Wardruna (from the album Kvitravn available on By Norse Music) (by Chris Wheatley)
Norway is a country rich in both history and folklore. Many will be familiar with tales from Norse mythology (thanks in no small way to the Marvel franchise) and, of course, the distinctive imagery which leaps to mind at the mention of the word 'Vikings'. Fewer will be familiar with the equally deep musical traditions of that locale. Thankfully, contemporary bands such as Norwegian sextet Wardruna offer a visceral reminder. The band utilize a mix of modern and historical instruments, including the wonderfully named sootharp, goat horns, lyres, and the bronze-lur; a type of horn the sound of which is manipulated solely by facial muscles, lips and teeth. The gamers among you will be interested to note that founding member Einar Selvik's credits also include composing music for Assassin's Creed Valhalla. For this album, the band are joined by a group of singers spearheaded by Kirsten Bråten Berg, ‘one of the most important custodians of Norwegian traditional song’.
Opener “Synkverv” is a thing of remarkable beauty, building from voice alone to incorporate a hypnotic, deceptively simple melody played on sparkling strings. Frame-drums, assorted percussion, choral backing, and sung-chanted vocals create a wide, cinematic soundscape. There is not mere atmosphere, however, Wardruna possess the compositional nous to match ambience with distinctive refrains and sophisticated structures. You can't help but be reminded of Van Gelis' extraordinary soundtrack for the film 1492. There is too, a perceptible progressive Rock/Metal vibe, albeit refreshingly free from histrionics and wailing guitars. Wardruna's commitment to authenticity is self-evident, and the sculpted power on display is absorbing.
“Skugge” evolves from roaring wind and keening strings. Slow drums, harmonized voices, and melancholy pipes progress at a stately pace, which is no less compelling for its slow tempo. Ancient history, indeed, echoes through this music, which summons visions of stark beauty, feelings of deep connection, and sends a shiver down the spine. When the track picks up into fast-paced, intertwined Folk song with double-time drums, the resultant rush is quite something to behold.
Rising from the pouring rain, “Fylgjutal,” impossibly, ups the game further, with thudding percussion and glittering melodic counterpoints, which build layer upon layer into a highly affecting imaginary vista. From this vantage point, the band switch gears once again, breaking into a galloping, driving torrent. Voices weave in and around, alternately guttural and ghostly. It is to Wardruna's credit that nothing feels overcooked. I have no doubt that this stems from their ingenuous sincerity and thoughtful dedication to their craft.
The remaining tracks are no less moving and memorable. “Munin” dances and sparkles with light, deft touches juxtaposed nicely against those earth-shaking drums. Propelled by simple vocals and unwinding drones, “Ni” digs down to the bare bones of Wadruna's music. The choral accompaniment, when it appears, is arresting. “Kvit hjort” showcases the wondrous ability of horn-music to summon from within the most primal sensations of humanity. Therein lies the secret of Wardruna's spellbinding music. A highly recommended listen.
Listen and buy the music of Wardruna from AMAZON
More information is available on the Wardruna website
Rylan Brooks (from the album If Wishes Were Horses available on Lot Lizard Records) (by Brian Rock)
Rylan Brooks release their roadhouse worthy debut album, If Wishes Were Horses. Comprised of former truck drivers, Nate Rylan and Chris Brooks, these two highwaymen trade lead vocals and guitar licks as they share stories from the open road. “Abilene” gets the album off to a rocking start with its Molly Hatchet style dueling guitars, pounding drums, and Hammond organ. Singing about a truck driver’s life on the road, they confess, ‘I can’t tell if I’m in Mississippi or outside space and time’. The song revs and roars like a semi barreling downhill on a straightaway. “Hands Off” brings a rapid fire vocal and guitar interplay like Garth Brook’s “Ain’t Goin’ Down Till the Sun Comes Up”. Combining Rock and Honky Tonk, (even throwing in some barrelhouse piano for good measure) they tell a ‘Gimme Three Steps’ type story of flirting with the wrong woman at the wrong time. They downshift from their Rock influences and play some straight up Honky Tonk on “One Time Woman”, “She Loved That Cocaine”, and “Easy Street”. Combining the attitude of Waylon Jennings and the humor of Jerry Reed, they sing about lying, cheating, and living in excess. With a wink and a smile, they make doing bad sound good.
Rylan Brooks also impress in their lower gears. On “Passenger Blues” they incorporate steel guitar and banjo to create Jim Lauderdale-inspired Piedmont Blues. The title track “If Wishes Were Horses” captures the Southern California, Country/Folk/Rock sound of early Eagles.
Grappling with the pain of a breakup, they sing ‘if I could run, maybe then I wouldn’t have to hide. If I could change the way that you love… If wishes were horses then beggars would ride’. “Let You Down (Again)” is a straight, no chaser, Hank Williams style Country Blues tearjerker. As if creating a perfect cross-country road trip mixtape, Rylan Brooks mix musical styles and tempos that match the everchanging landscape that passes by their windshield. Ranging from the high-speed open highways of life to the low gear drama of twisting back country single lane roads, If Wishes Were Horses is one helluva ride. (by Brian Rock)
Listen and buy the music of Rylan Brooks from AMAZON
More information is available on the Rylan Brooks website
Church of Roswell (from the album Church of Roswell available on Studio 42 Records) (by Bryant Liggett)
Getting blackout drunk as a fun evening may be a myth. You have nine or 10 too many and a large void of darkness exists where your memories should be. Folkie duo Church of Roswell turn that unfortunate instance of self-destruction into a fantastic songwriting metaphor, taking the classic tale of man turning to wolf every full moon, and comparing it to a monthly drunk in a blackout town. “Werewolf” opens Here Comes Church of Roswell with that comparison in a clever Folk song where lines like ‘I drink to forget what I do when I drink’ create a clever excuse for ‘seven lost hours’. Bouncy Folk tunes loaded with soft harmonies follow within a breezy record. “Rocketeer” is a tune of positive affirmation where Josh Doyle repeats ‘nothings gonna bring me down today’ while a quick blast of spaghetti western guitar intros the murder ballad in disguise “Love is A Killer”.
Gritty, Garage Rock twang kicks off “The Witcher” giving way to an Indie Rock rhythm that lays a solid foundation underneath Doyle’s and Carpenters ultra-aggressive, punk harmonies as Church of Roswell slow for the album closer. “Canary”, thanks to Carpenter’s vocals, is stripped-down, soft, and tender. The brevity of the record lends itself to the overall delivery punch. Nothing is wasted, filler is nonexistent, and Church of Roswell provide strong harmonies and mixed melodies in a catchy, Pop-package. (by Bryant Liggett)
Listen and buy the music of Church of Roswell from AMAZON
More information is available on the Church of Roswell website
Cambridge and Walker (from the album Wheel and Dive available on Land End records) (by Chris Wheatley)
In terms of Folk music pedigrees, this duo, based in Cambridge, UK, have it all. David Cambridge has long been a prominent figure in the thriving Cambridge Folk-scene, as both vocalist and multi-instrumentalist, where his knowledge and enthusiasm run to designing and constructing his own instruments. His involvement with the genre dates back to the 1970s, when he ran his own folk club at university. Jenna Walker, also a vocalist and multi-instrumentalist, possesses the academic qualifications to match Cambridge's practicality, with a Masters degree in Traditional Music. They've been playing together since 2016, releasing a well-received EP, Worry, Grief, and Care, in 2019. As with so many artists, the pandemic delayed plans to release this, their full-length debut, but I'm glad to say that it is finally available.
Wheel and Dive offers a mix of originals, traditional songs, and some intriguing covers. The title track, and album opener, unfurls in a cloud of birdsong, from which piano and acoustic guitar rise throughout a beguiling, slow-paced composition. Sedate, sparse, and yet warm and enveloping, it is a lovely beginning. Bowed strings and vocal harmonies colour a gently-shifting pastoral landscape. There's a gentle majesty to this track, which rises and falls like a softly-rolling ocean. The arrangement is at once sophisticated and yet readily accessible. This is music to soothe the soul and excite the imagination.
Richard Thompson’s “Waltzing's for Dreamers” comes to life as a sunlit vista of bucolic landscapes and young lovers. It captures the poignant spirit of the original, but the duo add enough of the new to make it their own. Guitar flows like a river, strings lament, and Cambridge and Walker's vocals are something to savour. Cambridge has a distinctive, expressive voice, strong yet with a compelling fragility. Walker's vocals offer a softer, rounded contrast, blossoming out where needed into an arresting power. Together, they make for an enchanting combination. An acapella rendition of Tom Wait's stirring “The Briar and The Rose” provides a moving tribute to that fact.
Joni Mitchell’s gentle “A Case Of You” follows next, here taken at a slightly slower pace than the original. Cambridge and Walker pull out the Folksy heart of this beautiful song, with more of that fine finger-picked guitar and harmonizing. “Come All Ye Fair”, with its brooding, somewhat melancholic strings, is nevertheless as heart-stirring as you could wish for. The duo use their instruments sparingly to notable effect. There is a shaded, pastel-coloured allure to every track laid down here.
The Cambridge-original, “Sea Change”, with some fabulous, subtle guitar flourishes and nuanced, under-stated piano is equal to the duo's covers. Propelled by a restrained power and a delicately building arrangement, it's a wonderful track which highlights the duo's knack of using a little to accomplish much. John Martyn's slow-burning “Hurt in Your Heart” is here transformed into a lilting Folk ballad, with circling guitar. “Unfortunate Tailor” closes the set with more sparkling finger-picking and waves of accordion.
Wheel and Dive is a lovingly-crafted set of songs, old and new, infused with the spirit of English folk. Anyone remotely interested in this genre will want to check this out. (by Chris Wheatley)
Listen and buy the music of Cambridge and Walker from AMAZON
More information is available on the Cambridge and Walker website
Chuck McDermott (from the album 38 Degrees and Raining available as a self-release) (by Bryant Liggett)
Chuck McDermott is a prize for music lovers willing to dig deep. A musician that has flown under the radar much of his career, he is an Indie gem, his latest 38 Degrees and Raining, a blast of Roots music with a hint of Goth-Americana in its seven cuts. It’s a dark record, quiet with a storyteller mystery amidst Bluesy lounge noir. The title track is a haunting opener, Chuck McDermott’s vocals delivered with an ache, the guitar fills adding a touch of twang. “We Will Walk Through the Streets of the City” has a slow march rhythm and existing as a protest tune, floating guitar fills adding a dash of psychedelia while “Hold Back the Water” details the cruel mistress that is mother nature. The spoken word portion of the cut turns the cut into a haunting tale, the backing vocals adding a Gospel feel.
“Dreamers Lullaby” is a lazy and lush lounge tune, the accordion turning the track into a score for a Venice canal float. “Here’s the Thing About America” calls out America’s identity crisis, coming to the conclusion that the once self-claimed greatest country on the planet is far from that title, Chuck McDermott’s protest Folk claiming the country is ‘as dirty as she’s clean, as gentle as she’s mean’. It’s a heavy closer on a heavy record, a tune where McDermott gives tough love to a land that could use it. (by Bryant Liggett)
Listen and buy the music of Chuck McDermott from AMAZON
More information is available on the Chuck McDermott website
Mason Lively (from the album Mason Lively available on Mason Lively Music) (by Bryant Liggett)
Mason Lively’s brand of country is a big lyrical blast of top-shelf whiskey and fireworks, females below the Mason-Dixon line, and a good, backyard party. A storyteller spinning settings that equal a big package of a picturesque America, Mason Lively does so with a pure and polished melody that will push you to shuffle across a dance floor. Bars are places where people can stretch the truth, Lively calling out those folks in album opener “Bar Talkin’” as he sings of a spot ‘where you say what you don’t really mean, ‘til the truth slips out, this is that kind of thing’.
Mason Lively nails small town woes and the resentment one feels stuck in the place where they grew up in “Angry at This Town” and that self-rage continues through “Love Ain’t Done a Damn Thing”. “Lonely You Leave Me” forgoes the Country ideals, leaning into a soulful Blues world with just a hint of twang before he kicks things into a welcoming high-gear with the hard-driving, Country Rocker “Left Behind” while “Devil on My Trail” closes the record with a dose of Southern Gothic where Mason Lively throws around some Gospel ‘searching for a savior’ in a song of on your knees redemption. Mason Lively is an everyman’s Country musician singing an everyman’s song; a dude with an average-joe look at the world backed by a kick-ass band. (by Bryant Liggett)
Listen and buy the music of Mason Lively from AMAZON
More information is available on the Mason Lively website
Raul Malo (from the album Quarantunes Vol. 1 available on Mono Mundo Recordings)
Way, way, way better than streaming home movies of a family vacation, Raul Malo displays the music he collected over the course of 2020. The Mavericks frontman is a performer, so when he thought about how he could manage his mental state and what he could do to provide help during the pandemic the answer came easy…..sing out! The first collection of cuts comes as Quarantunes Vol. 1. As a description of intention and the songs gathered for Quarantunes Vol. 1, Raul shared that ‘as the pictures came in of empty streets across the globe, it was apparent this pandemic was going to last a while. This project stemmed from the idea that we were all in this together — everyone at home, doing what they can. It started in my home studio one rainy day, just me and the Mellotron, recording songs I’d never done before. As time went on, I brought in other talented players to contribute: Hector Tellez Jr, my sons Dino and Max, my friends The Band of Heathens, and of course The Mavericks. Although this quarantine chapter will be behind us one day, I hope this record can serve as a reminder that even in the darkest of times, there’s always room for a song’.
As The Mavericks, Quarantunes Vol. 1 balances between original and covers, the group launching into a eerily prescient “(Waiting for) The World to End” and “Back in Your Arms Again” as they present the cinemagraphic “Sinners and Saints” in wide-screen glory. The band offer cover versions of tracks from Neil Diamond (“Sweet Caroline”), America (“Ventura Highway”), and The Beatles (“Here Comes the Sun”). Joining with buddies The Band of Heathens, Raul Malo delivers George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord”, the album offering renditions of music from Bruce Springsteen with “Jersey Girl” and Nat King Cole in “Ramblin’ Rose”. Full orchestration comes through the keyboards when Raul Malo croons 50’s and 60’s Pop with “Moonglow” and “All of Me”, Quarantunes Vol.1 bringing Lisset Diaz for “Santa Lucia”. A reverbed-drenched cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s reverberate’s long past the last note while Raul Malo closes Quarantunes Vol. 1 with a tender wish for a better tomorrow in Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come”.
Listen and buy the music of Raul Malo from AMAZON
More information is available on the Raul Malo website
Brigitte DeMeyer (from the album Seeker, available from BDM Music) (by Brian Rock)
Brigitte DeMeyer searches for answers on her eighth album, Seeker. One thing is certain though, the talented singer/songwriter with the sultry songbird vocals is definitely not searching to find her voice. She’s already got that down pat. Her Sheryl Crow meets Norah Jones voice is perfectly suited for her style of Jazzy Folk Americana. At turns intimate and whispery like a coffeehouse singer, then bold and bombastic like a concert hall diva; DeMeyer conveys dramatic mood and motion with her vocal phrasing.
The title song, “Seeker”, was written in response to a sudden and unexpected relocation from her home in Nashville to San Francisco to deal with a family crisis. Starting off, ‘Oh my mother, oh sweet Jesus, tell me what you know’, the song plays like a musical prayer. A single acoustic guitar and a light, metronome drumbeat help her sing her prayer with occasional dramatic piano chords thrown in to convey heightened emotion. Her voice is intimate and pleading as she confesses, ‘my seeking days have just begun’. Sometimes admitting you don’t have all the answers and learning to trust a higher power is the first step to finding answers. The timbre of Brigitte DeMeyer’s voice perfectly balances that moment of apprehension and hope as we step tentatively into the unknown.
She continues to showcase her intimate and vulnerable side on “Roots and Wings and Bones”, “All the Blue”, “Already In”, and the Gospel-tinged “Louisiana”; the latter of which is a master class on pitch and breath control. Brigitte DeMeyer unleashes her Bluesy, torch singer side in this sultry, slow-burn tribute to the Crescent City. DeMeyer manages to combine her sultry and playful sides in the Piedmont Blues of “Cat Man Do” singing ‘when he get on the strip, he so tragically hip. Nobody know how he do’ she moans the story of a hep cat on the prowl for love. The funky dobro and piano make the song slink and sloop like an alley cat at midnight. “Salt of the Earth” finds DeMeyer channeling a little Dusty Springfield Memphis Soul. “Calamity Gone” adds a funky Jazz backbeat to that Soul sound. “Ain’t No Mister” finds her layering smooth, Norah Jones vocals over Vince Guaraldi piano syncopations. “Wishbone” is a spritely Folk anthem about achieving balance and perspective in life. Singing ‘you don’t know the right till you’ve been wronged. You don’t know alone till you belong’ she reminds us that you can’t appreciate the highs of life until you’ve experienced the lows. Understanding this helps make the lows a little more bearable.
Being a seeker means admitting that you don’t have the answers - but believing that the answers are out there somewhere. Brigitte DeMeyer reminds us to enjoy the little moments in life as we seek a greater understanding of the big issues. Wherever you are on your journey, take the time to enjoy the simple pleasure of these songs of comfort sung with impeccable style. (by Brian Rock)
Listen and buy the music of Brigitte DeMeyer from AMAZON
More information is available on the Brigitte DeMeyer website
Israel Nash (from the album Topaz, Desert Folklore Music) (by Chris Wheatley)
‘I grew up in little churches that were in the middle of nowhere in Missouri’, says singer-songwriter Israel Nash, whose latest work, Topaz sees the light of day this month (March 2021). Israel Nash is something of a musician's musician, a thoughtful, cerebral artist who earned himself a degree in political science whilst moonlighting as Rock band leader at night. Six years spent in New York saw him gain plaudits from broadminded music publications such as MOJO, and a growing number of appreciative fans. Nash is a person whose roots never really left the country. Following the Big Apple adventure, he and his wife invested in their ‘forever home’; a small acreage in Dripping Springs, Texas.
Topaz was recorded over the space of a year, in a hut-studio hand-built on Nash's property. It's largely a solo effort, though musician friends from Austin contributed. Israel Nash clearly relished the freedom to record, any time, day or night. ‘It's allowed me to capture sounds and ideas, to really get stuff out of my head and into the world’ he says. “Dividing Lines” opens the album with haunting guitars and slowly-unfurling beats, reminiscent of the eerie, universe-echoing sounds of Pink Floyd. Subtle horns, whirling guitars, and stirring percussion rise and fall adorned by choral vocals. Nash's voice is charming, full of character and pathos, strong enough to carry any song. The arrangement spreads out organically into a delightful concoction of 60s-sounding brass, wide expanses of lush harmonies and striking melodies. It is at once both epic and personal. The only record this reviewer can think comes close would be Dennis Wilson's remarkable Pacific Ocean Blue.
From there on, Topaz continues to surprise and impress. On “Down in the Country”, Israel Nash sings with great conviction and passion over a wondrous haze of psychedelic-tinged beauty. Brass punctuates and embellishes; bright flashes of light through the multi-coloured dream fog. This is a track constructed from shade-your-eyes sunlight, limitless open spaces, and pure joy. Nash's knack for crafting compelling song structures is admirable. There's so much going on here yet it never feels overwhelming. Listening to Topaz is akin to diving into a shimmering lake in a high mountain pass.
“Stay” bobs and weaves gently, a dense-yet-supple affair with a deep, soulful feel. Strings and keys lift and drop, wind and turn. You'll hear shades of classic 70s Soul here, and Nash certainly has the voice to match. If The Beatles had recorded at Stax or late-period Motown, if you can forgive the journalistic short-cut, they may well have sounded something like this. The slightly harder-edged “Indiana” thumps and bustles, buoyed by those lovely horns and Nash's ever-relatable delivery… I think Gram Parsons would have loved this. “Pressure” takes us out with subtle Latin rhythms and strummed guitar. As ever, it's the small details Nash scatters like stardust which make the magic.
‘I hope Topaz can be a space for people to just feel’ Israel Nash says. ‘Feelings are what move us to act’. Feelings are also what makes this set so captivating. This is a record birthed by sincere and heartfelt pleasure in the creative act. Both lyrically and musically, there's plenty to absorb here. You won't regret taking the trip.
Listen and buy the music of Israel Nash from AMAZON
More information is available on the Israel Nash website
Rob Leines (from the album Blood, Sweat & Beers available as a self-release) (by Bryant Liggett)
Rob Leines has left the polish on the back burner. Hell, polish isn’t anywhere near the stove nor the kitchen, his latest Blood, Sweat & Beers, has Leines showing grit on tunes that dance from Classic Country to dirty Folk, badass boogie to Southern Rock. The first cuts provide a one-two punch, singular guitar riffs that play alone before the band piles in; track one “Bailing Hay” a shout-out for the working stiff working class, “Saturday Night” a blast of Country Punk. Rob Leines can also lay down the barroom ballads. “Patty Lynn” is a heartbreaker about a gal whose ‘the worst damn thing since the poison in my vein’ while “Hold On” is gutsy Folk number as Rob Leines sings ‘I’m gonna love you like a drunkard loves rye’.
A flat-picking intro kicks off “Rock & Roll Honky Tonk Life” before ripping into an autobiographical tune about a dude who ;works my frets to the bone, have a hard time sleeping alone’. It’s a tune loaded with all the road woes of a touring band playing roadhouses, a highway song inside a Country Rock tune. “Good Time” is one big New Orleans flavored hook and the album closer, “Curse the Sun”, is driven by a huge riff. Blood, Sweat & Beers is an album with a large band driving a hefty charge, a Rocker dipped in the blasting Blues of ZZ Top and the rowdy of Jason and the Scorchers all delivered with roaring, barroom fervor.
Listen and buy the music of Rob Leines from AMAZON
More information is available on the Rob Leines website