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December Day: Willie’s Stash Vol. 1

Willie Nelson

Sony Music CMG

The first instalment in a series of releases focusing on Willie Nelson’s archived material. Personally chosen by the man himself with help from his sister Bobbie, Willie Nelson sets up this first volume with a selection of songs taken from his musical vault containing a glut of riches by featuring some alternative versions of former songs, cover versions as well as contributions from his Family Band. There is a warm intimacy to the majority of songs with the barest of instruments used via Bobbie on piano, Willie Nelson on guitar and moments of harmonica from Mickey Raphael.  There is a genuine old-time quality regarding opening song ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’ with a slight spring in its step exemplified by the sprightly piano keys and Nelson’s quick-fire narration. The rendition of ‘Permanently Lonely’ is a compelling take on the previous recording; sounding close to improvised with the nuts and bolts being reassembled as the song gathers its memories by way of its plaintive vocal and pared back instrumentation. With time for an instrumental jam via ‘Nuages’ before fumbling its way through the lyrical haze and makeshift musical accompaniments of back-to-back ‘I Don’t Know Where I Am Today’ and aptly named ‘Amnesia’, ‘December Day: Willie’s Stash Vol. 1’ is the sound of one of country music’s greats recollecting his past, but with a sense of creativity that often gives fresh perspectives to the majority of songs presented here.

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Santa Is Real (single)

Alexander Lindbäck

Safe & Sound Recordings

Taking a break from his usual duties with Seven Doors Hotel, Alexander Lindbäck embarks on a solo jaunt with his first recording ‘Santa Is Real’. Taking inspiration from The Louvin’ Brothers’ classic ‘Satan Is Real’, Lindbäck spins a yarn on a darker Christmas tale that is more about taking rather than giving. Without wishing to put a dampener on the Christmas festivities with its more serious tone involving murder, drug misuse, prison and the lack of any real gifts being exchanged, ‘Santa Is Real’ possesses a sense of mischief and definite black humour in between the serious drama, especially considering  mum’s unfortunate fate via some gingerbread dough! With the song coming wrapped in a country styling that contains some lovely mandolin, pedal steel and piano, Christmas with Alexander Lindbäck is definitely one to savour for a number of different reasons, but most notably for his refreshing take on the traditional festive song that really brings to life ‘Santa Is Real’.

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Di Første Jul

Tone Damli

Sony Music Norway

There seems to be an unwritten rule when it comes to music, whether in the UK or certain parts of Europe that if one’s chosen career path is of a certain genre, then one has to continue along that chosen path and not digress. Such is the debate currently surrounding Tone Damli’s temporary decision to trade genres from pop music to a more traditional folk sound just in time for the seasonal Christmas rush. The album causing all of the commotion is ‘Di Første Jul’ (‘Your First Christmas’), which happens to be Tone Damli’s first attempt at a Christmas album and one that relies on more traditional songs, as well as lesser known seasonal compositions, personally handpicked by the Norwegian songstress herself. The primary beef with this particular album, from various sections of the Norwegian music press, seems to be the already mentioned trading of genres, whereby a pop artist cannot be taken seriously if attempting anything remotely highbrow as with ‘Di Første Jul’. In addition, there seems to be a few concerns regarding Damli’s decision to bend the rules slightly, by incorporating a specific regional dialect to interpret the songs selected and thereby change some of the texts in order to create a more personal album that is closer to her own heart. While not wishing to enter such a debate – although the first point regarding certain pop celebrities being dismissed when trying their luck at other musical genres riles somewhat – the point to address here is that ‘Di Første Jul’ is actually a good album regardless of past creative endeavours or exchanges of language usage. Getting down to business, ‘Di Første Jul’ is constructed of some fine qualities; namely the delightful vocals of Tone Damli providing the sweetest of touches to the album’s title track and other noteworthy additions as ‘Vi Tenner Våre Lykter’, but also fine musicianship via an assortment of roots instrumentation providing a genuine earthy feel overall, and one that often remains understated. The opening daybreak of ‘Luciasang’, exemplified by its steel strings entrance, is simply glorious, as it then proceeds to go about its business in what sounds like an unfussy manner, when actually there is much detail between its layers with various instruments combining to great effect. The introspective atmosphere given to ‘Snø’ sounds more suited to a rain soaked evening where the car’s wipers are working overtime on the long drive home, but fortunately you’ve got Bruce Springsteen sitting alongside for company. The liner notes for this album release hint at one or two songs containing a less festive tone, but this is part of the appeal of ‘Di Første Jul’ as it’s a Christmas album with a difference as you will hear the odd country twang or the mood can be a tad sombre (‘Mitt Hjerte Alltid Vanker’). However, all these aspects are to be applauded considering the nature of this album release, and one that is far preferable to hearing Slade’s ‘Merry Christmas Everybody’ for the umpteenth time! With Espen Lind providing quality control behind the production desk, the entire blend of this seasonal effort sits perfectly as it considers a variety of emotions which, quite frankly, reflect the shades of colour and light leading up to this particular season. On the evidence of ‘Di Første Jul’, it would seem that pop stars really can operate within different musical genres.

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Home For The Holidays

Darius Rucker

Capitol Records Nashville

A strange one this in terms of timing, but as with most things when it comes to the Christmas season it’s all about getting in there early to maximise profits. Setting such irritations aside, Darius Rucker has set his country tunes on hold for a first in his career with a Christmas album ‘Home For The Holidays’. With producer Frank Rogers at the helm once more, after Rucker’s three solo albums receiving the same working relationship, ‘Home For The Holidays’ transpires to be a thoroughly engaging listen. Part of the reason why ‘Home For The Holidays’ proves a success is down to Rucker’s fine vocal delivery which, in this context, is a throwback to a classic era of singers including Dean Martin, Nat King Cole (‘Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow’) et al. Consisting of the standard Christmas songs, but with a couple of self-penned numbers – ‘Candy Cane Christmas’ and ‘What God Wants For Christmas’ – Rucker makes these songs his own with a warm, smooth delivery throughout ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’, and then finding himself getting into character during the eccentric and humorous ‘You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch’. Sheryl Crow makes an appearance on ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ with her voice blending nicely to the classic theme of songs on offer here, and complementing Rucker’s slightly deeper tones as there is no suggestion of Crow being a mere background accessory with her vocal often thrust to the fore. There is a boogie-woogie feel to ‘Winter Wonderland’ that really sets up its jaunty rhythm, before arriving at the previously mentioned, and one of Rucker’s own compositions, ‘Candy Cane Christmas’, which consists of the same classic ambience of the festive standards with its orchestral support and impressive silky vocal. Definitely a surprising choice from Darius Rucker, considering his previous works, but a decision that proves worthwhile because ‘Home For The Holidays’ reveals another side to this country musician that is especially appealing once the moving ‘I’ll Be Home For Christmas’ has woven its magic.

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Live At The Royal Albert Hall

Ben Poole

Manhaton Records

Only in his mid-twenties, the name Ben Poole has come a long way in a relatively short space of time. Such progression for this blues-rock maestro is hardly surprising considering the solid foundations having been put in place after acquiring a degree in music at Brighton University and then opening his recording account in confident manner with the EP ‘Everything I Want’ and ensuing full length debut album ‘Let’s Go Upstairs’. Latest release ‘Live At The Royal Albert Hall’ is great testament to the musical strides Ben Poole is making considering the prestige of the Royal Albert Hall, but it is also an album that sees Ben Poole in his natural environment of a live setting where he is truly able to capture the raw energy and passion of his own compositions, in addition to a smattering of covers. The dextrous playing is evident throughout ‘Live At The Royal Albert Hall’ as Ben Poole blazes a trail of musical delights along with his band consisting of Craig Bacon (drums), Mat Beable (bass), Sam Mason (keys) and Amy Eftekhari (vocals) with the early runner ‘Let’s Go Upstairs’ containing some white-hot guitar and the burnt feelings of ‘Love Nobody No More’ being two such examples. Taking up the middle section of this live set is the previously mentioned selection of cover versions with The Temptations ‘(I Know) I’m Losing You’ given a gritty rendition via some bruised vocals, robust guitar and swirling keys, before handing over to the more than respectable versions of Otis Redding’s ‘Mr. Pitiful’ and Billy Myles’ ‘Have You Ever Loved A Woman’. Despite ‘Live At The Royal Albert Hall’ being a landmark achievement in the early stages of Ben Poole’s career, any temptation to rest on his laurels is not something this blues-rock artist is willing to entertain as the bonus entry of a new composition ‘Starting All Over Again’ sets up the next instalment as a seriously mouth-watering prospect. Until that time arrives, ‘Live At The Royal Albert Hall’ serves as an entry point for those less familiar with this emerging talent, but also this live recording captures the true identity of Ben Poole in a live setting. Highly recommended.

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Cherry Sings Hi – No – Love

Cherry Casino & The Gamblers

Rhythm Bomb

After lying low on the recording front since the last full length offering that was ‘Big Mama’s Daughter’ in 2007, Cherry Casino & The Gamblers resurface with a collection of songs that marks their return in style. By producing a largely predominant rhythm and blues sound with elements of rock ‘n’ roll and swing picked at will and added to the mix when required, ‘Cherry Sings Hi-No-Love’ eases into its stride and never hesitates for a moment such is its confident manner when it comes to its musicianship. The inner contents, however, are slightly more fragile, dealing with the frustrations of unrequited love and unfilled desires, but there is also reason to believe as the likes of ‘Just One Look’ and ‘Happy Daddy’ reveals. Before tackling the more delicate relationship issues, ‘Cherry Sings Hi-No-Love’ begins exuberantly with ‘Let’s Have A Crazy Ball’ as it lives up to its title as Cherry Casino & The Gamblers let loose on the dance floor in swinging fashion and greatly supplemented with a saxophone to help belt out its driving rhythm. ‘A Kiss From You’ reflects the skilled musicianship at the heart of this band as their efforts characterize the narrative to great effect via some excellent guitar work and glimpses of sax once more. The songs throughout remain brief, but this works to Cherry & The Gamblers advantage in terms of getting their messages across musically and lyrically as the songs are direct and without any fuss as depicted by the happy-go-lucky nature of ‘Breakfast’, which is about as happy as one can be during such an early hour. There are ballads to be had as well that demonstrate the strengths of Cherry’s vocal as depicted by the gorgeous qualities of ‘Don’t Let Them Know’, finding The Gamblers’ frontman cutting a forlorn figure, only to be halted in your tracks the next moment with the stunning ‘Just One Look’. Other creative efforts find Cherry & The Gamblers getting into character and revealing their humorous side during ‘Kiss Me’ that borrows a trick or two from Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps with backing vocals letting out the occasional holler in support of their bandleader. In fact, ‘Cherry Sings Hi-No-Love’ runs the full range of emotions as there is a resilient side to this album with ‘I’ll Find A New Love’ picking itself up and dusting itself down after a particularly unsavoury relationship. Full bodied in its creative makeup and outlook when it comes to the ups and downs of the issues concerning relationships, but at the same time maintaining an awareness that never takes itself too seriously, it looks like Cherry Casino & The Gamblers have scored another winning run to add to their tally with latest album ‘Cherry Sings Hi-No-Love’.

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Let It Go

Ida Jenshus

Universal Music Norway

Entering a creative, transitional phase is Norway’s Ida Jenshus with the ‘Let It Go’ EP. Consisting of four tracks, this next step in the career of Ida Jenshus sees her embark on an exploratory journey which begins with the epic ‘Shallow River’ that is full of dark, shadowy imagery and roots instrumentation with a definite late sixties feel, before evolving into something lighter in tone with the vocals becoming more like Joni Mitchell. Playing out in three segments as the storm clouds gather once more to see out this opening song, ‘Shallow River’ is an audacious beginning for Ida Jenshus and one that strengthens its grip as the rest of the EP progresses. The next step is ‘Hero’, set to a more traditional structure compared to the expansive nature of its predecessor, the song starts off in a murmur and then rides out on a wave of chiming guitar and acoustic support with a fine vocal turn, which is eclipsed by the time ‘Set Us Free’ arrives as Ida Jenshus’ voice dominates from start to finish. The finale of ‘Sylvia’ is full of tenderness and perfectly expressed by the pared back sound of acoustic guitar and Ida Jenshus. With a new album scheduled for next year, it will be interesting to hear how this newfound direction will develop over a much greater scale for Ida Jenshus. In the meantime, ‘Let It Go’ is sufficient evidence that this songstress is on the right path.

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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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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



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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