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

‘Our default setting is fairly optimistic, but I think these lyrics are the darkest I’ve ever written’

The Hanging Stars

The last time I spoke to London’s kings of cosmic country, The Hanging Stars, it was late January 2020 – ahead of the release of their third album, A New Kind Of Sky, which was their best to date – a mix of cinematic sounds, psych, jangle-pop, folk and country rock.

We spent the evening in a pub in London’s East End, chatting about the record. While I was getting a round in, a man standing at the bar, who told me he worked for the NHS, said he and his colleagues were very worried about a new virus that had originated from China…

It’s now over two years later, in early February, and I’m back in a London pub, this time on the edge of the West End, in Denmark Street – Tin Pan Alley and guitar-shopping destination –  with The Hanging Stars… well, one of them, frontman, Richard Olson.

We have a brand new album to discuss, the brilliant Hollow Heart, and it’s the first interview he’s given about the record.

Hollow Heart is even better than its predecessor and sees The Hanging Stars pushing themselves harder from both a songwriting and sonic perspective. It’s also the band’s first record on independent label, Loose.

There’s a lot that’s happened since we last met. We could be here a while…

Q&A

The last time we spoke was two years ago, just before Covid happened…

Richard Olson: And here we are again, when the clouds have passed.

In the wake of Brexit, several of the lyrics on your last album, A New Kind Of Sky, dealt with the idea of escaping and getting away to a better place. To make your new record, Hollow Heart, you did escape, decamping to Edwyn Collins’ Clashnarrow Studios in Helmsdale, in The Highlands of Scotland – it overlooks the North Sea – with producer and musician Sean Read (Soulsavers, Dexys Midnight Runners), whom you’ve worked with before. How did that come about?

RO: We’re not blessed financially – we do what we can when we can. Every record has been based on that. At the end of the day, we’re a grassroots band.

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. 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.

“Edwyn Collins offered us the use of his studio – it felt like being anointed”

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.

It certainly shows – sonically, it’s rich and immersive, and I think it’s your most cohesive record. Hollow Heart feels like a complete album, from start to finish, and you can completely lose yourself in it. Did you have all the songs written before you went into the studio?

RO: I write constantly. With lockdown, I had more time than I ever had before and I also had the energy – I just wanted to do shit. That was a blessing – we sent demos to each other.

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 record.

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. This is a cliché but we threw the rulebook out of the window – we had to. We had so much fun doing it – we just let go a little bit and we had to trust who we were as a band.

“This is probably the most traditional record we’ve ever done”

Hollow Heart feels like a more positive record than its predecessor, but there’s also a sadness to several of the songs…

RO: It was surreal – no one knew what was going to happen – and there was a lot of sadness. Our default setting is fairly optimistic, but I think the lyrics are the darkest I’ve ever written.

Halfway through recording, in early autumn, I got a phone call from my wife – I was standing on a balcony, looking out towards Scandinavia – and she told me her dad, David, was in a coma, after having a heart attack. I said I would pack a bag and take the first flight home tomorrow, but she said: ‘There’s nothing you can do…’

David has really been behind our music – he’s a huge music fan and we went to Nashville together. My wife said: ‘Do you think he would want you to come back? Stay there and make the best fucking record you possibly can!’

That must’ve been hard for you…

It was really hard and pretty emotional, but from then on, we just set to work – under quite a lot of distress.

How is your father-in-law now?

RO: He’s fine.

Has he heard the record?

RO: No, he hasn’t…

If Covid hadn’t happened, would you have made a completely different record?

RO: That’s a great question. Do you know what? I’m going to give you a boring answer – it would probably have been a similar record, but I don’t think it would’ve been as close to my heart as this record is.

Your hollow heart…

RO: [laughs]. There you go.

This is your first record for Loose. Did you sign to them after you’d made this record, or before?

RO: After. We came in well-prepared with a lovely little gift for them with a knot on top.

Did you consider any other labels?

RO: Tom [Bridgewater – owner of Loose] said, ‘Let’s stop dancing around our handbags…’ He’s the real deal and he’s been through it – he sees our grassroots.

Let’s talk about some of the songs on the new record. The first track, Ava, is a slow- building love song, but then it turns anthemic. It creeps up on you and we’re suddenly in big cosmic country territory…

RO: It’s all about the sonics – it’s nice to listen to. Your children would like it. It was one of those songs that just came… it needed to have a wistful, wanting, rejected feeling.

Some of the album reminds me of your old band The See See, around the time of the Fountayne Mountain album, which I once said was the record The Stone Roses should’ve followed up their debut with…

RO: One hundred per cent. We let our influences be our influences – we let our country love be our country love, we let our folk love be our folk love… We took our foot off the gas a bit, which we needed to do. That’s quite key to this record.

Ballad Of Whatever May Be sounds like The Stone Roses, if they’d gone country…

RO: I’ll take that, man. It came out different to how it was written –  it changed in the studio, for the better. It has a good riff. It’s just one of those ‘live your life like this’ sort of songs. I’m not standing with a megaphone, screaming, but, holy fuck, I am so angry!

Black Light Night has some great jangly guitars on it. Didn’t Patrick (Ralla – guitar / keys) write the music for it?

RO: Yeah – it’s an old song that’s been kicking around for ages.

I think it has a vintage R.E.M feel…

RO: Yeah.

Weep & Whisper is more melancholy and musically it’s a shuffle – you’ve described it as ‘a love song to youth.’ I like the harmonies and the backing vocals. It has a Simon & Garfunkel feel…

RO: I like that. Paulie [Cobra drummer], harmony-wise, had a newfound confidence and he stepped up to do it, beautifully. It was arranged by Joe [Harvey-Whyte – pedal steel] – it’s a stroke of genius.

Patrick and Joe did their guitars for it in one take – it wasn’t edited. Me and Sean were sat looking at them doing it and we were like, ‘Shit – this is what it’s all about.’ That was one of the finest moments in my musical career.

“Radio On is Big-Star-meets-The-Velvets. What the fuck can go wrong?”

The first single from the album was Radio On, and it’s radio-friendly…

RO: Not as much as I would like! It’s me trying to write a soul song and I think it has a bit of a Velvet Underground thing. It’s Big-Star-meets-The-Velvets. What the fuck can go wrong?

Hollow Eyes, Hollow Heart is one of the heavier, more psych songs on the album…

RO: It’s us trying to be Fairport Convention, but it started out as me trying to write a krautrock song my demo had a drum machine on it. I was quite pleased with it – it was chugging along like a kraut-yacht-rock band, but Patrick had a different idea.

It’s a dark song…

RO: Yeah, but it’s also one of the most truthful ones. It’s about hiding things, whether that’s with alcohol or downers, or weed, or whatever. I think everyone in our scene is a little bit guilty of that. Maybe I’m being presumptuous, but even before the pandemic, more people were struggling and in the abyss more than we’d like to acknowledge. I’m not the only one, but I did get a little glimpse of that shit, and, do you know what? I do not want to go there again and I’d do anything to avoid it.

“I’m really pleased with how I sing on this record. I think I’m finally entering Swedish Sam Cooke territory”

You’re So Free is ’60s West Coast psych-pop: Love, The Doors, The Beach Boys, The Turtles…

RO: I always wanted to do You Showed Me – I guess that’s our version. It also has some piano on it that’s like Ethiopian jazz. Lyrically, it’s probably the song that I’m most pleased with. Because of the whole division thing, with Brexit and Trump, a lot of my good friends, who I love dearly, took a different route during the pandemic. It’s a little bit about that and it’s me trying to be funny: “Scroll your feed. You’re so free to believe in what you see…”

Your vocals sound really good on this album…

RO: I’m really pleased with how I sing on this record. I think I’m finally entering Swedish Sam Cooke territory.

Edywn guests on Rainbows In Windows – he does a spoken word part…

RO: That’s Sam’s [Ferman – bass] song he wrote it.

It’s quite filmic…

RO: I’m really pleased with how it came out. I felt we could do it a Jackson C. Frank kind of way, but then, on the way up to the studio, I thought we could do it like The Gift by The Velvet Underground,  but it didn’t quite work out that way, but then Sean was mixing it in London and he came up with the other bit, and Edwyn was up for it. It’s playful.

“I am the natural heir to Jason Pierce, but I’m a country version”

I Don’t Want To Feel So Bad Anymore is ’60s-garage-meets-The-Byrds…

RO: We went all-out 12-string on it. It’s a bit Flying Burritos as well. It’s a song about being completely helpless in front of the Tory government someone who’s dead talking about what they really would’ve liked to have said: “Now I’m gone, I can tell you my thoughts on the queen and crown. Do take heed of your greed, as you choke on an appleseed.” 

The last song on the album, Red Autumn Leaf, is a sad one it’s about being discarded and tossed on the heap…

RO: Pretty much. It’s Spiritualized gone country. I am the natural heir to Jason Pierce, but I’m a country version. I pretty much based my whole career on Lazer Guided Melodies – it’s magical.

A lot of your new songs have a sad undercurrent, but the music is very uplifting…

RO: That makes me so happy to hear that.

Do you think Hollow Heart is your best record?

RO: Of course it is. You wouldn’t be making records otherwise… With this album, we had to be The Hanging Stars and I think we did a pretty damned good job of it.

Hollow Heart is released on March 25 (Loose).

https://www.loosemusic.com/

https://thehangingstars.bandcamp.com/

 

Sounds of the New West

West on Colfax – left to right: Pete Barnes (guitar), Alan Hay (vocals), Mike Lambert (drums) and Scott Carey (bass)

Looking for something to help you cope with the post-Christmas comedown? New UK Americana label Greenhorse Records, which is based in Preston, Lancashire, has just the thing – Choke Hold, the debut single by alt-country four-piece West on Colfax.

Influenced by Teenage Fanclub, Big Star, Wilco and Son Volt, it’ll put a jangle in your January. “The love we once found was just a fever going round,” sings vocalist Alan Hay, which is very apt, as it’s a highly infectious tune –  two and a half minutes of life-affirming guitar pop that sounds like a long-lost Creation Records release from the early ’90s. They may hail from Lancashire, but you’d be forgiven for thinking that West on Colfax grew up on a Glaswegian council estate, reared on a diet of Irn-Bru and Byrds records.

The band’s debut album, Barfly Flew By, will be released later this year, but, in the meantime enjoy Choke Hold. In these dark and uncertain times we’re living in, it’s solid, it’s reliable and it’ll make you smile –  it’s like catching up with an old friend you’ve not seen for ages. What a great way to start the New Year…

For more information, visit https://westoncolfax.bandcamp.com/

‘We’d rather sell a Miles Davis album than a Miles Kane one!’

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Danny Wilson and Del Day, owners of Union Music Store in Lewes

In the first in an occasional series of visiting – and writing about – record shops we love, Say It With Garage Flowers heads to Union Music Store in Lewes, East Sussex. We speak to co-owner Danny Wilson, who tells us why he won’t be stocking any Mariah Carey albums just yet…

Record Store Day is a chance for diehard music junkies to blow some serious cash on vinyl, but last year, Danny Wilson and Del Day took things one step further – they bought a record shop!

On RSD 2018, Danny, the frontman of alt-country, rock ‘n’ roll soulsters Danny & The Champions of the World, who is also one third of Americana janglers Bennett, Wilson, Poole, and music publicist and promoter Del, were announced as the new owners of Union Music Store, in the East Sussex market town of Lewes. They took it over from Stevie and Jamie Freeman, who opened the shop in 2010.

A short walk from the station, Union is small, but perfectly formed – new and secondhand vinyl albums are neatly filed in wooden boxes, band T-shirts are hung on the walls, alongside musical instruments, and there are a few CDs on shelves and a selection of rock ‘n’ roll biographies. Americana, folk, country, classic rock, jazz and alternative are the genres of choice – it’s a shop for music lovers, run by people who are passionate about what they do and really know their stuff…

The shop has a cosy, cabin-like feel – it’s very warm and inviting – and behind the counter there’s the ‘Wall of Sound’ – each week, Danny and Del fill it with records and then share the images on social networking.

On the morning Say It With Garage Flowers visits the shop, the wall is country rock and folk-flavoured, with LPs by Dillard & Clark, Nick Drake,  Karen Dalton and Jackson C. Frank on display.

‘The Grease soundtrack is as good as any Americana record I’ve heard in the past 20 years, so why not sell it to people who want it? Grease is brilliant!’

IMG_7841Say It With Garage Flowers does a spot of crate digging and is very pleased to find a limited edition, signed vinyl copy of Matt Deighton’s ‘horror folk’ album, Wake Up The Moths, which we duly purchase.

As we approach the counter to pay, Danny has just taken delivery of a pile of new records, including, much to Del’s displeasure, the Grease soundtrack. It turns out that Danny is threatening to include a musical theatre section in the shop…

“I’m really serious about it,” he says later, over a coffee in a nearby café. “Del is completely unhappy – the whole order that came in this morning was generally a variety of thorns in his side! If I’m being entirely honest, the Grease soundtrack is as good as any Americana record I’ve heard in the past 20 years, so why not sell it to people who want it? Grease is brilliant!”

So now you’re running a record shop can you afford to be a music snob, or do you have to sell what you think people will buy?

“In truth, we’re a bit more High Fidelity than we are HMV – we’re curating,” says Danny. “We only have a certain amount of space and we don’t just stock everything. There’s no pop music in there. You won’t find any Mariah Carey – not because I’m a snob about it, but it’s not what we’re into. We’ll see… If you come back in a year’s time and there are Adele posters all over the shop, you’ll know which way it’s been going! We’d rather sell a Miles Davis album than a Miles Kane one!

“If someone comes into the shop and asks us, ‘what’s that record like?’ we’d like to be able to say with confidence that it’s great, or that it’s OK, but you should buy this one instead – at the moment, it’s got to be stuff we love…”

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Danny Wilson

Q & A

How did you come to own Union Music Store?

Danny Wilson: Stevie Freeman, the head honcho of the Americana Music Association (AMA) UK , ran Union for about seven and half years – I first went in there during the first couple of years it was open. I was camping with my kids, went into Lewes, saw the shop and thought, ‘wow – that’s crazy’. It was a folk and Americana shop – I bought a CD by The Long Ryders.

I got to know Stevie. Del lives in Lewes and he’s been involved in PR and promoting Americana, so he knew Stevie really well. Del and I started a record label, Maiden Voyage. Stevie was getting really busy with the AMA stuff and she approached Del and I, as she knew we ran the label and had a love of records – she asked us if running the shop would interest us. We had a conversation for about two minutes…

Shopkeeping runs in your family, doesn’t it? There’s a song on the Bennett Wilson Poole album called Wilson General Store, which is about your grandparents’ shop in Melbourne, Australia. It was called Wilsons Emporium…

DW: Yes – it’s in my blood. My mum and dad met in that shop – my mum was the Saturday girl.

One of my uncles from Melbourne found out about Union and he tracked down some old doo-wop 78s from Wilsons Emporium – when my dad was a kid, one of his jobs was to fill the jukebox in the shop. My uncle sent me the records, so we’ve put them up in the shop. The Wilson family is very happy that I’m continuing the shopkeeping… I have two teenage daughters – they’re both really interested in coming to the shop and helping out, but that’s possibly more about getting 20 quid than a fulfilling, artistic, cultural, community experience… Having said that, they’re both really into music.

So is it a dream come true owning your own record shop?

DW: Yeah – totally. About 20 years ago, I used to work in Music & Video Exchange in Notting Hill and then I was in the Goldhawk Road shop in Shepherd’s Bush, which sold reggae and soul – it was brilliant. Del worked in the jazz section of HMV for 11 years – he loves all music and has a really serious knowledge of jazz.

How is it working in a shop with Del?

DW: It’s hilarious!

‘We have a few regulars who just come in for a cuppa. It’s quite an arty little hangout – there’s no pressure to buy anything’

On a more serious note, retail is tough, so how are you finding it running a shop?

DW: The idea behind the shop wasn’t to start a business that would one day become a chain. We have the label, Del’s doing his PR and booking stuff and I’ve got the band, but we wanted a hub to hang everything else on. That’s what it’s becoming – we have an office downstairs.

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We’ve been putting on shows in the town – we had the Lewes Psychedelic Festival in February, with The Hanging Stars and Emma Tricca playing in the shop. We’ve done some in-store events. There’s loads going on and people are coming in and buying records – we have a few regulars who just come in for a cuppa. It’s quite an arty little hangout – that’s what we want it to be. There’s no pressure to buy anything.

Stevie and Jamie have been very kind to us – they worked really hard to build up a database of people who are happy to go to rootsy and Americana gigs, so they’ve handed us an audience and it’s down to us what we do with it. I have no experience in running a shop or my own business, but I love it – I’m as happy as Larry. I play a gig, get in at 3am, get up, then drive the kids to school and drive here – it’s exciting.

Finally, any new releases planned on Maiden Voyage?

DW: Our label has a new record out [Reaper] by a band from Cardiff called ¡Que Asco! They sound a bit like Daydream Nation-era Sonic Youth, as well as Dinosaur Jr, with a bit of Fugazi – they’re really cool. We’ve put out 100 numbered LPs – it’s like a white label and it’s more DIY than the other stuff we usually do. We love the music!

For more information on Union Music Store and Maiden Voyage go to:

https://www.unionmusicstore.com/

https://www.maidenvoyage.net/

To purchase the ¡Que Asco! album Reaper (Maiden Voyage), click here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Best Albums of 2018

 

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From UK Americana, to Canadian country-blues, Staffordshire psych-pop, Spaghetti Western soundtracks and, er, a concept record about Worcestershire, Say It With Garage Flowers chooses its favourite albums of 2018…

Bennett Wilson Poole have had a great year.

The UK Americana and jangle-pop trio formed by Robin Bennett  (The Dreaming Spires), Danny Wilson (Grand Drive, Danny and the Champions of the World) and Tony Poole (‘70s rockers Starry Eyed and Laughing – ‘the English Byrds’), released a critically-acclaimed debut album, played sell-out shows across the UK and were nominated twice in the UK Americana 2019 Awards – for UK Album of the Year and UK Artist of the Year. And if that wasn’t enough, they’ve also scooped the prize for Say It With Garage Flowers’ favourite album of 2018.

When we told Danny Wilson the news, he said: “What an honour! I didn’t think it would be your album of the year… I wouldn’t have dreamed of it! I loved making the album with the other guys and I think it’s a great record.”

It certainly is! When we first heard the record at the start of the year, we said it would undoubtedly find itself high up on Say It With Garage Flowers’ favourite records of the year list come late 2018…

‘High on harmonies and brimming with glorious melodies, it’s a stunning collection of instantly memorable and brilliantly crafted songs that are steeped in classic ‘60s and ‘70s rock and pop, but don’t shy away from tackling contemporary social issues’

Produced by Tony Poole – the king of the 12-string electric Rickenbacker guitar – in his home studio in rural Oxfordshire, it’s a totally cosmic trip that takes in Byrds-meets-Tom-Petty/ Traveling Wilburys jangle-pop (Soon Enough), gorgeous, soulful balladry, (Hide Behind A Smile), mystical country (Find Your Own Truth), sunny Americana (Wilson General Store), shimmering psychedelic sounds (That Thing That You Called Love) and moody, powerful protest rock in the vein of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (Hate Won’t Win and Lifeboat (Take A Picture of Yourself).

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Bennett Wilson Poole – photo by John Morgan

High on harmonies and brimming with glorious melodies, it’s a stunning collection of instantly memorable and brilliantly crafted songs that are steeped in classic ‘60s and ‘70s rock and pop, but don’t shy away from tackling contemporary social issues.

Speaking to us earlier this year – we were the first publication to interview Bennett Wilson Poole – Tony said: “With our songs, like Hide Behind A Smile, the chords are quite simple and the tunes are quite jangly, but if you dig a little deeper, there’s more under the surface.”

He added: “A lot of people have said that you can keep listening to the album over and over again and you hear new things, which is great – that’s a good sign. If it makes you feel good, we’re adding to the sum of human happiness…”

Here at Say It With Garage Flowers, we totally agree – Bennett Wilson Poole’s long-player has been on heavy rotation on our hi-fi and it’s been our feel-good soundtrack of 2018. And the good news is that there’s a follow-up planned for 2019. It can’t come soon enough…

Another Americana release that impressed us this year was Canadian singer-songwriter Jerry Leger’s  Nonsense and Heartache.

Produced by Michael Timmins of Cowboy Junkies, who worked on our favourite album of 2017, John Murry’s A Short History of Decay it’s a double album, but, essentially it’s two distinct collections of songs.  

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The first half  – Nonsense – is a raw, primal, bluesy, electric rock ‘n’ roll record, while the second instalment – Heartache – is a stripped-down, alt-country affair, with intimate ballads, lap steel, piano and fiddle.

Put them together and you have an album that reminds us of those classic early Ryan Adams long-players Heartbreaker and Gold – yep, it’s that good…

Jerry has a new album due in the autumn of 2019 and will be playing dates in Europe and the UK in the spring.

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New York-based Brit Luke Tuchscherer , who released his latest album, Pieces, earlier this year, will also be in the UK this spring – he has a London show at the Green Note in Camden, on April 11. 

Pieces, Luke’s third solo album, is his best yet. An angry, heavy, often political album, it rocks like Neil Young and Crazy Horse. Batten down the hatches, it’s like a hurricane out there… There’s even a nine-minute, epic rallying call (Requiem), which attacks social injustice in the UK and comes across like Luke’s very own Rockin’ In The Free World…

It’s not all big guitar anthems, though – there are some quieter moments in the eye of the storm, like the apologetic ballad Charing Cross and the sublime, Springsteen-like country-rock song Ghosts, which sees Luke revisiting his childhood haunts.

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Ian Webber

Luke wasn’t the only US-based, UK singer-songwriter to make a political album this year – Nashville resident Ian Webber brought out Op-Eds, which tackled social issues including women’s rights, fake news, war-torn Syria and the Dakota Access Pipeline controversy. 

Musically, it’s a very stripped-down record – mostly just Ian and his acoustic guitar – and it makes for intimate and sometimes uneasy listening, as he shares people’s stories of hardship and struggle. 

Opener Follow Me and its parent song, The Regime, are haunting tales inspired by reading news stories about families suffering in Syria, while Frontline is a protest song that has its roots in ’50s rockabilly.

Radio Zero is an ode to the healing power of great music – while the world is going crazy, sometimes you just need to switch off from all the doom and gloom and crank up some classic rock ‘n’ roll tunes. Ian sings the song in a Bowie-like croon that sounds like it’s been beamed in from outer space.

‘Musically, it’s a very stripped-down record – mostly just Ian and his acoustic guitar – and it makes for intimate and sometimes uneasy listening, as he shares people’s stories of hardship and struggle’

Fellow Bowie fan, UK singer-songwriter and Say It With Garage Flowers regular Vinny Peculiar released the latest in a long line of great albums in 2018. Return of the Native was a concept record inspired by moving back to Worcestershire after 23 years living in Manchester. 

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A brilliant collection of witty, reflective and deeply personal songs, it features a whole host of weird and wonderful characters, including a burnt-out rock star, the ghost of a Civil War re-enactment enthusiast, Eminem hopelessly lost in Droitwich, ’70s M.O.R. singer Clifford T.Ward, DJ Tony Blackburn and comedian Rik Mayall.

Musically, the album takes the listener on a journey through Worcestershire that’s soundtracked by glam-rock, jangle-pop, psych, Pet Shop Boys-style electro and New Order-esque, Northern melancholy. 

Jangle-pop and psych sounds both featured heavily on the 2018 albums by London cosmic-country-folk five piece The Hanging Stars and Staffordshire band Alfa 9.Songs_for_LP-250x250

With Songs For Somewhere Else – the follow-up to their 2016 debut, Over The Silvery Lake, which was our favourite album of that year, The Hanging Stars made a record that was even better than its predecessor and was a much more varied and adventurous collection of songs – there was the beguiling and soporific Spiritualized-meets-Byrds groove of On A Sweet Summer’s Day, the heavenly, Big Star jangle-pop of Honeywater, menacing Spaghetti Western soundtrack Mean Old Man, the country-rock romp For You (My Blue Eyed Son) and the woozy and playful 1920s-style jazz-blues of Too Many Wired Hours.

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Alfa 9 are also fans of Spaghetti Western soundtracks – their album My Sweet Movida was full of Ennio Morricone influences, retro rock, cosmic-psych-country road trips and ’60s-inspired jangle-pop. 

Back in April, guitarist Leon Jones told us: “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…”

Another fan of Morricone is Frank Sweeney, whose band of London renegades The Magic City Trio turned in one of the best debut albums of 2018.

Amerikana Arkana has wonderful orchestral arrangements that recall the dramatic ’60s pop of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood, (Black Dog Following Me), Morricone’s moody Spaghetti Western soundtracks (Cousins’ War) and Mexican Mariachi music (Trav’ler), but these story songs are also steeped in the dark traditions of murder ballads, old country and folk laments, outlaw tales and hillbilly blues.510zr7sR2xL._SS500

For more Spaghetti Western sounds and gun-slinging action, may we also recommend another great debut album from 2018  – Sarah Vista’s Killing Fever. Look out for an interview with London-based singer-songwriter Sarah on Say It With Garage Flowers soon… 

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Whether your year has been good, bad or ugly, we hope that you’ll take time to listen to some of the albums that were our soundtrack to 2018. 

Here’s the full list of our 35 favourite albums of the last 12 months and a Spotify playlist to go with it*.

See you on the other side…

Say It With Garage Flowers: Best Albums of 2018

  1. Bennett Wilson Poole – Bennett Wilson Poole
  2. Jerry LegerNonsense and Heartache
  3. The Magic City TrioAmerikana Arkana
  4. The Hanging StarsSongs For Somewhere Else
  5. Johnny MarrCall The Comet
  6. Paul Weller – True Meanings
  7. Alfa 9My Sweet Movida
  8. Vinny PeculiarReturn of the Native
  9. RW Hedges – The Hunters In The Snow
  10. Gold Star – Uppers & Downers
  11. Tracyanne & Danny – Tracyanne & Danny
  12. Mark Lanegan & Duke Garwood – With Animals
  13. Elvis Costello & The Imposters – Look Now
  14. Patrick Duff – Leaving My Father’s House
  15. Spiritualized – And Nothing Hurt
  16. The Good, The Bad & The Queen – Merrie Land
  17. Mike Gale – Beachhead Galaxy
  18. Jeff Tweedy – Warm
  19. The Magic Numbers – Outsiders
  20. Luke Tuchscherer – Pieces
  21. Ian Webber – Op-Eds
  22. The Senior Service – King Cobra
  23. Sarah Vista – Killing Fever
  24. Al Joshua – Out of the Blue
  25. Richmond Fontaine – Don’t Skip Out On Me
  26. The Black Delta Movement Preservation
  27. Arctic Monkeys – Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino
  28. Manic Street Preachers – Resistance Is Futile
  29. Matthew Sweet – Tomorrow’s Daughter
  30. Matt Deighton – Doubtless Dauntless
  31. Nick Piunti Temporary High
  32. Alan Tyler – El Tapado
  33. Juanita Stein – Until The Lights Fade
  34. Dom Mariani & The Majestic Kelp – Hi Seas
  35. GospelbeacHAnother Winter Alive 

[Please note: Patrick Duff’s Leaving My Father’s House and Richmond Fontaine’s Don’t Skip Out On Me aren’t currently available on Spotify].

 

‘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.

 

 

‘We haven’t got the budget for playing in full, late ‘60s West Coast regalia and Roger McGuinn wigs!’

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The Raving Beauties – photograph by John Morgan

Late last year, jangle-pop project The Raving Beauties, the brainchild of Belfast writer Brian Bell, who is now based in Brighton, teamed up with Oxford band The Dreaming Spires to release Raving For Bap, a 10in limited vinyl EP dedicated to singer-songwriter Bap Kennedy, who died in late 2016.

The record features five of Bap’s songs, which The Raving Beauties have made their own. The opening track, Walk In Love, is a joyous, chiming guitar anthem that’s befitting of The Byrds, while Moriarty’s Blues is a gorgeous, folky shuffle. The Way I Love Her is infectious, organ-driven power-pop, Hard Street is a down and out ballad with a country feel and Lonesome Lullaby is another Byrdsian belter – 12-string guitars, heavenly harmonies and a life-affirming chorus.

I spoke to Brian to find out more about the EP and to clear up some confusion over how the mysterious ‘fictitious’ band, The Raving Beauties, came into being…

Q & A

Let’s talk about your recent five-track EP, Raving For Bap, which was a tribute to Belfast singer-songwriter, Bap Kennedy (Energy Orchard), who died from cancer in 2016. Proceeds from the record are being donated to Belfast’s Marie Curie Hospice. How did the EP come about?

Brian Bell: I’d known Bap since the early Noughties, when a mutual friend, James Walbourne [The Rails, The Pretenders] introduced us on the basis that because we both came from Belfast, we’d probably get on, which we did, very much so. Aside from being such a talented guy, Bap was a very genuine, kind person and great company – his self-deprecating wit and killer one-liners were something to behold.

Before meeting him, I’d been aware of his music and really admired it. I really loved and connected with songs like Sailortown and Sweet Irish Rose, off the first Energy Orchard album, and I’d bought his Domestic Blues album when it first came out.

In the years that I was seeing Bap most regularly, I’ve fond memories of his legendary Sunday gigs at the Boogaloo in Highgate, North London, where he’d be mixing up his own stuff with Elvis and Hank Williams covers. Everybody would be lapping it up and the craic was tremendous.

In more recent years, I’d kept in touch with Bap when he moved back to Holywood in Northern Ireland and always looked forward to meeting up with him whenever I was back home visiting family.

‘I’ve fond memories of Bap’s legendary Sunday gigs at the Boogaloo in Highgate, where he’d be mixing up his own stuff with Elvis and Hank Williams covers’

When we lost Bap to cancer, in November 2016, it was obviously a very upsetting and difficult time for everyone who knew and loved him. In the months after his passing, he was on my mind a lot and I guess my appreciation of his songs had deepened, which is probably when the idea for a tribute record started hatching. Bap’s widow Brenda has been doing an amazing job of looking after his legacy and continuing to share and celebrate his music, so I hope we can add to that in some way. It was also important from the outset that the record would be a fundraiser for the Marie Curie Hospice in Belfast, as Bap’s family think the world of the staff there for the care they gave Bap towards the end of his life.

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The EP is a collaboration between The Raving Beauties and Oxford band The Dreaming Spires. What’s your relationship? How did you end up working together? 

BB: In 2016, The Dreaming Spires included The Raving Beauties track Arrows on the guest artist side of their Paisley Overground 12in mini album and we were on the same label – At The Helm – at the time. We did a launch gig for the record together in Brighton, which went really well.

My friendship with the guys started there and we ended up doing another gig together as The Raving Beauties at Truck Festival in 2016, which was a lot of fun. I’d chatted with Joe Bennett [from The Dreaming Spires] about recording some new songs together, but with Bap being on my mind so much, I felt a tribute EP was what we should do next.

Luckily, Joe and the rest of the guys – Robin Bennett, Tom Collison and Fin Kenny – were well up for it, so we all got together at Joe’s studio in Oxford last Spring to start working on it, with Joe producing. There was a great vibe and a lovely spirit of camaraderie, which I hope comes across on the record.

With the EP, you and The Dreaming Spires have put your own spin on Bap’s songs – there’s a US West Coast, ‘60s jangle-pop feel to some of the songs. How did you approach the tracks and how did you decide which ones to cover?

BB: Joe, wisely I think, didn’t want to get too swayed by listening to Bap’s originals – he just wanted me to turn up with the chords and lyrics, so we could try to put our own stamp on them. You’re right about the American West Coast influence, and I suppose the idea was broadly along the lines of imagining how Bap’s songs might have been interpreted by a Californian guitar band in the late ‘60s. I can’t be too coy about the likes of Spirit, The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, The Monkees, Love and The Youngbloods all being an influence.

In terms of choosing songs, it was a case of picking songs I particularly loved that I imagined could also lend themselves to being done in a different way. There are other Bap songs that I love just as much, but I don’t feel would necessarily suit being re-worked in that style.

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I want to ask you about the origins of The Raving Beauties. I’ve heard a rumour that the band doesn’t really exist – it’s fictitious… Can you clear this up?

BB: In the last 10 years, I’ve got into writing fiction – I did a Creative Writing MA and had a pulp fiction novella – Die Hard Mod – published under the pen name Charlie McQuaker.

One of my short stories that I’d read at spoken word nights in Brighton was called The Unsung Classic, which was about an ill-fated retro band of the ‘90s called The Raving Beauties. I remember a lot of ‘60s time warp guys hanging around Brighton, who’d based their whole image on Gene Clark circa 1967 – that scene inspired the story. I then had the idea to make an EP of what this fictitious band might have sounded like and managed to convince Gordon Grahame – an incredibly gifted Scottish singer-songwriter/producer – to collaborate with me on some recordings.

‘I remember a lot of ‘60s time warp guys hanging around Brighton, who’d based their whole image on Gene Clark circa 1967’

In 2015, The Raving Beauties released their debut album of ‘60s-inspired guitar pop….

BB: The original plan was to put a vinyl EP out as a ‘benign hoax’, purporting to be the lost recordings of some long-forgotten retro band called The Raving Beauties, but when I sent the tracks to Jim Walker, after his At The Helm label had just been launched, he said he loved the songs, but would only release something if we made a full album.

That gave myself and Gordon the impetus to go back into his home studio and, in a relatively short time, we came up with something that I’m still pretty proud of.

The finished album was a mix of my songs, Gordon’s songs and a few co-writes that came together really quickly. My abiding memory is of it being a huge buzz, like being a teenager again. We had this in-joke when something was going particularly well, when we’d just look at each other, do the double thumbs-up and say ”Brilliant!” in a comedy Scottish accent.

I knew at the time that Gordon was doing me a big favour by indulging me with this strange project and it was always pretty much with the understanding that it would be a one-off for him, but we’re still mates and it’s totally got his blessing that I’m keeping the project going. The plan is to make another album this year with the musicians from Raving For Bap and other collaborators.

The Raving Beauties have a gig coming up. You’re playing the Ramblin’ Roots Revue festival in April (6-8, Bucks Students Union, High Wycombe). What can we expect?

BB: The plan is to do the Raving For Bap EP, plus some songs from the first album – The ‘Spires boys have kindly signed up to be honorary Raving Beauties.

I wish I could say we’ll be doing the set in full, late ‘60s West Coast regalia and we’ll all be sporting Roger McGuinn wigs, but, unfortunately, we haven’t budgeted for that!

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The Raving Beauties – photograph by John Morgan

Any plans to hold a tribute gig for Bap?

BB: Yes – we’re hatching a plan and hopefully will be able to confirm something soon. Fundraising-wise, we’ve joined forces with Bap’s sister, Marian, who has already raised over £2,000 for the hospice, and we’ve set ourselves the target of raising a grand total of £5,600 by June 17,when Bap would have been 56

What does the rest of 2018 hold for The Raving Beauties?

BB: Some Girls from The Raving Beauties’ first album is getting another lease of life thanks to You Are The Cosmos including it on their next 12 String High vinyl compilation. which is due out in April/May. I always felt that song could make an impact if it reached the right ears, so fingers crossed, it will happen this time around… I’ll also soon be starting work with the guys on the new Raving Beauties album. We want to retain some of the jangle, but get a lot more adventurous, too.

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

BB: I tend to mainly listen to instrumental stuff, particularly ‘50s jazz, so the likes of John Coltrane, Oliver Nelson, Miles Davis and Chet Baker are on the stereo a lot. For anyone who likes that kind of thing, I’d recommend the soundtrack to Listen Up Philip by Keegan DeWitt.

‘We want to retain some of the jangle, but get a lot more adventurous, too’

Another soundtrack that I keep coming back to is The Hired Hand by Bruce Langhorne, which is such a sparse, haunting and beautiful piece of music.

I’m always hoping to hear a new killer pop song on the radio, but, to be honest, the last one that really jumped out at me was Mean Streets by Tennis from a few year back.

I think Fleet Foxes are probably the band that has impressed me most in recent years, closely followed by Temples. I’ve loved Nick Drake and John Martyn since I was a teenager and that’s something I’ve been coming back to a lot recently too.

Bap’s album The Sailor’s Revenge has been another constant. It’s his masterpiece and deserves to be in any ‘Top 10 Greatest Irish Albums of All Time’ list.

 

Raving For Bap by The Raving Beauties is out now on Farm Music – more info here.

The band’s self-titled debut album is currently available from At The Helm Records. 

The Raving Beauties will be playing at The Ramblin’ Roots Revue, Bucks Student Union, High Wycombe: April 6-8.

More information here:  https://www.bucksstudentsunion.org/ramblinrootsrevue/ 

 

 

‘This album was nearly half flute-based!’

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Songs For Somewhere Else, the new album by London cosmic-country-psych-folk five piece The Hanging Stars, is the follow-up to their brilliant 2016 debut, Over The Silvery Lake, which was Say It With Garage Flowers’ favourite record of that year.

The band’s latest release is even better than its predecessor and is a much more varied and adventurous collection of songs – there’s the beguiling and soporific Spiritualized-meets-Byrds groove of On A Sweet Summer’s Day, the heavenly, Big Star jangle-pop of Honeywater, menacing Spaghetti Western soundtrack Mean Old Man, the country-rock romp For You (My Blue Eyed Son) and the woozy and playful 1920s-style jazz-blues of Too Many Wired Hours.

I met singer-songwriter/ guitarist Richard Olson and bassist Sam Ferman in a basement bar in Soho to find out the stories behind these Songs For Somewhere Else. Topics for discussion included the joy of listening to The Byrds, importing Ennio Morricone-style whistling from Portland, Oregon and funereal horns from Majorca, and why the flute is nothing to be scared of…

Q & A

How does it feel to have the new record done and dusted and out there?

Sam Ferman: It’s great – it’s funny, really because people who hear it will think that there’s been a two-year gap, but we started recording it before Over The Silvery Lake came out. It’s had a long gestation, but it’s the first one we’ve done with both Patrick [Ralla – guitar, keys and vocals] and Joe [Harvey-Whyte – pedal steel, dobro], who are now full-time members of the band. It’s a reflection of that set-up, whereas with the first one, there was a lot more toing and froing with members.

Richard Olson: Those days of saying ‘we’re going to make a record, write some songs over six months and record them in two weeks’ just don’t happen anymore. In some ways, maybe that would be nice, but it’s an ongoing, growing thing – it’s painstaking. Trying to get five people to do the same thing at the same time is hard enough – Sam and me have got bloody heads from banging them against the wall and trying to get things going and sew up this tapestry that we try and do. There are so many threads that need to be right. It’s almost surreal when you know the record is going to come out – sometimes you think that we’re going to make such fools of ourselves.

Why do you say that?

Sam: It’s self-doubt.

Richard: That’s the whole process – it’s painful as hell, but then a week later you think, ‘fucking hell – we’re very talented people!’

You are… and you’re very prolific…

Richard: We’re already halfway through the third record!

Sam: When Rich and me came to sequencing this album – which songs would go on it and in which order – that really put into perspective the arc of history over that two-year period. We listened back to stuff and realised how we’d changed in that time. It’s interesting how certain songs were recorded in a certain style.

For example, Pick Up The Pieces, which is on the album, was a song that we recorded for the first album, but, for a number of reasons, we felt that it didn’t work on that record.

Richard: It didn’t fit.

Sam: There was something missing at a certain point on the new album – it needed some energy – and putting Pick Up The Pieces on it gave it some more life.

This album was all recorded in Bark Studio, in Walthamstow, wasn’t it?

Sam: Apart from Pick Up The Pieces, which was done in L.A.

Richard: It feels like we’re getting a really nice reception for this album, which is amazing.

The new album is richer and more eclectic than the first one. Was it a conscious decision to include a variety of musical styles this time around?

Richard: I tell you what was a conscious decision – we really wanted more of a collaborative effort and that’s one of the reasons… On A Sweet Summer’s Day – which is the first song on the record – is, musically, all Sam, but I put lyrics to it. I was like, ‘this is stunning – let me have a go at it.’ We’d never really worked like that before. I was really pleased with it. I was like, ‘that worked’.

‘It feels like we’re getting a really nice reception for this album, which is amazing’

I have shedloads of songs lying around – playing with Joe and Patrick, who are both younger guys than me, has opened things up – it’s so much fun playing with those dudes and we all felt that we wanted to step up. They’ve made us up our game. For You (My Blue Eyed Son) is an old song of Patrick’s from a band he was in called the New County Flyers, and Honeywater was a collaboration between Patrick and me.

Sam: Doing the recording session for Honeywater really sticks out for me – we did everything in a day and then we mixed it a week later. It was really satisfying – we’d all been in the zone and put something down and there’s nothing I’d change about that song.

It’s beautiful.

Sam: Thank you.

Richard: The gods were with us in the studio that day.

Sam: It was a ‘hairs standing up on the back of your neck’ moment. We thought, ‘this one’s a real goer’.

Richard: It’s a cliché, but I felt like we’d won the Lottery, but trust me, we didn’t… It was like we’d been given a present – it was amazing.

Sam: One of the great things about this album is that you hear Patrick and Joe’s influence.

And it’s more of a representation of what you sound like live…

Sam: Exactly. They’re brilliant musicians and they’ve been involved in the writing process.

There are several other collaborations on the album – you’ve worked with guest musicians, including your US friends Collin Hegna (Federale, Brian Jonestown Massacre), Miranda Lee Richards – on the duet How I Got This Way – and Christof Certik (Brian Jonestown Massacre, Winter Flowers), as well as Alison Cotton on viola (Left Outsides, Eighteenth Day Of May), Luke Barlow (Nought) on flute and Thomas Wake on clarinet…

Richard: It’s so much fun – it’s lovely to play in a group and to play on bills with different people. One day, the Brian Jonestown dudes are in town and they’re staying at my house, or Miranda’s in town…. The fact that we can do that makes it great – it’s the sum of all the parts.

‘I love celebrating our own little scene. That’s what it’s all about. We embrace it’

You have the nucleus of the band, but it’s like an extended family – a collective…

Richard: Exactly – I love the idea of that and I’m proud of those people. I’ve known a lot of them for a long time. I love celebrating our own little scene. That’s what it’s all about. We embrace it.

Let’s talk about some of the songs. On A Sweet Summer’s Day has a hypnotic feel – it’s like early Spiritualized meets The Notorious Byrd Brothers…

Richard: Lazer Guided Melodies is one of my favourite records and there’s very much a Byrds thing going on, too.

Sam: When I first started playing with Rich, I was 24 – I’m 30 now – he said to me, ‘have you listened to The Notorious Byrd Brothers?’ I hadn’t – there were no famous hits on that record. I remember going out the next day and getting it on CD. It really made me think about how a lot of the music that I thought was quite left field was actually really middle of the road. It’s a really far-out record.

Richard: But it’s still so gentle on the ear – sonically and songwriting-wise, it’s so pleasing, When you discover it, it feels like one of those records that, wherever you are, whatever age you might be, it will make a mark on you – it’s like Love’s Forever Changes.

Moving on from The Byrds, what can you tell me about Mean Old Man, which is one of my favourite songs on the new album? It sounds like an Ennio Morricone Spaghetti Western soundtrack – it has cool whistling on it…

Richard: Collin, who plays bass in the Brian Jonestown Massacre, has his own band called Federale – they’re pure Spaghetti Western – and he’s a proper, shit-hot whistler. He’s on that track – he sent us his whistling from Portland.

The Good, the Bad and the Oregon?

Richard: Oh my lord – I can tell you’re a journalist…

Sam: It also has some Soviet rock oohs and aahs in the middle eight.

Too Many Wired Hours – the second track on the album – is a 1920s, jazzy, bluesy stomp. It has a clarinet on it and it reminds me of The Kinks and The Coral.

Richard: Yeah – I don’t mind that. The clarinet was Sam’s idea. In my mind, it sounds like David Lindley’s Kaleidoscope.

Sam: It totally does, but that’s a pretty niche reference.

Richard: I’m a big fan of Kaleidoscope.

HSTARS-PURPLE-19The most country-sounding song on the album – and another of my favourites – is For You (My Blue Eyed Son). It’s like The Byrds, circa Sweetheart of the Rodeo, or The Flying Burrito Brothers…

Richard: It’s Patrick’s song, but I wrote quite a lot of the lyrics for it. It sits so comfortably on the album and with who we are – and it’s shitloads of fun to play!

Sam: It feels magical when we do it live.

Dig A Hole has a colliery brass band arrangement on it…

Richard: That was one of the songs that we worked the hardest on. It’s a story song… The brass was done by a friend of ours called Leon Beckenham, who was in the band Fanfarlo. He’s a fantastic horn player and he lives in Majorca – he did a great job.

So this album has whistling imported from Portland and horns from Majorca on it…

Richard: Yes!

Sam: I can remember Rich playing the song to me on acoustic guitar in the backroom of his old house in Tower Hamlets Road about three years ago. I thought it had such a beautiful transition from a very melancholic, plaintive, beautiful verse to a countrified chorus.

Richard: We call it shoegaze-country.

Sam: With the horns, it sounds like a cross between a Northern English brass band and a New Orleans funeral march. It’s one of my favourite songs on the album – I think it’s absolutely beautiful.

Richard: It’s a story about a failed relationship and trying to escape from it…

‘It sounds like a cross between a Northern English brass band and a New Orleans funeral march. It’s one of my favourite songs on the album’

A lot of the songs on the album have references to drinking in them…

Richard: There’s a lot of regret and excess on this record – and the day after the excess… I write most of the lyrics. I worked really hard at it and I’m pleased with a lot of them.

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The final track on the album, Water Song, has a flute on it. It’s not the first time a flute has been heard on a Hanging Stars album, is it? You’re not afraid to use a flute, are you?

Richard: There’s no reason to be afraid of a flute.

Don’t fear the flute!

Sam: I get Love, or Nick Drake’s Bryter Layter vibes on that track.

Richard: I would say Genesis – Selling England by the Pound. I’m not afraid to say that. Water Song is a lullaby.

Was the flute played in Walthamstow?

Sam: It was.

So, there’s whistling from Portland, horns from Majorca and flute from Walthamstow…

Sam: This album was nearly half flute-based! There are five songs that didn’t make the record and they were all flute-based.

You could release a mini-album of flute songs…

Sam: The idea has been floated.

Or should that be fluted?

Richard: [laughs] Jesus Christ!

‘There’s no reason to be afraid of a flute’

Sam: In sequencing the album, we had 16 or 17 songs… some of which might make the next record. We can’t be sure at the moment. The great thing about being in this band is because we’re constantly working and recording, every time it comes round to doing an album, there are songs that didn’t make the previous one and there are songs on the next one that might not make it. We are building a body of work. It’s about having the albums speak to us rather than having to cram stuff in.

Richard: I like that! Let the album speak to you.

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The album title, Songs For Somewhere Else, sounds like you’re saying that this record is a means to escape from the troubled world we’re living in…

Sam: That makes sense – it is about escaping. The world is horrible and it always has been. Why do humans engage with music, art and literature? To rationalise the horror, or to escape it entirely. This record treads a line between coping and escaping. All the music that I really love is sadness viewed through a prism of beauty. Some people will say it’s a coping mechanism to deal with the horrors of life, but I think it’s a way of seeing stuff that’s happened to you – or that you think about – in a new way.

‘This record treads a line between coping and escaping. All the music that I really love is sadness viewed through a prism of beauty’

Where would you suggest that this album is best listened to?

Richard: On headphones, in the comfort of your own home. With any album that I’m involved in, all I want is for it to take you somewhere. I discover music all the time – it’s all about goosebumps and getting a present that you want to go back to. You just want to listen to it again – whether you’re at work, or at home, or wherever you are. That’s the stunning beauty of music – it’s magical.

You’ve achieved that with this record.

Richard: Thank you so much.

After the interview, Richard pulls out his phone and a pair of headphones and lets me listen to a rough demo of a new track that could be destined for the third Hanging Stars album. It’s another gorgeous, country-tinged gem, but it’s not for now – it’s a song for somewhere else…

• Songs For Somewhere Else by The Hanging Stars is released on February 16 on Crimson Crow.

The band play an album launch party in London, at The Victoria, Dalston, on February  22.

They will also appear at The Ramblin’ Roots Revue, Bucks Student Union, High Wycombe: April 6-8. More information here:  https://www.bucksstudentsunion.org/ramblinrootsrevue/ 

http://thehangingstars.com/

 

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 2016

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Uneasy listening was the musical genre that defined 2016.

The spectre of death loomed large over several of the year’s best albums, namely David Bowie’s Blackstar and Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker – both artists died in 2016, shortly after releasing their records – and Nick Cave’s Skeleton Tree, which, in places, dealt with the grief and sadness he felt following the death of his teenage son, Arthur, in 2015.

All three albums were masterpieces and highlights in their creators’ impressive back catalogues, but were difficult to listen to.

Songs such as Bowie’s vulnerable, jazzy Dollar Days – my favourite track on Blackstar – and Cohen’s twangy, twilight ballad, Leaving The Table, were undeniably beautiful, but eerily prescient.

I defy anyone not to shed a tear while hearing Bowie croon “If I never see the English evergreens I’m running to, it’s nothing to me”, or Laughing Len intone, “I’m leaving the table – I’m out of the game.”

When Danish soprano Else Torp duets with Cave on Distant Sky, her beautiful vocals could break even the hardest of hearts.

On a personal note, I had a difficult 2016, having to cope with illness, anxiety and family bereavements, so these three albums often suited my mood, but, strangely, I haven’t chosen any of them as my favourite record of the year.

I so nearly opted for another dark album as my top choice – Richmond Fontaine’s brilliant You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing To Go Back To – the final long-player from Willy Vlautin’s Portland-based, alt-country band who’ve now split up – but I didn’t.

Instead, I went for a record that always made me smile and cheered me up whenever I listened to it, thanks to its wonderful arrangements, sublime melodies and unashamedly retro vibe. 

My favourite album of 2016 is Over The Silvery Lake – the debut record from London’s The Hanging Stars. 

Released in March, Over The Silvery Lake was recorded in LA, Nashville and Walthamstow. It’s a gorgeous psych-folk-pop-country-rock record that owes a debt to The Byrds and the Cosmic American Music of Gram Parsons, but also Fairport Convention’s pastoral ’60s English tune-smithery.

It’s laced with pedal steel guitar and shot through with blissed-out harmonies. There are songs where willows weep and ships set sail on the sea, hazy, lazy, shimmering summer sounds  (I’m No Good Without You and Crippled Shining Blues), as well as brooding desert-rock (The House On The Hill], trippy mystical adventures (Golden Vanity) and, on the closing track, the beautiful Running Waters Wide, rippling piano is accompanied by bursts of groovy flute. 

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The Hanging Stars

Earlier this year, I interviewed The Hanging Stars about the writing and recording of the album – you can read the article here.

The band have just finished making the follow-up and it will be released next year. I’ve already reserved a place for it in my Best Albums of 2017 list… 

Here’s a list of my favourite 35 albums from this year and a Spotify playlist to accompany it, where possible – some of the albums aren’t available to stream.

This year, I interviewed several of the artists featured, so I’ve linked to the articles below. Happy Christmas – all the best for 2017 and I’ll see you on the other side…

  1. The Hanging Stars Over The Silvery Lake
  2. Richmond Fontaine – You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing To Go Back To
  3. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Skeleton Key
  4. Peter BruntnellNos Da Comrade
  5. Vinny PeculiarSilver Meadows
  6. David Bowie – Blackstar
  7. Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker
  8. Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression
  9. Ben Watt – Fever Dream
  10. Quiet Loner – The Battle For The Ballot
  11. Britta Phillips Luck Or Magic
  12. Nick Piunti Trust Your Instincts 
  13. Cotton MatherDeath of The Cool
  14. Robert Rotifer Not Your Door
  15. Papernut Cambridge – Love The Things Your Lover Loves
  16. Bob Dylan – Fallen Angels
  17. The Senior Service – The Girl In The Glass Case
  18. Cat’s Eyes – Treasure House
  19. The Jayhawks – Paging Mr Proust
  20. Teenage Fanclub – Here
  21. Wilco – Schmilco 
  22. Dr Robert Out There
  23. The Explorers Club – Together
  24. Cool Ghouls – Animal Races
  25. John HowardAcross The Door Sill
  26. The Junipers – Red Bouquet Fair
  27. 8 X 8 – Inflorescence 
  28. Ryan Allen & His Extra ArmsBasement Punk
  29. Primal Scream – Chaosmosis
  30. The Last Shadow Puppets – Everything You’ve Come To Expect
  31. Paul McClure Songs For Anyone 
  32. The Monkees Good Times!
  33. The Coral – Distance Inbetween
  34. Hurricane #1 – Melodic Rainbows [Japan only release]
  35. The Hosts – Moon