Monday, November 24, 2014

Album review: Weightless by Matt Andersen

Matt Andersen is not a country artist - it's important to state that, as this is a country music blog. But it's also impossible to ignore Andersen's music and voice. From the first song on his latest album, Breathless, Andersen commands attention. His stated genre is blues; however, it seems as though 'soul' could just as easily be applied, simply because Andersen has a lot of it. There is depth and grit and feeling on these songs, and a sense of flow from one track to the next that makes the album an almost hypnotic listening experience.

Andersen hails from the Maritime Provinces of Canada - New Brunswick, to be specific - and it's not hard to imagine that he's had access to some of the rich Scottish and Irish musical traditions that are vibrantly alive in that region thanks to the calibre of musicians working there. There is history in his voice - and not just because he sings with such authority that he sounds like he's about fifty years older than he actually is - and also a sense of ease at being a singer and bandleader. No musician - no songwriter - emerges from a vacuum, and Andersen sounds like the rightful inheritor of a whole lot of blues and folk traditions that have shaped him and his songs. Those traditions are in very safe hands.

Breathless (True North Records) is out now.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

EP review: After It's Said & Done by Faith Evans Ruch

Tennesseean Faith Evans Ruch seems like she harks from a bygone era of American country music: the era when melancholy was allowed without transforming itself into whingeing; when a knockout voice was left alone to impress and wasn't annihilated by meaningless lyrics. Too harsh an assessment? Maybe. Or maybe I've just heard enough overproduced tracks to become weary. Which is why Evans Ruch sounds like an antidote and a respite all at the same time.

Having said that, her voice is actually such a knockout in terms of power, range, versatility and nuance that her simple accompaniment on this EP - an acoustic guitar - actually doesn't sound strong enough. She needs more, because she deserves more. She sounds like she should have a big band - of that Big Band era - because that's as many instruments as it will take to match her. This is not meant to sound like a complaint - because it's not; it's an encouragement, hopefully, to any lurking ambitious big band leaders out there to track her down and really bring back that bygone era. There aren't a lot of voices around like this - not just accomplished but distinctive. And that's a persuasive reason to listen to anything Evans Ruch produces.

After It's Said & Done is out now.

Album review: Prairieography by Del Barber

I almost reviewed this album before seeing Canadian singer-songwriter Del Barber play live in Sydney recently. Now I'm glad I didn't, because his live performance just confirmed what I thought I was hearing on the album: an artist who is able to marry tradition and modern interpretations of country in a way that honours his musical lineage, lacks cliche, and entertains, amuses and moves the listener. Live, Barber gives full expression to the stories behind the songs - and, in some of them, weaves that story into the song itself - but these songs stand up on their own on the album.

On stage, Barber said that most of his songs are not about him - he is telling stories and taking on characters. Barber is from the prairies and the album's title, Prairieography, suggests that it's a chronicle of prairie life. And there is quite an assortment of tales in that chronicle, from stolen, ahem, romantic moments in a motel room ('Peter and Jenny Lee') to a hard life on the prairies ('Big Smoke') to trying to get out of marrying a 'country girl', with a range of experiences in between. Barber's voice adapts to its message - he can carry heavy emotion and in another song sound like he's singing everything with a wink and a smile. In some ways he's reminiscent of one of Shakespeare's fools: travelling around to entertain people, seeing everything, understanding all, judging not a once. And all of his within the context of true respect and understanding of country music traditions, both Canadian and American.

Prairieography is an album that may sound like a good ol' boy's effort on first listening but it has lyrical and musical complexity that really deserves repeated, long-term listening. Barber wasn't in Australia for many shows - may he come back soon.

Prairieography (True North Records) is out now.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Interview: Del Barber

Canadian singer-songwriter Del Barber's latest album, Prairieography, is a glorious collection of stories told in music and song, and Del is bringing those stories to Australia. Ahead of his short tour (and may he come back soon), Del kindly answered some questions via email. 

Your music honours the lineage of country music - both American and Canadian. Who were the first country music artists you loved?
 I grew up listening to Johnny Cash, Ian Tyson, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens and Loretta Lynn, Pasty Cline and Hoyt Axton. I don't think I realized how much I loved them, and how much they influenced me until my adult life. Throughout my teen years I was obsessed with songwriters from the 60's like Dylan and Van Ronk, and somehow through them I became introduced to Texas songwriting, which brought me back into country music with a fever.

Your voice sounds like it was made for country music, but did you ever flirt with other genres?
Thanks!  I have always fancied myself a country singer; others have designated what I do as folk or as indie - whatever that means! When I was young I played in punk bands.  It's all music and I do love it all, but country just seems to fit me better than everything else.

Unlike a lot of traditional country music, most of your songs are upbeat - does making music make you happy?
I really want to give people a sense of hope in my songs.  I'm a pretty positive person overall and I want my songs to reflect that positivity.

You hail from the prairies and, of course, there's another well-known prairies artist who got her start in country music: kd lang. How much of a country music culture is there in the prairie provinces? And in Canada in general?
The music culture in the Canadian Prairies is rich!  Country music especially.  Most of the prairies are relatively unpopulated. Cultures of farming and work seem to bring out songwriters and songs that want to tell those stories. 

Your music has a real sense of place - almost like you're standing on a street corner telling stories to passers-by. Are you in a particular kind of mindset when you record, to evoke that sense of place?
I work hard at writing good narrative.  It truly is difficult for me to get the story to come out right in the studio.  I have to try and imagine people are listening; I have to try and convince them to keep listening.  I try and keep the studio lighting dim and I try to take over the studio with things that make me comfortable. I always try and have family around, good food and a team that want to make a good record as much as I do.

There's always a balance to be struck between being on the road, playing for your audience, and then writing new songs for that audience. Are you able to write on the road or do you need time on your own for that?
I do write while I'm on the road, but I don't know that I get anything good out. I see writing as a practice. Something I have to try and do it every day regardless of how I feel about it.  So yeah, I'm always writing, but my best songs are writing while at home when I have the space to digest and reflect on everything. When things slow down it seems easier to get my ideas on paper.

You work with Bill Western as your steel player, and both of you produced Prairieography - how did that relationship come about?
I've been friends with Bill for at least 6 years now.  He was the only pedal steel player I had heard of living in Winnipeg, where I used to live, so I sought him out to play some shows with me here and there. Since that first show, I've grown to respect him as a person and I've fallen in love with his playing. I think he really knows how to serve the song.

Wednesday November 19
The Melbourne Folk Club
With C.R. Avery
Bella Union, Level 1 Trades Hall
Corner Lygon + Victoria Sts, Carlton
$18 + bf members / $20 + bf non-members
$23 / $25 door sales
Doors 7.30pm
Thursday November 20
Brighton Up Bar
With Fanny Lumsden
1/77 Oxford St Darlinghurst
Ph: 02 9361 3379
Tickets $15 /$20 door sales
Doors 8pm
November 22 – 23
Mullum Music Festival QLD
November 28 – December 21
Festival of Small Halls
December 27 – January 01
Woodford Folk Festival QLD