JASON HAWK HARRIS – Love & the Dark (Bloodshot)

Love & The DarkBorn in Houston and based in LA, baby-faced singer/songwriter and classically-trained composer Jason Hawk Harris is a new name but, judging by his debut album, Love & The Dark, a follow on from his 2017 EP Formaldehyde, Tobacco and Tulips, it won’t be long before it’s one people will be very familiar with.

He’s certainly conversant with the latter half of the title. While putting the album together his mother died from complications of alcoholism; his father went bankrupt after being sued by the King of Morocco; and his sister was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and gave birth to a premature son with cerebral palsy. And that’s without dealing with his own addiction demons. As you might expect, all this has found its way into the music, something he describes as “Americana grief-grass”, an album that bears traces of John Moreland and Steve Earle as well as the old school country music he discovered as a teenager.

It opens in powerful form with the slow waltzing paranoia-fuelled ‘The Smoke And The Stars’, the initial drone giving way to ruminative guitar strumming and what sounds like the musical equivalent of comets streaking across the sky as, in a plaintive ache of a voice he sings “Tell me how was I supposed to know that they’d latch on to me and never let go?” on a lyric seeks rescue and redemption “Baby please get these stains off of me”) before it erupts into a full sonic storm.

From here he shifts into the drinking to forget (“if I drink enough‚ at least I’ll sleep”) honky tonk stomp mode with ‘Cussing At The Light’ on which he’s joined on harmonies by Natalie Nicoles, heading down a bluegrass lined path with the rowdy foot stomping Confused, a relationship song about mixed up feelings (“why can’t I be in love and be confused?”) that also takes in some fine saloon piano boogie.

Another uptempo track rooted in classic country, ‘Giving In’ addresses alcoholism as a means to numb the pain (“I gotta get this Bulleit from the bottle to my brain/ If I had a needle I would put it in my veins”) and trying to quit, a song he says was born out of his parents’ relationship and growing up with loving but alcoholic mother who never managed to stick to her resolutions to quit.

His mother eventually died as a result, and the emotionally plangent five-minute slow sway ‘Phantom Limb’, a song of loss that, featuring Rachel Baiman on vocals, recalls her funeral as he talks of his shirt that “Smells like the viewing/ Formaldehyde, tobacco and tulips/ I’ve washed it ten times, and it won’t come out” and how “I feel your fingers comb through my hair/Open my eyes and there’s no one there”. It’s hard to listen to the stark declaration “mother you’re dead” just before it launches into another muscular instrumental swell. Heading into the gospel honky tonk, pedal steel in tow, ‘Blessed Interruption’ picks up on the image with the lines “When they lower her down/In a clockwise motion, now/It can’t be too slow and it can’t be too fast”.

Likewise concerning his mother’s death, there’s a strikingly poignant note on the album’s nervy guitar and piano closing track, ‘Grandfather’, a dream in which he visits the old man at the Pearly Gates and asking if his mother is there too, the song written before her passing and going on, as his grandfather’s voice takes over to also reference the killing of 90 fans during the Eagles of Death Metal concert at the Bataclan in France before its lengthy instrumental play out.

It’s not all so heavy. There may be mortality and revival angst to the religion-themed ‘I’m Afraid’ (“No monster ever scared me like the face of Jesus Christ”) but it rattles along with the sort of country punk urgency (yet more piano boogie) pioneered by Jason and the Scorchers as he notes “Buddy‚ you can’t be too careful when it comes to Holy Ghosts”, while ‘Red Room Blues’, which again features Baiman, is pure roots pop rockabilly even if the lyrics, which seems to be about going cold turkey, aren’t exactly candyfloss as he sings “Watch the godless and the goodies tear each other down/I can hear their chomping jowels, bitch I love that sound”.

Death, drink, mothers, redemption, and God, Harris certainly ticks the boxes of country music staples (no trucks or dogs though), but the very personal rawness here is never a case of going through the motions. The search for the next Jason Isbell ends here.

Mike Davies

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Artist’s website: www.jasonhawkharris.com

‘Cussing At The Light’ – official video:

SINGLES BAR 35 A round-up of recent EPs and singles

Released to commemorate the 100th anniversary on the end of WWI, ‘Letters From Walter’ is a poignantly movie number from Cambridge folk crew RED VELVET released on Clunk and Rattle in aid of the Riders Branch, Royal British Legion. Written and sung by Les Ray, who plays guitar and banjo, and featuring harmonica by George Harper, it’s based on letters sent home by his grandfather, Private Walter Mabbutt, to his younger sister Edie in Titchmarsh, who, shortly after being despatched to France after training at Felixstowe, died in combat in Picardy, aged 19, just a few weeks before the end of the war. The song also included a spoken passage by Deirdre Muphy who reads from a letter, dated 24th November 1918, sent to Walter’s parent by Lance Corporal W. L Mandeville offering his condolences at Walter’s death, and describing some of the circumstances surrounding it.

Singles Bar 35With war on our minds, punk-folk rockers SKINNY LISTER release ’38 Minutes’ in advance of a new album next year. The song was prompted by a ballistic missile alert in Hawaii earlier this year and is typically high energy as it portrays the sense of impending doom felt by the island’s population. “This is not a drill.

Singles Bar 35Here’s a Christmas song with a difference. ‘Xmas Back Home (War Has Begun), in part inspired by John Lennon’s similarly titled song, is the recording debut by MUDDIBROOKE, a mysterious being whose true identity is a secret. It is the story of a young female soldier away from her children but who wants them to have the best Christmas possible in spite of her absence and serves to remind us that it’s not just men who are on the front line. Proceeds from downloads will go to The Royal British Legion.

MARINA FLORANCE offers up another self-released EP commissioned by the Warm & Toasty Club, a Colchester-based intergenerational community organisation working in music, arts and social history. Named for the latest project, Colchester Memory Afternoons features three numbers co-written with Jules Fox Allen drawn from the stories and reminscences of some of the town’s senior residents, opening with the gently jogging, ‘Photograph Album’ (part Emmylou, part Don Williams) featuring harmonica, cajon, melodeon and violin with Fox Allen on backing vocals. Perfectly living up to its title, ‘Warm & Toasty’ is a folksier and more specific English nostalgia track closing with spoken samples from residents at Enoch House retirement home with the third number being the violin and trombone-coloured slow waltzer ‘Take Me Back In Time’. A lovely musical comfort blanket all round.

Notes To Self is the new EP by MARIA KELLY. It opens with the delicate and fragile ‘Prelude’ which builds up until the repeated last line is lost in the mix, justifying her alt-folk tag. The other tracks are ‘June’, ‘July’ and ‘August’, the first two having already been released as singles. They tend to follow the same template as ‘Prelude’ – a simple acoustic opening building up with sound effects and more instrumentation until the production threatens to overwhelm the song. Maria’s voice is mixed too low or is perhaps not big enough to stand up to this treatment all the time.

JONAS AND JANE are a Surrey-based Americana duo, he on guitar and banjo and the pair sharing vocals. Sedona Rain is their third self-released EP, a five track set that highlights both their harmonies and bluegrass inclinations, although the opening ‘Hold Me’, with Jonas on lead, is a spare and harmonica haunted rootsy ballad. He’s also to the fore on the banjo speckled and equally moody ‘Jumping Ship’, while the three other numbers see them sharing the vocal spotlight. ‘Too Little Time’ is an equally world-wearily paced but more Appalachian flavoured number, while pedal steel bolsters the aching title track. The pace eases up a notch for the remaining track, fingerpicked and dobro styled break-up number ‘Don’t Cry For Me’ being cast in the type of bittersweet break-up song that recalls such classic pairings as Gram and Emmylou, The Civil Wars and Welch and Rawlings

Named for the Highland settlement, BIRICHEN is a new project by Catriona Sutherland, a regular performer in the Highlands, mostly with the 10-piece Dancing With Sharks. Working with fiddler Iain-Gordon Macfarlane and Robert McDonald on dobro slide, Hush (Birnam) is the debut EP, a five-track collection that opens with the latter’s ‘Holding On To Each Moment’, the sound of birds and running water backdropping a fingerpicked and fiddle accompanied number about appreciating the time and the things we have.

While steeped in folk, she also brings Americana influences to the table with two covers, first up bring the Welch and Rawlings number Scarlet Town, here given a stark British traditional folk setting with the fiddle serving as a drone-like backing. The other harks back to the music of her raising with a terrific unadorned version of Guy Clark’s ‘L.A.Freeway’ where her pure Scottish tones take on a touch of earthier dirt track roughness .

‘Gonnae Get Good’ is a slightly jazz and blues shaded self-penned number that pulls together a spectrum of influences, the final track being another cover, Jim McLean’s ‘Smile In Your Sleep, sometimes known as ‘Hush, Hush, Time To Be Sleeping’, hence the EP title. Chiming with her own family history and the history of the area, it’s Scottish lullaby set to the tune of the Gaelic air ‘The Mist Covered Mountains’ which charts the eviction and emigration  of  the crofters during the Highland Clearances, her given a nakedly sung reading that gradually gathers in suitably moody instrumentation and features evocative sampled distressed voices and rain and storm effects.  This is, apparently, her first commercial release. Hopefully, there’ll be many more to follow.

An acclaimed bluegrass musician and one half of 10-String Symphony, RACHEL BAIMAN gets into the (American) holiday spirit with Thanksgiving (Free Dirt), a four track EP of introspective songs centred around themes of indigenous rights, home and homelessness, and love in hard times. Opening number ‘Tent City’, a lively bluegrass number with echoes of ‘Gentle On My Mind’ and featuring, among others, Tristan Scroggins and Molly Tuttle, was inspired by a Nashville homeless community and is sung from the perspective of a man fallen into homelessness and addiction, making him a person rather than a statistic.

Taking the tempo down, the title track emerged from a writing residency and concerns indigenous rights and relationships as embodied in the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline, the song fuelled by “the irony of Thanksgiving being celebrated right as people were being arrested and sprayed with water guns for protecting their right to clean water.”

Again joined by Tuttle with whom she worked up the number during their UK tour, ‘Madison Tennessee’ is a cover of the John Hartford love letter to his home town (to where she herself has recently moved), the EP ending with ‘Times Like These’, a pedal-steel lined and fiddle slow waltz testament to what gets us through the bad, co-written with Thom Shuyler and duetted in harmony with Josh Oliver.

‘I Think I Saw You On The Street’ is the first single from a new EP by MARBL, an Israeli duo possibly based in Germany – the information available is a bit vague in places. It’s a reflective song inspired by a chance encounter with an ex and the thoughts that it provokes – a scenario that everyone can relate to.

BEANS ON TOAST (aka Jay McAllister) brilliantly tackles the shock of the new with ‘Alexa’ – “Alexa, have you considered your military capabilities?” – the second single from his forthcoming album, A Bird In The Hand. It’s a punkish sort of song with words tumbling over one another as Jay races to beat the three minute mark. It’s all true – we may be suspicious of Amazon but it’s just too damn convenient.

Following last year’s debut album, Alight & Adrift, Suffolk-born, York-based mandolinist singer-songwriter TILLY MOSES returns with a new single ‘Cradled And Cared For’ (GingerDog Records), a lovely softly sung fiddle-hued number, about how friendship and a warm kitchen can give you the strength to get through hard times and fight to improve the world.

‘Haunted Man’ is the debut digital single from THE KILPECKS, a band formed in the Welsh Marches by members of Lonesome Stampede. It’s big and funky with a knockout bass line and a powerful lead vocalist and although it was released for Halloween it has a link to #MeToo. It would be nice to think that an album might be in the wind.

Scottish outfit ATTIC LIGHTS have a new album, Love In The Time of Shark Attacks, set for release next year, trailing it with the jangly folk-pop ‘Never By Myself’ (Elefant), a number written on a bus by singer Colin McCardle after somehow being left behind by the band following a show in Inverness. It’s paired with a sparkling cover of ‘Bright Eyes’ given a Teenage Fanclub treatment.

‘Bless The Ground You Grow On’ is the first single from ODETTE MICHELL’s forthcoming debut album. It was produced by Stu Hanna and has the pastoral autumnal feel of Robin Williamson’s ‘October Song’. It’s coupled with ‘The Eastern Seas’, a song about Irish emigration built on shruti drone and acoustic guitar with violin and bouzouki. Odette has a strong voice and songwriting talent that we should be hearing a lot more of in the future.

10 STRING SYMPHONY – Weight Of The World (Poppychop Records)

10 STRING SYMPHONY Weight Of The WorldIf Rachel Baiman and Christian Sedelmyer performed with acoustic guitars they would still be worth a second listen because their material is so good. In fact they play fiddles – two five-strings, hence their name – and banjo with their only support from occasional percussion and what they do with their instruments makes them special.

You might expect 10 String Symphony to sound real old-timey or even bluegrass and, although they do dip into traditional styles now and again, they mostly don’t. I don’t know if it’s possible to flat-pick a fiddle but that is exactly what one of them seems to be doing a lot of the time. There is one traditional song, ‘Black Eyed Suzie’, and two covers in the set. The first of these is Dylan’s ‘Mama, You Been On My Mind’ which replaces the lazy delivery of the original with a quick, edgy reading that is quite disconcerting. The second is John Hartford’s ‘On Christmas Eve’ on which they really get traditional. It’s a great song, full of timeless images that suit the duo so well.

Most of their songs are written by Rachel Baiman and they’re the kind of songs you want to spend time unpicking. The most obvious one is ‘Oscar’s Verdict’, about the Pistorius trial. The facts are in the public domain and interpretation is easy. The first two songs, ‘Anna Jane’ and ‘Someone To Be Good For’ come from deep within Rachel and, although some lines float the surface, the deeper meanings remain somehow elusive.

Weight Of The World is a knockout album which, with just ten tracks, leaves you wanting more.

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ website: http://www.10stringsymphony.com/

‘Black Eyed Suzie’ live: