Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Profile Review - Jess Ribeiro

Published in the November / December issue of Rhythms.

Jess Ribeiro
Kill It Yourself
Barely Dressed Records / Remote Control

For those familiar with Jess Ribeiro & The Bone Collectors’ award-winning 2012 debut, My Little River, the first thing you’ll notice about Ribeiro’s new release, under her own name, is it’s different. Where the former was inflected with country tone, acoustic and quite introspective, Kill It Yourself is deep and dark, it hums with an eerie melancholy, it’s stripped back and laid bare, both in a sonic and lyrical sense; it’s a move away, a vastly different album on its surface. Although, going deeper I suspect, perhaps not as much as you’d think.

“Yes [it is a natural progression], because I’ll always be me,” says Ribeiro with an almost self-conscious laugh. “And the way that I write songs… working with new people was a great learning experience of finding new techniques and ways to make music, but essentially it was still me, and I still had a vision that I wanted to create.”

After parting ways with long term creative partner Rob Law and moving from the steamy tropical gloom of Darwin to grey-stone, black-clad Melbourne, Ribeiro found herself in an old warehouse with a clutch of bare-boned songs, no band, and one Mick Harvey – the ‘new person’ of which she speaks. The album took shape in this environment, Harvey encouraging new ways of looking at things, of executing things, and the results speak for themselves – this is the mark of a musician coming in from the cold, and emerging into some sort of newfound freedom. And not just in a musical sense.

“Yeah,” she muses. “It was kind of the end of a period of time, the closing of a chapter of my life, so it has personal elements to it. I don’t know how I feel about that now, is that a real selfish thing to do? You make some music, like, who wants to hear that? Everyone goes through certain phases in life, and I don’t know, I call it my Saturn Return phase, it’s just all about a period of time. I guess it was really important because I got a bit down for a little while, I’d only ever really collaborated very closely with one person, Rob, for many years.

“So Mick was the crossing of the threshold, you can work with anyone, it doesn’t matter. He would say, ‘We make music, we’re not brain surgeons, don’t be so precious about this’, and I think that really changed my attitude a lot. It was important because now I feel freer.”

What I find about Kill It Yourself is it gives off an incredible sense of space – tracks like ‘Run Rabbit Run’, ‘Born To Ride’ and the title track in particular, these songs shimmer like heat haze off bitumen, bitumen running straight and true for miles through hot desert. Ribeiro’s voice, on the former, is slow and languid, sometimes deep, other times wafting on some unseen breeze, always in the right place – sad, and yet always moving forward.

The instrumentation is sparse. Ribeiro plays electric guitar this time around. Jade McCinally adds bass, the percussion is minimal, the strings are minimal, the keys are minimal. It’s such a spacious album, but it’s not left wanting, because what is there is so truly vital to the songs themselves.

“I’ve always been into having space, and working with Mick, he’s all about having space as well,” she says. “I’ve always been pedantic about having space in songs, and not just filling things up.” She goes on to say that without her band, she was really worried about how it would all come together, but as Harvey said to her, the lack of a band would allow them to create space, and it has.

Lyrically, Ribeiro covers a lot of ground, but always keeps to what she knows, which adds realism. Tales of drug deals gone wrong, pent up repression, her transgender aunt, killing chickens in a dream but being unable to do it in real life – all these stories are told honestly, candidly, poetically, entwined through the dark sonic haze with elegant (and sometimes shambolic-yet-steady) grace. Ribeiro, as an interviewee, is a little reticent, a little guarded, but her music speaks volumes as Kill It Yourself illustrates. There’s little doubt this record will make as many waves as her debut, if not more.

Samuel J. Fell

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Record Review - Barrence Whitfield

Published in the Shortlist section of The Sydney Morning Herald, October 22.

Barrence Whitfield & The Savages
Under The Savage Sky
Bloodshot Records

Coming out of Boston in the early ‘80s, Barrence Whitfield & The Savages immediately made a name for themselves as purveyors of hard-driving, punk-edged R&B and soul, no doubt providing inspiration for bands like The Bellrays and their ilk today. The band split after a couple of records, reuniting recently, picking up exactly where they left off.

Under The Savage Sky is a full-throttle rhythm & punk assault, Whitfield displaying the passion and power vocalists a third his age would struggle to muster. Tracks like Rock ‘n’ Roll Baby touch the closest to the original R&B form, all blowing brass and hi-octane beat, while Adjunct Street is all honey-sweetened (albeit mournful) soul. Elsewhere though, this is pure Savages, as brutal and free-flowing as ever. Whitfield howls and croons, guitarist Peter Greenburg shreds and burns, the record struts and poses as a result – powerful stuff from a band who are just as good now as they were in their early prime.

Samuel J. Fell

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Record Review - Jemma & The Clifton Hillbillies

Published in the Shortlist section of both The Sydney Morning Herald (Syd) and The Age (Melb), Friday October 16.

Jemma & The Clifton Hillbillies
Jemma & The Clifton Hillbillies

For a while now, Melbourne has been somewhat of an hotbed, the cramped and sticky-carpeted venues of the inner-north a breeding ground for a new take on this earthy, gritty style of the genre. Jemma Rowlands, her Clifton Hillbillies in tow, is a fine example of the talent emerging, as the band’s debut illustrates to a tee.

Beginning with the mournfully catchy April’s Fool, this eponymous release bleeds the realism, the truth, the honesty inherent to this style of music, enhanced by some of the finest instrumentation this side of Nashville courtesy of Sean McMahon (guitar), Ben Mastwyk (banjo), Cal Walker (bass) and Ben Franz (pedal steel), amongst a host of others, McMahon and Mastwyk also contributing to the songwriting. Town For Two and Song Itself keep things jaunty, while Fightin’ Mad and Killing Time are pure, slow old country (the latter with subtle accordion from Flora Smith). Meanwhile, Rowlands’ voice should be bottled and sold to thirsty travelers – all up, a masterful record.

Samuel J. Fell

Friday, 18 September 2015

Record Review - Donavon Frankenreiter

Published in the Shortlist section of The Sydney Morning Herald, Friday September 18.

Donavon Frankenreiter
The Heart
Liberator Music

Donavon Frankenreiter’s seventh studio long-player is as you’d expect. Nicely strummed acoustic guitars, bass and subtle percussion backing up, all mellow delivery and sonic sunshine – not a great departure from the sounds which have defined his decade-long solo career thus far.

Lyrically based around love – whether for a woman, his father, life in general, hence the title – and with most songs co-written with Grant-Lee Phillips (the renowned American singer-songwriter who also co-wrote with Frankenreiter on his 2008 cut, Pass It Around), it’s a pleasant enough sounding record that sits in the background without being in any way obtrusive. Longtime bassist Matt Grundy also contributes some guitar and backing vocals, helping add to a musical landscape that while well written and executed, is really devoid of any real bumps or turns, anything that’ll challenge or inspire.

There’s nothing wrong with The Heart, but there’s nothing particularly exciting about it either. This is one for the fans, no one else.

Samuel J. Fell

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Profile Review - Ash Grunwald

Published in the September / October 2015 issue of Rhythms magazine.

Ash Grunwald

Elsewhere in this issue, I’ve reviewed a number of records where the band or artist in question has shown they’re able to evolve within their chosen genre, exhibiting a strong sense of sonic exploration, a wont to change and keep things alive. Another artist who’s had this knack his entire career, is of course Ash Grunwald, whose new cut, NOW, shows yet another side to this multi-faceted player.

Beginning as a straight bluesman – or as straight a bluesman as he could be, incorporating as he did a good deal of surf and stomp into the style – Grunwald has, over the course of eight studio albums now, shown he’s one of the more chameleonic players on the Australian roots scene. From the blues of Introducing Ash Grunwald (‘02), Live At The Corner (‘04) and I Don’t Believe (‘06), to the more electronic and hip hop-infused Hot Mama Vibes (‘10) and Troubles Door (‘12), which was also released as a re-mix album, Grunwald has grown, explored, evolved, all while keeping to his roots. No matter what he does, you can tell it’s him, which is all part of his appeal.

Now then, we have NOW. It should be noted that the sonic deviation here isn’t massive. In fact, it’s somewhat expected, and maybe a little late – I’d have thought he’d have trodden this path years ago, before he delved into the likes of hip hop. For this album is pure psychedelic blues/rock, an exploration into the fuzzier, hazier, heavier aspects of blues music, which may sound formulaic to the untrained ear, but which after only a cursory listen, reveals itself as a lean, muscular, powerhouse of a record.

Bringing in the keyboard talents of Ian Perez (Wolfmother) and percussionist Pete Wilkins (ex-Blue King Brown), and utilising a moog synth instead of a stringed bass, Grunwald jumps from his blues foundation into a swampy, wall-of-sound type mire, helmed by production whiz Nick DiDia (RATM, Powderfinger, Springsteen, Pearl Jam et al). Prevalent throughout the record still, are elements of electronica, but in the main it’s a loud, brash, electric jam record, albeit tight – or at least as tight as psych blues can be.

“With the last four albums, I’ve said, ‘I’m gonna go back and do a solo, acoustic album’, and then I just always end up coming up with some other crazy idea,” Grunwald laughs on where this sonic dalliance came from. “[This time] I just wanted to have that blues, rock, psychedelic side that I’ve never really let flourish too much.
“So I decided to go down the synth/bass track and try it out, and just explore [it]. Bass has been a huge thing about what I do, particularly live, and I’ve been experimenting with a lot of those warm, ‘70s synth sounds on a lot of my records, on the last two albums, bits here and there.”

The synth is actually the first sound you hear on the album, opening track ‘River’ featuring its ominous rumble as drums fade in and Grunwald’s guitar, razor sharp, takes it from there. It’s easily the heaviest record he’s made, songs like ‘Evening’, ‘In The Middle’, ‘Losing My Mind’ and closer ‘The Least Among Us’ chugging along, all fuzz and grind, the electronic sound adding a warmth, keys and synth giving it a hazy, ‘60s psych feel.

Of course, the blues is there – this kind of music is made from it. But there are a couple of tracks, ‘It Don’t Belong To You’ and ‘The Worst Crimes Are Legal’, where it’s displayed in its raw, pure form – the former begins as almost a field recording, just strumming guitar and Grunwald’s voice, almost in the background, before morphing, exploding, into a funky, fuzzed out gem. The latter is similar, this time with some simple slide beginning proceedings before the bomb drops, in this case a long, slow detonation.

“Yeah, I think so,” he concurs, on his continued use of the blues. “I’ve always loved, not that my stuff sounds like this, but how Albert King, when the ‘70s came along, the backing started to get funky – those same Albert King licks again, over a different backing. And I always thought, it’s a really cool idea of experimenting as much as you want with stuff, but keeping the core of what you do… unmistakably you.”

That’s what NOW is – unmistakably Ash Grunwald, but exhibiting a side you’d expect of him, but haven’t yet heard. There’ll be those who find this album too heavy, but as a concept, along with how it’s executed, NOW is a rock solid win for Grunwald, and it’s a path I hope to see him keep exploring for a while.

Samuel J. Fell