Without A Song: Holly Williams – The Highway

Holly Williams - The HighwayWithout a song throws a spotlight on albums and tracks beloved of Skin Back Alley. Old, new, classic or cutting edge, our aim is to share good music that has touched us through the years.

Artist: Holly Williams
Album: The Highway
Originally Released: 2013
Label: Georgiana Records

I remember vividly the first time I heard Holly Williams’ music.

It was August of 2013 and it was the middle of the night. Insomnia was whispering in my ear and the bedroom ceiling was rapidly starting to loose it’s appeal as a source of entertainment. As is so often the way, I turned to music to ease my troubled mind.

Via the wonders of modern technology, a music streaming service suggested that I might like to listen to The Highway. Being brutally honest, my prejudices and previous disappointments got the better of me. I looked over the album details and, with low expectation of another anonymous pop-country wannabe, hit play.

And that is when Holly’s voice punched through my chest, pulled all the air from my lungs, slapped my heart upside the head, and made that bedroom ceiling – the entire room, even – disappear.

Astonishing, epiphanic, unexpected and transporting, now I really was awake. Wide awake.

Three quarters of an hour later, I hit play again, and didn’t care what time of the day, night or year it was. I’d also ordered my own copy of the album, and didn’t want it to end.

Opening track, “Drinkin'” showcases Holly’s soulful, smoky, heart-rending voice in the most raw and captivating way. Over gently picked guitar, her impassioned cry of “Why are you drinkin’ like the night is young?” is an overwhelming emotional suckerpunch. The fact that the lyric develops across characters and genders, from “Why are you screamin’ like I don’t have ears?” to “Why are you leaving like we don’t exist?”, probably tells you all you need to know about the calibre of songwriting and the heft of the subject matter.

The musical arrangement grows beautifully in tandem with the lyric, introducing a full band of electric guitar, upright bass, mournful fiddle and drums, that perfectly complement rather than overpower. And the song delivers one killer final blow in it’s last poetic line, turning the earlier desperate questions on their head in a mix of scarred sadness, fateful acceptance and battle-weary wishing – “Hope we don’t die drinkin’ like the night is young.”

Of course it was only after my initial astonishment at what I was hearing that research availed me of Holly’s family heritage. In the firmament of American roots music, that heritage doesn’t come any more prestigious than country legends Hank Williams Jr. or Snr. But whilst Holly’s family and her relationship with it’s history make up a key part of the songs here, it is abundantly clear that Holly is an incredible talent in her own right.

“Waiting On June”, is a masterclass in deeply affecting, carefully crafted storytelling. Documenting the relationship of Holly’s maternal grandparents from initial meeting, through war, marriage, children, infirmity and death, at just shy of seven minutes it may sound like heavy going. And on a profound level, in presenting what Williams describes as the “… precise and true story of my grandfather’s relentless love…”, it is. Yet it is full of light and warmth and connection too, and brings the album to a close on a tender and life-affirming high.

Other songs explore Holly’s relationship with husband, multi-instrumentalist and musical soulmate, Chris Coleman; her deep-seated need to write, play and tour her music; death and the destructive nature of addiction. The record is, in short, a stunning 46 minute exploration of life, the universe and everything, influenced in attitude as much by a love of “…Radiohead and Jay Z…” as it is of the Americana and Country greats.

Guest appearances from Dierks Bentley, Jakob Dylan, Jackson Browne and Gwyneth Paltrow of course do the record no harm whatsoever. Combined with Charlie Peacock on production duty, The Highway is a future classic that demands – and deserves – to be heard.

You can listen to The Highway via the SoundCloud playlist below. Just click on the songs to listen.

Read why we chose The Highway as one of our Top 5 Albums of 2013 here

Holly plays The Ruby Lounge in Manchester, UK on the 25th June and you can buy tickets here

Find out more about Holly, her music, clothing store and other assorted activities via her official website

Album Reviews | Live Reviews | News | SBA Lists | The Playlist | Under The Skin | Without A Song

Without a Song: Lucero – 1372 Overton Park

Without a song throws a spotlight on albums and tracks beloved of Skin Back Alley. Old, new, classic or cutting edge, our aim is to share good music that has touched us through the years.

Artist: Lucero
Album: 1372 Overton Park
Originally Released: 2009
Label: Universal

I’ve come to think that the term ‘blue collar rock’ has now passed into the pantheon of Great American Musical Cliches. You usually find it being used in conjunction with rough-hewn bands from the rock n’ roll tradition, singing songs about marginalised folk eeking out a living in the American mid-west. In their best moments, these well worn characters have managed to scrape together the funds to buy a car and head off to the promise of a better life. At their worst, they’re brokering a shady deal in a gambling town, hoping that they won’t get shot before the night is out.

Of course Springsteen is the undisputed champion of the genre, and the bands that have burned brightly and then burnt out in his wake are many and varied. You could list them from 1973 all the way to 2011 and still probably only just touch the surface of those in his debt.

But as cliched as the stories – and the bands that tell them – might sound when summarised in those terms, there are still points of light on the horizon; sparks where groups of writers and musicians manage to make the plight of their protagonists sound raw and vital and wholly engaging. It seems to me that Memphis’ Lucero are one of those bands.

Sure, you can hear the sound of Springsteen in the 12 tracks that make up 2009’s 1372 Overton Park, the band’s sixth and latest album and major label debut. But there is so much more to be sucked up, swilled and swallowed therein. Check out the honking horn charts that are the core of soul fuelled boogie Sixes and Sevens for a start. If you don’t want to pick up your instrument, buy a truck for touring and start a band after that number has finished cookin’, there’s something vital missing from your DNA.

Skip back to the start of the album and opening track, Smoke. Soak up that insistent piano motif and feel the hairs on the back of your neck remember that they’re alive. Tune your ear to the swelling brass and blooming guitar strum and remind yourself of a time when rock music meant more to you than life itself. I guarantee that by 3:45, when that lead guitar starts to wail, you’ll be writing a letter to your younger self raving about this great band you’ve heard that hail from Tennessee.

And where has Ben Nichols been hiding all my musical life? The man sounds as though his voice was carved from the foundation stone of the world. An ancient, wise and craggy sounding instrument in it’s own right, it adds a vital edge to the Lucero sound, evoking as it does the mythical power of a time when molten magma was that much closer to the surface of our little planet, it’s core unstable and yet somehow more alive.

Yet still there is more to be discovered in the fissures of Lucero’s geology. There’s a punky squall to songs such as What Are You Willing To Lose and Sound of the City. Can’t Feel A Thing and Hey Darlin’ do you Gamble? are cut through with a country twang and closing track Mom evokes the kind of lap-steel soaked balladry that wouldn’t be out of place anywhere south of the Mason-Dixon.

‘Blue collar rock’? It would seem to be as reductive as it is cliched when you listen more closely to Lucero. How about ‘rock n’ roll’? It’s there in their lineage, but it still doesn’t quite cover it. ‘Country rock’? Get outta’ here. No way. In as useful as labels are to help us understand our musical landscape, this is nothing short of a ‘Punk n’ Soul’ revolution. A salty, swarthy mongrel of a record and one that you would do well to track down to store close to your heart.

Find out more about Lucero at: Lucero Music
A documentary about the band, Bright Stars On Lonesome Nights, is available now.

Without a Song: The Replacements – Let It Be

Without a song throws a spotlight on albums and tracks beloved of Skin Back Alley. Old, new, classic or cutting edge, our aim is to share good music that has touched us through the years.

Artist: The Replacements
Album: Let It Be
Originally Released: 1984
Label: TwinTone

Go to your nearest record store. Preferrably an independent, but given the urgency of the task before you we’re not going to be picky. Rush in through the front door, stride with purpose up to the counter and request in a polite but firm manner to purchase a copy of Let It Be by The Replacements. Once you have handed over the cash (or most likely swiped, tapped and wrapped, these days), return home forthwith. More haste, less speed people.

Walk in to your abode, wherever it may be. Turn on the power to your stereo equipment / computer / other generic listening device. Put the CD in to the appropriate tray. Plug in your headphone jack and position the headphones themselves upon your own noggin in the preferred position. Adopt your listening pose, turn up the volume to a loud – but still healthy! – volume.

Finally, push play.

Now tell me Kurt Cobain wasn’t a fan.

Released in 1984, Let It Be seems to be precisely the sort of album that would have been a monstrous success had it been released ten years later. Utterly ragged yet unbearably melodic, it is chock full of wry observations about life in the margins. The album captures the moment when Paul Westerberg’s songwriting developed into something rounded and beautiful. The music and playing have come along, too since the days of their sloppy hardcore debut, Sorry Ma, Forgot to take out the trash.

It’s the raw passion and desperation that carry the day. Westerberg seems to sum it up in the mini-tornado of We’re Comin’ Out: “One more chance to get it all wrong / One more chance to do it all wrong / One more night to get it half right.” The band feel as though they are living right on the edge. This is the last chance they have to prove what they’re worth. And boy do they prove it.

Following two earlier, largely ignored releases, the album proved to be the ‘Mats critical crossover. Here was the ultimate balance between high and low brow. Just enough snotty, brash attitude to keep ‘the kids’ happy; just enough thought and emotion to please those beyond their adolescence. Where else would you find two minutes of rock n’ roll bluster along the lines of Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out, alongside the wracked, heart-on-sleeve, acoustic-led Unsatisfied and still have it all seemingly hold together (just.)

Westerberg’s throat must have been an open wound after recording some of these songs. The delicate balance between laceration and heart molestation is what brings to mind the grunge phenomenon that was Nirvana. Not only did the Seattle rockers seem to take some cues from the sonics of Let It Be, the whole template seems to be there in some primitive, primordial way. But just when you’re starting to take this album seriously, along comes Gary’s Got A Boner to bring you back down to earth with a bump (and a childish snigger.)

The Replacements went on to sign with Sire records and released what many consider to be their masterpiece, 1985 album Tim. But it was here, a year earlier, that so many fell in love with the ramshackle brand of rock n’ roll that the ‘Mats dealt in to such great effect. As such, it remains to many the record that captures that time in their life; that moment of coming of age. For it is truly a coming of age LP.

Now skip back to the beginning and listen again. If you don’t like it, don’t take it back to the store from which you bought it. Give it to someone else with the good sense to love it in the way that it deserves.

You can buy the album from: The Skin Back Alley Music Store.