Tag: Album reviews

Album review: The Maes

Maes_Website_1_AlbumCover_W310px.jpgThe Maes used to be The Mae Trio – and released two albums and an EP under that name – but the departure of founding member Anita Hillman has resulted in the duo of sisters Maggie and Elsie Rigby, their divine voices and their skills with multiple instruments: banjo and guitar for Maggie and violin and mandolin for Elsie. The Maes have now released their third album, which is self-titled and, frankly, sublime.

The album draws on various folk traditions, including those of the Maritime Provinces in Canada (as evident on track 3, ‘Head Over Heels’), which in turn are in the lineage of the Celtic music of the Scots and Irish immigrants who landed on those shores and have maintained tight-knit communities ever since. (For modern representatives of that lineage, look to Ashley MacIsaac and Madison Violet.) The Maes recorded some of this album’s tracks in Canada, some in Scotland and Ireland, and the remainder in their home town, Melbourne. The result is ten songs that become more beautiful and emotional each time you listen to them.

These are songs that are heartfelt and heart exposing and heartbreaking; they are sentimental in an open-eyed way, and often unexpected in the path their stories take. They are honest and vulnerable, and the Maes unabashedly use their voices to take us to those places. There is no point, after all, in writing lyrics that open a door to the listener if you can’t take that listener by the hand as they walk through.

The songs draw clearly draw on the sisters’ experiences but are universal in their specificity. It’s impossible to imagine that they would not be understood all over the world, and in decades’ time. Indeed, The Maes travel the world performing and no doubt they are welcomed there as warmly as they should be here.

This album is a gift, but as with all music it’s one that requires reciprocity: we have to pay attention and commit to receiving this music with the generosity that it’s been offered. That’s when we understand that is an album of riches, timeless but timely: in a bruising world, how rare to have this tenderness and understanding offered to us as a piece of art, and of craft, and in this time and place.

The Maes is available now.

Apple Music | Bandcamp | SoundcloudSpotify




Album review: Emma Beau

656cb945-568c-4a25-a2fb-76b9c3ce7596.jpgEmma Beau’s name is familiar to those who have paid attention to Australia’s country music output over the past few years. Beau is a multi-instrumentalist and singer who has  played with several other artists including Kasey Chambers. Beau has released her own music in the past, but never an album until this year.

Beau’s self-titled debut features eleven songs; one is a cover of ‘House of the Rising Sun’ and the others were written by Beau. It doesn’t take long to understand why she might have waited a while to release an album: to make sure all the songs were, well, perfect. It  is sometimes said that an album is ‘all killer, no filler’. Admittedly that expression usually applies to albums from a different genre of music … but the label certainly fits here. Beau’s ten songs are as beautifully constructed and executed as you’d want on any album, but almost astonishingly so for a debut, and not astonishingly at all when you remember that Beau has been developing her skills of all types – instrumentally, vocally, as a writer – for several years and in the company of highly accomplished artists. The standard that artists like Chambers set – the standard that is set, actually, by Australian country music artists generally – challenges everyone around them to rise to meet it, and Beau has done that splendidly.

A shallow listening of Emma Beau will suggest that the album is not entirely country – that the musical style edges towards indie rock, perhaps, or sixties rock, and certainly there’s folk there too. But a closer listening reveals the country elements in all the songs Beau has written: a musical element here, a lyrical turn there. No doubt Beau has many influences to draw on but like a thread sewn throughout a quilt, she’s made sure country is there throughout.

Beau is a storyteller who is unafraid to show herself to the listener, and as a vocalist she backs that up in every single line. She has a magnificent voice and she doesn’t hide behind it – it’s a tool and it’s a flamboyance, whatever the song requires. The voice serves her, and the song, not the other way around (sometimes great singers can seem to be almost in awe of their voices, letting those voices getting away with things that in the end don’t benefit the song).

That inherent musicality may be informed by – or have informed – Beau’s ability with several instruments; only she knows. But this is an album that offers so much to those who know music as well as those who simply want to be entertained. The time Beau has taken to make this album, and the care she has shown with it – along with producer Michael Carpenter – have resulted in a gift for audiences of all types of music, and a valuable addition to the country music canon.

Emma Beau is out now.

Apple Music | Artist’s website | Spotify



Album review: Halfway Home by Morning by Matt Andersen

71ay4hcxUWL._SY355_.jpgCanadian singer-songwriter Matt Andersen has long had a voice that sounded like it belonged to someone far older, saturated in life’s experiences and prepared to share them. Since Andersen is now up to his tenth album, perhaps he and his voice are travelling in tandem – and on Halfway Home by Morning they certainly sound like a comfortably united pair.

Andersen’s sound is soul and blues and rock and Americana, and his voice handles all of those genres effortlessly, as well as being one of those voices that sounds as though it comes straight from the past, present and future. Halfway Home by Morning is 13 songs of emotion, honesty and connection, with each line made more heartfelt by the delivery of it – by Andersen and the outstanding band and backing singers who appear with him.

The album was recorded live in Nashville, and that energy gives the songs a warmth that could have been lost if each track had been recorded individually. It also seems to give it an air of celebration – not that the songs are all celebratory (Andersen does a very fine ballad), but as if you’re at an hour-long party with the best possible entertainment.

Andersen and his band are constantly on the move – no Australian dates have been announced in the near future, but should he make his way back to these shores, Halfway Home by Morning suggests it would a performance absolutely worth taking in.

Halfway Home by Morning is out now on True North Records via MGM.

Apple Music | Spotify


EP review: The Great Unknown by Jade Gibson

std_24974Singer-songwriter Jade Gibson has released her debut EP, The Great Unknown, after its title single debuted at number 1 on the Australian iTunes country charts. Gibson has a strong pedigree, with her live career starting at the age of fourteen. She has performed in pubs and B&S balls in Victoria (where she lives) and New South Wales, and in gigs as far from home as Western Australia. Both types of audiences can be very demanding –  and there would have been more tough audiences in Nashville, where she’s spent time writing and performing. They no doubt helped shape Gibson into the strong performer who appears on this EP.

Given that Gibson has now been in the industry for a few years, it must have been tempting to release recorded music earlier – but the fact she didn’t suggests that she wanted to have as much education and experience as she could, and she was prepared to be patient about it. That sort of attitude often indicates an artist who is focused on giving audiences something of quality: it’s partly about wanting to do the best they can for herself, and partly because they’re paying the audience the compliment of not wasting their time. And Gibson’s work has likely greatly benefited from her willingness to wait, because there is not a single misstep in the five songs that appear on The Great Unknown.

These are country pop/rock songs with music that marries well with Gibson’s very warm, often sweet soprano voice that sounds as if it could suit multiple genres. Of course, the McClymonts have shown that lovely vocals can marry very well with loud guitars and Gibson’s music would appeal to McClymonts fans, and also situates Gibson as a strong emerging artist. She’s currently working on a debut album, and if she picks up the strands of this EP and carries them into the album, that will make for a very strong release.

The Great Unknown is out now.

Apple Music | Spotify



EP review: Pieces of My Heart by Cassi Marie

unnamed.jpgIt has been proven true over and over again that age is irrelevant when it comes to Australian country music artists. An emerging artist can be sixteen or sixty, and with the CMAA Academy offering the Junior Academy the teenagers are just as likely to be accomplished as older artists. Queensland singer-songwriter Cassi Marie is seventeen but she’s already studied with artists such as Amber Lawrence, Lyn Bowtell and Ashleigh Dallas, and that experience shows. The four songs on her new EP, Pieces of My Heart, are country-pop gems. Cassi Marie’s voice has a lovely clean tone that enables us to hear the emotion behind and meaning of her lyrics. There is bittersweetness and poignancy on these songs that can’t be taught – it has to come from within the artist.

The EP was produced by Bill Chambers and mixed by Nash Chambers, and while it’s always good to have such heavyweights in the studio, the songs and their singer have to be good in order for the EP to shine, and this EP is a beautiful shiny introduction to this artist.

Apple Music | iTunes | Spotify



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