When Reuben Raj from Radio 13 asked me if I knew of Aly Cook and would I like to review her album I said show me something. Thing was, I’d heard of Aly, but she is known as the Kiwi country singer better known in Australia than at home. And the only music I’d heard was a brief dive into an album on Air New Zealand’s Country programme. Didn’t grab me, but then again, being at 30,000 ft isn’t conducive for a critical review. So she remained one of those hundreds of 'heard of but not listened to' artists which clutter up my mind. And then I saw she covers Angel from Montgomery, one of John Prine’s greatest songs, on her new album, and that’s enough. I’m in, I say to the Bad Monkey, anyone who likes John Prine is my friend, send it over.
So here it comes into my inbox, which is not my favourite place to get my music. I’d rather it slid out of a big cardboard cover, or, if not, a small one, so I can touch it and make it feel like it’s mine. An asset. To be used, cherished, shelved, but always there. I’m old school (as well as old). And, cleverly, it comes as a single file, so you have to listen to the whole thing, not just pick tracks. Well I wouldn’t do that anyway, an album is an album, it’s a work of art, and you have to hear it all. You don’t pick pages out of a book to read, do you? (Don’t tell me people do that nowadays as well?).
Turns out Aly has a secret life as a publicist, so she has learnt a few tricks along the way to get people’s attention. Like recording Angel. Turns out also that this is her third album, and she’s been making recorded music since 2011, but making music for longer, in and around bringing up three children in Motueka and commuting to Australia for music and music business.
Joining Bruno Lawrence in pissing the music establishment off in the ’80s (more money for independents, stop supporting the big corporate guys, she shouted). Supporting Roseanne Cash in Poland, Huey Lewis and Melissa Etheridge in New Zealand, countless other initiatives in and around Nelson, the Jimmy Little Foundation (a charitable venture for better Aboriginal healthcare), and, as it also turns out, judging the Gold Guitar Awards earlier this year in Gore. Might have seen you in the pub, Aly! Or maybe just head-down, sorting chaff from wheat. And all that time with a good man at home on the farm, not holding her back. And her back is a different story...
But when I ask her where she has been all my life, I get a chuckle and a modest response which avoids all the drama and busy-ness of the life I subsequently unveil with a bit of dogged research. You can run, Aly, but...
So now you come out with this kick-arse album, of what I would call 'pure Americana', anything which is not purely something else... some country, some rock, blues, a little gospel, a little folk. Tell us about the album, what, why, who with...
The album is called Caught In The Middle, so yeah, in between country and the blues is how she would see it, but she hopes there is something in it for everyone. In 2013, she met producer Buzz Bidstrup during one of her visits to Australia and became interested in what he was doing with the Jimmy Little Foundation out in the Aboriginal communities.
Buzz Bidstrup was the drummer for the Angels in the late 70s (before Brent Eccles) and with his now-wife Kay, were also founding members of 80s band GANGgajang. Anyway, they wrote some songs, Aly, Buzz and Kay, and started recording in Buzz’s home studio. Over the ensuing years, the number of songs grew, and there was a parallel project of Buzz’s, called the Asquith Sessions, from which other songs came, and the album was then crowd-funded into production. The whole journey has been a little like the Red Dirt Road Trip, referring to the 10 plus hour drive from Sydney to Mildura, and the name of the opening song, which immediately makes a statement of intent. Timeless Americana rock & rhythm, familiar, reassuring, as in familiarity breeds comfort, not the other “c” word.
But it’s the covers I want to talk about first. Because third track into the album is a cover of Lucinda Williams' Steal Your Love, from her Essence album, and it’s a beauty. Done in one take with her backing band for the album, the Tracking Crew, this version truly surpasses the original (forgive me Lucinda). I am reminded of what Bruce Hornsby describes what he and Bonnie Raitt tried to do with the Mike Reid song I Can’t Make You Love Me on an old DVD I have, which is “take it to a different place”.
For Aly, all these artists are influences, and the contribution of guitarist Glenn Hannah to this song (and to the album as a whole) is both critical and tragic because Glenn passes away a couple of weeks after the songs were done.
We have a brief discussion about the pressures musicians go through, unknown and un-sharing, and how it’s a feature of modern-day social media life. And we reflect on the transcendence implicit in the fact that the album now becomes a legacy of Glenn’s last work. Essence.
But speaking of Bonnie Raitt, she guested at the Awards ceremony during this year’s AmericanaFest, and I have seen a photo of her on stage with John Prine, which could only mean to me that they have performed Angel from Montgomery together, and I wasn’t there. Bugger. Because Bonnie has made this song her own, and Aly has tried to follow her. And succeeds. This is not the same earth-shattering impact version as we hear on Lucinda’s song, but rather a more respectful, subdued tribute to a great song written by a great man from a lost woman’s perspective.
And finally, the third cover on the album is a Kasey Chambers song, Not Pretty Enough, which takes Aly back to her activist days when she was in NZ Parliaments’ ear about more quotas for female artists. Features her good friend Sharon O’Neill on guest vocals (yes, the legendary Sharon O’Neill, who also comes from Nelson. Didn’t know that. Must be something in the red dirt down here at the top of the south).
This allows me a little segue into talking about the huge surge in talented female Americana singer/songwriters we are seeing here in New Zealand, and who she listens to, and get a plug in for Jamie McDell’s new album, which heavily involved the Chambers family. Turns out Jamie’s album is just being released in Australia, on the same label Aly is using.
Phil Doublet’s name comes up, a brilliant guitarist from Christchurch, again more well known in Australia than here. Check him out. Also Katie Thompson. That’s one for me to check out. And of course Tami Neilson. But there’s more Aly, and I send her my latest radio show to listen to on her next road trip.
Ok, that covers the covers, what else can you tell us about the songs you have written and co-written on the album? Please pick a couple of your favourites:
We Hold Up Half the Sky is a personal favourite, talking about female empowerment. (Only half the sky? More like three-quarters, I reckon). Caught in the Middle, the title track of the album is also a favourite... more bluesy, rootsy, and The Garden Swing is getting a lot of likes from her crowdfunding fans. Cold Wind closes the album, written by Kay Bidstrup, and a tribute to Glenn Hannah, with just Rick Melick (has played for Bonamassa) on piano. Rick Melick’s piano on this track reminds me of Hornsby supporting Bonnie.
As for me, I also like Sunflower, which is more like a traditional European folk song, with its snatches of French (Aly’s mother is Swiss). And Prize Ribbons is worthy of a mention because it’s about horses. Aly’s life used to be about music and horses, but the pesky horses hurt her back, and she can’t ride competition anymore.
We’ve pretty much touched on all the songs. There’s a couple more, but I’ll leave that to you all to discover when you buy Aly Cook’s fabulous new album, Caught In The Middle, which will be released on Friday, September 27th.
And we hope we can see her live in Auckland in the not too distant future.
Buy the record, listen to it on Spotify, like, like, like... and maybe we’ll get what we deserve.
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Released: 27 Sep 2019