Gruff Rhys (from the album Seeking New Gods available on Rough Trade Records) (by Chris Wheatley)
Into his sixth decade now, equal parts genial and talented, Gruff Rhys continues to pour love, joy, and no small amount of ingenuity into his creative projects. For those who aren't aware, Rhys rose to fame during the 1990s with Welsh group Super Furry Animals, whose eclectic, highly individualistic and adventurous Rock-Pop albums earned a cult following and critical admiration. The Furry's never sacrificed art for commerciality, producing a slew of eccentric, accessible records which mixed electronic sounds and catchy melodies complete with Rock aesthetics, psychedelic overtones, and ambitious concepts. As a solo artist, Gruff Rhys has continued in the same vein, injecting his distinctive brand of whimsy and invention into film scores, filmmaking, books, prizewinning albums, and even the soundtrack for a video game.
It should come as no surprise, given Gruff Rhys' off-kilter sensibilities and voracious appetite for quirky stories, that his latest solo effort, Seeking New Gods, is a concept album about Mount Paektu, a mountain on the China/North Korea border. Mount Paektu's geographical origins are somewhat mysterious and contentious, its climate erratic and prone to severity. Revered in North Korea as the birthplace of Korea's founder Dangun, and, unsurprisingly, Kim Jong-Il myths of the mountain's geomantic power are embedded in culture and history. Rhys' vision kicks of with “Mausoleum of My Former Self”, a softly-rolling, jaunty number, full of spacey synth swoops, kicking drums, and tinkling melodies. Fans of Gruff Rhys' music will be familiar with the magic formula – highly accessible Pop production married to sweet psychedelia, wrapped up in some ridiculously catchy compositions. In short, it's a sugar-rush with real depth.
Lyrically, Gruff Rhys is as mercurial and interesting as ever. “Loan Your Loneliness” rocks and bounces, with singing guitars and pounding piano. ‘Your silicon strategies in free fall, your helicam flutters in high frequency. The power-cut undercuts your free flow, there's nobody left to casually guide your hand’. His gift for effortlessly weaving arresting sounds into uniquely Rhys-ian song structures is at its best here; sonically dense palettes which are nevertheless agile and protean. The slow-tempo title track treads reverently and magically. Fluttering shards of luminosity picked out by piano skip and accentuate, stately drums thump, and swells of guitar rise and fall. In Gruff Rhys' hands, even laidback slabs of sound dance as lightly and energetic as fairies.
“Holiest Of the Holy Men” rides a buzzing synth line over vamping keys, slowing into a free glide, ramping back up to a skip. Hazy blue skies and high suns, glowing grass and smiling, waving reptiles, all would find a place in Rhys' spellbinding, day-glo musical world. “The Keep” bustles and bumps with old-school Beatle's charm. The quality of Gruff Rhys' songwriting lies at the core of everything that works here, a fine, sturdy, and fascinating frame around which to drape his multi-coloured sonic imaginations. Wild saxophones scream and dance round the edges, the perfect marriage between accessibility and experimentation. “Everlasting Joy” strides and struts but never aggressively. Humanity and warmth suffuse this set. Production-wise, it's a beguiling mix of expansive 60s psychedelia, adventurous 70s prog, and tomorrow's electro-acoustic hinterland.
This is what happens when you try and convey the sound of Seeking New Gods – you are forced to dig deep, throw away a portion of logic, and fill that space with free-flowing, free-form associations. It is as high a credit to Gruff Rhys as I could pay, and this album deserves every penny. (by Chris Wheatley)
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Anne Freeman (from the album Keep It Close available on Muscle Beach Records) (by Brian Rock)
Rising star, Anne Freeman debuts with Keep It Close. Freeman is a fiery indie rocker from Mississippi who combines early Lucinda Williams Americana with the 90’s power rock of Juliana Hatfield. The lead track, “City Watched Me Burn”, introduces Anne Freeman with jangly, Byrds-style, cascading guitar riffs. In a burst of Millennial angst, she cries, ‘You think you do, but you don’t know me yet. Just take a seat, ‘cause this you won’t forget’. Singing to herself as well as the listener, Anne Freeman captures the frustration of not yet realizing your life’s path when everyone around you seems to have theirs figured out. Swirling guitar runs and a bouncing bass line create a gorgeous Power Pop melody to sugar coat the apprehensive lyrics.
Anne Freeman keeps the delicious Power Pop guitar riffs but adds a little staccato edge and attitude on “I Don’t Wanna Want You”, “Generation’s Fast”, and “Follow Me.” All three capture the high energy, girl-power Rock of Juliana Hatfield. She is equally adept at capturing Lucinda Williams layered Americana tones on “I’ve Got a Knife” and “Waiting on a Sign”. She even adds orchestral elements and Bangles-style melodies to the tender “When I’m A Wreck”. Singing, ‘I don’t want anyone to see me like this… You get me more than myself’, she shows her vulnerable side against a background of violins and acoustic guitars. Her sweet, clear vocals also shine on the ballads “Loose Connection” and “Easy on Me”.
With a voice that’s both silky and strong, Anne Freeman expresses the wants and worries of her generation with the bravado of a young Debbie Harry. Her musical arrangements add punch and power to her stories. With their diversity of tempos and instrumentations, each song is like the layer of a sumptuous, gourmet cake. Keep It Close is one piece of ear candy you’ll want to sample again and again. (by Brian Rock)
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The Hello Darlins (from the album Go by Feel available as a self-release) (by Chris Wheatley)
An interesting release here for many reasons, not the least of which being that Calgary, Alberta-based collective The Hello Darlins first three singles have managed to rack up nearly half a million Spotify streams ahead of their debut album, Go by Feel. Pointedly, the band refer to themselves as a North Americana outfit but who exactly are they? Founding members Candace Lacina and Mike Little come with compelling backstories. Vocalist Candace Lacina is a Juno-nominated songwriter best known for her session work, backing the likes of Shania Twain and George Canyon. Juno-award winning keyboardist Mike Little is likewise known as a crack back-up player with such notables as B.B. King and Long John Baldry on his resume. The moniker The Hello Darlins, therefore, could be taken as a greeting from these players, who are stepping out from the 'shadows' and into stage centre. The rest of the line-up is no less experienced. We have Murray Pulver (formerly of Crash Test Dummies), the much-respected songwriter Clayton Bellamy, the excellent guitarist Matt Andersen, Dave and Joey Landreth (who enjoy much success as The Bros. Landreth), multi-instrumentalist Russell Broom (associated with Jann Arden, among others) and fiddler Shane Guse, who has won multiples awards for his playing, and is also a founding member of The Western Swing Authority.
That's a lot of talent to play with, and I'm happy to say Go By Feel makes good use of its assets. Opener “Catch That Train” pulls out of the station with considerable polish and class. The production is smooth and clear, with a classic Nashville-esque sound. The song itself is a picturesque mid-tempo Country Pop piece. Both the playing and the arrangement are of remarkably high quality. Musically, this is immediately accessible and catchy, with an easy-rolling feel. Keyboards sigh and float, drums propel the track forward with a light briskness. Guitars swirl gently, adding little adornments and short riffs. Lacina's vocals, firmly in Country territory, are as burnished as the music, with an earnest sheen which is quite affecting. ‘Salt in the water, sand blowing in your eyes, we've got ten more minutes before the sun leaves the skies’.
The title track, taken at a slightly slower pace, is another well-crafted slice of laidback, dreamy Pop. With shuffling drums and beautifully understated guitars, it unravels as gentle and alluring as a cool river on a hot summer's day. ‘Let's go slow, I'll pour you a glass of wine, turn the lights down low, we've got nothing but time’ sings Candace Lacina, the musical backdrop perfectly echoing that sentiment. There's a hint of deep 70s Soul here but the delivery is as light and breezy as you like. “Still Waters” distills more shimmering pathos, with softly chugging acoustic guitar and keening lap-steel. What strikes the listener is just how well put together this album is, a testament to the collective knowledge and experience of the group.
“Smoking Gun” packs a bit more of a punch, with a rollicking 'outlaw cowboy' vibe. Thumping kick-drum and circling guitars summon images of burning sunsets, heat rising from sand and the lone hero, urging his weary mount forwards. Once again, The Hello Darlins display an uncanny knack for melodic hooks, sing-a-long choruses, and seamless arrangements. “Prayer for a Sparrow” slows things down again, with some lovely harmonizing over a sparse backdrop. Closer “Farewell River Rouge” is a bucolic and wistful affair, with some lovely fiddle-and-piano; a short, sweet coda to a very well-constructed set. The Hello Darlins will surely enjoy great success. (by Chris Wheatley)
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Etta James (from the album The Montreux Years available on BMG) (by Chris Wheatley)
A treat for fans of vocal Jazz comes this month in two servings from MBG Records, in collaboration with the revered Montreux Jazz Festival, showcasing classic recordings from that event's illustrious past performances. Etta James: The Montreux Years comes as a two-LP / double-CD set featuring Etta James' live concerts performances at the historic venue with recordings covering a timespan Beginning in 1975 and ending in 1993. The 1975 date is notable for marking Etta James first concert in Europe, many of the highlights of which are included here. As with the companion Nina Simone Montreux Years recordings, the remastered sound is first class, audience ambience and all, and the release features new liner notes and photographs.
For those not aware of the Montreux Festival's history, it first opened in 1967, at the Montreux Casino, with considerable help from Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun (of Atlantic Records). Although firmly centred around Jazz, the event quickly broadened its scope and has, over the years, played host to the likes of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Prince, and Frank Zappa. (It was during a performance by the latter act that a fire started which led to the original building burning down.) Of the many stars who have performed there, Etta James must rank among the very best.
As presented here, the set begins with a barnstorming number from 1990; “Breakin' Up Somebody's Home”. It's an upbeat, funky R&B (in the old sense) cut which evidently pleased the crowd mightily. The band are first class, and Etta James delivery is as excellent as ever, full of Gospel fire and emotion. It must have been a fine thing indeed to have been there. Indeed, much of the joy in listening to this and the companion Simone set, is the wide-open sound and audible audience. This is a master at work. If the polish of a studio recording is absent, and the star a little past her finest hour, it matters not. Back in 1977 “Tell Mama” wails and rattles. Etta James voice is subtly stronger here, the band just as hot. You can feel the energy pouring off the stage. Forward to 1993 and “I Sing the Blues for You” crawls lazy and dangerous as a snake. Amidst the harmonica screams and skewering guitar riffs, James' declaims an inspiring intro, before she and the band ramp it up and let loose.
'Side Two' is mainly comprised of that historic 1975 show, beginning with “Respect Yourself”. We have another top line-up of backing players here, including the always interesting John Paul Jones (of Led Zeppelin) on bass. The song itself, of course, is a burning Blues Rock which echoes the very best Stax and Atlantic Records sound. Muscular, inventive, and thrilling, Etta James and co. blaze their way through this classic with poise and power. James' own “W-O-M-A-N” is a standout, strident and swaying, complete with delightful banter between Etta James and the appreciative crowd. It's a wonderful R&B workout. Elmore James/Robert Johnson's “Dust My Broom” is taken at swinging pace, with honking horns and vamping organ. There is enough kinetic energy here to power a city.
The rest of the 1975 show is equally strong. “I'd Rather Go Blind”, another track on which Etta James holds co-writing credits, is a mesmerizing, slow-motion Soul ballad. “Rock Me Baby” fizzes with fun and spirit. A memorable version of “Stormy Monday” closes the set, with Etta James, as ever, giving it her all. Across the two discs, all the performances are strong. As with the Nina Simone release, it's the highlighted concert (in this case, 1975) which rises slightly above the chasing pack, but long-term fans, and also new ones, will find plenty to enjoy in every second. (by Chris Wheatley)
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Pilgrim (from the album No Offense, Nevermind, Sorry available on Horton Records) (by Chris Wheatley)
The splendidly-titled No Offense, Nevermind, Sorry is the work of Pilgrim, a Tulsa, Oklahoma-based six-piece fronted by guitarist/vocalist Beau Roberson. Pilgrim features Jesse Aycock on guitars and lap-steel, Paddy Ryan on drums, Aaron Boehler on bass, John Fullbright on keys and harmonica, and Stephen Lee on guitar. Michael Staub contributes sax on two of the tracks, which are all Roberson-penned originals (except for “Katie” written by Fred Eaglesmith). This release comes via Horton Records, who first came to my attention with their Back to Paradise: A Tulsa Tribute To Okie Music – an excellent and eclectic compilation of local musicians. Horton Records are a non-profit organization who provide support and tools for regional artists. They do a very good job of it, too. Enticingly, Pilgrim, they say, are RIYL: Wilco, Shinyribs, JJ Grey & Mofro, Nathaniel Rateliff’. That's a heavy-hitting line-up. Pilgrim, I'm happy to say, can hold their heads up high in such company.
“Darkness of the Bar” opens this show. It's a rambling, shuffling slice of Americana which will call to mind all of those aforementioned acts, and, perhaps more than any, the nuanced, gritty charm of The Band. Roberson's voice is smooth and characterful, hard-working and earnest. ‘I'm trying to make amends’ he sings in this cautionary tale ‘for pissing on my family, for pissing on my friends’. This, of course, taps into the long tradition of melancholic Country songwriting. The music, however, is far from joyless. With its lap steel flourishes, organ vamps, and sing-a-long chorus, there's a lot to enjoy here, not least the obvious skill of the assembled musicians, who bring their own light and swing to the number.
“Down” injects more contemporary swagger into the vibe, strutting forth from the shadows with ringing, reverberating guitar and stalking bass. What really shines here is both the quality of the playing and the affecting nature of Roberson's fine voice. Compositionally-speaking, this is highly polished, classy stuff. Roberson and the band bring enough virtuosity and invention to keep you listening. Anyone who has followed Americana/Country music over the last forty years will find themselves immediately at home here, and also pleasantly surprised by how fresh this music sounds. Subtlety and songwriting are key elements on No Offense, Nevermind, Sorry. From smashing, crashing instrumental swells to swift-swooping, highly emotive, delicate soundscapes, there is much to savour. ‘If you every say that to me again, I'll take it all down south’.
“Lefty” (in memoriam of Lefty Frizzell?), brings to mind artists as gifted and varied as Neil Young and Pink Floyd, with its epic backdrop and intimate delivery. ‘Now you're on’, sings Roberson, ‘that final journey home, through the valley of the dark, where the light don't ever show’. This is muscular, personal songwriting with real power and grace. “Scar Across My Heart” slows things down with rattling, hissing, downhome percussion and singing lap steel. As with every cut on this album, Pilgrim summon up a legion of country ghosts yet never sound in the slightest bit derivative or dated. This is a remarkable feat. “Rodeo Man” takes us out, as biting as a viper, under hots suns and down long, dusty highways. You'll hear Led Zeppelin here. You'll discern The Rolling Stones. More than anything, however, what you'll experience is a fantastic band doing their own thing, inspired and informed by the past, but firmly grounded in their own present. (Chris Wheatley)
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Hiss Golden Messenger (from the album Quietly Blowing It available on Merge Records) (by Chris Wheatley)
The eclectic, always-interesting Hiss Golden Messenger returns with the splendidly-titled Quietly Blowing It, on Merge Records. Chief creative force, songwriter M.C. Taylor, it seems, found time and space to think and react creatively during the unprecedented times his native country (America) and the world have recently endured. More than anything, though, this is a highly personal project. ‘It’s not exactly a record about the state of the world’, Taylor explains, ‘more a retrospective of the past five years of my life, painted in sort of impressionistic hues. And I got the time required in order to do that’. It sounds like an artist's dream – Quietly Blowing It - was written and arranged in the sanctuary of Hiss Golden Messenger’s home studio, a small space resplendent with books, records, and guitars. What he ended up with was a collection of, essentially, fully-realized demos, which was then whittled down, the surviving songs taken into the studio where the Hiss band committed them to tape. There are several notable collaborators present, including highly regarded guitarist Buddy Miller (whose credentials include work with Richard Thompson and Emmylou Harris) and the award-winning singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell.
“Way Back in the Way Back” starts things off with gentle keyboards, rolling acoustic guitar and mandolin strings. ‘Don't be afraid, we'll be fine in the morning...up with the mountains, down with the system’, sings Taylor. His vocals are always arresting, clear and full of emotion, with a rough edge. Lyrically, he is as good as ever, a compelling mix of the immediately relatable and the alluringly mysteries. Musically, a fine spell is woven here, with brass, electric guitar, and percussion all contributing in wonderfully restrained, organic fashion. This is total music, where feel matters more than melody, although there are certainly hooks which will spin round in your head. Follower “The Great Mystifier” bounces and rolls with more of that circling, embracing production. This is classic singer-songwriter territory, which will summon up the spirits of Hiss Golden Messenger peers such as Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, and Gram Parsons. As ever, though, Taylor and the band put their own, distinctive spin on proceedings. It's the holistic nature of the music which sticks with you; a combination of myriad, fascinating parts, be it a keyboard swirl here, harmonica refrain there or hand percussion somewhere else. The individual elements add up to a firmly engaging whole.
The title track glides along on lap steel and lazy drums. ‘What you've done to me, I've done to you’, sings Hiss Golden Messenger. There's no self-pity here, just self-reflection, a rueful reappraisal of one's past. ‘These songs always circle back to the things that I feel like I have a handle on’, explains Taylor, ‘and the things that I’m not proud of about myself. When I think of the phrase ‘quietly blowing it,’ I think of all the ways that I’ve mis-stepped, misused my gifts, miscommunicated’. It's a sentiment which speaks, I am sure, to all of us. This isn't nihilistic or pessimistic music. There's a life-affirming air which shines through in sound and word. “If It Comes in the Morning” slumbers and rouses on a cloud of brass and strings. ‘I'm ready to try’, Taylor softly exclaims. At the heart of Quietly Blowing It lies a well-spring of human experience, honesty and no little sum of talent. (by Chris Wheatley)
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Genuine Cowhide (from the album All Roads Lead to Colorado available on Genuine Cowhide Records) ( by Bryant Liggett)
Montezuma County Colorado’s greatest export could be Nitro Twang. A swaggering blast of two-stepping Rock and Roll, Dale ‘X’ Allen and his band, Genuine Cowhide, have been purveyors of this product for years, a brand developed in Austin and perfected in the rural Southwest. Six records in and the latest, All Roads Lead to Colorado, is Country Rock’n’Roll perfection, where spaghetti western mystique, jangle, reverb, and lonesome lyrics kick in with twang, rock gold dust for cowboys, punks, and cowpunks. The Nitro Twang delivered by Genuine Cowhide is a homemade sound, and it belongs to Southwest Colorado. Allen’s sand and surf sound rips on album opener, “River of Sorrow” Genuine Cowhide ride a click-clack locomotive shuffle on “Black Canyon Chant” before dropping a crying in your beer Rocker with “Next Broken Heart”.
Genuine Cowhide celebrate their sound when X sings ‘we like to rock and we like to swing but it don’t mean a thing if it don’t twang’. The cut goes from upbeat Rocker to foot down on the gas, reckless Boogie in a split second; the cut is a banger. “Smoke on the Wind” is a historical ballad about the Southwest’s 416 fire. The album wraps with closers “All Roads Lead to Colorado” and “Chupacabra”, both mysterious blasts of Western noir. If Jason and the Scorchers, The Beat Farmers and “Country Honk”-era Rolling Stones connect the dots between Rock and Country, Genuine Cowhide put nails in the lined-up dots after mashing them together. Guitar lead Genuine Cowhide with six-string singing, wailing, and ripping, making a glorious racket while bending and breaking the notes. (by Bryant Liggett)
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Swift Silver (From the album Swift Silver available on Colonel Clay Records) (by Brian Rock)
Swift Silver mines their Country and Blues roots on their eponymous debut album. The band, fronted by Anna Kline on vocals and John Looney on lead guitar, creates a distinctive Americana hybrid sound. Smoothing the rough edges of the Blues and emphasizing the soulful heart of Country, they strike a groove filled balance that gracefully fuses the two genres. Starting off with “Belleville Blues”, Looney’s slide guitar introduces an easy rolling Texas Blues rhythm. Kline’s soulful voice brings the song to life as she sings an ode to the open road: ‘the sky above, she is my mother. The road ahead, my sister and brother. I follow no man’s path, but my own’. Together they create a perfect top-down, scenic drive, road song. They add playful organ strains and funky guitar chords to “Come on Home to Yourself” to crank their Texas Blues to eleven.
Kline’s voice is part Tanya Tucker, part Alyssa Graham, and just a touch of Janis Joplin. Throaty and gritty, she moans the Blues with feeling. Her voice reaches the height of its emotional impact on the slower songs on this album. “We’ve Given Up on Us” is a classic Country heartbreak story enhanced by her Blues style. “We All Get Our Turn”, “Looking Back”, and “Ain’t Wrecked Yet” all showcase Kline’s expressive voice as Swift Silver moves from Chicago style to Country to Folk Blues. Looney takes lead vocal duties on the Dustbowl Blues of “The Fields Have Turned Brown” to add an earthy, change of pace to the album. Kline returns to sing lead on the Memphis Blues of “Bluebird’s Refrain”. Inspired by their personal struggles with COVID lockdowns, the song urges people to take a more communal perspective. Singing ‘the higher you get, the more that you see’ they remind us that if you raise your perspective high enough, you see that we are all one. With their textured arrangements and soulful vocals, Swift Silver is a welcome addition to the Americana/Blues scene. (by Brian Rock)
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Annie Keating (from the album Bristol County Tides available as a self-release) (by Danny McCloskey)
Ever wonder what the inside of Annie Keating’s mind sounds like. On her recent release, Bristol County Tides, Annie Keating presents the conversations we have with ourselves from the support to the spite, the kudos to the take-downs. Bristol County Tides is not a confessional, it’s a board meeting in the brain of Annie Keating, and everyone has an opinion. Scratchy electric guitar chords announce the album when opening cut “Third Street” cruises nighttime boulevards while words to a friend get sent as an audio message in “High Tide” as the groove floats like dust mites in the dim light of “Hank’s Saloon”. Annie Keating’s delivery speaks to the catharsis of exposing the words bouncing around in her skull. There is a lightness to the vocals as heavy as the memories become, Annie Keating showcasing an ability to find inspiration for herself, and others, as a template for the coming times.
The rhythms slowly revolve as Annie Keating sings of recent days, perhaps a shared experience, living in a world turned upside down as the sun continues to rise and set in “Half Mast”. Fear of the future gets moved aside when reality reveals that “Nobody Knows” tomorrow as a snaking guitar line makes bets in “Lucky 13” while Bristol County Tides takes a fast exit with “Song for a Friend”. 2020 was an excellent time to pitch a tent in our own heads, and the thoughts on Bristol County Tides reflect those moments in the life of Annie Keating. Giving background on the tales, she shared her experience, ‘in the early days of the pandemic, when things were really bad in Brooklyn, my family and I packed up and headed to my mom’s cottage in Bristol County Massachusetts. We thought we were going for a week or two but ended up relocating for five months’. A welcome is sent out to a soul, Annie Keating tenderly becoming a friend to a “Kindred Spirit” as she shuffles across “Blue Moon Tide” and sings the legend of “Doris” while Bristol County Tides exits with “Goodbye”. (by Danny McCloskey)
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Amy Helm (from the album What the Flood Leave Behind available on BMG) (by Bryant Liggett)
Amy Helm is continuing to put her Dad’s Woodstock recording space to good use. When Levon Helm passed in 2012 he not only left behind a stellar body of American Roots music of the Rock, Blues, Country, and Gospel variety, Levon left behind ‘The Barn’, a recording studio and performance space on his New York property. It is holy musical ground that aided to the sacred sound of her latest What the Flood Leaves Behind, the term used here in a spiritual sense as Amy Helm put together a powerful Roots Gospel record.
The gospel-tinged cuts on What the Flood Leave Behind all come with a big dose of groove. “Breathing” is driven by a solid bass line and punchy horns, “Wait for the Rain” is laidback, lazy Blues, and “Calling Home” is a gospel tune kneeling at the altar of Stax Soul. Amy Helm is a child of the 1980’s, proving it with “Are We Running Out Of Love”, the cut sounding as if it was pulled from hit-driven Rock radio from that decade. “Carry It Alone” has a gentle Folk vibe and “Renegade Heart” begins as a piano-only ballad with the band coming in for the last minute to build up a dramatic, Rock and Soul finish. Her voice is wonderful, cradled in a band that walks a line between Roots Folk outfit or a group of session players from the 1960’s south. Amy Helm is also quite comfortable, laying it out over a bed of acoustic stringed instruments or punching it up over funk fills and big horns.
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