West Texas Exiles Volume 1 Floating Mesa
This 6 track EP introduces the West Texas Exiles to an unsuspecting world. They lay out their stall on the opener Exile, which finds them planning a return to West Texas, ‘Out here tryin’ to outrun my fate/While I still got my boots on my feet’. The five band members mostly hail from Lubbock, Amarillo and El Paso in West Texas, but came together in Austin, where they play in various bands and naturally gravitated towards each other. Being from Texas, their sound is, as you would expect, country rock with the emphasis squarely on the rock. Comprising three songwriters – Colin Gilmore (son of Jimmy Dale and a solo artist in his own right), Marco Gutierrez and Daniel Davis, along with bass player/producer Eric Harrison and power drummer Trinidad Leal – between them they have the musical chops and the vocal abilities to carry off their excellent original songs. There’s a fun live feel to the production on these tracks and I suspect it is in the live shows that they really come into their own.
Hotel Tomorrow and New Moon Foe deal with fear/anxiety and depression, although always holding on to hope for the future, and all expressed in an upbeat melodious riot of guitars, keys, bass and drums. In Sweet LA they demonstrate a softer side, probably the closest they get to an almost bluegrassy/country ballad, a song of regret for a lost love, with lush harmonies, accordion and Colin Gilmore’s mandolin. The anthemic Monday Night finds them revelling in ‘working on their best bad habits’ and ’buzzin’ like that open sign’, all contributing to the impression of a ‘good time being had by all’.
The artwork on the album really impresses also, with its stylised snakes and roses.
Not surprisingly, WTXE have been touring constantly since they formed barely a year ago, and they will be showcasing at the Americana Festival in Nashville this year. I look forward to Volume 2. Ones to watch!
Review by Eilís Boland
Doug Levitt Edge of Everywhere Self Release
Doug Levitt’s debut album has been a long time coming. Twelve years and 120,000 miles traversing the US on the ubiquitous Greyhound buses has yielded this monumental album among other things, including BBC documentaries (one in 2018 and more to come later in 2023) and countless interviews on major US and British TV news programmes.
Produced by Trina Shoemaker (Emmylou, Brandi Carlile) in Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, each of the twelve songs depicts the story of one of the many characters that Levitt got to know on those interminable journeys cross country. Greyhound buses transport almost exclusively those on the margins of life, the poor, the ex-cons, the homeless, the addicted. It was a strange place to find a ‘privileged white boy’, originally from DC, a former Cornell and LSE graduate and a Fulbright scholar, who became a London based foreign correspondent in his former life. Deciding to dedicate his life to music, Levitt almost accidentally embarked on his odyssey, playing his songs in prisons, at VAs (veterans’ hospitals) and shelters. The enforced camaraderie that developed between the long distance travellers on the Greyhound buses allowed Levitt to hear the stories behind the random faces, the stories he tells with an empathy that leaps out of each track, many of them told verbatim, as he heard them.
There’s Susie who’s in her early 60s, and ‘can’t get no rest on 40 West’, driving big trucks for a living. She left her job in the Air Force years ago to look after her young son, who needed her more. ‘Long haul trips from the Gulf/18 wheels and the miles they feel like the years that roll’.
And Ellis, in Born In West Virginia, a veteran who returned home from war to feel like a stranger in his own country. Then there’s Hector, an agricultural truck driver living in El Centro, a border town in Southern California, who is wracked with guilt. Run It All Back recounts the story of how his son is accidentally shot, and Hector blames himself because they were living in a bad area, and he ‘would give anything to run it all back’.
Through time, Levitt began to realise that he too was running – from the traumatic memories of his father’s suicide when Levitt was just 16. In Highway Signs he acknowledges that ‘I didn’t know then how those stories spoke to me…It’s a tale of so many others/just threaded through me’.
The whole album is bathed in a soothing Americana soundscape, expertly curated by Shoemaker, allowing Levitt’s tender and simultaneously strong vocals to shine through.
Explore all the songs here yourself, check out the documentaries and videos, and if you’re lucky you might even catch Levitt playing Cambridge Folk Festival at the end of July.
Review by Eilís Boland
Beth Bombara It All Goes Up Black Mesa
‘I never set out to be a lead singer, I wasn’t comfortable being in the spotlight like that’, confesses the Grand Rapid, Michigan artist Beth Bombara in the press release that accompanied this album. The encouragement to reconsider this came from the numerous fellow musicians that Bombara played with over a career that found her playing guitar, bass and percussion in a number of bands over the years. Fortunately, she heeded that advice and IT ALL GOES UP is her sixth full album, the last being the first-class EVERGREEN from 2019, which drew comparisons with Aimee Mann from ourselves at Lonesome Highway.
Her latest project, despite having been written during the dark days of the pandemic, finds Bombara in a more upbeat and optimistic headspace, without abandoning the blueprint that worked so well on its predecessor. The songs – ten in total – were written on an old classical guitar that she rediscovered stored in a closet for many years. Four were co-written with co-producer Kit Hamon, who also played bass guitar, percussion, synthesizer and added backing vocals.
Bombara’s buoyant temperament is particularly to the fore on the jaunty Tom Pettyesque Everything I Wanted. It’s the liveliest track on the album, the remaining songs being generally mid-paced with the emphasis on the carefully observed detail in the writing. Many of these songs reflect the environment they were conceived in, with references to slowing down and living in the moment (Moment, Fade) and yearning for a return to normality in the prayer-like gorgeous ballad, Lonely Walls. Overtones of loneliness and separation surface on Carry The Weight, followed by more cheerful and romantic sentiments on Electricity.
IT ALL GOES UP is not a radical departure from Bombara’s previous record, EVERGREEN. Unhurried and intimate, understandable given the period when the songs were written, it offers a most impressive batch of songs expressed with vocals that articulate both vulnerability and optimism in equal doses.
Review by Declan Culliton
Brigid O’Neill The Truth and Other Stories Self Release
We go back to 2002 to find this artist’s debut album, INLAND SAILOR. Based in Northern Ireland, Brigid O’Neill seemed to take a break from her career until a new EP of songs arrived in 2014. Another album, TOUCHSTONE appeared in 2017, followed by a further run of singles and another EP, all of which led to the release of this latest album, recorded at Skinny Elephant studios in Nashville.
The producer is the much vaunted Nielsen Hubbard and he has called upon some top musicians to bring these eleven songs to life. We are treated to the silky playing talents of Will Kimbrough and Doug Lancio (guitars), Dan Mitchell (piano, organ and flugelhorn), Eamon McLoughlin (fiddle), Dean Marold (bass), with Neilson Hubbard also contributing drums and percussion.
Lead vocals are provided by Brigid O’Neill and she also called upon a number of musician friends to join her on backing vocals, including Siobhan Maher Kennedy, Cormac Neeson, Matt McGinn, Amy Montgomery and again, Neilson Hubbard. The album is a really pleasant listening experience with O’Neill’s voice complemented by the nuanced and interpretive playing of the gathered musicians. Her vocal tone is warm and her phrasing is full of subtle expression.
Starting with the commercial sound of Live A Little Lie Oh and the sing-along chorus, the song is both catchy and memorable for the bright production and separation on all the instruments. Definitely a radio-friendly single in the making. The mood changes dramatically on the next song Easy which is a sad, slow melody that captures the pain that a lot of people keep hidden under the façade of a brave face. ‘We see him in the local bar, he’s always on his own, He says he has more time to think when he drinks alone.’ The message is one that says ultimately, we are all alone as we go through life, looking for connection and a sense of safe harbour.
The easy melody of Ask Me In A Year features some fine guitar and piano interplay in a song about taking time to find yourself. There is a real traditional Country sound on Prayers with some superb guitar, fiddle and mandolin interplay. Similarly, You’re Not Gonna Leave Me Honey has that Country twang of banjo, fiddle and acoustic guitar, reflecting a tale of tangled love. Messy Path slows it all down with another classic Country sound that channels the memory of Kitty Wells and a tale of heartbreak in the game of love. Again, the wonderful understated playing is just perfect for the sentiment in the song.
Leaving is a more poignant look at domestic abuse and the decision taken to accept the reality that something that’s broken cannot always be glued back together. Take A Day has a sweet arrangement and the message that sometimes what you have in life is more than enough. The slow jazz groove of Midweek Magic Club is another interesting departure and the sultry vocal and noír feel to the music dangles the promise of hidden pleasures that lie in store.
Amelia looks at a new life in the world and the joy of love, hope and the infinite possibility that a baby brings. The final song Pilot’s Weather is the ideal way to bring everything home with a lovely arrangement that includes some beautiful flugelhorn courtesy of Dan Mitchell, strummed guitars and a message to always follow your own instincts when looking for your own path. This is a very impressive album from a very talented Irish artist who has written some excellent songs and assembled an elite band of wonderful musicians to bring her vision to reality. Highly recommended.
Review by Paul McGee
Bonny Doon Let There Be Music Anti-
This is the third release from a trio that was formed in Detroit, Michigan. The band consists of Jake Kmiecik (drums), Bill Lennox (guitar, vocals) and Bobby Colombo (guitar, vocals). Although the musicians now reside in different parts of America, they still retain their love of creating music together and despite recent setbacks, including illness and hold ups in their creative process due to touring commitments as the backing band for Waxahatchee (songwriter Katie Crutchfield), three friends have produced a very exciting new album.
The blissed out sound of Maybe Today typifies their sweetly undulating melodies and harmonies with additional piano courtesy of Michael Malis. His contributions on keyboards cannot be understated as the song structures are brought to living colour by some understated layering and up-tempo dynamics. It is the twin song-writing talents and guitar prowess of Colombo and Lennox that drives the creative process but the drumming and percussion of Kmiecik anchors everything in order for these gentle sounds to take flight.
It could be California in the 1960s with everyone wearing flowers in their hair, such is the sense of space and time on these tracks. Fine Afternoon is an example with its easy melody and light arrangement – however it masks the lines ‘That I’m always searching for the thing that’s right under my nose, That I’m looking for a rainbow while I’m pissing in a pot of gold.’ Dreaming of a better tomorrow while today continues to unravel.
The theme of being close to falling apart at the seams is never far away in the underlying sentiment even though there is also a river of hope running through the soul of these songs. The title track has the lines ‘ Let there be kindness, Let there be fun, Let there be lightness, In everyone.’ Also, in the song San Francisco that sense of inclusion surfaces with ‘Everybody’s waiting, Everybody’s got a dream, Everybody’s looking for what they’ve never seen.’
However, on the song You Can’t Stay the Same the clock is ticking on life and there is still so much to be achieved ‘No matter how you play the game, No matter what you try to tame, No matter how you run from change, You can’t stay the same.’ The music has a timeless quality to it, despite the message that change is inevitable and the production by the band and Brian Fox is flawless. A very enticing and engaging album.
Review by Paul McGee
Jeff Larson It’ll Never Happen Again Melody Place
This 6-track EP is in tribute to the great songwriting talent of Tim Hardin, the famous musician and composer who died at the young age of thirty nine. Tim Hardin had many highlights during a career that included a Woodstock appearance and many accolades, including a tribute from Bob Dylan, who was inspired by Hardin’s songs.
Jeff Larsson has been releasing music the 1990s and his honeyed vocal tone has always been a standout feature across a discography that includes many fine albums. In 2000 he released a forty-three track compilation of his work up to that date, which is the perfect place to start if you are new to his music. He grew up in San Francisco and has collaborated with Gerry Beckley, a founding member of the band America, in previous years. Indeed, this project was suggested and produced by Beckley, who also plays a number of instruments on the six chosen tracks. Included are the great hit songs Reason To Believe and If I Were A Carpenter both of which have been covered by numerous artists over time. Perhaps less well known are the other songs , It’ll Never Happen Again, Don’t Make Promises, Misty Roses and How Can We Hang On To A Dream.
On this tribute, Misty Roses is given a light Bossa Nova arrangement that works particularly well and It’ll Never Happen Again has a jazz-tinged slow groove, with Rick Braun (trumpet) and Jonathan Zwartz (bass) providing key contributions to the lovely melody. How Can We Hang On To A Dream includes Matt Beckley (backwards electric guitar), Jim Hoke (flute), Austin Hoke (cello) and Kristin Weber (violin), string arrangement by Gerry Beckley and the beautiful timeless vocal of Jeff Larson bringing everything to a perfect conclusion.
Across these songs Jeff Larson contributes lead vocals and acoustic guitar while Gerry Beckley juggles piano, acoustic and electric guitars, organ, accordion, strings bass, drums, supported by the additional talents of Joachim Cooder (electric mbira, drums, percussion), and Matt Combs (mandola, fiddle). The EP was recorded at studios in Sydney, Australia and Southern California. There is definitely room to turn this into a fully-fledged album release, given the amount of quality material to draw from, but for now this is a very tasty sampler and worthy of your attention.
Review by Paul McGee
Bill Price Kicking Angels Grass Magoops
Four songs and nineteen minutes of music on this EP from a very talented singer songwriter based in Indianapolis, Indiana. This is his most recent project and past releases have all celebrated the dedication that Price has to the creative process. He is also a successful graphic designer and creates all his own album cover artwork.
All four songs deal with the abuse of power and question the short-sighted focus on the need for self-promotion above all else. The welfare of the common man gets pushed down the line and in the overall order of things, counts for little. Produced at The Lodge Recording Studios in Indianapolis, the songs are very much alive and engaging. The vocal style of Price reminds me of Tom Petty and his righteous anger comes to the fore on the first song Kicking Angels with the observation that ‘Angels don’t dream small, We know wings trump walls.’ A nice lyrical segue. Political hubris and spin will not convince everyone of apparent sincerity and all that is false in the kingdom of the blind.
50 Miles From Nowhere follows the core theme with an attack on winning at all costs ‘they think that he’s made history by the wars that he has won, but a man’s name will be weighed by every deed he’s done.’ Be Nice Or Get Out has a nice string introduction before electric guitars come into the arrangement and lay down a rocking groove that includes some nice slide guitar and harmony vocals in the middle eight section. Again, a message of the need for tolerance if we are all to progress as an enlightened race. Final song Bringing Down the Sun is a dreamy song with flugelhorn and cello mixed with some sweet electric guitar lines. A very interesting EP and one that will have me reaching out to other recording from this accomplished artist.
Review by Paul McGee
Malcolm Holcombe Bits and Pieces Proper
North Carolina native and prolific songwriter Malcolm Holcombe has seen it all and done more than most in a career that has spanned close on thirty years. His craft has been lauded by many of his contemporaries in Roots music circles and comparisons have been made to both John Prine and Tom Waits. Of course, there is really nobody to compare to the unique spirit and talent of Malcolm Holcombe. When it comes to authenticity then this man is the real deal. Who was it that said “comparison is the thief of joy,” – perhaps Teddy Roosevelt was onto something back then?
On this new release, Holcombe is joined by multi-instrumentalist Jared Taylor who has been a regular collaborator over the years, playing regularly with him and producing a number of prior albums. Holcombe sings with an authentic rasp in his vocal, as if he’s so fed up with all that he sees surrounding him, that he just has to spit out the bad taste in his mouth. These thirteen songs were written during 2021 and they portray various aspects of his world view, often portrayed through characters in different life situations. The power of observation in something that Holcombe has in common with all the great songwriters and if there is a little bit of himself in many of the song characters, then all the better for the perspective.
Holcombe sings of people on the edge of normality, the fringe of what counts as acceptable; the dealers, gamblers, hustlers, thieves and down-at-heels in society. Holcombe also trains his sights on the powerful enclaves that dictate the lives of those who survive by doing what they must; the politicians and businessmen whose only god is avarice and the accumulation of wealth. In this sense, he represents a modern-day Woody Guthrie, with a righteous anger and a wake-up call to those who deal in causing misery.
On Conscience Of Man he declares ‘I will not hide from the words of justice, I will not join the cries of liars, I will not keep my heart from climbing from the dust I swallowed behind.’ Equally, on Rubbin’ Elbows he takes a swipe at social climbers and those who seek entry to the club of easy living, ‘Woncha grease my palm, Slap me on the back, Meet my younger sister and kiss my ass.’
On this album, Holcombe’s eighteenth, I have the impression that the process is every bit as important as the end product. In 2022, Holcombe was diagnosed with cancer and he decided to enter the studio with his friend to get these songs recorded. Holcombe was at home in Echo Mountain studios, Ashville, NC and the therapeutic gains for the musicians in the playing process no doubt brought a sense of acceptance and calm to the battle faced against illness. The song, The Wind Doesn’t Know You, touches on the concept of time passing with the lines, ‘It’s an everyday battle wakin’ up in the morning, With the rattle and the hustles of the cars, and the warnin’ of the pressure every measure of the clock ticking forward.’
The interplay between the two musicians is incredible and really kicks up a storm when they are in full flight. There is great clarity and space on the production, which Jared Taylor shared with Brian Brinkerhoff. Holcombe has a fascinating guitar style that mixes fingerstyle picking with percussive elements that colour the playing. If you check out some of his Shed Shows on social media then you will be able to witness the true essence of this national treasure. He even plays some of these shows with a visible nasal cannula, attached to a mobile oxygen canister, while he was still in recovery. Happily, the news is positive and Holcombe is now in remission.
This is acoustic blues, mixed with plenty of roots leanings in folk music traditions and beyond. Long may this gritty survivor keep holding up a mirror to modern society and maintain a necessary presence in our lives. Do yourself a favour and purchase this essential and vibrant music.
Review by Paul McGee
Andrew Hawkey Hindsight Mole Lodge
This collection is sub titled ‘ Andrew Hawkey at 80 – A Fifty Year Overview.’ The album cover art leaves much to be desired, but that apart, we are given a total of seventeen songs to celebrate a talent that flourished from London to rural Wales, mainly in the late 1960s through to the 1980s. Indeed, thirteen of the tracks included here cover that period, with the opening five taken from early cassette recordings. It brought me back to my own youth, hearing tape hiss again, and although the songs themselves possess an innocent quality to the lyrics and a fragile sound, it left me wondering if such an authentic approach ultimately serves the end product?
No doubt, Andrew Hawkey moved in very worthy circles back then and played with numerous talented musicians. His guitar playing is certainly very expressive and while mainly falling into the acoustic arena, his ability on other instruments is featured as the collection develops to include harmonica, electric guitar, and keyboards. Hawkey spent two decades playing in a blues band, Pat Grover’s Blues Zeros, represented here by a singular track dating back to 1994, with a cover of Sonny Boy Williamson’s classic Help Me. A temporary sojourn in France followed the disbandment of this band, together with the closure of the Cambria Arts music venue which was run by Hawkey. Indeed over his career, Hawkey has worn many hats, from solo artist and writer, to promoter and producer.
It is a diverse collection which reflects the many twists and turns that fate threw his way, with a number of different genres influencing the choices, from acoustic folk to blues and rock with side projects including writing for films. An instrumental track Desert Moon channels a Mark Knopfler style and the sultry vocals of Jane Gilbert on Take Me highlight a suggestive, sexy performance over a repeating keyboard melody. A song that leaves little to the imagination.
In 2015, after a break of many years, Hawkey released a solo album, What Did I Come Up Here For? He followed this with another solo project in 2020 and the release of Long Story Short. The final three songs represent where Hawkey now finds himself with Spirit representing his singer-songwriter origins and a nice acoustic based melody that looks at a message of both contentment and peace. A reworking of opening track Between Two Horizons follows and yields a much more engaging version with a look back down the path and a reflective vocal performance. The project ends on a short instrumental Just the Sky featuring simple harmonica and guitar in a brief contemplation on what has passed and what the future may hold.
As with any such anthology, there are uneven parts that stop the natural flow across the songs but then again the true spirit of any such collection is to show the artist in all the various forms and configurations of his career. The journey has been a long one and the information booklet included contains well researched notes at every stage, highlighting many of the local bands that inspired and influenced along the way. Not for everyone, but the easy representation of folk, Americana and blues will appeal to those who have grown up with a knowledge of Andrew Hawkey and his music.
Review by Paul McGee