Baby You Win
We are lucky today to be in a world where quality independent country music is the strongest it has been for decades, possibly ever. Whether you lean towards outlaw, cosmic, countrypolitan or singer-songwriter, honky tonk or bluegrass, there’s something out there for everyone. You can add Cliff Westfall’s album, Baby You Win, to that list. Packed with classic honky tonk sounds, with a production that manages to fell fresh and bygone at the same time, Baby You Win is reverential without falling into the trap of pastiche. Westfall’s lyrics are finely honed, at times wonderfully humorous, at others heart breaking, as only real a country songs can be. The press release helpfully prompts the busy reviewer that they should make some time for this album if they like Dwight Yoakam, Robbie Fulks or Rodney Crowell, and these are certainly good markers. Baby You Win does remind me of Fulks’s Georgia Hard album and Yoakam’s Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc., both albums I have gone back to time and time again, so I didn’t need much convincing.
Westfall is a son of the south, hailing from Kentucky, the bluegrass state, although he calls New York home now. His band boasts so much experience, it’s no wonder they make such a fine sound together. The roll call of artists that members of the band have played with is impressive, if not daunting; Shooter Jennings, Norah Jones, Valerie June, Laura Cantrell, Ronnie Spector, Danger Mouse, Bruce Springsteen. Add to that producer Bryce Goggin, who has worked with The Ramones, Pavement and Antony and The Johnsons, and you have some serious talent in the studio.
When deciding if an album should be reviewed here, the main considerations is whether it would fit in a Whiskey Preachin DJ set, or on the radio show. So, with that in mind, I was keen to find out if Westfall would deliver on our terms. The album gets off to a good start with a chirpy bopper, It Hurt Her to Hurt Me, followed by the twanging rock & roll of the title track, no surprise that Westfall cites Chuck Berry as a big influence. Till the Right One Comes Along drops to a shuffle, with a piano sound that brings to mind Patsy Cline, or Charlie Rich. So far, so good, all sounding very nice. I could play a lot of this on the radio, or when DJing in support of a band, but I’m not sure any of it would work in a full-on Whiskey Preachin DJ set. The next track, More and More, firms up my resolve that, while this is a solid, nice album, I won’t be needing to splash out on a vinyl copy.
Just as I think I’ve got this one pegged, the next track, Off the Wagon, kicks in. A lovely funky twang is soon under-pinned by a rolling train shuffle and an infectious guitar line that pricks my ears up immediately. As the lyrics unwind themselves, I can’t keep my smile under control, I know I’ve found a WP winner. Then the lead guitar does its thing and the steel rips it up and I’m gone. No more evidence, your honour. A couple of tunes later, I’ll Play the Fool pulls a similar stunt on me, and I’m starting to hope that this album is being pressed up on vinyl, after all. Two sure fire WP tunes earns an album a place in the record box. I’m sold, even before a third winner, The End of the Line, kicks in to make this a three-spin album, making it all but essential.
There are still two more songs to go, but, frankly, I’m happy for this baby to coast out, nice and easy, after all the hard work that has been presented so far. Well, I should know better by now, of course. Westfall closes out the twelve tracks of Baby You Win with a lovely drop of country funk, titled The Odds Were Good. That makes four solid Whiskey Preachin spins on a single album, and a body count that high raises a few eyebrows around here. But don’t get me wrong, just because there are four tracks that could happily grace any WP set, that’s not to say the rest of the album is a slouch. Far from it, this baby is packed with honky tonk goodness, from the first note to the last. Baby, we’re all winners here.
I Travel On
Old Guitar Records
A Jason Eady album is always easy on the ear and I Travel On is no different. You don’t get a huge amount of grit or rough edges from him, just well written tunes and cleverly constructed lyrics. In fact, his voice and songwriting style reminds me of early 90’s country star Clint Black, and that’s no bad thing.
If you’re new to Eady, 2014’s Daylight & Dark is especially worth checking out, a nice mix of honky tonk stormers and late-night laments, but this album takes a slight detour from his previous outings. Eady's earlier sound was fairly well set in the country-hony tonk arena, with a backbone of thoughtful acoustic tunes. ‘I Travel On’ has a more bluegrass feel to it, with a few swampy, bluesy tracks thrown in to mix it up. In fact, a couple of the songs have a Tony Joe White groove about them. Now or Never and That’s Alright especially. The more ‘present’ sound of the band also makes this feel different. In the past, Eady has sometimes felt like a solo artist working with backing musicians who are almost incidental, as if the songs were more important than the delivery. Here it sounds like a true ‘band’ effort, and adding a couple of bluegrass musicians, Grammy-nominated Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley, has also made a big impact.
The fact that the songs were captured live in one take shows the cohesiveness and skill of all concerned. The opener, Lost My Mind in Carolina, sets its stall out pretty quickly, with a melange of bluegrassy licks before Eady’s distinctive vocals kick in. It’s a lively, driving tune that leads into the swampy grind of Now or Never, with its unusual, picked-out, twangy refrain.
Eady’s wife, Courtney Patton - a brilliant songwriter and singer in her own right - joins in on backing vocals on a couple of tunes, while the band proves its credentials with some lovely licks and solos to fill out the sound. Everything flows nicely, with ballads leading into country shuffles and bluesy grooves. Below the Waterline stands out a little from the rest, with its feel of a more traditional folk song, its pace and atmosphere acting as a nice palate cleanser. Your sensibilities now soothed, you’re headed straight into the frenetic Pretty when I die, which has the energy and thrust of a full-throttle Turnpike Troubadours track.
Jason Eady delivers with a conviction and authority that has you believing that his tales are based on personal experiences. A great example of this is She had to Run, which has the feel of a more countrified Jason Isbell ballad. Eady is one of those guys who seems to just get better and better, and this album gets better each time you hear it. I Travel On offers a slightly different flavour to Eady's usual output, but one that really tickles the taste buds, for sure. Get it on the menu at your local honky tonk today.
That Santa Fe Channel
Looks can be deceptive. Cordovas have the rough and ready look of a bunch of prospectors from the California gold rush, but while they rock that 49er chic, there's a real sophistication to their classy take on the Americana sound. Bandleader Joe Firstman's previous experience, as musical director on NBC's late-night show Last Call with Carson Daly, has certainly stood him in good stead. Performing nightly alongside first-rate musicians, such as Thundercat and Kamasi Washington, can only create the highest of standards, and Firstman has corralled a crack troupe of musicians, capable of delivering a tune as slick and polished as any pop act, but never sounding plastic.
This is real, heartfelt roots music, never overblown but, despite its confidence, often displaying a certain fragility. Expertly captured by producer Kenneth Pattengale. opening track This Town's A Drag is a case in point. Many touring bands have written about killing time while stuck in Anytown, USA, but few manage to convey the feelings of yearning and resignation as eloquently as Cordovas. It's also one hell of an earworm. Check out the footage of them performing the track live at Toe Rag studios, when they were last in London. Selfish Loner is a tale of a charming lowlife sleaze accompanied with quicksilver slick pedal steel and angelic three-part vocal harmonies. In fact, the vocal harmonies really are key to the success of this album. Firstman insisted that all vocal parts be recorded at the same time, until the perfect take was achieved, and it pays off, embellishing every track, from the funky roots-rock of Talk to Me to the soulful Santa Fe, with a quality few acts can manage.
Of course, there are influences here, too, with a nod to the Allmans on occasion, and I had to check that I'm The One That Needs You Tonight wasn't an obscure Dylan composition I was yet to discover. The album is also infused with a world-weary tenderness, recalling Gram Parsons solo recordings, but it's really The Band and Little Feat that are the most obvious comparisons, not only in the songwriting but also the sheer quality of musicianship.
Although Cordovas eponymous debut album was released in the UK in the last couple of years, it was actually recorded six years ago, and a couple of its strongest compositions make a reappearance on That Santa Fe Channel. Standing on the Porch originally had more of a stomping beat, but here it has a skip in its step that allows it to swing and shay in a more danceable way, while Step Back Red, previously heavily indebted to The Band and still containing Robbie Robertson's DNA, has been embellished with playful jazzy elements after years of jamming on the road. Still love that original version though.
If you get a kick form seeing talented, tried and true musicians performing first class, original material with a passion and verve that ignites an enthusiastic sympathy in the audience; if you like songs to be crafted and honed, to be worth the time it takes to write them, not just to listen; and if you like your country music filtered through the musical strata of the decades, lightly wearing influences from old time mountain harmonies to classic California country-rock; if you like the sound of a band that might make you think of Little Feat, The Band, Steely Dan, even, at times, White Denim, then you need to check out Cordovas.
Full Tilt Boogie
The adage would have us believe that a leopard never changes his spots. So, I guess, James Scott Bullard must be some other kind of cat altogether. A collection of his earlier tracks titled The Rise and Fall of… (recently released on Big Mavis, remastered and repackaged) presents tracks from his first four albums, all now out of print. The music on The Rise and Fall… would never knowingly upset the neighbours in the way that Full Tilt Boogie promises to do. The Rise and Fall… is a strong collection of songs, showing influences from the classic country rock of Gram Parsons and the Rolling Stones to modern Americana singer-songwriters such as Justin Townes Earle and Ryan Adams. In fact, Bullard released an EP titled Oh This Land (A Tribute to Gram Parsons) in 2015, which may see its way to being reissued at some point, but listening to Full Tilt Boogie for the umpteenth time, the same question arises again and again; just what happened to this guy in the intervening years between his first records and this new one? The love songs have soured, the gentle country rockers have become distorted and amped up, the general vibe is far greasier and hungover. In short, the new album has got a whole lot more Whiskey Preachin. I worry that Bullard may have started carrying a flick knife instead of a comb.
Full Tilt Boogie kicks in from the very first distorted guitar chord of Lord, Have Mercy, like a heavy country gospel tune gone to the dark side, a cry for a soul to be saved before it’s too late. When the second track, Wicked Ways, kicks in, we know it’s already too late. The guitars are still distorted but the drums are pounding a much faster tempo and the organ is squeaking out all that damn honky tonk rock and roll. Then you get to the breakdown you know you’re in for a real good time! All to Pieces lays off a little, but only a little, allowing you to regroup before the Chuck-Berry-on-steroids of Hey Hey Mama kicks in, with lyrics like “I’m gonna love you mama like it’s against the law” stoking the fires. Track six, Jesus, Jail or Texas, has to be my favourite, possibly the most country track on the album, with a nice shuffle beat and fantastic lyrics telling of the different ways that women have managed to escape our protagonist: “One girl she went to Texas, two that went to jail, there or four found Jesus and the rest can go straight to hell”. The guitars are still distorted and there’s plenty of nice slide action, like ZZ Top fronted by Kinky Friedman. Leavin’ on My Mind ramps up the tempo to a furious, demented, pace, taking us on a break-neck tour through Texas, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Carolina, anywhere but here.
Is this a country album with pretentions towards being a rock record, or a rock album masquerading as a country record? Isn’t that just a stupid question? Does is really matter, if it sounds this good? At Whiskey Preachin, this is what we would describe as 100% bona fide Gumbo Rock, music that mashes up its influences and comes out with something fresh, a new sound made up of recognisable parts but for which no one signifier is sufficient to describe it. Bullard was raised up in South Carolina with a country and bluegrass musician for a father. As a kid, he grew up loving heavy rock but was surrounded by the music that later influenced him to start making the music on Full Tilt Boogie; the Southern rock of Lynyrd Skynrd, Tom Petty and The Allman Brothers (whose influence shines on the album’s closing track, Back to You), the classic rock and roll of Little Richard and Elvis and pure honky tonk of the world’s first punk rocker, Hank Williams; all these influences can be heard when listening to Full Tilt Boogie, so it’s little surprise that we love it at Whiskey Preachin. After all, these are the same artists that form the bedrock on which we built our shack. Why would we want to hear anything else?
Songs from the Deluge
Free Dirt Records
It’s a beautiful thing, waiting for the follow-up to a favourite album from a band you’ve already decided to love. Even better is hearing that highly anticipated second album and knowing it will be a strong contender for your album of the year, in February! Songs from the Deluge is that album and Western Centuries are that band, five extremely talented and modest musicians whose diverse musical backgrounds and tastes have coalesced into the best damn country band around, if they don’t mind me saying so. With a sound that is at once classic and modern, part Saturday night and part Sunday morning, Songs for the Deluge sees Western Centuries take their song craft to the next level, with the three songwriters and vocalists, Jim Miller (Donna the Buffalo), Ethan Lawton (Zoe Muth & the Lost High Rollers) and Cahalen Morrison (Country Hammer) sharing duties and bringing their own flavour to proceedings.
Kicking off the album is Lawton’s Far from Home, a tale of conscription and Vietnam dressed up as a Cajun-tinged dancer, with the added spice being brought by Grammy-winning producer Joel Savoy’s fiddle and Roddie Romero’s sweet accordion. (I was lucky enough recently to catch Savoy and Jesse Lége playing an intimate gig with their Cajun Country Revival band, and what a joy it was. Check out Savoy’s Valcour label for plenty of tasty Cajun treats). Lawton brings several of the albums highlights to the table, including the goodtime party tune Own Private Honky Tonk (a WP favourite Friday night spin) and the hungover, heart-breaking Southern soul of Three Swallows, the sort of country music you might expect to come out of Muscle Shoals. Morrison’s Earthly Justice keeps the groove solid for the second song on the album, funky drums, licking steel and rippling Rhodes combining in a head-nodder that keeps the groove in the pocket nicely when it hits double-time. The third track in, Wild Birds, sees Jim Miller step up to the mic for his tale of a band on the road, trying to get home. By this point, if you’re not hooked or converted, you’d better call an ambulance baby, somebody needs to check your pulse. By the time you get to Warm Guns at the end of the album, with Morrison’s Spanish vocal bringing the South-western vibe, you’ve been on a road trip for the ears, taking you through the venerable musical landscape of American roots and country music.
There is a lot of great music being released right now. Sometimes it is all too easy to move on to the next album, then the next, failing to allow yourself time to become fully immersed in one record for long enough to become truly familiar with it. Having lived with Songs from the Deluge for nearly three months at the time of writing, it is safe to say that this is one album that has bucked that trend, and, I feel sure, will continue to do so. It is kept at the front of the record box, in easy reach of the turntable, regularly receiving repeat spins. I suggest you all do the same, this is one of those records that makes the world a better place to be.