21st Century Reviews

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

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.