MondayMondayFolk and Roots presents 'Monday Monday', a night of the best of the folk and roots scene which will be held on the first Monday of the month in central London as from October 2009. See www.folkonmonday.co.uk for further details



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Dennis Crommett – IN THE BUFFALO SURROUND (Signature Sounds/Soft Alarm SIG. 2035)

The Massachusetts-based Winterpills guitarist last gave us a solo album back in 2007, the bright-toned, soft-spoken and pleasingly intimate The Evening Sorrow. The title of its followup record was inspired by a novel by Mari Sandoz (These Were The Sioux), the themes and preoccupations of which Dennis clearly felt mirrored his own thoughts and ideas on evolution and the progression of life, while expressing his love of the natural world through which all life runs. These reflections are set to an airy acoustic-based backing that smacks as much of contemporary indie-folk as the singer-songwriters like Elliott Smith and even Nick Drake to whom he’s previously been favourably compared, while songs such as Grotesque and Early Sunday Morning even recall Pink Floyd circa Obscured By Clouds. And yet, here the light-textured quality of the settings may belie the deeper content of Dennis’s musings, for while there’s no questioning Dennis’s commitment or the depth of his feeling for mankind or nature, there’s also a certain degree of anonymity to his writing which unfortunately lessens the impact that the message within his songs might otherwise have made. Even on the most attractive of the acoustic meanderings (Bright Lights Of The Cape, High Cotton) or the altogether tougher, electric-guitar-laden numbers like Dark Gray Horses and New Year’s Resolution, Dennis’s melodies simply aren’t strong enough to stick in the mind after repeated play, and as a result Dennis appears more easy-going and contented than his lyrics sometimes suggest he actually is. A degree of confusion in the message as a result of Dennis’s natural (mildly exaggerated) eloquence may well turn out to be his Achilles heel, and thus may prevent his work from standing out above the crowd and gaining a wider acceptance.

www.denniscrommett.com

David Kidman

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Jeffrey Foucault – HORSE LATITUDES (Signature Sounds SIG. 2037) Horse Latitudes, Jeffrey’s seventh album, kinda sneaked out past me last year, in the way that good albums often have a habit of doing. It’s another darkly compelling collection of songs from the underbelly, embodying that familiar Foucault pendulum that swings from exhilaration to desperation like the life it depicts. Loaded with the tried and trusted road-weary sense of people and places, that spirit of lonesome yet populated landscape, these ten new songs bring a mournful realism that’s disconcertingly familiar, whether Jeffrey’s examining lost and forgotten love, the isolation or the remembered glory. Heartbreak’s rarely so persuasively conveyed as in these forlorn yet tough pedal-steel-soaked outpourings. One of the immediate highlights of this new set is the ostensibly disconsolate title track-cum-opener, where the desert at the Horse Latitudes (the equatorial reaches where “God is a mouthful of rain, a tear in your eye”) contains an unsuspected richness within all its desolate poetry. Strikingly spacious textures convey through leisurely pacing a delicate and graceful feeling for emotional landscape too, with the listener invited to fill in the gaps with subliminal observation that can be every bit as telling as the pithy poetry of Jeffrey’s lyrics. Other songs that work well in this intimate regard include Starlight And Static, Goners Most, Tea And Tobacco and the plaintive Heart To The Husk, while Everybody’s Famous breaks the mould somewhat (in Jeffrey’s terms, that is) in being a caustic examination of some of the almost-specified evils of our contemporary society. Jeffrey’s voice is as ever an object of smoky beauty, which symbiotically works with the instrumentation to weave an understated powerhouse tapestry of meaning – check out the ominous tread of Last Night I Dreamed Of Television, for instance. Only the cautiously uptempo electric fuzz rumble of Pretty Girl In A Small Town feels a touch out of place in this illustrious company. The roster of musicians involved in the sessions for this album comprises Van Dyke Parks, Billy Conway, Kris Delmhorst, Jennifer Condos and Eric Heywood, and with a team like that you just know you’re in good hands, for the internal balance and gently textured quality of the aural scenario is absolutely ideal for Jeffrey’s defiantly sombre poetic vision.

www.jeffreyfoucault.com

David Kidman

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Laura Cantrell – KITTY WELLS DRESSES (Spit & Polish SPIT. 039)

Subtitled Songs Of The Queen Of Country Music, Laura’s latest offering pays tribute to Kitty Wells, celebrating the sound and songs of the lady whose trailblazing commercial and artistic achievements made her country music’s first female superstar. Laura’s a long-time fan of Kitty’s, and in 2009 she jumped at the chance to write a special tribute song after being invited to perform a show at the dedicated Kitty Wells exhibit at the Country Music Hall Of Fame. This song forms the new album’s title number, and heads off the parade of affectionate, idiomatic and emotionally apposite covers of songs that Kitty made her own, had hits with or enabled her to make the kind of personal statement that she felt necessary to make in the conservative climate of the time. Kitty’s career stretched from 1952 (the iconic It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels) through to the late 60s, and Laura’s collection covers all the expected bases as well as unearthing some hidden gems of Kitty’s repertoire. Whatever, Laura seems pretty unerringly to get to the heart of the songs, and the authentic Nashville-recorded backings feature Fats Kaplin, Paul Niehaus and BR549 members Chris Scruggs and Chuck Mead (the latter duetting with Laura on One By One). Not only is Laura a proven Kitty Wells fan, but she possesses a similar vocal quality – a resigned heartache that refuses to over-emote yet expresses the relevant feelings concisely and tellingly. Myself, I balk just a little at time-honoured devices such as the spoken passages mid-song towards the end of the disc, but there’s no doubting the authenticity quotient of Laura’s performances or the unquestioned classic status of the material.

www.lauracantrell.com

David Kidman

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The Shee – DECADENCE (Shee Records SHEE.2)

The female sextet’s debut album A Different Season was one of the most captivating releases of 2008, but its promise has been eclipsed by its even more interesting sequel, which is at the same time more rounded and less self-conscious (that’s only in comparative terms, I hasten to add, for that debut wouldn’t qualify for that tag in any other company!).

The Shee’s instrumental complement is determinedly individual, and there’s a definite sense of purpose about their careful arrangements, although this never feels contrived. There are moments when the sheer ebullience of the ensemble’s textural experiments threatens to spill out all over the place, but mutual respect and control kicks in without taming the wilder impulses. And yet there’s no sense that The Shee are striving to make an impression, and there’s a more natural confluence of those ostensibly disparate folk, classical and jazz influences and contrasting timbres; take the Shotgun set (track 2), where the interweaving front-line of fiddles (Shona Mooney and Olivia Ross), accordion (Amy Thatcher) and flute (Lillias Kinsman) are underpinned by the mesmerising, shimmering tones of Rachel Newton’s electroharp (an integral element of the group’s texture at all times), or the cheekily heady juxtaposition of syncopations on tunes by Liz Carroll and Jay Ungar with a dashing Quebecois reel on the Meltdown set (track 9). And the breathlessness of Rachel’s vocal on the Puirt set is creatively offset by the meandering slower pulse of the chamber-like chordings of the strings. The ensemble can also turn its hand credibly to more leisurely pieces like mandolinist Laura-Beth’s Room To Breathe, though there’s a mild feeling here that the musical development could’ve been more extended.

The disc’s song quotient is well managed too; the band’s wild pounding dash through Eppie Morrie is most exhilarating (with an especially animated, energised lead vocal by Olivia), and Abigail Washburn’s coquettish Sugar And Pie turns out to be an inspired choice to open for the swaggering jig that forms the disc’s title tune. Elsewhere, although the cross-referencing of idioms may sometimes be more blurred, the result can be every bit as satisfying, as on Vandy Vandy where a degree of cautiousness in tempo or phrasing gives rise to an air of unease that somehow seems uncannily appropriate rather than at odds. The album’s intriguingly integrated mix proves sufficiently attractive to the ear on first acquaintance to repay further plays even more.

David Kidman

www.theshee.com

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Chris While & Julie Matthews – HITTING THE GROUND RUNNING (Fat Cat Records FATCD. 022)

Chris and Julie were named Best Duo at 2009’s BBC Folk Awards, this recognition marking the culmination of 15 years of musical collaboration (during which they’ve released six duo studio albums, also live sets and the fruits of solo and other projects). Hitting The Ground Running is their seventh studio album, and it shouldn’t need saying that it comes in the form of yet another set of absolutely top-drawer songs, all recent compositions, enshrined for posterity in truthful, expressive readings with admirably sensitive instrumental backdrops. Vocally, both ladies are at their peak, and their songwriting is as consistent, bearing all the hallmarks of greatness we’ve come to associate with them. I’m acutely aware that this review could almost write itself on auto-pilot, but such words would have no place in any critical appraisal that contains my byline if they were not what I truly believe. Although many, if not all of these new songs have been road-tested in live performance over the past year or so, they still produce a frisson of excitement as the lyrics unfold, together with a feeling that the ladies’ writing is by now almost effortless, so simple but so effective in the time-honoured manner of classic songwriting.

Often, as on The Coldest Winds Do Blow, We’re Not Over Yet and Ghost Of You, the method is to take a common scenario which we’ve all experienced, as the starting point for both observation and emotional, situational or narrative development. Inevitably, there might sometimes be a sense of heard-it-before about elements such as the melodic contours and chord progressions, but this is born of familiarity with Chris and Julie’s œuvre rather than contempt, and we find that each consecutive new song readily takes on a life of its own. Compositional credits aren’t divided quite so equally this time round: just three of the 11 songs were penned by Chris, six by Julie; while there’s one joint While-Matthews opus (the powerful driving title track, which portrays through multiple voicings a teenage tale of split loyalties) and one unique collaboration between Julie and Ruth Notman. The latter, Rock Of Gelt, is one of two on the album which were originally written for the All Along The Wall project (which explored the history of Hadrian’s Wall in song and poetry). Both this song and Bridge Over Time gain a vibrant new lease of life in the context of this duo CD, not least due to the superlative musical arrangements (both involving violinist Joe Broughton, guitarist Howard Lees, bass from Neil Fairclough and drums Bryan Hargreaves, but Rock additionally employing Troy Donockley on uilleann pipes and whistle and Paloma Trigas on violin). And both songs have a very catchy refrain, while interestingly too, both songs share one of Julie’s favourite thematic preoccupations: that of the impact of the passage of time on ordinary people living ordinary lives – here a Roman Centurion and an amateur archaeologist respectively. This theme links with that of chance and destiny on Julie’s tribute to the amazingly resilient people of Cumbria, Somewhere I Walk Alone, while genius-loci also plays an important part in Chris’s old-timey-styled narrative The Darkside Wood. The album also contains its share of poignantly, often painfully personal songs; Chris’s desperately yearning Four Walls and Julie’s resigned, if defiant Ghost Of You are standouts here, while the tender sentiments and close harmonies of We’re Not Over Yet provide the most touching and beautifully managed of tributes to the work of classic songwriting partnerships such as the Bryants, the Everlys and Lieber & Stoller. Finally, the disc’s closer Where The Year Has Gone, though more of a slowburner lyric-wise, completes the record in a percolating, pensive percussion fade, leaving us to ponder, while bringing us almost full circle with a shuffling rhythm close to the one in which the album’s opening track Carved In Stone (also embodying the time-passing theme) has been couched. Hitting The Ground Running is very probably Chris and Julie’s most consistent set yet; there’s not a single song that I’d be tempted to skip, and the musical backdrops are both intelligently conceived and impeccably tasty in every last detail without losing sight of expressive impact. Chris and Julie’s accomplished instrumental and vocal skills, their fervent passion and deceptively easy sophistication still sure make cool bedfellows.

www.whileandmatthews.co.uk

David Kidman

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Bellowhead – CHRISTMAS BELLS (Navigator 073)

It had to happen, I suppose – the ultimate party band releasing a seasonal single. Racing up the charts as we speak… Well, good for ’em, I say!…

What we get here is just under six minutes of upfront Xmas Xtravaganza, on a brace of full-steam-ahead versions of trusty seasonal standards. The title number is the Sheffield carol, after which Jingle Bells, though suitably riotous and mildly irreverent, seems a bit of an anti-climax – but no matter, it’s the Christmas) spirit that counts – and here it is in spades. As is customary with Bellowhead, each little instrumental detail within the expansive canvas counts, and yet there’s always sense of the bigger picture – and plenty of FUN. What more could you ask for? OK, another couple of tracks of rumbustious festive cheer!

David Kidman


Bellowhead – HEDONISM LIVE (DVD) (Proper Films/Navigator PFILMS003)

With each successive year, Bellowhead have grown in stature from a sprawling behemoth of what was described (a touch unkindly) as a glorified Spiers & Boden backing band to an organic and Massively Alive yet highly disciplined entity; each successive release has both accurately chronicled the development of the Phenomenon and ever more faithfully has managed to capture the essence, power and presence of the eleven-piece unit, that overwhelming quality of exuberance-and-expertise-deluxe, through accurate (yet never over-clinical) portrayal of the key integration of its component parts.
This latest Bellowhead release, a DVD of the live show that accompanied and promoted the band’s most recent album (Hedonism), is much more than a straight record and/or memento of a live retread of that album; its well-drilled two hours’ worth (that’s 23 musical items, plus intros and essential crowd responses) is – seriously – the most vivid home-movie rendition of the ultra-exciting live experience that could be imagined – and then some! I don’t think I’ve ever known an audio-visual artefact succeed so fantastically well on all counts, not least in producing a repeat-watch-able memento that both reproduces (and surpasses) the sound quality of the live gig and definitively enhances our appreciation of the various strands and details of the performance through vital and comparably expertly choreographed camerawork from a crack production team who really know their subject. Of course, if each member of the band wasn’t a totally brilliant musician, then the whole thing wouldn’t come off anyway. It’s the combination of well-oiled action and spontaneous combustion in the interplay between these musicians, that edgy feeling of “everything’s in its place except when it all goes horribly wrong, then it all falls into a different, but equally valid place” – to kindof paraphrase something Jon Boden says at one point in the proceedings…!
The DVD was recorded at the O2 Academy in Bournemouth on 2nd May 2011, capturing a rapturously received show which presented the Hedonism album in its entirety together with a number of items from previous records interspersed at key points. The musical gamut of the show takes in everything including the kitchen sink (that’s the percussion section!), stylistically embracing folk, jazz, funk, big-band, chanson, burlesque, carnival, chamber-classical, shanty, balladry… yes, it’s all here, as natural as it comes, and how Mr Boden and his merry chums manage to work it all in is both mighty miraculous and mighty clever. From the raucous revelry of Whiskey Is The Life Of Man and generous use of dissonance within tune-sets like Cross-Eyed And Chinless to the sublime beauty of individual episodes in classic folk ballads like Broomfield Hill, from the incorrigibly wacky theatrics of Cholera Camp to the full-ahead discordance and punk shouting of Little Sally Racket, from the seedy, momentarily monochrome cabaret of Brel’s Amsterdam to the cinematic soundscapes of Cold Blows The Wind and Across The Line – each one sporting creativity and a panoply of intriguing effects (and not just in the collection of obscure hardware to which everyone onstage seems to have free access!).
The frenetic yet tightly controlled camerawork, too, is a total fit for the highly synchronised flappery of the hyperactive band performance, its attentive flitting-about mirrors the plethora of incidental detail within the intensely lively overall picture while still allowing frequent pullbacks to a wide-angle overview as and when required or enabling focusing on moments of stillness or repose when needing to settle on a specific episode or passage or on minutiae within the musical structure. It also serves to emphasise that quality that each of the performers shares: a living, breathing musicianship that unassumingly rejoices in its own professionalism and still has enormous fun in doing so. Witness the no-messing virtuoso way that instruments and roles are swapped about during the course of a typical number (it would be insidious to namecheck individuals, cos every one’s a star!) – and the exceptional clarity of the sound picture ensures that each instrumental line (from mandolin to melodeon, from oboe and cello to bagpipe and trombone, from string trio to wah-wah bouzouki, from helicon to strange-little-scrapey-shakey-thing) can be heard (and spotlit where necessary).
Under the all-encompassing ringmastership of the authoritative Showman Boden, we experience the total commitment to the party; the sheer force of energy that never lets up (and, commendably, refuses to give way to an orgy of tuning!); the flash, the dash, the panache; the glorious sense of joy in entertaining; the all-singing, all-dancing, all-playing extravaganza that constitutes a hedonistic Bellowhead rave – it’s all here. OK, although no DVD can ever be a full substitute for being there, this one comes the closest imaginable to that cathartic experience that you simply must undergo at least once in your life (and then you can guarantee it won’t be the last time!)…

David Kidman


Bellowhead – HEDONISM (Navigator 042)

The mighty behemoth elftet once again shoehorns itself into a recording studio and bursts out onto our CD players with a widescreen splatter. O the dilemma of how to introduce a review of a new Bellowhead album! – for merest mention of the band name will I guess always court a certain amount of justified linguistic hyperbole.
And by now, album number three, we might think we know it all and that we should know broadly what to expect from the band, yet the guys still have the capacity to surprise (and yes, tickle and debauch). Of course there’ll be explosive big-band string and brass outings, monster-raving goodtime dance-medleys, irrepressible sea-shanties, theatrical presentations of traditional ballads and innovative treatments of folksongs, informed by every kind of music under the sun… but as ever, the devilishness is in the detail. And that’s but one way in which this latest Bellowhead CD scores higher than its predecessors. It may be due to the change in recording-studio location (this time, with producer/engineer John Leckie in charge, they’ve decamped to Abbey Road no less!), but I’m convinced I hear a greater clarity of internal texture, a more considered approach to the display of, and focussing on, individual parts, entries and “sound events”, and even a kind of finesse to the overall sound-picture. The band’s previous two albums bravely attempted the impossible, but in the end fell just a little short of accurately conveying the overwhelming yet also precisely detailed nature of the live Bellowhead experience. Even though all the requisite elements were in place, and the CDs both pretty well reflected the exhilaratingly radical, if occasionally erratic nature of their music-making alongside the breadth of their repertoire and their vast range of influences, and no expense had been spared in the lavish presentation (either aurally or visually), there was still an impression of crowded clutter, and a certain ungainliness, in the finished product, despite best intentions. Not that Burlesque or Matachin were sub-standard in any way – but listening to Hedonism side by side with those earlier discs has enabled me to appreciate the advance that has been made in terms of clarity and immediacy. For any Bellowhead performance – whether live or on record – is still an Event. Similarly, each item on the record is an Event, each song interpretation a theatrical musical statement, almost like an operatic aria or a number from a musical.

On earlier Bellowhead albums there were occasions when this approach brought a sense of contrivance, a mildly disturbing feel of striving for effect, but Hedonism seems to escape from this charge without diminishing the music’s impact. And it’s still all enormous fun, from the bustling, nervy, clattering row-de-dow of New York Girls right through to the galumphing finale Yarmouth Town, which thuds on in on a deliriously funky tuba riff entreating us to join in the heavy-heavy-monster party. A-Begging I Will Go becomes a direct in-yer-face appeal from Jon Boden’s streetwise urban protagonist, whose mood-changes are brilliantly characterised in the backing (edgy stabbing brass riffs and a mournful, plaintive oboe whine). The story of the wager of Broomfield Hill becomes a triumphantly epic journey, introduced by an eerie pastoral prelude and believably dramatised as the events unfold, with careful control of textures and dynamics. Captain Wedderburn benefits from a slower-burn dramatic touch, some expressive harmony voicings from Rachel and a quasi-chamber, post-Vaughan-Williams delicacy in the scoring. After which the disc’s one non-traditional item, a cover of Brel’s queasily memorable slice-of-low-life Amsterdam, though valiantly idiomatic (do I detect a sly paraphrase of Greensleeves in there too?!) and way better than passable when heard in isolation, can’t but suffer a little in comparison with the celebrated versions that already grace the record catalogues. The eerie tumbling momentum of Cold Blows The Wind, with its strange effects at the start and close, nods toward Joe Meek/John Leyton production-values, and displays hints of a remote un-heavenly choir behind its stentorian brass curtain (within the context of which, Jon’s desperate falsetto leap at one point betrays a brief instant of vulnerable emotional catharsis). The shanty Little Sally Racket is a no-holds-barred thrash-punk onslaught complete with authentic “Oi” snarl’n’spit vocal and sub-Ramones/Batman-theme backing. Perhaps the full-on gambit tends toward the predictable on The Hand Weaver And The Factory Maid, but there’s still plenty of incidental detail edging craftily in and out of the busy texture to keep the ears and mind occupied. Finally to the splendid instrumental items – only two this time, sadly, but they make an immediate splash, being both vibrant and abundantly richly scored. For example, Cross-eyed And Chinless is a wondrous Pete Flood concoction that gives us a veritable world tour in just under four minutes; here a hymn-like chorale overlays a Latino-funk ground-bass, which is itself then overlaid with a morris tune before a sleazy sand-dance weaves through on bass clarinet, finally entwining into a jaunty ska coda. Magnificently crazy, but also superbly disciplined for all the music’s gleeful complexity. Yes, Bellowhead sure know how to have a good time still, but importantly also how to intelligently control and deploy their virtuosity and musicianship to automatically transfer that manic, heady joie-de-vivre and fully immerse and engage their audience; and Hedonism’s the most powerful demonstration of that gift so far. www.bellowhead.co.uk

David Kidman

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Trembling Bells – THE CONSTANT PAGEANT (Honest Jon’s Records HJRCD55)

The Constant Pageant is described as the Glasgow four-piece’s “third slice of Caledonia dreaming”, and on playing the first track it seems like it’s destined to be a wholly logical followup to the band’s previous albums Carbeth and Abandoned Love which so dazzled me with their glorious invention and which have remained close to my CD player ever since. Just As The Rainbow does indeed dazzle with its confident brilliance, its blinding brassiness, its swaggering sweeping gestures and stately textures, above which sails and soars majestically the serious vocal acrobatics of the wondrous Lavinia Blackwall, possessor of one of the strongest vocal identities on the current scene.

After that fabulous track, which is every bit the equal of anything on those first two CDs, well I’m not so sure at first about what’s going on in the Trembling Bells camp. All My Favourite Mistakes is again quite bold and brassy, but sounds a lot like a Grace Slick/early Airplane dead-ringer from the more dated tail-end of 60s west-coast sunshine pop. Colour Of Night brings the blazing early-music inspirations back to the fore, yet also interposes a strangely appropriate determinedly Dylanesque harmonica solo midway just to confuse matters. Cold Heart Of Mine, but for the insistent fuzz guitar, could almost have been culled from an early Renaissance (the Annie Haslam incarnation) LP. It’s clear the band are experimenting with the wider spread of influences outward from the psychedelic electric folk-rock of Carbeth, although not always entirely successfully I feel – but it’s worth persevering, as they still have much to say.

Things improve significantly with Where Do I Go From You?, which marries a tricky time-signature to a swooning folky melody much in the Steeleye mould and then collapses inwards into a noisy early-Crimsonesque instrumental break. The stirringly pacey Otley Rock Oracle returns us to the Home Service-style canons of Yorkshire brass and hymnal organ chords for what might I guess be a kind of darker and more foreboding homage to Bob Pegg’s epic Gypsy suite. Goathland, which Alex seems to deliberately intend as a kind of paean to folk icons The Watersons and their part of his native Yorkshire, overtly cribs the opening theme of Mozart’s K545 C-major piano sonata while an early-60s-retro-Meek pop-piano tinkling away in the thick, fuzzy backdrop. The doomed-romance theme continues on Torn Between Loves, another nod to Renaissance but in an even more repose-ful, almost gentle prog-classical setting that’s offset by some dark and mysterious psych-cello and oboe embellishments. This neo-classical-gothic melancholy mode carries on into the album closer, New Year’s Eve’s The Loneliest Night Of The Year, which ostensibly celebrates the power of song by paying tribute to favourite modern songwriters like Nelson Riddle and Hoagy Carmichael but seems to lose its way in pursuing a less than memorable melody line before fading out on a brassy chorale that seems to cautiously reference You Set The Scene (from Forever Changes).

So, unlike with the band’s previous efforts, I’m left with a distinct feeling of disappointment at the close of The Constant Pageant, a feeling that’s reinforced when I return to the drama of the opening salvo’s delightfully intense psychedelic operatics. I can’t exactly pin down what’s gone astray thereafter, but there’s a definite impression of awkwardness in the execution on several tracks here: a tendency to punctuate misguided retro pop gestures with stabbing weight-by-numbers brass passages and hope for the best, while in some cases Lavinia’s vocal lines seem almost to have been tacked onto the mix as an afterthought. Apparently, most of the album’s material was tried out extensively in live sets first, but in this instance it may be that this process seems to have robbed the music of much of its potential for blinding spontaneity.

Newcomers to the band may well discover a way-in through the album’s greater accessibility, and for much of its length its constant pageant is still a stunning one, but its increasingly rambling stylistic adventures are beginning to mute the impact of the band’s notably bright, forthright music-making. www.myspace.com/tremblingbells

David Kidman


Trembling Bells – ABANDONED LOVE (Honest Jon’s Records HJRCD. 47)

My review of Glasgow-based band Trembling Bells’ debut album Carbeth proclaimed the quartet to possess the most striking original new sound to assault my ears for a very long time. The band’s followup record, Abandoned Love, may not have quite the same 95-proof heavy dark majesty coursing through its veins, but its visceral delights are nevertheless many and varied. Sure, there are still plenty of distinct pre-echoes of past glories (that’s not as contradictory as it sounds) for those who have the ears to hear them: notably the Incredible String Band in all its multifariously wyrd guises, or the halcyon days of the Home Service/Albion Band, but filtered through a weighty, murky haze of loudly aromatic, piercing and blinding electric instrumentation, brass and wind. There may literally be No Roses now, but their thorns still linger, stick in your side and resist being pulled out till you’ve sucked in, and thoroughly absorbed, the curiously delicious poison within.

Beneath and all around the thudding drumming of band leader and songwriter Alex Neilson, we can’t fail to encounter singer Lavinia Blackwall, bassist Simon Shaw and new guitarist Mike Hastings weaving adventurous arabesques and much more. For Abandoned Love is every bit as richly scored as its predecessor, but allows in even more disparate influences beyond the English Hymnal and brass choirs, swirling organs, grinding fuzz bass lines, even country music.

The first few tracks carry on where Carbeth left off: the leisurely Adieu England laments the passing of Albion to a swaying, plaintive harmonica melody, and Man Is As A Garden Born fairly blazes, swings its brassy swagger to a gait resembling the New St. George. Then Baby, Lay Your Burden Down both smothers and soothes with its initial eerie cascades of comforting jew’s-harp-and-glockenspiel Koeeoaddi waltzery before sinking back into an almost funky (and insidiously catchy) Sonny & Cher chorus passage. Did You Sing Together? brings back a deep ancestral memory of Shirley Collins, early Fairport and traditional folk song modes in its richly melodic progression before its rousing crumhorn-cocooned coda. And September Is The Month Of Death kinda paraphrases Lead, Kindly Light in a majestic pomp-and-circumstance processional above which Lavinia Blackwall’s gorgeous soprano rises not at all perilously aloft.

After which, however, the second half of the album veers off into increasingly strange (for Trembling Bells) territory, almost as if they’ve been given the brief to twist time-honoured pop song clichés to their own ends. For instance, Love Made An Outlaw Of My Heart is like nothing Trembling Bells have done before; somehow it manages to cross Creedence grunge with R&B glee, punctuated with doowop piano chords and a brazen heartbreak duet-vocal line! The next track, Ravenna, is less the Poe-esque homage to a weird sister you might by now expect than a bustling quasi-mariachi groove with bongo rhythms, effervescent organ chords, brass syncopations and Mike Hastings’ sinuous guitar lines all building to a raucous orgy of sound. Darling is a distinctly torchy number, harp-rippled and characterised by an almost pleading vocal part that tames any former stridency (demonstrating just how much a degree of control Lavinia has coaxed into her voice since Carbeth), whereas the chirpy closer You Are On The Bottom (And The Bottle’s On My Mind) almost gives its colours away with its slightly over-cooked title.

One estimable reviewer has written of Trembling Bells as having undergone an ISB-style album journey between their two records: that they’d in effect gone and skipped from 5000 Spirits straight to Wee Tam & The Big Huge; well, personally I’d liken the jump more to one fell leap from the gothic, sometimes cluttered opulence of Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter (Carbeth) to the wayward stylistic adventures of Changing Horses (Abandoned Love – or should I say Lurve?!). There’s a similar sense of relaxed abandon at work (at play) here, I sense: not unattractive, but it needs keeping in check, if nothing else in order to avoid peering too closely in the mirror and finding out who they are. Scary…!

www.myspace.com/tremblingbells

David Kidman

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Iain Thomson – FIELDS OF DREAMS (Own Label, no catalogue number)

The name Iain Thomson turns out to be maddeningly familiar: some 20 years ago I’d read a wonderful book (Isolation Shepherd) which gave a first-hand account of the working life of a man of that very name based in the Loch Monar area of the north-western highlands. However, although much is made in Fields Of Dreams’ accompanying press release of the creator of this CD’s own epithet being “the singing shepherd”, this is evidently not the same man… No, for – as the cynic in me suspects – the unbidden coincidence prompted by the convenient tag of this press release seems rather to be attempting to invoke a comparison with the late great John Wright. Even so, this proves to be another false trail, for, occupation aside, there’s really no other common factor between the two men, since whereas John was a fabulous singer and one of the finest interpreters of other folks’ songs, Iain is first and foremost a songwriter – and a very able one, on the evidence of this CD which contains a dozen of his own compositions (eleven songs and one instrumental). These draw directly upon Iain’s own experiences and aspirations – a life lived to the full, whether at home on the Isle Of Mull, sheep shearing in New Zealand or driving trucks from a Glasgow city base – and his deep love for the land, its landscapes and people and music.

Iain’s concern and preoccupation, as is legitimately the case with so many Scots, is with the continuing decline of the working life and the land upon which it relies. His songs possess a genial simplicity of vision which is deeply infused with an all-consuming wistful nostalgia: a combination of qualities that’s fully complemented by the lyrical, abundantly rich and genuinely beautiful musical settings; these feature such star players as Capercaillie’s Marc Duff and Charlie McKerron (whistle and fiddle respectively), Gaelic singer Maeve MacKinnon, Gordon Maclean (double bass) and Gregor Lowrey (accordion) in support of Iain’s own guitar. The stories Iain tells in song range from one man’s determined building of a road on the isle of Raasay (Calum’s Road); the selfless deeds of John Jones, “Pedlar on Mull” of the late 19th century (The Pedlar’s Pool); the latter-day equivalent of the clearances (Empty Fields/The Exodus); the forcible recruitment of Mull fishermen during the Napoleonic Wars (Press Gang), and a pilgrimage of ex-soldiers from the Falklands war (The Veteran), right down to a modern trucking song The Southern Line. One of the disc’s standout songs, Glen Cannel, is a delicate evocation of the sense of place conjured by this eerie glen at the head of Mull’s Loch Ba. At the risk of sounding mildly churlish here, however, I do have some reservations about this disc. Possibly due to the sheer consistency of the musical arrangements (keening whistle, rich chordings etc), it feels as though there’s a bit of a much-of-a-muchness standardised template at work here; I also feel that despite their overall accomplishment and gentle majesty, some of the songs (eg Rainforestman, which is dedicated to wildlife photographer Nick Gordon) come across as a touch naïvely expressed, even bordering on twee. But in the end the disc’s high production values and the magnificently beautiful (that word again!) packaging, design and photography greatly enhances the audio impact of Iain’s songwriting, and many listeners will find this a very persuasive release.

www.iainthomsonband.co.uk and www.myspace.com/iainthomsonband

David Kidman

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Ben Prestage – REAL MUSIC (Nugene Records NUG. 1005)

This sounds promising. Touring one-man-band Ben, brought up in south central Florida, mixes country blues with swamp blues. was runner-up in Memphis’s International Blues Challenge of 2008, and is described as steeped in the Mississippi blues (his grandfather was a sharecropper in that region, his great-grandmother performed in medicine shows). And sure, there’s no doubting his all-round musicianship (various guitars, dobro, diddley-bow and foot drums), or his conviction, and although his vocals tend at times to stray onto the side of cabaret (and yet can still lack expressiveness), while also not quite possessing the last desired degree of rawness and rough authenticity, he clearly believes in the music one hundred percent. And yet, on record at any rate, he has an occasional tendency to underwhelm the listener, certainly on the tracks where he’s performing purely solo. He seems to come alive more in the presence of guest musicians Mark Campbell (tuba, jug) and Bruce Johnson (harmonica), the latter-named turning in some storming solos – notably on God Is Gonna Cut You Down (credited to Johnny Cash) and Ben’s inventively raggy take on Hesitation Blues. There’s also an enthusiastic take on Big Joe Williams’ Sloppy Drunk; and, while there’s nothing amiss with Ben’s approach and his treatments of some less-heralded blues classics like Bukka White’s Good Gin are well better than capable, there’s generally insufficient shine or forward drive to his own compositions, which in more illustrious company can sound routine, even lacklustre.

In the end, the album drags just a bit, basically because Ben, although suitably wayward on occasion, is simply not quite quirky or idiosyncratic enough to completely hold one’s interest for one continuous hearing; in small doses, Ben’s artistry may end up growing on you.

www.myspace.com/bprestage

David Kidman

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Doghouse Roses – This Broken Key (Yellowroom Music YLLWRM. 007)

The Scottish folk-roots duo Doghouse Roses, comprising guitarist Paul Tasker and singer Iona Macdonald, have been around the scene for close on five years now, having so far released two plainly self-styled “folk-blues” EPs and one well-received full-length CD (2008’s How’ve You Been All This Time?). On the latter, they were augmented by the talents of six guest musicians, but sparingly. And similarly, for their second full-lengther, where in spite of utilising four extra musicians (these including album producer Alan Scobie, who’d also played on the first album), textures remain significantly pared down, with a welcome sense of cool understatement and “less is more” to the proceedings. Once again the emphasis is firmly on own-compositions, with all tracks credited jointly to Paul and Iona, and although their romantic “tales of redemption, desperation and hell-raising” tend to speak for themselves it would have been nice to have at least a bare minimum of background information (if not the lyrics) somewhere in the foldout package. Iona’s singing is forthright yet duskily plaintive, and stylistically, while not at all derivative, veers between her admitted influences; there’s some Fotheringay-era Sandy Denny (the gently rolling Evermore), with shades of a deeper Jacqui McShee perhaps (Survival) and Gillian Welch (especially on Blue Moon On The Mountain, which betrays an even more pronounced parallel in the Rawlings-like picking that accompanies her).

Paul’s guitar work is refreshingly minimal in its poetic expression, and, while evidently inspired by Bert Jansch, has an organic intensity that well complements the shadings and dynamics of Iona’s vocal expressiveness. This is one of those significantly accomplished records about which it’s difficult to say a lot that’s meaningful without giving too much away – and thus speaks best to the listener when saddled with a bare minimum of critical reference or depiction (or interference!). If I tried to describe the music as Americana-tinged folk with acoustic-contemporary overtones, I’d be missing some aspect out – for Doghouse Roses seem to encompass most of those angles at some juncture. And yet by the end of the twelve-track sequence, there’s also a sense of elusiveness, of mildly unfinished business: it’s rather as if Paul and Iona have vanished mid-flight yet they had plenty more to say. This is a CD well worth tracking down – and savouring at leisure, for although much of its contents has an instant impact it may still not reveal all its skilled subtleties too immediately.

www.doghouseroses.org

David Kidman

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Boyd & Wain – AIN’T NO FAIRY TALE (Goldtop AU79CD004)

Though a new name to me, Boyd & Wain are described as “an award-winning Anglo-American Americana/Folk duo”, which ought to cover all bases! Katy Boyd’s the singer-songwriter: originally from the US West Coast but now based here in the UK, she peddles modern-day home-grown tales of everyday life that are just as likely to be poking fun at their protagonists as making a deeper social comment or exploring unfulfilled dreams from a teasing autobiographical viewpoint. Dorchester-based Benny Wain is an accomplished exponent of the electric fiddle, with a light, dancing style that fills in the space behind Katy’s guitar with aplomb. On this disc they’re augmented by producer Neil Brockbank (bass etc) and Roy Dodds (drums), lending a rather pop ambience to many of the tracks. On first acquaintance I was tempted to compare Boyd & Wain to Mundy-Turner, but although they have superficial features in common (ex-pat s/s, guitar and fiddle showmanship, winning personalities) their music is very different. I gotta be honest, the best of Boyd & Wain comes on their more overtly rootsy moments, songs like the down-home Dolly Parton-style southern twang of Goin’ Home, the poignant country romancer Slow Dancing, the somewhat satirical Be An American, the reflective and teasingly autobiographical Dad’s Song (whose opening made me think of Ziggy Stardust!). Elsewhere, songs like Doctor Doctor and Cinderella fairly twinkle with Katy’s witty observations and her keen sense of humour imparts an appealing streak to her writing generally. But in the end it doesn’t keep my candle alight for long enough; I find it all a touch too frothy (not least in that the majority of the tracks are bright, bouncy and uptempo), and content-wise markedly less substantial than the media buzz and slew of received awards might lead one to expect.

www.boydandwain.co.uk

David Kidman

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Frazey Ford – OBADIAH (Nettwerk 5 037703 234222)

The solo debut from Be Good Tanyas lead singer Frazey could almost for much of its length be mistaken for a new Tanyas record, at least in terms of its general sound-world and Frazey’s ultra-distinctive voice (that gorgeous, sensuous earthy-toned quaver); but in terms of sensibility Obadiah inhabits a quite different lyrical universe. After the opening track, the lazy banjo-bedecked Firecracker, there’s a series of cuts where the musical compass points increasingly in the direction of Frazey’s first love, soul music – an arena in which Frazey’s expressive vocal talent can do no wrong. It’s inhabiting that blurry country where soul meets gospel with a touch of the blues: rapt and yet relaxed, intimate and yet understated, involving and yet chillout in nature, savouring every nuance and instrumental drift. There’s a classic Stax/Otis Redding feel to If You Gonna Go, complementing the slow-burn bluesiness of Blue Streak Mama; the tenderly seductive I Like You Better answers the mildly exotic kalimba-adorned Bird Of Paradise; the hushed, time-stands-still Cowboy Junkies ambience of Gospel Song echoes the gentle entreaties of Lay Down With You. Obadiah is an atmospheric set where every gesture feels both right and completely natural yet where the internal growth of each song feels satisfyingly organic.

The often gently playful nature of the musical accompaniments derives from what amounts to an almost informal gathering of good friends (including co-producer and multi-instrumentalist John Raham, and Frazey’s Tanyas colleague Trish Klein who contributes plenty of signature electric guitar), while there are also some special personal touches, such as the voice of her own mother harmonising on the autobiographical reflection Lost Together. The songs themselves are described by Frazey herself as being “moved by motherhood, earth and land”, and through tales of love, life and loss they speak volumes about healing and recovery, reflecting the processes through which she has of late been rediscovering herself; by sharing Frazey’s music, the listener feels as good as Frazey clearly does. The only slight danger is that a majority of the tracks share a broad similarity of pace and tempo, that languorous, dreamy quality which taken all in one span can be a double-edged sword; and yet, the disc’s solitary cover, Dylan’s One More Cup Of Coffee, fits so very snugly with the rest of the songs.

www.myspace.com/frazeyford

David Kidman

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Lou Rhodes - ONE GOOD THING (Motion Audio MOCD. 003)

Lou’s followup to the stunning Bloom has arrived with surprisingly little fanfare, but it’s a very personal, intense set that makes capital out of spare, tellingly restrained acoustic settings. After a (deceptively) cautiously optimistic start (the title track and the seductive There For The Taking), Lou’s writing takes a dive for the doomier side of life, with a series of despairing songs questioning relationships and loss that seem to culminate in the depths of Melancholy Me. But the sheer beauty of Lou’s singing voice transports us with its compelling nature, and her personal take on introspective anguish remains both sensitive and well-observed and inclusive. She’s also capable of looking to others for spiritual inspiration; she wrote the string-inflected Janey in remembrance of her late sister, for instance. Don’t be put off by the generally sombre ambience of the album (or Lou’s restlessly rippling fingerpicked guitar, which can sometimes seem a touch persistent), for it’s all much more rewarding for the listener than it may sound; you can, of course, choose to “close your eyes to it all”, but that’s your loss.

www.lourhodes.com

David Kidman

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Elizabeth Cook - WELDER (Proper PRPCD. 059)

This is the fifth album by the welder’s daughter from Florida, which fittingly enough fuses together different elements from folk, country, bluegrass and rock into a sturdy, solid and satisfying whole, under the able production guidance of Don Was (no less). Elizabeth’s own songs (which comprise just over half of the album) are noted for their portrayal of a condition which might best be termed emotional whiplash – in that regard she seems to have inherited the songwriting gift from her mother, and as well as covering one of her songs (I’m Beginning To Forget), she poignantly remembers her on standout cut Mama’s Funeral (a song she never thought she’d be able to write) and further proves her ability to write harrowingly personally on Heroin Addict Sister.

Stylistically the whole album may be a touch too wild for some listeners, since it veers (albeit credibly enough) from authentic Parton/Cline-flavoured country, out-and-out strutting sleaze (Rock’n’Roll Man) and bittersweet (if perhaps slightly over-cooked) reflection (Girlfriend Tonight) to the bluesy smoulder of Tim Carroll’s Follow You Like Smoke and the Eastern-inflected psychedelic bluegrass of All The Time and the jaunty politico-hoedown of Snake In The Bed. Yes, lyric-wise, Elizabeth does seem to have a bit of a preoccupation with sex (the shouty crassness of Yes To Booty and the funky semi-spoken El Camino are two of the weaker and more self-conscious tracks), but her grasp of life’s frustrations is still compelling nevertheless, and her vocal portrayal most keen – especially on the tracks where Rodney Crowell or Buddy Miller generously help her out with some harmonies (and Dwight Yoakam’s guest contribution to the swinging honky-tonker I’ll Never Know is sublime). There are moments when Don’s fulsome production threatens to swamp Elizabeth’s vision, but for the most part her vocal feistiness and genuine direct expression manages to override the textural excesses. In fact, the album sessions sound like the week-long party they apparently were – a little over-the-top on occasion, sure but what the hell, I rather like the feel of it all.

www.elizabeth-cook.com

David Kidman

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Otis Gibbs – HARDER THAN HAMMERED HELL (Wanamaker 4)

Grizzled and gritty, with enough of the hard-done-by-troubadour about him to impress Billy Bragg, Otis is one of those uncompromising guys who just keeps on turning out classy rootsy albums (this is his sixth) without making any waves yet always satisfying his fans. The overriding feel is of genuinely lived-in strength of character and the sheer dogged perseverance of the downtrodden, exemplified by the album’s title metaphor of course but even more present in his music. Otis’s songs often speak of the harsh realities of life without giving in to them – and therein I believe lies his forte. Which is why I find the tasteful tenderness of Don’t Worry Kid and the over-long childhood-memory-inspired retro-ballad Big Whiskers a tad out of keeping with the hard-bitten nature of the rest of the album’s songs. There’s more of a band sound to this record than is predecessor Joe Hill’s Ashes, but that doesn’t mean Otis has forsaken the folksy stripped-down expression in favour of studio gloss – far from it. Partner Amy Lashley’s wonderfully complementary vocal harmonies grace a good number of the tracks, while the various contributions of guitarist Thomm Jutz are perfectly judged; as far as instrumentation is concerned, there really is no need for anything obtrusive, so basic bass and drum parts are all that’s needed to flesh out the sentiments. Good solid stuff, pure-hearted and true, and all the better for being presented unadulterated.

Otis is touring the UK late June and through July.

www.otisgibbs.com

David Kidman

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Otis Gibbs - JOE HILL’S ASHES (Wanamaker, WANAMAKER2)

East Nashville resident Otis Gibbs is a folk artist in the truest sense, a man who follows the tradition of Woody Guthrie and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott as a modern-day troubadour-cum-social-commentator. Having spent the past 15 years travelling across the continent gathering first-hand stories about the world’s marginalised and obscure and their sub-culture, he’s lately returned to share them with us on a record that’s shot through with authentic and timeless poetry firmly in the troubadour tradition (it’s no wonder that his music is readily endorsed by Billy Bragg…).

However, while Otis’s previous albums had contained a significant measure of radical/protest content (notably his 2009 breakthrough set Grandpa Walked A Picket Line), Joe Hill’s Ashes in some ways takes a step back and focuses more on the thoughtful side of adulthood, with reminiscence and addressing the challenge of keeping idealism once innocence has been lost. Here, Otis with his characteristic weather-beaten demeanour and gargling gravel voice (tonally, Tom Waits without the excesses, or a grittier Steve Earle perhaps) presents a dozen sparsely-arranged self-penned country-folk songs that give his personal stories a significant universal relevance. Memory proves a potent tool, and quiet reflection is often the key to a greater realisation, as can be seen on My New Mind, When I Was Young (which conveys Otis’s earliest memories, of the “perfect moment” of sitting in his mother’s arms) and the tenderly bleak Outdated, Frustrated And Blue. Delving even deeper, Something More explores with a certain degree of necessary resignation the helplessness of losing faith in the face of all the world’s troubles when all his friends are passing away; Where Only The Graves Are Real defiantly develops the latter observation.

Otis’s songs have the essential ring of authenticity; Twelve Men Dead In Sago has all the feel of one of those classic American mining-disaster chronicles, and The Town That Killed Kennedy is a comparable warning shot concerning the perils of Greyhound bus travel. And The Ballad Of Johnny Crooked Tree could have come straight out of the Robbie Robertson songbook. Throughout, Otis’s delivery is commendably direct and highly persuasive, and you can’t help but listen closely and attentively to every word and nuance. And best of all, his songs are honest statements and really do linger in the mind. I’m so pleased to have discovered Otis’s music at long last.

www.otisgibbs.com

David Kidman

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Rachel Taylor-Beales – DUST AND GOLD (Hushland HUSHCD. 03)

This is the final instalment in Rachel’s magical colour-themed trilogy of albums that began with 2004’s Brilliant Blue and continued with 2008’s Red Tree; just like those previous records, it has its own very special character, here defined by the parameters of delicate acoustica under the careful guiding hand of Rachel’s producer and this-time musical collaborator Dylan Fowler. It would be convenient, if not entirely accurate, to depict the disc’s twelve-song sequence as seeming to chart Rachel’s own personal life journey from Australia, via innumerable relocations back and forth, eventually settling in Wales; for much of the time, though, her experiences, dreams, aspirations and spiritual concerns are thinly veiled by being related or voiced in the third person. The free-spirited individual who grows up as a Child In The Sun in a Turnaround Town later develops an eerie and enigmatic interest in mythology and mystical folklore (Feathers And Flowers), then tries to find ways of coping with growing pains (She’s OK). Then, on the cautious exposition and insistent mantra of Sing It Out, Rachel conveys with painful intimacy the nature and uneasy progress of a travelling musician’s relationship. In some other songs, Rachel employs metaphors which are less obviously confined in terms of exact place or situation – Digging Down, for instance, with its resonances of primitive worksong – while Somewhere In Copenhagen, on the other hand, is quite specific: a keenly-observed vignette rendered in queasy shifting waltz-time which dances off into the night in wilder accordion abandon.

The closing number, Waiting For You, encapsulates Rachel’s creative rootlessness, her artistic journey almost in miniature précis: starting out with primitive backroads banjo and ending in worldly (if weary) piano-and-sax sophistication. The album was predominantly recorded in “live takes” in order to capture the authentic vibe and quality of her performances, finding “the muse in the moment”, This process lends the songs a wispy, semi-improvisatory aura, with the meaning of the words (and the associative sounds of them) mirrored in the instrumentation and scoring (skilled and razor-sharp imagination in the use of the timbres of piano, various guitars and banjo, with mandocello, harmonica, soprano sax, clarinet, kantele, tabwrth, taragotta – and guest contributors on hammer dulcimer, accordion, cello and viols). Rachel’s exquisite singing and memorably literate writing, with its mesmerising musical backdrops, together make for a gently compelling experience, for, even when things seem to meander or underplay, there’s always an enviable sureness of direction in Rachel’s communication of her thoughts and experiences.

David Kidman

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Kath Reade – PASSIONATE NATURE (Splid SPLIDCD. 008)

Kath’s a Central Lancashire-based singer-songwriter who’s been all too modestly building herself a quiet reputation for her work over a period of some ten to a dozen years. Although she’s a regular and ever-welcome performer at Skipton’s Folk & Unplugged nights, she’s perhaps best known for winning the Songwriting (Keith Marsden Memorial) Trophy at Saltburn Folk Festival not all that many years back. Her songs are characterised by a deep sense of humanity and a warm and involving passion for life and nature, expressed in simple and responsive language through well-crafted stanzas that sit well with her voice (and sing comfortably for those wishing to join in the choruses!). Kath’s singing voice is most pleasing, indeed I’d say gently captivating: blessed with a keen songwriter’s sense of line and phrasing, her technique is self-evidently accomplished without drawing attention to itself through unnecessary mannerism or over-expression. An occasional air of slight understatement in her vocal delivery (not a bad thing, I hasten to add) extends to her writing too, and yet you never feel that she needs to say anything more in any given song, the thoughts and feelings are complete and satisfying just as they are. Particularly strong are Jenny (which gives sympathetic yet forthright advice to a friend being abused by a man), Goldfinches (which charmingly – pun intended! – expresses a revival of spirits, nay epiphany, on the sighting of a group of these beautiful birds), Song Of Irish Exile (self-explanatory, but powerfully characterised), Miner Of The Coal (not an industrial song, but instead a delicate, almost Carteresque expression of love couched in a universal philosophy), You Know Me (directly and tellingly expressing the bond that two close friends share) and Coyote (another example of how a comparatively small-scale experience of nature can acquire significance way beyond that moment). And the acappella On A Viking Sailing Ship is attractively bookended by an idiomatic guitar prelude and postlude. I know I’ve namechecked over half of the album’s tracks already, but that only emphasises that Kath’s personal quality-control filter is pretty reliable and there’s not a weak song here at all – even the most obvious, the standardised political rant of Privileged Man, is lifted by its imaginative setting and delivery.

Over the years, Kath’s songwriting, though remaining intrinsically folk-based, has been increasingly influenced by Americana, and this development is reflected – and accentuated – in the change of producer for her latest album. In breezes the companionable David Crickmore, that wiz multi-instrumentalist, audio engineer and radio star (!), who stamps that enviably classy rootsy Durbervilles sensibility on the proceedings and almost incidentally gathers together to enhance Kath’s songs an assortment of deliciously apt cameo appearances from muso mates Damien Barber, Gordon Tyrrall, Shaun Reade, Sarah Smout and Emma Crickmore, with fellow-Durbs Ruth Wilde, Gus Taylor and Mark Boyce providing further constant support. The arrangements are very tasty indeed, invariably convincing without ever intruding on the songs or swamping Kath’s magnificent voice; what’s more, scoring extra points when many of the finer details and imaginative instrumental touches emerge on successive plays.

Accordion, lap steel, dobro, mandolin, autoharp, piano, recorders and genial rockin’ electric guitars: all these individual textures have their little part to play in the success of these songs, and Kath and her producer have evidently given much careful thought to their deployment. The two clearly work very well together, with David both understanding and accurately conveying the measure of Kath’s talent and artistic vision, and the result is a well-rounded and highly persuasive CD (complete with really appealing cover artwork too) that is sure to enhance Kath’s standing.

www.kathreade.com

David Kidman

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The Burns Unit – SIDE SHOW (TBU TBUCD. 001)

The Burns Unit is another in the series of Scottish folk supergroups, this one consisting of Karine Polwart, King Creosote (Kenny Anderson), Emma Pollock (Delgados founder) and Kim Edgar, together with Canadian musicians Michael Johnston and Mattie Foulds, Indo-Scottish pop legend (and ex-Soup Dragon) Future Pilot AKA (Sushil Dade) and female rapper MC Soom T. That’s a heady and unusual mix by any standards, and it shouldn’t work – but it produces an equally heady, often blindingly exhilarating, wildly disparate yet strangely unified set of recordings (which have absolutely no connection with Robbie Burns, by the way – the band name derives from the Burnsong songwriting retreat all eight participants attended back in December 2006).

The nearest it gets to folk is the delicate acoustic Sorrys, a curiously wistful address to an alcoholic, which comes complete with some decidedly McGarriglesque vocal harmonies. The standout opener Since We’ve Fallen Out, a desolate, detached duet between Karine and Kenny, sets a pattern, in that like several of the other songs it builds to a heavy driving backbeat, the latter sound prefiguring those later tracks which crash cordially round your ears – notably the Glitteresque riff of the cryptic Future Pilot AKC and the “big drum” drama of Blood, Ice And Ashes which batters you into submission with its cataclysmic grungy electric guitar climaxes. Contrast these with the more breezy, ostensibly cheery indie-synth-pop antidote of Trouble, the gentler tambura-flecked Kelvingrove-set Majesty Of Decay (a revamp of a song from Kim’s own debut album Butterflies And Broken Glass), and the catchy eastern-inflected mouth-music-style chant that propels Soom’s breathlessly urgent, bitter protest song Send Them Kids To War.

The anguished Johnston-Pollock piano-cabaret ballad You Need Me To Need This goose-steps its way to the Russian steppes via Brel and Dietrich, while What Is Life skanks a merry bhangra way through confused protest; saving arguably the most classic writing till last is the plaintive Coldplay-like Helpless To Turn. Each of the ten songs has its own distinctive identity, and yet half of them turn out to be collaborations between three or more of the participants, which you’d not have guessed. Side Show, although ambitious, has during its long gestation become a big issue, and ended up much more than the allotted sum of its parts.

www.theburnsunitband.com

David Kidman

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Sandy Denny – 19 RUPERT STREET (Witchwood Media WMCD. 2053)

Well now, we’ve just had a lavish 19-disc box-set from Island/Universal that kinda promised it was the last word, that there really were no more recordings to be unearthed. But here, out of nowhere, under the good auspices of Dave Cousins, along comes this disc containing twelve tracks that were captured on a ¼-track domestic tape machine on the night of 5th August 1967, only a month after Sandy had recorded the album All Our Own Work with the Strawbs in Copenhagen. The location was 19 Rupert Street, Glasgow, the home of Alex Campbell and his wife Patsy, in whose spare room Sandy was staying at that time; the tape was made by Dane Carsen Linde, a friend of Alex’s who happened to be visiting on that night – he was testing out a new tape recorder he had just bought!
It takes the form of a joyful late-night session that includes plenty of banter between Alex and Sandy as well as exuberant versions of various folk and skiffle standards of the day (Jimmie Brown The Newsboy is notable for featuring Sandy’s only recorded guitar solo, generously fingerpicked at Alex’s insistence!) and some compellingly-delivered traditional songs (The Leaves Of Life, She Moves Through The Fair, Willie Moore and the lullaby Balulalow). There’s also a very-much-of-the-moment version of Who Knows Where The Time Goes? (which even the slightly out-of-tune guitar doesn’t really spoil), a powerful cover of Jackson C. Frank’s Milk And Honey and a tender rendition of John Martyn’s Fairy Tale Lullaby, while the recording closes with a charming, if disposable sleepy-bedtime medley sung by Alex’s two young boys who’d been woken up by the sound of singing and carousing… OK, so the sound quality of this intimate, informal session is (inevitably) distinctly rough at times, even after some expert restoration (digitisation and de-noising, editing and mastering), but hey, in the end that’s a small price to pay for the interest of the music contained within.

David Kidman

www.sandydenny.com


Sandy Denny & The Strawbs – ALL OUR OWN WORK (Witchwood Media WMCD. 2047)

Even some devotees of early Fairport are unaware of Sandy Denny’s brief tenure with the Strawbs in their own 1967 (Cousins, Hooper and Chesterman) incarnation (which itself had morphed from a bluegrass trio!). Dave Cousins’ memoir on the booklet cover waxes lyrical about discovering an 18-year-old Sandy singing at a club and asking her then and there to join the Strawbs!
But the resulting album, although recorded in Denmark in July 1967 by Karl Knudsen (for Sonet), didn’t see the light of day until 1973, and then only as a cheapo release on the ultra-budget label Hallmark (most likely to cash in on the Strawbs’ chart success), which didn’t exactly encourage sales based on its quality.

Then, at the beginning of the 1990s, came what purported to be a straight CD reissue (on the Hannibal label) of the original album, but mysteriously this sported a different tracklisting (with two omitted and three demos added), an added sitar part on Tell Me What You See In Me, and string arrangements on three of the tracks (including Who Knows Where The Time Goes, the original 1967 take of which had been Sandy’s first ever recording of that amazing, iconic song). So this brand new 24-track issue, remastered from the original tapes, will certainly comprise the definitive edition, and many of us consider it long overdue. It contains the complete sessions for the album, and is headed off with all 12 of the original tracks (of which seven feature Sandy on lead vocal). Mostly Dave Cousins compositions, these range in style from early folk-rock much in the approved Greenwich Village fashion (On My Way, All I Need Is You), to gently persuasive material like Sail Away To The Sea and the reflective And You Need Me, all topped up with a brief banjo breakdown harking back to the Strawberry Hill Boys days. After the original album come the bonus tracks: the alternate take of Nothing Else Will Do (with Sandy replacing Dave on lead vocal), the four “string- or sitar-augmented” takes, and the four demos, followed by three previously unreleased demos of Cousins songs (one of which, Pieces Of 79 And 15, was later to appear on the Strawbs’ own eponymous album alongside Poor Jimmy Wilson and Tell Me What You See In Me). It’s mildly disappointing that the booklet, while including a memoir by Dave Cousins and recording diary-cum-timeline, doesn’t take the opportunity to clarify for posterity the complex and confusing discographical history of the album; the presence of a couple of rare photos is only partial compensation. But that aside, this is an immensely important reissue, and at least we now have the complete audio picture of this “missing link” from the annals of nascent folk-rock.

David Kidman

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NoMasters Cooperative 20th Anniversary Concert – Victoria Hall, Saltaire, West Yorkshire: Friday 9th July 2010

This very special event celebrated big-style the vital and entirely right-on song-writing co-operative (formed by John Tams and Jim Boyes in 1990) which “sought out writers, performers and musicians who were, in their various ways, seeking to celebrate and extend those bits of the people's tradition invariably described as 'radical' or 'political' with songwriting that addresses issues and is rooted in its time and its communities”, paying homage to their traditions by reworking them and unafraid to take sides”.

NMC’s membership has since expanded to include other outstanding writers and performers: Jo Freya, Lester Simpson, Barry Coope, Fi Fraser, Ray Hearne, Chumbawamba, Mike Waterson, the late Lal Waterson and – most recently, Belinda O’Hooley and Heidi Tidow. All of these (bar the Waterson contingent) appeared on stage at Saltaire for a magnificent close-on-three-hour extravaganza that afforded ample opportunity for these performers to demonstrate just why NMC is such a powerful force in folk music. Each of the “usual suspects” groupings was represented within a sequence of “sets” which both unashamedly embraced and powerfully showcased the overflow of talent within the genuine collaborative ethos that typifies the work of the Co-operative (especially so nowadays in the studio with the emergence of Chumbawamba’s Neil Ferguson as a major force in engineering and production who really knows how to capture the essence get the best out of the performers). Having said that, some of the evening’s onstage permutations were unique to the occasion, and a thoroughly companionable spirit of genially controlled “organised chaos” seemed to prevail.

The evening was chummily MC-ed by Ray Hearne, who at around mid-point got the chance to perform just three of his own excellent songs with the famed NoMasters Chorale in tow. From Song For David to Point The Finger At The Emperor and Manvers Island Bound, these were carefully chosen to demonstrate the breadth and compassion of this unsung hero’s songwriting. The eclectic nature of NoMasters’ folk inspirations, from world music to the songs of Lal Waterson, came through stronger than ever in the persuasive set by Jo Freya that opened the evening, while O’Hooley and Tidow presented a similarly persuasive case for their compelling (if less overtly folky) cabaret-style approach to contemporary song creation. Chumbawamba just seem to go from strength to strength; as their Saltaire stage performances of a trio of unfailingly literate and intelligent selections from their latest album showed, they really have honed acute political (and artistic) commentary to a very fine art indeed. Messrs. Tams and Coope presented a truly spellbinding set, with John in especially fine voice, while the ever-vibrant harmonies of C,B&S stunned the packed audience anew in this setting (especially pindrop, I felt, on the chilling Atkin/James opus A Hill Of Little Shoes).

The evening’s only disappointment was the finale, a surprisingly lacklustre-sounding, almost downbeat rendition of JT’s iconic Rolling Home, a song which should have raised the very roof of the hall but on this occasion seemed incapable of even lighting the blue touch-paper of audience participation. Following which, even the respectable (spiritual) encore felt resolutely low-key and reeked slightly of anti-climax. But it was a really nice touch for the NoMasters folks to distribute a free celebratory sampler CD to each audience member as a token of thanks for our support past and present and continuing on into the future – and ensuring we went home happy as Larry from this tremendous concert!…

www.nomasters.co.uk

David Kidman

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Roy Schneider – ERLEICHDA (Shiny Gnu Records SG. 101)

Roy’s a former comic-strip artist who changed tack a couple of years back to focus on his lifelong musical aspirations as a singer-songwriter and musician (he plays guitar, mandolin, banjo, flute, bass and percussion). His stock-in-trade is accomplished, easy-going rollin’ country with a laid-back confidence and definite feelgood factor, not exactly lacking in substance but equally not exhibiting a great deal of obvious lyrical depth either. But Roy’s music is respectable enough, and at least genuine, and tends to grow on the listener during the course of the album, as much due to the gentle skill of the arrangements as the genial charm of Roy’s writing (even though he doesn’t appear to have a great deal to say).

Erleichda (which is a fictitious word meaning roughly “to lighten up”, borrowed from a Tom Robbins novel) is Roy’s third CD (already), and it consolidates his musical career thus far after a series of key support gigs for such respected performers as Sam Bush, Shawn Mullins, The Indigo Girls and Rodney Crowell, and reaching the finals of the 2009 Kerrville New Folk competition. In addition to his regular backing team of Keven Aland (fiddle), David C. Johnson (bass) and Kim Mayfield (piano), Roy’s also enticed Charlie McCoy into the studio to play some tasty harmonica on a handful of tracks. All of the disc’s 13 cuts are Roy’s own compositions, with the exception of the closing track, a reasonable cover of the Grateful Dead number Brokedown Palace; these include one simple and sufficiently pleasing instrumental interlude (Dancing With A Horse). But in the end, the Garcia-Hunter opus just reinforces the general feeling that although Roy’s own music may be hard to fault, neither does it leave much of a lasting impression; basically he’s just another competent (but in the end probably unremarkable in the overall scheme of things) singer-songwriter with a matching competence as a multi-instrumentalist.

www.royschneider.com

David Kidman

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The Indigo Girls – STARING DOWN THE BRILLIANT DREAM (IG Recordings/Vanguard)

This is a live album, yes – ostensibly to celebrate the Girls’ long-standing passion for live performance over (believe it!) two full decades. But it’s also deliberately pointed out that it’s an album of carefully-selected live performances as opposed to a straight record of one continuous live set – quite a different animal, as it turns out, although it still somehow manages to embrace the spontaneity and continuity of a typical Indigo Girls live set, passing the acid listening test with flying – nay, blazing – colours (there’s far more than just shades of indigo in this rainbow-spectrum!). And most importantly, its 31 songs encapsulate the Girls’ entire emotional and musical range and prove just why they’re such a massive draw on stage as well as key motivators in the wider life-arena. The aim of this set is “to capture the most memorable moments of their 2006-2009 shows”, and I can’t argue one iota with the success of that gambit, for playing its two discs straight through is a cathartic experience indeed – one which fair makes you want to yell out with the live crowd’s full-throated enthusiasm. From the generous acoustic-strumalong-singalong vibe of Closer To Fine and the mando-charged Ozilline to the ultra-passionate Kid Fears and those more politically charged songs like Go (this one featuring some killer electric guitar from Amy), the intense solo performances within, and even a rollicking cover of Don’t Think Twice thrown in… These are variously couched in settings that range from refreshingly bare-backed folkiness (The Wood Song) to intimate piano-backed balladry (Come On Home, featuring Julie Wolf), via a good handful of fuller, rockier band treatments, and there are guest vocal collaborations from Brandi Carlile and Jill Hennessey. The Girls’ absolute togetherness within the climate of individuality is forever remarkable, and whatever the song or the vehicle, Emily and Amy both observe an unwavering commitment to their music, their philosophy and their public, as their fulsome, honest and personal booklet notes well illustrate. As live artefacts go, Staring Down The Brilliant Dream is beautifully packaged in a book-style case, and is a release that will both satisfy the hardcore IG gig-goers and fans and provide those unable to attend many of the gigs with a suitably credible part-substitute for what they’re missing out on.

www.indigogirls.com

David Kidman

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if wen – TAKE A LOOK AT THE SEA (Folkwit F0015)

Here’s a deserved second-bite re-release for a CD by a total unknown that first came out in 2007 and unexpectedly charmed many critics (myself included). On first acquaintance, it’s all too easy to just proclaim that fans of simple, likeable nu-folk whimsy of the Donovan ilk will find plenty to enjoy in Take A Look At The Sea. Three years on, I still find that statement to be true – but there’s much more to it than that. The basic raw track for the album was, we’re told, recorded by the Cornish singer-songwriter if wen sitting on the floor of a barn near the beach in West Cornwall (a location which provided the inspiration for this song-sequence). Add a dose of pro-mastering from Tim Dennen (who’d worked similar magic on some basic tracks for Belle & Sebastian, apparently), and you’d never realise the recording’s humble and primitive origins. Musically, if wen’s songs inhabit the poppier side of oastoral-acoustic-folk: despite their subject matter (roughly speaking, the narrative of a break-up and its aftermath, set against a change in the weather, it would seem), the mood is mostly fairly light-textured and wistfully romantic yet with some tougher electric moments (eg on Give It All Away) and some quite sophisticated production touches, resulting in a quite sumptuous overall soundscape at times. I started off finding both the writing and singing just a bit underwhelming, but before halfway through I was warming fast to if wen’s delivery and his appealing (though again often a touch understated) gift for melody.

Having said that, the most overtly catchy of if wen’s anthems, like Love Letters, have something of the opulent feel of Paris-1919-period John Cale – which should be taken as quite a complement! By the time the CD was drawing to its official close, on the emotion-laden It Always Hurts (and yes, I did notice the hidden bonus track placed after it), I was all ready to hit the replay button and start the sequence over again, and indeed the whole album certainly grew on me much over subsequent plays. Take A Look At The Sea is a charming and fulfilling debut release from this wilfully enigmatic (and deliberately – but unnecessarily – elusive) figure (careful scrutiny of the back digipack cover reveals the following credit: “if wen is gfurby”, which may be the only clue we’ll get…). But if, as his website manifesto and latest press handout states, all if wen wants to do now is “to sit and watch the sunset and the moon and hear the waves singing with their own tune”, then who are we to interfere?

www.ifwen.com and www.myspace.com/ifsinger

David Kidman

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Quebe Sisters Band – TIMELESS (Fiddletone Records CD. 0101)

If you love straight-down-the-line vintage Texan western-swing from the golden era of Bob Wills, then the Quebe Sisters Band are for you. The Quebe Sisters (pronounced “kway-bee”, by the way!) are the real deal too, not just a retro-tribute band; their front-line comprises three actual sisters (Grace, Sophia and Hulda Quebe) who hail from Fort Worth, who deliver authentic-as-they-ever-come feisty swingin’ three-part vocal harmonies firmly in the Andrews Sisters mould, and play sizzlin’ hot fiddles too, backed with some deliciously chunky rhythm from Joey McKenzie on archtop guitar and Drew Phelps (or sometimes Dennis Crouch on this session) on upright bass. The disc’s 14 tracks, recorded at the Cash Cabin studio, all naturally and unfailingly recreate the era whose music still exhibits such a timeless appeal. The band’s repertoire’s exactly what the good doctor orders, from the unashamed cowboy yeehah of the Sons Of The Pioneers and their ilk (So Long To The Red River Valley, Tumbling Tumbleweeds, There’s A Rainbow Over The Range, Across The Alley From The Alamo) to swing-era standards (Georgia On My Mind), with the instrumental cuts taking in Twin Guitar Special and a breakdown-style Speed The Plow reel-medley as well as some prime Benny Goodman (Air-Mail Special) and Duke Ellington (Take The A-Train). The Quebes’ brilliant musicianship sits in tandem with a brimming-over enthusiasm and amply stylish feel for the music – and for the era which they have all the necessary chops to faithfully recreate without a trace of parody. There’s simply nothing more to say – it’s just a totally can’t-go-wrong, refreshing and wholly unpretentious feast for the western-swing aficionado.

www.quebesistersband.com

David Kidman

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Sharyn Dimmick – PARIS (Own Label, no catalogue number)

This beautifully presented self-released disc is not one that benefits from a few swiftly-cobbled column inches to satisfy an artificial publication deadline; no sir, it entirely demands a fairer, more detailed appraisal, for it’s deserving of your fullest attention and concentrated listening. It’s at the same time both directly appealing and listener-friendly, while quite uncompromising in its manner of presentation of a wonderfully wide range of songs. As Sharyn’s admirably honest liner-note tells us, these songs have been with her for a long time (some since childhood), and the soundtrack of her life has been formed by “a mixture of hymns, carols, traditional songs and songs by known writers, contemporary and not” which are performed alongside a handful of songs that she’s written herself, some of these having been re-recorded for the present CD. The title song is placed in the pole position, right at the start of the CD, and as introductions go it’s an unusually risky gambit, being a weighty own-composition that lasts a whole seven minutes: it takes the form of a rhapsodic lover’s-reminiscence-cum-reflection that’s replete with melancholy and wistful sadness (and features some characterful concertina playing from Carol Denney). Sharyn’s other two compositions on this CD are the comforting Morning Shanty (which I first encountered sung by Suzanne Friend on a CD by Richard Adrianowicz) and the charming Wallflower Waltz (which here is rendered even more enticing by Kerry Parker’s delectable fiddle accompaniment). And you might also term one other track, the Hallelujah Trilogy (a medley of songs by Richard Thompson, Julia Ward Howe and Leonard Cohen) as Sharyn’s – at least in terms of its creative concept. I applaud Sharyn’s decision to take Big Yellow Taxi at around half of Joni’s cheery pace, for it allows her to make us catch breath, stop and think about its implications beyond the blindingly obvious (it also has a neat banjo part courtesy of Art Peterson), while keeping it from sounding doomy or depressing. Sharyn then proves her wicked sense of fun on her delightful blink-and-you’ll-almost-miss-it rendition of the cautionary tale of Little Sadie. Fittingly, the disc closes with a well-harmonised (if perhaps slightly deliberate) rendition of the hymn Bringing In The Sheaves. Recording quality throughout is intense and immediate, concentrated but not in any way overbearing, and the contributions of Sharyn’s sympathetic musical friends (including on the medley the fabulous bass voice of Ed Silberman from the celebrated In Harmony’s Way group) are well captured.

Whatever Sharyn chooses to sing, she remains faithful and true to the spirit of the song, and is a natural communicator. Sharyn’s a very gifted singer, deceptively so given her unaffected style, although her very personal method of delivery tends at times to incorporate a slightly warbly quality that gives the (entirely erroneous) impression that her ability to pitch is less sure; some listeners may find that as a result one or two of the songs end up sounding just a touch laboured (eg. Shelley Posen’s No More Fish). And yet Sharyn’s measured pace, once gotten used to, turns out to be ideal for the disc’s centrepiece rendition of the classic ballad Barbara Allen (not for nothing does Sharyn have a reputation in San Francisco’s Bay Area for respectful and understanding ballad-singing). This is a disc shot through with integrity and individuality. You may not appreciate every gesture on each successive visit to its various rooms, but odds are that you’ll get an enormous amount out of each playthrough – very probably different things each time! While by their very nature uncompromising artistic statements can be the most challenging, they are also invariably the most rewarding and long-term-treasurable, and I have the distinct feeling that Sharyn’s belongs firmly in that category. For in addition to the music, we can savour at length the reproductions of some of Sharyn’s original paintings within the package’s artwork. It all adds up to a remarkable and thoroughly creditable achievement, even more so for a performer who’s had such a raw deal from life with so many cards stacked against her (a circumstance which gives an extra measure of poignancy to Sharyn’s triple-track-harmonised rendition of Hard Times, which uses an additional chorus adapted from an arrangement by Laura Love). Paris is both a gem and a triumph; and I sincerely hope that its success encourages Sharyn to make further recordings of songs from her large repertoire. (The CD is available from CDBaby.)

David Kidman

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Various Artists – HORSES, HANGINGS, HOMICIDE & HELLFIRE: SONGS AND TUNES FROM THE LEIGH FOLK FESTIVAL 2010 (Thames Delta Recording Co. MUD. 003CD)

This fabulous new CD features 21 performers appearing at the 2010 incarnation of this festival, the most important date in the mudflat calendar and generally reckoned to be the largest free event of this type in the country. Sadly (tho’ I’m sure through no fault of the organisers!), it arrived here too late for reviewing in time for the festival itself, but if the previous two years’ festival-tie-in CDs are anything to go by this latest edition will have a shelf-life and sales potential way outlasting the physical time boundaries of the event itself, for it proves a highly desirable artefact on its own musical terms, definitely one for the permanent collection of any serious folk fan. Artistically, I think this year’s edition outstrips even last year’s excellent CD, with a gloriously eclectic array of music that covers every imaginable point of the potential and actual folk spectrum (and one or two you probably couldn’t imagine!). Perhaps the best-known names here are Jackie Oates, Alasdair Roberts and the now-Essex-based duo Megson, with Cath & Phil Tyler arguably not far behind in the wider recognition stakes, while the increasingly vital nu-folk contingent is represented by the critically acclaimed Nancy Wallace, Jason Steel and The Owl Service, and revival-medievalism by the marvellous Horses Brawl. And as before, the plethora of even more obscure names provides a wealth of serendipitous discovery, from the Breton gurdy-ism of Drohne to some ornate Turkish klezmer from the She’koyokh Ensemble) and some stirring Bulgarian acappella singing from The Honeygales. Welsh-Iranian singer Roshi (who also appeared on 2009’s sampler) contributes a slightly weird electronically-treated folksong that’s listed as popular from Turkey through to Iraq.

The potential diversity of purely traditional singing styles is well demonstrated by Kiti Theobald (a captivating rendition of Alan Bell’s portrait of Alice White) to Lucy Farrell (the fragmentary Small Birds Whistle), the Tylers of course, also the duo Corncrow’s treatment of The Cutty Wren, while Jason Steel’s plaintive take on Adieu False Heart is nothing short of inspired. Quality local songwriting is represented by festival mainstay Phil Burdett, and the generous western swing vibe of Leigh’s own Fargo well complements the seriously spooked eccentricity of Men Diamler. Woodburner’s Craftwork Plainsong is clearly inspired by Dr Strangely Strange, while The Owl Service’s Spring Strathspey is very probably one of the most enchanting things they’ve ever recorded, and features some honeyed yet chillingly beautiful harmonies from Jo and Naomy. The latter is just one of the 11 previously unreleased tracks on this disc, another being a cavernously atmospheric Alasdair Roberts live recording of Bonnie Banks O’ Airdrie backed by a jouhikko (Finnish bowed lyre). Of the remainder, four are taken from fairly widely available CDs, five from rather more obscure discs and one from a limited-edition vinyl release, while three very brief snippets of “sonic detritus” (location recordings from last year’s festival itself) are creatively interspersed. The liner-note documentation is as ever pretty comprehensive and accurate (aside from the reference to the Megson track as coming from their latest album, which it doesn’t). But I’d have no hesitation in snapping this CD up for the meagre £5 asking-price (all profits go to the running of the festival by its charitable trust). It joins the previous two years’ LFF discs as simply one of the very best-value (and most satisfying) sampler-cum-tasters around, and not only knocks all other festival-promotion-cum-souvenir discs into oblivion but represents exceptional value in anyone’s book; I can’t praise it highly enough.

www.leighfolkfestival.com and www.myspace.com/leighfolkfestival

David Kidman

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Zoë Muth & The Lost High Rollers – STARLIGHT HOTEL (Signature Sounds SIG.2036)

This is another of those albums that (annoyingly, and with virtually no promotion) sneaked out without me realising it some time last year, and it just can’t be ignored at any price – hence this game of catchup. I really rated Zoë’s eponymous debut CD when it appeared, not least for its engaging air of authenticity and its deceptively easygoing-sounding yet totally emotionally convincing brand of honkytonk country. Here on the surprisingly swiftly conceived followup, Zoë and her band introduce into the mix alongside the Kitty Wells-style swagger of Let’s Just Be Friends For Tonight a delicious shading of border swing and mariachi (the breezy opener I’ve Been Gone), and contemporary heartbreak (Whatever’s Left), while Zoë shows a talent for Iris DeMent-style reflection on one of the disc’s standout cuts, Before The Night Is Gone, which develops nicely into a soulful rumination with the duo of Joy Mills and Tom Parker (known as The Starlings) providing some handsome backing vocal support. Once again, Zoë makes best capital of the solid instrumental talents of Ethan Lawton (mandolin), Dave Harmonson (electric guitar, pedal steel, dobro), Greg Nies (drums, keys) and Mike McDermott (bass), with guest Billy Joe Huels providing a trumpet cameo. The ensemble is if anything even more impressively tighter than on the debut album, and the more intense down-tempo numbers like Tired Worker’s Song and New Mexico furnish ready-made disc highlights, whereas the shuffling troubadour lilt of Harvest Moon Blues is seriously enchanting in its soft-edged yet bittersweet down-home pared-back ambience, and you can’t get a more authoritative take on honkytonk barroom angst than If I Can’t Trust You With A Quarter. The title song, in contrast, builds unassumingly but powerfully over its near-seven-minute span of lonesomeness. Yes, this is another 50-minute collection of timeless, absolutely top-drawer, real-deal Americana, a landmark set that surpasses even Zoë’s own fine debut, and I sure am glad I haven’t let it pass me by. I wonder, will album number three be out by the time this review gets to press?!…

www.zoemuth.com

David Kidman


This is real-deal honky-tonk heartbreak of the highest order, whereby Zoë’s single-mindedly making herself a major force in the latter-day transformation of Seattle from the States’ grunge capital into a veritable hotbed of Americana. Taking her band’s name from the Townes Van Zandt song No Lonesome Tune provides Zoë with her cue to dispense a set of classic-sounding original compositions that cross Patsy Cline with early Emmylou. Zoë has spent a number of years honing her writing and performing skills “in the better bars along Seattle’s Ballard Avenue”, a gambit which has resulted in her unerring ability to pen totally believable tales of faithless love and broken hearts, of constantly being let down by cold-hearted beaux; her authentic delivery tells you she’s really been there and gone through it all, paying her dues in the approved manner.

The disc’s final song, the plaintive Never Be Fooled Again, is (despite its “heavenly length” at close-on-eight-minutes!) arguably the most concentrated expression of Zoë’s country credo, but almost any of the dozen songs here – those from the album’s second half especially – are ideal illustrations of Zoë’s art, whether the mood be regretful and contemplative (My Old Friend), lazy and seductive (I Used To Call My Heart A Home), downright frisky (Hey Little Darlin’, Not You) or just plain sad (The Last Bus). The writing is uniformly compelling, and it all feels absolutely right. Zoë’s backing band does her proud too, for they’re as authentic as they come, with Ethan Lawton (mandolin) and Dave Harmonson (guitars, pedal steel and dobro) the key players and augmented sparingly as required by bass, drums, banjo and accordion. The end product’s a thoroughly persuasive 50-minute slice of authentic barroom honky-tonk angst with a dash of rockabilly thrown in – and 150% recommendable to those of us incurably addicted to that branch of country-Americana.

www.zoemuth.com

David Kidman

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Jeni & Billy – LONGING FOR HEAVEN (Jewell Ridge Records 005)

Though still relatively unknown in the UK, Jeni & Billy have for the past couple of years seriously charmed the crowds at Beverley Folk Festival as well as greatly, if quietly, impressing at other important venues on the folk and bluegrass circuits, although their slightly gawky demeanour and onstage persona have at times served to mask the true, knowing nature of their musical talent. When Jeni Hankins and Billy Kemp first met, in the spring of 2005 (while Jeni was recording at Billy’s studio), it was the catalyst for a fruitful writing and performing relationship, and soon afterwards they released a six-song EP together (Sweet And Toxic).
Four years on, and their latest recording is Longing For Heaven, which in turn is the followup to their 2008 release Jewell Ridge Coal (which paid homage to a forgotten Southwestern Virginia coal mining community). Longing For Heaven embodies a more deliberately spiritual angle than Jewell Ridge Coal, although it still exemplifies the duo’s specially intimate brand of storytelling in song in dealing directly with the most intimate of life’s questions, the concept of home (whether that be on earth or in heaven). Jeni and Billy’s gently thoughtful yet compelling presentation couldn’t be simpler either: eerily effective close-harmony singing, sparsely backed by just a guitar and banjo in the very purest of Appalachian styling (with only one guest contribution, that of Shad Cobb on fiddle, on a couple of tracks). Five of the disc’s ten songs are superbly authentic-sounding own-compositions that proudly yet naturally display Jeni’s acute gift for melody and to their infinite credit sit easily and comfortably within the company of the carefully arranged traditional and other older material. With Fond Affection gives us the best of both worlds, being a truly lovely re-creation of the traditional song of that name but with a new melody, additional lyrics and a particularly sad, delicate banjo lead. The heartfelt title song is based on a piece from the Sacred Harp collection, and On A Hill Lone And Grey surely stems from a deeply spiritual wellspring. Of the originals, the Carteresque While I Stay At Home And Weep is especially fetching; other standouts where Jeni displays her keen storytelling skills are Father Will You Meet Me In Heaven (which tells of Johnny Cash’s brother Jack) and The Ballad Of Sally Kincaid (the tale of a fallen woman from a mining community), whereas Cecil Roberts’ Hand is a rousing paean to the UMWA president.
The final track, the simple, ultra-catchy hobo song If I Ever Get Ten Dollars, departs momentarily from the Appalachian mould with its more acoustic-pop kind of setting. Oh, and the only less than forgivable element of the audio content of the record – its untimely brevity, at 29 minutes – is partly compensated for by its bonus multimedia content. But to end on a positive note: although it was actually recorded in a secluded cabin in the Carolina mountains in the dead of winter, Longing For Heaven is a wonderfully warm record, an album of companionship and quiet magic, and once under Jeni and Billy’s spell you’ll want to remain thus; longing for more of this heavenly kind of music in fact.

www.jeniandbilly.com

David Kidman

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Jason Steel - Fire Begot Ash

Coming in at just under thirty minutes, Fire Begot Ash is a somewhat fleeting experience, but it's certainly one that will catch your attention. Jason Steel breezes past with an effortless but intricate whirlwind of folk-blues with occasional hints of americana. It's like walking down a busy street and catching the momentary genius of a street entertainer, but with this recording you have the added benefit of being able to start all over again and immerse yourself in its rustic charms. Consisting of voice and either solo guitar or banjo, and with some of the material being wholly instrumental, Fire Begot Ash is a sparse, unassuming affair that allows you to climb in to its capacious soundscape and familiarise yourself with each secluded nook and cranny.

The instrumental tracks are striking for their fluid intricacy, and their ability to evoke the emotions about which they were written. On "Ginger Wine Rag," the feelings of friendship and bonhomie are palpable, whilst the frantic tempo of "Young People Dancing" conjures up a much more energetic sense of fun.

Nestled amongst the mesmerisingly nimble guitar work there are tender and introspective ballads, where Steel's occasionally indecipherable vocal lies somewhere between lethargy and sheer blissed out contentment. "The Black House" is a particularly bleak ruminative piece, whilst "Poppy Rosa" provides a more playful recollection of love's first flush.

It tends to be the banjo-led, americana-influenced tracks where Steel really stretches his voice, with a lonesome old-time drawl such as on "Lycanthrope Stomp" where Steel ponders the darker sides of sleepless nights under a full moon, or on "Cling & Claw" where Steel ruefully picks over the bones of a dead relationship.

Fire Begot Ash has a straightforward intuitiveness: sparing and simple, yet all the more rich for this. It's a real charmer of an album, and one can't imagine not falling under its intimate spell.

See www.myspace.com/jasonsteelmusic or www.rifmountain.com

Mike Wilson

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A L Lloyd – An Evening with A L Lloyd (Fellside Recordings FECD220)

In the early Seventies I spent a day of my ill-spent youth in the company of A L Lloyd at a college in the Elephant & Castle, London. I distinctly remember this because I went especially to see ‘Bert’ having been steered in his direction via the music of Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention.
Being (at that time) more adventurous and with an inquisitve mind I was intrigued to find the source behind much of the material utilised by bands of the folk-rock genre. He was a jovial racontuer whose often humorous takes on the roots of the British tradition have rarely been captured ‘live’ but on repeated listening to this recording from 1972 you can certainly see why Steeleye and Fairport were similarly inspired with ribald tales such as “The Widow Of Westmorland’s Daughter” or the wishful thinking of Henry Lawson’s “The Shearer’s Dream”. The enjoyment of being in Lloyd’s company is endorsed by an audience that lustily swells the chorus of the shanty “Doodle Let Me Go” but just as easily respects the big ballads including a five minute “Prince Heathen”. Bert was a colourful character that brought to life the songs he sang (often with a wry smile on his face) and much of this is evident on a recording that has been lovingly restored by producer Paul Adams. An inspiration to all of those that have come to enjoy our ‘folk tradition’ this album should be required listening.

www.fellside.com

Pete Fyfe

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The Owl Service, The View From A Hill

The Owl Service – GARLAND SESSIONS (Stone Tape Recordings)

Essex-based alt-folk outfit The Owl Service was formed by Steven Collins back in 2006, originally as a solo vehicle for exploring within the context of the latest English folk revival his own love of the distinctively British film, TV and music culture of the 1960s and 70s (the very band name being taken from the TV serial based on Alan Garner’s tale which melded fantasy with folk tradition).

To help Steven realise his vision, vocalists and instrumentalists were recruited gradually over the ensuing years, with the result that the Owl Service brand-name became more of a collective than a band as such, I suppose you could say, with personnel “passing through” the ranks to a greater or lesser extent. These have variously included Rebsie Fairholm, Nancy Wallace, Kate Denny, Jo Lepine, Diana Collier, Katie English, Rachel Davies, and the Straw Bear Band’s Dom Cooper, several of whom have since made solo recordings in their own right.

The extent of the legacy and influence of The Owl Service is brought home here by this expanded, reworked re-release of Garland Sessions, in effect the band’s debut album, which first came out as a limited-edition back in 2007 and was subsequently reissued the following year. This new edition presents “alternative versions and outtakes of all 13 original tracks, tweaked, remixed, remastered and partially re-recorded”, plus an additional six tracks “which the band worked on at the same time as the debut, but which only finally saw the light of day on various short-run releases”. I’ve always found the Owl Service’s recorded catalogue hard to get to grips with, due to its bewildering multiplicity of alternate readings, out-takes, re-recordings, live versions and large number of obscure limited-edition releases, and it’s mildly frustrating that the exact provenance of the tracks making up the wondrous cornucopia of Garland Sessions is nowhere specified in any detail (what even the fans still need, I guess, is a comprehensive discography, in order to see the wood from the trees…!).

Not having been in possession of either of the earlier editions of Garland Sessions, I’m unable to comment on any specific improvements in purely audio terms. But it’s apparent that this new incarnation of Garland Sessions (which effectively serves as a kind of swansong for The Owl Service as a band) has been most carefully sequenced, for it’s impossible to spot any joins or find any discrepancies in terms of quality notwithstanding the various sources from which recordings have been drawn. The album flows really well too, with no sense of being just a disparate group of session tracks (as its collective title might otherwise imply).

Steven’s skills as a multi-instrumentalist and arranger are a unifying creative force, onto the always intriguing layers of which are tellingly introduced a number of different singers who bring their own personal character to the songs, the bulk of which are traditional in origin. The folk circuit is already spoilt for choice as regards renditions of many of these songs – e.g. North Country Maid, Two Magicians, Flanders Shore, Turpin Hero and Lyke Wake Dirge – but rarely do such interpretations contain such a high degree of insight as do those of the Owl Service, which tend to be both distinctly unorthodox and particularly imaginative (I’d namecheck Diana Collier’s Katie Cruel and The Gardener Child, and Dom Cooper’s Apple Tree Man, as standout tracks). The set also contains a memorable account of Lal Waterson’s Fine Horseman (by Nancy Wallace I believe, although scrutiny of the otherwise well-detailed personnel credits doesn’t reveal her identity), and, scattered sensibly amongst the songs, a small handful of brilliantly atmosphere-laden, often suitably sinister instrumental tracks (notably the extended tone-poem The Dorset Hanging Oak) which are much redolent of wyrd-folk film scores. In tandem with the fresh and invigorating acoustic-based settings, a significant number of the tracks also thoughtfully and judiciously employ a modicum of electricity and amplified instrumentation and effects that bring the sound altogether closer to folk-rock, and the mix proves very persuasive indeed.

So my advice is to snap this one up before it disappears from the racks, for it contains much important music, indeed some of the finest examples of adventurous British folk of the past half-dozen years.

www.stonetaperecordings.bandcamp.com

David Kidman


The genre of folk-rock is an oft-maligned beast. Since Fairport Convention's seminal Liege and Lief was released back in 1969, undoubtedly setting an immediate zenith for the genre, there have followed many misguided and disconcerting efforts. Even to this day there are many who labour under the false pretence that louder and faster automatically means better, and seemingly few who are able to enchantingly fuse the subtleties of the tradition with the energy of contemporary music. The Owl Service are thankfully adept at enchantment, and throughout The View From A Hill they illuminate traditional words and melody with the bold and fearless dynamism with which they were most likely written. Not only do they leave the very essence of the tradition wholly intact, they also hark back to the very best elements of those first pioneers of folk-rock, whilst adding enough of their own distinct ingredients to refresh aspects of the genre that are growing somewhat tired.

A tantalisingly stark and brief interpretation of "Polly On The Shore" introduces the album, with the rich resonance of Naomy Browton's cello set against the lighter shades of Nancy Wallace's concertina. This is followed by a truly stunning rework of "The Banks Of The Nile," with lyrics learnt from what might well be considered as the definitive version of this song, by Sandy Denny's Fotheringay, though set to the tune of "Jenny On The Moor." For many reasons, it's this performance that captures the essence of The Owl Service: informed by the finest proponents of the tradition, yet not afraid to experiment; making best use of the many and varied sounds and styles at their disposal, yet creating uncluttered arrangements that boast a discernible clarity. The prominence given to Jo Lepine's chiming vocal shifts the emphasis firmly to the story woven by the lyrics, over a meandering bass line, and minimalist percussion.

Vocal beauty is rather an embarrassment of riches for The Owl Service, so it's no surprise that it should provide the centrepiece for much of The View From A Hill. The pure and striking beauty of Nancy Wallace's unadorned vocals make for a real treat, and particularly when singing unaccompanied on "Sorry The Day I Was Married," bringing an authentic diction along with a bucketful of charm. The boys also add their own vocal appeal, with Dominic Cooper and Jason Steel combining strength and empathy on "I Was A Young Man," an exuberant performance, notable for the feisty interplay of flute and electric guitar on the instrumental breaks. The forlorn beauty of Diana Collier's vocals furnish "The Ladies Go Dancing At Whitsun" with a gently beguiling appeal, which is all the more remarkable when you consider that she is accompanied by trombone and recorder!

Drawing influence from celebrated innovators and contributors to the tradition, this collection serves up recognisable fayre, albeit refreshed by the medley of instruments, styles, and distinctive vocal characteristics offered by The Owl Service. Name-checking the likes of Martin Carthy, Shirley and Dolly Collins, Anne Briggs and Mike Waterson, it's a recipe that ensures The View From A Hill is able to hold the listeners attention throughout. Their bold performances embrace subtle theatrical nuances, bringing freshness and lifelike qualities to this collection of traditional tales, with a clarity and commitment that has ample potential to enlighten even the uninitiated.

See www.rifmountain.com or www.myspace.com/theowlservice

Mike Wilson

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Sharon King & The Reckless Angels – NOTHING = EVERYTHING (SKM Records SKM0001)

Sharon’s an accomplished and well respected Edinburgh singer-songwriter, and although she’s the current proud holder of Edinburgh Folk Club’s Songwriter Of The Year trophy, her natural musical idiom actually lies rather closer to country-Americana than celtic folk, although it’s still permeated with a distinctive Scottish sensibility that’s not easy to define but which marks it out from the welter of Americana-inspired acts on the scene right now. Right through from her early days with the band Shake The Shack through to three increasingly acclaimed solo albums since 1999, however, the sheer depth of Sharon’s talent has still unaccountably remained something of a best-kept secret, a situation which surely must change with the release of Nothing=Everything.

Back in 2010, recruiting two high-calibre simpatico musicians Amy Geddes (of Tannas) and Vera Van Heeringen (formerly of New Rope String Band), Sharon formed a trio which was at first dubbed The Nevernever Cowboys but subsequently renamed The Reckless Angels (after her last CD), creating a signature sound-world of limpid and persuasive beauty.

Nothing=Everything is an intimately performed set of clear-sighted original songs that deal honestly with matters of life, love and longing, with a sincerity born of true experience and the ability to convey this in immediate and powerful imagery. Matching this intimacy, Sharon’s vocal delivery is close and beguiling, its nuances packed with subtle emotion and often characterised by a tender tremulousness that’s very affecting (especially on songs like Fisher King and Avalon). The eerie numbness of her response on the fragile, chiming I Lay Here With You fairly stops you in your tracks, and says so much in under two minutes… but then, that acute sense of voicing the unspoken is very strong throughout all of these songs.

Clustered round Sharon’s magnificent voice at the central microphone, we find Amy and Vera’s spine-tinglingly fine vocal harmonies; these are in turn way more than just supported by the delicious texturings of fiddle or viola with mandolin, in a select instrumental pairing that so eloquently and knowingly creates just the right level of fill to enhance (also both to reflect, and, where necessary, lift) the all-important lyrics. For every instance like Avalon and Caroline, whose melancholy or wistful feel is accentuated by the dark colouring of Amy’s viola, there’ll be a corresponding instance (Travelling Ways, It’s A Beautiful Day) where Vera’s chirpy, sparky mandolin brings a fleet-footed upbeat to the proceedings – enough to “melt the ice that’s forming in my heart”!

Elsewhere there are aural delights aplenty, not least the trio’s affectionate and highly complementary ensemble work, evidenced especially perhaps on Darling Pal Of Mine, while the backporch-inflected Leviathan both captivates and consoles with its gorgeous harmonies and simple guitar figures, perhaps recalling the Be Good Tanyas, Andy Thorburn’s guest contributions to the texture are perfectly judged too, his accordion bringing a mildly exotic flavour to Fisher King and his piano providing a solid grounding for Newspaper Headlines. I wouldn’t describe any of the music on this CD as reckless, however – it’s masterly in its control of emotional expression, and in its considered and effective creation of quietly dramatic tension through careful dynamic shadings.

In short, this is an outstanding disc, a real treasure.

www.sharonkingmusic.co.uk

David Kidman


Sharon King & The Nevernever Cowboys – Reckless Angels (NCR Label NCRCD. 001)

Edinburgh-based singer-songwriter Sharon has been off the scene for a few years following her two rather essential previous albums 24 Hours and Quiddity (the latter came out back in 2004, since when she has been “getting tangled up in English literature”!), but she now makes up for that long absence with a really powerful return to music, bringing with her a very fine new batch of confessional songs which while retaining her sharp-edged perceptiveness and dry, nay wry sense of humour, also convey a new-found lyricism and even keener sense of wordplay that most likely stems from a wider appreciation of literary creativity.

Musically, Sharon still operates unequivocally in that ever-intriguing spaciously expressive territory which we invariably find nestling just the right side of acoustic country-indie. Sharon’s proven ability to strip bare the essence of experience in her songwriting is undiminished, with her subtle and intimate observations on life’s hopes and dreams supremely telling in their simplicity. To realise these vital thoughts, Sharon’s trademark moody, alluring voice is well in evidence; if anything it nowadays arguably evokes Cowboy Junkies’ Margo Timmins even more strongly (especially on songs like Under The Sun and Wide Open, Part Two) and sometimes also Kirsty McGee in its intrinsic understatement, whereas Twinkle (whose lyric gives the disc its title) demonstrates that there’s no shortage of tumbling passion in Sharon’s expressive armoury either. The regretful High Times is a standout, with its sultry, almost chamber-tango setting employing what amounts to a piano-trio in support of Sharon’s keening tones, as is the delicately poised Fair Sailing, while the enchantingly doleful Cairn O Mohr uses a cajun-country waltz mode to explore the bottom of a wine-glass.

The album’s production is brilliantly clear-textured too; great use is made of sparing and beautifully sensitive instrumental accompaniments, invariably built upon the solid foundation of Sharon’s own acoustic guitar picking, with individual timbres (eg slide guitar on Wide Open and kalimba on Twinkle) skilfully integrated. That’s not, of course, to underestimate the exemplary contributions of NRSB’s Vera Van Heeringen on fiddle, mandolin, guitar and backing vocals throughout, while other musicians enhancing the palette at various points – I’d hesitate to formally identify them as Nevernever Cowboys, for this “umbrella sobriquet” seems to be a fluid pool from which any number can be drawn to suit the occasion! – include Al James, Inge Thomson and Donald Hay (all of whom appeared on Quiddity), with among others James Mackintosh, Nicola McAteer, Shelly Coyne, Kaela Rowan and Tim Mathew). This is a lovingly sequenced disc too, with only the syncopated shuffle beat of Lady Tuesday breaking the mood a touch incongruously in the order of things, but I can’t spot any serious misjudgements in this well-balanced set, except that it is mildly irritating to discover five minutes of silence between the disc’s “official” finale Your Kitchen Table and the quirky, queasy electro-clappy bonus track (which identifies itself as The Devil’s Out To Play on my PC) – the latter episode being the only part of Sharon’s latest venture that fails to convince me. But in every other respect Reckless Angels is a tremendous album; and importantly, one which forms a convincing artistic statement – we really should be hearing more of Sharon.

www.myspace.com/sharonkingandthenevernevercowboys and www.sharonkingmusic.co.uk

David Kidman

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Lizzie Nunnery - Company of Ghosts

Lizzie Nunnery possesses a unique voice with echoes of the English tradition, yet spins a tale with her lyrics that manages to be both contemporary and timeless. A modern-day English maiden, singing with her gorgeous northern accent to the fore, Lizzie delivers an utterly arresting vocal with a tremolo that lays bare her emotions and may well leave you flailing helplessly in love. There is a resolute quirkiness that nestles within Lizzie's writing and performance that further builds on her plentiful charms.

Company of Ghosts is a fitting title for Lizzie's debut release; one quickly becomes aware that it's an album replete with ghosts. Secluded amongst each of the twelve songs, should you look and listen, are ghosts of colourful street characters, back-street pub drunks, past lovers, close friends, and ghosts of ones own hopes and fears. Inhabiting new homes within Lizzie's vivid lyrics, stories and characters are portrayed with a minimalism that leaves enough clues for you to piece together the bigger picture.

Opening with "England Loves A Poor Boy," Lizzie quickly hits her stride, with a derisory take on a nation's bloodthirsty obsession with war, sang to the military march of a snare drum and the more nimble precision of a ringing banjo. This is followed by "Hungry," a song that is already something of an anthem amongst those in the know, with its familiar tale of a troubled or unfulfilled love, made all the more intimate with the brusque honesty of the disappointed lover: "I starve for you inside, dance you round my head, I go hungry to bed."

"Pubs That Never Close" depicts a perpetual urge to escape the troughs of life's low points in search of never-ending parties, picking up or kicking out a few pieces of life's dirty linen along the way: "...let's all drag our parties out in to the road, let's all drag our arguments and dramas to explode." In contrast to this flagrant summons, "Concertina" offers a delightfully intimate character portrait, recounted with a manifest perception and warmth that genuinely sets Lizzie apart from less memorable writers.

The title track is an intriguing piece, with an intense, spoken narrative that evokes bold imagery, not least because it is delivered with the relentless charm of Lizzie's unpretentious northern diction. "On His 60th Birthday" aches with prettiness, finding strength in the resolve of the lyrics, as they cascade over a simple, understated ukulele.

Company Of Ghosts undoubtedly heralds the arrival of an artist with a distinct talent to offer, through the unmistakeable beauty of her other-worldly voice, and her refreshingly direct lyrics.

www.lizzienunnery.co.uk

Mike Wilson

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The Jones Boys – Like The Sun A-Glittering (Hypercockle Records, no catalogue number)

Well the band name kinda leads you to expect Americana I guess, but in fact what we get (and the strongest clue comes with the tracklist) is 50 minutes of very well-played and very well-arranged traditional folk, mostly tune-sets with a few songs tossed in at strategic points. The accompanying press release calls it “power-folk” – but even that term rather misleadingly conjures up steaming electric-folk-rockery.
Actually it’s proudly all-acoustic, except that is for some guest electric guitar on a couple of tracks: for here the Jones Boys (which is actually two boys and a girl, if we wish to be pedantic!) grant us a sparklingly clear-toned sequence of tunes and songs, all of traditional origin. Mandolin and guitar glitter like that proverbial sun, with shards of light piercing the ether and sprinkling their creative faery-dust all over the shop. Ian Carey (mandolin and “mandriola”, a type of 12-string mandolin), Gordon Jackson (more mandos, whistles, bass, percussion) and Sam Sloan (button accordion, anglo concertina) have all evidently been playing this kind of material for many years, and it shows in their tight togetherness and their overall, obviously highly accomplished standard of musicianship. They have a keen ear for retaining openness of texture, and display no intent to clutter with excessive numbers of notes or over-dazzle with fulsome tonal eccentricity, and are thus doubly welcome. The only relative (but entirely forgivable) indulgences come with an atmospheric, decidedly Gothic take on Lyke Wake Dirge (complete with psycho-electric guitar and brooding chanting) and a riffingly decent version of Ship In Distress (acoustic Purple anyone? – now there’s where that “power-folk” tag might come in!).
Elsewhere, it’s dextrous instrumental prowess allied to a genuinely musical response to the tunes’ melodies, however well-trodden some of the choices may be. Prepare to be stunned into submission by Sam’s nifty button-wielding on the mighty Tam Lin/Dogs Among The Bushes set, for example… Oh, and Gordon’s singing ain’t at all bad either (he turns in convincing renditions of The Fowler and The Unquiet Grave). In the end, the album leaves a good strong impression, although it takes a few tracks before its full measure gets to make that impact stick; but it sure is a disc for going back to.

www.myspace.com/thejonesboys1 and www.reverbnation.com/thejonesboys

David Kidman

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Isambarde Electric - Live EP– Live EP (Whirly Whorl Records whirwhor 004)

Obviously having been weaned on a diet of Steeleye Span and the Albion (Country?) Band it may come as no surprise that this electric version of Isambarde (more commonly to be seen performing as a trio) sounds uncannily like early versions of both bands. I’d also like to conjecture they’ve added a splash of early Edward II to the melting pot particularly on Sean McCarthy’s classic “Step It Out Mary” where Chris Green’s reggae guitar chops and the engine room of Rupert de Jonghe (bass) and Duncan Arrow (drums) work well alongside Emily Sanders (vocals/fiddle) and Jude Rees on vocals and oboe. On the opening track “I Wish” the drum set up sounds uncannily as if it were taken from the opening stanza of The Blackleg Miner by Steeleye from their Hark The Village Wait days and more power to the band for re-inventing the glorious period of the origins of ‘folk-rock’ as opposed to those of ‘nu-folk’. Being only an EP featuring five tracks I can’t wait for a fully loaded album.

www.isambarde.co.uk

Pete Fyfe

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Trent Miller and The Skeleton Jive – Cerberus (Hangman Records, no catalogue number)

Trent Miller is a bit of a curiosity: Italian-born, now living in London, but with an authentic-sounding Americana voice that takes in shades of Dylan (especially) crossed with Guy Kyser and even at times Johnny Cash or William Eliot Whitmore, and purveyor of wistful, whiskey-sodden cult artefacts – songs of love, hate, murder and death which make no bones about their dark intent.
14 of these original compositions are placed together in stark, unadorned glory on this album, and the immediate, close-up recording of Trent, alone with his guitar and harmonica, allows for maximum uninterrupted concentration on his nightmare visions of country hell (let’s face it, with song titles like Scream Your Last Scream, Bones Of Milk, Tombstone Eyes, Six Feet Under and Hangman Shore you’ve no right to expect anything tamer!).
Although the cheeriest cut is probably the skewed twelve-bar romp of Moon Bog Party, and Hellbound Train feels a touch tongue-in-cheek, I still don’t find any of Trent’s music depressing or morbid, for its melodies are generally not overly doom-laden, and its intrinsic darkness of vision is invigorating in a strange kind of way, and the more I listen the more compelling it gets. It may not entirely “tantalise your inner soul”, and a couple of songs (Little Queen Of Hearts for instance) sound frustratingly unfinished and less than fully realised, but the best of Trent’s work stands comparison with the best of renegade gothic-country and has the power to haunt your waking hours. Trent’s downbeat and downcast, but he refuses to be down-trodden. Shame the insert inner is blank tho’ (or should it have contained some lyrics I wonder?…)

www.myspace.com/skeletonjive

David Kidman

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Liz Carroll & John Doyle – Double Play (Compass Records 7 4502 2)

Don’t you just love it when, from the opening track of a recording you know you are going to experience something really special?
Of course it helps if your names are Liz Carroll and John Doyle both of whom (to my knowledge) have neither released a duff album in either their solo or collective careers. Not only prolific tune writers in the traditional style including amongst others “Before The Storm” and “Ricky’s White Face” both Carroll and Doyle have an empathy musically that will stop you dead in your tracks as you wonder at the beauty of it all. Whether your preference is for the driving melodies “The Chandelier/Anne Lacey’s” or the subtler moments of “Lament For Tommy Makem” and “Nearby, Long Ago” the consummate skills of both performers will lift your spirits to a new level of appreciation for all things acoustic. As if that weren’t enough, the listener is treated to John’s honey-toned vocals on a selection of great songs including Ed Pickford’s seemingly timeless anthem “A Pound A Week Rise” and the gentle, funky guitar set-up employed on “The Hare’s Lament”.
What else can I say…buy, chill out and enjoy! By the way, I’d like to say congratulations to all at Compass Records on waving the banner for Celtic music. Check out their phenomenal website at www.compassrecords.com

Pete Fyfe

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Hungrytown – ANY FORGOTTEN THING (Listen Here! Records LH. 502)

I was pretty well charmed by this Vermont duo (Rebecca Hall and Ken Anderson) when they released their debut CD at around this time last year. It was a genuine, unpretentious, feelgood-but-thoughtful record that melded American and English folk traditions, and belied the duo’s rather nerdy appearance as a pair of bespectacled, distinctly-60s (or else just plain timewarped!) college librarians!
In very many ways its sequel, Any Forgotten Thing, presents more of the same, audibly cut from the self-same cloth, but if anything the songs are even more memorable; and this time round, all 12 tracks are original compositions by Rebecca (seven of these co-written with Ken). As before, the songs receive uniformly intelligent musical settings that might be described as gently retro acoustic, on which Rebecca’s intensely attractive singing voice and modest guitar playing are set into appealing counterpoint by Ken’s expertise as a multi-instrumentalist (banjo, accordion, mandolin, glockenspiel, bass, organ, harmonica, etc), always (importantly) suiting the mood of the song. And, equally importantly, cradled with gorgeous vocal harmonies. Anyone in search of a ready reference-point could do worse than invoke Trader Horne (the duo formed by ex-Fairport vocalist Judy Dyble with Jackie McAuley at the start of the 70s) or mid-60s duo Ian & Sylvia; both of these acts are recalled in the airy freshness that Ken and Rebecca bring to their music, the transparency of texture, clarity of expression and openness of thought. Taking specific examples: Like You Do, a rearrangement of a song from Rebecca’s earlier album, could indeed be an outtake from the celebrated Trader Horne LP Morning Way, while the mood of the eponymous first Fairport album is often brought to mind, in the duo’s beautiful harmony vocal work especially (check out the title track for instance), although the latter feature also at times evokes early Simon & Garfunkel (as on the wistful Under A Broken Sun).
On the lilting opener Year Without A Summer, a standout track, Rebecca takes a simple, traditional-sounding melody and structure to tell the tale of a historical event (the eruption of the Mt. Tambora volcano in April 1815), while Make It All Work Out is closer to sunshine-pop in its breezy ambience and Calliope makes the most of its mournful carnival gait. Rolling Train is a touchingly reflective opus that’s impossible to get out of your brain, while Sally Lazy is a neat little lullaby. Then – almost best of all – there’s the delicious simplicity of the closing number The Sweetest Flower, done in absolutely perfect acappella, which in structure and approach is another of those Carter-Family-style dead-ringers that Hungrytown seem to have down to a T. Yessir, Rebecca and Ken have produced another very special and lovingly crafted record, which you’ll not regret investigating.

www.hungrytown.net

David Kidman


Hungrytown – Hungrytown (Listen Here! LH. 501)

This Vermont-based duo (Rebecca Hall and Ken Anderson) may look from their photos like a pair of 60s schoolteachers out on a sabbatical to tour the coffee-houses, but they’ve produced a totally delightful, all-too-modestly eponymous debut, which is only now gaining a UK release (to coincide with a bout of European touring that sadly is now more than half over) after two years out there in the Stateside marketplace. And not before time, I say.
There’s a breezy, optimistic, straightforwardly life-affirming and gently feelgood quality to this album, one that’s strongly redolent of the approved 60s pop-folk model (think Ian & Sylvia filtered back through echoes of the Carter Family and onward into early Fairport, perhaps) but never feeling copycat or derivative even though Rebecca’s exceptionaloriginal compositions (which comprise ten out of the album’s dozen tracks) have all the authentic feel of both the aforementioned period and its relationship to English and Appalachian folk traditions. Songs like Rose Or The Briar and One Morning In May could almost be fresh discoveries from some obscure folksong treasure-trove, while the delicious On The Other Side is nothing short of archetypal bluegrass-gospel; the seriously beautiful Troubles Change Direction might have come from an early Simon & Garfunkel collection, and the lilting waltz-time Hungrytown Road is a charming backporch reminiscence.
Hungrytown’s version of the traditional Sylvie is peerless too, with a juicily ornate arrangement, and fits seamlessly into the album’s programme. Musical settings are often appealingly retro (genial 60s touches such as Hammond organ and pop-folk rhythm section sit easily alongside the rootsier banjo, guitar and fiddle), while the duo’s excellent vocals are a match for their unassuming multi-instrumental skills. The couple’s seductive harmonies are firmly in the “to die for” category, while there’s a touch of the pure, assured Judy Dyble (albeit in a slightly lower register) about Rebecca’s lead vocal on One Morning In May and the gorgeous November Song. The closing track, a soft-edged but persuasive cover of Gene Clark’s With Tomorrow, may take the 60s vibe into the 70s just a touch, but it retains the duo’s essential credibility and makes me just want to go and play the whole album through again – I just don’t want it to finish! A truly lovely record: one of quiet beauty. Every discerning home should have a copy!

www.hungrytown.net and www.myspace.com/hungrytown

David Kidman

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Andy Cutting, 'Andy Cutting'

Andy Cutting is by now a familiar name on the folk scene, whether as part of Blowzabella, or accompanying the likes of Kate Rusby and Chris Wood. Surprisingly, this eponymous effort marks the first recording to be released under his own moniker, and the fact that the recording for this project started in 2001, with a further session in 2004, before being completed in 2008, suggests that Cutting might have felt some reluctance to place himself directly under the spotlight. Any reluctance on his part is wholly unwarranted, as this outstanding collection demonstrates. Cutting plays with a style that feels like he is gently coaxing the melodies out of his accordion, lending a fluid restraint that sacrifices little in the way of purpose, and results in a performance that is sensually illuminating.

Subtlety seems to be the order of the day here, and a handful of notable guest musicians contribute, yet none of these appearances could be considered superficial; they all seem to follow Cutting's cue by allowing the tune to be paramount and suppressing any sense of ego. Nonetheless, the distinguished musical personalities of Mike McGoldrick, Tim Harries, and Ian Carr are evident and each do their bit to flesh out the sound when called upon.

The Cutting/Carr collaborations are particularly notable for their complex rhythmic marriage, with "Edges / Thin Waltz" positively revelling in the most joyous interplay of accordion and guitar that one might ever hear. The apparent lightness of touch as Cutting skips effortlessly through the exuberant melody sits in contrast to the more meticulous rhythms of Carr's guitar. The partnership takes a more subdued form on the traditional tunes "Cuckoo's Nest / Old Molly Oxford," where a generous helping of space and restraint allow for a rare appreciation of the subtle resonances of both instruments, as well as their more precise charms.

Tim Harries' double bass brings a sense of purpose and drama on "Still Hearing You / The Resplendent Jig," a set of tunes that stretches the album beyond the traditional sounds that typify the album, lending a darker, jazz-tinged ambience. The uncompromising, measured pace of "Atherfield" results in one of the more sober tunes on the album, performed as a resplendent duet with the full-bodied flute of Mike McGoldrick.

Alongside the various collaborations, there are opportunities aplenty to hear what Cutting can do when left to his own devices, and these moments prove no less engaging. "Charlie / Come Back" is a spirited, punchy set of tunes that ably demonstrates the versatility of the the accordion, whilst "The Old Light" finds Cutting harnessing the more subdued and emotive aspects of the instrument. Both these tunes are composed by Cutting himself, along with many others on the album, and demonstrate a canny manipulation of traditional influences, distilled into a more contemporary-sounding concoction. There is another short but sweet Cutting original, "Covered In People," that wryly captures the panic and mayhem of being lost in a crowd, clearly signalling the empathy that Cutting is capable of weaving in to melody.

This album will surely sell like the proverbial hot potato at this summer's folk festivals, and deservedly so. It's certainly an album that should quickly establish itself amongst the finest releases of the year from the English folk scene.

www.andy-cutting.co.uk

Mike Wilson

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Rebekah Findlay – IMPROVISING AROUND THE SUN (Ted Records TEDRFCD. 002)

Rebekah's rapidly making a name for herself especially in the north-east, and her captivating live presence also translates well to disc, which is a definite bonus in this day and age where fickle tastes and superficial attention spans predominate. And what's more, Rebekah knows how to put together a disc that will stand the test of time, for she has an acute feel for flow and texture and exactly what sounds right for each song. Rebekah’s debut CD Northern Skies was by any standards a pretty stunning demonstration of her many talents, with some fabulous singing, lovely songwriting, deftly idiomatic guitar work and fiery yet sensitive fiddle playing. These qualities are carried on through to this followup album, sure, but with if anything an even greater sense of accomplishment, while Rebekah’s astonishingly intuitive musical arranging (that skill in getting so much from simple resources – principally her own guitar, fiddle and very occasional accordion with Joolz Cavell’s tremendously supportive cajon) is also every bit as much a feature this time round. Her singing seems even stronger too; her voice is commanding, authoritative and fearless, and yet capable of amazing degrees of tenderness when the lyric calls for that quality and shading. Rebekah tells us that the music on her new album evolved from many hours soaking up the sun in her garden, improvising on her guitar around ideas for songs: hence the fancifully descriptive album title. The inspiration for several of the songs on this new collection was less the beloved Scottish climes of Northern Skies and more her own northern roots; her Hartlepool ancestry comes into focus on Gray’s Lament, whose melodic contour, echoing a forlorn pibroch, traces a poignant farewell to the shipyard where her grandparents worked together (the family ties reinforced by the presence on this track of her brother Ben singing backing vocal). The tingling atmospherics of producer Chris Davison’s burnished electric guitar cradle Blackbird Song (that specific bird’s song represented by Rebekah’s florid fiddle counterpoint), supporting the lyric’s melancholy, flat-lined, almost numbed expression of a universal truth, while sweetly reflecting on the better times that have gone for good. The album boasts further standout tracks: the dramatic traditional-style ballad of Lovesome Hill, sung (almost chanted) to a ritual rhythm from Joolz’s cajon, provides a stark contrast to the siren call of Rhythm Of The Sea (this I sense harks back to times spent on the idyllic Scottish coast), which is energised by the keen pulse of Iain Mackillop’s stunning bodhrán playing. And that’s just the first four tracks (all self-penned), to which crucial mode of composition Rebekah returns for the disc’s closing triptych. Between these points, an improvised instrumental piece provides a bridge to three diverse non-originals: a showstoppingly expressive, impeccably arranged cover of Tom Bliss’s iconic masterwork The Violin, followed by the well-loved traditional song Ten Thousand Miles (here, inventively, set to a restless, shuffling travelling-beat) and then another live favourite – Rebekah’s interestingly different take on the Grease number You’re The One That I Want (bringing out its inherent pathos and discovering it’s not really the cheap throwaway number it seems on screen). Rebekah then retreats back to her own muse for the album’s final stages: Billy’s Song, a miner’s widow’s tale which sports some astounding double bass playing (Hamish Laishley) and ghostly trumpet (Kristofer Eland), followed by the comforting, though similarly resigned imagery of Winter’s Sad Refrain. Rebekah then takes her leave with the sublimely minimal Parting Lullaby, which – unusually for either of those kinds of song – takes the form of a desperate yet delicate entreaty, set to a strange melody line resembling an oriental note-progression. Like the rest of this album, truly mesmerising – as in its own way is the intensely attractive hand-crafted artwork (by Rebekah – yes, design’s another of the many strings to her bow! – with help from her mum).

www.rebekahfindlay.co.uk

David Kidman


Rebekah Findlay - Northern Skies (Own Label TEDRFCD. 001)

Born and raised in Teesside but now based in North Yorkshire, Rebekah started out in classical music (violin) then graduated to playing with a ceilidh band in her teens. After a career break (to get a career!), she took up the guitar and songwriting, and in 2008 she won the Klondike Song Of The Year trophy with Duty Bound, a song concerning a lighthouse keeper who chooses his work over love and family life. Happily, that song is included here on Northern Skies, Rebekah’s debut CD, along with a further eight of her own compositions, her atmospheric setting of Yeats’ Song Of A Wandering Aengus, and especially startling, challenging, strongly individual takes on two traditional songs (The Blacksmith and Scarborough Fair) – and finally, as a rather kooky bonus, a cover of Out Come The Freaks! Now this is a very impressive disc indeed, both as debut recordings go and as a finely judged and accurate representation of an extremely talented lass.
Although Rebekah’s an accomplished musician, a sensitive and lyrical (and refreshingly unflashy) practitioner, it’s her distinctive singing voice that first strikes the listener: a voice of real character. Although her singing is in no way derivative, I did find that initially, in terms of attack and delivery generally, I hear traces of (in particular the huskiness of) Becky Unthank, also Kate Rusby, especially in the phrasing and elements of regional accent; but in truth Rebekah’s voice immediately packs more of a direct punch than either of those: fearless and confident, with a heavy-duty authority, a sturdy power and burning intensity that perhaps on occasion borders on fierceness (having said that, she’s also capable of considerable sensitivity in shading, dynamics and use of tension). As for her writing, its range is both commendably wide-ranging and highly competent, with a feel for the poetry of everyday language and economy of expression that can be heart-stoppingly poignant (Far From Home), warm and gracefully evocative (Luskentyre By The Sea), gently reflective (Harbour Wall) or desperate and restless (Pipes And Drum). The thought-provoking keening of In Stone is a harder nut to crack at first, as it ambitiously prompts deeper resonances from its use of an authentic shanty as a prelude. But perhaps the most compelling track – equal to the sweep-you-off-your-feet iconoclasm of her intensely original take on Scarborough Fair – is Rebekah’s own I Wish, which ingeniously and tellingly incorporates the refrain from the traditional song of that name within her own tale.
Although on I Wish Rebekah insists on only her own guitar for company and private consolation, on the other songs she demonstrates her acute feel for apposite textural enhancement, not only by selectively multitracking herself (on fiddle and/or accordion and extra vocal lines) but also by bringing in other talented musicians – Chris Davison (who’s also responsible for the stunning studio production, by the way) on guitars and Ebow, Joolz Cavell on cajon, Iain Glover on mandolin and Ben Findlay on backing vocals – in exactly the right places, and with an admirably subtle use of effects such as reverb. Finally, Rebekah’s purely musical talents are complemented by her abilities as an artist and graphic designer: witness the supremely attractive artwork, presentation and packaging. In every respect, the seriously top-drawer quality of this self-produced release puts to shame many a major-league product. For great beauty and great strength go hand in hand on Rebekah’s striking debut release.

www.rebekahfindlay.co.uk

David Kidman

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Dala – Everyone is Someone (Campus Music 0001)

Outside of Canada, the acoustic folk duo Dala (Amanda Walther and Sheila Carabine) are virtually unknown, despite having already released three albums full of their intimate and companionable romantic songs. Their latest record sees them expanding the instrumental palette with a few additional musicians providing extra guitar and keyboard lines, genial jangle and bouncy backbeats to complement the fresh, bright and joyful sound (and exemplary diction) of the girls’ voices. Their creamily gorgeous harmonies are of the “to die for” variety, and their individual voices are both velvety and delicate, breathy without being precious, confident without being over-assured. And they also have a very keen pop-folk-country sensibility, a quality of judgement that has led to the release of the song Levi Blues as a single – and what a catchy little throwback to the golden era of the late-50s/early-60s pop-creation it proves, with its chirpy Everly Brothers demeanour. Dala can also turn on the silken charm on the slower and more pensive numbers like the sorrowful ballad Horses and the tenderly rueful Face In The Morning, and they can make you think deeper too, as on the brooding, atmospheric Compass. Although some listeners with purer roots/folkier tastes might find Dala’s classy, well-groomed songs and pleasing, everything-in-its-place arrangements a touch too perfectly cultivated, the girls themselves can’t be criticised for any lack of involvement in their material or its performance. I find them quite irresistible in their own frothy kind of way (and that’s not meant as a back-handed compliment!).

www.dalagirls.com

David Kidman

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Janet Robin – Everything Has Changed (Hypertension HYP. 10271)

Janet, a former member of the Precious Metal crew, was also in the touring bands of both Lindsey Buckingham and Meredith Brooks, but she’s a superb guitarist in her own right, as Everything Has Changed, her fifth solo album, assuredly demonstrates. On this album she moves easily between feisty acoustic-based electric-rock and classy flamenco-cum-Eastern-European-flavoured acoustic adventures, sometimes (as on Everybody Falls In Love In Prague) even incorporating elements of both approaches within the one song or arrangement. The tender Bruise Easily displays the virtue of acoustic understatement amidst the rockier gestures of much of the remainder of the album, but we discover here and elsewhere that Janet is actually also no mean singer, as Rumor, the passionate title track and a sensual cover of Cindy Walker’s Dream Baby (most famously done by Roy Orbison, you’ll recall) all show. Songwriting is also a pretty strong suit for Janet (the album’s only other cover is P.J.Harvey’s This Is Love, which in Janet’s hands becomes a slice of swaggering, hard-driven southern rock).

Even so, it’s her astonishing prowess on guitar that strikes home most immediately and consistently, so if you can respond to the qualities of passion and proud achievement in her playing that closely mirror those in her songwriting and singing, then you’re well on the way to getting a handle on what makes Janet tick. The only drawback is that several of the songs seem to be brought to an end prematurely, before they’ve run their course – and this applies also to the brilliant instrumental track CHR Number 137, which clocks in at under two minutes. By the way, the album was recorded at “Cash Cabin”, the studios just outside of Nashville where Johnny Cash himself had recorded much of his later work, and produced by John Carter Cash himself, who seems to have ably captured the character of Janet’s personal brand of dynamic energy. The album’s bonus video track has ten minutes of footage shot during the recording.

www.janetrobin.com

David Kidman

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John Hiatt – Mystic Pinball (New West NW6260)

We can all be forgiven for losing count of this classy Americana singer-songwriter’s album releases – and Mystic Pinball is his 21st since 1974’s Hangin’ Round The Observatory! Over the years, John’s songs have been covered by countless artists, from Emmylou Harris and Suzy Boguss to Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan, and he finally won the AMA Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting in his own right just four years ago. His latest set finds him moving stylistically closer to quintessential bluesy-rock than the country for which he’s been known, and many of the tracks display a tough, muscular swagger, a strutting confidence that wouldn’t be out of place on a Springsteen album.

Early cuts like Bite Marks and We’re Alright Now may risk becoming clichés or at the very least become rather lost in the crowd, but the more consciously pacey ballad creations like I Just Don’t Know What To Say and the more reflective I Know How To Lose You both satisfy with their moody and intelligently rootsy musical arrangements, and moments of relative tenderness like the waltzer No Wicked Grin are all the more persuasive for forming a contrast with the album’s rockier moments. Even so, the latter mostly convince, and benefit from a decent and uncluttered production that makes the most out of the straightforwardly gutsy jangle of strong cuts like You’re All The Reason I Need. John’s backing crew for this set is his regular band The Combo (Doug Lancio, Patrick O’Hearn and Kenneth Blevins), and they can’t be faulted, nor of course can the reliable instrumental support John provides for himself on guitar and piano. In that context, one of my favourite tracks here is the stripped-back closer, Blues Can’t Even Find Me.

In the past, I’ve felt that some of John’s albums have been treading water, but Mystic Pinball doesn’t feel like that (even though it doesn’t come up with anything radical), instead it just feels like another good solid record.

www.johnhiatt.com

David Kidman


John Hiatt – The Open Road (New West NW. 6182)

One of the quintessential Americana songwriters, John Hiatt was the proud recipient last year of a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Americana Music Association – at long last, you might well say. The Open Road, his latest (and 18th studio-based) album, is a tough, energetic set that delivers a fine batch of eleven new songs recorded with his seasoned road band (Doug Lancio, Patrick O’Hearn and Kenny Blevins). It provides a contrast to his 2008 offering Same Old Man, which was a more reflective affair altogether. The new set, which fair rocks and cruises like a summer day’s road trip, was inspired by the view of life as through a rear-view mirror, and it’s an outgoing collection par excellence. Here John’s decided he’s had enough of always heading for home and resigned himself to the necessity of setting out on new adventures while recognising the need to keep a weather eye on each one as it passes. The musical idiom is garage-country-rock almost without exception, and its rock-solid gestures suit the lyrics and John’s rasping delivery right down to the dusty gravel. There’s also a definite dirty-electric-blues (almost Willie Dixon) feel to Like A Freight Train (which features a classic slide solo), while a swampier swagger works its way into My Baby and Haulin’ and a deeper soulfulness creeps into the slowie Wonder Of Love.

Elsewhere, John doesn’t neglect that all-important road-sense of wide-screen history (Homeland), or the trusty old barroom either (Fireball Roberts conjures one of those archetypal honky-tonk scenarios.
After which, and given John’s decision to hit the road, it comes as a mild surprise to find him wearily offering to Carry You Back Home right at the end of the album, for it’s a record that has gone by as easily as the blacktop: “chewin’ up the road like biscuits” indeed.

www.johnhiatt.com

David Kidman

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Jakob Dylan – Women and Country (Columbia 88697662162)

That famous name doesn’t give an awful lot of a clue as to what kind of music to expect here, for you’d never guess Zimmerman Jnr’s parentage from hearing this album; instead, Women And Country could easily be the reflective outpourings of almost any contemporary Americana artist. That doesn’t mean it’s an anonymous set, or that Jakob’s writing lacks definition, but it’s more the case that its distinction is more subtle. It’s Jakob’s second solo album since leaving The Wallflowers in fact, and it differs from its predecessor principally in that it’s a more consciously produced affair, necessarily involving a host of other musicians. The ever-masterly T Bone Burnett is at the helm, and he skilfully imparts his own special brand of soft-burning ambience that suits Jakob’s understated songwriting down to the ground. There’s no sense of instrumental overkill, and aside from a touch of Lanois-like opaqueness here and there the soundscape is remarkably uncluttered (aside possibly from the insistent horn arrangement on the finale Standing Eight Count). Even after three or four plays though, I can’t escape the overall impression of elusiveness in Jakob’s music, for mostly the individual songs only seem prepared to make a fleeting kind of impact before each one lapses off into the ether at its close. And yet there still seems to be a curious kind of incentive for the patient listener to persist further, so the jury must remain out for the meantime.

The musical assistance rendered by T Bone’s assembled supporting cast (Greg Leisz, Dennis Crouch, Marc Ribot, David Mansfield, Jay Bellerose and guest backing vocalists Kelly Hogan and Neko Case) is first-rate, as you’d expect, but the songs themselves evidently need a certain amount of committed exposure before insinuating themselves into your wider consciousness, for in many cases each song sets its mood in the first few bars and tends to quietly stick with it, with little in the way of subsequent musical development. If I’m pushed to reference any of Jakob’s songs here, it would be more down to the audio impact of the production values than to any specific characteristics in the songwriting I think. There may be hints of Townes Van Zandt (Truth For A Truth, Nothing But The Whole Wide World), Tom Waits (Lend A Hand), even maybe Lindisfarne (They’ve Trapped Us Boys), but the generally even-toned quality of Jakob’s creative landscape is one for which all of T Bone’s production genius can’t quite compensate in the end.

David Kidman

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The Carrivick Sisters – OVER THE EDGE (Own Label, no catalogue number)

Here’s some more of that wonderful contemporary bluegrass from the young South Devon twins who’ve caused such a storm with their live appearances over the past three or four years. No-one who’s succumbed to the ready charms of the Sisters on any of their previous four albums will be able to resist this latest collection of fresh-minted self-penned material; once again, Laura and Charlotte display artistic and musical maturity beyond their years, and everything seems to come so naturally to these prodigiously talented lasses. In true Carrivick style, the album is configured more or less even-handedly, with Laura contributing five songs and Charlotte bringing six titles to the table (of which two are typically vivacious instrumentals), the remaining song (Pretty Fair Damsel) being traditional in origin. The Carrivick trademarks of tight sibling vocal harmonies, careful deployment of light and shade and clear, dextrous instrumental chops are here in abundance, and they’ve naturally and seemingly effortlessly preserved their characteristic blend of old-timey and bluegrass informed by a definable English quality. The latter facet is most in evidence in the subject-matter of some of the songs – here, for example, one standout track, the dark ballad Lady Howard, is based on a local Dartmoor legend, and Over The Edge is told from the viewpoint of a protesting Newquay land-worker. Others, like Laura’s sanguine Outside Time, consider more reflective philosophical matters, while aspects of romance are explored on Old Friend and I Know You. The Moon conveys the contradictory nature of that celestial body through personification of its behaviour traits, while Man In The Corner is a sad but charming little vignette that somehow recalls Linda Thompson’s No Telling; the lovely Bird ends the disc on a note of gentle reassurance. There are two odd-tracks-out – that is, in the purely musical sense: the quirky handclap-rhythmed “unsquare-dance” Snap On Eleven and the fast-paced swing number If You Asked Me; the latter doesn’t sit quite right in its allotted place of second in the running order, much as its lyric coheres well with the themes of the rest of the album. I do admit, though, that the Joe Rusby’s production is both intimate and faithful, with a keen ear for internal balance that accentuates the even-handed nature of the Sisters’ performance, while the attractive cover painting (by Laura) cleverly embodies a visual representation of almost all of the songs making up the record. The Sisters’ engagement of a select few guest artists pays dividends too – John Breese on double bass underpins the tracks in a refreshingly understated manner, while isolated tracks feature contributions from Blair Dunlop (vocal harmonies), Angus Lyon (piano), Josh Clark (percussion) or Tom Sweeney (electric guitar) respectively that flesh out the Sisters’ playing ever so slightly but very effectively. So Over The Edge is definitely another winner of an album for the talented twins.

www.thecarrivicksisters.com

David Kidman


The Carrivick Sisters – Jupiter's Corner (Own Label, no catalogue number)

The Carrivick Sisters are twins Laura and Charlotte Carrivick, who first performed as a duo in 2006 and turned professional when they left school in 2007; eventually they made it to the finals of this year’s BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Awards. They hail from South Devon, and play a rather special and personal brand of bluegrass with a strong folk influence; they write virtually all their own material, drawing inspiration from their local landscape, stories and heritage. Jupiter’s Corner, which turns out to be their third CD, was in fact released a whole year ago, but for some reason it’s taken its time to percolate to this neck of the woods so now’s definitely the time to give them some overdue coverage here, cos they really deserve it. For if this excellent CD is anything to go by, the Carrivick Sisters sure have a great deal to offer the lover of contemporary bluegrass and folk. Their expertise and togetherness is astounding, and their unassuming virtuosity on a large number of instruments undeniably impressive – and yet you never ever feel they’re showing off (nor do they need to!).

Not only do Charlotte and Laura equitably share the lead and harmony vocal roles (with five songs each on this CD), they also swop that instrumental dexterity around like nobody’s business, Laura’s prowess on dobro and fiddle especially being most impressive in its sensitivity to line and texture, and they’re unafraid to vary the standard instrumental complement to incorporate cello or banjo, say, while any inevitable enthusiastic rough-edges or intonation lapses are disarmingly left in the mix for our pleasure too. The sisters’ musical skills are one thing, and would be cause for celebration on their own terms, but what really sets the seal on their musical presence is the sheer quality of their writing. Here we get a series of quite magical contemporary songs that cover all the potential ground uncannily well, from the beautifully simple, nay Carteresque Song For The Year to the contemplative Stars and Slip Away, the historical narrative ballad of The William And Emma, which recounts a local lifeboat disaster to the tearfully delicate, daringly introspective All The Times That I’m Not There – all these being standouts within a consistently fine set of songs.

You can just taste the timeless nostalgia of The Old Apple Tree (there’s another song just crying out to be covered by someone like Alison Krauss!), while the sprightly uptempo Waiting For A Train turns out to be far superior to the hoary makeweight train song you’d find on almost any ol’ bluegrass CD. There’s also a brace of instrumentals, which show structural ingenuity in tandem with the exhilarating playing on display. The Carrivick Sisters are having fun, but are serious in their intent, and their naturally assertive musicality never gets in the way of communicating their unique musical vision. They’re something pretty special, I’d say.

www.thecarrivicksisters.com

David Kidman

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Karan Casey & John Doyle – Exiles Return (Compass Records 7 4529 2)

The beaming smile of a reviewer as he casts his eye over certain members of ‘folk’ royalty appearing in his ‘in’ tray is always reason enough to celebrate a new CD release. Therefore, one can assume this is the case with Karan Casey & John Doyle. As the duo, both ex-members of the American/Celtic super-group Solas, I suppose it isn’t surprising that expectations should be high. From the opening strains of Doyle’s palm dampened funky rhythm guitar chops to the towering vocals of Casey joined by Michael McGoldrick’s trademark flute you can feel the creative juices positively flowing from every pore. Unlike many singers who just read the written word, Karan takes the experience of what appears on paper and is able to convey the message contained in the song with a genuine passion. In return, as if joined by the hip Doyle instinctively knows what Casey is thinking and this is proved time and again in arrangements that seamlessly unleash their treasures for the delight of a discerning public.

It is also obvious that both artists have a profound respect for their choice of material including “The False Lady”, “The Little Drummer Girl” and “Out Of The Window” (a variant of “She Moved Through The Fair”) adding a more contemporary groove that will appeal to more modern tastes. In providing sparse but well placed production values, Dirk Powell establishes an authoritative, well refined album that will not only find favour with the ‘folk’ scene but also to anyone who enjoys their music as an ‘art’ form. Finally my one reservation (and it is a minor one) please can graphic designers note that a little thought should be taken with the booklet which for us fifty something’s when it comes to reading a miniscule font size should be in bold black text on a white background. Anything is preferable than having to squint at indecipherable wording. Apart from that this recording gets a resounding 10 out of 10.

www.compassrecords.com

Pete Fyfe

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Jude Cowan – Doodlebug Alley (Own Label, no catalogue number)

Not even the description “far-out” could amply prepare me for the outstandingly unique nature and exceedingly rewarding (if undeniably ultra-oddball) delights of Doodlebug Alley. For delights they most certainly are – although as with any truly eccentric artistic creation there will be reservations and/or elements that take a bit of getting used to. It’s a dead cert that some listeners will turn off within a few seconds of the opening track (title song) bursting upon your ears in all its strange glory. A strange and determinedly individual glory that’s oh so hard to describe, let alone pigeonhole. Jude’s a singer-songwriter and poet based down in London, whose description of her own sound as “a cocktail of Eccentric English, fin-de-siècle Gothic avant-garde, Americana and pastoral perambulations” doesn’t quite go halfway; neither does her list of admitted influences, or the critics’ referential namechecks (thus far) of Marianne Faithfull, P.J. Harvey, Nick Cave, Siouxsie, Cocteau Twins, Lee Hazlewood and Kate Bush. It’s a cliché, but I honestly can’t think of any one of those mentioned who sounds like Jude, or indeed vice-versa!, although I hear elements of some of them at times in her vocal delivery or in her penchant for drawing on the more decadent aspects of poetry, art (and film and media) history to fuel her striking visions. On Doodlebug Alley, which is her second CD release, Jude accompanies herself on what sounds like a ukulele-guitar, crossed at times with an autoharp (sorry, the cover credits don’t say), with occasional contributions from Steve Cox and Nicky Bendix on Hammond organ and piano respectively – all of which sets her music apart from the boring old singer-songwriter template straight away and kinda demands attention. Jude’s melodies are wild by any conventional standards, often sounding and feeling more like improvised poetry given musical voice than song as such.

I gotta say it, her music will be deemed an acquired taste for sure – and whether you can acquire it for even part of the album will depend on your receptiveness and persistence. I’ve given the album half a dozen plays and it’s obstinately refused to yield up some of its virtues I’m convinced – although, to be fair, some songs do make their mark right away, either because they’re easier to latch onto either structurally or idiom-wise. The title song’s both a brilliant calling-card for Jude and a good barometer for your likely reaction to her writing, and yet its skewed, mushed-up (almost psychotically deranged) wartime cabaret-chanteuse vibe of the title song (a veritable lover’s stream of consciousness) proves seductive and unexpectedly addictive, with some hard-hitting imagery juxtaposing perceptive, almost childlike word-associations. If anything, Remember Sinners is even weirder, with a male voice competitively counterpointing Jude’s wayward ululations and cosmic whispers in intoning the lyric’s violent images. Jolly Roger (which, together with the breathless, steamy hothouse aura of Lady Chatterley’s Dream, gives us probably the most overtly Bush-like track) takes the form of a question-and-answer dialogue concerning an affair with a jack-tar, which references folksong and sailor’s hornpipe along its merry way. She Sits At The Window brings disembodied voice samples into a Sprechstimme-style piano-backed art-song setting of Webern-ian pithiness with a dreamlike Satie-esque instrumental coda. If you can handle those first four tracks, then I’d say you’re either well on the way to appreciating Jude’s extraordinary world; if not, then you’re not likely ever to “get” her. Jude still has plenty of cards to play on the remainder of the album however, from the insouciant (I might say devil-may-care) “boogie-with-Beelzebub” of The Devil Can Take Me and the slightly over-exaggerated Dietrich-style theatricality of Naughty Daddy to the depravity, nay bestiality, of Navajo Joe (there’s a certain Tom Lehrer influence at work here!) and the sinister whistling fandango of Club Apache. There’s also a gawky Changing-Horses-era ISB vibe on one or two of the songs (noticeably in the seamy carnivalesque organ and outwardly jaunty gait), which offsets the significantly darker demeanour of their lyric content.

Cruel and twisted takes on lullabies are at the heart of Nation’s Nation, an ostensibly disjointed sequence of acappella child’s rhymes with some really nasty imagery that fair takes you by the throat and threatens to choke your sensibilities. And Alien Folk Valediction takes the mysticality of Robin Williamson and Traherne into the far reaches of the galaxy to the strains of a transformed celestial harp in what’s perhaps the album’s most deceptively straightforward folky setting. But perhaps the most extraordinary track of all is the woozy, hallucinatory, headily aromatic Lure Of Paris. You may be tempted to conclude from this review that Jude’s music sounds more than a little pretentious and unduly arty. And sure, there are isolated moments when Jude’s weirdness seems just a trifle deliberate, even manufactured, and although not exactly self-conscious at those points there’s a whiff of the agent-provocateur rather than a natural artistic response. But the fact is that for the vast majority of the time, Jude’s invention is so unashamedly (and refreshingly) conceived that it hurts in its immediacy. I seriously believe you need to experience Jude’s disturbing, unsettling shapeshifting visions at least the once. Me, I just can’t get Jude’s unique creations out of my mind, and for all its wilful eccentricities I’m absolutely convinced that Doodlebug Alley will become one of my discs of 2010.

www.myspace.com/judecowan

David Kidman

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Lau vs Karine Polwart, Evergreen EP

This combination of Scotland's most formidable music talents was always likely to create sparks. Evergreen is an intriguing collaboration of five songs, that really serves to whet the appetite for more of the same, pushing gently at the boundaries of the contributors' comfort zones. The distinctive voices of Karine Polwart and Kris Drever make for a compelling partnership, with the precision of Polwart's resolute vocals proving the perfect foil for Drever's more easygoing manner. The innovative arrangements of Martin Green's accordion and wurlitzer, and the fiddle of Aidan O'Rourke, flesh out the sound to give a commanding resonance, whilst also embracing quirky contemporary elements along the way.

The title track is the sole composition written by Polwart and Lau themselves; it's a haunting piece, with the fiddle of O'Rourke bringing an air of menace alongside layered vocal harmonies. Their evocative treatment of Dave Goulder's "January Man" subtly teases out the unease of passing time, whilst Lal Waterson's majestic "Midnight Feast" is delivered with an authoritative spirit, making it the stand-out track on the EP. The Blue Nile's "From Rags To Riches" is stripped of the synthetic accompaniment that graces the original, and nestled amongst a spacious acoustic arrangement that actually feels more befitting of the song's spirit. The EP closes with a rendition of "Lord Yester," opening with a most beautiful air, courtesy of Aidan O'Rourke's fiddle, and featuring a measured duet vocal from Polwart and Drever, that highlights precisely what makes this musical marriage so special.

When Karine appeared on Kris Drever's last album, I suggested that I'd like to hear further exploration of this alliance, so Evergreen is something of a bonus for me. I genuinely hope they all get together again to share more of their musical dreams, because they really do form the most glorious partnership. Karine Polwart may prove to be as significant an addition to Lau, as Sandy Denny was to Fairport Convention, all those years ago.

You can catch up with Karine Polwart on her website or on MySpace, and also pay a visit to Lau's website or MySpace page.

Mike Wilson

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Churchfitters – Sing (FMRA Productions CH. 969)

This band is a real enigma, and their background, CV and modus-operandi all cheerfully defy all the normal rules for a folk band. Though basically a British outfit, they’re based in Brittany – and yet their music contains not a trace of Breton within its otherwise abundantly eclectic mix of bold, flamboyant and thoughtful “folk unlimited” and contemporary pop. They remain rather a cult secret, yet they definitely possess the elusive “100% knockout factor”, a presence to totally wow first-time audiences at a stroke (and by the way, they scored a massive hit at last year’s Cropredy) with one of the most polished, accomplished and seriously Alive acts on the circuit. In that regard I’m strongly reminded of those mighty Canadians Tanglefoot, in their adept mingling of instrumental and vocal brilliance with folk tradition and high-order contemporary songwriting and always leave an audience tremendously uplifted and energised. Although Churchfitters is to a surprisingly large number of folk fans an unknown quantity at present, there’s been a band of that name in existence for close on 30 years, and yet none of its original members have survived through to the current quartet lineup, whose longest-serving member, lead singer and multi-instrumentalist Rosie Short, was joined by her violinist/mandolinist brother Chris a mere 15 or so years ago, followed closely by vocalist/bouzoukist/guitarist Topher Loudon and ultra-imaginative bassist Boris Lebret.

As I’ve already hinted, Churchfitters’ music is quite uncategorisable, although individual tracks on this latest CD (the third from the band’s current incarnation) will have you reaching for ready comparisons – only to find them totally dashed by the time the track gets halfway through (they switch styles and modes like they swop instruments around, often quite manically, sometimes during the course of a single number).

To call these guys versatile is a whopping understatement, as just one listen to this disc will testify. Within its immediate-encore-demanding 42 minutes, we’re treated to the most varied musical menu you might imagine: five instantly distinctive freshly-composed original songs (three by Rosie, two by Topher), a couple of significantly scintillating, ultra-exuberant tune-sets and two exceedingly interesting takes on traditional folk songs (notably an urgent full-steam-ahead House Carpenter, replete with imaginative and theatrical touches). Churchfitters’ original songs really have the power to move, from the dizzy jazzy insouciance of My Beamish Boy to the decidedly Tull-esque House Of Cards and the arm-linking festival anthem Sing! (For Our Time On Earth); and yet, although the end-effect is generally uplifting (and often comforting), there quite often also seems to be a dark and sinister undertone to the proceedings, as on the abundantly haunting, tellingly intense, unusually pained disc opener Knee Deep (its weird scoring embracing musical saw and ukulele) and some later, momentary interjections. An almost deliberate policy of ironic underselling may well be a Churchfitters trademark (their previous album was called Amazing!), but don’t be deceived – Churchfitters really are one of the most impressive acts you’re likely to encounter, period; any doubters are urged to catch them live at the occasional folk festival this summer (Chester, Fylde) or at a mere handful of other UK gigs in early autumn.

www.churchfitters.com

David Kidman

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Groanbox – Livingston Sessions (Groanbox Records GBR-004)

Formerly named Groanbox Boys, this iconoclastic North American world-roots trio (comprising original members Cory Seznec and Michael Ward-Bergeman with more recent permanent recruit Paul Clifford) made sizeable waves when they toured the UK a couple of years ago, and their previous three records all captured in some way – albeit perhaps not entirely successfully – the raw energy and casually unusual instrumental penchants of their live performances. Livingston Sessions is a more consciously studio-produced affair, masterminded by BBC producer James Birtwistle.

It’s arguable whether the recording-live-in-the-studio experience has tamed the rougher edges of the players in any way (a slight smoothening is apparent only very intermittently to my mind), but the balance of the various instrumental and vocal elements within the trio’s music is better caught on this new recording, with altogether clearer perspectives and a more believable separation of strands that’s closer to what you’d actually get to hear live.

It’s on the instrumental cuts that the most wonderful strangenesses of Groanbox get to shine through, especially Tuvan Voodoo, which pits gourd banjo and calabash against a backdrop of throat-singing; elsewhere, Doing The Laundry is a choice assemblage of old-timey-style gesturings and Étude Sur Les Quais shuffles its appealing Afro-cajun way along a quasi-cinematic groove, whereas Oyster Lease twists jazzy riffs round the consciousness. The vocal tracks, all band originals too, mostly take their cue from dusty old blues and country blues, primordial ragtimey hokum, stomps and hollers and manic accordion adventures, sprinkling these templates with fairy-dust from kitchen-sink percussion and weird-and-wonderful (or just plain archaic) instrumental timbres. There’s even a tasty tinge of backwoods-reggae on the lazy Beat Bush Hunter, and the catchy Must Be Time could well be a lost Jona Lewie (or Brett Marvin) track, whereas Mount Misery is almost self-consciously wacky in its wordiness. While undeniably invoking the spirits of Mac Rebennack, Woody Guthrie, Don Van Vliet, Levon Helm, Ry Cooder and Tom Waits in almost equal measure, Groanbox nevertheless manage to concoct a tellingly original branch of Americana that they can justifiably call their own. And the trademark Groanbox sense of gleeful-yet-controlled abandon that often still threatens to topple over the edge – well that’s all present and wilfully correct, in happy abundance, with the eccentricity-fascination quotient easily maintained in tandem with Groanbox’s excellent musicianship over this new album’s glorious hour-long span. Tremendous stuff!

www.groanbox.com

David Kidman

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Ruth Theodore – White Holes of Mole Hills (River Rat RR. 005)

I keep on discovering these amazing singer-songwriters, determinedly individual talents and major creative forces – and Ruth Theodore, from Southampton, is another such. And even with a veritable arsenal of possible ready reference points, I’d be hard pressed to be able to give you a way in to her music. Well, actually, there’s Jude Cowan, another exceptional s/s whom I encountered for the first time only a few months back; Ruth and Jude share a confident, in-your-face strangeness, a wilful yet almost inbred shout of “I’m different – so what?” that endears me to them right away.

Simultaneously fragile, humble and forthright, Ruth’s extraordinary (and yes, oddball) vision is a bit “love or hate, same price” I guess, but I was completely enraptured, if often also quite disturbed, by White Holes Of Mole Hills, which is Ruth’s second CD (and now I absolutely must hear her first, Worm Food!). I do hear traces of a less scary Ani Di Franco: similarly fond of off-kilter rhythmic phrasing, fractured certainly, but often significantly calmer somehow, and with a comparable feel for the artful use of tension within musical structure. Start off by sampling her wispy delivery on the brilliantly skilled, if eccentric scattergun verbiage of Overflow, with its matching incredibly sophisticated, intricate, virtually Leo-Kottke-esque guitar work (honest!) and gently underblown jazzy drumkit-and-clarinet augmentation. Ruth’s supporting musicians (Elizabeth Mitchell, Haruna Komatsu, Clarissa Carlyon, Tom Oldfield and James Hurst) do her writing proud both here and sparingly throughout this record.

Ruth’s an abundantly playful soul, and she has a real gift for similarly playful turns of phrase!… and the final song, Taradiddle Scuttlebum, plays a theremin across our orifices as well as jostling with our word-sensibilities. But then, at the other extreme of delivery, there’s The Evolution Of Mr Charisma, which teases the senses abnormally tenderly with its hushed clarity. Race Cars is a jittery, twitchy little commentary which catapults its powerful images into a series of emergency-stop manoeuvres. And the ostensibly restless solo-guitar-instrumental Sisyphean Rock ’n’ Roll turns out to be surprisingly soothing for its six-minute overspill of imagined imagery. Only after that, perhaps, can you feel able to move on to the more extended delicate, fractured, sad desperation of Friendly, where Ruth reaches out and gropes headlong for meaning (and wonders if her email will ever arrive – hey, I know that feeling!). For “the truth’s not coming out until the water’s coming in.” And all manner of weird leakages occur during arguably the most thorny song on the album, the cryptically carnivalesque Eris, which imagines an astronomical configuration (a courtship between a planet and a dwarf star!). Ruth’s music is extraordinary – and extraordinarily stimulating – and more often than not, distinctly baffling (even after several plays); I can’t predict whether you’ll like it, but I’d definitely advise you to give it a try.

www.myspace.com/ruththoeodore

David Kidman

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