Category: album review

EP review: Speak Up by Kiera

KIERA NICOLE Speak Up HIGH RES ALBUM ART.jpgAustralian singer-songwriter Kiera has released a powerhouse three-track EP, Speak Up, the successor to the 2017 release Forever Roam. Kiera has an irresistible voice, both strong and vulnerable, and she has written songs to embrace those qualities. There is pain in these songs as well as resilience and recovery.

Musically, these are anthemic country rock/pop tracks that suit Kiera’s voice, although she could likely perform these songs just as effectively with an acoustic guitar.

This is an EP that can suit a few different moods – great for when you need inspiration but also when you need reassurance, or simply when you want something with substance playing in the car as you need a distraction from the traffic. Music serves several purposes in our daily lives, but it’s not always the case that individual songs can do that job. Those that can are gifts, and while this EP is only three tracks long, they are three tracks that do the work of many.

Apple Music | iTunes | Spotify

www.kieramusic.com

 

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.

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

 

Album review: All the While by Little Georgia

unnamed (5)Little Georgia is an Australian duo comprised of Justin Carter and Ashleigh Mannix, and their sound comprises elements of folk, rock and some country. In searching for the right adjectives to describe their new album, All the While, the one that keeps coming up is ‘addictive’. ‘Hypnotic’ is also applicable, and not because the sound loops around but because there’s a beat and drive behind it that is both compelling and soothing.

Great music always requires a degree of alchemy – with eight notes in an octave, there has to be something indefinable that makes one song, one sound, different to another. In the case of Little Georgia, the alchemy is in the combination of Mannix and Carter. While singing alone they are perfectly find and dandy – more than that, even – but together there is magic. They’ve spent three years on the road, playing together around the world, so it’s likely not magic but solid work that has resulted in the ten wonderful songs on this album. It’s too easily, actually, to say that artists are ‘talented’ and ascribe their achievements to that – every time there is a production of high quality, it’s talent that’s brought them to a certain point but it’s always the work that takes them most of the way.

All the While also benefits from the familiarity that is clearly between the two members of the band. Mannix and Carter know each other’s musical nooks and crannies well, which means they can push and pull the other into interesting and curious musical places. It makes for nicely complex songs with rich texture, plenty of emotion and lots of great detail. That’s what makes them addictive: with each listening there’s always the sense that there’s more to find, so you’ll return, and find more, and know there’s still more. What a lovely gift to offer listeners, and what a great foundation for, ideally, more recorded music to come.

All the While is out now.

Apple Music | iTunes | Spotify

littlegeorgiamusic.com

Album review: No Wonder the World is Exhausted by Ben Leece

unnamed-5.jpgWhen ‘Villains’, the first single from this album was released, I was quick to cover it because it was outstanding song. While singles aren’t always representative of albums, they can certainly whet the appetite, as they did in this case, given Leece’s skill and subtlety as a singer and songwriter.

No Wonder the World is Exhausted certainly lives up to the promise of ‘Villains’ and also declares that Leece is an artist who should be in the conversation, in country music terms, with the Troy Cassar-Daley/Don Walker songwriting combination, Shane Nicholson (the album’s producer) and Fanny Lumsden, who is one of the most versatile artists working today. He also fits neatly alongside Brad Butcher, whose musical style is quite different, although both artists are adept at crisp articulation of heavy emotions and experiences. But those are comparisons, not necessarily influences – although one might imagine that Nicholson has left an imprint.

Only Leece can know what his musical lineage is but there is one element that stands out quite clearly, at least to these ears, and that is Australian Crawl. Leece has a certain vocal similarity to James Reyne, albeit he’s easier to understand … as Reyne has become with time. But that’s not the main reason: rather, it’s that Leece’s album creates a portrait of Australian life that is the same swirl of ups, downs, quietude and activity, with a sense of place and character, that Australian Crawl were so good at producing. This is not to say that No Wonder the World is Exhausted sounds like an Australian Crawl album, because it does not. But it puts Leece in that particular, strong lineage of Australian storytelling in song.

At the same time, Leece is his own man. He has a distinctive, almost mesmerising singing style, and if ‘Villains’ was indicative of the quality of work on the album, it was not of the musical styles, which range through rock and several shades of country. At the core of each song is the story Leece is telling. There could be a song that is just Leece and a guitar, like the album’s closing track, ‘Stuck to My Guns’, yet there are many layers to it. That’s usually the sign that a song has taken a while to come to maturity, either because the songwriter has been carrying it around for a while before recording it or because they’ve refined it over time. It’s had time to find out what it is, and that sense of ripeness, for lack of a better word, offers the listener something deeply satisfying.

In short: ‘Villains’ wasn’t a one-off, Leece has produced an extraordinary album, and if you take your music seriously, you’ll take him seriously.

No Wonder the World is Exhaused is out now through Stanley Records.

Apple Music | iTunes | Sanity

benleece.net

Album review: Boom Town by Steel City Sue

a4256143155_10.jpgSteel City Sue is a singer-songwriter from Newcastle, NSW, whose debut album, Boom Town, was recorded with Truckstop Honeymoon in Lawrence, Kansas. Sue is a fiddle player, and that traditional instrument of country music is an integral part of this album, which has already received accolades, with the title track winning the Karl Broadie Award for Best Song in the Australian Roots Music Awards and the album nominated for ARMA Best Album.

Sue writes songs about the place she lives in (‘From the Valley’ and ‘Coal Town’) and places she hasn’t yet been (‘Red Dirt Track’). Her lyrics are evocative of places, people and experiences; they are individual stories which, taken together, form a world view. These are songs of daily life and small challenges, as well as bigger changes such as the industrial changes in Newcastle. The lyrics are often personal yet delivered with some restraint – which is not a criticism, as it suggests a courteousness to the listener. The honesty and authenticity are there. But between any songwriter who has themselves as a subject and the listener on the other side there is a getting-to-know-you dance; therefore, on a first album some restraint is fitting.

The songs range through musical styles that all fit within the country umbrella, verging towards rock in some cases and pop in others. There are different moods, too, and all expressed by Sue’s compelling voice, which is sweet and sharp and knowing by turns.

Many Australian country music artists are interested in telling audiences about authentic experiences, and part of the beauty of the genre is how many different ways there are to do that, from Slim Dusty and Joy McKean to Troy Cassar-Daley, Beccy Cole, Lachlan Bryan, Sara Storer and Catherine Britt. Steel City Sue fits into the pantheon of very fine singer-songwriters in this country while offering something new and different: her stories told her way.

Boom Town is out now. Order the CD or download from:

steelcitysue.bandcamp.com

Album review: Take Me to Town

TMTTCov-700x622.jpgTake Me to Town may count as one album but it’s actually three CDs full of Australian alternative country music artists, some of whom will be familiar to readers of this blog – such as Tracy McNeil, The Weeping Willows, Lachlan Bryan, William Crighton and Jen Mize – and some who may be unknown simply because they are new.

Take Me to Town is the creation of Dave Favours from Sydney label Stanley Records, in concert with Chris Hamilton of Americana site Post to Wire, and Areatha Bryant of Mother Hen Touring. The trio decided on a list of artists and also secured some tracks that are exclusive to this release, from Ben Leece (who is about to release his debut album) and the always-compelling Katie Brianna, Sam Newton, Den Hanrahan, Peta Caswell and the increasingly prominent Michael Carpenter. Indeed, almost half the songs are exclusive to the compilation, so if you’re a country music fan who is wondering if it’s worth purchasing, that alone should convince you.

I’m fond of saying that country music is a broad umbrella and this compilation is proof that alternative country, too, deserves that description. The 47 tracks demonstrate that alt-country is flourishing around the land and pushing that genre, and Australian country music in general, into bold territory. There are elements of traditional country forms in these songs, reworked in a contemporary way or with a vocal flourish that creates something interesting. In some ways the compilation is an education about how country music is being interpreted and fashioned by new or new-is artists, and also how the work of more established artists like Lachlan Bryan and The Weeping Willows compares with songs from emerging artists. In this way the compilation also serves an almost anthropological purpose: the artists on this album are all pretty much from the same generation, yet how they approach their work is 47 ways of different.

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