Album review: Resignation by Harmony James

50070532_387767361797996_2747390013448032802_nCalling someone ‘the real deal’ sounds almost like a lazy compliment – the words rhyme, for one thing, and the phrase says nothing much about what it really means. But it’s a necessary shorthand, because the full line would take a while to say. That’s because it’s shorthand for: ‘this person has talent and skill and commitment and heart, and their work causes some kind of deep recognition inside the listener but it’s not the sort of thing that words can describe properly’.

With the release of her debut album, Tailwind, in 2009, it was immediately, electrifyingly clear that Harmony James was the real deal. The album was self-funded and independently released in the days before crowd funding made the idea of artists ranging free from labels less usual. James had socked away money from her ‘day job’, written her songs and chosen her producer, Herm Kovacs. The tracks on Tailwind were jewels, in music and lyric. James made that album as if it might be her one and only: she gave her audience everything, and she was embraced accordingly.

There was a detour through a major label after that, with the albums Handfuls of Sky and Cautionary Tales – a detour because, while it’s impossible for James to be anything less than excellent, the structure of these albums did not have the same impact as that on Tailwind. While the songs were wonderful, there wasn’t the sense that James was in control of how they were presented to her audience – probably because there’s not that much control when you’re on a label. (It’s also important to note that everything is relative: when an artist is this good, an appraisal of their work always takes place on a sliding scale of excellence, not one that careens between ‘bad’, ‘okay’ and ‘good’.)

James’s latest album, Resignation, is self-funded and independently released; it was produced by Glen Hannah, who is well known to country music audiences. Resignation feels like a sequel to Tailwind mainly because, almost ten years later, it sounds as if James has returned to herself. On the third track, ‘Little Kindnesses’, you could swear she almost sighs with relief at one point. Track five, ‘The Life She Left’, feels like the answer to the question raised by Tailwind‘s ‘Precious Little’. ‘Can I Be That To You’ is the rebuttal to ‘Somebody Stole My Horse’.

Overall, the vulnerability that James offered on Tailwind is so present, and so beautifully handled, that as a fan it is hard not to feel emotional. But the experience of those intervening albums is also clear: Resignation is a tight, focused work that could not have appeared right after Tailwind. While that vulnerability is there, James also sounds more confident. Her distinctive young-old voice has its moments of pure power, and it can also beckon to the listener for understanding.

While Resignation will make James’s fans very happy, it would also suit the listener who’s never heard her songs before. James has a deep understanding of country music and her lineage, so those who are loyal to the country music genre will find a lot to appreciate, and it’s also simply a wonderful album.

Many Australian country music artists are highly educated in the genre and also understand their relationship with the fans, which means their work can be understood on many levels: as great country music; as songs that communicate to listeners regardless of their musical tastes; as stories, as confessionals, as means of connection. The fact that there are many such artists means that fans have a lot to choose from – to the extent that I sometimes wonder if we all truly appreciate just how privileged we are to have this music on offer. Ten years ago James announced herself as a major artist; she is still that, and now she’s more: she’s a major artist who is still creating music, which in itself is an achievement. The privilege of being able to listen to this new music should not be underestimated. Because, despite its title, Resignation is not an album that sounds like defeat, retreat or weariness – it is a glorious manifestation of James’s skills and talent, and it has been worth waiting for.

Resignation is out now. You can order it from the artist: www.harmonyjames.com

Or find it on a streaming service.

Single release: ‘Secondhard Heart’ by Smith & Jones

unnamed (20).jpgSmith & Jones are a singer-songwriter duo from New South Wales who have been performing together since 2013. Sophie Jones plays guitar and harmonica, while Abby Smith plays keyboards, and a feature of their music is that both sing – and sing together, to wonderful effect.

In the past their music has lent more heavily towards the country side of things, and while they’re clearly still influenced by country music their new single, ‘Secondhard Heart’, has contemporary and pop sounds too. It’s a great song – strong, emotional and memorable. It’s also the first single from their forthcoming second album, Something Worth Learning, which will be released in March. To whet your appetite for the long player, watch the video for ‘Secondhand Heart’ or click on one of the streaming links below. Their first album, Dark Gives Way, is also available.

 

 

Apple Music | iTunes | Spotify

www.smithandjones.net

 

Single release: ‘Chain of Joy’ by Felicity Urquhart

FlissFelicity Urquhart is woven into the thread of Australian country music, as an acclaimed, awarded and beloved singer and songwriter; as the host of ABC Radio’s ‘Saturday Night Country’, and as a member of the extraordinary outfit that is Bennett, Bowtell & Urquhart. She is the winner of seven Golden Guitars as a solo artist (and BBU have won three), and has several albums to her name; she has also been nominated for an ARIA and won the CMA International Broadcaster award.

Between broadcasting, BBU and parenting, however, it has been a while since Urquhart released an LP (there was an EP about three years ago, produced for her Tamworth show), so there will be many people looking forward to Frozen Rabbit on 26 April 2019. In the meantime, we can enjoy ‘Chain of Joy’, the first single. Co-written with the wonderful Kim Richey, the song is a lovely ode to the many joys to be found in daily life. Urquhart has always been able to balance light and dark beautifully, so this is not a song so sweet that it will set your teeth on edge – in Urquhart’s nuanced, honeyed voice, it seems to suggest that these daily joys can be hard won and should be appreciated.

And while everything BBU does is a delight, it is wonderful to have new music by Urquhart alone, with the promise of more to come.

 

Apple Music | iTunes | Spotify

Pre-order Frozen Rabbit: https://abcmusic.lnk.to/FrozenRabbit

www.felicityurquhart.com

Single release: ‘Apple and Pride’ by Natalie Henry

Nat Henry Album Cover.jpgLove songs are great, a lot of the time. Without them, some genres of music would shrivel up and disappear. While country music is not one of those genres – because the stories in its songs cover a very broad range of subjects, and country music songs are arguably as much about work and failure as they are about love – it is a strange relief to find a song that declares ‘sometimes love ain’t enough’, as does ‘Apple and Pride’, the title single from Natalie Henry’s forthcoming album.

‘Apple and Pride’ is a song for grown-ups. It is realistic, and honest, and that central declaration – that sometimes love ain’t enough – is expressed with some regret but mostly with what sounds like clear-eyed hope: love isn’t always enough and now that that’s acknowledged, let’s move on and see what life brings. It’s a song about the work of being an adult, being a parent, being a partner and being alone. There is a break-up at the centre of it but mostly there’s strength – and pride – and a sense that everything is going to be just fine.

Watch the video for ‘Apple and Pride’ below.


Apple Music | iTunes | Spotify

www.facebook.com/natalie.v.henry

Single release: ‘Old Blood’ by Nathan Seeckts

NathanSeekts_OldBlood.jpgVictorian singer-songwriter Nathan Seeckts has been releasing music and performing live since 2010, releasing three EPs in that time. He’s appeared at the Tamworth Country Music Festival and in support of acts such as You Am I, Archie Roach, Tex Perkins and Raised By Eagles. Seeckts also hosts ‘Last Night in Town’, a weekly radio program on community radio station 94.7 The Pulse that focuses on Americana and alt-country. Accordingly, Seeckts has been steeped in these genres of country music and his lineage is clear in ‘Old Blood’, the first single from his forthcoming album, The Heart of the City.

On ‘Old Blood’, Seeckts’s rich, distinctive voice conjures world-weariness, grabs at the heart and leaves the listener wanting more. There is sadness here more than melancholy; the song is explicitly about regret but it’s not nihilistic – there is a hint, in that voice, that a corner might be turned.

Seeckts is supporting the single release with three shows in Victoria:

Friday 15 February
The Fitzroy Pinnacle
With special guest Ben Reece
www.fitzroypinnacle.com.au
251 St Georges Rd, Fitzroy North
Ph: 03 9489 3044
Free entry, doors 8pm

Saturday 16 February
Workers, Geelong
With special guests Rach Brennan & The Pines and Ben Leece
https://theworkersclubgeelong.com.au
90 Little Malop St, Geelong
Ph: 03 5222 8331
Tix $15, doors 8pm
https://spinninghalf.oztix.com.au

Friday 22 February
The Taproom, Castlemaine
https://shedshakerbrewing.com/taproom
Ph: 0425 323 005
9 Walker St, Castlemaine
Free entry, doors 8pm

The Heart of the City will be released on 29 March 2019.

www.nathanseeckts.com

 

Album review: 1977 by Robert K Champion

a4250629031_16.jpgRobert K Champion is a Gubrun, Kokatha and Mirning man now living in Melbourne. He’s a singer-songwriter who, towards the end of 2018, released an outstanding album called 1977.  This is work clearly in the country music lineage – the instruments used and the way they are played demonstrate that heritage, yet it’s really in the songwriting that Champion positions himself in the genre. These are stories told authentically, with great heart and great vulnerability. Champion is a storyteller who wants to share his tales and has developed them so that they can be heard and understood. That’s the mark of as storyteller who truly wants to connect: any artist who wants to create that connection with an audience will take their time to ensure their work can be heard and understood. While it’s fine to say ‘write from the heart’ or ‘do what you feel’, in practice storytellers need to find commonality with their audience, and that takes time, patience and care. Champion seems to have all three.

The song that is most immediately affecting is ‘Green Tears’, which sounds like it’s ripping out Champion’s heart just as it rips out the listener’s. But the album has its light to go with the dark, and there are stories of other characters, other times and other places that go into that light and dark, and the shadows in between. There are plenty of opportunities to tap your toes as well as to listen closely and think carefully.

Champion has toured nationally as a solo artist as well as with bands and in collectives. His last release was the EP, This Road is Too Long, in 2013. There’s that patience: it took him five years to release an album, and while in that time some artists might belabour their songs, his just sound ready: ready to be heard, ready to be loved.

For listeners who love more traditional country music, this album is a must, because it is so evident that Champion loves and understands country music. 1977 also offers something unique within Australian country music while also having that comfort – for those new to Champion’s work – of being in a recognisable genre. It’s only ten songs long but it feels like a much longer work –  because it’s impressive, not heavy. This is an album by a serious artist who should be taken seriously, and it’s also great, fulfilling entertainment. A grand achievement.

1977 is out now.

Apple Music | Bandcamp | iTunes | Spotify

robertkchampion.com

 

Single release: ‘Stepping Stones’ by Dani Young

unnamed.jpgSydney singer-songwriter Dani Young has emerged onto the Australian country music scene over the past couple of years. Her debut album, Desert Water, was an album of duets recorded with Warren H Williams and it was nominated for a Golden Guitar  in 2017.

Last year Young toured alongside Damien Leith, who also co-produced her forthcoming second album along with Jeremy Edwards; the album is mixed by Shane Nicholson. Young is an accomplished jazz artist as well, winning Best Young Jazz Act at the Northern Territory Jazz and Blues Festival.

Young’s new album is due for release early in 2019. The single ‘Stepping Stones’ is a song about leaving your roots behind – or maybe not. It has lyrics almost everyone can relate to, along a note of self-awareness and absence of self-pity that makes it intriguing and worth listening to over and over. The song is accompanied by a video that Young directed with Duncan Toombs, who is the creator of many a great country music video.

 

Apple Music | iTunes | Sanity | Spotify

www.daniyoung.net