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"Pensacola" by Jack Blackman & Chessi O'Dowd

Review

Here's a slightly rhetorical question: what is better than a new release by one of the most respected & popular Coventry & Warwickshire artists? Yes, you guessed the answer: it's when two of them collaborate on a new track.  In this case it's Chessi O'Dowd & Jack Blackman who have joined forces on a cover of Joan Osborne's song "Pensacola" which is out today.

Having praised not just the performance skills but the writing abilities of each of these acclaimed artists often in this magazine, I was intrigued as to why they have decided to work together & why they chose this cover version as the vehicle for the collaboration. In fact the inspiration came from Chessi: Joan Osborne's ‘Relish' album of 1995 being a significant touchstone for her, this song evoked a powerful therapeutic response during an especially trying moment during the pandemic. Recruiting the mega talented Jack (they had worked together on the Street Arts Project "Isolation" initiative), they have reshaped the song into a duet to excellent effect.

All this is all well & good of course in theory, but any two voices, however great each independently might be, are not necessarily destined to work together to become more than the sum of parts. I'm sure you'll anticipate the next statement of mine though: that in this case they surely do.

Jack is clearly relishing his opportunity to craft some unusual sonic pictures (each worked independently at home with Joe Collier mixing Chessi's vocals in with Jack's various contributions) aiming for "Florida Swamp" to match the song. This included the deployment of guitars, bass, drums, Dobro, wah- wah clavinet and a jaws harp.

So add all these ingredients into the gumbo and you get something both rich & spicy, as evocative of the area in question as Dr John's ‘Gris Gris' It's moody, it's magnificent & we hear two musicians clearly having a ball with a song they love and playing off each other which actually adds a dimension to the song not present in the original, good as that is. The lyric is slightly mysterious in a Southern Gothic way and not only do the two voices bring the story into life in a slightly different (and it has to be said exuberant way) but it provides an interesting complement to Jack's 2020 single "Ballad of Clopton House": another dark narrative albeit set in a very different environment.

Quite where this will lead them next probably neither of them yet know: Chessi is currently working on a new EP with Dan Sealey (of Merrymaker/Ocean Colour Scene fame) while judging by the awesome & head spinning run of recent releases from Jack, one can only expect the unexpected while certain he's presumably working on several projects. However even as a "one off", this is a joyous artefact and certainly adds to the quality of our lives. I gather that they have already played together (outside) in Stratford and hopefully they'll get future opportunities to present "Pensacola" in a live form for our pleasure.

Check out the great video here:

https://www.facebook.com/chessiodowdmusic/videos/934889190658632

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"Thoughts" by Paul Mccormack

Review

Although I have written about singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Paul Mccormack in the magazine before (in the context of a Merrymaker live review), this is the first time I've been able to write about a solo release, namely "Thoughts" which is an entirely self created song (the first of many he intends sharing with us) and which you can access via: https://soundcloud.com/user-511434765/macca-track-master-print-pt

Though coming to it within hours of its public emergence, I still find myself some way down the line of enthusiastic responders online: it has already created quite a stir, not least with other artists, which is always a good sign of genuine quality & originality.

My expectations of the song were already very high before I heard it, given the comments of others & my previous experience of Paul's talents: in normal circumstances this of course is far from a problem, though in a reviewer maybe it can lead to self fulfilling observations? At any rate I have tried to be objective in rating "Thoughts" as it probably exceeded even such high initial predictions. It really is a classy piece of work (one might expect no less) but where it really scores in my opinion is the grace & ease with how he pulls off the composition & delivery of such an excellent song. Paul makes it sound much simpler than closer examination reveals it to be & you can't help but think after only a couple of plays that you've known it for a long time. Now that's a difficult trick to pull off.

The seemingly effortless approach allows him to use a very accessible & engaging vocal performance which acts as much as the breezy arrangement & melody to draw you into the song.

The lyrics are again finely balanced: thoughtful & articulate yet with the outward common touch: everyone can understand what he's talking about (there is no exclusion here) yet in such a fresh enough way that you don't just feel it's a set of sentiments you've heard too many times previously.

The arrangement and production are admirably clear (it sounds mostly like a single acoustic guitar although there are moments when I wondered if I'd heard extra overdubs) and the style, while generally "British"  has occasional nuances from farther afield: I kept on sensing odd moments of Neil Young intruding into changes & melody… and that is certainly intended as a compliment.

As a debut of a series of original tracks, this is a very compelling calling card, showcasing not merely accomplishment in composition & performance but crucially taste too. I look forwards to hearing more….

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"Peaceful Warrior" by Lemon Tones

Review

An artist whose work I have not yet previously had the pleasure of describing to you is Lemon Tones (the name under which James Temple is currently releasing original material). With his latest release "Peaceful Warrior" which came out last month, I can address that omission I'm pleased to say.

This song "…is dedicated to RAF 2nd World War hero, grandfather, great-grandfather and loving husband Jack Jarmy…": in fact James' own grandfather who sadly passed away recently. As the descendant of a Second World War RAF pilot myself, the track therefore had especial impact upon me also as clearly the piece while obviously written with a highly specific individual in mind, can be applied in the mind of a listener to their own experiences. As the song has already started attracting airplay, it would seem too that it has effects upon ears & hearts other than my own.

What first attracted me to James' work is that it is unusual in form: this tends to catch my attention in the first place & I'm not at all sure that I'd wish to pass onto you anything which was bland, predictable or stereotyped. "Peaceful Warrior" is certainly an idiosyncratic piece, though that of course in no way diminishes its sincerity: quite the opposite as I'd feel generally that a song constructed purely along predictable lines might be sacrificing quality of emotion just to fit preconceived ideas of what a tribute to a fallen warrior & relative "should" sound like. It's a narrow line between the necessary pathos & empathy and what might easily tip over into sentimentality, but James manages it to navigate it quite cleverly: not least by keeping us on our toes, so we keep listening.

The song itself thus transitions between sections quite startlingly different in tone: beginning with an elegiac opening which probably is what most of us were expecting given the subject matter, though the vocals, pitched somewhere between monkish chanting & recitative are unusual. This quite abruptly changes into a completely contrasting & anguished section owing more to the blues & dominated by slide electric guitar which bridges into a definitely rock passage with crashing drums and a feel of the late 1960s when heavy rock & psychedelia intertwined.  This in turn doesn't last long before it ushers in a contemplative folkish interlude, often instrumental but when vocals do come in, we find the heart of the song unfolding before us. This builds quite steadily to a more rock finale, somewhat more stately & less astringent than the earlier one, and so after a roller coaster of a ride, the track ends at around the seven & a half minute mark.

I'm not sure words adequately capture the journey one is taken on over that period: I have just laid out broad highlights but there are a great many finer details to discover when you listen yourself. Apart from the descriptions of the various passages I've outlined, I suppose one might categorise the song as "progressive" in its ambition & execution: certainly James has worked hard to try to express his feelings about someone he cared for & without doubt the complexities of the song reflect those of his own emotions. A most interesting artist & one whose work I look forwards to following.

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"Used To Be" by YNES

Review

When reviewing the last YNES single (the eviscerating "Better Job", which also featured Ace Ambrose), among several adjectives I used, one was "exciting" and that pretty much can come into play again to describe the feelings on hearing that this dynamic artist whose enthusiasm & panache seem to have few if any bounds, has come up with another single, "Used To Be" which is released this Friday (14th May): a handful of days after her birthday so it might (in a slightly skewed way naturally) be perceived as a gift.

Crafted at Woodbine Studios with the help of John Rivers (the go-to producer for all the local punk bands of the first 1976-8 wave), what you get is what the combination of an artist with few inhibitions about articulating her feelings working with a producer of international reputation & more than four decades' worth of experience in capturing power, energy & truth beautifully but without compromising it, would lead you to expect.

"Used To Be" builds itself up in a steady (if not relentless) fashion. If last time out the predominant feelings seemed to be anger & a withering sarcasm, on this single, the fury is dialled back as the subject matter doesn't call for it: what we get instead is another facet of this most interesting artist: one which embraces nostalgia, reflection on how her life has changed  & empathy. By about the three minute mark you suddenly realise just how far the volume & intensity has risen while you've been listening, yet then in a powerful switch of dynamics, the passion drops down into pathos & wistfulness for the coda: just right. (The striking cover art takes the wistfulness to extremes: it makes her look like a piteous Dickensian orphan)

Apart from the "punk" epithet, YNES also self describes as having Britpop roots & when I heard "Used To Be", my immediate thought was my appreciation of the debut album of Lily Allen: it shares that wit, a sense of enjoying wordplay coupled with an apparent desire to write lyrics in a way which people (especially of YNES' own generation) articulate themselves rather than in the sterile code into which (over)conventional lyric writing too often slips. There is (thankfully) much more of this approach around these days than there was years ago (especially round our way) with so many true voices, not necessarily sharing YNES' or indeed anyone else's particular style.

I can hardly wait to hear whatever she comes up with next (I can't begin to second guess her) and in other excellent news, YNES has dates where we can catch her & her band live in the coming weeks: on Thursday June 3rd at the George Tavern in London, at the Bigfoot Festival at Ragley Hall on Saturday June 19th and at Birmingham's Sunflower Lounge on Saturday June 26th.

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