer-songwriters who released great albums this year included Manchester’s Nev Cottee – Strange News From The Sun sounded like Lee Hazlewood on a spacewalk – and Vinny Peculiar, whose Down The Bright Stream was a witty, funny and moving collection of brilliantly observed pop songs, steeped in childhood nostalgia, teenage memories and wry social commentary.

Nev Cottee

Nev Cottee

John Howard’s new project – John Howard & The Night Mail – was a wonderful record, full of quirky, witty, intelligent, theatrical and nostalgic songs, from Zombies-like psych-pop to slinky retro mod-soul, glam-rock and observational Ray Davies-style tales of people’s everyday lives.

Detroit’s Nick Piunti – a Say It With Garage Flowers favourite – returned in a blaze of glory with Beyond The Static, which was the follow-up to his critically acclaimed power-pop record 13 In My Head, while Dublin-born singer-songwriter Marc Carroll’s latest album, Love Is All or Love Is Not At All, was his most political record yet.

Dead Flowers – who topped Say It With Garage Flowers’ album of the year list back in 2013 with their debut, Midnight At The Wheel Club, didn’t disappoint with their new record – Minor & Grand, which was often louder and much more electrified than their first album.

Manchester band Last Harbour made Caul – a brooding, cinematic masterpiece that recalled Bowie’s Berlin period, the industrial, electronic atmosphere of Joy Division and the gothic splendour of Scott Walker and Nick Cave.

Steelism

Instrumental duo Steelism, with their spy film guitar licks and surf-rock riffs, came up with a record (615 To FAME) that harked back to the glory days of ’60s instrumental rock & roll, but also threw in country, soul and blues – and even a touch of krautrock – to create their own dramatic soundtracks.

UK Americana label Clubhouse Records had a great year in 2015, releasing superb albums by alt.country band Case Hardin (Colours Simple), whose singer-songwriter Pete Gow played a solo show that I promoted back in October, and The Dreaming Spires (Searching For The Supertruth)– Oxford’s prime exponents of ‘60s-style jangle-pop.

I must declare a vested interest in one of my favourite records of 2015 – The Other Half, a collaboration between top UK crime writer Mark Billingham and country duo My Darling Clementine.

Mark discovered My Darling Clementine by first reading about them on my blog, so, I’d like to think that I set the wheels in motion that led them to record their story of love, loss and murder that’s told in words and music and set in a rundown Memphis bar.

Sadly, not everyone who released superb albums in 2015 lived to tell the tale. Gifted, but troubled, singer-songwriter Gavin Clark (Sunhouse, Clayhill) died in February, but he left behind Evangelist – a project that was completed by James Griffith and Pablo Clements, members of UNKLE/Toydrum and the owners of the Toy Room Studios in Brighton.

Loosely based on Gavin’s life, it was a dark, edgy, atmospheric and psychedelic-tinged trip that made for uneasy – yet essential – listening.

And finally, here are some nods to acts who didn’t release studio albums this year, but put out some records that I loved.

I’m not normally a huge fan of live albums, but Johnny Marr’s Adrenalin Baby was brilliant and really captured the feel and atmosphere of his gigs – it’s worth it just to hear his outstanding, europhic version of Electronic’s Getting Away With It.

And talking of live shows, UK folk duo The Rails gave away a seven-track acoustic EP called Australia at their gigs this year.

It served as a good stopgap until their next album and featured a killer, stripped-down cover of Edwyn Collins’ Low Expectations.

Liverpudlian singer-songwriter Steve Roberts followed up his 2013 concept record Cold Wars Part 1 EP with the five-track sequel – What Would You Die For? [Cold Wars Part Two].

The standout track This Is A Cold War was a stately, Beatlesesque piano-led ballad. Lennon and McCarthy?

And while we’re on the subject of spies, being a huge James Bond fan, I really enjoyed A Girl And A Guna 34-track tribute album of 007 songs and soundtracks by artists including Darren Hayman, Robert Rotifer, Ralegh Long and Papernut Cambridge.

Say It With Garage Flowers will return in 2016…

Here’s a list of my favourite albums of 2015 and a Spotify playlist to accompany it:

  1. O’Connell & Love – Minesweeping
  2. Richard Hawley – Hollow Meadows
  3. Vinny Peculiar – Down The Bright Stream
  4. John Howard & The Night Mail – John Howard & The Night Mail
  5. Nev Cottee – Strange News From The Sun
  6. The Dreaming Spires – Searching For The Supertruth
  7. Dead Flowers – Minor & Grand
  8. Evangelist [Gavin Clark & Toydrum] – Evangelist
  9. Duke Garwood – Heavy Love
  10. Mark Billingham & My Darling Clementine – The Other Half
  11. Nick Piunti – Beyond The Static
  12. Case Hardin – Colours Simple
  13. Last Harbour – Caul
  14. Steelism – 615 To FAME
  15. Bob Dylan – Shadows In The Night
  16. Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free
  17. Marc Carroll – Love Is All or Not At All
  18. Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear
  19. Gaz Coombes – Matador
  20. Wilco – Star Wars
  21. The Sopranistas – Cutting Down The Bird Hotel
  22. Dave Gahan & Soulsavers – Angels & Ghosts
  23. New Order – Music Complete
  24. GospelBeacH – Pacific Surf Line
  25. Sarah Cracknell – Red Kite
  26. Kontiki Suite – The Greatest Show On Earth
  27. Ryley Walker – Primrose Green
  28. Hurricane #1 – Find What You Love And Let It Kill You
  29. Jacob Golden – The Invisible Record
  30. Ian Webber – Year of the Horse
  31. Bill Fay – Who Is The Sender?

‘I’m open to alien communication’

Nev Cottee

Manchester singer-songwriter Nev Cottee’s new album, Strange News From The Sun, sounds like Lee Hazlewood on a spacewalk and also recalls the gorgeous country ballads of ‘60s Scott Walker and the Spaghetti Western themes of Ennio Morricone. 

I spoke to him about retro synths, otherworldly vibes and capturing the sound of sweet sadness…

How are you? It’s been a while since we last chatted

Nev Cottee: I’m good. Cold, but good. Just waiting for the Manchester Ice Age to pass and to feel the sun on my face again.

And talking about sun, you’re gearing up for the release of your new album Strange News From The Sun. Have you heard any strange news recently?

NC: It’s all strange, isn’t it? Doublespeak has won the day – truth is portrayed as fiction and vice versa. What’s strange is how people don’t seem to be that bothered.  Sorry, were you after something light-hearted?

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It’s a great album title. Can you explain it?

NC: The title is a reference to JG Ballard and his ability to find wonder in even the most banal circumstances. There’s no need to look anywhere else for inspiration – there’s all you need in your head. Although I am open to alien communication…

On my first album Stations, the lyrics were preoccupied with other things, but with this album they’re more earth bound and more about us lot down here.

You say that, but, musically, the new album does have an otherworldly quality to it. The first track I heard from it – the epic, psychedelic single If I Could Tell You – sounds like Lee Hazlewood on a spacewalk…. Is that a fair description?

NC: I’ll use that one on the poster if that’s ok with you? So the lyrics are more earthbound, but the music is bigger this time around. More cinematic and more synths. I think anytime you use a synth it’s always going to sound like the future isn’t it? Even retro synth sounds – Moogs and the like… That’s why Kraftwerk still sound ‘modern’, no?

I think some of your songs have a Scott Walker feel to them. Annie reminds me of one of Scott’s ’60s country ballads, like Duchess, from Scott  4. Is he a big influence on you?

NC: Without a doubt – and that’s a good reading of that particular track. I wanted to write a song that had that classic Walker vibe – without it being a complete rip off, just a partial one…  If I can get anywhere near those classic Scott albums, I’d be a very happy man indeed.

There’s more of a country feel to this album than its predecessor. What was your intention with this record? What sounds were you after? At times, it has a more expansive sound than the first one, doesn’t it?

NC: I didn’t particularly want a country sound. I think a few of the tracks go that way because of the pedal steel – it’s the opposite of a synth, no? Put a pedal steel on a track and it instantly becomes a country song… The guy playing those wonderful parts by the way is Chris Hillman – not the Chris Hillman [from The Byrds], but a great musician coming out of Manchester. I’ve got him in the band as well, which I’m very happy about. They’re a rare breed – the ones who can actually play as well as he does.

Me and Mason Neely, who produced the album, decided pretty early on that this album was going to have a more expansive sound and have a lot more instrumentation going on. He’s done a great job on the album…

 

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Last year, you went to San Francisco for a while. Did that rub off on the new album? Did you write any songs while you were there?

NC: I wrote some of the lyrics out there, but, if anything, I wanted them to be more English than American – it can all get a bit clichéd if you’re looking to California for inspiration. Before you know it, you’re singing about highways and the like. Maybe it gave me a good contrast – writing about ‘cold English lanes’ [on the song Follow The Sun] while wandering around Big Sur. I love it out there, so maybe the freeway album is one for the future…

Musically it’s kind of inevitable that it seeps into the record, because I love all those classic west coast bands – The Byrds, Neil Young, Love etc.

Can you talk me through the recording & writing process for the new album?

NC: I had about five songs ready by the time Stations was released [in 2013], so I knuckled down to get five more finished. Just me at home with my acoustic guitar. Then last July I went to Cardiff where Mason has a small recording space. We got the main structures down to tape with Carwyn Ellis popping in to do some keyboard parts here and there. Then we had a period where Mason sat with the songs for a while and we started a back and forth process of adding and fine-tuning what we had.  It’s a collaborative way of working that I like – you just have to be open about something and not rush to a judgement. Sometimes it can take a while, but it’s worth it.

Who did you work with on this record – musicians, engineers,  producer?

NC: So, Mason is all of those things… As I’ve said Carwyn Ellis on keyboards, Chris on the pedal steel, plus Rod Smith, who is my right hand man in the band, on guitars and backing vocals.

Follow The Sun is my favourite track on the record – a gorgeous country-pop song that reminds me of Lee Hazlewood, The Velvet Underground and Glen Campbell. I love the twangy guitar solo, the gospel-tinged backing vocals and the pedal steel. Can you tell me more about this song?

NC: I guess it is the most traditional, straightforward song on the album – just a simple chord sequence – and I definitely had the likes of Glen Campbell in mind. Rod really brings a lot with his backing vocals. He’s way up there, which is the perfect counterpoint to my low tones…

Lyrically it’s got quite an uplifting sentiment. The girl is going but I’m just saying ok, good luck, go follow the sun. There are loads of Neil Young songs I like which have the same sentiment. Have you seen the film  Inherent Vice? There are lots of Neil Young on the soundtrack and I read that the director Paul Thomas Anderson was trying to make a film that felt like a Neil Young song – so it had that sweet sadness to it. That’s the vibe on Follow The Sun – sweet sadness.

Opening track When I Was Young is very dramatic and cinematic, with a nod to film soundtrack composer Ennio Morricone. What was the inspiration for this song?

NC: Rod wrote this song and we used to play it with his band – completely differently. I had an idea to make it more cinematic, dramatic and, yes, Morricone it up. Morricone conducted at the O2 recently and I missed it. You can’t go wrong taking inspiration from all those wonderful compositions. I’m just trying to convince Rod to really go for it live with those shrieking vocals Morricone had on his records…

What are your plans for the rest of the year?

NC: We’re going to do an album launch – one in Manchester and one in London. Then there’s a few festivals later in the year. All to be confirmed…

What music – new and old – are you digging at the moment?

NC: Ryley Walker’s Tim Buckley vibe is good. I also like Hiss Golden Messenger’s new album. I saw him live and it was even better – JJ Cale southern rock and roll.  To be honest, though, I’ve been going through Tom Waits’ career, album by album – about a week on each one. It’s just unbelievable how good he is and how he always keeps moving forward.

Have you started thinking about your next record already? Any ideas?

NC: I’m stuck into it already. As soon as the last one is recorded, you have to move on and start writing again. I’ve actually got two on the go. One is acoustic, looking towards John Martyn, Nick Drake and Bert Jansch, just with a guitar and double bass, and the other is more electronic with long repetitive loops. Maybe the two will come together. It’s early days…

Nev Cottee’s new album, Strange News From The Sun, is out on June 1, on Wonderfulsound. 

http://wonderfulsound.bandcamp.com/album/strange-news-from-the-sun

http://www.nevcottee.com/

INTERVIEW – Nev Cottee: “My album took five years to write and a week to record”

 

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Manchester singer/songwriter and guitarist Nev Cottee has made one of the best debut albums of 2013. Describing his sound as ‘Lee Hazlewood fronting Spiritualized’, his atmospheric, late night laments are steeped in Northern melancholy and laced with psychedelic effects and gorgeous string arrangements. 

I spoke to him about writing and recording the record, hanging out with Noel Gallagher at The Hacienda, supporting Neil Young, stealing a bottle of rum from Richard Hawley’s dressing room and why he’s a brown sauce man…

Congratulations on your great debut album Stations and the single, Oslo, which is one of my favourite songs of this year. Can you tell me about the inspiration behind Oslo?

Nev Cottee: Thanks for the kind words, Sean. Oslo was written about five years ago. I’d been out there in 2006 to visit a Norwegian girl I’d met while I was travelling in India. It was a disaster.

When we’d been in India, being on the beach and swimming in the sea every day, everything was easy, but reality hit when I landed in Oslo in January and it was  -17 degrees! We quickly discovered that we had little in common and so it was quite a sad time. I was just wandering around on my own for three days. I guess that’s the basis of it – being really down, melancholy and thinking ‘what am I doing here?’, yet, at the same time, being confronted with this weird, magical place, full of bizarre buildings and a frozen sea. Lyrically, I was trying to write something that was a bit more abstract and non-linear. I was trying to get away from the standard love song thing.

I’d love to go to Oslo – it’s on my list….

NC: You should definitely go, although it’s £9 for a beer. Everyone goes to the shop for some bottles, then sits at home and has these little gatherings. It’s cool, actually. Everyone I met was extremely friendly and helpful – even that girl. Cool people, beautiful place.

Your deep, rich singing voice reminds me of Lee Hazlewood and Leonard Cohen. Are they big influences on you? I can imagine Lee singing Oslo…

NC:  That’s a big compliment. Who doesn’t like Laughing Len? I saw him in Manchester a few weeks ago and it was one of the best gigs I’ve ever seen. What a lyricist, what a songwriter and what a performer!

I couldn’t believe it – the guy’s almost 80 and he’s down on his knees giving it his all. He’s not belting it out, but he’s putting it all in there. There were about 20,000 people there and he was almost whispering. He is the man and he has an amazing voice, which is so low these days, you almost can’t hear it. It’s not as easy at it seems – the low singing thing – and Cohen and Hazlewood are two of the best.

I’m a huge fan of Lee Hazlewood and I’m looking forward to hearing the new deluxe box set that’s coming out later this year. What do you love about him?

NC: Hazlewood was just a freak and I mean that in the kindest way – his look, the moustache, and his whole vibe. It shouldn’t work, but it does. Something like Nancy & Me – it’s just really honest and poetic and all beautifully put together with the strings and the guitars. The guy was a musical genius and he passed it off with an air of panache. It’s all there in the voice. Listen to Some Velvet Morning – it’s totally unique.

Tell me about your album Stations? How was it written and recorded?

NC: It took five years to write and a week to record. I’m a slow writer. I’m working on it. The next one won’t be so long. It was recorded inside The Magic Lantern, which is a small space in [musician] Carwyn Ellis’s home in Cardiff. I think that comes across in the sound – the intimacy of it. Mason Neely [who produced the album] and Carwyn are very talented musicians – they can play pretty much anything and they both know when not to play too much. After I’d sent them my demos, they came up to Manchester and the first thing they said was ‘Why are you singing so high?’ I’d never even thought about it too much – I just sang as I thought I should. They said ‘just sing like you’re talking’ and that was really a breakthrough moment, because I found my voice, which is quite low.

I saw Carwyn the other day and I said to him: ‘thanks for introducing me to myself…’ I’m basically a vocalist, guitar player, and sometime bassist – Mason can put together a string arrangement to melt your heart, or pick out an instrument that defines the mood of a song. I owe those two a lot. They gave me my sound.

It’s a very atmospheric record – often melancholy in tone…

NC: You just have to follow your instinct and use everything you’ve soaked up. As the record was developing, I said to Mason, ‘this is pretty sad stuff,’ and he said, ‘Yeah – great!’

I’m not 21 anymore. Those days are over for me, you know. I’m not into fake rebellion anymore –  ‘I don’t need an attitude/Rebellion’s a platitude.’ I was just trying to make an honest record with no tricks. I wanted to make an album that might stand up with some of the people we’ve spoken about [Lee Hazlewood and Leonard Cohen].

The album has been described as sounding like ‘Lee Hazlewood fronting Spiritualized’, which is a brilliant comparison. It also reminds me of Richard Hawley at times…

NC: Hazlewood fronting Spiritualized? Now, that would be worth hearing. That’s just an in to get people’s attention. Hawley’s ace. I’ve met him a few times and he’s hilarious – a proper comedian. I was in his dressing room and he caught me nicking a bottle of rum. He was just laughing, saying: ‘Go for it’. He’d just sold out Shepherd’s Bush Empire and was driving home to Sheffield to take his kids to school in the morning. He’s a true gent. Everything he’s ever released is brilliant. The other time I met him he gave me a bottle of limited edition Richard Hawley Henderson’s Relish. Apparently it’s been made in Sheffield for over 100 years. It tasted awful. I’m a brown sauce man myself…

What other music are you into?

NC: Tom Waits, Scott Walker, Cohen and then people like Tony Joe White and Link Wray – old school, hard living dudes. That’s for vocals and songwriting. Musically, I love Jason Pierce and anything he’s ever done – i.e Spacemen 3 and Spiritualized. I also like The Byrds, The Flaming Lips, John Barry, Bill Callahan… plus all the big guns…

Close Your Eyes is one of the album highlights for me. Can you tell me more about that song? I think it’s beautiful. It has a ‘60s Scott Walker vibe, with gorgeous strings and rain sound effects.

NC: Yeah – I can see the Walker influence. It’s just a simple riff that builds and builds. Mason did a great job arranging it, with the bells at the end and the Mellotron choir. Wonderful stuff. It’s this idea of sweet melancholy. I’ve got a love/hate thing with Manchester and it’s just saying… the rain – it’s just a state of mind, don’t let it get to you.

Hot Air and Devils have a folk feel to them….

NC: Hot Air started off as a John Martyn guitar echo thing that just developed as we went along. Devils is a tune that we used to do with my old band, which we completely reworked.

Some of the songs, like I Want You and Nothing Is Certain, are quite psychedelic….

NC: That’s the Spacemen 3 thing. I got really into the repetitive psyche/trance/call it what you want thing a few years ago. I saw a band called Black Mountain at The Green Man Festival in Wales and it was like a door opening. I was in the zone – completely sober and straight, of course… Then there was my mate Nolan who played with Spectrum (Pete Kember from Spacemen 3) for a few years. I used to go to see them and I really got into his whole aesthetic. He’s a genius. Then I started listening to Suicide, 808 State and loads of other stuff… It all goes back to Kraftwerk, of course. I think my brother must have played Trans-Europe Express for about two years continually, when I was growing up.

You were in Proud Mary, weren’t you? What was that like? They were a Noel Gallagher-endorsed, country rock band as I recall…

NC: Yeah – a country rock band from Oldham! Get on it! Everyone was going to crappy nightclubs and listening to bad dance music, but we were at home listening to The Band, Gram Parsons and Creedence. We used to go to the Hacienda and be stood with Noel in the bar, having a beer and talking about T-Rex and Crosby, Stills and Nash, while everyone else was gurning and dancing very badly to something or other. We were very set in our ways. We did ok, but we should have gone to America. We supported Neil Young and he came over, shook our hands and said he’d been listening to the album. That was enough for me! We went out with Crazy Horse after the gig and they were these gnarly old dudes in baseball caps saying: ‘You gotta keep the flame burning, man. We’re getting old…’ and we were like, ‘Yeah, we can do that…’ Noel was very supportive – another true gent – and it was great gigging all over the place, thinking we were in The Faces. We were a good band and Greg Griffin [from Proud Mary] was – and still is – an amazing front man. He’s a natural.

After playing in bands for so long, why have you decided to go solo?

NC: I’ve been in various bands over the years – Proud Mary, The Second Floor – that’s Nolan’s band, who I mentioned before – and Folks, whose guitarist and songwriter Michael Beasley directed the video for Oslo. He’s a good friend and a very talented songwriter. Their debut album I See Cathedrals is a classic. I only work with the best…

I did a solo record because it was time. The band thing is over for me. I’m on my own now and I’m just getting going. I’m in it for the long haul…

So, what’s next? Can we expect a tour and some live dates?

NC: Not a tour, but some choice dates for the album launch. I’ve got a couple of excellent musicians backing me up and I’ll hopefully be playing some festivals next year. Watch this space.

 What would you like to achieve with this record and in the future? Have you got big ambitions?

NC: Like I said before  – I just want to make some music that’s true, which has something to say and that sounds amazing. I’m under no illusions about the state of the music industry. So long as people like you are digging it and spreading the word, then let’s see where it goes…

Nev Cottee’s debut album Stations is released on October 28.

http://www.nevcottee.com

http://nevcottee.bandcamp.com/album/stations