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Mama Rosìn with Hipbone Slim & The Kneetremblers – LOUISIANA SUN (Voodoo Rhythm Records VRCD. 65)

Raw Swiss cajun/zydeco trio Mama Rosìn meets London-based garage-rockabilly combo – and survives!!!… But it’s an explosive combination alright – and the sound captured on this studio CD (recorded somewhat hastily during Mama Rosìn’s visit to Britain late last year) is as close to live action as you’re likely to hear: upfront and immediate, with just that dash of excess presence that only a live gig can generate. Tracks like London Zydeco come as close to The Clash and White Riot as the rolling Trouble Ain’t So Never Far Away does to slow-boogie doowop – but the latter still packs a hell of a kick with its blistering electric guitar solo. Hard-drivin’ rockabilly pushed over the edge into rock’n’roll is to the fore on The Cat Never Sleeps, while the melodeon and banjo call-and-response structure informs the disc’s title number. Perhaps unexpectedly, the most impressive thing about the whole set is the mean and dirty, forge-ahead-at-all-costs attack of Tremblers’ drummer Bruce “Bash” Brand, which brings an authentic edge to the proceedings and to some extent mitigates some occasional posturing on the part of other band members on numbers like Paint The Town Red and Princess Havana (the latter sounding more like Mungo Jerry “putting on the tourist style” while on holiday in Cuba!). For most of the time, though, the meeting of the bands convinces, but it still sometimes feels that this is more by luck than judgement; even so, everyone has a real good time, which I guess is all that really matters in the end.

www.myspace.com/mamarosin

David Kidman


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Mama Rosin – BLACK ROBERT (GutFeeling Records GF.020)

For a followup to their raw, punk-charged second CD Brûle Lentement, the Swiss three-piece outfit seems to have pulled back a touch from their initial in-yer-face iconoclasm following a pilgrimage to Louisiana, and instead have allowed themselves a certain degree of looseness in the studio setting, whereby this new album sounds like a series of live takes with a devil-may-care-about-the-result ethos that in the end is every bit as illogically appealing to the bystander-cum-listener. Opening with the sound of a sinister drum-backed voodoo-chain-gang chant (Quinze Jours Passés), then taking us through a banjo-backed song from Martinique, Marinière, en route to more familiar zydeco and cajun territory with Par Rapport À Tes Parents, where grungy electric guitar spars energetically with pumping melodeon. The band does depart from tradition, though, by unsettling devices such as imparting La Valse À Katrina with an ominous backbeat, and hammering Bon Temps Roulet No. 3 home with a psychotic tribal variant of the Bo Diddley riff. And Le Two-Step Du Motorcycle, which sports a slow-burning, Velvet Underground-inspired riff structure. The Mama Rosìn sound is still distinctly rough and ready, but if anything now sports a calculatedly refined edge – hard to describe, but on the whole easier to listen to somehow than on that often abrasive first pair of albums. Having said that, I really enjoyed those earlier efforts, and thus I perhaps now find the deliberate variation in styles on this latest album just a little too deliberate at times (as on the overly laid-back ambience of the sprawling official closing number La Pistache Confidentielle), but even so, in terms of vibrant energy and sheer attitude, Mama Rosìn still show themselves to be streets ahead of the vast majority of the competition, as can be heard in the rough-house live segment that’s appended as a bonus cut.

www.myspace.com/mamarosin

David Kidman


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Miranda Sykes & Rex Preston – MIRANDA SYKES & REX PRESTON (Hands On Music)

For a long time now, Miranda’s been highly regarded on the scene for her exceptional double bass playing, and increasingly also for her involving and versatile singing; she released an acclaimed solo album (Bliss) back in 2006. Her most recent assignment, however, has been a well-received stint as “third member of Show Of Hands”, but her copiously-stacked CV additionally encompasses extensive touring and recording with several other artists (Robb Johnson, Kirsty McGee, Steafan Hannigan and Reg Meuross, to name but a few) and membership of Pressgang and Firebrand.
Latterly, Miranda has also guested with celtic-bluegrass band The Scoville Units, and she got on so well with that outfit’s mandolin player Rex Preston that they began working together as a duo, the first recorded fruit of which is this eponymous disc. Rex is an absolutely outstanding mando maestro, with an intensely accomplished playing style that so very intelligently combines those desirable qualities of niftiness and sensitivity – one can marvel open-mouthed at his virtuosity and easy musicianship, while admiring his gift of knowing just when to pull back and rein in his own talent and give due prominence to the vocal line and the lyrics of the song he and Miranda are accompanying. Miranda’s double bass, whether plucked or bowed, invariably weaves the most inventive of bedrocks, but is so much more than that, and is never reduced to anything approaching a mere plodding rhythmic counterpoint.
So together, Miranda and Rex make a hell of a team, and the musical and personal rapport between them is tangible. They clearly also share the same musical sensibilities, for this album presents a proudly eclectic mix of material, one that’s been described as genre-hopping. Nine out of the dozen tracks are compositions by contemporary songsmiths, many of these working in the genre loosely termed Americana. Although not all are especially well-known, the quality of the writing is assured and the pair of Peter Bradley Adams love songs is a discovery I’m glad to have made. Miranda gives well-judged accounts of Patty Griffin’s Rain and Slaid Cleaves’ One Good Year, while Imogen Heap’s sensuous Between Sheets makes for a less expected choice that turns out one of the standout interpretations on this set. Trouble, from the pen of Over The Rhine’s Karen Bergquist, proves another of the album’s triumphs, while the lighter side of the duo’s repertoire is exemplified by a segued brace of older standards (Sweet Pea and Mean To Me). Kate Rusby’s Old Man Time opens the disc: a generous and entirely apt selection given that Joe Rusby has utilised his studio and considerable production and engineering skills to give the album its thoroughly professional sound.
Finally, Rex has himself contributed the disc’s one instrumental number (4 a.m.), as well as a nice arrangement of the traditional song A Kiss In The Morning Early – this is one of two tracks on which he proves he has a persuasive singing voice too (a talent only recently discovered, we learn!). Aside from an occasional hint of the “one-trick pony” in the limited instrumental palette, it’s obvious that Miranda and Rex are making the most of their talents on this new venture, and it’ll be interesting to see how it develops. Meanwhile, Miranda and Rex will be on tour through January and February 2012.

www.mirandasykes.com

David Kidman


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The Gift Band – LIVE ON TOUR (THE UNION CHAPEL, NOVEMBER 2010) (Scarlet Records – DVD SR029DVD & CD SR029CD)

Gift, the mid-2010 joint studio album from Norma Waterson and Eliza Carthy, was one of my own personal favourite discs of the entire year, and it was a matter of deep regret that I never managed to catch any dates on the ensuing Gift Band tour, one reason for which was the unavoidable truncation of the tour itself when Norma became seriously ill. So now, I’m overjoyed to see the release on, both CD and DVD, of one of those concert dates in all its glory – and entirety. It’s a wonderfully intimate and uplifting experience, enhanced by the venue itself and its unique ambience, but given extra resonance by the subsequent tragic events.
Of course, we can now be thankful that after a particularly anxious eight months, Norma’s now back on the slow road to recovery, but this wonderful DVD is a supremely treasurable memento of mother and daughter singing together, enjoying every moment and communing with their audience with relaxed anecdotes and informative banter. Their intensely supportive “band” – comprising Martin Carthy (guitar, banjo), Aidan Curran (guitar, mandolin), Phil Alexander (accordion, piano) and David Donnelly (double bass) – just couldn’t be bettered, providing the finest possible foil for Eliza and Norma and their unerringly apt choice of songs. Here, within the allotted span of a little over two hours, they perform all but three of the songs from the actual Gift album, but – even more valuably – they also treat us to a healthy selection of songs drawn from Norma’s own solo back-catalogue, virtually none of which they’ve ever before performed live.
Norma’s dictum of “it’s hard to stick to just one kind of music” is well demonstrated on this superb “evening of two halves”, which flows effortlessly and naturally from traditional song (The Chaps Of Cockaigny, Go And Leave Me) to swinging novelty numbers (Ukulele Lady) and the very best of contemporary song (Dreaming, which Loudon Wainwright had penned specifically for Norma, Clive Gregson’s Fred Astaire, and no fewer than three classic Richard Thompson compositions, Al Bowlly’s In Heaven, God Loves A Drunk and Joseph Locke) and back again (Bunch Of Thyme, The Rose And The Lily), all coming to a beautifully coordinated official close (as on the album, indeed) with the slow shanty Shallow Brown. After which, the sentimentality of the planned-unplanned non-encore (Over The Rainbow) is transformed by the performers into something quite magical (guaranteed to send us all home happy as bluebirds!…).
The evening’s first half is predictably satisfying, with definitive high points coming on Dreaming and the set closer The Nightingale, but I’d say the second half is even more spine-tingly excellent, with especially show-stopping moments occurring on Joseph Locke, Prairie Lullaby and The Rose And The Lily. But the whole performance is magnificent on all counts, and there’s an extremely potent sense of occasion. Whether you already have the original Gift studio album or not, this DVD and CD are an essential purchase. I’m not sure you’d need both, for the tracklisting is identical, the CDs reproduce the exact sequence of the gig (between-song anecdotes and all) and the DVD contains no bonus material; but the visual record of the occasion is admirably rendered, undistractingly filmed and brilliantly engineered, while the CD booklet’s useful supporting material, like the DVD package, comprises two pieces from The Guardian newspaper (a live review and a contemporary interview) and a handful of photographs taken at the gig itself (and a lovely one of proud Norma and Eliza with “new arrival”, taken barely weeks after the concert).
Logistics-wise, I do need to point out that there’s a small difficulty with the banding arrangement on the CD issue, whereby the whole of the first track of each of the two discs is taken up with the introduction to just its first song, and thus the music of the first song itself begins at track 2… and so the remainder of the items on the disc are all “one band adrift” (oh dear…).

www.scarletmusicservices.co.uk and www.eliza-carthy.com

David Kidman


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Various Artists – ONE NIGHT FOR NORMA (Scarlet Records SR027CD)

When Norma fell seriously ill before she could complete the Gift Band tour last year, folks from right across the scene rallied round immediately to raise funds, and all over the country special tribute concerts were staged, invariably featuring a lineup of prominent performers from the UK folk scene. One Night For Norma presents for posterity a recording of one such event; and it is entirely fitting, therefore, that all profits from the sale of this release will be going straight to Norma herself.
The concert enshrined on this two-disc set took place at The Sage, Gateshead on 1st June this year, and involved an impressive cast-list that represented much of the cream of the crop as regards performers from the north-east of this country: long-standing well-established front-runners (Vin Garbutt, Jez Lowe), equally well-established movers and shakers (Alistair Anderson, Sandra Kerr), top-flight performers from a younger generation (Emily Portman, Bella Hardy, Andy May) and in-demand local musicians Margaret and Andy Watchorn.
The majority of the artists perform songs or tunes from their own stock-in-trade: for instance, Jez brings to the stage London Danny and Jack Common’s Anthem, Alistair two evocative tunes from his own pen, and Vin heartfelt performances of If I Had A Son and England My England – the latter pair unfortunately misplaced and transposed in the tracklisting, by the way). Emily’s Mossycoat weaves rather special magic, and Sandra’s contributions bring some keen audience participation, while appreciative silence greets Andy’s set of tunes played on the Northumbrian pipes. Some other choices, however, either feature combinations of artists that are unique to the occasion (eg. Sandra comes together with Emily and her trio for a spirited rendition of There Ain’t No Sweet Man That’s Worth The Salt Of My Tears, a song much associated with Norma), or material performed specifically in tribute to Norma (Emily and Trio making a good fist of Lal’s Some Old Salty, and Bella Hardy tackling – less convincingly, I feel – the Garcia-Hunter classic Black Muddy River that Norma has made so much her own). Additionally, the entire company joins forces for the concert’s bookends, Country Life and Three Score And Ten, both key items from the early Waterson Family repertoire. The whole concert is MC-d by Linda Thompson – and not entirely successfully, for she displays an unexpected degree of ignorance of the music of some of the participants (ho hum…!).
The recorded sound is very good, although the continuity – and some of the atmosphere of – the occasion is compromised by some swift fades along the way. The accompanying booklet contains a host of photos from the event, together with full credits and a whole page of honest and lovingly affectionate tributes to Norma written by the participants. From a practicality point of view, however, I’m puzzled at the decision to make this a double-disc set, when its respective 33 and 41 minutes would have easily fitted onto one disc. Otherwise, the aforementioned track transposition error aside, this is a most desirable release, by the purchase of which you will be unquestionably supporting a very very good cause indeed.

www.scarletmusicservices.co.uk

David Kidman


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The Henry Girls – DECEMBER MOON (Own Label, no catalogue number)

The Henry Girls are fast becoming a much-talked-about act, more especially since their appearance at Celtic Connections. Hailing from Inishowen, Co. Donegal, this sibling trio (whose surname in fact turns out to be McLaughlin, Henry being just a local family nickname apparently!) consists of sisters Karen (fiddle, viola, banjo, ukulele, piano, guitar, vocals), Lorna (accordion, piano, bodhrán, vocals) and Joleen (piano, harp, mandolin, vocals). Here augmented by Ted Ponsonby (dobro, guitar) and Nicky Scott (double bass) – both of whom had appeared on earlier Henry Girls albums – along with Denise Boyle (fiddle, viola), Liam Bradley (percussion), and even a full brass section on one track, the Girls deliver an even more intoxicating mix of roots styles than I heard on their third album Morning Rush a couple of years ago.

December Moon is the Henry Girls’ fifth album release, and traces an appealing (if maybe just a touch wayward) path through folk, country, gospel, bluegrass, even pop, but never really sounds entirely like any of these – nor like Irish traditional music, although at times their music has a subliminal part of its roots there too. The Henry Girls have been variously compared to Indigo Girls, Dixie Chicks and Be Good Tanyas, but again they don’t really sound much like any of these – probably a touch more like the last-named if anything. Their eclectic sensibilities can at times bring them closer to the McGarrigles, as on the delicate shadings of the title track and some of the close sibling harmonies, but equally they have a marked tendency to swop around and trade parts within the texture according to the demands of the song (they’re all so devilishly talented!).

Particular standout tracks are the beautiful own-compositions Sweet Dreams and Farewell, the charming confection When Will I See You Again?, the disc’s title song, a slightly grungey take on Rain And Snow and the soulful waltz-ballad Fool’s Gold. OK, I find there’s one or two moments when the Girls’ determined eclecticism seems just a little too off-pat (for instance, their cover of Elvis Costello’s Watching The Detectives feels overly jaunty, altogether too cute to shoot, as does the closing barroom-meets-Andrews Sisters number Couldn’t Ask For More); even so, (commendably) they don’t try their hand at anything they can’t actually handle. And I couldn’t really see the rationale for the inclusion of a couple of brief and insubstantial instrumental tracks, which amount to little more than pleasing interludes in the scheme of things, especially given the high quality of the singing and playing throughout the disc. But whatever the shortcomings of their latest album, do look out for them elsewhere too – for they’ve recently recorded backing vocals for songs on Mary Black’s new project Stories From The Steeples

www.thehenrygirls.com

David Kidman


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Ry Cooder – PULL UP SOME DUST AND SIT DOWN (Nonesuch/Perro Verde)
One might say that on this latest offering, Ry Cooder seems to be coming full circle, not least in his kinda taking on the mantle of a modern-day equivalent of Woody Guthrie, in spirit the voice of the common man meaningfully chronicling America’s life and times with acuity of perception and lashings of musical savvy.
In the early part of his career, of course, Ry’s repertoire habitually contained a considerable quotient of songs of political and social import (including, of course, some of Guthrie’s own creations) which had provided key inspiration in his formative years; he was instrumental in bringing many of these songs to our consciousness, and many of which have since become benchmark interpretations. Since then, and increasingly on his last three or four records, he’s been very much concerning himself with timely contemporary issues, bemoaning the wholesale destruction of the America he prided and treasured, and peddling his own right-on political observations for our delectation and (often) air-punching assent. He may espouse the well-familiar topics of depression life, warmongering, commerce, corruption and crooked politicians (ie. so much for a New Deal!), but his wittily barbed (yet sometimes also unexpectedly affectionate) missiles are unerring in striking their targets full-on in the bull’s-eye. And the icing on the cake is Ry’s supreme skill in expressing these sentiments in a musical language that resides in America’s heritage, the indigenous idioms of which he has the deepest life-long understanding and which have become part of the fabric of his very being. Take John Lee Hooker For President, for instance, which naturally references the late blues legend’s finest works, and No Hard Feelings, which directly tracks from the starting-point of the credo of This Land Is Your Land into a pleading and sensitive ballad-cum-lament.
There’s heaps of musical continuity with the first half-dozen or so of Ry’s illustrious and perennially classic early solo albums in this new collection, a meaty and fulfilling whistle-stop tour that takes in deep country-blues, rough’n’dirty swamp pop, talking blues, chunky norteño and tex-mex, jittery reggae, gospel and virtually everything else you might expect in his travel-bag. Rejoice, too, for three tracks feature the trademark chicken-skin accordion of Flaco Jimenez, and at least one of these, El Corrido De Jesse James, which postulates the outlaw’s return (through a time-warp, y’ reckon?!) to exert vengeance on today’s banks, is a clear album standout and contains some absolutely glorious brass ensemble work that blowsily straddles the tight-rope between mardi gras and 40s/50s western soundtracks. Other highlights include the cheekily jaunty opener No Bankers Left Behind, with its abundantly vibrant mando rhythms, the cheery, superficially upbeat anti-war number Christmas Time This Year and the catchy Creedence-meets-Springsteen vibe of Quick Sand, while the string-bedecked Dirty Chateau scores high in the soulful-ballad stakes and the snarling boogie of I Want My Crown brings back echoes of Ry’s early membership of the Good Captain’s Magic Band. But my favourite track just has to be the intense, tremendously atmospheric Baby Joined The Army, a bluesy commentary of masterly, admirably sparse scoring (just Ry himself, treating us to some of the most extraordinarily expressive guitar work I’ve ever heard from the man); that track and El Corrido De Jesse James are worth the price of admission alone.
Ry’s instrumental talents are already legendary, of course, but I do think he’s surpassed even his own high standards on this album, and he’s tastily supported by (among others) son Joachim (drums), Rene Camancho (bass), Arturo Gallardo (alto sax), with a wonderfully resonant three-piece vocal chorus on a handful of cuts. Aside from a touch of slightly misplaced sentimentality in a couple of the songs towards the end of the album, this new record from Ry Cooder is solid gold all the way. It boasts authentically gutsy sound too, immediate and expertly registered. I’d be surprised if this disc isn’t soon counted among his best.

www.nonesuch.com/artists/ry-cooder

David Kidman


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Lucky Bones – TOGETHER WE ARE ALL ALONE (Lucky Bones Promotions LBCD. 002)

Following an at times frustrating stint as an intensively-touring modern-day Irish troubadour, singer-songwriter Eamonn O’Connor is now fronting a new combo named Lucky Bones, which comprises the musicians he met in Ireland last year on his return from recording sessions in an obscure town near Austin, Texas with simpatico producer Stephen Ceresia and local players. Those sessions form the basic tracks for this album. The resultant sound is a persuasive and vibrant blend of Americana, country and rock that combines the muscularity of Springsteen with the Irish stadium-savvy of U2 and the Waterboys. Having said that, the band does seem to come across more convincingly on tracks like Toward The Setting Sun (with its appealingly shambolic showband aura) than on the slightly awkward indie-country-pop of Frank Sinatra. Lyrically speaking, there’s an occasional hint of classic roots songsmiths like Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt, notably in the time-honoured road-worn preoccupations of much of the material (lost love, wistful dreams and modern living). The drawback, though, to be brutally honest, is that on several of the songs here Eamonn’s ideas are in the end rendered a touch too predictably at times, perilously close to songwriting cliché, and at the same time Eamonn’s vocal work can also sound a little overwrought. These traits, I suspect, may not be entirely avoidable, which is a pity in the end, as I rather warmed to individual tracks (in particular the bleak, stripped-down narrative of Alice and the decidedly Dylanesque Unbelieving Eyes – the latter number inexplicably absent from the otherwise comprehensive lyrics booklet), while I responded more universally perhaps to the album’s arrangements and production, including the often inventive use of the band’s rootsy instrumentation. Even so, this somewhat-of-a-curate’s-egg disc grows on you…

www.luckybonesmusic.com

David Kidman


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Joey & Rory – A FARMHOUSE CHRISTMAS (Sugar Hill SUG-CD. 4067)

Joey and Rory Feek are an overall-wearing husband-and-wife country duo who signed to Sugar Hill following their success on CMT back in 2008, subsequently releasing two albums – neither of which have been available in the UK, which makes it doubly mystifying that they should choose A Farmhouse Christmas for their UK debut release. On the strength of this seasonal album, Joey and Rory have something to offer the mainstream country audience: the time-honoured quality of reliable down-home craft shines through their performances, which are cosy without becoming too safe and predictable. The fact that they live in an 1870s farmhouse in rural Tennessee must have something to do with it – for the unpretentiousness and intimacy of their music sure comes across, if sometimes a touch like a well-worn cliché. As far as choice of material goes, well the Xmas menu is a reasonably refreshing one, in that it only includes two pieces that we might call seasonal standards – a tender enough rendition of Blue Christmas and a forgivable (I suppose) Away In A Manger (rather amusingly misspelt on the AFC website as Manager!) that at least uses an unfamiliar melody in an honest attempt to appeal anew to our sensibilities. The remainder of the disc brings three songs in which Rory had a compositional hand (Remember Me’s probably the pick of these), and some little-known songs that bring gentle humour into the Yuletide mix without taking undue advantage of our seasonal tolerance levels.
Performing style ranges across the companionable western-swing/honky-tonk blend of Come Sit On Santa Claus’ Lap to the attractive nostalgia of The Diamond-O (one of a pair of Stephanie Davis numbers), the pleasant fun of Garth Brooks/Kent Blazy-penned I Know What Santa’s Getting For Christmas and the slight irreverence of What The Hell (It’s The Holidays) and Let It Snow (Somewhere Else).
So far so good – but I had to do some research to try to glean much further salient information – the websites provide plenty of background on the songs themselves, but I couldn’t find anything in the way of performer credits for the album, aside from mention of the guest artists (Bradley Walker and Val Story on harmony vocals, and a special appearance by Merle Haggard on his own song If We Make It Through December, which provides the disc with one of its finest moments). We can hear that Joey’s a fine singer, and Rory’s not bad either, but the genial (if not overly virtuoso) small-band arrangements (acoustic and steel guitars, accordion, fiddle, piano and rhythm section) don’t give any clues as to the identities of any of the supporting musicians: rather curious that.

www.joeyandrory.com

David Kidman


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Gregory Alan Isakov – THIS EMPTY NORTHERN HEMISPHERE (Suitcase Town Music, no catalogue number)

This album’s been out there for over six months now, and I’ve been coming back to it at frequent intervals in the hope of being able to make more sense of it, but it’s resolutely resisted my efforts, for reasons I just can’t explain. But it’s time I cleared the deck, so here’s an attempt – starting with the facts. Gregory, originally from South Africa, was at the tender age of ten significantly impressed by Americana songsmiths Greg Brown and Dar Williams, and even more especially Bruce Springsteen, taking them as a model for creating his own music. When he moved to Colorado in 1999 to study horticulture, he simultaneously embarked on a career as acoustic singer-songwriter, making his debut on record in 2003 and soon thereafter coming to the attention of fellow s/s Brandi Carlile and Indigo Girls’ Amy Ray, also receiving a number of songwriting awards in his adopted state of Denver. This Empty Northern Hemisphere is Gregory’s fourth album release, and provides a key connection with the music of his influential admirers by including as its lone cover (and final track) a duet version of Leonard Cohen’s One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong with Brandi Carlile, which taken on its own terms makes for pretty captivating listening. However, coming as it does right at the end of a whole album of Gregory’s own material, songs which (even at a relaxed kind of uptempo) seem often to inhabit a comparably doleful sound-world and a employ a broadly similar approach and palette across the board, tends to focus the mind on the difficulty I had with Gregory’s music (assuming this record is in any way typical of his writing – and I can’t be sure, cos I’ve not heard any of his previous albums). There’s no denying that the arrangements – centred around a warm-toned acoustic guitar, with occasional banjo, harmonica, piano and with help from a dark cello (Phil Parker), violin (Jeb Bows), upright bass (J.C. Thompson), pedal steel (Jack Leahy) and drumkit (Jen Gilleran), among other selective colours – impart a very particular ambience to the songs, and the sense of sparse opaqueness can all too easily lull the listener into a sense of uninvolvement whereby the lyrics just wash by with the drifting soundscape. It’s not that the disc’s cumulative prevailing mood of sadness and longing is too pervasive, and again it’s the general ambience that predominates over the details within. It’s not that Gregory’s songs are depressing per se, and neither does he conform to the ready Cohenesque stereotype of gloom and despondency, but in the end the strangely luxurious minimalist aura of his music is probably too exclusive (tho’ again, it’s not that it’s unlikeable or inaccessible however). You may respond differently, of course… for, when taken individually, songs like Master And A Hound, If I Go I’m Going, That Moon Song and Idaho certainly come across as persuasive creations. Gregory claims to have been influenced by Kelly Joe Phelps – but I don’t really get a connection except perhaps in the laid-back restraint and unaffected, easy-going minimalism of Gregory’s musical outlook. And it’s a real shame we’re denied the opportunity to peruse Gregory’s lyrics at closer quarters, as no insert is provided with the disc.

www.gregoryalanisakov.com

David Kidman


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Kimmie Rhodes – DREAMS OF FLYING (Sunbird SBD. 0018)

Kimmie’s one of those prolific Austin-based singer-songwriters whose name is probably more familiar than her work; certainly all I’d previously heard of her music was a fleeting acquaintance with her album Walls Fall Down, which (notwithstanding hearty endorsement from Emmylou Harris) didn’t do a lot for me – although pleasing enough in the approved folky-country manner, there wasn’t sufficient depth for her to stand out from the crowd, it seemed. Kimmie’s previous adventures, spanning something approaching 30 years of recording (and around a dozen separate album releases, not counting compilations etc!), also encompassed a series of duets with Willie Nelson, so she’s evidently well-thought-of. Even so, the prospect of a new album of original songs didn’t exactly excite me, so I was most pleasantly surprised when I played the opening (title) track of her latest album, Dreams Of Flying. This is a rather gorgeous number, with a delicately hothouse flavour, adorned with chiming guitars and soft, understated but achingly expressive vocal; and it’s a mild shame that the album as a whole proves a touch uneven in quality thereafter. It would however be unfair to say that nothing else on the album quite approaches that first track in impact, for Back Again, New Way Through, One By One and the tender final cut Start Saying Goodbye all come close, as does a wistful, regretful cover of the early Donovan hit Catch The Wind that’s fetchingly done in duet mode with guest Joe Ely. The deployment of a selective backing crew (as opposed to the all-purpose country band approach), which comprises Gabriel Rhodes, Mike Thompson, Charlie Sexton, John Mills and John Gardner, is definitely a good thing, as is Gabriel’s expert, gently colourful and fulsome (while not overly ornate) production. And Kimmie’s in substantially finer voice nowadays than I remember from what I’ve heard of her earlier work, in terms of possessing a richer tone and better control of expressive dynamics; there are even a few tracks (eg. Unholy Ghost) where she sounds uncannily like Emmylou herself. But it’s those comparatively anonymous cuts, the soul-lite Like Love To Me and Luh Luh Love, which let the side down and sit less easily in the company of the thoughtfully dreamy but curiously enervating ambience of the rest of the record. Which arguably proves even more hypnotic on subsequent play.

www.kimmierhodes.com

David Kidman


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Jackie Oates – SATURNINE (ECC Records ECC004)

Jackie’s latest solo album follows closely on her appearance on two other key releases: she was a participant in the Cecil Sharp Project (songwriting house) and (as a member of Imagined Village etc.) on Lush Cosmetics’ Fresh Handmade Sound discs. As with her previous solo records, it results from what Jackie terms “a frenzy of current fascinations”, in this case the sounds of viols, hand bells and eccentric percussion, and other matters as diverse as the Saturn return, Joseph Cornell and Alphonse Mucha.
Actually, you’d be hard pressed to discover much in the way of direct reference to the specifically non-musical associations, unless you’re previously acquainted with the work of either Mucha or Cornell, which turns out to have heavily inspired David Owen’s album artwork, with its highly emblematic nature and the slightly disconnected aura of an array of objets-trouvés of west-country folk-art, for aha, therein actually lies the connecting thread with the music within, which possesses its own sonic signature, consistently carefully crafted, perhaps surprisingly even-textured (sometimes almost to a fault), and seriously lovely, gently luscious in tone. Distinctive chamber-folk timbres which might on their own seem mildly austere (Jackie’s violin and five-string viola, Mike Cosgrave’s piano) are embellished by bouzouki and mandolin (Neil Davey) and accordion (Karen Tweed, Mike C), with occasional interjections of viola da gamba and cello (Barney Morse-Brown), guitar (Tristan Seume), hurdy gurdy (Steve Tyler), double bass (James Budden, Miranda Sykes), English border pipes (Katie Tyler), piano (Belinda O’Hooley) and percussion (Ged Lynch), then (on two songs) further sweetened by the presence of hand bells (Ross & Melanie Henrywood).
Nine of the album’s dozen tracks are drawn directly from traditional sources, and many of the selections have strong west-country connections (several of the versions used here originate in, or were collected in, Devon or Cornwall). An especially potent device is the interpolation within The Trees They Are So High of the recitation by Elizabeth Stewart of a poem in the Cornish language specially written by Tim Saunders, which eerily counterpoints the bare-bones, Lied-like voice-and-piano setting of the ballad. Elsewhere, Jackie turns in thoroughly likeable personal reinterpretations of other quite familiar fare – The Sweet Nightingale, Brigg Fair, Marrow Bones and Four Pence A Day; the two last-named fairly breeze along, with lusty chorus support from that excellent male vocal quartet The Claque, from one of whose members, Barry Lister, Jackie also learnt the altogether darker ballad Poor Murdered Woman. This song, which we learn was originally destined for Jackie’s previous collection Hyperboreans, is here a definite disc highlight; it boasts some other-worldly scoring that embraces viola, shruti box, harmonium, plucked piano strings and hand bells and also prominently features the impressive talents of Jim Moray.
The album’s second really dark ballad, Young Johnson (Child 88), although bravely characterised, might here be thought a touch too prettily countenanced in Jackie’s tripping rendition. I guess that some listeners might level the criticism that a similar impression could be felt to prevail on any song visited by Jackie’s tender (and yes, sweet and dulcet) tones… Having said that, Jackie’s singing is persuasive, genuinely charming and pleasing, while also replete with hidden depths of expression that may escape the less attentive listener; moreover, her command of phrasing is noticeably increasingly confident with each successive album. And her choice of material, while sometimes a touch quirky (the current album’s “wild-card” is a rather fine and not-all-that-widely-known Paul Metsers song, IOU), is almost always ideally suited to her voice and approach.
Finally, the disc also contains two sprightly, lively instrumental tracks; one a sequence of two Cornish five-steps composed by Neil, the other a medley of three tunes penned by Mike, all heavily inspired by Finnish tango music. No quibbles with the bright, characterful recording either, so you need feel no shame about indulging yourself in this gently sumptuous yet thoughtful aural feast. You can’t fail to be drawn in…

www.jackieoates.co.uk

David Kidman


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Annabelle Chvostek – LIVE AT FOLK ALLEY (Own Label, no catalogue number)

Singer-songwriter Annabelle has followed her acclaimed 2008 solo album Resilience with a couple of years of hectic touring and recording with The Wailin’ Jennys. Several of the finest tracks on the Jennys’ most recent CD Firecracker were Annabelle’s own compositions, and one of them, Devil’s Paintbrush Road, surfaces again here to head up this live solo set, which was opportunely recorded on the performance stage of the BluSeed Studios (a New York arts centre) in December last year. As you can hear, Annabelle’s musical presence is formidable, if at times perhaps a little too forceful, although her guitar skills, hitherto underappreciated in some quarters, are given due prominence in this full-on centre-stage recording. Annabelle also gets to demonstrate a healthy grasp of a number of different idioms during this 40-odd-minute programme. Heartfelt covers of Peter Tosh’s Equal Rights and Lou Reed’s VU number Some Kinda Love sit well alongside self-penned songs Madonna Loves Me, Piece Of You, Firewalker and the fiddle-backed The Sioux, while Annabelle also takes the plunge and unashamedly introduces a rather fine, brand new (and previously unreleased) song, the mandolin-accompanied Hartland Quay, into the proceedings close to the end of the set. Helpfully, the interpolated introductions and preambles have been separately banded for easy skipping, but this proves almost unnecessary as (the audience-chooses-the-set item aside) they’re all mercifully brief interruptions to the musical flow. As a snapshot in time, this live album is just fine; even if ultimately it may prove another of those “for-completists-only” purchases, I think I’d rate it higher than that tag normally implies.

www.annabelle.org

David Kidman


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Bruce Cockburn – SMALL SOURCE OF COMFORT (True North TND. 536)

Bruce’s 31st album (count ’em!) – his first studio record in six years, too – may well turn out to be one of his finest, if my first few weeks of acquaintance are anything to go by. Not since the early days has an album by Bruce made such an impression on me on just one playthrough – and yet there’s nothing remotely dated-sounding about this latest album. There’s always been a potent sense of adventure pervading Bruce’s compositions, and this new set proves no exception; many of the songs have been written – as is Bruce’s modus operandi – while on his travels. Indeed, one of the disc’s standout songs, Each One Lost, along with one of its five instrumental pieces (the “Django-meets-John-Lee-Hooker” Comets Of Kandahar) both stem from observations Bruce made during a trip to war-torn Afghanistan in 2009. Each One Lost seems also to gain in poignancy through the echo, in its rhythmic lilt, of wartime popular balladry. In stark contrast to these, Bruce gives us the typically sensual philosophy of Radiance (set to a seamy tango with accordion backing), and the almost hilarious Call Me Rose, written from the (absurd or wot?) standpoint of Richard Nixon reincarnated as a single mum in a deprived area! (and not to be confused with the whimsical jugband-style Called Me Back, another really appealing little number). Two songs near the centre of the disc also feature their co-writer, Annabelle Chvostek, on vocal harmonies: the lazily introspective Driving Away (which scores high once you’ve got past its awkward and somewhat pretentious opening gambit) and the rather more interestingly exotic and animated Boundless. Musically, and unlike several of Bruce’s more recent albums, the whole set is amicably centred around his finely-judged acoustic picking, predominantly in a folkier style, but the canny backings – controlled by long-time associate Colin Linden and featuring regular accompanists Jon Dymond, Gary Craig and Colin himself – also display a keen sense of rhythmic impetus while never intruding on the mood carefully created by Bruce’s skilful word-pictures. And there’s also some really delectable fiddle embellishments on several of the tracks, courtesy of Brooklyn-based Jenny Scheinman. Yes, this album represents a definite high in Bruce’s 40-year-plus career to date, I’d say.

www.brucecockburn.com

David Kidman


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Foghorn Trio – SUD DE LA LOUISIANE (Own Label, no catalogue number)

Fresh from the thriving old-time music scene of Portland, Oregon, two of the founder members of the celebrated Foghorn String Band Stephen “Sammy” Lind (fiddle, guitar, banjo) and Caleb Klauder (mandolin, fiddle, guitar) have now teamed up with Quebec-born Nadine Landry (guitar, bass) to form the Foghorn Trio. Together they’ve produced an abnormally fine album that presents authentic vintage old-time roots-bluegrass-country exactly as it should be performed: with energy, commitment and deep respect for the various traditions. They use the raw unison, clustered-round-a-single-mic approach, and on the evidence of this record they just can’t put a foot wrong, whether they’re tackling a traditional breakdown like Liza Jane, a Carter Family cover (Let’s Be Lovers Again), the Kitty Wells honky-tonk of I Don’t Claim To Be An Angel, a Doc Watson classic (I’m Troubled) or a fresh original composition in the manner of the masters (Caleb’s lonesome-swing-with-a-kick number Just A Little). The playing throughout is superbly animated, exact without being metrical, and virtuosic without shouting or note-spinning, with all the vocal work brilliantly idiomatic into the bargain (all three trio members sing). And now here’s an interesting fact: the production credit is down to cajun supremo Joel Savoy, and yet this is in no way a cajun album – although there’s more than a soupçon of cajun on the Alex Broussard-penned title track, naturally, which is so persuasively sung by Nadine (she also does a great job on the aforementioned Kitty Wells number, which comes complete with a stunningly sensitive mandolin break too by the way). This is a very exciting record, well balanced in every respect, replete with fabulously classy (and admirably unshowy) yet totally highly energised playing that smacks of long hours satisfying a dance-floor crowd, along with some beauteously edgy vocal harmonies; and what’s more, it proves without a doubt that old-time music still has plenty of mileage and relevance in this cynical day and age. Is this record joyfully feelgood? – hey, you bet!

www.foghornstringband.com

David Kidman


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Stephen Fearing & Andy White – FEARING & WHITE (Lowden Proud 20111)

Fellow-Irish singer-songwriters, now domiciled in Canada and Australia respectively, Stephen and Andy first met at the Winnipeg Folk Festival back in 1998, since when they’ve often played live together and collaborated on writing songs – yet haven’t before now found the time to get into the studio to record any of this material. This album contains 13 of these songs, the eventual recording of which was intended as a farewell gesture for the touring partnership after having honed them to perfection on stage, but it’s likely to prove anything but that if the album gets the attention it seems to warrant. For it’s a sterling collection of songs, by turns gritty, wistful and reflective: songs that travel the approved highways and by-roads between folk, country and roots-pop, the majority of them at any rate embodying a timeless kind of crafted quality that makes them irresistible even if the remainder don’t quite measure up to the same exacting standard. Along the way we encounter canny quasi-references to familiar songs – Let Love Be Your Direction seems a model cousin to Will The Circle Be Unbroken, for instance – and lyrically speaking too there are plenty of cross-references to keystones of pop and folk music history, some of which at any rate will have been absorbed by the participants by osmosis over their many years as practising musicians. The spaced-out rock vibe of Mothership could be an early Steve Miller essay, while Say You Will is closer to rollicking rockabilly and What We Know Now is more like a Beatle-esque vision of swamp-rock. You Can’t Count On Anybody Any More feels more like a reincarnation of Stealers Wheel, while Under The Silver Sky finds Stephen and Andy taking to tough-edged Bad Company-style blues-rock like ducks to water and Heart O’ The Morning takes the (Liverpool) Irish brogue out in search of a good time. October Lies, though, at times sounds a bit like an Elvis pastiche. Finally, the closer Rockwood is an attractively melancholic contemplation set on a road trip. In addition to their vocal prowess, the two protagonists’ instrumental skills are well showcased on this set, with Andy supplying fluent bass lines in addition to his acoustic guitar parts, while Stephen’s accomplishment on both acoustic and electric varieties of guitar is never in doubt (he also struts a mean resophonic too). This record is so listener-friendly and (in parts at least) abundantly catchy that I’m convinced this isn’t the last we’ll hear of the partnership; well, I do hope not!

www.fearingandwhite.com

David Kidman


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Ian McFeron – SUMMER NIGHTS (Own Label, no catalogue number)

The prolific Mr. McFeron has been gaining a name for himself in his native Seattle since 2003, when he released his self-produced debut album Don’t Look Back, which apparently drew the inevitable comparisons with Bob Dylan – but the tightly-disciplined and well-composed nature of his songs has also been likened to the work of David Gray and Ryan Adams. During the ensuing four albums, Ian has ventured into the realms of rock-styled Americana, bluesy-rock, rootsy-pop and folk-narrative; here on Summer Nights he seems to be trying on all manner of suits without quite finding one that fits sufficiently comfortably to convince the world at large. Or is that being a little unkind?… Well, there’s companionable rock-balladry (Hard Since You’ve Been Gone), alongside jazzy swing (I’ll Come Knocking), soulful gospel, and still quite a dose of rock-inflected material, all complementing the genial romantic atmospherics of Windchime and the title track. There’s also a measure of audible Van Morrison influence, especially on songs like You’re Still On My Mind and Shine A Little Light, and at certain other times Ian can sound annoyingly like Randy Newman or even James Taylor, at least vocally. Ian is joined on this latest set by long-time musical collaborator (Texas-style fiddler, cellist and harmony vocalist) Ailsa Milner, and her contributions certainly enhance the disc’s finest moments, such as the alt-country of I Ain’t Dead Yet, the reflective piano-and-fiddle-backed waltzer My Old Lovers and the most Dylanesque cut of all, Come And See Me (Before You Go). It’s a comforting mix, and Ian’s tight little band of musicians (under the guidance of producer Doug Lancio) are all really simpatico, almost to a fault one might say, for the album’s mellow vibe at times threatens to signal its downfall even though Ian himself seems to view the album’s songs as depicting more “a world of fevered dreams, ghostly visions and late-night ramblings” than the conjured mood would indicate. Nevertheless, for much of the time Ian’s music both satisfies and relaxes the listener (if you can get used to Ian’s nasal delivery, that is) with its overall final message of acceptance.

www.ianmcferon.com

David Kidman


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Mary Hampton – FOLLY (Teaspoon Records TSR001)

Folly is Brighton-based Mary’s second full-length album, and comes none too fast on the heels of 2008’s fabulously dark collection My Mother’s Children. But this extraordinary, and most unusual, new record could still not have come from anyone else, so distinctive is Mary’s musical voice. One key to this uniqueness is Mary’s intriguingly different singing style, during which the sung melodies often don’t go anywhere near where you expect and are actually all the better for it. Her inherent tonal fragility, tremulous almost to a fault, hides a depth of response that’s as disquieting as the boldly surreal imagery that she conjures from admirably few words. This latest opus comes after a period of intense creative doubt, and examines the concept of idealism from Mary’s own highly personal, and refracted, cultural viewpoint (whilst noting that architecturally speaking, of course, a folly is a physical manifestation of private idealism). The listener’s own relationship with the concept is built from, and can just as easily be distorted by, Mary’s desolate sensuality, which embodies a slightly unreachable quality (kindof mirroring Lal Waterson and the ISB, but sounding like neither). However, this quality invariably draws us into her private deliberations, with an intensity of focus that allows us to eavesdrop without shame on an emotional landscape that’s at the same time other-worldly and very much of this world. The opening track, The Man Behind The Rhododendron, represents a peculiarly English variety of expressionism, in which Mary explores age-old, almost timeless eccentricity in conjuring up the steamy chaise-longue and the white elephant trophies that adorn the drawing-room, the very folly of the folly, indeed; this is achieved through a clever musical gambit, the childish tango of the decadent privileged, played to the tune of old instruments that’ve been dug out of the garden shed or else found by serendipity in the attic, and fingered with an almost devil-may-care attitude to what they might sound like.
Throughout the album in fact, for all Mary’s pointedly careful placing of words and phrases within keenly balanced sounds and textures, at the same time her musical adventures can sound almost improvised. Despite this, however, Mary never allows her fellow-musicians’ strange backdrop to interfere with her vision, instead positively inviting them to share in it and help take it across the divide into the ears and mind of the listener. Her little band Cotillion consists of Seth Bennett (bass), Jo Burke (fiddle), Alice Eldridge (cello) and Alistair Strachan (brass). Everybody concerned also chips in with sundry percussion sounds (including what the booklet lists as “chandelier, pins, shoes and walls”), which, along with curious warblings from occasional sampled birdsong and other “found sounds” peeping through the aural cracks, give a disturbingly exotic character to Mary’s original treatments of the traditional Benjamin Bowmaneer and the old gospel number Honey In The Rock. There are many contradictions at work here, not least in the confounding and challenging of our expectations as listeners.
Textures that sound warm and reedy are also strangely chilling, as exemplified by the ISB-like conjoining of harmonium and keening whistles that bookends Forget-Me-Not, a song of piquant, almost Emily-Dickinson-like, economy of expression that almost eclipses Mary’s setting of Emily’s poem No. 32 later on the disc. This in turn sports an uncharacteristically lavish string arrangement of a density that escapes being stifling through its emotional restraint, a quality that reflects the lyric’s elliptical near-deathwish. Hoax And Benison inhabits the decadent sound-world of salon-room jazz, complete with some striking imagery that recalls vintage W.H. Auden as it casually succeeds an almost waggish opening line (“The old folks cut their toenails by the light of a cartoon”) with an altogether more ominous couplet “The cornices are changing as they gather in the sky, And I am just a stranger who moves across your eye”. Again, Mary’s deliberate economy of expression often leaves a lingering feeling of much more that’s not being said, worlds of experience on the periphery of our vision that are only fractionally hinted at.
And how often do you encounter the words “iconoclast” and “smithereens” in a lullaby?… Lullaby For The Beleaguered contains them both. While Kiss V, inspired by the art of Roy Lichtenstein, pits its disturbingly graphic lyric against Mary’s own restless, rippling guitar and deadly twanging strokes from another, more rusty-sounding instrument. Managing to convey antiquity without precious contrivance, every note and sound within the texture is carefully placed and naturally and precisely imaged. As throughout the album, where every subsequent playthrough reveals more and more beauty in the juxtaposition of sparse textures and waywardly contoured decorative melodies.
This disc is another brilliantly, defiantly unclassifiable, intimate yet profoundly demonstrative masterpiece from a literally – and literately – unique performer.

www.maryhampton.org

David Kidman


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Water Tower Bucket Boys – WHERE THE CROW DON’T FLY (EP) (Own Label, no catalog number)

This Portland, Oregon-based combo (Josh Rabie, Kenny Feinstein, Cory Goldman and Walter Spencer) has been rapidly stirring up the waves over five years and three albums (the first as the Water Tower String Band), kicking-ass with their own unique brand of high-energy mountain-style music that brings a raging, full-ahead charge to the classic bluegrass sound with more than a dash of garage punk ethic. Whether they play raw new arrangements of traditional material or unashamedly peddle their own compositions, WTBB are both dedicated and compelling in their rough’n’ready, take-it-or-leave-it delivery, a fact that by all accounts is borne out by their astonishing live act. So, released to tie in with a UK tour earlier this autumn, here’s a new EP consisting of just five songs, which shows the band stretching their musical envelope of fiddle, guitar, mandolin, banjo and upright bass to include for the first time organ, vibraphone and percussion (albeit only during parts of the disc’s last couple of songs). But they manage to retain their signature hard-pickin’ and tight harmonies, I’m glad to say, even if at five tracks I feel a bit shortchanged for this year. Perhaps the most typical of their full-on charge is Walkin’ The Road, an uptempo cross between wailin’ jugband and high-octane grass, while the band’s taking things a tad more cautiously on the more measured pace of Pilgrim Song and the EP’s title track, and Kenny’s decidedly strange R Song (the finale) is more akin to Arthur Lee than bluegrass or country. I’m now more than a little intrigued to find out what they come up with for their next proper full-length album.

www.watertowerbucketboys.com

David Kidman


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Anna Coogan & Daniele Fiaschi – The Nowhere, Rome Sessions (Own Label, AC003)

Boston-born Anna, a former opera singer and biologist, turned touring songwriter a few years back and has released four solo records to date, the last of which, The Wasted Ocean, I found impressive in parts and (due to its unyielding consistency of slow pace) most effective in small doses; despite those reservations, however, it’s an album to which I’ve returned unexpectedly often, and so I was in a receptive mood when her joint album with Italian (Etruscan) guitarist Daniele Fiaschi arrived here for review. I wasn’t disappointed, although my first piece of advice to listeners is that here is a record that demands close, attentive listening, for it is definitely not background easy-listening. Again, a basic uniformity of pace is the order of the day (of the disc’s nine tracks, only the riff-driven How Will You Find Me? really ups the basic tempo much above slow-to-medium), but more to the point here is the sheer intensity of the performances. This is a hell of a musical partnership, with a totally compelling collective identity that impresses even more than the sum of its parts. I could invoke the Gillian Welch-David Rawlings symbiosis here as a direct comparison, with the principal difference between the two couples’ sound residing in the aching, burnished timbre of Daniele’s uncannily responsive guitar playing, which arguably stems less from folk or country than from the more sensitive brand of classic rock. The character and composition of this distinctive instrumental backdrop proves ideal for Anna’s compositions, and possibly even more suited to the disc’s two covers, notably Gordon Lightfoot’s epic tale of The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald, which receives a majestic treatment that keeps the emotional temperature in check while ensuring a stylish and natural response to the progress of the narrative. Vocally, Anna’s never sounded more persuasive; sure, there are definite shades of Emmylou (on tracks like Red Shoes, Black Dress in particular), and any Margo Timmins comparisons are accentuated by the pindrop, early-Cowboy-Junkies atmosphere of the musical settings, but the sound-world of the Anna & Daniele partnership is both sublime and utterly captivating. Eight of the tracks were recorded, with minimal overdubs and even fewer edits, at Nowhere Studios, Rome in April this year, and reflect the joyous and intense togetherness of these two performers who, incredibly, don’t even share a common language (aside from a musical one, that is). The final cut is taken from a key live date, the 2011 Roepaen Festival in Holland; it’s a storming performance of Phil Ochs’ The Crucifixion (which I judged a standout on The Wasted Sun). So if your taste is for elegant, beautifully rendered atmospheric Americana, then look no further than this wonderful partnership.

www.annacoogan.com

David Kidman


Anna Coogan – THE WASTED OCEAN (Own Label, no catalogue number)

There must be something in the water in Anna’s native Seattle – for her latest (fourth) album’s full of the unsettling, brooding, slightly oppressive vibe of the notorious, eternally rain-sodden climate of that city. Anna steers a delicate, eggshell-treading vocal path through a landscape of desperate, yearning soft-brushed rhythms and gently burning guitars, kinda Cowboy Junkies or 10,000 Maniacs-era Natalie Merchant perhaps but with a distinctly watery obsession in the intensely evocative imagery of her predominantly wistful lyrics (check out songs like Blood On The Sails and Come Ashore, Love for starters). Anna’s got a powerful way with a lyric, a plaintive and deftly swooping vocal style that expresses the pain and anxiety of her situations most persuasively. But in the end she’s most effective when taken in small doses, as although the songs form a cohesive and consistent sequence there’s little variance from a basic slow-plod pace over the course of the disc’s 38 minutes. This is a more rounded album than its predecessor The Nocturnal Among Us, but its consistency of pace will probably turn out to be its Achilles heel for some listeners. Having said that, there are some standout tracks – notably the almost unbearably sparse Come The Wind, Come The Rain, which Anna sings true in the idiom of an old-time Appalachian lament and sports a keening solo fiddle accompaniment; that track’s almost worth the price of the whole disc. And then there’s the even weirder, almost Cohenesque eight-minute epic The Crucifixion, which almost defies further description…The whole production’s masterminded by Evan Brubaker, who keeps tight rein on the well-crafted backings; these come courtesy of Eyvind Kang, Darrin Watkins, Colby Sander and Edie Carey, who are joined on many of the tracks by Anna’s long-time collaborators Eric Hastings, Brooks Miner and Daniele Fiaschi. An interesting album all told, one that in spite of my reservations betokens well for its successor.

www.annacoogan.com

David Kidman


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Rapunzel & Sedayne – SONGS FROM THE BARLEY TEMPLE (Folk Police Recordings FPR001)

In my book, any record whose liner note describes the first track (and uncannily accurately too, I might add) as “our old time field holler in the Javanese Pelog mode, inspired by the North American Tree Porcupines in Blackpool Zoo” just has to be heard straightaway, for you just know you’re in for an unusual (and most likely also unique) musical experience. For so it proves… time and time again during the course of this gloriously lengthy (close on an hour and a quarter) disc that never seems too long or overly drawn-out, such is the seriously magical spell cast by this tremendously symbiotic partnership. The wilfully enigmatic handles conceal Fleetwood-based Rachel McCarron and Sean Breadin, who have been purveying their own very special (if at times quite idiosyncratic) interpretations of deepest tradition for many years now through a series of privately-released – and highly treasurable – recordings, also contributing to albums by other artists and most recently (as Venereum Arvum) feeding into the acclaimed John Barleycorn Reborn project. Both are incredibly talented musicians and superb singers, with an unrivalled passion for their heritage in all its guises and an alchemist’s knack for making something precious and original out of base materials. The press release’s description of their music as “skewed, otherworldly traditional folk” is only half the story, for this fulsome calling-card also contains some haunting original songs. Closely observing the dictum of recording almost exclusively live in the studio, with merest minimal afterdubbing, the duo gives us a feast of raw, immediate performances, accompanying their richly seasoned solo vocals and telepathic harmonies with instrumentation that’s both immensely varied (instruments played: kemence, violin, crwth, flute, five-string banjo, harmonium, frame-drum, drones and kaossilator!) and entirely stripped-down, almost primordial in its impact. Some of the album’s 14 tracks recall some of the weird simplicity – or simply weird – early ISB: not quite as ululatory, but equally riveting. Others (Handsome Molly, Silver Dagger) mirror the intrinsic simplicity of authentic Appalachian tradition, while Blackwaterside pays affectionate homage to Sandy Denny and the iconic Owd Grye Song is now blessed with a ghostly, shimmering new coat. Elsewhere, there’s two closely related “robin” songs: an early-music-inflected rendition of the Scots Robin Redbreast’s Treatment and a fresh reworking of Robin Sick And Weary. The disc’s centrepiece is an epic melding of House Carpenter with the contemporary I Curse The Day, a true masterpiece in atmosphere-building. Rapunzel’s other originals give further disc highlights, especially beguiling being Riverdance, a lament for an Irish ferry which foundered off Cleveleys some years back. And finally, in an inspired piece of symmetry, the disc returns us to its beginning with a backporch fiddle-and-banjo-backed reprise of the opening number. Songs From The Barley Temple is an extraordinary disc of extraordinary presence – literally tangible storytelling in music and words that’s uniquely inspiring in its essence and vibrancy, conveying that feral and spontaneous yet almost ceremonial sense of communing with the environment that’s key to their understanding of their sources. It’s a disc you simply must hear, and let seep into your soul, many times and at length.

www.folkpolicerecordings.com

David Kidman


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Cyril Tawney – IN PORT (Talking Elephant TECD.187)

This is the third of Cyril Tawney's Argo-label LPs to be reissued on CD by Talking Elephant. First released in 1972, it presents 15 of Cyril's classic compositions: though these are mainly Royal Navy-related, he also includes a few landlocked ones for good measure. The liner notes, Cyril’s own, are reproduced in full, and make for entertaining and supremely informative reading beyond the call of duty and transcending mere anecdotal interest in their degree of insight regarding the genesis of the songs. The tracklisting embraces a goodly number of Tawney compositions that are now rightly regarded as evergreens, several of which were written around the same time (1958/59) and others half-a-dozen years earlier. The disc kicks off with the “full-blooded holler” of Sally Free and Easy, with Cyril’s trademark nylon-strung guitar providing a “non-accompaniment” based on the throbbing of a submarine’s diesel engines. The ensuing procession of great songs includes The Ballad of Sammy's Bar, Cheering the Queen, The Grey Funnel Line, On A Monday Morning and Chicken on a Raft, plus the less well-known Six Feet Of Mud and New Names For Old, the poignant but underrated In the Sidings and the pithy nonsense of My Mother Came from Norway (a piece Cyril tended to use when a very short encore was required!). On four of the songs, Cyril is sensitively accompanied by Dennis McCallum (accordion), and on a further six – including the slightly dubious mock-rustic ditty Five Foot Flirt – by The Yetties (at a time when they were still considered a vibrant “character” act); and by the way, it’s interesting to compare these stirring group-backed renditions with Cyril’s later recordings of the same songs… Valuable though the earlier Cyril Tawney reissues have proved, it’s definitely In Port that will be the most eagerly welcomed back aboard the shelves, for it’s a brilliant, and highly treasurable, collection that’s stood the test of time exceedingly well.

www.cyriltawney.co.uk

David Kidman


Cyril Tawney – CHILDREN’S SONGS FROM DEVON AND CORNWALL (Talking Elephant TECD. 179)

It’s great to see on CD at long last this treasured LP from the tail-end of the 1960s that first appeared on the Argo label in1969; it forms part of the tentatively continuing programme of reissues from the admirable Talking Elephant stable (In Port is set to follow very shortly). This record does exactly what it says on the tin – without any fuss or pretension, and without any elaborate arrangements, silly voices, unnecessary gimmicks or patronising condescension. Just Cyril and his genial personality, helped along just occasionally by the deft, animated guitar of Tom Paley and/or Trevor Crozier’s jaw’s harp, mandolin or concertina, all coming to you across the grooves absolutely bright and clear in this fresh remastering. Admittedly, Cyril owns up, in his sleeve note, that even he just does not know what we mean by the term “children’s songs”, but goes on to explain that the record contains a wide selection of suitable candidates including delightful “nursery songs crooned by Nanny” (The Snail), cautionary tales like Tommy And The Apples, fun “cumulative” songs like The Tree In The Valley and I Had A Little Cock, and a handful of adult songs which are “sufficiently simple and humorous to appeal equally to young folk”. Finally, the wonderfully “scarey” There Was A Lady All Skin And Bone leaves the attentive child in exactly the right frame of mind!… Folk favourites like The Cuckoo, Old Daddy Fox, The Herring’s Head, Three Scamping Rogues and Carrion Crow come from Baring-Gould collections, while others may be more obscure in their sources but are equally persuasively sung by Cyril. Well then, so what if (with one possible exception) all the “children’s songs” on this record were obtained from grown-ups? The release comes with faithful reproduction of all the original liner notes and text, as well as some attractive additional artwork, but I do need to warn you that the published track listing is slightly awry, as items 2 and 3 have been banded together as track 2 so all successive tracks are one cue adrift. But this is still without doubt one of the most charming and yes, treasurable records of children’s songs one could hope to come across.

David Kidman


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JT Nero – MOUNTAINS/FORESTS (Dishrag Records)

JT Nero (real name Jeremy Lindsay) has for some time been touring in two basic formats – as an acoustic duo with Po’ Girl’s Allison Russell or with Chicago rock-and-soul six-piece The Clouds. Confusingly, then, it was in a stripped-down form approximating to neither of those formats that he recorded this latest album (over just three days in August last year); it was released last month to spearhead a limited UK duo tour during late-November. I’d be less than honest if I didn’t admit to finding the stripped-down format more compelling and consistent than the music of the larger band, so the question is whether the Mountains/Forests album measures up to the intimacy of the live duo act you’ll see on tour. By and large it should, not least because the contrast between the two voices when used is both marked and curiously complementary – and you can hear something of why their duo performance at this year’s Kate Wolf Memorial Fest created such a buzz. A proper duo album is due out next spring, apparently, but till then Mountains/Forests will have to suffice as a taster. The songs themselves are typical of JT in that they capitalise on his trademark singing style – a cross between crooner and soul-man, with quieter shadings that are rather persuasive – and allowing Allison’s own expressive stylings a fair crack too, if not perhaps as much as I’d have expected given the rationale for this release. She comes into her own on songs like Mi Salvador What’s Happening and Oh, Sunny Day, but truth to tell she feels under-used for much of the album’s playing-time. The small-scale settings employ Drew Lindsay, Dan Abu-Absi, Ben Sidelinger, Michelle Megrath, Christopher Merrill and Mikey “Lightning” August at various points, but the overall sound-picture is uncluttered and uncomplicated in a rootsy kind of way and the various instrumental lines dovetail round JT’s voice rather neatly. The soft-edged, laid-back nature of Jeremy’s writing is reflected in the soulful gentleness of the settings, though it’s not always easy to latch onto his lyrics, which can seem a touch mundane in their portrayal of the absurd in the everyday – again, it would’ve helped to have them reproduced in the package, but all it contains is bare personnel credits.

www.facebook.com/JTNeroandAllisonRussell and www.jtandtheclouds.com

David Kidman


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BettySoo & Doug Cox – ACROSS THE BORDERLINE: LIE TO ME (Borderline Talent)

BettySoo’s debut solo album Heat Sin Water Skin came out only six months ago; it rather enchanted me with its mix of delicately big-toned vocal, sensuous self-penned lyrics and idiosyncratic Gurf Morlix production. But this latest release from BettySoo would on the surface seem an ostensibly even more idiosyncratic collaboration, for it teams the petite Asian-American singer-songwriter with the ultra-responsive ace guitar and dobro player Doug Cox (who’s worked with a wide variety of artists from Amos Garrett and Long John Baldry to Vishwa Mohan Bhatt), whose sense of restraint and ideal pacing within an understated virtuoso context is both uncanny and unerring. Yes, although the pairing of these two artists may seem on the face of it quite an unlikely one, the whole affair works its telling magic from start to finish – and not only because BettySoo and Doug prove to be a dream team that works real well together, conjuring sensibly spare yet intricate textures to genuinely support the lyrics at all times. The disc presents a neat collection of covers, but it’s also one that’s intelligently chosen and balanced. The writers are for the most part firmly within the “province of the devotee and aficionado” category, but most of them sure deserve to be better-known (and the rest are already), although one or two of the names were unfamiliar even to me. The authorial roll-call includes Jeff Talmadge (whose Lie To Me makes for a persuasive opener), Doug Sahm (the tale of Louis Riel), Bob Carpenter (Every Other Road) and Loudon Wainwright III (Doug takes the vocal for Be Careful There’s A Baby In The House), but these prove but appetisers. For Betty Elders’ Light In Your Window receives a standout reading from BettySoo, as does Butch Hancock’s Boxcars (a passionately ornamented rendition offering a different kind of emotional honesty to the familiar Joe Ely version) and Jane Siberry’s You Don’t Need, whereas a beautiful yet simply rugged take on Guy Clark’s celebrated Dublin Blues closes the show in real style. I’m just left wondering why the couple didn’t cover the Ry Cooder song that provides the first half of the album title – or perhaps they’ve left it for the next album?…

www.acrosstheborderline.org and www.bettysoo.com

David Kidman


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Sloan Wainwright – UPSIDE DOWN AND UNDER MY HEART (Derby Disc)

Sloan, the youngest of Loudon’s sisters (and aunt to Rufus and Martha), released her debut album as long ago as 1996, amidst the Waterbug label’s first prolific flowering; it was swiftly (in 1998) followed by the equally fine From Where You Are, after which point I sort-of lost touch (more’s the pity) but five more albums were to appear over the ensuing decade, including a seasonal live set. Sloan’s trademark has always been her rich contralto voice and intensely personal lyrics, and for this new set none of that has changed; she’s still a stunning singer, of that there’s no doubt, and the increased maturity in matters of tone and phrasing that inevitably comes with age is very apparent here, as is the shift in perception that experience brings. The latest batch of songs, a musical exploration of love, loss and learning to begin again, also brings with it a recognition of mortality, although at this stage it appears that Sloan’s not quite certain as to what effect it’s having. The instrumental backdrop befits Sloan’s “big” voice, its large-scale intimacy well suiting the defiant, almost torchy nature of many of Sloan’s lyrics – although Here I Am feels a touch overblown and grandiose. A greater sense of control of elements is present elsewhere, with electric guitars chiming through My Song, gentle pedal steel permeating the title number and a lighter touch benefitting the arrangements for I Wear The Ring, the basically-acoustic closer I Am Free and the album’s only non-Sloan-original, Holland (penned by Anne Carpenter and Mani Cregan). The poignant Today, a disc highlight, features its co-writer Kate McGarrigle on piano and long-time McGarrigles sidemen Chaim Tannenbaum (mandolin, harmonica) and Joel Zifkin (viola). Yet after all’s said and done and sung, there’s something a touch unsatisfying about this collection; perhaps it’s the over-forward, pushy sound of the big, professional production values needed to match Sloan’s big voice that makes some of the songs sound more mainstream, and yes, middle-of-the-road, than their intimacy ought to lead you to believe, whereas the more powerhouse of Sloan’s anthems (like Live Out The Best Of Your Life and Little Bit Right) just sound too self-help/role-model to quite convince. Yeah, perhaps that’s it – all a bit too beltingly loud and insistent, and in the end that may just be down to the actual production.

www.sloanwainwright.com

David Kidman


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Sarah MacDougall – THE GREATEST ONES ALIVE (Rabbit Heart Music RHM. 01)

Although born in Sweden, Sarah’s lately become a rising star on the Canadian folk scene, especially since the release of her debut CD Across The Atlantic two years ago, while an appearance on the Bob Harris radio programme paved the way for a brief UK tour in early October of this year. For her followup record, Sarah seems to have taken the decision to smooth out the stylistic quirks and inconsistencies that to some extent dogged her debut, although in steering this altered path in terms of idiom and scoring she also appears to have embraced concessions to folk-pop along the way, especially on the first two or three tracks. There’s a slightly chirpy timbre to Sarah’s voice on occasion, which may slightly irritate, but when this is kept in check and her expressive powers given fuller rein on a more hushed delivery, she can be very persuasive indeed; especially so when matched with the backing vocals of Po’ Girl’s Awna Teixeira (who turns up on three of the album’s tracks).The disc presents nine new self-penned songs, of which the most memorable and satisfying tend to be those where the backings don’t unduly distract and Sarah’s voice is left alone with only her own instrument (an electric guitar on Mmm, or with the intimate company of just Bob Hamilton’s keening pedal steel on Permafrost for instance). Having said that, Cold Night really hits home with its contradictory mix of emotions and quietly judged instrumental palette, while the soft-rollin’, more uptempo Song #43 is also quite delicious, with its mix of pedal steel and twang guitars measuring deft brushstrokes in counterpoint. I’ve not got room to list all the musicians helping Sarah out on this record, but if I mention that they include Tim Tweedale (who’d also played on Across The Atlantic), Shawn Killaly, Patrick Metzger and Matt Rogers among the regular crew you’ll get a decent idea of the standard of supportive playing. The tenth track, Unwork, is no song but a mere snippet; we learn from Sarah’s liner notes it’s just a snatch of an eight-minute piece for string quartet that she wrote a few years ago (hell, to include the whole of it would’ve been a better move, since the entire album as it stands only plays for 37 minutes – and the work deserves to be heard and taken seriously). Far too good to be blown away – for that gentle yet anthemic finale’s still ringin’ in my mind!

www.sarahmacdougall.com

David Kidman


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Rita Hosking – LITTLE BOAT (Own Label RH-0005)

Northern California-raised Rita has recorded Little Boat in the self-same location as her previous album Burn: Austin, Texas, under the auspices of multi-instrumentalist and producer Rich Brotherton. It’s but a seven-track offering, so hardly constitutes the title of album, but it makes up for lack of playing-time with its substantial creativity. The first two songs are really enchanting, with Where Time Is Reigning in particular making a powerful, if tender mark immediately with its acute sense of melody and limpid acoustic backdrop. This song turns out to’ve been a collaboration between Rita and her daughter Kora Feder, who plays clawhammer banjo on the album; the family connection is furthered with Rita’s husband Sean playing dobro and banjo on several tracks too. The mood of the whole album is reflective and Rita’s thoughts are touchingly and poetically expressed, the feel of the carefully-controlled accompaniments is wonderfully intimate and accessible. The Iris DeMent resemblance I noted on some tracks of Burn is recalled on Clean, but again it’s not a derivative, aping resemblance but a compelling method of interpreting the lyric which gives us insights into the thoughts of a young house-cleaner. Nothing Left Of Me has a distinctly old-timey mountain-music feel to complement its more personal, contemporary resonances, whereas Blow Northwest Wind is an evocative, lovely lullaby-like opus that almost closes the record. Perhaps in that respect the opening Parting Glass and the closing Five Star Location ought to’ve been transposed; otherwise this latest heartfelt offering from Rita is well nigh perfect in so many ways, a lovingly-formed little gem that sure does float my boat.

www.ritahosking.com

David Kidman


Rita Hosking – BURN (Own Label RH-004)

Rita's upbringing, in the mountains of Shasta County, Northern California, clearly informs her personal – and highly personable – brand of country-folk as much as the recording venue (Austin, Texas) for Burn, which is her fourth album; in this respect it’s consistent with Come Sunrise, her third album, which impressed me when it appeared out of nowhere less than a couple of years ago. Rita, who’s just completed a UK tour supporting Michael Chapman, impresses pretty much immediately. First, she’s a strong singer, with an enviable toughness and fiercely passionate delivery offsetting sometimes surprisingly delicate expression of desperation. There are times (as on Crash And Burn) when her tone and attack recalls Iris DeMent, at others (The Coyote) she comes across like a more forthright version of Gillian Welch. Her vocal intensity mirrors that of the experiences she portrays in the album’s eleven songs; all self-penned, these mostly tell of the soul of working America, through the eyes of a disillusioned shrimper (Ballad For The Gulf Of Mexico); a miner’s daughter (When Miners Sang); a professional washer-up (Dishes) – and so on… there’s also the kinda-linked pair of songs that help vouch for the album’s title: Crash And Burn is the tale of a barrel-racing woman whose guy’s a demolition-derby fanatic, while My Demolition Man turns out to have more than a metaphor of his day-job for his personal life. And the album closes tellingly with an octogenarian’s heartfelt plea for peace in the world (Song For Claire). Fine though these character portraits all are, however, one of the disc’s standout numbers is its opening track, Something You Got, a tender love-song written by Rita for her husband Sean Feder (who plays dobro, banjo and percussion on the record). And towards the centre of the disc, another pair of highlights – the sinister, brooding pain of How Many Fires and the enigmatic Indian Giver. For Burn, Rita’s once again been lucky to be able to call on guitarist Rich Brotherton’s production skills, as well as the reliable musicianship of Glenn Fukunaga (upright bass), along with, this time round, Andy Lentz (fiddle), Marty Muse (lap and pedal steel guitars) and Tom Van Schaik (drums); when the whole gang kicks in, it makes a mighty noise, getting positively incendiary when it bursts out of How Many Fires around midway thru in one of those moments you’ll never forget. But talking of mighty noise, I could’ve done without the over-half-a-minute overkill of the effects track introducing My Demolition Man, which rather spoils the atmosphere so carefully built in the songs and careful instrumentation. That little misjudgement aside, Burn is a really excellent calling-card for Rita and her powerful musical personality.

www.ritahosking.com

David Kidman


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Ruth Moody – THE GARDEN (Red House RHRCD. 230)

Although a key founder member of the Wailin’ Jennys (who continue to go from strength to strength), Ruth’s also always been a persuasive solo performer in her own right, majoring in gentle self-penned folk balladry with more than a subtle bluegrass and old-time influence. Her first solo outing, 2002’s Blue Muse EP, has resolutely passed me by, but its long-awaited followup, The Garden, is a lovely collection of songs, most of which would probably fit well onto a future Jennys album project if need dictated. The opening title track sets out Ruth’s stall, with a comforting, almost hymnal feel to its deft lyrical traceries; Cold Outside, which follows, continues the mood of soft introspection, while Travellin’ Shoes toughens up the ante with a more defiant, electric-guitar-ridden backdrop and rhythm section. Relaxed country-style banjo picking ushers in the more philosophical We Can Only Listen, and a string section and piano inform the melancholy emotional climate of Never Said Goodbye. Disc highlights, however, come later, with the beautiful tenderness of Within Without You, the charming, limpid Winter Waltz, the McGarrigle-esque rusticity of Nest and the gently shimmering thrills of We Could Pretend. Throughout this collection, Ruth’s thoroughly appealing singing voice is given the finest possible grade of aural blanket by various permutations from out of a hand-picked crew of musicians drawn from all over the contemporary Americana scene including Luke Doucet, Matt Peters, Susie Ungerleider (Oh Susanna) and members of Crooked Still, together with fellow-Jennys Nicky Mehta and Heather Masse (of course!) on backing vocals, all under the general masterly guidance of producer David Travers-Smith. As far as I’m concerned this is a most satisfying record, although it’s perhaps a touch too subtly inflected for any “wow factor” reaction to set in.

www.ruthmoody.com

David Kidman


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St. Agnes’ Fountain – BEST OF ST. AGNES’ FOUNTAIN (Fat Cat/Circuit Music FATCD.025)

Incredible to believe it, but 2011 is the tenth anniversary of St. Agnes’ Fountain, the band formed by David Hughes to celebrate the festive season by “giving Christmas songs a good, if respectful kicking” – yeah, exactly what they need, of course! Every December this doughty combo – teaming David with Chris While & Julie Matthews and Chris Leslie (a mouth-wateringly gift-wrapped lineup if ever there was one!) – enraptures its devoted audiences in a tour-full of sellout concerts that ring the changes on the widest possible repertoire of seasonal songs from down the ages. Joy, laughter and a few tears form the trusty recipe for success, and this continued success is now celebrated in style with this handsomely presented, generously filled (close on 2¼-hour) two-discs-for-the-price-of-one compilation that covers all potential bases in a lovingly sequenced programme. It presents a brilliantly representative selection of items culled from all seven previous SAF albums (some of which I’ve never even seen, let alone possess a copy!), mostly studio recordings interspersed with occasional live cuts. But whatever, you can depend on a SAF treatment to come up with something refreshing and stimulating, often fun and always different. This handsome retrospective is kicked off by the uplifting, nay positively cinematic I Saw Three Ships (which headed the original SAF Acoustic Carols album way back when!), after which the seasonal processional takes us effortlessly from the sprightly nowell-wassail gait of Masters In This Hall to the sublime In The Bleak Midwinter and on through to more recent outings like the beauteous, soaring O Holy Night (featuring one of Chris’s most genuinely divine vocal performances). SAF are by turns joyful, respectful, reflective, thought-provoking, nostalgic and yes, mildly (but never offensively) irreverent, while they can turn their hands (and voices) to any style they choose to get the message across. And somehow there’s always a surprise lurking at the bottom of the stocking – like the cheeky Hawaiian Christmas number Mele Kalikimaka, the savvy rap of The First Nowell and O Come All Ye Faithful, the growly, smoky sotto-voce of Jingle Bells and the exultant gospel fervour of Deck The Halls. In addition to the half-expected standards into which are breathed new life (and invariably gorgeous vocalising – be prepared to swoon over O Come O Come Emmanuel!), we’re treated to some abundantly fine originals on the seasonal theme by Julie or Chris – pick of these being Julie’s Upon This Winter’s Night and Follow That Star (the latter taken from The Show CD), and Chris’s Home For Christmas and Innocent New Year. Festive instrumental shenanigans aren’t forgotten either, with the lively Boules Et Guirlandes and an exotic middle-eastern take on God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen (complementing the Brubeck-cum-gospel-style vocal version on the first disc), in addition to Chris (Leslie)’s catchy mood piece Bringing Home The Tree which graces the second disc. Also on that disc, by the way, we encounter superb covers of Joni Mitchell’s River and Steve Ashley’s Spirit Of Christmas, and an animated “simultaneous” rendition that pits a Beth Nielsen Chapman song (Sweet Love) against a rap-style declaration of My Religion. So, alongside an ever-inventive approach to their chosen material, and an unashamed joy and delight in the participants’ communication of their natural musicianship, there’s an added warmth about the SAF shows that transcends any possible charge of sentimentality, exuding a generousness of spirit that’s old-fashioned (in the nicest possible sense) in espousing the hand-in-hand traditional values of good companionship and good musicianship. Here in SAF we find the Spirit Of Christmas in its truest, completest sense.

www.whileandmatthews.co.uk/aggie.php and www.circuitmusic.co.uk

David Kidman


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Musikgruppen RAA – INCREDIBLE RAA BAND (Gason CD743)

The very thought of a whole album of songs of the Incredible String Band performed in Swedish may well be a complete turnoff for even hardened psych-folk fans – but please do bear with me, for this really is one of the most stimulating and unexpectedly enjoyable records I’ve come across this year. Tribute album this may be, album of cover versions it may also be, but its extra dimension – aside from the sung language, that is (which, let’s face it, is probably impenetrable to non-Scandinavians) – is a consummate understanding of the original ISB songs and an enterprising approach to their performance that transcends both slavish copyism and being different for difference’s sake, neither of which extremes would be acceptable here (even though the original inspirations were themselves wildly extreme at times!). The five-piece band bravely tackle songs from virtually all periods of the ISB’s massive œuvre, from blithe first-album naïvete (How Happy I Am) through archetypal favourites (Chinese White, First Girl I Loved, Cousin Caterpillar) and on to unsung weirdnesses (Cutting The Strings, from the U parable), disposable ragbags (Weather The Storm) and exhuming several songs from the band’s less illustrious Hard Rope And Silken Twine swansong (including the brilliant Cold Days Of February, the lazy Maker Of Islands and the er, dumb Dumb Kate). I’m a mite surprised by the relatively skimpy representation of the band’s most prolific period (very little from Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, Wee Tam & The Big Huge or Changing Horses), but what we do have is very creatively revisited. There’s an intriguing conjoining of The Son Of Noah’s Brother (in its original state a mere 24-second squib!) with Water Song, an equally intelligent conjoining of Banks Of Sweet Italy with Here Till Here Is There, an unmissable troubadour/Lied-style guitar-accompanied treatment of Sleepers, Awake! (originally a beauteous acappella number), a version of Mad Hatter’s Song that makes its disjointed original seem almost logical in its episodic glory, and – most extraordinary of all, and totally in the maverick-magpie spirit of the old ISB – a sonic-hedgehog mish-mash of Theta (from The Song Has No Ending) with shards of Witch’s Hat and yes, Ravel’s Bolero! Even the sub-Pythonesque romp through Weather The Storm has its kind of weird attraction. I realise I’ve gone on at length using comparisons that will mean little to non-ISB-aficionados, but if you were played this CD with fresh ears (so to speak!), you might well be in awe of the ingenuity and musicianship of the RAA band while remaining blissfully unaware of the specific ISB heritage, the songs or their tributary subtext. Then again, even if your only prior knowledge of the ISB’s music is that of but a passing acquaintance, there’s likely to be at least a few delighted yelps of recognition. And that’s while not paying any special attention to the merits of the translation of the lyrics. Yes, this is an exciting and fulfilling project that makes me yearn for a second volume. Hoo-RAA!…

David Kidman


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Ed McGurk – AT LIBERTY (Mad@Music BS. 005)

The perennially self-effacing Ed has been an integral part of the Lancashire folk scene for many a year; he’s probably known best as a founder member of the ever-popular group Bandersnatch, although of late he’s additionally been returning to the more intimate duo performance format in renewing his earlier partnership with that excellent singer Nick Caffrey. But even that can be construed as hiding his considerable light under a bushel, so we can now count ourselves doubly fortunate to receive this solo CD from Ed, on which he performs a collection of his favourite songs. These can be taken, I guess, to signify a kind of personal journey from the Bob Dylan songs which sparked Ed’s own lifelong interest in folk song and music (here represented by Girl From The North Country), through the songs of the traditions and on to a generous handful of modern-day compositions from the likes of Davy Steele, Huw Williams, David Campbell and Andy M. Stewart. Ed turns in really classy performances of these songs, informed by a real understanding of their content and meaning that’s clearly the result of thorough, long-term acquaintance with the material. His attractive tenor voice has an understated richness that’s finely complemented by his gently inventive guitar playing, making each performance an intimate treasure, especially I might say when hearing him live (and on the only truly solo rendition here, The Beaches Of St. Valery). For the bulk of this recorded artefact, though, Ed has chosen to cushion himself within a nicely-realised, softly-etched (if at times perhaps just a touch too fulsomely upholstered) backdrop courtesy of his talented musician friends. When these are of the calibre of Jane and Amanda Threlfall, Roger Edwards, Martin Ellison, Steve Rothwell, Nick Caffrey and all five of Ed’s Bandersnatch colleagues, there can be no cause for complaint – and when the producer’s chair is filled by the ideally sympathetic Brian Bedford, well there’s icing on the cake indeed! My favourite tracks are those where Ed’s own talent is not subsumed, but intelligently enhanced, by the contributions of his friends; this gambit can succeed in different ways and by adopting varied styles of accompaniment, from (just to pick out a few instances of specific detail) the carefully managed interpolations of electric guitar on The Sheepstealer to the gentle tidal vocal harmonies on Davey Lowston, the tender dual-squeezebox traceries on Tiny Fish For Japan to the beauteous fiddle and viola ornamentation on To Althea From Prison. A definitive disc highlight is Last Trip Home, which scores highly for its brilliantly judged mix of forward momentum and tender affection, while on the other hand there are instances on just one or two songs where Ed’s desire to maintain that animated momentum might seem to get the better of him and sometimes textures can also get very slightly cluttered by a degree of over-instrumentation. That’s a minor observation, as is the necessary concomitant to Ed’s thoughtful style and approach – that there’s a certain inescapable evenness of tone and pace throughout the disc. Even so, you can’t help but find Ed’s renditions of these songs most persuasive, and this is a gem of a disc that will give much pleasure from its accessible blend of the familiar and the unfamiliar, all in well-considered and better-than-reliable performances that in many cases can be counted among the most satisfying of those particular songs currently available on record.
(Contact: edmcgurk@hotmail.com.)

David Kidman


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Jen Hajj – i OF THE STORM (Own Label, no catalogue number)

It’s a coincidence that both this and Cera Impala’s album (received at roughly the same time and reviewed in tandem) contain a cover of In The Pines – and Jen’s version feels altogether more authentic, even though it’s probably taken a shade too fast and doesn’t quite fit with the tenor of Utah-based Jen’s own gently compelling songwriting, at least as exemplified here. Jen’s opening gambit, the affectionate, honest and direct Where You Take Me, may probably be regarded as one of the best of the batch, and it’s enhanced by a harmonious backing vocal from Rex Seabury. The disc’s other self-penned songs continue in much the same vein, exploring her own qualities as a human being in optimistic and uplifting language that’s as often inspirational as it is whimsical. The humble, personal sentiments of Thank You are equally honestly expressed. Jen can be heard to possess much of the folksy charm of early Judy Collins, and on occasion even sounds quite like her – check out I Am Home for instance – while the gentle timekeeping of Naptime is as hard to resist as the clear, pure reverence of Alleluia, both exceedingly attractive compositions. On the other hand, the stronger, more feisty song In The Beginning tends more to evoke the incantatory delivery of Buffy Sainte-Marie, and the bluesy Water On The Wasteland also receives an extremely persuasive vocal performance that shows off Jen’s versatility in that department. I also really liked the childlike nature-poem Rain, with its wordless sitar-and-tabla mantra. Jen’s select support crew does a nice line in bluegrassy-folk styling, with Ken Sager’s dobro and Mary Danzig’s fiddle arguably the stars of the show, at any rate as regards instrumental dexterity. If this is truly Jen’s debut CD, then it sure doesn’t sound like it – for it’s an assured piece of work, and a subtle winner.

www.jenhajj.com

David Kidman


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Cera Impala & The New Prohibition – HIGHER PLACE (BCB-Records CD 11-0049)

Not quite sure what to make of this one… It sounds good and promising tho’, opening with feisty banjo and fiddle and assured female vocal, but then halfway through the song in warbles something that sounds like a synth (I can’t be sure, cos it’s not credited on the sleeve), that proceeds to burble on alongside the traditional instruments in curious counterpoint. Annoyingly, this element crops up again on much of the album elsewhere, and distracts more than it enhances I find, but not always to equal effect on each appearance, and as you’d infer from this comment, the best tracks tend to be those few where it’s absent altogether. Whisky, for example – one of the album’s standouts – on which Cera imparts an almost Cowboy Junkies-like ambience to her believable vocal depiction. I do like Cera’s singing, it has character and depth, and her instrumental skills (banjo and guitar) demonstrate a good level of accomplishment, as do those of her “band”, which according to the sleeve credits would appear to comprise just two musicians (Dirk Ronneburg on fiddle and Jovanka von Wilsdorf on bass). A synth-type drone is, however, used more sensitively on the bluesy Gladioli and, best of all perhaps, the closing number Sweet Sue, a marvellous piece where all can be forgiven. Aside from the insouciant romp Dancing In The Moonlight and the deliciously jaunty uke-styled Row My Boat, the more uptempo of the 11 tracks don’t generally do Cera any favours: the normally-trusty bluegrass instrumental Orange Blossom Special takes its time to get going, and for some weird reason interposes a spacey variant of the Flintstones theme midway thru, while the FX-introduced jokeyness of Foggy Window Backup (unlike the remainder of the vocal numbers, this is a composition of Dirk’s) doesn’t really fit with the rest of the pack. OK, I’m not entirely convinced, but you can’t not argue that Cera and The New Prohibition create a distinctive sound within the parameters they set themselves; it’s just that at times it doesn’t feel quite right.

www.ceraimpala.com

David Kidman


Return to the Reviews Contents Page Thea Gilmore & Sandy Denny – DON’T STOP SINGING (Mighty Village/Island)

No, not an exercise in reincarnation, but a posthumous collaboration!
There will be plenty who, like me initially, were wondering how this might have arisen; then I remembered that Thea’s early internship at the latter-day Fairport’s Woodworm Studios would have rendered her familiar with much of Sandy’s music and recordings, and reading some of my own reviews of Thea’s earlier albums Sandy’s name had been invoked on occasion, so the idea was not such a strange one after all. And I recall Thea mentioning in an interview that songs by Sandy had become embedded in Thea’s psyche from exposure to her father’s record collection. Then, when I played the opening track of this CD, Glistening Day, I felt I could almost have been listening to a newly-unearthed outtake from Sandy’s Old Fashioned Waltz album… Anyway, first to the background to this project: its gestation lies in the discovery, 12 years ago, of a collection of 20 unscored (and undated) lyric manuscripts amongst Sandy’s personal effects, which subsequently passed to her widower Trevor Lucas, upon whose death in 1989 they passed to Trevor’s third wife Elizabeth, who in 2007 decided in conjunction with Island Records that the time was right for them to reach a public audience. The initial plan was to invite a number of female singer-songwriters to contribute, but it was on the strength of a song that Thea had chosen for her own contribution that she was asked to take on the whole project – a natural choice, given her proven empathy with Sandy’s work and her own at times uncanny vocal resemblance. Out of the 20 lyrics in the collection, Thea here presents just ten, for reasons as yet unclear (or is this just conveniently paving the way for a second volume, cynics might say?). They explore familiar themes like the alienation, angst and heartbreak of the touring artist, personal battles against demons of self-confidence, conflict in romance and relationships, and awe of the natural world, and aside from a small number of minor changes here and there – and the addition of an extra, freshly composed verse to two of the lyrics, Georgia and Goodnight) – Sandy’s original lyric drafts remain untouched in their setting by Thea. Perhaps Long Time Gone is the most achingly resonant of all the lyrics, with its desperately poignant assertions “If I don’t make it before I die, I just ain’t gonna die" and “I can’t afford to live in this place and I can’t afford to leave”, while other standouts include the bravely resigned and heart-rending Goodnight, the forlorn and wistful lament of Song #4, the soon-to-be-forsaken maiden’s entreaty Sailor (which, tellingly, Thea changes to Soldier for its final verse) and the lonely-separation-themed London (on which John Kirkpatrick’s accordion plays a prominent supporting role), and the almost unbearably tender lullaby to Sandy’s daughter Georgia that closes the disc. Other musicians helping Thea to flesh out the lyrics include husband and producer Nigel Stonier, with Kellie While and Benji Kirkpatrick making important contributions along the way. But we can never underestimate Thea’s own contribution to the legacy of Sandy Denny here – and it’s impossible to imagine anyone else making a more apt, respectful and loving tribute.

www.theagilmore.net and www.sandydenny.co.uk

David Kidman


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Merry Hell – BLINK… AND YOU MISS IT (Mrs Casey Records MCRCD. 1103)

Hey, remember that storming Wigan-based band Tansads? Yes, those cult 90s post-punk folk-rockers who for some reason never achieved either the profile or the success they deserved – heck, I never even managed to catch up with them properly before they split (as bands do!). Fast-forwarding to 2010, and coming up to the band’s 20th anniversary, the idea was mooted of doing some reunion gigs, a series of three of which duly took place at the band’s “spiritual home” (The Citadel in St Helens); following which, perhaps inevitably, many of the participants decided that the bond was too strong to resist the call to continue – thus, in effect, unleashing the proverbial and literal Merry Hell (the name comes from a line in Tansads’ song Separate Souls)! So we now have a blazing Tansads successor, one that carries on the spirit and drive of the original band and retains six of its members. Still at the heart of things is the vital Kettle dynasty – brothers Andrew, Bob and John – with keyboardist Lee Goulding, guitarist Tim Howard and drummer Phil Knight, who are now joined by new members Andrew Dawson (bass) and John Kettle’s wife Virginia (who takes over the vocal role from Janet Anderton). This fresh studio album emphasises the continuity between lineups and eras, opening as it does with a revisit of Drunken Serenade (the final cut on Tansads’ swansong Reason To Be), and in many ways it seems as though they’ve never been away. I stress – that doesn’t mean the Merry Hell sound is a dated throwback locked in the 90s – it still sounds thoroughly contemporary, even if it resolutely refuses to embrace the world-fusion experiments of the intervening decades (and why should it? I say). Merry Hell make a suitably blistering frontal attack on your senses, a big but fabulously well-controlled sound that captures and enraptures you straightaway with its well-proportioned full textures and masterly attack, and launches headlong into a series of memorable and perfectly-crafted songs, every one of which seems to vie for the title of immediate favourite in your affections, full of catchy hooks and canny musical gestures. Merry Hell are blessed with two truly exceptional lead vocalists that really complement each other – the tremendously versatile Virginia and the distinctive upfront rasping Andrew K – and a really crack instrumental backup that never flags, and John K’s production makes the very most of every nuance within textures that in lesser hands would become unduly cluttered. And what a superb range of material too, from punchy anthems (The War Between Ourselves, Lean On Me Love, Peace and Love), and the pounding, angry The Crooked Man, to the tender, loving and simple acoustic ballads Rosanna’s Song and It Won’t Be Long; from bouncy romantic ditties (One More Day, This Time) to the vignette of The Gentle Man and the ultra-quirky little observational tale of The Butcher And The Vegan; the album closes with a majestic new treatment of the classic early Tansads song Pendle Hill. But in truth each and every song is an object lesson in supreme economy of expression and execution. It’s a measure of the songwriting talent within the band that no fewer than six of the songs here, including several of the standout tracks, were penned by Virginia! But why not shout it out loud and publish the lyrics in the skimpy booklet, which contains only the minimal personnel credits and thanks (attractive artwork notwithstanding)… It perhaps only remains for me to invoke some comparatives or reference points for the uninitiated – Levellers, Oysterband, U2, chart-era Chumbawamba, a heavier version of Lindisfarne… but in the end, whether deafeningly belting out the decibels or gently insinuating their way into your head, Merry Hell turns out like no other band. A reunion and a triumph, and a project that will I trust live to see plenty more mileage.

www.merryhell.co.uk

David Kidman


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Kami Thompson – LOVE LIES (Warner Classics & Jazz 2564665545)

Kami (formerly known as Kamilla) is the daughter of Richard & Linda Thompson, and although she’s been around for a while hovering on the fringes of the musical stage, Love Lies is her first fully-fledged album in her own right, coming a number of years after a promising (I’m told) demo and a little-heard EP (Bad Marriage). It unashamedly presents a distinctly together-sounding set consisting of what Kami herself terms “all self-indulgent break-up music”, that feels more like a personally world-weary second or third album (a worldly-wise assessment of her experiences), and the sheer potency of its songs suggests rather that a lot of hard living has been packed into relatively few years. At times it also broods with the killer combination of casual and brutal that marks much of her father’s writing, and it’s the darker tracks like 4000 Miles, the enigmatic (and yet perhaps finally hopeful) Blood Wedding and the pithy, ominous Tick Tock that probably make the greatest impression here. A small handful of the songs have already appeared in the public domain – Nice Cars (which had had turned up on Linda’s Versatile Heart album a few years back), and the opening country-rocker Little Boy Blue (which here comes complete with Richard’s unmistakable guitar work). Never Again, however, instead turns out to be a slack-tempo Kami original quite far removed from the doleful RT masterpiece. The final track with a familiar title is Kami’s fractured-beat cover of George Harrison’s Don’t Bother Me, which sits well with her clutch of original songs. Kami’s confident singing is surrounded by instrumental and vocal backing courtesy of members of her illustrious extended family – Richard and son Teddy of course, together with Martha and Lucy Wainwright, Sean Lennon and Matt Johnson, inasmuch as this can be gleaned from the skimpy package, which doesn’t even contain lyrics, more’s the pity (unlike the usual Warner Classics house standard) – and the album’s been produced by Martha’s husband Brad Alberta alongside Ed Haber. Love Lies is a persuasive record, one which augurs well for Kami’s future career (though frustratingly it’s more than a touch short on playing-time).

www.kamithompson.com/

David Kidman


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Blueflint – MAUDY TREE (Johnny Rock Records JOROCK. 014)

Blueflint is an Edinburgh four-piece folk-bluegrass outfit centred around the considerable talents of Deborah Arnott and Clare Neilson, both of whom write songs and play banjo, and Roddy Neilson, who writes songs and plays fiddle; the fourth group member is double bass player Hugh Kelly. Theirs is an inspired and imaginative take on Appalachian-style bluegrass that lyric-wise wittily references contemporary life experiences, never afraid to cheekily brand-namecheck or make commentary where appropriate – after all, when you come across song titles like P45 and Bottlebank you kinda expect nothing less!
The vagaries and complications of romance are explored playfully and with at times almost indecent gusto on Missed The Boat and the delightfully acerbic P45 (I just lurve that line about “I’ll be the p in your P45, the dog shit on your shoes”!) – but bouncy tongue-in-cheek irony ain’t the band’s only strength, for they also show compassion for the plight of the modern-day city-office-slave (Light In The Window). Importantly, they also display a very keen feel for the time-honoured murder ballad tradition. Several of the album’s songs exhibit an authentically old-timey-Appalachian feel – standouts being the droning High Country and the lonesome-fiddle-backed close-harmony beauty of I Climbed A Mountain (those gals sure have superb singing voices), while the sparse title song is a powerfully dark little ballad built around the age-old concept of the hanging-tree. Mr Lovealie paints a cautionary picture of romantic expectation and Last Waltz is an aching reminiscence with heavy overtones of the Tennessee-Waltz-school of barroom country. Least typical track is probably the finale, Barren Lands, which due to the presence of guest musicians on wheezy trombone, harmonium and beating drum approximates nothing less than a rumbling New-Orleans-death-march with a curious waltzing gait. Songwriting credits aren’t quite evenly apportioned; Deborah gets six and Clare four, whereas Roddy ends up with just two – Mary and Bottlebank – on which he naturally takes the lead vocal role, his Scottish burr being quite distinctive in an Alasdair Roberts-kind of way (I’d have liked the album to’ve been longer, to give Roddy more exposure). All of which adds up to a triumphantly individual group-collective take on the twin traditions of old-timey folk and knowingly contemporary Scottish country music, a set that as a sizeable bonus boasts some magnificent instrumental and vocal chops to support the strength of the songwriting. Blueflint are a real discovery, and the evidence of Maudy Tree (and their previous album High Bright Morning too, by the way) I’m sure they’re gonna be sticking around for a while – I do hope so, for their quirkily inventive songs sure have both character and staying-power in spades. And even after only a relatively short acquaintance, this modest new release is feeling set to become one of my albums of the year.(Distributed by Proper.)

www.blueflint.org.uk

David Kidman


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Kevin Henderson – FIN DA LAND AGEEN (Sungaet Records KEVHENCD001)

Shetland-born Kevin was one of the founder members of Fiddlers’ Bid back in 1991, since when he’s gone on to appear with Boys Of The Lough (whom he joined in 2002) and Session A9 (whom he joined two years later in 2004); his latest group project has been the co-founding of The Nordic Fiddlers Bloc, a brand new trio lineup. For Fin Da Land Ageen, though (it’s a Shetland expression meaning “to arrive back home”, by the way), we encounter Kevin in less-often-heard non-band mode, in that his solo playing is the focus on a sparkling collection of traditional Shetland fiddle tunes, on most tracks of which he’s accompanied (on guitar or mandola) by the highly regarded Swedish musician Mattias Pérez, who’s also the disc’s engineer. Kevin does, however, get to play the classic “listening tune” Da Silver Bow and the Unst wedding tune Da Brides A Bonnie Ting as solo pieces… The result is a pleasing and mildly stimulating album, which however is difficult to review in that there doesn’t seem anything to criticise! Certainly the playing is predictably faultless, and although no technical challenge seems too daunting for Kevin he doesn’t go out of his way to stun the listener with a display of technique – nor does he need to. With an almost effortless-seeming combination of dexterity and grace, Kevin plays fully in the spirit of the acknowledged masters of Shetland fiddle music (he’s clearly been listening to the archive collections), though his mind remains open to using the more contemporary style of Mattias as an enabling mechanism, a means of putting this music across to his new audience. He’s also responsive to, and keen to point, the kinship between Shetland and Scandinavian styles, especially in the use of drones and double-stopping (as on Da Unst Bridal March), while his fleet-fingered skipping through the ensuing set of reels is sure to set the feet tapping (Mattias’ nifty way of pursuing the melody line is equally delightful). I also liked Nina Pérez’s fiddle counterpoint to Kevin’s on the closing track, Minnie O’Shirva’s Cradle Song. Perhaps the only slight drawback of this CD is that it’s very short (37 minutes) and thus it might seem to lack substance – except, that is, while it’s actually playing, when the listener can’t fail to be both gently gripped and enchanted by Kevin’s consummate mastery of the Shetland fiddle.

www.kevinhenderson.co.uk

David Kidman


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Chris Stout’s Brazilian Theory – LIVE IN CONCERT (Chris Stout Music CSMUSCD001)

Fair Isle fiddler Chris Stout, a leading light in the supergroup Fiddlers’ Bid, has always had an inquisitive interest in the connections between Scottish and other musics and in the possibilities of creative fusion, as his brilliant duo work with harpist Catriona McKay has already demonstrated. He visited Brazil for the first time back in 2003 as part of the collaborative project Orquestra Scotland Brasil, and there connected with rabeca and sax player Thomas Rohrer, who specialises in the music of the aforementioned Brazilian fiddle. A return visit a few years later, and further work with the same group of musicians, cemented the collaboration, and eventually it was brought onto the stage of Celtic Connections in 2010, a recording of which event forms the basis of the disc under review. There’s a real sense of occasion and of groundbreaking on the seven pieces performed here, and Chris’s freewheeling and innovative yet judiciously planned and integrated approach to the fusion process is brought into your homes with brilliance and immediacy here.
The music is genuinely heartwarming and invigorating, with the keen sense of ensemble meeting spontaneity of invention in a most persuasive way. The opening track Latina, a composition by one of the band’s guitarists, Carlinhos Antunes, typically mixes a variety of Latin rhythms with intriguingly spicy interplay, while Maria Rosa takes a tune composed for the Venezuelan cuatro as a basis for an exploration of (among other things) Brazilian choro. Outstanding musicianship is the keyword here – I need only mention the involvement of guitarist Ian Stephenson, bodhrán player Martin O’Neill and double bass players Neil Harland and Rui Barossi, and you’ll have some idea of the aural treats in store on this set. The harp playing of Catriona McKay is miraculous, at once fleet-fingered and atmospheric, while the rapport between Catriona, Chris and Thomas is always something of great joy. The sheer exhilaration of quirkily rhythmic tunes like Devil’s Advocate complements the overwhelming fun of Xaxados Y Perdidos (another of Carlinhos’ compositions) and the swirling rabeca tune Pé Quebrado, all of which provide a lively contrast to the reflective Fisherman’s Prayer, a composition of Chris’s based on the old Shetland tune Auld Swaara, which provides the basis for a gentler kind of rippling improvisation. The whole set provides a convincing demonstration of the productive musical links forged between Scotland and Brazil by Chris and his doughty band of musicians. In fact, I enjoyed this disc a lot more than I expected to; and it might well turn out to prove a rare exception to the rule that I tend not to return to live albums all that often after the initial act of reviewing.

www.chrisstout.co.uk

David Kidman


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Lucy Wainwright Roche – LUCY (Strike Back Records, no catalogue number)

Although she made her first stage appearances singing backup with her half-brother Rufus, the daughter of Loudon Wainwright III and Suzzy Roche has always cast herself as an independent musical spirit, and her own debut releases, 2009’s near-simultaneous Eight Songs and Eight More EPs, carefully hedged her bets with a mixture of self-penned songs, covers and arrangements of traditional pieces, on no category of which did she let her audience down, her brand of clear singing voice and bittersweet expressiveness winning her a devoted, if small, circle of admirers ever eager to hear what she would come up with next. For her full-length debut CD, the abbreviated eponymity of its title conceals a lack of anonymity (at any rate in terms of musical identity). This time round, however, Lucy chances her arm by producing an eleven-tracker consisting almost entirely of original songs; only the closer (Simon & Garfunkel’s America) and the bonus track (Elliot Smith’s Say Yes) being covers. Lucy’s own songs are pleasing and have the ring of truth about them; her tales of life on the road are sincerely perceptive yet charming expressions of those familiar singer-songwriter preoccupations like the simple pleasures of everyday life and straightforward, uncontroversial personal values. Politics and mean streets don’t not exist, but they tend not to intrude on her largely positive and tolerant world-vision. One can’t accuse Lucy of being naïve or unaware, but equally there’s no sense of her missing out on the wider issues, it’s just that these need not concern her for the moment – the moment that each song is attempting to capture.
And mostly it does the job in a tasteful, appealing, lilting folk-contemporary-acoustic styling that’s hard to resist; songs like Open Season, Statesville and Mercury News soon get to lodge themselves gently in your mind. Perhaps a song like The Worst Part needs more edge to its perception to make the desired impact – here, it’s a little too sweet and contented, and one gets the feeling that Lucy needs to give that darker side of things fuller rein: but hey, there’s time enough comin’… As on those abovementioned EPs, Lucy once again brings in a few guest musicians and singers to help her out: in addition to Kelly Hogan, Steuart Smith, Indigo Girl Emily Saliers, Nora O’Connor, Stewart Lerman, Brian Griffin and Girlyman, there’s the whole Roches trio supplying wistful, if understated backup vocals on America, and Ira Glass duetting with Lucy on Say Yes. Well, on balance I do say yes, this disc will do nicely for the moment, but I can’t help wondering what Lucy might have up her sleeve in the manner of musical adventure for next time.

www.lucywainwrightroche.com

David Kidman


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Amy McCarley – AMY McCARLEY (Own Label, no catalogue number)

The very first CD release from this singer-songwriter from rural Alabama is an unpretentious and entirely self-produced effort which endeared itself to me fairly immediately – and this in spite of its using some well-worn s/s themes and a vocal delivery which, though at times verging on the (tonally) flat, has an engaging honesty about its soon-about-to-throw-in-the-towel emotional stance. For Amy’s writing does in the end exhibit a sense of reflection and developing maturity that signals her as having taken at least one major step forward in terms of evaluating and responding to the situations she’s found herself in and having to cope with. She lets herself go a bit more on Every Which Way, while the album’s lone cover, Gillian Welch’s Look At Miss Ohio, has clearly been chosen as much for its touch of irony as for showing obvious affinity with Amy’s own “raw and genuine” performing ethos. And yet this cover, fine though it is, can’t be regarded an album standout – for Amy’s own songs are so refreshing for their sincerity in the face of how the world might expect her to react. In this regard, it’s in the primitive immediacy of How Will I Know and the plaintive yearning of Stay that we find the most intense and touching examples, their stark emotional climate and dark desperation so tellingly brought home by the straightforward, uncluttered production and pared-down setting. Reading Amy’s biog, it turns out that Amy has in the past worked with other (Huntsville) musicians – and indeed has been writing songs for around a dozen years now – but in true DIY spirit Amy now doesn’t seem to want to let anyone else in on expressing her feelings, for she plugs away at the songs refusing to let anyone else play on them (here she backs her own acoustic guitar with drums and, once or twice, a sparse harmonica or basic piano part) – and hey, good for her!
Presenting a united front like this is admirable, and adds much to the disarming directness of her writing – and to its appeal to this listener.

www.amymccarley.com

David Kidman


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Snakefarm – MY HALO AT HALF-LIGHT (Fledg’ling FLED.3086)

Way back in 1999, this duo (Anna Domino and Michel Delory) released a (what then seemed cryptic) album, Songs From My Funeral, that was eventually heralded as bringing a radical new approach to the retelling of the American folk song tradition by using determinedly modern arrangements that carried the narrative content of the words screaming into the light of contemporary day. The Snakefarm approach of “do it just to see what would happen” in the end embodied a natural, unforced use of subtle percussive beats and loops, which combined with some more conventional instrumentation underpinned Anna’s darkly expressive variant on trip-hop vocalising. Gradually, the folk scene began picking up on what Snakefarm had started; but the really weird thing was that after releasing that startling debut album, everything on the Snakefarm went deathly quiet, and nothing’s been heard of them until now. And so – inevitably – their followup record is bound not to seem anything like as cutting-edge. Not that it’s all been done, even by now, but we can’t deny that a whole river full of water has flown under that ol’ bridge and the folk world’s at once more savvy and more receptive.
Even so, listening to this latest offering gives ample proof that Anna and Michael haven’t stood still musically over the past decade, and you might legitimately feel that the current incarnation of the Snake Farm can be seen as both influential precursor to, and natural development of, the oft-touted Imagined Village (to pick but one self-evident example) – and it’s as clearly been informed by Anna and Michel’s attentive listening to the world’s musical developments in the interim. Mind you, I’m currently finding more echoes of Cowboy Junkies in Snakefarm than I did way back then – go figure!… Anyway, certainly the eastern-tinged album opener, Little Maggie, brings a newly sophisticated (and exotic-IV) angle to the ballad, and some stunning electrics aid the doomy retelling of Stagger Lee. The oft-told narrative of Sadie becomes jittery and grungey, almost rappy, with tasty voodoo-swamp-Latin rhythms, and Michael (Row The Boat) throws a timeless new complexion on those hackneyed words. On a haunting new treatment of The Lady O (aka Raggle Taggle Gypsies), Snakefarm bring a Byrdsy 12-string jangle on to offset Anna’s meaningfully keening vocal line and some coolly delirious harmonies, while the narrator of The Bachelor is a believable modern protagonist for the age-old folk experiences of The Foggy Dew. So, in Snakefarm’s hands, our collective heritage of ancient balladry is still in safe custody, and the 21st century beat to which they set their renditions is the pulse of the collective heartbeat of our time.

David Kidman


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Harp And A Monkey – HARP AND A MONKEY (Folk Police Recordings FPR006)

Although Manchester-based “alt-folk romantic” trio Harp And A Monkey was formed in 2008, this eponymous release constitutes its debut on record. The principal characteristic of its sound is gentle electronica driven prominently by harp, guitar and banjo with occasional accordion or melodica – and if you think that sounds a touch eccentric, well yes it is… but it’s also curiously attractive and very addictive. The stock-in-trade of HAAM (alias Martin Purdy, Simon Jones and Andy Smith) is a haunting and surreal kind of melodic storytelling that isn’t ashamed to parade its defiantly northern influences: they themselves cite (amongst others) “OS maps, Delia Derbyshire, the M62 motorway, Elizabeth Gaskell, Oliver Postgate and A.A. Milne”, but I also hear Roger Davies and the Smiths in there on occasion. The album’s opening gambit (The Soldier’s Song) takes its cue from a scratchy sample of Hanging On The Old Barbed Wire then proceeds to paint a disquieting aural picture of eerie remembrance of the horrors of Passchendaele to a backdrop including spectral glockenspiel. A Better Life (The Bride’s Lament) is a Deep-Lancashire-inspired tale set to wistful harmonica and banjo and pealing church bells, while Willow And The Ghost irresistibly evokes the Pennine Moors and even subliminal murder intrigue. Katy’s Twinkly Band might be heard to pull together the spirits of Kates Rusby and Bush in sinister-nursery-mode while eventually handing over the vocal honours to a gang of kids from a North Manchester school.

Absent Father (Letter From A Falklands Veteran) poignantly juxtaposes an intense and mournful lyric with a surprisingly gentle, ruminative tune, contrasting with the childishly scratchy rhythms of Blind Mice. The charmingly eccentric Polite Society sounds like Daevid Allen or Hangman’s-era ISB cordially providing shelter and cups of tea for waifs and strays while playing the theme from Tales Of The Riverbank for their entertainment. Digging Holes ironically yet movingly celebrates the work of the navvies who built the future on the past (also incidentally evoking the world of MacColl’s Radio Ballads), while the closing Serenade For A Winter’s Day mirrors the trio’s own title track in conveying a deep sense of connection with the passing of the seasons, a certain degree of nostalgia and the comforting feeling of returning “home for tea”; it finally fades into the northern ether on a distant ghostly sleigh-bell jingle… HAAM make a distinctively British sound, and they’re described by their label as “the bastard sons of the Oldham Tinkers locked in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop with only the BFI back catalogue and a handful of scratchy folk LPs from the early 70s for company”; I rather like that tag, but it doesn’t tell the half of the appeal of their quirky, strangely engaging inventiveness. Listen closely, for the rewards are there for the reaping.

www.myspace.com/harpandamonkey or www.folkpolicerecordings.com

David Kidman


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June Tabor and The Oysterband – Ragged Kingdom (Topic Records TSCD585)

No one could ever accuse the ‘oysters’ of not opening up and here, fitting tighter than a pair of latex gloves on a surgeon’s hands June Tabor and Oysterband come together for a celebratory recording after a 21 year hiatus. Although they never split up per se the quintet embody everything that is good about folk-rock with plenty of attitude particularly on the opening track “Bonny Bunch Of Roses” where the almost Spaghetti Western arrangement would make Ennio Morricone proud…not yee-ha perhaps but pretty close. Some marriages are made in Heaven and what better juxtaposition than Tabor and John Jones to convey the gory blood-fest that is Child’s ballad no.13 here re-titled “Son David”. The almost jaunty melody provided by Alan Prosser’s guitar, Ray ‘Chopper’ Cooper’s mandolin and Ian Telfer’s fiddle underpinned by Dill Davies somewhat muted drums and producer Al Scott’s bass makes the story a more than palatable experience and one that I’m sure will have the band’s enthusiastic audience joining the refrain. Of course, it’s not only traditional fare that receives the Oyster treatment as their acoustic version of Ian Curtis “Love Will Tear Us Apart” provides (for me at least and with no offence intended) an uncluttered, even cultured experience that was never evident on the original Joy Division recording. So, a little something for everyone whatever your taste in music that could see the band make appearances on stage at Glastonbury or, just as easily Aled Jones radio show. The British ‘folk’ scene owes a debt of gratitude to artists such as these and we should be grateful the band are still bringing home gold…unlike some of our athletes at the moment.

www.oysterband.co.uk

Pete Fyfe


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John Doyle – Shadow And Light (Compass Records 4562)

John Doyle may, at first hearing appear an earnest, thought provoking artist but at least he cannot be accused of being dull. By that I mean he understands that with extensive knowledge of your subject matter you have in your hands the tools to inspire and in return will hopefully have the same effect on anyone you are imparting this information to. If that is his intention he has certainly found a disciple. Evocative is a term that readily comes to mind as his rounded tenor vocals coupled with a song-writing talent featured on ten of the eleven tracks sees him become a Celtic ambassador of traditional style writing in much the same way Jez Lowe invokes nostalgic thoughts of the North-East of England. If you’re reading into this that I thoroughly enjoyed this album then I’ve done my job. Whether it be the rallying cry of “Clear The Way” based on the tale of a regiment during the American Civil War or the cheese inspired (you’ll have to read the sleeve notes) closing song “Selkie” Doyle is an artist at the top of his tree allowing himself the opportunity to branch out (sorry about that) by including of a roster of first-class musicians such as Alison Brown (banjo), Michael McGoldrick (uillean pipes/flute) and John Williams (accordion). Of course many who already know his superb digital dexterity can attest to his stunning guitar accompaniment but here his tune writing particularly on the wistful “Tribute To Donal Ward/The Currachman” comes majestically to life and could easily find itself soaked sponge-like into numerous traditional ‘sessions’.

For further information check out the Compass Records website at www.compassrecords.com

Pete Fyfe


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The Hiders – FOUR LETTER TOWN (Own Label, no catalogue number)

The Hiders, from Cincinnati, are a new name to me, but Four Letter Town is listed on the press release as their third album. Apparently it’s been in production since 2009 and features former as well as current members of the band on its well-filled 77 minutes of self-penned material. Aside from boasting the inclusion of one of their songs (Plastic Flowers) on the soundtrack of the 2009 movie Adam, their music doesn’t seem to have featured on the wider radar, and even Americana fans I’ve spoken to don’t seem to have come across The Hiders before now, so the lengthy gestation of this album won’t have had much of an effect on their profile I guess. Anyway, it would appear that the current Hiders lineup (the band name comes from an episode of the TV western series Gunsmoke, by the way) is basically a four-piece comprising multi-instrumentalist & vocalist Billy Alletzhauser, keyboard player Kevin Carlisle, vocalist Beth Harris and guitarist Glen May, with Tony Franklin taking on the drum stool duty and two members of Band Of Horses guesting on a regular basis (it appears). But in the end their music confuses me almost as much as their lineup; I find some tracks captivating, others worthy but mildly wayward, and then there’s others that just don’t seem to have the substance to grab at all. There seems to be a general, overall reluctance to crank up and get strong and heavy – a tendency that should count for them rather than against, but somehow it doesn’t quite convince me that a laid-back restraint and understatement is really what they’re aiming for. Yet it’s the more deliberately hushed, aching songs that grip me from the first: opener Aberdeen is a touch too ersatz-Cowboy Junkies/Neko Case for comfort maybe, but Widow’s Walk proves thoroughly compelling Americana, building its mood and impression well from a controlled opening, the majestic, slide-led six-minute standout It’s Alright, if anything even more compelling, feels like an outtake from a secret meeting between Neil Young and latter-day Pink Floyd (with a soaring mid-number electric guitar solo to die for), and the band stretch out even more psych-meaningfully on the layered 11-minute The Wind, The Dust And The Sun, a truly epic creation that definitely takes its emotional cue (and let’s face it, its lead-vocal sound too) from one of the classic NY albums like Zuma or On The Beach. Don’t Tear Me Up cuts its ice with piano and strings, and Hesitation Wounds is an attractive, if winsome, country ballad; The Fate of Earl Mann just broods spectrally (albeit economically), whereas in contrast, Running Back To You is little more than throwaway soul-pop filler, and Lighter Than Low seems more lightweight than low with its detached, latin-tinged ambience, and one or two of the other tracks seem to be laboured in their overall pace, or else start slightly unpromisingly and then meander and proceed to go nowhere in particular.So – a little more emphasis on quality control perhaps, and a settling-down of personnel, and hey, the Hiders’ next offering might be something really special.

www.TheHiders.com

David Kidman


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Cheyenne Brown – PARALLEL LATITUDES (Bird Creek Records BCR. 001)

Cheyenne Brown is actually from Alaska, but she has been based in Scotland for the past nine years. She has studied the Scottish harp from both a performance and research perspective, and as well as performing widely she also teaches the instrument. She plays both solo and with a number of different permutations and groups, including the Scottish-oldtime-bluegrass ensemble the North Atlantic Trio. A short while back, she released 2:Forty, a lovely duo album with cellist and singer Seylan Baxter (of the vibrant Tattie Jam), and Seylan is also heard to play a key supporting role on much of Cheyenne’s own latest release, Parallel Latitudes. On this new CD she highlights the connections between her years spent in Scotland and her Alaskan upbringing, and those between musics that themselves are connected by a stream of infinite Earth-circling lines of parallel latitudes. To illustrate this intriguing notion, Cheyenne has surrounded her deft and imaginative harp playing with a select but telling pool of fine musicians. The aforementioned Seylan Baxter (cello) and Dave Boyd (sundry percussion) appear most frequently, their talents gracing over half of the selections, while Jon Bews (fiddle) and Dave Currie (dobro, guitar) contribute to two and three tracks respectively (including a gorgeous newgrassy treatment of the Earl Of Hyndford air), Anna Massie plays banjo on the delicate Arthur & Isobel’s TripTo Brittany and Hardeep Deerhe plays tabla on the opening Funny Jigs set.As you can tell, Cheyenne has brought us a neatly eclectic selection of tunes, and her own accomplishment is of such a high standard that you can rest assured you’ll have a gently stimulating listening experience in store, one that really does enable you to focus on the cross-connections between the musics, connections that appear altogether less fanciful when heard in actual performance, off the cold light of the dots on the page. And that’s a real achievement. Maybe a touch more in the way of forward presence in the production would have helped, but it’s still a most appealing disc.

www.cheyenneharp.com

David Kidman


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Eliza Lynn – TOGETHER (Civility Records, no catalogue number)

Since 2005, Nashville native Eliza has released three albums of self-penned material that have so far escaped my attention but which have been well received on both sides of the Atlantic, to the extent that she’s been able to build a faithful following. This fan base has provided the support for the release of album number four, a projected album of covers for which the material has all been chosen by her fans in a kind of community-produced project, funded and (effectively) co-produced by them. With the help of Will Straughan (dobro, lap steel), Rayna Gellert (fiddle), Jon Stickley (guitars, mandolin) and Alia Clary on additional harmony vocals, Eliza went into the studios in Asheville, North Carolina, and cut over twenty songs: their release is planned to stretch over two CDs, of which Together is the first. It contains nine songs by performers Eliza has admired, including Van Morrison (When The Leaves Come Falling Down), Doc Watson (Life Is Like A River), James Cleveland (Sit Down Servant – a neat gospel acappella reading) and Old Crow Medicine Show (Ketch Secor’s We’re All In This Together), and a cool treatment of the traditional Shenandoah. There’s a lovely, thoroughly homespun intimacy about these studio recordings, with the gentle understatement of the accompanying musicians providing just the right kind of backdrop for Eliza’s vocal interpretations. Fine these may be, but for me, even finer are those covers where there feels to be an even stronger life-affirming vibe in the music-making: the Maia Sharp/Kim Richey composition Red Dress, the gorgeous Bill Morrissey number Ellen’s Tune and a thoughtful, frailed-banjo-bedecked rendition of Dougie Maclean’s comforting anthem This Love Will Carry (following her encounter with Dougie at Belfast Nashville Songwriters’ Festival in 2008, Eliza was privileged to be invited to join him at his own Perthshire Amber festival). Very nice indeed – and I’m already looking forward to volume two of this project.

www.elizalynn.com

David Kidman


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The Bailey Sisters – AFTER SILENCE, MUSIC (Pink Fizz PINKFIZZ002)

Well there’s a bit of confusion to sort out for a start – for here’s three ladies who aren’t called Bailey, nor do they drink Baileys, and they ain’t sisters!…
The trio turns out to be a teaming of Alyson and Shelley Rainey with Karen Dyson: they describe themselves as veterans of choral singing, and latterly much inspired by Maddy Prior & her Girls (whose singing courses they’ve avidly attended). Together they’ve produced a strong and characterful album which casts the spotlight firmly on their acappella prowess, but they’re also not afraid to employ (their own) selective guitar, fiddle, recorder or drum accompaniment in places (although modesty seems to have prevented them from crediting this accomplishment on the disc’s attractive packaging). Their choice of material refreshingly mixes the familiar with the unfamiliar, with six of the dozen tracks having their origins in traditional sources. Pick of these are probably the obscure Rare’s Hill and a reconstructed Stretford And Northen May Song, alongside which the Baileys’ treatment of The Cuckoo might be thought a little precious however. The non-traditional items on the disc comprise two of Karen’s own compositions (interesting and worth hearing), along with one especially fine example of the songwriting of Graeme Miles (Snows Of Winter, for which the trio adopts Craig Morgan Robson’s harmony arrangement), a song by Paul Giovanni (Summerisle, from the Wicker Man soundtrack, using the Mediaeval Baebes’ arrangement) and William Cornish’s 15th century madrigal Ah Robin, while as an instrumental interlude there’s a canon by the baroque composer Georg Philipp Telemann. The Bailey Sisters’ vocal harmonies are exuberant, while also carefully coordinated – even if sometimes this means the phrasing becomes a touch deliberate to the extent of sounding stilted (as on The Parting Glass and the Graeme Miles song); but there’s a sense of fun too amidst the crafted quality of the vocal interaction (as on My Son John). I warmed easily to the ladies’ individual voices and appreciated their commitment to the material, even if the inescapable final lasting impressions were of a slight insubstantiality, more as regards the content than the performances.

www.thebaileysisters.co.uk

David Kidman


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Davina and The Vagabonds – BLACK CLOUD (Own Label, no catalogue number)

Known for their high-energy, crowd-pleasing stage performances, the five-piece outfit Davina & The Vagabonds are veterans of the support scene with a solid reputation (having opened for acts ranging from Los Lobos and James Hunter to Pinetop Perkins and Canned Heat!). The vibrant (if necessarily limited) instrumental palette comprising trombone, trumpet, upright bass and drums rollicks away torridly behind the sassy, rasping, rousing vocalising and boogie-rich pianistic forays of front-lady Davina Sowers herself, and there’s an intense level of commitment from all concerned on this 14-track CD. Davina and the Vagabonds purvey a blowsy, throaty combination of bluesy smoky-Joe’s Dixieland and swaggering, soulful jazz-jive that in the end is probably gonna be an acquired taste – and one I can’t always feel that I wholly acquire, I admit, unless I happen to play individual tracks like the pensive Sugar Moon, the moody River, the cheeky uke-driven Bee Sting or the ultra-energetic Start Runnin’ in glorious isolation and/or when I happen to be in a receptive (here that most probably will usually mean seriously partying) mood – and then the music sounds great for its two-to-four-minute stay on the speakers! By “daring to be different”, this combo gets away with it more often than not, and I have to be honest that their sound grows on me – to the extent that I went back and played some tracks over again fairly soon – but at the same time I admit that their bag ain’t really quite my bag in terms of long-term allegiance. Either way, though, there’s no denying that Davina and her troupe do what they do extremely well, and this CD should – and deserves to – sell well amongst heir many fans.

www.davinaandthevagabonds.com

David Kidman


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The Quiet American – VOLUME 2 (Boulder Acoustic Society Music, no catalogue number)

Though clocking in at just under half an hour, this little gem should not be underestimated. It’s the second in a series of recordings by the self-styled “roots music renaissance man”, songwriter Aaron Keim, on which he performs a mixture of his own arrangements of traditional songs and his own compositions (and one cover – M. Ward’s authentic-sounding Carolina), accompanying himself on a choice of self-built instruments (guitar, ukulele, banjo) and/or a modicum of lap steel, organ, electric guitar and percussion.Sparse textures, a simple rustic backporch ambience and a defiantly lo-fi recording using analog equipment – that’s the recipe for a gently compelling set that really delivers, from dextrous instrumentals like Spanish Fandango to more feisty treatments of K.C. Jones and Black Jack Daisy, the primitive folky blues of Break The Old to the creepy uke-led When Death Come and the primordial Lomax-archive feel of Whiskey Johnny. Partner Nicole helps Aaron out on backing vocals, and Katie Glassman (fiddle) and Neil McCormick (bass) flesh out the instrumentation ever so slightly on a few tracks, but for the most part all you hear is the striking yet unassuming musical personality of Aaron himself. It’s so interesting that I guess now I need to backtrack and seek out volume 1…

www.quietamericanmusic.com

David Kidman


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Bryony Griffith & Will Hampson – LADY DIAMOND (Selwyn Music SYNMCD. 0007)

It’s incredible to realise, but Bryony and Will have been musical associates for nigh on 18 years, ever since they began working together in the ceilidh band Bedlam, their paths coinciding at various points including session work with Bellowhead and the Kate Rusby Band and latterly a lengthy (ongoing) stint with the mighty Demon Barbers; and yet this is their first CD release as official duo partners.
Their energetic and thoroughly complementary musicianship is apparent immediately you place this disc in the player, with Bryony’s distinctive singing and swinging, swaying fiddle work and Will’s lively and presence-filled melodeon playing proving ideal musical bedfellows. On this record, they’ve chosen to showcase their talents to best advantage by aiming to approximate as closely as possible a live performance – which means no overdubs or guest artists – and good for them, for the result is full of the desired immediacy, transparently truthful and musically satisfying. Bryony’s playing has an attractive tone and appealing character, while Will’s melodeon work often exhibits the unusual virtues of unobtrusiveness and sensitivity alongside its keen rhythmic drive and expressive élan. There really can be no criticism of either performer’s technique, and the tune-sets are both well-upholstered and listener-friendly. Bryony’s vocal style is consistent almost to a fault – and that is where a casual listener’s reservation may lie, for her delivery, although admirably distinctive, tends to employ much the same kind of phrasing (with a slightly predictable pattern whereby many individual words are sung as two run-together notes) whatever the song or its emotional import, this particular expressive device becoming a bit of a mannerism by the time you’re only a few tracks into the album. I’ve heard Bryony’s voice likened to Fay Hield and Eliza Carthy, and I can hear elements of both singers, especially on items like The Heysham Peace-Egging Song, but this is no bad thing!
And the consistency of Bryony’s singing voice provides a constant focus to enable a greater variety of timbre and dynamics the two players are able to coax from their instruments, while their intuitive rapport always impresses. And there’s a complete change of climate just after halfway through the disc when Bryony moves across to the piano to accompany herself on a passionate interpretation of The Constant Lovers. Interpretation-wise, I’ve no quarrel with Bryony, and she seems to have the measure of her material generally, although one or two of the ballads sound a touch chirpy (notably the title track, which after all is a murder ballad…). The sources from which the duo have derived their own performing versions of the various songs and tunes are – laudably – duly credited in the booklet notes, but I did find myself wanting to check some of the texts on occasions where Bryony’s diction was a touch imprecise. Nevertheless, this is overall a pleasing and assured recorded debut for Bryony and Will outside of a full band setting.

www.bryonyandwill.co.uk

David Kidman


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Susan Enan – PLAINSONG (Feast Music Group FMG. 01)

Susan’s name surfaced as a contributor to Market Square’s The Wildlife Album a few years back, but this seems to be her first full-length collection. It’s a well-produced (self-produced and self-released) set, on which her captivating voice is given full rein (if sometimes a touch closely recorded) to fulsome, quite ornate musical arrangements involving a host of musicians I’d not previously heard of (including Steve Schiltz, Jez Carr, Oli Kraus and Graham Maby) and richly textured instrumentation including guitars, cello, other strings, bass and drums and occasional brass and keyboards. Susan’s currently based in New York, but was born here in England (a glottal stop in her singing betrays this occasionally); she’s recently returned to the UK to give an exhaustive series of house concerts (all the rage nowadays it appears!) taking in close on 3,000 miles the length and breadth of the country. I admire her enterprise, so all power to her, then – and I’d imagine those concerts must have been pretty intense experiences judging from the powerful effect this CD has. Perhaps especially in the case of the final track, The Grave, which on this CD finds Susan solo, sat at the piano, close and upfront.What of her songwriting then? – well, Rolling Stone magazine is quoted as saying that “her forlorn, hyper-romantic lyrics are what you’d expect from a girl who reads Shakespeare”, which is probably as meaningless as it is self-apparently contradictory! Thankfully, those lyrics are all reprinted within the enclosed lavish booklet, alongside some attractive photographic portraits of Susan herself (shades of Star Trek’s Deanna Troi character, I thought). I did in fact find Susan’s music very appealing indeed – and her songs have a habit of growing on me, quite a lot.

www.susanenan.com

David Kidman


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Tim Edey – SAILING OVER THE 7TH STRING (Gnatbite Records GB20)

Here’s another of those instrumental records for those who don’t think they like instrumental records! Don’t switch off, just turn on… Who’s this young whippersnapper Tim Edey then? Well, he’s a guitarist par excellence for a start, and a box player of no lesser ability; and he plays several more instruments indecently well too. The dazzling career of this multi-talented anglo-Irish musician thus far has borne fruit in considerable critical acclaim (a double-award winner at last year’s BBC Folk Awards) and his much-in-demand status for recording and performing gigs with other high-profile musicians; and only a couple of years back, he released a career-spanning CD (The Best Of Tim Edey) which brought his name to the attention of an even wider public than hitherto. Considering Tim’s extraordinary abilities as an instrumentalist, I was perhaps a little surprised to find him engaging a number of other musician friends in order to go Sailing Over The 7th String, but then again he’s obviously built up such an impressive address-book of musical collaborators whose specific instrumental skills are familiar to him. For this collection he’s chosen fiddler Patsy Reid (who also contributes string arrangements), guitarist Steve Cooney (who’s also composed the contrasting opening and closing tracks) and percussionist Lucy Randall; naturally, the remainder of the instruments (guitars of the acoustic, jazz and electric varieties, also occasionally some melodeon) are played spellbindingly by Tim himself. The disc’s 11 tracks run the entire gamut of musical styles, all with considerable flair; ranging from funky polkas (Cooney’s Polcas) to the saucy Rumba Negra, from lyrical pieces such as the tone-poems Journey To Mull and Beautiful Lake Ainslie and Scottish and Irish slow airs to sinuous flamenco (Jenny’s Tune), with an excursion into even more unexpected territory just before the close (a gypsy-jazz take on Swanee River). My personal picks for highlights? Where strict-tempo strathspey is succeeded by syncopated swing step on Crossing To The Cape; the jig & reel combo fun of Ava’s Dance; and the thoughtful JPs set. Although Tim’s chameleon-like ability to move effortlessly and seamlessly between tempos and genres is very much a feature of this album, that doesn’t mean it’s in any way a breathless or whirlwind listening experience, and the end result is entertaining in the extreme – and cleanly, crisply recorded. Tho’ if I’m honest, I do feel that at 36 minutes playing-time I’ve been mildly shortchanged in the end, quality notwithstanding.

www.timedey.co.uk

David Kidman



Tim Edey & Brendan Power – WRIGGLE AND WRITHE (Gnatbite Records GB. 010)

Two of Britain’s top-calibre instrumentalists from the acoustic Celtic scene came together to play at an impromptu festival jam session and were sufficiently inspired by this experience to decide to team up for a full recording. OK, we’ve heard that story quite a number of times lately, but this pairing is a stunner, and no mistake. Brendan’s virtuosity on the diatonic and chromatic harmonicas has for several years been the stuff of legend, while Tim’s multi-instrumental skills (button accordion and guitar) are respected right across the acoustic scene. As soon as you hear the two musicians playing together you wonder why this incredibly natural-sounding pairing had never happened sooner, such is their empathic joie-de-vivre and intensely dazzling intuitive invention. They’re born improvisers, and take the tunes on flights of fancy that quite literally take your breath away – but as the opening reel-set demonstrates, togetherness right from the outset is a strength that even some of the duos who’ve been playing together longer aren’t always able to command. There’s a miraculous sense of ebb and flow in the playing and the interaction between parts, and a compelling sense of forward drive whether on the blistering uptempo tune-sets or the more reflective pieces like Thomas Walsh’s Innisheer. From the creative swinging syncopations of Brendan’s self-penned title track with its twisting guitar rhythms to the cheeky brilliance of Tim’s ebullient Baltic Crossing, the joyous session-style feel of The Mountain Road set and the footstomping Irishness of The Lilting Banshee/The Corner House medley, the vibe is irresistible.
As well as the expected instrumental showcases, the 17 tracks on this well-filled CD include a small handful of vocal numbers, one of which (Tim’s pensive Why) marks Tim’s singing debut on record. Brendan’s responsible for a rip-roaring V For Blues and a tongue-in-cheek ode to his GPS (Our Lady Of The Road), and appealingly wistful covers of songs by Steve Cooney and Enda McCabe. Even on these tracks the playing is outstanding, but it’s still to the instrumental showcases that I’ll return the most, I suspect, in particular the opening Celtic Thunder set, the gently flowing O’Carolan Tune and the sparklingly nifty Danovska Horo. It’s a source of constant amazement how genuinely non-boring the unusual combination of button accordion and harmonica is, and the introduction of guitar textures proves just a tonic rather than generating a sense of relief from the reedier timbres. The whole record is fabulously well engineered, perspectives and balance absolutely ideal without being too “in your face”, and the sequencing of varying moods is superbly done to make for an entertaining programme that’s good to listen right through in one sitting. My only puzzlement is that the package promises “detailed information on the album tracks” if one visits the duo’s website, but I couldn’t find any there… Tim and Brendan’s forthcoming main UK touring schedule is during November.

www.edeyandpower.com

David Kidman


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Book Review:Jeanette Leech – SEASONS THEY CHANGE: THE STORY OF ACID, PSYCH AND EXPERIMENTAL FOLK (Jawbone Press)

There can be no challenging Jeanette’s credentials for researching and authoring the valuable and often convoluted story of this often-misunderstood branch of folk music culture; as writer and B-Music Collective DJ she’s immersed herself in its garden of earthly delights and thus is well versed in the intricacies of its development. So – how well is this story told? And what can we learn from this chunky volume’s 368 pages? In accessible, readable language, without resorting to glib generalisations or sweeping unproven statements, Jeanette tells of the birth, death and resurrection of acid and psych folk, exploring the careers of first the original waves of artists and then of their contemporary equivalents, finding insightful connections between both periods of activity and with the inevitable benefit of hindsight uncovering some hitherto unimagined narratives that grant a fresh perspective on the achievements of both past and present exponents of the sub-genres. It’s never been easy to find a good, and all-embracing, meaningful definition, but Jeanette offers this as a correction to the oft-pedalled misconception that linked the sub-genre exclusively with the excessive use of drugs: “It wasn’t folk music made under the influence of LSD per se, but folk music profoundly affected by the attitudes of exploration that also prompted the use of hallucinogens”. The openness to often bold experimentation in an effort to communicate folk tradition more effectively, in other words – which like all such trials would involve both serendipity and unpredictability (the music of the Incredible String Band being for me the prime example of this fortuitous dichotomy). Some of the sub-genre’s artists achieved greater fame and subsequently made less interesting music, while others languished in complete obscurity for their entire existence and their music is now prized for its entrenched artistic excellence. And of course, trends and fashions have always played a part in the genre’s development and reception, just as with any musical genre containing more than a hint of intelligence in its execution. Sadly but inevitably, the need for a certain amount of pigeonholing and categorisation will always be with us, and occasionally the boundaries are necessarily blurred, but key to Jeanette’s method (and success) is her refusal to make swift and casual value judgements for the sake of controversy, preferring to let the developmental stories unfold on either side of the Atlantic Ocean.Drawbacks?
Well, it’s impossible to avoid a certain degree of temporal overlap, however the linear elements of the narrative might be arranged chronologically, and there are some individual bands or solo artists whose careers are better (even arguably less dismissively – though I’m sure that’s not Jeanette’s intention) covered elsewhere by more authoritative writers with a deeper level of specialism. But for a general-bordering-on-specialist overview of the whole story, Jeanette succeeds admirably in painting an informed and largely unprejudiced picture of the development and onward dissemination of this music in all its diverse, often weird and wonderful forms. She’s also strong on unearthing and discussing some of the recorded products of the byways of the sub-genre which have hitherto been the province of the anorak – and such is the musical worth of many of these that they simply do not deserve to languish in oblivion (although to be fair, there are probably half as many again with a more dubious claim to their legendary status!). Even as a long-term fan of the genre and a tireless rooter-out of obscurities and also-rans, I’ve been encouraged by references in Jeanette’s book to make a note to investigate a considerable number of albums, some by artists I’d not previously imagined in the context of acid-folk. If I had the space here, I’d be likely to embark on a proper evaluative discussion of Jeanette’s treatment of individual artists or themes, but sadly that’s not the case. Instead, all I can do is heartily recommend this book to anyone with the remotest hint of an enquiring musical mind or a predilection for the unusual or imaginative side of folk music.If your musical tastes stretch to, or have ever pointed their antenna at all in the directions of, envelope-pushing acts such as the ISB, Dr. Strangely Strange, Trees, Fairport Convention, Pentangle, Shirley Collins, Tyrannosaurus Rex, Wizz Jones, Forest, Comus, Mellow Candle, Trader Horne, Holy Modal Rounders, Tim Buckley, Roy Harper, and more latterly figures such as Alasdair Roberts, King Creosote, Joanna Newsom, Mary Hampton, Trembling Bells, The Owl Service and The Memory Band, then sections of this book will surely appeal to you – and mark my words, you’ll be so engrossed that you’ll definitely be spurred on to reading about, then obtaining recordings of, artists referred to in the text, then following the multifarious leads and connections wherever they may take you (and perhaps even spotting new ones of your own). Seasons They Change can be read in isolation, but it can also be usefully taken as a complementary volume to Rob Young’s recent, equally valuable (albeit more opinionated) Electric Eden. This parallel-reading will no doubt encourage you to enjoy formulating even more outrageous theories about cross-currents and influences, but it will also make it even harder to ignore the impact of this mighty (and often underappreciated) branch of folk music.

David Kidman


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Megan Henwood – MAKING WAVES (Dharma Records DHARMACD. 11)

Henley-on-Thames-born singer-songwriter Megan is already noted for making waves; after winning the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award at age 20 in 2009 (along with her saxophonist brother Joe), and performing at some prestigious festivals (Cambridge, Cropredy, Glastonbury) during summer 2010, her debut single What Elliott Said gained key radio playlist exposure last autumn. The follow-on album, now released to herald a further string of festival appearances this summer, confirms Megan’s stature as a writer who’s careful to consider the implications of her thoughts when crafting them into song.
Megan’s performing and songwriting CV was launched at the age of nine, but her more recent work has been informed by subsequent life experiences including busking in various foreign lands and performing with Nepalese musicians, then, back in the UK, regularly contributing to music therapy sessions for people with learning difficulties. Megan’s innate skill in communicating with people is evident in the open-hearted and readily accessible language in which her songs are couched; they may cover familiar s/s territory, sure, but their assured simplicity and directness is hard to resist. Megan’s zest for life survives despite the many challenges and difficulties she faces; her lyrics suggest that we can always derive strength from embracing an attitude of optimism which will serve to keep life in balance. Megan’s songs typically begin with a reminder of life’s darker side, which is then countered by a drawing a thoughtfully upbeat conclusion: Hope On The Horizon is a good example of this, as is Free And Focused, which examines the dilemma of personal perception (contrasting one’s own with other folks’ impressions). On Counting The Birds Megan takes a frank look at the career path she’s chosen, examining self-doubt and its emotional rollercoaster through an affirmation of strength of character, while White Lies is a desperately tender expression of wounded heartbreak. With voice-and-guitar intimacy, The Honest Song questions what may or may not be unrequited love with painful, apprehensive but heartfelt candour.
Megan invests the gentle sensory overload of Shape And Colour with an appealing freshness, while her contribution to political commentary is the title track’s defiant call-to-arms against apathy-disguised-as-freedom. Musical settings are textured yet light and airy, quite fulsome at times yet blessed with a knowing clarity that gives Megan’s supple voice plenty of room to breathe her innermost feelings out through and above the elegant instrumentation (cannily, Megan’s surrounded herself with a host of fine musicians including Steeleye violinist Peter Knight and Tull drummer Barrie Barlow).This is an impressive debut: the album of a youthful singer-songwriter who’s already come a long way but recognises there’s still some way to go yet on life’s learning curve.

www.meganhenwood.com

David Kidman


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Various Artists – FRESH HANDMADE SOUND: SYNAESTHESIA/VALIDATION/FROM SOURCE TO SEA/ THE SPELL (Lush 001/002/003/004)

When just glancing at the above generic title (Fresh Handmade Sound), this collection of four (separately-available) FHS packages might seem quite an unprepossessing proposition, nay even pretentious; and indeed, a straight and honest description of their contents would be that they form, respectively, the soundtrack (CDs) and visual accompaniment (DVDs) to a menu of four different massage treatments carried out at the spas run by Lush Cosmetics.

But don’t be put off by the new-age terminology, or by the stated philosophy or raison-d’être, for the discs are well worth your investigation. They’re the considered product of an imaginative collaboration between leading experimental musician Simon Emmerson (of Imagined Village and Afro-Celt Sound System) and Lush’s co-founder Mark Constantine: a project which, characteristically innovatively, pushes the boundaries of folk tradition and ambient music and takes you on a specific journey (ostensibly with the aim of allowing you to re-create the relaxing, tranquil atmosphere of the spa in your own home).

Folk and mood music is interspersed with natural sounds – primarily those of waves and birdsong, specially recorded for this project by Mark’s outfit The Sound Approach, which includes some unusual and rarely-heard species like nightjars, petrels and the exotic (and elusive) Scandinavian Hawk Owl (what a call!). Three principal groups of musicians are involved: The Petrels, Walking With Ghosts and The Nightjar Orchestra. Those cryptic names conceal the presence of (variously) Jackie Oates, Belinda O’Hooley, Simon Emmerson, Richard Evans, Barney Morse-Brown and Andy Gangadeen, with contributions and cameos from John Jones, Martin Carthy, Eliza Carthy, Show Of Hands, Paul Sartin, Rosie Doonan, Ben Murray, Ali Friend, Simon Richmond, Ged Lynch, Mass, Kate Garrett, Angie Pollock and various other Imagined Village residents.

Of the four discs, From Source To Sea (which is meant to accompany a deep tissue massage) is definitely the most invigorating, but also probably the most immediately folk-accessible and the one that stands up best to independent listening in its own right, as well as arguably the most consistently interesting in a musical sense. Basically it presents a sequence of creative reworkings of traditional shanties and sea-songs, some of which ingeniously incorporate samples of past exponents of that folk sub-genre (Bert Lloyd, Ewan MacColl, Stan Kelly and even Harry H. Corbett) – although many listeners will consider the gorgeous flowing arrangement of Essequibo River by The Petrels (Jackie & Belinda) to be the real pearl of the disc, although the episodic Sail Boat Malarkey turns out to be quite an epic. The melange of shanty and The Clash with its SOH/Carthy incursion just has to be heard, as does Bert Lloyd’s Bonny Ship The Diamond entwined with a dash of Egyptian Reggae and the sound of MacColl and Sam Larner struttin’ their bell-bottomed stuff to a funky brassy beat on Mr. Stormalong! The closing Pugwash-soaked medley brings high-spirited fun, while the swaying slow-skank of Away Haul Away might well invite comparison with the recent Bellowhead stomper, I guess… This disc’s way of presenting modern reinterpretations of shanties, by claiming them as such, is certainly valid (as opposed to presenting the likes of Fisherman’s Friends as “the real authentic thing”, which is blatant misrepresentation IMHO).

The bird sounds on this disc are typical of those throughout the set: excellently recorded and edited and intensely evocative, better than demonstration standard and I’m sure of great interest to ornithologists too. (I would however take minor issue with the inclusion of curlews and whinchats within the general seascape-themed scenario of this disc!) To be fair, there are times on Synaesthesia in particular when the bird recordings seem both more prevalent and more dominant and the music is sublimated somewhat, while here it also feels as though the wonderful, mesmerising Imagined Village treatment of Scarborough Fair has been tacked on at the end of the disc as compensation for that CD’s rather more ambient (and less folk-inspired) nature and sequence of music.

The Validation disc might appear to overdose on wave-sounds at times, but the musical content is absolutely enchanting, ranging from Jackie & Belinda’s four brilliantly intimate tracks to Rosie’s driftily lush-ious and extended account of the Elton John number Love Song and a rather melancholy, if splendidly earthy (but frustratingly truncated) Eliza C version of I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside.

The final disc, The Spell, contains three further Imagined Village tracks amidst the birdsong and waves, and presents another persuasive and atmospheric sequence, of which the highlight is probably the sitar-rich mystic psych-folk of Coastal Road. Which brings me to one criticism of the otherwise quite exhaustive credits on the inner sleeves of each disc package: an inconsistency in the denoting of authorship for the composed (as opposed to traditional) sources, whereby Walking With Ghosts’ curiously emotionally-misplaced-sounding take on Where Ravens Feed rightly acknowledges the use of Graeme Miles’ iconic lyrics, but neither Love Song, Bank Robber nor Egyptian Reggae, nor any of the original Imagined Village compositions, are bestowed with any composer credits.

But – and entirely against the odds, you might think – this series of discs is quite inspirational, for it brings much soothing and stimulating (and also intriguing and enjoyable) music that possesses and communicates a very potent sense of time and place alongside its psychologically therapeutic and purely musical values; and (as an entirely unexpected bonus) they form a distinctive and beautifully aromatic addition to my CD library! While it will be pretty obvious from viewing the DVDs after listening to the CDs that to undergo the actual massages thereafter or in tandem would bring the necessary (and vital) third dimension into play and complete the enable the body to respond on the full cellular level to the experience… www.lush.co.uk

David Kidman


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Various Artists – YELLOWBELLIES 3 (YBR)

Six years ago, Faldingworth Live’s Les Worrall put together Yellowbellies, a superb charity compilation CD of “songs and tunes from Lincolnshire’s finest”, and a couple of years later, in 2007, followed this with volume 2, which was every bit as brilliant. Needless to say, when planning volume 3 Les was again confronted with an embarrassment of riches, rendering the unavoidable and unenviable decisions on whom to leave out even more difficult, even when stretching the available capacity of a CD out to its absolute maximum of just over 79 minutes!

Once more, then, we’re treated to a continuous parade of Lincolnshire’s finest folk music talent, and this time all proceeds go to Macmillan Cancer Support (again all artists have donated their contributions freely and happily). It could be argued that although the county’s fine own-grown songwriters are still well represented, the focus is here rather less on specifically local themes than on the previous two Yellowbellies CDs. I’m in no doubt that fully justifying the proud status as the collection’s theme song must be Stitherum’s fun celebration of Lincolnshire dialect Our Yellowbelly Greeting, a prime example of good old-fashioned Lincolnshire humour that’s dispatched with all this popular duo’s customary aplomb.

Elsewhere, Akmed’s Camel take us for a trip on board The Boston Flyer; some rather more obvious selections include Yarmouth Town (a suitably animated account by Monkey’s Orphan) and Bob Roberts’ jovial Humber Belle (dispatched with gusto by Liam Robinson), while Richard Digance’s Colours Of The Sunrise still cannot help but evoke for many of us the county’s special character, especially in this affectionate rendition by Gwenda & Terry Cater. Dave & Julie Evardson’s No Man Of Mine is also written very much from the heart. It’s good to find a sample here of the mildly idiosyncratic talent of Big Al Whittle, who gives us a rather individual, yet worthily different take on Peggy Gordon that provides one of the disc’s highlights. I also liked the understated but persuasive cover of Dougie MacLean’s enigmatic Garden Valley by Caistor-based duo Helian Keys, and Cara’s gentle but effective treatment of the maritime classic One More Day.

Cara are but one of the acts here that had also appeared on previous Yellowbellies collections; the county’s celebrated ceilidh band Ploughmen’s Bunch contribute one of member Steve Jackson’s compositions, while WinterWilson’s self-penned I Wish I Could Turn Back Time is another inspired choice. And of course no folk music fan would ever deny the warmest of welcomes into their homes time after time for the likes of Bill Whaley & Dave Fletcher, Mike Wray, John Blanks and John Conolly! However, some readers may initially be puzzled by the inclusion of tracks by Pilgrims’ Way and Blackbeard’s Tea Party (since neither band is Lincolnshire-based); the explanation is that Lucy Wright and Paul Young (who front those respective bands) regularly performed at both Faldingworth Live and Gainsborough Folk Club as a duo in their pre-Uni days… hey, local folks made good or wot?…

Although the latter two bands’ contributions are already available on existing releases, well over half of the remainder aren’t, thus adding considerably to the value of the disc and making it an even more attractive proposition. Narrthen, mayte!… http://www.yellowbellies.me.uk/yellowbellies_3_cd.html

David Kidman


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Kasin & Adrianowicz – WITH SHIPMATES ALL AROUND (Handspikes Music HM CD. 102)

San Francisco shanty singers Peter and Richard’s followup to their excellent 2007 CD Cast Off Each Line is actually an even broader selection of “songs sung by seamen” than either of its illustrious predecessors, and the performances by Peter and Richard (with an occasional chorus of fellow Bay Area shanty singers in tow) are entirely in character and replete with exactly the right measure of spirit and commitment and necessary gusto (without ever overdoing the latter). Sure, shanties (chanteys) and hauling-songs together comprise around half of the 21 tracks, and although these typically tend to be fairly obscure examples, little-known or rarely heard even by the standards of specialist maritime singers and shanty-crews, they all prove worth resurrecting (there’s even a rather fine Stormalong variant I’d not come across before…), and each example has its source duly credited in the digipack’s admirably well-researched liner notes.

Aside from the acappella chanteys (of which Peter and Richard take a more or less equal share of the shantyman’s role), the disc also contains three examples of popular songs adapted for shipboard use. Firstly there’s the sentimental, old-fashioned Come, Loose Every Sail To The Breeze, which is given an honest and direct passion by Richard here. The other two popular songs on the CD both demonstrate how chanteymen used humour to lift the sailors’ spirit: John Brown’s Body extolled the dubious attributes of the skipper’s daughter, while Goodnight, Ladies even appeared in Hugill’s Shanties From The Seven Seas – both were adapted for use at the capstan, so naturally had plenty of “floating” verses! Other categories of maritime song represented on this CD include the sea ballad (Red Iron Ore, from the Great Lakes region, sung solo by Richard, is a disc highlight), the modern sea song (Geoff Higginbottom’s atmospheric I Sailed The Sea, which I’ve greatly enjoyed singing myself over the past few years), and a splendid patriotic forebitter from the 1840s (taken from Joanna Colcord’s collection), The Jamestown Homeward Bound, which sports a gloriously rousing, if slightly tricky tune (a little reminiscent of Maui but somewhat more interesting!) that virtually begs you to sing along… On the remaining three selections – sea ballads from Ireland and Dundee – a judicious instrumental accompaniment is employed.

This is a grand collection indeed, well worth seeking out: one that’s powerfully sung throughout, and which contains more than its fair share of treasurable gems. Although the digipack’s succinct notes probably contain more than sufficient background information to whet one’s immediate appetite, more detailed liner notes and complete lyrics are available either at present by contacting Richard direct (email radriano50@gmail.com), or very soon via the new, improved website www.capstanbars.com.

David Kidman


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Tara Nevins – WOOD AND STONE (Sugar Hill SUG-CD. 4064)

The band Donna The Buffalo has been one of the most scintillating of the country-roots outfits of the past two decades, and I think they’re still going, although I’ve not heard from them for ages. Ditto their long-time key member, vocalist/fiddler/accordionist/guitarist Tara Nevins – she’s not released a solo album since 1999 (Mule To Ride), so the arrival of Wood And Stone was very welcome here. It marks a fresh stage in her exploration of personal and relationship issues, and yet its musical idiom is for the most part (especially in its early stages) more uptempo country-roots than old-time melancholy. The latter category provides the disc with its most touching moments however: the lilting, chugging beauty of Snowbird and the tender resignation of Stars Fell From Alabama. The swinging retro-western harmony-laden The Wrong Side is neatly managed too, while the dark brooding of Tennessee River provides a contrasting standout cut. Tara shows herself capable of true grit too, on the wittier, more realistic and aware stance of You’ve Got It All. The disc also contains a reliable instrumental cut (Nothing Really), and closes in style with a fine, if cathartic Van Morrison cover (The Beauty Of The Days Gone By) that sure finds Tara in tune with its sentiments. A vital element of the overall sound of this album is the presence of master musician Larry Campbell (who’s also in the producer’s chair), delivering plenty of glorious pedal steel work. Others involved include Byron Isaacs (upright bass), Justin Guip (drums), Beverly Smith (guitar) and Rose Sinclair (banjo), and there are guest appearances by Levon Helm, Teresa Williams, Allison Moorer and Jim Lauderdale. Tara herself is on splendid form, which only makes me wonder why we don’t hear more of her these days.

www.taranevins.com

David Kidman


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Josh T. Pearson – LAST OF THE COUNTRY GENTLEMEN (Mute ACDSTUMM326)

Originally from Texas, Josh T. Pearson formed the “apocalyptic psychedelia trio” Lift To Experience back in 2001; they released one lone album The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads before splitting up, and such was the impact of that album that John Peel gave the band three sessions in the space of five months! Following the split, however, Josh disappeared from the scene, releasing just one record, a joint single with the Dirty Three, between then and now. Last Of The Country Gentlemen could thus be counted as his debut album. It’s every bit as intense and uncompromising as the Lift To Experience music: predominantly slow-to-medium-paced, with a quietly anguished, pained demeanour and lyrics of a defiantly cathartic nature, to a backdrop scored for often fragmentary acoustic guitar figures and melancholy, transparent string (cello, violin) lines.

The songs are desolate and rambling, following sometimes hesitant, almost improvisatory melody lines that seem not to flow in any conventional sense and are thus difficult to grasp even on subsequent hearings. Four of the album’s seven tracks weigh in at well over ten minutes, and arguably the most rewarding way to pursue their charms is to take them in individual sittings, for the cumulative effect over the whole album’s 58-minute span is somewhat stifling. By following this procedure, there are considerable rewards to be gained for the listening, and tracks like Sorry With A Song (set to a continually rippling classical-Spanish guitar filigree) turn out to be very captivating indeed – and even if the softly but precisely enunciated lyrics are at times desperately enigmatic, Josh’s distinctive delivery is pretty much unique, with choked, naked raw emotion high in the mix. And whilst there’s considerable delicacy amongst the sorrowful angst, this is definitely not easy listening in any sense of the term. Even the closing miniature Drive Her Out, which clocks in at a mere two-and-a-half minutes, has more of the feel of a hymnal than therapy (Mike Heron’s beauteous Air seems to lurk in the background). Then again, tracks like the keeningly-scored Country Dumb can be almost as painful as they are emotionally exhilarating; cheery confessional this most certainly ain’t.

But there’s no escaping that the whole album represents an extraordinary songwriting achievement; I’d hesitate right now to call it a masterpiece, since I just don’t have the time right now to give it the time needed to evaluate it properly on that level – but I’d not be surprised if it receives that very acclamation from critics who do have the time to so do.

www.joshtpearson.co.uk

David Kidman


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Gillian Welch – THE HARROW AND THE HARVEST (Acony 5052498671724)

It’s all of eight years since Gillian’s last CD, Soul Journey, but the timeless nature of the music on her new record, The Harrow And The Harvest, gives every bit the impression of picking up exactly where the earlier one left off (it’s impossible to believe that Gillian had suffered an intense and lengthy creative block in the interim), for it brings a collection of ten self-penned songs that’s equally priceless and every bit as compelling as her earlier work. She and David Rawlings have sure got their spare, telling, stripped-down presentation down to a fine art, and that unmistakable bare-bones twin-guitar signature pervades the ether, occasionally leavened with banjo or harmonica. As for the songwriting, well it’s typically dark, gloomy and yes, fatalistic, most all the way through, but hey somehow it doesn’t leave you down in the depths of depression but instead curiously energised. It’s not easy to write about this latest batch of songs without going into excessive expository detail, but suffice to say they’re all infused with that primordial southern spirit, that stolid acceptance of fate, and the melodies to which they’re set are similarly infused and tellingly punctuated with reminiscences of old songs echoing around the licks and fills. Even the ostensibly forward-looking optimism of Hard Times (Ain’t Gonna Rule My Mind) is coloured by fate, while the cheeky percussive stance of Six White Horses seems a sardonic commentary on the song’s funereal depiction, Tennessee examines the circumstances that led its protagonist to embark on a life of sin, and Down Along The Dixie Line suffuses happier nostalgia with melancholy. A fine set indeed, replete with the hushed togetherness of two souls so utterly steeped in their own music-making.

www.gillianwelch.com

David Kidman


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The Wailin’ Jennys – BRIGHT MORNING STARS (True North TND. 543)

The brand name of this celebrated Canadian female trio has always been synonymous with stylish and tasty folk-roots music; it has, however, always seemed mildly fated, in that founder members Ruth Moody and Nicky Mehta have twice now had to embrace a lineup change (original third member Cara Luft having been replaced in 2004 by Annabelle Chvostek, who on her departure in 2007 was succeeded by Heather Masse).

The Jennys’ albums have tended to prove in the first instance quite slow-burn but in the long term distinct stayers, and this new release, number four in the sequence if you count their EP debut, is no exception. It’s a long five years since their award-winning Firecracker album, but the Jennys’ fiercely democratic modus-operandi is retained in the equal-handedness with which the songwriting credits are meted out on their latest, with each of the ladies being allotted four titles. The thirteenth item (the disc’s title song) is a spine-tinglingly poised and glacially beautiful adaptation of the time-honoured Southern Baptist hymn, sung acappella of course, on which each individual strand is both pure and clear and clearly audible in relation to its place within the group texture with close observance of both kinds of dynamic.

The brilliantly incisive recording so faithfully captures the individual and combined vocal nuances and relationships, and it goes without saying that this facet will always be considered the Jennys’ principal selling-point: fine singers with gorgeous voices who naturally blend and cohere and harmonise. And yet there’s so much more to this trio, for each of them is an extremely able and highly persuasive songwriter (and more than competent musician too as it happens, although they’ve also engaged a handful of other players for the album sessions including Paul Mathew, Colin Cripps, Kevin Breit, Bill Dillon and Ruth’s brother Richard).

The Jennys’ writing shows them to be well versed in sub-genre and crossover stylings, from the light-textured ukulele-accompanied back-porch folk of Away But Never Gone to the understated delicacy of All The Stars, the 40s/50s gentle-swing ambience of Cherry Blossom Love to the gospel-soul mood of Storm Comin’ (both embracing Heather’s jazz-singer training). Less is invariably more, even in the songs that incorporate marginally fuller musical settings, for the degree of restraint both in terms of delivery and arrangement is a major factor in the communicative success of the Jennys’ music. Heather’s Across The Sea, which enchants the ear from its opening acappella clarion-call and gains warmth with guitar and then flugel-horn, is a case in point in that regard, and the tender Asleep At Last comes very close to that standout song. But the whole album contains plenty else that constitutes serious magic too.

www.thewailinjennys.com

David Kidman


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Phil Odgers – SUNDAY MORNING COMING DOWN (EP) (Vinyl Star VSREP. 001)

Main-man vocalist of The Men They Couldn’t Hang (aka Swill) chances his hand under his own name on a 16-minute EP that describes itself as “a fistful of covers”. These are no mere afterthoughts tossed off on a whim during an idle moment in the studio, but a compelling adjunct to Phil’s long years of recording original material with the aforementioned outfit. All but one are centred round Phil’s voice and acoustic guitar, with a smidgen of harmonica and some subtle embellishments from Mick Glossop (electric guitar, keyboards and programming) here and there; these are involving (and involved) interpretations that have clearly been thought carefully about, of songs with which Phil equally clearly feels a personal connection. But curiously, the writing credits are nowhere to be found on the cardboard sleeve… Tales of hangovers, heartbreak and hopelessness, sure – and songs that’ve at one time or another also fitted squarely into being outed on “the acoustic section of TMTCH gigs or on family occasions”. Two of the songs (Kris Kristofferson’s Sunday Morning Coming Down, and I’m A Lonesome Fugitive, normally associated with Merle Haggard) Phil tells us he’d sourced from versions that Gene Vincent made at the tail-end of his career – but Phil really makes these his own. Fools, we learn, comes from an obscure duet recorded by Peter Perret and Pauline Murray – but I'm almost sure I know it from somewhere else, can’t fathom where exactly… The Parting Glass is cocooned in a swooning wash of keyboard drone, but makes its impact tellingly and without being overpowered by that accompaniment, while the collection closes on an appealingly laconic note with Tom Waits’ wistful waltzer Bottom Of The World. If the quality of these five tracks is anything to go by, Phil’s promised forthcoming full-length album of new solo material is going to be something quite special.

www.tmtch.net

David Kidman


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Hilary James – English Sketches (Acoustic Records CDACS 059)

I don’t generally like repeating what has been said in sleeve-notes but for those not in the know, the wonderfully gifted Hilary James possess a voice that is quintessentially English and as such performs with diction that would put many of the current crop of ‘so-called’ TV presenters to shame. On this recording (and all her previous albums) James’s dulcet tones will possibly inveigle their way into your memory in much the same way they did for me casting my mind back to when I was at junior school and although nostalgia can be a funny thing I can distinctly remember listening in awe of ‘folk’ singers such as Shirley Abicair and Isla St Clair. As you would expect, emanating from the outstanding catalogue of music provided by Acoustic Records this recording has quality stamped throughout it and in addition to the established trad arr, Hilary’s settings of the words of Shakespeare, Hardy and Baring-Gould are genuinely exquisite. Of course, being joined in exalted company by Simon Mayor (mandolins/violin and guitar etc) and Belshazzar’s Feast aka Paul Sartin (oboe) & Paul Hutchinson (accordion) amongst others the technical, but never sterile skills of all involved is more than impressive. This is the kind of album that will not only settle comfortably in any true ‘folk’ enthusiasts record collection but will also impress anyone who feels they want to add the words ‘musical taste’ to their CV.

www.folksong.co.uk

Pete Fyfe


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Giles Robson & The Dirty Aces – CROOKED HEART OF MINE (Movinmusic MMR. 003)

Giles Robson is a melodic blues harmonica player highly rated by a host of fellow musicians from Paul Jones to Tom Robinson, and on this album with his crack band The Dirty Aces he weaves a range of gritty out-of-blues influences into his material with a degree of inventiveness and conviction that’s not exactly endemic to blues specialists. Having said that, it would help if the writing were a touch more distinctive (the bulk of the tracks are straight co-writes between Giles and band guitarist Filip Kozlowski), and his vocal work is possibly a little undercharacterised (although you soon get used to that). The band gives an exciting edge to Giles’s compositions though, and whether essaying a no-nonsense Feelgood-style stomping groove (The Mighty Incinerator, Keep On Diggin’) or a driving gypsy-jazz-swing styling (Devil Led Evil) or a melancholic, smoochy country-blues (Crooked Heart Of Mine) or even some powerhouse southern-fried boogie (Stick To The Promise), the result is nearly always sufficiently credible to be worth persisting onto a second or third playthrough. I did find, however, that beyond that point a kind of diminishing return applied, and while there’s no denying the quality of the playing in any way I was by that time starting to find the music a touch dull. The most interesting track for me, ironically, was the guitar-heavy finale Ain’t Dead Yet, which more than anything else reminded me of classic west-coast garage and had the least harmonica quotient of any of the tracks.

www.movinmusic.co.uk

David Kidman


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Will Scott – KEYSTONE CROSSING (Weather-Tone Records WTR0033)

Keystone Crossing is the third album from Indianapolis- and Chicago-raised Will, who’s been hailed as one of the most impressive new Americana acts of recent years; all the more surprising, then, that it’s my first encounter with his music. His first solo album was 2002’s Solo Electric Blues – an unassuming and possibly mildly misleading tag to be applied to a set of roots-styled songs with little more than a blues influence; this took all of seven years to follow up, with the Preacher-Boy-produced Gnawbone, which received rave reviews but for some reason never reached my CD player. On the showing of Keystone Crossing, Will’s voice is pretty distinctive – a full-bodied instrument with quite a bit of depth and character and capable of a really good dynamic range. But if anything it’s the slightly twisted, even maverick nature of his original songs (mostly co-penned with Scrote, his guitarist) that’s the most intriguing aspect of the album. His take on life could probably best be described as outlaw-country with a touch of blues, and stylistically his songs range from the rocky opener White River Rising to the spare but atmosphere-laden Broken Arrow, the hard-driven gospel Just To Ferry Me Over to the brooding trucker Last Rest Stop, while Derry Down features a cool guest vocal from Dayna Kurtz and It Ain’t Gonna Rain derives its inspiration from a haiku blues poem by Preacher Boy himself and there’s a powerful soulful-country take on Jan Bell’s steel-ballad Right To Love. After all of which, tacked on at the end of the show almost as an afterthought, we find a dutifully soul-inflected, organ-drenched cover of Johnny Shines’ You’re The One I Love that’s just about a makeweight to bring the disc’s total playing-time up to three minutes over the half-hour mark; I do feel sure Will could’ve given us better measure for our money given the high quality of the preceding eight cuts.

www.willscottmusic.com

David Kidman


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The Waterson Family – LIVE AT HULL TRUCK (DVD) (Beautiful North BNDVD. 002)

The mighty dynasty that is the Waterson Family has been at the forefront of the English folk music scene for a full half-century, not only as special and distinctive performers (individually and collectively) but also in terms of the pervasive influence and continual inspiration they’ve provided for other performers to this day, whether in the form of the original Watersons group of the 1960s or in any of the various personnel combinations or offshoots of the latter-day Waterson: Carthy umbrella.

This two-hour-plus DVD has been cleverly assembled to celebrate the extended family’s contribution to the folk revival, their longevity and lasting appeal; it is centred round the brilliant homecoming concert they gave at Hull Truck Theatre on 15th August last year, which also just happened to be the occasion of Norma Waterson’s 71st (no, not her 84th!) birthday. This concert presented nine members of the Waterson clan onstage together: Norma herself of course, with husband Martin Carthy and daughter Eliza (both now long-standing A-List performers in their own right), alongside on one hand her late sister Lal’s son Oliver and daughter Maria (Marry), and on the other hand her slightly younger brother Mike, his wife Ann and daughters Rachel and Eleanor.

Of course, viewing this DVD is bound now to be tinged with infinite sadness, as only a few days ago we learnt of the passing of Mike himself; the charisma, the wit and humour and lively presence of “little short-arse” (as he’s affectionately referred to at one point!) is (happily) very well represented on this DVD, with many treasurable moments to savour that encompass not only his unique character as a singer and raconteur but also his stature as a master songwriter (and in that regard criminally undersung IMHO)… so the disc will henceforth also serve as a memorial for Mike.

The DVD’s format preserves the concert’s actual running order, complete with song introductions, scripted anecdotes and natural between-song banter – all bound together by Norma with her proven skill as an involving and companionable compère in the best tradition. At strategic points in between the concert’s 22 individual (musical) items, the production team has interspersed eleven apposite sequences compiled from exclusive interviews with key family members (Norma, Mike and Eliza) conducted at the family home near Robin Hood’s Bay, which together weave into the fabric of the concert to create what amounts to an inclusive and helpfully informative (if necessarily mildly selective) career overview-cum-retrospective that complements the passages of anecdotal history within the concert footage itself. The interview soundbites also yield significant insights like Norma’s recollection of Bert Lloyd’s observation that the group sang in Mixolydian harmony (following which she hot-footed it to Hull Library to ask staff what that actually meant!), and of Lal’s entirely relevant, related explanation of the group’s technique: “you sing the tune until you can’t, and then you sing the harmony”… and, most poignantly, Martin recalls that distressingly, when Lal died, the family – and especially he and Norma and Mike – were unable to sing again for quite a while; one thus quite naturally now fears for the implications or repercussions of Mike’s tragic recent death …

The material performed, as befits such an occasion, stretches right across the territories of the family members’ repertoires, from sturdily sung and arranged, well-considered full-ensemble renditions of traditional song (The White Cockade, Shepherds Are The Cleverest Lads, I Found A Bird’s Nest, A Bunch Of Thyme), shanty (Shallow Brown), seasonal or ceremonial offerings (Apple Tree Wassailing Song, Earsden Sword Dance Song), and classic sanctified/spiritual songs (The Good Old Way, Sleep On Belovèd). These are juxtaposed with appropriate examples of original song drawn from the writings of Lal (Some Old Salty, Fine Horseman) and Mike (Bright Phoebus, also a marvellous, well-contrasted clutch of his more recent compositions – Oranges On The Dock, Cold Coast Of Iceland, Three Day Millionaire and the hilarious, uncensored rant Tea’s Made – the last of which receives the most riotously enthusiastic audience applause of the entire gig!). In addition, Marry and Ollie perform their own song Re-voiced as a taster for their debut duo CD, Norma and Eliza give us their proven cover of Jerry Garcia’s Black Muddy River and Martin leads the hearty music-hall number Don’t Go In Them Lions’ Cage Tonight. Finally, as standouts in an already excellent musical showcase, we’re treated to some speciality performances of traditional song (Rachel and Eleanor shine brightly in consort with Eliza on what must be counted exceptional accounts of Wealthy Squire and Bold General Wolfe, while Eliza turns in an earthy solo rendition of Maid On The Shore).

All of the participants are on great form on the night; the palpable sense of occasion is well conveyed, and the DVD’s editing is precise yet sympathetic, the sound well focussed and visuals undistracting, unfussy yet telling with use of closeups sensibly coordinated. Package presentation would have been improved by the inclusion of an accessible (=printed, thus user-friendly) complete tracklist for guidance and selection of specific “chapters” (the term used to describe individual menu items); otherwise I can’t fault this fabulous DVD, a must-have for all Watersons fans and folk enthusiasts in general and a magnificent memento of a one-off snapshot taken at a landmark (and with hindsight even more so) moment in the family’s generation-spanning career. (Distributed by Proper.)

David Kidman


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Des Horsfall’s Kuschty Rye – THE GOOD GENTLEMAN’S TONIC (Valve Analogue Recordings VAR.CD.001)

If I didn’t know different, I’d have taken this record for a lost Ronnie Lane album, so striking is the similarity in vibe and sound on the opening track, a rollin’-rockin’, laid-back cover of Careless Love that strides an endearing and efficacious good-time way through the old chestnut and gives due breathing space for some tasty soloing along the way in time-honoured fashion. And as it turns out, my gut feelings weren’t at all misplaced, for Yorkshire roots-rocker Des has fully intended the album as a deliberate tribute to the late great Faces bassist. Not only does he closely observe Ronnie’s own arrangement of Careless Love here, but he’s also even recruited three of the musicians from Ronnie’s Slim Chance band (Benny Gallagher, Charlie Hart and Steve Simpson), and they sure deliver the goods here. Interestingly too, Des and his principal collaborator (multi-instrumentalist) Andy McKerlie have also coaxed contributions from two younger musicians (Katriona Gilmore and Hannah James), veteran pedal steel merchant P.J. Wright and dobroist Ian Alveston, all of whom play to the manner born and cohere with the spirit of the Travelling Show ethos that Des is invoking. Also chiming in with the adventuresome, carnivalesque spirit of the Show is the (24-minute) closing track, the Unwinese Mix, on which John Unwin (son of the late Stanley, Professor of delightful gobbledygook who narrated the Happiness Stan suite that made up the second side of the Small Faces’ legendary Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake album) narrates the story of the inception of this new album in between mini-reprises of the album’s songs. All but three of the album’s tracks are compositions by Des himself, which in their rootsily eclectic, if mildly ramshackle way, really do catch the very spirit of Ronnie the man and musician in a way that the work of a mere buck-seeking tribute artist would be unlikely to do. This is a tribute couched in deep affection, one from a true fan who’s also a darned good muso into the bargain; this is evident in the skill with which Des has reworked not only Ronnie’s classic The Poacher (which, combined into the latter stage of the Unwinese Mix, makes a poignantly nostalgic finale for the disc as a whole) but also his own Nothing New, which now becomes a sprightly zydeco number. Des’s own writing is keen and well versed in retro: Little Girl, Long Long Time and Something’s Wrong are good examples of songs you feel you’ve always known: minor pop classics in all but name you might say, but infused with the bonhomie and revelry of the Travelling Show (while even the pair of fun throwaway instrumentals could well have emerged from the Show itself). Des’s cover of the P.J.Wright/Gareth Turner opus Random Acts Of Kindness fits like a glove in this company. The disc’s presentation and packaging are pretty amazing too: a lavish hardcover story-book encases not only the CD itself but a free taster-bag of Yorkshire Gold tea and the golden Key To The Tune Of Life (the subject of the story’s quest)! And lest you be wondering about Des’s band name: well, that mingles various Romany associations and meanings with the idea of a mildly exotic tonic – which the album undoubtedly is. So you’ll be pleased to learn, then, that Des has actually planned The Good Gentleman’s Tonic as the first of a trilogy of albums that will mirror Ronnie’s three Slim Chance records – and if the remaining two are this good, then we’ve got plenty to look forward to brighten our lives with in the years to come.

www.myspace.com/deshorsfall

David Kidman


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The Proposition – KING SNAKE, DEVIL SHAKE (Cowboy Town 1201)

The Norwich-based trio (Steve Clark, Nigel Orme and Simon Middleton) seems still to be a best-kept secret in that the flatlands seem determined to keep them for itself – sadly they’ve never ventured out on tour much beyond that region as far as I can ascertain. I reviewed their excellent four-song debut EP Dirt Tracks only last summer, and pronounced it a resounding success as an honest-to-goodness taster for this forthcoming full-lengther, one that left me wanting much more. Thanks lads, you’ve sure come up with the goods real fast – and with no disappointment in the swift execution! The Proposition play superbly feisty, resolutely acoustic-based music with an edge of country and string-band, and yet they write all their own material, their self-penned lyrics possessing a fresh and youthful yet lived-in authenticity while their brand of storytelling-from-experience is viewed from a fully streetwise and distinctly contemporary angle. The band sound could, I suppose, be compared with early Mungo Jerry, or latterly more the Durbervilles, but it’s not as slick, altogether more raw in texture and nature with its entirely homegrown, resolutely acoustic timbres. Hey, you can feel the instruments being played! Guitar, banjo, mandolin, slide guitar, drums and a smattering of bass – rasping against each other urgently in what might best be described as maverick crossover country-folk-Americana, but of a peculiarly English bent. The whimsical, ticklish busker’s-jugband of 24th & Vicksburg could have come from the pen of Ray Davies, and elsewhere too there’s a high degree of thoughtfulness amidst all the entertainment and energy – as the more consciously arranged songs like Europa I Love You and Summer Lightning effortlessly prove. Indeed, many of the album’s new songs are as pictorial and reflective as others are quirkily hard-edged in the manner of the earlier EP. The production captures the essence of the trio’s special quirkiness, although there are a couple of tracks where I feel they’ve overdosed on production eccentricities and “atmosphere” and there’s too much incidental rowdiness in the mix. But I do like the way the envelope is expanded musically, and the whole album’s generous 53-minute span ranges healthily from the opening almost-rockabilly of (Welcome To The) Promised Land, moving on through timeless honky-tonk (Mr. Foolish) and the footstomping Lovers’ Leap, the tumbling, pounding Diddley shuffle of Levon to the bluesy harmonica-soaked Don’t Let Me In and finishing stylishly on the martial banjo mardi-gras beat of People Are Cruel. Accept this Proposition without delay, then!

www.thepropositionband.com

David Kidman


The Proposition – DIRT TRACKS (EP) (Cowboy Town Records 1001)

This Norwich-based trio (Steve Clark, Nigel Orme and Simon Middleton, aka The Proposition), hereby give us a thrilling taster for their forthcoming debut album with an honest-to-goodness four-track EP. It’s rough-hewn Americana best taken on its own terms, with an authentic rolling energy that leaves you wanting more, and their lyrics are found to have a depth that’s belied by the almost casual devil-may-care rawness of their instrumentation (clanking banjo, thrumming acoustics, clattering percussion). There’s elements of good-time, bluesy ragtime and even (perhaps curiously) of Mungo Jerry and rogue outfits like The Men They Couldn’t Hang. The four tracks here cover most of the viable bases, from bluesy Pogues-ish rowdiness (Don’t Let Me In) through the Irish-hillbilly crossover of 24th & Vicksburg to the rip-roaring Lovers’ Leap. But the appealing rough rootsiness of the band’s music also conceals the fact that its members have been around the scene for almost two decades in one band or another (one previous incarnation was as The Wrecking Company). I’ll be listening out closely for that full-length album now, cos this EP is mighty good for a first Proposition!

www.thepropositionband.com

David Kidman


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David Gibb – THERE ARE BIRDS IN MY GARDEN (Hairpin Records 001)

David first came to my attention when as the opening act on the bill of a concert in Derby around 18 months ago, his energetic and charismatic stage presence made more of an impression than his (largely self-penned) material, thus to some extent masking its quality and rendering a value judgement more difficult. But that snapshot in time was just the latest development in David’s whirlwind career.

He’s been closely associated with the Derbyshire music scene from a young age, honing his playing skills in various local bands, all the while developing his honest songwriting craft and eventually releasing his first album (Apple In My Teeth) in 2008 at age 18. Since that time he’s been fortunate in securing the loyal services of his own touring band (The Pony Club) and gaining finalist status in this year’s BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Awards (in duo mode with The Pony Club’s fiddle player Elly Lucas).

And now he proudly presents his followup album, which was recorded last year in the studio with his now-well-established band in an attempt to capture some of the infectious energy of his live shows. In this respect, David has succeeded big-time, for it’s one of the most exuberant albums I’ve come across for a while – and splendidly recorded too, with a depth and clarity of parts that brings out every strand of the often rather busy texture which might otherwise feel overly crowded. For with a healthy combined instrumental complement of guitars, piano, accordion, melodeon, fiddle, whistle, bass, drums & percussion from David and his four band members, good capital can also be made out of David’s keenly developed arranging and production skills, inventively bringing in additional instrumental and vocal resources (viola, trumpet, sax, flute) for a degree of extra spice.

The sound and attack David conjures have a bold contemporary edge, which counterpoints the often wistful, and fairly acute, sense of history (and tradition) within his own songs while working equally well for the minority of tracks which are instead directly drawn from true traditional sources. The well-chosen album opener, a sparky update of A-Begging I Will Go, has a sense of forward drive akin to the trusty Duncan McFarlane Band brand of folk-rock, with a cooler and more reflective interlude tellingly interspersed, while Green Grows The Laurel benefits from an altogether more sanguine demeanour and attractively string-rich scoring; Summer Is A’Cumen In, on the other hand, concentrates more on sound samples and atmospherics, relying for its impact largely on its function as a bridge between the gentle imaginings of Rag Tag And Bobtail and the slightly cheesy pop-style title track.

I wouldn’t wish to imply here that David’s songs lack substance, but the breezy nature of the musical settings can often lead to that impression being given: his telling commentary on the arrogance of youth (This Young Boy) and a slightly sinister playground rhyme (Two Dead Boys) both display an almost irreverent Dexys/Pogues/Madness ambience that in the end is perhaps almost too chirpy for its own good. And yet a similarly jubilant vibe proves just the right call for Gospel Of The Sun and the genial Lindisfarne-style, contentedly bemused I’ll Fall. There’s an appealing use of a good-time Durbervilles-cum-rootsy-cajun mode to characterise Darby And Joan, while the contrasting soldier’s-tale of Jack McGee benefits from the pared-down backdrop and David’s tremulous, vulnerable and sensitive vocal performance.

So, to sum up then: David’s music shows much promise, and his writing is fast developing in maturity, of that there’s no doubt; but he remains a bit of an enigma, for there’s the nagging feeling that all his energy and passionate exuberance is taking attention away, possibly even eclipsing, the often deeply thoughtful nature of much of his songwriting.

www.davidgibb.com

David Kidman


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Mick Ryan & Paul Downes – AWAY IN THE WEST (WildGoose Studios WGS. 375CD)

Over the past 20 years or so, Mick’s been responsible for some of the finest original songs to come out of the contemporary tradition, for he’s always shown a special empathy with historical perspectives and dramatic subjects and narratives. At the same time, his exceptional singing voice has placed him at the forefront of English folk song interpretation. Mick’s singing and songwriting are once more brought together most persuasively on his latest CD, which takes the form of a further collaboration with Paul Downes, one of the most respected instrumentalists on the folk scene.

This time round, all but one of the tracks are Mick’s own compositions (although Upon A Field and South Armagh both utilise traditional melodies). No fewer than three songs were directly inspired by Mick’s visit to the National Trust Workhouse Museum (two of them, The Pauper’s Path and the powerful The Institute, serve to bookend the disc). A theme common to several of the songs is man’s courage (personal, moral or universal) and the inspiration derived from it: for instance, Love Is Life was written after the death of Mick’s own father, while Fire Against The Cold was informed by how Brian Keenan, a key facilitator in the recent Irish peace process, had earlier in his life coped with solitary confinement. Two of the songs have their origins in Mick’s folk musicals (Summer Is A-Coming In from A Day’s Work and How Wide’s The Ocean? from The Voyage), while the stirring The People Must Be Amused derives from the catchphrase of a Dickensian circus owner.

The album’s closest approximation to a traditional ballad, the seven-minute Jack In Luck, is based on a Grimm’s Fairy Tale recalled from childhood; here Paul’s mandocello accompaniment comes into its own, but it must be said that throughout the disc Paul’s musicianship is brilliant, entirely sound and vitally supportive, always appropriate for the setting (either rhythmic and driving, as on No Evil, or else gently chiming, as on The Bells Rang), while his keen harmony vocal work also ideally complements Mick’s own rich tones. Additional, mildly lavish colourings are provided from time to time by Jackie Oates (five-string viola) and Paul Hutchinson (accordion).

The songwriting is beautifully crafted and entirely consistent with Mick’s œuvre, and while Away In The West might not appear to contain any outright first-time attention-grabbers among its 13 songs, Mick nevertheless still delivers the goods here with another classy and well-coordinated set.

www.wildgoose.co.uk

David Kidman


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Tim Laycock – SEA STRANDS (WildGoose Studios WGS. 376CD)

It’s been a very long time since Tim’s last solo album (True Colours), but to be fair he’s kept himself more than fully occupied with the New Scorpion Band, not to mention his active parallel career in the theatre as an actor/musician of some repute. For this new collection of songs and tunes with associations to Dorset (where he lives), Tim has enlisted the services of fiddle/viola player Colin Thompson (with whom he’d worked on the 2007 WildGoose disc of Hampshire Dance Tunes), fellow-New Scorpion Band member Robin Jeffrey (Victorian and alto guitars, mandolin, laouto, percussion), and Gabriel Laycock (12-string guitar), to flesh out the already quite sumptuous sound of his own duet concertina, melodeon and harmonica.

Tim, who’s also an excellent singer by the way, has long been recognised as a particularly sensitive and thoughtful interpreter of traditional song with a winning way with original compositions in the idiom, while he has a real gift for researching and preparing for performance his chosen repertoire. Which in this case is a well-balanced hour-long programme that contains some surprises nestled in the midst of its partially-familiar tracklisting. This “courtly” version of Write Me Down, for instance, which comes from the singing of Joseph Elliott from Todber, North Dorset, and an unusually jolly-sounding John Barleycorn (which was, bravely, collected by the Hammond brothers whilst on a cycling trip!).

The Turtle Dove takes the “collated” version from the pages of Frank Purslow’s Marrowbones volume, which itself was based around the brothers’ manuscript collections, from which emanate several other songs with distinctive and beautiful melodies, notably the closing item on the disc (the delightful Farewell She, from the singing of Marina Russell of Upwey near Weymouth). Outside of the source material from the Dorset song collections, Sea Strands contains three of Tim’s own settings: that of dialect poet William Barnes’ evocative The Bwoat is as gently compelling as that of Hardy’s The Night Of Trafalgar is melodiously stirring, and perhaps unexpectedly both of these eclipse the lengthier ballad Death In The Nut, which takes its inspiration from Duncan Williamson’s story. The CD’s menu also intersperses three life-affirming tune-sets that are full of enjoyable touches and neat textural contrasts.

Putting it simply, this is a wholly engaging disc, supremely well planned and performed, sympathetically recorded and well annotated: a veritable model of what a folk CD should ideally aspire to.

David Kidman


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Josh Ritter – SO RUNS THE WORLD AWAY (Pytheas CD-PYTH-001)

Josh has, I guess, been a bit of an enigma to me over the years, kindof vacillating between ready-made influences and inspirations; and critics have, it seems, also found it hard to come to terms with his work except by taking an easy way out and hailing him as “the new…” or “the next best thing to…” when in search of an all-too-ready comparison or reference point to sidestep any detailed exploration of his own (initially mildly elusive) personal originality. Sure, there’ve been times when I could easily endorse those already-voiced comparisons with Dylan and Springsteen, and sometimes more than momentarily, but while I’ve never subscribed to the charges of bandwagon-jumping that have characterised others’ critical appraisals of some of his album releases thus far, neither have I been altogether able to view his music as something wondrously memorable in the long-term lasting sense.

Sure, his overt literary aspirations have largely been matched by his great skill with words, and his previous albums have intermittently succeeded more purely on that level than on a specifically musical one – a difficult and contradictory concept for someone who’s primarily a music-lover to grasp, it must be admitted. And of course Josh has now just published his first novel, too, the principal ideas for which arose out of a waking dream that couldn’t seem to want to be contained within the constraints of song format. However (luckily), the springboard, the kick-start central tale of a love-affair-turned-bad became The Curse, one of the focal points for this new CD and officially marking the end of a period of writer’s block and loss of self-confidence for Josh (yes, that’s unbelievable, I know!).

Josh’s history gave no particular hint of this: coming after a couple of intense, acoustic-based, archetypally s/s albums, Josh’s first magnum opus, 2007’s The Historical Conquests Of Josh Ritter, turned out a slightly overblown-sounding set that was riddled with quite expansive settings and seemed to harbour the ambitions of a major rock statement. So Runs The World Away possibly takes a step further in that direction, coming over a bit like one of those fin-de-60s Van Dyke Parks-style albums with its significant, again pretty opulent scoring, sunshine and rainbow colours and at times bold quasi-orchestral gestures (albeit with more minimal resources). It’s this very dichotomy that takes the most getting used to, for the mood-drenched contemplation of experience and the innate psychological darkness conveyed in Josh’s lyrics at first (I emphasise at first) doesn’t seem to quite gel with the dazzling brightness of the tonal palette.

But what’s weirder is that after persisting for a couple or more playthroughs, it all starts to make some perverse kind of sense, and not just in a seriously retro way. There’s a lot going on within these superficially breezy arrangements: Rattling Locks is a disquieting, discordant cacophony to rattle the eardrums, while The Curse, with its ear-piercing solo trumpet, penetrates right down to the soul, and the sheer complexity of scoring on many of the tracks is bewildering and almost blinding in its insistence. And yet the simpler, upbeat, almost skittering defiance of Long Shadows’ deep dark fears makes this two-minute disc finale even more potent. The closest to Americana tradition that Josh comes here is on the compelling Folk Bloodbath, which takes John Hurt’s Louis Collins melody as an ingenious base for his modern-day ballad concept that brings in the characters of Stackalee and Delia.

Lighter scoring and a delicate Paul Simon-like vocal shading permeate the tripping adventure of Lark, while the drifting ambient (Eno-esque) textures of See How Man Was Made and the stately (almost Cohenesque) rippling seven-and-a-half-minute epic Another New World rejoice and refract rather than distract with their sublime beauty. The toughness of Springsteen is recalled – albeit in a toned-down form – on Lantern, while the harsh distorted staccato vocal on The Remnant recalls late-period Lennon.

In spite of the plethora of apparent easy reference points, however, Josh’s work is both individually stylish and well able to make a virtue of its ostensible excesses; the phrase “there may be genius at work here” then rather often comes unbidden to mind. And in the end, there’s also a strangely comforting feel to the album as a whole, one which grows stronger with each successive play.

David Kidman


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Lynne Heraud & Pat Turner – Tickled Pink (WildGoose Studios WGS373CD)

Lynne and Pat have been tickling audiences pink (both metaphorically and literally!) for a number of years now; over the course of three CDs together they’ve lost none of their ability to creatively confront in song the varied experiences that life brings. Now, on their latest CD, the mixture is broadly as before: some choice traditional material generously interspersed with original songs both serious and slightly frivolous. And again Lynne and Pat manage to achieve a suitably colourful spectrum of sound from just their two voices, sometimes backed by Pat’s guitar and now occasionally further augmented by Paul Sartin on oboe or fiddle.

The ladies’ grasp of effective vocal harmony is as persuasive as ever on Braw Sailing and Rosemary Lane, while their treatments of Green Grows The Laurel and The Wife Of Usher’s Well are significantly assured and hold our attention. I’m not quite so convinced that they always choose the most interesting of available tune variants – Bonny George Campbell here seems rather low-key. But the most thoroughly delightful items are the (jointly-penned) nostalgic The Sweetman, Pat’s own originals The Black Ship and Small Fish (the latter written for Cornishman Roger Bryant’s 70th birthday), and the lovely Time You Old Gypsy Man, a contemporary setting by Frank Lee of a Ralph Hodgson poem.

As for the disc’s humorous moments however, well it may be thought that having reached a certain stage in their lives the ladies are becoming a touch obsessed with health matters, for Tickled Pink contains no fewer than four such items (Distant Rumblings, The Smear Test, IMIMB and In Praise Of The Menopause) – all in perfectly good taste, of course, but there’s bound to be a finite limit to how long you continue to find these observations sufficiently amusing. Even the non-medical ditty Oxfam Girls is likely to overstay its welcome after a couple of plays (or even after a couple of gig airings, where the ladies’ accompanying banter forms a logical and integral part of the experience). I can well understand the rationale for making CDs which closely approximate the live gig repertoire (thus satisfying one specific category of demand), and Lynne and Pat are to be admired for having the courage of their convictions, so fans of this effervescent duo won’t be disappointed with their latest offering.

David Kidman


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The Old Swan Band – SWAN FOR THE MONEY (WildGoose Studios WGS. 378CD)

What can a reviewer say about this intensely feelgood disc, other than it’s a 100% delight that keeps a big grin on your face from start to finish…? It’s one to convince the unbelievers that there is life in dance music, and that a whole 51 minutes of dance tunes can provide a scintillating and uplifting listening experience. For it’s an encapsulation of all the OSB does best, and delivers exactly what it promises in the most reassuring of manners – presenting the finest of tunes, (mostly but not exclusively) traditional in origin, chosen with care and imagination from the hidden recesses of the English dance repertoire and interspersed with tried-and-tested old favourites that have been in their collective repertoire for donkey’s years, all ingeniously arranged in what has become known as the unmistakable Old Swan style. That means ultra-spirited phrasing from experienced musicians who really understand the idiom and aren’t afraid to bring in elements of their own personalities (yet always in the service of the music); seriously together ensemble playing from musicians who are totally steeped in playing for the dance; an unerring feel for texture, pace and dynamics; all blessed with naturally bouncy, chunky rhythms that support rather than mask the wealth of gleeful incidental detail within the playing. The driving fiddle front-line of Fi Fraser, Paul Burgess and Flos Headford is augmented by Martin Brinsford’s spicy harmonica and Jo Freya’s colourful versatility on various saxes and whistles, while the trademark gloriously galumphing “fat” brass section (John Adams’ trombone and Neil Gledhill’s bass sax) is sweetened by Heather Horsley’s wonderfully pointed piano continuo, and last but defiantly not least Martin B’s signature all-over-the-shop percussion is as always in a class of its own. As for the repertoire, well I’ll bet you won’t hear a more invigorating take on dance-floor chestnuts Brighton Camp and The Sloe, while newer compositions like Flos’s marvellous Woodcutter’s Jig prove there’s plenty of life in the old tune-dogs yet! And they tirelessly reinvent the traditional “set” concept through creative combinations like Jo’s finale tune Grommet arising out of the rumba-esque Quebequoise reel Grande Châine (which may sound an unusual companion but which we learn has sneaked into the English session via Northumbrian pipers!). Everyone is clearly having a real good time, and the listener is carried along in a parade of flowery frolics that range from strict-tempo Jimmy Shand to cavorting cajun, down-home rock’n’roll to trusty rustic rumbustiousness. No individual set outstays its welcome (OK, one or two are even just a tad short!). The sleeve notes are a paragon of their kind, with an abundantly satisfying amount of detail on the provenance of the tunes that manages at the same time to be of interest to non-tune-anoraks (did you know the connection between Bobby Shaftoe and the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance?)! And the brilliant Tony Hall cartoons give exactly the right flavour to the whole beautifully punningly-titled package; octopus on the jukebox, anyone?!…

David Kidman


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Alison Krauss & Union Station – PAPER AIRPLANE (Rounder 0011661066526)

After a whirlwind launch onto the scene with her attractively polished and immaculate brand of straight-ahead bluegrass, Alison followed with an impressive series of award-winning albums both solo and with her band Union Station which, being more mainstream in both aura and success terms, paved the way for the more experimental project with Robert Plant, Raising Sand, which has obstinately resisted production of a sequel thus far. It’s with a slight sense of disappointment, perhaps, then, that for her latest record, Paper Airplane, we find Alison returning to her tried-and-tested Union Station formula of mainstream-country-tinged bluegrass (or should that be the other way round?). And while there’s nothing wrong with that per se, and the singing and playing is predictably first-rate and smoothly characterised, at the same time neither is there any sense of pushing the envelope out beyond the approved saleable comfort-zone. Admittedly, Alison’s voice has rarely sounded better, so there’ll be no letdown for her fans either way. Perhaps ironically, one of the disc’s finest renditions is a nicely controlled cover of Dimming Of The Day that refreshingly steers well to the cool side of saccharine in its sanguine expression of hope, while Robert Lee Castleman’s title track and Aoife O’Donovan’s Lay My Burden Down both come off pretty creditably. And Union Station bassist Barry Bales’ own composition Miles To Go stands up to the competition and flies the band’s colours well. But Jackson Browne’s My Opening Farewell seems a lightweight choice, and the rest of the material, while appealing and graceful in itself, doesn’t really seem to contain any standout numbers. Dan Tyminski’s allotted the lead vocal for no fewer than three of the disc’s eleven songs, and he makes forceful and slightly heavy weather of them (they almost seem to belong to a different album), making the return to Alison’s pure, even-tempered, soothing, restful tones more of a relief than one might reasonably wish. And despite the undoubted and many-times-proven picking virtuosity of the band members, Jerry Douglas and his peerless dobro work in particular, I often harbour a nagging wish that they’d all just let rip with some of the energy we all know they’re capable of – it’s all just a touch too polite, and even tho’ that’s more or less what we’ve come to expect from an Alison Krauss Union Station record, I’d still like to feel the sand actually being raised just a few inches more at times.

David Kidman


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The Lorelei – FACES (Fat Hippy Records FH55 LOR2)

This is a curiously appealing record – and yet appealing might not necessarily be the first adjective that springs to mind on hearing the full-ahead “total thrash speed folk” (R2’s description not mine, but splendidly apt nevertheless) of opening cut Endescapology. The Lorelei, for those not already in the know, is a six-piece Scottish band that originally got together in a Dyce (Aberdeen) garage back in 1990, made two acclaimed indie albums before splitting (basically due to the pressures of constant touring) near the close of the decade. Then, in 2006, the majority of the original lineup decided to get back together, with a new front-man (singer John S. Martin, a close friend of the band), since which time they’ve moved on with bags of fresh material and seriously impressed fans old and new with their unusual blend of sub-pop electric thrash tinged with gentle folk-acoustic instrumentation. Sometimes that conjures up visions of a more controlled Pogues, but with less of a traditional element (if you can imagine that), or even The Levellers, whereas at other times their sound seems to hark back to the slightly experimental psych-pop of early Family, nascent prog Curved Air-style (on Tricks especially), or even some of the solo work of John Cale (the heavy presence of Diane Beattie‘s viola is surely a factor in this). As far as I can ascertain, Faces is their third release since re-forming; the band’s website mentions a live DVD and a subsequent EP, as well as a couple of tracks on Fat Hippy label sampler albums and – most prestigious of all – invited to submit a track for R2 magazine’s covermount CD series Un-Herd (which for some weird reason doesn’t seem to have surfaced, however). Faces is a veritable bundle of inventiveness, and forms a brilliantly energetic and almost wilfully unpredictable sequence of 14 original songs that veer wildly, and at times almost savagely, between thrusting indie-rock (A2B), moody, broody string-bedecked balladry (Song For The Boy), stomping speed-punk (Molly), wistful anthems (Walk Like A Child) and more determinedly folky session-thrash (Hack Yourself). At times it’s like a deviously tamed Pogues, at others it’s like the Waterboys gone a bit haywire, at others the Velvets are invoked; all in the space of a hectic, heady, whirlwind 51 minutes’ listen. It’s a mite capricious, but proudly so, and I like this one a lot. Sadly, it arrived for review just a few weeks too late to tie in with the band’s late-May tour…

www.thelorelei.co.uk

David Kidman


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Book Review:

Nick Burbridge – THE UNICYCLE SET (Burbridge Arts/Waterloo Press, ISBN. 978-190674228-7)

Not for nothing does the press sheet for McDermott’s Two Hours’ front-man and long-term Levellers collaborator Nick’s latest collection of original verse dub him “poet and pub-magpie of the Brighton-Irish bogs”, for this slim-yet-rich (84-page) volume contains much that is of an at times almost Joycean literary grandeur.

Why the Unicycle? Well I see it as an exceedingly apt metaphor, conveying the image of an often daredevil ride, a sometimes quite delicate balancing act, and at the same time a decidedly eccentric portrayal of life’s circus using a mode of transport that is solo and personal, old-fashioned yet at the same time (thankfully) not yet obsolete. The poetry within this new volume is, typically for Nick, both highly literate and precisely articulate and yet never descends to a level of exclusive preciousness. It also embodies the essential quality of musicality that characterised his earlier collection All Kinds Of Disorder, with all its concomitant intelligent cross-references to bohemian culture.

Initial impressions are that a significant majority of the poems comprising The Unicycle Set are, if not exactly dominated, let’s say inhabited by the spirit of one or other of the collection’s two recurring characters: the inimitable, nay irrepressible Flynn and his seamy world (in Hamster, S.O.S., Impotence and Flynn’s Budget) or his compadre, fiddle-player Molloy, aka Malloy (As We Forgive Those… and the priceless pair of Alt. Folk Tales). It might be felt, too, that more than just occasionally, as in Monk’s House, the presence of Flynn intrudes on another’s world, with telling consequences, or else his spirit (and sometimes his name too) looms large within the overall sensibility of the retelling of a situation in which he is not directly involved – his presence may act as the lens through which that situation is being viewed or expressed to the reader, or as the starting-point for a timely reflection (as in Unicycle).

However, these initial impressions of the collection as a whole can as it turns out be quite misleading, for there’s an equally significant number of the poems where neither character figures at all, not even subliminally. These include some altogether pithier (and perhaps less overtly edgy) vignettes, such as the appealingly sinister Connection, Cappuccino and On Guard, Rationalists, the carnivalesque Euphonium, alongside the carefully pointed portrait of Mandolin Man and a handful of ostensibly more orthodox but intensely evocative observational pieces like Christmas Eve and Trust Property. The promise inherent in a poem’s (often eye-catchingly punning or ironic) title, and its concept, is delivered with satisfying precision on some of the finest poems in the book (Bipolar Expeditions springs to mind), while the plainer title of the book’s closing poem Envoi conceals a Stowaway’s Song of hope couched in a limpid beauty – a quality that has arguably been only more intermittently glimpsed through the powerful life-imagery conveyed in the preceding pages, but is not at all absent when you can be bothered to dig for it…

It’s a mark of the collection’s stature, surely, that on successive readthroughs I could very probably single out some quite different highlights on which to focus; but, again drawing on the unicycle analogy, the reader (rider) needs to exercise a degree of extra care to avoid being thrown off balance by the heady and giddy pleasures of the ride, for there’s almost too much that’s enjoyable and stimulating within this slim volume’s pages.

www.burbridgearts.org and www.waterloopresshove.co.uk

David Kidman


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Various Artists – FIRE, FEATHERS, FELONY & FATE: SONGS AND TUNES FROM THE LEIGH FOLK FESTIVAL 2011 (Thames Delta Recording Company MUD 004CD)

Leigh Folk Festival, the uniquely free festival that commands a fiercely loyal following, continually presents a refreshingly different lineup that confirms the healthily diverse state of folk music as the broadest of all possible churches. It also continually rings the changes and challenges the punters, just as much so now in its 20th year, a milestone which this veritable treasure-trove, the fourth in its series of limited-edition festival souvenir CDs, celebrates in style.

As the liner-note proudly proclaims, “LFF is always different, always the same”, with all contributions – whether from “big-hitters” or little-knowns, whether professionally recorded or defiantly lo-fi – being of unquestioned high artistic quality. Fire, Feathers… certainly continues in the tradition established thus far on the previous three years’ CDs, and presents 74 minutes’ worth of unreservedly excellent music courtesy of artists appearing at this year’s (2011) festival. It might at first seem as though the disc is predominantly (though not exclusively) couched in what might now be termed the present-day English nu-folk and psych-folk traditions. Well, the prevailing mood of its first half, at any rate, is that of slightly gloomy English balladry, which takes us from Philip Henry & Hannah Martin’s instrumental introit (a brace of fine old tunes beautifully arranged for dobro and fiddle) through Pamela Wyn Shannon’s inventive reworking of a Child Ballad (Cold Blows The Wind) to an ultra-atmospheric retelling of another Child Ballad (Riddles) by the Anglo-Ukrainian duo Dark Patrick.

Other standout tracks on this new collection include an idiosyncratic slice of pared-down electric-folk from the enigmatic Phillious Williams, a brilliantly vital treatment of Nottamun Town from the Straw Bear Band, a compelling “child’s version of the seven wonders of the world” from Cass Meurig & Nial Cain, and a brand new Kittiwakes song-voyage (William And The Boat); while Nancy Wallace & Jason Steel have donated an intimate and strangely satisfying new song, Windows, and there’s an intriguing, if left-field guitar-dominated experimental poetry-to-music venture from the duo Bones & The Aft (John Bently and Ian McKean).

No fewer than six of the disc’s 17 musical selections are (like the majority of those already mentioned, in fact) previously unreleased, and an equivalent number of tracks turn out to be drawn from fairly obscure EPs or otherwise-not-easily-available releases. Only the tracks by Martin Carthy (the later, 2004, of his recordings of his signature epic Famous Flower Of Serving Men), Emily Portman (the ominous lullaby Fine Silica) and O’Hooley & Tidow (the incomparable Flight Of The Petrel) could be said to be readily accessible via conventional outlets. The “wild-card” world-music entries, included to demonstrate the festival’s diversity, comprise some straight-ahead klezmer from Klezmer Klub, an authentic one-step from crack cajun combo Acadian Driftwood and the title track of Madagascan star Modeste’s most recent album. The whole sequence is given a powerful sense of place by the interpolation of four brief snippets of “Avian Sonic Detritus”, in other words vintage recordings of bird life that can be found in the region (although on the sample labelled as Redshank a prominent drumming Snipe should really be given equal billing!).

Once again, those responsible should be congratulated on producing a highly desirable artefact that serves the dual purpose of keepable festival souvenir and repeatably listenable cumulative musical experience; as ever, this festival can be relied upon to produce something reassuringly different and continually stimulating. And once again, the CD retails at just £5, with all profits going to support the running of the free event (which is still entirely organised by volunteers), representing unrivalled value and a role-model to which all festival souvenir disc should aspire.

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

David Kidman


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Tom McConville – TOMMY ON THE ROAD (Tomcat Music TCCD. 08)

Tom’s perennially beaming visage greets us like the most welcome of old friends on the cover of his latest record, sequel to those wonderful musical adventures Tommy On The Bridge and Tommy On Song and yes, every bit as invigorating and satisfying for the listener. There’s an edge of heartfelt contentment pervading the whole record, even when it moves into bleaker, more elegiac territory for its final gambit, a keening, heartbreaking rendition of Ewan MacColl’s Jamie Foyars that has to be counted among the finest in the catalogue…

But there are also plenty of brilliant moments in the 44 minutes of music that precede that track, including five sparkling instrumental items. The disc’s opener, Benny Gallagher’s Stay Young, exudes precisely the life-affirming philosophy that has evidently kept Tom so sprightly throughout his career; the mere act of listening to it may well prove a restorative cure-all for your ills and doubts! The instrumentals follow the usual pattern, yet manage to ring the changes on anything that might in lesser hands become predictable; The Mathematician is a well-calculated new arrangement of a favourite J. Scott Skinner tune, and Tom’s joyously tricksy performance of the tunes making up the Mountain Lark/Cambridge Hornpipe set is just one of the many tracks to feature some neat cleverclogs multitracking of the fiddle. This device complements the fuller band sound that Tom gives us by dint of the world-class contributions of fellow-musicians – on one hand veteran master-guitarist Chris Newman, on the other hand younger musicians: guitarists David Newey and Aaron Jones, banjoists Ian Sharp and Damien O’Kane, acoustic bass player Phil Murray and accordionist Shona Kipling (many of these are members of Tom’s current, fluid touring packages). All of these extra contributions are marvellously supportive to Tom’s expected (if quite unassumingly dominant) solo presence and although his fiddle rings out as gloriously as ever he will always generously find space for another musician to step forward and provide a delectable solo when appropriate.

And once again engineer Ron Angus faultlessly encapsulates Tom’s winning personality to a T (for T stands for Tommy, after all!). Midway through the disc we find a sequence of three tracks which are in effect tributes to musicians: Tom’s own composition Tune For Jerry was written for fiddling legend Jerry Holland, Lewis Crompton’s juicy little fictional hoedown Sawin’ On A String has much basis in real life, and finally Mike Tickell’s Hill’s Fiddle is a supremely affectionate portrait of the proud 19th century “Paganini Of Gateshead” himself. There’s a nice contrast between a lively set of reels and Tom’s own gorgeously lyrical composition Mary Traynor’s Waltz (dedicated to a inspirational friend), while Tom’s brand-new account of our mutual good friend Steve Tilston’s classic Slip Jigs And Reels scores highly amidst stiff competition from rival versions.

This is a truly life-affirming record, one of Tom’s best without a doubt (and I thought the last two were ace!). Tom’s the living embodiment of how to be confident and content in his art without a trace of complacency; long may he thrive (perhaps that’s why Last Time On The Road is placed so early on in the running order, cos I really can’t envisage Tom hanging up his fiddle for some time yet… )!

www.tommcconville.co.uk

David Kidman


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Various Artists – YOUNGER THAN THAT NOW: SONGS BY BOB DYLAN (Fat Cat FATCD. 023)

Inevitably, there’ll be a rash of tribute albums released this year to mark Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday. Equally inevitably, many of them will be of dubious quality at best. But Younger Than That Now is to be counted one of the best of the multi-artist beanfeasts I’ve encountered so far, not least for the overall consistency of its performances but also for the fact that it doesn’t roll on auto-pilot down the same ol’ highways and predictable highlights of Dylan’s massive output.

Although its 30 selections draw upon most temporal phases of the man’s writing, there’s no trace of Knocking On Heaven’s Door, Blowin’ In The Wind, Like A Rolling Stone, All Along The Watchtower etc etc – and even what you might call the more well-trodden of the examples here (Forever Young, Boots Of Spanish Leather, Girl From The North Country, I Shall Be Released, The Times They Are A-Changin’t) still emerge pretty fresh from their transformation onto this pair of discs. (I was puzzled, though, over the absence of My Back Pages, the refrain of which provides the set with its title – it’s a complex, and underrated, song in the Dylan canon that richly deserves reassessment…)

It helps that the idea for the project was born out of the humblest and most natural of intentions; to turn the spotlight on a whole cross-generational trend for enterprising, and valid, re-evaluation of the songs from a different perspective. This in turn had been spawned by the realisation by a long-time Dylan fan, over the period of a few months early last year, that almost every gig he’d attended during that time had included a Dylan cover. This fan happened to be York-based musician Chris Euesden, who himself fronts the established Dylan tribute band Blonde On Bob (so, reasonably enough, this outfit gets to perform two tracks on this set themselves) and has a healthy network of contacts within the folk and roots scene, from “A-List” names to comparative unknowns, international stars to local talents, all of whom have readily and freely contributed to this project (all proceeds from which, incidentally, go to Oxfam). What’s both important and noticeable about this set is that every last performer gives a committed and individual interpretation of his/her chosen song; rather than merely trotting out a cloned tribute or a “received opinion” cover inseparable from countless others. You may not necessarily like every treatment (some are decidedly maverick), or agree with the slant taken by the artists concerned, but there’s no doubting the integrity on display (a quality often in short supply in the music industry these days).

Highlights of the collection for me come courtesy of Hans Theesink (who turns in a superb account of Ballad Of Hollis Brown); Martin Simpson (whose Mr Tambourine Man sports in its magic rippling Africana-smoke-rings some trickier-than-usual guitar dexterity that remains quietly aloof from the lyric while complementing it, and its melodic line, to curious perfection); Stephen Fearing (a neatly poised rendition of One Too Many Mornings); Patsy Matheson (whose brilliantly original, near-sprechstimme, world-weary take on One More Cup Of Coffee conjures up such a strangely seductive vision); and a fantastic 1972 live recording of To Ramona by the late Tony Capstick. Then there’s Chris Smither’s finely judged take on Visions Of Johanna (with Tim O’Brien and Dave Goodrich in tow, naturally), Clive Gregson’s relaxed stride through Tomorrow Is A Long Time, Edwina Hayes’ pared-down but intense account of It Ain’t Me Babe, and Steve Phillips’ live-at-the-club rough-diamond trip through Not Dark Yet.

I also really liked Steve Tilston’s sanguine account of Love Minus Zero (No Limit) and the unusual take on Spanish Harlem Incident by Helen Watson and The Burden Of Paradise, whereas the intriguingly idiosyncratic Man In The Long Black Coat, as reinterpreted by one of York’s most imaginative performers, harpist-singer Sarah Dean, is a real gem. Julie Matthews renders To Make You Feel My Love predictedly gorgeous with minimal keyboard resources, and Christine Collister’s marvellous version of Forever Young is almost certainly the one to have in your collection (and I don’t particularly like the song!).

Sure, there are some wayward wild-cards too, not least the introduction to the whole set, a likeable and affectionate new poem by Barnsley bard Ian McMillan, which is just right in its context and entirely fit for purpose. The remainder of the more oddball entries are harder to assimilate however – like the veritable Jokerman in the pack Gurf Morlix, whose gravelly rasp through With God On Our Side proves a touch hard to stomach over its sustained six-minute span. And I’ll admit that although Jez Lowe’s version of Changing Of The Guard is distinctively different, its raucous, almost Pogue-like garb doesn’t quite work for me. Perhaps Chris & Kellie While’s romp through Mississippi overstates the rock element a touch, as arguably Cathryn Craig overdoes the raunch on I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight; on the other hand, I felt that Costanza’s account of The Man In Me rather lacked character.

So there we are: the anticipated curate’s egg, but with much more of a success rate. And if ever a tribute demonstrated the extent and sheer breadth of Dylan’s pervasive (and varying) influence on successive generations of performers – well then, this set is one such.

www.circuitmusic.co.uk

David Kidman


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Kit – ECHOES OF THE PAST (Kitmusic KIT03)

Kit is the pseudonym under which Midlands-based singer-songwriter Amanda Hopkins performs, and Echoes Of The Past is her third album of self-penned material, once again with trusted producer Paul Sampson at the helm. Paul also plays all the instruments (guitars, keyboards, and presumably also bass and drums) that accompany Amanda’s own feisty, rhythm-driven acoustic guitar, creating an infectious and well-coordinated pop-tinged overall sound that pleases with its accessibility, a plethora of catchy hooks and some at times quite luscious vocal harmonies. All but one of the nine songs were written very recently (the exception being 2010’s Running Under Bridges, which was composed for The Reform Club’s short film Canalbert). Kit’s songwriting is even more confident than on her previous albums (themselves pretty convincing!), and although no radically new themes are tackled on this latest batch of songs it’s hard to feel shortchanged (except perhaps by the surprisingly meagre half-hour’s playing time of the disc as a whole). Several of the songs express or explore issues of identity (Clarify, Sonata), a helpless and unavoidable response to change (Seventeen and the title track), or a deep-seated fear, either of commitment (Aardvark) or of being ignored (Lost In The Crowd). In terms of delivery especially, Kit’s music has been compared to that of Hazel O’Connor, and yet while there’s an element of truth in that observation (providing a close reference point) it also always gives an impression of something more substantial beneath the surface, an impression which further acquaintance invariably rewards. The prevailing idiom is of twangy acoustic folk-rock, a touch of the Kennedys perhaps with a dash of country here and there, and this suits the personal nature of Kit’s lyrics surprisingly well, reflecting rather than submerging the truths and emotional depths therein. Echoes Of The Past is a persuasive collection that should bring Kit’s name well under the radar of those who appreciate artful and perceptive songwriting that gives a powerful kick.

www.kitmusic.co.uk

David Kidman


Kit – THE VIEW FROM HERE (Kit Music)

This particular Kit (real name Amanda Hopkins, just to confuse matters) is a Midlands (Coventry) based singer-songwriter with a penchant for making bold, confident statements and entering into bold collaborative projects. The press release for The View From Here, her second album release, proclaims her songs and delivery as having been variously compared to a host of celebrated singers including Grace Slick, Michelle Shocked, June Tabor, Alison Moyet and Alanis Morissette… quite an assortment, in summary almost as diverse as chalk and cheese, and a hard claim for which to vouch any deep credence, even after listening to her performances on the new album several times. In the end, such comparisons can only indicate possible reference points; although to be sure, there are isolated moments during the album’s dozen tracks where any one or other of the aforementioned singers might more than momentarily be recalled or glimpsed in one aspect or another, but that’s fleeting impressions for you.
I guess I’d say Vivienne McAuliffe, Kirsty MacColl, The Slits and in particular early Hazel O’Connor are the ones most readily evoked, whereas on ballads like Stay, qualities in Kit’s delivery like a slightly trained precision in diction and a malleable, Chrissie-Hynde-like sensuality serve to make the sentiment even more appealing. Kit’s been fortunate too in re-enlisting Paul Sampson for production duties (he’d also produced her 2006 debut The End Of The Rainbow), and Paul imparts a solid sense of attack in the often quite rocking settings that he provides courtesy of his own multi-layered guitars, synth and percussion. These backings, often redolent more than anything else of early-80s new-wave/indie (and shades of Magazine perhaps) really do complement the edgy, rugged contours of Kit’s lyrics (which aren’t as easy to appreciate when you go to read them in the cluttered run-on format of the insert), while the instrumentation often brings a more believable focus to the sometimes tentative nature of Kit’s melodic lines. Her lyrics are direct and expressive, with a natural sense of the dramatic that’s all the more persuasive for its understatement and its occasional sense of perplexed insecurity that kinda balances the more overt confidence of her expression. Even so, one or two of the songs feel a touch underdeveloped, and some of Kit’s socio-commentary has the untutored, imperfect (even slightly naïve) air of the sixth-form common-room (we should’ve gone beyond the clumsy expressive gestures of War by now). Overall, though, I believe that Kit’s feisty demeanour, her dynamism and sheer commitment to her writing outweigh or overshadow any intermittent over-simplistic qualities in her artistic statements (well-meaning tho’ they be); the majority of the album’s songs grow rather than pall on successive plays, and the best of them hint at a healthy future with the projected album number three (which is already well on the way, according to the press handout).

www.kitmusic.co.uk

David Kidman


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Stan Rogers – THE VERY BEST OF STAN ROGERS (Borealis/Fogarty’s Cove Music FCM. 013D)

Stan Rogers was unquestionably one of the finest folk-oriented songwriters to have come out of Canada, and his death in 1983 (at just 33) in a fire aboard an airplane was one of the great tragedies of folk music history. So many of his impressive canon of songs have achieved wide currency on the folk scene (there’s over half-a-dozen of them in my own repertoire!), and yet his handful of albums (on the Fogarty’s Cove label) have been only intermittently and/or unreliably available in the UK.

Even more reason, then, to welcome this new compilation with the openest of arms. It provides what I’d regard as a genuinely-very-best selection of 16 of Stan’s performances in splendidly-well-remastered state, and furnishes today’s often hyper-critical folk audiences with an opportunity to catch up and/or re-evaluate Stan’s output (and start from there, indeed). The selection, made by Stan’s widow Ariel in collaboration with his album producer Paul Mills, covers all the bases, from heartfelt love songs (45 Years) to passionate declarations of pride in his Canadian heritage (the anthemic North-West Passage), supremely sensitive portraits of life in the Maritimes (Make Or Break Harbour, The Jeannie C), the Great Lakes (Tiny Fish For Japan, Lock-keeper) or the Prairies (Field Behind The Plow, Lies), stirring narrative songs (The Flowers Of The Bermuda) and inspirational songs that just happen to have some of the most rousing choruses in Christendom (The Mary Ellen Carter of course, but also Barrett’s Privateers, written to order for a singing group Stan used to frequent – and subsequently parodied by one of the group’s members in tribute!!).

Stan’s songs can be described as nothing less than masterly, and while embodying his personal passions they display considerable insights into the lives of those he wrote about (whether fictional or not, Stan’s research was always impeccable and the resultant songs never less than totally authentic in conveying the relevant experiences). Stan was a songwriting genius, with a true gift for melody that set the seal on the simple intensity and boundless humanity of his lyrics. In the opinions of many, no other songwriter has more truthfully captured the essence of life in the situations and places he describes in his songs.

For his own performances, Stan was fortunate in securing and retaining the musicianship of his younger brother Garnet, who with bassists Jim Morison, guitarist Curly Boy Stubbs (a cheeky pseudonym for producer Paul Mills) and other compadres including Grit Laskin, David Woodhead and Ray Parker, provide the majority of the backings for the various album sessions. Stan’s rich, glorious and mighty deep-baritone voice soars right through, unmistakable and distinctive, and proves the saving grace for the occasional tendency to over-indulgence in the arrangement department that for me mars (and rather dates) some of the later studio-recorded tracks. Three of the 16 have been culled from the celebrated live set recorded at The Groaning Board, Toronto in April 1979.

As for the decision of which 16 songs to include, well I really can’t quibble, for it’s near ideal; putting it this way, there’s absolutely none of those that I’d have chosen to exclude, but were it not for the inevitable playing-time considerations I might also have squeezed in a couple more favourites (Turnaround and the multi-hankie First Christmas for instance).

So – here we have a splendid, genuinely no-complaints compilation that’s both the best of introductions to Stan and his writing (and a perfect encapsulation of the essence of the man), and a great-sounding taster for Borealis’ remastered reissue of the entire Stan Rogers catalogue. Oh, and a compelling listening sequence in its own right, outwith the context of the original recordings – and not many such compilations can boast that. A winner through and through.

David Kidman


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Emmylou Harris – HARD BARGAIN (Nonesuch )

Over her 40-year-plus career Emmylou’s more widely regarded as an interpreter of others’ songs than a songwriter in her own right, but that shouldn’t mean underestimating her talent in that department. Ten years ago, her Red Dirt Girl album contained a significant number of her own compositions, but Hard Bargain represents her first extensive outpouring of new songs since then, with all but two of its 13 tracks coming from her own pen (two jointly with Will Jennings). In a way, it’s not a typical Emmylou album, although her voice is as great and unmistakable as ever and the whole project is given a distinctive and defined musical signature by the production work and instrumental contributions of Jay Joyce (he plays all electric guitar, bass and synth parts, and Giles Reeves all the percussion – and they’re the only musicians involved apart from Emmylou). It’s a pleasingly layered sound, not too intense or heavy, but for some unaccountable reason it only serves to emphasise the unevenness of the writing. The album’s title track, written by Ron Sexsmith, is a good ‘un, and among Emmylou’s own compositions there are certainly some gems. Darlin’ Kate, self-evidently a personal farewell to Kate McGarrigle (who died last year of cancer), is plain gorgeous without getting maudlin, and the drifting, keening Lonely Girl has a powerful atmosphere of loss and regret; another success is Emmylou’s personalised retelling of the story of Emmett Till (making it a worthy companion piece to the celebrated Dylan song on the same subject). On the slightly eerie opener The Road, Emmylou reminisces about the time she spent with Gram Parsons, whereas childhood memories provide a melancholic theme for the insistent gentle skipping Nobody and New Orleans’ decidedly rocky gait derives optimism from the Hurricane Katrina experience. I do however have reservations about the quirkily insubstantial Big Black Dog and the empty Six White Cadillacs, while the lovelorn narrative of The Ship On His Arm can’t quite rise above its dreamily unremarkable musical setting and Jay Joyce’s Cross Yourself just drifts by without making any real impression, a weak choice for final track. These arguable miscalculations don’t make Hard Bargain a bad album, and although it’s not one of Emmylou’s most consistent – and that’s me speaking as a long-time fan – it’s not one to avoid by any means.

www.emmylou.com

David Kidman


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Marc Jordan, Murray McLauchlan, Cindy Church & Ian Thomas – MORE LUNCH AT ALLEN’S (Linus, no catalogue number)

An unwieldy collection of names but an impressive one, as anyone who knows the Canadian roots scene will be able to attest. If ever there were a bunch of award-winners then this is it – for Murray alone has garnered ten JUNO awards… Marc and Ian are both renowned songwriters and musicians in their own right (Ian’s written songs for a wide range of artists including Diana Ross and Bonnie Raitt), whereas Cindy’s sweet voice has backed the legendary Ian Tyson and subsequently been an integral part of the group Quartette, and Murray’s been known for his influential and stylish brand of folk music over the past 40 years.

Bringing these talents together in a supergroup setting might not seem the most obvious of gambits, but the informal nature of this collaboration comes across in the easy and relaxed demeanour of the record as a whole. The tasty country-roots vibe of the Murray-penned songs like Try Walkin’ Away and Sweeping The Spotlight Away is attractive from the outset, as is the more rousing gospel-inflected finale The Great Beyond, and the gentle romance of Cindy’s You Can and I Never Got Over You is certainly touching, but the pleasing impact of those tracks is rather undermined, being thrown into relief by the to my mind blander and less interesting (albeit perfectly commercial) sound of tracks like Marc’s Runaway Heart and Promises and Ian’s Feel Good Again.

This is all very well, but if anything the overall tone of the songs on this collection, containing as it does some acknowledged classics of the genre, is probably a touch too middle-of-the-road (and very much-of-a-muchness in terms of tempo and mood) for my personal taste. It’s impossible to argue that it’s all typically well done, well recorded and well played, with accomplishment the keynote, and I’d guess that the intuitive cameraderie of the performances will render it a sufficiently likeable experience for many.

www.lunchatallens.com

David Kidman


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Various Artists – TWISTABLE TURNABLE MAN: A MUSICAL TRIBUTE TO THE SONGS OF SHEL SILVERSTEIN (Sugar Hill SUG-CD.4051)

You’d expect a tribute to the iconoclastic Shel Silverstein (real name Sheldon Allan Silverstein), who died just over ten years ago, to be every bit as wildly disparate, nay inconsistent, both musically and idiomatically, as the man himself and his songs. (I won’t go into his “other hats” – for he was a truly gifted cartoonist as well as a prolific songwriter.)

Shel’s best known for his writing for Dr Hook and Bobby Bare, for whom he provided numerous hits, but there was also some arguably quite dubious material, numbers like 25 Minutes To Go (the Death Row Song) and the VD-themed Don’t Give A Dose To The One You Love – neither of which, mercifully, are represented on this current disc. For odds are that even if you openly admit to loving Shel and his crazy creations, you’ll still draw the line at some of them, whether on the grounds of musical (or personal) taste or some other definable or undefinable reason. With me, it’s a bit much love-or-hate; I might fall about helpless with sympathetic laughter at some of the satirical gems, or else cringe at the sentimentality of others. In the end, whether it’s a case of “getting it” or “not getting it” I dunno, but it’s that way…

But I just love Queen Of The Silver Dollar, and Sarah Jarosz’s new take with Black Prairie runs the glorious 70s Emmylou version pretty close in my book, whereas Lucinda Williams does a great job on The Ballad Of Lucy Jordan, investing the tale with real poignancy. Other successes on this latest tribute disc include Andrew Bird’s appealingly eccentric cover of the most recent Shel work (The Twistable Turnable Man Returns), John Prine’s truthful account of This Guitar Is For Sale and Kris Kristofferson’s acutely realised characterisation of The Winner. Black Francis’ take on The Cover Of The Rolling Stone is an acceptable transformation, while Todd Snider turns in a sufficiently strait-laced performance of the iconic A Boy Named Sue (with a crack team of musos in tow and, appropriately, John Carter Cash at the production helm) and Bobby Bare Sr. (a self-confessed Shel expert and personal friend) presents The Living Legend with knowing credibility. And My Morning Jacket’s bookending pair of contributions can’t fail to please, even if the one-liner joke of 26-Second Song inevitably soon wears thin. However, and rather curiously, The Boxmasters’ altogether chirpier uptempo arrangement of the erstwhile unduly lachrymose Sylvia’s Mother does somehow manage to redeem the song a touch for me.

But, even considering Nanci Griffith’s genial rendition of The Giving Tree, I really can’t cope with the kids’ stuff – the must-skip tracks here being the unmitigatedly sickly Daddy What If (Bobby Bare Jr.) in particular, and the clever-clever, overly effects-swamped portrait of The Unicorn (Dr. Dog).

My opening comment sums it all up nicely: a fitting tribute to Shel’s maverick, and distinctly wayward, creativity (tho’, unlike many commentators, I’d hesitate to use the epithet genius).

www.sugarhillrecords.com

David Kidman


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The Red Hot Chilli Pipers – MUSIC FOR A KILTED GENERATION (REL Records RECD.572)

The RHCPS’s blistering, genre-defining Bagrock returns with a vengeance for their third album onslaught. It’s a surprising number of years since album number two (BLAST Live), but the message and the music has survived intact, and the gene-pool of enterprising potential repertoire from which the guys draw is even deeper on this new outing. It’s tempting to compare their eclectic, no-holds-barred, open-minded coverage of material from pop and rock music with a similar predilection proudly harboured by the Ukulele Orchestra Of Great Britain – though of course with the Pipers the scale, and decibel count, is necessarily mightier!

The deafening charge of (as many as four sets of) bagpipes, with electric guitar, keyboards, bass and drums (often augmented by a horn section too) proves totally irresistible – at any rate for a time… For there’s no denying the initial impact, and long-lasting appeal and even hardcore thrill, of hearing this lineup rock out wide-screen on such iconic classics as AC/DC’s Long Way To The Top, Deep Purple’s Black (K)Night, the Who’s Baba O’Riley and even Queen’s Radio Ga Ga, especially when combined with funky treatments of dance tunes (as on the opening cut If You Wanna Bagrock). Other tracks like Hellbound Train and Low Rider also generate plenty of genuine excitement and ingenuity in the arrangements, while even Snow Patrol’s Chasing Cars provides a healthy degree of epic anthemic satisfaction.

But – and this is surely less of a comment on the quality of the music-making than a testament to my personal taste – I do find myself drawing the line at the overblown pop-gospel of Amazing Grace. And I’m never going to be convinced of the musical merit of Robbie Williams’ Let Me Entertain You, however much it’s rocked-up or rumba-ed off. Yet for those dubious excesses the ensemble redeems itself with a lyrical, nicely restrained account of Stevie Lawrence’s The Hidden Gem, which is appropriately tucked away around the disc’s mid-point. It’s also a pity that a few of the tracks are faded just as the workouts are beginning to get interesting.

In the final analysis, I suspect that the celebrated massive attack of the full-band scenario is being diluted and compromised by the combo’s desire to pander to popular taste by including some quite middle-of-the-road material that even the RHCP’s signature wall-of-sound can’t render sufficiently exciting or cutting-edge. The sticking point is that, mighty though the sound may be, for those by now accustomed to the funky, more experimental fusions of (say) Peatbog Faeries, Shooglenifty and Salsa Celtica, the RHCP might now smack a bit too much of Hogmanay-Hootenanny or stadium-rock to entirely satisfy.

www.redhotchillipipers.co.uk

David Kidman


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Bill Lloyd – WILLY RUBY (Wildwood Acoustic WILDCD20104)

This inveterate singer, banjo frailer and record label boss is a veteran producer, having chalked up over 40 albums for other people before finally getting round to recording a CD in his own right – and it bears ample credence to the cliché of it being worth the wait. On Willy Ruby, Bill presents an eclectic bunch of songs and treatments that reflect the spirit of the Fleadh while cheekily poking its head out from under the capacious golf-umbrella of Americana. It’s probably best described in Bill’s own words, as “trailer trash music” – high-energy folk/country/dance crossover that’s “happy, good-time music with strong lyrics and sweet harmonies”. That said, its lightness of idiom conceals the fact of it being intelligently crafted throughout, even though it might at times give the impression of being thrown together with abandon as Bill lets loose in his own studio, playing the majority of the instruments himself (five-string banjo, tenor guitar, whistle, flute, bagpipes and drone box). At first acquaintance, on the proud full-steam-ahead charge of Northern Rail (a cover of a “progressive bluegrass” song by Northern Lights’ Taylor Amerding), a heady everything-but-the-kitchen-sink ambience might appear to dominate proceedings, but the listener is soon won over by Bill’s infectiously energetic vocal delivery and his keenly developed sense of genuine studio creativity, not to mention his unquestioned instrumental expertise.
Songs covered include an interesting selection from the pens of a cross-section of trusty Americana writers; John Hiatt’s laconic Memphis In The Meantime, Townes Van Zandt’s darkly truthful portrait of Kathleen (given a chill-out reggae mood) and Tom Russell’s spicy Gallo Del Cielo (The Mexican Cockfight) are complemented by an aromatic, intriguingly North-Indian-sounding treatment of Nanci Griffith’s Fields Of Summer that pits tabla against bodhrán and tanbur-drenched banjo. Approved Americana aside, there’s a neat juxtaposition of Seth Lakeman’s reworking of The White Hare with a Transylvanian wedding tune, as well as Pat Simmons’ authentically Celtic-tinged reminiscence Moon On The Water (a fine choice for anthemic disc-finale) and covers of Ronnie Lane’s One For The Road and the Men At Work classic Down Under, but it’s all material that Bill clearly has a feel for and treats with respect and affection however uptempo be his desired settings (there’s something distinctly Pogues-like about the breakneck 150 bpm speed at which a number of the songs are taken, and the mood can sometimes seem a touch relentless). Reflecting the almost-accidental chance gatherings that produced the album sessions in Co. Cavan, Ireland, Bill also enlists a small support crew to provide extra musical colours: multi-instrumentalist and sometime touring partner (and studio engineer) Johno Leader (bass and electric guitars, mandolin, synth, bass banjo and percussion), Jacob McCauley (bodhrán) and Hannah Flynn (harmony vocals); otherwise it’s all Bill’s own work, and very proficiently managed too, with as telling an attention to internal detail as to the communication and expression of the lyrics. And as a final touch, the attractive and highly individual original artwork serves as a direct memorial to the late (and intensely talented) Irish painter James Rocco Bartholomew. Willy Ruby is a vibrant release that deserves wide coverage.

www.georgelloyd.com/willyruby

David Kidman


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Eva Cassidy – SIMPLY EVA (Blix Street Records G2-10199)

Simply Eva is definitely not just “yet another” compilation of freshly-exhumed recordings of the late songbird Eva Cassidy, housed in a package making extravagant claims for their artistic merit. Instead, it’s a truly “less-is-more” collection of bare-bones guitar-and-vocal treatments, which are so strikingly direct in their communication of the songs that it’s genuinely like hearing Eva’s individual voice for the first time, unadorned – and bereft of those at times submergingly detailed arrangements and production with which we’re so familiar from her classic albums. It could even be argued that these “Simply Eva” versions are the ones you need above all others in your collection. All tracks date from the mid-1990s; six of the dozen cuts were actually recorded live (but with no intrusive audience noise), the remainder live-in-a-studio. Fresh insights abound on virtually every track, from the realistic passion of Who Knows Where The Time Goes? to the breathtaking, sensitive extended version of Kathy’s Song, the brilliantly melancholy shades of the supremely tender Autumn Leaves to the gentle intimacy of Songbird itself and Cyndi Lauper’s Time After Time, the folkier climes of Wayfaring Stranger and Wade In The Water and a thoughtfully slowed-down bluesy take on San Francisco Bay Blues. The final track, I Know You By Heart, is a tantalising mere fragment of what was evidently a superlative acappella performance. The collection also includes – for the first time on record – the soundtrack to the video of Over The Rainbow, Eva’s landmark Blues Alley performance that in effect redefined (and virtually rehabilitated) the song for many of us. Not only is Eva in excellent voice throughout, but we can now appreciate her subtly lyrical skills as guitar player, hitherto somewhat underestimated. Yes, Simply Eva is simply essential listening.

David Kidman


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Ruth & Sadie Price – RaSP (Own Label RPCD020)

Ruth’s the daughter of Bill and Wendy Price of West Yorkshire, both key figures in the regional folk scene (singer and ceilidh-band musician/caller respectively); her sister Sadie was born following Bill & Wendy’s return from a spell living in Toronto, and the sisters were raised in Dewsbury. Here they grew up singing, mostly unaccompanied, a wide repertoire of folk songs, many from their family tradition and their associations with both West Yorkshire and North America. Over the years, Ruth and Sadie have developed their special singing style with its close sibling harmonies, almost as a sideline from their morris dancing activities, which probably explains why this is only their second CD release (following Between Debt And Fortune, which appeared in 2003). Their distinctive, intuitive harmony singing is extraordinarily fine, indeed often spine-tingling, and the majority of the tracks on RaSP provide a straightforward showcase for it, undistracted by extraneous instrumentation. Ruth provides concertina accompaniment to just three tracks – Sadie’s vigorous account of A Fine Old Yorkshire Gentleman, the luddite tale of Foster’s Mill, and The Barleycorn (an Irish variant, in jig-time, of the JB tale) – but the remainder of the CD comprises unadulterated vocal renditions. Particularly impressive is the sisters’ truthful and perceptive account of Catch Me If You Can (quite different in spirit from the celebrated Leggs’ recording), while I was also taken with The Eskdale Hare, a gloomy tale which sounds traditional but which turns out to have been written “variously” by two family friends, Gus Gomersall and Steve Walker; a good contrast is provided by the ensuing Squire Frith, a lusty hunting song from the Holme Valley. The final pair of tracks – Mervyn Vincent’s Farewell Shanty and the Senegalese song Breaths (made famous by Sweet Honey In The Rock) – don’t quite seem to fit with the rest, although the sisters’ performances can’t be faulted in any way. But my final comment should not deter anyone from purchasing this CD of wonderfully characterful and deeply committed harmony singing.

www.ruthprice.com

David Kidman


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Joan Baez – PLAY ME BACKWARDS (COLLECTOR’S EDITION) (Proper PRPCD. 078)

Play Me Backwards was first released close on 20 years ago, in 1992, on the Virgin label, and although it was undervalued at the time, even by her fans, it has long since come to hold a special place in her rich recording history. Its sessions marked her return to Nashville for recording purposes (an equivalent amount of time had elapsed since the series of four albums she’d recorded there between 1968 and 1971), and the first (of what were to be many) of Joan’s collaborations with producers Wally Wilson and Kenny Greenberg, along with a superb galaxy of session musicians (including Jerry Douglas and his signature dobro), produced an unexpectedly radio-friendly (but uncompromisingly so) record whose impact has rippled through country and folk ever since as well as marking the beginning of the renaissance of Joan’s career. The album contains four songs which Joan co-wrote with her producers, including the feisty but thoughtful title number, the affectionate Edge Of Glory (written for her father) and the highly contrasted, riveting and deeply rootsy Isaac And Abraham (backed only by Marcos Suzano’s berenbau), while The Dream Song (which Joan co-penned with Ron Davies) is a classily pensive creation backed by a string quartet (although I wasn’t nearly as enamoured with the blander I’m With You). Elsewhere, Joan was busy discovering the cream of contemporary songwriting, in the shape of Mary Chapin Carpenter (Stones In The Road), John Stewart (whose Strange Rivers is a standout track here) and Janis Ian with Buddy Mondlock (Amsterdam). But the real interest of this collector’s edition reissue lies in the second (bonus) disc, which comprises previously unreleased demos of ten songs which were contemplated by Joan and her producers and for some reason were rejected. Inevitably, these demos are scored significantly more minimally, mostly just voice and guitar (with a smidgen of percussion or organ on a couple), or a rather clangy piano (Much Better View Of The Moon), but what’s most significant is the staggering range of material that Joan covers here, always so intuitively and with so much confidence and conviction. Pick of this crop is her rendition of Dylan’s legendary ballad adaptation Seven Curses, and her own co-write with Ashley Cleveland (In My Day) is pretty good too, but it’s also fascinating to hear her covering some even-now-unfamiliar material from writers who are still not exactly household names: Gary Nicholson’s Trouble With The Truth, two by Mark Heard (Lonely Moon and Rise from The Ruins) and John Hadley’s The Last Day, while Ron Davies and Janis Ian both crop up again in the writing credits for this set. A landmark new edition of a record that, with the insight gained by the inclusion of those bonus tracks, can now be re-assessed.

www.joanbaez.com

David Kidman


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The Lakeland Fiddlers – ONE BIG FIDDLE (Wildwood Acoustic WILDCD12009)

The Lakeland Fiddlers is a community band with a fluid membership; it was formed just over ten years ago out of an Adult Education class at Kendal’s Brewery Arts Centre, since which time it has performed regularly at all manner of local festivals, fairs and galas. Its repertoire, naturally enough, focuses on (although without consisting quite exclusively of) fiddle tunes from the local region (the Lake District), and for that reason alone a recording such as this is to be heartily welcomed by any devotee of good tunes. Although it’s fair to admit that a healthy degree of Lakeland provenance (or at any rate authentic local “adoption”!) is also persuasively ventured for tunes such as My Love Is But A Lassie Yet! But who could argue (on any grounds) with the Fiddlers’ neatly idiomatic rendition of the Norwegian tune Springar Fra Gossen?… The band consists of 15 fiddle players (inclusive of its leader Carolyn Francis, who has also composed some of the tunes herself), with a “big fiddle” and an acoustic guitar for basic underpinning accompaniment and other duties. One Big Fiddle turns out to be the band’s third record; I’ve not heard its predecessors, but this one, recorded live at Slough Farm in Docker during 2009, is a fine demonstration of just how much can be achieved by an ensemble of enthusiastic and committed non-professional players (no disparagement intended). As well as the wonderfully lusty full-on massed-fiddle treatments, a more restrained approach to ensemble dynamics is also successfully displayed on several of the selections, while the disc also contains examples of characterful solo fiddling by Carolyn herself (e.g. the horse-themed jigs set, the self-penned border pipe reels and the haunting Nancy’s To The Greenwood Gone), and there’s a nicely judged guitar solo (Richard Selvidge) on the lovely, mellow Trip To Galloway (learnt by Carolyn from the Boat Band’s redoubtable Greg Stephens). The sense of genuine relish with which the players dispatch these tunes is well communicated on this recording, and whatever the slight (inevitable) rough edges and occasional lapses in intonation this is a disc to be treasured, not least for the exposure it gives to some quite rarely-heard but delicious tunes of course, but overall definitely for the wonderfully spirited togetherness of the playing. Favourite tracks of mine, which have already been put on replay mode, include the Needles And Twine and Kendal Lilt jig-sets (tracks 20 and 11), Henry Stables’ Grand Hornpipe and the final medley (The Common Ground/Catalan). And by the way, this well-filled disc also treats us to a pair of dialect recitations by Steve Grundy, to give a flavour of his earthy regular contributions to the Fiddlers’ monthly sessions at the Hawkshead Brewery Beer Hall in Staveley (now that would be worth a visit methinks!).

www.lakelandfiddlers.co.uk

David Kidman


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Mike Reinstein – MORE TO BE REVEALED (Irregular IRR079)

Mike’s been involved in music since the 1970s, when he was in a band called Doris doing the rounds of the folk club and college circuit. Only now, however, comes his debut CD as a fully fledged singer-songwriter, for which he’s gathered a group of able musician friends to help him realise his witty vision of life. Its 14 original songs are a diverse bunch musically, but what’s abundantly clear from the outset if that Mike has a gift for melody and an ear for a good hook, even if his personal insights are sometimes a touch oblique and his characters a touch elusive when you consider the universal nature of his observations and commentaries.
It’s clear where Mike’s political sensibilities lie, and a touch too obviously so at times, but what keeps you interested for the most part is the intelligence (and musicality) with which these are expressed. Specific reference points aren’t all that obvious, although I was surprised to find myself recalling mid-70s Stackridge, late Beatles, even Squeeze, while listening to tracks like the opener Olga Wolonofsky, whereas other songs embody the cheerfully anarchist spirit of Chumbawamba (if not quite that band’s facility with words); the closing Fish Molecules, however, encompasses a perennial problem within the meaning of life, in a perversely gentle, deliciously Pythonesque setting. The best of Mike’s songs purvey a bleakly comic outlook: Tungsten Not Lead marries a caustic observation on the arms industry to a chirpy reggae lilt, while The Last Two Jews In Kabal are characterised by a lazy, if mildly uneasy cabaret waltz and Bring Back The Day is set to a busy percussion riff. Some tracks (like Hitler’s Little Pinkie) turn out too ham-fisted, even glib, in their attempt at comedy, to the extent that they don’t quite come off, and in general but there’s enough promise in songs like the moving The Last Box, the tender Catch This Line and the more reflective Says Who and A Fox Is Just A Dog With A Bad Reputation, and also in Mike’s own confident finger-picking, to justify keeping a watching brief on Mike’s future activities, during the course of which I suspect more (of his talent) will indeed be revealed.

www.mikereinstein.co.uk

David Kidman


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The Good Lovelies – LET THE RAIN FALL (Own Label GL004)

The Good Lovelies are a distinctly charming folk-Americana trio (Caroline Brooks, Kerri Ough and Sue Passmore) who hail from Canada, at whose Folk Music Awards they won the New Emerging Artist title back in 2009, the year they released their second full-length album, a collection of holiday favourites Under The Mistletoe (sadly, not received for review). Let The Rain Fall is another spirited set that exudes gay abandon and thoughtful poignancy in almost equal measure. In that regard, I guess the Good Lovelies’ music might just be described as schizophrenic – but in a thoroughly nice way!… All but one of the album’s 13 songs are democratic band compositions, and they tackle subjects ranging from true love (Best I Know, Kingston) to urban foibles (Backyard), and more often than not both knowingly optimistic and with a cheeky sense of humour built in. Around half of them are infectiously upbeat, couched in a sassy, uptempo swing-cum-western-with-a-touch-of-bluegrass-or-boogiewoogie mode, whereas the rest, in contrast, are delicate, sublimely wistful, beautifully sweet creations, more leisurely in execution maybe but not the chalk-and-cheese mismatch with the other tracks that they might first appear. And the common factor to every track is those delicious Good Lovelies trademark three-part harmonies, honed to a fine art but maintaining a keen feel of spontaneity that chimes in with the fun the gals are so obviously having. Tracks like Made For Rain, Kiss Me In The Kitchen and Lonesome Hearts have a sparky, chirpy Andrews Sisters demeanour (think also Rani Arbo’s Daisy Mayhem combo, or at times even Hot Club Of Cowtown).
Oh What A Thing is a catchy handclapped square-dance complete with slapped bass, and Home, by contrast, is a ruminative slow-drag waltz with a neat part for electric geetar. There’s an appealing Roches-like tenderness to Every Little Thing and Best I Know (love those glistening antiphonal lap steels!), while elsewhere Old Highway calls to mind the Wailin’ Jennys and Mrs T gives shades of the McGarrigles perhaps (and not just cos it’s partly sung in French!). The gals swop instruments around (guitars, banjos, violin etc) like there’s no tomorrow (well there ain’t, after all!), and they have the added benefit of extra accompaniment from a handful of gifted musicians (Les Cooper, Adam King, Christine Bougie, Robbie Grunwald and Marc Rogers) as and when necessary. Yep, these good gals are lovelies alright; they sure captivate, soothe and beguile the soul in the sunniest of ways and this 42 minutes spent in their company is guaranteed to raise your spirits of the rainiest of days.

www.goodlovelies.com

David Kidman


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Steve Earle – I’LL NEVER GET OUT OF THIS WORLD ALIVE (New West)

This, Steve’s 14th studio record, is the followup to his award-winning 2009 disc Townes, on which he paid tribute to fellow-songwriter Townes van Zandt. Judging from the new disc’s title, you might imagine or expect a Hank Williams tribute album, but in fact, although it takes its title from Hank’s last-ever (1952) single release, this is a brand new collection of original material (the first since 2007’s Washington Square Serenade). It’s a highly personal song-cycle that ties in both with Steve’s certain preoccupation with mortality following the death of his father three years ago, and with Steve’s own forthcoming debut novel of the same title (due for publication this summer), which imagines the troubled life of Doc Ebersole as he is haunted by the ghost of his former patient and friend (Hank Williams, naturally). The song-cycle’s gestation has been a long one, with the tracks God Is God and I Am A Wanderer both having originally been written for (and appearing on) Joan Baez’s brilliant 2008 album Day After Tomorrow, and the horn-bedecked closer This City having been composed for the TV show Treme (in which Steve has a recurring acting role as Harley). The songs mostly adhere to the theme of mortality, whether considering death as “a mystery rather than as a punctuation mark, a comma rather than a period” (Steve’s own words). Musically, the song-cycle contains most of Steve’s trademarks: gutsy vocals, rough-hewn rootsy backdrops, tough and memorable lyrics – you get the picture… But there are some tender moments too, with the searching love song Every Part Of Me and the yearning Lonely Are The Free complementing the twangy small-town-autobiographical nostalgia of Waitin’ On The Sky, the fiddle’n’banjo old-timery-cum-outlaw-balladry of Molly-O, the harmonica-drenched urban soundscape of Meet Me In The Alleyway and the heavily charged multi-generational cautionary-tale ofThe Gulf Of Mexico. The expert production’s by T Bone Burnett, and aside from Steve’s trusty band there’s his wife Allison Moorer who drops in to duet on Heaven And Hell. This may not be a hard-hitting political album through and through (although Little Emperor may seem to indicate otherwise), but even tho’ it doesn’t break any new ground musically it’s a satisfying artistic statement on its own terms and now I’m sure looking forward to reading the novel.

David Kidman


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Diana Jones – HIGH ATMOSPHERE (Proper PRPCD. 070)

Diana is one of those singer-songwriters who possesses the gift of making a profound statement through the simplest of music and the simplest of means. In that respect she has a strong kinship with Gillian Welch I guess, but the two don’t really sound that much alike. Diana’s singing is straightforward, plain-folky even, but that plainness of expression hides a considerable skill in preparation – which includes the very construction of her lyrics. These can be heard to embody a link deep back to the very tradition of the old Appalachian mountain ballads through keen metaphorical and literal storytelling that addresses the human condition directly.
High Atmosphere’s the third in her series of albums illustrating this, and will in time probably be considered the best (although anyone who heard 2009’s Better Times Will Come will agree that record was a hard act to follow). High Atmosphere contains a dozen songs that are the epitome of economy of expression while uniformly strong in content and impact. I Told The Man (sung from the viewpoint of a miner’s wife) seems to hail from the same wellspring that sourced the Lomax prison farm recordings, whereas Poverty turns out to be a catchy singalong number that rather belies its content and My Love Is Gone is a moody Carter-like piece soaked in desperation and melancholy. The Funeral Singer is a quiet yet exquisitely personal lament about being unable to grieve properly in her own right when she’s continually asked to play at the funerals of others, whereas the sweet and tearful Drug For This explores a similar theme of helplessness and the blatant questioning of I Don’t Know is blessed with a beautifully autumnal string-section backdrop. The haunting lonesome vibe that permeates Diana’s writing is intimately communicated by virtue of timeless-sounding melodies utilising pared-down settings that involve a select crew of entirely simpatico musicians (who include Beau Stapleton, Aaron Embry and Mike Bub) masterminded by her co-producer Ketch Secor (of Old Crow Medicine Show fame), who also contributes fiddle, viola, banjo, guitar and harmony vocals. There are also cameo appearances from Jim Lauderdale (vocals on three tracks), Duke Levine and David Mayfield. All of which elements go to make up a rather special album, one which reflects the special spiritual place that Diana inhabits.

www.dianajonesmusic.com

David Kidman


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Various Artists – THE FOX AND THE HARE (Veteran VT135CD)

In common with the other eastern counties of England, Essex has a rich heritage of traditional songs, yet the county was largely ignored by early song collectors and recordists, who tended to be on their way to more far-flung places. However, this latest release from the Veteran label goes some way towards redressing the balance as it collects together a healthy representation of fine source singers from Essex. 17 of the 25 tracks on this CD feature the singing of Harry Green from Tilty (a village near Bishop’s Stortford), who figured large in the collecting activities of Fred Hamer; at the time of recording (1967), Harry was 93 years of age – and still blessed with a good voice and a lively, jaunty delivery. It’s unfortunate that some of the songs are but fragments (his Banks Of The Sweet Primroses hints at a notable completion, for instance), but Harry has a sure sense of flow and timing, and his companionable sense of fun shines through in the perennial “twinkle in the voice” he possessed, and especially in spirited accounts of When Jones’s Ale Was New and The Nutting Girl, clearly songs he relished singing alongside Treat My Daughter Kindly (aka. Chickens In The Garden). As well as around 40 minutes’ worth of Harry’s singing, the disc contains performances by four other singers from roughly the same area. Recorded in 1980, Stan Walters (who reminds me of a less overly commanding version of Sussex singer Gordon Hall) contributes just the old favourite A Girl Who Led A Life So Straight and a tantalising snippet of parody When Irish Eggs Are Frying, while Lorna Tarran from Mersea gives us The Flash Girl (a variant of The Knickerbocker Line) and a version of the popular Herring Song. Ernest Austin’s combination of Hares On The Mountain with Knife In The Window is an intriguing one (dating from 1973, it was previously available on the Topic LP Flash Company), but pick of the “guest” singers’ tracks for me is Herbert “Sugar” Bailey’s wonderfully sensitive rendition of Bunch Of Thyme (I do hope the remainder of the 1989 recording session mentioned in the notes might get released on CD in due course).
This valuable Veteran release constitutes a further “brick in the East Anglian musical jigsaw”; and (naturally) it comes complete with excellent accompanying notes on the songs and performers (while as usual the full song texts are available on Veteran’s website
www.veteran.co.uk).

David Kidman


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Al Baker & The Dole Queue – CAUSES AND CURES (Irregular IRR.078)

Al Baker’s described as a folk-“Troubacore” pioneer, but his music was new to me before the release of this his latest CD. Its predecessor, 2007’s On The Use Of Jackboots, which apparently arose out of a revelation, on New Year’s Day in 2006, that “this folk music lark didn’t sound all that difficult”, was recorded in his bedroom with the help of a handful of friends backing him up as the first incarnation of The Dole Queue. Causes And Cures’ ten new songs are, I understand, a more varied selection, albeit most can be categorised as genial rants that bring a fresh – and sobering – look at the issues of the day and yet still inspire passion enough to “make you want to throw a brick through something”… well, that’s according to the weasel words of the press release anyway… Cradled in trademark riffs from guitars (either identikit punk-rock or staple acoustic-punk, with the occasional nod to Guthrie or Bragg), and with strong support from the latest incarnation of his flexible 13-member ad-hoc backing band, Al’s songs are ideal vehicles for his personal brand of wit with its intelligent lyrics that sneer their way through the at times surprisingly lucid instrumental texture. Maybe not all of the songs provide a sufficiently new perspective as advertised, or maybe we’re all getting over-used to railing against the failures of successive leaders to deal effectively with our country’s problems, but Al sure does his best to rally us to the cause. The best of this album’s songs are probably the ballad Green Lights And Gasoline and the opener Thank God I’m An Atheist, while the disc’s midway point is marked by a companionable “oi!”-style thrash through The Minstrel Boy: fun, but a concession nevertheless, it feels. Al’s in-yer-face sneering vocal is much of its type, and harks back to the glory days of punk – which is not necessarily a bad thing in this setting, as it turns out.
www.albaker.co.uk

David Kidman


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Betty Soo – HEAT SIN WATER SKIN (Own Label, no catalogue number)

A typically idiosyncratic Gurf Morlix production cocoons the fourth release (and third full-length album) from this petite Asian-American (second-generation Korean) singer-songwriter. Betty Soo’s delicately big-toned voice (now there’s an apparent contradiction in terms!) lends unexpected gravitas to her moving and compelling original compositions, which, like this album’s title, hang heavy with acute sensory experiences. These are served up in a home-produced musical brew that’s nestled snugly (yet not complacently) somewhere between the poles of folk, gospel, twang and indie.

The opening cut Never Knew No Love is deceptively rocky, but intimacy is just round the corner and Just Another Lover belies its almost pretty air of mournful heartbreak by dint of the itchy passion and sensory perception that pervades the lyric like a perfume. Further intimate confidences are tenderly shared on Whisper My Name, Next Big Thing and What We’ve Got (the latter recalls the tenderness of an early Dar Williams song), and Forever comes in the form of an uneasy lullaby, while the regretful Never The Pretty Girl tackles a very familiar subject with honesty. The questioning Who Knows is set to a tougher mould and full electric backdrop, complementing the feistier indie-gospel drive of Still Small Voice and the retro chugging bass riff of Get Clean. Interestingly, the disc’s final track is a well-thought-through cover of Hank Williams’ Lonesome Whistle that really lingers in the psyche and threatens to upstage Betty Soo’s own songs.

But all of these creations enjoy ingeniously crafted backings that mostly involve Gurf himself (playing a veritable plethora of instruments, of course!), along with Todd Wilson, Gene Elders and Dave Terry. It’s a classy record, if at times just a touch odd; yet it’s one which should see Betty Soo’s name emerge more fully into the limelight as a distinctive and must-hear exponent of contemporary singer-songwriting.

www.bettysoo.com

David Kidman


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Amy Lashley – TRAVELS OF A HOMEBODY (Wanamaker, no catalogue number)

Self-confessed near-recluse Amy was born in central Indiana, but since 2007 has been settled in Nashville with partner Otis Gibbs (whose CD Joe Hill’s Ashes was reviewed on these pages only last year). Amy’s own writing is introspective but not exclusive, and she has an accomplished, pleasingly easy-going – if perhaps a touch plain – manner, with a singing style to match. The musical idiom is simple, country-folk with dashes of western swing and jazzy swing here and there; musical settings are kept genially simple too (guitars, fiddle, mandolin, upright bass, drums) and characterised by the key natural involvement of Otis Gibbs himself. Amy’s songs are mostly of an autobiographical nature, whether based directly on her own life-experiences (Who Am I Kidding) or drawn from the stories of others (Livin’ On Beans And Cornbread was inspired by the books of Rick Bragg, for instance).

The most compelling songs turn out to be the reflective Ode To Middle Age and those which portray specific emotional snapshots (Kiss Indiana Goodbye is a good example). Perfectly formed that other creations of Amy’s seem to be, there’s often also a sense of the songs running out of steam before they’ve ended, which I can’t quite fathom, especially in the context of her keen word-painting. Arguably the most successful of the rest are the waltzer Wrong Side Of Gallatin, the bluesy Lil’ Red Girl and the darkly inspired Gillian-Welch-like Emmett Till (yes, on balance I guess the subject merits another outing).

There aren’t any weak tracks as such, but all in all I do get the nagging feeling that Amy’s music could be more distinctive if she could manage to get over her (natural?) hyper-sensitivity and consequent avoidance of performing and get to sell her talents on the musical stages (she concentrates on the creative side nowadays, writing and recording music, poems and stories).

www.amylashley.com

David Kidman


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Miss Quincy – LIKE THE DEVIL DOES (Own Label MQ002)

It’s just over a year since I reviewed this sassy yet enigmatic lady’s debut CD Your Mama Don’t Like Me, but here she is bouncing back with a brand new collection of rough-hewn, moody and often distinctly swampy blues-inspired music that crawls its sinuous way straight into your soul. The difference from that debut record is that this time there’s more of a definite live-off-the-floor band feel to the proceedings, happily without subsuming Miss Q’s feisty character. The “band”’ is theoretically her new touring outfit The Showdown, which comprises Shari Rae (upright bass) and Holly Magnus (drums), but on this recording Thom Moon’s the drummer and the basic three-piece is augmented as appropriate by key contributions from producer Tim Williams (lap steel, dobro, tenor banjo, slide), also Allistair Elliott (trumpet), Jonathan Lewis (fiddle), Ron Casat (Hammond, piano), Tyler Toews (electric guitar) and Alyssa Jean Gardner (backing vocals). But before you start to expecting a whole album of raw, down-and-dirty juke-joint blues, you’ll need to take a breather after track 3 and get into a series of different grooves as the instrumental climate changes with the mood of the songs – here we encounter the steamily suggestive Nina Simone cover (and the disc’s only non-original) I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl, perhaps a little over-the-top but what a trumpet solo !, the wow-factor of the ultra-energetically-fiddled Dangerous, the tender, achingly soulful slowie Til The Money Comes In, the clunkin’ banjo-fuelled drag Dawson City Line, the gentle closer Carmen and the almost delicate barroom-upright-bedecked tale of Silent Movie. Just occasionally it’s possible to find the redoubtable Miss Q’s no-nonsense delivery and relentlessly direct persona a little wearing, so when the lipstick smears and she shows a softer, more vulnerable side (as on Til The Money Comes In), it can be quite refreshing. But Like The Devil Does is still a superb set, whose surprising diversity delights more than you might expect from the initial label, and Josie Peck’s alter-ego proves deliciously flirtatious and knowingly confident as ever – and while her vocal prowess is still outstanding, her own brilliantly idiomatic guitar work is almost worth the price of admission alone.

www.missquincy.net

David Kidman


Miss Quincy – YOUR MAMA DON’T LIKE ME (Own Label, no catalogue number)

Your mama may not, but I sure do!… I wasn’t quite sure what to expect after reading the tag “grass roots gypsy blues spirit” that tumbled off the slightly purple prose of the press release, especially when learning that the album had been recorded in an extreme cold snap of way-sub-zero temperatures in a log-cabin in Northern British Columbia!… But there’s a directness and immediacy to the music-making on this disc, one that really warms the heart and soul, even if some of it’s quite rough-and-ready (albeit in idiom rather than execution, I might add).

For the enigmatic Miss Quincy captivates right from the off, and endears the listener with her pleasingly schizophrenic musical personality, which turns out a sassy, edgy blend of saloon-bar risquéness and mystical frontierswoman. Miss Quincy doesn’t quite alternate between the two, but proves equally persuasive in either milieu and all points in between.

One facet of her musical personality draws a key direct inspiration from the conduct of the “naughty” blues ladies of the 30s (notably on a cover of Memphis Minnie’s Bad Luck Woman), whereas the inevitably gritty title track is built around a cheeky trumpet-bedecked Charleston, Dirty Boat utilises the dirtiest, clangiest barroom piano in the area, Nobody With You is a persuasive gypsy-cossack-style take on the moanin’ blues and Sweet Jesus Café takes on hallelujah call-and-response gospel with some infectious clap-percussion and tap-dancery.

But for me the most beguiling numbers come in the sequence in the middle of the disc: immediate standouts being the wonderfully eerie Wild Mountain Flower, where Miss Q’s banjo has a weird sitar-like taint to its twang, and the gently mournful beauty of the string-and-mando-backed lament Record Store. I also really liked the authentic old-time drag of Dead Horse and the hazy atmosphere conjured by the Hawaiian steel backdrop of Water And Whiskey.

Plenty of credit should also go to Miss Q’s handy support crew of musical collaborators Reno Fitch, Craig Korth, Peter Mynett, Josh Giesbrecht, Lance Loree, Glenn Mitchell, Alyssa Jean Klazek, Joel Lahaye, Anneke Rosch, Brin Porter and Dave Tolley (all at some point somehow having gotten shoehorned into that tiny cabin). All of whom brilliantly enhance Miss Q’s own characterful vocal ebullience to make it a fun and yet intimate record – and just plain delicious.

www.missquincy.net

David Kidman


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J.T. & The Clouds – CALEDONIA (Dishrag, no catalogue number)

This Chicago six-piece completed their UK tour last month, but the album itself didn’t really penetrate my consciousness till I finally got round to playing it on the car stereo – hence the lateness of this review.

Even after quite a number of plays, I’m still not entirely sold on the band’s at times curious yet strangely logical blend of musics, where time-honoured Chicago soul and R&B crosses swords with equally muscular indie and good-time roots; sometimes, as on the album opener Fever Dream, it both clicks and cooks, but at others (the cautious Latino-inflected swamp of Funeral, the summery poppish vibe of Low July), the mix feels more unsure of itself.

There’s serious confidence about this record tho’, with Jeremy Lindsay’s songwriting betraying both experience and aptitude; although The Clouds have been touring and recording since 2004, the EP Demons/Demons that came out last year was marketed under the name JT Nero and presented a rather softer-grained manifestation of Jeremy’s world-view, which is, audibly, more punchily developed on California. There’s an ingrained passion to Jeremy’s vocal work which is directly appealing, even if the end product doesn’t always quite fit the elements together with that voice in the most appropriate way. Playin’ Dozens rings the special qualities of Jeremy’s voice to the fore in a slinky groove, which is further developed through the Curtis Mayfield-like How It Runs, while the heavy country-rock tread of Caledonia is more redolent of Neil Young than its title would suggest (even so, a cheesy synth tone undermines the gutsier rootsy feel of the basic track somewhat) and the insistent mantra beat of Grow Your Flowers sidewinds its merry jittery way rather fetchingly with honking saxes.

Readers may by now be puzzling over whether I actually like the album – and the answer is yes I do, and it does grow, but I also feel that its attributes are oh so slightly awkwardly configured and thus the record is still not able to give me an entirely straightforward response. Although Jeremy’s sentiments may not be overly original, the disc’s minimal booklet, in including no lyrics, may also prove a hindrance to further appreciation in some quarters.

www.jtandtheclouds.com

David Kidman


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Lynn Miles – FALL FOR BEAUTY (True North TND.533)

Lynn follows up her refreshingly minimalist double-disc collection Black Flowers with a contrasted set of new songs that, while still showcasing her trademark clear, confident singing voice and rewardingly intimate writing, bring in some more conscious production touches and an altogether more rich and full-bodied sound-world – at any rate, for much of the time.

It probably goes without saying (especially for anyone familiar with any of Lynn’s previous seven albums) that the tracks which make the most impression are those where the production values are reined in and we’re able to concentrate more on Lynn’s songwriting craft and straightahead sensitivity. Highlights of the set are the classily-uptempo country of Fearless Heart, the open honesty of Three Chords And The Truth and the Emmylou-like Little Bird, while the moody, twang-soaked swing of Save Me and the resigned heartbreak of Goodbye are both pretty persuasive too, the latter featuring a keen duet vocal from Jim Bryson.

Perhaps the transcendent beauty of Cracked And Broken (with its heavenly scoring for just banjo and organ) loses some of its initial impact when the extra instrumentation is brought on board halfway through, but by and large the fuller settings and occasional programming (courtesy of the album’s capable producer Ian Lefeuvre) don’t get to intrude on the innate unpretentious power of Lynn’s lyrics. The exception is the closer Time To Let The Sun, where a rather sugary Hollywood-style arrangement unerringly matches the song – but the problem is that I find the song itself too cloying. There’s another arguable miscalculation earlier on, where Love Doesn’t Hurt, which was written as an emotional plea for people in abusive relationships, almost seems to want to strike a balanced pose where it doesn’t really warrant it, and doesn’t sit entirely convincingly with the honest, unaffected, more immediately personal stance of the rest of Lynn’s material.

Fall For Beauty may not be the most consistent of Lynn’s records to date, but overall it manages to live up to its title, in that it sounds good, and Lynn’s gorgeous voice alone makes it a record to fall for.

www.lynnmilesmusic.com

David Kidman


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Lucinda Williams – BLESSED (Lost Highway 0602527629865)

This, Lucinda’s ninth studio album, seems in the three months since its release to have divided critics – some hailing it as one of her most assured works to date, others bemoaning it for harbouring tired clichés. Whilst in many ways it’s recognisably a latter-day Lucinda Williams album, especially in terms of its roots-rock arrangements, and it includes plenty of her trademark world-weary vocalisation, it also proudly contains some of her most powerful writing to date despite the fact that many of its songs reflect the current, more contented phase in her turbulent personal life. The entire emotional spectrum covered by the songs on this new disc is in fact wider than that on almost any of her previous records. Beginning with the aggression of Buttercup proves a deceptive gambit, however, since thereafter the spirit is more generous to the outside world. The title track’s Dylanesque mantra forces us to think deeper about our circumstances, while Soldier’s Song is cleverly constructed to portray two parallel scenarios.
The familiar cracked desperation of Ugly Truth is perhaps the closest to old-style country-roots Lucinda that we get, and the soulful Convince Me is redolent of a Sam Cooke classic. Standout tracks include the eerily sexy Kiss Like Your Kiss, the exquisitely yearning Copenhagen, the gently hopeful I Don’t Know How You’re Living and the perhaps unexpectedly compassionate Born To Be Loved. Anger returns in the shape of the hard-driven rocker Seeing Black, which questions the motives for a suicide (in this case that of Vic Chesnutt), to the soundtrack of a blazing electric guitar solo from guest Elvis Costello. The supporting musicianship is first class, including as it does the talents of Greg Leisz, Val McCallum, Rami Jaffee, David Sutton and Butch Norton; while the Don Was-steered production is both impeccable and classily punchy. I find that as Lucinda’s albums go, Blessed grows more in stature with acquaintance, and refuses to be written off as a minor work in her canon. And by the way, I suspect it’s worth getting hold of the deluxe edition, which includes bonus material in the shape of demos of the album’s songs recorded “right as they were born at her kitchen table”.

www.lucindawilliams.com

David Kidman


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Laura Cantrell – NO WAY THERE FROM HERE (Spit & Polish SPIT041)

No Way There From Here marks a welcome return to self-penned material for Laura after a lengthy (albeit well-received) spell of recording predominantly covers (Kitty Wells et al.). She’s still reflecting on themes familiar from her earlier records (home, memory, loss, longing, hope, self-knowledge), but it’s impossible not to notice the shift, the astounding advance in maturity of outlook that the intervening years since Humming By The Flowered Vine have brought. Laura regards this as a natural process of opening-up since having a daughter, a process which she says made her writing more personal. At the same time, she valued the trade-offs with other songwriters that workshop sessions were producing for her at around the same time – the disc includes writing collaborations with Amy Allison and Franklin Bruno, for instance. Whatever, on this new 12-song set, several of the items are gold-star classics that have gotta be among the best Laura’s ever penned, demonstrating her gift for putting into song her experiences in personal friendships and close role relationships, remaining ever self-aware. Letter She Sent and Barely Said A Thing are undisputed disc highlights, as is Washday Blues with its inner frustration that’s belied by its delicate, precise delivery and gentle pedal-steel and mandolin scoring. The self-realisation of No Way There From Here is introspective almost to the point of desperation, and yet somehow still leaves a tail-light trail of hope for the listener in its mournful string coda. Another important feature of Laura’s latest offering is the way she develops and redefines the concept of country music by thinking beyond it, finding what suits each song rather than engaging a “template” sound, employing elements within the enterprising musical settings like instrumental colours and models not necessarily associated with “standard” country. Beg Or Borrow Days, for instance, includes whistle and accordion in its armoury in addition to some gleeful twin-fiddle work, while Driving Down Your Street brings piano, accordion and extra drums into the banjo-led mix. Guest musicians on the album include Kenny Vaughan, Jim Lauderdale, Michael Cerveris, Caitlin Rose, William Tyler, Paul Niehaus and Paul Burch, and the overall sound-picture is commendably rich-textured and fulsome. But the focus remains on Laura’s special singing voice, the ebb and flow of which provides a uniquely persuasive connection to the listener at all times.

www.lauracantrell.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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Bella Hardy – SONGS LOST AND STOLEN (Navigator 044)

Bella’s latest CD is a more ambitious undertaking than its two predecessors, although it takes to an extreme the trend begun on album two (In The Shadow Of Mountains), by virtue of it being nothing less than a fully fledged singer-songwriter album; in doing so Bella inevitably takes her music to some perhaps unexpected places well outside the ambit of the traditional folksong with which she originally made her name and reputation a mere four or five years ago. Having said that, Bella’s not abandoned her traditional roots – roots that you’ll remember surfaced with a vengeance on her own song Three Black Feathers (since covered by Jim Moray, too) that was a highlight of her debut album Night Visiting. For several of these Songs Lost And Stolen resonate with, or bear a structure heavily inspired by, traditional song – notably The Herring Girl, and to a lesser extent maybe Bridge Of Dean and Flowers Of May. The songs range wide over personal experiences real and imagined, not all equally convincing on early acquaintance it must be admitted, but Bella’s compelling delivery soon wins one over. The jazzily attractive Promises revisits the writer’s insouciant pretensions of schoolgirl days, while there’s an almost relentless Seth-Lakeman-meets-bluegrass-and-rockabilly vibe to Written In Green. On the other hand, Good Friday and Broken Mirror almost appear insubstantial by comparison with the delicate vision of Full Moon In Amsterdam, which seems to inhabit a similar poetical universe to that of Karine Polwart.
Directly inspired by one of Angela Carter’s retellings of the Beauty And The Beast fable, Rosabel is rather persuasive: a good illustration of Bella’s predilection for the fantastical side of storytelling which has lately been so persuasively revisited by the likes of Emily Portman. Bella’s creative uploading of the fairy-tale concept into the modern world is also key to the album’s opener Labyrinth, a decidedly thorny proposition which moves from spooky beginnings (including a musical saw within its backdrop) to a more pop-conscious climax that in Bella’s swooning delivery exhibits shades of Kate Bush (albeit in a lower register). This track is typical of the overall less rough-hewn, more sophisticated ambience of the record, in production terms especially (courtesy of The Burns Unit’s Mattie Foulds – the aforementioned Ms.Polwart’s husband). Happily, Bella’s trademark starkly, brilliantly expressive voice has lost none of its special quality, and nor is it submerged in the production; but this time round she contributes markedly less in the way of fiddle playing to the record (I think any brief solos have been taken by Breabach’s Patsy Reid, but track credits haven’t been supplied with the promo copy so I’m unable to verify this). Bella’s other collaborators are Kris Drever (slide guitar, and duet vocal on the lazy 3-a.m. Walk It With You), Corrina Hewat (harp), Chris Sherburn (concertina) and Su-a Lee (cello). Although Bella herself is on superb vocal form, and there’s not really a weak track as such, it’s possible to argue that this album’s consistency lies more in the textured feel of the production than in the actual writing; but it’s still a hell of an album.

www.bellahardy.com

David Kidman


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The Rapparees - Wrapped Up (IMRO/MCPS)

The Rapparees are a five-piece folk outfit who originally formed while at school in Belfast. Wrapped Up is their second studio album, with a mix of well-known classics (‘Brennan On The Moor’; ‘Twa Recruiting Sergeants’), a couple of stylish jig and reel sets (‘The Near Miss’; ‘Lampies’) and some interesting arrangements of contemporary Irish songs.

For a young band this is a CD of great maturity and a joy to listen to. Vocals are shared by the band members and the arrangements are varied and sensitive, often with driving guitar rhythm, harmony fiddles and melodious banjo.

Conor McCaffrey contributes 2 excellent songs, with memorable lines such as, “The local news are telling yous”! It would be good to hear more of these songs – perhaps on the next album Conor?

The lads’ version of the well-known and much-clichéd ‘Whiskey On A Sunday’ is performed with both sensitivity and humour, breathing new life into this old song.

It’s rare these days to find a CD that leaves you with a smile on your face from start to finish, but that’s what Wrapped Up does! Mighty stuff lads!!

www.therapparees.com

Keith Whiddon


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Sultans of String – YALLA YALLA! (McKhool/Laliberté MCK.2045)

This is a disc which on first play somewhat stubbornly refused to click with me, in spite of its brilliant musicianship, nay showmanship. And I’ll admit that on subsequent plays, its virtually continuous sense of good-time and bonhomie still feels a touch relentless in its (admittedly well-conjured) party atmosphere. But the crack Canadian quintet, together with their panoply of trusty guest artistes, have delivered, on their sophomore CD, a disc that (perhaps paradoxically) satisfies more on balance in the end despite its bewildering melange of styles and moods. And no, it’s not a Dire Straits tribute band… the musicians’ inspirations may be heard to embrace a touch of Knopfler here and there, but for the most part Canada’s self-styled “ambassadors of musical diversity” take us on a spellbinding, relaxing and yet invigorating journey through world musics that almost effortlessly soundchecks brassy latin, spicy French Manouche gypsy-jazz, funky bass lines, clapping flamenco gestures and the like.
Sultans Of String comprise duelling guitar wizards Kevin Laliberté and Eddie Paton, six-string violinist (and 2009 JUNO award nominee) Chris McKhool, with bass maestro Drew Birston and ace Cuban percussionist Chendy Leon – none of whom were household names to me, but may mean more to world music specialists (although Chris and Kevin have both worked with Jesse Cook). The most immediately repeatable tracks for me were clustered together around the disc’s mid-point: the swinging hot-club-cum-barrelhouse jazz of Highlander 10 Speed (where Chris’s tremendous, fiery fiddling talent comes best to the fore with the guitars and Jordan Klapman’s guest piano all providing the best of possible foils), the atmospheric, almost cinematic Tikal and the Arabian exoticism of The Gardens Of Lebanon (which features the oud of Hassam Bishara and a spirited vocal contribution from Maryem Tollar). Whereas the ensuing Gymnorumba, though built on an interesting premise, feels rather obvious in its early transformation of Erik Satie’s celebrated miniature into an animated dance number. And, in spite of a promising Asturian intro, a tired-sounding encore-style runthrough of Pinball Wizard brings one of those “why bother?” novelty-moments that so many albums nowadays use as fillers. Elsewhere, too, there’s sometimes a feeling (as on the ultra-energetic opening title number) that the musicians are trying to cram too many disparate ideas into too small a space, and a few of the tracks seem to have been curtailed a little before their sell-by-date, if you get my drift (or before their musical ideas are in danger of running out). But the quality of the playing and musicianship is top-notch, and the whole production is a model of its kind with a superb depth of sound.

www.sultansofstring.com

David Kidman


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Annlaug – NOVEMBER (Fivreld FIV. 01)

This has not proved an easy disc to review, in fact on first hearing it was enigmatic to a fault. But please do read on… Annlaug is a Norwegian fiddler and singer-songwriter, whose own music, though clearly informed by her nation’s folk music, is also influenced by other genres and traditions including those of the British Isles – and of Scotland in particular. The latter predilection is reflected in the supporting cast which Annlaug has gathered around herself for November, her debut CD – it’s an impressive roster of musicians drawn from the contemporary British (mostly Scottish) scene, comprising Steven Polwart (guitars, banjo, ukulele), Mattie Foulds (percussion), Kevin McGuire (bass) and Inge Thomson (accordion), with the string quartet Mr. McFall’s Chamber (performing arrangements by Kim Edgar) and occasional appearances by Anna Massie and Lau’s Martin Green and Aidan O’Rourke. So, at any rate musically speaking, you might expect a certain measure of carryover of the distinctive sensibility of the latter-day Scottish-based scene; and sure, there are intermittent comparisons that could be made, but they’d be stretching the point somewhat – for what comes across most strikingly is Annlaug’s own forceful, assured musical identity. And of course, her brilliantly expressive singing, which makes a virtue of the hard, guttural edges of her native tongue while caressing the listener’s ears with perennially seductive phrasing.
Now is the time to own up to the reason why this disc has proved more difficult to review and perhaps not straightforward in terms of making a recommendation: the fact that the album’s eleven songs are – uncompromisingly – sung entirely in Norwegian. Seven of these are Annlaug’s own compositions, which mostly deal with the dark mysteries and consequences of love and longing – and for which the helpful booklet translations provide both the essential information and the necessary insights (though supplying the sung texts, so they can be followed in “real time”, would have been even more valuable – still space constraints always prevail, and the translations are naturally of greatest importance). What’s most apparent, and perhaps most surprising, is that in the end the sung language – which let’s face it, few listeners will understand without the help of the notes – proves no barrier to appreciating Annlaug’s writing or music (at least not to me). The musical idiom ranges from contemporary acoustic pop-folk (think mellow Karine Polwart maybe on Soaring Home and Ord Som Fell and Kate Rusby on the lilting På Søndle) to the slightly more abrasive title track and the brooding orientalism of Reason Back To Front. The remaining four songs are Annlaug’s own arrangements of traditional Norwegian material; of these, the lullaby Suril Lubil is particularly entrancing, and contains some fine vocal harmonising between Annlaug and Inge, whereas the haunting closing track Till Till Tove, also a lullaby, comes from Annlaug’s home village (Ulvik) and relies heavily on its shruti-box drone for conveying its powerful atmosphere. The chirpily defiant post-drinking romp Når Eg Kjeme Heim (When I Get Home) provides a hammersome contrast with its thundering drumming and fuller-blown, more rock-inflected arrangement. The disc also contains two instrumental tracks: one, the moving, skirling Hakestad, is an original composition in a traditional style by Annlaug herself, while the Blank Kaffi set is altogether more animated.
All told, this is a most impressive debut, and one worth tracking down.

www.myspace.com/annlaug

David Kidman


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TOM McCONVILLE – Tommy On The Road (Tomcat Music TCCD08)

As one of the acoustic music scene’s genuinely nice blokes, Tom McConville has endeared himself to the circuit with a Northern charm and wit that other artists could only ever hope to emulate. To me, Tom will always be the ultimate ‘everyman’ performer in that his choice of material whether it’s traditional or contemporary readily hits the mark and will inevitably bring a smile to the face of the harshest critic. Take for instance the opening track “Stay Young” on this, his latest recording. Composed by Benny Gallagher (of Gallagher & Lyle fame) the song employs an infinitely sing-able chorus that, at a concert will prove irresistible to any fully subscribed ‘folk’ audience. Of course McConville is also a highly regarded fiddle player and does not disappoint with flashy excursions of digital dexterity as displayed on the outrageously ambitious “Mathematician” composed by none other than the Strathspey king himself J Scott Skinner.
In the excellent hands of studio engineer Ron Angus and accompanied by fellow musicians including David Newey (guitar), Shona Kipling (accordion) and Phil Murray on acoustic bass it’s the enjoyment factor that carries the CD along on a wave of unpretentious bonhomie and without taking anything for granted, whilst it might have been a long time for Tommy on the road the pleasure he has spread will see him good for at least a few more miles yet.

www.tommcconville.co.uk

Pete Fyfe


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Admiral Fallow - Live at The Lexington, Islington

I saw Admiral Fallow last night upstairs in a small room at the Lexington; although they won’t be playing venues this size for long though, this band is going to be huge. I may be six months late with this prediction but I don’t care; they are that good.

The place was crowded, a mixture of students and discerning music lovers in their forties. It never ceases to surprise me how word spreads about good music. It seemed most people where there because ‘someone said to come along’.

Five guys in skinny jeans, the ubiquitous woolly hats and jumpers; lazy first impressions will inevitably draw comparisons with ‘nu-folkies’ like Mumford and Sons and Bombay Bicycle Club. Look closer however, and you’ll notice Sarah Hayes playing silver flute, Kevin Brolly playing clarinet, you’ll hear Louis Abbott’s Scottish accent and clear descriptive lyrics.

Brave, confident and skilled, this band played fast songs, slow songs, new songs and a capella harmony songs. Anything and everything. A gloriously heady mix of emotion, lyrical brilliance and musical instrumentation. Bass clarinet and silver flute, double bass and keyboard, megaphone and guitar, everytime I thought I had them pigeon holed they mixed it up and started again.

Formerly known as Brother Louis Collective, this Scottish band formed in 2007 and, like The Delgados and King Crimson,were initially fairly unknown south of Glasgow. Is that because Scotland likes to keep its best acts secret? That seems set to change on March 21st when their album ‘Boots Met My Face’ is released in England. I’ll be buying it…

www.admiralfallow.com


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Jennifer & Hazel Wrigley – IDIOM (Geo Sound Records GSCD. 002)

The talented Wrigley twins (fiddler Jennifer and guitarist Hazel) released their very first album, the oh-so-aptly-titled Dancing Fingers, when they were just 16 years old. Ten years followed during which they built a solid reputation as ambassadors for the music of their native Orkney, all the while increasing in confidence, releasing a further four albums which culminated in the considerable, if unassuming achievement of Skyran. After which, they took a break from exhaustive touring, returning to Orkney to set up The Reel, a music school and much else besides. Only in the past five years have they managed to return to the recording studio to gather tracks for another record, and finally they’ve released album number six, Idiom, which – in a loose reflection of that term – explores different musical languages with common instrumentation, a variety of ways of expressing oneself. It also happens to encapsulate the sisters’ special musical and personal qualities: assurance, sophistication, technical expertise and superbly nifty, sprightly playing allied to invigorating energy, and a charming and appealing presence.

The disc’s fifteen tracks present a colourful pageant consisting of tune-sets interspersed with individual and shorter pieces; these range from the straight and simply played traditional melody Far O’er The Blue Waters to the deliciously slinky swing-jazz-flavoured Shetland Pony Shuffle (one of Jennifer’s own compositions), and Hazel’s own lyrical tribute to inspirational Orcadian fiddler Erika Shearer, which ably complements Jennifer’s touchingly beautiful air James & Emilie Kirkness. The more strict-tempo-style arrangements (like Iris Nicolson’s Favourite and the Partans set (an ingenious reel-time setting of two Orkney songs) have abundant life too, and the sisters’ infectious sense of humour surfaces especially on the cheeky lilt of Eric’s Strathspey, the boisterous Latin rhythms they impart to Sandy Lamb’s Polka, and the fabulous hoedown fiddle-and-banjo drive of the Drunken Goats set. The more reflective Scandinavian mode of Magnus’ Polska provides another interesting departure with its richer timbres.

On this new record, the sisters receive a good measure of instrumental support and companionship from musician friends who are collectively (and perhaps confusingly) referred to here as The Reel. This consists of several of the sisters’ long-term acquaintances – Irishman Eamonn Coyne (banjo and tenor guitar) and Orcadians Ian Mackay (bass), Stewart Shearer (lead guitar, banjo) and Billy Peace (accordion) – who are joined by drummer Jim Walker (of the band Seelyhoo), with guest appearances from transatlantic duo Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer (banjo and mandolin respectively). All these musicians are used intelligently, to ensure that no two tracks sound the same (if you see what I mean), and yet their presence, in whatever permutation, is a natural foil to the sisters’ own increasingly mature musicianship and good taste.

www.wrigleysisters.com

David Kidman


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Gypsy Fire – THE COLLECTIVE, CHAPTER ONE (Own Label, no catalogue number)

Paying direct homage to the great guitarist Django Reinhardt is probably a long-cherished ambition for many a musician, but few actually possess the chops to do so with any degree of credibility that can transcend pastiche. It’s a compliment to Gypsy Fire, then, and to the quartet’s guitarist Stuart Carter-Smith in particular, that their debut, showcase album succeeds so well in this regard, while at the same time incorporating elements from other branches of music which wouldn’t have been within the ambit of Django himself. Gypsy Fire give more of the impression of “if Django had been alive now, what might he have played, and how might have he sounded?”, with inspired and stylish arrangements of traditional (=of unacknowledged authorship) pieces like Joseph Joseph, Swing Gitane, Les Yeux Noirs and Americano sitting persuasively alongside chestnuts like Summertime (tho’ I’m not entirely convinced by the accelerated Latin groove adopted here) and Al Jolson’s Anniversary Song (liked this chugalong-swing account better). Stuart’s support trio (violinist Ben Holder, rhythm guitarist Ben Travers and double-bassist Duncan Kingston) prove adept masters of idiom, ensemble and timing, whatever the stylistic inflections demanded by each piece, and their foil for Stuart’s tricky delivery of Django’s own composition Montange (sic) St. Geneviève is pretty much what the master ordered. If you love gently dynamic and totally efficient straight-down-the-line gypsy jazz played by a small band, then Gypsy Fire will fit your bill nicely. Except perhaps, that at a miserly 31 minutes it’s not terribly good value for money.

www.gypsyfire.co.uk

David Kidman


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Robert Sunday – BUTTERFLY HAIRSLIDE (EP) (Rif Mountain RM-012)

There’s something other-worldly about Robert Sunday; he’s a rather reclusive and elusive talent who writes and sings all his own material, here with the assistance of Jo (who records in her own right under the name Joseph Works). As far as sensibility goes, he aligns himself with musical giants like Lou Reed and Will Oldham but doesn’t really sound like either of them, for his brand of world-weariness sounds less resigned, and more edgily angst-ridden, than either – especially on the opening track House And Hollow, where there’s even a hint of Jim Morrison-style foreboding in there. Perhaps it will seem a contradiction, then, that Robert derives much of his inspiration from what might be termed the mythic-archaic side of literature: for instance, Hush Feral Dog is loosely based on a Robert Graves poem, while Erebus And Terror is based on the traditional Lord Franklin ballad. Musically, the most interesting track is arguably X-Ray Department, with its persistent, weaving violin line that rather puts me in mind of John Cale’s viola with the Velvets – in fact, the raw indie ambience of Robert’s own Telecaster aside, that early-VU feel pervades much of Robert’s music, even if in the end his own lyrics don’t have quite the heady impact of their role model.

www.rifmountain.com

David Kidman


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Tickled Pink – CEILIDH (Rooksmere Records RRCD.101)

Album number three from the now-veteran ceilidh-band-plus is, plainly, all about the dance, and it’s an intentional showcase for the band’s live sound. It’s described by themselves in their honest, pithy liner note as “really the album we should have done first”, rather in the tradition of the increasingly self-deprecating Star Wars movies, and, true to that tradition “this one isn’t far worse than the others”!… It’s nothing if not a swaggeringly assured mission statement for what makes pulsing, pounding ceilidh-band folk-rock, with ample imagination in the arrangements yet (mercifully) containing none of the overboard experimental or out-of-keeping gimmicks that riddled the band’s 1991 debut CD. Since the time of album two, Terpsichore Polyhymnia, Mark Hutchinson has galvanised the outfit (Simon Care, Gerald Claridge, Rob Kay, Trevor Landen, Mark Jolley and Guy Fletcher) into a commendably tight, narrowly-but-not-quite-award-winning combo that on the annoyingly plainly-labelled Ceilidh now take their original face-value credo “traditional English music that rocks”, unashamedly broaden it to include the occasional slip-jig, Basque or Dutch or square-dance, and serve it all up in a solid, straightforward and professional manner with tasty side-morsels like breezily stratospheric leccy guitar solos and betraying influences from Cuba (Burning Bridges), slight-prog (Drops Of Brandy), reggae (Three Jolly Sheepskins), medievalism (Horse’s Brawl), skank (Buttered Peas) – yeah, you get the drift.
There’s even a statutory “respite” track, a pleasing (if slightly over-keyboardy) account of Michael Turner’s Waltz, just over halfway through. But the thresh-thrash old-timey of Seneca Square Dance (complete with what must be keyboard-generated duellin’-banjos?) is great fun, as is the gleefully 70s Chicory-Tip-cum-Mike-Oldfield chug-synth-rock of Dave Whetstone’s Fretful Porcupine tune. Indeed, the keyboard work is creative throughout, and keeps well to the right side of the fine line between imagination and gimmickry; the aforementioned Buttered Peas, which brings in marimba and steel-pan textures, is a good example. In fact, the entire Ceilidh proves abundantly jolly (some might unkindly say it’s a touch predictable at times, but FWIW I don’t happen to agree) and thoroughly likeable. We’ve been here before, sure, but it’s all done so well that it’s actually quite irresistible, and thus you might justifiably consider it outwith the radar of any potential critical sniping; in other words, I can’t find serious fault with it, just a nagging suspicion that adopting a kind of “prequel-sequel” back-to-basics approach is here providing just a little ammunition for critics to fire a charge of “more of the same” at this enterprising band who are still doing a darned fine job thankyou.
Oh, and the band’s track-by-track liner notes are a hoot too!

www.tickledpinkmusic.co.uk

David Kidman


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Various Artists – ECHOES FROM THE MOUNTAIN (Rif Mountain RM-008)

Very few tribute albums measure up to their subject in every respect, but Echoes From The Mountain is one such, without a doubt. Stemming from a true “lightbulb moment” of inspiration, and giving rise to many such performances, the disc is intended to pay homage to the recent exceptional Weekend Beatnik compilation Ghosts From The Basement, which collected choice nuggets from the Village Thing label from the 70s, the kick-start of alt/nu/psych-folk; and in doing so it neatly and proudly encapsulates the very soul and spirit of that pioneering indie label. Not only that, but there’s also Echoes quite literally in the presence of two of the artists who appeared on the original Village Thing LPs all those years ago and who are still going strong: Steve Tilston and Wizz Jones. They pay tribute to each other by covering one of the other’s songs (Wizz takes on Steve’s celebrated Sometimes In This Life, Steve tackles Wizz’s Night Ferry), and the echoes then continue into the present-day with contemporary nu-folkers sympathetically covering other reflective songs by those same writers (Pamela Wyn Shannon does Steve’s Simplicity, The A. Lords with Mark Fry take on Steve’s It’s Not My Place To Fall, Stephen Cracknell gives us a mbira-bejewelled take on Wizz’s When I Cease To Care and Adam Leonard a rather plainer account of Wizz’s See How The Time Is Flying). All of those obvious cross-connections apart, the spirit of enterprise and adventure – and sometimes mild whimsy and eccentricity – that characterised Village Thing products pervades this tribute disc in the most stimulating way, whether the new versions set out to faithfully recreate the originals or reinterpret them for our time. Either way, they’re a resounding success. As far as I’m concerned, the wyrder the better – and the disc’s first offering, Starless And Bible Black’s brilliantly managed psychedelic take on Hunt & Turner’s Silver Lady is a stunner in anyone’s book, with Jane Weaver’s spectrally scratched, primordial account of Death (which I too first encountered on Sun Also Rises’ eerie VT version) and Katie Rose’s superbly delicate, precise intoning of Dave Evans’ Grey Lady Morning both easily equalling that opening gambit. Other highlights come with The Owl Service’s imaginative cover of Ian A. Anderson’s Time Is Ripe, Pamela Wyn Shannon’s tenderly beautiful and mildly exotic perfumed-garden rendition of Derroll Adams’ wonderful Love Song, and Jason Steel’s restless guitar figures in counterpoint to his fine account of Dave Evans’ Rosie. The pair of contrasted, yet suitably idiosyncratic Al Jones covers (by Ben Mandelson and Corncrow) are splendid too. In truth this is a tribute disc without a single duff track – and they’re as rare as hen’s teeth… The sheer volume of quality talent on the Rif Mountain label, outwith the “imports”, is staggering, and arguably nowhere better sampled than here.

www.rifmountain.com

David Kidman


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Sväng – SCHLADTZSHE! (Aito Records AICD. 016)

When this Finnish harmonica quartet released their second album, Jarruta (Hit The Brakes), back in 2008, I didn’t get round to reviewing it simply because it seemed on the surface to be a touch hors-de-concours for readers of this and other sites for which I write. After all, a Finnish harmonica quartet – how esoteric is that?!… That album proved quite a delightful listen, but I did find it a bit abrasive in tone at times and – more importantly – I had to be in the mood to appreciate its charms. First impressions haven’t altered my opinion when it comes to album number three, which comes with this forbiddingly silly title (which you feel should be a greeting, an interjection, an apology, an insult or even a sneeze! – or any combination of those – yet is explained, thank goodness, in the liner notes as “both a swear and a toast”). Musically, however, it’s almost as equally enticing a proposition to the redoubtable Jarruta, with sensitive and intelligent arrangements for the widest range of instruments under the harmonica umbrella (including both diatonic and chromatic varieties and harmonetta as well as the mighty bass model); again, it also sounds as though they have a plucked bass player providing rhythm – but I may be mistaken as it’s not credited as far as I can see.
This new disc also seems marginally better recorded than its predecessor, but that might be just my ears getting accustomed to the blend. The musicians are top-notch, that goes without saying, and their virtuosity is quite stunning in the nicest possible way, with agility and dexterity allied to acute emotional power and a gift for expressive nuance that will be the envy of any humble moothie merchant. No tuneless repetitive Dylanesque wailing here, nor over-emoted sentimental tremolo-legato phrasing – just sensibly contoured, thoroughly musicianly playing that gets to the essence of the compositions chosen. These are almost exclusively penned by group members Eero Grundström, Jouko Kyhälä and Eero Turkka, with a couple of arrangements of traditional pieces thrown in for good measure. The sprightly oompah gait of the opener (title track), a dead ringer for a Romanian dance, is succeeded by the at times bluesily-inflected Hoijakat, a nostalgic, if episodic waltz-cum-sad march (Menneet) and a delectably saucy beginner’s tango – each twist and turn of the wheel invested with genuine emotional weight and feeling that counterpoints the musicians’ breathtaking energy and keen sense of ensemble. Turkka’s Kyykäärmeen Polska ingeniously fuses the melodic form of Greek violin music with a Swedish fiddle polska rhythm, whilst Grundström’s Hellu is a brilliantly happy-go-lucky (and feelgood) piece that gets the toes tapping, and Kyhäla’s Humppa Skitsofrenia takes a playfully wayward view of what is described as the Finnish countryside-dancing circuit’s favourite dance; Waiwainen Walitan Waikiast’, in contrast, powerfully gives us the “Finnish blues” in an account of a traditional remorse hymn from 1701, while the middle section of the disc’s closer Valossa has an almost cajun lilt to its rhythm. The whole disc’s a stimulating listen, and one which through clever manipulation of textures and brilliant playing ensures your ears don’t get stale by the time you reach the end of its 46 minutes.

www.svang.fi

David Kidman


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Depot – DIAMOND JOE (EP) (Depot, no catalogue number)

Depot presents on this 22-minute EP what the press handout proudly describes as “fresh blues for the 21st Century”: not a bad tag as it turns out. The new four-piece band is the brainchild of the versatile Mat Walklate, former British blues harp champion (and fine exponent of the uilleann pipes and flute), who’s gathered around him Faul Bradley (guitars, vocal), Anthony Haller (double bass) and Koulaty Kabo from Senegal (percussion, vocal) to help him realise this ambitious musical vision. It proves to be an intriguing one too, containing among its seven strongly individual tracks some stimulating and adventurous sounds and combinations nestling easily alongside a couple of more ostensibly obvious or workmanlike-bluesy treatments. And yet even the latter (No Lovin‘ Now and Trouble No More) still have enough going for them within the busy and spicy musical arrangements to enable them to avoid the charge of mundaneness or over-familiarity; and in any case Mat’s own harmonica work is pretty outstanding by any standards, for a start. Several of the tracks take as their basis archive recordings (eg from the Lomax collections and other important source recordings): for instance, In My Sight’s swampy calypso prominently features Mat’s flute (in a style inspired by North Mississippi cane and fife playing) and Diamond Joe makes good atmospheric capital out of the keening of the pipes to invoke the eerie 1937 version of the song recorded in Parchman Penitentiary. Elsewhere, Faul’s slyly clever reworking of the John Hurt classic Candy Man does the trick nicely, while the Senegalese and blues influences meld together most persuasively on the opening and closing tracks So Long and Cold In Hand, the latter’s lyric ambiguities boosted by a neat little cyclic mbira riff and sporting shades of John Martyn in Mat’s vocal. Yeah, I guess at first I didn’t expect much from this modest disc, but I ended up more than pleasantly surprised and have returned to it a number of times since, not least because each individual track possesses its own special musical character – so here’s to the full-length followup then.

www.myspace.com/depotblues

David Kidman


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Delta Moon – HELLBOUND TRAIN (Red Parlor RP. 1015)

This would appear to be a re-packaged repromotion of a disc (originally more wordily titled You’ll Never Get To Heaven On A Hellbound Train) that was first released a little over a year ago on the Belgian label Blues Boulevard: a disc which formed the second official European album release from this Atlanta, Georgia combo. Their stock-in-trade is straight-down-the-line contemporary Southern blues-rock that derives its lineage from Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers and Mick-Taylor-period Rolling Stones, with a soupcon of Z.Z. Top thrown in too perhaps. Suitably gritty-voiced and authentic, and with most of their material self-penned (albeit with a wry slant) by lead vocalist and lap steel guitarist Tom Gray (occasionally in tandem with fellow-band-members), Delta Moon give us a masterful set of tough (but not over-the-top) delta-blues-rock that audibly takes no prisoners, even if not exactly treading any new ground. The funky slide-and-keyboard strut of Stuck In Carolina (with what sounds like an uncredited sax player on the playout coda), two neat excursions into stripped-down acoustica (the plaintively nostalgic Plantation Song and an excellent cover of Mississippi Fred McDowell’s You Got To Move) and the welcome appearance of a six-string banjo (on Get Gone), are all extra elements that add spice to the already laudably solid brew, and, notwithstanding a couple of unremarkable cuts later on in the sequence, this still turns out a pretty satisfying – and rather replayable – rootsy set that heralds the outfit Delta Moon (now boasting a different rhythm section from that on their debut album Howling At The Southern Moon, by the way) as a band to watch.

www.deltamoon.com

David Kidman


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The A. Lords – THE A. LORDS (Rif Mountain RM-014)

The A. Lords are a duo comprising Michael (perhaps better known under the name of Plinth) and Nicholas (aka Directorsound), and their music (or at least as represented on this, their self-titled debut album) straddles that made by their aliases, and is probably best identified as a series of (mostly instrumental) pieces that fairly drip atmosphere, melancholy if peaceful, woeful if rested: “each one a slow and deliberate paean to the oft-maligned fields of Dorset”. The first batch, consisting of four pieces that (I understand) originally came out as part of an EP on Barl Fire in 2006, was improvised on summer days spent in gardens, churches and an old wooden summerhouse; some are like listening to mildly rambling out-takes from Roger Waters’ Ummagumma highlight Grantchester Meadows, if without quite the same degree of instant memorability, whereas others capitalise on unusual timbres like an ancient church organ. Pick of these is the charmingly understated, dance-like Crimson Rambler. The second batch of pieces “made themselves known over two nights in a rusty old barn during Harvest festival”, when “microphones were placed in trees outside and under the floorboards, making the tunes regretfully creak into life”. That description is both evocative and truthful, notably with regard to Of Wren Or Raven, whereas the primitive, if curiously Eno-like keyboard cascades of Skyclad In Pendle seem to invoke a deep-rooted nostalgia for a seriously bygone age, and The Seventh Child seems to transport us into a disturbingly oriental water-garden. There are occasional (brief) longueurs, but the A. Lords make fascinating, if at times elusive music that reflects and creates its own persuasive sense of place and time in textures of quiet beauty.

www.rifmountain.com

David Kidman


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Roshi feat. Pars Radio – MEHREGAN (EP) (Rif Mountain RM-011)

Roshi featuring Pars Radio is the continuing project created around the songs of Roshi Nareshi and the minimal electronic soundscapes of Graham Dids (Gagarin, Nico, Père Ubu etc.). Roshi is a singer-songwriter born in Wales to Iranian parents, who presents her own original material alongside sometimes quite radical interpretations of the Iranian songs she was brought up listening to. Each strand of her creative activity embodies the distinctive combination of outward tenderness and inner strength, with her personal vocal style brings a contemporary edge to her authentic understanding of context and language. Roshi has already featured on a Leigh Folk Festival compilation album and The Owl Service’s EP The Burn Comes Down (with a track apiece). Now, her Mehregan EP, taking its name from the Iranian autumn festival which celebrates the harvest, follows on from the duo’s debut EP And Stars (2008) and album The Sky And The Caspian Sea (2009). All five of the EP’s tracks are reworkings of Iranian songs, perhaps the most beguiling of these being the sinuous Sari Gelin, which surrounds Roshi’s voice with the accordion of Amy Kohn, and the haunting, spare multitracked acappella of Maryam My Beloved. On the opening track, To Bio (Come To Me Beloved), Roshi sings in Farsi, while the disc closes playfully with the syncopated children’s song Lor Batche. It certainly leaves you wanting more – so it would seem we’ve not heard the last of Roshi.

www.myspace.com/roshisongs

David Kidman


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