Music Reviews | 2013

Locust Honey String Band | He Ain’t No Good | Album Review | Self Release | 01.01.13

Drawing from the old time traditions of Swannanoa, North Carolina, the all-female trio made up of Chloe Edmonstone on fiddle, guitar and vocals, Ariel Dixon on banjo, guitar and vocal and Meredith Watson on guitar, percussion and vocal, bring together an authentic string band feel to the fifteen songs on this their debut album.  Taking their sound pretty much from where Doc Watson left off, the Locust Honey String Band deliver a set of songs rich in Carolina’s folk music heritage as well as delivering some fine interpretations of Old Time and Country classics such as The Carter Family’s “Jealous Hearted Me”, The Mississippi Sheiks’ “He Ain’t No Good” and a stunning minor key take on the old Patsy Cline hit “Walking After Midnight”.  The trio are joined by Andy Deaver Edmonstone on bass.

Larkin Poe and Thom Hell | The Sound of the Ocean Sound | Album Review | Elvins | 01.01.13

Since the disbandment of the Calhoun, Georgia-based ‘progressive acoustic trio’ The Lovell Sisters, who between them made a couple of fine Bluegrass/Country-styled albums a few years ago, the offshoot outfit Larkin Poe, headed by the younger siblings Rebecca and Megan Lovell has risen in popularity on the acoustic music scene over the last three years with an increasingly rockier element, which has provided the band with their highly distinctive sound.   During this time the band have used the EP format to monitor their progress, releasing no less than five superb discs since the Spring of 2010 (all reviewed by Northern Sky).  During this time the band has also been engaged in one or two collaborative efforts, contributing their distinctive vocals and instrumental chops to recordings by such notable acts as Blair Dunlop and Gilmore and Roberts.  Larkin Poe’s eagerly awaited full-length album is still very much on everyone’s wish list for 2013.  Although The Sound of the Ocean Sound is indeed a full-length album with the band’s name on the cover and with no less than seven Lovell originals included (either written or co-written), it is for all intents and purposes another collaborative project, this time seeing the band team up with Norwegian singer/songwriter Thom Hell.  Opening with a Rebecca Lovell original, which dates back to the Lovell Sisters days, “I Belong To Love” is a good song choice to get this thing started, familiar to anyone who has caught the band live over the last three years but in this case performed with an additional male voice.  Although these songs are perfectly well written and performed, there’s a slight problem for this dyed-in-the-wool Larkin Poe fan that can’t be avoided.  The fact of the matter is simple; Larkin Poe just happens to be an already perfectly formed unit, with two inimitable and instantly recognisable voices, which ultimately means that a third voice, however well intentioned, just seems to get in the way.  Having said that, Thom’s own songs “Leave”, “Tired” and “Missing Home” are fine discoveries to my ears; songs that may otherwise have been left unheard had it not been for this project.  Anyone familiar with the Larkin Poe canon will be aware that Megan Lovell (the quiet, studious one), is an astonishingly good songwriter, just listen to “We Intertwine” from the Spring EP for proof of that.  On this album Megan writes with the same tenderness with songs like “I Can Almost”, which Megan is more than willing to stand aside for her younger sister to duet on with Thom Hell.  “Wait For Me” also reveals an insight into a mother’s grief and loss of a serving son, once again revealing Megan’s penchant for pulling at the heartstrings.  The overall sound on this album is much lighter than the current Larkin Poe sound as witnessed at various 2012 gigs and at a handful of high profile summer festivals such as Cropredy.  Although this album is a must-have addition to every self-respecting Larkin Poe aficionado, the debut full-length Larkin Poe album is still to come.

Rita Payne | Stories From the Suitcase | Album Review | Self Release | 03.01.13

Former school pals Rhiannon Scutt and Pete Sowerby otherwise known as Rita Payne, an artistically licensed anagram of their combined names, have spent the last few months recreating what they do perfectly well at home on stages large and small both locally and further afield, gathering a core following along the way.  In the autumn of 2012, the duo entered Wavelength Studios in Doncaster to record an album’s worth of their most popular self-penned songs, with a view to making this special thing they have going work.  With producer Keith Angel on drums and percussion, together with Andy Seward (Kate Rusby) on bass and banjo, Rita Payne once again demonstrates their highly empathetic vocal harmonies, together with their penchant for tempo-changing song structures, on ten original songs, including live favourites “Ashes”, “Stay” and “Forced to Run”.  Difficult to categorise, the two musicians take their inspiration from a wide range of musical styles including contemporary pop music, British and American folk, bluegrass, blues and country, all of which manifests itself seamlessly in the music and songs of Rita Payne.  One to watch out for in 2013 for sure.

Kate Denny | Closer To Home | Album Review | Lapwing | 05.01.13

Former fiddler/singer with the folk trio The Kittiwakes, Kate Denny releases her debut solo record after ten years of composing, arranging and performing on the British folk circuit and in the theatre.  As it says on the tin, the songs on this album centre around people and issues associated with home, which includes those around her.  The songs are both personal and gentle, adopting melodies that sound much older and from a different time.  Kate’s previous forays into recording has included sharing an experimental album with Georgian guitarist Zura Dzagnidze, on a themed cycle of compositions, but Closer To Home sees Kate turn exclusively to self-penned songs of a strong personal nature.  With the one instrumental piece included, “Lapwing to Shore”, which features a fiddle duet with main collaborator Charlie Skelton, the eleven songs include true stories of family members Beverley, Billy and Nellie Follett; the first a moving lament to Kate’s late sister-in-law, the second a story of a 19 year-old WWI casualty, who just happened to be Kate’s great uncle and finally a tragic story of Kate’s great grandmother who sadly drowned in a canal in Walsall in the early part of the last century.  Each song is written and performed with tenderness and warmth, devoid of over-sentimentalty.  Produced in collaboration with Mark Hutchinson and Charlie Skelton, Closer To Home stands as a fine homage to home, to family and to Kate Denny’s place in the world.

The Unthanks | Diversions Vols 1-3 | Album Review | RabbleRouser | 15.01.13

For those who have followed the progress of The Unthanks from their earliest days as an engaging sibling duo from the North East of England, through the conception and flowering of the four-piece Rachel Unthank and the Winterset through to the towering force of the current five-piece band, which is frequently augmented by much larger ensembles, not only to spice up the sonic experience but to create something quite extraordinary and memorable, the last seven or eight years seem to have simply flown by.  During this highly productive time the band has released four striking albums, two under their former moniker of The Winterset, with two slightly different line-ups, one of which was nominated for the lauded Mercury Prize for The Bairns as well as other albums regularly appearing in ‘Best of the Year’ lists, together with several nominations in the annual BBC Folk Awards with The Winterset picking up the Horizon Award in 2008.  Since then The Unthanks band has been one of the busiest on the British folk music scene and their drive and determination together with their growing reputation as a major league live band has shown no apparent signs of waning.  Fundamental to what The Unthanks are all about is the band’s attention to detail, especially in the arrangement of traditional and contemporary song, which has always been to the fore.  That responsibility is pretty much down to the band’s manager, pianist and musical director Adrian McNally, whose vision for the band’s success has endured ups and downs, twists and turns and triumphs and turmoils over almost a decade of music making.  The inspiration for this music comes from two predominant sources; the traditional and contemporary songs of the North East, which are resident in Rachel and Becky Unthank’s blood and secondly the innumerable contemporary singers, songwriters and musicians inhabiting the current progressive music scene.  In the early days of the band, which is really not all that long ago, fans would visit their MySpace page, which would indicate the artists or bands currently floating the Unthanks’ boat, effectively providing reciprocal inspiration with nods to a whole range of diverse acts including Antony and the Johnsons, Robert Wyatt, Regina Spektor, Joan as Policewoman, LAU, Ben Folds, Jon Redfern and Sufjan Stevens to name but a few.  Some of the material found in this veritable treasure chest of goodies have subsequently been cherry-picked over the last year or so, with The Unthanks devoting themselves to the production and release of three side projects in quick succession under the heading of ‘Diversions’, each of which investigate and at the same time celebrate some of those crucial influences.  Volume one of the Diversions series celebrates the work of both Antony and the Johnsons and Robert Wyatt, recorded over two nights in December 2010 at the Union Chapel in London.  With approval from both Antony Hegarty and Robert Wyatt, a selection of songs from the repertoire of both writers is performed with equal measures of passion and grace, accompanied by The Unthanks’ regular strings and brass section.  A taster of the Unthanks’ homage to Robert Wyatt appeared on the band’s second album, with a superb version of Wyatt’s “Sea Song”, which appears here once again in all its spine tingling glory, along with other notable Wyatt classics such as “Dondestan”, “Free Will and Testament” and “Lisp Service”.  The other half of the album features the songs of Antony and the Johnsons, represented by such material as “You Are My Sister”, an aptly-titled song which Adrian irreverently introduces with ‘buckets at the ready, here’s one to make you puke!’, together with “Bird Gerhl” and “For Today I Am a Boy”, a song Becky has performed many times previously in the Winterset’s live repertoire.  While DIVERSIONS VOL 1 is exclusively made up of Hegarty and Wyatt originals, the second instalment in the series investigates the idea of working with a prominent brass band, re-arranging some of the band’s previous ‘hits’ with the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band.  Once again recorded live, this time in various locations, the songs range from familiar Unthanks standards such as “Felton Lonin”, “Blue Bleezing Blind Drunk” and “Gan to the Kye”, but also David Sudbury’s stunning “The King of Rome”, recorded at the BBC Folk Awards in Salford.  Other songs include Tommy Armstrong’s “Trimdon Grange Explosion”, which utilises the full-strength marching brass band and a beautiful self-penned four-piece celebration of fatherhood written for the most part by new dad McNally, fully realising the composer’s credentials in musical arrangement.  With “Fareweel Regality” completing the set, the recording leaves the listener pondering upon how we could possibly henceforth imagine The Unthanks bereft of brass band accompaniment.  The third and latest addition to the series, DIVERSIONS VOL 3, shows us precisely how.  Once the romantic and visionary music of Antony and the Johnsons and Robert Wyatt recede temporarily into the background and the resonance of euphoniums and piccolo trumpets return to the ghostly coalfields of Yorkshire, The Unthanks place their concentration upon their own neck of the woods as they pay homage to their own local history and heritage with a collection of songs celebrating the Tyneside shipyards.  With no less than three Jez Lowe songs, including “Taking on Men” and “Black Trade”, Alex Glasgow’s “All in a Day” and Elvis Costello’s moving “Shipbuilding”, interspersed with authentic sounds of the industrial north, The Unthanks create a soundtrack to the history of the shipbuilding trade, which indeed provides an extraordinary backdrop to Robert Fenwick’s film documentary Songs From the Shipyards, made up of archive footage covering a hundred years of shipbuilding and shipping not only on the Tyne but elsewhere too.  Once again featuring the Unthanks’ distinct sibling voices, each performance is treated to a thoughtful arrangement, bringing colour to an otherwise bleak monochrome land and seascape.  Each different in terms of their theme and style, the three CDs that make up the Diversions series (so far), not only provide an insight into The Unthank’s influences, their credentials for fine arrangement and inspired song choices, but also the project marks their place in the natural evolution of folk music and its relationship with the other highly valued contemporary music of today.

Southern Tenant Folk Union | Hello Cold Goodbye Sun | Album Review | Johnny Rock | 20.01.13

The fifth album release by the Southern Tenant Folk Union once again challenges our perception of home-grown bluegrass-based music, with a dozen new and highly original songs.  The theatrical aspect of the band’s live performances is once again evident on Hello Cold Goodbye Sun, as the vintage suited musicians gather around a circle of microphones, as in the old days, to create that essentially ‘live’ feel.  Anyone who has seen the band live will know that dextrous traditional bluegrass is no problem to these fine musicians, but instead of thumbing through Bluegrass Unlimited mag in venue green rooms, Pat McGarvey is more likely to be found devouring Ray Bradbury novels or Sci-Fi Now, hence the futuristic approach to this band’s material.  With interesting topics infiltrating the song writing and a healthy mixture of voices delivering the songs, including Ewan Macintyre, Carrie Thomas and Chris Purcell, the album keeps our interest through to the end.  This is also due to the captivating arrangements, which are often uncommonly dramatic such as Jed Milroy’s suspenseful “Aberdoir” and Pat McGarvey’s particularly melodramatic “Crash”, which sees the economic crisis turned into a Cronenberg movie.  It’s all pretty much a healthy progression in a genre seldom investigated further than the end of 5th North Avenue in Nashville.  The horror/sci-fi themes permeate the material with a determined ardour; even the cover design leans more towards the Chemical Brothers than the Stanley Brothers.  Despite the dark themes, there are one or two moments of exceptional beauty, such as Carrie Thomas’s ethereal “Dark Passenger” and Chris Purcell’s reclining “Relic of a Reasonable Mind”, which sounds a little like Astrud Gilberto has been invited back after the party.

The Bar-Steward Sons of Val Doonican | Sat’day Neet Fever | Album Review | Self Release | 23.01.13

Once again Barnsley’s own tank-topped chroniclers of everyday life ‘darn tarn’ deliver another album’s worth of local folklore with delicious parodies of iconic pop standards such as the thinly disguised “I Fought the Lawn”, “Portaloo” and “The Lady in Greggs”, treating The Clash, Abba and Chris de Burgh with equal dollops of irreverence.  The album possibly follows the story of a Darfield paint store clerk Scott Doonican anxious to get out of his dreary day job who meets up with a local secretary eager to move to the more glamorous Sheffield, who becomes his dance partner, all to a soundtrack of disco classics such as “Pint Fever” and “Eaten Alive”.  Sat’day Neet Fever finds the trio of Scott, Alan and Andy Doonican in fine fettle throughout the dozen songs, which also includes the autobiographical “(Alan Lost His Wig On) Route 66”, the Beatlesque “‘elp” and the predictably regretful Sunday morning-after ballad “Queasy”, which throws an altogether new light on Lionel Richie.  Fun and giggles for most occasions.

Heidi Talbot | Angels Without Wings | Album Review | Navigator | 02.02.13

The distinctive voice of Heidi Talbot is becoming one of the most familiar on the British, if not the world’s folk music scene.  Her fifth solo album comes with the help of a handful of notable figures from the music world, hidden within the fabric of the performances, courtesy of Mark Knopfler, Jerry Douglas and Tim O’Brien amongst others.  Keen to keep the songs the focal point of the album, Heidi’s musicians blend into the background for the main part, with several guest voices coming to the fore throughout.  The title song “Angels Without Wings”, one of no less than four Boo Hewerdine compositions on the album, offers a lilting opening with an accordion sound that wouldn’t be out of place on the Bohemian streets of Paris in the shadow of the Sacré-Cœur.  As Heidi tempts us to relocate momentarily to some of the World’s romantic or exotic places through her music, her voice brings us right back to County Kildare in a heartbeat.  There’s a sense that Angels Without Wings could almost qualify as a duets album with the amount of guest singers invited along to sing.  Admiral Fallow’s Louis Abbott joins Heidi on his gentle song “The Loneliest”, while Tim O’Brien pops up a couple of times on Heidi’s “Wine and Roses” and the traditional “When the Roses Come Again”.  With Tim taking care of the roses, Kenny Anderson (King Creosote) joins Heidi on the co-written “Button Up”, one of the album’s highlights, while Guy Fletcher wanders in towards the end of “I’m Not Sorry”.  Recorded in Glasgow with husband/producer John McCusker at the helm, Angels Without Wings also features an ‘A list’ cast of musicians including Ian Carr on guitar, Phil Cunningham on accordion, Michael McGoldrick on whistles and flute, Boo Hewerdine on acoustic guitar, James Mackintosh on percussion and Ewan Vernal on bass.

Richard Thompson | Electric | Album Review | Proper | 05.02.13

Forty years on from his debut solo album Henry The Human Fly, Richard Thompson maintains the excitement with the release of Electric, featuring a further eleven original songs to add to his 400-plus song back catalogue.  Over the years, the former Fairport Convention guitarist has pivoted between the world of British folk music and rock balladry, managing at the same time to find a comfortable niche somewhere in between.  Despite the title of this new album, Thompson does include one or two notable acoustic numbers to sort of even the balance, including the gorgeous “The Snow Goose”, featuring some almost subliminal background warbling courtesy of Alison Krauss.  Opening with a whimsical yarn concerning old fool’s love, in which our hero risks a good beating ‘cos he can’t take his mind off his neighbour’s ‘you know what’, the themes are once again imbued with Thompson’s biting and uncompromisingly wry humour.  Relationships and everyday issues once again form the bulk of the album, with allusions to being stuck on a treadmill or being unbearably homesick, each of the songs accompanied by Thompson’s distinctive guitar playing.  As with virtually all Thompson’s forty-album output to date, there’s always the crucial cuts that will no doubt go on to join the ranks of “Beeswing”, “Waltzing’s for Dreamers” and “Galway to Graceland”, as works of astonishing beauty, in this case “My Enemy” and “Another Small Thing in Her Favour”, which recalls the sort of inimitable writing that once brought us “Devonside”.  For the desperate floor singer in search of something new to finish their club set, they need look no further than the album closer, “Saving the Good Stuff for You”, which features some lilting old timey fiddle courtesy of Stuart Duncan.  Teaming up once again with the Dream Attic rhythm section of Taras Prodaniuk on bass and Michael Jerome on drums, both of whom will be joining him on his forthcoming UK tour, Thompson recorded the album in Nashville with producer Buddy Miller at his home studio.  Despite this, the album seems to be as far removed from Nashville as possible in terms of both sound and content; “Salford Sunday” for instance, paints as much a bleary-eyed picture of the Northern English town as a vintage Lowry.  Thompson himself describes the finished sound as ‘folk-funk’, quipping that it lies somewhere between ‘Judy Collins and Bootsy Collins’.  With further contributions from former River City People’s Siobhan Maher Kennedy, Dennis Crouch on bass and Buddy Miller on guitar, the album includes a bonus disc in its deluxe version, with a further four new songs, including some fine rockabilly on “Will You Dance Charlie Boy” and the curious “The Tic Tac Man”, which appears as a demo, complete with count-in and features some of Thompson’s distinctive mandolin playing.  The disc also contains three previously released bits and bobs from other Thompson albums, including the ancient “So Ben Mi Ch’a Bon Tempo”, first heard on the 1000 Years of Popular Music collection.  On a slight down side, the artwork leaves something to be desired; if we are to preserve anything from imminent digital subjugation, we need to do better.

Rita Hosking | Little Boat | Album Review | Self Release | 07.02.13

Rita Hosking returns with what could be possibly described as a family album, or to be pedantic, a mini-family album.  Seven new songs performed by the Californian singer/songwriter, with more than a little help from husband Sean Feder on dobro and banjo, their 18 year-old daughter Kora on clawhammer banjo, Kathy Brotherton on accordion and producer Rich Brotherton on just about everything else.  The songs themselves beggar the question why Rita Hosking is not a household name, let alone the performances here.  Recorded over four days in Austin, Texas, the songs range from thoughts on the big issues of mortality in “Parting Glass”, which opens the collection, to more thoughts on the subject of jobs, or to be specific the lack of them, previously touched upon on “Ballad of Gulf of Mexico” on Burn by way of more domestic affairs such as household dusting, scrubbing and vacuuming on “Clean”, again touched upon previously with “Dishes”, also on Rita’s last full length album.  It’s the juxtaposition between the big issues and the things closer to home that make the songs so engaging.  The revelation on this collection of songs though is “Where Time is Reigning”, a song co-written by mother and daughter and with harmonies to die for.  Little Boat will provide the perfect souvenir when Rita and Sean visit these shores once again for a short tour in March.

Jackie Oates | Lullabies | Album Review | ECC | 20.02.13

The danger with this new album by Jackie Oates is that you’re likely to nod off before the first song is through.  That’s the nature of lullabies; they’re just too soothing for their own good.  Jackie’s fifth solo album sees her team up once again with fellow Winterset refugee Belinda O’Hooley, whose sparse piano accompaniments adorn this delightful record, made up exclusively of lullabies and sleep songs.  Anyone who has followed Jackie Oates’ journey over the last few years will know that the Devon-based singer/musician immerses herself completely in each project with a passionate focus, as if it just might be the last project she ever does, whether it be Cornish fiddle tunes or World music adventures (with The Imagined Village) or maybe just the haunting songs of Alasdair Roberts; if a certain fascination comes, then the tunnel vision specs are on and the project is up and running before you can say hyperboreans (if you can say that at all).  The latest fascination appears to be lullabies, no less than fifteen of them to be precise, selected from various diverse sources.  The project finds Jackie trawling the twilight zone for a variety of gentle songs, some written specifically as lullabies as well as one or two that just lend themselves to the cradle-rocking, sheep-counting crepuscular eventide, such as Paul McCartney’s laconic “Junk”, a song that failed to be included on both The Beatles’ White Album and Abbey Road, eventually being released on his self-titled debut solo LP.  Now and then Jackie reveals a slightly quirky side, which sometimes ventures into darker places such as “Alexander Beetle”, the old Melanie song based on an AA Milne lyric, which can be taken as cute or creepy depending upon how tired you are, featuring a fiddle coda during which both Jackie and Belinda search around on all fours looking for the coleopteran escapee.  If you recall the school room scene in The Wicker Man, where a child has attached a beetle to a nail via a piece of string in order to watch it ‘go round and round, always the same way, poor thing..’ it’s that sort of creepy.  But cute too.  Adorned in a sleeve illustrated with Lizzy Stewart’s haunting and naive artwork, the album also features traditional English, Scottish, Australian and Icelandic lullabies, guaranteed to cure your insomnia in the most pleasant way, with contributions courtesy of Tristan Seume, Barney Morse-Brown, Chris Sarjeant and guest vocalists Hugh Nankivill, Albert and Evelyn Hansell and Bara Grimsdottir.    

Anaïs Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer | Child Ballads | Album Review | Wilderland Records | 21.02.13

There’s only one apparent rule when tackling traditional songs and that’s do anything you want with them as long as you keep the essentials of the story intact.  We could wax lyrical all day and half of the night about the distinctive and original voice of Anaïs Mitchell and just how well it fits together with her sparring partner’s voice here, Jefferson Hamer.  Then we could go on about the dove-tailed acoustic guitar techniques and whose style they more closely resemble, but we won’t; they’re just a given when it comes to these two musicians.  What should be looked at closely on this album are the seven ballads represented, for that’s what Child Ballads is all about, the stories.  Sometimes we trawl through entire novels in order to be suitably fulfilled by a good story, other times we fill a bucket with popcorn and watch stories in widescreen 3D.  This is all well and good, but sometimes a ballad can have all the necessary ingredients to send those shivers, bring on the night terrors, make us blubber like babies or just simply enthral us.  Even better when the storytellers have such an engaging way of telling them to us and on this album we get that throughout.  We should point out from the start that these seven ballads have little to do with children, but are instead selected from the 305 English and Scottish songs collected by American folklorist Francis James Child in the nineteenth century.  The ballads are for the most part very well known, such as “Sir Patrick Spens”, “Willy o Winsbury” and “Tam Lin”, each represented by their own specific number, 58, 100 and 39 respectively in the case of these three.  What is refreshing is the gentle manner in which these songs are performed, with each one treated to a simple arrangement featuring two guitars played intuitively by both Mitchell and Hamer, with the occasional fiddle courtesy of Brittany Haas, some well-placed accordion and pump organ from Tim Lauer and finally some occasional bass provided by Viktor Krauss, Alison’s big bro.  Despite the potential incompatibility between the delightfully breezy vocals and the bleak subject matter, it works tremendously well, with calmness replacing passion, subtlety replacing histrionics.  In a period of time when folk music is back to being cool and sexy, with Mumford and Sons being recognised by the Brits as our best band of 2013 and with seemingly more young people attending folk music festivals, there has been a tendency to point young people in the general direction of Robin Hood’s Bay for an understanding of what songs like these are all about.  With records like Child Ballads we find we need look no further.  The ballads are alive and kicking in 2013 and in very good hands.

Various Artists | Folk Awards 2013 | Album Review | Proper | 22.02.13

Once again the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards came and went in January, providing the British folk scene with its own annual red carpet moment, this year at Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall, during the already bustling Celtic Connections festivities.  Most of the artists who appear on this three disc compilation were in their best frocks and suits, with only one apparent Scotsman, strangely from Devon, as Steve Knightley donned a kilt for the occasion.  It was almost like the lone costume party attendee who didn’t read the invite correctly.  Still, it fitted the occasion.  While disc one and two of Folk Awards 2013 centres around the artists nominated in the main categories, such as Bellowhead, whose shanty “Roll the Woodpile Down” now gets more airplay now than the news pips, Emily Portman, whose Hatchlings went on to win the gong for best original song and the legendary Nic Jones who was voted Folk Singer of the Year after a good few years away from performing, the third bonus disc features songs and tunes performed by participants in the 2013 BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award, including the four finalists Luke Jackson, Graham Mackenzie and Ciorstaidh Beaton, Thalla and of course the winners Greg Russell and Ciaran Algar, whose Fellside release The Queen’s Lover turned heads in 2012.  With each selection carefully chosen, such as Blair Dunlop’s “Billy of the Lowground”, Lau’s “The Bird That Winds the Spring” and The Unthanks’ “Black Trade”, as well as obvious selections, specifically the songs that were nominated for awards themselves rather than the artists singing them, such as Karine Polwart’s poignant “King of Birds”, Anaïs Mitchell’s memorable “Tailor” and Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman’s spellbinding “Ballad of Andy Jacobs”, the collection presents the very best of the 2012 crop.  If the actual awards themselves create promotional opportunities for the lucky winners throughout 2013, this souvenir collection stands as a record of the excellent achievements of all the nominees, whether they went on to win or not.  A record of the outstanding singers and musicians currently occupying their rightful place on today’s British folk scene.

Hannah Sanders and Liz Simmons | World Begun | EP Review | Self Release | 23.02.13

The Atlantic is once more bridged with the pairing of Norfolk-born singer, guitarist and dulcimer player Hannah Sanders and Boston, New England-based Liz Simmons, who between them find common ground in their symbiotic love of English music and American old time music, with a little blues and contemporary music thrown into the mix.  Both equally proficient on guitar, with Hannah’s additional dulcimer, the duo seem equally at home with self-penned originals and traditional material, with the title song from the pen of Hannah, while the sweetly performed “Broken Promises” was written by Liz.  As is usually the case with duos, the magic occurs when the two voices blend in harmony and nowhere better than on the traditional “Sovay”.  

Jeff Bell | Rome | Album Review | Rhythm of the System | 24.02.13

Bound in a sleeve with a slightly bewildering cover shot, bewildering that is until further inspection reveals it’s actually a photo of a piece of graffiti somewhere in East London left by an unidentified street artist, Rome is the fifth album release by London-based singer/songwriter Jeff Bell, which features fourteen new songs, joining an uncompromising body of work.  Bluesy in parts and with a growling voice that occasionally recalls the sneering quality of Don Van Vliet in full Beefheart flow, especially on “Damn You”, we are never in any doubt that this singer means business.  Social commentary is prevalent throughout with songs such as the confrontational “Phoney World”, the Dylanesque “Lions Led By Donkeys” and the riotous chorus of “I See”, balanced against one or two self-probing and personal songs, with reference to specific locations such as the Finchley bar in “Low Key Affair”.  

Various Artists | Way To Blue: The Songs of Nick Drake | Album Review | Navigator | 04.03.13

Joe Boyd could almost be seen as the Forrest Gump of the music world.  While our naïve and slow-witted movie hero just happens to be there at some of the defining events of the latter half of the twentieth century, Boyd was likewise at the centre of some of the defining moments in the history of popular music, from the days of tour managing early UK visits by artists such as Muddy Waters, Coleman Hawkins and Sister Rosetta Tharpe in the 1960s; the bloke who was responsible for the sound at Newport when Dylan went all electric; the entrepreneur who opened the UFO Club in London; the producer behind Pink Floyd’s debut single and a whole bunch of classic albums by the likes of the Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention, John Martyn and literally dozens of others. For Boyd, life really has been like a box of chocolates and he certainly didn’t know what he was ‘gonna git’ when Nick Drake walked into his life.  These days you can’t watch a documentary about Nick Drake without Boyd popping up somewhere. Joe produced Drake’s first two albums and has subsequently claimed that the second of these, Bryter Layter, was probably his crowning achievement as a producer.  However, such reminiscences are shrouded in sadness as time has told us for Drake left us far too early, not because he allowed his excesses to get the better of him like Hendrix, Joplin and Morrison before him, but because he felt his genius was overlooked during his lifetime, as he points out in his highly prophetic song “Fruit Tree”: ‘Safe in your place deep in the earth, That’s when they’ll know what you were really worth..’  In the mid-1980s, there was a sudden resurgence of interest in the songs of Nick Drake, with musicians citing the musician as an influence and compilations began to spring up all over the shop.  Later, an annual pilgrimage to Tanworth-in-Arden, the location of the family home and final resting place of the young musician, began to attract curious musical wayfarers to the sleepy village to partake in a frenzy of retuning, while visiting Drake’s grave with the epitaph ‘Now we rise and we are everywhere’ emblazoned on the headstone.  Still the spokesman for all things Drake, Joe Boyd organised a series of concerts in 2009 to celebrate Nick’s music, inviting a cast of prominent Drakies to come along and re-visit some of his best loved songs in both London and Melbourne.  Way To Blue: The Songs Of Nick Drake represents the highlights of these concerts with contributions from Vashti Bunyan, Green Gartside, Lisa Hannigan, Robyn Hitchcock and others.  Double bassist Danny Thompson, who worked with Drake on his debut album in 1969 is part of the house band as is guitarist Neil MacColl, who knows precisely how to get his fingers navigating Nick’s more obscure tunings.  Kate St John takes care of musical direction and Robert Kirby supplies the original arrangements, as he did on those early recordings.  While the last thing we want are carbon copies of Nick’s songs, the meticulous scouring of the tabs and futile imitations of Nick’s breathy and ethereal vocals, there is a certain essence that should be adhered to when tackling these songs.  While Lisa Hannigan does this in spades, maintaining the painfully tortured vocal on “Black Eyed Dog” for instance, Scott Matthews belts it out as if he was doing a tribute to Jeff Buckley, another tragic figure who left us too early, with his energetic take on “Place To Be”.  Both Green Gartside and Robyn Hitchcock offer sinister sly fox-like vocal deliveries on their respective contributions, “Fruit Tree” and “Parasite”, while Teddy Thompson turns in a pretty faithful version of “River Man” and goes on to duet fabulously with Krystle Warren on the closing “Pink Moon”.  All the songs included here are treated with a good deal of respect and in some cases there is the feeling that the performers are realising an ambition to do Drake some justice, Zoe Rhaman’s piano work for instance on “One of These Things First”, an instrumental shared with Danny Thompson or Shane Nicholson’s jazzy workout on “Poor Boy”, recreating the quality of the improvised original.  As a homage to Nick Drake Way To Blue succeeds in essence, but as an introduction to Nick Drake, you need look no further than the Fruit Tree box set; it’s essential listening.

Gren Bartley | Winter Fires | Album Review | Fellside | 10.03.13

Gren Bartley returns to west coast of Cumbria once again to record his third solo album, the second for Fellside, which comes hot on the tail of last year’s excellent Songs To Scythe Back The Overgrown.  The ten original songs on Winter Fires once again demonstrate this songwriter’s credentials not only as a mature wordsmith and dexterous guitar player, but also as an informed banjo player and fine arranger.  Those arrangements bring out the best in the accompanying singers and musicians Gren has invited along to join him on this venture including Julia Disney on vocals, piano and violin, Dan Wilkins on percussion and kora, Richard Adams on drums and percussion, with additional vocals courtesy of Robert Hallard and Linda Adams.  Tackling a parent’s worst nightmare, “Porcelain Hand” invites us into that all too familiar territory (sadly) of the desperation we can only imagine arising from the anxiety felt when a child goes missing.  Gren tells it as it is, almost as a stoic observer in a slightly matter-of-fact manner, with the slide providing the wails of anguish.  With a distinctly transatlantic feel, the songs fall somewhere mid-pond and borrow from both English and American folk elements but occasionally venture into World Music territory with the klezmer-styled knees-up “Brick” and the Kora-inspired “Kelefaba”, tagged onto the end of “Wayward Stars”, the West African instrument in this case in the capable hands of Dan Wilkins.  Despite strong vocal performances and robust musicianship, there’s always an attendant fragility that comes across on Gren Bartley’s albums.  This isn’t a bad thing; in fact perhaps this is what makes his music so special.

Chris While and Julie Matthews | Infinite Sky | Album Review | Fat Cat | 14.03.13

Music becomes magic when we find we can’t distinguish one voice from another when two great voices harmonise together and Chris and Julie do this all the time.  With each new release, we know to expect a touch of class, both in the writing and the performance but also in the choice of accompanying musicians and in the arrangements too.  Infinite Sky is the duo’s eighth studio album to date and once again comprises a democratic share out of the writing credits, with each of the two writers contributing mature songs from the heart.  Opening with Julie’s optimistic sunshine of a song “This Beautiful Life”, which reminds us all that despite the highs and lows, the ebbs and tides and light and shade in our lives, the cycle comes around and the bright golden haze on the meadow is assured if we hang on in there.  There’s now’t wrong with looking on the bright side, that’s for sure.  With some of the songs written on the other side of the world, such as Chris’s “Half a World Away” together with the only joint composition, the infectious “Shaky Town”, which sees Chris and Julie getting their heads together on an optimistic song written for the city of Christchurch, New Zealand’s second largest, which was devastated by an earthquake in 2011.  Martin Simpson pops in on slide guitar for this song, joining a handful of guest musicians offering their services such as Andy Cutting on melodeon and Nancy Kerr on fiddle and viola on the beautifully sombre “Nie Wieder (Never Again)”, a song dedicated to the German/Jewish athlete Gretel Bergmann.  Kris Kristofferson allegedly told Joni Mitchell to ‘leave something of yourself’ in reaction to some of the more personal songs on the Canadian singer’s classic Blue album.  Julie Matthews also occasionally writes painfully personal songs that may warrant similar advice, such as the heart wrenching “I Apologise”, which alludes to Julie’s vulnerability as a human being.  The beauty of this album is that there is a good balance of light and shade, which makes it an absolutely delightful record. 

Gavin Davenport | The Bone Orchard | Album Review | Haystack Records | 15.03.13

Last year was an exceptionally busy one for Gavin Davenport; not only did he play his part in launching in earnest the newly invigorated and youthfully equipped Albion Band and almost simultaneously revisiting the Morris On repertoire for a handful of festival shows alongside the Guv’nor himself, he even managed to get his Bride to make an honest man out of him (Mrs D providing additional vocals on some of the songs here) and find time to record a second solo album.  The Bone Orchard features a dozen songs, mostly traditional ballads with a couple of strikingly accomplished originals, the tradition-informed “Wooden Swords and May Queens”, featuring a delightful five-piece brass section, conjuring the spirit of springtime village green festivities and the thoroughly engaging title song “From the Bone Orchard”, complete with arresting interwoven samples of source singers, effectively dove-tailing the past with the present to great effect.  The traditional songs are well-chosen, some favourably selected from Gavin’s relatively local tradition such as “Farewell to Yorkshire”, a derivative of “Spencer the Rover”, with its uplifting chorus of eating, drinking and being jolly well jolly and the transportation ballad “Whitby Lad”, along with familiar titles such as “Bold Dragoon”, “Fair Rosamund” and “Creeping Jane” each employing some fine arrangements.  There’s also a fine seasonal song for those of us eager to see the New Year in with something less ‘Burns’ in “Hymn for the New Year”.  Handsomely packaged, the sleeve also introduces us to a new graphic novel comic hero as depicted in Katy Coope’s artwork with our bestubbled scrumping folk troubadour taking to mischief in the forest.  Joined by Tom Kitching on Fiddle, Nick Cooke on Melodeon and Tim Yates on Double Bass, with Pete Ord sharing arrangement duties, Gavin is also joined by fellow Crucible band mates Richard and Jess Arrowsmith and Jim Causley, who duets with Gavin on “Banks of Yarrow”.  If last year was a busy one for Mr Davenport, 2013 could potentially be chaotic.

Stark | Where the Grey Slates Meet | EP Review | Self Release | 18.03.13

The Brighton-based alt-folk trio Stark have already started to build a steady following up and down the country with their highly accessible folk-inflected roots rock sound.  Their latest three-track EP demonstrates that their songs are capable of fusing gentle acoustic tinkering with a definite hard edge.  With Jamie Francis on guitar and lead vocals, Evan Carson on drums and Josh ‘Rusty’ Franklin on bass, the ‘power trio’ could easily join the popularity ranks currently  occupied by such bands as Mumford and Sons with their potentially universal appeal on both folk and rock festival stages.  Once again the banjo plays a pivotal role, providing the pulse of the opening track “Circle Roads”.  A youthful band with a very mature sound.

Risa Hall | Second Chances | Album Review | Red Disc Records | 20.03.13

The Manchester-based New Yorker Risa Hall has cut her musical teeth on the stages of Broadway, taking on such roles as Frenchy in an early production of Grease, which possibly explains much of the theatricality in her voice.  Straddling the genres between jazz (“That I Want You”, “Jazz Lullaby”), country (“Shooting Stars”) and rock (“Candy Coated Hell”), Risa also draws on elements of acoustic folk and pop to bring an eclectic mix of diverse sounds to this her debut album.  Despite being equipped with a strong and determined voice, there are rough edges to it as well it has to be said, which bring out some substantial character.  Coming from a theatrical background, I dare say character is an essential attribute and on this album there’s plenty.  Produced by Nigel Stonier (Thea Gilmore), the ten songs on Second Chances provide a snapshot of what Risa Hall is all about.

Rebecca Pronsky | Only Daughter | Album Review | Nine Mile Records | 21.03.13

Brooklyn-born Rebecca Pronsky is unquestionably blessed with the same sort of voice that was handed out to some of our pioneering female singer/songwriters of a few years ago; that comparable timbre, that no-more-no-less-but-sufficient vibrato, that highly listenable factor.  The ten songs on Only Daughter, Rebecca’s fourth album to date, allow us to hear that voice in all its splendour; in fact the more you listen, the more you want of it.  Mostly self-penned with the one non-original, Mark Kozelek’s ambiguous Glenn Tipton (it’s not often you get two members of Judas Priest, two American boxing legends and the ‘Polish Prince’ all name-checked in the same song), the songs range in style from the twangy call to action opener “Rise Up”, the Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac-inspired “Honesty”, the riff-laden hard rock of “The Garden” and the whimsical closer “Please Forget Me”, each weaving effortlessly around Rebecca’s flawless vocal delivery.  Produced by husband/musician Rich Bennett, with vocal contributions from Suzzy Roche and daughter Lucy Wainwright Roche, the core band is made up of Rebecca and Rich both on guitars, Dan Shuman on bass and Russ Meissner on drums.  Coming over pretty much a mainstream effort, despite the cowboy boots and vintage dress on the monochrome insert, the album certainly commands a listen and you shouldn’t be disappointed.

The Stray Birds | The Stray Birds | Album Review | Self Release | 02.04.13

This eponymous debut full-length release by The Stray Birds features eleven original songs that find plenty of scope for some delicious three-part harmonies throughout, the type of voices that seem to be made for one another.  The special ‘sibling harmonies’ that everyone talks about in music circles just might have to include voices not necessarily from the same family, but from the same neck of the woods, in this case Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.  Multi-instrumentalists Maya de Vitry and Oliver Craven, together with bassist Charles Muench, create a solid sound that cries out for no further embellishments.  Maya and Oliver share the writing duties democratically, with each contributing five songs apiece and each taking the lead on their respective songs, with the one instrumental, a set of three tunes that feature the pair’s duelling fiddles on “Give That Wildman a Knife/Bellows Falls/Waiting on a Hannah”.  The delightful arrangements are occasionally stripped down to bare essentials, such as the final song “Wind & Rain”, which needs little more than the three voices and an acoustic guitar.  An outstanding debut.

Blair Dunlop and Larkin Poe | Killing Time | EP Review | Rooksmere Records | 02.04.13

The respective musical careers of Blair Dunlop and the Lovell sisters seem to have been running in tandem over the last couple of years or so, with each musician developing at almost the speed of light.  With each of them understandably somewhat uncertain about their respective musical directions, they have each been under no illusion about which way they want to go in terms of ambition, which is in the general direction of skywards.  The musical collaboration between Blair Dunlop and Larkin Poe seemed destined to happen from their first tentative meeting.  Larkin Poe have gathered an enormous word-of-mouth following since branching out from their original bluegrass/classical roots, gaining a strong following in the UK and Europe along the way.  They have managed to do this despite the absence of a full-length album, instead by drip feeding their fans a series of remarkable EPs.  Blair on the other hand has not only found time to release his fine debut (Blight and Blossom) but has also garnered much attention from his peers, picking up the prestigious BBC Horizon Award earlier this year.  Having first heard Larkin Poe on the car stereo of fellow Albion Bander Katriona Gilmore, the singer soon became acquainted with the Georgia-based band and members of Larkin Poe were soon in the studio putting down tracks for Blair’s debut album.  This was reciprocated by an invitation for the young singer/guitarist to fly out to Atlanta to work on their first proper full collaboration, recording the six songs that make up the Killing Time EP, which features both originals and non-originals. The oriental sounding intro to the title song, sees Rebecca exploring the fiddle’s sonic capabilities, which is used in syncopation with the chant-like vocals.  Megan’s now familiar lap steel guitar provides the guts of each of the songs, with the exception of a couple that find the musician returning to the dobro, especially the infectious Rebecca Lovell original “Lottie”, where the guitarist provides a stunning instrumental break.  “Sea of Faces” provides the first full writing collaboration, with each of the Lovell sisters and Blair sharing writing credits on one of the EP’s most sensitive songs.  Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Keep It With Mine” recalls last year’s Cropredy Festival, where thousands of people witnessed Blair, Rebecca and Megan flanked by Richard Thompson and Ashley Hutchings recalling the very early Fairport days, with it’s almost “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” feel.  Killing time indeed.

Woody Pines | Rabbits Motel | Album Review | Self Release | 05.04.13

There’s an immediate feel-good resonance to the music that forms the basis of this new album from Woody Pines, music that once again seems more at home on the streets of New Orleans or on the back porch down by the swamps; the rural meeting the urban with seamless unity.  The titles tell their tale from the start, Woody’s own compositions “Railroad Vine” and “Hobo and His Bride” as well as the one traditional inclusion, the country blues workout “Train That Carryed (sic) My Gal from Town”.  From the New Orleans jazz flavoured “Keep Your Hands Off” to the groovy blue of “I Love the Way My Baby” by way of the rockabilly stomping “Addicted to Love”, coming in at just under two minutes, the songs spread themselves out crossing genres chameleon-like to startling effect.  Perhaps the most engaging song on the album is the aforementioned “Hobo and His Bride”, with its dreamlike imagery.  Co-produced by Woody pines and Bernie Nau, Rabbit’s Motel deserves a few play-throughs before filing, or better still, just keep it at the ready.

Melissa Greener | Transistor Corazon | Album Review | Anima Records | 06.04.13

The third album release by Detroit-born now Nashville-based singer/songwriter Melissa Greener comes with an intoxicating brew of fine melodies and inspired lyrics.  With eleven predominantly self-penned songs, including five co-writes and a couple of fine interpretations of other well-known songs, Jesse Winchester’s soulful “That’s What Makes You So Strong” and a sublime version of Lennon and McCartney’s Beatlemania-period ballad “If I Fell”, the album.  The title song, co-written with David Rodriguez and translated from the Spanish for ‘Transistor Heart’, with its ‘half lover, half machine’ theme, brings with it an almost effortless flavour of Tex/Mex, complete with Spanish lyrics, beautifully picked nylon strings and Mariachi trumpet accompaniment.  Well-travelled, Melissa’s very special relationship with her touring van is revealed eloquently in “Ghost in the Van”, which offers an insight into the loneliness of the road.  Produced by Brad Jones, Transistor Corazon bears all the hallmarks of a breakthrough album, and not too soon.

Jarrod Dickenson | The Lonesome Traveler | Album Review | Self Release | 17.04.13

Texas-born, Brooklyn-based singer songwriter Jarrod Dickenson ought to be proud of The Lonesome Traveler; his not-so-difficult, beautifully crafted second album.  Inside this handsomely packaged release you’ll find twelve consistently strong, melodic and pristinely produced songs cut from the material of this young artist’s everyday life.  There are echoes of Bob Dylan, Loudon Wainwright III and Jackson Browne in Dickenson’s brand of jangly American country folk but with a gently crisp, altogether unique voice and a handful of delicate, trickling delights such as “Rosalie”, “Come What May” and “Seasons Change” Jarrod has delivered something of a modern masterpiece.  Indeed, this twentysomething has produced an album that is both vintage and contemporary in feel while maintaining the seductive honesty of his fine songwriting.  As with any noteworthy release, the musicianship is rock solid.  Bassist David Piltch, multi-instrumentalist Greg Leisz and pianist Jebin Bruni are just three of the celebrated musicians to grace the liner notes, along with Ryan Freeland, a producer who has twiddled the knobs for the likes of Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and the Carolina Chocolate Drops.

Amy Duncan | Cycle of Life | Linn Records | 18.04.13

Edinburgh-based singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Amy Duncan has released a steady stream of self-produced CDs since 2006 and with this her fourth full-length album, the musician managed to secure funding from Creative Scotland, which has enabled her to work with respected producer Calum Malcolm.  The resulting eleven original songs demonstrate a clear balance between contemporary nu-folk song writing and the almost subliminal traditional Celtic overtones hidden within.  At times leaning towards the ambient, Amy’s song arrangements venture along an ethereal path, such as on “Wild Animals”, which features some vocal harmonies that would not be out of place on a Roches LP.  The fact that Amy is a classically trained double bass player doesn’t get missed on this record, with her RNCM and RSMAD studies standing her pretty much in good stead, especially with some of the arrangements.  The songs in fact do occasionally sound experimental, something Amy is more than familiar with as a former Swelling Meg band member, but they also come across as highly accessible at the same time, particularly on the song chosen as the first single release, “Navigation”, whose accompanying video once again proves beyond a shadow of doubt that folk singing women in cotton dresses look infinitely more attractive than middle aged blokes when on bicycles; come to think of it, they look better on any occasion.  This is possibly another reason why the CD keeps returning to the CD player at regular intervals.

Jaywalkers | Early for a Thursday | Album Review | 101 Records | 20.04.13

Now that the bottom end has been taken care of, courtesy of double bassist Lucy Williams, the Jaywalkers sound is about as complete as you’d want it to get.  Adding both bottom and top end with some fine harmonies to an already rich sound created by first rate musicians Jay Bradberry on fiddle and guitar and Michael Giverin on mandolin, bouzouki and guitar, Lucy not only provides that essential ingredient to the overall instrumental sound, but also helps form a solid backdrop to showcase Jay Bradberry’s highly distinctive and confident vocal.  Most of the songs on Early on a Thursday are penned by Michael Giverin with one or two non-originals, including AP Carter’s bluesy Jealous, together with a show-stopping take on Zequina De Abreu’s “Não Me Toque”, which is treated to the kind of ‘sore fingers’ playing that we’ve come to expect from this extraordinarily gifted mandolin player.  The last time I saw Jay and Michael, they were dangling their legs from a brick wall on the front cover of their debut album and I promised to get to see them live at the earliest convenience.  Fate has kept us apart up to now but this will be redressed before too long.  Good advice to anyone yet to discover this highly talent trio. 

Jenny Ritter | Bright Mainland | Album Review | Self Release | 26.04.13

Jenny Ritter’s long-awaited solo album comes after a lengthy apprenticeship, playing with such diverse outfits as Nicely, Nicely, The Gruff, the Scandinavian traditional trio Marmota and the Kingsgate Chorus, each providing a different grounding for the songs that emerge on Bright Mainlight.  With a rootsy sound that straddles all the most appealing tenets of Americana, such as the odd smattering of banjo, pedal steel and fiddle, the songs are richly embellished with melodies that perfectly accompany Jenny’s highly accomplished vocal.  Occasionally accompanying herself on finger-picked electric guitar, such as on the funky “You Missed the Boat” and “Weathervane”, the majority of songs bring out an upbeat folk/country sound with “Cold House Song” recalling the chorus singing of the Kingsgate days.  With Jenny’s own stylised naïve illustrations providing the cover and disc art, this debut solo outing is as personal as it can get, helped out by a bunch of friends.  Joined by multi-instrumentalist Adrian Dolan, who also produces, the album also features contributions from Lucas Goetz on drums, pedal steel and electric guitar, Elise Boeur on viola, Ryan Boeur on guitar and Bear Erickson on guitar, with an array of further vocal contributions.

Reg Meuross | Leaves and Feathers | Album Review | Hatsongs | 28.04.13

Despite a long apprenticeship in the music industry, serving in The Panic Brothers and The Flamingos as well as a good few years as part of Hank Wangford’s hard working Lost Cowboys band, singer/songwriter Reg Meuross has still avoided becoming a household name.  Having said that, audience numbers have indeed expanded over the past few years due by and large to a growing word-of-mouth reputation, augmented by a handful of critically acclaimed albums, each containing original songs from a writer who would have had no problem rubbing shoulders with the likes of Paul Simon, Ralph McTell and Jackson C Frank had he been active in 1960s Bohemian London.  Leaves and Feathers is the latest of these releases, which introduces a further dozen engaging story songs, each told with a distinctive voice and a gentle guitar style, underpinned with sensitive arrangements and an informed sense of melody.  Recorded at the famed Abbey Road Studios, each song is treated with a desire to be absorbed and digested properly, avoiding unnecessary force feeding.  It’s almost like John Denver singing “A Day in the Life”; a gentle and relaxed performance throughout, but with a message that makes you sit up and take note.  Those songs are made even more engaging with the addition of Bethany Porter’s sweeping cello accompaniment and vocal contribution, along with further vocals courtesy of Jess Vincent and Lily Meuross.  If “My Jerusalem” makes us ponder long and hard, due to the song’s uncompromising message, the beautiful “Emily’s Pages” provides a fitting counterpoint.  Where Reg excels is in his strong narrative songs, such as the album opener “One Way Ticket To Louise”, where it’s virtually impossible to listen to without a cinematic image in mind.  It has to be said that no one does London quite like Ray Davies, with the possible exception of Ralph McTell’s memorable “Streets of London”.  “My Name is London Town” joins that city’s song canon, albeit with one or two poetic license liberties, but still capturing the spirit of the capital in the same manner as Ray’s Waterloo Sunset or the lesser known but equally bewitching “London Song”.  Not only is Reg bold with his poetry, on this occasion he also takes risks with his cover artwork, which seems to depict the Somerset-based singer/songwriter as an angel, complete with heavenly silhouetted profile and silver-lined wings (made from real chicken feathers).  Reg trusted his son’s artistic instinct, of transforming dad into an updated Mr Pye, which resulted in a cover that does in fact reflect the album’s content admirably.

Luke Hirst | Farewell Adventures | Album Review | Self Release | 29.04.13

With an enthusiastic endorsement courtesy of Michael Chapman, who knows a thing or two about the guitar, this second helping from young guitarist Luke Hirst and follow up to his debut Three Chord Sound, demonstrates further potential as a highly emotive musician, as he concentrates exclusively on the instrument for his first full length instrumental album.  The eight compositions explore the dusty end of the instrument, using open tunings and occasionally the bottleneck style, drawing from various sources including American Blues, Indian Raag and Americana.  Luke blends these influences with confidence and occasionally employs some expressively aggressive heavy-handedness, especially towards the end of the opening piece “The Coming of St Columbia in 563”, which could result in a phone call from the RSPCG.  Luke’s potential was spotted a couple of years ago by Kris Drever and John McCusker in their role as judges at the Wath Festival’s Young Performers Award, which Luke won jointly as one half of a duo with cellist Sarah Smout.  Putting songs aside momentarily, Luke investigates the sonic resonances of his instrument with interesting results.  While “Crosskeys Bridge Blues” takes on Chicago blues of the Elmore James variety, complete with bottleneck and amplified guitar, both “Hey Oystercatcher” and “Ode to Fahey in G” capture Luke’s fluent fingerpicking style quite admirably.  Rather than bidding farewell to adventures, it seems that Luke’s adventure has just begun.

Barney Bentall | Flesh and Bone | Album Review | True North Records | 08.05.13

With four solo releases under his belt, Vancouver-based singer/songwriter and former Legendary Hearts frontman Barney Bentall adds Flesh And Bone to his canon, which also includes a handful of albums with his band and one or two independent releases.  Suffice to say, Bentall’s recorded output is quite prolific for a musician who spends his days working as a cattle rancher, from which he draws some of that outdoor inspiration, not least in the album’s title.  With a core band that includes Bentall on guitar, harmonica and vocals, Rob Becker on bass, Geoff Hicks on drums, Rick Hopkins on keyboards and Eric Reed on mandolin, banjo and guitar, the eleven self-penned songs have a timeless feel, ranging from the good time bar room honky tonk feel of “Four Went To War”, set against the backdrop of the American Civil War, the on the road chronicle “L’Anse Aux Meadows”, to the Dylan-influenced “Valentine’s Day”, one of the album’s standout songs.  Consistently tight throughout, Flesh And Bone could be the album that brings Bentall’s music to a wider audience.

Djønne & Børsheim | Toras Dans | Album Review | Populærmusikk frå Hardanger | Fivreld | 09.05.13

Norwegian singer/songwriter Annlaug Børsheim took us all by surprise when her delightful debut solo album was released in the spring of 2011 to critical acclaim. Now a couple of years on, Annlaug returns with fellow Hardanger musician Rannveig Djønne for a fine collaborative effort that draws upon both Norwegian and Shetland traditions to create some new and original music.  With songs performed in her native tongue, Annlaug dominates this album with her highly distinctive voice, which almost effortlessly draws the listener in, especially on songs such as “Desember” and “Kom Bli Med”.  The instrumental pieces provide a rich earthy sound, particularly in Rannveig Djønne’s breathy melodeon.  A gorgeous album.

Miranda Sykes and Rex Preston | Sing a Full Song | Album Review | Hands On Music | 09.05.13

This multi-textured follow-up to last year’s self-titled debut sees Miranda Sykes and Rex Preston once again exploring the relationship between the double bass and the mandolin, with even more interesting results.  On this second offering, the duo are joined by Oregon flat-pick guitar player Grant Gordy, whose credentials include a stint with the David Grisman Quintet, a role played previously by the likes of Tony Rice, Mark O’Connor, Frank Vignola and Mike Marshall.  Gordy’s contribution complements Miranda and Rex’s dextrous playing perfectly as they continue to explore a variety of styles from folk and bluegrass to classical and jazz elements.  With a dozen songs, chosen for the most part from the repertoires of contemporary writers such Paul Metsers (“How Soon How Long”, “Slowin’ Down”), Imogen Heap (“Little Bird”) and Bill Jones (“Turn To Me”), with a couple written especially for the duo by Boo Hewerdine (“Me and My Sister the Moon”, “Windowbox”), together with the one traditional ballad (“Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight”), the album weaves such a rich tapestry of acoustic sounds, you can almost feel the wood, especially on the one instrumental “Red Prairie Dawn”, which really wouldn’t be out of place on the next series of the Transatlantic Sessions.  Are you listening Aly?

Brooke Sharkey | One Dress | Album Review | Self Release | R10.05.13

Cutting her musical teeth while busking on the streets of Europe, after some encouragement from her musician father, London-born Brooke Sharkey developed her craft the right way and has now surfaced as a fine and individual musician with her own distinctive and unique style.  Having lived in France for some time, this part singer/songwriter, part chanteuse, dips in and out of Anglo-Franco lingo with ease, on songs such as “Roundabouts and Scarecrows”, “Un Chantier” and in particular “Our Ways”, which demonstrates some pretty nifty multi-lingual credentials. Recorded in a couple of London studios, the songs are full of theatricality and drama with sweeping violin and cello accompaniment, along with French horn and accordion, clearly bringing a rich sense of atmosphere to the album, with Brooke’s voice maintaining the focal point throughout.  Starting with “Autumn”, the obvious choice for an album opener, Brooke weaves in and out of the thirteen highly personal songs with ease, taking the listener along on the journey with her.

Sunjay Brayne | The Fire Down Below | Single Review | KM Records |  11.05.13

If Sunjay Brayne lived in the same pair of denims day in, day out and had holes in his Converse sneakers and mumbled under his breath, while slumped over a battered guitar, he’d probably be a household name by now.  The fact that he chooses the clean cut image may hinder his street cred, but it certainly doesn’t hinder his playing ability, his self-assurance as a singer or his confidence as a live performer. Sunjay’s latest single release finds the young singer/songwriter/guitarist temporarily vacating the solo performer seat to engage with other musicians for a slice of vintage rock n roll, with Bob Seger’s Night Moves-period “The Fire Down Below”.  Accompanied by Dave Pegg on bass and Andy Edwards on drums, Sunjay takes the bluesy original and creates a lighter palette for the gritty lyrics, with his buddy Charlie Barker providing back-up vocals. By contrast, the Guy Clark-esque “Don’t Breathe a Word”, co-written by Sunjay and Alan Whittle, provides a folksy flip side, featuring Eddy Morton on mandolin.

Pip Mountjoy | Your Skeleton | EP Review | Self Release | 12.05.13

Once again presented in a delicately rendered hand-sewn sleeve, Pip Mountjoy’s latest EP and follow-up to last year’s Louisiana, consists of four equally delicately rendered songs, performed with no small measure of confidence that betrays her eighteen years.  Each of the self-penned songs, including the title song, together with “Barely Awake”, “Paper Boats” and “November ‘64”, continue to reveal Pip’s proficiency for writing highly personal, yet acutely melodic and accessible songs.  Produced by Sam Forrest, who also plays piano, bass and percussion, Pip Mountjoy is further joined by Nick Thompson on violin and brother Tom Mountjoy on percussion, who we are reliably informed helps out with the stitching.

The Keelers | Tyne and Tide | Album Review | Keelmusic | 14.05.13

The Unthanks’ Adrian McNally takes time out of his busy schedule to produce the new album by his father-in-law’s Tyneside shanty band The Keelers.  The group, formed in 1986, have been performing sea songs and shanties from their early days in the backroom of the Baltic Hotel on Newcastle’s Quayside, going on to perform at maritime festivals throughout the UK and Europe, appearing on TV and promoting their local traditions to the present day.  The original group was formed by Alan ‘Fitzy’ Fitzsimmons, Jim ‘Shanty Jim’ Mageean, Peter Wood and Steve and Mike Wilson (of The Wilsons), with George Unthank and Danny McLeod joining a couple of years after the band’s inception.  Now settled into the four-piece of Fitzy, Jim, Pete and George, the new album features no less than twenty familiar (and some not so familiar) songs, mostly a cappella with the addition in places of Alan’s whistle and tambourine and Pete’s concertina.  At the fore though, are those four strong passionate voices, driving those songs home.  Equally at home with songs covering a variety of themes from coal mining songs (“Ah Cud Hew”), railroad songs (“New Railroad”), courting songs (“The Landlord’s Daughter”), football songs (“Black and White”), adapted songs from poems (“Mobile Bay”, “Eight Bells”) to songs from the maritime tradition, The Keelers are at their best when covering the songs from their own North East area.  For those familiar with The Unthanks, Tyne And Tyde also includes their seasonal “Tar Barrel in Dale”, performed here by its creator George Unthank.  Handsomely packaged with photographs of the singers, suitably attired for the bracing Northumbrian coastline, this album presents the sort of rousing choruses familiar to anyone who has been lucky enough to hear them in one of the many North East pubs.  Once heard, never forgotten.

Albino | Brand New Fear | EP Review | Guts For Garters | 15.05.13

This new three-track EP from London-based ‘punkabilly’ quartet Albino packs a bit of a punch from the outset with the title song “Brand New Fear”.  The songs encompass, albeit briefly, the combined efforts of four musicians from completely different backgrounds, including half-Australian singer/guitarist Ben Tucker, Liverpudlian drummer Don Gibson, Hampshire-born bouzouki player Matt Parker and Somalian bassist Merv Salole.  The three songs, each penned by Tucker, are also treated to Matt Parker’s breezy trombone embellishments, which effectively provides Albino with their distinctive sound.  There’s also some interesting Russian samples throughout Solarman, a song recalling the Yuri Gagarin period of space exploration, which is crying out to be performed in space to catch up with Britain’s recent president set by Major Tim.  Produced by ex-Death in Vegas guitarist Ian Button, Brand New Fear certainly points towards what may follow.

Ruth Moody | These Wilder Things | Album Review | True North | 17.06.13

If you pull out the accompanying booklet and lyric sheet of Ruth Moody’s new release These Wilder Things and turn to page three, you will find a monochrome photograph of the Wailin’ Jennys’ songstress, treating herself to a blast of cool air.  This is how the songs on this record come over upon the first listen through. The songs run through your hair (if you have any that is) like a refreshing breeze.  It doesn’t seem five minutes since we were treated to Ruth’s debut solo outing last year with The Garden, and now the Australian-born, now Canada-based Juno-winning multi-instrumentalist returns with another ten delicately produced songs, predominantly self-penned with the one outstanding cover, a delightfully laid back re-working of Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark”.  Whenever we think of Ruth Moody, the word ‘graceful’ pops up time and again.  Nowhere on this album does that word apply more accurately than on the stunningly beautiful title song “These Wilder Things”, a song that was the most emotional to record and the last one to be written for the album.  There’s a tendency to be undemocratic when playing the subsequent six songs due to repeat plays of that particular song, which is both delicately atmospheric and heart-wrenchingly moving at the same time.  Produced by David Travers-Smith, These Wilder Things features one or two high profile guests including Mark Knopfler, Jerry Douglas, Mike McGoldrick and John McCusker, together with fellow Jennys’ Nicky Mehta and Heather Masse, with some exceptionally fine mandolin playing courtesy of Jacob Jolliff on the Springsteen song. 

Cathryn Craig and Brian Willoughby | Real World | Album Review | Cabitunes | 18.06.13

The gentle sound that husband and wife team Cathryn Craig and Brian Willoughby make has been anything but a secret over the past few years, with countless concert appearances under their belt and a steady output of fine recordings.  For the duo’s latest release, Real World, a dozen of their strongest songs are performed live in the studio, giving each of those songs that special ‘live’ feel that we have all come to recognise.  With Virginia-born Cathryn’s distinctive voice and Brian’s intuitive guitar accompaniment, the songs are presented with no further embellishment, focusing on the essential part of each of their respective strengths.  Serving as an accurate record of the duo’s live performance for those of us who are familiar with the material, the album also serves as a suitable introduction to those new to these songs, which includes the moving “Alice’s Song”, the cinematic “Two Hearts One Love” and the powerful Native American tour de force “Accanoe” amongst others.

Melinda Ortner | I Wanna Be OK | Album Review | Ziggy Popular Music | 20.06.13

Now and then I get stuck on an album, which prevents me from moving on; stuck for something worthwhile to say, when I really should move on and return later, if I can muster up the enthusiasm to do so.  Melinda Ortner’s single Sweet Little Lies from last year provided a beautifully melodic radio song, which has been played on more than one occasion on the Northern Sky Vaults show.  Unfortunately, this is where it ends for me with the Californian songstress’s full length album I Wanna Be Ok.  Upon the first run though, one or two things jumped out at me, such as the fact that Melinda sometimes can sound a little like Imelda May, with the Irish singer’s distinctly rockabilly revivalist twangy guitars.  Then Melinda can sound ever so slightly like Rebecca Lovell of Larkin Poe, which interests me beyond normal behaviour, especially on “When You’ve Got It All” and the closing song “Maybe”.  These are reasons to keep it out of the ‘pop’ bin that other such releases have found themselves.  Having said all this and feeling slightly guilty about it, the record is well produced, with songs that should do well once Melinda gets the right exposure.

Sarah Matthews | As I Was Walking | Album Review | Coth Records | 22.06.13

Sarah Matthews first came to my attention a number of years ago when the multi-instrumentalist and singer played in a band called Cross o’th Hands.  It was my job to introduce the band at the folk club I was helping to run in Doncaster and I needed a little help with the Derbyshire pronunciation.  Since then, Sarah has been involved in countless projects, not least as part of the concert and dance trio Cupola, with husband Doug Eunson and Oli Matthews, or the slightly expanded quartet Cupola:Ward with fellow Derbyshire songstress Lucy Ward.  For her debut solo album, Sarah has gone all Mike Oldfield, playing all the instruments herself, on a collection of either self-penned, adapted traditional or contemporary songs and tunes.  Sarah approached the album in the manner of an experiment but soon had a fully coherent collection of material, which includes some fine unaccompanied singing (“The Ballad of John Bright/Cathy Shaw/T’owd Brahn ‘En”), rapper sword dance tunes (“Stone Monkey Rapper Dance Set”), no less than two early Joni Mitchell songs (“Chelsea Morning”, “The Fiddle and the Drum”) and one or two songs taken from other projects Sarah has been involved with.  Co-produced by Sarah and Doug, As I Was Walking appears less of an experiment and more of a personal and timeless journey through song and dance.

Dan Wilde | With Fire in Mind | Album Review | Self Release | 23.06.13

The second album by Blackpool-born now Cambridge-based singer/songwriter Dan Wilde, once again reveals a performer who seems to be perfectly at home with fine melodies and engaging stories, with ten more self-penned songs, each treated to a crisp and even acoustic accompaniment.  The songs occasionally recall the heyday of lonely Seventies bedsit songwriting in both style and content, such as “I’ll Never Win and Demons”, both of which demonstrate a highly sensitive attitude towards relationships.  Then there’s the dreadful prospect of having to settle down to a day job addressed in the wryly observed “Previous Experience”, while “Abusing My Position” takes an almost apologetic look at going with the flow.  Waxing philosophical, the optimistic closing song “Want What You Get” offers some possible solutions to the questions that face us, even if they are offered from the bar.  Co-produced with Karl Odlum and Dave Gerard, Dan is joined by Dan Rogers on double bass, Dave Redfearn on electric guitar, Ezio’s Booga on electric guitar, Sean O’Leary on drums, Dave Gerard on percussion and Emily Fraser providing backing vocals.

Cupola | Ivy | Album Review | Coth Records | 24.06.13

The Derbyshire-based trio Cupola bring together traditional folk and early English music influences to create their own refreshingly sprightly sound, mixing old with new on ten well-crafted songs and tunes.  Their rich arrangements are both inventive and complex, yet easily accessible utilising everything from fiddles and melodeons to hurdy gurdys, clarinet and soprano sax.  The expressive playing of Sarah Matthews, Doug Eunson and Oli Matthews, together with their perceptive vocal intuition, makes for a well-suited blend throughout on a variety of songs and tunes from Devon to Scandinavia, Derbyshire to North America and back again, with one or two songs closer to home such as a Derbyshire version of “Spencer the Rover” coupled with a Swedish polska “Roros Pulse”.  Closing with the seasonal “Wassail”, the trio demonstrate their close knit three-part harmonies on an album that celebrates traditional music from around the world, but make the selections seem very much at home in Derbyshire.    

Union Jill | Respectable Rebellion | Album Review | Self Release | 25.06.13

When Helen Turner and Sharon Winfield dropped the ‘Two’ moniker, things began to change for the York-based duo.  Now re-established with the more google-friendly Union Jill, the duo have teamed up with Clive Gregson and John Wood, both in possession of first rate production credentials, having between them twiddled the knobs for a veritable who’s who of important British artists over the year including John Martyn, Nick Drake, Fairport Convention, Cat Stevens, Sandy Denny, Pink Floyd and Oysterband, to name but a few.  Respectable Rebellion, the duo’s third album to date and the first as Union Jill, sees the two singer/songwriters move up a notch or two with the help of Gregson on keyboards and guitars, Andy Seward and Mark Boyce on bass and drums respectively, together with Kate St John on a variety of woodwind instruments and accordion, in effect fattening up Union Jill’s already meaty sound.  With the emphasis on meaningful lyrics and extraordinarily good harmony vocals, the duo are now equipped with the sort of credentials that may open doors that before remained shut.  Having steadily built a solid fan base on the live circuit since their inception seven years ago, the duo have now matched those live shows with an album to be proud of.  With songs touching on subjects as diverse as the Suffragette Movement (“Queen of Holloway”), social injustice (“Mad Alice”), the Chinese cockle picker tragedy (“Morecambe Bay”) featuring some blistering violin courtesy of Ric Sanders, and our growing bystander syndrome attitude (“Red on the Stair”), the duo have created a solid album that deserves to taken notice of.

Blackbeard’s Tea Party | Whip Jamboree | Album Review | Proper | 01.07.13

York-based Blackbeard’s Tea Party have no problem filling the mosh pit at festivals up and down the country with their infectious and energetic live shows, featuring frontman and lead singer Stuart Giddens’ frantic melodeon playing, Laura Barber’s blazing fiddle, Martin Coumbe’s wild electric guitar and Tim Yates’ battle-ready bass, together with all manner of beat-sparring thrown in, courtesy of percussionists Liam Hardy and Dave Boston.  Blackbeard’s Tea Party are essentially a ceilidh band that you daren’t take your eyes off.  Formed in 2009, the band’s reputation has been sealed by their many live appearances at festivals up and down the country and some of that excitement has been captured on this the band’s second full length album.  Balancing the ceilidh dance tunes with some fine folk rock, the band tend to keep it pretty much a lively affair throughout, with little or no room for brooding dirgesville laments.  Whip Jamboree is full-on, exuberant, ebullient and sweaty pirate music, guaranteed to raise a few eyebrows.  No point playing it other than loud.   

Red Moon Joe | Midnight Trains | Album Review | DBS | 01.07.13

Returning after twenty years since their last album, Mark Wilkinson’s Country Rock outfit Red Moon Joe are set to pick up where they left off.  With the addition of pedal steel and dobro picker Steve Conway, the original band are back with Paul Casey once again in the drummer’s seat, Dave Fitzpatrick on guitar, banjo, mandolin and harmonica, David A Smith on bass and Mark Wilkinson up there at the front.  With eleven original songs, predominantly penned by Wilkinson, with Conway co-writing with both Wilkinson and Smith, Midnight Trains delivers the kind of music that leans more towards the Country Rock side of Americana, with punchy songs such as “Girl I Used to Know” and “Save Me”.  The band also venture into bluegrass territory with the bluesy “Valediction” and the banjo-led “Drop the Anchor”, but also have room for a tender moment or two on pensive “Our Song”.  Recorded and produced by the band at the Voodoo Rooms, the album closes with an almost throwaway tribute to the Songbuilder himself, Guy Clark. 

Annalivia | The Same Way Down | Album Review | Self Release | 01.07.13

Bearing little physical resemblance to the five-piece that recorded the band’s previous album Barrier Falls, the newly revitalised Boston-based quartet return with a refreshing new album of both traditional and original material.  Once again led by Liz Simmons on lead vocals and guitar, with Emerald Rae on fiddle and Flynn Cohen on guitar, the trio are joined by California-raised Norwegian fiddler Mariel Vandersteel, who brings a taste of the Norwegian Hardanger tradition to the mix.  With some impressive cross pollination of bluegrass and old time, together with Scottish and Irish songs and tunes, Annalivia come across equally as slick as Alison Krauss and Union Station, sometimes very close indeed on such as “Restless for Awhile”, for which the band are joined by Aoife O’Donovan (Crooked Still).  Produced by Jake Armerding, this richly textured album also features guest appearances from Corey DiMario on bass throughout and Lukas Pool on banjo.  Notable amongst the traditional material, such as the opening “False Sir John” and “Bright Sunny South”, are the originals such as Liz Simmons’ “Deepest Water” and Flynn Cohen’s instrumental “Snag”, which claims to tip a hat to Prog Rock, Joni Mitchell and all things Irish. 

VAMM | VAMM | Album Review | VAMM Records | 01.07.13

With the name of both band and album meaning ‘bewitch’ in Shetlandic, this new trio made up of former Breabach and Blazin’ Fiddles musicians Patsy Reid and Catriona Macdonald respectively (both on fiddle), together with Norwegian Låtmandola (Nordic Mandola) player Marit Fält, explore their own specific traditions to come up with an album of exciting and vibrant instrumental music.  The chosen pieces on the album are far from traditional though, rather they are collected from one or two of our finest contemporary players including Aidan O’Rourke (Lau, Kan) and Edinburgh-based composer Jim Sutherland, together with other notable musicians including Catriona Price, Nathan Armstrong and Cape Breton fiddler Jerry Holland.  Keeping to the old adage, of doing precisely what it says on the tin, VAMM most certainly bewitch us with their arrangements throughout the ten pieces, weaving in and out of each tune with an uncommon delicacy.  Once we reach the end of Darren Milligan’s long and winding “Prospect Road”, we tend to want to go right back to “The Duchess of Yell” and start all over again.  Delightful.   

The Webb Sisters | When Will You Come Home? | EP Review | TWSR | 01.07.13

Siblings Charley and Hattie Webb are pretty good at being in the right place at the right time and have struck up some formidable partnerships over the past few years.  Being taken under the wing of renowned producer Peter Asher is one thing, but sharing countless worldwide stages with Leonard Cohen is another.  This doesn’t mean that they’ve necessarily fluked their way along the road, their talent alone has directed that particular destiny.  With three albums under their belt and a handful of EPs, the Webb Sisters are back with this four-track EP, featuring a couple of self-penned songs, “Missing Person” co-written with Grammy-winning songwriter Dan Wilson and “It May Be Spring But I Still Need a Coat” (tell me about it!), together with the evergreen “Always on My Mind” and Lenny’s sublime “Show Me the Place”, which also appears with fully orchestrated arrangement as a bonus track.

Pharis and Jason Romero | Long Gone Out West Blues | Album Review | Lula Records | 01.07.13

From the opening note of “Sad Old Song”, which opens the new record by Pharis and Jason Romero, there’s a distinctly vintage feel, which stays with us right through to the end of the album.  Some of it is unsurprisingly vintage, such as the traditional “Wild Bill Jones” and “Sally Goodin”, both of which feature Jason’s own hand made banjos (Jason Romero #10250 and #12326, to be precise), but it’s the new and original material that just happens to fit hand in glove with the rest that makes this album so appealing.  It’s also unsurprising that this sort of playing comes from a duo who know a thing or two about their instruments.  Following on from the duo’s debut album as a duo, A Passing Glimpse (2011), this new album further demonstrates Pharis and Jason’s proficiency as first rate pickers to create new music from something much older and ingrained in the past.  The duo appear to be imbued with an almost telepathic understanding of each other’s informed playing, with their arrangements, their tight vocal harmonies and an ever-present sense that they thoroughly enjoy this music; music that gathers the finest aspects of bluegrass, old time and early country, together with a pinch of blues.  With such gems as “I Want To Be Lucky”, “Lonely Home Blues” and the title cut “Long Gone Out West Blues”, this music can be enjoyed equally on stage, on the back porch, or thousands of miles away on record.

Laura Marling | Once I Was An Eagle | Album Review | Virgin | 01.07.13

Laura Marling has come quite a way since those early days as the teenager who wasn’t even old enough to get into her own gigs.  Now dominating world stages, the Hampshire-born singer/songwriter, now re-located to Los Angeles, has reached that crucial moment in her career when she needs to take a few risks.  Her fourth album Once I Was An Eagle takes the risk of including a sort of opening song cycle, with the first half a dozen songs segued Sgt Pepper-like into a deeply personal stream of consciousness.  Unlike the aforementioned 1960s concept album though, the songs that make up what seems like ‘side one’ of this album are pretty dark to say the least, including the title song “I Was An Eagle”, the first single “Master Hunter” and “Devil’s Resting Place”.  With one or two familiar references including a nod to the Zimm with a chorus of “It Ain’t Me Babe”, the open-tuned Eastern-influenced first side is fortified with a wall of inaccessibility too high to get over, too wide to get around.  It’s like Sgt Pepper but made up exclusively of “Within You, Without You”s.  If side one indicates that Marling might be nu-folk’s very own Greta Garbo, with our heroine pretty much wanting to be left alone, side two opens the curtains on a brighter day.  Separating the two ‘sides’ is a brief cello interlude before we return to the sort of Laura Marling songs we are accustomed to.  With her trademark delicate touch and a gentle vibrato, Marling sees us safely to the end of the album with one beautiful performance after another, saving the best words ‘til last.

Bill Kirchen | Seeds and Stems | Album Review | Proper | 01.07.13

Based on the knowledge that Bill Kirchen’s name once graced the credits on a handful of classic Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen LPs in the early 1970s, such as Lost In The Ozone (1971) and Hot Licks, Cold Steel And Truckers Favorites (1972), I was curious enough to check out the Grammy-nominated guitarist when he appeared at the Rockingham Arms in Wentworth, near Rotherham, back in the 1990s.  My memory of that night may be hazy, but I seem to recall the slim bespectacled ‘Titan of the Telecaster’ picking up a trombone mid-set and proceed to play the instrument while hopping from one table to another with the audience frantically grabbing their glasses in order to avoid certain carnage.  The Elvis-like trombone antics, together with a penchant for playing his Telecaster behind his neck, not to mention the virtual run through of the history of rock n roll from Johnny Cash to the Pre-Fab Four, were just a couple of ‘gimmicks’ the thoroughly entertaining Kirchen would employ, but it’s the twangy rockabilly guitar licks that he is renowned for.  Continuing to draw upon rock n roll and country music, with more than a hint of bluegrass and the blues, Kirchen is still having too much fun as the opening number suggests.  Each song on Seeds And Stems cries out for a juke box nickel, just as the songs did when they were first recorded back in the early 1970s, such as “Hot Rod Lincoln”, “Semi Truck”, “Mama Hated Diesels” and the later “Truck Stop at the End of the World”.  Recorded in London, the album sees Kirchen team up once again with his regular rhythm section of Jack O’Dell on drums and Maurice Cridlin on bass.  As a momentary relief from the wall-to-wall twangy rockabilly, Kirchen offers up a delightfully faithful version of “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry”, midway through the record, reminding us of the golden age of Dylan.  A party record for the kind of party this reviewer likes to gatecrash.

Diana Jones | Museum of Appalachia Recordings | Album Review | Proper | 01.07.13

Recorded live before an audience of a crackling open log fire, the eleven original songs that make up Diana Jones’ fourth album could quite easily be mistaken for a much earlier vintage.  The songs recall the sort of Southern Ballad tradition and mountain music that her own grandfather would have been involved with a few decades before, despite them all being written recently and exclusively for this project.  Rich in atmosphere, the songs reflect the hardships of her grandfather’s time such as “Drunkard’s Daughter”, “Orphan’s Home” and “Song for a Worker” as well as one or two obligatory God fearing songs such as “The Other Side”, “O Sinner” and “Satan”.  Recorded in the intimate and cosy surroundings of the early 19th century Peters Homestead Cabin, which is part of the Museum of Appalachia in Norris, Tennessee, the songs feature some fine accompanied courtesy of Matt Combs and Shad Cobb, sharing the fiddle, mandolin, banjo and mandola duties, along with Joe DeJarnette on bass and the additional vocal contributions form Laurelyn Dossett and John Lilly.  New songs with the past embedded deep within their fabric.

Ahab | Wits End | Album Review | Navigator | 01.07.13

The problem with any great live outfit, especially one with a fair amount of cheeky onstage laddish chemistry, is that the gigs are too frequent; so frequent in fact that they afford themselves no spare time to get in the studio to record their material.  London-based ahab are such a band and up to now the five-piece outfit have produced little more than a couple of EPs, together with a live album recorded on their home turf.  Wits End is pretty much those two EPs remastered with the addition of the single Lucy.  The compilation is pretty much the story so far, which gives us a taste of a popular band in the making, presenting their own brand of Americana, peppered with Eagles-like harmonies and a distinct folk/pop sensibility.  With original members Callum Adamson and Dave Burn on guitars and vocals, together with later additions to the line up, Seebs Llewellyn on bass and vocals and Luke Price on mandolin and vocals, ahab have come up with all the necessary credentials that should see them take up their rightful place as a headlining act at multi-genre festivals across the country and further afield.

Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker | Fire and Fortune | Album Review | Navigator | 02.07.13

When they’re not moving furniture around derelict suburban streets, introducing Queen Anne legs to a variety of street corners for their publicity material, Classically-trained musicians Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker usually settle down in other, more musically conducive seats in order to deliver some of their rather sublime songs.  Their latest release, Fire And Fortune is no exception and contains a dozen songs, each treated to some graceful arrangements, whether traditional, contemporary or re-worked.  Right upfront is Josienne’s distinctive vocals; so distinctive in fact as to be recognised by FATEA magazine as the best of the bunch of female voices in their 2012 poll.  I have to agree that Josienne has something rather special, certainly in her mellifluous tone, but also in her informed phrasing, all of which is underpinned with some beautifully crafted and crystal clear guitar passages courtesy of Ben Walker, especially on such songs as “Green Grow the Laurels”, “My Love is Like a Red Red Rose” and “When a Knight Won His Spurs”.  Not only does Josienne tackle such lofty and challenging traditional fare with apparent ease, the singer also adds ‘songwriter’ to her CV with the inclusion of such songs as “After Me”, “Another Perfect Love” and “Anyone But Me” and that’s just the ‘A’s.  Fire And Fortune also sees appearances by Jim Moray on piano, John Parker on double-Bass, Jo Silverston on cello, Basia Bartz on Violin, Ivan Mendiola on drums and Ruairi Glasheen on Bodhran.

Various Artists | The Beautiful Old Turn-Of-The-Century Songs | Album Review | Doubloon Records | 03.07.13

‘They don’t write ‘em like that anymore’ we are often told, and there’s certainly more than an element of truth to that.  The Beautiful Old (Turn Of The Century Songs), explores the sort of material that became million-sellers before records were invented.  Sheet music was once a lucrative business for early Tin Pan Alley songwriters and here some of those early songs are revisited.  Thankfully, the songs retain their elegance with some fine piano arrangements courtesy of The Band’s Garth Hudson.  Performing “Come Josephine in My Flying Machine” as a tumblrwave rap has been tastefully avoided in favour of authentically arranged musical accompaniment; think more along the lines of Rose floating along in the Atlantic on a plank at midnight singing to the moon and you’d be closer.  Yes indeed, songs to survive a shipwreck to.  Covering almost 100 years of songwriting, from “Home Sweet Home” (1823) performed here by Christine Collister, to the relatively modern instrumental “Till We Meet Again” (1918), these old songs recall an age that not many of us will actually remember.  Some of the songs included here make up part of an everyday repertoire that was learned through osmosis, while others will more than likely be new to us.  While The Kinks’ Dave Davies tackles “After the Ball”, the first ever million-seller, Richard Thompson provides a veritable knees-up with the opening song “The Band Played On” (1895) – but that’s bang up to date compared with some of the stuff he delivered on his 1000 Years Of Popular Music album.  Produced by Paul Martsteller and Gabriel Rhodes, the album throws up one or two surprises, such as Eric Bibb’s take on “Just a-Wearying For You”, which sees the bluesman in Paul Robeson mode and Graham Parker’s jaunty take on the old circus broadsheet “The Flying Trapeze”, complete with swirling Mr Kite type flurries from Hudson’s accordion.  Difficult to say precisely at what sort of function and in what sort of circumstances this record should be played, but a hankering for the good old days complete with elaborate introductions courtesy of Leonard Sachs is a good place to start. 

Lucky Bones | Someone’s Son | Album Review | Lucky Bones Promotions | 03.07.13

The first Lucky Bones album Together We Are All Alone released to wide acclaim in 2011 was essentially Dublin-born Eamonn O’Connor backed by a bunch of well-chosen session players. Someone’s Son sees O’Connor team up with the more stable band line-up featuring Leon Kennedy on bass, Conor Miley on keyboards and Peter O’Grady on guitars, in order to further explore O’Connor’s Americana flavoured rootsy-rock sound, a ground upon which to deliver a further eleven self-penned songs.  Co-produced once again by Stephen Ceresia and recorded at Sunday House Studios in Bastrop, Texas, the songs demonstrate a further development in O’Connor’s writing with a growing maturity, which O’Connor puts down to a diet of Townes Van Zandt, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits, which all goes towards the band’s distinct sound.

State of the Union | Snake Oil | Album Review | Reveal Records | 04.07.13

The inspired pairing of Boo Hewerdine and Brooks Williams for their debut eponymous album of 2012 was thankfully not just a one-off with the duo releasing their second full-length album just over a year on.  That year of collaboration has done nothing to diminish their enthusiasm for playing together and after almost sixty live appearances, with even a spot on Andrew Marr’s Sunday morning current affairs programme, if anything they’ve just got better, cooler and tighter than ever before.  Having the ability to write songs that sound every much as memorable as the great popular songs of the mid-20th century, yet still making the songs sound equally contemporary, the duo’s individual and collective repertoire is instantly accessible, totally catchy and imbued with the only factor that really matters, an almost tangible feel-good sensibility.  The possible reason that the songs on Snake Oil maintain that 1930s and 40s feel is the subject matter, which alludes to medicine shows and hucksters, the depression era, old photos and Brooks Williams’ sweet homage to home in Georgia, which if it was a stick of Blackpool rock would have nostalgia written all the way through it.  The eleven songs, however good, would be less well served if not for the almost telepathic guitar duelling and Everly Brothers standard harmonies throught the album.  Of all the words to describe this duo, the one that would be off to the desert island with them would be ‘classy’.  We can rest assured that the union is in a healthy state.

Kevin Doherty | Seeing Things | Album Review | Proper | 05.07.13

On this, the fourth solo album by Dublin-based singer/songwriter and Four Men and a Dog singer/guitarist Kevin Doherty, the similarity to Leonard Cohen can’t really be avoided, not only in the overall presentation, but specifically in the occasional deep timbre of his voice.  Unlike Cohen though, Doherty can also occasionally reach Jeff Buckley-like heights in the falsetto department, providing a wide vocal palette.  The Cohen influence also manifests itself in the gentle fingering of nylon strings, together with that particular poetic touch, especially in lines such as ‘I never tried playing flamenco before, but now I’m drawn to the minor’ (“I Saw the Rose”), which could quite easily be very much a part of the Cohen Canon.  Seeing Things is named after Irish literary giant Seamus Heaney’s ninth collection of poetry and also provides the title of one of the most interesting songs on the album, as Doherty contemplates ‘seeing his baby’ to avoid thinking of the perils of being so far off the ground in an airplane above Athens.  These small passing thoughts are what make this album so engaging.  We could even easily forget that Doherty is in fact Irish, as there’s little in his voice to suggest his roots.  Even Rambling Irishman is more Van Zandt than Van Morrison.  The dreamy quality present on most of these ten songs offers an inviting respite from the hustle bustle of everyday life, especially on songs such as “I’m Going Now”, “Esplendido Corazon” and the Lou Reed-like “New York City”.

Dubl Handi | Up Like The Clouds | Album Review | Self Release | 08.07.13

Named after a nineteenth century Washboard company, Dubl Handi (pronounced Double Handy) is essentially made up of banjo player Hilary Hawke and percussionist Brian Geltner, whose take on familiar Appalachian folk songs is both archaic and contemporary at the same time.  The Brooklyn-based duo’s music couldn’t be further away from their urban roots, but their deliberate intention to bring this music to the city comes with an almost evangelical determination.  The fifteen relatively short songs and tunes provide a snapshot of old timey American grass roots music encompassed on one album, with sources ranging from Uncle Dave Macon, Ola Belle Reed and Roscoe Holcombe to original compositions by Hawke, such as the Earl Scruggs inspired “Pickin’ Chicken Breakdown”.

The Abramson Singers | Late Riser | Album Review | Copperspine Records | 09.07.13

Bound in an intriguing cover featuring a radio alarm clock, a flying shirt, a discarded sock and a spilt cup, the usual paraphernalia for any late riser, the eleven songs on the second album by Vancouver singer-songwriter Leah Abramson and her band The Abramson Singers, further demonstrate the band’s penchant for writing and performing extraordinary and captivating songs, the emphasis being on their rich multi-layered voices, especially on “Liftoff Canon”, which is almost reminiscent of Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman” with its quirky vocal interplay (although we don’t say vocal anymore – we say vox).  Produced by Colin Stewart, Late Riser occasionally borrows from country elements but it’s hardly Country Music.  The songs have an indie-folk quality to them, easily accessible and melodically structured to provide more than the occasional hook that effortlessly draws the listener in.  The nine songs (and a couple of short instrumental interludes) range from uplifting to sombre but share a common sound, which is at once inviting and is sure to leave a favourable impression.

Blue Rose Code | North Ten | Album Review | Reveal | 11.08.13

Now based in London, Edinburgh-born Ross Wilson has trodden a long and hard path of personal troubles to find himself where he is now; clean, sober and highly creative.  Under the pseudonym of Blue Rose Code, his debut album North Ten reveals a mature songwriter in possession of a clear sense of melody, whose troubles seem very much behind him.  The ten songs almost stand as a statement of intent for the future, bathed in wanderlust, anticipation and hope.  The sprightly opener “Whitechapel”, has an almost “Everybody’s Talking” sense of cheerfulness, as Ross delivers his optimistic message; that the future is potentially bright.  With so much darkness behind him, North Ten manages to sustain a feel-good sensation throughout, especially on the infectious “Julie”, the exquisite “Come the Springtime” and the Celtic-influenced “From Wester Ross to Nova Scotia”.  With Danny Thompson on board, with his trademark double bass, the John Martyn influence is further felt on the jazz-inflected “This is Not a Love Song”, which wouldn’t be out of place on any mid-period Martyn album.

Lucy Ward | Single Flame | Album Review | Navigator | 13.08.13

One revered rootsy reviewer recently noted that Lucy Ward’s debut album Adelphi Has To Fly received ‘absurdly over-enthusiastic reviews’ upon its release in 2011.  I recall being so impressed with the album at the time, that my review could quite possibly have been one of them.  I certainly didn’t feel I was being the slightest bit absurd when writing it, not in the least.  When you get clobbered with music you love, then there’s no such thing as over-enthusiastic.  After picking up last years’ Horizon Award at the BBC Folk Awards and making herself extremely busy in the meantime, Lucy has found time to concentrate on this her second album, confining herself to the studio with Megson’s Stu Hannah at the controls.  There’s almost a feeling that this young singer might have come of age with Single Flame, which is released through Navigator Records.  There’s a dozen songs here, each strategically placed to stir the emotions and not unlike Lucy’s heroine June Tabor, there’s an emphasis on atmosphere throughout.  Using the voice she was born with, avoiding mannered embellishment or imitation, Lucy Ward knows how to tell a story.  A passionate singer with a strong social conscience, Lucy has the ability to make us think.  “For the Dead Men” was the album’s sneak preview, being released as a single well before the release of this album, giving us a sense of where Lucy’s song writing might be heading.  The protest songs continue with “I Cannot Say I Will Not Speak”, from which the album title derives, with its nod towards Dylan and Melanie and the ideals of the Sixties generation, to thought-provoking meditations on the mythical (“Icarus”) and the real (“Ink”), inspired by Alexander Masters book Stuart: A Life Backwards.  Balancing the contemporary with the traditional is never an easy act to achieve but Lucy does it with a natural gift and flair, especially if we compare her own beautiful and meditative “Shellback” with the traditional “Lord I Don’t Want To Die In The Storm”, each song imbued with melancholy and lonely contemplation.  Most of us who have been entertained by Lucy’s infectious stage personality, her ever changing appearance and colourful rapport with her audiences far and wide, together with her proud Derbyshire roots and buoyant spirit, will be equally impressed and uplifted by the sensitivity demonstrated by this fine singer on this equally fine album.  

Cocos Lovers | Gold or Dust | Album Review | Smugglers Records | 14.08.13

Cocos Lovers are one of the big discoveries for me this year, despite having seen the band at the Cambridge Folk Festival in 2010 and being inexplicably unmoved by their Club Tent performance.  My antenna was obviously down.  Just three years on and their music has finally broken through, leaving me leaping about enthusiastically, even to the point of barging in on their Sunday morning busking session at this year’s festival, demanding they play “Under the Hawthorn Tree”, to which they duly obliged.  The seven-piece Kent-based collective entertain no apparent musical boundaries and during their live shows, regularly swap around their armoury of instruments, from various percussion, trumpet, musical saw, fiddle, flute, guitar, mandolin and banjo, in order to reveal their most comfortable deployment.  Their music is a rich hybrid of styles from around the world, including African rhythms, mariachi trumpet and Southern American roots, all adding flavour to the bands own unique vocal sound.  Gold Or Dust, the band’s third album to date following their debut Johannes (2009) and follow up Elephant Lands (2011), potentially has the vital spark to bring their music to a wider audience, due to the album’s many sonic hooks, from the sprightly “Walk Among the Ghosts” and the feel-good spirit of “Son of a Merchant” to the almost gospel delivery of the title song.  One of the standout songs, “Emily”, demonstrates perfectly where Cocos Lovers’ music belongs; out of its case and on the player.  Gold Or Dust is the kind of record you put on that player to impress friends; to play in good restaurants in order to entice more customers in; to play in the car on a hot sunny day whether you drive a convertible or not; to dance around the living room whether a loved one is next to you or not.  Cocos Lovers are there to make you feel better.  Enjoy.

Gary Hall | Winning Ways on Losing Streaks | Album Review | Northern Sun | 17.08.13

There are moments on Gary Hall’s new album when you tend to forget that this singer/songwriter hails from Lancashire, “Long Mynd Mornings” for example, when you could easily be listening to Tom Russell.  Spending some time in the States has certainly rubbed off and the eleven songs on Winning Ways On Losing Streaks are testament to the influences that Gary has picked up along the way.  Gary’s Britishness also shines through, certainly in the lyrics of the opening song “The Feel Good Factor Blues”, where the singer confesses that he’s been ‘higher than Simon Cowell’s waistband’, although come to think about it, Cowell is probably just as well known over there as he is here (unfortunately.)  Co-produced by Ian Bailey, Gary has also surrounded himself with a selection of fine musicians; look no further than the fiddle solo on “Stick Around Bojangles”, courtesy of Richard Curran, for proof of that.  With ten originals and the one non-original, a pretty faithful version of The Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel”, Gary manages to bridge that ever decreasing stretch of water (the Atlantic) and has crafted an enjoyable album in the process.

The Revelers | The Revelers | Album Review | Self Release | 18.08.13

Packaged in an authentic-looking 1960s pastiche Bert Kaempfert-styled record sleeve, this self-titled debut from the five-piece Lafayette-based quintet The Revelers is all set to party-on with some fine Cajun-based dance songs.  Drawn from the founding member of both the Red Stick Ramblers and The Pine Leaf Boys, The Revelers formed specifically appear on HBO’s popular series Treme and seemed to enjoy it so much that they went on to release an album full of infectious retro-swamp pop.  Combining the various Southern ‘swamp’ styles such as Cajun, Blues, Zydeco and Country music, the half dozen or so songs here fit perfectly into the jukebox mould, so much so, you can almost hear the coin going in, the unlocking of the mechanism, the stylus dropping on the groove and the momentary crackle before the music kicks in.  “Jukebox Songs” further describes the vending machine’s appeal.  “Cry For You” sounds like it could’ve been included on The Beatles second album, while “Kidnapper”s groove encapsulates the entire 1950s/60s scene in both the music and The Untouchables TV-noir theme.  Added to this the band’s authentic French-speaking songs such as “Asteur Je Peux Voir” and “La Jolie Fleur Dubois”, the party swings through to the final lift of the stylus.  A promising debut.

Gill Sandell | Light the Boats | Album Review | Rowan Tree Records | 20.08.13

There seems to be little point in even thinking about doing something else while listening to Gill Sandell’s new solo record Light The Boats.  The eleven songs require your attention, even if that means reclining in a comfy chair in order to absorb all the delicate nuances that inhabit these songs.  Each song is self-composed and treated to rich orchestral accompaniment courtesy of Gill’s band mates in the Red Clay Halo, including that band’s leader Emily Barker, together with a handful of other carefully selected musicians.  The songs have a delicate sense of atmosphere throughout, especially on the arrangements of “Sickle Swing”, for example, which in effect beats to the rhythm of each swing of the sickle and again on “Distance”, which ebbs and flows in precisely the same manner as the events the song describes.  Following on from Gill’s debut solo album Tarry A While (2011), these new songs once again showcase the singer’s ability to almost control your mood, to place you the listener in an almost trance-like state.  “The Listening Ear” is reminiscent of Bert Sommer’s “Jennifer” in that its dreamlike nature seems to absorb you, much in the same way as Bert’s song did at Woodstock (a long time ago!)  An exquisite album.

Steve Tilston Trio | Happenstance | Album Review | Hubris Records | 23.08.13

It’s been quite a long time since I first discovered Steve Tilston’s songs for myself at an otherwise uneventful evening at the Bay Horse Folk Club in Doncaster, sitting at the sound desk, twiddling knobs and listening to the man’s voice in the cans gently requesting a bit more top etc., followed by, to be brutally honest, not one of his best gigs.  However, something happened that night that made me actually sit up and listen.  For the first time I heard his songs.  Big fan ever since.  Our paths have met several times since and on each occasion it comes with a bunch of new well-crafted songs.  Like in the case of some of his notable contemporaries, Bert Jansch, Davy Graham and Martin Simpson, I’ve always felt Steve’s best work is his solo work, when he performs completely alone with his guitar.  Therefore I have to confess from the start, the additional musicians sort of get in the way slightly.  Granted, not a great or positive note to start on, but it’s really a minor niggle.  After all if it wasn’t for the Steve’s collaborative endeavours, we wouldn’t have had Waz, Ship of Fools, his recent work with The Durbervilles, nor the three albums he made with Maggie Boyle.  Stuart Gordon and Keith Warmington provide some empathetic accompaniment throughout on both violin and harmonica respectively, with Stuart chipping in a variety of additional musical spices along the way.  Happenstance is made up of both originals and traditional adaptations with one or two previously recorded Tilston standards such as “Rocky Road”, a song he wrote for the Fairport Institution and “Blues from the North Wind”, from the mid-1990s album And So It Goes.  Steve often offers up something quite unexpected, standards such as “Blue Skies” and “It’s Now or Never” spring to mind.  In the case of this album it happens to be Irvin Berlin’s “Let’s Face the Music and Dance”, a song Steve learned especially for his eldest daughter’s wedding.  Sophie returned the favour by providing the cover painting for dad’s new record.  Steve occasionally would preface his song “Here Comes the Night” with an excerpt from Erik Satie’s “Gymnopédie”, kind of hinting at the fact that this guitar player listens to and absorbs everything, not just folk ballads, pop songs and vintage classics, and here during the coda to the traditional “Martin Said to His Man”, also known as “Who’s the Fool Now”, Steve offers a nod to Ronald Binge with a few bars of his “Elizabethan Serenade”.  On the instrumental “Jimmy’s Train”, Steve goes further still to incorporate some of Jim Hall’s complex rhythms that once famously sparred with Jimmy Giuffre’s sax playing on the iconic “Train and the River”, from an entirely different time.  At a push the harmonica jars a little, much the same as it does on some of Rab Noakes’ later recordings.  Nothing wrong with the playing but I personally find the harmonica beautifully placed on Chicago blues or Stevie Wonder records and certainly during solos, but accompanying great and already well-rounded folk songs is for me a little cloying.  That aside, harmonica player Keith Warmington does play extremely well and also contributes the beautiful penultimate song, “Sentimental”, sung by Steve and incorporating some nice harmonica, in this case perfectly placed.  The final piece of music comes courtesy of Stuart Gordon, “Little Norris”, an instrumental piece that wouldn’t be out of place during one of Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett’s dance routines.  Minor niggles aside, a fabulous album and one that would have no problem rubbing shoulders with Steve Tilston’s best work. 

Lily Henley | Words Like Yours | EP Review | Self Release | 24.08.13

Lily Henley’s Words Like Yours EP demonstrates perfectly a singer/musician who has done her homework.  Having already absorbed a variety of Celtic and American roots influences, which could easily have resulted in an earlier recording, Lily went on to further explore the music and language of Sephardic culture in Israel, before teaming up with noted Israeli jazz musician Omer Avital to record the impressive seven songs that make up her debut release.  Surrounding herself with a handful of empathetic musicians, including Dominick Leslie on mandolin and mandola, Duncan Wickel on 5-string fiddle, Jordan Tice on guitar and Israel’s Haggai Cohen-Milo on bass, this Boston-based singer/fiddle player gives us just a taste of what could potentially become for this artist the bedrock of a promising musical career.  From the opening song, the self-penned “Two Birds”, there’s a sense that we already know what Lily’s voice is all about, clearly American, clearly rootsy but with a contemporary edge.  Then by the next song, the traditional Sephardic “Dark Girl”, Lily takes on an unexpected tangent, with a highly expressive vocal performance, enriched further by the exhilarating arrangement.  The surprises continue with another original composition “Her Song”, which is as much Pentangle as “Cruel Sister” or “Light Flight”.  A fine and assured debut.

Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin | Mynd | Album Review | Dragonfly Roots | 18.09.13

To many, the enchanting songs and instrumental aptitude of Devon-based Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin came via support spots for fellow Devonians Show of Hands a couple of years ago.  Since then, Phil and Hannah have carved out quite a niche for themselves on the acoustic music scene, not only through their ethereal voices and bucolic stage presence, but also through their utterly charming approach to music making.  On top of all this is the duo’s command over their respective instruments.  Not only is Phil a first rate Dobro player but he also has the ability to make the harmonica talk, and make us all perfectly well aware of what it’s saying, while Hannah is a fine fiddle player, who also knows a thing or two about the banjo.  During the duo’s live performances, there’s a lot going on and it often seems like there are more musicians on the stage at any given time.  Phillip and Hannah’s second album Mynd, apparently old English for memory or remembrance, contains a dozen songs, either original, traditional or revamped with the additional bonus track, a fine take on James Taylor’s evergreen “You Can Close Your Eyes”, a song that occasionally closes their live set.  With Hannah taking care of the lyrics for the most part, the songs conjure a sense of the past, mirrored by the artwork, of barren lands and standing stones.  The music, drawn from the English landscape, is interspersed with some of Phil’s Eastern influences, having studied slide guitar with Debashish Bhattacharya, one of India’s foremost musicians in Calcutta.  This influence can be found on Phil’s own composition “Elegy”, which was written for and performed at probably the duo’s biggest gig thus far, Show of Hands’ 20th Anniversary Concert at the Royal Albert Hall, where the duo were supporting last Easter.  Full of atmosphere, especially during Hannah’s reading of “The Banks of the Nile” and the two-part arrangement of the traditional “The Nailmaker’s Strike”, the album maintains an almost pastoral mood throughout, even during some of Phil’s post-modern beat boxing, which as always, adds a contemporary edge to this duo’s fine and remarkable music.

Will Varley | As the Crow Flies | Album Review | Smugglers Records | 22.09.13

There’s something in the water down in Deal just lately.  Over the last few years the small southern coastal town in Kent has produced a small but vibrant musical community disguised as smugglers, notably the wonderfully inventive Cocos Lovers.  Singer songwriter, novelist and filmmaker Will Varley is very much a part of this collective and with a little help of some of the Lovers, Will’s second album As The Crow Flies reveals a song writer with a lot to say.  The basement of the Old Smugglers Cottage once again provided the recording space for these eleven songs with a handful of musicians popping in and out to help, notably Cocos Lovers’ Natasha Greenham on fiddle and saw, Phil Self on mandolin and Nicola Vella and Billy Glinn providing additional vocals.  At times reminiscent of the great 1960s protest singers, some of Will’s songs are bitingly satirical utilising a humorous angle to get to the point such as on the almost throwaway “I Got This Email”, which we can all empathise with.  Still politically aware, the songs here are at times slightly darker than on Will’s debut, which also brings an element of maturity as a writer.  The youthful and gutsy vocal delivery is very much intact, a useful tool for driving a message home, such as the sprawling docu-drama “Weddings and Wars” or the light-hearted Dylan-inspired “Self Checkout Shuffle”.  The ‘lived-in’ voice is also used to great effect on some of the more sensitive songs such as the heart-breaking “She’s Been Drinking”.  Produced by David Hatton Jnr, apparently as ‘the wind raged outside’ and possibly as smugglers and pirates approached from their abandoned vessels, As The Crow Flies joins a steadily growing canon of well-crafted CD releases that deserve much wider exposure. 

Antun Opic | No Offence | Album Review | Antuned | 23.09.13

From the opening few bars of the opening song “Hospital”, we get an immediate sense of Antun Opic’s free spirited gypsy jazz, with its infectious guitar riffs and almost throw-away vocal delivery.  Further along we discover a broad range of starkly contrasting melodic styles, each self-penned song delivered in Antun Opic’s highly individual style.  The core trio that also adopts the same name includes Anton’s former guitar teacher Tobias Kavelar on guitar, banjo and ukulele and Horst Fritscher on acoustic bass, who between them weave some intricate arrangements around Opic’s songs.  With a street band background (Wildwuxx) together with some punk-cabaret touring (Strom and Wasser), the German/Croatian singer songwriter chooses to write in English and occasionally sounds comes over as a Balkan equivalent to David Gray, although Opic is keen to shrug off any Balkan connection to his music.  Antun Opic’s appeal lies in an effortless combination of influences from Spanish flamenco and the gypsy jazz of Django Reinhardt to the trumpet stylings of South American dance traditions, but maintains his own distinctive sound throughout, summed up perhaps in the closing song “Rootless Tree”.

Lisa Knapp | Hidden Seam | Album Review | Navigator | 24.09.13

There’s something other-worldly about Lisa Knapp’s music, which often seems dreamlike, remote, out at sea as the cover of her new record suggests.  Since first hearing Lisa’s debut Wild And Undaunted, there’s always been a sense of the ethereal; music found in a dusty attic, where the wooden rocking horse gently rocks but with no one in the room and did that lace curtain just move?  If Lisa is the Queen of the weirdly mystical then Alasdair Roberts is the Dark Prince and the two find themselves in the same dusty attic on the two-part “Hunt the Hare”, based partly upon “The Rocky Road to Dublin”, with Roberts contributing some of his inimitable and empathetic vocals.  The well-worn music journo adage that proposes that our favourite singers could ‘sing the telephone directory for all I care’ almost becomes a reality on the opening song, where Lisa lists the Met Office’s shipping areas, making even ‘Humber’ sound weirdly beautiful.  “Shipping Song” is the perfect opener to Hidden Seam, Lisa’s eagerly anticipated second album, an album full of unexpected twists and turns, aided by other notable ‘strange folk’ A-listers James Yorkston and Marry Waterson on Lal Waterson’s “Black Horse” and Kathryn Williams on the closing lullaby, the co-written “Hushabye”.  Not only does Lal Waterson’s daughter guest on the album, there’s even Lal’s bro-in-law Martin Carthy, who helps out on the poignant “Two Ravens”, a song that addresses the ‘cruel and merciless’ Alzheimers, contributing some of his unmistakable trademark playing.  Wrapped in a fabulously photographed sleeve courtesy of David Angel and produced by Lisa’s husband Gerry Diver, Hidden Seam not only provides any good record collection with a crucial bed fellow, musically speaking, it is also an object of desire (aesthetically speaking).  Beautiful.  

Brooks Williams | New Everything | Album Review | Red Guitar Blue Music | 25.09.13

The slim, almost unassuming figure of Statesboro-born singer/songwriter Brooks Williams can often be seen strolling over fields at some of the UKs major festivals or tuning up at your local folk or acoustic club with a broad smile on his face.  We in the UK are really quite lucky to have Brooks Williams as a resident.  Now based in Cambridge, the musician has already released a steady flow of excellent albums both as a solo performer and alongside Cambridge native Boo Hewerdine in the duo State of the Union.  Hewerdine in fact makes an appearance here on the title song.   On New Everything, Williams once again presents a mixture of self-penned country blues influenced songs such as “Son of a Gun”, “Prosperity” and “Carry On”, a song that appears twice on the album, first as a stripped down acoustic take and then later with a full band, together with one or two well-chosen non-originals such as Dave Alvin’s timeless “King of California”.  Martin Simpson also makes a guest appearance on “Deep River Blues”, sparring effortlessly with Williams both who play resonator guitars.  Each of the dozen or so selections finds Williams in a pretty laid-back mood, revealing a set that shows the lighter side of the blues.   Co-produced by Williams and Andy Bell up in Sheffield, New Everything, does indeed borrow heavily from the blues tradition but in turn offers in the delivery a rich blend of American musical styles that ought not be pigeon-holed in any particular genre.  It’s American music peppered with a pinch of Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers, Doc Watson and Blind Willie McTell with an additional flavouring of The Beatles, particularly at the end of the title song, an influence that has presumably risen up through the soles of his shoes from this green and pleasant land now beneath his feet.   

Raina Rose | Caldera | Album Review | Self Release | 28.09.13

With almost all of her rights of passage coming along simultaneously, Raina Rose’s life has changed in oh so many ways, most notably becoming a wife and mother with all the responsibilities that go with it.  With a lifestyle accustomed to the pursuit of discovery, travel, music making and the usual joy that youthful freedom brings, Raina Rose faces the challenges head on and uses the volcanic crater as a metaphor for the ‘fecund environment for new life to inhabit’ as the singer/songwriter so eloquently puts it.  With four albums already under her belt, Raina returns with ten self-penned songs, each presented with a mature, almost chanteuse delivery and with a voice that melts your senses.  Highly melodic, the songs pivot effortlessly between the moody velvet tones of the opening song “Secret”, the lilting sing-a-long pop of “Trouble”, for which Raina surrounds herself with a veritable who’s who of Americana’s leading lights including Carrie Elkin, Danny Schmidt and Sam Baker to the utterly soulful “Swing the Gates Wide”, featuring a duet with Paul Curreri and the almost Motown beat of “I Lost It”, which carries an FCC warning together with a radio friendly download option.  That’s a caring spirit for you.

Tim Edey | Sailing Over the 7th String | Album Review | Gnatbite Records | 29.09.13

Tim Edey’s track record as a highly regarded musical collaborator and session man is outstanding, working with some of the top brass artists on the Celtic music scene such as The Chieftains, Christy Moore, Sharon Shannon, Mary Black, Brendan Power, Julie Fowlis and many more besides.  It stands to reason then, that his solo work should equal that standard of playing.  For anyone taking up an instrument in the first place, musicians like Tim have the tendency to make you growl; not only is he a virtuoso guitarist, which is demonstrated time and again on this new instrumental album, but he’s also a wizard on the melodeon.  Both instruments are featured throughout this album and there are occasions when he plays both, not at the same time I hasten to add (but I wouldn’t put it past him), Tim’s take on the old Stephen Foster tune “Swanee River” for instance.  Essentially an instrumental guitar album, Sailing Over The 7th String features some inspiring accompaniment, not only in Tim’s melodeon work but also in the playing of the three exceptional musicians Tim has invited along to play on the album; Patsy Reid on fiddle and string arrangements, Lucy Randall on percussion and Steve Cooney on guitar and bass.  Keeping it all stimulating throughout, Tim explores his own Irish roots as well as seasoning the album with a variety of styles from Latin America (“Rumba Negra”) and gypsy jazz (“Swanee River”) to Cape Breton fiddle tunes and the odd hornpipe combined (“Crossing the Cape”).  Something for everyone then on this highly accomplished work.

Fabian Holland | Fabian Holland | Album Review | Rooksmere Records | 30.09.13

My first encounter with young London-based singer/songwriter Fabian Holland was way back in October 2010 when he gave up some of his time to appear on the bill at one of the Folk Delivering Hope concerts up in South Yorkshire.  His performance at that concert clearly marked him out as a promising new talent whose star was most definitely on the rise.  All he needed was a good producer, some generous studio time, one or two additional songs and a temporary break from his comfort zone while one or two publicity shots were taken.  Then it would be full steam ahead and the launch of his solo recording career would commence in earnest, a career that would potentially mirror his engaging live performances.  Fast forward two and a half years to April 2013 and our paths crossed once again, when we both found ourselves in the company of mutual friends during a weekend spent on a working sheep farm in County Durham, where I was pleased to share a few songs with him during the evening and observe him putting the finishing touches to some new songs in the morning, ready to take along to the studio shortly afterwards.  Rooksmere Records had the foresight to take up the baton and run with it, as they had done previously with Dan Walsh, Will Pound and Blair Dunlop, all of whom are now very much in the folk and acoustic consciousness.  Fabian Holland has lived and breathed his music over the last few years; from London and Bristol to the Abruzzo Region of Italy, where he spent some considerable time developing his unique style.  Busking was one aspect of his development, playing to small gatherings in bars and coffee houses was another, all the while honing his craft, while writing a handful of sensitive songs to complement his extraordinary playing. In his repertoire there are the blues influences of Bob Brozman, Kelly Joe Phelps and most notably Skip James on “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues”, which interweaves effortlessly with the British folk sensibility of such as “Banks of the Dee”.  The album’s strongest feature though is Fabian’s own song writing, the delivery of those songs in particular and the extraordinary relationship this musician has with his guitar.  There’s almost a sense, when observing a Fabian Holland performance, that you are eavesdropping on something confidential, almost clandestine, off the record.  Rarely do you see such a deep relationship between a musician and his instrument.  “The Landlord’s Daughter”, “Like Father Like Son” and “Home” each demonstrate the intimacy and sensitivity of Fabian’s craft.  Produced by Mark Hutchinson, the eponymous album  has contributions from Tim Harries on double bass, Guy Fletcher on fiddle, Simon Care on melodeon and Will Pound on harmonica, each musician clearly chosen for their empathetic playing.  I had a feeling about this musician three years ago and if anything that feeling has only grown stronger.  Enjoy.    

Jimmy Brewer | As Time Stands Still | Album Review | Self Release | 16.10.13

The debut album by Lincolnshire-born singer/songwriter Jimmy Brewer comprises of a dozen self-penned songs that immediately reveal a discerning sense of melody, especially on the title song which opens the album.  For each of the songs, Brewer manages to create a contemporary feel while at the same time alluding to 1970s bedsit-era song writing craftsmanship, timelessly reflected in the cover shot of a sepia landscaped clock face.  The songs can appear to have a playfulness that borders on the whimsical, such as the vertically challenged “Two Inches Taller” and the gentle love song that adopts a popular fastening tape as a metaphor for closeness in “Velcro Girl”.  Brewer’s seemingly vulnerable and cracked voice works best on the soulful ballads such as “It Still Aches” and the tender “Gordon” but is also used to good effect on the doo-wop influenced nostalgia of “Watching Records Go Round and Round”.  Owain Fleetwood Jenkins’ production brings a nostalgic feel in all the appropriate places but sees that As Time Stands Still overall comes over as a valid contemporary song-focussed album.

Laura-Beth Salter | Breathe | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 17.10.13

Familiar to anyone attending a concert by the all-female sextet The Shee, for which her mandolin playing provides more than a touch of the band’s Oldtime/Bluegrass feel, Laura-Beth Salter releases her debut solo album, much of which initially materialised as part of her New Voices commission of songs and instrumentals for the 2012 Celtic Connections festival.  With a nomination for the MG Alba Scots Trad Award Composer of the Year, Laura-Beth is well-equipped with the necessary credentials to launch her own solo career.  Not that this is going to make much difference to her collaborative work; Laura-Beth is comfortable working with her fellow musicians and on Breathe, the Lincolnshire-born singer/mandolin player has gathered an impressive cast of musicians, including Jenn Butterworth on guitar, James Lindsay on double bass, Adam Sutherland on fiddle and Nathon Jones on dobro.  The bulk of the songs and instrumentals are self-penned with a couple of well-chosen non-originals strategically placed in the mix, including a jazz-infected take on Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks period “Meet Me in the Morning” together with a tastefully rendered version of Tim O’Brien’s “Brother Wind”.  Laura-Beth seems to be most comfortable with the Americana aspect of her music, playing the mandolin like an Appalachian native and ensuring, with no small assistance form co-producer Barry Reid, that the instrument stays pretty much up front, where it should be.  Added to her dextrous mandolin playing is a voice, reminiscent in places of Belinda O’Hooley’s fine timbre.  A fine and gentle debut.

Cupola:Ward | Four | Album Review | Coth Records | 18.10.13

There’s something rather complimentary about the Cupola:Ward collaboration in that the established traditional Derbyshire trio Cupola (cup-oh-la), made up of Sarah Matthews, Doug Eunson and Oli Matthews, continue to explore their traditional roots while injecting their music with the infectiously youthful zest of Lucy Ward, who effortlessly spices up their stage presence.  Recently at the Derby Folk Festival, the quartet benefitted from Lucy’s playfulness that even saw the quartet delivering a wide-eyed rendition of Brittney Spears’ “Baby One More Time” as well as The Beatles’ “Nowhere Man”.  It works both ways though; Lucy Ward benefits equally from this established trio’s unquestionable musicianship, uplifting vocal harmonies and knowledge of traditional song, especially in the Derbyshire area.  On this the quartet’s first release, those roots are explored in the opening song “Cotton Mills at Cromford” (think of the tune of “Hard Times of Old England” or ‘Roud 1206’ for scholars), which conjures up vividly the working environment of bygone Derbyshire.  The Southern gospel tradition is also explored with a lilting take on “When God Dips His Pen of Love in My Heart”, notably recorded by everyone from Elvis Presley and Tennessee Ernie Ford to Alison Krauss and the Cox Family, although Doug recently quipped that the title that always crops up in his mind is more like ‘when God stabbed me in the heart with a pen’.  The highlight of this collection though is the final track which sees another fine interpretation of Dave Sudbury’s “King of Rome”, which due to June Tabor, The Unthanks and now Cupola:Ward is fast becoming a bona fide traditional song that will be sung for centuries to come.  

Barbara Dickson | To Each and Everyone | Album Review | Greentrax | 19.10.13

Barbara Dickson pays homage to her close friend the late Gerry Rafferty with thirteen of the songwriter’s memorable songs that span Rafferty’s forty year recording career.  Cutting right to the chase, To Each And Everyone opens with a relaxed take on Rafferty’s most celebrated song Baker Street, the iconic sax part replaced by a weeping fiddle courtesy of Frank Van Essen. For those unfamiliar with the other songs in the Paisley Bard’s canon, Dickson re-visits some of Rafferty’s celebrated gems such as “Mary Skeffington” from Rafferty’s Humblebums period (with Billy Connolly), “Over My Head” from his Stealers Wheel days and “Steamboat Row”, recorded by both outfits.  With musical partner Troy Donockley close at hand to provide all the necessary production and arrangement expertise as well as some well-placed Uilleann Pipes accompaniment, the songs are treated to the attention to detail they deserve.  It’s also worth noting that the cover artwork has been created by John Byrne, the artist responsible for all those iconic Rafferty LPs of the late 1960s and early 1970s.  A fine album with some fine moments.

Red Hot Chilli Pipers | Breathe | Album Review | Rel Records | 20.10.13

With all successful so-called ‘novelty acts’ such as Hayseed Dixie, The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain and The Bad Shepherds for instance, it only works if the musicians are on the ball and the Red Hot Chilli Pipers are no exception.  Their live credentials have been rewarded, having twice won the Scottish ‘Live Act of the Year’ award in both 2007 and 2010.  Their own specific genre of Celtic music, affectionately labelled ‘Bagrock’ showcases the Highland Bagpipes-led instrumental music and breathes new life into established soft rock tunes such as “Don’t Stop Believing”, “Hold the Line” and “Gimme All Your Lovin’” as well as the odd Gary Numan tune, in this case “Cars”, coupled with “Smooth Criminal” (yep, you better believe it).  Now over ten years into their existence, the Chillies continue to build on their reputation with this their fourth studio album to date.  Those aforementioned credentials include four music degrees from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, which clearly contributes to their unquestionable musicianship, yet the selections on Breathe maintain a fun element throughout.  Other bands and musicians given the Bagrock treatment include The Eurythmics, Kings of Leon and even Coldplay, but there again you can always skip that track.

James Duncan MacKenzie | James Duncan MacKenzie | Album Review | James MacKenzie Music | 24.10.13

Breabach’s James Duncan MacKenzie goes it alone with this his first solo instrumental album.  The self-titled debut showcases not only the Isle of Lewis-born musician’s prowess on the Highland Bagpipes, but also demonstrates his understanding of the sonic nuances of the wooden flute.  The compositions are inspired by travel, the supernatural, family and the landscapes and seascapes of Scotland, each arranged and performed with a little help from his friends, including Matheu Watson (who co-produces) on guitar, Sean Gray also on guitar, Alasdair White on fiddle, Hamish Napier on piano and harmonium, Robert Nairn on accordion and James Lindsay on double bass.  It has to be said you don’t want to get too close to the speakers when the pipes are in full flow, but the wooden flute pieces offer some beautifully calming moments.

Salt House | Lay Your Dark Low | Album Review | Make Believe Records | 25.10.13

Like a breath of fresh air comes new Scots four-piece Salt House, drawing together the collective musical savvy of Siobhan Miller, Ewan MacPherson, Lauren MacColl and Euan Burton, who together create a confident, cohesive and highly connected sound on this their debut offering.  Mixing traditional material such as “Little Birdie”, “Katie Cruel” and “She’s Like the Swallow” with some of their own songs such as Ewan MacPherson’s “Strong Dark Souls” and Euan Burton’s “Open Water”, the quartet deliver a sound reminiscent of some of Karine Polwart’s brightest recorded output, which may have something to do with Mattie Foulds’ pristine production or maybe just Siobhan’s confident and earthy singing.  With an imaginative rendering of David Francey’s “Morning Train”, the album’s sole contemporary inclusion other than the self-penned material, Lay Your Dark Low‘s climax is an atmospheric “She Walks in Beauty”, a collaborative lyrical piece-together ranging from nineteenth century poetry, courtesy of Lord Byron and Australian outlaw James Alpin McPherson, completed by McPherson’s namesake Ewan MacPherson, featuring additional vocals from Gillie MacKenzie, Rachel Newton, Alistair Ogilvy and Bella Hardy.  An impressive debut.

David Rotheray | Answer Ballads Album Review | Navigator | 25.10.13

Intriguing collection of songs built on the loose idea of revisiting a bunch of established fictional song characters and offering a belated response.  Have you ever wondered what happened to Jolene or Roxanne? Sylvia’s mother? or for that matter Sylvia herself?  Formerly of The Beautiful South, singer/songwriter/guitarist David Rotheray provides some possible answers with the help of thirteen familiar voices.  Most of the voices are instantly recognisable; Eliza Carthy for instance, whose smoky voice delivers a possible update on what happened to Rod Stewart’s Maggie May in “Maggie’s Song”, while Irish jazz singer Mary Coughlin picked a fine time to respond to her protagonist of thirty-five years ago in “Lucille’s Song”, utilising perfectly her trademark whiskey-soaked delivery.  But then there’s the lesser known Naomi Bedford, whose rich vibrato tackles the ‘what ifs’ on Bobby’s Song, recalling Kris Kristofferson’s youthful “Me and Bobby McGee” and the young up-and-coming singer from Sussex Josienne Clarke, whose Country-tinged “Marie’s Song” provides one the highlights from the project, a response to Chuck Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee”, a song that stays with you long after the record’s finished.  Other featured vocalists include Lisa Knapp, Bella Hardy and Jackie Oates with just three male singers, Kris Drever, Alasdair Roberts and John Smith, each tackling their own ‘loosely-based’ characters.  All in all a pleasant collection of songs, its strong point being each of the vocal performances and the concept itself, which thankfully surpasses its novelty value.

Becky Mills | Dandelion | Album Review | Splid Records | 26.10.13

Yorkshire-based songwriter Becky Mills has always worked well in collaboration, whether it be as one quarter of the much missed all-female quartet Waking the Witch or as one half of the duo with ex-band mate Patsy Matheson.  Becky is also pretty much at home as a solo performer, delivering quality songs time and again and returns here with a fresh set of ten self-penned songs, each delicately arranged and performed with an emphasis on fine vocal delivery and gentle harmonies throughout.  The album gets off to a flying start with an unexpected banjo-led country-tinged foot-tapper “Amy Sharpe”, which not only showcases Becky’s ability to move away from the ‘delicate’ to embrace the ‘tough’, but also features some fine slide playing courtesy of Frank Mizen.  The banjo returns later in the album on lilting “The North Wind Will”, both songs delivered with an unanticipated confidence.  In other places, Becky returns to the gentle approach with such songs as the soothing “Dandelions and Foxgloves”, from which the album title derives, the brooding and atmospheric “The Princess and the Pea” and the kitchen sink drama described so delicately in the outstanding “Pretty Young Things”.  Joined by a carefully selected cast of musicians, Dandelion stands as a fine example of Becky’s exceptional songwriting ability and serves as a captivating introduction for those who may have missed Becky’s previous work.

Martyn Joseph | Tires Rushing by in the Rain | Album Review | Pipe Records | 27.10.13

It’s a bold move to record no less than seventeen Bruce Springsteen songs in one go, especially when you already have a long established reputation of being the Welsh version of The Boss.  Such is the power of these songs and the debt this songwriter feels he owes the New Jersey songwriter that an album’s worth of pared-down Springsteen numbers should provide the Cardiff singer/songwriter his 32nd release.  For a reviewer who has deliberately avoided Springsteen for all of forty years, stubbornly rejecting the infamous 1975 NME cover which shows a smirking Springsteen looking over Dylan’s shoulder with the caption ‘Finally.. is Bob Dylan ready for Bruce Springsteen?’  I certainly wasn’t ready for any young upstart to seriously challenge Dylan’s position at the time.  It’s rather a shame in hindsight as the songs on this album reveal some pretty excellent writing.  There’s always been an air of integrity when it comes to Martyn Joseph and this reveals itself in bounds through these songs.  Throughout the album, the emphasis is on the songs themselves with little attention to embellishment, either vocal or instrumental.  The seventeen selections, which Martyn refers to as ‘shadows of the original songs’, are played straight as if they were mere demos, with the lyrics ringing out loud and clear, whether the original songs were recorded as gentle ballads such as “Cautious Man”, “The Ghost of Tom Joad” or “The Promise”, a lyric from which the album gets its title, or stadium-worthy rockers such as “Badlands”, “Brilliant Disguise” or “No Surrender”, which is played here with a simple ukulele accompaniment.   With the intention of delivering these songs to honour the many requests to do so by his legion of fans, Martyn Joseph also succeeds in encouraging such Springsteen dissenters as I to pay a little more attention.

Will Pound | A Cut Above | Album Review | Lulubug Records | 02.11.13

Like Brendan Power before him, Will Pound has the ability to turn the simple harmonica into an orchestra at his fingertips.  Utterly focused on each of the instrumental pieces the much sought after session player turns his attention to, Will breathes new life into traditional dance tunes, whether they be contemporary tunes (“Mrs Saggs/93 Not Out”), Classical waltzes (“Michael Turner’s Waltz”) and Morris tunes (“White Jock”, “Dearest Dickie”), or old time mountain ballads (“Soldier’s Joy”, “Old Joe Clark”), gospel hymns (“Amazing Grace”) or bluegrass favourites (“Clinch Mountain Back Step”), the detail is given the same level attention.  As a master of both diatonic and chromatic harmonicas, Will approaches delicate melodies in the same way a good fiddler does, reaching our emotions with a movement of the hand, or with the economy of a single breath.  A moment later the musician can deliver some of the most exhilarating blues licks as if he were Sonny Terry’s kid brother.  For this, Will’s debut solo album, the musician surrounds himself with some impressive company to help record, produce and fatten out an already big sound, including Andy Seward, Andie Thomson, Tim Edey, Martin Simpson, Andy Cutting, Kris Drever and Damien O’Kane.  A fine debut.

Elliott Morris | Shadows and Whispers | Album Review | Self Release | 03.11.13

When Elliott Morris was described by Acoustic magazine as ‘the next big thing’, I knew what they were talking about.  My own initial encounter with this young singer/songwriter/guitarist was around five years ago, when the 18 year-old musician demonstrated what he could do while supporting Carthy and Swarb at a school in Lincoln.  Those Eric Roche, Jon Gomm and John Martyn influences were apparent from the beginning, but in the subsequent five years Elliott has crafted his own particular style and has carved out his own niche with a series of EPs made up of both self-penned compositions and adventurous adaptations of traditional material.  The traditional re-works and originals on this new EP are split 50/50, with Elliott providing sensitive arrangements on both “Unquiet Grave” and “Fare Thee Well (10,000 Miles)”, with an even greater emphasis on the two originals, “Smoke and Mirrors” and the opening song “Eyes”.  With Elliott taking care of all the guitar work and vocals on the EP, his multi-instrumentalist sibling Bevan takes the helm as producer and also steps up on double bass, keyboards and percussion, with further assistance from Sam Pirt and Gemma Teffer on accordions and Katherine Hurdley on fiddle.  Right up there with the likes of Blair Dunlop, Fabian Holland and Luke Jackson, Elliott’s youthful zest and versatility comes over both on record and in a live setting and as those settings increase in size, it won’t be long until Elliott Morris comes along your way, if he hasn’t already.

Sean Taylor | Chase the Night | Album Review | Sean Taylor Songs | 03.11.13

On this, Sean Taylor’s sixth album to date, the London-born singer/songwriter takes us on a journey through his home town, weaving in and out of the back streets like some shadowy midnight tour guide, whispering and growling the cities’ mercurial stories to those who wish to venture out at such an hour.  It’s deeply personal stuff; not so much about lost loves, human relationships or personal dramas but more about Taylor’s relationship with the powerful presence of the city itself, a city with an abundance of secrets to keep.  Sean Taylor explores the streets of Kilburn, Camden and Brixton with the same underground detail as once applied to 1950s Bohemian New York City by Herbert Hunke, the hustler who Jack Kerouac described as ‘somnolent and alert, sad, sweet, dark, holy’.  Primrose Hill substitutes the impending danger of Times Square, although the amber illuminated drizzle reflections of London Town don’t present hostility to those who are used to it and Taylor seems to be quite used to it.  Expressed in all its fine detail, the street comes alive with characters from the Guinness-soaked bar of Biddy Mulligans to the poetic return of Terry and Julie, “Waterloo Sunset”s beautiful protagonists, who make a cameo in London, indicating that little has changed as the sun goes down on the modern day city.  Most poignant though is the epic “River”, a stream of consciousness beat poem rapping hard on the banks of the Thames, reminding us once again that the river, jagged as a new day, flows everywhere.  With Danny Thompson guesting on London, bringing with him the same atmospheric bass lines he once brought to some of John Martyn’s most memorable moments and Stephanie Daulong’s empathetic vocals on “So Fine”, Chase The Night can pretty much be considered mission accomplished by its maker.

3 Daft Monkeys | Of Stones and Bones | Album Review | 3DM Records | 03.11.13

The theatricality at the heart of Cornwall’s 3 Daft Monkeys’ recorded output thus far and more obviously in the band’s live shows, is probably seen as their most appealing quality.  It’s not just the burlesque costumes and energetic frenzy of movement around the stage that we have come to love, or indeed the fact that we may all have just imagined a flying trapeze and a lion jumping through a hoop during the performance we just witnessed, it also has something to do with the dramatic themes the band employs in their song writing.  Six albums into their recording career and along comes Of Stones And Bones, bathed in infectious rhythms with influences ranging from Balkan, Romani, Latino, dub reggae and traditional folk, all with a punk attitude.  The three-piece band’s energetic sound, which features at its core the soaring fiddle playing of Athene Roberts and the rhythmic acoustic guitar of Tim Ashton, together with the lilting bass runs of Lukas Drinkwater, is once again tightly arranged to tackle such themes as murder, rebellion, witchcraft and piracy.  Leaning heavily on the folk tales and musical traditions of Cornwall, the band showcase some of their best song writing to date, lifted by some fine three part harmonies for the first time.  With additional percussion from Rich Mulryne, 3 Daft Monkeys flit between a range of musical styles with ease, from the infectious Eastern European rhythms of “Morwenna”, “The Pellars of Morwenstow” and “Agnes the Giant Killer” to the classic folk balladry of “Jenny and the Changeling” and the blistering good-time feel of “World on its Head”, which is almost guaranteed to fill mosh pits at next year’s summer festivals.

Tamikrest | Chatma | Album Review | Glitterbeat | 04.11.13

Once the rhythms of the desert have entered your consciousness you start to wonder how you functioned before without them.  The Festival Au Desert introduced many of us to the distinctive sound through such bands as Tinariwen, who would soon make their mysterious presence known to many in Europe when they took to such stages as Glastonbury, WOMAD and the Cambridge Folk Festival.  If Tinariwen led the way, then the younger six-piece band Tamikrest followed hot on their tails.  Chatma is the third release by the Sahara Desert blues warriors, whose powerful primal homeland rhythms remain a force to be reckoned with. With a title that literally translates to ‘sisters’ in Tamashek, the Toureg language, the ten songs focus on the courage of women, especially in light of a region torn apart by conflict.  Originating from the region around Kidal, a city in northeast Mali, the young musicians formed the band in 2006 and has since established their own distinctive sound, largely due to the complimentary singing of their enigmatic leader, singer/guitarist Ousmane Ag Mossa and the former Tinariwen vocalist Wonou Walet Sidati, the only female member of the band.  Ousmane Ag Mossa and percussionist Cheick Ag Tiglia abandoned any notion of taking up weapons and devoted their energy instead to making music, initially the traditional music of the Kel Tamasheq and later drawing upon western rock music and urban blues to bring the attention of the Tuareg people’s plight to the rest of the world.  The music here demonstrates the power of their convictions with some fine performances from the hard-driving blues-based funky rhythms of opener “Tisnant an Chatma” and “Imanin bas Zilhoun” to one or two gentle trance-like acoustic songs such as “Achaka Achail Aynaian Daghchilan”, borrowing from anything between Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley (Ousmane even resembles a hybrid of the two) to Pink Floyd and even at the beginning of the unexpected “Assikal”, Magical Mystery Tour-period Beatles.

Breabach | Urlar | Album Review | Breabach Records | 04.11.13

Lau’s Kris Drever has found himself behind the control desk for this the fourth album by the critically acclaimed Scots quintet Breabach, who are also the current Scottish Trad Music Award’s Folk Band of the Year.  For the content of this album the band drew upon the traditions of their own individual hometowns and communities in order to create ten songs and tunes each imbued with a strong sense of their collective Scots heritage.  The sets of tunes, both traditional and contemporary, are treated to seasoned arrangements throughout, with a handful of engaging songs, one or two of which are performed in Scots Gaelic, including “Hi Ho Ro Tha Mi Duilich” and “Bha Mise Raoir Air An Àirig”, beautifully sung by Megan Henderson.  The songs and tunes chosen for Ùrlar, the title of which translates from Scots Gaelic to ‘floor’ generally, but more specifically in this case to the base theme of classical bagpipe music, demonstrate the band’s informed sense of composition and arrangement.  Established without question as a fine live outfit, Breabach’s recordings manage to capture those live qualities within a studio setting, utilising Calum MacCrimmon and James Duncan Mackenzie’s distinctive sparring on the Highland bagpipes, while Megan Henderson flitters between Ewan Robertson’s rhythmic guitar with some fine fiddle playing.  James Lindsay completes the circle with some empathetic double bass lines, underpinning everything, the result of which reveals Breabach’s highly distinctive sound.

Harpeth Rising | Tales From Jackson Bridge | Album Review | Self Release | 05.11.13

Posing for the sepia-toned cover picture, complete with striking vintage costumes, is perhaps a true reflection of the music that can be found on the fourth release by Tennessee-based quartet Harpeth Rising.  Taking their name from one of the major tributaries of the Cumberland River, the band’s music draws from many musical styles including bluegrass, country, Appalachian, old time, vaudeville, blues and pop, each style condensed and regurgitated to reveal their own particular sound.  With ten original songs and one non-original, a dramatic instrumental version of the traditional “The House of the Rising Sun”, which comes complete with some extraordinary gypsy jazz violin, demonstrates the chops of these four classically trained musicians in a completely rootsy setting.  Sharing the mutual meeting ground of Indiana University, the four musicians gathered from all around, Jordana Greenberg (violin) from Ontario, Rebecca Reed-Lunn (banjo) from California, Maria Di Meglio (cello) from Brooklyn and Chris Burgess (percussion) from Kentucky, in order to share their mutual interest in what we loosely refer to as Americana.  Tales From Jackson Bridge is both eclectic and accessible musically with songs that often question and prick our social conscience.

Josh Taerk | Josh | Album Review | Misty Green Records | 05.11.13

Following Josh Taerk’s initial single releases Smell the Roses and Grace, the Canadian singer/songwriter is back with his full-length debut album.  The ten self-penned songs, those two included, were originally released on Never Look Back in 2011, but have now been re-visited, re-shuffled and re-titled, the new album going under the much simpler and easy to remember title Josh.  The album showcases a collection of mature songs from a songwriter still in his early twenties, each song setting out the singer’s musical path so far and each sharing an immediately accessible feel, which falls somewhere between soft rock and alt-country.  With Terry Brown and Ash Howes looking after production, the sound maintains a polished feel throughout, with the Toronto-based performer treating each song to a radio-friendly arrangement.  Lyrically strong, the album showcases a maturity beyond his years, especially on songs such as “People in the Room”.  It shouldn’t be too long before Josh Taerk’s name has a similar reputation over here to the one he has on his home turf.

All the Queen’s Ravens | Hearts For Judas | Album Review | Feral Loons | 06.11.13

Utterly dramatic, as their name suggests, the music of London-based sextet All The Queen’s Ravens has all the theatricality of a burlesque side show, equally matched by the band’s dazzling presentation.  With a dozen songs written by the outfit’s two enigmatic singers Laura Hillman and Charlotte Aggett, together with guitarist Luke John Wills, the band take us on a joyride through a musical landscape filled with a mixture of gospel, flamenco, jazz-tinged blues, folk stylings and Native American chants, each performed with a tight and confident delivery.  The energy and flamboyance of the band’s live performances is captured on this their debut album, which maintains an attention-grabbing attitude through to the end.  With a particular Anglo-Spanish feel, especially of such songs as the enticing opener Aura Negra, the expressive Las Vegas Parano, inspired by Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing exploits and the Fado-esque Profundo.  Completing the line-up is Camilla Johns on mandolin, Clarky on bass and Rob Davies on drums and percussion.  A thoroughly engaging debut.

Ben Sures | Gone to Bolivia | Album Review | Self Release | 07.11.13

Winnipeg singer/songwriter Ben Sures has been recording albums for twenty years now, honing his craft along the way and producing an impressive back catalogue of intelligent and often thought-provoking lyrics.  His sixth album to date Gone To Bolivia has already been knocking around his native Canada for a couple of years now and this month gets its UK release.  With unquestionable credentials as a formidable songwriter, have being recognised as the winner in the roots category of two of the world’s largest song contests (the John Lennon Songwriting Competition and the International Songwriting Competition), the songwriter is unafraid to also demonstrate his whimsical side by writing wry, almost comical songs, as a counterpoint to some of his more serious work.  After the biting observations of “Columbus Sailed Here”, Ben lightens proceedings with the instantly infectious “High School Steps”, which not only celebrates the pop songs of Ray Davies of The Kinks, who the musician has supported, but also captures the spirit of fumbling high school romance, taking things not too seriously.  Mose Allison’s bluesy “Everybody’s Crying Mercy” on the other hand, demonstrates a biting reflection on current times, while the folky “Postcards” employs a more optimistic outlook, with its feel-good finger-picked guitar accompaniment.  Produced by Don Kerr of the Rheostatics, Gone To Bolivia not only joins an accomplished back catalogue of albums but also serves as a good introduction to those as yet unfamiliar with this fine songwriter.

Jules Winchester | A Stranger in Your Home Town | Album Review | LongMan Records | 07.11.13

Sussex-based Jules Winchester has no less than twenty years behind her as a working singer/songwriter, yet this is her first professional release.  Produced by Richard Durrant, the album takes us from the Paraguayan harp-led title song “A Stranger in Your Home Town”, to the dreamy gospel acoustic version of “Down By the River”, which appears earlier on the record accompanied by the full band complete with sweeping Hammond cadences, courtesy of Tom Arnold, which would have Billy Preston nodding in approval.  Strong on melody, the Nashville-inspired songs never lose their distinctive Britishness, which is a good thing.  Durrant, who is no stranger to Paraguayan music, having celebrated the music of Paraguayan composer and guitarist Agustín Barrios Mangoré on a previous album, has lent both his multi-instrumental chops and his perceptive ears to this project, with favourable results.  Such songs deserve better sleeve artwork it has to be said, which in all honesty looks like a rushed scan.

The High Bar Gang | Lost and Undone | Album Review | True North Records | 07.11.13

Delicious pickin’ and playin’ from seven musicians who, not unlike a good vintage wine, have matured over the years with this fine music; music collected from some of the major names in Bluegrass such as Bill and Charlie Monroe, Carter and Ralph Stanley and more recently Julie Miller, performed with an informed passion and a completely joined-up and dovetailed precision.  Sub-titled A Gospel Bluegrass Companion, the album sees the ‘Gang’, which comprises Barney Bentall, Shari Ulrich, Angela Harris, Wendy Bird, Colin Nairne, Eric Reed and Rob Becker, concentrate on the more spiritual side of Bluegrass, with fourteen familiar and not so familiar songs, such as Hank Williams’ “I Saw the Light”, the Stanley Brothers’ “Over in the Gloryland” and Julie Miller’s “All My Tears”.  Initially gathered together by Colin Nairne, who had already raised his own bar as part of Barney Bentall and the Legendary Hearts, the collective have already made an impression on the live bluegrass scene and this their debut release only confirms the band’s potential as major players on the modern bluegrass scene.  Recorded in mono with four microphones in Barney’s living room and with a repertoire chosen by none other than Ry Cooder, Lost and Undone is set to become a hit on bluegrass radio specifically and hopefully further afield.

The Harmed Brothers | Better Days | Album Review | Fluff & Gravy Records | 07.11.13

This latest release from Oregon-based The Harmed Brothers once again brings with it more jingly-jangly acoustic foot-tappers, demonstrating once again band’s aptitude for banjo-led adrenaline-fuelled banjo-led folk/pop, with ten new self-penned songs.  The ‘indiegrass’ moniker accurately describes the band’s straddling of the indie-rock and bluegrass fence, especially on such songs as the opener “When You See Me”, the title song “Better Days” which at times veers cheekily towards “My Sweet Lord” and the lilting “Sky Cracked a Smile”.  With strong harmonies and tight arrangements, The Harmed Brothers wear their influences on their sleeve, from Ryan Adams to Uncle Tupelo and everything in between.  Produced by David Beeman, Better Days provides more than a fleeting indication that The Harmed Brothers have come of age.

Jo Bywater | Chasing Tales | EP Review | Searching for Dandelions | 07.11.13

The four songs that make up Liverpool-based singer/songwriter Jo Bywater’s new Chasing Tales EP, which Jo herself refers to as ‘tales’, range from the bluesy “Chopping Wood”, complete with some tasty bottleneck guitar and blues harp sparring, to the atmospheric “Woollen Hearts”, which closes the set.  In between, we develop, quite effortlessly it has to be said, a kinship with the music.  There’s an intimacy that comes through the delivery, from which you feel it is you and only you who is on the receiving end.  “Sun Shines Under Water” is both quirky and at the same time totally engaging, the precedent of which is difficult to ascertain; it could be Nico, it could on the other hand be Nirvana, heck it could be the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, it’s entirely up to you.  Chasing Tales is only four songs long but it provides many pleasurable listening hours once you locate the repeat button.

Kimmie Rhodes | Covers | Album Review | Sunbird Records | 07.11.13

With several albums already under her belt, together with an entire catalogue of accomplished self-penned songs, Kimmie Rhodes affords some time to record an album of songs written by other notable writers, songs that tick several boxes simultaneously, whether informing her own progress as a writer or occupying a very special place in her own personal life.  The fifteen selections on Covers are wide and varied, from possibly the most ‘covered’ song of them all, Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday”, which still has the ability to move some to tears (believe it or not) even after all this time and after being covered by everyone from Shirley Bassey and the Smothers Brothers to Perry Como and Plácido Domingo.  “Yesterday” is not the only Lennon and McCartney song on this album as Kimmie closes with a rather Sgt Pepperish take on “With a Little Help From My Friends”.  Let’s face it, the definitive re-arrangement of that song has already been done, referenced here in the coda, so little need for anything other than a pretty faithful nod to the original.  The songs that do work particularly well on the album are those from a little closer to home, including an uplifting country honky tonk version of Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright”, Rodney Crowell’s gorgeous “Adam’s Song” and Tom Waits’ heartbreaking “Georgia Lee”.  From the predictable to the totally unexpected as Kimmie lends her inimitable voice to Tom Petty’s “Southern Accents”, Jimmy Reed’s R&B classic “Shame Shame Shame” with Delbert McClinton sharing the vocal and Mark Knopfler’s Cajun romp “Cannibals”, featuring a duet with Louisiana blues singer Marcia Ball.  Covers is the first studio record from Kimmie Rhodes since she sadly lost her long-time partner and musical collaborator Joe Gracey and there’s a distinct feeling that some of the song choices here feature strongly in that relationship.  Why not then pay homage to one of the timeless standards, often mistook for being over-sentimental; if the Thiele/Weiss song “What a Wonderful World” holds a special place in your heart, then it’s there to be sung.  Produced by Kimmie’s son Gabriel Rhodes, Covers allows us to see precisely what turns a ‘songwriter’s songwriter’ on.

Laura Cortese | Into the Dark | Album Review | Self Release | 08.11.13

San Francisco-born singer and fiddle player Laura Cortese, now re-located to Boston, releases her new full length solo album Into The Dark after a series of EPs and numerous collaborations.  Throughout this period, the young musician has honed her own musical style and found her voice, which rings out loud and clear on such songs as the album’s powerful opener “For Catherine”, which through metaphor tells of the brutal assault of a young woman by a group of drunken schoolboys.  Throughout the album Laura employs some luscious string arrangements, performed by seasoned players such as Crooked Still’s Brittany Haas, Scottish fiddler Hanneke Cassel, Long Time Courting’s cellist Valerie Thompson, Blue Moon and the Unbuttoned Zippers’ fiddler Mariel Vandersteel and Natalie Haas also on cello.  If Laura Cortese’s vocals are the heart of this record, then the strings are the soul.  While Sean Staples’ uplifting “Heel to Toe” is treated to a lilting Cajun feel, namesake Laura Veirs’ July Flame-period “Life is Good Blues” employs a similar choppy arrangement, bringing something of a sprightly feel to Veirs’ slightly more restrained original.  Finally, the album closes with a fine duet with Jefferson Hamer on the John Tams arranged “Lay Me Low”.  An assured album that should in all fairness find its way into UK record collections before too long.

The Band | Live at the Academy of Music 1971 | Album Review | Capitol | 08.11.13

The celebrated 1972 live double LP Rock Of Ages that embellished many a decent record collection in the early 1970s, has been spruced up and expanded upon for this four CD (plus DVD) box set release.  Capturing The Band at their peak, the four year-end concerts, which have subsequently achieved ‘legendary’ status, were recorded at New York City’s Academy Of Music during the last week of 1971.  The final New Year’s Eve concert, which features a four-song encore, also sees Bob Dylan join the band for an impromptu and unrehearsed performance.  The five discs are bound in a 48-page hardbound book with previously unpublished photos, a reproduction of the original Rock Of Ages review by Rolling Stone magazine’s Ralph J. Gleason, liner notes by The Band’s guitarist and main song writer Robbie Robertson, together with memories and appreciations by Allen Toussaint, who contributed the horn arrangements for the concerts, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James and bizarrely Mumford & Sons, presumably a marketing ploy to get young listeners on board.  Although this deluxe set doesn’t include every moment from these four concerts, it does include on the first two discs every song that was performed during those four nights and quite possibly the best takes of each, followed by the complete and uncut New Year’s Eve soundboard mix, which makes up the last two discs.  The set also includes nineteen previously unreleased performances, including “Strawberry Wine” from the first concert and much of the final New Year’s Eve concert including the Band classics “This Wheel’s On Fire”, “The Weight”, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Across the Great Divide”.  To many, 1976’s The Last Waltz has been acknowledged as The Band’s defining moment, for which the original band is joined in San Francisco by one legendary figure after another, including everyone from Muddy Waters to Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell to Neil Young, Van Morrison to Dr John and Dylan to Diamond.  The earlier 1971 winter concerts represented here could very well be seen then as the reason so many outstanding artists felt it a privilege to share the stage with this extraordinary band.  Produced by Robbie Robertson, along with co-producers Michael Murphy and Matt D’Amico, The Band’s Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Garth Hudson are joined by Snooky Young on trumpet and flugelhorn, Howard Johnson on baritone sax, tuba and euphonium, Joe Farrell on tenor sax, soprano sax and English horn, Earl McIntyer on trombone, J.D. Parron on alto sax and clarinet and of course Bob Dylan on vocals and guitar.  A must for collectors of The Band recordings as well as music fans in general.

Nick Lowe | Quality Street | Album Review | Proper | 08.11.13

There are some artists out there who you would fully expect to bring out a Christmas record at some point.  The list is endless, so I’ll avoid making a list.  You know the culprits.  There are however, some artists you would never expect a jolly old seasonal record from and Nick Lowe is one of them.  On Quality Street, the celebrated singer/songwriter delivers a seasonal album with a difference, a Christmas record with no apparent jingle bells for a start, no school kids’ choruses, no snowflake patterned woolly jumpers.  With a dozen songs ranging from the ‘heavy on the reverb’ rockabilly opener “Children Go Where I Send Thee”, to the reggae/ska cover of Roy Wood’s ultra-famous “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day”, Lowe adopts his now familiar retro crooning style to deliver such songs as Boudleaux Bryant’ s “Christmas Can’t Be Far Away”, which is quite possibly just as enchanting as Nat King Cole’s chestnuts roasting away, and Roger Miller’s tender “Old Toy Trains”, which is seemingly devoid of the original’s overt sentimentality.  Ooer, jingle bells were mentioned in there too!  Almost got away with it.  Ron Sexsmith contributes a song especially for the album, with the slick cool jazz of “Hooves on the Roof”, while an almost party-popper-atmosphere take on “Silent Night” makes us reluctantly raise an eyebrow to wonder whether Nick Lowe and Co are indeed full of seasonal cheer or just sending the holiday season up a little, with tongues firmly in their cheeks.  Either way, Quality Street, with its optimistic sub-heading ‘A Seasonal Selection for all the Family’, beats most Christmas records hands down.

Hunter Muskett | That Was Then This is Now | Album Review | Limefield | 08.11.13

Hunter Muskett is an English folk rock outfit formed in 1968 by Terry Hiscock, Chris George and Doug Morter as a trio at Avery Hill College in South London where the band first met.  Bass player Roger Trevitt joined shortly after the release of the band’s first album, which was followed by their eponymous LP a couple of years later.  The band finally called it a day in 1974 with Doug Morter being the only member to continue as a working musician in bands such as Magna Carta, The Albion Band and The Maddy Prior Band.  After several illegal European re-pressings of the band’s first album Everytime You Move, the quartet decided to re-release the album officially and get together for a reunion in 2010.  Since then the band have played several gigs and have now released their first new album in forty years.  Hunter Muskett’s most celebrated song “Silver Coin”, written by Terry Hiscock and which has been performed at every Hunter Muskett gig since it first appeared on their second LP, has been re-recorded here along with ten other songs, some of which have been written much more recently.  Produced by John Ellis and Bill Leader, along with the band, the album is free from all we remember about folk rock as a genre; the songs are quite refreshingly melodic with some tastefully rendered guitar runs.  At times a distinct country influence is applied on such as “Best Thing in My Life”, noted as ‘an epitaph for a band’ when the song was written in 1974.  The album closes with a really quite stunning version of “Walk Away Renee”, a hit for both The Left Banke in 1966 and The Four Tops a year later, which is tucked away here as a bonus track.  The album comes complete with a booklet containing all the song lyrics and is illustrated with vintage and more recent pictures.  Joined by drummer Paul Burgess, the album also features guest appearances by Jerry Donoghue and Ray Jackson, both of whom Doug Morter has worked with in The Gathering and the Acoustic Gathering over the past few years.  This album must not under any circumstances by written off as a nostalgic has-been folk rock endeavour; That Was Then, This Is Now is a gorgeous record.  Welcome back Hunter Muskett. 

Andy Fairweather Low and the Lowriders | Zone-O-Tone | Album Review | Proper | 09.11.13

With a career spanning over four decades, Andy Fairweather Low seems to have settled into the ‘elder statesman’ figure of rock and roll, appearing particularly dapper on the inner sleeve of his latest album with his band The Lowriders.  The once screamed at teen idol (with Amen Corner) is dressed all businessman-like on both the sleeve and the accompanying booklet for Zone-O-Tone, looking almost like some Mario Puzo Cosa Nostra consiglieri, fronting a tight little combo that includes Paul Beavis on drums, Dave Bronze on bass and Nick Pentelow on sax and clarinet.  Featuring thirteen Low originals, the mood of the album is enhanced by a mature rock and roll attitude, with a nod towards blues, jazz and R&B as each selection is delivered with a tastefully arranged small band sound.  Now that it’s become obligatory for our elder statesmen of rock and roll to include ukulele-led crooners in their set, Andy doesn’t disappoint.  “Deep River Blues” does the same thing to your senses as Joe Brown did with “I’ll See You in My Dreams” for George Harrison.  The big beefy sound comes through loud and clear on “La La Music” and “Breakin’ Chains”, while the lounge crooner “Let Me Be Your Angel”, demonstrates Andy’s now familiar penchant for laid back romanticism.  Produced (or ‘unproduced’) by Andy and Dave Bronze, Zone-O-Tone is probably just as valid a statement of rock and roll based pop as “If Paradise is Half as Nice” and “Wide Eyed and Legless” in former incarnations.

Ashleigh Flynn | A Million Stars | Album Review | Home Perm Records | 09.11.13

Portland, Oregon-based singer/songwriter Ashleigh Flynn’s fourth album once again reveals a mature song smith at work.  With a dozen new self-penned songs, the one exception being Ma Rainey’s bluesy “Prove It On Me”, which brings out a bar room flavour to Flynn’s voice, the Kentucky-raised songwriter once again explores the small towns and back roads of America.  There’s whiskey and coal dust, prohibition and the Bible and a million stars watching over, illustrated by a child’s hand; the cover artwork having been painted by Ashleigh Flynn’s young niece, reflecting America’s gloriously wild heritage.  It was this painting that inspired Ashleigh’s search for the country’s overlooked female heroes, manifested here as Anna Emmeline Doulet, Little Britches, Prohibition Rose and Dora DuFran, not to mention Old Florence back in ‘Dirty 31’.  Providing the ‘voice of reason’, Todd Snider pops up midway through the record to deliver his sermon on “See That Light”, which once heard, becomes the heart of the album, providing a gentle warning to the ‘fear-mongers’ amongst us still.  Produced by The Decemberists’ Chris Funk, the album also features a handful of fellow Portland musicians including, Jenny Conlee-Drizos, Nate Query, John Moen, Annalisa Tornfelt and the Stolen Sweets singers, including Lara Mitchell and Jen Bernard.  A fine country/folk album where Calamity Jane swaps her gun for a guitar.

Manfred Mann | EP Collection | Album Review | Umbrella Music | 10.11.13

Once this seven-disc box set of EPs is opened, we are instantly reminded of the golden age of 1960s pop 45s, as the seven handsomely packaged EPs fall out of the box, each individually encased in a replica of the original 7” cardboard sleeve.  It’s difficult to recall now that such bluesy R&B numbers once populated the ‘Hit Parade’ as well as the accompanying daytime radio channels.  This is long before the term R&B was hijacked by an entirely different sort of music, which sadly dominates the singles charts today.  Although the group released two LPs on EMI at the time, it was this EP format that suited the band best for promoting new material, songs that were not considered for singles, being by far the most popular format throughout the decade.  The seven EPs here contain a total of 28 songs and instrumentals, three of which were chart toppers back in the day; “5-4-3-2-1” was even chosen for the theme tune for the hit TV show Ready Steady Go, while “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” reached the number one spot in its own right as a single.  Manfred Mann’s allegiance to the songs of Bob Dylan developed around the mid-1960s point, with a piano-led “With God on Our Side” turning up on The One in the Middle EP.  The collection includes one of the most bizarre EPs the band ever made, featuring four funky jazz-inspired instrumental homages to contemporary ‘hits’ such as the Stones’ “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction”, Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” and an almost unrecognisable take on The Who’s “My Generation”; music you would probably find accompanying party scenes in vintage 1960s movies.  A treat for fans of the Manfreds and splendid collector’s item generally. 

Various Artists | Angola Soundtrack 2 | Album Review | Analog Africa | 10.11.13

It’s almost difficult to understand as we sit in relative comfort with all manner of musical devices at our fingertips, listening to what we want, when we want, that some music out there has been made in the most oppressive of circumstances.  The music featured on this compilation was made by oppressed musicians in Angola during troubled times when such carnival music was outlawed in the years before the country gained independence from Portugal in the mid-1970s.  Between 1969 and 1978, Angola’s recording industry consisted of three recording companies and between them they managed to produce 800 records, mostly singles, some of which have been hand-picked for this collection, which follows the release of the initial Analog Africa No 9 2010 compilation Angola Soundtrack, which came with the proclamation ‘Listening to these tracks may cause addiction and provoke heavy rotation!’ in compiler Samy Ben Redjeb’s sleeve notes.  Such a health warning should perhaps come with this second instalment too.  The music here is dance music with an infectious optimism, brought about by the anticipation of eventual, if not immediate, emancipation.  With a strong sense of community spirit and a positive competitiveness, the musicians on this compilation set out to better each other’s musicianship, with startling results.  With the sub-title ‘Hypnosis, Distortions and Other Innovations’, that sense of intimacy and playfulness comes over, as does the common goal of freedom for both musicians and their audience alike.  The 21 selections here join the original 18 in a celebration of music from Angola’s troubled past, including artists such as Os Angos, Tony Von, Urbano De Castro and Elias Diá Kimuezo.

Pocket Caravan | Thr3e | Album Review | Self Release | 10.11.13

On the cover of the aptly-titled third album release from Anglo/Brazilian instrumental quartet Pocket Caravan, everything appears to come in threes; three bottles of wine, three dancing girls, three arrows in the number three section of a dart board, together with an assortment of paper triangles, roses, swings and gravestones as well as, more importantly, three violins and three guitars, which gives us a clue to what’s contained inside.  The material itself echoes this ternary theme, with the ample use of triple meters in a selection of waltzes and chamamés, with one or two selections having that particular number very much worn on their sleeves, such as “Fase 3” and “Jegue De Tres Pernas (Three Legged Donkey)”.  Chock-full of fascinating rhythms and exquisitely dextrous playing, the album sees the quartet, which is made up of British guitarist Peter Michaels and South Brazilian violinist Felipe Karam, together with percussionist Anselmo Netto and double bassist Matheus Nova, dove-tailing their individual styles into a complex but easy to understand unifying sound.  The band’s influences are wide-spread, covering a lot of ground in terms of musical styles, which range from Romanian/Klezmer, samba and flamenco to the various dance musics of Brazil and Argentina. Recorded in both London and Viamão, Thr3e achieves what it initially set out to achieve, that is to identify and embrace the triple meter, which it manages to do with impressive results.

The Tillers | Hand on the Plow | Album Review | Muddy Roots Music Recordings | 10.11.13

Not to be mistaken for a line-up of leggy tap and kick dancing girls from the 1920s, this slightly more hirsute Cincinnati-based trio release their fourth album with eleven self-penned banjo-led punky-folk songs.  With Sean Geil on guitar and banjo, brother Aaron Geil on upright bass and guitar and Mike Oberst on everything else, the trio give their own songs the ‘old-time’ treatment but present them with a touch of attitude.  A pretty self-contained unit, the band need little help to deliver their distinctive sound, save for their production team and one or two guest appearances, including Col. J.D. Wilkes’ blistering Chicago blues harp on “I Gotta Move”, together with Warren Waldon’s additional fiddle on the captivating “Willie Dear”.  Very much rooted in the past, the songs often sound delightfully authentic and in some cases have the atmosphere of being recorded somewhere in the backwoods; “Treehouse” for instance sounds as if it could have been actually recorded in a treehouse.  There’s more than a nod to the past on such songs as Tecumseh on the Battlefield, a call to battle during the Indian Wars of 1813.  Travel also plays a major role in The Tillers’ material, with songs such as “I Gotta Move”, “500 Miles” and “The Road Neverending”, which includes a nod towards an obvious inspiration, Doc Watson.

Winter Wilson | Cutting Free | Album Review | Self Release | 12.11.13

Chances are that if you regularly visit any of the British folk festivals or have a folk club at the end of your street, you will probably have at some point come across the duo Winter Wilson.  If this is the case then you would probably have also seen them again and maybe even again after that.  Such is the appeal of this Lincolnshire-based husband/wife musical collaboration and if we must seek a box to put them in, which we mustn’t, then it would be a box labelled ‘great songs, great harmonies, healthy social conscience, domestic banter on stage’.  That doesn’t even start to cover it.  Since first working together in the folk rock outfit Ragtrade, which folded in the mid-1990s, the duo have performed together as a tight musical duo, honing their craft pretty much on the road, with a handful of albums containing their quite prolific repertoire along the way.  Cutting Free is the duo’s first album as full time musicians, hence the title, which was officially launched at this year’s Derby Folk Festival.  The fourteen songs, some familiar, some brand new, once again demonstrate Dave Winter’s credentials as a first rate lyricist and song writer, while his trusted partner Kip takes no less than equal credit in delivering them and finding the true sense of those lyrics in each performance.  Reminiscent of Gregson and Collister in their heyday, it’s this mutual understanding and empathy that makes these songs what they are; you tend not to forget these songs once you’ve heard them.  The balance between the wryly observed songs and the heart-wrenching thought-provoking stuff is about right; a tried and tested method of engagement.  While the bitingly observational “I’ve Got the Consultation Bullshit Blues”, tells it like it is in no uncertain terms, ‘You make the cuts but we’re the ones that bleed’ definitely hits the nail square on the head there, Dave turns to confessional with the moving “We Still Get Along”, which Dave hands over to Kip to sing ‘so it looks like she’s the one who screws up!’  “The Field Behind Our House” is the only song on the album not written by Dave Wilson, apart from the chorus of “Common Form”, written by Kip’s namesake Rudyard, but is instead written by and in tribute to the late Nick Keir of The McCalmans, having been written especially for Kip’s mum.  The song perfectly exemplifies Kip Winter’s aptitude for delivering moving unaccompanied songs.  There’s even a brief venture into Cajun style dance music fit for any Saturday night with the uplifting “I Got a One Way Ticket (But a Return State of Mind)”.  If you do happen to be such a person as described at the beginning of this review, then you will also be pleased to know that what you heard from the stage is pretty much what you hear here; no cluttered arrangements or further embellishments from a full band as is often the case, just two voices, a guitar, the occasional accordion, mandolin or banjo and most importantly, a handful of fine songs that you will remember.

Ross Ainslie and Jarlath Henderson | Air-Fix | Album Review | Great White Records | 13.11.13

When Ross Ainslie and Jarlath Henderson headed towards us on the cover of their debut Partners In Crime four years ago, we all felt the rush of energy so much that we almost ducked out of the way to avoid the inevitable crash.  There was a sense that these two outstanding musicians were going places and going there fast.  Then followed the awards as too did the work, with a list of collaborations, bands and solo projects.  Time then for a return to the duo format, where this time they are joined by Ali Hutton on guitar, Duncan Lyall on bass, James Macintosh on drums and Innes Watson on fiddle. In contrast to the energetic dynamism displayed on the cover of their debut, Air-Fix sees the pair in a pretty static state of motionless as they lie dormant within an injecting moulding sprue, ready to be assembled and put to work at any moment.  Inside however, the music is just as lively and animated as before, the nine selections being mainly instrumental pieces based on both traditional and contemporary tunes, with one or two original self-composed tunes thrown in.  The two songs featured are performed by Jarlath Henderson, Paddy Casey’s “Anyone Who’s Yet To Come” and Gerry Rafferty’s timeless “Look Over the Hill and Far Away”, both featuring Alana Henderson helping her brother out on vocals.  The instrumentals also include the Bulgarian dance tune “Smeceno Horo” and a fine finale in the free-flowing workout “Molly in the Fiddle Case”, “Kiss the Maid Behind the Barrel” and “The Hawk”.  There’s no disputing the fact that once our air-fix models are assembled and glued together with a great deal of patience and attention to detail, we have in Ainslie and Henderson, two fine musicians, whose music is as fine and delicate as their tiny component parts displayed on the cover. 

Liz Simcock | Friday Night Train Home | Album Review | Letisha Records | 07.12.13

Friday Night Train Home features a dozen new songs from the pen of singer/songwriter Liz Simcock, whose natural flair for storytelling dominates this, her fourth album to date.  There’s no self-indulgent navel gazing in Liz’s approach to songwriting, rather a bright-eyed observational peek at the world around her, a world inhabited by engaging characters and everyday situations.  There’s Harry for instance in “Harry’s Eyes”, who quite rightly believes amongst other things, that Al Pacino’s current movies aren’t a patch on the old ones.  We all have a friend like Harry and while we listen, we are immediately on the way to identifying our own.  The subjects in these songs range from the thought-provoking to the whimsical, such as the heart-felt look at lasting relationships in “The Long Haul” to knitting patterns of all things in the banjo-led “Knitting Song”.  Although each of these songs are quite different from one another, the approach is similar, with the subjects treated to equal scrutiny, whether it be dance envy in “To Dance like You Do” or the melancholia of autumnal blues in “Another Year”.  Liz’s strength though is in her wryly observed and highly engaging stories, such as “The Bouzouki and the W3”, where we take a bus ride through London, only to find ourselves embroiled in a dramatic mini-adventure.  If we think a story about a missing Greek instrument is a silly idea, then why do we listen attentively right through to the end, almost on the edge of our seats?  Produced by Dave Ellis, who also plays guitar, mandolin, banjo, percussion and piano, the album also includes Boo Howard on bass and Harry Bogdanovs on piano, each providing the songs with the sort of embellishment they rightly deserve.

Beth Nielsen Chapman | Uncovered | Album Review | BNC Records | 08.12.13

For her twelfth release, Beth Nielsen Chapman has gathered together a selection of songs from her thirty year career as one of America’s most treasured songwriters and, for the first time, recorded them herself.  Each of the twelve songs on Uncovered – a title recommended to Chapman by our very own Bob Harris – will be familiar to most listeners having been recorded by some of the most celebrated names in country music.  Indeed, most of these finely crafted Chapman originals were top ten hits for other artists, seven of them even made it to number one.  Beth has compiled an impressive roster of guests to breathe new life into some of her most successful compositions.  Kim Carnes appears on the stirring opener “Simple Things”, originally recorded by Jim Brickman and Rebecca Lynn Howard while Vince Gill provides a vocal on “Here We Are”, a song that he and Beth wrote for Southern rock outfit Alabama.  There’s even the distinctive twang of Duane Eddy’s guitar on “Sweet Love Shine”.  Indeed, Beth has topped this delicious record with a big glob of country cream – Gretchen Peters, Suzi Boggus, Pam Tillis, Darrell Scott and Matraca Berg – all appear on a selection of tracks recorded at Chapman’s ‘tree house’ studio in Nashville.  Heading to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to record the remainder of the record, Beth also recruited some of Britain’s most illustrious folkies.  John McCusker, Duncan Chisholm, James Mackintosh, Euan Burton and Matheu Watson each appear, as does legendary multi-instrumentalist Maartin Allcock, while accordionist Phil Cunningham features on Beth’s “Nothin’ I Can Do About It”, once a number one hit for Willie Nelson.  With Beth’s enticingly fragile and deeply emotive vocal taking centre stage, this treasure trove of rousing country songs drips with class.  Here we have an artist showing us exactly what it is to be a successful songsmith and how some songs defy mortality.  And thanks to Beth’s fine production and fellow guests, Uncovered is as much a reminder of Chapman’s songwriting prowess as it is an example of slick contemporary country music.

Alaw | Melody | Album Review | Taith Records | 09.12.13

Essentially the step-father and son duo Dylan Fowler and Oliver Wilson-Dickson with the ultra-busy Jamie Smith adding some fine accordion playing to the already impressive musical combination of fiddle and guitar, with some occasional mandocello.  Almost completely instrumental with some Quebecois-style choruses on the exhilarating “Y Ddau Farch/Gwel Yr Adeilad (The Two Steeds/Behold the Building)”, the selections are testament to the fact that Welsh traditional music has a very definite place amongst its Irish/Scots cousins.  Equally engaging tunes, whether they are complex dance tunes or sublime airs, such as the dreamy “Breuddwyd y Wrach (The Witches Dream)”, the ten pieces demonstrate some very thoughtful arrangement ideas.  As the three floating instruments on the cover indicate clearly defined spaces between them, those spaces on record are dramatically reduced with the fiddle, guitar and accordion gelling together throughout this thoroughly enchanting music.

Lowri Evans | Corner of My Eye | Album Review | Shimi Records | 10.12.13

Ten new self-penned songs from North Pembrokeshire-raised singer/songwriter Lowri Evans, whose gentle yet assured voice dominates each of the selections, gracefully aided by her distinctive vibrato.  Helped along by some fine musicians, including Martin Simpson on slide guitar and Andy Cutting on accordion, the overall feel is underpinned by informed, yet never flashy or over-played musicianship, enhanced further by uncluttered arrangement.  While the opening title song immediately invites the listener in, the subsequent songs provide comfortable accommodation during our stay.

Brooks Williams | More New Everything | EP Review | Red Guitar Blue Music | 10.12.13

A nice seasonal mini-album containing a handful of songs that couldn’t quite fit on the Statesboro-born bluesman’s recently released New Everything album.  While “Shaking These Christmas Blues” offers a welcomed respite from the usual seasonal jingle bells cheer, with a gentle ‘chestnuts roasting’ type crooner, the EP also features one of Brooks’ most requested ‘Country’ songs “Goin’ Away”, which along with the other selections has ‘class’ written all over it.  With some fine accompaniment from a handful of Yorkshire/Derbyshire’s finest session musicians, including Andy Seward on bass, Sam Sweeney on fiddle, Keith Angel on drums and Rowan Rheingans on banjo, the EP also sees producer Andy Bell chirping in with some backing vocals.  Ranked amongst the world’s top one hundred acoustic guitarists, Brooks Williams not only demonstrates masterful musicianship but maintains quality throughout.  A fine accompanying release for his most recent solo album.