Sunday, 24 April 2016

Maybe the best we can do is do what we love as best we can...

I've just finished Peter Ames Carlin's biog on Bruce Springsteen. It's an efficient if oddly bloodless overview. What seems evident is Bruce's overwhelming integrity and almost myopic focus on HIS cause; his undaunted bloody minded self-belief. Narcism is invariably pitched as a negative but not here; here was a man with limited options but a God gifted talent that gave him only one real outlet for his creative energy. He recognized early that his 'everyman' appeal would somehow elevate him above the mundane, even though that was his very subject matter. He didn't always offer answers but he did articulate the confusions and frustrations of a baby boomer generation, offered the possibilities of... everything, but with little chance of collecting. It made me think about my own musical ambitions: the fact that perhaps I've been hobbled by comfort; maybe too many choices and 'outs' made this Jack a dull boy. Intent is often thrust on folk who have no option but to succeed. The alternative is unimaginable to them. We all dream about horizons from the comfort of our beds and awake to sleepwalk through our days. Part of the power of Springsteen's early work is in how he seized on that lackaday ideal: the power of dreams, and somehow gave luster and energy to the unlikely possibilities; he harnessed the energy of that transient light that inevitably become shadows in most of our hearts. He believed in magic; he made the magic real by his unquenchable belief in it; primarily in recognizing the spellbinding power of music but also in the belligerent belief that gave magical shape to his spells. Spellbound by the spell, he is like a hypnotist, charming himself to believe in his own smoke and mirrors.

I'm unsure why I feel the need for this rambling... maybe as more and more of my musical heroes drop off the planet I'm learning to cherish the legends whose living vibrant voices are more than just revenant wails of souls departed.
Odd how we lament loss.
There is nothing quite as sweet as the grey warbling of a bird near extinction. We push things towards extinction, and only when we're fearful of their loss, do we cherish them. Why do we need to make things rare, when we should celebrate the common place?
There are certain people that inspire us to keep eyeing the horizon, yet offer shelter and safe harbour should things go awry. We bottle their benevolence and call it ‘home’. These kindred spirits are not pious custodians, just ordinary folk with the same vulnerabilities as the rest of us, but they are somehow able to focus their energy and intent. Something sets them apart, moving us to burden them with our wellbeing. They become the keepers of our faith in other people. The American poet Galway Kinnell said ‘Maybe the best we can do is do what we love as best we can’. His countryman Springsteen is an abiding bellwether for me: his imperfect poetry rings true daily, encouraging me to find the best in myself and learn to love it. Di keeps reminding me that you can't love other folk until you truly love yourself. If you see that as narcism then... you can kiss my ass and call me shorty.
Here's a reminder of the power of dreaming. 
This could be my favorite live vocal performance.
It's magical.
Watch it twice and then tell me that is doesn't give you a reason to believe...


Thursday, 21 April 2016

Lovesong: Chris Wood: Hollow Point

Thanks to Tom Rose at Reveal Records I am the very happy recipient of Chris Wood's 'Trespasser'/'Lark Descending' on Triple Vinyl. The 'limited edition' made more preciously collectable in the knowledge that many of the 300 pressings were lost in a warehouse fire.
Both albums are wonders of dexterous devilment and heartfelt humour. Chris played The Hat Club last year and awed a select few with his curmudgeonly caustic wit and wayward wisdom. There's an edge to his world weary cynicism that renders his tender moments doubly moving. His feet are firmly set in Olde England but his concerns are very current affairs. This isn't lazy Nationalism but these are songs informed by a history and heritage that is fast fading. He focusses on the things that divide and unite us as a nation. Wood recognises in his sleeve notes that many of his songs are about 'enclosure' in some form or another: "... spiritual, geographical, cultural, legislative, imaginative... they are an invitation to step upon those places we have been lured into believing are no business of ours."



Chris Wood is fiercely protective of our liberties, the oft imperceptible daily whittling of which has now somehow made it illegal for a man to sing a song in a 'public' house without written permission. His irascible and crabby countenance does not make for easy company. But he cares keenly enough to stand tall and tell: Tales of the past that echo resoundingly and relevantly today.

"The law will hang the man or woman
Who steal the goose from off the common
But lets the greater thief go loose
Who steals the common from the goose"


If you want your heart broken have a listen to 'One in a Million' or 'My Darling's Downsized'. If you want your blood chilled with harsh reality look no further than the cold reportage of 'Hollow Point' which somehow manages to be passionately dispassionate.
I love Chris Wood's music.
He has a keen eye, an admirably sharp tongue and a huge heart.
Long may he give a shit.


Sunday, 3 April 2016

Oogy or Corry?

Can I get a witness?
It's Sunday morning and I'm doing that finger poised over the checkout button on Amazon thing. My digit's currently dangled over the recently remastered Born to Run, Grant-Lee Phillips' 'The Narrows' and 'Paradise is There', Nathalie Merchant's reimagining of 'Tigerlily'. They'll be bought on vinyl (£20 each? Really?) but... can I get a witness? Someone who has perhaps tasted Ardbeg's Uigeadail and moved on up to their Corryvreckan.
The last time I tasted Uigeadail?
Can I tell you about that?
This is how I remember it:
It was last summer at the end of the Aarhus Festuge.
Folmer Jepsen's last stand as Festival Director.
Midnight.
After a fabulous late dinner of Spanish Tapas (understatement) at Jimmy Holm's CanBlau we sat outside our hotel on wicker sofas and in good company: I'd scared Joe Henry and Jim White away with my over attentiveness. Some saw it as 'stalking' but... sometimes admiration cannot be contained or suppressed, nor should it be. With Joe and Jim harangued and dispatched to their rooms I'd moved on to Dylan's bassist Tony Garnier who giddily enthused about Bob's latest album - appropriately entitled 'Shadows in the Night' - which he'd arranged and MD'd. Grant Lee Phillips chewed the fat with M Ward, Diego Schissi and Gustaf Ljunggren whilst Rhiannon Giddens demonstrated her Operatic vocal dexterity to Billy Bragg with an Aria or two. People in the bedrooms above hushed us when they should've been buying tickets. Daniel Lanois lingered in the shadows after his brilliant show of dub 'n' folk. We knew he was there but tried not to stare. Howe Gelb had earlier mischievously danced his way through a chaotic but inspired 'Deconstructing Standards' performance with Yasmine Hamdan, Steve Shelley & Thøger T. Lund. Mr Gelb shoots his cuffs and holds your eye with a cantankerous twinkle; like a second hand car salesman who's actually offering you the ride of your life. Thankfully he wasn't selling puppies...


Yup, Howe was happy but unwell. Man Flu. The bar was closing. Where was Sylvie Simmons? She owed me a drink or two... I looked to Folmer. I'd just gifted him a bottle of Uigeadail; Ardberg's finest, as a present to recognize past kindnesses and as a salutary send off. Everyone took a belt leaving poor Folmer with nowt but a couple of fingers of his prize. Howe took it as medicine. And medicinal it is; at 54.2% its potent smoky sweetness never fails to reinvigorate. A couple of tumblers however sent Howe to bed with a sidewards shuffle and seaside smile, at which point Lanois came forth, out of the shadows offering an empty glass. Everything after that is a bit of a blur but the next morning I woke up in a cheap Las Vegas motel, between Daniel and a sheep's head (betwixt a crock and a herd's face so to speak) wearing nowt but a tutu, a wedding ring and Howe's seaside smile...
That last bit isn't true but truth and a bad joke are uncomfortable bedfellows... All of the other name dropping stands. I've got witnesses...
It was an appropriately stellar way to see off Folmer and one of my more memorable nights out on the tiles. Amazing what you can take for granted when you're standing too close to see it.



Thanks Folmer. Thank you for placing me in such fine company and reminding me that musicians are the salt of the earth; wounded but walking conundrums: lusty and liberal; anxious and cocky; strutting and stumbling souls; vital and verbose vagabonds. Strong and silent partners. Always intriguing. Always engaging. Always needing...
Which brings me back to my need of Ardbeg's Corryvreckan.
Can I get a witness?
Anyone got a thought or two?
Particularly my Scottish mates who are closer to the source and surely the wiser for it.
Apparently its 57.1% charms offer a 'wonderfully wild and complex experience'.
At £75.17 a pop perhaps it is best to buy as a present for a good friend and then just... hang with them.
At £75.17 a pop it would need to be a beloved friend.
At £75.17 a pop I'm expecting smoke and sparks...



Sunday, 7 February 2016

Happy Blue: We Are Connected By Sound

"Whether fumbled by a fool
Or fielded by an aching heart
Surely there’s one golden rule
To help the healing start"


Those lines never did find a song. Why write them? I try and make universal feelings intimate, but how do you catch someone’s eye when writing about ‘the dear ordinary’? Truth is in the fine lines as much as the broad strokes, but trying to put your finger on the fidelity of a feeling makes fools of us all. I’m drawn to vulnerability, probably because of the recognitions that lie therein. I never was taken by cocky command or flamboyant dexterity; give me a three fingered gypsy guitarist any day. I’m beckoned by an unsteady hand; informed by the uncertain mumblings of a trembling voice.
My Father died early this year. Terry’s last lucid words to me were ‘Hello Sunshine’. He hadn’t called me that since I was a boy. He then whispered ‘I’m terrified’ before retreating into the foggy sanctuary of sleep. His heart was strong, but his lungs were shot. Terry just ran out of air.

I sit here breathless in the early morning half-light, wearing my Dad’s shirt and listening to the voices of my youth. As I take the needle from the record my hands are shaking. I blame the coffee and reach for my guitar. Music is a calming balm. Oddly, for someone so reluctant to sing out loud, it’s the singing that keeps me honest and true. My Dad was a venerable but vulnerable man. There wasn’t much joy in his life, but he did love to sing and he loved sorrowful songs. He breathed them into me. And on the day that I was born he sang ‘Hallelujah’. We are connected by sound. The sound of a time, like the smell of a room, can haunt your memory and… I’m haunted by sound. I too like a sad song. Sad songs make me happy. Happy blue.

“Gorgeous, as ever. Trevor Jones finds the poetry in real life; gently beautiful and genuinely moving. You may cry.” The Sunday Times

"Arguably our most eloquently sophisticated songwriter." HiFi News

“Masterpieces of subtlety and observation clothed in sumptuous, lush melodies.” R2
“Jones is in a class of one. Near-perfect explorations of the human heart. The beauty on offer here is enough to make you weep. It did me.” Americana UK

“Achingly tender.” Folk Radio UK

“Intellectually as well as emotionally engaging.” MOJO

"Meticulously orchestrated, careful and complex, this is canny songwriting leavened by bona fide humanity." Q

“Moves you to tears and refreshes the soul. Scintillating.” Maverick

"Gentle enchantment. The loveliest melodies you've ever heard.” Uncut

Friday, 5 February 2016

Happy Blue: Released Today: February 5th 2016

The album is officially released today.
'Happy Blue' wouldn't be what it is without the help of many.
Marcus Cliffe produced, engineered, and played his socks off. He also humored and counseled me through the whole process. I couldn't have done any of this without him. Love that man...
Lucinda Drayton sang like an angel and happily wiped up my tea stains. Her gentle kindness was a much appreciated balm.
Melvin Duffy played Pedal Steel and Weissenborn with sublime, subtle clarity; he rings like a bell. He gives everything he plays on a luxuriant luster. His musicianship is as pure as his sweet benevolence: a lovely man.
BJ Cole also played Pedal Steel and left his indelible mark. His is a darker tone and style than Melvin's. It's impossible to undervalue this man's effect on one's music. Even when he sits back in the mix he adds an unmistakable depth. He swoops and buzzes. You never get what you expected with BJ: and it's always better than expected. He's very loud and I always want to turn him up, which says everything.
Enzo Zirilli played drums with subtly and élan. His jazz leanings added a lovely, learned looseness to the sound. A lovely, gentle man too.
Gustaf Ljunggren was the revelation of the album. I've know him a while having met him at the Aarhus Festival a few years back and have always admired his playing. We'd send mixes to Copenhagen and get them back the next day, adorned with his subtle brilliance. Gustaf has sublime, dextrous restraint and taste. Listening back to his offerings was like opening Xmas presents.
Peter Beckmann mastered the album and cut the vinyl. His musical instincts are unimpeachable, he also has the patience of angels.
Which leads me nicely on to Boo Hewerdine. An odd credit I know but Boo actually nearly produced the album. I'm glad that he didn't because it wouldn't be what it is. I do hope that we'll do something together in the future. Even though he's probably unaware of it he's a guiding light and a gentle mentor.
Boo also connected me with James Soars who promoted the album to press and radio, connecting me with some great new contacts.
And cheers to the journalists who have supported us throughout. I know that we've probably come to take some of you for granted in our expectations of your valuable column inches.
Di Holmes took the excellent photos which set the tone for Barry Cross's brilliant art work. You need to have the vinyl to get the full effect.


Thanks too to Del Sawyers at Proper for co-ordinating the release.
Special mention to Paul Woodgate, Tim Patrick, Meetwood Flac, Rob Hurley, Jerome Taheny, David Ashley and Phil Hogarth for their unfettered banner waving.
We have been lucky with airplay, meeting some lovely DJs notably Adam Wilson, Steve Morris and Alex Huskisson. Local radio is a hotbed of enthusiasts and not only have they supported my music but I've also been introduced to some wonderful new music whilst waiting for my 3 minutes to arrive.
Finally, thanks to all of the artists who have graced The Hat Club. Too many to mention here but I admire you all. Making a life from music is an uncertain endeavor; a commitment that could devour you. And yet you step out daily, valiant vagabonds leading with your chins, opening yourselves up to other folk's judgements. I admire your tenacity and talent; brave troubadours all. This has become a real pleasure for Di and I and we have loved meeting you and sharing a small moment of your journeys. Kudos!

Love to my immediate family, Betty, Katy, Gareth and Bex.
And of course a tip of the hat to Terry, my Dad.
Thanks again to all of you have supported Marcus and I throughout the travails. You know who you are.
Christ, can you imagine my Oscar acceptance speech?

I hope that you enjoy 'Happy Blue'.
It came from a dark place, I'm happy that it's finally seeing the light of day.
You can get the album directly from me here:
http://miraclemile.co.uk/store.html
Otherwise you can get it through the usual channels.
Amazon reviews really help so... Help!
I'll leave you with a picture of me doing my best 'Bono on the Beach'.



Thursday, 4 February 2016

Happy Blue: Released February 5

'Happy Blue' is released tomorrow.
The world will inevitably beat a path to my door to ask 'why?'
Why am I impelled to keep doing this thing?
It's a good question, particularly when the returns are becoming less and less rewarding. It does sometimes feel like bellowing into an empty cave. The echo is reassuring although it is but an echo.
I recognize in other writers and performers the need to put things in order; to join the dots and, in making those connections, help themselves to check and reset their compasses. But towards what? Perhaps towards some sense of 'home': home as a source of comfort, or simply as a place of sanctuary; a safe harbour to retreat to, somewhere to rest, reset and review past travels before venturing out again to share their stories with the world.

For me the best writers are story tellers. V. S. Pritchett wrote that short stories were ‘something glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing’. Sometimes it’s good to write with intent. That way you’ll get what exactly what you wanted and expected. Sometimes it’s good to write just to see where the muse will lead you; to surprise yourself. The American writer Raymond Carver told that he once had a line in his head that he knew would make for a great story: “He was running the vacuum cleaner when the telephone rang.” He didn’t know where the story would lead but as soon as he
found time at his typewriter to write the line sure enough “other sentences promptly began to attach themselves… and I knew it was my story, the one I’d been wanting to write’.


I guess that like Carver I’m interested in the small dramas of everyday life. I have no answers, just observations and questions. And they aren’t always my observations or questions. I just need to keep my radar tuned. An idea might come from an overheard remark, a misheard lyric, a newspaper article or a domestic moment that unfolds in front of you. The trick is in recognizing what’s worthy of development and to distance yourself enough to be able to take in the scene; to be dispassionately engaged enough to tote and tell. My partner Di once came home from work with a story about a seemingly dysfunctional couple that she’d just seen on a train. They were both mumbling, anoraked and odd. She with a cleft lip, he with long lank hair and thick corrective glasses, hood up. They were fussing over their baby, which was wrapped in a blanket. Di was taken by their tenderness. As she got up to leave she passed the couple and looked down at the baby. It was a plastic doll… Some things you just couldn’t make up; there's a profundity in the mundane. Di related snippets of their muted conversation and I fashioned the tale into the title track of the ‘Alaska’ album.


For me it’s initially a bit like mindless trawling. I’m casting my creative net and seeing what’s out there/in there. The essence of an idea, the ghost of a song often seems to float in its own current just out of view. Instinct is key. You are aware of its presence, you just need to catch it and land it. You don’t always catch what you were expecting. If there is alchemy in the process I think that it’s in recognizing when is a good time to fish and knowing where to cast your net. Into troubled waters invariably… Oh, and also recognizing what you should throw back; sometimes the big ones taste of mud; it’s the tasty tiddlers that are worth keeping.
The currency that keeps us vital is life itself, and our vital perception not just of life as it happens, but of our processing of that experience. Our value is not just what we could be, but what we are, what we have become. The further we grow away from our histories, the more obvious their influence becomes, and consequentially, the more we idealise and cherish that influence. Reviewed and rewritten, our past becomes us. 


In Corsica around the time of writing the 1st two solo albums ‘Hopeland’ and then ‘Keepers’, I felt an increasing sense of emotional isolation.  In London the common ‘buzz’ had rendered me over stimulated, my touchstones had become mobile phones and laptops; I had to keep checking for messages to see if I was valued. It was a bit like looking in a mirror to see if I was still there. I needed to unburden myself, to disconnect and learn to be alone again, to reconnect with my imagination, to re-engage with my sense of wonder. In our remote village house I internalized and only really released through song. ‘Hopeland’ was bathed in optimism’s glow after the retreat to a simple life had gifted a startling clarity of thought. I wanted to capture that feeling of release and that Corsican idyll in song.  My most intense creativity came from that little house in Montemaggiore. I found that the ideas came pouring out. I didn’t type; I wrote, scribbling feverishly in a little yellow notebook that became like a sponge for the outpourings. I had previously written about the journey, but offered no answers, just questions. With ‘Hopeland’ I had actually arrived somewhere; destination achieved. I unpacked. I was home. Those moments in Corsica taught me to cherish the past, accept and recognise its importance, its vitality, but not to live there.


That's it: if songwriting has taught me anything it’s how to decipher the past and live in the present. It was through writing that I learnt to temper turbulence. I’d love to think that my songs comforted or helped to realign other lost souls. I’m sure that some of this sounds twee but in simplifying my worldview there was an inevitable idealizing of life. Cliché and platitude abide in the same corridors as insight and truth, just as prejudice and wisdom are uneasy bedfellows. For me the challenge is to dance around those abstractions, see them for what there are and try to redress them with fresh credence and currency. The French poet Gérard de Nerval wrote "The first man who compared woman to a rose was a poet, the second, an imbecile." 


Although your words need clarity and fidelity there should also be a little room left for the listener to insinuate themselves into a song in order to make it their own. Not enforced mystery; that would be too artful, gimmicky and manipulative. Just a little wriggle room for a stranger’s wonderment. For me the trick is to take a small step to the left or right, take stock, take care and then pitch common feeling as original thought and hope that folk will recognize themselves in the offering and somehow find mercy there.
Someone once wrote "Wear your life loosely, it fits better that way." The past is the authentic fabric from which we are made; we define ourselves by how we cut that cloth. The filtering of memories enables us to come to terms with what we have become, how we have tailored ourselves. The way that we do that determines our ‘style’. As long as I’m faithful to that I know that, regardless of quality, my work at least has integrity.




So, why do I write? 
- To join the dots and make sense of the past.
- To protect myself from emotional inertia.
- To help myself ‘move on’.
- To connect with myself and to connect with others.

I don’t have kids, never will.
Where’s my legacy?
What do I leave behind?
Maybe, ultimately, from head to heart, from heart to hand, I write to make a sound.
From heart to hand, I write to make marks on a page, to give myself shape and form, that form declaring ‘I am here’, and like the cave painter, my hand is poised to leave a mark that says ‘I was here’.

And look at me.
Writing like the Master Magician who holds the secrets to every mystery.
I know nothing.
But I'm doing my best.
I keep reaching into the hat not knowing what I'll pull out.
Could be a rabbit or a rooster.
It's the unknowing that keeps me excitedly dipping my hand into the darkness.
Attempting to conjure something from nothing.
I love the idea that my best trick is still ahead of me.
And there's no fool like an old fool.

The American poet Galway Kinnell wrote:
‘Maybe the best we can do is do what we love as best we can.’
I’ll bottle that and call it home…


Someo



Bowie: Blackstar




Bowie's 'Blackstar' is finally here on vinyl.
Sumptuous packaging although the artwork, all matt black, was surely a funereal portent. 
It's all so morbidly mordant.
The shot of Bowie on the inside of the gatefold stops you in your tracks. 
There's a man who knows...
The vinyl itself is slightly warped which seems appropriate.As for the music?
Twitchy, challenging, witty, humble, humane, self referential and staring down mortality: not an easy listen then but... Christ... you can hear the sound of genius at work: an Artist making music, not for the love of it but... for the Art of it.
Deep, dark and dense, it's the sound of a man bound for a black hole.
I don't know if I like it but I know that I love it.
Does that make sense?
It's as serious as... Cancer.
God Forsaken
Guilt Laden
Myth Making
Piss Taking
No Faking
Re-awakening
Fast Fading
Breathtaking
Heart Breakingly... Bowie
Where the fuck did Monday go?



Friday, 8 January 2016

The Hat Club: January 16th: Alex Cornish

Saturday, January 16th.
The first Hat Club of the year.
We are excited to welcome Alex Cornish.
I've been a fan of his for years so it's a personal pleasure that he's coming to play for us.
It always helps to be sure of healthy numbers so please, get your name on the club clip board asap.
Guests are more than welcome.
If you are a member or a non member you can PayPal me at: mm@lisacottage.demon.co.uk.
£10 will get you on a prepaid guest list.
https://www.facebook.com/www.thehatclub.co.uk
Alex's band is fabulous but he's fantastic in an intimate setting too. 
In fact, here he is in his bedroom:



And in a slightly bigger room.
This time with strings attached:


Thursday, 24 December 2015

Hissyfit 'Albums of the Year' 2015

Joint 21: John Grant: Grey Tickles, Black Pressure/Father John Misty: I Love you, Honeybear




These two albums are inseparable for me.
Is it the concussive confusion between self loathing and self deprecation that binds them so tightly?
I wish that I cared.
Bile fueled bitterness and heartache are obvious bedfellows but there's an unrelenting arch smugness to both Johns' humor that prevents me from truly loving the songs.
Both Johns are full of life.
Both Johns are full of shite.
Both Johns are bloodless.
Both Johns sure can spell 'irony' and boy... are both Johns eager to prove it.
Both Johns are knowing, cutting and cooly cynical.
Both Johns are half heart, half smart and... just too clever by half.
And although both Johns desperately shout 'CHARISMA!' at you they lack any engaging character.
It's all persona and no presence.
Why top 21 then?
Well... there's never a dull moment and the tunes are great.
Taken out of smug situ there are some wonderful songs here.
Both Johns can break your heart but you kind of know that your tears would be met with a knowing cackle and a whacky wink.

                                               20: Emily Barker: The Toerag Sessions


Meanwhile, this is just plain and simply beautiful.
Pure.
Instinctive.
Porcelain perfection.



                                                        19: Boo Hewerdine: Open


  
Boo says that he found the tapes of these 'lost songs' in a box in his garage.
Demos from 2003 apparently.
And that box was chock full of everything that the afore mentioned two Johns lack:
Heart.
These spartan snapshots perfectly capture Boo naked, although it seems that he kept his glasses on as the emotional focus of these candids is as pin sharp as ever.
We await fresh material with bated breath but until then, this'll Boo nicely.        

                                                           18: Max Richter: Sleep



I have trouble sleeping, particularly when Di's away.
This helped greatly.
Richter's intensions for the album:
“It’s my personal lullaby for a frenetic world. A manifesto for a slower pace of existence. I want people to start playing it while they are getting ready for bed, so that they hear it in their sleep.” 
And it does what it says on the tin. Quite beautifully.

                                           17: Dave Rawlings Machine: Nashville Obsolete


Dave Rawlings and soulmate Gillian Welch have long been producing their own inimitable brand of 'Southern Gothic'. Welch takes a back seat here affording Rawlings the opportunity to stretch out and test his mettle. The songs are long and languorous; the fiddles have been replaced by string sections and it's that luxuriant luster that makes the whole affair so appealing.


                                                 16: All Your Favorite Bands: Dawes


They wear their influences unashamedly. If you like Jackson Browne you'll be thrilled at the recognitions. This is no tribute band though; there's an unimpeachable focus and emotional integrity that gives Dawes a little extra. Think The Eagles' easy accessibility tempered with Warren Zevon's bite and wicked homour and you have a sure flavor of these sweetly bitter ditties. It's all drawn together and beautifully produced by David Rawlings.

                                             15: John Moreland: High On Tulsa Heat


Throaty, heavyweight tales of loss and retribution. These gems don't reveal their beauty easily. They are coated with just enough dust and gravel as to ensure their rugged virtue. You have to dig deep, but there's treasure here.

                                                       14: Lord Huron: Strange Tales


Like War on Drugs but better.
This album was a fairly constant companion this year: strange tails for the familiar daily commute. 

                                                       13: Dean Owens: Into the Sea


The first 8 songs pack as emotional a honey punch as any other release this year.
This is immensely likable crumpled romanticism from an immensely likable, crumpled romantic. 

                                                     12: Robert Forster: Songs to Play


2008's 'The Evangelist' was a cathartic and sombre response to the death of Go-Between's co-founder and confidant Grant McLennan in 2006.  
"The romantic plan was to stop when we were around the age of 60 and then come back at 70 and make our masterpiece. That was the plan - it didn't happen".  
7 years later Forster has surrounded himself with young bucks (including his son) and the spring in their step has invigorated Australia's premier pop poet. As elegant and archly dry as ever, the bard's world weary humor is duly tempered by a newfound restless energy, perfectly illustrated when he tells us "I got no patience. I'll stop for petrol and I'll stop for Dylan, but that's the limit when I get moving…" 

                                               11: James McMurtry: Complicated Game




A little bit of Springsteen, Zevon and Browne in the mix.
Expansive yet local, blue collar poetry.
These are unrelentingly bleak yet tender tall tales from America’s underbelly.
'Honey, don't be yelling at me when I'm cleaning my gun.' 
McMurty should write a script for Paul Thomas Anderson to direct. 




                                            
                                                   10: Guy Garvey: Courting The Squall



I like this man greatly.  He holds an admirably reliable Northern work ethic and sensibility.
Garvey seems bereft of vanity; there's poetry in his observations on the mundanities of life:
"In the hills it's an overcoat colder ... "
This is unashamedly emotional music to cry into your stout too until the next Blue Nile album comes around...  And alongside the affable bear hugs there's enough invention to keep your attention.


                                           
                                          9: Jason Isbell: Something More Than Free



It didn't quite reach the heights of 'Southeastern' for me but it was still a stellar collection fueled by failing, blue collar malaise and muscular sensitivity. It also contained my 'ear worm of the year':
"You thought God was an architect, now you know. He's something like a pipe bomb ready to blow..."
I found myself chanting this in supermarket queues much to the local's disquiet...



                                                       8: Calexico: Edge Of The Sun



I saw Calexico touring this album at the beginning of the year. One of the year’s finest gigs. They were brilliant but support band The Barr Brothers were even better. The Barrs didn’t release an album this year but did put out some outtakes from ‘Silent Operator’. One of those (‘Alta Falls’) is my ‘Song of the Year'. 
I digress...
For some reason 'Edge of the Sun' reminds me of a night out in Aarhus a couple of years ago. The evening was winding down after a fine night of live music and chat. We were at Jimmy's CANblau restaurant and had had some late night tapas, bellies full and happy. Our host (the charming Folmer Jepsen) recommended a night cap. We all expected brandy or a single malt but were given no choice; Our host returned from the kitchens bearing a tray laden with liter glasses of gin & tonic, strong, lime laced and fizzy. Their sour, icy effervescence kick started what we all assumed was the dying of the day and instead of sloping off into the night we hit the town again reenergized. There's a similar unexpected and intoxicating energy here. After the relative introspection and dusty late night charms of 'Algiers' came this exuberant outing. The smoldering delicacy anticipated is still there in occasional moments of calm but this is mostly a big band, bold, blazing and unfettered. The Morriconesque instrumentals are back alongside Mariachi Horns and some barking guest appearances. I imagine that Joey Burns's and John Convertino are more tequila than G&T but it seems like they've had a few with Folmer (I wouldn't be surprised) and are dancing on the tables.



7: Villagers: Darling Arithmetic 



"Remember kissing on the cobblestone
In the heat of the night
And all the pretty young homophobes
Looking out for a fight".

A brave and gentle release.
Conor O'Brien delicately exposes himself and it’s a true and honest revelation.
That takes courage...




                                                 6: Andrew Combs: All These Dream




There’s a lightness of touch to the easy listening Americana that is deceptive; a slow burning
gravity permeates these wonderful songs.
Glen Campbell, Paul Simon and Harry Nilsson would be proud to call themselves an influence.


                                                         5: Unthanks: Mount the Air



The Unthanks were responsible for one on this year's best nights out for me. Perfect preparation: a few pints of stout with a pickled Egg before a spellbinding performance at Islington's Union Chapel.
There is a dark, almost unholy beauty to these ethereal songs; the previous brass band traditionalism is artfully tempered by jazz chops and (yup) occasional prog rock noodlings. It’s all skillfully rendered and hauntingly realized by a fleshed out ensemble.


And yet through it all Rachel and Becky remain very much at the heart of things. The sisters' ambition is lofty yet very much of this earth. They mount the air but with clogs firmly on the ground. Theirs is a sober sense of place and propriety tempered by a righteous recognition and graceful acceptance of their lot.  I've heard their music described as 'songs about dead people'. which is harsh but fair.  They hold a genuine affection for their North Eastern origins but the Geordie Toon observations are rendered oddly universal by these tender homilies. Mindful of fast fading faith, the sisters' beloved roots are starkly captured in aspic with empathy and care, ensuring an authentic rawness that grounds them, bleak as buggery, starless and bible black for sure. Hymnal yet haunting, the heartstrings are tugged and surely cat gut, but with Rachel and Becky’s sublime yet homely voices you know that there’ll always be fishy on the dishy and surely some tender coming…




                                           4: The Lone Bellow: Then Came The Morning




Zach Williams, Kanene Donehey and Brian Elmquist make a glorious and genuinely joyful sound.
It’s all about hush, lush crescendo and clatter with these guys, and nobody currently does that tremulous holler and thump better.
I have seen them live a few times already alongside Di; a woman so fixated by them that she dutifully brought 18 tickets to one concert next year.
Beyond the call of duty?
It was a late night purchase.
Then came the morning...





                                                  3: Bob Dylan: Shadows in the Night



I've been listening to a lot of Sinatra this year; possibly a reaction to my Dad's passing. Terry liked a bit of Frank. I have to admit that this album snuck up on me. Like most folk I was a little non-plussed by the idea of one of the great songwriters wrestling with the well worn classics rather than creating more of his own. It was the enthusiasms of Tony Garnier at this year's Aarhus Festival that refocused me. Tony was the bassist and musical director on this album and he swore blind by the affair, revelling in the knowledge that there was another full album's worth of 'similar but better' performances in the can. Tony told that the toughest initial challenge was to try and capture (if not recreate) the spirit of the original, sophisticated string, brass and woodwind arrangements, using a very different, stripped down line up: just drums, pedal steel and acoustic guitar. But it's those very limitations that help refine and define this recording. The stripped down sound is stunning, the resulting ambience woozily compelling. It's obvious that Dylan regards these prime cuts - taken from the Great American Songbook - with great affection. His famous resistance to rehearsal renders these as intensely instinctive performances. There's a touching vulnerability to Bob's croaking croon. The lack of orchestration offers up much spartan space for the 73 year old to inhabit. He's been concerned with mortality and the passing light since 1997's 'Out of Time' and you can almost hear his bones creaking as he throws himself into these songs with... well, what's the opposite of 'gay abandon'? 'Gray intent'? This is no 'easy listening'. There's a sweet bitterness to the interpretations, much of it gut wrenchingly moving. Sure, some of Dylan's 'one take' vocals could have been improved upon, but 'perfection' was surely never the intention. And it's all about 'intent'. Dylan doesn't so much inhabit the songs as haunt them. The overall effect is ghostly, ethereal and sonically exquisite. Although Tony did good with the sweet vibes Bob did the bitter better.
The journey's all but done.
Dylan knows that he's nearly out of time.
And yet... he's still there, still standing, spirited, undaunted; squinting at the past, hopeful of its benediction; counting his blessings whilst staring down the grim reaper and praying for one more day, one more night and, perhaps, one more for the road.



                                                   2: Sufjan Stevens: Carrie & Lowell




"Spirit of my silence I can hear you
But I'm afraid to be near you"

Stevens squints at his demons. The bleak and brave beauty reminds me a little of the Villagers' album but here there’s a visceral edge that keeps you on the edge of your seat: There's a jaw dropping honesty in Sufjan's toting of domestic travails. Home spun for sure, but far from cozy:

"There's blood on that blade
F*** me, I'm falling apart
My assassin, like Casper the ghost
There's no shade in the shadow of the cross"


The pain is palpable: Stevens has reigned in his musical invention for a song suite (no less) that recognizes family loss but celebrates life with authenticity and intention. Gone is the twitchy sonic experimentation; the template is deceptively simple: folk: organic, stark and fragile, yet its sparsity is touching; an embrace that’s all enveloping and heartbreakingly tender.




                                                   1: Milk Carton Kids: Monterey



Till all the dreams we left in our wake
Come back to me as the joy we forsake
Tell me whatever is burning the fires we made


Here's yet more mournful melancholy but here with occasional moments of bluegrass relief. These kids have found a winning formula and they're sticking with it. There's nothing original here; plaintive voices float delicately upon a bed of beauteous acoustic guitars; The Everley Brothers meeting a young Paul Simon and getting on famously.
Lyrically the album doesn't really deal with specifics, it's more notional than that. There's no hollering or hankering for heaven, just a rueful recognition and acceptance of all things earthly.
It's mainly about the oxygen of life; detailing desire and what fuels that fire:

"I long to hear the melodies
that one time played inside my mind
and to love another helplessly
so breathing feels like putting out a fire"

It squints at the confusions of desire's loss:

"I've tried to think what happened to the fire
It's burning out made me into a liar"

Oftentimes it simply - and heartbreakingly - reviews the year's cycle, toting the injuries of self denial, noting our base nature ("the heart that beats nocturnal") and questioning the very air that we breathe:

"Asheville Skies"

Good God, is it November?
The leaves burn auburn red
The Asheville skies and timber
Are holding on to it

But I cannot remember
That fleeting hopeful song
That rose of our September
My word, what have we done?

I'd love nothing more than to cover my face
Forget who I am and get out of this place
Pretend to be somebody other than me
And go on living that way

Till all the dreams that I had in mind
Come back to me by next year this time
Tell me whatever became of what I left behind

Could hope have sprung eternal on darkened, dreary roads?
The heart that beats nocturnal knows not where it goes
We listen for the signal to raise the dirt again
Our livelihood is equal to the air that breathes us in

I'd welcome you home just to turn you away
Shuffle the cards by the light of the day
Pretend that the worst of it got left behind
And go on living that way

Till all the dreams we left in our wake
Come back to me as the joy we forsake
Tell me whatever is burning the fires we made