Ward Thomas are a pop tinged country duo hailing from the unlikely location of Hampshire, a twin sister act who grew up on a rural live-stock farm from a family line of authors and artists. The sisters embraced rural lifestyle and along with it the rustic sounds of American mainstays Johnny Cash, Dixie Chicks and Carrie Underwood among others.
The duo were heard by renowned Nashville session musician Bobby Blazier, who embraced their sound and encouraged them to record over in the country state with a number of country’s top musicians as well as Grammy winning superstar Vince Gill, resulting in an album set to be released later on in the year as well as this, their debut EP, Footnotes.
Now if you like radio friendly country with pop hooks, Ward Thomas are the band for you, this four-track affair serves as a nice introduction to the stunning close harmonies and obvious pop hooks.
The EP opens with the rowdiest number, The Good & The Right, a blustery country rock number that’s simply hand built for day time radio with it’s instant hook, infectious vocal and long lasting swagger, that does bring to mind the aforementioned Dixie Chicks or perhaps The Wailin’ Jennys. From their the band strip back their sound, turn up the country influence and deliver the harmony enriched twanging title track, Footnotes. Take That Train is a true story based on love lost and redemption inspired by a chance encounter on a train, that once again showcases that sisterly bound with, it’s touching harmonies and rich melodies.
Ward Thomas finish up with a nod to their influences with a heartfelt and passionate rendition of Dougie MacLeans classic, Caledonia, that see’s the girls majestically cooing, making the often covered number very much their own.
Footnotes is a lovely showcase of the many attributes of Ward Thomas, from their close knit harmonies and intelligent instrumentation to their radio friendly pop hooks and heartfelt lyrics, the sisterly duo have certainly whetted the appetite for their forthcoming full length album.
Rhythm & Booze Rating 7
Emily Smith is a Scottish based singer-songwriter and traditional folk interrupter of the highest standard, since her formative years she was highly regarded, named as BBC Scotland’s Young Traditional Musician Of The Year back in 2002 as well as winning and being nominated for numerous other awards throughout her career to date.
Emily’s previous four albums have all been critically acclaimed and on the back of those successes, see has been seen gracing stages across the world taking in prestigious slots at the likes of Cambridge Folk Festival along the way.
In recent times Emily has also been seen on television for her part in the esteemed Transatlantic Sessions, BBC’s songs of praise and on a sky arts program dedicated to Emily.
After releasing a best of compilation last year, Ten Years, she returns with a brand new album that also see’s Emily returning to her love of traditional song. The album also see’s a number of high profile collaborators join to help realize Emily’s vision, with the likes of Jerry Douglas, Kris Drever and Aoife O’Donovan complimenting the gorgeous tones of Emily. Together they’ve helped form an album that weaves a majestic rootsy album that hints at both Emily’s obvious Scottish roots and perhaps more surprisingly a Nashville country twist.
The album opens with the stunning, understated Reres Hill, a beautiful yet somewhat dark ballad that instantly showcases Emily’s mesmeric vocals over a sparse, stripped down mix of plucked and sawed strings, all complimented by a distinctive country flavoured twang and half-murmered male vocals. As opening gambits go, Reres Hill is a simply jaw-dropping, intoxicating track that sends tingles down the spine and urges the listener to fully embrace the full depth of Echoes.
From such glorious beginnings, the album continues in the same rich vein with The Sower’s Song which sees delicate acoustic guitar blend effortlessly with tender heart felt vocal harmonies to bewitch the listener further. King Orfeo showcases that traditional folk/country crossover further with Emily taking a traditional song and giving it an original twist with shuffling drums and lap steel twangs creating a dustbowl Nashville feel.
The album continues on the roots trail with a murder ballad of sorts in the shape of Twa Sisters, that despite the subject matter, has quite an uplifting feel, with it’s hum along melody and effortless vocal refrain. Whilst The Open Door and the piano led, Clerk Saunders are both gorgeous slices of stripped majestic beauty, both showcasing Emily’s heart-wrenching and passionate vocal to full effect, over the spellbinding yet never obtrusive musical arrangements.
Emily Smith’s fifth album, Echoes is a bewitching album from start to finish that should become a firm favourite of roots lovers the world over, whether it’s folk, country or just a love of stripped down acoustic music there’s a great deal to embrace here.
Rhythm & Booze Rating 9
John Wheeler may not be a household name but if any of you have had your finger on the pulse in the past few years may recognise the multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter as the frontman of Hayseed Dixie, the world’s finest puveyours of Rock Grass and perhaps one of the most infectious and fun live acts known to man.
Un-American Gothic is John’s debut solo album and though it still contains a little of that tongue-in-cheek charm of the aforementioned ‘Dixie, a winning combination of rock, bluegrass, folk and stripped down rootsy Americana, John also delivers a number of biting slabs of social commentary (be it with a knowing side order of wit) on the likes of Deeper In Debt.
The album opens with the Down At The Exit, which serves as a brilliant statement of intent as John delivers a driving rootsy rocker complete with an addictive strummed acoustic, a killer melody and a winning contagious chorus that instantly warms the listener setting the stall for the treats ahead.
From such an instantly likeable opening salvo, John cranks up the guitars, throws in some sawing violin and hammers the crap out of the drumkit for a gloriously rowdy and stirring rocker in the shape of Doomsday Dance, that comes complete with a false ending and a wonderful fiery fiddle solo that’ll have the likes of The Levellers dribbling with envy. In direct contrast but no less impressive is the first of two inspired covers, in the shape of The Jam’s Eton Rifles, a track that see’s John strip the song to it’s bare bones, to deliver a stunning a (near) solo piano led version that manages to find a brand new dimension to the the well-known crowd-pleaser without losing any of it’s charm.
Highlights continue throughout the duration of Un-American Gothic, from the folky celtic-tinged ballad Kuss Mich Noch Einmal (yes I know German lyrics and Celtic influences do sound like a contradiction, but seriously check this out it works wonderfully), to the unexpected strong and beautifully soulful vocal delivery of Street Sweeper Lullaby, a track that simply oozes with emotion and longing, whilst Black Forest Skies again see’s John deliver a stunning dreamy turn, tinkling the ivories once more and It would be hard not to mention the ragged strum of the album’s second cover in Masters Of War which John makes Dylan’s tune his own, with an impassioned almost feral take.
Now I have to admit, I’m already a fully paid up member to the Hayseed Dixie fanclub (well not literally but you know what I mean), so you can imagine my intrigue when I read about John Wheeler’s first solo trip, but I can honestly say, I never expect such a varied, inspired and intoxicating collection of songs and styles, Un-American Gothic is something of a masterpiece, a genuine classic roots rock album with numerous twists and turns, countless hooks and more passion than most performers muster in a life time and though I hope Hayseed Dixie continue to flourish, this could well be John Wheeler’s most defining moment in music.
Rhythm & Booze Rating 10
Holy Vessels are a Brighton based five-piece who first formed back in 2009, the band quickly managed to secure slots at the likes of Glastonbury, Big Chill and Lounge On The Farm festival with their winning combination of stripped down rock, psychedelia and infectious country.
Since the band’s formative years they’ve continued to perform numerous high profile shows taking in numerous Communion Record showcases along the way, the band have in recent times been hard at work, honing their debut album, Last Orders At The Marshall Arms with producer Iain Harvie (Ex Del Amitri, Maccabies, Eileen Rose, etc.
The album is set to be released later on this year, but as a free taster, Holy Vessels offer up the wonderfully appetizing single Springtime Bloom. The track is a warm, friendly combination of acoustic guitars, infectious piano melodies and hushed drums, all pinned down by a hazy, country-tinged psych groove and topped by a delicious vocal croon bringing to mind a rootsy Mumford And Sons whilst retaining a sound all of their own.
Springtime Bloom is a delightful opening gambit, it’s a lovely slice of ear friendly, stripped back, rootsy rock with a memorable hook, delivered by a band very much on the up. If the rest of the album continues in the same rich vein, Holy Vessels could well be onto a winner.
Rhythm & Booze Rating 9
Regular readers of Rhythm & Booze will have no doubt stumbled upon my recent Nell Bryden reviews (Live at the NIA and recent single Buildings And Treetops both covered in recent times) and will already have realised I have something of a real affinity for the Brooklyn songstress, that began with Nell’s debut album What Does It Take. The Mark Taylor produced (James Morrison, Cher, Lady Gaga) second album is set to continue my love affair with Nell’s mature blend of rootsy country, rock and pop as Nell delivers a wonderful twelve strong set further developing her already potent sound.
Shake The Tree opens with the glorious (and recent Rhythm & Booze live favourite) ode to death row, Mercy On Me, a gorgeous blend of rootsy acoustic guitar, driving riffs, galloping percussion and Nell’s passionate, bluesy country vocals. As openers go it sets the mood wonderfully, Nell’s vocals dip and soar majestically, whilst the widescreen cinematic instrumentation bring to mind the likes of Calexico (which is high praise indeed!!) at their best. The aforementioned recent single, Buildings And Treetops follows showcasing the poppier yet no less impressive end of Nell’s musical spectrum, where chiming guitars and those stunning vocal tone’s combine to create a contagious pop anthem.
From the opening two song salvo Shake The Tree continues in the same rich vein, from the slow building majestic ballad Sirens to the rootsy country rock of Fingerprints, Nell delivers a beautiful collection of ballads and rockers with highlights coming thick and fast. The title track is an infectious, groove-laden, powerful piano led blues number complete with rattling percussion, hand claps and soul stirring vocal delivery, Echoes is an expansive pop ballad with marching beats and pedal steel guitar, whilst If I Forget is a funky little country number that opens with a few lines of acapella vocal before Nell’s band add a shuffling beat and a certain amount of swagger, delivering a short sharp slice of pure playful and addictive roots fun.
Shake The Tree is a rich, spellbinding album full of drama, passion and spirit, Nell’s vocals soar, purr and ooze with emotion, whilst the dynamic arrangements and delivery throughout will have you scrambling for the repeat button over and over again.
Rhythm & Booze Rating 9
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