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Melody Road

Neil Diamond

Capitol Records

After bringing the house down on the Graham Norton show recently with current single ‘Something Blue’, which is also undergoing heavy rotation on UK radio stations right now, Neil Diamond returns with album ‘Melody Road’. This latest release is Diamond’s first original album in six years and is co-produced by heavyweight producers Don Was and Jacknife Lee. Having established a long and illustrious career, ‘Melody Road’ shows no signs of slowing down as it’s full of heartfelt songs that reflect on times gone by, but with this songwriter still maintaining a focus on the future. Beginning with a song, in part, regarding the art of song writing and the joys this can bring when finding that perfect melody, ‘Melody Road’ starts out this latest journey for Neil Diamond in a strolling manner. Next up, however, ‘First Time’ gains a spark in its step and blossoms out into classic Diamond territory once the rousing chorus reveals itself in a bluster of instrumentation, and the renowned coarser edges of his vocal open up as well. ‘Seongah And Jimmy’ provides another strong vocal performance but remains too mawkish in its sentiments and plodding in its overall delivery. Such misgivings are soon forgotten once the compelling ‘Something Blue’ enters the fray with that irresistible chorus pepped up lightly in the background with brass instrumentation that once more shows Diamond on classic form and providing the very definition of a foot-tapping number! Then, of course, there is the other side of Neil Diamond that he does so well with the ballad ‘Nothing But A Heartache’, that suggests nothing lacking in the vocal department as the emotions pour out, leaving a painful and sorrowful exit. There’s something here for all Neil Diamond supporters as the more simple arrangement of ‘(OOO) Do I Wanna Be Yours’ is reminiscent of the journey taken during ‘Home Before Dark’ where the instrumentation was often peeled back. Not content with putting his feet up, Neil Diamond chooses to let his creative impulses to take hold, and rightly so when the majority of songs contained within ‘Melody Road’ remain on a par with some of his best recordings.


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747

Lady Antebellum

Capitol Records Nashville / Universal Music Group

After the smash hit that was ‘Need You Now’ in more countries than one can remember, this very song seemed to redefine the meaning of modern country music as it had more in common with the slick, commercial gleam of pop music than anything deep-seated in American country roots music. Despite this shift in style from a more traditional country sound, the change in tactics worked as there was no denying the song’s irresistible hooks and desperate pleas in the wee small hours for a relationship not to meet its demise proving deeply persuasive to even those not quite converted. Seven Grammy awards later and Lady Antebellum find themselves ready with album number five, ‘747’, which alludes to the band’s hectic touring schedule involving various methods of transport and stopgaps of hotels and motels until the next live venue calling. There appears no sign of fatigue as ‘747’ reveals the same winning formula which has made Lady Antebellum such a great success as this fifth album is built on strong harmonies, catchy melodies and a general knack of knowing how to write quality songs that will appeal to the masses. Such a feat is not an easy task to constantly maintain, yet Lady Antebellum show their strengths with the close-relative of the previously mentioned ‘Need You Now’ with the more robust yet equally longing ‘Long Stretch Of Love’. From there on in, ‘747’ utilises an assortment of ‘modern’ techniques, alongside a few traditional country trappings, to bring to life the addictive pull of ‘Bartender’, ‘Lie With Me’ and ‘Sounded Good At The Time’. There are moments of quieter reflection as well with the nostalgic ‘Damn You Seventeen’ and touching ballad ‘One Great Mystery’, the latter of which contains the Lady Antebellum trump card of interchanging vocals. Even the slightly underplayed yet determined title track wins the plaudits as it shows a grittier side to this band and is most definitely one of the standout songs. How Lady Antebellum maintain such a consistent level of song writing prowess is anyone’s guess because ‘747’ is another sure-fire winner to add to their growing number of recorded works.


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Live Champs!

Danny & The Champions of the World

Loose Music

Helping to revive memories of a sublime live performance staged in Oslo earlier this year, Danny & the Champions of the World mark their latest entry with a double live album ‘Live Champs!’ While wholeheartedly agreeing with the Champs thoroughly nice guy and frontman Danny George Wilson that a live album is “…something that a studio album cannot capture” when it comes to seizing the raw energy of any band, this latest release goes some way to capturing the essence of the Champs in a live setting. Having been recorded at a sold-out show at the Jazz Café in Camden on the 6th March this year, with additional support coming from Trevor Moss and Hannah-Lou, the set list for this double album release is a pick and mix of earlier works taken from the band’s self titled debut as well as ‘Streets Of Our Time’, ‘Hearts & Arrows’ and naturally their most recent and critically acclaimed album, ‘Stay True’. It’s those very recordings from ‘Stay True’ that nail the live credentials of Danny & The Champs to the top of their mast and offers the perfect examples of why this band is something special as ‘(Never Stop Building) That Old Space Rocket’, ‘Let’s Grab This With Both Hands’ and ‘Stop Thief!’ really ignites the senses. For those who are yet to witness Danny & The Champions of the World in a live setting, then the exhilarating and lengthy ‘Colonel & The King’ should be enough persuasion the next time The Champs is in town because although ‘Live Champs!’ is a splendid effort overall, nothing compares to experiencing this wonderful band live in the flesh.


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Sundown Heaven Town

Tim McGraw

Big Machine Records / Universal Music Group

The versatile and hardworking Tim McGraw returns to his musical country roots after plying his other trade as an actor covering both bases of film and television. After the impressive ‘Two Lanes of Freedom’ in 2013, McGraw’s latest acquisition to his vast musical output is ‘Sundown Heaven Town’. This latest album begins with the wry smile of ‘Overrated’, wonderfully depicted by the opening picking of a banjo suggesting simpler times before an avalanche of instrumentation storms in to express the present with its pressures of feeling a need to fit in and conform. The nostalgic ‘City Lights’ eases the pressure with its bright country rock tone and a narrative reminiscing on the carefree days of late adolescence when staying out late and being in love was all one had to worry about. With ‘Sundown Heaven Town’ spanning a total of eighteen tracks, there is much to take in here. However, whittling this current album down to a more manageable size must have been a tough proposition for Tim McGraw who, in hindsight, is to be applauded for remaining steadfast in his own convictions, considering the consistency and quality of tracks on display. Whether it’s the mild delivery of ‘Portland Maine’; country rock of ‘Dust’ or knowing mismatch in the relationship stakes of ‘Diamond Rings and Old Barstools’, McGraw possesses an ability to make the entire contents of ‘Sundown Heaven Town’ sound effortless, such is his ability to conjure up infectious melodies that get straight to the point and remain free of any excesses. Such vision also extends itself to experimentation with more traditional elements of bluegrass and folk combining with pop to create the rather uplifting ‘The View’, and certainly modern for the country genre without actually being country due to its heavy usage of electronics and once more sounding like pop music that is ‘Lookin’ For That Girl’. For our money though, it’s the quieter introspective moments that find McGraw once more in nostalgic mode with the exquisite ‘Meanwhile Back At Mama’s’ and angelic qualities of ‘Last Turn Home’ that really touch the deepest nerve.


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Safe & Sound

Orbo

Grappa

Despite the moniker attached to this latest album from ORBO – aka Ole Reinert Berg-Olsen – providing a fair description of the tranquil life this west coast rock ‘n’ roller was living while assembling the nuts and bolts of this twelve-track long player, nothing should be taken for granted, however, when it comes to the ideas behind the songsmith at the centre of this record. The reason for such caution is that despite the previously mentioned serene lifestyle when under construction, the combination code to the inner workings concerning the songs making up ‘Safe & Sound’ is a tougher proposition to crack. This is where a lot of the interest lies because despite the familiarity of the music, with its strong associations with American country rock as well as more straight rock ‘n’ roll, the subject matter reflects a broader palette and one that is not so straightforward. Of course, universal themes of love and heartbreak are present, but it’s the appealing originality of songs reflecting, for example, the mental state of Napoleon Bonaparte during his time in captivity (‘Man O’ War’), and personal accounts of family members fleeing for their lives during the Second World War (‘Ridin’ The Waves’) that give the description ‘handmade rock ‘n’ roll’ real credence. There is even a surprise choice of cover with the Bee Gees ‘You Win Again’; given a fresh makeover with an understated and mid-paced version that is naturally a tad grungier than its original conception. There’s no hiding from other influences either when it comes to ORBO’s own compositions, and nor is there any suggestion of wishing to do so judging by the loving respect to Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers with the bright, melodic pop-rock of ‘Time’; solid country rock of ‘Everything Might Change’ that also pays its respects to Del Amitri, and the bluesy rock of Rolling Stones’ inspired ‘Man For You’, that sets up a mouth-watering prospect for a live setting. The quieter moments are reserved for the beautifully executed ballad of fine vocals that is ‘Telling You Now’, and the aforementioned personal ode to his grandparents’ heroic navigation through German occupied waters during the Second World War, tenderly captured here with the barest of instrumentation and fragile vocals during ‘Ridin’ The Waves’. By showing a great measure of respect and courage in its own creative decisions, ‘Safe & Sound’ is a record that may sound familiar on first hearing, but there is a lot more to be discovered beneath its layers that certainly warrants further investigation.


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Single Mothers

Justin Townes Earle

Loose Music

Alt-country musician and son of famous father Steve Earle, Justin Townes Earle marks his return with latest album ‘Single Mothers’. There’s a relaxed feel to the majority of songs on offer here, which entices a sense of security only for this to be misleading once the listener really gets under the skin of the narratives as there’s plenty of heartbreak between the layers. Opener ‘Worried Bout The Weather’ is lethargic in its delivery that never shifts from second gear, but it’s the perfect companion for the sentiments at the centre of this song with Townes Earle apprehensive about a relationship that is seemingly without direction. The languid feel of the music steps over into the protective ‘Single Mothers’, revealing some fine blues guitar and on occasions an impassioned vocal turn from Townes Earle that is quite possibly tackling his troubled relationship with his aforementioned musical father. Once ‘My Baby Drives’ makes its entrance, it’s like a thump to the head as the tempo lifts considerably before settling down again with a succession of alt-country ballads that really strike an emotional chord. Pick of the bunch includes the touching and downright melancholic ‘Picture In A Drawer’ and considered delivery of ‘White Gardenias’, nicely supplemented with steel strings which, as a whole, leaves its mark long after its conclusion. While ‘Single Mothers’ lacks consistency in places as revealed by the lacklustre ‘Time Shows Fools’ and rather ordinary ‘Burning Pictures’, it’s the moments of quieter reflection (‘It’s Cold In This House’) that really sparks moments of sheer magic.


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Born By The Sea

Never Mind Band

Gullaksen & Øien

It’s hard to believe that these boys are from the remote wilderness of Norway rather than the drier climate of Nashville, such is their authenticity when applying their trade to country music. Despite the relative distance between the two countries, the duo of Roald Gullaksen (vocals/guitars) and Morten Øien (keyboards) remain determined in their efforts by holding aspirations of their own as latest album ‘Born By The Sea’ cranes its neck out over the Atlantic Ocean in an attempt to transmit its signal to its distant neighbours stateside. With an album’s worth of original material, Never Mind Band ease in to their sound with the appropriate ‘The American Dream’, only this is a tale of hardships as it tips its Stetson to the ongoing financial struggles in various towns of America. The accompanying country sound is typically robust, with Roald Gullaksen’s guitar containing a little grit but remaining nicely understated without ever straying. ‘Mayflower’ allows for optimism as it opens up with violin strings and a jaunty rhythm once the guitar and keyboards catch a ride. The skill and expertise displayed by Never Mind Band is of the highest order, and something which has evolved from the live circuit on home shores considering their impressive résumé having performed alongside such luminaries as Hellbillies, Stage Dolls, Postgirobygget, Steinar Engelbrektson band to name but a small sample. Such experience lends itself to the soul-searching expressed throughout the impressive ‘The Father’, with some clever touches involving samples from an anonymous space mission in contrast to the mission taking place down below on planet Earth. The title track of this latest album is the only giveaway as to the ancestry of this duo in relation to their music, as ‘Born By The Sea’ contains elements of Norwegian folk music that also spreads to the vocal. By catering for a balance between the everyday emotions of the infectious melody of ‘Home By Dawn’, and slower tempo of the melancholic ‘Memories From The Past’, Never Mind Band pass somewhere between a world consisting of Brad Paisley, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, and that’s not bad company to be associated with! ‘Born By The Sea’ is but one reason to suggest that a voyage overseas to the homeland of country music is futile when hearing the faithful rendition stemming from Never Mind Band, which is a quality to be greatly admired considering the distance separating these two lands.


Released 1 September

 

Bahamas Is Afie

Bahamas

Brushfire Records / Universal Music

Canadian singer-songwriter Bahamas, otherwise known as Afie Jurvanen, sets out a new long player on Brushfire Records/Universal Music. Taking in to account the title of the record – ‘Bahamas Is Afie’ – as well as assuming the role of producer and multi-instrumentalist, one can safely suggest that this third album, after ‘Pink Strat’ (2009) and ‘Barchords’ (2012), is very much one that is close to Bahamas’ heart. The opening ‘Waves’ gives way to such ideas with the impression that a great deal of contemplation took place (“I held the bath inside my lungs for days…”) before committing these latest creative endeavours to tape. The time has been seriously well spent as it’s the lure of the gentle acoustic guitar that tingles the senses and gradual introduction of further instruments, along with Bahamas’ hushed vocal – nicely complimented with some dreamy backing –  from the aforementioned song that sets out ‘Bahamas Is Afie’ on this personal journey. The details of this particular voyage become more apparent with the folk roots of ‘Can’t Take You With Me’ that sees a parting of the ways of a relationship. Where this album excels is the manner in which Bahamas can transform those ‘Bitter Memories’ into something sweet sounding and wonderfully infectious with a simple melody, yet still retaining much food for thought inside a song’s brief tenure. In addition to the quieter acoustic folk introspection, there are moments where Bahamas experiments with the volume control by allowing for the mid-tempo country rock of ‘Stronger Than That’ and high-pitched vocals that also extends to the guitars during ‘All The Time’, providing an engaging twist to the overall feel of the album. ‘Little Record Girl’ adds to this tally with yet more country but this time with a brisk twang and an affectionate lyric that is just as much about a passion for music as it is regarding the opposite sex. By closing out on the slowly fading memories of ‘All I’ve Ever Known’ that is aching from the inside out, such is its emotional pull that’s not too dissimilar to the likes of the Blue Nile, ‘Bahamas Is Afie’ is a stunningly good album reflecting on former troubled times which, ironically, have led to the riches lining this latest effort.


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Angus & Julia Stone

Angus & Julia Stone

Republic Records / American Recordings

After receiving considerable praise for their album ‘Down The Way’ (2010), namely Album of The Year at the ARIA Awards in their native Australia and recognition in countries as far afield as France, Germany and the UK, indie folk pop siblings Angus and Julia Stone are back with a brand new album. Having enlisted Rick Rubin on production duties, the quality of ‘Angus & Julia Stone’ is recognisable from the off with the entrenched sadness of ‘A Heartbreak’ that possesses a genuine haunting quality, emphasised by the trudging rhythmic pattern and downcast vocals. Previous single ‘Grizzly Bear’ sees Angus Stone pick up the mic and relay his affection for a certain somebody in his life, played out to a soulful backdrop of acoustic guitar and keys.  Comparisons can be made with the likes of Mazzy Star and, in particular, The Civil Wars during the interchanging and combined vocals of the Stone’s duo during the ongoing confessions of ‘Heart Beats Slow’. ‘Wherever You Are’ reveals the intimacy of a relationship and one almost feels a sense of prying such is the honesty expressed. The creativity button is given a nudge with the intriguing ‘Death Defying Acts’ that begins at a canter with a single guitar and Julia Stone’s engaging vocal, before the storm clouds start to loom, wonderfully highlighted by some tetchy guitar and crashing percussion, only to take a further twist with a brief spoken passage before concluding with a sting in its tail. The equal billing of vocals works wonders during ‘Other Things’, with its sleepy exchanges and ramshackle approach musically. ‘From The Stalls’ sees the duo swapping vocals once more, and again revealing much sincerity considering the cracked edges stemming from Angus Stone in particular. ‘Angus & Julia Stone’ is a remarkable record for a variety of reasons, but most importantly it is the song writing talent and manner in which the songs are presented that make this a must have addition to anyone’s record collection.


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‘…Somewhere Down The Line’

Cow Cow Boogie

Rhythm Bomb

Firm favourites at Famous Last Words (FLW) after experiencing the rousing western swing and country boogie of first album ‘Rendezvous’, which landed on the desk approximately this time last year, second album ‘…Somewhere Down The Line’ issued on the Rhythm Bomb imprint is equally impressive, but also offers a tad more compared to its predecessor. Where this second album differs is due to the lovely, understated qualities to the majority of songs on offer. Such understated qualities leads one to suggest an overall degree of pleasantness, but such a description is fitting and meant with genuine affection. Kicking things off, the travelling blues of second-album opener ‘Somewhere Down The Line’ triggers the senses immediately with its use of harmonica and moments of lap steel, only for the mood to take a swinging uplift with the gorgeous wit and one in the eye for the PC brigade with the delightful ‘Home Cookin’. Appropriate action is applied to the cover of the Louvin Brothers’ classic ‘Cash On The Barrelhead’ as Cow Cow Boogie apply their touches with a pacier version of this song, which is highly commendable. Dropping in at the midway point is the excellent double serve of the late-night enticement of the jazz and blues inspired ‘Track 49’, with its tempting offer of “choo-choo, get yourself over to track 49”, only to see temperatures soar further with the sultry and canny ‘Steam Heat’. Once the western influenced ‘Rain’ enters a gallop, it is clear that Cow Cow Boogie is not only a talented bunch of musicians, but one that is blessed in the ideas and creativity departments which, when combined, produces the marvellous results found throughout ‘…Somewhere Down The Line’.


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Stay Gold

First Aid Kit

Columbia

Having reviewed former single ‘My Silver Lining’ ‘ in these very pages, it is pleasing to hear that sisters Johanna and Klara Söderberg have stuck to a winning formula comprising of alt-country blessed with heavenly vocals and lyrics of an introspective nature. The Stockholm-based duo sound closer to the rural south of America than their native Sweden, such is their song writing abilities and sincerity, which is captured once more by producer Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes, Monsters of Folk). With the precursor that was the previously mentioned single to this latest release, lush strings and delicate melodies can often be heard throughout ‘Stay Gold’ as it’s brimming with confidence musically, with only a handful of lyrics giving the game away regarding a variety of anxieties professing to be “as big as the moon”. The trail of quality is most definitely hot throughout ‘Stay Gold’, as indicated by the sweetly addictive melody of ‘Master Pretender’, folk inspired ‘Cedar Lane’ with its huge aching heart, and topped by the waiflike and atmospheric qualities of the album’s title track. With a host of gigs and festival appearances imminent, First Aid Kit, on this current form, is the very definition of their album title as their success looks set to continue.


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Platinum

Miranda Lambert

Sony Music CMG

Miranda Lambert is back with the brand new album ‘Platinum’ that offers a blend of traditional country with elements of rock music. By combining these two genres is a means of trying to appeal to a broader audience and not just hardened country fans, but while some other artists’ efforts may sound forced, Miranda Lambert makes it all sound effortless as there is a seamless flow of consistency throughout her latest long player. Starting with the solid country rock of ‘Girls’ that immediately provides an example of the sheer power at the centre of her vocal chords despite not really manoeuvring out of second gear. The title track is almost portrayed in a country rap style, if ever such a thing existed, but thankfully it doesn’t fully resort to such measures as the song refers to the pressures that come with fame and success and, more tellingly, the reactions from others. There is room for collaboration as well as Miranda Lambert joins forces with Little Big Town and pulls off a delicate and spacious number that is full of nostalgia for simpler times. What begins as a lone instrument, coupled with Miranda Lambert’s vocal, gradually builds its momentum and in the process peels away a succession of insightful lyrics of a personal nature during ‘Bathroom Sink’, which paves the way for the humorous and rather clever ‘Old Shit’ (Yes, that is correct) that displays its passion for collectibles as illustrated by the background noise of vinyl static. If there is a standout track, however, then that honour falls to the marvellous rendition of western swing of ‘All That’s Left’ featuring The Time Jumpers which, in all honesty, would suit a full album’s worth if ever Miranda Lambert warms to such an idea.



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