Contributions

The following reviews were kindly submitted to the Northern Sky website.

Esperanza Spalding – Chamber Music Society | Album Review | Heads Up | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 21.02.11

Imagine finding your name on the list of nominees for the Best New Artist Grammy award. Quite an honour, I’m sure you’ll agree, and something that is bound to get your heart racing or at least give you a clammy pair of palms.  Now look a little further down the list.  Sadly, you appear to be sharing the excitement with a series of names that have not only slipped into common usage but are almost as ‘household’ as Fairy Liquid, Lux Soap and Coke.  There’s Florence + The Machine, Mumford & Sons, Drake and – yes, you are reading it correctly – Justin Bieber (a blonde-haired teenager who appears to be taking over the known universe with his chipmunk-high voice, disgustingly good looks and dazzlingly limber dance moves).  Unfortunately, your chances of winning the little shiny gramophone have now become supermodel-slim.  But your name just happens to be Esperanza Spalding.  You’re a twenty-six year old jazz bassist and singer from Portland, Oregon.  You’ve played with the best of them, including Joe Lovano, Charlie Haden, Pat Metheney and Patti Austin and already have three top-notch solo albums under your belt.  Legendary vibraphonist, Gary Burton, once said that you “communicate your upbeat personality into everything you play” and guitarist Pat Metheney thinks you’re “pretty amazing”.  I’m not so sure Gary or Pat would have such praise for little Bieber.  To cut a long story short, on February 13th 2011, you succeed in draining the not-yet-shavable face of Justin Bieber when you win the award.  It might seem shocking to you and the several million people watching you accept the award, but I think I know why you won and why I’m not so surprised, either.  You see, you have just released an album entitled Chamber Music Society – an album that presents both a new, refreshing and unique jazz sound and a vibe that fits plug-snug into the fusion music of the last half-century.  In other hands, the fusing together of jazz and chamber music might be, at best, ‘worth a listen’.  In your very competent, young yet enlightened hands, however, we get something that can only be described as obligatory listening for anyone with the slightest interest in where jazz is at in 2011.  As well as bringing your energy, musical abilities and hot-waxy voice to the party, you also bring a delicious Brazilian lilt that is clearly a major part of your whole.  Dipping all this into the string arrangements of Gil Goldstein and adding just enough piano from Leo Genovese and vocals from Gretchen Parlato and Milton Nascimento, not to mention the percussion of Terri Lyne Carrington and Quintino Cinalli, makes for a pretty reasonable explanation for your success.  The album is a rich, creamy blend of laid-back improvisation and sit-up-straight, complex vocal arrangements.  Sitting slap-bang in the middle of this tour-de-force is “Wild Is The Wind”, a track that seems to literally scale a mountain of jazz, chamber, folk and Brazilian music.  What begins as a breeze whirls up into a heavy storm of exquisite musicianship, culminating in a piercing, haunting Esperanza wail.  It’s just stunning.  “Winter Sun” shows off the dexterity of drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and pianist Leo Genovese while continuing to showcase Esperanza’s unique vocal style – something that is explored further with “Inutil Paisagem” – a beautiful, vocal/bass piece with a fascinating rhythm.  For those Bieber fans who have now come to realise the error of their ways, you might want to try Esperanza’s first two albums Junjo and Esperanza as well as this latest offering to get a feel for what good jazz is and to understand why Esperanza Spalding just saved another little shiny gramophone from falling into the wrong hands.

Cassie Taylor – Blue | Album Review | Hypertension | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 06.03.11

This soulfully bluesy debut from the daughter of Bluesman Otis Taylor, sees the multi-instrumentalist coming to grips with ten original songs from her own pen.  Very much in tune with the music industry, having appeared with her father on stages around the world, not to mention contributing to his back catalogue of acclaimed albums and even having served on the board of directors of The Blues Foundation, Cassie Taylor’s debut was only a matter of time coming.  Released almost simultaneously with Taylor’s side project Girls With Guitars, part of the famed Blues Caravan tour, with Kansas-born Samantha Fish and Brighton’s own Dani Wilde, Blue is less about girls with guitars and more to do with exploring the possibilities of her trusty bass and piano.  Equally at home with raunchy R&B numbers that tell it straight, such as “Make Me Cry”, with its direct no nonsense opening line “Hey asshole, I wrote you a song”, to the late night ballads of “Haunted” and “Black Coffee”, which owe more to the sort of soulful brews that Isaac Hayes would serve up in the Seventies than the usual blues fare, Taylor is unafraid to mix and match her blues and soul influences with her rock and country leanings, reflecting the fact that this twenty-something singer-songwriter is blessed with a youthful spirit.  This Ain’t No Old Man Blues is her proudly displayed website slogan, and true enough, there’s no evidence on this album to the contrary.  With a core band of Jeremy Colson on drums and James Rooster Olson on guitar, Taylor has gathered together a bunch of musicians to flesh out the songs on Blue, exploring their rootsy possibilities rather than pandering to the expected twelve-bar standard.  Look no further than the all too short opener “Memphis” for the potential single release.  

Meschiya Lake and the Little Big House – Lucky Devil | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 29.05.11

Never judge a book by its cover – that’s what we’re always told, anyway.  And if we’re to apply the same old cliché to long playing records, then surely Lucky Devil by Meschiya Lake and the Little Big Horns isn’t the good old fashioned New Orleans jazz/blues album that its cover would have us believe.  Thankfully, the contents are exactly what you’d expect, and much more.  Thanks to the talents of that striped-stockinged, tattooed bar-room beauty on the cover, along with the timeless Dixieland sound of the Little Big Horns, this is nothing short of a steaming bowl of red hot Creole gumbo with a glass of bourbon on the side.  Somehow, sliding this debut album from New Orleans-based Lake and her band into a CD player seems too much of a newfangled thing to do to a record that really ought to be spinning beneath the needle of a gramophone.  Indeed, there are moments on this album – on “I’m Alone Because I Love You” and “Lucky Devil”, for example – when you’d be forgiven for thinking that Meschiya’s voice was being fed into one of Thomas Edison’s early phonograph cylinders.  As for the ‘Sox’ Wilson song “Gimme a Pigfoot” – well, not even Nina Simone (who covered this in 1966) dared to edge as close to that thirties sound as Meschiya does on this outstanding track.  To add to the authenticity of the album, Lake and her band have chosen songs by Duke Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton and, of course, Bessie Smith, whose ghost lingers distinctly within the roomy echo of this, at times eerily atmospheric,  record.  There’s also a couple of self-penned numbers from Lake that just go to prove, along with the rest of this gem of a record, that no flood nor new century can subdue the spirit of New Orleans.

Chrissi Poland – Songs From the Concrete | Album Review | Danben | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 29.05.11

“If a song’s about something I’ve experienced…it’s good”.  That’s what soul music is all about, according to the Queen herself, Aretha Franklin. Chrissi Poland’s Songs From the Concrete is a soul-crammed scrapbook of life’s trials, love’s troubles and the tribulations of living in the real world – each song penned by Chrissi alone or with acclaimed composer and pianist John Cowherd.  But, like the best soul albums, getting the blood out of the stone is down to the power of the voice.  And what a voice it is.  There are moments on this seven-track album when Poland’s vocals grab you by the hairs on the back of your neck and simply won’t let go.  Just try reviewing songs such as “Yours Is The Love” and “Angel Weep For Me” and you’ll soon discover that you’re unable to type and listen at the same time – it’s difficult to write when you’ve got your eyes shut.  Poland has mixed her ‘concrete’ perfectly on this album.  Thrown into the tumbling drum is a masterful voice, a band so tight it could snap and songwriting that is reminiscent of Carole King, Janis Joplin and Sarah McLaughlin.  There’s also an exquisitely balanced assortment of styles that show off Poland’s flexibility.  “Thinking of You”, for example, presents heartfelt gospel while “Caught Between” is a deep, dark blues.  And then there’s “Sing” – an uplifting number that, although set in Chrissi’s current home of New York City, has New Orleans written all over it.  It comes as no surprise that Chrissi Poland has already worked with some of the biggest names – Elvis Costello, Sting and Moby to name just three.  She has also  toured with the Scissor Sisters and supported that little-known shrinking violet, Lady Gaga.  Perhaps, with this release, she’ll be able to step out of those rather sizeable and oddly-shaped shadows and let the spotlight fall on a voice that the legend Sam Moore says “you GOT to hear!”  After hearing Songs From the Concrete you’re left wanting more and it’s good to know that Chrissi has a busy touring schedule as well as another batch of self-penned songs up her sleeve.  Now, if you’d excuse me, I’m going to fold away this laptop and listen to the album again.

Miss Tess – Darling Oh Darling | Album Review | Miss Tess | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 04.06.11

No matter where your tastes may lie, it’s most likely that you’ll reserve one or two musical taste-buds for at least one track on Miss Tess’s Darling Oh Darling – an album that ushers its listeners around a veritable museum of America’s musical heritage.  Riding Home is as good a place to start as any – a sweet slice of big band swing with all the right ingredients.  This, along with “I Just Wanna Make Love Again”, is the kind of song that any existing Miss Tess fan will have come to know and love.  Her 2007 release, When Tomorrow Comes, is an unabashed outpouring of jazz standards with more of a bow down to Ella Fitgerald than a simple nod.  Fortunately, Miss Tess possesses one of those incense-smoke voices that puts her snugly amongst the likes of Madeleine Peyroux and Melody Gardot rather than allowing her to vanish into that lingering mist of somewhat flavourless jazz singers.  If When Tomorrow Comes was Miss Tess’s Rubber Soul then Darling Oh Darling is surely her Revolver, demonstrating that there are several more strings to this artist’s bow.  “That Oo Oo Oo, Oh No” and “Train Ride to Caroline” provide a shot of pure rockabilly while “Darling Oh Darling” is a laid back, lap-steel guitar-laden country song.  And, just for good measure, there’s a brief but most welcome visit to New Orleans with “Saving All My Love”.  With an enormous band of strummers, pluckers, ticklers and blowers in tow and a voice that loiters for hours after the disc has stopped spinning, not to mention its dizzying blend of styles, this is an album to return to time and time again.

Rory Gallagher – Notes From San Francisco | Album Review | Eagle Records | Review by David Jennings | 10.07.11

Ok – where to start?  I knew about the ‘lost’ Rory album back in the 80’s, when the Torch album was mentioned in various articles and interviews (maybe around the time of Jinx?).  So like legions of other Rory fans, I was keen to hear any new material.  His final studio album, Fresh Evidence, was along time ago, in fact nearly twenty years, and since then releases have been either re-workings of previous releases, albeit with extra tracks, or live material that is always welcome, but is a variation on a familiar theme.  My long awaited copy of Notes From San Francisco arrived in the post the day of release, – thank you Badlands !!  Firstly, the packing.  This well designed Limited Edition book and two CD package is superb.  Very well designed and nicely made, it is a suitable format for such an important release to Rory fans worldwide.  Sleeve notes that detail recording information, arrangements and lyric changes are great to see, and add another level of interest to the songs, some of which are alternative versions of tracks subsequently released by Rory after ‘starting again’.  A couple of essays add background to the story behind this lost recording.  Original producer Elliot Mazer and Rory’s brother/manager Donal Gallagher supply a time-line and some fascinating anecdotes.  The first disc is the studio album, and it is a rich, layered affair with multi-track vocals and arrangements that go far beyond the previous studio albums by this line up.  It is obvious to me that a different pair of ears producing added another dimension to the sound Rory, Lou Rod and Gerry had previously made.  Bluepring, Calling Card, Against the Grain and Tattoo are fine albums, but they have a leaner, less arranged sound.  Notes From San Francisco is closest in ‘feel’ to Against the Grain and it could, in my opinion, have launched Rory into league One in the US. It just has a ‘sound’ that compares to the big AOR hits of the day, no doubt having Neil Youngs’ producer on board was a major factor here.  Starting with a barrelhouse piano intro, opening track “Rue The Day” is a classic Rory blues rock number, which is followed closely by similarly upbeat “Persuasion”.  Both tracks are skillfully arranged, full band numbers that would sit happily on any other Rory album of the period.  The next six tracks are familiar to Rory fans, having appeared on other albums in different versions.  Are they better or worse?  Well, neither.  They are different enough to be regarded as standalone songs, and they all fit the feel of the album.  Brass, keyboards and multiple guitars feature strongly, in contrast to the leaner arrangements on the other later versions.  “Overnight Bag” is perhaps the biggest departure, with phased, double tracked vocals, a new verse and different solos.  A second, less folky version of “Wheels Within Wheels” on the same album shows Rory was always working on arrangements.  The funky, stark sound of “Cut a Dash” is a real departure, and is the only track on the album that sounds like a work-in-progress.  To me, this is a ‘B-side’ as it stands, and is the weakest song on an otherwise excellent album.  “Out on the Tiles” finishes disc one the way it started, with a rocking Rory number.  Disc two is a live treat, with the trio Rory seemingly preferred returning to San Francisco a year after the recordings on disc one. Some blazing versions of familiar live tracks along with a few lesser heard live gems.  Stand-out tracks are “Tattoo’d Lady” and “Calling Card”, but the entire disc is superb and really showcases a band on top form, with Rory playing and singing at his usual 110%.  In summary, this album lives up to expectations, and would also be a fine place for new fans to start – any guitar players or rock fans who like Clapton, Springsteen, The Allman Brothers, Neil Young, John Cougar etc etc will find much to like here, and hopefully progress onto the rest of the formidable Rory back catalogue.  The more acoustic “Wheels Within Wheels”, featuring Martin Carthy amongst others, may be a gentler introduction formidable fans of UK folk and roots music.

Pokey Lafarge and the South City Three – Middle of Everywhere | Album Review | Continental Song City | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 22.07.11

With just a single spin of Middle of Everywhere it would seem that Pokey LaFarge has successfully mastered the art of time-travel.  One would imagine that Pokey’s garage, should he indeed own one, contains a selection of complex machinery engineered for the purpose of commuting from present to past with the anxious flick of a modified kitchen light-switch.  Glance over the sepia-toned inlay photographs of Pokey wearing a Fedora and Crombie and you’ll be forgiven for thinking that this man has just returned from a shopping trip to the 1920s.  And it seems, while he was there, he had time to share a bourbon with W.C. Handy, Alberta Hunter, Bessie and Louis.  But while these songs might be dressed in old clothes, all thirteen of them are newborns, fresh from the pen of LaFarge himself.  Those of us who are partial to a bit of old-time jazz and blues but crave something shiny and new amongst all that roadside dust and vinyl static will, no doubt, love this record.  Amongst the sweet harmonies of “Head to Toe”, the feel-good western swing of “So Long Honeybee, Goodbye”, the shuffling percussion and slide guitar on “Sunny Side of the Street” and that good old St. Louis brass on “Feels So Good”, there lies a newness, a distinct breath of fresh air that proves that Pokey LaFarge is no throwback, he’s just showing us that there’s a lot more life left in the old dog yet.  Tilt your head slightly and you’ll note the shrinking gap between this hundred year-old musical style and the recent releases of the Arctic Monkeys, Jack White and The Strokes.  Pokey might sound like Robert Johnson on “Coffee Pot Blues” but, while our women are still leaving us and the whiskey’s still there to numb the pain, it’s only natural that even us 21st century kids turn to our old friend the blues.  Thankfully, Pokey’s brand of blues, like R. Crumb’s, Leon Redbone’s and Ry Cooder’s before him, is infused with a sense of humour that gives the album a happy-go-lucky, optimistic feel that might just put that time-machine into retirement and give us something to look forward to.

Jacqui Dankworth – It Happens Quietly | Album Review | Newquay Music / Proper Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 10.08.11

To be left without any kind of warm and fuzzy glow after hearing Jacqui Dankworth’s latest album, you would have to possess a heart made entirely of plastic or some such insentient, inanimate material.  It happens Quietly, like a good Disney film or snow on Christmas day, delivers just the right amount of charm, one would even say several moments of pure magic.  The album is dedicated to Jacqui’s father, the legendary Sir John Dankworth, who died during the making of the record.  The very fact that his is the first voice you hear on the record, as he asks if his daughter is ready for him to count in the band, adds to the already bittersweet flavour of the songs themselves.  You get the distinct feeling that Jacqui knew these would be her final hours with her father and was, therefore, totally unprepared for his count-in.  As well as leaving his well-known and much-loved spirit on these recordings, Sir John has also left the album dripping with spellbinding musical arrangements as well as a real goosebumper of a saxophone solo on “The Man” – a song co-written by this father and daughter team.  And as well as the luscious string and brass arrangements on this record, there’s the incomparable saxophone of Tim Garland, the exquisite bass of Jacqui’s brother, Alec Dankworth and the delectable piano of Jacqui’s musical director, Malcolm Edmonstone, to name just a few of the fine musicians that this record boasts.  Sir John’s arrangements perfectly complement his daughter’s lush, glassy vocals, mining old standards in order to produce diamonds such as “In The Still of the Night” and “At Last” – both, despite their age, sounding like brand new songs – and a version of “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” that finds the listener skipping back to listen again, even before track two has had a chance to start.  “Make Someone Happy” shows off the talents of pianist Malcolm Edmonstone, as well as the masterful production of Tony Platt, while “The Folks On The Hill” closes the album beautifully with handsome guitar accompaniment from Chris Allard and an immaculate vocal from Jacqui that surely filled Cleo with pride!  It Happens Quietly is a flawlessly produced, carefully structured tribute to both a father and a musical virtuoso.  It’s also Jacqui’s finest outing yet, released just in time to provide the warm and fuzzy glow for the forthcoming autumn months.

Michael Stegner – Fascination Nation | Album Review | CMA Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 17.08.11

There’s a laid-back, somewhat unenthusiastic quality to Kentucky-based Michael Stegner’s tenor voice, coupled with an occasional ‘just-woke-up’ crackle.  His vocals seem to hang perilously from his melodies, and though they could easily let go and tumble down the stave at any moment, they don’t.  After a few songs, you suddenly get it, just like that first time you heard David Byrne, Nick Cave or Ben Folds – all, surely, amongst Stegner’s influences.  Here’s a voice you want to tell people about, knowing all too well (and rather enjoying the fact) that some of those people will wonder what the heck you’ve been smoking.  If we’re talking influences, you might want to step back a little and take in the entire landscape of Stegner’s debut album, Fascination Nation.  There are moments on this record, particularly on the tracks “Illumined Man” and “I Miss You”, that are so Randy Newman, you’d half expect to hear them featured in a Disney/Pixar film.  Michael is, himself, a fine pianist but, like Newman, manages to cross a spectrum of genres with notable agility.  The songs on this album go from jazz to soul to funk to blues, but each keep a leather boot firmly grounded in story-fuelled country music.  Thankfully, Stegner has brought along a strong line-up of fellow musicians to help colour in-between the lines: Forrest Giberson (bass), Joe Doria (Hammond organ),  Colin Higgins (guitar), Mark Fung and Andy Sells (drums/percussion) as well as Dan Tyack, who provides a noteworthy steel guitar that makes the album sound like its front cover – a sun-drenched salvage yard, full of rusted tractor parts beneath a piercing blue American sky.  There’s also the occasional flourish of brass and some heavenly backing harmonies, too.

Miho Wada – Para Ti EP | EP Review | Florestar | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 17.12.11

It’s always nice when a record falls into your lap from nowhere and immediately confirms itself as a lifelong favourite.  I was prompted to listen to Miho Wada’s Para Ti after reading her name in several jazz journals and noting that she belongs to that, nowadays all too rare species, the jazz flautist.  Thanks, in part, to legendary Anchorman Ron Burgundy, the jazz flute seems to have rolled into the groove cut by the cheesier side of jazz, often being regarded as one of the stand-out instruments of ‘light’ and ‘smooth’ jazz.  I, however, have always been a dedicated member of the Jazz Flute Appreciation Society, forcing Eric Dolphy and Herbie Mann albums upon those who insist on sullying the instrument’s status, before reminding them of the genius of Ian Anderson.  Thanks to Miho Wada, I now have another reason to fight for the cause.  A brief glance at this five-track EP may result in some confusion.  Tokyo-born, New Zealand-based Miho, with pink hair, pigtails and striped stockings, looks like she’s just emerged from the pages of a Japanese Manga.  Indeed, Miho is leading a self-confessed double life, releasing a handful of jazz recordings while also performing with her wonderfully-named Japanese Punk outfit, Miho Wada & The Shit Fight.  But never mind the punk – the five tracks on Para Ti explore a range of other, perhaps more palatable musical influences.  Bailamos is a buoyant, feel-good opener that not only introduces Miho’s bright, lilting flute but also acquaints the listener with the raw and graceful violin playing of Claire MacFarlane and Pascal Roggen.  And there’s an almost anticipated shift to a more traditional folk style with the second track, “Fancy Tango”, which demonstrates Miho’s ability to blend several styles of international folk music with her own brand of Eastern jazz.  The track also benefits from the effervescent, charged piano of Takumi Motokawa.  There’s another shift with “Welcome Home”, this time into a more mainstream, swing style, featuring the stunning clarinet of Mark Dennison.  Surely the thirst of any jazz-fan’s ears are quenched with this track’s catchy melody and wide jazz orchestra production.  “Cats Out” presents another jazzy production, this time with a cartoon feel that’s reminiscent of Raymond Scott and, at times, Vince Guaraldi.  Again, each separate instrument is given its moment to shine, particularly that lovely, scraping electric violin that perfectly captures the feline nature of this mischievous little piece.  The EP closes with “Los Dos”, complete with improvised solos from each musician, notably Miho herself who finds her most comfortable foothold in the rhythm of this Latin-flavoured, dance-inspiring climax.  With all that style-shifting, it may come as no surprise that Para Ti was released to accompany an educational score-book, providing students of Miho Wada with a range of improvisational exercises.  The EP, however, is gaining interest in its own right; and rightly so.  While this EP will, no doubt, sit snugly on my iPod for many years to come, I look forward to further outings from this intriguing and vibrant new artist.

Becca Stevens Band – Weightless | Album Review | Sunnyside | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 09.03.12

I’ll admit it, I was looking for the next Billie Holiday when I discovered Becca Stevens.  It is, for me, a weekly ritual involving the scouring of music magazines and shops for that new voice, that next big thing in the Vocal Jazz section.  And, occasionally, a Norah Jones or an Esperanza Spalding will roll in, proving not only that jazz vocalists still have the ability to warp even the most rigid of spines, but also that jazz has evolved enough to claw a hole through some of the thickest and seemingly impenetrable divides.  Though it pains me to say it, perhaps it’s a blessing that our record shops are vanishing from the high street – who’d be a record shop assistant in a world where Norah Jones is producing jazz, country, pop, blues, soul and alternative rock?  I mean, where do you display the CD?  With Weightless (Sunnyside, 2011) Becca Stevens offers another boundary-defying album for our diverse record shelves.  At just 28 years old, New York-based singer, guitarist and composer Stevens is just beginning her solo career (albeit under the name of the Becca Stevens Band) but has already notched up several appearances on recordings by such notable jazz artists as Brad Mehldau, Taylor Eigsti and Curtis MacDonald.  With guitar, ukulele or even the South American charango in hand, and with a unique vocal style, Becca has served her apprenticeship as part of some of the finest jazz combos around, including the 18-piece Travis Sullivan’s Bjorkestra whose 2008 album Enjoy! won critical acclaim from just about everyone.  Weightless, with its rich acoustic sound and lashings of contrapuntal vocals from Stevens and each member of her band is a captivating, earthy fusion of folk and jazz.  The album, Becca’s second and best yet, opens with the enchanting title track “Weightless” – a veritable labyrinth of complex harmonies and rhythms, not only showcasing Becca’s songwriting and vocal prowess but also the magnetic blending of Becca’s strings, Liam Robinson’s accordion, Chris Tordini’s bass and Jordan Perlson’s percussion.  The song provides the foundation for the rest of the album, which includes a handful of beguiling reworkings of songs by The Smiths “There is a Light That Never Goes Out”, Animal Collective “My Girls” and Seal “Kiss From a Rose”.  Aside from the, frankly, delectable organic, trickling acoustic sound that makes this album one of the most fresh and alluring jazz records of the last few years, the strength of Weightless lies within that one essential ingredient that led, initially, to its creation – Becca Stevens’s voice.  Here is a new voice for the jazz world and an altogether fresh sound for the music world as a whole.  And while there really is no point in searching for another Billie Holiday, the hunt may, at least, be validated by the occasional uncovering of precious gems such as this.

Rory Gallagher – Reissues | Album Review | Sony Legacy | Review  by David Jennings | 20.03.12

The reissue of the first six Rory Gallagher albums is a timely reminder of how recorded music is changing.  These remastered CDs are part of the Sony Legacy programme, intended to be the definitive edition of landmark albums by key artists.  It is testament to the lasting appeal of the Irish blues player that his entire back catalogue will be part of the Legacy project.  This review will focus on the first three albums, with the others to follow on.  These CDs are remastered form the original ¼” master tapes, and in the worlds of Rory’s nephew Daniel Gallagher, who has overseen the re-issues, they are intended to be the digital version that captures “the spirit of the original release…they look and sound exactly as Rory intended”.  The move from vinyl to CD to digital has recently been criticized by none other than Neil Young, and I have an opportunity to compare these formats in some depth, as I have the initial vinyl pressings of these albums, the earlier 1990s CD versions that were ‘remixed’, access to the Spotify streamed versions, and now these Sony Legacy editions that are newly remastered for digital, but not remixed like the earlier CD versions.  A piece about format differences will be along soon.  Before the format comparison – what about the music on these albums?   Well, it is, almost without exception, some of the best guitar-based rock, blues and roots music ever pressed into vinyl, and these remastered CDs are a fitting digital version.  The quality of playing is superb throughout, which is not surprising as Rory was widely acknowledged as one of the very best players, having turned down offers to join The Rolling Stones and Deep Purple over the years, and counting John Lennon, Hendrix, The Edge, Slash, Brian May  and Johnny Marr as fans.  His songwriting and singing are perhaps less renowned than his playing and his astonishing live shows, but these albums show the quality and depth of his talent, with a set of original songs that really are not bettered by any of his peers either for consistency or musicianship.   The self-titled debut LP and the follow up Deuce were both released in 1971, and either would be a career best for 99% of musicians.  Both contain songs Rory continued to play live for the next 20 years, and anyone interested in guitar music should just buy these albums.  Acoustic slide blues sit alongside rocky electric numbers and jazz infused workouts.  Standout tracks like “Laundromat” and “In Your Town” also appeared on the follow up album, Live In Europe – a visceral collection of songs recorded without overdubs in 1972, and the first Gallagher album to enter the Top 10 in the UK.  Understandably thought of as one of the all-time great live recordings, this is the album that inspired U2’s Adam Clayton and The Edge to play in a band.   The remastering is great, and has none of the boomy sound that, in my opinion, marred the earlier digital releases of these analogue classics.   Rory later recorded with stalwarts of the traditional music scene, such as Martin Carthy, the Dubliners and Davy Spillane, and while some of his output is more mainstream than traditional, you can hear his artistry shining through on these albums.  The first two studio albums were recorded back to back by 21 year old Rory, and yet they have a depth and musicianship that most artist fail to achieve over an entire career. 

Norman Bergen – Symphony Of Love | Album Review | North Mountain Music | Review  by Liam Wilkinson | 26.04.12

There’s a distinct joy amongst the thirteen-tracks that make up Norman Bergen’s Symphony Of Love – a joy that derives from an unequivocal passion for music and the melodies that weave their way through the tapestries that are our lives.  Bergen’s own tapestry is something to behold.  His songs have been recorded by the likes of Tom Jones, Nick Lowe, Gloria Gaynor, Wyclef Jean and even Snoop Dogg.  He’s produced and arranged music for such eminent artists as Astrud Gilberto and Tiny Tim and has performed with Neil Sedaka, Cab Calloway and Joe Williams, to name just a few.  To refer to Norman Bergan’s contribution to music as significant would be to reinvent the art of the understatement.  Indeed, he has been living and breathing music for some sixty-eight years.  Now, almost five decades since Arthur Prysock recorded the first version of Bergen’s most famous hit, “Only A Fool Breaks His Own Heart” – a song that has since prompted a further eighty renditions, including the one by Bergen himself that features on this album – this pianist, arranger, songwriter and producer finally emerges from the shadows with a record of mostly self-penned songs, each of them rich with the kind of memorable melodies that can only be the work of a songwriter whose musical roots are embedded in the sixties of the Brill Building, Phil Spector, Carole King, The Beach Boys, Tom Jones and Dusty Springfield.  Indeed, the title track of Symphony Of Love is a no-holds-barred tribute to that most musical of decades, and the only departure that Bergen makes from his own songwriting on this album comes in the shape of the 1963 Hawker/Raymonde classic, “I Only Want To Be With You”.  And it’s not all toe-tapping, goosebump-inducing, sixties-inspired melodies.  The album opens with “I Saw The Full Moon”, a respectable Dixieland ditty, complete with traditional New Orleans jazz backing.  “I’d Rather Do Nothin’ With You” is a Glen Campbell-esque, finger-picking country song while the upbeat blues song, “Love of My Life”, will please the Ray Charles fans amongst us.  Bergen’s warm, laid-back vocals have all the sincerity of Willie Nelson’s, and just as much flexibility, too.  Symphony Of Love presents a selection of songs from a songwriter whose primary concern is to write a good melody, regardless of genre or changing approaches to musical composition.  The lush orchestral arrangements complement Bergen’s thoughtful lyrics and pleasing chord structures, not to mention his subtle yet intricate piano style.  Here we have the product of a craftsman in his workshop – and a fine example it is, too.

Mary Chapin Carpenter – Ashes and Roses | Album Review | Decca | Review  by Liam Wilkinson | 15.07.12

The singer songwriter Sarah McLachlan once said of sadness that it is “a great place to get songs from”.  Indeed, Sarah has been shopping there for years and has brought home bags and bags of melancholic songs in her time.  It is one of the great ironies that every artist inevitably encounters: the saddest times are often the most fruitful when it comes to art.  Mary Chapin Carpenter has had more than her fair share of sadness of late.  The death of her father, the break up of her marriage and a serious illness all recently befell this cherished singer songwriter during a short space of time.  The result?  Grief, anguish and despair.  And yet, in the hands of one of our finest songwriters, those sobering moments not only inspired a bunch of sad and beautiful songs but an outpouring of poetry and melodies on a theme of getting through the pain and resolving to repair oneself.  Ashes And Roses documents the journey towards healing.  It’s a deeply personal though entirely universal album – a work of delicate beauty for those of us who are hoping to hear another great Mary Chapin Carpenter album, and, for those of us experiencing darker days, a true account of how the heart, head and soul can make it through the rain.  “Transcendental Reunion”, with it’s references to travelling alone and being herded through airports and onto planes, is the perfect opener for an album about coping with the uncontrollable forces that life hurls at us.  Bitterness and frustration are explored in “What To Keep and What To Throw Away” and the sublime “The Swords We Carried” – a song that perfectly describes the loss of trust in a once loving relationship – while “Chasing What’s Already Gone” is a Polaroid picture of the past.  “Another Home” provides the turning point in the album as it explores the possibility of starting a new life – a theme that is, perhaps, better presented later with “Learning the World”.  As the journey progresses, the ashes give way to roses as the songs become more uplifting and optimistic.  And what better way to celebrate than with the sudden presence of James Taylor whose voice and guitar make a welcome appearance on Soul Companion – a song that celebrates the company of others, just when you thought the loneliness would never lift.  As well as its deeply moving subject matter, Ashes And Roses benefits from some fine musicianship and a sound that paints a picture of a softly-lit, cosy coffee-house gig behind rain-spotted windows.  Mary Chapin Carpenter’s voice remains at a subtle, sombre level throughout the album, never making the unnecessary climb above the lines of delicate, unfussy melody.  It is a voice that’s perfectly complemented by the ethereal electric guitar of Duke Levine, Mary’s trickling acoustic finger-picking and the gentle yet defiant piano of Matt Rollings.

Pat Metheny – Unity Band | Album Review | Nonesuch | Review  by Liam Wilkinson | 18.07.12

Over the last century, Jazz has drawn a varied map of adventures for the guitar. From Django Reinhardt to Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell to John McLaughlin, Herb Ellis to John Abercrombie, the guitar has been handled by just about as many innovators, technicians, wizards and eccentrics in jazz as it has in rock, blues or any other musical genre.  Some of the finest moments in the guitar’s more recent history have been down to Pat Metheny who, ever since serving his apprenticeship with Gary Burton’s band in the mid-1970s, has played an indefatigable role in blending a multitude of musical styles and genres in order to create a compelling discography while helping to maintain the guitar’s reputation as a significant jazz instrument.  Metheny’s latest in a long line of ambitious projects is Unity Band; a record that sees Metheny, once again, exploring and, ultimately, pushing the boundaries of the quartet.  And what a quartet it is.  While Pat, at times sublimely, works his way through a selection of electric and acoustic guitars to create that utterly delicate, sagacious sound by which he has come to be defined, the Mexican drummer Antonio Sanchez delights with the percussive delirium he has so often brought to Metheny’s recordings.  Winner of the 2009 Thelonious Monk International Bass Competition and fresh from his 2011 debut solo album, State Of Play, Ben Williams proves, as part of Metheny’s unit, just why he is now regarded as one of the most sought-after bassists in the whole of jazz. And, thanks to the combined generosity and wisdom of our guitarist leader, the well-respected saxophonist Chris Potter, who has almost twenty recordings as leader under his belt as well as hundreds as sideman for the likes of Paul Motian and Dave Holland, is ushered into the spotlight – often with exhausting power and ingenuity – on this record.  Highlights of Unity Band include “Roofdogs” which, with Potter’s exploratory soprano sax, often reaches the euphoria of John Coltrane’s more spiritual work; “This Belongs to You” features a sumptuous, stripped-back performance from Pat on acoustic guitar; “Leaving Town” is a departure from the rest of the album, with its laid-back grin and band-in-a-room production, before a rapturous climax is well and truly reached on the album’s closing track, “Breakdealer”.  With its simple, stylised white-text-on-a-black-background for a cover and only nine tracks and four musicians in total, you’d be forgiven for any initial minimalistic ideas you might have about this record.  What you get, however, is a locomotive of an album, crashing through any preconceived ideas of what a jazz quartet recording is and, perhaps, ought to be.

Bruce Kaphan Quartet – Bruce Kaphan Quartet | Album Review | Wiggling Air Records | Review  by Liam Wilkinson | 23.07.12

Like the crumhorn, the kettle drum and the pipe organ, the pedal steel is one of those strange instruments that you rarely see at your local jazz club.  Unlike the crumhorn, however, the pedal steel is a mainstay of the blues – a genre so closely related to jazz that you’d expect to see many more sliders washing up on the jazz shore.  Here’s one. Bruce Kaphan is a San Francisco-based musician, composer and producer who, with his latest album Bruce Kaphan Quartet has broken into the jazz world using his pedal steel and a handful of fine musicians, most notably Jeffrey Wash: a fretless bass player with the tenderest of touches.  The album features eight original compositions, each showcasing the landscape-evoking moans of Kaphan’s pedal steel, smeared over the stand-up groove of the piano, bass and drums.  The remaining tracks are covers and include a slick version of Weather Report’s “Birdland” and a particularly pleasing and entirely suitable interpretation of the Allman Brothers’ classic “Jessica”.

Empirical – Elements of Truth | Album Review | Naim Jazz | Review  by Liam Wilkinson | 24.07.12

There’s a lot to be happy about in British jazz at the moment.  We Brits have produced some of the finest, most adventurous and industrious jazz outfits of the last few years: The Neil Cowley Trio, Kairos 4tet, Polar Bear and Portico Quartet have all produced some outstanding music, but ask this reviewer where to start and he will reply Empirical – a four-piece band of young, like-minded musicians, each intent upon capturing the state of the world around them in moments of ‘trial and error’ improvisation (according to the statement on their website).  Whatever their intentions, the result has been three very captivating, stunningly presented records.  Elements Of Truth, their third release, showcases the intertwining and occasionally starkly contrasting sounds of Nathaniel Facey’s energetic sax and Lewis Wright’s dreamlike vibraphone upon the rolling and often foreboding tide of Tom Farmer’s drums and Shaney Forbes’s bass.  Guest pianist George Fogel adds a very fitting yet somewhat uncanny white foam to the scene.  Aside from the frequent outbursts of complex, driving rhythms that have come to typify much of the contemporary British jazz scene, there are some truly exceptional moments of ethereal, otherworldly jazz on this record, specifically during “Out of Sight”, “Out of Mind (Part 1)” and “Cosmos (for Carl Sagan)” – music that, like Carl Sagan himself, is capable of going against the grain and mesmerising you with the potential for beauty in chaos.

Red June – Beauty Will Come | Album Review | Red June Records | Review  by Liam Wilkinson | 25.07.12

With roots firmly planted in the Appalachian tradition and branches reaching defiantly into the fresh and lively breezes of contemporary Americana, North Carolina trio Red June are surely about to enjoy a veritable autumn of success, dropping their leaves into many a contented ear with the release of their second album Beauty Will Come.  Opening with the delicious and somewhat Gram Parsons-esque “These Old Chains” – penned by the trio’s guitarist and vocalist Will Straughan – Beauty Will Come is a Sunday afternoon country album with all the sweetness of an early Alison Krauss record and the warm veneer of anything by Tim O’Brien.  There’s clearly no leader of the pack here as each member of the trio takes his or her turn on lead vocal.  And whether it’s resonator guitar, mandolin or fiddle, there’s plenty of chance to enjoy the slick yet disarmingly subtle artistry of each player.  There’s the occasional reel and breakdown thrown down the mountain, a few gutsy, harmony-laden bluegrass numbers and even a spine-tingling a capella version of Bob Flemming’s “I’m Willing To Try”.  Amongst all of this, however, lies the real deal breaker – a selection of finely crafted country songs with lyrics to warm the heart and melodies and chord changes to make it flutter.

Eddie Gomez – Per Sempre | Album Review | Varese Fontana | Review  by Liam Wilkinson | 28.07.12

The title of Eddie Gomez’s latest release is entirely fitting.  Indeed, it seems as if Puerto Rican double bassist Gomez has been around ‘per sempre’ – forever.  Accompanist of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Benny Goodman and, most notably, Bill Evans, Eddie Gomez has long been a familiar name in the liner notes, but one that has rarely taken the spotlight.  On Per Sempre, however, there are moments when the double bass – rawly plucked, mournfully bowed and occasionally accompanied by Eddie’s vocal mumblings – assumes a character all its own with the aid of some truly mesmerising bass techniques.  Despite this obvious dexterity and his years of informed experience, Gomez never climbs on top of his fellow musicians.  More than anything, Per Sempre provides an example of how a group of instruments can delicately blend and their phrases may be allowed to subtly expand and contract to create moments of true musical emotion.  The melding of Matt Marvuglio’s flute and Marco Pignataro’s saxophone on this record, especially when embracing Gomez’s gorgeous, melancholic melodies on “Arianna” and “Pops & Alma”, is a delicious affair indeed.  Teo Ciavarella smears himself all over the keyboard to create a wide expanse of piano accompaniment while Massimo Manzi’s sweeping sheen of cymbals and brushed snare lowers a glass jar over the album to keep it all in.  Like the best Bill Evans recordings, Eddie Gomez’s Per Sempre is a thoughtful, dimly-lit production from a musician who knows that less is more than enough.

Antony and the Johnsons – Cut The World | Album Review | (Rough Trade | Review  by Liam Wilkinson | 19.08.12

After a steady stream of emotionally-charged, positively unique and often genuinely bewitching studio albums, Antony and the Johnsons have made the very sensible decision to release a live album.  Cut The World comprises a selection of live recordings taken from the band’s September 2011 concerts at the DK Concert Hall in Copenhagen, as well as a studio recording of “Cut The World”, a brand new song from the pen of Antony Hegarty.  After the album’s stirring, symphonic title track, there comes a lengthy and absorbing introduction, recorded live on stage, by Antony himself.  And it’s an intro that sets the tone for the entire record; a chatty preamble on the subject of spirituality, sexuality and the nature of our ecologically doomed world.  Deep stuff indeed, and yet, despite its heavy message, there’s something charming about Antony’s informal tone – a delivery that aids the digestion of the acidic hatred Antony has experienced, particularly in the monotheistic religions he so casually mentions.  Charming is a good word for the rest of the album, too.  These luscious, symphonic recordings of some of Antony’s most profoundly poetic and melodically arresting songs are like operatic nursery rhymes, each getting under the skin with as much ease as a splinter but without any of the discomfort.  “Cripple and the Starfish”, “Kiss My Name” and “The Crying Light” are all highlights, but like the best live albums, the record should be enjoyed in its entirety, preferably with the lights turned down and the volume turned up.

The Steel Wheels – Lay Down, Lay Low | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 26.08.12

Lay Down, Lay Low is the third and most recent release from Virginia-based bluegrass band The Steel Wheels.  This refreshingly crisp bluegrass album, equal in contemporary country sheen as irresistible old-timey scuffs, benefits greatly from the Darrell Scott-esque vocals of Trent Wagler, the liquidity of Jay Lapp’s drip-dropping mandolin and Eric Brubaker’s weeping fiddle.  However, the album’s best moments arise out of the harmonies that this band are capable of creating.  While “Breaking Like The Sun” is reason enough to add this record to any collection, “Halfway To Heaven” and “Indian Trail” secure this album’s place in the long list of must-have bluegrass albums of the year.

Tin Hat – The Rain Is A Handsome Animal | Album Review | New Amsterdam | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 28.08.12

Ten years ago, while sitting in my cold and leaky garden flat by the sea, I switched on the radio and heard what sounded like a violin dancing with a broken mattress.  The sound turned out to be a tune entitled “Fountain of Youth” by the Tin Hat Trio.  I was hooked and, over the next decade, I stuffed my record collection with everything the trio released; from the eerie chamber music of Memory Is An Elephant and Helium, via the malformed western swing of The Rodeo Eroded, to the haunting insert-genre-here of Book Of Silk and The Sad Machinery Of Spring.  Surreal, otherworldly, usually instrumental though often accompanied by the vocals of violinist Carla Kihlstedt or such eminent guests as Tom Waits and Willie Nelson, the Tin Hat Trio – known as Tin Hat since the departure of accordionist Rob Burger – have been defying categorisation for fifteen years with a steady stream of weirdly unique, though always exquisite, records.  Billing the project as their most ambitious to date, Tin Hat have just released The Rain Is A Handsome Animal – a seventeen movement song-cycle using as lyrics the poetry of e.e.cummings.  Employing the usual, spine-tingling blend of accordion, clarinet, guitar and violin, the band have, once again, tinkered with the mechanisms of jazz, classical and European folk to produce the usual captivating monster that is their unparalleled brand of chamber music.  This time, however, Carla Kihlstedt breathes life into the deformed marionette with her wispy, ethereal vocals and the unpredictable modernist poetry of the perpetually lower case e.e. cummings.  Like their 2007 outing The Sad Machinery Of Spring, which was inspired by the writings of Bruno Shulz, Tin Hat’s The Rain Is A Handsome Animal presents another perfect marriage – that of the band’s dark and chilling acoustic sound with the words of a troubled artist.  And whether you’re approaching this album as a Tin Hat devotee, a cummings reader or someone with a penchant for the musically extraordinary, you’ll be thoroughly entertained and nourished by the record’s spirited inventiveness and mischievous charm.

The Vespers – The Fourth Wall | Album Review | Black Suit | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 01.09.12

After a sweet, jangly and quietly self-released debut two years ago, Nashville-based four-piece The Vespers have returned with another richly melodic album of instantly loveable folk-pop songs.  The Fourth Wall, like its 2010 predecessor Tell Your Mama, is brimming with those whistle-inspiring Americana songs that are an ad-man’s dream; the ones that invariably end up on washing powder commercials due to their infectious melodies.  There is, however, a depth to this band’s brand of seemingly buoyant folk-pop thanks to the breadth of musicianship and ingenuity.  Those catchy melodic phrases, for example, are agreeably plumped out thanks to Callie and Phoebe Cryar, the band’s lead vocalists, whose sibling harmonies are angelic and often preternatural in their courage and complexity, reaching, in several places, the dizzying heights of Larkin Poe.  Completing the line-up, brothers Bruno and Taylor Jones cite southern rock, folk and blues as their unshakable inspirations.  As well as including a cover of Son House’s “Grinnin’ In Your Face”, there’s also a generous helping of bluegrass and gospel on this record, particularly in the ground-shaking prayer “Lawdy” and the banjo-frailing, old timey “Will You Love Me”.  The album also benefits from a sprinkling of effervescent pop songs such as “Flower Flower” and the uke-plucking “Jolly Robber”.  Weaving in and out of light and lilting love songs, gritty blues numbers and Sunday spirituals, The Vespers have built upon an impressive debut and, if there’s any justice, we’ll be hearing much more from them as a result.

Miho Wada – Wanderland | Album Review | Florestar | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 03.09.12

Following on from last year’s Para Ti, Miho Wada has revisited her PlayM!ho score book to produce another exuberant and energetic collection.  Wanderland is an eight-track scrapbook of flute-led jazz tunes inspired by the landscape of Miho’s home in Auckland, New Zealand. Composed “while walking her puppy” around Auckland, each composition presents an impressionistic picture of Miho’s own “Wanderland”, instilled with a palpable warmth and generosity of spirit.  Miho doesn’t hold back – her flute style is at once fearless, passionate and exploratory.  Unfold the CD’s insert and you’ll melt deeper into the mind of this Japanese-born, New Zealand-based jazz flautist and occasional punk vocalist (Wada is also the lead singer of the daintily-named Miho Wada & The Shit Fight).  In her liner notes, Miho describes the track Bears and Bamboos as a tune about a mountain bear who wishes he were a panda and notes that “Breakfast With Aliens” is a feast of laser beamed eggs.  Surreal the titles may be, but Wanderland is a seriously good jazz record with as much complexity in its arrangements as in its bizarrely enchanting inspirations.  Miho is joined by violinist Pascal Roggen, cellist James Donaldson, bassist Leo Corso, guitarist Andrew Rudolph, pianist Takumi Motokawa and percussionists Alistair Deverick and Jane Chen.  The album was entirely written, arranged and produced by Miho Wada.

TG Collective – Release The Penguins | Album Review | Stoney Lane Music | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 04.09.12

One would need a Large Hadron Collider to discover the single unknown something that makes TG Collective’s Release The Penguins the infectious little treasure that it is.  There is so much at play here – from the madcap title track that is as much Raymond Scott as it is Django Reinhardt to the flirtatious flamenco of “Silhouette”; from the intricate mystery of “Sutta and Homage” to the dramatic, somewhat filmic complexity of “The Long Arm”.  The mix of gypsy-style guitar, flute, percussion, bass and the occasional trumpet creates, at once, a full yet attractively sparse sound that pulls you toward the music rather than bringing it to you.  Much more than your average gypsy jazz album, this record is a thoughtful tour of that surprisingly varied terrain.  Often intoxicating in its musical curiosity and so exquisitely produced, Release The Penguins exemplifies the diversity and ambition that exists in contemporary British jazz.

Maurizio Minardi – My Piano Trio | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 09.09.12

Italian-born, London-based pianist Maurizio Minardi has just released another superlative collection of thoughtful compositions that blur the line between classical and jazz. My Piano Trio, with it’s Magritte-inspired cover art, is reminiscent of the best of Jacques Loussier but with an uplifting contemporary feel.  Testing the technical and emotional limits of each Bach-like arpeggio, Minardi’s meditative piano seems to seep out of the speakers and deep into the listener.  With all the studious consideration of Bill Evans and the subtle intensity of Esbjorn Svensson, My Piano Trio – which actually features five musicians and three trio setups – presents a beautifully tranquil and, at times, brooding performance from a modern master.

Leigh Barker and The New Sheiks – The Sales Tax | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 09.09.12

As one of Australia’s foremost jazz bassists, Leigh Barker has earned himself quite a reputation.  As well as appearing with his own bands and as sideman for some of Australia’s best jazz musicians, Leigh has also played with such renowned jazzmen as saxophonist Branford Marsalis and guitarist Doug Wamble.  Barker’s most recent project is Leigh Barker and The New Sheiks – a six-piece 1930s jazz/blues outfit fronted by the Australian singer Heather Stewart.  The Sheiks’ latest album The Sales Tax is a live recording that not only showcases the band’s authentic 30s sound but also proves that they are capable of putting on a hell of a show.  Heather’s gin-soaked vocals, balanced somewhere between Bessie Smith and Memphis Minnie, while managing to remain totally unique and alluring, wind their way around an impressive repertoire of blues and ragtime numbers by such eminent artists as Leadbelly, Sleepy John Estes and, their namesakes, the Mississippi Sheiks.  The record – or, shall we say, performance – also benefits from a couple of tasty instrumentals that show off the immaculate, often bowed bass of the band’s mastermind, Leigh Barker.

Gary Bartz – Coltrane Rules: Tao of a Music Warrior | Album Review | OYO Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 22.10.12

Surely one of the most exhilarating jazz releases of the year so far, Gary Bartz’s Coltrane Rules: Tao Of A Music Warrior is a multifaceted statement of an album.  At once a celebration of and tribute to John Coltrane, this eleven-track album could, at times, be easily mistaken for an original Coltrane release, evoking, as it does, the powerfully meditative playing of that much-missed jazz legend.  For almost half a century, Bartz has been considered one of the best saxophonists of his generation, his playing having been compared with Coltrane on countless occasions.  With this latest release, Bartz explores the spirituality of the late saxophonist’s and, indeed, his own ruminative playing.  There are moments when Bartz’s sax is indistinguishable from that of Coltrane, meandering capriciously through improvised lines over the reliable, reflective yet unobtrusive playing of pianist Barney McAll, bassist James King and drummer Greg Bandy.  There are also gospel-influenced vocals from Andy Bey, Ommas Keith, Makea Keith, Eric Rose and Bartz himself, adding an extra dimension to an album that was already, at best, a multidimensional modern classic.

Daniel McBrearty – Clarinet Swing | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 24.10.12

Subtlety seems to be the underpinning factor on the superbly spare and unadorned new record by Welsh-born, Belgium-based clarinetist Daniel McBrearty.  Inspired by a visit to New Orleans, Clarinet Swing – an album of mainly jazz standards with a few McBrearty originals thrown in – was recorded in just two days with only pianist Dirk Van der Linden and bassist Jean Van Lint there to provide accompaniment.  And, with a production that’s unencumbered by audio effects and multi-tracking, this tastefully uncluttered record, at times reminiscent of the 1940s recordings of the Benny Goodman Trio, succeeds in reducing each composition to its essential parts.  Take, for instance, the opening track: Raymond Hubbell’s “Poor Butterfly” has never sounded so sparse.  And yet the effect is almost hypnotising.  You can hear the length of every breath as it makes it’s way down McBrearty’s clarinet.  As for Van der Linden’s piano, there’s nothing showy here, and yet the musician’s joy and passion for his art is palpable in every note.  Jean Van Lint’s double bass arrives on the second track, McBrearty’s own “March of the Bluestones”, complete with the rustic twang of string on wood.  This is as far as the sound needs to be pushed and you can hear the bounce of every note off every wall in that confined space.  Apart from the very welcome originals, you find yourself hoping for certain standards as the album proceeds. Sometimes those wishes are fulfilled.  There’s a delightful version of Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz” here, a slow and intimate “Body and Soul” and a surprisingly infectious “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend”.  There’s also a snugly-fitting reworking of “When I Grow Old To Dream”, complete with vocals from McBrearty that add to the warmth and charm of this elegantly cosy record.

Wild Card – Everything Changes | Album Review | Top End Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 25.10.12

As London-born jazz records go, you’d be hard pushed to find one that reflects the capital city more sharply than Wild Card’s latest release.  Exuberant, energetic, bold – Everything Changes is a carnival of urban rhythms and serpentine Latin grooves.  It is, at once, an album that lifts you to your feet but encourages you to stop and absorb every one of its many thoughtfully dexterous solos.  And what soloists they are, too.  Consisting of French guitarist Clement Regert, percussionist Sophie Alloway and organist Andrew Noble, London-based trio Wild Card provides a wealth of consistently strong breaks.  Add to the mix special guests such as trombonist Dennis Rollins, trumpeter Graeme Flowers and saxophonist/flautist Robert Manzin and you have yourself a pretty gutsy sextet.  Throw in a couple of spellbinding raps from French rappeuse B’Loon and you’ve got an album that just won’t let go of the CD drawer.  With such a tenacious group of musicians at the helm, the album is nothing short of a pleasure cruise and these waters are, thankfully, populated by the compositions of such masters as Horace Silver “Psychedelic Sally”, Jason Moran “Ms. Garvey Ms. Garvey” and Steve Kuhn “The Saga of Harrison Crabfeathers”.  There’s even a hypnotic, Latin-infused version of Noel Gallagher’s “Wonderwall” – a cheesy yet, somehow, welcome diversion to which I intend to return time and again, just for the sheer joy of it.

Ed Cherry – It’s All Good | Album Review | Posi-Tone | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 26.10.12

There’s a cleanliness in Ed Cherry’s guitar style, an immaculate delicacy that is never allowed to stray into the clinical precision of a smoother kind of jazz.  On It’s All Good, Cherry’s playing breathes its soul out in whispers, often tackling some rather complex melodies and improvisations with a lightness that prompts you to get as close as you can to the speaker.  Occasionally, the notes will jump out like controlled explosions, but with an admirable effortlessness.  And when they do, you know that Ed means it.  These dynamics are mirrored in the organ of Pat Bianchi, a player of incredible control and elegance whose background work, coloured with a spectrum of striking tones, is equally if not more enticing than his solos.  Byron Landham’s drums are distributed about the album like a fine dust on “In a Sentimental Mood”, often mounting into impressive clumps on “Deluge”.  Indeed, having backed Dizzy Gillespie for over a decade while also appearing with saxophonist Henry Threadgill and organist John Patton, Ed Cherry clearly surrounds himself with only the cream of the crop.  It’s All Good is a sumptuous collection of covers and originals from a trio of musicians who seem, throughout, to be aware of just how great they sound together.  Let’s hope they have the good sense to reconvene in the studio in the not too distant future.

Miss Tess – Sweet Talk | Album Review | Signature Sounds | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 29.10.12

Three years have passed since the release of Miss Tess’s last studio album and while much of the sassy, brassy jazz appears to have been drained from her repertoire, it’s a delight to report that New York’s Tess hasn’t let go of the crackling-hot rockabilly that made Darling Oh Darling sizzle.  Sweet Talk – Miss Tess’s latest release and debut recording with backing band The Talkbacks – is a spirited outpouring of a fifties-inspired style that has not only enjoyed a revival of late (thanks, in part, to Imelda May) but seems to have endured, building proudly upon its credibility with each passing year.  Thanks to Miss Tess’s hearty, bluesy vocals, Sweet Talk isn’t just another disc to chuck on the rockabilly pile – it’s a fine example of how these albums can transcend the ‘throwback’ appeal.  While clearly rooted in fifties rock n’ roll, “People Come Here For Gold” is as fresh and contemporary in feel as it is nostalgic; “Adeline” – a highlight of the record – would sit comfortably with Amy Winehouse’s version of “Valerie” on any Friday Night Playlist while New Orleans – surely in the running for the best of the bunch – features a barrelhouse piano solo that almost succeeds in ushering the rest of the record into the shadows.  The album concludes with what has to be the most dreamy, lonesome-sounding “I Don’t Want To Set The World On Fire” ever recorded, featuring the soothing guitar of Will Graefe – and it’s a track that will either cast you off into a very pleasant nap or insist that you start over from the beginning.  Sweet Talk is, in short, a treat.

Hywel Davies – Hywel Davies | Album Review | Prima Facie | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 01.11.12

For those unfamiliar with Hywel Davies, a first spin of his eponymous new disc will reveal the work of a composer who is, perhaps first and foremost, a sonic artist. Modern composition this may be, but it is merely a starting point for a record that blurs the boundary between music and listener.  The seventeen works herein range from the serenely ambient to the abruptly turbulent, each imbued with an element of chance – whether it be in the aleatoric composition or in the way Davies leaves the work open to the interpretation of the listener.  “Descent”, for example, may have been inspired by the length of a breath taken by freediver Tanya Streeter, but the resulting, pensively ascending piece with its graceful, stirring strings, is a stunningly emotive meditation.  Similarly, though instrumentally different, “Albumleaf” and other solo piano works on the album may be strictly diatonic but seem to grow out of and away from the rigidity of their composition, flowering in a space that is accessible to all.  The music on this new release from one of Britain’s foremost composers and artists may be abstract but, like the best of its kind, the work insists only upon a mind as wide open as its ear.

John Wheeler – Un-American Gothic | Album Review | Cooking Vinyl | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 21.11.12

Who is John Wheeler?  Not only a valid question but also the prevailing theme of Un-American Gothic, the first solo album from the creator and frontman of Rockgrass outfit Hayseed Dixie.  For the past twelve years, John Wheeler has been performing under the pseudonym Barley Scotch and leading the world’s most successful hillbilly rock group.  But, after a gruelling 2011 tour and over a decade of live and studio successes, the band has decided to take a break, giving Wheeler the chance to shave off the beard, cast off the dungarees and record a very personal, insightful and often technically astonishing solo album of southern rock songs.  These days, Wheeler’s ‘south’ is Cambridge, UK where the ex-pat American resides with his family.  Un-American Gothic explores Wheeler’s new-found identity with a rattlebag of gritty, occasionally humorous but always intelligent self-penned songs as well as refreshing takes on Paul Weller’s “Eton Rifles” and Bob Dylan’s “Masters Of War” – an evergreen anthem that, here, purrs like a machine and builds with a wonderfully restrained intensity.  The first single from the album – Wheeler’s “Deeper In Debt” (inspired by a chat between Wheeler and Fairport Convention’s Dave Pegg) – is a barbed yet sophisticated, gently comic but seriously listenable contemplation on the subject of the global credit crunch, performed with just the right amount of Hayseed-inflections to please those already dedicated fans and spawn a plethora of new ones, too.  While benefitting from a wealth of pleasing originals and cannily-selected covers, it is, perhaps, Wheeler’s distinctive voice that gives Un-American Gothic its instant appeal.  And, while Barley Scotch is briefly packed away in an old suitcase in the garage, it’s a pleasure to get to know John Wheeler and to rediscover a voice we thought we knew.

Harry Allen & Scott Hamilton – ‘Round Midnight | Album Review | Challenge | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 22.11.12

Jazz has seen the emergence of many a duet recording, some of which have created enough deliciously white-hot sparks to forge themselves into the monument of the music’s long history: Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan, Miles Davis and John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker… the list goes on.  ‘Round Midnight – the latest release from Harry Allen and Scott Hamilton – provides another example of the amalgamation of two great jazz musicians, this time with one great jazz instrument – the tenor sax.  But while Allen and Hamilton share a common instrument and love for their music, the subtle differences in their styles are what lend this union its overwhelming appeal.  This is an album to savour over and over again, with enough intricate interplay of saxes to keep you hooked for some considerable time. Take, for instance, the opener “My Melancholy Baby” a tune so deeply ingrained in our consciousness and yet one that, here, overflows with equal amounts of joy and invention.  The conversation between the two saxes is one that has you eavesdropping from the start – the lines of melody weave in and out of harmony, at times blending so smoothly that you almost imagine the very metal of the horns to have fused.  The performance is equalled on the Dorothy Parker/Jack King composition “How Am I To Know?” and Eddie Lockjaw Davis’s “Hey Lock!” while the pace is picked up for the stunningly sophisticated lines of Allen’s “Great Scott”, Bill Potts’s “The Opener” and a version of the Hart/Rodgers classic “Lover” from the 1932 Chevalier comedy Love Me Tonight – a track that provides those effervescent sparks we were hoping for.  Allen and Hamilton – two seasoned musicians with towering reputations – are joined on this, their third recording together, by pianist Rossano Sportiello, bassist Joel Forbes and Chuck Riggs on drums.

Fat Babies – Chicago Hot | Album Review | Delmark | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 27.11.12

Hot Chicago jazz is alive and well and living in…well…Chicago.  Almost an entire century since King Oliver made the walls of Chicago’s Royal Gardens sweat, the Fat Babies are exposing the roots of the windy city’s jazz heritage with great gusto.  With their debut release Chicago Hot, the Fat Babies have created a positively shining example of how a century-old style of music can, once again, dazzle.  Every scratch and jot of fluff and dust has been removed from the surface of these early jazz gems to provide a clean and clear-cut sound.  Fats Waller’s “Willow Tree” and Victoria Spivey’s “Black Snake Blues” swing beguilingly while King Oliver’s “Snake Rag” and Freddie Keppard’s “Here Comes The Hot Tamale Man” are so hot hey ought to come with a safety warning.  And while every musician on the album contributes to the flavour of this dish, it is perhaps Andy Schumann’s Bix-style cornet and John Otto’s clarinet that provide the spiciest notes.  If your jazz tastes extend as far back as the 1910s and you enjoy the steaming amalgamation of cornet, clarinet, trombone, sax, piano, bass, banjo and percussion, then this fresh yet traditional album may be for you.

Cory Weeds – Up A Step | Album Review | Wienerworld | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 28.11.12

Saxophonist, club owner, record label owner, radio host…Cory Weeds is a man who lives and breathes jazz. Weeds is the owner of Vancouver’s top jazz club The Cellar – now a world renowned venue – and continues to promote jazz with what seems to be every fibre of his body.  He also happens to be one of Canada’s foremost sax men and has, for the past fifteen years, performed with the cream of the international jazz crop as well as releasing a handful of superlative recordings as leader.  His latest outing – Up A Step – presents a live tribute to tenor sax legend Hank Mobley and features eight solid readings of Mobley’s unfailingly magnetic compositions.  As well as benefitting from the complex, jagged meanderings of Weeds’s impulsive tenor sax, the album’s success is also indebted to the inclusion of Cory’s old friend, the New York pianist/organist Mike LeDonne whose B3 organ bubbles like molten lava beneath every track on this white-hot record.  Also featuring Vancouver stalwarts Oliver Gannon (guitar) and Jesse Cahill (drums), Up A Step is an example of contemporary Canadian hard bop, in all its verve and vitality, at its very best.

Nicolas Repac – Black Box | Album Review | Naïve | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 02.01.13

Remarkably, almost fourteen years have passed since American electronica artist Moby sampled the field recordings of Alan Lomax, proving that sampling could provide some rather tasty moments of musical experimentation.  Ever since the release of Moby’s 1999 album Play, the eerie sound of almost century-old work songs and crackly blues melodies layered over contemporary back-beats and synthesised chords has become an accepted and, often, arresting musical device. Just listen to Chumbawamba’s spine-sizzling “Jacob’s Ladder (Not In My Name)” from the band’s Readymades album, featuring a sample of Harry Cox’s “The Pretty Ploughboy”, and you’ll hear just how chillingly affective the device can be.  Enter Nicolas Repac – a Frenchman with a penchant for tinkering with machines and cooking up haunting sound collages.  Repac’s first album Swing Swing sounded like the soundtrack to a strange dream in which Repac’s time machine had somehow become stuck between the present day and the 1930s.  Familiar swing rhythms, brass flourishes, lines of clarinet and scat vocals were fused with modern beats and industrial sound effects to create a somewhat attractive mutation.  Think ‘The House of Elliott’ crossed with ‘Total Recall’.  Now, Repac has returned with another, somewhat more mature album and this time it’s less a collection of mutants than a series of bionically engineered compositions.  Black Box isn’t another eyebrow-raising showcase of the possibilities of sampling, instead this album presents a carefully woven soundscape that often reaches the truly sublime.  And while traces of old blues and jazz are still integral to his experiments, Repac has focused much of this new exploration on world music, combining his brand of industrial and electronic music with samples of French and African singers to host a multidimensional journey into the continuing history of international blues.  The time machine is still, thankfully, malfunctioning, but so is Repac’s compass as he meanders between continents like a musical David Attenborough.  Black Box is an ever-moving, ever-evolving, richly textured album that will surely continue to intrigue and delight for some time to come.

Solarference – Lips of Clay | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Kev Boyd | 03.01.13

The latter half of 2012 proved to be a productive time for Bristol-based duo Solarference.  Having developed a unique approach to live performance since forming in 2008 and with an increasingly busy gigging schedule, Nick Janaway and Sarah Owen also found themselves the subject of an enthusiastic article in fRoots magazine, received the Innovation gong in the annual Fatea Awards and finally released Lips Of Clay, their debut album-length recording.  If, like me, you’re naturally disdainful of labels you may cringe at the mention of the word ‘Folktronica’ but on the evidence of these recordings it’s the only sensible way to describe what Solarference do.  Essentially, they sing folk songs while accompanying themselves on laptops that utilise custom-built software to sample a variety of live sounds.  If that seems simple then it is deceptively so.  They credit themselves with ‘playing’ (amongst other things) ‘sound objects’, which in reality means sampling a combination of percussive handclaps, vocal clicks and ticks, domestic objects and conventional percussion instruments.  They ally all this technology with some impressively strong vocals that often pull off the difficult trick of skipping between melody and harmony in short order.  In terms of repertoire, they draw material exclusively from the British tradition and make some familiar choices – “Higher Germanie”, “Tarry Trousers”, “Bobbie Allen” (their version of the more familiarly-titled “Barbara Allen”) – while also including a few lesser-known pieces, some of which are partially sung in the Welsh language.  In their live shows nothing is pre-recorded: every element is sampled ‘live’ then stretched, looped or otherwise manipulated to create multiple layers of sound that, unusually in the field of electronica, make every performance entirely unique.  In some instances performances of the same song can be radically different from one gig to the next.  With such reliance on the accidental event and the one-off performance Nick and Sarah admit that the prospect of translating their live sound to the permanency of the recorded artefact presented some particular challenges.  They seem to have reached a sort of compromise where they have retained much of the atmosphere of their live shows but allowed themselves the freedom to adapt their approach to the different medium.  ‘We’ve tried to reflect the live show’, Sarah told fRoots in October 2012, ‘but also to create different colours and textures for each song, unique to the album’.  So then, what of the album itself?  On first hearing it seems a little percussion-heavy – an inevitable function of their working methods, perhaps – but further layers of subtlety are revealed with subsequent listens.  So while “Milder and Mulder” and “Tarry Trousers” are largely percussion-based, “O Wake O Wake” and “Little Blue Flame” are driven predominantly by strong vocal performances.  The impact of “Higher Germanie” (and to a lesser extent the predominantly Welsh language piece “Ei Di’r Deryn Du”) stems from an atmospheric approach that is built around a layering of sound textures and subtle beats.  There is plenty of scope for cross-fertilisation of ideas and approaches throughout though, and the perhaps the two most successful tracks are “Cold Blows The Wind” and “Bobbie Allen”, both of which manage to combine the various constituent parts that make up the Solarference sound to great effect.  “Cold Blows The Wind” in particular is the standout track amongst a number of potential candidates.   Nick’s acoustic guitar adds warmth and a sense of sonic familiarity to a number of tracks but if that’s the main reason for its inclusion it is hardly needed.  Considering their methods and regardless of the instrumentation on any particular track, the overall feel is more organic than you might expect and several tracks have a creaking analogue quality that is at odds with the technology that helped create them but which suits the traditional material perfectly.  And the more you listen to Lips Of Clay the more you come to the realisation that despite their working methods it is in fact the human elements – namely Nick and Sarah’s vocals – that hold this absorbing debut release together.

Sam Lee – Ground of its Own | Album Review | The Nest Collective | Review by Kev Boyd | 22.01.13

Now that the dust has just about settled on Ground of its Own’s surprise shortlisting for the 2012 Mercury Music Prize this seems like a good time to gather ones thoughts, take a deep breath and reassess Sam Lee’s debut solo release.  He didn’t win the big prize, of course – that went to the instantly forgettable Alt-J – but the Mercury nomination did at least serve the cement Lee’s already growing reputation within the UK folk scene.  Given that this is Lee’s debut album, his pedigree is already impressive.  Born into a Jewish family in London’s Kentish town he has variously been, amongst other things, a teacher, song collector, promoter and BBC Folk Award-winning club organiser.  At one point he took a live-in job with the late collector and scholar Peter Kennedy and his wife where he had access to their vast archive of field recordings and later volunteered at Cecil Sharp House where he was to become a regular at the Singers Club – his first paid gigs.  He came to most people’s attention as the impetus behind the award winning Magpie’s Nest Folk Club a few years ago but by then he had already spent a number of years collecting songs within the British traveller communities.  Lee had introduced himself to the great gypsy balladeer and storyteller Stanley Robertson (nephew of the near-legendary traveller singer Jeannie Robertson) at Whitby Festival.  Stanley took him under his wing and not only taught him a large chunk of his own vast repertoire, but crucially introduced him to the traveller communities in his native Aberdeenshire where Lee proceeded to immerse himself in their songs and customs.  The songs on Ground of its Own are sourced from Lee’s own collecting forays within these communities and while much has been made of the repertoire being relatively obscure, there are in fact a number of familiar inclusions.  “Goodbye My Darling” shares its overall theme and a number of verses with the much better known transportation ballad “Australia”, “The Ballad Of George Collins” will be familiar to anyone who has heard Shirley Collins’ late-60s recording, “Northlands” is in fact a fairly complete version of the widespread “Outlandish Knight” and “The Tan Yard Side” will be familiar to many, not least from the version included on Topic Records’ Voice of the People collection by the great gypsy singer Phoebe Smith.  Other familiar fragments of songs and verses crop up throughout the album, as tends to be the way with traditional repertoire, so there is actually very little here that is completely obscure.  Lee possesses a smooth baritone voice which, although natural-sounding and free from any obvious affectation, has certainly picked up some of the subtle flourishes that are characteristic of British gypsy singers.  In contrast to their equivalents within the settled community, many traveller singers tend to possess a repertoire of vocal ornamentations that betray an interest in and exposure to music hall and early popular music as much as traditional forms.  Lee uses these techniques to great effect in “The Ballad of George Collins” and most notable in some of the more sentimental songs like “Wild Wood Amber” and “On Yonder Hill”.  This sentimentality is another characteristic of traveller repertoire and Lee’s voice is perfectly pitched to do these songs justice.  While more may have been made of Lee’s decision to exclude the use of guitars from Ground of its Own than is strictly necessary, it is certainly true that the instrumentation, and to some extent the production, are immensely important on this album.  At various points you’ll hear violin, viola, banjo, clarinet, shruti box, trumpet, Jews harp and a number of different percussion instruments including tank drums and hang drum.  You’ll also hear snatches of sampled and processed sounds, sometimes used quite subtly and sometimes less so – as for instance with the inclusion of Massenet’s “Meditation From Thais” in “Wild Wood Amber” or the complete verse of Jane Turriff singing “What Can a Young Lassie Dae Wi An Auld Man” at the beginning of “My Ausheen”.  The extent to which these touches are successful will come down to personal taste and may depend on how much you value either the purity of the Lee’s voice in narrating these songs or the ‘sound collages’ that he seeks to create to illustrate them.  Certainly some commentators have revelled in the quirkiness of the accompaniments while others have wrung their hands at the extent to which they shift the emphasis away from Lee’s vocals.  Either way, Lee and main producer Gerry Diver have successfully merged vocals, instruments and sampled sounds and for this reviewer the balance is just about right.  And if Lee’s main concern was to present the songs that he so clearly holds very dear in such a way that they retain their relevance within a contemporary setting while losing none of their potency then he has succeeded in doing a fine job.

Asuka Kakitani Jazz Orchestra – Bloom | Album Review | Nineteen Eight Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 25.01.13

Put eighteen leading New York jazz musicians in a room – five sax players, four trumpeters, four trombonists, a guitarist, a pianist, a bassist, a percussionist and a vocalist – and it won’t be long before you’re undoing your bow tie and belting out “Fly Me To The Moon” with enough brass-power to launch you into the night sky.  Who’d blame you?  Isn’t that what you do with a big band?  Not always.  For Asuka Kakitani, this particular assemblage of fine musicians is a Jazz Orchestra – a very different beast indeed – and the limits are pushed way beyond the glow of any celestial body.  Asuka, a Japanese-born Brooklyn-based composer, arranger and conductor, is an explorer of musical form, an expressionist sound painter, a composer who seems unrestrained by tradition or trend and one who has so many new things to say without resorting to tired standards.  Bloom – the Orchestra’s debut – contains moments of ethereal lightness, brooding intensity and flourishing explosions of colour, constantly pushing the boundaries of large-scale jazz composition.  The pieces are grand in scale, but each have a notably delicate and elegant presence, often thanks to the fine thread of Pete McCann’s guitar and Sara Serpa’s obediently melodic vocal accompaniment.  And while Asuka maintains a low profile on the recording, her spirit provides the glint in every note.  Here we have a composer who manages to translate the essence of the world around her without losing a single drop of magic in the translation.  Bloom is as arresting and refreshing a debut as you’re every likely to hear.

The Milk Carton Kids – Prologue | Album Review | Junketboy | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 01.02.13

Cross the harmonies and melodic sensibilities of Simon and Garfunkel with the supple, liquid lead guitar of David Rawlings and you’re a sixteenth of the way towards a full appreciation of The Milk Carton Kids – a Californian ‘minimalist’ duo consisting of singer/guitarists Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan.  Consider the gentle, almost hypnotic power of the babbling brook that is their second record, Prologue, released in 2011.  Here we have an album of finger-picked folk songs so sweet that you’d better brush twice this evening.  And yet, like the work of Gillian Welch and the aforementioned Rawlings, there is an underlying, earth-shattering potency beneath the stripped-back simplicity.  Far from being the placid country ditties that their surface would have us believe they are, songs such as “Milk Carton Kid”, “There By Your Side” and “New York” are layered with complex harmonies, multifarious chord structures and weeping guitar solos that often trick the listener into thinking that there’s more to this than two guitars and two voices.  And that’s what I love most about this gem of an album – less is more and more and more.

Wolfgang Muthspiel – Vienna Naked | Album Review | Material | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 08.02.13

Austrian jazz guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel is, perhaps, best known for his collaborations, most of which involving names that would raise even the most Botox-inflicted eyebrows.  Whether playing alongside Paul Motian, Dave Liebman, Gary Peacock and John Patitucci or replacing Pat Metheny in Gary Burton’s band, Muthspiel has been something of a busy picker for the last few decades.  With the release of Vienna Naked, however, it’s clear that his talents don’t end at his frets.  Containing fourteen self-penned songs, complete with self-sung lyrics, Vienna Naked is a solo album that teeters somewhere between jazz and folk, often seeping into the realm of classical music with Downland-esque compositions that would, perhaps, impress the likes of Sting.  Indeed, there are moments of hat-tipping towards the ex-Police man on this album, particularly in Muthspiel’s soaring vocal delivery and gently nimble handling of some rather serpentine melodies, albeit without any of the self-importance that haunts Mr Sumner’s solo output.  And yet, with a voice that often eclipses his undeniably outstanding guitar playing, you’d excuse Muthspiel the occasional digression from any kind of modesty.  Despite the several instances of harmony-stacking and layered guitar, which needlessly depart from the overall mood of the album, Vienna Naked provides an agreeably mellow and celestial melding of dexterous jazz guitar and remarkably strong contemporary songwriting.

Eric Burdon – ‘Til Your River Runs Dry | Album Review | Commercial Marketing | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 17.02.13

While a handful of original members of sixties British invasion band The Animals are busy celebrating their fiftieth anniversary with a reunion tour, their founding member is preparing to celebrate his seventy-second birthday with the release of a brand new, and very personal, solo album.  It’s Eric Burdon’s first solo release in six years, and only his second in the last nine.  Nevertheless, ‘Til Your River Runs Dry only goes to prove that the voice of “House of the Rising Sun” and “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” – a voice that ranked 57th in Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Voices of All Time – has emerged unscathed from the many years of legal battles and health problems that have plagued this particularly influential Geordie blues man.  The twelve-track ‘Til Your River Runs Dry is a raw and fiery album, bubbling with the zest of the early Burdon while benefitting from the unsparing honesty of an older Animal.  ‘Nothing bugs me, I’m Mr Anarchy!’ growls a smirking Burdon on “Old Habits Die Hard” – indeed, this is an album of protest, of home truths and laying it all on the line – and, while his age compliments the soulful, vintage sound of the album, the underlying youthfulness of the record burns through with intensity.  With impassioned topical protests such as “Water”, “Memorial Day” and “Invitation To The White House” and swampy blues numbers such as “River Runs Dry” and “Medicine Man”, the mood and message of this fervent album reaches an inspired climax with a meaty cover of Bo Diddley’s “Before You Accuse Me”, a blues classic usually associated with another famous Eric.  It’s a master-stroke that concludes an unsentimental, uncompromising album from someone we should be thankful to have around.

Faustus – Broken Down Gentlemen | Album Review | Navigator | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 18.02.13

If it’s a no-nonsense collection of traditional English folk songs that you’re after in 2013 then look no further than Broken Down Gentlemen – the second outing from a band that looks and quacks exactly like a folk supergroup.  Benji Kirkpatrick, Saul Rose and Paul Sartin are the well-known and much-admired masterminds behind this three-piece thrashing machine, each no stranger to producing a steady crop of good old murderous folk songs.  Broken Down Gentlemen provides a straight-forward outpouring of traditional rural ballads, each benefitting from an uncluttered sincerity that is all too often overlooked these days.  It’s no secret that Faustus contains some of the most dexterous players on the scene, but in omitting the frills the lads have only reinforced the dignity and potency of these old songs.  The title track, for instance, pummels your belly with the determined steadiness of its Morris engine while “American Stranger” and “Captain’s Apprentice” seem to gather up every thread of your attention with their understated production and exquisitely sung melodies.  Each musician is given his chance to shine on the album – Benji’s strumming gleams throughout, Paul’s fiddle and stunning oboe lend an amiable warmth while Saul’s melodeon fires the furnace of every track – but the peaks of this record are always reached via the impassioned melding of those three hearty voices.  Thanks to the gumption of this three-piece supergroup, Broken Down Gentlemen is a reminder of just how rich the soil of traditional song can be and how crucial it is that we keep turning it.

Ron Sexsmith – Forever Endeavour | Album Review | Cooking Vinyl | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 19.02.13

When this little island got its first taste of Ron Sexsmith’s brand of melodic, sunnily melancholic music, we couldn’t help but point out the obvious – that this guy had the kind of voice you either love or hate.  As with any distinctive voice – be it a Richard Thompson, a Bob Dylan, a Billie Holiday or a Ron Sexsmith – there’ll always be that clutch of crumpled faces who mistake the unusual for the unpleasant, the incomparable for the intolerable.  Well, a few years have passed and, with them, a long list of long playing records from Canada’s Mr Sexsmith, each providing a feast of wonderfully melodic vignettes, ballads and infectious pop songs that sit comfortably with those of Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson and Ray Davies.  His perpetually strong albums hit the same note as those of Harry Nilsson in their keen yet considerate interweaving of happy and sad.  And the best songs of the bunch almost always have as much punch as a “Wichita Lineman”, a “Your Song” or a “Hallelujah” in terms of pitch-perfect songwriting.  Whether you like the voice or not, you simply can’t fault this artist’s songwriting prowess.  And that’s why it’s a delight to report that Forever Endeavour – Ron’s thirteenth solo release since 1991 – provides another twelve reasons to be cheerful, and two bonus tracks to boot.  Once again we have a Sexsmith release that ranges from the sweetly devastating (“Lost In Thought”, “Blind Eye”, “If Only Avenue”) to the simply gleeful (“She Does My Heart Good”, “The Morning Light”).  There’s even a few sublime moments on “Back Of My Hand” when Sexsmith reaches the dizzying heights of the early Beatles (the song could easily have made it onto A Hard Day’s Night).  Indeed, there are traces of early Ron Sexsmith himself on this album, thanks in part to the producer – one Mitchell Froom – who was there right back at the beginning.  At a time when most musicians are madly battling to define the future of their art, it is a sincere pleasure to discover another collection of wholly satisfying, radio-friendly songs from a singer songwriter who does exactly what it says on his tin, namely writing and singing his songs.  Forever Endeavour, you’ll be glad to know, is just another great LP to add to a thankfully towering pile.

Millpond Moon – Broke in Brooklyn | Album Review | Tikopia Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 25.02.13

Considering that their nearest branch of Dunkin’ Donuts is 4000 miles west of their home in Norway, it’s astonishing just how authentically American Kjersti Misje and Rune Hauge sound on their latest release.  Assuming the name Millpond Moon, Kjersti and Rune have managed to capture the essence of Americana on Broke In Brooklyn with songs that tip their hat to Alison Krauss, Peter Rowan, Tony Rice and Shawn Colvin to name just a few distinct influences.  While both Misje and Hauge are proficient, occasionally dazzling acoustic guitarists, the true allure of this album lies within the melding of two soaring vocals.  This is especially apparent on their reading of Peter Rowan’s “You Were There For Me” and Hauge’s stirring “High Mountain”.  It is a union that, at times, recalls the fine blend of Christine Collister and Clive Gregson and, with the delightful addition of fiddle, double bass and the occasional mandolin, it’s one that makes for a very satisfying album indeed.

Evie Ladin – Evie Ladin Band | Album Review | Evil Diane Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 26.02.13

While there is no doubt that claw-hammer banjoist Evie Ladin is deeply immersed in the spirit of Appalachia, her latest release is anything but old-timey.  Indeed, Evie Ladin Band is an album that crackles and sizzles as this traditional American musician cooks up something refreshingly contemporary in feel.  Take a little sip of “Down To The Door/Lost Girl” and you’ll detect flavours of traditional bluegrass as well as hints of modern electronica (albeit with a banjo and not a synthesiser!)  Similarly, “Weathering” opens with a claw-hammer intro that would make Philip Glass’s mouth water while “Songbird Blues/Backstep Cindy” uses Appalachian clogging to create a distinctly modern beat.  There are moments on this album of percussive wizardry, usually thanks to the feet of ‘body musician’ Keith Terry, that make you ache to see the band live.  But don’t let the experimental side of this wholly enjoyable album detract from the purity of Ladin’s voice set against the backdrop of her band’s sensitive musicianship.  “The First Time” – a reading of Ewan MacColl’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” – is just one example of the delicate craftsmanship behind this release.  Evie Ladin Band is a very special album, indeed.

John Wort Hannam – Brambles and Thorns | Album Review | Borealis | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 03.03.13

Thanks to his warm yet commanding vocals, not to mention his sensitive, sprawling yet intimate songwriting, John Wort Hannam has crafted another unfalteringly absorbing album.  Brambles And Thorns meanders through gentle, heartfelt odes to Hannam’s guitar, love songs set against the backdrop of his dear Canadian landscape and straight-forward, easygoing Nashvillian country songs.  Though Hannam’s influences pop up like whack-a-moles throughout this album, you can’t help but detect the fingerprints of Warren Zevon and Guy Clark as the light hits each sincerely written, tenderly performed song.  There are also very welcome hints of Tom Russell in Hannam’s evocative narratives.  Aside from the above, Brambles And Thorns benefits from its long list of backing musicians, amongst them fiddle player Scott Duncan and multi-instrumentalist John MacArthur Ellis.

Bob Cheevers – Smoke and Mirrors | Album Review | Back 9 Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 04.03.13

Bob Cheevers is no stranger to accolades.  Indeed, this Memphis-born singer/songwriter has been lauded with well-deserved praise from every direction over the last half century.  And while it’s tempting to list the many reasons for spinning a Cheevers disc, there is one reason that eclipses the rest – his voice.  Mixing the warmth of Willie Nelson and the life-soaked crispness of Glen Campbell, Bob’s is a seductive, oscillating voice that daubs a sun-drenched landscape on the back of your eyelids.  And when it’s fed through lyrics concerning sailors, drunkards, star-crossed lovers and a man named Jesus, it’s hard to avoid being painted into the picture.  Fortunately, his latest outing Smoke And Mirrors provides a double helping of Cheevers.  The album is split into two discs – ‘Smoke’ providing eleven band-backed, smokin’ country songs and ‘Mirrors’ revealing a more reflective, acoustic side to Bob’s poetic, image-laden songwriting.  Like many of his peers – Johnny Cash, John Prine and Jerry Jeff Walker among them – Cheevers is a storyteller.  A quick glance at the song titles is enough to open tomes in the mind, but listening to songs such as “Cardinal Lane” (a song about the Bastop wildfires), “Girl On The Early News” (about a TV personality with a crooked smile) and Popsicle Man (about a childhood spent on the banks of the Mississippi) is to be treated to a series of short stories from the life of a writer who, like a Guy Clark or a Steve Earle, is one of those cherished American originals.  But why stop at tales of the American landscape when you can have enchanting, string-driven vignettes set amongst the flowers of a secret garden or even a musical reply to Paul McCartney’s “Eleanor Rigby”?  Smoke And Mirrors is simply magical.

Ducie – Mancunia | Album Review | Proper | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 05.03.13

There’s a palpable sense of passion for rhythm in all its flavours on Mancunia, the latest release from Manchester-based Ducie – a band that is, like the music it produces, an intoxicating melting pot.  Andrew Dinan (fiddler, Adrian Edmondson & The Bad Shepherds), Ian Fletcher (guitarist, Mike McGoldrick Big Band), Jon Thorne (bassist, Lamb) and Rich Sliwa (percussionist, Mojito) each bring to the mix a wide vocabulary of influences and styles gleaned from their respective histories of impressive collaborations and musical projects.  Mancunia froths with Indian, Caribbean and Celtic rhythms, occasionally boiling over into Eastern European folk and even blues without ever heaving its roots out of the hard northern turf.  On “Sunset Barmaid”, Scottish jigs are infused with red hot Afro-Caribbean funk while Grianan Bear pours a traditional Spanish tune over a buoyant reggae beat.  And in the middle of all this, a serene break from the exhilarating globetrotting is provided by the Donegal air “Song Of The Strings” which showcases the tenderness of Dinan’s bow and the rapturous string arrangements of Troy Donockley who appears on the album with fellow guests Michael McGoldrick (flute), Paddy Kerr (bouzouki), Kavan O’Donoghue (harp), Eamonn Dinan (button accordian) and Parvinder Bharat (tabla and dholak).

Police Dog Hogan – From the Land of Miracles | Album Review | Major Tom | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 06.03.13

Lulling its listener into a false and rather serene sense of security, the gentle guitar tune that opens From The Land Of Miracles soon explodes into a gritty country-folk foot-stomper, setting the tone for what is an energetic and passionate record from Brit ‘townbilly’ seven-piece Police Dog Hogan.  Benefitting from an onslaught of radio-friendly country songs, penned and sung by James Studholme and Pete Robinson, From The Land Of Miracles is a love-at-first-listen album, rich in sharp lyrics and songs that will surely have the festival crowds slopping their beers this summer.  Tim Dowling’s banjo, frequently plipping and popping at the surface of the record and often mingling with sumptuous string arrangements and the violin of Eddie Bishop, creates a very welcome, warm and sunny sound, especially on the delightfully infectious song Jennifer and the album’s closing number “Fourteen Roses” which epitomises the carefree effervescence of the whole album.  Exuberantly produced and featuring plenty of opportunities for an Elbow-style singalong, From The Land Of Miracles is a gleaming smile of an album from a band that knows exactly how to mix country-folk and pop to create something of an irresistible cocktail.

Annie Keating – For Keeps | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 07.03.13

With four albums under her belt and the firm backing of our very own Bob Harris, New York-based singer songwriter Annie Keating is well-prepared for a surge of interest as her fifth album For Keeps hits the shelves.  And with a voice that’s at once commanding and deliciously fragile – a voice that will surely satisfy fans of Shawn Colvin and Emmylou Harris – as well as a repertoire of frank and heartfelt without being sentimental songs, Keating is well equipped to blow the socks off any self-respecting, sock-wearing Americana fan.  From the swampy grit of “Storm Warning” to the Neil Young-esque “Sidecar”, Keating delivers a series of well-crafted self-penned country songs before closing the album with a stunningly ethereal version of Neil Young’s “Cowgirl In The Sand”.  And while much of the album crackles through the amber hue of a delectably vintage sound, the songs themselves are as crisp and cool as it gets, thanks in part to a voice that often verges on the charged languor of Chrissie Hynde.  With a sizeable roster of backing musicians, including renowned guitarist Michael Hampton, multi-instrumentalist Jon Graboff and Canada’s Jason Mercer, For Keeps is a tenacious and timeless release from a true musical craftsperson.

Sharon Shannon – Flying Circus | Album Review | IRL | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 09.03.13

Upon first hearing Sharon Shannon’s Flying Circus you’d be forgiven for thinking that this is the soundtrack to some wonderful independent Irish film – a Heartlands of the Emerald Isle, perhaps, or a Malcolm in which Melbourne is replaced by Galway.  Brendan Gleeson would almost definitely make an appearance, as would Brenda Fricker.  And there would most certainly be a scene in which someone leaves the handbrake off an old Citroen car and it trundles down a cobbled hill towards the harbour wall.  It would be one of the sweetest, gently enchanting films you’ve ever seen.  Sadly, no film accompanies this magical musical journey.  But that shouldn’t stop you from conjuring up a reel of captivating images as one sunny little tune gives way to another.  So what’s the secret?  Well, the album is the result of a dream come true for Shannon who, thanks to musical collaborator Lloyd Byrne who organised an orchestral performance of Shannon’s tunes back in 2006, has teamed up with the RTE Concert Orchestra to create the most delicious accordian/orchestra collaboration you’ve ever heard.  Tunes such as “Top Dog Gaffo”, “Windchime Dance” and “Off The Hook” are typical of Sharon Shannon, who has been treating us to her irresistible melodic charm for almost a quarter of a century.  But drenching these lovely melodies with the wide, lavish sounds of a concert orchestra, as well as the amiable pickings of guitarist Jim Murray, is to lift them even higher off the ground. And while there are touching moments, such as “April Magnolia” (a tune I wish had been recorded in time for my wedding), it is damn near impossible to listen to this album and feel anything but joy and blithe contentment.  With the release of Flying Circus Sharon Shannon wishes to shine a light on her campaign Adopt Don’t Buy – an impassioned plea to all those considering a new or first time pet to start their search at a local animal rescue centre.

Old Tire Swingers – Old Tire Swingers | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 16.03.13

Thirteen years have passed since Joel and Ethan Coen administered a shot of bluegrass into the world’s bloodstream with O Brother, Where Art Thou?  Indeed, the film’s soundtrack went platinum eight times and was, a decade after its release, regarded by NPR as one of the fifty most important records since 2000.  With the dawn of a new century, and with a little help from Krauss, Welch, Tyminski and others, the Coen brothers had made this traditional Appalachian music cooler than it had ever been.  In the meantime, an appetite for old time string bands has developed with the emergence of such combos as the Old Crow Medicine Show, Chatham Country Line and the Carolina Chocolate Drops to name just three.  It could be said that these bands have gone beyond the traditions of Bill Monroe’s bluegrass to garner influences from the Scotch American bands of the Appalachian mountains and even the Vaudevillian jug bands of Beale Street.  The latest band to explore this incredibly versatile and perpetually vibrant style of traditional music is the Old Tire Swingers – a Californian quartet with a hard driving, grit-flecked chug whose harmonies often reach levels of blissful sweetness.  With Paul Chesterton’s banjo jammed firmly in the engine, guitarist Nick Kennedy, mandolin player John Codgill and fiddler Terry Bennett rattle along with a resonance that is thoroughly drenched in its traditions.  Indeed, on their debut self-titled release, it’s only the rawness of Chesterton’s lead vocals that shine a contemporary light on these self-penned songs, coupled with lyrics that are timeless enough to cross the ages.  With the stomping energy of songs such as “Police”, “Home” and “Something About Life” balanced alongside more laid-back tracks like “More Good Than Bad” and the gorgeous “Bernadine”, Old Tire Swingers provides a burlap sackful of equally energetic and emotional string band foot-tappers.

Cody McCarver – I Just Might Live Forever | Album Review | AGR Television Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 17.03.13

You may recognise a few of the songs on I Just Might Live Forever, the latest release from Cody McCarver.  The title track, for instance, was sung by Cody in the movie Billy The Kid, while other songs on the album featured in the films LA Dirt and Cole Younger and the Black Train.  As well as singing and acting on the big screen, McCarver has been busy McCarving a niche for himself as a solo country artist, having spent twelve years in the multi-platinum selling band Confederate Railroad.  With the release of his latest record, this self-proclaimed redneck has rooted himself firmly in the same ground as Garth Brooks, Brad Paisley and Toby Keith with such radio-friendly songs as “White Trash With Money” and “Bow Chicka Wow Wow”.  However, McCarver retains his outlaw status and approaches much of his material with a grittier, edgy touch.  Songs such as “Outlaws and Trains”, “Redneck Friends of Mine” and the Springstein-esque “I’m America” each provide reasons to take Cody that little bit more seriously than many of your average Stetson-topped cowboys.

Robin Trower – Roots and Branches | Album Review | Manhaton Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 19.03.13

Never was there a more appropriately titled record than Robin Trower’s Roots And Branches.  It is an album on which one of our finest rock guitarists exposes his blues roots while spreading the branches of a handful of new, self-penned songs.  Revisiting classics such as “Hound Dog”, “The Thrill Is Gone”, “Little Red Rooster” and “Born Under a Bad Sign”, the former Procul Harum guitarist succeeds in digging up some rather tasty guitar licks, effortlessly turning the soil in a unique manner and always hitting exactly the right spot.  With the succulent liquidity of his pitch-perfect playing, it’s plain to see why Trower has been likened to both Hendrix and Clapton during his fifty year career.  Indeed, fans will recall Trower’s many collaborations with Cream bassist Jack Bruce when listening to this new release, which is closer in style to BLT (1981) and SEVEN MOONS (2008) than the more funky TRUCE (1981).  The new songs on ROOTS AND BRANCHES seem to fit snugly between the covers thanks to Trower’s knack of making an old song sound new and a new one sound old.  And, aside from the agile guitar work, there’s also the golden thread of Robin’s smoky voice which ties everything very neatly together.  Listen out for the lofty keyboards of Luke Smith, the basslines of Richard Watts and producer Livingstone Brown and Chris Taggart’s refreshingly unfussy drums.  There’s also a couple of characteristically meaty harmonica breaks from Paul Jones.

Joe Tilston – Embers | Album Review | Fellside Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 22.03.13

When it comes to having music in the blood, Joe Tilston’s veins must be symphonic.  His father Steve is one of the UK’s most accomplished and cherished singer songwriters.  His mother Maggie Boyle is a renowned folk singer and flautist.  And his sister Martha is one of the most deliciously unique folk singers of her generation.  It doesn’t take a Marvel comic hero to detect the sonic influence that Joe’s family have had upon him.  Joe’s voice displays all the grain of his dad’s, with some of the fragility that makes his sister’s voice so alluring.  His songs – particularly “Different Feet”, “Little Scars” and “A Song For Old Friends” – would please fans of Steve and Martha alike, while his vocal delivery will surely prick up the ears of any Maggie Boyle devotee.  Pushing the family album aside, however, reveals a striking new singer songwriter who introduces a punk-infused freshness to his musical heritage.  All those years playing bass for punk band “Random Hand” has equipped Joe with an electric charge that spits and sparks under the gentle acoustic fingerpicking and temperate vocals.  Embers is an album that glows furiously, always threatening to burst into flames but never quite allowing itself to do so.  It’s within this nervous energy that the album triumphs.

Trio Gitan – Moldavian Cafe | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 23.03.13

Whether conjuring up the atmosphere of a smoky Parisian cafe or giving us a blast of fresh Balkan air, Trio Gitan have that rather satisfying knack of transporting their audience with the power of musical suggestion.  Moldavian Cafe provides an armchair tour of Eastern Europe via the violin of Andy Lawrenson, the guitar of Jack Burge and the accordion of Paul Carroll.  And while these well-seasoned musicians make up the main components of the engine, the sightseeing comes courtesy of such eminent composers as Cole Porter, Django Reinhardt and Fats Waller.  String-driven versions of standards such as “I Love Paris” and “Honeysuckle Rose” are interspersed with spirited Jewish klezmer and evocative Eastern European folk tunes on an album that passionately explores the limitless, frenetic allure of gypsy jazz.

Jimmy LaFave – Depending On The Distance | Album Review | Music Road | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 24.03.13

For years, Austin, Texas has been something of a chief supplier when it comes to singer songwriters. Nancy Griffith, Lyle Lovett, Willie Nelson and Joe Ely have all slipped off the conveyor belt, as has Jimmy LaFave, whose first release in five years has just hit the shelves.  Depending On The Distance is not simply a showcase of new and well-crafted LaFave originals such as “Living In Your Light” and “It Just Is Not Right”, the album also includes Jimmy’s take on such classics as John Waite’s “Missing You”, Bob Dylan’s “Tomorrow Is A Long Time” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Land of Hope and Dreams” – perfect opportunities for this uniquely passionate voice to soar.  Depending On The Distance provides a well-balanced drive through the landscape of the American south with a mix of tender acoustic ballads and sun-soaked mainstream country songs, bound by a tight band of slick musicians.  It is an album of saturated colour snaps and dog-eared sepia scenes.

Simone Dinnerstein and Tift Merritt – Night | Album Review | Sony | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 24.03.13

Mixing the delicate elegance of a curtain dancing in a breeze by an open window with the rustic allure of wood shavings tumbling across the scuffed beams of a porch, Simone Dinnerstein and Tift Merritt’s Night presents a poetic, operatic and enigmatic sweep of a uniquely arresting musical landscape.  Providing the answer to the question ‘What do you get if you cross a Julliard-trained pianist with a Grammy award-winning North Carolina singer songwriter?’, Night was originally conceived as a song cycle developed for a concert commissioned and presented by Duke Performances, Durham NC in January 2011.  But the collaboration has turned out to be much more than a meeting of two very different musicians – it is an ambitious creative project that has succeeded in celebrating the effects of blurring musical boundaries.  It is also, perhaps, the only album on which you’ll ever find Debussy colliding with Leonard Cohen.  And Daniel Felsenfeld’s hypnotic The Cohen Variations is not the only moment of fascinating innovation.  Sincere, strummed Merritt originals such as “Only In Songs” and “Feel Of The World” are bound by a ribbon of graceful classical piano pieces from composers such as Brahms, Bach and Purcell.  There are some notable covers, too – particularly that of Billie Holiday’s “Don’t Explain” and Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now”, each remoulded to fit, as well as truly haunting readings of traditional songs “Wayfaring Stranger” and “I Will Give My Love An Apple”.  The renowned Jazz pianist Brad Mehldau has also contributed a composition to the project with “I Shall Weep At Night”, a painterly and bluesy track that lends the album its masterpiece.  With the magnetic inventiveness of The Unthanks Diversions series and the whimsical melancholia of any Kate and Anna McGarrigle release, Night is a bold statement of musical elasticity from two women who have all the mettle it takes to assert it.

Matt Woosey Band – On The Waggon | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 26.03.13

Matt Woosey’s brand of the blues comes from the rubbing together of raw emotion and masterful technique.  Armed with a clobbered Taylor guitar and a dusty voice, Woosey approaches his material with an impressive musical dexterity, but he never allows his proficiency to trim the rough edges it so clearly takes to perform these sincere blues songs.  There is, after all, nothing worse than clean blues.  Proficiency, however, is probably the wrong word. Woosey doesn’t simply play acoustic guitar, he explores it, slapping and picking the instrument until all the rhythms have been exorcised from its body.  On The Waggon – Woosey’s latest release – presents an energetic exhibition of that distinctive style; a style he has been nurturing on the road for the last decade.  On such tracks as “Elsie May” and “That’s My Baby”, infectious locomotive rhythms are only interrupted by brief stops at charming turnarounds and Broonzy-style bends.  And while there are notable moments when Woosey’s guitar and vocals are all it takes to lull you in Delta-infused reveries – particularly on the hypnotically beautiful “One of The Three” – the peaks of the album are reached with a little help from drummer Jim ‘E’ Williams and bassist Adji Shuib.  The result is most palatable indeed – an unobtrusive, somewhat unpolished yet sprightly album from a British acoustic bluesman of the highest calibre.

Dave Kelly – We Had It All | Album Review | Hypertension Music | Review by Liam Wilkinson |27.03.13

For blues completists and fans of premier British bluesman Dave Kelly, We Had It All provides a ‘family album’ of sorts – a scrapbook of unreleased tracks from a thirty-five year career, each featuring at least one notable collaborator.  Being that the material herein has been cut and pasted from assorted studio tapes and live recordings, the quality is rarely pristine.  But behind the snap, crackle and pop, there are many gems to be had.  Take, for instance, “Needed Time” which combines Dave’s bottleneck playing with the laid-back delivery of Eric Bibb’s vocal and inimitable guitar style.  Thanks to the extensive, stunningly produced sleeve notes, we know that this recording comes from a Lancashire radio performance – and it’s a delight to find that this rarity has been committed to disc.  Other notable treats from this bag of goodies include a mandolin-driven cover of Green Day’s “Good Riddance”, sung by Dave’s son Homer Kelly-Tarrant and doyenne of the British folk scene, Christine Collister.  Despite its unpolished quality, the cover still seems more sincere than Glen Campbell’s over-produced 2008 version.  There’s a beautiful recording from Dave’s daughter Lily Kelly-Tarrant entitled “Wasting Time”, which features the gentle, folky fiddle of Steve Simpson and D-Day Blues, a Dave Kelly original featuring Jona Lewie on boogie piano.  Perhaps the best moments of the album crop up in the handful of recordings made with legendary blues musicians.  These include a version of “Dust My Blues” on which Dave performs a slide backing for the great Howlin’ Wolf and a fantastically jangly version of “Take This Hammer” featuring the vocal and twelve string guitar of Long John Baldry.  But it’s the appearance of Dave’s sister, the much missed Jo-Anne Kelly, that lends this album its most poignant, stirring moment.  “Ramblin’ Gal” – a reworking of Hank Williams’s “Ramblin’ Man” – is taken from the rehearsals for an album the siblings never completed.  While Jo-Anne’s voice raises a skinful of goosebumps, Dave’s haunting slide guitar is equally bewitching.

Nicole Maguire – What You Really Mean | Album Review | IRL | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 01.04.13

With an album cover that’s reminiscent of a Gram Parsons sleeve and a sound that’s more Southern California than South Tipperary, you may be surprised to find that Nicole Maguire grew up in the little village of Conna, Ireland.  Lean in a little closer, however, and you’re likely to detect an Irish breeze in the flute-like voice of this angelic singer songwriter.  With a little friendly encouragement from such eminent performers as Damien Dempsey and Paul Brady, Nicole introduced her craft to the bar-room audiences of Dublin and Cork before having the good fortune of securing the support spot for Nanci Griffith on one of the Texan singer’s Irish tours.  The tour culminated in a stint in Nashville, where Nicole was able to hone her songwriting and road test some of the material that would find a home on What You Really Mean, her debut album.  And a fine and seductive album it is, too.  If you like your country with more emotional, melodic charm than big hats and spurs, then you’ll delight in the melancholy, folk-tinged Americana with which this album froths.  “Run With Me”, the opening track, is a graceful punch of a song that recalls the power of Lucinda Williams while “Two Weeks Today” blends dirt-road country with a more contemporary folk sound.  It also features a lofty vocal that would give Alison Krauss a run for her money.  The title track provides the highlight of what is a perpetually strong debut.  Featuring the lilt and grit of Sheryl Crow’s guitarist Val McCallum, and a melody that long outlives the song’s final chord, “What You Really Mean” is a song that feels forty years older than its composer.  And while we’re mentioning notable guest performers, you can throw Elvis Costello’s drummer, Pete Thomas and CSN bassist Bob Glaub onto the pile of reasons to spin this disc.  As for backing vocalists, Nicole has managed to reach to the very top shelf to select Vonda Shepherd – the award-winning singer from Ally McBeal.  With eminent producer Mitchell Froom at the controls, a repertoire of mellifluous self-penned songs and an immaculate voice to feed those sinuous melodies, What You Really Mean is an eyebrow-raising debut from a future household name.

Blue to Brown – Blue to Brown | Album Review | Remedy Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 02.04.13

Kinship in music has a long and rich history.  The Carter Family, The Everly Brothers, The Bee Gees and The Jackson 5 all exemplified the phenomenon of sibling harmonies and the mysterious energy that can only spark from family collaborations.  And if it’s sparks that you’re after, give Blue To Brown a spin – the eponymous debut from a father and son duo with blues in their blood.  Rob Brown (father) and Dom Brown (son) each bring distinctive prowess to this energetically electric collection of impressive blues originals.  Rob has one of those lived-in voices; a kind of Howlin’ Wolf meets Ian Dury rasp that not only lends this album its authenticity but also its proudly British feel.  And talking of British pride, Dom Brown is one of this island’s best contemporary guitarists.  The release of Blue To Brown comes as his second tour with Duran Duran draws to a close – a tour that saw Dom perform at Hyde Park as part of the 2012 Olympics opening celebrations.  While a gritty voice and a red-hot, wailing guitar are enough to infuse these original songs with a respectable credibility and substance, the strength of the album is firmly planted in the melding of two distinctive vocal styles.  When Rob’s growl mingles with Dom’s higher, cleaner register on tracks such as “Blue Boy” and “Please, Please”, a tangible balance is reached.  It’s a balance that gives this album its shine.  The Browns are joined on this album by drummer Darrin Mooney, keyboardists Martin Winning and Mike Bramwell, bassist John Noyce and vocalist Anna Ross.

Carlos Núñez – Discover | Album Review | RCA Victor | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 03.04.13

Perhaps best known for his collaborations with musicians as diverse as Sharon Shannon, Montserrat Caballé, Linda Ronstadt and The Chieftains, Spanish piper and flautist Carlos Núñez has long been justly praised for his entrancing technique and musical adaptability.  His performances are steeped in energy and excitement, crossing cultures to vividly express the power and universality of music.  While presenting an exhibition of this artist’s craft, Discover – a hearty double-disc anthology of recordings from the last fifteen years – is a richly entertaining and enlightening journey through world rhythms, traditional tunes and fusions of otherwise historically and geographically separated musical styles.  The album froths with intriguing musical collaborations, often insisting that the listener fasten their seatbelt as the piper jets from one shore to another. But the dizzying effect is made somewhat more palpable when you begin to detect the cultural crossover that is occurring from one track to the next. Hothouse Flower Liam Ó Maonlaí, for example, sings a gently devastating version of Christy Moore’s “Viva La Quinta Brigada”, backed by Núñez’s stirring whistle and Florea Sandu’s equally emotive accordion.  Soon, however, we’re flung to Cuba where Compay Segundo performs a deliciously sunny Para Vigo Me Voy.  Other notable guest appearances include Roger Hodgson, Sinéad O’Connor and Jackson Browne, whose live version of “The Crow On The Cradle” is coloured by David Lindley’s fiddle and another of Núñez’s serpentine whistle accompaniments.  With its intoxicating mix of tranquil airs, rousing songs and lively Celtic dance tunes, Discover is a veritable trove of musical treasures.

Albert Hammond – Legend II | Album Review | Hypertension | Review by Liam Wilkinsion | 04.04.13

Songs that are built to last usually have a top-drawer architect behind them.  The spires of “Let It Be” were erected by Paul McCartney, the stunning interiors of “You’ve Got a Friend” were designed by Carole King and the glass domes of “The Air That I Breathe” were the work of one Albert Hammond – a songwriter who now presides over a veritable city of hits.  Legend II is an eighteen-track follow-up to Hammond’s Legend, an album that gave this cherished songwriter the chance to record his own versions of the songs he has been churning out for over forty years.  While the initial release boasted such classic Hammond compositions as “It Never Rains In Southern California” and “Don’t Turn Around”, part two of the set includes “I Don’t Wanna Lose You”, a hit for Tina Turner, “One Moment In Time” originally recorded by Whitney Houston for the 1988 Olympic Games and “I Need To Be In Love”, a song purported to be Karen Carpenter’s favourite of all that she recorded.  Hammond’s own delivery may not reach the standard of a Turner, a Houston or a Carpenter, and the often uninspiring backing certainly doesn’t do these expertly crafted songs any extra justice.  However, there is something pleasing about hearing the author sing his own, now legendary lyrics.  Debussy wasn’t the greatest pianist that ever lived and there are better public speakers out there than Stephen King – but it’s always a distinct pleasure to see the architect walk his own corridors.

Nobody’s Business – Easy | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 06.04.13

There’s only one thing better than hearing a reworking of a blues classic and that’s hearing a faithfully unadorned rendering of one.  Easy, the second release from British acoustic guitar/blues harp duo Nobody’s Business, never departs from the raw blues spirit of the delta during any of its fourteen covers.  Danny Ward has a satisfyingly scuffed voice and plays a Broonzy-drenched fingerstyle guitar while Colin Elliot fills the gaps with a sparing and delightfully subtle harp.  The result is exactly what any self-respecting country blues fan would want – a cheerfully blue, back porch simplicity that is only further engineered with a little studio echo here and there.  The songs are cherry picked from the recordings of such legends as Mississippi John Hurt, Jesse Fuller, Doc Watson, Big Bill Broonzy and Howlin’ Wolf and with faithful interpretations of such songs as “San Francisco Bay Blues”, “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor” and “Going Down Slow”, it’s clear that Danny and Colin have spent some considerable time with their beloved blues records.  Easy is a record that handles blues with love and care, each sentiment shining through with every authentic note.

Martin Harley – Mojo Fix | Album Review | 60/20 Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 13.04.13

Mojo Fix is as colourful and striking an album as its cover.  It’s the latest release from Martin Harley – leader of the British blues trio The Martin Harley Band – and while blues provides the soul of this richly-textured album, it’s Harley’s panoramic rendering of it that creates the little masterpiece that this record truly is.  With gently confident watering, Martin’s blues grows from seed to brightly blossoming spectacle in roughly three and a half minutes.  And each track blooms with distinctly different flowers – some bluesy, some folky, some rockabilly, too.  Take, for instance, “Ball & Chain” – a swampy, brooding lizard of a song that slithers along steadily until it bursts into colour with wide stereo backing vocals, blustery percussion and a sorrowful delta blues harp.  Then there’s “Cardboard King”, a string-laden acoustic folk song with a Martin Simpson feel.  And talking of inspirations, the beautiful “Treading Water” surely tips its cap to John Martyn while the energetic “Mean Old City” is a pretty stunning stab at Hendrix.  “Wrecking Ball” is classic rockabilly, with its shot of red hot gypsy fiddle, and “Tightrope” is a sunny, happy-go-lucky ukulele song.  There are many reasons to laud praise on Mojo Fix, but its biggest strength lies within its reluctance to be defined.  Rather like a Tom Waits release, Martin Harley’s new album is always surprising, constantly beguiling and perpetually enjoyable.

King King – Standing in the Shadows | Album Review | Hatman | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 15.04.13

The expectations have been high for Standing In The Shadows, the second album from Glaswegian electric blues combo King King. The band’s debut album Take My Hand received a string of five-star reviews upon its spring 2011 release and their high-octane, tartan-clad live performances helped establish the band as one of Britain’s foremost blues-rock outfits.  Led by Alan Nimmo – already a familiar figure on the scene thanks to the success of the Nimmo Brothers, the band he formed with brother Stevie – King King have entered this second phase with a ten-track album that certainly satisfies those high expectations.  Once again, the band has bottled a fizzy blend of high-energy blues numbers and slower, arresting ballads sewn with a thick ribbon of weeping guitar solos.  While most of the songs have been penned by Alan Nimmo and bassist Lindsay Coulson, there are a couple of well-chosen covers such as a powerfully soaring version of Frankie Miller’s “Jealousy” and a crisp retelling of Free’s “Heavy Load” that has all the brooding energy of the original and more besides.  The latter also benefits from the fingers of keys man Bennett Holland who tackles Andy Fraser’s piano part with gentle faithfulness while Nimmo dazzles on guitar and vocal.  With the might of Wayne Proctor’s percussion providing a steady heartbeat throughout, coupled with several memorable moments of deft blues songwriting and white-hot solos, Standing In The Shadows comes loaded with some of the best contemporary British blues you’re going to hear.

Norma Waterson – Coal Not Dole | EP Review | Topic Single | Review by Kev Boyd |

Margaret Thatcher, Topic Records and the Ding Dong! ding dong.  In a week that saw the British news media dominated by the death of Margaret Thatcher and a social media-driven epidemic of musical novelty ‘anti-tributes’ to the late former Prime Minister you could have been forgiven for missing the fact that English folk music specialists Topic Records released a two-track download-only single by Norma Waterson; but they did and their timing was no accident.  Of the two previously-released tracks, “Coal Not Dole” is Norma’s solo version of Kay Sutcliffe’s post-miner’s strike poem and Hilda’s Cabinet Band is the Waterson family’s 1990 recording of a song written by Norma’s late sister Lal in response to what she saw as the dubious achievements of Margaret Hilda Thatcher.  The use of appropriately-themed music to protest topical events is hardly a new phenomenon of course, with the successful 2009 Facebook campaign to send Rage Against The Machine’s “Killing In The Name” to the top of the charts being perhaps the best-known recent example.  Topic’s release is hardly expected to achieve the same level of attention of course, and indeed given its relative lack of publicity it’s not exactly an enterprise you would describe as bandwagon-jumping.  However, the context of the release does raise some interesting questions around the ‘digital vs. physical’ debate, the state of the contemporary music industry and the nature of protest in the context of an ongoing social media overload.  In the days of physical-only releases it would have been materially impossible (not to mention financially impractical) for all but the largest major labels to rush-release a single within the space of a few days, but in the digital age even a cottage-industry setup like Topic’s can react to events and have their product ready for sale just about as quickly and economically as the majors.  Without the practical and financial hindrances of packaging design and manufacture and with no need to organise the physical distribution of the finished product a label can make a track available in your iTunes playlist potentially within hours of the events to which they are reacting.  It’s a process that’s perfectly suited to the modern-day ubiquity of social media: in a matter of moments you can buy a track, share it, ‘like’ it, tweet it, make a pithy comment and advertise your ideological viewpoint all at once, without ever having to deal with the inconvenience of leaving your sofa.  In one sense this phenomenon points towards a welcome democratisation of the music industry in the digital age, allowing both the likes of Topic to specifically make tracks available for download in reaction to recent events and fans of a particular artist or genre the opportunity to protest a relevant cause (assuming, of course, their political or ideological leanings tally with those of the artists in question).  Perhaps an even clearer indication of democracy in action in this context has been provided by the improbable rise up the UK singles chart of “Ding Ding! The Witch Is Dead” in the wake of Thatcher’s demise.  No specific industry intervention was required in this instance, with the track having long been available for download and languishing virtually unnoticed on the Warner Brothers’ Wizard of Oz soundtrack album.  All it seemed to take was the combined efforts of Facebook and Twitter and a not-inconsiderable word-of-mouth campaign to slowly nudge the track up the charts over the course of a week.  Rarely could a so-called novelty song have caused such widespread opprobrium as the Ding Dong! single.  That Thatcher was a divisive figure virtually goes without saying, but there will still be those who were taken aback by the levels of public vitriol expressed on both sides of the political divide in relation to the song’s unlikely popularity.  The BBC for their part, not for the first time in their recent history, seemed totally incapable of devising an appropriate and consistent approach to an issue in which they found themselves playing an admittedly unwanted supporting role.  That point aside, and whatever your thoughts on the morality of those individuals who parted with their 79 pence for this little snatch of 1930s kitsch, its popularity is a clear indication that although there is currently a distinct lack of decent protest singers in the mainstream music industry, there still exists the means to enable ordinary folk to participate in mass musical protest.  If only they had better taste then maybe Norma would be in with a chance of a hit!

JJ Grey & Mofro – This River | Album Review | Proper | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 27.04.13

Treating himself to a pair of rather fancy new speakers a couple of years ago, this reviewer turned eagerly to his collection of JJ Grey & Mofro records, confident that these exceptionally produced albums would help test the limits of his new speakers.  As expected, they handled the job very nicely indeed. My little house rattled rhythmically, almost coming loose from the rest of the terrace as JJ Grey’s guitar and vocals ripped into the quiet of suburbia and Anthony Cole’s drums rippled the clothing of neighbours several houses away.  This River, the latest release from Jacksonville-based Grey and his band, provides more of the same soul-infused, mud-drenched funk that seeped in abundance from previous releases such as Country Ghetto, Georgia Warhouse and Lochloosa.  This time, however, the emphasis is very much on soul. With sax lines that echo the classic recordings of Otis Redding and the authentic wrapping of a delightful late-sixties fuzz, courtesy of Grey’s co-producer Dan Prothero, This River glows from start to finish in a way that so few albums do these days.  Stopping, here and there, at vintage soul for tracks such as “Somebody Else” and “Tame a Wild One” and taking flights of funk with “Florabama” and “Harp & Drums” the album winds its way towards the title track, a show-stopping five and half minutes of gentle acoustic beauty that screws the cap on another treat for your speakers.

Miho Wada – Exit 621 | Album Review | Florestar | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 12.05.13

It’s a shame that the world doesn’t contain more jazz-flute-ninjas – a thought that flutters into my mind when listening to any of the many scrumptious outings from Japanese-born New Zealander Miho Wada.  Exit 621 is Miho’s fifth outing and presents a further eight reasons to be deliriously happy, happiness being the overarching tone of Miho’s wickedly enticing albums of flute-led instrumentals and, thanks to the detail of Miho’s self-penned liner notes inside this attractively packaged record, we’re offered a glimpse into the life of a beguiling and unique musician/composer.  We learn that the ska-infused “Go Go Go” is inspired by her energetic teaching styles and that the very moving “Taking Off” is a meditation on the beauty of our universe and one that impeccably evokes Miho’s Japanese heritage, too.  Exit 621, with its colourful mixture of jazz, ska, rock and Latin-flavoured compositions, is another exhibition of works from the Play M!ho score books that Miho uses to teach her music students.  However, thanks to the expertise of Miho’s Jazz Orchestra, not to mention the spirited flute and saxophone playing of the band’s leader, Exit 621 is less ‘accompanying CD’ than enticing example of modern jazz fusion from an artist who is clearly devoted to her art.

Brass Monkey – The Best of Live: 30th Anniversary Celebration | Album Review | Park Records | Review by Kev Boyd | 13.05.13

The title is a bit of a giveaway of course, but it’s still worth noting that this CD and DVD set celebrates 30 years since Martin Carthy and John Kirkpatrick’s vision of an English folk ensemble driven primarily by brass instrumentation became a reality.  It’s been a long and sometimes difficult journey for Brass Monkey: the original band called it a day after a mere five years when it became increasingly evident that an 80s folk scene yet to fully embrace the arts centre and theatre circuits was unable to financially support five full-time musicians.  They were off the scene for the best part of a decade but returned with increased vigour for a number of years until trumpeter Howard Evans fell ill mid-tour in 2004.  He was never to recover and died in 2006, after which the band soldiered on as an unconvincing four-piece for a couple of years.  With the trumpet being a central element to the Brass Monkey sound it was perhaps inevitable that they would eventually return to their full compliment and this happened with the addition of Paul Archibald in 2009.  On the few occasions where Archibald’s other commitments clashed with the band’s he would send former pupil Shane Brennan as his replacement.  ‘We all thought this would be a ghastly idea’, says Kirkpatrick in the CD sleeve notes, but Brennan proved to be a more than competent replacement and for their 30th anniversary tour in 2012, from which this live recording is taken, the band included both Brennan and Archibald in a mammoth six-piece lineup. Kirkpatrick notes that they ‘tickled up a few old hits’ to explore the additional resources available but this is to understate the achievements of their newly extended lineup, with virtually every song or tune receiving some sort of makeover, either subtle or otherwise.  The addition of the extra brass has allowed them to approach some of their repertoire completely afresh, with the likes of “Jolly Bold Robber”, “Brisk Young Widow” and “The Maid & The Palmer” positively rollicking along in their new settings.  This added versatility also means they can dust off their impressive take on Kirkpatrick’s “George’s Son”, which they haven’t previously attempted live due to its complex brass arrangement but which here proves to be something of a highlight.  It’s easy to forget that they’ve clocked up a total of six studio albums over the years and this 17-track set draws material from all but one of these.  Their characteristic mix of Morris and other dance tunes, songs from Kirkpatrick and Carthy, military band repertoire and the odd curio is augmented by a couple of less familiar pieces.  One of these is “The King’s Hunt”, Archibald’s expansive arrangement of a tune by composer John Bull that he unearthed from a seventeenth-century collection.  It’s the only entirely new piece in the set and allows the extended brass section to flex their virtuosic muscles rather impressively.  An old piece given a new lease of life is “Friar In The Well” which had originally been recorded by the pre-Brass Monkey trio of Carthy, Evans and Kirkpatrick but is here given the benefit of the full band treatment.  The whole thing bounds along at a brisk pace – even accounting for a couple of slower pieces like “The Trowie Burn” and “Willie The Waterboy” – and sound quality is clear and punchy with a deep resonance to the bottom end that is impressive for a live recording.  The CD is packaged with a DVD taken from the same show which includes one additional track.  The visuals are clear and unfussy and the sound is again impressive but it may have been worthwhile to have utilised the extended playing time available and included some of Kirkpatrick’s between-song banter to provide more of a flavour of the live experience and to distinguish the content from that of the CD.  As it is the DVD doesn’t add much to the experience as a whole so it seems like a bit of a missed opportunity but that shouldn’t detract from what is a thoroughly impressive package.  There may have been times during the 30-year lifespan of Brass Monkey that they felt the distinctive snarl of young folk upstarts snapping at their heels, but this live album represents Messrs. Carthy, Kirkpatrick, et al. biting back with a vengeance and it’s mightily impressive stuff!

The False Beards – Ankle | Album Review | Ghosts From the Basement | Review by Kev Boyd | 01.07.13

When an outfit describe what they do as ‘old time English psych folk blues world twangery’ you can pretty much guarantee two things: that their sense of humour is fully intact and their repertoire will be nothing if not eclectic.  Such is the case with The False Beards, the latest collaboration between Ian Anderson and Ben Mandelson who boast a combined 90-plus years of live gigging between them and only a little less as recording artists.  With that kind of pedigree it’s no surprise that the level of musicianship rarely, if ever, falls short of virtuosic on this, their first full-length CD as a duo.  Much of the repertoire will be known to those familiar with Anderson’s musical meanderings: “A Sign Of The Times” and “Marie Celeste On Down” date from his days as a self-confessed ‘psych-folk twerp’ in the early 1970s whereas “The Panic Is On” was an English Country Blues Band favourite dating from the depression-era United States that will resonate equally with contemporary audiences – plus ça change, and all that!  Anderson has the perhaps enviable claim to fame of possessing two separate ancestors who sang for some of the great English folk song collectors of the early 20th century and he reclaims his cultural heritage on two tracks on this collection: Ralph Vaughan Williams noted “Lord Allenwater” from his great grandmother in 1904 and Anderson has previously sung this with Blue Blokes 3 while “The False Bride” was collected by Cecil Sharp from Charles Norris in 1909.  Guest Katie Rose takes on the vocals for these tracks and her presence adds a nice point of contrast to Anderson’s singing elsewhere.  In being reminiscent of the classic 1970s folk voice she manages to point up the essential Englishness of these songs.  Not that Anderson’s vocals are ever anything other than quintessentially English themselves and he rarely loses his West Country twang, even when tackling material rooted firmly in the American tradition that would have less confident singers dusting off their best midlantic drawl.  As well as handling most of the singing, Anderson plucks a mean acoustic guitar throughout and adds some occasional and well-placed slide guitar passages.  Mandelson augments this with mandolin and his unique baritone bouzouki.  That’s more or less it save for Rose’s vocal contributions, some muted trumpet from Peter Judge on one song and an incessant percussive stomp that pervades a number of tracks.  Despite the eclectic mix of styles it’s this relatively simple instrumentation that lends a sense of stylistic unity to these ten tracks.  It somehow underpins everything from a seben characteristic of the Congolese tradition, a tune from Guinea, songs from the English tradition and the playful slab of Greekadelica that is their take on the Stones’ “Paint It Black”.  Their approach is reminiscent of the era in which both protagonists originally learnt their trade: where young upstarts with guitars were just as likely to be found exploring obscure singer-songwriters, playing American country blues or tackling an Indian raga as they were singing songs from their own cultural tradition.  It works partly because of that aforementioned virtuosity but also, as is often the case with the best musicians, because they make it all sound so utterly effortless!  The CD comes packaged in a neat, environmentally friendly digipak sleeve with song notes by Anderson and a cool Alex Bertram Powell cover illustration.

Davy Graham – 3/4 AD | EP Review | Topic | Review by Kev Boyd | 01.07.13

20 April 2013 was the sixth UK Record Store Day: every year labels and artists produce limited edition vinyl, CD and promotional releases that are only available for sale in participating independent record stores on the third Saturday in April.  In turn those stores often put on special events on the day which can range from in-store performances, DJ sets, signings or simply providing coffee and cakes.  The special releases bring custom into the shops that might otherwise have gone to larger stores or online outlets and the knock-on effect of this increased custom should, in theory, be felt by the independent artists and labels whose releases are stocked by the shops during the rest of the year.  As their contribution to Record Store Day in 2013 Topic Records issued this faithful reproduction of their influential 1962 Davy Graham EP in an edition of 1000 pressings.  Topic’s philosophy has always been built around making traditional-based music as widely available as possible so I was intrigued by the apparent retrograde step of issuing this on 7” vinyl in such limited numbers.  ‘Topic is very keen to support as broad a cross-section of retail outlets for recorded music as possible’, Business Manager David Suff told me in relation to Record Store Day, ‘especially the independent stores’.  More specifically, he adds, 3/4 AD celebrates the original release being over 50 years old and provides ‘an idiosyncratic way to promote our Great Big Digital Archive project with a piece of prime vinyl’.  There’s a bizarre rationale to his thinking that appeals to me: the Digital Archive project started in January 2013 with the digital release of 84 previously out of print albums from the label’s vast back catalogue including full digital artwork, original accompanying sleeve notes and additional photographs or ephemera from the archives.  It’s an incredibly ambitious and important project, made possible by the relatively low overheads inherent in the download-only release process and I like the idea of promoting it using good old fashioned vinyl.  It also strikes me that this is all a far cry from the late-1980s when I first started seriously accumulating vinyl and CDs from Topic.  I still have vivid memories of thumbing through the inch-thick stack of A4 photocopies that passed for Topic Distribution’s mail order catalogue.  Every week another Postal Order would be dispatched to Stroud Green Road and every week a different slab of vinyl or shiny silver plastic would drop through my parents’ letter box to contribute towards my ever-expanding and increasingly exhilarating musical education.  Memorably there was They’ll Never Keep Us Down, Rounder Records’ incredible compilation of women’s coal mining songs; Radio Freedom, the album of illegal ANC broadcasts from apartheid-era South Africa; and the entire Martin Carthy back catalogue, slowly building in quantity and unwittingly waiting to change my life forever.  So either as a label or distributor Topic have always played an important part in my musical life and I’m thrilled that they are still looking for interesting and innovative ways of promoting their releases.  It almost seems unnecessary to point out Graham’s importance to the 1960s folk scene, such has been his obvious influence over the last half century.  Of the three tracks on 3/4 AD, “Angi” will undoubtably be the best known, having famously been considered a rite of passage piece for generations of aspiring guitarists.  Davy’s “Train Blues” is a rhythmic blues workout that is perhaps the most conventional of the three pieces, which is not to say that it isn’t executed with Davy’s usual technical mastery.  The title track is a duet with Alexis Korner and provides the missing link between Miles Davies’ “All Blues” and The Pentangle’s “I’ve Got A Feeling”.  The entire package comes in a heavy card cover that faithfully reproduces the fold-back sleeve construction used for early 1960s vinyl releases and Topic’s familiar blue and silver 1960s label design.  The original EP was issued in three different sleeves and this version includes the complete artwork and sleeve notes from each of these.  The EP is also available to download via iTunes so not everyone will wish to shell out the additional cost for this lovingly-reproduced facsimile of the original release but those who choose to can obtain it for a limited period via the Topic Records website.

Guy Clark – My Favorite Picture Of You | Album Review | Dualtone | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 06.07.13

After the sad passing of his beloved wife Susanna in 2012, and with a few of his own health issues to deal with, it seemed for a while that Guy Clark may have reached the end of the road.  His last studio album, Sometimes The Song Writes You, was released four years ago and a star-studded tribute album, albeit a superb jaunt through Guy’s impressive back catalogue, signalled the completion of a distinguished musical career.  Having seen and met Guy a handful of times, I was one of those fans whose lip started to quiver at the thought that this craftsman’s work was done. And then something wonderful happened.  On July 22nd this year, Guy released his fourteenth studio album My Favorite Picture Of You, presenting eleven brand new recordings, most of which penned by Clark along with such friends as Verlon Thompson, Shawn Camp and Rodney Crowell, who all feature on the record.  It’s not surprising, considering his recent hardships, that the album has a melancholy feel, the sound of Guy’s weathered voice adding to the bitter-sweetness. But no one does melancholic musical storytelling like Guy.  “Heroes”, a song about the mental anguish of a soldier returned from Iraq, is reminiscent of Guy’s classic “The Randall Knife” and comes with as much of a heartfelt punch while the album’s title track tells the story of the photograph of Susanna Clark which features on the album’s cover.  Presented with a handful of sweetly performed waltzes such as “Cornmeal Waltz” and the instant classic “El Coyote”, My Favorite Picture Of You is not just another formidable Guy Clark album for the collection but also proof that, when faced with adversity, Guy’s your man.

The Bills – Yes Please | Album Review | Red House | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 07.07.13

Hailing from the West Coast of Canada, The Bills (formerly The Bill Hilly Band), have the knack of making music that effortlessly draws the listener in.  The opening song on their latest album Yes Please invites us to step inside, which we all do with no further dispute.  Fluently pivoting between a broad range of musical styles, The Bills could quite easily become the masters of all trades and Jack of none, with their instrumental virtuosity and grounded vocal interplay.  No less than five of the thirteen selections on the album are instrumentals, perfectly demonstrating the band’s chops as first rate players with styles ranging from European swing jazz, with Django Reinhardt’s classic “Love’s Melody”, through to the dramatic Marc Atkinson composition Scotch Bonnet, by way of Adrian Dolan’s assured fiddle tune “After Music”, to the almost Classical composition of “The Gardenton Waltz” and “Quarter Century Mazurka”, each showcasing the expansive range of the band’s many influences from around the world.  If “Hallowed Hall” successfully invites you in and on first listen it’s almost guaranteed to, then there’s some delightful surprises further along with the highly memorable “Gale in My Snail”, the bluegrass-inflected “Black Berry Ivy” and “Broom” and the stormy and turbulent “The Plant Song”.  

Cassie Taylor – Out Of My Mind | Album Review | Hypertension | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 16.08.13

Having given us some of the most innovative blues music of the last half-century, Colorado bluesman Otis Taylor now presents the blues with another reason to be cheerful – namely Cassie Taylor, his incredibly talented daughter.  Out Of My Mind is Cassie’s third solo outing. It comes after years of performing alongside her dad and, as a result, the sound is that of a seasoned performer.  Granted, Cassie has a perfectly languid blues voice, a dexterous handling of the bass and a tight, often dazzling band to help these thirteen tracks along, but the songs themselves prove to be Cassie’s strong suit, thanks to her gift for songwriting.  While fitting snugly into the blues and soul tradition, most of the songs here are lined with refreshingly atypical turns that give the album a pretty sharp, contemporary edge.

Meschiya Lake and the Little Big Horns – Foolers’ Gold | Album Review | Continental Song City | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 21.08.13

If 2011’s Lucky Devil wasn’t hot enough, with it steamy gumbo dish of Duke Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton and Bessie Smith songs, then Foolers’ Gold will surely singe your musical taste buds.  It’s the second album from New Orleans-based singer Meschiya Lake and her band, the Little Big Horns and, remarkably, it manages to build on the meatiness of the first.  The sizzling dixieland sound is still there, thanks to the well-oiled brass engine that is the Little Big Horns, and Meschiya’s sassy voice, which surely belongs to the era of Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, is very much at the forefront of this spirited second album.  While renditions of “My Man” and “Do Right” will satisfy established Lake fans, with their traditional creole sound, tracks such as “Catch Em Young” and the title track “Foolers’ Gold” present a more contemporary edge to the traddy sound, a la Caro Emerald, which may throw Lake’s fan-base wide open.

Various Artists – The Lone Ranger: Wanted | Album Review | Disney | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 22.08.13

Gore Verbinski, director of Disney’s The Lone Ranger, described the artists who appear on The Lone Ranger: Wanted as those ‘we listened to on the way to set each morning and in the evenings with the dust, like bitter chalk, upon our teeth’.  In celebration of the release of the film, Disney asked the likes of Grace Potter and The Nocturnals, Pete Molinari, Iggy Pop and Lucinda Williams to donate ‘songs inspired by the film’ to this lively compilation.  The result is a wide and shimmering landscape of Americana treats.  Shane MacGowan provides the album with one of its two traditional songs, “Poor Paddy on the Railway”, while Iggy Pop supplies the second, “Sweet Betsy From Pike”.  Grace Potter’s rockabilly “Devil Train” is an impressive departure from the artist’s usual style while Lucinda Williams’s “Everything But The Truth” is typical of the gritty singer songwriter’s usual fare.  One of the album’s stand-out tracks, however, comes from South Carolina songwriter Sam Beam, better known as Iron and Wine.  “Rattling Bone” is a multi-layered, evocative oil painting of a song that sums up the overarching mood of the entire project.  Film or no film, this sturdy compilation is something of a stand-alone Americana classic.

Drew Holcomb and The Neighbors – Good Light | Album Review | Magnolia Music | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 19.09.13

Tennessee-born Drew Holcomb has admitted that he is one of those artists who takes time to hone their craft and see their vision realised over years of development.  Good Light, which is Drew’s sixth album with the three musicians that comprise The Neighbors, is something of an arrival; a coming together of the components that Drew has been nurturing since 2005’s Washed In Blue.  Drawing from often harrowing personal experience, this impressive collection of introspective, melodic Southern Americana is a showcase of Holcomb’s splendidly pictorial songwriting and distinctive voice.  And when that voice is blended with that of Drew’s wife Ellie, the results are nothing short of magical.  Drew may sing ‘I’m not a sunset, or a hurricane or a Vincent Van Gogh’, but the effect of those two mingling voices has the impact of all three.  With the sprawling landscape of Tennessee, the tender might of “The Wine We Drink” and the bluesy soul of “Nothing But Trouble”, each glinting with delicious slide guitar licks and melodies that will remain with you long after the twelfth track expires, Good Light is a perpetually strong and multifaceted album from a thirty year-old songwriter whose craft has surely reached its zenith.

Sheesham Lotus and Son – 1929 The New Kings of Old Time | Album Review | Sepiaphone | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 27.09.13

Wrapped up in a no-nonsense, this-is-how-it-should-be-done tenacity, 1929 The New Kings Of Old Time by Seesham Lotus and Son is a record that celebrates the uninhibited joy of old time music by returning it to its grass-roots.  Recorded live off the floor with one microphone and in pleasing MONO, this twelve-track romp through the music of Jaybird Coleman, Walter Vinson, Cow-Cow Davenport and other great bluesmen showcases the delightful eccentricities of a three-piece banjo-strumming, sousaphone-pumping, kazoo-blowing band from Canada.  Renowned for their highly original live performances, Sheesham Lotus and Son have managed to jar their singular style with a record that manages to do with no-frills simplicity what many have tried and failed to achieve with complex technical wizardry.  It is a stark, unpolished recording of a bar-room string band who clearly adore the musical heritage they strive to celebrate.  Such adoration is distinctly rendered in the gritty yet faultless vocal harmonies on “Drunken Nights” and the chugging rhythms of “Lazy Lazy River” and “Sister Maud Mule”.  Presented in an attractive vinyl-replica sleeve, complete with authentic sepia photographs of the band, 1929 The New Kings Of Old Time is a curious time-capsule you’ll want to open again and again.

Sweet Gum Tree – The Snakes You Charm and The Wolves You Tame | Album Review | Dreamy Bird | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 01.01.14

Although Arno Sojo’s emotive vocals may divide listeners at the start of his debut solo release The Snakes You Charm & The Wolves You Tame, it’s highly likely that a union of satisfied listeners will form as the album progresses.  What begins as a pretty standard, perhaps slightly overblown pop record soon evolves into a captivating, layered showcase of the French songwriter’s craft.  Indeed, a close reading of Sojo’s lyrics provides something of a revelation – here we have a wordsmith whose poetry could easily stand alone.  Lines such as ‘Culminating in a white room bathed in light / Along pillow conversations slowly they entwined / Her golden curls, his copper hair’ (“New Rays”) and ‘Somewhere the cold would not penetrate / A shelter made of trust that grief could not infiltrate’ (“November Daughter”) exemplify the sinews and flourishes of Sojo’s lyrical prowess.  Remarkable, then, that the dexterity of Sojo’s pen is only illuminated by the lavish and somewhat dreamy nature of the music.  A lush orchestral backing lifts each song on this record to dizzying heights, along with Sojo’s crisp and ornate acoustic fingerpicking.  The Snakes You Charm & The Wolves You Tame is a high-quality collection of thoughtful ballads set against an incandescent backdrop of swirling string arrangements and delightfully languid chamber pop.

Trio Gitan – Eastern Horizons | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 02.01.14

Once again the Trio Gitan has delivered another atmospheric showcase of world music. Eastern Horizons froths with masterfully rendered instrumental improvisations on Hungarian dances, boleros, Klesmer and Celtic blues with a few vocals thrown in for good measure.  The interplay between the accordion of Paul Carroll and the violins, guitars and various other stringed instruments of Jack Burge and Andy Lawrenson provides the real impetus to give this album a spin, especially on such tracks as Paganini’s “Caprice No. 24” (that well known South Bank Show theme), Django Reinhardt’s “Troublant Bolero” and the charming Parisian tune “Au Vieux Bal Musette”.  Leaping dexterously from European folk jazz to traditional Celtic reels, from classical pieces to twenties blues, Eastern Horizons is an album that oozes with the versatility that the Trio Gitan possesses in bucketfuls.

Andy Revkin and Friends – A Very Fine Line | Album Review | Very Fine Lines | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 18.01.14

Here we have an album from one of America’s leading writers of scientific and environmental non-fiction.  Now, that’s a sentence I never thought I’d write.  And yet, after hearing the first few tracks on Andy Revkin’s A Very Fine Line, I feel comfortable enough to assert that it works.  Just as Joni can sing “Both Sides Now” and paint the most exquisite oil paintings, so Andy Revkin can write The Burning Season: The Murder of Chico Mendes and the Fight for the Amazon Rain Forest and record an album of sweet and often humorous Americana songs.  He’s done so with a little help from his friends – Dar Williams appears on “Arlington”, mandolin master Mike Marshall plays on “Song for Lisa” and the great Bruce Molsky fiddles about on “Black Bird”.  However, notable friends aside, what really stands out on this record is Andy Revkin’s authentic and emotive rootsy voice.  The songs themselves showcase Revkin’s expertise as a writer of lines that go straight to the heart.  Themes such as mining tragedies, American automobiles and even humanity’s energy choices are all addressed here, each handled with the care of a seasoned folk musician – it’s astounding to think that this is Andy’s debut album.  So, move aside New York Times – Andy’s journalistic home between 1995 and 2009 – here we have a most versatile and original American voice who, whether it be via page or speaker, really ought to be heard.

The Claytones – Reserva | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 19.01.14

With regular airplay courtesy of Bob Harris and other advocates for bluegrass in the UK, Canadian four-piece The Claytones are fast becoming a notable country name on this side of the Atlantic.  The release of their second album Reserva has helped cement their reputation thanks to the band’s writing talents, expertly chosen covers, harmonies that could seal potholes and an outstanding vocal performance from lead vocalists Kelly Prescott and Anders Drerup.  On “You Don’t Love Me Anymore”, the creamy blend of these two breathy voices makes for a striking listening experience.  Similarly, a generous shot of magic is injected into Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You” and traditional Irish song “Lily of the West” on this exquisitely produced album.  As well as gentle love songs such as those aforementioned gems and the delicious “Draw The Drapes”, the album also comes complete with a number of bouncy bluegrass mic-stand wobblers such as “I Told My Pillow” and the beautifully infectious “Look My Way”.  With this robust follow up to 2012’s Lake In The Night, we’re sure to hear lots more from The Claytones, and we’re better off for it, too.

Various Artists – Divided and United: The Songs of the Civil War | Album Review | Ato Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 20.01.14

Just as the Coen brothers return to the mainstream a palpable interest in American folk music with the arrival of their film Inside Llewyn Davis, along comes a thirty-two track double-disc collection of songs from the country’s Civil War.  And what a treat it is, especially when you consider the quality of the voices and fingers that deliver these antique songs of war’s trials and tribulations to young and old ears alike.  Bluegrass stalwarts Del McCoury, Ricky Skaggs and Ralph Stanley are in attendance along with big country names such as Vince Gill, Steve Earle and Dolly Parton, each with their own heartfelt versions of “Dear Old Flag”, “Just Before The Battle”, “Mother” and “Listen to the Mockingbird”.  Mandolin master Chris Thile donates his take on the Federal song “Richmond is a Hard Road to Travel”, featuring a slick guitar and vocal from Michael Daves.  There are also arresting contributions from Carolina Chocolate Drops, Pokey LaFarge and blues legend Taj Mahal, all helping to make this collection the epic that, given the subject matter, it ought to be.  Marking 150 years since the end of the American Civil War, Divided And United: The Songs Of The Civil War is the brainchild of Randall Poster, musical supervisor on such productions as Boardwalk Empire and Skyfall, and presents one of the finest anthologies of American folk and country you’re ever likely to hear.

Dr. John – Ske-Dat-De-Dat… The Spirit of Satch | Album Review | Proper Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 29.08.14

Fifteen years have flown by since Dr. John – the legendary New Orleans night-tripper – released Duke Elegant, his twelve-track celebration of the music of Duke Ellington.  This year, the Doctor tips his hat to another legend, this time saluting that hero of New Orleans jazz, Louis Armstrong.  Beginning with a haunting gospel re-imagining of Wonderful World, Ske-Dat-De-Dat… The Spirit of Satch presents a thirteen-track sashay through music made most famous by Armstrong.  Thanks to Dr John’s panoramic musical prowess, a funkadelic stab at “Mack the Knife” gives way to a bewitching zydeco version of “Tight Like That”.  And just when you think a sassy big band will return these jazz classics to a more traditional realm, the good Doctor steers the album back into that unique swamp of angular New Orleans funk.  On such universally familiar songs as “World on a String” and “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams”, Dr. John serves up a steamy gumbo of funk and soul, accompanied here and there by the delicious vocals of Bonnie Raitt, Shemekia Copeland and the Blind Boys of Alabama.  It’s an album of night jazz and hoodoo soul that, in true Mac Rebennack style, froths with candle-shaking excitement. Satchmo would be mighty proud.

Diana Krall – Wallflower | Album Review | Verve | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 10.01.15

A quick glance at the track list on Diana Krall’s latest LP reveals two things.  Firstly, that Wallflower – Krall’s twelfth studio album since her 1993 debut – is a collection of cover songs and, secondly, that the reigning Queen of contemporary jazz vocalists is a sucker for a good melody.  Amongst the songwriters represented on this typically languorous and markedly understated album are Gilbert O’Sullivan, Paul McCartney, Randy Newman, Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Neil Finn and a further handful of respected melody makers.  In placing Krall’s gently devastating piano at the forefront of the album, along with the sultry, smoky vocals we’ve come to know and love, Wallflower ushers each of these gorgeously crafted songs into the spotlight, adding a silvery lining to each with a lush string backing.  Even the well-trodden lines of John/Michelle Phillips’s “California Dreamin’” and Taupin/John’s “Sorry a Seems To Be The Hardest Word” are given a bold outline on this delicately respectful tribute to the songs Krall first heard on vinyl.  But, far from being the usual jaunt through modern standards, Wallflower presents some surprises.  Krall’s pick of McCartney, for example, is the beautifully haunting “If I Take You Home Tonight”, a previously unreleased song from the pen of the former Beatle, left over from the “Kisses On The Bottom” sessions of which Krall was a part.  And then there’s the title track, a lesser known Bob Dylan song that was written in 1972 but only released on a later collection of Bob’s bootlegs.  With a little help from appearances by Bryan Adams, Blake Mills and Michael Bublé, Wallflower presents Diana Krall at her most sincere.  Here is a jazz artist let loose, for the most part, in the LP boxes of her youth, delivering covers of songs that are clearly achingly close to her heart.

Terje Isungset and Arve Henriksen – World of Glass | Album Review | All Ice Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 15.01.15

Ever since Sun Ra landed on the planet, jazz has held its arms wide open to experimentation.  Pioneers of the avant garde such as Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, John Coltrane and the aforementioned Ra erected the dome under which notable musicians such as John Zorn, Anthony Braxton and Wadada Leo Smith were free to tinker with this constantly evolving music.  Today, it’s hard not to lay your fingers on examples of experimental jazz as you grope along the shelves in you local record shop or glide leisurely through Spotify or iTunes.  Nine times out of ten, it seems that the latest jazz outfit to erupt from London, Oslo, New York or Berlin are either heavily influenced or a physical embodiment of the spirit of the avant garde.  Terje Isungset is a Norwegian composer and percussionist who has been steadily pushing the boundaries of modern jazz since his arrival on the scene in the mid-1980s. And ever since the release of his debut solo album, 1997’s Reise, we’ve been able to decorate our ears and interiors with the engrossing improvised soundscapes of this formidable sonic artist.  Terje’s latest adventures in sound see him, once again, teaming up with fellow Norwegian Arve Henriksen; a like-minded trumpeter and vocalist who manages to induce a meditative state with the distinctive flute-like tone of his trumpet and soaring soprano voice.  Putting the two together is like shutting Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock in a room and seeing what happens.  World Of Glass, with its concoction of sprawling drones, tinkling percussion and sinuous, seemingly ancient improvised lines of melody, presents a gallery of paintings for the ear.  Tracks such as “Cave”, “Optical Density” and “Silica”, with their wide soundscapes of exotic, reedy trumpet and what sounds like someone treading a path of broken glass, are serene pools in which to dip one’s otherwise cluttered mind, while “Looking Through” and “Crystal Clear” usher the listener into a landscape of ice with their liquidy bells and vibraphones.  Jazz has come a long way since its inception, but if it continues to offer sonic spaces such as World Of Glass, it will, thankfully, provide a refuge for those of us who often look to music for its calming influence.

Grassroots – Chamber 3 | Album Review | OA2 Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 24.01.15

It would seem the Seattle drummer and record label entrepreneur Matt Jorgensen can do no wrong. As bandleader, sideman, producer and even founder and co-Artistic Director of Seattle’s Ballard Jazz Festival, Jorgensen oozes a sincere passion for his music.  It’s a passion that has earned him a distinct identity on the North American jazz scene and respect around the world.   As 2015 arrives, Jorgensen has teamed up with guitarist Christian Eckert and saxophonist Steffen Weber for a second offering from Chamber 3.  The trio’s first album, Chaos And Structure was recorded live during a three night residency at the Jazzhaus in Heidelburg during January 2010.  Grassroots, their latest release, sees the band exploring their own compositions, along with an ethereal take on Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, in a studio setting.  And, this time, leading Seattle bassist Phil Sparks is along for the ride.  The result is a nine-track conversation between four fine instrumentalists, each with something sincerely interesting to say.  Jorgensen’s drums keeps the conversation tightly packaged, though not suffocatingly so, while Weber, with his controlled sax lines, and Eckert, with his consistently effervescent guitar breaks, are constantly engaged in a lively discussion.  One should also heap praise upon Sparks whose subtle bass, now and again, breaches the surface with the grace and majesty of a humpback whale.  There is a relaxed energy in the fibre of Grassroots that embodies this brand of jazz.  It’s a tamed fervour that only comes from a genuine respect for the communal handling of rhythm, musical themes and improvisation.  If you’re looking for quality chamber jazz this new year, look no further.

Troyka – Ornithophobia | Album Review | Naim | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 23.02.15

If you’re not familiar with the London-based jazz outfit Troyka, you’ll probably be better acquainted with its parts. Kit Downes  perhaps the most lauded British jazz pianist of recent years – sits at the organ while dazzling guitarist Chris Montague and detailed and dramatic drummer Joshua Blackmore make up the rest of this robust threesome.  Hot on the heels of such dynamic combos as Polar Bear and Portico Quartet, Troyka present an angular, clockwork funk that, were it not for the delicate precision evident in each spiky track, could very easily cause some damage to the inner ear.  Ornithophobia is the band’s third studio album – their first for the Naim label – and presents their most spirited work to date.  With nine highly-charged tracks, the band weaves gleefully through soaring soundscapes such as Seahouses and Bamburgh – both evocatively named after equally inspiring Northumbrian locations – and complex, polyrhthmic post-dance numbers such as Magpies and Ornithophobia.  There’s even a post-apocalyptic vignette in “Thopter”, interspersed with the eerie sound of a faux radio broadcast, which musically explores the terror of pandemic bird flu.  While Kit’s tasty organ provides a path through this kinetic landscape and Chris’s bewildering guitar breaks populate the scene with animated wildlife, the engine that transports the listener is fuelled by the startling rhythms of drummer Joshua Blackmore who, for this reviewer, manages to leap from the album’s surface higher than any of his fellow musicians.

Ma Polaines Great Decline – Got Me Out of Hell | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 24.02.15

In places, this album sounds like a young Billie Holiday gate-crashing a Tom Waits Swordfishtrombones recording session circa 1983, complete with clanking industrial percussion and Bohemian accordion flurries.  Beth Packer (vocals and accordion) and Clinton Hough (guitar, piano and Percussion) create an utterly compelling soundscape here, with one or two moments of sheer beauty, “Small Town” for instance, featuring one of Packer’s most convincing vocal performances.  Numb is the only song here that pre-dates the band’s inception in 2011, a slumbering blues that should only be played after midnight and preferably on a weekend, while the title song “Got Me Out of Hell”, provides us with a burlesque cabaret sideshow, that feels slightly dangerous yet deliciously tempting.  Joining Packer and Hough on this the band’s debut full-length release are Jon Gillies on sax, Chris Clavo on double bass and Nick Rye on percussion and piano.

Krossborder – Kompilation Vol. 2: The Best British Blues | Album Review | Krossborder 2015 | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 09.04.15

Voted as album of the month January 2014 by the Independent Blues Broadcasters Association, the first volume of Krossborder’s Kompilation: The Best British Blues, which featured tracks by such British blues artists as The Idle Hands, Tom Gee Band and Jackson Sloan, was very well received by critics, DJs and blues fans alike.  A year on, and Krossborder Rekords have furnished us with another generous helping of hard-edged electric and acoustic blues from new and established artists.   From “Get It Back”, its gutsy opener from 33 year old Leicester-born bluesman Jack Hutchinson to the lingeringly moody “Passion and Pain from the sadly disbanded Bare Bones Boogie Band, this second compilation provides a spirited, almost embarrassingly good answer to the question ‘do Brits get the blues?’  Other artists represented include the Robin Robertson Blues Band, Paul Lamb and Chad Strenz, Split Whiskers and London’s Andy Twyman, whose sparse, harp-led and, frankly, hilarious “I Eat Pot Noodle With a Plastic Fork” stands out as one of this compilation’s best.

Nathaniel Talbot – Swamp Rose and Honeysuckle Vine | Album Review | Fluff and Gravy | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 23.01.16

Nathaniel Talbot’s biography sounds almost as charming as the music he makes.  The singer songwriter runs a farm on Whidbey Island, in Washington State’s Puget Sound, where he works sixty hours a week to provide the Pacific Northwest with its organic vegetables.  When he’s not elbow deep in the earth, however, this fine wordsmith, singer and guitarist ploughs a very different field indeed, exposing his musical roots and harvesting songs for albums such as Swamp Rose And Honeysuckle Vine, his latest release on Portland, Oregon’s Fluff and Gravy Records.  While we can easily make a comparison to James Taylor upon hearing Talbot’s high, honeyed voice and gently arresting finger-picking, it soon becomes evident that a different kind of craftsman is at work here.  The poetry of such songs as “Able Man” and “Swamp Rose” and “Honeysuckle Vine” has all the earthy power of Seamus Heaney, AE Housman and Robert Frost.  The instrumentals scattered amongst these lyrically impressive songs also expose the touch of an artisan, “Winter’s Edge” and “When the Wind is Right” are almost painterly, with guitar, fiddle and dobro providing brushstrokes that often succeed in telling stories better than any lyric could.   With this, his fourth release, Nathaniel Talbot delivers a fresh basket of nourishment from what seems to be a fine crop of original songs and instrumentals indeed.  The album provides an invigorating glimpse of the contemporary North American folk landscape with its wide and sprawling sound and tangling briers of sweet melody.

Boreas – Ahoy Hoy | Album Review | Isle Music Scotland | Review by Phil Carter | 27.01.16

Sea-themed albums have been in abundance over recent years, and therefore the temptation was to regard this album as just another redressing of a well trodden musical route.  How wrong that would be, as this debut studio album from the Scottish and Norwegian collaboration is a uniquely blended sound-scape of cultural influences that explores the musical traditions of both countries.  The album gathers momentum and grows in intensity from the sparser opening compositions “Sidvoss” and “Silley” that conjour up a musical image of the land awakening as dawn breaks and the sun rises and the populous stir in their beds prior to embarking on their daily toils of on or around the sea.  Alongside the band’s own compositions, there is a beautiful interpretation of Ewan MacColl’s “North Sea Holes (Come All Ye Gallant Fishermen)”, a song that was originally featured on the Radio Balladsalbum Singing The Fishing.   On the track, stunning vocal harmonies from Lori Watson and Rachel Newton overlay the musical seascape to produce one of the finer moments on the album. The instrumental combination of Hardanger fiddle (Brett Pernille Froholm), Scottish Harp (Rachel Newton), Chromatic Accordion (Irene Tillung) and Scottish fiddle (Lori Watson) creates a magical chemistry that is very apparent on this track, and it is no surprise that the band have chosen to release this track as the single from the album.  The generally reserved mood of the album is uplifted by the track “Happy Set”, comprising of a medley of four tunes.  “Braw Sailin” is a song collected from Child’s ‘English and Scottish Popular Ballads’ and has received previous attention from Kris Drever and Old Blind Dogs respectively.  The musician’s approach to the cultural originality of their homelands of Norway and Scotland is ably demonstrated during the last three tracks on the album, climaxing with the beautiful “Lullaby”.  Ahoy Hoy is a beautifully produced album borne out of a remarkable collaboration between musicians from two countries and that mixes traditional and contemporary influences that both identifies the differences and also the similarities between the two cultures.

Hamish Napier – The River | Album Review | Strathspey Records | Review by Phil Carter | 22.03.16

Hamish Napier was born and raised on the banks of the River Spey in the village of Grantown-on-Spey in the Scottish Highlands. Hamish and his family had always had a natural affinity for the mile long stretch of the river that flowed past his childhood home, where one of his brothers fished it, and other canoed it, his Uncle Sandy photographed it and his mother painted it.  So no surprise then that Hamish decided to write an album of music based on the river.  The work was commissioned to be recorded and performed by the Celtic Connections ‘New Voices’ project, and was performed at this year’s festival in January to huge acclaim.  Hamish himself was one of the busiest men in Glasgow over the festival period, performing on no less than nine separate occasions ranging from shows with The Gathering Stream, Ceol Mor and brother Findlay’s group The VIP’s.  The River is a musical portrait of the natural and human life that has evolved in and around the Spey over the years.  There is a wide variety of musical styles in evidence on the album which gives an overall feel of creative energy and vitality, with sounds ranging from funky/electro-jazz as on the track “Floating” to Scottish jigs on “Spey Cast” to the panoramic swarming sound of wind instruments on “The Mayfly”.  The River is a beautifully composed album and will bear repeat listening without danger of becoming over-familiar or uninteresting due to the enjoyable complexity of its musical structure.  The quality of musicianship is top-drawer throughout the album, with Hamish assembling an accomplished band of players that includes Sarah Hayes on alto flute and James Lindsay of Breabach on double bass with the stand out track on the album for me being the dark melodies of “The Drowning of the Silver Brothers”.

Breabach – Astar | Album Review | Breabach Records | Review by Phil Carter | 24.03.16

Astar is Braebach’s fifth release since their arrival on the Scottish folk scene at Celtic Connections back in 2005.  They’ve travelled a long way since then, in more ways than one and the inspiration for the music on the album has come from the people, places, venues and festivals they have encountered on their extensive travels around the globe.  These very experiences have brought about a new multi-dimensional sound to their music, borne out of the influences of the different cultures they have been subjected to.  Musicians from Quebec, Norway, Australia and New Zealand have been invited to contribute to the album under the guidance of producer Greg Lawson.  I’ve lost count of the number of festivals I’ve attended where both Breabach and Le Vent du Nord have been appearing on the same bill, and it is a joy to at last hear them in direct collaboration, albeit just for the one track “Les Pieds Joyeux”.  In spite of the culturally eclectic feel to Astar, the trademark Beabach sound shines through and the band once again prove their pedigree and justified recognition as being amongst some of the finest and most gifted musicians currently operating within the field of Scottish music today.  Look out for Breabach at various locations on the summer festival calendar, where they have just been announced on the bill at the renowned Cambridge Folk Festival.

Dallahan – Matter of Time | Album Review | Dallahan Music | Review by Phil Carter | 25.03.16

Dallahan are one of the most exciting happenings on the current Scottish music scene.  Their combined blend of traditional musicianship originating from their respective homelands of Scotland, Ireland and Hungary results in a musical tapestry that is both dynamic and refreshingly original.  Their 2014 debut album When The Day Is On The Turn was highly praised by the public and music press alike, and on the back of the album the band has sent the last eighteen months touring heavily as well as spending time in the studio preparing the follow up Matter Of Time, to be released in April 2016.  Matter Of Time is evidence of the band developing and expanding upon their core musical influences, becoming more ambitious and complex in their compositional skills. Stand out tracks are the set of tunes named “Harbour Of Polperro” which alongside the excellent Dutch Courage features the wonderful Ullieann pipes and whistle playing of Jarleth Henderson.  Away from their own compositions, the band’s interpretation of the traditional classic “Stretched On Your Grave” produces another stand-out moment on the album, indicating further evidence of Dallahan’s growing confidence and creative abilities.

Nordic Fiddlers Bloc – Deliverance | Album Review | NFB Records | Review by Phil Carter | 28.03.16

Second album from the Nordic Fiddlers Bloc which sees the fiddle trio from Norway, Sweden and the Shetland Islands secure their reputation for delivering a gripping and unique blend of fiddle music.  Nordic Fiddlers Bloc (NFB) are Olav Luksengård Mjelva (Norway), Anders Hall (Sweden) and Kevin Henderson (Shetland Islands), with each of them regarded as leading exponents of their respective traditions.  Deliverance is a beautifully constructed collection of traditional fiddle music mixed in alongside the group’s own compositions with a firm focus on the rich traditional fiddle music from where they each belong.  The group have developed a sound that has been described as “unique”, “meaningful”,”intense” and “invigorating”.  The album includes much evidence of NFB’s clever use of harmonies, rhythm, riffs & bass lines that together produces a sound that belies the source of the sound produced from just three fiddles.  The foundation of the music is the chemistry that occurs when the three come together and seldom can three fiddlers have sounded so well matched as the Nordic Fiddlers Bloc.  Local interest in the group comes in the form of Shetland fiddler Kevin Henderson, long time member of The Boys of the Lough and more recently a member of the dynamic Session A9.  The compositions on Deliverance are sufficiently varied in style to make the album an interesting and extremely enjoyable experience, and the focus never drifts throughout the album’s ten tracks.  The  album is beautifully produced, crystal clear, well balanced with artwork that makes it one of the nicest album covers of the year.  Kevin Henderson’s composition “Talons Trip to Thompson Island” opens the album, which is a wonderful tune composed in the summer of 2013 after Kevin’s week of residency as a teacher at the Boston Harbor Fiddle School.  Other stand out tacks are “The Hen Hunt”, “Hjaltaren”, “Deiverance (Befrielsen)” and the exquisite “Halls Lilla Vals (Halls Little Waltz)” which is a stunning piece of music.

Paul McKenna Band – Paths That Wind | Album Review | PMB Records | Review by Phil Carter | 01.04.16

Since being awarded the title of ‘Best Up and Coming Artist of 2009’ at the MG Alba Scots Trad Music Awards, the Pau McKenna Band have gone from strength to strength captivating live audiences throughout the USA, Canada and Europe. Paths That Wind is the band’s fourth studio album, produced by John McCusker and released to celebrate their tenth year together, the album is a pleasing collection of songs influenced by the band’s experiences of being on the road and their time spent living in America.  The band have also included versions of songs by Alister Hulett, Peggy Seeger and Jim Reid which balanced with their own compositions span out the album so well.  Stand out tracks amongst the band’s own compositions are “Long Days”, “Tipping Point” and “The Dream”.  I remember seeing Paul and the band playing at the Cambridge Folk Festival back in 2011 for the first time in their own right following a previous appearance a couple of years before  as part of the Brian McNeill sessions.   The youthful exhuberance of the Paul McKenna Band playing Scottish music with such a passion was a real joy to see, and even back in the early days demonstrated a maturity beyond their years.  Their music, while steeped in the tradition is an exciting sound  created through outstanding vocals, driving guitar and bouzouki, intense fiddle playing, a warm pairing of flute and whistles and dynamic bodhrán and percussion.  This is indeed a very good album, with a carefully crafted signature sound that allows the Paul Mckenna Band to stand proud of the crowd.

Jim Causley – Forgotten Kingdom | Album Review | Hands On Music | Review by Phil Carter | 16.04.16

Five times BBC Radio 2 Folk Award nominee Jim Causley is a singer/musician who is passionate about traditional song, and particularly that of his native West County.  Jim Causley’s brand new, and fifth solo album Forgotten Kingdom, marks a ten year period since his debut release Fruits Of The Earth back in 2005.  Interestingly, it is also Causley’s first album that comprises of entirely self-written material.  The first three albums were made up of traditional songs, and the fourth Cyprus Well consisted of poems from his late relative Charles Causley set to music by Jim.  Despite Causley’s profession of love for his native West County, this is the first album he has recorded on home soil.   He has also assembled some of the finest Devonian musicians to work with him on the album, including James Dumbleton, Nick Wyke and Beckie Driscoll, Phillip Henry & Hannah Martin, Show of Hands, Miranda Sykes & Rex Preston, Kathryn Roberts & Sean Lakeman and Jackie Oates……….that’s some backing band!  Causley’s native West County is a major influence on the writing of the songs for the album, including one of the highlight tracks “Pride of the Moor” which celebrates the tin mining industry of Dartmoor.  The music on the album is far ranging in style, and encompasses anything from the mediaval to bluegrass and 1930’s music hall to string quartet accompaniment. Jim Causley has also been regarded as a consummate musician, and his traditional vocal style and accomplished accordion playing are widely acknowledged to be the benchmark for the genre.   Forgotten Kingdom certainly demonstrates Jim’s virtuosity throughout all of the fifteen wonderful compositions contained on the album, and probably does so better than on any of the previous four albums, good as they all are.  This is an album that sees Jim Causley opening up on his talents and skills not just as a musician, but for the first time as a gifted composer of words and music.  Forgotten Kingdom is destined to become a folk classic, and I offer this comment without any fear of exaggeration.  It is quite simply a wonderful celebration of the joy of playing your own music alongside good friends who all share the same affinity for their native influences.  To produce such a fine collection of self-penned songs and music at the first outing is quite remarkable, in spite of the collective view that Causley has for a long time been a fully paid up member of the younger folk establishment.  Maybe I’ll leave the last words to Causley himself, ‘I realised’ says Jim, ‘that as a (largely) traditional singer I have been singing other people’s words for a very long time and decided it was about time I started singing some of my own!’

John McCusker – Hello Goodbye | Album Review | Under One Sky Records | Review by Phil Carter | 17.04.16

John McCusker celebrates twenty five years as a professional musician with the release of his first solo album in thirteen years, Hello, Goodbye.  The album is the first to be released on McCusker’s own record label Under One Sky Records, as well as being the first album to be recorded at his brand new state of the art studio built at his home in the Scottish Borders.  The album was conceived and written while McCusker was touring the globe as a member of Mark Konpfler’s band, an association he has held since 2008, and some of the song titles, such as “It’s a Girl, Molly’s Waltz/Heidi’s Waltz” and “Tune for Nana” suggest he may well have been yearning for his home and family while out on the road.  Needless to say, McCusker has gathered together a stellar line up of musicians to work with him on Hello, Goodbye, including fellow Knopfler band member Michael McGoldrick, long standing friends Andy Cutting and Ian Carr, Phil Cunningham and Heidi Talbot.  Hello, Goodbye provides evidence of a real cross-section of musical styles that McCusker has embraced throughout his twenty five year involvement in Scottish folk music, and brilliantly illustrates the creative boundaries he has used to chart his journey along the way.  The album has certainly been worth waiting for, and is a fine reminder of McCusker’s unique and beautifully sensitive playing style that has become his trademark since his more raucous apprenticeship days with the Battlefield Band.  It’s an album to savour, and for me one that will not wander far from the CD player over the coming months.

Nikki Talley – Out From The Harbor | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 19.04.16

While the Adeles, Swifts, Winehouses and Gouldings of the world have stretched the boundaries for emerging female vocalists over the past decade while keeping the flames of Carole King, Aretha Franklin and Dusty Springfield brightly burning in the mainstream consciousness, it has to be said that some of the most exquisite vocalists of the generation belong to the Americana scene.  For those of us who have been lucky enough to find them, the voices of Sarah Jarosz, Anais Mitchell, Rachel Ries, Diana Jones and Aoife O’Donovan represent an era of truly exceptional singing and storytelling which often goes beyond the sometimes superficial, mass-produced music of your everyday arena artist.   Nikki Talley is another name that can be easily added to this tantalising list.  Having clocked up two hundred thousand miles as a touring singer songwriter and releasing two positively spellbinding albums – 2010’s Beautiful Charmer and a live album in 2012 – Nikki released her third album, Out From The Harbor in 2015, once again delivering a collection of evocative acoustic-based country songs, but this time coming down from the mountains to explore river and sea for what is a somewhat watery album.  In other hands, “Go Out on the Water” could well be a shimmering Nashville hit, sounding its delicious melody from every car radio, but Nikki keeps the song grounded with a sparse arrangement of gently strummed acoustic guitar and understated pedal steel, with all the grace and elegance of Emmylou. And when Nikki feels the need to fill out her heartfelt songs with full band backing, such as “Caroline” and “Travelin’ On” the results hark back to the mid-90s albums of Shawn Colvin or Tracy Chapman, where the songs are cleanly presented, entirely nourishing and never overcooked.  Then there’s “Gracie Blue”, a maritime folk song in the tradition of Anne Briggs; something Talley pulls off with astonishing panache and impressive adaptability.  What rings throughout this album is a sense of respect for the songs at hand; a sense which gives the whole record a varnished quality, as if it were something to keep and treasure forever.

Ray Hearne – Umpteen | Album Review | No Masters | Review by Phil Carter | 07.06.16

Third album in fifteen years from the South Yorkshire songsmith, and it’s a delightful and beautifully crafted piece of work.  Ray Hearne could never be labelled prolific and Umpteen happens to be only his third album in fifteen years, but commercial gains have never featured heavily in Ray’s ethos.  Instead the emphasis has always been on the quality of his craft and in creating a single body of work that will only be free to see the light of day when the process of honing and polishing has been completed.  As an artisan songwriter in the truest sense, the melodic accompaniment to the song is probably secondary to Ray’s love of words, and so the tunes are simple and often borrowed from the traditional canon leaving the words of the songs to flourish unfettered and to breathe freely.   As an example, the opening song on the album “Moonpenny Hill” has been a work in progress for over twenty years, stored in Ray’s subconscious song library, visited occasionally before being placed back on the metaphorical shelf.  This song in particular has lain dormant for the time-span of the two previous albums, as the first release Broadstreet Ballads appeared back in 2001, and The Wrong Sunshine in 2010.  However, the endearing quality of Ray’s songs is his ability to tell the story, and stories are not susceptible to the ravages of time and so the songs appear as fresh as the day they were first conceived.  The basic raw material for Ray’s writing is his fascination for observing everyday life, which by the use of carefully constructed wordplay he then distils into vignettes of rich imagery.  Take the song “The Hall of Fish”, which Ray explains in the sleeve notes came about as the result of a holiday to Brittany in 2003.  There the family would sit with lollies and wine opposite Las Halles aux Poisson.  Later Ray learnt that 15,000 people had died in that summer’s heatwave.  Then there is the song “The Kid Who Killed the Milkman” which relates the harrowing events of a barbaric act of murder that occurred in Sheffield as recently as 2003.  It is a dark and poignant song made more so by the accompanying melody “Slieve Gallen Brae”.  Each of the fourteen songs on the album has its own story to tell which Ray embellishes with its own unique structure and style.  That’s what makes this and Ray’s previous two albums so special, in that due to the deep well of subject matter he draws from, there is no danger of the songs morphing into a single common entity.  On this occasion I will refrain from the usual practice of highlighting particular tracks on the album, as is would be unfair to detract the potential listener’s attention away from any of the fourteen songs contained on Umpteen.  It should be mentioned that Ray has engaged the services of some fine musicians and singers to support him on the album, including Jude Abbott (who also did the cover design), Belinda O’Hooley, Greg Russell, Ciaran Algar, Ciaran Boyle and daughters Emily and Rebecca Hearne with the album engineered and produced by fellow No Masters colleague and ex-Chumbawamba member Neil Ferguson.  I would encourage anyone who may be new to Ray Hearne’s work, or indeed anyone who is already familiar with his music to give this album a listen.  It is a master class of social observation songwriting and as with all good folk music will be as relevant in thirty, forty or seventy years time as it is today. 

Ninebarrow – Releasing the Leaves | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Phil Carter | 08.06.16

Dorset based duo Ninebarrow bounced onto the national folk scene in 2014 with their highly acclaimed debut album While The Blackthorn Burns which demonstrated their refreshingly new and innovative take on the folk tradition.  Their second album Releasing The Leaves sees Jon Whitley and James LaBouchardiere further developing their exquisite pitch-perfect harmonies and instrumental arrangements employing a plethora of musical instruments including reed organ, ukulele, tenor and octave mandola and enhanced by the duo’s beautiful string arrangements, delivered by Lee Cuff on cello and Joe Limburn on double bass.  This is an album of various shades, from stripped back simplicity to spellbinding complexity, dark corners to refreshing optimism.  The eleven tracks embrace all that the duo is about, including their love of landscape, history and British folklore.  On the strength of their first two releases, Ninebarrow are certain to become a recognised force in English folk music.  Watch this space.

Fraser Anderson – Under The Cover Of Lightness | Album Review | Membran | Review by Phil Carter | 09.06.16

I’ve followed the creative progress of Scottish songwriter and singer Fraser Anderson since back in 2004, when he relocated his family to rural France and eventually released his cottage industry produced debut album And The Girl With The Strawberry.  He wrote the songs on the album while working in kitchens and on building sites, scraping together a meagre existence while holding tightly onto his dream of seeing his songs played out on a bigger stage.  Fast forwards to the present day, and in spite of Anderson releasing two more albums since the debut recording, he has largely flown under the radar in the UK, despite receiving glowing recognition from Bob Harris for his second album Coming Up For Air, which he described as ‘truly beautiful’ and invited Fraser to record two sessions for his BBC radio 2 show.  Anderson moved back to the UK on 2014, basing himself in Bristol, and following a successful crowdfunding campaign, he set to work on this newly released Under The Cover Of Lightness. The new album is a more mature, sensitive and yet far more complex and courageous work than his previous three releases.  The songs benefit from a much more layered style of production, losing the abject sparsity of his previous work, and which move confidently betwixt theme and mood with gorgeous female harmonies and gentle orchestrations floating the ear between Damien Rice and Portishead.  Standout tracks include the closing song on the album Rising Sons, the smooth jazz feel of “Simple Guidance” and the beautifully plaintive “The Wind And The Rain” backed with understated cello, fiddle and double bass and seasoned with some exquisite flute and Hammond organ work.  Under The Cover Of Lightness should be the springboard that affords Fraser Anderson a much wider audience base.  A beautifully crafted album of songs that hundreds of people have already pulled together to help the world discover this unassuming and long understated songwriter.

ALA.NI – You and I | Album Review | No Format! | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 15.06.16

After ALA.NI’s brief performance on Later with Jools Holland last year, anticipation for the London-born vocalist’s debut album has had time to grow into something hardly bearable.  No wonder, when this stunning young artist’s voice sits comfortably amongst those of Billie Holiday, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Allison Russell, while retaining its own gentle flavour.  You And I does more than enough to satisfy those for whom the wait has seemed like an epoch. Indeed, there are moments when one feels a little spoiled.  Take, for instance, the understated magic of “Suddenly”, a track that would have been enough of a treat, even without the delicious choir of harmonies that, like many of the songs here, preserves the track in its own exquisite amber.  Similarly, “Roses & Wine” has all the spare and simple beauty of a thirties Billie Holiday cut but blossoms into something that would fit nicely on any Kate and Anna McGarrigle release.  And it’s within this territory, perhaps, where the album will find its most loyal followers.  There’ll be many a music mag licking and sticking the “Jazz” decals on You And I, but this powerfully sweet record succeeds in transcending labels, focusing instead on the delicate delivery of, above anything else, the love song.

Evie Ladin – Jump The Fire | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Phil Carter | 16.06.16

About a year ago, Oakland California-based musician Evie Ladin Band holed up in a damp, dark cabin in the woods with no phone, no internet, with only a woodstove and her instruments for company.  She wrote, wrote and then wrote some more and emerged with the bones of her third release, ready to garnish with the necessary embellishments courtesy of her trio, the Evie Ladin Band. It’s been five years since Ladin released her debut solo album, and since then, the trio has become a tight unit with Ladin on lead vocals, clawhammer banjo and percussive dance helped by Keith Terry on vocals, double bass and percussion, and Erik Pearson on vocals, guitar and banjo.  This latest release Jump The Fire is a true reckoning of the trio’s ongoing collaboration.  The album is a beautifully paced collection of Ladin’s original Appalachian styled folk songs in addition to a handful of inventive, but not over-elaborate interpretations of traditional songs.  Two tracks that perfectly illustrate the scope of styles present on the album are “Coo Coo” a song based on the traditional English folk song “The Cuckoo” and the wonderfully laid back self-penned “Only You”.  This is old time music at its authentic best, and this latest release should ensure that the Evie Ladin Band cement their reputation for high quality musicianship and for their willingness to take a refreshingly innovative approach to maintaining the Appalachian music tradition.

Alexis Taylor – Piano | Album Review | Moshi Moshi Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 24.06.16

Back in 2008, an album hit the charts that seemed to reinvent electronic pop for the new millennium.  Hot Chip’s Made In The Dark, the London-based band’s fourth record since forming in 2000, was received with glowing appraisals from general listeners and critics alike, attracting ears from lovers of a wide range of genres, not just those chart-consuming, iPod-toting kids of the new century.   The secret of the album’s success?  Well, while the innovative electronic sounds, infectious rhythms and slick musicianship made for an impressive production, it was, most likely, Alexis Taylor’s gift for melody that put this album on so many shelves that year. Indeed, behind the hypnotic glare of electronica, listeners could easily detect the influence of such melodists as McCartney, Nillson and Bowie, made all the more enjoyable thanks to Taylor’s honeyed voice.   Fortunately, Taylor has had the good sense to place the spotlight firmly on melody for his latest solo outing, Piano, by recording a melancholic selection of covers and originals.  And, to help intensify the emphasis, the album contains nothing but piano and vocals (as well as a bit of acoustic guitar on the final track).  A highly personal album, and one that invites the listener to a private recital by this fine musician, Piano contains minimalistic versions of songs made famous by Crystal Gayle “Don’t It Make Your Brown Eyes Blue” and Elvis Presley “Crying in the Chapel” as well as a new version of the Hot Chip song “So Much Further to Go” which references Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.  The result is a deeply introverted performance that makes hymns of pop songs and an exquisite, sweet gospel singer of Taylor.  It’s an emotional outpouring, reportedly inspired by the recent death of a friend, and an album that proves, again, that heavy production and layers of instrumentation are superfluous when it comes to the power of a damn good melody.

Ben Wendel – What We Bring | Album Review | Motema Music | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 2.08.16

Anyone experiencing the music of Ben Wendel for the first time via this new release from the Canadian-born saxophonist might wonder where he’s been all their life.  In fact, it may be less arduous to query where he hasn’t been. Since the late 90s, Wendel has been busy honing his sound via a wealth of appearances on other people’s recordings.  He’s played with distinguished pianists Tigran Hamasyan and Dan Tepfer and bassist Todd Sickafoose as well as such mainstream acts as Good Charlotte and Jason Mraz.  He’s also served tenures with the Dakah Hip-Hop Orchestra and Daedelus.  But it was his time with American fusion outfit Kneebody that moulded the Ben Wendel we know today.  Even the greenest of jazzer will note the exquisite quality in Ben’s playing on What We Bring, his third outing as leader, especially during the more effervescent moments of “Amian”, “Spring” and “Solar”; tracks which also showcase the talents of Gerald Clayton on piano, Joe Sanders on bass and the incredibly inventive Henry Cole on drums.  While it’s enjoyable to look for clues to the inspirations behind these eight superb tracks, with each one being dedicated to past jazz masters such as Coltrane and Jamal, the overarching attraction of this album lies within Wendel’s own striking artistry.

Madeleine Peyroux – Secular Hymns | Album Review | Impulse! | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 03.08.16

It’s been twenty years since Madeleine Peyroux’s first release made us all wonder if Billie Holiday had been returned to us.  Once we’d gotten over the shock of it and realised that Madeleine was, regardless of similarities, very much a talent in her own right, we were thankfully assured that the 21st Century wouldn’t be leaving fine, heartfelt vocal jazz behind.  Madeleine Peyroux continues to water the roots of jazz and blues with her steady string of albums, not least on Secular Hymns, her latest collection of songs that call upon a ‘spiritual humanism’ at work in Peyroux’s deliciously soulful sound and selection skills.  While the album was recorded live in a church and the songs have a hymn-like quality to them, there’s no religion here.  These are songs of real life, of inner light, love and loss.  If you’re still looking for similarities, you might find more Bessie than Billie on this latest album, especially on songs such as Willie Dixon’s “If The Sea Was Whiskey” and the traditional “Trampin”.   There’s even a little Townes Van Zandt “The Highway Kind” and Tom Waits “Tango Till They’re Sore” here, proving once again that Madeleine Peyroux, even at her most intimately introspective, is an artist whose ears and heart are always wide open.

The Bills – Trail of Tales | Album Review | Borealis Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 17.09.16

Fresh from the west coast of Canada comes another tantalising taste of The Bills, a quintet of gifted musicians who have been quietly carving their own niche in their beautiful country’s roots music scene over the last decade and a half.   Trail Of Tales is the band’s fifth release since 2000’s The Bill Hilly Band and, once again, we’re treated to a generous helping of effervescent folk strummers such as “Trail of Tales” and “Hittin’ The Do” as well as serene, jazz and classical inspired whistle-alongs such as “Pebble Beach”, “Mando Coloured Glass” and the brilliant “Happy Be”.  And whether its tranquil instrumentals, driving stompers or rousing gospel harmonies that you’re after, this new record will delight you throughout.  For the first time in the band’s career, this new album features contributions of self-penned songs from all five members, which helps establish the album as The Bills’ most textured to date. It’s also the closest the band has come to releasing an album that would satisfy the mainstream, with such pop-infused songs as the infectious “Jungle Doctor” and the Beatle-esque “Lullaby for Elephants”.  For established Bills fans, however, there’s plenty to be thankful for, not least the welcome feeling that this is a band that’s still churning out the good stuff after all these years.

Federico Bonifazi – You’ll See | Album Review | Steeplechase | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 20.09.16

There’s a generosity at play on You’ll See, not simply in the way that young Italian pianist Federico Bonifazi allows his fellow musicians to steal much of the limelight, but also in the unadorned, somewhat raw disclosure of every sound on this wonderfully intimate record.  Consider Eric Alexander’s tenor sax, for example, which remains unrestrained, bone-dry and sans vibrato throughout.  There are moments when Eric leads the way while Bonifazi’s piano sits considerately underneath, albeit comfortably close to the mic.  Percussive and warm on every track is John Webber who provides a masterclass in engaging basslines while Jimmy Cobb, the last surviving member of the sextet that made Kind of Blue, offers one his finest performances in what is, remarkably, his eighty-eighth year.  There’s nothing overly fancy here, just eight utterly enjoyable straight-ahead recordings from a quietly confident quartet with a shared generosity of spirit.

Joey Alexander – Countdown | Album Review | Motema Music | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 26.09.16

If you were to jump randomly into Countdown, the latest release from Bali-born pianist Joey Alexander, you’d have a pretty good chance of hearing a line of improvised piano charged with enough invention and emotion to melt steel.  And once the molten metal is happily bubbling away, prepare to have your mind blown by the fact that this staggeringly dexterous musician is just thirteen years of age.  That’s right; this dynamic, passionate music – surely the work of a seasoned old jazz musician – is coming from the heart and fingers of someone who isn’t even old enough to remember the Concorde.  But forget Alexander’s age for a second (an easy task, given that Countdown, this young artist’s second release, is such a mature work) and bask in the sonic delights of a tight, conversational trio, led but not dictated by a pianist who never uses his technical gifts to enthral his listener without consulting the emotional sentiment of the composition in hand.  Unlike countless other dazzling wunderkinds, there’s thoughtful expression in Alexander’s playing that lends Countdown its colourful palette and allows the delightfully inquisitive rhythms of drummer Ulysses Owens Jr. and tangy basslines of Dan Chmielinski or Larry Grenadier, depending on tracks, to shine through with ebullient freedom.   From the steady acceleration of the Latin-infused “City Lights”, via the warm gospel of “Sunday Waltz”, a buoyant take on Monk’s “Criss Cross”, a meditative reading of “Maiden Voyage” (by Joey’s champion and friend Herbie Hancock and featuring a lovely soprano sax from Chris Potter) to the devastating solo beauty of “Chaplin’s Smile” and compelling rendition of Wynton Marsalis’s “For Wee Folks”, Countdown is a prismatic album that demands to be played and played.

Jim Black Trio – The Constant | Album Review | Intakt Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 10.10.16

From the opening bars of “High”, in which a tranquil nasally bass lays the foundations for this suite of ten new compositions, a perpetual melody and theme starts to take shape.  It’s a melody passed amongst these adventurous, textured compositions with great reverence, but with a fragility that points a spotlight on the dexterity of this progressive trio.  Seattle-born Jim Black is a well-known and well-respected drummer and bandleader who has, over the last two decades, cut an impressive niche for himself.  His style is energetic, unpredictable and forward-thinking; three adjectives which could easily be applied to The Constant, which sees Black playing with acclaimed Austrian pianist Elias Stemeseder and outstanding New York bassist Thomas Morgan.  Together, these inventive players whip up a storm of a record thanks to the gut-churning depths of Stemeseder’s piano on “Chinchilla”, the organic, searching basslines from Morgan on “Song E” and the inventiveness of Black’s percussion, which goes from tinkering to tempest in the blink of an ear.

The Peter Edwards Trio – A Matter of Instinct | Album Review | Edwards Music Productions | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 04.11.16

Trinity Laban Conservatoire graduate and BBC-championed musician and composer Peter Edwards has earned a great deal of respect from critics over the past few years, especially after the release of his trio’s 2014 LP Safe And Sound.  But it’s with A Matter Of Instinct that this Tyner-esque pianist comes of age with a collection that includes quick footed sambas, some deliciously angular funk and fizzing soul.  Edwards is joined by Max Luthert, whose bass remains considerate throughout, and artful drummer Moses Boyd, who manages to keep his fellow musicians tightly bound from the get go. But it is, without any doubt, the delicate finger-walks of the trio’s pianist – bathed in the exquisite production of the legendary Tony Platt – that urges the listener to lean in.   Amongst the sprawling beauty of “Loved Ones” and “Down But Not Out”, as well as the title track which sees Edwards turn to the gorgeous Fender Rhodes electric piano, lies the album’s show-stealer “The Runaround”; a moment of quirky elegance which showcases Peter’s ability to make a rest seem even more interesting and alive than some of the notes themselves.  It’s a triumph of an album from a constantly engaging piano trio.

Southern Tenant Folk Union – Join Forces | Album Review | Johnny Rock Records | Review by Damian Liptrot | 08.11.16

There’s an immediate warmth about STFU’s 7th album that draws the listener in, allowing you to draw warmth from the glow of their humanity in the face of the bleak world outside.  While the musical eclecticism is there, mixing Celtic, Americana, bluegrass and folk influences into a soul nourishing whole, the lyrical content is focussed, with political commentary reflecting the album’s title throughout.  Join Forces reflects the anger, despair and sheer disbelief the band feels at the current state of the world – albeit apparently written and recorded pre-Brexit and Trump – and the wish for people to come together to oppose the growing forces of negativity – so titles like “What Would You Give For A Leader With Soul?” and “Our Revolution Will One Day Come” are probably even more prescient than they realised at the time of recording.  Despite the concern expressed in the lyrics, this is an album with an overall positive feel – yes, the vocals of Rory Butler can have elements of wistfulness and melancholy but there is a generally positive feel to the songs and moments of sheer beauty when the voices of band members combine.  Musically there is some notable wizardry, with the banjo of Pat McGarvey and the violin of Katherine Stewart particularly deserving of mention but the dexterity is always used to serve rather than dominate the songs and is all the more enjoyable for that.   As a newcomer to the band, there’s enough here that relates to musical favourites that influences can be spotted and enjoyed, while kindling a desire to investigate their back catalogue and the opportunity to see them live. Nice!

Red Tail Ring – Fall Away Blues | Album Review | Earthwork Music | Review by Kev Boyd | 20.11.16

Originating out of the fabulously-named Kalamazoo, Michigan, Red Tail Ring are the acoustic duo of Laurel Premo and Michael Beauchamp who play a mix of original songs, reworkings of contemporary pieces, and traditional ballads on guitar, fiddle and banjo.  Fall Away Blues is their fourth album and is full of their characteristic close harmonies, tasteful arrangements and sparse instrumentation.  There’s an integrity to their playing that is evident in the unpretentious approach of their arrangements and that works equally well with traditional material and their own compositions.  The deep-felt sentiments of something like “Gibson Town” – their powerful account of a tragic 2016 mass shooting in their home town – benefit from being presented in this unassuming fashion as much as the traditional “Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies” or the Sacred Harp reworking “Wondrous Love”.  The three traditional songs and one tune blend effortlessly with the self-written pieces and it doesn’t hurt that the playing throughout the album – whether on guitar and fiddle or twin banjos – is precise and unobtrusive and the vocals are heartfelt yet understated.  Perhaps the standout original song is the title track, played on guitar and fiddle with Laurel’s lead and Michael’s harmony vocals perfectly signposting the song’s sense of resignation coupled with a determination to overcome adversity.  It would be a pity if Red Tail Ring were grouped into that redundant category of ‘Americana’ as their repertoire and overall approach is much too distinctive for such an oversimplified term.  Here is a duo writing sincerely-felt original material that plays off a deep understanding of old time American traditions. They may look to the past for their musical inspiration – and when they do they pay it due respect – but they have a contemporary touch that breathes new life into old traditions and both re-invents and re-energises them.

The Gentle Good – Ruins/Adfeilion | Album Review | Bubblewrap Collective | Review by Marc Higgins | 27.11.16

This is a classic album in the making, a perfectly sequenced set of heart felt songs and tunes, think Bryter Later, Tim Buckley’s Blue Afternoon or John Martyn’s One World.  It is mood music, evoking dripping water off leaves, ancient forests glimpsed through old windows.  Like its title suggests, it is both traditional and timeless, looking back and looking forwards.  A ruin that feels like it has always been here and always will, crackling with a sense of the past, dismissing the transient obsessions of the now and setting its eyes firmly on the future.  Gwen Lliw’r Lili, a stately slow piece on harmonium opens the album.  As 19th century Welsh traditional piece it establishes context and an atmosphere.  “Pen Draw’r Byd (The Far Side of The World )”, a twisted love song, follows, with intricate classic finger picking guitar and lots of nods to John Renbourn or Jackson C Frank.  Mention is due here to the sheer quality of the recording at Stiwdio Felin fach, across the whole album the instruments always sound rich and real.  “Pen Draw’r Byd”’s welsh vocal builds into a duet with singer harpist Georgia Ruth.  Voices and strings blend into the same swirling electro folk inhabited by the excellent Mishaped Pearls or kora / guitar band Stranded Horse.  “Rivers of Gold” is a sensitively delivered ballad, very much in the tradition of Dylan, Bert Jansch or Ralph McTell with a harmonica break straight out of Midnight Cowboy.  On “Y Gwyfyn” guitars and spare drums are given space to breathe while the strings build rather than dominate.  This approach typifies the restraint of the album, with the Mavron Strings’ tasteful and pastoral arrangements evoking Robert Kirby’s work for Nick Drake.  Opening with ambience and a plantif saloon piano the title track overflows with a brooding atmosphere.  If this was a film we would be tracking through an empty house from an Andrew Wyeth painting, curtains blowing, while a solitary figure dances lost in the moment.  This is filmatic music with piano motifs tied to the rising pace of the falling rain we can hear, till it merges into an entirely unexpected, but perfectly phrased jazz, arrangement.  A splash of Oliver Nelson meeting Michael Nyman, and we are in a Philip Glass / Godfrey Reggio travelogue flying over an expansive landscape.  “Suffer the Small Birds” (a deliberate Shakespeare misquote) evokes the exotic phasing of Pentangle, jazzy percussion, flying fingers, virtuosic guitar and hypnotic vocals.  Again paired vocals with Georgia Ruth are perfect.  Gareth warns us to keep a close eye on the details and inside sweetly perfect music he makes a sharp political point.  Politics and a call for humanity are central to Bound for Lampedusa, Bonello’s despairing response to the African refugee crisis.  His despair is wound into a lullaby, a beguiling guitar part, a whispered crooning vocal and perfect strings.  The trumpet when it comes, is strangely reminiscent of Louis Armstrong’s we have all the time in the world, It is that timeless.  “Un I Sain” is that winding guitar piece that you can’t help but stop and listen to, again there are musical nods aplenty to the playing and phasing of Renbourn, Gordon Giltrap and Al Stewart.  “Fisherman” is a reflective lament on transience and another beautiful duet with Georgia Ruth.  Gareth Bonello’s vocal phasing is relaxed and well-worn like Leonard Cohen at his melancholic best.  We end as we came in with layers of harmonium and vocal that swirl in “Merch Y Morfa”.  A snatch of curlew across the water evokes a terrific sense of place, lingering as the track fades away leaving you wanting more.  This is an album you will play again and again.  Musical bookending it with the harmonium invites you to leave it looping like a pastoral earworm.

Billy Bragg and Joe Henry – Shine a Light | Album Review | Cooking Vinyl)| Review by Marc Higgins | 28.11.16

There is so much that is evocative and intriguing about this collection, from the cover with its graphic based on a Union Pacfic Streamline train and Futura styled 1920s lettering, to the title, a quote from “The Midnight Special” and a line rich with suggestions of discovery and insight.  That the collection is tagged ‘field recordings from the great American railroad’ places us in direct contact with folk song collectors and those mid twentieth Century Folkways Recordings, selflessly discovering and documenting.  The sepia photo of Bragg and Henry reads like a 30s Walker Evans snap, Bragg is an English bloke in a flat cap and Joe Henry has a touch of swagger, thumbs in his belt and hat pushed back like a 19th Century gunslinger.  That they pose fan like under a station info sign just emphasises that this is a musical travelogue.  A Journey by two journeymen travelling through a landscape made from the past revisiting the songs that tell its story.  Sadly the excellent sleeve notes, that attempt to illuminate the songs by explaining where each was recorded and giving rich context on the tracks, don’t document the genesis of this project.  That, we are left to surmise.  Among the indigenous Australians a songline is an established track across the land that a knowledgeable traveller is able to navigate it successfully by recounting the words of the song.  Like those historic blue plaques recording historic events in specific locations we attach significance to locations.  Who hasn’t been fascinated by Paul Simon recounting that he wrote “Homeward Bound” on Widnes Station platform.  So the idea that you can gain insight by performing in a historically appropriate and sympathetic place is an excellent one.  The songs and the performances have an extra resonance or dimension because of where and how they are performed.  That the recordings are ‘warts and all’ and made in the field, laid down in moments between trains is fascinating.  Lots of artists and albums have been enriched by sound effects, some sonically sculpted to create a condensed psychedelic experience like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon or the ambience of a lakeside shore on John Martyn’s Small Hours.  Here the ambience gives a sense of place, a gritty realism, to the recordings.  The slamming of freight doors perfectly placed in the middle of “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore” creates a rich atmosphere and with its endless echo illustrates the size of the space they are recording in.  Station announcements aren’t scripted or edited like concrete poetry, they are grainy textures behind the main action.  It is to the credit of Bragg and Henry, and we wouldn’t expect anything less, that despite the familiarity of the material that they avoid a hokey, encore delivery.  Singing to the trains and the landscape they deliver the songs with integrity and sincerity.  Stand out tracks are the opener “Rock Island Line”, after the obligatory distant train whistle Henry and Bragg divide the vocals, picking out different lines and coming together on the chorus.  Listen to that spooky guitar and Bragg’s otherworldly vocal on “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore”.  “Lonesome Whistle” is actually recorded in a sleeper on the train, the size of the space adding an intimacy to the recording with its Tex-Mex guitar and rumbling duet vocals.  Any imperfections in the recording, like old denim jeans or patina, just adds to the charm.  While you would think, with respect, that Joe Henry would be more suited to songs about the American Railroad, Billy Bragg gets inside the lyric of “Waiting for a Train” and manages an excellent yelp ad yodel that wouldn’t shame Jimmie Rodgers.  “In the Pines” is an example of where the two vocals blend with Joe Henry’s higher register and Bragg’s lower, becoming one voice, ringing out every bit of emotion as they vocalise between verses.  It is testament to the strength of both performers that we can still be grabbed by their interpretations of a well-established song like John Hartford’s “Gentle on my Mind”.  Here and on “Hobo’s Lullaby” Henry’s excellent vocal and a lovely guitar part leads, while Bragg’s vocal rumbles a bass part, in a way that is captivating.  Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain” shares the same spirit as those earlier rail riders being a 1960’s lament about air flight.  Even if you have heard these tracks before, and I think that you have is part of the point, the performers and the performance make you listen again and I think that is definitely the point, of the album and the folk tradition.  This album presents limitless possibilities for future marriages of song and significant locations. A tour is already underway.  But knowing the fertile inventive minds of both Bragg and Henry I suspect they won’t be as easily pinned down and if there is another meeting it will be as left field as this one.

Coope Boyes Simpson – Coda | Album Review |  No Masters | Review by Ian Taylor | 28.11.16

For the last twenty-three years, Barry Coope, Jim Boyes and Lester Simpson have produced album after album chock full of socially conscious songs, steeped deeply in the folk tradition and delivered with face-slapping a capella harmonies.  Coda, their tenth album continues that sequence; fifteen songs, a mixture of traditional, self-penned and covers, conveyed with rich, honeyed three-part harmony.  Topical subject matter includes the Iraq War, the fishing industry, Palestine, mass migration and the environment, all sensitively handled, passionately sung and compassionately argued lyrically, such that it would surely be impossible to disagree with any sentiment.  Fine interpretations of Michael Marra’s surreal gem, Frida Kahlo’s “Visit To The Taybridge Bar”, and Boo Hewerdine’s “The Man That I Am”, written for the Ballads of Child Migration project that both acts were involved in, complement the self-penned material perfectly, as do versions of traditional songs “Napoleon’s Dream” and “Flandyke Shore”.  But the album’s highlight has to be its closing track, “Anthem For A Planet’s Children”, Jim Boyes’s lyrics to Hans Leo Hassler’s hymnal tune are self-evident truisms to those of us with a social conscience of any kind.  That they have to be re-stated in these turbulent political times has to be the saddest indictment of modern society. This sentiment is rendered all the more poignant in the knowledge that, as its title suggests, Coda will be Coope, Boyes and Simpson’s final studio album.  Their 2017 tour and festival appearances will be their last together. The trio have made a vital contribution to the British folk canon and their legacy will be one of humanity, compassion, and fine, fine music.  It will be sad to see them go, but I suppose, at least, there are some Young’Uns waiting in the wings to take on the a capella kings’ mantle.

London Klezmer Quartet – To the Tavern | Album Review | Proper Records | Review by Damian Liptrot | 28.11.16

For newcomers to the term, Klezmer refers to a form of music associated with Eastern European Jews but while eminent musicologists may debate and indeed argue over the exact roots of the genre, the more sensible amongst us will just listen and enjoy.  Having first played this album in a car full of musicians, the review quickly took on a life of its own.  While acting as an introduction to Klezmer to several of the passengers, it met with immediate and universal approval, which is not necessarily the case with all vehicular located listening choices.  The comments received echoed and confirmed everything that may already have been written or said about the five people who make up the quartet (check out their website maths fans).  From the virtuosity of the individual members to the quality of the arrangements, the vibrancy of the performances, the whole album was a shared delight and went on a quickly requested repeat.   The latter point is worth exploring, in that the album lasted much of the journey from a meeting point in Warrington to downtown Oswestry, comprising 17 tracks (albeit containing a welcome reprise of first track, Dobridden, at the end), reflecting the Klezmer experience in all its moods – from sorrow to exuberance, despair to joy, with room for playfulness and humour.   Highlights are almost too many to mention but the perfect timing of “The Summertime Waltz” was much admired and Susi Evans drew particular praise for her clarinet contribution to “The Inn Keeper’s Wife” and her foot tapping part in “Clackety-Clack Bulgar” as both brought expressions of delight from the back seat.  The LKQ are 8 years young, have a deservedly worldwide presence and this, their 4th release, is ostensibly a concept album, telling the story of a klezmer band’s 24 hours in a small town, although we will have to take their word for it.  Where songs feature vocals, Indra Buraczewska delivers with both depth and beauty but the lyrics are impenetrable to those of us with a restricted linguistic range – not that this detracts from the overall experience.  There is even a jazz tinged intro that just hints at the arrival of Tom Waits but his non-appearance is quickly overlooked as the music flows ever onward.  A more lyrical companion described the album as containing ‘music the texture of twilight’ and while that meaning may be equally obscure, it does sum it up perfectly.  Take some friends for a drive with the London Klezmer Quartet, if they don’t thank you, find new friends.

Methera – Vortex | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 28.11.16

The commingling of classical and traditional folk music has given us some fine work over the years but never so pleasingly rendered as Methera’s Vortex.  The release of this stunningly presented nine-track instrumental album marks ten years of the four-piece string ensemble and, as the hand-painted text inside the package suggests, we’re once again treated to “a halo of music” complete with delectable “curlicues of sound”.  Indeed, it’s hard to resist plundering a well of poetic adjectives when trying to describe Methera’s third release.  The quartet consists of cellist Lucy Deakin, viola player Miranda Rutter along with fiddlers John Dipper and Emma Reid.  Each player delivers a wide understanding of the traditional music of Britain, Sweden and other lands, which plunges what is essentially a classical string quartet deep into an earthy, root-entangled sound.  Think Haydn with dirty fingernails.  The album presents a tapestry of scenes from a range of traditions including the folk tune “Rising Sun” from John Offord’s great English collection, a set of Celtic jigs including the Shetland tune “Da Shaalds O’Foula” and the “Irish Old Favourite” as well as self-penned pieces such as Lucy Deakin’s enchanting “The Fox” and Emma Reid’s life-affirming “Lilly”, each tune further illuminated by informative liner notes.  Produced with tender care by musician, composer and producer Robert Harbron and reflecting the “inward-facing circle” which has become Methera’s trademark performance setup, Vortex is an album that insists on pulling us into its rich spiral of sound and sentiment.

Sara Watkins – Young in All the Wrong Ways | Album Review | New West Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 28.11.16

Sara Watkins first came to my attention as vocalist and fiddle player with the feel good American Bluegrass band Nickle Creek, With Nickle Creek on indefinite hiatus Sara Watkins has pursued an always interesting solo career.  Three releases in and Young In All The Wrong Ways shows how far Sara has travelled from her beginnings.  The opening title track starts gentle with her excellent voice close to the mike, but a guitar riff straight off Hozier’s 2014 Hozier album and a drum sound Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham would be proud of quickly offers great light and shade.   “The Love That Got Away” is a great classic ballad, again showing Sara’s depth as a vocalist with a sparse arrangement that gives her room to shine.  “One Last Time” is more firmly looking back to her Bluegrass beginnings.  “Move Me” is a great track, one of the album’s big hitters, with a vocal like a raucous Sheryl Crow or Lucinda Williams and a great Southern Soul groove you can imagine will sound amazing live.  Great guitar too, raw like Liege And Leif era Richard Thompson.  Would be great to hear this band stretch out like this more often.  “Like New Year’s Day” is as sparse and textured as a Blue Nile anthem.  It opens with a pulsing keyboard and a heartbeat drum that creates intimacy and draws you in, creating a foil for one of the albums shine out vocals.  Again this is confessional Lucinda Williams territory, perfectly evoking the early morning reverie the lyric describes.  The intimate wee small hours vibe continues with “Without A Word”.  String bass, brushed drums, period Hammond organ and distant strings create an atmosphere that perfectly contains the vocal.  Puts me in mind of Van Morrison on 1970’s Into The Mystic, like the rest of the album everything is so balanced and perfectly poised.  “Tenderhearted” the album closer has a vocal stretching towards Emmylou Harris on Wrecking Ball, the voice is that pure and demanding of attention with the best left till last.  It’s a short album, textured but paired back, rich but distilled with lots of flavours in the mix.  At the end it leaves you, as the best do, wanting more.

The Revellers – Skeletons | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Damian Liptrot | 29.11.16

If the name of the band isn’t sufficient to hint at a major influence, the fact that their publicity material features a ringing endorsement from Mark Chadwick will serve to confirm where the band is coming from.  That said, they are not slavish copyists, they do bring enough of themselves to the party to make the results an interesting listen.  Fusing rock and folk, with a large dose of the former and instrumentation from the latter, the results are a coherent high energy fusion of elements of heavy metal, punk and tradition that belies the fact that all seven members enjoy both joint and individual writing credits.   Based in the Shetlands, they have attracted a devoted following that has translated into considerable attendances at their gigs, which one can easily imagine create a powerful shared experience, the like of which bands such as Ferocious Dog, The Leylines and the more punk folk oriented Headsticks are currently offering on the mainland.  There are quieter, more reflective moments, though we have to wait until track seven “Gallows Hill”, although the finale does see a return to the higher octane end of the spectrum.  If I have a criticism, it is that occasionally there are so many musical ideas fighting for space that the major thread of a song can get a little lost, straying a little into what could be considered prog folk, with the songs extended to accommodate this, though at the same time, their inventiveness has to be applauded and the contributions of fiddle and banjo are worthy of particular mention – with the violin element being somewhat reminiscent of metal-folk pioneers Skyclad and the banjo of Lewie Peterson adds an extra dimension.  If you like your folk-rock to be of the decidedly rock-folk persuasion and perhaps have come to folk from a background in noisier genres and fancy a mandolin driven pogo or even a little headbanging with a celtic feel – this could well be the band and album for you.

Martha Fields – Southern White Lies | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Kev Boyd | 30.11.16

Martha Fields is a Texan, currently resident in France, with deep Appalachian roots and an impressive grasp of the central tropes of American roots music. Southern White Lies is her second album but you’ll need to search under her former pseudonym of Texas Martha to find her first. With this name change came a distinctive revision in musical policy, so while her earlier release explored the classic sounds of Texan Honky-tonk, Southern White Lies reaches back to her ancestral and musical roots in Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia.  The songs deal with some deeply personal issues and dark emotions but there’s also room for the occasional burst of good humour.  Fields has gathered together a terrific band of acoustic musicians to realise this new material. The core ensemble of violin, bass fiddle, dobro and occasional mandolin reveal exceptional musicianship throughout a combination of old time bluegrass, country, and blues styles and Martha’s rough-hewn, careworn vocals sit powerfully atop the sweet string band sounds.  The combination should perhaps jar but on the rare times it does it’s by design and to the benefit of the material.   At the core of this collection are three original songs that trace the American working class experience through the album’s two significant geographical locations – Appalachia and Texas.  The title track rails against pandering politicians and the creeping capitalism represented by the paradigm of ‘big box’ stores obliterating the ‘mom and pops’.  “Do As You Are Told” is the moving story of one Letha May Fields, born one of ten siblings in the 1920s and whose refusal to adhere to the prevailing patriarchy led to an untimely and undignified end.  “American Hologram” is a powerful indictment of the redneck culture’s tendency to go against its own self-interests at the bidding of conservative ‘blue dog democrats’.  There’s a justified sense of righteous indignation evident both in the lyrics of these core tracks and in Fields’ delivery.  As with any great album, where there’s light there must also be shade. Janis Joplin’s “What Good Can Drinkin’ Do?” and Jimmie Rodgers’ “California Blues”, amongst other notable examples, offer some relative respite from the intensity of the core tracks.  The Methodist hymn “What Are They Doing In Heaven Today?” is the perfect vehicle for Martha and band to demonstrate their mastery of the classic high lonesome style.  The album’s only negative quality is in its running order which tends to sandwich the faster songs in the middle with the slower tracks at the beginning and end.  It’s a pity because there’s a five-star album desperately struggling to escape this awkward programming.  That said, taken as a collection of individual, exceptionally realised songs, or better still experienced on shuffle mode where the slower tracks have a decent chance to breathe between the more up-tempo numbers, Southern White Lies is an engrossing and thought provoking album of fine American roots music.

Merry Hell – Bloodlines | Album Review |  Self Release | Review by Mary Andrews | 01.12.16

Merry Hell have a solid track-record of releasing undeniably anthemic songs and Bloodlines continues the trend of catchy hooks, positive messages, and foot-tapping sing-along choruses. From the opening notes of the album it’s obvious you’re listening to Merry Hell.  Bloodlines is without doubt the most well produced and polished Merry Hell album so far.  With wailing electric guitar and stomping drums they feel ever closer to the Celtic punk of Shane MacGowan and Kirsty McColl; it’s a sound you’d definitely associate more with a good pub than a folk club – but these are well thought through arrangements and productions, smooth and warm, you can hear the love that has gone into the making of these songs.  Elements of this album definitely feel softer and more reflective than their previous works.  This isn’t just pub fodder; it’s well produced, well written, and beautifully presented.  The packaging and artwork is beautiful too.  Seven different lyric writing groups (John Kettle, Virginia Kettle, Bob Kettle, Bob Kettle & Lee Goulding, Bob Kettle & John Kettle, Neil McCartney, Lee Goulding & Virginia Kettle & Bob Kettle) contributed to the 13 track album and it hangs together exceptionally well.  Virginia’s songs are the ones that resonate the strongest with me, but it’s clear that the sound of the band draws strongly from the input of all the members.  It’s an effective way of adding variety to the mix.   The message from Merry Hell is one of hope, of unity, of standing together.  2016 has been a year of racial division and political disharmony and Bloodlines seeks to shine some light into that situation.  We need each other now is more than just a catchy hook and an opening song, it’s the message at the core of the album.  With all that said I can’t help but acknowledge that Merry Hell generally feel like they write songs for their live performance first, and the home listening experience second.  The hooks and repetitiveness are writing modes that excite large crowds into dancing and singing along rather than necessarily translating perfectly to the home listening experience.  It’s not that they don’t work; but there’s still room for that final level of refinement that could elevate Merry Hell to the chart topping heights of The Beautiful South and Chumbawamba.  I’d happily say this is the best Merry Hell album yet, it’s addressed some of the production qualms I had with The Ghost In Our House; but I’m still looking forward to the next one.  More than that though I’m looking forward to finally seeing Merry Hell performing live, if this album is anything to go by it’ll be a brilliant night!

Emily Smith – Songs For Christmas | Album Review | White Fall Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 02.12.16

Since winning BBC Radio Scotland’s Traditional Musician of the Year in 2002 Emily has produced a series of delightful albums that blend traditional and contemporary material in a beguiling way.  She appeared in season four of The Transatlantic Sessions, BBCs excellent series of collaborations between folk and country musicians from both sides of the North Atlantic.  Listening to this fine album, it is those TV shows, with American country and acoustic meeting Celtic and UK folk, that come most strongly to mind.  From beginning to end Songs For Christmas evokes those sets of musicians performing in an isolated house surrounded by the fiercely beautiful Caledonian landscape.  Emily Smith’s vocal is very much the star of the album and like The Transatlantic Sessions, it manages to be very Scottish and have that Appalachian crystalline beauty. The album opens with “Find Hope”, Emily’s own composition, which sets the scene and introduces the theme of hope of Christmas.  There is a lightness of touch on the playing and arrangement and a spryness that recalls Alison Krauss.  “Christ Has My Hairt, Ay” continues the intimate feeling with lovely band passages that alternate with the voice coming to the fore for the verses.  Show of Hands’ 2006 sharp anthem “Roots”, decries our lack of a shared language of song, as family singsongs round a piano and more recently the folk revival of the 60s retreat behind us.  While it is hard to disagree with the sentiment, Christmas songs like “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” are a strong example of a feel-good music that is in the marrow of many of us.  Maybe if we could invest the same spirit that floods into Christmas and spills over into the whole of December into other festivals, then we would have many more shared songs and a reason to sing them.  Emily’s version is a thing of beauty; great guitar, understated percussion and spectral vocals between the verses strip away memories of Carol singers and make it something new.  With a tune that recalls The Albion Band’s “Poor Old Horse”, “Heard From Heaven Today”, slows the tempo down and builds an evocative atmosphere as does John Doyle’s wonderful benediction “Merry Christmas To All And Goodnight”.  Showing the long relationship between Folk and the festive album or at least seasonal songs, “The Blessings Of Mary” is oft recorded.  Maddy Prior and June Tabor featured it on the first Silly Sisters album, Coope Boyes Simpson and others recorded it on their Voices At The Door album, Oxford’s “Magpie Lane” on their festive album Knock At The Knocker Ring At The Bell, The Albion Christmas Band recorded it twice on their Snow On Snow and Tradition albums.  Kate Rusby, certainly no stranger to the possibilities of festive folk, recorded it on her Christmas album While Mortals Sleep and the Live At Christmas DVD.  Here Emily Smith takes it at a brisk pace with a delivery that contrasts the sombre lyric, again the band plays with passion and energy.  “Silent Night” is a lullaby, a soothing tempo, honey vocals as warm and seductive as a hot toddy with a jazz violin that is very Hot Club Of Paris.  The final trio of songs are reflective, thinking about those absent and looking back on time spent.  “Santa Will Find You” carries the jazzy chords on behind a vocal washes over you, part Nancy Griffith and part Diana Krall.  “The Parting Glass” strips everything away but Emily’s evocative vocal wrapped in atmospherics and an emotional violin.  A beautiful contemplative end to an album of Winter beauty.  Roaring down through the Blue Ridge in summertime Virginia with the top down, the Americana elements might perfectly match the scenery and the mood, but listening to it in December, curtains drawn against the dark and the stove glowing it matches the mood perfectly.  There is a fine tradition of music recorded for and about the Christmas season both inside and outside the Folk tradition.  70’s anthems from Wizzard and Slade, feel good singalongs like “Fairytale of New York”, Lindisfarne’s “Winter Song”, Jethro Tull’s “Christmas Song” and Jona Lewie’s “Stop The Cavalry” that evoke the melancholic side of the time of plenty that exists for some.  Alongside all of those this is a fine fireside late night companion, an excuse for a glass which by turn, up lifts you, makes you think, makes you smile and finally leaves you with a warm glow. ​

Ross Ainslie and Ali Hutton – Symbiosis | Album Review | Great White Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 03.12.16

There is simply no other word which better describes the new album by Ross Ainslie and Ali Hutton than the one they chose for its title.  Symbiosis presents nine tunes which perfectly demonstrate the magic that happens when two musicians find a deep connection through their music.  And although these seasoned performers have each forged a reliable reputation individually, playing with the likes of Salsa Celtica, Dougie Maclean and Capercaillie over the years, its hard to imagine wrenching the two apart, especially after hearing such tracks as “Smiler” and “Fourth”.  Take the latter, where the melody lines flow rapidly and resolutely in unison through each musician’s whistle before suddenly diverging into equally fascinating and exciting harmonies; this, like most of the tracks on Symbiosis, is the kind of Scottish traditional music which demands the hearts and souls of two interdependent players.  It’s no surprise to discover, after hearing such a suite as Loch, consisting of Ainslie’s exquisite “Love of the Loch” and Tom Gibbs’ foot-tapping “Gibbo’s Number 1”, that this Scottish duo have been making music together since the age of twelve.  Ross and Ali have chosen for their heartfelt debut an impressive line up of musicians.  While the two old friends dazzle on pipes, whistles, guitar, cittern, banjo and harmonium, the Treacherous Orchestra’s Duncan Lyall earths the electricity of the album with his dependable bass while renowned percussionists Martin O’Neill and Gus Sicard provide some slick bodhran and snare.

Session Americana with Jefferson Hamer – Great Shakes | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 04.12.16

Session Americana are a Boston based band who have been playing together since 2003, Jefferson Hamer, because of his album with Anais Mitchell is slightly better known in the UK, but don’t be put off by a low profile, there is much here to reward the listener.  A languid, west coast early 70s vibe permeates this album.  The playing, the warm atmosphere with its suggestion of valves and well-worn vintage guitars, harmonised vocals time stamped by people like The Eagles, The Grateful Dead, Stephen Stills, Neil Young, create a definite sense of time and place.  Don’t be wrong footed by the sensible, affable looking bunch on the cover, there is more going on than that candid shot would first suggest; something a little more woozy, weatherworn and dark would be required, for it to ‘do what it says on the tin.’  Opener “One Skinner” occupies the same ‘end of the party – one more till bed’ space as Ryan Adams and Neil Young at their most delightfully dilated.  “Helena” has some beautiful vocal harmonies, with a wonderful harmonica break and a guitar part at the end that could be ‘old shakey’ himself.  “Bumbershoot” is a little more contemporary with an interesting time signature against a great gnarly organ part and those layered vocals that Crowded House did so well.  Apparently a Bumbershoot is a 19th American term for an umbrella.  “Big Mill In Bogalusa” has that great ‘whisky vocal’ that Dr John and Tom Waits inhabit so completely.  Deep South imagery abounds, again there is some nifty guitar and wonderfully dirty harmonica.  If your musical reference points include Robbie Robertson circa “Crazy River” then you’ll hit repeat on this track and turn it up for the massed voices at the end.  “What Are Those Things” is more acoustic Americana, the guitar riff nods to Johnny Cash’s “Man Comes Around”, heartfelt vocals recall Dylan and Tom Petty.  “Tired Blue Shirt” is something else. The ambience and bass intro could be Massive Attack doing Country and becomes one of those atmospheric loops you could listen to forever.  The vocal when it cuts in is filtered and layered like the nu-country electronica of Jim White and the observational lyrics of Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner.  This song just oozes melancholic regret.  “Great Western Rail” is all about the vocals and the pictures they draw.  Poignantly given its timing, over a wonderfully late drumbeat the spirit of Leon Russell inhabits this track.  “Mississippi Mud”, as the title suggests is a fine piece of Southern Soul, an ode to the vagaries of a mighty river.  The track gets into a great classic 70s groove with layers of percussion and a snaking guitar.  The tempo change and Grateful Dead guitar solo at the end suggests a band who can really stretch out live.  “One Good Rain” has vocal harmonies the Eagles would have been proud of.  Tight playing and metaphor laden lyrics build the atmosphere of an anthem.  The album closes with “Barefoot Sailors” again the writing is wry with the weary reflection of a drinking song.  Beautiful vocals paint vivid timeless pictures over an undercurrent of melancholia and regret. Having created such a pervasive atmosphere, the track just rolls on. If this isn’t a folk song it soon will with a thousand acoustic cap wearing troubadours strumming it for small change.  They should send a copy to James Taylor, he’d snap it up.  While aware of a rich musical past, this is no tribute or pastiche. Its rich palette is evocative and embracing and suggests that real greatness in terms of profile and sales is very close.​

Michael Chapman – 50 | Album Review | Paradise of Bachelors | Review by Marc Higgins | 10.12.16

Michael Chapman is a survivor, a Fully Qualified Survivor, his legendary second album, released in 1970, would have us believe.  An Art College Photography lecturer, who’d paid his way through University by playing jazz guitar, Chapman found himself in rainy Cornwall in 1966.  Broke, with only petrol money for the trip home, he paid his way into a Folk Club by playing for half an hour.  This led to a summer residency and a phone call explaining that Mr Chapman would not be returning to teach in September. The rest is, as they say, history.  Spotted by Ralph McTell, he was eventually signed to the very hip Harvest label, EMI’s late 60s attempt to grow its hair.  Rainmaker a mix of virtuoso guitar and melancholic folk blues was followed by the fore mentioned Survivor, John Peel’s album of the year and the recording debut of Hull gardener Mick Ronson, brought to David Bowie’s attention by the album’s producer Gus Dudgeon.  It also contained “Postcards of Scarborough” the song that was, in terms of radio play and exposure, his hit.  The fact that it is a favourite of Shelia, Peel’s wife is obviously mere coincidence.  Two more albums for Harvest led to a more electric 70s period with Decca, playing with Rick Kemp, Keef Hartley, Rod Clements, Camel, Dave Mattacks, BJ Cole the list is endless.  Through the 80s, 90s and 21st Century a constant flow of albums and projects followed, Playing Guitar The Easy Way an instructional guitar album, Heartbeat an album length instrumental piece, the Americana albums, exercises in travelogue.  Of course the gigs continued continuously after that Cornish debut. Indeed in July 2016 Michael celebrated his 50th annual appearance at Botallack, where sheltering from the wet he jumped off the 9 to 5.   To call 50, on the American Paradise of Bachelors label, a comeback, would be to suggest that he ever went away.  There was no period of running a vintage guitar shop, driving trucks or managing a pub.  If anything it was us that went away, while Michael carried on being Michael.  Whether that is a sign of vision and someone following an ever shifting muse, or typical Yorkshire bloody mindedness is a matter of opinion.  He would laugh, take a mouthful of heavy red wine and dismiss it as being difficult.  It is to Michael’s credit that he has stayed true to himself, while someone else is in the producer’s chair and while this is very much an ensemble album, that singlemindedness and character runs through every note of this excellent album.   50 notes the number of years he has been on the road, the length of his ‘marriage’ to Andru, muse and fellow conspirator.  It was also intended to mark the number of albums he’d recorded, till it was pointed out to Chapman that if you include studio, live, library albums of incidental music and archival compilations, then his 50th new album was in 2010.  However its titled, 50 is a milestone, marking a period of resurgence of interest in Michael Chapman.  Championed by long time fans like Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth and name checked by a whole host of new American musicians including William Tyler, Glenn Jones and the late Jack Rose this is very much his time.  In the last two years Chapman has released an instrumental album Fish another high water point, a shared release of songs with “Hiss Golden Messenger”, an album of improvised instrumentals inspired by his heroes and has an album with Israeli Ehud Banai (another lifelong Chapman fan) lined up for spring 2017.  In the UK it has been a slower burn with his material recorded by Show of Hands while Supergrass, Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys and Ben Watt are among the people who have name checked Chapman in print.  50 is Michael Chapman finally making an American album, earlier albums have been released in America to great acclaim, Savage Amusement in 1975 was produced by US musician and songwriter Don Nix, with some overdubs at Ardent in Memphis.  But after 48 years this is recorded at Black Dirt Studio in New York State with Steve Gunn, Nathan Bowles (Pelt, The Black Twig Pickers), Jason Meagher (The No Neck Blues Band), and James Elkington ( American by location if not birth)  who has played with Jeff Tweedy among others, gathered around him.  Chapman’s most American of releases also represents a surrender of control with Steve Gunn producing and players chosen to do what they do best and not just to be session players, this is very much a group piece.  “Spanish Incident (Ramon and Durango)” a road song and a recollection of time wasted, opens the album.  An up-tempo insistent riff is carried by Chapman’s guitar, banjo and a jangling piano. A strong opener this is a rare gem, Chapman that you can dance to.  The lyric is part anecdote with a strong sense of place, religious imagery and even a nod to Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower”.  While a number of the tracks are revisits of older material, standards if you like, that Michael ever the jazzer, like an acoustic wielding Miles Davis, reinterprets with different players, “Sometimes You Just Drive” is a new song.  By any measure it is a corker, with imagery inspired by the floods in Carlisle.  But like a classic blues the writing is deeper and wider.  The title suggests a resignation that many things are out of our control, that life just isn’t fair and that battered by time, by circumstance and adversity we are all lucky to be here.  Bridget St John, collaborator, friend and touring partner since Deal Gone Down in 1974, delivers a perfect vocal on this track, part gospel call and response, part sonic foil, it adds to the other worldliness.  Water and bad weather are vividly suggested by the guitars that fade in and out behind Chapman’s acoustic.  “The Mallard” is an ode to one of Michael’s other obsessions, trains.  Written in York Station, lifelong obsessions are woven together, with imagery that includes steam, love and 1940s music as Texan Jazz Trombonist and singer Jack Teagarden gets a name check.  Earlier versions of this track, first recorded in 1995, were exercises in space with the riff and bass notes acting like an earworm.  Here it is all about the ensemble, that characteristic Chapman riff is still there but given the number of excellent players on the album it is all about the guitar.  Three or even four, players and parts weave around the vocalists, layering and texturing like a string big band, but never smothering.  The last couple of minutes and we are off into 70s Floydian territory.  A guitar riff that is part ‘buskers stomping foot’ opens “Memphis In Winter”.  A life and death mid-winter drive into and through the southern city, inspired this bitter anthem.  Written even before hurricane Katrina, the dark lyric shatters the myth of prosperity for all in the American dream.  Reality is compared to the myth of Hollywood, as a film prop plane is held up and found wanting.  We are battered by the pace, the imagery and some of the angriest electric guitar on the album.  With an acoustic riff that recalls “Postcards of Scarborough” and dirty 70s boogie guitar “The Prospector” is another layered song.  Written about a visitor setting up the mine off the Chapman’s Farm drive, it details a succession of drunken visitors to the kitchen table.  Maddy Prior who recorded the song in 2011 talked about Chapman’s ability to mix micro and macro when writing and called it anthemic.  It starts as a wobbly acoustic ditty but the chorus of huge sounding electric guitars give the piece an intensity and you find yourself repeating the track and turning it right up.  Interestingly despite a span of 36 years the imagery just flows and echoes between “The Prospector”, “Sometimes You Drive” and “Memphis In Winter”.  “Falling From Grace”, a song about a falling out and a period of separation, dates from the 1980s.  Here it is reworked with different chords, but is still a classic Chapman song of regret, with him identifying and inhabiting his role of the outsider looking in.  It was captivating thirty years ago and remains so now.  The tune is split between Michael’s guitar and a keyboard motif as the instruments shimmer around him.  “Money Trouble” is a new song, another insistent banjo part and an amalgam of classic Chapman tunes with the quick fire truisms and life lessons peppered throughout.   “That Time Of The Night” was famously covered by Lucinda Williams in 2012, a fact that Michael, a huge fan, is fiercely proud of.   The pedal steel, languid tempo perfectly and hesitant piano suit Chapman’s delivery of this bottle half empty song perfectly.  Against the textures and layers elsewhere there is space and light here on another album highlight.  In the early 60s, earning summer money, while at Art College, Chapman worked on the Mexborough estates of North Yorkshire as a woodsman.  Slack time was spent writing classics like “In The Valley” and “Among The Trees”.  This period also explains a lot of the rural imagery in early songs by someone raised in Hunslett Leeds, an area not known for its wooded vistas.  A little later in the 70s Ehud Banai in Israeli retreated to the isolation of Rosh Pina and armed only with a cassette of Chapman’s Rainmaker focused on refining his guitar playing.  When they met, playing and touring together decades later, Michael was taken to Rosh Pina, Ehud’s In The Valley and this gently looping moody instrumental is his reponse to the scale of the biblical landscape.  “Navigation” the album closer on CD and digital versions of the album is another Chapman classic.  A swirling woozy ambience washes over a lyric that uses bad weather and adversity as a spring broad to ponder life. Space and a wobbly iconic Chapman guitar define the song as the album slow fades to a close. Footnote quiet nights are not usually what you get in the company of Mr Chapman and the reference is ironic.  Paraphrasing JWM Turner this album could have been called Wind, Weather Wine, Love and Regret.  For long time Chapman fans it is a bringing together of everything that he does so well, all the things that represent the best of Michael.  For more recent arrivals, this album represents so many of the reasons why he has been so vital for the last fifty years and will leave them scrambling for the huge back catalogue.

Johnny Coppin – All on a Winter’s Night | Album Review |  Red Sky Records | Review by Damian Liptrot | 10.12.16

Blessed with a voice as crisp and clear as a frosty morning and with sufficient depth to give it the warmth of a welcome glass of mulled wine, Johnny Coppin delivers a set of seasonal songs to accompany your festivities.  Based on the content of his concerts of the same name and currently on tour, both the event and the album features a selection of songs that reflect his self-professed love of the midwinter period and the music associated with it – as evidenced by his three previous Christmas related offerings.  The album combines self-penned songs, such as the title track along with classics of the winter time, including “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “In The Bleak Midwinter”, a song and arrangement for which Johnny is perfectly suited.  In addition, and as befits a connoisseur of the songwriter’s art, there are carefully chosen more modern inclusions, with Blowzabella’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man”, Nigel Eaton’s “Halsway Carol” a shining example of this.  The musical delivery is also rounded out with contributions from musicians including old Decameron band mates Dik Cadbury and Geoff March.  For those coming new to Johnny, and while comparisons are odious, an excellent, if somewhat unexpected point of reference would be a quintessentially English John Denver, though drawing vocal purity more from the air of the rolling Cotswolds than a Rocky Mountain High.  Trivia fans might note that both artists were formerly students of architecture!  The overall feel of the album is one of time well spent in good and relaxed company as the nights draw in and one would expect that to be the case when the songs are presented live at his shows.  There is much to reflect the spiritual origins of the Christmas period and for those who might quibble about that in terms of the inevitably Christian focus, there are also nods towards other traditions with recognition of the solstice.  In terms of feel, there is the engaging aspect one would expect from Johnny, inviting the listener to draw nearer and enjoy but there are also elements to both raise and rouse the spirits, with “Welcome In Another Year” drawing an increased pressure on the accelerator pedal during the car located first listening of the CD.  As either a reminder of a live event or an accompaniment to a convivial evening with gentle-folk, this is a sure-footed and enjoyable performance all round.  As a quick aside, for those who may have had their interest in Johnny piqued and are looking for a less seasonally related collection, with this year and 2017 seeing the 80th anniversaries of the start of The Spanish Civil War and some of the major atrocities, Johnny’s collaboration with Laurie Lee is worth investigating.  The poems, songs and music take us through the work of the “Gloucestershire Boy”, whose descriptions of Spain before and during that turbulent period in “As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning” and “A Moment of War” are as powerful, poignant and evocative as those of his Slad Valley childhood.

David Simard – The Heavy Wait | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 10.12.16

From the offset this is a very intense album.  David Simard’s delivery is considered and authoritative, there is space and emotion in everything he does here.  The album is called The Heavy Wait, a phrase which apparently became a mantra from the first session onwards.  It could also refer to that stretching of time and space around every note on the record.  The title and the space since Simard’s last record and his delivery suggests that every line, each note has been refined, and carefully considered.  Paired back, distilled down to an intense essential essence. The Heavy Wait opens on “Cat’s Cradle” with a skeletal picked and strummed electric guitar laying down a sparse tune.  Lap Steel and percussion join in, but all this is ambience and mood lighting for the real star which is David Simard’s voice.  Clarinet and bowed bass create a jazz torch song over which the vocals are compelling.  The lyric talks about denial and rejecting pleasures as if the singer is involved in a process similar to the song.  The space and the considered delivery recalls melancholic 60s vocalists like Scott Walker.  That cracked bass rumble recalls the 50 styled delivery of Richard Hawley, or on tracks like “Good Clean Water”, classic singers like Roger Miller, Leonard Cohen or even Lonnie Donegan.  Cohen for his rumbling note rather than just as a lazy knee jerk reference because he is a Canadian.  David Simard’s voice swoops and yelps, creating songs that are intimate and timeless drawing you in, as you hang on every syllable.  The retro vibe is there on the faster tempo “The Guitar Player”, brushed drums spit out a frantic pattern with a chiming fifties styled guitar and a vocalise / guitar solo that nods to “Ghost Riders In The Sky”.  Again the vocal, like a male Imelda May whoops and rumbles through the song.  The Line slows it down again, sparse funeral drums and a beautifully crooned vocal, drawled in an affecting way that is atmospheric and emotional.  “I’m Bad” has a tempo and delivery that brings to mind the stretched tight qualities of Hank Williams’ classic road song “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”.  The lyric is pure melancholic drifter troubadour, you can imagine him sprawled on a motel double bed, cowboy boots on, strumming on a guitar, staring out of a huge picture window between faded curtains.  The arrangement is perfectly stripped back so the occasional strums of Simard’s electric fill the room.  This intense self-depreciating song is one of the highlights of a strong album.  “La Dee Da” continues that dark vibes, the tempo stretches time and the rumbling vocal with its yodel refrain draws you in. Simard’s delivery lends some sharp lyrics even more depth and pathos because of his impeccable timing.  ‘She’s a modern girl with a vintage feel’ seems to typify the mood and the attraction of the whole album.   “Superior” is another smouldering Folk Jazz piece, a beautiful ascending bass line, hesitant icy piano that is pure Bill Evans and a lap steel whose echoing call suggests the endless frozen landscape.  The vocal soars and falls, painting bleak pictures as much with its sound as with the words Simard forms.  “Said Too Much” is a lullaby. a song about a song, beautifully crooned over possibly some of the most perfect playing on the album, it stops abruptly, setting up the dramatic next track.  “Take Me In” opens with some wonderful primitive guitar, the mic right in the amp speaker to pick up every buzz and last piece of ambience.  The doubled tracked vocals with David and Brie Nelson, hesitant and charged are sublime, part Chris Isaak part Mark Hollis one time Talk Talk singer at his stripped back best. “Rorschach” the final track unconsciously channels Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway To Heaven” with its lyrical lady reference in the first line.  The lyrics are surreally descriptive, observational and rich.  Just as you wonder how much further Simard can push that guitar playing he puts it down and leaves it alone.  On “Rorschach” the sound separates this track from the rest of the album, the voice carries the tune over piano accents and a bass heavy rhythm.  Without the guitars the tempo and atmosphere suggests Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue.  Layered echoing brass that is more Specials “Ghost Town” than folk blues just leaves the albums inventive side till last, suggesting that Simard has a lot more yet to reveal.  Richly rewarding, with multiple layers of sound rather than orchestras of musicians, so you can hear the space, this is an album that bears repeated visits.  Play it loud, play it often and take the time to listen.

The Western Flyers – Wild Blue Yonder | Album Review | Versa Tone Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 12.12.16

Almost forty-two years have passed since the great Bob Wills shuffled off this mortal coil, but his departure didn’t, in fact, signal the end of western swing, the genre of music of which Mr Wills was the undisputed king. In fact, the heart of that toe-tapping, soul-cleansing style still beats healthily through the music of such revivalists as the Hot Club of Cowtown, Lyle Lovett, The Quebe Sisters Band and The Western Flyers, a trio whose meticulous rhythms and driving old-time strut have been lovingly preserved on Wild Blue Yonder.  This constantly zestful collection of thirteen swinging tracks was recorded using early Neumann, Telefunken and RCA ribbon microphones along with period tube pre-amps to give the whole thing a truly authentic, old-time feel. Joey McKenzie’s chugging guitar sounds eighty-years old, and all the better for it, while Katie Glassman’s fiddle and Gavin Kelso’s upright bass flit and weave between the speakers like a pair of Texas Coral Snakes.  The repertoire is authentic, too, with such well-known numbers as “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter”, “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “Tennessee Waltz” receiving the Western Flyer treatment.  And while the slick musicianship shines on this richly entertaining collection of songs from the thirties and forties, it is perhaps Katie Glassman’s voice that makes Wild Blue Yonder protrude from the shelf.  Her sweet yet weathered vocal on “Never No More” is nothing short of a treat, as is Joey McKenzie’s on “I’ll See You In My Dreams” which concludes the album in style.

Louise Bichan – Out Of My Own Light | Album Review | Swanbister | Review by Marc Higgins | 30.12.16

Out Of My Own Light is a demonstration of the rude health of contemporary Folk and Acoustic music.  It is a calling card from a set of stunning musicians and an indication of names to watch closely in the future. Louise Bichan’s amazing album is also a nightmare for anyone who ia thematically inclined when it comes to their music, once you have finally taken it out of the CD player where do you put it, is it Celtic, Nu Folk, Neo Folk, Ambient, Jazz, Electronica, Classical Music, Chamber Music, Soundtrack Music. Short answer it is all of those and more.  In 1950 Margaret Tait aged 25 left her native Orkney, travelling to and across Canada.  Margaret’s Uncle had emigrated to Canada at the turn of the Century, marrying and bringing up a family.  In the years after World War Two Margaret Tait found herself restless, at a crossroads in her life and used travel far away from home as a chance to reflect. In 2013 Louise Bichan, embarked on a sentimental and musical journey retracing her grandmother’s footsteps on the same trip.  The result, premiered at Orkney Folk Festival in 2015 is this album, a suite of beautifully wrought pieces drawn from both women’s travels, family recollections and Bichans careful study of her grandmother’s diaries.  This plays out like a modern BBC Radio Ballad, a sense of time and place and a sense of pride run right through it.  Sketching with sound in a way that is truly cinematic, slow notes drawn out of a fiddle open the album, suggesting the large open landscape of Quoyburray and Tankerness on Orkney.  Listening with the CD cover close by, the sound and images mesh, creating a terrific travelogue.  The huge bass sound 30 seconds in, is an early hint that this is music that won’t be easily pinned down. Quoyburray sets the scene.  “For Myrtle” starts to introduce the characters in this set of personal stories and recollections.  “For Myrtle” opens with a stately vocal, poignant and solemn like a church reading as Louise Bichan reveals her strong connections to family and place and shows the deep connection between the two.  Skittish piano, electronics and bowed cello swirl with the widescreen beauty of ECM recordings.  Close your eyes and the pictures flood in.  Wind, weather are monumentally proportioned around us, until Signy Jakobsdottir’s beautiful percussion suggests footfall and we are moving through the landscape.  Sydney the Pilot and Ian introduce other players in Bichan’s musical expositions around her Grandmothers tale, with the music revealing characters and something of Margaret Tait’s dilemma in the choosing.   “Out Of My Own Light” is a wonderful phrase that reveals the sharp mind of Margaret Tait, her restlessness and how constrained she felt.  The quote “I’ll never get out of my own light while I continue here” draws a picture of someone who felt limited, unable to see or think clearly. It’s an evocative image that demonstrates how a person and their situation can become intertwined, so problem and solution are knotted together.  Being there she casts a shadow which obscures possibilities and prevents her from seeing a clear way forwards.  The title piece of the album is stately chamber music, evoking travel and turmoil with savage beauty.  A crackly voice from the past breaks the track, a literal sample of Margaret’s radio appearance in Canada.  Tension builds through the track and I like to think within the narrative that the huge electronic swell after the radio voice marks a moment of revelation.  “The Ascania” is a playful interlude named for the ship that transported Margaret Tait on her travels.  CBC Winnipeg mixes the excitement of Tait’s and Bichan’s Canadian journeys, meeting old family and then after a Philip Glass like motif the Canadian Radio broadcast again this time correctly placed in the narrative.  Like “For Myrtle” this is a musically rich track, layering upbeat folk against more reflective passages. Hearing Bichan and her band play around and with her grandmother from 1950 is very moving.  It is fitting that Margaret Tait who is woven so completely through this album appears physically as a message from the past in her own story.  “Margaret’s Walk to the Pier” is another cinematic piece, emotive fiddle plays over bird song and ambience building to a simply wonderful piano conclusion.  Jennifer Austin’s piano is one of the stars of this whole album.  The lighter touch in “Flying Farmer” reveals without too many spoilers who the girl plumed for in the end.  “Swanbister” with its rolling piano and dance tune rhythm, titled for their marital home on Orkney, brims over with a feeling of future potential and happiness.  It is not coincidental that Louise Bichan’s label is named after Swanbister.  The album closes with Margaret Tait’s CBC recording in full.   There is a sense that Louise Bichan is only just scratching the surface, that there is so much more could be said about the remarkable Margaret Tait and her family, if this isn’t a BBC documentary very soon then there is something very wrong.  We have heard the music we want to see the places. Expect much more from Louise Bichan, Jennifer Austin, Signy Jakobsdottir, Su-a Lee, Duncan Lyall and Mie Vass.

Becky Langan – Parallel Paths | EP Review |  Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 15.12.16

Sky Arts Guitar Star ran for its second season in 2016. While structurally similar to shows like The Voice and X Factor, Guitar Star was built around the often virtuosic prowess of its contestants, in a way that TV reality shows frankly often aren’t.  The guitar was very much the star. For me the overall stars of the 2016 shows, although not the ultimate winners were the acoustic players Haythem Mohamed and Becky Langan.  Becky is a 24 year-old guitar player from Rochdale in Lancashire.  Parallel Paths is her first self-released EP of guitar work.  From the opening track Aurora Becky uses the whole of the guitar with a percussive rhythm of taps and beats on the body of the acoustic running behind the melody carrying us through the track.  “A Lucid Dream” opens with some left hand work that is very evocative of Michael Hedges’ Wyndham Hill albums.  There is a terrific sense of space, particularly behind the huge low notes as if Langan is playing the whole room.  Becky never overplays or gets too busy, her sense of timing is excellent and the beat pulses through.  On the slower paced “Breeze” the density of the playing builds after a sparse atmospheric start to a middle where the notes fly and collide before falling away again.  On “The Puzzle” it is Langan’s physicality with the guitar that is the star as over a pulsing rhythm she beats a huge bass note out of the body of the guitar while both left and right hands hit the strings to create a web of high notes and accents.  “Fight Or Flight” opens with some John Fahey like runs over the strings before a flamenco like percussive playing takes over with finger taps snapping like castanets.  A slow burning EP from a talented and hypnotic player who deserves to be as all over peoples’ collections as she is all over her guitar.

Robyn Stapleton – Songs of Robert Burns | Album Review | Laverock Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 01.01.17

Robyn Stapleton was BBC Scotland’s Young Traditional Musician in 2014, releasing her debut album in 2015.  Brought up in South West Scotland, Robyn traces her introduction to singing, to the poetry of Robert Burns.  Her sleeve note introductions to each track explain her personal connections to the chosen songs and gives some insightful context.  Unsurprisingly given her reputation, listening to The Songs of Robert Burns the first thing that strikes you is the purity of her voice.  It has a beautiful crystal quality rather than an earthy folky burr.  Robyn’s voice against the drum and fiddle of “Comin’ through the Rye” or the piano of “Westlin Winds” is very much the star here.  It gently but firmly demands your attention, as you are drawn in to every nuance and swoop on “Ae Fond Kiss” or “Westlin Winds” with the accompaniment swelling to fill between the verses.  Having said that, “I’m Oer Young” contains a fine set of tunes and the playing is snappy and engaging with an infectious rhythm building through the track.  “The Slave’s Lament” is wonderfully moody with Patsy Reid’s mournful viola and Stapleton’s rising and falling voice building a hypnotic atmosphere.  One of the many things that are excellent about this album is the recording and production, there is tasteful restraint throughout, with singer song and musicians all given room to breathe.  Special mention for the unaccompanied singing on “John Anderson My Jo” which is atmospheric and captivating.  The space on “The Slave’s Lament” and the understated guitar accents on “Ca’ the Yowes” are masterpieces of minimalism, burnishing but never detracting from Stapleton’s commanding voice.  Throughout The Songs of Robert Burns the arrangements and the performances are less folksy and more considered, this is a contemplative album rather than a rollicking good time, as typified by the stately “Auld Lang Syne” a piano and voice piece that closes the album.  A quietly intense, personal and emotional journey, an intimate celebration of Robert Burns and an exercise in quiet intensity from all involved.

Alistair Anderson and Northlands – Alistair Anderson and Northlands | Album Review | White | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 02.01.17

Many will know musician Alistair Anderson as a stalwart of the international folk scene.  Over the last five decades, the concertina player and Northumbrian piper has toured his blend of traditional and contemporary Northumbrian music across the world, originally as part of The High Level Ranters but, most often, as a solo artist and frequent collaborator as both performer and composer.  Others will know Alistair as the founder of the Folkworks organisation which has helped to revolutionise folk music with its popular series of annual summer schools at the Sage, Gateshead.  It was at the Folkworks Youth Summer School during the 1990s that Anderson first encountered the young musicians who join him on this stunning new record which presents a picturesque ramble through traditional 18th century tunes, several North Country jigs and reels and a few new compositions, too.  Sophy Ball provides the slick fiddle, which is never more nimble and enthusiastic than on Risty Gulley or more deeply melancholy than on “The Snow it Melts the Soonest” which features a heartfelt vocal by flautist and singer Sarah Hayes.  And whilst Hayes – best known as a member of Glaswegian band Admiral Fallow – provides equally sincere lyrics on “I Drew My Ship Into the Harbour”, partly inspired by the version by Shirley Collins, and on Jez Lowe’s thundering “Taking on Men”, she also brings to this record a tastefully warm-toned flute which flourishes from track to track.  The backbone of this fine album, however, is Ian Stephenson’s acoustic guitar which shimmers crisply throughout, along with his double bass and piano which help flesh out the sound; and it’s a sound that has been carefully mixed by Ian, who produced the album, to ensure that each instrument is clearly defined.  And whilst Alistair Anderson dazzles with some of the most gorgeous sounding concertina playing and piping you’re ever likely to hear, he never places himself anywhere other than firmly within the unit.  Alistair Anderson & Northlands is an album and, indeed, an ensemble that insists upon unity, deep connection and riveting interplay.

The Carrivick Sisters – 10 Years Live | Album Review | Self Release| Review by Liam Wilkinson | 03.01.17

“We’ve been playing publicly and releasing CDs for ten years, so this is a celebration of all that!” begins Laura Carrivick in her introduction to this live recording, made at the stunning Convent, Stroud back in October 2016.  It’s difficult to accept that these highly talented young twins from Devon have been delivering fine performances and albums of American-tinged folk music for a decade, especially given that the sisters sound as fresh and enchantingly unspoiled as they did back when they were busking on the streets of the South West.  Indeed, even after taking the British bluegrass scene by storm as part of the award winning combo Cardboard Fox, it’s the retention of their natural, uncluttered delivery that gives this duo an authenticity that keeps us coming back for more.  Thankfully, Laura and Charlotte have had the good sense to mark their ten year anniversary as a professional folk duo by laying down a selection of choice covers and originals that keep the performance rattling along very nicely indeed.  From the album’s opening track, a delightful cover of Elvis’s “Suspicious Minds”, it’s clear that the girls are going to keep us engaged and, with Joni Mitchell’s “River” and James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James” soon cropping up, our hopes are more than satisfied. There are, of course, some exceptional original tunes in the mix such as Charlotte’s “Crate 223”, performed for the first time here, and Laura’s nimble “Piggy Bank”.  Featuring some slick guitar, banjo, mandolin, dobro and fiddle, as well as those sweet sibling harmonies, this celebration of ten years’ hard work provides both a celebration for us established fans and a charming introduction for those who are just discovering The Carrivick Sisters.

Police Dog Hogan – Wild by the Side of the Road | Album Review | Major Tom Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 04.01.17

Formed in 2009, Police Dog Hogan are a hard-gigging, riveting band, full of personality and presence.  With a string of festival appearances and a Bob Harris session under their collective belts, they are deservedly going places.  Hopefully this excellent CD will take them a stage closer.  It may be that Police Dog Hogan are victims of their own surreal name, it’s wonderful back story and their Banjo player Tim Dowling’s self-deprecating recanting of their rise in his Saturday Guardian column.  It may be that they are having to work hard to be taken seriously.  But Police Dog Hogan are better than the caricature Dowling presents and a more serious proposition than their tale of the over-zealous PD Hogan would make it seem.  There are many moments on this album where they reach for and firmly grasp the crowns of Show Of Hands and Bellowhead.  Steely Dan were named after a fictional psychotic sex toy and that ultimately didn’t do them any harm, so what’s in a name.  “Tyburn Jig”, the opening track, is a wonderful old school folk rock, tale of a hanging, song.  It roars along and is literally a jig that will have audiences swirling at gigs.  The ballad flows organically into a lovely violin bass duet at its end.  “Dixie” is an observational song that you’d write from the bar with a glass in one hand, wry and dark, a lyric that would sound perfect on Mark Knopfler’s lips.  Devon Brigade is a more intimate arrangement and a wonderfully evocative postcard from someone at the front in WW1.  Beautiful guitar parts run through this track.  By keeping it small scale, as a Devonshire teenage farm hand writing home, it all seems so achingly real.  James Studholme’s vocals are brilliant, his ‘been there bought the T Shirt’, lived in quality, gives gravitas and sincerity.  “In the Country” is an upbeat rouser of a track, with nifty piano and some interesting vocal harmonies that you know will just come alive on stage. All You Know about Love is another ‘elbows on the bar’ song, but the melancholic lyric is lifted by some engaging and beautiful playing.  “Let My Spirit Rise”, possibly one of the album highlights, brilliantly evokes the music and oblique lyrics of Paul Simon and the mood of Gershwin’s “Summertime”.  There is a wonderfully spiritual quality to the rich lyrics and their delivery that drips Southern Soul.  This track could have been laid down at Muscle Shoals, Alabama rather than somewhere in southern England. Someone should play this to Van Morrison.  “The One on the Left” is a wry reflective country song.  “Our Lady of the Snows” builds a beautifully melancholic atmosphere all swooping violins and cello a simple ballad lyric and a great chorus, another album highlight.  Police Dog Hogan are a huge eight-piece band, which gives them a wide palette of musical possibilities, this is a good thing.  The fact that they let the song dictate the arrangements and can also exercise restraint is also a good thing and a real strength. After the brooding restraint of “Our Lady of the Snows”, as intense as the moment before a storm, comes the full on hoedown of “East Nashville Back Porch Fix” (I’m sure there is a band joke in there somewhere).  A wonderful rollicking ‘story of a band’ song, like Fairport Convention’s “Angel Delight”.  With some superb Duane Eddy guitar licks.  Ready and willing indeed.  Final track “Fare You Well” lays a slower reflective groove down, personal lyrics of Cornwall over a rolling beat with a great Celtic vibe and a superb anthemic closer, like an encore of an old classic with an instrumental coda to catch you out.  Seek out this album, there is much here to reward repeated listening, folk rock, country rock, acoustic brooding ballads on a bedrock of interesting and sparky musicianship.  If the album isn’t enough hen check out the band on their live dates they are as musically rich and lively on stage as they are on record.

Mike Walker and Stuart McCallum – The Space Between | Album Review | Edition Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 05.01.17

When two of the finest British jazz guitarists come together to record at one of this country’s most inspiring studio environments, it’s not surprising that the resulting album is a veritable masterpiece.  The Space Between is the second collaboration from Manchester guitarists Mike Walker and Stuart McCallum and, like 2014’s Beholden, we’re once again gifted with an album that surpasses the simplicity of its making to enthral its listener with some of the finest soundscapes committed to disc.  It helps, of course, that this is not just a recording of two incredibly artful guitarists – Walker on electric and McCallum on acoustic – but one that experiments with subtle yet stimulating electronic sounds without ever sacrificing the grounding beauty of melody and theme.  Whether in the renderings of Stuart McCallum’s own compositions such as the spacious “Moment Us”, or the melancholic Bacharach classic “Alfie”, The Space Between presents a perpetual dream-like imagining that exists somewhere between reality and reverie.  From track to track there is a liquidity that, when running over the rhythmic stones of “And Finally” and “Sky Dancer” and reaching the tranquil deltas of “As the Trees Waltz” and the standard “My Ideal”, never abandons its mesmeric course.  The pleasant flow of the album is, perhaps, helped by the fact that it was brought to life in the Wood Room at Wiltshire’s Real World Studios, a warm and inviting space that offers a mellow environment where both musician and instrument can, evidently, push their boundaries to astonishing extents.  Whilst it was always going to be a superlative second offering from Walker and McCallum, the surprises that are delivered with each spin of this nine-track disc give The Space Between something of an evergreen quality, not least the overwhelming surprise that this album is markedly better than anticipated.  And you really can’t ask for more than that.

Sarah-Jane Summers and Juhani Silvola – Widdershins | Album Review | Dell Daisy Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 08.01.17

You get the distinct feeling, with Sarah-Jane Summers and Juhani Silvola’s latest outing Widdershins that you’re in earshot of a fascinatingly impassioned conversation.  And there’s no need to eavesdrop; on the contrary, the tête-à-tête is going on right under your nose, brazen as can be, without ever concealing itself behind closed fingers and breathy whispers.  Sarah-Jane’s fiddle, a sprightly, female voice, leaps and dives over the surface of Juhani’s deep and sagacious acoustic guitar, the two often intertwining for moments of delicate respect and glistening, limpid kinship.  And both voices are articulated with tongues of solid silver; Juhani moves crisply from chord to chord, note to note whilst Sarah-Jane manages to retain all the seductive expression of heartfelt Scottish and Norwegian folk music whilst reaching the speckless agility of a world class symphony violinist.  Sarah-Jane Summers is, of course, a member of Scottish quartet Rant and the founder of Norwegian-Scottish outfit Fribo as well as a well-respected music teacher, whilst Juhani Silvola is one of Norway’s foremost musicians, composers and producers.  Just like it says on the tin, Widdershins is an album that goes against the grain, constantly pressing against the boundaries to reach moments of genuinely fearless ambition.  So whilst “Silver Spring Wheel” may well be a jaunty little tune on anyone else’s album, on Widdershins it becomes a mesmeric, flickering dance that, towards its final bars, melts into a barely audible flutter of plucks.  Similarly, on “Vaajakosken Maija”, a delightfully tranquil tune rolls towards a truly haunting conclusion, courtesy of Sarah-Jane’s mournful, weeping fiddle.  The album culminates in a fiery exchange with “Spike on a Bike”, a tune that puts so much demand on both guitarist and fiddler that you’re left with little else to do than to hold your breath.  With its exhilarating pounding of both fingerboard and fretboard, this album closes on its knees, begging to be played again and, quite possibly, again.

David Youngs – In Between Silence | Album Review | Asana | Review by Marc Higgins | 12.01.17

David Youngs is a melodic, quirky and an always interesting guitar player, if me telling you that isn’t enough, then it should be abundantly clear by the end of this his latest album.  From the first notes of “Where Memories Go” the opener, a combination of his technique and his ability to weave in the unexpected holds your attention.  “Where Memories Go” is a brave nine minutes long, but there is no plodding, or sense that it overstays its welcome.  For the first few minutes, a percussive attack, that recalls Michael Hedges, is melded with wonderful melodies that evoke the pastoral acoustic early Pat Metheny.  Little touches of effects and sparkle fade in and out.  The final section builds around a wonderful folk finger-picked motif that is cinematic in the way it creates an atmosphere and a sense of space.  “And So it Goes” is wonderful twister with some very rhythmic percussive playing that is compelling, but restrained without any of the histrionics that can creep in.  What marks David Youngs out, is the way that he can musically change gear in the middle of a piece, as he does with the middle section of “And So it Goes”, so maintaining your wonderment right up until the last resonating string fades away.  “Mutster” is an older piece with a wonderful folky feel that brings to mind the dancing fingers of John Renbourn.  But again some very dubby studio flourishes with reverb keep you guessing up until the end.  “To Catch a Star” is an exercise in balance, with the ying of some very trippy percussive playing balanced by yang passages all about space and the picking of the strings.  “Chevrons Apart”, taken at a slower more contemplative pace, is a piece about distance and the space between people.  Just when you thought it was all about the darting fingers, Youngs, builds an emotional tension by slowing the tempo right down.  “Pieces of Me” is a wonderfully simple melody with some wonderfully flourishes thrown in just before a demon passage of phasing that sounds disturbingly like a cassette getting wrapped round the inside of your player – a little retro torment for those of us old enough to remember the hell of the tape.  “Mono No Aware” continues this contemplative eye of the storm with a drifting languid melody.  “Troisieme” is a track composed using a dropped tuning introduced by Michael Hedges and as a kind of homage, some of flourishes are dropped in at the start, before the track builds into a frenzy of picking that breaks, with some tape devilment as a gear change.  “Pearls”, a title that I like to think nods to David Youngs’ ability to reveal his playing in layers, evokes the rambling French Chateau where it was written, the notes and spaces suggesting long corridors and wooden floors.  The final track “Katy”, Again book ends the album as confidently and comprehensively as “Where Memories Go”.  This final piece is all about space, allowing you to lose yourself in the space between the low bass notes and the chiming melody picked over the top.  Enthralling and shifting, just when you think you’ve got him figured out, a percussive thump on the guitar body or a temp shift calls a change in this six stringed, ‘acoustic guitar barn dance’ of a player.  An album and a guitarist that you can fall into, so time just slips away.

Victoria Klewin and the True Tones – Dance Me to Heaven | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 13.01.17

Forgive the brazen cliche but Victoria Klewin could sing the phonebook and make it sound gorgeous.  And when she’s finished with that, she could make a start on the charity bags that also come through the door, along with the adverts for double glazing and new driveways.  Thankfully, the Bristol-based vocalist has got her own compositions to play with and, on Drive Me to Heaven, Klewin lovingly drenches each song with a voice so superbly fluid that it’s easy to miss what’s going on behind her.  Listen more closely, however, and you’ll hear the fiery chords of a molten Hammond organ, a tastefully chunky piano, a mischievous bass, sweetly nimble guitar, some white-hot percussion and sassy brass.  And as the band’s sound moves gracefully from stirring soul to smoky jazz, from rousing gospel to saucy funk, it becomes clear that voice and band are, in fact, tightly pinned together thanks to impressive musicianship and Klewin’s vocal agility.  Here is a vocalist with a rare reverence for her material, whose prowess as a singer is not marred by a need to be overly acrobatic.  Instead, energetic numbers such as “Can’t Help Myself” and “For the Good of Myself” are shimmeringly slick whilst the slower, more sensual songs such as “Not All That Glitters” and “Dance Me to Heaven” sit confidently within the tight control of this impressively masterful outfit.

Country Lips – Till the Daylight Comes | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 16.01.17

The recent resurgence in good old fashioned honky-tonk has delivered its fair share of pleasingly twangy albums over the last few years. Sam Outlaw’s Ry Cooder-produced album Angelino saw a breath of fresh western wind blow through the country scene last year, as did Canadian cowboy Daniel Romano’s last few releases, each of them nodding respectfully in the direction of Gram Parsons.  With Till the Daylight Comes, the eight-piece Seattle band Country Lips slide a taste of genuine boot-stomping Americana along the bar, with songs of gritty love, imprisonment and hard drinking bubbling at the rim.  But far from being predictable, Till the Daylight Comes swings nimbly from accordion-driven drinking songs such as “Reason I’m Drinking and Bar Time” to the lovelorn Parsons-inspired “Only Here Long Enough to Leave” and the beautifully melodic waltz “One Farewell”, each as authentic in their sound as they are inventive with their lyrics.  The result is an album that keeps both boot and mind engaged throughout.  You get the distinct feeling, with this album, that the ghosts of Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings are seated just a few stools down the bar, beaming behind their bourbons at the thought that outlaw country is still alive and well.

The Blue Aeroplanes – Welcome Stranger | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Damian Liptrot | 18.01.17

The Blue Aeroplanes are a curious beast.  A kind of Heinz 57 dog of a band. Whatever type of canine you like there is a bit of that in there somewhere and what emerges is something highly individual and much greater than the sum of the parts.  Not that the band don’t have an impressive pedigree, stretching back over 30 years and name checked as influences by the likes of REM and Radiohead.  Their first album in approaching 10 years manages to be a favourite movie kind of a disc.  There is much to be enjoyed but subsequent listens yield new pleasures on each occasion.  There is an overriding feel that on the face of it makes little sense, combining the muscularity of Primal Scream in their pomp with the whimsy and charm of the likes of Robyn Hitchcock and Jonathan Richman.  Chief pilot Gerard Langley delivers lyrics that combine a sense of the profound with the suspicion that they may mean something completely different, in a semi-sung semi-spoken mould that marries the unlikely couple of John Otway and Mark E Smith.  In addition to the above you can find traces of just about anyone you have ever enjoyed from Lynyrd Skynyrd to Johnny Thunders and Elvis himself is name checked if not exactly referenced and this is followed a couple of songs later by perhaps the most traditionally structured song on the album where Langley gives way to the female vocals of Bec Jevons in a tune harking back to the likes of Elastica and other classic early 90s female lead combos.  In turn this is followed by the quieter more reflective side of the band which becomes more apparent in “Here is the Heart of all Wild Things” a song that would not disgrace Captain Beefheart’s twisted pop classic Bluejeans and Moonbeams.  On this form let us hope that the Aeroplanes do not leave it the best part of another decade before giving us a new set but in the meantime, for those coming new to the Bristol outfit, there is an extensive back catalogue to be investigated and enjoyed.

Jimmy Aldridge and Sid Goldsmith – Night Hours | Album Review | Fellside | Review by Mary Andrews | 21.01.17

When you start playing Night Hours you’re greeted with a 22 second recording of the nocturnal sounds of Bristol – punctuated by the low bass-heavy heartbeat which continues into the title track.  It’s the first glimpse of the boldness that flows through this album.  With Jimmy Aldridge on vocals, banjo and fiddle and Sid Goldsmith on vocals, guitar, double bass and concertina (with additional support from James Gavin, Tommie Black-Roff and Dominic Henderson) there’s a refreshing variety of sounds throughout the 11 songs yet they hang together with ease.  There may be nothing particularly ground breaking about their delivery of “Willie O’the Winsbury” – but it’s still right up there with the best of the recorded versions I’ve heard.  Importantly it’s the contrast of the traditional with the modern that lends Night Hours much of its strength.  Amongst the traditional songs on the album Shallow Brown is sung with great power and emotion and “Mary and the Soldier” showcases Sid’s traditional vocal styling at its strongest.  “Along the Castlereagh” is another revelation, beautifully performed and delivered.  This album showcases the diversity of the folk tradition in a way that opens folk music up to far wider audiences.  Don’t think you like folk music?  Listen to this!  There’s something for everyone.  The true and undeniable strength of this album lies in the insightful original songs.  “Night Hours” tells the story of the night workers that keep cities running – “I’m here when your thoughts are not” – while “Moved On” explores the plight of the residents of Newham that were essentially priced out of their own homes – “I’m not worth the land that I live on, but I’ve lived here for all of my life” – both stories and songs are poignant and wonderful.  The production and arrangement of the title track in particular is something that the duo should be extremely proud of.  When they perform it live it is still a powerful piece of well delivered song writing, but the subtle embellishments and the care that has gone into crafting the production of the album version elevate the song to a whole new level.  There’s a common theme that seems to run through the lyrics and stories of men finding their place in a land owned by landlords.  Jimmy Aldridge and Sid Goldsmith are finding their place in the world, and I hope that the world encourages and inspires them both to keep on writing – because if it does then we might get a whole album of original songs from Jimmy & Sid, and that is something I am very much looking forward to!  Go and buy this album.

Rab Noakes – The Treatment Tapes EP | EP Review | Neon Records | Review by Ian Taylor | 24.01.17

The launch of Rab Noakes’s last album, the excellent I’m Walking Here, released in 2015, had to be delayed as a result of his being diagnosed with tonsillar cancer early in that year.  Characteristically stoic and defiant however, the Fife singer-songwriter vowed to deal with the condition head on, rather than wallow in self-pity or give in to the ‘brave battler’ tabloid language that invariably surrounds the hideously random disease.  With the support – both emotional and practical – of his wife Stephy Pordage, he saw off the rigours of thirty radiography and two chemotherapy sessions which understandably rendered him inactive musically for several months.  Thankfully, he has made as full a recovery as he dare claim.  As Noakes says though, “When something like this happens to the likes of me at least I know I’ll probably get a couple of songs out of it.” If that sounds flippant, he continues, “Truth is though, it’s what we do creatively.  We utilise experience and observation of, and response to, life’s ingredients, add a helping of imagination and deliver a work”.  Which is exactly what he has done with The Treatment Tapes.  The EP comprises six songs written during, and/or inspired by his period of enforced inactivity.  “Fade (To Shades of Black)” opens the EP, a solo voice and guitar piece very much in the style of latter Noakes work, such as that on I’m Walking Here, with a delightfully mellow and rich tone to his guitar and a lyric about “..not wasting time, getting up and doing things, being in the moment”.  Then comes “By the Day (One More Shave ‘n’ Haircut)” which is perhaps a little more explicitly autobiographical, documenting the sequence of events from diagnosis (“Breaking news in the afternoon, one more thing that’s happening too soon”) to treatment (“The whole affair seems like a sequence of dreams, fuelled by potions, tablets and creams”).  Noakes adds his own backing vocal and there’s a little percussion which helps drive the song along and tempers its initially gloomy, but ultimately hopeful message.  Mindful is significant for Stephy being given a writing credit.  They wrote the words jointly to a tune that had been around since a US holiday in 2013.  Anne Rankin’s oboe gives the song added poignancy.  “Stay vital, like vinyl” seems an extremely appropriate sentiment in the context.  “That Won’t Stop Me” reflects Noakes’s defiance in facing his disease.  His fingerpicking blues guitar playing and Stu Brown’s percussion a perfect foil for the ambiguity of the lyric.  “I Always Will” is a love song pure and simple, celebrating the reciprocation inherent in the process of tackling an illness as a couple.  The opening riff almost sings the words “I’d do the same for you”, and you just know that he would.  Finally, “Water is My Friend” might literally reflect the necessity of hydration in the treatment process, and the mantra that emerged as a result, but it’s also laden with prosaic social commentary: “There are people looking after me who don’t get paid enough, while bankers take a big reward for far less useful stuff”.  It’s an upbeat end to what could have been an utterly depressing listen, but in fact even taken superficially is a worthy addition to Noakes’s body of work.  When you know the context from which it emerged, it is all the more remarkable.

Manran – The Two Days | Album Review | Manran Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 26.01.17

From the stylish cover of the album and the moody band shot inside, to the opening Guitar and Uilleann Pipes on Fiasco, An Da La – The Two Days first track, this is an album that just crackles with cool sophistication.  The instrumentation and much of the music may be firmly within the tradition, but the delivery and feel are, to these ears, very 21st Century.  Like The Afro Celt Sound System, The Peatbog Faeries, Shooglenifty or Martin Swan’s Mouth Music, as John Martyn said of his 1970 electric sonic experiments, “the needle is new and the patterns are old”.  While keyboard textures are threaded around pipes, guitar and frisky percussion, the energy and the sprit are true.  “Trod” is a storming electric track that crackles with power behind a hypnotic Gaelic lyric.  On a dark song about over indulgence the band are tight with some head down rocking passages against vocal parts that recall early Clannad, but all with a gritty rawness and no folk ‘tweeness’ in sight.  Inspector is a more straight ahead set of dance tracks that showcase the tight rhythm section and the sheer drive and attack of Ryan Murphy’s Pipe playing, you can imagine the crowd being driven wild to this track.  That Manran are looking outwards is clear by their choice of Pandora by the excellent Canadian songwriter and performer David Francey.  The thoughtful song is a tempo break after the tunes and its consideration of the impact of the modern world and technology is timely.  Like the album’s title track, it’s also a further indication of Manran’s intent to be both current, in the moment and the latest part of a long shifting tradition.  Sadly not that there is anything new in social comment or protest.  “Parallels” is the other side of Manran, infectious dance music, a hard edged drum and bass rhythm with skittish pipes over the top, you can feel the sweat drops fly.  “Autobahn” has more of a slippery time signature, any appreciative moves would have to be more considered than the old school punk pogo-ing to the previous track.  An interesting bass line underpins turns by accordion, the pipes and Ewen Henderson’s vocals.  “Fios” is an anthemic song that tells of the 19th Century Islay clearances.  After an acoustic troubadour start the impassioned vocal is underpinned by wonderfully gritty keyboards, and a rhythm that sounds like a call to arms or thousand marching feet.  As with so much of this excellent album, the arrangement is always interesting, instruments build, swell and fall like an angry sea, providing light and shade.  Rising out of the keyboard sea swell at the end of the previous track the Alpha tune set shifts from atmospheric keyboards into a fine Pipes duet ending in another piece of puirt a beul, mouth music, the vocalisation of instrumental music.  Celtic BeBop.  This is another excellent element of Manran’s music.  Alone is their take on Ben Harper’s Americana spiritual.  Craig Irving’s vocal is more strident than Harper’s, with none of his hesitant vulnerability, in Manran’s capable hands this is a life affirming song of hope.  “An Da La”, the title track, is an album highlight among many highs.  Thoughtful lyrics cutting between Gaelic and English run over keyboard and pipe airs.  The lyrical parallels with current affairs and illusions to American Presidential elect are deliberate.  The album closes with “Hour” a set of jigs and pipe reels.  “Lochan na h-Achlaise” the second tune opens with some almost dubby fiddle playing and a Bass part that is more Clash than Celtic.  Great Torrington in North Devon inspires the last breakneck roaring highland reel indicating that it’s all about the delivery rather than the just the material.  But then given that Manran have already drawn in American Gospel Folk Blues and Canadian Social Protest, this should be no surprise.  This is an album that veers sharply from slow burn and smouldering to raging inferno, by a band whose music has the attack and musical vim of Stiff Little Fingers tempered with grace and delicacy.

Andrea Terrano – Innamorata | Album Review | Atlantic Jaxx | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 28.01.17

There’s a crystalline clarity in Andrea Terrano’s playing that draws you into the music like ripples on water.  Indeed, the watery metaphors could easily be stretched further.  Each track on the London-based Italian/Russian instrumentalist’s latest album Innamorata is rich in sun-dappled reflections and flashes of brilliance.  The word “innamorata” is Italian for “in love” and if you weren’t already in love with the liquid notes of a sweetly played Latin guitar, then you soon will be.  The album gently laps at the ears with its opening track Woodlands before a tide of arresting images rises.  “Autumn Symphony” is a lively, life-affirming piece, helped along by energetic yet delicately controlled percussion whilst “Our Story”, drenched in lush string arrangements, tugs powerfully at the heart.  And, every now and again, we cut to a sun-drenched drama unfolding in the traditional chord structures of emphatically strummed flamencos as if the whole record has opened up to reveal a beguiling system of roots.  This constantly captivating album has a filmic quality that is never more apparent than in the final track “Cinemotions” that gives producer Felix Buxton, of Basement Jaxx fame, the chance to sew enchanting little sequins of sound into the fabric of the piece such as a cricket’s chirp, atmospheric humming and drip-drops of electronic pulses, each helping to embed Terrano’s sparkling melodies within the romanticism of the whole album.

Emmet Scanlan and What the Good Thought – These are the Dreams, This is the Life ! | EP Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 01.02.17

The best EPs always offer an appetising sampling of an artist’s style and, given that Emmet Scanlan and What The Good Thought are an independent outfit whose self-penned material is diverse and constantly shifting, their latest five-track release is a comely assemblage of approaches to quality song writing.  Opening with the throbbing Chilli Peppers-esque “Over Again”, which showcases both Scanlan’s soulful vocals and the taut musicianship of the band, the mood is recast with the little jungle swing number “You Know Who Knows”.  And whilst “Bless the Weather” lays a sweet nursery rhyme melody against a wallpaper of world rhythms, “In Love and Falling” is a delicate front-porch love song that is repeated via an equally lovely “Cinematic Version”.  Limerick’s Emmet Scanlan is joined here by an international band of merry musicians with Sweden’s Peter Akerstrom on guitar, Italy’s Alan Preims on percussion, Scottish cellist Nicola Geddes and fellow Irish musician Cathal Doherty on bass.

James McArthur and the Head Gardeners – Burnt Moth | Album Review | Moorland Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 02.02.17

James McArthur graduated from playing drums with Paul Weller to striking out as an acoustic troubadour.  Burnt Moth is his second album.  There is a wonderfully intimate lo-fi feel throughout.  The arrangements and McArthur’s vocal delivery recall early 70s Heron or Magna Carta.  A more contemporary reference point with be 4AD’s Mojave 3 or Neil Halsted’s solo work.  “14 Seconds”, the album opener pairs his finger picked guitar with a mournful pedal steel and some lovely strings.  “What the Day Holds” continues the intimate acoustic vibe, with a great passage where the layered guitars and strings spark off each other.  “No Door” has some beautiful guitar picking against a great country fiddle line, it could all be lifted off an early 70s Bert Jansch album.  “To Do” is a duet with Samantha Whates around a delicate piano part.  Aching delicate it sounds like the theme tune for a Scandinavian Detective Drama, you can image it playing as the camera drone swoops across unending grasses under a brooding sky, panning past while our flawed main character stares moodily into the middle distance.  “Bluest Stone” features striking guitar and mandolin parts that nod ever so slightly to Led Zeppelin and their “Battle of Evermore”.  But with James McArthur the effect is bucolic rather than histrionic, as the music draws you in and surrounds you.  “Twice a Day” and “Evens on Green” continue the layered guitars and at times feel like Genesis on Trick of the Tale with its vocal refrains on “Entangled” or David Gilmour’s country lap steel on Meddle Era Pink Floyd track “Fearless”.  An album of warm intimate songs.  A delicate voice wrapped in layers of guitar, pedal steel and sympathetic strings creates an atmosphere that is inviting and enveloping.

Geoff Lakeman – After All These Years | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Kev Boyd | 06.02.17

Few people record debut albums at the age of 69 and of those that do fewer still are likely to produce a work of such charm and confidence as After All These Years.  Geoff Lakeman is perhaps best known as the patriarch of a folk dynasty of sorts, being the father of immensely successful Sam, Sean and Seth Lakeman and father-in-law to the equally illustrious Kathryn Roberts and Cara Dillon.  Geoff has played in the family band with his sons and their mum Joy but until his recent retirement after 50 years as a Fleet Street journalist he’d been content to stay in the background.  Encouraged by his family – Sean produces and plays guitar on After All These Years while Seth plays violin and viola and Sam piano – Geoff has struck out with an album of Cornish songs, traditional favourites and a couple of self-penned originals. Despite there being a number of acclaimed guests dotted throughout the thirteen tracks it’s Geoff’s mature yet smooth voice and distinctive duet concertina that dominate the album.  These may be best demonstrated on the entirely solo “Ye Lovers All” and “Bonny Irish Maid”, both from the Irish ballad tradition and both highlighting his pleasant vocals at their relaxed, conversational best.  Other traditional pieces are the lovely Cornish version of “Green Cockade” and the Aussie transportation ballad popularised by Bert Lloyd, Jim Jones.  The latter includes subtle fiddle accompaniment from Seth Lakeman but perhaps the most welcome guest on the album is Nic Jones.  Now a near-neighbour of Geoff’s, Nic contributes some fine chorus singing to a great version of Reg Meuross’s “England Green, England Grey”.  The general mix of songs is handled well.  A couple of broadly political pieces like Roger Bryant’s “The Farmer’s Song” about several generations of family farming coming to an unhappy end, or Geoff’s own “Tie ‘Em Up’ which tells of the difficulties faced by West Country fishermen, sit easily among the more light-hearted contributions like “When The Taters Are All Dug” and Geoff’s own “Doggie Song” which laments the banning of dogs from Cornish beaches. Given his lifetime of experience and active involvement in his local folk scene and considering his significantly more celebrated offspring it may not be too much of a surprise that Geoff Lakemen has assembled a collection of great songs and persuaded a number of his accomplished friends and acquaintances to help him realise them.  What is perhaps surprising to those of us who hadn’t previously appreciated his talents is the depth of quality to Geoff’s singing and playing throughout this collection.  Every track oozes charm and likability in a way that’s unusual for any album, but for a debut release – whatever the circumstances – it’s extraordinary.

Dietrich Strause – How Cruel That Hunger Binds | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 10.02.17

Dietrich Strause is a difficult man to pin down, on this album his music is informed by Americana, Alt Folk and early jazz but it is all filtered through a gauze of strangeness.  At times he evokes the absinthe melancholy of Madeline Peyroux, at times his singing is right there with the best of The Fleet Foxes, upbeat but chilling.  “The Beast That Rolls Within” the opening track has ambience and an Alt-Folk feel of The Low Anthem or The Great Lake Swimmers.  Strause’s vocal rings out over a very rich mix of guitar and electronics that swirl around him.  The lyrics are full of Americana references that add to the folk feel.  “Lying in Your Arms” lifts the tempo and the mood with a brass heavy chorus that sounds like Neil Hannon and the Divine Comedy.  There are no music credits on the album so we are left to assume that Strause, a music college trumpet major who left to pursue  an interest in guitar is providing all the layered textures of guitar, organ and brass himself.  “Pennsylvania” after “The Beast That Rolls Within” is an album highlight.  The lyric and vocal again have a Baptist hymn quality that recalls the best of The Fleet Foxes, but with a wonderfully woozy New Orleans Jazz intro that leads to beautiful double bass, piano and a plaintive layered vocal.  “Home From the Heartland” is a strong anthem of a track, another high point, the lyrics rich with religious imagery just ooze atmosphere and class.  Strause’s vocals shine through on this track, testifying over a dirty jazz Hammond part and some sparse but tasteful backing.  “Around the World” is a darkly beautiful track of regret that suits Strause’s melancholic delivery perfectly.  It opens with a twisted harmonium part and a clarinet part that would make Sidney Bechet smile with the music building and swelling through the song.  “Boy Born to Die” is all about the layered guitars, with a plucked electric part that recalls the clipped electric Gibson of Michael Chapman, but still those dark sinister brass parts twist the song into something else.  “So Long So Far” starts as a dark lullaby drifting through an alcoholic or drug induced haze giving way to an upbeat section with a dirty saxophone part that smoulders like the best of Morphine and Dana Colley, an almost guitar wig-out and ending with more New Orleans chamber jazz.  “The World Once was Turning” arrives with a wonderfully evocative percussion loop, if Tom Waits had come in on the vocal he would not have sounded out of place, it is very much that kind of sonic space.  This is another wonderful song of regret that builds and just as you are wondering what next it stops, I’m sure that’s a metaphor for something.  The album is short, the songs are short, perfectly formed but short, often leaving you wondering what next.  The album was recorded in seven days in a farmhouse studio in Maine that shortness of time may be responsible in part for the brevity, perhaps that’s part of their charm and appeal that they are perfect, beautiful and fleeting.  Like bubbles in 17th Century Vanitas paintings of Pieter Claesz or Harmen Steenwijck the tracks are arresting things of beauty that hold your attention completely while they are with you but all too quickly they are gone and that is very metaphorical.

Siobhan Miller – Strata | Album Review | Songprint Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 11.02.17

From the first note this is a considered album that smoulders with class and sophistication.  Siobhan Miller’s voice is set against sympathetic backing from a stellar cast from folk’s who’s who.  Kris Drever, Aidan O’Rourke from Lau, Ian Carr and Phil Cunningham, along with many others, provide always interesting support.  The band, however adroit, are foremost a foil to a jewel set in a ring, as Miller is very much the star here, with her pure voice consistently shining through on tracks like “The Sun Shines High”.  Siobhan talks about her desire to pay tribute to established performers like Sheila Stewart, Dick Gaughan and Pod Paterson.  Two of the strong performances on the album are “What You Do With What You’ve Got” and “Pound a Week Rise”, songs recorded and often played live by Gaughan.  Siobhan’s delivery on “What You Do With What You’ve Go” steers well clear of Gaughan’s vitriol, recalling more closely Si Kahn’s warm upbeat original.  But Miller’s pure and beautiful voice finds the hope and joy in the song and with an upbeat chorus, it really crackles.  Stand out tracks include Bob Dylan’s “One Too Many Mornings”, performed here with a slow considered tempo, a great fiddle part and Admiral Fallow front man Louis Abbot’s second vocal perfectly complimenting Miller’s.  The band is restrained here, stepping up between the verses with the voices shining through on the chorus.  Ed Pickford’s “Pound a Week Rise” drives along, the guitar and bass replicating a clapping stomping foot folk club rhythm.  In this time of ‘pie in the sky’ politics the lyrics and Siobhan Miller’s delivery seem very poignant.  The arrangements on “Unquiet Grave” and “Thanksgiving Eve” demonstrate the strength and closeness of the players.  The album was recorded with the band putting down whole takes together, natural atmosphere no click tracks and that shines through.  “Unquiet Grave” is acid folk, stripped back to arresting vocal and guitar.  “Thanksgiving Eve” is a jazzy shuffling rhythm where the drums and bass blend with layered vocals and the awesome fiddle of Lau’s Aidan O’Rourke.  It all blends together perfectly.  “The Month of January” is a well-represented traditional song, Frankie Anderson performed it on her 1976 Topic album, June Tabor recorded a stark version on Abyssinians in 1983.  Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker’s version on Fire and Fortune in 2012 was similarly chilling and gothic.  Siobhan Millers’ singing of the cautionary tale, despite the bleak lyric is warmer as she turns each syllable into beautiful music, before Tom Gibbs’ insistent harmonium lifts the mood completely.  “False False” is another chilling tale of life’s betrayals, it is also another album highlight.  Miller’s voice just soars, the violin wrings at your emotions and it is all accented by Louis Abbot’s inventive drum part.  “Bonny Light Horseman” is another track where Miller’s voice just pours out in all its glory over some tasteful country tinged Bouzouki and Guitar picking.  “The Ramblin’ Rover” closes the album, a storming number, it’s an ‘us against the world’ song.  One of the few mentions of colitis within the folk tradition and its recounting of the widespread bollockitis disease should ensure the album gets one of those parental advisory stickers.  It all guarantees you end this excellent album with a smile on your face and reaching for the repeat.  Highly recommended

Esteban Alvarez – Tico Groove | Album Release | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 12.023.17

With his album Tico Groove, Costa Rican pianist Esteban Alvarez has served up an especially nourishing dish.  The Steinway Artist nominee and Akademia Award-winning composer invites us in for a notably intimate performance of ten seductive instrumentals, each infused with Latin flavours that may equally settle relaxingly on the ear or insist upon a dance.  The urge to get up and oil one’s hips is never stronger than on tracks such as the uplifting “Caballito Nicoyano/Ticas Lindas”, featuring some fiery flamenco guitar from Jose Manuel Tejeda and the infectious rhythms of percussionist Ignacio Berroa, as well as the charmingly buoyant “Pasión”, featuring the supple clarinet of Dr. Richard Shanley and his wife, Hellen, on flute.  Resting, for the most part, on the dependably lithe double basslines of Lynn Seaton, Tico Groove is an album on which Alvarez’s searching and perpetually inquisitive piano is just one of the multitude of fine flavours.  And whilst the dish is at its most tasty during the full-band performances, the arresting solo piano piece “Amor de Temporada” reminds us who’s head chef and where we should be directing our compliments.

Sean Taylor – Flood and Burn | Album Review | Proper | Review by Marc Higgins | 15.02.17

Sean Taylor is a London based Folk Blues performer.  He is a master with the guitar and has a voice that seethes with presence and power.  Flood and Burn is his eighth album since Corrugations in 2007, Sean is never less than very good on record, but since hooking up with Mark Hallman in Austin Texas he has found his unique voice and an excellent foil.  Flood and Burn is a perfect starting point to discover Sean Taylor, especially as time may decide that this is his strongest album in a 10 year recording career, certainly feels that way now, till the next one anyhow.  “Codeine Blues” the album opener is a superb track.  It opens with jazz piano and a huge saxophone with its keys flapping, breathy and expansive like Jan Garbarek in mid flow.  Sean’s vocal evokes a 21st century John Martyn, slurring and bending, snaking round the notes like a third instrument.  Add a sublime second vocal from Jaimee Harris, a testifying Hammond Organ and the track just soars.  It reads like a heartfelt love song as Taylor likens his love to a drug.  The title however suggests a darker affair like Van Zandt’s “Waiting Round to Die” where Townes finally finds one friend that won’t desert him in his final hours.  If this track with its anthemic ‘beautiful day’ riff doesn’t end up on a million, coffee table hip compilation CDs there is something very wrong with the universe.  Walk With Me, Sean’s excellent fourth album was recorded in Dublin with Trevor Hutchinson from The Waterboys.  Sean’s Family are Irish and he connected with the spirits of Yeats, Wilde and Yeats while there.  There is some of that Irish lyricism in “A Good Place to Die” as the rich fast paced vocal brings Mike Scott, of The Waterboys, enlightened streams of consciousness to mind.  Sean revels in the romantic lifestyle of the journeyman troubadour and the lyric bubbles with timeless folk blues references.  Sean bends and shreds a killer electric guitar too, he may be name checking his Gibson acoustic.  But he does it while furrowing his face and pulling a solo that is pure Gilmour.  “The Cruelty of Man” has a beautiful jazz vibe, brushes, smooth guitar and a perfect muted trumpet, but like the best of Simon & Garfunkel, there is a fist in the smooth jazz velvet glove, as Taylor grapples with the iniquities of the world and the cruelty of man.  “Troubadour” is another anthem to the journeyman musician, sweetened with a glorious pedal steel.  “Run to the Water” is a blues anthem from its compressed lead vocal, the shimmering electric guitar and Taylor’s ‘Charlie Musselwhite’ harmonica stabs shadowed by Andre Moran’s fine slide.  “Life Goes On” is another album highlight, where a heartfelt but slight lyric is given depth by Sean’s superb voice, proving he could sing a shopping list and it would be sublime.  Here he is soulful like early 70s Marvin Gaye.  Long time collaborator Hana Piranha features on violin.  Title track “Flood and Burn” is a Blues standard in the making, that if stuck under the noses of Ben Harper or Eric Bibb would make huge waves of interest in Taylor the interpreter and songwriter.  “Beauty to the World” is another album highlight, it crackles from the first moment of Taylor’s wonderful picked acoustic.  The vocal is another slurred, slippery masterstroke, with the lyric and the delivery evoking that 2am bottom of the bottle moment when through the glass you glimpse perfection.  Taylor and Hallman layer guitars around the vocal, the wobbly piano is a sonar ping through the alcohol fog and everything is just perfect.  What you hear on this track is he sound of the two guitar players having a great time, lost in the joy of playing.  “Bad Case of the Blues” features a wonderful Tom Waits Leon Redbone Vipers lounge vocal as next to you in a late night bar, Sean Taylor whispers secrets into your ear, while Hana Piranha leans in with a ‘Grappelli on drugs’ jazz violin part.  Sean Taylor’s take of “Heartbreak Hotel” manages to own the well visited classic.  From the John Lee Hooker steal riff at the star, through the tempo change, the slap guitar riff and the train harmonica he makes it his own.  Superb duet with Eliza Gilkyson too. Longtime live and album collaborator Danny Thompson plays on “Better Man” the final track.  His cathedral sized Double Bass sound opens the track and his stops and slides punctuate the track adding still more gravitas to Taylor’s vocal.  Wonderful English dance music is evoked by the interplay between the guitar and double bass, imbibing the track with a Pentangleness if there is such a thing.  The song is a love song, to a lover or to us the listeners, the troubadour’s audience and describes how we lift and make him a better man.  Listening to this album on repeat through headphones I’d like to assure Sean it’s a two way thing, his voice, his guitar, his music, his often spiritual lyrics carry the listener to better places and better spaces.  Turn it up for Hana’s violin on this track and lose yourself in that too.  Final mention for the sequencing of the album, as the fading piano chord at the end of “Better Man” blurs into the start of “Codeine Blues” if you have the album on repeat.  Further indication of the subtlety, layering, care and grace that’s gone into this album.  Buy this album if you are a fan of Sean Taylor, buy this album if you are a fan of intelligent folk blues music that transcends genres, buy this album if you want to be ahead of the beard stroking list making critics, as this is surely going to feature large in those end of year ‘best of’ lists.  “Oh yes Flood and Burn, excellent isn’t it, bought it when it came out, played it to death, made me a better man”.

Mike Grogan – Too Many Ghosts | Album Review | Poacher Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 17.02.17

Too Many Ghosts is Mike Grogan’s third album and his fourth release.  It follows a significant gap after Make Me Strong, his last album.  Clearly Mike has spent the time playing and reflecting, as there is a significant shift and refinement, that much is obvious from the first moment of the first track.  The wonderfully rich voice that gave us “The Light of the World” on Make Me Strong is still there as is his fine fingerpicking guitar, but there is a swagger, a presence, that lifts the whole album.  “Show Them What Love Can Do” just smoulders and burns.  It opens with a chorus vocal and a Phil Beer’s fiery violin, but quickly builds to a sound that is more Elbow and Guy Garvey than Festival Folk Tent.  You know that the infectious chorus is going to sound amazing picked up by a large beery crowd part way through a set as the sun is going down.  The violin is joined by an express train guitar and the song dissolves into that chorus and you know it will last forever at the end of a gig.  “Let Me Feel the Rain” is a perfect adult pop song, after a beer, if this came on the jukebox most people would agree that it’s an excellent song and swear blind that Robbie Williams has found his mojo again.  Mike croons and pulls at your heartstrings like the best of the old school crooners.  Wonderful keyboards on this track and through the album by John ‘Rabbit’ Bundrick, a man with real studio chops.  The title track turns the acoustic folk back up with mandolin trills and gentle swells of accordion, but Mike makes it timeless by laying down another killer perfectly paced ear-worm chorus duetting with Miranda Sykes.  The Way continues the folky vibe, heartfelt lyrics, tasteful percussion and a perfect stripped back middle section of voice violin and piano.  Powerful chorus is provided by The Green Man Folk Club in Alton, proof that Mike Grogan is the pied piper when it comes an infectious singalong.  I wonder if he tapes all his gigs for the next album, just in case. Jokes aside perhaps the strength of the material and his delivery is that it is all road tested and as familiar as a vintage Martin D-28.  “Big Ships” is one of those hairs on the back of the neck songs.  It opens with some atmospherics and violin that place it in Show of Hands’ territory and Grogan’s warm weathered voice paired with a rolling violin makes an excellent job of it.  If you are going to record with Mike Tucker, Phil Beer and Miranda Sykes then Show Of Hands are the elephant in the room.  I don’t think it diminishes or demeans what Grogan does with his fine song writing and strong voice to make the connection.  “Hallelujah” is a fine song that recalls the intelligent contemporary rock music of Elbow and includes some particularly poignant lyrics.  “Underground”, like much of the album, is a collision of old and new, a wheezing pump organ opens the track but is joined by a looped chorus and a pulsing electronic beat and a wonderfully Floydian vocal from Miranda Sykes.  Mike’s lyric draws on mining imagery and paints a powerful picture, amplified by some very intelligent backing.  The track is supremely evocative, the spirits of Tin Miners, Colliers, First World War Sappers and blitz scarred civilians are all crouched terrified in the dark with us.  Perhaps we are all, in some way trapped and in a time of darkness.  A perfect song, a folk song for the future and very much like Mike Grogan, screaming for wider exposure.  If they ever film Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams Tunnels series of books, here is the theme music. Heaven Is Here and Goodnight end the album in an upbeat pairing.  “Goodnight” especially is heartfelt, a stripped back voice and guitar joined by piano and accordion.  With more than a nod to Dylan’s “Forever Young”, it sounds like a benediction, written to close proceedings as an encore after a fine gig.

Dipper Malkin – Tricks of the Trade | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Kev Boyd | 18.02.17

Dipper Malkin are the duo of John Dipper and Dave Malkin.  Dipper could most recently be found playing fiddle with the Methera string quartet and is a veteran of the English Acoustic Collective alongside Chris Wood and Rob Harbron while Malkin was a founder member of electro-trad ensemble Tandem.  With this pedigree it’s perhaps unsurprising they are collectively exploring imaginative and challenging ways of interpreting largely traditional repertoire.  Dipper plays the rarely-heard (in folk music circles, at last) baroque instrument viola d’amore which offers the opportunity for him to experiment with unique tunings and explore the rich and varied timbre of the instrument that comes to define the sonic mood of several tracks on Tricks of the Trade.  Malkin’s guitar is equally prominent on a number of traditional and original pieces.  In fact, the musicianship throughout this album is impeccable and there’s a clean, unfussy sharpness to the production that emphasises the exquisite execution.  There could perhaps have been a better balance of songs to tunes as on the best of the three songs, “All Things are Quite Silent” there’s a quiet resignation to Malkin’s vocal delivery that perfectly suits the material.  It might have been interesting to hear the duo bring a similar sense of imagination to the rich English song tradition as they do to the traditional tune canon.  That being said, it’s hard to fault an album of such high standards in both arrangements and performance.  Dipper Malkin set out to make an album equal in artistic value to contemporary classical music and in accomplishment to improvised jazz and I guess the experts in those genres would need to comment on how successful they might have been.  What I can say is they have achieved is an album of largely traditional English instrumental repertoire played on acoustic instruments to an incredibly high standard.  There are no gimmicks, relatively few noticeable overdubs and just a couple of brief and tasteful cameos by guest musicians.  There is, however, a tonne of skill and ingenuity in what turns out to be an album of quiet beauty.

Daria Kulesh – Long Lost Home | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Damian Liptrot | 19.02.17

Fascinating and enjoyable in equal measure, the title of the Russo-Anglo chanteuse’s album cannot be separated from the stories that make up the songs in a collection that is exotic in voice, instrumentation and subject matter.  To mix geography and metaphor, the writer could rightfully be described as the Scheherazade of the Steppes.  Within the album the political and the personal are intertwined, along with social and historical commentary, no more so than “The Moon and the Pilot”, combining personal history, the futility of war, Stalinism and its effect on Ingushetia – the country of Daria’s origins, an ancient and proud land between Europe and Asia that became a Soviet state, from which it appears the people have not yet recovered.  For all that, it is a song of beauty, tragedy, love and depth, featuring haunting, occasionally soaring vocals and has rightfully received much airwaves love over the months preceding the release of the album.  It is the mixture of the subject matter, the writer’s intriguing voice that has hints of her Russian roots, adding a quality of enigma to a delivery that is as crystal clear as the mountain streams of her ancestors.  All these positives make the album step outside anything that could be described as the mainstream and so in my wilder musings and the more fertile corners of my imagination this album is a rediscovered ‘70s classic, the product of a captivating yet mysterious singer-songwriter, an artefact in its gatefold sleeve so resplendent that its place between Vashti Bunyan and the Incredible String Band only served to highlight its attraction and the number of layers within the package.  The presence of background and explanatory notes in the booklet is both welcome and adds to the enjoyment, in which the exotic nature of the album is underlined by the inclusion of “Distant Love” a traditional song translated from the original Ingush but presented as a bilingual experience.  “Dance like a God” combines both allusion and description, serving to highlight the literary element of the album with metaphor and allegorical elements there for the unravelling and no more so than in the final song.  A CD for everyone, except perhaps unreconstructed Stalinists, listen digest, enjoy, then buy your own Shruti box and see were that will take you.  As a small aside, for those unfamiliar with Daria, she is also a member of the band KARA who recently welcomed Pete Morton to their ranks and are also more than worthy of your interest.

Thom Hell – Happy Rabbit | Album Review | Lost Boy Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 20.02.17

The predominantly pink wash of colour on the cover artwork, together with the seemingly cheerful bunny illustration and accompanying album title gives absolutely no indication as to how good the music on Thom Hell’s latest full-length release actually is.  The Norwegian singer-songwriter (real name Thomas Helland) pours just about everything into the mix, with all his influences not only evident in the songs themselves, but actually name checked on the inside sleeve, together with a series of tiny photographs with each influential LP held up by a small child.  The songs pay homage to the variety of styles, presumably absorbed from an early age, but also manage to avoid sentimental nostalgia.  The Beatles, and in particular McCartney’s sense of melody, is all over this record, especially on “Without You” and “Famous”, and echoes of the Beach Boys are there on “Blues in A”, whilst Jeff Lynne is so evident in the epic “In the Night” that it could quite easily have been heard filtering out through the windows of the spacecraft on the cover of ELO’s Out of the Blue.  The highly melodic pop songs such as “Leave Me to Die”, pour out of this album like silver, all of which points to the studio genius of Thom Hell and Morten Martens’ production throughout.  On the whole, the arrangements are dynamic and spirited with plenty of room for experimentation and tightly arranged harmonies.  Above all though, this is a fine example of a noted musician trawling the annals of his own musical journey, with Happy Rabbit traversing all the musical avenues and from all directions.

Fairport Convention – 50:50@50 | Album Review | Matty Grooves | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 21.02.17

So, fifty years eh?  Who’da thought?  The institution that is Fairport Convention reaches half a century with an evident sense of joy, albeit tinged with some degree of sadness, in as much as one or two key players involved in this enduring story didn’t quite make it through; Martin Lamble, Sandy Denny, Trevor Lucas and lately, the charismatic fiddle-playing genius himself, Dave Swarbrick.  Added to these notable casualties is the long list of musicians who to this day wear their Fairport credentials with pride.  The band’s notoriety in this particular area, which effectively saw Pete Frame sticking a new ink cartridge in his pen when drawing up the band’s family tree, is legendary, especially in Fairport’s earlier years.  As the band steadily evolved, its audience likewise changed.  Yes there are the die-hard ‘lifers’ who have been there since the beginning, but then there are those who missed the likes of Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny far too much to consider sticking around further.  Then, the Cropredy years saw the emergence of many younger fans, who eagerly climbed aboard the Fairport vessel specifically to join in with the band’s annual celebrations upon the rolling meadows of Oxfordshire near Banbury.  For a band that has already released dozens of albums of varying degrees of satisfaction over the years, together with various celebratory offerings (History Of, The Cropredy Box etc.) not to mention turning up annually for their summer knees-up, you would have thought that the half-century Rite of Passage would have been marked by something exceptional.  50:50@50 – an album made up of 50% studio releases and 50% live cuts and released in the band’s 50th year – is not a bad record at all, it’s just not what I would have expected upon such an auspicious occasion, but there again, for a band who makes every summer a special celebration based around itself, such aspirations of grandeur might be slightly over-egging the pudding.  Concealed within a stark black sleeve, emblazoned with their now familiar gold foiled logo, together with a handful of With the Beatles inspired mug shots, the fourteen selections deliberately steer clear of anything from their early period, with the possible exception of a pretty faithful revival of “Lord Marlborough”, originally included in their Angel Delight set.  The album instead focuses on a handful of Chris Leslie originals such as “Eleanor’s Dream”, which boldly opens proceedings, “Step By Step” and “Devil’s Work”, rubbing shoulders with a bunch of recently recorded live cuts.  Chris goes on to update us on the band’s penchant for autobiographical musings, adding “Our Bus Rolls On” to the tradition which also includes the likes of “Come All Ye” and “Angel Delight”, this time with a very distinct appreciation of his own fellow band mates: ‘I love strings, those kind of things, to write a song or two, I have no fear with my friends up here, it’s all I want to do’.  Then follows Ric Sanders’ enduring instrumental “Portmeirion”, the best thing from that model village since Number Six’s surreal episodes escaping a large white balloon called Rover.  No stranger to the fields of Cropredy, Robert Plant is here to offer a rather low-key guest spot, with a twangy trot through the gospel-tinged “Jesus on the Mainline”, together with some bluesy gob organ, recorded live at one of the Cropredy warm-ups in Banbury, whilst Pentangle legend Jacqui McShee joins her husband’s band in the studio for an almost Peggy Seeger-ish reading of the traditional “The Lady of Carlisle”.  Yes, there could have been a definitive 50-CD box set encompassing the band’s entire career, with nods to absent friends and brilliantly funny outtakes (remember Swarb’s April Fool’s Day prank?), not to mention many of the band’s most memorable songs from each of the five decades since the band’s birth in the Summer of Love, but 50:50@50 does capture a small portion of it.  Dare I say here’s to the next 50 years? 

Bargou 08 – Targ | Album Review | Glitterbeat | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 23.02.17

Blues enthusiasts familiar with the opening track on Paul Oliver’s The Story of the Blues double LP set from 1969, will be familiar with the tribal chants of the Fra-Fra Tribesmen of Ghana, recorded by Oliver himself as an indication of what is believed to be the origins of what we now refer to as the Blues.  In Bargou 08’s Targ, there’s a similar feel of authentic roots music being captured in its rawest form.  In this case we shift from Ghana to the Bargou valley in the mountains of Tunisia along the Algerian border.  Nidhal Yahyaoui has maintained some of the traditions of the region with his band, using traditional instruments alongside the relatively modern Moog synthesiser.  The tribal, chant-like songs, some of which are over three hundred years old and each presented in the Targ dialect, form the basis of this album.  Whether the trance-like rhythms of Bargou 08 can maintain an interest through the nine similar sounding grooves, there’s little dispute over the importance and validity of the capturing some of this indigenous traditional music.

Carol Fieldhouse – Linen | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Mary Andrews | 25.02.17

Linen is a beautifully presented debut album, the artwork is soft and stylish, with welcomed liner notes.  The whole album is written (or co-written) by Carol Fieldhouse with the exception of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, a brave choice of cover.  The album has been beautifully produced by Boo Hewerdine and the production and performances are hard to fault.  This is certainly a well put together release.  The guitar is beautifully played, the vocals are well delivered and the mixing is perfect.  “A Little Piece of Land” has a distinctly John Denver feel to it, beautifully sung, arranged and written it could be a song straight out of 1970’s Colorado if it weren’t for the references to rural mobile phone and broadband black spots.  It’s a lovely start to the album.  The other stand out track is Billy Marshall a song written about the Galloway ‘King of the Gypsies’.  It’s the most produced track on the album, driven along with the assistance of Neill Macoll, Boo Hewerdine and Evan Carson.  The rest of the album is… well, it’s just a bit too easy to forget.  There’s little wrong with any of it… there just wasn’t much that really caught my interest.  There’s a lot of introspective, very similar feeling songs that don’t particularly go anywhere.  Slightly jazzy middle-of-the-road singer songwriter material.  It’s the kind of stuff that a writer needs to get out of their system so they can get on and write the good stuff.  One of those songs, maybe even two, would be absolutely fine.  As it is, they just blended together.  I had high hopes for the cover of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”.  It’s well sung.  It’s well produced.  It’s something I’m sure I’d enjoy if I heard it performed live… but it didn’t make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up in the way I might have hoped.  If this were a single, or possibly an EP, it could have been a triumph.  Carol Fieldhouse has proved herself more than capable with this debut and to that extent we’re looking forward to the 2017 project ‘Hill’, if she can capture some of the quality she achieved with Billy Marshall and A Little Piece of Land it’ll be a project well worth taking note of.

Chris Wood – So Much to Defend | Album Review | RUF | Review by Marc Higgins | 01.03.17

William Blake, in the oft quoted opening verse of “To See a World” talks about taking the time to look at, and find the sublime in the small and ordinary.  “To see a world in a grain of sand and Heaven in a wildflower” Philip Larkin, grumbling poet, had the gift of being even to mine through the ordinary to find the extra ordinary and that is very much what it feels like Chris Wood is doing here.  The delicately picked and strummed acoustic of tracks like “The Cottager’s Reply” or “Come Down Jehovah” from 2007’s Trespasser, via rawer tracks like Hollow Point from 2009 has evolved or mutated.  Chris himself talks about a musical journey in the notes of None the Wiser from 2013 and his love affair with an Epiphone guitar and the Hammond Organ.  None the Wiser to these ears is the transition album, the imagery in the lyrics shifts to more contemporary and the sound becomes more electric and soulful.  That deliberate disconnect where dark lyrics are wrapped in beautiful folky acoustic guitar, to a degree falls away.  Wood’s website describes that album as the sound of a pub band singing the hymns and anthems of a disaffected people.  It is this spirit that 2017’s So Much to Defend bubbles with.  It’s the modern folk song of Billy Bragg.  But, like Bragg So Much to Defend is never a bleak listen, Chris Wood’s soulful and real voice is warm and comforting, adding to the lyrics warm glow.  The title track opens the album with a simple guitar and percussion backing and a rich stream of consciousness lyric.  A number of short stories beautifully intertwine as we peek into a set of unfolding lives.  Like Blake, Wood looks hard at the ordinary and in 21st Century Britain’s adversity finds beauty.  Words flow and his mastery is such that it feels effortless and without artifice.  In every life, Wood shows that despite difficulty, there are beautiful moments and there is always something to defend.  First world problems, popular culture references even nursery rhymes catch Wood’s eye or ear and are woven into what is a future folk song.  Chris Wood’s Art School teacher criticised him as having “a remarkable eye for trivia”.  Their loss is very much our gain, under the singer’s gaze nothing is trivial, rather his songs are shot through with poignant detail that makes their stories real.  “This Love Won’t Let You Fail” is a love song for those leaving home and the parents watching them wobble off with life’s training wheels still attached.  It is shot with an aching soulfulness that is Curtis Mayfield singing Joni Mitchell’s Hejira.  Underpinning it all, under the observational narrative, is a parents’ love and a heavenly Hammond Organ.  “Only a Friendly” is another love story, the love for the familiar and the real.  Chris Wood observes ordinary life sharply with a Shakespearean sense of the larger than life and a touch of Tom Sharpe’s bawdiness.  The clipped electric guitar is joined by a banjo and wry poetry ensues.  Agriculturally a Flail is a tool for separating grain and husk, wheat and chaff and body and flesh as a gladiatorial weapon.  Here in “The Flail”, a brutal little ditty, it’s a metaphor for brutal indiscriminate change as ordinary people are thrown about and cast aside.  This theme continues in “1887”.  The track is a setting to music of one of AE Housman’s Shropshire Lad poems.  1887 was the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria.  Here Wood wryly demonstrates that it’s the ordinary individuals, through faceless sacrifice who save the Queen.  “Strange Cadence” is built around a hypnotic looping guitar riff and a mournful flugelhorn that is pure Jon Hassell along with “The Shallow End” it deals with our ability to delude ourselves, to be dazzled and distracted from the important issues.  Like “So Much to Defend”, “This Love Won’t Let You Fail” and “Only a Friendly” Wood uses his observation of the small details as a way of pulling back the camera and reveal the big issues in a way that is powerful and engaging.  In “More Fool Me” the joke is very much on Chris Wood as he documents the end of the traditional music business and with it the life of the gigging troubadour.  This is the way the world of the musician ends, not with a bang but with a wry smile and a sea of raised camera phones watching the performance for the audience.  “You May Stand Mute” is a song originally written in 2009 to mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publishing of Origin of Species.  Time has twisted the lyrics slightly some of the Darwin references are gone and fossil shells have become phosphor shells and human bombs as contemporary Chris Wood poignantly ponders faith how it connects and divides.  So Much to Defend is an album that tackles difficult issues and difficult times head on, but Chris Wood’s skill as a lyricist and ear for detail and his sometimes cracked but always warm and compelling vocal means we are enlightened and we are lifted rather than lectured and left down.  As the intertwined stories of the title track show it’s a question of perspective whether you fix on the light or the shade.  The graphic cover showing half a tug of war makes it very clear that we are not alone, that we are many that we are pulling together, demonstrating that there is so much to defend and a will to defend it.  An excellent contemporary album, latest in a long line of excellent albums from a man who may only now be hitting his stride.  There is so much here to recommend.

Jim Lauderdale – London Southern | Album Review | Proper | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 03.03.17

There’s something of the ‘elder statesman’ about Jim Lauderdale as he poses for the cover portrait of his latest album release; part George Jones, part Townes Van Zandt, part Willie Nelson, but pretty much totally Jim Lauderdale.  The lines on his tanned face indicate a life lived, lessons learned, songs sung and the battered guitar featured in the centre spread photo of the accompanying booklet also shows signs of a road well-travelled.  Fresh from his recent appearances with the Transatlantic Sessions, Lauderdale has been busy making new friends on the Celtic Connections scene, and not before time too.  The classy arrangements here, particularly on the tender “I Love You More” demonstrates that Lauderdale seems equally at home as a lounge crooner as a guitar-wielding Saturday night cowboy down the local juke joint, as exemplified on the album closer “This is the Door”.  For the sheer soulfulness of Lauderdale’s rich-in-emotion vocal prowess, look no further than the Muscle Shoals-drenched “Different Kind of Groove Some Time”, co-written with John Oates and recorded a fair distance from the Deep South of America.  As the title suggests, the album was recorded in London with Nick Lowe’s circle of pals very much involved, with Neil Brockbank and Robert Trehern producing.  A fine addition to an already highly prolific catalogue.

Coven – Unholy Choir | EP Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 04.03.17

This time last year, O’Hooley and Tidow, Lady Maisery and Grace Petrie gathered together as a collective under the guise of ‘Coven’ in order to tour a selection of songs the six women had worked on during the previous year.  One year on and the busy singers and musicians, namely Belinda O’Hooley, Heidi Tidow, Hazel Askew, Hannah James, Rowan Rheingans and Grace Petrie, have gathered their collective potions, encircled the cauldron and set about organising a second tour and also recorded and released their debut EP just in time for it.  The Unholy Choir EP features six songs, including a couple of originals, together with some tastefully selected covers, including Kate Bush’s gorgeous “This Woman’s Work”, which is treated to a fine uplifting vocal arrangement, and Maggie Roche’s equally emotion-driven “Quitting Time”, this being possibly the first Roche cover since the singer’s untimely death last month.  Originally formed to celebrate International Women’s Day, Coven have begun to make their mark on the folk/acoustic music scene, not only for their musical credentials but also for their commitment to social issues.  Any song that opens with the words Dick and Gaughan in a row is a sure fire winner and Grace Petrie’s anthem “If There’s a Fire in Your Heart” does precisely that and lives up to our expectations of it.  One familiar song, intimately known and loved by any discerning O’Hooley and Tidow fan, would be the opening song “Coil and Spring”, from which the EP title derives, centred around Pussy Riot’s celebrated protest against the Russian Orthodox Church.  Co-written by Belinda, Heidi and Boff Whalley and originally heard on the duo’s 2014 album The Hum, the song here takes full advantage of the collective’s collaborative voices.  However good the songs sound on this EP, there’s a distinct sense that they’re all aching to be performed live, and some of us are aching to hear them.

Various Artists – Terraforming in Analogue Space | Album Review | Independent Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 06.03.17

This double CD works in a number of ways.  To look at it in reverse order, its second disc, the original tracks, acts as a killer compilation of tracks originally released by the IRL.  While the first disc, the remixes is part exploration of a shared musical language and for the uninitiated part mix of the known and the unknown.  While it’s the disc of original tracks I return to most frequently, both discs alone offer plenty of rewards and reasons to listen again.  However together they are something truly special.  By their nature it seems logical to start at the beginning, so the second disc of original tracks opens with Tinariwen “Oualahila Ar Tesninam” a track off their 2004 album Amassakoul.  Tinariwen are a group of Tuareg musicians from the northern Sahara region of Mali.  Their blend of furious percussive hand claps, call and response vocals and a dirtier version of the endlessly looping Malian blues guitar is always compelling.  From music named after the desert we get “Desert Road” from Justin Adams.  Adams, having played with Jah Wobble and Robert Plant and been heavily influenced by Arabic music, is a maverick, musically nomadic, player.  His rolling guitar is a beautiful counterpoint to Tinariwen.  Adams’ 2000 album Desert Road is an absolute classic if you like layered mood music you can fall into.  Had Mike Oldfield had recorded Tubular Bells in Bamako, Mali, rather than rural Oxfordshire, it might have sounded like this.  Here the Justin Adams track functions as a pause between two infectious upbeat tracks that it’s impossible not to move to.  Third track is Adams paired with Juldeh Camara, a Gambian Griot, musician and storyteller.  “Ngamen” is a duet between Adams’ primal blues slide and Camara’s plucked or bowed one string fiddle, the Nyanyero, with a superb vocal over the top.  So far so perfect.  Terakaft (Caravan) are another Malian Tuareg band with rolling guitar lines, glorious vocals and some treacherous rhythms.  The mood shifts with some rawer tracks, blind South Sudanese singer General Paolino has a voice that I’d defy you not be moved by, but there is a grittiness and an edge.  His voice is not gymnastic but it is real and affecting.  “Paolino” blends perfectly into the street music of Malawi Mouse Boys.  MMB were roadside fast food sellers, peddling mouse kebabs to passing traffic in Malawi.  Their music, group vocals behind a lead singer, like African Doo wop, is backed with percussion and a strummed guitar.  Like “Paolino”, it is raw, with rough edges, but it has power because of, not despite those edges.  Written between sales and presumably to drum up sales, MMBs music is compelling, proof that, as Si Kahn says “It’s not just what you’re born with, it’s what you do with what you’ve got”.  Imed Alibi’s “Maknassy”, is a bigger production, its guitar from producer Justin Adams, weaves it back into what has gone before and Tunisian singer Emel Mathouthi’s vocals are worth the price of the album on their own.  She cuts loose over Adams’ guitar and you are transported.  Lo’ Jo are a France based band.  Their tracks “Sur Des Carnets Nus” and “Yalaki” are taken from 2009’s Cosmophono.  The Lo’ Jo sound atmospherically mixes the feel of a circus band, French chanson and North African music with some fiendish production.  It is all atmosphere and utterly beguiling.  Xaos features Dubulah a key character in IRL’s history.  Dubulah or Nick Page was a founder member of the dark World Dance band Transglobal Underground and Dub Colossus the ethio/UK fusion band.  Like “Desert Road” Xaos’ “Pindos Full Moon” and “Processional” are interludes between toe tappers.  A mix of Greek electronic musician and composer Ahetas Jimi and traditional musicians.  It is ambient, timeless music, designed to reset your soul and is quite beautiful.  Dub Colossus’ “A Voice Has Power” places a spry reggae dub rhythm behind one of those, ‘diaphragm shaking’ low vocals that Transglobal Underground delighted in. Dub Colossus’ album Addis to Omega, is a set of dub styled tracks featuring Dubulah, Justin Adams and others.  It is fusion music at its best and well worth further exploration if you haven’t already.  Acholi Machon are a Ugandan band and mix thumb piano percussive lines with call and response vocals that hark back to Tinariwen and the Malawi Mouse Boys.  That the second disc stands alone and is a triumph of sequencing, blending into a seamless musical road trip is a testament to IRL’ ears and vision.  The album is a successful attempt to kick down musical doors and barriers to listening.  The first CD gets to people, via the remix and the dancefloor, the second disc is a more contemplative listen and compels you to search out the original albums.  This is an excellent album, but only buy this if you are prepared for it to cost you a fortune, leading you to the eleven parent albums and the back catalogues of eleven amazing acts.  Like all the very best compilations, stretching back to those seductive 60s cheapies like Island’s You Can All Join In, lock up the plastic, this is going to get expensive.  The remix CD opens with Transglobal Underground’s rework of Tinariwen.  The percussion that opens the original track is king, the call and response vocals and raw guitar when they come in later are back in the mix and an element rather than attention grabbing.  Despite treatment, wherever you put it, that Tuareg guitar still grabs you and the track works well.  This track like the Dhol Foundation remix of “Ndinasangalala” smooths some of distinctive rough edges out to make something smoother, something more pop.  Although the rich drum sounds of the Dhol Foundation are always interesting, this track does contain one of the collections few hiccups where the over-laid huge drums rather clash with the original vocal tracks.  Dub Colossus’ mix of Justin Adams’ “Desert Road” bends the original.  The guitar sounds part Brian Eno’s “Desert Guitars” from Another Green World and part Justin Adams North African Saharan guitar.  The Radar Station mix of “Ngamen” by Adams and “Camara” is very funky with some wonderfully lofi dub keyboard squiggles and an incredible guitar break in the track where we are back in an early 70s psychedelic wig out.  It is wonderful for all that, re-mix and original elements blend perfectly.  On the Afriquoi remix of “Terakraft” all that remains of the original track is the vocal, around which new beats and rhythms are wrapped.  Where the Radar Station mix of “Ngaman” is sympathetic. The Afriquoi and the Lunar Drive mix of General Paolino, are radically different.  Little of their original feel remains, the original tracks are treated as textures, but the resulting music is still very much worth a listen.  There is still something glorious about hearing General Paolino’s vocal spinning over crossing electronic rhythms.  The Dalek Romeo mix of “Manja” starts strongly, the frantic energy of the vocals is intensified by the electronics, and the original rhythms are built into the new electronics.  However the middle section by comparison, sounds worryingly like 80s Tangerine Dream, but it works well when the MMB vocals return.  Like the Adams and “Camara” Radio Station mix, something both sympathetic and new and exciting is made.  The Echodek mix of “Maknassy” gives you more of Emel Mathouthi’s vocals which is a treat, but the heavy rhythm, at times un-wielding against the slippery subtly of the vocal represents to these ears another rare mismatch.  The Syriana mix of Lo’ Jo’s “Sur Des Carnets Nus” is dark and edgy.  Strange vocals, a great jazz double bass, endless atmosphere shortwave radio vocals, it’s as if David Lynch’s Twin Peaks soundtrack, decamped to North Africa.  This is glorious, the soundtrack to a hallucinatory fever dream.  The TJ  Rhemi mix of  Xaos “Pindos Full Moon” and Insentisi mix of Dub Colossus. “A Voice Has More Power” retain the textures of the original tracks while layering in a beat.  Penguin Café Orchestra’s mix of Acholi Machon’s “Convoy” is another left field joy.  The rhythm is drawn out of the original mix and a very Penguin Café Orchestra strings part winds around the vocal.  Bernard O’Neill’s mix of Lo’Jo’s Carnet US Vatican Radio is an ambient mash up, like The Orb at its finest and a beat free surprising closer.  Across the double album, this is an intriguing set.  Part celebratory retrospective of key tracks arranged and sequenced with a masterly touch. Part wide ranging remix project with different artists mining for what Dubulah calls 21st Century soul.  Either way, the exposure is deserved and the listening journey is always interesting and represents time well spent.  Like any journey some of it is ultimately more memorable than other parts, but anything that gets us listening harder and wider can only be a good thing.  In these shifting times of uncertainty, this double CD set is a strong reminder that below superficial and irrelevant differences our similarities and common languages of music and emotion run deep and ultimately bind all of us together.  Credit and respect to IRL for consistently delivering and for such a sympathetic set that rewards and surprises.

The Most Ugly Child – Copper and Lace | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 10.03.17

You don’t expect authentic, shit-kicking Honky Tonk to come out of Nottingham, but once the raw and lively “What Might Have Been” and “Golden Gate” have opened Copper and Lace, it becomes pretty clear that The Most Ugly Child have a tighter grip on Americana than some of their US contemporaries.  Led by the vocals of Daniel Wright and Stevie-Leigh Goodison and featuring some delightful fiddle from Nicole J. Terry, Copper and Lace recalls the golden age of bar room country whilst spilling over, occasionally, into the realm of chugging folk rock “Lungs” and the heartfelt storytelling of Steve Earle and family “Roses”, “Queen of the Honky Tonk”.  The whole package is held together tightly via Matt Cutler and Max Johnson’s impressive rhythm section and varnished with some spine-tingling pedal steel from Big Jim Widdop.  Whilst there’s a lot to like about the shimmering musicianship on this impressive release – the band’s first full-length album since forming in 2012 – it is, perhaps, the sweet interplay of vocals from Wright and Goodison that gives Copper and Lace its enduring appeal.  Fragile, often to the point of risking dissonance, these are the kind of vocals that insist on pulling us in closer, and by the final track on the album, the quietly sublime “My Pony”, you can’t help but press play again.

The Hut People – Routes | Album Review | Fellside | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 10.03.17

There’s always a sense of having been somewhere when the needle has lifted on the latest album from The Hut People.  Take Home is Where the Hut is, the duo’s first studio album, which presented an exploration of global folk rhythms, and Picnic, their 2012 release, which was nothing short of a transcontinental journey.  With Routes, the newly released twelve-track album from accordionist Sam Pirt and percussionist Gary Hammond, we join the boys again for a traverse across the landscapes.  From Whitby to Belgium, Brighton to Sweden and as far as South Africa and Canada, Routes delivers another set of infectious tunes from a duo that seemingly never rests.  Pirt’s accordion has you gasping for breath during such intricate tunes as “The Humours of Tulla” and the quirky “Maid’s Stomach” whilst Hammond’s ever inventive shakes, clangs, bangs and boings fire an exceptionally adventurous and indefatigable engine.

The Fretless – Bird’s Nest | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 11.03.17

To spend thirty-five minutes ear-deep in the music of The Fretless is to know the fickle rhythms of instrumental folk music’s stirring undercurrent.  Bird’s Nest, the Canadian string quartet’s third outing, is a restless record whose energetic rhythms carry tufts of intricate arrangements, pleasing melodies and broad chunks of emotive chords swiftly along its winding stream.  Original compositions such as Eric Wright’s “Hidden View”, Karrnnel Sawitsky’s “Ronim Road” and Trent Freeman’s “Jig of the Blood Moon” showcase the nimble elbows of the quartet’s three fiddle and viola players whilst Wright’s masterful cello keeps each piece blustering wilfully along.  And just when you’ve got a foothold on the strutting rhythms, there are moments of painterly quietness, as with Ivonne Hernandez’s “Jig Jog”, when Wright’s cello leads the rest of the quartet into a smeared, tranquil landscape of sneering strings.  Much of the nine-track album is dedicated to the band’s beautifully woven originals but a few well-chosen traditional tunes have been thrown in for good measure, such as the pensive title track and dust-flinging renditions of “Maybe Molly” and “Maids of Castlebar”.  Thanks to the speckless production of Joby Baker and The Fretless, every strand of hair on string is preserved for what is a rather stunning, textured and altogether delightful album.

Son of the Velvet Rat – Dorado | Album Review | Fluff and Gravy Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 14.03.17

Georg Altziebler and Heike Binder have created a work of sprawling, melancholy beauty with Dorado that is, at once, a dusty landscape painting and a gritty dime store paperback.  Consider “Cooper Hill”, a song that blends inspirations from the likes of Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle and Tom Russell but shimmers most brightly with Georg’s original song writing and knack for spine-tingling chord changes.  “Blood Red Shoes”, featuring backing vocals from American singer songwriter Victoria Williams, may be Leonard Cohen-esque but there’s an infectious freshness in Georg’s emotive vocal, albeit delightfully cracked and weather-worn, that makes the song shine.  And whilst much of the album is dedicated to sun-dried, sand-covered songs that play like short flickering films, there comes the occasional glistening oasis such as the upbeat “Surfer Joe” with its punchy percussion and zesty guitar riffs.  It’s no surprise that this husband and wife team, who go by the intriguing name of Son of the Velvet Rat, have upped and left their native Austria to set up home in Joshua Tree.  The American landscape has clearly deposited plenty of grit in their bloodstreams.  Whilst Dorado showcases the superlative song writing talents of Georg Altziebler, it also features some fine playing from organist, accordionist and vocalist Heike Binder, pianist Patrick Warren, bassist David Piltch, guitarist Adam Levy and drummer Jay Bellerose, as well as guest appearances by such artists as fiddler Bob Furgo and guitarist Gar Robertson.

Neil McSweeney – A Coat Worth Wearing | LP Review | Hudson Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 17.03.17

Atmospheric throughout, Neil McSweeney’s latest release, his fourth full-length album to date, requires some immediate attention.  The Andy Bell produced album features nine self-penned songs, each crafted with considerable care and each treated to some slick production.  Often improvisational musical trinkets tend to jar but not here; everything seems so naturally placed and technical wizardry is treated with a good deal of imaginative flair.  In places the Sheffield-based singer-songwriter wears his influences well, whether Tom Waits “Forlorn Hope” or Nick Cave “The Call”, the voice demonstrates versatility throughout.  The guest musicians are well aware that the bar has been set high and each is prepared to jump.  Ben Nicholl’s double bass brings to the party a domineering confidence, whilst Emily Portman and Lucy Farrell’s distinctive voices can be heard throughout the album as well, notably on the haunting chorus of “Waving Not Drowning”, a title paraphrased from poet Stevie Smith’s celebrated poem, and in a way helps to adhere to the song’s ethereal feel.  On “Night Watchman”, we find McSweeney at his most intimate, with a voice as close to your ear as possibly imaginable, a simple unobtrusive guitar accompaniment somewhere in the background refusing to get in the way of the delicate vocal communication.  This is perhaps how all of Neil McSweeney’s songs should sound, sparse, intimate, gentle and deeply personal, but then we would be deprived of his adventurous spirit on some of the harder edged songs.  The album closer is a veritable buffalo stampede of a performance, with the band stretching out into Bad Seeds territory once again; a genuinely exciting climax to what is for all intents and purposes, a great contemporary album that will no doubt make its mark.

Ashley Henry – Ashley Henry’s 5ive | Album Review | Jazz Re:freshed | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 18.03.17

With a forceful piano style that blends the heady intensity of Robert Glasper with the ruminative explorations of Jason Moran, Ashley Henry presents a collection of five compositions that formerly herald the arrival of Britain’s latest young jazz sensation.  A recent graduate of the Leeds College of Music and Royal Academy of Music, 24 year old Henry has already begun carving an impressive niche.  Indeed, the release of this constantly inventive and seductive five-track record coincides with Henry’s nomination for Breakthrough Act of the Year at the Jazz FM Awards 2017 which will be held on April 25th.  Beginning with the invigorating “Deja Vu”, which showcases Henry’s energetic yet meditative playing, Ashley Henry’s 5ive boasts four original compositions including the scintillating “St Anne’s” and studiously groovy “Altruism” which, along with the angular contemplations of “Deimos”, demonstrate a deep affinity for hip hop without abandoning the realm of sublime acoustic jazz.  The decision to include a stunning rendering of “Monk’s Dream” not only demonstrates Henry’s good taste but also his ambition.  Indeed, Henry’s solo opening of this well-known Thelonious Monk composition furnishes the album with its most arresting moment.  Henry is joined by the tight rhythms of bassist Sam Vicary and drummer Sam Gardner and benefits from the punctilious production of Paul and Mat Clark.

Jenn and Laura-Beth – Bound | Album Review |JBLB Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 21.03.17

Jenn Butterworth (Anna Massie Band, Songs of Separation) and Laura-Beth Salter (The Shee, The MacLean Project) unite for a rather delightful slice of British Americana for an album’s worth of gentle country-inflected songs and sore-finger styled instrumentals, each musician handling their guitar and mandolin credentials with some deal of authority.  The two musicians, having met and worked extensively together on the thriving Glasgow folk music scene, have developed a deep understanding of American music, which mixed with other global influences, not least material from their own respective English and Scottish musical heritage, makes for something of a universal appeal.  Songs such as Kate Wolf’s “Across the Great Divide” and Mindy Smith’s gospel-tinged “Come to Jesus”, work exceptionally well, especially when augmented by some of Laura-Beth’s stunning mandolin playing and Jenn’s informed flat-picked guitar, such as on “Shine”, “1234” and “Apple at the Crossroads”.  Sore fingers indeed.

The Rachel Hamer Band – Hard Ground | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Sheila Trow | 21.03.17

Hard Ground is rooted in the social history of the region and is delivered by a band with a considerable understanding of historical legacy and its social and political influences.  Here we have a fresh and contemporary, yet ultimately respectful approach to many traditional songs.  A four piece delivering a unique blend of voice, guitar, fiddle, and flute.  Appropriately, given the funding from the Graeme Miles Bursary Hard Ground opens with the lyrically brilliant “Blue Sunset”, and the word painting begins…”and the grime from the tall factory chimney’s turns orange, violet and gray”.  Here Graeme Armstrong’s guitar playing begins to shine, Sam Partridge’s flute weaves its magic in beautiful harmony with Grace Smith’s violin and Rachel’s voice.  The arrangements are simply stunning, and continue to reveal, further vocal nuances alongside layers of rhythm and instrumentation, on repeated listening.  Immediately apparent is the harmony formed between Rachel’s voice, Sam Partridge’s flute and Grace Smith’s violin.  The ‘vocal’ harmony work is minimal, yet beautifully crafted and punctuated by meticulous unison singing on Jean Ritchie’s “West Virginia”, and Andy Dutfield’s “Will Jobling”.  The band’s captivating arrangement of Ewan MacColl’s “School Days Over” with its opening of acoustic guitar and voice, its finale of contrapuntal voices and a flute which floats seemingly effortlessly above it all, is remarkable.  Where vocal harmony appears on tracks such as Rachel Hamer’s “Bevin Boys”, Billy Ed Wheeler’s “Red Winged Blackbird”, and in the latter part of Jim Molyneux’s “The Digging Song”, it is subtle and entirely complimentary.  Rachel’s voice has an inherent depth and pathos entirely suitable for the subject matter.  Her clear diction results in vivid storytelling, which transports us into the world of the protagonists and ultimately reveals the weight and influence of our historical past.  Hard Ground is a tour de force in its genre, a coherent album in terms of subject matter and style, and one that continues to keep on giving.

Ann Duggan – Dust Upon the Wind | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 22.03.17

By sheer coincidence, I listened to Ann Duggan’s latest album release whilst sitting on a bench at Hull Paragon Interchange, coffee in hand, waiting for the next train bound for the equally alluring town of Doncaster.  As the jingle-jangle of Rob Hines’ guitar opens the first song, I’m amused by the opening lines of “Dust Upon the Wind”, ‘Saw you today, you missed your last train home, You were sitting in the station, drinking coffee on your own..’, it seemed almost poetic that this album would form the soundtrack of my short journey home, with Ann Duggan’s voice effectively commentating on just another day via the lyrics of long-time collaborator Colin Granger.  By Hessel station, as the late afternoon sun set upon the glistening Humber, its imposing suspension bridge towering above the Northern landscape, “Reflections” whispered the optimism of a brighter future after a messy break-up, with the suggestion that there is indeed more fruit on the vine.  Looking out of a carriage window as the train moved forward seemed to suggest a poignant metaphor.  Throughout the album, Ann Duggan traverses the ups and downs of relationships, from a bitter break-up to the reassurance of a brighter future with “Every Step of the Way”, where one protagonist commits to an unbreakable bond with the other.  By Goole, the drama continues through a bluesy “Hurricane”, whilst being transported from the ebbing of an ordinary day in the industrial North of England to the luminescence of a “Carolina Moon”.  “Been Here Before” continues to audibly shape my own situation as ‘Sitting beside the railroad track, Memories of you come flooding back, Waiting for the train to bring you home’ sang in my ear, almost as a lullaby, whilst also reflecting on the bleak faces of those waiting around on the platform as their day likewise awaits the onset of dusk.  My journey almost done, just as the doors of Thorne North’s information office are being locked up for the night, the Country influenced “Songs to Cure the Blues” recalls the many towns, many stations, many miles travelled thus far.  Pulling out of Hatfield and Stainforth station, the CD drew to its close with the appropriate “When the Day is Gone”, which for this reviewer, practically summed up the close of an ordinary spring day.

Emily Maguire – A Bit of Blue | Album Review | Shaktu Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 22.03.17

Emily Maguire is a British born singer songwriter and this is her fifth release and her first after a three-year break.  Maguire a classically trained musician was out of action for two years, suffering from chronic tendonitis.  Unable to play a bout of depression followed. Emily is the first to acknowledge that this album came from a dark time in her life, but recognises in the song “I’d Rather Be” that light often comes out of or with dark.  The album is more stripped back than her earlier albums, but X Factor producer Nigel Butler works with Emily’s soulful songs and in terms of emotional intensity less is definitely more.  Emily’s voice over the keyboards and subtle orchestration on the opening track is captivating, there are no histrionics or gymnastics, just a warm voice that draws you in and holds your attention.  The emotion rises on the short chorus and the albums first mention of the blue lyrical motif.  This is classic intelligent 70s singer songwriter territory, recalling piano led ballads by Judie Tsuke or Carole King.  Emotionally intense with a simple arrangement.  “Getting Older” places the intimate vocal against a gently picked guitar.  Again, Emily Maguire’s vocal and her delivery of an emotive lyric, a personal narrative laid bare, draws you in and holds you tight.  The title song is plaintive, but ultimately upbeat showing how difficulties can colour life in a positive way.  “For Free” is more outward looking as Maguire considers the natural world and its freedom against the seductive but shallow freedoms of our online line selves.  “It’s Alright” is a song of love gone cold, as over some anthemic piano chords, Emily lays herself bare.  Like so many of the songs, this is a beautiful lyric with some sharp word play and a powerful vocal.  “Now Somehow” is an album highlight, a torch song, a jazz standard in the making.  Beautiful playing, an earworm melody, broad themed lyrics and a crystalline vocal make this a perfect moment.  This should be picked up by a moody TV thriller, its brooding atmosphere are crying out for a melancholic Wallandar or a Broadchurch.  “The Banks of the Acheron” is an achingly beautiful folk song, a dark portrait of a miscarriage.  “The Words That I Could I Say” is another love gone cold song, written, like “It’s Alright”, when a head full of thoughts keeps you awake, but this time the songwriter is frozen by circumstance and less decisive.  “Stone and Sky” is a ghost story, a starting point for a Neil Gaiman tale, and a metaphor for people frozen by circumstances, unable to go forwards or back.  Like “Wish You Were Here”, “I’d Rather Be” is a song that weighs out metaphors, similar, but less gnomic than Simon and Garfunkel’s “El Condor Pasa”, it is a song of conclusions and resolutions after an album of reflection and examination.  It’s a brave soul who takes on “Who Knows Where the Time Goes”, Sandy Denny’s anthemic pondering of passing time and it’s an indication of Emily Macguire’s quiet power that she makes it her own on this hymn like album closer.  This is a brave and powerful album, a perfect example of a songwriter deciding we need to see it all, raw and real, not auto-tuned and homogenised.  True to herself, having sung of taking the highs and lows over hiding in a narrow mind, Emily gives it to us straight, giving us an album of performances that have intensity and integrity.  It cannot be coincidence that the title, the cover and its stripped back, paired back nature recalls Joni Mitchell’s Blue, an intense album of relationships under the microscope songs.​

Oka Vanga – Dance of the Copper Trail | Album Review | Crazy Bird Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 22.03.17

It’s quite refreshing to hear songs treated to such sumptuous arrangements as those provided by husband and wife team Angela Meyer and William Cox, otherwise known as Oka Vanga, on this the duo’s second album following the success of their award-winning 2014 debut instrumental release Pilgrim.  Joining continents, the Cape Town-born singer, mandolin, ukulele and guitar player Angie and London-based singer guitarist Will are joined by musician friends Patsy Reid on fiddle, Oliver Copeland on double bass and Mark Tucker on percussion, who together create a gentle and effectively soothing acoustic sound throughout.  The eleven songs and tunes on Dance of the Copper Trail, clearly mark the duo’s rightful place on the contemporary folk scene, with a selection of both self-penned and traditional songs, including a sublime reading of “She Moved Through the Fair”, a showcase for Angie’s remarkable – and distinctively her own – voice.  Once Angie’s voice seeps into your psyche, you will scratch your head in confusion and no doubt question why the duo’s previous album was instrumental only.  If there’s some inherent magic to be found in the fabric of the opening song, “The Wicken Tree”, then that magic is echoed in Angie’s earthy, spell-binding and utterly convincing voice.  The same goes for “Ashes to the Wind” and “The Devil’ Tide”, both of which showcase the duo’s flair for empathetic musical interaction, whilst the lilting Capercaillie provides the album with one of its most uplifting moments, helped in no small part by Patsy Reid’s skittering fiddle performance.  This really is a superb album and one which will hang around on the player long after the plaudits have been bestowed.

Gary Innes – ERA | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 23.03.17

Highland born accordionist Gary Innes is a founder member of the force that is award winning Celtic band Manran.  Since his first solo album How’s the Craic in 2005, Gary has released a multiple collaborative albums with Breabach’ Ewan Robertson, accordion band Box Club and played on three albums with Manran.  This sense of musical restlessness and breadth of influences is typical of this his second album.  Its strength comes in part from the busy twelve years since his last album of his own material.  At times this album feels like flicking through a diary, well-thumbed photo album, or rooting through an old desk.  Gary Innes’ own notes explain and expand on some wonderfully esoteric song and tune titles.  Part of the album’s charm and interest comes from the stories behind the music and his inspirations.  What raises ERA beyond the mundane is the fact that behind some quirky titles lies music that is often atmospheric, stirring and genuinely uplifting.  Light and shade rather than just thumping dance music.  Opening set of tunes set up the album nicely, spry and lively playing.  An interesting time signature leads to a swirling dance set.  “The Road to Lochabar” slows right down and is positively cinematic, it is that evocative, with a rising swell of vocals, pipes and flute.  “The Caman Man”, against a long history of football songs is a folky ode to shinty.  The song being written after Gary Innes’ retirement from playing. There is a strong sense of geographical place and a place in time to this album.  The previous tune was inspired by the drive back to his home and “The Caman Man” is grounded by Robert Robertson’s local Lochabar accent.  Songs about a Scottish sport are admittedly a bit niche, but it flows from the beautiful previous track and its uplifting lyric easily encompasses more than the game Innes was writing about.  “May Life Always Be Peachy” is one of those moments where the music has an emotional depth and a cinematic quality that goes far beyond anything its name might suggest.  At times suggesting “Both Sides the Tweed”, it is on this and other slower tracks where Innes; power as a player and a composer bursts out of the speakers and demands your attention.  Similarly “The Highland Obama”.  It’s almost as if the wry titles are a self-deprecating attempt to downplay the intensity and inventiveness of the music, defuse any muso pretention.  A kind of Celtic, Spinal Tap ‘lick my love pump’ moment.  Titles aside, turn it up, close your eyes and be prepared to be transported on sensitive and inventive music played with mastery.  Siobhan Miller’s perfectly phrased vocal on “Zara”, Scottish Soul, just deepens rather than breaks the mood.  Mention must be made for moments, like between the verses on “Zara”, where Pipes and guitar are layered and sculpted while Steve Byrne’s drums are an exercise in understatement, accenting the rhythm.  “Grace and Pride” as a sentiment sums up what is captivating about this album, graceful playing, a lightness of touch and the pride of a man looking at a part of world he knows well and letting us into his life.  As a song it is another strong emotive vocal, some musical twists and turns and a heartfelt lyric.  “Our Heroes” is a real lump in the throat moment.  Duncan McGillivray plays a stirring air on a set of bagpipes played at the Battle of Festubert in 1915, while around him a folky big band build a bewitching atmosphere.  A charity single with all money raised going to Scotland’s veteran charity, Erskine.  A powerful end to a fine album.  Gary Innes is very much up there with master players like Donal Lunny and Davy Spillane equally at home with the fast the furious and the smoky and brooding.  Not to suggest that being a member of the excellent Manran and his many collaborative projects aren’t also perfect moments, but let’s hope it isn’t another 12 years till album number three.

Old Blind Dogs – Room with a View | Album Review | OBD Music | Review by Marc Higgins | 25.03.17

From first sight of the digi-pack sleeve this is clearly a considered album.  A sense of timelessness and a sense of place seeps though everything.  There is a playfulness through the presentation of the album, did the title suggest the sleeve or did the sleeve suggest the title, either way it works.  A postcard from a magical and musical place.  The landscape, the surreal sense of ancient but modern, the prog rock album cover juxtaposition of the parlour chairs, the hearth and the heather, the little touches of humour, the whisky label lettering and the weathered feel it all works together, like a cypher the clues are there, you know what it is before you play it and it does not disappoint.  With nine tracks it might at first feel like a short album, an afterthought.  But the tracks are slow builders, given time to breathe and mature, like a fine single malt.  Part way through a track the walls melt, the front room fades away, till all that remains, like the Cheshire Cat’s grin, is the hearth and your arm chair.  Suddenly you are sat in that landscape with the music blowing through the gorse.  Track one is nearly six minutes of slowly building Celtic Music, but it is twisted by the band’s recent American travels with some decidedly Appalachian fiddle playing.  “A Ring on Her Hand opens with a beautiful bubbling sound, sampled pipes? treated whistles?, think interlude from Terry Riley.  The whole track is a perfect blend of vocals and layered guitar an understated rhythm with some heavenly pipe playing.  “Newe” is an exercise in restraint.  Pipes and whistles swirl, with all the breaths and burrs of the player punctuating the tune over another masterfully understated delicate rhythm.  The intensity and pace of the playing builds through the track, ending in a gloriously furious fiddle part.  This music gets in your synapses like wind in the wires and before you know it your feet and fingers are not your own.  There is a wonderful sense of space around the guitar part in “The Earl O March’s Daughter.  Like John Renbourn’s playing, it’s the air between as much as the notes themselves.  Old Blind Dogs have a wonderful way to subtly layer vocals, that is used to great effect to accent and emphasise on this track and on “Warlike Lads of Russia” and “A Ring on Her Hand”.  It’s not showy virtuosity, it always serves the song and the atmosphere, but it is quietly perfect, a smoothly blended whole.  “Sawney Bean” is another hybrid, infectious traditional music, but the staccato guitar and rhythms recalls riding the rails across an endless Mid West prairie.  “Gavottes Des Montagnes” features a gloriously dark phased acid folk fiddle, a brooding intro to a captivating pipes and fiddle duet.  Again to these ears the pipes drift towards becoming bubbling electronic keyboards, illustrating that fine music has no boundaries.  The final set of tunes “Died and Gone” starts slowly with layers of plucked strings, fiddle and pipes, it all feels effortless, but like a zen brush painting everything is in the right place.  Again like “Newe” the tempo and intensity builds, pauses in the playing like gear changes.  You know this is going to be amazing live.  While the ruined hearth might be hard to source, listeners are recommended to find a comfortable chair, their own glass of what almost certainly isn’t cold tea or honey and lemon and get lost in the music of Old Blind Dogs.  All that’s missing is a fireside hound.​

Omar Rahbany – Passport | Album Review | Rahbany Yahia Productions | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 26.03.17

Three years in the making, Omar Rahbany’s Passport is a treat for the senses from a Lebanese pianist and composer who is yet to reach his thirtieth year.  The treat begins within the act of opening the CD’s exquisite packaging with its book-like binding, thick textural pages, colourful digital illustrations and inviting track-listings; it’s a tantalisingly tactile experience that leads the listener comfortably, and somewhat excitedly, towards the music.  Blending jazz and classical with Arabic and Lebanese folk influences whilst addressing the socio-political climate of the Middle East, Rahbany’s debut release swoops ambitiously between the grand instrumental orchestral arrangements of “Overture” and “Umbrella Woman” and such enchanting jazz and folk pieces as “Zook: The Power Station” and “Mouthwashahat”.  There are sprinklings of tangos, flamencos and some enchanting vocal pieces such as the dramatic “Anarkia” as well as moments of exceptional sparing beauty, especially during “Trip to the Moon” when Rahbany’s piano takes centre stage.  With shades of Pat Metheny, Wim Mertens and even George Gershwin, Passport is an expansive and often cinematic work from an exciting young artist.  Whilst Rahbany’s compositional artistry is the real star of this extraordinarily ambitious project, almost two hundred individuals contributed to the making of Passport, most notably its lead musicians such as accordionist Tony Dib, bassist Steve Rodby (a member of the Pat Metheny Group) and percussionist Raymond Hage.  The album’s producers, Rahbany and Mahdi Yahya as well as conductor Volodymyr Strenko should also be commended for the success of managing the sheer magnitude of this impressive project.

TEYR – Far From the Tree | Album Review | Sleight of Hand | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 28.03.17

After two years of honing their craft on the road, the London-based Irish, Welsh and Cornish trio Teyr (which means three in Cornish) have bestowed upon us an album of exquisite quality and uncompromising energy.  Far From the Tree presents ten works of sculptural beauty that demand our attention from note to note.  Opening with “Reeds & Fipple”, a delicately layered instrumental which introduces us to the guitar, pipes and accordion of James Gavin, Dominic Henderson and Tommie Black-Roff, the album gives way to the rousing song “Banks of Newfoundland” from the Canow Kernow (Songs of Cornwall) which showcases the trio’s impressive vocal prowess and ability to craft an intricate and beguiling masterpiece out of an otherwise simple folk song.  The format remains much the same throughout the album, with sinuous folk tunes such as the sweetly rolling “The Badge” and breathlessly energetic GM giving way to painterly renditions of traditional songs such as “False Lady” and “Huntley Town”.  Despite the consistently brooding presence of traditional song and melody, however, the album benefits from a handful of original pieces such as “Nothing Grows” with lyrics from Irish poet Stephen Muldoon and James Gavin’s exhilarating “Dean’s Banjo” which closes this astounding debut album with a warmly effervescent crescendo.

Roving Crows – Bury Me Naked | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 01.04.17

Well we’ve had Black Crowes, Counting Crows and Stone the Crows, not to mention the Magic Crows Bluegrass Band, but here we have crows of a roving kind.  If you were wondering what the Worcestershire/Gloucestershire-based quartet might sound like without having actually heard them before, a visual representation of their sound could possibly be found in the three-panel photo on the inner gatefold sleeve of their new album Bury Me Naked.  Here we find, to the far left, Paul O’Neill showing an acoustic guitar precisely who’s boss, whilst to his left we find Caitlin Barrett in classic folk rock poise, giving her fiddle a good ‘seeing to’ to.  Then there’s Loz Shaw, almost bent double over his electric bass in a moment of ecstasy or pain (or both), whilst the imposing figure of Tim Downes-Hall pounds the bongos with a fervour befitting the energetic creed of the band.  Then again, you might well be already familiar with the band’s sound from their two previously released full-length albums, both of which in essence paved the way for this, their first release in four years.  Opening with the title song, based on the essential Native American text Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Dee Brown’s epic study of a people so blatantly and openly wronged, Bury Me Naked is a folk rock statement with a conscience; the liner notes go on to state the band’s environmental ethos, which is reflected in some of the music included here.  Although the rock aspect is explored throughout, the band are unafraid to venture into world rhythms, such as the reggae-inflected “Refugee”, a powerful message set to a lilting groove reminiscent of Men at Work’s infectious “Down Under” and “Passing on the Love”, a true life story about friends on the road.  Afro rhythms also form the basis of the opening of “Revolution is Now”, a powerful statement of intent.  Fiddle player Caitlin Barrett comes to the fore vocally on her own Riverside, as well as revisiting Jimmy MacCarthy’s “Ride On”, which closes the album, recalling Mary Coughlan’s version from the 1980s, but for the main part its O’Neill leading the band with one or two vibrant instrumentals thrown into the mix.  

Mike Bloomfield – A Retrospective | Album Review | Retroworld | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 02.04.17

When Peter Yarrow of Peter Paul and Mary fame made his rambling introduction at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, clumsily introducing the Paul Butterfield Blues Band to the stage, he probably didn’t have a clue of what was about to happen a few hours later when the band returned to the stage in order to back Bob Dylan in what became a notable turning point in popular music.  This announcement precedes “Born in Chicago”, one of the previously unreleased songs on this magnificent retrospective of Mike Bloomfield’s contribution to popular blues music when it was first released as a two-LP set in 1983.  The two-disc set, now reissued as a double CD set with additional material, captures Bloomfield at his rawest, a massively overlooked guitarist at the cutting edge of contemporary blues from the mid 1960s to the early 1970s, as part of such outfits as the Electric Flag, Al Kooper’s Super Session and the Butterfield band.  The 18-song compilation is intercut with several interview segments, giving the collection some historical context, such as the inclusion of a candid admission by Bloomfield of the difficulty in working with the notoriously complex Butterfield.  It’s Bloomfield’s peerless guitar playing though that brings this compilation to life, especially on such tracks as the Al Kooper collaboration Really, the live recording of “I Wonder Who” also with Al Kooper from 1968 Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco and something slightly more understated on the rather soulful version of “It Hurts Me Too”, featuring a vocal by John Hammond and Dr John tinkling the ivories.

Mokoomba – Luyando | Album Review | Out Here Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 03.04.17

The soulful second album release by Zimbabwe’s six-piece outfit Mokoomba and follow up to their 2012 debut Rising Tide, takes us on a musical journey through the traditions and customs of the Chinotimba Township of Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe along the Zambezi River.  The self-produced album Luyando, which translates to ‘mother’s love’ incorporates the highly infectious traditional rhythms mixed with soukous, ska and salsa, delivered not only in their native Tonga, but also in Shona, Luvale and Ndebele, not to mention a little English, notably on the refrain of the album opener “Mokole”.  Mokoomba’s trump card is in the voice of lead singer Mathias Muzaza, whose occasional soulful rasp is at time reminiscent of the vocal timbre of both Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye; utterly youthful and immediately captivating. Mokoomba, a name which literally means having a deep respect of the river, demonstrate a passion for their native music and have the drive and ability to take it to the further reaches of the world, without losing any of its power and spirit along the way.  Their Ladysmith Black Mambazo-inspired “Nyaradzo”, which closes the album, places the singers right at the heart of their African roots.  Playful, sincere and highly listenable.

Barry Goldberg – Street Man/Blast From My Past | Album Review | Retro World | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 05.04.17

Still going strong at the age of 74, Barry Goldberg has provided keyboards for only the best artists of the blues and soul world. From stints with Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf in his teens to recent outings with Stephen Stills and Mick Taylor, Goldberg has carved a long career as one of America’s go-to session men.  He also played keyboards for a certain Mr Zimmerman at the now legendary Newport Jazz Festival when Dylan went electric.  His steady solo output, however, is no less impressive with a dozen or so LP releases since his Billy Sherrill-produced 1966 debut Blowing My Mind.  This latest release presents a single disc reissue of a pair of albums from the early seventies, both originally released on the Buddah label and featuring sassy production from Lewis Merenstein, who took Van Morrison to dizzying heights with his superlative Moondance and Astral Weeks albums.  Street Man (1970) is a bold, often brash but consistently soulful instrumental record which showcases Goldberg’s white-hot organ playing via the well-known melodies of such classic songs as “I Got a Woman”, “Soul Man”, “Hey Jude” and “Sittin’ On The Dock Of The Bay” whilst Blasts From My Past (1971) consists of mainly original material from the gospel-infused “It Hurts Me Too” to the psychadelic love song “Sittin’ In Circles”.  The latter album, recorded at the infamous Muscle Shoals recording studio and featuring the Mar-Keys horn section, opens with “Jimi The Fox”, a heartfelt tribute to the recently departed Jimi Hendrix which features a rasping guitar solo from Mike Bloomfield.  Lovingly preserved by Sony and Floating World Records, this 21-track reissue of two fine albums comes complete with a glossy book full of liner notes by Alan Robinson, detailed musician rosters and original artwork.

Amy Duncan – Antidote | Album Review | Filly Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 08.04.17

Amy Duncan is a Scottish singer songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, originally trained as a double bass player and Antidote is her sixth album.  Built around recordings made in her own home, the music manages to sound intimate without ever feeling limited or lo-fi.  A combination of Duncan’s wide musical palette, playing keyboards, guitars and double bass herself, a sure touch and Calum Malcolm’s studio mastery, also heard on The Blue Nile’s superlative Hats album, breathes life into the album.  There is a sense of grace, space and deliberate understatement in common with The Blue Nile’s later albums.  “Steady The Bow” opens the album, harp and Amy Duncan’s beautifully pure and emotive voice to the fore.  There is a wonderfully folky traditional lilt to the lyric.  Sue McKenzie’s cool saxophone twines with the music, ethereal and drifting, adding a jazz edge to acoustic music in a tradition that looks back to 60s legends like Pentangle and more recent genre straddling acts like Lammas.  Whatever it’s called, this is music too broad to be pinned to just one label.  Gentle percussion tinkles through the mix with shifting atmospherics and crowd sounds widening the space around the music.  Train sounds, bird sounds and a sense of space open “The Journey” the found sounds illustrate the imagery of the song and help us inhabit the headspace of the writer.  It is never forced or contrived, all the elements are perfectly balanced and become part of the musical whole. Amy Duncan’s vocal is sublime, folky to begin with before hitting a deep note that recalls classic Kate Bush, intimate, low and arresting.  Describing the journey the arrangement shifts and changes alternating a more frantic pace with the Bush like passages.  “The Severed Head” contrasts a dark metaphorical lyric with a languid guitar line that is jazzy and part Penguin Café Orchestra. Alison opens with pure atmospherics, as a ‘dopplered’ siren drifts between the speakers and just screams early morning city.  Again Sue McKenzie’s saxophone is perfect in its ECM Garbarek iciness, adding another element to the scene being set.  Against keyboards that are jazzy and vibes like, Amy’s lyrics are upbeat and positive.  Duncan is open about the song writing being an attempt to explore her overcoming adversity in health and life, to find a way to move beyond a depressive cycle.  The journey is physical as well as emotional, free to move around her home city of Edinburgh Amy made field recordings, these weave in and out of the music so we are very much part both journeys.  The sense of movement is carried by frequent road noise and road imagery.  Recording at home, with time and space, the sense of freedom spills into the music, the mood and the feel of the album.  “Golden Fox” is another uplifting vocal that sings of freedom against a perfect cycling Bill Evans like piano.  As well as being a superb vocalist, the playing on this track suggests there is a mean jazz or classical pianist in there too.  So the grace of the glimpsed fox is suggested by an utterly captivating keyboard passage.  Clearing describes another moment in time, continuing the same mood and almost the same song.  Carried by the singing it is all very Zen as you are held in that second, cocooned and carried by wonderfully buoyant music.  “This is the Road” pushes the tempo and is edgy by comparison with a higher saxophone, some frenetic piano and a Norma Winstone crystalline edge to the vocal.  Determined to push on, the mood is determined and the music reflects that with a more barbed beauty.  “Lost Balloon” and “Pieces of Me” both open with a very contemporary looped electric guitar line and a chorus of layered but perfectly phrased vocals.  The balloon may be lost to its owner but Amy envies its height and escape, after the languid dawn of “Golden Fox” there is a sense of urgent energy.  “The Caretaker” brims with the same energy, the mood upbeat, if the album is cathartic then a decision has been made this is a hymn to the certainty of positively travelling forward.  “Antidote” carries the jazzy ambience and the certainty on.  The atmospherics at the start become music and fade into a melodic Reich like marimba keyboard motif, minimal while the voice soars over the top, revealing the metaphorical significance of the plants pushing between the urban brickwork and pavers, they are green shoots.  This is a glorious album, both understated and majestic, very much a quiet storm, as a singer songwriter looks at themselves and their world in a way that is engaging.  The voice, the playing, the lyrics there is so much here to recommend.

Various Artists – Roll Columbia: Woody Guthrie’s 26 Northwest Songs | Album Review | Smithsonian Folkways | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 08.04.17

It comes as a surprise to find a new Woody Guthrie related album without the name Billy Bragg all over it.  Guthrie’s self-styled successor doesn’t necessarily always have to be associated with Woody’s legacy.  Of course, that legacy continues to be recognised on his home turf and not only in his birth state of Oklahoma, but all over the country and in the case of these songs, the Northwest Territories along the mighty Columbia River.  The songs on Roll Columbia are from a period of hyperactivity during the Spring of 1941, which coincided with the building of the great dams along the Columbia River, notably the Grand Coulee Dam, a major construction project that would ostensibly bring ‘eleckatricity’ to the masses.  Of the 26 songs included here, 17 were recorded by Guthrie for an accompanying documentary film commissioned by the Bonneville Power Administration, which eventually surfaced as The Columbia: America’s Greatest Power Stream (1949).  Throwing himself into the task, Guthrie wrote ferociously for the period of one month, which resulted in a handful of highly memorable songs, such as “Ballad of the Great Grand Coulee Dam”, “Pastures of Plenty” and “Roll, Columbia, Roll”.  Some of the songs were written prior to the project such as “Hard Travelin’”, which here is given some of that authentic Guthrie treatment by Ben Hunter and Joe Seamons, two major players in this project, whilst one or two songs are being heard for the very first time, in much the same manner as the songs on Mermaid Avenue by the aforementioned Billy Bragg and Wilko back in 1998.  “Lumber is King” is one such song, performed here quite brilliantly by Cahalen Morrison, a voice of authority and clarity, not unlike that of Guthrie himself.  Interestingly, these songs were written in the same year as America joined all the fun in Europe and Hitler gets a mention in “The Biggest Thing That Man Has Ever Done”, which in effect puts the project in some additional historical context.  With other contributions by Pharis and Jason Romero, David Grisman, Tony Furtado and REM’s Peter Buck, the album comes with an informative 44-page booklet and 26 songs that capture perfectly an important era in America’s Northwestern history.

Hunter Muskett – Unafraid and Sober | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 09.04.17

For those unfamiliar with the name Hunter Muskett, and do stop me if this sounds like egg sucking tuition, the three-piece version of the college band formed in London back in the heady days of 1969, playing at such notable venues as The Marquee and The Troubadour gaining a reputation on the scene as a folk group who use electric instruments.  After a couple of albums, Everytime You Move (1970) followed by Hunter Muskett (1973) which saw the arrival of fourth member Roger Trevitt, joining original members Terry Hiscock, Chris George and Doug Morter, the band eventually called it a day in 1974.  As the band drifted into distant memory and whose dusty LPs began commanding eyebrow raising price tags on Ebay, the band reformed in 2010 and soon had a comeback album on the shelves.  That Was Then, This Is Now (2013), followed a series of live dates, which saw the band finding their own niche once again on a much changed live scene.  The band’s latest release, Unafraid and Sober is a gentle album of mainly self-penned songs, each suitably crafted to include some fine guitar solos and mature arrangements.  Added to the orginal songs such as “Fields of France”, “Next to Me” and the title song “Unafraid and Sober”, which features a beautiful guitar passage based on the traditional “Banks of the Bann” melody, the band invited along Pentangle’s Jacqui McShee to sing the ethereal Lal and Mike Waterson classic “The Scarecrow”.  Along with this, we find tucked away in the coda of Terry Hiscock’s “North of Clear Lake”, a verse of Buddy Holly’s “I Guess it Doesn’t Matter Anymore”, which only adds to the tender simplicity of this enchanting album.

Madison Violet – The Knight Sessions | Album Review | Big Lake Music | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 11.04.17

Toronto-based Brenley MacEachern and Lisa MacIsaac have been writing, recording and touring together since 1999 (believe it or not), and over those 18 years the duo known as Madison Violet has consistently produced convincingly good songs and delivered them with sumptious arrangements and breathtaking vocal harmonies.  For their eighth album, the duo found themselves popping in and out of Toronto pawn shops in search of items that would potentially add new sounds in the studio, from children’s discarded toys to broken ukuleles.  The Knight Sessions in a sense sees the duo return to basics; simple arrangements, gentle acoustics and mature self-penned songs, some of which have appeared previously but have been ‘re-imagined’ here, and most importantly with all their musical versatility still very much intact.  Brenley’s highly individual smoky voice is, as always, complimented by Lisa’s empathetic harmonies, which in turn gives the duo their familiar and distinctive sound.  We need look no further than “Ohio”, “Same Song”, “These Ships” and “We Are Famous” for evidence of that.

Ben Hunter, Phil Wiggins and Joe Seamons – A Black and Tan Ball | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 14.04.17

Kicking off with a languorously climbing harmonica, fiddle and guitar and a song about creatively murdering a disloyal friend, A Black & Tan Ball presents thirteen tracks that dive back into American musical history with equal authenticity and good humour.  Building on the success of their stint as a duo, multi-instrumentalists Ben Hunter and Joe Seamons are joined here by renowned harmonica wizard Phil Wiggins.  And when Wiggins’s tongue isn’t licking at an impressively agile harmonica on instrumentals such as the traditional “Shanghai Rooster & The Dominicker Hen” and the perky Guitar Rag, it’s pressed firmly into cheek for such novelty jazz and blues ditties as “How’m I Doin’” and the aforementioned “Do You Call That a Buddy”, a song which features perhaps the best and most subtle musical reference to hurling someone out of a window.  Whilst the album is drenched in old-time wit and mischief, Hunter, Wiggins and Seamons never stray from their serious esteem for antique Americana and jazz classics such as Ellington’s “Do Nothing Til You Hear From Me” and Louis Armstrong’s “Struttin’ With Some Barbeque”.  Other highlights include a delectable version of the traditional folk song “John Henry”, complete with wonderfully resonant banjo, as well as a mandolin-led rendering of Leadbelly’s “Poor Howard”, both featuring high lonesome vocals that add yet more texture to the fine musicianship at play on this riveting record.

Steve Soden and the Sweet Peas – Welcome to the Asylum | Album Review | PB Music | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 16.04.17

Slightly eccentric third album by Birmingham-based singer-songwriter and poet Steve Soden, who for this album gathers over twenty musicians together over a twelve month period to record the dozen songs that makes up Welcome To The Asylum.  The songs have a highly retro feel, particularly the opening song “Mean Woman Blues”, a doo-wop pop tune that could easily have been recorded in the 1950s, a song that wouldn’t be out of place on the Grease soundtrack.  Recorded in Bromsgrove and Droitwich, then mastered in London, the dozen songs appear to be imbued with a tongue-in-cheek quality, almost a pastiche rather than a tribute to the glory days of rock and roll.  If the songs don’t entirely convince us of their eccentricity, then the accompanying DVD film promo, a bizarrely grotesque vignette, shows Steve Soden in Hammer Horror B-Movie mode.  It’s a bit dodgy, but it’s meant to be.  The fact that the songs are listed on the inner sleeve in a representation of a vintage juke box goes one step further to indicate that this is really a bit of fun.  “Lost My Way”, another throwback to an entirely different era, has a certain sincerity, as does “My Heart’s on Fire”, but elsewhere one or two numbers appear to be borrowed from Leonard Cohen’s catalogue melodically speaking, such as “Waiting on a Dream”, very much reminiscent of the lilting “Dance Me To The End of Love” and then again in the closing title song “Welcome to the Asylum”, which is almost like “First We Take Manhattan” delivered by Alistair Crowley.  

Ewan MacPherson – Fetch | Album Review | Shoogle Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 18.04.17

This masterful instrumental album by Ewan MacPherson (Fribo / Salthouse / RoughCoastAudio / Shooglenifty) brings together a bunch of high quality players that one feels were not picked just because they were close at hand.  Fetch showcases the talents of several hand-picked collaborators in    order to bring this music alive, music predominantly composed by MacPherson himself, who handles guitar, mandolin, mandola and banjo with equal authority, whilst also taking care of business with a bit of jaw harp and harmonium along the way.  If the title isn’t adequately explained by the cover shot of Ben the labrador leaping into the lake, then we are reminded of the literal definition, that of bringing something back and also that of a stretch of water ‘over which a given wind has blown’.  Some of this is evident in the music; the fact that MacPherson has travelled far and wide to discover, then gather the essence of, and finally to re-imagine the feel of that music in his own compositions.  Whilst “Saltus” is every bit influenced by Scandinavian traditional music, with Sigrid Moldestad’s hardanger fiddle and Magnus Lundmark’s percussion driving the tune along, the Scots influence on such as “Dead End Glen” is very much in evidence, with the occasional jazzy excursion on such as “The Cherry Tree Reel/Dog’s Got an Itchy Nose”.  At times gentle and contemplative, the standard of musicianship leaps and bounces in places, giving the album a vibrant and joyful feel.

Dreadzone – Dread Times | Album Review | Dubwiser Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 20.04.17

Dreadzone are a British institution. A band who since its formation in 1993 by ex Big Audio Dynamite drummer Greg Roberts, has continued to morph and absorb influences.  Alongside a warm embracing keyboard stew that sounds vintage and now, expect the unexpected, North African music, Ska revival, hypnotic acoustic guitar and of course some well-chosen vocal samples.  What defines this album is how effortlessly the band tame and master so many apparently disparate musical ideas, directing them into a blend that is recognisably Dreadzone.  It appears effortless, an exercise in tasteful understatement.  “Rootsman” arrives on a swirling melange of loops, samples and sounds, classic dub vocals, a sweet chorus and some very electric drum n bass percussion.  A huge sounding keyboard bass rumbles underneath, everything manages to sound simultaneously 40 years old and contemporary.  The tune is infectious and uplifting.  The lyrics, while attempting to establish Dreadzone as the elder statesmen they surely are, fall a little flat.  Impeccably delivered, they are shallow and leave it to the music to demonstrate the essentialness of Dreadzone and their reggae credentials in 2017.  “Mountain” sets a darker vocal reminiscent of Tricky or classic Massive Attack against the warm uplifting vocals.  There is a wonderful tension, between the two, like a beautiful musical argument or debate.  Again the bubbling keyboards and groove of the track is beautifully constructed.  Escape demonstrates the successes of this album perfectly, brass or brass stab samples ride through the electronic keyboards over a sharp bass riff and some very sweet lover’s rock style vocals.  It as a warm and seductive blend that you cannot help but nod along to.  A slip into a more electronic vibe for the last 90 seconds of the track still manages to maintain the vibe and that feel of ancient and modern.  Escape opens with a bright keyboard pulse that is so 90s dance, but the warm vocals and the dub rhythm manages to blend it into the Dreadzone brew.  “16 Hole” takes the sea shanty vibe of Captain Dread off their 1995 Second Light and welding it to a rewritten Kenny Rogers lyric makes a driving song about Gun crime.  As it’s Dreadzone the samples and found sounds are threaded through the mix.  “Black Deus” uses a great spoken piece by what sounds like Gil Scott Heron with his distinctive diction to advocate direct action and protest.  As through the rest of the album, the feel is dub reggae, but the soundtrack is hard edged electronic keyboards.  A ‘Freedom’ chorus links it back to the 60s protest movement as does the ‘hairs on the back on the neck’ piece from Martin Luther King, as true now as it ever was.  Freedom, like the music of Dreadzone, really matters.  Short wave radio sounds bleed through a few of the tracks of the album and they introduce the North African musical loops of Music Army, adding another sonic spice to the rich mix.  Again the lyrical message is slight but the groove and vibe more considerable with beautiful moments of sparring African guitar and slippery oud.  Area Code is a joyous tempo lift that recalls the frenetic pogo-ing of Ska revialists like The Beat and the Selector and is glorious for it.  Vocalists Louchie Lou and Michie One inject some attitude and punch.  The song still twists and turns with dub slipperiness, but it is an infectious stomper throughout.  “Never Going Back” sounds like an end of relationship song, starting angry it quickly becomes upbeat and positive an anthem to change and moving forwards.  Superb vocals blend over a bubbling electronic backing, dance meets reggae ballad.  “Where Is My Friend” pulls the tempo down and confounds expectations with a late night beach campfire acoustic guitar some splashes of melodica and one of Earl 17’s warmest and best vocals on the album.  Slightly marred by the ‘maker Jamaica’ rhyme, this is still a laid back masterpiece of a reggae song.  Consciously or unconsciously “After The Storm” replicates the chilled languid mastery of  “A Canterbury Tale” off Second Light, the piano refrain, the clipped pronunciation on the film sample and we are back in 1995.  Indian music, spacial guitar chords and a building deep keyboard pulse take this to other places, but this glorious album closer manages to bridge twenty years effortlessly with the past and the present holding hands.  The more they change the more they manage to seem to stay, at the centre the same and maintain a core of Dreadzoneness.  This is an album that comforts and confounds then comforts again, like the best of Massive Attack and those 70s Island Reggae albums this is a grower and a keeper.​

Elliott Morris – Lost and Found | Album Review | Dominoes Club Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 20.04.17

With a string of EPs under his belt, Lincolnshire-based singer-songwriter Elliott Morris has finally released his long-awaited full-length debut record, an album of finely-crafted originals that are accompanied by some highly accomplished arrangements (“One More Day”, “Let it Out”) and trademark guitar playing (“The End of the World Blues”, “I’m a Stranger”).  Hard-working, dedicated and strongly in touch with his own abilities as a musician, the young singer/guitarist effortlessly straddles the fence between established folk mannerisms and his own pop sensibilities, with eleven accessible songs with engaging melodies, often utilising his now familiar percussive guitar slapping technique, but at the same time avoiding the overtly flashy or showy affectations that often come with the practice.  His half English, half Scots background lends itself to crossing of borders both physically and metaphorically with an eagerness to play and an energetic and demanding touring schedule.  No overnight success, Elliott has worked the clubs, festivals and concert halls for a good few years, which seems incredible judging by his youthful looks.  But there again, he started early.  Produced in Scotland by Mattie Foulds, Lost and Found features an impressive cast of musicians including Paul Carrack, Innes Watson, Mike Vass, Laura-Beth Salter, Lisbee Stainton and Alan Thomson.  The first album of hopefully many.

Tamikrest – Kidal | Album Review | Glitterbeat | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 20.04.17

The one thing we can always rely on when it comes to the sound of what we now refer to as Sahara Blues, is the utterly infectious groove that seems to permeate each song and the opening few bars of “Mawarniha Tartit” exemplifies this notion perfectly.  Little changes in that groove throughout the song, yet we stick with it until the end and allow ourselves to be drawn into an almost trance-like state.  No other music is quite like it.  Tamikrest’s latest release Kidal, recorded in Bamako, has been two years in the making and once again showcases the band’s credentials as one of the foremost bands of its kind.  Following the success of Taksera (2015), and Chatma (2013) before that, Kidal continues to promote the music of the area with a title named after the desert town, which stands in the Malian desert and which is surrounded by endless stretches of barren open space, an environment rich in tradition but also of both conflict and defiance.  The eleven songs demonstrate a commitment to maintaining the Tuareg traditions of Tamikrest’s homeland, but also shows a fearless approach in bringing the music into the twentieth century with modern electric instrumentation.  Occasionally though, an acoustic arrangement can stand out like a jewel, in the case of Kidal, the closing song “Adad Osan Itibat”.  With the charismatic Ousmane Ag Mossa at the helm, a sort of cross between Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley, Tamikrest show no signs of bailing out of the rebellion or indeed abandoning their nomadic people.

Vieux Farka Toure – Samba | Album Review | Six Degrees Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 20.04.17

You only ever get one chance at a first impression and so to take advantage of the full impact of your first impression of this wonderful album, I suggest you turn the volume up to eleven, especially on “Homafu Wawa”, with its homage to Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff” in its opening riff.  There’s ten tracks here to get your teeth into, each one exemplifying Vieux Farka Toure’s hard-edged musical prowess, helped in no small part by the dozen musicians and singers employed to good use here.  Produced in collaboration with Eric Herman, Samba sounds fresh and vibrant, with a raw energy that you feel through your vibrating speakers (I’m taking it as read that you turned it up to eleven as suggested?)  It’s certainly not full-on Malian rock and roll throughout and in places we see some undisguised tipping of the hat to Vieux’s late father Ali Farka Toure, especially on “Reconnaissance” and “Ni Negaba”, both of which almost sends a shiver; there are definitely ghosts in this music.  The album was recorded as part of the Woodstock Sessions, which is in effect a live studio set-up in Saugerties, New York, with an audience invited specifically to observe the recording process, in effect creating a live experience too.  The title, which translates in Songhai to ‘second born’, indicates quite rightly that Vieux is the second son of the legendary Malian guitarist and despite having some of that influence ingrained in the material here, Vieux Farka Toure’s own individual musical sensibility naturally comes to the fore.  The sense of family runs through with “Mariam”, a song dedicated to the women of his native Mali and in particular to his own younger sister of that name, featuring Idan Raichel on keyboards.  Released just in time for his UK summer tour, Samba is sure to bring more than just a flavour of a Mali to our shores.  A really terrific record.

Ben Glover – The Emigrant | Album Review | Proper Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 21.04.17

Ben Glover’s vocal pleasingly combines the lilt of Mike Scott with the growl and fire of David Gray.  With a childhood in a sleepy Northern Ireland village and eight years in Nashville, Ben has a foot in both camps.  He is a personification of the Transatlantic Sessions spirit and TV show.  On songs like Ralph McTell’s “From Clare To Here” and the traditional “Parting Glass” his voice blends beautifully between both sides of the Atlantic.  “A Song Of Home” draws in so many elements, Bono’s breathy sense of expectation, Van Morrison’s ability to vamp on the sounds of words and a wonderful rasp in the vocal.  A pared back arrangement of minimal piano, strummed guitar and tasteful strings sets up the whole thing perfectly.  This is a track that wouldn’t sound out of place on Astral Weeks and is an album highlight.  Not that there is any filler.  “The Emigrant” carries on the piano with a hymn like quality to Ben Glover’s impassioned vocals and an anthemic message in the lyrics.  He delivers an emotional vision of what it means to be dislocated, although so powerful is Glover’s vocal he could probably grab your attention if he was singing a shopping list.  He says “It can be a scary thing to be away from all you’ve known and all that feels familiar, and I hope this record gives something to people who are in that scenario”.  The song, started in Ireland and finished with Gretchen Peters in Nashville triggered a desire to make this album, drawing together the older tradition with a present day spirit.  “Moonshiner” is another traditional song.  American Folk, Appalachian Music and Irish Music collide, as a wonderful violin part is laid against a snapping drum part that is straight out of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire”.  With a stunning vocal that is both weary of the world and challenging it to do its worst, he broods like The Boss at his best.  Just needs a few whoops or yelps at the end of the track.  While managing to sound nothing like her own songs, “Heart In May Hand” is a co-write with Mary Gauthier.  Indeed the writing credits, Ralph McTell, Brendan Behan, Mary Gauthier, Gretchen Peters, Eric Bogle should be reason alone to pick this album up and give it a listen.  Before you’ve heard Ben Glover’s impressive singing and the great playing.  As well as “From Clare To Here” Ben takes on “The Auld Triangle” and “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” and makes them his own.  Glover’s vocal is at it’s most raw and ‘Shane’ like on Behan’s “Auld Triangle” and Bogle’s anti war anthem, but in a way that is ultimately his own, he wrings out the feeling from every note, against some atmospherics and pipes Auld Triangle just flies.  A very straight ‘school assembly’ piano on “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” means that every inflection and wobble sounds impassioned.  Any histrionics are deftly avoided with some considered and understated vocals delivered close to the mike in at times a dropped voice.  “The Green Glens of Antrim” allows him to stretch out the vocals a little more and is a superb closer.  Ben’s singing and an emotional whistle solo pulling on the heart strings like a slow dance at the end of the night or a well chosen encore.

Cormac Begley – Cormac Begley | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 24.04.17

Cormac Begley is an award-winning player and an innovator.  The Irish Times described his concertina playing as a ‘masterclass in timeless musicianship’.  Cormac plays in a number of duets, with Liam O Maonlai of Hothouse Flowers, Caoimhin O Raghallaigh from Hardanger D’Amore, Rusad Eggleston of Cello Goblin and Libby McCrohan.  He is a member of a trio with Noel Hill and Jack Taty and plays in the band Re featuring Liam O Maolai, Maitiu O Casaide, Eithne Ni Chathain and Peter O Toole of Hothouse Flowers.  Cormac was involved in the dance production bu choreographer Michael Keegan Dolan entitled rainan has recently returned from an engagement in Cuba where played for Irish President Micheal D Higgins’ first state visit to Havana.  The album represents a conscious effort to make the listeners really listen and engage.  The material is sourced specifically for the recording and much of it is either previously unrecorded or composed for this occasion.  The tunes are recorded in St Nicholas’ Collegiate Church, the space allowing us to hear every nuance and movement of his playing.  The laying bare extends to the recordings which are all whole takes, Cormac is at pains to state that there is no studio manipulation.  The breadth and scope of the playing is breath taking with bass, baritone, treble and piccolo concertinas being played and showcased across the thirteen recordings.  This is without doubt a labour of love and is Zen like in its clear sense of purpose and purity of vision.  The music is free and physical.  Like all acoustic music the physicality of playing becomes part of the sound, form function and aesthetic all inform each other.  The opening set of “Reels The Yellow Tinker/Ril Mhor Bhaile An Chalaidh” puts me in mind of the very expressive harmonica playing of Rory McLeod, where the sounds of air in the Concertina and the taps of the keys recalls the physical mouth music and grunts of folk harmonica.  Or the runs of notes and cadence of the keys on the saxophone as John Coltrane looses himself in the middle of “A Love Supreme”.  Alongside slower more reflective pieces like “Frenzy Polka” on a treble Concertina there is an ever-present beat to Cormac’s playing.  The amazingly named Dipper Bass Concertina on “Rocking The Cradle” crosses musical traditions carrying some of the roaring breath sounds of soulful blues harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite.  As well as carrying us along on the faster more frenetic pieces Cormac Begley can also build suspense and atmosphere with the space and drama on slower paces like the air “Beauty Deas an Oileain”.  Like the genre and culture crossing music of Andrew Cronshaw he summons pictures and creates a superb sense of space with sound and atmosphere.  There is a cinematic, descriptive quality to the music that suggests his playing would lend itself to film soundtrack.  Cormac Begley may be currently limited to niche appeal, releasing solo concertina music isn’t going to lend itself easily to a Mercury Prize. Being in the free jazz end of traditional folk dance music is essentially in the left field of the left field.  However, this is undeniably a stunning album of solo instrumental music that crackles with power, vim, drive and integrity, leaving you glad that someone is putting this out and making such a fine job of it​

The Andrew Collins Trio – And It Was Good | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 26.04.17

Bluegrass has come a long way since the first Appalachian settlers began bashing, bowing and plucking whatever instruments they had to hand.  Indeed, the music has enjoyed a long history of evolution, and whilst much of what Bill Monroe would recognise as bluegrass is still very much alive and well, experimentation has widened the boundaries extensively since the dawn of the 21st Century to create a fascinating hybrid.  One of the artists responsible for blurring the lines between bluegrass and complex classical music is Canadian mandolin player Andrew Collins.  By injecting virtuoso composition and a keen eye for complex yet beautiful melody, Collins has lifted old time instrumental folk music a few more feet into the air.  On And It Was Good, Andrew is joined by fellow string wizard Mike Mezzateszta and superlative bassist James McEleney for an eight-track concept album inspired by the life and work of the late avant-garde fiddler Oliver Schroer; another Canadian artist who, in his tragically short life, heaved traditional music towards new and exciting realms.  These eight fascinating, nimble-fingered and moving compositions – all of them Collins originals – celebrate not only a much missed musician but the very marrow of Canada and its music.  As well as spilling forty minutes worth of frothing trio instrumentals, Collins has coloured the album with the enchanting sound of the Phantasmagoria String Quartet.  The opening track, “Light From The Darkness”, is an exciting and constantly impulsive piece but, thanks to the emotive string quartet parts, has a melancholic and somewhat filmic quality that manages to pluck not only at musical strings but at those of the heart, too.  “Seeds Of Its Own Kind” takes this a little further with its devastatingly beautiful, Nick Drake-esque opening whilst “Fish and Fowl” represents the magic of fusing traditional and experimental music to create something which struggles to be defined but never fails to delight.

Sweet Gum Tree – Sustain the Illusion | Album Review | The Orchard/Plastic Head | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 27.04.17

With Sustain the Illusion, songwriter Arno Sojo, better known as Sweet Gum Tree, returns with another set of dreamy works of lyrical allure – his fifth release since 2010’s The Vulnerable Almighty and his long-awaited follow up to 2014’s superb The Snakes You Charm and the Wolves You Tame.  Produced by Ireland’s David Odlum (Glen Hansard, Gemma Hayes) this new release finds the French troubadour in fine poetic form with arresting lines such as “no need to burn your icons they will self-ignite / On starless nights, when heroes go down in flames” on the bass-led “Burn Your Icons” and “Kid brother, how can I ever forget the way your held me tight / Our freckled faces under snowflaked suburban skies” on the melancholic “Clean Slate”.  Mixing electronica with a vocal performance to rival, though clearly inspired by the likes of Mark King and Nik Kershaw, Sustain the Illusion presents another thoughtful yet highly accessible collection of Sojo’s unique songs.

Maddison’s Thread – Sixty Minutes an Hour | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Damian Liptrot | 01.05.17

My travelling companion is sixty years old, she is the sister of my good wife.  We listened and believe these songs should be received with good grace.  The day after our journey, we return to the car and as we start the CD replays.  We both comment that we still have songs going round in our head.  It turns out that they are different ones but between us there is half the album in there.   This is good.  It is not hard to thoroughly enjoy this album, the Thread’s eponymous leader, Lee’s love of both music and words shines through every track and he is promiscuous in his flirtation with genres.  Sure there’s folk but there is rock, blues, a little jazz and should you hanker after a little French café music, yes that’s in there as well.  Despite all the influences and the cast of friends and their varied instruments Lee assembled for the album, there is not a note out of place.  It isn’t a case of less is more – this is not spartan music, it can be deep, textured and luxuriant but it is very much a case of enough is exactly enough – his take on Roy Harper’s “Flycatcher” is an inspired reimagining, reminiscent of Barclay James Harvest in their pomp, yet he can also be fragile and vulnerable as well – this is an album that creates a satisfying whole from disparate elements and is all the better for it.  Right from the opening track which nods towards both Middle Eastern themes and bossa-nova, there are surprises and delights throughout.  Lyrically the album is never less than interesting, shining lights on personal relationships and insightful social commentary.  The first theme also involves a delight filled duet with ‘voice of an angel’ Edwina Hayes, and the latter on “Parasitelful”, which also called to mind the much overlooked Kevin McDermott Orchestra.  Lee’s choice of Edwina as a vocal partner is wise indeed as they complement each other magnificently, Lee’s voice could be likened to suede, smooth but with enough of a nap to make it both distinctive and interesting.  An album bearing repeat listenings on long journeys and at destinations alike.  Wristband, you don’t need no wristband.  You just need a Maddison my friend.  And yes, he does remind me of Paul Simon at times and that can never be a bad thing!

Seafoam Green – Topanga Mansion | Album Review | Mellowtone Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 04.05.17

Seafoam Green are the soulful vocals and guitar of Dave O’Grady and instrumentalist Rich Robinson from the Black Crowes.  Following a recording studios meeting O’Grady was invited by Robinson to open his US and UK dates, this quickly led to writing and recording together.  The songs are collaborations, Robinson produces and the album is a pure delight from start to finish.  As the good book says ‘in my fathers house there are many rooms’.  Seafoam Green’s Topanga Mansion leads us through a fascinating array of musical spaces in a huge building filled with the facets of LA’s 70’s Topanga Canyon.  In my head I’m sitting on the porch, on the vinyl sleeve’s gatefold cover, listening to the album.  “Celtic Wanderings” is a beautiful opening track.  Imagine a musical meeting of a Five Leaves Left Nick Drake track and Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home”.  Not to suggest that this is a conscious homage or that Seafoam Green are copyists, simply that close your eyes and the endless possibilities of the summer of 1969 fill the room.  Dave O’Grady’s world weary vocals are soulful against Cello, Pedal Steel and some perfectly placed backing vocals.  Home continues that Americana Soul vibe, like a European Dylan LeBlanc Dave O’Grady’s pull at your heart strings with that warm but miserable, pleasantly melancholic vibe that is so intoxicating.  The vocals achieve a crystalline Fleet Foxes purity while Muireann McDermot Long’s backing vocals testify a quiet storm up around him.  The ancient organ sound just confirms that this is being laid down in a down south rural clapperboard chapel while the river rolls slowly by.  Rich Robinson’s rich electric guitar on “Down The River” raises the temperature a few notches, his Kossoff licks summon O’Grady’s inner Paul Rodgers and the spirit is free in every sense of the word.  The exchange between the Rhodes electric keyboard and the guitar is pure classic 70s boogie that puts a Skynyrd sized grin on your face and has you reaching for the bourbon.  This isn’t a fey singer songwriter album, it has balls, it has chops.  Sister cools the temperature a little, against layers of slithering guitar lines some of the album’s strongests vocals back some lyrical punches with another slow burn soulful anthem.  The instrumental return after a few a brief silence is a glorious surprise too, a hidden gem in an album of delights.  But it is a brief return as “Runaway” and “Lowly Lou” are glorious turned up to thirteen assaults on the speakers with huge guitar and raw smouldering vocals from O’Grady.  Again Seafoam Green surprise and surprise with Adam McDougall’s lyrical piano part in the middle of a gloriously languid almost Prog interlude on “Runaway”.  “Royal Call” is another rich, emotional duet.  Rich Robinson’s perfect production plays with space, allowing the voices, snappy country drums and an amazing pedal steel to fill the room.  “Pretty Tyrants” opens with a lovely piano lullaby that builds with another stunning vocal duet, beautifully understated accompaniment and my favourite lyric of the album “Red wine voodoo”.  We’ve all been there.  The lyric is charged, the delivery gloriously bitter sweet and the pairing just sublime.  “Far From Golden” is another intimate piano ballad with those evocative early 70s paired vocals.  It’s the UK’s Prelude or Crosby Stills and Nash, it’s a warm sound that just pulls you in for Robinson’s fiery solo at the end.  The sequencing of the album has clearly been given a lot of thought, short gaps between the tracks means one track builds on the mood and soundscape of the track before.  So it is with the stunning closer “No Wasted Words”.  Hanging piano notes from ­“Far From Golden” lead seamlessly into a roaring keyboard part that recalls Pink Floyd circa “Echoes”.  Over a ticking clock drum beat O’Grady spits out some lyrics that rail against the world in the albums most contemporary sounding track.  Floydian shimmering piano, bitter vocals, a superb atmosphere closes the album.  Look at Topanga Mansion as a whole, it starts acoustic and pastoral like a gig support band, builds to the swampy rock Skynyrd or Tony Joe White set in the middle and closes with a more intimate piano led segway, kind of ‘end of the gig’ upturned chairs on café tables feel. It is surprise after surprise.  Dave O’Grady can do aching troubadour and he can do whisky growl with all points in between.  Feel good music that puts a smile on your face and has you reaching for the volume knob to turn it up.  This is apparently a limited release with 500 vinyl copies, well 499 you’ll have to prise mine out of my cold dead fingers, and 500 cds.  You really want to get this, if this isn’t a forerunner for a wider release you’ll kick yourself for missing this classic in the making.

Mick Ryan and Paul Downes – The Passing Hour | Album Review | WildGoose | Review by Kev Boyd | 05.05.17

Mick and Paul each have long and distinguished histories and have worked with some of the better-known names in the UK folk scene and beyond.  Mick is a fine singer and an accomplished songwriter while Paul is an effortless guitarist blessed with access to a range of styles and techniques who can also turn his hand to banjo, piano and vocals.  The Passing Hour is their fourth album together.  The core tracks are several of Mick’s own compositions which all have a broadly humanist appeal and Paul shares writing credits on one song.  “Thankful Village” is written from the perspective of those rare villages whose sons all returned alive from the Great War.  It’s driven by Paul’s dynamic guitar playing and includes concertina by Martyn Bradley.  “One Day” is inspired by the apparent fact that since the end of the Second World War there has only been a single day when no country has been at war with another.  Jackie Oates helps out on vocals here and adds viola on a couple of other tracks while elsewhere Kate Riaz rounds off a cluster of guest musicians with some subtle cello accompaniment.  Of the remaining songs, “The Midshipman’s Boast”, written by Helen North, is perhaps a standout and is the perfect album opener.  Tom Lewis’s “All At Sea” is a song of regret and the true story of a man who longed to be a sailor but had never seen the sea.  A handful of traditional songs add to the mix with “Song of Repentance”, an Irish street ballad, being a noticeable highlight.  “Old Swine”, another of Mick’s originals, rounds off the package.  It’s a comic song exploring the importance of the family pig to the villagers in Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise To Candleford and though listed as a bonus track, it sits well with the album as a whole.

The Brother Brothers – Tugboats | EP Review | Self Release | Review by Kev Boyd | 07.05.17

The Brother Brothers are identical twins Adam and David Moss, originally out of Peoria, Illinois and now based in and around Brooklyn.  They play their own songs with obvious nods towards the American country and hillbilly traditions and Tugboats is their debut six-track EP, clocking in at just under 20 minutes.  Guitar and fiddle provide the instrumentation but it’s the brothers’ harmony vocals that dominate the EP’s aesthetic.  Obvious comparisons are with the Everlys or Louvins, and not just because of the brotherly connection, although it’s true to say there’s a special quality when siblings sing together that’s evident in spades on these tracks.  The harmonies are crisp and clean throughout, not to mention note-perfect, and everything sounds as effortless as it, rather annoyingly, no doubt is.  It’s hard to identify any obvious highlights as the quality of performances is high throughout and the whole thing zips past at a fare old pace so there’s little time to contemplate qualitative decisions.  If pressed I’d cite “Notary Public” as an example that presents perhaps the most complete melding of vocals and instruments with the bonus of a vaguely humorous lyric.  Small but perfectly formed, Tugboats is a great taster but The Brother Brothers deserve a chance to stretch their musical legs, so to speak, on a full-length album.

Rattle on the Stovepipe – Poor Ellen Smith | Album Review | WildGoose | Review by Kev Boyd | 09.05.17

Listening to Poor Ellen Smith, the sixth album by Rattle on the Stovepipe on WildGoose records, it’s sometimes hard to imagine that this acoustic trio don’t hark from deepest Appalachia, such is the authentic stamp they bring to much of their repertoire.  In fact, they hail from various parts of England and having congregated in and around West Sussex they bring with them a wealth of experience of singing, playing and teaching in the British, Irish and American traditions.  Dave Arthur is an EFDSS Gold Badge holder who will perhaps be best known to some for his 1970s collaborations with Toni Arthur but whose more recent résumé includes two decades editing English Dance and Song and a considerable amount of time collecting songs and tunes in support of his passion for American Old Time music.  Pete Cooper plays, teaches and writes about the fiddle traditions of England, Ireland, Europe and the United States and between them Dave and Pete form two-thirds of Rattle On The Stovepipe.  They play a combination of fiddle, mandolin, banjo, guitar, melodeon and harmonica and the trio is rounded off by Dan Stewart, an accomplished clawhammer banjo player who also contributes guitar and mandolin to the mix.  It’s been their undertaking for several years to explore the relations between the British, Irish and American music and although the songs and tunes on Poor Ellen Smith draw largely on the American string band tradition they also include hints of repertoire from this side of the Atlantic as well as a few more recent compositions.  There’s an awful lot to like here and as one might expect the musicianship throughout is exemplary.  Fiddle and banjo tend to take the lead but there’s enough variety of instrumentation across the 17 tracks to ensure no specific format feels overused.  Dave and Pete share the majority of the vocals with all three providing some sympathetic harmonies at various interludes and the CD comes with some nicely detailed notes for each track which adds a welcome depth to the overall package.

Christy Scott – Amaranthine | EP Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 11.05.17

Christy Scott is a young singer songwriter from the Scottish coastal town of Buckie.  Now studying music at the Royal Conservatoire in Glasgow, this self released EP is her first CD and is a long awaited release.  “Hearts Collide” the EP opener is a strong start, with a gentle Folk Americana feel.  Keening guitars and a rich melancholic vocal grab your attention from the go.  Christy’s voice with its beautiful burr is sympathetically cradled by warm acoustic instrumentation and some beautifully understated playing.  She has surrounded herself with fine musicians, Alice Allen on Cello, Aidan Moodle from Gnoss, also studying at the Conservatoire is on acoustic guitar, Madeleine Stewart a member of Folk Fusion band Eriska plays fiddle, Charlie Stewart, Double Bass is BBC Scotland’s 2017 Young Traditional Musician of the year and a member of Dosca, Neil Paton on drums plays with the Brodie Jarvie Septet, Davie Dunsmuir on electric guitar plays with the Scott Wood Band.  That so many of the players are current or recently past Scottish Conservatoire students is an indication of the musicality here and the sense of the beginning of a future musical pedigree.  The set is titled “Amaranthine” ‘unfading and everlasting’ indeed, a strong opening statement from a musician demonstrating commitment, chops and that they are here for the duration.  “Potion”, track two, has a lighter almost acoustic pop touch.  The tune skips along on the balls of its feet skittish and infectious.  Until the fiddle break it could be The Weepies or 80’s indie guitar pop band The Sundays.  Christy’s voice is pure and clear and holds your attention totally.  The playfully titled “Another Song About Another” features another wonderfully dark country slide guitar riff and a bedrock of a rolling drums from Nel Paton.  The vocal duet at the end of the track is just blissful.  “Flawes to Uncover” is another collision of heavenly vocals, county strings, jazz percussion and skittish guitar.  “Hope Street” the final track is probably the most contemporary sounding track on the EP, the close miked guitar with its valve amp sound and the sounds of fingers on strings sounds very 4AD or Belladonna.  Nothing on this set stays still and the middle section is a percussive clattering drum part, strings and a chilling vocal duet before a big guitar work out and a final vocal that leaves you hanging.  Stunning.  As a listener this five track EP feels like one of those self-service buffets, you load your plate and just keep discovering other things to pile on your dish.  All you can eat indeed.  An assured opener from a strong singer and a set of names that will im sure keep cropping up on future fine recordings.

Johnny Cash – The Original Sun Albums 1957-1964 | Album Review | Sun/Charly | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 11.05.17

If you were to visit Sam Phillips’ legendary Sun Studios in Memphis, you would no doubt be entertained by one of the studio’s current tour guides, who would willingly demonstrate to you just how Johnny Cash achieved his famous guitar sound; by placing a dollar bill between the fretboard of the guitar and the strings.  This very distinctive sound is now as legendary as the studios themselves and the seven albums that were originally released on the Sun label between 1957 and 1964 have been gathered together in one package for the first time, sounding just as fresh today as they did at the time of their original release.  Concealed within a handsome 60-page LP-sized (or slightly under) book, the eight discs include all seven original albums, the complete Sun 45s and a collection of rare recordings, such as the brilliantly shambolic “You’re My Baby (Little Woolly Booger)”, which sees Cash in playful mood.  The 83 songs include one or two duplications, such as “I Walk the Line”, which appears on the first LP, Johnny Cash With His Hot and Blue Guitar and also again on The Songs That Made Him Famous, Johnny Cash Sings Hank Williams (curiously enough), and a fourth time on the RARE! collection.  If the immediately recognisable voice of the ‘Man in Black’ is the focal point here, then there is also something enduring about the almost naive muted guitar twang of regular guitar player Luther Perkins, which although was overshadowed by more dexterous guitar players to come, still remains the iconic sound of the time.  Despite the seemingly prolific output for Sun, recording such classics as “Folsom Prison Blues”, “Cry Cry Cry”, “Hey Porter” and “Rock Island Line”, which opens this set, Cash was only with the label barely a year, leaving for CBS at the end of 1958, yet it’s with these sides that Cash is remembered.  Remastered from the original Sun tapes, the box set is therefore an invaluable record of Cash’s formative recording years, which also gives us an insight into the marketing strategy of a small independent label keen on giving Cash fans precisely what they really wanted at the time.  Fortunately those fans, along with a new breed of followers, can now hear the entire Sun collection whilst reading the sleeve notes and track listings precisely how they appeared the first time around sixty years ago.  File under essential.

Kadia – The Outlandish Collection | EP Review | Self Release | Review by Ange Hardy and Rob Swan | 12.05.17

Kadia first came to our attention by turning up at gigs and immersing themselves in the folk scene. We’ve seen them in audiences at concerts, watching intently from festival crowds, taking part in workshops, and providing some truly stonking support slots.  Their Christmas 2016 support slot for Jim Moray was a particularly enjoyable and impressive performance.  So, it’s fair to say, that expectations for The Outlandish EP were high.  They’ve met and exceeded expectations.  This is a beautifully produced piece of work.  Producing an EP that contains the variety that Kadia have demonstrated shows a real insight into their attention to detail, this release has had a lot of thought put into it.  This is a collection of songs that holds up against anything released by any of the major players in the British folk scene, and that any established act would deservedly be proud of.  “Captain Ward” hits the ground running with lead vocals from Chris Bailey, the “Cricketers Set” demonstrates their ability to turn out tunes with the best of them, lead vocals from Lee Cuff are at the core of the wonderful delivery of “Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight”.  “The Keeper” is an acapalla vocal arrangement that allows David Hoylands vocals to make a more evident appearance on the EP.  “Randy Dandy” then finishes the EP with a relaxed confidence that’s truly admirable.  With three part harmony, and a wonderful blend of instruments (cello, drum kit, mandolin and three piece harmony? Yes please!) Kadia have found a fantastic sound.  This EP lived in our car for well over a week without being taken out of the player.  That speaks volumes.  Production, delivery, and attention to detail throughout are superb. This is an EP that is so well put together it’s hard to remember it’s not a full album until you’re half way through the third listen.  Latterly we’ve spent some time in the recording studio with Lee Cuff; his musical ability, ear, technical knowledge and professionalism are hard to fault.  Keep an eye on these three.  They are on a trajectory that deserves to see their names become more and more known on the contemporary folk circuit.

Carrie Elkin – The Penny Collector | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 19.05.17

Written in a year that was bookended by the birth of Elkin’s first child and the process of caretaking her father through his final months, The Penny Collector is a diary, a poet’s song cycle through all the emotions that these journeys entail.  Lyrically and musically Carrie Elkin manages to be fragile and fierce, raucous and tender raw.  Often at the same time.  This is first and foremost a singer’s album and what a voice, as it whispers and croons then roars open mouthed when the moment is right.  Gathered around Elkin are a collection of fine musicians who know when to quietly stroke the strings and when to roar.  Just as impressive as Carrie’s vocal is the ragged roar of the music, it swerves those warm country sounds and gentle singer songwriter vibes.  Preferring a mix of tender and tumultuous that is often Neil Young like, with its almost contrary contrasts, but savage or sweet it is always beautiful and compelling.  New Mexico opens the album in a way that is both visually and sonically cinematic, with guitar atmospherics and some ponderous piano chords, till Carrie’s vocal, potent and as chrystaline as Nancy Griffith at her best, draws a picture, vivid as a Georgia O’Keefe.  The lyric crackles with emotion and a sense of space.  This is a landscape Elkin is part of, this is she tells us, her New Mexico.  It’s where she was born into the world, it’s where her father, to whom the record is dedicated, recently died.  She feels the power of the landscape run through her in this invocation, like an opening spell.  Guitars scream and squeal constantly evoking the scale and power of the landscape that Elkin’s gripping vocal conjures up in front of us.  “Always On The Run” is an emotional examination of the complex lives of the people that live in the landscape Elkin describes.  In a wonderful duet with some dirty guitar and a great second vocal that recalls Bruce Springsteen at his Nebraska raw throated gritty best.  “Albatross” summons a retro vibe from its valve amp electric guitar sound, the sultry vocal and the washes of organ, part Sun recording part Gillian Welch.  The second vocal and the languid drum beat stretches time as we sit in the heat before a gathering storm, wailing guitar notes suggest distant rumbles of thunder or static on the radio.  Again Carrie Elkin conjures wonderful vivid pictures, atmospheric black and white Walker Evans or Dorothea Lange images flicker before our eyes.  After the dark atmosphere of “Albatross”, “And The Birds Came” lifts the mood slightly with its shuffling dance rythmn that suggests a starkly lit singer on a barn stage before dancing figures.  Beneath the slow dance beat, the lyrics are a dark heartfelt lament for the passing of her father, with Carrie’s vocal perfect but dripping with raw emotion.  “Crying Out” is an achingly beautiful examination of loss and the filling of empty moments built round layered vocals and a wonderfully emotional cello part.  “Tilt A Whirl” recalls the sense of space on Emmylou Harris’ Wrecking Ball.  You can hear that space in Carrie’s vocal, which is intimate and beautifully phrased. Huge guitar notes that decay into noise hang in the air with a ragged beauty.  This song is a wonderful roller coaster, the final verse with its sparse piano coming between the choruses is just glorious.  Listen over headphones or on big speakers and Elkin’s verse vocal at the end is right in your ear, over guitar ambience she wrings emotion and nuance out of every word in a way that is just glorious.  “My Brother Said” is an excuse for some extreme noise guitar that squeals and squalls against the country stripped back beauty of Carrie’s vocal.  A strong cover of Paul Simon’s “American Tune” draws a line under the dark reflection of the album.  Simon’s anthemic words offer truisms and solace, connecting together the anguish and pain that we share.  Elkin’s vocal and delivery of the lyric is pure and commanding.  “Lamp of The Body” with an interesting counterpoint between the song lyric and lyrics from the gospel tune “This Little Of Mine” is a short and sweet uplifting blast to end the album.  After some dark introspection and reflection we are left raised up and carried.  This is simply a glorious album that is going to be on all of those best of year lists, beat the rush get yours now.

Elephant Sessions – All We Have Is Now | Album Review | Elephant Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 20.05.17

Elephant Sessions describe themselves as a neo-trad band.  But by the end of this album you are left feeling that they have transcending traditional traditions and are very much whirling off into their own instrumental world.  Against a rock solid back line musical rules are bent and rewritten in a way that is strikingly fresh and exciting, as John Martyn, himself not a stranger to mixing it up, said on The Road To Ruin in 1970 ‘The needle is new and the patterns are old’ and there is very much a sense of that through this album.  Not that Elephant Sessions are being different for differences sake rather that they follow the music where it takes them and are never constrained by genres or traditions.  So “Wet Field Day” opens with a very new wave guitar riff that is soon shadowed by a very quick fingered mandolin part.  Whatever the genre, this is dance music that slithers and shimmies keeping your feet tapping, but there is an intelligence to the playing and a feeling that someone is calling the changes to stop it ever getting stuck in a straight-ahead groove.  “Lament For Lost Dignity” is one of the most strikingly surprising tracks on the album, from its opening chopping guitar and mandolin exchange to the slightly ‘dubby’ middle section.  The fiddle and mandolin melody is just lovely, while the interesting rhythms put a smile on your face.  Just brilliant.  “Misty Badger” has the feel of one of those knotty folk jazz tunes that Bela Fleck used to delight in, dance music that paradoxically sounds quite tricky to move to. Fiddle and Accordian just fly.  “Dirty”, another album highlight, brings that dirty Jethro Tull metal guitar riff to the folk-rock party.  The fiddle carries the tune while strings, vocal ambience and guitar squalls layer fascinating textures.  “Summer” places a very contemporary finger snap and keyboard part against a Crooked Still mandolin riff.  I want to say bluegrass Coldplay, but, on the page, that sounds as appealing as a porridge cocktail mixed with red bull.  Textures weave through the song, while the mandolin and fiddles spiral on together, it all sounds amazing.  “Tingles” with its richly retro keyboards and ethnic sounding strings has a touch of the Afro Celt Sound System or the Malian Kora about it.  This is going to sound incredible, wafting across a festival field and will drag people to their feet regardless of whatever tradition they think they are dancing within.  The syncopation of the strings build, the electronics rise, the groove is infectious and as a description “Tingles” rather underplays the shamanic feel of the track.  “Frans” is an atmospheric, almost cinematic contrast to the previous track.  A rich fiddle part fills the air over a huge drum pattern.  The mandolin shadows the fiddle in that, four hands, two instruments, one melody way that Elephant Sessions do so well and you are gone, lost in the thick of it.  An organ like keyboard part just adds to the ‘hairs on the back of the neck –ness’ of the whole track.  Beautiful come down music that I could happily listen to all night.  Just when you think you have it all figured out “I Used To Be A Nice Boy” places a dirty early 70s funk line behind a bluegrass like melody.  Melody is melody, but the range of contexts and musical genres thrown into the mix on this captivating album hold your attention to the music every second of the way.  Final track “Doofer” after some outrageous feedback, layers the Martin Barre metal guitar against a driving techo rhythm, imagine Metallica sparring with a beautiful electric fiddle part.  Outrageous, breathtaking music that will stop you and demand your attention.  Play it loud and play it again and again until you are completely folked.

India Electric Co – EC1M | EP Review | Shoelay | Review by Steve Henderson | 25.05.17

The day that downloads entered our music world, the game not only changed for listeners but musicians too.  If you want evidence that the album concept died at that point (or, at least, took a long lay down on a couch), just check out how Ed Sheeran dominated the singles charts with the release of his last ‘album’.  As listeners enjoy the freedom of just downloading the tracks they like, it became obvious that bundling a few tracks together for release needn’t require forty minutes or so of music.  Step to the front of the queue, India Electric Co, whose cunning plan is to release three EPs in 2017 contrasting musical themes from both country and city.  Already having created a buzz with their debut album release, The Girl I Left Behind Me, their first flirtation with a shorter format of twenty minutes is the city influenced EC1M.  Yes, why not name the five track EP after the postcode that inspired the opening track, Farmiloe?  Slipping and sliding, the track is beguiling with its staccato strings and an accordion that comes in and out as does the link into a found sound recorded in Paris.  Drawing from the traditional song “Farewell He” and American poet E.E.Cummings, you’ll get the picture that this duo is not only adept at arranging their music but well-read enough to provide a heady mixture for the music fan.  As “Parachutes” floats in, that staccato feel hovers again in a way reminiscent of how Kraftwerk keep their songs in motion except that Joseph O’Keefe is happy to layer a fiddle over the rhythm along with Cole Stacey’s delicate vocal.  “Camelot” has that same European feel and it’s no surprise that the duo has been not only backing Midge Ure but also opening his shows.  Their sound has that continental flavour that Ure’s Ultravox outfit favoured and I’d imagine that our old European friends will drool over this combination.  Perhaps not surprising, then, that the final tracks “The King of Rome” and “Castles in Spain” namecheck European destinations in songs that also have that layered sound where folk meets jazz meets pop as if on some kind of steadily moving musical travellator.  You can really imagine listening to this in the car or some other leisurely travel situation.  My one difficulty is that the style does dominate in a way that might wear you down in a longer format but, hey, five tracks of inventive music from a duo that seems packed with talent.  Why should I complain?    

Steamchicken – Look Both Ways | Album Review | Chicken Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 25.05.17

Steamchicken musically stir together folk and Cabaret era swing jazz with panache and style.  Formed by Ted Crum when he left Peeping Tom they have been playing festivals for twenty years.  Look Both Ways is their first album with vocalist Amy Kakoura and a fine listen it is too.  From the opening call of the brass section this is an album that sticks up two fingers at our compulsion to pigeon hole.  Is it jazz or folk?  I’ve been listening to it for a while and I am none the wiser.  Opener “Jericho” is an old spiritual that swings along, pushed by Joe Crum’s driving drums and a wonderful brass chorus.  Again and again through the album Amy Kakoura’s vocals are a powerful force, she can be an American Greenwich Village folk singer or a big Shirley Bassey belter and they just sparkle here.  Second track “Brigg Fair”, an English folk song collected by Percy Grainger, is given a treatment that demonstrates the layered beauty that is Steamchicken.  A Reggae drum pattern with just a little studio sparkle opens, the brass chorus joins in and then we get Amy Kakoura in sultry torch singer mode, like Kate Bush at her breathy best.  Saxophones chorus Memphis brass style like a 60s Atlantic Records session and that wonderful voice holds our interest until the end.  “When I Get Low I Get High”, from its compressed sound opening, just oozes with Prohibition era carefree abandon, Amy Kakoura gives Imelda May a run for her money as she spits rock n roll power on this catchy ditty to a pick me up.  “Western Approaches” moves swiftly from folk ballad, with its watery ambience, to a swaggering Kurt Weill number.  Kakoura roars the lyric with the power and passion of 60s Bassey or Mary Coughlan.  This track with its swaggering beat, rolling piano and ‘thumbs in the braces’ music hall delivery typifies the album’s feel good factor and demonstrates it strengths.  Time and time again the music crackles with a power and an ‘other worldliness’ that lifts this far above anything the band has released before.  If you loved Steamchicken already, prepare to have your mind blown.  Indeed the album sleeve notes say ‘here at last we find the fabled Steamchicken in its natural habit: surrounded by an excess of brass, volume and upsetting puns’.  Dodgy word play aside there is a sense here that even the band recognise they have put down something powerful and momentous.  “Gypsy” and “Oh Mary” with their edgy reggae beats, vocalise and jazz brass are enthused with a power that turns well-known lyrics into smoky torch ballads.  “Oh Mary” tips into dub and positively skanks along around a pulsing keyboard riff and a rich blues vocal.  “Big Tin Horn” starts as a kind of retro 30s jazz vocal number, flappers with pearls crooning into an ancient microphone, but the folk reel when it comes twists the whole thing into an alternative dimension, like some kind of musical steampunk.  Intoxicating and just mad.  It sounds like coliding radio stations on a Bakelite ancient radio, as jazz clarinet meshes with harmonica and jigs and reels.  “Foot Falling” is hypnotic, infectious and compelling.  The rhythm section lay down a funky devilish beat that just cooks, huge drums, 70s reggae bass and harmonica defy you to keep still.  The vocal, brass and harmonica spar, in a ‘call and response’ Ska way, that is simply wonderful.  The shifting tempo and vocal gymnastics show that this is first and foremost dance music that will send the audiences wild.  This track, like much of this classy and surprising album, played to the big band Clare Teal Jamie Cullum market could be a huge cross over hit.  “Mary And The Soldier” takes a Folk Ballad and turns it into a big band anthem with a groove and elasticity that Bellowhead could only dream of.  It roars along, as what sounds like an accordion swirls over a reggae infused beat on a bed of big band brass stabs and choruses, till it ends on a rapid crescendo that leaves you gasping.

Torgeir Waldemar – No Offending Borders | Album Review | Jansen Plateproduksjon | Review by Damian Liptrot | 25.05.17

Being completely unfamiliar with Torgeir, I was unsure what to expect as the disc went into the player but what followed was a series of surprises, mostly positive and none unpleasant.  As the music revealed itself, the first surprise was that the first track could have come straight out of the early seventies California singer-songwriter scene, fragile and open with hints back further to the likes of Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton.  No Scandinavian stereotypes here, though the vocal is pure, clear and more Home Counties grammar school than Topanga Canyon, which leads to the second surprise.  Track two crashes in in the manner of “Cinnamon Girl”, with the whole feel of the track reminiscent of Neil Young in his Crazy Horse prime, with neither guitar nor vocal coming as a disappointment to a fan of the real Shakey – definitely more Barn Door than Green Door.  “Among The Low” is next up, offering shades of The Strawbs, Old Crow Medicine Show and a sprinkling of psychedelia, a stand out track amongst a satisfying collection.  The remainder of the album contains other hints of quality influences, Dylan and Harper amongst them.  Lyrically introspective at times but also inviting listeners to consider the wider state of the world.   The only nod towards his Norwegian compatriots’ love of black metal is a reminder that ‘We’re All Going to Die’ as he rocks out once again.  A further surprise occurs as track 8 is replaced by one that appears very familiar, only to be recognised as Track 1 reappearing, meaning that the song content is limited to a slightly disappointing count of 8, as more would have been welcome.  Following the music, a little investigation revealed further surprises.  Whatever images of the singer that the music had conjured were proved incorrect, as a short search revealed a long haired, bearded, black clad individual who could have been a stunt double for Hawkwind’s Dave Brock at any time in the 70s, definitely another hit for Scandi-Noir, and no need for subtitles!

Nick Byrne – Through the Tall Grass | EP Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 25.05.17

The songs on this five track EP offer a slice of melodic, meditative acoustic folk pop.  Nick has a pleasing voice with an earnest melancholic lilt.  Plaintive ballads are underpinned by strings and an occasional electric slide.  Opener “Half” sets a layered vocal over a strummed jangling guitar in a way that recalls Jose Gonzales with a wonderfully English cello.  “Mind Maps” is a gentle reflective song with atmospheric slide, dreamy acoustic strumming and some delicate vocals that bring 70s introspective singer songwriters like Al Stewart or 80s acoustic pop to mind.  “Birch Tree” continues the same feel, with those wonderfully English strings, and the melancholic slide guitar that is one of the CDs highlights.  “This Town” starts with a solo guitar beautifully played, a lovely electric guitar refrain that nods to 80’s indie pop atmosphere merchants The Sundays.  Nick’s guitar on “Through The Tall Grass”, the final track is heavenly, as an exercise in atmosphere it is the most completely successful track on the EP.  A stripped back arrangement lets the tracked vocal shine through and the dissolve into atmospherics and bird song at the end underlines the pastoral imagery and nature of this album​.  Lyrically the imagery ties all of the songs together, making this feel like a song suite that washes over you as a whole or one long soundscape.  A strong opening effort from an intimate performer who turns it down to draw you in.

Afenginn – Opus | Album Review | Westpark | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 26.05.17

Opus is the sixth release from Danish outfit Afenginn and, perhaps, the most suitably titled of the bunch.  The album is, in fact, a symphony of four movements inspired by the “uncontrollable, unforeseeable, yet still somehow navigable” nature of life. Indeed, the album was directly inspired by an accident that left composer and band leader Kim Rafael Nyberg stranded in Tasmania for forty days.  Form the slowly-building heartbeat rhythms of its opening, the organism that is Opus seems to discover itself via its many small and intriguing parts.  In just a few minutes, the album gathers impressive momentum, taking on infectious Eastern European rhythms and chord structures via pieces such as “Bordrone”, “Rasende Tabul” and the effervescent “Akkapolska”.  The musicianship is nothing less than awe-inspiring, with a thirteen-strong line up of clarinetists, percussionists, mandolinists, citternists and violinists to name just a few and not to mention the inclusion of a Bulgarian female choir.  And whilst much of the album presents a criss-crossing exploration of instrumental folk and classical styles, there is also a sprinkling of captivating vocals from Ólavur Jákupsson who provides the haunting, chant-like harmonies on “Luna Televisio” and the heartfelt “Partiro Futile”.  Nyberg has been quoted as saying that Opus is “more like a long-term relationship than a one-night stand”, affirming his right to make a big and long-lasting statement in a world that appears to be obsessed with small and instant gratification.  The eighteen tracks that make up this grand musical statement proudly substantiate their composer’s philosophy in their ability to be ornate, exhilarating and satisfyingly proud of themselves.

Damien McGeehan – The Tin Fiddle | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 26.05.17

Damien McGeehan’s renown as one of Ireland’s best fiddlers is founded on the fine contribution he made to the now disbanded Donegal fiddle trio Fidil.  To many, then, an entirely solo project may seem like a brave departure, but due to some nifty production techniques and an exquisite handling of his instrument, McGeehan’s The Tin Fiddle tricks the ear into presuming that many musicians are at the mike.  Not so.  It may be difficult to grasp the notion, but this album’s array of delicious sounds comes from a single Frankenstein’s monster of an instrument; a fiddle whose parts have been salvaged from a long-retired instrument and bashed into shape by a master tinsmith.  Yes, every note, scratch, bash, pluck and tap on this collection of twelve tunes is the work of one man and one tin fiddle.  There are moments of sprightly delight such as “The Gravel Walks To Grannie” and the familiar “The Four Posts of the Bed”, each with its fair share of elbow-shattering scrapes and nimble pizzicato, as well as moments of melodic elegance such as the sweetly evocative “Eleven Oaks” and the haunting “Paddy’s Rambles Through The Park”.  The album ends with the brand new composition “The Waterfall” which is easily the most painterly of the pieces on the record, its abstract melodies coiling dramatically around ripples of strings and ambient, rain-like fiddle-body percussion to close what is, at once, an album of traditional simplicity and stout-hearted invention.

Dan Walsh – Verging on the Perpendicular | Album Review | Rooksmere Records | Review by Sheila Trow | 28.05.17

The definition of a ‘true great’ is for me, the one who makes it all seem so effortless, somersaulting, and floating through the air whilst landing perfectly, wobble free, just as though little energy, and hours of practice were uninvolved.  The technical skill in Dan Walsh’s Verging on the Perpendicular is patently obvious, but the superb writing, in this eclectic range of tracks, takes the crown.  “Chase Suite”, a slow, intricate, and lyrical piece, is one such track that certainly soars, and is a self-penned contemporary masterpiece!  Ultimately Dan’s sequence of songs and tunes, is rich in diversity, offering a look back to his roots, in a tender rendition of an old Irish folk song, “The Suilin”, and a look forward in “Want What You Don’t Have”, one of his own songs, where he surely shines both lyrically and vocally.  Dan is an exceptional musician, with an obvious love of his main instrument, the banjo.  He plays superbly, and has an undeniable desire to demonstrate the banjo’s versatility, never more so than on “Funky Haystack” a raw track that fair scuttles along, to a percussive back beat.  Subtle rhythm sections and the occasional vocal harmony are rare, yet simply beautiful additions to these original arrangements and unique compositions making this a truly authentic and finely balanced piece of work.  Dan has a combination of musical talent and well-honed craftsmanship.  He manages an unblemished approach to every track and there’s a real sense that nothing is left to chance.  “Leave This Land”, a blue grass piece written by Dan to acknowledge his sadness on leaving New Zealand reflects his love of American roots music, and speaks of his desire to return to a place that became home.  We also encounter traditional folk, a pair of 7/8 tunes, jigs, several new songs, and yet somehow in Dan’s safe hands, they all hang together perfectly.  If you love the banjo, often accompanying a true and honest voice, then you’ll love this CD, and if you don’t usually enjoy banjo music, then in a very short time, be assured, you will grow to love this very fine offering.

Emily Mae Winters – Siren Serenade | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 29.05.17

Emily Mae Winters first came to our attention last year with the release of her four-song Foreign Waters EP, produced by Ben Walker, which clearly pointed in the direction of a potentially promising future.  Confident in this knowledge, the singer songwriter once again teams up with Walker along with Lauren Deakin Davies, who co-produce Emily’s follow up debut full length album Siren Serenade. There’s a healthy mix of British and American country folk here; on the one hand there’s such country-inflected songs as “Hook, Line and Sinker” and “Blackberry Lane”, both of which benefit enormously by Ben Savage’s fine Dobro fills, then Emily alternates this with such British folk club fare as “Fiddler’s Green” and “Down By the Sally Gardens”, both of which are treated to a lavish arrangements, reflecting Emily’s own Irish upbringing and Celtic sensibilities.  This is further exemplified by “The Ghost of the Pirate Queen”, a folk ballad packed with poetic Irish imagery.  With poetry close to Emily’s heart, the dreamy originals continue to hold our attention, such as the lavishly arranged Reprise, the confident power balladry of “As If You Read My Mind” and the gospel-tinged a cappella of the title song, aided by fellow singers Hannah Sanders Lauren Parker and Lauren Bush.  With dreamy cover artwork courtesy of Elly Lucas, Siren Serenade is a fine debut.

Tilly Moses – Alight and Adrift | Album Review | GingerDog Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 01.06.17

This debut album by Tilly Moses, a young Suffolk-born, now York-based singer-songwriter/mandolin player, comes as a result of a lengthy teenage apprenticeship spent writing, performing, collaborating and recording in preparation for this moment.  Tilly’s penchant for theatrical hats and colourful garlands, her frequent exposure at festivals up and down the country and her seemingly beguiling nature have prepared her well for the release of these dozen songs, all of which show a marked maturity since we first heard some of them on stage or via YouTube videos over the last few years.  If her Painted Faces EP, recorded in her mid-teens, effectively got the ball rolling on her burgeoning recording career, then Alight and Adrift is poised to launch that career with more determination.  Tilly’s ethereal voice on such songs as “Definitions”, “Paper Conflicts” and “Flatlands” demonstrates strength and fragility in equal measure, whilst Harbour shows a mature approach to collaboration as she duets with the BBC Folk Award winner Sam Kelly.  Accompanying herself on harmonium and shruti box, as well as her faithful soulmate, the mandolin, the song arrangements have a gentleness that focuses predominantly on her voice, with some empathetic playing from BBC Jazz Award Winner and Mercury Prize nominee Kit Downes, singer-songwriter Samuel McKie, recorder maestro Finn Collinson and Mawkin fiddler James Delarre.  All twelve songs are Tilly Moses originals apart from the traditional “Hares on the Mountain”, which is treated to a strong and determined arrangement here, yet you feel you have heard some of them before, such as “Fear With Fire”, delivered with military precision, which I feel I’ve been listening to for years.  Alight and Adrift is a seriously good debut for a young performer who I’m sure you’ll hear more about very soon. 

Katie Spencer – Good Morning Sky | EP Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 02.06.17

There’s nothing really quite as rewarding in music as bearing witness to a burgeoning talent through an artists’ teenage years, watching that talent grow and develop with an equal measure of drive and determination, whilst taking each opportunity as and when it comes along.  Yorkshire-based Katie Spencer has done her apprenticeship as a floor singer, as the tentative opening act and as the performer who is given the spare twenty minute slot in the festival bar, who can now consider herself an artist who we should take notice of.  Good Morning Sky is Katie’s debut EP which features five self-penned songs, each soulfully performed with convincing passion.  Drawing on the influence of John Martyn, not only collaborating here with two former Martyn band mates, drummer Ted McKenna (SAHB, Rory Gallagher) and keyboard player Foss Paterson (Jethro Tull), but also playing Martyn’s acoustic guitar on the opening song “It’s True”, the EPs atmosphere recalls some of the essence of Martyn’s best music.  The songs are treated to a delicate and mature guitar style to go with her distinctively graceful voice, which is enough in itself, yet Katie makes further room for her musicians to breathe, such as on Magazines, where producer Brian Young offers some sweet guitar licks.  The atmospheric “Moths to the Light” also features Tim O’Connor’s empathetic lead guitar playing, which fits the arrangement perfectly and contributes to the EPs overall dreamy sound.

Track Dogs – Serenity Sessions | Album Review | Monde Green Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 06.06.17

The third album by Track Dogs, the Madrid-based quartet formerly known as the Garrett Wall Band, offers a fine balance of acoustic soul blended with gentle pop sensibilities, augmented by the band’s ubiquitous trumpet sound, courtesy of Sheffield-born Howard Brown.  Recalled for their pretty faithful treatment of Nick Drake’s “Hazy Jane II” on their eponymous debut, we find the same spirit of dreamy pop in the fabric of these eleven songs.  The soulful opener, “To the End”, which incidentally you could imagine being performed by either Al Green or Marvin Gaye, reveals within it a strong anti-bullying message, especially when illustrated by its accompanying video made up of a series of poignant photographs.  The band’s tightness is exemplified in the second song “So Much Dust”, which demonstrates the band’s rich vocal harmonies and strong sense of melody.  With a cover that almost tricks the listener into believing the band to be a bluegrass outfit, we find something entirely different within, not unlike the more recent discovery of Darlingside.  There’s one or two surprises on the record, with a tribute to the former AC/DC frontman in “Bon Scott, He Rocked”, released as the first single from the album, the vibrant stomper “The Lights Went Out in Cotos” and finishing with a fine reading of the old Faces singalong “Ooh La La”.

Front Country – Other Love Songs | Album Review | Organic Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 07.06.17

San Francisco Bay’s ‘roots pop’ five-piece Front Country add a further dozen selections to their repertoire with this their second album, which for the most part showcases the songwriting credentials of singer Melody Walker, whose assured delivery sparkles throughout the album.  Soulful, gritty and determined, Melody lives up to her name with some of her finest songs to date, songs such as “I Don’t Wanna Die Angry”, “Keep Travelin’ and the superb opener “If Something Breaks”, whilst breathing new life and energy into the Carter Family’s 1920s staple “Storms Are On the Ocean” to great effect.  Anyone who has caught the band live will know their instrumental workouts are of a high standard of musicianship creative flair and here Adam Roszkiewicz’s “The Humpback and the Sloth” (or T.H.A.T.S.) demonstrates inventiveness in spades. The band’s combined voices can be best heard a cappella on Walker’s highly personal “Good Side”, which is imbued with a distinctly gospel feel.  For “Undone”, Walker playfully borrows from the novelty song “There’s a Hole in My Bucket”, which in effect demonstrates her confident approach to songwriting.

Sound of the Sirens – For All Our Sins | Album Review | DMF Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 09.06.17

From the opening track “Smokescreen” Abbe Martin and Hannah Wood, who are Sound Of The Sirens, offer an utterly captivating blend of vocal harmonies, strident acoustic guitars and infectious upbeat music.  There is a venom and vim to their delivery, like American duo The Indigo Girls and 90’s UK pair The Dear Janes, Abbe and Hannah contrast sharp lyrics with a bright, edgy upbeat sound.  The duo based in Exeter, met working together at the Timepiece club, where they first performed together.  For All Our Sins is their debut album after a series of wonderful EPs and building a reputation as a captivating and energetic live show.  “Smokescreen” is a belter of a song, hand claps and the pairing of those voices, sometimes together, sometimes apart, makes for an intense rollercoaster of an opener.  “Mr Wilson” and “Together Alone” are a calmer ride, the beautiful call and response vocals are layered against a great finger picked guitar part.  Again, on these tracks, the arrangement of the voices makes a strong impression as Sound Of The Sirens alternate lines or harmonise beautifully.  Listen to the uplifting “In This Time” where the two vocalists build to an anthemic choir delivering a compelling message of hope.  “Grow” is a real ‘fist in the air’ anthemic song that screams positivity and energy like the best of Thea Gilmore.  “Chaos” opens with a rolling bass riff that recalls Harvest era Neil Young or America, but, because this is Sound Of The Sirens, it doesn’t stand still for a second, what sounds like a mandolin joins in before beautiful layered vocals carry you away.  “Cross Our Hearts”, two voices dropping in and out of incredibly tight harmony over beautiful acoustic guitars, represents the essence of what is compelling about this album.  Mental health and being involved in a campaign to raise awareness in primary school education, informs “The Voice” against a bubbling keyboard and a dub rhythm Sound Of The Sirens rail against that small voice inside of us, showing that below bright acoustic music there is a serious message.  Final track “The Circus” starts with swirling sounds and atmospherics, an echo of the track before, creating a sense of the turmoil that the lyric suggests.  Abbe and Hannah set their vocals against each other, syncopating lines to create a kind of conversation lyric that is just stunning, fitting together perfectly.  There is a magic created when voices combine to create harmonies, from Allegri to Crosby Stills and Nash, performers have spun gold using the placing of contrasting voices against and alongside each other.  Sound of the Sirens latest CD fans these long burning embers to create flames.​

Sharon Shannon – Sacred Earth | Album Review | Celtic Collections | Review by Damian Liptrot | 12.06.17

Like a football manager with unlimited funds, Sharon Shannon has reached the point at which she can attract the best players that she wants, assembling a team of Champions League proportions.  As could be expected with such talent on display, they are solid at the back, creative in midfield and adventurous upfront, with all the individuals matching the musical skills of their leader.  Building from a solid base in traditional Irish tunes, the immaculately assembled squad are capable of shifting shape, style and tempo apparently at will, with flashes of instrumental brilliance coming and going as the tunes develop.  Although a dominant theme is the newly found African influence, a quick glance through the list of players will confirm that this is truly world music, with every continent being represented.  It’s just like listening to Brazil, except it’s much, much more than that.  When the voice arrives in track three, “The Machine”, there are still surprises to be had as the powerful state of the globe lyrics are delivered, not only in a traditional style but with elements of both rap and chant and then, to illustrate the role of voice, suddenly shifts to French, whilst continuing the message of concern.   All this is delivered with shifting instrumental patterns but a beat so insistent that it produced a massive percussive attack on the steering wheel whilst stationary and an immediate transfer to the MP3 jogging playlist back at HQ.   It comes as no surprise to find out that the original inspiration for the track came from collaborative work in New Mexico – I wouldn’t have expected anything less.  To return to a football analogy, there are those whose role it is to analyse a game, identifying possession rates, assists, tackles and dribbles completed.   If I watch football, I look to enjoy the ebb, the flow and the unexpected excitement, so I shall leave analysis of particular musical styles, instruments and individual contributions to people better qualified and with a different outlook.  There is, of course, an informative booklet.  Whilst there is a significant amount of inventiveness and fusion throughout, a good player knows when the ball needs to be placed firmly into Row Z and so there are also more traditionally focused tracks but then again, there is the odd diversion into the almost traditional with a good time, southern boogie with Cajun inflections but this is balanced out elsewhere with essence of Breton prog rock.  Sacred Earth, a world of ideas, take a trip around it.

Alun Parry – Freedom Rider | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Damian Liptrot | 12.06.17

From street busker to the beating heart of a musical community, Alun Parry’s output has reached the seven album mark and his commitment, his love of music and the quality of his writing and playing remain undiminished.  As a protest singer with a particular love of Woody Guthrie, Freedom Rider encompasses Alun’s concerns, that can be focussed on individual issues, such as the death of a psychiatric patient, to wider issues of the overlooked history of child labour and the movement for civil rights in the song that gives us the album title.  While he is unlikely to make the playlist of any Tory Battlebus anytime soon, there is a range to his songwriting that moves outside the realm of anger and issues and into the world of interpersonal relationships.  Often tinged with sadness and regret, there is a country element to several of these songs that belie his Liverpool origins – until you notice the unmistakable Scouse twang that adds further character to his delivery.  The music of the Mersey does however flow through his songwriting bloodstream.  There are nods to the Sixties sound, the folk heritage of the Liverpool Spinners and even the chiming pop of the likes of the Lightning Seeds.  Whilst we cannot escape the shadow of Lennon, whereas one thinks of a “Working Class Hero” as something to be, Alun celebrates a working class hero that was, union leader Jack Jones gets his own upbeat memorial.  A true comrade of the city, putting effort into encouraging others, both musically and politically, organising events to share ideas and music, the world needs more Alun Parrys, though the one we already have will do for a start.

The Unthanks – Diversions Vol 4 – The Songs and Poems of Molly Drake | Album Review | RabbleRouser | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 12.06.17

“What’s so hot about reality?” Rachel sings with such aching weight on “Dream Your Dreams”, the second song on this remarkable new record from The Unthanks.  That single lyric, scribbled down by a wistful mother at her parlour piano sometime in the 1950s, not only leaps from the velvet-shadowed grooves of an album so possessed by whimsy and reverie but manages to land with a thud on our modern consciousness.  As the world we live in creases beneath the burden of hideous reality, trust The Unthanks – one of the most ambitious and perpetually fascinating bands currently making music – to furnish this mad, mad world with a very necessary path into preternatural enchantment.  For their fourth volume of  Diversions, The Unthanks present both a celebration and ambitious re-imagining of the music of Molly Drake, the mother of the much celebrated but no less mystifying singer songwriter Nick Drake.  Twenty four years after her death and only ten years since the first official release of the home recordings she made over half a century ago, The Unthanks have fed Molly’s seductive songs through their now renowned mastery for beautifully autumnal performance to create, perhaps, their most arresting album to date.  They have done so with the help of Molly’s daughter, the actress Gabrielle Drake, who weaves a shimmering thread through the record with touching readings of her mother’s image-rich poetry.  Whilst the inky currents of Adrian McNally’s arrangements of piano, voice, bass, fiddle and clarinet, as well as atmospheric field recordings, flow seductively below, Gabrielle’s subtly reverberated voice rises with all the stately flavour of Richard Burton’s contributions to Under Milk Wood and War of the Worlds.  For those who are familiar with Molly’s indelible recordings, with their charmingly inventive piano chords and a voice so hauntingly similar to her famous son’s, songs such as “How Wild The Wind Blows” and “I Remember” will, no doubt, stand out as two of the many pleasing inclusions, along with the aforementioned “Dream Your Dreams” which blends Rachel’s pure and youthful vocals with Becky’s fiddle-bow voice to create some spine-fizzing harmonies.  And whilst Molly’s style lends itself quite willingly to that of The Unthanks, it’s intriguing to hear such unanticipated interpretations; “Little Weaver Bird”, for example, is stolen from the safe little nest that Molly constructed for it and transformed into a powerfully pensive masterpiece complete with chanting harmonies, tolling piano chords and skittering percussion.  The intrigue continues as the collaboration between Gabrielle and The Unthanks yields the astonishing fruit of songs Molly composed but did not record.  “Soft Shelled Crabs”, for example, comes bounding out of Gabrielle’s childhood memories and into the hands of this ever determined band with joyful curiosity.  Diversions Vol. 4 – The Songs and Poem’s of Molly Drake provides another glimpse into the artistry of a band so intent on making music of superlative quality and bare emotion.  By lending their singular compassion to the music and words of Molly Drake, The Unthanks have been absorbed into the beguiling continuum of the Drake family history.  And if it isn’t enough to animate the ghost of that fascinating clan’s inventive matriarch, we’re also offered an appendage of eight extra recordings which can be acquired via The Unthanks website.  And, let’s face it, who wouldn’t be left wanting more?

Boo Hewerdine – Swimming in Mercury | Album Review | Reveal | Review by Marc Higgins | 14.06.17

This is a poppier Boo Hewerdine, who effortlessly manages to reference all the way across the broad music palette of late 60s or early 70s gatefold plush albums.  The opening electronic chords of “Satellite Town” sounds disturbingly like the opening of Hewerdine the musical, with Boo’s dry vocals setting up a narrative while a high production dance number swirls across a West End Stage around him.  Again and again the reflective biographical nature of the lyrics and the musical nods make this feel like an inventive and ironic stage show.  The electro soundscape of “Satellite Town” with occasional atmospheric jazz breaks manages to sound new and classic at the same time.  Rather like a musical Pleasantville, the music sounds knowing and modern while being retro and cool.  Listen to the jazz guitar chords and Bacharach brass stabs on “Voice Behind The Curtain”.  “A Letter To My Younger Self” carries the mood of the autobiographical musical forward, intelligent sharp pop/rock with Steely Dan Saxophone and an infectious chorus.  “My First Band” is built around beautiful Beach Boys vocal lines, with sharp perfect lyrics impeccably delivered in that distinctive Hewerdine wry vocal.  The guitar based troubadour has morphed or has been shed, to be replaced by a carefully crafted intelligent pop artist.  The lyrics are still as sharp as ever, but the soundscape is Ben Folds meets a lush Beach Boys or ELO wash.  “American TV” maintains the song cycle feel with Boo reflecting on the appeal of US technicolour over a valve warm 60s feel production.  “Sleep” another beautifully crafted song, built around a crunching electric guitar part and a 67 County Joe and The Fish organ sound, is almost mid 60’s Beatlesque in the way the vocals run around each other.  “Gemini” explores, through clever word play, a close relationship with retro references to the American Space Program and an ear worm of a discordant electric guitar.  “The Boy Who Never Cried Wolf” sets sequenced electronic keyboards against Hewerdine’s vocals in a way that almost recalls the Pet Shop Boys, with another infectious tune and a superb arrangement.  “The Year That I Was Born” shifts back and forwards through time, the bassline is 70s Pink Floyd, the lyrics are peppered with early 60s references, as they would be, managing to be nostalgic and thoughtful.  Think of a tasteful and poignant spin on the sentiment of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire”.  The song oozes sadness and nostalgia that kind of warm melancholia of a man staring into his pint sitting on the bar.  “Drinking Alone”, a song about drinking, by contrast manages to be jaunty, like a Chas and Dave or Music hall number with the keyboard refrain that sounds like an insistent alarm clock cutting through the morning after fog just adding to the songs wry humour.  “An Atheist In A Foxhole” is a piano ballad, pure jazz with a wash of saxophone, poignant lyrics and an arresting delivery that catches your heart strings.  “Swimming In Mercury” is an another aching song that deals deftly with pain, loss and the troubles of day to day living.  A stripped back ballad with a retro percussion loop, beautiful guitar and a lyric that ends the album perfectly.  After writing Radio Ballads for the BBC and the recent Child Migration series, producing other artists, recording and touring as State of the Union with American guitarist Brook Williams, recording and touring with Eddi Reader, Lau’s Kris Drever and Duke Special, producing the excellent My Name In Brackets retrospective and releasing an album of lost recordings.  This feels like a new direction, but not in a self-conscious Spinal Tap way, rather in a growing and constantly evolving kind of way.  This is a real game changer of an album, Boo Hewerdine’s albums consistently gather 5 stars and critical acclaim, but Swimming in Mercury, takes that then makes you sit and smile for the sheer unexpectedness of it managing to be beautiful and strange, familiar and fresh. ​

Tift Merritt – Stitch Of The World | Album Review | Yep Roc | Review by Steve Henderson | 15.06.17

With supporters like Hiss Golden Messenger, Andrew Bird as well as Don Henley who recorded her song Bramble Rose from the debut album of the same name, many have wondered why Tift Merritt has not more firmly established herself at the top of the music tree.  As this, Merritt’s sixth studio album, Stitch of the World evidences, she’s got the songwriting and vocal skills that should seal the deal for listeners.  Growing up in North Carolina, she may have previously found inspiration for her songs whilst living in such as Paris but on this occasion, like other songwriters, the artistic fuel was some upheaval in her private life.  Stitch of the World gathers together titles like “Heartache Is An Uphill Climb” and “Love Soldiers On” that hint at that personal pain.  Both of these being the type of soulful song that allows Tift’s vocal to waft across the music like a cooling breeze at one minute before powering the song along in another.  An approach that has had some critics make vocal comparisons with Emmylou Harris and Dusty Springfield.  However, the record starts with “Dusty Old Man” with driving drum rhythms and some great guitar that looks at the brighter side of relationships and contradicts the more obvious themes in some songs.  Therein lies some of the mystery in her writing because she’s not a teller of tales but a painter of pictures with lyrics leaving room for the listener to draw from their own imagination.  No surprise, then, that the lyrics of “My Boat” are adapted from a poem inspired by the writing of Raymond Carver.  Similarly, songs like the joyful “Proclamation Bones” and the mournful “Icarus” are mysterious in their way but hint at searching out love and losing it.  Indeed, the title track itself with its neat guitar motif can be read as a describing love’s place in holding the world together.  More twinkling guitar work from Marc Ribot lays scattered across other tracks adding a suitable contrast to the gliding steel guitar work of Eric Heywood.  Towards the end of the record, Sam Beam of Iron and Wine offers up delicious duet vocals on three tracks with some spectacular results, especially on “Eastern Light”, signalling an opportunity for future work.  In fact, you’ll get more of this if you splash out on the deluxe version of the album which has three extra tracks.  Whatever you choose, rest assured Stitch of the World does, of course, add to the rich tapestry of life.

Richard Durrant and Ismael Ledsesma – Durrant y Ledesma | Album Review | The Burning Deck | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 16.06.17

The Brighton-born guitarist and composer Richard Durrant is a musician who rigorously refuses to be labelled.  A quick spin of any of his records – and there are many of them – demonstrates the diversity at work in this artist’s repertoire.  Durrant is as much a classical guitarist as he is a folk guitarist.  For every bit of Scotland and England in his playing there is a little South America and a pinch of Eastern Europe, too.  Indeed, Durrant not only crosses geographical boundaries with his music but also those of time; recent albums, for example, have focussed on music from the thirteenth century as well as arrangements of Vivaldi and Bach.  For his latest outing, Durrant has teamed up with Paraguayan harpist Ismael Ledesma to produce an album of such fetching elegance that you find yourself taking a deep breath between tracks.  These are tunes that lull the listener into a state of total tranquillity, not simply due to their sweet melodies but via the exquisite musicianship that, during such tracks as “Guarania Para Shoreham” and “Amazonas”, lends new profundity to the act of plucking a single string.  Both players are deeply connected to their instruments and, like the collaborations of Seckou Keita and Catrin Finch or Ballake Sissoko and Vincent Segal, it’s often hard to know where one musician ends and the other begins.  There are also some moments of jubilant energy on this wonderfully engaging eleven-track album, such as “La Balada Del Indio” and “El Vagabundo” that ripple the serenity with equal vigour and grace.

Bellevue Rendezvous – While Rome Burns | Album Review | Journeyman | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 18.06.17

With their wide repertoire of European tunes and a uniquely attractive sound, Scottish trio Bellevue Rendezvous make a welcome return with this impressive third album.  While Rome Burns consists of ten instrumentals with such alluring titles as “Vals etter Sigurd Aalmen”, “Hvit Marsj” and “Hicazkar Sirto” as well as other such evocative names as “Piping the Fish”, “The European Dream” and “Source of the Spey”.  The music is just as handsome as the titles suggest, especially as the trio rely on such instruments as the Swedish nyckelharpa and cittern, along with fiddle and guitar to create their crisp and shimmering sound.  Gavin Marwick, the trio’s fiddler, provides the opening track “Smoke and Mirrors”, a darkly pensive tune which he wrote “a while ago, somewhere in Europe” and one that segues neatly into the optimistic charm of “Mozaik”, penned by the trio’s guitarist Cammy Robson.  This beautiful opening gives way to a series of tunes from Galicia, Norway and Finland, showcasing Ruth Morris’s nyckelharpa and including the traditional “Onga Bucharesti”, a stirring wedding reel that was introduced to the trio by De Dannan’s Andy Statman.  Gavin’s compositional artistry returns soon, however, with the notably Scottish-flavoured set of tunes “Piping the Fish” (Marwick), “Source of the Sprey” (Trad) and “The Unicorn” (Marwick), each providing a subtly spellbinding, dreamlike prelude to Marwick’s political twosome Nero’s and “The European Dream” which present a rousing ‘fiddler’s eye view of world events’.  With one foot entrenched in the Scottish folk tradition but all other limbs reaching enthusiastically into the rest of Europe, Bellevue Rendezvous deliver an album of distinct optimism, joy and musical unity with While Rome Burns, and one that will insist on taking you along for the ride.

Albert Hammond – In Symphony | Album Review | BMG | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 21.06.17

In other hands, an orchestrated release of one’s back catalogue might prove to be something of an act of desperation.  Indeed, who needs a large and expensive orchestra only to have it drowned out by the sound of a barrel being scraped?  In the hands of legendary songsmith Albert Hammond, the reality is quite different. Hammond is one of the few songwriters whose songs, thanks to their incredible durability, cross genres and generations and never seem to be tarnished by repeated handling.  Take the opening song on this treasure chest of Hammond originals; “It Never Rains in Southern California” has been covered by a long list of diverse artists including Sonny & Cher, Barry Manilow, Agnes Chan, Trent Summar, Japanese musician Saori Minami and Latin singer Andy Russell.  And yet, on In Symphony, the latest release from its composer, this classic 1972 song seems fresher than ever.  At last, a record of well-known songs treated to orchestral arrangements is something to be celebrated.  Flourishing flutes, lush strings, majestic brass and inspiring choral arrangements are lovingly layered over a tight band, widening each track to reveal curious nooks and crannies that may have been overlooked during previous covers.  Hammond’s splendid and timeless masterpiece “To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before” sounds monumental with its lavish string accompaniment, as do “When I Need You” and “Don’t Turn Around”, both better known via versions by Leo Sayer and Ace of Base but, perhaps, never better recorded.  There are also moments of eye-opening delight as you realise the sinuous journey that Albert Hammond’s songwriting has taken. A Spanish version of the Celine Dion-recorded “Just Walk Away” is included under the title “Alejate”, as is a somewhat Disney-fied rendition of Hammond’s “I’m a Train”.  Of course, no matter how these songs are arranged, much of the quality that’s ingrained here comes from the songs themselves – melodies that seem to be sewn into the very fabric of our shared musical consciousness – as well as Hammond’s suitably weathered vocals.  In Symphony is a gift of precious treasures, wrapped in new paper and bestowed upon us with loving care.

Various Artists – New Orleans Brass Bands: Through the Streets of the City | Album Review | Smithsonian Folkways | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 23.06.17

“Jazz grew up in a thousand places, but it was born in New Orleans” the great film-maker Ken Burns once said, acknowledging the fact that the roots of this evergreen musical genre first broke ground over a century ago in the Louisiana city’s Congo Square.  But whilst jazz has done much of its evolving in such disparate locations as Chicago, New York, Paris and Havana, the very spirit of the music still haunts the ornate streets of the Big Easy.  New Orleans Brass Bands: Through the Streets of the City provides a briefly joyous glimpse at the beating heart of jazz in that unique city via recordings of some of its most renowned brass bands.  The Liberty Brass Band, Treme Brass Band and Hot 8 Brass Band are each represented here through their ebullient renditions of such staple jazz compositions as “The Sheik of Araby”, “Lily of the Valley”, “Amazing Grace” and “Old Rugged Cross”.  Take a moment to savour the artistry behind the Liberty Brass Band’s version of Panama, a languorously pendulous tune that reminds us why jazz’s earliest conjurings contained the fire that continues to fuel it.  Get beyond the complacency we’ve imposed upon early jazz and you’ll find, especially within the Hot 8 Brass Band’s superb New Orleans (After the City), an ever-fresh and utterly exciting music that refuses to let go throughout this effervescent and celebratory disc.

Shortstuff – Big Blue | Album Review | Blonde on Blonde | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 23.06.17

British folk club circuit favourites since the mid-70s, Dave Thomas and Hugh Gregory – better known as Shortstuff – have finally been given the opportunity to release a selection of their archive recordings via their new collection, Big Blue.  The acoustic bluesmen recently uncovered a selection of long-lost tapes from their early days in a London attic and, by adding a few recordings from the early 90s along with some gentle mixing, the spirit of this fine blues duo has been forever preserved on a short but utterly engaging disc.  The material would please any self-respecting blues fan. Included here are pleasing covers of songs by JJ Cale “Magnolia”, John Mayall “Sitting In The Rain” and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee “Love’s a Disease” as well as a haunting, string-accompanied version of the traditional Honeybabe.  There’s also a dapper take on the Dan Hicks number “O’Reilly At The Bar” which features some fine guitar improv, a slinking bassline and a snappy little snare.  With some flavoursome acoustic solos, chugging rhythm guitar and honey-sweet vocals, this is a record which, after four decades, we’re fortunate to finally have available to us.

Sam Amidon – The Following Mountain | Album Review | Nonesuch | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 23.06.17

There’s nothing quite straightforward when it comes to Sam Amidon; there always seems to be a surprise around each corner.  Highly experimental at the best of times, nothing really could have prepared our ears for the closing track on this Sam’s sixth album The Following Mountain, where Sam’s love of free jazz becomes a little more than apparent, almost twelve minutes of it to be precise.  It’s to this album what “Hair Pie: Bake 1” was to Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica almost fifty years ago; self expression on a grand scale, aided and abetted by drummer Milford Graves, who drives the improvisational piece along.  Elsewhere we see the more familiar Appalachia, albeit from Amidon’s own pen for the first time, with Sam’s dry vocal permeating “Fortune”, “Juma Mountain” and “Another Story Told”, in which Amidon’s Viv Stanshall-like “fiddle” announcement midway through would probably have been left out in the hands of any other musician.  Not Sam Amidon though, who in this one instance reminds us of who we are listening to.  As with all Sam Amidon’s albums, it’s difficult to listen through just the once and a repeat play is an essential requirement.  Helping out are Leo Abrahams (Brian Eno, Regina Spektor) handling production, multi-instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily, drummer Milford Graves, guest percussionist Juma Sultan (who worked with Hendrix, notably during his Woodstock set) and saxophonist Sam Gendel, who gets a name check in the title of track five and plays a blinder solo throughout.  If this is the way Amidon’s music is heading, gimme more.

Skipinnish – The Seventh Wave | Album Review | Skipinnish Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 23.06.17

The belief in the power of the Seventh Wave, when compared to those that came before, runs through folklore and legend the world across.  This is Skipinnish’s seventh album and arrives on a wave of popularity with successful single releases and sell out live shows across the country.  There is a sense of rebirth too, as amidst the groundswell, the album also features the lead vocals of new member Norrie MacIver.  With great memories and gratitude to past members the band acknowledges that it is aware of its past and excitedly poised to sail on.  Alive the opener is a swelling song of affirmation with a hymn like verse that opens the album beautifully.  A choir like chorus creates an atmosphere as if we are gathered around a church piano before the band kicks in and we swirl away.  The writing is rich, with nautical metaphors and imagery that celebrates the joy of being alive “feel the bliss wash your being”.  The song has a perfect simple beauty and could well come to be their “Meet On The Ledge”.   First set of tunes “The Hag” blasts away any sentimentally on a swell of driving rhythms and superb playing.  As in many great things, the devil is in the detail and across the set there is control and constraint with beautiful airs and then passages where you just want to surrender to the music and chuck yourself about.  “Harvest Of The Homeland” is another affirming song with Skipinnish keeping a torch alight for a way of life that is clearly close to their hearts.  Again the writing is rich with metaphor and imagery, people are small against a huge sky and a powerful landscape.  There is a soulful power in the massed voices, organ and a snarling folk rock electric guitar.  “Ocean Of The Free” begins as a work song round that recalls the warm folk popularised by bands like Port Isaac’s Fisherman’s Friends. But in the hands of Skipinnish the form twists with a snarling folk verse and a swaggering ‘pogo’ tempo that celebrates the life of Hebridean sailors.  The writing gives the song a strong sense of place and connection, while the driving rhythm never lets us forget that this is dance music.  “The Iolaire” shows again the thoughtful side of the band.  A lyrical piano and an emotional violin open a song that describes the sinking of the Iolaire in 1919 and the loss of at least 205 sailors returning to Lewis having fought in The First World War.  The song drips with irony as it details the loss of men who had survived four brutal years in the futile fields of war and describes how they were in sight of the harbour lights of home when they wrecked.  Again Skipinnish, give the island dwellers perspective, using the dark savagery of nature to remind us of the smallness of man.  Even war, which is the worst of man’s excesses, is surpassed by the blind indiscriminate scythe that is the sea around the islands.  The sailors had survived the war, but the first day of peace would show their bodies, carried ashore on the morning tide with the scattered wreckage.  Like the song, there is a melancholic beauty and a cold power in the gathered choir of vocals and Caitlin LR Smiths haunting vocals.  If that doesn’t bring at least a lump to your throat then nothing will.  December is a wonderful song that sets the cold of winter against the warm whisky glow of love.  Love of course conquers everything and we are left with a wonderful guitar and keyboard atmospherics instrumental that crackles with heartfelt emotion.  Second set of tunes “The Old Woman” sets three jigs and dances between two Gordon Duncan tunes from a slightly wider tradition.  The first “The Soup Dragon” celebrates one assumes The Clangers, themselves travellers from slightly further away than the North Sea, the second, written by a man described as the Jimi Hendrix of the Bagpipes, honours legendary musician Rory Gallagher.  “The Island” is a song suite opening with a lyrical electric guitar that is part Pink Floyd part Knopfler.  The set of songs celebrates island life and those distant summers which are always perfect.  There is a warmth and a longing for a place and time and a strength to the words, suggesting that this is a traditional song in the making.  Like so much of the album from the evocative cover through many of the songs, “Home On The Sea” and “Walking on the Waves” describe the joy of coming back to the islands and the seas that they are set in.  “Walking on the Waves” is a revisit of an earlier Skipinnish, here given a new edge and power.  “Alba” with emotional vocals is carried along on waves of electric guitar that gives it a folk-rock swagger and power.  Skipinnish manage to add light and shade by slowing it down for a beautiful vocal section.  The album closes with a rich array of tunes within “MacNab’s Set” and finally “Cro Chinn t-Saile”.  The playing is always impressive and powerful.  The opening quickstep sets powerful Highland Bagpipes to the fore, through “The Devil In The Kitchen” and some Gaelic tunes the music pulses and swirls around you in waves, the tempo rises and falls and you marvel at the tightness of the playing and the way the music changes.  “Cro Chinn t-Saile” is a powerful closer, it opens with a slow air that is all atmospherics while the opening and closing stops of the accordian play a mournful tune.  This morphs perfectly into Bagpipes that carry the tune on in a way that is stately and cinematic.  The final section with the massed Gaelic voices guilds what was already pretty close to perfect.  For a traditional music dance band Skipinnish pull expertly and dexterously on your heart strings when they want to.  While for a lyrical instrumental band, they can get you up and dancing like a beast possessed, with an ease that seems almost unearthly.  In The Seventh Wave by Skipinnish you have very much the best of both worlds, the fire and the wonder.​

Lena Laki – Take Me With | EP Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 24.06.17

Lena Laki is a London based German born singer who has progressed from Jazz and Folk covers to her own brooding ‘Cohen-esque’ material.  Take Me With is her debut release and it is an assured opener with glorious arrangements and a confidence in its delivery.  The songs are rich almost lush without being overblown or overplayed at any point, there is poise, power and restraint.  Lena Laki’s vocals capture from the start of the first track a sense of intensity, longing and melancholy.  The rhythm is carried on a strummed electric guitar but what grabs you is the glorious vocals and the superb string arrangement.  Brings most strongly to mind the melancholy of Nick Drake the intimacy of 80’s 4AD vocalist Heidi Berry.  Craving uses a bigger vocal, alongside the crystalline fragility there is a roaring power as Lena lets with rip with a heartfelt vocalise.  On both tracks the different deliveries completely hold your attention.  Stab has a music hall Kurt Weill roll and lilt to it, like Mary Coughlan at her best Lena Laki sounds like she is stalking a small theatre stage from a Degas painting, spitting the words into the footlights.  The soaring gypsy violin just cements the feeling of time and place on this emotional roller coaster of a track.  “Now It’s Time” is more intimate, again much of the atmosphere comes from the interplay between the strings, the guitar and Laki’s rich vocals.  “Another Woman” is a jazz torch song, as the wounded singer tells a tragic tale of the trapped over a sparce piano.  The arrangement is beautifully judged building and falling to hold your attention perfectly.  More like this please.

Hamsa – Lawless, Winged and Unconfined | Album Review | Proper | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 26.06.17

Opening with the most achingly beautiful clarinet you’re ever likely to hear, Lawless, Winged and Unconfined is an album of searing and untameable expression from a band that injects new energy into klezmer.  Led by clarinettist and composer Merlin Shepherd, Hamsa clearly thrive on improvised jams to mould their infectious sound; a fact which comes into focus via the little opuses of “Soon It Will Be May”, “Sahar” and the album’s title track.  Glenn Sharp provides some razor-sharp guitar as Simon Russell and Ruth Goller pound out their impressively incisive basslines.  And whilst Guy Schalom’s frothy drums keep the band from flying off in all directions, it’s the liquidy Hammond organ and brawny accordion of Carol Isaacs that binds the whole thing.  The zenith of the album is reached during its title track; a breathless, ever-ascending piece which owes as much to Jimi Hendrix and Jefferson Airplane as it does to traditional Jewish music.  Lawless, Winged and Unconfined is, as its title suggests, a constantly ambitious album from a group of musicians who place exploration at the forefront of their performance and, thanks to the compositional prowess of Shepherd, there are plenty of intriguing nooks and crannies to plunder here.

Solana – Camino | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 28.06.17

Camino is the third album by Bristol-based gypsy band Solana since their debut in 2012.  The eight-track album once again presents a sublime splash of continental colour from a band whose name is Spanish for the “sunny side of a mountain”.  Indeed, the whole album is drenched in sun, from the light and airy “Once”, which successfully blends Celtic melodies with lush Spanish rhythms, to the seductive “Diving” with its impishly plucked fiddle, hypnotic guitar phrases and reggae beat.  With Camino, Solana have once again absorbed a plethora of world rhythms to explore some of the most beguiling settings for their melodies.  This is never more apparent than in tracks such as Gnomad, with its complex but infectious drum beat and effervescent fiddle/flute lead, and the accordion-fuelled “Cheap Nougat” which blurs the line between sizzling Spanish flamenco and polka.  A wonderfully sunny album for the summer ahead.

Alice Marra – Chain Up the Swings | Album Review | Inner City Sound | Review by Marc Higgins | 29.06.17

Alice is a member of Dundonian Indie Popsters The Hazy Janes, but she is presenting a set of her father Michael Marra’s songs.  Michael Marra’s rich writing was rooted in the Folk tradition and shot through with a real sense of Scotland and Scottish life.  After successful career as a musican and composer of classic songs Michael died in 2012.  On the collection of Marra classics and rarities Alice is backed by a band that includes members of Michael’s Gaels Blue Orchestra.  Alongside this release Michael Marra’s back catalogue from 1980’s The Midas Touch and High Sobriety the solo concert from 2000 is being comprehensively reissued.  Michael had collaborated with the Hazy Janes including his children Alice and Matthew both on record and in concert and Alice continues that collaboration on Chain Up The Swings.  The arrangements on the songs are rich and lush with a stately quality.  Alice’s voice is pure and clear an obviously contrast to Michael Marra’s world worn rumbling burr.  On classic songs like Frida Kahlo’s “Visit To The Taybridge Bar” the cadence of her crystalline vocal is a beautiful contrast to Michael’s familiar reading of his lyrics.  On Frida Kahlo’s “Visit To The Taybridge Bar” especially there is a fragile power to Alice’s tender reading of the surreal story.  Her vocals on “Mother Glasgow” are warm, giving the song a hymn like quality.  The band is understated and sympathetic, never showy, the guitar solo and choir vocals on “Goodnight Lovely You” are classy and serve the song well, there’s nothing histrionic or overstated.  The playing on tracks like “Chain Up The Swings” oozes with the languid swing or tasteful restraint of Van Morrison’s band or Nanci Griffith’s Blue Moon Orchestra and straddles genres like the best of both those bands.  Brass, Piano, Clarsach, the instruments may be drawn from different backgrounds, but the whole has a cohesion and a dreamlike quality.   The piano notes and ethereal vibes that blend into “Mincing Wi’ Chairlhi” have a jazz shuffle and a lightness that recalls kd Lang at her most heavenly.  On this track again the sparkling piano and lightness of touch puts me in mind of Van Morrison around the Hymns to the Silence era and add to the same spiritual quality in the music.  The songs with their evocative mix of surreal imagery and the ordinary injected with magic realism are Michael Marra’s, while Alice’s singing and the album is a heartfelt tribute that breathes a new life into the mix of the obscure and familiar.  With the simultaneous re-release of Michael Marra’s rich catalogue his fans are in for a treat and both old and new Marra enthusiasts will enjoy the feel and experience of Chain the Swings.

Various Artists – Pop Makossa | Album Review | Analog Africa | Review by Marc Higgins | 01.07.17

The word Makossa, immortalised on the international hit by Manu Dibango “Soul Makossa”, comes from the Douala word to dance.  First and fore-most the Pop Makossa compilation is dance music.  Whichever of the 12 tracks, recorded between 1976 and 1984, you start with you will not be sitting down for long.  Makossa, typified by the Dibango hit is built round a heavy central bass beat with lots of Brass accompaniment.  What connects the music on this compilation is that it all comes from a period where Makossa was infused with funk and disco to make an infectious hybrid.  The label Analog Africa, do very much what is says on the tin, indulging in bigtime international crate diving and the musical equivalent of those Victorian plant collectors, tracking down forgotten classics or unheard gems from the past to make wonderful collections of African music.  Their tagline ‘the future of music happened decades ago’ sums up what is exciting about their compilations and their attitude to music, driven by the idea that the best music you’ve never heard was recorded, forgotten and languishes in this case in Cameroon.  The sleeve of the album, part Russian Constructivist poster with its giant red letters, part tribal art pattern, part mad Godzilla Science Fiction poster very much sets the scene for the eclectic music within, visually representing the collisions of folk and urban styles.  The album opens with Dream Stars’ “Pop Makossa Invasion”, a wonderfully chopped electric guitar, as funky as anything Chic ever did and a trance like vocal chorus stand out in a strong opener.  There is a wonderful lo-fi and otherworldly vibe to the track which has the feel of a shamanic long loose Fela Kuti piece.  This first track is the epitome of crate diving, so obscure, even within Cameroon itself, as to not as even been released at the time of recording.  “Yaounde Girls” from 1984 has a great rhythm, some superb analogue keyboard sounds and a bass line groove to die for.  The slightly phased woozy shifts through the track add to the feeling that is being played on a hot ghetto blaster in the past.  Or that the studio tapes have languished forgotten in humid obscurity and we now listen to their flawed beauty through a sonic patina added by time.  Bill Loko on “Nen Lambo” is a great energetic vocalist with the lilt and drive of an early Youssou N’Dour.  Again, the brass like stabs of early synth keyboards are wonderful analogue textures, while the bright pop production produces a track as infectious as the best of Kylie or anything by Stock Aitken and Waterman.  Eko’s “M’ongele M’am” has the percussion, brass and infectious call and response chorus of The Gibson Brothers’ “Cuba” and “Oh What A Life”, effortlessly demonstrating what a massive hit this could have been with international recognition on its release in 1980.  Hopefully labels like Analogue Africa will release us from the shackles of international distance and propel us by the ears to a future as musically rich and diverse as our gardens are, enriched by earlier botanists and collectors.  Olinga Gaston’s “Ngon Engap” from 1977 is one of the earliest tracks and its wonderful guitar line and beat perfect frenetic rhythm makes it my favourite track from the set, along with the looping guitar licks and solo on “Ye Medjuie” the next track.  The grooves continue with tight rhythms and superb vocals through tracks by Nkodo Si-Tony and Pasteur Lappe.  The Bass solo on “The Sekele Movement” and the songs raw rap like vocals are other gems to listen out for.  The liquid bass line on “The Sekele Movement” the rubbery shuffle underpinning the Mystic Djim and those wobbling notes on “More Love” serve to remind why Cameroonian bass players are renowned the world over.  Pat’ Ndoye’s “More Love” uses a simple lyric, superb vocals and an infectious hook in a way that worked worldwide for Bob Marley, to create an excellent feel good track.  Some fine Saxophone and Trumpet drive the middle section and means that even at eight and a half minutes there isn’t a wasted moment.  I’d defy anyone to remain still for this track especially as again the spirit of Fela Kuti looms large.  Clement Djimogne’s “Africa” layers simple riffs to build tension, while its treated vocals and tempo drive it on relentlessly.  Deni Shain, DJ, music producer and Analogue Africa associate travelled to Cameroon, travelled to Cameroon to finalise the project, license the songs, find archive photos and connect with the Artists.  His journey from the port of Douala to the Cameroon capital of Yaounde brought him into contact with the lives and stories of many of the featured musicians.  Shain met Bernard Ntone whose lone single as band leader, the infectious slab of Afro-funk Mussoloki was recorded on the sly using dead time at the end of a Manu Dibango session in 1977.  It took nearly a year but he managed to track down the illusive Bill Loko in Paris.  Sadly, Deni wasn’t able to meet Mystic Djin who had died in 2009.  Yet Mystic’s widow greeted him by saying she had always believed someone would coming looking for his music.  She was right the time for rediscovery of so much music through the efforts of Analogue Africa is finally here.  Dig deep on this album and back into the Analog Africa catalogue

Ashley Hutchings – Street Cries | Album Review | Talking Elephant | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 02.07.17

The re-issue of Ashley Hutchings’ collection of dark traditional songs Street Cries, which contains revamped material, songs altered to suit the present day back then at the turn of the Millennium, clearly indicates that nothing much has changed over the last sixteen years.  Dressed in a new sleeve, where the image of a bell-ringing ‘Governor’ has been ditched in favour of a much more contemporary Banksy-like illustration, the songs still sound as fresh today as they did back in 2001.  The thing that startled most listeners back then was the quality of Hutchings’ collaborators, whether they be the new kids on the block (Cara Dillon, Kathryn Roberts) or the established old guard (Dick Gaughan, June Tabor, John Tams, Dave Burland), their voices add weight to this collection of songs.  No stranger to the rehashing of old folk songs and putting a new slant to them, Hutchings drives the dozen songs along, joined by some fine instrumentalists, including Phil Beer, Joe Broughton, Ken Nicol and Pete Zorn.  If the collaborative efforts of those involved is key to the appeal of these songs, including the fine juxtaposition of Judy Dunlop and John Tams on “He Ran Out of Road”, based on the traditional “Salisbury Plain”, it has to be said that the rich variety and inimitability of the solo voices really does put the cherry on top of the cake, including the voice of Helen Watson with her bluesy “Salford Girls”, Dick Gaughan’s assured performance of “Young Henry Martin” and the late Vin Garbutt’s interpretation of the “Three Jolly Beggars”, a voice that is already greatly missed on the music scene.

Willie Nelson – God’s Problem Child | Album Review | Legacy | Review by Steve Henderson | 03.07.17

Into his eighties, still touring, still recording, Willie Nelson has an energy and career that has never stopped revealing musical treasure.  God’s Problem Child is the first album of new songs since his Band of Brothers release in 2014.  And, yes, it’s another treasure trove of great songs.  With his advancing years, it’s almost inevitable that he’s in reflective mode considering mortality and all that brings with it.  Please don’t let that put you off by assuming that this is a depressing collection of songs that would even turn off the ‘dark is beautiful’ crowd.  No, this is a master songwriter that can offer songs that bring a tear to the eye as well as those that make you chuckle too.  That wit turns up in songs with titles that speak for themselves like “Your Memory Has A Mind Of Its Own” and “Still Not Dead” with the latter poking fun at past exaggerated reports of his demise.  While he’s clearly still on fine form, let’s not ignore the assistance Willie gets from Buddy Cannon, producer and co-composer of seven of these songs including the two already mentioned.  The songs aren’t all focussed on death and, in what is becoming standard for any US release, he has his say on the recent election of Donald Trump.  Pointing out the country had the chance to be ‘brilliant again’ but blew it, on a song with the advisory title of “Delete and Fast Forward”.  Similarly, there’s a beautiful version of “A Woman’s Love” which considers the comfort that love provides us in life.  The centre piece title track deserves a special mention with its wonderful slow blues and consideration of how God doesn’t call time on life for bad behaviour.  Written by Jamey Johnson and Tony Joe White and featuring the distinctive vocals of the latter as well as Leon Russell on, possibly, his last recording, it’s a classic worthy of being adopted for use as the album title.  While on the topic of the dear departed, the album closes with an affectionate cover of Gary Nicholson’s tribute to Merle Haggard, “He Won’t Ever Be Gone”.  By the way, check out their 2015 record with the tongue in cheek duet “It’s All Going To Pot”.  Whilst I can’t confirm that Nelson’s longevity results from his well recorded views on the benefits of cannabis, it’s no hallucination that with albums like this one he’ll never be gone.

Harri Endersby – Homes/Lives | Album Review | Ivy Crown Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 05.07.17

There is a swagger, a potential that bursts out of every note of Homes/Lives, Harri Endersby debut album release. Her voice, solo or in a multi chorus is assured, confident and always demanding of your attention.  The band, Endersby, Rich Marsh and the wonderfully named Curtis Wayne Pierce Jr, sounds like a million pounds and along with some smart production add considerably to the whole.  At no point on repeated listens have I felt this was the tentative sound of a musicians first faltering steps.  This is someone striding confidently to the full spot light of centre stage and letting rip.  Harri is on record as being inspired by the stark Icelandic electro-pop of Asgeir and Samaris and Intro the album opener, with its rattling drone, ambience and chilling vocals has a strong sense of that northern ambience that floods from Iceland, but also ECM ambient jazz musician Jan Garbarek.  If they make anymore Wallender then Emily Barker’s Nostalgia would have a run for its money as incidental or theme music.  “Laughter Lines” has the same glorious vocals, running on from the Fleet Foxes and The Staves.  There is also a wonderfully recorded guitar, its huge note rumbles behind the harmonising vocals beautifully.  The sound of the album Home/Lives is a big sound, but it is also an intimate sound that draws you into that warm voice.  The track “Homes/Lives” carries on the perfect voice with a little vibratro and picked acoustic guitar.  The bass and keyboards that build in swell up behind the vocals, building a wonderfully melancholic atmosphere.  First Aid Kit, Bon Iver, the reference points triggered by an achingly beautiful voice over skilfully layered guitar and electronics are endless.  “Bird And Whale” and “Noise” are carried on a choir of treated vocals, the beats that come in are perfectly placed and a reminder of how contemporary sounding this all is.  There are wonderfully intricate guitars parts too, with flying fingers like the best of Newton Faulkner or John Renbourn as the falsetto choir tugs at your heart strings.  There is a sense of real beauty running through the whole album. Noise even rocks out a little, before subsiding back to some Renbourn or Chapmanesque harmonics, but then it has too really with a title like that.  “Stars Fall Down” is skilfully produced, there is space around the wonderful vocals as their sound fills the speakers.  New groups like The Staves, who place voices together so well need to be listening carefully to the effortless beauty of the track particularly.  “Let Me Run” has Harri Endersby opening up the voice and sounding like a 21st Century Judie Tzuke thundering through an anthemic ballad.  Hear changes the feel and places Harri’s voice against beats and some industrial sounding keyboards.  Someone should play this to the many fans of London Grammar or Clean Bandit, Endersby voice ties it all together and knits ancient and modern into something beautiful and strange.  “Stay Awhile” adds a kind of pitch shifting, Laurie Anderson vocal to the mix, layering straight and treated voices together into an electronic whole that is wonderfully hypnotic.  Harri’s vocals and the playing bind it together.  With “Flesh And Bone” the transformation, like some kind of Folk Cyberman, is complete, the chopped and sampled sounds inhabit the world of early 80s experimental Peter Gabriel, Bjork or Imogen Heap.  The beautiful finger picked guitars and CSN ambience of the first tracks have been replaced by machine man urban music, with a pulsing rhythm we are in Florence And The Machine or Royksopp territory.  Almost in an exercise to see how far it can go, what still binds it together is the wonderfully expressive vocals of Harri Endersby.  Final track “The Snow”, with its plucked violin intro and beautifully pure wintery vocals returns to a stripped back chilly ambience and we end as we began.  There is much to listen to in this debut album, sometimes disparate elements and musics are blended and layered together perfectly.  Acoustic and electronic, human and machine are all intertwined to make a whole that is bewitching and definitely within the tradition of fine genre straddling music.  “Where does your mind go when your eyes close” indeed, there is definitely an otherworldly quality to the best of this album.  Whatever you decide it should say on in the tin this is can of delights you will not regret opening.

Vasen – Brewed | Album Review | Northside | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 05.07.17

There’s one thing a band can be sure of after 28 years together, that their performances will be tight.  Väsen, a threesome who have been playing together since the late 1980s and have released no fewer than seventeen albums, are so tightly bound that their handling of opulent Swedish folk is as dazzling as it is pristine.  Vasen’s latest release Brewed serves up an intoxicating flagon of fifteen instrumental originals that mine the Uppland landscape for traditional melodies which, thanks to the band’s organic collaborative playing, emerge reinvigorated.  The opening track “Väsenvalsen” is a muscular and notably angular piece which showcases the seering poiana – a five stringed viola – of Mikael Marin as well as the cleanly chugging guitar of Roger Tallroth.  There are further brawny moments such as the dramatic “Tiomiljonerspolskan” and blustery “Hogmarkar’n”, but the real treasure is to be found in the more delicate melodies of such tracks as “Framtidens March” and “Jungfrun Av Norge” which, thanks to Olov Johansson’s splendid nyckelharpa, are gilt-edged and so exquisitely rendered.

Taarka – Fading Mystery | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 05.07.17

The word taarka refers to the process of roasting spices in Indian cooking.  When spice seeds are added to hot oil, they bring forth the intense flavours that provide the base for all Indian culinary delicacies.  It should be easy, then, for a reviewer to get a hold of such etymology and squeeze it dry.  But there is so much more than spice and intense flavour on Taarka’s Fading Mystery.  Here is a delicious dish of enough influences to keep even the least hungry listener nibbling.  There are moments of pure bluegrass magic, such as “What My Darlin’ Says” with its delectable exchange of solos from fiddler Enion Pelta-Tiller, guitarist Mike Robinson, mandolinist David Tiller and bassist Troy Robey and the rumbling and rambling Finn MacCool Crosses the Rocky Mountains.  There’s also some dazzling gypsy jazz on Retreat.  But the traditional genres are reshaped on the American foursome’s eighth release to create a refreshingly modern sound.  The opening track “Carried Away”, for example, would fit neatly into the repertoire of a contemporary rock combo, whilst the masterpiece of this record, Pelta-Tiller’s gorgeous Athena, injects the band’s Appalachian sound with the melodic and harmonic sensibilities of The Beatles.  Aside from the impressive interplay of guitar, mandolin, fiddle and bass on Fading Mystery, much of this album’s strength lies within the vocal chords of Enion Pelta-Tiller.  What we have here is a distinctively moreish voice that benefits from its blend of smoky innocence and occasional surprise of soaring flights.  It’s certainly the shimmering thread that keeps these ten tracks sewn tightly together.

Josienne Clarke and Kit Downes – Such a Sky | EP Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 05.07.17

There are voices.. and then there are voices; voices that take us on a journey, where the actual vocal inflections and sonic nuances are infinitely more important than the words themselves.  Take for instance Josienne Clarke’s multi-layered vocal on the coda of the opening song here, “Out of View”, where words are no longer required in favour of a mood or a meditation or just a feeling.  The five songs on this collaboration EP feature one of the most distinctive voices on the acoustic music scene today, together with the highly inventive musicianship of Kit Downes, which seems to be a match made in Heaven, or even for that matter, a lovely real place.  There’s a sense that we didn’t know how much we wanted this EP.  The beautiful melodies on “Out of View”, “Beyond the Green” and “Undo”, each penned by Josienne with Kit helping out on “Beyond the Green”, together with an exercise in adaptation based on an aria by Mozart – not the easiest of tasks to get one’s tonsils around –  and surprisingly, “Who Will Buy”, a song lifted from Lionel Bart’s popular musical Oliver, see Josienne at her plaintive best.  Who else does melancholy quite as beautifully as Josienne Clarke?  It’s a rhetorical question and there’s no need to send in your answers on a postcard.  Just listen to this and make your life better.

Keith James – Tenderness Claws | Album Review | Hurdy Gurdy | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 06.07.17

Known for his meticulous dissection of Nick Drake’s idiosyncratic guitar techniques, which he handles with surgical precision, Keith James takes a series of poems written by some of our most noted poets and tenderly delivers each one wrapped in melodies all his own with arrangements courtesy of producer Branwen Munn.  The visionary poet William Blake sits comfortably beside lyricist Pete Brown, who’s “White Room”, which became one of Cream’s biggest hits of the late 1960s, is featured here with the same melody, albeit with an entirely different approach.  Atmospheric in places and aided by one or two almost subliminal sampled effects, the collection includes both Dylan Thomas “A Process in the Weather of the Heart” and Federico Garcia Lorca “Andalucia”, who rub shoulders quite effectively and in the hands of Keith James, become one.  Twentieth century poetry is further explored with the inclusion of the Beats, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac occupying the same space once again, with “Daydreams for Ginsberg” being graciously rewarded with a rather dreamy Drake-like accompaniment.  There’s always a sense of ‘now which Nick Drake song is this guitar passage referencing?’  James adds three songs of his own, each of which read very much like poetry on the page, yet they are also treated to some fine arrangements, lifting each of them to another level.  My only criticism is that Keith’s highly emotive voice, although maybe emotive in a slightly theatrical manner reminiscent of Shawn Phillips, does tend to become slightly one dimensional towards the end, although having said that, there are some satisfying moments when further embellished with Sarah Vilensky’s Eastern flavoured vocal contributions.

Richard Thompson – Acoustic Classics II | Album Review | Beeswing | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 08.07.17

Richard Thompson returns with his trusty Louden to deliver the second helping of outstanding acoustic performances; two-way family favourites rescued and warmly refurbished from his own vast back catalogue.  His Fairport days are fondly recalled in “Genesis Hall”, previously investigated in a similar manner on 1984’s acoustic live set Small Town Romance.  There’s the enduring “Meet on the Ledge”, which here steps aside from the familiar Cropredy crowd sing-a-long in favour of the touching meditation on friendship it really is.  If that’s not all, then the utterly gorgeous “Crazy Man Michael” makes a welcome return, reminding us once again that although songs are generally performed best by their author(s), in this case Thompson and Dave Swarbrick, it reminds us once again how Sandy Denny’s reading of the song back in 1969 continues to send a different kind of shiver.  With the ghosts of Sandy and Swarb perched upon RT’s shoulder, and acknowledging that the proverbial bird of youth has long flown, it’s actually rewarding to hear these songs performed once again from a mature perspective and in their much appreciated stripped down form.  “Devonside” thoroughly deserved to be on the first volume of acoustic classics and therefore arrives a little late to the party, wearing its ‘classic’ title with pride.  This second volume also delves into more recent solo endeavours, relatively speaking, with such inclusions as “Gethsemane” and “Bathsheba Smiles” from the late 1990s Mock Tudor set, with “Guns are the Tongues”, being the most recent song, originally from Thompson’s 2007 album Sweet Warrior and here featuring some additional mandolin and layered vocals.  Each of these songs sound refreshingly new once again but perhaps the most pleasing are those from the troubled and much lamented duo years when he and his then wife Linda wore their hearts very much on their respective sleeves, here remembered with a delicate reading of “A Heart Needs a Home”, which is as powerfully emotive as ever.  With fourteen classic songs already covered on the first volume, this edition just goes to further demonstrate how important Richard Thompson’s songwriting credentials really are.

Justin Adams – Ribbons | Album Review | Wayward/DJA | Review by Marc Higgins | 09.07.17

Both on his own records and as a sideman Justin Adams has always an compelling listen.  From Justin’s early days with Jah Wobble’s Invaders Of The Heart, he played memorably with Robert Plant, injecting Plant’s music with a dose of electric Saharan blues.  Adams partnership with Drecker, vocalist on Ribbons, stretches back to tracks from Take Me To God the 1994 Island Invaders Of The Heart album where she was a featured vocalist.  From 2001’s fine Desert Road onwards Adams has released a series of solo albums and a trio of African fusion albums with Gambian musician Juldeh Camara.  His production work has seen him working with Sinead O’Connor, Brian Eno and Malian band Tinariwen.  Ribbons abandons the traditional rhythms of Adams Indie Rock beginnings for the snaking African guitar of Tinariwen, with shifting sand like presence through an often mystical soundscape.  As with many musicians before him Adams has turned to abstract Art for inspiration, drawing on work by painters like Robert Rauschenberg, Jackson Pollock, Joan Miro and Robert Motherwell as starting points.  “Lightshaft” the opening track has a strong sense of the ambience and shifting light of a roomful of Mark Rothko paintings.  The guitars and distant devotional voices drift and shimmer in a way that recalls Vangelis’ music for Bladerunner and Peter Gabriel’s Passion soundtrack, both excellent musical touch stones.  “Wassoulou”, named after an area of West Africa and a strand of vocal music is more directly infused by the African pulsing guitar.  Layered instruments slowly build with a rhythmic loop that strongly suggests staccato vocal sounds.  If Mike Oldfield had journeyed to sixties Morocco with Davey Graham then Tubular Bells might have sounded funky like this.  Harping with its beautiful slack string sounds evokes the quasi ethic music of ECM Records legend Stephan Micus and the African Ngoni.  The rattling strings have a gritty ambience which Adams sets against waves of guitar feedback, sounding like John Martyn at his most abstract.  Across the whole album there is a languid beauty, this is the music of open spaces, distant vistas like a desert sunrise jam.  This not the claustrophic music of a highrise city centre or a tiny spaces lit only by artificial light.  “Crow Dream” features the beautiful vocals of Aneli Drecker from Royksopp more prominently.  Justin Adams provides a series of looping guitar motifs while Drecker croons atmospherically shifting from “Great Gig In The Sky” vocalise to an icy electronica blues.  “Grey Green” has a guitar sound lifted straight off The Grateful Dead’s Live/Dead album, but the guitar loops back over itself, building a trance like feel, swirling and winding like beautiful smoke.  Imagine a dirty garage band take on Steve Reich’s “Electric Counterpoint” piece built around Pat Metheny samples that featured so memorably on The Orbs “Little Fluffy Clouds”.  On this and all the tracks, the music has the space for you to appreciate the most glorious crackling analogue guitar sounds.  “Ariel” has a Moorish, North African feel as the flurries of flamenco like notes shimmer and resonate building tension and atmosphere.  “Khamsa” is another showcase for the glorious sound of Aneli’s vocals, both a resonant lead and a more abstract Cocteau Twins like chorus swirl over a buzzing bass drum like note.  The whole track crackles with a kind of ambient resonance like an early blues 78 and sounds decidedly other worldly.  “Deep C” and “Strand” are guitar pieces, on Deep C Justin Adams builds sound around harmonics and riffs that recall Robbie Krieger’s eastern mysticism on The Doors “The End”.  On “Strand” chiming notes build waves of feedback, string squeaks sound like birds against a rumbling bass.  As chilling as anything Blind Willie Johnson recorded, this is a man in total control of his instrument and his music.  “Fog March” features beautiful Psych guitar parts, a frenetic percussion part and some superbly unnerving vocals from Drecker.  “Open Invitation” pushes the vocal till it folds back on itself to create a Throat Singing note which is picked up through the track against nervous but insistent guitar parts to create a dark, sinister Sigur Ros like music.  The sound rises and falls in waves in a way that is cinematic and glorious.  The final bass note spreads from the speakers to the furniture and the music seems to fade away into the fabric of the room.  This is destined to be an ambient classic of the future.​

Adrian and Meredith – More Than a Little | Album Review | Vertigo Productions | Review by Marc Higgins | 12.07.17

Nashville is a city filled with Cowboys, Urban and Country and a myriad of ‘sat on a stool’ James Taylor wannabe songwriters.  East Nashville duo Adrian and Meredith cut through it all, decisively and confidently with their own compelling raw roots sound.  Part energy infused spit n sawdust bluegrass, part Sun records Rock n Roll, part lo-fi raw punk, part revival tent carnival attraction roared through a battered bullhorn.  Whatever the label it ends up under you cannot deny the energy, the vim, the drive and the sheer feeling that a gritty fun is being had.  From the cut and paste sharpie coloured feel of the digipack sleeve, to the defiant posture of the pair looking of the photos, the scuffed work boots and the recorded live to tape ethos, this is an album that makes it way to your stereo on its own terms.  It has rough corners, it has life and energy and a sense of real life captured in its being.  Any artifice with the tape effect at the start is blown away by the raw guitar and the rapid fire vocals on “Take A Boat” the superb opener.  On this track and the stomper tack “Greasy Coat And Kitchen Girl”, Adrian and Meredith’s vocals spark off each other and make a compelling sound, as different but perfectly matched as their rock n roll electric guitar and country fiddle.  Bank bubbles with the same energy and an infectious old school compressed mike sounding vocals.  Adrian on “Fixer” spits out the lyrics while Meredith roars Imelda May style.  Paul Niehaus’ Pedal Steel is tasteful and reminiscent of another time.  It is his collaborator Paul Burch or the majestically cracked vocal of Willard Grant Conspiracy’s Robert Fisher that More Than a Little’s raw punk infused retro swing country most closely recalls.  “Birthday Cakes” is a superb song, weary vocals, emotional waves of pedal steel, dirty electric guitar and the industrially tight drum kit of Aaron Distiler.  Composed of train sounds and rhythms from an earlier time this is a music that evokes the expansive prairie landscape.  More Than A Little marries Adrian’s raw guitar chords with a bluegrass stomp to make a modern ‘grin on your face’ Western Swing.  This is infectious music that seeps into your being like spilt whisky soaking into an ancient bleached bar top.  “Hero” is just as glorious, but slowed right down with a that mix of Southern Soul and Celtic mysticism that Mike Scott and The Waterboys hit in their best moments.  “Hero” with its waltzing brass and languid tempo shows that, fast on a road side bar dance song like “Get What She Wants” or slow on a track like Fixer this band hits it fully with every track.  “Country Song” with the honesty and integrity that shoots through this album has the pedal steel, country fiddle and crooning vocals to the fore.  “Southern Call” is a call to action song, with a stirring lyric delivered at a breath taking tempo, like a hobo rap over the atmospheric wafting sounds of the fiddle and pedal steel.  “Old Midwestern Home” has an expansive sound, a reflective lyric full of evocative imagery and the rhythm of the rails running through it, a strong closer on an excellent album.  Adrian and Meredith declare this album is a love letter to a New Nashville, a call to arms for independently minded artists with true vision and I would agree that this is the sound of a line being drawn and a voice declaring, don’t listen to that…listen to this.​

Addictive TV – Orchestra of Samples | Album Review | K7 | Review by Marc Higgins | 14.07.17

Between 2010 and 2015 Graham Daniels and Mark Vidler visited over 25 Countries.  From Brazil and Mexico to Senegal, China and back, filming and recording local musicians.  This album an extension of their on-going live shows as Addictive TV, documents and celebrates the process of layering together musicians and music to make connections, matching, splicing sampling and marrying.  The album is a labour of love in every sense of the word and a listen that is richly rewarding on repeated listens.  It works when you listen to every note and marvel at the artifice of it all and it works when you don’t, and you just enjoy the perfect moments created.  The percussion on first track “Hangman” is a cut up of an improvisation by Madrid based musician Daniel Salorio, while collaged over the beats are the percussive flute of Christophe Rosenberg and the beautiful French acapella act Ommm.  One track in and I already have three new musicians whose catalogues I want to dig into.  Like on closer “Herbal Haze” the overall effect is hypnotic with a dub reggae vibe.  Through the album distance and the passage of time separate the separate performances that are layered together.  Years separate Florin Iordan’s mandolin sounding Romanian cobza on “Unity Through Music” and Gatha’s cello loops recorded years later in sunny Bordeaux.  The spat out rhythms and hissing lines of Joe Publik and Moroccan rapper Si Sismo blend perfectly.  The train spotter listener can poor over the notes identifying individual performances and players, but what is remarkable is the way that elements so separated by time and space blend so perfectly to make a sonic masala.  “Eastern Baschet” is named for the ethereal and haunting sound of the Cristal Baschet an instrument of glass rods played with wet fingers.  You can hear it two minutes in on the track, dripping with suspense.  The instrument developed in the 1950’s by the brothers Baschet is played here by Francesca Russo.  The artifice of perfection on these layered performances isn’t complete and the ambience of the Bahcesehir University rooftop in Istanbul where Korkutalp Bilgin’s resonant tanbur plucking was recorded bleeds through, showing us some of the ghosts in the machine.  Revealed too is the improvised nature of the music as Bilgin, Daniels and Vidler bounce ideas about, their voices discussing what to play, becoming part of the textures.  “Kora Borealis”, as the title suggests, celebrates the music of Senegal and the west coast of Africa.  Kounta Dieye’s beautiful Kora was recorded in the Senegalese small village of Ndem.  Senegal rap star Matador was recorded in the capital Dakar, appearing alongside French acapella band Ommm.  “Beachcoma” is a perfect blend of performances.  Laetitia Sadier, lead singer with 90s band Stereolab provides a beautiful lounge-esque vocal that complements the Brazillian guitarist Mazinho Quevedo as perfectly as any of Getz Gilberto and Jobim’s 60s Samba records.  The wonderfully warm breathy trumpet like cornet of Alistair Strachan and the 25 piece French children’s choir, recorded continents apart, just take it to another level.  The lyric is like Gong’s Daevid Allen at his smiling goofy best, but the track is just sublime.  “Rapscallion” was created for an Orchestra of Samples performance at the Berwick Media Arts Festival in 2014.  The band recorded local Scottish and Northumbrian musicians.  Featured here is Shona Mooney BBC Scotland’s Young Traditional Musician of the Year in 2006.  Running like Shooglenifty and The Afro Celt Sound System, across genres, Shona plays with French rap duo Milk Coffee and Sugar (themselves a melding of voices from Rwanda and Cameroon) and the glorious young trumpet player Aleksandar Djordjevic.  However fascinating the individual ingredients are, what holds your attention is the way that together they just work so well.  Get online and you can lose yourself forever on an immersive and meticulous website that allows you to burrow into each track, reading up on each performer and recording session. Like the best albums do, it leaves you with a list of musicians and performers to investigate and some of the best new music you’ve never heard before.  “Sundown (That’s A Fact)” a meeting of Alejandro de Valera’s guitar, Mathieu Serot’s ethereal flute and the spiritual and soulful vocals of American Marcellus Nealy, sounds like they have recorded a trio rather essentially created one.  Tracks like this and “Beachcoma” make you hope this is the beginning, like Baka Beyond of a long association and exploration by Addictive TV.  The American collages a classical or west coast cool jazz piano riff, some Americana or Nick Cave-ish vocals by the wonderful Theo Hakola and the result is glorious and hypnotic with percussion textures that span the globe.  “Sitar Hero” features and celebrates the sitar playing of master musician Baluji Shrivastav OBE, building his spell binding performance from improvisations recorded at his London home.  Reading like an honours list rather than session credits Baluji plays alongside virtuoso tabla player Kuljit Bhamra MBE and the, by comparison, edgy French singer Aurelie ‘Lily’ Jung.  Paradoxically “Herbal Haze” the album closer, was the first track worked on, suggesting a cosmic cycle, as they end at the beginning.  The track, Addictive TV reckons, also includes the most unconventional samples with Brazil’s answer to Stomp, Parubate, hitting car exaust pipes, Israeli beat box style vocalist Nir Yaniv and Lorenzo Mos from Italy and Mexican Humberto Alvarez who repurpose and rebuild objects to fashion their instruments.  The texturing is fascinating, but as always blends into a seamless glimmering percussive whole behind Nir’s souring wordless vocal and all the killer bass and reggae keyboard bubbles the track title would suggest.  What to call the music on this album, as we do like to classify.  It’s been bottled and shaken to mix, until the bubbles form, but what do you write on the label?  Addictive TV talk about international musicians and the commonality of our interconnected human experience, as explored through music.  But one person’s tidy genre label is an irritant to others.  It’s only a matter of time before flaring tempers over the sub divisions of music causes a bloody civil war between factions armed with shards of sharpened vinyl.  Shout Records are better than CDs into a crowded room of music fans and see what happens.  Louis Armstrong Jazz innovator, singer and legend, when asked about genres of music is famously credited with saying.  “All music is folk music. I ain’t never heard a horse sing a song”.  World Music, the easy term to reach for, is a well-meaning but uncomfortably patronising term.  Uncomfortable, because until Sterns release an album of field recordings from the indigenous people on Mars or the un-named planets orbiting Alderbaran, then all music is World Music, as it is composed played and appreciated on our world.  Terms that divide music culturally or geographically, look for difference where the only difference is attitudinal. But as a beautifully layered collage of what feels like the music of ‘all of the world’, this album fits the term ‘World Music’ without any implied condescension.  As a massive sonic collage, that manages to simultaneously celebrate differences and commonality, then if anything deserves, for the size of what it attempts to encompass, the repurposed term World Music, then Orchestra of Samples does.  Listen to this album and rejoice in what connects us and celebrate the joy of the subtle differences.  You can chose to lose yourself in the detail and there is a lot of it to get lost in, or you can listen to the gloriously connected music, made from cultural and geographical counterpoints and marvel at how seamless it is all is. ​

Avital Raz – The Fallen Angel’s Unravelling Descent | Album Review | Sotones | Review by Marc Higgins | 15.07.17

Avital Raz started out as a child singer of classical music in Jerusalem, after completing degrees in vocal performance and composition she studied Dhrupad singing in India.  The Fallen Angel’s Unravelling Descent weaves through Troubadour Americana, Baroque choral singing, Indian Drones and the cadences of Middle Eastern Makam.  Opening track “TV” is so country with the slightly edgy but warm vocal of Canadian singer Mary Margaret O’Hara.  Backing mixes country and European accordion music as Raz’s glorious voices runs free over the top.  “Bored Lord” is a spiritual delivered with Iggy Pop’s rock n roll insolent curled lip or Nico’s chilling majesty.  The vocal is beautiful and bitter at the same time delivered with a punk indifference and strut.  “Male Order Bride” released as a single is a dark but wry commentary on gender equality.  If Edith Piaf had covered country and infused it with Roger Miller’s snappy delivery, the result would smoulder like this, a dirty talking blues, delivered out of the corner of the mouth.  “The Damn Flood” chirps and swirls with Eastern Oud, Ney and Duduk.  Again there is a tension between the beautifully mystic backing and the bleakly beautiful vocals.  The lyric has a written beauty and the delivery is dark and nihilist in a Brechtian or Punk way.  The Duduk playing and percussion that opens “Isabel St Revisited” is hypnotic and beautiful, riding on a great atmosphere Raz delivers a dark lyric.  Listening to Avital’s vocal is like being cornered by a large snake the voice rises and falls, its cadence bobbing and swaying like the head of a python, the whoops or high notes when they come are as vicious as a bite.  Jukebox showcases a western swing vocal backing that is twisted but delightful.  Raz sings over the top with the presence and rich resonance of early Leonard Cohen. “Regarding Angels” takes the chorus to celestial level, with a huge choir behind the American guitar and vocal.  Both this song and the following The Fallen Angel’s Unravelling Descent chop about with solo talking blues passages, delivered almost as asides set against trance like instrumentation and waves of backing vocals.  What sounds messy when described on the page, rises and falls, builds and breaks like a great wave form of a song with a bubbling rhythm, sounding glorious to the ear.  “Shame” has the mix of gothic American and dark humour typical of The Handsome Family.  Raz is an interesting listen with the falsetto doo wop backing that is almost Frank Zappa, challenging but compelling and always rewarding.  “My Lover is Cold” is a collision of traditional themes, set to a jaunty but sinister tune with her delivery seductive and alluring.  “Yossi’s Song” recalls the decorative wordless singing of the much loved Sheila Chandra as Raz’s Indian training comes through.  The arrangement is simpler with a solitary beautiful resonant guitar picking a counterpoint to the glorious vocal.  The final two tracks leave the most beguiling track till the end with their universally appealing tales of love and love gone very wrong.  Like Cohen’s “Suzanne”, a song that “Sorry About The Pills” reminds me of, the final song features a beautifully delivered lyric with darker depths.  We are in Van Morrison’s “TB Sheets” and “Slim Slow Slider” territory, the swirling slide guitar that wafts through the song is pure Pink Floyd late 60s psych and Avital’s vocal is transcendental and just beautiful weaving a bitter tale.  From beginning to end an album that is light and shade, darkness and light, one beautifully contrasting the other.  Always interesting and always surprising.

Wild Honey – Torres Blancas | Album Review | Lovemonk Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 16.07.17

Torres Blancas is the third album for Wild Honey the electronic folk pop vehicle for Spanish singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Guillermo Farre.  Torres Blanco is 10 tracks of bright upbeat hazy electronica, pop songs and beautifully sunny vocals.  Farre’s previous albums, Epic Handshakes and a Bear Hug (2009) and Big Flash (2013) were both sung in English.  Returning to his mother tongue he feels has allowed greater self-expression.  To ears so used to hearing English vocals the combination of whispered or gently sung Spanish lyrics, shimmering electric guitars and retro electronic percussion gives it all the sheen of Lounge exotica or Tropicalia.  As sophisticated as sipping a cold cocktail while gazing at a perfect sunset or the distant Corcovada Mountain.  A self-confessed film geek who works by day for a classic films channel, Janus like, Guillermo is comfortable looking backwards and forwards, drawing on his collectors thirst for everything that is retro, pulling in elements of psychedelia, 60s pop, film music and electronica.  “Reverb Infinita” and “Siguiendo A Desconocidos” both have a wonderful keyboard passages that could be straight off a 60s Sci Fi film before they dissolve into effortlessly beautiful exotic pop.  Stereolab’s Tim Gane worked on Big Flash and band mate Sean O’Hagan contributes orchestral arrangements to Torres Blancas.  This long association, or maybe a shared vision means you can hear elements of Stereolabs retro keyboard drum patterns, keyboards and period intelligent pop in a lot of this album “El Volcan De Monserrat” is atmospheric vocals, gritty compressed percussion and some gloriously uplifting lush strings. Torres Blancas marries the perfect breathy pop vocals with those rich strings and Farre’s 60s guitar lines.  Tracks like “Ojo De Cristal” and “Mapas De Zonas Desiertas” have a soupy hallucinogenic grainy production layered around the vocals of Guillermo and Anita Steinberg and that chiming guitar.  “Desenfocada Out Of Focus” perfectly sums that bright pop rock 60s vibe with that musical fuzziness like been two glasses down a summer bottle of white wine.  The chorus vocals and that big guitar sound is just glorious.  This is top down summer driving or beach music like early Everything But The Girl or an retro analogue keyboard version of Simon And Garfunkel.  The easy tempos and washes of sound both cushion and uplift.  Like all classic intelligent 60s-esque pop albums it is short and focused at thirty five minutes of distilled down songs and sounds, leaving you wanting more.

Martin Simpson – Trails and Tribulations | Album Review | Topic | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 17.07.17

When Jackson C Frank first performed his song Blues Run the Game in the Bohemian folk clubs and beer cellars of the 1960s, the singer didn’t leave the impression that he’d done all the hard travelling the song spoke of, due in part to his youthful appearance.  The song now seems to have done all that hard travelling all on its own, or at least with the help of all the singers who have performed it over the years.  Best rendered by an artist who has indeed lived the hard travelling life – in the case of Martin Simpson, almost five decades of it, emphasised further in his rugged appearance courtesy of Elly Lucas’s cover portrait – the song now rings with a certain truth.  The song is as good an opener as it gets, especially for Martin’s 20th album and throughout the thirteen tracks, including one or two gentle interludes, Martin once again holds command over his chosen instruments – the usual guitar and banjo but also Weissenborn lap steel, resonator guitars and ukulele – all of which is confirmed with each touch of the strings.  I have to confess I was never the biggest fan of Martin’s singing voice in the early days, although it always seemed right somehow for the songs, especially on such as “Louisiana 1927”, “The Roving Gambler”, “Biko” and “Icarus”, yet these days that voice has settled into what could be described as an integral part of Martin’s art.  The voice and the playing work very much in tandem on such songs as “Katherine of Aragon”, “Reynardine” and certainly the aforementioned opening song, yet Martin’s musicianship is another thing altogether, brilliantly executed with seasoned dexterity.  Produced by Andy Bell, the album features guests, friends and family members including Nancy Kerr on fiddle and viola, Andy Cutting on accordion and melodeon, John Smith on guitar, Ben Nicholls on bass, Toby Kearney on drums and percussion, Helen Bell on strings, Amy Newhouse-Smith on backing vocals and a surprise appearance by Martin’s daughter Molly on vocals on the ethereal Emily Portman song “Bones and Feathers”.

Over the Moon – Moondancer | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 18.07.17

Over The Moon are a Canadian Roots/Swing duo.  Moondancer, their debut album was recorded in their ranch in the foothills of Alberta’s Rocky Mountains and just oozes with integrity and charm.  The album packaging features an atmospheric photograph of Over The Moon with Suzanne Lovesque and Craig Bignall, against the landscape of their home.  They are holding their instruments, faces set like frontier pioneer farmers in a hand coloured 19th century photograph.  Over The Moon don’t look like soft musos on a dude ranch, they look like they live the life they write about or write about the life they lead.  From “Strangers We Meet” and tracks like “By The Mark”, the interplay of Craig and Suzanne’s voices, harmonising, alternating lines or creating syncopation are simply glorious.  Instruments like Craig’s Banjo and Aaron Young’s electric guitar help paint the picture, but the voices are the star.  “House On The Hill” is a less sentimental take on Graham Nash’s “Our House”.  Feels like a Kathrine Edwards track with that Country ballad feel.  “Turtle Mountain” is an anthemic song, documenting the 1903 Crowsnest Pass disaster.  Suzanne’s vocal is powerful and chilling on this band composition, a folk standard in the making.  Again Aaron Young’s acoustic picking is fine around Craig’s banjo.  The bursts of Dents Dufresne’s violin and the tune give this a sense of Fairport’s “Matty Groves”.  “Over The Moon” and “Alberta Moon” are feel good tunes with that loose warm feeling of Western Swing and the best of Leon Redbone a Canadian by association.  Accordion and Clarinet on “Alberta Moon” slide by beautifully.  “Moondancer” by Canadian legend Ian Tyson, himself a chronicler of the rural life and a neighbour to Over The Moon, is an album highlight, with the feel of an early Eagles track.  Again Suzanne’s vocal, against washes of steel guitar and accordion, is just a joy.  “By The Mark” is a considered and heartfelt reading of the David Rawlings and Gillian Welch song.  The less is more approach really works here with space given to the wonderful harmonies.  “The Hills of Grey County”, dealing with ecological concerns and the perils of distant big business is another Folk song in the making.  Over The Moon’s reading of Henry Hipkens’ “That’s How I Learned To Sing The Blues” is warmer than Hipken’s empty bottle drawl, but theirs has a New Orleans French Mardi Gras swagger.  This is a love gone cold song you can dance to, rather than cry into your whisky to.  Rob Loree’s atmospheric character sketches on the cover, from the hapless troubadour about to get bucked to the reflective banjo player inside, have a Grant Wood folksy charm, but I am not sure they do the band or the music justice.  There is grit, integrity and a power in these tracks, sometimes raw, sometimes charming with a sense of place and honesty that just shines through.  The characters in the booklet raise a wry smile but the music leaves a much stronger lasting and deeper impression of warmth and a real life being lived.​

Jamie Francis – The Patient Neighbour | Album Review | TCR Music | Review by Ian Taylor | 25.07.17

Banjo player Jamie Francis has been the constant companion of folk troubadour Sam Kelly since they met at University, throughout their BBC Folk Award-winning Lost Boys and Changing Room incarnations, and has also played in Seth Lakeman’s band.  Francis is therefore more than adequately qualified to produce this, his first solo album, helped only by fellow Lost Boys Graham Coe on cello and the seemingly ubiquitous (in a good way!) Toby Shaer (John McCusker, Heidi Talbot, Cara Dillon) on, well, everything else. The Patient Neighbour features banjo-led arrangements of traditional Irish and American tunes alongside some original compositions – around half of each – at least one of which – the traditional American tune “Angeline The Baker” – has featured in a Lost Boys live set, and rightly so, as it is a rollicking good tune.  Francis also contributes guitars, mandolin and bouzouki to the mix, and shows throughout what a fine musician he is.  But it is on banjo which he excels, whether it be on fast-picking tunes or slow ballads, such as the beautiful original piece, “Dodd Wood”; the Ernie Carpenter arrangement of “Elk River Blues”, or the haunting solo album closer, “Last Sun On The Solway”.   The traditional material is skilfully presented also, the guitars and whistles on top of the banjo giving the material an almost live feel.  Check out “The Patient Neighbour Set”, for example, which builds over almost five minutes of sheer joy to a foot-stomping climax.  Whilst mention of an album of banjo music would normally generate a list of jokes as long as my arm in this household, Francis puts the doubters to shame with this more-than-accessible collection.

Porter Nickerson – Bonfire To Ash | Album Review | Weasel Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 16.07.17

Porter Nickerson are Carmen Nickerson a soulful vocalist and Willy Porter mean guitar player and vocalist with more than ten of his own albums under his belt.  The pair met after the release of How To Rob a Bank, Porter’s 2010 album and began collaborating soon after.  After working together on EP tracks and “This Train” on 2015’s Human KindnessBonfire To Ash is the first duo album.  “Old Red Burn” is an intimate slow burn opener.  Beautiful shuffling percussion, soulful organ and two voices that complement each other perfectly, you can hear the nods, grins and winks as they share the vocal.  “Plant A Garden” has a lyric as wonderfully left field as anything David Crosby wrote for CSN&Y.  The song is a rich mix of vocal harmonies, layers of guitar and a hypnotic atmosphere.  “I Need You” is a more intimate piece, both Porter and Nickerson have fine voices and this song shows them at their best on their own and as a duo.  Together the two voices are just uplifting.  “Living Proof” is a ballad with a huge lyric of triumph over a life lived, touch of organ and those glorious voices raise it to spiritual levels.  “Echo of Love” is a lyrical joy, lines that flow with grace and beautiful detail “I’m skating by myself staring down through the clear”.  Beautiful percussion gently hammers out a train track rhythm.  Porter and Nickerson share out the verses, carrying on the idea of two people estranged and separated but both hurting.  “Wasting Time” is another slow burner with a deliciously sparse drum beat and that languid feel of Emmylou Harris on Steve Earle’s “Goodbye” or an early Rickie Lee Jones.  Porter and Nickerson spin a beautiful atmosphere on these slow brooding songs, time just stretches out deliciously.  The album Bonfire To Ash is most aptly named on these smouldering songs.  “In Bloom” starts as a raw spoken blues that builds soulfully as Carmen’s vocal joins the track.  The guitar solo, pure Lindsay Buckingham against the vocals, gives how far Porter Nickerson could take their sound and songs if they wish.  “Loving On Her Mind” is a soulful country masterpiece, with a little touch of Memphis Swamp care of the electric keyboard, another stone cold classic.  “If You Stay” is a great break up song, heart felt vocals with some glorious counterpoints and harmonies, again enriched by some soulful backing.  “Signs” starts as a bottle half empty blues with a world weary compressed vocal and fills out with two vocals into a beautiful duet over a shuffling beat and a gently plucked guitar.  Like all the best you are left wanting more.  I’m a fan of Willy Porter’s as a gritty folk blues troubadour, but pairing him with Carmen Nickerson’s vocals creates something else, greater than the sum of the individual parts.  The best of moments come when you are played the best music you’ve never heard.  Here’s hoping this is the start of longstanding rich partnership and a beginning.

John Cee Stannard and Blues Horizon – To The River | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 27.07.17

For his latest release, John Cee Stannard continues to walk the path he began laying on such previous outings as Stone Cold Sober, Bus Depot Blues and The Doob Doo Album.  The songs are so deeply entrenched in Americana, particularly ragtime, early jazz and country blues that it may come as a shock when John’s palpably English vocals kick in.  It’s an interesting juxtaposition that seems to improve with each song, from the jaunty Separation 2 to the laid-back History, the fleet-footed take on “House Of The Rising Sun” to the swinging “Nothin’ Is What You Get”.  John is joined on To The River by a fine array of like-minded musicians including the renowned Simon Mayor on fiddle, virtuoso pianist Matt Empson and the multi-talented Julia Titus who heightens the authenticity with her fine supporting vocals.

Whyte – Fairich | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 28.07.17

Whether the term ‘Gaelic Ambient Electronica’ excites or offends the ear, this frankly resplendent collaboration from composer and musician Ross Whyte and Gaelic singer-songwriter Alasdair Whyte is an album that simply has to be heard.  Fairlich is the Gaelic word for awaken, sense or feel, and from the very first note of “Gaoir”, it’s clear that the Whytes are eager to stimulate even the most dormant parts of our consciousness with their stirring soundscapes.  Ross’s ethereal synths and samples flow unobtrusively beneath Alasdair’s reedy vocals on such tracks as “Fuaim An Taibh” (The Ocean’s Sound) and “Cumha Ni Mhic Raghnaill” (The Sister’s Lament) whilst “Leis A Bhata” (The Black Oaken Boat) welcomes the guitar of Laurie Cuffe as well as the invigorating sound of a string quintet.  With extensive liner notes which complement each of the seven tracks, Fairich provides an often cinematic plunge into the depths of electronica and Gaelic song, and it does so without ever losing itself in the tide of intricate sound textures thanks to Ross and Alasdair’s impeccable command over their art.

Ross Couper and Tom Oakes – Fiddle and Guitar | Album Review | Haystack Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 29.07.17

There’s something deeply exciting about the music of Ross Couper and Tom Oakes.  Within the symbiosis of the duo’s playing there lies an electricity that is managed so meticulously, remaining restrained during the gentlest moments then fizzing to the surface as each tune rises towards its climax.  Fiddle & Guitar, the duo’s first full-length album, undulates with said magic thanks to Ross’s graceful elbow – a familiar one for Peatbog Faeries fans – and Tom’s impassioned strumming.  On Phil Cunningham’s Cathcart there’s something equally mechanical and organic in Tom’s guitar whilst Ross’s lithe fiddle melody weaves threadlike between the chords as the tune gives way to the infectious grooves of Vioar Skrede’s “Apo Fetlar Top”.  There’s a wealth of lively rattlers on this album, from the strutting “Pig’s Reel” to “Sam Cormier’s”, but the slower tunes are no less intoxicating.  The melancholic 92nd Year is one of the album’s highlights thanks to its exploratory guitar chords, dainty fiddle lines and a heartbreakingly gentle middle section, consisting of subtle guitar plucks and wisps of sorrowful fiddle.  A return to tranquillity for Tom’s self-penned “The Last Gasp” lends the album one of its most delicate moments in which sprightliness is exchanged for intimacy without any loss of the fervour that makes this album such a success.

Fools Gold – Fools Gold | Album Review | Retro World | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 01.08.17

At the same time that Ry Cooder’s Chicken Skin Music, The Eagles’ Hotel California and The Grateful Dead’s Terrapin Station were being released to critical acclaim, another California outfit by the name of Fools Gold were hoping to find success with their own studio outings.  Consisting of Tom Kelly on bass, Denny Henson on guitars, Ron Grinel on drums and Doug Livingston on pedal steel, Fools Gold were best known as Dan Fogelberg’s live band but were fortunate enough to be managed by John Baruck who had connections with the company that helmed the careers of The Eagles, Boz Skaggs and Steely Dan. With the help of such influential friends as Glyn Johns, Glenn Frey and Joe Walsh, Fools Gold released their eponymous debut in 1976 followed by a second album in 1977 before disappearing.  Now, forty years after its release, Fools Gold has been remastered to present ten fine examples of that typical California sound that had such a great impact on seventies pop and rock.  Highlights include the pedal steel-infused cover of Dan Fogelberg’s “Choices”, the evocatively sun-kissed Sailing to Monterey and the CSNY-inspired “I Will Run” complete with spine-tingling harmonies and a chugging west coast bite.  Why this gem of an album failed to reach any success in the wake of such releases as Hotel California, Can’t Buy a Thrill or The Sound of Bread is anyone’s guess.  But it can’t be said that this collection of tightly-performed, well-written and exquisitely-produced songs lacks anything other than the wide listenership it deserves.

Various Artists – Mac Ile: The Music of Fraser Shaw | Album Review | Fraser Shaw Trust | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 01.08.17

In May 2015, the Glaswegian piper, whistle player and composer Fraser Shaw passed away after his battle with Multiple Sclerosis.  He was just 34.  Almost immediately, Shaw’s friends and family set up The Fraser Shaw Trust to raise money for the relief of MS, particularly in Argyll, Scotland, through a series of projects and events celebrating Fraser and his music.  One of the Trust’s first major projects has been to create an album of Fraser’s tunes, performed by The Islay Sessioners, a group of fourteen musicians and some very special guests. The result, Mac Ile: The Music of Fraser Shaw, is a beautifully rendered collection of twelve tunes, most of them composed by the late Shaw and all of them dedicated to his memory.  Opening with the sweetly melancholic “Back to Islay”, with Kevin O’Neill laying the groundwork of the track with a stunning whistle, the album moves delicately between Shaw’s well-loved compositions including the beautiful “Trip to Glasgow” featuring Laura-Beth Salter on mandolin, the arresting Islay Skies and the energetic Cairns Set, featuring Peatbog Faeries fiddler Ross Couper, in memory of the lively sessions Fraser would host over drams and Jager-bombs at The Cairns Bar in Glasgow.  The Sessioners are also joined by pianist Mhairi Hall and vocalist Kathleen Graham for the outstanding Calum McDonald-penned piece “Clachan Uaine”, one of the most poignant moments on an album that overflows with great sorrow and celebration.

The Twisted Twenty – The Twisted Twenty | Album Review | Penny Fiddle Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 02.08.17

As the album opens, with its invigorating violins and glistening cittern, a refreshing optimism swells and rises, one that is most often attributed to the music of Bach and Handel.  But instead of the Brandenburg Concerto or “The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba”, this is the “Ragged Sailor Set” by The Twisted Twenty, an ensemble of seven international musicians dedicated to blending the musical worlds of baroque and folk music.  And, with their eponymous debut, they certainly succeed.  With Holly Harman, Alexis Bennett, James O’Toole and David Rabinovici providing effervescent baroque violins, Ewan Macdonald on cittern, Lucia Capellaro on baroque cello and Carina Cosgrave on baroque double bass, The Twisted Twenty seems to exist in its own rather inviting realm, one that heaves folk music deeper into the twenty-first century whilst facing backwards, with notable reverence, at the music of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  “John Anderson, My Jo” is a powerful rendering of the Robert Burns poem and one that benefits from Holly Harman’s uniquely commanding vocal whilst “Arthur McBride” is a brooding and genuinely haunting instrumental take on the well-known tune.  The darkness in tone is revisited on Thomas Ravenscroft’s “The Three Ravens” which, once again, provides an opportunity to bask in Harman’s deeply affecting voice, and the tone is sustained for a fiery reading of James Oswald’s Scottish melody “Three Good Fellows”, a thunderingly impressive nine-part slip jig.

Rahim Alhaj Oud and String Quintet – Letters From Iraq | Album Review | Smithsonian Folkways | Review by Marc Higgins | 02.08.17

Letters from Iraq is an attempt to express the love and pain in the lives of the people in war torn Iraq through a series of musical pieces for strings and oud.  Virtuoso oud player and composer Rahim AlHaj, a native of Iraq and now a naturalised American citizen, came into possession of a number of letters written by Iraqis, describing events and sectarian violence during and after the American occupation.  These personal stories so touched AlHaj that he gave them voice in music.  The pieces are presented as program music, intended to conjure imagery or tell tales hinted at in the titles.  The stories are detailed in the extensive booklet track notes, but the music is performed without words. Eastern Love – Sinan, the opening track tells the story of a doomed romance, set against violence against the Sunni community of Baghdad. The percussive Rigg, a Middle Eastern small single headed frame drum like a tambourine, beats out a rhythm that is both eternal like love and rises and falls to suggest heart beats. The melancholic tune is carried by both the violins and cello of the string section and AlHaj’s resonant and emotive oud.  “Forbidden Love – Tiama” continues a similar story of a Shi’ite Man and a Sunni Woman, driven apart by the violence.  In this piece a plaintive Gypsy violin speaks as the women and AlHaj’s oud the man, the notes becoming voices, conjuring such pictures.  This is sparse music, with space for the emotion to pour out of every note of the soloists.  It is also dark music that speaks of sorrow.  “Running Boy – Fuad” describes a boy trapped after a car bomb explosion, wonderfully resonant descending oud notes and the deep bass voice of the cajon a Latin American drum describe those stretched moments perfectly and build huge tension.  “That Last Time We Will Fly Birds – Riyadh”, like the Dave Sudbury’s song “King Of Rome”, describes how flying homing birds means you are sharing their freedom to feel free yourself, only to have that feeling shattered when their roof top homes are destroyed and the birds scattered.  Again different instruments tell different elements of the story, the oud describes the sense of loss (loss of the birds home and loss of the excuse of their care as a cover for meeting a girlfriend) and the strings describe the movements of the flying birds.  The song titles, each with the names of the person whose story is being told, and the track notes, full of the everyday, universal and very ordinary details of life, add depth and power to the music.  “Going Home – Rahim”, with the most ominous drawn out tremolos, describes AlHaj’s return in 2014 to Baghdad after an exile following the US invasion.  The delicate and soulful solo Oud passage in the middle is Rahim returning to his childhood home.  This is possibly the most powerful piece on the album as it describes the moment when the composer and player realises that Baghdad is no longer his home and what he is misses is in the past.  “Unspoken Word – Laila” is an Iranian lullaby and a lament for a boy’s lost mother with a gloriously expressive violin solo.  The final two tracks “Fly Home – Fatima” and “Voices to Remember – Zainab”, offer light among the shade.  “Fly Home – Fatima” uses an infectious percussion rhythm and some uplifting oud and violin to show that everyday life endures, between the horrific stories are moments of precious living and a hope for a return to normality.  “Voices to Remember – Zainab” is a dance that looks to a time where Iraq is united.  Rahim says “Music can make us laugh, make us cry, make us march into war.  I want to make music to make us realise peace”.  This album makes us cry, makes us laugh and tells stories that contrast the universal beauty of everyday live with the indiscriminate destruction of conflict and war.  AlHaj, born in Iraq, living in America concentrates on the inhumanity and doesn’t take sides, but points out that battles are not only fought far away, that war has come to his homeland and now to our homelands.  He acknowledges that as individuals and as groups we are capable of being the worst but hopes “This album will inspire listeners to choose love, wonder and hope” and be the best.

King Ayisoba – 1000 Can Die | Album Review | Glitterbeat Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 02.08.17

King Ayisoba, born Abert Apoozore in Ghana in the 1970s, makes an arresting and compelling music.  His sound is in a tradition rather than traditional.  He plays the Kologo, a West African stringed instrument that creates a pulsing percussive beat.  But it is Ayisoba’s vocals that stand out on first listen to this album, rather than his prowess with the Kologo.  His voice, a powerful, raw instrument that he pushes to its limit, just screams with passion and power throughout this album.  Against the bedrock of his Kologo his voice is as striking and impassioned as anything Johnny Lydon ever spat into a microphone.  “Grandfather Song” and “Ndeema” are just Ayisoba’s vocal and Kologo, a reminder that he has a firm grounding in Ghanaian traditional music.  Elsewhere, with the drums leading and upfront, not an exotic textural addition, the music takes from electronica and from hip-life (a Ghanaian style that fuses local highlife music with hip-hop and rap).  Tracks like “Africa Needs Africa”, “Wekana” and “Dapagara” layer traditional instruments against grainy electronic keyboards, Ayisoba’s voice and guest vocalists to create a soundscape that is rich and hypnotic.  “Anka yen Tu Kwai” has a beautiful groove of Kologo and electronica pulsing together that contrasts the passionate and raw vocals over the top.  “1000 Can Die” with a dark texturing that recalls Transglobal Underground, cutting through the soup is a dubby shimmer is the distinctive spoken rap of Lee Scratch Perry, building into an anthemic statement.  Nigerian saxophonist Orlando Julius adds a raw jazz edge to “Dapagara”, a melodic base over which the vocalists just soar.  After the fusions and juxtaposition of past present and future on this experimental album, “Ýalma Dago Wanga” and “Ndeema”, the final tracks, with traditional drum, kologo and vocals that are more crooned than roared, are by comparison gentle and soothing.  Unlikely to ever appear on one of those soothing, carefully sequenced African music compilations, this is an uncompromising album that looks confidently to the future.​

Rio Mira – Marimba Del Pacifico | Album Review | Aya Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 03.08.17

Based in the coastal town of Esmeraldes in Ecuador, named after a river that runs from Ecuador into Columbia, formed as a collaboration by musicians from the two neighbouring countries and guided by the distinctive warm percussive tones of the marimba, this is stunning music that blurs boundaries and borders.  The marimba that opens the first track and underpins much of the music of this album is a symbol of the band’s Afro-Pacific identity and is intertwined with the escaped slaves known as maroons who made the region their home from the early 16th Century onwards.  But that history and the distinctive African call and response vocals are channelled into something that is new and joyous, infectious and uplifting.  In 2015 UNESCO declared the marimba music of South Pacific Columbia and the Esmeraldes Province to be Intangible Cultural Heritage.  The legacy of those who escaped from shipwrecked slave ships, or nearby plantations, seeking refuge along the Pacific coast, is then undeniably a positive one with the music demonstrating the unity that binds together regions divided by state borders.  “Adios Morena” and “Agua”, the first two tracks are built around the resonant warm sound of the marimba and wonderful call and response vocals, creating a spiralling cyclical sound.  That sound builds slowly with two syncopated marimba rhythms that envelope you and carry you like waves on the shore.  “Guarapo” and “Nina Elena” bring the striking vocalist Kara Kanora to the fore and have strong twisting dance rhythms that will be recognisable to anyone of South American and Cuban music.  The beautiful call and response vocals are still there but they rise and fall over infectious pulsing beats.  The drum sounds get bigger and bigger on “Roman Roman” with a huge frame drum behind the vocals adding to the hypnotic effect.  Rain sounds and atmospherics on “Aguacerito” title the song and with a beautiful and simple vocal piece create a delightful interlude like the flipping of the sides on an LP.  With “Patacore”, “Ronca Canalete” and “Andarele” the tempo and layered drums with three separate rhythms are infectious and captivating with the vocal chorus driving everything on, this is definitely not music to sit still to.  “Estaban Llorando” features softer percussion textures with the strong pulsing beat coming as much from the call and response vocals and again is hypnotic and utterly beguiling.  “Chikungunya” is another short vocal piece, perhaps an interlude to prompt you to stop, breathe, take a moment, flip the record and start all over again.  From the slow hypnotic warm marimba, to the rich textured vocals, the layered rhythms and the rich history, there is much here to reward repeated listening.  Rio Mira’s Marimba Del Pacifico is released on AYA Records a newly formed offshoot of an Argentinian label, an outlet for projects from across South America.  The band, the album and the label brim with a sense of the new, the infectious, and the exciting.

The Last Dinosaur – The Nothing | Album Review | Naim Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 08.08.17

At 16, Music college students Jamie Cameron and James MacDonald, as When I Was A Little Girl, recorded the well received 2005 independent album Good Morning Sunshine and Goodnight, a year later a tragic car crash, involving them both, claimed the life of James.  By his own admission Jamie had had an uneventful, idyllic life until that point.  He found it difficult to comprehend.  “I thought I came out of it relatively mentally unscathed, although in hindsight that’s a trick you tell yourself”.  Eventually over the course of years, with Luke Hayden, a new musical partner, as The Last Dinosaur, Jamie began to very perceptively address his feelings about life, dying and process his grief.  There was no conscious decision to write an album about anything, but the songs  that came all dealt with similar themes and getting them down was ultimately cathartic.  Picking up where The Blue Nile, Talk Talk and Mark Hollis left off, with an intimate ambient sound built around strings and electronica, The Last Dinosaur have created a cocooning set of tone poems.  Jamie Cameron’s vocals, breathed into the microphone and his potent stroked acoustic guitar infuse the album with a warmth and a glow.  The album The Nothing is uplifting and life-affirming, its lyrics may tackle the subject of mortality head on, but the overlapping, interlaced and sometimes fragmentary melodies are like drifting in and out of a blissful reverie.  Atoms opens with a deceptively simple acoustic guitar as Cameron looks beyond the pain of now, to a bigger picture and to find some sense of it all.  Grow, with its cycling electronics and atmospherics and the most spectral of lead guitar notes is almost Floydian as it creates a potent pastoral soundscape, a moment to lose yourself in.  The National Stage reflects on the transitory nature of physical existence against a buoyant guitar riff and some glorious strings.  “All My Faith” and “Well Greet Death” have the lush acoustic warmth of Blue Rose Code or Bears Den, with choral voices and affirming lyrics that just carry you away on uplifting sonic pillows.  That dream like state is further stretched by the Penguin Café Orchestra like instrumental “The Body Collapse” which continues the beautiful minimalist piano motifs, electronica and a glorious viola piece from Rachel Lanskey.  “Wings” stretches Jamie’s breathed intimate vocals to their most whispered and hypnotic, every syllable is precious and given space, contrasted by the lush string passage in the song.  “On Water” builds emotion with waves of electronics, sampled vocals and a bubbling keyboard motif.  “The Sea” builds slowly, tension is created by a plucked string and another gloriously potent vocal and its tales of metaphorical oceans and the journey of life.  “Goodnight” imagine Bill Evans’ careful melancholic piano chords filtered through the warm soundscapes of The Blue Nile.  A beautiful and considered album which works sonically and thematically as a whole, like Frank Sinatra’s Wee Small Hours, rather than a concept album.  Real life, shot through with real pain and loss has led to an album that deals on an intimate level with some of the big issues, achieving an emotional intensity that speaks to everyone regardless of their situation.  You cannot fail to be moved or captivated by this.​

When Rivers Meet – Liberty | Album Review | One Road Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 09.08.17

This debut release from British duo When Rivers Meet, essentially husband and wife team Grace and Aaron Bond, shows some promise, especially in the duo’s trump card, Grace Bond’s instantly accessible and distinctive voice, emphasised in the delicate “You Blinded Me”.  Most of the self-penned originals on Liberty, named for the duo’s newly arrived niece, as well as the duo’s new found freedom, sit well with the two well-known covers, an intimate Kris and Rita styled “Suspicious Minds” and an inventive minor key take on the old Johnny Cash standard “Ring of Fire”.  Sadly, the two voices are not really made for one another and therefore there’s no fantastic harmonies to speak of, in fact I’d go as far as to suggest – at the risk of coming over all Simon Cowell, which I am really loathe to do – that my money would be on bringing Grace into the spotlight throughout.  “Regrets & Lies”, jars a little, enough for me to ponder why producer Chris West didn’t talk the duo into leaving it out altogether, or at least to shift it from track four to the very end, it adds so little to the album.  Grace Bond is in possession of a fantastic voice which needs to be heard and adopting a more Eurythmics musical ethos than a Sonny and Cher one would benefit the duo greatly.  Having said that, “Can’t Pay My Way” works well, with a rather splendid New Orleans jazz arrangement.

Reg Meuross – Faraway People | Album Review | Hatsongs Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 10.08.17

Reg Meuross is one of the most reliable singer songwriters in the country today.  His songs are often touching, poignant and easily accessible, yet he doesn’t feel a need to shriek or scowl, grumble or growl, rather, he stands before us with guitar in hand and moves through a song as a concerned observer, calmly watching and reporting back with honesty and compassion.  There are no banners, no marches, no changing profile pictures, just words and melodies to awaken our senses in a most effective way.  He’s not likely to baffle, perturb or confuse us with needless ambiguity, rather he speaks in a language we all understand – a singer songwriter through to the bone.  Faraway People is inhabited with characters, real or imagined but vividly drawn.  There’s the implausible scenario of Phil Ochs and Elvis Presley grabbing a bite to eat at a supermarket just outside Doncaster.  Then there’s Hank Williams and Dylan Thomas emptying bottles of the hard stuff in an Alabama bar before literally and metaphorically leaving us.  Then we find the unnamed angel in a blue dress, the queen of soul, a nurse let down by her government once again, and Sophie, a conscientious student, murdered, along with a sibling and a friend, by an evil regime for distributing leaflets in wartime Germany.  The songs’ subjects weave through time and space, both historical and current, such as the story of the former student Ahmad Al-Rashid, a Syrian Kurd refugee, whose flight to freedom from his war torn homeland is really just one of hundreds of such stories, yet is still poignant and moving.  There’s Michael Brown, the victim of yet another race killing, cut down in his prime, like any number of Dylan heroes who have gone before.  The list of characters is endless, a number of them packed into the opening four and a half minutes of the title song “Faraway People”, as the songs cover a pattern of life we unfortunately know only too well, from modern times way back to the Roman era courtesy of Cicero.  Protest songs with a keen eye on human nature and the foibles that go with it.  These are songs of and for our times, meticulously observed and intricately rendered in verse, with the sparsest of accompaniment, together with one or two love songs in order to balance our anger and fear.  Songwriting at its best and in more than capable hands.

Jupiter and Okwess – Kin Sonic | Album Review | Glitterbeat | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 13.08.17

There’s something striking about the Congolese musician Jean-Pierre Bokondji (aka Jupiter), his tall gangly frame and growling voice as deep as the ocean being his most notable features.  A formidable presence on stage, the singer commands attention, whilst his band Okwess (Kibunda for ‘food’), provides enough punch to ensure there’s no confusing them for merely a backing band.  On this second album, the follow up to Hotel Univers (2013), we find the Kinshasa-born singer determined to take giant strides through his own Congolese roots, based on the traditional rumba-styled dance music of the Congo, which this band treats to an infectious contemporary rock feel.  If the hysterical laughter at the beginning of “Emikele Ngamo”, as well as elsewhere on the record, reflects the positive mood of both Jupiter and his band, then by contrast, the impassioned vocal performance on “Pondjo Pondjo” demonstrates Jupiter’s versatility as a performer and emphasises the fact that there’s definitely room for a more soulful and reflective side to his music.  The sheer energy of “Bengai Yo”, in which Jupiter utilises stories and parables to denounce injustice, doesn’t so much etch its message into your soul as scratch it in deep with six inch nails, with a determined guitar riff and infectious rhythm.  Produced by Marc-Antoine Moreau and featuring Damon Albarn on keyboards, the eleven tracks demonstrates a musician who means business with a band of musicians only too eager to share Jupiter’s vision with a cover designed by Massive Attack’s 3D (Robert Del Naja).

Sam Baker – Land of Doubt | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 15.08.17

Texan singer-songwriter Sam Baker seems to have taken his time with this, his fifth album, once again engaging his audience with a selection of highly distinctive songs from the heart.  The first thing we notice is Sam’s particularly mannered singing style, where he inserts spaces between each word, which probably speaks volumes for the art of his own songwriting, in that each word, each syllable, is very much pronounced, possibly because each word very much counts.  The jagged drawl continues throughout each song in an almost hesitant manner, ensuring each verse is delivered clearly and concisely.  The survivor of a 1986 terrorist attack in Peru, Baker’s determination to tell his stories as a highly thoughtful singer-songwriter continues to develop with five albums now under his belt together with a steadily growing and loyal audience.  The four musical interludes here serve to create a certain mood prior to some of the album’s best songs “Margaret”, “The Feast of Saint Valentine”, “Peace Out” and the closing title song.  Whilst “Same Kind of Blue” investigates the story of a quiet unassuming soldier sent out to war in South East Asia with the unfortunate name of Charlie, the collective name of the enemy, “Leave” is a heartbreaking confrontation with lost love.  We sense from these songs a life very much lived and love very much lost and occasionally in a minor key. 

Callaghan – The Other Side | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 16.08.17

It comes as little surprise that Lincolnshire-born singer-songwriter Georgina Callaghan, known professionally by her surname only, chooses to pursue a radio friendly pop direction on this her latest EP release.  Following the current trend for releasing shorter bursts of creativity, Callaghan’s five-track EP is in effect a showcase for her more accessible pop tunes, richly arranged and orchestrated with her confident voice very much to the fore.  In places the songs are nailed-on contemporary radio tunes with the lead song, the title track, appearing twice here, yet for the life of me I can’t spot the difference between the two apart from the fact that the second version is about half a minute longer.  For me though, Callaghan excels mostly in the stunning performance of what I see as essentially the EP’s showstopper song, the exquisite “Surrender”, which is not unlike a gorgeous mixture of Sarah McLachlan, Regina Spektor and the Cranberries all rolled up into one; the EP is important if only for this fine piece of work.

Sibusile Xaba – Unlearning/Open Letter to Adoniah | Album Review | Mushroom Hour/Capital Arts | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 17.08.17

Occasionally an album will come along that gets so deeply under the skin that it demands to be obsessed over and gushed over in equal measure.  It happened with Buena Vista Social Club twenty years ago, Tinariwen’s Tassili in 2011 and then Clychau Dibon, the outstanding collaboration between Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita, in 2013.  This month we herald the arrival of another breathtaking “world music” release, this time from South African guitarist and singer Sibusile Xaba.  Unlearning/Open Letter to Adoniah is Xaba’s two-disc debut release and presents a fascinating fusion of jazz and malombo.  For the uninitiated, malombo is a traditional African healing ceremony and its music, of which Xaba is a proponent, combines hand-drumming and vocalisation with the rhythms of jazz and popular African music to create a spellbinding concoction of ruminative sounds.  Open Letter to Adoniah is minimalist in construction, but it’s this unadorned approach that lends this half of the two-disc set its infectious charm.  The majority of the disc consists of a single guitar, hand-drums from Xaba’s son Thabang and chanting vocals.  With such tracks as “Wampona”, “Swaziland” and the stunning “Sibongile: Tribute to the Mother (Reprise)” you’d be forgiven for letting yourself float a few feet off your living room carpet.  Unlearning, the other half of the set, is a more jazz-based affair with Ariel Zamonsky on double bass and Bonolo Nkoane at the drum-kit, mixing gentle bossa nova rhythms and unfettered jazz explorations on such tracks as “I Wrote It For Ziare” and “Internet Dance”.  Both sides of this impressive debut benefit from Xaba’s inventively soulful Zulu vocals and the reflections they cast on the strings of his acoustic guitar.  And whether its relaxed and meditative sounds or flights of exuberant jazz fusion that you’re looking for, this album simply will not disappoint.

Fine Lines – Hour of Need | Album Review | Parade Recordings | Review by Damian Liptrot | 17.08.17

Before I start, I shall have to declare an interest – I like Fine Lines and looked forward to the release of this, their debut album with a fair degree of anticipation and on initial listening was not disappointed.  However, in the interest of fairness and objectivity, Hour of Need was shared with the sternest critic of my musical tastes and when she not only approved it but encouraged a replay, then I felt my belief was justified.  “Fine Lines” is essentially the distillation of the musical loves and influences of David Boardman and operates with a floating line-up based around a core membership the guitar/vocals of Mr Boardman, the complementary vocals of Zoe Blythe and the keyboards of Gary O’Brien.  The remainder join as and when the situation and the venue demands or allows and the album reflects this fluidity of scale within the songs themselves, whilst still retaining an essential ‘Fine-ness’.  At the heart of the sound is classic acoustic rock, spanning both American and British exponents of the art and for nit-pickers everywhere, takes in some Canadian influence, with a majestic version of “I Shall Be Released” that owes more to The Band than to the solo artist responsible.  Whilst the impeccable selection of a cover version is to be applauded and enjoyed, there is much more to be appreciated in the band’s original material, mainly from the Boardman pen but with a few co-writes.  Think of bands that you love, that for one reason or another no longer offer much of interest, either through lack of inspiration or lack of membership.  Fine Lines manage to bring the spirit of the likes of Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty, Roddy Frame and The Beautiful South to their music without becoming derivative or a tribute, though the bitter-sweet ruminations on the nature and experience of relationships of the latter are never far from the content, titles such as “Forget About You” and “Just Tell Me Why” acting as clu