Country Jukebox Jury: Raleigh Keegan, Alan Fletcher and American Aquarium

Raleigh Keegan – A Tale of 7 Cities

What a great hook for a collection of songs, which adds an eighth, the smartly titled piano ballad Where My Home Is.

Cold Day In Tucson (‘you’re too far gone for a love song’) is perfect Radio 2 fodder with an inapposite bouncy arrangement and a passionate vocal. Likewise Lonely Night in LA (‘Hollywood ain’t so good’), with its Laurel Canyon grooves, and Miss Me Memphis. That song starts with a keyboard vamp and harmonica and namechecks for Beale Street and Graceland. 

Paris Wheel, meanwhile, picks up the pace and takes us to the boulevard and the museums. The chorus is terrific, and there is another fine instrumental section with piano, guitar and jazz fiddle inveigling their way into the mix.

How’s The View In New York City is just lush. It opens with some a cappella stems which lead to a classic songwriter-sounding verse and, in the instrumental section, some suspended chords played by a string section. The lyrics see Raleigh asking what his beloved had for breakfast – as if they do it differently in the big city – and if she misses him.

We return to the country with Send My Love To Lexington, co-written by Semisonic’s Dan Wilson. Dobro at the start of the song introduces a place that Raleigh ‘might have left but it never left me’. New To Nashville is a songwriter’s story of ‘paying dues’ and waiting for proper furniture in a city of ‘a thousand hungry heartbreaks’. I can’t wait to see where Raleigh goes next, geographically and musically.

Alan Fletcher – Dispatches

Dr Karl Kennedy has always had a sideline in music. In fact, his band The Waiting Room were booked back in 2006 to play Edinburgh’s student union because they could guarantee an audience for the guy off of Neighbours, a student staple. Now the TV show is on the home straight, Alan Fletcher can go full-time with his tunes.

For his latest EP, and the forthcoming album which will be the first under his own name, Alan has gone country, with four originals and a cover of Fish and Whistle written by the late John Prine. Appropriately for a man whose job in a TV soap is about to end, one verse is about being ‘fired for being scared of bees’.

Old song Time Was finally has an arrangement worthy of its composition, which is full of diminished chords and a whistling solo. Alan’s voice comes across like that of Neil Young, though he’s more Bob Dylan on the verbose Spend A Little Time With Me, on which he plans to give up ‘recreational toking’ to appease his beloved. There’s also a neat duet with Alyce Platt on Sorry Is The Word (‘we never find’), a song which Paul Heaton could have written for him and Jacqui Abbott.

The EP’s opening track Meet Me On The Steps of the Bombed Out Church is a Celtic-tinged tune about Liverpool led by plucked banjo and folk fiddle with a pub singalong of a chorus. This is given more verisimilitude by Alan’s weather-worn voice that is coming to London next week. Catch him at the Bedford in Balham on July 4 and/or the Camden Club in Chalk Farm on July 5. Matt Spracklen is one of the support acts.

American Aquarium – Chicamacomico

BJ Barham returns with another record, his tenth of original material, following two sets of covers albums. Having played the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville for the first time, the band are on the road all summer all across America including a return to Music City for AmericanaFest in September. Americana is a good label for BJ’s music – BJ hires new musicians all the time, so it’s effectively a solo project with a band name – and the album has all the ingredients of great American roots music.

Built To Last describes the way old trucks and houses have survived many miles and storms. It opens with the line ‘they don’t build a heart like they used to’ and is the kind of song that defines the genre: organic music finely produced by Brad Cook of Nathaniel Rateliff’s band. The FM radio homage All I Needed is equally celebratory and is a good place to start.

The title track opens the album with an instruction to head down to the river to get clean. Little Things is more domestic as, thanks to his morning coffee and an evening lullaby, BJ is able to ‘see what I was working for’ with a charming arrangement. He’s not a roadhog but ‘a father and a husband who knows his way around a microphone’. Wildfire starts as a love song with some wah-wah guitar in the chorus, seemingly to undercut the tenderness of the lyric (‘watch that spark turn to wildfire’) and warn us of what is to come.

Plenty of songs are meditative and emotional, which is very much BJ’s brand as a now sober fella. Just Close Enough is a domestic argument where the pair of lovers are ‘too far away’. The Hardest Thing (‘I know it’s just my imagination’) and Waking Up The Echoes could be about the same person as The First Year, where BJ is at their graveside (I won’t say who it is).

The Things We Lost Along the Way ruminates on death and ‘the razor-thin line’ between right and wrong; it’s vaguely spiritual and reminds me of when Bruce Springsteen goes acoustic every few albums. I know BJ is bracketed among the great American songwriters and this album does nothing to disprove that case.

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