All posts by Darren Johnson

About Darren Johnson

PR, writing, campaigning and blogging

Singer-songwriter: album review – Robert Gray ‘Short Stories’

With his style being described as “sketchbook pop” the music of singer-songwriter, Robert Gray, combines elements of folk, jazz and blues. Playing in a variety of bands on the London live scene, he released in album in partnership with Australian singer-songwriter, Troy Utz, back in 2003. After a break from music and a subsequent move to Germany with his young family in 2012, Gray was inspired to begin writing and recording again.

Short Stories is his debut solo album. Some ten years in the making the album has been recorded at a number of home studios in Britain and Germany. The songs range from the highly personal: the birth of his son, a love-song to his wife on the theme of growing old together, his feelings as his young daughter lay in hospital for an operation – to the more political: a break-up song about Brexit, a young mother working in a sweatshop and Trump’s election to the White House.  

 “I think of my songs as little sketches of a scene”, he says “and in those two or three minutes I am trying to paint a picture for the listener.”

 “When I look back on the album I have a lot of memories of things that inspired the songs and the places where I wrote or recorded them.”

A multi-instrumentalist who plays all the instruments on the album (bar two guest musicians on one of the track), Gray cites J.J. Cale, Richard Thompson and Chet Atkins as key influences

With an easy-going vocal delivery, some rather lovely guitar flourishes and consistently thought-provoking lyrics, Gray turns out some quality songs which make for a highly listenable album.

Released: January 2021

https://www.robertgraymusic.com/

Singer-songwriter: album review – Michael McGovern ‘Highfield Suite’

Highfield Suite is the debut album from Glasgow singer-songwriter Michael McGovern. At 25 he’s been writing songs since he was a teenager, Highfield Suite being the culmination of his work to date. He says the songs on the album very much reflect this period of his life, focusing on themes such as friendship, love, regret and reconciling with one’s own mistakes.  Citing the likes of Leonard Cohen, to Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Springsteen and Fleet Foxes as key inspirations McGovern traverses that folky, acoustic, Americana-flavoured vibe with confidence and there’s a real maturity to his song-writing, too.

McGovern had begun building a name for himself on the festival circuit but, like many musicians, once the pandemic struck and brought an end to life performances his focus turned to writing and recording. Taking the self-isolation route to its creative limits, McGovern ended up recording much of the album alone in a small wooden cabin in Galway, Ireland with a single microphone.

If that suggests a stark, minimalist feel to the album, then it’s a wrong impression. Dublin-based producer, Bill Shanley, worked alongside McGovern to flesh out the album and a range of additional musicians and backing vocalists were brought in on various tracks to add extra depth and texture. McGovern himself plays guitar, bass, piano and keyboards on the album with co-producer, Shanley, providing additional guitars, bass and vocals alongside assorted guests, including some wonderfully evocative pedal steel guitar from Connor Smith.

The result is a beautifully timeless album with heartfelt lyrics, lush gospel-tinged harmony vocals complementing McGovern’s own emotive voice and some gorgeous guitar. An impressive debut.

Released: June 2021

https://www.michaelmcgovern.co.uk/

Book review: ‘Rock History: the Musician’s Perspective’ by Dr Rob Brosh

When an American academic, Dr Rob Brosh of the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, got in touch to see if I was interested in reviewing the textbook he had written for music students, my first thought was, “Why me?” I play music all day long but can’t hold a tune for the life of me. I read about music, write about music and think about music but have never had any pretensions to being a musician and barely know one end of an instrument to another. Music history always fascinates me, however, so I emailed Rob back and told him I’d be very interested in reading his book.

In the pre-internet days I used to devour rock encyclopaedias – books like The NME Book of Rock, The Virgin Encyclopaedia of Seventies Music and The All-Music Guide To Rock. Huge, lengthy tomes that I would constantly dipping in and out of to find out background information on bands and artists that I was newly discovering. There’s something about the old rock encyclopaedia format in Brosh’s book but rather than an A-to-Z directory this book takes us through the evolution of rock music genre by genre.

I found ‘Rock History: the Musician’s Perspective’ absolutely gripping and read it cover to cover. It does three main things.

Firstly, it gives us a detailed overview of the vast range of music genres that fall within the canon of rock music and how each developed from the development of rock and roll itself, through blues rock, psychedelia, hard rock, folk rock, punk rock and many, many more. What I thought came across brilliantly in the early part of the book is the dynamics of how successive waves of musicians in the US and the UK influenced one another, sending new musical trends back and forth across the Atlantic as rock music involved from its earliest foundations.

Secondly, it gives us a concise but fascinating overview of many of the key artists within each of those genres, for example detailing how bands came together, how they developed their own style and giving us some memorable highlights from their careers. The fact that it’s arranged by genre rather than artist obviously makes it a little trickier to look up individual artists than the old encyclopaedia format did, but the internet has largely rendered that format obsolete now I guess anyway. However, it more than makes up for that by being able to place the evolution of individual artists into the wider context of the evolution of key genres and styles. I was definitely picking up new insights in this way and learning new facts so it’s obviously going to be a great resource for students.

The third thing the book does is focus in on particular songs, providing insights into the structure of them and how certain sounds were achieved. This last element is where you get the musician’s perspective and while some of it went over my head as a non-musician most of it didn’t! I definitely learnt a lot and ended up playing many of the songs that were being discussed in detail and it all started making a lot of sense.

This decidedly non-musician’s review of a musician’s perspective on the history of rock music is therefore a very positive one. Highly recommended.

Published by DDG Publishing, 2018

Singer-songwriter: album review – Carbonhobo ‘Memoirs From The Crooked Road’

Carbonhobo is the alias for Neil McCartney’s latest solo venture. McCartney (who confirms in the accompanying press release he is actually related to his far more famous name-sake – but only distantly so) will be known to many folk-rock fans as the fiddle player with Merry Hell. Just as we witnessed with the solo album from Merry Hell’s Virginia Kettle last summer, the album is something of a departure from the parent group’s signature sound. In place of amped-up, rousing folk rock anthems we go down a far mellower singer-songwriter road with Carbonhobo.

What is fascinating about the songs on this album is that unlike many musicians who used the enforced down-time during lockdown to put pen to paper and create a whole load of brand-new material, many of the songs on this album go back decades – or at least were started back then.

Described as a “twelve-track wander through over thirty years of songs, written and lived around the world” Memoirs From The Crooked Road include the wistful ‘Seagull’, based on a tune McCartney wrote in his teens in Wigan back in the 1980s, to the infectious ‘Fifteen Miles To Buy Tobacco’ written in a cottage in County Mayo in the early 90s and completed in present day Wigan.

Between his teen years in Wigan and settling down there again later on, McCartney has enjoyed an adventurous life with stints in London, Ireland, the US and Thailand, all of which leave their mark on this album and the songs therein.

McCartney is effortlessly comfortable with the material, has an expressive, emotive voice, is a great storyteller, a fine musician and has an ear for a catchy melody. He takes us on quite a journey with Memoirs From The Crooked Road but it’s well worth joining him.

Released: 2nd August 2021

https://www.facebook.com/carbonhobo/

Related posts:

Album review – Merry Hell ‘Emergency Lullabies’

Album review – Virginia Kettle ‘No Place Like Tomorrow’

DVD review: Merry Hell ‘A Year In The Life’

Album review: Merry Hell ‘Anthems To The Wind’

EP review: Merry Hell ‘Bury Me Naked’

EP review: Merry Hell ‘Come On England!’

Folk: album review – Joe Danks ‘Seaspeak’

Having previously lived in south-east London for nearly twenty years I was pretty familiar with the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich and delighted to learn that Joe Danks’ album Seaspeak came about as a result of a collaboration between the museum and the English Folk Dance & Song Society.

Hailing from Nottingham and now residing in Derbyshire, what Danks lacks in terms of bonafide seafaring credentials he certainly makes up for in musicianship, songwriting and ability to source and reinterpret traditional material. Listeners may already be familiar with Danks through his work as part of Anglo-Irish folk outfit Ranagri.

Although shanties suddenly became the height of cool during lockdown, Danks avoided the most obvious musical direction for his material and looks elsewhere for inspiration. Recorded at the Queen’s House in Greenwich close to the Maritime Museum, he’s gone for a mixture of traditional material with some kind of maritime theme – either directly or indirectly, several brand-new compositions and a couple of poems set to music. The album concludes with a new interpretation of Ewan MacColl’s ‘Sweet Thames Flow Softly’.

“I was thrilled to be selected for the residency,” says Danks. “It was a great pleasure and privilege sourcing, writing, and arranging the material. The collection at the museum and its Caird Library is the richest stimulus imaginable for a songwriter and arranger and I was lucky to be supported by some very fine musicians on the project.”

Joining Danks, who plays guitar, bodhran and melodeon as well as singing, are Danny Peddler (accordion/hurdy gurdy), Sarah Matthews (fiddle/viola/vocals) and Jean Kelly (harp). Traditional dancer, Simon Harmer, also contributes his distinctive step dancing on two numbers.

Fresh-sounding, inventive yet steeped in tradition and tapping into a rich vein of history, from the sad tale of Jumbo the Elephant to the battle of Jutland in the First World War to Shackleton’s expedition to name but three, Seaspeak is a very impressive solo debut arising out of a fascinating project.

Released: 9th July 2021

https://www.joedanks.co.uk/

‘Nightfall in the Labyrinth’ progressive duo Across The Sea return with new single

‘ferociously intense yet strikingly melodic’

Released: 6th August 2021

‘Nightfall in the Labyrinth’ is the new single from Sussex-based progressive duo Across The Sea. Released on 6th August it’s the lead single ahead of the duo’s much-anticipated second album, a nine-track concept piece entitled The Wayfarer Triptych which is scheduled for release on 1st October.

Deep amongst the maze-like ruins of a fallen city, a girl is pursued through the night as she flees in a desperate bid for survival. And far in the distance, a great wall of mist rises from the darkness, standing between her and the hope of salvation. What lies beyond? Will she reach the other side? Or will she remain imprisoned in this labyrinth forever?

The fastest track the duo have ever committed to tape, ‘Nightfall in the Labyrinth’ showcases Across The Sea at their most ferociously intense yet strikingly melodic, twisting and turning through a barrage of frenetic guitar riffs, towering vocal hooks and complex rhythmic shifts, as the track spirals towards its soaring and dynamic finale.

Hailing from Worthing on the West Sussex coast in the south of England, Across The Sea sound unlike any act you’ve heard before. Evocative, otherworldly, and utterly captivating, they defy categorisation, inhabiting a place where the boundlessness of the imagination transcends genre limitations and conventions. A breathtaking synthesis of the haunting, siren-like vocals of classically trained soprano Hannah Katy Lewis and the dynamic, unorthodox and experimental guitar style of Pete Ferguson, their mesmerisingly unique sound is wildly eclectic, fiercely inventive and singularly distinctive.

Their critically-acclaimed first album Infinite Worlds was released in December 2018, featuring on HMV Brighton’s recommended list and being lauded by a diverse range of outlets as a startlingly original debut. The June 2019 stand-alone single Behind the Looking Glass gained further recognition for the duo, picking up considerable airplay in the UK and internationally.

Playing over 150 shows since their inception, the pair have earned a reputation as one of the most tirelessly active and genuinely innovative acts on the live circuit, whose immersive and theatrical performances have enchanted audiences at venues throughout the south and – as part of a successful 2019 summer tour – festivals such as Victorious, Wickham and Rhythmtree.

‘Nightfall in the Labyrinth’ will be available from Across The Sea’s online store in a variety of digital formats www.acrosstheseauk.com

Across The Sea – what they say:

“Early Joni Mitchell meets Hawkwind in this Space-Rock-fuelled, Folk fusion journey. Set the controls for a far-flung flight of fantasy to a distant galaxy where Space Rock, Folk and Opera are one. Brimming with complex musical ideas and literary concepts, Across the Sea will challenge you to consider where one genre ends, and another begins.”Alistair Goodwin, Music Producer & Events Organiser, Wickham Festival

“A unique musical act that is virtually impossible to pigeonhole genre-wise, combining amazing vocals with breath-taking guitar work.”Ivan Roberts, Riff Taff Music Networking

“Something to get drawn into and swept away with.”Metal Meyhem Radio

“We love Across the Sea – uncompromising, dark, ethereal beauty. One of the most interesting acoustic artists around. Can’t wait to hear what they’ll do next.” John Fowler of prog duo Dandelion Charm

“Across the Sea are a rare find. The extreme juxtaposition of Hannah’s exquisitely pure vocal and Pete’s deep and intricate guitar playing is extraordinary and compelling.” Clare Fowler, Dandelion Charm

“Combined they’re a 2 piece that sound like a 10 piece.”​Headlights and White Lines

“Hannah Katy Lewis’ vocal is startlingly good, ranging from Kate Bush theatricals to Middle-Eastern chanting…”​Listen With Monger

Nightfall in the Labyrinth – credits:

Vocals – Hannah Katy Lewis

Guitar – Pete Ferguson

Written, recorded & performed by Across The Sea

Recorded at Humber Studios & The Mothership, August – October 2020

Mixed by Pete Ferguson

Mastered by Augmented Sounds

Soundscapes/Effects – Pete Ferguson

Artwork – Angelina Andreas

Layout – Hannah Katy Lewis

Logo Design – Cynthia Renn

www.acrosstheseauk.com

Rock: album review – Don Powell’s Occasional Flames ‘Just My Cup of Tea’

After decades of touring the circuit blasting out the old hits with erstwhile colleague, Dave Hill, in his reconstituted version of Slade, the last few years have been something of a creative renaissance for drummer, Don Powell. There was the enormously well-received album with Suzie Quatro and Sweet’s Andy Scott, there’s been work with his new Don Powell Band and he is also about to release his second album as part of Don Powell’s Occasional Flames. Just My Cup Of Tea sees him, once again, with guitarist/vocalist, Les Glover, and lyricist/poet and ukulele supremo and Slade superfan, Paul Cookson.

Paul Cookson is a brilliantly witty lyricist and poet, indeed publishing an anthology of Slade related poetry ‘Touched By The Band Of Nod’ back in 2007. I have a signed copy! Of course, there are numerous nods to Slade on the album and ‘Coz We Luv You’ is an affectionate tribute to our four heroes from Wolverhampton with a trademark Slade stomp.

The cultural references across the album’s fourteen songs go far beyond Slade and 70s glam, however. ‘I Won’t Be Playing Wonderwall’ is a witty Oasis pastiche, for example, but much of the album gives off something of an early 80s post-punk vibe – choppy, slightly aggressive yet highly tuneful playing, teamed up with sharp, observational semi- spoken-word lyrics. Not the album lacks more sensitive moments, too, like the poignant ‘We Are The Hearts’ or the affectionate ‘Bernie and Elton’ tribute to the bespectacled pianist and his long-time lyricist.

There quality of the musicianship on the album is great, too, both from the trio themselves and their musical guests. Cellist, Liz Hanks, who has played with the likes of Liam Gallagher, Richard Hawley, Paul Heaton and Thea Gilmore is one of the album’s guests for, example, while the group’s own guitarist, Les Glover, has a very impressive musical CV, running from Elvis sideman, James Burton to 10cc’s Graham Gouldman.

Glorious words, great playing and Don Powell out of Slade, too – what’s not to love about the Occasional Flames!

Just My Cup of Tea is released on 1st August 2021

http://www.occasional-flames.co.uk/

Related posts:

Interview with Don Powell

Veteran drummer Don Powell out of Slade

Slade legend Jim Lea releases video footage in bid to locate recently stolen guitar

EP review – Jim Lea ‘Lost In Space’

Interview with former Slade legend Jim Lea

Jim Lea at the Robin 2, Bilston 2017

Before glam: the debut 60s singles of Bowie, Bolan, Slade, Mud and Sweet

Slade, strikes and the three-day week: the story of the greatest Christmas record ever made

Slade at Donnington 1981

Slade at White Rock Theatre, Hastings 2015

Giants of Rock, Minehead 26-29 January 2018

Slade at Brighton 2019

This week’s featured artist: stoner metal band Scarfoot – new video ‘Cactus Killer’

Scarfoot are a three piece hard rock/metal outfit from Merseyside. A video for their latest release ‘Cactus Killer’ was unveiled back in June and has already clocked up an impressive 8,000+ views.

The band are Oliver Carins (guitar and vocals), Phil Eakins (drums and vocals) and Rhys Jones (bass). Formed back in 2018 their line-up has now settled with bass-player Rhys joining the two founder members.

I get the lowdown on the video:

“We were intending to make a more… budgetarily weighty video,” confesses Rhys. “But lockdown after lockdown after lockdown made us just decide – balls to this, we’ll have some cactuses fight and animate them. It isn’t the video we originally intended to make, but in a pandemic you do what you gotta do to keep the ball rolling. We had cactuses, we’re a bit daft, so this is what we made!”

And how would the band describe their sound?

Rhys: “A yet to be defined genre. Probably stoner metal would be the closest I think but we do argue about it.

Check out Scarfoot here: https://www.scarfoot.com/

Americana: album review – Beki Hemingway ‘Earth & Asphalt’

“We are two Americans living in Ireland doing original Americana which is folky and rocky at times.”

So stated the charming hand-written note that accompanied the CD and press release announcing Beki Hemingway’s latest album. Folky and rocky Americana does indeed sound just the sort of thing that Darren’s Music Blog should be investigating so I decided to find out more.

Working with her husband and musical partner, Randy Kerkman, since the mid-90s Hemingway has already released half a dozen albums, the last being Whins and Weather which came out in 2017. It was around that time, however, that the pair made some major changes to their lives. Leaving behind Denver, Colorado they emigrated to Ireland in late 2016, settling in Dundalk on Ireland’s east coast.

Channelling the spirit of the likes of Emmylou Harris, John Mellencamp and Hank Williams Earth & Asphalt serves up eleven tracks of gorgeous, sun-kissed, heart-felt Americana. And there is, indeed, some rocky bits. Kerkman is a greatly talented guitarist, whether turning in some achingly poignant guitar licks on the slower tracks like ‘Shape of My Face’ and ‘Hurricane’ or some Stonesy-type riffing on songs like ‘We’re Not Going Anywhere’, not to mention bags of gorgeous-sounding, upbeat Americana on the rest.

Expressive and emotive as a singer and a great story-telling lyricist and melodious song-writer, Hemingway’s vocals are the perfect fit for her husband’s playing. Bass, drums and keyboards from a succession of supporting players round out the sound nicely and it’s extremely well-produced with some rich-sounding harmony vocals.

What you won’t really find is much in the way of Celtic influences, however much they are soaking up the scenery and culture of their new lifestyle.

“It turns out that being here has only made us sound more American,” says Hemingway. I can’t disagree with that! Simply gorgeous.

Released this year Earth & Asphalt is available from: http://blog.bekihemingway.com/

Record Store Day is great but it’s no longer my day – we need a Day of the CD!

I was very enthusiastic about Record Store Day when it first started getting off the ground back in the late 00s. Amazon was sweeping all before, independent record stores faced complete obliteration and it was a worthy exercise to show those that were hanging on some love and support. One of my most enjoyable Record Store Day experiences back then was a on a weekend trip to Antwerp, wandering from store to store, catching a variety of live bands playing instore and coming home on the Eurostar with an armful of CDs, both new and second-hand.

These days, however, Record Store Day has become so synonymous with the vinyl revival craze and all the attendant limited edition vinyl releases that go with it that it just doesn’t speak to me at all. As a dedicated CD collector, I don’t bear it any ill-will and I am very happy for stores to cater for their vinyl market in this way, and for the artists and record companies that supply them. But it’s not my day.

I am a dedicated fan of the CD format and will remain so – and remember there were still 16 million of them sold in the UK last year, bringing in revenue of £115 million. Yes, CD sales are declining but they are far from disappearing and – nor will they!

As this article makes clear CDs are still a great format for musicians:

Why do musicians hate streaming?

– Streaming services reduce sound quality

– Musicians make significantly less money from digital sales and streaming

– This combination of reduced audio quality and income undermine the musician’s work

https://www.blankmediaprinting.com/blog-article/why-cds-are-still-best-platform-musicians

Easy to produce and cheap to mail out and easy to sell at gigs (unlike lugging huge crates of clunky vinyl around) CDs provide a decent revenue stream for musicians on a quality format for fans.

That is why I now think we need an annual day to celebrate the CD each year, and those who sell them – whether that’s record stores, independent online retailers and the artists themselves. I don’t begrudge vinyl fans their day. There’s loads of cultural events that completely pass me by – from Eurovision to football to royal weddings. And Record Store Day is one of those. Great for those who it means something to but it’s no longer my day.

So let’s have an international Day of the CD each year. Who’s up for it?

Related articles:

The changing demographics behind charity shop CDs

In praise of the CD: Seven reasons why CDs are my favourite music format ever

A quick tour around my CD collection