As the lead singer from Men at Work, Colin Hay was the man who famously rhymed ‘language’ with ‘Vegemite sandwich’ on the hit song ‘Down Under’, way back in 1983. If that seems an odd thing to remember then please forgive me, I was six years old at the time; rhymes were almost as important to me as sandwich fillings and this one I hadn’t even heard of. Working as a solo artist since 1987, Hay has released a steady stream of well-received records and Fierce Mercy will be his thirteenth of that thirty-year period. It’s therefore no surprise that themes of age, memory and the passing of time course through the album. But far from being maudlin, Fierce Mercy is joyful, philosophical and full of life-affirming hope.
Scottish-born Hay moved to Australia at the age of fourteen but moved to California in the mid ‘80s and has lived there ever since. Fierce Mercy was tracked in Los Angeles with Hay’s usual band and additional recording and mixing took place in Nashville, so there’s a perfect union of west coast laid-back attitude with that Tennessee slickness and sugar. Cue the driving rhythm and steel guitar of opener ‘Come Tumbling Down’, which is instantly rousing in a Jackson Browne kind of a way. The feelgood factor is turned up to eleven as the legendary Alison Brown (co-founder of the Compass label) steps in to contribute some dazzling banjo at the song’s outro. So, barely four minutes into the album I’m tapping my feet and in my imagination I have my cowboy boots and shades on, the top down and I’m ready for the road trip.
That is, of course, until track two scoops me up and away, like some kind of giant eagle, and transports me to a whole different world. Line by heartfelt line the impossibly epic, ever-ascending melody of ‘Secret Love’ builds to its inevitable climax: an explosion of passionate, soaring strings and waves of crashing drums. If I wasn’t so busy blubbing several bathfuls of tears I’d have the composure to notice how old-school the songwriting is here - there’s more than just a whiff of Phil Spector in its construction. The production is likewise, pure 1960s high camp and reminded me very much of Elvis Costello’s work with Burt Bacharach.
The lush string section on the ethereal ‘A Thousand Million Reasons’ (the record’s lead single) is equally cinematic but the song is, by sharp contrast, more dream-like and serene. It’s a levity-inducing song of love, devotion and security; I found it beguiling and otherworldly and that was even before the strings fully kicked in. Let’s just say the eagle set me down gently somewhere in the heavens and then we can put my hastily-employed metaphor from earlier on to bed... In any case, with just three songs, Colin Hay proves that, musically, he can turn on the proverbial dime and there is definitely much more to this particular sandwich than a sticky yeast extract.
The power and diversity of the trio of opening tracks makes the rest of the album seem pedestrian in comparison but, that said, there are still little gems to be mined from the remainder of the songs. ‘The Best In Me’ feels a little like Mark Knopfler in its simplicity, as does ‘Frozen Fields of Snow’ - a tale of a war veteran returning home - which is full of Bruce Hornsby-esque piano. With a catchy, gospel-flavoured chorus, ‘The Last To Know’ lays out the idea of the record’s title: Fierce Mercy, as it details the ways in which life can throw us little warning signs when we need to slow down, take notice or seize the day.
Elsewhere, the reggae guitar and rap of ‘I’m Walking Here’ is the album’s definite Marmite moment but the final two tracks show Hay at his absolute best, writing from the heart. The poignant ‘Two Friends’ captures the helplessness of grief and the journey of mourning and ‘She Was the Love of Mine’ is a heartbreaking yet uplifting tribute to Hay’s mother who passed away three years ago. It’s a fine end to a great collection of songs and it leaves me thinking there’s a lot more I need to discover about Colin Hay, the man who’s been singing that hit song in my head for the past thirty-four years.
Review by Rich Barnard.
Chicago based singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Althea Grace has packed plenty into her eighteen years. Althea played her first show with the highly respected; Grammy-winning Los Lobos aged eight, an association that continues to this day. More recently there was a debut solo album at fifteen and even more recently touring and recording with Gabe Burdulis in the duo Future Stuff. This would bring her to the attention of guitarist Doyle Bramhall II whose credits include Roger Waters, Eric Clapton and (for those of us with long memories) Arc Angels with Charlie Sexton and the Double Trouble rhythm section.
Impossibly handsome Canadian singer songwriter LeRiche has somehow found his way to us here at RGM and we’re very glad he did, as his debut EP is a rather nice thing. He made an appearance at The Great Escape festival earlier in the year and now the seven-song X-Dreamer is out in the UK on Fierce Panda. The EP is a curious mix of acoustically driven songs, beats and pop-smoothness with flawless production values. Think (if you can) Kings of Convenience meets George Michael via Noah & The Whale.
Toronto native Josh Taerk (pronounced Turk) is a new name to me but, with heavy-hitting support on his bio from E-Street Band drummer Max Weinberg and John Oates of Hall & Oates fame, my guess was his new ‘Stages’ EP would be well worth checking out. I’m pleased to report this assumption would prove to be correct as ‘Stages’ is a little gem.
The first thing that strikes you is that name. Jasper Sloan Yip. Is the ‘Sloan’ included just to stop people confusing him with all the other Jasper Yips out there? If you rearrange the letters you can make J-Lo, A Sniper Spy, so perhaps this album contains all sorts of other loosely-encrypted conspiracy theories… Whatever the true story behind the unusual moniker, the thirty year-old singer songwriter has made quite the (metaphorical) name for himself in his native Canada, becoming a big hit on college radio after releasing his 2010 debut Every Day and All At Once. 2013’s follow-up Foxtrot spawned the Canadian top ten and award-winning hit ‘Show Your Teeth’ and now JSY (sorry, I just can’t keep typing it in full) has returned in 2017 with the more fully-formed and mature Post Meridiem, a record that should - if there is any justice - bring his talents some serious global attention.
I have recently taken up photography as a hobby, not digital, but on film. I am shunning “Auto” and taking time to compose each shot, being choosy about what I take, as the roll is not infinite. As such, each shot becomes treasured, even if it does not come out as expected. Bob Bradshaw’s new album, ‘American Echoes’, has the feeling of a treasured photo album crammed with fond memories and experiences. Indeed, Bradshaw started his journey in America, which has led to the content of ‘American Echoes’, way back in 1989. It is a product of the people, places and venues he has visited and the experiences he has had in his adopted homeland. It draws on classic American genres ranging from country and folk to bluegrass and the blues. The album is a celebration and a document of the dreamers, poets and sinners that he has met on his journey across the nation’s landscape.
As a teenager in the 1990s, hunting for CDs to feed my music addiction was pretty much my sole concern in life. This was a time when new releases were still quite costly, so bargain bins and second-hand shops were usually where I went looking for treasure. Prohibitively expensive import CDs were a forbidden extravagance but once a year, on my birthday I allowed myself the purchase of just one deliciously overpriced disc. I would be recklessly impulsive, routinely choosing something I’d never heard before. In 1996, the year I turned 19, that disc was Shawn Colvin's A Few Small Repairs.
Paul Brady celebrated his 70th birthday earlier this year and has been making albums and stealing hearts with an onstage twinkle in his eye for more than five decades. His significant achievements are little known (especially outside of Ireland) making him an almost secret national treasure and speaking volumes about the man’s modesty. Given the changes in the music industry during the seven-year gap between this release and 2010’s acclaimed Hooba Dooba, Brady admits wondering - for a time - if there was even any point in putting out a new record but his fans will no doubt be glad he did. The album has evolved at its own pace over the past four years with Brady handling almost all the instruments himself, as well as engineering the record at his own studio in Dublin. This gives Unfinished Business a cosy, boxy feel but cements the idea that Paul Brady is unassuming, humble and grounded, despite being one of the most important folk-rock artists of his generation.
Recently the subject of the state of the music business has been the source of much debate in the RGM office...not that we have an actual office, more like a desk really but... The inspiration for much of this chat was a documentary film by Rain Perry ‘The Shopkeeper' reviewed here which explains just how difficult aspects of the business are in 2017. For another side of the modern music business let's take a look at Ron Pope on a one-man mission to demonstrate how to do things in 2017 while remaining fiercely independent.
Anyone who’s ever financed the recording of their own album will know that there are certain things that really ought to matter, and The Shopkeeper is a stark reminder of those things. People matter. Can you think of an app that can replicate the relationships between songwriter, musician, producer and engineer? Thought not. Places matter. Can you imagine The Beatles without Abbey Road? Nope, neither can I. Things matter. If you’re making an album, why wouldn’t you want to make it into a something you can hold in your hands? Musicians today find themselves in a world where people, places and things appear to all matter a little less than they once did and The Shopkeeper pushes us, ever so gently, to consider the consequences.
Carrie Elkin has a fascinating voice. Earnest, yet powerful, with a sense of longing to her vocal and a purity which adds gravity to her emotive lyrics. Legendary Radio 2 DJ Bob Harris has compared her spellbinding performance to Patty Griffin, Iris DeMent, and Nanci Griffith, no less. Her vocal style shares similarities with Sheryl Crow, Carole King, Karen Carpenter, Joan Armatrading and Marie Fredriksson of Roxette. There is also elements of First Aid Kit to be found here - albeit solo voice with male harmonies. Carrie’s debut album “Simplicity” was released in 1996 and she has never looked back. She received glowing reviews for her 2007 LP, “Jeopardy of Circumstance” and toured the UK and the US as well as recording on her partner, Danny Schmidt’s, albums. “Call It My Garden”, recorded for award winning folk label Red House Records in 2011, gained widespread acclaim and “For Keeps” followed in 2014. “Penny Collector” is a collection of songs which inhabits the musical realm of Americana/Roots, Folk and Indie Rock. It is her sixth solo album and arrives in the wake of much critical praise and admiration for her previous recordings.
Free of major-label interference for her entire twenty-seven-year career, Ani Difranco is one of the most revered independent artists on the planet. After all, she pretty much invented the idea of subverting the music industry’s normal route to success, inspiring countless other coffee house singer-songwriters to follow her DIY example and to never, ever, ever sell out. Her fierce independence is part of her appeal, along with her sharp lyrical wit and flair for balancing the political with the personal in her prolific output of spikey guitar-driven songs. She may not be the ball of unstoppable feisty energy that she used to be but Binary sees her unafraid as ever to tell it like it is and stick it to the man.
Mental Illness is the sort of provocative title a rapper might choose for a record but for Aimee Mann the name of her first album in five years is a tongue-in-cheek pre-emptive strike against the critics who've always labelled her output as depressing. She is, of course, guilty as charged but it's no apology - the title should be taken as a gentle warning: Mann mines the loneliness, anxieties and complicated human relationships that can so often be the cause of our mental malaise. The songs on this record aren't fairytales; they're personal, real and, more often than not, don't have a happy ending. It's this unflinching reflection of life's various disappointments that is part of Aimee Mann's appeal. Difficult, conflicting emotions aren't neatly reconciled; regrets don't disappear overnight and sometimes things just don't turn out as planned.