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fRoots reviews: 2011

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Murder Ballads
Secret London

Pokey LaFarge & The South City Three: Middle of Everywhere.
In the 1920s and 1930s, with recorded music still in its infancy, no-one had yet thought to draw rigid lines between different genres. The elements of what we'd now call blues, country or jazz were all there in American popular music, but it would never have occurred to the performers that they were supposed to stake out one patch and forsake all others.
It's fitting, then, that this St Louis quartet's second album is so difficult to pigeonhole. LaFarge has mastered the art of writing songs in his chosen era's sunny, charming style, but the musical setting he gives them demands that his bandmates conjure up everyone from the early black songsters to Bob Wills and Django Reinhardt. Fortunately, he's got the boys that can pull that off, with Adam Hoskins' guitar, Joey Glynn's stand-up bass and Ryan Koenig's dual skills on washboard and harmonica effortlessly serving up every flavour required.
So Long Honeybee Goodbye has a trad jazz feel about it, Hoskins' lap steel on Shenandoah River brings a trace of western swing, and a guest horn section of cornet and trombone colours Feels So Good. Best of all is Koenig's harmonica playing, particularly on the bluesy Mississippi Girl, where he swoops and dives round the other instruments like a bird loosed in the studio. His washboard playing's a treat too, joining seamlessly with Glynn's supple bass to swing each song forward. What drums there are on the record are kept low enough to ensure they never break its gentle mood.
LaFarge himself adds vocals, parlour guitar and occasional banjo. He wrote all 13 of the songs here, and sings them in the persona of a sweet, slightly befuddled guy, happily chasing girls and innocent fun in a world as cheery as that of a PG Wodehouse novel. "Say it sunny, say it sunny," he reminds Hoskins during one solo, and that's the band's watchword throughout.
The result is a thoroughly enjoyable, toe-tapper of an album, and one that's almost guaranteed to put a smile on your face. No wonder The White Stripes' Jack White has declared himself a fan, and already done some production work on one of the band's other records.

Meschiya Lake & The Little Big Horns: Lucky Devil.
Meschiya (Ma-shee-ya) Lake is a former sideshow performer who's been busking with New Orleans jazz bands like The Loose Marbles since 2007. She switched to singing country for a while with The Magnolia Beacon, then returned home to form her own old-time jazz band in 2009. That band, The Little Big Horns, netted her the city's Big Easy Award for best female performer earlier this year, and now their debut album's arrived.
And what a New Orleans affair it is. The spacious arrangements, intertwining horns and abrasive trombone or cornet solos are all characteristic of the Crescent City's sound. Its unquenchable good humour is well-represented too, thanks to elements like the frantic spoons solo on The Curse of an Aching Heart, the stately sousaphone pulse underpinning Do For Myself, and the witty lyrics of songs like the mock-mournful Lucky Devil. The lazy, half-stoned lurch of even the album's slowest numbers always bursts into celebration before the track's done.
Lake includes just two of her own songs, filling the rest of the album with covers such as Duke Ellington's I Ain't Got Nuthin But The Blues, Bessie Smith's Gimme a Pigfoot, and Jelly Roll Morton's Sweet Substitute. Her own compositions sound thoroughly at home in this company, although the smouldering Slowburn reminds me powerfully of another song I can't quite put my finger on.
Pigfoot is just one of three Bessie Smith covers included here, the others being Sam Stept's Comes Love and Smith's own composition Backwater Blues. Lake can't quite match the sheer grunt of Smith's own performances, but the experience of making herself heard over busy city traffic has given her enough lung-power and presence to ensure she's not overwhelmed by the comparison either. She's at her best on the album's wryly humourous numbers, infusing them with just the sense of salacious mischief a song like Lucky Devil demands.
Her vocals on Backwater Blues - which you can only hear as a Hurricane Katrina song in this context - are less successful. For a band which declares itself so rooted in New Orleans, you'd expect Katrina to inspire much more emotion than Lake's rather mannered vocal conveys. That's really just a quibble, though, and no reason to miss seeing the band on their promised 2012 UK tour. On the evidence here, they'll provide a bloody good night out.

Jack Blackman: River Town.
Jack Blackman is a 17-year-old guitarist and singer from Warwickshire, whose heroes are the old country blues masters like Blind Blake and Rev. Gary Davis. That's the style Blackman emulates here, on his first full-length album, and it's a remarkably accomplished performance for one so young.
The album's entirely a solo effort, with Blackman sticking to acoustic guitar throughout, and writing all but two tracks himself. The two covers are Muddy Waters' Can't Be Satisfied and a live version of Blind Blake's Police Dog Blues from the Radio 2 Young Folk Awards. Blackman's playing is lively and fluid right through the album, combining some very agile finger-picking with a percussive slap on the strings after every phrase. The two slide numbers - Whisky Grave and Can't Be Satisfied - are particularly enjoyable.
The problem comes with his voice, which often pipes when it should roar or growl. A teenager's voice simply lacks the authority to pull off lines like: "They'll never see what we've seen" or: "Pour whisky on my grave". Instead of feeling a shiver of fear when he threatens to pistol-whip us to death in Can't Be Satisfied, you want to toussle his hair.
Blackman's own lyrics draw largely from his recent trip to the American South, and are full of precisely the observations you'd expect a young Englishman to make there. Stranger alone squeezes in spanish moss, live oaks, a chain gang, cotton blossom, heat mirages, roadkill, neon signs, the levee and some noisy bullfrogs.
Thankfully, not every song's like this. Trouble details some of his mates' cider-fuelled adventures, and here the sound of a modern British teenager using the blues idiom to talk about his own life brings something more distinctive to the table. The folksy Stick Stock Stone hits closer to home too, telling the legend of Warwickshire's Rollright Stones.
Set Blackman's age aside for a moment, and this emerges as a respectable debut rather than an astonishing one. He'll make far better albums than this in the future, but the foundations he's laid here are solid enough. His love of the blues is clearly genuine and, with more than 100 gigs already under his belt, he's doing everything right to ensure he grows into a major talent. What he needs right now is a few years of hard living to roughen up that voice a bit.

These reviews first appeared in fRoots 338/339, the Summer double issue. For more details, visit the magazine's website here.

My new gig: Ain't nothing but a blues thang

In the summer of 2011, I started writing occasional reviews of blues CDs and suchlike material for fRoots, the UK's leading folk music and world music magazine.
      The deal is that fRoots gets each review to itself for a full month (two months in the case of a double issue), and then I'm free to run it here on PlanetSlade too. Once in a while, they have the cheek to spike something of mine altogether, in which case I'll run it here as soon as that becomes apparent.
      For more about fRoots, which I can heartily recommend to all PlanetSlade readers, visit the magazine's website here. The editor's free monthly music podcast is particularly good.

Nov/Dec 2012

Paul Lamb & The King Snakes: The Games People Play

June 2012

Mike Stevens & Matt Andersen: Push Record

May 2012

The Teaser, by Little G Weevil.

Unpublished 2011

The Hellhound Sample, by Charles Shaar Murray.

Darling oh Darling, by Miss Tess

O Dig, by The Woodshedders

Oct 2011

The Promised Land: A Swamp Pop Journey, by The Lil' Band O' Gold.

Aug/Sept 2011

Middle of Everywhere, by Pokey LaFarge & The South City Three.

Lucky Devil, by Meschiya Lake & The Little Big Horns.

River Town, by Jack Blackman.

July 2011

The Skinny, by Ian Siegal & The Youngest Sons.

100 Years of Robert Johnson, by Big Head Blues Club.