21st Century Reviews

You liked Roaring Jack, you might like some of the recent releases reviewed here!

18 May 2011

Various Artists - Love, Loss & Liberty: The Songs of Alistair Hulett (Alistair Hulett Memorial Trust, 2011)

Released to coincide with the first anniversary of Alistair Hulett's sudden passing, this album is a celebration of Alistair's music, lyrics and political passion. It features a mix of previously released and specially recorded songs, ranging in date from 1989 to the present. Many of the artists involved are better-known than Alistair.

This well-paced compilation opens with James Fagan and Nancy Kerr, taking on 'Sons of Liberty'. It's a fresh take on the song that comes out sounding like it was written in the bushranging days that it describes. Next is the classic cover of Alistair's best-known song, 'He Fades Away' by June Tabor. There have been several versions of this song, but June Tabor's sparse and mournful version stands above them. It never fails to give me the chills. Rory McLeod applies his rhythmic, percussive guitar style (electric on this occasion) to 'Don't Sign Up for War'. Gone are the Glaswegian idioms, as Rory makes this a song that can be understood by all. David Rovics, meanwhile, contributes a scathing version of 'Behind Barbed Wire'. It's amazing to consider the power of folk music: here's an American singer telling the world about injustices taking place in a migrant detention centre in Sydney, Australia.

One of Alistair Hulett's particular strengths was his ability to write songs from a woman's point of view. 'No Half Measures' is the heartbreaking tale of a woman watching her husband drink himself to death, and the Niamh Parsons version here is a chilling reading of the song. Likewise, you could believe that Alistair wrote 'Mrs Barbour's Army' specifically with the voice of Sheena Wellington in mind. Sheena's raw a capella version is an authentic-sounding tribute to Mary Barbour and the Glasgow rent strikers of 1915.

The legendary Roy Bailey performs admirably on 'When the Small Birds Start Leaving', Alistair's empathetic look at modern-day gypsies in England. The treatment of 'The Dark Loch' by Alasdair Roberts with Donald Lindsay and Clutch Daisy is one of the highlights for me. The small pipes are a mournful and fitting accompaniment that bring tears to my eyes. The album is building momentum here, and the storming version of 'Among Proddy Dogs and Papes' by the Jason Wilson Band is followed up by a fiery yet laidback rendition of 'Militant Red' by Sigarro of Banda Bassotti and Pierluigi 'Piggio' Placido. This one, sung in a heavy Italian accent, shows just how far and wide Alistair's music has reached.

Just when you're thinking how much you miss Alistair's wonderful voice, there it is: the rocking version of 'The Day The Boys Came Down' that Alistair recorded with Sydney City Trash in 2005. A great singalong that segues nicely into the newly recorded Handsome Young Strangers' take on 'The Swaggies Have All Waltzed Matilda Away'. It's a magical version that is up there with the best work of the Bushwackers.

The album reaches its climax with the most famous Roaring Jack cover of all. Canada's Irish Rovers brought Alistair's music to a wider audience in 1989, with its surprisingly rocked-out version of 'Buy Us A Drink'. This version led to a landslide of Canadian covers of this song, which has become something of a standard over there.

Alistair often finished his shows with his rousing version of 'The Internationale', and what better way to complete this album? Alistair's version has no equal, so the compilers chose to use that. Like vintage port after a good meal, this is a fitting finale to a wonderful celebration of Alistair Hulett. The number of classic Alistair Hulett songs and the esteem in which Alistair Hulett is held in the folk community mean that this will not be the only Hulett tribute album. Here's to many more.

Love, Loss and Liberty: The Songs of Alistair Hulett can be purchased from the Alistair Hulett website. All proceeds will be directed to the Alistair Hulett Memorial Fund.


31 March 2011

The Fisticuffs - You'll Not Take Us Alive (self-released, 2011)

On first impressions, you'd be forgiven for thinking this is your garden variety run-of-the-mill Celtic-punk-by-numbers. All the crucial elements are present. Tough guitars? Check. Sean Moriarty has the noise guitar covered, that's for sure. Gruff vocals? Check. Bobby Baldwin possesses one of those classic rough-and-ready punk voices. Pogues cover? Check (in this case, a cracking version of 'Young Ned of the Hill' that sounds nothing like the original.) Sound knowledge of Irish music and culture? Check. Working-class consciousness? Double-check. (These guys sound like they've never set foot inside an office, let alone worked in one.) But it doesn't take long for the passion, warmth and humour of the Fisticuffs to take hold. In no time you find yourself shouting along to anthemic choruses like 'We Are the Workers' and 'Paddys Need Not Apply'. You are itching to learn more about the characters that populate these songs, like the dear departed grandpa in 'Missin' the Bus', and wondering what it's like to be an Irish emigrant on the south side of Chicago. Very endearing stuff. The musicianship is of a rare quality, too. Dave Beneventi's mandolin is pretty inventive, and the rhythm section of Neal Farrell (bass) and Tony Dellorto (drums) are tight-as. But the kicker here is the fiddle. Arcadia Kust is the most emotive fiddler I've heard in a long time. It's not very often that I'm moved to describe Celtic punk as 'beautiful', but the fiddle playing here adds incredible dimension and depth to the Fisticuffs' sound. If this release by the Fisticuffs and the new one by the Dropkick Murphys are anything to go by, 2011 is going to be a bumper year in the world of Celtic folk punk!

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23 December 2010

Hugh Morrison - Robert Burns Rocks

Button accordion maestro Hugh Morrison has recently turned his attention to vocal duties. He's just taken over as lead vocalist for his band Murder the Stout. And on this solo album, Morrison's raw but endearing vocals are given a starring role.

This is a tribute album that celebrates the words of great Scottish poet, Robert Burns. There have been a few musical tributes to Burns in recent years, including a multi-disc set to which Alistair Hulett and many other significant folk artists contributed. Those tributes did not rock like this one does! Backed by a multitude of talented musicians - including Murder the Stout's rhythm section and members of punk band the Street Dogs - Hugh makes the stories, ballads and rebellious verse of Robert Burns come to life.

'Leezy Lindsay' is a roaring opener, with Morrison cranking up the button accordion to make it heard over the punchy two-step beat. A great thumping bass sound propels this song, taking it menacingly into punk rock territory. 'Ye Jacobites By Name' and 'Scots Wha Hae' have a wild snarling quality about them, too. On other tunes like 'Rantin' Rovin' Robin' and 'Ye Banks and Braes', Judi Nicolson's fiddle and the sweet vocals of Aoife Ni Ghloinn add a tenderness and fragility.

Being a Hugh Morrison project, you can expect the musicianship here to be first-rate. On the two instrumental tracks, the musicians have the best opportunity to shine. 'Red Red Rose' is an absolutely beautiful piece, on which the stirring fiddle (Nicolson) and keyboards (Kendall Rogers) combine with that button accordion to take you back to another time and place. The more upbeat 'Burns Reels' takes four tunes and joins them seamlessly.

The album's fitting finale is our drunken New Year's Eve favourite, 'Auld Lang Syne'. This version hits really hard. Not since Roaring Jack attacked it on their legendary New Year's Eve gigs have I heard 'Auld Lang Syne' played with such energy and passion. The guitars are truly turned up all the way to 11, and there's no better way to close the album.

I can't picture Hugh Morrison singing these songs while clutching a Robert Burns anthology anxiously in front of him. It certainly sounds like Morrison has lived with the poetry of Burns and that the words come from both his head and his heart. A fine album that can only be a successful attempt to bring Burns to a new generation.

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04 September 2010

The Rumjacks – Sound as a Pound (Mustard Finnegan’s, 2009)

Sydney’s Rumjacks are just about to release their first full-length album, so I’d better pull my finger out and review this one, released at the tail end of 2009. Opening with the sublime instrumental ‘All the Old Winejacks’, the interplay between whistle and accordion takes me back to the mid-1980s when I first heard the Pogues. The only thing missing is the blood-curdling scream of a young Shane MacGowan.

On other Rumjacks tracks, the vocals, the lyrics and the guitars set them apart from the Pogues and from the whole Celt-punk crew. ‘Shadrach Hannigan’ is a tale of a restless rattler jumper, featuring excellent vocal exchanges between regular vocalist Frankie McLaughlin and accordionist Will Swan. The band absolutely tears it up on this song, and the intensity remains throughout.

Frankie takes control for the remaining four songs on this release, with Swan’s accordion shining as always. Like on the wonderful Hung, Drawn and Portered, the Rumjacks concoct a heady brew of punk rock with lashings of traditional Irish and Scottish influences. The five original tracks are all of excellent quality. ‘Kirkintilloch’ and ‘Katoomba’ are raucous drinking songs that are played at blinding speed, while the slower ‘My Time Again’ – wistful, thoughtful and regretful – is one of the band’s best songs yet. The traditional song ‘Marie’s Wedding’ closes the EP, and it’s a rollicking knees-up with massed back-up vocals that really works.

On this release as well as on the previous one, for me the key feature of the Rumjacks’ sound is Will Swan’s accordion. Now that Swan has left the band, it will be interesting to see how the band progresses. Early indications are that the Rumjacks are going for a harder-edged sound. Check out the new tracks from The Gangs of New Holland on MySpace, and watch out for my review in about a year’s time!

16 June 2010

Ciaran Murphy - Once Upon A Time In Ireland (self-released, 2009)

The Police Service of Northern Ireland proudly claims to be 'Making Northern Ireland Safer'. They'll have you believe that they've moved on from the notorious days of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Belfast-based singer-songwriter Ciaran Murphy knows differently. His latest release opens with a blistering attack on Northern Ireland's police: 'And they're still a rich man's police force, they serve a rich man's state / They'll baton charge the workers on the orders of the great / They'll use their fathers' weapons to move against the free / They'll always be the RUC to me'.

Armed only with an acoustic guitar and a strong singing/shouting voice, Murphy comes across sometimes as a one-man punk band. His songs cover a multitude of topics relating to life in Ireland (and in Northern Ireland in particular).

‘A Word to the New Irish Racist’ damns those Irish people who have suffered racist attitudes from British imperialists for decades, and who themselves now target new arrivals into Ireland: ‘And every one of us were immigrants in our own time / And every patriot knows Irish is a state of mind / But you’re blind’. Brilliant sentiments that just as easily apply to Australians as to Irish. Ciaran Murphy plays with such fury that he must spend a fortune on new guitar strings. It’s not all full-on acoustic thrash, though. Some of the more impressive moments happen when the guitar assault slows down a little. Check out the gorgeous multi-tracked guitars on ‘Rebel Song', while Ciaran spins a tale about a would-be terrorist having second thoughts while on the way to an attack. The guitar picking on ‘You Cried for Ten Men Dead’ is simply outstanding. This track never fails to leave me in tears, as Murphy sings to his father about the impact of Ireland’s struggle on the old man. From fighting for Great Britain in World War II, to joining a revolutionary army in Ireland, to crying for the ten hunger strikers who died in the Maze prison in 1981. The old man fell under the spell of whiskey and was unable to keep it together. The title track closes the album, with its multi-tracked guitar and one of Ciaran Murphy’s strongest vocal efforts. It tells of Murphy’s quest for that elusive ‘once upon a time in Ireland’, coming to terms with Ireland’s real and mythological past, and sifting through the past to find lessons that apply to Ireland today. While Ciaran Murphy’s 2008 debut, The Verbal Hand Grenade EP, was a solid release, this one shows Murphy has made infinite progress. Each song features just acoustic guitar and voice, but Murphy creates so many different textures that no two songs sound alike. The beauty of the folk tradition – and it applies equally in punk rock – is that anybody can pick up an instrument and play the songs that strike a chord in them. Ciaran Murphy’s songs need to be heard, and they need to be sung. They should be up there with the songs of Bob Dylan, Billy Bragg and Alistair Hulett, to be brought out and sung whenever the need arises.

I can’t recommend this album highly enough.

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09 June 2010

The Vandon Arms - The Sent Off EP (self-released, 2010)

I've promoted this one to the top of the pile, so that I can get the review out there in time for the World Cup! The Vandon Arms hail from Des Moines, Iowa, and usually play a highly competent brand of Celtic punk in the manner of Flogging Molly and the Dropkick Murphys. This recently released EP is a bit of a departure. Most of the songs are in more of a streetpunk style, and as the cover suggests, the dominant theme is football (soccer). Three of the six tracks are humourous takes on being a football fan, and the closing track 'Over There' is a potential anthem for the U.S. national team (though its riff sounds suspiciously like the one from 'Vindaloo'). I can really relate to 'My Football Team's Got Me Drinkin'', a lament for a lovable losing team over a stomping Ramones-y beat.

It's not all full-on punk, though. Even the noisier tracks tend to have traditional instruments shining through. And there are two traditional tunes that are played in great spirits and with the acoustic instruments cranked up. These two are not really football songs, but they're both famous for being sung at football grounds. 'The Blaydon Races' is an old Geordie song that's popular on the terraces at Newcastle United matches. And the rollicking 'Miss O'Leary' is a big hit among Chicago Fire supporters: 'Late last night while we were all in bed / Miss O'Leary left a lantern in the shed / When the cow tipped it over she winked her eye and said / There'll be a hot time in the old town tonight / Fire Fire Fire!'

This won't be everyone's cup of tea, but if you're into football, folk, punk and drunken singalongs, you might find it as appealing as I do.

Available through iTunes and MySpace Music.

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02 June 2010


In January this year, I made a long list of all the albums I wanted to feature in 21st Century Reviews. A week later, the shocking news of Alistair Hulett's passing blew everything away. It's been a crazy time, and I hope to have a bunch of reviews up soon!

10 May 2010

Jed Marum with Hugh Morrison and Mason Brown – Sands of Aberdeen (Boston Road, 2008)

It is appropriate that this should be the first album I review since Alistair Hulett’s sudden passing in January 2010. Sands of Aberdeen is a heady mix of traditional music from Ireland, Scotland and North America that Alistair would have truly appreciated. After all, Alistair’s music had headed in a similar direction over the last five to ten years of his life.

Texan singer/guitarist Jed Marum is joined here by Hugh Morrison (Murder the Stout) on accordions and Mason Brown on banjo and pardessus viol. The songs have a real live feel that, for a totally acoustic outfit, leaps right out from the speakers. Jed, Hugh and Mason rip into a combination of originals, covers and traditional songs from both sides of the Atlantic. The title track is a Jed Marum original that’s propelled by a driving bluegrass-sounding guitar/mandolin riff. The accordion and tin whistle add haunting tones to a wistful song about a lover lost at sea. The three Marum originals are complemented by traditional songs and covers by modern songwriters. Phil Coulter’s ‘The Town I Loved So Well’ is given respectful treatment here, and the boys put a lot of love into the two Brian McNeill songs, ‘The Rock and the Tide’ and ‘The Belles of Ontario’.

Of the traditional songs, ‘Down by the Glenside’ (also known as ‘Bold Fenian Men’), ‘Broom of the Cowdenknowes’ and ‘Star of the County Down’ stand out for their passion and energy.

Hugh Morrison and Mason Brown shine on the instrumental medleys, ‘Lovely Leah’ and ‘Willie Coleman – Tune Set’, helped out by guest players David Shaw (upright bass), Pete Dawson (Irish flute) and Curly Boy Stubbs (guitar). On other tracks, Jaime Marum contributes a glistening mandolin sound. The way the players gel is at times stunning.

Jed Marum’s vocals are strong and stirring throughout Sands of Aberdeen, and the musicianship is dazzling. Jed, Hugh and Mason are now playing together as Lonestar Stout, so keep an eye out for their next album!

05 November 2009

Steph Miller and the Winter Station - Brickwork (Winter Station, 2009)

Steph Miller is not the most prolific singer-songwriter out there. His gigs around Sydney are rare, and Brickwork is but his second album since leaving Eva Trout at the beginning of the millennium. In return for this lack of quantity, we’re rewarded with strong, heartfelt songs, impeccable production values and impassioned, unrestrained performances.

Recorded in March-April 2009, this album contains 20 years’ worth of Steph Miller songs. One or two songs date back to the days of Roaring Jack and the Wickermen, but most were written over the last twelve months. Steph welcomes back guitarist Matt Galvin and introduces a new rhythm section: drummer Tully Ryan and bassist Phil Blatch. Several songs are boosted by the appearance of Lindsay Martin (fiddle), Michael Baker (keyboards) and a host of guest musicians.

‘The Still Eye of the Storm’ opens the album on a high, with Steph’s familiar voice impassioned as he strains for and achieves those difficult high notes. Lindsay Martin’s warm fiddle and Steph’s mandolin cast a folk-rock glow over proceedings, until the power chords break through near the end. It’s an appropriate great precursor to ‘Autotramp’, one of Miller’s hardest rocking songs, up there with ‘Dark Cafe’ from Strange Sea. Crunching guitar riffs are joined by some crazy J. Mascis-style wailing and a wall of treated acoustic guitar. Some very interesting sounds in there.

‘The Ballad of John Kevins’ is a sad tale of a lonely suburban boy whose only friends are the shonky desperadoes who spam his email account. John’s ‘junk mail friends’ entice him with talk of ‘finance, romance and the future of the world’, and it all ends in tears.

Steph drags out his accordion for ‘Land of Ice and Snow’. This one features great fiddle and honky-tonk piano, and shuffles along amiably like a Mick Thomas song.

‘A Lighthouse with no Sea’ was written near the end of Steph’s time with Roaring Jack, probably for the Wickermen. Phil Blatch switches to double bass for this laid-back track. There’s fiddle, organ and acoustic guitar, and the only percussion is from a snare and cymbal. Browny from Sydney City Trash guests on pedal steel and helps emphasise that feeling of wistful isolation.

‘The Hail and the Rain’ is the newest track on the album. It features just Steph and his guitar, blasting away to create a sound that’s moody, bluesy, sparse and spontaneous. The whole band returns for ‘Don’t You Ever Steal a Worker’s Tools’, a big band blues with extra electric guitar from Geoff Holmes and backing vocals by Bonnie Kay. ‘Sweet Time’ is gentle, driven by finger-picked acoustic guitar. Backed with sparing electric riffs, it rocks out near the finish and ends with a cracking martial snare drum.

‘Medina’ is an addictive, sparse middle eastern-sounding instrumental on which Steph plays mandoud, accordion and piano. It leads cunningly into ‘Money is Your God’. Steph wrote this one in 1989 and it sounds surprisingly fresh. Steph on tin whistle teams up with Roaring Jack’s Bobby Mannell on mandolin, to take on a wild horde of eastern-sounding instruments (plus the Breton bombarde that appeared briefly on Roaring Jack’s ‘Takeaway Love’). It’s a blistering song that takes us into completely new territory.

Steph then breathes new life into ‘It’ll Take a Long Time’, a gentle romantic song that Sandy Denny wrote and recorded in 1972. As Bobby Mannell strums the opening chords in his unmistakeable style, I am reminded of how crucial Bobby’s guitar sound was to Roaring Jack. That evocative, glistening, electric sound is enhanced by Denise Thomas’s sweet backing vocals and Browny’s sympathetic pedal steel.

Then it’s all in for the big finish. ‘Tourist Drive 12’ - a huge rock song - is a monumental way to end the album. Based on a soaring guitar riff, this travelogue highlights Steph Miller’s powers of observing the rare and unusual. He recounts weird and wonderful sights encountered on a drive through country New South Wales. It showcases the tremendous drumming power of young Tully Ryan, who is certainly an impressive find. The album features so many different tempos and textures, and Tully Ryan is never once found out of his depth.

Just in case the final track hasn’t been ingrained into your skull, the bonus track is a completely different version of ‘Tourist Drive 12’. The sounds of nature replace the music, and the lyrics are recited by a man with the broadest Australian accent you’ll ever hear. It’s an ingenious way to end one of the most satisying Australian albums of 2009. Steph Miller remains true to himself and continues to create songs that just cry out to be heard.


05 October 2009

The Rumjacks – Hung, Drawn and Portered (The Rumjacks/Mustard Finnegan’s Good Times Rock’n’Roll Emporium, 2009)

Does this story sound familiar? A band is formed in Sydney, inspired by the Pogues, by traditional Irish and Scottish music, and by lots of noisy electric stuff as well. The singer was born in Glasgow. Their frantic, drunken gigs are legendary, building up a diverse following of Newtown punks, Blue Mountains folkies, expat Scots and Irish and assorted lefty weirdos. The music is fast, loud and accordion-driven, with ruggedly tuneful vocals over the top. That’s where the similarities between Roaring Jack and the Rumjacks end. A quick listen to Hung, Drawn and Portered, and the Rumjacks assert themselves as a totally different beast.

‘The Plantin’ O’Kitty Randall’ crashes into life with a thumping two-step and Will Swan’s huge accordion sound. You might remember Will from Sydney band the Laundrymen and Melbourne’s Catgut Mary. His accordion fuels the Rumjacks, helping to create a swaggering, lurching pirate punk sound. He’s pretty handy with a tin whistle as well.

Steve Pell, no longer with the band, supplies the concussive percussion on this EP, while Johnny McKelvey handles both guitar and bass. (Since this EP was recorded, Gabe Whitbourne has joined the Rumjacks as guitarist, and Anthony Matters has joined as drummer.) Meanwhile, lead vocalist Frankie McLaughlin spits out a bitter tale of a lassie who discovers that she can make good money loving other men. The gruff vocals suit the mood of the song perfectly. Frankie’s not so cranky on the next track, ‘The Bold Rumjacker’. He shows he really can sing. This one’s more in the style of the Scottish reggae that Roaring Jack attempted on ‘The Ball of Yarn’ some twenty years ago. Frankie admits to being ‘Scottish born and Australian bred / I’m strong in the arm and soft in the head’, declaring he’s off to Van Diemen’s Land in search of romance. His idea of a romantic dinner is ‘Two fish suppers and a paraffin lamp’. This is a great catchy tune that had me skanking and singing along in no time.

Will Swan takes over the vocal duties for the next two tracks. What a luxury for a band to have two competent vocalists. To these ears, many of today’s Celtic punk bands don’t even have one! Will contributes the rollicking ‘Paddy Goes to Babylon’ and the punky sea shanty ‘Down with the Ship’. The defiant song heaps scorn on a scene full of ‘junkies and liars’: ‘There’s more romance in a minister’s pants / Than there is in this scene and its sad pissants’.

The EP concludes with the Rumjacks’ take on traditional Irish favourite, ‘I’ll Tell Me Ma’. This version, transplanting the ‘Belle of Belfast city’ to Sydney, rips along at a cracking pace. It’s a great way to finish proceedings. Hung, Drawn and Portered certainly leaves the listener desperate to hear more. Recorded in only three days, it shows that we can expect big things from this Sydney combo.

You can get this one through Pug Music, or as mp3s via iTunes.

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15 August 2009

Warblefly - Tenerife to Dover (Warblefly, 2009)

This English band first came to my attention a few years back, when their blistering tune ‘The Ballad of Ali Abbas’ was my favourite track on the second Shite’n’Onions compilation. Tenerife to Dover is Warblefly’s fourth album, and it’s a lively amalgam of the traditional and the postmodern.

Warblefly’s sound is built around fiddles (David Hassell and Minna Harman), melodeon (Elly van Veen) and mandolin/mandola (Peter Frizzell). The swirling, tumbling sounds of these traditional instruments are beefed up by Frank van Veen’s noisy guitar, Andrew Beckerman’s clever basslines and Steve Harker’s pounding yet intricate drumming. On top of all that racket we get inspired vocals from Dave Hodgson, occasionally augmented or replaced by Minna’s much sweeter voice. ‘Warblefly in My Beer’ is the storming opener, a stirring call to cut the crap and to be honest to yourself. Memorable fiddle-based riffs abound, both in this song and in others like ‘Broken Body Parts’ and ‘Ghost of Mamston Moor’. The sinister guitar riff that opens ‘7 Deadly Sounds’ reminds me of all that hardcore punk I listened to in the 80s, before the song mutates into a drunken singalong about chasing impossible dreams. By contrast, ‘Shrimp Boy’ opens like a gentle Weddings Parties Anything song that brings tears to the eyes, before the angry fiddles, cruel guitars and stomping beat take over!

The more I listen to this album, the more it reveals itself. Probably the most immediate song is ‘Shoplifter’, a very catchy tune set to an impulsive ska beat. But after repeated plays, the rugged beauty of tunes like ‘Underwater Breathing Competition’ and ‘Sack of Seeds’ come to light. The music of Warblefly has insinuated itself into my brain and left me wanting to hear more.


06 May 2009

Murrumbidgee Jones - The Same Joke Twice (Gecko Records, 2008)

Murrumbidgee Jones is Sydney poet, storyteller and singer-songwriter Warwick Irwin, backed by a talented bunch of multi-instrumentalists called the Rivercats. Irwin has been around for decades but always under my radar. It’s a treat to discover ‘new’ artists of this calibre coming out of Sydney.

‘Cold Black Night’ kicks off the album with an eerie moan of banjo and dobro over a shuffling beat while the Jones boy drawls out a story of restlessness, impatience and desire. He sings in a likeable growl that matches perfectly the roughness of his tales and the rawness of his music.

‘Somebody Followed Me Home’ displays Jones’s talents as an observer of life, linking a bunch of random and unrelated events and coming up with a great summary of a typical Australian day. Ostensibly a piano ballad, this one’s greatly enhanced by the winning combination of fiddle and harmonica. ‘Brown Champagne’ is an ode to pub talk. It alludes to that fine line between celebrating one’s life story and talking a load of complete bullshit (‘I was born at sunrise the day Les Darcy died’). Jones gets a western swing groove going on this one, and the harmonica, mandolin and Tex/Mex-style accordion make it soar. I love the immortal line that begins and ends this song: ‘Well I’ve been drunk with Wally Lewis / Ah we talked about the Blues’. A clever Aussie sporting reference that may well be lost on an overseas audience!

Another highlight is ‘Never Say Never’, a rollicking tune where the fiddle, mandolin and harmonica are going hell for leather: ‘Never go drinking with a football team / Never drop money in a poker machine / But if you do and the bells all ring / Never say never’.

The Same Joke Twice is a fine amalgam of country, folk and blues, resulting in a sound that’s stripped back, down to earth and very Australian. Fans of artists as diverse as Bob Dylan, Fifty Million Beers, the Malkies, Tom Waits and Weddings Parties Anything are bound to find something of interest in Murrumbidgee Jones.

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09 October 2008

The Malkies – Suited and Booted (Limbo, 2008)

In the street slang of Glasgow, a malky can be either a sharp knife or a not-so-sharp person. These malkies definitely come complete with a pointy edge. It’s Alistair Hulett with a band – predominantly acoustic instruments augmented with bass and drums – for the first time since the days of Roaring Jack. The hectic pace and volume of Roaring Jack are no longer with us, and we’re left with a band of talented instrumentalists on top of their game and lyrics and vocals that really shine.

We’re treated to a mix of Alistair Hulett originals, traditional tunes and covers of a few 20th century folk classics. Roaring Jack fans will recognise quite a few songs in the Malkies’ repertoire, starting with the opening track ‘Buy Us a Drink’. This is a laid-back and almost reverent reading of what we fondly remember as a raucous, shameless drinking song. Alistair still sings with passion about living in a ‘shitty old hole’, unlike those Canadian folkies who cleaned up this song for mass consumption! This version works itself into a neat little groove, before departing suddenly to make way for ‘Out in the Danger Zone’. Though missing the Uillean pipes that made the version on The Back Streets of Paradise so moving, the new rendition still manages to hit hard. Great slide guitar and Rachel Goodwin‘s sweet harmony vocals add a new dimension. Rachel’s only a guest on this album, but she adds so much that it’d be great to see her to join the band on a permanent basis.

‘High Germany’ is a traditional song that’s lifted into the 21st century thanks to the haunting slide guitar and Hugh Bradley’s atmospheric double bass. ‘Playing for the Traffic’ gets a western swing treatment with a strolling beat that certainly matches the mood of the song. Alistair has cleaned up the lyrics somewhat: the ‘penny pinching bastards’ are now ‘penny pinching skivers’, but that’s OK because it rhymes with ‘nine to fivers’!

‘Are There Honky Tonks in Heaven’ was always a live fave at Roaring Jack gigs. Here’s a version that rocks in a much quieter way, but still kicks butt. Phil Snell features prominently on the mandolin, but thanks to the wonders of modern technology Phil’s fiddle and lap steel can also be heard blazing through the song.

‘The Wife of Usher’s Well’ was for me a highlight of Alistair’s shows with Dave Swarbrick in Sydney last year. This version features intricate finger-picking and an emotive vocal performance from Hulett over Hugh Whitaker’s helter-skelter beat.

On Riches and Rags, Hulett stirred a traditional Scots flavour into a swag of American blues and folk songs. This recipe carries over into some of the tracks on Suited and Booted. There’s a furious driving beat on Woody Guthrie’s ‘Pastures of Plenty’, contrasting with the eerie slide guitar that works brilliantly to convey the sparseness and isolation of the lyrics. This is a tremendous version that is up there with the work that Billy Bragg and Wilco did on Woody’s unreleased material in the late 1990s. One of the standout tracks. A well-interpreted cover of Pete Seeger’s ‘Quite Early Morning’ similarly bears the feel of Riches and Rags. Its carefree breezy mood will have you swatting flies and drinking whiskey on the porch (even if you don’t have a porch).

The cross-pollination on Suited and Booted often goes the other way, with the Malkies injecting an Americana flavour into some iconic Scots folk songs. Like ‘The Road to Dundee’, with its beautiful slide guitar providing a counterpunch to Hulett’s hillbilly finger-pickin’. ‘The Overgate’ is another traditional Scots ballad that gets the Americana-style treatment, and comes out the better for it. This is one song that is no doubt very powerful in a live setting.

There are never enough versions of ‘The Day the Boys Came Down’, in my view one of Hulett’s greatest tunes. This version features a hard-hitting snare drum and a bluesier feel than heard previously on The Cat Among the Pigeons and The Cold Grey Light of Dawn.

The album closes with a stirring folk-rock version of ‘The Internationale’ that eclipses not only Hulett’s earlier version, but probably Billy Bragg’s as well.

This is an assured debut from a band that is probably still finding its own voice. All the Hulett originals are songs we know and love, so it will be interesting to see if Alistair writes new songs tailor-made for the Malkies. The other members of the band are talented in their own right, so perhaps we can look forward to some inspired collaboration in the songwriting department. It will be a thrill to watch this band grow and develop its own unique audience, just as Roaring Jack did all those years ago.

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25 February 2008

Hugh Morrison - Under A Texas Skye (ACM Records, 2007)

In which Hugh Morrison steps out from the shadows of Murder The Stout (see review elsewhere in these pages) and into the limelight as a band leader. Former Glaswegian Hugh (or Shuggie, as they'd call him in Glasgow) plays button accordion, wringing out a sound different from that of the piano accordion which dominates a lot of Celtic-inspired music. Backed by a small combo playing piano, cello, guitar, banjo and occasional percussion, Morrison presents an album of music far removed from the raucous strains of his other band.

While Murder The Stout tends to favour Irish drinking songs, Hugh demonstrates undeniably Scottish folk influences Under A Texas Skye. There are some traditional Scottish tunes like 'Burns' Farewell', 'Atholl Highlanders' and 'Mary of Skye', and a great version of the Robert Burns song 'McPherson's Rant' (also recorded recently by Aussie favourites the Go Set). But running right through the album is a Texan flavour as well. Hugh Morrison has lived in Texas for a few years, and the Americana influences shine through in tracks such as 'Red River Valley'. Even some of Hugh's own compositions, like 'Made In Texas', show that he has his feet planted firmly in a new homeland.

About half the tracks feature Hugh's button accordion over a bed of piano, making for quite a pleasant, relaxing sound. A bodhran comes thumping in gently at times, sometimes too gently for these ears! What works best, though, is Hugh steaming into 'Old Pipe Reel' and 'Ale Is Dear' (both on a track called 'Minor Reels') with full accompaniment.

Special mention goes to Hugh's lead vocalist Jed Marum, who turns in great performances on 'Come By The Hills', 'McPherson's Rant' and 'Red River Valley'. And commendations on what is for me the centrepiece of the album, Hugh's own composition 'Dun Eistein'. This is a beautiful tune dedicated to the place of that name on the Isle of Lewis, and traditional home to the Clan Morrison. A mighty track that's a soundtrack waiting to happen.

24 January 2008

Murder The Stout - Murder The Stout (self-released, 2006)

This Texan five-piece plays traditional Irish music with a rocky edge. Traditional instruments (accordion, mandolin, tin whistle and acoustic guitar) are augmented by Berkley (bass) and Jonathan (drums) to produce a roaring folk sound not unlike the earliest Pogues.

The album opens with a lively romp through 'Roddy McCorley'. Lead vocalist Gerard, an Irish expatriate, sings in a likeable, tuneful growl that suits the up-tempo music very nicely. We get treated to some well-known songs, including 'Fields of Athenry', 'The Rare Old Mountain Dew', 'Whiskey in the Jar' and 'Wild Irish Rover'. Most songs are propelled by Hugh's stellar accordion, a sound that works in well with the whistle (Gerard) and mandolin/guitar (Neil).

Some of the tune combinations are real master strokes. 'Fields of Athenry' somehow melds into the wonderful tune "Merrily Kissed the Quaker', while the '3 Drunken Maidens Medley' throws in some famous American tunes like 'O Susannah' and (appropriately) 'Deep in the Heart of Texas'. But for me, the most sublime moment is the fantastic reworking of 'Botany Bay', book-ended by traditional tunes 'Off to California' and 'Peat Fire Flame'. This tracks's an instant classic.

Here's a debut album that contains a lot of familiar tunes and famous songs, played with an edge that no doubt makes Murder The Stout a most impressive live band. One can easily imagine their gigs developing into raucous singalongs and stompathons. Any chance of an Australian tour, lads?

17 January 2008

Waiting For Guinness - Friend Or Foe (Vitamin, 2007)

Put the music of the 20th century in a blender, and this is what you might get. You'd be forgiven for taking the band name and concluding that we have another bunch of Pogues clones here, but nothing could be further from the truth. Sure there are raging accordions and there are some pretty sharp hats and suits, but that's where the comparison ends. (Unless we're talking about the post-Shane Pogues, which had an extraordinarily eclectic and not-very-Irish sound!)

This Sydney septet (that's right, seven at last count) have been around for over ten years and recently released their third album, Friend Or Foe. An insane blast of horns launches 'Cadaver Swing', and those horns are soon joined by exotic stringed instruments and menacing vocals. Quite a few tracks show a distinct Mexican and Latin American influence, most notably the beautiful instrumental 'Wedding March'. One of the most touching and memorable tunes I've heard in a while.

For fans of Roaring Jack and Weddings Parties Anything, special recommendation goes to 'Thank God For Maconochie'. If you've read Robert Hughes's The Fatal Shore and other tales of Australia's brutal convict days, you'll be familiar with characters like Alexander Maconochie, the kindly (well, relatively speaking!) commandant on Norfolk Island, and poor Charles Anderson, the brain-damaged convict chained to a rock on Goat Island. It's great to hear the lives of these characters resurrected in song, and here's a song that deserves to be added to folk music's convict songbook along with 'Sons of Liberty', 'A Tale They Won't Believe' and so many great ballads of uncertain origin.

There's a lot here for anybody with an open mind about their music. At various moments on this album, I am reminded of Tom Waits, Les Negresses Vertes, The Jackson Code, Monsieur Camembert, Los Lobos and many others, but only for a second. Then Waiting For Guinness moves on, going down a completely different path. Hope you're up for a pretty wild ride.

16 January 2008

Perry Keyes - The Last Ghost Train Home (Laughing Outlaw, 2007)

It's hard not to like a songwriter who faultlessly combines rock and rugby league so passionately. It's a long time ago since I saw Perry and the Stolen Holdens blasting out their tunes at the Sando. This CD is a major step forward that hopefully will give him some long overdue recognition. I still haven't heard his previous double CD Meter, but if it's half as good as this then I'll be buying it soon. Great songwriters like Perry take you to a time and place that you haven't experienced.

I hate relating songwriters to fellow musicians but on this CD there is a very strong sense of a Springsteen or Tom Petty in their prime being relocated to Redfern circa 1970's.

'The Day John Sattler Broke His Jaw' kicks off proceedings with Perry's incisive lyrics, Ed Kairous's evocative guitar and an urgent rhythm section. Memories of childhood fill this CD, especially on the emotive 'Kids Day' and 'Sideshow Alley' reminding us of those fun lost times at the Sydney Showground. Try creating that same atmosphere at Homebush!

Got to be honest and say I like the rockin' tunes like 'Double on The Main Game'. But Perry is so brilliantly reflective on slower songs like 'Matthew Talbot's Blanket' and 'In Ancient Rome' that one can't skip any song. Each song is a emotional journey that makes you feel you are there at the time. With all the obscure references to Sydney culture - and especially to rugby league football - you might need to use Perry's thoughtfully-compiled glossary to develop a finer appreciation of his art.

'The Last Ghost Train Home' finishes paradoxically, asking us if we would be happy in the past. I'd be happy if this world weary songwriter finally sold some CDs so he didn't have to drive a taxi. But then where would all these streetsmart songs come from? And how come I never get a taxi driver like Perry, so full of stories and tales? One thing I would tell him is that he's made my album of 2007. (Perce Blakeney)

15 January 2008

Fifty Million Beers – Ashfield Skyline (Vitamin, 2007)

Roaring Jack and Fifty Million Beers would surely have crossed paths way back in the late ‘80s. Both bands were denizens of Sydney’s inner west and both played regularly at venues like the Sandringham Hotel in Newtown and the Harold Park Hotel in Glebe. Twenty years, several line-up changes and a few break-ups later, and Fifty Million Beers are still with us. It’s a pity that many of their favourite pub venues are not!

Fifty Million Beers were always influenced by country music in a big way, and lazy journos always made sure that the phrase ‘country and inner western’ appeared somewhere in articles and reviews about the band. The title of this album might be a clever Sydney twist on Bob Dylan’s classic country-style LP, but there’s more to this album than simply uprooting Nashville and dropping it on an unsuspecting suburb of Sydney.

The band’s third album kicks off with the bluesy, boozy ‘I’ve Been Told’. Immediately the alarm bells are ringing. Hey – this ain’t country! Or if it is, it’s certainly a lot darker, sparser and more sinister than I’d remembered. On ‘Breakin’ Even’, we get to hear Graham Griffith pour his heart out via his pedal steel guitar, but it’s still not a typical country sound. The song’s theme of love lost through gambling might have been done before, but not with lyrics like these:

We don’t need no wedding band
She knows I won’t desert her
That’s what she said before that wedding band
Turned up at Cash Converters.

Charlie MacLean’s vocals are strong yet world-weary, and perfectly suited for this band’s music. It reminds me sometimes of Martin Plaza of Mental As Anything, but don’t let that put you off. MacLean turns in a particularly effective performance on the piano-driven ballad, ‘One Fool’s Gold’. Throughout the album, the musicianship of Graham Griffith, Mark Cornwall (bass), J.D. Love (guitar) and Keith Newman (drums) is extraordinary. It takes a lot of beer and bonding for a band to sound this tight.

Other highlights include the classic line ‘Why do fools rush in to fix a heart if it ain’t broke?’ (‘If It Ain’t Broke’), the tender mandolin solo on ‘So Much Time’ and the image conjured up in my mind when ‘the Telstra Tower’s rusting in the propane breeze’ (‘Ashfield Skyline’).

A great album that captures the sound of love, loss and laughter on Parramatta Road.

11 January 2008

The Handsome Young Strangers - Shane Warne EP (Code One, 2007)

The assistant at Redeye Records in Sydney actually knew what I was talking about when I asked for this one. Perhaps more people know about this new “young” Sydney band than I thought. Inspired by the wonderful Bushwackers (a late discovery for me), these guys play a mad mix of bush ballads, colonial rock and everything in between. The EP bowls off with the lighthearted tribute to Shane Warne. Love him or hate him, this is a fun journey through his celebrated career.

Next is my personal fave ‘Tanooka’. A strong ballad reminiscing about those great days when you could actually see a live band at your local every day. Who wouldn't cry about the days when you could see “Roaring Jack at the Sando”. Worth buying just for this gem of a lyric.

Then follows a playful and funny run-through of the classic ‘Woolloomooloo Lair’. The band really gets into full stride before closing with Bogle’s mighty ‘The Green Fields of France’. But arguably the best song is a mystery track written about the destruction and heartbreak of drought in the bush.With simple guitar and harmonica these highlights the strength of this band's original stuff. Strong lyrics and great playing with a healthly dose of larrikin spirit. Definitely worth a look live and can't wait to hear more material! (Perce Blakeney)

30 January 2007

Various – What The Shite : Shite’n’Onions Volume 2 (Omnium, 2006)

So, here’s another compilation from the essential online Celtic punk fanzine, Shite’n’Onions. The first compilation (released 2004) provided great slabs of streetpunk and many combinations of folk music and punk rock in varying proportions. It was a unique introduction to a genre which builds upon the work of 1980s bands like the Pogues and Roaring Jack, adding a lot more pace and distortion to the mix.

Volume 2 contains a lot of bands familiar to anyone who accesses Shite’n’Onions regularly. You might have read reviews of their latest CDs, seen news about their tours or checked out the irreverent interviews. For starters, we’re blasted with a tanked up, cranked up rendition of the traditional ‘Drunken Sailor’ by Texan band the Blaggards. Very competent and assured, these folk, especially Turi Hoiseth's fiddle which drives this version. This song takes me back to Year Seven at school, except that our teacher Miss Orman didn't mention anything about shaving the poor bugger’s balls with a rusty razor! Jackdaw weighs in with the growly singalong 'Hogjaw' and then Melbourners The Go Set rip through one of their best tracks, 'Sing Me A Song'. There's further Aussie connection later on, with two slightly older tracks from the wonderful Mutiny. And if that's not enough Australiana, Canada's The Town Pants contribute 'The Weight of Words', a brilliant song about the life of a Canadian who leaves home for Australia ('And how can I stay here with Australia full of gold?') and returns to Canada via the horrors of the Pacific in World War II. Oh, and Three Day Threshold do a version of 'Pub With No Beer' that bears little resemblance to any other I've ever heard, but it's noisy bluegrassy fun nonetheless.

'Kicked In The Head' by The Kissers might be country-tinged, but it's as upbeat and relentless as anything else on this album. 'Kicked in the head by the Lord'? Brilliant! The Peelers from Canada will have you grinning at the 'Plastic Paddy' drinking whiskey and pina coladas at the local Irish theme pub.

You get a healthy serving of good old fashioned drinking songs, too, from the likes of the Gobshites, Larkin, the McGillicuddys, the Porters and the Pubcrawlers. And a bit of variety, with the funky, folky, progressive sounds of Icewagon Flu. But the highlight of the compilation for me has to be Warblefly's 'The Ballad of Ali Abbas', a speedy, intricate, angry indictment on the war in Iraq. And for closers, there's Barney Murray, formerly of Blood Or Whiskey. Barney has copped a lot of flak for his vocal style - or lack thereof - but on the gentle 'Troublesome Girl', he shows he really can hold a tune!

In all, a marvellous sampling of Celtic punk's latest crop. With so many flavours on this album, you're bound to find more than a few 'keepers'. The insert has web addressess for all the bands on the album, so you'll be able to check out more of their songs, listen online and buy their own recordings.

30 December 2006

The Saints - Imperious Delirium (Cadiz, 2006)

It feels as if I’ve grown up with the music of the Saints. They're like a much older brother that I watched getting drunk, getting married and getting divorced when I was way too young to do any of those things. I still remember seeing the film clip (this was long before video, folks) for '(I’m) Stranded' on Countdown when I was eleven, and being unable to understand a word the singer was shouting. In 1983 I first got to see the Saints play live, and have been fortunate enough to catch them on several occasions since then, the most recent being December 2005. Chris Bailey, that once untelligible vocalist, has developed into a fine singer and shouter, as demonstrated on countless Saints albums and on a few interesting solo albums as well.

Imperious Delirium kicks off with 'Drunk in Babylon', leaving the Saints’ folky poppy days in the mid-1980s way behind. This is vintage garage punk, with Chris Bailey’s guitars set to stun. Bailey plays all the guitars on this album, whereas he’s had a lead guitarist on all other Saints releases. He handles lead duties well on this album, with short, tasty solos where necessary.

You might be waiting for the brass, strings and chorus girls to come in, but Imperious Delirium is all guitar, bass and drums. Throughout this album, Bailey’s two bandmates assert their musical talents. Caspar Wijnberg is a tremendous bass player, his low notes propelling songs like 'Drowning' and adding some great flourishes to 'Enough Is Never Enough'. Drummer Peter Wilkinson can thump with the best of ‘em, knows when to play thrashy and when to provide a bit of light and shade.

All through the album, Chris Bailey’s vocals are stunning. He’s rediscovered that snotty tone that helped to make the early Saints albums so special, but on slower tracks such as 'Other Side Of The World' and the closer 'War Of Independence', Bailey shows he can still really sing.

You probably won’t hear many of these songs on radio, but there are a lot of superb moments. Wicked wah-wah guitar on 'Declare War' and in the delicious riff that drives 'Trocadero'. The raw, punky rhythm and blues of 'Je Fuckin’ T’aime' that sounds like Them on speed. The jangly but still noisy ‘Other Side Of The World’ and 'So Close'. The acoustic guitars that embellish 'Getting Away With Murder' as Chris Bailey decries the state of this George Dubya world.

For the most part, this is a noisy, fast, punky album. Chris Bailey has continued to revel in the sounds of distorted electric guitars, as first rediscovered on 1997’s Howling. However, the Saints of the 21st century do not sound like, and are not trying to sound like, the Saints of those legendary first three albums in the late 1970s. And how could they, without the musical and lyrical talents of the great Ed Kuepper and the pivotal drumming of Ivor Hay? No, this is simply the latest in the long line of Saints line-ups and albums, and long may they prosper.

You can hear 'Enough Is Never Enough' and 'Trocadero' in their entirety on the Saints' MySpace page. These should be enough to convince you that this album is well worth seeking out.

29 November 2006

Swill and the Swaggerband - Elvis Lives Here (Irregular Records, 2006)

Irregular Records IRR062

Earlier this year, Swill (aka Phil Odgers of The Men They Couldn't Hang) released a taste of things to come. Entitled Doh, Ray, Me-Me-Me-Me-Me (Hanwell Records), it contained rougher, (mostly) solo versions of five songs which appear on Elvis Lives Here, along with a couple of extra tracks. While it gave some idea of how Swill's latest songs would sound, it didn't prepare me for how much more majestic the songs sound when Swill brings in his Swaggerband.

And what a band! It's all acoustic, yet the sound the Swaggerband generates is fierce at times. There's variety of guitars, mandolins and fiddles, underpinned by the tight rhythm section of Ricky McGuire on acoustic bass and Jon Odgers on various percussion instruments. And over the top of that you get Swill's warm and charismatic vocals augmented with some fabulous backing harmonies.

'Drag You Down' is a foot-stomping opener that has a real live feel about it. Stepan Pasicznyk's accordion and Bobby Valentino's fiddle drive this song, and the onslaught of mandolins in the middle eight is just incredible! Johanna Gibbons's great big backing vocals add much to the original version. The banjo- and bongo-fuelled 'Just A Dial Tone Away' seems like a TMTCH song in waiting, as it's not hard to imagine this song with the full electric treatment.

'In The Breeze' brings us back down to earth, telling of the horrors of a recent war in the Persian Gulf. It is a deceptively sweet-sounding song, somewhat like TMTCH's 'Father's Wrong'. And like that song, a very grim tale lies beneath. By contrast, the title track is uplifting and witty. It's about the 'tired and tatty losers' who visit their local 'tired and tatty boozer' on Friday nights to have their lives brightened by an Elvis impersonator.

While Swill wrote all the music and some of the lyrics, quite a few of the album's lyrics come from Swill's mates. Attila the Stockbroker contributed a cynical look at sensationalism in the local newspaper, 'Shed Fire'. Noted folkie Robb Johnson penned 'Elvis Lives Here' and the a cappella closer, 'Marjory and Johnny', while TMTCH bandmate Paul Simmonds wrote a few others. My favourite track, 'Deep Blue Sea', is one of Swill's own. It is probably the punchiest, catchiest song on the album, all fired up by some superb zydeco-style accordion and a raging snare drum.

As with The Day After, Swill and the Swaggerband's debut from 2004, there's an obvious debt to American music here, whether it be country, folk or rockabilly. But the vocals and the lyrics make this one so quintessentially English. Definitely worthy of your attention.

16 November 2006

Blyth Power - Fall Of Iron (Downwarde Spiral, 2006)

This review by Daniel James was originally posted in August 2006.

Blyth Power - Fall of Iron (Downwarde Spiral DR012CD)

It’s now four years since Blyth Power’s last album, On the Viking Station, came out with promises that it would form the first part of a trilogy. Since then the band have had their time taken up with various distractions such as doing acoustic sets in folk clubs and, more alarmingly, having babies. As a result gigs have been few and far between and there has been little news of parts two and three. So for Blyth fans the long-awaited release of Fall of Iron is a real cause for celebration.

A bit of background for anyone who’s unfamiliar: Blyth Power came into being in the early eighties when Joseph Porter, after a few years playing drums in bands of a mostly anarchist punk persuasion, started putting together one of his own. Taking their name from diesel engine no. 56134, Blyth were soon established as one of the most eccentric bands around, describing themselves as a cross between The Clash, Steeleye Span and the Rubettes(?). Since then they’ve had twenty-four members and recorded fourteen albums, and Joseph (now the only survivor of the original band) is still going strong. As well as his vocals and drums the current line-up includes Joseph’s brother Jerry on bass, Steven Cooper on guitar and Annie Hatcher on keys.

From the very first notes this is unmistakable Blyth, Joseph’s impassioned vocals supported by relentless guitar and close-harmony backings as they roll and crash through a voyage across the North Sea oilfields. As always the subject matter of these songs is wide-ranging and unusual and the lyrics are vintage Porter, perhaps on the wordy side but always memorable. ‘Where the backfisch roll in whalebone strakes/The heaving timbers groan/To pour on troubled waters/Out here to hand there’s oil enough for two’. It’s typical of this band that while the title track was inspired by the Kosovo war this is no straightforward protest song but an account of the war narrated by a world-weary bomber pilot.

Musically this album ranges from the punk-rock ranting of ‘Born in a Different England’ to ‘Cynthia’s Revels’, a poets’ drinking song which bounces along to Steven’s acoustic guitar and Annie’s accordion and quite literally demands that you join in with the chorus. (Listen to it and you’ll see that I really do mean literally!) Blyth Power’s distinctive take on folk music is best demonstrated by ‘Endgame’, an impressively menacing ballad which is also a bloodthirsty sequel to ‘The Raggle-Taggle Gypsy’ - complete with Whack-fol-a-day fol-a-diddle chorus. It may have been a quiet few years for Blyth but this has been well worth the wait, and for anyone who doesn’t know them Fall of Iron is as good a place as any to start.

Fall of Iron can be ordered from the band’s website. I think this is UK only, but apparently it will also soon be available from Townsend Records who (I think) can ship to anywhere.

Alistair Hulett - Riches And Rags (Red Rattler, 2005)

This review was originally posted in January 2006.

I’d better start by giving this album its full title: Riches and Rags: Modern Music for Wireless and Gramophone Played by Alistair Hulett and Several of His Friends. It’s an old-timey sounding title, which is a pretty fair indication of much of the album’s content. On this, his seventh album since the days of Roaring Jack, Alistair Hulett revisits not only some of his own previously recorded songs, but also some notable songs from the last few centuries!

Riches and Rags sees Hulett joined by three very talented musicians: James Fagan (mandolin and bouzouki), Nancy Kerr (fiddle and viola) and Gavin Livingstone (a multitude of instruments including accordion, dobro and dulcimer). While Alistair’s guitar-and-vocal albums and his work with Dave Swarbrick have produced some truly excellent moments, it’s always inspiring to hear Alistair play when backed by a few instruments. This album is not much like Roaring Jack, but there’s still a great deal of passion and fire in Alistair’s music and lyrics.

Anyone who saw Alistair Hulett on his 2005 tour of Australia would have heard quite a few of this album’s tracks played live. One of these is the memorable opener, 'The Fair Flower of Northumberland'. Gavin Livingstone’s playing adds another dimension to this song: it's warming to hear Hulett backed by an accordion once again, and Gavin also contributes a fine slide guitar solo. Here, like on many of the other tracks, Hulett's picking style is complemented by the addition of fiddle and mandolin.

This album contains a delicate blend of Hulett originals, traditional songs and even a few covers. John Kirkpatrick's 'Old King Coal' sounds like a return to the work Alistair has done with Dave Swarbrick in recent years, and there's a heartfelt makeover of the Incredible String Band's 'The First Girl I Loved' on which the guitars and dobro mesh beautifully. Traditional songs 'The Recruited Collier' and 'The Dark Eyed Sailor' sound as if they were written for Hulett and his guests. The latter has been recorded so many times (Christy Moore, Steeleye Span and Welsh upstarts Boys From The Hill come to mind), but who cares when it sounds this good?

A hallmark of Alistair Hulett’s career is the way in which he revisits his earlier work, adding totally new elements as he goes. So it is with his treatment here of two lesser appreciated Roaring Jack songs. 'Criminal Justice' was the b-side of the excellent single 'Framed' from 1991, and it hinted at the band's change of direction to a less overtly Celtic sound. Here, it sounds breezier and less angry. However, its catchy chorus contains a potent message about fighting back against miscarriages of justice that is just as relevant now as it was fifteen years ago:

Don't get hysterical, negative and cynical
We're gonna change it
Get political.

Conversely, the version of Roaring Jack’s love-gone-wrong song 'Shot Down In Flames', as it appears here, comes across sounding even more bitter and tender than the original version, as if the past fifteen years have done nothing to resolve the situation discussed in the song or to dull the pain one little bit. Gavin's guitar gently weeps and his harmony vocals add a truly bittersweet element to the song. This song felt like an afterthought on Through The Smoke Of Innocence, but on Riches and Rags it is given a prime position and is a real highlight of the album for me. Similarly, 'Militant Red', originally appearing on The Back Streets of Paradise, has a totally different feel here. The new version has elements of western swing and gypsy music, with Nancy Kerr doing a brilliant job on both fiddle and viola.

Something that hasn't really shone through on Alistair’s previous releases is his love for traditional American music. It's always been there though, and was probably most evident in his work with Hunter Owens before the birth of Roaring Jack. In the interview I conducted with Alistair in 2002, he cited legendary bluesman Robert Johnson as a major influence on his writing. On Riches and Rags, we're treated to a generous helping of blues and jug band music with a Glaswegian accent! The title track is an original that is unlike any of Hulett's other compositions. It's not only bluesy, but there are elements of classic American country and folk floating in there as well. Then there's the outstanding 'Stealin' Back To My Same Old Used To Be', a rollicking killer of a track which was originally recorded by Will Shade with the Memphis Jug Band way back in 1926. (Click here for more information on the song and for a brief sample of the original.) You can tell from the vocals that Alistair's enjoying himself on this one, as there's a definite smile in the voice. The closing track, 'Trouble In Mind', is another song from the early 20th century that works surprisingly well in the Glasgow folk idiom.

While it's true to say that no two Alistair Hulett albums are alike, Riches and Rags is the one with the most variety by far. There are musical and stylistic links to all the previous albums, Roaring Jack and beyond. But the new elements – which are really just old elements that have taken a long time to show up on a Hulett recording – make this one a very special release. (AC)

This album can be purchased - along with the other Roaring Jack, Steph Miller and Alistair Hulett albums - directly from the Roaring Jack Archives. Check out our Purchase page for details!

Steph Miller - Strange Sea (Winter Station, 2004)

This review was originally posted in February 2005.

Steph Miller was Roaring Jack's mandolin, accordion and tin whistle player and occasional vocalist. He wrote and sang some classic Roaring Jack songs, including 'Shell Shocked Crowd', 'Go Leave' and 'A Stranger And A Friend'. With Roaring Jack and later with Eva Trout, Steph's instrumentation helped define each band but he seemed content to remain mostly in the shadows. It was only with The Wickermen, Steph's band between Roaring Jack and Eva Trout, that his own vocals and vision were allowed to shine.

Since leaving Eva Trout in 2001, Steph Miller has found his own voice once again. He has played solo gigs in Sydney and has performed with some great local songwriters like Perry Keyes and Bernie Hayes. Steph's also been writing shiploads of songs. He dragged some friends into the studio in 2001 and 2002, and recorded an album's worth of songs. Frustrated with the difficulty of finding a distributor, Steph finally decided to release the album himself in late 2004. Thus we have Strange Sea, an album that's hard to find but even harder to ignore.

The first thing that strikes me about Strange Sea is its production. What a sound! Even on the acoustic guitar-dominated tracks, the sound is full and impressive. On most tracks, Steph's many instrumental talents are augmented by Matt Galvin on electric guitars and one man rhythm section Michael Carpenter on bass AND drums. The opener 'You Spoke (Hold On)' is built on a wall of sound generated by guitars, pedal steel, organ and the multi-tracked backing vocals of Dominique English. Steph's voice rises over the top of it all as he deals with demons and doubt ('You pushed me back from the 44 / I thought I’d lost to the traffic roar / Thought I heard black dogs a scratchin’ at my door').

It is obvious from much of the lyrical content that Steph Miller is no stranger to loss and grief. There are odes to lost relatives and friends. Depression figures in more than one song, but most notably the mercurial 'Tell Your Story'. This one's not so much about how one deals with depression, but with how the friends and family of a person with depression deal with it: 'I swear that I won't tell your story now / It's not my business anyhow'.

There is a huge range of influences on Strange Sea. Steph's been playing in bands for over twenty years, absorbing sounds from all over and developing his own style. The result is quite eclectic, with songs that will appeal to a gigantic cross section of listeners. I can imagine the album embraced by the various branches of ABC Radio. 'Tell Your Story', with its exotic guitar picking and home-made percussion would fit well on Radio National's The Planet, while Triple J should be gushing over the noisy swagger of 'Dark Café' and 'Two Aeroplanes'. ABC Local Radio, meanwhile, can add 'The Places We Know' and the glorious Byrds-like guitars and harmonies of 'Winter Conversation' to its playlist of intelligent contemporary stuff.

For Roaring Jack fans, there's a lot to recommend this album. It doesn't sound terribly like RJ, but there are elements that may be familiar. There's Steph's voice for a start, which seems to have deepened and matured in the past fifteen years or so. 'Waltzing Too Long' is a gentle tune that could be a distant cousin to 'A Stranger and A Friend'. Near the end it develops into a beautiful full-blown Irish waltz, in which Steph gets to play all the instruments he once contributed to Roaring Jack. 'In the Silence' features a backward guitar riff which for some reason sounds remarkably Scottish (and the song has a great Celtic interlude too). And throughout there are flourishes of electric guitar that remind me of the Jacks' Bob Mannell. In fact, could that be Mr Mannell's guitar playing on the last (uncredited) track?

Since Strange Sea is not readily available in the megastores, a limited quantity is available through the Roaring Jack Archives. Please email us for details. Alternatively, you can get a copy at Steph Miller's gigs.

15 November 2006

A Division Of The Roaring Jack Archives

Welcome to 21st Century Reviews! This blog is linked to the Roaring Jack Archives, and replaces my old reviews page.

I will be starting with some older reviews previously appearing on the old site, before getting on with some all-new reviews of all-new releases.

We're always looking for material to review, and for musically sympathetic souls who might like to contribute some reviews of their own. Let me know if you're interested!

All reviews are by Andy Carr unlessotherwise noted.