Dusty Stray – Estranged

One of the delightful and yet unintended consequences of maintaining Sonic Breakfast for four years now (on and off admittedly) has been the occasional, ongoing contact that’s developed with a pretty wide array of musicians from around the globe. 

Two and a half years on from writing not one but two short blog posts about Dusty Stray (here and here), I receive an E-mail from Jonathan, the man behind Dusty Stray. He tells me that the new record, Estranged, is to be released imminently (on October 12th in fact). We exchange E-mails. Jonathan is now back in Amsterdam after a couple of years in Colorado and I’m now here in Spain. It’s a sort of refreshing proof that our lives haven’t stagnated. 

Jonathan sends me a private link to ‘Estranged’ and I sit down to listen (with headphones).

In my humble opinion, more people should throw themselves into the work of Dusty Stray. And perhaps for a newcomer, Estranged is as good a place as any to start. It’s an album that’s both beautiful and sad. We watch through a window as Jonathan writes about relationships that are almost done – but not quite. We listen as his voice grieves over the potential loss; a range of instruments creating a sort of ‘folk-noir’ soundtrack that simply accentuate the mood. 

The cracks and the stains have been covered, all of the locks have been changed, broken windows boarded up, and we’ve become estranged.” That’s what Jonathan sings on ‘Houses’, one of the album’s many stand-out tracks. You feel the sadness and the honesty in the story-telling. A perky solo does its best to lift the misery but any respite is temporary. 

Not that it’s an album so desolate that there’s no cause for optimism. In ‘Things Will Look Different’, the romance refreshes before the lap steel and harmonica herald further disappointment. “In the morning, you were gone”, sings Jonathan with tumbling heart. ‘After The Play’, a romantic interlude, places our protagonists in a theatre and there’s flirting-a-plenty going on as tears are shed over the actions on the stage.

The title of the new album comes from the general out-of-place feeling I had returning to the US after living so long in Europe,” says Jonathan about Estranged. And you realise that there are different ways to read the album’s grief. On a literal level, it’s about that always-odd time when a relationship might have ended but you’re not quite sure. From a wider perspective, this is an album about falling out of love with a country that you now feel estranged from. 

In a world of Brexit and Trump it’s easy to see why this might resonate.

 

 

Michael Nau – Michael Nau & The Mighty Thread

I miss my headphones. When I was working back in England, I never travelled anywhere without my Sennheisers. Comfy to wear, I got through many train rides to far-flung towns by simply putting them over my ears and allowing myself to drift away.

My headphones half-broke quite early in my Spanish travels. They still work and it’s probably nothing that a good coating of super-glue wouldn’t fix properly. The foam cushion has detached from the ear-speaker thing. I have to hunch my neck a bit now if I want the full headphone listening experience.

And mostly there’s no need for them over here. The villa is so remote from others that there’s little risk of complaint should I turn my speakers up to 11. I enjoy the peace and quiet and listening to the sounds of nature but when I need to blast music out it seems to impact upon nobody. 

In cases of emergency, I have a pair of Apple earplugs. They’ve improved since the early I-pod days and slot into my ears quite neatly. I couldn’t wear them for long periods of time though. 

This weekend, I’ve been listening to Michael Lau’s latest album through them. It’s a dreamy, reverb-laden Country soul thing. There’s a sort of laconic fuzz that drifts across the album and it draws you in. You want to get closer to the action, to hear the vocals and the pedal-steel close up, and headphones become a natural choice. 

Lyrically, it’s a record open to interpretation. The best I can deduce is that Michael feels on the edge of something. In the Autumnal ‘Shadow On’, the second tune on the disk, that something is hanging by a thread, the final leaves are falling and you wonder if Michael Nau and The Mighty Thread might be setting itself up as a break-up album. 

But as the album progresses, there are signs that whatever has been failing has turned a corner. “The shit from here on in isn’t going to be so hard”, he sings on No Faraway Star as the mood of the record lightens. The reconciliation continues during ‘On Ice’, a highlight of the album and a song about separate beds and the power of the lampshade in fixing what has gone before. 

“Could you let me help you smile?” asks Michael on ‘Funny Wind’ and you sense that the journey is nearly complete before album closer (and another highlight), ‘Smudge’, throws a bit more doubt into the mix with lines like ‘walking together, walking apart’ and ‘another sinking boat’. That all builds towards the final lyric of the record, “waiting for something to never end“. And you realise that this is probably the point of the record. 

Life drifts; there are few clear-cut beginnings and endings. That’s the preserve of films and books. For the rest of us, we wander, often aimlessly, through things. We’re curious about our future and reminiscent about our pasts. We’re all ‘waiting for something to never end’. 

 

Shelter – Stephen Karl and Handsome Animals

It’s raining in Alicante today. At one point, for about five minutes, it came down quite heavily. But, for the most part, this is the sort of rain that might register as light drizzle back in England. When I meandered back from language school this afternoon, people were sheltering in doorways or tentatively reviewing their instructions for putting up barely-used umbrellas. I took some delight in openly walking in the rain. I’m hardened to the extremes it seems. 

But the rain has served to quell my exploratory spirit. I’ve spent the afternoon drinking breakfast tea whilst eating tomatoes, cheese and bread. Instead of wandering around this fine city, I’ve been listening to music that’s been sent my way. I’ve barely scratched the surface. 

There’s a lot of great music being released but this track, Shelter, by Stephen Karl and Handsome Animals caught my ear on this rainy day.

“My heroes are Prince, Springsteen, Tom Waits, Townes Van Zandt”, says Stephen, clearly a man with fine taste. “A lot of these tunes that were written around this time deal with romantic relationship struggles: ‘Shelter’ is an honest story of a relationship that is failing, but it does it in an honest, compassionate, and not-too maudlin way by acknowledging what I’m experiencing, and what I love about the woman I’m losing, and how I basically do want the best for her.”

Sonic Breakfast thinks it’s a belter of a tune; the exact sort of Americana that sends us all wobbly and quivery. Stephen has a rich voice that digs away into your brain whilst his quality musicians burrow into your body.

 

 

Shelter is one of four songs on a split EP with another New York based act, Darlin Darlin. Perhaps in future Sonic Breakfast blogposts I’ll feature them. Cyndi, the other track from Stephen Karl and Handsome Animals on the EP is also a cracker, especially for those of us who like story-songs.

“I wanted to present a fun story, and ‘Cyndi’ is that—about a night when I was 25 and got a kiss from Cyndi Lauper,”, says Stephen about this track whilst men and women of a certain age fight back the feelings of envy. 

 

 

Curse Of Lono – Saturday Night

On balance, it was probably a good thing that the gig I was due to go to on Monday night was cancelled. It’s been a hectic sort of non-stop week, one in which sleep has been at a premium, so another late night watching headliners, Uncle Lucius, and support, Curse Of Lono, might have been pushing these weary bones too far. 

But, there’s no getting away from the disappointment. I was sent a promo copy of the Curse Of Lono EP, Saturday Night, a couple of weeks ago and the four tunes on it have rapidly become favourites when driving in my car. On a recent trip to Liverpool, I listened over and over again to this distinct mix of Americana, siphoned through a seedy London backstreet. Passengers in the car chuckled over the perversities voiced within the title track whilst I was drawn to the skewed sadness and sentiment of ‘He Takes My Place’.

I had some vague knowledge of Hey Negrita, the previous band that the founder of Curse Of Lono, Felix Bechtolsheimer, had spent years being involved with. Back in the day, before I wrote about music, I’d seen them at festivals and gigs. At De Montfort Hall and The Big Session Festival, I’d watched them perform before heading back to the beer tent and nearly missing my own compere duties.

Here was a blog post waiting to happen.

But I held back a bit. I was aware that each of the EP tracks were also being used within a short, accompanying film. The trailer for ‘Saturday Night’, directed by Alex Walker, looked gripping. Cinematic, dramatic and loaded with debauched crime, the indications were that this was going to be a fine vehicle to elevate already great songs to another level.

On staggered release across some fine blogs, each of the videos have now been uploaded to Youtube. Watch carefully and visual clues help you to follow the ongoing plot. Despite the lack of dialogue, you can follow the characters through to a satisfying denouement in the final video. The path mightn’t be linear and the story not always obvious but, for me, that sense of crippling confusion and slow-motion thoughtfulness makes the music crisper.

It’s a bold statement doing things this way. There are no half measures here. Pull up a chair, sit back and open the popcorn. 

I’m sure that, after watching this, you’ll be like me in checking future Curse Of Lono tour dates and desperately hoping they reschedule that gig. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stevie Jones and The Wildfires – This Is My Church

I first met Stevie Jones at one of the Oysterband’s Big Session festivals at De Montfort Hall. I blagged a compering slot in the beer tent, despite having very little qualities to fulfil such a role. I suppose I was, at least, energetic, friendly and a good advert for how drunk the ale in the tent might get you. 

 

Stevie (along with his long term musical collaborator, Mark Gill) was one of the acts that I introduced. I remember that he was so enthused about this experience. It was easy to banter and joke with Stevie. He seemed to have an encyclopaedic knowledge about music and conveyed that with charm and good grace. 

When he played on stage, there was a definite ‘Americana’ angle to his art. This was a time when magazines such as ‘Uncut’ were piling praise on the likes of Ryan Adams and Stevie was clearly drawing influence from that. 

Since that introduction, I’ve got to know Stevie a little better. It’s mostly true that the music scene here in Leicester and its immediate beyond is one where we all try our best to encourage and support each other. It’s a broad church, not always devoid of schisms, but for the most part we all get on. There’s very few who do more to achieve that than Stevie. A tireless promoter, performer and supporter of live music, it’s always a joy to randomly turn up at one of my local pubs to be entertained by his acoustic performance. 

Following a successful pledger’s ‘soft release’ last autumn, Stevie will launch his new album nationally this spring. Recorded with his full band, The Wildfires, ‘Stratigraphic Heart’ is a collection of very personal songs. The title track of the album brings his love of archaeology to the fore; the forthcoming digital single, ‘This Is My Church’ gives insights into Stevie’s life via glimpses of the music he’s loved and the experiences he’s had. 

He’ll be playing shows across the East Midlands and further afield to support this launch. In a world where karma should rule, it’s well worth giving something back to Stevie.

Dusty Stray – Blood Trail

I’m reminded that, back in the chaos of 2015, I was sent a video from Dusty Stray’s new record. I was also sent a link to that album, ‘A Tree Fell And Other Songs’, which was being released early in November.

I exchanged some E-mails with Jonathan Brown, the incredible talent behind Dusty Stray and confirmed that I was definitely going to write about ‘Blood Trail’ on Sonic Breakfast. But then, the stuff of life got in the way and I stopped updating my blog.

I say to all who’ll listen that it was a perfectly treatable skin cancer without really stopping to think about the effect it had on my head in those Autumn months. As the trees became bare so did my cupboards.

Born in Taiwan, Jonathan Brown grew up in Texas as a son of a preacher man. Raised on songs about death and resurrection, he began writing his own songs taking influence from early American folk music. Travel, dead end relationships and forming freak folk bands led him to a place where he’s now based in the Netherlands. Jonathan curated the recent SnowApple video that I featured in my Sonic Breakfast Top Ten of 2015.

A Tree Fell And Other Songs, the fourth full-length Dusty Stray release, was written in a small, lone trailer in the flatlands of Holland alongside the dead end of a river. The twelve original songs illustrating “dead end” relationships flow into one another in a natural, organic way. It’s a fine listen if you want to indulge in a bit of melancholy. 

‘Blood Trail’ has a haunting, memorable lilt. It’s almost got the feel of a murder ballad save for the fact that nobody dies. I asked Jonathan what the song was about: – 

“It’s all about a somewhat traumatic childhood memory of when I was about 7 or 8 playing in the dirt/mud along our driveway — making some kind of “castle” or something — and some neighborhood kid came along and completely destroyed it. I was so angry that I picked up a nearby brick and threw it at him hitting him in the head and causing a lot of bleeding and screaming. He turned out to be ok — didn’t even need stitches — but the image of that little blonde-haired kid suddenly blood red-haired sitting on our kitchen counter while my mom was helping him is still with me. And I think that was my first and last violent act…”

I love this. Have a happy weekend SB readers.