Sugarcane (from the album Cat's Eyes available on Frizz Records) (by Chris Wheatley)
On the back of some intriguing singles, the debut from London/Brazilian band Sugarcane has already generated plenty of interest, so it's a pleasure to review it here. The quartet come with some pedigree and present a fascinating blend of British and South American sounds. Leader Robin French has long been drawn to foreign music. ‘Maybe Samba attracted me’ he explains ‘because of how it balances oppositions - it’s black and white. I remember looking at record sleeves in HMV (London) and feeling intrigued that the musicians were mixed-race like me’. French, who formerly played bass with Mr. Hudson and the Library, gained practical experience of this music while travelling but it was a fortuitous meeting back in London which kickstarted the Sugarcane project. At a rooftop party, he met two Brazilian exiles; drummer Xande Oliveira and double-bassist Klaus Stahr. Oliveira has previously worked with English singer-songwriter Alison Moyet and the highly-regarded composer Max de Castro. Stahr had spent time with politically-conscious reggae band Captain Ska. With steel-pan player and dancer Claire Niestyo-Bame (who has undertaken some interesting projects of her own) onboard, the line-up for Sugarcane was complete.
“One Specific Thing” kicks us off and straight away we're in sunshine territory, with delicately swaying South American rhythms, buzzing percussion, and soft, Samba guitar. Contrasting against this are the vocals, which are distinctly English, with a wistful edge and deliberately 'everyman' delivery. Nuanced steel-pans dance around this extremely likeable composition, which shimmers gracefully, as bright as you could wish for. Lyrically, we're talking love story, albeit more akin to the 'realist' approach of Morrisey than Mills & Boon. ‘It wasn't one specific thing you said, all the feelings that I hid, came to surface in my head’. “Blondes Have More Fun”, a standout, radio-friendly track, is an impressive slice of Indie Pop. And Poppy it is, in the best possible sense of the word, yet there is real craft and depth on display here, not least due to the elements of acoustic instrumentation, traditional rhythms, and Folk roots. The compositions are inventive and surprising, full of subtle changes and bringing to mind classic alternative acts of the past who enjoyed considerable crossover success. I can hear OMD here, as well as shades of XTC, and even Talk Talk. There's a distinct Brit Pop afterglow also; echoes of the highly accessible wedded to the adventurous and quirky which Blur and Space served up so well. A cheeky flute solo playing the melody from Rod Stewart's “Do You Think I'm Sexy” is a nice touch.
The title track for Cat’s Eye is a quite lovely shuffling, evocative number. ‘No eagles flying overhead, just cat's eyes on the road’. Robin French and co certainly know how to spin out a compelling soundscape. Progressions are measured and gentle but the arrangements are full of bursting flowers of music. The band serve up remarkably cohesive and composed songs; rich and warm sonic blankets which often bely the sometimes somber and serious subject matter. There's wit and invention aplenty but it is never forced or showy. “Shambala Mess” is another highlight, a racing, bracing work-out which takes inspiration from 70’s soundtracks, spaghetti Westerns, 60’s psychedelia, and, of course, those ever-present Brazilian tones. “Wide Sargasso Sea” (after the novel by Jean Rhys?) is an eccentric delight. ‘Do I feel the vibrations of voodoo?’ There's definitely some magic at work here. (by Chris Wheatley)
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Ben Reddell Band (from the EP LA Baby! available as a self-release) (by Danny McCloskey)
The Ben Reddell Band ride hard into LA Baby!, their recently released E.P.. Opening the six-song cycle with “My Baby”, the band sets the rhythm to cruise when the backbeat and chord chops pound out the beat for bright piano riffs to accent the cut. Bordering the tracks, LA Baby! closes out the song roster with Tex-Mex accordion swirling over “Good Thing”. West coast-based, Ben Reddell hears the songs of LA Baby! as a celebration of his adopted city, the tunes balancing allegiance between California Country and the history of songwriters soaked up growing up in Texas. The rhythms of “Tumbleweed” roll and bounce like its namesake while “Love Her & You Need Her” barrels along, bobbing and weaving with a love story careening over the hammering beat.
The pandemic lockdown took Ben Reddell away from studio management promoting LA Roots gathering, Grand Ol’ Echo. What-to-do was not as issue, Ben recalling that ‘in the absence of my responsibilities, I wanted to focus on putting out my art that I feel is good. Before I didn’t have the time or ability to put my work out there’. LA Baby! makes plans to party, laying out the how-to over the rocking rolls of rhythm lining up in “Cocaine” as the Ben Reddell Band ‘spins the sawdust’ on the dancefloor slowly turning to “12 Bar Blues”. (by Danny McCloskey)
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Cruzados (from the album She’s Automatic available on Scam-co Records) (by Bryant Liggett)
The 2021 version of Cruzados have picked back up where they left things 30 years back. The lineup may look a bit different for the Los Angeles-based Rock band save for founding bass player Tony Marsico, but the sound on their latest, She’s Automatic,remains the same. The same Rock swagger and the same gritty attitude that puts them the Punk world. She’s Automatic keeps some of the same company from their heyday as well. L.A. show-bills from 1980 may have found the original Cruzados performing alongside X, The Blasters, or Los Lobos. Guest spots on the new release welcomes back John Doe (solo, X), David Hidalgo and Steve Berlin of Los Lobos, and The Blasters Dave Alvin, before his solo career.
Big rock drums and a power chord introduction opens the record with “On the Tilt A Whirl” while subtle jangle yields to Blues Rock riffs on the radio friendly “Across This Ghost Town”. The She’s Automatictitle track dips into the Bo Diddley beat before transforming into a Blues Rock charger fueled by the bands SoCal Punk upbringing and “Sad Sadie” finds Cruzados exercising an ability to toss in a heartbreaker ballad. “Long Black Car” is a blast of Texas Boogie Blues, “Let Me Down” and “Wing and a Prayer” are a one-two punch of Honky Tonk rippers. Unpolished and old-school all the way down the She’s Automatic recording session finds Cruzados setting up, hitting record, and banging it out. Blues with a Punk edge or Punk influenced by Texas Blues rockers, the whole sound is glorious grit, true-believer vocals chugging over rough instrumentation. (by Bryant Liggett)
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Brian Setzer (from the album Gotta Have the Rumble available on Surfdog Records) (by Brian Rock)
Rock and Roll legend, Brian Setzer, returns to his Rockabilly roots on his new solo release, Gotta Have the Rumble. Unlike his band’s, The Stray Cats, (in)famous “Rumble in Brighton”, the rumble here refers to the sweet purr of a 6- cylinder ’57 Chevy Blue Flame Six engine. Recapturing the energy of his Stray Cat days, Setzer sings fiery songs about rocking, racing, and romance. Celebrating its original form, Brian Setzer manages to spice up the already raucous sound of Rockabilly by adding elements of Jazz, Western Swing, and even Middle Eastern rhythms. Gotta Have the Rumble races into high gear on the lead track, “Checkered Flag”, staring off with a gritty, Link Ray-bass line, Setzer moans ‘your daddy says that I’m no good. He don’t know what’s under my hood’. Building tempo and urgency he continues, ‘looking like the cover of a hot rod mag, baby’s wrapped in a checkered flag’. Capturing the excitement of an impromptu street race, Brian Setzer and backing bass vocalists sing in unison, ‘Can’t be humble, gotta have the rumble’. Setzer’s signature guitar chops complete the experience as he surges to the finish line.
Brian Setzer introduces Middle Eastern rhythms on the unexpectedly up-tempo teen tragedy “Smash Up on Highway One”. “Stack My Money” incorporates Marty Robbins-style Western rhythms to sing this decidedly Rockabilly version of the working man’s Blues. “The Wrong Side of the Tracks” gets slinky with a Jazzy string section to recount a rendezvous with a mysterious woman. Continuing to push the boundaries of traditional Rockabilly, Brian Setzer adds Latin/Bosa Nova percussion to “Drip Drop”. “The Cat with 9 Wives” returns to straight ahead Rock’n’Roll. The spirit of Bo Diddly permeates every note of “Turn You On, Turn Me On”. “Rockabilly Riot” indulges in the Psychobilly sounds of Reverend Horton Heat as “Off Your Rocker” lets the bass guitar take center stage. “One Bad Habit” tempts his goodie two-shoes love interest with early Stray Cats swagger and style while Brian Setzer finishes the set with “Rockabilly Banjo”, the bands’s sound paying tribute to Marty Stuart’s style of Hillbilly Rock. Brian Setzer’s devotion to that incredibly creative three year burst of Rock’n’Roll energy from 1954 -1956 is well documented. His ability to take that small subset of Rock music and create a diverse, eleven-song album where no two songs sound the same is the mark of a true virtuoso. Brian Setzer’s reputation as a guitar slinger par excellence is on full display here, and his voice is as strong and sultry as ever. Gotta Have the Rumble proves that this Stray Cat may have been around the block yet he hasn’t strayed far from his roots. (by Brian Rock)
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Pi Jacobs (from the album Live from Memphis available on Blackbird Recording) (by Bryant Liggett)
PI Jacobs has dropped a record that’s as much spoken word as it is a traditional words and music album. With lengthy narratives that introduce each song, Live from Memphis (recorded at Ditty TV in Memphis, Tennessee) is an intimate storyteller’s record where Pi Jacobs saddles up and sits next to you, whether it be on a couch where she comfortably tucks her legs up beneath her settling in for a few or on the neighboring barstool as she’s ready to run up a tab and tell you her story. Pi’s opening dialogue addresses the courting and development of a relationship morphing in to “Broken Cup”, a boozy and lovelorn lounge number. She pokes into president 45 on the part twangy, part soulful “First Thing Tomorrow”, where Pi has been ‘drunk since the election’ and upset that ‘the nazi’s would come out in plain sight’.
Pi Jacobs addresses finding her estranged dad in “Rearview” and developing her own romantic relationships in the Country shuffle of “Party Girl”. The #MeToo Movement receives a story and a shout-out for “Diana the Hunter”. Closing with “Good Things” Pi Jacobs ends her narrative with a driving Roots cut, wrapping her story at the timeline where her career takes off. This is a therapy record for Pi Jacobs, and perhaps an inspirational record for the listener. Live from Memphis speaks of Pi Jacobs’ story, tales interchangeable with all humanity. Following each anecdotal admission with lush and lovely twangy Blues, Live from Memphis will satisfy your thirst for live performances with Pi Jacobs discourse on love, family, current events, and all-around life. (by Bryant Liggett)
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Dwayne Dopsie (from the album Set Me Free available on Louisiana Red Hot Records) (by Brian Rock)
Dwayne Dopsie and The Zydeco Hellraisers continue to do what they do best on their ninth studio album, Set Me Free. Combining the soulful earnestness of Blues with the rapturous joy of Gospel, Dopsie and the Hellraisers create an irresistibly, danceable celebration of life. Cooking with all the spice of a French Quarter etouffee, “Take It Higher” starts the set with red hot Cajun flair. Jubilant accordion is backed by a steady drum and bass rhythm line that demands to be dancing. Belying the up-tempo groove, Dopsie sings ‘I’m sitting here lonely, sitting in the dark. I’m wondering baby, what tore us apart. If I had a chance, chance, chance, I’d make it right. I’d fight, fight, fight till I get it right’. Reconciling the pain of now with the joy of what is to come, the song is a hymn of praise to life with all its ups and down.
Like his legendary father, Rockin’ Dopsie, Dwayne likes to keep his Zydeco moving full tilt. The festive atmosphere continues with the addition of Rock electric guitar leads in “Louisiana Girl”. “My Sweet Chaitanya” highlights Dwayne Dopsie’s rapid-fire accordion skills. Drums come to the forefront in “DD’s Zydeco Two Step”. “Shake Shake Shake” is a juke-joint call to do just that. “Nobody Gonna Love Me” showcases more accordion virtuosity with a touch of Chicago Blues while “I Give It to You” gives it to you full speed. Still not letting up, “Have These Days Again” keeps the musical blender set on high, adding a spicy horn section for good measure. When Dwayne Dopsie finally slows down, his Bluesy vocal takes center stage. The Set Me Free title track delivers a classic Blues moan served on a bed of subdued Zydeco rhythms. He wails ‘if my car won’t run and I’m stuck out there in the sun, would you walk by me and act like you don’t know where I’m from? Would you help me or leave me in my misery?’. Despite the pessimistic lyrics, those Cajun spices keep percolating to the top and somehow make the bitterness taste sweet. “The Things I Used to Do” captures Fats Domino New Orleans Blues at its finest. Dwayne Dopsie and the Zydeco Hellraisers do an instrumental take on New Orleans Blues on the ironically named “Talk to Me”. Each course of this sumptuous feast for the ears brings the flavors of New Orleans right to your door, or better yet, to your nearest dance floor. Set Me Free is so infectiously joyful, that once you’re under its spell, you won’t want to be set free. (by Brian Rock)
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I See Hawks in L.A. (from the album On Our Way available on Western Seed Records) (by Bryant Liggett)
Twenty years in and I See Hawks in L.A. continue to define Americana, giving a broad definition of the term. Blues, Folk and Western Roots music stand up in front of the line but I See Hawks in LA’s Americana includes Gospel, jangle, and Roots Psychedelia. Their latest in On Our Way, the record that stretches the young term that is Americana with The Hawks Cosmic Country. “Might’ve Been Me” has a mandolin heavy intro that rolls into a newgrass shuffle while the title track brings a harmony-rich Roy Orbison-influenced ballad into On Our Way. There is down tempo, Gothic folk with screeching fiddle introductions in “Know Just What To Do”, dirty gut-bucket Blues on “Mississippi Gas Station Blues”, and western noir with a storybook vibe in “Geronimo”.
While the aforementioned are right up the A(mericana) -word alley, they throw a didn’t-see-it-coming curveball with “Kensington Market”, a beautiful, drifting dose of Dream Pop with psychedelic meanderings, the tune’s vocals handled by drummer Victoria Jacobs. It’s a hip addition to a sonically diverse recording. Dream Pop continues into the album closer but sharpens the sound to produce an edge. “How You Gonna Know” is an experimental cut with Dub influences, a cut where the band had fun in the studio exercising an anything goes mentality to put together a tripped out closer. The harmonies and Americana instrumentation are solid but the fun lies in where I See Hawks in L.A. go with explorations of Dub and New Wave as they stretch all genre’s boundaries. (by Bryant Liggett)
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Watchhouse (from the album Watchhouse available on Tiptoe Tiger Music)
Under the band name of Watchhouse, the duo of Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz release a self-titled debut. The pair are no strangers to the album cycle, however, logging four albums pre-band name change as Mandolin Orange. The first steps of Watchhouse are sonically linked to their previous work. The sound of the album features a fullness, a purity evidenced in the swirling tones wrapping around distant percussive thumps and rattles in “Belly of the Beast”, the nearly ambient acoustics gently caressing the plaintive vocals of “Lonely Love Affair”, and the rolling rhythms keeping a solitary lover company for “Nightbird”. There is a consistent magic to the music of Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz, Watchhouse offering its songs audio as snapshots, individual musical moments delicately crafted and performed.
A tangle of strings introduces a determined beat to “Better Way”, Watchhouse blending two voices into one vocal that floats over the rhythm’s groove while “Beautiful Flowers” tenderly bids goodbye over the fingerpicking of an acoustic guitar, a moody melody drifts under “Upside Down”, and a sturdy drumbeat guides “New Star” and its wished-for unity. Co-produced by Josh Kaufman (The National, Bonny Light Horsemen), Watchhouse psychedelicizes its acoustics, foregoing a typical gathering of songs for musical exploration. Opening the album with “Wondrous Love”, Watchhouse send their message of love over a percolating blend of strings and beats while “Coming Down from Green Mountain” gracefully unfolds like the morning sun slipping in to light the land below.
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Colin Hay (from the album I Just Don’t Know What To Do with Myself available on Compass/Lazy Eye Records) (by Dave Steinfeld)
For better or worse, Colin Hay is best known as the former frontman of Men At Work, the ‘80s band who hit big — VERY big — with hits like “Down Under”, “Who Can it Be Now”, and “Overkill.” Great Pop hits they were, too. But many people don’t realize that Colin Hay has had a solo career for more than 30 years now. A career that started off somewhat successfully with the 1987 album Looking for Jack and its hit “Hold Me”, and then evaporated pretty quickly — only to be built back slowly from scratch. Landing the song “I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You” on the soundtrack to Zach Braff’s film Garden Statecertainly helped. But most of the credit goes to Colin Hay himself. For many years now, he has toured relentlessly and released a new studio album roughly every other year. His latest, I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself, arrives this month and is his first collection of covers. Like almost everyone else, Hay found himself with more time on his hands than usual last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. After hearing the news of Gerry Marsden’s death, he found himself sitting in the basement of his California home one day, playing the Marsden classic “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying” on guitar — and he decided to record it. That was the impetus for this album.
The 10 tracks on I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself are all important to Colin Hay for one reason or another, as he explains in the liner notes. The title song was, of course, written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David and was a big hit for Dusty Springfield in the ‘60s. Many of the selections here date from that decade — and two of them are Beatles songs. This is hardly surprising, as The Beatles were a massive influence on Hay. (He even told me once that the moment his father — who ran a record store in Scotland when he was a boy — played him “From Me to You” was the moment that everything changed for him. He later realized a lifelong dream by playing with Ringo Starr as part of the All-Starr Band.) The two Fab songs that Colin Hay has chosen are “Norwegian Wood” and “Across the Universe” both by John Lennon. He also turns in a lovely version of The Kinks’ timeless “Waterloo Sunset” from that era. But there are a couple of surprises, too. Colin Hay has the good taste to tackle “Driving with the Brakes On,” a lesser known but beautiful ballad by fellow Scots (and ‘90s hitmakers) Del Amitri. And the disc ends with a cover of the Jimmy Cliff classic “Many Rivers to Cross”. Throughout, Colin Hay handles vocals and guitars, with his right-hand man, Chad Fischer, helping out on various instruments as well as co-producing and mixing the album. The feel is intimate without being sparse. I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself succeeds as both a labor of love and a unique, vital addition to Hay’s extensive catalog. (by Dave Steinfeld)
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Anna Tivel (from the album Blue World available on Fluff & Gravy Records) (by Chris Wheatley)
‘We wanted them sparse and strange’ says singer-songwriter Anna Tivel of the songs on her new album, Blue World. The collection gathers re-imagined pieces from her previous work plus one new track. ‘This project’ Tivel goes on to say ‘felt like breathing again, a chance to be together, listening and expressing something with good friends whose music forever moves me’. Those good friends are Galen Clark, who contributes piano, Rhodes, Wurlitzer and organ, and Micah Hummel on percussion. Anna Tivel herself, for those who have not yet encountered her music, has five previous albums to her name – a body of work which has drawn high praise from NPR, Paste Magazine, and Rolling Stone. Tivel grew up in Portland, Oregon, learning violin and fiddle before developing an interest in songwriting. Her songs, she says, are often focused on the stories and struggles of everyday folk.
“Alleyway” makes for a startling and intriguing opener. Dissonant bells and piano scatter fragments across a echoing void. Anna Tivel's delicate voice begins to sing, ‘I got so lost, so far down the tracks of an old abandoned roller-coaster’. There's something magical in her tone which will surely remind you of Kate Bush – a fragile beauty which could at any moment explode into shivering emotion. It's a slowly unfolding track that never settles into predictable format. Brushed drums and tinkling chimes decorate with splashes of colour. “Minneapolis” ripples gently like an autumn stream. Clark's playing is striking for the space that he leaves, as much as the economic, yet highly melodic notes which he lets flow in soft bursts. Hummel's percussion, likewise, achieves a lot with a little. Together they conjure up a warm and vibrant, impressionistic backdrop for Anna Tivel. It works exceedingly well.
“One Thousand and One” builds from heartbeat drums and hushed vocals. ‘So, if God ain't home, please tell me now before I kneel down’ sings Tivel as the piano arrives like a flock of doves. Throughout Blue World, there is just enough and never too much. These songs walk a tightrope. So incandescent and fairy-tale like are they that you can't help but feel if you crept any nearer, they would disappear forever, like a sudden wakening from a dream. “Shadowland”, with its eerie, shifting organ and found-sound percussion, is a standout. ‘I came to see the flower stands, the vegetables, the cigarettes, the subway-station bucket-men, the headphones and the heat.” Anna Tivel's lyrics are poetic, often abstract, but at the same time somehow entirely human and relatable.
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