STEPHANIE HATFIELD – Out This Fell (own label)

Out This FellAlways a question to wonder about – what should you do for Valentine’s Day that isn’t cheesy, superfluous or slushily romantic? How about listening to Stephanie Hatfield’s new album? Out This Fell is Hatfield’s fourth album, released in the UK on February 14th, is none of those things.

Hatfield is originally from Detroit, has a Kentucky hillbilly heritage and now lives close to nature in the South-West. Throw a few more things into the recipe – childhood singing in a Presbyterian church, youthful holidays doing everything the old fur traders did, moving to New Mexico “on her own with her cat, her snake, and her motorcycle, with no job lined up, and only $100 to her name after her first month’s rent” – and you get a sense of someone who has travelled. Listen to the album and you can hear some of the diverse influences that Hatfield has picked up along the way: some Americana, some Folk, some Indie Rock, and the odd flicker in the arrangements of things more diverse from Mexican to Opera. This jumble might make for a strange brew, but on Out This Fell Hatfield has pulled it all together into a gently creative tension.

Listen to ‘Gone, Gone, Gone’ in the link below – you can hear the Americana/Indie sound in the tune and the guitar breaks; there’s a lovely lyric of loss comparing now to previous times when “[we were] Lit inside like the charges from/An electrical storm twisting to the ground”. And above all, there’s Hatfield’s voice, holding all that tension together reflectively and then teasing out the emotion with an operatic interlude.

Have a listen to the haunting ‘In Those Woods’ which includes the title lyric, another great vocal performance, an understated band and the howl of dogs as it builds to the conclusion “Deliver me an end”. ‘Not Her’ is (I think) a description of Detroit “torn down by its pride”, “vines splitting bricks” but now also “A beauty rarely seen/Pockets of resurgence”. These are songs about tough things in life, but Hatfield’s voice and the restrained arrangements and production (by Hatfield and husband/guitarist/keyboard player Bill Palmer) make them easy to listen to.

If you want a couple of tracks which are a gentler introduction to Out This Fell, try ‘Lucy’ or the rather beautiful ‘River Still Runs’ which intermingles a melodic tune to a love story with images of nature such as “Clinging to you/Like Spring comes through a winter breeze”. But the power of the album is in Hatfield’s voice backlit by a delicate band on the tough songs. She’s touring in America currently but this is well worth a listen (whether on February 14th or later in the year) – and there are tracks on here that will stay in the memory longer than most Valentine’s Days.

Mike Wistow

Artist’s website: https://stephaniehatfieldmusic.com

‘Gone Gone Gone’ – official video:

BROOKS WILLIAMS – Work My Claim (Red Guitar Blue Music RGBM – 2020)

Work My ClaimBrooks Williams releases Work My Claim in February. It’s an album which celebrates thirty years as a touring musician and 30 years since his first album – and he still plays over 200 shows a year. Work My Claim has twelve tracks from Williams’ back catalogue recorded with a mixture of Aaron Catlow, Christine Collister, Ralf Grottian, Jim Henry, John McCusker, and Phil Richardson.

If you know Williams’ music, then his choices for the album are: ‘Inland Sailor’, ‘King of California’, ‘Frank Delandry’, ‘Seven Sisters’, ‘You Don’t Know My Mind’, ‘Here Comes The Blues’, ‘Whatever It Takes’, ‘Georgia’, ‘Mercy Illinois’, ‘I Got It Bad’, ‘Jump That Train’ and ‘My Turn Now’. The album is more than a greatest hits or an unplugged, though. A couple of tracks have original extra verses; one of them is a differing tune – Williams tells us “I write two or three different melodies to the same set of lyrics. It makes the process longer but it helps me get inside the song….This version here is the original version. It’s more emphatic and maybe a little manic”. If ever there were words to tell how good and professional a songwriter/guitar player Williams is, then you have it in those first two sentences.

If Williams is unknown to you, Martin Simpson sums him up as, “He’s a lovely player, a lovely singer, and a great writer. Brooks Williams is the real thing.”

If you want to see why, have a listen to the video below for ‘Here Comes The Blues’ with Williams and Phil Richardson. It’s got a great melody, the vocal (Williams has the kind of voice that is just attractive to listen to), guitar and piano are nicely matched – and despite some rather nice touches the guitar work doesn’t draw attention to itself unless you’re looking for it, the kind of unfussy style that anything in life can only be when you’re properly on top of it.

Williams has written nine of the tracks, a mix of folk, Americana and blues – sometimes in the feel of the one song. The themes are about everyday humanity: a labourer missing the sea he used to work on, a great guitarist who just didn’t turn up to a gig one day and was never heard of again, a traditional blues arranged and expanded by Williams, a love song “Whatever it takes to be with you….I will do”, a conversation overheard in a diner about a man who took his own life and whose family were robbed while the funeral was on, a beautifully played train song, a conversation with a TT motorcyclist wondering if this will be his year. The covers are Duke Ellington’s ‘I Got It Bad’ and Dave Alvin’s ‘King Of California’.

Williams has a list of tour dates on his website: on his own, with Boo Hewerdine as State of the Union as well as with other artists. Given how many gigs he does, some time in the year he can’t be that far from anyone reading this in Britain – as well as playing in the USA, Austria and France; the video gives you a feel for his class, go and see for yourself.

Mike Wistow

Artist’s website: https://brookswilliams.com

‘Here Comes The Blues’ – live with Phil Richardson:

LETITIA VANSANT – Circadian (own label)

CircadianLetitia VanSant’s debut album Gut It To The Studs was released eighteen months ago and had several memorable tracks on it which suggested that her decision to move from secure employment to the uncertainties of a music career wasn’t that bad an idea. She releases Circadian in February.

Very delicately, ‘You Can’t Put My Fire Out’, the opening track on the album is an emotional masterpiece. The song takes you through VanSant’s journey of recovering her self-worth after a violent encounter. The lyrics take you on the journey over time from the silence of not screaming, to the emotional weight of “Too long you’ve lived inside my mind”, to the external view “You never cease to poke and prod”; …and then to recovery “I’m the one who’s speaking now/You can’t put my fire out” and the final two verses of recovery. This is pretty powerful on the page. Watch the video below and you’ll see what VanSant does with it as a song – tentative, delicate finger picking at the beginning growing through the song to hammered strumming as her self-worth is reasserted.

This is followed by the second track, ‘Tin Man’, a song about an individual or a song about masculinity? Dunno, but this too is rather good – the song’s narrator wanting to be let in emotionally to a man who won’t let her, taught by his father that “boys don’t cry” and not seeming “to understand that your pain becomes mine”. The title, ‘Tin Man’? This is also rather lovely contrasting the narrator’s question of “Am I banging on the hollow chest of man made of tin?” with the later line referencing the Wizard Of Oz “Even the Tin Man was searching for a heart”. She describes the song as: “Our culture makes it very difficult for men to be emotionally vulnerable. I don’t know what it’s like to be a man, but I know what it is to be a person who loves one and wants to connect”.

The Americana style that VanSant plays is known for dissecting emotions but these two songs are sophisticated and beautifully match the music, the melody and the emotional tug of VanSant’s vocal to the lyrics.

Other highlights include ‘Most Of Our Dreams Don’t Come True’. Is the central image of losing a stillborn child an individual story or a metaphor for us all (or both)? Again, dunno – but the vocal and the playing are lovely and at its finale it’s another tale of overcoming, so that you can “stand up tall”.

‘Circadian’, the title track, was inspired by an article about light pollution and is a reflection on whether we should simplify our lives and “sing along/The music the world made before we/Drowned it out with all these machines”. The final track, ‘Rising Tide’ shows that VanSant can (country-)rock it as well – a lively end to the album, but still with a thoughtful-cum-vicious lyric about the modern world in which Wall Street money has “plans for our pockets, cigarettes for our lungs/Poison for our babies and bullets for our guns”.

Circadian is Letitia VanSant’s second album and you feel she is leaving behind the label of “emerging talent”. Just take out “emerging”, there are some rather good tracks on this album. She is on tour in the UK from Late April to early May, details on her website.

Mike Wistow

Artist’s website: https://www.letitiavansant.com/home-1

‘You Can’t Put My Fire Out’ – live:

GILL LANDRY – Skeleton At The Banquet (Banquet Records)

Skeleton At The BanquetGill Landry releases his fifth album, Skeleton At The Banquet, this week with a couple of launch gigs in London on January 28th and 29th. His previous solo albums have been well-received but he is probably better known as a member of the Old Crow Medicine Show from 2004 to 2014, receiving various awards including a Grammy.

The songs on Skeleton At The Banquet snuck up on me – pleasant enough on a first play but grabbing me more and more on subsequent hearings. Landry’s voice has the same kind of baritone timbre that tells you its owner has been there, seen it, survived it (Kristofferson-ish – and whatever that ‘it’ may be) and is now enough in control again of his life that he can play this back to us (Cohen-ish) in songs that beat slower than most hearts at rest. The tunes have lovely melodies and there are some great lyrics full of equivocation intermingled in them.

The link below is to ‘I Love You Too’. “I was glad to share your bed/Often for a night or two/Should have probably smiled instead/When I said that I love you” and the subsequent exploration of the relationship. It’s not romantic – a song about the potential cruelty of saying I love you – but it doesn’t half cut to one aspect at the complex heart of our relationships.

‘The Refuge Of Your Arms’ takes the equivocation in Landry’s lyrics into most lines of the song from the opening “There’s victory in surrender” or the later ”Simple truths turn complex lies” to the poetry in other lines “Hungry ghosts on crowded streets/Empty hearts tween dirty sheets” or “Thirsty souls in whisky bars” and then the yearning chorus of wanting to go from the anonymity of the streets to a place “Where I knew no harm/The sweet home I used to know/In the refuge of your arms”.

Landry describes the album as having been written “two summers ago in a small flat in a coastal village in western France. This all gave me an objectivity I didn’t even know I was looking for and led to me writing this series of reflections on the collective hallucination of America and a few love songs for good measure”. Titles like ‘Trouble Town’ and ‘Nobody’s Coming’ (“Everyone hoping they’re more than slaves”) give you a sense of Landry’s take on wider American society. My favourite of these songs is ‘The Place They Call Home’ which not only has a lovely rolling tune (with a glorious bit of mood-setting-violin from Odessa Jorgensen in a couple of places) but a lyric which is disturbing in its commentary on the American Dream.

It’s worth coming to a close with a note on the wider musicality of the album. I mentioned above the slower-than-resting-heartbeat beat of most songs – but there are also a couple of tracks with a more up-tempo feel in ‘The Wolf’ and ‘Angeline’. The album ends on ‘Portrait of Astrid (a Nocturne)’ – an instrumental which is what it says.

There are nine tracks and Skeleton at the Banquet is a fine album. After his London dates, Landry is in Holland in early February and returns to the UK for more gigs between February 11th and 19th.

Mike Wistow

Artist’s website: http://www.gilllandrymusic.com

‘I Love You Too’ – official video:

MIKE ZITO – Live From The Top (Gulf Coast Records)

Live From The TopMike Zito, Blues Music Award winner whose 2018 album First Class Life entered the Billboard Top Blues Albums chart at number one, has re-released Live From The Top. The re-release whets the appetite for a three-part tour of America, Europe (Germany, Holland, Belgium and France) and the UK from January to April.

I missed Live From The Top first time round but it’s got a great live feel to it. The songs were recorded over two nights and, without eliding the tracks together, have been put together in a way that keeps the sense of a great night out. The band are in a groove, with guests Teresa James, Ana Popovic, Curtis Salgado, Nick Moss, Jimmy Carpenter – and Zito’s guitar cutting vibrantly through the night time.

Many years ago I sat in a Blues Club in Boston (UK, sadly but nonetheless it was a damn good blues venue which is now gone, even more sadly) listening to someone play Hendrix’s ‘Hey Joe’ and realised that the song was the standard by which I judged blues/rock bands. Zito and his band nail it in a nine-minute version that feels all too brief – it’s atmospheric enough that I stopped writing, turned the volume up and just listened while it played.

The album opens with ‘Natural Born Lover’ and I’ve put a link in the video below to a version where you get the feel for Zito and his band playing live. There are thirteen tracks in total. Other highlights include ‘Ice Cream Man’, ‘Pearl River’, an interesting almost country rock feel on ‘One Step At A Time’, the harmonica heavy ‘19 Years Old’, and the slow blues of ‘All Last Night’.

Live From The Top has got just about everything you’d want from a live blues album. Dates for the real thing are on Zito’s website, the tour advertised as ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll: A Tribute To Chuck Berry Tour’ in support of a new album of the same name.

Mike Wistow

Artist’s website: https://www.mikezito.com

‘Natural Born Lover’ – live:

THUNDER AND RAIN – Passing In The Night (own label)

Passing In The NightThunder And Rain are a four-piece band from Colorado who play Americana-esque music that is influenced by a mix of styles from classic country to old time, bluegrass, pop, and folk. Passing In The Night is their third album, to be released on January 31st and supported by gigs in Colorado followed by a return to the UK in May.

The songs are credited to the band as a whole, but there are suggestions both that lead singer Erinn Peet Lukes is the main song-writer and that the album was written after she went through a break-up. As so often, there is a creativity arising from it. The band’s website suggests that, “If the album was a movie, it would be a series of vignettes, detailing the different ways two people can meet, connect, and then disappear from each others lives”. Have a listen to ‘Uncharted, Farewell’ in the link below and you can hear the clarity of Peet Lukes’ vocal, the voice of an American angel stepping out on a new life. The remainder of the band are Ian Haegele (bass), Dylan McCarthy (Mandolin) and Allen Cooke (Dobro) and you can hear how well the band support the song from the opening guitar riff to the places where the mandolin takes over.

‘Down A Rabbit Hole’ is another instantly attractive song, the bounce of the music contradicting the doubt of wondering “maybe I’ll make it till morning”. ‘Walk Right Through The Door Of My Heart’ is everything you want a classic country song to be. It has the kind of chorus for which you should be sitting at a table, beer in hand, watching the band and singing in alliance with the female singer (about life’s dreams that have failed and the ships that have sailed) while the song builds to the concluding “Take the narrow pathway to my bed/And walk right through the door of my heart”. Perfect.

Other tracks nod more to bluegrass – ‘Two Ships’, ‘Nobody’s Darlin’’ and ‘Make It Better’ for example. ‘Wine And Weed And You’ not only references Lowell George in its title but has that same ability to transcend acoustic genres – it’s a country-ish arrangement but it’s not pinned there. ‘Get It Together’ and ‘Uncharted’ are snippets (each is less than a minute) but they work in the overall character of the album. ‘House of Light’ has a great refrain, “Love you all my life”, and some lovely instrumentation. ‘Run With You’ is more mainstream, the kind of song that would make a good introductory single or would draw you into a tent to watch the band.

Thunder And Rain are on tour in the UK for most of May – playing from North-East Scotland to the edge of the English Channel in Dorset and many points in between. They increased their fan base on the last tour of the UK and this album and this album can only build it further. Details of dates and venues are on the band’s website.

Mike Wistow

Artist’s website: https://thunderandrainmusic.com/home

‘Uncharted / Farewell’ – official video: