Monday, June 18, 2012

Album review: The Ember and the Afterglow by The Jed Rowe Band

It's only June but I can confidently say that 2012 has been a fantastic year for country music releases, especially from Victorians. Lachlan Bryan's January release, Shadow of the Gun, with its robust, masculine sound and intriguing stories, indicated that something interesting was going on in the deep south. It seemed unlikely that he'd have a challenger for that particular throne, but then I heard The Ember and the Afterglow. Now it seems that Jed Rowe and Lachlan Bryan may have to reign side by side.

The Ember and the Afterglow starts with an auditory surprise - a deep male voice singing the song of a desperate woman, in 'Castlemaine'. It seems so unusual, but as we go deeper into the album it becomes clear that Rowe has four female narrators out of eleven songs, and that their stories are diverse and fascinating and compelling. Rowe is an incredible storyteller - each song is a self-contained world with a narrator who seems to be sitting next to the listener, looking into their eyes and holding their hand. They're not all sympathetic characters, but they're sympathetic narrators. From a lyric point of view, this album seems more like a collection of carefully, lovingly shaped and curated short stories.

If Rowe had achieved only that - to create such an extraordinary song cycle - he'd have my attention, but it's the music, carefully shepherded by producer Jeff Lang, that really delivers those stories and draws us in first, before we realise what the lyrics are saying. Taking in country, blues, folk, rock and other influences, these songs are musical delights. Rowe has a strong, commanding baritone, and he understands what many singers do not: he respects the song and doesn't try to get in its way.  If the narrators of the songs sit down next to us, Rowe's voice is what has led them to us in the first place. His voice is backed by his own acoustic and lap steel playing, as well as by double bass from Michael Arvanitakis and drums by Michael DiCecco. They're a tight outfit and they, too, understand what's needed to make sure those songs do what they're meant to do.

I'd never heard of Jed Rowe before this album was sent to me. I'm so very pleased that I had the chance to found out who he is and what he can do. The Ember and the Afterglow is now one of my favourite albums of all time, and I thank him for making it.

The Jed Rowe Band is touring: details at 

The Ember and the Afterglow will be released on 6 July 2012 (independent, through Fuse Group Distribution).

Monday, June 11, 2012

Album review: Big Mouth by the Harmonators

Australian country music duo The Harmonators is composed of singers Rae Moody and Liz Kinninmont,  who met at the Australian Institute of Music and have been singing together ever since. Before they formed the Harmonators, they'd sing back-up vocals for each other. This experience and comfort with each other's voices shows on their new album, Big Mouth, as they harmonise beautifully. If you're partial to lovely female voices and harmonies, it would be worth buying the album for that reason alone. There are, though, other reasons to buy it, of course - namely, the songs.

The Harmonators have drawn on a deep pool of songwriting talent to assemble eleven songs that are not classically country but which fit into the genre well enough to appear on this blog, at least. There is a rock beat to many of them, but it's the instruments and arrangements chosen that place them more into the country and rock camp.

Of the two Harmonators, Rae appears to do more songwriting, penning some on her own and also in collaboration Sam Hawksley, a stalwart of the local scene (on 'Save Her Soul', and Liz ('Kiss Me Now'). Jay O'Shea of O'Shea appears in the credits for two songs (the title track as well as the catchy 'Everybody Thinks I'm Lonely', which has a nice swinging beat) and another local hero, Matt Scullion, contributes 'Perfect Storm' (I'm starting to wonder if that man ever sleeps, so prolific a writer does he appear to be). The closing track is the bittersweet 'World Don't Owe Me', which is a great way to finish a very well-chosen selection of songs.

The album's producer is Matt Fell, who's becoming as busy as Rod McCormack, Shane Nicholson and Nash Chambers. The producing talent in the Australian country music scene is one of the biggest reasons for the high standard of work that's been released over the last few years, and Big Mouth can count itself amongst that. This is an album that really crept up on me and which I'm now toe-tapping along to on a regular basis. The women's voices are just lovely and, yes, I'm a sucker for harmonies but most people are (it's always the harmony bands, like ABBA and The Beatles, that people go crazy over). This is a very well put together, consistently produced and played album. All of those things are hard to achieve, because they require focus and professionalism, quite apart from talent. So off you go ... buy it now! 

Interview: Dead Beat Daddios

Great music in the country and kinda-country genres isn't just for those of us here in the southern states. There are tunes brewing in Brisbane, as the Dead Beat Daddios prove. I interviewed Hugh Daddio by email recently and can thoroughly recommend you check out the Daddios' album, Dashboard Elvis, which is - amazingly - available for free download here.

Who are the Dead Beat Daddios?
Hugh Martin (guitar and vocals), Jim Carden (drums and vocals), Mal McBeath (bass and vocals)

Who is the dead-beatest of the Daddios
Geographically, that would be Jim (our drummer), whose child support obligations span three states. Although Hugh's wanton sending of eBay rarities while unemployed has given his DBD stocks a boost lately.

What are your respective musical backgrounds?
Patchy, questionable and chequered. More specifically, each of us has played with a variety of mainly Melbourne bands, including but not limited to: The Warner Brothers, Overnight Jones, The T-Bones, as well as various separate outfits with Joe Camilliri, Paul Cumming, Lisa Miller and Neil Murray.

4. How did you (as a band) choose rockabilly as your 'thing'? 
It chose us. Three-piece rockabilly is the quintessential rock 'n' roll. We don't have quiffs, leopard skin shoes and hotrod tats, and we actually all have different roots preferences. Mal still pines for Slade. Jim is hoping Stevie Ray Vaughan will emerge from a Texan desert, and Hugh has formed his own queue for The Band's Last last Waltz tour. So I guess country and blues are probably the common threads.

Is there a songwriter-Daddio-in-chief? 
We share songwriting. It tends to be whomever brings something to the session who'll get it on to a list. But we're very democratic. We've also been playing a number of songs by our old friend Paul Cumming (of Shuffling Hungarians, Swingin Sidewalks, Bootless and Unhorsed etc). Paul has an oeuvre of tunes that we love and really enjoy playing alongside our own.

Your band bio suggests that you are squeezing in Daddio duties around normal life-type things like jobs and families - how often do you get to rehearse and play?
We have a ratio of about 3 rehearsals per gig. Which isn't bad. Often rehearsals are in the lounge room or the garage complete with kids singing back-up vocals and shaking percussion instruments. We had a bit of a layoff over summer and are looking forward to getting back to live gigs shortly. We have another recording in the pipeline and that's always a good reason to get back on the road.

Given that you need time to rehearse and play, when do you then squeeze in songwriting and general band-type duties, like promotion?
Songwriting, fairly frequently. We tend to be habitual songwriters, as much as a way of making sense of things as having fun.
Promotion? Not very often. We're the first to admit we're bad at that. It probably comes from being perennial band members. We've all played in some notable local outfits but not out the front of them. So now as the Daddios we find we have three front men - which works okay because we all sing - but no single individual as a focus. Which lets us each pass the buck on promotional duties.

What music do you listen to for inspiration/reference/fun?
Jim is a big Rodney Crowell fan; Hugh loves everything by Wilco, and Mal loves funk.

In reality though, we all listen to a very wide range of stuff. The main criteria is that it is melodic, has something to say lyrically and it grrooves. If it hits all those elements chances are we'll like it.

What's ahead for the Dead Beat Daddios?
The new recording is a focus at the moment. We're all running side projects as well - Hugh is playing in Melbourne band The Dufranes, Mal is producing some Brisbane-based artists and Jim doing as much surfing as he can. But the lure of the Daddios is a strong one.


The story of Dashboard Elvis

The album is about some of the (not so grand) obsessions that blokes have, and the consequences of those obsessions; the decisions that have to be made, or that are made for us, and the dynamics of relationships we live with as a result.

The first track is a statement about one such grand obsession - and it is spectacular. He's building a belly tank racer (see album cover for actual vehicle). But as a result our character (call him BT Man) gets a letter telling him his wife/girlfriend is dumping him. In fact she writes the letter because he's in the garage or road testing so much that she can't even get his attention to have a face to face conversation.

So, he finally realises that he has to talk to her and they sit down to discuss their situation. But her lines are 'already rehearsed'. Her mind is made up. Which leads our character to some serious self-flagellation, but he eventually resigns himself to recognising he stuffed up and he just can't get angry with her about that.

His next move is to put the house up for sale. Another opportunity for some reflection on life's vagaries.

But as with all stories, it's not so easy. And after coming this far he regresses at the next stage and takes to stalking her on the telephone.

Eventually (before the police get involved) he realises this is a foolish approach, so he resolves to meet someone new. And because he's on the rebound his new conquest is a real boozy floozy. But right now our man doesn't care if she has to get drunk to love him, he's happy to open her another bottle and fill her glass.

So that takes us to the the halfway mark of the album. (Or the end of side one in vinyl terms.)

The second half of Dashboard Elvis is sung mostly in a different voice and introduces a couple of different themes. 'Map 58' is a flashback, looking back to the beginning of that former relationship with the summery glow that new things bring.

'Flatline' explores another male emotional shortcoming, but the listener begins to suspect that flatlining is a strategy rather than purely a limitation, and this adds to the layers of subtlety in the emotional picture being drawn across the 12 tracks.

Track 9 takes us on an excursion into another grand obsession (fishing, big game hunting etc), and the sounds and smells of the swamp add an extra aspect to the way our character often thinks of the relationships he finds himself in (or out of).

But he's nothing if not an optimist. So, despite the clumsy attempts at finding new love, he's still looking. And he finds a country girl who is perfect ... if only they could sort out their geographical positionings.

Eventually they do sort out their geo-spatial situation. He was once 'Lost', but now he's found. So to speak. He has a new relationship, and a new lease on life.

And we close the album with a reminder that BT Man has evolved and is now walking upright in emotional terms. But he knows plenty of dudes who play at love like they play at chess, making moves and taking score. In fact he was probably a dude like that once himself, but as an older wiser Daddio he knows that it isn't sustainable.

Dashboard Elvis is available for download from:

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Album review: Two Worlds Collide by The McClymonts

Declaration of bias: I unreservedly and unabashedly love the McClymonts (sisters Brooke, Samantha and Mollie who all sing, and play, in order, guitar, bass and mandolin). I have seen them play live numerous times and plan to keep seeing them play as often as possible. I favourably reviewed their first album all the way back in 2007.

Counterbalance to this bias: their style of country pop/rock is not one I automatically warm to – I normally favour the singer/songwriter alt-country style. So the fact that I love them so much is testament to their considerable talents.

Now that I’ve stated all of that, let’s look at their new album, Two Worlds Collide. I purposely didn’t review their second album, Wrapped Up Good, not because I didn’t think it was great, but because I didn’t think it was as great as their debut album, Chaos and Bright Lights, and the reason for that seemed to be that they’d relied too much on co-writers and not enough on their own songwriting talents (Brooke’s, in particular). Chaos and Bright Lights was light on the co-writes and it was a very strong effort. Wrapped Up Good sounded a bit like they’d listened to people telling them that they should do this, that and the other – like they hadn’t trusted themselves as much as they had on the first album.

Happily, Two Worlds Collide sounds more like the McClymonts in control of their own songwriting destiny. Youngest sister Mollie seems to have more involvement, for one thing, and while there are co-writers credited, they’re not as prevalent as on Wrapped Up Good.

This is a very strong album – possibly their best. Actually, yes, their best. All of the songs are well constructed, easy on the ear and catchy. As always, they harmonise like a dream. The sisters’ voices are at the fore and the instrumentation supports them – an acknowledgement that these voices are now what people recognise and expect, and want to hear.

There’s the odd song that sounds like it should have Samantha singing instead of Brooke (‘Where You Are’, ‘Little Old Beat Up Heart’) as they’re more reminiscent of her style, but we do get our Samantha-sung ballads on ‘Piece of Me’ and ‘Those Summer Days’. ‘This Ain’t Over’ was penned by Samantha and a couple of other writers, and it sounds very much like one of her songs – except Brooke sings it. This in no way detracts from the song, it’s just a curiosity (and possibly only curious to me, who has clearly spent a lot of time pondering the songwriting credits).

The McClymonts consistently put on one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen, in any musical genre. They are entertainers. They understand what their audience needs and they deliver, always with a smile and consummate professionalism. The same is true for this album – what we need is sweet melodies; some lyrics that are lovesick and sentimental and some that are strong or confessional; an album that is satisfying and that we can listen to over and over again. And we are given all of that. This is not revolutionary country music, if that’s what you’re looking for. But it is a really fantastic country pop/rock album that will not disappoint their growing legions of fans or anyone who is curious to know what they’re about. This is what professional musicians sound like when they hit their stride and know that there’s an audience waiting for them. They have not let us down, and I can’t imagine they ever will.

Two Worlds Collide by The McClymonts (Universal) is available now. 

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Lachlan Bryan gigs

There's so much stuff queued up to go on this blog - I just need more time to post it!

Meanwhile, I couldn't not post about upcoming Lachlan Bryan gigs, because his album Shadow of the Gun is now one of my all-time favourite things ever. He'll be at:

* The Workers' Club in Fitzroy (Melbourne) on 14 June, supported by Bill Chambers and Weeping Willows - details here
* The Factory in Enmore (Sydney) on 22 Junem supported by Caitlin Harnett and Melody Pool - details here

Then doing three Lizottes gigs in New South Wales with Harmony James.

More details at Lachlan's website.