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Mother

Natalie Maines

Sony

Being one of the former vocalists of country-pop outfit the Dixie Chicks, Natalie Maines decision to embark on a solo career would always be a tough challenge to undertake considering the success of her previous band. Fortunately, for all concerned, the end results are to be admired. Ditching the country guitars for a more gritty approach comprising of a mixture of covers and original compositions, Maines has crafted a fine solo album. With co-production duties coming from Ben Harper, ‘Mother’ also leans on the songwriting talents of Eddie Vedder whose ‘Without You’ is trademark latter-day Pearl Jam, despite being a solo effort, and Maines does not do it any disservice. In fact, there is no hiding when it comes to Maines’ decision-making as the choice of Jeff Buckley’s ‘Lover, You Should’ve Come Over’ slightly misses the mark whereas title track, and Pink Floyd song, ‘Mother’ more than makes up for the lacklustre of the previous song. After a seven-year absence from the music industry, it’s hoped that Natalie Maines does not wait another seven years for her next creative foray because ‘Mother’ is as good as any place to start a solo excursion.


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Annie Up

Pistol Annies

Sony

Pistol Annies open up with the blues tinged ‘I Feel A Sin Comin’ On’ that is all finger clicks, gorgeous harmonious vocals and more than a little suggestive in its desires. From this sultry opener it’s business as usual as the country roots branch out with the addictive country-pop of ‘Hush Hush’, nicely followed by the pressures of the daily routine of trying to look presentable ‘Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty’, and further complimented in nature with the unfortunate reality that plagues some relationships ‘Unhappily Married’ compellingly told in its darkly humorous trade-offs. There is some contentment to be found here, however, as the Steve Earle influenced ‘Loved By A Workin’ Man’ reveals that the male species has its charms only for the absorbing and beautifully executed ‘Blues, You’re A Buzzkill’ to bring the mood back down and revert to type once more. Difficult second album syndrome is definitely not a part of Pistol Annies’ vocabulary as ‘Annie Up’ is deserving of the highest plaudits.


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Didn’t It Rain

Hugh Laurie

Warner Music Norway

Incredible to think that Hugh Laurie has gone from comedic actor to serious actor and now turning his attention to blues music with follow-up album ‘Didn’t It Rain’ to the well-received debut ‘Let Them Talk’. Whilst the latter focused on celebrating and reviving classic songs from the world of NOLA blues, ‘Didn’t It Rain’ is a departure from the New Orleans sound and a steady progression into the exploration of the blues further inland towards America’s central regions. In doing so, Laurie has turned his attention to early pioneers such as W.C. Handy ‘St. Louis Blues’ and the imaginatively titled Jelly Roll Morton ‘I Hate A Man Like You’ bringing this up-to-date with more recent artists Dr. John ‘Wild Honey’ and The Animals Alan Price with ‘Changes’. If there are any doubters remaining, however, as to the musical credentials of Hugh Laurie, then roll back to the contented sentiments of ‘Junkers Blues’; weep at the quite exquisite ‘Careless Love’ or eavesdrop on the stripped-back sounding before adding some weight confessions of ‘Send Me To The ‘Lectric Chair’ to realise that ‘Didn’t It Rain’ is more than a simple side project reliant on its various collaborators to give it kudos. ‘Didn’t It Rain’ is the second instalment of a fascinating journey of America’s blues music. Long may it continue.


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Tate Stevens

Tate Stevens

Sony

Slipping into a confident country-rock groove from the off with ‘I Got This’, Tate Stevens ability to balance work and play is far from troublesome. Such self-assurance has no doubt been gained from previous stints fronting the Dixie Cadillacs; the Outlaw Junkies and later the Tate Stevens Band, therefore making the transition to solo artist a natural progression as the move looks set to pay dividends. Such conviction can be garnered from the robust and guitar-driven ‘Ride It Out’ that simply lights up this self-titled debut. Mamma’s approval is sought after concerning Tate’s latest flame on the mid-tempo rocker that is ‘Sweet’ whereas ‘The Last Thing I Do’ is relentless in its desires as guitars and occasional piano compete for pole position. There is room of course for the obligatory ‘big’ country ballad with ‘Power Of A Love Song’ but it remains the slightly more quirky, and Brad Paisley-esque, ‘El Camino’ that truly charms.


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The Low Highway

Steve Earle

Warner Music Norway

With Steve Earle’s creative enthusiasm for coming up with the goods time and time again, ‘The Low Highway’, accompanied by The Dukes and Duchesses, shows no signs of waning as this album will take some topping. Being cited as his ‘road’ record, nicely illustrated by the liner notes, ‘The Low Highway’ reveals a breadth of acoustic strummers, country-rock numbers, elements of bluegrass and in the process revealing all facets of Earle’s enduring talents. The mid-tempo jaunt and slight carefree attitude of ‘Love’s Gonna Blow My Way’ breezes through only to be halted in its tracks by the wonderfully portrayed barroom blues of ‘Pocket Full of Rain’. It is left to the title track and lovely drifting strum of ‘Burnin’ It Down’, however, to claim the overall prizes.


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Life On A Rock

Kenny Chesney

Sony

Kenny Chesney is really opting for a more simplistic way of life with latest album ‘Life On A Rock’. Nowhere is this more evident than current single, and album opener, ‘Pirate Flag’ with intentions of finding the remotest destination in an attempt to get away from it all. This is pretty much the mood throughout as songs stroll blissfully in the midsummer sun, drawing on the talents of country legend Willie Nelson with the carefree and wishful thinking ‘Coconut Tree’ and digressing with the reggae inspired ‘Spread The Love’ featuring the Wailers. Surprisingly the latter song is thematically suited to the overall ambience being projected here but remains at odds coming from the lips of a country singer. Fear not as normal order is restored with the beautifully touching ‘Lindy’; country-rock ‘Life On A Rock’ and delicate strumming of ‘Marley’ to suggest that Kenny Chesney is not ready to hang up his spurs just yet.


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Texas Boogie

Mike Penny & his Moonshiners

Rhythm Bomb

First appearances might be deceiving as this is no straightforward country album as there is a real fusion of sounds throughout ‘Texas Boogie’, which is Mike Penny and his Moonshiners’ latest album. From the opening ‘Hardtop Race’ with its western swing influence spliced with occasional piano boogie to the more traditional swinging jive of ‘Jumping From Six To Six’ suggesting that Mike and his fellow musicians have a broad palette to not only work from but clearly express to (hopefully) a wider audience. This genuine array of talents, however, is what makes this second offering so compelling because despite the wider influences the band manage to rein them in under one cohesive umbrella. Whether it’s the more boppin’ ‘Flaming Mamie’ or the hillbilly tinge of ‘No Muss, No Fuss, No Bother’ before leaping to the more straightforward country influence of ‘Ship Of Broken Dreams’, ‘Texas Boogie’ certainly delivers on more than one level and keeping in line with western swing music.


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Rendezvous

Cow Cow Boogie

Rhythm Bomb

Hailing from Edinburgh but sounding as if they have just stepped out of some southern county stateside, Cow Cow Boogie deliver a rather authentic taste of western swing and country via the Rhythm Bomb record label.

Opening with an uncharacteristic and extremely brief aggressive strum on the guitar, ‘Belleville Rendezvous’ perfectly sets the tone for what’s to come with its western feel and ‘Belleville swinging rendezvous’ dual chorus but minus the trite whip cracking effect that nonetheless can still be heard. Hot on its heels is the lovely lilting ‘Cow Cow Boogie’ detailing a singing cowboy with his own spin on the genre and perhaps a cheeky wink to the purists out there considering the band’s geographical location, whereas ‘Scorched’ is definitely to be applauded as a fine take on Varetta Dillard’s version. ‘Train Train’ via Dolly Parton is an appropriate farewell and no doubt a joy to be heard live, as Cow Cow Boogie build up a steaming momentum before the brakes are finally applied. Judging by the quality shown here, ‘Rendezvous’ is worth an appointment with anyone’s ears.


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Unfinished Business

Wanda Jackson

Sugar Hill

Hot on the heels of the Jack White-produced ‘The Party Ain’t Over’, Wanda Jackson continues her renaissance with new album ‘Unfinished Business’. This time it’s Justin Townes Earle on production duties; even contributing vocally on the quite superb ‘Am I Even A Memory?’ With ‘Unfinished Business’ being a more subtle affair than the aforementioned White project, it would seem that Jackson still has much to offer, and long may it continue, as this resurgence in creativity and recognition is much welcomed.


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Let Me Tell You About The Blues New Orleans

Various Artists

Fantastic Voyage

Fantastic Voyage is proving to be a major player in the quality stakes when it comes to compiling not only rockabilly but also blues music. In this instance, ‘Let Me Tell You About The Blues New Orleans’ gets the quality control treatment in terms of blues music emanating from New Orleans. As with a lot of the Fantastic Voyage packages, it is not only the well-known artists represented but often more obscure oddities that really wet the listener’s appetite. With everyone from Ray Charles, Lloyd Price, Fats Domino, Big Joe Turner to the lesser known Falcon Trip, Boo Breeding and Snooks Eaglin, ‘Let Me Tell You About The Blues New Orleans’ clearly has something for all fans of blues music.


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Red

Taylor Swift

Mercury

The rise of Taylor Swift’s mercurial star continues to ascend and rightly so with this truly compelling release. ‘Red’ is the kind of album which throws out its pop (yes, pop) hooks from the off and instantaneously grabs the listener by the ears in a quite seductive spell. Despite some remnants of a country sound (‘All Too Well’ ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’), Taylor Swift has gambled with a (near complete) change in musical direction and it’s paying dividends as the opening indie-sounding ‘State Of Grace’ and radio-friendly ‘22’ testify. The supremely addictive ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’ solidifies further  this new found direction as does the intriguing choice of duet with Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody on ‘The Last Time’. Without wishing Taylor Swift to completely ditch her country roots, one cannot help but feel genuinely moved by this change in direction, whilst not entirely original, as ‘Red’ is proving many doubters wrong.


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The World Explained

Big Boy Bloater & The Limits

Azan

Being on the road for any band can have its drawbacks, especially if you’re Big Boy Bloater. Clearly attesting to such difficulties is the feverish cocktail ‘Leonard Cohen’, as it conjures up a set of memories best forgotten of a tour from the depths of hell itself with only a ‘cheerful’ reminder of Mr Melancholy swinging into focus every now and then. Shimmering next into view is the precarious emotions of ‘Lifetime Money Back Guarantee’ followed by the superb yet longing ‘I Can’t Forget About You’. Clearing out the cupboards further is ‘Stop Dragging Me Back’ casting reflection on a musical past with a firm desire to leave it there. The instrumental ‘Black Sambuca’ showcases Bloater’s guitar wizardry, whereas ‘Insanely Happy’ is a double-edged sword of admission yet brings a twisted smile to the face nonetheless.

At times tearstained, and on other occasions irritated by certain constraints, ‘The World Explained’ is an honest and darkly humorous take on life’s predicaments.



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