CD Review – Stevie Agnew “Wreckin’ Yard”
The offspring of two famous musicians prove their worth independently on this commendable effort
I came to this music on “Wreckin’ Yard” not knowing anything about Stevie Agnew and his band. And that’s a good thing, because as time went by I learned more and was pleasantly surprised.
I don’t usually read biographies or research other critics reviews of an artists’ music because I don’t want to be influenced by what they might say.
Opening with the title track, Stevie Agnew mines a different vein of rock these artists usually do not cover and this is where the comparisons end. A nice mix especially when Agnew goes from deep vocal to a Bruce Springtseen register. The cool female ghostly vocals in the background frame tunes as effectively as the female vocalists did for Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds.” The lead guitar has some nice spooky runs and the tone is polished to a high gloss. Fishing through late night radio stations looking for some good music and this just happens to play – it should lasso your ears and hold your attention. The song lasts perfectly. Not too long, not too short.
A crisp acoustic guitar segues into “Pretend You Love Me Tonight,” Stevie continues with that mature Bruce Springsteen type vocal. Sweet harmonica solo and those beautiful soulful female background vocals that fit like a glove. In a deck of cards, this is an ace. Agnew doesn’t have that American pronunciation – this is what makes it sound “new,” and worth investigating. The melody and arrangement is flavorful. Even when the song is over it makes you want to taste it again. The lyrics, however, are not Springsteen-oriented and this is where Agnew and his band succeed and can be set apart from the likely comparisons. Again, this is nice late night listening.
“All That I Can See” kicks off with a female vocalist – a tinge of McGarrigle Sisters with some Americana banjo before Stevie comes in with some clever Leonard Cohen-inspired lyric These songs are poignant and easily covered by any American artist with a roots background. “Regret does lonely things inside a man.”
Whew, Leonard Cohen would have grinned admiringly over a line like that. Kirsten Adamson sings the alternate vocal – and she is one of the surprises: she is the daughter of the late, great musician Stuart Adamson – of The Skids and the inventive Big Country. The band that was famous for their signature sound of lead guitars that sounded like bagpipes. I loved their magic.
“Winter Rain,” begins with a mournful harmonica and fine acoustic picking. The lyrics are literate and Chris Smith succeeds in his quest for being in the company of the likes of the pens of Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Springsteen. Agnew doesn’t sound like anyone else but Stevie Agnew here. I really enjoy the sound of his voice coupled with Kirsten’s unique vocals. The meshing of acoustics, harmonica and vocals are now distancing themselves from any Springsteen comparisons. The lyrics unfold like a short story. I admire words like “Under a gin clear sky her silhouette cast shadows across my soul…” This is songwriting from another realm. In the same world as John Haitt, Richard Thompson, Joni Mitchell and all those mentioned earlier.
Stevie Agnew and his band is from Scotland – and this song is so good it could easily be sung in an old world style by some Appalachian musicians who would render it in a manner that you’d think it’s a two hundred year old Scottish ballad. I couldn’t compliment this more.
Just like in a real “Wreckin Yard,” there are many items to peruse. Stevie Agnew goes back to that great deep rock vocal in the excellent tale “The Pugilist.” For those not accustom to such a word – it’s another way of saying: a professional boxer. The entire track unfolds with Agnew’s narrative weaving through a gypsy fiddle by Mad Dave Watt and Ted (Tennessee) Taylor. The banjo keeps the tale sweet but this is a heavy duty story. “A brawler came knocking as gnarled as a tree….”
This is above average lyrics and they stand alone with no music – but, the music certainly helps to paint and reinforce an endearing and at times compelling picture. The musicians here all contribute to the framing. There is nothing here that is half-assed. Each track is carefully constructed and performed.
“Sub Prime” with its female backing vocals and harmonica is jaunty…rollicking. A nice shuffle and it’s junkyard tart. “I wandered through the wounded land….two jobs just to stay poor.” Bruce Springsteen couldn’t buy a line that good. Just when I thought the song was good enough Mad Dave Watt pounds out some inventive barrelhouse piano and the band sizzles like bacon in a skillet. The slide guitars and dobro are the spices added to this recipe for an uplifting tune – very danceable too.
“Heavy Duty,” revisits Springsteen territory Scottish style. “Wreckage and fire descended like rain,” “Blood fell from my ears…gun fell from my hand…” all lyrics that alone would grab the average ear. What Chris Smith has done for Stevie Agnew’s fine music is this: it’s like when you add one color to another and you get an entirely new hue. It’s grandeur. The music is excellently suited to these lyrics and this is where fine musicians have a perfect – marriage. This is a great songwriting team. With that, half the battle is won. The fine musicianship is a bonus.
“The old wage their wars for the young to die in…” – lyrics that are quite adult in nature. This is music that a listener should sit and listen to and go away thinking about.
“Sixteen Years” is light years away from any Springsteen comparison. This is a monster track with a blistering harmonica. The vocal effects are scary good. The lyrics are brilliant throughout. Foot-stomps by Claire Smith and friends add just the right pinch of voodoo to this track that Steve Earle would admire. I hear Johnny Cash covering this – had Johnny not left us so soon. “Spent sixteen years on a Birmingham farm…” “
Damn, they don’t write stuff as brilliantly heavy as this in Nashville. Slide Guitar is narcotic. A desolate soul playing his life away….without a care.
The pacing of the tracks on this album is good. “Paid My Dues (Loving You)” showcases the angelic vocals of Beth Malcolm and with Stevie’s whiskey vocals it’s a duet that has ambience. “Found a photo from my teens in the pocket of my old blue jeans….” Each song’s mood is set up immediately with the first lines and notes. The entire album seems to open like a film with many vignettes and each story has its moral or lesson.
“The Whore In Me,” actually is in homage to Bruce Springsteen’s “Father’s House” and it is another Chris Smith tale that mirrors the memory of Hemingway, Steinbeck and all those fine writers of a bygone era. I would even include Tennessee Williams here. Southern gothic – with a time that was filled with inspiring tales. The music interprets Smith’s words and story excellently. As I listen I “visualize” the characters and envision their faces and environment.
“Skimmin’ Stone,” is a poignant ballad summing up the album’s…..beauty. Yes, that’s the word. Beautiful. This song is delivered with emotional strength by Stevie Agnew and despite great vocals throughout — may be his single best vocal. A moving track that could be picked up by anyone from Tom Jones to June Tabor. I would love to hear Judy Collins compliment Stevie and Chris’ work by covering this. It could very well solidify this team as brilliant songwriters.
I originally was going to criticize the album’s artwork because the album is too damn compelling, emotional, intense and important to have a title like “Wreckin Yard.” That title seemed to suggest an album that may be more Tom Waits grungy. But it’s not grungy. Some tracks are wound as tight as a great noir film; as alluring as a Botticelli painting; as artistic as a Warhol; as thought provoking as the best Leonard Cohen. When I first listened and judged the artwork — I expected car songs, junkyard dogs, rust and tales of hobos, railroad switching yards, Depression era breadlines. But….I was wrong. That old car on the cover may just represent the personalities that Stevie Agnew and Chris Smith “created” in their….musical literature.
The songs almost suggest the places that rusted car on the cover may have been and where its occupants or former owners were transported. The cover art is exactly as it should be. Eventually, even a human being winds up in a wreckin’ yard. We call that place a nursing home or the graveyard. But, this album is not dealing with death – it’s dealing more with degrees of survival and endurance.
Is the album sad then? Tragic? No it isn’t. Chris Smith’s words are clever and Stevie Agnew’s music has optimism in it. They strip the time we have and expose the riches and its blemishes.
Finally, considering this is a Scottish band – it is not hard to understand that they have mastered Americana music. But wait. If you study Americana, folk and roots music – you know that this Appalachian music of ours, tunes from the American southeast, in the mountains of Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, Georgia, Arkansas – it’s all traditional music sung for hundreds of years in those backwoods. But any musicologist worth their salt would tell you these original settlers came from Ireland, England and Scotland.
Many of the melodies we call Americana today were brought here by those settlers and are based on ancient reels, and folk songs from these countries by these very people. So why wouldn’t someone like Stevie Agnew understand that magic? What he has done is mixed his traditions and sprinkled some of New Jersey’s Bruce Springsteen liberally through his recipes. After all, Springsteen himself “borrowed” from these very traditions — performed them live in Dublin recently — and both these men have simply re-interpreted it and filtered it for our consumption today.
And we are richer for it.
I recommend the film “Songcatcher” to substantiate my statement and support Stevie Agnew’s fine melodies.
A sincere hat tip as well – once again — to the lyrics and fine storytelling of the CD’s producer and drummer Chris Smith — a glutton for the spotlight — I’ll bet he even cooked the meals for the band and tucked them in at night. Chris was a session drummer for Scottish legends Big Country and Nazareth. Performed with Kathy Mattea, her husband Jon Vezner and Jerry Douglas. Quite an impressive resume and he’s a pleasure to speak with.
The excellent CD artwork was also designed by Chris and includes a beautiful lyric book, great photography by Marc Marnie and whatever print shop printed the CD jacket did a first rate job.
Finally, it’s no surprise Stevie Agnew’s work has the degree of excellence it aspires to. The acorn never falls too far from the tree: His father – Pete Agnew — is still a member of the great rock band Nazareth, that has been performing and recording since 1968. But, Stevie Agnew is Stevie Agnew….it’s there to be found in his music. Find some time to unwind with this great effort.
Every musician involved was excellent. For more information visit Stevie Agnew’s website:
To purchase the CD – information can be found at: http://stevieagnew.bandcamp.com/
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this review / commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of No Depression.
All pictures are courtesy of the Stevie Agnew website.
John Apice – Contributor – No Depression – May 2013