Annie Keating – Hard Frost: Album Review

She’s back!  The two-year wait is over and the new album from Annie Keating, Hard Frost, makes every day of that wait worthwhile

Release Date:  1st June 2023

Label: Self Release

Formats: CD / Digital

I’m an impatient, impetuous kind of individual, and, when there’s something that I’m eagerly anticipating, I don’t like to wait too long for it.  It’s been two years, almost to the day, since we at At The Barrier had our heads, hearts and musical genealogies turned inside-out by Annie Keating’s 2021 album, Bristol County Tides.  It was, without question, my choice for Album of the Year, it gave me a whole new set of musical reference points and it left me lusting for more.  Well – I’m delighted to be able to say it:  The wait is over.  Hard Frost, the new Annie Keating album, hits the racks on 1st June 2023, and, believe me, every single day of that long wait has been worthwhile.

For dedicated Annie watchers, there’s much on the new album that will be familiar – songs like Lovesick Blues, Looking For Trouble and current single, Lies And Dynamite are already established as live show favourites and several more songs – Sunshine Parade, Belly of the Beast and Wrong Guy’s Girl amongst them – were given a crafty preview on Annie’s Twenty-22 Tour EP a wonderful 8-track mini album that was only made available to the lucky jossers who managed to pop along to one of Annie’s shows last year.  But, whether the songs are familiar or not, Hard Frost is certainly that most rare of articles – an album on which every single song is truly outstanding.

Wisely – or fortunately (I don’t know which) – Annie has managed to secure the services of those same outstanding musicians that made Bristol County Tides such an audio-feast, so to add depth and colour to Annie’s vocals and acoustic guitar, we’ve once again got Steve Williams on drums and percussion, Richard Hammond on electric and acoustic bass and backing vocals, Todd Caldwell on piano, keyboards and accordion and the one and only Teddy Kumpel – surely one of that tiny exclusive group of musicians capable of holding a candle to Richard Thompson – on guitars.  As with Bristol County Tides, Teddy has also handled the production duties – a clear case of the old maxim, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Annie is, of course, a master in the art of songwriting, and Hard Frost is almost – although not quite – all her own work.  The wonderful Lies And Dynamite is a co-write with Canadian singer-songwriter Lynne Hanson and, in what must be one of the more pleasant surprises I’ve had this year, Annie closes the album with a gritty, passionate interpretation of the Police hit, So Lonely – but more about that later…

It’s the current single, Lies And Dynamite, that gets things underway – and it’s a blistering, high-powered launch indeed.  Annie’s in one her sultry moods and the band are cooking.  Steve’s drums are precise and crisp, Richard’s bass is rich and resonant and Teddy gives a clear signal of intent as he delivers his first of what you just know will be many bewilderingly awesome guitar solos.  And I felt a shiver of satisfaction rush down my spine as the song reached its crescendo and the message sank in – “Annie’s back!”

From its opening couplet: “I wasn’t looking for trouble, I wasn’t looking to fall/ I wasn’t looking for anyone special, coz I wasn’t looking at all” to Annie’s satisfied cry of “Yeh!” at the song’s conclusion, the excellent Looking for Trouble has already established itself as one of the great Annie Keating songs.  I suspect that it’s already become an indispensable fixture in Annie’s live repertoire and it stands out as a highlight even on this collection of such consistently high quality material.

The late, great songwriter, John Prine – he sadly left us in April 2020, following complications related to COVID – is probably Annie’s most constant inspiration, and it’s Prine’s influence that permeates the tender, intimate Keepsakes and Heartbreaks.  To a discrete backing of acoustic guitar and a light, pattering drumbeat, Annie delivers what is, perhaps, her most intimate vocal on the album, before Teddy once again astounds with yet another soaring guitar solo.

As we well know, Annie Keating is a lady of many moods, so it’s not surprising that the tenderness and intimacy of Keepsakes And Heartbreaks is followed by a dose of fare that is altogether more gritty, funky and sleazy.  Sunshine Parade, another song that Annie’s followers have had plenty of opportunity to absorb and enjoy, made its initial appearance as a single last August, when we called it a slice of Annie “At her joyous, devilish best,” and that’s a description that I’m happy to stand by.  Todd’s smouldering organ flourishes are delightful and Annie swaggers confidently as she delivers lines like: “I can be sad, we can paint the town red/ I’d rather be dancing than stuck in bed.”  It’s wonderful stuff.

And then the mood changes once more…  From the grit, confidence and swagger of Sunshine Parade, Annie slips effortlessly into an altogether more vulnerable persona for Falling, a song that features Annie at her lyrical best.  As she sings lines like: “If I were the darkness, I’d rest next to you/ And offer you comfort the whole night through/ If I were a boxer, I wouldn’t stay down/ You’d see me swingin’ through the very last round,” the words cascade forth and, mixed in amongst the verbal torrent, there’s another hair-raising guitar solo from Teddy.

Teddy’s slide guitar and Todd’s swirling organ are the basic ingredients of the stew that is Lovesick Blues, a song that has already become a swampy, steamy piece-de-resistance of Annie’s live shows.  Annie’s vocals slide between whisper and sneer as the band weave their magic in yet another song that is, without doubt, destined to become a staple of the Annie Keating live experience.

A notable feature of Hard Frost is the way that the track listing has given new context to several familiar songs.  Both Belly Of The Beast and Wrong Guy’s Girl have been aired on the road and it seems to me that Hard Frost has given both songs a new home.  They’re both excellent songs, of course, but listening to them in their chosen place in the running order seemed, for some reason, to add a special “something extra.”  Annie’s vulnerability shines through in the delicate Belly of the Beast, whilst her humourous credentials are on show for Wrong Guy’s Girl as she recalls romantic encounters that took place in locations around the world, manages to rhyme “Inverness” with “I confess,” and, best of all, lets us in on her secret that “I’ve been chased outta Corfu for kissing the wrong guy’s girl, and ended up in Tinos with a green-eyed welder named Merl.”  Priceless – and ranchy, too!

The rich, tender Witness is one of a number of songs that will be completely new to Annie’s followers and it’s a very nice surprise.  The band build slowly as the song reaches its lush climax and – I don’t believe it really needs to said yet again – Teddy excels once more with another marvellous solo.

More than a year has passed since we first wrapped our ears around the wonderful Feels Like Home, and the song now seems like a familiar old friend.  It’s one Annie’s most enduringly tender songs – in both its lyrics and in Annie’s delivery – and the band do the song full justice with their restrained performance.

And that brings us to that surprise climax – Annie’s take on Sting’s impassioned 1978 hit, So Lonely.  The resemblance between the two versions is minimal, to say the least.  There’s no cod-reggae in sight here, and Annie chews and spits the half-spoken lyrics in an interpretation that is slower and far more deliberate than the familiar Police version.  The band are on top form; the bass and drums are rock-solid and Teddy’s guitar chops and splutters as Annie works herself into a frenzy, the like of which I’ve never seen from her before.  It’s a superlative ending to a magical album.

Annie Keating – you’ve done it again.  Hard Frost is an absolute triumph.  A work of beauty.  Place your orders now, ladies and gentlemen…

Listen again to Sunshine Parade – the August 2022 single from Annie Keating and a track from the album – here:

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