If Norrie McCulloch were to issue an album a year from here on in, I doubt many would object. Quite the opposite, I suggest, as you can't get enough of a good thing, can you?
Bare Along The Branches, his third full-length album in as many years, is marvellously spirited, heartwarming and instinctively fresh. It enthusiastically pursues random themes with gusto, no shortage of emotion amidst skillful performances from his band who successfully capture the 'live' sound McCulloch is so keen to get on his records.
Whereas last year's glorious These Mountain Blues was written mainly on a road trip in the States including a visit to Townes Van Zandt's graveside, McCulloch did not pen the songs here in a specific location or time frame. Endearing opening track, for example, Shutter was one of the earliest songs he ever wrote and Lonely Boy (the first single from the new album) chimes with his boyhood memories of "The Sound Of Bread" LP on heavy rotation in the family home. Some tracks were written, on the hoof as it were, shortly before heading into the Stirling studio he favours for recording.
That McCulloch can transport the listener into different moods, into different eras in some ways is testimony to his lyrical skills and an ear for melodies that gladden the heart. The album cover by a Russian photographer McCulloch met in Prague may be bleak, but this record shines and glows with a range of contrasting topics underpinned by his cherished Ayrshire roots and long-held admiration for the likes of Dick Gaughan.
Little Boat is effervescent and soulful and wouldn't be out of place on a Van Morrison album: sparkling guitar and hearty keyboards help it float along with McCulloch in great voice. Frozen River is a bluegrass/banjo/folk-inspired joy, reminding me a bit of Ronnie Lane's Slim Chance. And it's followed by Safe Keeping that has Son Volt all over it, so no complaints there: Dave McGowan is haunting throughout with electric guitar on this track.
Never Leave You Behind, the shortest track in the collection, is absolutely splendid with a chunky rhythm section bumping along Delbert McClinton-style to an infectious beat - and the admirable Iain Sloan must have grinned all the way through it on pedal steel. McCulloch's vocals are brisk: "If I should go first / and lying under six feet of earth / I'll look for a sign // cause I won't ever leave you behind," he promises.
Then we're back, seamlessly, to David Gates' style crooning on This Time: big piano sounds plundered from Honky Chateau here. The reflective Turn To Dust, recorded live, is a tender and beautiful country folk song written for and recorded not long after McCulloch's mother passed away and he sings: "Maybe if you just showed me a sign / it could ease my troubled mind / just don't know who turn to any more".
Three minutes 54 seconds of sheer jubilation is yielded by the glory that is Around The Bend with Iain Thompson's mandolin, Marco Rea on bass and drummer Stuart Kidd kicking this cowboy, country belter across the dusty road, through the swing doors and into the bar for the coldest of beers. It is irresistibly wonderful.
Closing track, Beggars Woods is stirringly expansive, pensive and atmospheric that poses the question: where will Norrie McCulloch turn next on his musical route? Clearly, he has the imagination, guile, style, gift and boldness to head in whatever musical direction he decides - and to deliver class collections. Just like this one.
|Soft Machine: Fourth||Campbell Woods: Oxford Street|
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