Sunday, September 11, 2011

CD review: All in the Golden Afternoon by Caitlin Harnett

I absolutely loved Caitlin Harnett's debut EP, Tiny Spark, but somehow missed the release of her second, All in the Golden Afternoon. Happily I'm now in possession of a copy and there's more love.

Caitlin's voice is wonderful, and on Golden Afternoon it displays its ability to be both vulnerable and strident, particularly on 'Into the Wild'; the strident quality - well, it's more probably more a developing confidence - was lurking on Tiny Spark but is more to the fore now, which is appropriate given that she was about 17 (from memory) when Tiny Spark was released.

Caitlin's 'lost love' songs are wistful, and never bitter. They betray their author as a dreamer, and one who doesn't let disappointment get her down for long. She can be sad but doesn't let it develop into misery. I haven't successfully put either of her CDs on in the background - I always want to listen to what Caitlin's singing (her lovely enunciation makes this very easy).

Golden Afternoon is a progression from Tiny Spark, as it should be - musically these songs are more fleshed out, no doubt because there's more of a band behind them. Tiny Spark was more delicate, and charming with it. Golden Afternoon sounds like it should be half of an album: it's a mature song cycle with some muscle behind it, and the siren's voice still calling us closer.

Caitlin's EPs are independently released - you can buy them via her website or on iTunes.

Friday, September 9, 2011

CD review: The Harrow & the Harvest by Gillian Welch

It's taken me a long time to listen to a Gillian Welch album, and even then it's been because it's a gift from one of my favourite people, and fellow country music enthusiast, Lucy Lehmann.

My first encounter with Gillian Welch was on Ryan Adams's first solo album, Heartbreaker. I have flirted with her own songs since then but never bought an album because, well, there's a lot of great music out there and I can't buy it all. Thanks to Lucy, though, I'm likely to invest in the Welch back catalogue because The Harrow & the Harvest is a very fine piece of work.

The opening track, 'Scarlet Town', is both swampy and fugue-like, and in a way sets the rhythm for the rest of the record.

'Dark Turn of Mind' sounds like its subject matter, with oddly sweet harmonies. It is lonesome and blue without the sad. These harmonies appear throughout the album and give a depth to the whole record that it doesn't sound like it needs but which it would be lacking without.

The lulling, rolling pace of the third track, 'The Way it Will Be', drew me in even when I had it on in the background, trying to concentrate on some work. But I couldn't ignore it - it's almost hypnotic.

There's then a considerable shift to the toughness of 'The Way it Goes'. The lyrics indicate regret - 'that's the way that it is/though there was a time when all of us were friends' - but Gillian's voice is unforgiving.

In turn that tough tone yields to the dirge-like 'Tennessee' and beyond, into musical swamplands that aren't at all swampy. The record is redolent of banjoes and backhoes, of hard times, but when she sings 'hard times ain't gonna rule my mind no more', we believe her. That extraordinary voice is full of light.

And it is Gillian's voice that is perhaps the main reason for buying the album. You'd follow that voice into any tale it wants to tell, down uncertain trails and into harsh homes, then out into the fields and sunlight once more.

Gillian Welch, The Harrow & the Harvest (Acony, 2011)

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

CD review: Bad Machines by Shane Nicholson

By the time Shane Nicholson released Bad Machines, I'd become hooked on his voice - it has a soothing quality that means that even if I'm not listening to all the words he's singing, I feel somewhat lulled into a nice, cosy state of being. Which is not to suggest that his lyrics are all hearts and flowers; they're not.

The standout track on this album - for me, at least - is 'The Broken Things'. It's spare and a little creepy, but also reassuring. Our narrator may 'like all the broken things' but there's also a sense that he likes them because he can fix them. When I saw Shane play at Notes Live in Sydney earlier this year, he said that he'd asked his wife, Kasey Chambers, to record a guide vocal for the harmony on the track, with the intention of turning it over to Sheryl Crow to sing. Except Sheryl - with whom he toured the US a few years ago - never answered his emails, so Kasey is who we hear on the record. These two have been singing together so well for so long now that it's hard to imagine how Shane would have thought anyone else could have suited the song.

'The Broken Things' is atypical of the album, which sees Shane planting his boots firmly in the country camp. This is a natural evolution from 2008's Familar Ghosts, although sometimes it seems there's hardly a trace of the Shane Nicholson who created It's a Movie in 2004. That's good and fitting, though - this man is no musical slouch, and one can hardly expect him to keep doing the same thing over and over.

So Bad Machines is generally an upbeat, up-tempo country/roots collection of songs, with some lyrics that are kinda silly and others that display his hallmark ability to break the listener's heart. I can't say that it's my favourite album of Shane's, but I listen to it a lot anyway. I've realised that I'll buy any CD that he releases, because every single one of his solo albums (and Rattlin' Bones, for that matter) is fantastic - it's just that some are more fantastic than others.

Shane Nicholson, Bad Machines (Essence/Liberation, 2011)
Also available on iTunes

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

CD review: Familiar Ghosts by Shane Nicholson

I should have reviewed this album in 2008 but better late than never ...

When Kasey Chambers married Shane Nicholson, I'd barely heard of him; the cynical amongst us might suggest that we would never have heard of him otherwise anyway, but I refuse to believe that, because Shane is one of the greatest singer-songwriters and performers working today. He is hugely talented and quietly understated, two qualities which are prevalent in the 2008 release Familiar Ghosts.

Shane plays all the instruments on this album, but it doesn't sound like a cobbled-together track-by-track effort. The songs are, necessarily, not as noisome as those on his first two solo albums, It's a Movie and Faith and Science, which were full-band efforts, but they are no less complete and, sometimes, complex as songs.

As I'm fond of a slightly sad, if not wistful, ballad, my two favourite songs are the melancholy 'Summer Dress' (which Shane has said started off as a murder ballad and then turned into a missing-girl ballad) and the somewhat nihilistic 'Long Time Coming'. They are the most down-tempo songs on the album, though, and that probably says more about my tastes than Shane's songwriting inclinations.

Certainly, there is plenty of rock and groove here ('Who's At Your Window', 'Easy Now'), and some up-tempo tunes too ('Where the Water Goes', 'God and Elvis'). It's a well-rounded collection and a nice segue from Shane's two earlier albums to his latest, Bad Machines. It's an album I keep going back to, as are all Shane's albums, as there's always something else to find there.

Shane Nicholson, Familiar Ghosts (Essence/Liberation, 2008)
Now available on iTunes

Exciting end to 2011

It's been so long since I posted anything here that I'm not going to make excuses. I'm just going to start afresh.

And what's motivated me to start afresh is the prospect of three incredibly exciting CD releases in September and October. The first is Handfuls of Sky, the second album from Harmony James, who is, without a doubt, an outstanding songwriter and whose first album, Tailwind, is still on high rotation in my home.

There's also a looming new release - if not new songs - from Kasey Chambers. Her next effort is Storybook, an album of cover songs. If you've ever seen Kasey perform live, you'll know she loves doing a cover, and she does them very well, so even though there are no new Kasey songs, I can't wait to hear this one.

Last but not least, there's Ryan Adams's Ashes & Fire, due in October.

A not-forthcoming but, in fact, recently issued release is Karl Broadie's 'mini album', One Constellation, a collection of tunes recorded here and there which he has brought together and released on iTunes ahead of a new studio album.

So there's a huge amount to be excited about over the next few weeks. I'm trying to decide whether I wait for Ryan and buy all the albums at once, in some grand exercise in patience, or get them as they come out, because I'm just too impatient. Only time will tell.