RODNEY CROWELL – Close Ties (New West Records 6354)

Close TiesWhile I’ve long been aware of Rodney Crowell’s talents as a songwriter, going back at least as far as Emmylou Harris’s 1975 recording of ‘Bluebird Wine’, his songs have always reached me as interpreted by other A-listers. So I jumped at the chance to take a closer look at his album Close Ties, due for release on the 7th April. And I wasn’t disappointed.

While the number of musicians participating in one or more of these ten tracks is too large for a complete listing here, it’s worth mentioning one or two names, their presence giving some idea of the regard in which Crowell is held by his fellow musicians. Besides vocal contributions from John Paul White, Rosanne Cash and Sheryl Crow, there are instrumental contributions from Tommy Emmanuel, Steuart Smith, and Jordan Lehning (who co-produced with Kim Buie) and others.

But there are also ghostly Nashville legends walking these lyrics, such as Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Dennis Sanchez – could ‘Newberry’ in ‘Nashville 1972’ be Mickey Newbury? – but also survivors like Willie Nelson and Buck White. Crowell has been quoted as saying “It’s a loose concept album … and the concept is related to how you tell stories about yourself.” That may sound self-indulgent, but this is not just a personal memoir but an insider view of a somewhat alternative Nashville that has given modern music some wonderful moments. If this suggests an easy listening experience, it isn’t meant to: Crowell’s often sardonic and sometimes bitter wordplay makes few concessions to “the petty politics of bliss“. It demands (and amply repays) close attention.

Here’s the customary track-by-track listing (all tracks were written by Rodney Crowell except where noted below):

  1. Crowell has expressed a hope that “my study of the blues is starting to show up in my music.” ‘East Houston Blues’ is by no means a 12-bar, but the lyric has a hard-times lyric sung feel over a blues-y shuffle beat, benefiting from Tommy Emmanuel’s classy acoustic lead guitar.
  2. ‘Reckless’ is a slow, introspective song, with clever but understated strings behind the acoustic guitars, harmonium and minimal percussion.
  3. In contrast, ‘Life Without Susanna’ has much more of a rock feel, with a hard-edged lyric about “A self-sure bastard and a stubborn bitch/Locked in a deadly game of chess“.
  4. ‘It Ain’t Over Yet’ is closer to country rock, with excellent additional vocals from John Paul White and Roseanne Cash. The uncredited harmonica play-out is sparse yet haunting.
  5. ‘I Don’t Care Anymore’ chronicles disillusion over a riff that reminds me a little of early-ish Stones, with a touch of Chuck Berry’s ‘Too Much Monkey Business’ towards the end of a harsh lyric.
  6. ‘I’m Tied To Ya’ was written by Rodney Crowell and Michael McGlynn, a ballad that also features attractive vocals from Sheryl Crow.
  7. ‘Forgive Me Annabelle’ is another ballad with piano and strings predominant in the accompaniment.
  8. ‘Forty Miles From Nowhere’ is another slow song that hints at a tragic backstory – “If there’s anything that we can do rings hollow down a telephone line“.
  9. ‘Storm Warning’ was written by Rodney Crowell and Mary Karr: it’s a rockier number, but maintains a mood of foreboding and very bad weather. “Ninety-five miles of twisted aftermath…
  10. The CD finishes with ‘Nashville 1972’, a look back at his arrival in “Old School Nashville“: a simple, almost folky song, though I could almost imagine Kenny Rogers singing it.

When I hear or read of a songwriter talking about poets and ‘poetic sensibility’, my first impulse is usually to turn the page or put on a different CD. But in this case, it’s not inappropriate. This isn’t the finely-tuned poetry of great literature – though Crowell can turn a phrase as neatly as any lyric writer I know – but it does have the rough-hewn passion and clear-sighted observation of the best Americana.

David Harley

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Artist’s website: www.rodneycrowell.com

‘It Ain’t Over Yet’ – official video:

RED SKY JULY: new album & single

ShadowbirdsRED SKY JULY – Shadowbirds

Album release September 15th 2014

‘Losing You’ – single release Sept 22nd

Red Sky July return with Shadowbirds, the follow up to their acclaimed, self-titled 2011 debut. Gorgeous harmonies, beautiful melodies, top-drawer songwriting, signature guitar playing and an Americana-inflected, alt-country twang are the name of the game for this accomplished London-based trio.

Red Sky July are husband and wife duo Ally McErlaine (guitarist in 15 million-selling band Texas) and Shelly Poole (previously one half of million-selling duo Alisha’s Attic) along with former model Charity Hair (The Alice Band and, latterly, The Ailerons with Blur’s Dave Rowntree).

What started as a “soul food” side project, one with no boundaries or expectations, developed into the band’s debut album that garnered wide media support, with Q Magazine describing it as “a timeless blend of vocals & intricate twang…, as atmospheric as it is emotional”, the Evening Standard as “a seductive, exuberant mix of voices” and the Daily Telegraph as “well-crafted songs featuring slick harmonies”. The release also saw support on national radio stations including Radio 2 (who described the band as having “mesmerising vocals, touching lyrics, beautiful melodies and a sense of self belief”) and appearances on national TV including BBC Breakfast.

Consummate live performers, a headline national tour and support slots with the likes of Deacon Blue, James Walsh (Starsailor) preceded them joining Jools Holland as special guests on his UK summer tour, returning later that year to perform at his sold out performance at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Most recently the band toured with renowned Nashville singer/songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman on her UK tour, both opening for her and performing as her band.  Red Sky July also performed at the Scottish Music Awards where they were presented with a prestigious Tartan Clef award by Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy.

Shadowbirds was produced by Ross Hamilton and Michael Bannister of Glasgow’s Rocket Science Studios with musical collaboration from Mark Neary and Ally’s Texas bandmates Ross McFarlane and Eddie Campbell, “the great thing about recording in Glasgow is that we can call on these amazing musicians to work with us. We recorded the entire album in one week” Ally recalls.

‘Lay Down Your Love’, the first single from new album, is Shelly explains “about asking for a break when you’ve really had as much as you can take…Does it always have to be the hard way?” and is a perfect appetiser for Shadowbirds. Themes of hope, love, loss and despair are often couched in contrasting music – the foot-tapping jauntiness of ‘Here Then Gone’ masks the desolation of the lyrics; whilst ‘New Morning Light’’s more mournful melody is actually about a positive change in the air.

Stories of relationships – both doomed and enduring – sit alongside tales of tragedy and affirmation. Elsewhere, ‘Renegade’ was written after reading Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy “we think it is how the book would sound if it had noise” Charity reveals.  Anglo-Italian singer/songwriter Jack Savoretti features, and shares the writing duties with Shelly, on ‘Any Day Now’, a song inspired by the diaries of Karen Christenze Dinesen (the inspiration for the film Out Of Africa).

When asked what they wanted to achieve when they started making the album Shelly simply replies “We just wanted to make something beautiful”.

Mission accomplished.

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Nicole Maguire – WHAT YOU REALLY MEAN

Nicole MaguireNicole Maguire has been determined to sing since childhood, she’s been writing songs since she was 12 and at just 15 was gigging, playing opening slots for anyone who’d let her. In addition to her musical gifts Nicole Maguire has been blessed with dedication and determination. This means she now finds herself, still in her mid 20s, with admirers including Paul Brady, Nanci Griffiths & Damien Dempsey and a self-funded album produced by Mitchell Froom (Crowded House, Pearl Jam, Paul McCartney). The band on the album includes Elvis Costello & the Attractions’ drummer, Pete Thomas; Crosby Stills & Nash’s bass player Bob Glaub and Val McCallum, guitarist for Sheryl Crow and Lucinda Williams.  Vonda Shepard, the award-winning singer from Ally McBeal, handled backing vocals, with Grammy award-winning engineer David Boucher assisting Mitchell Froom.  Nicole recalls that there was an incredible energy and momentum to the sessions. “We did it all live. We just went in and played it till we loved it and then we stopped. I hoped to create something that in twenty years I could be completely proud of. I think I did that”.

The album is profoundly emotional with a homespun lyricism that recalls Lucinda Williams, Bonnie Raitt’s early 70s recordings and Christine McVie’s poignant songcraft in Fleetwood Mac. Standout cuts include the stunning title track, the ethereal With You, the heartfelt sentimentality of Fall Apart and the guitar led Out Of Our Hands.

Petite and elfin, Maguire grew up in the windswept village of Conna, 20 miles from the coast of Southern Ireland — little grey stone buildings embracing a single road and subjugated under the heavy rolling rain clouds of the Celtic sea. Despite none of her immediate family playing an instrument, Maguire was powerfully drawn to music. She scoured through her family and friends’ record collections listening to everything they’d collected from folk to hard rock but was most captivated by the beguiling romanticism of the California songwriters.

A lively and inquisitive child at school, Maguire entered all the faculty’s music contests and frequently won. “Yes I used to enter competitions in primary school” she recalls. “I played pennywhistle and sang. I won one singing a Mary Black song called “No Frontiers”. Other times I would do reels and jigs. I do have a lot of medals.”

Nicole MaguirePic: Miki BarlokMaguire set out to perform her songs live but as a teenager she wasn’t legally allowed to enter the Guinness-soaked clubs of Dublin and Cork. As her growing stagecraft began to attract attention, Maguire looked for a concert mentor to coach her live performances to an even higher level. She chose none other than Ireland’s preeminent live performer – Damien Dempsey“I got invited to a Damien Dempsey gig and I went up to him and said I was a songwriter. He must hear that twenty times a week, but he gave me a support slot at his next show. He did such a wonderful thing for me. He gave me the support at his Vicar Street show which is the ultimate concert in Ireland. I got to road test those songs with a full band in front of his intense audience. I think he’s one of the most important Irish songwriters and in a hundred years from now his songs will be in all the Irish folk song books”.

As her touring became more frequent, Maguire realised she needed something to sell on the road to pay for room and board. She decided to cut an EP, but with no label she was forced to make sacrifices having to sell her car to pay for the manufacturing. Soon her frequent performances across Ireland would introduce her to her next champion — Grammy award winning Texan singer Nanci Griffith. “The girl they had lined up to support Nanci on her Irish tour pulled out at the very last minute. Nanci took me under her wing and was so kind. I learned an awful lot from those gigs. It was just me and my guitar and a theatre full of people.”Griffith and her band encouraged Maguire to try out her material Stateside. “Some of Nanci’s band said “have you ever considered going to Nashville to write? So I just saved up some money and got on a plane and went. Every second person you meet in that city is a songwriter. Even the guy driving the bus is playing the passengers his songs! I was paying for it with my hard saved pennies so I chose very carefully who I wanted to work with. It was so productive that I saved more money to go back a second time. After going to school with Paul Brady, I guess this was like going to University for me.”

With a brace of songs that she’d road tested around America and Ireland, Maguire decided it was time to make an album and headed into the recording studio with Mitchell Froom at the helm. The resulting album is now available for your listening pleasure.

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