Lasers Lasers Birmingham

Warning

Lasers Lasers Birmingham

2019

What constitutes a country music album in 2019? How about twenty, or forty years ago? Would the answer be the same? In 1979, the CMA pegged Kenny Roger’s album The Gambler as album of the year, while the award for single of the year went to the Charlie Daniels Band’s The Devil Went Down to Georgia. Go back another ten years to when we last set foot on the moon and Nixon was just in the White House, and those same CMA awards went to Johnny Cash’s At San Quentin album and his single A Boy Named Sue. The CMA award for female vocalist of the year in ’69 and ’79 were Tammy Wynette and Crystal Gayle respectively. No one is going to argue with you about the country credentials of Tammy Wynette or Johnny Cash, but what about the countrypolitan pop stylings of Crystal Gayle or Kenny Rogers? Times, tastes and styles change, in country music as much as anywhere else, thankfully.

The man behind the moniker - Alex Owen is Lasers Lasers Birmingham

LA-based Alex Owen is not exactly a country singer, in the way that Gram Parsons was not really a country singer, at least not like George Jones or Ernest Tubb were country singers. That doesn’t mean that his new Lasers Lasers Birmingham album, Warning, is not a country album, in the way that Grievous Angel was, without doubt. There’s steel, fiddle and tele-twang aplenty backing up Owen’s 21st century country rock styling, stoned waltzes and honky tonk laments, ticking the boxes on instrumentation and time signatures. Lyrically, these songs lean towards the cosmic end of the country rock spectrum, with a subtle world-weariness bordering on acceptance of the half empty glass that is life today. As Owen  puts it, nobody’s asking for perfection, but it can’t hurt to approach it, surely. Lasers Lasers Birmingham doesn’t try to reinvent any wheels here, or to set them on fire. In fact, there is enough heart worn on the LLB sleeve to recognise the touchstones and guess at the record collection  this sound has coalesced from, the albums and artists that Owen tends towards; particularly Parsons, potentially Gene Clark, probably Eagles, this is Californian country rock, after all.

Warning is the first full-length album from LLB, and the country rock setting for the songs suits Owen’s material well, as does the loving production of Jason Soda (who has worked with a couple of other WP favourites,  Gospel BeacH (a great live band to see, fronted by Brent Redemaker of Beechwood Sparks) and Miranda Lee Richards, on her lovely album Existential Beast). There was a four track EP, Royal Blue, released in 2016, which shows the direction Lasers Lasers Birmingham was moving in to get to this current album. It is interesting to compare the title track, Warning, with the version from 2014, where the sound is not country rock at all, rather a slightly baroque pop, more a cross between the Beach Boys and Pink Floyd  than the Flying Burrito Brothers. You can check out this early version on Bandcamp.

The Royal Blue EP form 2016

Warning is no pastiche of the past, mind you. This album is a very modern take on the classic formula, a record that deserves repeat listening, packed full of melody as it is, hooks to hold you, until it makes you reach for that battered copy of GP. Alex Owen has created a sound of his own using the same ingredients his favourite artists have used for decades, but his is a modern sound, one that should chime with a broad audience, if there’s any justice. Warning is a country record that should appeal to fans of Bon Iver as well as fans of Bobby Bare, and that’s no mean feat.

Tony Sexton

The Chris Robinson Brotherhood

CRB Album Cover.jpg




Betty's Midwestern Magick Blends Vol. 4

 Silver Arrow

 2018

There are two bands it's hard not to mention when talking about the Chris Robinson Brotherhood. One is, of course, the Black Crowes, the group Chris Robinson formed with his brother Rich, a band that brought some much-needed roll to the 90's rock scene before their volatile relationship and sibling rivalry finally became too much for both to continue in the same outfit. The other is the Grateful Dead, who's example of constant touring, while changing the set list every night for their travelling fans, and then releasing those shows on a multitude of live recording, seems to have been taken as an instruction manual of how a modern band can not only survive, but prosper on their own terms in this age of something-for-nothing streaming services.

 

The Grateful Dead references don't end there, either. This live recording, and several others CRB have released on their own label, Silver Arrow, since 2013, was captured by the legendary Betty Cantor-Jackson, a recording engineer who taped hundreds of Grateful Dead concerts during Garcia & co.'s peak years. Her ability to capture the magic(k) of a band in full flight has certainly not faded with time.

 

This set kicks off with rolling ivories, heralding Forever As The Moon, a keyboard line that bares more than a passing resemblance to the intro of the Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker). The snaking slide guitar of Neal Casal that soon accompanies the piano vamp does nothing to dispel the Stones comparisons, although the lyrical poetry owes more to Dylan than Jagger in this instance. In fact, most of the tracks selected here represent the more rootsy side of CRB's recent output. Psychedelic interludes and flourishes still remain, though, and the bands ability to stretch out and jam is shown off to fine effect, especially on the barnstorming 11-minute version of the Jerry Leiber-penned, southern soul hit, Down Home Girl, originally recorded by Alvin Robinson. Peppered with some deliciously funky Sly Stone clavinet, it would almost be worth the price of the concert ticket just to see this performed live. The yearning cowboy melodies of Shadow Cosmos follows, then lead on to possibly their biggest song yet, the epic Narcissus Soaking Wet. A-10 minute monster jam that definitively answers the question "What would it have sounded like if Pink Floyd and Stevie Wonder had got it together in their mid-70's pomp. Robinson spits out a couple of bad-ass honking harmonica solos before Neal Casal lets rip with a stratospheric guitar solo.

 

Casal originally started off playing for Rickey Medlockes' southern rockers Blackfoot, before making a name for himself in Ryan Adams backing band the Cardinals. Apart from his role in CRB, he also currently plays with Hard Working Americans, The Skiffle Players and Circles Around the Sun. His quality guitar playing and song writing always add a real touch of class to every project he's involved in. But back to the gig, and the soul/prog experiments continue on Precious Precious. originally a hit for Jacksonville soul diva Jackie Moore and here featuring a mammoth Moog solo that I'm certain was never envisioned by the writers when the song was first composed. For Black Crowes fans yet to experience Chris Robinsons current direction, the most Marmite aspect will most likely be those keyboards. The bending analogue sythesizer lines of Adam McDougall play a prominent role in much of the music made here, which can be a shock to those used to the Humble Pie / Faces grittiness of those early Crowes releases. There can certainly be a fine line between the Mothership funk of Bernie Worrell and the theme from Grange Hill and, although the combination of sounds at first seemed like very odd bedfellows to me, I have really grown to love the qualities that sound brings. Quite often it's the grit in the oyster that elevates the CRB output into something truly unique. Another cover follows in the form of Magic Carpet Ride, a faithful, if more fleet-of-foot, rendition than the Steppenwolf original. Those feet well and truly leave the ground when the band ignite their rocket boots and launch into full wig out mode (twice!). Then it's back to the original compositions with the desert blues of Somewhere Past the Sunset, recalling Texan guitar god Joe Ely, amongst others. This is followed by a magnificent version of one of my favourite CRB tunes, New Cannonball Rag, which, at nearly 13-minutes, takes the Deadhead boogie of the studio version right out to the edge of the Solar System and back.

 

Robinson’s vocal dexterity is on fine display all throughout these recordings, but especially during It's All Over Now, Baby Blue. Most of Dylans' compositions have been covered several times and this one is no exception, yet despite the rarified company, Chris more than holds his own, as the band add shades of Leon Russell to this spin on this old classic. I've always been a big fan of Robinson’s delivery, right back from when I got to see them in Manchester on their first UK tour waaay back in 1990. Considering his herbal requirements and his relentless touring schedule, his voice has survived remarkably well in a way that belies his age. The register is maybe a fraction deeper and the edges a little more grizzled, but he was, and remains, a rock singer of unique quality and soul. Backed by a band that plays with all the assurance of The Band, the audacity of the Allmans and is free of the shackles of expectation that comes with having to play songs you first wrote nearly 30 years ago, you can just tell that Robinson is right where he needs to be at this point in his career, and enjoying every minute of it. You can hear it in the assured delivery of the last two CRB compositions, Ain't It Hard But Fair and California Hymn, and, as if to silence those blinkered old Black Crowes fans who just won't be happy unless Chris Robinson is shaking his moneymaker to a Stones back-beat, this quality collection finishes with a dynamite rendition of Let It Bleed that could only come from that wily old Crowe.

 Michael Hosie





 

Jesse Daniel

Jesse Daniel

Self-Released

2018

 

Now we’re talkin’! Another great self-released country album, the sort of record that takes you by surprise, barrelling around a dangerous curve at 100 mph. There’s so much to like on Jesse Daniel’s eponymous debut; the songs are strong, the production has just the right amount of grit and the vibe’s up-beat, like a Saturday night in a California roadhouse, with lashings of electric twang, witty lyrics and a real good thump to the drums. With titles like Hell Bent and Comin’ Down Again, it’s not difficult to imagine what this album has in store. That said, few new artists can tell it as straight and true as Jesse Daniel does on Soft Spot (for the Hard Stuff), a confessional of sorts. Daniel’s story of substance abuse is no mere lyrical conjuring of romantic fantasy, rather a first-hand expression of a life he has thankfully managed to escape.

Starting out as a drummer for several punk bands around his home in Ben Lomand, California (north of Santa Cruz), Daniel found himself on the road and increasingly out of his head on various substances, graduating to the queen of the main line. Life followed a pick-n-mix of rehab, jail and homelessness. Daniel’s story of how he found his path to becoming a country musician is almost prophetic. Passing by a thrift shop on his way back to a motel room for a fix, he saw a group of homeless watching a TV in the window. Stopping to see what they were watching, he heard one of the men exclaim “hey, they’re pretty good”, before realising that one of the musicians on screen was his own father. Jesse and the other men went off to fix up in another motel room, where there was a TV set in the corner playing Buck Owens singing Act Naturally. Jesse Daniel hadn’t exactly seen the light, but the seeds of his redemption had been sewn.

A few years later, while in rehab in Oakland, Jesse heard the strum and twang of someone playing a Hank Williams tune in the next room. Wandering in to investigate, he sat to listen, later making his mind up to kick his habit, lay down the needle in favour of the guitar. Daniel hdd found his path at last, eventually managing to get on his feet, save $50 to buy a battered old Fender and start writing songs.

Soft Spot (for the Hard Stuff) doesn’t pull any punches in the story it tells, as the protagonist packs his life into a glass pipe and burns it down to the ground, all to a solid outlaw groove that adds the song extra credence. It’s a sure-fire Whiskey Preachin winner, as is SR-22 Blues, an up-tempo romp of a tale of a guy who has lost his driving licence for DUI and now walks twenty miles to his SR-22, the light aircraft that has replaced his car! The Banker is another highlight on this gem of an album, like a modern-day remake of Chuck Berry’s You Never Can Tell, spinning the yarn of as banker who has been run over, resulting in thousands of dollars blowing down the street from his busted briefcase. If only…

Jessie Daniel has released a record that I expect will be at the front of the Whiskey Preachin record box for years to come. My LP copy can’t turn up soon enough.

 

Tony Sexton