Music Reviews | 2011

The Secret Sisters | The Secret Sisters | Album Review | Beladroit/Universal Republic | 02.01.11

Recorded over a two week period in Nashville’s Blackbird Studios and released on T Bone Burnett’s newly created Beladroit Records label, the Secret Sisters’ self-titled debut is out to ensure these siblings don’t remain a secret for much longer.  Hailing from Muscle Shoals, Alabama, Laura and Lydia Rogers, both just into their twenties, sought a new moniker to go under after discovering that the Rogers Sisters was already professionally taken. Laura and Lydia settled on the intriguing Secret Sisters and having already gained a considerable reputation in a very short space of time in the States are now ready to spread their wings as they prepare to tour Europe with Ray Lamontagne in February.  An appearance on Jools Holland’s Hootenanny on New Year’s Eve performing the stunning “The One I Love is Gone” has done the siblings’ burgeoning reputation no harm whatsoever.  Born into a musical family, the sisters’ grandfather being a member of The Happy Valley Boys along with his brothers, Laura and Lydia honed their tight harmonies in church and continue to regularly sing together at family reunions.  The songs for the most part come from a different era such as George Jones classic “Why Baby Why”, the aforementioned Bill Monroe song “The One I Love is Gone” and Buck Owens’ “My Heart Skips a Beat”.  Recorded entirely on vintage recording gear, avoiding modern day digital equipment, the songs capture some level of 1950’s authenticity.  Even more fascinating is the fact that most of the songs here sound particularly fresh due to using very near first takes, Lydia admitting that often the first take is the best.  Opening with the first of two self-penned songs “Tennessee Me”, the duo make new songs sound old and old songs sound new in equal measure.  There’s a distinctively fresh sound to the established songs largely due to Dave Cobb’s empathetic production, Laura and Lydia’s intuitive sibling harmonies and the cluster of fine Nashville session players such as Robbie Turner on pedal steel and Pig Robbins on piano, to name but two.  There are also a couple of Hank Williams covers here, the gospel-tinged “House of Gold” and the jaunty “Why Don’t You Love Me” to close the album, keeping with the period country theme.  Even the unexpected “Something Stupid” doesn’t necessarily feel out of place, despite the song being sung by sisters.  Well if a father/daughter team can get away with it, anybody can.

Jaywalkers | 16 Miles | Album Review | Self Release | 04.01.11

When Jaywalkers’ debut album dropped onto the doormat in December, I did what I usually do, that is to discard the press release, ignore the cover artwork, although it was difficult in this case to avoid being charmed by the two pairs of legs dangling nonchalantly from the top of the brick wall on the cover shot, and concentrate solely on the music within.  I was half way through the second track when chronic curiosity struck me and I found myself in desperate need of discovering more.  What I already knew by this point was that this pair could play like demons and this girl could sing for England.  16 Miles is the debut release by Michael Giverin and Jay Bradberry, collectively known as Jaywalkers and consists of eleven songs and tunes of startling accomplishment, each one demonstrating a clear understanding of arrangement, whether the songs and tunes are traditional, contemporary or self-penned.  Since finding themselves in the finals at the celebrated BBC Young Folk Awards in 2009, this young duo have continued to grow and further develop their almost intuitive musical relationship and today that cohesion is very much apparent in their work.  Cutting their teeth in weekly jam sessions at the local ex-serviceman’s club in Helsby near Chester, the duo came together as teenagers and found a musical kinship in their playing ability.  Now at just 18, Jay’s powerful voice has a confidence and maturity that is very much at odds with her age.  Seldom do we hear such confidence and assurance in one so young and on this album Jay demonstrates it time and time again, whether on the traditional material including “Wayfaring Stranger”, the contemporary songs such as Gillian Welch’s “Caleb Meyer” (watch out for Jay’s hilarious false start included here as a hidden track) or on Mike’s own songs, “My Sweet Little Miss”, “Let Me Be” and the superb “Delphi Lodge”, possibly the album’s stand out moment and the song that provides the album with its title.  While Jay provides some dexterous playing on the fiddle, her instrument of choice, a choice made ten years ago when she was just eight years-old, Mike holds his own as top notch bluegrass mandolin player, discovering the work of Nickel Creek’s Chris Thile at the impressionable age of 14.  This influence manifests itself best on the instrumentals “Ivy Cottage” and “Brilliancy”, the latter borrowed from Sam Bush’s version of the Howdy Forrester fiddle tune.  Citing Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski, the Dixie Chicks and Darrell Scott as influences, Jay also credits Kris Drever as a major influence, which possibly explains the appearance of “Shady Grove” here, a nod towards Drever’s energy-driven take on the old Child ballad.  Co-produced by Jaywalkers and Iain Reddy, this fine debut also features Lucy Williams who provides some no nonsense bass, the sort of bass playing that brings out the best in her musical collaborators.  Astonishingly, the album took just two days to record using a couple of good microphones and a laptop with Lucy’s bass being added later.  It is testament to Reddy’s skill and vision that we have 16 Miles, which is for all intents and purposes, an extraordinary debut.   

Red Shoes | Ring Around the Land | Album Review | Cedarwood | 15.01.11

If you ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross, you’ll no doubt see a fine lady upon a white horse, or so the nursery rhyme goes.  The lady in question, together with her bold Welsh cob, features on the front cover and throughout the booklet that accompanies this debut album by Birmingham husband and wife team Red Shoes.  When my feet first became acquainted with the soggy fields of nearby Cropredy way back in 1980 at the first official Fairport Convention ‘Reunion’ festival, I had no idea that it would still be going strong a good thirty-odd years later.  Richard and Linda Thompson guested with the legendary folk rock band on that occasion, Linda shrouded in an unfeasibly large red hat, hopelessly shielding her from the torrential rain, while her then husband and ex-member of said band sported a traditional flat cap and a weather-beaten Strat.  Over the ensuing years, it’s not so much the ever-changing line-ups of that particular band that have forced Pete Frame to replenish his inkwell time and again in order to amend the ‘Fairport family tree’ saga, but the names of the many friends that have since fallen under the Fairport umbrella.  Carolyn and Mark Evans are two such musicians who are presumably only too pleased to rub shoulders with Fairport’s Dave Pegg and Chris Leslie, both of whom make major contributions to this record.  With Peggy producing, the duo has put down a dozen self-penned songs together with one well-chosen cover at the Blue Moon Studios in Banbury, just down the road from Cropredy.  While Peggy contributed bass throughout, together with some mandolin and bouzouki flourishes, Chris Leslie provided some trademark fiddle playing.  Red Shoes are certainly no overnight success, the duo first having met and played together in the 1980s with some sporadic forays into recording.  Having put their music on hold in order to concentrate on parenthood, the duo have in recent years re-discovered their craft and have subsequently found the right time in their lives to record their songs and Ring Around the Land is the fruit of their labour.  The songs are pretty much equally divided into compositions by either Carolyn or Mark, with the remainder being joint compositions.  The only non-original is Dave Swarbrick’s beautiful “White Dress”, a song originally recorded by Fairport Convention after Sandy Denny re-joined the band in 1974 and whose version of the song is pretty much the definitive version.  The Fairport connection is hardly coincidental, Carolyn being a self-confessed Sandy Denny nut and who turns in a pretty faithful version of the song here.  “White Dress” is followed by Carolyn’s heartfelt tribute to her heroine in “Someday We’ll Meet”, accompanied by some tender fiddle playing courtesy of Leslie.  Mark’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes” provides a veritable toe-tapper augmented by PJ Wright’s dobro and harmonica, together with Mick Bullard on drums.  Also featured is Megan Evans representing the next generation of the Evans clan, with some fine piano arrangements, most notably on possibly the stand out track, her mum’s “My Father’s Green Beret”.  Time to put another ink cartridge in your pen Pete!

Kate Rusby | Make the Light | Album Review | Pure Records | 15.01.11

Kate Rusby’s ninth solo album is made up entirely of self-penned material, an idea apparently suggested by Jennifer Saunders.  Kate’s exemplary track record as an interpreter of traditional songs is well documented, so too is her remarkable aptitude for recognising a good contemporary song when she hears one; “Withered and Died”, “Village Green Preservation Society”, “You Belong to Me” to name but three.  Kate’s own song writing achievements have been developing steadily over the past decade or so and we now have Kate’s first full blown example of ‘all me own work’.  Anyone who has followed Kate’s career and in particular her most recent work, will know full well that it’s anything but all Kate’s own work in reality, as the young Yorkshire lass they affectionately refer to as the ‘Barnsley Nightingale’ is surrounded both at home and in the studio by the people she trusts the most, that is her own immediate family.  Pure Records, the family label, I imagine will be as proud as Punch that this latest album showcases eleven original songs, making it even more home-made than previous releases.  The key family members associated with this record are brother Joe, who co-produced the album along with Kate and husband Damien O’Kane, who is right beside Kate throughout providing production assistance, along with some tasteful guitar and banjo accompaniment.  Added to this, a strong cast of musicians including Julian Sutton on diatonic accordion and Malcolm Stitt on bouzouki, together with the usual compliment of brass and string musicians, the album bears all the hallmarks of what we have come to love about a Kate Rusby product.  The material on the album is by and large made up of contemplative musings that don’t necessarily follow the traditional template of the story songs Kate grew up with, pored over and re-worked over the last few years.  The opening song however reveals the same sort of tale Mike Waterson told in “A Stitch in Time”, in that the song’s heroine eventually gets one up on her miserable spouse.  Personally I would rather be on the receiving end of the punishment Mike suggested, of being battered with a rolling pin, than with being turned into a dog, the fate delivered by Kate’s dissatisfied protagonist in “The Wishing Wife”.  And she seemed such a nice girl!  Kate also has a moment of angst and gives the politicians ‘whom this may concern’ a bit of a reprimand in “Let Them Fly”, an rare protest song.  The sheer nature of Kate’s forever youthful voice, which isn’t necessarily imbued with the sort of tongue-bashing credentials of an Odetta or an Ani DeFranco for example, makes the protest slightly unfulfilled.  Although it’s a beautiful melody that incorporates one of Donald Grant’s excellent brass arrangements, performed here by the Quintet of the Grimethorpe Colliery Band, the actual effect of the song’s content is rather like letting the politicians ‘ave it’ with a feather duster.  Kate closes the album with “Four Stars”, a love song to those closest to her; her man, their dog and their child.  Kate may return to her huge collection of traditional song books to supply the content of her next project, but Make the Light is a fitting tribute to this point in the singer’s life; a moment of reflection and contemplation in an otherwise busy and productive career.  I’ll give it four more stars.

Susan Cattaneo | Heaven to Heartache | Album Review | Jersey Girl Music | 21.01.11

Following on from her 2009 debut Brave and Wild, Boston’s Susan Cattaneo returns with the more country oriented Heaven to Heartache, showcasing a dozen new self-penned songs.  Practicing what she preaches, the Berklee College of Music teacher ensures that her songs are imbued with the right ingredients, great storytelling, strong and effective lyrics and those all-important ‘killer hooks’, all the things the singer-songwriter endeavours to get over to her students.  With an authoritative approach to song writing, Cattaneo delivers her latest collection while adopting various styles, from the bluesy opener “Gotta Get Gone” to the highly commercial “Girls Night Out”, which has all the commerciality and ‘killer hooks’ that would almost guarantee a place at the top of the CMT charts.  “Just Like it Was Texas”, with a lyric from which the album takes its title, touches upon heartbreak with an evocative metaphor, the wide open landscape of Texas, with all that road going; contained within the microcosm of the heart.  The rockier approach of “On Again Off Again” is handled with equal attention to detail, as Cattaneo spars with fellow Boston singer-songwriter Ellis Paul in this convincingly playful duet.  Mostly recorded in Nashville, Susan Cattaneo has gathered an impressive team of musicians that includes some of the town’s top session players.  Included are Tommy White on pedal steel, Pat Buchanan on guitar, Paul Leim on drums, Randy Kohrs on dobro, Mark Grantt on bass, Glen Duncan on fiddle and Bobby Lee Rogers on guitars. Respected drummer Dave Mattacks also makes an appearance on the funky “Little Big Sky”.

Martin Sexton | Sugarcoating | Album Review | Kitchen Table | 22.01.11

Martin Sexton likes to keep it real, whether writing from his own personal experiences or the times we live in, there’s always integrity present in the songs he writes.  Sugarcoating is Sexton’s eighth studio album to date and is potentially a career best.  Recorded over a period of seven days, using vintage recording equipment and analog tape in a conscious effort to make a record ‘the way the old jazz guys did’, the album sounds fresh, uncluttered and richly varied in style.  With a core band of much sought after musicians from both sides of the pond, including Duke Levine on guitars, Dave Mattacks on drums, Marty Ballou on bass and Tom West on keyboards, the Syracuse-born, Massachusetts-based singer-songwriter appears to be more than comfortable with each of the songs and the arrangements, some of which are bathed in an almost tangible sense of fun.  For the most part working in collaboration with New York singer-songwriter Dan Mackenzie, Sexton once again demonstrates a command over storytelling with thirteen accomplished songs ranging from the soulful “Always Got Away”, the country-inflected “Long Haul”, featuring additional vocals by sister Colleen, to the funky “Boom Sh-Boom”, bringing with it a distinctly sweaty vibe from the Fez club in New York’s East Village.  More seriously, the title song addresses the horror of 9/11 in a most unusual way, with a jaunty sugar-coated feel, reminiscent of the Sons of the Pioneers, deliberately adding irony to the content.  Co-produced by Sexton and Crit Harmon, Sugarcoating also contains some beautifully melodic songs such as the Beatles-influence “Stick Around”, complete with Abbey Road reference, while “Easy on the Eyes”, ventures into crooner territory, complete with voice trumpet solo; take us to the bridge Mart..

Rua Macmillan | Tyro | Album Review | Greentrax | 22.01.11

This thoroughly enjoyable instrumental album from the recipient of the BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year Award 2009, reveals the work of a musician who is unafraid to mix the traditional with the contemporary, spiced up with generous helpings of original material, with an equal measure of energy, drive and passion.  Whether performing within the ranks of the popular Paul McKenna Band or muckling about with the Muckle Loons, Ruairidh ‘Rua’ Macmillan has recently taken his musical prowess further a field and to wider audiences, performing for example at last year’s Cambridge Folk Festival and the St Louis Highland Games.  Originally from Nairn, in the Scottish Highlands, Macmillan graduated with a B.A. (Honours) in Scottish Music from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in 2008 and has since toured extensively throughout Europe and the U.S., picking up accolades and peer praise along the way, from the likes of ex-Battlefield Band multi-instrumentalist Brian McNeill, who also makes an appearance on this album.  Enlisting the assistance of two bright young musicians, Bodega’s Tia Fyles on Guitar and Adam Brown on Bodhran, Macmillan’s debut album showcases a tightly intuitive ensemble, augmented by Alasdair MacLeod on drums and the aforementioned Brian McNeill on concertina and bouzouki.  From the opener, “Traditionally Incorrect”, the traditional, the contemporary and the original are fearlessly fused to reveal a very contemporary take on ancient music.  The mysteriously entitled “Ooh Pierre!” also shows a remarkable aptitude for arrangement.  Those who were present to see Rua’s trio thrash it out at the BBC Radio Scotland Young Musician Awards in Coulter in 2009, will already have some idea of what to expect from this and other pieces on Tyro.  That trio’s first efforts at arrangement can be found in the set known as “Kitchen Criminals”, where Macmillan and McKay’s percussive composition is seamlessly coupled with Donald Shaw’s “Ornette’s Trip to Belfast” and the traditional Breton tune “Cape Breton Puirt”.  Macmillan’s more sensitive treatment in the art of fiddle playing can be found in his own composition “Harv’s”, written for Orkney fiddler Kristan Harvey and “Bidh Clann Ulaidh”, the traditional tune used effectively to convince the BBC judging panel that he was a crucial contender and a worthy winner at the awards.  In the true sense of a living tradition, this music continues to be passed down through the generations, in Rua’s case, benefitting enormously from the teaching of Bruce MacGregor and Aonghas Grant Snr., and through Macmillan’s playing, goes directly to the next generation of traditional musicians who now attend his tutorials and workshops.

Dead Rock West | Bright Morning Stars | Album Review | Red River | 01.02.11

Second offering from Californian duo Dead Rock West, who with this release trawl the country folk bayous and bluesy gospel backwoods with a deeply engaging journey through the past.  With Bright Morning Stars Cindy Wasserman and Frank Lee Drennen update the spirit of Blind Willie Johnson with the same sort of authority as an early 1970s Ry Cooder, evoking an almost tangible sense of the past but sounding both fresh and contemporary at the same time.  With producer Peter Case at the helm, who for all intents and purposes is to Wasserman and Drennen what T Bone Burnette is to Krauss and Plant, this collection of eleven well-chosen songs take us on an Americana inspired road trip, the soundtrack of which is peppered with gospel-tinged to bluesy adaptations of familiar songs from the tradition.  The hard rocking gutsy guitar opener “Ain’t No Grave”, indicates from the start that these songs are not going to pull any punches.  “Beyond the Blues”, written by Bob Neuwirth, Peter Case and Tom Russell, allows Wasserman to stretch as a vocalist, with more than a slight similarity to the singing of Corinne West.  While the twin guitars of Peter Case and Ron Franklin form the backdrop to Wasserman’s convincing plea for “Two Wings”, the gospel theme is no better captured than on “This May Be the Last Time”, a song originally made popular by the Staples Singers, which then went on to provide the Rolling Stones with one of their finest early hits.  This version maintains the spirit and integrity of the original.  The surprise inclusion of William Reid’s “God Help Me”, sees the duo transform East Kilbride’s favourite sons languid original into something of a veritable anthem.  June Carter Cash’s hymn-like “Wings of Angels” is also given a jaunty good time feel, despite avoiding the autoharp sprightliness of the original.  Peter Case can also be heard growling under the Bo Diddley-esque “God Moves on the Water” and “God Don’t Never Change”, two songs popularized in 1929 by blues preacher Blind Willie Johnson.  Closing with “Angel Band”, Wasserman is accompanied by acoustic bottleneck guitar and bass, with a laid back, almost campfire version of the hymn.  A nice relaxed closer to an otherwise exciting and vibrant roots album.

Dan Wilde | This is the Place | Album Review | Littlest Mojo | 05.02.11

This debut release by Blackpool-born singer-songwriter Dan Wilde, reveals a musician who manages to combine a great sense of melody with an expressive flair for song structure with a dozen original compositions of startling quality.  With one of those voices that expresses the sort of ordinary warmth necessary to convey such delicate songs, in the same manner as Blondel’s Eddie Baird or more famously the late Gerry Rafferty, Wilde knows his songs well before he starts singing.  There’s some fine string accompaniment courtesy of Richard Curran, featured most recently on Ian Bailey’s outstanding Tower Songs album as well as being part of Angie Palmer’s band, whose violin, viola and mandolin work embellishes an already superb album.  The cherry on top so to speak.  The songs range from the beautifully engaging “Nearest I Have To a Home”, from which the album’s title derives, the sprightly “Wait Until Tomorrow” complete with John Martyn-esque slapped guitar and fluid mandolin fills, the feel good approach of “Look Out”, complete with Curran’s fleetingly organic violin work, through to the achingly sensitive “Nowhere”, reminiscent of a young Steve Tilston and the melancholic “Unkind”.  “How Will I Know” accurately sums up the ever questioning nature of youth, with a beautifully arranged song, once again augmented by Curran’s intuitive violin playing, underpinning Wilde’s crisp finger-picked guitar.  Produced by Gary Hall and Ian Bailey, This is the Place proves that there is still room in an otherwise cluttered music world for song makers who straddle the ever narrowing borders of contemporary acoustic folk, Celtic rock and popular song in the same cultural ball park as Nick Drake, John Martyn and Richard Thompson.

Lucky Bones | Together We Are All Alone | Album Review | Lucky Bones Promotions | 05.02.11

The first full blown album by Dublin’s Eamonn O’Connor was recorded in Bastrop, a few miles out of Austin, Texas, during an intensive period of creativity.  With co-producer Stephen Ceresia on hand to share some of the musical vision with the songwriter, Together We Are Not Alone, showcases eleven highly personal songs backed by a carefully cherry picked bunch of musicians including Ryan Gould on bass, Sean Close on guitar, Wayne Duncan on drums, Sean Orr on fiddle, mandolin and banjo, Rob Greenfield on piano and Reese Beeman and Wayne Sutton, both on guitars.  Having extensively journeyed through Europe and the USA, cutting his musical teeth in many of the world’s varied venues, O’Connor brings a distinctly Americana feel to his songs, combining the usual sprinkling of country and folk ingredients, influenced by the likes of Dylan and Van Zandt, with the additional pinch of Springsteen and Waits.  The songs ultimately stand up for themselves with bold determination, maintaining their Irish roots throughout.  From the opening title song, O’Connor chronicles the life of a roving troubadour with ‘worn out shoes and rambling blues’, with references to the downtrodden, to life’s misfits, to the lazy dreamers and to listening to Frank Sinatra.  While “Magnificent Mistake” invites us to waltz, eulogising a failed relationship at the same time, Alice provides some measure of resignation, to the fact that we choose our own paths in life, some of which may not necessarily be the right ones, but hey.  “Toward the Setting Sun” and “Longshot” provides some upbeat respite from the more melancholic songs, while the uncompromising “Commercial Presentation” adds some political protestations to the mix.  Once recorded and in the bag, O’Connor returned prodigal son-like to Dublin with an unswerving desire to form a homegrown band in order to take this album on the road.  Those musicians that now form Lucky Bones are Billy Morley on guitar, Leon Kennedy on bass, Conor Miley on keyboards and banjo and Ben Clark on drums. A fine debut.

Ewan Robertson | Some Kind of Beauty | Album Review | Greentrax | 05.02.11

As a member of one of the most exciting new bands to emerge over the last few years, Ewan Robertson has put some time aside to record his own debut album Some Kind of Certainty.  There is some kind of certainty that as a solo artist this young singer could make just as much of a splash as Breabach, the band in which he plays guitar.  Originally a fiddler and piper, the guitarist knows only too well that the band already has a perfectly good fiddle player in Patsy Reid and Lordy my, no less than two pipers in Calum MacCrimmon and Donal Brown.  Fortunately the guitar suits Robertson and provides the perfect instrument to accompany the songs he carefully chooses for his own repertoire.  The chosen material is made up primarily of contemporary songs including Richard Thompson’s fatalistic “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”, which maintains the original’s punch, Steve Knightley’s desperately sad “Man of War”, James Grant’s “Scarecrow Song” and an utterly gorgeous version of the old Phil Ochs song “When I’m Gone”.  Each song is stamped with Robertson’s indelible mark, respectfully rendered by a handful of first rate musicians including Angus Lyon on keyboards, Rick Taylor on trombone, Ewan MacPhearson on guitar, mandolin, jews harp and banjo, Alan Train on pedal steel, Patsy Reid on violin, viola and cello, Donald Hay on drums and James Lindsay on double bass.  Despite the album’s strong folk luminary contingent, the songs maintain a contemporary and accessible feel.  Emily Smith adds her own unmistakable voice to a couple of songs including “Doesn’t Get Any Better Than This”, a song from the musical partnership of composer Rick Taylor and lyricist Angus Venters.  The album also includes a couple of traditional songs including “Oh Gin I Were”, a beautiful old Scots love song derived from “Gin I Were a Baron’s Heir” and “Ship in Order”, a song Robertson previously sang with trombonist Rick Taylor and the Wayward Boys at the Celtic Connections festival in 2009 as part of the special ‘New Voices’ commission.  With Angus Lyon’s sparse and atmospheric piano accompaniment, the song makes a fitting finale to this highly recommended debut cd release.

Brian Franke | Six Blocks Down | Album Review | Self Release | 11.02.11

New Jersey-born but now Washington DC-based singer-songwriter Brian Franke delivers a fine debut fusing rock, pop and folk with an indie spirit and assured vocal prowess.  His debut album Six Blocks Down comprises eight self-penned songs that show an artist unafraid to straddle the boundaries, at times producing a full blown rock sound on songs such as “I’m Just Saying” and “Jersey Driver” to the sensitive balladry of “You Got All You Want (Girl)”.  No stranger to large audiences, having already played to a 22,000 strong crowd at a Washington Nationals home game, Brian Franke has an impressive repertoire that includes over 150 covers and a steadily growing catalogue comprising his own compositions, a handful of which represent his work so far here.  Both “On You” and “Never Let Your Guard Down” are energy driven inde pop songs that could equally fall into a set list planned for both rock or indie pop audiences; a little Green Day with a pinch of Van Halen thrown in if you will.  Produced by David Mallen, the album also incorporates a couple of selections leaning more toward a folk pop angle, with a fine string arrangement on the final song “Reconcile”, which shows yet another side to Franke’s songwriting.  The title cut has an easily accessible hook that would guarantee radio play on both sides of the Atlantic, yet addresses at the same time the sensitive subject of struggling relationships.  As we remind ourselves frequently that today’s artists are standing on the shoulders of giants, then fellow Jersey boy Bruce Springsteen springs to mind as a possible influence lyrically if not specifically stylistically on this potentially important new voice, cut as it were, from the same cloth.   

BettySoo | Heat Sin Water Skin | Album Review | Self Release | 12.02.11

On this third full length album by second-generation Korean singer-songwriter BettySoo, the Gurf Morlix produced Heat Sin Water Skin sees the release of possibly the breakthrough album the singer has been waiting for.  Leaning towards the folk-rock end of the musical spectrum, BettySoo adds some additional spark with ten self-penned songs and the one cover, the Hank Williams classic “Lonesome Whistle”.  BettySoo’s previous albums Let Me Love You (2005) and Little Tiny Secrets (2007) earned her some recognition, the singer-songwriter subsequently going on to collect a handful of awards including Kerrville New Folk, Wildflower Festival and Big Top Chautauqua Songwriter of the Year.  Raised in Austin, Texas, the petite Asian-American songwriter is the beholder of a strong and convincing voice capable of conveying the edgier aspects of Americana to a bar room audience on such as “Never Knew No Love”, together with the soulfully sensitive material such as “Whisper My Name” and “Forever”.  No small voice here despite the reference to a “Still Small Voice”.   With some spine-tingling guitar accompaniment courtesy of Gurf Morlex, especially on “Just Another Lover”, the songs stand up equally alongside the best of the collective Austin songbook, with “Who Knows” vying for standout song status.  “Never the Pretty Girl” is a heartfelt study of the commonly encountered soul, a song that will pull at even the hardest heartstrings.  Bringing together a bunch of musicians, BettySoo and Morlix, who between them take care of all guitars, including bass and pedal steel, are joined by Todd Wilson on organ, Gene Elders on violin and Dave Terry on drums, providing a richly cohesive and intuitive gathering for the songs to rest upon.

Sue Aston | Between Worlds | Album Review | Genius Loci | 12.02.11

Between Worlds could perhaps refer to the space between the world of Classical music and folk music, both delicately explored here by a musician passionate about both.  As the lyrics to the album’s opening song suggests, it is the place where the sea meets the land that the title actually refers to.  Coming over at times like the soundtrack to a good BBC costume drama, the instrumental pieces offer that sort of sense of the past.  The title song in particular could quite easily fit the scene where Marianne Dashwood woos Colonel Brandon with mezzo soprano Maria Heseltine standing in for Miss Winslet.  Accompanying the album is an informative booklet offering a visual sense of the Celtic, basking in the mysteries of the Cornish landscape, which the music attempts to capture within.  Sue Aston is an extraordinary violin player who takes us on a journey through one of Britain’s most beautiful counties, from the fun filled Golowan celebrations of a midsummer Saturday afternoon in Penzance with “Mazey Dazey”, to the dramatic “Storm Cat”, with Mowzer the cat, again with Maria Heseltine providing the vocal, attempting to bring forth calm as the veritable tempest brews. While “Scenes From a Cornish Market” celebrates the Cornish landscape specifically, with Sue taking three of the violin/viola parts, the string quartet then completed by Beck McGlade on cello, “Thursday’s Market” borrows more from the secular Jewish Klezmer tradition, with an ostentatious romp featuring the violin in full flight, augmented by several instruments played by Rick Williams, including guitar, bass and clarinet.  Most of the arrangements on Between Worlds are classically structured at their core, but offer the subtle influence of folk music and occasionally jazz, from the pen of a composer clearly in tune with music first and genres second.  With great tenderness, Sue dedicates “Initial Bond!” to her late father, with a heartfelt performance, reprised once again as a solo piano piece played by concert pianist John Thomson, rounding off a beautifully delicate suite of music.  

Little Miss Higgins | Across the Plains | Album Review | Little Miss Higgins Music | 13.02.11

Jolene Higgins has been using the ‘Little Miss Higgins’ moniker since 2002, a name that was given to her by ‘some crazy Greek guy’ that just stuck.  Although we initially feel these stage names are something new, we couldn’t be more wrong.  Most blues men and women since the early days have taken nicknames, hence the abundance of Blind Boys, Big Bill’s and Sonny Boys, not to mention the Big Mama’s, the Ma’s and the odd Memphis Minnie.  The name Little Miss Higgins, likewise suits her character down to the ground, largely informed by a theatrical background and an inherent appreciation of such musical giants as Memphis Minnie, Billie Holiday and Joni Mitchell.  Born in Alberta and raised in Kansas, this so called ‘pocket-sized powerhouse’ has produced two previous albums Cobbler Shop Sessions (2006) and Junction City (2007), together with a live album, all of which helped create a buzz for this charismatic singer-songwriter, whose style cannot be easily categorised.  Part bar room jazz guitarist, part country saloon maverick, part folk singer, Little Miss Higgins has an immediately engaging personality, once seen or heard, never forgotten.  You feel while listening to the songs that you are being steadily drunk under the table by a girl who can take her liquor.  Packed with a vivid sense of the past, the ten songs on Across the Plains range from the lilting jazz-inflected “Beautiful Sun”, partly sung in French, complete with birds tweeting in the background (actually tweeting, not playing with their iPhones I hasten to add), to the prairie lament “Snowin’ Today: A Lament For Louis Riel”, referencing the leader of the Metis people of the Canadian prairies.  There’s also a good deal of humour and a tangible sense of fun in some of Little Miss Higgins’ lyrics, particularly on the hilarious “Bargain Shop Panties” and “Glad Your Whiskey Fits Inside My Purse”, presented with a vintage crackly 78rpm prelude, complete with obligatory stylus jumps.  Beautifully packaged in a sleeve designed and illustrated by Little Miss Jolene Higgins herself, the album is co-produced by Jaxon Haldane and features partner Foy Taylor on guitar together with an impressive gathering of first rate musicians.  Recorded in Winnipeg in the Bedside Studio, this collection provides for the listener, a feast of great musicianship together with an uplifting sense of fun throughout. Merci Beacoup Little Miss Higgins.

James Findlay | Sport and Play | Album Review | Fellside | 14.02.11

If you were to hear this voice first, then discover the fresh-faced youth on the cover next, you would probably be somewhat perplexed.  With a strong and convincingly mature voice, 20 year-old Dorset-born singer, guitarist and fiddle player James Findlay presents a dozen songs, mostly traditional with the one contemporary inclusion, Jerry Bird’s Somerset mining industry ballad “Black Hills of Mendip”, which stylistically fits in perfectly well the remainder of the collection.  For those of us who remember all those early 1970s Trailor LPs, particularly Songs of a Changing World, the spirit of Tony Rose, Jon Raven and Nic Jones can be felt throughout this album.  Nic Jones is to this BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award winner what Dick Gaughan is to Horizon award recipient Ewan McLennan, that is, a strong influential template from which to draw upon, most notably on “Lakes of Shilin”, which is presented here as a blend of the Jones and Rose versions, together with the enduring melody of the old hymn “Lord of All Hopefulness”.  The unaccompanied “Tam Lin”, which is described here as ‘an ancient fairy/surprise sex/Halloween/shape shifter ballad’, demonstrates Findlay’s masterful command over story telling. There are some tender moments on Sport and Play, such as “When a Man’s in Love”, which also demonstrates Findlay’s fluid guitar style.  Described as the ‘cheeriest death by childbirth song on the album’, this fine collection concludes with Findlay’s reading of the timeless “Foggy Dew”.  With some subtle assistance from sister Lucy, who provides sibling harmonies and Alex Cumming on accordion, Findlay’s debut will probably guarantee a place in the evolving tradition, as well as a fruitful addition to Fellside’s track record.

Jonathan Day | Carved in Bone | Album Review | Niimika | 15.02.11

The Shropshire countryside is embedded in the very fabric of this first proper release by Jonathan Day, a writer, painter and poet whose curiosity has taken him around the world and back on a journey of self-discovery, from Johannesburg to the heart of the Black Country, his true inspirational home.  Rich in atmosphere, the album offers a contemplative, almost spiritual collection of songs, drawing heavily from a deep love of nature.  With an almost tangible kinship to the natural world, Jonathan writes in an unashamedly poetic fashion from the outset with “Canticle”, a song encompassing all the natural elements.  The theme organically threads its way through the subsequent ten songs, most notably on “The Heron”, the “Stickleback and the Shrew” and “Yellow Eyed Crow”.  Very much a collaborative project, Jonathan is joined by an impressive cast of musicians including the Urban Folk Quartet’s dual fiddles of Joe Broughton and Paloma Trigas, The Old Dance School’s Helen Lancaster and Tom Chapman on viola and percussion respectively, Emma Capp on cello and Kevin Dempsey on guitar. Chris While also lends her unique voice to some of the songs on the album, most notably with a fine duet on “Bonnie Light Horseman/My Grandfather the Boy”.  Jonathan likes his music to speak for itself and on this release it does.  Subtitled ‘Contemporary rural music from Shropshire’, Carved in Bone not only maintains a lyrical feel throughout but also a calming serenity; a mood record for dew soaked mornings and autumn afternoons.    

Steve Knightley | Live in Somerset | Album Review | Hands On Music | 16.02.11

We’ve all probably had that niggling thought while waiting patiently in the queue at the end of a gig, ‘I wonder if this CD is going to be anything like what we’ve just heard?’ I dare say there’s been the occasional disappointment when we’ve got the thing home only to find it drowned in production, which leaves us resigned to the fact that the gig we’ve just witnessed is going to have to remain but a memory.  Steve Knightley however, could quite easily place a signed copy of Live in Somerset in your mit, confident that the item you’re taking home with you is precisely what you’ve just heard.  With a good clear live sound, courtesy of Scott Maxwell, recorded in what sounds like a great venue, the Show of Hands singer presents a selection of carefully considered originals, together with one or two traditional and a couple of contemporary songs written by songwriters that matter.  Not completely solo, being accompanied in places by Phillip Henry on dobro and harmonica and Hannah Martin on fiddle, this live album comes really hot off the press having only just been recorded at the David Hall in South Petherton in early December.  Describing his chosen set list as covering ‘the land, the sea and the downright miserable’, Knightley opens with the unaccompanied “All Things Are Quite Silent”, tackling traditional material with the same confidence he applies to his own compositions, creating a contemporary feel to both “Reynardine” and “The Oakham Poachers” along the way.  Hailed as one of England’s best songwriters, it comes as no surprise that Knightley tips his hat to both Dylan and Springsteen at the same gig with the gorgeous “Girl From the North Country” and “Downbound Train”, the latter which leads seamlessly into one of Show of Hands’ most enduring songs “Country Life”.  While the sea songs include Dick Gaughan and Brian McNeill’s collaborative song John Harrison’s Hands, the land is pretty much covered by Knightley’s own “Hook of Love”.  For fans of Knightley’s day job band, “Exile” and “Cousin Jack” are both included as stripped down to the essentials ballads.  The cuttingly sardonic “Stop Copying Me”, which could quite easily have been a Ray Davies song in the 1960s, had social networking been around then, gets the audience going, ironically copying him by repeating each line throughout the chorus!  Steve is supported by an enthusiastic Somerset audience, all of whom are personally credited on the sleeve, and rightly so, as their full throttle chorus singing makes up a good deal of the atmosphere on this release, most notably on the final song “Now You Know”.  Released just in time for Steve Knightley’s solo tour, with support from Jim Causley, Live in Somerset will make an ideal souvenir.

The Unthanks | Last | Album Review | RabbleRouser Music/EMI Records | 24.02.11

Album number four in just a little over as many years for Northumbria’s busiest siblings Rachel and Becky Unthank, who since our last meeting have been toddling off to Africa with Damon Albarn, conducting special concerts featuring the songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony and the Johnsons, talking us through curious English dance routines (with bells on) and performing part of an opera fit for beggars with Charles Hazelwood, not to mention having one marriage in the bag and a stork preparing itself for a June flight; one wonders just where this band gets all its collective energy from.  The band now known as The Unthanks also features Rachel’s husband Adrian McNally, now very comfortably poised on the piano stool and a couple of playmates, Adrian’s childhood pal Chris Price taking care of various stringed instruments of varying sizes and descriptions and Niopha Keegan on violin and accordion.  For this album, the core band is joined once again by a handful of empathetic musicians, who provide a veritable feast of brass, strings and percussion, tuned or otherwise, to create another landmark in this band’s musical canon.  Having trodden the remote and mysterious borderlands once fought over by Scots, Romans, Angles, Saxons, Picts, Vikings and Normans, this observer can confirm with some measure of confidence that the snowy terrain and rambling country lanes of Northumbria provide possibly the most conducive location for these musicians to work in order to create their latest collection of songs; besides, it’s home and Last after all, is homemade.  Recorded for the most part in the McNally/Unthank farmhouse in Northumberland, with a local village hall providing the additional space for recording the strings and some of the vocal harmonies, it was to Snape Maltings that Adrian returned in order to record the title song, precisely where it had been conceived some time earlier and which provided the sound he was hoping to re-capture.  With a seductive mix of local traditional songs together with a couple of those now eagerly awaited surprise covers, the songs on Last are at once rich in atmosphere and imbued with a distinctive peacefulness that appears to reflect the landscape right outside, just beyond the doorstep.  It’s not the kind of record to have on while reading or driving in the car to; it needs undivided attention, an hour of your time.  At first reluctant to become a full time member of the band, in terms of being a visible musician up on stage with the others, Adrian McNally has cracked his knuckles before the keys on the family upright and has once again explored their almost limitless potential, their nuances and their scope in order to lay the foundation of this album, bringing the piano slightly more centre stage than on previous releases.  The arrangements borrow from Classical music, progressive rock and minimalist experimentation in equal measure and provide a solid foundation for those two distinct voices to rest upon.  By the bands own admission, The Unthanks remain un-prolific in regard to self-penned material and deliberately so.  They pride themselves on adaptation and continue to tailor their choices in their own distinctive style. Adrian McNally however, does have a knack for writing that one little gem every now and again.  While “Lucky Gilchrist” became probably the most talked about song on their last album Here’s the Tender Coming, I dare say “Last” will receive similar recognition on this album.  We’ve probably not heard last of “Last” by any means.  If Robert Wyatt’s “Sea Song” or Antony and the Johnsons’ “For Today I Am a Boy” came as a surprise, then King Crimson’s “Starless” will come as a veritable shock.  Again it’s the younger sibling who delivers these strange and poetic lyrics, borrowed from the Prog Rock band’s Red album and not the earlier instrumental piece, “Starless and Bible Black” from where the lyrics derive.  In light of the Union Chapel shows featuring the songs of Antony and Robert, this reviewer is now fantasising over the possibility of a King Crimson night, with the band taking on Larks’ Tongue in Aspic and Rachel and Becky harmonising deliriously to ‘wee doo dee down down di doodi down’ etc.  The Unthank sisters have always supported the work of Jon Redfern, Becky having contributed to the singer-songwriter’s second album What Else But Love, and go on to present here a faithful if somewhat eerie version of “Give Away Your Heart” as well as a rare guitar-led take on the Tom Waits song “No One Knows I’m Gone”, once again demonstrating the band’s fearless approach to adaptation.  For the traditional “Queen of Hearts”, quite possibly the forthcoming single release from the album, The Unthanks once again create an ethereal atmosphere, like the opening of some old dusty musical box discarded in a secret room in Mrs Havisham’s ruined mansion.  Rachel brings an entirely new feel to the song yet remains faithful to its original haunting melody.  The songs that belong to the Unthank sisters’ own neck of the woods, crucial to all of their work to date, include the album opener “Gan to the Kye”, once again brooding over those darn cows as previously mentioned in “Felton Lonnin” as well as the Northumbrian Minstrelsy song “Canny Hobbie Elliot” and “The Gallowgate Lad”, which takes on the now familiar music hall style that Becky Unthank is steadily becoming known for.

King King | Take My Hand | Album Review | Manhaton Records | 25.02.11

Currently going down a storm at concerts and at blues festivals up and down the country, Alan Nimmo’s band King King are delivering some stunningly soulful blues to the masses, indicating that Stevie Nimmo’s kid brother is no one trick pony.  Cutting his musical teeth as one half of the Nimmo Brothers, the Glaswegian guitarist/singer has teamed up with fellow Nimmo Brothers stalwart Lindsay Coulson on bass to form a powerhouse team, featuring for the most part Bennett Holland on keyboards and Craig Blundell on drums, with further help from Dale Storr, Wayne Proctor and Ewan Davies.  Take My Hand has been some time in the making.  Recorded at Chapel Studios in Lincolnshire under the engineering supervision of Ewan Davies, the songs feature some remarkable Nimmo/Coulson originals from “Broken Heal” and “Heart Without a Soul”, both previously released on the Broken Heal EP, to the driving opener “Lose Control” and title cut “Take My Hand”, featuring the full brass ensemble of Rick Woolgar on sax and Steve Walker on trumpet, together with ‘Wonder Brass’ and Jacquie Williams’ soulful backing vocal.  It’s not all driving blues and stomping twelve bar by any means, despite the one Howlin’ Wolf cover, the enduring “Mr Highway Man”, featuring the harmonica playing of the appropriately named Giles King.  There are also one or two moments of pure soulful beauty, particularly on two outstanding covers, the John Hiatt song “Feels Like Rain” and the utterly gorgeous Eric Clapton/Robert Cray collaboration “Old Love”, with a superb guitar solo courtesy of Alan Nimmo.  Just like Clapton before him, it would be easy to find oneself caught up in all the guitar wizardry to miss the fact that Nimmo has an extraordinarily great singing voice as well.  Closing with Toussaint McCall’s “Nothing Takes the Place of You”, featuring Dale Storr’s blissful Hammond, King King demonstrate that they are equally at home with soulful ballads as they are with some of the sweatiest, blistering blues on the current UK blues scene.

Malcolm Holcombe | To Drink the Rain | Album Review | Music Road | 26.02.11

Malcolm Holcombe has one of those well-worn voices that you tend not to question.  You instinctively believe that he has lived the life to the full extent and that what he says actually goes, without any doubts.  It’s Dave Van Ronk meets Guy Clark, with a touch of Townes Van Zandt thrown in.  To Drink the Rain is Holcombe’s eighth album in a recording career that started way back in the mid-1980s with the now out of print Trademark LP.  With a well documented and for the most part turbulent career behind him, a career dominated by many years of drinking and depression, together with the usual mixture of disappointment and disillusionment with an inconsistent music business, Holcombe has once again got together with long-time sideman Jared Tyler to record an album instilled with a new focus and creative zest.  Recorded over a three-day period in Austin, Texas, with a core band of first rate musicians including the aforementioned Tyler on dobro and acoustic slide, Bobby Kallus on drums, Johnny Cash veteran Dave Roe on upright bass and Luke Bulla on fiddle, together with Shelby Eicher and Andrew Hardin contributing mandolin and acoustic guitar respectively, the songs are pretty much one-take performances, which demonstrates perfectly well their sense of immediacy.  The almost poetic marriage between Holcombe’s gruff vocal and Tyler’s sweet dobro, makes for good listening, particularly on the full-on bluegrass numbers such as “Those Who Wander” and “Behind the Number One”, while the opening song “One Leg at a Time” has the good-time retro feel of a Leon Redbone homage, with a lyric that suggests that through it all, he’s still here, alive and kicking.  “Becky’s Blessed (Backporch Flowers)” provides the album with one of its standout contributions, one of two much older songs, the other one being the album closer “One Man Singin’, both of which really ought to have been recorded sooner.  While Holcombe’s low growl on such songs as the jazzy “The Mighty City” offers a little restraint vocally, nowhere on the album does Holcombe sound more convincing than on the title song, which sees the singer spitting out the lyrics like a chain saw attacking a tree.

Holly Taymar | Never Winter Mind | EP Review | Self Release | 26.02.11

One of the most distinctive voices in the Yorkshire area, York-based singer-songwriter Holly Taymar follows her second full-length album Waking Up is Hard To Do with this five-song EP, featuring four self-penned songs and just the one cover – and what a cover – the heart-wrenching “She’s Leaving Home” from the celebrated Sgt Pepper album.  With partner Chris Bilton providing some mandolin, banjo and various bits of percussion and Anne-Marie McStraw sitting in on violin, Holly’s beautifully soothing voice and delicate guitar playing once again brings to life another bunch of thoroughly melodic songs.  Never happier than when sitting on a stool, performing in front of people, Holly continues to write songs that are often thoughtful, sometimes whimsical, yet always easy on the ear, usually about relationships, stuff in the garden and the ever-changing seasons.  With the suitably titled Four, the fourth song on the EP, Holly even gets uncharacteristically angry and we all get out of the way for a minute.  While “Beautiful Days” comes just in time for Spring, providing a nice soundtrack to accompany the end of one heck of a miserable winter with some timely optimism, the utterly gorgeous “She’s Leaving Home” is arranged to exclude some of McCartney’s maternal and paternal moaning, leaving us with the pure beauty of possibly McCartney’s most beautiful song, yes, and that includes “Yesterday” and that one with the bagpipes on it.  With long time collaborator Carl Hetherington at the controls, the Never Winter Mind (Part One) EP may bring Holly’s music to a wider audience and deservedly so.  Why Holly Taymar is not a household name is still a mystery to me, but fortunately, it is in our house.

Lazybirds | Broken Wing | Album Review | Self Release | 05.03.11

Third album for North Carolina retro-funsters Lazybirds, who once again trawl the roots of Americana with fourteen selections made up primarily of traditional material with one or two additional surprises.  Covering a broad variety of styles encompassing a good eighty years of music, songs likely to have been heard around the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Lazybirds confidently showcase their capacity for authenticity, with vibrant renditions of songs covering anything from the goodtime feel of “Good Morning Blues” to the sweeping bluegrass of “Blue Moon of Kentucky”.  From the Appalachian old-time feel of “Travelin’ Man” to the lilting merriment of “Champagne Polka”, both featuring some authentically rendered fiddle, courtesy of Alfred Michels, the band also consisting of Mitch Brown on upright bass, Jay Brown on guitar and James T Brown on drums, are joined once again by founding member Andy Christopher on a bit of tenor guitar and banjo, to whom the album is dedicated.  Pulling out the bag a couple of choice covers, Lazybirds offer an almost sing-along version of Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young”, a banjo-led take on Sly Stone’s late 1960s celebratory “Life” and an almost jug band version of The Slickers’ reggae classic “Johnny Too Bad”, each song fitting in perfectly well against the more traditional fare.  With the one original song, Jay Brown’s heartfelt “Broken Wing” from which the album’s title derives, Lazybirds third record offers an eclectic treasure trove of enduring musical gems. 

Iain Morrison and Daibhidh Martin | Haunted Bird | Album Review | Peatfire | 05.03.11

This collaborative project brings together the songwriting credentials of Scots Trad Music Composer of the Year Award winner Iain Morrison and the poetry of fellow Isle of Lewis storyteller Daibhidh Martin.  Although this is by no means the first time these two friends have worked together, it is considered their first fully formed duet album, where ten songs are seamlessly bound together with a special symbiotic cohesion.  Mixing the surreal with the mythical, fables with fiction, the ten song poems are held together with some haunting melodies, helped along by a handful of musicians including Pete Harvey on cello, Iain Hutchison on piano, harmonium and guitar and Seamus O’Donnell lending his voice.  The American singer-songwriter Anais Mitchell also provides another distinctive voice, particularly on one of the standout pieces “Greatest Painter of Night”, which also provides some of the most deliciously poignant poetry on the record: “It’s like my dad said before he had to go, I wish I could explain how much I love you, but if I could, I suppose it wouldn’t be love”.  The strangely beautiful “Taketori” presents an ideal example of how well this fusion between classic storytelling and modern indie-folk orchestration works, further illustrated by a remarkable animated film that accompanies the song.  Once seen, the visual images together with the uplifting soundtrack, are almost guaranteed to leave an indelible mark on the senses, one that will stay around for some time. 

Hickman and Quinn | Times | Album Review | Self Release | 05.03.11

Ten self-penned songs emerge from the partnership of Shrewsbury-based duo James Hickman and Chris Quinn, finding their way onto this their debut album.  The album, produced by Andy Bell, renowned for his previous work with Seasick Steve and KT Tunstall, has at its core a folk/roots agenda and offers a series of highly melodic songs from two voices, two guitars and on three of the songs, the inimitable sound of Karen Tweed’s empathetic accordion. Opting for smart suits in their presentation, together with mock Tudor decor and a handsome inner sleeve representing their lyrics in the form of their own version of the Times newspaper, their classy and youthful image appears to reflect the music within.  “I’m Beside You”, the album’s opener, which is followed in quick succession by “When the Day is Gone”, introduces in turn the two individual voices, neither of which over dominates.  While for the most part the duo offer a contemporary folk pop sound, “The Hanging of Jack Brown” sees Hickman and Quinn attempting some classic storytelling in a well-trodden ballad form, with an engaging narrative and a crisp acoustic backdrop.  The dexterity of the duo’s guitar playing can be found in such songs as “The World Was Spinning Round” and the instrumental “Midnight & Morning”, both demonstrating the duo’s fearless approach in navigating the normally unchartered reaches of the fret board.  White “Crested Waves” stands alone as the only solo composition, written by Hickman and featuring a lilting European-styled accordion accompaniment, possibly French, courtesy of Karen Tweed.  Rounding things off with the relatively sombre “Hazy Days”, Hickman & Quinn present a confident debut, which will no doubt garner some positive interest during their current tour UK tour.

Amy Belle | Lost in the Short Cut | Album Review | Dharma | 19.03.11

Fresh from busking the streets of Glasgow, the former Alice Band singer Amy Belle released her debut solo album some time ago now; a pretty commercial pop record it has to be said, despite a love for a more rootsy music.  Legend has it that Long John Baldry discovered the young Rod Stewart playing harmonica on a platform of Twickenham Railway Station way back in 1964.  Rod must have known the feeling quite well then when he ‘discovered’ the equally young Amy Belle singing in a Glasgow street, going on to give the young singer a rare opportunity to join him on one of the world’s most prestigious stages, the Royal Albert Hall, where she duetted on “I Don’t Want to Talk About It”, Amy’s own solo version making it onto this album.  ‘Keep your eye out for Amy’ Rod advised as she left the stage.  The music business has always worked in mysterious ways and those one-in-a-million chances, being in the right place at the right time sort of moments, work for some people and not for others.  Tracy Chapman didn’t have to sing for her supper too much after that fortunate moment when the young singer-songwriter jumped up on stage at Nelson Mandela’s 70th Birthday Tribute Concert at Wembley Stadium, standing in for Stevie Wonder who’d apparently lost his kit, nor did KT Tunstall after her brilliantly unscheduled debut appearance on Jools Holland’s programme, mesmerising us all with her bottle, her gutsy voice and her loopy gadgetry.  Rod’s advice was hardly heeded after Amy Belle found herself back in the bars and on the streets busking once again in order to pay the bills.  The Alice Band days are very much behind the singer now, as is that special Rod Stewart moment and songs like “Now That You Love Me” and “Nothing On But The Radio” should in a perfect world be joined by “Didn’t I Say”, the opening song on this album and the delightful “Saving Grace”.  The Rod moment curiously has been viewed on YouTube alone over ten million times and countless others on the DVD release.  I would hate to think those ten million eyes were just watching the yellow suited blonde magnet and missed the potential in this wee little Scots girl.

Hungrytown | Any Forgotten Thing | Album Review | Listen Here! | 22.03.11

Once again husband and wife team Rebecca Hall and Ken Anderson offer up another dozen gentle and uplifting self-penned songs on this their second album.  Recorded in their Vermont ‘Song Catcher’ home studio and produced by Anderson, the songs on Any Forgotten Thing sound as timeless as any traditional songs from the 1960s folk boom.  With Rebecca’s crystal clear vocal and Ken’s empathetic multi-instrumental accompaniment, providing not only guitar but banjo, accordion, mandolin, keyboards, bass and drums, the duo embellish their songs with some richly observed arrangements.  Added to this are those unmistakable harmony vocals, one of the duo’s strong points, enriched even further by the additional voice of neighbour Laura Molinelli, who contributes to one or two songs.  The album’s theme mirrors the fact that it was recorded at home, with songs inspired by the couple’s move from the hustle bustle of Manhattan to the hills of Vermont and the duty of care that comes with home ownership in the wilderness.  The fact that the couple were welcomed to their new surroundings by a supportive neighbourhood inspired the new songs, recorded during a two month break between touring.   If “Year Without Summer” chronicles the cold winter of 1815, reminding us that the seasons and their effects have a much more vivid relevance in rural America than in the city, then the couple’s new surroundings are no better captured than in the title song Any Forgotten Thing, which addresses the notion that unless we take care of our surroundings, things will crumble around us.  While “Never Realized” demonstrates the duo’s gift for collaborative song writing with a memorable lyric and engaging melody, the haunting “Calliope” captures the feeling of the fairground with its swirling accordions and dramatic drum rolls, demonstrating the couple’s command over arrangement.  With the a cappella song “The Sweetest Flower” closing the album, Any Forgotten Thing comes over as nothing less than a ray of sunshine on a spring day.

Across the Borderline | Lie To Me | Album Review | Borderline Talent | 24.03.11

This collaborative project, which has brought together the combined forces of Austin-based BettySoo and Canadian resophonic guitar wizard Doug Cox, geographically sees these two musicians separated by 2500 miles, but there is no question that they are virtually joined at the hip with their musical cohesion.  Having met while teaching at Acoustic Alaska Guitar Camp, the two musicians almost immediately discovered a common thread in the songs they both admire.  Lie to Me picks up on ten of those songs, selected from an eclectic range of writers from Doug Sahm and Guy Clark to Jane Siberry and Betty Elders.  With a gentle approach, both BettySoo’s soothing voice and Doug’s intuitive guitar bring these ten songs to life once again, from Canadian singer-songwriter Jane Suberry’s “You Don’t Know”, with the duo doing away with all the electronic wizardry of the original, delivering instead a beautifully plaintive rendition here, to Doug Sahm’s frontier ballad Louis Riel, reminding us once again of one of Canada’s heroic folk legends and leader of the Métis rebellion.  By way of contrast to the purity of BettySoo’s vocals, Doug’s dulcet tones take the lead on a couple of idiosyncratic choices such as Loudon Wainwright III’s sardonic “Be Careful There’s a Baby in the House” and Blaze Foley’s fun filled and food filled “Big Cheeseburgers and Good French Fries”, duetting with BettySoo throughout.  Texas is a prominant focal point with songs written by Austin’s Jeff Talmadge providing the title song, Lubbock’s Butch Hancock’s “Boxcars” and West Texas Godfather of song Guy Clark’s timeless “Dublin Blues”, which BettySoo tells from a female perspective.  A delightful record.

Carrie Elkin | Call It My Garden | Album Review | Red House Records | 26.03.11

In this follow up to 2007’s The Jeopardy of Circumstance, Carrie Elkin makes her debut on Red House Records and once again showcases her remarkably strong voice, a voice so strong that this reviewer has witnessed the singer-songwriter turn away from her audience so as not to blow them over!  Call it My Garden comprises ten Elkin originals and the one cover, Dar Williams’ Iowa, each song recorded in Sam Baker’s living room, kitchen and office by the production team of Colin Brooks, Danny Schmidt and Mark Addison.  Anyone who’s been fortunate enough to spend any length of time in the presence of Carrie Elkin will immediately recognise that inimitable chuckle at the beginning of this album.  Her personality is furthermore revealed in the subsequent songs, from “Jessie Likes Birds”, with its uplifting theme based on the traditional “Mocking Bird”, together with its pretty convincing instrumental bluegrass coda, indicating as in most bluegrass tunes that someone’s having fun, through to “The Edge of the World”, pretty much a live in the studio swirling fairground ride of a song, complete with a vocal that suggests the song couldn’t possibly be sung without that infectious smile, a smile we don’t actually see but know instinctively that it’s there.  In other places, Carrie sings out her demons in “Guilty Hands”, once again reminding us of her background in church singing, while “Landeth By Sea” sees Carrie Elkin pour her heart out, accompanied by partner Danny Schmidt.  That same soulful voice is also very much in evidence in the almost anthemic “Berlin”.  Besides Danny Schmidt, himself an extraordinary singer-songwriter in his own right whom this record is dedicated to, Carrie invites a whole bunch of familiar collaborators such as Sam Baker, for whom Dear Sam was written, touring partner Robby Hecht, Storyhill’s Johnny Hermanson and Raina Rose, each contributing additional voices, along with Band of Heathens’ Colin Brooks on various guitars, Andrew Pressman on upright bass, David Moss on cello, Trevor Smith on banjo, mandolin and guitar and Dony Wynn on drums.  Call it My Garden once again reveals a voice that in a perfect world should be heard by more.  Many more.

Bruce Cockburn | Small Source of Comfort | Album Review | True North Records | 27.03.11

It’s difficult to believe that this is Bruce Cockburn’s 31st album to date, an astonishing achievement by any standard and one that sees a welcome return after a six year period away from the studio.  Cockburn’s four decades of productivity, both in terms of his music and his humanitarian work throughout the world shows no signs of stopping.  With a clear and crisp acoustic sound throughout, despite an original desire to make a ‘noisy’ album, the nine songs and five instrumentals present a highly listenable experience for those familiar with Cockburn’s canon and those who may be new to his work.  Cockburn has a history of actually visiting the troubled locations in the world rather than observing them from the comfort of his armchair via CNN.  In 2009 he visited war-torn Afghanistan and this album reveals two pieces inspired by that trip, the instrumental Comets of Kandahar featuring Jenny Scheinman on violin and the moving Each One Lost, a gentle protest with a powerful message.  Comets of Kandahar, referring to the purple tailpipe flames from the fighter jets taking off in the dark is one of five instrumental pieces on the album, “Bohemian 3-Step”, “Lois on the Autobahn”, “Parnassus and Fog” and “Ancestors” being the others.  These are far from throwaway tunes, each one offering a moment of contemplation between the songs, as well as reminding us, lest we forget, that Cockburn is a first rate guitar player.   The songs are stamped with Cockburn’s indelible stamp, the humour coming through loud and clear on such songs as “Call Me Rose”, with the unlikely premise of rehabilitating the soul of Richard Nixon, with our disgraced President being reincarnated as a single mother living in a housing project, to “Called Me Back”, which Woody Guthrie would certainly have written had he been around in the age of voice mail.  Produced by Colin Linden, the album also features a couple of duets, co-written with Annabelle Chvostek and featuring her voice, the soothing “Driving Away” and the mandolin-led “Boundless”.  For completests, Small Source of Comfort finishes with a tiny song written in 1968, a song that Cockburn would often finish his shows with back in the day.  “It never seemed right to record it until now” Bruce claims in the sleeve notes.  Those notes, together with lyrics printed in both French and English make up the handsome booklet that comes with the CD.

Larkin Poe | Fall and Winter | EP Review | Edvins | 09.04.11

Once again a seasonal Larkin Poe EP pops through the letterbox just in time for their eagerly awaited debut UK tour, along with their Winter EP to boot.  You know the story, you wait for a bus to come along, then along comes two at the same time.  When I first heard the Spring EP, I knew I was listening to something special.  Rebecca Lovell’s instantly recognisable voice dominated the songs on that initial release and once again on the follow up, the Summer EP, which arrived shortly afterwards.  The Fall and Winter EPs once again demonstrate Rebecca and Megan Lovell’s command over accessible melodic songs matched equally by their superb musicianship, especially on mandolin and Dobro respectively.  The term ‘EP’ in all these cases is slightly incorrect as the discs constitute mini album status at least, with each containing between six to nine tracks.  Once again all the ingredients are here, from bluegrass to blues, folk to rock, together with a gentle sprinkling of jazz and reggae, to create Larkin Poe’s distinctive sound.  Taking their bluegrass folk roots, which were honed and developed in the family trio known professionally as The Lovell Sisters along with elder sibling Jessica, the two younger sisters have developed their own edgier style, incorporating Mike Seal’s guitar and piano, Daniel Kimbro’s bass and banjo and Chad Melton’s drums and percussion, not to mention the liberal use of Megan’s electric lap steel, bringing together Larkin Poe’s distinctive sound on such songs as “Fall From the Tree”, “Word From the Wise” and “Trance”. During their current UK tour the band are selling each of the individual EPs separately or encased in a handsomely packaged box-set entitled A Band for All Seasons, which is precisely what they are.  Having now heard and played to death all four EPs, it’s a struggle to remember which song is from which EP.  Suffice it to say, the collection is best tasted as a whole, complete with each of the amusing yet utterly quaint original cover designs by Mindy Lacefield and Annette Munster.  Add Fall and Winter to your Spring and Summer collection immediately and enjoy your year.

Foghorn Trio | Sud De La Louisiane | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 10.04.11

From the opening few bars of Bill and Mary Reed’s “I Want To Be Loved (But Only By You)”, we know we’re in for a highly entertaining retro-filled old-time knees-up with this offshoot project from the ‘ass-kickin’’ Foghorn Stringband.  Portland, Oregon’s Foghorn Trio play this music as it should be played, gathered around a single microphone just like back in those very days they endeavour to recreate.  The sheer energy of playing, together with the tight arrangements and authentic harmony vocals, brings to life the spirit of a music that will only be lost to us if we allow it to be.  With the Stringband’s Stephen ‘Sammy’ Lind on fiddle, guitar, banjo and vocals and Caleb Klauder on mandolin, fiddle, guitar and vocals together with Quebec-born Nadine Landry (Hungry Hill) on guitar, bass and vocals, the trio trawl the annals of American folk music, once again reminding us of the outstanding work of such major influences as The Carter Family “Hello Central”, “Let’s Be Lovers Again”, Kitty Wells “I Don’t Claim To Be An Angel” and Doc Watson “I’m Troubled”, amongst others, with a couple of Caleb Klauder originals “Just a Little, Puttin’ Up the Wood” added to the mix.  With Alex Broussard’s “Le Sud De La Louisiane”, which provides the album with its title, the trio demonstrate their versatility remarkably well, incorporating this nod to Cajun music, which sits so well alongside the bluegrass and old time music fare.  With an equal measure of fiddle tunes and songs, Sud De La Louisiane provides just the tonic for those of us preparing for another summer of acoustic music festivals.  A recommended album to stick in the car for the drive down; just avoid the urge to square dance on the M1.

Amy Lashley | Travels of a Homebody | Album Review | Wanamaker | 10.04.11

Now settled in East Nashville with partner Otis Gibbs, Indiana-born Amy Lashley turns her pen to a more confessional style of writing, with a dozen well-crafted personal songs set against a rich and warm acoustic backdrop.  With a voice like a fine red wine, a wine that’s been given a little time to settle, Amy tells her convincing stories with authority, yet with some measure of vulnerability.  As a performer, Amy is reluctant to get up in front of an audience, preferring to exhibit her art in the recorded form and therefore ensures that the songs on Travels of a Homeboy are presented in the best possible way.  This includes choosing a bunch of empathetic musicians to help out in the studio, including Shadd Cobb on fiddle, Mark Fain on upright bass, Pat McInterney on drums and Thomm Jutz doing just about everything else, including lead guitar duties, bass, dobro, mandolin, organ and additional vocals. Producer Otis Gibbs also chips in on guitar.  The word ‘quirky’ is banded around quite a lot when discussing Amy Lashley, if not in reference to her stance on performing live, then certainly in reference to the songs she writes.  It takes something to admit that adulthood is much more favourable to childhood with “Ode to Middle Age”, where Amy points out that she would much rather be forty than five, with all those snotty noses and awkward liaisons with siblings and baby sitters. I have to say I’m with her on that one.  There are shades of Gillian Welch in places, on “Old Man Don” for instance, but by and large, Amy is an original.  It’s been many years since Bob Dylan wrote a protest song about the death of Emmett Till and it’s taken until now for a song writer to provide a suitably heartfelt lullaby in memory of a young man whose tragic death was one of the events that kick started the Civil Rights Movement.  Amy at first hesitated before including “Emmett Till” on the album, but it was down to Gibb’s good taste that this gorgeous song takes its rightful place here.  From the laid back “Homebody Blues” with its notion of preferring the simple life, to the jazz-inflected “Who Am I Kidding”, Amy utilises the many styles at her disposal and demonstrates an understanding and appreciation of the rich variety of musical genres, all of which are handled here expertly well.  Despite it being an original song, you would swear you’ve known “Livin’ on Beans and Cornbread” all your life.  Then there’s the delicious vocal harmonies on “Wrong Side of Gallatin”, which makes it even more worthwhile.

Kimmie Rhodes | Dreams of Flying | Album Review | Sunbird | 10.04.11

Kimmie Rhodes’ new album Dreams of Flying has been in the car so long now I almost forgot to review it.  With ten originals and just the one cover, Donovan’s “Catch the Wind”, performed here with fellow Lubbock songwriter Joe Ely, the album joins a fourteen album strong body of work that only just scratches the surface of a career that includes writing songs, books and musical plays, together with countless collaborations with many respected figures in music such as Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Townes Van Zandt.  Most of us scratch our heads at the fact that Kimmie is still not a household name, despite her songs being well known through the records of others.  With a full-bodied sound courtesy of producer/son Gabriel Rhodes on guitar, keyboards, mandolin, banjo and backing vocals, Charlie Sexton on bass, John Gardner on drums, Mike Thompson on keyboards and mandolin and John Mills on sax and clarinet, the songs on Dreams of Flying clearly demonstrate Kimmie’s credentials as a seasoned songsmith.  The opening title song has a dreamlike quality that eases the listener in, which is then followed by several new songs from the soulful “Like Love to Me” to the tender “Start Saying Goodbye”.  Of the Rhodes originals, “Turning My World”, written by Kimmie’s other son Jeremie actually, sees mum deliver a gracefully breathy vocal performance, while Kimmie’s own “Back Again”, provides the album with one of its high points, a beautifully tender moment, lyrical, poetic and achingly personal.  In the car, where this disc has been living for a couple of months, “Luh Luh Love” has been sung in all manner of off-key singing by this reviewer, especially the Beatlesque coda.  If Kimmie’s previous album helped us enjoy the seasonal Christmas period, then Dreams of Flying is custom made to bring in the Summer.

Barbara Nesbitt | The Bees | Album Review | Self Release | 20.04.11

Second solo album release from Georgia-born, San Diego-based singer-songwriter Barbara Nesbitt, whose strong assured vocal delivery dominates this collection of a dozen original compositions and just the one cover, Boudleaux Bryant’s timeless “Like Strangers”, previously known through the singing of the Everly Brothers and Emmylou Harris.  With a steady musical development that has seen terms with such diverse bands as Rare Daze, Cradle and The Perpetrators, together with an impressive solo debut in 2007, A Million Stories, Nesbitt appears to have found her stride as a solo performer.  Produced by Jeff Berkley, The Bees demonstrates a fully developed personal style, which deserves to be brought to further attention.  With a core band of Marcia Claire on bass and baritone guitar (Citizen Band, Cindy Lee Berryhill), Bill Coomes on drums (Deadline Friday, The Grams) and Mike Spurgat on lead guitar (Citizen Band, Deadline Friday), the album also includes contributions from Dennis Caplinger, who takes care of banjo, Dobro, mandolin and high strung guitar.  Doug Pettibone provides some tasty pedal steel, lap steel and mini 12 string guitar, while Jeff Berkley adds rhythm guitar to his production duties. These musicians more than adequately flesh out the songs with some startling instrumental fills, particularly Caplinger’s fiddle on “Losin’ Time” and the guitar work on “The Big Picture”, not to mention the clever Dobro buzzing sound effects on the intro to the title song.  Without dwelling too much on the puns, The Bees is reportedly creating a buzz Stateside and there is no reason why Barbara Nesbitt shouldn’t be doing some overdue cross pollination over here (musically speaking).  As far as I’m concerned, she’s the bee’s knees.

Jeff Lowe | Suicide River | Album Review | HeartQuake | 22.04.11

This handsomely packaged single release from London-born Jeff Lowe contains two compositions, the modern fantasy Suicide River and accompanying song, “Travesty of Justice”, which in my day would have been referred to as the ‘B’ side.  Both are tasters of what is to follow on the forthcoming album release Hitchcock Cafe.  With a forty-year career in music behind him, Lowe takes inspiration from the philosophers he studied in Cambridge as the basis for his songwriting and creates a thought-provoking cautionary tale, that sees to it that our hero sings his own songs exclusively.  With a steadily building arrangement, Suicide River recalls the sort of songs found on progressive concept albums of the 1970s.  Add to this the joyous Adiemus-type refrain courtesy of Hannah Reede, Verena Eidenburger and Lowe’s own neice Holly Jazz Lowe, we have a sample of what to expect on the album.

Faded Circus | Faded Circus | Album Review | Politely Fighting | 22.04.11

An almost whispered selection of songs from Cheltenham-based songwriter Paul Jones, who performs under the guise of Faded Circus, presumably to avoid confusion amongst the blues fraternity.  Comparisons have already been made to the late Elliott Smith in terms of the desire to create ambient and richly acoustic soundscapes as a canvas for these songs.  There’s nothing forced here, rather a sense of minimalist relaxation, calm and serenity, which may be due to the fact that most of the songs were composed while living by the coast in Cornwall.  That sense of isolation runs through the course of the album; some of the song titles suggest this sense of solitude from “Bumblebee Lament” and “Solace” to “In the Teeth of Winter”.   Self-produced with only the one other musician contributing, namely Jay Murray who provides drums on just a couple of songs, “A Layman’s Wish” and “Ombudsman”, the remainder is exclusively down to Paul Jones, who appears just as at home on guitar as he does on keyboards or any number of other instruments, not to mention the handling of a vintage reel to reel, which helps create the desired sound.  Even banging a few random objects such as radiators instead of standard percussion adds to the unique quality of the record.  Contemplative and multi-textured, the ten songs rarely stray from the whispered vocal throughout and therefore create a thematic, almost concept approach to album making with no discernible or obvious choice of standout song for ‘single’ release potential.  With rich multi-layered vocal harmonies and the liberal use of open tunings, a CSN comparison is difficult to ignore.  If I were to be brutally honest though, a stronger voice would have driven home a more memorable experience for me personally.

Devon Sproule | I Love You, Go Easy | Album Review | Tin Angel | | 22.04.11

Devon Sproule’s latest collection of songs were initially presented to me in their entirety one after the other in a raw acoustic form, making up the entire final set in an intimate house concert.  The set came across as an unashamed outpouring of emotion, while the singer maintained a stoic composure throughout, delivering some of her most personal songs to date.  The songs seemed to address two specific events, that of celebrating five years of marriage, good times and not so good, as well as losing a personal friend to cancer.  The honesty in the writing together with the almost matter-of-fact approach in conveying some of the author’s most personal thoughts reminded me of early Joni Mitchell and got me considering, perhaps prematurely, is I Love You, Go Easy Devon Sproule’s Blue?  The ambiguous cover shot of an excited Westie jumping around the garden in the midday sun doesn’t suggest an album of painful self-probing, nor does the joyful leaping around of Devon Sproule on the inner sleeve, but alarm bells seemed to ring upon first hearing these songs.  These are specific songs, not general.  Twin Oaks, the commune where Devon grew up is mentioned in “The Unmarked Animals” and friends are named elsewhere on the album.   Devon eases us into the songs with “If I Can Do This”, directing the listener to the part of the pond where the terror bathers are on God’s acres.  The lyrics are at times delightfully ambiguous and therefore utterly compelling, while at other times quite the contrary, almost direct and to the point.  In “The Warning Bell” for example, we see a songwriter addressing the very nature of her art, possibly pondering the sustainability of her craft, while at the same time considering the status of her personal relationships. Some of us don’t hear the warning bells until it’s too late.  Perhaps those early bells help us consider and maintain our direction and focus.  The title song sees Sproule at her most vulnerable, the fragility of her voice almost a cry for help.  Reminiscent of some of Robert Wyatt’s most sublime work, “I Love You, Go Easy” incorporates a subtle jazz arrangement with an almost tortured vocal performance.  The two soul searching ‘body’ songs that run back to back, “The Faulty Body” and “Body’s in Trouble”, are given a joyful reprieve as the album draws to a close with the optimistic and uplifting “Now’s the Time”, which is one of the few hopeful moments on the album.  With one additional hidden and un-named bonus song, the album closes with a whole bunch of unanswered questions.  Perhaps we don’t need to know the answers, a bit like Blue really.

Maia | Maia | Album Review | Vandal | 23.04.11

After being rather impressed by their late night performance at The Unthanks’ Trades Club after-show/tour party in Hebden Bridge, I thought a few words were in order to make up for having missed Maia’s debut album when it was first released just over a year ago.  Sandwiched between two pieces of plywood, held together in a fragile manner with some flimsy cotton braiding and then branded with the band’s distinctive logo, their eponymous debut reveals a dozen highly original songs from the pen of frontman, guitar player and main singer Tom Clegg.  At the Trades’ gig, Maia’s so called Sci-Fi Folk was as fresh as the milk served in the Moloko Milk Bar, the Clockwork Orange reference emphasised further by Joe Haig’s uncanny resemblance to the young Malcolm McDowell, especially on the first couple of numbers, during which the trumpet/keyboard player donned a black bowler.  It wouldn’t be too difficult to imagine him heading off for some ultra-violence in the sleepy Calderdale town after the show, or doing a bit of the old in out in out with some unsuspecting Hebden Bridge devotchka.  I’m conscious however, of the fact that I have needlessly digressed.  The music created by these two young players, together with Simon Robinson on guitar, banjo, ukulele and vocals and Will Fletcher on drums and percussion, is refreshingly new and experimental, yet maintains an acoustic feel throughout.  The trumpet and banjo provide the band with their distinctive sound, the mariachi-style trumpet sound bringing the same sort of energy to the band’s make up as it did for Arthur Lee’s Love a few decades ago.  The song compositions rarely plod through conventional 4/4 mode, exploring frequent tempo changes and experimental interplay between percussion and keyboards on “Ripe Afternoon” or banjo and trumpet on “Pigs In”, to give but two examples.  The influences are so wide and varied that it’s actually difficult to pinpoint a precedent for Maia’s music.  There are obviously Eastern influences coming through on “Windmill”, as there are Iberian flamenco rhythms present in “Dead Centre”.  Each of the musicians get a fair crack of the whip on Maia, with none of the instruments taking a back seat.  The percussion is always clearly audible, together with each of the melodic instruments, with a consistently crisp acoustic guitar sound throughout.  This is clearly a young band who adhere to group democratics, which in turn makes for good listening both live and on record.  A band to watch out for.

Charlie Dore | Cheapskate Lullabyes | Album Review | Black Ink Music | 23.04.11

The first thing that impresses me about Charlie Dore’s new release Cheapskate Lullabyes is the cover artwork, which cleverly incorporates an etching by American realist painter Edward Hopper with an iconic Penguin book cover, giving the impression of a well-thumbed Classic novel.  This goes perfectly well with the content within, which brings me to the second and infinitely more important thing that impresses me about this album; the remarkable song writing credentials of the musical partnership of Charlie Dore and Julian Littman.  The ten songs wear the two theatrical masks well, capturing both tragedy and comedy and often simultaneously in the same song.  “Big Boned Girl” for instance is full of wry humour but is heartbreakingly accurate at the same time and could easily become the anthem for all the world’s beautifully big boned girls.  The same could be said for “His Wife”, which encapsulates the feelings of many women caught up in the hopelessness of an adulterous affair, but expressed with almost hilarious resignation.  The songs are personal, charming and instantly accessible.  This album therefore takes no getting into at all, it’s all there immediately, from the wistful “Liontamer”, the intensely personal “Milk Teeth”, cleverly disguised as a jazzy lounge bar crooner, to the title song, a lullaby to brighten even our darkest nights.  “I’m Cleaning Out My House” is revisited in ‘unplugged’ form, one of the songs originally heard on the excellent Hula Valley Songbook (2009), which makes a welcome return both as an apt inclusion on this album and as a live favourite.  The final song on the album is the only solo Charlie Dore composition, the achingly personal “Fifty Pound Father”, a reflective song that asks more questions than there are answers for.  Joined once again by the Hula Valley Orchestra featuring Dudley Phillips on double bass and Jake Walker on violin, together with Jim Duguid on drums and Julian Littman taking care of guitars, lap steel, piano, drums, mandolin and ukulele, Charlie Dore once again proves that she is one of our little known national treasures, whose inimitable voice should be heard by all.  I’m certainly neither a lion tamer nor a soothsayer, but I’m going to apply anyway.

Annlaug | November | Album Review | Fivereld | 04.05.11

The thought of listening to a full album’s worth of Norwegian songs was at first a daunting prospect.  Then along came Annlaug.  This impressive debut from the Bergen-based singer-songwriter and fiddler Annlaug Borsheim, cleverly sees her mixing those native Norwegian folk influences with Celtic rhythms to startling effect.  Beautifully produced by Mattie Foulds, with an impressive supporting cast of musicians including Steven Polwart, Kevin McGuire, Inge Thomson, Martin Green, Aidan O’Rourke and Anna Massie, November demonstrates perfectly well that there is something quite intoxicating about Annlaug’s distinctive voice, despite all the songs being sung in her native tongue.  There’s a full accompanying lyric book for those who wish to know what the songs are about, but this reviewer is quite content to wallow in the ignorance of it, just like when listening to Julie Fowlis or Karen Matheson for example.  The sound of the rich arrangements together with the emotive voice is quite enough to enjoy.  Recorded at Castlesound Studios, the thirteen compositions, mostly songs with the occasional instrumental, feature some fine string arrangements courtesy of Kim Edgar, along with some instantly recognisable contributions, from the voice of Inge Thomson and the intuitive double bass of Kevin McGuire to a stunning fiddle duet with Lau’s Aidan O’Rourke on “Nar Eg Kjeme Heim”.  Opening with the chirpy “Ord Som Fell” or “Falling Words”, Annlaug’s poetic lyrics draw the listener in with little persuasion.  The title song then takes you by surprise with its no nonsense folk rock delivery, while the traditional Norwegian lullaby “Suril Luril” changes the mood with its almost otherworldly atmosphere, aided by Steve Polwart’s trance-like banjo accompaniment. Annlaug is quite the discovery of the year thus far and November an unexpected gem.  Watch out for some UK appearances this Summer.   

Colm Mac Con Iomaire | The Hare’s Corner | Album Review | Plateau | 06.05.11

This inventive debut album by The Frame’s fiddle player Colm Mac Con Iomaire provides a rich musical soundscape based upon several ‘little ideas’ that have been lying dormant in the former Kila fiddler’s head for some time.  Taking the opportunity between heavy touring schedules, the Dublin-born musician has finally recorded his own solo album The Hare’s Corner, the title of which derives from the part of a field left uncut by the farmer, a refuge for wildlife to play.  With busy touring schedules with both The Frames and Glen Hansard’s offshoot project The Swell Season, Mac Con Iomaire has at last found a corner of the field to play his own beautiful music.  Playing most of the instruments himself, including harmonium, banjo, bouzouki, guitar and cello, while enlisting the help others with a select cast of musicians including Karl Odlum, Johnny Boyle, Paul Dooley, Bill Blackmore and Catherine Fitzgerald, Ma Con Iomaire Colm’s eleven compositions take us on a dreamy musical journey, rather like the soundtrack to a good movie.  The only voice on the record supplied by Alice Farrell.  Coming from an Irish speaking family, the multi-instrumentalist has presented the titles of each composition in both English and Gaelic, with sometimes enigmatic titles such as “The Cuckoo of Glen Nephin” and “Thou Shalt Not Carry Timber”.  With a background of classical violin and being steeped in Irish traditional music, the eleven pieces owe more to ambient composition than to jigs and reels.  “The Court of New Town”, being the longest composition on the record, still coming in at under five minutes, offers the same sort of emotional Celtic violin playing as exemplified through the music of Martin Hayes.  Warm and atmospheric, The Hare’s Corner is one of those records to drift off to, quite possibly to your own corner of the field.

Ciara Sidine | Shadow Road Shining | Album Review | Self Release | 06.05.11

From the bottleneck slide guitar opener to the traditional “Riding Home”, we are eased into a quality rootsy record from Dublin’s Ciara Sidine, who sounds equally as good as anyone from the other side of the pond.  With a refreshing confidence Sidine presents an outstanding debut, creating a healthy hybrid of rootsy Americana, alt country and soul with a seasoned Irish sensibility.  For the most part produced by Martin Clancy, the sepia-toned Shadow Road Shining brings together a wealth of Irish musicians including Waterboys’ Steve Wickham on violin, Conor Brady on guitar, banjo, p-bass and percussion, who also co-produces (with Sidine) the opening and closing tracks, “Riding Home” and “Sleepy Eyes”, Paul Moore on bass, The Frames’ Dave Hingerty on drums and Justin Carroll on keyboards.    “While Take Me Down” is imbued with the same feel as Dylan’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door”, a groove the listener can effortlessly engage with, “Mercy Moon” borrows more from Harvest-period Neil Young, with a harder edge, both of which Sidine appears equally at home with.  With “The Arms of Summer”, familiar to those who caught her fine performance of the song on RTE’s Other Voices programme, Sidine pays tribute to Johnny Cash, while Jack L duets in pure country style on “Constellations High”, providing the album with just the one contrasting voice.  Recognised as one of Ireland’s foremost literary editors as well as being the daughter of novelist June Considine (hence the shortened ‘Sidine’ surname), Sidine’s lyrical flair probably comes as second nature.  Multi-tasking at its best. 

Blazin’ Fiddles | Thursday Night in the Caley | Album Review | Blazin’ Records | 06.05.11

With both Jenna Reid and Anna Massie climbing aboard the good ship Blazin’ Fiddles, just in time for their forthcoming English voyage next month, which takes them from Morecambe to Durham by way of North Devon and Canterbury, the six-piece Scots powerhouse release Thursday Night in the Caley, Caley being a reference to the Caledonian Hotel in Beauly, with a delightfully sprightly set of fiddle instrumentals, which judging by the sleeve photographs is just one big fiddle sleep over.  Whether mixing the Strathspeys with the polkas, to come up with Strolkas, or veering off tack towards the fjords with a Norwegian waltz, Blazin’ Fiddles’ create a fun sound, which you can just imagine coming from the giant speaker stacks at any of this summer’s festivals.  With Jenna and Anna joining Allan Henderson, Iain Macfarlane and Bruce MacGregor, all five on fiddles, with some additional guitar from Anna and Andy Thorburn on piano, the band create an energetic sound imbued with a respectful allegiance to Scottish traditional music.  The beautiful arrangements on both the traditional “Carronside” and “Sliabh (Sliabh Geal G’Cua)”, the latter being a duet between Andy and Allan, demonstrates a musical sensitivity which provides perfectly timed interludes between the zestfully brisk dance tunes.  “Buckfast” is a nod towards former band mate Aidan O’Rourke, which incorporates his composition “Creignish Milkmaid” as well as tagging on Phil Cunningham’s “Laura Lynn Cunningham”, a tune written for the maestro’s sister, with Sandy Brachin’s “Buckfast at Tiffany’s” starting the whole thing off.  Keeping the rosin trade very much alive in the process, Blazin’ Fiddles have produced just the record to get the party off to a good start; dress code casual, kilts not compulsory.

Danny Schmidt | Man of Many Moons | Album Review | Red House | 07.05.11

Released to coincide with his forthcoming UK tour, Austin’s Danny Schmidt’s seventh album Man of Many Moons sees a stripped down to the essentials record, a record the artist refers to as a ‘stark and naked’ record, with only the minimum accompaniment, allowing each of the songs to breath.  The ten originals and one non-original, Bob Dylan’s “Buckets of Rain”, demonstrate Schmidt’s on-going reputation as a fine storyteller, poet and folk troubadour as he ponders upon the theme of relationships and commitment.  The intimacy of Man of Many Moons is immediately apparent on the opening song “Houses Sing”, with its rich acoustic sound and uncluttered arrangement.  Schmidt’s trademark broken voice and fragile delivery that we became accustomed to on previous records such as Parables and Primes (2005), Little Grey Sheep (2007) and the excellent Instead the Forest Rose to Sing (2009) is the focal point of this new collection, together with his assured guitar style and intelligently written lyrics.  Co-produced with Keith Gary, who also contributes some piano accompaniment, Schmidt is joined by Will Sexton on bass and guitar, partner Carrie Elkin who contributes harmony singing along with Raina Rose and Ray Bonneville who plays harmonica on “Ragtime Ragtime Blues”.  Schmidt’s wry sense of humour is apparent in such songs as the early Dylan-esque “Guilty By Association Blues”, which not unlike Yann Martell’s novels, delivers an uncompromising view of the world, but from the perspective of animals.  If the songs confront the notion of how we deal with commitment, without having a single clue what tomorrow may bring, Schmidt is almost resigned to idea that success will inevitably be kept at bay as he eulogises to Paul Curreri in “Two Guitars” of the passing of time and opportunity.  This disillusionment continues to plague Danny Schmidt as an artist, so it’s with some measure of comfort the album closes on an optimistic note, with the forward looking “Know Thy Place”, which provides an antidote to the trail of doubt.  With several dates planned in the UK for the summer, Danny Schmidt may deservedly find his rising star amongst the many moons.

David Williams | Chocolate Bar | Album Review | Trapdoor Media | | 07.05.11

The follow up to The Crazy Kind, the album that marked Williams’ transition from award winning children’s performer to grown up performer status comes in the form of Chocolate Bar, fourteen self-penned songs that straddle the boundaries of bluegrass, blues, gospel, western swing, and mountain folk.  Taking care of guitar, mandolin and banjo Williams is joined by Lauren Ashley Stovall on vocals, Paul Kitteck on fiddle, Ondrej Sramek on bass, Karen Carroll on percussion, together collaborating on a collection of songs that reflect the modern American landscape.  The abundance of lyrics seems to suggest that Williams wants to get a lot off his chest, whether it be a rambling memoir of the Swinging Sixties in “Worldly Love”, challenging the old thing about those who remember the Sixties not actually being there, or the uncompromising “Human/Inhuman”, which asks the burning question “is everyone an asshole in disguise?”  There are shades of Doc Watson in places, most notably on “Old Death”, which adopts the traditional “Shady Grove” groove and similarly Townes Van Zandt in the album’s closing song “Big Blue Rock”, with a vocal that has all the frailty of anything from Van Zandt’s autumn years.  Williams’ humour comes through sporadically, particularly on the title song “Chocolate Bar”, with its classic double entendre and on “You Can’t Catch Me” and “Got To Go To Heaven”.  Throughout the record Williams provides some tasty flat-pick guitar at times as well as accompanying the songs with a gentle finger-picked style, notably on “Dropped Your Comb”, which has an unavoidable similarity to Dylan’s “Buckets of Rain”, testament to the years of studying the work of gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt.

Des Horsfall’s Kuschty Rye | The Good Gentleman’s Tonic | Album Review | Valve Analogue Recordings | 11.05.11

In this homage to the late Ronnie Lane, Des Horsfall presents a beautifully packaged album inspired by the Small Faces/Faces legend, with ten roots rockers including the traditional “Careless Love”, a song familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in the music of Ronnie Lane, the song that opened Lane’s classic debut solo album in 1974.  With Horsfall’s three-piece band, Kuschty Rye, named after one of Lane’s songs, Andy McKerlie and Katriona Gilmore contribute some multi-instrumental support, along with a handful of ‘glorious guests’ including Charlie Hart on fiddle and accordion, Steve Simpson also on fiddle, Slim Chance stalwart Benny Gallagher on vocals and harmonica, Ian Alverson on Dobro and guitar, PJ Wright on Dobro and pedal steel and Hannah James on accordion.  Produced by Andy Bell in Yorkshire, presumably with lots of Yorkshire tea brewing down at Valve Studios, The Good Gentleman’s Tonic takes us on musical journey across a Slim Chance landscape, inspired by the music of Ronnie Lane with a handful of songs including seven Horsfall originals, encompassing various diverse musical styles including a nod towards the blues with the aforementioned “Careless Love” and “Hard Woman”, a venture into Louisiana Cajun territory with the jaunty “Nothing New” as well as a healthily nostalgic look at 1970s style pop/rock with “Random Acts of Kindness”, “Little Girl” and the topical “No One Talks”, a lament to the dying art of human communication.  All the songs are presented in a thoroughly captivating travelling show-style manner, enhanced by a couple of short instrumental workouts and the album’s ultimate gem, the delightful “Unwinese Mix”.    Reminiscent of “Happiness Stan”, the b side of the Small Faces classic 1968 concept album Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake, a suite of songs interspersed with surreal gobbledigook delivered by Professor Stanley Unwin, the 24-minute “Unwinese Mix” includes a handful of songs already heard on the album but re-visited with some familiar deeply joyful dialogue, this time courtesy of Unwin’s son John Unwin, telling the story of how The Good Gentleman’s Tonic came to be made.  The suite ends with a fine interpretation of one of Lane’s classic songs “The Poacher”.  If the album manages to slip through the net at whatever suitable awards are available this year on musical terms, then it really should win first prize in design, with a sleeve that deserves some attention.  Just as the horrible little CD is slipping out of fashion in a world of digital downloads and a return to vinyl and the lamented gatefold LP sleeve, along comes something that could rival those ancient works of art.  Magnificently packaged in hard back booklet form, complete with text you can actually read, the case also includes an additional pouch containing a Yorkshire Gold tea bag complete with gold key, concealed within a golden envelope.  This therefore will take its rightful place on the LP shelf next to Ogden’s, where it will be in good company.  

Pilgrims’ Way | Pilgrim’s Way EP | EP Review | Self Release | 16.05.11

Named after one of Peter Bellamy’s many songs based on Rudyard Kipling’s poetry, Pilgrims’ Way breathe new life into old songs for their debut EP of the same name.  Lucy Wright’s refreshing voice and convincing delivery is the focal point of this new outfit, augmented by two outstanding musicians in Edwin Beasant on melodeon, guitar and bass and Tom Kitching on fiddle and mandolin.  Released as a taster of what’s to come from this Stockport-based trio, the songs demonstrate an understanding and mutual respect of traditional material, exemplified in re-workings of “Adieu Lovely Nancy” and “The Handweaver and the Factory Maid”, with some intuitive and sensitive accompaniment.  For an example of Lucy Wright’s ambrosial vocal credentials look no further than her reading of Les Barker’s beautiful “Maybe Then I’ll Be a Rose”, which is accompanied by two musicians who know and respect the ‘less is more’ axiom.  The song from which the trio’s chosen name derives “A Pilgrim’s Way” closes the record, revealing the pilgrim’s life creed in song, for anyone who may have mistakenly thought the band was named after a thoroughfare in Stockport.  With the one instrumental “Andro”, a post mediaeval folk rocker, which incorporates some fine fiddle/melodeon sparring augmented by a droning hurdy gurdy courtesy of producer Jon Loomes, the EP completes its mission to introduce this potentially fruitful combination to the scene just in time for the festival season, where the trio will be making several appearances.     

Bryony Griffith and Will Hampson | Lady Diamond | Album Review | Self Release | 20.05.11

There’s always a slight concern when reviewing music, whether it be for a new record or a live gig, that you might write something that at some later stage you might disagree with.  The passage of time can often change your opinion or maybe in hindsight, reveal a moment of over-zealous enthusiasm.  When I last wrote about Bryony Griffith I waxed lyrically, claiming I had just heard a young Norma Waterson (with the poise and attitude of the late Sandy Denny and with the stage presence of Janis Joplin – yes I said this).  Lofty comparisons you might say, but upon hearing Lady Diamond I’m sticking to my guns.  This eagerly anticipated debut from husband and wife team Bryony Griffith and Will Hampson is made up entirely of traditional songs and tunes delicately arranged by the duo themselves and presented as a ‘live’ studio record with no embellishments or studio trickery.  This is a true reflection of what you might get from the duo at a festival, concert or in the back room of a pub.  Bryony’s inimitable voice dominates the songs here, sung with equal dollops of fire, grace and passion.  There’s nothing sweet or fanciful in Bryony’s singing, it’s right there in your face, an earthy gritty no-nonsense approach to storytelling, and by, do you believe every word.  There is the one exception here, when Bryony turns in a gorgeous interpretation of “The Constant Lovers”, accompanying herself on piano.  It’s not just Bryony’s voice that impresses upon hearing this debut, there’s also the fine fiddle playing, which she handles like a demon, a Demon Barber to be precise.  Her work over the last few years with a ceilidh band aptly called Bedlam, a certain coven from Elswick and of course the Demon Barbers, has provided the experience and apprenticeship that has now come to fruition, providing the traditional folk world with another distinctive voice.  Will Hampson provides the perfect accompaniment to all this singing and fiddle playing with an intuitive ear and flair in his melodeon playing.  Providing the melodies and rhythms for Morris dancing from an early age allows a musician time to develop a personal style, which comes over on this album.  The ‘bottom end’ is clear in the mix as are all the squeaks and creeks of a living breathing instrument.  On a couple of occasions Will allows his instrument to ‘breathe’ on such songs as “The Murdered Servant Man” for instance, all of which brings character to the playing and life to the songs.   Starting with some pizzicato fiddle plucking on the traditional “Martinmas Time”, familiar to either Ann Briggs or Andy Irvine fans equally, the song blooms before our very ears into something quite extraordinary.  Likewise the duo’s almost chamber version of Child Ballad 269 “Lady Diamond”, the title song, which encompasses everything we love in traditional ballads from love and pregnancy to royalty and murder, all the ingredients necessary for a good meaty folk song.  “The Lady of York”, learned from the singing of Jim Elden, has more death and cruelty, beautifully retold here by a duo unafraid to venture right into the nitty gritty of a song.  Elden claims he learned this from the singing of gypsy children, which kind of sends shivers as does Bryony and Will’s performance of the song here.  Bryony and Will were but children themselves when they first started playing together and Lady Diamond takes its place as one of the duo’s rites of passage, their status changing from important musicians in their many collaborative endeavours to a perfectly formed entity in their own right.  I look forward with keen interest to their further development.

Gregory Alan Isakov | This Empty Northern Hemisphere | Album Review | Suitcase Town | 30.05.11

Johannesburg-born singer-songwriter Gregory Alan Isakov creates a moody atmosphere from the outset with the enchanting opener “Dandelion Wine” on this his fourth solo album to date The Empty Northern Hemisphere originally released in 2009 but due for re-issue to coincide with his forthcoming UK tour.  With a gentle vocal delivery and fluid musicianship, Isakov’s sense of melody makes each of the songs on this album instantly accessible.  Recorded at various locations and co-produced by Isakov and Jamie Mefford, the singer-songwriter is joined by Jen Gilleran on drums, Jeb Bows on violin and Phil Parker on cello, with various other contributions throughout.  Drawing on influences ranging from the likes of Leonard Cohen, Iron and Wine and Kelly Joe Phelps, Isakov delivers an assured record, with songs that range from the sweetly absorbing “Idaho”, the tender “Words”, co-written with brother Ilan, to the comparatively upbeat and driving “Evelyn”.  Taking up the mantle of singer-songwriter upon moving to Colorado in 1999, where the songwriter was significantly influenced by Bruce Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad”, the life of a travelling musician beckoned and that career has seen the subsequent release of three albums, Rust Coloured Stones (2003), Songs for October (2005) and his last album That Sea, the Gambler (2007).  On this fourth release, Isakov is joined by Americana singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile on five of the songs, including a fine version of Leonard Cohen’s “One of Us Cannot Be Wrong”, the song that not only closed the Canadian songwriter’s debut album back in 1967 but this one as well.  Carlile also provided some of her own studio time for this project, which she clearly believes in and supports.  Gregory Alan Isakov begins his UK in early June. 

Paul Kamm and Eleanore MacDonald | From the Fire | Album Review | Freewheel | 31.05.11

This thoroughly enchanting ninth album release from Nevada City-based duo Paul Kamm and Eleanore MacDonald, once again demonstrates a varied approach to conveying modern folk songs and therefore maintains interest throughout.  The duo incorporate political commentary, environmental issues and animal welfare with nine self-penned songs and the one co-written song, “Ship Gonna Sail”, with words by the late Utah Phillips.  The title song “From the Fire” was also written for the duo’s friend Utah Phillips, which indeed incorporates a reference to the aforementioned “Ship Gonna Sail”, which in turn contains many familiar political references, together with some contemporary beat boxing (or face playing) courtesy of Joe Craven.  With shared responsibilities in the vocal department, it is with the harmonies that this duo excels.  Fitting together dovetail-like, Paul and Eleanore’s voices appear to be made for each other, augmented by some tastefully constructed arrangements.  There’s a lot of attention paid to rhythm and in places the album has a distinct World Music feel.  Those World Music influences appear nowhere more clearly than on the African influenced “Quiet Voices”, which features the traditional West African kora, together with the tambino, the kutiro and the jawungo, courtesy of Gordon Hellegers, Tom Menig and Rob Holland respectively, all of which adds colour to an already colourful selection of songs.  As well as the songs that lean towards a political nature, the questioning “Song of the Land” and “Dark Seed” address environmental issues, the former featuring some tasteful electric sitar and fiddle courtesy of Mikail Graham and Joe Craven, while the latter relies on a sparse arrangement to help get the message across.  The social conscience theme that appears to reside in the very fabric of From the Fire, also includes a nod towards animal welfare with the poetic “To Let the Light In”, which celebrates those who ‘care for the voiceless, lost and abandoned ones’.  With some haunting pedal steel courtesy of Larry Tracy, this and all the other songs on the album provides food for thought, while at the same time delivering some memorable and inviting melodies.

Sarah Jarosz | Follow Me Down | Album Review | Sugar Hill | 01.06.11

Follow up to Song Up In Her Head (2009), this second album by Sarah Jarosz explores some of the ever-widening musical territory this singer and multi-instrumentalist inhabits.  With nine originals and two well-chosen non-originals, Radiohead’s “The Tourist”, which is given a rootsy k.d. lang feel courtesy of the Punch Brothers, together with “Ring Them Bells” from Bob Dylan’s Oh Mercy period, Jarosz surrounds herself with the cream of bluegrass A-listers including Bela Fleck and Jerry Douglas, proving once and for all that the ‘difficult second’ album is but a myth.  Just 20 years-old and already a respected musician on the world bluegrass scene, having shared stages with the likes of Ricky Skaggs and David Grisman as a young teenager and more recently with the Punch Brothers and Mumford and Sons, Sarah’s mercurial rise to prominence has been largely due to her single-minded approach to her music and her own musical path.  Her mandolin playing is still very much rooted in bluegrass but endeavours to stretch the boundaries a little. While the instrumental Old Smitty provides the kind of bluegrass we have come to expect from anything Jerry Douglas is involved in, Sarah’s Radiohead-inspired “My Muse” reveals a yearning to present a more contemporary angle for her music.  Several of the songs on Follow Me Down feature harmony vocal cameos by a veritable who’s who of important figures in contemporary bluegrass and country/folk music, including Shawn Colvin on “Run Away”, Darrell Scott on “Come Around” and “Here Not There”, Vince Gill on “Ring Them Bells” and Union Station’s Dan Tyminski on the adaptation of the old Edgar Allan Poe poem “Annabelle Lee”.  Sarah Siskind also features on a couple of the songs, “My Muse” and “Floating in the Balance”.  Good company indeed.  Co-produced once again by Gary Paczosa, who also produced Sarah’s debut; this outstanding second album showcases a feast of staggeringly good musicianship throughout, with Sarah Jarosz presenting a viable argument for the status of quite possibly the new Alison Krauss. Would the suggestion of a collaborative project with Jimmy Page be a little twee at this point?

Various Artists | Younger Than That Now | Album Review | Fat Cat | 01.06.11

Released to coincide with Dylan’s 70th birthday this double charity cd compilation offers a broad spectrum of Dylan covers within the British folk community and those associated with that community.  With Circuit Music’s Chris Euesden at the helm, a long time Dylan afficionado, the chosen songs and performances cover a broad range here, with interpretations of the jazz-tinged “Spanish Harlem Incident” by The Burdon of Paradise, the soulful “One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below)”, by one of the UK’s criminally overlooked singers Patsy Matheson, the bluesy “Ballad of Hollis Brown” by Hans Theesink and the Country-influenced “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” by John Leonard, all of which are respectfully treated by performers who obviously love the songs.  Chris’s own ‘tribute’ band Blonde on Bob also squeeze in a couple of choice interpretations of “Love Sick” and the enduring “When I Paint My Masterpiece”.  Opening with a spoken introduction by Ian McMillan, who reveals that familiar moment known to us all, the moment we first heard Dylan, in his case “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” sometime in the mid-Sixties, in my case around about the same time only with “Subterranean Homesick Blues”; the poet reminds us of how magical that moment was for some of us.  We all have our own specific moment to recall.  The time frame has also been given some consideration, with the inclusion of a rare 1972 live recording by the late Tony Capstick singing “To Ramona”, through to contemporary interpretations of “Boots of Spanish Leather” by Ewan McLennan, “Simple Twist of Fate” by Dan Wilde and a gorgeous version of “It Ain’t Me Babe” by Edwina Hayes.  The cream of the established Brit folk scene is also represented by long time Dylan admirers Martin Simpson “Mr Tambourine Man”, Dave Burland “Girl From the North Country” and Chris and Kellie While “Mississippi”, all of whom have been spotted recently singing these songs at their own gigs.   There are thousands of Dylan interpretations out there, some of which are better than others, some of which are better than the original and there will be more, many more.  What makes this compilation appealing is that we who embrace the UK folk scene and those artists involved in that scene, can be reassured that this man’s music is in good hands.  We’re still listening to and interpreting the songs fifty years on and even at 70, Dylan’s tide of song shows no sign of ebbing.  All proceeds from the sale of this album are being donated to Oxfam.

Richard Durrant | The No 26 Bus to Paraguay | Album Review | Longman | 02.06.11

This instrumental album release by guitar virtuoso Richard Durrant celebrates the music of Paraguayan composer and guitarist Agustín Barrios Mangoré.  With eleven carefully chosen pieces Durrant presents an album of personal favourites from the Barrios canon, each played with astonishing dexterity and virtuosity.  Named after the bus that would take the young Durrant to his weekly guitar lessons in Hove, The No 26 Bus To Paraguay provides the soundtrack to those formative years, where Barrios’ compositions would be tackled by young fingers eager to explore the dusty end of the fret board, while examining old original wax cylinder recordings.  Referring to the compositions as ‘infectious and charismatic’ Durrant plays each of the compositions live, sometimes in front of friends and neighbours.  Devoid of any studio trickery, this album comes across as pure as you are likely to get.  Highly personal and interpretive, the pieces each bear a significance to the guitarist such as the inclusion of “Gavota al Estilo Antiguo”, Durrant’s audition piece for the Royal College of Music; “Danza Paraguaya”, the piece that first introduced the work of this composer to the young Durrant and “Un Sueno en la Floresta”, which Durrant refers to as ‘the most tactile guitar piece I know’.  Dedicated to Betty Durrant, the mother from whom the guitarist obtained his first Barrios record, this album not only serves as a fascinating introduction to the work of one of the world’s greatest guitar composers but also an intriguing piece of contemporary interpretation of timeless music.

Eliza Lynn | Together | Album Review | Civility | 02.06.11

For Eliza Lynn’s third album, following Frisky and Fair (2005), The Weary Wake Up (2007) and the more recent Haven (2009), the Nashville-based singer-songwriter has collected together nine songs written by others, chosen by her strong fan base.  With Together, not only do we have an album of covers selected by ‘fans’, but also by fans who have had a say in how they want the songs to be presented.  It’s a bit of an odd concept but it certainly works.  Fortunately, Lynn’s fan base appears to be made up of discerning music lovers who know a thing or two about songs.  With the one traditional selection, the sublime “Shenandoah”, which closes the album, the songs cover a broad range of songwriters including Ketch Secor and Willie Watson of the Old Crow Medicine Show “We’re All In This Together”, Doc Watson “Life is Like a River” and Van Morrison “When the Leaves Come Falling Down”.  James Cleveland’s late 1950s gospel hit “Sit Down Servant” is given a suitably sparse a capella treatment, while the beautiful “This Love Will Carry” borrows from the arrangement memorably supplied by its writer Dougie Maclean during his collaboration with Kathy Mattea for the film Songroads: A Friendship from Nashville to Dunkeld.  With Will Straughan on dobro and lapsteel, John Stickley on guitar and mandolin, Rayna Gellart on fiddle and Alia Clary joining Straughan and Stickley on vocal harmonies, the album sticks to a clear and crisp acoustic sound throughout.  The album’s high point is the feel-good “Red Dress”, written by Maia Sharp and Kim Richey, which I defy anyone to keep their feet still to, let alone dance in the aisles with wild abandon.

Ian McFeron | Summer Nights | Album Review | Self Release | 04.06.11

Experience tells me that the best way to approach new music is by listening to the songs first before checking out who the artist is, much the same way as I prefer radio presenters to keep the source of the record from us until the end.  This helps us to form an unbiased opinion.  So with this in mind, the sixth studio album from prolific Seattle-based singer-songwriter Ian McFeron was slipped onto the player shrouded in mystery and before the end of the play through, the names Ryan Adams and David Gray had already crossed my mind before reading the press release which unsurprisingly revealed these two songwriters as influences.  Harbouring a slight sense of smugness, I returned to the beginning of the CD and listened again.  I’m not sure why Ian McFeron has until now slipped through my own personal radar, having already released five full length albums over the last eight years Don’t Look Back (2003), A Long Way to Freedom (2005), Fistfight With Father Time (2006), Let It Ride (2007) and Love Me Blue (2009).  For this sixth album, McFeron gathers together a new bunch of collaborators including Billy Mercer on bass and Brad Pemberton on drums, both Ryan Adams’ sidemen past and present, Patty Griffin’s guitarist Doug Lancio, who also produces, and McFeron’s regular band mate Alisa Milner on fiddle and cello.  With a distinctive and clear vocal delivery, sometimes reminiscent of Lennon’s raspy and heavily reverberated Rock and Roll period, McFeron’s unambiguous lyrics tell each story with confidence and assurance, while the arrangements touch on everything from gospel, blues, soul and jazz, all within the overall genre of alt-country.  The thirteen songs were recorded in Nashville over a ten day period and stylistically border the rootsy Adams model with a pinch of Gray’s pop sensibility.  While the album’s jaunty opener “Shine a Little Light” presents the notion of walking the streets in the twilight in search of hope, a theme that appears to resonate throughout the album, “Your Still On My Mind”, “My Old Lovers” and the alluring “Streetlight Serenade” demonstrate a tender yearning for love.  With six albums now in the bag, together with plans for an extensive three month US tour, we may see McFeron arrive on these shores in due course. 

Marybeth D’Amico | The Light Inside | Album Review | LongMan | 04.06.11

With this follow up to her 2008 debut Heaven, Hell, Sin and Redemption, Marybeth D’Amico once again delivers twelve fresh songs from her own pen, opting this time for a rockier edge with the help of producer Bradley Kopp’s electric guitar together with a band comprising once again Paul Pearcy on drums and David Webb on keyboards, and introducing for this album Glenn Fukunaga on bass and Mark Hallman on everything with more than six strings, including mandolin, mandola and bouzouki, both of whom boast an impressive CV including working with the likes of Bob Dylan, Carole King and Dan Fogelberg.  The themes of light and dark are prominent in the songs on the album, such as the self-dressing-down “Inside Out”, together with moments of sensitivity, such as the self-probing “Stubborn Land” featuring backing vocals by Kopp’s partner Lorrie Singer and the natural disaster analogy of a lost girl in “Beneath the Rubble”, together with the gently optimistic “Tiny Star”, which closes the album.  Having lived in Germany for a good while, a song like Der Grezner will be a closely observed reflection on the ‘wall years’, with a song from the perspective of a border guard, growing increasingly doubtful of the merits of her job throughout the song.  Originally conceived as a rootsy folk record, the album developed into something different with Kopp’s desire to utilise the electric guitar, resulting in a much fuller sound, which in turn suits the songs.  With a full rhythm section at D’Amico’s disposal, that sound stands up as a vibrant piece of contemporary Americana.

Sultans of String | Yalla Yalla | Album Review | Self Release | 06.06.11

With a long list of award credits, Canadian string ensemble Sultans of String release their second album following the success of their debut Luna (2007) and once again engage in some highly dextrous musicianship fusing ‘Spanish Flamenco, Arabic folk, Cuban rhythms, and French Manouche Gypsy-jazz’, and anything else that just might work, The Who’s “Pinball Wizard” for instance.  Led by the combined forces of 2009 Juno Award Nominee, Chris McKhool on six-string violinist and Kevin Laliberté on guitars, the five piece band demonstrate a rich musical diversity, covering a wide range of styles, with engaging arrangements and a distinctly passionate flair.  With a rhythm section made up of Cuban percussionist Rosendo Chendy León Arocha and bassist Drew Birston, together with Eddie Paton on rhythm guitar, Sultans of Swing form an impressive tour de force in world rhythms.  With ten originals, one Pete Townshend hit and an arrangement based around Erik Satie’s Gymnopédies, with “Gymnorumba”, Yalla Yalla (translated from the Arabic for Come On! Let’s Go!), Sultans of String showcase an instrumental album that keeps your attention right through to the end, with impressive playing and highly inventive arrangements.  With a handful of guests invited along to spar with the quintet, including Andrew Collins whose mandolin playing on the Django Reinhardt inspired Stomping at the Rex is nothing short of blistering, George Gao playing the two stringed Chinese violin on the sublime Tikal and some excellent stride piano courtesy of Jordan Klapman on “Highlander 10 Speed”, to name just a few.  The album closes with “Le Bisou” or “The Kiss”, which is fondly dedicated to the family members that have to be left behind during touring.  A fine closer, to an equally fine album.

Lucy Ward | Adelphi Has To Fly | Album Review | Navigator | 01.07.11

Lucy Ward could hardly be described as an overnight success having appeared on many a stage up and down the country since the age of 14, singing in pubs, clubs and at festivals, learning her craft as a performer and honing her skills as a storyteller along the way.  Nor does the Derbyshire singer come from a folk singing family, brought up on a diet of Cecil Sharpe’s manuscripts or hearing the strains of Sam Larner on wax cylinders, while she pops on her Doc Martens ready to meet her mates.  Lucy Ward is an ordinary kid, from an ordinary background who just happens to have an extraordinary appeal.  With several Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind-like hair colour changes, together with the odd nose piercing and a penchant for wearing Sex Pistols t shirts, Lucy Ward has given young people a voice in the folk world and has also provided some of us older folk with something fresh and appealing to think about.  She’s both a breath of fresh air and a veritable whirlwind all at the same time.  Adelphi Has To Fly comes at the right time for Lucy, who has now just reached 21, all ready and prepared to take her rightful place on the folk music scene, equipped with the experience of those few years behind her as well as an ear for a good song.  Mixing the traditional material with her own self-penned songs, Lucy has produced, along with the help of Megson’s Stu Hannah, a collection of songs to write home about.  Collaborating with Belinda O’Hooley, the master of ambience on piano and partner Heidi Tidow on backing vocals, who along with Sam Pegg on bass make up the current Lucy Ward touring band, Lucy has found the right musical support for these songs and arrangements.  All the songs on this album, for all intents and purposes, could’ve been sung unaccompanied, with just Lucy’s inimitable voice telling each story; the voice alone being certainly good enough.  The musicians listed above however, augmented by Stu and Debbie Hannah, add all the necessary accompaniment, never too sparse, never too overplayed, just right in fact, to make this album even more special.  The traditional songs are each delivered with a confidence and expressiveness, unusual for one so young, from “The Unfortunate Lass”, with Belinda O’Hooley’s trademark underplayed piano, “The Two Sisters”, with its pulsating concertina accompaniment and Samuel Lover’s extraordinary “The Fairy Boy”, which opens the album, once again featuring Belinda’s distictive piano motifs. Sitting alongside the traditional material is a handful of originals, each song imbued with a strong sense of the past, in particular Alice in the Bacon Box, a song about real hardship; when living in a box on the village green was a reality and not just a possible line from a Monty Python sketch.  Two of the most engaging original songs on the album are the title song Adelphi and the atmospheric Julia, written in letter form, both of which demonstrate first class song writing credentials.  One of the oldest songs on the album, the haunting “Death (Rock Me To Sleep)”, believed to be written by Anne Boleyn, has been set to a new melody, arranged to incorporate a grungy bass accompaniment bringing a 16th century verse bang up to date.  “Bricks and Love”, a live favourite, finds its home on this album at last, a beautiful song about a man Lucy met in a folk club, which incorporates the equally beautiful chorus of the traditional “Eriskay Love Lilt”.  With a great deal of sadness we received the news of Mike Waterson’s death last week, which makes Lucy’s reading of “A Stitch in Time” even more poignant.  Lucy breaths new life into this brilliantly funny cautionary tale, each word of the song delivered so convincingly that I broached the subject with the singer earlier this year at the Shepley Spring Festival.  “I believe every word you sing” said I, to which the singer immediately replied “well maybe you should!”  In the thoroughly jaunty “Maids When You’re Young”, Lucy reminds gentlemen of a certain age that they may well have lost their faloorum or indeed their falliver aye oorum, not to mention their ding doorum; but that being said, it is with confidence that this reviewer can claim to have nothing wrong with his ears, both of which collectively know a good thing when they hear it.  A truly exceptional debut.

Rory Ellis | Perfectly Damaged | Album Review | Self Release | 01.07.11

Fifth studio album from Melbourne-born, now re-located to Drysdale, Victoria, singer-songwriter Rory Ellis, whose gravel-voiced delivery has the power to captivate his audiences.  Perfectly Damaged comprises ten original songs, with subjects covering Angels and Devils, growing old, trains, trucks and automobiles to rediscovering Jesus and that old favourite, cybersex.  Rory Ellis is a great storyteller, who has the ability to mischievously mislead the listener with his tall tales; you may think you’re on to one thing, only then to find it’s something else completely ‘I never fell in love until I saw your body, you were blue and I was there, I could see that someday maybe you could shine, with a little love and care’.  He’s talking about a car of course in the brooding 65 Pontiac.  Rory can also be unambiguously direct as in PC Love, which touches on the dying art of seduction on the dance floor, replaced by seedy online romance, behind closed curtains, and all that.  With a wry sense of humour, Ellis’s songs have a closely observed relevance, delivered in a down to earth manner, with a distinct alt-country, swamp-rock feel to each composition.  There are also moments of sensitivity from the big man, with “Flesh and Bone” paying tribute to the singer’s twin sons, both diagnosed with Autism.  There’s “PC Love” and then there’s real love.  While the title song addresses the passage of time in a most uplifting way, noting that none of us are really getting old, but that the lines on our faces merely signify we are perfectly damaged, the strangest little song on the album has to be the unlikely tale of a cocaine bust in Tiverton, which incorporates money laundering, benzocaine and dentistry.  Self-produced and enlisting the help of Tim Hackett on lap steel, electric guitar and octave mandolin, Tim Burnham on drums and Grant Cummerford and Barry Stockley sharing bass duties, Rory Ellis tells his tales with an assured confidence.

Gillian Welch | The Harrow and the Harvest | Album Review | Warner Brothers | 09.07.11

Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings’ mutual writer’s block, which was reportedly responsible for the eight year gap between their last album and this their fifth album release The Harrow and the Harvest, probably presented the duo with a few years of unbridled frustration.  From 1996 to 2003, the Gillian Welch/Dave Rawlings partnership produced a handful of astonishing albums Revival (1996), Hell Among the Yearlings (1998), Time (The Revalator) (2001) and Soul Journey (2003), each album demonstrating a natural cohesion in both the duo’s understanding of each other’s playing and in their inimitable harmony vocal work, together with some memorable concerts and film appearances.  Returning to form with ten new songs, each allegedly first or second takes, Welch and Rawlings once again work their magic with sparse arrangements and minimal instrumental clutter, to produce an album that could only be described as well worth the wait.  From the opening few bars of “Scarlet Town”, we are reassured that whatever’s been missing over the last eight years is most definitely back.  Those who recall Welch’s minor key dark side, exemplified in such songs as “Annabelle” for instance, will be pleased with the way this album unfolds.  All the songs on the album are Welch/Rawlings originals, each featuring the duo’s unmistakable and intuitive harmony singing and Rawlings’ fluid guitar playing, played no doubt on something vintage, expensive and utterly beautiful.  Each song is also treated to some of that unique Welch/Rawlings guitar sparring, with never a note out of place nor in any way intrusive, despite some of the songs being created in the studio, bringing to the recording an improvisational feel.  Those who may have caught any of the duo’s live appearances will no doubt be familiar with “The Way It Will Be”, which finally finds its place in this duo’s recorded canon.  “Six White Horses” conveys that old Appalachian feel more than any other, with banjo, harmonica and hand clapping accompaniment.   With a sleeve designed by John Dyer Baizley, showing a line drawing of the couple surrounded by wild birds and harvest crops, which will no doubt have keen fans reading more messages into it than in the trees on Dylan’s John Wesley Harding LP, the album’s design comes with a closely observed sense of atmosphere.  Coming from a printing background myself, it was with some measure of nostalgia that I watched the letterpress printing process used in the production of the album sleeve via a video on the duo’s website, where not only are we taken through all the ins and outs of the workings of an original Heidelberg letterpress, the duo’s chosen method of printing, but also we are given a short tutorial of how to coffee stain our copy of the album, to give it that all important authentic feel.  You can’t say Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings don’t care about their product; on the contrary, they are utterly passionate about it.  When you finish listening to The Harrow and the Harvest, you may feel you’ve just heard an acutely polished album.  It’s worth remembering then, that you will have actually just heard two people in a room playing two guitars and the occasional banjo, singing together as naturally as they possibly can, as near to a live performance as you could possibly imagine and another example of a most beautiful antidote to auto-tuned pap.  If anything, I could’ve done with more of the same, but that’s just the way the cornbread crumbles.  A gorgeous record.

Ady Johnson | Tell the Worry Dolls | Album Review | Self Release | 09.07.11

Said to relieve us of our worries if we share them before we sleep, the Worry Dolls of Guatemalan folklore serve as a metaphor for all the everyday concerns, woes and angst this Colchester-based singer-songwriter faces on a daily basis.  This debut solo album from former FuzzFace frontman Ady Johnson, may cover some of those life worries, but at the same time appears to rejoice in a veritable sea of uplifting and melodic songs.  With a distinctive and engaging voice, Johnson performs each of the ten self-penned songs with a mature conviction, helped along by a team of accomplished players including Toby Bull on trumpet and sax, Matthew Kelly on drums and dulcimer, Matt Simpkins on violin and Nelson on double bass.  At times reminiscent of Paolo Nutini “Maybe I’m a Blind Fool” while at others Stephen Stills “Magpie”, Johnson shows a rare stylistic versatility, which at once is apparent.  None of the songs fall into the ‘filler’ category, simply because each song is treated to an entirely different style, from the bluesy opener “20000 Miles From Home” and the jaunty “Pink Flamingos” (a single if ever I heard one) to the sun drenched Mediterranean evening stroll of “Jewelly Box” and the sinister undercurrent of “Hit and Run”.  With some superb string arrangements courtesy of Matt Simpkins, especially on “No Scratch from a Rose”, Tell the Worry Dolls reveals a first rate debut with not just one stand out song but several, each for an entirely different occasion.

Anthea Neads and Andy Prince | Penhayl | Album Review | Rowan Leaf | 09.07.11

The follow up to Anthea Neads’ debut solo album Jars of Clay, sees ex-Sham 69 bassist Andy Prince take on a more prominent role on Penhayl, the title taken from a cottage in Cornwall where the album was recorded, once again providing bass, but this time promoted to equal share of the title credits.  The duo’s mutual interest in the music of the late 1960s and in particular the psychedelic era, provides an open canvas upon which to explore.  Having a bassist as a mutual collaborator means that the bass is very much to the fore, which gives the songs that unique Sixties feel, not unlike Pentangle or the Incredible String Band.  Produced by Mark Tweed (Spacegoats/Martha Tilston), the eight songs comprise a handful of originals, a couple of co-writes and one or two covers.  If “Butterfly” eases us into the album, touching on 1960s hippydom, it is with the two adventurous and epic songs that the record forms its backbone.  The sprawling “New Horizon”, which features Tweed’s sitar together with Anthea’s droning Shruti, re-creates a sound that once filtered out of bedsit doors and attic windows during the heyday of late 60s and early 70s psychedelia, often accompanied by strange and exotic aromas, which would often be fruitlessly covered up with the smell of incense sticks and patchouli oil.  Likewise, “Keepers of the Light”, which closes the album, based on a poem by Glastonbury-based poet Amanda Gazidis, also creates that epic feel, with an arrangement that encompasses both a taste of the psychedelic rock music of the time, exemplified by bands such as the Jefferson Airplane and Country Joe and the Fish, but also incorporates, intentionally or unintentionally, the iconic trance-like jazz riff of John Coltrane from A Love Supreme.  As well as Anthea on guitar, flute and her own distinctive vocals and Andy on bass, percussion and kaoss pad, Paul Adams provides violin and Marc Box plays 12 string guitar and percussion.  Penhayl has no pretentions of being anything other than a heartfelt homage to the music of another era, imbued with all the optimism of the much missed Summer of Love.

The Innocence Mission | My Room In The Trees | Album Review | Badman | 09.07.11

Any album that contains the lyric ‘he said I could just take the canoe, whenever I need’ makes me pay attention.  Like some Lady of Shalott, I imagine Pennsylvania-born Karen Peris drifting along the lake, with her hand gently stroking the water as she sings each of the thirteen original songs on this album.  The Innocence Mission’s tenth studio album drifts along like our Pre-Raphaelite heroine, with each of the compositions creating and effortless and distinct calming effect.  The trio, comprising Karen on piano, pump organ, guitar and melodica, husband Don Peris on electric and acoustic guitars, drums and cello and Mike Bitts on upright and electric bass, recorded most of the tracks for My Room in the Trees at the Peris home, where time restraints presumably were not an issue.  Therefore the album has an unrushed and spacious feel.  Lyrically evocative, each of the songs share the delights of the natural world from the opening “Rain (Setting Out in a Leaf Boat)”, the afternoon raincoats of The Happy Mondays and the dual charms of both rain and shine in “God is Love” to the early morning thawing of springtime in “Spring” and the deep summer hours emphasised in “Shout For Joy”.  For My Room in the Trees you’ll need your raincoat and umbrella, your sunshades and moisturiser and not least, a spare hour to bask in the delights of it all.  Don’t rush it though, there’s no hurry.

Pete Dilley | On Reflection | Album Review | Self Release | 10.07.11

County Durham’s Pete Dilley returns with a fresh set of self-penned songs following last year’s Forecast, his second self-released album.  Once again Dilley’s confident guitar playing is prominent throughout, together with his own distinctive way of telling stories.  Joined by a handful of friends for this release including Sue Hill on fiddle, Jon Gordon on banjo and guitar and Steve Wilson on percussion and bass, who also produces, Pete also includes a couple of fine duets with Amelia Orgill including “Familiar Stranger”, an older song re-visited to include Amelia’s voice.  If the snowbound cover shot of Forecast suggested winter, then On Reflection is very much blessed with a timely Mediterranean feel, with a mandolin playing Dilley hiding in the shade, reflected in the pool.  Some of that mandolin can be heard on the album, most notably on the instrumental “The Pish and the Diddler”.  Despite the inclusion of a couple of instrumentals, the other being a guitar piece from which the album’s title derives, the emphasis is really on the songs.  By his own admission, Dilley wears his heart on his sleeve, with one or two tender love ballads of the unrequited variety included here, “Same Old Same Old” for instance.  For the most part contemporary and soul searching, Dilley does tip his hat to the past occasionally, on such songs as “The Rifleman’s Wife”, “Columbus Unknown” and the a cappella “They Won’t Make a Soldier”, which in all fairness could be taken as a bang up to date contemporary song, in recognition of the futility of war.  This collection of songs and tunes concludes with a bonus song, re-visiting an older song which appeared on Dilley’s first album, “Let’s Start Again”, with a couple of additional verses.

Battlefield Band | Line-Up | Album Review | Temple | 15.07.11

As Alan Reid takes his final bow with the band he helped form 42 years ago, we see the only original member depart, leaving behind a supremely healthy band, reinvigorated with the addition of new member Ewen Henderson, who along with Mike Katz, Alasdair White and Sean O’Donnell takes his place in the line-up for the cover shot featuring four of the usual suspects.  Formed in 1969, a time when Jimi Hendrix would metaphorically take us on a trip to the Moon and back, while Neil Armstrong and his buddies actually did, Battlefield Band have consistently produced quality albums augmented by hundreds of exciting live appearances at all the major festivals and concert halls throughout the world.  The band have helped in no small way shape the course of traditional music throughout those ensuing years, with several line-up changes, each one indicating new directions, new ideas and fresh enthusiasm.  With newcomer Ewen Henderson joining Alan and the band on their last tour, there was a gentle transition, which saw Reid take his final bows and Henderson take his first with the band that has simply become an institution.  Line-Up continues to deliver an equal mixture of traditional tunes and songs, with that all important surprise inclusion, this time a nod towards soul legend Otis Redding with “That’s How Strong My Love Is”, the b-side to “Mr Pitiful” in 1964, with the addition of a verse from “The Water is Wide”, tucked in nicely towards the end of the song.  After reading the track list before playing, I was surprised to hear the beautiful “Now Westlin Winds” pop up as track five, soon realising the band had chosen the song’s original title “Song Composed in August”, which as Robin Morton points out in the sleeve notes has a much more intriguing name.  From the youthful lyrics of Robert Burns, we then turn to the pen of Co Armagh’s Sean Mone, as Sean O’Donnell sings the poignant lyrics of “Lovers and Friends” in celebration of real comradeship – “For there’s more friendship poured out in one bottle of stout, than you’ll find in statute or sermon”.  Amen to that.  Working alongside the contemplative songs is the usual complement of well-crafted tunes, each with the now familiar inclusion of the highland bagpipes courtesy of Mike Katz, assisted by Alasdair and Ewen, both fellow pipers, plus an additional fiddle duet “The Herring/Alejandro Blanco”, composed by Alasdair and Henderson respectively.  A fine album. 

Old Sledge | Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down | Album Review | Self Release | 16.07.11

When I popped Old Sledge’s debut album Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down on the player, while reclining in an armchair casually perusing the accompanying cd sleeve, I imagined a bunch of hairy old time hillbillies out for a good time on the front porch.  Further investigation revealed the band to consist of multiple award-winning Fiddle Champion of West Virginia Chance McCoy and musical gypsy Sabra Guzmán on guitar, joined by Ben Townsend and Jake Hopping sharing banjo duties, with the latter also providing bass throughout.  The band’s efforts to revive some of the magic of old time country, blues and folk song works well here, especially on the traditional “Deep Elum Blues”, “Danville Girl” and the title cut “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down”, all of which show an amost intuitive understanding of the music from an entirely different era.  Some of the familiar songs included here, such as “St James Infirmary Blues” and “Boat’s Up the River” are treated to rich arrangements that maintain that old time feel but lose none of their contemporary edge.  With a handful of instrumentals all demonstrating the band’s musical ‘chops’ including “Bonaparte Crossing the Alps” and “Liza Jane”, Old Sledge turn their attention to the jazzier side of old time music with the Western Swing influenced “What is a Home Without Love” and the stunning “I’m Confessin’”, which you imagine would be just the sort of lullaby Mary Ellen Walton would listen to just before saying goodnight to Grandpa and blowing out the light.  An absolute gem.

Nazareth | Big Dogz | Album Review | Ear Music | 16.07.11

Anyone who recalls the heyday of the Scottish hard rock band with the Biblical name, will no doubt first of all be reminded of the unmistakable rasping and tortured voice of their lead singer Dan McCafferty, who turned familiar songs that were recognised as gently sublime in their original form, such as Boudleaux Bryant’s “Love Hurts” or Joni’s “This Flight Tonight”, or for that matter Tomorrow’s “My White Bicycle”, into instantly recognised rock classics.  Still going strong with at least two of the band’s original members including McCafferty – but then let’s face it, Nazareth just wouldn’t be Nazareth without Dan – and Pete Agnew on bass, the latest line-up includes long established guitarist Jimmy Murrison and Pete Agnew’s son Lee on drums, who replaced the band’s original drummer in 1999 after Darrell Sweet died during the band’s US tour of that year.  Big Dogz is the 22nd studio album in a career spanning 43 years and the band are still rocking it up like teenagers.  The first thing to go in rock music is usually the voice, I think that’s generally accepted, but on Big Dogz, McCafferty’s voice is still intact and as recognisable as ever.  Mind you having said that, some might argue that Dan’s voice went before the band even started back in ‘68, it’s that raw and that distinctive.  The album maintains a hard rock approach throughout, particularly on the opening “Big Dog’s Gonna Howl”, “No Mean Monster”, “Watch Your Back” and “Lifeboat”, all of which adhere to the band’s early 1970s motto ‘loud ‘n’ proud’, but the album also has a gentler side with “When Jesus Comes to Save the World Again” and “Butterfly”, both of which demonstrate the band’s ability to show a sensitive, more soulful side.  “The Toast” opens with the formal tapping of a glass, as the Master of Ceremonies salutes the band with the traditional Scots ‘Slainte Mhath’ or ‘Good Health’, a deserved celebration for one of Britain’s most enduring rock bands, still going strong, still loud ‘n’ proud.

Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick | Walnut Creek Live Recordings 1989-1996 | Album Review | Fellside | 16.07.11

Recorded over a six year period, Fellside’s compilation of archive live recordings by one of Britain’s most enduring and best loved folk duos, captures Carthy and Swarb in fine fettle, with a dozen songs and tunes borrowed from Dave Swarbrick’s own personal archive.  These recordings were made at amongst others, the Hitchin Folk Club, the Cedar Cultural Centre in Minneapolis and a couple of festivals in both Germany and Australia, with a good cross section of material from the duo’s vast repertoire, not only from Carthy and Swarb’s familiar collaborative body of work but also one or two from Carthy’s own solo canon.  While “Dominion of the Sword” captures that moment in the late 1980s, when Carthy delivered some of his most passionate politically motivated anti-war lyrics, incorporated within this 17th century ballad and performed here about a year after the release of Carthy’s mighty fine Right of Passage solo album with Dave embellishing the recording with some intuitive mandolin playing, “Porcupine Rag” demonstrates the duo’s sense of fun, with the inclusion of a false start here, familiar to anyone who has witnessed these two musicians in action over the forty-odd years of on/off collaboration.   The songs cover a broad range chronologically, with the inclusion of “Broomfield Hill”, which first appeared on Carthy’s debut LP in 1965, again with Swarb on mandolin, “Arthur McBride” and “Peggy and the Soldier” from Carthy’s second LP, to the more contemporary (at the time of recording) “The Sheepstealer”, from the Life and Limb period, which the duo clearly enjoy playing judging by this recording.  With insightful sleeve notes by Fellside’s Paul Adams, Walnut Creek brings with it yet another taste of arguably one of the finest unions in British folk music.

The Carrivick Sisters | From the Fields | Album Review | Self Release | 17.07.11

South Devon’s Carrivick Sisters’ fourth album in just about as many years comes with a good deal of anticipation since 2009’s Jupiter’s Corner, the album that earned the twins some much deserved recognition on the bluegrass/old time music scene.  Charlotte and Laura have a gentle approach to their music and in the way they promote it, never brash nor over confident, rather quiet and unassuming.  They get up there and play and we sit and listen while effortlessly marvelling at the sheer dexterity of it all.  On this album we need look no further than Charlotte’s blistering guitar solo on “Today is a Good Day” for proof of that dexterity.  From the Fields shows their meteoric progress as first rate players in a field that by its nature cannot be faked.  You can either play bluegrass or you can’t and these players certainly can.  With ten self-penned songs and the one instrumental, together with a lone traditional song, “Early, Early in the Spring”, arranged and edited by the twins, The Carrivick Sisters present their own brand of roots music, which has its own distinctive sound.  Alternating between guitar and mandolin, fiddle and dobro, sharing out the lead vocals equally across the songs, often augmented by some fine sibling harmonies, Charlotte and Laura capture a unique blend of American bluegrass and old time mountain music with a certain and unmistakable Englishness, especially with their Devon-inspired original songs.  The songs are written in such a traditional style, that at times it’s hard to differentiate between what is traditional and what is contemporary.  The themes are mostly rural and involve dangerous liaisons with farmer’s sons and hired men and precisely how pear-shaped things can go if the hay cart is placed under the wrong window, to local stories set in the idyllic landscape of Bodmin Moor.  Charlotte and Laura also hint at a couple of familiar concerns that affect creative artists and performers these days, with Charlotte’s “Song of the Night”, which reflects upon those particular songs that come to us in the night, only to be forgotten by morning and Laura’s notes on some of the more negative aspects of being on the road in “If I Had Time”, with the gorgeous line “If I had time I’d meet the minds behind the faces in the places I pass through”.  It really can be a life viewed through the window of a speeding car sometimes.  With Joe Rusby behind the desk, Charlotte and Laura are joined by Eleanor Cross on double bass throughout, together with guest appearances by BJ Cole, providing some of his distinctive pedal steel on “You’ll Miss Her When You’re Gone” and “When the Birds Start to Sing”, Matt Crum on melodeon on “Flowers With Jamie” and not least John Breese and David Kosky on banjo and guitar respectively on the instrumental “The Mouse, the Bird and the Sausage”, a tune named after Charlotte’s favourite story from Household Tales by the Brothers Grimm.  Still in their early twenties, the twins have demonstrated with this album, something we have known for a while, that the Carrivick Sisters are not only heading in the right direction, but that they may have just reached their destination.

Jimmie Vaughan | Plays More Blues Ballads and Favorites | Album Review | Proper | 20.07.11

While we had to wait a good nine years for Jimmie Vaughan’s last solo album, Blues, Ballads and Favourites released in 2010, the follow up comes hot on its tails less than twelve months later with more of the same; another selection of classic songs, once again recorded in the Bluesman’s hometown of Austin, Texas.  With the cover shot remaining the same, this time going from yellow to green and with the addition of the fine slender figure of one Lou Ann Barton promoted to almost duo status here with her name emblazoned on the cover, the record could once again have been recorded in the 1950s, judging by its unmistakably authentic post war R&B feel and vintage sleeve design.  It’s like discovering an old juke box stocked up with gems from another era.  With more than a passing nod to his musical hero Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson, the Texan guitarist brings more ‘sneer-like’ guitar licks, while backed by a tight band and horn section, who deliver each song with a deep respect and mature understanding of the genre.  Lou Ann Barton once again is there to duet with Vaughan, this time on the late Bobby Charles’ “No Use Knocking”, Annie Laurie’s “I’m in the Mood for You” and “Breaking Up is Hard to Do” – not the twee Neil Sedaka hit I hasten to add, but the Jivin’ Gene and the Jokers R&B classic.  Other songs awarded the Jimmie Vaughan treatment include “Big Sambo” and the House Wreckers’ “The Rains Came”, Webb Pierce’s “I Ain’t Never”, Ray Charles’ “Greenbacks”, Hank Williams’ “I Hang My Head and Cry”, Jimmy Liggins’ “Teardrop Blues”, the aptly named Nappy Brown’s “Cried Like a Baby”, Jimmy Reed’s “I Want to Love You”, Amos Milburn’s “Bad Bad Whiskey” and the list goes on.  The album closes with a live version of Faye Adams’ “Shake a Hand”, with Vaughan introducing the singer he met when she was just 18, and from whose performance that night he has never quite recovered from ‘Star time for Lou Ann Barton’ he announces.  Absolutely.

Paul Wassif | Looking Up, Feeling Down | Album Review | Black Brown and White | 09.08.11

This is a treat for guitar enthusiasts everywhere.  Enticing both Eric Clapton (aka Slowhand, aka God) and Bert Jansch (aka Bert, aka God), into the studio at the same time is probably something that is seriously well overdue.  Both are celebrated guitarists, one known for being a rock and blues pioneer, especially when it comes to the electric guitar (Fender or Gibson), while the other is known to millions of guitarists who have ever tinkered with an acoustic guitar in the folk genre.  Here they are together for the first time, invited to collaborate on a couple of songs with mutual mate Paul Wassif.  This is Paul’s debut solo album after stints with The London Cowboys and various members of the New York Dolls.  Looking Up, Feeling Down gets back to basics with some delightfully bluesy acoustic guitar, with two songs featuring Clapton and Jansch together, Big Bill Broonzy’s “Southbound Train” and Wassif’s own dreamy “Please Don’t Leave”.  The Bert Jansch connection doesn’t end there by any means.  On “Build Another Band”, a Jansch original, familiar to those who recall with affection Bert’s Santa Barbara Honeymoon period, Wassif re-designs this mid-1970’s calypso as a Californian freeway radio-friendly foot-tapper, providing the album with more than a suitable opener.  Then, tantalizing the Jansch aficionados further, Wassif sneaks in a pretty faithful version of the traditional “Rosemary Lane”, a ballad synonymous with Jansch, who probably in turn nicked it from Anne Briggs.  The folk and blues fare is pretty evenly balanced with a beautifully crisp take on the traditional “900 Miles” together with swamp-soaked arrangement of the Delmore Brothers’ “Blues Stay Away From Me”, which comes across as more JJ than Cale himself.  There are two instrumentals, both composed by Wassif, the Jansch inspired “Preacher’s Trick” and the title tune “Looking Up, Feeling Down” that closes the album, both demonstrating an understanding of understatement.  Joined by Robin Clayton on double bass, Evan Jenkins on drums and Seamus Beaghen on Hammond, together with contributions from Lynn Glaser, David Watson, James Watson and Steve Counsel, Looking Up, Looking Down is a fine and mature debut, not just for guitarists, but for everyone.

Diana Braithwaite and Chris Whiteley | Deltaphonic | Album Review | Electro-Fi | 10.08.11

With roots in southern Florida and Kansas respectively, Toronto-based blues duo Diana Braithwaite and Chris Whiteley present a feast of 1930s and 1940s blues with ten originals penned by the duo together with Tampa Red’s “It Hurts Me Too” and the old Al Lewis/Helmy Kresa classic “It Was a Sad Night in Harlem”, famously performed by Duke Ellington’s Band featuring the voice of Ivy Anderson.  Following the duo’s two previous Electro-Fi records Morning Sun (2006) and Night Bird Blues (2008), Deltaphonic brings a feast of authentic sounding blues, complete with ‘wailing harp, soulful voice and slide guitar’, all the ingredients referenced in the album’s title.  With Whiteley’s pedigree, being taught and encouraged by legendary guitarist Lonnie Johnson, together with stints with Leon Redbone and Blind John Davis and Diana’s musical liaisons with the likes of John Lee Hooker, Mel Brown, Albert Collins and the late Jeff Healey, there’s a rich musical heritage to draw upon and the duo don’t waste a note in the process of re-creating an authentic blues feel.  With Chris taking care of harmonica, trumpet and all the guitars, occasionally ‘making some noise’ as on “Cool Cat”, with its screeching feline wah-wah, together with Diana’s soulful voice throughout, the duo are joined by Mike Archer on bass, Lindsay beaver on drums, Phil Skladowski on baritone sax, Jesse Whiteley on piano and Hammond organ, Jonathan Wong on tenor sax and Kala Braithwaite providing additional vocals on “Shake Blues”.  Deltaphonic provides more than just a souvenir of what we are likely to hear on their imminent tour of the UK.

Tom Russell | Mesabi | Album Review | Proper | 11.08.11

No one draws their characters quite as well as Tom Russell. A quick wander through the sprawling back roads of Hotwalker is testament to that.  Just as the dust settles in the blood and candle smoke of Russell’s last release, which had me wondering momentarily if I’d actually stumbled upon a career best at the time, out comes another thirteen songs, plus a couple of bonus tracks, that once again offer a cinematic view of the American landscape with equal brilliance to its predecessors.  Mesabi’s characters are mostly real, often forgotten (almost), but legendary nevertheless, from the young man from Duluth, whom Russell cites as the inspiration behind him becoming a songwriter in the first place, to the troubled Hollywood actor Stirling Hayden; from the child actors Bobby Driscoll and Liz Taylor to Cliff Edwards, the voice of Jiminy Cricket, also known as Ukulele Ike.  The pool of flawed characters is just as wide and varied as the endless vaults of celluloid reel cans where most of them now reside, forever.  There’s something almost touching about the way Russell brings these characters to life, from the desperately sad tribute to the tough guy actor, tortured by ratting on colleagues during the 1950s McCarthy witch hunts, in Sterling Hayden to Bobby Driscoll, the legendary voice of Peter Pan and Treasure Island star, who became just as washed up as Long John Silver’s missing leg in “Farewell Never Never Land”.  There’s also the jaunty eulogy to a ‘funny little frog-faced man’ in “The Lonesome Death of Ukulele Ike”, a touching tale remembering the man who sang “When You Wish Upon a Star”, incorporating the grand idea that no one actually dies if they play the ukulele.  Can you imagine a world like that?  While “When the Legends Die” reminisces on thoroughbreds and rodeo movies, other legends are paid tribute to in “Furious Love”, which is presented as a short but sweet vignette remembering Liz Taylor and “A Land Called ‘Way Out There’”, which references the fateful day upon which Donald Turnupseed gained a bruised forehead, while James Dean entered the Kingdom of Hollywood Heaven and became forever young.  Once again Russell provides a mariachi feel throughout, courtesy of Jacob Valenzuela’s trumpet and Joel Guzman’s accordion, together with other notable appearances by Van Dyke Parks, Calexico and Gretchen Peters’ unmistakable voice on “Goodnight Juarez”.  Lucinda Williams also joins Russell with her familiar tortured and cracked vocal for a fine duet on Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, one of the two bonus tracks on the album, together with the title song to the Monte Hellman film Road to Nowhere.  Just before the two bonus tracks that close the album, Russell finds himself alone in the studio for a sublime solo performance of the album’s true closer, the optimistic “Love Abides”, which once again reveals the brilliance of Tom Russell’s inimitable song writing.

Rod Picott | Welding Burns | Album Review | Welding Rod | 11.08.11

Rod Picott’s seventh album release Welding Burns features seven new original songs from the pen of one of Americana’s outstanding voices, together with three co-writes with long-time collaborator Slaid Cleaves.  Recorded in Nashville, Welding Burns turns to the ordinary blue collar working man, the trials and tribulations, the ups and downs, the world of Buicks and Oldsmobiles; you can almost hear the sound of sheet metal being forged in the valley.    Once again teaming up with Amanda Shires on fiddle and vocals, whose intuitive playing perfectly complements Picott’s songs, the pair are further joined by a team of musicians that includes Will Kimbrough on guitar, David Henry on organ and mandolin, Alex McCollough on pedal steel, Paul Slivka and Lorne Rall on bass, together with Paul Griffith and Tommy Perkinson sharing drum and percussion duties.   Co-produced by Picott and David Henry, the songs create a world dominated by the ordinary American landscape, inhabited by carpetbaggers and sheetrock hangers, 410 shotguns and Mossbergs, welding burns and little scars.  Life can be tough and Picott tells it as it is with all the assurance of an acute observer.  Alongside the gritty reality of ordinary life in such as the title song “Welding Burns”, there comes moments of tenderness with “Jealous Heart”, “Still I Want You Bad” and the gorgeous “Little Scar”.  “Your Father’s Tattoo” is perhaps Picott’s “Randall Knife”, an honest and perhaps less sentimental homage to his father than Guy Clark’s.    

Rosie Carson and Kevin Dempsey | Between the Distance | Album Review | Self Release | 12.08.11

Singer/guitarist Kevin Dempsey, known through his work with such notable bands as Dando Shaft, Whippersnapper and Uiscedwr, together with fruitful collaborations with such diverse outfits as The Marvelettes, Percy Sledge and more recently Joe Broughton, has teamed up with young American singer/fiddler Rosie Carson to create a fine example of transatlantic musical unity.  Following hot on the heels of the duo’s debut The Salty Diamond (2009), recorded on that occasion in Newport, Kentucky, this second helping Between the Distance was recorded in Coventry and offers a healthy mix of traditional songs and tunes, each demonstrating the duo’s intuitive musicianship and fine vocal credentials.  With Rosie’s fiddle and Kevin’s guitar, banjo and oud for the most part, the duo are joined just on a couple of tunes by Chris Leslie on mandolin and Gareth Turner on melodeon on “The Skipping Lambs” and “Chanter’s March” respectively, otherwise the album is exclusively the work of these two outstanding musicians, separated by a generation and maybe a culture, but certainly not by musical ability.  The songs are shared out equally between the two singers, “The Emigrant’s Farewell”, “The Wild Flowers” and “Peg and Awl”, each featuring a fine vocal performance by Rosie, while Kevin emotes in trademark style to “Handsome Molly” and “A Week Before Easter”, while providing some fine banjo accompaniment to Rosie’s interpretation of “Rain and Snow”.  The fiddle tunes such as “The Scottish Concerto/Chanter’s March” and “Jenny Picking Cockles / The Skipping Lambs” each demonstrate some fine uncluttered arrangements. Re-visiting a live favourite, the Dempsey/Polly Bolton collaboration “All For You”, previously aired on Dempsey’s jazz-infused mid-80s The Cry of Love LP and often heard as a Dempsey solo showcase during some of those much missed Whippersnapper appearances, features a new arrangement incorporating the fiddle tune “Dr Gilbert’s Fancy Concert Reel”.  Dempsey’s love of soul music is further investigated with the inclusion of Curtis Mayfield’s “You Must Believe Me”, featuring some fine harmony singing from the duo.

Peatbog Faeries | Dust | Album Review | Peatbog Records | 12.08.11

This sixth studio album from Dunvegan’s instrumental Celtic fusion band Peatbog Faeries once again pushes the boundaries of what we perceive as Celtic music. Drawing upon jazz, rock and traditional Scottish fiddle music, and then interlaced with a fair share of pulsating electronica and trance-like dance rhythms; this latest hour of original material comes over as daring, experimental and ground breaking.  Those are the positives.  The negatives may be that it all comes across (to some) as if listening to The Boys of the Lough or Ossian, as a baseball cap speeds by with his windows down, sharing those familiar pulsating techno toons from the oversized bass bins in the boot, while brooding over how much the car insurance has just cost.  That’s a bit Luddite possibly, but if electronic dance music is not your thing on the dance floor, it’s hardly going to be your thing in the armchair.  Having said that, there is no doubt as to the technical wizardry and skill going on here, largely due to Peter Tickell and Peter Morrison’s composition credentials and their dexterity on the fiddle and pipes and whistles respectively, together with the band’s prowess at arrangement, the band being credited thus on all eleven tracks.  Joining the two Peters are Tom Salter on guitar, Graeme Stafford on keyboards, Innes Hutton on bass, guitar and bodhran and Stu Haikney on drums and percussion.  There are a couple of special guest appearances in the form of Jarlath Henderson providing uilleann pipes and Paul Templeman on steel guitar, with a brass section of Rick Taylor on trombone and Nigel Hitchcock on sax.  The composition titles are probably insignificant, despite each having a story to tell. I doubt whether Tickell’s “Passport Panic”, a title dreamed up after some visa problems Peter had en-route to the States, has anything remotely to do with the music.  Nevertheless, naming instrumentals does bring character to the compositions and titles such as “Fishing at Orbost”, “Marx Terrace” and “Calgary Capers” does give us a sense of place.  Peatbog Faeries are a vibrant live band, who bring much excitement and a fair deal of adrenaline to their performances and on Dust some of that immediacy has been captured. Perhaps the real acid test for Dust would be to pop it on at the next party and see what happens.

Fearing and White | Fearing and White | Album Review | LowdenProud Records | 13.08.11

Stephen Fearing and Andy White celebrate a thirteen year friendship with thirteen co-written songs for this their first album together as a duo.  Both songwriters have built up a vast repertoire in their own right over the years, collectively knocking out almost twenty albums between them, while both ploughing their own individual musical fields at the same time.  Fearing and White is also the inaugural album to be released on the Calgary, Alberta based LowdenProud Records label.  The Canadian/Irish link has been fundamental to the duo’s relationship, White being a native of Belfast and Fearing raised in Dublin, both eventually meeting at the Winnipeg Folk Festival in 1998.  The distance between the two songwriters geographically has grown as far as possible in subsequant years with White now living in Melbourne, Australia and Fearing settled in Halifax, Canada, but over the last ten years they have managed to meet up each year in order to write together.  This album is the result of that song writing partnership, both sharing a similar folk troubadour attitude, together with a shared sense of melody and solid song-craftsmanship base.  This may be in part due to the fact that each musician was raised on a healthy diet of Beatles albums, and it doesn’t get more melodic than that.  “You Can’t Count” on Anybody Anymore demonstrates this well, as does “Heart O’the Morning”.  Fearing and White share the acoustic guitar playing on each of the songs with Stephen contributing some fine electric and resonator guitar and Andy taking care of the bass, the McCartney Höfner type judging by the cover shot, together with some pump organ and vibes.  With the only additional contribution by Ray Farrugia on drums and percussion, the album has a crisp acoustic sound throughout.  Recorded at Scott Merritt’s Guelph studio in Ontario, the thirteen original songs provide a healthy set list for the duo’s forthcoming UK and NI shows in October/November 2011.

Brooks Williams | Live Blues EP | EP Review | Red Guitar Blue Music | 13.08.11

Live EP from Statesboro-born blues singer/guitarist Brooks Williams, recorded at the Crawley Blues Festival in 2010.  The six songs here range from a pretty faithful interpretation of “Statesboro Blues”, written by fellow Georgia bluesman, albeit from an entirely different generation, Blind Willie McTell, Piedmont blueman Blind Boy Fuller’s “Weepin’ Willow Blues” and Mississippi John Hurt’s “Louis Collins”, to a couple of Williams originals, “Frank Deandry” and “Walk You Off My Mind”, both featured on Williams’ most recent album Baby-O.  Now relocated to Cambridge, Brooks has been playing extensively in the UK this year, bringing his own distinctive take on the blues to a variety of audiences up and down the country.  It’s not the type of blues that appeals only to blues aficionados, bluesheads and the downright depressed, not at all; there’s a more universal appeal to Williams’s songs, which have an uplifting feel to them, “Frank Delandry” for instance.  Armed with his faithful National Estralita and Collings OM, Williams plays with an informed assurance, taking command of both instruments, especially on his instrumental version of “Amazing Grace”, which is played with an uncharacteristic sneer.  Credit also to Simon Scardanelli, who has managed to capture Brooks Williams’ vibrant live sound.

AL Lloyd | Bramble Briars and Beams of the Sun | Album Review | Fellside | 13.08.11

Beautifully packaged two-disc collection of thirty-three traditional English ballads from one of the architects of the 1950’s British folk revival.  Based mainly on Francis J Child’s English and Scottish Popular Ballads, Bert Lloyd recorded several volumes of these songs, which were never released in the UK.  Fellside now present these recordings on Bramble Briars and Beams of the Sun, together with an impressive 56-page booklet written by Vic Gammon, former director of the Folk Music Degree course at Newcastle University.  The collection is packed with familiar ballads, each performed unaccompanied by Lloyd and no doubt heard performed by many of the singers who have frequented this country’s many folk clubs and festival stages in the subsequent six decades; singers as diverse as Martin Carthy, Bob Dylan, Nic Jones, Anne Briggs and The Watersons to more contemporary singers and musicians such as Martin Simpson, Jackie Oates, June Tabor and Bellowhead, songs as popular as “Scarborough Fair”, “Lord Bateman” and “The Unquiet Grave”, but also lesser known ballads such as “Robin Hood and the Bold Peddlar”, “Six Dukes Went A-Fishing” and “Herod and the Cock”.  Any singer with enough bottle to get up, raise their head and their voice to deliver an unaccompanied Child ballad in a public arena, would do little better than to have a listen to this collection of songs, each delivered by a singer who knows his song well before he starts singing.

Hedy West | Ballads and Songs from the Appalachians | Album Review | Fellside | 13.08.11

The three Hedy West albums produced by Bill Leader for Topic in the mid-1960s, Old Times and Hard Times (1965), Pretty Saro and Other Appalachian Ballads (1966) and Ballads (1967) are all re-issued here in this special budget-priced two-disc release through Fellside.  Fellside’s Paul Adams is at pains to point out that his label is not a re-issue label and continues to be proud of the work the label does in order to bring to our ears new and contemporary singers and musicians.  But because these particular LPs had such an impact on the young folk enthusiast in the late 1960s, it seemed almost criminal that no one was re-issuing such valuable recordings as these.  To put Hedy’s popularity in context, the year that saw the release of the first of these recordings, 1965, saw Hedy play the first ever Cambridge Folk Festival, billed a line above The Watersons, but several lines below the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem.  Hedy’s clear singing voice and distinctive banjo style would become a major influence on the young Martin Simpson, who would go on to record some of the songs included here, such as “Beaulampkin”, which appeared on his debut album Golden Vanity and “Gambling Man”, which opens this collection.  The forty-one song collection, which also includes “Fair Rosamund”, “Little Matty Groves” and “The House Carpenter”, together with half a dozen unaccompanied songs including the hilarious “My Good Old Man”, comes with a 20-page booklet with editorial contributions by Paul Adams and Ken Hunt, with the original sleeve notes and song descriptions, together with one or two photographs including the front cover of the April 1965 edition of Sing magazine.  Essential listening.

Girls Guns and Glory | Sweet Nothings | Album Review | Lonesome Day | 15.08.11

The fourth album by Girls Guns and Glory, a band formed in 2005 by Scituate Massachusetts-born Ward Hayden, brings a taste of hard rocking honky tonk music with eleven new and original songs.  Joining a body of work that includes Fireworks and Alcohol (2006), Pretty Little Wrecking Ball (2007) and Inverted Valentine (2008), Sweet Nothings continues to draw on the influence of such revered artists as Hank Williams, The Everly Brothers, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly and Little Richard, with a similarity to Dwight Yokum’s distinctively nasal vocal and penchant for a good twangy guitar sound.  Produced by Paul Q. Kolderie (Radiohead, Uncle Tupelo, Lemonheads) and Adam Taylor (Sarah Borges, Portugal The Man) Sweet Nothings sees Hayden joined by a strong band of musicians including Chris Hersch on guitar, Michael Calabrese on drums and Paul Zaz Dilley on bass, who between them capture and re-create the sound of country rock and rockabilly at its rawest.  The band also invites a handful of guest musicians to the party, including Sarah Borges (of Sarah Borges and the Broken Singles) to duet on Hayden’s “1,000 Times”.  After the raw rockabilly of the title song, the sneering guitar licks of “Snake Skin Belt” and the rock anthem credibility of the album’s opener “Baby’s Got a Dream”, the album closes on a reflective note with the soulful “Universe Began”.  Judging by the inner sleeve photographs, each band member has been graced by a little tattoo motif embellishment in the form of Cupid and the Devil by way of a broken heart and those essential wild wild women.  This may or may not sum up the lifestyle of the band, but it’s certainly a reflection of the music within.

The Woodshedders | O Dig | Album Review | Shepherds Ford | 16.08.11

Second album release from Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia-based quartet The Woodshedders following 2009’s Catch That Yardbird. O Dig is difficult to categorise simply because the music on it is so diverse.  Once we settle into the standard alt-country opener “Badger Blood”, a number that has all the necessary ingredients to create a veritable Saturday night frenzy on the dance floor, along comes “Narwhal”, which owes more to Django Reinhardt and the Hot Club of France, with some stunningly dextrous gypsy guitar and fiddle sparring courtesy of Dwayne Brooke and Dave Van Deventer respectively.  This is how it goes throughout the album, each song bringing an entirely different rhythm from the reggae of “Slipping Through”, the swing time jazz of “Viper James” to the all-out rap of the final song “Chicken to Change”, which gives an indication of what the world would’ve been like if Stephane Grappelli had recorded with Eminem.  The band, also featuring Ryan Mayo on bass and Jesse Shultzaberger on drums, have labelled this new direction Indie Roots Americana, which just about covers it.  The band are joined by a whole host of guests on this album including Danny Knicely on mandolin, Gaven Largent on dobro and guest vocalists Aimee Curl and Morgan Morrison offering their own distinctive voices to this collection of songs, especially on the jazz ballad “Swallow’s Wings”, together with Melissa Wright who joins the band on the opening song “Badger Blood”.  O Dig is one of those albums that effortlessly encourages the listener go out of their way to see the band live at the earliest convenience.  

Wendy Arrowsmith | Life, Love and Chocolate | Album Review | Wee Dog | 17.08.11

Is there a better subject for an opening song on a record than chocolate?  “Sweeter by the Day” incorporates a delicious chorus, where we are encouraged to dip our dreams in chocolate in order for them to grow sweeter by the day, which is all well and good until we discover the song’s real message, a lament for those affected by chocolate factory closures, sadly gone the same way as all our other industries.  Glasgow-born singer-songwriter Wendy Arrowsmith follows her previous albums Now Then? (2007) and Seeds of Fools (2009), with a new collection of songs, some self-penned, others traditional or arrangements of contemporary songs, but each with a distinctly traditional feel.  The mood of the album is maintained by a handful of choice musicians and singers including one of the busiest musicians on the folk scene Katriona Gilmore who plays fiddle, viola, mandolin and provides some backing vocals, along with Marjorie Paterson on cello, Will Pound on harmonica, John Bushby on whistle and pipes, Caroline Bushby on harp, Malcolm Bushby on fiddle, P.J. Wright on slide guitar, Sarah McQuaid providing vocal harmonies on a couple of songs, Harry Scurfield on concertina, Roy Schneider on mandolin, Jude Rees on soprano sax, Paul Arrowsmith on banjo and Gerry McNeice on double bass and tenor guitar, who also produces.  One or two songs here have come from the tradition taking the shortest route, “The Southern Girl’s Reply” for instance, which was learned from the singing of Jeff Warner, whose mother collected the song, which was originally a poem set to a Civil War marching tune.  The American feel is highlighted by Paul’s banjo picking.  Wendy’s own songs are imbued with a strong sense of the past and are likely to be mistaken for traditional songs, “Riding Officer” and “The Lass O’ Gowrie” for instance.  Wendy also wanders effortlessly into gospel territory with the engaging “Moody’s Waltz”, referencing Charles E Moody’s gospel standard “Drifting Too Far From the Shore2.  There is a bonus track tagged on to the end, “The Visitor”, which brings the sea faring folk of North Yorkshire’s coastline vividly to life, incorporating a good strong shanty chorus; an ideal chorus for those currently preparing for Whitby Folk Week.  With informative sleeve notes and lyrics, bound in a handsomely designed booklet, Life, Love and Chocolate should be taken with a nice cup of tea and of course, a selection of soft and creamy truffles with highly lickable ganaches.

Walter Strauss | Planet Solitaire | Album Review | Redstone | 18.08.11

Virtuoso guitarist Walter Strauss brings something extraordinary to his guitar playing as he continues to explore World influences such as the West African music of Guinean band Ba Sissoko, Malian kamal’ngoni player Mamadou Sidibe and fellow Malian, the kora player Mamadou Diabate.  Transferring these complex pieces onto just six strings is no mean feat; the results are astonishing.  Having spent many years honing his craft as a sideman and session player, working alongside such artists as Vassar Clements, Martin Simpson, Corinne West and Alex de Grasi, Strauss embarked on his solo career with Pulling Shadows (2005), which demonstrated the work of a distinctively original guitar player.  If the first album leant towards jazz, incorporating the assistance of several musicians from around the world, this second and very much solo release certainly owes more to a healthy World influence with a rich tapestry of diverse sounds.  Strauss explores the fret board with an ardent acquisitive curiosity.  If the instrumentals hint at the places the guitar has never before ventured, the songs also have a curious innovation about them, exploring uncommon time signatures and ambitious subjects.  “The Salamander” for instance, views the world through the eyes of a woodland amphibian.  “Ishi” tells of the last surviving member of the Native American Yana people, who survived forty-years hiding in the foothills of Mount Lassen in California before reluctantly integrating himself into modern society.  Such songs have a curious appeal.  Along with several traditional West African pieces such as “Djeli”, “Soutoukou” and “Djimbaseh”, Strauss also includes something closer to home, selecting a handful of verses from a sprawling Woody Guthrie song “The Great Historical Bum” as well as paying homage to one of the most notable British musicians to embrace World Music very early on, George Harrison, with a spirited instrumental version of the Sgt Pepper classic “Within You, Without You”, which captures the beauty of the actual melody of the song, which we suspect was probably overlooked in 1967.

Jessica Lawson | Molly of the Tyne | EP Review | Paper Plane | 18.08.11

West Yorkshire-based Jessica Lawson sees the autoharp as the perfect accompanying instrument for her voice, a confident voice imbued with a sometimes brooding nature, ideally pitched for the subjects she writes about.  The five-track Molly of the Tyne EP is just a snapshot of what Jessica is all about and presents an early indication of the potentially promising future she might have in music.  Each of these story songs are self-written in a traditional style with themes ranging from the sea, love, loss and war.  The title song, which closes the EP was almost an afterthought, being recorded in one take at the end of the intended four song recording session, featuring Jessica on guitar and Rachel Brown on cello.  The other songs, all featuring the wistful sound of the autoharp, include “County Sligo”, “Collier Girl”, “Lakeland Rover” and the lilting “Lorelai”, an up-tempo chorus song with an infectious refrain that not only invites communal singing, but almost demands it.  Each song is performed with authority, despite Jessica’s eagerness to point out that she is not a collier girl, nor does she have a “Lakeland Rover”.  Jessica is joined by Mark Waters on bass, Rachel Brown on cello, Ed Simpson on drums and Dan Webster on guitar who also produces.

Simon Stanley Ward | Myself To Blame | Album Review | Self Release | 26.08.11

Unafraid to level with us right from the get go, this 24 year-old London-based British Country singer confesses that he’s not the real thing, whatever that’s supposed to mean.  In “American Voice” he tells us that he has no credentials; that he’s a fake and a phoney, but he appears to have taken to wearing a cowboy hat nevertheless and judging by the cover of this debut EP, it seems to suit him just fine.  Simon Stanley Ward is not an American, nor is he a real cowboy, but there again neither are most Country singers.  I doubt if many of those hats in Nashville have ever slapped a horse.  With these six self-penned songs, each performed with a distinctive voice and an assured delivery, what does it really matter?  Produced by multi-instrumentalist Arthur Rathbone Pullen who also provides keyboards, bass, drums and additional guitar, Myself to Blame provides a refreshingly raw take on the current Americana scene; borrowing in places from mid-1960’s period Dylan, “Stand in the Rain” and “Homesick” both slightly reminiscent of “Outlaw Blues” for instance, or the final song, “The Seven O’clock Alarm”, a tongue-in-cheek mournful blues, which almost stands as a pastiche of Townes Van Zandt, with a surprisingly hilarious finale, that I’m sure would have made the legendary Texan smile.  If we needed any further proof of the country ‘credentials’ that this singer-songwriter claims not to have, then look no further than the excellent “Behind Closed Doors”.

Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion | Bright Examples | Album Review | Ninth Street Opus | 27.08.11

The songs on Bright Examples are unsurprisingly literate, in view of the fact that one half of this husband and wife team is a direct descendant of Woody Guthrie (granddaughter) while the other is the grandnephew of Nobel Prize winning author John Steinbeck.  What is surprising is just how melodic these twelve songs are.  Contemporary in feel, Bright Examples brings together a dozen songs chosen from a highly prolific repertoire, each individual song chosen simply because they each go well together as a whole, suggesting that the other songs waiting in the wings are just as good; possibly for another occasion.  Following the duo’s debut Exploration (2005) and their additional side project, the children’s album on Smithsonian Folkways, Go Waggaloo (2009), featuring three previously unheard songs by Woody Guthrie, this new album brings together the combined talents of The Jayhawks singers Gary Louris and Mark Olson, Vetiver drummer Otto Hauser, Neal Casal on guitar and piano, Charlie Rose on pedal steel and Rad Lorkovic on keyboards.  The San Francisco/Vetiver connection is further established with the joint production team of Andy Cabic and Thom Monahan behind the desk.  The majority of the songs on the album are from the pen of Irion, with a couple of Sarah Lee Guthrie compositions included such as the soulful Seven Sisters and the atmospheric “Butterflies”, each creating an almost ethereal dreamy quality. There’s clearly a Neil Young influence throughout the album, especially on the title song “Bright Examples”, which cannot possibly be a bad thing.  The one song writing collaboration between the duo, “First Snow”, co-written with Louris, demonstrates an understanding of fine melody writing as does Irion’s stunning “Target on Your Heart”, one of the album’s stand out songs.  Discovering the guitar while acting as her dad’s road manager (Arlo Guthrie) in 1997, Sarah Lee and husband Johnny have found a special place for their music, which has a similar devotional quality to that of Kris and Rita or Gram and Emmylou. 

Catherine MacLellan | Silhouette | Album Review | True North Records | 27.08.11

This eagerly anticipated fourth album from Canadian singer-songwriter Catherine MacLellan comes hot on the heels of Water In The Ground (2009), her first release on True North Records, which in turn followed two independent releases, Dark Dream Midnight (2004) and Church Bell Blues (2006).  The fourteen songs on Silhouette, which was recorded in the idyllic and secluded surroundings of a cabin in a rural area of Prince Edward Island where Catherine was born and brought up, each have a gentle relaxed quality to them, especially on such songs as “Now and Then”, “Lines on the Road” and “Trickle Down Rain”.  The jazz-tinged “Old Tin Can” provides a lilting counterpoint to some of the more sensitive songs, the gorgeous “Same Way Again” for instance.  Ten of the songs on the album are self-written with the one co-write, the uplifting “Stealin’”, which has been selected as the first single release, co-written by the album’s co-producer David Baxter.  There is also the one cover, a family treasure for which Catherine is joined by Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy on a stripped down version of her late father Gene MacLellan’s memorable “Snowbird”, best remembered for providing Anne Murray with her first worldwide hit in 1970.  Joined by a team of musicians including Chris Gauthier on guitars, Remi Arsenault on bass, Reg Ballagh on drums, Jason Sniderman on keyboards, Burke Carroll on pedal steel and Jadea Kelly providing additional vocals, Silhouette joins an impressive body of work, the standard of which shows no sign of abating.

Anna Coogan | The Wasted Ocean | Album Review | Self Release | 28.08.11

It’s barely eighteen months since Seattle-based Anna Coogan released her debut solo album The Nocturnal Among Us in 2010 although it seems that so much has happened in the meantime.  With a busy touring schedule, which saw Anna cross the Atlantic for a handful of shows in the UK to promote that album, her follow up, The Wasted Ocean arrives just in time for her return to these shores.  Taking advantage of a brief spell of ‘underemployment’ and jet lag from that long year of touring, Anna found herself returning in spirit to the years she spent as a fisheries biologist, and in particular the evenings singing shanties around a campfire after a day’s studying salmon populations in Alaska.  With this in mind, Anna began writing the songs for this new album inspired by the ‘haunting tales of shipwrecks and isolation’ found in those old songs.  “Come the Wind, Come the Rain” is probably the closest song on this new album to capture the atmosphere of those evenings around the campfire.  This hypnotic draw to the sea, which has all the romantic feel of a mariner’s return, has provided Anna with the basis for this new collection of songs.  Rich in atmosphere, Anna’s distinctive voice is clearly at the helm of this voyage, a voice imbued with a unique strength and frailty both at the same time, indicating a sense of determination and vulnerability in equal measure.  The captain of this vessel is joined by first mate Evan Brubaker on a variety of instruments including bass, who also produces, and a fine crew consisting of Colby Sander on banjo, dobro and mandolin, Brooks Miner on Hammond, Eyvind Kang on viola and violin, Daniele Fiaschi on guitar, Darrin Watkins and Eric Hastings sharing the drum seat and some fine backing vocals courtesy of Edie Carey.  All songs are self-penned apart from “Streamers”, from which the album finds its title, credited to both Coogan and Brubaker, “Blood on the Sails” by Phil and June Cloclough and Dick Swain, together with an atmospheric reading of Phil Ochs’ highly personal “Crucifixion”, which the 1960s songwriter used to compare the deaths of both Jesus Christ and JFK in order to illustrate the apparent ‘cycle of sacrifice’, which is an inspiring choice for this record.  Prophetic in its nature, the song does seem to reflect on this on-going trend we as humans have of creating our own heroes, only to destroy them when they reach their peak.

Lisa Marie Glover | Einzelkind | Album Review | Self Release | 28.08.11

There’s something of a Laura Veirs about Leeds-based singer-songwriter Lisa Marie Glover.  Following on from her 2007 debut Tea In The Sky, these ten new self-penned songs on Einzelkind (German for ‘only child’, which Lisa is), have a similar quality; perhaps reminiscent of that distinctively natural singing style, which emphasises character rather than polish, or maybe just in the atmosphere this artist manages to capture in her often quirky melodies.  Produced by Peter Scott, who also contributes bass, guitar, piano, percussion and ‘other random noise’, the songs each are treated to some pretty sharp production with a crisp acoustic sound interspersed with the occasional sound effect, which adds to the character of the whole.  Daring in places, Lisa’s sense of humour shines through, with one or two moments of fun during the recording of the album, deliberately left in thankfully.  Well-travelled, Lisa packs a lot of experience into these songs, partially due to her widespread globe-trotting, which has taken her from the bars and clubs of Stockport and Manchester to Barcelona, Cambodia, Thailand and Buenos Aires and even picking up the sax to play in both an Egyptian band and a UB40 tribute band, frequently seen at gigs in the bars of Salford.  No instant X Factor type easy ride then for this thoroughly engaging singer- songwriter, who appears to have paid her dues musically speaking.  Equally at home with jazz standards and covers, each played in her own distinctive style, it is with the original songs that we discover Lisa’s originality.  If songs like “Self Destruct” and “Grey” venture into the darker recesses of Lisa’s soul, “Calculator”, “Mad Mary” and “Wasting Time” provide an instantly memorable counterpoint in their off the wall appeal.  Joined by Sarah Stratham on additional guitars, Tom Armstrong on drums and Kirsty Louise Brinn providing backing vocals on a few songs, Lisa Marie delivers a refreshingly original and thoroughly compelling album.  

Water Tower Bucket Boys | Where the Crow Don’t Fly | Album Review | Self Release | 29.08.11

With four albums released in just over as many years, this four-piece Portland-based revivalist outfit continue to deliver their high octane bluegrass sound with the energy of a 1970’s punk band.  At times sounding a little like The Band, partially due to Kenny Feinstein’s vocal, which bears an uncanny resemblance to Rick Danko (circa the good years), the Water Tower Bucket Boys have taken their music from busking on street corners to playing concert halls on both sides of the Atlantic.  There’s certainly a blurring of styles evident in their music, which borrows from various traditions as broad as bluegrass, blues, Cajun, folk and country with a healthy dose of punk attitude.  Where The Crow Don’t Fly presents five original songs demonstrating a range of styles from the bluesy “Pilgrim Song”, which sounds as authentic as anything on those old Doc Watson records, the old-time string band influenced “Walkin’ the Road”, to the more sensitive side to Fienstein’s song writing in the EP’s closer “R Song”.  With Feinstein on guitar, keyboards and mandolin, Cory Goldman on banjo, Josh Rabie on fiddle, guitar and harmonica and Kyle McGonegle on upright bass, the band not only show their ‘chops’ instrumentally but also demonstrate some fine three-part harmony singing, especially on “Easy Way Out”, which also features Caleb Klauder on drums.  As the boys embark on their extensive UK tour, this EP will no doubt serve the band well up and down the country.

Circus Envy | Secrets | Album Review | Blue Book | 08.09.11

This second album release from East Yorkshire-based folk quintet Circus Envy follows their well-received EP release A New Dawn (2010) and once again presents a flavour of the band’s growing reputation as a fine live outfit. With Leigh Hirst on vocals, James Paddison on bass, piano and vocals, Mike Richmond on bouzouki, guitar and mandolin, Andy Clark on guitar and flute and Mick Harding on drums, percussion and vocals, Circus Envy deliver a dozen well-crafted songs that straddle the borders of folk, roots and MOR pop.  Largely self-penned, the album also includes two re-workings of Hull-based traditional folk songs, “Betsy Watson” and “Three Score and Ten”, both respectfully treated in both performance and arrangement.  Some of the original songs are given a distinctly Celtic feel, “Say Something” for instance, with accessible melodies that draw a fine line between folk and pop.  With Stu Hannah and Andy Bell helping the band with their production and engineering skills, the songs sound vibrant and fresh, maintaining an easily recognisable ‘sound’ throughout.

Jonny Kearney and Lucy Farrell | Kite | Album Review | RabbleRouser Music | 08.09.11

With Kite, Jonny Kearney and Lucy Farrell’s debut full length album, we should prepare ourselves to enter another world of musical possibilities altogether.  Following their earlier EP, The North Farm Sessions, this new collection of songs is once again produced by The Unthanks’ very own Adrian McNally at the Northumbrian farm house he shares with his wife Rachel Unthank and their son George.  The Newcastle-based duo have delivered dozens of haunting support spots, opening for the Mercury-nominated band and introducing those audiences to some of the magic that has now been captured on this new album.  With the duo themselves being nominated for the 2011 Horizon Award at the BBC Folk Awards, Jonny and Lucy have been garnering a growing fan base, creating a quietly unassuming stage presence, while at the same time performing some highly original songs.  From the opening bars of “There’s a Disease”, we know this is no ordinary record.  While some of the songs address the darker recesses of Kearney’s soul, such as “Just Like the Old Days”, where the subject strays into the realms of Tales of the Unexpected territory, complete with spinning carousels and evil children, there are some moments of pure beauty.  You would have to go a long way to find a song as gorgeous as “Green Leaved Trees”.  Some of the brooding piano motifs that have made The Unthanks records and performances sound so distinctive, appear here, such as on Kearney’s A Dream, which I imagine is largely due to McNally’s involvement as producer.  Consisting mainly of Kearney originals, Kite also features two traditional songs in “Down in Adairsville” and Peggy Gordon, both of which see McNally credited as joint arranger.  Lucy’s own poetic “Winter Got Lost” is given a suitably sparse string arrangement, which at no point overshadows Lucy’s fine vocal.  With a couple of jaunty pop tunes included, Stand-Up Show and Call Yourself a Friend of Mine, both of which demonstrate an informed sense of melody, the album closes with a retelling of the children’s nursery rhyme Jack and Jill, in which Jonny and Lucy make something special out of what could potentially be a disaster in other less sensitive hands. In fact this is where this duo’s strength lies; making something pretty simple sound so incredibly complex and appealing.  With contributions from Chris Hibbard on trombone, Paul Ruddick on sax and clarinet and Peter Tickell on fiddle, together with further contributions from the Unthanks stable, Chris Price on ukulele, Dean Ravera on double bass and Adrian McNally on piano, Kite stands out as a fine and assured debut.   

Fiona Cuthill and Stevie Lawrence | A Cruel Kindness | Album Review | Fellside | 12.09.11

With a shared love of both traditional music and rock music, Rallion’s Fiona Cuthill and Stevie Lawrence have found some time in their busy schedule to record their first duo album.  The thirteen songs and tunes on A Cruel Kindness reveal their combined passion for the music and bring together their mutual understanding of composition and arrangement, drawing from their collective experience as members of several outfits over the years including Cruachan, Rallion, Iron Horse, Whirligig, Real Time and Canterach.  With Fiona’s fiddle and Stevie’s guitar very much to the fore, the duo create a richly accomplished acoustic sound on a number of self-composed tunes, such as “61 Stairs” and “The Peisey Bubble” as well as transforming something as unexpected as Jethro Tull’s “Locomotive Breath” into a gentle jazz workout.  While some of the tunes are inspired by the traditional music of Scotland, others venture into a mixed bag of other influences.  “Norwegian Set” for instance, includes a couple of tunes inspired by Norway, “Gjetost” and “Norwegian Tune”, but also name checks one of the most exciting bands to emerge from Quebec, Le Vent du Nord, sandwiched between the two Norwegian tunes.  Likewise “Fez Set” adds another obvious flavour to the duo’s repertoire, with some difficult time signatures, while also demonstrating a sense of humour, evident in Stevie’s naming of the final tune “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Fez!”  The album also features some instantly recognisable harmonica playing by Fraser Spiers, one of the most distinctive sounds around, spicing up the jazz-inflected “Sleepless in Sleat” while emoting gently on “Waiting for Dawn”.  With a handful of other respected musicians including Brendan McCreanor on ulleann pipes and whistles, Rachel Hair on harp, Wendy Weatherby on cello and Celine Donoghue on banjo, A Cruel Kindness arrives as an impressive debut by a remarkable duo.

Chris Stout’s Brazilian Theory | Live in Concert | Album Review | Chris Stout Music | 12.09.11

The annual Celtic Connections Festival in Glasgow, which kicks off the UK festival calendar prides itself on bringing together diverse musical forms with often interesting results.  In 2010 Shetland fiddler Chris Stout (Fiddler’s Bid/McKay and Stout) teamed up with regular musical partner and harpist Catriona McKay, together with Brazilian guitarist Carlinhos Antunes and Swiss-born violinist/saxophonist Thomas Rohrer to perform some of the music originally explored in Sao Paulo in 2003 with Orquestra Scotland Brasil.  Stout’s yearning to return to Brazil in order to further explore in more detail the collaborative potential between his own traditional fiddle roots and Roher’s traditional Rabeca, the Brazilian equivalent, saw the formation of Quarteto Original, from which much of this recording is inspired.  With the help of Ian Stephenson on guitar and melodeon, Rui Barossi and Neil Harland sharing double bass duties and Martin O’Neill on bodhran, the musicians congregated at Glasgow’s City Halls for a memorable concert featuring music composed by Stout, Antunes, Rohrer and Gabriel Levy.  Captured in full flight by Niall Macaulay, the Latin rhythms are plentiful, particularly on the opening Latina, a piece composed by Antunes dedicated to the Argentinean mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, which brings the struggles against military dictatorship to life in music.  The cascading fiddle and rabeca sparring captured in “Baiao de Cinco” demonstrates an almost organic liaison with the traditional music of two continents.  With dual language sleeve notes, the handsomely bound album captures just one night of innovative music, which further confirms Stout’s credentials as a fine collaborator and innovator in experimental traditional Scottish music.  

Robert Brown | Road Dog | Album Review | Topers Rant Records | 12.09.11

Sandwiched between two versions of the title song, the first with full band accompaniment, the second a very much stripped down to essentials acoustic version, the songs on this debut are presented with an assured confidence, demonstrating the potential importance of this emerging talent.  Road Dog presents half a dozen songs from an artist who is equally at home with sensitive acoustic songs such as “Ocean of Stars” and “No Fool Like an Old Fool”, as he is with radio friendly pop ballads like “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Turn So Bad”.  The two versions of “Road Dog” included here demonstrate Brown’s confidence in the studio and also what we could expect in a live solo setting.  With a colourful background, which includes having toured from an early age with jazz giant Dick Heckstall Smith and American funk rock band Blast, to actually witnessing a promoter being shot, it has to be acknowledged that Robert Brown has served his rock and roll apprenticeship.  Having travelled extensively, while at the same time eliciting the attention of a diverse range of artists from the likes of Lulu and Ronan Keating to the equally surprising Alice Cooper, Robert Brown delivers a fine introduction to his work with this mini album.  

Brothers Reid | Top of the Old Road | Album Review | Fat Hippy | 12.09.11

A fine debut from Aberdeen-based brothers Michael and Christopher Reid, who along with Grant Anderson on bass, Rory Comerford on fiddle, mandolin, guitar and keyboards and Alan Haste on drums, deliver a fine album of nine self-composed songs, each with a distinctively memorable hook, from the rock-fuelled “Done and Dusted” through to the bluesy title song which closes the album.  Recorded at Uncle Tom’s Studio in Aberdeen with Paul Emerson at the controls who also contributes keyboards, Top Of The Old Road presents some high-energy rockers, while at the same time maintaining an acoustic rootsy feel throughout.  With some Wishbone Ash type duelling guitars on the opening song, some flirtatious country blues licks on “Farmboy Blues” and some familiar Nina Simone-esque bass runs throughout the Celtic rock driven “City Lights”, the Brothers Reid have demonstrated some promising potential in this assured debut.

Society | A Crooked Mile | Album Review | Self Release | 12.09.11

After the first few bars of “Wheels a Turning”, it’s easy to forget that this band is just a trio; The Band in their heyday had five members and Society make the same sort of noise, in fact “Martyr’s Avenue” is probably the best song that The Band didn’t record.  If it’s easy to forget that Society is a trio, it’s equally easy to forget that they are also British.  Once this album is spinning, coupled with its predecessor Songs From The Brickhouse, it’s difficult to think of anything other than Levon Helm and his pals wandering around Woodstock in the rain, dressed as extras in some American Civil War movie.  It would be an injustice to linger too long upon this comparison as Society have much more in their bag than just a similarity to one of Americana greatest bands.  This West Sussex trio may pack their record with the sort of music that turned important musical heads back in the late 1960s, but they maintain a contemporary feel at the same time, which would hopefully turn the heads of a younger generation.  With Matt Wise on guitar, Ben Lancaster on bass and F Scott Kennedy on drums, the trio are joined by a handful of guest musicians including Spencer Cullum and Chris Pritchard on pedal steel, Ben Davies and James Batchelar on keyboards and Pat Kenneally on melodica and piano, who together sufficiently fatten out the sound on these eleven Wise originals, each arranged by the band.  There’s little evidence in songs such as “Light of the Morning” or the banjo-led Davey of the band’s British roots even if you were to take DNA samples from them.  Rooted firmly in a style of music that crossed America as fast as Jack Kerouac’s car a decade earlier, from the tight harmonies heard in the post-summer of love retreats of Laural Canyon to the country rock of the autumnal Woodstock mountains in Big Pink, A Crooked Mile brings those distinctive sounds back to life with authority and seemingly little effort.  Another gem from the UK’s finest Americana band.

Red Sky July | Red Sky July | Album Review | Proper | 14.09.11

The now familiar and ultimately more accessible technical aspects of demo sharing was largely responsible for the inception of this debut album by husband and wife team Shelly and Ally McErlaine.  As a basic track travelled the relatively short distance via email from Texas guitarist Ally McErlaine’s computer to his wife Shelly’s PC upstairs, the start of something special began.  A common method of sharing musical ideas these days, the track originally called “Pretty Thing” arrived in Shelly’s inbox, which was soon transformed into the opening song on this new eponymous album and “Morning Song” became the inspiration for this new collaboration.  Involved in music from an early age, being the daughter of Brian Poole of The Tremeloes fame, Shelly is not only joined by her husband, but also by friend Charity Hair, formerly of The Alice Band and The Ailerons.  The project, which was named Red Sky July, was almost immediately called to a halt as Ally suffered a major illness a couple weeks prior to the planned recording of these songs, putting him out of action for a year.  Fortunately with a full recovery, the project eventually went ahead and the twelve tracks on this album are testament to that level of self determination.  Recorded live in Bristol and produced by Rory Carlile, the songs on Red Sky July are both gentle and lyrical with an almost mysterious feel, from the alt-folk opener “Morning Song”, the country-inflected “Already Gone” to the almost celestial “White Feather”, with its immediately engaging heavenly chorus.  There’s also a thoroughly uplifting closer, “The Happiest Girl in the Whole USA”, which presumably reflects precisely how these musicians feel about life after what must have been a very difficult couple of years for all concerned.  Pretty much used to singing with another voice through her work with sister Karen in Alishia’s Attic, one of the album’s strong points is the vocal harmonies between the three singers.  With some delicate instrumental arrangements throughout, courtesy of McElrlaine’s intuitive ear and low key never-in-your-face guitar playing, Red Sky July comes across as a highly listenable and soulful debut. 

Elbow Jane | The Boldest Blood | Album Review | Fellside | 14.09.11

Merseyside quintet Elbow Jane return to Fellside for the follow up to 3-Side Island, which helped the band gain the reputation they thoroughly deserve.  With live appearances that reveal a band that resembles a bunch of favourite cousins returning from their travels to entertain the whole family, young and old, with infectious personalities, cheeky but clean humour and more importantly, great songs, the band’s tight sound once again transfers well onto disc, with the help of Fellside’s Paul Adams.  The worst jibe this reviewer ever heard about Elbow Jane is that they’re ‘just a boy band’.  Well Merseyside has produced good boy bands since the 1960s and I don’t recall that being a bad thing.  With a rich acoustic sound incorporating mandolins and bouzoukis with the usual complement of guitars and keyboards, Elbow Jane have a further trump card in Richard Woods’ instantly recognisable voice.  Rich could quite easily have a successful solo career if he was daft enough to leave this band.  The majority of the songs are written by Woods, either solo or in partnership with keyboard player Kev Byrne.  The band also boasts Joe Topping, another of the band’s songwriters, recently awarded as Acoustic Magazine’s ‘Songwriter of the Year’, who provides the title song here as well as the beautiful “Not That Hard To Find” and country ballad “Throw Me To the Wind”.  With a dozen new songs The Boldest Blood is an instantly accessible album with equal attention paid to the vocal harmonies as well as the clear acoustic instrumentation.  The alternating lead vocal duties keeps the listener engaged throughout, with literate stories borrowed from Greek fables for instance, using as a metaphor the story of Icarus to indicate our inevitable return to earth once we’ve reached our respective heights in “Ode To Icarus (Falling From the Skies)”, to Kahil Gibran’s The Prophet with “Hand of Life”, written jointly by Woods and Byrne.  With a handsomely bound sleeve, together with 12 page booklet complete with handwritten lyrics and sleeve notes as well as the optimistic official slogan ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’, Elbow Jane are equipped with something special to accompany them on their forthcoming tour.  Catch them if you can.

Rita Hosking | Burn | Album Review | Self Release | 19.09.11

We are immediately up to speed as to where Rita Hosking is coming from in the opening lines to “Something You Got”, where the singer not only name checks Johnny and June Cash, but also Van Morrison as well, citing all three as pretty much the ideal place to start when it comes to writing a good love song.  On this, Rita Hosking’s fourth album to date, the American landscape is explored in eleven original songs, from the excitement of the Burney Demo Derby in both “Crash and Burn”, from where the album’s title derives and “My Demolition Man”, which opens with a short sound bite reflecting the car-dominated sleeve artwork, to the ‘war on the working man’, exemplified in songs such as “Ballad For The Gulf of Mexico” and the dignity of work in the beautiful “When Miners Sang”.  The songs are dominated by a voice that means business; a voice that has all the necessary passion and soul to deliver these songs, but maintains an earthy from-the-land quality.  Whether singing about the important issues such as mill and pit closures to something as mundane as washing dishes, this Californian singer-songwriter keeps the listener engaged simply by having the ability to tell a good story.  Produced by Rich Brotherton, Burn features Glenn Fukunaga on bass, Tom Van Schaik on drums, husband Sean Feder on dobro, banjo and percussion, Andy Lentz on fiddle and Marty Muse on pedal steel and lap steel.  Rita Hosking will be visiting the UK once again in October, accompanied by Michael Chapman.

Nick Lowe | The Old Magic | Album Review | Proper | 19.09.11

It’s been a while since Nick Lowe’s last album, the widely acclaimed At My Age (2007), which seemed to acknowledge Lowe’s status as an elder statesman of British song writing.  Long gone are the youthful days of Lowe’s involvement with pub rock, punk rock and what was then known as the new wave, through his pioneering work with the likes of Brinsley Schwarz, Rockpile and Elvis Costello, to make way for a more mature approach to writing songs; although it has to be noted, there is a cheeky little mention of ‘peace, love and understanding’ on “House For Sale”.  On “Checkout Time”, Lowe admits “I’m sixty-one years old now, Lord I never thought I’d see thirty”, which is a reasonable thought, after such a busy career, which also saw musical liaisons with the likes of The Damned and Dr Feelgood, Ry Cooder and John Hiatt and personal relationships with Carlene Carter, which in turn saw some collaborative work with Carter’s step dad Johnny Cash.  You get the feeling that although Lowe has never quite reached the lofty heights of his peers, he has always been there somewhere in the background.  Lowe’s original songs on The Old Magic, some of which occasionally come across as old time crooners, such as “I Read a Lot”, with a string arrangement courtesy of Norman Bergen, have a timeless quality to them.  “Stoplight Roses” and “Sensitive Man” could indeed have been written in the same Brill Building that Bergen would frequent in the late 1950s, which is in turn testament to Lowe’s command over a good melody with that all important hook.  With a couple of covers including Elvis Costello’s “Poisoned Rose” from his magnificent King of America period and Tom T Hall’s classic “Shame on the Rain”, Lowe includes the one co-write, featuring writing partner in this instance Geraint Watkins on organ with “Somebody Cares for Me”, which is guaranteed to get your feet shuffling, if not quite tapping.  Produced in collaboration with Neil Brockbank and Robert Treherne, Lowe is also joined by Steve Donnelly on guitar, Johnny Scott on guitar and Matt Radford on double bass with both Brockbank and Treherne contributing vibraphone and drums respectively.

JT Nero | Mountains Forests | Album Review | Self Release | 19.09.11

Anyone fortunate enough to have caught either Po’ Girl or JT and the Clouds in concert will know this new venture to be a match made in Heaven.  JT Nero, also known as Jeremy Lindsay, teams up with Po’ Girl’s Allison Russell for a beautiful collaboration featuring the musicians from both of their respective bands, including Benny Sidelinger, playing a bunch of his own self-built instruments no doubt, Mikey ‘Lightning’ August on drums, JT’s brother Drew Lindsey on keyboards, Dan Abu-Absi on guitars and mandolin and Christopher Merrill on drums.  JT’s original musical partner Michelle Mcgrath also provides guitar as well as that all important third voice.  From the opening few bars of the title song “Mountains/Forests” we know we’re onto a good thing.  The ten JT originals each are treated to soulful arrangements, with the three inimitable voices very much to the fore. Recorded over a three day period in Wisconsin, Mountains/Forests features songs that could have been written decades ago, even referencing at one point Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” in the title song and Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey” in “Roll Tide”, certainly from an entirely different era.  The songs are often surreal with JT concerning himself more with the sonic feel than the lyrical content.  Once heard, you’ll never quite forget the electric seahorses or for that matter the “Elephant King”. 

Annabelle Chvostek | Live From Folk Alley | Album Review | Self Release | 23.09.11

This first live release from one of Canada’s outstanding songwriters, Annabelle Chvostek’s Live At Folk Alley features ten songs performed in front of a live audience at New York’s BluSeed Studios in 2010.  With a fair amount of between song banter, which goes some way towards introducing us to her infectious personality, especially those who haven’t managed to catch Annabelle in concert yet, together with a selection of memorable songs, you get the distinct impression that this entire concert was performed with a great big smile upon her face.  Kicking off with one of her most familiar songs, “Devil’s Paintbrush Road”, which originally appeared on her Burn My Ass EP in 2004 going on to become a mainstay in the Wailin’ Jennys’ repertoire, Annabelle dips into a healthy repertoire of self-penned songs along with one or two well-chosen covers, gearing the guitar, fiddle and mandolin to her own specific needs, which may at times mean playing the fiddle like a ukulele.  Performing entirely solo, Annabelle creates an intimate atmosphere, which the audience apparently responds well to judging from the reaction, especially on the closing number “I left My Brain”, which at times becomes so enthusiastic, Annabelle almost burst her sides.  From the Radiohead-esque “Madonna Loves Me” and the gently exquisite “Piece of You” to fine interpretations of The Velvet Underground’s “Some Kinda Love” and Peter Tosh’s uncompromising protest song “Equal Rights”, Annabelle performs confidently and with a seasoned assurance.  Towards the end of the set, Annabelle invites requests from the audience, which ranges from “Wait For It” and “The Sioux” to a call for ‘a new one’, which the singer dutifully obliges by performing all three in quick succession, the new one being “Hartland Quay” a song inspired by her travels in the UK and in particular the ‘crazy’ coastline of Devon.

Steve Tilston | The Reckoning | Album Review | Hubris Records | 23.09.11

We all come to music in different ways.  Sometimes we are unlucky enough to have our ‘first impressions’ marred by an uncharacteristically poor performance, thus putting us off a particular artist for good; at other times we may just be in the right place at the right time.  The first time I took any particular notice of Steve Tilston was when I was doing the sound for him at a club gig a good few years back.  The one thing I noticed on that night was that his very distinctive guitar sound and his equally distinctive voice went together like milk and honey, strawberries and cream, Tom and Jerry (choose your own coupling and insert it here).  The point is they go together well and are rewarded with a third important contributory factor, the songs themselves.  So good is this perfectly formed threesome, I have often wondered why GPs don’t prescribe Steve Tilston records to patients in order to soothe their pain.  The Reckoning opens with a song that is far more effective than a couple of pills and a glass of water and is certainly a good antidote to the dreary morning papers.  “This is the Dawn” should be wired into alarm clocks in order to set us up for the day ahead; there’s even birds chirping away towards the end of the song, for those unfortunate enough not to have the real thing pecking at their eaves at first light.  Okay, I make no apologies for being a Steve Tilston fan and it has nothing to do with Fairport Convention.  The dozen or so solo albums up on the shelf, sandwiched between cds by his daughter Martha and erm.. Travis, is testament to that.  There’s even a few LPs on the lower shelves, including a pretty rare gatefold second record The Collection, with a cover shot of several Steves looking like David Cassidy’s wayward kid brother.  With The Reckoning, Steve once again delivers an album of smart self-penned songs, some of which owe a debt to the tradition, songs like “Nottamun Town Return” and “Weeping Willow Replanted”, with one or two fine and inventive instrumentals; a set of dance tunes entitled “Davy Lamp/Fruit Fly” and the bluesy “Ijna”, presumably a respectful homage to Davy Graham’s “Anji”, but in reverse.  If “Doubting Thomas” returns to standard Tilston fare, with his penchant for complex blues riffs underpinning some clever lyrics, on this occasion addressing the faith/science argument, “Memory Lane” provides the album with a veritable opus of a song.  Coming in at a little over eight minutes, the song meanders the winding lanes of the past, while incorporating a fine string arrangement courtesy of The Richard Curran Strings.  “Sovereign of Tides” on the other hand is to The Reckoning what “Within You Without You” is to Sgt Pepper, with some brilliantly atmospheric playing courtesy of Gus Taylor on accordion and djembe and David Crickmore and Hugh Bradley on tambour and tampara respectively, not to mention Steve’s sitar-influenced guitar and Indian vocal style.  With a cover shot of a rugged songsmith out on the wild and windy moors, peering back along the lane, like some modern day Heathcliffe, Steve Tilston returns to nature, while doing a little self-probing, some considered personal evaluation and, well, some reckoning I suppose.  

Various Artists | O Brother, Where Art Thou? Deluxe Edition | Album Review | Universal | 24.09.11

It is without question that the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou? brought bluegrass and other roots musics to a much wider audience, selling in excess of nine million copies and influencing an incalculable number of new singers and musicians who have since made their name in the Americana genre.  Not since Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde film of 1967 did we hear so many banjos on the soundtrack.  We tend to remember Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch’s contributions to the soundtrack, both of whose music became much more sought after in the wake of the movie release over ten years ago.  Who could also forget Alison Krauss’s Union Station band mate Dan Tyminski’s “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow”, under the guise of the ‘Soggy Bottom Boys’?  These and all the other songs from the original soundtrack release are here in the same order.  The deluxe edition features a dozen additional songs, recorded during the original sessions for the film but until now unheard, together with a couple of extra songs from the archives, The Kossoy Sisters with Erik Darling and their version of “I’ll Fly Away” and the work song “Tom Devil” by Ed Lewis and the Prisoners.  The previously unreleased songs include Colin Linden’s guitar instrumental “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues, the late John Hartford’s violin instrumentals “Tishamingo Blues” and “Hogfoot”, a couple of versions of “Big Rock Candy Mountain” firstly a piano instrumental by the legendary Van Dyke Parks and secondly a guitar instrumental by Norman Blake as well as a couple more bluegrass/gospel songs from The Cox Family, “Keep on the Sunny Side” and “In the Highways”.  Overseen once again by original producer T Bone Burnett, this deluxe edition celebrates ten years of growing enthusiasm for excellent period-specific folk music, which hopefully will introduce yet another generation to bluegrass, gospel, roots and Americana.

Will Scott | Keystone Crossing | Album Review | Weather-Tone | 24.09.11

New York-based singer-songwriter Will Scott returns with his third album release and follow up to Gnawbone (2009), which once again demonstrates a distinctively soulful alt-country Americana feel throughout.  Keystone Crossing sees Scott sharing much of the song writing credits with producer/guitarist Scrote, with further contributions from his partner, the British songwriter Jan Bell.  Opening with “White Water Rising”, a song set in the aftermath of a Southern Indiana flood, effectively sets the tone for the rest of the album, with “Derry Down” providing a mournful coda, acknowledging that nobody actually remembers “Derry Down” anymore, featuring a duet with guest vocalist Dayna Kurtz.  While Jan Bell’s heart-breaking “Right to Love” is performed with the soulful sensitivity of an Al Green classic, “Broken Arrow” owes more to the minor key sombreness of Townes Van Zandt.  Joined by a handful of seasoned session players, including Dave Palmer on keyboards, Ben Peeler on lap steel, mandolin and guitar, Dave Pilch on bass and Jerry Roe on drums, Scott maintains a rootsy gospel feel throughout, but nowhere more explicitly demonstrated than on his interpretation of Johnny Shines’ “You are the One I Love”, recorded with all the authenticity of a church gathering down by the river.

Mark Atherton | To Bring Me To You | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 27.09.11

This is the fourth album by Derbyshire-based singer-songwriter Mark Atherton, whose delicate approach to song writing and gentle, almost placid vocal style, creates a pretty laid-back atmosphere from the start.  The dozen original songs here include tender love songs such as “Look at Me”, “You and I” and the title song, which closes the album, together with a couple of instrumentals.  Well-travelled, Mark arrives at his music by way of a youthful diet of Ralph McTell, Donovan, Roy Harper, Al Stewart, John Martyn and Nick Drake on this side of the pond and Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon on the other, whose collective influence contributes in no small part to this blend of retro-in-feel selection of songs.  While some of the songs are reminiscent of those sensitive ‘slower’ numbers included in the repertoires of progressive rock bands of the early 1970s, such as “Something In Your Song” and the album opener “Along the Way”, there are one or two lighter moments, such as “Move on and Leave it Behind”, complete with ukulele and mouth trumpet solo and “Need Lovin’”, with the almost Beatle-esque middle-eight.  Mark’s wry observation on the meteoric rise of social networking sites and quick-fix celebrity making in the amusing “Twittering Away”, comes over almost as an homage to Ray Davies and The Kinks.  The two instrumentals included here are the ironically titled “Mark My Words”, which sounds for all intents and purposes like a theme tune to a 1970s light drama series, Randall and Hopkirk and the like, and “Classical Tune”, which is pretty much as it says on the tin, a piece of original music in a classical style.  Joining Mark is Martin Coleman on a whole orchestra of instruments and Ceri Ashton who plays violin.  

Tim Edey and Brendan Power | Wriggle and Writhe | Album Review | Gnatbite Records | 27.09.11

Two outstanding musicians on both the acoustic and Celtic music scenes and both of whom already have successful solo careers, Tim Edey and Brendan Power have joined forces in a feast of electrifying fun and musical dexterity for one of the most eagerly awaited collaboration albums since the duo jammed together informally at festivals earlier in the year.    New Zealand-born, now re-located to the UK, Brendan Power is regarded as one of the finest exponents of the chromatic and diatonic harmonica, whose session work has included stints with Van Morrison, Paul Brady and Sting and more recently Kate Bush, while Tim Edey is a renowned and gifted button accordion player, who has worked with an equally impressive roster of performers including Capercaillie, Sharon Shannon and Lunasa, and who also adds another string to his bow, well six strings actually, with his remarkable and equally important guitar work.  Whether it’s dazzling audiences with the sheer speed of their playing on such numbers as “Celtic Thunder/Kent to Kintail”, “Baltic Crossing” and “Maids of Mitchelstown/The Morning Star”, or on the astonishingly beautiful airs played with sensitivity and grace, such as Thomas Walsh’s “Inisheer” and Tim’s own “Why”, to the occasional blues in “V for Blues”, their common understanding of each other’s playing is just about as intuitive as it gets.  There’s also one or two songs featured in the set, including Tim’s faithful rendition of his old mate Enda McCabe’s “Winds and Tides Permitting” and Steve Cooney’s “Bless the Road”, together with Brendan’s own “Our Lady of the Road”, an almost tongue-in-cheek dedication to the ‘ladies’ who have become our constant road companions since we abandoned the road atlas in favour of more technological advances.  Self-produced by the duo and with no further instrumental assistance, Wriggle And Writhe serves as a monumental debut with a standard of musicianship that would be difficult to equal. 

David Ferrard | Journeyman | Album Review | Alter Road Records | 10.10.11

Produced by the same team who endeavour to make Karine Polwart’s records sound so good, David Ferrard’s third album showcases a dozen new self-penned songs that effectively take us on a journey through his past.  Maintaining the tradition of songwriters such as Woody Guthrie and Tom Paxton, the sweet-voiced singer delivers a handful of thought provoking songs covering such varied subjects as the war in Bosnia in “Wildflowers”, fragmented families in “Without a Daddy” and Alzheimer’s disease in “Till Death Do Us Part”.  Highly personal in places, some of the autobiographical songs address identity, such as “I Am an Immigrant (I’m From Here)” and “Childhood Days”, both of which serve as suitably concise explanations to those who still enquire as to where this Scotsman gets his American accent. Imbued with a robust social conscience throughout, Journeyman avoids judgemental preachiness but just tells it how it is.  The album closes with “The War Carries On”, an anthem to the futility of war, which is interweaved with Pete Seeger’s timely chorus of “Turn, Turn, Turn”.  Following on from his collection of Scottish and American folk songs on Across The Troubled Wave (2009), which it turn followed his debut Broken Sky (2008), Journeyman sees Ferrard teaming up with a stellar cast of musicians including Steven Polwart on guitar and ukulele, Kevin McGuire on double bass, Adam Sutherland on fiddle, Su-a Lee on cello, Kim Edgar on Rhodes piano and Mattie Foulds on percussion, who also produces.

Chloe and Silas | Spring Hill | Album Review | One Tree Hill | 11.10.11

It’s always difficult to imagine anything other than a brimming smile upon Chloe Hall’s face whenever she sings.  It’s that almost tangible enthusiasm that comes with each of her performances both on record and in a live setting that leaves you completely uplifted; good music for these times I reckon.  This Australian singer/songwriter’s previous three solo albums White Sky (2000), White Street (2005) and Outside (2009) served to supplement the transition period between those hard working folk troubadour days on Australia’s folk circuit, to pretty much international acceptance on the other side of the world, three albums that are now joined by a fourth, her first official duo album with fiddle player Silas Palmer.  With delicate arrangements and clear acoustic instrumentation, this completely uncluttered album features eleven Chloe Hall originals, some of which manage to make the mundane sound interesting, such as “Tax Office Love Song”, which is a soap opera of romance on the office floor, over by the photocopier.  Mundane maybe, but utterly engrossing nevertheless.  The songs bring a sense of hope to common suburbia, with songs about houses, some worse than others, songs about the seasons, songs about ordinary everyday things found in ordinary everyday drawers, as well as a nostalgic wander down memory lane in “Love Songs, Dedications and Requests”, an infectious and joyous celebration of music, a feeling instantly recognisable to anyone who ever sang into a hairbrush or played a tennis racquet.  Co-produced by Chloe Hall and David McCluney, Spring Hill, which also features Carl Pannuzzo on percussion, provides another insight into the world of this unique songwriter.

The Quiet American | Volume II | Album Review | Self Release | 12.10.11

With this fine mixture of familiar traditional songs and originals from the pen of Aaron Keim, otherwise known as The Quiet American, Vol II continues the journey originally set out in its 2009 predecessor.  On that record, Keim used an 1890s wax cylinder machine to re-create a distinctly authentic old time feel.  On this follow up, the multi-instrumentalist/singer is less concerned with an authentic sound and has instead created a fine contemporary roots record.  With just the one cover, a slightly speeded up take on M Ward’s “Carolina”, the originals such as “Whiskey Johnny” and “Break the Hold” sit so well against the traditional material, “KC Jones”, “When Death Come (Creeping in my Room)” and “Black Jack Daisy”, that it’s difficult to differentiate between the two.  With a couple of traditional instrumentals, “Spanish Fandango” and “Wandering Boy”, Keim continues to focus on maintaining an authentic feel with the instrumentation, despite coming up to date with the recording techniques, making good use of the banjo and ukulele and, oh go on then, the combined banjo uke.  Helped out once again by his wife Nicole on vocals, together with Katie Glassman’s fiddle and Neil McCormick’s bass, the Greg Schochet produced Vol II presents a filing dilemma for avid collectors; does it go up there with the Sam McGees or the Sam Amidons?

Cowboy Junkies | Sing In My Meadow – The Nomad Series Vol 3 | Album Review | Latent Recordings/Proper | 14.10.11

Part three in the intriguing Nomad series of albums, for which Canadian band Cowboy Junkies go all DIY, releasing four albums in quick succession on their own Latent Recordings label.  Following hot on the heels of Vols I and II, Renmin Park (2010) and Demons (2011) respectively, Sing In My Meadow gathers inspiration from a variety of sources from Miles Davis and Crazy Horse to The Birthday Party and Captain Beefheart, with predictable sneering guitar licks and wailing harmonicas.  The Timmins siblings Margo, Michael and Peter along with Alan Anton and regular collaborator Jeff Bird, billed as ‘musical guest’, join forces once again to record eight songs in a live-off-the-floor setting.  In an endeavour to recreate some of the psychedelic blues incursions the band are known for on stage, Cowboy Junkies appear to have freed themselves to grunge-out for the duration.  There’s a raw energy throughout, especially on the opening cut “Continental Drift”, “3rd Crusade”, “Hunted” and the ear bending workout “I Move On”.  Turn up the volume and have some fun.

Kevin Henderson | Fin Da Laand Ageen | Album Review | Sungaet Records | 14.10.11

Many fiddle based albums have found their way into the Northern Sky office over the years and I always seem to find it increasingly difficult to write anything about them, either profound, life-changing or even moderately worthwhile.  I think this has something to do with my aversion to records that endeavour to feature more fiddles and fiddle players than is actually necessary, which often leads me to believe that a lot of them are merely a bunch of fiddle pals having a bit of fun.  The balance of what’s good for the musician and what’s good for the listener erring on the side of the former.  I am however a huge fan of the single fiddle, being raised on a diet of Dave Swarbrick, Jean Luc Ponty and Martin Hayes to name but three.  Having led this review into some murky doubt as to my credentials as a Shetland fiddle album reviewer, I have to once again concede that I find the playing extraordinarily good here, with one or two beautiful pieces included, “Da Unst Bridal March” and “Da Brides A Boanie Ting” for instance, the latter being a tune I’d previously heard by the aforementioned Mr Swarbrick, which opened his Flittin’ LP back in the early 1980s.  We are instructed to file this cd under ‘Shetland/Traditional/Nordic/Folk/Celtic’ on the sleeve, which indicates the varied source of the tunes within.  Being a member of Fiddler’s Bid, Boys of the Lough, Session A9 and The Nordic fiddlers Bloc, Kevin Henderson is no stranger to the music and therefore brings a wealth of experience to this his debut album.  Henderson is joined by Swedish guitar and mandola player Mattias Perez, with his wife Nina Perez duetting on the final piece Minnie O’ Sirva’s “Cradle Song”, which bears a resemblance to the tune used for the popular folk song Joe Hill.  I reckon you could also file under ‘pretty tasty instrumental fiddle music’.

Carrie Rodriguez and Ben Kyle | We Still Love Our Country | Album Review | Ninth Street Opus | 14.10.11

Austin-based Carrie Rodriguez teams up with Belfast-born Ben Kyle for this fine mini-album, featuring six country standards and a couple of originals, Kyle’s “Your Lonely Heart” and the joint effort “Fire Alarm”, both of which sit comfortably alongside the more familiar songs, such as The Louvin Brothers’ “My Baby’s Gone” and John Prine’s “Unwed Fathers”.  Townes Van Zandt’s classic “If I Needed You” is also given a suitably tender arrangement with some delightful harmony singing fom the duo.  It would under normal circumstances be difficult to avoid comparison with Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris but even more so with the inclusion of the album closer, an almost carbon copy of Boudleaux Bryant’s “Love Hurts”.  By the duo’s own admission, this inspiration runs deep through this project, and who better to draw from?  Gram is also referenced in “You’re Still On My Mind”, the old Luke McDaniel song that became a hit for George Jones and then Gram Parsons via The Byrds during their celebrated Sweetheart of the Rodeo period. Joined by Luke Jacobs on pedal steel, Hans Holzen on guitar, Kyle Kegerreis on bass and Ricky Fataar on drums, Rodriguez and Kyle bring back to country music some of that old romantic and much missed sparkle.

Ahab | KMVT EP | EP Review | Navigator | 15.10.11

Ahab’s breakthrough has been long overdue.  With humble beginnings as the a.h.a.b. duo with Callum Anderson and Dave Burn, whose eponymous album was released in 2009, the expanded and renamed Ahab four-piece is now ready for what should be a promising career.  With Seebs Llewellyn and Luke Price now on board, this thoroughly engaging live band are just about ready to come of age.  With no short measure of youthful cheekiness and off-the-wall humour, together with a seriously tight sound, both in their acoustic instrumentation and their Eagles-like harmonies, Ahab have been steadily building their reputation as a force to be reckoned with.  With a featured spot at the 2010 Cropredy Festival under their belt, which helped forge a new and strong following, Ahab are just about ready to launch their debut album.  The John Lekkie (Radiohead, The Stone Roses, Bellowhead) produced KMVT EP will serve as a good intermediate taster of what’s to come with five live favourites including “Wish You”, “Call a Waiter” and “Where’s the One You Love”.

Paul Liddell | Milestones and Motorways | Album Review | Self Release | 15.10.11

Follow up to A Lighthouse Keeper’s Diary, which in turn followed Paul’s debut Sketchy Little People, this third full length album from singer-songwriter Paul Liddell is probably as near to a complete solo effort as is possible.  Paul plays all the instruments here, taking full control of all aspects of the process from the writing and performing to production and engineering.  With eleven original songs, Paul makes no effort to disguise his roots on each of the songs, with his distinct North Eastern accent clearly audible, which brings to those songs a particular identity.  With a clear guitar sound the album opens with the stylish “A Means to an End”, displaying his fine command over song structure and arrangement.  The album is contemporary in feel, utilising sampling gadgetry quite liberally and even including some beat boxing on “Trash”, broadening Liddell’s appeal amongst his audience.  The crisp guitar sound on such songs as “Christmas” and “Red Apple” provides a clear indication of what this performer sounds like in a live setting, something Paul is no stranger to having toured extensively both as a solo performer and with his band The Delphians.

Jim Stapley | Live | Album Review | Self Release | 15.10.11

Described as the ‘whippet-thin master of soulful blues rock’, this twenty-five year-old is possessed of the same spirit of the blues as the likes of Paul Rodgers, whether that be circa the Free or Bad Company era.  So much so, that the singer has been known to rattle out pretty faithful versions of “All Right Now” from time to time. The ten original songs on this live debut demonstrates a singer committed to the genre with each providing a snapshot of what we should expect from the singer next.  It’s not a perfect gig, such a thing probably doesn’t exist and there are one or two wobbles, but that’s what’s good about a true live performance.  You certainly get the feeling that the tapes have not undergone any studio trickery afterwards.  It’s a pretty raw recording.  Recorded live at The Bedford, one of Balham’s premier venues, Stapley is joined by Joe Corbin on guitar, Tommy Heap on bass and James Drohan on bass.  Among the blues rockers such as the opener “Without You” and “My Way Home” comes one or two gems such as the soulful “Let Me Down Easily”, the jazz infused “This Ain’t Livin’” and the anthemic “Somewhere”, each demonstrating that it’s not blues purist through and through.  Finally, if we still maintain that UK place names have no place in rock and roll, Tunbridge Wells gets a mention on “It’s All Over”.  Rock on!

Andy Steele | Night Fishing | Album Review | Talking Elephant | 23.10.11

Sounding in places like early Tim Buckley, while in others like John Tams (imagine that), Cheshire-born Andy Steele creates a breezy atmosphere with the songs on this album; the arrangements seemingly acknowledging more than a passing nod to retro-folk, while maintaining a thoroughly contemporary feel throughout.  Co-produced by Jez Wing (Echo & the Bunnymen), Night Fishing follows two contrasting albums, Land And Sea (2006) under the guise of Muddyhead and True Believers And The Guises Of The Weasel (2007), leaning much more towards a rootsy sound than previously.  Opening with “On Kentish Ground”, a song that is guaranteed to put a spring in your step, the ten songs and one instrumental maintain a strong melody focus throughout.  Don’t be surprised if you catch yourself whistling some of this stuff afterwards.  Having said that, the lone piano instrumental “Time to Run” might have you inadvertently straying into “Oops! I Did It Again” territory if you’re not careful.  Recorded in various places outside of the normal confines of the studio, such as hallways and kitchens, the songs are bathed in a natural sound, utilising the right instrumentation at the right time.  Those flurries of intuitive instrumentation are supplied by Jez Wing on piano, John Dowling on banjo, Roy Allum on drums, John Bennett on guitar, Hannah Peel on fiddle, Helen Maher on accordion and Russ Williams on double bass.

Jilly Riley | Organic Soul | Album Review | Self Release | 25.10.11

West Yorkshire’s Jilly Riley has been writing and singing since she was eight years-old, but has waited until her own eight year-old daughter began to follow in mum’s footsteps, singing together on the racial harmony single “I Don’t See Colours I Just See Faces”, before embarking on her long awaited debut album.  Chock full of hot buttered soul, influenced by everyone from Stevie Wonder and Sly Stone through to Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley, Organic Soul fuses soul, funk, ska, blues and latin in almost equal measure in order to produce an album that sounds like it came from anywhere in the world but South Elmsall.  A fervent campaigner, Jilly could easily have followed the traditional Joni Mitchell/Joan Baez route to get her message across as a protesting folk troubadour but chose instead to submerge herself in dance rhythms in order to feel the call of such conscientious endeavours as anti-nuclear power and war, the preservation of the rain forests and support of the Zapatista army in South America.  What is quite extraordinary about Organic Soul is that Jilly has made use of a variety of household objects to help create the sounds on the album such as a gravy tub for a shaker, a cd storage box for a drum, a speaker cover scraped with a plectrum in lieu of a guiro and for “Be Careful What You Wish For”, a whole percussion section made up from stuff from the kitchen.  Never has a wok sounded so good.  With a dozen self-penned songs, each exploring different musical territory from the funky “Cupid”, the jazz-tinged “E is for Evil”, the bluesy “Rock n Roll Devil” to the ska-infused “Freak”, Organic Soul poses only one problem, where to file it?  I think right there amongst the Curtis Mayfields where it should come out to play with equal regularity.

Blame Sally | Speeding Ticket and a Valentine | Album Review | Ninth Street Opus | 27.10.11

With this self-produced follow up to 2009’s Night Of 1000 Stars, San Francisco Bay area all-female quartet Blame Sally introduce another ten songs that indicate that the band might just be at the top of their game.  The band, which consists of Renée Harcourt on guitar, mandolin, banjo and vocals, Monica Pasqual on keyboards, accordion and vocals, Jeri Jones on guitar and vocals and Pam Delgado on drums, percussion and vocals, are a refreshing change from the norm with each of these four women appearing to have left behind their collective teenage angst a couple of decades ago, replacing it with a determined maturity with no small measure of passion and musical flair.  The album features a handful of melody-driven songs courtesy of Harcourt, such as the infectious “Living Without You”, the lyrics from which the album takes its curious title and the funky “Wide Open Spaces”, featuring guest musician Julie Wolf on Hammond B3 Organ, together with Pasqual’s comparably lyric-driven songs such as the album opener “Bird in the Hand” and the sublime “Mona Lisa Smile”.  The ten songs provide a contrasting flow throughout with one song “Pajaros Sin Alas” even performed in Pasqual’s mother tongue.  Harcourt’s “Throw Me a Bone”, previously aired on her own solo album Brilliant Addiction, once again captures the same sort of ethereal feel reminiscent of All About Eve’s early songs, while “Back in the Saddle” sees the group unite with the one jointly written song, which is perhaps a metaphor for the turbulent history of this remarkable band.

Wing and Hollow | Frozen Trees EP | EP Review | Self Release | 28.10.11

Delightful debut mini-album from Los Angeles-based Haven and Jill Lamoureux, otherwise known as Wing and Hollow, who effectively provide something of a taster of what should put us on until the full album arrives.   Eight songs then, all of which are easily accessible complete with great melodies and engaging vocal performances.  There’s something slightly haunting about these songs, which is possibly due to the sometimes melancholy feel.  Jill’s seemingly effortless vocal fits dovetail-like with Haven’s melodies on all of the songs but in particular on the stunning “Shadowman” and the equally impressive “So It Seems”, which is posibly the stand out track.  Produced by Dorian Heartsong and mixed by Jose Alcantar, Frozen Trees features Haven’s guitar and mandolin, Jill’s distinctive vocals, together with additional help from Mike Powers on lap steel, Jay Leach on pedal steel, Arlan Schierbaum on Hammond B3 and vibes, Devin Lawrence on harmonica and Jake Boxberger on vox, with Dorian doing the rest. With the duo curently busy working on their forthcoming album, their future looks bright. 

Jack Harris | The Flame and the Pelican | Album Review | Self Release | 29.10.11

With this latest release by Welsh-born singer-songwriter Jack Harris, the follow up to his 2006 debut Broken Yellow, we find ten mellow songs, each beautifully crafted and each in turn treated to an assured finger-picked guitar style and gentle vocal.  Gaining a reputation as a fine literate and compassionate writer and performer, being the first international act to win the New Folk songwriting competition at The Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas, which is in itself no mean feat, Jack Harris appears to be finding his place in a music that straddles continents.  Not only has his name been added to a list that includes Steve Earle, Gillian Welch, Lyle Lovett and Devon Sproule but it has ensured new audiences throughout the UK, USA and Europe, both as an outstanding support artist or indeed headlining his own shows.  There’s a sense of mystery in much of his songwriting, similar in fact to some of Eric Taylor’s material, the Texan singer-songwriter who produced Harris’s debut record.  Lyrically poetic, the songs reference both Lowell and Plath in “The Rehearsal”, from which the album’s title derives and the utterly haunting “Sylvia Plath’s Lullaby”, which maintains this air of mystery surrounding the poet, concluding with the notion that it’s better that we don’t actually know.  There’s further references to the American poetry world in one or two dedications, “The Rehearsal” being dedicated to Elizabeth Bishop and Red Weather being dedicated to Wallace Stevens.  With Harris’s guitar taking prominence throughout, a small collection of ‘players’ are assembled to help pepper the arrangements with Sean Mac Labhrai on tin whistle and flute, Simon Pedley on tin whistle, Tom Mann on piano, Lynn Flannegan on harp, Harry Mead on drums and Ellen Harris on harmony vocals.  A Sunday afternoon record, especially when it’s raining outside.

Diana Jones | High Atmosphere | Album Review | Proper | 29.10.11

The third album release from Diana Jones, which follows My Remembrance Of You (2006) and Better Times Will Come (2009), continues to draw upon the music and sounds of a bygone era, with a dozen personal songs from one of Nashville’s leading songwriters.  Dedicated to Diana’s late cousin Harold Lesher, High Atmosphere delivers a dozen songs, mostly written ‘on the go’ about people, places and situations that appear to reflect the singer’s recent experiences.  The album’s title for instance derives from several angles.  Borrowed from the title of an early 1970s Rounder record, the title reflects upon the time spent writing songs on planes while on tour but also refers to Diana’s optimistic story of surviving the Cumberland River floods due to having a ‘shotgun shack’ home up on a hill in Nashville.  High Atmosphere was therefore an almost obvious choice for the album title.  The songs at first come over as possibly dirge-like but have a certain optimism in their presentation.  There’s the over-protective big sister talking on “Sister”, which indicates the inherent scepticism and suspicion a good big sister would have when it comes to dealing with a younger sibling’s romantic liaisons.  Then there’s “Funeral Singer”, a song that developed from Diana’s frequent requests to sing at the wakes of dearly departed family members.  Even the one non-original song on the album, the traditional “Motherless Children”, deals with the hardships that orphans live through; it’s all pretty personal stuff.  Then, once you feel the songs couldn’t get any more personal, along comes the stunning “Drug For This”, which is performed by a singer who instinctively knows the empathy such a song is bound to attract; we’ve all been there.  Co-produced with Old Crow Medicine Show frontman Ketch Secor, High Atmosphere features a team of sympathetic musicians, with Secor on fiddle, guitar and banjo, Mike Bub on bass, Beau Stapleton on mandolin, bajo quinto and guitar, Aaron Embry on keyboards, Duke Levine on guitar. David Mayfield on guitar, Tommy G on drums and Michael Samis on cello.  Diana is also joined by Jim Lauderdale who shares vocals on the songs “Poverty”, “Funeral Singer” and “Motherless Children”.

Bill Bourne and the Free Radio Band | Bluesland | Album Review | Linus Entertainment | 31.10.11

With this first time collaboration with son Pat Bourne, whose electric guitar is prominent throughout, Alberta-based bluesman and multiple Juno Award nominee/winner Bill Bourne is on form on each of these eight cuts, with his distinct vocal cutting through like a razor sharp knife.  Some of the sweetest passages on the album however, come through the guitar sparring of Pa Joe and Pat Bourne whose complementary and contrasting guitar styles make an exciting and highly listenable blend.  What makes this work particularly well, is that Pat’s youthful wailing and often distorted guitar is kept back in the mix, while Joe’s sweet and smooth passages are clearly defined on top; this makes the arrangements on Bluesland particularly special.  With one traditional country blues song, “Columbus Stockade Blues”, presented here as a Saturday night juke joint foot-tapper, together with the one cover, Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm”, the eight songs include the outstanding “On the Sunny Side”, a soulfully drifting ballad incorporating some fine guitar playing, once again courtesy of Pa Joe and Pat Bourne.  Produced by Cowboy Dan the Riverman, the rhythm section is provided by Moses Gregg on bass and Miguel Ferrer on drums.  Bill’s frequent collaborations with the likes of Alan MacLeod, Shannon Johnson, Lester Quitzau, Madagascar Slim, Aysha Wills, Eivør Pálsdóttir, Wyckham Porteous and Jasmine ‘Jas’ Ohlhauser, clearly demonstrates a desire to explore several musical boundaries such as Blues, Cajun, Latin, Funk and World Beat, these explorations continue with the Free Radio Band and with this album.

The Sunshine Delay | Keep It Together | Album Review | Wrong Train Records | 01.11.11

It’s been a while since Edinburgh-based The Sunshine Delay released their debut album Outrageous Expectations (2004), which introduced the band to a wider audience with their country-inflected roots music.  Although Paula McNally’s name has changed (to McKee), nothing much has changed about her distinctive voice.  With Paula on acoustic guitar, husband David on bass and vocals, Iain Barbour on guitar and Brendan O’Brien on drums, The Sunshine Delay have kept it very much together over the last ten years and this long awaited follow up album delivers eleven new songs in timely fashion.  Recorded at The Depot in Edniburgh with Gerry Boyle at the helm, Keep It Together moves effortlessly between Scots Americana and indie pop, with easily accessible melodies and tight harmonies.  “King of the Small Town” even verges on nineties grunge almost breaking into “Smells Like Teen Spirit” at one point.  With contributions from George Stott providing additional guitar and mandolin and Ali Petrie on keyboards, The Sunshine Delay bring a little sunshine to these dreary November evenings.

Eric Taylor | Live at the Red Shack | Album Review | Blue Ruby | 03.11.11

I’ve shamelessly waxed lyrical about Eric Taylor for many years now, based upon the times I’ve met him, the times I’ve attended his shows and the times I’ve popped onto the player any one of the half a dozen studio albums the Texan singer-songwriter has produced over his thirty-year recording career thus far.  Not the most prolific recording artist in the history of music by any means but that hardly seems to matter, not when you consider the gems this Houston-based songwriter has written over the years.  The mention of Nanci Griffith, Lyle Lovett, Guy Clark, Steve Earle and the late Townes Van Zandt would be incomplete without mentioning Eric Taylor in the same breath.  An extraordinary storyteller, Taylor takes us on a journey with each of his live performances, comprising engaging stories interspersed with outstanding songs such as “Deadwood” for instance, the story of the cruel death of Crazy Horse as relayed from a daily newspaper in a sleepy Dakota bar, where the old ones told lies about whiskey on a woman’s breath.  For this live album Taylor has assembled a few old friends to help out during an intimate performance, recorded over two nights at the Red Shack, a recording studio in Houston, its walls stained with the ‘tit, sweat and balls of all the guitar ghosts that have been coming and going for so many years’.  The recording, which runs for a generous 73 minutes, includes songs, stories and monologues, each effectively shaping the American landscape before our very ears, a landscape inhabited by characters real or imagined from Jack Kerouac’s Dean Moriarty and the Oglala Lakota chief Crazy Horse to the colourful carnival folks Jim and Jean, the fickle friends, the dearly beloved and the dearly departed; each story told in Taylor’s inimitable gravel voice, accompanied by his assured yet delicately picked guitar.  The song introductions are almost as important as the songs themselves.  Taylor leads us into his world with a natural yet mesmerising, almost poetic flow of speech that is equally tender and sympathetic yet forceful and determined at the same time; you tend to believe every word.  The introduction to “Dean Moriarty” is probably the album’s defining moment.  With contributions from both the former Mrs Eric Taylor Nanci Griffith, as well as the current Mrs Susan Lindfors Taylor, together with Lyle Lovett and Denice Franke, each lending their distinctive voices, Marco Python Feccio provides some tasteful electric guitar while James Gilmer takes to the drum seat.  The Susan Lindfors Taylor produced album provides an astonishingly accurate record of an Eric Taylor performance, which will leave you both spellbound and captivated, providing you allow your imagination to take you there.  Go on, treat yourself to an hour or so in the company of Eric Taylor and friends; you will feel like you’d been there.

Lepistö & Lehti | Radio Moskova | Album Review | Aito Records | 04.11.11

Finland’s Markku Lepistö and Pekka Lehti follow their debut album Helskinki with another eight highly inventive multi-textural self-penned compositions for accordion and double bass and the one traditional Finnish composition “Vasulaisten Juhlamarssi”, which closes the album.  Lepistö & Lehti plough their fertile musical imagination in order to deliver some strikingly interesting passages that can be on the one hand serenely contemplative while on the other deliberately fun-filled and playful.  The Astor Piazzola and Nino Rota inspired tango “Skrubu” for instance includes a vociferous musical cat fight that erupts into a veritable frenzy that perfectly demonstrates the duo’s theatrical approach to music making.  If the double bass and accordion appears at first to be a slightly curious combination, the sheer dexterity of playing and inclination for dramatic effect makes the music on Radio Moskovo thoroughly engaging and highly listenable.  The clever pop-up sleeve artwork should also be given a mention, which sees that the actual disk is delivered to you in a manner that is as unusual and creative as the music on it.

The Hot Seats | Live | Album Review | Self Release | 05.11.11

Recorded live in their home state of Virginia at Ashland Coffee and Tea, allegedly the ‘Centre of the Universe’s original coffee shop’, where you are encouraged not only to blend your own bevvy but also sit and listen to some exciting home-grown music in the ‘Listening Room’.  The Hot Seats qualify as one of those bands with their almost carefree blend of old time, bluegrass and jug band music, peppered with a pinch of old-style Vaudevillian ragtime.  With a mixture of fourteen self-penned, traditional and contemporary numbers including a peculiarly jaunty version of John Prine’s classic “Sam Stone”, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs’ “Down the Road” and the Memphis Jug Band’s “Sugar Pudding”, The Hot Seats demonstrate an understanding of diverse American musical genres, with a standard issue set up of guitar, fiddle, banjo, mandolin and bass; curiously four out of the five musicians credited as bass players.  That’s a busy bass.  The original compositions sit well alongside the familiar, with “Mule Wife” in particular packing an authentic punch, with its unpolished and hugely entertaining refrain.  With Ed Brogan on guitar, Josh Bearman on banjo and mandolin, Graham Dezarn on fiddle, Ben Belcher on banjo and Jake Sellars on percussion, this live recording captures a fun band having fun.

Kami Thompson | Love Lies | Album Review | Warner Classics | 09.11.11

Interesting debut from Richard and Linda’s youngest sprog Kamila, whose earthy vocal and stylish approach to song writing is represented here with nine original songs and the one cover, The Beatles “Don’t Bother Me”, written by the Quiet One, from the days when he was really quiet.  Everyone gets in on the act as is often the case with these folk royalty dynasties.  So Richard Thompson’s there on guitar and mandolin, brother Teddy makes an appearance as does some of the conjoined Wainwright/Wainwright Roche clan, Martha and Lucy respectively.  Where Sean Lennon fits in exactly I’m not sure, apart from one of the songs having been wrtten by ‘uncle’ George, but here he is playing electric guitar on “4,000 Miles”, while Martha warbles in the background as only she can.  Recorded in New York and produced by Brad Albetta and Ed Haber, Love Lies shows promise especially in the songwriting department.  You may feel an urge to skip a few tracks and go straight for “Never Again”, but be advised, it ain’t Pop’s classic from the Hokey Pokey days, which mum sang so splendidly, but an entirely new song.  If there’s any track-skipping to be done, then a direct route to “Blood Wedding” would be worth a punt.

Roselands | Faded Postmark | Album Review | Self Release | 09.11.11

Faded Postcards is the debut album from London-based trio Roselands, heralding the arrival of ten original songs each imbued with a soulful fragility, a delicate almost cracked vocal performance courtesy of Glasgow-born Mark McLaughlin, together with some finely-tuned arrangements.  Formed in 2009 and led by McLaughlin, Roselands also features James Byron on guitars, percussion and vocals, Pete Rawlings on double bass and since the recording, the addition of Simon Hulme on guitar and vocals, who appears on the album as a contributor.  The gentle soothing sounds created by Roselands clearly complement the songs.  “Walk This World” welcomes the listener in with some wistful accordion flurries and sympathetic brushes upon the snare, effectively setting the tone for the remainder of the album.  Even references to Snoop Dog, Eminem and the ghost of Jack Kerouac cannot disturb the peaceful quiescence and state of repose.  The occasional guest musician adds those all-important cherries on top, Karen Barnes’ cello for instance, and most notably the haunting fiddle playing on “Since I Saw the Sea” by the late Kathleen Deighton, who we all sadly lost last Christmas Eve.  An additional piece of beauty to an already beautiful album. 

Buffalo Clover | Low Down Time | Album Review | Palaver Records | 10.11.11

Formed in 2008, Nashville’s Buffalo Clover continue to deliver their own brand of country roots music with ten new songs that just might get you out of your seat and onto your feet.  Margo Price is up front once again and means business from the start with her unmistakably assured voice, especially on the opening song “Can’t Stand Still” which contains the album’s title.  Margo is joined once again by husband Jeremy Ivey, along with Matt Gardner on guitar and banjo and Jason White on bass.  At times there’s a distinct feeling that someone’s just put a dime in a 1960s juke box, with great R&B songs like “Good Man” and “Oh Well”, both infused with the sort of sound you would find on the red Atlantic label before Led Zep came along.  Predominantly highly charged, Low Down Time has some comparably soulful and tender moments, “Don’t Lie To Yourself”, for instance and in particular “Seek Me Out”, which gives Margo a moment or two by the piano, to the Creedence Clearwater Revival influenced “Saint Cathleen”, which could give “Bad Moon Rising” a run for its money.

Piefinger | A Countryman’s Favour | Album Review | Self Release | 10.11.11

This second helping of Piefinger, the follow up to Where You Might Go (2006), once again sees this three-piece acoustic combo marrying folk and jazz rhythms to create an easily accessible almost pop/folk sound with ten self-penned songs and the one non-original, Jean Ritchie’s enduring “The L and N”.  There’s really no stopping that one.  The three singers, Jana Carpenter who also plays guitar, mandolin and ukulele, Rachel Steadman on violin and viola and last but certainly not least David Sherwood on guitar, bass, horn and percussion, join forces to create a delightfully tight folk/pop sound throughout, with “It All Falls Apart” crying out to be a single; an open top car freeway song if ever I heard one.  For all three musicians, Piefinger is just one of many diverse endeavours.  The others include various theatre work, West end shows, television, improvisational comedy and music promotion, to name but a few.  Additional contributions come courtesy of Ben Woollacott on drums and percussion, Jessica Cox on cello on Rags and Bones and Michael Dunnigan providing some tasteful lead guitar on “Joy of the Song”.

Graham Robins | The Shipping News | Album Review | Global Sessions | 10.11.11

A good evenly balanced mixture of soul, blues, country and gospel from Watford-born singer-songwriter Graham Robins.  There’s elements of Van Morrison in Graham’s songs, not just in the cool clear water, the winds and breezes and the abundance of rain, but in the apparent Celtic soul connection; John Devine’s uillean pipes and flute in the opening song “Back to the Heartland” for instance.  Having said that, The Shipping News is for the most part a country influenced album, with plenty of pedal steel and heartaches throughout.  Putting to bed once and for all the notion that Brits cannot write comparable songs with British place names in the title to our American cousins, “The Heights of Abraham” comes along to put Derbyshire on the musical map.  Also close to home is the nostalgic “Roll Back the Years”, a veritable memoir for anyone who lived though the 1960s, when Ben Sherman shirts and mini skirts were not only there, but were essential.  Two things we do remember about the Sixties if we were there or not.  There’s also a liberal helping of Hammond organ throughout the album, courtesy of Dave Baldwin, which creates a soulful thread.  Self produced, The Shipping News joins Graham’s two previous albums Spirit Within and Roll Back The Years in a steadily growing catalogue of informed, good intentioned and well written songs that are pretty much ‘soul connected’.

Davina and the Vagabonds | Black Cloud | Album Review | Self Release | 10.11.11

Minnesota-based Davina and the Vagabonds release their third album, which follows both Under Lock And Key (2008) and Live @ The Times (2009), with more of their own particular blend of jazz-infused juke joint music.  With Michael Carvale on upright bass, Connor McRae on drums, Dan Eikmeier on trumpet and Ben Link on trombone, each contributing their own particular voices, it’s Davina Sowers in particular who unavoidably draws our attention.  With a voice that could penetrate steel, Davina delivers a soulful and blues-drenched performance throughout, coming over as a cross between Bonnie Raitt and Eartha Kitt.  Sandwiched between the “Vagabond Stomp” intro and outros, the dozen numbers in between pack a real punch, with not a single guitar in sight.  The syncopated New Orleans flavoured jazz rhythms are maintained throughout, with Davina’s strong and purposeful piano style leading the way through each of the compositions.  Rubbing shoulders over the last few years with the likes of Pinetop Perkins, Aaron Neville, Gary Moore, Ten Years After, Irma Thomas and Robert Cray will certainly have been beneficial to one of the hardest working bands on the scene, clocking up an astonishing 300 gigs per year average.  Equally at home with soulful gospel numbers such as “River” and “Carry Him With You”, rock n roll dance tunes such as “Lipstick and Chrome”, or burlesque blues-infused Vaudevillian numbers such as the title cut “Black Cloud”, the band perform with informed professionalism.  Highly theatrical and thoroughly entertaining.

Roadhouse | Dark Angel | Album Review | Cross Border Records | 12.11.11

Dark Angel is the eleventh album release by Roadhouse, one of the UK’s long established blues and rock outfits, whose collaborative endeavours between experienced male musicians and considerably younger female vocalists seems to have an unexpected dynamic.  Led once again by Gary Boner, the singer/guitarist who wrote or co-wrote all of the songs on the album with the exception of T Bone Walker’s blues standard “Stormy Monday”, the band, which has a good twenty years behind them now together with over 2,000 live shows under their belt, continue to deliver the goods with seemingly unstoppable determination.  The ten songs range from the gutsy rockers “Too Tired to Pray” and “Telling Lies”, the melodically expressive soft rock of Rainmaker and the soulfully anthemic “Dark Angel”, to the Bo Diddley-esque “Swamp Girl”.  Joining Boner for this feast of bluesy rock is Bill Hobley on bass, Roger Hunt on drums, Danny Gwilym on guitar, while Mandie G, Samantha Richards, Suzie D, Rachel Clark and Kelly Marie Hobbs all provide the vocals.  A good reflection of what the band do live but without the interesting visuals.

Navaro | Home Is Where Your Heartlands | Album Review | Leading Horses Records | 13.11.11

Navaro’s second album and follow up to the well-received Under Diamond Skies (2008) features sixteen songs plus an additional five demos and live cuts labelled ‘rough diamonds’, from the pens of both Steve Austin and Pete White, with the one cover, JD Souther’s “Wishing On Another Lucky Star”.  Recorded under atmospheric circumstances, surrounded by a circle of fairy lights and candles, Heartlands features the contrasting lead voices of the original trio of Austin, White and Beth Navaro, who are joined by multi-instrumentalist Clive Batkin and percussionist/drummer Will, together with a handful of guest musicians.  The songs are both melodic and easily accessible, with the added bonus of being cleverly organised in the track listing to provide variety throughout the album.  The distinctive voice of Pete White on such songs as “Reluctant Feet” and “Walk Away” contrasts to that of Steve Austin’s on “My Favourite One Night Stand” and “This Time Will Pass”, which is equally disparate to the songs on which Beth takes the lead, such as “Familiar” and “Walking With Ghosts”.  Despite their individual vocal characteristics, nowhere do the voices work better than when all three are brought together in harmony.  Each of the songs are treated to a tight arrangement and crisp acoustic sound throughout, making the Mark Stevens produced album an alluring prospect when it comes to Christmas gift ideas. 

DownTown Mystic | Standing Still | Album Review | AGR Television Records | 13.11.11

The opening few bars of Modern Ways from this third album release by Sha-La Music president Robert Allen, otherwise known as DownTown Mystic, points in the general direction of Chuck Berry as a fitting starting point for this collection of rockers on Standing Still.  With an immediately hard rocking opener “Backdoor”, co-written with GT Sullivan, the album maintains a close attachment to the ethos of vintage guitars, juke box dance tunes and good old 1950s rock n roll throughout.  Allen returns to the giants of Rock n Roll for inspiration for this latest release, which joins a steadily growing body of work that also includes the earlier Rock N Roll 4 The Soul (2006) and Read The Signs (2007).  Borrowing his rhythm section of Garry Tallent and Max Weinberg from Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band on “Hard Enough”, Allen also appears to be rubbing the right shoulders in the right places.  For the most part though, the band consists of Paul Page (Dion/Ian Hunter) on bass and Steve Holley (Paul McCartney/Elton John/Ian Hunter) on drums, an equally inspiring rhythm section, with further contributions from Lance Doss on guitar, mandolin and banjo and Bruce Engler on guitars and vocals.  With just the one solo acoustic numbers “A New Friend” and a closing homage to bluegrass with “Shade of White Bluegrass”, Standing Still remains a pretty solid rock n roll album, which curiously has the track listing appearing as two sides, presumably reflecting the vinyl version.

The Deadly Gentlemen | Carry Me Home | Album Review | Self Release | 14.11.11

Thoroughly enjoyable debut from The Deadly Gentlemen who put their own distinctive stamp on bluegrass.  Five young players deliver a completely new sound that incorporates their instantly recognisable ‘group shouting’; no lead singer to speak of, just a combined all-encompassing choral holler that I imagine would go down equally well at the local bar, the Royal Albert Hall or even at Anfield.  Re-inventing bluegrass to include a certain edginess to an already exciting genre, the quintet present a tight, no-nonsense approach to their ‘epic folk and grasscore’ style of playing.  With Crooked Still’s Greg Liszt on banjo, Stash Wyslouch on guitar, Mike Barnett on fiddle, Dominick Leslie on mandolin and Sam Grisman (yes, David Grisman’s son) on double bass, The Deadly Gentlemen possess a youthful, almost punk attitude, but never allow the music to stray too far from grassroots.  Even the adventurous “Sadie”, with its spoken word bluegrass, surely the old time equivalent to rap, keeps you on the edge of your front porch rocker. 

Pharis and Jason Romero | A Passing Glimpse | Album Review | Lula | 14.11.11

Endorsed by the likes of Tim O’Brien and Ricky Skaggs, Pharis and Jason Romero release their first album as a duo, having already taken tentative steps into recording with two previous albums that the duo made with a bunch of friends; The Haints Old Time Stringband’s Shout Monah (2009) followed by Back Up And Push (2010) with a few fiddling friends.  A Passing Glimpse shows what the musicians can do as a duo, and it has to be said, what they do so well.  Based in the northern woods of British Columbia, the Romeros make quality banjos for a living, some of which are played on this album with Jason keen to point out that no picks or synthetic heads were used on them; yep, that good!   It is difficult to avoid comparison with Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings as Pharis and Jason are possessed of the same intuitive musicianship and mutual understanding of the material.  Drawing from old time mountain songs such as Uncle Dave Macon’s “Hillbilly Blues” and Leadbelly’s “Out On The Western Plains”, both songs which were recorded a good few years ago by the Woodstock Mountain Revue, when this sort of music first came to this reviewer’s ears, the selections remain faithful to this established tradition.  There are also a handful of originals written by Pharis including the title cut “A Passing Glimpse”, which demonstrates perfectly, that songs can still be written in the old style without becoming a pastiche.  Not one usually to endorse those irritating notices in record browsers that suggest if you like a certain artist, then you’ll like this, but if you do like Welch and Rawlings, the Romero’s are right up your street.

The Lennerockers | High Class Lady | Album Review | AGR Television Records | 15.11.11

The Lennerockers take their name from the Lenne River upon which their hometown of Hohenlimburg stands in West Germany.  The roots of their rockabilly music couldn’t be further from the medieval Limburg roots of their town.  High Class Lady is the best of the Lennerockers, twenty-five years on from their debut LP in 1986.  The band have had their highs and lows along the way, playing in a chartered Boeing 757 at a record breaking altitude of almost 12,000 feet, to playing in a salt mine 502 metres below ground.  The testosterone-fuelled High Class Lady has all the usual rock n roll tenets, pin up girls, pickup trucks, movie star fantasies, strong brown liqueur and the odd yee-haw to keep the spirits up, with some fine lines that could only be found in country-based rock n roll; ‘Lone left men get odd on their own, doin’ stupid things at home, thinking thoughts that should never be thought, drinking things that should never be bought’.  With Michael Ele Koch on banjo and vocals, Stefan Koch on piano, Frank Butgereit on guitar, Dirk Mankel on drums and Chuck Shoker on upright bass, this thirty-year old touring band slip through genres as easily as they slip into denim, with the odd Cajun number “Down in Louisiana”, some fine barrelhouse boogie-woogie in “Boogie Woogie Queen” and of course some Mississippi Delta Blues.  Good party music with the occasional line dance classic.    

O’Hooley & Tidow | The Last Polar Bear | Single Review | Self Release | 22.11.11

Much praise was poured upon Silent June, O’Hooley & Tidow’s debut album release last year and rightly so in my opinion.  The much anticipated follow up album The Fragile is due for release in February and this new download single is a taster of what’s to come. Belinda and Heidi’s richly orchestrated “The Last Polar Bear” comes just in time for the festive season and despite it not being a Christmas song exactly, it does have all the magic that Christmas songs are imbued with.  It mentions snow for a start, so that’s good enough for me.  With Belinda’s trademark piano accompaniment and a beautifully arranged string section, the song is treated to some fine harmony singing from the duo, as the song weaves through an ever-changing ebb and flow, mirroring the feel of the tide as the last polar bear strives to find the last patch of snow, only to discover an unexpected yet all important twist.  This is how love songs should be written.  Utterly beautiful.

Jerry Leger | Traveling Grey | Album Review | Self Release | 11.12.11

Raised on a diet of Hank Williams, Bob Dylan and John Lennon, the hereditary staple of his grandfather, father and mother respectively and fuelled by an observant nature, Toronto-based singer-songwriter Jerry Leger writes and performs with a certain drive and immediacy, demonstrated once again on this his fourth album to date.  Following on from Jerry Leger & The Situation (2005), Farewell Ghost Town and finally You, Me And The Horse (2010), Traveling Grey features ten self-penned songs that once again demonstrate a burgeoning talent delicately honing his craft.  Recorded over a two day period, the album returns to the rapidity of creativity demonstrated on his first release.  With love songs of the standard of “Wrong Kind of Girl” and “Is He Treating You Good”, we are witness to a songwriter bearing his soul.  John Lewis on the other hand is a sprawling ballad with expressive fiddle runs throughout courtesy of James McKie, reminiscent of a decelerated “Hurricane”.  Joining Leger are multi-instrumentalists James McKie and Tim Bovaconti, Dan Mock on bass and Kyle Sullivan on drums, collectively known as The Situation, Leger’s regular band.

Madison Violet | The Good in Goodbye | Album Review | True North Records | 12.12.11

Toronto’s Madison Violet return with a stylish follow up to the JUNO nominated No Fool For Trying (2009) which established Brenley MacEachern and Lisa MacIsaac once and for all as one of the outstanding Canadian duos in the Americana field.  The Good in Goodbye maintains the duo’s trademark tight harmonies and intuitive musicianship throughout the ten original songs and the one traditional number, “Cindy Cindy”.  Ron Sexsmith, a great supporter of the duo also appears as a co-writer on one of the songs “Fallen By The Wayside”.  For the most part tackling the tangled web of love and relationships, the songs are gentle throughout, each treated to a slick arrangement and tight vocal delivery, especially “Stuck in a Love” and the title song.  Despite the duo’s skill at dexterous bluegrass picking, Madison Violet excel in the tender ballad field such as the album closer MacEachern’s gorgeous “Christy Ellen Francis”.  Produced by Les Cooper, The Good in Goodbye features an impressive cast of musicians including Cooper himself on mandolin, banjo, lap steel and guitars, Adrian Lawryshyn and Mark McIntyre on bass, Joel Stouffer on drums, Robbie Grunwald on rhodes and Chris Quinn on banjo together with cameo vocals by The Wailin’ Jenny’s Ruth Moody on “Cindy, Cindy” and Blair Packham on “Come as You Are”.

Blue O’Connell | Choose the Sky | Album Review | Self Release | 12.12.11

Upon first hearing Charlottesville-based singer/guitarist Blue O’Connell’s album Choose The Sky, with its complex guitar instrumentals and well-crafted self-probing songs, the standard of musicianship should come as no surprise, bearing in mind that Blue has experienced no less than 36 years of musical exploration, studying with the likes of Robert Fripp, Ralph Towner and Dusan Bogdonvic along the way.  What will be a startling revelation to some is that Blue O’Connell has been cheated of the very thing all musicians depend upon, her hearing.  Having undergone cochlear implant surgery, basically being fitted with electronic hearing devices, Blue has managed to complete and release this beautiful record. With seven instrumental pieces and six songs, Blue presents an introspective album of personal experiences, some of which were written as far back as 1989.  It’s difficult not to imagine a remarkable sense of determination in Blue’s musical endeavours, which is not only profoundly humbling but also thoroughly uplifting at the same time.  Joining Blue are Peter Markush on cello and Mary Gordon Hall on harmony vocals with producer Jeff Romano contributing guitar on the bonus track “Intermission No. 50”, on which Blue plays the Native American flute.  While instrumentals such as “For the Lily Grows” and “Invocation of the Mystery Guest” are highly accomplished guitar pieces, it’s with the songs that we approach an understanding of who Blue O’Connell really is.  Both “Choose the Sky” and “To Belong” were originally instrumentals, to which Blue wrote lyrics much later.  Highly personal and moving, these songs in particular provide an insight into what Blue O’Connell is all about.  Having heard “To Belong” several times now, I can readily confirm that I know precisely where this and all the other compositions belong, right here in my record collection and glad to have them there.  Perhaps they should be in yours too.

Galia Arad | Ooh La Baby | Album Review | Scarlet Records | 12.12.11

If Adele’s debut album 19 was a chronicle to a ‘rubbish boyfriend’, then Galia Arad’s follow up to her 2008 album Sand In Your Bed, is a veritable opera to another one.  Originally from Bloomington, Indiana, this New York City-based singer-songwriter has an undeniable fun streak, quite possibly the thinking man’s Lily Allen and with a taste for good old whisky by all accounts.  Galia Arad’s convincing song writing and sense of melody brings together all the elements for a good mature pop record with songs that range from the whimsical to the melancholy.  The title song “Ooh La Baby” sets the scene as the chimes of London’s Big Ben ring out the prelude to a promising love affair with an un-named Irishman, only for the whole romance to play itself out in predictable fashion.  Distance being the old faithful rain cloud of misery, chucking it down on everyone’s parade.  You can’t help but be on our heroine’s side as the bubble bursts.  Former Pogues frontman Mr MacGowan makes a couple of cameo appearances, providing quite possibly the best duets since “Fairy Tale of New York” with the lilting “Four Leaf Lover Boy” and the uncompromising “Full of Sh*t”.  Take it away Shane.. Co-Produced by Tommy Faragher, Ooh La Baby should go somewhere towards catapulting Galia Arad to the place she fully deserves.  One definitely to watch.

Patsy Matheson | Stories of Angels & Guitars | Album Review | Tomorrow Records | 13.12.11

This atmospheric follow up to A Little Piece Of England (2008) is scheduled to be released to coincide with Patsy Matheson’s forthcoming 2012 tour, teaming up once again with former Waking the Witch band mate Becky Mills.  Stories Of Angels And Guitars is a mellow affair throughout, with delicate vocals and arrangements to match, each song crafted in Patsy’s own distinctive style.  The angels are present from the start with the alluring “Under Your Wing”, a sort of writer’s block song; the inquisitive search for the place from which inspiration comes.  There’s moments of melancholy in some of the self-probing songs such as “Adoption” and moments of fragility in “So the Same”, which has one of the most poetically fractured vocal performances on this or any other Patsy Matheson album.  Whether singing about angels, love, longing or vintage guitars, Patsy’s brittle voice always manages to keep itself harnessed by a confident strength and a belief in every word she sings.  That strength is no better captured than in one of her most compelling story songs, the utterly beautiful “Sylvia Jean”.  Co-produced and engineered by Phil Snell with contributions from Hugh Whitaker (The Housemartins) on drums and Jon Short (Deep Sky Divers) on double bass, Stories Of Angels And Guitars sees Patsy taking care of the rest, playing not only guitar but also mandolin and various percussion, tuned or otherwise.  An album to make your Sunday afternoons even more reposeful.  Go on, put your feet up.

St Agnes Fountain | The Best Of | Album Review | Fat Cat | 15.12.11

St Agnes Fountain has become something of a seasonal institution, staging a series of Christmas shows for the last ten years, during which time they have released no fewer than six albums.  For this their tenth anniversary, the ‘Aggies’ have put together a beautifully packaged double compilation CD featuring the best of their recorded output thus far plus one or two additional tracks.  David Hughes and Fairport Convention’s Chris Leslie together with Julie Matthews and Chris While present a festive feast for both the Christmas cheerful and the Christmas cynical with their superb musicianship and inventive arrangements.  This is music first and foremost with all the festive joy, jingle bells and decking the halls a close second.  Rather than attempting an appraisal of some of the chosen songs, just take it as read that this is no contractual obligation for a rushed Christmas record to stick in granny’s stocking, just a celebration of seasonal music, performed by extraordinary musicians who care about song, which includes familiar Carols such as “Once in Royal David’s City”, “Silent Night” and “Little Town of Bethlehem” to Christmas themed favourites such as “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, “Do You Hear What I Hear” and a pretty faithful version of Joni’s “River”.  There’s also a handful of Matthews/While originals.  Go on, give “Stop the Cavalry” and “Last Christmas” a miss this year and treat yourself to something tasteful.

Louise Jordan | TEMPVS | Album Review | Azania Ltd | 16.12.11

Having only just made that all important decision to do music seriously as a career less than a year ago, Louise Jordan has already produced her first EP and now a full-length album made up of both self-penned material and traditional songs.  Unafraid to express herself with an almost classical/retro-folk vocal delivery, not unlike Miriam Backhouse in the late 1970s or dare I say – purely as an immediately recognisable comparison – Julie Andrews, Louise expresses herself in a similarly clear, precise and unmistakably English fashion.  Originally from Salisbury, this singer-songwiter accompanies herself on guitar, piano and cello, with a clear emphasis on the voice, which is prominent throughout.  With one or two traditional songs including “Lowlands of Holland” and “William Taylor”, together with a fine musical adaptation of the powerful Thomas Hardy poem “Without Ceremony”, TEMPVS also features a handful of originals, each of which demonstrates Louise’s penchant for writing in a distinctively traditional manner.  Her re-working of the now familiar passage from the Book of Ecclesiastes, “Omnia Tempvs Habent”, previously delivered by both Pete Seeger and The Byrds as “Turn Turn Turn”, also shows a flair for adaptation.  Produced by Louise herself and recorded this past summer, TEMPVS provides the listener with chance to hear folk songs performed in a manner seldom heard these days.  

Rebecca Pronsky | Viewfinder | Album Review | Nine Mile Records | 18.12.11

It’s been almost five years since Brooklyn’s Rebecca Pronsky released her first full-length record Departures & Arrivals (2007) and now its long awaited follow up comes along to coincide with her timely UK tour this coming January.  Viewfinder has three outstanding features, Rebecca’s instantly recognisable voice, her mature songs and a prominent twangy guitar, courtesy of partner Rich Bennett.  With eleven songs, all originals with the exception of the jaunty “Mercury News”, written by Lucy Wainwright Roche, Rebecca once again utilises her jazz-trained voice to great effect, backed by a band of choice musicians, which also includes Dan Shuman on upright bass and Russ Meissner on drums.  With a voice that seems to have shades of both Carly Simon and Laura Veirs at the same time (imagine that?) amongst its many influences, Rebecca Pronsky confidently straddles the boundaries of folk, rockabilly and country roots in order to create her own distinctive sound, which at times feels like The Smiths relocated to Nashville “Give Up Too Easily” while at others, imbued with a restrained bleakness, “Day of the Dead” and “Aberdeen”, despite the latter’s uplifting melody.  “Fragile World” meanwhile incorporates a lounge jazz feel, touching upon Rebecca’s earlier New York vocal training days.   

Ruth Moody | The Garden | Album Review | Red House Records | 21.12.11

This first solo outing for Wailin’ Jennys’ founder member Ruth Moody heralds an instantly impressive debut, an album filled with rootsy Moody originals, exemplified in the banjo-led title song, which opens this collection.  Produced by David Travers-Smith, The Garden features an array of notable musicians including Kevin Breit, Luke Doucet, bluegrass giants Crooked Still and fellow Jennys’ team mates Heather Masse and Nicky Mehta, each who offer some fine and accomplished support.  The songs are instantly accessible, ranging from the old time feel of “Nest” to the ethereal “Within Without You”, providing the album with one of its most tender moments.  Equally at home on banjo, guitar and accordion, Ruth Moody demonstrates a clear understanding of just how to embellish each of her songs; it’s with her voice however that we are immediately entranced.  Both expressive and heartfelt with no small measure of warmth, Ruth’s voice flits effortlessly between the contemporary and the nostalgic, with the breezy “Travellin’ Shoes” and the 1950s styled “Tell Me” respectively.  Ruth also duets with Matt Wise (The Waking Eyes) on the co-written “We Can Only Listen”.  With a highly anticipated solo UK tour in January and a further Transatlantic Sessions tour in February, The Garden is predicted to fly off the concessions tables like poverbial hot cakes. An exceptional debut.   

Amelia White | Beautiful and Wild | Album Review | Self Release | 24.12.11

Dedicated to ‘the ever present lives and spirit of Cheryl Wolf and Duane Jarvis’, Virginia-born singer-songwriter Amelia White gathers a strong supporting cast for this her fifth album to date, which features several original songs and the one cover, a dreamy interpretation of Bryan Ferry’s “More Than This”.  While “Saxophone Trains” appears to be the heart and soul of this album, White isn’t one to rest on one particular style of storytelling but flits effortlessly between genres, from the slick riff-rock of “Skeleton Key” and the soulfully alluring “Mercy” (a duet with Jess Leary), to the rockabilly of “Molten Fire” and the plaintive closer “Rider Ghost”, all of which are performed with convincing passion and determination.  The title song is also dedicated to Duane Jarvis who co-wrote “Still I Long for Your Kiss” with Lucinda Williams.  Recorded in East Nashville with a stella cast of musicians including Doug Lancio and John Jackson on guitars, Frank Swart on Bass, Marco Giovino on drums (who also produces), Billy Earheart on keyboards, Molly Thomas on Violin and Larissa Maestro on cello, Beautiful And Wild joins an already impressive body of work.