Band of the month – 2016 archive
Hard Swimmin’ Fish have got some flippin’ good taste in music : Muddy Waters, Son House, Howlin’ Wolf. On their new album they even take on a song made famous by the mighty Howlin’ Wolf himself – and succeed in kicking some ass :
Hard Swimmin’ Fish – Howlin’ for my Darlin’
Singer Demien Lewis claims responsibility for the band name : “I have this stepfather, and he is kind of a one-of-a-kind individual. He and I did home improvement work together. If you put in a good day’s work, he’d look around, and say, ‘Man, you are one hard-swimmin’ fish!’ We liked the sound of that.” Demien is joined by Waverly Milor on blues harmonica and vocals, Randy Ball on upright bass and bass guitar, and drummer Jason Walker. Demien, Randy and Jason had been playing together in Maryland for several years already before becoming Hard Swimmin’ Fish, and the quartet was completed when Waverly joined then in 2008. The band was working hard, but money was tight :
“We recorded our first album on a portable studio in the t-shirt warehouse in which Randy worked, with one microphone in the centre of the band. And it came out pretty killer! We moved up in the world and built (out of mud and straw, no less!) a studio building at Randy’s house … It was there that we recorded our second album … Our third album was recorded live at the old train station in Shepherdstown.”
Then for album four, One Step Forward (2014), they brought in a producer, Mitch Easter, who got what they were trying to do, and helped them create that lo-fi old-timey sound. With the band now writing most of their own songs, the album title seemed pretty appropriate.
True Believer (2016) was financed by crowdfunding.
“Because we want all of your contributions to go directly into the creation of the album we’ve stuck to our DIY mentality and produced this campaign without outside costs, doing all the storyboarding, filming, editing, and copywriting ourselves. The cost of album art is taken care of using the incredible talents of our own Randy Ball … We’re heading into the studio well prepared …”
The album’s packed with great driving blues tracks on which Easter has again worked his magic; the vocals sound so rootsy and authentic that you wouldn’t believe this has only just been recorded :
Hard Swimmin’ Fish – Come Together
Hard Swimmin’ Fish – Mess Around
The band show their versatility with the soul classic Need Your Love So Bad and the gospel blues Don’t let the Devil Ride. But it’s perhaps in the original songs that the band’s character comes out most strongly, as they take a cynical but lighthearted view of male / female relations. This is the title track :
Hard Swimmin’ Fish – True Believer
Aziza Brahim – Baraka
A testament to the part played by women in the liberation struggle
Aziza Brahim – Buscando La Paz
On the desire for peace
Aziza Brahim – Los muros
“The lyrics morph from condemning the sand fortifications Morocco has erected along the Western Saharan border (to prevent the return of the Saharawi to their homeland), to a recognition that while walls are tragically universal, so is the imaginative spirit that encourages us to transcend them.”
It’s dirty, lowdown bass-heavy blues music. What makes Husky Burnette’s latest album stand out though apart from his own deep growling voice is its groove. This is something he learned about listening to the classics as a kid – “Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Junior Walker & the Allstars … I listen to them, and all I hear is dirty, nasty grooves and boogie, in one way or the other. So in a lot of my songs I try to go for that feeling and groove. It’s got to have a groove.”
Husky’s from Chattanooga, Tennessee where he grew up among a family of musicians – the singer Johnny Burnette was his grandfather’s cousin. But being a musician wasn’t something that he just fell into. For a few years he was moving from job to job, living hard, not thinking too much about where he’d end up. He’s been a full time musician for about ten years now, spending a lot of time on the road, trying to build up a following. In 2013 he signed with the Rusty Knuckles label, and they seem to have hit it off well, it’s been good for his career.
The new album’s called Ain’t Nothin’ but a Revival, and to keep it short, we need some more revivals like this. While all his old stuff is excellent this is Husky at the top of his game, everything seems to come together. The songs below are all from here. Already though Husky has his mind on future projects. On facebook this week he posted that “Me, Sweet GA Brown and Tom Hughes (Hellstomper/Polecat Boogie Revival) are in the process of recording an album. No band behind us, just 3 guys, 3 guitars and 6 songs of some boogie! We each picked two songs, an original and a cover, and we play lead/rhythm guitars and sing backup vocals on each other’s songs. Most of the tracking is done so keep an eye out for more details on the EP !”
Husky Burnette – Dog Me Down
Lovers quarrel between Husky and guest vocalist Bethany Kidd of the River City Hustlers
Husky Burnette – Southbound / High Head
“Southbound was a last minute tune I wrote right before we hit the studio and it’s one of the most stomping rock & roll songs I’ve recorded.”
Husky Burnette – Pay By The Hour
The longest track on the album – but I want them to keep jamming for ten minutes more ! Listen to that harmonica wail !
Husky Burnette – Best I Can
The guitar riffs tell you plenty about Husky’s love of heavy rock music, but if you pay attention you’ll see that this is quality songwriting as well.
Listen to The Bottled Spirits and you’ll know immediately they’re only in it for the love of the music, they don’t care about ticking any boxes or sounding a particular way. And that’s all part of their charm.
The Bottled Spirits – Red Shanghai
They’re from Long Beach, California and there are five in the band : guitar, accordion, banjo, ukulele and upright bass. They were formed by indie rock musician Hernan Serna who decided one day in 2013 that he wanted to “play some bluegrass jams with my buddies”. It may sound a little mad, but they found it made perfect sense. They’d grown up with all kinds of different music, with the idea that there were no barriers where music was concerned. They also had a sense of history : they knew that California’s music, like its industries, had been created by immigrants. Bluegrass music had migrated west from the Blue Ridge mountains of North Carolina, just as cowboy music and folk music had wandered west before it, often by men with little to their name except the guitar on their backs. One or two of the band had parents who were Mexican immigrants, they’d seen how norteno and ranchera had caught on in California, and to them this was just the same thing.
Moonshiner is one of my favourite traditional songs, and the band really do it justice :
The Bottled Spirits – Moonshiner
The songs are from their self titled debut album, released last month. Not only can the band knock out a good tune, they know how to write a damn punchy line :
The Bottled Spirits – Refund Line of Love
In 2014 The Bottled Spirits were on the bill at the Long Beach Folk Revival Festival, and they’re fast becoming favourites round the Long Beach scene. What you’ll hear at their gigs is an eclectic mix of roots influences, all delivered with the same joy and energy. This is The Bottled Spirits in nerteno mode:
The Bottled Spirits – Promised Land
and in jug band mode :
The Bottled Spirits – Hezekiah
After years of battling his personal demons, it seems that now he’s got himself together nothing can contain Ross Wilson, better known as Blue Rose Code. It’s like he’s got so much to express, it’s all coming out in a flood of soul-baring songs. Just three years after his debut album, And Lo! The Bird is on the Wing is his third full length album, and he’s also released a few EPs during that time. And every one of his releases comes strongly recommended.
Wilson was born in Edinburgh, where he was raised by his grandmother on a council estate. These were tough years, he developed a taste alcohol and drugs, but he also found a love of music – “As soon as I started singing other people’s songs, I wanted to write my own. Their lyrics were about their own situations and problems and didn’t express mine.”
He moved to London to discover himself, and to give his songwriting a chance. Blue Rose Code were getting some good reviews, but Wilson was sinking deeper and deeper into substance abuse. Finally he felt he had to stop playing. For a year and a half he never picked up his guitar. When he returned to music, it was with a new focus.
The opening track on the album is an abridged version of Grateful, released a few months back as a single. For the video, Wilson asked fans to send in examples of what ‘Grateful’ meant to them. The edited result is truly moving.
Though it’s the songwriting that makes the songs truly special, there’s much to admire in the artfully constructed arrangements in which bass, violin, cello and trumpet drift in and out. Listen out too for a spoken word cameo by Blue Rose Code fan Ewan McGregor in Glasgow Rain.
Wilson clearly puts a lot of himself into the songs, but he’s learned that you can’t make a career by writing songs about the social problems of council estates. His songs are powerful in part because so many people can identify with the feelings that he expresses, whether it be regret about lost love (Pokesdown Waltz) or hopes of future love (Love). His schedule is busy the next couple of months, touring round the UK, and if you manage to get to one of the gigs you’re sure to see evidence of the love and reverence that audiences have for his songs – and also for Ross Wilson himself; something it seems that he’s slowly coming to understand and to accept : “I’ve never been cool, never been good looking and, for me, I have a relationship with the people who come to my shows that, I believe people are looking for. You’ll get honesty and authenticity, if more recognition means more people coming to shows then I’m delighted.”
Blue Rose Code – Pokesdown Waltz
Blue Rose Code – Favourite Boy
Blue Rose Code – Love
I respect a singer who’s seen a large slice of life. And Cam Penner seems to meet that qualification :
Cam Penner hails from a Mennonite community in Southern Manitoba, where his parents, the town rebels, ran an illegal roadhouse and his grandfather, a bootlegger, delivered his goods to the rural community bringing much needed remedy. Growing up in small towns in both Manitoba and Saskatchewan, Penner found an appreciation for common people’s stories. He left at nineteen for Chicago where he ran a soup kitchen and worked at a women shelter. These experiences ignited a passion for social justice and after moving back to Canada, Cam continued working with the homeless for the next thirteen years.
Sometimes, he says, “I feel the thousands of souls I’ve listened to are people living inside of me, telling their tales.” Writing songs was just something that he had to do. And in Jon Wood he found the perfect musical partner : someone who knew how to work a song, give it structure and layers, and bring Cam’s stories to life. Recorded in ten days in Cam’s own remote handbuilt recording studio, self-produced and self-released, Sex & Politics is the duo’s sixth full length album. And believe me, this is a proper album. They’re not just strumming a few tunes. The ten songs contain a broad palette of music styles, and many of these are songs that have a real timeless quality to them : it helps that Cam is just as powerful and convincing whether he’s singing rock and roll or a plaintive love song. This is an album that will sound just as good in 20 years time.
Sadly my timing’s not great : they just finished their UK tour last week.
Cam Penner – Broke Down
A slow tender ballad in which Cam delivers an unexpected falsetto
Cam Penner – Bring Forth the Healing
My favourite track : handclaps, chants, invoking the spirits : raw, edgy stuff
Cam Penner – Can’t Afford the Blues
Slow-burn folk country lament
Cam Penner – Come Back to Me
Pounding out a country rock anthem with confidence and a voice cracking with emotion
The creative genius behind the project that is Junun is Shye Ben Tzur, a man full of surprises. Born in New York city, his family emigrated to Israel when he was four years old. Listening to a concert of Indian music in Jerusalem would provide a spark that would transform his life, leading him to spend years studying Indian classical music, to setting up a second home in India, and most astonishingly, to compose qawwali devotional music and to write lyrics for it in Hebrew. He’s released a couple of solo albums and composed music for TV and film.
One day he received a phone call from a mutual friend : Jonny Greenwood, the Radiohead guitarist, liked his music and wondered if he was interested in meeting up ? The meeting went well, but nothing came of it right away. Some time after they played together at a concert, and the creative buzz from this was what persuaded them to do a project together.
And so Shye and Jonny hooked up in Jodhpur, in the heart of Rajasthan, where over a three week period the album was recorded in a makeshift studio inside the 15th-century Mehrangarh Fort. The Rajasthan Express are no ordinary backing group : Shye’s local knowledge must have come in handy, because these are 19 musicians of the highest quality and covering several disciplines.
The magic of the album can only be fully appreciated by listening right through – which Spotify makes possible. But for those whose time is limited, a very brief guide. The title track Junun kicks off the album with trumpet, heavy drumbeat, and a first taste of Sufi chanting. On Junun Brass and Julus the brass orchestra take the lead with some exhilarating dance music; while on Hu and Ahuvi the strings dominate, setting a more reflective mood. Eloah is almost entirely a vocal track. I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point. Shye’s lyrics are in Hebrew, Hindi and Urdu. “Indian music is so vast and so deep,” he says, “the more I learn different things about it, I realize how ignorant I was. It just doesn’t stop.” I can second that.
Shye Ben Tzur, Jonny Greenwood & The Rajasthan Express – Junun
Paul Thomas Anderson has made a film of the making of the album, and Nonesuch have released a video taken from the film which shows the ensemble performing the track Hu.