Natalie Merchant – Natalie Merchant

I’ve been a fan of Natalie Merchant since hearing her pure, delicate vocals on Mermaid Avenue, the Billy Bragg/Wilco collaboration. The album was a mainstay of my student radio show back in the day, and I must have played this two or three times.

When I finally got round to listening to her solo albums, and then her band 10,000 Maniacs, I found a voice with a considerably greater dynamic and emotional range than that cameo betrays.

It’s been more than twelve years since her last album of original material, and time has weathered that voice a little more. Dropping the needle on Natalie Merchant is a less immediately dramatic experience than, say, Ophelia, her 1998 sophomore release, but the lyrical darkness remains, accompanied by a further drop in pitch and her customary gravity of delivery.

It’s no great sonic departure. Her band sound is still rooted in the 1980s, still laden with strings, but these aren’t necessarily bad things.  “The End” has some of the best strings on a pop record I’ve heard in ages. “It’s A-Coming”, however, slips a bit too close to jam band mediocrity, Hammond organ and “funky” electric guitar, and the pastiche of New Orleans jazz on “Lulu (Introduction)” seems needless, heavy-handed.

Reportedly drawn from 14 years of writing, some of the material has dated in the meantime. If “Texas” is about George W. Bush, “Go Down Moses” must be about Hurricane Katrina, and back-to-back it feels a bit too much like a time capsule from the last decade, its potency somewhat lost in the intervening decade.

At her best, and this approaches it, Merchant is one of the most affecting vocalists of her or any other generation. Her phrasing is astonishing, Joni Mitchell-like in its ability to smooth occasionally wordy, inelegant lyrics and make them sound purposeful, even beautiful. Highly recommended.



Band of Horses – Acoustic at the Ryman

And so hipster favourites-turned-How I Met Your Mother-soundtrack-providers Band of Horses roll up at the high temple of country music. I’ve always suspected that under the beards and flannel shirts lay a band who could really, really play, and so it turns out. They can sing, too; high, clear and gloriously in tune.

Stripped of their customary endless reverb and wall of distorted guitars, the songs are reinvented on piano, acoustic guitars and occasional double bass. It’s a brave move, for sure; their voices are exposed for all to hear, and in Nashville of all places. For the most part, both the songs and their voices stand up to this treatment. The set rests draws from all four of their albums to date, and the arrangements are simple but effective. The bowed double bass that now serves to open Detlef Schrempf is deft and satisfying, and by the time they arrive at Neighbor, they are in fine form.

If I have a complaint it is that the whole album runs to only 10 songs and 39 minutes; from two nights of recording, you’d imagine there was some gold left off this release.

Another piece on RSL

It’s been a little quiet around here, I know. I should be grateful that I’ve got plenty of work happening at the moment, which leaves little time for writing for fun. Still, I found time to put down some thoughts on the Ruth Moody gig I saw last month, and they’ve just surfaced over at

Go, read, and then have a look around. Ryan and co are doing something rather special over there, and it remains an undiluted pleasure to count myself a small part of it.

Ryan Adams – Ashes & Fire

Ah, Ryan Adams. A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma if ever there was one. Music hacks seem to revel in trying to simplify his narrative into pithy one-liners, usually centred on how prolific he is and/or the latest phase of his apparently cyclical relationship with various substances. I don’t have a copy, but whoever wrote the one-sheet for this album seems to have laid on the “Ryan got clean” narrative pretty thick if the mainstream reviews are anything to go by. If anything the clean-and-contented shtick seems a little late. I saw Ryan and the Cardinals in November 2008 in Leeds, and they were on fire. Not the wild, debauched, freewheeling, stumbling kind of Grateful Dead-worshipping Cardinals we once knew but a powerful, cohesive force playing, by DRA’s standards, practically a greatest hits set. Gone were the 12-minute jams and 5-minute inter-song gaps, replaced by well-judged moments in the spotlight for Neal Casal and Jon Graboff. His worst addiction at this point seemed to be Diet Coke and he was, we now know, mere months away from his marriage to Mandy Moore upon which everyone seems so intent on pinning the reflective, joyous tone of Ashes and Fire. To borrow an Americanism, I call bullshit.

So, PR-driven sobriety narrative aside, is it a good album? If his prolific tendency has taught us one thing it is not to expect a gem every time. For every Cold Roses there’s a Jacksonville City Nights, for every Love is Hell a Rock N Roll. And of course, for every actual album there’s a comedy black metal album about alien invasion. No, really.

It opens with “Dirty Rain”. If you were to play the game of trying to fit this into said back catalogue, this one belongs on Gold. It quickly becomes clear that Benmont Tench (borrowed from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers) is not here to make up the numbers or add a recognisable credit to the sleeve; rather, Johns has him playing a lovely retro Hammond organ part. The soulful vocal seems to belong on side two of Gold as well. So far, so good, if not exactly revolutionary.

The title track follows, and captures a joyous mood rarely seen on his albums of late. A jaunty waltz-time and a Gram Parsons-esque delivery make it rare if not unique in his canon, but whether either were a good move remains to be seen. Perhaps we ought not to wish for too much reinvention of the wheel here. I think I prefer the acoustic solo version he put on YouTube before the album came out, which has a certain authenticity and purity that the album version lacks. Suck it and see.


“Come Home” is more like Heartbreaker than anything else. Pedal steel, gently shuffling snare, a longing lyric that seems to promise the safety and security that Heartbreaker spent most of its time looking for. I’m not the first to point out the connection. Produced by Glyn Johns (Beatles, Stones, The Who, Eagles and, notably, father of Ethan Johns who produced Heartbreaker and Gold), there are moments that could slip unnoticed onto the inevitable deluxe edition of Adams’ solo debut a decade ago. “Rocks” is another of them, delicate, fragile and sweet.

There are glimpses of irresistible, melodic Ryan we saw on Cold Roses; “Chains of Love” betrays his love of Noel Gallagher’s best songs, if Noel had come from Jacksonville, NC, that is. “Kindness” has that Harvest groove that so much of Heartbreaker used so well, helped along by Tench’s piano.

Other bits drift past with no discernable hook; “Save Me” makes no impact whatsoever and “I Love You But I Don’t Know What To Say” makes me recoil. Your mileage may vary depending on your susceptibility to cute, or indeed to Adams songs with long, unwieldy, narrative titles (“Elizabeth, You Were Born To Play That Part” anyone? “I Taught Myself How To Grow Old”?).

By this point, you’re not sure what to make of it. For an album with a fairly consistent sound, it is nonetheless all over the place in terms of style, delivery and influences. Just as well, then, that “Lucky Now” comes along.

The dedicated/obsessed have been listening to it for weeks now, but “Lucky Now” remains a glorious piece of pop perfection. I expect it may remain so for a while yet. Even Ryan Adams albums you don’t particularly like usually have one song where he hits it well and truly out of the park; “Dear Chicago” on Demolition or the title track of Rock N Roll. This is that one, destined to show up in encores years from now, already careering with tragic inevitability towards a million iTunes playlists.

I get the same sense of compact, to-the-point poppy efficiency I got the first time I heard Joni Mitchell’s “Court and Spark”. It gets in, delivers its beautifully-weighted point and gets out again. The music geek in me revels in the simplicity of the IV-vi in the chorus that drives home the first and third lines:

And the lights will draw you in
And the dark will take you down
And the night will break your heart
Only if you’re lucky now

In the end, the album is encapsulated in the change between the second and final choruses, when the lyric becomes:

And if the lights draw you in
And the dark can take you down
And love can mend your heart
But only if you’re lucky now

Stop press, Ryan Adams believes in love. Probably. If you’re lucky. Perhaps it’s a reflection on the fragility of the place he finds himself, an expression of the fear that it might all disappear with the same roll of the dice that he thinks brought it along in the first place.


At this point in his career, Adams doesn’t need to, nor could he, try to encapsulate his entire career in one album. This isn’t definitive, nor is it his best album, but it’s a stop on a long road. It won’t change the world, or even the world’s perception of him. It won’t get more than a track or two onto my Best Of Ryan Adams playlist either, but at this point that’s probably about all we could reasonably expect.


Ashes & Fire is streaming at Ryan’s Smashing Life, where you can read Chris Fullerton’s take on it and make your own mind up.

The Civil Wars + The Staves, Union Chapel Islington, Tuesday 27th September 2011

The Staves by p_a_h on Flickr

Before I get the main event, a deserved mention for the support act. Given the unreserved seating at the Union Chapel I was never going to dawdle on my way to the Northern Line but when a music journalist friend said that The Staves were “the best new band in the country”, I made doubly sure I was there on time. Hundreds of people were queueing round the block at 7pm, and we were not disappointed. The Staves, a trio of sisters, appear to have taken the ethereal close harmony stylings of Fleet Foxes and done something distinctly English with them. Stunningly precise and accurate singing, charmingly humble chat and elegant writing. Their debut album, produced by Ethan Johns, is out on Atlantic early next year. I’ll be queueing up.

Tuesday night caught Joy Williams and John Paul White in an exceptionally playful mood, toying with their songs, flirting with one another. At one point Williams remarked “Outta the palm of my hand,” and she was right. From the moment they took the stage to the moment they finished their second encore, the audience lapped up everything they had to offer.

I’ve had a hard time in the past trying to explain what The Civil Wars do. “It’s sorta folky, country-ish but soulful, y’know?”, I said to the friend who was coming to the gig with me. In the end, they explained it themselves better than I could have done, telling the story of how they met at a kind of songwriter’s speed-dating event, where writers were paired up for an hour in a room with a piano and had to create something. Joy Williams’ heritage lies in California (Beach Boys, Carpenters) and her parents’ jazz records (Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald) while John Paul White grew up in Alabama listening to Johnny Cash. The result has elements of all of those influences; Williams’ vocal delivery owes a lot to Ella and White’s tenor is capable of everything from authentic Appalachian high-lonesome delicacy to rough, bluesy growling. Shorn of their studio overdubs and accompanied by White’s robust guitar playing, their songs are compact, potent things. (more…)

Ryan Adams – Ashes & Fire preview

I subsequently wrote about the album here

Whilst Ryan Adams has never truly ceased to be prolific, the stream of new material has slowed in recent years, at least compared to the glorious three-albums-in-11-months period that gave us Cold Roses, Jacksonville City Nights and 29. Halcyon days indeed. Oh, it’s not like he’s gone silent: we’ve had III/IV, a double album of Cardinals archive material that served mainly to demonstrate why none of the songs made it on to Easy Tiger, and of course Orion, an album of unlistenable metal about aliens. Yay.

All that, however, seems to have allowed Adams to return to something simpler and more elegant. There’s a delightful sweetness to “Lucky Now”, the advance track. It’s classic Ryan Adams, but less tortured than Heartbreaker or Love is Hell; not unreminiscent of Easy Tiger actually. Could it be that marital bliss suits him? Praise be to Mandy Moore!

There are a few other reasons to be excited about this album. It is produced by the legendary Glyn Johns (Eagles, The Who and, bizarrely enough, Fairport Convention’s Rising for the Moon) which just might make Adams the first artist to work with both Glyn and his son Ethan Johns, who produced Adam’s debut album. It also features among its guests Norah Jones and Benmont Tench (of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers), all of which bodes well for an album positioned firmly at the tight, focused, 3-minute-song end of Adam’s artistic spectrum.

Link to the (not available for embedding…grr) video of the title track.

and the aforementioned “Lucky Now”:

Ashes & Fire is released 11th October.

Counting Crows – August and Everything After Live at Town Hall

Asking me to write an objective review of anything by Counting Crows is like asking a child to review a bowl of ice cream. Sure, it might not be quite the right flavour and there’s never enough of it, but you’re unlikely to catch me looking a gift horse in the mouth. Given how rare new material from them is, us Crows fans are prone to fits of rapture when it does appear.

Having duly shot myself in the foot as far as my credibility is concerned, I shall now proceed to tell you that this is a stunning piece of filming, a powerful performance and a restatement of the profound emotional depth of these songs which you should all rush out and buy, immediately.* Don’t believe me? Watch the video.

What we have here is a performance of Counting Crows’ debut August and Everything After. Released in 1993 and an out-of-the-blue success the following year, it went on to sell more than 7 million copies. The original is a fragile, beautiful thing of sparse elegance and staggering, heart-rending power. It frequently crops up in critics’ lists of the best albums of that decade. They never matched it for commercial success or critical acclaim, and to some extent have been living in its shadow ever since. Still, as legacies go, it’s not a bad one to be stuck with.

Gratuitous Bokeh

Only three of this band actually appear on August as members of Counting Crows: Duritz, keyboard player Charlie Gillingham and guitarist Dave Bryson.  David Immergluck has the unusual status of having played on the album as a session player before eventually joining the band full-time in 1999, whilst Dan Vickrey joined the band shortly after they finished August in time for the 16-month tour that accompanied it. Two drummers and one bass player have come and gone since then, but the incumbents are more than worthy. Jim Bogios in particular is a potent addition, matching the drama and dynamic range of the songs with effortless competence.

Given there are three times as many guitars as there were on the record, it is both impressive and near-miraculous that the trio manage to add to the songs without treading on each others’ notes. If you’ll excuse a moment’s wild rock-journalist-hyperbole, I have been known to compare the arrival of Immergluck in Counting Crows to the introduction of Don Felder to the Eagles. Both arrived first on “difficult” third albums and brought a more natural, instinctive rock voice to their respective bands, liberating the other guitarists to do more interesting things in the process. Immergluck also plays mandolin and pedal steel, broadening the palette further. If you’ve pressed play on the video at the bottom already, you are by now experiencing Immy’s pedal steel abuse; I’m fairly sure that doesn’t appear in whatever the pedal steel equivalent of A Tune A Day is. Actually, I’m pretty sure there’s no such thing and that all pedal steel players are mutants from the planet Zog, so little sense does that miraculous instrument make to the rest of us.

Vickrey is a charming country-rock guitarist, but he also has a wonderful, underappreciated voice; he nails the backing vocal on Time and Time Again, a beautiful echo of the lead. (Those of you who’ve seen Crows live know he also sings the good stuff on Goodnight Elisabeth and A Long December, and has a nice line in hats.)

Dave Bryson, holding the whole show together and bearing a startling resemblance to Hugh Lawrie in House while he does it. Miraculously not being upstaged by Immy. Yet.

Headgear notwithstanding, Bryson is without a doubt the coolest. Les Paul Juniors, Gretsch hollowbodies and a distinct lack of histrionics, Dave is just getting on with it. He has so many of the crucial little shapes and figures that make these songs, some of them no doubt dating back to when these songs were nothing more than him and AD at an open mic somewhere.

August opens with Round Here. Less a song than a creed to Crows fans (I have actually seen people, admittedly in the States, entering a state that closely resembles rapture in the middle of performances of Round Here…). It’s such a powerful song, such a sprawling musical object, that the album, and thus the show, runs the risk of struggling to follow it up. In this form, with Raining in Baltimore shoehorned into the middle, it runs to almost 12 minutes. There’s not much I can do to describe what they do to this song live, but seeing as you’ve already gone to the bottom of this post and pressed play on the YouTube video, I don’t need to. Ah, the wonders of modern technology… (more…)