Music Reviews | 2015

Kirsty Law | Shift | Album Review | Toun Records | 01.01.15

If we strip away all the Newcastle Folk Degree connotations and folk award nominations that go with it and just for a moment concentrate on the actual music and the physical object, what we have here is a fine example of contemporary folk musicianship, provided by some of the brightest young things in Scots music at the moment, with a highly competent new voice that lends itself to traditional and contemporary folk song, but with that all important roughly-hewn edge.  Kirsty Law’s debt album, produced by Mattie Foulds, is a collection of both traditional and self-penned songs, with one or two familiar Scots poems given fresh arrangements.  Kirsty provides some ‘clunky’ piano on the haunting Lament of the Border Widow, but leaves the instrumentation pretty much to Rona Wilkie and Marit Falt for the remainder of the album, with further contributions from David Milligan on Rhodes Piano and Conrad Molleson on double bass.  The album also sees a collaboration with Drew Wright aka Wounded Knee on the punchy children’s song “Riddles”.  The album leaves us wanting more.

The Changing Room | Wreckers | Single | Self Release | 02.01.15

For the second single from the forthcoming album Behind The Lace, soon to be released by one of the UKs eagerly anticipated projects The Changing Room, we turn to the theme of shipwrecks and piracy along the rugged Cornish coast, easily conjuring images of Hitchcock’s atmospheric monochrome period-piece Jamaica Inn.  For Wreckers, the nucleus of singer/songwriter Tanya Brittain and singer/musician Sam Kelly, have enlisted the help of the Fisherman’s Friends’ Jon Cleave, whose voice rings out true and clear throughout, faithfully evoking the same sort of eerie tension as Daphne Du Maurier’s classic, with further contributions from Falmouth’s The Oggymen and one or two additional special guests. Certainly one to look out for in the New Year.

Front Country | Sake of the Sound | Album Review | Self Release | 03.01.15

This impressive debut from California Bay Area bluegrass outfit Front Country immediately raises the bar for those considering taking advantage of the genre’s growing popularity.  Good bluegrass has always been about great musicianship and this band’s assured, confident and immediately accessible sound places them right up there with the best.  From the opening few bars of the traditional “Gospel Train”, which opens the album, it doesn’t take long before we realise we are talking seriously good musicianship here.  If Alison Krauss introduced a fine and delicate female voice to modern bluegrass then Melody Walker’s gutsy delivery introduces a much more earthy approach to the music; this singer certainly means business.  Fortunately the musicians, Adam Roskiewicz on mandolin, Jacob Groopman on guitar, Jordan Klein on banjo, Leif Karlstrom on violin and Zach Sharpe on bass, mean business too.  The tight arrangements are established from the start and the standard of playing remains the same through to the end.  Produced by Kai Welch, whose work with Abigail Washburn and Bela Fleck already reveal his credentials in this field, Sake Of The Sound is not just bluegrass for the aficionado, but bluegrass for everybody.

Gretchen Peters | Blackbirds | Album Review | Scarlet Letter/Proper | 03.01.15

The new album release by Nashville-based singer/songwriter Gretchen Peters, co-produced by Peters, Doug Lancio and Barry Walsh, is bookended by two versions of the title song Blackbirds, co-written by Peters and Ben Glover, the first of three collaborations with the Glenarm, Northern Ireland-born singer/songwriter.  In between, the standard of song writing remains top shelf, with a handful of Peters originals together with a gorgeous David Mead song Nashville and a further collaboration with Matraca Berg and Suzy Bogguss Black Ribbons.  Fine company indeed.  Gretchen Peters is expert at keeping good company though and in October last year the song writer joined a long line of ‘good company’ when she was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, joining everybody from the predictable Hank Williams and Tammy Wynette to the not so predictable but equally important Woody Guthrie and WC Handy.  Although this was very good news indeed, one does wonder why it took so long to happen; it could perhaps have taken place almost twenty years ago to coincide with all the Grammy nominations coming in.  By her own admission, the songs on this new record are from the pen of an artist aware of her own aging and mortality with no pretentions to Nashville’s obsession with youth and sexuality.  The songs here are real, about real issues and from the stance of wisdom.  Her song writing is unmatched when addressing home thoughts and the simplistic memories of youth, but with darker and sometimes sinister undertones.  “The House on Auburn Street” for instance, evokes real enough childhood memories, but with the additional poetic licence of personal fantasy.  “When You Comin’ Home”, another co-write with Ben Glover, once again approaches a bygone era, this time the winter streets of her childhood New York, which also features a well-balanced duet with Jimmy LaFave.  Jason Isbell contributes the harmony on “When All You Got Is a Hammer”, a dramatic song that pretty much addresses the empty feeling that serving men and women often suffer when returning from a tour of duty in the Gulf, only to be expected to fit in and act as if nothing happened.  Jerry Douglas’ inimitable Dobro further adds to the drama of the performance.  Towards the end of the album, before the bookended title song, this time performed in a pretty much stripped down manner, Gretchen Peters leaves us with one of the album’s most moving and honest songs, “The Cure for the Pain”, delivered with an almost choked and emotional vocal, guaranteeing from this reviewer at the very least, the first five-star album of the year.

Ian Carr and the Various Artists | Who He? | Album Review | Reveal | 04.01.15

Over the last few years, the name Ian Carr has become synonymous with quality accompaniment, being drafted into many a collective, collaboration or band in order to provide something rather special on six strings; a guitarist who doesn’t need much coaxing in the way of empathetic rhythms.  Some of those memorable performances could over the years be found behind a handful of familiar voices, Eddi Reader, Kate Rusby and Heidi Talbot or alongside contemporary musicians Kathryn Tickell, Kris Drever and John McCusker, to name but a few.  Ian continues to stretch his creative credentials with this, his first solo album, recorded in collaboration with a handful of choice Scandinavian musicians.  Instrumental for the most part, the nine selections are imbued with an intriguing mixture of top notch musicianship and quirky arrangement, with never a dull moment.  Fellow Timber playmate Maria Jonsson provides the two vocal performances on both the beautifully melodic Road Drill and also on Just Nu, sung in Swedish, although the lead track I’ll Call You does have a sort of Laurie Anderson-styled vocoder vocal.  Possibly the most unusual piece on the album is “Talking Frances”, a fine arrangement featuring some of Ian’s dexterous playing interspersed with some archive spoken passages by one Frances Carr, Ian’s mother, telling it how it was back in the day.  Who He? is precisely the sort of debut we would expect from Ian Carr.

Findlay Napier | VIP Very Interesting Persons | Album Review | Cheerygroove | 08.01.15

Encased in a sleeve featuring a highly detailed Chuck Close-styled portrait of Scots singer/songwriter Findlay Napier, VIP or Very Important Persons, reveals ten highly original songs, each based on real life characters.  From the beautiful “Hedy Lamarr”, who’s original ideas led to some of the technology we couldn’t live without today, to the WW1 fighter pilot who accidentally came across Angel Falls, the stories are highly engaging and effectually leave the listener with food for thought.  If Napier and collaborator/producer Boo Hewerdine  were to continue in this vein, we could possibly do away with Wikipedia and have instead some very succinct and eloquently written biographies to feast our ears upon.

The Unthanks | Mount the Air | Album Review | Rabble Rouser | 27.01.15

Quite possibly The Unthanks’ masterpiece, Mount The Air carries all the hallmarks of genius.  Great songs, fine arrangements, beautiful singing and one or two startlingly good instrumental solos, notably Tom Arthurs’ Miles Davis-esque trumpet throughout the title song.  Northern Sky has waxed lyrically about this band throughout their eventful first decade, both on record and in a multitude of live settings, using far too many words, to the point of embarrassment to be honest, so rather than covering old ground, I’m prepared to slap five stars on the top of this review and urge you to add the album to your collection at your earliest convenience.  It’s worth pointing out that this album is also the first LP to be released by the band on 12” vinyl, the only real format to use when your aim is to make an important artistic statement, which this most definitely is.

David Llewellyn and Ida Kristin | Songs Around the Kitchen Table | Album Review | Dabhand Records | 01.02.15

With some finely-crafted original songs, together with one or two well-chosen covers, the fruits of this Welsh/Swedish duo’s evenings at the kitchen table (in Llewelyn’s Nashville home) are treated to some fine arrangements and confident performances throughout. With three very well-known covers, Paul Simon’s “59th St Bridge Song”, Ewan MacColl’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” and Pete Seeger’s “Turn, Turn, Turn”, it’s with the original songs that set this duo apart.  “Coffee Shop Song” is a delightfully original idea, which possibly exemplifies just how ‘together’ Llewellyn and Kristin are as performers.    

Alice DiMicele | Swim | Album Review | Alice Otter Music | 02.02.15

This distinctly soulful thirteenth independent recording by Oregon-based singer/songwriter Alice DiMicele, meets with all the necessary credentials to mark it out as a landmark recording in her career.  Recorded at The Studio at Pacifica in Oregon’s Siskiyou mountain range, specifically the ranch that Steve Miller built during his heyday, the album has coincidentally some of Miller’s rock and soul elements, not least the Hammond accompaniment on the album’s opener “Soul Fly Free”.  It’s not all new here by any means, as DiMicele revisits “If I Could Move the World”, with an immediately soothing and atmospheric jazz groove, originally revealed on the Naked album back in 1994.  With guest appearances from such as Little Feat’s Bill Payne and virtuoso violinist Darol Anger, to name but two, the album’s material is in good hands.  Also nice to hear the Robert Hunter’s Grateful Dead standard “Ripple”, which closes the album.

Tracey Browne and Raevennan Husbandes | East By North-West | Album Review | Self Release | 03.02.15

After an early indication of what to expect from their debut album as a duo, Tracey Browne and Raevennan Husbandes follow up their single with a further eight songs that join “Coming Home” in something of a similar light; in other words, if you enjoyed “Coming Home”, then you’ll enjoy this too.  Tracey and Raevennan first met a couple of years ago while working with other musicians on a project in collaboration with The Unthanks at Manchester’s Band on the Wall.  Some of that musical empathy was formulated and nurtured there from the start.  The album title derives from the fact that the two musicians lived at the time on opposite sides of the country (Manchester and Lowestoft).  Once again here, the collaborative songs stand out, the wistful “To the Sea”, the shimmering harmonies on “Blood and Bone” and the radio-friendly pop sensibility of “Fire in Your Heart”.  For the album, Tracey and Raevennan surrounded themselves with some choice musicians, such as Mike McGoldrick on flute, Belinda O’Hooley on accordion and Katie Ware (“Little Sparrow”) on vocals.  A beautiful debut.

Hannah Sanders | Charms Against Sorrow | Album Review | Sungrazing Records | 15.02.15

One of the things that amuses me among some of our younger folk singers today is this ‘I learned this from the singing of Fred Jordan or Sam Larner or even Harry Cox etc’.  No you didn’t, you learned it from June Tabor or Nic Jones or Martin Carthy records.  I doubt whether Hannah Sanders denies having listened to some of our greatest interpretive folk albums of the last four decades, or indeed witnessed first-hand some of those songs delivered from a stage by those artists at some point.  We do know however that Hannah would have heard a lot of these songs listening to her musician parents over the years, some of which would no doubt have been included in the repertoire of her family band The Dunns.  Well this reviewer is certainly familiar with the songs collected together on this album, heard over the years from some of our best interpreters of traditional song and freely admits to having never really heard a single source singer.  Familiar songs such as “A Sailor’s Life”, “Go Your Way”, “Lord Franklin” and “Geordie” for instance, none of which you really need to be a University Challenge contestant to know where they came from (to our ears), or even “The Werewolf”, which recalls the days when Barry Dransfield ruled the roost.  With fine and assured performances, delivered in a rich no-nonsense, crystal clear voice, these songs are treated to fresh arrangements with some delicious accompaniment, not least Ben Savage’s guitar and dobro playing.  This album is a real beauty, which you will listen to over and over.

Allison Moorer | Down To Believing | Album Review | Proper | 18.02.15

Two years in the making, Allison Moorer’s latest release Down To Believin’ sees the songwriter traverse a highly personal landscape with thirteen songs that reflect living through life-changing events.  At the heart of the album is the title song, which covers quite eloquently the separation from husband Steve Earle.  The making of the album also ran side by side the diagnosis at the beginning of 2012 of their son’s autism; “Mama Let the Wolf In” captures all the anger and frustration of the maternal guilt that just happens to come with the territory.  Most song writers deal with personal issues in the best way they know, through their songs and Allison Moorer is no exception.  At times dark and brooding “Thunderstorm/Hurricane” but also at times hopeful, “I’m Doing Fine”, the songs capture a singer/songwriter grappling with the sort of emotions that comes with adulthood and parenthood but made that bit more difficult by Moorer’s own rather exceptional circumstances.  The album also includes a rather faithful reading of John Fogerty’s timeless “Have You Ever Seen the Rain”.   

Kyle Carey | North Star | Album Review | Americelta Records | 19.02.15

A bright and breezy follow up to Kyle Carey’s 2011 debut Monongah, which once again seamlessly blends her own American and Celtic roots in song.  Most of the songs here are originals, written with a clear understanding of the contrasting nuances of both traditional and contemporary folk song, performed in both English and Gaelic.  Kyle’s travels from New Hampshire to Alaska, on to Saratoga, up to Cape Breton and across to the Isle of Skye, traversing a rich Celtic landscape along the way, those traditions and languages have flourished, to the point where Kyle has managed to develop her own very distinctive Gaelic Americana sound.  Although Kyle’s gentle voice is the focus throughout the album, the additional voice of Josienne Clarke cannot be underestimated.  Maintaining a balanced backing voice on almost half of the songs, Josienne comes much more to the fore on Kate Wolf’s “Across the Great Divide”, almost duetting with Kyle.  Ben Walker takes care of the guitars, while other notable musicians make appearances such as Chris Stout and Katie McNally on fiddles, Catriona McKay on harmonium, Natalie Haas on cello and further backing vocals courtesy of Pauline Scanlon, amongst others.  Produced by Seamus Egan (Solas), North Star like its celestial subject, glimmers in the distance waiting to touch you. 

Arooj Aftab | Bird Under Water | Album Review | Self Release | 20.02.15

The debut album release of Pakistani-American singer and composer Arooj Aftab arrives at not a moment too soon. Already established across continents, the ‘neo-sufi/Pakistani Semi Classical World Music’ artist delivers just five pieces, each imbued with an almost trance-like meditative quality.  The empathetic cross fertilisation of both Eastern and Western instrumentation (Bansuri and Sitar, Accordion and Trumpet) provides an almost sedate musical canvas for Aftab’s sublime voice to rest upon.  Chances are you won’t be dancing to these compositions but instead, you’ll find yourself in a state of reflection and meditation throughout. 

David Grubb | High Rise | Album Review | Shake ‘Um’ Dud Records | 26.02.15

This Scots violinist/composer has many strings to his bow if you’ll pardon the pun.  Not only has the Fife-born musician studied Classical violin, he has also contributed to film scores, done a bit of acting and popped a fiddle tune a day on social media, in a similar manner to that thing Jon Boden did only with his fiddle as his voice.  In that series, David comes over as a likeable lad next door, sitting next to his bed with the Saltire prominently hanging on the wall directly behind. For his debut album release, David has gathered a bunch of choice musicians together for the eight self-written instrumental compositions (mainly instrumental with a few la-la’s here and there), each inspired by cityscapes, hence the High Rise title, and each performed with assurance and confidence, some of which occasionally meander into jazz and blues influences.  If this is the start of David Grubb’s solo recording career, it’s a pretty impressive start. 

Tom Kitching | Interloper | Album Review | Fellside | 28.02.15

Known for his impressive work with Gren Bartley and more recently as one third of Pilgrims’ Way, Tom Kitching releases this intriguing instrumental album, the first under his own name.  No stranger to the studio, having appeared on a dozen albums already, the fiddle player investigates the English tradition with ten fine arrangements of Morris tunes, jigs, hornpipes and mazurkas, assisted by three empathetic musicians, Marit Fält on Låtmandola, Freya Rae on flute and clarinet and Jim Molyneux on percussion.  Often venturing into medieval territory, the sort of music you might associate with the peasant musicians in a Pieter Bruegel painting, the tunes re-imagine the past but at the same time breathe new life in the here and now.  There’s a determination to Tom’s playing, which is bold but not brash, forceful but not heavy-handed and driving but never going too far over the speed limit. Interloper is certainly an instrumental fiddle album with a difference. 

Bill Feehely | Lucky Struck | Album Review | Self Release | 01.03.15

Equally at home in the acting/directing field as he is with his music, New Jersey-born Bill Feehely exercises his songwriting credentials with eleven new country-inflected songs.  Feehely’s hard-hitting lived-in voice tells each story convincingly, whether it’s wild horses trampling his heart “Wild Horses”, struggling to hold down a job “Bottom Town”, or an open love letter to his own ‘best friend for life’ “Fly Away”.  If there’s a nod towards Steve Earle in the mandolin-led “Thousand Stories”, then there’s also a more mainstream country feel to “Side Pocket”; it’s probably the balance between the two that makes Lucky Struck work as a whole.

Asleep at the Wheel | Still the King | Album Review | Proper | 03.03.15

This celebration of the music of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys is more than just a nostalgic musical journey back to the 1920s and 1930s, it’s also a celebration of fine collaboration between possibly Western Swing’s foremost outfit Asleep at the Wheel and a whole host of guests that include Lyle Lovett on “Trouble in Mind”, Willie Nelson on “Navajo Trail” and Merle Haggard and Emily Gimble on “Keeper of My Heart”.  Presented in the time-honoured tradition of an old radio show, complete with Texas Playboy Theme intro, the generous 22 songs evoke the period perfectly well, with some fine moments including “What’s a Matter” with the Mill featuring Pokey LaFarge, a fine reading of “I Had Someone Else Before I Had You” by Elizabeth Cook and a stonking instrumental “Tiger Rag” with The Old Crow Medicine Show in furious form.  The host of present day contributors are joined by the real deal in the form of 92-year-old Billy Briggs and 86-year-old Leon Raush, both former members of the Texas Playboys.  Western Swing is alive and well.

Kimmie Rhodes | Cowgirl Boudour | Album Review | Sunbird Records | 04.03.15

With fifteen albums already to her name, the most recent being a collection of covers, the prolific songwriter returns with fourteen new songs, either self-penned or written in collaboration with others.  Dedicated to Cowboy Jack Clement, the material on Kimmie Rhodes’ latest album release evokes the spirit of country music from the 1960s through to the 1980s, branded with Kimmie’s own indelible mark.  Once again working in collaboration with her producer/musician son Gabriel, Kimmie duets with Johnny Goudie on a couple of songs, including the album opener “I Am Falling”, which is one of those songs you swear you’ve heard before; a sort of mixture of Walls and Bridges-period John Lennon and Diana Jones.  The songs are imbued with tenderness for the most part, in particular the almost whispered “Will You”, the soul-searching “What Do I Have Now” and the distinctively personal “Always Never Leave”.  This personal and autobiographical journey is at times tinged with sadness but Kimmie naturally avoids melancholy, in fact the album closes with the most positive word in the dictionary, “Yes”.  A good note to end on.   

Cameron Blake | Alone on the World Stage | Album Review | Silver Slant Records | 09.03.15

Pretty much one man and his guitar, together with a dozen well-crafted songs that stylistically owe a debt to the late 1960s singer/songwriter boom, with a nod to the vocal prowess of such artists as Tim Buckley and Shawn Phillips.  Although the sparse style and introspective mood of the songs are steeped in the past, lyrically the songs are quite contemporary, whether dealing with the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict “Rise and Shine”, family migration during an oil boom “North Dakota Oil”, the joys of using public transport in London “Piccadilly Circus” or the on-going financial crisis that affects us all “Detroit”.  There’s so much in the world for a songwriter to have a go at and Blake goes at it very well indeed.  The brisk fingerpicking on “Ultrasound” echoes the delicate sound of the falling rain, which accompanied Blake when he wrote the song, while the poetic lyrics demonstrate the beauty of a father/daughter’s perfect love.  Highly lyrical, tastefully uncluttered and gracefully rendered, Alone On The World Stage is much more than just another singer/songwriter album.

Tom Brosseau | Perfect Abandon | Album Review | Tin Angel Records | 12.03.15

Recorded with just the one microphone, the songs on Perfect Abandon sound as fresh and live as possible, though without the presence of an audience.  Just two afternoons on stage at the Cube Theatre in Bristol, with John Parish at the helm, the ten songs sound as though they were recorded a good four thousand miles further west.  The North Dakota-born now LA-based singer/songwriter is chiefly a storyteller and nowhere is his storytelling more poignant than on the opening monologue, where Brosseau tells of being abandoned by his mother in a department store as a child.  Although “Hard Luck Boy” is the only spoken song on the album, the other songs keep our attention due to the standard of the stories, rather than the overall sound of the musical arrangements.  While the instrumental “The Empire Building” is slightly throwaway, more an interlude than anything else, the tune does lead into “Goodbye Empire Builder”, and we’re right there back into the stories again.  Interestingly, the title Perfect Abandon refers to the casual way of wearing a hat on the back of your head, as indicated on the cover mannequin.  

Lindsay Lou and the Flatbellys | Ionia | Album Review | Earthwork | 14.03.15

Recorded over just four days in the Autumn, amidst the seasonal Michigan rains and falling leaves, the latest album by Lindsay Lou and the Flatbellys reveals a clear indication that this quartet know precisely what they are doing.  One of Michigan’s tightest little Bluegrass/Americana outfits, the four musicians Joshua Rilko on mandolin, Mark Lavengood on dobro and guitar, PJ George on bass, harmonica and percussion and not least Lindsay Lou on guitar and lead vocal, maintain that specific tightness throughout the album.  Encircled around strategically-placed vintage-mics, the only effective method of capturing this sumptuously organic music, the band laid down a dozen songs that not only effectively capture the four musician’s empathetic playing but also Lindsay Lou’s naturally jazz-tinged vocal prowess.  Look no further than “The River Jordan” for an example of precisely what this band can do.  Over in the UK for a few shows in Scotland, the band will be returning for a more extensive tour of the UK and Ireland in the Summer.

Dan Walsh | Incidents and Accidents | Album Review | Rooksmere Records | 15.03.15

Dan Walsh’s follow up to Same But Different (2012) once again demonstrates a master musician at work, with another selection of songs and instrumentals, each performed with no small measure of assurance and musical dexterity, along with a confident swagger.  Incidents And Accidents, presumably borrowed from Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al”, a feature of Dan’s live shows, kicks off with a self-penned raw-toned blues “Time To Stay”, with his now familiar punchy banjo lead and determined vocal.  Dan’s trademark banjo sound is evident throughout, both as an extroverted lead instrument and as a fine introverted accompanying instrument to the songs.  This time around, Dan keeps things pretty sparse in terms of accompaniment, with appearances by Patsy Reid on fiddle, Nic Zuppardi on mandolin and producer Mark Hutchinson on percussion and vocals.  The Canadian singer Meaghan Blanchard joins Dan on the co-written “Only Way To Go”, a collaboration this reviewer would like to hear more of.  It’s not all banjo though as Dan accompanies himself on guitar on “The Song Always Stays”, a nod to his craft as a performer.  Where Dan excels though, is in exercising the interpretive power of his instrument, particularly on “Whiplash Reel”, which is heavily influenced by Indian classical music.

Mad Dog McRea | Almost Home | Album Review | God Dam Records | 16.03.15

Plymouth’s Mad Dog McRea are probably more suited to live performance judging by the pure immediacy of their often manic, sweaty and thoroughly energy-infused arrangements.  The eleven songs here are once again imbued with a distinctively rogue folk element, flailing whistles, soaring fiddles, driving drums and percussion, with a solid folk rock foundation; more in tune with smuggling antics along Devon’s rugged coastline than the rustic purple moor grass and rush pastures normally associated with the county.  Produced by Sean Lakeman, the band include a tenderly rendered reading of brother Seth’s “The Sound”, together with the equally thoughtful “Whiskey Man”, but pretty much keep up the adrenaline levels with their infectious Pogues-like party spree speciality.

Bella Hardy | With the Dawn | Album Review | Noe Records | 18.03.15

I think it was Kris Kristofferson who suggested to Joni Mitchell upon first hearing the songwriter’s seminal album Blue, “keep something of yourself”, seemingly alarmed at just how personal the songs were.  Bella Hardy’s seventh album With The Dawn could possibly be the Edinburgh-based singer’s very own Blue, in that the songs clearly demonstrate the writer’s urge to reflect and confess with full-on emotional conviction.  The album as a whole is beautifully atmospheric, due in no small part to the arrangements, but also due to the almost minimalist approach of the musicians involved, including Ben Seal who not only produces, but also twiddles with programming gadgets.  The songs for the most part represent Bella’s past year, which if we take the lyrical content on face value, could possibly be described either as a landmark year, a turning of a corner or just plainly an annus horribilis.  There’s so much passion here, a veritable outpouring of emotion that even if you don’t really have a clue where Bella Hardy is up to in her life, you seem to have more of an idea after hearing this, and hear it you must.        

Mike Grogan | Make Me Strong | Album Review | Poacher Records | 19.03.15

Multi-instrumentalist Mike Grogan surrounds himself with a West Country version of the Wrecking Crew, featuring Phil Beer, Phil Henry, Miranda Sykes, Spencer Cozens and Mark Tucker, who also produces, to create a tight and bold sound throughout.  The dozen or so self-penned songs at times venture into the ferociously bluesy “Black Dog”, with its dominant harmonica fills courtesy of Phil Henry, the stomping rogue folk of “Nelson’s Blood” featuring Phil Beer’s trademark (and much copied) fiddle playing and the occasional lighter-waving power balladry, such as “The Light of the World”.  Make Me Strong is a well-produced album with some seriously laudable contributions from Grogan’s guest musicians.

Sam Lee | The Fade in Time | Album Review | Nest Collective Records | 25.03.15

There’s something immediately entrancing about Sam Lee’s second album release, the follow-up to his Mercury-nominated debut Ground of its Own.  From the opening flourish of percussion, emulating the beating of hooves together with the eerie bugle frills that set both the pace and atmosphere of the opening song, “Jonny O’the Brine”, the album is loaded with atmosphere throughout.  Whereas Planxty successfully told the story in “Johnny of Brady’s Lea”, a derivative of the traditional “Johnny of Braidesley”, at least 35 years ago, Sam Lee’s take on the story is imbued with a sudden jolt of immediacy, which tends to give the listener the feeling that they’re on an early morning hunt, whether they like that sort of thing or not.  The juxtaposition of some highly inventive musical arrangements and Lee’s distinctive vocal embellishments, which for all intents and purposes serves as an instrument in its own right, keeps the listener engaged throughout.  For the most part that relationship specifically serves to tell the story of each song, with some utterly inspiring samples, such as the impressive Eastern European cantor singing at the beginning, middle and end of “Bonny Bunch of Roses”, together with some archive spoken interludes courtesy of Hamish Henderson and Charlotte Higgins as a prelude to “Lord Gregory”, one of the highlights on the album.  Only occasionally does Lee’s voice wander into indulgence, such as on “Phoenix Island”.  How many different ways can one sing the words Phoenix Island before we want it to stop?  Having said that, The Fade in Time on the whole dispels the myth of the second album syndrome and actually improves on its predecessor.  With Arthur Jeffes and Jamie Orchard-Lisle producing, the album comes with the same mesmerising effect successfully explored in the minimalist aesthetic of Penguin Cafe.

Rich McMahon | Songs of Exile, Love and Dissent | Album Review | Knotted Oak productions | 26.03.15

A dozen self-penned songs make up the latest album release by UK-born, Ireland-raised singer/songwriter Rich McMahon.  Not unlike Christy Moore, McMahon’s clear vocal delivery is rich in Irish vernacular, especially on the sprawling story songs such as “The Barman’s Tale” and “Ten Miles From Dublin”.  While addressing identity and dissent, McMahon also demonstrates his credentials as a fine writer of songs that pull on the heartstrings, notably “A Mother’s Lament”.  With songs rich in narrative and with just the right amount of musical embellishment, Songs Of Exile, Love & Dissent provides the listener plenty to go at. 

Gill Sandell and Chris T-T | Walk Away, Walk Away | Album Review | Rowan Tree Records | 28.03.15

This collaboration between Gill Sandell and Chris T-T was originally intended as a traditional song project but after some initial financial outlay (on an antiquated 1860s ballad collection) together with some time spent poring over collections in Cecil Sharp House, the duo accidentally stumbled on another plan.  The singer/accordionist, known for her work as part of Emily Barker’s Red Clay Halo, and Brighton-based singer/songwriter Chris T-T decided to investigate the possibility of bringing together as a themed collection, a bunch of songs centred around travel and absence, parting and separation.  The songs chosen by the duo are borrowed from such diverse sources as Bruce Springsteen and Willie Nelson to Neil Young and Joni Mitchell by way of the Kaiser Chiefs and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.  With the one Sandell original “Autumn Seed”, delivered in her delicate bee’s wing voice, Walk Away, Walk Away works equally as a themed album and as a collaboration between established friends.

Blueflint | Stories From Home | Album Review | Johnny Rock Records | 29.03.15

Leith-based Deborah Arnott and Clare Neilson, otherwise known as Blueflint, release their third album a good four years after their last Maudy Tree, which followed their 2009 debut High Bright Morning.  Once again it’s the duo’s close harmonies and sense of melody that bring these self-penned songs to life, along with the fine accompaniment from a small bunch of choice musicians.  Maintaining their distinctively Scots accents throughout, not unlike the Reid brothers, whom the duo supported during The Proclaimers six week tour in 2012, Deborah and Clare keep it real both in terms of their delivery and in the intelligent stories they tell in the songs they write.  The grim photographs that illustrate the sleeve, depicting the brutalist architecture of the Banana Flats and tired and graffiti-tarnished inner city metropolis of the Kirkgate indicate that the sun doesn’t always shine on Leith, yet the songs can be uplifting, especially on “This is a Story”, “Patch of Green” and “Little Stranger”, each of which bring their own little ray of sunshine.

Inti Rowland | 17th Century Japanese Aviary | Album Review | Self Release | 30.03.15

The debut full-length album release by Chillean-born singer/songwriter Inti Rowland, features a dozen self-penned songs recorded over a six day period in the Scottish Highlands.  The remote setting reflects the tranquil atmosphere of the songs themselves, each infused with an almost ethereal quality, a sort of mixture of Nick Drake and Laura Marling with a bit of Syd Barrett thrown in.  With a title inspired by the ancient courting tradition of presenting a loved one with an aviary of birds to demonstrate affection, the album is presented in a similar fashion, each song presented as a delicate bird in its own right.  Poetic in places, the lyricism blends perfectly with the setting, with the occasional flurry of orchestration.  An album to take you away from the everyday for a while.  

Martha Bean | When Shadows Return to the Sea | Album Review | Self Release | 01.04.15

When Shadows Return To The Sea is the sort of debut album most young singer/songwriter’s probably dream about making.  Leicester-based Martha Bean has an assured command over fine melodies that are both beautifully crafted as well as being instantly accessible to the listener, most probably due to the early influence of classical music, both her parents being classical musicians; dad John Bean himself takes the cello solo on “To Make the Whole World Happy”.  There are certainly other influences at work here as well, notably that of Nick Drake on “Catching Stars”, which Martha absorbs into the very fabric of her music, which in turn comes out pretty much her own.  Occasionally the influences are worn directly on her sleeve such as “The Conversation”, which I imagine is influenced by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová’s Grammy nominated “Falling Slowly”, but I could be mistaken.  Having played the piano from a very early age, the multi-instrumentalist fearlessly tackles all the dramatic orchestral arrangements herself with astonishing results, especially on “Who Changed the Clocks” and the superb opener “When the Fear Comes”, both very much show-pieces on the album.  This is an utterly enchanting debut.

Robin Adams | The Garden | Album Review | Backshop Records | 01.04.15

For Robin Adams’ fourth album, the Glaswegian singer/songwriter draws on the life of the troubled artist Vincent Van Gogh for inspiration.  The songs are not in any way a detailed narrative of the life of Van Gogh, but rather a collection of songs infused with the essence of the struggling artist.  There’s certainly the light and texture of paint on canvas explored on “Paint Me the Day”, but for the most part the songs draw parallels between the Adams’ own struggles with the muse.  Nowhere is the guitar more expressively realised than on the Bert Jansch-influenced “Midnight Blood”, sparring perfectly with Adams’ brooding lyrics.  Occasionally reminiscent of Damien Rice’s delivery, especially on “Troubled Skies”, the songs have a particular tenderness and rich acoustic feel throughout but it has to be said, like “Lust for Life”, it ain’t a bundle of laughs.

Jenny Ritter | Raised By Wolves | Album Review | Fiddle Head | 02.04.15

It’s been almost exactly two years since Jenny Ritter’s debut release Bright Mainland was reviewed in these pages and this follow-up has been eagerly anticipated.  The nine songs included here appear to pick up where the last album left off, with each one treated to some fine accompaniment, with equally fine musicianship throughout.  Being raised in a world of music and dance, her father being an opera singer and her mother a ballerina, all set against a rural Vancouver Island background, Jenny’s own sense of creativity in both music and the visual arts, has grown while gaining a wealth of experience working in a couple of bands, forming her own choir and Scandinavian trad trio as well as contributing to various other projects along the way.  With a natural flair for songwriting, Jenny’s songs reflect her own upbringing, her sense of place in the world and her connection with nature.  That connection is explored throughout the album, not least on “Wolf Wife”, from where the album’s title derives, which appears to be informed by her own strength of character.  Other notable songs include Museum Song, where a balance is drawn between our dreams, the wide open prairie and our natural history encased, and “A History of Happiness”, which seems to set out Jenny’s raison d’être: ‘I’ve got a history of happiness, and it’s written on my face I guess’.  Raised By Wolves has every chance of altering the countenance likewise of anyone who cares to listen.

Merry Hell | The Ghost in Our House and Other Stories | Album Review | Mrs Casey | 03.04.15

If the first two Merry Hell albums passed you by for whatever reason, or if you haven’t managed to catch the band live yet, this latest release just might be a good starting point.  Maybe the reason you haven’t managed to catch the band live yet is due to the fact that you chose the well-known headliner who was playing simultaneously on the other stage at that festival you attended last year.  Chances are that you may not have had quite as good a time as the folks dancing to Merry Hell’s own brand of feel good folk rock next door.  A slightly smaller audience maybe, but infinitely more animated and adrenaline-fuelled.  This family band may be a very good end of the night knees-up type of a band, but some of that live energy is evident on their recorded output as well and this album is no exception.  Whether the songs are about the futility of war, the human condition, the plight of the ‘broke’ working man or the noble work ethic of the baker’s daughter, each of the songs are delivered with distinct articulation (yay for being able to hear every single word), a bright and fully realised rhythm-based folk rock sound, a well-balanced distribution of voices and a very distinctive and unpretentious style all their own.  If you thought that folk rock was dead, wake up and smell the coffee. 

Le Vent Du Nord | Tetu | Album Review | Borealis Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 08.04.15

My first experience of the Quebec-based quartet Le Vent du Nord (Wind from the North) was at the Shepley Spring Festival back in 2011, when the band took to the stage just before the headliners Bellowhead.  It has to be said that the foot-stomping Québécois rhythms were a hard act to follow even for the mighty Bellowhead.  This year sees the band entering their thirteenth year together and their eighth album release TÊtu, which reveals a band very much on top form.  The fifteen track album, which includes both traditional and original songs together with a handful of instrumentals, is a clear indication that Nicolas Boulerice, Olivier Demers, Réjean Brunet and Simon Beaudry are gifted with a knack of creating some of the most vibrant music in the Francophonie canon.  The songs, often delivered in a call and response style, offers those who don’t have much in the way of French, an opportunity to sing along anyway, while the instrumentals speak for themselves.  With songs addressing such issues as forgetful politicians and equally forgetful North American French-speakers, the plight of a love-sick deserter and a punch up between a werewolf and the Catholic religion, it’s all pretty much a toe-tapping festival from start to finish, with the occasional use of a string quartet, notably on the opening cut “Noce Tragique”.  The album comes with a booklet providing not only the entire lyrics in French but also a brief introduction to all the songs in English.

Steve Pledger | Striking Matches in the Wind | Album Review | Self Release | 09.04.15

Steve Pledger’s second album and follow up to 2012’s 14 Good Intentions, sees the Cambridge-born singer/songwriter delivering a dozen conscientious songs all of which appear to avoid the usual trappings of the genre.  They’re not about self-obsessed soul-searching melancholia, but rather they address some of the issues that affect us all in our daily lives.  We don’t seem to think about those of us who are alone quite as much as we probably should do and songs like “People Who Care” and “A Heart Filled With Nothing To Do”, remind us of the importance of friendship.  Descriptions of driving along a North Devon coast road “Love Condescension” or the end of a relationship “There We Are”, an a cappella song featuring a duet with Ange Hardy, carry a certain tenderness, while “This Land is Pound Land” perfectly describes, in a sort of Pete Morton fashion, our mutual disdain for the dumbed-down high street retail sensibilites that dominates modern life, settling for any old tosh as long as it’s cheap.  Thoughtful, provocative and insightful, Steve Pledger’s songs stay with you long after you’ve moved on to other things.       

Niamh Boadle | Maid on the Shore | Album Review | Wild Goose Records | 13.04.15

Niamh Boadle’s second album release is a showcase for the various areas this young musician covers; her fine interpretations of traditional and contemporary songs for instance, or her command over her own songwriting skills, not to mention her credentials as an accomplished multi-instrumentalist, particularly a flair for the open-tunings on her trusty Fylde.  The only area not covered here is her nifty Irish step dancing, but that can be witnessed elsewhere.  Born and raised in St. Annes, Lancashire, Niamh has grown as a musician over the last five years, since her debut Wild Rose in 2010.  This could be attributed to her studies up in Newcastle, the breeding ground for many a future folk star these days.  With Niamh though, a lot of that knowledge and experience was already there in her Irish blood on her dad’s side, especially her singing style, which is at once imbued with that distinct Irish authenticity.  As a song writer, Niamh takes one or two artistic liberties, such as on the opening song “Forget-Me-Not”, which is devoid of rhyme, a largely accepted songwriting device, which might have been awkward but manages to succeed due to its engaging storyline.  The story telling continues with a fine reading of Anthony John Clarke’s “The Only Life Gloria Knows”, which not only clearly demonstrates the sweetness of Niamh’s voice but also showcases her informed guitar playing as well.  Sometimes the guitar is put down for one or two unaccompanied songs such as the traditional “Dark Inishowen” from Donegal and Thomas Davis’ “The Flower of Finae”, both of which require little more than her voice, with just her own bodhran accompaniment on “Creggan White Hare”.  Niamh also demonstrates her handling of the fiddle with “Ice on the Water”, a tune she learned while playing with the local Palatine Fiddlers.  Helping out on the album is Bellowhead’s Paul Sartin on piano who also adds some of his trademark oboe on Kate Fagan’s “Roll You Sweet Rain”, one of the album’s little gems.

Hayward Williams | The Reef | Album Review | Self Release | 14.04.15

The surprisingly soulful voice of Milwaukee-based singer/songwriter Hayward Williams emanates from a slight, almost unassuming figure, yet that voice is imbued with so much power, it’s difficult to imagine it coming from anywhere other than midway between Memphis and Muscle Shoals.  A former member of local band Exit, Williams has now reached his fifth full-length solo release, which meanders along the back roads, cross fertilising country soul with southern gospel, creating a distinctive sound throughout.  Having experienced a serious bout of exhaustion, the new songs on this album see a re-vitalised return to form with ten completely memorable songs in tow.  Recently seen performing songs from this album while opening for and performing alongside Kris Delmhorst on her recent UK tour, the stripped down to basics songs of one man and his guitar, benefit further here from some superior musicianship and arrangements, courtesy of a cast of key players such as Billy Conway on drums, Jeremy Moses Curtis on bass, not to mention the crucial vocal contributions of Matt and Kate Lorenz.  Produced by Jeffrey Fourcoult, The Reef has everything except Booker T on Hammond.  An album to return to again and again.  

Bassekou Kouyaté and Ngoni Ba | Ba Power | Album Review |  Glitterbeat | 16.04.15

The fourth album by Mali’s family band Bassekou Kouyaté and Ngoni Ba quite simply reveals a band stretching out to otherwise unchartered territory with just nine songs, each loaded with a driving energy.  The title itself suggests a certain dynamism, the word ‘ba’ meaning ‘strong’ in Bambara.  This strength permeates the nine songs with some soaring interplay between all the instruments in the ngoni (African lute) family and several forms of percussion, as well as contributions from a handful of guests on their respective instruments.  Amy Sacko’s distinctive vocal exemplifies the ‘ba power’ in its own right, but is highlighted further by the tight syncopated arrangements.  Those characteristic riff-like combinations can be heard most notably midway through “Abe Sumaya”, which also features Chris Brokaw on guitar.  The musical textures created by the frequent ngoni fills and flurries, backed up by the mesmerising rhythms created by Mamadou Kouyaté on the bass ngoni and the percussive drive of the yabara, tamani and tamaba delivered by Mahamadou Tounkara, together with the calabash playing of Moctar Kouyaté, demonstrates perfectly the close unity of Ngoni Ba as a whole.  The additional bonus this time around, is the greater sense of collaboration, with several guest musicians adding to the mix.  Veteran Songhai blues guitarist Samba Touré takes flight on “Fami Magni”, with Zoumana Tereta’s guest vocal and trance-like Soku (single string violin) playing. Bamako Afro-pop artist Adama Yalomba provides yet another dimension to the sound, with a lead vocal on Waati.  Recorded in Bamako and produced by Chris Eckman, Ba Power could be the band’s finest hour so far and provides us with just the sort of music to get us up over the summer festival season.   

Paul Brady | The Vicar St Sessions Vol 1 | Album Review | Proper | 18.04.15

In 2001 Paul Brady staged a month of concerts at Vicar Street in Dublin to celebrate his music, covering just about his entire career.  A handful of notable guests were invited along to join in the celebrations and until now, the tapes have been sitting around eagerly awaiting a discerning someone to edit them and release them in some form or other.  Brady decided to do this in a series of releases and The Vicar St Sessions Vol I starts the ball rolling.  The 13 track live album that makes up the first installment brings together some of the memorable performances during that month, which sees Brady duetting with Van Morrison, who clearly received the biggest applause on Morrison’s own Irish Heartbeat, Mark Knopfler on the bluesy “Baloney Again”, featuring Knopfler taking the lead vocal, Sinead O’Connor duetting on the soulful a cappella “In This Heart” and Bonnie Raitt sharing verses on Brady’s “Not the Only One”, one of the songs that works really well on this collection of recordings.  For me personally, the outstanding performance here is by Eleanor McEvoy, whose “Last Seen October 9th” is beautifully sung by McEvoy and sensitively handled by Brady who provides the sole piano accompaniment and backing vocals.  With a core band consisting of Steve Fletcher on keyboards, Jennifer Maidman on bass, Liam Genockey on drums and Leslie Dowdall on vocals and percussion, Brady presents a well-rounded offering to kick start a promising series of forthcoming releases.

Jaywalkers | Weave | Album Review | RootBeat Records | 19.04.15

When I first heard Jaywalkers’ homemade debut 16 Miles back in late 2010, I knew I’d stumbled across something special.  The young duo Mike Giverin and Jay Bradberry made a very distinctive sound back then, a fine mixture of sore-fingered bluegrass picking together with a very British folk sensibility, all of which the duo have been constantly developing over the last five years, most notably with the addition of bassist Lucille Williams, whose contribution not only fattens out the Jaywalkers sound, but also brings out the best in Mike and Jay’s extraordinarily dexterous mandolin and fiddle playing.  Weave, the band’s third album, reaches the career defining heights that any young bluegrass band would be proud of, British or American.  Andy Bell’s production brings the trio’s slick cohesive arrangements to the fore, allowing each of the instruments to be identified with a beautifully balanced distribution of sound.  The last time I bumped into Mike Giverin he popped a slip of paper into my mandolin case, with the dots to “Big Sciota” on it, for a bit of homework.  The tune appears on this album, together with the lyrics learned from the Stray Birds, which is treated to a fine arrangement, the fiddle and mandolin for all intents and purposes talking to one another, confirming their intimate relationship in bluegrass music.  The album title reflects Mike’s Northern roots, harking back to the industrial revolution, which is echoed further by most of the original songs on the album, including “Millstone”, “Age of Steam” and “Slave for the People”, but none so poignantly as the title song “Weave”, which tells of the inescapable working life set out before a young weaver girl, beautifully sung by Jay Bradberry.  If there is still any doubt as to the musical chops of this young band, which there shouldn’t be, then look no further than the exhilarating instrumental “Chased”, which leaves not only the listener breathless, but I imagine the three musicians who tackle it in the first place.  This is truly an exceptional album.  

Vanessa Peters | With the Sentimentals | Album Review | Self Release | 20.04.15

Dallas-born singer/songwriter Vanessa Peters continues her musical journey by hooking up with three Copenhagen-based musicians for this her 7th album release.  The Sentimentals are M.C. Hansen on guitar, Nikolaj Wolf on bass and Jacob Chano on drums and percussion and between them they create a pretty sparse and mostly laid-back foundation for Vanessa’s songs, some already established but mainly new.  The songs are often self-probing and highly personal, yet the overall sound is consistently light, almost pop oriented, yet with the necessary tenets to categorise it as Americana.  Yes the songs are restrained, but in a way this is what makes the overall sound work.  It has to be said though, that there is a tendency to hanker after something more gutsier by midway through.  Produced by Rip Rowan, who also plays keyboards, the album is really something to put on in the car to make your journey more pleasant.

Memphis Dawls | Rooted in the Bone | Album Review | Madjack Records | 22.04.15

Richly orchestrated, the Memphis Dawls’ debut album Rooted In The Bone covers a lot of ground in terms of musical influence.  The core trio of Memphis-based Holly Cole, Jana Misener and Krista Wroten who play guitar, cello and viola/mandolin/accordion respectively, appear to run the gamut of timeless music, from folk, country and rock through to the utterly convincing southern gospel soul of “Liar”, one of the album’s standout tracks.  This empathy began early for the three musicians, all of whom originally played together in high school, went their separate ways and then in 2010 collided in musical union.  A lot of water, a lot of bridges and now the trio are set to be heard and Rooted In The Bone is the perfect vehicle to get their music out there. 

The Foxglove Trio | These Gathered Branches | Album Review | Self Release | 23.04.15

Three multi-instrumentalists combine their respective musical talents and influences for the trio’s debut full-length album release.  Ffion Mair provides the lead voice, both in English and on a couple of songs in Welsh, while Cathy Mason and Patrick Dean, two cellists, alternate between the cello and guitar and melodeon respectively.  Ffion also plays whistle and bodhran.  With a mixture of traditional and contemporary songs, the trio tackles their arrangements in an informed manner, each of the musicians bringing to the mix their own respective influences and experiences from their previous (or current other) projects.  “Stars and Bells”, which incorporates the traditional “O How Lovely” is the Evening and Glen Hansard’s “Star, Star”, provides a glimpse into the trio’s flair for vocal arrangement.  Produced by Mark Hutchinson (Blair Dunlop, Fabian Holland, Walsh and Pound), These Gathered Branches should guarantee the trio some exposure in the future.

Ballad of Crows | Ballad of Crows | Album Review | Self Release | 25.04.15

This debut album by Scots/German trio Ballad of Crows reveals ten richly delivered acoustic songs with no-nonsense arrangements and tight harmonies. Although longtime friends and musical collaborators Steve Crawford and Pete Coutts, together with German multi-instrumentalist Sascha ‘Salossi’ Loss dominate the sound of the album, there is the additional ingredient of Crawford’s long time song writing partner Davy Cattanach to consider, who contributed to half of the songs here.  Despite the trio’s credentials for writing well-crafted songs, the urge to pop on the album a couple of non-originals seemed to prove irresistible, with a convincing version of Tim O’Brien’s impassioned “Brother Wind” and a delightfully bluegrass-fuelled take on Tom Petty’s “American Girl”.

The Foghorn Stringband | Devil in the Seat | Album Review | Self Release | 26.04.15

From start to finish Devil In The Seat is a spirited affair, a veritable festival of well-played old time music and songs from the string band tradition.  Evoking a bygone age where the fiddle and the mandolin once raced each other to the sound of sugar on the floor being kicked up by dancing feet, the Foghorn Stringband’s new record is steeped in those traditions.  The two couples that make up the Foghorn Stringband, Caleb Klauder and Reeb Willms, together with Nadine Landry and Stephen ‘Sammy’ Lind, make the sort of music that fits together hand in glove, as they gather around a single microphone in the old way, often sounding as authentic as a band from today could possible sound.  With a generous sixteen songs and instrumentals, the band focus on keeping it real, with informed picking and tight harmonies, nowhere quite as convincingly as with the superb a cappella “What Will We Do”.

Benjamin Folke Thomas | Rogue State of Mind | Album Review | Bucketfull of Brains | 27.04.15

With the sound of a young Tom Russell and the look of a youthful Martin Barre, Swedish singer/songwriter Benjamin Folke Thomas injects his latest album release with a strong sense of Americana along with a well-crafted bunch of self-penned songs.  Influenced by guys with guitars and a sadness about them – “Sad guys with guitars have always been my involuntary preference” – Benjamin weaves a determined thread through the ten songs, ensuring each song is imbued with its own character, yet the songs collectively dove-tail into one coherent whole.  While “Break the Border” carries all the power of a Bruce Springsteen album opener, songs such as “Gettysburg”, “Woman I Love” and the infectious “Pauper to a King”, demonstrates a certain confidence of a bone fide contender.  Baring his soul in the final song “Little Too Late”, Benjamin Folke Thomas shows his vulnerable side, with a heartfelt performance and cracked vocals worthy of a Gram Parsons comparison.  Democratically co-produced by Benjamin together with his four-piece Swedish band, made up of multi-instrumentalist Henning Sernhede, Johannes Mattsson on bass and Jonas Abrahamsson on drums, Rogue State Of Mind indeed ‘reads like a story and burns like a book’ and really should be heard by many.

The Young’uns | Another Man’s Ground | Album Review | Hereteu Records | 28.04.15

The thoroughly engaging Teesside trio’s latest album release finds the three singers David Eagle, Sean Cooney and Michael Hughes in fine voice throughout. The dozen selections cover a lot of ground, with Billy Bragg’s anthemic “Between the Wars”, the traditional “The Brisk Lad”, from where the album gets its title, together with a couple of Graeme Miles songs, “The Drift of the Land” and “Waiting for the Ferry”, songs very much from The Young’uns own neck of the woods.  Over the last few years, Sean Cooney has come of age as a fine songwriter, delivering some of the most poignant and heartrending songs, in this case the beautiful “The Streets of Lahore” and “Private Hughes”, both moving examples of a fine craftsman at work, each quite possibly giving the album its heart.  In other places, it’s those distinctive dovetailed harmonies that make the songs leap from the disc, “Tom Paine’s Bones”, “You Won’t Find Me on Benefits Street” as well as a fine interpretation of Ewan MacColl’s “School Days Over”.  Once again towards the end, Sean Cooney demonstrates his command over storytelling with “Brewster and Wagner”, a touching story of humanity amidst raging conflict, in this case WWI, featuring a guest appearance by Bob Fox who effectively plays God.  Well, who else could pull that off?

Luke Jackson | This Family Tree | Album Review | First Take Records | 28.04.15

For such a young songwriter, Luke Jackson shows an astonishing maturity in his songwriting and demonstrates a strong sense of determination and assured delivery to back it up.  A strong voice certainly, as well as a fine sense of melody, both of which are equally successful on the slow emotive ballads and the all-out rockers.  The seven songs on his new EP (or let’s say mini-album), sees the Canterbury-based musician teams up with college bandmates Andy Sharps and Connor Downs on bass and drums respectively, to create a new and fresh sound.  At the root of Luke’s songwriting is the story; there’s always a strong narrative to keep the listener engaged, proof that not all current singer/songwriters gaze at their toes, while muttering woeful self-obsessed philosophies.  The moving “These Winter Winds” is either about a step-father giving his daughter away on her wedding day or alternatively could also be about a grieving parent at his child’s funeral.  A little ambiguous in its content and certainly inconclusive, but either way the powerful emotions are similar.  I’ve been through the former and I hope I never have to go through the latter but I imagine the emotional turmoil is inherent in both.  In places Luke Jackson can be reminiscent of the late Jeff Buckley, on Caitlin for instance, where those similar cadences are predominant, together with that extent of emotion.   

Fabian Holland | A Day Like Tomorrow | Album Review | Rooksmere Records | 29.04.15

Upon first hearing Fabian Holland, either in a live situation or on record, one is immediately drawn to a certain sense of mystery.  Here’s a songwriter who appears to lose himself in his music, hunched over his guitar, which I believe he takes everywhere, eyes closes, totally immersed in his craft.  Spending much of his time on his narrow boat, where he lives, Fabian ponders upon the tricky world outside, a world away from a seemingly idyllic home setting, a world of the busy cityscapes of “Welcome to the Magic Show”, which wouldn’t be lost in Chris Wood’s repertoire, and the overpowering culture of our devotion to mobile devices on the biting “Four Inch Screen”, including the frightening notion that we live our lives through such devices.  Fabian’s not far off the mark with that one for sure.  The songs draw us in and we find connections with our own experiences.  Who for instance has not come across an old family heirloom and pondered upon our own past, while handling such items?  “The Old Tobacco Tin” is beautifully told, so much so you can almost smell the dust let alone the tobacco.  Fabian is joined by Fred Claridge throughout the album, who provides some of the atmospheric percussion work, together with Jacob Stoney on keyboards, while producer Mark Hutchinson chips in some bass, guitar and percussion.  In addition to the original songs, Fabian also includes the Scots ballad “The House Carpenter” together with the bluesy gospel song “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”, which if I heard that coming from the open window of a passing narrow boat, a shiver would certainly go up the spine, whatever the weather or time of day.

April Verch | The Newpart | Album Review | Slab Town Records | 29.04.15

When I first saw April Verch at the Derby Folk Festival in 2013, my jaw dropped to the floor as I witnessed old time music pour out of every fibre of this waif-like singer, fiddle player and step dancer’s body.  I couldn’t at the time even hazard a guess at April’s age, but I figured that even though she only looked like a 16 year old, she had to have been around a while to actually learn all this stuff she does, and does so remarkably well.  The Newpart, named after the extension to the family home, built in the same year as April’s birth, where much of this music starts out, showcases some of this highly crafted music and dancing.  Yes, the step dancing, normally exclusively a visual spectacle, gets onto the record, with some brilliantly syncopated ‘tapped’ steps, so good in fact you could easily be mistaken for thinking they’re drum solos with hands involved.  Occasionally April’s feet are used as percussive instruments, evidently without actually dancing, such as the sliding motifs on “Bring Your Clothes Back Home”.  This is April’s tenth album to date, produced by Casey Driessen, and the album brings together various styles from bluegrass, old time and vaudeville songs from the distant past, such as the highly melodic “If You Hadn’t Gone Away” and the bluesy “It Don’t Do Nothing But Rain”.  Testament to April’s own writing credentials is that “It Makes No Difference To Me”, co-written with Cody Walters, could easily have come from the same place and time as those two songs.  Joined by Hayes Griffin on guitar and Cody Walters on banjo and upright bass, The Newpart has the ability to take you away to another time and place altogether, just be sure to have your dancing shoes ready. 

Rura | Despite the Dark | Album Review | Rura Music | 30.04.15

The nine compositions on Rura’s second album release Despite The Dark mark the five-piece band out as serious contenders on the Scots music scene, with convincing arrangements throughout, together with a tight and well-balanced selection of songs and tunes.  Despite the tight arrangements, where not a single note from either pipes, fiddle or percussion is wasted, it’s with Adam Holmes’ voice that provides the band with its distinctive character, whether it be with Holmes’ own compositions such as “Weary Days”, “Between the Pines” and “Drone Song”, or with the adaptation of a Burns poem, “Cauld Wind Blast”.  The subtlety of the instrumentals, such as the ever versatile Fraser Fifield composition “Dark Reel”, gives the album its atmosphere, which is hardly surprising having both Ali Hutton and Andrea Gobbi at the helm.  It wouldn’t be too difficult to imagine Rura providing a blanket of sound over the festival fields of the UK and Canada this summer.

Olivia Chaney | The Longest River | Album Review | Nonesuch Records | 30.04.15

It’s kind of sad to think that we live in a time when we fully expect to be disappointed at just about every turn.  There’s the item you ordered online ages ago that still hasn’t arrived yet, the doctor’s appointment you tried to arrange but was told it would be at least three weeks (when by that time you would be either dead or cured), then there’s the double bookings, the late buses, the cancelled flights, the corked wine and the list goes on.  Yep, disappointment is all around us in this highly sophisticated technical age.  Sadder still is the fact that we now prepare ourselves for being let down in some way or another.  After hearing and being rather impressed with Olivia Chaney’s first EP a good while ago, I automatically prepared myself in this manner as I awaited the much anticipated release of Olivia’s full-length debut, which intensified the longer the wait went on.  I was mistaken however, The Longest River has wildly exceeded my expectations.  All the ingredients that I initially hoped for are here, the original ideas, the left field lyrics, the highly imaginative melodies, the daring adaptations of traditional and non-original songs and the utterly enchanting atmosphere that permeates throughout.  In short, a unique and compelling album that the world is better for.  One of the familiar songs “Swimming in the Longest River” has undergone one or two slight amendments in arrangement since its initial outing on Olivia’s aforementioned EP, but none of its charm has been lost in the process, although strangely I miss the string arrangement.  The song’s hypnotic melody remains intact though and even the Egypt/denial (the Nile) pun fails to jar in the hands of this songwriter.  Henry Purcell’s “There’s Not a Swain” is equally entrancing, evoking more the image of jeans and guitar rather than evening gown and pianoforte.  With Olivia’s classical background, it could easily have gone in the plummy direction, but Olivia manages to bring this music very much into a modern context.  If we thought Purcell might be a challenge, then we need look no further than Olivia’s convincing take on “Violetta Parra’s La Jardinera”, performed in the song’s original Spanish.  It’s with Olivia’s own songs however, that the personal touch comes to the fore with songs that are personal, confessional, bold, brave and highly engaging. ‘Somebody stop me baring my soul’, Olivia pleads on “Imperfections”, in an almost Joni Mitchell-like manner.  Coincidentally, a Chelsea Mourning pun follows in the next verse.  There are as many similarities to Mitchell as there are to Sandy Denny.   Having caught only the briefest glimpse of Olivia in The Den at the Cambridge Folk Festival a couple of years ago, where the Florence-born musician offered up a presumably unplanned yet convincing version of Bert Jansch’s “Courting Blues”, while techies attempted to sort out the ‘Hammond Toast’ keyboard problems, the prospect of catching Olivia once again at this year’s festival has now been noted as a priority.  

Gren Bartley | Magnificent Creatures | Album Review | Fellside | 01.05.15

The measure of a good singer/songwriter usually lies in the quality of the songs, not the quantity.  With Gren Bartley, we really do get the best of both worlds. Three albums into a fruitful career as a fine solo performer, Bartley’s highly poetic lyrics pour out over eleven new songs, aided by a handful of choice musicians who help bring out the very best in his work.  Having found his own distinctive, if sometimes vulnerable voice some time ago, Bartley continues to explore the relationship between the word on the page and the carefully crafted musical arrangement, utilising his own richly informed fingerpicking guitar style, with some fine string arrangements courtesy of Julia Disney and Sarah Smout.  “Tall Wooden Walls” brings together all those elements in a most remarkable opening song, which also features Disney and Smout’s voices that wouldn’t be out of place on a Rankin Family or Corrs album.  Lydia Glanville’s atmospheric percussion flurries complete the overall sound with further contributions from Jim Sutton on bass, Matt Marks on accordion and Laura Hares on flute.  Producer Gavin Monaghan also provides some bluesy harmonica on “Home Soon”.   

Various Artists | Folk Awards 2015 | Album Review | Proper | 02.05.15

The annual Folk Awards hosted by BBC Radio 2 has become something of an institution amongst the British folk community, a chance for the established as well as the up and coming folk singers, musicians, record company personnel and PR groups, together with radio presenters and music journalists to shake off their muddy wellies and pop on their glad rags for an Academy Awards-styled red carpet event, albeit with a broken wooden pallet backdrop rather than a velvet curtain; this is folk music after all.  To supplement the awards, the BBC also compile together a two disc CD set bringing together some of the music from the artists involved.  Because each of the artists on the compilation have been nominated for one thing or another, it almost guarantees a hugely enjoyable CD and this year’s compilation is no exception.  Not every winning song is present on the album.  It has to be pointed out that this collection was compiled prior to the event and therefore it may seem odd that of the four nominated songs in the Best Traditional Song category, the only one that is missing here is the winner!  The Rails may have also been included as recipients of the Horizon Award.  However, this aside, the collection is packed with goodies such as Best Duo Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker’s “It Would Not Be a Rose”, Peggy Seeger’s “Swim to the Star”, which won in the Best Original Song category and Best Band The Young’uns’ “John Hill”.  The songs here have been lifted from twenty-three album releases, some of which may well be sitting on top of your current listening pile.  The additional bonus of four live tracks at the end of the second disc, each recorded at the Young Folk Award Weekend, demonstrates the high standard of musicianship in today’s folk youth.  Talisk, Wildwood Kin, Roseanne Reid and Cup O’Joe, could quite easily be the artists we find on Folk Awards 2016.  If you missed out on the ceremony itself, or didn’t catch the radio broadcast or the stream on iPlayer, then this CD will more than compensate.

NE3 Folk | Show Us Your Reds | Album Review | Self Release | 03.05.15

The increasingly popular combination of fiddle, accordion and guitar has been pretty much accepted as the standard small combo arrangement these days, with the adventurous exploits of LAU and the similarly energetic live appearances of such bands as Moore Moss Rutter.  This doesn’t mean that any old three-piece line-up can deliver the goods; it takes time to develop the tightness necessary for musicians to step up to the mark in order to compete. NE3 Folk’s Catherine Geldard, Victoria Laurenson and Chris Meredith have proved their credentials on the festival circuit over the last couple of years and have managed to capture some of that live quality on this the band’s first full-length release.  Highly inventive in places, Show Us Your Reds (or should that be show us your legs, according to the cover snap?), comprises eight instrumental compositions, each demonstrating complexity of arrangement and dexterity of playing.  While “Monstrosity” is contemporary in feel, with some nice atmospheric embellishments, “Dandy” by contrast creates a lilting joyfulness that perfectly echoes the delightfulness of these three remarkable musicians. 

Barrule | Manannan’s Cloak | Album Review | Wardfell Records | 04.05.15

Anyone who has taken more than a passing interest in the traditional music of the British Isles will no doubt be pretty well informed of the Celtic music of both Scotland and Ireland and may even be familiar with the music of Wales, Cornwall and even Brittany.  Somewhere along the line though, the traditional music of The Isle of Man has either been forgotten, shelved or brushed under the carpet for whatever reason over the centuries.  The young trio of Tomas Callister, Jamie Smith and Adam Rhodes, otherwise known collectively as Barrule have set themselves a highly focused agenda in order to bring Manx music to a much larger audience and judging by the music on this album, together with their previously released eponymous debut, the band appear to be achieving their goal.  With fiddle, accordion and bouzouki respectively, as well as a bit of banjo and mandolin in places, the trio lead a sonic attack on traditional songs and tunes throughout this album, creating a highly energetic vibe, especially on such tunes as “Kinnoull” written by the Manx flute player Peddyr Cubberley and “The Laxey Reels”, a set of six tunes that closes the album. Produced by Andy Seward at the Nunnery Chapel in Douglas, Manannan’s Cloak, named after the legendary ancient Celtic God Manannan MacLir’s shroud of mist that protects the island from invaders, reveals a band that have effectively reached a new high in traditional Manx music.

Gigspanner | Layer of Ages | Album Review | Self Release | 06.05.15

Often, when a reviewer is faced with a seemingly bottomless pile of CDs, there’s a tendency to think that amongst that pile an extraordinary gem will eventually surface.  Gigspanner’s much anticipated second album, the follow up to 2009’s Lipreading The Poet, is such an album.  Rich in both texture and atmosphere, the nine mostly traditional songs and tunes are treated to some bold re-imagining here, which not only showcases Peter Knight’s expressive fiddle playing, Vincent Salzfaas’s inventive percussion and Roger Flack’s highly individual guitar playing, but also the trio’s aptitude for imaginative arrangement.  The trio’s arrangement of the epic “She Moved Through the Fair”, not only examines the old traditional melody but effectively explores the very nature of Irish music through eight and a half minutes of haunting exploration.  The same could be said of the album’s closer “Hard Times of Old England”, but in an English context.  For a change, the familiar song is treated to a more brooding atmosphere, rather than the jolly hockey sticks treatment the song usually receives.  The live version of “Louisiana Flack”, the only original composition on the album, features what is predominantly a visual treat, with Roger Flack ‘duetting’ with Peter Knight on the same fiddle by use of ‘fiddlesticks’.  With the music enhanced further by Elly Lucas’s evocative artwork, Layers Of Ages is one of those albums that makes this particular job enjoyable.   

Ian Bailey | Empty Fields | Album Review | Northern Sun | 07.05.15

With echoes of Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother implied on Jose Bailey’s cover shot, the cows silhouetted against the sunset have a much greater significance than those depicted on the apparently random Hypgnosis image on the famed 1970 Prog Rock classic.  The image of the bovinae on Ian Bailey’s latest album, the follow up to 2010s Tower Songs, signifies the defensiveness of all animals and draws attention to the ‘systematic abuse, slavery and torture of animals’ in the hands of humans.  Stripped down to a basic guitar accompaniment, the highly personal songs refrain from touching upon the subject until the closing song, “Empty Fields”.  The title song offers a plea, not specifically to refrain from consuming meat, but more a plea to understand and accept the implications of it.  Giving the unspecified animal in question her sex, referring to ‘she’ rather than ‘it’, Ian adds potency to the song and instils an implicit sense of awareness, whether we heed the message or otherwise.  Elsewhere we find nine other songs that demonstrate Ian Bailey’s acute sensitivity and command over understatement, with one or two social commentaries, such as the Dylan-esque TV Land.

The Demon Barbers | Disco at the Tavern | Album Review | Demon Barbers | 12.05.15

In celebration of their fifteen years together, the Demon Barbers deliver probably their finest album to date, recruiting the assistance of producers Donal Hodgson and Kipper, known for their high profile work with Sting.  The album, their fourth full-length release to date, is presented as a show rather than a straight forward album, complete with backroom session intro “Prince of Cabourg’s Hornpipe”, followed by a dozen well-chosen songs, mostly traditional but with the odd surprise, Loudon Wainwright’s “Swimming Song” for instance.  Then to conclude, an epic show-stopping knees-up of an instrumental, “Disco at the Tavern”, complete with end of show credits, delivered by Damien Barber.  There’s almost an urge to call for more at the end.  Anyone who has witnessed one of the band’s exhilarating stage shows will be only too familiar with the masterful showmanship of the band in action.  If the intention was to capture some of the band’s live energy, then they appear to have succeeded, especially on such songs as the traditional “Sally Free and Easy”, Bryony Griffith’s “Aye Fly/The Shuninny Polka” and the perfect opener “Ranzo”.  If the band’s live performances have so far passed you by, worry not, just play this album loud and dance along, preferably with a friend.  Better still, try to catch the band at one of this year’s summer festivals.  You won’t be disappointed.

Dark Green Tree | Secret Lives | Album Review | Haven Records | 16.05.15

These days we tend to trust anything that Boo Hewerdine touches, whether it’s in his song writing, his performance, his collaboration or in his production.  On the debut release by the songwriting team of Ross Cockburn and Jay Brown, otherwise known as “Dark Green Tree”, Hewerdine sits at the controls while the homespun Americana unfolds before our ears.  From the opening song “Yearn for Love”, which wouldn’t be out of place on any early Neil Young album, Hewerdine, together with Mattie Foulds and Jon Kelly, pay keen attention to production and mixing, which upon listening through was well worth the effort.  If the songs were already rich in texture when they were written and performed by Cockburn and Brown, then the addition of Cera Impala’s understated vocal contribution puts a cherry right on top of the cake.  John McCusker adds a little fiddle here and there, notably on the title cut.  Amongst the finely-crafted originals are a couple of choice covers, an almost whispered take on Glen Hansard’s “Lay Me Down” and Ryan Adams’ thoroughly enchanting “When the Stars Go Blue”.

Twelfth Day | Shell Story | EP Review | Orange Feather Records | 25.05.15

There’s an ethereal quality to the music of the young Scottish duo Twelfth Day, comprising the playing of Orcadian fiddler Catriona Price and Scottish Borders-based harpist Esther Swift.  If their combined instrumental textures don’t take you away somewhere up there in the Ether, then their haunting voices sure will.  It’s all a little otherworldly but never twee nor whimsical.  The musical elements involved come from a wealth of influences, not just the expected traditional origins but also classical and occasional pop music sources.  The duo has already tackled Morrissey, Blondie and Kanye West on previous releases, together with marrying their music with poetry on the Fiere project with fellow Scot Joy Dunlop.  Here they also tackle Schubert with the haunting “Romanze”, which stretches their musical palette further. Their own compositions are based on their own experiences and inspirations, including their own dreams, a perfect blend for their highly inventive arrangements to rest.  Describing themselves as a ‘two-person quartet’, the emphasis really does centre around their two voices and their instruments with equal significance and importance.  Shell Story is released as an EP but does contain in excess of 40 minutes of music, including a handful of remixes of previously released songs.

James Edwyn and the Borrowed Band | The Tower | Album Review | Dead Records Collective | 26.05.15

Sometimes an album cover doesn’t quite tell the whole story.  The old straight back chair amidst the detritous of an unidentified derelict property, beer bottles and dust dancing with the daylight filtering from an obscured window, providing the only glimmer of hope, is far from the dozen delightful songs on James Edwyn and the Borrowed Band’s fine debut.  The six-piece alt-country band probably owe a debt to Ryan Adams; once or twice Edwyn’s voice echoes some of Adams’ finest moments, especially when duetting with Emma Joyce, who is to James Edwyn what Emmylou is to Adams.  Look no further than “Something Gold” for evidence of that.  There’s some really good songs here, “She Sees Rainbows”, “The Last Waltz”, “There’s a Body in the Water”, each one finely crafted and melodically infused, utterly convincing, well produced (by Neil Macdonald and Ronnie Gilmour) and certainly worthy of some attention.  

Trad Arrr | Cautionary Tales | Album Review | Hedge of Sound | 28.05.15

The brainchild of guitarist PJ Wright and drummer and multi-instrumentalist Mark Stevens, Trad Arrr’s debut Cautionary Tales brings together a selection of traditional songs and tunes, performed in customary folk rock style.  The core quintet also includes Guy Fletcher on fiddle and mandolin, singer Gregg Cave on both acoustic and electric guitar and not least Marion Fleetwood on fiddle, viola, cello and guitar, who also delivers one of the album’s strongest vocal performances on “My Lagan Love”.  What makes the overall sound more interesting is the embellishments provided by Mark Stevens’ cornet soloing and the Moulton Melodeon Mafia’s (Simon Care, Gareth Turner and Kristaps Fisher) strong English folk dance credentials.  The guests are chiefly from the Fairpotheringay II stable, including Jerry Donahue, Chris Leslie, Dave Pegg, Ric Sanders and Simon Care, to name but a few, each of whom add a flavour of their own particular styles and sounds.  Amongst the solid folk rock fare on such familiar songs as “Glenlogie”, “Simple Ploughboy” and “Nottamun Town/Pretty Polly”, the musicians also have fun with dance tunes, “Princess Royal” and the “Upton Stick Dance”, recalling the classic Morris On period.  A fine solid debut.

Robyn Stapleton | Fickle Fortune | Album Review | Laverock Records | 30.05.15

In the sleeve notes to Robyn Stapleton’s debut album, the Scots traditional singer refers to the songs ‘in’ the album, rather than ‘on’ it.  I guess we do see these things in a similar way as photographs in an album and here Robyn proudly shows them to anyone willing to take a look.  The songs in this particular album are gathered from both her Scots and Irish heritage and reveal a confident and assured performer at work.  The 2014 BBC Radio Scotland’s Young Traditional Musician of the Year delivers such familiar songs as “Willie o’Winsbury”, “The Two Sisters” and “Bonnie Woodhall” with a fresh approach, a strong and proud Scots dialect, yet maintaining a faithful allegiance to the original airs.  Equally comfortable with the Scots English and Gaelic languages, the latter being the basis of “Bruach Na Carriege Baine (The Edge of the White Rock)”, Robyn looks set for great things in traditional music and song.  One to watch.

The Bombadils | Grassy Roads Wandering Feet | Album Review | Self Release | 01.06.15

The more I come across roots music that carries the tag ‘chamber folk’, the more I find it possessed of extraordinary musicianship.  It seems that those musicians with a Classical or jazz background approach traditional music with stepped-up ingenuity.  The Montreal-based quartet The Bombadils, made up of Sarah Frank on fiddle and banjo, Luke Fraser on guitar and mandolin, Alan Mackie on bass and Anh Phung on flutes and harmonica, each of whom also contribute vocals, are one such group of musicians who approach their roots with musical virtuosity at its core.  Having each been trained at Montreal’s McGill University, with a grounding in both Classical and jazz fields, the band have infused their shared love of traditional music with a mature outlook and deft proficiency. Look no further than Luke Fraser’s opening instrumental “Rocky Mountain Path” for proof of the band’s command over complex arrangement and musical dexterity.  With this album, the title derived from a WB Yeats poem, The Bombadils’ well-travelled five years thus far, are reflected in the artwork, which shows a light travel case complete with all the essentials; camera, shades, compact and the all important passport.  A remarkably good album.

Pharis and Jason Romero | A Wanderer I’ll Stay | Album Review | Lula Records | 03.06.15

The four acoustic instruments pictured on the cover flap of the latest album release by Pharis and Jason Romero seem to be twlling their own story right there.  The two guitars and two banjos stand against the wall in all their sepia glory and tell us; this is our music, honest, true and as straight as the strings attached.  Add to that the songs and the two gorgeously blended voices and we feel that’s all we really need.  The duo’s third album release features a dozen fine songs, either written individually or collectively by the duo or otherwise borrowed from other sources, Billy Mayhew’s “It’s a Sin To Tell a Lie” and Charley Willis’s “Goodbye, Old Paint” for instance.  Stylistically, it’s difficult to tell the vintage 1940s material from the new, but in the hands of Pharis and Jason, this’s precisely what we’ve come to expect.  The mournful title song and album opener “A Wanderer I’ll Stay”, is packed with all the crucial hallmarks associated with this beautifully melodic and sensitively played Old Time music.  Those four humble instruments are joined by a fiddle, a bass, a pedal steel guitar and drums tastefully rendered by Josh Rabie, John Hurd, Marc Jenkins and Brent Morton respectively.   

Andy Shauf | The Bearer of Bad News | Album Review | Tender Loving Empire | 08.06.15

This is one of those albums I can’t stop listening to, possibly due to Andy Shauf’s command over strong melodies, which feature heavily throughout the album.  Playing all the instruments himself, including some well-placed clarinet parts, the Canadian singer-songwriter’s almost laid-back approach, together with a tender almost relaxed vocal style, adds warmth to the eleven songs, some of which a reminiscent of such artists as the late Elliott Smith, including the trance-like “I’m Not Falling Asleep” and possibly the album’s stand out song “Drink My Rivers”.

The Railsplitters | The Faster It Goes | Album Review | Self Release | 10.06.15

The second album release by Colorado quintet The Railsplitters once again showcases a pretty dovetailed and cohesive unit, both in terms of the band’s musical empathy and their clean and uncluttered arrangements.  With the distinctive lead voice of Lauren Stovall, whose rich vibrato comes along at precisely the right moments throughout, together with Dusty Rider and Peter Sharpe’s duelling banjo and mandolin conversations, the band is completed by the equally vital contribution of Christine King’s vibrant fiddle playing, underpinned by Leslie Ziegler’s informed bass playing.  The musical creativity is just as crucial to the instrumentals as to the songs, not least on the highly complex rhythms of “Goosetown”.  A great album.

Emily Portman | Coracle | Album Review | Furrow Records | 12.06.15

In a dark dark wood, there’s a dark dark house and in that dark dark house, there’s Emily Portman.  Emily lives in the attic amongst musical boxes, porcelain dolls and a rocking chair that moves all by itself. Well, this is the feeling that Emily’s music conjures up before we actually attempt to dissect her lyrics.  The otherworldly and the ethereal are terms that easily spring to mind when assessing Coricle, Emily’s third solo album to date, her first to feature entirely self-penned material.  There’s something of the Cottingley Fairies going on here, assisted by Emily’s two co-conspirators, Lucy Farrell and Rachel Newton who are right there in on the illusion, so much in fact that I actually believe Lucy Farrell is one of the Cottingley Fairies.  There’s something haunting about the music but it’s not quite creepy.  There’s almost a sense that the songs don’t quite belong to the here and now, but of course everything Emily writes is most definitely of the here and now; contemporary in feel, highly melodic and well-constructed, yet with the enchanted forest looming in the background replacing grim suburbia.  The trio create a blissfully floating soundscape for Emily’s lyrics to rest, with flurries of Rachel Newton’s harp together with the occasional musical saw only adding to the mystery.  Removing all instrumentation for “Dotterine”, the a cappella trio demonstrate precisely the beauty of the natural human voice. 

Siobhan Wilson | Say It’s True | EP Review | Reveal | 15.06.15

Siobhan Wilson is definitely a singer who has no problem fully exploring the possibilities of her own voice.  Delicate in places, strong in others, it’s a voice that shows great versatility and manages at the same time to avoid pigeon-holing.  The songs don’t easily fall into any specific genre either, which makes this EP all the more alluring.  If the highly melodic “White Gown” offers a lilting, almost sing-along quality, then the epic “The Great Eye” stops the listener in their tracks with its mature arrangement, at times borrowing from Eastern influences and complete with a beautifully delivered multi-layered vocal chorus; possibly the EPs defining moment.  The EP also features contributions by LAU’s Aidan O’Rourke and Frightened Rabbit’s Gordon Skene.  A singer-songwriter definitely to watch. 

Richard Thompson | Still | Album Review | Proper | 29.06.15

Produced by Jeff Tweedy, Richard Thompson’s new record Still once again reveals an artist whose craft continues to spellbind at each stroke of the pen and at each touch of a strings.  I don’t think Richard Thompson will ever consider going off at an entirely different tangent with his music now, he seems to have settled into making the sort of music that suits him and fortunately suits his fans too.  Those daring adventures should probably be left to a different kind of musician.  So, with that in mind, there’s no big revelatory surprises here, no wild frontiers reached, in fact some of the songs sound almost familiar.  The opening song for instance, “She Could Never Resist a Winding Road”, really wouldn’t be lost on the Hand Of Kindness album, “Long John Silver” could be from Across A Crowded Room and the delicate Josephine could be from any period.  The autobiographical “Beatnik Walking” is probably the finest song on the album, recalling an earlier time with ex-wife Linda and son Teddy touring Holland in the early 1970s.  Joined by the Electric rhythm section, Taras Prodaniuk on bass and Michael Jerome on drums, Thompson could almost be presenting the second instalment of that album and I guess the two would make a perfectly formed double album.  Siobhan Kennedy returns, occasionally sounding uncannily like Eliza Carthy, especially on “Pony in the Stable”, joining much of the Tweedy gang including Jim Elkington and the Cunningham siblings.  In playful mood, Thompson closes the album with a homage to some of his own particular guitar heroes, in much the same way Bill Kirchen approached a similar subject in his sprawling version of Commander Cody’s “Hot Rod Lincoln” or Chris Spedding’s less adventurous “Guitar Jamboree”.  It’s probably every guitarist’s responsibility to imitate his heroes every once in a while as long as they know how to handle the material.  Thompson can handle the material just fine.

Steve Tilston | Truth To Tell | Album Review | Hubris Records | 01.07.15

Now that the dust has pretty much settled upon the entirely unexpected recent turn of events concerning the discovery of a letter from John Lennon to the possibly more bizarre turn on the red carpet with Hollywood legend Al Pacino, Steve Tilston returns to what he’s actually noted for; his song writing, his guitar playing and his singing and probably in that order.  Steve’s latest album contains just over a dozen well-crafted songs that traverse the roads and rivers of his own past, each viewed from his own unsentimental perspective and his personal kinship with history.  On the opener, “Grass Days”, Steve ponders for a moment on his youth, those hazy days that provided the cornerstone of a long career, recalling with fondness the help and influence of such characters as Wizz Jones, Ralph McTell and Jackson C Frank. Bert Jansch did something similar with “Daybreak” in the mid-1970s and here almost forty years on, those halcyon days are recalled once again.  With a dozen originals and the one traditional song, “Died For Love”, Steve Tilston shows no sign of faulting on delivering class music that is at once timeless, intelligent and built to last.  We should be happy to have him around.

India Electric Co | The Girl I Left Behind Me | Album Review | Self Release | 02.07.15

Eclectic in feel, this debut album release from Devon’s Cole Stacey and Joseph O’Keefe, otherwise known as India Electric Co, reveals a young duo in the midst of broad musical exploration, soaking up a whole range of influences from around the world.  At times it feels like we’re listening to a compilation CD of World Music, the covermount on the latest edition of your favourite magazine.  Although the range is indeed broad, from gypsy jazz and Latin America to Balkan and African influences, the duo manage to maintain their own identity throughout the ten songs.  Their take on the traditional “The Girl I Left Behind Me”, renamed here “My Friends are Rich”, demonstrates that Cole and Joe are equally at home with Irish music as they are with Cuban rhythms.  “Heimat” is imbued with youthful zest but with the atmosphere of the octogenarian Buena Vistas, while the lilting minor key tango of Beirut reveals yet another side to this duo’s utterly engaging music.  After a year spent making this album, the rewards are probably just around the corner for an act that could quite easily be the next big thing.

Keith James | Always | Album Review | Hurdy Gurdy | 03.07.15

Noted as an interpreter of the songs of such artists as Nick Drake, John Martyn and Leonard Cohen, Keith James reveals himself here as a fine song maker in his own right.  The ten mostly original songs demonstrate a poetic sensitivity, a tenderness in delivery and an attention to musical detail.  From the John Martyn-inspired opener “Waiting for a Miracle”, the songs unfold, each written at different times and locations over a thirty-year time span, the earliest being “As Love Begins”, a song written for a BBC session back in 1986.  Reminiscent in places of the work of Shawn Phillips, especially on the title song “Always”, the arrangements are imbued with an almost soothing tranquility throughout, concluding with one of Ralph McTell’s most beautiful pastoral love songs, “Girl from the Hiring Fair”.

Karen Grace | Bitter Sweet | Album Review | Self Release | 05.07.15

Since the release of her impressive debut Deep Down Things EP around 18 months ago, this London-based singer-songwriter has been busy putting together her first full-length album and I have to say it’s been well worth the wait.  I might very well have spoken of a mixture of confidence and vulnerability at the time of the EPs release, going on to compare her overall sound to that of a sort of hybrid of Laura Marling and Moulettes, but despite this, there’s also a fair amount of originality coming across on these eleven songs.  Some of the songs might at first seem slightly whimsical, Sapling for instance, a lilting emotional confrontation, but then again there’s a hidden depth that soon reveals itself upon further listening.  The album’s opener “Tired Heart” is a gorgeous song, full of swirling, waltzing fairground magic, peppered with musical box-like embellishments.  It’s a difficult opener to get past.  Likewise the banjo-led “This Fear”, allows us to enter Karen’s world, beautifully delivered yet with a tinge of melancholy.  Later in the album though, we are met with the slightly more sinister feel in “The Mugger”, all dressed up in a melodramatic tension-building arrangement, then the atmospheric “Deep Down Things”, chock-full of operatic theatricality, which is echoed in the accompanying video (a must see – check out our video section), all of which clearly marks Karen Grace as a definite contender on the contemporary music scene.

The Dovetail Trio | Wing of Evening | Album Review | RootBeat Records | 09.07.15

Eighteen months after their humble debut performance at a tiny venue in Barnsley, the Dovetail Trio release their first full-length album after months of ‘playing-in’ their repertoire of predominantly English folk songs.  With Rosie Hood’s clear no nonsense voice and sparse accompaniment, just guitar and duet concertina courtesy of Jamie Roberts and Matt Quinn respectively, the trio maintain their own distinctive sound throughout.  Their choice of instrumentation may be limited to two instruments but their overall sound is full and consistent.  As it says on the tin, the interweaving of both instruments dovetail neatly, embellished further by some fine three part harmony singing in places.  The song choices are collected pretty democratically amongst the trio, eight of which bear a Roud Folk Song Index number, with one or two from the pens of more contemporary writers such as Lesley Hale and Ken Thomson’s “The Rose of York” and an a cappella reading of Peter Bellamy’s “Sweet Loving Friendship”.  The album show stopper though is probably “Two Magicians”, which closes the set.  Produced in Sheffield by the band and Tom Wright (Albion Band, Morris On), Wing Of Evening reveals a band focused on re-inventing the songs and stories of the past.

Gilmore and Roberts | Conflict Tourism | Album Review | GR! Records | 10.07.15

We tend to rely upon Katriona Gilmore and Jamie Roberts to push forward their music and deliver quality self-penned songs, treat each song to a mature arrangement, play their instruments to best of their abilty, tour relentlessly and then be nice people at the same time.  Add to this their extracurricular activities, moonlighting, guest appearances, collaborations etc., we begin to wonder, when exactly do these two musicians get to eat? sleep?  Their fourth full-length album once again features exclusively self-penned material, eleven songs to be precise, democratically shared out between the two song writers.  Despite the ‘duo’ format, Kat and Jamie create a full band sound that often comes across as full blown folk rock, “Stumble on the Stream” for instance, courtesy of an empathetic supporting cast that includes Matt Downer on bass and producer Mark Tucker on drums and percussion.  There’s also a couple of special guest musicians, Phillip Henry on lap steel and on “She Doesn’t Like Silence”, Bonnie Raitt’s bassist James ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson.  Amidst the hard edged side of the album there are also some tender moments including Jamie’s beautiful “Peter Pan”, written in memory of his much missed cousin Richard Tolson and Katriona’s country inflected “Ghost of a Ring”, which brings the album to a close.

Hillfolk Noir | Pop Songs for Elk | Album Review | Self Release | 11.07.15

Once again, multi-instrumentalist Travis Ward and his Idaho-based trio Hillfolk Noir (Michael P Waite and Alison Ward), presents a further dozen songs scratched from the backwoods.  Their self-styled ‘junkerdash’ music is created with little more than resonator guitar, banjo and upright bass, together with the occasional washboard and musical saw, which adds that all important homemade hillbilly feel.  Although the songs are presented as originals, one or two familiar characters pop up such as “Little Sadie” and “Sister Kate”, rubbing shoulders on the dance floor with “Uncle Jake”.  It’s all pretty authentic, unpretentious and as grass roots as it gets.

Antun Opic | Shovel My Coal | Album Review | Self Release | 12.07.15

Antun Opic cannot be accused of being unimaginative that’s for sure. Once again the singer-songwriter, whose roots lie in both Germany and Croatia, abandons those Germanic/Balkan roots musically speaking, choosing instead to embark upon his own unique and highly individual musical path, with four contrasting songs.  One of them incorporates a bluesy hard rock feel, so much so that “The Journalist” probably wouldn’t feel out of place as the theme tune to the next season of The Sopranos, if that show wasn’t all done and dusted that is.  “Come With Me” has a distinctly sweet jazz feel, with some low-pressure guitar runs, brilliantly executed I have to say.  I’m not really sure about “Hide and Seek”, which sounds for all intents and purposes like the singer has swallowed the combined record collections of Alex Harvey and Kevin Coyne; a rather sinister reading of the old children’s game, the performance demanding at least a couple of runs through before judging it – if Tim Burton was to play hide and seek with you, this is what it would sound like.  The lead track however, “Shovel My Coal”, is much more accessible, with its swinging Hot Club-styled guitar runs and gritty lyrics.  Of all the EPs you might have heard so far this year, I can almost guarantee none of them sound anything like this one. 

Yvonne Lyon | Tell It Like It Is | EP Review | Self Release | 01.08.15

If you’re going to sing a protest song you might as well arrange it around a jolly infectious mariachi-styled foot-tapper.  Lifted from UK-based singer-songwriter Yvonne Lyon’s latest album These Small Rebellions, “Tell It Like It Is” cheerfully addresses the lies we are constantly being fed and begs for the truth.  The accompanying video tips its hat to Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” promo, a homage perhaps but equally effective.  “The Beginning of Everything”, which contains in its lyric the album’s title, is a well-placed companion piece.

Iain Morrison | Eas | Album Review | Peat Fire Smoke Records | 09.08.15

Once again Iain Morrison delivers an album chock-full of atmosphere, with nine compositions based on the ‘piobaireachd’, specifically the classical music of the highland pipes.  If the highland pipes are not necessarily your bag, then fear not, EAS might just appeal to your musical senses anyway.  Despite each of the songs borrowing from the music of the pipes, the actual instrument is rather shy in making an appearance, rather the impressions and nuances of the pipes are delivered through Morrison’s voice and accompanying instrumentation.  Named for the gaelic word for either ‘waterfall’ or ‘cascade’, the album adopts an almost dreamlike atmosphere throughout as the songs meander through a rich musical soundscape, occasionally coming across as almost tribal, with archive recordings of Morrison’s father’s canntaireachd and the voice of fellow Isle of Lewis legend Donald Macleod on “Too Long in This Condition”, to the almost Native American chant-like offering of “To the Sea”.  Morrison also occasionally drifts into Glen Hansard/Damien Rice territory with “The Little Spree” for instance, which features Morrison’s fragile, almost vulnerable voice and gentle acoustic whispering.  Highly meditative, EAS is the sort of album that you put on when you need to relax, in the same manner of, let’s say, Debussy.

Clype | Clype | Album Review | Other Music | 10.08.15

Barely a year into their collaboration, Simon Gall (Salsa Celtica) and Jonny Hardie (Old Blind Dogs), have produced a mature debut featuring eight original compositions, predominantly showcasing Gall’s piano and lead vocal and Hardie’s fiddle, with the occasional vocal contribution from fellow Aberdeenshire singer-songwriter Jenny Sturgeon.  It’s these vocal duets featuring Gall and Sturgeon that lifts the album and gives it depth, especially the flighty “Down With May”.  Sturgeon also contributes one of her own songs, the tender “Fair Drawin’ In”, which also features a fine vocal duet with Gall.  Clype’s arrangement of Eugene Pottier’s 1871 left wing anthem “The Internationale” could quite easily be associated with American Civil War songs in terms of both melody and tempo, if not in content; an unusual juxtaposition that seems to work really well.  There’s also an appearance by Ross Ainslie on low whistle, dove-tailing meticulously with Hardie’s fiddle on “Now My Home”.  Hilda Meers’ melancholy poem “Double Trouble”, set to a new tune written by Simon Gall, appears to have just as much relevance today as it did when the words were first set down.  A sombre climax to an otherwise uplifting release.  

The Honeycutters | Me Oh My | Album Review | Organic Records | 12.08.15

For this third album release by Asheville, North Carolina country outfit The Honeycutters, Amanda Platt takes the helm both as chief singer-songwriter and also producer, to produce an album of songs that are equally at home on the world stage as they are on the front porch, as the cover shot suggests.  The generous fourteen songs reveal Platt’s credentials as a mature songwriter, whose balance between the up-tempo uplifting material and the melancholy country ballads keeps the listener engaged throughout.  The opening song Jukebox swings along with a spring in its step, a perfect radio song destined to inhabit jukeboxes up and down the country and much further afield.  It’s the title song however that demonstrates Amanda’s ability to tell it how it is, a song that exemplifies the album’s themes of ‘love, loss, acceptance and regrowth’.  Elsewhere songs such as “Little Bird” and “A Life for You” show a more sensitive side to Amanda’s songwriting, leaving the listener in no doubt as to the validity and honesty of the songs. 

Woody Pines | Woody Pines | Album Review |  Muddy Roots Music | 15.08.15

This delightful album from Nashville-based Woody Pines kicks off with an opening song that just can’t fail to stir the feel-good senses and change the mood of the room instantly.  Woody’s so called ‘hillbilly boogie’ style borrows licks from rockabilly but is also sprinkled with something else, something raw and almost homemade.  This is probably due to Woody Pines’ years of busking on the streets together with a fondness for old 78rpm records.  There’s certainly a retro feel to the eleven songs here, for the most part original, but occasionally stealing from the likes of the Mississippi Sheiks “Make it to the Woods” and Irvin Berlin “Walking Stick”, a gem recalling the 1938 film Alexander’s Ragtime Band.  With some fine accompaniment courtesy of Brad Tucker on guitar and Skip Frontz on bass, Woody Pines offers something to smile about in difficult times.

The Mike and Ruthy Band | Bright As You Can | Album Review | Humble Abode | 22.08.15

Name checked in the autobiographical Word on the Street, this ‘folky band’ is based around the nucleus of Mike Merenda and Ruthy Ungar, who sprinkle gold dust on these fourteen songs, each as diverse as the next, adopting an eclectic approach to the band’s repertoire.  There’s something of The Band’s ethic inherent in this outfit, exemplified further with the song “The Ghost of Richard Manuel”, a heartfelt homage to their former Woodstock neighbour.  Levon’s daughter Amy Helm is also around to help out as is Ruthy’s dad Jay Ungar, the noted fiddler responsible for possibly the definitive version of “Ashokan Farewell”, used as the theme to the brilliant Ken Burns Civil War documentary series.  But enough about that, this is all about Ruthy, a fine singer and fiddler whose soulful voice dominates the album.  Ruthy actually shares the lead vocal with Mike throughout the album, each song perfectly suited to each of the two voices.  The soulful Golden Eye may be the standout track, but leave room for a seasoning of early Fairport on “Legends Only Appear in Black and White”, or Simple and Sober, which could quite easily be mistaken for any number of songs from the Greenwich Village scene of the Sixties.  A great album if you like a bit of everything.

Talisk | Pinnacle 67  | EP Review | Self Release | 29.08.15

As the winners of the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award earlier this year, the young trio seemed to be hauled into the thriving British folk scene heads, hands and feet first.  No sooner had they accepted the prestigious award in Cardiff, they were booked all over the place, initially billed as ‘YFA Winners’ on early promotional flyers, then soon changed to Talisk at the stroke of just six keys.  Fortunately for those festivals, Talisk are good, very good in fact.  With Mohsen Amini’s concertina, Hayley Keenan’s fiddle and Craig Irving’s guitar, the trio utilise the now familiar small combo arrangement in order to present a lively take on traditional Irish and Scottish music, which is equally exciting live as it is on record.  The start of something good I’m sure, potentially, world class. 

Sheesham and Lotus and Son | 78rpm | Album Review | PC Sepiaphone Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 01.09.15

Once Sheesham and Lotus and Son’s 78rpm album hits your highly modern sophisticated multi-media home entertainment system, you will be forgiven for thinking these twenty-one songs were recorded back in the 1930s.  The Canadian trio of Sheesham Crow (fiddle/harmonica), Lotus Wight (banjo) and ‘Son Sanderson (tuba), spent an unlikely week of recording in Skegness on the Lincolnshire coast, having been invited to do so by Lorna Fulton and the Lathe Revival Project, specifically for the trio to grab the opportunity to record a bunch of songs on a vinatge 1937 Presto 78 rpm recording lathe disccutter, identical to the sort used by folklorists John and Alan Lomax.  The authentic sound, combined with retro-styled monochrome photographs on the sleeve, conjure a bygone period in recording history.  The chosen songs and tunes fit perfectly in with project, bringing the old string band sounds of the Mississippi Sheiks, the blues of Charlie Patton and the rags, stomps and two-steps of the East Texas Serenaders back to life in precisely the way we’ve always heard them.

Chris and Kellie While | Indigo | Album Review | Circuit Music | 03.09.15

The two voices that sing together all too seldom are those of mum/daughter team Chris and Kellie While.  The former has been involved in a long-term musical partnership with Julie Matthews, while the latter has been very much involved behind the scenes on the British folk/acoustic scene that at times getting together to do the thing that comes so naturally to them is often difficult.  When they do manage to get together, usually at a local gig or festival, then the magic is instantly sparked as the duo tackle both self-penned originals and covers with equal command.  Getting that window of opportunity to record together is less frequent and Indigo’s ten non-originals could be described as long-awaited.  If you are going to toddle off and record a couple of handfuls of songs, which in the case of these were recorded, mixed and mastered by the aforementioned Julie Matthews, then you might as well pick a bunch of beauties.  We need look no further than the duo’s gorgeous cover of Gillian Welch’s “Orphan Girl”, Jimmy Webb’s “The Highwayman” and Richard Shindell’s “Wisteria” for evidence of just how tightly arranged and beautifully performed the songs on this album are.

Rachel Hair Trio | Trì | Album Review | March Hair Records | 15.09.15

If you enjoy the sound of the harp and want to hear it at the top of the mix and also played with exceptional flair and poise, then the Rachel Hair Trio’s latest release is the record for you. Certainly amongst this country’s finest exponents of the Celtic harp, Rachel manages to capture on disc the same sort of atmosphere of a live performance, her playing only enriched by her musical companions Jenn Butterworth on guitar and Cameron Maxwell on double bass.  Born and raised in the village of Ullapool up in the Highlands, Rachel continues to explore the possibilities of the harp on this her fourth album since her debut in 2007.  The eleven selections range from Irish, Scots, Manx and Norwegian tunes to contemporary and self-penned material, including one or two songs performed by Jenn Butterworth, the sole voice on Trì, Allan Taylor’s timeless “Roll on the Day”, the haunting traditional song “My Darling Fair One” and Jenn’s own sumptuous “Angel”.

The Poozies | Into the Well | Album Review | Schmooz Records | 16.09.15

I’ve often fantasised on the idea of a full-length movie, where The Poozies play themselves in a series of fictional scenes complete with surreal dream sequences, culminating in a huge concert at the Royal Albert Hall… dash, the Spice Girls beat them to it.  The original founder members of The Poozies, Mary Macmaster and Sally Barker join forces once again with Eilidh Shaw and Mairearad Green for their latest album release Into The Well, which once again showcases the band’s dextrous playing and tightly arranged songs and tunes.  It all comes with a bit of a punch, something we’ve come to expect from the folk world’s ever-so-slightly more mature and certainly more discerning Spice Girls.  The one thing we can always depend on with The Poozies though, is the balance between instrumentals and songs, performed here in both Gaelic and English.  Sally Barker takes command of Andy Griffiths’ moody “Southern Cross” and goes on to introduce a brand new song, the questioning “Ghost Girl”, while the band has fun with Tim Dalling and Julia Darling’s playful “Small Things in Cupboards” offering some light at the other end of the otherwise darkened room.  The traditional Chuirinn, which incorporates Mairearad Green’s sprightly “Memoirs of a Geezer” showcases the band’s intuitive handling of Gaelic, set against a pulsating arrangement for accordion and harp as does “Eoghan”, sandwiched between Donald Shaw’s “Men in the Mountain” and Karen Tweed’s “Steele the Show”.  The album closes with a country song courtesy of Lynn Miles with “Three Chords and the Truth”, once again demonstrating The Poozies’ eclectic repertoire. 

Grant Langston | Hope You’re Happy Now | Album Review | California Roots Union | 17.09.15

For Grant Langston’s latest release, the hard rocking Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter adopts a low-key hard-worn country troubadour stance in order to deliver a dozen sparsely arranged and sometimes melancholy songs.  The troubled, hard-beaten, drink-fuelled balladry begins immediately on “Drive”; a song that name-checks Lucinda Williams, while setting out the general picture of what Hope You’re Happy Now is all about.  The Alabama-born Langston creates a certain mood that runs through the songs here, some of which touch upon broken hearts, lonesome mornings, loss and pain, ‘quiet stories and steel guitars’, as Langston puts it.  It’s all delightfully moody in places, certainly with songs such as “All That I Can Do”, “The Only One” and possibly the album’s stand out song, the confrontational “Don’t You Dare”.

Hungrytown | Further West | Album Review | Listen Here Records | 17.09.15

The title song on this, Hungrytown’s third album release, gently eases us in at the beginning with a minor key lullaby in waltz time, while at the same time tipping a nod towards Leonard Cohen’s second literary effort Beautiful Losers amongst its fine lyrics.  It’s refreshing to hear an album start in such a delicate manner rather than going straight for the foot-tappers; that comes along shortly afterwards with Rebecca Hall’s revitalised “Hard Way to Learn”, originally appearing on an earlier solo recording of Rebecca’s.  Although this song skips along with lilting fiddle accompaniment courtesy of Vermont fiddler Lissa Schenckenburger, the subject matter is far from jolly.  It’s this contrasting theme that gives the album its appeal.  Throughout Further West, Rebecca Hall and Ken Anderson continue to traverse the long and windy roads of the folk scene with a dozen songs, mainly self-penned but with one or two surprises, an a cappella duet on Woody Guthrie’s “Pastures of Plenty” for instance, paying homage to a folk hero, whose contrasting social commentaries set to traditional tunes are legend.  The duo’s long-time collaborator Suzanne Mueller, who has played cello on most of Hungrytown’s recordings, contributes her own song “Ramparts and Bridges” here, echoing the same sort of melancholy as the title song.

FY5 | Eat the Moon | Album Review | Swing Fingers Records | 17.09.15

Colorado-based bluegrass outfit FY5 – Finnders and Youngberg deliver ten self-penned songs, each incorporating all the necessary Bluegrass elements we’ve come to expect, including a good strong driving guitar, some very tasty mandolin and fiddle flurries, assured banjo playing, the crisp pedal steel sound, some no-nonsense upright bass runs, topped by some fine harmony singing courtesy of all five members of the band.  Those five musicians, Mike Finders, Aaron Youngberg, Erin Youngberg, Ryan Drickey and Rich Zimmerman, are clearly in tune with one another literally and metaphorically.  The band already introduced us to their ‘chops’ on their debut a few years ago and Eat The Moon only goes to confirm the fact that the band are serious contenders on the Bluegrass scene, whether it’s through their song arrangements such as “Saint Vrain”, “The Door is Wide Open” and the title song which opens the album or on the odd instrumental “Old Dog Waltz”.

Cupola | Roam | Album Review | Cothrecords | 18.09.15

The Derbyshire-based trio Cupola are pretty serious about their arrangements of traditional, contemporary and self-penned songs. Active on the folk scene for quite some time, each of the musicians Doug Eunson, Sarah Matthews and Oli Matthews, boldly tackle inventive arrangements on a diverse selection of songs, not only for fiddle, melodeon and voices, but also clarinet, sax (almost the entire family, soprano, alto and tenor) and hurdy gurdy.  One of the outstanding songs from Sarah Matthews’ solo album As I Was Walking, “The Ballad of John Bright”, which is always good to hear, appears here with a full instrumental arrangement.  Although I feel I should have reviewed this album a little earlier in the year when it was first sent to me, maybe in time for the May Day celebrations, where I can imagine rousing choruses during “Following the Old Oss”, I can console myself with the fact that this review arrives in plenty of time for the winter season, with a clever take on Jethro Tull’s “Another Christmas Song”.

The Teacups | Of Labour and Love | Album Review | Haystack Records | 18.09.15

I’ve always thought that with a cappella vocal groups, their collective singing tends to gets better as the months and years go on, the more they sing, the better they get.  This is certainly true of The Teacups who currently sound right on top of their game.  It’s been around five years now since the quartet of Alex Cumming, Kate Locksley, Rosie Calvert and Will Finn first began singing together after meeting on the famed Newcastle Traditional Degree course.  Their debut album One For The Pot set out the format and captured something of their live sound.  Their follow up not only showcases they collective vocal prowess but also in some cases reveal some pretty surprising solo vocals, in particular Kate Locksley’s fine and assured soul-filled lead on the traditional “Sugar in the Hold”.  I thought for a moment that Rhiannon Giddens had become an honorary teacup.  A smashing album. 

The Resonant Rogues | Here and Gone Again | Album Review | Self Release | 18.09.15

Based around the nucleus of partners Sparrow and Keith J. Smith, The Resonant Rogues focus on a broad range of influences incorporating Gypsy jazz and old-time American folk music together with a nod towards the musical traditions of the Balkans.  It’s certainly a blend rooted in the past but at the same time imbued with a contemporary feel.  Based in Asheville, North Carolina, the band, which also includes Craig Sandberg on upright bass and Drayton Aldridge on violin, strangely enough, both who appear to be disguised as bovine creatures on the back cover shot.  With just two years under their belt, the band tackle their rich heritage with no small measure of confidence, assurance and flair, especially on such songs as “Waiting for the Rain”, “Make Us Stay” and “Flowers”, leaving me in no doubt that we’re going to hear a lot more about this band for certain.

Birze | Buttoned Up | EP Review | Self Release | 18.09.15

Newcastle degree course graduates Victoria Laurenson and Simon Stephenson team up to present a handful of songs and tunes on their debut EP.  Accordionist Victoria, one third of the trio NE3Folk and guitarist Simon create a blend of jazz-tinged folk on five selections, all of which are performed with dazzling dexterity.  Although both musicians turn in exemplary performances, the emphasis appears to be on the accordion both in terms of the duo’s chosen name which is apparently Shetland lingo for ‘Squeeze’ and of course in the EP title Buttoned Up.  With everything relating to the accordion, the music should (and does) showcase Victoria’s informed playing, while Simon provides some empathetic accompaniment and who also handles the singing on the two songs included, the traditional Lived and Died in Glory and a fine interpretation of Tom T Hall’s “Pamela Brown”.  Great tunes, great playing, what more could you ask for?

John Coinman | Already Are | Album Review | Cavalier Records | 18.09.15

Although New Mexico-raised John Coinman initially made some musical connections in Hollywood, having played a role in at least two Kevin Costner movies, appearing in The Postman and being a musical director on Dances With Wolves, a musician who was also involved in Costner’s first band Roving Boy, the singer-songwriter has also built a steady reputation as an artist in his own right.  Now based in Arizona, Coinman releases a confident fifth solo album, once again rooted in grown-up rock with a nod towards the likes of Petty, Springsteen and Dylan.  With the sort of slick guitar accompaniment that JJ Cale would approve of, the presumably autobiographical “That’s What You Do For Fame”, seems to define the life of a musician ‘lost on the coast’ in the 1970s.

Bethan and the Morgans | Oddity | Album Review | 19.09.15

I suppose the oddest thing about Oddity is that the band chose to put a picture of bassist Lauren Bennett on the cover of the album fooling us into thinking this was front person Bethan Edwards.  The four-piece band, which also includes the two guitarists David Ross and James Rhodes, togeth with Dan Foster on drums, present on this their debut full-length album a dozen original songs, each treated to and country feel and in places some fine harmony singing.  Hailing from the West Midlands. the band are cultivating a growing reputation on the live circuit and Oddity will only help to increase their loyal following, especially with songs like “Changing Every Day”, “Go Away” and “When it Falls into Place”.

Sver | Fryd | Album Review | Folkhall Records | 23.09.15

Made up of both Norwegian and Swedish musicians, the five-piece Sver take their collective musical traditions as a basis and inject their own compositions with some of the vitality inherent in their own indigenous music.  The sound of the hardanger fiddle is particularly seductive and draws the listener immediately in.  The eleven instrumental pieces invite you to dance with all the energy of a late night party, with the possible exception of the band’s tribute to the Shetland Folk Festival, a tune they named “Total Carnage”.  There’s no doubting the quintet’s musical ability; an album of virtuosity and style.

Anna Laube | Anna Laube | Album Review | Ahh…Pockets Records | 24.09.15

There’s something light and breezy about Anna Laube’s songs, especially those that concern riding bikes, the craving for Sugarcane or indeed “Chocolate Chip Banana Cupcakes”.  Originally from Iowa City and raised in Madison, Wisconsin, Anna grew up surrounded by musical instruments, studied music in Belgium of all places but settled on the guitar, a microphone and San Francisco, where she began performing her songs in front of live audiences.  Anna’s eponymous third album has taken a good five years to make, possibly due to the fact that she was also training as a Yoga teacher, a discipline not really reflected in the music here.  While “Oh My! (Oh Me Oh Me Oh My)” draws on early rock and roll, “You Ain’t Worth My Time Anymore” takes a more bluesy direction, complete with sneering slide guitar and harp fills, while “Sweet Boy From Minnesota” presents a sweet reflection on listening to ‘real country tunes and a little Grateful Dead.’ 

Alyth | Homelands | Album Review | ANE Records | 30.09.15

Familiar to many as the featured singer on tour with The Chieftains in 2008, Alyth McCormack is no stranger to some of the world’s biggest stages, having toured not only with Ireland’s most cherished traditional music group, but also with Moving Hearts as well as her own band.  Born and raised on the Isle of Lewis, in the Hebrides, Alyth re-located to Dublin, a fish out of water for a while but who eventually settled in the Irish countryside, where the singer has now found time to reflect on her Scottish roots as well as explore the songs most associated with her new home, such as “Carrickfergus” and “Raglan Road”, two staples of the Irish traditional repertoire.  The songs on this, Alyth’s third solo album to date are divided equally into English and Gaelic.  Joined by Brian Mcalpine on piano, accordion and guitar, Aidan O’Rourke and Ali Smith on fiddles, Karol Lynch on bouzouki, Joe Csibi on double bass and Noel Eccles on percussion, it’s Alyth’s voice that lies at the heart of Homelands, both strong and delicate in equal measure with an inimitable warmth.  

Lucy Ward | I Dreamt I Was a Bird | Album Review | Betty Beetroot Records | 01.10.15

The title of Lucy Ward’s third album release is taken from the brooding Daniel and the Mermaid, a song very much imbued with the raw emotive qualities this young singer-songwriter has become noted for.  Emotion permeates the entire album, together with a deliberate pursuit of sonic atmosphere, which is helped along in no small measure by the musicians Lucy has surrounded herself with, such as Anna Esslemont on violin and Stu Hanna on, well just about everything else really.  Even the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band once again offer their services to British folk music, adding weight to the already weighty Lion, a song originally commissioned by Billy Bragg for his 14-18NOW project.  Produced by Stu Hanna and encased in another over-the-top photographic creation by Elly Lucas, the album is the first to be released on Betty Beetroot, Lucy’s own fiercely independent label.  There’s all the familiar territory covered, politics, protest, pathos, a token from the tradition “Lord Randall” all surrounded by a bunch of well-crafted self-penned songs from the heart. Stu Hanna’s production is clean, uncluttered and crisp and although her collaborators step up to the mark and deliver, it’s really Lucy’s show once again. 

Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin | Watershed | Album Review | Dragonfly Roots | 02.10.15

Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin’s victory at the 2014 BBC Folk Awards, where the two musicians picked up the gong in the Best Duo category, was such a refreshing outcome.  Although this duo are very much a part of the British folk music scene, their music often borrows from American roots, especially in their use of the dobro, played in much the same style as Jerry Douglas, whose work forms a blanket of influence covering what’s good about the current bluegrass and Americana scene.  The dozen songs here are almost universal in their feel, so much so that if you’d just returned from a very long holiday to Pluto, you probably wouldn’t be able to spot where these two musicians are originally from, certainly not Lancashire and Devon respectively, although Henry’s roots are very much showing in “Yarrow Mill”, a song in which the guitarist/harmonica player takes a rare lead vocal.  If you have a voice like Hannah Martin though, why not use it and use it often.  Sharing writing credentials throughout, the duo’s self-penned songs are often brooding, slightly melancholic but with a vibrancy unique to them.  If Phillip’s instrumental December showcases the duo’s handling of arrangement, then Hannah’s a cappela January, boldly demonstrates the singer’s handling of unaccompanied singing, stripping everything back to essentials and very much  a companion piece to the former winter-themed instrumental.  All the songs on Watershed are written with a specific person in mind, which I should imagine is fantastically humbling.  Watershed was written for all of us, so I’m glad to be counted in that tribute. A really fine album.

Ange Hardy | Esteesee | Album Review | Self Release | 03.10.15

The one thing that can’t be denied is that over the cultivation of four albums in a relatively short space of time, Ange Hardy has become the owner of an instantly recognisable sound, a sound that usually takes time to grow and develop in order to take a meaningful place on the constantly changing folk music scene.  Once Esteesee (think of the initials of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge) begins, with “The Foster-Mother’s Tale”, we are immediately in a certain place, the same place we were in upon hearing Ange’s previous album and the one before that etc.  For those who have managed to hear Ange perform live, you will probably agree that the singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist makes damn good records to go with those performances.  There’s a lot of TLC evident in Ange’s fervent pursuit of getting it right and with this album, Ange gets it right.  Avoiding the term ‘concept album’, I have to concede that this is very much a themed album, with each of the 14 songs based on either Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s work directly, or based on certain aspects of the poet’s life, or even songs based on dinner conversations collected from the body of work surrounding the Poet’s life.  This is an album to get lost in; gentle, informed, literate, emotive, mature and above all, delivered with an almost tangible passion. Ange Hardy is one of our finest writers and performers and it’s probably time to acknowledge it.  Esteesee is another milestone in that growing and impressive musical output.

The Furrow Collective | Blow Out the Moon | EP Review |  Furrow Records | 04.10.15

Whenever I hear the word Collective, my initial thoughts are that I am about to hear a bunch of musicians who have united for a project that has been devised, written, arranged, rehearsed and performed in a week in some sterile performance ‘space’ in one of our major cities.  I can’t help it; it’s just what connotations come with the term.  I do prefer a band to form, gig relentlessly, fall out with one another several times, kiss and make up and then consider making a record.  Then after eight years split for good.  Oh what a perfect world I strive to live in.  However, the Furrow Collective is a bit different. They do sound quite good together.  Three of them have already established themselves on the touring circuit as the Emily Portman Trio, then add Alasdair Roberts and jobs a good ‘un as they say.  The quartet has already released their debut At Our Next Meeting and has received both critical and general acclaim.  This five-track EP follows dutifully and showcases each of the members, the aforementioned Alasdair Roberts and Emily Portman with the equally impressive Lucy Farrell and Rachel Newton, each taking the lead vocal.  The five tracks serve to put us on until the release of the collective’s follow up full-length album due for release in 2016.

Pete Morton | The Land of Time | Album Review | Fellside | 14.10.15

There are some songwriters you can depend on and Pete Morton is certainly one of them.  For over thirty years now reams of words have flooded from this singer-songwriter, organised in highly creative fashion, each song injected with high octane and seemingly boundless energy.  Lately Pete has explored the possibilities of combining traditional folk songs with updated spoken rap stylings with his highly original ‘fraps’.  Here Pete takes the old folk song “Poverty Knock” and updates the theme to the sweatshops of Bangladesh, which not only updates the original but makes the song relevant once again for our times.  The idea is repeated in “Slave to the Game”, as Pete reworks “The Rigs of London Town”, exploring the ‘exploitation of women in London’s modern underworld’.  Whatever the subject matter, Pete delivers the message passionately, leaving the listener in no doubt as to his sincerity.  The title song is a tender reading of Pete’s heartstoppingly beautiful ode to his own young son, who exists as his father does, in a land of time, the responsibilities of fatherhood so eloquently and personally delivered, from the cradle to the grave and beyond.

Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers | Loved Wild Lost | Album Review | Republic of Music | 15.10.15

The follow up to the band’s eponymous debut of 2013 sees Little Sur’s Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers deliver a sprightly, breezy, almost loved-up second album, destined to put smiles on faces.  Opening with the infectious “Only Always”, followed hot on its tails by the equally charming “Waiting on Love”, the album’s trajectory certainly goes in the direction of the joyous side of the room.  Nicki Bluhm’s voice is largely responsible for the positive feel throughout the eleven songs, which is backed by some tightly woven arrangements, featuring swirling organ, up front electric guitar and nuts and bolts rhythm section.  There’s a highly accessible pop sensibility that runs through the album, completely free of cloying and unnecessary depth, which makes it all pretty radio sympathetic.  The bluesy “Me and Slim” allows the band to break free from this temporarily, with some gorgeously sneering guitar licks, which comes around just about at the right time.  Not sure about the cover shot though.  Looks to me like some 1960s Ray Conniff easy listening LP, but ideally, this shouldn’t take anything away from the music.

Ninebarrow | The Pinner | Album Review | Self Release | 16.10.15

Dorset’s Jon Whitley and Jay LaBouchardiere, otherwise collectively known as Ninebarrow, release two songs as a double A sided single (can that happen on CD?), both destined for inclusion on the duo’s forthcoming second full-length album release.  As a taster, the two songs work well, the young duo on form both vocally and instrumentally on both songs.  The self-penned “The Pinner”, which tells of the intriguing practice of placing pins in the central pillar of a local wishing chapel for good luck, together with the traditional ‘broken token’ ballad “Dark Eyed Sailor”, memorably recorded in a similar arrangement by my old pal Ruth Notman, both demonstrate that musically, these two performers know what they’re doing.  Not sure about the Foster and Allen sleeve shot though.

Stick in the Wheel | From Here | Album Review | From Here Records | 20.10.15

Stick in the Wheel deliver a refreshing immediacy in their music, songs largely based on well-trodden traditional fare, but delivered via a female Billy Bragg vernacular.  On stage, the hand claps are more pronounced as a visual spectacle, but on From Here, the band’s debut album, the quintet drive the same message home loud and clear without the necessity for visuals.  I quite like what the band do with their arrangements; they appear to strive for a simplistic sound with few unnecessary embellishments.  I also appreciate that lead singer Nicola Kearey delivers the songs in her own regional accent; however, at times it seems a little forced for effect.  Nothing wrong with that, I’m sure it’s the desired effect.  Highlights include “Bedlam”, “Seven Gypsies” and “Common Ground”, a song apparently recorded in a warehouse surrounded by pallets and boxes.  

The Outside Track | Light Up the Dark | Album Review | Lorimer Records | 23.10.15

Perhaps it’s simply the meeting of continents that makes the music of The Outside Track work so well.  Scotland, Ireland and Cape Breton are represented within this quintet of fine musicians.  Light Up The Dark is the band’s fourth album to date and once again showcases the band’s musical cohesion, their tight arrangements and most importantly their almost clairvoyant intuition.  Equally at home with songs as they are with instrumentals, the band introduce their newest member County Cork’s Teresa Horgan, whose voice adds a new dimension to the band’s overall sound, especially in regard to Teresa’s delicate handling of “Get Me Through December”, featuring some equally delicate harp playing courtesy of Ailie Robertson and Nanci Griffith’s staple “Trouble in the Fields”.  Surprisingly, it’s Teresa Horgan and Cillian O’Dalaigh’s jazz-inflected “Do You Love an Apple” that captures the imagination the most, featuring some fine musical sparring between Mairi Rankin on fiddle and Fiona Black on accordion.

Iain Sutherland | Back to the Sea | Album Review | Self Release | 25.10.15

It’s always pleasant to see an album drop through the letterbox with a familiar name on it, especially if it’s a name you haven’t heard for a while.  My first instinct upon the arrival of this CD was to question it; was this really the same Iain Sutherland who along with his brother released all those wonderful light rock albums in the 70s and 80s?  Well upon further inspection, the figure on the inner sleeve looked familiar, albeit a little older, holding up his hand, either waving or pushing us away.  The sound of the voice however is unmistakable.  The fourteen songs on this album are reminiscent of some of those memorable songs from the days of the Sutherland Brothers and Quiver; “Arms of Mary”, “Easy Come Easy Go”, “Secrets”, “Reach For The Sky”, “Slipstream” and the list goes on.  Oh, and not forgetting that big hit Rod Stewart had with a song written by brother Gavin, which literally sailed up the charts in 1975.  Forty years on and Iain Sutherland sounds just the same.  He’s still writing instantly accessible songs, still utilises great harmonies, yet these days plays everything himself, with a little help from his brother on drums and percussion.  A bit of Tim Renwick would have put the cherry on top, but in leiu of that, Back To The Sea is still a nice, unexpected surprise.  He probably is waving in that picture on the inner sleeve, and probably saying ‘hi, long time no see’.  

Varldens Band | Transglobal Roots Fusion | Album Review | Nataraj Music | 27.10.15

The multi-cultural, multi-faceted, multi-talented Världens Band were the unexpected hit at last year’s Musicport Festival up in Whitby and are just about to return to the festival once again this year, almost by public demand.  Their music is as infectious as it is exciting, dextrously performed as it is also great fun to watch.  There’s an instant desire when watching the band perform live to jump up on stage with the 14-piece band and rattle something.  Perish that thought immediately.  The sound this collective makes is carefully planned; all those instruments mean something in much the same way as a symphony orchestra.  Their debut album demonstrates this in bounds.  What works best here is the mixture of cultures, the blending of influences and styles, from the music of India, Sweden, Senegal and Tunisia as well as England, Scotland and France, all of which goes towards creating a completely new sound.  Very much an exciting instrumental band, it’s the vocals that give the music its heart, especially on “Revolution” and the utterly gorgeous “Thillana”.

Fay Hield | Old Adam | EP Review |  Soundpost Records | 29.10.15

Released as a taster to the forthcoming third album by Fay Hield, this advance EP features four songs, the lead being the traditional “Green Gravel”, cobbled together quite eloquently from various versions recorded by Alice Bertha Gomme.  It’s all death and gloom from the start, as most traditional children’s songs of note are, as the green gravel of recently dug graves forms the background for this opening song.  Once again Fay returns to the hunt, a subject the singer has paid attention to previously, notably on her debut with “The Huntsman”, this time an adapted song based on a poem by William Gray, “The Hunt is Up”, known to those not only familiar with the singing of partner Jon Boden, but also Swan Arcade and the Albion Band.  The Hurricane Party are all present and correct to help breathe life into these songs, with some rather tasty fiddle playing courtesy of Sam Sweeney, especially on the atmospheric reading of “Raggle Taggle Gypsy”.  If you enjoyed Looking Glass (2010) and Orfeo (2012), then Old Adam looks quite promising judging by these early arrivals.

Rita Hosking | Frankie and the No-Go Road | Album Review | Self Release | 30.10.15

There isn’t an awful lot of things we can rely on these days sadly; in fact at times I’m almost surprised when things go well.  However, with every new release from California singer-songwriter Rita Hosking, reliability can be taken as a given.  With Rita’s sixth album release to date, all those things we rely upon are very much present and correct; great songs, engaging lyrics, mature arrangements and informed playing together with that all important and highly distinctive voice.  The songs included here were actually conceived while drawing, resulting in a sort of West Coast Americana-styled concept album, although actually the songs can each be taken on their own merit.  There’s a subtle thread running through the songs, of a soul searching journey, highlighted further by the subtitles provided for each of the songs in the accompanying booklet, ‘Frankie sees room for improvement in the world’ and ‘Villain at Fault Becomes Apparent’ on “A Better Day” and “Wetiko” respectively, and so on.  The concept, inspired by the book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, features songs based on these drawings, which in turn were influenced by the artist Norvel Morrisseau.  The concept of the album may be a new departure, but the songs have Rita Hosking written all over them.    

10 String Symphony | Weight of the World | Album Review | Self Release | 01.11.15

The stripped down rawness of Rachel Baiman and Christian Sedelmyer’s 5-string fiddle and clawhammer banjo playing is revealing in its simplicity.  The arrangement of “Someone to be Good For” for example, with its steadily executed chopped notes over an atmospheric sustained fiddle is equally as powerful as when the duo go at it ten to the dozen.  The duo’s impressive background, Christian a member of Jerry Douglas’s touring band, who has worked alongside such luminaries as Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle and Vince Gill, together with Rachel’s credentials as a former Illinois state fiddle champion, certainly adds weight to their experience as musicians, but on Weight Of The World, the two musicians maintain more of a laid back approach than expected.  The songs also showcase the duo’s unpretentious vocals, delivered with an honest, no nonsense approach, during either solo, shared or harmony performance.  If the familiarity of Bob Dylan’s “Mama, You Been on My Mind” and  John Hartford’s seasonal “On Christmas Eve” demonstrate the duo’s flair for adaptation, it’s with their own original material that 10 String Symphony seem to excel.

Jonathan Day | Atlantic Drifter | Album Review | Niimiika | 01.11.15

The title alone of the new album by singer-songwriter Jonathan Day alludes to a well-travelled drifter, whose songs are inspired by the places his boots have trodden.  The opening song, the curiously titled “Cafe in the Valley of the Fire Church”, captures a drifter contemplating the experiences the road offers, the dark smile just beyond the horizon, the shorelines, the motels and one night stands.  Just a mention of the locations that inspired the songs, Copenhagen, Helsinki, the Gulf of Mexico, Hong Kong, Minnesota to the darkling skies of Shropshire, indicates that the road is long and sometimes winding.  Delivered in a windswept melancholic voice, in places not a million miles from Roy Harper, Jonathan Day captivates as he sings not so much about these places but rather evoking the ‘genius loci’ or the spirit of the place.  With a gentle, acoustic backdrop, aided by Simon Smith on bass, Gavin Monaghan on tremelo guitar, the atmospheric St Sofia Cathedral Choir of Minsk and Krisit Link and the Links.

Tina Refsnes | No One Knows That You’re Lost | Album Review | Vestkyst Records | 02.11.15

With shades of Laura Marling in her delivery – “Leave This Heart” and “The Heart Wants its Way” are plenty proof of that – this Oslo-born singer-songwriter delivers a collection of eleven songs, cultivated over time and released now for the first time on this her debut album.  Having travelled from her native Norway to Liverpool, then on to Canada, the songs have matured along the way.  Consciously creating an album of songs that keeps the audience aware of the space within the studio, the breathing, the creaks, the odd clunk here and there, Tina Refsnes takes care to control her own environment for the benefit of the songs.  With tender moments such as “Alaska”, a song that possibly reflects her own longing for home, the seaside town of Floro in Norway, the singer finds her own voice and we find ourselves hopelessly drawn in.  By the time we get to the final song “Song About Trust”, Laura Marling becomes the last thing on our mind.  A fine debut.   

Damien O’Kane | Areas of High Traffic | Album Review | Pure Records | 05.11.15

With a particularly strong sense of his Northern Irish roots, Damien O’Kane delivers an excellent album of traditional material, each selection crafted with a contemporary feel and tasteful arrangement.  The songs, a good few of which derive from the Shamrock, Rose and Thistle collection, a noted source covering the folk singing traditions of North Derry, including rather gracefully rendered readings of “The Maid of Seventeen”, “The Close of an Irish Day” and most notably “The Banks of the Bann”, a song which O’Kane takes enormous pride in, having been raised by those very banks.  One or two of the songs have clearly been learned from the inspirational collection of Planxty, Andy Irvine and Paul Brady LPs that presumably took pride of place in the O’Kane home during those formative years.  “I am a Youth”, is treated to the respect it thoroughly deserves, a song previously performed by Brady in those much missed days before he went off to be a transatlantic pop star.  With a mature arrangement together with some empathetic musicianship, the song reaches the present day while losing none of its original power.  With themes of identity, emigration, homesickness and nostalgia, Damien O’Kane creates a soundscape that truly honours his birth right.  Wrapped in a cover that could for all intents and purposes be the new Tom Cruise action movie poster, the album sees O’Kane surrounded by a choice gathering of musicians and technicians, including Cormac Byrne on drums and percussion, Steven Iveson on guitar, Anthony Davis on keyboards and bass and Joe Rusby assisting with production, as well as one or two guest appearances by Kate Rusby and Union Station’s Ron Block on banjo.  A top notch album for sure. 

Steve Folk | Black Sheep Bones | Album Review | Self Release | 09.11.15

The picture on the cover pretty much sums up the mood of the ten songs that make up the new album by the artist formerly known as Blabbermouth; a scene we see on rural walks by the canal, the relaxed musician seated beside his vessel, guitar by his side awaiting an expected audience of just one.  It’s the most welcoming of introductions and one in which I take advantage of, taking my seat before the singer to hear what he has to say.  There’s a reason for this album being encased in a slim single pocketed sleeve.  As a touring musician, Steve Folk considers the likelihood of the regular plastic cases being damaged in transit, while this packaging might just survive the journey, a journey that takes us to Baltimore, amongst rabbits in Frankfurt, old grey London Town where the river wears a crown and eventually to the end of the world.  These songs are personal, delicate in places, stripped down to essentials in other places (don’t you just love to take home a CD of music you’ve just heard without further embellishment?) and what’s more, the songs appear to be immediately accessible.  It’s not hard work listening to these songs, each delivered in a confident voice that sits somewhere between Tim Buckley, Shawn Phillips and David Gates.  Okay, I lied, there are some embellishments, such as those added to the arrangements of “Lifetime”, “My Wife the River” and the title song “Black Sheep Bones”, but nowhere are the songs cluttered unnecessarily.  A further embellishment to the initial 250 copies of the album, comes in the form of an original drawing, which will feature along with all the others in a stop animation video for one of the songs on the album.  

Sam Kelly | The Lost Boys | Album Review | Self Release | 20.11.15

Sam Kelly’s debut full-length album seems to have been a long time coming. The previously released EPs, Your Own Way (2013) and Spokes (2015) served as an introduction to one of the brightest new talents on the British folk scene, together with appearances at clubs and festivals up and down the country.  The Norfolk-born, now Cornwall-based singer and musician produces almost on cue, a vibrant album of songs, some self-penned, others traditional, but each delivered with informed musicianship and mature arrangements.  Although released under Sam’s name, The Lost Boys, is very much a joint effort by the Sam Kelly Trio, consisting of Jamie Francis on banjo and Evan Carson on percussion, with the additional musical weight of Ciaran Algar on fiddle and Graham Coe on cello, essentially the 2016 touring outfit Sam Kelly and the Lost Boys.  There’s a sense that these songs have already been ‘worked-in’ during live performances around the country, judging by the quality of the arrangements.  Furthermore, the overall sound is further embellished with contributions by Lukas Drinkwater and Josh Franklin sharing the bass duties, together with the featured voice of Kitty MacFarlane on “The King’s Shilling”.  The songs on this album, notably “Jolly Waggoners”, “The Golden Vanity”, “Spokes” and the mighty “Little Sadie” could be the catalyst that transforms Sam Kelly from a whispered name into an artist of the stature of Seth Lakeman.  

Daimh | The Hebridean Sessions | Album Review | Goat Island Music | 25.11.15

These days we hear Scottish bagpipes all over the world, in concert halls and at festivals, at birthday parties and weddings and occasionally on street corners, played by pipers in full tartan regalia; but nowhere do the pipes sound quite as convincing than on their own native soil.  On this release by Daimh, the five-piece Hebridean band take their music home to the Isles of Skye and Eigg, the songs and tunes all packed in crates on the cover, along with a portable recording studio, ready for shipping.  Recorded over a one week period in various locations around the islands, including Mull, Skye and South Uist, the ten selections not only promote the sounds of the islands but embody them.  From the opening set of tunes “Locheil’s Awa’ To France”, which incorporates “MacIsaac’s Reel” and “De Bha Sibh Ris, a Chaluim Mhoir”, the band’s sound is very much established with the pipes taking the lead role.  Although the album stands as vibrant addition to the band’s cata|ogue, it could also be seen as a completist’s dream as most of the songs and tunes have been around for a while just waiting for the right place to be set, so some of the material may be familiar to those who have seen the band on their travels.  The songs, including “Dhannsmaid Le Ailean” and “O Fair A-Nall Am Botal”, beautifully rendered in Gaelic courtesy of Ellen MacDonald, each have a haunting quality, no doubt influenced by the surroundings.  Interestingly, each of the selections come with an icon indicating the content of the selection, a snow flake for hard winter, a heart with an arrow through for courting and a bottle for any drinking related content, a feature that every album design should ideally come with.

Mairearad and Anna | Best Day | Album Review | Shouty Records | 01.12.15

With a dozen or so years of playing together under their respective belts, along with a couple of previously released albums, multi-instrumentalists Mairearad Green and Anna Massie launch their third album to coincide with their 14-day November tour.  Best Day, the title of which comes from Aidan O’Rourke’s “Best Day of My Life”, a tune included in the Bottle Island set here, includes eleven compositions, which for the first time includes songs, a new departure for the duo on record although songs have featured in their live set over the years.  Anna’s reading of Dougie MacLean’s “She Loves Me (When I Try)” is rather gorgeous as is the duo’s sensitive vocal blending on Nanci Griffith’s “Always Will”.  If committing their voices to record is new to them, then also is writing tunes together, with the inclusion of the duo’s first collaboration as writers on “A Lovely Bottle of Botanist”, which comes in at the end of “The Botanist” set.  Outstanding playing throughout, Mairearad and Anna without any doubt, will be handing over something very worthwhile to those attending the duo’s gigs during their current tour.

Ragged Union | Hard Row to Hoe | Album Review | Laughing Dog Music | 03.12.15

In some respects, it’s encouraging that musical lines are continually being blurred and expectations are challenged when it comes to genres, classification and just where to find certain CDs in the record shop and equally, where to pop your latest purchase on your own shelf.  As a musical genre, Bluegrass has become something of a blur in recent years incorporating a pretty wide and varied criteria or in some cases no criteria at all.  The sound that Colorado six-piece Ragged Union make is the sort of bluegrass that got you loving this sort of music in the first place; some informed flat-picked acoustic guitar, frequent flurries on the mandolin and banjo, some tasty fiddle playing, a no-nonsense upright bass keeping things moving along nicely and topped off with some delicious harmony singing.  These are the essential ingredients that make Hard Row To Hoe such a pleasure to listen to.  From the opening bars of “Simple Life” through to the final spin of the “Ferris Wheel”, the band, led by husband and wife team Geoff and Christina Union, engage in a veritable jamboree of determined bluegrass, incorporating traditional tunes with contemporary lyrics.

Blackbeard’s Tea Party | Reprobates | Album Review | Self Release | 09.12.15

When I first saw Blackbeard’s Tea Party live a few years ago, they were attired head to foot in full pirate regalia, possibly with swords clenched between their seething teeth, although I think that’s possibly my imagination working overtime.  Subsequently I’ve caught the band a few times at several festivals and I now realise that the pirate show only comes out occasionally.  There is something of the rogue buccaneer about the band and it’s not just in their chosen name.  When the band takes to the stage, usually last thing before the witching hour, you can forget the tea party bit and think along the lines of rum-soaked baccanalia and it’s time to lock up your daughters (and sons!).  Oh yes, it wouldn’t take much to imagine fiddle player Laura Barber on the arm of Jack Sparrow that’s for sure, Keef Richards voice and all.  On this the band’s third album release, the band once again successfully recreate their live sound, setting out their rogue Folk Rock from the start.  It’s not all piracy on the high seas, although “The Ballad of William Kidd” keeps the band’s main theme very much alive and kicking.  There’s some unexpected delights such as Stuart Giddens’ reading of Alex Glasgow’s “Close the Coalhouse Door” as well as his own “Jack Ketch”, a driving ballad telling the story of Charles II’s executioner.  “Hangman’s Noose” is really a visual spectacle on stage, with Dave Boston ‘duetting’ with Laura on fiddle, the latter using a bow, while the former taps the strings with sticks.  Legend has it that if you can play “The Hangman’s Reel” without error you will be granted a reprieve.  I think the band got away with it this time.  Produced by Dave Boothroyd, Reprobates makes a perfect companion piece to the previous couple of albums as well as a pretty faithful record of what you’ve possibly just seen on stage.

Marina Florance | This That and the Other | Album Review | Folkstock Records | 10.12.15

If Marina Florance came late to music then I in turn came late to Marina Florance; this is how it seems to go.  Well now that we’ve both caught up with one another, it’s nice to report that what this London-born singer-songwriter does is quite refreshing, that is to arrive on the scene a little later than usual, yet equipped with a distinctive voice and aptitude for writing engaging songs.  It actually begs the question where have we both been?  I first heard the voice of Marina Florance on the Folkstock Records sampler album The F Spot Femme Fatales and more recently on Downtown, another Folkstock sampler, which included her brooding rain-soaked “Little Black Cloud”, which in turn leaped out from the collection of songs.  Once again that song appears here, along with other surprises such as “A Better Song”, which features a poetical spoken passage by its author Richard Pierce, the uplifting “The Wedding Day Waltz”, which is also reprised at the end of the album as an instrumental and then the beautifully soulful “A Room of Your Own”, which signposts us to yet another area on Marina’s broad canvas. Marina is definitely worth checking out.

Sophie Hosken-Taylor | Maps | EP Review |  Shabby Cabin Records | 20.12.15

Last May, Sophie Hosken-Taylor drove up from Bristol to Wath upon Dearne at the crack of dawn to sing at the annual Wath Festival Young Performer’s Competition during the afternoon.  I was put to task as one of the three judges at the concert, where Sophie had won a place as one of the four shortlisted performers due to play on the main stage during the afternoon.  It was a tightly fought contest, each of the contenders having something highly individual to offer and the deliberation after the concert was long and hard.  Shortly after arriving at a decision, Sophie looked somewhat bemused, bewildered and frankly shocked when her name was called out.  One of the reasons why Sophie found herself with a trophy in her hands that afternoon probably had something to do with the fact that she has a highly individual voice, a distinctive delivery and a penchant for writing good songs; things you tend not to forget in a hurry.   Maps is the follow up EP to an earlier self-produced mini album that Sophie produced in 2011, It Could Have Been Worse.  The new EP features six original songs, some of which were performed on that Saturday afternoon back in May; songs like “Troubled” and “Locked In/Covered Up”.  Of course Sophie performed solo at the festival, so the songs were pretty stripped down to basics.  The songs here however are treated to some fine uncluttered arrangements, Sophie handling most of the instruments herself with the help of one or two friends, including Tim Neal on bass, Louis Haynes on piano, Chris Handcock on drums and percussion and Joe Coombs on electric guitar.  Co-produced by Sophie and Simon Squire, Maps stands out as something new and refreshing in a pretty crowded singer-songwriter genre.  You probably won’t have heard a voice quite like Sophie’s before and once you’ve heard it, you probably won’t forget it either.

Ron Pope and the Nighthawks | Self-Titled | Album Review | Brooklyn Basement Records | 21.12.15

‘I am a completely independent artist, no record label, no publisher, no boss’ says Ron Pope in the trailer for a new documentary film about the Georgia-born musician, “One Way Ticket” directed by Kelly Teacher, as he ponders why he isn’t more famous than he actually is.  ‘What does it take to go the rest of the way?’  Despite already having five album releases to his name, Pope embarks on his sixth album with a brand new band, a clear vision, a great work ethic and a determination to be seen and heard by many.  Surrounding himself with a handful of quality musicians, collectively ‘The Nighthawks’, Ron Pope sets out with a single-minded focus, while further utilising the various online streaming services at hand, a full-length documentary film set for early 2016 release, as well as releasing this album before the band embark on a thirty-one city tour.   The hard rocking “Ain’t No Angel”, “Take Me Home” and “Southern Cross” are evenly balanced against the ballads, “Hotel Room”, “One Shot of Whiskey” and “Leave You Behind”, with one or two bluesy interludes, such as on the final song Goodbye. with the crickets chirping away in the background.  There’s actually little doubt that Ron Pope has been heard already by many if we consider over two million singles sold, several million plays on Spotify and Pandora and such like, as well as a nice bundle of YouTube videos, yet the musician has his eyes firmly set on further broadening his scope and the songs on this band’s eponymous album just might go some way to realising Pope’s ambitions.