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Music Review - `By the Risin’ of the Sea` by James Kahn (jh)

James Kahn-  By the Risin’ of the Sea (click on image to watch video)

25 May 2022 

 

James Kahn, Emmy-nominated TV writer-producer/novelist/singer-songwriter is a storyteller across many different media but his latest recording, By the Risin’ of the Sea, is unlike previous works. It’s not a series of stories but instead a series of admonitions about the dangers of climate change sung in old timey sea shanty style. It’s a bit of a conundrum as we think of old pirates telling tales about impending weather disasters, or recounting them in a boastful way, having made it through the storm. As the subtitle indicates though, these are “Shanties For Our Time,” a time of crisis. These songs address not only global warming and melting of the ice caps, but the recent proliferation of violent storms, the pandemic, the refugee crises, global pollution, and personal meaning. Had it been recorded a bit later Kahn may have thrown in the Ukraine war.  Suffice to say he’s got plenty to rant about and the sea shanty style takes the edges off, or at least mitigates the direct messaging somewhat. Commensurate with pirate lore, he mixes in some black humor and sprinkles in a few beams of hope.

While the issues are contemporary, they are not new, but the concept is one that no one else has tried and for that Kahn deserves kudos. It’s still a bit puzzling why he informs us of the melting ice, the wildfires, and global warming. We’re all aware of these issues and most of us turn to music as an escape from these looming signs of doom.  Do we need to be reminded of “the year that Covid ran amuck”? Yet, in many cases where it seems he is getting too preachy, he brings a song such as “Landfall” where some of the lyrics profess a true love for the ocean. He follows that with “Ship of Fools,” which says we can get through this mess with a profound sense of determination.  In any case the accompanying voices and spare instrumental support on some delivers a strong emotional, authentic punch. 

“No More a Whalin’” comes across as missing the yesteryears rather than decrying our current state. The banjo here, the fiddle on the protest of pollution, “Bucket O’ Bones,” the tres on the immigration oriented “O The Ocean Rolls,” and the hammered dulcimer on “Cast on the Water” are all nice additions to the heavy balance of a cappella tunes. “On the Other Side” speaks cleverly to loss of jobs to overseas companies as well as yearning for the old days. “Cast on the Water” points existentially to the need for all of us to find our way, whether we metaphorically follow the small boats or continue our own lonely search for the first sign of the horizon. “Island of Dreams” plays with the age-old colloquialisms “red sky in the morning, sailors take warning” and similar sayings but addresses the loss of species and the environmental cost of plastic and trash. “Sundown,” the closer covers similar turf, (or in this case, water) 

Kahn finds a creative way to unleash these messages but most of his potential audience is likely well-informed while the others tend to shun overly political messaging.  Musically, though it’s a terrific listen that unfortunately for most will happen only once, and not repeatedly.

 

Jim Hynes

 

 

Jim Hynes is an independent contributor on music for several magazines, including Elmore and Country Standard Time. He has also written for Variety. He was a listener-supported public station(s) radio host for 25 years in CT, MI, NJ and PA. He is also a Live music host/Emcee at several national and regional venues.

To Read All of Jim's Reviews, Click Here

 

 

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Music Review - 'Flight Risk` by Shoebox Letters (jh)

Shoebox Letters -  Flight Risk (click on image to watch video)

16 May 2022 

 

Within a mere twenty minutes and a half dozen songs, the Portland, OR foursome Shoebox Letters continues to prove they know their way around a song. Leader and co-founder Dennis Winslow is the main songwriter, having penned or co-written all but one of the tunes. He’s a multi-instrumentalist joined by fellow versatile musician Greg Paul, co-founder and bassist Dave Stricker and vocalist Stephanie Cox. All three of the musicians have impressive resumes with Winslow having a background as a staff writer in Nashville and a writer for films and television, which he continues to do. Stricker has played with many of the great musicians in Portland and Paul is also an engineer and producer who works in film, television and theater. He has also recorded with notable artists Dave Alvin, Amy Farris, and Alejandro Escovedo, to name a few. Susan Lowery contributes harmony vocals on “A World Out There.” Guest Brian David Willis fills in on numerous instruments and is the writer for the pulsating rocker “I Drink Too Much” and the co-writer on “Bed of Roses.” 

The defining element of their sound is the lush three (or four) part harmonies heard in Winslow’s tunes. In the ‘70s, we would have branded this bucolic style country rock. The opener features the dulcet tones of Cox singing with Winslow and backed with harmonies from Paul and Stricker as the guitar reverberate convincingly. The aforementioned “I Drink Too Much” may be the most rambunctious, levels up rock the band has ever laid down. “Up and Down,” though is more characteristic of their past work, a gentle harmonious folk tune, imbued with terrific pedal steel from Stricker and keys from Winslow, as if the music just refreshingly washes over the listener, it’s and ideal pandemic song with its chorus “one step at a time.”  Cox breaks out on “Red Handed in Love,” soaring above muscular guitars and animated backgrounds.  Back and forth we go, with “A Bed of Roses” settling into their textured, soothing approach.  Cox and Winslow sing yearningly on “A World Out There,” with Willis providing searing lap steel. 

Shoebox Letter is the essence of Americana, marrying country, folk, and rock with superior harmonies and impressive textures.  They deserve wider recognition, and one senses it won’t be long before they are a staple on the diminishing number of stations and outlets that program quality music. 

 

Jim Hynes

 

 

Jim Hynes is an independent contributor on music for several magazines, including Elmore and Country Standard Time. He has also written for Variety. He was a listener-supported public station(s) radio host for 25 years in CT, MI, NJ and PA. He is also a Live music host/Emcee at several national and regional venues.

To Read All of Jim's Reviews, Click Here

 

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Music Review - 'Kieran Ridge and The Moonrakers' by Kieran Ridge(jh)

Kieran Ridge and The Moonrakers (click on image to watch video)

26 October 2021 

 

Kieran Ridge is a singer-songwriter from the Boston area who is delivering is fourth album, but the first with this band, dubbed The Moonrakers.  The previous releases carried the name Kiernan Ridge Band.  One would guess this band hails from the Carolinas rather than Boston though, given the instrumentation of fiddles, mandolin, and banjo although they do have a drummer. Naturally their vintage sound owes more to Celtic and European folk than Appalachia but maintains a similar traditional feel. Kieran is the guitarist and lead vocalist, accompanied by Hannah Rose on fiddle, Liam Dailey on mandolin and banjo, Pat Hannafin on drums and percussion, and Michael Doughty on bass.

Ridge’s weathered voice is a perfect match for these “old” sounding songs. Kicking off with “The Last One To Know,” the listener feels as if transported to a front porch singalong where the bottle is passed around. The song, after all, mentions whiskey more than a few times and is driven principally, as are several, by Baker’s fiddle such as the Celtic flavored “Killing Time.”  The tempo eases with the folk and three-part harmonies on “Somewhere On the Edge of Town,” another with an Irish pub kind of singalong vibe. It’s one of several traveling songs, followed in kind by “To Get Back Home,” a slow blues-like stomper where he talks about boarding a train in Boston bound for New Orleans. 

There’s a loose, fiddle-driven country quality to “Straight to the Heart of Love” while “Three Sheets to the Wind, Five Miles From Home” basically conveys that we have no choice but to deal with fate’s sometimes troubling hand. For his part, as he does throughout, he acts unfazed and carefree. “Fear of Flying” is a upbeat tune where his gleeful tone masks the frustration of dealing with an elusive relationship, a theme he carries into “You Drifting Heart,” imbued by Dailey’s mandolin. “Blind In Time” also nicely utilizes acoustic guitar picking as well as mandolin and more fiddling, and like “Somewhere on the Edge of Town,” sounds like a coffee house kind of song where he could deliver it alone, accompanied by just his guitar.

“Wasted” is the lone rock n’ roll song on them album, evoking to some extent, Dylan’s work with fiddler Scarlet Rivera. This one, though carries a softer edge with vocal harmonies and no electric instruments. This is either a carefree man or one too messed up to care as the chorus exclaims, “If it rains, let the rain all down on me.”  The closing “Close Your Eyes” is a gentle quasi-lullaby, another in his theme of letting go of that which one cannot control.

The raw, loose quality of the album can allow for reflection and comfort, the same themes that Ridge is singing about in his straight-forward songs.

 

Jim Hynes

 

 

Jim Hynes is an independent contributor on music for several magazines, including Elmore and Country Standard Time. He has also written for Variety. He was a listener-supported public station(s) radio host for 25 years in CT, MI, NJ and PA. He is also a Live music host/Emcee at several national and regional venues.

To Read All of Jim's Reviews, Click Here

 

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Music Review - 'Threadbare` by Honey Don't (jh)

Honey Don't - Threadbare (click on image to watch video)

2 March 2022 

 

Honey Don’t is a five-piece string band that originally formed in Colorado but now call their home central Oregon.  They have a relaxed, comforting acoustic sound driven by its two principals – Bill Powers (vocals, guitar, mandolin) and Shelly Gray (vocals, upright bass). Benji Nagel (vocals, dobro), CJ Neary (fiddle), and Don Hawkins (snare) round out the quintet for their third release, Threadbare, after an eight-year hiatus. As such, many of these songs were either written while based in Colorado, or that locale is indelibly printed in their approach as indicated by “Red Mountain Pass,” “Big Water Ahead,” “Ain’t No Damn Up on Yampa,” “Daybreak on the Muddy,” and “Denver Ramble.” 

While the instrumentation reads as bluegrass, theirs has elements of folk, country, western swing, and yes, bluegrass too. It’s timeless music that fits as easily in the early to mid-twentieth century as it does now. Like bluegrass though, it seems that the three vocalists are all sharing one mic as Powers voice is just slightly more prominent than the others, giving it a carefree approach that becomes instantly infectious in a just-pull-up-your-chair way. They have kind of a sneaky way of making this ageless music fresh.

The bulk of the songs are theirs except for the opening “Eight More Miles” form Kieran Kane and “Wrong Way to Run” from Willy Tea Taylor. The Kane tune proves to be the perfect introduction as it creates the relaxed, harmonious vibe. At times the band grows more enthusiastic, almost giddy on tunes such as the rather raw “Denver Ramble” and the brimming “Big Water Ahead,” the latter as if sung as a half cautionary warning/ half presaging excitement from a white-water rafting guide on the Colorado River. “Red Mountain Pass” downshifts the tempo as the instruments mesh well to create a sustained energy behind a more serious cautionary stance although the chorus still exudes a carefree attitude – “The Lord’s gonna take me when he wants me.”

The opening to the ballad “Ain’t No Damn Up on Yampa,” evoked The Band’s “Ain’t No Cane on the Brazos” but quickly moved away from that riff as the Nagel and Neary deliver a superb dobro-fiddle combination that paints the sorrowful backdrop.  From here the album kicks into more upbeat fare with the clever wordplay of “Five Foot Four from Fort Worth,” the easy rolling singalong “Anything for You,” the confessional, steadfast title track, and the celebratory “Wine, Whisky, Beer, and Gin.”

Rather than sustain the blissful pace, they step back with more sensitive fare in “For the Roses” and fiddle/dobro imbued “Wrong Way to Run.” Yet, “High Country News Girl” has the band flying at their gleefully fastest of all with outstanding dobro picking from Nagel. There’s little choice but to take a breather after that one and the band closes with a touching instrumental, “Daybreak On the Muddy,” with solos from mandolin, dobro, and fiddle.  As the tune fades out, they leave us wanting more, attesting to a job well done.

 

Jim Hynes

 

 

Jim Hynes is an independent contributor on music for several magazines, including Elmore and Country Standard Time. He has also written for Variety. He was a listener-supported public station(s) radio host for 25 years in CT, MI, NJ and PA. He is also a Live music host/Emcee at several national and regional venues.

To Read All of Jim's Reviews, Click Here

 

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Music Review - 'Then and One More Day` by Westley Dennis (jh)

Westley Dennis -  Then and One More Day (click on image to watch video)

19 June 2021 

 

Every so often we get the refreshing sound of traditional country giving us reassurance that there are still a handful of artists making the kind of music that drew us in years ago that has since been replaced by the trite, overly produced, vacuous commercial variety that passes for “country.”  Wesley Dennis was once a big label act too, having signed with Mercury Nashville Records in the mid-90s. Somehow, despite the mentorship of Alan Jackson, Dennis never really caught on as a mainstream act. Listening to Then and One More Day makes this rather puzzling. He’s got the vocal chops, the sensibilities, and even the pen of real deal country artist. It’s in his blood and he’s stayed devoted to this music despite never reaching the stardom he so deserved.

Commenting on the perfect country & western song, David Alan Coe sang in Steve Goodman’s “You Never Even Called Me By My Name”- “Because he hadn't said anything at all about mama

Or trains, or trucks, or prison, or getting' drunk.” Dennis doesn’t hit all these proverbial touchstones either but does more than enough justice to ‘prison’ and indirectly to ‘getting drunk.’ ‘Cheating’ should have probably been included in that litany. We don’t hear those kinds of songs much anymore, but Dennis laments the loose women he used to hang out with in “Where Are All The Girls I Used to Cheat With,” featuring Caleb Daugherty. The theme of prison appears in his original “Alabama Dreams,” sung from the perspective of an inmate dreaming about freedom. Then, another highlight, “All My Friends Are Beyond Bars” (featuring Chris Keefe) details a long list of friends in that predicament. 

Of course, common themes of love, heartbreak, and blue collar struggles are found here too along with a genuine twangy sound filled with pedal steel, fiddles, honky tonk piano, and just the right amount of telecaster.  Some of it, however, becomes inevitably repetitive and predictable such that the middle of the album except for the Merle Haggard-like title track doesn’t hold up as well as the beginning and the end. Speaking of the latter, “Hey Pretty Baby” is an upbeat tune while “Little Things” is a tune that can vie with the best country ballads, as Dennis sings about how small acts and gestures can lead to a strong marriage. It’s sappy but in his hands, it still comes across genuinely. 

There are a couple of missteps though. He may have been better off keeping “This Song’s For You” as a tribute to unsung heroes and military vets rather than also saluting women that choose not to have abortions. The political stance seems misplaced on this kind of album.  The cover tune “If I Had Any Pride Left at All,” lacks the punch of John Berry’s original and is an unnecessary addition to an album that features mostly Dennis’ own material.  Those are minor quibbles though as this a fine classic country album and one worthy of plenty of airplay, which Dennis will sadly likely receive only from judicious hosts on non-commercial stations.  At the same time, Dennis deserves to be played alongside a few of the more straightforward country artists left in the mainstream such as Alan Jackson, George Strait, and Jamey Johnson.

 

 

Jim Hynes

 

 

Jim Hynes is an independent contributor on music for several magazines, including Elmore and Country Standard Time. He has also written for Variety. He was a listener-supported public station(s) radio host for 25 years in CT, MI, NJ and PA. He is also a Live music host/Emcee at several national and regional venues.

To Read All of Jim's Reviews, Click Here

 

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