Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Album review: Thieves by Tracy McNeil & The GoodLife

Thieves – not Tracy McNeil's first album but her first with band The GoodLife – opens with an invitation in the form of a song called 'The Valley'. The music, Tracy's voice, the pace of the song all beckon the listener to come closer. The song suggests that good things await if the listener will just hang around; they'll be fun things, interesting things, perhaps beautiful things.

That song doesn't lie, for Thieves is all of those. That's not to say that all the songs are like 'The Valley'. In fulfilling its promise, McNeil and her band deploy a range of moods, stories and instrumentation to deliver an album that has moments of musical exquisiteness as well as of toe-tapping joy.

McNeil's influences range across country, rock, pop and folk; she seems to be able to intuit what's right for each song without forcing any phrase or lyric, chorus or bridge into an awkward place. All the pieces fit just where they should and not always where you'd expect. For one thing, McNeil is a Canadian now resident in Melbourne, but this album has a distinctly Californian feel to it: a sonic illustration of canyons, winding roads and convertibles, deserts and palms.

One of the reasons why this laidback feel never slides into laziness is McNeil's voice: she sounds like a person who's not interested in wasting time, or in spending time on things that aren't important. Her tone is mellow yet direct; there is depth and empathy. She's there to entertain and to tell a story. She sounds like she could stop at any moment to crack a great joke or share a sad tale, and both would be appropriate.

Thieves has layers that reveal themselves with repeated listening, and it can also serve as an album to float away on. McNeil's experience as a singer, songwriter and performer – and the high calibre of her band – have resulted in a creation of easy complexity: a contradiction in terms, and a wonder to behold.

Thieves is released on 1 July 2016 on SlipRail Records through MGM Distribution.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Album review: The Wayside Ballads Vol 2 by Bill Jackson

When an album opens with a song called 'Pink Jesus', one can presume that things will get interesting fairly quickly, and Bill Jackson lives up to his promise on this collection of eleven songs that incorporate musical and lyrical traditions of folk and country music. That said, there's some lovely dobro playing by Pete Fidler that swings the needle more towards country - but both audiences would be very pleased with this album.

Jackson's voice is direct and honest - he delivers his stories straight to the audience and it is clear that he has respect for both. And there are plenty of good stories to be found here. As the name of the album suggests, they're mostly ballads, although musically they don't all follow that pattern. 

Amongst the highlights are 'Gippsland Boy', a plaintive song of the land and one man's history that could just us easily have emerged from Slim Dusty, at a different pace and probably not as sweet, but that same grasp of storytelling is there. 

'Every Day's a Drinkin' Day' has a title that could belong to a few different country artists but the song is not about the glories of beer - it's about a man with a 'big feather in his hat/nothin' in his case/cheap, dirty white guitar/glazed eyes and weathered face' whose 'every song's a trainwreck but it buys another beer'.

Jackson is a man who observes the details and avoids making pronouncements. He honours the subjects of his stories and, in doing so, honours the people listening to them. This is an album for people who like their country music straight up, no ice, and want to sip it slowly. 

The Wayside Ballads Vol 2 is out now.

Monday, June 6, 2016

EP review: Hellfire & Amazing Grace by Ethan Crump

If I wasn’t already keen on Georgia native Ethan Crump’s debut EP by the time the first song was a few bars old, I certainly would have been by the third and fourth tracks, ‘Mary Ann’ and ‘Mason County Blues’, which are delicate pieces of country music songwriting and singing that suggest a lifetime of experience rather than Crump’s nineteen years on Earth. They also suggest the restraint typical of someone who has written enough songs to know what to leave out – except apparently he only started writing in 2015.

Too often a young or new artist, nervous that they might never get another chance, will want to show the audience what they have: all the stories, all the tricks, all the verbal gymnastics. Crump suffers from none of this. He clearly has a strong storytelling instinct that he follows all the way through the five songs on this EP. There is not a single note of doubt about what he is doing, nor is there insecurity – he doesn’t demand attention but, rather, commands it.

The songs are identifiably country music; they feature judicious use of traditional instruments that allows Crump’s voice to deliver his stories, and either he has naturally great diction or he’s made sure that he sings clearly so that his stories are given the best possible chance to be heard.

Some of the early press about Crump has him as ‘the real deal’. Yes, he is. He’s also an artist whose work is worth savouring. There’s enough shade in here to break your heart and enough light to keep you coming back for more. 

Hellfire & Amazing Grace is out now. 

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Album review: Deep Dark Savage Heart by Melody Pool

When Melody Pool released her debut album, The Hurting Scene, in 2013 it felt like a new seam of gold had been discovered in the hills of the Hunter Valley. Hailing from the small town of Kurri Kurri, Pool had honed her talent young and produced a record of incredible beauty and maturity.

She doesn’t live in Kurri Kurri any more, but Pool’s musical output is not, apparently, defined by where she lives because she has produced a second album that has obvious roots in The Hurting Scene yet is quite different – and just as beautiful.

The direct descendants of Deep Dark Savage Heart seem to be the lines ‘What a waste I am/What a waste I am indeed’ from the second song of The Hurting Scene, ‘Open Book’. The lines are incongruous in that song, which otherwise sounds poignantly evocative. The lineage is picked up in 'Black Dog', the fifth song of the new album, which is the centrepiece of this extraordinary, compelling piece of work; it’s there in the line ‘Nobody sees what I do to me’. ‘Black Dog’ is dramatic where ‘Open Book’ almost wants to hide from itself, but the development signals that Pool is ready, finally, to accept what is obvious: she is a major talent, and she should get dramatic about herself. She should stand on pedestals and command attention; she should trust that what she is offering is valuable and rare.

If The Hurting Scene was a mature effort from a young woman, Deep Dark Savage Heart is a sophisticated production from a proper grown-up. Pool’s voice is deeper and richer than it was on the first album, although no less capable of the sweetnesses that were evident on that album.

I wrote of the The Hurting Scene that it made me almost immediately want to lie down and wonder what on earth had just happened. Deep Dark Savage Heart had the same impact. I’ve still never recovered from the first album, I don’t expect to recover from the second, and that’s the privilege of living in a world that produces an artist like this. Melody Pool is a gift. 

Deep Dark Savage Heart is out now through Mushroom.