Jim Bryson - "The Occasionals" 1999

east central one

Some recordings hit you in the face like a hammer blow & can lose their appeal almost as quickly. Others like this however, are insidious, wheedling their way unnoticed into your subconscious to devastating effect. Jim Bryson’s dark vignettes are peopled by gritty, world weary characters, just enough of their stories sketched in simple first person lyrics & supported by musical dynamics to draw the listener into their, often twisted, internal monologues.

The songs are dressed in raw, chiming & driving organic sounds with a twist of Country courtesy of a highly sympathetic scratch band of Bryson’s friends ‘The Occasionals’ - drummer Peter Von Althen (Starling, Skydiggers, Fred Eaglesmith), guitarist Ian LeFeuvre (Starling, Lynn Miles), bassist Darren Hore (Punchbuggy) and pedal steel guitarist Tom Thompson (Kathleen Edwards, Meg Lunney). LeFeuvre, spraying sweet & caustic electric guitar like the sinister mutant spawn of Paul Westerberg, Richard Thompson & Neil Young heavily influences the overall sound.

The warm burr of Bryson’s voice is well suited to these tales of heartache (he might find it hard to write without the word ‘heart’), revenge & bittersweet small town relationships. He achieves smooth integration of story & music and knows how to write a memorable melody & strong chorus line, elements which make for rewarding repeated listening rather than short term impact.

James Hibbins

November 2001

Currently available via the east central one website & scheduled for full UK release in February 2002.


Cathryn Craig – Pigg River Symphony - 2001
Goldrush GOLDCD007

A fascinating historical record of the traditional Appalachian songs performed by previous generations of Cathryn Craig’s family interspersed with snippets of conversation & song recorded with family members.

Experienced session singer Craig has a warm, flexible voice & the album benefits considerably from brave & honest live recordings made with a stereo microphone direct to minidisc.

The arrangements for the most part are banjo & guitar driven, straight, restrained & very similar throughout; this is particularly evident in the vocal harmonies. The lack of diversity makes listening to the whole album in a single session slightly arduous & does individual tracks no favours. You feel that Craig might let loose at any moment & play with the interpretations. As if to illustrate this, her slightly more laid back, plaintive vocal & the more contemporary backing vocal offered by Clive Gregson in “My Father’s House” (There’s No Place like Home) lift the feel to a higher, more expressive level.

The material will be familiar to most listeners (“Clemetine”, “My Bonny Lies Over the Ocean”, “Little Brown Jug”, etc.). Mention is made of song collection by Cecil J. Sharpe & the evolution of the songs from English roots. While it might have defeated the object of what began as a personal project, it must be possible to have recorded more a interesting selection than this slightly pedestrian batch since there are hundreds of Appalachian versions of great English songs

We are treated to two excerpts of Craig singing with the father & it might have been interesting to hear her more of her father’s arrangements juxtaposed with interpretations inflected with Craig’s other influences & contemporary baggage.

These criticisms aside, the recording is warm, clearly deeply personal to Craig & has an endearing honesty throughout.

James Hibbins
December 2001.

Jason McNiff - Off the Rails – 2000
Snowstorm – STORM005CD

Two intriguing contradictory elements fight for supremacy at the heart of Jason McNiff’s songwriting for this album. In the Red corner we have dense chiming fingerpicking & mature philosophical lyrics with nicely loose ends which another writer might have been tempted to tidy. In the Blue corner, endearing but naive youthful ramblings (“Hold on to your Woman”), somewhat contrived trendy London and New York references (“Off the Rails”, “Summertime in Soho”, “New York”) & clumsy metaphors (“Southbound Train”).

This said there are a number of highly memorable hooks (notably “Off the Rails”, “Woody’s Annie Hall”) and McNiff’s reedy, half-whispered voice & ‘small’ melodies make effective carriers of story & sentiment.

Arrangement is kept sensibly uncluttered with restrained drums from Geoff Spence and characteristic guitar & vocals from Andy Hank Dog which will be recognised by anyone familiar with Hank Dogs’ “Bareback” album. The sympathetic interweaving of Hank Dog & McNiff’s guitars provide some wonderfully dense textures & effective dynamics.

The metropolitan references, guitar style & cover of “Blues run the Game” (which is also referred to in “Off the Rails”) invite obvious comparisons to Bert Jansch & his contemporaries but McNiff also dallies with hints of Chanson (“Through with Love”) & a prosaic waltz feel in “An Old Country Tune”.

Overall the honest, straightforward feel of the recording, the quality of the musicianship & the Red Corner’s more accomplished songwriting win out. Roll on the next bout.

James Hibbins
December 2001