Album Review :: Tim Barry – 40 Miler

“Is Tim Barry the Larry David of the punk scene?”

When the punks go ‘acoustic’, it seems they head down one pre-defined path – they play punk music with an acoustic guitar. Now I’ve no problem with that, but they really stand out when they do something a little more unexpected. For me, Tim Barry is one of the few that veered off the beaten track. The former Avail frontman, swapped the harshness of punk for a, more mellow, country sound. Though he’s certainly not ‘gone soft’.

Well known for his story-telling style, Barry enchants the listener with tales of small towns, friends and adventure. Some of these you might have heard of – references to a couple of characters named Frank and Brian make up the opening to the title track, and there’s even a whole song about, Lucero’s, Todd Beene – and others you won’t. Still, he makes you feel like you’re right there alongside him throughout and you experience a lot and run the emotional gamut when you’re riding with Tim. Driver Pull’ – a song about dealing with life and all its inherent problems – showcases a much sombre side of the Virginia native, whereas ‘Amen’ will have you singing along in no time.

Similarly, ‘Fine Foods Market’ shows Barry at his most satirical. The entire song is a comment on the current ‘scene’, with a particular focus on the falseness of hipsters. It worked as a perfect palette cleanser for all of the more downbeat tracks on the album, and might actually be my favourite. Again it draws on Barry’s own experiences, as he looks back on his life and compares it to what he sees in the youth of today. Though it could come across as slightly curmudgeonly, it is delivered with such style and humor that you can’t help but love it. Is Tim Barry the Larry David of the punk scene?

Such quick changes in tone did tend to stop the record from flowing quite as well as it could have, but this is a minor gripe when you take the quality of the songs into account. The switch from acoustic to electric and back again had a similar effect, but the changes in instrumentation certainly make for a more interesting sonic experience.

Still, there’s no doubt in my mind that 40 Miler is Tim Barry’s best release to date. As with everything he’s put out, the songs are steeped in truth and adventure and provide a fantastic look into the world of a very interesting man. Not only that, but songs like ‘Hobo Lullaby’ have helped establish, in my mind at least, that Barry is one of the best songwriters around today. Though there’s a little bit of filler here and there, on the whole, it’s a pretty fantastic record. It can bring you down, but never fails to pull you back up again. If you like sober thoughts and singalongs, this is the record for you.

Moon & Back Session :: Austin Lucas

“You are fucking gross” – Austin Lucas

On his recent UK tour, we caught up with Austin Lucas and put him to work. After all, playing a song to a video camera is exactly what you want to do on your birthday, right?! Austin, very kindly, obliged to play us a new tune for a Moon & Back Session and it’s absolutely awesome. ‘Alone In Memphis’ is going to be featured on his new record and we can’t wait to hear the final version. But, for now, we have this to tide us over.

Apologies for the camera not quite getting Austin’s guitar into shot. This room was tiny and there was five of us in there. Regardless, we think it turned out great. Be sure to check out Austin’s latest record A New Home In The Old World and tell us who you want to see do a session for us in the comments below!

‘Alone In Memphis’

Album Of The Year 2011 :: Emma Hallows’ Top 5

The idea that there’s a one true ‘album of the year’ is a pretty misguided one. With that in mind, we’ve tried to offer up a series of recommendations from both the Moon & Back Music staff, and from a few notable names from the world of music.

Today it’s the turn of Emma Hallows: Friend of the site and singer/songwriter from Manchester (stranded in Huddersfield for the foreseeable future).

Barlow asked me to do my top 5 records of 2011, so here they are:

5. The Lonely Isand – Turtleneck And Chain
Throwing a spanner in the works. I laughed so hard.

4. Chuck Ragan – Covering Ground
I think my all time favourie Chuck song might be on this record.

3. Dave Hause – Resoloutions
Beacuse Dave is an all around top bloke.

2. The Horrible Crowes – Elsie
Me and my thoughts about Brian Fallon are like an aging marriage: He doesn’t half piss me off, but i don’t like the idea of dying alone.

1. Great Cynics – Don’t Need Much
I love Giles, Iona and Bob.

I would also like to give an honorable mention to Helen Chambers, Sam Russo, Jimmy Islip and Chuck Ragan, who did the best Split/EP of the year, it totally rocks.

Moon & Back Session :: Helen Chambers

Ladies and gentlemen…Helen Chambers!

If you’ve ever listened to Under The Bridge, you’ll know that we love Helen Chambers. The singer/songwriter from York recently released a split 12″ with Sam Russo, Jimmy Islip and, the one and only, Chuck Ragan. Not only that, but she became a surprise inclusion on more than one Revival Tour date this summer – singing alongside Chuck and, Alkaline Trio singer/bassist, Dan Andriano.

We’ve been trying to get this session done for a while now with little success, but we’re glad to finally have it up on the site for your listening/viewing pleasure. Helen performs ‘Little Demons’ a track from her debut EP and, brand new song, ‘Not Breaking Down’. We hope you enjoy them. We’ll be back next week with another Moon & Back Session!

‘Not Breaking Down’

‘Little Demons’

Album Review :: Crazy Arm – Union City Breath

“…Passion-filled, politically-driven, and unlike anything I’ve heard out of the UK punk scene”

Whilst most bands struggle with that ‘difficult second album’, with a debut like Born To Ruin, it was always going to be that much harder for Crazy Arm. Just how do you follow up one of the best records released in years? Union City Breath, that’s how.

Opening with a wave of guitar that wouldn’t feel out of place on a Mastodon record, I wondered what I might be in for, but It wasn’t long before the slow, heavy, distorted, riff gave way and the slight notion of doubt disappeared. It became clear the guys had started where they left off and, as the album progressed, the fast paced guitars, fantastic vocals, and relentless pounding of drums worked in unison to create a sound that was unmistakably Crazy Arm. Not only that, but they’ve managed to improve on it, introducing more instrumentation and a second vocalist in the form of Vicky Butterfield. Resting on their laurels is something this band just don’t do.

Having kicked off with all the intensity of one of their live shows, it looked like a case of whiplash might be on the cards for anyone who dared listen to the record. That wasn’t to be as, like its predecessor, Union City Breath doesn’t need to go at a hundred miles an hour to be intense. Sure, the frantic guitars and crashing of cymbals help, but the lyrics play as big a role in this record’s power as how hard the band play. How do they do that? Let’s just say, if you don’t like your music with a political agenda, you’re going to have to look elsewhere.

Attacks on right wing politics are a staple Union City Breath, but that’s not to say that the messages aren’t, for the most part, subtle. Like on Born To Ruin, the lyrics are fairly nuanced, with the majority of the band’s beliefs being expressed through clever use of metaphor. Though they’re not afraid of ruffling a few feathers either, and openly attack their opposition on a number of occasions. Though ‘The Right Wing Never Sleeps’ is one that sticks out  immediately, ‘Song Of Choice’ is where the message comes to the forefront. The slightly updated version of the Peggy Seeger original, makes mention of the British National Party (and leader Nick Griffin) and the English Defence League in this impassioned song against racism – “Nazi scumbags must never take command/the BNP will never get to rule my land” is a line that particularly stands out, and there’s no message clearer than that.

Union City Breath is passion-filled, politically-driven, and unlike anything I’ve heard out of the UK punk scene since their last outing. What these guys do is so different from the majority of bands out there, and not just on a lyrical level. There’s no band out there, to my knowledge, that can go from doing a fast-paced punk song, to a folk song and then combine the two genres seamlessly. That’s not to say that the band, or this album, is perfect. There were times when some of the stuff on here fell a little flat and the lyrics might not have been up to scratch (the opening of ‘Charnel House Blues’ in particular). Whilst it might not be everyone’s cup of tea, Union City Breath is one of the most interesting thought provoking albums of 2011, and one of my personal favourites.

Album Review :: Chuck Ragan – Covering Ground

“One minute he’s shouting his songs at the heavens, and the next he’s serenading the listener with soft and sweet ballads.”

If there was one man I could live my life vicariously though, it would be Chuck Ragan. I mean, the guy’s awesome: He tours the world relentlessly, he’s built houses and has a voice that can charm the birds from the trees. Thankfully, there needs to be no voodoo nonsense involved for me to achieve my dream. All I have to do is throw on one of his albums and I’m there, chopping down trees and beating up bad guys.* This trend continues with Covering Ground, with one slight difference, it’s better than anything else he’s put out.

That’s not to say his past releases haven’t been good either. Feast Or Famine helped to establish Chuck’s signature style, Gold Country improved on the formula yet again, and Covering Ground does the same again. These incremental improvements have helped to create an album that rivals any other release this year. However, it still remains consistent with the rest of the Chuck’s back catalog and, from the opening chord of the opening song, there’s no doubt that this record is one of his. If that doesn’t let you know, then I think his voice might just give it away.

Chuck’s gruff, yet soulful, voice is better than ever. His gravelly vocal style never fails to impress me, especially as there’s so much range on each of his records. That’s especially prevalent on Covering Ground. One minute he’s shouting his songs at the heavens, and the next he’s serenading the listener with soft and sweet ballads. You don’t often get that kind of range on a record. Chuck’s also managed to compliment his vocals with those of his friends. Frank Turner and Audra Mae help to provide backing vocals, as does Brian Fallon. The Gaslight Anthem frontman plays a prominent role on ‘Meet You In The Middle’ – one of my favorite tracks from the album – his and Chuck’s vocals working really well together.

As always Chuck is joined by a plethora of instrumentalists, all of whom help to make this album what it is. Though all of those featured play an important part, Jon Gaunt is especially impressive here, his fiddle work adding that distinctive ‘country’ element to Chuck’s work that’s been a feature of each of his solo releases. His solo on ‘Nomad By Fate’ is infections and has me jigging as soon as I hear it. It’s clear that everyone plays an integral part on this record and, honestly, it wouldn’t be half as good without them.

Anyone who says you can’t be passionate with an acoustic guitar needs to take a listen to this record: Albums like this are the definition of the word. Chuck has outdone himself again. Covering Ground holds some of his best work, and there’s no doubt that this release is his best to date. If you’re a Chuck Ragan fan, it’s nothing new. Regardless, you won’t walk away disappointed.

*It’s unproven whether Chuck has actually beaten up bad guys but, let’s face it, he probably has. I know he’s chopped down a tree though.

Interview :: Darren Johns (Crazy Arm)

© 2011 Neil Oliver

“…I eat chips, I’m half way there” – Darren Johns (Crazy Arm)

Crazy Arm embarked on their first acoustic tour last week, and seemed pretty nervous about it. Manchester would be the first time the band had played like this outside of Plymouth, but we had faith they could pull it off (they totally did, by the way!). We managed to catch up with Darren to talk about, Union City Breath, the recent UK riots, and we also show you that you should really think about your target demographic when asking questions.

Album Review :: Chuck Ragan/Sam Russo/Jimmy Islip/Helen Chambers – Split LP

“…when Chuck Ragan recommends you something to listen to, you listen to it.”

Not only is Chuck Ragan a member of one of the best punk rock bands of the last twenty years, but he’s also established himself in the,ever popular, acoustic scene too. Having toured around the UK as a solo artist many times, he’s crossed paths with a number of fantastic singer/songwriters. In Sam Russo, Jimmy Islip and Helen Chambers, he’s found some of the UK’s finest, and they don’t disappoint.

Chuck kicks off the record and, rather than use original songs or tracks from his forthcoming solo release, he’s decided to cover some of his favorite artists. Lending his voice to the words of Helen Chambers, Darren Gibson and Leatherface, he pulls each track off expertly and makes each song his own. Did you expect anything less?. The addition of backing vocals from, fellow Hot Water Music member, Chris Wollard are a nice touch and work well in contrast with Chuck’s main vocal. The strongest of the three is definitely ‘Not Superstitious’ (Leatherface), but I have a soft spot for ‘Stephen Patrick’ because I love the original and I can’t resist a Morrissey reference.

Taking on the arduous task of following Chuck is Sam Russo. Russo’s released a few records before this, but it’s nice to hear him on a more polished recording. Not only are they more polished than previous recordings, but there’s definitely more to them. Electric guitars and subtle percussion accompany his acoustic, making his tracks the most full sounding of the bunch. I’d go as far as saying, Russo is my favorite songwriter around right now, mainly because it’s hard not to relate to what he’s saying. His words are as simple and poignant as ever, and I don’t think there’s anyone out there who can’t relate to a song like ‘Tinned Peaches And Diamond Rings’ – “I pawned everything that I own/It wasn’t much but I should’ve known/that she’d say no” gets me every time.

Whilst Chuck and Sam went for the softer more heartfelt route with their tracks, Jimmy Islip’s additions bring in a nice change of pace. They’re the least folky, most upbeat and the most stripped down tracks on the record (aside from a few vocal effects). They feel more like punk songs played on an acoustic guitar. That’s no bad thing, and isn’t a surprise given that he plays in so many punk bands. With that said, the tracks aren’t overly aggressive, but they’re definitely tracks to throw your fists in the air and sing along to. ‘1990’,  in particular, is one bound to leave throats sore by the nights end.

After Jimmy’s selection of punk tunes, Helen Chambers’ trio of softer, heartfelt country songs provide the closer to this fantastic split record. Her distinctive vocal style sets her apart from any other singer I’ve heard in recent years, and she knows how to use her voice to her advantage. Her vocal range is incredible. ‘Speak Your Name’, a purely A Capella song, demonstrates this perfectly. Some might see it as brave for an artist to do something like this but, when you’ve a voice like Helen’s, why not? Not only that, but she brings two fantastic country/folk songs to the table too, the subtle extra instrumentation on those songs working really well with Helen’s acoustic guitar. Is there anything she can’t do?!

What I hope I’ve made clear here is that when Chuck Ragan recommends you something to listen to, you listen to it. Those coming to this for three new Chuck Ragan songs will be happy, as they’ll also have three new artists to listen to as well. These twelve songs are poignant, rabble-rousing and beautiful and, I like to think, prove that the art of good songwriting isn’t confined to a select few. In short, go and buy this. You’ll love it.

To buy this, extremely limited, split 12″ record, head over to Specialist Subject Records. Whilst you’re there, check out some of their other releases. You won’t be disappointed.

Single Review :: Crazy Arm – Tribes

“…I can’t wait to hear what the Crazy Arm boys have in store for us in September.”

I’ve made it pretty clear in the past that Born To Ruin is one of my favorite albums in a long time. Crazy Arm’s brand of gruff, melodic, political punk was a breath of fresh air and I’ve been hooked ever since. The guys are gearing up for the release of their second album and, if ‘Tribes’ (and previous single ‘Ambertown’) is anything to go by, Union City Breath will be another top notch release from the Plymouth-based band.

Like a lot of Crazy Arm’s material, ‘Tribes’ is a very socially conscious track. The line: “I don’t want to live in a fucked up world” opens up the song and perfectly captures the message the band are trying to spread. It’s a track that deals, primarily, with equality and promotes the idea that, no matter what sex or race a person might be, they have rights. It encourages morality, but manages to stray away from feeling overly preachy. When a song has such a clear message that can be hard to avoid and can often feel like it’s been laid on a bit too thick. That isn’t the case here. Musically, it’s everything you’d expect from a Crazy Arm song. The rabble-rousing track is driven by awesome, forceful, guitar playing and kept together by the solid rhythm section. The drums are particularly prevalent, but that’s no bad thing. The changes in pace are fantastic and, coupled with Darren’s fantastic vocal range, really help to drive the message of the track home.

The quality continues with the B-side. ‘Help For Heroines’ relies heavily on the the roots punk/country punk sound that differentiates Crazy Arm from the rest of the bands in the current UK scene. That being said, it doesn’t lay off on the intensity. It’s still fast paced and best played at full volume. If this is the quality of tracks that were cut from Union City Breath, I can’t wait to hear what the Crazy Arm boys have in store for us in September.

You can’t go wrong here – Two great tracks from a great band. Buy the single, go to the shows and support them any way you can. The band head off on their first ever UK acoustic tour later this month, with Cory Branan and Sam Russo. Following that, they’ll be touring across Europe with Against Me!, on their headline shows, in November. There’s details of their future touring plans here.

Interview :: El Morgan

“What’s up with the kitchen?” – El Morgan

We’ve known El for a little while now so, unsurprisingly, this interview is a little more informal than most. The Southsea songstress was up in Manchester, on tour with The State Lottery and Bangers. Before her set we had a chat about, her new EP, Darlington, quitting her job, working with Charlotte Church’s viola player, Southsea Fest 2011 and even her kitchen.