Oct 202020
 

My Darling ClementineForgive the sense of deja vu. We have indeed been here before, at different stages of fruition; this being the 3rd and final chapter of Country Darkness, hitherto a work in progress.

For those not up to speed, here we have the UK’s answer to George’n’Tammy, the married country torch singers Michael Weston King and Lou Dalgleish. Otherwise known as my Darling Clementine, they’re both big fans of Elvis Costello, and they have been spending their 2020 putting together a collection of Costello covers. To add icing to that cake, they’ve done this in conjunction with no less than Steve Nieve, right hand man and keyboard pilot for Costello since near the beginning. Released in three helpings (earlier volumes reviewed here and here), this final set is again four songs. Over the course of the year, the question has changed from whether it will be worth hearing (’twas ever thus) to whether they can keep up the momentum.

My answer: a muted yes.
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Sep 042020
 

Today a double album’s worth of material is being released to celebrate the U.K.’s legends of glam rock – Marc Bolan and his band, T.Rex. Coinciding with the group’s long-overdue induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in November, AngelHeaded Hipster (its name culled from Allen Ginsberg’s famous poem, “Howl”) features 26 covers of classic T-Rex songs by a diverse collection of artists ranging from Kesha to King Khan and U2 to Nick Cave.

AngelHeaded Hipster is produced by the late Hal Willner – who sadly passed away from complications from Covid-19 this past April. In the liner notes, Willner said, “As I was listening and getting familiar with all of Bolan’s work, I discovered that this guy was actually a great composer…I put him in the same pantheon as other composers that I’ve explored before (Kurt Weill, Thelonious Monk, Nino Rota, etc.). So, the concept for the album became to show Bolan as a composer…”

And he goes on to do exactly that.
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Aug 302020
 

molly tuttle but i'd rather be with youIf I say that Molly Tuttle is a name we will all hear more of in the future, I hope that sounds nothing like hyperbole. She is a genuine talent, a virtuoso on her bluegrass-tinged acoustic guitar, blessed also with a sweet yet sassy voice and a gift to pen songs that both encompass the present, whilst invoking the rich musical heritage of, whether you like the phrase or not, Americana.

Not for nothing did Tuttle win instrumentalist of the year at the 2018 Americana awards, and guitarist of the year at the International Bluegrass Awards of the year before (the first woman to receive the latter honor, and at age 24 besides). Being brought up in her family band, the Tuttles, under the expert supervision of her Dad, Jack, a virtuoso multi-instrumentalist and tutor himself, probably helped, but is was as she cut loose that the began to make her own name. Crowdfunding her debut, the EP Rise, gave her sufficient notice for Compass Records to pick her up, re-releasing Rise and her subsequent full length debut When You’re Ready, which dropped last year. The fact that guest vocals were provided by Jason Isbell gives an idea of her weight in music circles.

So why would she follow up these largely self-written (or co-written) projects with a covers album? And so soon? The answer is that neither did she expect to, the effects both of the coronavirus lockdown and the early March tornado that devastated her adopted hometown of North Nashville being a joint stimulus. Seeking inspiration in the absence of any live outlet, she began to revisit the records of her youth. Teaching herself pro-tools, she laid down some tracks, sending them to producer Tony Berg, who sent them on to various other musicians for them to flesh out, all working separately and remotely. Not that you can tell.

Now, with the bio thus far, is …but i’d rather be with you going to be a litany of country standards and bluegrass staples? Fear not, anything but. Tuttle’s inspirations range widely among artists as diverse as Rancid and FKA Twigs, embracing also the Rolling Stones, Harry Styles(!) and the National. The only nod to her received tradition comes from songbook of Karen Dalton, herself a far from typical Nashville denizen. As an incentive, it is also entirely safe for the banjo averse.
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Aug 292020
 

Blackbirds LaVettejenn champion the blue albumIt is hard to believe Bettye LaVette is 74… actually, scratch that: it is only too easy, what with her raggedly powerful voice etched deep with the experience of hard knocks. In what she laughingly now calls her 5th career, the fact she is here at all demonstrates the quiet determination and self belief that has seen her drag herself up onto her uppers, clawing her way into the limelight some decades after she was carelessly and callously dumped by the industry she had dedicated her life to. And still does, as her new album Blackbirds demonstrates.

Like many, I first heard of her in the noughties, on the background of a disc of shelved recordings making its way to Gilles Petard, a French soul music aficionado who re-released those 1973 tapes, Child of the Seventies, as Souvenirs a full 23 years later. Avid ears liked what they heard and she was off. Many of those ears to appreciate that LaVette had had her first hit single in 1963, and was a running mate alongside all the soul greats–Aretha, Otis, Marvin–if less willing to play the party line, preferring her own counsel.

Since then, LaVette has produced a regular stream of releases. Not a major songwriter, she has always styled her work as re-interpretation, specializing in the rock and pop acts of the ’60s through ’80s, rather than the Motown and Stax staples you might expect of her. The term cover version is arguably insulting of her talent; she refuses to simply echo the originals, blitzing both Laurel Canyon hippiesque and British Invasion bombast into a raw R’n’B screw-you. Her last album, 2018’s Things Have Changed, consisted entirely of Bob Dylan covers. She has scooped up awards and kept active to the astonishment of many of her initial peers: her 2012 book, A Woman Like Me, is a roller coaster read, outlining her unchanged approach to life then and now. Your mother would probably not like her.

Her new release Blackbirds is slightly different, taking a wider perspective and is to celebrate the songs of, largely, her peers, black women singers with something to say and who made damn sure they did. (Black birds, yes?) So she covers the likes of Nina Simone, Dinah Washington, and Leonard Cohen’s longtime writing partner and backing singer, Sharon Robinson. Tipping a more overtly jazz and blues hat than her usual rock’n’soul style, there is also a timely take on Billie Holiday’s chilling “Strange Fruit.” Plus a slightly surprising closing track. Backed by a slick quartet, led by album producer Steve Jordan on drums, the overall feel is of a single set piece, the backing as tight as LaVette’s voice is loosely compelling.
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Aug 192020
 

It isn’t any longer a surprise when avowed adherents of one tradition tackle another, and folk singers tackling the pop charts is one of the staples of current expectation. And it can be a mixed blessing.

Kate Rusby has one of the purest and most distinctive of voices that grace the UK folk circuit, and has been one of the most successful, her career stretching back over three-plus decades. Firmly associated with the trad. arr. firmament, her voice, with acoustic guitar, fiddles, and squeezeboxes reaping the songs of old England, she also writes material that can fit into that style seamlessly. An unmistakably Yorkshire presence, her accent unadorned by any need to adopt the faux-ploughboy (or -girl) many folkies seem to adopt, her whole persona seems inhabited by the tradition. There are no messages, she has no soapbox–just the singing. Continue reading »

Aug 142020
 

tanya donellyjenn champion the blue albumTanya Donelly has a long history, as both singer-songwriter of Belly and solo artist, of interweaving emotionally charged originals with covers similarly forged from despair, heartbreak, and loneliness. The results have frequently been sublime, as when she complemented “Gepetto” with a heartfelt version of Gram Parsons’ “Hot Burrito #1” on the Gepetto EP of 1992, or when she accompanied “New England” and “Days of Grace” with an equally fervent rendition of the Beatles’ “Long, Long, Long” on 2006’s This Hungry Life. The covers have usually taken the backseat as B-sides and deep cuts, or as contributions to tribute albums to the likes of The Smiths or Elliott Smith. Yet now, in this topsy-turvy year of 2020, they are the main event; Donelly has not only released a series of quarantine covers for charity (featuring Labi Siffre’s “Bless the Telephone,” and the Pixies’ “Here Comes Your Man”), but has also polished off a covers album in collaboration with the Parkington Sisters, Tanya Donelly and the Parkington Sisters.

It’s Donelly’s first all-covers album, therefore, that stands before us, but it’s clearly no ordinary covers album. The Belly, Breeders, and Throwing Muses star initiated it out of a desire to do something different with the format in the wake of Juliana Hatfield’s recent successes with Sings Olivia Newton-John (2018), and Sings The Police (2019). She might well have followed in the steps of her sometime collaborator and fellow doyen of New England alt-rock by making, effectively, a tribute album to one of her musical heroes: Kate Bush, say, or Echo and the Bunnymen. But instead, Donelly has attempted to bring a sense of unity to nine reinterpretations of songs that have been hugely meaningful to her, by way of the moody string arrangements and somber vocal harmonies that the classically trained, Massachusetts-based Parkington Sisters are known for.
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