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Journeys Deep in the Land of Bruce: a review of Cory Branan’s Adios

I’ve not listened to nearly enough music in my near 55 years on Earth. I mean, even my CD collection – which seemed at one point big enough to cause stress on the house foundations, or at least make an indelible dent in the carpet – is a tiny, tiny, fraction of the rock, country, soul, blues and what d’you may call it committed to tape since I was old enough to know there was something rum about Gary Glitter.

And in case I didn’t realise how ignorant I was, there are magazines like Mojo and Uncut to rub my nose in my own vacuity. Here’s a typical example of the type of review I read as I attempt to navigate my way through the roiling rapids of new music, and pick out something I might drop a few quid on and actually listen to:

‘David Barbe is best known as a producer for the Drive-By Truckers, Deerhunter and other local and national acts… “Why You Gotta Make It So Hard?” recalls the weirdo pop of the Elephant 6 Collective…’

Ok. I know Drive-By Truckers: that’s who Jason Isbell used to be with, and I’ve even heard a couple of their tracks. Deerhunter? I feel I should have heard of them. I’m sure I’ve read about them, in Mojo and Uncut. Elephant 6 Collective? Nope. No clue.

I know. I should be ashamed of myself. To be fair, most of the time, I will have heard of the bands these reviews reference. It’s just that, were I put in front of a firing squad of musos and told to whistle one of their greatest hits, I might be hard pushed to even make a start before the vinyl collectors pulled the trigger.

So this review is proceeding from a state of ignorant, if not bliss, acceptance that I will never, ever, be able to reference someone obscure. Full many a flower may, indeed, be born to blush unseen, musically speaking, and, as a matter of empirical fact, waste its sweetness on the desert air. I’m afraid my time to surf Youtube for all these mute inglorious Miltons is, well, pretty limited by other stuff.

So I’ll come right out and say it. Jason Isbell and Cory Branan sound a lot to me like Bruce Springsteen.

To be fair, I’m not the only one to make the connection. Isbell was described as ‘Springsteen-endorsed,’ in his recent interview with Acoustic Guitar; Uncut’s review of Branan’s new album, Adios, explicitly references the Boss.

Let’s start with Branan. I first heard a song of his a couple of years ago, as the standout track on one of the taster CDs of new music you get with these music zines. It was called ‘Survivor Blues’ and there was one line in particular, ‘leaned, and lit a cigarette,’ that I especially liked for its economy. I then promptly failed to put in the hard yards online to hear more of his stuff.

It was only recently, when I saw the review of Adios, that I got my act together and ordered up a copy online.

For me, it’s a truly great album in the fine traditions of the best work of Bruce Springsteen. Some things are obvious musical Springsteen references: the honking sax on ‘Imogene,’ for example; the pounded piano at the start of ‘Blacksburg,’ or the Roy Bittan-like keyboard sounds on ‘You Got Through.’

The Uncut review specifically compares Branan’s style to Springsteen’s 1980 classic ‘The River,’ and the musical similarities are there for all to see. The meld of soul, folk and early rock n’ roll (‘Only I Know,’ for example, with its Buddy Holly-style chord progressions) has the same roots as the Sage of New Jersey.

There’s another link, which only became obvious when the recent reissue of ‘The River’ sent Brucie on the interview trail: country. Springsteen described listening to the likes of Hank Williams to get that sense of ‘three chords and the truth’ into his songwriting.

Now, I’ve described before how I came to country late. When I was a teenager, that whole glitzy, teeth n’ sequins commercialism seemed alien to me, a kid from a place where (arguably too much the other way) the emphasis was on telling things as they really were, no matter how grittily depressing that might be.

(I’ve never thought of the connection up to now, but you could say that as much about the traditional Scottish folk songs as you could about punk. The guitars are different, obviously.)

It was only as I grew older that I realised that country was exactly about telling things as they were, and the plastic smiles and rhinestones of the big country stars that reached our TV were a long way from Nashville’s darker heart, and the likes of Willie Nelson. I still can’t stand that production line alternating bass figure you get on a lot of Johnny Cash songs, and too much plaintive pedal steel turns me off, but I get it, I really do.

Apart from the ones previously mentioned, there are three particular favourites for me. ‘Don’t Go,’ a story of a life long love ending up with the wife’s death, walks the fine line between mawkishness and tugging at the heart strings and, for me at least, makes it to the other side of that canyon unscathed. ‘My Father was an Accordion Player,’ is another (it would seem) personal family tale of a father-son relationship which is bittersweet but funny. My favourite of all of them, though, is ‘The Vow,’ a tribute to Branan’s late father that combines affection with realism in a truly touching way.

Branan is his own man so far as lyrics go, and all the better for it. Take these lines from ‘the Vow,’ as an example:

‘I said, well I just thought, and he cut me off, and said that’s what you get for thinking,

I remember thinking, that’s probably not the best lesson for a kid,

And although that was just something he said,

And when I see where I get with my thinking,

I get to thinking that there may have been some kind of genius in the effortless way

He just did…’

I’ve not even mentioned some of the other superb songs on this album: the bluesy ‘Cold Blue Moonlight;’ the protest song against the shooting of black civilians by police, ‘Another Nightmare in America,’ the rambunctious ‘Visiting Hours.’ I have listened to this album again and again, and got new pleasures from it each time.

As for Isbell, well, I’ll keep it short, as I’ve already headed north of a thousand words and tried your patience. In addition, I’m hoping for a guest review of his latest offering ‘the Nashville Sound,’ shortly, so we’ll see then whether his run of solo work starting with ‘South Eastern,’ and moving through ‘Something More Than Free,’ continues at the same level or not.

So for the sake of brevity I’ll offer as evidence of Springsteen influence just one track from the latter album, and that’s ‘Speed Trap Town.’ Protagonist with a conflicted relationship with his father? Check. Reference to State Trooper? Check. Storyline involving busting out of small town, and driving till the sun comes up? You bet. Moral complexity? Spades of it.

I appreciate this type of music won’t be for everyone: any synths in evidence are strictly in service of the guitars, and there is no word, anywhere, of whether or not it’s a rainy day in Manchester. The guitars are crisp, and generally, undistorted. Many of the songs extend past the three minute mark. Despite all that, it behoves you to listen.

Unless you’re way too busy with the Mute Inglorious Miltons’ back catalogue, of course. In which case, crack on, and do come back to me with the highlights.

Don’t Send In The Clowns: Jason Isbell Review

Some friends, loyal colleagues and family have been nice enough to ask me in the last fortnight what I’m ‘doing’ at the Fringe this year. To which I’ve replied: nothing. Nada. Not a single thing. Zilcho.

And, relaxing with a couple of bandmates and a pint of the amber nectar in the White Horse as other people’s friends, loyal colleagues and family were shovelled in and out of the back room which, on 1st October, will be Tribute to Venus Carmichael’s for the whole evening, I felt incredibly okay with that.

Anyway, enough about me. Imagine instead that you’re rising new country/rock musician Jason Isbell, booked into the Liquid Rooms for two nights running in the middle of August. You step out for a pre-gig bit of fresh air, and you’re engulfed in the madness that is the Edinburgh Festival Fringe: acres of railings plastered with posters of desperately gurning stand-ups; thronging crowds of confused Japanese tourists, fire-eaters and shouty posh boys with fliers; and the steady grind of gridlocked traffic, all trying to get somewhere, anywhere, where there isn’t a tour bus parked in the way. It must have been a relief for the poor chap to dive into the sweaty fug of the Liquid Rooms, and his own gig.

A genial onstage presence, Isbell had a nice line in amused bemusement at the carnivalesque maelstrom he had found himself in. ‘This is muiscal improv,’ he announced, prior to launching into another well-rehearsed number with his small but tight band (drums, bass, second guitar and keys/accordion). ‘Actually, there’s a reason why most musical improv’s free.’

I had first encountered Isbell through Jools Holland’s Later… and liked him enough to look him up on Youtube. For those of you, like me, raised to associate country with rhinestones, cheesy grins and a particular type of fake sincerity, his music’s nothing like that: though the melodies clearly owe a debt to the country tradition, the storytelling and songcraft in numbers like ‘Cover Me Up,’ and ’24 Frames’ remind me of Springsteen at his best, but without the bombast. Switching between Les Paul and acoustic for some numbers, Isbell showed he was no mere strummer, with both he and the other guitarist using slide on occasion as an extra texture.

In terms of material, fortunately for me he drew heavily on his last two albums, ‘South Eastern,’ and ‘Something More Than Free,’ with highlights the two songs, mentioned in the last paragraph, plus ‘Stockholm,’ ‘Flying Over Water,’ and ‘If It Takes A Lifetime.’ An encore of ‘Elephant’ and ‘Super 8,’ went down a storm with the enthusiastic, crowded-to-the rafters audience, who were noticeably singing along to the more recent songs. From the look of the crowd – twenty-somethings and up – Isbell has a growing fan base, and if he can keep playing killer gigs like this, it’s only going to get bigger.

It was no mean feet to fill the Liquid Rooms to the brim – twice – with all the other competing attractions, but he and his Alabama bandmates were definitely who everyone there wanted to see. ‘You be careful,’ he admonished us, sending us into a night full of Fringe tomfoolery.

Quite right Jason. There’s a whole lot of real clowns out there.

Songs in a Scottish Accent 1: Why I came to love Country

I had a strange epiphany on Thursday around 7 am, as I crested the rise before Falkland and saw the Howe of Fife laid out in all its glory, while Lucinda Williams growled in my ear about West Memphis: it was 5 years almost to the day since I began to appreciate country music for the first time.

Growing up in the Seventies, country seemed pretty much for old people, or at least the kind of people that would go along to country and western clubs, and/or learn to do line dancing. The stuff that came out of Nashville was slick, polished, schmaltzy, and seemingly devoid of any rebellious spirit. The only thing I knew about Willie Nelson was he featured in a pretty good joke (the punchline being: ‘well, I don’t know about the other two, but the one in the middle looks like Willie Nelson…’ if you haven’t heard it, don’t ask).

My musical tastes were pretty much guitar based rock, from Dylan and Springsteen through to punk and new wave. Anything with that whiny pedal steel noise just made me think of middle aged folks wearing checked shirts and Stetsons, trying to pretend they were from Louisiana rather than Lenzie.

Then, in 2011, I was lucky enough to get a chance to go to a conference in Nashville. We flew out the day after the last Scottish Parliamentary elections, and had a whale of a time. Seriously, all the good stories you’ve heard about Nashville was true. There was even a Gibson Guitars bus.

Actually, a lot of the stuff I heard in the bars on Lower Broadway was rock, or soul standards, but I heard enough of the real deal to begin to understand what country really was: one of the essential strands of DNA in Americana, that had gone on to influence all the music I had always liked. I read recently Springsteen saying that, before writing the songs that went into the River, he listened to Hank Williams, because he wanted to get that honesty of storytelling into the voice he used for the album. Three chords and the truth, indeed.

Back to that epiphany above Falkland, though. Although I’ve never been a massive fan of Scottish folk music, it did occur to me that it was strange, really, that all of my musical taste is really about American folk music instead – in other words, blues, country, gospel, and all those other DNA strands. Maybe it’s as simple as I consider myself more urban than rural, and Scottish folk seems to me much more rooted in its rural origins – and yes, I understand how Scottish folk has gone into the primordial soup from which Americana’s emerged, having danced a pas-de-basque (the Scottish country dance step all Scottish schoolchildren get taught, as part of an excruciatingly hormonal rite of passage in the school gym – again, if you’re not Scottish, don’t ask) to a bluegrass band when I was in Nashville.

Whatever. What I do know is that artists like Lucinda Williams and, more recently, Jason Isbell, have got me interested in country in a way I wasn’t before. One of the songs we’re doing at the gig on Saturday (Venus + Isaac: FB event here), ‘Death in Venice,’ is definitely country-influenced. I can even imagine a bit of subtle pedal steel on ‘Highway Tonight,’ one of the Venus Carmichael standards.

Of course this may just be that I am now middle aged. It is true that I am often seen wearing a check shirt; and my band leader for the second half of the gig, Mr Brutal, has been recently pictured wearing what could be described as a Stetson. But I’m not expecting any line dancing. Not to the whale song piece, at least.

And no matter how country I get, I’ll be trying my best to sing in a Scottish accent….

 

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