"The Bisciuts and Gravy Tour Bus"
Me, Cousti and Rob Ellen on our way
to our House Concert,
a definite highlight
2011 turned out to be a cracking year for new music, from early January right the way through to early December. There’s always good new music about (despite what people stuck in the music of their youth will tell you), but it’s been a while since I’ve heard so much that’s really caught my imagination and rekindled the spark that only ever responds to great music-making. Whether it’s wonderful playing that makes you feel happier for having heard it, or a new artist with something original about them, the year has been dotted with gems that at times have seemed to be engaged in a competition to top the last thing I got excited about.
Anyway, album of the year for me was Cousti’s Strings to Tracks which has never been far from the player, at home or in the car. Undeniably, if possibly indefinably, Americana, this is some of the sweetest, most soulful and fluent guitar band music I’ve ever heard, with two songs at the heart of it all which will probably be with me for life: Mallaig and Without You.
That album came at the start of the year and then, just when I thought the year was winding down in terms of big new releases, along came another Scottish album, Ally MacLeod’s Astor Place. In all honesty, I’m still getting to know this album but it didn’t take long for me – or a host of other people – to realise that this was a debut album of extraordinary quality. There’s great, original songwriting, a marvellously sympathetic production, but most of all there’s Ally Macleod’s fantastic singing: assured, tender and beautiful for certain but, best of all, she sings with a phrasing that is all her own, and probably unbeatable.
Michael Weston King and Lou Dalgleish, trading as My Darling Clementine, came up with a near-perfect recreation of country heartbreak duets on How Do You Plead?; supported by a great band and injecting just enough humour so as not to seem too literal in their homage, they’ve produced an album that’s a pleasure from start to finish. The other big hit with me from Britain was The Carrivick Sisters’ From the Fields, which successfully married their bluegrass skills and nice harmonies with an English folk tradition that reflects their Devon upbringing. They seemed to me to be the English counterparts to the Lovell sisters who are the heart of Larkin Poe, a tremendously invigorating band who are similarly reconfiguring some traditional forms of music to make something fresh and exciting.
Foremost amongst other Americans to really catch the ear was Eilen Jewell, whose Queen of the Minor Key was a tour de force, encompassing rockabilly, jazz and swing. Whatever mood the band produced, Eilen more than matched them with a vocal technique that was always right on the money. If it hadn’t been Cara Emerald’s year on Radio 2, it could have been Eilen Jewell’s. The other one to really strike home with me
was Good Luck Mountain from Mike Ferio. Back when alt-country/Americana was really starting to lift off in this country there was a lot of enthusiasm for the music that was mining the dark currents of life. Country Noir was one name coined for that and Good Luck
Two older American artists showed they could still produce better quality music than most; Levon Helm’s Ramble at the Ryman and Connie Smith’s Long Line of Heartaches were both jaw-droppingly, heart-warmingly wonderful. Younger favourites came back with great albums; Carrie Elkin’s I Call it my Garden was probably her best album yet, whilst Rod Picott’s Welding Burns maintained his consistently high standard. I was a bit late getting to Malcolm Holcombe’s To Drink the Rain, but that is one hugely enjoyable album, and surprisingly smooth in its production, I would say. Mountain, in some ways, gave fresh life to that vein of music. From the first track you feel that he’s tapping into something way deeper than nearly everyone else.
And all that, folks, was just the premier league of the stuff I got to hear. Behind them was another dozen albums of really high quality and probably another dozen or so I’ve heard others rave about that I’ve not had the chance to hear yet. All I can say is that I can heartily recommend any of those albums named above, express wonder at the continued vibrancy of the Americana/alt country music scene, and hope that 2012 comes close to being as good as the last twelve months.
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