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Happy Hosting, Happy New Year - Rob Ellen
English singer/songwriter Jamie Freeman produced a debut album a couple of years back which sounds like it may have been focussed on his solo performance. Not so this ambitious, bright, exuberant follow-up. The full band are there to give things beef but a lot of studio time and some mighty guests from across the Atlantic (Larkin Poe, The Good Lovelies, Brandy Zdan and transplanted English finger-picker Richard Smith) all add up to a sound that is bursting at the seams with great musicianship. Mark Chadwick from The Levellers helped with the production, which might lead you to expect a stronger English folk element than is actually manifest. No, this album springs firmly from a host of American influences: there is twang, there is swing, there’s rocking country, white gospel and even something of a muscular rebel yell going on. Is it too broad, too unfocussed? Not at all, because this is a record of full-blooded commitment that sweeps all quibbles aside and leaves you smiling at this guy’s enthusiasm for his chosen art form.
There are occasions when you feel the kitchen sink has been chucked in for good measure – the soaring gospel vocals on Key of Me, for example, are pretty wonderful but detract from an equally wonderful break on the electric guitar which is played, I think, by Jonathan Hirsch. Mostly though, I find myself appreciating the time spent on details that add some new unexpected pleasure. On the same song, Rachel Davies sings a harmony vocal on the opening verse that lifts the whole thing marvellously. In fact, she contributes a vocal performance to nearly every track here and sounds pretty special – a great voice with a talent for fitting her voice to those around her.
The music might be distinctly American but the lyric writing has a quirky, down-to-earth Englishness to it most of the time. There are three co-writes: one with Brandy Zdan and a couple with poet Amy Tudor. One of those is called Scrabble in Afghanistan and sounds like the most obvious single here – on the strength of it’s punchy, exuberant verve rather than the slightly unlikely title, which unfolds as the tale of a soldier in Afghanistan escaping the strains of his posting with occasional on-line word games. It is perhaps typical of the songs here in the sense that the thought tends to get ahead of the emotion which makes him sound over-earnest at times. He compensates for that, though, with a dedication to his craft that makes this a pretty special album, a tour-de-force tour of Americana from an English perspective.
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