Music Reviews | 2009

David Ferrard | Broken Sky | Album Review | Flamingo Records | 05.02.09

David Ferrard is a young Scottish/American topical songwriter who blends together his two genetic cultures remarkably well. Reminiscent of the 1960s protest singers, notably Harvey Andrews, both in terms of topical song writing and in sweetness of voice, Ferrard’s thoughtful songs cover a variety of subjects from the war in Iraq to reminiscences of youth by way of the odd country foot-tapper.  “One Hell of a Ride”, an uplifting song with its country tinged slide guitar, almost imitating a pedal steel, becomes instantly radio friendly and could quite easily be the chart destined single from the album, if such things existed today.  Ferrard’s strength is in his protest songs of which he crafts with a graceful passion.  “Hills of Virginia”, possibly the stand out song on the album, squares up to the unjust war in Iraq and tells the tale from a surviving soldier’s point of view, carefully avoiding apportioning blame on any part, just stating the facts as they appear.  Sometimes it’s the plain and simple truth that holds the power to convey the right message.  On a lighter side, Ferrard’s vocal warmth is no better suited than on “Take Me Out Waltzing Tonight”, the triple meter invitation to dance, which would have even the strictest wallflowers on the dance floor before you could say 1,2,3.    With a crystal clear vocal delivery and unfussy guitar accompaniment, and with help from a cast of tastefully clued-up musicians including Sandy Butler, Alan Thomson, Josh Goforth, Alyn Cosker, James Ross, Karine Polwart, Yvonne Lyon and Karen Dietzand as well as Brian Young (Runrig, John Martyn) at the controls, providing suitably pristine production, David Ferrard presents an accomplished debut.

Mike Silver | How Many Rivers | Album Review | Faymus Records | 15.02.09

From the opening few bars of the title song from Mike Silver’s new album How Many Rivers through to the closing scrape of Phil Beer’s fiddle on “10-15 Year Old’s Festival Blues”, we are presented with a dozen songs of outstanding quality from one of Britain’s most treasured songsmiths.  With a good thirty years of writing and playing behind him, the ideas and themes continue to be drawn from a seemingly bottomless well, a well that is so often and justifiable so, plundered by many singers up and down the country eager to add some quality to their respective repertoires.  Mike Silver writes with assured confidence and manages to appeal to both serious song collectors and the breakfast radio MOR listener in equal measure.  This is down to the accessibility of Silver’s lyrical prowess and his ability to come up with melodic grace time and again.  It also has something to do with the subjects this song writer addresses, which touch upon broader issues than your average songsmith.  Done away with are standard love songs and protestations about improving the world in order to make way for songs that have a greater depth of meaning and understanding to a more mature generation.  “Breaking News” manages to hit the nail right on the head to anyone who has a daughter all grown up.  This is a reflection on life that tugs at the heartstrings but without a trace of sentimentality.  A fathers place is (and always will be) to be present, to observe, to understand; to be there when they need picking up, literally and metaphorically.  If Nizlopi’s endeavours to put a certain piece of heavy plant machinery on the song map brought about both folk festival and chart success simultaneously, then Mike’s “JCB” revisits the yellow digger with an air of authority.  As a metaphor for an elderly neighbour’s green-fingered toy girl, the image appears to stay with you long after it has trundled along down the lane.  Silver is a generous musician, who shares some of the space on How Many Rivers with one or two of his peers such as Johnny Coppin, who takes a verse on “The Dove and the Dolphin” to the inclusion of the only non-Silver composition on the album “Black and White 1945” written by newcomer Ross Brown, showcasing a potentially great song writing future in an astonishingly beautiful song, which began life in one of Silver’s writing workshops.  Mike Silver also handles late night jazz crooning with authority and augments the more serious songs on this collection with moody numbers from a bygone age such as “Easy If You Look At It Right” and the Hoagy Carmichael-esque “Oh Doctor”, both of which confirm Silver’s credentials as a highly competent guitar player as well as a master songwriter.  The bluesy “10-15 Year Old’s Festival Blues” probably resonates in each and every one of us who has dragged our offspring kicking and screaming to folk festivals over the years, and makes light of what is potentially child cruelty.  I’m kidding of course.  Mike Silver has once again proved we have a class act amongst us.

Rodina | Over The Sun | Album Review | AM Records | 15.02.09

If you are poring over the brochures whilst the last of the snows turn to sludge, pondering upon where you might spend some summer days later in the year, then you could do a lot worse that have Rodina’s debut as the soundtrack to your daydreams.  Summer is a-coming after all.  With Latin rhythms from the very start, we enter Rodina’s debut with the urge to dance.  There’s a distinct mariachi feel to the opening song “Always Had a Dream” courtesy of Malcolm Strachen’s assured trumpet, which is dreamily augmented by Aoife Hearty’s moody vocal.  If by the band’s own admission, there’s something of an Astrud Gilberto/Zero 7 feel running through the album, the title track itself almost verges on Portishead with its broody arrangement.  Some of the arrangements tend to drift off into dreamy soundscapes such as “These Things You Do” and “Corcovado” for instance, both of which define the term ‘laid back’.  Others on the album have a tendency to make you sit up and take note.  The instrumental arrangement on “You Cry I Cry”, featuring Atholl Ransome’s astonishing tenor sax solo is reminiscent of Ray Warleigh’s alto work on Nick Drake’s Bryter Layter period “At The Chime of A City Clock”, which defined all that was cool back then.  There’s no doubting the standard of musicianship on Over the Sun, whether it be Joe Tatton’s fluid keyboard work throughout, especially on “Shine”, or any of the fine contributions from Rodina’s highly individual musicians, not forgetting the enchanting Aoife Hearty, whose songs hold the key for holding all this together.  Produced by Joe Tatton, whose work with the Haggis Horns, New Mastersounds and Corinne Bailey Rae has proved his credentials for handling Rodina’s debut with a touch of class, Over The Sun is nothing less than an assured debut and with a cast of excellent musicians on board, Rodina are very definite contenders for the summer festival stages previously occupied by the likes of Groove Armada and more recently Hot Chip.  Roll on summer.

Sarah McQuaid | I Won’t Go Home ‘Til Morning | Album Review | Self Release | 15.02.09

It’s been a long while since I got up extremely early on a Sunday morning, before light even, curled up on the sofa with the old Ipod, rested my head on a cushion and read through all the sleeve notes from start to finish including the lyrics, the comments, the personnel list and production credits, even where the artist might buy his or in this case her strings from.  With Sarah McQuaid’s new album I Won’t Go Home ‘til Morning, so portentous are the sleeve notes, printed in a handsomely packaged booklet, that it takes roughly the same time to read through the booklet as it does to listen to the songs included within, if you run ahead with the lyrics that is.  Such an intimate hour with Sarah McQuaid is a rewarding experience before breakfast on a Sunday morning.  Reading accounts of where she first encountered these songs, from old recordings of Jean Richie and Joan Baez, or from books published by Cecil Sharpe or Alan Lomax, sidetracks me into thinking about where I might have first heard these songs myself.  In all honesty, I don’t go that far back and I admit that my first encounters with many of these songs, would no doubt have been via Bert Jansch and Doc Watson vinyl records; the focal point of my mis-spent youth.  Dedicated to Sarah’s late mother, the songs on the album were recorded partly for cathartic purposes, to exorcise the ghosts of grief that goes with coming to terms with a parent’s death – most of the songs they sang together when Sarah was young – and partly because since Sarah now lives in her mothers’ house with her own family, the songs are probably as much a part of the fabric of the place as the walls and the floorboards.  The album’s title is taken from a line in the opening song “The Chicken’s They Are Crowing”, a song learned from a Peggy Seeger album entitled Folksongs and Ballads, which a very young Sarah heard via her Mickey Mouse record player.  These songs were learned at a very young age it would seem.  Reminiscent of Nick Drake’s “Cello Song”, but with some ethereal vocal humming instead of the big violin, the song immediately invites us into Sarah McQuaid’s enchanting world.  The unexpected surprise on the album is a pretty faithful version of the old Bobby Gentry classic “Ode To Billie Joe”, which maintains all that Southern back porch swamp ballad feel as well as once again conveying an air of mystery and ambiguity that we loved in the original.  “In The Pines” has weaved its way up through the history of folksong from the days of Cecil Sharpe’s travels through the Appalachians in the late 1800s, to Huddie Ledbetter fresh from the penitentiary, claiming the song as his own, and then even turning up unexpectedly as Kurt Cobain’s swansong under the guise of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” in the last days of Nirvana.  Sarah McQuaid manages to roll all these facets into one and provides a spellbinding reading, which sends ‘shivers’, especially when the cold winds blow.  With a couple of personal self-penned songs thrown into the brew, the touching “Only An Emotion” and the aptly titled “Last Song”, which brings the album to a close with its familiar coda of ‘froggy went a courtin’, Sarah McQuaid provides us with a rare beauty of an album, which I imagine will be revisited on this reviewer’s Ipod, time and again.

Gathering | Legends Of Folk Rock | Album Review | Hypertension | 22.02.09

The names on the front cover of Gathering: Legends of Folk Rock read like a who’s who of the genre, but you tend to approach the album with apprehension, especially if you allow the accompanying booklet to fall open at the centrefold, where you would be greeted with a monochrome image of a bunch of middle aged rockers who look like they’ve just returned from the funeral of one of the Kray Twins.  Nope, these are actually a quintet of living breathing remnants of folk rock’s heyday, each of whom played an important part in the history of this particular musical heritage.  A quick rundown then of these five ‘made’ men.  Clive ‘Sticks’ Bunker left his mark on the first four Jethro Tull albums, handing in his beads and headband right after the release of Aqualung in 1971.  Ray ‘Tank Top’ Jackson was the distinctive harmonica and mandolin player in Lindisfarne but who now designs vintage bus livery pictures, making good use of his college of art and industrial design education. Jerry ‘String Bender’ Donahue was and always will be the second best guitarist to have his name emblazoned on one of Pete Frame’s ‘Fairport Convention’ family trees, but who went on to make his own distinctive mark under ‘Fotheringay’ with the late Sandy Denny and Trevor Lucas.  Erstwhile husband of Maddy Prior, Rick ‘Four Strings’ Kemp was for over twenty years an integral part of Steeleye Span and who went on to pay his dues with the likes of Michael Chapman and Ralph McTell and finally, we have Doug ‘MC Albion’ Morter, one of the many players to have, in the words of Phil Beer ‘done jury service’ presided over by Judge Ashley Hutchings (The Guv’nor).   Joking apart, this gathering is in some places quite inspired.  Although not pictured in the centrefold line up, there is a sixth addition to the band, a singer who contributes a great deal to the songs on the album.  Donahue’s daughter Kristina adds character to the recordings and provides some pretty confident lead vocals on both Rick Kemp’s “Deep in the Darkest Night” and Richard Thompson’s “For Shame of Doing Wrong”.  The comparisons to Linda Thompson are inevitable.  With the resurrection of the atmospheric “Lady Eleanor” featuring the wistful mandolin of Ray Jackson, we are transported back in time to a decade that saw the longest hair in Newcastle, together with the most embarrassing multi coloured tank tops in the history of woollen wear, cross the Tyne Bridge heading south for several TV appearances.  Let’s not forget that it was Jackson who played the mandolin part on Rod Stewart’s Maggie May, even though that imposter Peel masqueraded as the seated mandomusician on TOTP week after week (bless him).  For those who saw Jerry Donahue as something more than Richard Thompson’s shadow, on this album you only have to wait until track three before the magic manifests itself in his delightful guitar solo towards the end of “Deep In The Darkest Night”, proving once again that the guitarist provides one of the most distinctive and inimitable sounds in folk rock history, if not rock history in general.   Between the folk rock and folk pop fare, there’s a distinctive bluesy atmosphere throughout the album; in particular on “Don’t Make Me Old” and “Brampton to Roadhead” yet nowhere better realised than in the heavily BB King inspired “I Don’t Want”, which is neither a pastiche nor an imitation of “The Thrill Is Gone”, but very likely a blues standard in its own right.  I’m not sure whether ‘Gathering’ could ever be considered to be up there with Rising For The Moon, Fog On The Tyne or Aqualung for instance, but as a piece of folk rock history, it can certainly be added to the folk rock canon.

Bag of Rats | Abbey Rodent | Album Review | Self Release | 28.02.09

As an avid reader, you would have thought I would be only too aware that you should never judge a book by its cover, and the same should ideally go for music CDs as well.  Still, I have to confess that the reason it took me so long to get around to listening to Bag of Rats’ Abbey Rodent is simply because of its dreadful artwork.  Call me old fashioned, but I like to be able to read the titles on a record without squinting (I can’t); I like to nonchalantly toss an album cover on to the coffee table in order to impress the cat (I daren’t); last but not least, there’s my life-long aversion to the endless stream of parodies concerning the Fabs’ swansong LP cover (hmm).  The music though, when I finally put my prejudices aside, is something of a revelation.  I expected the tunes on Abbey Rodent to beggar the same question once again, posed originally by the late Frank Zappa, ‘does humour belong in music?’ but we are thankfully spared this.  The jokes on the sleeve (Make Love Not Warfarin) and disc (Rodent Advisory Verminous Content) fortunately don’t seep into the musical content, with the possible exception of the opening line to “Hard Side of Heaven” – ‘Well I was walking with Peter Rabbit, when along came Puberty Hare’.  A quick visit to either of the Bag of Rats’ websites reveals a fun bunch consisting of John Archer, Mike Hall, Mary Gilmour and Simon Hester and much of the fun and frivolity you imagine would be far more enjoyable at live gigs, to which I suspect they excel.  I have to stress that there’s nothing wrong with injecting fun into music, I’m just a little wary of stretching a joke.  Kicking off with the old English rebel song “Song of the Times”, the Rats start off with some basic folk rock fare, introducing Hester’s heavily echoplexed fiddle, a sound you will become very much familiar with throughout, and somewhere along the way, the song morphs into a tequila stained knees up as if Flaco Jiminez had just crashed the session.  The band do have a thing for arrangement and like to include influences not normally associated with your common or garden rebel rogue folk ensemble, such as Ska for instance.  I do like their take on The Beat’s “Mirror in the Bathroom”, which is sandwiched between “Willow Runner” and “A Shot in the Dark”, and I was positively swinging to the jazzy opening to “Hard Side of Heaven”.  The Rats’ handling of traditional tunes is competent and exciting.  Imagine the Velvet Underground playing “Drowsy Maggie” and there you have “Unreel” the penultimate tune on the album.  The band says their sound is somewhere between the Spinners and Hawkwind and have kindly left it up to us to decide exactly where that point might be.  Why am I suddenly imagining Stacia in nothing but a nice thick Aaron sweater?

Bex Marshall | Kitchen Table | Album Review | House Of Mercy | 01.03.09

Bex Marshall comes along at a time when female singer songwriters are just about as plentiful as hydrogen.  Rather than thinking in terms of KT Tunstall though, I’m more inclined to think along the lines of a younger version of Bonnie Raitt.  Seldom do we hear such blues inflected rawness in female guitar players and so it’s refreshing to hear it done with such authenticity and assurance.  There’s not so much of the Lowell George sweetness in Marshall’s bottleneck playing as exemplified in the aforementioned Raitt, but more a bitter sneer.  The sharp guitar licks and gritty vocals spell out a mission statement that says this girl means business and in no uncertain terms.  It’s not all hard hitting city blues throughout by any means and Bex Marshall can deliver jaunty pop tunes such as “Head In The Clouds” to country radio contenders in “Bad Bad Girl” for example, as well as turning out some pretty tasty acoustic blues in “Red Light” to multi tracking everything from resonator, slide and electric guitar over an acoustic old timey ensemble featuring banjo, mandolin and violin courtesy of Don Wayne Reno, Dale Reno and Josh Hillman respectively in the pulsating “Hot Headed Man”.  For atmospherics we turn to “Black Guitar”, which finds what could conceivably be Marshall’s comfort zone.  There’s the presence of the loner and the booze all there in her broody bottleneck guitar; you almost don’t need the words.  “Here Is My Heart” presents a much more soulful approach to Marshall’s delivery, with all those essential vocal frailties that makes the difference between soul and soulful.  After listening to Kitchen Table a couple of times through, the most staggering fact to take in, is that this girl wasn’t born in any close proximity to the deep southern delta of the Mississippi, but somewhere much closer to the Thames.

Pamela Wyn Shannon | Courting Autumn | Album Review | Girlhenge Records | 02.03.09

My initial interest in Pamela Wyn Shannon was sparked by her rumoured return to the annual Nick Drake Gathering in Tanworth-in-Arden in 2007, where she would possibly be performing later that summer.  I found the songs the singer had uploaded onto her website thoroughly engaging and interesting and together with the anticipation of finally visiting the Drake family home of Far Leys, paying my respects at the graveside and learning a few new unfathomable tunings at the workshops, I was really looking forward to bumping into Pamela.  Sadly, due to unforeseen circumstances, she missed that particular gathering and I imagined for a moment that our paths might never cross again.  To my astonishment, the November 2008 edition of fRoots magazine featured a full page article on Pamela and once again the magazine justly recognized an American singer songwriter, just as it had done a few months earlier with Devon Sproule and once again I felt less lonely in my appreciation for contemporary song writing for some inexplicable reason.   Courting Autumn, Pamela’s follow up to her debut album Nature’s Bride, is something of a conceptual album with twelve songs based around the melancholy season, all arranged and presented with an intriguing ambient resonance.  At times there’s the feeling that this album could quite easily have been recorded in the late Sixties, early Seventies, rubbing sleeves in an old cardboard box in the bedsit with Bridget St John’s Ask Me No Questions, Vashti Bunyan’s Just Another Diamond Day and dare I even suggest Astral Weeks.  You have to enter Pamela’s website through a ‘mossy portal’, which is at once enchanting and spellbinding and somehow lends itself to this particular season.  The songs on Courting Autumn have a vague familiarity about them almost like that feeling of déjà vu; you know you haven’t heard these songs before, well not in this life at any rate.  Pamela has an assured guitar style reminiscent of Bert Jansch and augments most of the arrangements with fitting accompanying instrumentation, including glockenspiel, harmonium and mountain dulcimer, as well as eliciting the services of Liz Knowles, who brings to the recordings an ethereal quality with her sensitive playing of the violin, viola and cello.  On “Wool Gathering”, even the sheep of Putney, Vermont get a credit for their bleating!  The closing track on the album “Fare-Thee-Forlorn” is a poem set to a musical backing of reversed viola and cello courtesy of Knowles, and spoken in a soft unidentifiable accent that quite possibly is a mixture of Massachusetts, Irish, Welsh and Middle Earth.  Pamela promises to follow up Courting Autumn in due course, with three more albums covering the remaining seasons, which is something of a tall order, especially if the intention is to match the quality of this one.  Thoroughly enchanting.

Nell Bryden | Live From Iraq | Album Review | 157 Records | 19.03.09

Released not so much as a follow up to the Second Time Around album but more of a token of something to put us on with, until the new studio album comes out later this year, Live From Iraq, gives us a taste of Nell’s vibrant and energetic live shows whilst she entertains troops in the Middle East.  Updating the efforts of the likes of Dame Vera Lynn, Bob Hope or Marilyn Monroe before her, Bryden appeared to be only too pleased to undertake three weeks of shows at several Forward Operating Bases in Iraq during October 2008.   Bryden is at pains to point out that this tour was not politically motivated, but insists that bringing a bit of rock n roll to people far from home is what it’s all about.  And so with vague memories of Bill Graham and a handful of dancers jumping out of a chopper into the heart of darkness, bringing a touch of glamour to the nightmare of Apocalypse Now, we are once again at the confluence of entertainment and war.  If I were a soldier out there, fully accustomed to the delights of a bunk room strewn with fellow sweaty souls, hurtling towards the end of yet another ‘tour of duty’, I would be highly delighted to have Nell Bryden come along and sing in the naffi (which is an acronym for British Navy Army & Air Force Institutes, in case you mis-heard me).  Knowing her audience well from the get-go, Nell delight’s the American Armed Forces’ complement of grateful deadheads gathered at Camp Falcon just outside Baghdad, with a rip roaring take on the traditional “I Know You Rider”, setting out the tone of the show from the start.  Commuting between other Forward Operating Bases at Camp’s Mahmudiyah, Kalsu and Victory as well as at the Cropper Detention Center, doing for all intents and purposes the same job as Johnny Cash did at San Quentin and Folsom Prison in the Sixties, Bryden chronicles her experiences in a daily ‘blog’, printed in the accompanying booklet.  Life on the road is known to be tough in rock n roll, but Nell Bryden calmly reports on how her trailer ‘shakes with the booms of outgoing artillery’, literally relocating her bed in the process.  Probably better than incoming artillery though, eh Nell?  The most startling thing about the performances on Live From Iraq, is that the band, made up of Brooklyn musicians Eric Lindberg (guitar), Mark Stewart (bass) and Bryan Bisordi (drums), was gathered together as a pick-up outfit on the eve of the tour as her regular band promptly pulled out at the last minute.  Determination prevailed and Nell Bryden went on the create an atmosphere of raw and sweaty blues, utilising her trademark alto on ten outstanding songs from a handful of self-penned songs such as “Second Time Around”, “Tonight”, “Meridian” and “What Does It Take”, together with some timely crowd pleasers in “House of the Rising Sun” and “That’s Alright Mama”.  Particular highlights though come in the form of two blues classics, first of all the powerful Muddy Waters composition “Forty Days and Forty Nights” and finally a stripped down solo version of Robert Johnson’s “Hellhound on My Trail”, giving the boys a break and bringing the set to a close.

Holly Taymar | Waking Up Is Hard To Do | Album Review | GenieCake | 15.06.09

I first came across Holly Taymar in York one night doing one of the three showcase support spots for visiting Americans Rod Picott and Amanda Shires.  I was knocked out by her songs then and I’ve continued to watch her progress with keen interest.  I think this is because Holly sings the sort of songs I like.  I’ve always been more interested in songs about everyday mundane subjects such as waking up in a morning, not being able to feel ones toes of a frosty morning or cutting down old bushes that have outstayed their welcome.  The interesting thing about these songs though, is not the actual subject itself, but how Holly manages to transform such wistful thoughts into such beautiful songs.  A few of the songs here have been tried out and tested on audiences in the ensuing months since I first saw her that night in the Basement Bar, and to have them finally down on disc for posterity is a good thing indeed.  Joining Holly on this collection of songs is regular guitar player Carl Hetherington who was also responsible for production, piano and ‘random percussion etc.’, with other contributions from Mark Mellack and Dave Hartley.  On stage Holly and Carl remind me of Hokey Pokey period Richard and Linda Thompson, with Carl hunched over his guitar whilst Holly delivers each song with no small measure of confidence and an abundance of self-assurance.   “Toes” stands out as another one of Holly’s gems, alongside “Home” from her previous album Before I Know, which incidentally has been generously handed out at gigs as a free supplement to the current CD, being the best bargain since Radiohead started flogging their albums for, oh you know, whatever.  A beautiful song in its own right, “Toes” is given a tasteful arrangement with additional piano and glockenspiel, which adds to the gentle ambience of the song.  There’s no clutter on Waking Up Is Hard To Do in terms of over-arrangement or over-instrumentation, it’s all pleasantly balanced to bring these songs to life in the way they were intended.  With yet another nod to her home, Holly has packed her new collection of songs into a sleeve featuring a cover photograph showing a housing estate in York, with a contemplative Holly seated at the bottom of a bed, whilst her musical companion stands in the distance, resting his guitar upon his shoulder; both seemingly lost in thought.  The songs on this album have the same sort of dreamy quality.  An absolutely delightful album, which should be filed next to your James Taylors and Jonis.

Nancy Wallace | Old Stories | Album Review | Midwich | 15.06.09

Nancy Wallace has once again managed to turn out a spellbinding performance this time in her own right.  Her work with The Memory Band on their albums The Memory Band and Apron Strings could almost be seen as a mere apprenticeship for what was to follow and what may very well continue to develop into a promising career.  Originally from Suffolk, now based in London, Nancy played her trump card by releasing an EP of folked-up disco/soul classics including “Young Hearts Run Free” and “You’re The First, The Last, My Everything”, which bears little resemblance to the old Barry White hit, and in doing so, reached a wider audience, but without detaching herself at all from her folk roots.  Her voice on Old Stories once again sounds effortless as she weaves in and out of her own compositions and traditional songs with seamless fluidity.  “Sleeping Sickness” invites us into this fine collection, and once in, there’s no hurry to escape, not until the very last note of the final song, the traditional “Drowned Lover”, which Nancy re-tells with conviction and maturity, augmented by some sensitive violin arrangements courtesy of Jennymay Logan, which goes perfectly well with Richard Lewis’s accordion, hurdy gurdy and banjo.  The urge to escape is present in “Many Years”, where Nancy anticipates an imminent journey ‘where the wind won’t find me’ and ‘where the seas lie calm’.  The contrasting themes of hope and joy, waiting for love and parting, dovetail neatly together with fine arrangements and generous accompaniment.  You tend to want to listen to ‘Old Stories’ in one sitting rather than separate the individual tracks, and the whole thing has a calming effect.  It’s the purity of Nancy’s voice that makes everything she touches turn to gold; a voice that sounds as if it’s steeped in the tradition but speaks to more contemporary ears.  Old Stories could quite possibly open the gates for another generation of emerging folk lovers, eager to embrace the beautiful cohesion that lies between traditional and contemporary song.  Once again, it’s rewarding to be present at the start of something special.

Jess Morgan | Crosses | EP Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 10.07.09

Jess Morgan’s long awaited debut album is recorded, in the can and ready for a bright pair of ears to stumble upon, preferably someone with distribution connections, and one who is prepared to get this ball rolling.  In the meantime Jess has managed to finance the release of a single/EP, call it what you will, in order to tantalise your musical taste buds.  I first encountered Jess beneath a riverside cinema in York, opening for American visitors Rod Picott and Amanda Shires on a chilly October evening back in 2008.  The handful of songs Jess performed that night stayed with me for days afterwards and I’ve periodically scanned her website and MySpace pages for news of an album release in the hope of hearing those songs once again; songs like “Onyx” and “Due Grace Coming”, to name but two.  “Crosses” was the third song I remember from that night, a song I referred to back then as ‘outstanding’ in my live review.  I still think of this song as outstanding as it appears on this recording, which was recorded in a studio in Norway, far from Jess’s home of Norwich, and a world away from the city of York, where I first met her.  In a recent interview I asked Jess how the album was coming along and the circumstances in which the four tracks were chosen for this single release: “It’s recorded, mixed and almost mastered, ready to go, twelve tracks, that I’m really really proud of but the aim of the single is to drum up as much interest in the music as possible”.  The three other songs that make up this release are “Pamela”, “Gut Row” and “Who Killed Cock Robin”, all of which showcase Jess’s versatility as a songwriter, with subjects ranging from family dramas, the local fishing industry of Great Yarmouth and the obligatory song about ‘talking birds and frogs and animals and things’, which any self-respecting folk singer should have in their repertoire.  The four songs included here are sparsely arranged to include little fuss apart from the odd bit of slide guitar, a touch of bass and some atmospheric violin, all of which allows us to concentrate on Jess’s unique voice and the individual songs themselves.  “There’s no drums on there but there are other instruments” Jess pointed out.  “I kind of ummed and ah’d about whether it was going to be completely pure and just me, but I thought well I do that live so I’ll offer people something else”.  That ‘something else’ largely consists of some atmospheric fiddle courtesy of David Vogt and some inventive slide guitar work from co-producer H.P. Gundersen, the Norwegian musician who Jess corresponded with over several productive months, culminating in the recording of these twelve songs.  Hopefully it won’t be too long until we have the complete set.

KTB | Indelible Ink | Album Review | Self Release | 10.07.09

I think the last time I singled out a song to play on repeat throughout the night was Jeff Buckley’s “Everybody Here Wants You”, which would have been ready for the bin by the time I’d finished with it, had it been on vinyl that is.  I enjoy wearing out good records; it’s an enormously fulfilling pursuit.  I’m currently in the process of wearing out KTB’s stunning “The Girl With the Sad Shoes” and in the process, unfairly neglecting to give the rest of the album Indelible Ink the chance of a fair play through before I pop the imaginary needle back to the start of Sad Shoes once again, annoying both the neighbours and the cat in the process.  Let’s not beat about the bush here, Indelible Ink is a humdinger of an album.  KTB, also known to her folks as Katy Bennett, has released her third full length album and has surpassed all former glories with a bunch of songs that encapsulate everything that is good about modern songwriters and modern song writing.  The songs are at once melodic, highly memorable (well, especially if you’ve already played one of the songs a few hundred times already), well-constructed and hugely enjoyable, even the sad ones, which are guaranteed to tear your heart out.  I first heard the name KTB when a young singer in Rotherham introduced a song called “Bluebird” at a gig two or three years ago and I made a mental note to check out what a KTB actually is.  I now know that it isn’t a hip hop band, nor the Russian secret service, nor is it a piece of yellow plant machinery, or for that matter a metal joist that lives up in your loft, but a very fine and deeply emotive singer songwriter currently residing in the Midlands, specifically Birmingham.  “You hide your accent well” I cheekily remarked in a recent interview.  “Don’t even say that” Katy retorted, “I’m from a very nice Oxfordshire home”.  A KTB is also a pleasant person to chat to over the phone, after a morning singing with school kids, which I found out recently when I interviewed her for Northern Sky.  Like Regina Spektor, Katy’s voice seems equally at home with it’s almost Nick Drake-ish breathy quality, but when required, can be as forceful as they come.  Take “The Girl With the Sad Shoes” for instance; towards the end of this stunning song, Katy manages to stir the emotions in the final chorus with an almost whispered refrain, only to belt out one final chorus, which encapsulates everything I love about Katy Bennett.   The jazz inflected “Ampersand” kicks the album off after a brief prologue in “Bell”, a snippet of a song that is usually coupled with the final song on the album, sort of sandwiching the rest of the songs within.  Stephen Molczanski’s muted trumpet brings a 1920s feel to this hugely infectious stomper of a song, a song that suggests that all we need is that all important ampersand between two names to encourage blossoming love.  The title song “Indelible Ink” is heart wrenchingly gorgeous yet achingly sad at the same time; you tend to believe every single word as Katy pours her heart out.  If you allow yourself to climb into this song, it will break your heart, yet it’s rewarding to believe for a second that you might be ‘one of the few who understands’.  I recently asked Katy how she feels about singing such personal songs, to which she responded with a comparison to communal folk singing: “I think if you can communicate a universal feeling to another person through a very specific feeling within you, which connects with another person, then that’s just as valid as singing the same song together.  Some people who hear my songs have said it really helped me, my husband had just died – because when they were sad they’d listen to it, which is what people do; listen to sad music when they’re feeling sad”.  Katy does sad songs remarkably well, in fact she admitted that her second album Bluebird was ‘stuffed with them’, but on a song like “Back From the Deep”, a song reflecting on a true incident that happened in Australia back in 2006, where a group of gold miners were trapped underground, Katy presents an uplifting song of hope, which is almost anthemic in its arrangement.  It’s these little glimmers of hope that give Katy’s songs of despair, sorrow and unrequited love the accessibility they deserve.  It’s almost as if Katy allows us to enjoy her sorrow.  “Willow Tree” like “Back from the Deep”, lends itself to traditional folk balladeering and both songs could easily have been written a century ago.  Katy had Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in mind when she wrote “I Like You Like Me”, one of the outstanding songs on the album.  “It was a fairly teenage moment of thinking I’d fallen for someone, I hadn’t really it’s just someone who is not really available, but which makes them more desirable in a way”.  The theme of unrequited love is repeated in Katy’s songs on all her recorded output to date but on this song the singer is resigned to accept that there are ultimately plenty more fish in the sea: “I think I wrote that by the sea actually, down in Cornwall one year, hence the lyrics relating to fish in the sea”.  Indelible Ink’ is a joint effort and any review of the album would be incomplete without a mention of Katy’s collaborator Phill Ward, whose production work, musicianship and general multi-tasking has gone towards ensuring this third KTB album transcends everything that has gone before.  With one instrumental interlude, the twelve songs on Indelible Ink are held together by an indelible thread, each with an enduring quality from the opening few bars of “Bell” to the closing refrain of “Cavalry Parade”, where Katy’s namesakes, the Bennett sisters in Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice, provide the romantic image of being pulled out of the crowd by the hand of destiny.  The repeated refrain of ‘Someone there will make your daddy proud’, seems to stay with you long after the record has been put back in its sleeve, which at the moment is rare.

The Unthanks | Here’s The Tender Coming | Album Review | EMI /RabbleRouser | 25.08.09

There exists at least one copy of The Bairns that includes all five autographs rather than the customary four.  After some arm twisting at the Cambridge Folk Festival in 2008, where the celebrated album was launched, I cockily insisted that the fifth member of the Winterset, Adrian McNally, put his mark right there on the sleeve, which had just been through the hands of Rachel Unthank, Becky Unthank, Niopha Keegan and Belinda O’Hooley respectively.  Credit where credit’s due.  I don’t suppose anyone bothered to get George Martin’s signature on Rubber Soul or Revolver, as he was probably seen as just another one of the many ‘fifth’ Beatles to come pouring out of the woodwork; whether it be to collaborate, promote or play with the Fab Four during their most creative period.  I guess it really would have been slightly uncool for Martin to join the rest of the lads as a visible member of the band; what with his carefully groomed side parting and Bromley Grammar School tie, but that’s got more to do with generational aesthetics than music.  Adrian McNally on the other hand, actually fits in rather well alongside his wife, his sister-in-law, his good friend Niopha Keegan and his childhood mate Chris Price, who now collectively make up The Unthanks.  Testament to this notion is the promo photo that has just been released alongside the new album, which shows an entirely pleasing physically cohesive package.  Rachel Unthank’s producer husband was forced to come out from behind his desk on this occasion due to the departure of Stef Connor, who has been nothing but a Godsend to the band after the sudden departure of Belinda O’Hooley eighteen months ago.  After giving a considerable amount of time and energy to the band over the ensuing months, Stef has returned to her PhD studies, which she knew she would have to pick up at some point in the future.  The young pianist/composer enabled the band to tour the celebrated Mercury prize nominated album, which was of course an important thing to do after such a successful release, by painstakingly learning all the songs together with their complex arrangements, as well as putting something of herself into the mix.  I was fortunate to have been at Stef’s debut live appearance with the Winterset in Newcastle on a cold January evening back in 2008 after which she said to me “I hope I haven’t ruined your band”.  On the contrary, Stef Connor saved the day.  So now, after an eventful eighteen months, it’s onwards and upwards with a new line up, a new sound and a new fresh approach.  It’s difficult not to think in these terms; that everything achieved so far by the band can be bundled and filed as, for want of a better term, Phase One.  The departure of Jackie Oates and Belinda O’Hooley, and the emergence of Niopha Keegan and Stef Connor, was to all intents and purposes part of that same creative time period, resulting in two fine albums, dozens of great gigs and a steadily built reputation as a folk group of sorts, but one doing something slightly left field.  Therefore with the departure of Stef, The Unthanks appear to have been forced to have a good hard look at themselves and confront some creative decision making head on.  Their first potential problem was how exactly to come up with something that could feasibly follow The Bairns, with a vital ingredient missing.  Changes are nothing new to this band and it goes without saying that with change comes a good deal of risk.  Whether it was the right time to add two male figures to the once all-female line up remains to be seen, but judging by the musical contribution of the lads, including piano, guitar, bass, ukulele and dulcitone together with various tuned percussion, the evidence on first hearing suggests the decision was spot on.  Dropping the piano motif that opens both previous albums, the band’s third offering Here’s the Tender Coming opens with the distinctive voice of an unaccompanied Becky Unthank, breathing life into an old song, “Because He Was a Bonny Lad”, which then morphs seamlessly, with a little help from Rachel and Niopha’s intuitive vocal syncopation, into a celestial chorus of vocal pyrotechnics; like a cross between the Beach Boys and the Flying Pickets, as sung by the resident choir of Durham Cathedral.  Despite having a reputation for providing the world with some of the bleakest songs since the folk revival began, this opening song is probably one of the most uplifting sounds in the bands’ recorded output to date.  No rest for the wickedly melancholic though as ‘bleak’ comes back almost on cue with “Sad February”, together with high heel metronome as previously heard on “Felton Lonnin” and “Sea Song”.  It’s more Thomas Hardy than Leonard Cohen though, all set against a Teesside landscape, perfectly melancholic for the lachrymose subject matter, that of drowned sailors and their grieving widows.  Bass and drums were previously experimented with on the Winterset’s version of the Beatles song “Sexy Sadie”, especially recorded for Mojo Magazine’s homage to the White Album and now make a return throughout this album, effectively giving the girls’ feet a break.   It’s difficult to describe Becky Unthank’s distinctive voice, but it’s certainly unlike anything else you might stumble across in your record collection.  During her time with this band, Becky has brought some corkers to the band’s repertoire, each with its own individual personality and character.  As a song writer, the name Lal Waterson has become just about as sacrosanct as Sandy Denny’s a couple or three decades earlier and one tends to tread carefully when tackling that particular body of work.  The younger Unthank sibling is fearless though, approaching Lal Waterson in exactly the same manner as she approaches Nick Drake or Robert Wyatt.  She makes these songs her own and stamps an indelible mark right on the box.  With a powerful string arrangement, Becky confidently strides through “At First She Starts” with her trademark breathy performance, likewise on such a mammoth ballad as “Annachie Gordon”, taking the Nic Jones version rather than Mary Black’s, and weaving through the arrangement like a bird in flight.  All this is helped along by some steadily building and pulsating rhythms and like a ticking clock, life abandons our protagonists with a deafening silence.  The album’s only original song, written by Adrian McNally, provides a completely new departure for the band.  Set to a heavy handed piano riff and strings accompaniment, we are introduced to a new folk hero in “Lucky Gilchrist” a close friend of Rachel’s who she sadly lost last year.  With a minimalist approach, Adrian McNally’s piano motif alternates between shades of Sufjan Stevens and John Carpenter horror score atmospherics.  No greater eulogy in song could be paid to the dear departed than in the lyric ‘you live on in all of us’.  If the opening song tips its hat to Brian Wilson then the arrangement to the Frank Higgins song “The Testimony of Patience Kershaw” surely owes a debt to “Eleanor Rigby”.  With a delightful string quartet arrangement, The Unthanks deliver probably the most joyous sound on the album, yet ironically to a heartbreaking historic 1842 testimony by an illiterate 17 year-old female miner, whose story was told to a British government commission, formed to examine the conditions of women and children working in the coal mines.  Rachel’s reading of this ballad is both emotionally moving and utterly believable.  Returning to Sheila Stewart after the success of “Blue Bleezing Blind Drunk”, Becky delivers a jaunty sing-a-long coda with “Betsy Bell”, which probably owes more to the Northern music hall tradition than to folk song.  Like “Where’ve Yer Bin Dick”, which some of us had the privilege of being taught by Rachel first hand in her singing workshop at the Cambridge Folk Festival this year, the song offers some light relief to augment some of the more gloom-ridden songs on the album.  Ultimately, I have to agree with Rachel though, that all in all, Here’s the Tender Coming does seem to be a ‘warmer, calmer shade of sad’ than The Bairns.  And so to the title song itself. In the 1970s I heard the local singer Dave Burland sing “Here’s the Tender Coming”, which effectively changed my mind about music. Here was a Yorkshireman singing a Geordie song, in a Geordie manner and getting away with it.  I had an instant affinity with that song back then, probably because I am myself of Yorkshire/Geordie parentage and I’ve always been familiar with the canny lingo.  Now in the hands of Rachel Unthank, the song has come round full circle and returns home to where it belongs, right there in the Geordie tradition.  Having said that, it never really left, did it?

Doug Cox | Without Words | Album Review | Black Hen | 21.09.09

Doug Cox approaches the Dobro as an undiscovered instrument and explores its potential as if he had just been given the very first prototype.  Unafraid to fuse Classical elements with both Eastern and Western influences, bluegrass, pop, jazz and what you might possibly expect to hear on Mars, Cox handles each investigation with a sensitive touch and precise execution.  Like most of us, Doug Cox first heard Jerry Douglas over twenty years ago and was instantly aware of the potential of using the Dobro as much more than an instrumental fill-in, but as a bone-fide lead instrument in its own right.  On Without Words, Cox hand picks some of his previously recorded work and presents the thirteen pieces as a compact package of instrumental gems, some self-written, some by others, but each in this context very much his own.  “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” borrows from the original acoustic demo of the song George subsequently chose to rock-up with Clapton for the glorious White Album.  It sounds pretty much like Union Station emoting sublimely in between takes, whilst Alison gives her tonsils a break.  A gorgeous version of one of the Fab’s most underrated tunes.  Tackling Duke Ellington on a modified guitar and metal slide would in other hands possibly be reduced to novelty value only, but with the dexterous handling of “Caravan” as a bluegrass number challenging the old jazz guard in a sort of feuding banjos manner, is nothing short of inspired.  The strangled cornet solo, courtesy of Daniel Lapp, comes across as a duel of sorts between Western music of two distinctly original styles.  Joe Zawinul’s “Birdland” again boasts a valid relationship between jazz and bluegrass, with some delightful musical syncopation between Doug’s Rayco Resophonic and Sam Hurrie’s guitar.  The Indian Classical music influenced “Letter Home” shows the remarkable relationship between the Dobro, a typically Western instrument and the Indian version of the slide guitar, the Satvik Veena, played here by its creator and leading exponent Salil Bhatt.  As a meditative piece of resonant music, complete with Tabla, we find Cox comfortably engaging in a musical experience a world away from bluegrass, but strangely fitting in with it dove-tail like.  “The Circle Game” reminds us once again what a beautiful melody Joni Mitchell’s song has, even without the words.  Try though as I will, I cannot help singing along to it.  It’s strange to have an entirely instrumental album with so many fine words.

Chris Scruggs | Anthem | Album Review | Cogent | 26.09.09

It must be difficult for an artist to come from a musical dynasty of some considerable merit and constantly strive to avoid nostalgia trips, but at the same time maintain the integrity of the family name.  Chris grew up having little to do with the Scruggs family, his mother choosing not to marry his dad Gary Scruggs, Earl’s son, and therefore making his own manoeuvres through the Nashville music scene and gaining a reputation on his own terms.  Anthem shows a versatile singer-songwriter at work, wending his way through a variety of styles from gospel, blues and honky-tonkin’ foot tappers to outright rockers.  Line dancing sessions would have no trouble coming up with a routine for “Running From the Graveyard”, whilst the early Dylan-esque “The Open Road the Open Sky”, written by his late uncle, Ron Davies, shows a more sensitive Scruggs in action, the title of this song also echoed in “Troubled Times”, both of which reveal an apparent yearning for the Road.  There’s nothing mannered about the former BR549’s frontman’s vocal delivery, each song is presented with a clear and distinctly articulate performance, yet with some measure of vulnerability.  Scruggs makes no secret of his love for the Beatles as an early influence and “A Victim’s Song” really wouldn’t be out of place on something like Revolver, but maybe that’s because it reminds me so much of “I’m Only Sleeping”.  Whilst “Windows” provides a radio friendly contemporary pop feel, “Change Your Made Up Mind” echoes Leon Redbone’s laid back approach to Depression era jazz with a clear endeavour to take from the past and add something individual and new to the mix.  Neither seems out of place on the album even though the styles are completely polarised.  Helping out on Anthem and presumably giving Scrugg’s a relat’vely easy time on production duties, are Giant Sand’s Howe Gelb and Calexico’s Nick Luca sharing keyboard duties, Paul Niehaus also of Calexico on pedal steel, Don Herron and Harvey Brooks both stalwarts of Dylan’s stable on fiddle and drums respectively, together with various BR549 bandmates and an exquisite duet with Kelly Hogan on “Old Souls Like You and Me”, proving that good old fashioned country gospel is far from dead and gone.  All in all, Scruggs makes a bold attempt to avoid both nostalgia and pastiche and succeeds in presenting an eclectic brew of country and alt.rock, peppered with a pinch of gospel and blues, to brighten your musical palette; if that’s not mixing too many metaphors. 

Stephanie Lambring | Lonely To Alone | Album Review | Independent | 26.09.09

In a time when young performers are encouraged to enter the music industry by serving academic apprenticeships, most notably in the UK at Newcastle University with the Folk and Traditional Music BMus Honours degree, rather than just falling into it by coast to coast Transit van travel, doner kebab and beer diets and playing to unappreciative audiences up and down the country, who really just can’t wait for the bingo to start, it’s always rewarding to see newcomers emerge almost fully developed.  In Nashville, and particularly at the Belmont University, young performers are leaving to join the big wide world armed with Bachelors of Business Administration in Music Business Degrees, setting themselves up in a very lucrative industry, equipped with something more substantial than just raw talent, which depends always on ever changing trends and tastes.  Indiana born singer-songwriter Stephanie Lambring has one such degree tucked away in her guitar case and has just released her debut album Lonely to Alone, which showcases her undoubted talent on the disc and her unquestionable beauty on the cover, another vital ingredient in this mad world of music and entertainment.  With a distinctly country-folk feel, the collection of songs included here, tackle a whole range of subjects, from racial and sexual prejudice to the demon alcohol and obesity, each one thoughtfully written and tenderly performed.  Whilst “Dear Cadence” and “Tonight” address matters of the heart, there are more contemplative moments on the album that address darker aspects of human behaviour.  “Vincent” reminds us all of the harsh reality that sexual bigotry is still alive and kicking in the world and Stephanie’s tender ballad provides a sympathetic shoulder to cry on as we continue to wait patiently for the bigot tree to stop producing bad apples, those who endeavour to make life such a misery for all the ‘Vincents’ in the world.  Likewise the title song “Lonely to Alone” looks at the even more ludicrous forms of narrow-mindedness that we all encounter during the process of growing up.  “I’m a fat girl, I am what I eat, You always say I’ve got a pretty face, Too bad I take up too much space” pretty much sums up the feelings of countless young people I have encountered during my time and I dare say the pattern won’t change all that much sometime soon.  The one song included here not from Stephanie’s pen is the only uncertain moment.  There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this performance of “Baby One More Time”, in fact if it were the first time I’d heard the song, I would probably be swooning along deliriously, but I’m personally a bit jaded with folked-up Britney, having guffawed at Richard Thompson’s version of the song on his 1000 Years of Popular Music album and then again with Nickel Creek’s energetic version of “Toxic”.  In fact, I’m actually anticipating a long awaited version of “Oops I Did It Again” on mountain dulcimer and 24-string psaltery.   Despite this rather one dimensional slice of criticism, I would thoroughly recommend this album and I look forward to see how Stephanie Lambring’s music career develops.

Corinne West | The Promise | Album Review | Make Records | 28.09.09

The Promise is the third album by Californian singer-songwriter Corinne West, which sets out to do what all third albums really ought to do, that is to sound more than a tad different from the others.  Co-produced by Doug Cox, who also contributes a variety of guitars, including the Dobro and Weissenborn, as well as the common or garden acoustic on Fred Neil’s enduring Everybody’s Talking, the only none-original song on the album, The Promise succeeds in every respect and has done precisely that.  Recorded in an idyllic British Columbia setting, the chosen studio being a converted log cabin overlooking a lake in the small town of Harrison Hot Springs, Corinne, Doug, the engineer Miles Wilkinson and a bunch of fine musicians succeeded in carving out and committing to tape, a delightfully gentle albums’ worth of gems.  In a recent interview, Doug Cox explained to me what prompted Corinne’s decision to migrate from California to British Columbia to record the album.  “The main idea was to just get everyone away from their day to day lives – I’ve produced a few things like that and it’s a wonderful way to make an album and Corinne loves to hike – she’s a real outdoor person – so Harrison presented itself and it was a perfect place to do it”.  Some of this specifically sought out serenity comes across on the album from the start.  There’s nothing rushed about the title song for instance.  “The Promise”, which opens the album, feels distinctly as if it is there to gently ease the listener in, to urge us to pull up a comfortable recliner and take it easy for an hour.  There’s a calmness out there on the lake and it appears to be reflected in the performances.  A veritable mill pond of soft and dreamy soundscapes, particularly on “The Stranger”, with its lounge jazz foundation and again on the aforementioned “Everybody’s Talking”, which abandons all the fast finger-picking and heavy orchestrations of the Harry Nilsson version – oh yes and not forgetting Harry’s wildly irritating harmonica impressions – to bring the song back to basics.  With a gentle guitar and piano arrangement, courtesy of Doug Cox and Jennifer Scott respectively, Corinne re-defines the song as a beautiful laid-back smoocher, suitable to end any night on the dance floor.  The focus on The Promise is clearly Corinne’s voice, which Doug Cox was at pains to capture more intensely than on her previous two albums.  “I felt that Corinne’s voice had never been represented properly on her recordings” Doug explained.  “When she asked me to get involved, I just kept listening to her singing thinking my God this woman’s voice is astounding and has never really been the focus of her recordings”.  With Doug’s help, that voice was given the opportunity to re-discover its potential and to investigate other possibilities in her music, which incidentally she likes to describe as ‘progressive acoustic’.  In an unexpected departure, Corinne adopts an almost Celtic feel in “Pollen”, a switching tempo ballad that sounds for all intents and purposes like Dublin’s very own Eleanor McEvoy.  Lily Ann on the other hand, sees Corinne return to her bluegrass roots to echo some of the more memorable moments on both Bound For Living (2004) and Second Sight (2007), with some delightful extra textural fills courtesy of Jon Reischman’s sprightly mandolin.  With such an intimate and highly personal album, Corinne West maintains a firm grip on the way her career is going with yet another series of stunning vocal performances throughout the nine songs here, all perfectly rendered with the help of a selection of first rate musicians.

Battlefield Band | Zama Zama Try Your Luck | Album Review | Temple | 06.10.09

For thirty years now Battlefield Band have been making their own distinctive blend of Scottish traditional and Celtic music and have released almost as many albums in that time.  Now pretty much settled into their current line-up of founder member Alan Reid together with Highland piper Mike Katz, fiddle player Alasdair White and guitarist Sean O’Donnell, we are once again dazzled by the band’s intuitive playing and thought provoking lyrics.  Their new release Zama Zama Try Your Luck probably has the most curious title of all Battlefield albums to date, but once you take a closer look and lend an attentive ear, it all becomes much clearer.  With extensive sleeve notes, the listener is invited to ponder over the reasons, whys and wherefores of how gold has figured in our lives, from the little band that cuts off our circulation, metaphorically and literally, to the definitive symbol of ultimate greed.  Alan Reid’s “Robber Barons”, the first single release from this collection, compares for instance, the greed of yesterday to that of today and argues that not much has changed since the Middle Ages.  The purpose of the cover photograph of a cigar-chewing tycoon at the poker table becomes abundantly clear as the songs reveal our inherent obsession with this most sought after bling.   In “Uamh An Oir” (Cave of Gold), Allan MacDonald makes a guest appearance accompanying himself on small pipes and singing a beautiful air in Scottish Gaelic, which segues into Mike Katz’s plaintive “Zama Zama Boys”, accompanying himself on the Highland Pipes.  The Zama Zama Boys (Zama Zama translated from the Zulu for ‘try your luck’) refers to illegal gold miners working in impossible conditions north of Johannesburg and whose endeavours eventually cost them their lives, when disaster inevitably strikes.   Battlefield Band always like to surprise us; who could forget their reworking of the old Creedence Clearwater Revival classic “Bad Moon Rising” for instance.  On this album, Nina Simone’s “Plain Gold Ring” is given the Battlefield treatment and re-assesses the song, using it in the overall context of the album, as another sign of the power of gold, and not just a song of unrequited love.  The album when all said and done has the potential to be recognised as the Celtic soundtrack for our current economic downturn and financial Armageddon.  If the Reverend Willie G was ever in search of a Highland Piper to join ZZ Top, he would need look no further than Battlefield’s Mike Katz who would fit quite nicely into the hot rod scene aesthetically if not quite musically.  Mike’s assortment of whistles and pipes help to give Battlefield Band their distinctive sound and nowhere better on the instrumental pieces throughout the album, such as “The Mines of Golkonda”, “Black Ruairidh’s” and “The Pretty Apron”, the closing track, which incidentally features a tune called “The Flirting Brown Maid”, the chords of which suggest “Purple Haze” of all things.  Now there’s a thought, Battlefield plays Hendrix.  Wouldn’t put it past ‘em.   Zama Zama Try Your Luck is a timely release, which should provoke at least a moment or two of reflective thought, whilst at the same time, stimulate our musical senses.

Owen Harvey | Disappearing Strangers | Album Review | Self Release | 08.10.09

Owen Harvey is a young Nottingham-based songwriter with a taste for a very distinctly acoustic sound, which he is currently providing tasters for at various support spots around the Nottinghamshire/Derbyshire area, warming up audiences for the likes of Steve Earle, Nik Kershaw and most recently Diana Jones.  I suspect that with the attention Owen is receiving during these appearances, it won’t be too long now until his name is at the top of the bill.   Joined by a whole family of Adeys and in particular Russ on guitar/mandolin, James on bass and Dave on harmonica, the band make a sound on Owen’s debut album, that is immediately accessible and which is utilised perfectly well on both the CD and in live shows, where the trio of Owen, Russ and James perform these songs in pretty much the same manner as on the recorded versions.  Owen speaks highly of his fellow musicians, “they’re family really, I’m really lucky to have them on board as musicians; they’re supposed to follow me as backing but I follow them because they keep the structure that I need to keep for the songs”.  The singer-songwriter is at pains to point out that none of this would be possible without the help and assistance of his friends “I’ve always been a solo acoustic artist but I always wanted to play with other musicians, that’s my forte, I love to play with other artists, I love to get the vibe, when you’ve got a riff going here and someone accentuates on it, it’s always great to just build on that”.  One suspects that Owen has been playing his music from an early age, which is hinted at by the inclusion of a photograph on the inner sleeve, which reveals a very small fedora-wearing Owen Harvey, almost obscured by both the hat and the enormous acoustic guitar resting awkwardly upon his lap.  With most debuts, the question often arises about how much of the songwriter’s life up to that point is included in the songs.  “The funny thing is, I’ve not been writing for that long; I think I started writing in 2005, so it’s still in its early stages, but it’s definitely a massive thing for me”.  As is often the case, the best way of discovering what a new songwriter is all about is by listening to the songs.  “City Lights” opens both the album and his recent Cosmic American live set at the Fishpond in Matlock Bath.  The song provides a good starting place with its rich acoustic backing of both 12 string and 6 string guitar, together with electric bass, and is set against an unfussy melody, a good opener in both cases.  It’s difficult not to be drawn into a song like “How We Dance” with its infectious mandolin riff, which meanders in and out effortlessly between the verses and the chorus of ‘How we danced under the marquee at your dad’s house today; how we danced under the midnight moonlight stars’.  The song conjures up the sort of dancing found in a Jack Vettriano painting rather than your local night club. Other highlights include Untitled, a song that could easily have been called “She Loves Me More Than Life”, which provides a snapshot of youthful romance in both the playground and later in the workplace.  The song “Disappearing Strangers” according to Harvey is like ‘a cat with nine lives’.  Originally put aside indefinitely, the song was only included on this collection due to Russ Adey’s insistence and therefore the song is not only included here but also provides the album with its title.  Concluding the album, Sail to the Coast offers some of the deepest felt lyrics; ‘my love is stationed in the marrow of your bones’, which Owen explains “I suppose it’s one those things where you’re sat at home on the couch and you’re writing a song with your guitar in your hands and you want to say something and it never comes out, the chord hits and the lyrics come out and you look back and you think wow, that absolutely encapsulates exactly what I was feeling at that moment”.  I asked Owen if songs are coming more easily now the first album is done, “More so really because you’re more away from home, you’ve got more time to reflect on things, more time to travel, meeting new people, seeing different things and the big thing as well is, working with the Cosmic (American) group you get to work with a lot really good artists and you’re learning all the time, you’re learning different guitar riffs, you’re learning how to talk about things in a different way”.  Owen seems to have learned a lot from his American peers and has for instance adopted one of the most under-used live presentation methods that this reviewer wholeheartedly approves of, that of providing musical backing during the introductions of the songs; not so much talking over the introduction, but preceding the performance with more of a theatrical presentation than usual.  I suspect these little touches will see Owen Harvey’s popularity grow before too long. 

Marybeth D’Amico | Heaven Hell, Sin and Redemption | Album Review | Self Release | 08.10.09

Marybeth D’Amico certainly wasn’t born with the songwriting bug, despite growing up in a musical environment that included harmonizing with her siblings to records by Peter, Paul and Mary or Crosby Stills and Nash.  Nor I assume did she spend her formative years before the mirror with hairbrush in hand mimicking Patsy Cline in the hopes of becoming a star, choosing instead the alternative route of journalism, working as an editor of an Amsterdam-based magazine.  When D’Amico found herself at a loose end after her editing career came to an abrupt end, the journalist, now a wife and mother of two, picked up a guitar and began writing songs, influenced in part by the likes of Patty Griffin, Lori McKenna and Kathleen Edwards.  It has to be said that Heaven, Hell, Sin and Redemption, Marybeth’s first full length album, follows an unpromising start. Her EP Waiting to Fly (2006) was hardly the debut this burgeoning talent deserved, a handful of demo worthy songs marred by shaky vocals and a wobbly falsetto.  This, the full length follow up however, is surprisingly fresh with a vocal delivery of a seasoned player.  Bradley Kopp’s production goes a long way toward ensuring attention be paid to and ears be pricked for a singer songwriter who could now very well have found her performing feet.  Now living in Germany, the American singer songwriter has written an impressive selection of fine songs and along with the help of an array of trustworthy musicians including Lloyd Maines on dobro and pedal steel, Richard Bowden on violin, David Webb on keyboards and Paul Pearcy on drums together with Kopp’s guitar and bass, these songs pave the way forward for D’Amico.  With a tasteful arrangement including Webb’s delicious Hammond, “A Love Story” is classic Romeo and Juliet storytelling with our protagonists caught up in the usual small town religious paranoia, whilst “Ohio” tells a convincing tale of what it’s possibly like to be unjustly banged up, reflecting on the past with particularly bleak future prospects.  With a cast of extraordinary characters, some real and some imagined, D’Amico paints a vivid social landscape in classic storytelling style and in doing so, has hopefully found her voice. 

The Feedback File | Still Revolving | Album Review | Self Release | 07.11.09

If like me, you become slightly irritated when you come across cards stuffed in independent record shop CD browsers with tempting messages like ‘if you like Nick Drake, you’ll love this’, then forgive me, but allow me to scribble that message right here.  It’s not the introspective lyricism of the Tanworth-in-Arden Bard, nor is it the complex guitar tunings found on three and a half albums worth of songs from the early 1970s that The Feedback File attempts to imitate here; it’s more the ethereal essence of Drake.  At times Tom Linneen’s voice touches upon the breathy grace of Drake, and John Almond’s guitar sound is just as crisp, but really it’s the arrangements that appear to make no attempt in hiding that specific influence.  “Set to Crazy” is probably the closest this outfit get to Bryter Layter period Drake, especially in the orchestral arrangements that infiltrate the song half way through.  This is all okay with me for I feel that when we lose our Drakes and Martyns we are left with a void that ought to be filled.  Despite this, I want to shrug off that influence in order to listen to John and Tom’s venture unhindered by this constant comparison to an artist who left the world three and a half decades ago and one who left us more recently and whose legacy is even more poignant.  The Feedback File was without doubt born out of a mutual understanding of the music from this period and chasing down these particular ghosts has proved to be a worthy cause.  Still Revolving was produced in collaboration with Nigel Penny-Lanyi, who also provided a variety of instruments including some guitar and pedal steel as well as mellotron and piano and original Blue Aeroplanes member Richard Bell was on hand to provide guitar and bass parts despite being remotely positioned in Australia, proving once again that if you do take advantage of our burgeoning technological age, you can succeed in making good music from afar.  A bit tricky when it comes to live appearances granted.  Fink’s drummer Tim Thornton kept the beat throughout and on one track, the instrumental “Star Song”, the late Ian Nelson provided a tenor sax solo just as he had done for his brother Bill on Be Bop Deluxe’s memorable “Ships in the Night” back in 1976.   There’s a melancholy feel to the album but it’s strangely uplifting at the same time, another similarity I suppose to Drake’s difficult second.  Referencing both Drake and Tim Buckley as well as a nod to “Saturday Sun”, “Not Breaking Down Doors” is one of those songs that you feel you’ve known all your life before you’ve given it a first run through and together with the other ten songs on the album, it joins a body of work that is distinctly English and serves as a reflection of a bygone age.

Robin James | Saint Jude | Album Review | Self Release | 14.11.09

If I was a script writer for Little Britain or The Fast Show and I was toying with the idea of coming up with a character to help lampoon the whole genre of self-indulgent singer-songwriters who walk amongst us, a character who could potentially embody all the foibles of the genre, encompassing the likes of everyone from Nick Drake and Donovan through to Devendra Banhart, Sufjan Stevens and beyond, I don’t think I could’ve come up with a better concept than Robin James.  This at first sounds disdainful, yet I don’t mean it to be; after all, I love the genre.  However you approach Saint Jude though, you can’t help but wonder whether this debut is meant to be a serious endeavour or just a joke.  Robin James appears to have a singing voice that is far more fragile than any human being should be made to endure, with the end of every line sounding very much like the final breath of a dying man.  I’m reminded of Syd Barrett’s solo albums but played on either 78rpm or on helium, then mixed with a sprinkle of the neo-romanticism of early Tyrannosaurus Rex.  Saint Jude is a difficult album to listen to.  Robin’s Romany Gypsy and Argentinean roots are not evident in either the sound of his voice, the style of his guitar playing or in the lyrical content of the songs.  The album was recorded live direct onto tape with no studio wizardry, one guitar, one voice, making for a sparsely arranged debut.  If Robin is serious here, then it is heartbreakingly sensitive stuff and reaches the recesses of despair that even Leonard Cohen couldn’t reach.  If it is intended as a little tongue in cheek, then Van Gogh provides the most memorable punchlines.  The only song that provides a significant shift in tempo is “Rag Doll Girl”, which betrays the singer’s fragility and proves that James has a stronger voice than first he lets on.  I don’t dislike the album as such, I just can’t imagine a follow up.

Stevie Coyle | Ten in One | Album Review | Tuna Mine Music | 14.11.09

Concept albums worried me back in the 1970s and they worry me today still.  Unfortunately, the term has found itself forever associated with Arthurian knights on skates, prancing around the ice rink astride pantomime horses strapped to the midriff, whilst our grumpy old caped crusader tinkles the ivories.  It was always going to be a hideous affair from the get go.  In the world we now know of as Americana however, the concept album has a much more intelligent approach.  Tom Russell’s brilliant Hotwalker took us on a similar journey to the one Stevie Coyle attempts here on this his debut solo album Ten-in-One (a sideshow tent at a carnival or circus, we are informed), with a similar cast of burlesque characters.  From the outset we know that we have been invited into a world freed from the restrictions of the standard ten song collection that Nashville is noted to approve of.  In a slight twist, the first twenty seconds revisit Sgt Pepper with a reference to both the opening and closing few seconds of probably the most famous concept album of the lot, with all the middle bits removed for convenience.  “A Day in the Life” is also referenced in the closing coda of “She Ain’t Got Me” ensuring the homage wasn’t entirely missed at the beginning.  “Train on the Brain” is a growling introduction to this intriguing landscape of circus freaks and fairground folk, told with the authority of a Nighthawks period Tom Waits or a moody Robbie Robertson somewhere down a similarly crazy river.  Former Waybacks guitarist Stevie Coyle makes no apology for turning his debut solo effort into a freak show.  “When The Muse taps you, you gotta answer” he reportedly remarked, going on to conclude “especially if she taps you with a baseball bat”.  The one constant thing on this album is the standard of musicianship.  Each song or instrumental, augmented by an interlude of either circus sound bites or some determined rowing on a creaky boat, offers an entirely different and individual musical approach, whether it be a fiddle or banjo tune, “Mr Oster’s Theme” and “Cousin Sally Brown” respectively, or some Eastern influenced Davy Graham-esque guitar playing on “Cousin Sari Brown”, which to all intents and purposes could be seen as the “Within You Without You” moment on this potential homage to The Fab’s most lauded album.  The artwork only adds to the mystery with its bleak photo montage featuring presumably the mysterious Mr Oster and a booklet which reveals not much more to go on.  Then there’s the stark warning at the foot of the inner sleeve, ‘Rip and burn this CD at your own karmic peril’ ooer, consider us warned.  Fortunately there is a detailed personnel list with an array of assembled talent to aid and abet this conceptual carnival including Walter Strauss who also produces, Corinne West who adds her own distinctive vocals and a bunch of musicians who spar and duel throughout.  Watch out for the duelling theremin and slide on the funky “Petrified Man”, where Star Trek meets the Staples Singers in another galaxy, far away etc.  There are some moments of absolute beauty on this album such as the gorgeous “Rue Du Rome”, a thoroughly entrancing dance courtesy of Phillip Aaberg’s sweeping accordion and Coyle’s crisp finger style guitar and “The Falcon”, Richard Farina’s take on the old traditional song “The Blackbird”, which offers some gorgeous harmony singing to a single finger-picked guitar backing.  If there’s a point on Ten-in-One where we would have originally expected the album to go, it would be on Rick Ruskin’s “Microphone Fever”, which demonstrates once again what a thoroughly excellent guitar player Coyle is.  Personally I have become jaded with solo guitar albums of the Stefan Grossman tutorial variety over the years and therefore this album is infinitely more interesting than it was originally intended, in fact, I defy anyone to listen to this through just the once; there’s a distinct urge to play it over again and again.

Various Artists | Folk Delivering Hope | Album Review | Self Release | 20.11.09

It was a moment of inspiration when folk DJ Tony Hitchcock of Sine FM pointed out to fundraising co-ordinator Eileen Myles of the AHS Foundation, that with such an array of talent due to play at a forthcoming Doncaster charity concert in aid of earthquake victims in Kashmir, there must be an opportunity to compile a fund raising CD to bring in much needed additional funds.  With Jez Lowe, Clive Gregson, Ray Hearne, Steve Womack and Katriona Gilmore and Jamie Roberts already on board for the concert, the potential for an interesting CD was almost certainly on the cards.  Four of the five acts mentioned above contribute a couple of tracks each to this compilation with further contributions from Sam Baker, John Tams, Martyn Joseph and Peter Dilley, all donating a slice of their music free of charge.  The Folk Delivering Hope collection was born out of desire to create a limited edition souvenir for those who attended the concert, which took place on 15 November in Doncaster.  Listening to the CD in the car every day since the concert, I’ve personally found it highly listenable and not like the usual rushed release compilations for other such worthy causes.   Ray Hearne’s poignant poem “Dark of Heartness” is included here, read by Stephen Gill, whose reading was used as a soundtrack to a short film made especially for the concert at the Regent Hotel.  A slight technical hitch made it impossible to show the film on that occasion, but fortunately the author was on hand to read it out personally.  Ray also contributes two songs from his long awaited follow up to the Broad Street Ballads album.  The Wrong Sunshine provides an insight into what Ray Hearne is all about and two of those songs are provided here as a taster.  “Manvers Island Bound” is a delightful song of hope derived from an unlikely source, that of a roundabout in the middle of an industrial estate in Wath-upon-Dearne.  There’s not many writers who could make such an anthemic song out of such an ordinary setting, but that’s the thing about Ray, he manages to divert your attention from the mundane to the beautiful with his words and his songs and along with “Things to Say”, a song that sets out Ray’s statement of intent in no uncertain terms, we see a writer and performer at his peak.  Katriona Gilmore and Jamie Roberts contribute a couple of tracks from their debut album Shadows and Half Light, Katriona’s haunting “Hunter Man” and the inventive instrumental piece “Skip and Jump”, which showcases the duo’s musical dexterity.  Katriona and Jamie are already being tipped by some for the prestigious BBC Horizon Award in 2010, a notion that would certainly get my vote.  Jez Lowe is no stranger to offering his help and support to good causes and has generously contributed two excellent songs for the collection, “A Long Walk Home” and “Bait Up”, both of which clearly represent the songwriter’s writing credentials.  If Jez represents the North East of England on this CD, then Martyn Joseph represents Wales and contributes “Have an Angel Walk With Her”, one of the most beautiful ballads from his recent retrospective album Evolved, which contains re-recordings of some of his best work.  The one representative not from these shores is Texan Sam Baker, whose sublime “Broken Fingers”, which opens the collection, sets the mood for the rest of the album to follow.  At the concert, Steve Womack sent his audience home after a side-splitting set, full of humour and peppered with songs from the likes of The Beatles, Lindisfarne and Paul Simon.  His contribution to this CD however is a couple of songs from his own pen, the beautiful “Matthew” recorded live with full band just over the road from the Regent coincidentally enough, at the Civic Theatre as well as “All Saints Day” from his album Turn the Other Cheek.  Closing this collection is an instrumental by Peter Dilley, a young songwriter from County Durham, who is currently studying at Leeds University.  Taken from his debut album Said and Done, “Jack’s Song” offers a reflective guitar piece to close the album.  Funds from the sale of this CD will help the AHS Foundation to deliver hope to the people of Noon Bagla and the surrounding area by providing, equipping and maintaining a Health Centre to service the medical needs of up to 12,000 people still recovering from the devastating Pakistan earthquake of 2005.

Gerry Rafferty | Life Goes On | Album Review | Hypertension | 21.11.09

Many of us who have followed Rafferty’s career with any modicum of interest would be happy, I would imagine, to see his smiling face once again, as included in the booklet that accompanies this collection.  Photographed with Enzina Fushini before Mont-Saint-Michel in France, the singer-songwriter appears decidedly chipper with obligatory trademark tinted-specs, after a decade of speculation regarding his personal life.  Stories of trashing hotel rooms, drunken benders, not to mention going missing for a while, have all been pretty much tabloid fodder and consequently has kept tongues wagging, but it’s always nice to see a musician return to form and get his act together.   Life Goes On is a compilation of sorts with a few new things added.  The six new songs include a reading of the Christian chant “Kyrie Elieson”, which reminds me of an earlier version by the Electric Prunes from the Easy Rider soundtrack; a couple of timely Christmas Carols including “Adeste Fidelis”, sung in its original Latin, later translated into English as “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “Silent Night”, probably the prettiest Christmas song of the lot.  With plenty of church bells included within, together with a sleeve design depicting an assortment of saintly figures, one wonders whether this is intended as a seasonal album or is it just that Mr Rafferty turned to God?  The inclusion of another new recording, this time a pretty faithful cover of The Beatles’ “Because” could also quite easily fit in with the seasonal theme.  With harpsichord accompaniment, it just has that seasonal feel.  Several of the tracks are re-mastered cuts from Rafferty’s three previous albums including “Love and Affection”, “Life Goes On” and “Time’s Caught Up On You” from On a Wing and a Prayer (1992), “The Waters of Forgetfulness” from Over My Head (1994) and “Every Time I Wake Up”, “The Land of the Chosen Few” and the title track from Another World (2000).  The other songs included are lifted direct from those albums.  I still love “The Land of the Chosen Few” despite it sounding like Rafferty has been on the Jeff Lynne pills.  I can’t be certain when these ‘new’ songs were actually recorded, but if they are indeed recently recorded songs, then I can report that Rafferty’s voice hasn’t deteriorated with age and I should imagine he could certainly pull of a decent version of “Baker Street” with no problem, if only he could find Raphael Ravenscroft to back him up with that iconic sax work.  With a nod to those who have provided ‘emotional support’ over the years, Rafferty mentions artist John Byrne who created some of his wonderful album sleeves as well as for The Humblebums and Steelers Wheel, not to mention The Beatles. Rafferty also mentions Billy Connolly and Rab Noakes and together with Byrne, the songwriter expresses his gratitude.  “These are my friends, the dear, once of a day”.

Jochen Ross and Jens-Uwe Popp | The Ten Islands | Album Review | Self Release | 14.12.09

For the most part The Ten Island is an instrumental album, but like all good instrumental albums, it includes a handful of songs as well.  Joking apart, the songs included on this album do serve to complement the instrumental pieces remarkably well, all three traditional songs beautifully sung by Canadian singer Lisa Winn; “The Banks o’ Doon”, “Kelvingrove” and “Smile in Your Sleep”.  The German born musicians Jochen Roß and Jens-Uwe Popp have taken the landscape of Scotland as inspiration for this collection of pieces and have created an album of melodies that successfully reflect the essence of Scottish music but at the same time maintain the integrity of an international collaborative ensemble.  Taking some of Nigel Gatherer’s compositions as a framework to build on, the collection of songs and tunes are held together by Jochen’s mandolin and Jens-Uwe’s guitar, with additional contributions from a wealth of international musicians including double bassist Guido Jäger, Moroccan percussionist Rhani Krija, guitarist Fabian Hink and on didgeridoo, Ulrich Schubert.  I hesitate to say that this album often sounds like a film soundtrack, particularly the sprawling “East Parkside”, which provides a theme of almost cinematic proportions, highlighted by the fact that it pops up again as a reprise at the end of the album.  However, I can’t help but imagine this music being used specifically to add atmosphere to a good intelligent movie.  With the additional sounds of the elements, the odd cigarette being lit or a party in full swing, The Ten Islands pretty much holds itself together as a suite of predominantly acoustic compositions, inextricably linked by a high standard of musicianship and the occasional electric guitar reminiscent of Mike Oldfield’s early work.

Various Artists | The Village: A Celebration of the Music of Greenwich Village | Album Review | 429 Records | 14.12.09

With three stunning Dylan covers to get this little celebration underway, Rickie Lee Jones, The Duhks and Lucinda Williams prove once again that Dylan songs are very often done much better by others than by the man himself.  Rickie Lee Jones takes on a sort of Three Dog Night “Mama Told Me Not to Come” groove to retell the “Subterranean Homesick Blues” stream of consciousness, whilst Sarah Dugas’s stunning vocal on the Duhks performance of “It’s Alright Ma”, may just have us pondering the notion of whether or not this may be the definitive version here.  Just when we thought it could get no better, Lucinda Williams turns in a sneering version of “Positively 4th Street” with a voice that could just as easily strip paint.  Three Dylan covers worthy of listening to over and over.  It’s quite sad for Sixpence None the Richer, who have to follow all that, coming in fourth in the track listing.  Their take on the traditional “Wayfaring Stranger” is a subtle version nonetheless, it’s just that I’m already in the habit of skipping back to the beginning at this point to hear those three Dylan covers over again, just in case my hearing deceives me.  The Village, subtitled ‘a celebration of the music of Greenwich Village’ offers an interesting look back on the heady days of the Village during its heyday, when this particular area of New York City was a bustling hive of political and musical activity, frequented by the cream of the hip performers of the 1960s including Dylan, Joni Mitchell, John Sebastian, Tim Buckley, Eric Andersen and Fred Neil, to name but a mere handful, all of whom were probably only there in the first place to absorb the influence of those who had gone before them a decade earlier, the likes of Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, not to mention another Dylan of the Thomas variety.  Further contributions are from Mary Chapin Carpenter, tenderly delivering her trademark delicate touch to Eric Andersen’s “Violets of Dawn”, Cowboy Junkie Margo Timmins’ slick vocal on the atmospheric “Once I Was”, a faithful nod to the Tim Buckley original and Rachael Yamagata, who emotes through Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now”, echoing the much later version that Emma Thompson sobs uncontrollably to in Love Actually, rather than the fresh faced 1969 original.  The only dodgy moment as far as I can see is the unfathomable inclusion of Bruce Hornsby’s rather weak interpretation of John Sebastian’s “Darlin’ Be Home Soon”.  Once a beautifully engaging melody, now a monotonous drone with all of the colour removed, I can only think in terms of Sebastian’s multi-coloured die-dyed vomit jacket and matching jeans seen at Woodstock, but in black and white.  Not only does this version seem out of place due to its dullness, it’s also out of place being the solitary live track, which has Hornsby confessing at the beginning to his audience “I’m no Tom Jones”.  Eh?  With some insightful sleeve notes written by Suze Rotolo, the gal wrapped up warm beside Dylan on the cover of Freewheelin’, we can once again enjoy for the most part, some of the most influential songs from arguably the most influential decade in popular music, re-worked here by some of the performers who were standing in the wings, taking note.

Leddra Chapman | Telling Tales | Album Review | ALC | 17.12.09

With a handful of well-crafted songs, a lucrative clothing sponsorship deal and the good looks she was born with, Anna Leddra Chapman has now uncorked the Champaign, aimed it squarely at the stern of her vessel and has successfully launched what looks like a very promising music career.  With a voice not unlike Regina Spektor in places and the attitude of a young Kate Winslet, Leddra Chapman has brought to fruition the CD that she always dreamed of making and always wanted to be proud of.  With ten songs to go on, together with a handful of video diaries and a generous presence on the interweb, I was still curious to find out more about this young Essex songwriter and the best way to do that was to reach for the telephone.  On a particularly wet and windy December weekday afternoon, I seized upon the opportunity to speak to Leddra and first of all I enquired about where exactly the ‘Anna’ part of her name had disappeared to and whether or not I should send out a search party.  “Anna Leddra Chapman is my full name and it was always a bit of a mouthful for people to say, especially when they were introducing me at gigs.  My friends at college call me Leddra anyway, it’s kind of become a nickname and so it just felt really natural to lose the Anna.  It’s nice as well when I’m working and when I’m doing my music I’m Leddra and when I’m on stage I’m Leddra and then when I’m home with my family I’m Anna again, it’s really nice to almost have a bit of an alter ego with it”.  Born into a musical family, her dad a musician who had done what most self-respecting musicians do, that is to fill the house with music, Leddra had soon absorbed everything she heard around the house to good effect as she explained.  “I just grew up listening to really kind of cool music, we had lots of Radiohead and lots of Pulp and some Michael Jackson, just lots of music playing in the house.  My dad played in bands ever since I was a little girl so I was never really scared to pick up a guitar and start learning”.  Picking up that guitar at the young age of 12, Leddra set about composing her first lyrics almost immediately, then faced the frustrating slog of finding a gig where she would be accepted at such a young age.  Like other singers before her, Laura Marling for example, it would sometimes prove to be tricky getting into some venues to play at all.  “It happened at a few places but a lot of places made exceptions for me, which was really nice” Leddra explained, “I remember playing my first ever gig in London when I was 15 at a place called Monkey Chews in Camden and I’m pretty sure that they didn’t ever normally let anyone under 16 play but my mum had got in contact with them before hand and I think the rule was I had to play and then leave or just not have any drinks”.  Leddra did however wait patiently for her age to catch up on her burgeoning talent and her debut album has now finally been released.  Referring to her music as chilled-out folkie-pop, the ten songs on Telling Tales perfectly reflect this self-assessment and cover a broad scope of themes influenced in the main by the books and films that Leddra had read or seen, as well as from the real life people around her, all personal to this young songwriter in their own way.  “I’m really really proud of it because every song means something different, it’s very special to me and I’m really chuffed with the sound that we’ve come up with.  Obviously I started writing when I was so young that I needed to develop as an artist and I had no idea what I wanted to sound like; one minute I really wanted to be like an Avril Lavigne, kind of rock chick and the next minute I was in love with Damien Rice and I wanted just a guitar and voice.  Then I met the producer of the album Peter Vettese and we worked together and together we just found this really cool sound and it just works for me”.  The most immediately accessible song on the album is “Story”, which gets things off to a sprightly start.  The protagonists of this little vignette, with its infectious arrangement augmented by the Egham Brass Band and a flirtatious harpsichord, are Marisa Jones and Michael Porter, two characters lost in their own complex relationships.  I asked Leddra whether these two characters were real or imagined?  “Marisa is my best friend, I’ve changed her surname and Michael Porter is going to remain a bit of a mystery”.  I expected nothing less to be honest.  The song is accompanied by a promotional video, which has in no small part brought Leddra’s song to a wider audience.  “We filmed that in Hossegor, the place I go to perform some of the Quiksilver events and we were lucky enough to film a lot of that video in the Quiksilver house.  It was a real pleasure to film and was the first time I ever had to lipsinc or do any kind of posing in front of a video camera it was very surreal”.  The Quiksilver clothing company took on board Leddra as one of their European brand ambassadors, which the songwriter has embraced wholeheartedly. Neither a singer songwriter turned model, nor a model trying her hand at song writing, Leddra has the rare status of being an artist able to run both things simultaneously from the outset, presumably giving her the best of both worlds.  With frequent visits to the South of France, Leddra is able to perform the music she loves in exciting surroundings and at the same time show off some nice kit and if that isn’t appealing enough, how about the opportunity to hang out with ‘some really cool people’, playing poker tournaments and partying by night and surfing by day?  I wish I still had that sort of energy.  With the launch of Leddra’s new website, we see a generous artist emerging who takes care of her fan base.  The norm would be to launch a CD with little other than a face and a track listing and the obligatory mystery for us all to solve sooner or later.  Leddra Chapman makes video diaries that allow those who admire her music to follow her every move (well almost).  The mixed media approach will no doubt bring her music to a wider audience at a time when her potential is being realised.  I asked her how she approaches making the videos to accompany her songs.  “It was really quite weird the first few times I had to lipsinc.  I remember I didn’t want anybody to watch me because I was so self-conscious about it and then Dan Fernbach the guy who directed and made the video said to me just treat it as if you’re on stage and that you’re performing to a crowd and just sing it and after he said that it came quite naturally to me and I did a lot better I think”.  Another promotional video is currently being made and almost on cue, Leddra has made available some video diaries indicating precisely the fun that goes into making these things.  “We did that in Brighton the weekend before last and that was so much fun because it was completely sped up, about ten times the original speed and it was hard to keep a straight face for the first few takes”.  The fun element is apparent in one particular scene where she is directed to spill the feathers from a pillow for part of a video that accompanies the song “A Little Easier”.  “There were feathers literally everywhere and when I say that I mean, everywhere.  You couldn’t see a patch of carpet and we kind of underestimated what it would do to the floor”.  There’s also something specifically English about Leddra’s singing voice, which is both honest and appealing at the same time.  Whereas Adele is chasing pavements, in Edie Leddra is chasing street lights, creating a beautifully pastoral atmosphere at the same time, which the song hangs upon until the very last note.  On the other hand, “Summer Song” has an instantly commercial sound that cries out to be played on the same radio stations that spun Lily Allen’s LDN to death a few years ago.  Conversely, the sensitivity of Leddra’s writing leads us to the album’s heart.  “Wine Glass” is written and performed by a woman who knows what love is all about.  Who else would notice the specifics of how someone would walk into a room or the peculiar way someone holds their wine glass, than someone familiar with the ways of love?  “I really wanted to write a song about that and about how you can love somebody so much and it’s just the tiny things that put the little cherry on the top, the tiny things that only you would notice.  Someone very special to me has a really weird thing about how he holds his wine glass.  He has to hold his red wine around the glass bit and he has to hold white wine around the stem and if I did it any other way then he’d go crazy”.  Although Leddra is no stranger to touring and playing live gigs in the UK and in Europe, most notably opening for Roachford earlier this year, it is only now that the album is out, that touring has become all the more important and something to focus on once again; I asked Leddra when we would be seeing her up and down the country.  “I really want to get back on tour in the New Year because I had my first tour at the end of October this year and it was such an amazing experience travelling and performing at the same time.  I’ll definitely be back on tour in the New Year and we’ll be announcing dates on MySpace”.  I was keen to know whether this would be in a supporting role or as the headliner to which she explained “To be honest I just really love travelling and performing whether it be my own headline act or supporting somebody.  It’s lovely to support somebody because you get to meet people and learn from other artists who have been doing it for years, you really get loads from it”.  So as Leddra embarks on this maiden voyage, armed with a stash of signed copies of her debut album, an acoustic guitar and her trusty pink toy piano, “the toy piano goes where I go” she joked, we look forward to hear what other tales this promising singer songwriter has to tell in the future.