Categories
Music Reviews

The Rails

The Rails

Cancel The Sun

Thirty Tigers

The Rails are the folk-rock duo for our times. The songs are well crafted, the singing is superb, the instrumental breaks are stunning and it’s all for nothing. The album title, Cancel The Sun, telegraphs the despair that permeates the album. I suppose it’s in their DNA. Guitarist/vocalist James Walbourne has spent time in the Pretenders, the Pogues, Son Volt and many more as hired gun. Kami Thompson is the daughter of Richard and Linda Thompson. The Rails draws on this genealogy to craft some wonderfully crafted songs that are among the most nihilistic things I’ve heard in ages.

The very first lines of the very first song sets the tone. Kami Thompson sings, “Don’t give me that look again/I’m just your lover/I’m not your friend.” Ouch. And “Call Me When It All Goes Wrong” is a love song. James sings, “I’m in prison, bored and poisoned/Spend all my money on the ball and chain.” That’s James love song. If this is how the Rails write about love, it’s no surprise that “Dictator” and “Cancel the Sun” are astonishingly bleak. “Cancel the Sun, Hello Armageddon” is beautifully sung bleakness.

Once up on a time, say when I was a teenager, I would have seen this bleakness as gallows humor. Having been in this increasingly forlorn veil of sorrows for over five decades, I can’t whistle past the graveyard as easily. I’m troubled by the imagery in “Mossy Well.” James sings” So buy a round and wish me well/then drown me in the mossy well.” It’s a song about abandoning hope and flirting with suicide. Kami Thompson doesn’t flirt. She stands on the sidewalk yelling JUMP. On “Save the Planet” she sweetly sings “You’re all talk, your head’s in the sky/We’re all facing catastrophe/Load the chamber, get down on your knees.” Maybe that’s not clear enough. The chorus goes, “Save the planet, kill yourself/You know what you have to do.” When I was a teenager, I would have found this morbidly funny (I was highly amused by the theme from MASH, “Suicide is Painless”). Having battled depression for years and lost too many friends, I can’t laugh at these tunes. They are beautiful, finely crafted and horrifying.

Cancel the Sun is a perfect example of why I don’t mind reviewing albums sung in languages I don’t understand. If the Rails were singing in Welsh or Creole or Klingon, I’d be writing about the wonderful harmonies, the thrilling guitar solos and the how well the songs are put together. But the Rails sing in English and I can’t escape the pessimism they sing about. I don’t want to give up. I don’t want to jump into the mossy well. I can’t love this album.

www.therailsofficial.com

Categories
Music Reviews

Cornflower Blue

Cornflower Blue

Invincible

Hailing from Ottawa, Ontario, these guys do American roots rock better than most of the acts you’d find in the lower 48, primarily because they refuse to be kept in any one genre or fashion. Led by the vocals and guitar of Trevor May and Theresa McInerney, the group can go from twangy alt-country of “Way Down Town” to the full-on thrash of “Catherine”, which is a bit like what you’d imagine Bob Mould would sound like if he played a Telecaster and laid off the electronica.

The secret weapon on Invincible is the soaring violin of Deanna McDougall, whose melodic lines lift numbers such as the Cowboy Junkies-ish “Long Walk Home”, reminding you a bit of Rolling Thunder-Dylan and his work with Scarlet Rivera. And when May and McInerney sing together, such as on “Around My Heart” or “Snowed In”, you can’t help but be reminded of the great Richard and Linda Thompson duets. Their tribute to the Bakersfield sound on “The Ballad of Don Rich and Buck Owens” is a hella-fast romp with some nifty Richian twang fills, while the acoustic title cut tells of “feeling invincible on the playground”.

Cornflower Blue break out of the standard roots pack with good songs, great guitars and that sublime fiddle. A little bit Bottle Rockets, a bit of Sugar, mixed with a healthy dose of twang make Invincible a can’t miss. That’s an order!

www.cornflowerblue.com

Categories
Music Reviews

Kacy & Clayton

Kacy & Clayton

Strange Country

New West Records

Excuse me while I swoon!

Kacy Anderson (vocals) and Clayton Linthicum (guitar), who call Southern Saskatchewan, Canada home, are young souls with one foot in the Appalachian Mountains, the other in mid-’60s England. When the steady, crisp fingerpicking of Clayton opens the disc with the title song (his technique reminds you of Bert Jansch), you’re transported back to the heady highlights of the British folk scene in all it’s glory. Their voices meld together as one, reminding you of the great Folk Roots, New Routes, the acclaimed 1965 release from Davey Graham and Shirley Collins.

But the pair aren’t simply the latest replicators of a classic sound. They find inspiration in Byrds-style pop (“Springtime of the Year”) or a somber ballad “If You Ask How I’m Keeping” with subtle vibraphone from Barrett Ross. “Down At The Dancehall” sounds tailor-made for Emmylou Harris, a Cajun-enthused spin with Anderson’s sweet vocals taking you to some lake-front dance in some tiny Louisiana backwood.

Off-set from the sprightly guitar and the drum tattoo are the words of “Brunswick Stew”, which is a old-time murder ballad of a mother drowning her child that you would perhaps find on a Carter Family compilation (it was actually written by the pair). Echoes of Richard and Linda Thompson abound, particularly on “Seven Yellow Gypsies”, while “Plains of Mexico” has a bit of Dave Van Ronk. By the time the record ends with “Dyin’ Bed Maker”, the temptation is to hit repeat and hear it again, in all its subtle beauty and mystery. Kacy & Clayton have channeled something familiar, and put their own touch upon it. I could listen to this record forever…while swooning.

www.kacyandclayton.com

Categories
Screen Reviews

The Richard Thompson Band: Live at Celtic Connections

The Richard Thompson Band: Live at Celtic Connections

Eagle Rock

The initial signs are dire. A wide-angle shot of the audience catches row after row of bald pates, comfortably seated, every last one most likely outfitted with two (count’em, two) leather elbow patches, looking more ready to bury Richard Thompson (reverently of course) than praise him. And then out comes fucking “Whispering” Bob Harris — last seen castigating the New York Dolls as “mock rock” in the late Seventies — to introduce Thompson. It’s museum rock from here on out. Except someone forgot to tell Richard Thompson that. He strides out in a slim-fitting black wardrobe, dandy scarf knotted around his neck, and the dad-ified beret that he’s been wearing for a decade or so now suddenly looks instead like something that Che Guevera would wear. I’m heartened to see that visual extremity, the sharp edges, the air of anything goes that Thompson exudes, subtly striking back against a room full of people, hell, a whole record industry that wants him to be a good li’l nostalgia act.

It’s tough being Richard Thompson. On the one hand, he’s known as the “guitar player’s guitar player,” which would automatically make most musicians colossal douches (Steve Vai, Paul Gilbert) and/or terminal bores. On the other hand, he both helped invent electrified folk rock with Fairport Convention AND created one of the singularly great bitter breakup albums of all time with Shoot Out the Lights, which he is no doubt expected to relive during every single concert… what I’m saying is, he has a whole load of albatrii around his neck. Luckily he decides to disregard the past and stay firmly rooted in the now with a sparkling set of new songs. And, oh yeah, bait the audience just a bit, wryly noting the paucity of applause when he mentions his new album.

Actually he’s damn witty; poking fun when someone cries out “Ashley Hutchings,” only momentarily caught off his game when it turns out that Hutchings IS actually in the audience, noting the cheeriness of the murder ballad (“Sidney Wells”) he’s about to rip into, getting in a few digs at bankers (!!), and just generally throwing out surreal aside after surreal aside. Far more germaine for the purpoes of music writing, both his voice and guitar-playing are still in fine form, too. The new songs are spry and serviceable, if a good deal less enjoyable than classic albums like I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight and Mirror Blue. His backing musicians look like a bunch of college professors and often worry the songs to death with overplaying, but Thompson’s evident passion for writing and playing his songs carries the day. Affecting readings of classics like “Wall of Death” and “A Man in Need” are worth the price of admission and one feels none of the withering contempt that his folk-rock transatlantic peer heaps upon his audience. He wears advancing age as well as he does that guitar around his neck.

BeesWeb: www.richardthompson-music.com

Categories
Music Reviews

Over the Rhine

Over the Rhine

The Long Surrender

Great Speckled Dog Records

Husband/wife duos are starting to really hit the big-time. Mates of State and The Weepies are just two of the burgeoning artists coming out of this new sub-genre. But one group has been doing this for over 20 years and it shows on their latest album The Long Surrender. This fan-funded record comes with two sets of liner notes. One has everything you would expect; lyrics, thank yous, even a little write-up from producer Joe Henry, who also co-wrote two of the tracks on the album. The other is a 12-page list of every single person who donated to the making of the record. It’s their way of saying thank you. If any others wanted a lesson on how to truly connect with their fans, this is that lesson.

Oh yeah, they made a killer album, too! “Rave On” is not only where the title of the album can be found, but where you can find Karin Bergquist’s aching (and subtly sarcastic) vocals cracking as she sings lines like “Messiah come in a flat-head Ford/ To the Kansas young and dumb and bored” and “Adrenaline spills like blood that pours/ Screamin’ out – Prepare Ye the way of the Lord.”

Alt-country queen Lucinda Williams adds some grit to the heartfelt lyrics “I’m not too far gone/ To fall/ Headlong/ Into the arms that love me.”

“Oh Yeah by the Way” will make even the most hardened person shed a tear when they quietly harmonize “What a waste that I still love you/ After the mess you’ve made/ What a waste that I’m not jaded/ Once in a while I even smile/ What a waste you’re just a stranger/ To me now.”

With married duos like Over the Rhine, there is an obvious sense of intimacy, but where Mates of State are a little poppier and The Weepies are just down-right cuddly-pop, Bergquist and husband Linford Detweiler have a seriously mature sound. Maybe that comes from two decades of making music together. Maybe that’s just how they are. Whatever it is, Over the Rhine is one of the best husband/wife duos since Richard and Linda Thompson, and The Long Surrender proves it.

Over the Rhine: www.overtherhine.com

Categories
Interviews

Matt Pond PA

Matt Pond PA

What’s in a name? In Matt Pond PA’s case, not all that much, actually. For starters, the PA suffix, short for Pennsylvania (as one might have reasonably assumed), doesn’t really hold much water since the band’s move to our neck of the woods a year and a half ago. And the first part? Well, despite another altogether-no-too-unreasonable assumption, the band’s lead-singer and principal songwriter (some might perhaps go so far as to say ‘singer/songwriter,’ we however will do our best to avoid such pigeon-holes) Matt Pond insists that the group is not a solo project, a fact that not even a post-move lineup shakedown could alter. “It is indeed a band, no matter how many times people quit,” Pond told Ink 19, seated in a Brooklyn park, enjoying the first rays of post-winter sunshine. “I’m sure more people will quit and more people will come. It’s just one of those things.”

After his New York move, the band’s membership went through a complete upheaval, maintaining only Pond and cellist Eve Miller, who commutes from old PA for band practice. “We dropped her off at the train yesterday, after the tour, with five bags, and her cello. I don’t know how she carried it all, but I guess she did, because she’s home.” Still, despite these instances of blatant false advertising, Pond offers no apologies, “People tell us how stupid our name is, and I tell them they’re right.”

Last winter, Pond and crew lent their name to the Snow Day EP (the first record recorded entirely with the group’s newest incarnation), which boats no fewer than four covers, drawing from the back catalogues of Neil Young, Richard and Linda Thompson, Lindsey Buckingham and Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum. Pond explains the record’s genesis thusly: “we were on tour and had all of these days off, and got to stay at this place in Woodstock. We actually sang songs around the campfire, and it came about like that. It just really started happening that way.”

The sing-alongs maintain the group’s signature arrangements, the weaving together of the cello and violin in soft indie rock formation, tying into the records embrace of the winter lulls. Even Buckingham’s “Holiday Road,” best known to the world as a theme from National Lampoon’s Vacation gets the snowdrift treatment, images of Chevy Chase dancing in the listener’s head.

When not playing shows or hanging out in Brooklyn parks, the band can be found in the studio, putting the final touches on a new LP. When onstage, just don’t hold your breath for any of those covers. “I don’t like playing other people’s songs live. I know I won’t do them the justice that they deserve. We were with a band last night, and they were doing a cover of The Band. They asked us to come up onstage and sing with them, and I was like, ‘no way.’ I just won’t do it.” Those in search of a cello-driven indie rock cover of “Up on Cripple Creek,” it seems, will just have to look elsewhere.

Matt Pond PA: www.mattpondpa.com

Categories
Music Reviews

Richard & Linda Thompson

Richard & Linda Thompson

The Best Of: The Island Records Years

A&M/Universal

Not quite as groundbreaking as his work with the influential Fairport Convention, Richard Thompson’s early solo years — where he shared billing with his wife of the time, Linda Peters — provided many fine moments, sixteen of which are available in this tasteful, 78-minute single disc compilation. Since the duo only recorded three albums for Island from 1974-1975 before being given the heave-ho due to sluggish sales, this disc is missing tracks from three additional releases recorded for Hannibal Records. Unfortunately, one of them is the indispensable Shoot Out the Lights, an unqualified masterpiece that often turns up on critical shortlists of the best albums ever recorded. However that is such a well-conceived disc that it needs to be listened to as a whole, and is an essential addition to anyone’s library.

Still, there are many terrific tracks here. The duo mesh traditional English folk melodies with electric instrumentation, in particular Richard’s technically astounding guitar work, to produce shimmering songs of beauty and sadness. The predominantly melancholy mood, and downbeat tempos drag this collection down, but taken individually the songs are quiet gems. Linda’s voice is lovely and husky, similar to a British Linda Ronstadt, doing justice to some of Thompson’s most affecting and poignant songs like “A Heart Needs a Home,” “For Shame of Doing Wrong,” and the classic “Dimming of the Day,” a tune Thompson still performs in concert. Accordions, flutes, and organ add extra muscle, but these songs are so powerful and well written, they would sound just as good played only on acoustic guitar.

The compilation’s most head-turning highlights occur when Richard (too seldom) lets loose on guitar and unwinds with evocative solos so perfectly conceived and brimming with drama and passion, you wonder why he’s not as well respected as the showier, but arguably less talented Eric Clapton. Both the eight minute “Night Comes In,” and the album closing live “Calvary Cross,” which clocks in at a whopping 13 minutes, will leave your mouth scraping the floor as Thompson’s classy guitar solos weave and snake through the songs, finally attacking with barely controlled fervor.

The albums these cuts have been compiled from are not only spotty, but also are either out of print or extremely difficult to find, making this an fundamental addition to any Richard Thompson fan’s collection.

Universal Recods, 1755 Broadway, 7th Floor, New York, NY 10019