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Mathias Lilja

Mathias Lilja

Rootsy

Despite a longstanding history as a singer-songwriter stretching over a twenty-year period that has seen him front The Strollers and still maintaining a working relationship with The Maharajas, Mathias Lilja is poised to pursue the life of a solo artist with his debut record. Considering this lengthy gestation period of whether to commit to a full-length album of original material plus one cover – Townes Van Zandt’s ‘No Place To Fall’ – it only seems right that Mathias Lilja should name his first solo album under his own moniker, as the songs suggest many hours of devotion such is the quality on display. With alt-country being his preferred choice as the musical accompaniment to the personal nature of the lyrical content, Mathias Lilja sets about his business with a warning shot to those preferring to remain oblivious to the very notion that ‘Evil’ could be lurking around the next corner. ‘Don’t Fade On Me’ ups the ante further by means of brushed instrumentation working in unison with Lilja’s impassioned vocal reflecting on what might have been. Any suggestion of bad luck pursuing this Swedish singer-songwriter once again rears its head during ‘Devil’s Almanac’ that presents a rougher ride perfectly summed up by the harder edge of the guitars. ‘Give It All Away’ instantly calms the waters, however, with its predominately folk roots giving way to some pedal steel that adds a lovely aching quality to the song. ‘I Will Stay’ is the perfect example of how country music should sound if there’s a formula to be found that blends its traditional elements with a commercial appeal, as it’s an infectious tune full of bristling energy and smart lyrics and a clear indicator of how it should be done. It is this blend of styles, however, that makes Mathias Lilja’s solo album a force to be reckoned with, especially when considering the lyrically bleak and flashes of distorted guitars that stands out in complete contrast with the rest of this debut.


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Coming Home

Siri Vølstad Jensen

Playroom Music AS

With a growing trend for a pop country crossover, latest addition to this style is Siri Vølstad Jensen with her debut album ‘Coming Home’. Remarkably, this first outing is a product of Norway when, in fact, its contents sound a far closer relation to the country sounds emanating from Music Row in Nashville. Full marks, however, for the convincing sounds on display, which has been a lengthy process in the making and one which actually took in the sights and sounds of Nashville for a period before making a return home. With the trade secret therefore out in the open, the end product is one that is skilfully handled and once more utterly persuasive in the vocal department as ‘Burn Baby Burn’ blends a bit of the traditional country via Dolly Parton with its modern sisters the Dixie Chicks. Title song, ‘Coming Home’ leans on a more conventional country style, with acoustic guitar and strings and Siri Vølstad Jensen sounding beyond her tender years with the only giveaway being a slight vulnerability to the vocal during the chorus, that actually works in her favour due to the sincerity of the emotions expressed. This openness given by Siri Vølstad Jensen extends to ‘Whatever It Was’ and, in the process, proves to be one of the strong points of the album that once more calls for a bit of old-style country while retaining one foot in the present. The pop tendencies are more present in the up-tempo ‘Let Love’ but still not quite to the extent of Taylor Swift’s ‘Red’, for example, due to the heavier weighting of stringed instrumentation wonderfully paraded by the ballad ‘Almost You’. ‘Coming Home’ is the first landmark in the musical career of Siri Vølstad Jensen, and it is one that will prove to be a major step for this country songstress from Norway such is its overall quality.


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Slow Me Down

Sara Evans

Sony Music CMG

Crossing the divide between pop and country, Sara Evans delivers in fine fashion with latest album ‘Slow Me Down’. Having worked in collaboration with three of the eleven songs listed here and in terms of production duties with producer Mark Bright (Rascal Flatts, Lonestar et al), Sara Evans offers her own interpretation of events through her own works but also by means of a cover, for example, of Gavin DeGraw’s ‘Not Over You’. Such is the impact of this rendition of DeGraw’s song – who also lends a helping hand with harmony vocals – as Evans claims it for her own by stamping her authority all over it by means of a stirring vocal and subtler use of instrumentation that is equally affecting as its original. The collaborative work also extends to a duet with The Fray’s Isaac Slade during ‘Can’t Stop Loving You’, that is a perfect combination of Sara Evans powerful and slightly sweeter sounding vocal and Isaac Slade’s gruffer tones. If it’s a more straight country sound you’re after, however, then ‘Slow Me Down’ is not about to abandon this ship, despite containing a commercial appeal, as the likeable ‘Put My Heart Down’; steel guitar of ‘Good Love Is Hard To Find’ and wonderful ballad that is built of sturdier foundations in spite of the immediate ramifications suggested by the narrative of ‘Better Off’. By combining country music with a modern sheen of pop music that leans towards its darker edges and sometimes falling into the latter category with ‘You Never Know’ as one such example, Sara Evans has expertly blended a formula that works as a whole in order to achieve crossover appeal, but in the main create a convincing and thoroughly enjoyable body of work in the shape of ‘Slow Me Down’.


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The Journey So Far – The Best Of Loreena McKennitt

Loreena McKennitt

Quinlan Road

Loreena McKennitt deserves the upmost respect for a career that has spanned thirty years and one that has been guided independently due to producing and promoting her own recorded output through the Quinlan Road record label, which McKennitt is also the proud owner. With such a long and established career in the music industry, and one that is certainly not about to reach its sell-by-date as the album title suggests, the combination of Celtic and folk roots McKennitt is renowned for has been whittled down to a carefully selected twelve-track album, nominated by McKennitt’s own fans, that is ‘The Journey So Far – The Best Of Loreena McKennitt’. Mingling amongst the tracks is a beautiful rendition of traditional Irish folk song that was used as part of the film score to Highlander III in the form of ‘Bonny Portmore’, with ‘The Mummers’ Dance’ revealing a fresh makeover due to additional electronica and followed by a stirring vocal performance set to various strings of ‘Down By The Sally Gardens’. With such a back catalogue of material to choose from, the inclusion of ‘Dante’s Prayer’ was definitely wise considering its haunting beauty that fittingly brings an end to the album. ‘The Journey So Far – The Best Of Loreena McKennitt’ is a finely balanced retrospective of McKennitt’s work to date, and one that is a worthy introduction for those less familiar with her music.


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The Lights From The Chemical Plant

Robert Ellis

New West Records

The music of Robert Ellis resides in two camps when hearing latest album on New West Records ‘The Lights From The Chemical Plant’, and that is one that lovingly embraces the past in terms of country music, and the other is one that resides in the present by means of various modern methodologies providing it with an up-to-date edge. Working like a well-oiled machine but without the added gloss due to enough frayed corners, Robert Ellis proceeds with ‘TV Song’ that is full of fancy in its efforts to escape from the tedium of the everyday as it plays out to an atmospheric soundtrack. If ‘TV Song’ offered some hope in terms of its wishful thinking, then proceeding track ‘Chemical Plant’ is more grounded in its narrative as it traces the phases of a relationship and the differences this brings. Once more there is great technique in the instrumentation as guitars and various strings are gently caressed providing more of the same atmospherics that compliments the reflective tone of Ellis’ vocal. There is not much in the way of happiness to be found in the piano-driven ‘Bottle Of Wine’ as it hints at loneliness, only to be confirmed by the alt-country ‘Still Crazy After All These Years’ that sounds as if it’s playing to an empty barroom. Nearing its end, ‘Houston’ sheds the last teardrop with intimate lyrics depicting the end of a relationship with both home and heart as there really is nothing left apart from ‘The Lights From The Chemical Plant’ for company.


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Between The Bars EP

The Civil Wars

Columbia

The Civil Wars return with an interesting choice of covers in the format of an EP. The decision to include Portishead’s ‘Sour Times’ is testament to the Bristol band’s creative talents but also lasting appeal considering their debut album, which ‘Sour Times’ is lifted from, is now in its twentieth year. The Civil Wars certainly do the song justice by means of guitars rather than electronica, naturally, but use of the word ‘haunting’ is problematic to describe their rendition of this trip-hop number because such a description was reserved for the original composition. Elliot Smith’s ‘Between The Bars’ seems the most obvious choice of cover due to the lingering vulnerability held by both parties when it comes to their music. The Civil Wars turn such similarities to their advantage by not only paying homage to the original, but issue it with new life by creating a roomier version and therefore providing a fresh perspective as all good cover versions should. Surprise choice between the covers is an interpretation of Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’ that is handled with the bare minimum of acoustic guitar and the vocals of Joy Williams and John Paul White, who claim the song as their own such is the difference between the two versions. ‘Between The Bars’ might be a stopgap depending on The Civil Wars current hiatus, but nonetheless it’s a very engaging one that shows them in a slightly different light.


Released 17 February

 

High Top Mountain

Sturgill Simpson

Loose Music

There is much heart and soul permeating throughout Sturgill Simpson’s debut release on Loose Music that runs a gauntlet of emotions ranging from failed relationships to hardships of the working kind before paying tribute, with genuine affection, during ‘Hero’. Having recorded ‘High Top Mountain’ – a reference to a particular site with significance in Kentucky close to where Sturgill Simpson grew up – at Falling Rock (Nashville) under the watchful eye of producer Dave Cobb and later Hillbilly Central; the latter of which featured such country legends as Waylon Jennings and Tompall Glaser, the desire to create an authentic sounding country record was evident from the start having also enlisted the skilful talents of Country Hall of Fame pianist Hargus ‘Pig’ Robbins and steel guitarist Robby Turner. Where others may have buckled under such self-induced pressure, Sturgill Simpson has taken in his stride as ‘High Top Mountain’ is a cast-iron collection of archetypal country that evokes memories of a period in music confined to the history books. That is not to say that Sturgill Simpson is without his own identity because the wild and passionate ‘Poor Rambler’ and exquisite delivery and honest admissions of ‘Water In A Well’ are but two songs that suggest otherwise. In fact, it is not difficult to comprehend where such emotions stem from, having spent years drifting in and out of unfulfilling occupations which, in hindsight, has led to the position where Sturgill Simpson now finds himself as ‘High Top Mountain’ is deserving of high praise indeed.


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Uten at du vet det

Sigrun Loe Sparboe

Tylden

‘Uten at du vet det’ is Sigrun Loe Sparboe’s first solo outing after deciding to make the move back north after a lengthy stint residing in the nation’s capital. In accordance with this transition to a place closer to her roots was the decision to compose all of the songs in her native language, in order to build a stronger relationship with each and every composition and truly express the song’s emotions. Such decisions appear to have paid off as ‘Uten at du vet det’ is instantly spellbinding with its plush string arrangements and uplifting qualities that reveal themselves layer by layer. There is a real live quality to ‘Solefall’, with the vocal pushed to the fore and accompanied by delicate guitar, before changing lane and shifting up a gear with the delightfully addictive ‘Ta mæ med’ complete with handclaps and foot stomps. ‘Nord’ is an ode to home and is delivered in a combination of sumptuous strings and vocal to turn even the harshest of critics which is game, set and match once ‘Globus med lys’ intoxicates the senses with its slow dance under the moonlight. Despite all of the loveliness, ‘Uten at du vet det’ makes a deviation with the dark undercurrent of fingerpicking ‘Ved rokken’ and closely pursued by the anxious and persuasive ‘Ingen vet’ and utterly sublime ‘Unnskyld’. Such digression is completely welcome due to providing a fine balance of emotions and, in the process, sets up ‘Uten at du vet det’ as a debut that will be extremely difficult to surpass due to being nigh on perfect.


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Memphis

Spymob

Untitled

Having received a tipoff regarding this latest release from Spymob – the musicians behind Pharrell Williams’ productions – leaves nothing but a feeling of eternal gratitude due to the quality of the songs on offer here. With an album that is more twang than anything remotely disco, ‘Memphis’ is built on alt-country foundations with elements of indie pop as indicated by ‘I Dream About Her’ that stumbles to gather its thoughts after a night out on the tiles with Beck’s ‘Odelay’ before facing the Monday morning blues. ‘Sometimes It Doesn’t Feel Right’ is equally hazy yet more country in its leanings and aching from the inside out. There is a lovely lilting chorus to the more downbeat ‘Sundays’ that re-treads a similar theme to the aforementioned album opener as another week comes to a close and nothing but thoughts of the dreaded working week ahead. Where this album really pays off, however, is the diversity Spymob bring to ‘Memphis’ due to their ability to turn their hands to a variety of musical genres, which this four piece subtly integrate between the cracks without straying from its main intentions of an alt-country sound. Such evidence is found in the choppy guitar work and slightly eccentric ‘Making A Killing’, bringing to mind Beck once more, and the intricacies and dexterity of ‘Heavy Load’ before resuming to the more conventional and breezy country goodness of ‘Sweet Lovin’ High’. If the year had reached its conclusion already, then ‘Memphis’ would be topping the end of year album poll because it is simply that good. As it stands, Spymob has just set the benchmark for others to follow, as ‘Memphis’ opens 2014 in some style.


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No Depression

Uncle Tupelo

Sony

Viewed by many as torchbearers for the alt-country movement, Uncle Tupelo’s ‘No Depression’ is given the re-issue treatment by way of a Legacy Edition that sees a multitude of extras including, for the first time on CD, the 10-song demo tape ‘Not Forever, Just For Now’ that was recorded by the original line-up of Jeff Tweedy, Jay Farrar and Mike Heidorn (1989). Given that this album was first released in 1990, ‘No Depression’ has not lost any of its edge with its intriguing mix of country and indie rock that no doubt had some bearing on Teenage Fanclub’s ‘Bandwagonesque’ during the same decade. With producers Sean Slade and Paul Q. Kolderie behind the helm and responsible for artists such as Radiohead, Pixies and Dinosaur Jr, then the crossover of styles becomes even more apparent with the ‘Graveyard Shift’ and ‘Factory Belt’ leading the way. ‘No Depression’ is a timely re-release considering the current popularity in roots music, but a reminder of a ground-breaking album that should secure a new level of interest from those unfortunate to miss out during its initial release.


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The Arcade

Seven Doors Hotel

Snaxville Recordings

The fourth instalment of the Seven Doors Hotel bandwagon titled ‘The Arcade’ is unleashed on Snaxville Recordings. The man behind the moniker is Alexander Lindbäck who turns in a heavy shift having written, produced and played the majority of the instruments, with additional support coming from Henrik Maarud (Amund Maarud) who is also responsible for mixing the songs making up this latest release. ‘The Arcade’ embraces an alt. country sound that is blowing in from the American Southwest rather than the colder climes of Norway where, in fact, this album originates. There is a definite sinking feeling of loss at the heart of ‘The Arcade’, with not much optimism in the pipeline either (‘My Back To The Future’), as songs dwell on what might have been (‘That Day’) to the downright perplexed emotions running through the wonderfully aching country lilt of ‘Sliding Bar’ and more conscious ‘Gone Again’. There is an edginess to album opener ‘Go With You’, reflected to great effect with keys and guitars that eventually give way to the song’s frustrations when the feelings are not reciprocated. Seven Doors Hotel is not all about sweetness and light, however, due to a few honest confessions of their own during ‘Hell’s Hot’ ‘”people acting stupid like they just don’t care, maybe that’s why we’re f****** it up” and when retreading the steps of ‘Sliding Bar’ that brings a more rounded and definitely compelling experience when listening to ‘The Arcade’.


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Miami Pop Festival

Jimi Hendrix Experience

Sony Legacy

Beginning in a warts and all ‘Introduction’ consisting of tuning up and occasional apologies before the main spectacle begins, Sony Legacy triumph with the release of Jimi Hendrix live at ‘Miami Pop Festival’. The reason for such enthusiasm for this live experience is due to the inclusion of the songs ‘Tax Free’ and ‘Hear My Train A Comin” which, until now, can be heard for the first time as live stage performances due to being unavailable previously in any format. In addition to these two songs, ‘Miami Pop Festival’ includes the usual candidates of ‘Hey Joe’, ‘Purple Haze’ and ‘Foxey Lady’; the latter of which is given a second airing due to being scheduled as an afternoon performance and sounding more spacious in places presumably as a result of the more relaxed timeslot. Jimi Hendrix completists will be pleased with the added extras including never before published photographs of this live event and an essay from award-winning music journalist Bob Santelli that rounds off a very fine album package indeed.



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