Music Reviews | 2010

Janet Robin | Everything Has Changed | Album Review | Hypertension | 16.01.10

On the sleeve that accompanies the new album by Janet Robin, Everything Has Changed, we have the singer-songwriter-guitarist coming at us purposely with her acoustic Taylor – brandishing it more like – all smiles and ready for action.  No stranger to the big stage, Janet Robin has worked with the likes of the Lindsey Buckingham Band, the Meredith Brooks Band and Air Supply and has made a reputation for herself as an outstanding guitarist who is equally at home with the Taylors as well as the Fenders and is fearless in her approach.  Michelle Shocked reportedly suggested that Robin is “one of the best guitarists in the country: male or female”.  Assuming that the country in question is America, then that’s a pretty hefty responsibility, to be one of the best amongst that particular bunch of musicians.  Sporting a variety of stage costumes and big hairdos throughout the 80s, including spells in garage and glam rock bands, most notably Precious Metal, Robin cut her teeth on the LA rock scene, which paved her way towards working with the likes of the former Fleetwood Mac guitarist and gained her a reputation of being a first rate musician.  Recorded in the tranquillity of Cash Cabin, a ranch on the outskirts of Nashville once owned by Johnny Cash and June Carter, now in the hands of their son John Carter Cash (who also produces this album), the songs on this, Robin’s fifth album, show a marked maturity in terms of both song writing and musicianship.  Most of the songs on the album are from Robin’s pen with the exception of a couple of non-originals including Cindy Walker’s “Dream Baby”, gorgeously sexing up the Roy Orbison hit in the process with a memorably cool groove and the more contemporary PJ Harvey powerhouse “This Is Love”, complete with a sneering guitar solo midway through; either performance a worthy contender for first single from the album status.  In the only instrumental piece on the album “CHR Number 137”, Robin slips into the sort of acoustic pyrotechnics Stephen Stills was once known for, a sort of Jimmy Page circa Led Zep III mode, which also accompanies the video feature included on the disc, which has Robin wandering around the sprawling grounds of Cash Cabin, featuring the iconic recording studio where much of Cash’s later work was recorded, with Cash memorabilia scattered randomly about the place, together with various chickens, goats and erm.. llama?  I think the word I’m looking for is.. anyway..  Although this is a world away from Robin’s forays into the heavy metal world of Precious Metal, the music on Everything Has Changed maintains a hard edge but has reached a maturity that successfully straddles the boundaries of rock, pop and Americana in more than a pleasing way.

Cherry Lee Mewis | Southbound Train | Album Review | Self Release | 20.01.10

When I first picked up from my door mat the envelope containing the new Southbound Train record by Cherry Lee Mewis, I found it difficult getting past the name on the sleeve.  Was it a joke?  The name sounded very much like one of those highly irritating tribute bands I have an aversion to and I was almost expecting a handful of accurately executed versions of “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shaking Goin’ On”.  Never judge a book by the cover nor a CD by the artist’s name I always say.  I kind of stick by this otherwise I would never have heard Gandalf Murphy and the Slambovian Circus of Dreams, now would I?  Cherry Lee Mewis is a twenty-four-year old female singer-songwriter from North Wales with a voice that means business.  This is her second album, the first outing being Little Girl Blue from a couple of years ago.  On Southbound Train Cherry mixes eight self-penned originals with songs from another era all together such as Charlie ‘Papa’ Jackson’s “Shake That Thing”, Memphis Minnie’s “Kissing In The Dark” and Koko Taylor’s ballsy “All You Need”.  Cherry betrays her age with performances of some of the most gritty songs from places so far removed from North Wales and from a time that bears no resemblance to that of today.  I’m pleasingly reminded of early Janis Joplin or at the very least the late and much missed Jo Ann Kelly, particularly in Cherry’s handling of Memphis Minnie’s material.  Cherry’s take on Blind Willie McTell’s distinctive vocal is realised superbly well on “Oh Lord Send Me an Angel Down”, which features Max Milligan’s authoritative acoustic guitar sparring expertly with Marc Patching’s informed Dobro, more than adequately making up for Blind Willie’s distinctive 12 string.  Of Cherry’s own songs, “Time Limits” is more contemporary in feel, with a sprightly McGuinniss Flint “When I’m Dead and Gone” style mandolin rhythm, together with Cherry’s own harmonica and Mulligan’s bottleneck guitar, grounding what is essentially a pop song, with a rootsy feel.  A more sensitive side of Cherry Lee Mewis is revealed on her own ballad “Something You Can’t Have”, co-written with co-producer Max Milligan, which closes the album.  Although in this song we may have witnessed a brief moment of vulnerability, I can’t help but feel that when I do eventually get around to seeing this five-foot-nothing stick of dynamite, the stage will be alight with fire, passion and a rawness that is sadly so rare these days.

Bellevue Rendezvous | Salamander | Album Review | Journeyman | 25.01.10

Bellevue Rendezvous are an instrumental trio from Edinburgh featuring the varied talents of Gavin Marwick on fiddle, Ruth Morris on nyckelharpa and Cameron Robson on cittern, guitar and jaw harp.  Edinburgh based Gavin Marwick is no stranger to the Scottish music scene and has performed at many festivals, concerts, theatres and dances throughout the world with various bands and combos including Journeyman, Iron Horse, Cantrip and Burach as well as serving as a session musician for literally a who’s who of performers including The Unusual Suspects, Wolfstone and Old Blind Dogs to name but a few.  Fellow Journeyman band mate Ruth Morris is also a predominant force on the Scottish music scene playing fiddle, whistle and piano as well as the intriguing Nyckelharpa.  Cameron Robson is from Denholm in the Borders and is steeped in a rich musical heritage, whose father Wattie Robson is a renowned borders fiddler.  Together, the trio Bellevue Rendezvous fit dove-tail-like and create an exciting sound, offering something slightly different from the usual traditional outfit.  Formed in 2006, the trio came together to combine this very unusual collection of instruments in order to create a new and vibrant sound, which lends itself more to World Music than specifically Scottish traditional music.  The compositions of Salamander, their second album release and successor to 2007’s Tangents album, borrow from the traditional musical sources of a diverse range of places such as Serbia, France, Brittany, Macedonia, Poland, Canada, Scandinavia as well as England and Wales.  Reuben Taylor’s production maintains a crisp sound throughout, which sees that neither main instrument overshadows the other, with particular attention to ensuring the cittern, which provides much of the rhythm on which to rest the dance tunes, isn’t lost in the mix.  “Gabriel’s Step/Byss-Calle No 32/Hasse A’s” opens the album and sets out clearly the trio’s statement of intent, probably to get you up on your feet for a good dance.  Most of the selections on the album derive from dances throughout Europe including freilachs, reels, schottisches, polskas and dances from the klezmer tradition.  The traditional “Makedonska Devojche”, which translates to “Macedonian Girl”, as any self respecting A Clockwork Orange student would have already gleaned, has the band pondering over whether this might be the best tune in the world.  The jury is out on that for now, but I can concede that it’s certainly very much one of the most haunting tunes I’ve heard this year at any rate. 

Fiddler’s Bid | All Dressed in Yellow | Album Review | Hairst Blinks Music | 30.01.10

I’m probably the wrong reviewer for this as I’m a long term believer in the ‘less is more’ concept, especially when it comes to fiddles.  In fact I am pretty much grounded in the opinion that one fiddle is really enough in any context.  Ok, maybe two as long as they’re scraping along in harmony.  Don’t misunderstand me, I adore hearing a fiddle on any piece of music, whether it be a jig or a reel, or whether it accompanies a good song.  Jackie Oates provides a soundtrack to my life at the moment, but a roomful of fiddlers gives me a nose bleed.  Combos that have variations of the word ‘fiddler’ in their name (Blazing Fiddles, Feast of Fiddles, Fiddler’s Bid) usually make me catch up on things in the beer tent at festivals and the opening piece on All Dressed in Yellow provides precisely the reason.  The Fiddler’s Bid “Ode to Joy” has all the correct ingredients for a good old knees up on the Shetland Islands granted, but on the ipod, in the car or here in my cluttered manspace, it cannot escape its purpose, that of a dance tune, specifically to dance to.  It might be the fact that I’m blessed with two left feet that I avoid a good deal of instrumental folk music, but I’m also endowed with great patience and therefore I was pleased to persevere with the new Fiddler’s Bid album as one and a half minutes into the next piece, the fiddles suddenly stop and Fionan de Barra’s guitar bursts in like clouds opening to reveal the sun.  “Apo Fetiar Top” abandons all that Beryl Marriott type strict tempo piano stuff that should only really be heard on New Year’s Eve and with the help of Catriona McKay’s Hendrix-like clarsach playing, I find myself surprisingly excited once again.  Yes I’m aware that those of you who have a framed picture of Ali Bain on your mantlepiece might be rosin’ up your bows to throttle me with, but the less is more concept is not only present in my love of folk music but also in jazz too.  The Miles Davis Quintet any day over Count Basie.  At first I thought this album was an EP with just six tracks to go on, but then most of the pieces are pretty long, none more so than the album’s epic closer, the title track “All Dressed in Yellow”, an astonishing fifteen minute opus that includes seven pieces, that steadily builds from “Simon’s Wart”, with its sprightly fiddle and clarsach duet, by way of some traditional Swedish music “Bingsjö lilla långdans” and culminating in the sublime traditional Shetland air “Aa Dressed in Yallo”.  There is no question that Andrew Gifford, Chris Stout, Maurice Henderson and Kevin Henderson are incredibly versatile fiddle players and that the rest of the band, Catriona McKay on clarsach and piano, bassist Jonathan Ritch and guitarist Fionan de Barra provide sterling support to what is essentially complex instrumental music, so don’t be put off by my initial comments.  If you like Shetland fiddle music, you will love this.

Gerry McNeice | Small Town Boy | Album Review | Self Release | 01.02.10

I’ve been bumping into Otley based singer-songwriter, musician and bassist Gerry McNeice quite a lot just lately, who seems to be getting around just about everywhere.  If he’s not playing upright bass with the Duncan McFarlane Band or Morrising-On with some Flash Company, then he may well be appearing in your neighbourhood with a bunch of fine musicians who form his own band featuring Horizon Award nominated fiddler Katriona Gilmore, bassist Ruth Wilde and son Liam on guitar or with the vastly expanded Gerry McNeice Orchestra, who make an impressive noise and leave not much room to spare on stage.  It’s fortunate that Katriona is a slight little thing otherwise she would more than likely have partner Jamie Roberts’ trombone in her ear at some stage!  Somewhere in the middle of all this Gerry manages to produce records and Small Town Boy pops up fourth in a collection that already includes Audiographs (2000) Crazy World (2006) and a live album Live in the Courthouse (2007).  After a few runs through Small Town Boy has left a good impression on me and not just because it includes some familiar goodies such as the traditional “Flash Company”, reminiscent of the arrangement the young Martin Simpson created for June Tabor in the days we used to catch the genius guitarist seated next to her on small South Yorkshire stages in the early 1980s, complete with green snotocaster and sneering youthfulness!  Nor is it the inclusion of Richard Thompson’s sublime “Beeswing”, which in all fairness is a brave move, to put down on record such a well loved Thompson favourite, but I guess as long as we think in terms of ‘homage’, then everything is hunky dory.  It’s with the original songs though, that has caught my attention here and none more impressive than “Danger Sign”, a father/son song of warmth yet devoid of overt sentimentality, that stays in your head once heard.  Co-produced by Katriona Gilmore, another hard working musician who pops up so much I swear there’s two of ‘em, the album has a home-made feel but maintains a consistent ‘sound’ throughout, with a crisp acoustic guitar ground augmented by banjo, mandolin, fiddle and melodeon.  On “Home”, the aforementioned Jamie Roberts provides some atmospheric trombone playing, which blends perfectly with Jude Rees oboe, bringing a beautifully nostalgic feel to an exceptionally good song.  Katriona’s “I Know You” finds its way onto the album and is given a suitably fine arrangement with Gerry and Kat playing all the parts Mike Oldfield-like.  The traditional songs that Gerry has carefully chosen for Small Town Boy, such as “The White Cockade” and “Braw Sailing”, sit so well beside Gerry’s own songs, in particular “The Legend of Black Jack” and also with the stunning arrangement of “Circle for Danny”, written by Duncan McFarlane, that like Jez Lowe for example, it’s difficult at first to tell what’s new and what’s as old as the hills.  That’s good folk music I reckon.

Macmaster Hay | Love and Reason | Album Review | Self Release | 13.02.10

The very idea of a collaboration featuring little other than harp and drums at first seems a little adventurous, but this new album by Mary Macmaster, one of the world’s leading innovators of the harp and it’s various cousins, including the clarsach and the Camac elecro harp, together with notable drummer and percussionist Donald Hay, Love and Reason comes over as a sort of Celtic Meeting of the Spirits, with some delightfully inventive arrangements and a surprisingly full sound, bearing in mind that there’s just the two of them.  Loaded with sound effects and sampling, Donald Hay and Tim Matthew’s brilliant production allows each of the instruments to be heard, probably as well as they can be heard, Mary very much at the top end and Donald very much at the bottom, with a variety of samples floating somewhere in the ether; ever present but never cluttering or cloying.  Those who are familiar with Mary Macmaster’s work over the past couple of decades with Sileas and The Poozies, will already be well aware of her credentials as a first rate harpist, but in this setting, we are hearing a different side to her playing, which leans very much towards a more ambient new age feel, despite the album’s mix of traditional and contemporary material.   Donald Hay’s command over the technical side of drums and percussion and their ongoing relationship with sampling gadgetry, helps make each individual piece of music special here, and gives the album as a whole, its heart.  It’s little wonder that he is in such demand as a percussionist by the likes of Jerry Douglas, Aly Bain and Kris Drever.  The songs included are equally divided between Gaelic and English and on the whole, carry a melancholy air, particularly on the achingly sullen “Weary”, which is beautifully fused with “The Dresden Reel”.  If ever music was made to convey a mood, then this one hits the nail on the head.  On the sleeve notes Mary reveals that “Soraidh Leis Bhreacan Ur” was learned on a bus in Germany, whilst she and Cathy Ann MacPhee were laughing and singing their way around the autobahns.  I wonder whether it’s coincidental then that “Thograinn Thograinn”, has me unavoidably thinking in terms of Karen Matheson singing over a Kraftwerk backing track?  A crazy thought granted, but Macmaster and Hay make this work incredibly well.  “Pibroch”, subtitled “Lament For The Children”, sounds for all intents and purposes like an accompanying audio track to a post modern installation in Tate Modern, contending for the Turner Prize, with its slightly disturbing gurgling baby sampling over some trance-like harp wizardry.  If the album does sometimes come across as a Celtic Tontos Expanding Headband, then it is with the song writing talents of Edinburgh’s Sandy Wright, that brings it back to Earth.  Love and Reason includes two songs from his pen, the plaintive Mary Cullen, which was written about Wright’s grandmother, who coincidentally shares the same name as Macmaster’s own mother and the second, “Shining Star”, a song so good, it hasn’t only found its way onto this album, but also onto the eagerly awaited second solo album by Kris Drever, Mark the Hard Earth, due for release soon.  Although Love and Reason comes over very much as experimental music, I would rather think in terms of it having more to do with the organic development of Scottish music.  So much more interesting than straight forward strict tempo jigs, reels and strathspeys.  It’s the kind of record that deserves to be played over and over again and upon each new listen, something new is almost guaranteed to come from it.

Kris Drever | Mark the Hard Earth | Album Review | Navigator | 17.02.10

If there’s one thing that irritates Kris Drever, it has to be the Weatherman.  Rejoicing in the wind and the rain, Kris Drever opens his new solo album, the eagerly awaited follow up to Black Water, with the sole self-penned song on the record that also incidentally provides the album its title, Mark the Hard Earth. Kris believes that we are manipulated into believing that inclement weather is a bad thing and that we might just be missing out on something rather nice, despite the sullen apologies we hear each day from the grim weather reaper.  As Bill Bryson once noted: British people looking out of their windows each morning saying ‘oh, look at all that rain’ is rather like Eskimos looking out of their igloos and saying ‘oh, look at all that snow!’  Kris doesn’t like being told that rain is bad by the people who work on the telly: “Oh I’m afraid it’s raining tomorrow – why are you afraid? Why don’t you put on some decent clothes you arsehole”.  When not thinking about the weather or growling at egotistical meteorologists on the telly, Kris Drever is an otherwise very busy man in the music world.  As one third of the award winning folk supergroup Lau, the singer/guitarist has gained the reputation as one of the finest musicians in the country, blessed with a distinctive voice and dexterous guitar playing style.  As a solo performer though, Kris has reservations “I’m not in love with being a solo artist, it’s kind of lonely and there’s nay craic”.  Despite a distinct lack of ‘craic’ when playing solo, Kris fills this lonely chasm by inviting an array of excellent musicians on board to help him embark on these solo excursions.  On this album, once again produced by John McCusker, Kris is joined by McCusker, Phil Cunningham, Andy Seward, Ian Carr, Donald Shaw, Roy Dodds, Heidi Talbot, Karine Polwart and Tim O’Brien, a musician Kris has been itching to work with since first meeting up with him around eight years ago.  “I met Tim a long time ago at Celtic Connections.  I ended up playing double bass for him at a gig and we’ve been friends ever since.  I’ve always enjoyed the way our vocals sit together”.  Those voices sit together supremely well, particularly on “This Old Song”, with its alternating time signature and “The Call and the Answer” with Tim’s trademark high lonesome harmony, very much in a bluegrass style, which brings to the album a much lighter touch than previously.  Speaking about Tim’s contribution to the new album, Kris may be uncertain about whether it’s the style of the performance or the song choices themselves that make some of these songs work so well, but points out one certain truth “If you put Tim on anything it sounds better”.  Like Black Water, Drever includes two more Sandy Wright songs here, one of Edinburgh’s finest song writers.  “Shining Star” sounds like it could’ve been written decades ago; a timeless lullaby with an old timey feel courtesy of McCusker’s fiddle and Cunningham’s accordion delicately sparring in harmony.  The beautiful “Wild Hurricane” once again demonstrates O’Brien’s high harmony vocals and gives McCusker a break on fiddle, whilst reminding us of what a great grass roots fiddle player Tim actually is.  These songs, together with the two to be found on Drever’s first solo outing beggar the question, is Sandy Wright Scotland’s best kept secret?  “He’s an amazing guy, he’s been around forever.  He’s a really brilliant jazz guitar player”.  You sense that Kris chooses his songs very carefully for each of his albums and fortunately finds most of them close to home.  “I like trying to find good songs to sing or write good songs to sing, most of the material that I do is either traditional, written by me or written by people I know personally”.  With such good choices so far, there’s a tendency to believe that everything Kris touches turns to gold.  The Midas touch however, according to Kris, is not as apparent as one may believe: “I have to be quite careful because for every one of them that works, I do have to attempt a few that I make a terrible job of, so it’s not all plain and simple”.  If the title song provides the album with one Drever original, “The Crown of London” provides the second, this time written by Kris’s brother Duncan.  With a sort of reggae rhythm, provided by Ian Carr’s guitar, a little like on “Honk Toot” from the previous record, Kris delivers one of the highlights on the new album, underpinned by O’Brien’s banjo and Donald Shaw’s harmonium together with the outstanding rhythm section of Seward and Dodds.  If Boo Hewerdine’s “Harvest Gypsies” was a memorable inclusion on Black Water, it would only be right to trust Hewerdine to come up with probably the stand out track on this album.  The bluesy soul of “Sweet Honey in the Rock” could be the choice finisher for singers throughout the land in due course, but for now Kris Drever has once again made it his own.  The debts owed to Hewerdine are becoming seemingly incalculable.  Reciprocating Heidi Talbot’s request for Kris to duet with her on “The Blackest Crow” on her solo album In Love and Light, Heidi makes an appearance here, sharing verses of “The Banks of the Nile” with Kris.  Speaking to me on St Valentine’s Day, Kris explained that it was John McCusker’s suggestion that the two singers share vocal duties on this much loved traditional song.  “I was singing the song myself actually but John McCusker suggested we tried it as a duet.  So there is actually somewhere in existence, a whole track of me singing the vocal, a whole track of Heidi singing harmony and then this, this alternative as a duet”.  A very natural and very supportive singer, according to Kris, Heidi Talbot’s contribution here leaves you wanting more of the same.  Kris was pleased to say that he will be appearing on Heidi’s next album, which is eagerly anticipated.  Perhaps the strangest inclusion here is the enigmatic “Allegory” by Murray Attaway, which Kris found on an old LP record “When I was a teenager, I used to do teenager things, a gang of us would go up to this guys house and sit in his bedroom for many hours, not doing very much, drinking tea and other things that teenagers get up to.  He was a big music collector, always had good music on, he had a good stereo and there was a record called Geffen Rarities (DGC Rarities Volume One) and this song was on it and I used to enjoy that song”.  Drever manages to create a tension in the arrangement which is thoroughly engaging and demonstrates superbly McCusker’s empathetic production.  Whilst not even attempting to make a ground-breaking style-changing difficult second, Kris has instead made a beautiful companion piece to sit alongside Black Water, and when the re-issues come along, together they will potentially constitute one of the best folk double albums in existence. 

O’Hooley and Tidow | Silent June | Album Review | No Masters | 20.02.10

I think I know Belinda O’Hooley reasonably well, if not quite so much personally, then certainly through her songs.  Yes I’ve bumped into her in clubs and at festivals over the past few years, where we’ve chatted together half a dozen times and shared a joke or two.  We’ve played at the same birthday parties, sat in the same audiences, propped up the same bars; I’ve even had a pint with her wonderfully charming dad.  Over the years I’ve always enjoyed her songs and her stage manner.  There’s also been the odd occasion where I’ve found her particularly nervous before entering the snake pit at festivals, only to catch up with her later to find that everything went superbly well, no worries there.  Going on before Show of Hands at the Shepley Spring Festival last year and then again appearing just before Billy Bragg at the Beverley Folk Festival, Belinda and Heidi faced big audiences bravely prior to the release of this their first album together and at the same time have showed remarkable flair in both their stage manner and in their performances alike.  This isn’t easy music by any means and on stage I would have thought it particularly demanding.  Although this first full length album comes after a year of feeling their way through the cluttered landscape that is the folk world and seeking out new audiences as a duo, the partnership of Belinda O’Hooley and Heidi Tidow goes back probably further than you might think.  In 2006 they could both be seen playing gigs as part of the Belinda O’Hooley Band together with two male musicians, Josh and Isaac if memory serves, whilst Belinda’s main musical priority back then, was as one quarter of Rachel Unthank and the Winterset, whose contribution to the band’s first couple of albums cannot be disputed.  On this, the duo’s first album (as a duo), not only do we see a handful of welcomed additions to Belinda’s canon of songs, half of which were co-written by Heidi, but also evidence of further developments as a first rate arranger.  Enjoying a songwriting and performing partnership as well as a close life partnership, the pair speak enthusiastically about the niche they seen to have carved out for themselves.  “Overall it’s absolutely brilliant” says Heidi, “because when Belinda was in the Winterset we had an awful lot of time apart and that was really difficult for us.  We’re not one of those couples that like spending a lot of time apart, so it works really well for us.  It’s lovely to just enjoy the atmosphere of going on the road together, plus we work together musically really really well.  We rehearse a lot at home together and that’s the benefit of living together, that when we feel inspired we can just get up and start writing something”.  That quality time at home has now manifested itself into an extraordinary album of new material, with a couple of traditional songs worked into the mix, as well as an old live favourite, the uncompromising “Cold and Stiff”, which the duo cheekily dedicate on the album sleeve to new label mates Chumbawamba.  Co-produced by O’Hooley and Tidow with the mixing and mastering skills of that particular band’s Neil Ferguson, Silent June has an impressive cast of musicians including Uiscedwr’s Anna Esslemont and Cormac Byrne, fellow ex-Winterset bandmate Jackie Oates and members of Jackie’s own band, James Dumbleton and James Budden, together with a fine string quartet consisting of Nia Bevan, Raymond Lester, Jayne Coyle and Damion Browne.  Having invested in some ‘posh recording equipment’, the duo has spent some considerable time between August and November 2009, refining their sound and recording the results for the No Masters label.  With artwork and photography depicting the duo as fully paid up members of the Noël Coward Piano Incineration Society, Silent June opens with the melancholy “Flight of the Petrel”, a steadily building opus incorporating string quartet, Belinda’s distinctively sensitive piano arrangement and two seriously aligned voices that perfectly capture this poetic observation on our relationship with nature in a troubled world.  There’s an increased confidence apparent in Heidi’s contribution to Silent June, which I imagine has come from a year of touring and playing some of the larger stages in the country.  When I spoke to Belinda and Heidi last Summer, it was clear that Heidi was the relative newcomer to the spotlight and was happy to be under the wing of the much more experienced Belinda: “She’s had to kind of really face her demons and get up there like a rabbit in the headlights initially but she’s getting more confident and I think because I’m her partner as well, maybe she trusts me more”.  That trust has proved fruitful and the songs co-written by the duo on the album have a marked maturity, particularly on the epic “Que Sera”, the song from which the album’s title derives.  On the page “Que Sera” is but a short poem inspired by the heroic war nurse Edith Cavell, but is transformed into an epic tour de force with the help of the magnificent string quartet direction of Melanie Purves.  For those who have managed to catch one of Belinda and Heidi’s gigs recently, “All Stand in Line” will come as no surprise.  With a piano motif that wouldn’t be out of place on a Rick Wakeman prog-rock extravaganza, the Philip Glass inspired arrangement, featuring Anna Esslemont’s violin and Cormac Byrne’s inventive pulsating percussion accompaniment, the song’s uncompromising lyrics remind us that Belinda still has things to say.  O’Hooley and Tidow’s faithful handling of traditional material shows that although the music is very contemporary in style, they both have an allegiance to their Irish Roots.  “Banjololo” is typical of Belinda and Heidi’s shared sense of humour, a short unaccompanied children’s song, which ends with a wonderfully cringe-worthy sound bite of a breaking guitar string.  However many times I hear this, I can’t help cringing when that string goes.  “Spancil Hill” on the other hand is a more solemn traditional immigration song from County Clare, beautifully arranged by Belinda, Heidi and Jackie Oates, who also provides some inimitable octave fiddle work along with James Dumbleton’s intuitive guitar throughout.  Taught to Belinda by the aforementioned Seamus O’Hooley, the dad I shared a pint with, “Spancil Hill” reveals a remarkable sensitivity and an informed understanding of traditional song.  Over the years, Belinda has become known for her dry sense of humour, her sensitive piano arrangements and her resilience to change.  For those of us who have been lucky enough to see her in the relaxed setting of a backroom bar, playing the old songs or camp renditions of pop classics such as “Sunny Afternoon” or “Money Money Money”, as well as her ongoing love affair with Bonnie Tyler, there is also the ongoing selfless work Belinda carries out in care homes, where she entertains the elderly with her vast knowledge of songs from another time.  Belinda speaks enthusiastically about this side to her work.  “They’ve taught me a lot of the songs actually.  They really love the romantic 1930s songs, “When I Grow Too Old To Dream” is one of them, “I’ll Be Loving You Always”, “Pal of My Cradle Days” is also a lovely one, it’s a song that a daughter would sing to her mother, ‘I gave you all the wrinkles’, it’s all that kind of stuff, which is great.  Oh they love, and I love as well, Latin American music; I love all the dance stuff, so on my Bontempi organ you know, I can press a button”.  Which brings us to the heart of Silent June.  “Too Old To Dream”, Belinda and Heidi’s homage to the many Edith’s of the world, those ladies (and gents) who reside in our many care homes throughout the country, living peacefully with their memories, is a beautiful performance, embracing elements of Romberg and Hammerstein II’s original song as well as incorporating Irene Rourke’s enchanting intro.  For those new to O’Hooley and Tidow, you need look no further than this as a fine example of what makes this duo different from anything else on the scene today.    

Anna Coogan | The Nocturnal Among Us | Album Review | Self Release | 09.03.10

There’s very little on The Nocturnal Among Us that gives us a clue to Anna Coogan’s original plan to work in the field of Opera.  After becoming disillusioned with the academic constraints of Salzburg, coupled with equal measures of home sickness and love sickness, the Seattle-based singer-songwriter found inspiration in the singing of Alison Krauss in 2001, returning to music after a short spell away, picking up her guitar once again and almost immediately forming her own band Anna Coogan and north19.  Strauss to Krauss you might say.  Two albums down the line, Glory (2004) and Sleepwalker (2007), the band called it a day and after some soul searching, Anna returns with her debut solo album, accompanied by a bunch of fine musicians including JD Foster on guitars (who also produces), Austin Nevins and Scott Hampson also on guitars, Geoff Hazelrigg on bass and guitars, Brooks Miner on keyboards and Eric Hastings on drums.  Most of those names also helped out in other areas such as engineering, pre-production and sleeve design.  Recorded in just eight days, the eleven original songs on the album showcase Anna Coogan’s unmistakable and assured voice, from the radio friendly “Dreaming My Life Away” to the brooding “Coins on Your Eyes”, each accompanied by some fine musicianship and thoughtful arrangements.  “Back to the World”, the album’s opener, eases us into Anna’s world with an arrangement that augments its dark musical undercurrent with a voice of convincing vulnerability.  Revisiting “Holy Ghost of Texas”, which previously appeared on Glory, Anna presents a slightly mellower feel than the original recording, adopting a sparse arrangement reminiscent of some of Cowboy Junkies’ most atmospheric work, especially in the occasional guitar flurries.  The songs here are deeply personal, especially “So Long Summertime” which together with all the other songs on the album, almost provides an epitaph for a lost friend.  With an impressive forthcoming tour schedule, the songs comprising The Nocturnal Among Us will no doubt serve Anna well, whether you catch her at a concert hall in San Francisco, a folk club in Falkirk or the smallest house concert in the back of a van.  I certainly look forward to catching her at one of those soon.

Society | Songs From The Brickhouse | Album Review | Self Release | 18.03.10

It seems a well trodden path to cite The Band as an influence on much of today’s Americana, with many artists at some point being compared to arguably the most influential band of the last forty years.  Some deserve that recognition more than others it has to be said and it should be seen as praise indeed, bearing in mind that those five musicians made some of the most ground breaking music of our time.  In some cases however, the comparison is less deserved.  Who for instance can forget music journalists noting that teeny um-boppers Hanson bore a slight similarity, albeit on helium?  On Society’s Songs From the Brickhouse the comparison is right on the mark; it wouldn’t be beyond comprehension to imagine the opening song “Fool’s End” slipping in between “Look Out Cleveland” and “Jawbone” without so much as a flinch.  Remarkably, Society were formed an ocean away from the Woodstock Mountains in West Sussex, but they sound anything but British.  The band comprises of Matt Wise (Vocals, Guitar, Harmonica), F. Scott Kenny (Drums, Vocals) and Andrew Prosser (Bass, Vocals) subsequently replaced by current bassist Ben Lancaster and their strongest point it has to be said, is in their tight three part vocal harmonies, at times echoing the sweetness of Crosby, Stills and Nash, whilst at others the earthiness of Manuel, Helm and Danko.  Their other strong point is in the consistently good sense of melody; most of the songs here are instantly memorable in their melodic construction.  The Brickhouse refers to the studio in Brighton, where the bulk of this album was recorded.  With the help from a bunch of select musicians including Deadstring Brothers’ Spencer Cullum on pedal steel, Dave Berliner and James Batchelar sharing keyboard duties and Sarah Gonputh providing some violin, Society bring a fresh contemporary sound to music grounded in another era.  If some of the songs do inevitably draw the listener’s attention to Big Pink era roots rock on the East Coast, certainly “I Watch the Rain Fall Out of You” and “Back In The Woods”, then on others like “I Do Belong” we have all the hallmarks of West Coast country flavoured pop rock.  “On My Way” is where John Haitt meets the Heartbreakers head on.  Knives owes more of a debt to that glorious point in time where the Stones met Gram Parsons and is one of the album’s stand out songs.  The album closes with a simple country blues with “When the Lights Go Down” featuring some sparring bottleneck guitar and McGuinness Flint style mandolin, bringing with it a lightness of touch that leaves you either wanting more, or the immediate desire to flip the needle right back to the start.

Kim Guy | Wednesday’s Child | Album Review | Wyrdwyrks Records | 28.03.10

Previously known for her work on such projects as Elowen and the Rowan Amber Mill, Cornwall-based Kim Guy has me wondering how she finds the time to fit it all in.  Her latest venture comes in the form of an atmospheric debut solo record on which the singer/multi-instrumentalist arranges and plays everything herself.  It’s dark and melancholic but Wednesday’s Child is certainly not full of woe.  Hard working and focused, Kim presents an album of familiar songs that are stamped with her own indelible mark.  On her previous projects, both of which are still going strong, we are reminded of that oft-quoted remark ‘I don’t really like folk music, but I like all that stuff in The Wicker Man’.  I guess the music Kim is associated with would be right down their country lane, assuming those people were indeed talking about the music and not Britt Ekland’s strange dance routines.  I think what they are saying is that they are drawn to ethereal Pagan ritual music, which has an enigmatic magnetism.  Kim has this in buckets.  Wednesday’s Child does start with several startling beats from what you imagine to be a very large primitive drum, not difficult to imagine Christopher Lee banging along to whilst dancing up the lane wearing a dress, but that’s where the similarity ends.  The album plays out to be both charming and engaging and as far removed from that strangely inhabited remote Scottish Island as possible.  The song selections come from a wide spectrum including both traditional and contemporary but all with a cohesive unity.  Revisiting Neil Young (“Old Man” was included on the earlier Elowen album), Kim transforms “Like A Hurricane” into a pastoral hymn rather than the grunge anthem it has always been fondly remembered as.  Like the opening song, “Rolling of the Stone”, “Blood and Gold” returns to ritualistic chanting and heavy drum beating with Andy Irvine and Jane Cassidy’s Romanian song, originally sung by Lucienne Purcell on Irvine’s Rainy Sundays Windy Dreams album and then again by Silly Sisters Maddy Prior and June Tabor on their No More to the Dance album, the title of which was taken from this totally absorbing song.  Anguish and torture comes into play with Tears For Fears’ “Watch Me Bleed”, which is handled with warmth and sensitivity and is as far removed from the synth-rocker we all remember from the 1980s on that band’s debut album.  Paul Simon’s “Sparrow” is also given the ethereal Kim Guy treatment, removing the Spanish influence of Simon and Garfunkel’s original altogether and becoming somehow quintessentially English.  Touching on what we might all agree to be two quintessentially English voices, we come to Richard Thompson and Steve Knightly with “Dimming of the Day” from the former’s quill and “Exile” from the latter’s pen.  Both songs are stripped down to the essentials with sparse piano accompaniment and both sit nicely along side each other here.  With three well known traditional songs “Rolling of the Stone”, “She Moved Through the Fair”, notably re-named “He Moved Through the Fair”, strange given that it’s an instrumental, and finally the “Unquiet Grave”, Kim’s Tubular Bells excursion demonstrates an artist at work and the fruition of all those many days sat before the old tape deck double tracking.  Swapping her bike for a guitar at the tender age of ten was also an inspired decision.

Jess Morgan | All Swell | Album Review | Amateur Boxer | 28.03.10

It seems an age now since I first encountered Norwich based singer-songwriter Jess Morgan in the Basement Bar in York one chilly October evening way back in 2008, the performance of which left a memorable impression on me; it must have, I still think about it.  In the meantime a handful of songs have surfaced on the Crosses EP, which was a taster of things to come.  Now the full length album All Swell is ready to be released in April and two of those four songs, together with a handful of others have finally reached this reviewer’s ears once again.  They say first impressions are important and in the case of that initial performance, which included the memorable “Due Grace Coming”, which thankfully opens this album, together with “Crowsong” and “Onyx”, I feel I have once again been re-acquainted with some old friends.  “Crosses” had already provided a taster being the lead song on the EP and this reviewer had already taken the opportunity to wax lyrically about it on its original release, therefore I’ll endeavour to concentrate on the other goodies here for now.  Recorded in Bergen, Norway and co-produced by HP Gunderson, All Swell provides an accurate snapshot of what you get from a live Jess Morgan performance and I imagine there’s been little or no fussing about with spit and polish here.  In fact on “Pamela” for instance, we hear all the sniffing and breathing that makes for as realistic a performance as possible.  I personally would hate a polished studio enhanced album from Jess, preferring to keep such raw talent real.  Jess has an extraordinarily original voice with the closest comparison being that of Melanie, the 1960s hippie songstress who transformed the Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday” into a classic.  Together with that distinct voice, Jess writes songs that take on an unusual bent.  There’s nothing ordinary in the subject matter and we are occasionally shocked by her candour.  “Prize Pig” for instance opens with the line “My first black eye came from you”, which hints at a darker side to Jess’s writing.  “Pamela”, which incidentally provides the album with its title, exemplifies perfectly Jess’s command over story telling with this extraordinary tale from another time.  Speaking with Jess last August the songwriter explained her love of story telling.  “Ever since I was a little girl I’ve always loved writing stories and being able to do it to music is a real treat but.. and this is not in an arrogant way, I could write ten stories like that but only some of them make it to songs that I would play live because I only want to really write about things that people can relate to and find interesting otherwise it’s not really folk music, then it becomes something more self indulgent”.  The thing with “Pamela” is that it takes place in a different time to what we are now and they are characters.  The words’ detail is around Pamela’s father who will do this and do that, but really it’s about how the main character feels about Pamela and I hope this comes through in the song, about feeling that maybe you shouldn’t love someone who’s been through such a terrible tragedy but maybe now certain things are out of the way you might go for it.  That’s the main thing and I think people definitely could identify with that and whatever time in history it is or whoever you may be”.  If ever there was any doubt as to the importance of in the development and progression of current music then here’s a case in point.  It would be fair to say that this record probably wouldn’t have seen the light of day but for a chance meeting between Norfolk’s Jess Morgan and Norway’s HP Gunderson this particular social networking site.  A friendship ensued and after a couple of visits to HP’s Norwegian studio, where much of the album was recorded in the most spontaneous fashion imaginable, over a coffee table with a microphone hovering above as the two musicians drank tea from cups the colour of the album sleeve, eleven tracks were produced as predominantly one-takes, maintaining the freshness they thoroughly deserve.  The entire album is tastefully done with consciously limited instrumentation, no drums for example.  Jess’s distinctively percussive guitar together with HP’s slide and pedal steel provides the main body of the overall sound with additional Norwegian musicians Morten Skage on double bass, David Vogt on fiddle and Jorgen Sandvik playing sitar on the traditional sounding original Talisman, bringing this particular Norfolk based Americana (with a slight Scandinavian angle) to life.  With a now established connection between Norfolk and Norway, Jess begins a new journey with this album, which will be heard much further a field, as the singer embarks on a short coffee house tour of New England.  I on the other hand, wait patiently for the eagerly anticipated tour of ‘old’ England, where I shall be the first in the queue.  A delightful debut.

April Maybe May | April Maybe May | Album Review | Seahouse Records | 01.04.10

It’s probably more relevant to re-name this duo ‘August Possibly September’ as we are thrown into the grasps of summer with eleven bright and breezy songs on April Maybe May’s debut album.  Formerly known as Fallen Leaves, Rosie Hillman and Matt Kassell have embarked on this latest musical journey with a handful of warm and delicate arrangements, recorded in the comfort of their home in Barrow in Furness on the coast of Cumbria.  Seasalt provides a slice of pure escapism for those of us who have missed the warm season, complete with seagull sampling.  Conceived as a basic two guitar acoustic duo album, with a clear emphasis on the songwriting skills of both Rosie and Matt, the subsequent addition of bass and drums and a range of delightful additional atmospheric instruments and sound effects, the emponymously titled debut creates an inescapable desire to dream along as the sounds flood over you like a cosy quilt.  Forced to change their name after discovering the punk band The Fallen Leaves, which would have been slightly disappointing for fans of both bands alike if the two were ever confused at the box office, the newly re-named April Maybe May, coined from Rosie’s reply to questions about roughly when the album would be ready, fit neatly into the role of indie-folk-pop if indeed we must have a pigeon hole for them.  Whilst “Back To Me” and the banjo-led “Home”, the banjo courtesy of Wes Martin, echoes such bands as The New Pornographers, with their instantly accessible pop charm, songs like “Bed” and “Lost” bring forth a much mellower soundscape to rest the duo’s lyrics upon.  “Sugar and Mess” has a brooding atmosphere which borders on melancholy, but is instantly reconciled with the jazzier Smile.  Prefaced by some studio larking, “The Girl Next Door” provides the album with possibly the most radio friendly sound on the album, a breezy pop song destined for the open top car brigade this summer.   

Otis Gibbs | Joe Hill’s Ashes | Album Review | Wanamaker | 03.04.10

When Billy Bragg invited Nashville-based Otis Gibbs up onstage at the Wold Top Marquee during last year’s Beverley and East Riding Festival, we knew instantly that this singer-songwriter was the real deal.  Vocally a mixture between the Toms Waits and Russell and physically a hybrid of Billys Gibbons and Connolly, Otis Gibbs growls from the heart with a voice not unlike a set of rusty harvesting blades.  Much more than just a folk singer, having allegedly planted over 7,000 trees, slept in hobo jungles, walked with nomadic shepherds in the Carpathian Mountains and having been strip-searched by dirty cops in Detroit; not the usual common or garden folkie it has to be said.  He even has an FBI file.  Having toured extensively, Gibbs frequently finds himself travelling across America and further a field, chronicling the world around him both in song and with a remarkable series of stunning monochrome photographs.  Growing up in Wanamaker, Indiana, Gibbs’ first stage appearance was at the age of four, singing the old Jimmie Rodgers song “Waiting for a Train”.  Much of his formative years were spent in bars, where he sang for tips, which was then transferred into more booze for his uncle who was supposedly looking after him.  Eventually dropping out of a conventional lifestyle and with a meagre income found himself sharing apartments with artists, musicians and radicals during which time he began writing literally hundreds of songs.  Some of those songs materialised on a couple of albums 49th and Melancholy (2002) and Once I Dreamed of Christmas (2003), a seasonal collection of songs written for people who don’t particularly like Christmas.  One Day Our Whispers (2004) gained critical acclaim and spoke to those who felt uncomfortable with the direction America was heading.  Billy Bragg included “The Peoples Day” in his Wall Street Journal list of the Top Five Songs with “Something to Say”, placing Gibbs alongside the likes of Bob Dylan, Sam Cooke, Chuck Berry and The Clash.  Last year’s Grandpa Walked a Picketline saw Gibbs touring once again re-visiting the UK, Ireland and Holland and spending six weeks in the top five on the Americana Radio Chart in the States.  Otis Gibbs’ latest offering Joe Hill’s Ashes follows hot on the heels of Grandpa Walked a Picketline and features a handful of Nashville-based musicians on hand to help out including Thomm Jutz (bass, mandolin, vocal), Deanie Richardson (fiddle), Mark Fain (upright bass), partner Amy Lashley (vocal) and Pat McInerney (drums).  Co-produced by Gibbs and Jutz, the album has a crisp acoustic sound which brings to life the twelve songs covering a range of topics including departed friends, reminiscences of youth, West Virginia mining disasters and Greyhound buses.  If Woody Guthrie wrote some of America’s greatest anthems from the caboose of a speeding freight train then “The Town That Killed Kennedy” chronicles many similar journeys but from the seat of a Greyhound bus.  There’s a lot to observe from the window of a bus and Gibbs vividly captures the desolation and loneliness of such journeys borne out of poverty.  As he rightly says, you only travel across America on a bus when you’re too broke to fly.  Two songs speak of departed friends from two different angles.  Whilst “Where Only The Graves Are Real” provides a cautionary tale of maintaining an awareness of who your real friends are, “Something More” tenderly ponders on the question of why the good die young and eulogises absent friends.  The heart of the album can possibly be found in “When I Was Young”, a beautiful reminiscence of maternal childhood, where Gibbs recalls with clarity his earliest memories of sitting in his mother’s arms with his ear pressed against her chest, her voice leaving an indelible mark upon him.  Packaged in an authentically designed sleeve with Shelby Kelley’s etchings depicting itinerant worker and labour activist Joe Hill, Gibbs latest album is immediately fulfilling, rich in content and furthermore, reminds us once again that the legacy of Woody Guthrie is still very much alive and well.

The Wynntown Marshals | Westerner | Album Review | Charger Records | 20.04.10

Formed in Edinburgh in 2007, the Wynntown Marshals’ debut album Westerner showcases that rare ability to sound every bit as authentic as most of their American counterparts with tight arrangements and effortless flair.  With a slight nod towards the likes of The Jayhawkes, Wilco and Ryan Adams, the ten originals and one cover, “Ballad of Jayne” originally by LA Guns, make up an impressive kick start to what promises to be a fruitful recording career.  Their live work has been noticeable in their support spots for such as Chuck Prophet, Richmond Fontaine and Jason and the Scorchers.  Entrusting production duties to Graham Deas whose credentials in the studio include working with KT Tunstall and Super Furry Animals, Keith Benzie’s songs are given the time and effort they richly deserve and the results are immediately impressive.  Joining Benzie, the other Marshals are Keith Jones on drums, Iains Sloan and Barbour on various guitars and Murdo Macleod on bass.  The acoustic guitar at the beginning of the album’s opener “You Can Have My Heart” indicates that this is not going to be an all out rocker of an album and there’s an even distribution of more sensitive songs such as the Neil Young inspired “All That I Want” and “Thunder in the Valley” as well as the instrumental “El Prado”, whilst the country rockers “Nelly”, “48 Hours” and “Two’s Company” showcase the band’s tight rhythmic unity.  “Gil”, with its Band-like chorus, is custom made for encores and one imagines lighters held aloft or at the very least, that inescapable last waltz on the dance floor.  Probably the most unusual song on the album is “Snowflake”, whose central character is the world’s only albino gorilla.  Snowflake was known to the thousands who visited Barcelona Zoo in order to meet its most beloved character, before the gorilla’s sad death as a result of skin cancer in 2003.  There was a despairing sense of loneliness that you couldn’t help feel when you came eye to eye with Snowflake and the song, written from Snowflake’s perspective as an orphan in the world, captures this sense of melancholy particularly well, despite its jauntily rhythmic backdrop.  “Divine Compassion” delves into the murky waters of war, with a brooding hard rock undercurrent; a wander into the apocalyptic heart of darkness with a late 1960’s psychedelic feel, which shows yet another side to this promising band.

Trent Miller and Skeleton Jive | Cerberus | Album Review | Hangman Records | 21.04.10

The guise of Trent Miller and the Skeleton Jive suggests that the London-based singer-guitarist has cobbled together a band for his debut record Cerberus, but it appears that Miller is on his tod on this one.  Armed with just guitar and harmonica rack, together with a world weary booze-drenched vocal, the blues tinged acoustic rock sounds for all intents and purposes like it’s been dredged out of the Louisiana swamps and onto the back porch.  With more than a couple of references to Robert Johnson, the Italian-born songwriter presents his own particular brew of gothic avant-country and bluesy folk tales.  With its brooding and bleak sleeve design, courtesy of Gustave Dore’s illustration of the legendary multi-headed hound, Cerberus demonstrates Miller’s multi-headed approach to his own songs, often simplistic on initial hearing but with a hidden depth that transpires upon each subsequent listen.  “Calvary Mountains” has the bleakness of a Townes Van Zandt blues, complete with vodka bottle in one hand and coke bottle in the other.  The mood of the album can almost be identified in the song titles alone; “Six Feet Under”, “Tombstone Eyes” and “Hellhound Train”, not to mention “Scream Your Last Scream”.  If the subject matter lingers in an underworld of doom and gloom, there are some lighter moments in the arrangements such as the swirling carousel feel on “Secret Fires” and the cowboy campfire jauntiness of “Coyote”, both of which stay with you long after you’ve popped the album back on the shelf along with the Gram Parsons and the Gene Clark’s.  There’s no escaping the fact that this is the darker side of Americana and although you feel Miller hasn’t quite sold his soul at the crossroads, he may have temporarily loaned it.

Nicky Swann | Matches and Dispatches | Album Review | Self Release | 23.04.10

The county of Devon is becoming such a rich place for music these days, I have a feeling there’s something in the water.  Singer-songwriter Nicky Swann is by no means ‘run of the mill’ and apparently has no quarms in presenting us with the burden of pigeon hole-ing.  Equally comfortable with country-tinged rock n roll “Crash and Burn”, cool summer jazz “Hold On” and folksy ballads “Little Bird” and “Amy’s Waltz”, Nicky Swann runs the veritable gamut of styles and moods but retains a consistent thread throughout that is uniquely her own.  Being forced into taking on the role of her own guitarist after going through the fruitless auditioning process in the wake of splitting from her long term duo partner, Nicky’s self determination resulted in re-inventing herself as a singer-songwriter in her own right, with a bunch of new songs, some of which found their way onto the Burning Bright EP.  Three of those songs, “Good Advice” (re-titled here as “Amy’s Waltz”), “Wheels Keep Turning” and “One Step Up” have joined a further ten tracks to make up the Tom Joyce produced full-length Matches and Dispatches album due for release in May.  After recording and performing with fellow Devon artists, Phil Beer and Jackie Oates respectively and winning the Artsbase singer-songwriter award, Nicky has gone on to share the stage with the likes of Clive Gregson, Roy Bailey and Megson as well as visiting American artists Corrine West and Brooks Williams, in opening and support spots, providing her with a suitable apprenticeship as a live performer.  The album was recorded in nearby Cornwall at the Sawmills Studios, where the singer-songwriter surrounded herself with an array of first rate musicians, which includes Rick Foot on double bass, James Sharp on drums, Bethany Porter on cello, Olivia Dunn on violin, Alan Cook on pedal steel and Dobro and Brian Garrett on guitar.  Almost unrecognisable from the original Mop Tops number one hit, “I Want To Hold Your Hand” is given the same sort of treatment Alison Krauss gave The Foundations’ “Baby, Now That I’ve Found You”, with a gorgeous guitar and cello arrangement, the latter courtesy of Bethany Porter, reminding us once again that great love songs work so much better in a stripped down context, up close and personal.  Likewise, “In Too Deep” offers a passionate and emotional performance that makes it all the more believable.  “Tuesday’s Lament” shows another side of Nicky’s writing and once again sets out to prove that mundane everyday stuff can be just as appealing as the profound, until you realise that is, that it’s no ordinary day at all, with the heartbreaking revelation in the final verse.  The song lyrics of this and four other songs are included in the handsome booklet accompanying the album.  Rounding things off with a gentle lullaby, adapted from the traditional Welsh poem Ar Hyd Y Nos, “All Through the Night” confirms that Nicky Swann is certainly an artist to watch in 2010 and beyond.

Brooks Williams | Baby O! | Album Review | Red Guitar Blue Music | 26.04.10

Statesboro-born Brooks Williams releases his 17th album and brings with it a veritable feast of feel-good blues, utilising his trusty bottleneck and resonator guitar to great effect throughout.  The album, mostly made up of self-penned songs with a nod to one or two country blues giants such as Son House on “Grinning in Your Face” and Mississippi John Hurt on “Louis Collins”, demonstrates some tightly arranged goodies, which brings out the very best in the guitarist’s supporting cast; Jethro Tull’s David Goodier on bass, Little Johnny England’s PJ Wright on Dobro, pedal steel and slide guitar, Keith Warmington on harmonica and Helen Watson providing backing vocals.  BABY O! was recorded in Bristol here in the UK but sounds for all intents and purposes as if it was recorded in one of the juke joints along the Mississippi.  With the guitarist’s heavily gaffer-taped stomp box in full flight, “Walk You Off My Mind” offers some sweaty blues whilst “Last Chance Love” is probably more ‘Hank’ than ‘Big Joe’ Williams.  With a fine performance of Muddy Waters’ “Sugar Sweet”, written by Chief Records founder Mel London, Williams and Co provide an infectiously rhythmic groove that almost beckons the most left-footed of us onto the dance floor.  Testament to his informed guitar playing, Williams was recently listed in the top 100 acoustic guitarists, a list that included the likes of Doc Watson, Leo Kottke and Chet Atkins, yet you never get the sense that Brooks is over-milking it technically.  The emphasis is on the quality rather than the quantity of notes, although it has to be said the title cut demonstrates some intuitive sparring between Williams and Wright.  As the mother of all gospel songs, Williams’ instrumental version of “Amazing Grace” comes over a little more like Robert Johnson’s “Come on in My Kitchen” with all its back porch intensity.  The funky “Moon On Down” is reminiscent of Last Record Album-era Little Feat and makes me wonder why Williams wasn’t invited to the post Lowell George party?  Lyrically, the album provides some good story telling, especially on the opening song “Frank Delandry”, which addresses the legendary and quite obscure New Orleans guitarist that most locals of the time claimed to be the best.  Unfortunately we’ll never know as it was well before someone had the good sense to invent the black platter with the little hole.  Closing the album is Duke Ellington’s late night crooner “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good)”, with a soulful vocal performance from Williams and solo guitar accompaniment that makes you want to have been around in the studio at the time.     

Lau Vs Karine Polwart | Evergreen | E)P Review | Self Release | 28.04.10

If like me, you were always convinced that Lau was a perfectly formed entity, comprising of three outstanding musicians; one who provides a distinctively fluid fiddle sound, another whose dual role is to provide the robust bottom end as well as throwing in the occasional discordant flight of fancy, that often leaves your jaw on the carpet, and last but certainly not least, the guitarist who alternates between ‘sensitive’ to ‘exhaustingly rhythmic’ in a hair’s breadth and who also provides the band with its lone voice.. then think again.  There was something apparently absent from the overall sound of the band and we didn’t realise it.  The addition of a female voice was the missing ingredient and for this splendid EP, we can rejoice in the now perfect circle.  To be honest up until recently I was never a fan of the ‘EP’ generally, as a product, much preferring to lose myself in at least an hour’s worth of music, rather than just a sample.  Evergreen gives us just over twenty minutes of excellent music, long enough to keep our full attention and not too long to warrant including fill-in tracks.  It’s an indication that there are still smart minds operating in the folk world and this collaboration, like all the other collaborative projects Karine gets involved in, works tremendously well.  The title song is a Polwart original, with an arrangement credit for the rest of the band; a true collaborative effort.  The other four performances are well chosen adaptations of contemporary songs by other acclaimed writers.  Lal Waterson’s songs, like Van Gogh’s paintings, were seemingly only understood and appreciated by a few and like Theo Van Gogh, certainly by members of her own family.  Then in light of her sad passing in 1998, a whole new awakening occurred and her songs have now been celebrated by many and are now being rewarded with the attention they deserve.  “Midnight Feast” is nothing short of stunning and Kris Drever delivers a faithfully sensitive version of the song here.  No one does ‘bleak’ quite like The Unthanks, but Karine Polwart and Lau manage an almost Hardy-esque arrangement on Dave Goulder’s “January Man”, featuring a vocal duet between Polwart and Drever.  If there’s a necessary need to escape bleakness, look no further than Blue Nile’s feel good and optimistic “From Rags to Riches”, which has a sprightly plucked-violin jauntiness about it, which celebrates being in love, albeit with just a particular feeling together with a wild sky.  “Lord Yester” goes back to The Corries days, when the Peebles baker George Weir would provide Roy Williamson with gems of contemporary folk songs, that sound very much as if they came from the tradition.  If you like Karine Polwart, you’ll love this, if you like Lau and you were thinking of buying this, in Kris Drever’s words (and spoken in a rich Orkney accent here..) “you’ll need to”.

Texas Tornados | Esta Bueno | Album Review | Proper | 16.05.10

With the passing of both Freddy Fender and Doug Sahm, it was almost taken as a given that the Texas Tornados would never see the light of day again and their extraordinary Tejano brand of Tex-Mex would be assigned to the annals of history.  As history has shown though, the music world keeps on grooming enthusiastic and talented offspring to slip into dad’s shoes.  Shawn Sahm has teamed up with his dad’s former comrades Augie Meyers and Flaco Jiménez and has produced the first recording from the band in over a decade.  Esta Bueno! (translated as ‘It’s Good’) features five previously unreleased vocal performances from the legendary Freddy Fender together with a sterling performance from the master of the conjunto accordion, Flaco Jiménez.  Other musicians tempted back include the original band members Louie Ortega on guitar, Speedy Sparks on bass and Ernie Durawa on drums.  From the opening bars of “Who’s to Blame, Señorita?” through to the soulful “Girl Going Nowhere”, featuring the late Doug Sahm, the album is a veritable feast of good time dance tunes and late night crooners each conjuring the mood of the music of the Texan and Mexican border towns.  Infectious dance tunes such as “They Don’t Make ‘Em Like I Like” and “Velma from Selma” sit well aside the ballads “Tennessee Blues” and “If I Could Only”, each recreating the sound that made the band so popular the first time around.  “In Heaven There is no Beer”, sung in both English and Mexican, demonstrates the Tornados zest for fun and to a beat that makes it practically impossible to remain seated throughout.  The fun side is echoed in the title song, which indicates in no uncertain terms the resulting issues of consuming jalapenos in familiar Tornados style.  Because this collection was made up with remnants from the last pieces of the Tex-Mex jig-saw puzzle, with contributions from those musicians no longer with us, it would be a shame not to see the new Texas Tornados continue, at least for a little while longer.

Hungrytown | Hungrytown | Album Review | Listen Here Records | 17.05.10

At first glance you might think you’d inadvertently walked into a scene from Annie Hall, with Alvy Singer and his eponymous heroine Annie, not so much wrestling with lobsters or watching the sun come up over Brooklyn Bridge, but maybe that memorable scene of Annie doing her cabaret turn.. la-di-da, la-di-da.  With a name like Rebecca Hall, we could for all intents and purposes be dealing with one of Annie’s siblings.  One thing is for sure, Annie’s kid sister can certainly sing, and sing very well indeed.  Joking apart, the Hungrytown duo are a delight to listen to.  At first I wasn’t too sure, it all sounded a little too retro, like re-visiting The Springfields or The Seekers, but after a couple of listens, this fine debut is quite intoxicating.  Vermont’s Rebecca Hall and Ken Anderson have a gentle no nonsense approach to both their delicious harmony singing and their easy going playing.  It’s never overtly old timey nor fundamentally bluegrass, but a rich mixture of various styles and influences, with an immediately accessible and radio friendly sound.  There’s something of A Mighty Wind in both their appearance and their song structures, but it’s really more pastiche than parody.  Even though it is a retro style reminiscent of the early 1960’s folk boom, you never feel that the duo are anything other than sincere in their endeavours.  “Lucille, Lucille” is a gentle starter, which introduces us to the voice that dominates the entire album, with a fine supporting cast of musicians including Zack Deming on banjo and Jeff Vogelsang providing additional guitar.  “Sylvie” is a variation of the traditional “Once I Had a Sweetheart” with a fine vocal performance by Rebecca, augmented by some fine interplay between violin, cello, oboe and Celtic harp courtesy of Eric Lee, Suzanne Mueller, Fredric T Cohen and Cynthia Hughes respectively.  “Weep Not For Me” provides the album with a lilting lullaby of startling beauty whilst “Troubles Change Direction” is typical of Hungrytown’s harmonies, where Rebecca’s voice is complimented by Ken’s unmistakable intuitive harmony.  None of the songs on Hungrytown are new exactly, all of the selections being written over the last decade from Rebecca and Ken’s “On the Other Side” from 2000 through to the later songs “November Song” and the infectious “Rose or the Briar” from 2006.  The album closes with a pretty faithful version of the Gene Clark/Jesse Davis classic “With Tomorrow”, echoing the original’s fragility but losing none of its power.

Joanna Chapman-Smith | Contraries | Album Review | Woundup Records | 29.05.10

Joanna Chapman-Smith’s follow up to her 2007 debut Eyre Corvidae takes us on a journey through the contraries in life, taking William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell as a premise, exploring the polarised opposites of right and wrong, mind and body, good and bad.  With a real tangible handle on composition, the young Canadian songwriter incorporates Latin, gypsy jazz and blues influences as a basis to rest these explorations upon and apparently with seamless precision.  With a sense of gypsy cabaret and a hint of the burlesque, the compositions on Contraries range from the soulfully emotional to the whimsical, but all with an easily accessible quality.  Whilst “A Glass of Right and Wrong” takes a quizzical look at relationships through a liquid metaphor, the autobiographical Urbanality, reveals the songwriter’s dreams of travel and alternative living, recalling her youth spent scraping a living as an artist between the two cities of Toronto and Vancouver.  With no small measure of candor, Joanna’s frustrations of being tied to the city reveal an inherent desire to travel and to get away from it all.  Now well travelled, Chapman-Smith has spread her music around from Canada to the US, Europe and New Zealand, delivering tight musical soirées with a pinch of bohemian spirit, armed with a steadily growing repertoire of memorable songs of her own as well as gracing other’s albums with her voice and clarinet, such as those by fellow Canadian-based artists CR Avery and Sarah MacDougall.  The IMA award-winning “Melodies”, with its quirky introduction and lilting French accordion/clarinet-led accompaniment, shows Joanna at her most comfortable, with an irresistibly swirling waltz-time dance.  The tightly arranged instrumental “Klezbian Mother” provides a potential soundtrack to a Jewish or Greek wedding, with sprightly clarinet and accordion forcefully duelling at the side of the dance floor; a coda is also provided in the form of “Dub Mother”, delicately played as the bride and groom leave the party and the guests disperse.  The haunting “Between the Minds”, has an ethereal quality, largely due to the fragile whistled melody that ties the song together, featuring brothers Tim and Dan Chapman-Smith, providing whistling and vocal duet respectively.  If fragility is exemplified in “Between the Minds”, then melancholy is hinted at in the closing “Carnival Song”, which laments the passing of time.  Joining Joanna on the album is a fine assembled cast under the guise of The Tryst, comprising Dawn Zoe on accordion, Justine Fischer on bass and Wayne Adams on drums, whilst Joanna takes care of guitar, clarinet and keyboard duties.  Futher support comes in the form of Christina Zaenker on cello, Marc L’Esperance on tenor sax and violin with additional vocals by Carolyna Loveless, Sarah MacDougall and Chris Suen.

The Whybirds | Cold Blue Sky | Album Review | Little Red Recording | 30.05.10

Alt-country rockers The Whybirds’ second record and follow up to their self-titled debut of 2008, once again demonstrates the band’s no nonsense approach to hard-rocking Americana, despite the band coming from Bedford.  Produced by Tom Peters (Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band), Cold Blue Sky maintains a distinctive sound throughout even though the songs included are divided almost equally between the four songwriters in the band.  Faithful to the energy of a Whybirds live gig, the band refuses to hold back on the volume and the full blown semi-grunge thrust of solid rock chords form the basis of this record.  The opening song, Taff Thatcher’s “Glow”, takes on the familiar tempo changing precident exemplified by some of Grunge’s pioneers such as The Pixies, Pearl Jam and Nirvana but with a distinctly country flavour.  The more laid-back acoustic songs form a welcomed counterpoint to the rock driven bulk of the album.  Luke Tuchscherer’s plaintive “Morva”, a tale of unrequited love and the resulting refuge of substance relief is handled in an altogether soothing manner.  Not the usual sort of lyrics from the drummer of a band.  Likewise, the title track Taff Thatcher’s “Cold Blue Sky” borrows from Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” in style and provides the jewel in this particular crown.  The only collaborative composition on the album, the Banks/Tuchscherer co-written “Wild, Wild Wind” alludes to the rock n roll notion of self discovery, getting away from the proverbial small town and hitting the road.  With Dave Banks and Ben Haswell sharing guitar duties, Taff Thatcher on bass and Luke Tuchscherer on drums, The Whybirds seem to be hitting the road quite a lot and are steadily gaining a reputation as one of the hardest working bands in their field.  Having had initial sessions involving acclaimed producer Elliot Mazor, whose credentials include Neil Young, Janis Joplin and The Band no less, the band’s reputation continues to spread in a notably healthy manner.

Pete Dilley | Forecast | Album Review | Self Release | 30.05.10

More and more we see young emerging artists taking their tentative steps in music whilst still at school; the bulk of Ella Edmondson’s debut Hold Your Horses being written at the age of 15 for example or Ruth Notman’s early song compositions being done as school projects, complete with dodgy Westlife type key changes, or more famously Adele, banging out an entire multi-platinum album’s worth of songs about a ‘rubbish’ relationship whilst barely out of a school uniform, and countless other similar stories.  The title of Pete Dilley’s second album Forecast started out as a GCSE art project, whilst the accompanying song and instrumental piece “Forecaster” and “Forecast” respectively, were written at a similarly early age.  Dilley’s strength is in his guitar playing it has to be said; by his own admission, Martin Simpson is rarely off the player and some of that dexterity is apparent in Dilley’s finger-style playing.  The opening instrumental title track demonstrates a respect for his instrument and straddles the boundaries between Classical, folk and blues, with a discerning appreciation of composition for the former and a healthy use of both bottleneck and DADGAD tuning for the latter.  While “Until Tomorrow” leans more towards a modern pop sensibility, with a little help from Steve Wilson’s bass and some additional electric guitar and harmonica, Dilley’s sense of composition can stray into late 1960s West Coast pop/rock, reminiscent of Love and Country Joe and the Fish, especially on “Never Ending Page”, with its electric guitar and mandolin exchanges and Summer of Love feel.  “Heartache in Disguise” shows a more sensitive side of Dilley’s singing and playing, with some beautiful guitar passages as Dilley temporarily wears his heart on his sleeve, as does the oldest song on the album “Regrets”, albeit with some new lyrics as Dilley explains “some new regrets needed to be added”.  “Forlorn Child” on the other hand owes more to traditional song and utilises a complex guitar arrangement reminiscent of the aforementioned Martin Simpson.  It comes as little surprise these days to hear songs written about dads, from Ewan Maccoll’s “My Old Man” through to Simpson’s “Never Any Good” or in this case, Dilley’s “Old”.  The fact that dads tend to be much closer to us now as opposed to archaic Victorian standards, where dad would be virtually on a different planet in terms of generational differences.  Dads and sons are more like brothers in our time, which therefore helps to create a much stronger bond, making it possible to connect through song, whilst at the same time avoiding sentimentality.      Mirroring the winter theme of the album sleeve photographs, “Loch Rannoch (I Know the Winter)” was written almost to order, to be included in a Christmas special for Tony Hitchcock’s radio programme on Sine FM.  Deeply melancholic, the song includes some empathetic violin courtesy of Sue Hill.  Having recently reached the finals of the BPAS Young Acoustic Roots Competition held at the 2010 Wath Festival and also being included in the steadily expanding roster of artists supporting Folk Delivering Hope, appearing on the charities first compilation CD with “Jack’s Song” from his debut Said and Done, there is little doubt that we are witness to a new budding talent.

The Annie Duggan Band | If I Knew Then.. | Album Review | Clarksdale | 01.06.10

With Ann Duggan’s distinctive voice backed by a pretty tight rhythmic unit courtesy of the newly re-named ‘Annie’ Duggan Band, comprising of Rob Hines on guitars, Alan Shotter on bass and harmonica and Gordon Taylor on drums and backing vocals, Ann’s fourth album blends country, folk and rock to create something distinctly their own.  If I Knew Then… once again demonstrates something of a rarity; the successful transition from a young girl whose musical calling was not at first apparent, to a mature artist who seems to have been born to sing.  Ann Duggan began singing by chance when asked to help out Norfolk-based songwriter Colin Granger who had penned a number of songs but was in need of a voice to blaze their trail.  Until that moment, Ann had little or no interest in singing but rose to the challenge and in the last ten years hasn’t looked back.  Four albums and countless gigs down the line, Ann has blazed that trail which has taken her from the East Midlands to the States and back, sharing stages with such Blues greats as Larry Garner, Lonnie Shields and Mr. Johnnie Billington.  The songs on this latest collection indicate that Ann’s singing career shows no signs of waning as she continues to grow as a vibrant light on the live music scene.  Those songs are at times reminiscent of early Richard and Linda Thompson, with “Ain’t That a Shame” being a suitable counterpart to Bright Lights, largely due to Rob Hines’ mature guitar style and Granger’s comparable lyrics.  The treatment of Granger’s lyrics differs greatly from song to song with “Shooter’s Last Ride” being fairly typical country rock fare, whilst “Sucking Down Air” has all the hallmarks of early 1970s riff-rock blues.  The funky “Travellin’ Man Blues” on the other hand leans more towards Doobie Brothers type West Coast pop, a clear indication of Duggan’s versatility as a performer and Granger as an all round songwriter.  The three songs not from the pen of Colin Granger includes Billy Joe and son Eddy Shaver’s delightfully optimistic “Live Forever”, which in the hands of Ann Duggan is much more ballad-like than Shaver’s original.  Gordon Taylor contributes two songs, the jaunty “Taking Me Out Tonight”, which makes a good companion to “Ain’t That a Shame”, and the folky “Dream of You” featuring the only additional musician on the record, Kerrie Vernon, who contributed the violin solo as well as a good deal of hospitality during the making of the record.  Rounding off with “Worn Out Blues”, a power ballad that wouldn’t be out of place as the live show closer with lighters aloft, the Annie Duggan Band continue to develop their own brand of mature bluesy country rock.

Demon Barbers | The Adventures of Captain Ward | Album Review | Self Release | 02.06.10

Just when it seemed the world was bereft of a super hero, along comes the formidable Captain Ward, the swashbuckling pirate extraordinaire, as created by Tony Hall for the cover of the third full length Demon Barbers album The Adventures of Captain Ward.  The cover, reminiscent of the Mothers of Invention’s memorable Weasels Ripped My Flesh LP sleeve, has all five members of the core band featured in cartoon form on the inner sleeve, being marched overboard via ‘the plank’ by either Damien Barber himself or by his intimidating English concertina.  It’s a fun start to a thoroughly engaging record.  By Damien Barber’s own admission, recreating any band’s live set in a studio environment is always difficult to say the least, but the general intention to capture some of the spirit of the Demon Barbers’ live set is definitely present on this new record.  This is probably the closest the band are likely to get to that specific sound, a sound and spectacle that in no small way contributed towards the band’s success at last years BBC Folk Awards, when they came away with the Best Live Act award.  No one seriously expects the same experience when listening to a new Demon Barbers CD to that of feeling the stage reverberate to the stomp of Dogrose Morris, or the clatter of swords and the vibrant display of clog dancing and colour; so it’s with the song selections, the performances and the production we concentrate upon here.  Peter Bellamy is the source for the title song “Captain Ward”, which opens the album with a pulsating off beat electric bass and some intoxicating fiddle/melodeon interplay, suitably forming the basis for Damien Barber’s authoritative storytelling.  The core band of Damien Barber on guitar and English concertina, Bryony Griffith on fiddle, hubby Will Hampson on melodeon, Lee Sykes on bass and Ben Griffith on drums is augmented by contributions from the extended team of cloggers Hannah James, Tiny Taylor and Laura Connolly, with additional vocals from Fiona Taylor as well as some beatbox pyrotechnics courtesy of John (JB) Stuckey.  Bryony Griffith’s version of “The Bonny Labouring Boy” (“Bonny Boy”), borrowed from Frank Purslow’s “Marrowbones”, is one of the highlights on this album, with a fine assured vocal performance and building rhythm from the rest of the band.  Bryony’s distinctive vocal can also be heard on “The Magpie”, a retelling of the old children’s nursery rhyme and the live show-stopper “Soul Cake”, which here incorporates some of the less visual beatbox shenanigans of JB.  The beatbox is no better utilisedby than during “Calling on Song”, which also incorporates the percussive sound of clog dancing, together with Bryony’s rich and intuitive fiddle playing.  Ed Pickford’s “Pound a Week Rise”, memorably recorded by Dick Gaughan in 1986, sees the Demon Barbers entering political territory, with Damien Barber’s convincingly authoritative vocal carrying the song to the end.  “Three Drunken Maids” on the other hand shows a more fun loving side to the band.  With an almost ‘punk anthem’ attitude mixed with a Ska flavour, this old traditional romp of a song, sounds for all intents and purposes like a report on any bog-standard Saturday night out in Donny (where the album was coincidentally recorded).  The instrumental pieces on the album, “Munchen Fest”, “Harry’s Hornpipe” and “Kiss Me Quick My Mammy’s Coming/The Queen of Sluts”, measure up to the songs equally as they demonstrate inventiveness and flair in each case, from Will Hampson’s “Munich Oktoberfest” inspired knees up to Bryony’s jazz inflected set of hornpipes.  The Grateful Dead’s outlaw song “Friend of the Devil” from the band’s seminal American Beauty album makes an unexpected appearance here.  Citing Chris Smither as the source of this version of the song, the band create a completely different feel good sound, which works equally well on record and in live performance.  Completing the thirteen selections on the album is the traditional “Three Ravens” learned from the singing of Sheffield-based singer Fay Hield, no stranger to both Damien Barber and Bryony Griffith, both who have worked with the singer in highly regarded combos over the years such as the much missed Witches of Elswick.  Satisfying their audience’s appetites temporarily in 2008 with the stop gap release of the mini-album +24db, Captain Ward has been a long time in coming but finally serves to prove that the Demon Barbers are now a force to be reckoned with both on stage and now in the studio. 

Winter | A Matter of Time | Album Review | East Central One | 05.06.10

Looking every bit Johnny and Edgar’s kid sister, AnnaLena Winter (no relation) has rock chick written all over her, from her faded denim jeans and black leather jacket upwards as she sits for the cover shot, not exactly smiling, but with grinning, almost confrontational eyes.  Seated to the left side of a set of leather twin seats, which have ‘waiting room’ written all over them, we get the impression that AnnaLena is not prepared to wait around and needs to be onstage, her natural comfort zone.  Fronting the Swedish band named after her, AnnaLena’s latest eleven songs find themselves on this their fourth album release since the bands’ inception in the late 1990s.  A Matter of Time also sees the arrival of new guitarist Fredrik Lidin to the fold, joining the long established rhythm section of Abbe Abrahamsson on drums and Johan Strömberg on bass, together with AnnLena’s own guitar and distinctive vocal.  The album opens with the driving title track “Matter of Time”, an almost pleading song of hope, that ponders the rekindling of a lost relationship.  There’s an immediate sense that the lyrical content of the album is not going to solve any of the world’s problems nor ponder too long on the big questions, but as a statement of personal love issues and relationship entanglements, AnnaLena sets out her stall quite adequately from the outset.  The melodies are often pleasing such as “Face on the Wall”, “Book of Love” and the sublime “A Minute Away”, which has more than a nod to the genius of kd lang.  Both “Crazy” and “Pretender” also compete for stand out song status, both of which have all the attributes of a freeway classic.  The closing song on the album puts aside all the potentially radio friendly open top car anthems and provides the album with its heart, a moment of sensitivity on the gorgeous piano led “Nothing Without You”, which deserves to be played, often.

Richard Kitson | Home and Dry | Album Review | Self Release | 05.06.10

Barnsley-based Richard Kitson has been playing around the South Yorkshire area since 2004 as a solo singer-songwriter/guitarist.  Having dabbled in the post-punk band Strawberry Jack in 1999 he went on to further dabble in a handful of blues-based outfits before heeding to the urge of trying his hand as a solo performer.  Influenced by the likes of Bert Jansch, Davy Graham, Rory Gallagher and Big Bill Broonzy, Richard learned his craft as countless others had done before, by wearing out the record collection whilst snapping a few strings tuning up and down between standard and DADGAD no doubt.  The familiar route of first hearing Bob Dylan and then following the obligatory adventure of discovering the past, uncovering along the way the delights of early country blues giants, the Big Bills, Mississippi Johns and Libby Cottons, not to mention the Woody Guthries, Cisco Houstons and Rambling Jacks, brought to this pair of impressionable Barnsley ears, a growing fascination with the music; so much so, that the act consuming these influences became just as important as breathing.  Home and Dry captures some of those endeavours with fourteen self-penned songs, each borrowing from a veritable catalogue of blues and folk styles hand picked along the way.  The haunting “Robin Hood’s Bay” is certainly reminiscent of Jansch’s distinctively heavy-handed guitar approach that can be heard on such memorable songs as “Fresh as a Sweet Sunday Morning” and “Blackwaterside” for instance, while “Redundant Blues” owes more to Wizz Jones both in terms of the derivative guitar style and the lyrical content.  Meanwhile, the instrumental “Gypsy Vanner” sees Richard tipping his hat towards Classical influences and the piece is played here with focus and assurance.  Richard manages to bring all these influences together to make them his own.  Richard’s own developing style of guitar accompaniment to songs such as “Hold the Line” and “Elope” is less noticeably derivative and serves to underpin the content of some of the more sensitive songs on the album.  Having said that, for one of the most sensitive songs included here, Richard returns to one of his main influences with the Jansch-worthy lullaby and lilting guitar accompaniment on the dreamy “Tears”.  With a supporting cast of friends such as Kat Gilmore on violin, mandolin and backing vocals, Marjorie Paterson on cello, Leon Davies on drums and percussion and Gerry McNeice (who gets where water can’t) on double bass, Richard has produced, along with Dean Jordon, a record that suitably sums up what you are likely to hear at one of his live appearances.

The Quebe Sisters Band | Timeless | Album Review | Fiddletone | 06.06.10

When you first hear the sibling harmonies of Grace, Sophia and Hulda Quebe on this record, you would be forgiven for thinking these recordings were made several decades ago in the heyday of Bob Wills’ particular brand of Western Swing, especially when backed by the tight rhythm section of Joey McKenzie on guitar and both Drew Phelps and Dennis Crouch sharing upright bass duties; little wonder then that the album is entitled Timeless.  Drawing from the influences of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, the Sons of the Pioneers, Benny Goodman, the Quintet of the Hot Club of France and the Mills Brothers to name but a few, Timeless is a nostalgic trip down memory lane with a selection of songs and tunes from another era entirely.  Recorded in the idyllic setting of the Cash Cabin Studio, way out in the woods of Hendersonville, Tennessee, guitarist Joey McKenzie found himself at the helm of this project.  A champion fiddler himself, McKenzie knew instinctively how to get the best out of the three fiddling siblings, all of whom had been mentored by both himself and his wife Sherry.  Staggeringly, the Quebe Sisters’ first record, Texas Fiddles was entirely instrumental, which is rather like imagining an Everly Brothers record without any singing on it.  These voices have to be heard to be believed and this record gives us ample opportunity to catch up with those voices on such songs as “So Long” to the “Red River Valley”, “Georgia on my Mind” and “Along the Navajo Trail”, all of which demonstrate a tight understanding of harmony, way beyond their years; hard to believe they’ve only been singing professionally for five years.  Their playing abilities were noticed slightly earlier after each of the sisters took up the fiddle simultaneously, having attended a fiddle contest in Denton, Texas in 1998.  Being knocked out by the sound of the instrument, the sisters endeavored to pick up everything by ear, trawling their combined record collections and coming up with something fresh based very definitely on something old.  Their fiddle playing is best exemplified on their instrumentals and one or two are included on Timeless, notably the old Bob Wills tune “Twin Guitar Special”, the traditional “Speed the Plow Medley”, Benny Goodman’s “Air Mail Special” and Duke Ellington’s legendary “Take the ‘A’ Train.  The real delight in the Quebe Sisters Band’s music is when they combine the two such as on the infectious “Roly Poly”.  Championed by such artists as Ricky Skaggs, Jimmy Buffett and Marty Stuart, the band recently picked up two celebrated awards, Group of the Year by the Academy of Western Artists and the Crescendo Award by the Western Music Association, indicating that the Quebe Sisters are beginning to be recognised by their peers and a steadily growing fan base.  The Fort Worth-based group has so far played all the prestigious gigs including appearances at the Grand Ole Opry, the Kennedy Center and New York’s Lincoln Center as well as some of the major festivals and concert halls throughout North America and Canada.  Pleasingly, we will have an opportunity to see the Quebe Sisters Band at the Cambridge Folk Festival this summer and this reviewer has every intention of claiming a front row seat (or patch of grass) for himself.

Daniel Hertzov | Believing | Album Review | Red Cat Productions | 12.07.10

There is little on Believing, other than the name Hertzov possibly, that indicates this singer-songwriter originates from Moscow.  Having lived in the USA for the best part of his life, Daniel has crafted his musical endeavours whilst listening to rock music in Boston.  Eventually moving to the UK where he now lives and works, in Glasgow to be precise, the songwriter has gone on to produce a memorable debut, containing a dozen well-crafted and melodic songs.  Equally at home with sensitive balladry “Trust the River”, “6 Years” and grungy rock “Down at the Park”, “Saviour”, Hertzov crafts his songs with a distinctly Americana feel.  Both mandolin-led “Tumbling Down” and “Away and Shelter” offer a lighter approach to Daniel’s songwriting, the latter celebrating the fact that when the chips are down, the music survives.  Whilst “Jewish Bride” may be seen as the single throw away song on the album, it does offer a taste of Hertzov’s wry sense of humour, Tymon Tymanski’s scat vocals as well as a nod to Hertzov’s Jewish roots; sensibly placed at the end of the track listing.  With contributions from Marcin Galazka on guitars, Alan Scobie on keyboards and percussion, Craig Strain and Tymon Tymanski on bass and Fraser West on drums, Daniel Hertzov has delivered a thoroughly engaging debut.

Larkin Poe | Spring | EP Review | Edvins | 13.07.10

In the long lamented vinyl days, interestingly enough making their return with a vengeance, my understanding of the initialism ‘EP’ always stood for ‘extended play’, roughly defined as a ‘single’ with a couple of supplementary tracks included.  Larkin Poe’s Spring EP with no less than nine songs is for all intents and purposes a full blown album for my money, not just because of the length of play, but also because it’s a complete and beautiful statement; one of the best albums I’ve heard this year.  Larkin Poe are essentially the remaining two siblings after big sister Jessica left the Lovell Sisters trio in order to return to her studies, get married and have some time away from music.  Rebecca and Megan have teamed up with Daniel Kimbo on bass and banjo, Mike Seal on guitars, Chad Melton on drums and percussion and Jonathan Maness also on percussion to create an astonishingly mature sound, which blends bluegrass, roots and rock to create their own brand of exciting Americana.  Named after the siblings’ great great great grandfather Larkin Poe, Rebecca and Megan, merely 19 and 20 respectively, continue where the trio left off, further developing their highly skilful playing of mandolin, guitar and Dobro, as well as highlighting each of their own individual vocal credentials, previously used to good effect on the Lovell Sisters two records When Forever Rolls Around (2006) and Time To Grow (2009).  Rebecca in particular has an instantly recognisable voice, full of character and depth and therefore the focal point of this record.  Whilst “Long Hard Fall” and “We Intertwine” maintain that unique balance between pop melody and bluegrass integrity, both “Burglary” and “The Principle of Silver Lining” bring out an interesting darker side to Rebecca’s song writing, possibly drawing from another Poe of the Edgar Allan variety, particularly in the latter, with its haunting theme of darkness.  With an edgy rock base, both performances demonstrate Rebecca’s relaxed liaison with a much raunchier bluesier music.  Lowell George would be nodding approval for certain.  As the band prepare for their forthcoming British tour, the Spring EP prepares us for what’s hopefully to come.  Roll on Summer!

Skerryvore | Skerryvore | Album Review | Tyree | 18.07.10

The third album from one of Scotland’s most exciting bands to emerge over the last decade.  Formed in 2004, Skerryvore have shaped their unique sound, which fuses traditional dance tunes with a hard-edged rock base and a healthy leaning towards soulful country balladeering.  Formed on the Isle of Tiree in the Inner Hebrides, Alec Dalglish (guitars, mandolin, vocals), Barry Caulfield (bass), Martin Gillespie (bagpipes, accordion), Daniel Gillespie (accordion), Craig Espie (fiddle) and Fraser West (drums) together with a couple of guest players Alan Scobie (keyboards) and Duncan J Nicholson (bagpipes) have captured some of the rawness of their live sound on this eponymously titled third release.  With the aesthetics of a regular boy band, the more sensitive ballads such as “Smile in the Stars” and “Hold Me Tonight” are almost in danger of rivaling those of Westlife, but are fortunately rescued by gorgeous instrumentation and in particular the sensible use of bagpipes and accordion respectively.  The band’s good sense to avoid cringe-worthy key changes mid-song is also a plus.  It’s with the uptempo songs that Skerryvore excel, all of which manage to create this unique blend of country-flavoured Celt-rock.  “Good to Go”, “Simple Life” and the album’s opener “Path to Home” incorporate driving rhythms worthy of any open-top car drive through the desert.  Then there’s the instrumentals.  There’s almost an expectation that the instrumentals included on the album will constitute run of the mill jigs and reels exercises but in this case nothing could be further from the truth.  Inventive, exciting and thoroughly engaging, the gutsy “Wit’s End” with its rock-riff opening, the funky “Angry Fiddler” and the sublime “Gairm A’Chuain (Call of the Sea)”, all demonstrate a band working together in complete unison.  Closing Skerryvore is a live recording of the Patsy Cavanagh anthem “Home to Donegal”, which captures that end of gig moment perfectly.  Mac MacKinlay of the Shepley Spring Festival says he always likes to go out with bagpipes at his festival, therefore the services of a Scottish band is usually required.  This year was no exception and Skerryvore’s mixture of Celtic folk rock and stomp folk with a country flavour together with a healthy dose of bagpipes did the trick and I dare say it won’t be for the last time.

Ewan McLennan | Rags and Robes | Album Review | Fellside | 22.07.10

Anyone familiar with Ewan McLennan’s music, either having seen him perform at a festival or folk club, or having heard him on the wireless recently, will no doubt be aware that some of the songs on Rags and Robes first appeared a couple of years ago on his self-titled home-made debut.  As is the case with many artists these days, once they manage to secure that all important record deal and have the backing of an established label, in this case those nice Adams people at Fellside, then it’s prudent to retrace one’s steps and re-record some of those initial attempts in order to present a proper and worthy debut.  Ewan McLennan has done just that and has now released a stunning collection comprising of a handful of familiar traditional songs, one or two contemporary ballads and a couple of self-penned originals.  With an exceptionally graceful guitar style and distinctive voice, the traditional material such as “Tramps and Hawkers”, “As I Roved Out” and “Arthur McBride” appear to have been given a new lease of life.  The crisp guitar sound and confident singing voice, reminiscent of Handful of Earth period Dick Gaughan, has that immediately accessable quality about it.  With the formidable talents of both Peter Tickell (fiddle) and Jackie Oates (viola and harmony vocals), the album is garnished with a sprinkling of intuitive and empathetic accompaniment; a seasoning that complements the song choices particularly well.  For those who recall that iconic moment when Joan Baez sang “Joe Hill” at the Woodstock Festival, reminding many that a folk song can be just as powerful as a Hendrix guitar solo when in the right hands, then the song returns afresh with a haunting viola accompaniment courtesy of Jackie Oates, and is in good hands once again.  Ian Campbell’s “Old Man’s Song” is given some pretty convincing unaccompanied treatment, a song infinitely more engaging when sung with such a determined voice.  Likewise, the instrumental “Jer the Rigger/Flowers of Edinburgh” demonstrates Ewan’s skill as an accomplished acoustic guitarist.  There are shades of Martin Simpson in McLennan’s technique, but that’s hardly surprising, McLennan being one of Simpson’s students.  The two originals included here, “Another Morning’s Beggar” and “Yorkshire Regiment”, are both of a topical nature, the former addressing homelessness and the latter pondering this ridiculous mess we’ve once again found ourselves in out in the Middle East.  The two songs sit seamlessly amongst the Burns, the MacColl’s and the traditional.  Familiar to many a festival goer over the past couple of years, Ewan McLennan offers something honest, representative and special to take home with them.

Kacey Cubero | Fill Your Cup | Album Review | Sweetest Meanest Music | 22.07.10

Kacey Cubero’s third album release is a rich mixture of soulful Americana and melodic alt-country, with intelligently written songs and a bright and breezy approach to arrangement and performance. The versatile alt-country singer-songwriter moves effortlessly between bluegrass “Two Trains”, rockabilly “I Want More”, gutsy blues “Set You Free”, to sweaty rock and roll “I Reserve the Right”, unafraid to enter the breach stylistically at any given point.  “Feather in the Wind” earned the Washington DC-born songwriter a prestigious win at the 2009 MAVRIC Independent Music Awards for the best folk song of that year, possibly due to its infectious feel-good vibe, not unlike Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talking” or Danny O’Keefe’s “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues”.  With a band consisting of Josh Davis on guitars, Sam Bolle and Dave Sutton sharing bass responsibilities and Tom Lackner on drums, Fill Your Cup captures an artist at the top of her game, with twelve contrasting songs.  While “Old Cadillac” has all that laid back front porch immediacy, with just a couple of blues-soaked acoustic guitars and a confident and soulful vocal performance, worthy of a Bonnie Raitt comparison, “Under My Skin” and the title cut “Fill Your Cup” lean more towards Van Morrison and Robert Cray respectively.  The album closer “Whatcha Gonna Do” reveals an artist who can easily put aside all her bluegrass, rockabilly and country rock leanings in order to demonstrate a beautifully soulful side, with a convincing vocal performance together with an emotionally charged piano accompaniment.  If my cup was half empty before I popped this on the player, then it has now been suitably filled.

Saltfishforty | Netherbow | Album Review | Cellar | 23.07.10

The popular Orkney duo consisting of Douglas Montgomery (fiddle, viola, vocals) and Brian Cromarty (guitar, mandola, vocals), collectively known as Saltfishforty and variously seen about as part of The Chair (formerly Lazy Boy Chair), release their third album as a duo, their last being five years ago, which once again showcases some exquisite and dexterous playing augmented by a handful of thoughtful songs.  With clear and crisp production, the sort of sound that reminds you that these instruments are made out of wood, the selections range from traditional fiddle dance tunes to well-crafted contemporary songs with a timeless feel.  The four songs on the album include “The Cock O’ Byam”, a poem set to music, adapted from an Orkney poem written by local writer, photographer and butcher David Horne, with a fine musical arrangement by Brian Cromarty; “The Bride’s Lament”, a traditional Orkney song with an infectious lilting melody, collected by the Big Orkney Song Project; “The Yellow and Blue”, a composite song Cromerty pieced together from several others and finally “A Ring on Her Hand”, based on a short story by George Mackay.  The slower airs are neither casual nor plodding but rather inspired and spirited.  There’s something of a haunting quality to “Svecia”, a piece of music composed on viola by Montgomery, eerily enough, a viola made partly from the wood of the ship of the same name that met its doom in 1740.  “The Lochs of Athy”, a tune learned from the playing of fellow Orcadian Kris Drever, is performed with the same sort of conviction as Drever’s treatment of “Micky Finn’s”, the tune that precedes his version of the traditional “Green Grow the Laurel”.  The duo appeared recently at the Shepley Spring Festival and at one point cheerfully stormed the main stage where Kris Drever and Tim O’Brien were performing, just to say hello.  Pleased to see the duo, Drever quipped “this is Saltfishforty; they’re poor, they’re very very poor!” a reminder that not only does Orkney have a sense of humour, the islands are producing some remarkable musicians, who between them make some remarkable music.

Jeni and Billy | Longing For Heaven | Album Review | Jewel Ridge | 23.07.10

Jeni and Billy return with the follow up to their Jewel Ridge Coal record of last year, once again bringing with this release the authentic sounds of the Appalachian Mountains.  With delightful harmonies and inspired part-singing, together with fine uncluttered instrumental accompaniment, the duo explore the various themes of home and Heaven and with Jeni coming from a Penticostal church background, find the material merely second nature, celebrating in the hymn-like songs such as “On a Hill Lone and Grey”.  Jeni and Billy have been singing together for five years now and are gaining a reputation wherever they play, due in part to their infectious personalities, their immediately apparent love for one another, their optimism and wide smiled nature, but also for their music, which evokes the spirit of a bygone era.  If songs like “I Saw a Man at the Close of Day” are reminiscent of the singing of Woody Guthrie, then it only really goes to show that he too drew heavily from the tradition, especially in his borrowed melodies, as did the Carter Family before him.  The lineage is clear and “Single Girl” captures this era of folksong superbly well.  Jeni and Billy’s own compositions sit well beside the traditional songs and “The Ballad of Sally Kincaid” shows a remarkable command over storytelling, with a tragic tale of one girl’s fall from grace, while “Cecil Roberts’ Hand” returns to the mining theme previously explored on Jewel Ridge Coal.  Celebrating the President of the United Mine Workers of America, this union anthem adopts the power of a communal hymn and both songs demonstrate Jeni and Billy’s flair for co-writing.  Once again, like Jewel Ridge Coal, the album is tied together thematically, with the idea of ‘home’ being explored in songs that ponder the important transitions we face in life.  “Father Will You Meet Me In Heaven” for instance, is about a son on his death bed after an accident, asking his father whether he will see him the next life.  The surprise standout song on the album comes right at the end with Jeni and Billy’s beautiful love poem “If I Ever Get Ten Dollars”, which is loaded with all the optimism and expectancy that could possibly be squeezed into its three short verses.  The CD also contains some additional bonus video footage to give further insight into this couple’s extraordinary body of work.

Ian Bailey | Tower Songs | Album Review | Northern Sun | 23.07.10

Beautifully packaged atmospheric third album on Northern Sun Recordings by Lancashire-based singer-songwriter Ian Bailey, whose thoughtful compositions offer the sort of dreamy escapism that allows us to forget the world temporarily.  Comprising of songs written in the idyllic setting of Lindeth Tower in Silverdale on the North Lancashire coastline, which boldly features in the moody sepia cover shot, Bailey and co-producer Gary Hall create a broody soundscape for the songs to reside.  Contemplations on love, loss and mourning sit well alongside the more optimistic themes of starting afresh.  If the gorgeous “Anywhere” and the evocative “Port in a Storm”, with Richard Curran’s weeping violin accompaniment, sets the atmosphere for the rest of the album, then the simplistic two guitar arrangement on “I Long to Write Her a Love Song” provides the album with its heart, helped in no small measure by Dan Wilde’s intuitive accompaniment.  Curran’s string arrangements on the piano led “Remember”, the Spanish influenced “La Puerta” guitar piece and the climatic opus that is “Saving Grace”, gives the album the same sort of atmosphere that Robert Kirby brought to some of Nick Drake’s best loved work.  I’m not sure why Ian decided to leave in the count-in at the beginning of “Saving Grace”, the album’s optimistic finisher, which embodies shades of Pachelbel’s “Canon” and culminates in a rich and uplifting choral conclusion.  There is probably a good reason.  Like Elizabeth Gaskell before him, who also retreated to this peaceful area of North Lancashire in order to write her books, Ian Bailey likewise finds the setting particularly conducive to song writing and has created an emotive and accomplished piece of work.

Celilo | Bending Mirrors | Album Review | Homesweet Music | 11.08.10

The opening song on Bending Mirrors, “Easter Lily” could quite easily have been included in the organised chaos that was Journey Through the Past, Neil Young’s ambitious early 1970s film soundtrack.  Initially it has the same sort of jamming immediacy, then settles into a perfectly likeable rock driven anthem with a slight nod towards Dark Side era Pink Floyd.  Portland’s Celilo, comprised of Sloan Martin providing lead vocals and rhythm guitar, Damon Dunning and Adam East sharing lead guitar and bass duties, Kipp Crawford on drums, Tucker Jackson with that all important pedal steel and finally David Pulliam on keyboards, together with a handful of guest musicians have come up with a piece of laid back and lyrical Americana that straddles the boundaries between inde rock, psychedelia and country folk.  At times unavoidably sounding like Neil Young’s kid brothers or occasionally Ryan Adams, Celilo have managed to plough their own furrow, largely due to the writing credentials of former drummer turned frontman Sloan Martin.  The themes do vary but the songs are unified by the sensitive arrangements and production prowess of the band and Mike Coykendall (She&Him, Blitzen Trapper and M. Ward) respectively.  If indeed the opening song has the driven rock base of a Young classic, then the bulk of the album settles into almost contemplative ballad mode demonstrating the sensitive side of Martin’s writing such as the achingly confessional love poem “Pinata” or the soulful “Bush Pilot”.  Martin’s strong point though is in the almost surreal rhetoric he employs in songs such as “Little Coquette”.  Currently working with producer Gregg Williams (Sheryl Crow, Dandy Warhols) on a new EP to coincide with the band’s forthcoming autumn tour of the UK, Celilo’s credentials as live contenders will be scrutinised as eagerly as their recorded work.  One to watch out for.

Colin Clyne | Doricana | Album Review | Starving Dog | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 12.08.10

Scottish-born singer-songwriter Colin Clyne returns with his second album, the follow up to his 2006 debut Songs from the Cold Store, intent on creating a new genre.  If the album’s title attempts to describe a certain marriage between an ancient Scottish language and the more recent collective term for American roots music, then the songs presented here bridge the Atlantic suitably well.  Colin Clyne’s prolific output has been narrowed down to thirteen songs, each produced and arranged with a crisp acoustic sound and clear vocal delivery; no need to consult the lyric sheet here.  Originally from the small coastal town of Stonehaven, just south of Aberdeen, Clyne has traded the bitter North Sea for the much more conducive North Pacific Ocean, setting up home in San Diego on the West Coast of California.  The songs chosen for this album lend themselves to this particular area of America, each one injected with warmth and accessibility, yet losing none of the inherent Celtic heart.  Melodic in structure, the songs in the main are possessed of a memorable hook, which I would imagine should make for radio-friendly consideration.  Heartbreak and homesickness are just two themes running through the core of Doricana with “Good for Something”, “Dance With Her”, “Hey I Miss You Too” and “In My Garden” as good examples.  “The Pain of the Mississippi Queen” in particular tells of a yearning for home, away from the superficiality of Hollywood and a longing to return to the land where the ‘deep fried Mars Bar’ was born.  A nice image right there.  With a supporting cast of fine musicians including James Hood on guitar and bass, Larry Grano on drums, Rick Nash on bass and Enrique Platas on percussion, together with a bunch of guest musicians helping out on accordion, fiddle, banjo, keyboards and a variety of other instruments, the overall sound maintains a consistency throughout the thirteen titles, each song a snapshot of archetypal Doricana.

Tony McLoughlin | Ride the Wind | Album Review | Self Release | 12.08.10

Well travelled and clued-up musically, songwriter Tony McLoughlin delivers his fourth album Ride the Wind, the first to be recorded on home turf and with a handful of fellow countrymen.  Gathering together a fine supporting cast of Irish musicians such as Ben Reel on guitars, Ronnie O’Flynn on bass and percussion, Michael Black on drums and John McCullogh on keyboards, the kindred spirit approach seemed to pay off in the studio, the studio in question being Attick Studios in Monaghan.  With Ben Reel at the helm, a highly charged and cohesive collection of songs resulted, each with a tight and ‘together’ arrangement.  Originally from Newry, County Down, McLoughlin has travelled back and forth between Ireland and Nashville, developing a keen ear for the harder edge of country music with a distinctly bluesy feel.  While songs such as “Not Too Far From Memphis” and “Deep Under Your Spell” demonstrate this inherent understanding of the blues, “Treeline” and “Mothers Son” maintain a contrasting country/pop feel.  When not brandishing his trusty telecaster, McLoughlin donates much of his time on conservation endeavours, taking to the high seas in search of dolphins, whales and sea turtles, for all intents and purposes, riding the wind.

Reg Meuross | All This Longing | Album Review | Hatsongs Records | 13.08.10

The black and white shot of a typewriter on the cover indicates something that we’ve all known for some time, that Reg Meuross is first and foremost a writer; a storyteller in song form.  Following hot on the heels of his 2008 release Dragonfly, which brought the singer-songwriter to prominence as a solo artist after spells with The Panic Brothers and Hank Wangford, All This Longing showcases another dozen well crafted self-penned songs in a similar vein.  Strong on melody and with a soft gentle voice reminiscent of early Paul Simon, Reg’s songs are never lyrically cluttered nor sparse, neither are they ambiguous nor over-simplified.  Well rounded story songs like this are immediately engaging, whether they address a prodigal’s return in “Angelina’s Coming Home”, the symbiotic love of a fine artist and a musician in “The Drover’s Road” or whether they concern true life stories.   Reg writes about legendary heroes (or villains) particularly well, as he did previously on Dragonfly with “Lizzie Loved a Highwayman” and “William Brewster Dreams of America”.  While “The Heart of Ann Lee” tells of the 18th Century Manchester-born ‘Shaking Quaker’, who set out to the New World to spread the word, maintaining an allegiance to God while rejecting sexual relations of any kind, despite being forced into marriage by her father, “Looking for Johnny Ray” on the other hand, is a tender love poem alluding to the fact that sometimes we need an alternative to hard men, a search for a more sensitive kind.  Addressing relatively more recent history, “Victor Jara” is a heartfelt homage to the Chilean theatrical director, brutally murdered in the early 1970s in Santiago for his outspoken beliefs.  The song’s attention to detail is particularly well handled, making note of the fact that Jara’s last poetic words were hidden in the shoe of a friend, later to be discovered but never named.  Reg is joined by Bellowhead’s Paul Sartin on oboe and violin, Andy Cutting on accordion, Fairground Attraction’s Roy Dodds on percussion and Simon Edwards on bass together with Jackie Oates on viola, and current touring partner Bethany Porter on cello, each providing sensitive accompaniment to yet another outstanding album.

Catriona McKay and Chris Stout | White Nights | Album Review | Self Release | 13.08.10

Initially creating a similar ambience to that which Adrian Johnston came up with for his wonderfully evocative soundtrack to Michael Winterbottom’s film Jude in the early 1990s, the combined forces of Catriona McKay and Chris Stout, on Scottish harp and Shetland fiddle respectively, have likewise produced a musical landscape that is both ancient in feel yet timeless in execution.  The two instruments in these hands weave seamlessly in and out of intricate and complex musical patterns creating one unifying soundscape inspired in part by the seasons, the past and present and reportedly reliability and risk.  This is original music inspired by the rich history of Celtic music north of the border as well as further a field such as Scandinavia with Catriona’s “Isflak”.  Composed by either musician individually or collectively as in “Edges and High Water”, the pieces demonstrate how fifteen years of performing together provides an informed understanding of each others playing.  With just the one traditional piece included, “Parting of Friends”, which is incorporated here as part of Catriona’s beautiful waltz “Eira”, the compositions share a common bond with the tradition.  “Michealswood” is a contemplation on remembrance, a piece of music composed by Chris to celebrate the memory of the founder member of Fiddler’s Bid Michael Ferrie, taking the name from a specially planted forest in Shetland lovingly created by Michael’s parents and brother.  A fitting testament to absent friends and a gorgeous climax to White Nights.  The one fact that seems to momentarily escape you throughout this musical journey, is that you are listening to just the two instruments.  The harp and fiddle have so much to offer in terms of depth and range, that anything else would be an intrusion apart from the silence between the tracks.  Breathtakingly beautiful stuff.

Sean Taylor | Walk With Me | Album Review | Self Release | 15.08.10

Sean Taylor’s fourth album begins with the piano accompanied “Perfect Candlelight”, a new departure for the North London based blues guitarist perhaps, with the sort of underplayed arrangement Ryan Adams would have used for the odd “Sylvia Plath” for instance.  Similarly, “For You” touches on Taylor’s sensitivity as a writer and performer of tender love ballads as he approaches his more delicate side with a suitably frail voice but with an assured confidence.  It’s not all new departures and heightened sensitivity though as we go on to find the guitarist plough familiar territory with the almost JJ Cale-ish swamp blues “Hold On” and the infectious “So High”.  Produced by Trevor Hutchinson (The Waterboys, Sharon Shannon, Eric Bibb, Lunasa), Walk With Me compared to either of Taylor’s previous three albums, employs a fuller sound with the help of a carefully assembled cast of supporting musicians such as BJ Cole on pedal steel, Vyvienne Long on cello, Justin Caroll on Hammond Organ, Dave Hingerty on drums and Michael Buckley on sax.  Despite the expanded band, the arrangements call for space and each of the additional musicians handles those sparse arrangements with an almost intuitive understanding.  The full blown blues of “Feel Alright” shows that Taylor is just as at home with sweaty rockers as the aforementioned laid back swamp blues but on this album it is kept to a minimum.  This is a reflective almost whispered Sean Taylor; suitable for late night listening long after the party is over.  With an almost John Martyn-esque take on the traditional “She Moved Through the Fair”, Taylor proves that a contemporary feel can be applied to a traditional song without losing its haunting appeal.  Sean Taylor’s star is definitely on the rise and with major festival appearances under his belt, including Glastonbury, Beverley, Tenby Blues, Broadstairs Folk Week and most recently a showcase performance at the Cambridge Folk Festival, along with an impressive catalogue of support appearances for the likes of John Fogerty, George Benson, Groundhogs, Big Joe Turner and Curved Air, no doubt appealing to a broad selection of audiences, Sean continues to grow as a formidable artist and certainly one to watch.

Andy Lucas | Weekend Millionaire | Album Review | Crimp | 17.08.10

Cutting his musical teeth as a session musician and pianist throughout Scotland, singer-songwriter Andy Lucas steps out of the shadows to release his debut solo album Weekend Millionaire.  Despite some pretty obvious influences, Lucas creates his own musical landscape, a landscape chock full of wry humour, witty lyricism and social observation.  From the opening few bars of “Birds”, which sets out dangerously close to cocktail lounge music, but fortunately changes emphasis just in time to prevent my finger pressing the stop button, to the closing orchestral flurries of “Burn”, this debut feels astonishingly mature.  While the infectious title song has all the hallmarks of a memorable intelligent pop tune, the instrumental introduction to “Talk of the Town” tips its hat towards Classical arrangement, in a similar way to those of the late Rick Wright in some of his most memorable Floyd passages.  If some of the songs owe an inescapable debt to Randy Newman, “Einstein and the Taxi Driver” for instance, which has all the irony of a pre-animated-movie-score-period Newman, then songs like “The Miserable Musical Prostitute” and “Supergeeks” probably owe more to the sort of ditty writing of the likes of Tim Minchin, with all their respective wordy wordly observations.  “Prozac” employs a soulful late night jazz inflected groove impressively aided and abetted by Susie Palmer’s backing vox.   Helping out are Jamie Duffin playing a variety of instruments, Graeme McGeoch on violin, Callum McCann on guitar and Ruth Campbell on cello with some backing vocals courtesy of Susie Palmer and Esther O’Connor.  The cherry on top of this musical feast though it has to be said, can be found in the uplifting string orchestrations, cleverly arranged by both Lucas and Duffin.  There’s every chance this would squeeze in nicely somewhere between your Randy’s and your Ben Folds.   

Garforth and Myers | Bonfires | EP Review | Self Release | 17.08.10

Some contemplative and mellow vocal harmonies set against a richly rhythmic backdrop courtesy of the towering combined force of the Andy Seward/Keith Angel collective, who also co-produce this four song EP Bonfires from Barnsley duo Rory Garforth and Adam Myers.  Well if that rhythm section is good enough for Martin Simpson..!  It’s immediately obvious upon first hearing these songs that they’ve been treated to some tender loving care both in their rich arrangements, their orchestrations and in the attention to detail to production.  All four songs are written jointly by both Garforth and Myers and are set against an atmospheric backdrop, especially on “The Past”, with Dave Angel’s intuitive guitar accompaniment.  Acoustic music like this and of this standard will always straddle the border between folk, pop, jazz etc and may even be popped into a new category altogether, whether it likes it or not.  Cross pollination is always good though, especially if it draws audiences in from several directions.  These particular ears are keen to hear more from the duo in due course.   

The Pines | Tremolo | Album Review | Red House Records | 17.08.10

Following on from their Red House debut Sparrows in the Bell, which in turn followed their self-titled debut on a previous label, Minneapolis-based band The Pines return with their third album to date, demonstrating their own distinctive blend of folk, blues and Americana.  David Huckfelt and Benson Ramsey, both originally from Iowa and now collectively known as The Pines, recorded Tremolo in just two days with Ramsey’s father Bo Ramsey producing and Tom Tucker at the mixing desk.  On the sleeve, the duo look curiously like a couple of youthful Amish farmers, hanging around their orchard, tentatively awaiting their Rumspringa in the Devils’ playground.  Well there’s no better Devil’s playground to be explored than the blues world, which the duo appear to have already discovered.  Drawing from both a folk and blues background, The Pines are just as comfortable with traditional music, the country blues classics from another era as they are with their own compositions. Spider John Koerner’s “The Skipper and His Wife” and Mississippi John Hurt’s “Spike Driver Blues”, heavily influence by the traditional John Henry, appear to melt seamlessly into the overall sound that the band creates, along with the remaining eight self-penned cuts.  There’s no over-zealous blues shouting here, no forced impressions of Muddy Waters nor Skip James, rather a pretty much home grown version of the blues, which provides the duo with their unique sound.  The performances and the feel of the album remains pretty much laid back throughout with almost whispered vocal performances from both Huckfelt and Ramsey ably assisted by JT Bates on drums, James Buckley on bass, Alex Ramsey on keyboards and Adam Krinsky providing the tambourine on “Shiny Shoes”.  Bo Ramsey, previously known for his work with Lucinda Williams and Greg Brown, also fills out the sound with some additional electric guitar and weissenborn.  With just the one throw away track, the instrumental “Avenue of the Saints”, which is there possibly to add atmosphere, the album provides a taster for what to expect during their debut UK tour in November 2010. 

Saloon Dogs | Shooting Star | Album Review | Self Release | 24.08.10

Shooting Star has been a very slow train coming.  Recorded by the newly formed Saloon Dogs, shortly after the breakup of their previous band The Bogarts in 1995, the band’s debut album lay dormant for the next fourteen years after they folded in 1997, before the band had chance to release it.  The four band members Billy MacInnes, Maria Gallagher, Phil Taylor and David Longworth obviously worked hard to subject these ten MacInnes originals to tape and it only seems right to finally see this release, even after all this time.  Like some unearthed artefact, the album emerged in March this year and carries with it a memorable piece of history for all involved.  The songs have a distinctively acoustic sound and come over as delightful folksy pop songs, but with an immediacy that would indicate they would very definitely suit live performance.  At times Billy MacInnes vocal comes across as a strange mixture of Nashville Skyline-period Dylan and Housemartins/Beautiful South’s Paul Heaton, which is a vocal affectation that suits the songs on this album quite well and together with some sweet harmonica accompaniment, jobs a good ‘un, as they say.  Opening with “When I look In Your Eyes”, the band fall into an immediately pleasing groove augmented by MacInnes’ lead vocal and Maria Gallagher’s tailor-made harmonies.  Unafraid to take on other rhythmic influences, the band borrow from World Music with “I Never Thought She Would Ever Make Me Cry”, which employs an instantly infectious rhythm that at times leans towards something Paul Simon might have been doing pretty effectively with African music a decade before.  “You Don’t Have To Be Crazy To Love Me” provides the album with the most radio friendly composition, which not only has the catchy rhythm that gets a hold of the listener, but also has that all important hook line ‘but it helps’.  The two most soulful songs on the album are the title song, which incorporates Longworth’s lilting organ, a must for all self respecting soul classics and the closing song “How Could He Break Your Heart”, which features a sweet slide guitar part courtesy of producer Keiron Hunter.  A lot can happen in fourteen years and the Saloon Dogs have been separated by distance, by marriage, families, children and a whole bunch of other things that happen in life.  It must be gratifying for the members of this band to know that their labours have not gone entirely unnoticed and it would seem a good time to consider a reunion.  Maybe some live dates?  Maybe a follow up album?  Let’s hope it doesn’t take as long this time.

Jonas Shandel | Jonas Shandel | Album Review | Nowhere Town | 31.08.10

This first solo outing for Vancouver-based Jonas Shandel indicates that he has all the necessary credentials to go it alone with no trouble at all.  Already equipped with some studio experience having recorded two albums with Headwater, My Old Friend (2006) and Lay You Down (2008), the singer-songwriter presents six assured self-penned songs and one cover, a pretty faithful version of Peter Gabriel’s “Mercy Street”.  Kate Zisman’s feather and leaf illustrations gracing the cover of this beautifully packaged mini-album, reflects the delicacy of the content, shaped and formed by Shandel with a fine supporting cast of musicians including multi-instrumentalist Matthew Rogers and Andrea Eder on vocals, calling in fellow Headwater bandmates Tim Tweedale on lapsteel and pedal steel to play throughout and Matt Bryant to add a bit of mandolin on “Burial Ground”.  Other musicians include Shawn Hall on harmonica and a whole bunch of additional singers.  Matthew Rogers’ production is both graceful and empathetic, allowing for space on each track and maintaining a common thread throughout, even on the stripped down and tender “Morning”.  The standout song is “Drinking the Water”, which makes a good companion to “Mercy Street”, each incorporating the choir-like vocal ensemble of Andrea Eder, Cam Grant, Joanna Chapman-Smith and Ricardo Khyatte.  The uplifting vocal flurries have a tendency to draw you in, so much so that it makes me wonder whether Gabriel should have a crack at “Drinking the Water” too.  Well anything is possible. 

Gary Stewart | Boy Cries Wolf | Album Review | Babaganoush | 06.09.10

Gary Stewart has become very much part of the Leeds music scene over the last few years, working in a variety of outfits such as Hope and Social and the Rosie Doonan Band, equally at home occupying the drummer’s seat as he is assuming the role of second guitarist.  While maintaining a shadowy background figure in these and other outfits, the young Perthshire-born Scot, now re-located to Leeds, has built up a small repertoire of self-penned songs, some of which have finally surfaced on this his debut album, after a year in the making.  Helped along the way by a small group of collaborators, the singer-songwriter has come up with ten acoustic-based songs that have brought him out from behind the drum kit and into the spotlight.  With a distinctively raw voice and rhythmic guitar style, Gary has focused on the bright and breezy, the cheerful and chirpy, rather than the dark and dirgy, with a handful of radio-friendly melodies, while at the same time maintaining some measure of depth in his lyrics.  “Travelling Song” is a perfectly good toe-tapping opener, with an optimistic message; a sort of when all else fails, let’s look at the options sort of song.  While endeavouring to leave the ‘black and grey’ behind, Gary continues to ponder the darker themes in his lyrics, with both the fictional Jekyll and Hyde, or the very real Burke and Hare popping up in places.  “Behind the Door” is probably the stand out song for at least two good reasons; firstly, the song bears no resemblance to anything else on the album, incorporating a distinctly Iberian or Spanish feel, which is somewhat at odds with the dark lyrical content and secondly due to Ellen Smith’s (Ellen and the Escapades) perfectly complementary and haunting vocal duet; a sort of Lisa Hannigan to Gary’s Damien Rice.  With Nathan Camponi’s video promo already filmed and in the bag, it seems likely that this song will initially represent the album promotionally and stands every chance of kick-starting some potential excitement, which the album thoroughly deserves.  If the song is deemed too ‘un-commercial’ by its author for a single release, then he need look no further than “Maggie Oh” for a hot favourite second choice, with its uplifting and engaging rhythmic backdrop.  With Gary’s current involvement in both the Rosie Doonan Band and the Snapdragons, it was almost a given that Rosie would be included on Boy Cries Wolf somewhere and here the singer provides some suitably delicate background vocals on “In the Pines”, not to be confused with the traditional folk song of the same name.  Co-produced by Gary and Rich Stephenson and helped along by a handful of local musicians including Wilful Missing’s Sam Lawrence, India Patel, Lovesick Cowboys’ Martyn Roper and Adam Legend on double bass, the ten songs make up a cohesive acoustic whole, so much so that the out of kilter title song was left off the finished album due to its contrasting style.  With a command over writing memorable chorus songs, such as “Liar Liar” and “In the Pines”, Gary makes each song accessible and user friendly and finally shrugs off the blues with the delightfully optimistic “Bucket of Stars”, which closes this impressive debut.

The Orbitsuns | First Drink of the Day | Album Review | 313 Records | 07.09.10

If you judge a book by its cover, then you will probably have a preconceived idea of what to expect from this latest offering from Detroit’s The Orbitsuns before you even press the play button.  The stark white image on a jet black ground depicts a fiery bottle containing everything from guitars, guns, a skull, dollar symbol, a deck of cards and the obligatory naked women; not exactly a collection of pious church hymns with some Home on the Range sensibility, that’s for sure.  True to the cover, what we have on First Drink of the Day is some pretty hard rocking, hard talking, hard living country rock, with no small measure of attitude.  From the start, “How Red White and Blue Are You”, with its pulsating bass line and sneering guitar break, sets the pace for the rest of the album to keep up with.  While “Die With My Boots On” offers some temporary respite from the gritty rock anthems, with its mandolin-led folksy feel, “Trains” comes along just on time, imbued with all the necessary musical sound effects that give the distinct feel of riding the freights.  If the band must have a go at a potential line dance favourite, then they return to “Redneck Disco”, which once again does the trick, but with some drunken redneck bedlam at the same time.  Speaking of drink, the demon alcohol has its fair share of playing time on this album from the title cut “First Drink of the Day”, by way of the toe-tapping rockabilly of “Booze Hound” to the crash and burn closer “Speed and Alcohol”; even “Church on Sunday” ends up in the bar by nightfall.  The Orbitsuns stray temporarily into a tender moment with the Tex Mex flavoured “Who You Lookin Pretty For Today”, which incorporates some pretty guitar playing courtesy of Sir Tim Duvalier.  With all songs written by main man Vin Dombroski, formerly of both Sponge and Crud, who also shares guitar duties with Duvalier, the album indicates clearly what you might get from an Orbitsuns live performance.  The band also comprises Jim Paluzzi on drums and Bob Hecker on bass, with vocal contributions from all concerned.  

Calamateur | Each Dirty Letter | Album Review | Autoclave | 07.09.10

Going under the name Calamateur (Cal from the Steinbeck book East of Eden and Amateur from the Hal Hartley film), Inverness-based singer-songwriter Andrew Howie has maintained a prolific output over the past ten years producing a handful of EPs and mini albums together with a couple of full length releases; all in all, a veritable stack of recorded work from a prolific self-styled songwriter.  Following on from 2008’s Jesus is for Losers, Each Dirty Letter could well be his best record to date, featuring some of his most personal songs so far.  With both “Banoffee” and “Testimony” battling it out for potential hit single status, the more confessional balladry of “A Bad Friend” leaves an indelible mark on this listener, prompting the rhetorical question ‘have I been here as well?’ “Touch My Skin”, which contains the reference to the album’s title, sees Calamateur in soulful mode, with a beautiful performance, proving that he means business.  Closing with “A Crumbling Empire”, Calamateur delivers a memorable vocal performance, a sort of cross between Rufus Wainwright and Radiohead when all’s said and done.  With a fine supporting cast of musicians including Iain Hutchison on guitar and organ, Lewis Gordon on bass, Phil Moir on drums and Mark Hilditch on keyboards, and a fine duet with Jo Mango (Jo Mango, Vashti Bunyan) on “Retreat”, this thirteenth disc may be just the one that broadens Calamateur’s deserved support.

Corinne West and Kelly Joe Phelps | Magnetic Skyline | Album Review | Tin Angel | 07.09.10

Putting aside their respective solo careers, Corinne West and Kelly Joe Phelps have joined forces to form a perfectly complimentary working partnership, a decision that seemed destined to happen.  A good sixteen years as a respected solo singer/guitarist, Kelly Joe found time last year to work alongside Californian singer-songwriter Corinne West, active on the music scene for the relatively shorter period of just six years, but a period packed with creativity nonetheless.  After a series of album release shows promoting Corinne’s third and arguably her best album The Promise, the two musicians discovered their mutual respect for one another’s music and subsequently got together to do a handful of shows earlier this year.  In February, after their first show at Shoenberg’s Guitars in Tiburon, California, the duo were almost immediately rushed over to Skywalker Sound, the sound division of George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch in Novato, California to put down six of the songs featured on this, their first album together.  Magnetic Skyline first appeared as a six track EP featuring three songs originally recorded for Corinne’s debut album Bound for the Living (2004) including “Mother to Child” and “Horseback in my Dreams” and three for her last album The Promise (2009), including opener “Whiskey Poet” and the brilliant “Lady Luck”, but re-worked with Kelly Joe’s intuitive guitar and vocal accompaniment.  For the British release, Tin Angel have added a further two songs, “Amelia” and “River’s Fool”, taken from recent radio performances, once again originally from Corinne’s established repertoire, but reworked with some spellbinding guitar and vocal harmonies courtesy of Kelly Joe.  During her short but productive solo career, Corinne has maintained a keen ear for great guitarists to accompany her songs and in Kelly Joe Phelps, she has found not only a first rate musician but a sort of kindred spirit, whose understanding of her songs is evident on this recording as in live performance, where the duo often disappear into their own empathetic universe.  Undoubtedly one of the finest slide guitarists around, Kelly Joe inexplicably laid down his bottleneck some time ago in favour of flat pick playing and has subsequently re-invented himself as a first rate flat pick guitarist.  Magnetic Skyline was recorded live-off-the-floor with just two guitars and two voices and by the duo’s own admission the recordings were done very quickly and therefore presumably was considered a stopgap recording until time could be found to write and record their own album of new material.  The quality of the performances here however, in anyone else’s hands, would be considered a masterpiece.

Niamh Boadle | Wild Rose | Album Review | Self Release | 07.09.10

It would be more than enough to have Lancashire-based Niamh Boadle around purely as a traditional singer – a fresh young voice interpreting songs from the English, Scottish and Irish traditions – but in addition to this, Niamh also happens to be an informed guitar player and multi-instrumentalist with a knack for knocking out quite accomplished self-penned songs to boot.  The folk establishment is adept at dishing out awards to our young performers and in most cases if not all, it’s usually very much deserved.  Niamh has already been nominated in the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Awards and has furnished her mantelpiece with gongs galore, including medals from the All Britain and All Ireland Fléadhanna, a win at the 2009 Fred Jordan Memorial Singing competition at last year’s Bromyard Folk Festival and another win at the 2010 Wath Festival, picking up the BPAS Young Acoustic Roots Competition award, which in all fairness is too big even for Citizen Kane’s mantelpiece.  The awards heaped upon this very young musician is all very well and much appreciated I’m sure, but I get the distinct feeling that the priority for this singer is just to sing, to play and to be heard.  It was only a matter of time then, that Niamh would enter the studio, in this case The Very Tiny Studio in Otley, presided over by Gerry McNeice who shared production duties, in order to put down fourteen songs and tunes for her much anticipated debut.  Wild Rose is the result; a collection of traditional songs and tunes, together with a couple of Niamh’s own compositions, performed as close to how you would hear her in a live setting.  The production is crisp and clear, with an emphasis on making Niamh’s voice the focal point, which in all fairness it should be.  The song choices range from the traditional Irish “Banks of the Roses” and the traditional Scottish “Banks of the Clyde”, to the very English “Lovely Joan”, which is cleverly intertwined with Winifred Horan’s gorgeous “A Daisy in December”, complementing the arrangement superbly well.  Niamh also includes a couple of her own compositions including “Kilgrimol Bells”, with its eerie tale of church bells ringing from beneath the sea (Kilgrimol Sands also featured as a backdrop to the cover portrait) and “Oceana’s Lullaby”, a haunting historical ballad tracing a notable period in Niamh’s sea faring ancestry.  Both the WB Yeats inspired “Come Away” and the tune used as a backdrop to “The Knight Upon the Road”, demonstrates an understanding and flair for adaptation.  With contributions from Katriona Gilmore providing fiddle on “P Stands for Paddy”, Niamh’s sister Roisin playing flute on “Come Away” and “January Snows/Lafferty’s” and Gerry McNeice on double bass almost throughout, Niamh presents a debut that accurately lives up to her live performances and her growing reputation as a fine young folk artist.  The cherry on top of this fine collection, is a fine reading of “A Lass of Glenshee”, which not only reveals the inspiration for the album’s title, but also provides an optimistic finale to what can only be described as a first rate debut. 

The Old Dance School | Forecast | Album Review | Transition | 07.09.10

With the follow up to The Old Dance School’s debut Based on a True Story (2008) this fine seven-piece mini orchestra has once again created a memorable piece of work in Forecast.  Handsomely packaged in a beautifully photographed sleeve, depicting the old disused Point of Ayr lighthouse at Talacre Beach, carefully airbrushed to remove any trace of the intrusive wind turbines upon the horizon, the front cover provides a distinctly desolate feel.  In the informative sleeve notes, this mood is maintained with its liberal scattering of references to nature; its mulchy beech woods, black barnacled pinnacles and chilly sea mists, all evoking a close liaison with the natural world, which the music attempts to mirror.  Collectively showcasing their various musical influences from traditional and contemporary folk, classical orchestrations and jazz inflected motifs, this particular gathering of friends, all of whom have passed through the Birmingham Conservatoire at some point, has created a gorgeously rich landscape upon which to tread.  Predominantly instrumental, the album explores the relationships between the senses, how the music relates to the landscapes and seascapes, with rich and evocatively moody passages.  While Samantha Norman and Helen Lancaster’s “The Wire Over the River” combines two tunes inspired by both Cumbria and Teeside, essentially the western and eastern shores of North England, then “Passage to Spike Island” evokes the rocky shores of Wales together with the nostalgic memories from Robin Beatty’s youth.  Complementing the tunes are the three songs included on Forecast, two from Beatty’s pen, “The Real Thing” and “Strange Highway” and an uplifting take on Sydney Carter’s “John Ball”, recently re-worked by Chris Wood, but in this case, a much more vivacious version; Good Morning Starshine with a bright golden haze on the meadow.  What really works is Beatty’s contemporary vocal, which is a pleasant antidote to the current desire of folk singers to emulate Peter Bellamy over and over; not that there’s anything wrong with that.  If Andy Cutting’s sprightly “Spaghetti Panic” showcases Tom Chapman’s percussion skills on the Cajon, with its breathtaking climatic build, then the sublime “Little Lewis” offers a moment of pastoral beauty.  There’s a distinct feel that each musician offers the best of themselves individually and collectively throughout the album.  Aaron Diaz provides some delightful trumpet passages which are more akin to the modal jazz experimentation of Miles Davis than the current trend for making brass a noisy racket in folk music.  With Calum Malcolm’s empathetic production and the band’s careful attention to detail, Forecast raises the game yet again in a musical field that currently is arguably at its best.  So the forecast for the next few weeks is that there will be outbreaks of CD buying at concerts, scattered signings with clear and dry spells; precipitation not expected.     

Katriona Gilmore and Jamie Roberts | Up From the Deep | Album Review | GR | 07.09.10

Horizon award nominees Katriona Gilmore and Jamie Roberts return with the follow up to their 2008 debut album Shadows and Half Light.  With Katriona’s natural sense of melody combined with Jamie’s rhythmic drive, the Barnsley-based duo continue to deliver their distinctively rich and inventive arrangements, in both their complex instrumental pieces as well as their original self-penned songs, indicating once again that this duo refuse to rest on their laurels, never go for the easy option and always strive for something challenging, smart or at least different.  Handsomely packaged in a sleeve designed by Rob Bishop, with Barnaby Aldrick’s moody photography and Scott Wrightson’s now familiar logo, Up From the Deep once again showcases this young duo’s dexterous playing and their unique musical partnership, with a handful of songs and tunes that the duo have been playing around clubs and festivals for the last few months or so.  Opening with Jamie’s perceptive “All I’ve Known”, with its bleak message of weary resignation and defiance, driven home like a six inch nail, the duo present a veritable opus of an opener, with its driving no nonsense rhythm, augmented by Katriona’s fiddle interlude, the traditional “Childgrove”, demonstrating the duo’s command over complex musical arrangement.  Almost torn between her English and American influences, Katriona makes no bones about her love of Country music and in particular Bluegrass, which hasn’t gone unnoticed in her live performances, where the fiddler can often be seen sparring with some of Nashville’s best.  For “Off to California”, Katriona teams up with Cia Cherryholmes on banjo for a cameo appearance, the tune of which is inspired by the traditional hornpipe of the same name.  With both Katriona and Jamie’s busy schedule in other musical combos, Katriona being a one time member of Brit-Bangles Tiny Tin Lady and currently a member of Rosie Doonan’s Snapdragons and Jamie being the guitarist in the popular folk band Kerfuffle, the duo are no strangers to busy schedules and gruelling tours, which continues on as Kat and Jamie accept an offer to tour with Fairport Convention on their forthcoming 2011 winter tour.  Katriona tackles the subject of life on the road in “No Rest for the Wicked”, with its folk rock immediacy carrying the sombre message of endless driving, late nights and the craving for sleep.  The song’s lyric also provides the album with its title. Despite the weary nature of endless touring, Katriona adds that it’s all ‘strangely addictive’ nevertheless.  By way of contrast, “Fleetwood Fair” returns to the sort of writing we first heard on the first album with “Hunter Man”, again with almost sinister undertones.  As its coda tips its hat to another fair of the North Yorkshire variety, Katriona shows an exceptional flair for writing timeless folk ballads.  In the poetic “The Bookseller’s Story”, Jamie has also written a modern folk song of graceful beauty, based on a Sheffield bookshop owner’s epitaph.  Jamie’s suggestion that people would come to read the bookseller’s epitaph is delightfully poignant, especially in a time when we seem hell bent on shutting all our libraries.  Jamie’s instrumental opening to Shepherd, an arrangement of the traditional “Shepherd and his Fife” combined with the traditional tune “Shepherd’s Hay”, brings a moment of pastoral calm to the album.  The instrumental pieces on the album sit alongside the songs with equal importance, including a couple of Katriona’s own compositions, “The Badgers Set” (“The London T Junction/Upper Badgers Bottom”) this time without Katriona’s tongue-in-cheek live preamble, and the sublime “Tennessee Green”, both of which indicate a strong sense of melodic structure, together with Jamie’s funky “Punch and Chase”, coupled with the traditional “Wallom Green”.  The album’s finale comes with Kat and Jamie’s take on the traditional “Nothing at All”, aided by PJ Wright on pedal steel, incorporating Katriona’s “Wheelhouse Willow”, presumably a nod to a very special place indeed.  With the help of Jack Theedom’s sensitive double bass throughout and Dom Howell’s occasional percussion, the duo has once again produced a mature album of startling quality.

Becky Syson | Weave Your Dreams | EP Review | Arboretun Records | 07.09.10

Nottingham-based singer-songwriter Becky Syson releases her latest EP containing four new songs, following the 2008 release of her debut full length album H.O.L.L.A.N.D. subtitled Hope Our Love Lasts and Never Dies in case you were thinking it was about a place in the Western Netherlands.  The songs on Weave Your Dreams are instantly accessible, each featuring Becky’s distinctive vocal and rich sense of melody.  “Nancy’s Song” appears to be the stand out song, an uplifting ode to enduring love, but is quickly succeeded by “Golden Ring”, another celebration of complete love.  The title song is for all intents and purposes a lullaby, full of thoughtful optimism and reassurance.  There used to always be the feeling that EPs were essentially one predominant single with a few additional songs tagged on.  I like to think of Weave Your Dreams as four singles in one, each to be thoroughly enjoyed equally as we eagerly await the songwriter’s second full length album in due course.

Jenna and Bethany Reid | Escape | Album Review | Lofoten Records | 07.09.10

Based on a little known incident that occurred in 1943 during the Nazi occupation of Norway, this part instrumental, part narrative suite was the brainchild of young Shetland fiddler and pianist Bethany Reid, who along with her sister Jenna, composed, arranged and performed this original suite of music, which is interspersed with atmospheric spoken dialogue written by Martyn McLaughlin.  Subtitled The Story of Jan Baalsrud and the Shetland Bus, narrator Phil Goodlad tells the story of a 26 year-old instrument maker and Norwegian Resistance member, who while exiled on the Shetland Isles, makes the treacherous 900 mile journey home with a small crew on an armed 75 foot vessel named the Brattholm (the Shetland Bus) in order to attack a Nazi air base on Norwegian soil.  Betrayed by a nervous Norwegian shopkeeper, a bloodbath ensues, with only Baalsrud surviving after a gruelling sixty-four day ordeal, where the war hero faces the most appalling winter conditions, at one point even being forced to remove his own toes due to the threat of gangrene.  Such a frightening tale is revealed in eleven instalments, spoken over the introductions to eleven musical pieces that make up Escape, expertly played by sisters Jenna and Bethany, with the help from a fine supporting cast, including James Thomson on flute and pipes, Iain Sandilands on percussion and James Lindsay on double bass.  As an orchestrated piece as a whole, the tempos change to mirror the pace of the narrative.  On Bethany and Jenna’s co-written “Escape/The Double Cross” for instance, the flighty fiddle runs completely reflect the notion of being on the run.  At times the suite comes over a little like a folk music version of Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds or Rick Wakeman’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth, but with neither Wayne or Wakeman’s progressive rock pretentions or repeated choruses.  Neither do we have to endure Richard Burton or David Hemmings’ deliberately affected theatrical histrionics, but instead we are treated to Goodlad’s rich Shetland vernacular, which adds to the atmosphere created by these two gifted musical siblings.  

Rebekah Findlay | Northern Skies | Album Review | Self Release | 07.09.10

Velvety voiced North Yorkshire singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist – with clearly an impeccable taste in song/album naming – Rebekah Findlay releases her debut album with a handful of self-penned songs, mixed with a scattering of traditional material as well as the odd poem thrown in. Beautifully packaged with a specially illustrated booklet containing both her lyrics and her own artwork, Northern Skies captures a delicate beauty, which tends to stay with you long after the record stops.  There’s a sense of pure escapism in both the music, the photography and the artwork that accompanies the album, whether it involves wandering the shores of Luskentyre, reflecting upon the first hints of love by the harbour wall, or perhaps even pondering upon knights who once sipped wine from goblets gold, the essence of remembrance is here in all its daydreaming.  “Luskentyre by the Sea” exemplifies this notion of escapism probably best of all and takes little effort in transporting you to the sand dunes and rocks of this remote Hebridean paradise.  There’s a strong relationship with the sea throughout, hinted at or mentioned in songs such as “Far From Home”, “Viking Blood” (from which the album borrows its title), “In Stone (Haul in the Bowline)”, “Duty Bound” and “Harbour Wall” with further hints by way of the traditional “Scarborough Fair”.  If much of the album settles into a delicate, almost laid back feel, there are moments that reveal a much stronger vocal delivery, a voice that could easily fall into the genre of full blown folk rock, in much the same way Sandy Denny did in the early Fairport days, “The Blacksmith” and “In Stone” for instance. Rebekah surprises us with a tribute to Was Not Was with a fiddle strumming “Out Comes the Freaks” bonus track, shoved on the end.  “Duty Bound” on the other hand, a beautiful song about a lonely lighthouse keeper, brings with it an already established reputation, having won for Rebekah the ‘song of the year’ award in 2008 from Klondyke Folk Arts.   Although relatively new to the acoustic singer-songwriter scene, Rebekah is no stranger to the folk world having worked in the Ceilidh band Burning Bridges in her teens, toured Europe with the Cleveland Youth Orchestra, played the Royal Albert Hall with Egglescliffe School Orchestra, together with a brief stint with Young Northern Sinfonia.  There was even a long break away from music, where Rebekah honed her skills at web design and graphic art, thankfully to return with a new focus on songwriting.  With this collection of songs, sung in her own vernacular and with the help of fellow FiddLyn Man Doris (session band) members Iain Glover on mandolin and Joolz Cavel on percussion, together with Ben Findlay on vocals and Chris Davison on lead guitar, Rebekah has produced a first rate debut, which will no doubt open ears and hearts far and wide given the chance.

Tensheds | Crazy Beautiful | Album Review | White Wail | 18.09.10

You get to the stage where you think nothing can possibly surprise you.  When I first saw the publicity shots and cover artwork for Tensheds’ second album Crazy Beautiful, the follow up to Clockwork (2008), I think I must have had my judgemental hat on, for I just didn’t expect to find anything quite as beautiful as the opening song “Go Out on the Weekend”.  Standing by the CD deck for the first tentative listen through with my finger hovering over the stop button, I paused momentarily, then sat down, closed my eyes and listened through.  Then through again.  It reminded me of first discovering Antony and the Johnsons; you know, that sort of thing.  Visually, Matt Millership otherwise known as Tensheds, maybe does come over as a cross between Nick Cave and Lady Gaga and I have to confess I expected image to overshadow content, but it doesn’t at all, in fact it’s the contrary.  In Tensheds we have a singer-songwriter with a great deal of depth, whether accompanying himself on piano or guitar or a mixture of both, combined with a whole variety of other instruments that he appears to be more than comfortable with; Tensheds pours his heart and soul out on some of the best songs I’ve heard in a while.  Tensheds’ real strength is in his live performances, to which he is obviously no stranger, even to the extent of breaking a World record for the most gigs played over a 24 hour period, achieving eight gigs in eight different British cities and at the same time helping to raise awareness of the Railway Children charity, an organisation that helps runaway and abandoned children who live in or around our railway stations.  From the heartstoppingly gorgeous opening song, “Go Out on the Weekend”, with its plaintive piano accompaniment and rich orchestral arrangement, courtesy of Dr Oliver Searle, through to the equally gorgeous “Paradise”, with its haunting pedal steel atmospherics, Crazy Beautiful combines melodic well-structured songs with the occasional nod to such genres as rockabilly “Sentimental Feelings” and boogie-woogie “City of Dreams”, which I suspect is quite possibly his comfort zone.  While “Angel of London” adopts a full blown soul band sound, complete with pleading Hammond Organ, “Love the One You’re With” opts for the more sparse sound of a lone electric guitar, but maintains the same raw power, similar to Jeff Buckley’s treatment of the now criminally overdone “Hallelujah”.  The song also features a duet with Aurora Schmidt, the only other main voice on the album.  Then towards the end of the album we are hit with “Flying Cars”, a contemplative poem of outstanding beauty, with a memorable chorus evoking the kind of wonderment you’d find in a child’s expectations of the future.  While Matt contributes much of the album’s instrumentation, he does enlist the help of a handful of musicians at various studios including Dan Brown, Chris Corney, Martin Couzion, Clive Dimmock, Alexandra Hjortswang, Stew Jackson and John Mitchell, all who contribute ample portions of themselves.  All in all, an outstanding record.

Roosevelt Dime | Steamboat Soul | Album Review | Self Release | 18.09.10

Like a breath of fresh air Roosevelt Dime’s new album Steamboat Soul comes at a time when we could all do with a little bit of New Orleans spark and glow.  Following their impressive debut Crooked Roots (2009) this new album evokes the spirit of New Orleans and the Mississippi River, incorporating the less than expected instrumentation of banjo, bass, drums and a variety of brass and woodwind, together with five fine voices.  Subtitled Modern Music for Old Souls, which could just as easily have been Old Music for New Souls, the album comes across as a sort of cross between Dixieland jazz and bluegrass, with an immediately accessible sense of melody, possibly from the additional influence of the jugband tradition crossed with Motown dance music.  The Dada-inspired artwork reflects what might have been happening artistically in contemporary Zürich during the 1920s but the music is very much centred around the Deep South at roughly the same time.  Then there’s the distinctive relationship to the music of The Band, the late 1960s undisputed giants of the yet to be coined Americana, which all possibly goes toward making the music of Roosevelt Dime feel quite unique.  For a New York-based outfit, Roosevelt Dime, named after the coin produced shortly after the death of America’s 32nd President, evokes the spirit of New Orleans and the Mississippi River remarkably well for a group of musicians from Brooklyn.  With Hardin Butcher on trumpet and cornet, Eben Pariser on bass, Seth Paris on clarinet and saxophone, Andrew Green on banjo and Tony Montalbano on drums, Roosevelt Dime have all the ingredients to shake up any party.  Opening with the jaunty “Simple Man”, the album meanders along the Mississippi taking in all the music from the riverboats, the basement jazz bars, the bourbon-soaked street corners of the French Quarter, resplendent in their wrought iron Creole magnificence and streetcar charm and all this from a band who turned Radiohead’s “High and Dry” into a late night Honky Tonk smooch classic on their debut album.  While “Wishing Well” quite rightly deserves to be the single from this album, with its feelgood groove, incorporating everything that made good the collaboration between Van Morrison and The Band way back in the Last Waltz days, “You Have to Pay” ventures more into the spirit of Charlie Mingus, with its less constrained freer jazz approach.  The Dixieland aspect manifests itself frequently but it has a vibrancy that is not immediately recognisable in straight trad jazz.  “Watta Shame” sound like it was recorded live while the audience tucks into jambalaya and catfish; that sort of immediacy.  The slower more sensitive songs are handled with equal respect, with a soulful feel such as the tenderly orchestrated “Long Long Time”.  The band have been causing quite a stir by playing shows up and down the U.S. East Coast, including headlining slots at the Oberlin Folk Festival in Ohio and the Delmarva Folk Festival in Delaware. In a perfect world, Roosevelt Dime should have already broken through to the mainstream with their debut album.  With a second album of such high standard of musicianship and credibility, together with a considerable fanbase, most of whom contributed to the making of this album via, it might not be long before Roosevelt Dime finally make their mark, and not before time.

Mabon | Live at the Grand Pavilion | Album Review | Easy On The Records | 23.09.10

I first became aware of Welsh band Mabon at the Shepley Spring Festival in 2009, where their energetic and vibrant wall of sound warmed the cockles of hearts and bones simultaneously.  Drawing from many influences including the traditional music of the Celts, French mazurka and Galician munera, the six-piece ensemble featuring Jamie Smith on accordion, Jamie’s dad Derek Smith on guitar, Oli Wilson-Dickson on fiddle, Calum Stewart on flute and pipes, Matt Downer on bass and Iolo Whelan on drums, bring their own special brand of excitement to audiences throughout the world. Being such a great live band, it only seemed right to follow up their two studio albums Ridiculous Thinkers (2004) and OK Pewter (2009) with a full blown live extravaganza.  For these recordings, both the main CD recorded live at the Grand Pavilion in Porthcawl, Wales and the bonus DVD recorded live at the Quay Centre in Newport, not Gwent, but on the Isle of Wight, Oli Wilson-Dickson is replaced by occasional stand-in Ruth Angell, playing some remarkable fiddle but leaves the simultaneous unicycle riding to her mentor.  Bassist Matt (The Hat) Downer is the youngest member of the band and has the nickname to reflect his penchant for his hat wearing exploits, at one point on this DVD a Scissor Sisters’ acceptable shocking pink.  Completely instrumental, this live album features pieces from each of the band’s previous studio albums, including “The Hustler”, “Shindig” and “La Randonnee” from their most recent album and “Fiddler’s Despair” and “Easy on the Reels” from their debut as well as some fresh material including “The Tale of Nikolai the Dancing Bear”, “The Buck Rarebit” and a set of delightful mazurka’s, “Kinnersley Castle” and “La Mazurka de L’Accordeoniste”.  Generally led by Jamie Smith’s dexterous accordion arrangements, the music on all Mabon’s work today is of a supremely high standard. Long may it continue.  Mabon Live at the Grand Pavilion will be released on October 25 2010 to coincide with their Autumn tour.

Various Artists | All Along the Wall | Album Review | Fellside | 23.09.10

Originally commissioned by Cumbria’s Brampton Live in January 2010, All Along the Wall is a project that brought together five notable songwriters and two poets in order to collaborate over a five day period, leading up to the performance we hear on this CD, recorded live at The Wave in Maryport.  Fellside Records were there to capture the performance and on this release, we hear a fresh, enthusiastic and informative programme of songs and poems celebrating the lives, the experiences and the relationships people have had with Hadrian’s Wall throughout the ages.  In a sort of cross between the Transatlantic Sessions and Big Brother, Jez Lowe, Julie Matthews, Rory McLeod, Boo Hewerdine, Ruth Notman, Kate Fox and Elvis McGonagall found themselves hidden away in the remote Saughyrigg Farmhouse in Northumberland, where they began an intensive workshop of writing, composing and collaborating on material to be used in the final performance on the sixth day.  Fiddle player and Bad Penny Kate Bramley joined the ensemble towards the end of the week and also featured in the live performance.  The songs and poems cover a range of ideas and scenarios relating to the wall, from humorous social commentaries, historic ballads, ancient stories and striking love songs.  While some of the songs and poems are centred very much around the historic significance of the wall, others have a very tenuous link or no immediate relation at all.  Mostly experimental, the compositions come together not only as commentaries on a specific theme, but also as investigations into the potential rewards of songwriters and poets working together.  Ruth Notman and Kate Fox’s “Dear Friend” for instance is just that and demonstrates once again Ruth’s command over conveying a sensitive subject, reminiscent of her beautiful “Over the Hill” from her debut album Threads.  Following the wall from east to west, Jez Lowe opens the project with the title song, interspersed with Kat Fox’s determined evaluation of Wallsend, the starting point of this journey.  While Rory McLeod provides both songs and poems, maintaining his familiar wordy assault style on “Other Side of the Wall” and “Romanitus” as well as a more gentle approach on the beautiful “Galloway Girl”, both Boo Hewerdine and Julie Matthews stick pretty much to songwriting with a handful of thoughtful meditations in their own distinctive styles, such as Hewerdine’s “Church of Stolen Stones”, “End of the World” and “The Wrong Side of the World” and Matthew’s “Rock of Gelt”, beautifully sung by Notman and “Cursing Stone”, one of the project’s highlights.  Throughout the concert the collaborators liberally chip in with the odd harmonica accompaniment (McLeod), whistle (Lowe), fiddle and viola (Bramley), the odd ukulele and gazouki (Matthews) and accordion (Notman).  But it’s the contribution of the poets, Tyneside’s Kate Fox and Scotland’s Elvis McGonagall, who maintain a wry contemporary presence throughout, each providing voices from both sides of the wall.   There’s a sense that during this project, the collaborators couldn’t possibly adopt the ‘all work and no play’ notion and I dare say there would be down time for rambling, contemplating and bonding.  This is evident in the way each of the contributors interact with each other throughout.  The closing song of the set is the suitably thoughtful “Shore to Shore”, preceded by Fox and McGonegall’s “Walk on the Wild Side”; a fine and fitting conclusion to not only a remarkable and entertaining piece of music and poetry, but also a tribute to one of our most enduring historical monuments.  Hopefully, this review will have reached its own conclusion before four of the above mentioned (Julie Matthews, Jez Lowe, Ruth Notman and Kate Fox) complete their performance at Northumberland’s Queen’s Hall Arts Centre in Hexham tonight at the official CD launch.  I only wish that I had been there.  

Jez Lowe and the Bad Pennies | Wotcheor! | Album Review | Tantobie Records | 24.09.10

Wakey Wakey!! Jez Lowe invites us to tune into the Wotcheor! radio show, with his Bad Pennies, Kate Bramley on fiddle and mandolin, Andy May on Northumbrian pipes, piano, harmonium and accordion and David De La Haye on fretless bass and percussion with all providing vocals, together with a full supporting cast of singers and musicians gathered around the radio mic in order to entertain.  Wrapped in a wonderfully cheerful sleeve, County Durham’s favourite son is resplendent in white jacket and boater hat, not forgetting (even on this occasion) the suitably striped shirt and matching bowtie.  Packed with new Jez Lowe originals, interspersed with mock radio jingles, courtesy of The Young’uns, Sean Cooney, David Eagle and Michael Hughes and announcer Bert Draycott, Wotcheor! recalls the popular BBC radio programmes broadcast over Tyneside in the 1940s.  “Wot Cheor Geordie” would feature many of Lowe’s predecessors including comedian Bobby (The Little Waster) Thompson and a whole list of entertainers of the time.  Aside from the themed approach, reminiscent of The Who’s Sell Out album of the mid 1960s, the album more importantly features some of the now familiar songs that Jez has been performing recently up and down the country at gigs and festivals, including “Bare Knuckle”, “The Judas Bus” and “The Ex-Pitman’s Pot Holing Pub Quiz Team”.  Joined by Hinny Pawsey on violin, together with singers Benny Graham and Louisa Jo Killen, the record captures the spirit of Geordie entertainment from the Forties, while at the same time presenting a new batch of well-crafted contemporary songs from one of the North East’s best. For a snapshot of Northern life in general, look no further than “It’s a Champion Life”, which references many of Tyneside’s characters, told as a homage to the classic seasonal Jimmy Stewart film of a similar name.  Midway through the album we are introduced to three consecutive songs from previous projects including “The Judas Bus” written especially for one of the celebrated Radio Ballad episodes, “The Ballad of the Miner’s Strike”, together with a couple of songs from the Badapple Theatre production of “Back to the Land Girls”, with “All Clear” cleverly segueing into the title song, featuring artistic director Kate Bramley taking the lead.  The jewel in this crown is “Gramophone Dancing”, a beautiful meditation on East meets Western culture, featuring the fitting coda of “Norwegian Wood” and presumably the first time on record that Jez sings in Hindi.  There is little doubt that this is one of the Bad Pennies most uplifting records to date, its release coinciding with the band’s 20th anniversary. With Wotcheor! these Tyneside-based minstrels confirm the band’s place as a consistently fitting vehicle for Jez Lowe’s remarkable songs.

Chris While and Julie Matthews | Hitting the Ground Running | Album Review | Fatcat | 24.09.10

Whenever the latest Chris While and Julie Matthews album arrives, it always goes without saying that you’re going to be treated to an hour of quality music.  It’s then usually followed by a flick of the coffee percolator switch, maybe even worth risking a Kit-Kat at the same time, just to make the experience even more pleasurable.  Once again this enduring duo fail to disappoint as they deliver another collection of ‘keepers’ bound in a beautifully photographed and handsomely designed package.  Chris and Julie share songwriting duties on this their seventh studio album in fourteen years, where the voices seem to be getting even better as the years roll by.  This reviewer first caught Julie Matthews in action, as a very young performer singing Jackson Browne songs in Wentworth and instantly recognised that potential, as a promising interpreter of fine songs, not even considering that the singer would go on to write some of the most memorable examples of contemporary songwriting.  And still they come, 25 years later and probably even better than before.  The partnership that Julie has maintained with one of this country’s finest singers, Chris While, continues to reap its rewards.  While we’re waxing lyrical here, it’s nice to think in terms of songs having ‘lives’, where we entrust our songwriters to deliver them safely to us.  “Rock of Gelt” was born in February in a farmhouse nearby the historic Hadrian’s Wall, where Julie collaborated with, amongst others, the young singer-songwriter Ruth Notman on the All Along the Wall project.  On this album the song has been re-born as a potential Celtic classic with Troy Donockley’s familiar pipes and Joe Broughton and Paloma Trigas’ twin violins, together with an uplifting lighter-waving anthemic marching feel.  What have the Romans ever done for us? why they gave inspiration to two remarkable British songwriters for a kick off.  The chanted refrain of ‘Daminicus didn’t want to do it’ will be chanted in unison at many a concert to come I guarantee.  The song isn’t the only highlight on Hitting the Ground Running by any means, they tend to just jump out at every corner.  Chris While’s three contributions range from the beautifully tender “The Coldest Winds Do Blow”, with its migrating geese metaphor, to the wonderfully evocative “The Darkside Wood”, a gripping bluesy tale set against an Australian bush fire incident.  On the other hand, “Four Walls” expresses introversion with a moment of contemplation; a piece of poetic soul searching that we are privileged to observe.  “Bridge Over Time”, also from the Hadrian’s Wall project is one of the most accessible songs on the album with its country feel and infectiously jaunty chorus, together with Joe Broughton’s fine fiddle accompaniment.  On “We’re Not Over Yet”, Julie pays tribute to a generation of songwriters who furnished us with the benchmark for most writers to follow; Cynthia Weil, Lieber and Stoller and the like.  If you want some tasty guitar playing on your song, look no further than Howard Lees.  Although I probably wouldn’t remember what Howard actually looks like, a good few years having lapsed since I last saw him, when he was part of the Hobson Lees duo, I would never forget the sound of that distinctively jazz-infused guitar.  Joined by a core trio of musicians, more than equipped to complete this rich musical canvas, the aforementioned Howard Lees on guitars, Neil Fairclough on bass and Bryan Hargreaves on drums, further contributions come courtesy of Joe Broughton and Paloma Trigas on violins and Emma Capp on cello.  While Julie makes the ukulele probably the coolest instrument on the album, both on the opening song “Carved in Stone” and again on the invigorating title song, “Hitting the Ground Running” further demonstrates Julie and Chris’s credentials as informed musicians as well as major British songwriters and performers.

Emily Barker and the Red Clay Halo | Little Deaths | Single Review | Self Release | 24.09.10

As Emily Barker and The Red Clay Halo prepare for the release of their third album Almanac in the autumn, they tease us mercilessly with the single “Little Deaths”, an enchanting taster of what’s hopefully to come.  Once again showcasing Emily’s rich lead vocal, together with no small help from her intuitive band of musicians, The Red Clay Halo, who between them bring out the best in this young Australian singer-songwriter, both in terms of arrangement and performance, this one song is enough to raise the goose bumps.  Co-produced by Emily and Ted Barnes, “Little Deaths” is reminiscent of the sort of folk music we listened to in the late 1960s; a mixture of early Steve Tilston with a pinch of Pentangle but with a vibrancy and validity that is very much contemporary and ‘today’.  Starting with a slow guitar-led intro, the song opens spring flower-like into an engaging ballad of pure beauty, to be listened to over and over.   Joining Emily on acoustic and electric guitar as well as leading on the vocals are Jo Silverston on cello and saw, Anna Jenkins on violin and Gill Sandell on accordion, flute, piano and pipe organ. Additional contributions come courtesy of Nat Butler on drums and Ali Friend on bass.  We wait in eager anticipation for the autumn Almanac and tour.

Ben Prestage | Real Music | Album Review | Eugene | 25.09.10

I suppose the worst thing you could do when you first become aware of Ben Prestage is to confuse him or compare him with Seasick Steve, which I imagine is often the case.  Yes the full on beard is there, the baseball cap, the seated guitarist propping up an unusually designed homemade stringed instrument of sorts and with a penchant for creating his own very distinctive style of blues; it’s difficult not to come up with some sort of comparison, whether favourable or not so favourable.  Nevertheless, that would do both bluesmen an injustice.  Born into the real deal Southern American way of life, his father a Mississippi sharecropper and his great-grandmother a vaudeville musician who toured with Al Jolson, performing in his famed medicine shows, Prestage has seemingly absorbed many of the southern blues styles along the Mississippi, all of which come through in his music and his delivery.  In the tradition of the one man band, Prestage also pretty much goes it alone.  On this, his fourth album to date, Prestage delivers a range of blues standards, from the rural blues of Blind Boy Fuller “Rag”, Bukka White “Good Gin” and Robert Petway “Catfish Blues”, coupled with a taste of the urban blues of Willie Dixon and Howlin’ Wolf “Backdoor Man”.  Although steeped in all manner of blues traditions, this essentially blues based album does have its lighter moments in the traditional “Darktown Strutter’s Ball” and Washboard Sam’s “Wrong Woman”, both with an infectious foot-tapping goodtime groove, together with a short but sweet take on Buck Washington’s “Save the Roach for Me”.  Prestage also includes a couple of self-penned songs on Real Music, the title song and “The Ambitious”, both of which sit well alongside the standards.  Hoagy Carmichael’s “Lazy Bones”, credited to Skip James here with an additional ‘Lazy’ in the title, incorporates Mark Campbell’s beautifully deep tuba and Bruce Johnson’s harmonica, the only additional musicians used on the album.  Prestage looks after the rest, guitar, dobro, diddley-bow and foot drums.  With a self-designed album sleeve evoking the spirit of late night booze-soaked Mississippi Juke dives, Ben Prestage brings his own brand of swamp blues to the UK, supplemented by an autumn tour, appearing at various UK venues with Ian Siegal.

Heidi Talbot | The Last Star | Album Review | Navigator | 25.09.10

The third solo album from former Cherish the Ladies vocalist Heidi Talbot sees the singer teaming up both personally and professionally once again with John McCusker who produces this delightful collection of songs.  Heidi’s Boo Hewerdine produced second album In Love and Light (2008) saw the first indications of a Talbot/McCusker alliance, and since then the two have produced two new babies, this album and little Molly Mae, to whom this collection is dedicated.  The Last Star features an outstanding cast of singers and musicians including Phil Cunningham on piano accordion and harmonium, Andy Cutting on diatonic accordion, Michael McGoldrick on pipes, whistles and flute together with McCusker himself on fiddle, cittern and whistle, Ian Carr on guitar and Ewen Vernal on double bass, not to mention Boo Hewerdine who pops up once again to provide one song and some fine guitar accompaniment.  The album also introduces for the first time some self-penned songs, most notably the title song “The Last Star”, which shows some considerable promise.  As a singer, Heidi is up there with Cara Dillon and Julie Fowlis and is just beginning to get the recognition she deserves.  Once again mixing the traditional material, including “Willie Taylor”, “Bantry Girls” and the jaunty “Bleecher Street”, with a handful of contemporary songs, Hewerdine and McCusker’s “Cherokee Rose”, Karine Powart’s “Start It All Over Again” and Sandy Denny’s beautiful “At the End of the Day”, which once again re-visits Denny’s Like an Old Fashioned Waltz album as Heidi did on the last album with “Whispering Grass”.  Occasional gigging partner Kris Drever is also on hand to help out, duetting on the traditional “Hang Me”, with a contemporary arrangement by Drever, McCusker and Talbot as well as contributing some backing vocals and fine guitar accompaniment.  For good old sing along chorus songs look no further than “Tell Me Truly”, which incorporates one of those irresistible choruses, demonstrated here with the help of Eddi Reader, Karine Polwart and Kris Drever, which I imagine will be raising the roofs at all her shows on her current tour.  

Gill Sandell | Tarry Awhile | Album Review | Rowan Tree | 13.10.10

Gill Sandell’s debut album Tarry Awhile has been some time in the making due to other commitments, not least her role in Emily Barker’s Red Clay Halo, the four-piece all female acoustic band that is once again currently doing the rounds in the UK.  The album has been prepared especially for this tour and one of the songs from this album is included in the band’s current set, the Trashcan Sinatras song “Wild Mountainside”, which maintains the ethereal quality of the John Douglas original.  This is not surprising as Gill’s naturally gentle manner and gentle voice, matched equally with a lightness of touch in her playing, forms the basis of the album.  Taking care of piano, accordion, flute, recorder and guitar duties, Gill employs the help of a bunch of friends such as fellow Red Clay Halo bandmates Emily Barker, who provides some guitar and backing vocals and Anna Jenkins on violin and backing vocals.  Other musicians include Jon Clayton on bass and cello, Ed Hopwood and Andrew Rayner sharing the drum seat, Rupert Hunt on double bass, Chris T-T providing backing vocals and Owen Turner on bass, cornet and glockenspiel.  All the songs are Sandell originals with the exception of the aforementioned “Wild Mountainside” and Natalie Merchant’s sublime “Motherland”, which Gill handles with no small helping of tender loving care.  As a seasoned accordion player it would have been easy to replicate Merchant’s original, yet Gill opts for gentle and sparse piano accompaniment, while Anna and Jon provide the string arrangement.  Our old friend the rain also gets in on the act and even gets a credit.  While the uplifting and optimistic “Wrap Your Treasure” provides the album with its one and only foot-tapper with a light pop sensibility, Magoo’s Owen Turner duets with Gill on “A Breeze Upon the Hill”, a brooding winter lullaby, not unlike the traditional “A Parting Glass”, a song especially for late nights when the party is over.  With the title song, “Tarry Awhile”, we find Gill alone performing solo, a closing song of optimism and hopefulness, which sort of sums up a sweet and tender album.  A rare beauty.

Jilly Riley | I Don’t See Colours I Just See Faces | Single Review | Self Release | 16.10.10

In an effort to promote racial harmony, South Elmsall-based singer-songwriter Jilly Riley releases her soulful single “I Don’t See Colours, I Just See Faces”, just at a time when we all need a bit of cheering up.  With a nod to the likes of Corinne Bailey Rae or Joss Stone, this passionate new voice is waiting around patiently to be noticed.  After a twenty-year period of writing songs, Riley believes it’s time to put on her apron, get in the kitchen and rustle up some organic soul.  Reminiscent of the message Blue Mink attempted to convey on their classic “Melting Pot”, with her forthcoming Organic Soul album, Riley offers up a recipe that consists of 1 XL helping of hearty soul, divided into equal parts of Funk, Ska, Blues and Latin, place in a mixing bowl, whirled and baked in an oven for a few months, then seasoned with a pinch of Hendrix, a sprinkle of Stevie Wonder and a dash of Bob Marley, and jobs a good ‘un, as they say.  With multi-instrumentalist Riley taking care of guitar, bass, keys, lead and backing vocals and tambourine, Will Richards on drums and Nigel Holleran on organ, Jilly also enlists the services of 7 year-olds Melody Anne Slatter and Cakie, 11 year-old Amber Julia Santafield and 13 year-old Brianna Carrie Santafield for the children’s chorus.  Amazingly unsigned and without management, Jilly Riley is undoubtedly on the cusp of something big and “I Don’t See Colours” just might be the right message and the right sound at precisely the right time to make a difference.

Ellen and the Escapades | Of All The Times | EP Review | Self Release | 18.10.10

Ellen and the Escapades have had quite a year so far, not least for their triumphant win at this year’s Emerging Talent competition held before amongst others, the Eavis family and Q Magazine in Glastonbury.  With Ellen Smith’s instantly recognisable voice, together with her tight band of musicians, all ready and rearing to go off on their first UK tour, this EP constitutes an essential piece of merchandising, to make sure their growing army of fans have something good to take home with them over the next few weeks.  It’s even available as a 10” vinyl collectors item.  With a couple of single releases already out there, “Without You” from 2009 and “Coming Back Home” from earlier this year, Of All the Times steps up the race towards their full blown album release planned for some time in 2011.  The four songs included here range from the re-recorded “Preying On Your Mind”, this time utilising the same band as before but upping the tempo so to speak in a sort of Graceland-like method of cheerfulness, to the bluesy “Yours To Keep”, a direction this reviewer would particularly like to see Ellen and Co go in.  The last single “Coming Back Home” has been tagged onto the end of this EP, which also includes the gorgeous “This Ace I’ve Burned”, providing no finer demonstration of Ellen’s unique voice.  With Jeff Schneider on guitar, Chris Quick on keyboards, James Warrender on drums and Andy Calder on bass, Ellen and the Escapades have already played a number of high profile festivals this summer including the Glastonbury Festival, prompting Michael Eavis to declare that this band are better than Joni Mitchell.  While such declarations force artists into a state of either chronic embarrassment or uncomfortable spasms of nervousness, if they are taken in the manner in which they were intended, the band will no doubt be highly flattered.  Eavis is right though, there is something quite fresh and listenable to Ellen’s voice and by the end of these four selections, you will no doubt want more.

Po’ Girl | Follow Your Bliss | Album Review | Po’ Girl | 19.10.10

In a recent British TV cop drama, a hospital male nurse with a familiar but unidentified accent was asked “which part of the States do you come from?” to which the half agitated nurse replied, “the Canadian ones”.  I know what he means; it’s difficult to shake off that vast expanse of a neighbour, both physically and culturally but it has to be said, the music of Canada really does stand alone and the great artists just keep coming along thick and fast.  Vancouver-based roots band Po’ Girl came along in 2003, equipped with their own brand of ‘urban roots’ and have since recorded six studio albums together with a live album with the one constant founder member Allison Russell at the helm.  With one or two changes in line-up along the way, the current Po’ Girl consists of lead singer Russell playing everything from guitar, clarinet, glockenspiel and banjo, Awna Texeira sharing lead vocals and who also looks after accordion, bass, guitar, banjo, glockenspiel and harmonica, Benny Sidelinger on dobro, banjo, wurlitzer and bass and Mikey ‘Lightning’ August on drums, piano and various percussion.  The beautifully soulful opener “Kathy”, dedicated to Russell’s mother, her first musical inspiration, is as good as it gets in my opinion.  With a simple acoustic guitar opening and Allison Russell’s warm and engaging vocal, the song opens into a full blown soul classic, but maintains its rootsy feel throughout courtesy of Sidelinger’s finger-picked banjo underpinning the arrangement.  It’s Otis Redding meets Earl Scruggs, a perfect combination.  Canada’s musical heritage is once again referenced with a nod towards Joni Mitchell, whose music will always inspire.  Po’ Girl have created their own sound, particularly when employing the services of the clarinet, which has become one of the band’s instantly recognisable attributes.  Whether used as a straightforward jazz instrument or whether it provides the band with a distinctively rootsy feel, in their Klezmer inspired “Maudite Guerre” for example, the instrument is crucial in terms of giving the band its unique identity.  The song with its 16th Century French lyrics and accordion and clarinet interplay, was apparently used as a warm up during soundchecks before being added to the band’s prolific repertoire.  At times Allison Russell’s unmistakably soulful vocals can be reminiscent of Martha Wainwright’s but I suspect it may be the other way around.  “To The Morning” for instance could quite easily be coupled with “Martha’s Factory” and raises the same goose bumps in precisely the same places.  Po’ Girl can just as easily slip into rock mode with “When We Are Love” or early Seventies Van Morrison with Chris Neal’s horn arrangement on the title song.  Fellow members of Chicago band JT and the Clouds, Jeremy and Drew Lindsay, Chris Merrill and Dan Abu-Absi also makes a guest appearances.  Zach Goheen maintains a consistently mature approach to production throughout, which will no doubt please the dedicated fanbase, whose contributions to pre-sales helped make it all possible and ensures that Follow Your Bliss will join Po’ Girl’s canon of quality. 

Larkin Poe | Summer | EP Review | Edvins | 27.10.10

Coming in almost hot on the tails of the spell-binding Spring EP, Larkin Poe welcome in the summer, slightly later than advertised, with their predictably entitled follow up Summer EP, which presupposes there just might be a couple more to come before the year’s out.  They can just keep coming as far as I’m concerned.  Once again the Lovell Sisters Rebecca and Megan deliver a further six originals with three bonus live cuts including Blind Willie Johnson’s “In My Time of Dying”, Massive Attack’s “Teardrop” and an outstanding live version of Rebecca’s powerful “The Principle of Silver Lining”, which first appeared on the Spring EP.  The nine selections on this EP show a leaning towards a rockier sound with the help of Mike Seal’s informed lead guitar work, which also suits Rebecca’s distinctively rock-chick vocals.  The climax of “The Principle of Silver Lining” for instance is right up there with the best of them.  The rock riff on “Enough For You” takes the Lovell sisters out of the Bluegrass/Americana field and puts them squarely on the rock stadium stage, without relinquishing the duties of either of their beloved mandolin and dobro for one second.  This is what makes this band special.  “By the Pier” on the other hand shows yet another side to Rebecca Lovell’s talents, with the co-written (with Mike Seal) piano-led ballad, demonstrating the singer’s command over song structure, executed with all the soulful complexities of a Sondheim musical piece.  Being familiar with the Lovell Sisters and now the recorded output of Larkin Poe, it only leaves a desperate desire to see the band live.  If the three live cuts on this EP are anything to go by, it looks like we’re all in for a treat in March when not only do we get to see the band over here, but I also get to introduce them at the Barnsley Acoustic Roots Festival.  Can’t wait.

Don Partridge | The Highwayman | Album Review | Longman Records | 28.10.10

Don Partridge briefly shot to fame in the late 1960s with his surprise hit single “Rosie”, which was destined to be added to the string of so-called one hit wonders of the time along with Zager and Evans and the Singing Postman, had it not been for his follow up hit “Blue Eyes”, which did marginally better than “Rosie” in terms of chart position.  Making a name for himself as probably the country’s best known busker and one man band, Partridge in later years didn’t quite repeat the success of the late 1960s, recording sporadically over the next four decades.  With his sad passing in September, Longman Records have re-released his 2004 album The Highwayman, the title of which was taken from the romantic poem by Alfred Noyes, which Partridge set to music with a string arrangement by Richard Durrant who also produced the album.  The selections on this album are essentially re-recorded versions of a handful of Partridge’s previous catalogue of songs, all of which in the sleeve notes have an indication of when and where the original songs were written, geographically covering a wide area from London to Copenhagen and Brentford to San Francisco.  The selections also cover a wide range of styles from the classically arranged title track to the jazz inflected “Busker’s Green”, including the unmistakable bass of Herbie Flowers and John Trelawny’s muted trumpet.  With a voice reminiscent of a cross between Nic Jones and Rory McLeod, Partridge completes the set of eleven songs with a solo performance of the amusing “The Night I Met Elton John”.  The “Take Five” inspired “Sector 5, 9” and the Hawaiian inflected “Pakalolo Lady” are probably the two songs on this collection that recall Partridge’s most famed style, that of the one man band, equipped with the usual complement of attached musical instruments and evident in the heavily percussive style, so familiar to the man who brought us the timeless “Rosie”.   

Circus Envy | A New Dawn | EP Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 31.10.10

Hull-based alt-folk quintet Circus Envy have been mixing with the right people since their debut album Take Me Home a couple of years ago.  A New Dawn sees a collaboration with Megson’s Stu Hannah, currently gaining a reputation as a fine producer with a sensitive ear and a tasteful disposition, which quite possibly points in the general direction the band will be taking with their anticipated follow up album due out soon.  With a distinctively contemporary feel, the band consisting of Leigh Hirst on vocals, James Paddison on bass, piano and vocals, Mike Richmond on bouzouki, guitar and mandolin, Andy Clark on guitar and flute and Mick Harding on drums, percussion, cajon and vocals, just as easily tackle local traditional material such as “Three Score and Ten”, which on this EP employs the services of Hannah James and Sam Sweeney as their own self-penned pieces.  While the ambient title song introduces us to a feast of vocal harmonies set against a richly observed orchestral arrangement, the jazz-inflected “The Game” demonstrates an understanding of the type of cool and mellow jazz that had the beatniks in a tizz in the 1960s.  “Going Nowhere” is clearly the most accessible song on the EP, which wouldn’t be out of place on the car stereo, especially an open top car in the middle of the summer season.  “The Night Draws Closer” provides the band with a suitably placed finisher, which I imagine would close many a concert with its steadily building and climactic finale.  With a steadily growing reputation as a viable live act with both festival appearances and a handful of high profile support slots including those for Jim Moray, Martin Simpson, Megson and Jackie Leven as well as their involvement on Benjamin Till’s Symphony of Yorkshire project, Circus Envy just might be the band to watch out for next year.

Alexander Wolfe | Morning Brings a Flood | Album Review | Dharma Records | 01.11.10

The debut album from New Cross based singer-songwriter Alexander Wolfe finds itself in the ‘if you like Nick Drake, you’ll like this’ section of the record store, which really may as well be distributed throughout the store in several other sections as well including Paul Weller’s, Tom Baxter’s, Jeff Buckley’s or even The Smiths.  Well maybe only for the use of one line I must confess.  Wolfe may come from a similar privileged background as the Bard of Tanworth-in-Arden, his grandfather having the impressive title of the Count de Menthon.  In fact, we find that Alexander Gordon de Menthon took his grandmother’s name of Wolfe after her sad passing, which coincided with his decision to become a serious artist.  Wolfe also shares a similar story to that of Nell Bryden, in that he was able to finance his career through the sale of a family heirloom.  While Nell managed to auction off an original Milton Avery painting for $300,000, which helped kick start her career, Wolfe too had something of value to trade, a signed Rembrandt print.  Trading art for art has a certain nobility about it but like Bryden, their respective successes depend more on the raw talent they were born with and both seem to have bundles of it.  With the newly acquired home studio set up, Morning Brings a Flood comes along and encompasses all those early influences from Captain Beefheart to Joni Mitchell, the Velvet Underground to Curtis Mayfield, all in a frenzy of creativity.  The songs on the album range in style from the Neil Young influenced “Lazybones”, with its heavy bass, acoustic guitar and harmonica backdrop, not unlike anything from Harvest-era Young, to the Drake influenced “Till Your Ship Comes In”, with Wolfe’s distinctively clear and crisp finger picked guitar and orchestral arrangement that easily compares to that of Robert Kirby’s.  Carefully packaged in a sleeve made up of Shaan Syed’s atmospheric paintings, Wolfe has created a rich soundscape that is often dreamy, sometimes intense and occasionally whimsical, the delightfully carnival-esque “Teabags and Ashtrays” for example.  Movement comes across immediately as the love child of a union between Jeff Buckley and The Beatles, for the most part a thunderous explosion of sound with a delightful coda of mid-period fabs vocal ingenuity.  “Song For the Dead” may already be familiar to fans of celebrity chefs, Alan Davies or just BBC comedies as it is used as the theme to Whites, the new and currently running BBC sitcom.  Closing with the plaintive “Stuck Under September”, the album is wrapped up with Alexander Wolfe presumably resting assured that he has delivered a veritable humdinger of a debut.    

Kimmie Rhodes | Miracles on Christmas Day | Album Review | Sunbird Records | 03.11.10

Christmas comes but once a year and when it comes it brings with it the usual barrage of familiarity such as Jimmy Stewart charging up the snowy streets of Bedford Falls like Jerry Lewis on crack, or the Queen’s dreary speech at 3pm prompt or the plethora of seasonal hits, some of which constitute a Christmas song simply because they contain the word ‘Christmas’ in their lyric, together with a few jingly bells “Stop the Cavalry” by Jona Lewie unfortunately springs to mind.  So it’s quite nice to have something slightly different for a change.  It almost never snows in Austin, Texas, but it did on the day Kimmie Rhodes entered the Sunbird Studios last December to record the cellos for her long awaited seasonal album Miracles on Christmas Day.  Almost completely devoid of the usual seasonal trimmings such as jingle bells on every single song or contrived celestial choruses around every corner, this collection brings together a handful of original songs written by Kimmie over the last few years, honouring a pledge the singer made to write a holiday song each year.  The twelve songs on this album retain Kimmie’s familiar country touch throughout with the occasional jazz-flavoured crooner, “Little Touch of Christmas” for instance.  There’s also a touch of seasonal tejano featuring Joel Guzman’s Jiminez-esque accordion on “Wake Up Sleepy Town”, just the thing for roasting chestnuts on an open fire.  There’s also a couple of additional reworkings of much older songs such as “Carol of the Bells”, based on an ancient pagan Ukrainian chant and the 1865 William Chatterton Dix song “What Child is This” set to the tune of “Greensleeves”, all very English really.  Although pretty much made up of Rhodes originals, Kimmie does include a cover of Patty Griffin’s beautiful “Mary”.  Despite being backed by a wealth of remarkable musicians providing everything from guitars, keyboards and flutes to glass harp, theremin and hurdy gurdy, it is with Kimmie’s unmistakably angelic voice that this collection rests; a voice for all seasons.  With a cover featuring a trio of mandolin playing angels, Kimmie Rhodes has produced an album that has the potential of bringing new seasonal cheer to the dinner table in December and may just allow us to put Bing, Noddy and the truly awful Rea songs aside for a change.

Churchfitters | Sing | Album Review | Self Release | 05.11.10

Once again adorned in the kind of colourful artwork that jumps off the shelf with the sole intention of brightening your day, the seventh album from France-based Churchfitters offers another selection of varied compositions from the atmospheric opener “Knee Deep”, complete with weeping musical saw and all manner of vocal shennanigans through to the delightfully whimsical “My Beamish Boy”, both from the pen of singer and multi instrumentalist Rosie Short.  If you still think of the musical saw as a novelty item, then the opening song also employs the services of a ‘bing bong machine’.  It has to be said, while all this bing-bonging and sawing is going on, Rosie delivers one heck of an astonishing vocal, not so much in terms of the high notes, but for the steady and assured bottom end, which is no mean feat.  Topher Loudon’s “Springtime” provides the album with a jauntily refreshing pop song, which coupled with the hard-rocking “House of Cards” provides the album with that all important contemporary edge.  Rosie tackles the traditional songs with an energetic vibrancy including “The House Carpenter”, which incorporates a scarily discomforting soundtrack from the hills of Hell towards its climax, while a more pastoral arrangement accompanies the gorgeous “Our Captain Cried All Hands”, to the memorable tune of “To Be a Pilgrim”, the Bunyan hymn commonly sung in school assemblies back in my day.  Rosie’s “Sing! (For Our Time On Earth)”, from which the album presumably takes its title, offers an anthem to friendship, with its heartbreaking submission to mortality.  Despite its inevitable message, there is also a sense of optimism at its core.  Of the instrumentals, none of which could possibly be described as ‘run of the mill’, the medieval folk rock of “18 Hour/Human Engineers/Playtex” contrasts with the playful “TMS”, which I swear almost bursts into the test cricket theme music, courtesy of Booker T and the MGs midway through.  Siblings Rosie and Chris Short, together with Topher Loudon and Boris Lebret have now established a solid working unit, producing this their third album with this particular line up along with New Tales for Old (2005) and Amazing (2007). With special guest Raphael Chevalier helping out on violin and harmonium, Sing once again incorporates mature musicianship, assured vocal performances together with a tangible sense of fun.  What better way to soothe over the discomfort of the impending chilly season?

Rachel Harrington | Celilo Falls | Album Review | Skinny Dennis | 08.11.10

Oregon-born Rachel Harrington teams up with Ronnie McCoury, Rod Clements, Dan Salini, Corby Sander and Jon Hamar for this her third album release in just a little over three years.  Produced by Evan Brubaker, Celilo Falls follows the steady stream of highly praised albums that began with The Bootlegger’s Daughter (2007) closely followed by the singer-songwriter’s breakthrough album City of Refuge (2008).  This third offering continues to draw upon Harrington’s talents as a first rate songwriter and performer, with a collection of highly personal songs that pull no punches.  The songs describe turbulent romantic liaisons with stoic resignation, “Here In My Bed” for example, also known as Part Two of the Jerk Trilogy, leaves you in no doubt that it’s time to move on.  The bluesy “You’ll Do” continues the theme but with a sense of irony, an almost submissive approach to matters of the heart.  Harrington’s background in gospel music is drawn upon with “He Started Building My Mansion In Heaven Today”, which has all the hallmarks of standard traditional gospel fare but with Harrington’s own distinctive mark.  Her own version of heaven also closes the album with “The Last Jubilee”, a sprightly farewell to this mortal coil, alluding to the fact that we continue our music in the hereafter and in good company too, with Johnny Cash, Hank Williams and Elvis; a sort of “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” for Country fans.  The songs, whether sparsely accompanied such as “You Don’t Know”, with just a solo finger-picked guitar and an almost subliminally present harmonica, or enhanced by liberal portions of dobro, pedal steel and fiddle, the songs are delivered with equal power, which is testament to Harrington’s command over story telling.  “Goodbye Amsterdam” captures life on the road with a tender ballad reminding us all of the down side of touring; with every hello, there’s always a goodbye.   Previously known as “Last Sunday” or “Vantage”, Harrington includes Art Hanlon’s “Spokane”, which furnishes the album with its one and only contemporary cover, while also offering a taste of the traditional with “Pretty Saro”.  While the tune, taught to her by former touring partner Zak Borden remains intact, Rachel reworks the words to suit her own sense of storytelling, in the spirit of an evolving tradition.  With a neat double gatefold sleeve incorporating all the lyrics and a few sleeve notes, together with a sparse period-style monochrome portrait on the front cover, Celilo Falls once again evokes the spirit of pure Americana.

Adrian Nation | Fall or Fly | Album Review | Laburnum Bridge | 09.11.10

On this his second album, the follow up to Sowing Seeds (2003), singer-songwriter Adrian Nation has managed to blend an English sensibility with a Celtic heartbeat, with ten self-penned songs and one instrumental. Teaming up with a stellar cast of musicians including at its core, Chris West on guitar who also produces, Brad Lang on bass, Gerry Conway on drums, Troy Donockley on pipes and low whistles and Jonathan Potts on fiddle and also on low whistles, Nation has assembled a note perfect vehicle for his exceptionally well-crafted songs.  Inspired by the guitar playing genius of the late Isaac Guillory, Nation has explored the possibilities that the instrument has to offer and in the one instrumental on the album “Five Finger Rapids”, demonstrates some of that dexterity clearly.  On the whole though, it’s with the songs and the arrangements of those songs that take priority here.  Equally at home with rockers such as the opener “Don’t Turn Away” and pop tunes as accessible as “Looking For the Day” as he is with the more sensitive ballads including “Set Fire to the Sky and Brightest Star”, Nation delivers each song with the same sort of conviction.  The aforementioned Celtic connection is most notable on “The Other Side of the Night (Song to Maria)” and “Sweet Molly”, both helped in no small measure by the low whistle and uillean pipe playing of Troy Donockley, currently having fun with another Adrian of the Edmondson variety in the Bad Shepherds.  “The Heart Beats On”, which includes a taste of Graham Pike’s sneering blues harp, shows yet another side of Nation’s steadily growing repertoire, that of a performer with a command over a bluesier style of songwriting.  If there was any doubt as to whether Adrian Nation could better his debut, here’s the proof.    

Joni Mitchell Project | Conversation: The Joni Tapes Volume One | Album Review | Old Dog | 09.11.10

For those who might expect a festival of post-modern contemporary vandalism, a veritable feast of pointless reworkings of a handful of Joni Mitchell’s best loved songs, the suggestion is to look elsewhere.  For those who might prefer a carbon tribute complete with all the weird and wonderfully eccentric warblings of the original, again look elsewhere.  If on the other hand your preference is for an album’s worth of faithful interpretations, in terms of closely observed musical arrangement, albeit with Sally Barker’s inimitable voice on top, then look no further than here.  The songs on this collection cover the first ten years of Joni Mitchell’s recorded output, with “Chelsea Morning” from her second album release Clouds (1969) to her jazz infused tenth album Mingus (1979) with the quirky “Dry Cleaner From Des Moines”.  In between we have the cream of what is considered Joni’s best loved period with songs from both Ladies of the Canyon (1970) and the iconic Blue album of the following year including the sublime “A Case of You”, the seasonally timely “River” and the omnipotent “Big Yellow Taxi”.  With a stunning version of “For Free”, borrowed from all the right places including Joni’s original of course, but then possibly adopting a fine interpretation by David Crosby (if memory serves) to create a hybrid of the two, Sally has created her own version of the song and like all the other performances here, never strays too far from the original.  It’s almost predictable that some might think what’s the point?  These songs are all there preserved in a series of highly acclaimed albums by the Canadian singer herself.  Let’s not forget though, Joni’s songs were brought to our ears through interpretation in the first place, through the patronage of the likes of Leonard Cohen, Judy Collins, Tom Rush and Buffy Sainte-Marie to name but a few.  Sally Barker continues a tradition then, a bold endeavour to bring us some of the most treasured songs to have emerged in the history of popular music.  Dedicated to the memory of friend Davy Steele, Conversation: The Joni Tapes was recorded using the very same Martin guitar that Steele played while in the company of the Canadian singer-songwriter herself.  The Joni Mitchell Project couldn’t be possible without the help of Glenn Hughes who joins Sally on keyboards and dulcimer, together with Debbie Cassell on banjo, who also provides some fine harmony vocals.  With an excellent choice of eleven classic Mitchell songs, we can possibly expect more in due course, with Volume Two, which will no doubt venture into the next period of Joni’s career.  Hope so.

Charlie Louvin | The Battle Rages On | Album Review | True North | 13.11.10

One half of legendary gospel duo the Louvin Brothers, Charlie Louvin is still making music sixty years on from his first forays into music with his late brother Ira.  Famed for their close harmony singing, the Louvin Brothers were a staple on the Grand Ole Opry stage from the mid 1950s to the early 1960s and have since influenced many of the great names in country music and beyond, including Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams and Jack White.  The voice of this octogenarian is unlikely to be as strong as the voice he had as a young man, but Charlie uses the frailty in his voice to his advantage.  Backed by a first rate band of musicians including his son Sonny and Ben Hall on guitars, Mitchell Brown on bass, who also produces, Deanie Richardson and David Russell on fiddles and mandolins and Kevin Kathey on snare, Louvin is also joined by Del McCourey, Jamie Dailey and Ben Hall providing harmony vocals along with Mitchell Brown.  In a time when our eyes and ears are almost constantly focussed on the outrageous conflicts in the world, Charlie’s new album The Battle Rages On tackles the subject of military service and those affected by it.  As a veteran of the Korean War himself, this album should perhaps be viewed as an empathetic and heartfelt tribute to those affected by war in our times.  Opening with “Smoke on the Water”, not to be confused with the 1970s riff-laden rock anthem, but an updated version of the old Zeke Clements and Earl Nunn patriot song, Louvin brings us into the 21st century with not only references to Hitler but to Bin Laden as well.  Although this album deals with all aspects of conflict from major world wars to domestic turmoil between ordinary people, Louvin takes the stand point of the observer, recognising the destructive power of war as well as acknowledging his own inherent patriotism, supporting those who serve their country for the greater good.  With a selection of hand-picked songs from some of his own contemporaries such as Merle Haggard’s “I Wonder If they Ever Think of Me”, Tom T Hall’s “What We’re Fighting For”, Roy Acuff’s “Searching for a Soldier’s Grave” and Ernest Tubb’s “A Soldier’s Last Letter”, Louvin recreates the songs with care and respect.  The Battle Rages On also provides the surviving Louvin brother the opportunity to revisit some of his former duo’s back catalogue with “Mother I Thank You for the Bible”, “Robe of White” and “Weapon of Prayer”, each previously issued by the brothers on their Weapon of Prayer album.  Finishing with the traditional “Down by the Riverside”, the longest living member of The Grand Ole Opry and four-time Grammy nominee, rounds off a timely recording, which may have listeners reflecting on those making sacrifices abroad, whether they agree with it or not. 

Lunch at Allen’s | More Lunch at Allen’s | Album Review | Linus | 13.11.10

Despite repeated denials that Lunch at Allen’s is a songwriter’s circle, it has to be said that this collective does come across as one and a good one at that too.  Preferring to think of themselves merely as a ‘revue’, Marc Jordan, Ian Thomas, Murray McLauchlan and Cindy Church, pool their combined talents with no small measure of experience and maturity to create some fine and assured interpretations of established songs as well as working through arrangements of new material.  Originally meeting up over lunch at a Toronto pub (hence their name) Lunch at Allen’s release their third album, following the second album Catch the Moon (2007), which in turn followed their debut eponymous album of 2004.  Noted for their collective repertoire of songs, some of which have been recorded or performed by the likes of Rod Stewart, Bette Midler, Diana Ross and Incubus, it comes as little surprise that the songs on More Lunch at Allen’s are once again well-constructed, immediately accessible and in one or two cases already familiar.  Their combined mantelpieces have already been furnished with no less that 12 Juno Awards with a further 27 nominations in what is for all intents and purposes Canada’s own Grammys and between the four of them, there exists a back catalogue of no fewer than 91 albums.  Material therefore is hardly scarce by any means and this collection of twelve songs has been carefully hand-picked to present a good cross section of material from each of the individual songwriters.  Opening and closing with a couple of Murray McLauchlan’s compositions, “Try Walking Away”, originally recorded for his 1980 album Into a Mystery, offers a jaunty pop tune to kick things off, which in turn appears to have stood the test of time, while the closer “The Great Beyond” leans more towards bluegrass gospel, complete with great harmony vocals and a mandolin-led arrangement.  The highly prolific songwriter Ian Thomas contributes three songs here “I’ll Let You Know”, “Waiting for the Sunrise” and “Feel Good Again”, each song demonstrating his familiar MOR/soft rock sensibilities, that have over the years attracted attention from the likes of Santana, Manfred Mann and Chicago.   Marc Jordan is not only a familiar voice in Canadian songwriting circles, but a familiar face in the movie world as well; his latest film role sees him playing opposite Olivia Newton-John in Score: A Hockey Musical.  As a songwriter, both “Runaway Heart” and the soulful “New York Snow” demonstrate the sort of song craftsmanship that has garnered the attention of many artists over the years.  Likewise, Cindy Church’s “You Can” and “I Never Got Over You”, are love songs of extraordinary power, tugging at the heart strings while at the same time maintaining a relaxed and soothing atmosphere.  “Anything But Friends” brings together Church and McLauchlan as co-writers as they perform a duet together of extraordinary beauty.  Recorded mostly at Ian’s home studio, with the additional help of Chris Bilton and Doug Cameron on guitars and piano respectively, the twelve songs on this collection offer a glimpse into the highly accomplished world of Canadian songwriting. 

The Red Hot Chilli Pipers | Music For The Kilted Generation | Album Review | REL | 14.11.10

As a child being brought up in an environment of mum’s Don Gibson and Eddie Arnold records, augmented by dad’s token Glenn Miller and Count Basie LPs, stuffed into the limited space record compartment in the old teak radiogram cabinet, the arrival of the 1st Bn Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders Pipes and Drums LP was not unlike an alien invasion from outer space.  Once the needle hit the groove my life changed and I decided at that juncture that I never wanted to hear a set of bagpipes for the rest of my life.  That’s the effect that a whole battalion of them sounding off simultaneously had on a juvenile delinquent from South Yorkshire.  Years later, the pipes slipped into consciousness once again mainly through Paul McCartney’s hit single “Mull of Kintyre” and of course with the intro to Jools Holland’s annual Hootenanny, broadcast sort of live-ish every New Year’s Eve.  I never did quite get them.  Neither did I get the Northumbrian Pipes, which came over to me as the kitten squeal to the mother cat of the Scots variety.  It was only with the arrival of the Battlefield Band’s stunning version of John Fogerty’s classic “Bad Moon Rising” that made me re-think my aversion to the arm-operated octopus of a musical instrument and I was suddenly challenged with the notion that this instrument had potential.  Now with the arrival of an array of festival closer acts such as The Peatbog Faeries, Skerryvore, Breabach, The Unusual Suspects etc., The Red Hot Chilli Pipers offer something exciting in their endeavour to broaden the scope and flexibility of this most notable traditional instrument of Scotland, with some highly entertaining renditions of classic pop songs from the likes of Queen, Snow Patrol and Robbie Williams.  In the early 1970s, the 1st Bn Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and the Pipes and Drums Military Band of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards were simultaneously releasing records while also competing for longest band name in the history of popular music.  The latter also recorded an instrumental version of the old spiritual “Amazing Grace” with notable chart success.  The Chilli Pipers do the unthinkable here and while in possession of four perfectly well maintained sets of pipes, they decide to turn it back into a soulful gospel song, complete with Chris Judge of The Gospel Truth Choir soulfully emoting throughout.  Music for the Kilted Generation revisits Deep Purple with “Black Knight”, which equals their treatment of “Smoke on the Water” from their Bagrock to the Masses album, but also take hold of The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” and go at it as if it were the archetypal prog rock anthem.  You can’t help but love it.  With Stuart Cassells at the helm, who incidentally was the winner of the BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year award in 2005 as well as being the first person to gain a degree in bagpipes from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, together with an entire wealth of pop and rock classics waiting in the wings to be mercilessly bagrocked, the fun potential appears to be limitless.

Emily Smith | Traiveller’s Joy | Album Review | White Fall | 11 .12.10

As an accomplished singer, Emily Smith is up there with the likes of Cara Dillon, Julie Fowlis and Heidi Talbot without question.  Added to this, her credentials as a fine songwriter and interpreter of traditional and contemporary songs, one wonders why her star has taken so long to rise.  The Scots know only too well Emily Smith’s stature in the Celtic music scene with two prominent awards, Emily receiving the BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician Award in 2002 and the Scots Singer of the Year award at the Scots Trad Music Awards in 2008.  Traiveller’s Joy is Emily’s fourth album in eight years and showcases the singer at her peak.  Produced by partner Jamie McClennan, the New Zealand-born multi-instrumentalist who the singer tours with, either as part of her band or as a perfectly formed duo, the album gathers together a rich selection of songs either self-composed, borrowed from other outstanding contemporary artists or reworked from traditional material.  Helen Fullerton’s poem provides the basis of the title song, arranged by Emily and Jamie with a melody adapted by Alison McMorland and Geordie McIntyre.  If some of the terms are just a wee bit too Scots for you, then Emily has been an absolute darling by providing a glossary in the accompanying booklet.  “Sweet Lover of Mine” is another version of a song derived from the same source as the better known “Scarborough Fair”, the Child ballad “The Elfin Knight” and features a thoroughly engaging narrative with a fine arrangement, once again courtesy of Emily and Jamie, augmented by Alan Doherty’s intuitive whistle playing.  As a trained dancer, Emily calls us to the dance on more than one occasion during the album incorporating her own “Evie’s Waltz” during her performance of Rick Kemp’s “Somewhere Along the Road” and again with a beautiful reading of Richard Thompson’s timeless “Waltzing for Dreamers”.  Emily’s own songs are at once enchanting and describe the essence of her travels pretty well, whether composed over-looking the Canadian lakes or sitting around waiting for a show to start in Australia, “Butterfly” and “Still We Dance On” respectively.  Closing with an utterly gorgeous unaccompanied traditional song, suitably recorded live in Thornhill Parish Church, the title says it all really.. “What a Voice”.  What a voice indeed.

Eddie Martin | Folk & Blues | Album Review | Blue Blood Records | 11.12.10

Eddie Martin is no stranger to either folk or blues and delivers a dozen new selections on this his eleventh album to date.  With a sort of ‘have National Resophonic guitar, blues harp, bass drum and dog, will travel’ attitude, Eddie continues the traditional lineage of British blues players stretching back to Alexis Korner in the late 1950s, who manages to play the blues with an unswerving respect to the genre, but at the same time bringing something new and vibrant to the music.  Recorded over a three day period, this totally acoustic self-penned album demonstrates the sort of intimacy reserved for small gatherings; a highly personal album shared only at the time of recording with his engineer son, Joe Garcia, whose attention to detail doesn’t go unnoticed.  Nominated not only in the Best Guitarist category but also Best Harmonica Player category in this year’s British Blues Awards, Martin fuses folk and blues styles in equal measure to create an album that would find a home in collections of fans of both genres, without a single eyebrow raised.  With the one live track recorded at Bristol’s Hard Rock Café, Martin pays homage to Charlie McCoy’s “Stone Fox Chase”, familiar to anyone who religiously watched the Old Grey Whistle Test in the early 1970s, with the title of Martin’s harmonica solo entitled “Still Chasing That Fox”, bringing all the sweaty back room blues atmosphere to an otherwise sweat-free album.  While “Kind Lady Moon” has all the boogie-woogie groove of a John Lee Hooker standard, the instrumental “Butterflies” owes more to the guitar wizardry of the Davy Graham/Bert Jansch school.  “Month of Mondays” shows an additional respect for the late John Martyn with an atmospheric and melancholy number that wouldn’t be too far out of place on Solid Air.  Closing with an instrumental recalling Ry Cooder’s playful take on Joseph Spence’s Bahaman slack key style,the excellent “Old London Blues” would have benefitted further from a few grunts and moans throughout, but that’s just me wallowing in nostalgia.

Miss Quincy | Your Mama Don’t Like Me | Album Review | Self Release | 28.12.10

Recorded in a log cabin amidst below zero temperatures up in Northern British Columbia, Miss Quincy’s debut solo album reaches this reviewer in similar conditions, albeit the comparatively kinder snowy terrain of a seasonal South Yorkshire.  The warmth created in the studio, aided by liberal quantities of whiskey, has transferred well onto disc and proves to be just the tonic for these cold nights.  Recalling the heyday of the great blues women of the 1930s, Quincy creates music from another era entirely, yet loses none of its contemporary edge.  Stylistically fusing early blues with bluegrass, old timey and even Kletzmer, Miss Quincy and co deliver an album, seemingly uncluttered by over-arrangement or studio gadgetry.  There’s no unnecessary sugar coating to Miss Quincy’s determinedly bluesy vocal set against a bluegrass backdrop, courtesy of a fine cast of A Grade Canadian musicians including, Craig Korth on guitar and banjo, Reno Finch on mandolin, Pete Mynett on upright bass and Josh Giesbrecht on violin, together with additional dobro, steel guitar and piano.  The title song, “Your Mama Don’t Like Me”, a jazz-infused bar room foot-tapper of an opener, shows precisely where the rest of the album is going with a whiskey-soaked vocal performance of a seasoned barfly.  There’s a sense of the vaudeville in some of the compositions; dramatic, almost theatrically so, each song infused with a gypsy spirit and a healthily carefree attitude.  The nine songs and one instrumental collectively demonstrate Miss Quincy’s approach to grassroots music, the album being the culmination of the years of playing festivals, bar rooms, street corners and house concerts on both sides of the Atlantic.  The retro approach is maintained throughout whether borrowed from old time country such as the banjo-led “Wild Mountain Flower” or the bluesy barrelhouse of “Dirty Boat”.  “Water and Whiskey”, featuring Lance Loree’s dreamy steel guitar provides a little Hawaiian sunshine amidst the frost.  Miss Quincy’s most outstanding vocal performance on the album, is the heart wrenching “Record Store”, with its memorable metaphor of too many lovers being likened to a ‘crowded record store’, bringing with it a temporary moment of reflection amongst the foot-tappers.  Closing the album, the well rounded coupling of Miss Quincy’s harmonica and Pete Mynett’s upright bass, prove to be all that’s necessary to bring Memphis Minnie’s “Bad Luck Woman” back to life, with a fitting tribute to an obvious influence.

Anthea Neads | Jars of Clay | Album Review | Rowan Leaf | 29.12.10

The debut album from Anthea Neads features ten songs, some of which replace songs originally planned for the album two years ago, discarded in favour of newer and more appropriate material.  Evocative, contemplative and reflective, the songs follow a personal journey of self discovery, presented in a manner that is at once easy on the ear and conducive to the senses.  Accompanying herself on both guitar and piano, the Guildford-born singer-songwriter presents a passionate and cohesive selection of songs that are often thoughtful, sometimes ethereal but always honest.  Stylistically eclectic, the arrangements range from the folksy pop of the opener “Bright New Dawn” to the swirling carnival ride of “Roundabouts”, the gospel-tinged title song “Jars of Clay” to the bluesy “Simple Pleasures”, but each one maintaining Anthea’s gentle vocal throughout.  The delightful “My Golden Bay” provides the highpoint of the album, a personal song with a universal theme of love and loss.  We all have our own golden bay somewhere.  Joined by Andrew Prince on bass (who also co-produces), Gethin Webster on violin, Al Heslop on guitar and Phil Daniels and Jim Lacey sharing percussion duties, Anthea Neads presents a touching personal diary from which we are invited to read, without feeling too intrusive.  A delightful debut.

Joan Armatrading | Live at the Royal Albert Hall | Album Review | Hypertension | 30.12.10

The latest release from three times Grammy nominated singer-songwriter Joan Armatrading comes as a handsomely packaged three disc set celebrating her appearance at the Royal Albert Hall in April 2010.  The double CD with accompanying DVD showcases some of Armatrading’s best known songs together with a handful of more recent material from her current studio album.  Not her first live album by any means, having already released Stepping Out in 1979 and Live All the Way From America in 2004, but this new release is more than a worthy souvenir, especially for those who attended the concert in April, as it shows an established artist back in the game.  All the hits are here including “Show Some Emotion”, “Love and Affection”, “All the Way From America”, “Me Myself I”, “Call Me Names” and “Drop the Pilot”, with an emphasis on material from her current album This Charming Life with the title song together with “Love Love Love”, “Two Tears”, “Heading Back to New York City”, “Promises”, “Cry” and the crowd pleaser “Best Dress On”, which has surprisingly inspired an enthusiastic fan competition, to find which town or city can repeat the chorus at the end of the song the most times.  At the time of release, Denver topped the league table having sung the chorus twenty-one times.  The DVD shows Joan dressed in a black trouser suit and sandals, headset microphone attached inconspicuously beneath a mop top of hair that would have given the Fabs a run for their money, brandishing a series of electric guitars and a whole car park full of pedals at her feet, as she flits seamlessly from rock and pop to blues and soul, each song being treated to some suitably jazzy arrangements courtesy of a stellar cast of musicians featuring Gary Foote on drums and sax, Spencer Cozens on keyboards and John Giblin on bass.  As Jim Soars writes in the sleeve notes, these songs are indeed testament to the continued life and work of the UK’s leading female singer, songwriter and guitarist.

JT and the Clouds | Caledonia | Album Review | Dishrag | 31.12.10

This feast of soulful pop from Chicago based inde band JT and the Clouds arrives just in time to coincide with their forthcoming UK tour in February 2011.  At times reminiscent of Little Feat’s Time Loves a Hero period, particularly on “How It Runs”, with its soul-fuelled exchanges between funky guitar licks and wailing Hammond, Caledonia offers more than a nod towards a bright and breezy 1970’s California as exemplified in the music of such bands as the Doobie Brothers for instance.  With contributions from Po’ Girl’s Allison Russell, singer/guitarist Jeremy ‘JT’ Lindsay stands at the helm of a tight outfit, that delivers a mixture of R&B numbers and tuneful indie-pop songs, an outfit that also includes brother Drew on keyboards, Dan Abu-Absi on guitars, Chris Neal on keyboards, sax and percussion, Chris Merrill on bass and Mikey ‘Lightning’ August on drums.  Melodic from the start, the songs feature Lindsay’s rich falsetto vocals, in places reminiscent of Curtis Mayfield, with a similar conviction of reaching the emotions.  “Caledonia” is as anthemic as anything Neil Young did back in the early 1970s, sounding as fresh and immediate as some of those Journey Through the Past studio workouts, with tight vocal harmonies augmented by a sneering yet soulful guitar solo and cascading synth riffs throughout.  Produced by the band together with Zach Goheen, Caledonia also incorporates some tastefully rendered horn arrangements courtesy of Chris Neal, featuring the horns of Shane Jones and Dave Levine on the thoroughly exciting opener “Fever Dream”, the pulsating “Grow Your Flowers” and the beautifully soulful “I Have Heard Words”.  Recognised in their home city, being sited as one of the ten bands on the verge of breaking big in 2010 by the Chicago Tribune, JT and the Clouds will no doubt be well received in February on this side of the pond.