Music Reviews | 2008

Mark Gillespie | Unplugged | Album Review | Chocolate Factory | 24.03.08

I first came across Mark Gillespie quite by accident, whilst browsing through the paperback section of his father’s book shop in the heart of the Peak District.  Gillespie’s soulful reading of Bill Withers’ classic “Ain’t No Sunshine” filtered through the speaker above my head and I decided that it was just the thing to soothe the senses whilst flicking through a nearly new copy of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera.  I enquired at the counter and with no small measure of pride the chap said “Oh, this is my son, what do you reckon?”  I reckoned I needed to take home a copy for a better listen thank you very much.  Unplugged bears all the hallmarks of the original MTV Unplugged series of the Nineties; intimate setting, mostly acoustic instruments, definitely ‘plugged in’ but not necessarily loud and overbearing, in fact quite pleasantly relaxing.  The album sleeve even provides a polite warning for purists, that the CD in fact contains two electric bass tracks and an electric guitar solo.  Stockport-born Gillespie is better known in his adopted home of Germany where he now lives and works.  Unplugged brings together a selection of self-penned songs that blend in perfectly well alongside soulful versions of pop classics by the likes of Bob Marley “Waiting in Vain”, Sting “Probably Me”, Seal “Crazy” and Snow Patrol “Chasing Cars”.  There is nothing forced on Unplugged, the mood is consistently relaxed throughout, bringing together some of Gillespie’s ‘street performance’ repertoire, that is, the most popular songs used in his busking days.  I have slight reservations over the inclusion of “Winter Wonderland” but every busker has to have at least one Christmas song in his repertoire.  The album draws to a close with a delightful instrumental piece “3angels” written and performed by bassist Peter Herrmann.

Heidi Talbot | In Love and Light | Album Review | Navigator | 27.03.08

No stranger to those remotely familiar with Cherish the Ladies, Heidi Talbot brings forth her own unique voice with this, her follow up to 2004’s Distant Future.  Delicately produced by Boo Hewerdine In Love and Light is the perfect title for this selection of lovely and light songs.  The occasional County Kildare inflections, especially on her gorgeous reading of Tom Waits’ “Time”, leaves the listener in no doubt as to what part of the world this young singer hails from.  With contributions from the likes of Eddi Reader, John Doyle, John McCusker and Michael McGoldrick, as well as Mr Hewerdine popping in from behind the mixing desk, In Love and Light showcases Heidi Talbot’s rich vocal delivery and it is with this voice that our attention is held throughout.  There are moments of familiarity here that will no doubt fall well within the confines of Talbot’s canon.  “Bedlam Boys” and “Glenlogie” bear all the hallmarks of a modern folk arrangement; interesting time signatures and crystal clear interplay between strings and whistle.  But on this collection of songs, Talbot broadens her scope and tackles other melodic areas with relative ease.  “Invisible” conjures up the same distinct feeling of Fifties pop as John Lennon applied to “(Just Like) Starting Over” way back in another era.  It’s the essence of the smoochie dance floor hit but without forcing it or being a pastiche of it.  Whilst Boo Hewerdine’s “Everything” borrows from Joni’s “Woodstock”, bringing with it a joyous celebration of everything we are and basically answering some of the questions posed by the high priestess of hippie ponderings almost forty years on, “Whispering Grass” is whimsically revisited in much the same manner as Sandy Denny’s classic rendition on her 1974 Like an Old Fashioned Waltz album, rather than following the Ink Spots original template.  Isn’t it a shame that this beautiful song will forever be associated with two sweaty men in khaki shorts and pith helmets!  Duetting with Talbot on “The Blackest Crow” is Kris Drever, who offers a second voice to the album and which is very much welcomed, alternating between verses and culminating in a final verse in unison.  You tend to be left wanting more of the same.  My only minor niggle with Heidi’s second album has nothing to do with the music itself, but with the artwork and in particular the miniscule white text on a red ground.  The extinction of vinyl albums forced us into using a magnifying glass to gain information, which is not normally readily available on the bus back from the record store.  In Love and Light requires a microscope.  Be prepared to squint.

Nels Andrews | Off Track Betting | Album Review | Reveal | 27.03.08

“Sunday Shoes” was always going to be a hard act to follow, but Nels Andrews handles this new set of nine self-penned songs on Off Track Betting with intelligent assurance.  Todd Sickafoose’s production is somewhat reminiscent of Daniel Lanois particularly in his attention to detail, but is spared the over-indulgence.  I normally tire quickly of the overuse of sound effects on acoustic music, but on this production, the effects help create a specific mood.  Throughout the album Andrews employs a multitude of weird and wonderful instruments, utilizing the harp, a klezmer banjo, some assorted sampled electronics, the odd toy piano as well as making the best use of a wine glass orchestra since Robin Williamson treated us to a skin full on his ode to the celebrated Welsh bard in “For Mr Thomas” in the Eighties.  The industrious use of percussion on “Sunday Shoes” (shouldn’t this have been on the first album?) is reminiscent of post Swordfishtrombones Tom Waits.  It’s all there to mimic the sounds of the city we are led to believe and surprisingly it doesn’t jar.  Outside the city and back on the road appears to be more familiar territory for Andrews as he follows the heart worn highways of America on “Three Days”, a road song that Steve Earle would be proud of.  Andrews criss-crosses the landscape of America, if not in the footsteps of Dean Moriarty, then certainly in the shadow of Sal Paradise.  He’s an observer of the road, and it comes through his music loud and clear, particularly on “Rented White Sedan”.  For all intents and purposes, Off Track Betting has temporarily replaced the bebop of Charlie Parker for the soundtrack to Kerouac’s bestseller, if only for a while.  If this is the evolving route for all things Americana, then it’s fine by me.

Reg Meuross | Dragonfly | Album Review | Hatsongs | 24.05.08

When an album pops through your letterbox and drops onto your doormat, with a sleeve that credits well established musicians like Rabbit Bundrick (Keyboards) and BJ Cole (Pedal Steel) as well as from the younger end of the spectrum, Jackie Oates (Fiddle), then you drop everything, stick the headphones on, pop your stocking feet on the worktop, make a brew and close your eyes for an hour or so.  Multi-instrumentalist Reg Meuross is an exceptionally graceful singer and a fine song writer with an ear for good arrangements and fine musicianship, hence the folks he knocks about with. The title track “Dragonfly”, which comes in fourth on the track list after settling the listener in with three fine songs, is probably one of the most instantly accessible pop songs I’ve come across in ages.  It’s got that steadily building power chord structure that eventually erupts into the single word chorus of “Dragonfly” – I defy anyone not to sing along.  In just three short verses, “Fools Gold” opens up a world of mystery and intrigue, which is impossible to avoid engaging with.  Poetic story songs that unfold with such ease are such a rare thing these days, unless your name happens to be Richard Thompson.  “The Sound of Hallelujah’s” addresses the common argument we all have with our offspring these days; whose version of “Hallelujah” is better, Cohen’s or Buckley’s?  It’s a good job that neither of the John Cale or Rufus Wainwright versions were brought into the discussion.  Whilst Meuross agreed to disagree with his daughter Lily’s assertion that the Buckley sprog’s version is the definitive one, I’m going to be neutral and claim that both versions do it for me equally.  The gorgeous “Lizzie Loved a Highwayman” is a ballad to die for.  Based on the Dick Turpin legend, the song weaves through verse after verse of fine story telling set to a Jackie Oates’ wistful violin backdrop.  If Reg Meuross isn’t invited along to the Transatlantic Sessions mansion for series 4 to sing at least this one song, then Ali Bain and Jerry Douglas can scrape and slide for their supper.  Songs about desertion have always been a staple for folk singers throughout the ages.  “And Jesus Wept” is poignant in that it addresses the case of Harry Farr, the first soldier to receive a pardon by the British government in 2006, after being executed ninety years earlier by his own troops for desertion, even though he was known to be suffering from shell shock.  Meuross handles the subject with some gracefully sympathetic song writing, noting that it’s not just cowardice that we kill our soldiers for, but the notion that ‘if a man’s not fighting, he might as well be dead’.  Try telling Hawkeye Pearce and Trapper John that!  Dragonfly isn’t short of good songs.  I can’t find a duffer amongst them.  The songs are all delicately performed by Meuross together with a tastefully assembled cast, who ensure these songs are given appropriately sensitive arrangements to allow them to breathe.  I feel a certain empathy towards “William Brewster Dreams of America” as it relates to the parish of Scrooby, but twelve miles from my home, where this particular Pilgrim Father set out on his adventures in 1608.  I’m still trying to get out of here!  Maybe I’ll hop on the back of the next dragonfly that passes through.

David Munyon and Mary’s Band | Some Songs for Mary | Album Review | Mobile Home Records | 25.05.08

With the best will in the world it’s difficult to avoid comparisons between David Munyon and JJ Cale; both have the distinct feel of deep Southern swamp-rock, a country sensibility and an exciting groove without seemingly breaking into so much as a slight sweat.  I normally steer well clear of any artist who declares “I just ask God to help me write a good song for the folks, and I just hold the guitar and pencil” but on this occasion I was curious enough to proceed further and in doing so, I discovered something quite interesting indeed.  With a well-worn and weathered voice that not only echoes the aforementioned JJ Cale but also has a pinch of John Prine thrown in, we have here a back porch album that would be a suitable soundtrack for any garden barbecue you may be planning this Summer. That is if we get one this year.  Kicking off with the soulful “Let’s Dance This Night Away” Munyon is in Ben E King mood with a thoroughly tight band featuring some pretty good sax work by Stewart Curtis and the unmistakable pedal steel playing of BJ Cole.  The swamp rock reference doesn’t apply anywhere better than to “Song for the Dalai Lama”, although I’m slightly bewildered at what exactly constitutes ‘grooving with the Dalai Lama’.  I have to point out that it sounds much more enlightening than, let’s say, jiving with the Archbishop of Canterbury or do-sa-do-in’ with the Pope.  There are more sensitive moments on the album, for instance “Angels All Around Us”, which ponders upon some of the basic codes of life, that we should help someone when we can, and get up whenever we fall.  Munyon delivers such messages with sincerity but not sentimentality.  “Song for Mother Mary”, a song of salvation, once again manages to carry its message without being overtly preachy.  I’m left with the urge to flick through John 3:16, just for curiosities sake.  Some Songs for Mary concludes with “Grace” an all-out rocker to brandish your air guitar to when the garden barbecue becomes a bit slow.  All in all, the album transcends the basic spiritual overtones and I guess the message comes through to those who wish to receive it, whilst others can enjoy some pretty good enjoyable songs and music at the same time.

Kate Binningsley | Awen’s Song | EP Review | Self Release | 25.05.08

What begins as a songwriter’s nudge to get oneself up out of bed and do something useful, particularly on a nice sunny day, turns out to be, after more attentive listening, a spellbinding reflection on loss and grief.  “Awen’s Song” is a lament to the undisclosed ones who we have lost, probably something we can all identify with.  Reminiscent of the singing style of Sinead Lohan and with the sensitivity of Eleanor McEvoy, Kate Binningsley eases us into an EP of songs that make us pine for the full album, which no doubt is on its way.  Touched by the spirit of Joni Mitchell, Kate tips her hat in song to probably the most inspirational of all female singer songwriters with “Joni’s Emancipation”, a jaunty Coyote-esque journey in search of love, which inevitably leads us back to the start of that long road.  With “Fire”, “Beautiful Day” and “The Lament of the Sailor’s Wife”, we have been presented with a snapshot of the work of a young songwriter with a bright future.  Not only is Kate a promising songwriter with a naturally fresh voice, she can also play a mean guitar as can be heard on “No Conditions”, not on this EP but quite possibly pencilled in for the album.  I look forward with keen interest to see how Kate’s songs develop.

Bob Cheevers | Fiona’s World | Album Review | Berkalin Records | 11.07.08

Fiona’s World is almost cinematic in its proportions, which has prompted me to outline a proposal for a new blockbuster.  I think I’m going to cast Brad Pitt as our main protagonist, if that’s okay with you Bob.  I would have preferred Paul Giamatti but this has got to be a hit.  Our leading lady will probably be Kate Winslet; she’s from Reading which is as near as dammit to the New Forest where Fiona resides, so the accent shouldn’t be much of a problem.  The plot is simple.  Green-eyed blonde beauty sketches visiting American singer whilst singing songs about the Civil War in a Southampton club. American meets artist after show and promptly falls in love (with Fiona, not the sketch).  Winslet will be okay with this as she did precisely the same in Titanic only in reverse.  Locations used throughout include the American Deep South, Southampton, the nearby New Forest and Paris.  Okay, it’s going to be a romantic movie.  Bob Cheevers has set out this romance quite eloquently, referring to it as a ‘mystical journey and symbiotic relationship’ in no less that forty poems and sixteen songs, fourteen of which are contained within this handsome package, featuring Fiona’s original sketch on the cover.  Cheevers wears his heart on his sleeve here, with an outpouring of emotion, which probably came as much of a surprise to him as to anyone else.  On “New Forest Girl”, he squarely admits he didn’t see this coming, as in the outset of most symbiotic relationships that embark on mystical journeys.  Specific songs relating to familiar landmarks of Southern England sound rather enchanting when spoken or sung in a voice reminiscent of Willie Nelson.  With a backdrop of the New Forest, Bob and Fiona play out their romance with little interruption from any extras.  This is essentially a screenplay for two.  By scene six, the action moves from England to France, after our Romeo and Juliet’s first encounter in Southampton.  To sweeping accordion fills, we find our sweethearts roaming the Champs-Élysées after carefully planning out their rendezvous in Paris.  This is where Winslet predictably gets her kit off and goes for the love scene that will finally get her that much sought after Oscar, you know, the one that continually seems to evade her.  Whilst “Only Roses” appears to be the stand out song on this imaginary soundtrack; a poetic confessional that alludes to all the inadequacies that a traditional ‘dozen red wishes’ has to offer, “Every Beauty” celebrates romantic love in the most direct form; ‘every beauty must have a flaw, but I have yet to find yours’.  Fiona herself makes a cameo appearance in this movie, singing her part in a duet on “Pictures of Strangers”, which is immediately convincing.  It becomes increasingly ambiguous as to who exactly is the artist here and who is the muse.  The lines are frequently crossed throughout the fourteen songs.  My only reservation about this completely romantic collection of songs is the climax, which is essentially “New Forest Girl” speeded up as a hoedown.  It’s a mixture of Thomas Hardy meets the Clampetts.  I feel if this track had to be included, it should’ve been one of those ‘hidden tracks’ that pops up five minutes after the album has ended.  Having said that, if you allow yourself to be drawn into Fiona’s World, it really is quite an engaging experience.

Colm Ó Snodaigh | Giving | Album Review | Kila Records | 25.08.08

Kíla’s Colm Ó Snodaigh has chosen a completely different feel for this, his long overdue follow up to 1994’s Éist and a world away from anything he recorded with Kíla in his twenty year stint with the band.  With the help of soprano saxophonist Richie Buckley and a tight rhythm section of Conor Murray and Martin Brunsden, the opening song “Adieu” places Colm Ó Snodaigh somewhere in the middle between Wyndham Hill ambience and Cool Jazz.  It would have been highly irritating had Colm Ó Snodaigh adopted an American mock swing time croon to go with this jazz approach to the opening song, but thankfully the natural Irish brogue is definitely still intact and the song fully benefits from this.  Alternating between English and Gaelic, the songs themselves take a secondary role behind the arrangements which are thoroughly gorgeous.  I don’t speak Gaelic and therefore I don’t have a clue what some of the songs are about, but that doesn’t matter.  “Adieu” is in English but I tend not to listen to the words anyway, rather concentrating on the sound instead.  But for those who insist on having the whole caboodle, the inner sleeve has the lyrics printed in both languages.  The intimate setting of these songs is probably the albums’ greatest strength, with sparse acoustic arrangements of songs such as “Fós liom féim” (Still On My Own) and “Uaireannta” (Sometimes) with what could easily be its coda, “Passing Through”, with Martin Brunsden’s ethereal saw slicing through the atmospherics of each piece like butter.  The Cowboy Junkie-esque “Leochaileach Aris” (Fragile Again), with its other-worldly refrain courtesy of Nina Haynes’ haunting vocal, takes on another approach altogether with Hothouse Flowers’ Fiachna Ó Braonáin’s guitar contribution.  “Ró lán – Roll On” is a tonal poem of astonishing beauty, with both a spoken part and a sung part augmented by a Lisa Hannigan backing vocal, a bonus to any recording she graces in my opinion.  The jazz influence is once again re-visited in “So Long” with more delicious soprano sax from Buckley, serpentining effortlessly through each verse and chorus in a seemingly fluid and organic flow.  These musicians seem to be made for each other.  Giving is really a delightful album, rich in atmosphere and melodic beauty; neither a Saturday night album nor a Sunday Morning one, rather somewhere between midnight and dawn.

Eoin Dillon | The Third Twin | Album Review | Kila Records | 25.08.08

Eoin Dillon’s playing of the Uilleann Pipes has contributed in no small measure to Kíla’s unmistakable and distinct sound.  Given that Kíla’s albums, live concerts and festival appearances have showcased great musicianship from what could be described as a collective, of which Dillon is but a part, it’s rewarding to hear those pipes singled out as an entity in their own right.  There is little doubting the contribution Kíla has made to the evolving traditions of Irish Celtic music through their half a dozen or so albums, and this, Dillon’s debut solo album, enriches those traditions further with ten instrumental pieces of outstanding quality, eight of which are composed by Dillon, with a couple more being arrangements of tunes by Frank Tate (Marcus Mc Spartacus) and Dee Armstrong (The Bearna Waltz).  With some generous accompaniment from Des Charleton (guitar), Steve Larkin (fiddle) and the aforementioned Frank Tate (Bouzouki), all of whom Dillon has worked with extensively in various sessions, these arrangements fall easily into familiar Celtic territory with no problem whatsoever.  Dillon is equally at home on the tin whistle and low whistle as can be heard on “Codladh Sámh” as well as the more familiar ‘pipering’ as it’s referred to on the sleeve credits.  The compositions here range from strict tempo dance tunes “Length of Space” and funereal lamentations “The Moon On Me Back” to sprightly numbers such as “Liffey Reels” and the gorgeous “Paddy’s Perambulation”, all of which showcase Dillon’s command over his chosen instrument, which incidentally (as a fine craftsman and cabinet maker) he knocked off himself.  If fellow Kíla band mate Colm Ó Snodaigh’s debut Giving, simultaneously released through Kíla Records, showcases a singer and musician branching out into unfamiliar territory such as jazz, then Eoin Dillon remains particularly faithful to his roots and presents a collection of beautifully arranged compositions that sit well alongside anything by the likes of Davy Spillane, Liam O’Flynn or Paddy Maloney.  And if that’s not enough for you, then he can also knock up a decent cabinet for your drawing room.

Gren Bartley | Carry Her Safe | Album Review | Musician Records | 28.08.08

On first listen, the opening song and title track to this collection of songs is almost like transporting oneself back in time, by approximately forty years, to Steve Tilston’s debut An Acoustic Confusion.  The youthful confidence of one of Britain’s leading singer-songwriters and guitar players seems to have come round full circle.  The more I listen to Gren Bartley, the more I am reminded of that special period, when providing you had a guitar and could play “Anji” reasonably well, then you were set for a life of travel whilst making very little bread on the folk scene, man.  However, you were almost certain to experience an interesting life on the road, instead of getting your hands mucky down’t pit, and with almost no trouble at t’mill whatsoever.  Gren Bartley doesn’t go for over-production, nor does he drown his songs in pointless instrumentation, and neither does he invite all his mates around to get in on the action.  This reminds me of the days when Bill Leader would stick a reel-to-reel in his kitchen and make coffee whilst his protégé would sit in the corner and ‘emote’ and hope that the toaster wouldn’t pop up during the best take.  I like this because it’s good honest music.  I haven’t caught Bartley live yet but I imagine what you have here is something resembling what you’d get from a live performance.  With the addition of just a bluesy harmonica, courtesy of Robin Melville, Bartley’s finger style guitar-led songs, owe a debt to those Sixties troubadours who went before, some of whom are still around doing exactly the same today as they did in their heyday.  Wizz Jones, Bert Jansch, John Renbourn and Ralph McTell would recognize in Bartley’s playing something very familiar.  Like Jansch, Bartley is also an exceptionally good banjo player, evident here on “Joule’s Yard” and “Eleventh Hour”, where much of the dexterous playing is down to good old-fashioned hard work and practice.   “Last Night” reveals a blues player who has obviously done his homework.  Reminiscent of Big Bill Broonzy’s distinctive style of finger picked blues, the song is given respectful treatment from both Bartley and Melville, with a performance worthy of any late night Belgian jazz bar you care to mention.  With the addition of a sensitively underplayed piano complement, “Favourite Red Coat” showcases another side of Bartley, that of a mature songwriter who seems to be equally at home with a beautifully tasteful and tender ballad as with the more bluesy numbers.  After thirteen tracks of outstanding quality, you tend to forget that these are all Bartley originals and it seems you’ve heard them all before.  Well if you’ve not exactly heard any of these numbers before, you’ve heard something similar, a long time ago and in good old black and white.

A.h.a.b. | Self Titled | Album Review | White Wail | 03.09.08

Country inflected acoustics with a jaunty drive-time opener in “Wish You”, which it must be said is probably more suited to an open top convertible on Route 66 than a Kia Ceed on the M40 near Newbury on a rainy afternoon, but I’ll use my imagination.  If their song writing has been compared to that of Ryan Adams, I would argue that Callum Adamson and Dave Burns’ delivery is more along the lines of Ryan’s namesake with the added B; with those all too familiar post-Springsteen gruff rock vocal affectations.  For those not entirely convinced about Mr Adams’ (with a B) place in the grand scheme of things, don’t be alarmed, I mean this in a good and positive way.  I am however a little bewildered as to why the first two songs share the exact same backing track, forcing me to wonder whether “No No Babe” is really the coda to “Wish You” or an ill-placed second track in the running order.  Callum and Dave just might like that groove and decided to milk it.  No matter, third track in and we have something completely different in rhythm, style, key and mood.  The surprise inclusion of Kurt Cobain’s brooding “Breed” is probably how it would have sounded had Nirvana performed it during their Unplugged in New York session, but in this case, probably better.  The stark lyrics always begged to be performed and sung in this manner, despite the followers of the grunge bands’ insistence on noise.  The soothers on this album such as “Oceans” and “Crows” have an honest credibility and you do tend to want to flick the button onto repeat mode, but it’s in songs like the appealing “Avenues” where A.h.a.b. succeed best; short, snappy and to the point.  With such an agreeable groove, one wonders why they decided to cut this one so short, most would stretch it out ad nauseam.  “Oklahoma Girl”, with its Harvest Moon period Neil Young influence is probably best suited for A.h.a.b. and I imagine will be one of the songs that will ultimately be responsible for their pending success.

Navaro | Under Diamond Skies | Album Review | Halo | 03.09.08

Although the trio take their name form the surname of their main singer Beth Navaro, they are very much a three card trick and along with songwriters Pete White and Steve Austin, Under Diamond Skies brings together each of these disparate voices to produce a British country based album of some considerable merit.  Whilst the emphasis is on the combination of three distinctly different voices, this collective manages to unite in harmony whilst maintaining their respective individual identity.  Beth’s warm breezy vocal spars perfectly well with Pete’s instantly recognisable if somewhat edgy voice, whilst Steve provides a more conventional country roots delivery along the lines of Willie Nelson, with convincing sincerity.  Pete White’s “When You Go From My Door” sets Beth’s voice against a backdrop of creative harmonies and a steadily building power ballad arrangement, giving a clear indication of where White wants his anthemic song writing to go.  You imagine the band had little difficulty choosing an opener for this, their first collaborative effort.  Besides being an excellent song writer, Pete has a very distinctive voice which compliments the more conventional country roots of Steve Austin and Beth Navaro.  This somehow sets this collection of songs apart from the ordinary and once again proves that an unusual voice often becomes essential listening once acquired by your cautious taste.  This collection of songs provides a difficult choice for those responsible for coming up with the first single as the more accessible or catchy titles are so much in abundance.  “Always” is instantly radio friendly with an inspired choice of arrangement that includes the employment of a brass band section, reminiscent of early Richard and Linda Thompson arrangements.  The thoroughly gorgeous “Moonrise” gives more than a slight indication of Navaro’s command over sensitive ballad singing.  With an unobtrusive arrangement of acoustic guitar, keyboards, bass and atmospheric percussion, not to mention the mood-setting rain sample, attention remains solely on Beth’s breathy voice, enhanced by some considerate harmonies set well back in the mix.  Towards the end of the album “Like the Rain” and the soulful “Blackbird” leave you wanting to hear more of Navaro, both as a trio and in its individual component parts.

Rónán Ó Snodaigh | The Last Mile Home | Album Review | Kila Records | 03.09.08

The distinctive voice of some of Kíla’s most outstanding performances, most recently in “Leath Ina Dhiaidh A Hocht”, the opener to their last album Gambler’s Ballet, doing for Pachelbel’s “Canon”what De Dannan did for Handel’s “Arrival of the Queen of Sheba”, has laid down another bunch of self-penned songs, for this his fourth solo album.  As an accomplished poet, Ó Snodaigh has made the transition to song writing with relative ease, with a prolific back catalogue, which includes songs written in both Irish and English.  Heavily laden with sound effects, The Last Mile Home meanders through twelve songs of varying degrees of quality, but with a consistent theme that threatens to weaken and stumble at any moment.  Ó Snodaigh’s distinctive Bodhrán style has long been part of Kíla’s sound together with his unmistakable voice, but here the emphasis is more on acoustic statements and chant-like outpourings of restrained rage.  Unlike Kíla’s highly polished albums, Ó Snodaigh has presented a warts and all production with this album.  The vocal on “Samurai” could quite easily have been recorded after an all-night bender, but is still powerful in its simplicity.  Some of the songs are at best mediocre self-indulgent musings about nothing in particular such as “Long Time Dead”, which probably was more fun to sing than to listen to.  “Raise The Road” is an interesting song accompanied by various bits of percussion, including his trademark Bodhrán, which in all fairness is what we expect from Ó Snodaigh.  Reminiscent of Tom Waits’ Small Change period “Step Right Up”, the enthusiastically delivered chant makes its point coherently and succinctly.  “Go Dea” partly revisits the melody of the aforementioned “Leath Ina Dhiaidh A Hocht” for some reason, before “Dancin” takes the album on an entirely different tangent.  Think along the lines of Benjamin Zephaniah’s contribution to The Imagined Village, and you won’t be too far off the mark.  “Night Song” has the same sort of plaintive resonance more commonly associated with the songs of Bonnie Prince Billy and offers another side of Ó Snodaigh that I personally prefer on the whole.  If my glass is not overflowing with The Last Mile Home, I would admit to it being rather half full than half empty.

Patsy Matheson | A Little Piece of England | Album Review | Witch Records | 18.09.08

After the break-up of Waking the Witch, the vocal tour de force that possibly didn’t quite reach the lofty heights it should have, founder member Patsy Matheson returns with a delightfully stripped down album of self-probing and observational songs as well as, for a change, a couple of timely protests to keep the blood flowing.  On A Little Piece of England, Patsy approaches the vocal arrangements in a different manner to her previous two solo projects, and certainly a world away from WTW, abandoning multi tracked vocals and stripping down her arrangements to the basics with sparse accompaniment from producer and guitarist Sam Bartholomew, Chumbawamba percussionist Harry Hamer and Gina Dootson, lending a hand on backing vocals.  Patsy writes skilfully and intelligently and never assumes a throw away song will do.  Themes such as war in “Precious Little Soldier” and politics in “Play the Game” address current issues from a perspective that is so often overlooked.  Opening with a yearning love song, “Addicted to You” eases the listener in and you tend to feel this gentle album is not going to be over burdened with dance tunes.  From the start, instead of the catchy potential single or the fanfare anthem that all too often serves as an introduction, Patsy spills her heart out with a song of betrayal that instantly draws you into the consequent burden of facing up to the harsh fact that this suggested relationship can no longer go on.  The mood of the album is both plaintive and uplifting at the same time.  It is as the title suggests; a bunch of songs that evoke the spirit of just a small simple corner of England, yet the themes are big and juicy.  As every soap opera story line clearly suggests, there is a lot of drama in the smallest of places, and in this little piece of England, the drama unfolds with a brooding delicacy.  Even Tom Reddy’s artwork reflects the duality that this album offers, the ethereal and imaginative flights of fancy together with the harshness of mortality, as can be observed in the accompanying drawing for “Precious Little Soldier”.  This is late night music, songs you imagine listening to by candlelight after the day is done.  “Treading Water Town” addresses what we all feel about hopelessness; when we find ourselves stuck in a rut we first of all look at the negative options.  Salvation comes from self-determination but is so often ignored.  Like some Woolfeian tragedy, despair and hopelessness results in the inevitable, all of which we can read about in the tabloids tomorrow.  “This New Song” introduces ambient sound effects behind a crisp and clear guitar accompaniment.  Patsy’s emotive vocal delivery verges on the vulnerable and one can sense that the singer is completely oblivious to everything going on around her, so absorbed in the intuitiveness of the singer and the song, that the notion of love almost takes second place.  “Sunday Morning Song” is a delicious song about home, family and relationships.  Three simple verses later and there is absolutely no doubt that the Rolling Stones shirt looks better on the singer than the subject, despite what ‘they’ say.  This is personal stuff, which could have a profound effect on you if you allow it to.  Whilst “Lamb to Slaughter” takes an observant look at the more despicable side of the camera, to those who feed on the misfortune of others, albeit to satisfy the hunger of we the tabloid subscribers, there is an almost reluctant acceptance as to the fate of anyone who becomes successful.  Patsy drew on a documentary about Amy Winehouse for the basis of this melancholy observation, and at the moment, I’m finding it difficult to think of anyone more accurately suited to this continuing injustice.  It’s not all tears and melancholy though, A Little Piece of England has its share of more uplifting material such as the almost traditional “Ulverston Gypsy”, a song that Patsy admits is an attempt to re-write Gypsy Davy as a ‘female equivalent’.  Filled with Lake District imagery, the song has a timeless quality that will have this reviewer seeking out the gypsy girl next time he’s in Ulverston, knowing only too well that she’ll already be gone, always one step ahead.  The title song which closes the album is a personal observation of home and one suspects that after extensive touring with Waking the Witch, or in partnership with Becky Mills, Patsy’s comfort zone is very much here, overlooking Fulneck in Yorkshire, with an astonishing view from the house and quite possibly ground coffee brewing by her side.  Delightfully English.

Metheglin | Raining In Paradise | Album Review | Pipe Dream | 20.09.08

On first hearing Raining in Paradise, it’s quite possible to imagine you have stumbled upon Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds for the Middle Ages, with its anthemic theme and a sort of David Hemmings’ spoken coda, albeit in ye olde merrie Englishe this time.  A few tracks later and the modern world has caught up with dub drum and bass and a rich variety of styles and influences being employed, a sort of Imagined Medieval Village if you will.  In essence, Methaglin are Peter Coleman on English border pipes and Clare Hines on hurdy-gurdy, whose very choice of instruments in the wrong, or let’s say less experienced hands, could have all and sundry running in to put the cat out of its misery.  In these hands though, it is a delightful sound.  Mike Gulston makes up the essential trio on guitar and octave mandola, with a handful of other invited musicians to help out.  “Five Wits” opens what could be considered a concept album, evoking the age of early Seventies Prog experimentation reminiscent of the Third Ear Band, but with a much more accessible sense of melody.  The aforementioned spoken part is actually Shakespeare’s Sonnet 141 and because there are five wits (common sense, imagination, fantasy, estimation and memory) it might as well be in 5/4 time ala Dave Brubeck’s Take Five.  Pete ‘Peewee’ Coleman is no stranger to the mixing desk and his production credits cover such a diverse range as to include everything from Echo and the Bunnymen and The Lightning Seeds to AC/DC and Napalm Death.  Metheglin is Pete’s baby and attempts to bring something completely new to the listener.  Experimental at its core, Raining in Paradise covers a whole range of styles and themes, with unexpected surprises around every corner.  On “Woodsmoke” for instance, we are very much into a trance like medieval groove when what could quite easily be a Crosby Stills and Nash sample comes through loud and clear bringing a delightful sense of déjà vu to those of us whose memory is still intact.  It’s the various juxtapositions of varying styles that keeps us interested and attentive, and what separates this from what could easily have been considered film soundtrack music.  Not that there’s anything wrong with film scores.  What may escape the two left footed amongst us though is that most of the pieces on this album are actually dance tunes.  If it’s not a standard waltz, and in the case of the opening track a five time waltz, then it’s likely to be a schottische or a mazurka, as in the case of “Grace” which features not only the hurdy-gurdy but the nyckelharpa as well, which I am reliably informed is a little bit like a hurdy-gurdy but with a bow, which I assume is what a fiddler uses and not what goes on top of pressies.  I like Raining in Paradise.  It’s refreshing, experimental, engaging and at the same time easy on the ear.  Once again an unexpected album comes along to brighten my northern sky.

Rod Picott and Amanda Shires | Sew Your Heart with Wires | EP Review | Welding Rod Records | 25.09.08

On the eve of their European tour which kicks off in Staffordshire at the end of the month, Nashville-based Rod Picott and Amanda Shires dropped off an advanced promotional copy of their forthcoming album Sew Your Heart With Wire, which is just about ready for imminent release.  The handful of songs provided here showcase a duo endeavoring to keep it live, with little fuss in the studio; no overdubs, no embellishments, just two voices, a guitar and a fiddle.  The duo is possessed of two voices that dovetail perfectly in harmony but at the same time have their own distinct identity.  Amanda’s voice on the standout track “You Can Call Me Baby” is reminiscent of classic Shawn Colvin, and deserves to be heard independently occasionally.  A classically trained violinist, the West Texan served her apprenticeship in a couple of local Lubbock bands before recording her own solo album and teaming up with Rod Picott, a singer/guitar player from Maine, who already had a bunch of songs under his belt and the ability to tell a good story.  If the songs on this collection have a certain immediacy about them, it’s because some of them were recorded on the day the couple wrote them.  The opening song “Drive That Devil Out” for instance, utilizes a familiar melody with a new set of words; handy when it comes to off-the-cuff writing.  This vocal ‘jamming’ indicates perhaps what we should expect when seeing the duo live.  “When You Get Your Story Told” is a gospel song which should have the same sort of regular finisher quality as “Will the Circle be Unbroken” and I can imagine many will be leaving gigs up and down the country over the next month or so, with this ringing in their ears.

Jon Redfern | What Else But Love | Album Review | Reveal | 16.11.08

The first song I heard on this, the third solo offering from Jon Redfern, was the ethereal “Don’t Worry”, featuring a duet with one of this country’s most distinctive voices, Becky Unthank, posted to me by a fellow Unthank aficionado as a matter of great urgency.  The song, albeit barely two minutes long, was the prompt that brought me to the rest of the album; that and the eagerness to hear the third instalment of this songwriter’s solo recorded output.  Much drivel has been written about Jon Redfern, particularly with regard to this unfounded notion that any singer-songwriter to emerge over the last decade must be a Nick Drake clone, which is utter nonsense.  The opener to “What Else but Love?”, “Spark in the Sky” owes more to Meddle period Floyd than to anything from the late lamented Tanworth-in-Arden Bard.  Redfern is a maverick, a self-styled song maker of ambient sonic experiences and if he belongs in any pigeon hole at all, it’s the one occupied by a handful of folk-based artists who are unafraid to explore folk music’s fringes and borders and cross those barriers in a spirit of adventure, rather than mischief.  “What Else but Love” is an unashamed outpouring of emotion that concentrates more on self-discovery and self-analysis than on anything remotely resembling instantly accessible folk/pop meandering.  It’s not an album to be rushed, rather to be afforded a little time to get to know.  “Play for Fear” is probably the most accessible song on the album if the more introspective yet soulful outpourings becomes a little too ‘late Saturday night’ than ‘early Sunday morning’ for the listener.  “Troubadour” is a cross between Carole King’s “It’s Too Late” and Man’s “Kerosene” in its distinctly jazzy late night feel, but with an autobiographical tale of lost friendship caught between the grooves.  With a carefully assembled cast including Patrick Durkan, Sam Murray, Anna Rogers and Pete Tickell and with former Tarras band mate Joss Clapp handling all bass parts as well as manning the mixing desk and taking care of production and last but not least, the aforementioned Mercury Prize nominated Becky Unthank providing not only her unique voice but that unmistakable presence that comes with it, “What Else but Love?” provides a suitable insight into Jon Redfern’s highly personal song writing and fits perfectly well into a steadily building body of work.

Katriona Gilmore and Jamie Roberts | Shadows and Half Light | Album Review | Self Release | 14.11.08

I’m still undecided, even after all this time, about which is the most satisfying; to listen to an album by a relative unknown, then once it’s been on the playlist for a good few runs-through and I’ve become accustomed to the sounds within, to then go out and catch the artist live as soon as possible; or whether it’s visa versa, or t’other way round as we like to say around here, I don’t know.  I’m still on the fence with that one.  I first saw Katriona Gilmore and Jamie Roberts live, happening upon them in the Sandygate Hotel last May, as part of the 2008 Wath Festival, when they got up to play a short set, which in turn, and quite unexpectedly, resulted in my jaw dropping onto my lap.  Questions were going around my head during their short set, like for instance, what’s Kathryn Roberts doing here in the audience?  Ah, I thought, Jamie must be her brother.  Well done Sherlock. Now answer this; how does one so young learn to play the guitar like that?  Jamie plays in an unorthodox manner, by resting his instrument upon his lap, whereupon he embarks on a festival of slapping, thumping and plucking away like a madman, whilst Katriona, an exceptionally tasteful fiddle player, adds the melody with a graceful stoicism.  I must point out that when Katriona got up for this festival appearance, she could’ve been, for all intents and purposes, a fifteen-year old protégé for all I knew; the backlight flooding the Sandygate bar created just a silhouette of this tiny tin lady, but the standard of her playing betrayed her age by a good margin.  Having first encountered the duo at Wath, I caught them soon after in a Sheffield pub, where I bought up all their recorded output, basically a couple of EPs, which served to put me on until the release of this, their first full blown studio album and I must say it was worth the wait.  Comprised completely of self-penned songs and tunes, with the exception of the one traditional song “Among the Barley”, ‘Shadows and Half Light is not only a suitable taster for what this duo get up to on stage, but also serves as a pretty tasty debut album.  Cutting their teeth in well-known young (and current) bands, both Katriona and Jamie are used to performing and touring as well as popping in and out of the studio.  In Tiny Tin Lady and Kerfuffle respectively, together with the shared experience of attending Leeds College of Music, where the couple met, Katriona and Jamie have managed to develop their individual styles of playing which now comes together and dovetails neatly in an album that accurately describes what they are all about.  There’s a nice balance between Jamie’s introspective questioning songs and Katriona’s ability to tell a story.  Katriona’s “Hunter Man”, the opening song, evokes the same spirit as Jonathan Kelly’s “Ballad of Cursed Anna”, with strange goings on in the woods, told with the aid of probably the best instrument for conveying fear and suspense, the violin.  For those of us who assumed the duos’ musical prowess was limited to an expressively played guitar and some ethereal fiddle solos, then it may come as a surprise that there is also some additional mandolin, cajon, percussion and very effective trombone work, courtesy of Jamie Roberts, which adds an almost mariachi feel to “Stopped Clock” as well as popping up in other choice places on the album.  Katriona’s update on the Stephen Foster classic “Suzanna” provides the album with one of the most memorable chorus songs that I can imagine being heard in folk clubs up and down the country before too long.  For the sensitive ballads we have Jamie to depend on.  “Pleased to Meet You” and “I Don’t Want To Say Goodbye” convey depth of feeling and sensitivity in equal measure, and finally, let’s not overlook Katriona’s delightfully ambient “Travelling in Time”, which concludes the album.  Although the songs provide a major contribution to Shadows and Half Light, the instrumental pieces are not to be overlooked for a single moment.  The inventiveness and dexterity of the duo’s playing ability is highlighted throughout the album but nowhere better than in “Middle of May” incorporating the jazzy “Big Nige”, with its instantly memorable, if hardly dancer friendly, time signature.  Finally a word about packaging.  To this reviewer, who has been known to put CD packaging in Room 101 ahead of bananas and traffic calming schemes, the music industry has finally settled on an excellent design for CD album sleeves that finally match up to the late lamented (but not quite extinct) gatefold LP sleeves and the beautiful music on Shadows and Half Light has thankfully been given some suitably deserving packaging.  Sounds good on the ipod, looks good on the shelf.

Jennifer Crook | A Few Small Things | Album Review | Get Real Records | 18.12.08

Putting aside the Celtic harp for a moment, Jennifer Crook embarks on a basic singer songwriter excursion with ten accessible songs of considerable merit.  Beautifully packaged, A Few Small Things offers a glimpse into Jennifer’s world, opening with some home thoughts from abroad in “A Stranger in Love”, with Alan Burton’s duduk solo, bringing to it a distinctly Armenian or North African feel, presumably Moroccan, which wouldn’t be out of place on the Hideous Kinky soundtrack.  The metaphorical “A Bicycle in Need of Repair” shows a thoughtful, almost melancholy viewpoint of a lonely heart, which fits in perfectly well with the accompanying rustic artwork.  With cameo appearances from Clive Gregson, doing an Al Kooper on “A Rose in Morning” and then again on “Jane” with Miranda Sykes on double bass, one of the more radio friendly songs on the album, Jennifer Crook enters country territory, with a song that wouldn’t be out of place on CMT, whilst “Everything Changes” has a classic Songs of Love and Hate period Leonard Cohen feel, which Jennifer carries off perfectly well.  Robert Harbron’s English concertina and Bethany Porter’s cello embellishments bring this acoustic album out of the run-of-the-mill folk mould and a little nearer to the Nick Drake model.  Perhaps it’s the never failing acoustic guitar/cello combination, or maybe just the specific Englishness that evokes Five leaves Left.  It’s a little bit dreamy in places but has the necessary credentials to hold the listeners’ attention throughout and I would hope this isn’t simply an excursion, but a new direction.

Martyn Joseph | Evolved | Album Review | Pipe Records | 18.12.08

Twenty-five years and thirty albums along from his debut in 1983, Martyn Joseph has trod a consistent path, producing some of the most uncompromising and often hard hitting songs from the Welsh valleys.  The Springsteen comparisons will always be there, but this matters little with such a prolific outpouring of consistently high quality material.  It’s a rare thing to appeal to both newcomers and fans alike with the release of a career retrospective; with fifteen revisited songs of universal quality, Martyn Joseph has managed to present a snapshot of what he’s all about, to those just discovering his songs and at the same time, making the performances so good as to please his established fans, who no doubt have all these songs knocking about somewhere already.  “Proud Valley Boy” sets a precedent, a yardstick for the others to match up to, and fortunately, they so often do.  We hear deeply felt narratives on social injustice and our continuing inhumanity towards each other as well as ballads of love and loss, and the occasional look at other alien cultures, such as “Arizona Dreams”, a rare peek westward and with a keen eye on where the American Dream may have wandered off to this time.  Historic localised events are brought to mind in songs such as “Dic Penderyn” a song about the ill-fated martyr Richard Lewis, an innocent man who was sent to the gallows purely as an example, and “Sing To My Soul”, which addresses the infamous Abefan disaster, ever present in the hearts and souls of the Welsh to this very day, but also to anyone who remembers that fateful October morning in 1966, the year for which the English generally prefer to remember another historic event.  As a contemporary schoolboy, my memories of the former incident are still vivid and this song serves as a timely reminder.  Almost every song on Evolved is presented in its stripped down acoustic form, with curiously, just the one electric guitar foray ala Billy Bragg in “Strange Way”, yet each song hangs onto its individual power and loses none of its intensity.  After all, one assumes this is precisely how they sounded when they were first written; raw and intense.  With a predominant trademark growl at the world, Joseph also has a tenderness to which he occasionally turns and with startling effect.  “Turn Me Tender” and in particular “Can’t Breathe” are as soulful as they could possibly get and I really can’t imagine even Al Green doing a better job with them. 

Various Artists | Not In Our Name | Album Review | Songs for Change | 18.12.08

In light of the recent announcement that British troops are to be taken out of Iraq by the end of May 2009, only then presumably to be redeployed in Afghanistan, makes the songs on Not In Our Name even more poignant.  The title itself is a simple statement that needs no elaboration, and the artists who have contributed to this collection are no stranger to protestations of political and human injustice.  If it comes as no surprise that long-term supporters of freedom, equality and justice (Dick Gaughan, Jim Page and Roy Bailey) make appearances here, then the collection of songs may also serve to introduce some newer voices that are willing to speak out against the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.  With contributions from British, American and Australian artists, there comes a widespread and united voice, crossing genres and cultures but maintaining a rootsy feel.  Opening with the bluesy “Man of God” courtesy of Eliza Gilkyson, the album sets out its statement of intent from the get-go, with a thinly disguised portrayal of John Dubya Wayne getting us into this fix in the first place.  Leon Rosselson’s lyrics have long been his familiar weapons of mass construction, and “General Lockjaw Briefs the Troops as Reported by a Sceptical Soldier” once again reveals a songwriter who likes to get straight to the point, no messing.  The subject of the relationship between oil and the war, most impressively realised in Jim Page’s “Petroleum Boneparte”, unfortunately not included here, is suitably addressed by Emma’s Revolution with “CodePINK” and Rory McLeod in his “No More Blood for Oil”, which features bodies dropping at each regimented shot to an infectious Latin rhythm. David Ferrard on the other hand, who wrote the sleeve notes to this collection and who is very much behind the project, contributes a live version of his song “Hills of Virginia”, which offers a more tender approach to protest that wends its way to the listeners’ conscience through a whisper rather than a yell.  Whilst most of the recordings here are gathered from previously released albums, Roy Bailey and Martin Simpson’s reading of Jim Page’s “Collateral Damage”, with its homage to Woody Guthrie’s “Deportees”, was one of the songs recorded specifically for the album, as was Jim Page’s own performance of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”, a poignant song recently performed by Roy Bailey at his 50th Anniversary concert in Sheffield.  Two other contributions, “Home Injured” by Amy Martin and “Dear John” by Jose were winning songs in a 2006 Songs for Change competition and worthy additions to this collection, with all proceeds going to the Stop the War Coalition.  As with most intelligently devised collaborations dealing with the sensitive subject of world conflict, the only way to conclude with any sense of humility, is to end with a song of hope.  Mark Erelli’s country inflected “The Only Way” points us all in the direction of hope in light of 9/11 and speaks for all the songwriters and musicians involved in this project with the final verse: ‘I won’t tell you what to believe, but I’m too young to be cynical and too old to be naive; every action breeds a reaction, so let this be mine’.