Ryan Adams – Life After Deaf (Live in Glasgow, June 2011)

Somewhere there’s an alternate universe in which there’s only one media outlet that plays nothing but new songs, every one of which is written by Ryan Adams. This universe may not be very far removed from our own. This is, after all, the person who once delivered three albums in a single year, one of them a double, and all of them totally fabulous. This is the person who was asked by Cameron Crowe to write a track for his new film, Elizabethtown, and returned with a whole album of songs, most of which are better than the material that was actually used in the film. This is the person who retired from music in 2009, only to release a new album in 2011. Oh, and he also released a metal album in between times. Now, thankfully, Ryan Adams is officially back. He’s just released a set of recordings from his ‘comeback’ tour last year. It comprises highlights from 15 different shows, each sold separately, plus 74 digital-only previously unreleased bonus tracks, which is just a tiny part of his unreleased work. The Glasgow show is, probably, representative of these live releases. Like Neil Young, Ryan Adams at at his best when he’s loose, spontaneous, busy. Here, it’s just himself, a guitar, and, on one song, a gob iron too. This set favours the earlier years of his work. There’s ’16 Days’ from his Whiskeytown era, a sublime cut of ‘My Winding Wheel’ from Heartbreaker, and a really clean version of ‘Sweet Illusions’ from Cold Roses. There’s also a particularly fine rendition of ‘English Girls Approximately’, the lyrics of which which are only partly appropriate given the venue. Typically, on this set at least, there is nothing from Ashes and Fire, his 2011 album. On the Glasgow album, there’s at least one sign of his genius. An audience member, seemingly randomly, calls out ‘Goodnight Bob’. Adams then proceeds to improvise a song with that title. It’s genuinely funny. Sure, you could only listen to it once, but it’s got some nice chord changes, and it gives a glimpse of just how much talent lies within. What more is there to say about him apart from the fact that there is at least one alternate universe in which I would like to live.

Beachwood Sparks – The Tarnished Gold

This is a crowded space in which to operate. Fleet Foxes. Vetiver. Husky. Hiss Golden Messenger. Jonathan Wilson. The list goes on. Beachwood Sparks, though, have form. Their 2000 s-t album was well received. But after one more album and an EP, that was it. At first, their brand of country-pop, psychedelic-country, insert equivalent two-word descriptors of your choice, was fresh sounding. Jangly like the Byrds. But just that little bit spaced out. It made waves, because what you got wasn’t quite what you expected. After a decade away, Beachwood Sparks are back. But they’re not quite the same as before. Gone is any overt experimentation. Instead, they’ve placed themselves firmly and squarely in that crowded space. True, the guitars are more country-sounding than most of the laid-back Canyon groups. There’s even a bit of a hoe-down towards the end. But nothing too overstated. Which is perhaps the keyword for the album as a whole. This is an easy listening album and, for once, that’s meant as a compliment. There’s not that sense, as there is with groups such as Chief, Maplewood, The Autumn Defense, of trying hard to ape a particular sound. For Beachwood Sparks the sound comes naturally. ‘Water From the Well’ flows beautifully. ‘Talk About Lonesome’ will not make you feel lonesome at all. Plus, there’s a welcome sense that things aren’t being taken too seriously. Calling a song ‘Sparks Fly Again’ is hardly a coincidence and ending the album with a track called ‘Goodbye’ suggests that there may be another 10-year wait before they return. But just maybe they’re teasing. Let’s hope so.

Beachwood Sparks official label page

Giant Giant Sand – Tucson

There are those for whom Howe Gelb, the brains behind Giant Giant Sand, can do no wrong. This is his 50th album or thereabouts. This one spreads itself across 19 tracks and over an hour and ten minutes of music time. As ever with a Howe Gelb album, and this is his 150th or thereabouts, there are some great moments. ‘Wind Blown Waltz’ begins the album nicely. ‘Love Comes Over You’ is as lovely as it sounds. This album, and it’s Howe Gelb’s 250th or thereabouts, is a self-styled country-rock opera that tells the story of a ‘semi-grizzled’ musician who embarks on a road trip. However, there the narrative thread pretty much ends. More a plot device than a coherent theme, the story provides Gelb with the pretext to visit a range of places and incorporate a variety of musical styles. The best moments are when he sounds like the long-lost country-rock cousin of David Berman of The Silver Jews. The second track ‘Forever And A Day’ is a good example. The worst are when he comes across as the bastard son of Jose Feliciano. Even with Lonna Kelly on vocals, the latin-tinged, lounge songs sound just as cheesy as they’re probably meant to. While the protagonist wanders far, never does he come across the aphorism that less is more. The same point applies to Howe Gelb too. But on this, his 350th album or thereabouts, what’s remarkable is that his sound his still developing. Sure, this is recognizably a Howard Gelb album, but it’s not the same as what went before. And that’s remarkable. There’s probably a sequel to this album already in the pipeline. If so, it goes without saying that Howe Gelb’s 351st album is likely to be equally rewarding.

Giant Giant Sand label site

Neil Young and Crazy Horse – Americana

This is a gloriously raggedy album. Take the opener ‘Oh Susanna’. It begins with the band sounding like they’re playing three different songs. Then one of the backing singers comes in too early. And at the first chorus they all stop way too late. But just at that moment it hits a great groove. And stays there. ‘Tom Dula’ works out exactly the same. At 8 minutes, it’s the nearest the band come to the feeling that’s all over Ragged Glory or, better still, the first three tracks from Broken Arrow. “It’s all one song” someone from the audience shouts, frustrated, on The Year of the Horse. Darn Right. You got it. And yet, Americana doesn’t go to that place quite often enough. The covers that work the best are the ones that sound like Neil Young could have written them. ‘Oh Susanna’ and ‘Tom Dula’ stand out. ‘Wayfarin’ Stranger’ sounds right out of Prairie Wind. ‘Travel On’ is pure International Harvesters-era Neil Young. ‘High Flyin’ Bird’ nearly gets there, but the band haven’t quite figured it out yet. If they play it live in the next few months, then it’ll be as good as those great Jefferson Airplane versions from 1966 and 1967. In the end, what lets Americana down slightly is the song choice. There’s nothing that even Neil Young can do with ‘She’ll be Coming Round the Mountain’, apart from give it the title ‘Jesus’ Chariot’. The same goes for (Oh My Darling) ‘Clementine’. And as for ‘God Save The Queen’. The album might have been released on the right weekend for it, but it’s a true abomination. Which is a shame, because much of Americana is a great introduction to what’s great about Neil Young. He’s at his best when he’s most raggedy. And at times here, he’s certainly at his best.

Neil Young official site

Julia Stone – By The Horns

Angus and Julia Stone had a nice brother-and-sister thing going on. One song by him, one song by her. Angus channelled 1970s-era Neil Young. Try ‘Yellow Brick Road’ from Down The Way. Julia was the Nicolette Larson figure. A distinctive voice, but in the shadow. Generally, Angus had the more memorable tunes. Julia punctuated them nicely. But you kept going back to his songs. Now, both are solo acts. On paper, Julia has the tougher job. She has a great voice. Slightly breathy. Baby doll. But with the potential to be samey over the course of an album. To work, a Julia Stone solo album has to have variation. She has to resist the temptation to swaddle the lovely vocals in a pleasantly strummed guitar and polite percussion in a way that makes any given song sound lovely, but the whole a little anodyne. Variation is what resulted from the collaboration with her brother. Here, there’s a certain range. Nothing too dynamic, but something different to listen to across the album as a whole. And the lyrics say something too. Sure, on one track she really, really wants to live with someone in California. We know because she tells us so often. But the title track gives us more. Here, she sings with real feeling and pretty soon it’s obvious why. ‘You spread your darkness like a disease, Then you offered your body as the only remedy’. Things only get worse. ‘You had me by the horns, You had her in the same bed while it was still warm, My hair was still on the pillow, My clothes were still on the floor’. This is a really nice album. Worth going back to. And, guess what? There’s an Angus Stone album out in a couple of weeks. Watch this space.

Julia Stone official website

Paul Buchanan – Mid Air

This is an album of fleeting glimpses. In songs that last scarcely two-and-a-half minutes, and arrangements that offer hardly any orchestration, Paul Buchanan provides quiet observations on the world around him. For the most part there’s just Buchanan’s voice and a piano. The piano provides the melody and Buchanan sings just before or just after it. There are no backing vocals. No chorus. Musically, it’s so still that on the final track you can hear birds singing in the background. In such an intimate context, two elements have got to combine. First, the music must be memorable. It is. The pace is slow, very slow, but there’s a lovely cadence. The melody from ‘Mid Air’ is made to stick in your mind. ‘The Cars Are In The Garden’ will live with you. With The Blue Nile, there have been times when Buchanan has succumbed to the baritone/falsetto temptation. Not here. Almost everything is soft, deep. You can feel him in the room with you. Second, the lyrics must communicate something. They do. At times, they’re confessional. “Later when you told me about this, I was confused I was upset, And all I needed was a kiss”. At times, they’re beautiful. “The buttons on your collar, The colour of your hair, I think I see you everywhere, I want to live forever, And watch you dancing in the air”. There are no stories, but there are images. “The astronaut in God’s blue sky, Dreaming of a summer day, And waving his last goodbye”. Like his contemporaries, Mark Hollis and Kate Bush, we don’t get to know Paul Buchanan on this album, but we do get to be with him for a short time. And that’s pleasure enough.

Paul Buchanan official website

Beach House – Bloom

There is now a unique Beach House sound. It’s not the shimmery synths or the arpeggio guitar. They’re standard dream pop. What sets Beach House apart is the voice of Victoria Legrand. Deep. Compelling. There’s a fullness to the vocals that’s absent from similar bands. Sure, sometimes the lyrics get lost, but it doesn’t matter. Her voice is integral to the overall sound. Another instrument. The phrasing is slow. Unrushed. The vowels go on and on. They lift up ever so slowly and then fall more slowly still. The effect is a wonderful sense of space and more than a hint of melancholy. On Bloom, the Beach House sound has been perfected. Like on the previous album, Teen Dream, none of the songs on Bloom outstay their welcome. They’re given time to develop, but there’s no room for self-indulgence. However, perhaps because the Beach House sound has been perfected, Bloom is also a little less immediate than its predecessor. There are fewer stand-out songs. Fewer commercial-ready tunes. Beach House are a serious outfit and increasingly so. That’s not to say that the songs on Bloom are difficult to listen to. They’re intricate for sure, but they’re no exercise in contrapuntal polyphony. There’s just slightly less joy than before. And that’s because, more and more, the songs are built around the voice of Victoria Legrand. That’s no bad thing. Maybe because of her upbringing, she sings the songs from a slightly other place. And that makes them, and Beach House, both interesting and different.

Beach House official site