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The Fallows - FACE THE WOLVES (4 Real Records)

The Fallows is a four-piece Coventry-based folk (-ish) band with pronounced pop sensibilities, whose rhythmic acoustic-based sound best approximates a slightly Americana-tinted version of the kind of summery jangle we’d associate with bands like Fleet Foxes and the Kennedys (although they rather lack the distinction of either), with shades of Dexy’s (on Annecy) or the more accessible side of Bob Dylan. Nevertheless, this 33-minute collection contains energy aplenty, especially in the rough-tinged passion of lead singer Ross Darby and in the instrumental playing, although in the final analysis the writing, though efficient, doesn’t tend to measure up to that level (all ten tracks are group compositions). Instrumentation is on the rootsy side of folk, in other words two guitars, bass and fiddle/banjo/mando with some added percussion. So far so good; but sadly, on the evidence of a fair few plays and with increasingly limited time available for deeper acquaintance nowadays, there seems little here beyond an “attractive and undemanding” initial reaction; it’s not a bad album, not by any means, but in all honesty there are plenty more distinguished records on the market.

www.thefallowsmusic.co.uk

David Kidman


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Kathryn Roberts & Sean Lakeman – HIDDEN PEOPLE (Navigator 072)

Both of these artists already boast impressive pedigrees: Kathryn won the first ever BBC Young Folk Award, then formed the duo with Kate Rusby and was a key member of folk supergroup Equation, whereas Sean has been in constant demand as musician and producer, latterly touring with brother Seth’s crack band. But at the same time, curiously, both Kathryn and Sean have in effect been “hidden people” on the folk scene, and this new album marks their re-emergence as a front-line performing unit after a six years’ sabbatical in family-raising. Hidden People is their third duo album, and shows just how much their music has moved on, now daringly parading a mixture of experiment and confidence in a collection of (mostly) self-penned songs that while at times referencing dark folk traditions are anything but gloomy and depressing in their forthright, bright impact. Kathryn’s rich-toned, agile voice, with its miraculous range, is the rightful focus, sometimes husky and sultry and sometimes soaring resplendent, whereas the instrumental backdrops she and Sean conjure between them are expertly managed and often surprisingly lush. Kathryn plays piano, keyboards, flute and woodwind, while Sean takes care of all things string; sometimes they also call upon brothers Sam and Seth, or a rhythm section (Ben Nicholls, Iain Goodall). Four of the disc’s ten tracks employ additional vocals from, variously, (among others) Caroline Herring, Cara Dillon, Stu Hanna, Dave Burland, Mark Chadwick and Jim Moray. Musically, Hidden People is a diverse set, and one that on first acquaintance perplexes as much as it beguiles. Acappella opening track Huldra pits Kathryn’s seductive invocation of a mythical Scandinavian being against unearthly harmonies from a trio of female voices, after which aural cleansing the world-rock backbeat of the retelling of a spooky legend from upstate New York (Oxford) couldn’t feel more of a contrast. Kathryn’s gift for storytelling remains in full flight throughout, notably on the lilting Money Or Jewels, the eerily atmospheric supernatural ballad The White Hind, and the full-tilt folk-rock Lover’s Ghost rework Standing At My Window. But the disc’s emotional core comes with the stark Ballad Of Andy Jacobs, a heart-rending love story from the time of the miners’ strike set in Kathryn’s home village of Dodworth, which the final track, Don McGlashan’s plaintive anti-war ballad Jackie’s Song, nevertheless runs close in terms of overall impact. The disc does have its upbeat moments too, though: Hang The Rowan encourages warding off evil spirits to a decidedly Abba-esque belter-of-a-chorus, and The Lusty Smith’s jaunty innuendo is driven along by a clap-happy hoedown beat, while the relaxed pace of The Wisdom Of Standing Still just invites us to chill. A striking comeback for Kathryn and Sean.

www.kathrynrobertsandseanlakeman.co.uk

David Kidman


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Dogan Mehmet – Outlandish (Hobgoblin HOBCD. 1013)

Perhaps not as literally outlandish as outland-ish, is the character of the music we encounter on Dogan’s followup to his widely-acclaimed debut CD Gypsyhead. That impression could be due to the fact that we’ve got used to Dogan’s musical credo by now, and its mix of Turkish Cypriot and traditional English folk musics no longer surprises to quite the same extent or makes the same degree of impact. Perhaps too, it’s no longer exactly the “shock of the new” with which Gypsyhead had presented us.

But to be fair, there have been significant musical developments for Dogan over the past couple of years too. For, since the release of Gypsyhead, Dogan’s backing band The Deerhunters have morphed into the nine-piece Boombox Karavan with the timely addition of violinist Jem Muharrem (Dogan’s cousin), rapper/trombonist Freddie Phethean, sax and clarinet player Andy Strong and guitarist/bassist Seth Tinsley. I’ll admit, the disc’s first few tracks don’t sound massively promising on first acquaintance, with the opening “anglo-Ottoman funk” of Lord Bateman followed by a leaden rhythm and rap dominating Baris Manço’s song Domates Biber Patlican, while Dogan’s “last teenage outburst” Cut This Cloth is fairly forgettable.

Another difficulty for some listeners is that they may still find Dogan’s vocal way with English traditional repertoire a touch wearing, even a little mannered on occasion, but he can at least boast a distinctive and unusual singing style and I find it stimulatingly theatrical. Perhaps the most persuasive demonstration of its blending with the more outland-ish roots elements is the album’s central track Roaming Journey Man, which takes you on a musical journey with a traditional Cypriot dance tune (Sarhos Zeybek) at its heart. Dogan’s tutor James Fagan drops in on backing vocals for that song, and coincidentally is credited as the source for the very next track, the broadside ballad Miles Weatherhill, which (interestingly) Dogan performs entirely a cappella – and with drama aplenty – in just under three minutes. In direct contrast, Dogan brings in vocalist Natalie Fisher to give an edge to the deep-south gospel-cum-funky-oldtimey setting of Bonny Boy, which eventually convinces with its tasty and unusual musical arrangement (and banjo ace Dan Walsh in tow).

Another daringly experimental epic comes in the form of the seven-minute Rakish Young Fellow, where Dogan continues his quest to remix Walter Pardon’s entire catalogue (!) and creatively intersperses this reflective song with a morris tune newly written by the entire band. The more orthodox rocky setting of Dogan’s “big band” version of the ballad Young Edwin, however, doesn’t convince anything like as much as Dogan’s new account of “the world’s oldest recorded Turkish folk song” Uskudar or the Turkish gypsy jazz adventures of Azziye And Susta (Slight Return). The final track is a soulful, if straightforward take on the traditional anthem Leymosun Turkusu from the village of Limassol, which builds nicely and sounds as though it was recorded live.

On balance, then, Outlandish is probably a not entirely consistent record, with a couple of misfires along the way, but it can be applauded for its risk-taking and certainly has its moments nevertheless, with enough successes to keep us interested through most of its 59-minute timespan.

www.doganmehmet.com

David Kidman


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Awna Teixeira – Where The Darkness Goes (Own Label ART001)

Since last year, Canada’s Po’ Girl have taken a bit of a break, and since they’ve been on hold Awna’s grasped the chance to make a solo album, working in Chicago with a handful of the city’s finest musicians for support. Awna is her usual capable multi-instrumentalist self, turning her hands to banjo, acoustic and electric guitars, ukulele, accordion and Rhodes organ with equal facility, while her charming, sweet vocalising comfortingly cocoons her own lyrics and permeates the textures with an almost childlike innocence of its impact (it’s perhaps no coincidence that Awna’s latest project has been working on writing children’s stories…).

Sometimes, however, the very timbre of Awna’s voice is almost too childlike for the stance of the lyrics; for lyric-wise, her songs tell simply but knowingly of constant travel and the heartache it brings, with words and images that gently haunt you. Musically, the songs veer between those exhibiting a really attractive, nay delectable brand of backporch mountain music crossed with an almost McGarrigle-esque homespun quality, and those parading a slightly sugary (and yes, quite child-friendly, almost singsong) vibe that wears a touch thin on repeated exposure. The former category just about wins over, with Stand Tall, Stargazer, Blooming Bounty, The Little Review and the title song coming across as perhaps the strongest of Awna’s new compositions. The latter category gives us the over-chorussed Some Kind Of Dream, the over-quirky Little Piggy, and the somehow-slightly-too-cute Prince Of The Park and Rest Your Mind.

Generally, the musical arrangements are elegant and yet rustic, with elements such as tex-mex accordion and backwoods banjo as much to the fore as sprinklings of more adventurous texturing with flugelhorn, trumpet, mandolin and Hammond. Fellow Po’ Girl Allison Russell drops in for a bit of companionable whistling and occasional backing vocal too. But in the end it’s a shame the album so often so uneasily straddles the dividing line between sweetly delectable and sweetly sickly, because just over half of it is sufficiently delicately beautiful to make a more positive impression.

www.hazytales.me

David Kidman


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Dave Swarbrick – Swarbrick/Swarbrick 2/Smiddyburn (BGO Records BGOCD. 979)

Here’s an essential reissue if ever there was! Two discs, together containing the entire contents of three individual original albums.

First we get the two solo albums released by Swarb on the Transatlantic label in 1976 and 1977 respectively (between his spells with Fairport). These were basically acoustic-based offerings, produced by then-Fairport-drummer Bruce Rowland and featuring instrumental support from Martin Carthy, long-term Fairporters Simon Nicol and Dave Pegg, some companions from Swarb’s ceilidh band days (pianist Beryl Marriott, melodeon player Roger Marriott, accordionist Alan Robertson and fiddler Kate Graham) and clarsach specialist Savourna Stevenson. Recordings from various permutations of the above musicians were split more or less evenly between the two releases, with solo performances interspersed with delicious chamber-style fiddle-and-piano or fiddle-and-clarsach duets, classic Carthy-&-Swarb renditions of traditional English tunes and a sprinkling of seriously rousing ceilidh-style dance-medleys. Both albums have been remastered, and sparkle like new.

And by the way, this latest BGO reissue comes with two distinct advantages over the 90s single-disc re-release (on Essential /Sanctuary) of those same two albums: firstly, it restores to currency the pair of tracks that (due to lack of space) had to be omitted from the earlier reissue, and secondly, it sports handsome liner notes including full details of the provenance and sources of the music.

The second half of disc 2 of this BGO release gives us the entire contents of Swarb’s fifth solo album, which was released in 1981 under the obscure Logo imprint. Coming after the pair of arguably even more obscure releases for Sonet (Lift The Lid & Listen and The Ceilidh Album), which I’ve not yet found on CD, Smiddyburn is by way of contrast a defiantly electrified product, infused with the then-still-healthy spirit of traditional rocked-up folk and heavily featuring the awesome axe-work of Richard Thompson, additional guitaristic embellishment from Simon Nicol, the trusty Peggy-Mattacks rhythm team and a guest twinkling of the ivories from Beryl Marriott on one track. The majority of the eight selections are suitably spirited and vibrantly arranged trad dance medleys; these are elegantly topped up with a fulsome mando-trio arrangement (with Messrs Thompson and Pegg) of When The Battle Is Over, and the disc closes (perhaps somewhat bravely, I thought) with a Swarb vocal on Sandy Denny’s classic second-album song It Suits Me Well.

The excellence of this BGO release now begs the question of whether the label can be persuaded to complete, or at least continue, this reissue programme – by bringing us those two Sonet albums and solo album number six (Flittin’) together on a companion two-disc set?…

www.bgo-records.com

David Kidman


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Rachel Newton – THE SHADOW SIDE (Shee Records SHEERACH01)

Though best known as harpist with the bewitching female six-piece The Shee and a key member of Emily Portman’s trio, Rachel has here branched out entirely independently of either unit for her debut solo album. It’s a neatly balanced collection of songs and tunes, which calls only on the services of Kris Drever and Mattie Foulds for augmentation that’s both selective and subtly responsive. The songs are (with one notable exception) traditional in origin, whereas the tunes are all of Rachel’s own devising. But those bare-bones facts conceal some very charming music-making. Rachel has an unerring knack of getting the best out what might seem like minimal resources, and she has a real talent for getting her fellow-musicians to surround her own harp and voice with textures that while interesting in themselves still enable those elements to breathe. Although Rachel’s harp provides the unifying factor, it’s indicative that every track has a different sound and mood, from the brooding opening Child ballad Lady Diamond through the intriguingly jazzy inflections of Rung 2, the enchantingly voiced duet with Kris (Green Willow) to the stealthy forward-momentum of the Gaelic song ’S Toigh Leam Cruinneag Dhonn Nam Bo and the spicy rhythms of The Discoboat – and that’s just the first half of the disc! These are followed by an absolutely captivating – and utterly fresh – take on the Hank Williams classic I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry (the album’s only cover), which many will consider worth the price of the whole album. The title track is a limpid yet evocatively shadowy mood-picture for harp, composed in the style of a traditional slow air, while Soundboards And Sockets livens things up with a cheeky repeated motif that’s taken up by a pounding bass and sensitive percussion syncopations.

The closing track finds Rachel singing the beautiful Am Bruadar Ud A Chunnaic Mi to the accompaniment of a harmonium “loaned by Karine Polwart”. But whether singing in English or Gaelic, it’s good to hear Rachel’s singing voice outside the context of The Shee, for she reveals herself here as a clear-toned and gently expressive solo singer, sweet but nowhere insubstantial, using natural and graceful decoration where appropriate and displaying a keen sense of dynamics. Her harp playing is skilled without being showy, with a life-affirming deftness that makes it all sound so easy (but clearly isn’t!).
The only thing wrong with the album really is its omission of any background information about the individual tracks; it would have been no trouble, I’m sure, to have provided at the very least a brief one-liner synopsis of the two songs sung in Gaelic to give non-Gaelic-speakers a chance of appreciating Rachel’s achievement in their interpretation.

www.rachelnewtonmusic.com

David Kidman


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The Agnostic Phibes Rhythm & Blood Conspiracy – Campfire Tales (Shoutin’ Abner Pim Recordings SAP006)

Are you sitting comfortably?… Then I’ll begin…Once upon a time there was a brave and ferocious punk-hillbilly outfit from Calgary called The Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir, who frightened the horses into submission with two CDs of thrillingly raw and twisted mountain music (Fighting & Onions and Ten Thousand); and then, just a couple of years ago; they went into hiding… Now Messrs. Keelaghan, Sobolewski and Woolley have emerged from the backwoods again, but this time to unveil an electrifying (in every sense!) collaboration with mysterious singer/guitarist/tunesmith Tom Bagley, aka Jackson Phibes (of long-standing garage-punk band Forbidden Dimension).

Campfire Tales really is a killer of an album, on which the musicians sew together the worlds of garage rock and raw roots music, building a bridge between the old-time tradition of the murder ballad and modern-day macabre storytelling. The dark imagery is oh so appropriately conveyed by brooding, snarling, wailing electric guitars taken from what might be a nightmare western movie soundtrack by Sid Vicious: guitars that mirror the howling vocals and brood on the ghoulish commentaries therein. This musical beast is wild and savage, and throbbing with grit and guts, yet the album of its progeny is replete with a surprising degree of contrast between tracks, from the ominously arcane title number to the “deep claw grooves” of Wolfman Franz and the sinister Voices. The rushing-like-the-howling-wind vibe of Windigo Song delivers Waits-like vocals, searing slide guitar and metal-driven drumming, and the ululating wordless finale Blind Ghost Moan lives up to its title as it crashes on past the crossroads and into the night.

Wild Night Company comes over like one of those stompin’ Joe Meek instrumentals, almost as if The Shads had partaken of the acid and recorded a spaghetti-western-horror theme. Some of the tracks are more than anything resemble classic Beefheart thrash (if admittedly not quite as wilful or eccentric in terms of time-signatures), with suitably growly, grinding vocals and pounding bass and drums.

Aside perhaps from just a couple of more mundane tracks near the end of the album, this is as convincing a slab of True-Blood roots-punk-meets-mountain-music as you’re likely to get. OK, an honourable one-off, maybe, but a bit of a cult classic methinks.

www.saprecordings.com

David Kidman


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Ledfoot – GOTHIC BLUES VOLUME 1 (Hypertension HYP12286)

Ledfoot is Tim McConnell; he was born in a trailer park in Florida, and has been playing biker bars and underground clubs since age 15, latterly in New York. After a couple of decades playing in bands (Rockats, Havalinas), Tim launched out on his own, recording albums for the Warner and Waterfall labels and achieving fame when Bruce Springsteen recorded his song High Hopes in 1996. Gothic Blues Volume 1 is in fact Tim’s fourth album (tho’ I’m not sure whether it’s his first as Ledfoot), and was recorded in just one frenzied, white-heat take one day in April 2011. The rough immediacy of the live sound is well conveyed, as is Tim’s unbridled, rambling passion for the blues. That sobriquet Ledfoot gives a kind of clue to his particular brand of blues: kind-of foot-stompin’ acoustic Led Zepp I guess, with echoes of the Stones’ Paint It Black and an “ah feel like ahcid” Beefheartian edge. But Tim’s voice is like neither Plant nor Beefheart, although it soars and throbs with all due emotion. Yes, there’s passion aplenty, and Tim’s mean’n’dirty guitar frets and burns with the best, whether in searing bottleneck-slide mode (Save My Ass) or indulging in more restrained picture-painting (the ominous How You Loose Your Innocense – sic! – and the brooding menace of Sound Of The Sun Going Down). There’s some fine songwriting here, much in the late-60s/early 70s blues-psych tradition yet steeped in the obsessions of the delta blues and with shades of the mystic east to point the man’s uniformly dark philosophical stance. There are a few less convincing moments where Tim’s invention seems to flag into flippancy (Diggin’ My Own Grave for instance), but Tim soon recovers his composure and brings us back to more familiar doomy reflection. Now I’ve listened through the whole album several times, and in certain moods I find that Ledfoot’s relentlessness palls a little around two-thirds through the disc and doesn’t quite succeed in regaining my attention, for whatever reason. Perhaps it’s all too much, too intense – but then again I do find myself responding better to the music in one sustained listening session rather than trying to pick isolated tracks, so the cumulative intimacy of the almost-live experience must be a contributing factor. Whatever your likely reaction, Tim’s commitment to the blues is abundantly clear, and he can’t ever be accused of mere posturing. Yeah, this one’s a keeper alright.

www.ledfoot-gothicblues.com

David Kidman


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The Duplets – LEVERAGE (Pond Chicken Music CHIK002)

The Duplets are Gillian Fleetwood and Fraya Thomsen, who hail from the Scottish Highlands: both play the Scottish harp, and both sing, and on both counts they excel. But if you think that the sound of two female voices and two harps is going to be too rarefied for your taste, then I’d urge you to give this enchanting disc a try. While readily admitting that the actual sound palette is by its very nature necessarily restricted, at the same time Gillian and Fraya achieve a miraculously wide dynamic range (and range of sounds) with their playing, and the richness and intricacy of the interplay between the two different harps, and the interaction between the instruments and voices, proves sheer magic and makes for uniquely stimulating listening. Leverage turns out to be the duo’s second album (their first, Tree Of Strings, wasn’t sent to me for review, sadly), and it makes a brave move in choosing for its opening track a highly original – and inspirational – new setting by Fraya herself of Burns’ famous lyric A Man’s A Man For A’ That, the importance of whose message is often still somewhat underestimated even today. There’s a conviction in the Duplets’ direct yet vulnerable vocal expression of these complex emotions that just can’t be ignored, and elsewhere on the disc whether on reinterpreted traditional song or new self-penned items the listener is captivated by their keen skill at getting across the passion of the texts. Which is a quality in copious supply on this disc, as much on the traditional Jenny Nettles as on spellbinding original songs like Fraya’s Surtsey (which tells of the birth of that volcanic island: interestingly, as viewed initially from the perspective of a fisherman) and Gillian’s Paris (a beautifully melancholy tale of lost love). Just over half of the album’s tracks are purely instrumental; a special distinction is that on the final track Old Harp, New Harp the instruments Gillian and Fraya play are two rare Briggs harps built in Glasgow in the early 1900s, and the sound they make is delightfully delicate yet intensely versatile. These qualities aren’t confined to that final track, for throughout the disc the individual and intertwined playing is unreservedly sparkling and the effect on the listener is very much uplifting. The material Fraya and Gillian play includes a piece written specially for them by their mentor Andy Thorburn, as well as three of Fraya’s own compositions (a fun jig contrasting with two lovely tunes: the beautiful tribute Granny’s Parting Gift and the lilting Garry Porch’s, the latter incorporating a sung part performed in counterpoint). And of course, a whole host of traditional tunes that, while impeccably rendered, convey a sense of nimble joy in their execution that’s quite irresistible. As is the entire album: whose title, by the way, alludes to “the power that every artist has, to have their voice heard amongst the crowd”; and this is surely what’s been achieved here.

www.theduplets.com

David Kidman


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Jack McNeill & Charlie Heys – TWO FINE DAYS (Fellside FECD. 245)

This Birmingham-based duo emerged fresh from the 2008 BBC Young Folk Awards finals, since which time they’ve completed their Conservatoire studies and produced a series of increasingly satisfying albums, of which Two Fine Days is the third. Their original brand of music is not easy to describe in terms of ready reference points: contemporary acoustic goes close, but there are also tentative nods to Americana, albeit in a peculiarly English kind of way. But Jack and Charlie continue to trade on their tried-and-tested, honest no-concessions approach, showcasing a collection of seven brand new songs from Jack complemented by three sparkling and engaging instrumentals penned by Charlie. As always, Jack’s songs are thought-provoking and unselfconsciously intelligent, often episodic and thus not always conventionally structured; so you always need to give them your undivided attention (not just because that’s only what they deserve). In their blank verse, Jack maturely considers issues of common tradition and experience in the context of personal hope, fear and love, and he takes constant inspiration from ever-changing landscapes, if at times it might be said a touch obliquely, even elusively (the word thorny has been used by other writers, and there can indeed be some truth in that observation). The title song iconically explores those small and at the time insignificant moments in life which later assume importance out of proportion to their modest circumstances, whereas Debatable Lands tellingly ponders and questions the eternal enigma of why fellow human beings will turn to warring rather than unite to settle differences. And the atmospheric Solway Firth crops up again… Mostly the songs are accompanied simply in terms of texture, with just guitar and violin, although selective embellishments are provided on some tracks by combinations of Tom Chapman (Old Dance School, Urban Folk Quartet) on percussion, Hannah Phillips on harp and Sean Law on double bass. There might be a slight sense of formula at times, where what I might call the Sherburn-Bartley approach is employed – i.e. the rolling, tumbling violin part tracing the contours of a reel or a jig to intertwine with the sung phrases and melody – but this virtuosic intricacy is invariably both invigorating and satisfying and imparts a degree of individuality to the reading nevertheless. Jack’s singing is confident and forthright, yet also with a touch of intimacy – recalling Martin Simpson perhaps in its whispered, smoky phrasing and use of lazy shaded dynamics (Pennies In A Jar’s a good example) that rebuts the charge of over-earnest abrasiveness that might easily have been levelled at some of Jack’s earlier recordings. The aforementioned three instrumental tracks are suitably diverse: The Kiss is a sequence of three contrasting tunes that evoke wintry Scotland, whereas The First Garden pairs a mellow jig with a more driven reel, and Little Ginger bids a fond farewell to a pet. It’s a tad disconcerting that the three tracks midway through the disc (5 to 7 inclusive) don’t appear in the order given on the cover and the booklet: this is an uncharacteristic lapse from Fellside’s usual exemplary presentation standards, and I’m not sure what can have happened there. Otherwise, the attentive listener will find much to engage in this stimulating disc over repeated plays.

www.myspace.com/jackmcneillandcharlieheys

David Kidman


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Kate Denny – CLOSER TO HOME (Lapwing LRCD0001)

The Kittiwakes produced one of 2009’s most mesmerising records, the folk concept album Lofoten Calling. Kate, one third of that esteemed trio, now launches out on a solo career with this rather special disc containing twelve of her own compositions (eleven songs and a Scandinavian-inflected instrumental piece), which manages to be at once upfront in the method with which she establishes her distinctive musical personality and inclusive in its portrayal of subject matter which almost always has a personal relevance and connection (i.e. it concerns matters that are also literally closer to home for Kate than the Norway of Lofoten).

But Kate’s songwriting has no truck with narcissistic introspection; instead, through keen exploration of her own heritage, Kate affords insights into the lives of her ancestors. By telling and evocative use of language, she re-imagines and comments on the harsh experiences of great-uncle Billy in World War One and ponders the impact of the suicide-by-drowning of great-grandmother Nellie Follett, while Beverley reflects on, and celebrates, the life of Kate’s husband’s sister, who died in 2010. Kate’s childhood reading provides the inspiration for William And The Boat (which recounts an incident from Wordsworth’s Prelude), and a devilishly quirky Scottish fairy tale forms the basis for the unexpectedly chirpy The Milk White Dove. A local West Midlands legend is retold with relish on The Sisters Of Jacob’s Hall, whereas Getting By concerns the hardship faced by Greenwich residents in the early years of the 20th century.

Best of all, though, are those songs where the universal collides with the personal, as on the atmospheric drone-accompanied Brittle Boned, which was inspired by experience of extremes of weather during a stay on Skye; here Kate meditates on the permanency of the mountains in time and the landscape, and its closing pipe-tune coda continues onward into the succeeding track, Almost Forever, a charming celebration of all the things we love. The hopeful, positive message of Fear and the welcoming hearthside-waltzer title song then leave the listener with a warm glow.

Kate’s fresh, bracing singing voice is underscored by deft accompaniment from her own handcrafted viola and Charlie Skelton’s guitar (or violin or smallpipes), with occasional embellishment from Phil Underwood (anglo concertina or melodeon) and either Mark Hutchinson or Peter Dunhill (guitar on one track apiece). A limpid aural tapestry which yields a gently poignant and increasingly haunting musical delight.

www.katedenny.com

David Kidman


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Angela Perley & The Howlin’ Moons – FIRESIDE (EP) (Vital Music, no catalogue number) Hailing from Columbus, Ohio, Angela is the youngest member of the band Salty Caramels; you, like me, will most probably be none the wiser at reading that snippet of information. Angela’s “other band”, The Howlin’ Moons, which formed back in 2009, has a respectable fanbase Stateside yet is unknown in this country, and is currently just past midway through releasing a series of EPs, of which Fireside is the third (although the first to come my way for review). On this evidence, this is the work of a better than efficient country-rock-pop outfit that pleases the ear with a tuneful, hook-laden set of mostly uptempo love songs with a slightly melancholy alt-country tinge. There’s plenty of fill to the textures too, with prominent organ (Kevin Patrick Sweeney) and guitar (Chris Connor) and a rock-solid rhythm section (Billy Zehnal and Steve Rupp) that can seemingly not put a foot wrong in support of front-lady Angela’s strong voice that in her own florid words she describes as “like a kiss being blown off a freight train on muddy tracks”. Unfortunately, for me at any rate, that wonderful quote is probably the most memorable thing about Angela’s music, for all its positive qualities of confidence, presence and radio-friendliness – at least on the showing of this collection of five tracks. There’s also something curiously intangible, even forgettable about them, which makes me suspect that this EP should best be taken in conjunction with its companion releases for the stature of Angela’s music to be more fully appreciated.

www.angelaperley.com

David Kidman


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Kyle Carey – MONONGAH (Own Label, no catalogue number)

Kyle’s a lady with an interesting background: born in New Hampshire, spending her early years in the Alaskan Bush, then studying – first fiddle in Cape Breton and then traditional Gaelic song in Skye. At first acquaintance, none of those experiences would seem to really give much of a clue to the actual sound or musical climate of her own songs, except for isolated moments like the second track (a love song written and sung in Scottish Gaelic) on Monongah, her debut CD. Kyle tends to rely on simple backporch textures of mandolin, banjo and bass, to gently cradle her soft-toned yet thoroughly engaging singing voice, and the general style is more akin to latter-day Appalachian folk-country than anything traditional or specifically Celtic. Having said that, on closer listening you’ll detect subtleties of projection, phrasing and tone in Kyle’s delivery that signify her mastery of Gaelic singing techniques, while at the same time the lyrics of her haunting, well-crafted songs are very much informed by themes such as ancestral longing and intelligently retold American historical narrative. I believe I read somewhere that Kyle herself describes her music as Gaelic-Americana…! Whatever, the shimmeringly passionate reimagined gospel ballad Let Them Be All and the curiously delicate southern-gothic-styled tale of Adenine provide two standout experiences for this listener (indeed, Adenine comes in two entirely different but complementary versions here, placed consecutively at the end of the running-order), but it’s fair to say that a spell of true enchantment effortlessly pervades the whole disc. Kyle also derives much inspiration from Appalachian poet Louise McNeill, whose work provides direct cues for two of the album’s key songs (the title track and Devil At Your Back), while the literary influences extend even further with Kyle’s adaptation of Caoe Breton author Alistair MacLeod’s short story The Star Above Rankin’s Point which voices the memories of a lighthouse keeper’s son. There’s also a hint of contemporary-Celtic in the easily accomplished musicianship on display from Kyle’s support crew, which includes Neil Fitzgibbon and Tom Canning, and also judiciously employs Rosie MacKenzie of the Cottars and Gràda’s Brendan O’Sullivan on fiddles, John Kirk on mandolin and Lùnasa’s Trevor Hutchinson on double bass. Cherish The Ladies’ Aoife Clancy and Lumiere’s Pauline Scanlon pitch in with some harmony vocals, and the album was recorded in western Ireland. Actually, the UK seems to have been left in the dark about this fine record for the past six months, for it already gained considerable plaudits on its release last autumn in USA and Canada; I’d guess that if Kyle gets to tour the UK as planned next spring her profile will be even further enhanced.

www.kyleannecarey.com

David Kidman


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Dan Raza – DAN RAZA (Auralee AUR001)

Coming fresh to my own ears, but with weighty endorsements from Chris Farlowe, Mary Gauthier and Slaid Cleaves, this Bedfordshire-born singer-songwriter of mixed Indian and British origin clearly has something to offer. This eponymous record, apparently (but hard to believe) his debut release, is released following a stint as opening support for Joan Armatrading’s latest tour. It largely inhabits a pleasing and reflective mid-tempo groove, with Dan’s smoky, although not entirely laid-back vocal nicely offset by a consistently interesting instrumental backdrop that makes really good use of colourings such as flute, kora, oboe, accordion, fiddle and pedal steel and courtesy of a host of top-class musicians including Mosi Conde, B.J. Cole, Roy Dodds, Geraint Watkins, Frank Mead, Steve Simpson and album producer Charlie Hart. In fact – and I don’t mean this to sound unkind – sometimes the textural beauty of the settings might be said to eclipse the songs themselves, which is unfortunate since their inspiration, which derives from influences such as the writer Ben Okri and painter Marc Chagall, is certainly keen and sincerely felt. His often turbulent lyrics can belie the coolness of the settings, and they tend to portray an individual whose search for belonging remains elusive; this of course is entirely consistent with his childhood and upbringing, and perhaps the finest of the songs on this theme is the album finale Can’t Go Back. There’s also a quite desperate sense of longing, as on the edgy, restless Rivertown, album opener 40 Miles and the priceless Home, Again. And yet, especially in the disc’s early stages, the impact of Dan’s music is quite resolutely low-key, an impression which must be down to the relative consistency of tempo and mood throughout; only on the cautiously cajun-cookin’ Cool Dark Night, the more energised, rather Dylanesque tale of No-One Shed A Tear and the gently swinging honky-tonk/Wagon-Wheel vibe of Step Away With Me does the tempo rise much above a fairly languid mid-pace. But to describe Dan’s music as low-key would be most unfair, and I’d emphasise that doesn’t mean it has no character or appeal – far from it, in fact, since I enjoyed the album more each time I played it, and it always left me wanting to hear more of this often enigmatic talent; perhaps the live experience will enable a greater appreciation of his presence in the crowded singer-songwriter scene.

www.danraza.com

David Kidman


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Hillfolk Noir – RADIO HOUR (Own Label, 700261 34982 4)

The brainchild of idiosyncratic singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Travis Ward from Boise, Idaho, the Hillfolk Noir outfit provides an appealing – if mildly weird – take on mountain music that the band themselves call Junkerdash. This album filters through the tuning of an antique radio dial Travis’s own unique brand of indie-folk, a self-styled “country-tinged, swampy-swinging’, hillbilly-delta-blues-ragtime word machine” that captivates with its respectful yet entertaining representation of those authentic sub-genres, all couched within a presentation that’s sequenced just like one of those old-timey radio shows, complete with the occasional fake commercial like Hillfolk Wild Root Cream Oil. (The album’s even marketed in a 10-inch vinyl version that’s packaged to resemble a 20s 78 rpm release!) Don’t let the novelty demeanour of some of the numbers fool you tho’, for Hillfolk Noir know exactly what they’re about even when they’re purposely injecting humour into serious commentary (like the well-informed Talking Music Blues). Sure, there are times when Travis’ affection for his chosen musical roots arguably feels just a touch studied, even casual, but for the most part his energy and commitment shines through, as does that of his support combo, who evidently uphold the classic busking traditions, carry his songs aloft on exactly the ideal level of enterprise. At the same time musically stimulating and great fun, this highly enjoyable ragbag of a disc’s definitely worth your investigation – not least cos the band will be on tour here in the UK through June and I’m sure they’ll be a hoot live.

www.hillfolknoir.com

David Kidman


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The Cactus Blossoms – THE CACTUS BLOSSOMS (Own Label, no catalogue number)

This recorded-in-one-day debut album by the Cactus Blossoms duo sounds for all the world like it could’ve been recorded 50 years ago, so authentic and minimal and gimmick-free is its demeanour and approach. Admirably so, it turns out, for brothers Jack Torrey and Paige Burkum live and breathe vintage honky-tonk and create vocal harmonies that at their best are redolent of classic sibling acts like the Louvins and the Everlys. No wonder, then, that they’ve won prestigious contests and earned themselves a place on Garrison Keillor’s long-running Prairie Home Companion show. So if it’s straightahead back-to-basics Hank Williams/Delmore Brothers-type C & W with a dash of boogie here and there, well then the Cactus Blossoms will be right up your street with their archetypal songs of love gone wrong, the real deal. For this their record debut, the brothers and their guitars are blessed with immaculate fiddle, steel/dobro and upright bass-clothed backings courtesy of noted fellow Minneapolis musos Mike “Razz” Russell (fiddle), Randy Broughton (steel and dobro) and Liz Draper (upright bass). Everything is in its rightful place. Perhaps that’s the only drawback for the reviewer, then – that there’s nothing here to draw special attention to, no standout tracks as such. But this album’s just a fleeting ten-incher’s worth (barely 28 minutes) of exemplary singing and playing on ten tracks of in the main self-composed material that just oozes crafted roots authenticity – and you can’t ever criticise that.

www.thecactusblossoms.com

David Kidman


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The James Low Western Front – WHISKEY FARMER (Union Made UMRC 420 1)

James and his band hail from Portland, Oregon, and yet the press release for this latest record claims that their sound is more steeped in Nashville or Bakersfield. I’m not entirely sure I get that, but Whiskey Farmer is a muscular collection of eight self-penned songs that together form a kind of concept work that chronicles – you guessed it – the plight of the aforesaid character; and it does so with dutifully efficient Texan-style guitar-based country music that evokes the dusty nature of the land and its people without necessarily taking you there (if you get my drift), and thus lacking that final degree of ambient authenticity however good the musicianship is. The central character is well enough drawn through the lyrics, especially on the resigned I Would Have You, the hymnal closer A Little More Time and the achingly reflective Thinking California, and the shuffle-boogie restlessness of Sleeping It Off manages to conjure that familiar state, but the would-be-lived-in feel of much of the rest of the album is perhaps a touch too easily accomplished to feel quite as convincing as it should. Maybe the biggest clue to the general lack of impact of this record lies in its title – the whiskey farmer who’s trying to grow champagne is almost doomed to fail in his end, despite best endeavours. In the end, this album is – in spite of its quite mundane vocal work and general air of predictability – likeable enough, and thus would doubtless sound just fine to while away an idle 27 minutes at the wheel, but it simply doesn’t feel sufficiently distinctive, or substantial enough, to stand up to home listening.

www.jameslowwesternfront.com

David Kidman


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Various Artists – WRECKS, RUCKS, RIOTS AND RESURRECTION: SONGS AND TUNES FROM THE LEIGH FOLK FESTIVAL 2012 (Thames Delta Recording Co. MUD005CD)

The long-running Leigh Folk Festival celebrates its 21st anniversary this year by expanding its already impressively eclectic musical mix of tradition and modernity even further. It gives itself the best possible advance publicity by following its customary practice of releasing a generously-filled limited-edition taster-cum-souvenir CD that delivers music from many of its participating artists (this time 20 are represented). And it goes without saying that the quality is uniformly excellent, and the sequencing is both satisfying and fulfilling throughout the course of the disc’s 74 minutes, so boredom never really gets the chance to set in.

This year’s disc continues in the approved tradition of the series by focusing on giving exposure to performances from (for the most part) artists who don’t tend to enjoy a higher folk-scene profile, wider promotion or mainstream coverage (which probably explains the absence of Mawkin and Jez Lowe from the CD even though they’re key figures in the festival lineup). It also takes pride in sourcing a goodly proportion of its tracks from previously unreleased recordings – here, only eight are drawn from existing CD releases, and only one (Martin Carthy’s, from his 2004 Topic release Waiting For Angels) could be termed widely or easily available although those by Blueflint and Lucky Strikes seem currently to be enjoying wider distribution. The “unreleased” category here includes some live recordings (those by Gilmore & Roberts and Rattle On The Stovepipe for instance), but the sheer quality of the rest begs the inevitable question as to why so many of these artists haven’t been accorded proper release status.

This year’s menu kicks off its dusty trail in contemporary Americana territory with a fine piece of songwriting by K.C. Mackanzie, then veers back to the tradition with said Mr. Carthy’s epic Child ballad (James Hatley) and an uncharacteristic Alasdair Roberts item (a deft rendition of an Irish jig) which leads us neatly onwards to Simon J. Onions’ tribute to John Fahey. The alluring yet contrasting voices of Nancy Wallace, Kate Denny and Roshi form a cannily complementary triptych, after which the disc moves more left-field for Matthew Boulter’s thought-provoking Once I Was A Blackbird and Darren Hayman’s expansive One Tree Island (the only selection on the disc that marginally outstays its welcome for me). The epic tale of the Vergulde Draeck is retold by The Doomed Bird Of Providence in a shattered style that’s a little reminiscent of David Thomas/Père Ubu, after which Burton Bradstock’s curiously convincing bebop treatment of John Barleycorn comes as quite a surprise. Owl Service offshoot Greanvine (Diana Collier and Steven Collins) deliver an innovative adaptation of Charles Wesley’s Idumea (from the Sacred Harp tradition) and Rosemary Lippard & Tim Graham a superlative account of the classic ballad Long Lankin; both are standout tracks (on the latter, I could almost swear I was hearing an early Eliza Carthy). Perhaps I was mildly disappointed by the offering from festival regulars Straw Bear Band, but as compensation another LFF stalwart, Jason Steel, turns in a stunning banjo-backed rendition of Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down to close the disc.

I’ve no hesitation, then, in definitely recommending this admirably-bargain-price disc, not least for its intoxicating air of discovery and its proud celebration of the diversity of folk music. It’s an ideal sampler for the uniquely all-encompassing LFF itself, as you’ll find if you can possibly get along to this transformed part of Essex for any part of its enterprising four-day tenure.

www.leighfolkfestival.com

David Kidman


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Annie Gallup – WEATHER (Waterbug WBG0093)

This album seems to’ve been out for well over a year now, but a copy has only just reached me. I’d been especially keen to hear it, since the work of this uncompromising Michigan-raised (but recently moved to California) singer-songwriter has since the late 90s both intrigued and captivated me with its brilliant literacy, its intense clarity of vision and expression, married to an often idiosyncratic approach to the thorny question of instrumental accompaniment. Annie’s previous albums have employed textures ranging from acoustic to electric, jazzy bass to electronic production, but Weather brings an exquisite new intimacy to her urgent poetry by dint of its focus, in terms of accompaniment, exclusively on the established (that is, in the field of classical music, albeit chamber music rather than lieder) ensemble of the string quartet. The songs’ arrangements here are by Asia Mei (a Russian-born, Israeli-raised Berkelee-educated composer living in Harlem, to whom Annie was introduced around five years ago by an erstwhile touring partner, bassist Sean Kelly), and they show musical insights matching the personal insights within the lyrics themselves, ingeniously both mirroring and commenting on the sung or recited texts. The writing for the medium itself is extremely competent and intelligent too, with expert understanding of timbre, bowing techniques and effects (although anyone half-expecting to hear echoes of stabbing Psycho ostinatos on the percipient Hitchcock’s Thrillers will be sorely disappointed – but hey, Annie just wouldn’t resort to anything so blatantly cheesy!). The self-penned songs – twelve in all – together exhibit an impressive emotional range, readily formulating compelling pictures in sound that are enhanced by Annie’s flawless, crystal-clear diction and sensual, sometimes quite sultry delivery. She has the facility to glide effortlessly and naturally from sung tone to spoken delivery, often during the course of the same song, as on the enigmatic Unmapped World. Her unerring sense of the power and quality of rhythm comes across most vividly on Sixty-Eight, whose counterpointing pizzicatos evoke a potent memory from that year with its “whole world is watching” chants and sense of impending snowstorm and fever, while the entirely-spoken Late is arguably the finest creation on the disc with its bustling, tumbling wordscape that rushes to get its thoughts out before everything’s too… er, late – and boasts a disquieting backdrop that both reflects the piece’s gravitational pull and the developments of its ongoing emotional landscape. Elsewhere, as on Hound and Blacktop Boardwalk, Annie’s knowing sense of phrasing puts me in mind of Peggy Seeger, at other times there are hints of Joni Mitchell in her more experimental phase. The sensuous nature of relationship reminiscences is most tellingly explored on Regrets and the sweet All Night Rain, while Ground Zero, Written In Chalk is a touching memory of a lost romance that transcends the resonances of the immediate locale. All told, Weather is an extraordinarily insightful and outstanding artistic statement. It truthfully and maturely depicts a world where even the ostensibly simple things are in the end significantly and unavoidably complex and require thinking about; and yet, Annie’s is not a depressing worldview, for she appears calm and composed in her accurate reflection of the personal in the context of the blindingly universal.

www.anniegallup.com

David Kidman


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Keith Kendrick & Sylvia Needham – WELL DRESSED (WildGoose Studios WGS387CD)

Well Dressed is the long-awaited debut on record of a rather special partnership that’s been steadily growing in stature over the past five years. A veritable Derbyshire legend, Keith already boasts a folk pedigree stretching back some way (Druids, Muckram Wakes, Ram’s Bottom), and an invigorating repertoire encompassing traditional and traditionally-influenced contemporary song and shanties, but nowadays he’s deservedly in demand both as a versatile solo performer and for his exceedingly engaging duo work with Yorkshire-born Sylvia. Their teaming has been a fortuitous one, for they prove a truly complementary couple, in the musical as well as personal sense. They’re blessed with strong individual voices and a keen sense of togetherness, an innate personal empathy, which, allied to their intuitive and intelligent approach to harmony singing, is a real joy to experience, as is their welcoming stance, their penchant for warmly sharing their songs with listeners. And between them they’re also fine exponents of the three different concertina systems (English, Anglo, duet). The aptly-titled Well Dressed has turned out not only a uniformly excellent demonstration of the couple’s strengths, but also a tantalising taster for their charismatic live appearances. A cursory glance at the tracklist might indicate more than a hint of “same-old”, but there’s not a trace of over-familiarity in Keith and Sylvia’s treatments or the specific variants of often familiar texts which they adopt. Sprig Of Thyme is arguably the most well-known, but its refreshingly simple acappella harmonised setting brings nothing but satisfaction, as does Turtle Dove (one of three songs recorded here in honour of the great John Langstaff). Banks Of The Nile is (unusually) briskly dispatched in bold 6/8 metre, while the surprisingly different versions of Shallow Brown and Turpin ’Ero are bound to delight. The disc’s central section contains its two standout renditions: a spectral Three Ravens and a beautifully poised revisit of Love Farewell. Proudly regional fare such as Six Jolly Miners, The Spire The Aspired, Uttoxeter Souling Song and Sarah Matthews’ original Well Dressing Song receive vital performances, as does Whitby Fisher Lad (done to the lovely melody by Sylvia’s brother-in-law Peter Norman). On the disc’s only instrumental item – a bracing pair of tunes from the repertoire of the Winster Morris Dancers – Keith and Sylvia are joined by Jon Loomes, Bob Axford, Johnny Adams, Michael Beeke and Gilly Loomes; various permutations of these musicians also provide creative input to expand the aural palette on a handful of other tracks. WildGoose’s presentation is typically exemplary, with some rightly pointed comments spicing the wonderfully informative liner notes. A triumph for both label and artists.

www.keithkendrick.com/kn

David Kidman


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Karen Ryan – THE COAST ROAD (Cló Iar-Chonnacht CICD. 188)

Vivacious fiddle player Karen’s a leading light on the London Irish scene (and Director of its annual Return To Camden Festival), and the six-piece lineup she founded, The London Lasses & Pete Quinn, has thus far released four acclaimed CDs of traditional Irish music. The Coast Road is Karen’s first ostensibly solo CD, and its title reflects her own origins (Galway and Mayo parentage) as much as the traditions of the music within. Although the musical complement varies between the disc’s fifteen tracks, the aforementioned Pete Quinn plays piano or keyboard on all but one selection (a set of reels that partners Karen, here playing tin whistle, with guitarist Conor Doherty). As well as the slow air Sliabh Geal gCua, we’re treated to two sequences of three tracks each which take the form of duets between Karen and Pete, ranging from jigs and reels to hornpipes (and, like the majority of the disc’s material, arranged by Karen and Pete themselves in approved session style); on one of the jig-sets (Kiss The Bride/Shandon Bells), Karen even picks up the banjo for a change – and makes a good fist of that too, with a bright confidence that clearly extends from her abundantly energetic, vibrantly skilled fiddle playing. Fiddle specialists will no doubt be able to discern and pinpoint the influences Karen readily admits she derives from master players Danny Meehan, Brian Rooney and Brendan McGlinchey, but there’s certainly much of the vigorous drive associated with Danny in Karen’s attack, and a joyous flexibility of phrasing is another trait common to both Karen and Brian. Pete’s accompaniment is a model of flexibility too, while remaining fully grounded in sympathetic session etiquette. Pete also makes a great foil for the triple-fiddle attack of a waltz-reel pairing (track 13), where Karen’s joined by the fiery fiddling talents of Teresa Connolly and Elaine Conwell. Conor joins Pete, making the ensemble a trio, on the disc finale (a rousing set of reels) and a set of polkas (which, by contrast, doesn’t seem to quite catch fire), whereas the brisk set of reels at track 6 gains an extra swing and sparkle from the presence of Gary Connolly’s accordion, which also appears in consort with Karen, Pete and uilleann piper Colman Connolly on the robust track 14 set of jigs. The odd-track-out is its one song selection, but even that turns out considerably charming: Karen’s aunt Nancy sings the macaronic song An Draighnean Donn in a treasurably tender manner (although there’s a slightly disconcerting level of background noise on this track which I realise is likely to emanate from the source at which the vocal track was recorded, Nancy’s Galway home). This circumstance apart, the disc’s recording quality is clear and unfussy, with a credible balance between the instruments, and although there were isolated moments when I felt the piano rose a little too much to the forefront I really have no serious issue with this. Presentation is good too, especially in these days of skimpy supporting information, although the bilingual booklet suffers a little from its confusing practice of alternating and switching between the English and Irish Gaelic sections.

www.karenryan.net

David Kidman


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The Spiers Family – PLENTY BRASS AND A BONNY LASS (Millseat 001)

The Spiers Family group is a relatively new teaming, although Tom himself has been active on the Aberdeen folk scene since the 1960s, whether as a solo performer in his own right or in the subsequent decades as a member of The Gaugers (with the late Peter Hall) then Shepheard, Spiers & Watson. Tom last released a solo record (Allan Water) close on ten years ago, so any new offerings from him are eagerly received!

Tom’s own distinction, as one of Scotland’s very finest singers with a skill for accompanying himself on the fiddle that’s second to none, is legendary; but his wife Maggie and daughter Emma, who complete the Spiers Family lineup, are both really good singers too and keen exponents of the traditional songs of their native north-east Scotland. So much so, in fact, that I was surprised to discover that Emma has only been singing traditional song in public for little over a year, and Maggie only since 2008 (although both have won prestigious singing competitions since!). The three of them only actually started singing together at the beginning of last year, and Plenty Brass And A Bonny Lass may only have been recorded shortly thereafter but it doesn’t betray any sense of tentativeness or uncertainty either in approach or execution. No – the feel is very much one of performers who are completely at ease with their art and with each other’s singing, and able to bring a frisson of natural connection to anything they sing. The template the trio uses for its vocal arrangement doesn’t vary (a designated solo-lead with the other two voices coming in to harmonise on the chorus or refrain), but then again it doesn’t need to, and the result is both companionable and listener-friendly and I often found myself joining in with what feels like their informal little homegrown song session.

The recording is straightforward, honest and truthful, accurate and lifelike, clear and close with plenty of natural warmth and immediacy. The programme of songs is sensibly balanced, both in terms of mood and arrangement, and its 57 minutes fairly fly by. Just six of the fifteen selections are sung acappella, and these include a couple of wonderful solo performances: a characteristically well-turned distillation of the popular ballad of Tifty’s Annie from Tom, and a knowing take on The Flower Of Northumberland from Emma – while I also really liked Maggie’s account of O Bit I’m Weary and Emma’s sprightly take on the Bothy Ballad Johnnie Sangster. And the very last item on the disc – the only one not of Scottish origin – Maggie’s measured and heartfelt rendition of My Flower My Companion (from the singing of Helen Schneyer), which sports an achingly beautiful fiddle backdrop.

Tom’s exceptional, sternly moulded yet perennially fluid fiddle accompaniment graces four further tracks, including fine accounts of the whaling song Greenland and the spirited Wee Toon Clerk, while on five items he exchanges the fiddle for tenor guitar, use of which instrument imparts a kind of courtly-troubadour quality to the interpretations (especially in the case of Emma’s haunting take on the ballad Fine Flowers In The Valley, a Cruel Mother variant, and Tom’s own tender account of the Dundee love song Magdalen Green). The disc’s only studio enhancement comes where both instruments are employed in tandem to accompany Maggie on Green Grows The Laurel. As I’ve hinted, virtually every song chosen for inclusion has been sourced from within the family’s own region – two thirds can be found in the Greig-Duncan Collection, as the brief but relevant booklet notes point out, and a number of them have been learnt directly from traditional singers of our time (Jeannie Robertson in the case of the delightful Yowie Wi’ The Crookit Horn, Jimmy Macbeath in the case of Marnan Fair) or family friends (Emma learnt Time Wears Awa’ from Elsa Lemaître).

So, from the standpoint of the performances, choice of material and quality of the music alone, this can be judged an excellent record and a singularly fine example of the singing tradition of the north-east of Scotland. Aberdonians fare ye weel, indeed…! The disc’s only minor letdown is its unduly modest presentation – and then only arguably so by present-day standards; although it’s only fair to point out that the song texts and a glossary are available on the website.

www.spiersfamilygroup.co.uk

David Kidman


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Sproatly Smith – THE MINSTREL’S GRAVE (Folk Police FPR007)

Another mesmerising and totally compelling release from Folk Police… One I just can’t stop playing right through, over and again. It’s an occupational hazard, I guess, but I got sucked into this simmering, shimmering vortex of insistent acid-folk sounds from the outset, and not even the prospect of the new Fay Hield album could entice The Minstrel’s Grave to vacate the playing tray!

The opening track’s sinister sound collage is like a visit to a half-remembered nursery (a kind of wyrd counterpart to the clockwork winding-up of Syd Barrett’s Bike set to a background of chirping whirring insects), at length dissolving into an unsettling singsong lullaby that’s the epitome of exactly what My Mother Said I never should…! The magic spell then weaves on through a further eleven tracks of singular charm and true weirdness, wherein strangely menacing angelic, floaty (and not always quite in-focus) female vocals and treated, generally acoustic textures (involving sundry guitars, flutes, zither, bucolic vibes, xylos and glocks and assorted percussive implements) are suffused with cuts of antiquarian found sounds and serendipitous imaginings (I use that word advisedly) to transport into the mind of the listener a cunning sequence of special quandaries of legend stemming mostly (but not exclusively) from folk tradition. It itches and scratches at your consciousness like the thing beyond the door, the lurker at the threshold, invoking memories you never knew you had (and then almost wish you hadn’t), but in the most deliciously and perversely entrancing way (un)imaginable. The unfamiliar other-world it conjures is, we discover, of our world too.

D’you need reference points? OK – let’s start with ISB, Forest, COB, Sharron Kraus, Mary Hampton, early Pink Floyd, Caravan, Comus, Strangelies, Tull, even experimental Dead… tendrils from all these earthly and unearthly folk and much more besides get entwined, sure, but Sproatly don’t sound much like any of ’em, they’ve a pretty unique conception that’s impossible to pin a tag anywhere near before it morphs away from your grasp like a will-o-the-wisp on speed. Elusive (and allusive), man… while at the same time organically and naturally conceived, and entirely without the pretentiousness that dogs the popular image of wyrdfolk.

Any disc that counterpoints imaginative reinterpretations/reworkings of two key psych tracks fondly cherished from my own personal memory-bank (Sun Also Rises’ O Death and The Pretty Things’ S.F. Sorrow side-closer Death) has to come with an instant advantage, but there’s plenty more intelligently creative empathy in the conjoining of elements elsewhere. The wondrous nine-minute combination of (Maddy Prior’s) The Fabled Hare and (Alex Harvey’s) Isobel Goudie is a case in point, but there are several briefer examples too – the ethereal shifting pastoral swoon of The Mermaid Of Marden, the frost-fractured sitar-twinkling glisten of Blackthorn Winter, and the eerie storm-tossed trip down an alternate-universe Rosemary Lane (The Blue Flame).

On our journey through the record, we find interspersed among these song-based experiences the occasional delightfully evocative instrumental treasure like Song For Annie Needham (which portrays a visit to a veritable Olde Curiosity Emporium, the shop bell tinkling enticingly as we step gingerly over the threshold) and the almost casually encountered fireside aural patchwork of Silver Threads Among The Gold. The meaningful distortions of Elysium, on the other hand, present an unsettling, prickly gothic depiction of an uncertainly induced altered-state, whereas O Willow Way intrigues with a soundscape of spectral shufflings and ticking clock mechanisms.

The press handout proclaims that this is the mysterious Sproatly Smith’s third full-length album. My only previous experience of Sproatly was an isolated track on the first (2007) Cold Spring John Barleycorn Reborn collection. According to said press release, Sproatly Smith springs “straight out of the folklore-soaked borderlands of the Herefordshire marches”, but exactly who or what Sproatly Smith are (or were or will be), still resolutely remains an enigma, for the attractive digipackage contains virtually nothing of what might be termed informative pertinence except for the all-essential tracklisting; not even an extract from an 1889 map of the village of Sproatley gives much away (just the opposite in fact, for it turns out to be a whacking geographical red-herring!). But that’s no cause for complaint – except that I believe the right guys should get credit where it’s due, in this case for producing a uniquely haunting, original and thoroughly absorbing – if at times more than mildly challenging – record. As far as I’m concerned, the more challenging the better, as long as there’s meaning, substance, artistic integrity and conviction at its root: and The Minstrel’s Grave contains all those in spades – which are then used to bury us deep in the Sproatly earth, from which there really is no escape (take it from me!). Except, maybe, swift as the wind…

www.folkpolicerecordings.com and http://sproatlysmith/bandcamp.com

David Kidman


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Fay Hield & The Hurricane Party – ORFEO (Topic TSCD. 586)

It’s only eighteen months since Fay released her impressive debut solo album Looking Glass, which signalled the emergence into the major-league spotlight of the illustrious Topic label of a tremendously talented singer, who’s fearless in her proud presentation of traditional song and fully cognisant of its continued importance in the scheme of things. Fay’s equally fearless gift for unearthing rare and interesting material was also represented in great measure.

I could legitimately assert in this review that Orfeo provides an even more convincing demonstration of all of those attributes – but that would be an understatement of serious magnitude. Looking Glass was good, very good, OK bordering on nigh excellent, but giant strides appear to have been made even since then and Orfeo is nothing short of outstanding. Fay’s rich and dynamically expressive voice will always be in primary focus, but the sheer stature of her singing on this new record is at times quite overwhelming. Take the opening track, as distinctive a rendition of The Lover’s Ghost as ever you’re likely to hear, with the power of Fay’s delivery matching her penetrating insights into the sinister qualities of the text, and glory be! the vocal part itself matched impeccably and uncannily responsively by the musicians Fay’s gathered round to make up The Hurricane Party, a veritable crême-de-la-crême of the current English folk scene. Here the insistent squeezebox ostinatos of Andy Cutting and Rob Harbron are offset against eerie fiddle interplay from Jon Boden and Sam Sweeney, and all underscored by Martin Simpson’s banjo and some judicious percussion touches.

Typically spicy, zesty accompaniment – in terms both of colouring and actual playing – is a constant delight throughout this album, in fact, notwithstanding the unbridled majesty of Fay’s voice that rises and falls, soars aloft and caresses within. The backdrops exhibit a telling degree of energy that both complements and mirrors the feistiness of Fay’s interpretations. As ever, these are stunningly realised and impeccably phrases, whatever the song’s style or content, and the emotional gamut ranges from the uplifting acappella of Pretty Nancy (which, accommodatingly, is now also furnished with a chorus!) and the rousing tally-ho of The Parson’s Gate to the unashamed tender romanticism of The Weaver’s Daughter, the deep balladry of Sir Orfeo and the dialogue-drama of Henry to the delectable music-hallery of The Old ’Arris Mill.

There’s also a supremely commanding (nay, imperious) rendition of Tarry Trousers that evokes both Maddy Prior and Frankie Armstrong and makes practically every other recent recorded version sound tame; Fay’s has the added benefit of a fabulous massed-fiddle attack. And, at the other end of the spectrum, there’s the strangely affectionate lullaby Naughty Baby (and no, I’m sorry I haven’t a clue why Fay chose to paraphrase that particular melody, but it turns out cautiously effective). But perhaps the most beguiling track is The Cuckoo, which finds Fay really getting to the heart of the ominous nature of this much-peddled text using her own adaptation of the version obtained from Anne Briggs and sporting a delicious old-timey-backporch-flavoured coda.

Finally, the recording is exemplary in terms of balance, clarity and presence, liner notes suitably informative and the packaging pretty close to ideal (aside from a little awkwardness within the layout of the foldout insert). Suffice to say that Orfeo is certainly one of the finest albums of the year so far, with the terms hurricane and party both proving highly apposite.

www.fayhield.com

David Kidman


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Albireo – NORTHERN CROSS (Flying Swan CYG001)

How’s about this for a neat series of links?… Albireo is a bright binary star at the beak of the constellation Cygnus (the Swan), which is also known as the Northern Cross. Which is also the name of this Manchester-based ceilidh band, the members of which have been playing together for dances for nigh on ten years. Flamboyant fiddle and mandolin player Tom Kitching (he of Pilgrim’s Way and the duo with Gren Bartley) takes the lead, joined by Howard Jones (melodeon, anglo concertina, hammered dulcimer) to make a forthright front-line, with the keyboard of Steve Hodgskiss, bass of Pete Crowther and guitar of Sean Bechhofer providing all the necessary infill and a solid foundation. Theirs is a fresh and alert sound, rooted in English tradition, although there are a few passages when there are a lot of keys being pressed and it feels just a touch congested. But there’s always much to enjoy here, especially when the band rings the changes and switches instruments around. And it’s hard not to be wildly impressed by Tom’s driven fiddling, which takes off into the stratosphere on many occasions, even on the more leisurely-paced selections including a decorous Purcell hornpipe (The Hole In The Wall) that was published in Playford, but especially on the set of classic American reels midway through the CD, which has almost more energy than we’ve a right to expect! Howard’s nimble, well-sprung hammered dulcimer playing and Pete’s often inventive bass work prove constant delights, and the fact that they might sometimes draw our attention away from the overall texture is actually a bonus rather than an irritation. Steve’s original waltz Alfaz Del Pi could even have come from a Transatlantic Session, while the rumbustious stylings of the Graemsay Jig set are guaranteed to set the feet tapping. So, as you’d guess, the disc’s menu is sufficiently varied and well-played to ensure a high listenability quotient – which will always be regarded as unusual praise for a CD by a ceilidh-band.

www.albireo.co.uk

David Kidman


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Various Artists - CAPTAIN SMITH’S TITANIC COLLECTION (Staffordshire Film Archive SFA. 157CD)

By now, I guess, your memory cells will be groaning under the strain of the sheer volume of commemorative media coverage of what the disc’s label calls “the greatest peacetime disaster in maritime history”, the ill-fated voyage of RMS Titanic, which occurred exactly a century ago. The debates rage on, regardless, for ever and a day; documentaries explore “the true story”; movies are produced; songs are written and sung; albums are released, shows staged. And so it goes – with a scale of overkill approximating the grandeur and aspirations of the liner itself, and with a danger that it will sink your capacity for tolerance too. But it doesn’t all have to be bad news, as this unexpectedly rather interesting project proves. It’s the brainchild of Ray Johnson and Malcolm Hawksworth, organisers of Stoke-on-Trent’s Titanic Centenary Weekend (April), which presented performances by a number of local singers, musicians and dancers as well as film screenings, discussions and debates. No debating, however, about the massively varied cornucopia of music and song on this 70-minute CD charting the maiden voyage of said vessel over those three fateful days in mid-April 1912. Sure, it’s not all folk music per se, although readers of this magazine will doubtless welcome first and foremost the two contributions of Scarborough’s wonderful Anna Shannon: The Green Of Ireland’s Shores (a poignant mixed-feelings emigration song) and John Played Violin (a tribute to the musicians on the Titanic). For me, the other principal highlights come from the magnificent Titanic Brewery Shanty Crew – aka Nine Tenths Below – who perform The Californian (a setting by NTB themselves of words by Ron Baxter – sadly not credited – concerning the ship that was scapegoated for the non-rescue of the Titanic) and God Moved On The Water. Other entirely expected musical items include Leadbelly’s celebrated ditty Fare Thee Well Titanic (sung by Rick Ford), and two versions of the hymn Nearer My God To Thee (to the tunes Bethany and Horbury). Elsewhere, there’s a couple of medleys of Irish tunes (played by the Titanic Steerage Band), and the Clay Chorus perform a song by poet Adrian Mitchell, Fine Fine Fine, resurrected from a 1983 theatre production. Songwriter Kevin Sauntry’s apposite contribution contrasts the scale of commemoration of Two Men Of Stoke (a humble tram conductor and the Titanic’s captain). In addition to a solid rendition of The Sailors’ Hymn by the Phoenix Singers, the disc also contains substantial extracts from Peter Young’s original music for Ray Johnson’s Titanic documentary film (that music “synthesised” by Peter himself on this recording), and Ray recites Thomas Hardy’s poem Convergence Of The Twain. Finally, the disc is “topped and tailed” with a brace of vintage-1912 fund-raising recordings sung by Ernest Gray. Mastering is very competent, and the whole collection hangs together well, even if (inevitably) not every item here will be to everyone’s taste. (Sold in support of Arch and Donna Louise Children’s Hospice; available for £9.95 from Staffordshire Film Archive at http://www.filmarchive.org.uk or contact Ray Johnson 07774-482414.) David Kidman


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David Gibb & Elly Lucas – OLD CHAIRS TO MEND (Hairpin HAIRPIN002)

Fresh-sounding, bright and alert, Derbyshire-based David has already won over audiences with his songwriting, which brings a pop sensibility to his keen response to folk tradition. This approach resulted in the promising rather than substantial solo CD There Are Birds In My Garden, and was further developed with his band The Pony Club, with whose gifted young fiddle player, Elly Lucas, David has teamed up to form a performing duo who were chosen as finalists in 2011’s BBC Young Folk Awards. Their debut duo CD showcases their personable charm and presentability, and places the emphasis on qualities such as their personal empathy and boundless energy. First impressions were that the whole affair was a touch lightweight, but revisiting the album after a lengthy layoff proved much more satisfying, even if David’s gently ebullient playfulness makes for an exhaustingly over-lively listen at times (as on Sam Hall). His gift for song interpretation can’t be challenged, for it’s often quite individual, but at times it seems more the gift of youth and strength than any more mature reflection on the content or message of the songs – which is slightly curious coming from a songwriter. Nevertheless, such arguable contradictions aside, Old Chairs To Mend is an attractive CD that exudes an infectious joie de vivre and sets out the duo’s stall well through conscious and considered exploration of the theme of recycling and reworking. Generally speaking, the disc’s self-/jointly-penned items come off better than the covers; I particularly liked the affectionate, sweetly harmonised ditty Uncle Joe and the gently nostalgic air that permeates Over The Fire, while Three Magpies, quite in spite of its rather obvious metaphors, is a worthy, if cheeky addition to the existing folk corpus of magpie songs. The duo’s delicate response to Linda Woodroffe’s Goodbye To The Plough is touching (Elly’s singing here is uncannily reminiscent of Nancy Kerr), and makes a telling counterpart for Gary & Vera Aspey’s vivacious Man On The Road. My response to David and Elly’s treatment of The Blacksmith, however, keeps vacillating – I like the soul-inflected guitar work, and I can admire the pair’s consistency of vision, but I really don’t think Elly’s voice yet has the mature gravitas or timbre to gauge the measure and inner subtleties of the lyric (time and experience may channel her response more productively, I suspect). Yes, nice job though they’re making of it for now, David and Elly will need more practice in mending those old chairs before their craft will be more widely acclaimed.

www.gibbandlucas.tumblr.com

David Kidman


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Kathleen Edwards – VOYAGEUR (Zoë 01143-1145-2)

This Ottawa-born singer-songwriter, who showed sufficient potential with her 2003 debut Failer to be worth keeping an ear on since, hasn’t yet delivered on that promise, and Voyageur, her fourth release, somehow feels even less convincing. I’d put this down to a mismatch between the often interestingly introspective quality of her songwriting and the rather less interesting, distinctly FM-oriented pop-rock stylings of the musical backdrop for much of the time. The latter would seem to be the responsibility of her co-producer, Justin Vernon, best known for his work with Bon Iver. Attractive though these songs sound in their glowing primary colours and fulsome clothing, this aspect does dilute the impact of Kathleen’s songwriting, rendering it almost too upbeat, too comfortable, for its own good. That’s not to say the backing aren’t punchy, it’s just that they don’t really go anywhere much or stick in the memory. Even the more overtly confessional-sounding ballad numbers like A Soft Place To Land, House Full Of Empty Rooms and Pink Champagne don’t strike a sufficiently deep emotional vein for the listener, although they’re well enough delivered by Kathleen and her reliable sidemen and provide agreeable enough in-flight listening I guess. Even a guest appearance by Norah Jones on the extended closing number For The Record doesn’t really redeem matters I’m afraid… It may simply be a case of the musical gestures being too familiar, we’ve heard it all before, and there’s little to entice a repeat play when there are so many more individual singer-songwriter albums around. Shame.

www.kathleenedwards.com

David Kidman


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Gerry Cooper – FOLLOW THE RIVER (Limbo Label 0022)

Yorkshire-based bluesman and songwriter Gerry has been steadfastly championing the blues masters for many years, and has to date produced two reliable and satisfying CDs consisting mostly of his own faithful and refreshingly unadorned interpretations of both acknowledged and lesser-known blues classics, while showcasing his undoubtedly keen and increasingly adept skills as a guitarist (versatile on both six- and twelve-string acoustic and resophonic slide). Of late, while continuing to develop his own acclaimed solo repertoire in live performance, Gerry has also teamed up on some gigs with brilliant multi-instrumentalist Phil Snell, and Phil’s Otley studio and all-round expertise have provided the companionable home-base for Gerry’s third recorded excursion, which also marks a number of significant departures. Firstly, it features a healthy number of Gerry’s own compositions (seven out of its 14 tracks, in fact). Secondly (and notably on these self-penned numbers), much of the album expands Gerry’s musical language; even though his take on the blues has always ranged commendably far and wide, as for instance here he absorbs the stylings of Arthur Crudup, Blind Blake, Buddy Woods and Tampa Red, his new, broader ambit now also eagerly embraces other musical sub-genres for which he also has a clear affection and affinity. We therefore encounter fond country-styled waltzery (Already Gone), the atmospheric Deep-South-influenced title track, and the simpler folky love-song Coming Up For Air, all of which receive very persuasive treatments. And thirdly, the disc includes a goodly and tasty modicum of musical accompaniment, much of this courtesy of Phil Snell himself, the rest taking the form of selective (and typically inventive) contributions from drummer Hugh Whitaker, in addition to (on several of the tracks) backing vocals drawn from a small pool of guests – Christopher Brant Anderson, Tom Attah, Ann Davis (aka Best Beloved!), Nick Hall, Michelle Plum and Lucy Zirins. The musical arrangements on this extended palette are invariably significantly more creative than we might get on yer average “white man sings the blues” record (not that Gerry’s work is ever anything like that mundane!); Phil’s an excellent mandolin player, fully complementing Gerry’s proven guitar skills, while his chunky bass work also provides an ideal foil, as does his occasional shift onto electric guitar. Indeed, and notwithstanding Gerry’s well-documented penchant for reinterpreting the work of the blues masters that have clearly furnished him with long-term deep-rooted inspiration, some of the less conventionally bluesy items on this album provide it with distinct highlights. Of the more traditionally blues-inflected cuts, Drop Down Mama and the instrumental Boogie Woogie Dance come off best; on the other hand, if I’m honest, there are some tracks where Gerry seems just a touch laboured vocally, as if he’s trying a little too hard to be authentically tough and gritty, and as a result not quite convincing. One thing that’s never in doubt, though, is Gerry’s total conviction and feel for the blues and all its roots and branches. (Available at gigs or from 64 Norwood Terrace, Shipley BD18 2BB, £12 incl. P&P.)

www.myspace.com/gerrycooper and www.reverbnation.com/gerrycooper.

David Kidman


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Ciarán Boyle – BRIGHT FLAME (Hallamshire Traditions HATRCD07)

The latest offering from Hallamshire Traditions, unlike its predecessors, is an album of purely Irish traditional music. But that doesn’t mean a parade of tedious diddly-diddly session tunes and pub-pleasingly mundane run-throughs of hoary old songs – far from it. For although its tracklisting contains plenty that is familiar, Bright Flame turns out to be quite a different animal. It’s an assured, if deceptively undemonstrative and even undersold set, which by courting no special favours or career enhancements (rightly) places its focus firmly on Ciarán’s proven attributes. Born in Rotherham into a musical family of emigrants from Co. Kilkenny, by age 13 Ciarán had won All-Britain and All-Ireland titles for his mastery of the humble bodhrán, since which time he’s gone on to form a number of winning musical alliances, from Mulljumpers and Idle Road to Last Night’s Fun and collaborations with Kevin Burke, Tom Napper and Gina Le Faux, while also contributing over the years to albums by the likes of Tom McConville, Pauline Cato and his fellow-Rotherhamite, singer and songmaker Ray Hearne (close friend and frequent gig partner, who can be heard playing guitar and singing on one track of this album, Next Market Day). As if that CV were not enough, Ciarán has also demonstrated considerable skill as a singer (evidently inherited from his parents, who were both noted traditional singers). Bright Flame is Ciarán’s second album release (the first, Sunday Walks, came out around five years ago). It presents nine songs (including one of Ciarán’s own, the atmospheric Where The River Meets The Ocean, which itself could well pass for traditional); no fewer than four of them (The Granemore Hare, The May Morning Dew, The Green Fields Of Canada and When First I Came…) are sung unaccompanied, while the chestnut Step It Out Mary receives a spirited rendition. Generally speaking, Ciarán’s is a measured singing style that displays a calm, even passion that might in some quarters be considered understated, though therein lies a desirable quality of inner strength which creates an intensely compelling effect on the listener (even so, there are moments when its admirable consistency of timbre is compromised by a slight waywardness of pitch). The songs are interspersed with a small handful of tune-sets which mostly serve to showcase Ciarán’s accomplished lilting technique; there’s also a delicious pair of reels on which Ciarán’s characteristically deft bodhránery is brilliantly partnered by Chris Sherburn’s concertina. The recording faithfully (if at times perhaps a touch boomingly, as on The Night Visit) captures all the distinctive resonances of the bodhrán, and brings out all the felicitous (and often surprisingly lyrical) nuances of Ciarán’s supremely virtuosic playing. The liner notes are both personal and honest and satisfyingly informative.

www.hallamtrads.co.uk

David Kidman


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Nine Tenths Below – SONGS OF ALE AND SAIL (Cock Robin Music CRM. 226)

Nine Tenths Below is a relatively new contender on the scene. Its five individual members – Andy & Barbara Hindley, Tom Perry, Pete Hopkins and Len Devey – have known each other for many years, and all previously sang in the ranks of the now-defunct Shellback Chorus. They came together to form Nine Tenths Below towards the end of 2010, and attracted the attention of the Titanic Brewery in Stoke, thus instigating a most fruitful liaison (well, I suppose that’s the yeast that could be expected!)… Actually, the specific liaison of ale and sail is such an entirely natural one that I’m surprised it hasn’t been more used by singing groups, for it’s a strong combination and a ready selling-point, furnishing any singers with a reliable – and accessible and non-contentious! – repertoire. In the case of Nine Tenths Below, it also helps enormously that each one of them can IMHO legitimately be counted among the top echelon of north-west-based singers, and thus as a soloist is more than capable of leading either a shanty, forebitter, maritime ballad or hearty drinking song with equal gusto and conviction (and that’s not something you can truthfully say about terribly many of the singing groups around these days). So, with versatility breeding a sensibly varied repertoire, and five seriously characterful solo voices that are contrasted in nature and timbre, voices that also have the virtue of blending together pretty well, Nine Tenths Below should be onto a winner. Certainly the development of their live act, which I’ve followed over the past year or so, shows not only their individual and collective enthusiasm but also a well-drilled, experienced and confident ensemble with a keen and well-honed performance sense and a feeling of genuine enjoyment of singing that comes across in spades in their communication with an audience. Songs Of Ale And Sail is their first CD, and presents a typical mixture of material from that combination of subjects (though thankfully not embracing What Shall We Do With A Drunken Sailor!…). The set-list takes in a healthy proportion of the group’s live repertoire, so all the songs have been well and truly sung in; there’s a sense that some of the arrangements and harmonies are still at an ongoing-development stage, but it’s clear that the group members do listen to each other and have an instinctive response to all that’s going on in the combined texture, and importantly a feel for when best to launch in and when to draw back within that texture. The recording (courtesy of the redoubtable skilled Chris Harvey) appreciates the internal dynamics of the group balance, but I did feel on occasion that in attempting to sharpen or clarify the presence a certain amount of tonal body was sacrificed – in which respect the depth and variety of the group sound comes over more forcefully live. But they have a powerful and robust presence, and are strongly committed to their material on all counts. Their renditions of the more familiar fare (eg Old Maui, All For Me Grog, Landlord) rise above the routine to prove perfectly dependable; for instance, South Australia has bundles of zest and life, but (laudably) resists going over the top to seduce the tourists in the way that the overblown, supposedly award-winning recent Fisherman’s Friends version did. Nine Tenths Below always steer the right side of the line without compromising on energy level – and this approach also marks the more sensitive songs on the disc, like Carrying Nelson Home, Grey Funnel Line and Time For The Leaving (this lovely Steve Harrison piece really should be better known!). Best of the “sail” category here are Roller Bowler, Heave Away Me Johnny and the French capstan shanty Paris Here I Come; these choices are welcomely off-the-beaten-track but grand discoveries (and informatively documented in the booklet notes by the way). The “ale” banner is raised lustily by Drink Old England Dry and English Ale in particular, while Derek Gifford’s brilliantly idiomatic setting of Keith Scowcroft’s Ale Of Old England proves an inspired inclusion among the disc’s less well-known fare, with Andy the sterling leader raising the toast. Nine Tenths Below perform acappella for the most part, but better-than-adept concertina and/or guitar parts are employed to accompany five of the disc’s 19 tracks. Maybe I’m not entirely convinced by the running order, but the group has thoughtfully varied the pace and mood over the course of the disc. In all, Nine Tenths Below have produced a debut of real strength and potential, with a distinctive character (dare I describe it as “ale and arty”?).

www.ninetenthsbelow.com

David Kidman


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Cathy Jordan – ALL THE WAY HOME (Blix Street G2-10201)

Cathy’s been the vibrant front-lady of the mighty Irish band Dervish for a great many years, but only now has she got round to releasing a solo album – and sure it’s been worth the wait. But it’s nothing like a Dervish album, instead possessing an altogether different vibe – even on The Jordan Jig, the livelier of the disc’s two purely instrumental tracks. All The Way Home is aptly named, being a reflective, highly personal collection of songs that explore the omnipresent call of home and the often conflicting emotions that it engenders. Several of the songs on the collection are ones that Cathy’s carried around with her since her happy Co. Roscommon childhood. Singing sessions were an integral part of that childhood, and the songs she and her family sang on those occasions clearly left an indelible mark on her psyche, for her performances of such songs as Sliabh Gallon Braes, Eileen McMahon, Ould Ballymoe, The Lark In The Clear Air and The Banks Of The Foyle (even the more well-known ones among them) bear the hallmarks of love, affection and a responsive respect. And a certain degree of understatement too, as on The Bold Fenian Men, which Cathy often heard her mother sing as she swept the floor or putting down the dinner! The disc’s five traditional items are complemented by a small handful of her own (some co-written) compositions, the most quietly compelling of which is undoubtedly In Curraghroe, Cathy’s setting of part of a poem by Patrick Devine which she found in a neighbour’s house; the poem tells of the area where her mother was born. Cathy’s decision to perform these songs intimately and in a generally quite pared-down setting is a natural one for her, and over-arrangement is clearly anathema to her vision of these songs. But also key to the relaxed nature and intimately involving ambience of the record is the production by Cathy’s long-time friend Roger Tallroth, who also contributes some wonderfully sensitive guitar and cittern playing to the mix. Other musicians have been drafted in to play what turns out to be more than mere supporting roles; these include Andy Irvine (mandocello, bouzouki), Rick Epping (concertina, harmonica), Seamie O’Dowd (fiddle), Michael McGoldrick (uilleann pipes), Liam Kelly (flute), while multi-instrumentalist Gustaf Ljunggren heads a small cast of Swedish musicians and Eddi Reader joins Cathy for a beautiful duet performance of Eileen McMahon that arguably eclipses Cathy’s earlier fine treatment of the song (on Dervish’s At The End Of The Day album).

www.cathyjordan.com

David Kidman


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Sharp As Razors – CUT THE THROATS (Spindrift SPIN. 122)

Taking their name from a line in the chorus of Sailor’s Prayer (which forms track 2 of this CD), this is a relatively recent gathering-together of four experienced Warwickshire-based singers (Clive Brooks, Vaughan Hully, Des Patalong and Alan Whitbread) into a fully-fledged shanty-crew – or perhaps I should rather say “ensemble purveying shanties and songs of the sea”. All four men are well respected on the midlands folk scene: Alan is a characterful solo performer of many years’ standing, with two fine CDs already to his credit, whereas Des was a key member of mixed harmony group Ninepenny Marl, is now with Thrup’nny Bits, and Clive retains membership of the mighty Laners; Alan, Clive and Vaughan all also once graced the ranks of the now-defunct Shellback Chorus. Together they prove a solid and characterful team well suited to their chosen repertoire, with a sensible, and sensibly musical, approach to providing harmonised settings for the various songs and shanties – the majority of which have clearly been in the repertoires of the individual crew members for some years and have been well sung in. The care with which they treat their sources is evident in the well-researched yet succinct liner notes that grace this, the crew’s debut CD. The majority of the disc’s selections are what one might term “bread and butter” shanties and the like, and yet there’s life aplenty in the Sharp As Razors renditions (though these come across even better live with the appropriate audience!). One could say that on material such as New York Girls, Donkey Riding and Randy Dandy O, the razors are suitably sharp, without needing to slash or be painfully cut-throat, while the crew gives the slower pace of Shallow Brown and Roll Alabama Roll room to breathe without unduly dragging the anchor and Des’s thoughtful take on Essequibo River is an antidote from the usual helter-skelter scattergun treatment meted out to this halyard shanty. Guest Ann Reader brings some angelic harmonies to the rousing Blessed Quietness. Arrangements are full, with good use made of the contrasting registers the individual voices inhabit. Just occasionally tempos can appear a trifle deliberate and the momentum flags a little, although this gambit can be excused, even defended, when you bear in mind that (a) this is a recording for savouring rather than heaving and hauling to, and (b) this is the way that much of the material works best in a “big sing” situation. I rather like the feel of these performances, and I don’t feel this approach shortchanges it in any way, especially since the crew clearly enjoys what they’re doing and zestfully communicates this enjoyment to their audience. Both Chicken On A Raft and the 18th century ditty Married To A Mermaid fall into this category, even if the former may lack the final degree of lusty (lust-some?) ribaldry. And unlike so many shanty-based CDs, the performances here bear repeated listening and the recording captures the special blend and balance of these four voices well.

www.sharpasrazors.com

David Kidman


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Steve Turner – RIM OF THE WHEEL (Tradition Bearers LTCD. 1104)

It’s been around four years since Steve’s self-styled comeback album The Whirligig Of Time, which followed on a period of a dozen or so years away from the folk scene. That album has been a constant companion, its virtues never waning – indeed, revealing themselves even more with repeated exposure over the intervening years, and cemented by a selective series of live performances. Thus I’m so glad now to find he’s still in fine fettle and has ventured back into the studio to record this followup CD (with some handpicked guests in tow). As with Steve’s rightly celebrated live sets, this latest collection contains a typically eclectic range of material, reflecting his exciting, fully committed approach to tradition in the broadest sense. This time even more than last time, I was struck by the parallel between Steve and Nic Jones in particular, in that Steve brings to any song he takes on a forthrightness, a ring of total authenticity, while carrying that song forward from previous benchmark interpretations to create his own distinctive imprint and (invariably) a new benchmark on which future tradition bearers may then choose to build. And, like Nic Jones, Steve doesn’t ever sound like anyone else but himself! Steve’s supremely confident singing voice is so stylishly accompanied by his trusty “extended” English concertina (what a wondrously full sound it makes!), that it can almost seem invidious to welcome any degree of enhanced accompaniment by way of extra instrumentation, even when it’s of the calibre of Martin Carthy’s signature guitar (on three tracks), Oliver Knight’s electric guitar (two tracks), Riki Gerardy’s cello (two) and Pete Flood’s eccentric-but-fun percussion (a further three). The ensemble is consummated with some superb vocal harmonies from Moira Craig on no fewer than four tracks: a sumptuously jaunty Follow The Drum (on which Steve’s classy cittern playing excels itself), a version of Paul Metsers’ lovely Peace Descends that must be regarded as every bit as definitive as Paul’s own classic recording (on In The Hurricane’s Eye), and fresh-minted renditions of Jordan and Claudy Banks, both of which have been furnished with sparkling new tunes by Steve himself (Steve’s noted penchant for supplying new tunes to traditional songs and/or unearthing different variants is both more pronounced and more fruitful on this new disc). Steve also revisits two songs he’d previously recorded on his 1984 LP Eclogue. Napoleon’s Farewell To Paris, which closes the disc, is even more stirring than his earlier recording, his newly-introduced concertina accompaniment giving the narrative a greater edge, even when compared to the already extremely fine unaccompanied rendition we’ve been used to hearing from Steve over the years. The old Ry Cooder number Boomer’s Story receives a neat kickstart with a spankingly contemporary electrified treatment, and provides a keen contrast following the disc’s one and only unaccompanied selection, Steve’s involving rendition of Eric Winter’s epic Flowers Of Manchester, to the local setting of which he feels a strong personal connection. But arguably the finest moment on the whole record comes with the song whose lyric provides the CD’s title: The Crows That Crow, an intensely powerful Paul Metsers opus from the late 80s that Paul himself hadn’t recorded at the time, based on a true story of a visit made by Paul to Nic earlier in that decade, with the chilling image of the “man by the turnstile” prefiguring Nic’s fate. Sheer genius, and Steve and his concertina can be heard to make the very most of this song’s strange yet ominous beauty. As he unquestionably does with every song he chooses to tackle here, making Rim Of The Wheel a sure contender for my “top folk albums of 2012” list.

www.steve-turner.co.uk

David Kidman


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Lucy Burrow – AUTUMNING (Lyngham House Lyng. 237CD) This disc is a quiet little gem that I just know the more discerning among you will greatly enjoy. Lucy is a member of Cornwall Songwriters, an alliance of songwriters living in Cornwall (within whose ranks we also find Roger Bryant, Jon Heslop and Mike O’Connor), and with her husband Kevin co-runs Bude Folk Club. Lucy first came to my attention when providing four of the standout songs in the group’s 2004 production Unsung Heroes (concerning the Lost Gardeners of Heligan); just two of these songs (Battlefield Tree and The Labourer’s Year) crop up again here on Autumning, the first CD to consist exclusively of Lucy’s own superb compositions. Three of Autumning’s key songs (Springsong, Jackie Frost and The Autumning) take the form of insightful reflections on nature and the seasons, the progress and turning of the year; these songs live and breathe the authentic aura of tradition, and these sit as well in Lucy’s own characterful and genuinely expressive singing voice as do the more colloquial opuses like the gently cautionary “Emmet” Song and the “grandfather’s joke” of Jackaby Street. Lucy conveys a real sense of pride in, and response to, her local history, as the tender Emigrant’s Lullaby, the bouncy Piskie Laden (the true tale of Ann Jeffries, who was, it would appear, abducted by faeries in the late 17th century) and the rousing account of the 1643 Battle Of Stratton (Hopton’s Victory) all demonstrate. Lucy’s daughter’s own enchantment with legend inspired The Mermaid, which also features Lucy’s own lovely Lever harp playing. I’ve already mentioned the outstanding Battlefield Tree, a powerful commentary about the futility of war as seen from the tree’s point of view; this song and two others derive added ambience from Mike O’Connor’s anglo concertina accompaniment, while Mike also plays for Lucy on three other songs and, in company with his wife Tina and/or any combination of Amber Burrow, Liz Crow and the four-strong Barrel Rock Boys, adds robust chorus vocals to a handful more tracks. Strong and memorable choruses are a special feature of The Labourer’s Year, Jackie Frost and the anthemic Chorusing Together in particular, but in truth all 14 of the songs on this CD have much to commend them, and a healthy majority of them just cry out for being “carried off” by those song-faeries to be sung out by any singer worth his or her salt.

www.lynghamhouse.co.uk

David Kidman


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Kris Delmhorst – CARS (Signature Sounds SIG.2040)

The story goes that as an impressionable 13-year-old Kris got somewhat fixated on mid-80s combo The Cars and their trademark riff-and-hook-laden brand of new-wave/cheerleader-pop (which for many folks provided the soundtrack for the summer of ’84), and now, more than a quarter of a century on, she was keen to record a tribute album that brought the essence of the band’s creative juices into our age, taking the sensible decision to replace the synth-and-guitar-heavy original settings with backdrops that, while altogether less artificial-sounding and even sometimes quite rootsy, also seem to suit the songs better. The new clothings also enable us to understand the well-crafted nature of the original songs, while appreciating there was more to these songs than met the ear, more substance than a mere catchiness might normally involve.

Kris’s readings are affectionate and warmly voiced, and she relaxes into the business of re-creation with an engaging and infectious enthusiasm. Gathering around her a swiftly convened scratch-band of close friends including Mark Erelli, Zack Hickman, Rose Polenzani, Jennifer Kimball, Rose Cousins and Laura Cortese, Kris conjures an attractive, varied and lively backdrop for her choice of songs and achieves a unity of feel (the whole album was recorded in just two days, but betrays no sense of having been rushed).

The majority of the songs are definitely improved in stature by Kris’s treatments. Why Can’t I Have You is transformed into a sumptuous ballad, while the whispered confidences of Magic and You Wear Those Eyes prove uniquely seductive. Hello Again becomes quirkier in Kris’s reading, bringing its Abba-like breeziness into sharper focus, while Shake It Up comes over like a lost Debbie Harry number. Start with the nifty acoustics of Just What You Needed (you’ll just love this fresh garb!), and proceed gaily from there… and Getting Through all eleven cuts will prove the least of your worries! Perhaps the iconic Drive will never make the impact of the original, but Kris’s version is well considered nevertheless and stands alone on its own merits – it’s just that it’s different.

Cars is a likeable and well-meaning collection that in the end lacks nothing of the essential “drive” that characterises the band to whom Kris is paying tribute – and as you can hear, all concerned clearly had a good time making the record.

www.krisdelmhorst.com

David Kidman


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Blackbeard’s Tea Party – TOMORROW WE’LL BE SOBER (Own Label BTP 002)

Blackbeard’s Tea Party is a group of energetic and accomplished young musicians that (depending on the gig) in number may range fluidly from three to six persons, but for the purposes of this CD we get the full lineup… As well as regularly playing for ceilidhs, BTP’s members are still often to be seen busking round York (the city where most of them originally attended uni); indeed, reliable rumour has it that two years ago the BBC Radio 2 broadcast of a track from their at-the-time-recently-released toes-in-the-water EP Heavens To Betsy was occasioned by a chance sighting on those very thoroughfares by a certain Mr. Harding (who was evidently sufficiently impressed to include them on his privileged playlist). This led to a run of storming festival appearances, the success of which in turn spurred them on to recording this full-length followup CD. The initial EP, though at times sounding a touch thrown-together, fairly burst out of the player with promise, for the exuberant BTP displayed not only a great sense of musicianship but also a keen sense of purpose that communicated their overwhelming enthusiasm for the music and its performance, qualities which have now developed a major-league focus on the bold statement that is Tomorrow We’ll Be Sober. They’re clearly intent on us all having as good a time as they are, and equally clearly they’ve thought about where they’re taking us with their full-steam-ahead, defiantly loud and slightly quirky folk-rock that in approved pirate-speak might best be dubbed “arrr-tful”!

The signature BTP sound is characterised by a strong front-line (Paul Young’s spirited melodeon playing and Laura Barber’s whirling dervish horsehair-flying fiddle) driving (and almost equally often being driven by) Martin Coumbe’s heavy-duty grinding, blinding electric guitar, with Tim Yates’ chunky, boomingly inventive bass lines and a persuasively perplexing panoply of percussion (Dave Boston and Yom Hardy) together forming a mighty, and distinguished, rearguard action. It’s not yer bog-standard plodding folk-rockery by any stretch, for anything and everything is grist to the BTP mill as far as musical gestures and byway influences are concerned. Almost any one of the disc’s five instrumental cuts would provide a powerhouse demonstration of the adventuresome BTP approach, but I Want A Pizza And A Drink probably best exemplifies this, with manic melodeon morris giving way to blistering axe solo via fiery fiddle, all being regurgitated and then aurally spewed out the other end (if you pardon the metaphor!). The doughty ship rocks like crazy, and pretty naturally too, with no sense of forcing into a metrical straitjacket as can often happen with forays into the folk-rock sub-genre.

The seven vocal tracks all benefit greatly from Paul’s authoritative singing, and the arrangements mostly show a sense of enterprise of which we’ve not heard the like since the halcyon days when folk-rock flirted with psych and prog. As far as the chosen material is concerned, some songs work better than others: Stan Rogers’ stirring chorus song Barrett’s Privateers is given a thoughtful pacing that emphasises the narrative element (albeit perhaps losing a little of the lusty chorus participation us folkies are accustomed to in the process), while David Dodds’ swaggering opus I Can Hew sure commands attention from the opening gesture then keeps the heat up and the fire well stoked. BTP’s epic take on Cyril Tawney’s Chicken On A Raft enjoys a queasy, riff-and-fuzz-drenched and fiddle-thick workout that High Tide or East Of Eden would’ve been proud of, while On Board Of A Man Of War rescues this traditional ditty from the Davy Jones’s locker of hackneyed sea songs with a suitably sturdy retelling of its cautionary tale. I also rather liked the interweaving of a fiddle reel and a cautious skanking lilt into the textures of Jack Forbes’ modern shanty Rolling Down The River, although the lyric’s cheeky humour feels a touch underplayed. On the other hand, the jovial buffoonery Paul and his chorus of pirates inject into their rendition of the “drunken singalong classic” Landlord feels rather more contrived, even a touch over-the-top for home listening, and I also have other intermittent slight reservations with isolated effects that irritate just a bit on repetition (e.g. Tim’s bleepy electronic disco noodlings that usher in Moonshiner), basically cos they work against the hearty, live-rave atmosphere of the gig in general. But by and large the surreal Looking-Glass feel of this tea-party is both vividly infectious and muzzily feelgood – we’re on a good trip here with these thar pirates! There is just one little footnote, though: the lineup of BTP has undergone a change since the album was recorded, with the gang’s “singing buddy and morris dancer extraordinaire” Stuart Giddens having since replaced Paul Young on melodeon and vocal duties, so this current, excessively vibrant disc will serve as a key memento of a snapshot in time in the band’s life. So snap it up now!

www.blackbeardsteaparty.com

David Kidman


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Karen Tweed – ESSENTIALLY INVISIBLE TO THE EYE (May Monday Adventures MMA6327002)

After more than 20 years of being one of the most in-demand piano-accordion players on the scene, appearing in what might be considered an at times “essentially invisible” supporting role on over 30 albums to date as well as touring extensively in creative collaboration with the likes of Ian Carr, Andy Cutting, Timo Alakotila and Jackie Oates and as key member of groundbreaking ensembles such as The Poozies and Swåp, only now has Karen got round to making a record on her own! And never more literally so, for here Karen delivers just over forty minutes of unadulterated solo squeezing.

But I’d wager that even the most resolutely accordion-resistant among you will readily succumb to its charms. Not only is Karen’s playing stupendous, her technique nigh unrivalled and her grasp of the broadest variety of idioms unsurpassed, but her abundant musicality, her ability to convey so much more in the spaces between the notes too, is absolutely mesmerising. The disc contains just five carefully-assembled sets of tunes, which together form a kind of continuous suite amounting to an accurate, and entirely affectionate, self-portrait, a reflection of Karen’s vivacious and all-embracing musical personality. Her inspirational, colourful and mercurial playing positively radiates dynamism, sensitivity and pure joy; the seriously life-affirming nature of every bar of music is guaranteed to win over the sternest of hearts.

Karen’s stunning musical versatility, born of a genuine receptiveness to (and ability to assimilate) virtually any style, genre and discipline of music under the sun, has always been a feature of her approach; but she excels even her own proud eclecticism here on a profoundly satisfying sequence of medleys each bearing the name of an influential individual friend as its named focus. Karen takes us (seemingly effortlessly) on a series of canny emotional journeys that embody interpretive elements of autobiography and personal commentary; we encounter a whole load of spirited self-composed tunes both lyrical and fiery in nature, that take their cue from English, Irish, Scottish, French, American, Scandinavian and sundry other global sounds, not to mention generous helpings of Latin tangos, Parisian café music and even jazz, all unashamedly placed alongside or in counterpoint to snatches of popular tunes that crop up naturally and at times arise almost organically from the mix.

Sheer genius, whose art of concealing art is often seamless, and thus can be “essentially invisible”. Also “essentially invisible” (one might say), but undeniably also crucial to the success of the album, is the contribution of notably multi-skilled producer Bruce Molsky, whose own deeply understanding musicality proves entirely compatible with Karen’s accomplishment; what could so easily have become a dry-sounding, sterile showcase for a virtuoso instead unerringly conveys the warm essence and artful, assured communication of this master musician at the top of her game.

www.karentweed.com

David Kidman


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Christine Cooper – THESE DREAMS LIKE TREES ARE DARK AND TWISTING (Rose Tree Records RTR.01)

Twice winner of the Welsh Celtic Fiddle Competition, Christine’s now probably best known as fiddle player with the criminally underrated Welsh band Fernhill, but she has plenty of other strings to her bow (pun entirely intended, I’m afraid!), with thriving careers as storyteller and artist, the latter strongly represented in the exceedingly attractive design of this lovely, home-produced five-track EP (not her first, it turns out, but the first I’ve come across).

Its kaleidoscopic, idiosyncratic qualities may well reflect Christine’s busking experiences (in Australia, South Africa and China!) and her eagerness to embrace the traditional music of many cultures, especially those of England and Wales. For although the disc’s emphasis is firmly on English traditional material, the centrally-placed item here is a fresh reworking of the Fernhill number Y Fwynlan O Serch, with that band’s guitarist Ceri Matthews accompanying Christine and her banjo. That instrument, along with her fiddle, forms the primary musical backing for much of the disc, and, while reflecting Christine’s parallel membership of Brighton’s Appalachian band The Snowdrops, more crucially here imparts the whole proceedings a feeling of almost timeless old-time antiquity that’s entirely in keeping with Christine’s forthright yet surprisingly delicate vocal interpretations of ballads like The Lovers’ Tasks and The Cruel Mother (the latter complete with a spoken section that’s curiously effective) and less overtly complicated songs like The Ploughboy and One Penny (a kindof variant of The Wild Rover).

On an interpretive level, Christine’s take on The Cruel Mother is probably the most radical item, its strong storytelling element (drawing a parallel with text from the Mabinogion) adding to the creatively spooky setting that shows Christine’s intense aptitude for musical arranging and highlights her keen sense of the dramatic. The Ploughboy’s inherent melancholy, superbly expressed in vocal terms by Christine’s honest rendition, is enhanced by the presence of Pip Ash on cello providing a luscious counterpoint to Christine’s banjo.

The charms of this darkly beautiful EP deserve to be heard and appreciated more widely: do check Christine out.

www.christinecooper.info

David Kidman


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Various Artists – JOHN BARLEYCORN REBORN: REBIRTH (Cold Spring CSR250CD)

In the beginning (well, something over four years ago) there was a luxurious double-CD compilation entitled John Barleycorn Reborn, which gathered together a whole assemblage of performers who inhabit the branch of folk music that trades under the name of dark-folk or weirdlore, a kind of hybrid of 60s/70s psych-folk and what might be termed current dark British nu-folk. I can understand you being none the wiser after reading that, but trust me, the music spawned by this unholy alliance can be as immensely captivating as it can be similarly inscrutable, impenetrable, even frustrating – but invariably challenging, even in its moments of greatest simplicity. So much material was amassed from willing contributors to the original John Barleycorn Reborn set that a further two CDs’ worth of material was made available (specially to purchasers of that set) by means of a coded download from the internet.
This highly prized collectible digital artefact, however, was acknowledged to be lacking in consistency (in terms of download quality), and so the wise decision was taken by Cold Spring to remaster all 33 tracks and release them in physical CD format – hence Rebirth, the two-disc package under review here. Like the original set, and indeed its Volume 2 followup issue (Dark Britannica II: We Bring You A King With A Head Of Gold, released at the end of 2010), Rebirth proves a curate’s egg, as you’d expect of any compilation, but equally, its most inspired moments are cherishable by any of the standards of this (and any other folk-related) genre, and despite its occasional longueurs it certainly doesn’t come across as a collection of mere leftovers. Some of the artists who graced Volume 1 recur on this Volume 3: The Owl Service, Charlotte Greig & Johan Asherton, The Story, Venereum Arvum (that’s Rapunzel & Sedayne by whatever other name), The Straw Bear Band… All of these turn in some memorable music, Venereum Arvum’s singular and supremely unnerving new take on Child Ballad102 (that’s Robin Hood to you!) and The Story’s All Hallows Eve being particularly intriguing, while Sedayne’s itchy, fluttery Corvus Monedula sure lives up to its name.
Sheffield-based bard-musician Paul Newman makes an impressive and inventive series-debut with the pagan spirituality of Lavondyss, and fans of the guitar are well catered for on the contrasted tracks by James Reid, Twelve Thousand Days and JefvTaon. But my own favourite sequence on the entire set has to be where the limpid vocalising of sadly-now-defunct duo Yealand Redmayne is followed by the delicate, cautiously mesmerising version of Bold Fisherman from Charlotte & Johan, and preceded by David A. Jaycock’s glistening sample from the “strange and entrancing” side of dark folk. The tracks by novemthree (aka Pythagumus Marshall) and The Big Eyes Family Players also share a suitably stately aura, while The Anvil spin their earlier-minted John Barleycorn coin onto its darker flipside, and the cumbersomely-named Xenis Emputae Travelling Band provide a deliberate-sequel to their volume 1 contribution which, though decidedly experimental in nature, manages not to overstay its welcome. Orchis provide a brooding electronic take on The Silkie, a masterly slice of esoteric-folk, while Mary Jane appear again with a further track culled from their fabulous Eve album, a chilling near-acappella take on When I Was In My Prime. The time-honoured acappella mode is well served elsewhere on the set too by contributions from Mac Henderson (Jack In The Green) and female duo Magpiety (Rolling Of The Stones), whose Anne Marie Summers also crops up on Far Black Furlong’s atmospheric tone-poem The East Room, then on two of the set’s early-musicke-style offerings, those by The Wendigo and Misericordia; Daughters Of Elvin and member-of-all-three Steve Tyler also provide some infectious medieval-inflected danserye. Even the set’s moments of what might be termed “dubious excess” can be heard to have their redeeming moments, and Clive Powell’s Ca’ The Horse Me Marra is pretty compelling once it finally gets going, although to be fair I suspect that even the most musically tolerant may lose patience during the meandering extended improvisations of the tracks by Cunnan and Sundog on the second disc. But Rebirth is so very attractively presented, and conforms perfectly to the house-style and presentation of volumes 1 and 2 in the series; like them, it’s a superbly well-filled compilation that has so much to commend it: you just need to be prepared to open your ears to the occasional challenge. Here’s to the upcoming Volume 4.

www.coldspring.co.uk

David Kidman


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The Paul McKenna Band – STEM THE TIDE (Greentrax CDTRAX. 359)

Paul McKenna, as cognoscenti will already know, is an exceptional young singer, songwriter, tunesmith and multi-instrumentalist whose appearance as one of the student contributors to the recent Greentrax RSAMD showcase album was a highlight of that disc; coincidentally, that particular item was a stirring performance of The Banks Of Newfoundland, which also turns out to be one of the songs chosen for inclusion on Stem The Tide, the second full CD to be recorded by Paul and his band for Greentrax.
Their debut, Between Two Worlds, came out in 2009, promptly winning at the Scots Traditional Awards; it was an exceedingly impressive affair that promised much with its exciting musicianship, already seemingly fully-together band identity and Paul’s intense, strong singing. For all its undoubted strengths, however, there was bound to be some room for improvement, especially in the sense of the crew seeming a little too content with attaining, then sticking with, a “trademark sound”.
So it’s a pleasure to report that a year or so of touring has both sharpened the band’s sound and caused them to be more aware of the possibilities of internal dynamics. Sure, Stem The Tide still relies much on the band’s driving momentum, but it doesn’t feel like they’re running on autopilot now, largely due to the harder edge that has crept in to their arrangements – and that even applies to the disc’s less uptempo items like Seán Gray’s tender tune Darcy & Erin’s. The basic blend of fiddle, flute/whistle, bouzouki, guitar/tenor guitar and bodhrán/cajon is still intact, finely balanced as ever with nowt taken out, so there are no worries on that score. And of Paul’s band members, one (fiddler Rua MacMillan) has already made his mark on the scene with a solo CD of his own (Tyro).
One more principal difference between the band’s two CDs is that Paul’s songwriting has moved on apace, in that the slightly tentative approach to melody that marked some of his earlier compositions has been replaced by a more confident outlook that seems to respond more keenly to the influences of traditional song (I could say it feels as though he’s taking some leaves out of the well-thumbed book of Brian McNeill, but I’d not want it to sound as though I consider Paul’s work at all derivative or plagiaristic – it isn’t in the slightest!). Another towering influence on Paul and the band was that of Black Eyed Biddy’s Lionel McClelland, a major figure in Scottish music who sadly died back in 2010; not only does the present album bear a very special dedication to Lionel, but arguably its finest moment comes with Paul’s inspirational cover of Lionel’s powerful Silent Majority.
Having said all that, it’s perhaps indicative of Paul’s modesty that he himself only contributes three self-penned tracks to this new album: one’s a pair of tunes lovingly dedicated to Lionel (and fittingly evoking the man’s sparkling, larger-than-life personality), and the two songs (Dreams Of Darien and Smiling Tears) can easily be counted album highlights. In the context of Paul’s own modesty, it’s also good to note that Paul’s fellow band-members are now being positively encouraged to lend a more conscious hand in matters such as providing fresh tunes for existing words – bouzouki player David McNee’s fine setting of words from Ord’s Bothy Songs & Ballads collection (Again For Greenland) being a good instance of this.
Finally, in the matter of the disc’s song covers, only Ewan MacColl’s Terror Time could perhaps be considered a touch undersold (its harmonised acappella opening and closing sections make more of an impact that the instrumentally-accompanied part of the setting). But there’s no serious complaint with the sheer quality and consistency of this latest album from Paul and his band – the only question it begs is: how much better can they be expected to get for the next one?!

www.paulmckennaband.com

David Kidman


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Various Artists – THE FUTURE OF OUR PAST: SCOTTISH MUSIC AT THE RSAMD 2010 (Greentrax CDTRAX. 357)

This is one of those no-frills, straight-down-the-line “no-argument-about-the-quality, just-feel-the-potential” releases that Greentrax are so good at, and which will be totally self-recommending. Even though you’ll almost certainly not have heard any of the artists before (well maybe except for just the one!). It’s a showcase for students on the BA and PG Dip. Scottish Music course at the prestigious and highly acclaimed Royal Scottish Academy Of Music & Drama in Glasgow.
The participating musicians, who hail from all corners of Scotland, America, Canada and England, draw their influences from right across Scottish music (and a little beyond), and this hour-long disc – intended as a companion to Greentrax’s earlier RSAMD showcase, 2007’s No. 1 Scottish – presents a wide cross-section of talent, involving 49 of the Academy’s students in its recording. This includes skilled exponents of Highland and Border pipes, accordion, fiddle, whistle, flute, piano, guitar, harp, cello and bodhrán. Although the majority of the tracks are arranged collectively by students on the BA Scottish Music course, three tracks are credited to individuals; there’s a couple of outings on solo pipes, including one which was composed, performed, produced and engineered by Hazen Metro, and one on accordion.
Additionally, the spotlight gets to shine on no fewer than five contrasted singers, each in his/her own way quite excellent (if necessarily at a formative stage in their artistic development). There’s a stirring set of Puirt A Beul sung by Ainsley Hamill, a Hebridean song (Moladh Uibhist) by Katherine MacLeod (who, amazingly, switched from first-study flute to Honours-year Gaelic song during her studies), a considered rendition of Banks Of Newfoundland by Paul McKenna (with a luxurious string-based arrangement), and an understanding version of Phil Cunningham & Andy M. Stewart’s Lover’s Heart by Robyn Stapleton, but perhaps most interesting of all is Claire Hastings’ mildly ornate, unusually settled treatment of Richard Thompson’s iconic 1952 Vincent Black Lightning (this later selection, of course, proves the honourable exception to the otherwise almost exclusively Scottish-traditionally-styled musical menu on offer here). There’s not a single remotely disappointing or lacklustre performance on the whole disc; it signifies nothing less than a very healthy state for “the future of our past”, one which the liner notes aptly describe as “a spectacular mix of virtuosity and vibrance”. Absolutely!…

www.greentrax.com

David Kidman


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Noam Pikelny – BEAT THE DEVIL AND CARRY A RAIL (Compass 7 4565-2)

The vibrant progressive-bluegrass ensemble Punch Brothers, whose new CD’s expected very soon, have within their ranks some of the most abundantly talented young musicians on the contemporary bluegrass scene, and the band’s banjoist Noam Pikelny recently carried off the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo & Bluegrass. Here, with the support of a veritable crack team of illustrious instrumentalists, Noam bestows on our eager ears his second solo record (how I missed out on his first, 2004’s In The Maze, sure escapes me!).
Noam’s abject mastery of the five-string banjo seems to know no bounds, whether on self-evidently virtuoso escapades such as the breathtaking Bear Dog Grit (which finds mandolin ace and fellow-Punch-Brother Chris Thile, and supremely fluent guitarist Bryan Sutton, both in tow) or more subtly lyrical tone-pictures like Boathouse on The Lullwater (which counterpoints Noam’s banjo with the filigree dobro picking of Jerry Douglas, the latter also appearing in a more animated context on the frenetic album closer All Git Out). The disc also includes a straightforwardly-cut but traditionally scintillating banjo duet with Steve Martin himself (Cluck Old Hen), a delightful, if cautiously tailored mini-tone-poem teaming Noam with guest bassist Paul Kowert (Day Down), and a surprisingly delicate rendition of Tom Waits’ Fish And Bird beautifully sung by Crooked Still’s Aoife O’Donovan. Elsewhere, Tim O’Brien’s mandolin graces half a dozen cuts, including a couple of Noam’s compositions that were jointly penned with his first-choice producer (fiddler and fellow-Punch-Brother) Gabe Witcher. Tim also gets to sing, on a cover of Henry Thomas’ country-blues stomper Bob McKinney (with abundantly authentic, gleefully stylish backing from the whole darn gang).
Other musicians involved in this enterprise include Chris Eldridge, Mark Schatz and Stuart Duncan, whose feisty fiddling takes the lead on Art Stamper’s Pineywoods breakdown, but can’t quite upstage Noam’s tremendous banjo work. As with all the other tracks from this studio session, there’s a compelling yet easygoing sense of energetic spontaneity that recreates something of the frisson of a live-take performance. More than anything else, though, and despite the top-drawer quality of Noam’s own playing providing the album’s inevitable unifying force, Noam has also proved his mettle (and humility in the presence of several of the musicians who’ve been his inspiration) by stepping in and out of the sound picture on each track as appropriate, never unduly dominating the musical argument or elbowing any of those other fine soloists out of the way. And that’s a real gift.

noampikelny.com

David Kidman


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Lincoln Durham – THE SHOVEL VS. THE HOWLING BONES (Rayburn Publishing 00TSVTHB-12)

Heavily endorsed by Ray Wylie Hubbard – so much so that the southern-Texas music legend readily agreed to produce his debut EP and now this full-lengther too – Lincoln Durham sure seems to be the real deal. Thick with both quality (inborn musicianship) and indisputable integrity, his is an original talent alright, but there’s a fairly simple reference point in that he can be seen as much in the mould of Seasick Steve, with whom he shares a penchant for home-made guitars, battered and bruised old acoustics and percussion instruments made out of anything that lies to hand – while also embodying much of the sensibility of the self-confessed musical primitivism of Jack White. Ray’s production is absolutely ideal for capturing the grizzly, dusty, uncompromising essence of Lincoln’s music with its defiantly sparse but immensely telling bare-bones guitar-and-percussion-only textures and entirely lived-in vocals. There’s no sense of performance artifice or gimmick, just a man making the music that’s natural to him and right there in his blood. All the songs are Lincoln’s own compositions, and his moods take him from gravelly recounting of the harsh tricks life deals (Reckoning Lament, Living This Hard), and ominous death-rattles (Drifting Wood) through to tender expressions of love (the John Hurt-like Clementine). There’s also plenty more characteristic southern grit in the grooves of the grinding rocker Living This Hard, the tough, driven White Stripes-like stomp of Love Letters and the drag-Skynyrd rhythm of Reckoning Lament. On several tracks (Last Red Dawn, Georgia Lee, Mud Puddles and especially How Does A Crow Fly), Lincoln sounds uncannily like Free’s Paul Rodgers, but I could also almost as easily reference Son House or at times Tom Waits in Lincoln’s growlier moments, with even Captain Beefheart, Howlin’ Wolf, Fred McDowell and possibly Muddy Waters all variously invoked. There’s a handful of guest contributions to around half of the tracks, which detract not an iota from the intense raw feel of the record. As well as Jeff Plankenhorn (mandolin on Last Red Dawn), Bucca Allen (accordion or piano) and even Ray Wylie himself, and on the closing number Trucker’s Love Song, there’s a rather gorgeous backup vocal from Lincoln’s fellow-Texan Idgy Vaughan (she also makes part of a spectral gospel chorus for the dead-raising playout of the preceding cut, People Of The Land, along with Alissa Durham and Ray Wylie). Otherwise it’s just Lincoln, his voice and sundry guitars (with some wailing harmonica here and there, and even a wonderfully scrawny fiddle on one cut), with Rick Richards thudding away there on drums and assorted home-made percussion artefacts (but, I think, excepting a shovel!). And it all sounds bone-howlingly great, especially when played loud… By the way, those completists among us will need to know that four of the album’s eleven songs (Living This Hard, Reckoning Lament, How Does a Crow Fly and Georgia Lee) have appeared on disc already – on Lincoln’s debut EP of last year – and as far as I know these are the very same recordings. And as for the sinister cover photo – well, the eyes sure have it.

www.lincolndurham.com

David Kidman


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Amelia White – BEAUTIFUL AND WILD (Own Label, no catalogue number)

Amelia’s a well-travelled singer-songwriter who, though born in Virginia and spending her adult formative years in Boston, has for the past eleven years been based in East Nashville. Nevertheless, she’s a performer who still doesn’t exactly fit the approved mould of that region’s Americana or country, instead preferring to float around for much of the time in the musical hinterlands (although she can’t entirely avoid soaking up odd flavours of vintage retro and indie along the way as the fancy takes her). Every song on this record is written (or co-written) by Amelia herself, aside from More Than This, which you’ll doubtless remember from the annals of Roxy Music, and which Amelia to her credit makes very much her own with a sensuous, eloquent (if a touch windblown) rendition. Her own creations explore, with deceptively understated conviction, time-honoured issues such as mismatched love (the character-study Madeline), connects with the world beyond the physical (Sidewalks) and makes significant emotional capital out of the honest and cathartic process of prayer (Rider Ghost). Throughout this album (her fifth, apparently), Amelia enjoys the companionship of an expert backing crew (whose ranks include illustrious sessioners Doug Lancio, John Jackson, Frank Swart, Billy Earhart, Ron Eoff and Band Of Joy’s Marco Giovino, who produced the album), and seems at her best when she trusts them to get on with it, thus everything’s more relaxed and less obviously kooky and studio-conscious – as on the dark-toned rocker Molten Fire and the more wistful, inward-looking Lonely Sound (which more than anything else rather recalled early Lucinda Williams). And overall I feel the album improves as it proceeds, with its second half – and the final four tracks especially – containing not only Amelia’s best writing but also by some measure the most fiery of her performances (her raw passion really comes alive on cuts like the pleading Saint Christopher); it’s a pity that the comparatively passionless Skeleton Key was chosen to lead the disc off, as it’s by far the least satisfying track, since by the time the riveting Rider Ghost comes round at the end you can’t fail to’ve gotten hooked by the altogether wilder beauty of much of the rest of Amelia’s music.

www.ameliawhite.com

David Kidman


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Alasdair Fraser & Natalie Haas – HIGHLANDER’S FAREWELL (Culburnie CUL. 123)

This award-winning duo, comprising top-league Scottish fiddler Alasdair and ultra-talented Californian cellist Natalie, has captivated music lovers with its dazzling teamwork for several years now. The previous two CD releases by this special pairing, Fire And Grace and In The Moment, have already given me many hours of pleasure, and both were greeted with justified acclaim from critics and public alike.
Hard acts to follow, both, but with Highlander’s Farewell, the duo have produced their finest record yet. I wouldn’t want it taken the wrong way, but the presence of a handful of guest artists may have a little to do with that – notwithstanding the consistent excellence of the duo’s own playing and arranging, which lacks absolutely nothing in verve and spark. Their trademark fluidity in juxtaposition and allocation of parts, the judicious switching-around of melody, harmony and rhythm lines, is all still present and correct as you’d expect – nothing’s changed there, and the artistry is as persuasive as always.
And once again, there can be no complaint about their canny choice of material, which capably intersperses well-loved items (eg Nathaniel Gow’s Lament and The Gallowglass, and Duncan Johnstone’s modern-day pipe march Farewell To Nigg) with vibrant arrangements of less-often-heard traditional pieces (The Pitnacree Fisherman reel), modern Cape Breton tunes (Grand Étang & Hull’s Reel) and Galician dance delights (the track 11 medley) with original compositions from inspirational figures like Gordon Duncan. Alasdair himself provides three contrasted pieces: the infectiously snappy McLaughlin’s Strathspey, a gorgeous dedicatory air (Cragmont) and a more energetic piece in the form of a reel (Whitewater) which is informed by the beauty and strength of the river near where Alasdair lives in the Sierra Nevada foothills. In contrast, Gloomy Winter’s Noo Awa’ is given a suitably low-register balance against which to measure its gradual climb into the sunlight.
The epic medley that starts the disc (and gives the CD its title) just has to be a standout track, with its seven-minute journey propelling the musicians from strathspey to Irish reel and finally Appalachian breakdown and sporting Bruce Molsky and Martin Hayes & Dennis Cahill in tow. Natalie’s sister Brittany (of Boston-based bluegrassers Crooked Still) adds her expert five-string fiddle playing to two tracks, and Laura Risk (of Cordelia’s Dad) to two also, including on both counts meaningful contributions to the grand noise made by the cast of seemingly-thousands of fellow string players on the disc’s grand-finale, which takes the form of a stately neo-classical-styled schottische (La Sansonette).
Guests aren’t always a good thing, concealing as they can do the talents of the main protagonists, but in this instance their embellishments are both commendably selective and genuinely enhancing, and the focus remains firmly on Alasdair and Natalie and their core musical relationship throughout, exactly as it should be, and strongly and sweetly characterised at all times.

www.alasdairfraser.com and www.nataliehaas.com

David Kidman


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Gina Forsyth – PROMISED LAND (Waterbug WBG0101))

Gina’s an established New Orleans singer-songwriter whose output isn’t exactly prolific, but when she does release a record certainly comes up with the goods. Her debut album for Waterbug, You Are Here, came out just over ten years ago, and I’d almost given up on ever hearing more of this intriguing artist when along came this followup. And it’s no disappointment in any way.
Gina tells us in the liner note to this new record that the project started out as a phone conversation that went something like “Ten or fifteen years from now, America will be something that you won’t even recognise…” Thus, Gina’s lyrics for the album’s 13 original songs concentrate on the disparity between old and new America, the initial idealism and today’s scary and frustrating reality, its values and expectations; she’s seen what’s already happened and from that perspective she’s able to peddle truths rather than postulate fiction or prediction. Quite naturally, then, her outlook and world-view turn out to be disapproving, for realistically she is unable to promise any solutions, but her music’s so strong and thought-provoking rather than defeatist, so much so that you’re won over at once.
The album opens stylishly with the simple but powerful Promised Land, which is one of those songs that invite instant replay before proceeding along the track of the rest of the disc. It was a masterstroke to follow this with the acappella Lord Have Mercy, whereas 4th Of July (a potent ode to the lost art of personal communication) is another classic that takes quite an effort to get past replaying. But that effort sure is worth it, for the rest of the disc contains plenty more excellent writing, much of it musically informed by Gina’s New Orleans roots: the yearning fiddle-backed Sparrow (which could almost be a traditional cajun waltz), Christmas In China (whose light-touch cajun-flavour belies its message, the nifty shuffle-beat of What I Did On Mardi Gras Day (a critique of her local music industry), the funky Copper Rooster… While even the most wistful of Gina’s observations tend to be laced with her own special brand of caustic humour (take 11 Days, a well-aimed commentary on the cost of healthcare). Gina’s trademark laconic edge is prevented from being overstated or overcooked simply by virtue of the intelligence with which she controls and manages the expression of those entirely honest conclusions. She also has a keen conversational sense of wordplay that takes an unashamed delight in taking a well-aimed swipe at contemporary values.
In terms of performance style, Gina’s pretty distinctive, although there were also times when I was reminded of Kristina Olsen, particularly on the earthy, grittier delivery of songs like Just Like Eddie and 4th Of July. Gina keeps her vocal power in check, though you might feel she overdoes the irony a touch with some rather mannered accentuation of the lazy drawl on her tongue-in-cheek would-be-anthem to the Sweet And Sunny South (where she was born). Gina’s a significantly expert instrumentalist too on both fiddle and guitar, as you can hear variously on tracks like Sparrow, Elegy and the album’s one non-original, Belle, which is a traditional number sourced from the Alan Lomax recordings. Arguably the album’s most powerful statement, though, is the penultimate song, Just For Tonight, which pleads with us to act. The concept of the album then comes full circle to embrace the heavily-traditional-sounding closer We Will be Reborn. Yes, Promised Land has turned out a refreshingly original singer-songwriter album, one of proud individuality and true passion.

www.ginaforsyth.com

David Kidman


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Cosy Sheridan – THE HORSE KING (Waterbug WBG102)

Believe it – this is Cosy’s tenth album, and it celebrates her quarter-century in the business! Over the years, since winning the songwriting contests at Kerrville and Telluride back in 1992, her profile has risen steadily, and she’s produced some attractively thought-provoking records. And this latest is a very fine example of her musical attributes, with ten new compositions that provide perfect examples of her craft. That said, it falls short of being her most essential CD, not least because it’s over before you know it (clocking in at barely half an hour). At first, it seems an unduly disparate collection, with the tone fluctuating between the two poles of kooky-upbeat-outright-satirical and deeper-thoughtful. But hey, don’t give it up that fast!…The first three tracks are all in the former category: the first pair comprise essential commentaries on the seemingly unavoidable silliness of financial matters, and Air Guitaris a priceless little Doc-Watson-style ditty incidentally featuring a blissful lead guitar part from guest David Surette). After this, things settle into a firmer and more pensive groove for a while, with the title track’s delicate lament inspired (Cosy says) by listening to Niamh Parsons and Dolores Keane followed by Icarus’s folk-rock (with its power-chorus to die for!), the quiet contemplation of The Angels In Rome and the gentle reassurance of the old-fashioned-country-flavoured Don’t Walk Away From Love (which contains a nice harmony duet vocal that’s not individually credited). There’s then a reversion to the kooky upbeat mode for a couple of songs before the finale, a delicious cittern-flecked cover of Be Outside, an appealingly encouraging song (penned not by Cosy but by Belinda Bowler) that complements the tracks before the last hiatus. Yes, there’s some really lovely individual songs here, and on the whole the collection forms a persuasive introduction to Cosy’s writing.

www.cosysheridan.com

David Kidman


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Emily Portman – HINGE OF THE YEAR (EP) (Furrow Records FURR04)

Here’s a further helping of haunting and idiosyncratic “glamoury” from Emily, a fabulous collection of just three atmospheric new tracks that leave you yearning for another full-length album (thankfully we’ve not long to wait, for Hatchling’s due for release this spring). Emily’s been uncommonly busy over the past year or so, when, spurred on by the success of her abundantly stunning solo album The Glamoury, she’s embarked on collaborations with Alasdair Roberts and Marry Waterson & Oliver Knight and a series of captivating live performances with her new trio lineup (that’s harpist Rachel Newton and singer Lucy Farrell). But luckily for us, she’s found a few moments to record this EP and release it to the world (albeit on vinyl and download only) just as the year 2011’s hinge was about to creak into its final month. Emily’s is a strikingly imaginative sound-world, and the three tracks on this limited-edition EP couldn’t be more different from each other. The title song is a heady, darkly carnivalesque slice of folk-noir (with a slight tinge of Lal Waterson perhaps); described as an intoxicating New Year’s tale of a fledgling flyer, it was inspired by a burlesque character from Angela Carter’s Nights At The Circus, and its intriguingly curious musical landscape features the woozy tone of a musical saw weaving through Rachel’s harp and Jonny Kearney’s guitar. On Scorching Sun, which draws on lyrics from an Italian lullaby, Emily tackles the subject of war from a mother’s perspective, to a warm-textured yet spinetingling backdrop conjured by a quartet of fine brass players from the north-east. The final (and bonus) track, Moon Shines Bright, is a charming and simple rendition of the traditional travellers’ carol sung tenderly acappella by Emily, Lucy and Rachel with Jonny and recorded live.

www.emilyportman.co.uk

David Kidman


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Verité Alexandra with Michael Chapman and Alex Warnes – BLUE SEASON (Rural Retreat, no catalogue number)

It’s always good to get to hear about any impending new release from Michael Chapman, arguably the scene’s most undersung performer, and at over the age of 70 he’s still making great music. But here’s a Michael Chapman album with a big difference – that all the vocals are taken by Verité Alexandra. It’s maybe only Chapman aficionados who will be aware, though, that Verité’s got a certain amount of musical history with Michael; indeed, she first worked with him at age 16, as backing vocalist on his early-90s album Navigation. She’s also a healthy pedigree as an in-demand vocalist down there in Cornwall, and a prolific songwriter in her own right, so the process of interpreting ten of Michael’s songs and making them her own has clearly enabled her to shine. Blue Season therefore turns out a rather special record, with an affectionate and warm ambience that transcends the music and its presentation. Michael himself plays some typically fabulous acoustic guitar throughout, imbuing the whole project with his ultra-distinctive signature, while production duties are handled by Alex Warnes (who’s been responsible for same on Michael’s two most recent albums, and in whose studio Michael has recorded over 15 albums during the past 20 years); Alex also anchors the songs with his bass playing, a modicum of keyboard work and some arranged drum tracks, and contributes a sprinkling of meaningful electric guitar solos.
Verité’s voice is a quite remarkable instrument, with an enviably pure tone and an impressively fluid command of phrasing and dynamics: she’s at her most persuasive on That Time Of Night and No Thanks To Me, where her vocal line weaves so sinuously through Michael’s guitar part, while her simply-judged rendition of Navigation naturally gains much in poignancy from its earlier associations. Each of her interpretations is both individually minted and tellingly cohesive, and the musical climate of each track is quite different from its immediate neighbours. The contemplative Anniversary makes an ideal and exceedingly apt opener, following which Memphis In Winter gains a spacious and powerful new garb, at first rocking into the soundscape with a cautiously clanky, almost industrial grinding riff that introduces its darkly atmospheric lyric. Hell To Pay conjures additional potency with its keen sense of atmosphere, where Verité’s singing demonstrates her close empathy with Michael’s thoughts and sensibilities. Vanity And Pride cocoons the lyric in thicker, more keyboard-rich textures, Another Crossroads moves closer to hard rock, and Blue Season itself veers closer to its movie-theme provenance, but any slight blandness in the musical settings of these tracks is more than offset by Verité’s charismatic singing. Finally, the feisty come-on and funky good-time drive of Bon Ton Roolay provides an inevitably rousing finale.
So if you’re looking for that subtly different Chapman product, you need look no further than Blue Season, which is nothing less than an artistic triumph for all concerned and an excellent showcase for Verité. Though the disc’s been out for close on a year now, it’s still available from Michael’s website.

www.michaelchapman.co.uk

David Kidman


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Brian McNeill – THE ROAD NEVER QUESTIONS: THE BEST OF BRIAN McNEILL VOLUME 1 (Greentrax CDTRAX. 360)

Brian is undisputedly one of Scottish traditional music’s foremost instrumentalists and one of Scottish contemporary songwriting’s greats. That explains – perhaps – why the present compilation is subtitled Best Of, Volume 1 – there is simply so much that could (or should) have been included!
Brian’s performing career to date has encompassed a healthy 20-year stint with the original Battlefield Band (from its formation through to 1990), followed by a spell with the more experimental big-band Clan Alba, while his abnormally prolific recorded output has encompassed seven solo albums as well as three duo albums (one with Tom McDonagh and two with the late Iain MacKintosh) and appearances on a large number of sessions for records by other artists – yet always self-effacing to the last. And that’s not to mention his supreme (and highly empathic) skills as a producer and arranger. What always amazes me big-time about Brian is just when you think you’ve got the measure of his talent in one sphere of activity he then goes and pulls the rug out by demonstrating, almost casually, that he can also wipe the floor with the competition in a completely different field – thus he proves not only a top-notch fiddle player but also a veritable virtuoso on guitar, cittern, concertina or mandolin (and fully able to play several other instruments too!), an excellent singer, a highly competent tunesmith, a published novelist and an enormously gifted songwriter. So any Best Of selection must necessarily contain examples of all facets of his consummate artistry – as indeed this generously well-filled 71-minute disc does.
The act of compilation has here been carried out by Brian himself in this instance, and his honest, unassuming and genially anecdotal booklet note makes for entertaining and informative reading as well as putting his achievements into due perspective in relation to whatever was going on in Scottish music at the time. Although the compilation is not sequenced chronologically, it does however form a kind of chronicle, with the two earliest tracks culled from Brian’s 1978 solo debut Monksgate, conveying all the hard-to-beat excitement of sessions shoehorned in between band touring commitments.
We’re taken through 1985’s Unstrung Hero (a pair of contrasted cuts including The Heron, on which Brian’s skills as a literal multi-instrumentalist were tested to the hilt), 1985’s The Busker And The Devil’s Only Daughter (two exquisite instrumental tracks), and on to the iconic Back O’ The North Wind project concerning the Scots in North America (represented here by two outright classics: Strong Women Rule Us All With Their Tears and the stirring tale of Ewen And The Gold). Brian’s contribution to Scottish songwriting was the absolute, avowed antidote to the “Tartan kitsch school”, and set a new benchmark, which continued on into the mid-90s award-winner No Gods, from which the jazzy curiosity Miss Michison Regrets and the storming, more heavily scored Heroes’ Reels set are taken (and whose brilliantly biting title song must surely be destined to appear on Volume 2?). Other essential inclusions on this disc emanate from the aforementioned duo albums (the mischievous drinking song Sunday On The Jar and the ragtime-extravaganza-cum-longest-title contender), while the whole disc is splendidly bookended with tracks from Brian’s celebrated 1999 fiddle-centric album To Answer The Peacock. The compilation’s “rarity value” track gives us Brian’s tasteful contribution to the album No. 1 Scottish, which showcased the cream of the RSAMD’s young traditional players. Volume 1 is a magnificent and inspirational collection, expertly sequenced for maximum listening pleasure and telling contrast between the lyrical and the speedy; it not only lays the field wide open for Volumes 2 and 3 (at least!) but for a full-scale programme to restore all Brian’s previous records to catalogue availability (I can only hope!…).

David Kidman


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Louise Jordan – FLORILEGIUM (Azania AZA02CD)

I latched onto Louise’s earlier album Tempvs quite late in the day, only finally getting around to reviewing it last autumn. It’s been a constant companion for me ever since, and I’ve been very eagerly awaiting its followup.

Louise’s music intriguingly yet quite naturally straddles the boundary between folk song and classical Lied, and draws on those acknowledged musical forms for both its inspiration and means of expression. In doing so, it both encompasses and exemplifies some revealing paradoxes. Firstly, Florilegium feels like a traditional album, and yet only one of the songs on it (I Know Where I’m Going) is actually of traditional origin (and even there, Louise sets the words to an invigorating new melody), the only other non-original being a marvellous setting by Louise of a Christina Rossetti poem (Promises Like Pie-Crust), which effectively illustrates, through contrasting life-experiences, the need to value true friendship, where “many thrive on frugal fare Who would perish of excess”.

Secondly, Louise’s voice is an extraordinary instrument in its own right, with a breathtaking control and brilliant sense of flow; it simultaneously embraces the untamed and the consciously arty, qualities that may (logically enough) seem contradictory and ostensibly incompatible but which here manage to not uneasily coexist; the impact is both thrillingly attractive and deeply compelling. (Think a kind of cross between Nancy Kerr and Kate Bush, and you’ll be close…) Often, the twin aspects of her flowing delivery – the florid and the almost-conversational – will occur naturally during the course of an individual song (For The Asking is a good example).

Thirdly, Louise’s distinctive, edgily poetic songwriting forms an intimate personal statement that’s at the same time vulnerable and confident. The opening song Brave Face brings many layers of meaning and expression within a deceptively simple progression, with a scarily wayward melody line that mirrors the singer’s fragile yet determined state. The Lied-like Wild Rose could almost be a self-portrait, and effectively sums up Louise’s very special free-spirited nature. The heart-rending Where Did You Go? and For The Asking are kind of companion pieces, insightfully evoking a painful combination of conflicting emotions. But by the end of the disc, after being cocooned in the gorgeous lullaby Florebis, the prevailing mood is of peace and harmony, and you have then become totally Enraptured by Louise’s musical personality.

Whatever, Louise’s elegant and strongly individual vocal presence is as consistent and engaging throughout Florilegium as it was on Tempvs. The new album’s helpfully billed as “more life and more adventure for the brave”, too. Its primary musical character is configured within the feel of a very small, and subtly shaded chamber-ensemble, where the cello sound is often a dominant feature within the limpid texture, equally partnered by, or supporting, either guitar or piano in the context of each song’s deliberate and clearly defined arrangement. Although this is a self-produced record, with Louise multitracking all the parts, there’s no feeling of the clinical studio, rather a genuinely warm, homespun, involvingly symbiotic ambience that hooks the listener right away. An added warmth is provided by the sound of the actual piano used – the one Louise learnt to play on as a child. Style-wise, legato is the order of the day; and yet, on just a few songs (Talk Is Cheap, Together, Florebis), Louise employs a kind of instrumental glottal stop whereby a note is very abruptly stopped or cut off short at the edge of a line (this device may be a touch disconcerting initially).

In case you’re wondering, the album title is carefully chosen too: Florilegium is literally a gathering of flowers, but the term has since also been widely used to denote a collection of botanical images or musical compositions – both of which the disc’s abundantly beautiful package (the work of Tim Dench) contains in profusion. Profound yet accessible, thoughtful and introspective while outward-probing and spellbinding, Florilegium’s unique bouquet will provide everlasting aromatic blooms, and will charm and energise you with its vital life-force. Florilegium is an outstanding, wonderful disc, and just has to be voted my album of the year.

www.louisejordan.co.uk

David Kidman


Louise Jordan – TEMPVS (Azania AZA01CD)

Fact: Louise is another in that category of “bright young thing” folk artists who in the space of little over a year seem to have sprung from nowhere into prominence and acclaim. But any such potentially pejorative interpretation of her talent must end there. Louise’s debut recording, the EP Born To Wander, came out in November 2010, and gained her several invitations to appear on local and commercial radio and at a number of folk venues during 2011, all (intentionally?) culminating in the release of this full-length CD last November. Tempvs (to observe the album title’s deliberately, obstinately quirky spelling) was conceived in the New Forest area, to which Louise has recently returned (after ten years away studying law and human rights and working for various charities); its seriousness of purpose signals her return to her true vocation, that of making music. Louise was classically trained from an early age, and has keenly explored other types of music since taking up the guitar twelve years ago, carving out her own personal musical path through the folk idiom though at all times remaining informed by her early musical experiences – as can be heard in her stylish, dramatic self-accompaniment (on piano) on her determinedly individual, somewhat Sturm-und-Drang rendition of William Taylor, one of just three traditional songs she interprets on this album. Louise’s singing manages over the course of the album to be both unsettling and ethereal, and on that track in particular it brings distinct echoes of the Lieder singer and the warble of Kate Bush almost in equal measure, the latter also being strongly recalled on the contours of Salley Gardens, perhaps less eccentrically on her very convincing take on Lowlands Of Holland.
Louise’s own compositions I can only describe as absolutely charming: Peaceful strongly recalls Sandy Denny’s own writing, whereas World Weary evokes Anne Briggs and Born To Wander and Little Robin Redbreast bring more of a flavour of an upper-register Bridget St. John. On the other hand, Without Ceremony has no obvious folky reference point, being a fascinating and perceptive chamber-style setting of Thomas Hardy’s poem (from his 1914 collection Satires Of Circumstance) which employs a restless, choppy piano-and-cello accompaniment that closely mirrors the wandersome nature and almost cruelly dismissive self-reproach of the pithy lyric (and intriguingly, for one key line Louise also seems to adopt a variation on the text that I’d not previously encountered, with the phrase “bags were packed” replacing “trunks were down”); Louise also employs the effective device of repeating the initial pair of lines as a coda. The final track, Omnia Tempvs Habent, is a stately, yet also delicately florid baroque-styled musical paraphrase of the famous passage from Ecclesiastes “all things have their season” that inspired Pete Seeger’s Turn Turn Turn.
To conclude then: in realising her own musical vision, Louise easily persuades us that she needs no studio production gimmicks or additional musicians, preferring instead to stand or fall entirely on her own merit (for as well as being a thoughtful singer and song interpreter, she’s a creative, and tasteful yet powerful, self-accompanist on guitar, piano and cello). Tempvs is an admirable, entirely honest, brave, enterprising – and proudly, completely self-produced – record, one of real character that should win Louise very many friends.

www.louisejordan.co.uk

David Kidman


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Wilful Missing – MOLEHILLS OUT OF MOUNTAINS (Little Attic Records WM003MMCD)

The intriguingly-named Wilful Missing (a five-piece based around the Bradford area) make music that’s probably most accurately described as thoughtful indie-rock with folk and celtic touches. Their debut release, the Vast Atlantic EP, which appeared a year or so back, was a startlingly persuasive calling-card that promised much. Wilful Missing’s loyal fan-base appreciates the band’s unusually intelligent approach to instrumental texturing that floridly complements the striking (once-heard never forgotten) singing voice of vocalist Sam Kipling. His emotionally expressive, forthright and precise delivery makes natural capital out of the searching yet often enigmatic band-penned lyrics, while the band lineup in turn scores for its surrounding of the telling acoustic and electric guitar lines with sensitively embellished mandolin, bouzouki, accordion, uillean pipes and whistle (Sam Lawrence), underpinned by bass (Albert Freeman) and drums (Ruth Viqueira), and now additionally supplemented by keys and clarinet from latest recruit Rhys Kelly. There are also significant contributions from (among others) Sarah Smout, WM’s extra on-record-only band member whose distinctive cello playing graces five of the disc’s eleven tracks. Two of the album’s songs (Cry For The City and Constitution Failed) will already be familiar to viewers of BBC’s Waterloo Road (the series also used earlier EP track DIY), and they give out an invigorating vibe that more than anything resembles the Waterboys (especially on the closing playful playouts to Cry For The City and later, Caught Between Seasons), with occasional more-than-hints of the Americana-roots mix that’s a hallmark of favourite rootsy combos like the Durbervilles. London Road, the only non-group composition (penned by friend Neil McSweeney) is a heartfelt, wistful observation that fits well with the intriguing (if maybe somewhat oblique) depictions of life-experiences chronicled in the remainder of the album’s songs, notably the song of reflection and rumination that provides the very band-name and the pained string-trio-backed luxuriance of Sleeptalking Over. This album is a keeper, but to be fair it’s not what you might call an “instant gratification” record, for it tends to yield up its riches only gradually and (fairly) demands a degree of “working-at” that’s commensurate with the care with which it was made. You need to give it plenty of chances to work its spell. (Molehills is available in a variety of formats, and with the CD and download versions, buyers are invited to pay whatever they feel is a fair price.)

www.wilfulmissing.co.uk

David Kidman


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Blair Dunlop – BAGS OUTSIDE THE DOOR (EP) (Rooksmere Records RRCD. 103)

Although knowledge of Blair’s parentage (he’s the son of Ashley Hutchings) shouldn’t have any bearing on one’s appraisal of the lad’s music, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that here’s a young man with considerable ability: flair and potential in spades, and a real sense of possessing his own defiant musical personality that’s anything but derivative. And he’s still only 19 years old…
Blair’s toes-in-the-water taster EP, released in the autumn of 2010, was a very promising effort indeed, and – bravely – a refreshingly bare-bones voice-and-guitar offering to boot. Its sequel, Bags Outside The Door, which was released last October to remarkably little fanfare (it was rather overshadowed by his appointment to the ranks of the new Albion Band, it must be said), is an even finer record, and, like its predecessor, was recorded almost entirely live with no overdubs (aside from on one track).
Firstly Blair is, quite simply, an outstanding guitarist, as the sensitive, delicate fretwork here so unobtrusively and naturally demonstrates; his use of fills to aid gentle transitions is very impressive, as is his dexterity – whether on the nifty ragtime-inflected opener Young Billy, the percussive slaps of Fallout or the playful skittering virtuosity of his own little tune-sequence Granchi, which segues surprisingly naturally from his measured, beautifully lyrical take on O’Carolan’s Si Bheag Si Mhor.
Blair’s singing also now displays comparable (indeed, complementary) qualities, and it could be said that he’s learnt much from critical reactions to a certain amount of eager over-expression he’d exhibited on his debut EP, for the vocal performances on its followup are altogether more convincing, with (for example) a mature sensitivity balancing emotion on his rendition of the new disc’s lone traditional song, Flandyke Shore (another instance of homage, forming the next stage in his programme of coverage of Nic Jones classics methinks). The third string to Blair’s bow, his songwriting (in evidence on three of the four vocal tracks here), also continues to develop – and impress. As does the whole package, which comes highly recommended and bodes extremely well for Blair’s forthcoming full-length solo album.

www.blairdunlop.com

David Kidman


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Mary Black – STORIES FROM THE STEEPLES (Blix Street / 3ú Records TUCD. 024)

Mary’s enviable reputation as one of Ireland’s most accomplished singers rests on her long career spanning eleven platinum-selling albums, on which she’s always demonstrated a knack for covering just the right material. This latest studio album from Mary (her first record of new material in six years) continues in that tradition, with a dozen songs from the pens of contemporary songwriters, all set to a tasteful, if soft-edged musical backdrop that makes no demands and springs no aural challenges.
This time round, we also find Mary giving specific consideration to championing the songwriting of Danny O’Reilly (who also happens to be her son), with no fewer than three of his songs appearing here (Faith In Fate, Wizard Of Oz and The Night Is On Our Side – the latter, incidentally, boasting the involvement of all three of Mary’s children). Mary also brings in three of her favourite singers as guests to join her on key tracks: Imelda May on the driving, gently rolling Mountains To The Sea (which also features the Henry Girls on backing vocals), Janis Ian on Ry Cavanaugh’s Lighthouse Light – which, notwithstanding the unavoidable superficiality of the lyric, exudes a folky intimacy and breathy, hushed empathy between the two long-time friends – and Finbar Furey on his own composition Walking With My Love (which has a certain rustic charm when done as a duet).
But I’ll have to admit that I find some of the rest of the material on this collection rather middle-of-the-road, and few of the individual tracks really make much of a lasting impression. And I don’t find Mary’s singing entirely consistent: there are times when she sounds tired and strained, and even on a top-notch song like While & Matthews’ Steady Breathing, her tendency to slip into a wearied vibrato compromises the tender clarity of the song’s message (as well as its literal title!), as it does (though to a lesser extent) her otherwise exemplary reading of Eric Bogle’s powerful anti-war statement All The Fine Young Men, although, as If to compensate, both songs are blessed with a gentle, nicely restrained backing courtesy of Bill Shanley, Pat Crowley and Nicky Scott. The disc’s “wild-card” bonus track is a throwaway cover of the obscure 1965 Hollies novelty Fifi The Flea, reasonably enough decked out as a Parisian café-waltz.
I’ve no doubt that a majority of listeners will be fairly satisfied with this latest release from a singer with pedigree who’s definitely losing some of her touch both in matters of vocal powers and artistic judgement, but for me, and despite its generally high level of accomplishment, the collection doesn’t entirely connect.

www.mary-black.net

David Kidman


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Nanci Griffith – INTERSECTION (Proper PRPCD. 096)

Here 20 albums into her career, Intersection is being promoted as Nanci’s most personal album yet: an exposed examination of what’s been a particularly difficult period in her life, involving much turmoil and various bust-ups. This all fairly explodes on track 5, Hell No (I’m Not Alright), the catchy, if frenzied delivery and pounding Buddy Holly-style setting of which rather belies her anger. Several of the album’s subsequent tracks share a similarly deceptively pop-lite vibe, which may or may not work to Nanci’s advantage here.
For Intersection sees Nanci at a kind of musical – and literal – crossroads, an uneasy paradox of a kind, where the contemplative, tender-yet-defiant songs like If I Could Only Fly that form the emotional core of the record are almost subsumed by the album’s altogether pithier, more uptempo outings like Bad Seed and the yearningly wistful Just Another Morning Here. On Never Going Back, a composition by Mark Seliger, Nanci voices her feelings on leaving her native Texas some years earlier, whereas Davey’s Last Picture is a character study much in the mould of Nanci’s more familiar vignettes and the reflective opener Bethlehem Steel concerns the closing of a mill in the very town where Robert De Niro filmed The Deer Hunter.
The album closes on a more optimistic note: in just under two minutes, Come On Up Mississippi manages to both rally and rouse, followed by the barely-a-minute-longer bluegrassy, banjo-ridden High On A Mountain Top. This breezy closer only adds to the unease with which Nanci straddles the contradictions of that metaphorical and literal intersection here. The musical backdrop, too, is unusual in Nanci’s output in that it imports the skilled jangle of Peter and Maura Kennedy, a sonic signature which is key to these very contradictions.
If you take this album on a cursory listen, you may hear much of it as unduly chirpy, so you need to take in the lyrics almost on a separate plane to get the most out of them. It’s curious that even after a few playthroughs, overall, and musically speaking, Intersection still doesn’t seem to be a wholly consistent set, but nevertheless I feel sure you’ll find it hard to resist Nanci’s charm as she guides you eloquently and honestly through her recent experiences.

David Kidman


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Various Artists – TRANSATLANTIC SESSIONS 2 (DVD) (Whirlie DVD05)

The Transatlantic Sessions franchise has always been one of the most convivial and satisfying of its kind of music-based TV programmes, and from the very start it’s been essential viewing for enthusiasts of traditional roots, country, bluegrass and Americana music, swiftly converting non-believers to the cause. But when you consider its rather belated “official” recognition (by dint of receiving the Good Tradition Award at 2010’s BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards), it’s hard to reconcile the fact that the original 1995 series was almost shamefacedly tucked away on BBC Scotland’s schedules and (only eventually) even more erratically shown in the rest of the UK. But everyone agrees that since the first series was such a hard act to follow, it was probably no wonder that at the time there would have been initial hesitation in getting a second series commissioned, even though TV audience reaction and participating artists’ enjoyment of the musical experience had been intensely positive. Thankfully, and with Jerry Douglas installed as music co-director (with Aly Bain), it went ahead, and – unlike Series 1 – recordings from the soundtrack were quite issued on CD quite soon after transmission (on the Iona label). However, Series 2 has not until now surfaced on DVD, and its appearance in that format has been eagerly awaited by the series’ fans, who will thus be able to complete the set.
Yes, the delights of Series 1 did prove very hard to follow, but it’s with all credit to the team that musically and artistically Series 2 rose to the challenge and emerged with flying colours. The winning approach wasn’t changed significantly, but aside from a handful of “house band” core musicians the composition of this new gathering brought an almost entirely different mix of artists to the location for communal music-making of the highest order. Once again, though, the pool of participants was drawn from the widest possible spectrum of high-calibre musicians and singers across the Celtic and Americana disciplines, with star names like Sharon Shannon, Donald Shaw, Ronan Browne and Iain Macdonald among the instrumentalists and Paul Brady, Ricky Skaggs with wife Sharon White, Radney Foster, Fiona Kennedy and James Grant among the vocalists. As ever, the selection of music is well-balanced over the course of each of the seven programmes, with lively session-style performances of traditional and composed tunes interspersed with thoughtfully arranged songs.
In the space available I can only cherrypick a few of my favourite performances in the hope of persuading you to purchase the DVD!… The first half of Programme 3 is especially sublime, with Maura’s rendition of Trouble In The Fields followed by a tasty whistle solo (a scintillating pair of tunes) from Breda Smyth and then Eddi Reader joined by Boo Hewerdine on the latter’s Footsteps Fall. Nanci Griffith contributes four solos, pick of which is probably the acappella Road To Aberdeen (Programme 4), but Who Knows Where The Time Goes? (Programme 2) and Boots Of Spanish Leather (Programme 1) run it close. Jerry Douglas’ sublime Tribute To Peadar O’Donnell is both the highlight of Programme 5 and the centrepiece of the whole series (it’s used as the disc’s main menu theme too). Other high points include Sharon White’s Mansion On The Hill (Programme 7), Karen Matheson’s stunning display of mouth music on bodhrán virtuoso Tommy Hayes’ Sanseptique Set (also on Programme 7), the three items featuring the late John Martyn in consort with Danny Thompson, and the various Michael Doucet-led cajun pieces scattered throughout the first four programmes.
Sandwiched in between some of the individual items are very brief sections of footage of rehearsal, chat and general bonhomie which add to the intimate and informal atmosphere, sure, but don’t always relate particularly to the musical performances on either side, while there are several curiously-judged moments (notably during the “session” items) when the camera doesn’t automatically hone in on the soloist, but generally the presentation is pretty much ideal, apart from the slightly irritating tendency for an occasional overdubbing of natural sounds that form the soundtrack for accompanying landscape shots (either stills of highland scenery or travelling mountain panoramas).
But the enormous positives far outweigh any minor negatives, and the DVD will be regarded as an essential purchase for all true connoisseurs of this fabulous music – some of whom may even be encountering this series for the first time.

www.whirlierecords.co.uk

David Kidman


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Slaid Cleaves – SORROW AND SMOKE (Music Road Records MMR. 011)

This double-live set is a good example of its kind, presenting what seems like a straight (virtually unedited) transfer of two complete sets (from a pair of dates in April and June of 2010 respectively) that together make up what might be one typical relaxed, laid-back gig at the Horseshoe Lounge in Slaid’s adopted home of Austin, Texas – a venue which Slaid admits he passed by many many times before even venturing inside!…
He gets the crowd on his side right at the start by namechecking the venue not only as the second song’s title but also referred to in passing in the next song too, then takes the crowd through a representative selection of songs from his back-catalogue that deal with the down-trodden and other folks that’ve evidently had a rough deal from life. Some, like Broke Down, have been audience favourites for years, whereas several have been taken from his most recent studio album, 2009’s Everything You Love Will Be Taken Away. Some (particularly New Year’s Day and Tumbleweed Stew, towards the end of the first disc) make a virtue of Slaid’s characteristic laconic humour, whereas Sinner’s Prayer and Wishbones take the other side of the coin and grasp it with both hands. Slaid gets some superbly potent instrumental support from his trusty cohorts Michael O’Connor (lead acoustic guitar) and Oliver Steck (accordion, trumpet and harmonica), but his own performance is pretty exemplary too, surprisingly so on a deep-cowboy interlude during the second disc where he indulges in some high-class yodelling on a pair of classy Don Walser numbers before getting the audience to do some heavy-duty work themselves on the epic Breakfast In Hell. Finally, Slaid closes the show with a tryout of a new (and actually quite upbeat) song, Go For The Gold.
Yeah, this is a reliable record of an evening in the company of a stylish and well-regarded Americana stalwart who seems unable to disappoint. Nicely presented too, complete with repro beer-mats in the package!

www.slaid.com

David Kidman


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QFTRY & Tom Lewis – POLES PART TOO (Self-Propelled Music ASM.106CD)

That doughty ex-submariner Tom Lewis is one of the most entertaining and engaging performers on the folk and maritime circuit, with a tremendous personality, a compelling larger-than-life presence and demeanour belying his size, a fantastically strong voice and an immense (and varied) repertoire; and he’s written loads of darned fine songs to boot! So anticipation is keen on hearing of Poles Part Too, which is the first release from Tom in rather too many years (his last solo CD, 360: All Points Of The Compass, dates back to 2004).
Poles Part Too, a direct sequel to Tom’s 2002 album Poles Apart, which featured him singing in tandem with a group of Polish singers and musician friends (five are named – tho’ there are six on the sleeve photo) who now appear to be calling themselves QFTRY, hereby cements the earlier comradely collaboration in fine style. Their voices work very well together and in consort with Tom’s: I think even more so than on Poles Apart, for there’s a more convincing sense of ensemble, an altogether richer blend and a more rounded overall balance with a firm bass line and more considered (and polish-ed – no linguistic pun intended!) arrangements, especially with regard to the disposition of harmonies. These boys have been singing together for almost 20 years – and it shows. On the new recording, QFTRY also betray less of a marked sense of “foreign accent”, and those listeners who were taken aback by their practice of singing parts of some songs and shanties in their native Polish can relax now, for on Poles Part Too the Polish language only surfaces on one occasion (the chorus to the final verse of The Last Shanty).
As far as repertoire goes, this latest collection is, according to Tom’s website, “a selection of songs to make you wonder at where the genre “nautical song” might be heading”. Yes indeedy; but not quite, for Tom’s repertoire has always been noted for its all-encompass-ing (yes, the pun is intended this time!) nature. I’ve no problem with that; nevertheless, some hardcore sea-dogs may still feel that Tom pushes the boat out (and his luck) a touch on this occasion by trawling his net to embrace ragtime (San Francisco Bay Blues), breezy calypso (Bimini) and even swamp-rock (Creedence Clearwater’s Proud Mary) on board his eclectic ship. But when all’s said and done, all Tom’s doing is taking his crew for a stroll around the deck, and this “walk around the back” can give a fresh perspective on everything that might go on aboard ship (including things that might not appear to fit the accepted mould of maritime music). Thus, all these disparate pieces are dispatched with due sense of joie-de-vivre and often considerable relish, as are the various items more traditionally accepted as core maritime repertoire, like the shanties (Pay Me My Money Down and Tom’s own classic The Last Shanty, reprised from his Surfacing! album).
The disc also contains a couple of forebitters: Passage To Grimsby is done to a stirring bodhrán tattoo, whereas Spanish Ladies, though similarly lustily sung, suffers a tad from the incorporation of a “scratchy record” intro (inspired, Tom tells me, by his early recollection of a 1950 radio programme on which he first heard the tune) and sundry, arguably less forgivable sound effects. The Mississippi riverboat sounds that play out Proud Mary aren’t as intrusive, but the song itself is given a slightly idiosyncratic vocal setting that only picks up steam (as it were) with the lift in tempo after the first verse has been intoned (I feel just a touch laboriously) by the crew’s bass soloist; I had a sneaking impression here that Tom and his chums were (unconsciously?) taking their cue from the maverick Spooky Men’s Chorale… The QFTRY rendition of Grey Funnel Line is also rather unorthodox, being set to a jagged, almost impatient pulse that won’t convince all admirers of this poignant Cyril Tawney opus.
But at least that song is done acappella; elsewhere, well the question of instrumental accompaniment on nautical repertoire is always going to be a controversial one. On this album it’s rather a matter of swings and roundabouts: the Kipling/Bellamy Anchor Song is well managed with just a modicum of complementary instrumental backing, but Alan Fitzsimmons’ setting of Cicely Fox Smith’s poem All Coiled Down seems too fulsomely upholstered and overly cosy, as does the disc’s new version of Fair Winds (the fine recent Tom Lewis composition that’s been available for some time, in acappella form, as a website download) and the strummy QFTRY rendition of Tom’s early success Swallow The Anchor that closes this new disc. I’m sure this wasn’t Tom’s intention, but the latter-mentioned three tracks do seem to smack somewhat of the recent tendency with some maritime music ensembles to “add instruments in order to make the music more palatable and audience-friendly”…
Mercifully this is not the case with the CD’s penultimate item, which ingeniously and aptly furnishes its subtitle (“The Song Goes On – More songs and shanties from the oceans of the world”); stirringly led by Tom here, it chimes very much with the spirits of the late Cyril Tawney (in tribute of whom it was written) and Johnny Collins (whom Tom fittingly describes as “our dear departed friend, mentor and inspiration”). This to my mind is where the ensemble’s special combination of talent, knowledge and total commitment best come together on this disc, in a benchmark rendition of this classic Mick Ryan opus.
So – summing up – this disc provides another instance of mixed cargo that’s likely to provoke a mixed reaction among listeners. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of healthy challenging of preconceptions, of course, and I don’t think this mixed reaction is necessarily likely to be determined by whether or not a listener is a maritime music enthusiast, or a fan of Tom as an uncommonly charismatic solo performer “in the flesh”; although this is after all a studio product, made for home listening, for all that (on some tracks at least) the bloom and life in the recording itself imparts more than a measure of the frisson of a live performance. Actually, probably my biggest regret with this latest release is that it doesn’t contain any new compositions from Tom – I do hope his muse hasn’t dried up…

www.tomlewis.net

David Kidman


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Robb Johnson & The Irregulars – ONCE UPON A TIME (Irregular IRR. 082)

As one of Britain’s premier-league singer-songwriters, and one of the most prolific (still!), Robb surely needs no introduction to readers. But even by his own standards, this new record is seriously fab! It’s also Robb's first full electric band recording since 2008’s Love, Death & Politics. Once Upon A Time features nine new songs performed as-live-as-possible (overdubbing only on vocals, harmonica and tambourine!) with The Irregulars. On this recording they comprise Robb’s trusty long-time powerhouse rhythm section (John Forrester on bass and Charlie Waygood on drums), with new recruit Tim Sanpher on (lead) guitar, who produces some of the most blistering fretwork you could imagine, rising and soaring ferociously above Uncle Robb’s masterly rhythm-axe to conjure a tough, abundantly muscular soundscape that’s as close to vintage Clash and Heartbreakers as any of their post-punk roots successors. There are driving, pounding riffs to die for (check out the powerhouse Magdeburg These Days), and the songs’ surprisingly melodious constructions are replete with chorus lines and tags that hug and hang on in there and just won’t let go.
Once Upon A Time is described on Robb’s website (entirely honestly and accurately, I might add) as “a superbly loud and lively collection of songs set against the fairy-tales of contemporary Britain and Europe”. In fact, the album was originally to be titled Euroville, after the priceless ditty that appears here as second in the running order, but it was felt to smack too much of “concept” and so the more generalised fairytale double-edge connotation of Once Upon A Time was adopted instead. This, of course, will chime neatly in with the projected part-2 offering, Happily Ever After, which Robb plans to bring out this coming spring (not long now!); as a rough guide, the songs on Once Upon A Time represent the slightly more negative side of the coin and those left over to Happily Ever After will reflect the slightly more positive side.
But everything’s relative, and, as always with Robb’s writing, even negativism, in his personal brand of protest folk and rock, is tinged with a certain nostalgia, as on the title track, which proclaims “Once upon a time this was a rock’n’roll town… a punk-rock town” with its typically catchy, riff-driven chorus line that proves irresistible in a distinctly Ramones kind of way (tho’ “Celebrity White Noise” this ain’t!). Naturally, Robb’s chummy “tell me about it!” stance wins you over straightaway to punch the air on songs like Second Division Life, while his ever-impressive literacy remains strongly in evidence for the cognoscenti among us (eg. the cheeky TS Eliot Prufrock paraphrase on Euroville: “They cross the bridge, they come and go, in T-shirts by Michelangelo”!). For there’s always been so much more than “oi!” to Robb’s songwriting, and his commentaries are far removed from simplistic, empty gesturing and posturing.
There’s a lot of thought and genuine craft gone into the songs’ construction, and Robb’s skills as a wordsmith are invariably finely honed even when the sentiments seem all too obvious (don’t be deceived by Prince Charming – aka David Cameron!) or rendered into nursery-rhyme speak (Feast Of Fools’ “Three wise monkeys, three wise men: let’s play spot the difference”). And remember, deep in the midst of the chaotic, busy, noisy universe there’s the sound of a broken heart still beating (here it’s ominously pulsating in Patterns), and may be your only companion on the Long Road Home. So save a place for me tonight at the Feast Of Fools…!

www.robbjohnson.co.uk

David Kidman


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John Kelly – FOR HONOUR AND PROMOTION (PI Recordings, no catalogue number)

Back in 2008, some 40 years after his folk club debut, self-styled “Harmonium Hero” John Kelly released Come All You Wild Young Men, his very first – and long, long overdue – CD. Reviewing it then, I praised John for his intelligent, thoughtful and elegant performances of traditional song. For the followup disc (which thankfully has taken him only barely a tenth as long to get released!), John has widened his net outwith the purely English tradition to include texts from Scottish and Irish sources too, and he treats us to some matchless interpretations of classic songs and ballads that in lesser hands we’ve probably grown weary of long since. The opening track, By The Hush (better known as Paddy’s Lamentation), makes for an invigorating introduction to John’s artistry. It’s one of seven out of the fifteen tracks where we find John accompanying himself on his trusty harmonium, an instrument which creates a significantly special atmosphere of almost reverent intensity that’s also at once very musical and satisfyingly involving for the listener. These songs range from a hauntingly lyrical version of Greenland Whale Fisheries – artfully arranged and beautifully poised – to the almost-parlour-ballad feel of Slievenamon (written by Tipperary man Charles Kickham) and the well-loved Streams Of Lovely Nancy. The altogether less fulsome, even more demure, tones of the harmoniflute (a small hand-pumped lap organ dating from the 1850s) prove strangely apt as a backdrop for John’s authoritative account of the grisly ballad of Maria Marten.
Three songs are expertly and unobtrusively accompanied on the cittern (Mary Hamilton comes off particularly well, and its eight-minute span captivates while seeming to pass in the blink of an eye almost), while a further three sport a bustling and craftsmanlike guitar accompaniment (on Days Of ’49, John even indulges in a frailing technique, not often heard on the guitar). It’s all too easy to underestimate John’s musicianship, but just take a listen to his evocative and entirely idiomatic take on Bogie’s Bonny Belle and you can’t fail to be convinced Just one song (When A Man’s In Love) is rendered unaccompanied (“with hands in pocketses”!), using the tune John learnt from the late Frank McCall (who sang with him in The Wakes group at the beginning of the 1970s).
John really is an excellent singer, whom we don’t see often enough around the folk clubs; he has an appealing tone, a natural command of phrasing and an unerring sense of line and gentle dynamics. And it’s evident from listening to these wholly satisfying renditions that for every single item on this magnificent 70-minute disc John has lived extensively with these songs and thought long and hard about their interpretation and the optimum performing versions. His scholarship is exemplary too, as can be seen from the meticulous care with which he credits and acknowledges sources in his booklet notes. This is a warm and intimate disc that ideally reflects John’s presence in a simply recorded demonstration of his consummate musicianship and his deep lifelong commitment to traditional song. (Available for just £10, from harmoniumhero@hotmail.com.)

David Kidman


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Tallulah Rendall – ALIVE (Transducer 2)

London-based singer-songwriter Tallulah released her debut full-length album (Libellus) back in 2009; it took the form of a sturdy 50-page illustrated hardback book with CD insert, and it was immediately apparent that it came with a sense of artistic purpose that rebutted any potential charge of trendy attention-grabbing gambit. Tallulah’s latest offering is no less ambitious, and ostensibly follows a similar format, this time delivering a luxurious 96-page full-colour hardback that houses both a CD and a DVD. Audio and visual elements come at the recipient from all angles, and taking in the album through both media is an overwhelming, heady, almost giddy experience that’s undeniably quite hard to come to terms with on first acquaintance.
Musically, it’s another bold and supremely proud statement that rocks and enchants in almost equal measures, monumental in scale and yet personal and intimate in scope: a dichotomy that occasionally seems just a touch discomforting and uneasy, however confidently it’s executed, although Tallulah’s core backing band (guitar, cello and bass) gives it all a unity through a pounding live feel that’s very convincing, creating often epic rock-like gestures and majestic sweeping soundscapes yet retaining a clarity of texture that’s always impressive. Artistically, its exploratory freedom and visionary confidence is reflected in Tallulah’s special commissioning of a series of 11 artworks that, in order to instinctively respond to and realise the songs’ ideas, collaborate within different mediums (painting, photography, jewellery, animation, dance)… all of which Tallulah has managed to reproduce in some way within the book but which are more fully realised during the videos on the accompanying DVD (which also includes interview segments that even more closely follow the creative workings and philosophies of the individual nominated artists). The videos all genuinely inform our experiences of the songs, although I would’ve liked to’ve seen the actual lyrics reproduced somewhere in the package too. The other mildly disconcerting aspect of the book is its sequence, which departs almost entirely from the album’s playing-order (you have to cross-refer to the table of contents).
But to get back to a consideration of the music contained within, and its impact… Vocally, there are moments recalling Patti Smith (Go Bathe In The Light), Kate Bush (Older Then The Hills) and Thea Gilmore, but also (more often) the toughness of P.J. Harvey, and we can still marvel at Tallulah’s versatility, her ability to rise from fragile to operatically soaring, although there are times too when I almost yearn to hear her voice in a sparser setting. Each song has its own dedicated soundscape, just as it is given its own style of artistic treatment from Tallulah’s commissioned collaborator, this in turn defining the character of that song. Thus Go Bathe In The Light evokes through a combination of heavy jewellery and refracted photography a hard but sensuous bling. This contrasts with the music-becoming-art – and vice-versa – vibe of Underground, with its brilliant batch of jewel-like, primary-colour miniature paintings (from the dreamy and idyllic Devon forest studio of Beshlie McKelvie, who’d previously worked with Tallulah on the art for Libellus). The stately swooning movements of Ghost In The Water were directly conjured by a pole-dancer (whose practice positively demands it be taken seriously as an art-form and a means of self-expression), whereas the watercolour camera-obscura textures of Back To You uncannily evoke the flow of orgasmic self-empowerment that permeates the lyric. Blind Like A Fool has animated, eyeball-popping cartoon graphics dancing with Tallulah across and thru the screen, in a playful, cheeky, fun vaudeville style, while Older Than The Hills is an almost wilfully strange exploration of the art of location photography to evoke an intense mystical connection with landscape. The contagious headlong immersion in kaleidoscopic colour on Under The Wire is complemented by Colourblind’s tumbling montage of Ci-men and other emblems which together form an all-encompassing portrait of Tallulah herself. Finally comes Lost On The Way, which is arguably the most conventional in approach (in music-video terms, that is) in that it’s the artist/animator’s own direct, and insightful, interpretation of the song lyric in that specific format. Many of the videos contain footage from the recording sessions, and they all document the commissioned artist’s creative process and embrace the finished product; but the main thing that comes across is Tallulah’s total, and unshakable, belief in her unique and thoroughly exploratory approach to the presentation of her songs. This is magnificent, intelligent and intriguing stuff, for which the title of Alive proves an understatement!

www.tallulahrendall.com

David Kidman


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Dan Milner, David Coffin & Jeff Davis – CIVIL WAR NAVAL SONGS (Smithsonian Folkways SFW CD 40189)

Released to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the American Civil War, this spirited collection, subtitled Period Ballads From The Union And Confederate Navies And The Home Front, presents us with thirteen authentic maritime songs (though not, apparently, including shanties as is claimed on the press release). Almost all of these will be little-known, even to devotees of this repertoire, but every item is impeccably performed in the tradition by acknowledged experts in the field of folklore who are well used to the discipline of musical and historical research and the resultant performance. The three main performers are Irish traditional singer Dan Milner (American-raised son of an Irish mother and English father); singer, concertina player and period-instrument virtuoso David Coffin (Education Director of the Boston Early Music Festival); and that excellent singer, banjo, fiddle and dulcimer player Jeff Davis, who’s widely regarded as one of the country’s foremost interpreters of American folk music (his recent CD Some Fabulous Yonder is a much treasured item in my own collection). Six of the selections are solo performances (three apiece by Jeff and David), all but one of the remainder having limited instrumental backing involving a minimal but varying complement of guest musicians (on piano, banjo or concertina, or, in one case, clarinet, piccolo, trombone and drum). Dan’s stirring acapella rendition of the rather Copper-like broken-token broadside A Yankee Man-Of-War (done to a melody collected by George Gardiner in Hampshire, it turns out) boasts chorus vocals from Johnson Girls Deirdre Murtha and Bonnie Milner (who also swell the vocal ranks on a couple of other tracks). The disc is magnificently packaged, with an extensive 36-page booklet containing James Bradford’s comprehensive 12-page chronicle of The American Civil War Afloat, full credits and bibliography, archive photos galore and brilliantly informative background notes on the individual songs by Dan Milner himself. The performances are authoritative and committed, with an intimate immediacy and gritty sense of atmosphere – highlights for me are Jeff’s marvellous vocal-and-fiddle treatment of The Florida’s Cruise, his old-timey-dulcimer-and-banjo-accompanied ballad The Bold Privateer, and David’s sturdy baritone-and-concertina rendition of The Old Virginia Lowlands, Low (possibly the most familiar of all the items on the disc). I do, however, have a minor reservation concerning the items which use piano accompaniment, since in a few of the cases this renders them arguably too close to the parlour for their subject matter. This matters less with the pair of Irish-showband-style items Farragut’s Ball and The Monitor & Merrimac, but the wistful and slightly sentimental tone seems to go against the grain on The Alabama (despite it actually having been composed as a parlour-ballad) and the forecastle song The Jamestown Homeward Bound (with a melody somewhat reminiscent of the forebitter Old Maui), which to my mind receives a somehow more satisfying reading on a recent Richard Adrianowicz CD. But I’d not be without this fine disc, for its exemplary musicianship and erudition and its scholarly (but not dry) enlightenment, providing as it does a refreshing insight into the riches of a branch of folk music that tends to be unfairly neglected or at best undervalued.

www.folkways.si.edu

David Kidman


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Gabe McVarish – ECLECTION (Greentrax CDTRAX. 348)

Fiddler Gabe hails from Northern California; he’s been a key member of the Gaelic supergroup Daimh since its foundation in 1998, but he’s also played and recorded with a number of other bands since settling in the Scottish Highlands – including Croabh Rua, Corner House and the Black Rose Ceilidh Band – and has recently featured on Ewan Robertson’s Greentrax album Some Kind Of Certainty. Now, at last, we get a solo album from Gabe – albeit with the audible support of a host of equally talented fellow-musicians, who to their credit don’t cramp Gabe’s style in the slightest but instead really enhance by sparingly surrounding. The album’s title, Eclection, really lives up to its definition, for the range of material is well varied – i.e. from a large number of geographical sources within Celtic tradition. It celebrates fiddle styles and repertoire from virtually every side of both the Atlantic and the Irish Sea, and for each individual track selection the accompaniment and musicians are chosen carefully to reflect the music’s source, therein lying the album’s principal attraction (aside, of course, from Gabe’s marvellously controlled, versatile and idiomatic playing, which is throughout a veritable model of dexterity!). Those appearing? Apart from those namechecked elsewhere in this review, there’s Ross Martin, Martin O’Neill, Iain MacDonald, Eamonn Doorley, Luke Daniels and Mac Morin: what a lineup! Especially appealing episodes in Gabe’s 57-minute musical travelogue (which amounts to a leisurely and absorbing whistle-stop tour) are the sprightly Uillean Set (on which Gabe is joined by piper Darlath Henderson), the charming pair of waltzes (track 8) with John Somerville on piano accordion, the Highland Jigs (track 6) and the Tommy Peoples Set in tribute to the inspirational fiddler (and composer of the reels in question). The closing track’s another keen tribute, this time to a master piper, the late Gordon Duncan; with Angus MacKenzie, Duncan Lyall and Ewan MacPherson in tow, the result makes for an exhilarating end to the album. Gabe has really excelled himself here, with an affectionate and supremely musicianly display of genuine understanding of a large number of playing styles. All aspiring fiddle players should consider this disc an object lesson in how to assimilate and project both texture and dynamics without any loss of demonstrable virtuosity.

www.ciarandorris.com
David Kidman


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Ciaran Dorris – HOME (Greentrax CDTRAX. 354)

Belfast-born Ciaran moved to Glasgow in 1988, got ensconced there as Celtic Music Radio presenter and rapidly established himself on the Scottish folk club circuit. A sensitive songwriter and fine (tenor) singer, who crosses musical borders with Americana and contemporary folk stylings, he’s previously recorded with the band Arran Bede; I first encountered Ciaran when he performed in a duo with Perthshire singer Heather Innes (I remember their fine 2004 album Waiting For The Calm). Home is only the second direct fruit of his solo career, but a smooth and accomplished product it is. It’s a kind of concept suite, in the sense that its title is the overriding preoccupation of all the songs therein, which together form a virtual travelogue on an emigration theme. Both side of the coin – romanticism and reality – are captured here in accessible musical language and often impressively assured lyricism. Ciaran’s personal exploration of his chosen theme is persuasive and all-embracing, and it’s probably fair to say that his general approach and style may at times seem more of a throwback to classy 70s singer-songwriters like John Denver, whereas at other times he displays a distinct leaning towards more traditional song forms – though always with a good understanding of the craft (he also includes a nice treatment of Spancil Hill – the album’s only traditional piece). Accompaniment is provided by Craig Dunsmore (keyboards), Shona Mooney (fiddle), Calum Stewart (flute, whistle), Maya Burman-Roy (cello), Stuart Duncan (bass), Sandy Jones (programming), and Graeme Duffin (electric guitar), the latter-named also being responsible for the album’s production. There are also backing vocals from Gillian Duncan, and guest vocals from Mary Kathleen Burke and Toni Wood. The most memorable of Ciaran’s songs are those where he’s informed by, and is best able to integrate, his traditional influences into a popular idiom – for example the breezy yet poignant Land Of Love And Light – whereas the most potent of his introspective reflections occur on creations like the Iraq-themed Killing Time, and there’s a lovely bittersweet yet wistful gently-rolling troubadour quality to One Soul Passing (this song’s perhaps a touch reminiscent of Harvey Andrews or Eric Bogle). Indeed, it’s the closing stages of the album that contain some of Ciaran’s most impressive writing: I found the invocation of Ghosts On Glasgow Green (marking the 20th anniversary of Ciaran’s arrival in that city) particularly moving. On the other hand, one or two of the preceding tracks seem to steer too close to blander radio-friendly mainstream (like The Road, where Ciaran’s tone is a little too impassioned for its own good perhaps). But the occasional misjudgement is no excuse for not sampling the many delights to be found elsewhere on Ciaran’s Home ground.

www.ciarandorris.com

David Kidman


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Josh Rouse & The Long Vacations – JOSH ROUSE & THE LONG VACATIONS (Bedroom Classics BEDCD.011)

Even coming to Josh’s new offering, his ninth, from the perspective of his Country Mouse, City House album, this is a strange little disc. Weighing in at a mere 25 minutes though, I’d say it’s unacceptably short for a long vacation, barely giving time for acclimatisation before disappearing into the ether again. Its defiantly lo-fi, lo-effort vibe has you out there in the sun casually soaking up the goodness of the rays, reflecting on life with a playful smile flitting over you and across into the landscape around you. Warm, friendly and accessible, sure – and with a very much “live for the moment” demeanour. And yet there are moments when it all seems too insubstantial, adapting itself almost like a chameleon to its vacational surroundings. Recorded in Spain, yet not sounding “Spanish”, this is a relaxed set that exudes a free-and-easy spirit (in the catchy music and its carefree acoustic rhythms) that has the effect of tripping out and belying the depth of thought or feeling within Josh’s lyrics. The best of the nine songs carve a path through hazy memories of 60s sunshine-psych-pop in a soft-rock-indie kind of way that’s very appealing: Fine, Fine and Disguise both shuffle on in the form of a hesitant bossa-nova, while Diggin’ In The Sand is dripping with Simon & Garfunkel nonchalance; Oh, Look What The Sun Did echoes the busy pitter-patter of early Tyrannosaurus Rex, Lazy Days evokes both the Beach Boys and the Kinks, and Friend recalls the more pensive side of Syd Barrett, while the more ominous tread of To The Clock, To The City is perhaps too unsettlingly bouncy (in a 60s-weird way) for its own good. Josh’s support crew consists entirely of local musicians specially recruited for the purpose, who bring an unforced air of deft and natural precision to the songs. I suppose in the end, it’s kinda hard to know what to make of Josh’s personal vision on the strength of just this 25 minutes, but nevertheless I really do find this album’s intrinsic unpretentious likeability highly addictive.

www.joshrouse.com

David Kidman


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Bruce Roper – ACCIDENTAL ENGLISH (Waterbug WBG0097)

Bruce’s one of the leading lights in Chicago’s slightly wayward outfit Sons Of The Never Wrong, but he’s not deserted their ranks yet, although he’s now been persuaded to record this solo album. It chronicles a stage in his life that’s all too familiar but rarely told in song with any real success – that of a man facing his midlife stage with confidence and relaxed optimism, now settling down to family life following a couple of decades of living at the sharper end of protest. He describes the album as “fourteen songs about young love, sung by an old man”, and while that’s certainly true of the majority of the songs in some way, their often quite personal nature is rendered sufficiently universal by Bruce’s simple and unaffected use of everyday language and concepts, with each song depicting life’s home truths, and those minor revelations that come with middle-age, with unassuming intelligence. Special delights are the heartfelt Miss You In Time, the vulnerable If I Gave, the clever-but-not-contrived wordplay of To Hell With Aubergine and the obvious truths of Boy Makes Girl Laugh (“It’s the worst thing he can do”), while the reflective Cowboy harks back to Bruce’s maverick reputation as a song-slinger. And at the disc’s centre is Man Has No Heart, a seemingly deliberate homage to the classic McGarrigles number Heart Like A Wheel. But it must be said that each of Bruce’s songs is a model of economy, in tending to make its point well and early, then departs the stage without overstaying their welcome. Bruce’s singing style, well bedded-in from The Sons, is immediately recognisable (a little like Lou Reed, as has been remarked), and he keeps the musical settings as uncomplicated as the songs, with restrained and genial acoustic guitar backed by occasional piano, organ, cello, mandolin, electric guitar and a little soft-edged rhythm here and there. Why Accidental English then? – apparently because English happens to be Bruce’s only language… OK, fair nuff.

www.waterbug.com

David Kidman


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Hugh Blumenfeld – DAD (Waterbug WBG91)

Hugh’s a hardened veteran of the underground songwriting movement, known for his wide-ranging, literate and often edgy work. Having chalked up close on a quarter of a century’s loyal service there, including spending half of that time as a professional musician, it might seem an unusual next-step to go to medical school, become a practising GP and raise a family – but that’s exactly what he’s gone and did (or should I say dad?!). But hey, that ain’t to be taken as a sign that his writing has gone all soft, cosy and kiddiefied – although there are inevitably concessions to the new status as proud father in the form of the thematic preoccupations of his latest CD. But what sets this project entirely apart from the yukky, mawkish child-friendly tosh you might expect is the genuinely insightful nature of Hugh’s writing and his abject refusal to patronise his listeners; he writes from an entirely natural angle, from true experience, and it shows. He captures the essence and immediacy of those precious moments of child-rearing, from the child’s arrival on this planet (Welcome To The World) and the ensuing hubbub of the birthing ward (NICU At Nite), to a tender and beautiful song of reassurance (Daddy’s Got You Now) and a pair of contrasting celebrations of sleep (Till The Morning and Sleep Sarah Sleep). There’s a rollicking New Orleans-style travel-song (Rock You), a boogie-woogie ode to coffee, and some innocent but aware child’s-eye views of new experiences (Daddy I’m Awake and Wonder Wonder Why), then a whole series of lullabies of varying tone (the charming Sail On Little Sailor, the thought-provoking Sad Hard Dream, the reverse-psychology of Cry Little Guy) and, closing the disc, a simple expression of the devoted parent’s feelings when apart from the child (My Little Boy’s Moon). But charming though all these songs be, special standouts for me were Cradle Song (in which a couple finally, after 20 years, has a reason to fetch the cradle they made for all their siblings’ children) and the brief but poignant Visitation (concerning a dream in which Hugh’s mother appeared to him). This whole sequence of exceedingly well-crafted, witty and affectionate little songs both celebrates Hugh’s new-found status and provides ready empathy for anyone who’s been there (or been close to someone who has). It’s all most appealingly sung, and the tasteful instrumental embellishments brilliantly complement the writing (special mention for Mark Dann, Mark Ettinger, Tim Carbone, Jessie Reagan Mann and some particularly lovely harmony vocal work from Kate Ettinger, Diane Chodkowski and Rod MacDonald).

www.hughblumenfeld.com

David Kidman


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James McCandless – ONE (St. Christopher STCD. 7001)

Montana-born though latterly based in Chicago, James is one of those singer-songwriters who’s been making high-quality music rather quietly for a number of years without coming to the attention of many folks outside of a circle of dedicated cognoscenti. I originally came across his better-than-pleasing joint album with Julianne Macarus (Out West Somewhere) in the very early days of the estimable Waterbug label, since which time I appear to have missed out on at least two further album releases bearing James’ name, for he’s only since crossed my path once, a couple of years ago, with his charismatic western-themed collection Calamity James, a review of which (due to the usual pressures of available time) never made it beyond draft form but which was nevertheless a most worthwhile and accommodating record. As indeed is One, which also just happens to be a good example of a disc that makes an exponential leap in listener appreciation between first and second playthrough, with the result that by third or fourth acquaintance you’re mighty hooked by the best of the tracks and at the very least well charmed by the remainder. At just ten tracks and 34 minutes’ playing-time, One may be counted only a short disc (and more’s the pity), but there’s no stinting in quality, for James again presents us with a persuasive mix of highly-crafted self-penned jewels of songs and a couple of beautifully registered and succinctly leisurely guitar-instrumental tracks, the latter (each consisting of a pair of traditional tunes) conveying the spell cast by James’ childhood experience of listening to his grandfather (a fiddle player par excellence). James’ original songs benefit from his distinctive singing voice – a powerfully deep, rich growl that allows for considerable expressive variety – and individual style of delivery. James’s world-vision embodies what might be described an understated, intimate version of the wider-screen panorama of life’s experiences, directly conveyed with a laudably wry kind of observation that’s couched in language of surprisingly moving poetry. Standout songs here include The Boy (a darkly enigmatic first-person narrative strategically placed at the heart of the disc), the simple yet poignantly life-affirming character study Poor But Honest and the aromatic reminiscence The Fragrance Of Cold Water; but James also provides attractive and thought-provoking moments on the philosophical title track and the art-history-referential I Am Here. Humour and contrast comes in the shape of the rather obvious morning-after assessment of One Too Many. The musical settings are both characterful and complementary, James being ably supported by the keen playing of Julianne Macarus (violin, viola), Victor Sanders (guitar), Meg Thomas (percussion) and Jimmy Moore (bass). The only setting that doesn’t entirely convince, perhaps, is the quasi-Caribbean treatment bestowed on the tale of The Tyger. But by and large this is a very fine collection, one that really does provoke the question of why James is not more widely acclaimed by connoisseurs of contemporary singer-songwriting. And very helpfully too, lyrics are provided in the accompanying booklet to assist in your appreciation of James’s talent.

www.waterbug.com

David Kidman


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Tom Glazer – TREASURY OF CIVIL WAR SONGS (Smithsonian Folkways SFWCD40187)

One of two discs recently released to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the American Civil War in April 1861, this issue concentrates rather more familiar (maybe too much so for some listeners) material than its companion Civil War Naval Songs (also reviewed on this site). Perhaps for that very reason, it also seems less satisfying in comparison – or that reaction might just be due to Tom’s straightforwardly old-fashioned performing style, which betrays the fact that this collection had originally appeared on LP (on the CMS label) back in 1973. In that respect alone, you could almost imagine this record coming out in the late-1950s, for Tom’s clear-voiced and entirely unpretentious approach is virtually timeless. Remember, Tom made his first recording of war songs in 1943, so he came to be regarded as a veteran of this repertoire by the time of his death in 2003; he also penned some iconic songs of the 60s folk revival such as Because All Men Are Brothers, so his credentials are pretty sound).
At the same time, though, this reissue sports not only Tom’s original and clear-sighted early-70s-vintage song notes but also a useful bibliography and a series of illuminating mini-essays by University Of Maryland professor Patrick Warfield dealing with important matters of historical perspective such as the songs’ background and sources, perception and reception (all of which monographs reflect the latterly greater level of available scholarship on which we are nowadays able to draw), together with thoughts on the relationship between Tom himself and the songs he here chose to sing. While it’s true that songs with a good tune and rousing lyrics such as these both mirrored and inspired the events of the American Civil War, telling tales of battle, slavery, emancipation, victory and defeat, they also serve as a timely reminder of the lessons that should be learnt from the impact of war and as a reflection on such matters. Thus, the 25 songs included on this collection are remarkable for their sheer variety; there are songs written for the minstrel stage and subsequently borrowed for rallying or morale-boosting (Dixie, Wait For The Wagon and The Yellow Rose Of Texas), and songs written specially for the parlour (Just Before The Battle, Mother); some songs like The Battle Hymn Of The Republic borrow their melodies from religious hymns, while others (Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, Marching Through Georgia and Tenting On The Old Camp Ground) were newly composed by professional tunesmiths such as George Frederick Root, Henry Clay Work and Walter Kittredge.
Some songs actively lament the war, while others goad the listener into participating; some deliberately make light of it (Goober Peas and When Johnny Comes Marching Home) and others still poke fun and lampoon it, often quite unceremoniously and acerbically (Upidee, General Patterson). The Bonnie Blue Flag, composed by comedian Harry McCarthy, uses a melody borrowed from an old Irish tune, while the version of Cumberland Gap recorded here by Tom (composed to a traditional fiddle tune) uses a text that combines local familiarity with military victory by describing the Yankees’ humiliating September retreat to the Ohio River. The songs’ astounding (and perhaps unexpected) variety – and all the fascinating accompanying scholarship in the presentation – could be regarded as the principal virtues of this record, rather than any specifically ear-opening insights or impressive performance values (not that Tom and his fellow performers, who include Eileen, Tom and Patty Gibney and Kemp Harris, are ever less than idiomatic, if perhaps a touch polite-sounding for today’s tastes). It’s still a valuable disc to have in your folklore collection nevertheless.

www.folkways.si.edu

David Kidman


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Andrew Calhoun – GRAPEVINE (Waterbug WBG. 99)

Andrew’s the guiding force behind the wonderful Waterbug label, which has for around two decades championed the work of contemporary folk singer-songwriters while keeping an eye firmly on the American tradition. His own songwriting talent alone has produced a consistently impressive series of half-a-dozen or so CDs; his most recent release, however, was Bound To Go, an uplifting revival-style album of traditional folk songs and spirituals which he recorded in company with a bunch of friends Homeground. Grapevine, Andrew’s impeccably honest tribute to the folk tradition that helped shape his life, is if anything an even more retro-style release – I guess I mean old-fashioned, tho’ in the nicest possible sense of the term! Cos it has very much of the character of one of those classic late-50s albums by Burl Ives or one of the other American revivalists of that era. It’s perfectly simply recorded: just Andrew and his crisply fingerpicked guitar – straight and direct, with absolutely no embellishments or studio effects. Here he takes a relaxed trip down memory lane to perform a clutch of (largely traditional) songs that he (like many of us) heard during his childhood and formative years but since have either been forgotten or having passed so far into common folk currency that they’ve become devalued in the process. Andrew adopts a kind of chronological approach, beginning with three songs remembered from the cradle – I Gave My Love A Cherry (his mother’s favourite lullaby), The Fox and The Gartan Mother’s Lullaby – before moving on eclectically through Irish and American traditions (The Little Beggarman, O Susanna – the latter complete with restored fourth verse!), spirituals (O Mary Don’t You Weep), whaling ballads (We’ll Rant And We’ll Roar), shanties (Shenandoah), American heritage (I Ride An Old Paint) and icons (John Henry, Casey Jones), finally bringing in two songs from very different latter-day writing traditions (Charles O’Neill’s Foggy Dew and Colum Sands’ Buskers) before ending with the folksinger’s credo, How Can I Keep From Singing? Andrew’s singing style is most attractive: fulsome, committed and entirely affectionate, unyieldingly consistent yet uniformly pleasing: there are no expressive revelations, but that’s not the point when you’re communicating such repertoire I guess, and Andrew’s personable charm and luxurious, appealingly resonant timbre will win you over before you know it. In his liner notes Andrew lists his sources and reveals some interesting incidental facts at the same time; he admits to having “cross-stitched and reworked” some of the songs from out of oral tradition (in some cases reflecting recent historical research), but he always comes up with sensible and reliable new performing versions that give the songs a fresh new dimension on their present revisit. An unaffected, charming release which nevertheless exudes a potent feel of communal ancestry, Grapevine is all the more refreshing for its total unpretentiousness.

www.waterbug.com/calhoun

David Kidman


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Shelby Lynne – REVELATION ROAD (Everso Records EVER200)

Back in 1999, Alabama-born Shelby released, for her sixth album, I Am Shelby Lynne, a proud statement of musical intent which was widely acclaimed for its expressive performances of her own original songs that mixed country and soul influences most seductively. Since then, her output has been rather erratic, musically speaking, with the rather forgettable pop vibe of Love, Shelby followed by a pair of low-profile self-produced albums and a diversion into acting for a year or two before coming up with a more satisfying Dusty Springfield tribute album and finally coming right back onto form with 2010’s Tears, Lies And Alibis. Like the latter, Revelation Road contains exclusively self-penned material; and since the bare sleeve credit reads “written, performed and produced by Shelby Lynne” we must assume that she plays all the instruments herself too. This may be why she’s taken the opportunity to explore a number of different musical styles along the way, for it’s a more diverse set than its predecessor in spite of the more personal nature of the songwriting it contains. The country-inflected Americana-styled tracks are the most persuasive, especially for their intimate and spare quality; check out for starters the scratchy opening number (that’s the title track), then Toss It All Aside and The Thief (where Shelby’s on especially fine vocal form). Shelby’s uncanny ability to own a song is never called into question, however, even on the laid-back bossa-nova mood of Lead Me Love, while Woebegone, an album highlight, finds Shelby’s tougher, more directly soulful side very much to the fore in a rockier setting and the closing lullaby I Won’t Leave You is touching in its simplicity. To be fair, though, not all of this batch of new songs strikes gold immediately; the dense amount of autobiographical detail packed into I’ll Hold Your Head arguably feels slightly contrived, intimidating in its exclusiveness (even in context), while I Want To Go Back and Heaven’s Only Days Down The Road both feel derivatively torchy, and I Don’t Need A Reason To Cry lacks melodic interest in comparison with some of the other songs. Revelation Road may not be quite the revelation I expected for a follow-up to Tears, Lies And Alibis, but it contains enough good music to allow us to keep the faith till her next offering. www.shelbylynne.com

David Kidman


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Stevie Palmer – HEARTPRINT SHADOW (Greentrax CDTRAX. 347)

This release falls a touch outwith the usual Greentrax ambit, in that it’s a set of 12 self-penned songs very much in the contemporary acoustic pop vein, evidencing comparatively little of the air of traditional Scottish music. No criticism to the label for taking up the option on Stevie’s talent however, as this proves a fine example of its kind. The press release helpfully informs us that Stevie, originally a drummer, has but comparatively recently taken the decision to devote his full attention to the craft of songwriting. Child of singer Eileen Penman and collector Dougal Carnegie, Stevie’s formative years enabled him to absorb a wide range of influences from songwriters Dougie MacLean, Dick Gaughan and Michael Marra, and Americana greats like Guy Clark, to Paul Weller and jazzers Coleman Hawkins and John Coltrane, through to his first love, 60s Motown and Stax. Evidently inspired by these role models, Stevie’s first forays into songwriting proved successful, being accorded the status of National Burnsong Winner back in 2007, with a song written at that time – Black Is The Sun – being picked up by that man of impeccable taste, Greentrax MD Ian Green, and included on the landmark Greentrax concept release Far, Far From Ypres, out of the acclaim greeting which Stevie was invited to record a full album of his own songs. The understanding and sympathetic Ian McCalman was recruited to produce, and Stevie himself hand-picked for each song a specific combination of musicians from a pool of excellent Scottish sessioners: Steven Polwart (guitar), Kim Edgar (piano), Wendy Weatherby (cello), Mary Macmaster (harp), Allan Knox (bass), Steven Christie (keyboards) and Ross MacDonald (drums). The quality of the recorded sound is impeccable, the arrangements appealing and easy on the ear yet gently stimulating while entirely matching the timbre of Stevie’s voice and apposite to his accomplished writing style. The whole thing’s a touch reminiscent of the Proclaimers (that’s intended as a compliment), but not in any way imitative, and Stevie’s tender craft and assured polish can’t be faulted. So what’s there not to like? – well, nothing actually; although perhaps one or two of the songs are a bit too smooth for my taste (and there are occasions when I feel the silky textures underplay the impact of the sentiments too, a factor which might be responsible for my reaction). But at its best, Stevie’s songwriting is most affecting – from the simple country-flavoured Just A Smile and the charming and fond waltz-time ode to a Princess 1300 to the deeply felt, elegiac Where The Bison Fell (which I can imagine being passionately covered by Dick Gaughan), and the aforementioned war-themed Black Is The Sun, which, movingly reprised here, provides a seriously powerful near-acapella interlude as the disc’s penultimate track. However, after the pindrop impact of Stevie’s mighty performance there, even the epic story-driven closer The John McClinchy Bridge comes across as slightly underwhelming.

www.steviepalmer.co.uk

David Kidman


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Pieta Brown – MERCURY (Red House RHR CD. 242)

Pieta, daughter of the iconic Greg Brown, has an equally disarming, and quite distinctive, performance style that exhibits some of the very same characteristics – notably a fluidity that enables her to switch (yes!) mercurially between country, roots, blues, folk or gospel without batting an eyelid. This can at times lead to a certain over-nonchalance and a suspicion of under-involvement, but not so on her latest album, Mercury, which is as persuasive a collection as we’ve a right to expect from Pieta (and then some). The album was recorded live in just three days, with all the players gathered together in a single-room barn-studio in Tennessee. The cast-list includes Pieta’s frequent collaborator (and husband) Bo Ramsey (a master of production too), together with dependable sessioners Richard Bennett, David Mansfield, Glenn Worf and Chad Cromwell, while Mark Knopfler (with whom Pieta had toured back in 2010) adds some inimitable signature guitar work to the disc’s penultimate number, the edgily bluesy So Many Miles. Following which, Pieta closes the set with a compelling song she wrote backstage on that very tour in wide-eared response to hearing Mark and his band play live, No Words Now. Of course, Pieta plays no mean (if minimal) guitar herself, as you can appreciate on this defiantly less-is-more record… The true gestation of the album, however, is a dream Pieta had about going back south to revisit her Alabama childhood, and so it’s only to be expected that a melange of southern musical styles infuses her work here as naturally as breathing almost. Pieta’s songwriting on this latest project is as seductive as ever, if at times almost wilfully enigmatic and creating a sense of unease and volatility from expectation and emotional understatement; she ranges easily from the delicate I Don’t Mind to the rockabilly-tinged gospel-rouser Glory To Glory, the genial country of Be With You to the queasy Butterfly Blues and the obvious elemental import of the disc’s quintessential title song. And in common with Pieta’s earlier work, you need to be prepared for a certain modicum of delayed-reaction, as her music can take a few plays to reveal its true stature.

www.pietabrown.com

David Kidman


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Kate Macleod & Kat Eggleston – LOST AND FOUND (Waterbug WBG. 100)

This refreshingly unpretentious down-home album brings together for a comfortable sitting-room session two fine songwriters, based in the US, who are long steeped in the music and traditions of America and the British Isles. Here, much as in their live shows, they perform an appealing, well-balanced menu mixing original and traditional songs with a few tunes. In this case, Kate and Kat supply three original songs apiece, with the remainder of the material traditional in origin aside from a representative piece from fellow Waterbug artist (and label mastermind) Andrew Calhoun (The Living And The Breathing Wind, which turns out to be a set highlight) sitting well alongside a sparkling treatment of Robert Burns’ Rattlin’ Rovin’ Robin, an empathic rendition of Jean Ritchie’s None But One, and the set’s wild-card entry, Abba’s friendship-song Chiquitita. Out of this diversity of repertoire, perhaps needless to say, it’s the ladies’ self-penned songs that will make the greatest impact on the listener encountering their work for the first time; indeed, Kate’s memorable opus Lark In The Morning has been recorded by many other artists since its appearance on her debut record of 1995, and here receives a wonderful, richly harmonised, almost McGarrigle-esque treatment from Kate and Kat in consort. The third of her songs in this sequence, the gorgeous Carter-Family-influenced My Forsaken Love, is another excellent example of her craft. Kat’s contributions are no less worthy; both Rain and Africa were occasioned by her father’s dustbowl recollections, whereas Sanctuary, equally inspirational, is a simple song of friendship. That theme (and feeling) of friendship, in fact, pervades the whole recording: here’s two kindred spirits in tune with each other and in ideal harmony, truly at home with each other’s musicianship and entirely affectionate in their virtuosity. The togetherness and pure enjoyment of performing together is also apparent on the instrumental selections, where Kat’s gentle guitar expertise proves a telling foil for Kate’s idiomatic violin playing (and incidentally, they make a good fist of Andy Cutting’s History Man along the way). This is one of those most treasurable records that so effortlessly proves the adage of less being more – in this case, much more.

www.waterbug.com

David Kidman


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The Scoville Units – THE SCOVILLE UNITS (Get Real Records GRRCD015)

The debut album from this six-piece collective has been close to the top of my pile for some months now, a victim of the year’s backlog – a fate it doesn’t deserve, especially with the current rise to prominence of two of its members, Miranda Sykes and Rex Preston, in their duo incarnation (and with an album and tour impending). But the outfit contains plenty of dynamic talent outwith Miranda and Rex – guitarist Ed Boyd has figured in the lineups of countless bands over the past decade, including Flook, Red Ciel and Michael McGoldrick’s band, and has been a much-in-demand session player, whereas banjoist Leon Hunt is also extremely well regarded for his improvisational approach to traditional American old-time music. The lineup is completed by fiddle player/singer Gina Griffin (who’d worked with Leon previously in the 90s) and percussionist Josh Clark (formerly of Sheelanagig and Black Cat Theory, who’d worked with Leon in Daily Planet). The Scoville Units’ stage debut (minus Miranda) was when they were convened (by Donald Shaw, no less) for a Celtic Connections performance alongside Béla Fleck in 2009; the following year they appeared again at Celtic Connections but on that occasion supported legendary dobro player Jerry Douglas. As you might expect from the nature of those key support gigs, their own music centres on bluegrass and Appalachian roots, but arguably trending more towards jazzy newgrass at times, as on the opening track of their debut CD, a relaxed though alert-sounding, thoroughly contemporary-slanted (purely instrumental) reworking of Scarborough Fair. Thereafter, the bulk of their material is also instrumentally based, indeed consisting primarily mostly of inspired and entirely musicianly reworkings of old-time tunes, switching naturally between bluegrass and Scottish or Irish sources and inflections at will (Hangman’s Reel is a good example of this fluidity of approach) with occasional excursions into gently funky swing (Glory At The Meeting House) and Transatlantic Session-style fusion (Riverbend/Glenuig’s Bay). However, there’s also one quite unique strand in the texture on several of the tracks that deserves mention and sets the Scoville Units apart from any other similarly apportioned ensemble – that’s Gina’s scat singing, which features as a supplementary instrumental line either in unison or harmony with her own fiddle playing (as on Clinch Mountain Backstep). Gina also gets to sing more conventionally on a couple of other tracks: Angeline and the more reflective closing number White Pebbles (for neither of which songs, inexplicably, is any composition credit supplied). Overall, this is a promising debut disc; the finely honed improvisational skills and fun interaction between the players is certainly marked, but equally clearly they don’t appear to have quite worked out where their music is going at times, and the feel is occasionally too loose (albeit not exactly directionless) for its own good, which is strange when you realise how disciplined they can be when they need to. Having said that, you’ll still find their music entertaining and inclusive, and the recording is crisply registered (if without the top notch of spontaneous edge there ought to be with such keen individual playing on board).

www.thescovilleunits.com

David Kidman


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Greg Brown – FREAK FLAG (Yep Roc YEP. 2244)

After what seems like countless (actually 23) albums showcasing his glorious deep growl of a voice and tellingly rootsy writing style, you’d perhaps be forgiven for thinking Greg’s got nothing more to prove and nothing more to show – but hell, he just keeps on coming up with the goods, finding a subtly different spin on his art with a brand new collection of self-penned songs of easy craft and dependable quality. Which is why each successive Greg Brown album proves a harder act to review – for if it springs no surprises then there’s gonna be little meaningful to say beyond the “this is another fine record that entirely effortlessly amasses its Brownie Points”. As indeed here with Freak Flag – well almost, I guess. This album nearly didn’t happen – when the entire batch of original recordings destined for its release was destroyed in a lightning strike at the studio site. But Greg just turned round and wrote another new batch of songs! And every one of these is a gently polished little gem with its own special sound-world, from the cheeky Someday House to the wayward rockabilly Where Are You Going When You’re Gone, the wistful reassuring fireside glow of Rain & Snow to the tougher-edged bluesy roller Mercy Mercy Mercy. And this time round, almost at the end of the disc, there’s a couple of covers, both as it turns out by “family”: (daughter) Pieta’s Remember The Sun and (wife) Iris DeMent’s Let The Mystery Be – the latter receiving a particularly gorgeous, vulnerable reading. But it’s quality through and through, with no excess baggage – well, except possibly the title track, a kind of hymn to family connections on which Greg seems (uncharacteristically, but here, forgivably) guilty of over-emoting a little. But I’ll admit, even though Greg’s never anything but leisurely in the manner in which he lovingly caresses you into submission, no individual song is ever allowed to outstay its welcome and he always knows just when to stop. And at the risk of damning with faint praise, you can’t say fairer than that. Oh, and should you still need convincing, here’s one more selling point: a crack backing crew including Bo Ramsey, Richard Bennett, Steve Hayes and Jon Penner, with Mark Knopfler guesting on one track (Flat Stuff). Yes, Greg’s latest offering is an intimate and involving album with a real sense of depth and atmosphere that manages to keep a puckish smile on its face while it keeps its own freak flag a-flyin’…

www.gregbrown.org

David Kidman


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Iarla Ó Lionáird – FOXLIGHT (Real World CDRW184)

Though his speciality is traditional Irish sean-nos singing, Iarla’s most probably best known as Afro Celt Sound System’s principal vocalist, and his previous two solo records (Invisible Fields and The Seven Steps Of Mercy) have seen him pushing the boundaries of what might most readily be termed tradition-influenced folktronica in pursuit of his continually developing personal vision. Use of that particular tag often signals an all-purpose lazy, hazy new-agey approach, which here could not be farther from the truth as it turns out. For Foxlight further creatively develops this aspect, especially in terms of its loving attention to detail, its caressing vocal tones and its gentle, sensitively layered textures (here mostly courtesy of Leafcutter John), the careful restraint and judgement of which is a key reflection of the inspiration Iarla has gained from his recent work outside of Afro Celt SS (perhaps most relevant stylistically, the collaborative project with composer Gavin Bryars). Iarla’s singing is every bit as hypnotic as ever, at times so enviably effortless as to seem like it just emanates from the ether, often taking the line of a melody instrument that complements those within the accompanying texture. Individual timbres therein, such as Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh’s plaintive hardanger fiddle and Leo Abrahams’ electric guitar treatments, greatly complement and enhance the soothing ambience generated by Iarla’s even-toned yet internally passionate vocal lines. Iarla’s compositions form the bulk of the album’s raw material, and the record is also noteworthy in that it showcases Iarla’s first song in English, Glistening Fields, which is both radio-friendly and possessing significant pop-crossover sensibility. In the early stages of the album, however serene and beautiful this effect may be, notably on Iarla’s keening setting of Fainne Geal An Lae, there’s a suspicion thereafter of too much of a good thing, which may simply be because it’s not really until track 7 (The Goat Song, with its playful Highland Laddie interjections) that the tempo is allowed to pick up and rise much above andante or adagio non troppo. This development is undoubtedly welcome by then, although it’s but a temporary shift in mood (culminating in the busier milieu and quite luxurious string staccatos of Hand In Hand); the final three tracks revert to a more subliminal, even dream-like state, with Imeacht, Seven Suns and Stay together forming an especially persuasive sequence that sets the seal on all that’s gone before. What I do find more than mildly surprising – and this applies to the whole album – is that, more so than with Iarla’s earlier records, the overall impact of Foxlight is sometimes quite remote; it also varies more with my own mood than I would have expected, and on some occasions I’ve emerged from parts of the listening experience (particularly the first and middle stages of the album) curiously uninvolved. I was also surprised to discover that track 5 is a version of O’Carolan’s Eleanor Plunkett – Iarla’s is a creative reworking, to be sure, but one where I felt a touch ill at ease with the transformation and the loss of the familiar contours despite the feeling of timelessness and calm it invokes. As a considerable bonus, though, the attractive packaging, with its booklet containing complete lyrics (albeit not all of the relevant translations), enables one to better appreciate the predominantly contemplative music within.

www.iarla-o-lionaird.net

David Kidman


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The Waterboys – AN APPOINTMENT WITH MR. YEATS (Proper PRPCD. 081)

The more superficial of Waterboys fans will probably be puzzled at the prospect of a whole album built around settings of Irish poetry… But this of all concept albums, demands to be taken on its own terms, and entirely without preconceptions. It’s a majestic enterprise, the culmination of close on 20 years of careful thought and preparation on the part of Waterboys main-man Mike Scott. He brings all the characteristic Waterboys drive, passion and rock’n’roll sensibility to his adaptations, which signal his instinctive response to these classic texts, as integral a part of Irish cultural heritage as traditional Celtic music, jigs and reels. Of course, Mike’s always been responsible for directing the band along adventurous and artistically stimulating musical roads, from Fisherman’s Blues through to Book Of Lightning, and the blend of Celtic folk with classic rock and touches of other roots musics has always produced something special and influential – but this latest venture is a truly epic enterprise that (unusually for a project of that kind of scope) really does live up to its pretensions. Its format is that of a continuous suite of music, a kind of cinematic vision of a song-cycle consisting of Mike’s personal adaptations of individual Yeats poems. We first need to remember too that Mike’s been setting Yeats poetry for a while – Fisherman’s Blues included a brilliant adaptation of The Stolen Child, then around five years later (on Dream Harder) he tackled Love And Death, and (four years further on) recorded A Song Of The Rosy-Cross with Sharon Shannon – but this is the first time he’s devoted a whole Waterboys album to Yeats.
Its release has been pre-dated (in March of 2010) by a special stage première of “the Yeats show” over five nights in Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, at which the Waterboys performed 20 Yeats adaptations, the tour subsequently being brought over to the UK. Just 14 of these adaptations have now been recorded for this album. The texts chosen (mostly poems, except for Let The Earth Bear Witness which is a collation of portions of two different plays) together cannily encompass the various facets of Yeats’s art (for which read Ireland itself, by the way), with parallel interests (eg. matters of mythology, romance, history and politics) juxtaposed and given equal weight in order to present a rounded picture of (arguably) the best of the poet’s work. And, importantly, Mike’s deep understanding and admiration of the writer and his work enables him to convey in his music the key qualities of grace, power and lyricism that pervade the writings. He employs some intriguingly innovative touches in terms of both interpretation and instrumentation, with the bold panoramic primal gestures of The Hosting Of The Shee (Sidhe) offset by the smoky Dylanesque blues treatment of Lake Isle Of Innisfree, the almost euphoric outright pop of Sweet Dancer contrasting with the harsh psych-pomp of A Full Moon In March. The mysterious ancient calling of Mad As The Mist And Snow rises up into a swirling, almost delirious fiddle jig, and the imagery of Song Of The Wandering Aengus is potently conjured, while Before The World Was Made (an exquisite duet with hitherto unknown indie vocalist Katie Kim) is both innocently haunting and knowing – as in a different, eerily elegiac way is An Irish Airman Foresees His Death. Initially, I wasn’t won over by the Springsteen-esque rock backbeat that bestrides September 1913, although the track builds in stature impressively and consistently over its seven-minute span and Mike’s impassioned, theatrical vocal (with a touch of Bowie, I thought) serves to redeem the fiercely prophetic impact of the poetry. This aspect of Mike’s delivery also gives a special contemporary resonance to Let The Earth Bear Witness, which in this guise can now be viewed almost as a modern-day protest song. It’s also typical of his intense commitment to the project as a focused and detailed – and highly intuitive – celebration of Yeats’ work, and is crucial to the communication of his art. In the end – and I’m speaking as a Yeats admirer – it surprisingly matters not a lot that Mike chooses to amend some of the texts (in several cases relatively radically, also quite often using devices like repeating lines to form refrains or choruses and render them suitably anthemic in the manner of archetypal Waterboys numbers!). The visions of the two men coincide and cohere, and yes, convince you of the greatness of both elements. So here’s one appointment you’ll certainly want to keep, and repeat often.

www.mikescottwaterboys.com

David Kidman


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Cordelia’s Dad – DOUBLE LIVE (Own Label, no catalogue number)

I’ve always cherished fond memories of this band, not least for the seminal part they played in restoring my faith in the revival during those lean years of the early-to-mid-90s and onwards with their brilliantly gutsy, committed and genuinely invigorating reworkings of traditional material. And I loved their Jekyll’n’Hyde persona too, loud’n’proudly comprising both a thrusting full-ahead acoustic folk band and a thrusting full-ahead electric punk band, each playing the most inventive blend of Americana you could imagine with ancient ballads and sacred harp lustily charging through audience preconceptions and wooing new friends wherever they went. They were pioneers charting almost entirely unknown territory, genuinely ahead of their time, trend-setters before those trends were invented: as it turns out pre-echoing both the 90s post-punk boom and the early-2000s post-O-Brother American folk boom… And like true pioneers, they really did care about their sources, and had great respect for their heritage. Of course things moved on, with Tim Eriksen forging a shadowy parallel solo career and Cath Oss teaming up with Phil Tyler. But the band has continued to soldier on with a variable lineup, and this double-disc package presents – for the first time in album form – a typical two-set concert, recorded at the Iron Horse Music Hall, Northampton, Massachusetts in late April 2007: one disc of acoustic artistry and the other of electric noise. Of course, the latter probably won’t quite frighten the horses so much nowadays, but it still packs an almighty punch and IMHO nobody’s ever done it better than Cordelia’s Dad (and probably never will). The incarnation of the band “for this outing” comprises original members Tim Eriksen (head honcho) and Peter Irvine (drums, banjo), old friends Eliza Cavanaugh (guitar, dulcimer) and Gerard Gualberto (bass), with former (late-90s) band member Laura Risk (fiddle) – and sure they still make a mighty sound, on both discs!
My only regret is the imbalance between disc-lengths – the acoustic set weighs in at a mere 35 minutes, whereas the electric set reaches the dizzy height of 55 minutes. Nevertheless, the sheer impact of the acoustic set is tangible, not least due to the full-force nature of the interpretations, performances that take full account of the true nature of the subject matter (murder, doom, death, obsession, madness, gloom, depression, supernatural occurrences, y’know the score!). Topics that are eternal of course, and fully reflected in the electric set too, just to draw a parallel. And the performances enshrined here sound as fresh and exciting as they would have done 15 years ago, I’d wager – just feel the spine tingle at Tim’s raw acapella ululations on Farewell To Old Bedford and the joyous and seriously uplifting group-singing on authentic shape-note hymns Wake Up and Return Again; revel in the stirring sound of Friendship with its spiky fiddle line and edgy vocal harmonies; rejoice in the gleeful double-entendres of Spencer Rifle; stomp your feet to the luxuriously raw twin-fiddle arrangement of Sandy Boys, and sing the cautionary chorus along with the narrator of Granite Mills… and these are only scratching the surface of the delights on offer; I only wish the set had been twice as long! As for the electric set, well this is even finer – and even more inventive than I remember it could be. The throbbing grit and gristle of the grungey wall of guitar sound, power chords, fuzz, distortion and deafening feedback doesn’t merely thrash you into submission, but it’s actually in a peculiar sense rather musical, as you’ll perceive (if you tune your ears aright) on the Cordelia’s Dad treatments of everything from the crashing (Clash-ing?) Delia(‘s Gone) and Shallow Brown through to an encore medley that cannily splices the Ramones’ Commando into Johnny Has Gone For A Soldier and culminates in a one-off cover of the Psychotic Youth number Surrender. There’s Beefheartian jaggedness on Little Speckled Egg, and Jersey City arises like a battered, scarred phoenix out of the ashes of a pounding Damned riff. The majority of the songs are Tim’s own compositions, effectively marrying tradition and punk sensibilities with a powerhouse charge that transcends any potential accusation of artifice;Brother Judson is no less than a modern-day disturbing-mad-ballad with some coruscating guitar work you might associate with early Who/Pete Townshend. Tim’s latest adaptation of the traditional Her Bright Smile Haunts Me Still charges ahead like a manic Byrds retread, yet losing nothing of its majesty, and Will The Circle Be Unbroken brings the Carter Family circle in even closer to our time – it’s rather like watching a treasured garment spinning round in a tumbledrier, almost but not quite convinced it will emerge unscathed and cleansed – while even the comparative repose (well, less frantic tempo) of Leave Your Light On embodies a sinister brooding power that’s oppressive and hard to shake off. Tame? – no way! Matchless, even after all these years? – you bet! So hey, How Can You Sleep?, indeed ? For this is (still) tremendous stuff – my advice is to play it massively loud, and sod the neighbours… and then even if that does your head in just go back and play it all thru again, it really is worth it. MORE PLEEEZE!!!!!

www.cordeliasdad.com

David Kidman


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Chloë Matharu – NEXT MARKET DAY (Jonesy & Jock Records150464)

At the time this record was made (I’d guess around 18 months ago), Chloë was but 19 years old. She grew up in Edinburgh, but has cultural roots in Wales (Pembrokeshire) and India (the Punjab) as well as Scotland; and yet, her first experience of singing traditional folk song was when tasked to perform a ballad unaccompanied for a school exam, a liberating occasion which opened her mind to the timeless, age-old power of direct communication, without distraction, of the special combination of story and music to be found in such songs. Suitably hooked, Chloë then eagerly pursued her new-found muse, and now, very much inspired by the great singers of the 1960s folk revival, she’s recorded her debut album, on which she puts her own mark on a wisely-chosen, eminently reliable selection of familiar traditional folk songs, with some very judicious accompaniment from Ewan MacPherson (guitar), Lauren MacColl (fiddle) and Ailig Hunter (double bass and, on just one track, sitar). Chloë sings well: she has a commendably pure timbre, doesn’t force her emotions, and clearly has a feel for the folk style, wherein her principal influences are audibly Anne Briggs and Jacqui McShee, and to some extent Shelagh McDonald and Sandy Denny too (whom she admits to being a bigger influence on her own songwriting). Inflections are in place that indicate her sincerity in attempting to convey an understanding of the texts, and on some songs she succeeds better than on others. By a short measure, Chloë’s best stab is Flowers Of The Forest, on which her intuitive response feels to be right inside the lamenting protagonist, while Ewan’s rippling guitar part strikes just the right balance between delicacy and onward momentum. Another success is The Trees They Grow High, which additionally gains in stature through Chloë’s choice of accompanying instrument – the sitar, which imparts an entirely credible, nomadic indo-Scottish quality to the ballad. And She Moved Through The Fair comes off well, unaccompanied, even if I do get the feeling that Chloë’s more content to rest with portraying a mood than to progress the drama or narrative potential of the song. Coincidentally, Chloë has saved these highlights for last in the album’s sequence; in comparison, some of the earlier tracks don’t make quite the same impact, although it’s fair to say that it’s easy to warm to Chloë’s personality as a singer, even though her voice has clearly not yet fully matured. There’s also much to retain the listener’s interest within the engaging musical arrangements that creatively and constructively envelop Chloë’s voice; these contain some really inventive touches, notably on By Yon Castle Wa’, the title song and the album’s one cover (Shelagh McDonald’s breezy Liz’s Song, here given a freewheeling early-Joni spin). At times, the small ensemble sound is very akin to that of Pentangle (albeit with just one instead of two master guitarists!), and Ailig’s poised double bass style betrays a distinct Danny Thompson influence on occasion. Indeed, on her treatment of The Cuckoo, Chloë’s Jacqui-like approach to the setting (and Ailig’s jazzy contribution in particular) seems almost deliberately seems to be emulating the classic Pentangle sound. And I do feel that Chloë takes the choppy syncopated approach a stage too far on Come By The Hills, where (notwithstanding the nicely florid accompanying musicianship) she insists on rendering the inter-line rhythm ragged, thereby losing its essential lilt. Overall, I guess any reservations I have with this disc lie mostly in a Hedgehog’s Song context, in that Chloë knows all the words and she’s sung all the (right) notes but she’s never quite learned the songs she’s sung – inside – and hasn’t (quite yet) the degree of earthy maturity that indicates a deep lived-in understanding of the songs. So she’s been recorded a touch too early perhaps; and therefore this commendable CD can be regarded as very much a first stab – albeit a darned good one at that, and surely full of promise.

www.chloematharu.com

David Kidman


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Sigrid Moldestad – SANDKORN (Heilo HCD. 7248)

This delightful album emerged from the woodwork last year, and has hardly left my player since – which may be one reason why it’s taken so long to get written up into a review! However, unless you’re an avid follower of musical matters Scandinavian, you’re unlikely to have heard of Sigrid before. She’s a fiddler and hardanger specialist, who having played as member of duo Spindel and trio Gamaltnymalt, then went on to win the prestigious Norwegian Folk Musician Of The Year award in 2010, a few months after which she ventured across to the UK for a one-off, well-received London gig on which she introduced to this country not only her awesome fiddling talents but also her warm, intense singing voice. She was accompanied on that date by her touring band of trusty acoustic musicians, the very same lineup that backs her on Sandkorn, which turns out to be her second solo album (her first, Taus, was released back in 2007). All of the songs on this disc are centred round the theme of love; three are Norwegian translations of time-honoured Burns songs (and surprisingly convincing these sound too), while four are Sigrid’s own compositions, on a further two she provides musical settings for lyrics by Jakob Sande and the remaining two are arrangements of traditional Norwegian texts. The disc also contains three fairly brief but satisfying self-penned instrumental tracks which serve as (perhaps slightly undersold) showcases for Sigrid’s fiddling, albeit sensitively cradled by her supporting musicians. But the natural focus of this disc is Sigrid’s strong vocal presence, which draws you in right away and holds you in its grip; her passionate yet gentle attention to intimate expressive detail, keenly responsive to the sung texts, is carried through into the well-judged backings with which she surrounds herself; these are heavily influenced by traditional Norwegian folk idioms, but with touches of country and (entirely unexpectedly) blues. In the latter context, Sigrid’s composition Gåla is an exceptional track, with Stein Urheim’s slide guitar a powerful force (he also features heavily on the feisty No Skal Eg Fortelje, which has a sense of rhythmic propulsion quite akin to mouth music, and the evocative Midtsommarsongen, on which Sigrid’s voice is cradled by supportive organ chords from Sigbjørn Apeland). Elsewhere, the sparing scoring produces a quite luxurious effect due to the sensitive and sympathetic musicianship of Jørgen Sandvik (guitar), with Anders Hall on fiddles and viola, Mattias Perez on mandola, 12-string guitar and dobro, Anders Bitustøyl on bass; while guest singer Kim André Rysstad joins Sigrid for an appealing duet on Måneskinslandet. It’s a shame that English translations of the lyrics couldn’t have been included in the booklet, but then this is a release on a Norwegian label that has only just seen the light of day in the UK, and then (I suspect) only to tie in with that one isolated UK appearance.

www.sigridmoldestad.com and www.grappa.no

David Kidman


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Jeff Warner – LONG TIME TRAVELLING (WildGoose Studios WGS. 385CD)

Jeff’s one of the most welcome of the fairly frequent visitors to these shores from the US, and his gigs are always eagerly awaited and supported by those in the know. Quite simply, he’s one of the most charismatic, enthusiastic and genuinely versatile performers on the whole scene, with a warm and approachable personality to match his encyclopaedic knowledge of traditional song – a knowledge he’s always keen to share at every opportunity (I’ve been party to many a post-gig conversation that’s lasted well beyond closing-time!). In live performance, he never presents the same set twice (although inevitably there will be cherishable repeats of some oft-requested favourites from across the years), while he can always be relied upon to unveil some fabulous new discovery from within his exhaustive repertoire – a repertoire developed through continuous long time travelling and collecting, as well as from his parents Anne and Frank, themselves noted song collectors as you know. Jeff himself is noted for his thoughtful, respectful approach to his source material and his knack of choosing exactly the right type, and degree, of accompaniment to communicate the song without distraction. Another speciality of Jeff’s is his ability to surprise and delight his audience by coming up with songs we thought we knew well in different variants and fresh guises and with copious illuminating supporting background information regarding his sources. And so it proves on this, the latest addition to Jeff’s (not exactly prolific) discography, where a good half of the songs will be at least partially familiar (often maddeningly so), even though at first their titles might deceive. Into this category I’d straightaway place Young But Daily Growing (a variant of The Trees They Do Grow High), Wild Hog In The Woods (an American version of the ancient British ballad Sir Lionel), Bold Harpooner (a relative of Bonny Ship The Diamond), the adapted-shanties Old Moke Picking On The Banjo and Ho Boys Ho, the roustabout song Been All Around This Whole Round World, and By The Hush (aka Paddy’s Lamentation). The latter receives a particularly fine, nay benchmark, rendition here, with some sumptuous vocal harmonies from Carolyn Robson, whereas two other songs receive a haunting nyckelharpa backing courtesy of Vicki Swan. Indeed, in the vast majority of cases, in truth you’d be hard pressed to find better recorded versions on the market! And by dint of his well-researched liner notes, he often convinces you, too, often against all the odds, that these are the preferred versions (did you know of the lumber camp origins of Juberju, for instance?)! Jeff’s excellent, fully idiomatic singing is supported throughout by his own entirely unassuming instrumental virtuosity on banjo, English concertina and guitar (and not forgetting bones, spoons and jew’s harp!), but on this recording he’s also called upon long-time collaborator Barbara Benn for vocal support on a handful of tracks, and Keith Kendrick’s vibrant Anglo concertina or Pete Sutherland’s lively fiddle on a handful more apiece, while Jonny Dyer, Dave Surrette and Keith Murphy also put in brief yet entirely apt cameo appearances. Finally, spending time in Jeff’s company here will enable you to renew acquaintance with lovely pieces such as Her Bright Smile Haunts Me Still (another disc highlight) as well as introducing you to some extremely worthwhile songs you didn’t already know – and there are at least half a dozen of those on this new record, including a splendid gospel rouser I Done Done. Not only is this disc one of the finest recordings in WildGoose’s illustrious and entirely trustworthy catalogue, but it continues the label’s tradition of acutely attractive accompanying artwork and design that perfectly encapsulates the personality of the musicians and singers and the repertoire contained within – in this case, a front-cover line-drawing of a man joyously holding aloft a concertina, having stepped out of a frontier painting. The old adage “if you only buy one traditional song album this year, make it this one” will be hard to displace from its application to this magnificent disc!

www.jeffwarner.com David Kidman


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Lorne MacDougall – HELLO WORLD (Greentrax CDTRAX. 345)

This bright, ultra-optimistic greeting heralds the arrival of a major new piping talent, that’s for sure – a young man who’s unafraid of owning to his influences, while at the same time he knows exactly where he’s taking the tradition and has both the talent and the confidence to bring it all off. Born and raised in Carradale (Kintyre), Lorne graduated at the RSAMD and twice became a finalist in the BBC Radio Scotland’s Young Traditional Musician Of The Year awards. His unbridled passion for his native Argyllshire and its strong piping tradition comes together with a pronounced degree of musicianship to produce a uniquely persuasive pipe-centred record that will by virtue of its keen arrangements and well-balanced menu appeal to lovers of traditional music who appreciate something different, and not just to pipe aficionados. It helps, of course, that for his debut solo recording he’s blessed with the magnificent production skills of Brian McNeill and a superb supporting cast that includes several of Scotland’s top musicians: Ross Kennedy, Duncan Lyall, James Mackintosh, Andy Thorburn, Troy McGillivray and Adam Brown and (naturally) Brian himself (on fiddles, concertina and mandolin). It’s not clear whether Lorne is personally responsible for the powerful instrumental arrangements, but the scoring is both delightfully varied and full of impact, whether the brief is to rock hard (The Gravel Walk set) or hold right back (the pleasingly restrained title track and the delicious Waltz Of Slurs). Lorne’s skill is both bravura and genuinely multi-faceted (he’s equally adept on Highland, border or small pipes and whistle), as is his ability to take forward in his own playing the innovations in technique found in the music of the modern-day pipe-masters, in particular Gordon Duncan, Fred Morrison and Martyn Bennett. Lorne’s plaintive solo rendition (on whistle) of Martyn’s air The Magic Flute forms a fitting conclusion to this disc, in direct contrast to the brilliance and resplendent energy of the preceding MacDougall’s Gathering medley and the MoK Festival Reels set. There’s also a couple of enticing guest appearances: Martin Simpson contributes some really tasty slide guitar to the title track and especially the supremely beautiful Lament For Small Isles Bay (one of Lorne’s own compositions), while Siobhan Miller sings backing vocal on the disc’s only non-instrumental cut, a rendition of John Martyn’s Fisherman’s Dream sung sensitively by Ross. This latter track doesn’t seem quite to fit at first, but gains in stature when Lorne’s smallpipes enter the picture – where they remain firmly centre-stage for a spellbinding solo performance of Dougie Campbell’s Learning To Fly which is one of the disc’s standout tracks. There’s a real force of life pervading this performance, which also comes through impeccably in Lorne’s own compositions (a generous handful of these grace the album and provide some of its most memorable tunes – he has a grand sense of melody!). Lorne has really excelled in delivering a determinedly piping-based record that both respectfully builds on the tradition and sensibly moves it forward by refreshing and innovating, impressively blending the evocative and introspective with the skirling and the footstomping to produce a continually appealing musical canvas.

www.lornemacdougall.com

David Kidman


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Steve Tilston & The Durbervilles – THE OXENHOPE E.P. (Splid Records CD009)

Steve’s long been one of my fave singer-songwriters, and the ultra-versatile Durbervilles one of my fave local bands: both amply deserving of wider recognition. This compelling combination of talents is mouth-watering enough to contemplate on paper, but even tastier in the flesh. It was (to my knowledge) first given a tentative airing at a certain gent’s birthday bash well over a year ago, since which occasion the lads have been busy honing the rougher edges of their unpretentious good-time collaboration into this significantly polished studio gem of an EP which, at a mere 21 minutes, can be but a taster for bigger things to come (I trust). Its five songs present up front two perhaps lesser-known Tilston originals (the very recent Oil And Water – from The Reckoning – and the rather older Same Boy – from And So It Goes…), both of which are seriously enhanced by the alert and responsive, rootsy full band backing. These are followed by a typically cajun-inflected Durbervilles number There She Blows, on which Steve steps back entirely from the main mic to give the Durbs full rein. After which, with a neat sense of symmetry, the record closes with a further pair of reinterpreted Tilston classics: first, (Life Is Not Kind To The) Drinking Man, which is given an uplift with an infectious waltzing (slightly tipsy?) lilt and some wonderfully apt little instrumental fills (leccy guitar, accordion), and finally the distinctly cheery twelve-bar “flower-song” Jacaranda, which is guaranteed to send you home with a smile on your face and a catchy refrain in your voice! Oh, and needless to say the production (courtesy of the Durbs’ David Crickmore, of course) is suitably meticulous and classy while retaining the edge of keen spontaneity that characterises the live performances of both acts every time. www.stevetilstonandthedurbervilles.co.uk

David Kidman


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Eliza Gilkyson – ROSES AT THE END OF TIME (Red House RHR CD.238)

It’s all of three years since Eliza’s last record, 2008’s Beautiful World, which though containing some good things, didn’t seem as consistent a set as usual, partly I suspect because its musical styling was more soul-jazz in nature than her folkier earlier efforts, and for me didn’t quite gel with her lyrical vision. But right from the start, Roses At The End Of Time convinces big-time with its elegant folk-country settings that set exactly the right tone for Eliza’s characteristic lyrical mix of the reflective troubadour and the conscientious socio-political commentator. Highlights of the former category include Belle Of The Ball, a haunting seven-minute opus that stitches together fragmentary memories of Eliza’s mother, and Midnight On Raton, a deeply humanitarian rumination that references the late great Townes Van Zandt. In the latter category we find Vayan Al Norte, a kind of modern-day equivalent to Woody Guthrie’s Deportees with a lilting, swaying harmonised chorus, and 2153, where Eliza playfully yet mercilessly satirises latter-day religious fundamentalists to a bouncy bluesy backdrop of National steel, dobro and tuba, while Slouching Towards Bethlehem evokes corporate greed and corruption to a mighty trombone beat and blowsy Beale Street-style backing and the cautious electro-beat of the yearning Once I Had A Home returns us poignantly to the world of the dispossessed. The gorgeous album opener Blue Moon Night and the title track’s aching yet reassuring declaration of love are tracks that once heard you just can’t get out of your mind, while the album’s one non-original, a rustic old-timey-inflected cover of Eliza’s brother Tony’s potent heritage-memory Death In Arkansas that kinda recalls Anna McGarrigle’s Going Back To Harlan, not only fits hand in glove with Eliza’s own lyrical preoccupations but also features some fine vocal harmonies from John Gorka and Lucy Kaplansky. I almost don’t need to say it, but I’ll stress that Eliza herself is on top vocal form, and, her own guitars aside, the exceptional, sensitive instrumental support comes courtesy of (among others) Mike Hardwick, Chris Maresh, Rich Brotherton, Shane Shelton, Glenn Fukunaga and Eliza’s producer (and son) Cisco Ryder. The whole album creates one of those instant-replay situations that signifies it’s destined to become regarded as one of Eliza’s finest.

www.elizagilkyson.com

David Kidman


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The Woodbine & Ivy Band – THE WOODBINE & IVY BAND (Folk Police Recordings FPR004)

This can be viewed as a mildly cryptic release in terms of its overall sound and identity, although the genesis and composition of the performing ensemble in question is potentially less confusing. The Woodbine & Ivy Band is a collective of nine Manchester musicians who came together under the direction of guitarist Peter Philipson and bass player Michael Doward to arrange and perform a clutch of traditional songs. Included among their ranks we find keyboardist John Ellis, harpist Rachael Gladwin, trumpet/flugelhorn player Luke Das-Gupta and pedal steel merchant Alan Cook – hardly household names, but fine musicians all. Yet it’s their group method, however, that might be thought a touch unorthodox, in that (with the avowed aim of achieving the effective portrayal of the narrative dramas) they invited a different singer to perform the lead vocal on each of the ten songs. An interesting gambit, and one which works remarkably well (and, pace the mission statement, still somehow enables the backing band to forge something of an identity of its own). We’re told that the singers were originally asked to perform the songs acapella, renditions which the band was then to use as a guide to the instrumentation and mood of the eventual arrangements for their intentionally free-ranging sessions. Although not all of the musicians can boast a folk background, the general musical climate here is that of expansive folk-rock-with-a-dash-of-country-and-psych, marked out by inventively layered colourings of pedal steel, Hammond organ and jangling electric guitars, with splashes of harp, trumpet and synth. This complement provides a backcloth of startling diversity for the singers’ individual interpretations; for instance, there’s a reassuringly warm, burnished brassy-steel Rotherham cast to Spencer The Rover (persuasively sung by Fay Hield, who’s joined by a twelve-strong vocal chorus), contrasting greatly with the punkabilly charge given to the witchy tale of Alison Gross by the forthright (almost sacred-harp style) delivery of Rapunzel and Sedayne. On Poor Murdered Woman, Olivia Chaney supplies beautifully gentle shadings to the hauntingly dark tale, whereas Jim Causley strides boldly as a tough, proud redneck on the deep-twang extravaganza Out With My Gun In The Morning. Jenny McCormick’s delicate yet expansive version of Gently Johnny is akin to a classic Trees treatment, while Elle Osborne turns in a tremulously eerie take on Under The Leaves; Jackie Oates’ visit to Derry Gaol is unexpectedly beguiling too, with rippling harp tones adding to the eastern mystique of the fulsome drone backing. Maybe the electronic noodlings on James Raynard’s exuberant rendition of The Roaming Journeyman do outstay their welcome against the more solid-state virtues of the track’s driving anthemic pulse, but in the main the settings are very well judged, and turn out repeatedly (and repeatably) satisfying for the listener. This is a stimulating and highly spirited record, and I’d be keen to hear a second batch of traditional songs being accorded the Woodbine & Ivy Band treatment in due course.

www.folkpolicerecordings.com

David Kidman


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Various Artists – CECIL SHARP PROJECT 2011 (Shrewsbury Folk Festival SFFCD.02)

You’ll remember the Darwin Song Project a couple of years ago, which brought together a number of renowned folk performers for the creation of a series of original songs on a commemorative theme. Well, this is a kind of sequel, in that it’s a celebration, a homage to the life and work of an important figure, and in that the methodology is also broadly similar. In this case, for seven days back in March, eight folk artists (singers, musicians and songwriters) gathered together in a Shropshire farmhouse with a brief to create new compositions having a resonance and relevance to the important and legendary song collector Cecil Sharp, in particular his Appalachian song-collecting trip between 1915 and 1918. The results were performed at three special concerts – two in London (at Cecil Sharp House) and one at Shrewsbury’s Theatre Severn – and this CD and companion DVD together present a professionally recorded and mixed collation of these performances that can now be sampled at your leisure. It’s not entirely clear from the supporting documentation whence the audio CD’s various recordings originate, but producer Stu Hanna gives them all a sonic unity through his clarity of purpose and execution. The DVD, which is a direct and complete recording of the Shrewsbury concert which took place in late March, inevitably gives a better overall flavour of the coming-together and gelling of the various performers; along the way, it also includes two extra items which have a purely visual impact – Leonard gives the audience an impromptu hambone workshop near the close of the first half, and all eight of the performers treat us to a display of dance (morris, then Appalachian step) just before the end of the show. The roll-call comprises some well-known folk luminaries (Steve Knightley, Andy Cutting, Kathryn Roberts and siblings Jackie Oates and Jim Moray), and lesser-known names (singer-songwriter Caroline Herring, Breabach’s fiddler and singer Patsy Reid and The Duhks’ leader Leonard Podolak). But to the music: it’s a compelling mix of original compositions inspired by Sharp and his collecting activities and ingenious arrangements of songs collected by Sharp, on which the spirit of collaboration is both intense and convivially relaxed. The majority of the items are highlights in their own way, but I’d single out Caroline’s really special, and especially well-sung, contributions Black Mountain Lullaby and Beautiful Maud, closely followed by Meadows Of Dan; Jackie’s intriguing collation of two versions (from opposite sides of the Atlantic) of The Lover’s Lament; Kathryn’s juxtaposition of Child’s Song with Barbara Allen; Jim’s exemplary and strongly individual yet respectful treatment of Earl Brand; and Steve’s trio of outstanding originals ranging from the introductory Mining For Songs and the electro-thrash Aunt Maria to the tear-inducing (if perhaps slightly stagey) opus The Ghost Of Song. A couple of the items do seem a touch forced: the parlour-bawdy Maud And Cecil, which closes the show with a trifle awkward embarrassment, and the Cecil’s Greatest Hits Volume 1 medley, on which Kathryn strings together excerpts from three of the songs he collected (tho’ her genuine affection for the material is still very apparent in her performance, however). The accompanying booklet presents complete lyrics as well as introductory notes, but doesn’t stretch to instrumental and vocal performance credits for the individual items (but at least you can watch the DVD!). This still amounts to a landmark release – all credit to the masterminds behind it, Neil Pearson and Alan Surtees in particular – and now, even better, the project will be touring for six performances across Britain during late January 2012.

www.cecilsharpproject.com

David Kidman


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