Michael McDermott – St Paul’s Boulevard

St. Paul’s Boulevard is the sonic vision of McDermott and co-producer Steven Gillis (who also drums), with musicians Matt Thompson on acoustic and electric bass, Grant Tye on guitars, Heather Lynne Horton on violin and vocals and Vijay Tellis-Nayak on piano and organ. Additional musicians are Will Kimbrough (guitars, banjo, mandolin) John Deaderick on (piano, organ, keyboards), Danny Mitchell (piano, keyboards) and David Grissom (guitars).

It gathers its creative momentum by introducing characters lost and found, rich and poor, young and old, and many struggling to survive on a fictional street that could exist anywhere. McDermott is at his most passionate whether on driving folk-rockers like ‘Our Little Secret’, a soundtrack for restless days and lust-filled nights, ‘Sick of This Town’, with its chugging folk-country bottom beat, a cathartic ode to getting out of our stifling neighborhood, ‘Marlowe’ a tribute to Raymond Chandler’s character in an anthemic heartland rocker. McDermott has been down and got himself up again, and his music reflects that, feisty, articulate and real. Sharp.

Mean Mary – Portrait of a Woman (Part 1)

Mary has her hands in every aspect of the album from producing to writing to performing and is joined by a talented group of folks that includes her family – her brother, Frank James brings extra fun to the songs with his baritone voice and unique 12-string guitar playing while her mother, Jean James, co-wrote several songs. Since Mary and Jean are both award-winning novelists, it’s no wonder that this album is full of humour and plot twists.

Those lyrics and tunes seamlessly intertwine around Mary’s scintillating instrumentation on banjo, guitar and violin. “She possesses a full and deep impassioned voice and a delivery that falls between jazz and mountain music: like a hillbilly Amy Winehouse.” Wish I could take credit for that excellent summary, but I can’t. Equally versatile on guitar, fiddle, and 8 other instruments, Mary has lightning-fast fingers, haunting vocals, and intricate story songs. She’s a high-energy performer that thrives on variety and a songwriter that chooses unusual subject matters. Intricate.

Steve Dawson & The Telescope 3 – Phantom Threshold

Phantom Threshold is an instrumental release that resumes musical conversations started in Telescope, Steve’s 2008 pedal steel-based instrumental album. The core band, dubbed The Telescope 3 in reference to that release, is Jeremy Holmes (bass), Chris Gestrin (keyboards), and Jay Bellerose (drums/percussion). All of the tracks are Steve Dawson originals, except ‘The Waters Rise’ a co-write with Fats Kaplin, and a woozy cover of The Beach Boys’ ‘You Still Believe In Me’.

The album has an expansive Paris, Texas era Ry Cooder feel with a pulsing psychedelic undercurrent. Best listened to from start to finish as a complete experience, there’s a story arc that begins with ‘Cozy Corner’s mixture of sliding strings and celestial keyboards with a slight hint of early seventies Floyd. Musical themes appear, indelibly imprint themselves, shimmer, dissolve and disappear as new ideas to emerge. Dawson’s collective musical visions are finally deconstructed with ‘Whirlwind’ – an evocative, scratchy solo piece played on a Weissenborn with paper taped across the strings – that takes us home. Impressive in his ability to diversity, this is strong. Impressionist.

The trio of singer/songwriters have
created a beautifully engaging album that follows their first release in 2016 (The Space Between). Among the guest contributors are violinist and composer Seonaid Aitken and Nashville-based guitarist, songwriter and producer Dan Wheeler. Yvonne and David have supported Eddi Reader throughout the UK and performed with Beth Nielsen Chapman. Gareth has appeared with Phil Beer and Waterson Carthy among others.

Featuring ten original songs and a variety of musical influences, they weave an
exceptional sonic tapestry with great skill and originality. Their guests grace and energise the album with instinctive flair. From the expansive opening of ‘Unconditional’ to the foot stomping protest of ‘Revolution’, it’s compelling listening throughout. A wide range of musical styles are evident but typically the material is centred around acoustic guitars and piano. ‘Trouble’ has infectious chorus and bluegrass energy enhanced by violin, mandolin and accordion. ‘Altitude’ has Gareth’s trademark fingerpicking guitar to soothe and inspire
before electric guitars and Hammond organ create the backdrop to the evocative
lament ‘In The Riot Of Love’. They’ve produced something that is rich in melody, harmony and poetic nuance. Lovely.

The Often Herd – Where the Big Lamp Shines

The Often Herd are an Anglo-American UK-based four-piece with influences drawn from psychedelia, folk-rock, bluegrass and jazz. From the industrial North East, Songwriters Rupert Hughes and Evan Davies front the line-up on guitar and mandolin writing songs steeped in personal experience whilst drawing from a wide pool of influences ranging from old-time to psychedelia. American-born fiddler Niles Krieger and jazz bassist Sam Quintana.  Rupert Hughes (guitar) and Evan Davies (mandolin), add fiery instrumental skills to the mix. Together, their sound is boldly contemporary and soothingly familiar, taking time-honoured traditions to new places with a fresh perspective.

Where The Big Lamp Shines is a ridiculously mature self-penned ten-track debut album. In a press release they’ve apparently called themselves ‘New Grass’ and it’s quite apt. Yes there’s bluegrass roots, but they use those roots to blossom left right and centre. ‘good-time’ music is more cerebral. Aches and pains we all feel in and out of relationships (‘Rosary Beads’), bittersweet (‘I Was’) and delicate (‘A Sparrow Lingers’) yet jaunty (‘Inner Peace’), jazzy (‘Cheese and Onion Pasty Rag’). I applaud their diversity with the likes of the haunting ‘A Fool Such As I’ or the excellent instrumental ‘Sycamore Gap’, as Northumbrian as it comes. Gutsy, rustic, passionate, articulate – they’ve got it all. Once “Herd” never forgotten. Virtuous virtuosity.

The Black Feathers – Angel Dust & Cyanide

The Black Feathers are seasoned tourers Ray Hughes (vocals, guitars, keys) and Sian Chandler (vocals). Their personal lives and musical ambitions seem to have synced from 2012 onwards, and this album follows a previous EP (Strangers we Meet) and album (Soaked to the Bone) as well as a live album recorded in Ireland. This time round they’re supported by the likes of Will McFarlane (Bonnie Raitt) and Dan Moore (Massive Attack).

Americana, Folk, and Acoustic Indie Rock sensibilities with a hint of progressive tendencies all coexist comfortably in this musical world, and the album mixes all such elements into a heady and enticing mix. The pop Americana on opener ‘Lighthouse On Fire’, the country rocking ‘Golden Hour’ through to the heartfelt ballad ‘Strangers In The Dark’ are all good signposts. Their passion ignites vocally on on the title track and they put their own spin on Portishead’s ‘Glory Box’, with vibrant strings and a steady drumbeat. I applaud their roots recognition and drive to create a new musical mix. Delightful.

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