‘We love Morricone and melancholy’

My Sweet Movida, the new album from Staffordshire four-piece Alfa 9, is one of my favourite records of the year so far – I love its retro rock, cosmic-psych-country road trips, Spaghetti Western soundtracks and ’60s-inspired jangle-pop. 

Produced, written and arranged by the band, it was recorded at Tremolo Studios, in Newcastle-under-Lyme, and The Room, Stoke-on-Trent. I spoke to guitarist Leon Jones to find out why it’s taken five years to come out.

While we were chatting, the subjects of love, sex, betrayal, coincidence and chance also came up in conversation, which was nice…

Q & A

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Alfa 9

Hi Leon. Alfa 9 have been on my interview hit list for a while and now we’ve finally found the time to sit down and have a chat… How do you feel about it?

Leon Jones: I feel that you’re a perceptive man, Sean, and one of more than good taste. I know you’re a Byrds, Bond and Morricone fan. Do we need to get deeper?

Ha! Let’s see how things go… Do you feel that Alfa 9 are part of a UK scene? There are quite a few current bands doing the rounds whose influences include The Beatles, The Byrds, Big Star, ’60s psych and soundtracks, aren’t there? I’m thinking of  The Hanging Stars, Dreaming Spires, El Goodo, The Raving Beauties, Kontiki Suite, The Carousels... to name but a few.

LJ: It’s flattering to be talked about in the same circles as those bands. It’s got to be encouraging hearing others who are aiming at something similar and making it sound relevant. It does feel like there’s a momentum building. Our album’s out, The Hanging Stars and El Goodo have new records out… I really like The Carousels as well…We’re playing with The Hanging Stars in Leicester on June 30 [at The Firebug].

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Your new album, My Sweet Movida, is one of my favourite records of the year so far. How does it feel to have it out there? Are you pleased with it?

LJ: It’s been a long process to write, record and do everything to release the album, but that’s kind of how we work…we like to let songs meld and develop, so it takes time. Maybe for our next record we’ll do the whole thing in one take…

It’s your third album – the follow-up to 2013’s Gone To Ground. Why has it taken five years to come out? 

LJ: We were doing a lot of gigs following the release of Gone To Ground and then there were babies and cats and stuff like that happening…We’ve got 15 songs written already for the next album, so we’re aiming to be a bit quicker next time

How did you approach this album? 

LJ: Well, I think we felt really comfortable with things – we’ve found a great mix in the band and really play off each other, plus we had moved on as songwriters, so it was exciting. After we got a couple of songs going, the album started to get a character of its own. We weren’t afraid of allowing our influences to come through, but we were also confident that it still sounds like us.

We’ve got 15 songs written already for the next album, so we’re aiming to be a bit quicker next time’

You wrote, produced and arranged the album yourselves. How was the experience of making this record? Was it an enjoyable one?

LJ: Yes – we love being in control of the process and we’ve always had our own recording set up, starting with a four-track Portastudio. Technology gives us a lot of flexibility that 20 years years ago would not have been possible.

We’re lucky that there’s a studio about a mile from my house with a great old 16-track tape machine. We’ve recorded there on and off for years, so it’s a very comfortable environment for us. We did the basic tracks there, then recorded guitars and other stuff at our place – The Room – then went back there and did vocals.

What can you tell me about the first single, Smile Dog? It’s very psychedelic… 

LJ: That was kind of the start of the new album – a jam that took on a life of its own. Those kind of songs are the purest expressions of the band – they just happen.

What influences shaped the songwriting and the sound of the new album?

LJ: It’s pretty clear who we like – The Byrds, The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Paisley Underground, Neil Young, Ennio Morricone, Nuggets, Pink Floyd, Stone Roses, Creation Records – that hasn’t really changed since we’ve been together. That stuff’s the bedrock. I think with this album, we felt confident with the songs and getting them to sound how we wanted them to.

The second single, Movida, continues Alfa 9’s penchant for Ennio Morricone-esque soundtracks, doesn’t it? It has a Spaghetti Western feel…

LJ: Yes – definitely. We love Morricone and that kind of melancholy there is in a lot of his work. I’m fascinated by the Mojave desert in California and the Joshua Tree, particularly. For someone from the Midlands, it’s a very strange environment

The song Darkest Sea has a country feel. How did that track come about?

LJ: I wrote an opening theme for an imaginary western soundtrack-type thing that we wrote ages ago and then we eventually added words. We tried a few different arrangements. I think we were listening to a lot of the Handsome Family at the time we recorded it.

I love the song Different Corner – it’s gorgeous jangle-pop and very Byrdsy. What can you tell me about that song?

LJ: It’s about love, sex, betrayal, coincidence and chance…the dark end of the street.

‘I’m fascinated by the Mojave desert in California and the Joshua Tree. For someone from the Midlands, it’s a very strange environment’

Fly – the final track on the album – is an epic closer. Were you aiming for a ’70s Pink Floyd-style, psych anthem? It certainly sounds like it… 

LJ: That was another song that wrote itself – we were aiming for nothing, but it just kind of appeared in the room. We’re massive Floyd fans, but I think there’s also a Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young thing happening on it as well.

You have a few gigs coming up this year. What can we expect?

LJ: It sounds like a cliché, because it is, but I think we sound better now than we ever have done. We’ve got a lot of songs worked up – we could do about four hours!

What’s on the Alfa 9 hi-fi at the moment? Any musical recommendations – new and old?

LJ: Michael Head and the Red Elastic Band, The Hanging Stars, Gene Clark, El Goodo, Cowboy, Rain Parade, The Gosdin Brothers, The Easybeats, Spindrift, New Riders of The Purple Sage…

Finally, will we have to wait another five years for your next album?

LJ: Nope – life’s starting to feel very short…

My Sweet Movida by Alpha 9 is out now on Blow Up. It’s available on heavyweight vinyl, CD and download.

The band play The Troubadour in London, 263-267 Old Brompton Road, SW5 9JA on April 7, supported by Usselman.

 

 

It’s a jangle out there…

The Hanging Stars

The Hanging Stars

What better way to banish the post-Christmas winter blues than by blasting out some sublime jangle-pop… and there’s plenty of it about.

Three of my favourite new albums of 2018 so far ring like the Bells of Rhymney and owe a large debt to the chiming, 12-string Rickenbacker sound of The Byrds.

Coincidentally, as I’m sitting down to write this article, it happens to be ‘Blue Monday’ – (January 15), supposedly the most depressing day of the year, so it’s a perfect time to lose myself in some gorgeous, shimmering sounds.

Songs For Somewhere Else, the brilliant second album by London psych-folk-country band – and Say It With Garage Flowers favourites –  The Hanging Stars – opens with the beautiful On A Sweet Summer’s Day, which creeps up on you like the first rays of the morning sun – a hazy, lazy ballad with pedal steel guitar and a hypnotic, Spiritualized-like groove.

The album’s first single, Honeywater, has a Big Star feel, the galloping Gram Parsons country-rock of For You (My Blue Eyed Son) could easily sit on The Byrds’ cult classic Sweetheart of the Rodeo, while Mean Old Man doffs its cowboy hat to Ennio Morricone’s Spaghetti Western soundtracks.

Look out for an interview with The Hanging Stars – and a more in-depth piece about the album – on Say It With Garage Flowers soon.

Staffordshire four-piece Alfa 9 could be cosmic cousins of The Hanging Stars – they both share a love of psychedelic sounds and if you compared their record collections, I’m sure you’d find they both own plenty of albums by The Byrds and The Beatles, as well as cool, cult ‘60s film scores.

My Sweet Movida, the third album by Alfa 9, immediately takes the listener on a trip back to 1966 with the first song Smile Dog – think Revolver-era Fab Four, but with a harder, rockier edge.

Different Corner is a killer jangle-pop song and the moody Movida is The Byrds doing a Spaghetti Western theme – McGuinn meets Morricone. You certainly get your fistful of dollars’ worth with this album – there are yet more cinematic cowboy sounds on Darkest Sea, which is haunting gothic country.

The Byrds are also circling over the superb self-titled debut record by Bennett Wilson Poole – a supergroup formed by Robin Bennett (The Dreaming Spires), Danny Wilson (Grand Drive, Danny and The Champions of the World) and Tony Poole (Starry Eyed and Laughing, who have been called ‘the English Byrds’).

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Bennett Wilson Poole

Created in rural Oxfordshire, it was produced by 12-string Rickenbacker maestro Poole. High on harmonies and brimming with backwards guitar effects and soulful songs, it’s a shining light in these dark times that we’re living in, but it doesn’t shy away from tackling social issues – the blistering, anthemic protest rock of Hate Won’t Win addresses the murder of politician Jo Cox and brings to mind Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s Ohio, while the beautiful, sensitive, stripped-down ballad Hide Behind A Smile deals with depression.

High on harmonies and brimming with backwards guitar effects and soulful songs, it’s a shining light in these dark times, but it doesn’t shy away from tackling social issues – the blistering, anthemic protest rock of Hate Won’t Win addresses the murder of politician Jo Cox’

Things lighten up with the irresistible, bouncy sunshine pop of Wilson General Store, but the record ends with a brooding, dark and stormy, ragged Neil Young-style epic guitar workout called Lifeboat (Take A Picture of Yourself) – its lyric even name-checks Young’s 1974 album On The Beach.

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It would be wrong to write an article on jangle-pop without mentioning UK label Sugarbush Records, which continues to put out great, vinyl-only releases by bands whose ‘60s and ‘70s musical influences tend to be found in the ‘B’ section of a record shop – namely The Byrds, Big Star, The Beatles and The Beachboys.

Carlisle group Kontiki Suite fall firmly into that category – their 2015 album, The Greatest Show On Earth, which is the follow-up to their 2013 debut, On Sunset Lake, has been re-released on limited edition vinyl by Sugarbush, and is an essential listen if you dig psychedelic jangle-pop.

Harking back to the 1968 masterpiece The Notorious Byrd Brothers, there are gleaming guitar lines (Bring Our Empire Down), cool, country-rock cuts (the harmonica and pedal steel-flavoured My Own Little World and Pages of My Mind) and cosmic voyages (Burned), but also a hint of late ‘80s indie with the sweet, blissed-out Here For You Now, which sounds like it’s been hanging out in The Stone Roses’ Mersey Paradise.

Set the Rickenbackers for the heart of the sun and welcome to the jangle…

Songs For Somewhere Else by The Hanging Stars is out on February 16, on Crimson Crow: http://thehangingstars.com/

My Sweet Movida by Alfa 9 will be available from March 9. It’s on Blow Up Records: http://www.blowup.co.uk/records

Bennett Wilson Poole is released on April 6 on Aurora Records: More info at https://www.pledgemusic.com/projects/bennett-wilson-poole

The Greatest Show On Earth by Kontiki Suite is available now on limited edition vinyl [only 300 copies]: Sugarbush Records: http://www.sugarbushrecords.com/2017/06/kontiki-suite-greatest-show-on-earth.html

https://kontikisuite.bandcamp.com/

 

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