Song of the Day, September 7: William Taylor by the Rails

RailsWmTaylorFor their debut album, Fair Warning, Kami Thompson and James Walbourne wrote a great set of electric folk tracks. They also cast back to their roots, finding two great traditional songs to add to the mix. One of those selections, William Taylor is among the finest moments on the disc.

It’s an old folk song [Roud 158], collected in 1908 by Percy Grainger from the singing of Joseph Taylor. Dozens of folk luminaries — including June Tabor, Martin Carthy, and Hedy West — have recorded fine versions. William Taylor contains some of the most common tropes in British folk — the seafaring lover, infidelity, cross-dressing, and revenge. Unlike many songs with these themes, this one finds the maiden who dressed in man’s apparel coming out the clear winner in the end, and on her own terms.

This rich history makes it a perfect selection for the Rails to use as their tribute. They also make it very much their own. Thompson and Walbourne trade vocals and harmonize capturing the flow of the story with their smart choices. The band romp along behind them, reminding us that this is very much a modern electric folk outfit. The whole package is a perfect delight.

Enjoy this great song today, both in its fine album version and this great live performance.

Song of the Day, March 26: Careful by Thompson

ThompsonFamilyToday’s song is Careful, one of two contributions by husband and wife team Kami Thompson and James Walbourne (also known as the Rails) to the delightful album Family. Aptly credited to “Thompson,” the project was curated by Thompson’s brother, Teddy; it’s the first-ever joint venture of the extended musical family of folk-rock legends Richard and Linda Thompson.

Careful is one of two Rails contributions, a spot-on pop gem with a slight country flair. Kami sings it beautifully, opening with the smart line “Careful you don’t fall in love with someone who might break your heart.” Energetic and wistful, it captures the spirit of the family outing brilliantly. Richard Thompson contributes a stirring lead guitar and assorted family members add lovely harmonies.

With so much talent in the family, the project took on a slightly competitive nature as the contributions trickled in. Teddy has observed of this track, “When Kami’s songs came in, my heart sunk just a little. I knew that she had won.”

It’s hard to pick a single winner, but Careful is a definite highlight of a brilliant set. Enjoy this lovely song today.

Album of the Week, March 15: Fair Warning by the Rails

RailsWarningBy the time they joined forces, James Walbourne and Kami Thompson each had impressive musical resumes. London-born Walbourne is a smart, eclectic guitarist and singer. He parlayed a fondness for American roots rock and British folk into a sterling session career — working with the likes of the Pogues and the Pretenders — and stints as a member of the Pernice Brothers and Son Volt. Thompson is the daughter of British folk-rock legends Richard and Linda Thompson. She hovered around the edges of the music industry for years, contributing to albums by her mother and her brother, Teddy Thompson, before easing into her own career. She also worked with a diverse group of alt-folk types — including Bonnie “Prince” Billy — eventually running into Walbourne. Their shared love of folk and smart pop got them working together, initially as Dead Flamingoes. By the time they rechristened the duo the Rails, they were also married.

Title Fair Warning
Act The Rails
Label Island Release Date May 5, 2014
Producer Edwyn Collins, Sebastian Lewsley and the Rails
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. Bonnie Portmore
  2. Breakneck Speed
  3. Jealous Sailor
  4. Younger
  5. William Taylor
  6. Panic Attack Blues
  7. Send Her to Holloway
  8. Grace of God
  9. Fair Warning
  10. Borstal
  11. Habit

As they prepared to enter the studio, they wrote a number of wonderful songs and settled on a couple of traditional tunes. They opted for singer-songwriter Edwyn Collins to produce the disc, a smart choice given his long career of clever, offbeat pop with occasional folky elements. Collins captures the spirit and energy of the Rails, giving them just the right amount of structure and cohesion to let their musical talents shine. Walbourne’s earthy vocals and powerful guitar blend seamlessly with Thompson’s rich alto and acoustic contributions. A sharp and sympathetic rhythm section — Cody Dickinson (drums) and Danny Williams (bass) — round out the regular crew. The Rails bring in an occasional guest to fill out the sound as needed, notably fellow second-generation folkie and master fiddler Eliza Carthy.

The disc opens with the lovely traditional song Bonnie Portmore, a sad ballad about fading legacies. It’s a perfect starting point, showing off the pair’s wonderful harmonies and giving a nod to the rich musical well from which they draw. Most of the tracks are Thompson/Walbourne compositions, but one other traditional tune adds flavor to the mix. Featuring another great duet vocal, they give a nice treatment to the old ballad William Taylor, a story of betrayal and disguise. It’s been recorded many times (notably in versions by June Tabor and Martin Carthy), but the Rails make it their own with crisp, modern instrumentation and a clever use of alternating voices to capture mood and character.

Given the pair’s backgrounds, it’s no surprise that many of their originals fit into strong traditional modes. The Walbourne-led Jealous Sailor is the clearest example, a clever story of romantic troubles propelled by energetic harmonies and Carthy’s great fiddle work. A handful of songs dwell on the theme of prison, another trad-folk staple. Send Her to Holloway is a most direct, with Walbourne wishing the woman who devastated him imprisoned for her actions. The clever juxtaposition of romance and the well-known women’s prison is the Rails’ writing at its best. With Borstal, Walbourne turns the tables on himself, risking life in the infamous jail for taking murderous revenge on his unfaithful lover and the man who seduced her. These direct prison references are joined by the haunting Grace of God, with Thompson singing an aching tale of metaphorical shackles and the disappointments of roads not taken.

That tension shows up in other relationship driven songs as well. The clever Younger looks at a reasonably stable relationship and the pressures of growing up and old together. Thompson takes another lead on Breakneck Speed, a stirring song of escape given impetus by Carthy’s fiddle. It’s a highlight of the album, with a melancholy pace that almost belies the title.

That despair is a fixture of the folky pop that the Rails bring us. Thompson opens the title track with a line worthy of her father’s dark meditations: “I’ll be okay soon, there’s a bottle in my hand.” A lovely, aching I-should-have-listened track, the powerful humanity of the vocals provides a catharsis for the aching narration. Walbourne’s finest moment is a much more energetic bit of desperation. Panic Attack Blues is a riveting romp, a look at coping mechanisms and the terror that comes as they begin to fail. It’s the best track on the album, with great harmonies and another driving fiddle line. Melancholy wraps up the journey as well. Walbourne and Thompson sing a lovely duet, accompanied only by their twin acoustic guitars, on Habit. It’s a fine pop song about making the best of a broken relationship and a smart closer, showing off how powerful the Rails are at their most elemental.

FURTHER LISTENING: The Rails have just this one disc — one of the finest of 2014 — to their credit. It’s won them well-deserved acclaim as a band and as an album. Before forming their musical and personal partnership, each Rail had one solo album to their credit. Walbourne released The Hill in 2010. It’s a solid showcase of his powerful guitar work and features some smart writing. Highlights include the urban decay ballad of the title track, the folk-noir Northern Heights and the touching Songbird. Thompson’s 2011 Love Lies is an amazing disc, featuring guest work from her talented family that emphasizes her own talents. The finest moments are the surprising cover of the George Harrison Beatles classic Don’t Bother Me, the grimly compelling domestic devastation of Tick Tock, and the cars-as-sex metaphor Nice Cars (also covered by her mother, Linda). The pair also appear on last year’s Family a great project curated by Teddy Thompson featuring the work of the extended family; the Rails-driven Careful is a highlight of the project.

Song of the Day, February 3: Panic Attack Blues by the Rails

RailsPABToday’s song is Panic Attack Blues. When Kami Thompson and James Walbourne joined forces, they each had an impressive body of work behind them. She is the daughter of Richard and Linda Thompson and has worked extensively with both, providing vocals, guitar, and songwriting. He’s a brilliant guitarist and solid singer who has worked with Son Volt and the Pernice Brothers. Both have one great solo album to their credit. They met, hit it off musically, got married, and formed a band.

The Rails is this great pair, usually backed by drummer Cody Dickinson and bassist Danny Williams. Their debut album, Fair Warning, exceeds all expectations, providing an amazing set of songs. Panic Attack Blues is the highlight. It’s a great modern anxiety song with driving beat and whirlwind lyrics. Walbourne sings lead, agonizing over how difficult it can be just to cope. Thompson’s vocals flow effortlessly around his, creating a compelling synergy. The song is propelled by Walbourne’s guitar, ably supported by the rhythm section. For the instrumental break, he provides a delicious mandolin line. The great Eliza Carthy — also the daughter of musical legends — provides a scorching fiddle that ties it all together.

Enjoy this amazing song today.

BONUS — Thompson and Walbourne also recorded an acoustic version of the song. It shows off his virtuosity, their great vocal sympathy, and how stripping down a great song can reveal its powers.

My Favorite Albums of 2014

Last year was a good one for music, producing more truly enjoyable albums than I’ve heard in a while. Here are the seven discs that rose above the pack for me — a nice mix of veterans, newcomers, and acts settled into a solid groove.

OysterDiamondThe champ of the year was Oysterband with their stunning Diamonds On the Water. Together in various forms for over 35 years, the Oysters released their 25th album early in the year. I was delighted to hear its energy and power. Maybe reuniting with June Tabor a couple of years ago gave them a shot in the arm; it certainly gave her some great new energy too. Whatever the case, this is the band’s finest work in 20 years. Smart lyrics, tight playing, social commentary, and music with real heart all combine over 12 tracks without anything close to a dull moment. Highlights include the moving Steal Away, the anthemic Spirit of Dust and the haunting Palace of Memory.


The other six offer very different musical approaches, each with its own distinctive charm.

ColeStandardsLloyd Cole – Standards: Another long-time favorite resurfaces with his best album in many years. Cole has turned out a steady stream of quality albums; his more recent offerings have been more acoustic, folky discs. For this ironically titled disc (all but one song are originals), he plugs back in, reuniting with collaborators Fred Maher, Matthew Sweet, and Blair Cowan. The result is a fresh, inspired set that finds the acerbic sage at his witty finest. Highlights include the John Hartford / Mama Cass cover California Earthquake, Myrtle and Rose and Opposites Day.

GEzraVoyageGeorge Ezra – Wanted On Voyage: A fresh new talent from England, George Ezra Bennett moved to Bristol, dropped his surname, and launched a promising career. He landed on the BBC Introducing stage at Glastonbury and parlayed that success into a record deal. After two promising EPs, he assembled a team that helped him pursue his musical vision. Gifted with an almost surreally deep voice, he knows how to use it to great effect, exploring his range while presenting a nice set of pop songs. Highlights include the frustration ode Cassy O’, the gospel-tinged Did You Hear the Rain? and the clever pop gem Blame It On Me.

IngridLightsIngrid Michaelson – Lights Out: Michaelson has been turning out charming, often quirky folk-pop for a decade, working hard to maintain her independence while receiving signficant airplay through TV and other venues. Her sixth album sees her take a quantum leap, with stronger lyrics, more varied soundscapes, and more confident vocals. She invited a number of friends to the party, and the half-dozen co-credits enhance rather than distract. Kicking off the release with the brilliant Robert Palmer inspired video for her best song ever, Girls Chase Boys, Michaelson has emerged as a unique, mature artist. Other highlights are the wistful Stick and the boisterous regret anthem Time Machine.

PerfumeGeniusTooBrightPerfume Genius – Too Bright: Mike Hadreas’ first album was the quietly promising Learning, followed by the stunning Put Your Back N 2 It. For his third release as Perfume Genius, he really diversifies the sound. The result is much more uneven than the previous discs, and that inconsistency almost kept Too Bright off my list. When it’s on, however, it’s a powerhouse, and he deserves praise for stepping out of his comfort zone and experimenting with his sound. It’s also much less introspective, a nice evolution in writing and perspective. Highlights include the bold, angry anthem Queen; the eerie worldbeat tale Longpig; and the stirring, jarring Grid.

RailsWarningThe Rails – Fair Warning: Kami Thompson and James Walbourne have two impressive but very different resumes. She’s the daughter of folk rock legends Richard and Linda Thompson who has eased into her own impressive career. He’s a talented guitarist and songwriter who has been a member of Son Volt and the Pernice Brothers. Each performer released a fine solo album before they began collaborating. They got married and started a band, and their debut joint effort is stunning, a powerful mix of folk-pop, traditional songs, and grim rock. Highlights include the gripping Panic Attack Blues, an enchanting version of the traditional William Taylor, and the quietly urgent Breakneck Speed.

ThompsonFamilyThompson – Family: Thompson and Walbourne had a busy year, also participating in this aptly named project. Curated by Kami’s brother, Teddy, the album features contributions from all three talented performers as well as parents Richard and Linda (sharing their first full album credit in over 30 years), brother Jack, and nephew Zak Hobbs, plus James’ brother Rob on percussion and occasional moments from other family members. The result is a delightful assortment that is remarkably cohesive. Highlights include Teddy’s rave-up Right, Linda’s fragile Perhaps We Can Sleep, Kami and James’ Careful (which sounds like a brilliant Rails outtake with extra energy from the family), and Richard’s rousing protest number That’s Enough which features a nice singalong chorus from the extended family.

Song of the Day, February 19: Little Boy Blue by Kami Thompson

KamiLittleBBToday’s song is Little Boy Blue by Kami Thompson. With a sterling musical pedigree and a great collection of talented friends, Thompson’s talent could almost be the product of osmosis. She began writing songs casually, because everyone around her did it, and started performing occasionally. When she decided to pursue a recording contract, she worked up a handful of demos. One of her first songs was Little Boy Blue, a powerful song of romantic disappointment.

The song worked so well that it appeared a couple of years later on her debut album, Love Lies, with very little changed. With great musical backing she delivers her almost detached vocals. As things move forward, it becomes clear that this detachment is a defense mechanism, and the passion and frustration are enough to almost tear her apart. It’s an amazing performance and a well-crafted song.

I’m thinking of you
All of the time
And the parting words so sweet
You almost kissed me

Enjoy this amazing song today.

Song of the Day, January 2: As Fast As My Feet

McGarrigleFastFeetKamiTeddyLindaTToday’s song is As Fast As My Feet, written by Anna McGarrigle and Chaim Tannenbaum. Although long a favorite of live shows by Kate and Anna McGarrigle, for some reason the sisters never committed it to disc. It’s a boisterous tribute to the travelling life and the joys of arriving safely home. Driven by accordion, banjo, and electric keyboard, it manages the balance that typifies the best of the McGarrigle’s work: roots music — in this case with a somewhat Cajun feel — blended with a very modern sensibility. The lyrics echo that tension, celebrating the modern conveniences that make travel faster and the simple comfort of hearth and home in one magical package.

As fast as my little feet will carry me
As fast as my wings can fly
As fast as automobile can ferry me
As fast as this thing can drive
The sum of rivet and aluminium
Banking in the setting sun
Shining like a silver star
When my work is done

Folk legend Linda Thompson sang the song at a number of concerts to raise funds for the Kate McGarrigle Foundation after Kate’s death from sarcoma in 2010. She enjoyed it so much that she turned it into a family celebration for her latest album, the cheekily named Won’t Be Long Now. Daughter Kami provides lead vocals as Linda and son Teddy sing harmonies and backgrounds. Grandson Zak Hobbs provides a delightful mandolin line and a lead guitar worthy of his grandfather, Linda’s ex-husband Richard.

Enjoy this classic live reading by the McGarrigles and this wonderful family recording by the Thompsons today.

Song of the Day, November 27: Don’t Bother Me

Today’s song is Don’t Bother Me, written by George Harrison. Beatles covers are tricky things. The band were so influential and prolific that alternate versions — often of songs they didn’t release as singles — charted in parallel with their hits. Literally thousands of versions of their songs have been recorded, ranging from the horrific to the sublime. The best tend to be — as is usually true with covers — those that reinvent the song while staying true to its spirit. Nina Simone’s Revolution, Earth Wind and Fire’s Got to Get You Into My Life,and Joe Cocker’s She Came In Through the Bathroom Window are great examples.

Another sound strategy is covering a lesser-known track, a la Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey by the Feelies. That’s the strategy taken by Kami Thompson on her debut ep, Bad Marriage. Don’t Bother Me was the first song penned by George Harrison to appear on a Beatles recording. Harrison considers it to be basically an exercise in learning how to write a song, and that’s just how it comes off on Meet the Beatles. Thompson, a decent writer in her own right, takes the song and dives deeper into its sullen desolation.

But ’till she’s here please don’t come near, just stay away.
I’ll let you know when she’s come home. Until that day,
Don’t come around, leave me alone, don’t bother me.

Her rendering elevates the song from decent Beatles toss-off to brilliant song of sorrow — so much so that it later appeared on her wonderful debut album, Love Lies. Enjoy this amazing cover of an underrated song today.

Song of the Day, September 26: Nice Cars by Linda (or Kami) Thompson

Today’s song is Nice Cars. Kami Thompson wrote the song as she began her performing career and it has been a staple of her live shows. When her mother, Linda, recorded her third solo album, Versatile Heart, in 2007, she included a splendid cover of the song (with Kami performing harmonies). Kami later included her studio version on her debut album, 2011’s spectacular Love Lies.

Linda provides a nice synopsis of the song in the liner notes for Versatile Heart.

My younger daughter Kami wrote this. I love it. A white girl’s jelly roll song. I blame the mother.

Nice Cars is a lovely twist on the car as sexual metaphor song with a wistful. aching lyric.

Ladies shouldn’t drive nice cars
They’re only going to break our hearts
Don’t call my husband
He won’t understand
Don’t call the mechanic
He’ll only lay his dirty hands on it

Both women deliver brilliant, slightly different approaches to the song. Enjoy Linda’s world-weary take or this lovely live version by Kami today.

Song of the Day, May 4: Tick Tock by Kami Thompson

Today’s song is Tick Tock by Kami Thompson. Born the youngest child of the enormously talented Richard and Linda Thompson, Kamila came into the world as their marriage was very publicly detonating. Thirty years later, she remains close to both parents and displays a talent (much like her brother, Teddy) that clearly draws on her heritage but is uniquely her own. Her debut album, Love Lies, released after years of gigging and collaborating on her mother’s and brother’s albums, is a very strong set of songs. Even in that company, Tick Tock is a standout. Paced over an incessant beat, the lyrics tell the story of a disintegrating relationship, leaving the narrator on the dark brink of an unknown future.

‘Cause we had everything until you left
We had a home until you burned it down
Now your baby bites my breast and I
Don’t know if I’m ever gonna come around

Enjoy this powerful song today.

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