Music Reviews | 2016

Ric Sanders Trio | Standin’ on the Corner | Album Review | Dotted Line | 01.01.16

This album sounds for all intents and purposes like one made from a sense of fun; three blokes of a certain age recalling all those Ry Cooder LPs they devoured as kids.  Fronted by Vo Fletcher, who handles the lion’s share of vocal duties, demonstrates his guitar pickin’ credentials on such archive delights as the title cut, Jimmie Rodgers’ “Standin’ on the Corner”, Fred Neil’s “Green Green Rocky Road”, and Mississippi John Hurt’s “Louis Collins”.  The guitarist also borrows Duane Allman’s eternally pretty instrumental “Little Martha”, coupling it to the traditional “Poor Boy”, which also features Ric Sanders’ bluesy violin.  Of the trio, it sounds as though Ric is having the most fun as most listeners will no doubt expect, with his venturesome trademark bowing technique.  It’s all stompingly good fun, especially the trio’s bashing out of Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London”, included here as a bonus track, but the recording does whiff of the customary ‘faithful to the gig’ souvenir almost exclusively to accompany the trio on their tour.  I’m not sure this album is going to make any significant mark on the vast body of recorded British folk music, but as a toe-tapping stab at nostalgic Americana, the boys done good. 

The Rheingans Sisters | Already Home | Album Review | Rootbeat Records | 02.01.16

Personally, for some inexplicable reason, I’m more impressed with an album cover if the artist is seen in his or her working environment, rather than getting all dolled up to the nines for the often unflattering if intentionally flattering glamour shot.  Rowan and Anna Rheingans are right there in the workshop where you can almost feel the wood, smell the lacquer, sense the very nuts and bolts of dad’s man cave, where all the instruments are actually built; there’s a sense of, you make ‘em dad and we’ll play ‘em.  Already Home is the Rheingans Sisters’ second stab of doing precisely that, a collection of a dozen songs and tunes that explore the sounds of Scandinavia and France.  There’s something so inherently earthy in the playing, a sense of rawness that we feel will never find its way to being sweet; real music from real hands making sense of the surroundings in which the music was made.  It’s not all traditional tune doodling though with Rowan showing her credentials as a songwriter with such delights as “Mackerel”. 

Krista Detor | Barely | Album Review | Tightrope Records | 03.01.16

The name Krista Detor became more familiar over here in the UK after her involvement with Shrewsbury Festival’s Darwin Project, which saw Krista rub shoulders with UK folk stalwarts Chris Wood, Karine Polwart, Jez Lowe, Stu Hanna, Emily Smith and Rachael McShane, together with fellow American Mark Erelli.  Krista’s seventh album to date sees the Indiana-born singer-songwriter treating ten new songs to some sparse arrangements, which in turn bring the lyrical beauty of the songs to the fore.  In places, the songs demonstrate a remarkable sense of melody at work, such as on “Box of Clouds”, with some delicious, almost Beatles-like harmonies.  Collaborating throughout with partner David Weber, Krista further exercises her flair for collaboration with the first of two bonus songs under the heading of The Irish Sessions, featuring a duet with Mary Dillon on “The Coming Winter” before closing the album with the seasonal “Sweet Comes the Sound”, dedicated to the Tobar Mhuire Retreat Centre in Co Down, which features a rather gorgeous and almost Joni Mitchell-esque Silent Night coda.

The Unthanks | Memory Box | Album Review | RabbleRouser | 03.01.16

Northern Sky shares a similar time span as The Unthanks, or at least all the bands led by Rachel Unthank in all their ever changing glory.  Ten years ago Rachel Unthank and the Winterset released their debut full-length album Cruel Sister, which coincided with Northern Sky’s very first live review.  It’s easy to feel therefore, that we’ve been on a similar journey over these last ten years, during which Northern Sky has popped in and out of the band’s sphere every now and again, eager to jot down a few words of both encouragement and appreciation.  In timely fashion, all of this has been rewarded with the arrival of a beautiful box of treasures, handmade and lovingly presented as the Memory Box.  There’s an initial desire to keep the red string that holds the box together intact for as long as possible, to be stored away under the floorboards, hidden away to be found by future generations.  Then again, there’s an even more pressing desire to get the thing opened to see what’s inside.  Ten years ago, the original four-piece band known as Rachel Unthank and the Winterset, could be seen in the upstairs room of pubs, while people around the globe were still blissfully unaware of what was gradually about to happen to English folk song in subsequent years.  “What a strange name Unthank is” would be most people’s initial reaction.  Under sad circumstances, the original band fell apart on the eve of their hard-earned breakthrough, just as they received a nomination for the Mercury Prize for their second album The Bairns.  Friendships faltered, bitter tastes were tasted and hearts beat a little faster for a while until the storms calmed.  Yet there was a cast iron determination to continue and a new band was soon shaped in order to further explore these strange little folk songs and virtually forgotten contemporary gems.  After five critically acclaimed albums and three adventurous side projects, the Diversions releases, The Unthanks have become almost household names with their treatment of both contemporary and traditional material, together with one or two self-penned songs along the way.  The band’s repertoire rarely contains anything that you might consider ‘jolly’, yet their material, which ranges from the melancholy to the mournful, foreboding to funereal, still manages to fill the heart with joy.  How could anyone not take a deep breath and point one’s chest to the sky upon hearing the chorus of “Fareweel Regality” or the climax to the band’s undisputed ten-minute masterpiece “Mount the Air”?  The Memory Box delivers the same sort of joyous message with its carefully hand-crafted contents, it’s previously unheard music and its visual treats.  So what’s in our Pandora’s Box then, once the red bow has been untied?  The contents are removed with the same delicate handling as the contents were placed a few days before.  There’s a signed card with a serial number stamped on the inside, reminding the recipient of the uniqueness of their box.  There’s a couple of postcards designed by Natalie Rae Reid, together with a little packet of photographs of the band.  There’s a couple of A4 prints of original artwork by Natalie and Becky Unthank, together with three books; a songbook, a recipe book (Adrian McNally likes cooking probably as much – if not more – as music, football and life itself), and finally a songbook with a difference.  The ‘Unsung Book’ is a blank notebook, enclosed to encourage us recipients to write our own songs down.  The Memory Box also contains three discs; firstly a 70 minute CD of rarities, exclusive live tracks, demos and outtakes, the disc being the only item in the limited edition box that can be obtained separately.  There’s a 90 minute DVD, which includes a concert filmed at Newcastle City Hall during the band’s Mount The Air tour, together with some archive films of the band such as some footage from the Abbey Road studios, featuring Stef Connor during the Rachel Unthank & The Winterset days.  There’s a couple of beautifully filmed promos filmed at the desolate Horncliffe Mansion to accompany the band’s Shipyards project as well as one or two of the band’s own animated single videos.  Finally, a bit of vinyl, the next big thing I hear, which includes two seasonal songs, Chrissie Hynde’s “2000 Miles” and George Unthank’s “Tar Barrel in Dale”.  So plenty to get one’s teeth into, especially at this time of year when bound gifts are common place under the tree.  The fragility of this band’s music could not more perfectly be presented than in this utterly charming box of memories, memories to cherish for some time to come, while the band continue on their journey to bring to their expanding audience more enchanting music, more exciting projects and more live appearances throughout the world.

Fay Hield and the Hurricane Party | Old Adam | Album Review | Soundpost Records | 04.01.16

The advance EP of the same name pretty much prepared us for what was to follow with this the third solo album by Yorkshire-born and based singer Fay Hield.  Together with The Hurricane Party (Sam Sweeney, Rob Harbron, Roger Wiilson, Ben Nicholls, Toby Kearney), Fay traverses a wealth of traditional songs, each treated to a fine arrangement but with the focus very much on the singer’s distinctive voice.  Although the title suggests a theological theme, Fay is quick to confess that the nearest she gets to God is through her swearing.  The title song however does indeed paint a wry picture of the first man, who ‘never paid his tailor’s bill because he wore no clothes’, set to a tune by hubby Jon Boden.  Jon Boden guests on the album as does Martin Simpson, notably on “The Hornet and the Beetle”, a song heard on the Full English live shows, which stylistically ventures into Martin Carthy territory.  There’s playground songs here, such as “Green Gravel”, well-trodden ground in both “Raggle Taggle Gypsy” and “Jack Orion” and even Tom Waits ground, with a perfectly reasonable take on “The Briar and the Rose”.

Ciaran Algar | The Final Waltz | Album Review | Fellside | 09.01.16

I’m not really sure when the ideal time is for one member of a popular duo to go it alone, albeit just for the one solo side project.  Perhaps in the case of Ciaran Algar, now is definitely a good time.  Ciaran’s star, shared with Greg Russell, is still very much on the rise and with a couple of fine album releases, together with a handful of adventurous side projects already ventured, the tall fiddle-playing one respectfully goes it alone (well almost) with a fine debut album.  With deep rooted Irish credentials, the musician has an exhaustive musical background, which all feeds into The Final Waltz, his latest release on Fellside Records.  It’s certainly not all traditional though, the set also includes a handful of self-penned songs, a couple of which are handed over to Sam Kelly to sing, adding to the album a confident voice that in turn breathes new life into Ciaran’s well-crafted songs.  By and large though, the album is pretty much instrumental, which includes some of Ciaran’s own favourite tunes, arranged and performed with the assistance of a handful of friends, each tune featuring Ciaran’s own personal contemporary touch.

Various Artists | Songs of Separation | Album Review | Navigator | 10.01.16

The first thing the ten musicians involved in this project did was to separate the girls from the boys.  This all-female project sees ten prominent figures on the British folk scene unite in a feast of song, each of the dozen selections addressing the theme of ‘separation’ in one form or another.  From the very start we become aware of the calibre of musicianship, with Karine Polwart taking the lead on Echo Mocks the Corncrake, with its beautifully evocative World Music sound, evoking a sort of Transatlantic Sessions feel, albeit more a case of trans-Tweed, rather than Atlantic, as both English and Scots musicians fuse the songs and music of their respective homelands to provide a rare mixture of sounds.  Working from a promo with no details of who is playing on what, it’s been fun picking out the voices, instruments and textures, such as Eliza Carthy’s assured voice on “Cleaning the Stones”, sounding more like her mum every day. Then the absolutely gorgeous voice of Hannah Read on “It Was a’for Our Rightful King”, which is an absolute show stealer.  “The Unst Boat Song”, previously showcased in many an Unthanks gig, the voices come together in a masterful celebration of sound.  Recorded on the Isle of Eigg in the summer of 2015, the week long rehearsal and recording sessions bore fruit that will be showcased this month at Celtic Connections.

Jon Hart | Reborn | Album Review | Self Release | 15.01.16

Upon first hearing Jon Hart’s new album, two specific names sprang to mind, John Gomm and Newton Faulkner.  After a couple of songs in, I unfolded the accompanying press release to find that both of those names are mentioned. It’s not just my ears then.  The fourteen songs and instrumental compositions place Jon’s guitar technique in the same ball park as those two mentioned for sure, although the overall album definitely has the Isle of Wight-born now Surrey-based musician’s stamp all over it.  The highly percussive guitar style employed throughout the album and particularly on the opener “Sticks and Stones” demonstrates Jon’s control over his instrument, while “Windchime” points very much towards a flair for syncopation.  The more atmospheric Waves, which serves here as a prelude to the live recording of “Father”, abandons syncopation altogether in favour of pure atmospherics.  In other places, “Have It” for instance, we see Jon venture into beat box territory, with some vocal techniques mixing well with his idiosyncratic guitar playing.  Reborn is pretty much a solo affair, although Chris Woods makes a guest appearance, sparring with Jon on the instrumental “Red Room”.

Low Lily | Low Lily | EP Review | Self Release | 17.01.16

Until recently known as Annalivia, this quite extraordinary trio of singers and musicians – Liz Simmons on guitar, Flynn Cohen on guitar and mandolin and Lissa Schneckenburger on fiddle – play Bluegrass precisely as it really should be played.  Dipping into a broad repertoire that incorporates English, Irish and old time Appalachia, the trio’s tightly arranged sound is clear, clean and uncluttered, topped by some fine harmony vocals from all three members.  Their self-titled EP also features further contributions from Corey DiMario on double bass and some fine unintrusive trombone playing courtesy of Fred Simmons, which underpins Lissa’s original song “The Girl’s Not Mine”.  This song clearly demonstrates the fact that the band doesn’t leave it exclusively up to traditional material and shows that the trio’s original songs are right up there with the rest.  Of the traditional songs, the opener is a fine interpretation of the brooding “House Carpenter”, chock full of tension and apprehension, while the trio show off their confident chops as instrumentalists on “Northern Spy” and “Cherokee Shuffle-Lucky”, all of which makes for good listening.  This reviewer eagerly awaits a possible full-length album at some stage in the future.

Jane Kramer | Carnival of Hopes | Album Review | Self Release | 19.01.16

It takes no time at all to settle into this, the second album by singer-songwriter Jane Kramer.  From the count in at the beginning of “Half Way Gone”, a tasty slice of Western Swing packed with the sweeping fiddle runs courtesy of Nicky Sanders, the North Carolina songstress delivers ten original songs, while pointing out that her own carnival of hopes is “busted and hideous and rusty and somehow still brave and sparkly”, an image illustrated by the cover artwork, particularly the abandoned fairground ride.  The confessional “Good Woman” stands out as a fine example of the honesty of Jane Kramer’s song writing, delivered with an assured confidence, leaving the listener in no doubt as to her sincerity.  The more playful “Why’d I Do That Blues” sees the singer perfectly at home with a jazz-tinged New Orleans-styled brass section, while the equally uplifting “My Dusty Wings” ventures into Bluegrass territory, which in turn demonstrates Kramer’s versatility.  Well produced, highly melodic and beautifully accessible, Carnival Of Hopes should open a few doors for Jane Kramer in the coming months.

Gretchen Peters | The Essential | Album Review | Proper | 23.01.16

I often wonder for which audience ‘Best Hits’ compilations are aimed at.  Those already identified as bone fide fans usually have all the back catalogue already at their disposal and if they would so desire such a musical career compacted into just two discs, their individual tastes would dictate which songs should be included and in precisely which order.  The other purpose I imagine would be for the collection to serve as an introduction to the artist.  Well The Essential Gretchen Peters does just that and more.  A generous 27 songs are included in this delightful retrospective, which features material from the full range of her highly prolific songwriting career, from early songs such as “The Secret of Life” and “The Aviators Song” to bang-up-to-date recent songs such as “When All You Got is a Hammer” and “Blackbirds”, the title song from her current studio album.  What sets this collection apart from Gretchen’s previous ‘Best Of’ album Circus Girl is the material covered on the second disc, which continues with collectable material for Gretchen Peters completists, such as demos, b sides, outtakes, radio edits and collaborative recordings with the likes of Matraca Berg, Suzy Bogguss and Ben Glover.  At this point we can consider a further purpose for the release and quite possibly the real purpose of this collection; the fact that it will make a fine souvenir for those lucky enough to catch the Nashville songstress on her forthcoming UK tour.

Cathryn Craig and Brian Willoughby | In America | Album Review | Cabritunes | 01.02.16

Virginia-born singer-songwriter Cathryn Craig and ex-Strawbs guitarist Brian Willoughby release their latest album comprising a dozen self-penned songs, including some of the duo’s most personal to date.  The title song itself is evocative of that notable period of uncertainty, as Irish immigrants set sail for the promised land, mirrored in the effective cover artwork.  With some of Cathryn’s most sensitive singing to date, together with Brian’s fluid guitar accompaniment, the songs are treated to some delicate musical arrangements, underpinned by some graceful cello, accordion and whistle flurries, further evoking the period.  If the twelve songs written for the project were not enough, then the duo also include a handful of bonus songs at the end, two of which salute artists both Cathryn and Brian have worked with over the years including The Righteous Brothers “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” and Mary Hopkin “Those Were the Days”.  Once again, the duo’s own personal greatest hit “Alice’s Song” appears as a bonus, a song that exemplifies the duo’s credentials for writing great songs.

Yorkston Thorne Khan | Everything Sacred | Album Review | Self Release | 05.02.16

Scottish singer-songwriter James Yorkston teams up with Indian sangari player and singer Yusuf Khan for a stylish blend of seemingly devotional music, “Knochentanz” for instance, which at just over thirteen minutes takes up around a quarter of the album, and “Sufi Song”, featuring the sort of Qawwali vocal performance, a style notably explored by such singers as the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.  Khan’s Bol singing can also be found during the duo’s take on Ivor Cutler’s “Little Black Buzzer”, which also features an additional voice courtesy of Irish singer Lisa O’Neill.  Jon Thorne completes the trio on double bass, whose bold playing is on equal terms with Yorkston’s guitar and Khan’s sangari. In fact this is one of the things we notice from the outset, that those instruments are pretty much sparring equally throughout the eight-song album.  The last piece, “Blues Jumped the Goose”, may just approach the sort of sound we would have expected had Pentangle ever teamed up with the Incredible String Band.

Gavin Sutherland | A Curious Noise | Album Review | Self Release | 17.02.16

A few months ago, a copy of Iain Sutherland’s solo album Back To The Sea dropped onto my doormat and took me somewhat by surprise.  The Sutherland Brothers had pretty much disappeared off my radar a couple of decades earlier and apart from “Arms of Mary” popping up occasionally on mainstream radio and the all too rare dip into the dusty LPs, effectively rekindling my teenage days of listening to Reach For The Sky and Slipstream, not to mention the earlier Lifeboat and Dream Kid albums, I rarely gave the brothers another thought to be honest.  I didn’t even twig that in was the ‘Iain Sutherland’ until I heard his voice on the opening track.  After that initial surprise of hearing that distinctive voice once again, the thought crossed my mind, what of his kid brother?  It was indeed a pleasant surprise then when Gavin Sutherland’s new solo album also dropped onto the doormat in exactly the same place and from exactly the same source.  As the album found itself on the player, I had to note that the voice wasn’t quite as immediately recognisable as his brother’s and I dare say I probably wouldn’t have recognised it had I not known who it was.  If Iain maintains a singer-songwriter existence as he steadily approaches three score and ten, his younger brother has emerged as a sort of JJ Cale figure, growling his own particular brand of swampy backwoods country rock and roll, with a little help from John Wright on drums and Carl Damiano on keyboards.  Produced in ‘glorious mono’ by Gavin himself, the songs have that very laid-back feel synonymous with the aforementioned JJ Cale, particularly on “Fourteen Angels” and “Intoxicating Rhythm”.  It’s not all retro-country rock though, the album also features such sensitive material as “Endless Sky”, which leaves us on a note of reflection.

Jed Grimes | North Face | Album Review | Blue Guitar Records | 19.02.16

This six song mini-album by North East folk stalwart Jed Grimes sees the Ashington-born singer and musician teaming up once again with fellow Hedgehog Pie bandmate Mick Doonan, whose Uillean pipes, whistles and flutes can be heard throughout. The six traditional songs and tunes have each been arranged by the twice BBC Folk Award nominated musician, including such familiar fare as “The Snow it Melts the Soonest”, “Pride of Kildare” and “Rake and Rambling Boy”, with a couple of instrumentals, including the seasonal Shetland waltz “Christmas Day in Da Morn”.  The eight-minute “Spalpeen Aroon/An Phisloach” concluding piece evokes the sense of isolation and rugged charm of the Northern coastline as a storm brews in the cover photograph.  For those of us who recall with fondness the ever-changing line-up of Hedgehog Pie in the 1970s, the sound of the songs on this album will no doubt stir pleasing memories. 

Diana Jones | Live In Concert | Album Review | Proper | 01.03.16

With four solo studio albums under her belt, the Nashville and New York City-based singer-songwriter returns to deliver the obligatory live album.  One of Appalachia’s most distinctive and original voices, Diana Jones steps up on stage to showcase a selection of the her most requested songs, including “Better Times Will Come”, “My Beloved”, “Pony” and “Henry Russell’s Last Words”.  With Diana’s voice very much to the fore, the familiar songs come fast and furious, at times prompting this reviewer to think to himself ‘oh yes, she wrote that one too’.  The recordings are taken from various sources, including her first European performance at the Blue Highways Festival in the Netherlands in 2007, featuring Beau Stapleton on mandolin on “Willow Tree”, which opens the set.  Amongst the familiar songs Diana pops in three previously unheard songs “Happiness”, “Prayer For My Brother” and the album closer “My Last Call”.  The album will no doubt serve the singer well when she returns to the UK for a few dates in April.

The Rails | Australia | Album Review | Self Release | 04.03.16

Opening with a pretty faithful version of “The Trees They Do Grow High”, apparently learned from a Martin Carthy LP found in a an Oxfam shop in Holmfirth, the tradition apparently continues.  The Rails, namely Kami Thompson and husband James Walbourne, have been seen out and about both as an acoustic duo and with a full band, the latter pretty much in respect of touring their debut album Fair Warning.  On this seven-track EP, the duo return to a sparse, bare-bones format, which focuses on the duo’s delicious harmonies.  Throughout the seven songs, it’s clear that the two musicians sing with each other regularly.  With unflattering mug shots gracing the cover of Australia, the EP, which comes in at 25 minutes, is clearly a fine companion to their debut album and reveals a duo that in all fairness should break into the big time any time soon.  The traditional songs including “I Wish, I Wish”, a song regularly performed by The Unthanks, the Music Hall inflected “Willow Tree”, recently a live staple for Eliza Carthy, along with the title song, complemented further with the appearance of the duo’s take on Edwyn Collins’ “Low Expectations”, together with a brilliantly evocative original courtesy of Walbourne, “The Cally”, which delves deep into his own London background.

Gem Andrews | Vancouver | Album Review | Market Square | 08.03.16

I have to say that any song that includes a mention of Townes Van Zandt almost always attracts my attention. Gem Andrews opens with a song called “Calling”, which does exactly that and just to be on the safe side namechecks Johnny and June Cash, Nanci Griffith, Emmylou Harris and Neil Young.  Okay, so I’m definitely listening now.  Gem Andrews first came to my attention with her 2012 debut Scatter, for which the Liverpool-born singer-songwriter wore many of her influences not only on her sleeve and indeed in her opening song, but also in the stuff she surrounded herself with at the time in her room.  On Vancouver, the cover is much more restrained, yet the songs are not.  The material is pretty much stripped bare to its essentials, with sparse guitar accompaniment and a smattering of fiddle courtesy of Bernard Wright, and some piano by Nicky Rushton, who also wrote a couple of the songs, the lilting “Mother Dear” and the Country-inflected “Ten Thousand More”.  Mostly self-penned, Gem does include one or two non-originals, at one point venturing into almost sacrosanct territory with her reading of Anna McGarrigle’s “Heart Like a Wheel”; well if Linda Ronstadt can do it..

Reg Meuross | December | Album Review | Proper | 14.03.16

It’s hard to believe that this is the tenth solo album release by Reg Meuross; time flies like an arrow – fruit flies like a banana, so they say!  Where does the time go exactly?  This reviewer came in at album number five, Dragonfly, back in 2008 and since then, there has followed a steady stream of well-crafted albums brimming with equally well-crafted songs.  I imagine Reg scratches his head from time to time, pondering on why his music hasn’t broken through to the mainstream, despite firmly holding a feverishly loyal following in clubs and festivals up and down the country.  My guess is that if Reg had been releasing these albums in the late 1960s while frequenting the ‘all-nighters’ at Les Cousins, he would be held in the same high regard as your Al Stewarts, Paul Simons and Jackson C Franks.  Opening with “When You Needed Me”, a Leonard Cohen-styled love song, Reg’s instantly recognisable voice effortlessly draws the listener in.  The single chosen as the first to be released from the album, “Hands of a Woman”, once again demonstrates this writer’s sensitivity when it comes to matters of the heart.  There’s no clutter, just the voice, accompanied by a 1944 Martin (another thing that wouldn’t be out of place along Greek Street in ‘65) and an occasional harmonica.  Ten quality self-penned songs from a very busy and prolific pen.

Show of Hands | The Long Way Home | Album Review | Hands on Music | 21.03.16

The Anglo Saxon voice that introduces the opening song, “Breme Fell at Hastings”, evokes the sound of one of the defining periods in our history; the fate of a freeborn farmer killed at the famous battle as told by Michael Wood in the TV series The Great British Story.  England and Englishness is most prominent in Knightley’s songs and indeed in the songs written by Show of Hands’ contemporaries such as Topsham’s Chris Hoban, who offers a couple here, including the anthemic “Hallow’s Eve” and the haunting “The Old Lych Way”.  If “Roots” stirred the Anglo Saxon soul a few years ago, “Walk With Me (When the Sun Goes Down)” offers a reflection on what has gone before with Knightley seemingly content to let sleeping dogs lie as he walks into the sunset over Sidmouth.  It’s not all Steve Knightley though, as the voice of his long-standing musical collaborator Phil Beer pops up here and there, notably on “Virginia”, a traditional song covering the subject of convict transportation, complete with a new tune provided by Beer.  Jackie Oates makes a couple of appearances, notably on “Mesopotamia”, which sees Knightley at his best, with a beautiful song that revisits the well-trodden staple subject of folk song, the female drummer, but with a subtle nod to the current conflict in Syria.  There’s also a slice of English blues included with “Sweet Bella”, as Knightley croons some ‘genuine Westcountry frontier gibberish’, according to Beer who on this song returns to the sort of mandolin playing I feel he enjoys best, with Phillip Henry doing his Sonny Terry bit on harp.  One of the most infectious songs on the album is “Keep Hauling”, Andrew Cadie’s uplifting shanty, which goes down just as well in the car on the M62 as it does on any sailing vessel.

Birds Of Chicago, Real Midnight

Birds of Chicago | Real Midnight | Album Review | Five Head Entertainment | 27.03.16

For those who thought it couldn’t get much better than Canada’s Po’Girl and Chicago’s JT and the Clouds, another think probably came their way when in 2012 Allison Russell and JT Nero joined forces to form Birds of Chicago, an outfit so strong, so determined and so beautifully formed, that their music flowed effortlessly from the speakers like a stream of golden nectar and with Real Midnight, it continues to do so.  For proof of their unique musical bond we need look no further than “Remember Wild Horses”, which sees both JT and Allison sharing voices in the way that only they can.  Once you have that in your head, then everything else seems to come at you like gifts at Christmas, a lottery win or old friends visiting for the weekend.  The duo’s meet up with mutual friend Rhiannon Giddens, who is currently getting plenty of exposure over in the UK, and rightly so, not only through her work with the Carolina Chocolate Drops but with her own astonishing debut solo album, appears on the album to lend her own inimitable voice to one of the album highlights, “The Good Fight”.  Both “Sparrow” and “Barley” have been part of the Birds of Chicago live repertoire for a while now, each appearing on the band’s live release Live From Space and here the two songs fit perfectly with the other eleven songs.  Produced by Joe Henry, the album showcases two artists at the peak of their creativity, creating beautiful secular gospel music and song at its very best.

Corinne West | Starlight Highway | Album Review | Make Records | 02.04.16

The gentle sound of a mandolin opens this latest collection of songs written by Californian singer-songwriter Corinne West, whose recorded output reaches four solo records with an additional album, her last, made in collaboration with Kelly Joe Phelps.  For the most part, the songs included here were written back in 2011 after her last album and have been simmering, while waiting around for the right time to be recorded and released.  With Corinne taking a year out in the Austrian Alps to re-charge, re-think and concentrate on the creative process, it appears that now is indeed the time to get back in the studio.  Surrounding herself with informed musicians, including Kelly Joe Phelps once again, Ricky Fataar, Henry Salvia and Michael Marshall, Corinne has focussed on providing a gentle, restful, almost soothing approach to her music.  No storms or tempests here to rattle one’s sails, it’s pretty much a tranquil millpond to delight your ears, with the possible exception of the title song, which hits the road in full throttle.

Dan Wilde | Rhythm on the City Wall | Album Review | Wilde Sound | 03.04.16

Dan Wilde’s third solo album Rhythm On The City Wall was recorded in the relatively unlikely setting of Russia, having recently lived there for six months.  With not a balalaika in sight, the Cambridge-based singer-songwriter once again accompanies himself on acoustic guitar on eleven melodic songs, opening with the delightfully observed Pieces, from which the album title comes, where everything in our everyday lives are simply pieces in the bigger puzzle.  If Dan Wilde has a theme to his songwriting it’s just this, the everyday, from the mundane to the complex, each song delivered with sensitivity and care.  If “Windy Head” offers a fleeting glimpse into Dan Wilde’s contemporary life, then Hammersmith Palais is reminiscent of the type of songs written by Ray Davies two or three decades earlier, which in their turn offered a nostalgic nod to bygone days; the very best of songs.  Released on Polly Paulusma’s new label, the appropriately named Wild Records, Rhythm On The City Wall is another example of just how good this unfairly overlooked young singer-songwriter is.

Afro Celt Sound System | The Source | Album Review | ECC Records | 04.04.16

The first time I had the pleasure of seeing the Afro Celt Sound System was back in 1997 at the Cambridge Folk Festival, where after a pretty laid back blues set by John Primer, we were barked at by an over-enthusiastic reveller; imagine a cross between Bez from the Happy Mondays and the drill sergeant in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket and there’s your man.  “Stand up” he barked repeatedly at the unsuspecting crowd that had gathered in front of the main stage, which continued for several minutes during the interval, before advising us of the fact that ‘these guys really rock!’  We continued sitting in defiance, settled in for the evening as we patiently awaited the arrival of Jackson Browne, who wasn’t due on stage until ten past ten.  Once the Afro Celt Sound System hit the stage moments later though, we were up like a shot.  He was right of course, this band really did rock and they continue to rock almost twenty years on.  Since their formation a couple of years before I first saw them, the band have subsequently undergone many changes and now find themselves in that awkward position that other bands have found themselves in over the years, of existing in two different versions of the band, with all the mucky fighting over the ownership of the name.  The Source is by the band currently fronted by original founder member Simon Emmerson and features a line-up that includes N’Faly Kouyaté on kora and balafon, Johnny Kalsi Dhol drum and Davy Spillane on uillean pipes, amongst others.  After a three-minute overture, “Calling the Horses”, the epic proportions of the firmly established ACSS sound returns with the astonishing “Beware Soul Brother”, which once again mixes and melds a seamless fusion of African and Gaelic rhythms, featuring the voice of Armagh-born singer Rioghnach Connolly.  As always, it’s all about collaboration and each of the musicians involved have their specific moments throughout the 13-track album.  If the African/Gaelic fusion is explored in the opening song, the Dhol Drums of India dominate “The Magnificent Seven”, in a veritable festival of sound as the chant, which translates as ‘courage’, breaks through the vibrant Celtic whistles throughout the song.  Their first album in ten years, released to celebrate their 20th anniversary year, The Source seems to have come along at precisely the right time, with some high profile festival dates already planned together with a major UK tour in November.  You never know, it might even be me barking ‘stand up’ at the Cambridge crowd this summer.    

Rachel Ries | Cardinal | EP Review | Self Release | 06.04.16

The four songs on this EP were inspired by the churches and cathedrals, cobbled stones, baguettes and secret keys of the medieval city of Rouen, while the South Dakota-born singer-songwriter was on retreat there last year.  Included in the deluxe version of this EP is a hand-crafted linoleum print, each created from an original image inspired by “Homing”, one of the songs on the EP.  Accompanying herself on both electric guitar and piano, the songs were later recorded back in the states, but retained the atmosphere of the tiny apartment above the ancient chapel Rouen, where just around the corner a cross marks the spot where Joan of Arc met her fate.  Thoughtful, contemplative and rich in atmosphere, “Homing” considers the notion of finding home, while “Good Enough” ponders the crazy pursuit of making it through the music business, with all its highs and lows, ups and downs.  Intelligent songs from a creative heart.

Miranda Sykes and Rex Preston | The Watchmaker’s Wife | Album Review | Hands on Music | 07.04.16

Having previously released two strong and tastefully-produced full-length albums, there’s almost an expectation that Miranda Sykes and Rex Preston will continue to produce nothing but quality music and The Watchmaker’s Wife is proof of that.  Once again the unlikely pairing of double bass and mandolin (for the most part) creates a rich sonic soundscape, very much acoustic with shades of bluegrass mixed with a distinctly British folk music sensibility.  As always, the album is once again beautifully packaged, entirely fitting with the eleven songs included within.  Opening with the title song, co-written with Squeeze songsmith Chris Difford, the duo set out the benchmark for the other songs to follow. Whether the duo tackle traditional arrangements on such songs as “Bonny Light Horseman” and “Good Natured Man”, contemporary covers such as Boo Hewerdine’s “SAD” and Tony Furtado’s “Waste of the Moon”, their own compositions such as Rex Preston’s impressive “Rosie” or those all important instrumental workouts such as “Swedish” and “(Insert Name)’s Waltz”, the duo successfully build a complete album with absolutely nothing missing, despite maintaining their own basic sound throughout with no additional frills.  No mean feat.

Winter Wilson | Ashes and Dust | Album Review | Self Release | 08.04.16

Kip Winter and Dave Wilson are the kind of musicians who you bump into at a festival, where they often break out their instruments, usually accordion and guitar, and give you a song.  There’s no hiding in backstage area dressing rooms basking in the ethereal glow of stardom, fiercely protecting their privacy and, in effect, separating themselves from their audience, yet they are just as good as any of those who the above so often describes.  Dave Wilson’s songs are intelligent, melodic, often thought-provoking and most importantly highly listenable.  Colour those lyrics and melodies with Kip Winter’s convincing voice and the duo’s rich harmonies and you’re always on to a winner.  Ashes And Dust, the title lifted from one of the key songs “I’d Rather Be Ashes Than Dust”, a line borrowed in turn from the author Jack London, is the duo’s latest release and contains just over a dozen original songs.  “Weary Traveller” opens the set with a fine vocal performance from Dave, augmented by some fine finger-style guitar picking, urging the listener to take the weight off.  If the opening song stylistically recalls the Kicking Mule records of the 1970s, “Doreen and Joe” is pure Winter Wilson, a simple tale of a couple’s longing for a child, beautifully rendered and with a happy ending to boot.  Isn’t it encouraging to have a happy ending in this day and age?  Dave Wilson makes the art of songwriting look easy; by his own admission, To Hell With Monday Morning was written in the time it takes Kip to get ready to go out.  Mind you, we’re not sure exactly how long it actually takes Kip to get ready!  Produced by Dave Wilson, with Alistair Russell helping with the mixing and mastering, Ashes And Dust is one of those albums you will listen to over and again.   

The Night Watch | The Night Watch | EP Review | Self Release | 09.04.16

The Night Watch EP is one of those nice surprises that comes along every now and then.  Featuring the now familiar voice of Kate Locksley, the informed guitar playing of Dave Wood (who also throws in a bit of bouzouki) and rounded off with the dextrous fiddle playing of Kevin Lees, the trio take their first tentative steps with this six-track EP, made up chiefly of familiar traditional songs such as “Ratcliffe Highway”, “All Amongst the Barley” and “Newry Town”.  If the names of these musicians sound vaguely familiar then you would have no doubt come across them in such outfits as The Teacups and Wychwood (Kate), Folksestra and Last Orders (Kevin) and CrossCurrent, Malinky and Tom McConville (Dave); a good pedigree in each case for sure. If the above mentioned songs are treated to vibrant arrangements and fine performances, then the instrumental selections, such as “Cape Breton Jig” and “Baltimore Beginners”, further highlight the trio’s chops as fine players all round.  It has to be said though that it’s Kate’s voice that transforms this little EP into something very special; definitely a voice to be heard, and often.

James Brothers | James Brothers | Album Review | Drover Records | 10.04.16

Widely known for their high profile musical and marital partnerships with two of the British folk scene’s leading female artists Nancy Kerr and Emily Smith, the James Brothers combine their musical chops and flair for arrangement with some brooding Sam Peckinpah-era cowboy scowls, hats and stubbly chins.  Neither brothers nor cowboys, James Fagan and Jamie MacClennan ride the antipodean prairies with a repertoire of contemporary songs and tunes from their own respective neck of the woods, including Tim Finn’s Split Enz-era “Six Months in a Leaky Boat”, Trevor Lucas’ Fotheringay-period “Ballad of Ned Kelly” and closing with Michael O’Rourke’s “The Poison Train”, a song that goes back some way in the Fagan canon.  Standing beside these contemporary songs are one or two traditional adaptations including Shearing’s “Coming Round”, “Leatherman” and “The Voyage of the Buffalo”.  Sharing out the songs democratically, both James and Jamie compliment each other’s music in a manner not too far removed from actual siblings.

Silver Darlings | Watermark | Single Review | Anklebreka | 11.04.16

With the Sheffield-based band Silver Darlings signing to the Anklebreka label, the band celebrate their first release on this label with the single Watermark, a contemporary rocker recounting the on/off and on again relationship between frontman/songwriter Andy Whitehouse and his partner.  A personal song then, spanning a 30 year time period, which exemplifies the band’s own dictum of being ‘downbeat romantics and hopeless optimists.’  I don’t suppose its an everyday occurance, to experience the end of a relationship, then write a song about it, only to play that song to your former partner when you actually both get back together again years later.  But there you go, a happy ending. Joining Andy are Lindsay Callaway on bass, Richard Masters on lead guitar, Simon Joy on violin, Harry Corps on keyboards and James Howe on drums.

Locust Honey String Band | Never Let Me Cross Your Mind | Album Review | Self Release | 15.04.16

Chloe Edmonstone and Meredith Watson, otherwise known as Locust Honey, continue to explore their Old-Time, Bluegrass and Pre-War Blues roots with this their latest release with the slightly expanded Locust Honey String Band, featuring Dubl Handi’s Hilary Hawke on banjo.  With earthy harmonies and informed accompaniment on both fiddle and guitar, the band seem equally at home with the traditional, the contemporary and their own original compositions, although they each blend in perfectly well together.  While the original opening song, “When The Whiskey’s Gone”, is probably familiar to those who caught the Richard Gere film Time Out of Mind, the band’s cover of George Jones’ “Just One More”, evokes the intended feel of world-weariness, yet with a slightly more lilting feel than plain melancholy.  Instrumentally, the Locust Honey String Band are on fire, which indicates what a great live band they couldn’t fail to be.  “McMiche’s Breakdown”, “Logan County Blues” and “Boogerman” will have your toes tapping for sure.

Aziza Brahim | Abbar el Hamada | Album Review | Glitter Beat | 18.04.16

It might be a strange thought, but while listening to Barcelona-based Aziza Brahim’s new record Abbar El Hamada, I was put in mind of the late Sandy Denny for some reason.  Had Sandy Denny performed her songs in Hassinya Arabic or Spanish, she might have sounded rather like this.  To my knowledge though Sandy’s native tongue was English, in which she exclusively sang, apart from that one time she performed on Top of the Pops singing a Bobby Dylan song in French.  The songs on Aziza’s new record are both eloquently arranged and soulfully performed, with a distinct Western Saharan feel, which we have all become accustomed to.  The strength of Aziza’s voice is echoed in the fine playing of the musicians in her band, Spanish multi-instrumentalist Guillem Aguilar, Malian guitarist Kalilou Sangare, Aziza’s sister Badra Abdallahe on backing vocals, Ignasi Cussó also on guitar, Aleix Tobias and Sengane Ngon on percussion.  Throughout the ten selections, Aziza’s voice is on blistering form, especially on the soulfully bluesy numbers such as “Mani”, which features some fine guitar playing courtesy of guest guitarist Samba Toure.

Kitty Macfarlane | Tide and Time | EP Review | TCR Music | 18.04.16

Refreshingly satisfying debut EP from Somerset-based songstress Kitty Macfarlane, who not only presents a handful of superb self-penned songs but also includes a rather agreeable cover of Tim Buckley’s timeless “Song to the Siren” before signing off.  Complete with a reverb-heavy Jeff Buckley-type guitar accompaniment, just how Jeff liked it, the sound really isn’t that far from Jeff’s own memorable cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”.  The other four selections however, are very much Kitty’s own, which range from the early tentative steps into songwriting with “Bus Song”, written at the tender age of 16, to the highly accomplished “Wrecking Days”, which is the sort of song you tend not to forget in a hurry.  Kitty claims that ‘Tide and Time is the product of hours spent daydreaming while gathering shellfish on French beaches at low tide’, which is further evoked in the title song, while Blake’s poetry inspires one of the EP’s prettiest songs “Lamb”.  It may be that there’s something in the water down there in the West Country at the moment, not least with Sam Kelly and Tanya Brittain’s fruitful Changing Room projects and with this EP released on their own TCR label, we might just be on the verge of launching a potentially huge talent, a talent that really should be heard.

Pilgrims’ Way | Red Diesel | Album Review | Fellside | 19.04.16

With the slightly extended line-up, now featuring multi-instrumentalist Jon Loomes, whose instruments read like a Viv Stanshall roll-call, Pilgrims’ Way return with their first album since 2011’s Wayside Courtesies.  Yes, it’s rather hard to believe that five years have passed by since the release of their impressive debut, but that time has allowed the band to really get to grips with their musical empathy and the ten songs here demonstrate a band that has definitely got it together.  For a starter, there’s a nod to Robin and Barry Dransfield with a vibrant reading of “Rout of the Blues”, as well as some further cap doffing towards The Incredible String Band, with a rather magical “Magic Christmas Tree”, otherwise originally known as “Chinese White”, which was released as a seasonal single in the interim.  If Red Diesel offers any surprises at all, it just might be their take on Paul Simon’s Graceland opener “Boy in the Bubble”, which is here devoid of all the jubilant accordion frenzy of Forere Motloheloa, but instead presented as a beautiful ballad, superbly sung by Lucy Wright.  Actually, all four band members are on spiffing form throughout this album, which comes quite apparent in some of the traditional material covered, which includes “The Light Dragoon” and “Howden Town”.  For those who have experienced the side-splitting poetical capers of Les Barker, Pilgrims’ Way approach barker’s more tender side with a gorgeous performance of “Maybe Then I’ll Be a Rose”, which just might be the song you return to again and again.

Saint Sister | Madrid | EP Review | Trout Records | 19.04.16

The video promo for Blood Moon, directed and produced by Myrid Carten and Aphra Lee Hill and featuring Meabh Parr and Emma White, serves as a good introduction to the ethereal music of Morgan MacIntyre and Gemma Doherty, otherwise known as Saint Sister.  The evocative video, which shows two young girls engaging in a sort of Heavenly Creatures-like blood bonding escapade on some remote landscape, perfectly fits the almost otherworldly song it accompanies.  Once settled into the so called ‘atmosfolk’ soundscape, the EP closes with the haunting “Versions of Hate”, which could quite easily be the Irish equivalent of The Unthanks at their most evocative.

Bellowhead | Live The Farewell Tour | Album Review | Navigator | 20.04.16

As the bereft Bellowhead brigade settle into the prospect of a world without their beloved eleven-piece band, Navigator releases a suitable souvenir in celebration of the band’s twelve year reign as one of the best live acts on the British folk scene.  Recorded live at various venues during the band’s farewell tour of 2015, the 29 songs represent some of their most memorable material, including “New York Girls”, “Roll the Woodpile Down” and “Roll Alabama”, spread over a two-disc set, each selection a clear demonstration of the band’s indisputable flair for arranging traditional songs and tunes.  It’s no mean feat to successfully bring the band’s vibrant live sound into your living room but in the hands of Andy Bell, that task is pretty much accomplished.  The music’s all there, that’s for sure, all that’s left to imagine is the lights, the sweat and the over-busy mosh pit.  For those who prefer Bellowhead as a visual spectacle, look no further than the third disc in this set, where the band can be seen live at the Leicester De Montford Hall, which is also put together by Andy Bell.  As always, the band is fronted by the ever-awkward Jon Boden, his wide-eyed gaze and jerky movements very much present; a front man who always appears like a deer caught in the headlights, rather than the clichéd over-confident diva that usually swaggers centre stage in other bands.  Surrounded by ten equally important musicians, Boden appears to rejoice in the band’s success as a leading live extravaganza and appears to want to make this one count. Instead of the entire band being featured on the cover of this set, we see a single demon fiddler (Sam Sweeney) in mid-flight, silhouetted in the ethereal glow of the stage lights.  This packaging is befitting a swansong release, with celebratory live shots, a set list taped to a monitor and one or two motionless instruments poised on their respective stands, either ready for action or completely spent after the final encore.  The encore in this case is the welcomed return to Richard Thompson’s “Down Where the Drunkards Roll”, a song the band performed at their very first gig, which is featured here in a cappella form, save for John Spiers’ concertina.  A fitting conclusion not only to this particular concert, but also to a dozen memorable years on the road.  But before we all get teary-eyed, it’s worth remembering some of the other ‘hell freezes over’ acts in our musical heritage, The Beatles, The Eagles, Pink Floyd and heaven forbid let’s not forget Frank Sinatra; the odds are on for a comeback at some stage, so don’t over-stock your hankies just yet.

Greg Russell and Ciaran Algar | The Silent Majority | Album Review | Fellside | 20.04.16

There was a time when a duo would burst onto the scene and shortly afterwards one half of the team would rise to the top, in either popularity or talent, resulting in a subsequent solo career, leaving the other one slightly left behind.  Not so with Greg Russell and Ciaran Algar, who both continue to thrive as equals in both popularity and talent, mischief and wit, good looks and smart suits and the list goes on.  The Ant and Dec of the folk world. It has to be said, each one does their job extremely well; Greg’s convincing and honest voice and Ciaran’s deft musicianship seem to be made for each other.  One tends to look forward to each album release with relish.  Once again Greg and Ciaran’s song choices are spot on here, with the title song treated as a veritable opus, complete with musical prologue, Findlay Napier and Nick Turner’s almost anthemic George, an engaging coming of age tale, featuring an unlikely Glaswegian bruiser who swaps his fists for dancing shoes and notably the duo’s reading of the traditional “Limbo”, a song that suits interpretation, whether in the hands of Tony Rose, Martin Carthy, Eliza Carthy, Ruth Notman or Ant and Dec, erm, I mean Greg and Ciaran.  There’s lots of other good stuff on The Silent Majority, including some fine instrumental fireworks on “Swipe Right”, featuring Ali Levack on pipes, some additional musical support courtesy of Laurence Blackadder on double bass, Tom Wright on percussion and Hannah Martin on vocals, not to mention the continued excellence of Paul Adams and all at Fellside.  A fine album that comes highly recommended.

Gerry McNeice | Lifetime Passing By | Album Review | Wee Dog Records | 21.04.16

The latest release from West Yorkshire-based singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Gerry McNeice has been some time in the making.  The basic tracks were pretty much recorded in just one day back in the Spring of 2012, the session spawning one traditional adaptation and ten original songs, all of which have found themselves hanging around, waiting patiently for their maker and his guest musicians to apply the right combination of spit and polish in the studio to make them presentable for human consumption.  Gerry is a busy man after all, probably better known to musicians from all around the world, those who rely upon his expertise behind the sound desk at concerts, gigs and festivals up and down the country.  Helping Gerry and the band out are a bunch of useful pals, including Charlotte and Laura Carrivick, Katriona Gilmore and Jamie Roberts, Henry Priestman and Tim Yates together with a few others, each of whom contributed something special to the recordings.  As a title, Lifetime Passing By may seem to allude to a desire to enjoy things while we can, and the songs here reflect a tangible feel-good attitude to life.  “Crazy World” could only be written by someone who rejoices in life and the everyday, but with sorrow worn on the sleeve at the stupidity that often surrounds us all.  Gerry, a known Country Music enthusiast, creates an authentic take on the Nashville sound on “Read All About It” with some informed pedal steel courtesy of  David Hartley, while Gerry’s other passion for British Folk Rock is played out with vigour in the opening and closing songs “Hay Harvest Season” and the traditional “Prickle Eye Bush”.  An enjoyable album from someone who clearly enjoys making music.  

M.A.K.U. Soundsystem | Mezcla | Album Review | Glitterbeat Records | 22.04.16

There’s something immediately attention-gabbing in the initial drum motif on Agua, the opening song from this, the eight-piece New York City-based M.A.K.U. Soundsystem’s latest album release.  It might not immediately entice you to get on your feet necessarily, but it’ll certainly grab your attention. Midway through the song, singer Liliana Conde boldly announces the band’s statement of intent, loudly and clearly ‘with so many wars going off around the world trying to separate us, trying to divide us, we want to come together and sing in unison’.  It’s a good start, we immediately get the feeling that we are all in this together and there’s a sense that we don’t want to mess with Liliana.  The band’s traditional mapalé and bullerengue rhythms drive the album along, while blending their Afro-Colombian beats with established American styles, such as jazz and hip-hop.  The chanting delivery of “Thank You Thank You” continues the highly-charged fusion of styles, which is at once infectious, challenging any notion of remaining in our seats a second longer.  The idea of blending musical styles is indicated right there in the album’s Spanish title Mezcla, which translates to ‘Mixture’ of ‘Mix’.  Once the senses are attuned to these rhythms, which doesn’t take long at all, there’s a desire to go along with it and be a part of it, though I imagine the material on this album would be best served live.

Kelly Oliver | Bedlam | Album Review | Folkstock Records | 23.04.16

The image of the young Hertfordshire-based singer-songwriter Kelly Oliver, together with her much publicised name, came to me well before her music did.  With the subsequent drip-feeding of songs through social media and compilations, her voice soon became as familiar as the multitude of positive reviews that seemed to follow the young singer around.  Once the songs broke through the publicity frenzy, I found a distinctive voice with apparent Irish inflections, not surprising once I discovered that her paternal grandmother was in fact Irish and therefore steeped in the Irish culture.  Bedlam is in fact Kelly Oliver’s second album release following her 2014 debut This Land, and features ten self-penned original songs.  With no less than three producers working with the singer on this album, Nigel Stonier, Stu Hanna and Lauren Deakin-Davies, there appears to be a concerted effort to get it right, which indeed seems to have been achieved.  Songs such as the Country-inflected “Same World”, the sprightly Rio and the bold title song “Bedlam”, which showcases Oliver’s credentials as a first-rate storyteller, are each instantly accessible, with Miles To Tralee marking the singer as a bone fide contender on the folkie awards platform.  With contributions from Lukas Drinkwater, Ciaran Algar, Debbie Hanna and Thea Gilmore, the album deserves all the plaudits it has so far received.

Katy Rose Bennett | Songs of the River Rea | Album Review | Self Release | 24.04.16

Listening to a new Katy Rose Bennett record is almost like catching up on a friend’s private journal.  I remember waxing lyrical about Katy’s last album Indelible Ink back in 2009, an album released under her then moniker KTB, an acronym used also for her two previous records.  Now recording and performing under her real name, we find a songwriter who has subsequently taken one or two rites of passage; a marriage, becoming a parent for the first time and maturing further as an artist.  There’s something in Katy’s voice that evokes melancholy yet is never morose nor overly sad.  In fact there’s a sort of joy in the way she writes and how the songs are delivered, whether she sings of a new born child in “Driving Home”, the fact that she still sobs upon hearing of fatalities in TV soaps or landmark movies in “Fried Green Tomatoes” or whether addressing her own relationships in the beautifully tender “Counting Kettles”.  Katy’s stories are always thoroughly convincing and at times they tug at the heartstrings, such as the tender “Jack & Ivy”, where ‘nobody cares for nobody anymore’, a double negative that strangely avoids raised eyebrows.  Katy successfully keeps us fully engaged throughout the eleven songs by utilising several musical styles, such as the bright and breezy South African-influenced guitar sound in “One Day”, reminiscent of “Graceland”, the sparse piano-led “One More Time” and the mariachi-styled trumpet and full band drive of the final song “My Friend”.  After listening to Songs Of The River Rea, I really do feel suitably caught up.

Moulettes | Preternatural | Album Review | Craft Pop Records | 25.04.16

Slightly overdone conceptual album that showcases Moulettes’ experimental pop credentials to the hilt.  The Brighton-based outfit have skirted around the highly orchestrated boundary-pushing tenets of Prog, the music that Punk allegedly stomped upon a few decades ago, both in their live performances and on their three previous albums.  Building on these foundations, the collective has taken the natural world as a theme for Preternatural, a sort of soundtrack for the films of David Attenborough and Jacques Cousteau; I almost expected a Roger Dean sleeve design.  The titles almost speak for themselves, “Pufferfish Love”, “Bird of Paradise” and “Coral”.  Cellist and lead vocalist Hannah Miller notes that “Underwater Painter” is actually a homage to Prince, this revealed before the musician’s untimely recent death.  The song evokes the ‘mysterious deep’ in all its vibrant colours; the lyric ‘limited palette, infinite themes’ could also describe Moulette’s working tools, but with this album, as with all the others, the five musicians make the most of what they’ve got.  It’s difficult to listen to this album in one sitting without feeling you’ve been punched around the ears.  A busy, complex, adventuresome yet not entirely fulfilling album.

Mike Reinstein | The Long March Home | Album Review | Irregular Records | 26.04.16

The theme of war tends to weave its way through the dozen self-penned songs on Mike Reinstein’s latest album The Long March Home.  This singer-songwriter’s own personal family history is revealed in “Gefehlt Mir Mein Heym”, a phrase translated from the yiddish for ‘I Love My Home’, which tells of the flight from persecution that his own grandparents suffered during the Second World War, which was prompted by the recent harrowing events in Europe.  In a similar vein to John Prine’s “Sam Stone”, the song “America Says” investigates the aftermath of war.  Despite its lilting feel, the song specifically focuses on how a veteran might face and deal with the emotional turmoil of his experience, questioning the role of the hero.  Then more graphically, “Warface” tells it pretty much as it is; an angry song told in black and white addressing the complications arising from conflict.  “A Calling”, further investigates the trauma of war, this time post-Bosnia, superbly enhanced by Tim Wade’s haunting trombone that perfectly underpins Reinstein’s empathetic vocal.  These are powerful songs covering powerful themes.  Throughout the dozen songs though, whether they concern the subject of war or while delivering a tender ballad such as “It’s Not Enough”, or a love song “A Watchman for Your Heart”, Mike Reinstein’s voice remains convincing throughout, an honest voice not dissimilar to that of Boo Hewerdine.

Paul Mosley and The Red Meat Orchestra | The Butcher | Album Review | Folkwiit Records | 27.04.16

“Where is my love? where is my love?” questions protagonist Dolores at the beginning of this impressive twenty-strong song cycle, written by Paul Mosely and performed by a gathering of twelve musicians with nine additional voices each playing their part in bringing Mosley’s story to life.  Best described as a folk opera, in much the same vein as Anais Mitchell’s Hadestown, The Butcher centres around a ghost story of sorts, addressing along the way complex issues of light and dark, love and loss, while occupying the vast spaces of ocean and desert during an unspecified time frame.  Cinematic in scale, the album is bold in execution, with one or two strong melodic songs such as the Nick Drake-influenced “The World is Flat” and the delicate “Wolves”, featuring the voice of Josienne Clarke.  Although complicated in its narrative – basically the story of a good man turned bad – The Butcher’s appeal is in the ensemble performance, with some fine playing and singing by its cast. 

Claire Hastings | Between River and Railway | Album Review | Luckenbooth Records | 28.04.16

With this debut album, the winner of the 2015 BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year award, embarks on what could potentially be a fruitful recording career.  The album is made up of a fine blend of traditional material, mature arrangements of contemporary songs and most notably a handful of impressive self-penned originals.  If the cover photography and artwork appears bleak and desolate, in some ways not unlike the iconic cover shot of another Claire from a different time, that of Claire Hamill’s debut in 1972, the songs contained within are otherwise sprightly and full of light.  The opening song “The House at Rosehill”, is an autobiographical homage to the place Claire calls home in Dumfries, a farmhouse that has been home to four-generations.  With the ukulele as Claire’s instrument of choice, the songs rarely come over as jolly sing-along-songs, with the possible exception of “I Missed the Boat”, which appears to have emerged from a challenge to write a song using only thirty words.  The whistled middle section further exemplifies the lightness of touch permeating through this record.  Robert Burns is touched upon with the inclusion of a lesser known work, “The Posie”, which here is treated to an alternative melody from the original, to pleasing effect.  Roddy McMillan’s “Let Romensky Go” allows Claire’s voice to stretch out further with this engaging crime ballad, filled with rich vernacular and dramatic fervour.  Claire recently showcased some of the songs from this album at the Shepley Spring Festival in the UK with accompanist Innes White alongside.  As with the songs on this album, Claire Hastings has the ability to dominate the stage, however large or small, in the case of Shepley both, and immediately grab your attention.

Molly Evans | Molly Evans | EP Review | Self Release | 29.04.16

This eponymous four-song EP comes from a young singer in envious fresh-faced youth, equipped with a voice that’s possibly not quite fully developed but a voice that demonstrates great potential.  Those looking for pitch-perfect vocal pyrotechnics may be slightly disappointed, yet those with a taste for earthy vocal honesty might be equally delighted.  “Lord Randall” begins unaccompanied, then fills out with Jack Rutter’s gentle guitar accompaniment, giving it an almost lilting freshness, while “Pretty Polly” is imbued with a slight sense of the melancholy.  Standing out like a beacon is the final song, “Ballad of the Raven King/Uskglass”, with its dramatic hurdy-gurdy drone and empathetic guitar/fiddle accompaniment.  Molly’s debut recordings succeed in their intention, to showcase a new talent on the block and definitely one to watch.  

Rebecca Pronsky | Known Objects | Album Review | Acme Hall Studios | 29.05.15

Brooklyn’s Rebecca Pronsky, along with producer, guitarist and touring partner Rich Bennett, originally planned for Known Objects to be a fairly stripped-down affair with just guitars and voice.  The songs could easily have stood up for themselves as pared-down arrangements, but the temptation to invite along a few friends eventually got the better of the duo.  The ten songs included here, nine originals and one cover, The Blue Nile’s “Heatwave”, each showcase Pronsky’s rich and determined vibrato with evident ease, although one suspects a great deal of TLC was applied in the studio to each of the songs.  “Bag of Bones” appears to take a closer look at Pronsky’s own self-confidence in its lyrical content, yet performance-wise, the song is bristling with confidence. A.E. takes a fresh look at the story of Amelia Earhart, based upon more recent published revelations, a story that always excites interest.  Once again, Rebecca writes songs that are at once engaging, occasionally personal and set against mature arrangements and in the case of Known Objects, embellished with some fine harmony parts provided by Lucy Wainwright Roche, Greta Gertler, Emily Hurst and Deidre Struck.

Maz O’Connor | The Longing Kind | Album Review | Restless Head | 01.06.15

When Bella Hardy surprised us all with last year’s highly personal With The Dawn album, we were re-introduced to the sort of soul-bearing songs that kept Joni Mitchell and Carole King in the best sellers lists for so long.  Yes, traditional adaptations are all fine and it’s always quite novel to hear what young twenty-first century female singers make of pre-Thomas Hardy countryside ballads and Napoleonic Wars memoirs in song, yet there will always be a need-to-know angle between an artist and their listener and as long as each self-penned soul-searching excursion is done well, there will always be an audience for them.  For The Longing Kind Maz O’Connor has put aside the traditional songs that she has become known for and has instead concentrated on exclusively original material with the thirteen songs featured here.  “Jane Grey”, which puts into song the same sort of emotional response that Paul Delaroche’s painting of the same subject attracted in the mid-nineteenth century.  Beautifully sung with an equally beautiful melody, the song stands out as a perfect example of where Maz O’Connor is these days.  Produced by Jim Moray and released on her own Restless Head label, the album succeeds to impress, especially on such delights as “Greenwood Side”, which admittedly sounds very much traditional (ravens, maids etc.), but also on the more personal songs, “Crook of his Arm”, the tender “Emma” and the title song of course.  With a cover shot suggesting a Barrow-in-Furness girl lost in the modern day London metropolis, The Longing Kind ranks alongside some of the better albums of the year so far.

The Appleseed Collective | Tour Tapes | Album Review | Self Release | 02.06.16

One suspects that with this five-track live EP we are treated to just a brief glimpse of what the Ann Arbor-based quartet are capable of. Since the band’s formation six years ago, the Appleseed Collective has released a couple of albums Baby To Beast (2012) and Young Love (2014) yet we feel the band’s strength is in its live show.  Their credentials are impressive from the start, guitarist Andrew Brown coming from musical stock, his father being a Motown session musician, violinist and mandolin player Brandon Smith, an ‘improvisatory magician’ raised on old time fiddle music, percussionist Vince Russo steeped in funk, jazz and good ol’ rock n’ roll and finally classically-trained bassist Eric Dawe, no stranger to choral singing and Indian classical music.  Together, the quartet have an ability to harmonise vocally, while combining their eclectic influences.  Recorded on their home turf at Live at the Ark in the winter of 2014, the atmosphere occasionally comes close to Nighthawks-period Kerouac-esque Tom Waits, especially on “Vicious”, with its spoken intro that could just as well have been “Eggs and Sausage” or “Emotional Weather Report”, but without Waits’ inimitable humour.  There’s a tendency to believe that the Appleseed Collective are at pains to utilise all the correct Bluegrass elements but at the same time attempt to sound nothing like a bluegrass band, which they do extremely well. 

Afro-Haitian Experimental Orchestra | Afro-Haitian Experimental Orchestra | Album Review | Glitterbeat Records | 02.06.16

There seems to have been something of a chaotic build up to this collaboration between West African artists such as Afro-Beat pioneer Tony Allen and various Caribbean musicians.  The project was initiated by Corinne Micaelli, director of the French Institute in Haiti, who invited Allen to the island to stage a special performance in collaboration with choice Haitian musicians.  Erol Josué, a noted singer, dancer, voodoo priest and director of the Haitian National Bureau of Ethnology, was drafted in to help out with the recruitment of musicians and soon local percussionists and singers were on board for the project.  It took just five days to compose and rehearse the music that was intended to be performed in the main square of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince and which was intended to be broadcast live throughout the country, with a recording planned for possible subsequent release.  Unfortunately fate intervened and after an incident at the concert, the recording failed to materialise and the musicians, some of whom had to leave the island the next day, faced the prospect of the event becoming but a memory.  Fate intervened once again though, as Mark Mulholland discovered that the multi-track rehearsal tapes were worthy of releasing once vocal tracks were added, courtesy of Erol Josué, Sanba Zao amongst others. Infectious from the start, the ‘voudou’ rhythms and chants, offered the listener a rare peek into the musical unification of two cultures separated by an ocean, notably on such songs as the eerily psychedelic “Chay La Lou”.  Opening with the effect-laded electronica of “Salilento”, the orchestra embarked on a mission to be as experimental as their name suggests, with some very pleasing results.  Sometimes it really is worth recording rehearsals, just in case.

Rydvall/Mjelva | Vårdroppar | Album Review | Helia/Grappa | 03.06.16

Known in their native Sweden and Norway respectively, Nyckelharpa player Erik Rydvall and Hardanger fiddler Olav Luksengard Mjelva Roros make a startling sound on their instruments, which at times has the feel of Classical music, albeit with a distinctive archaic folk sensibility.  The fifteen tunes here showcase the duo’s empathetic musicianship, whether playing original compositions or arrangements of older traditional tunes.  Without having seen these two musicians in action, there’s a sense in the music itself that Rydvall and Mjelva play close up and personal, something that may be hinted at in the cover design, which shows their respective instruments lying next to one another, each clearly exhibiting their individual and highly decorative traditional motifs.  Recorded in Eel Church in Hallingdal, each selection has the knack of conjuring up pictures in one’s mind of Scandinavian rivers, mountains and lakes, a world away from the hustle-bustle of city life.  I think this might be called escapism.

Space Echo | The Mystery Behind the Cosmic Sound of Cabo Verde Finally Revealed | Album Review | Analog Africa | 03.06.16

When a cargo ship containing various modern electronic musical instruments manufactured by the likes of Rhodes, Moog, Farfisa, Hammond and Korg, basically a Viv Stanshall role-call, inexplicably turned up in a field near the village of Cachaco on the island of Cape Verde, the villagers were quick to come up with some of the most outlandish explanations of how the ship actually came to be there, with cosmic connections being a popular theory.  Those who were on the scene in 1968 were perhaps unaware of the significance that the event would have on the music of the island for years to come.  The hundreds of boxes found on the vessel were distributed around schools under the orders of the anti-colonial leader Amilcar Cabral and into the hands of imaginative children, who already had rhythm in their bones, the instruments went.  Paulino Vieira was one of the children who by the end of the 1970s would become a leading force in music arrangement, and in turn the architect of what is now known as the Cosmic Sound of Cabo Verde.  The fifteen tracks included on this compilation, predominantly from the 1980s, showcase the vibrant urgency of the dancefloor grooves of the time, providing a shot in the arm to the then popular Mornas and Coladeras styles as well as the then outlawed (for being too wild) Funaná, originally based around the accordion.  Whatever the myths and folk legends are that surround the emergence of electro-synth dance music on the island, the fact remains that it has an uncanny way of getting you on your feet.

Brooks Williams | My Turn Now | Album Review | Self Release | 04.06.16

Armed with his now familiar National Estralita resonator guitar, the Stateboro-born blues singer/guitarist returns with a selection of self-penned originals as well as one or two familiar traditional covers from the popular blues songbook “Hesitation Blues”, “Sitting on Top of the World” together with a couple of well-chosen covers, Kris Kristofferson’s Country infused “Nobody Wins” and Mose Allison’s Your Mind” is on Vacation, the latter treated to some foot-stomping R&B in the original sense of the term.  Recorded in both Cambridge (UK), where Williams now lives, and Connecticut (USA), the eleven selections demonstrate once again Williams’ clear understanding of his own chosen musical genre.  Sally Barker’s contribution fits perfectly on such songs as the Latin-influenced “Jokers Wild”, the funky Little Feat-styled “Nine Days Wonder” and the curious “Year Began”, a song that re-tells the story of stuntman Evil Knievel’s fateful jump over the fountains of Caesar’s Palace in 1967, not to mention her fine duet with Williams on “Nobody Wins”.  Where Brooks Williams succeeds best though is with his small combo/fat sound numbers such as the title song “My Turn Now”, featuring the fine rhythm section of Chris Pepper, who also co-produces, on drums and Richard Gates on bass.

Bonfire Radicals | The Albino Peacock | Album Review | Self Release | 04.06.16

With some highly inventive excursions into Folk and World Music, the six-piece Birmingham-based collective create a powerhouse blend of styles from around the world.  Reminiscent of Moulettes, the band is fronted by three female instrumentalists Katie Stevens on clarinet, Michelle Holloway on recorders and Sarah Farmer on violin, with the rhythm expertly handled by the male contingent, Andy Bole on guitar and bouzouki, Trevor Lines on bass and Liam Halloran on drums.  Recorded over the winter of 2015/16 The Albino Peacock’s nine tracks weave intricate woodwind runs, duets and solo breaks through highly original and creative arrangements.  The seven original compositions sit well alongside the traditional re-workings of such songs as the atmospheric I Wish.  In places crossing the boundaries of Classical and Jazz, the variations of other styles is almost incalculable, with informed nods towards World Beat, the progressive Canterbury Sound, early Medieval music and an Eastern European influence, such as Klezmer.  Like Coco Lovers, Bonfire Radicals embrace a diverse range influences from around the world but maintain a distinctly English feel throughout. 

RANT | Reverie | Album Review | Make Believe Records | 05.06.16

Joining forces once again for this their second album, RANT’s Bethany Reid, Jenna Reid, Sarah-Jane Summers and Lauren MacColl combine their individual fiddle styles over thirteen songs and tunes in a celebration of musical dexterity and collaborative empathy.  Nominated quite rightly for the BBC Folk Awards in 2014, the quartet have continued to work together, playing both major festivals and high profile concerts, while continuing to work on their own individual projects and various collaborations.  Despite having little difficulty sitting through an entire classical symphony or a box set of Miles Davis instrumentals, purely instrumental folk albums rarely hold my attention, therefore the strategically placed guest vocal appearances here are a welcome addition to the set.  Adding their highly individual and inimitable voices are Julie Fowlis on the sprightly Gaelic song Thug thu chonnlach as an t-sabhal “You Took the Straw from the Barn”, and Ewan McLennan on the delicate “Mary’s Dream”.  Reverie features some highly confident playing from four remarkable musicians whose own compositions sit alongside traditional and contemporary tunes on equal terms.

Rachel Newton | Here’s My Heart Come Take It | Album Review | Shadowside Records | 05.06.16

Juggling a busy schedule working as one sixth of The Shee, one quarter of the Furrow Collective and one third of the Emily Portman Trio, Rachel Newton once again affords herself time out to record and release another solo record, which once again proves beyond any doubt that the singer and musician is indeed a solo force to be reckoned with.  Her third album to date, the follow up to last year’s impressive Changeling, Here’s My Heart Come Take It, explores the tensions and textures of her own specific sound with an additional emphasis on experimentation.  Co-produced by Rachel with Mattie Foulds, who also provides his distinctive percussive skills, the album sees Rachel expand upon her reputation as a highly skilled harpist, while developing further her sparse piano and keyboard work on such songs as “Chadh Mo Dhonnchadh Dhan Bheinn” and “Proud Maisrie”.  Singing in both English and Gaelic, the songs are often brooding, slightly melancholic but never maudlin.  With some symbiotic and evocative photography courtesy of Somhairle MacDonald, this album stands as a haunting statement of restraint, where the spaces in between often provide the most engaging moments.

Oliver Swain’s Big Machine | Never More Together | Album Review | Self Release | 05.06.16

Cutting his musical teeth with such bands as Outlaw Social, The Duhks and The Bills, the Victoria BC-based bassist and banjo player creates his own individual musical soundscape with eight new original songs on this follow up to his 2011 solo debut In A Big Machine.  Taking that title along with most of the musicians who appeared on the debut, Swain and Co expand further upon this musical adventure, exploring their acoustic roots with a keen eye on the detail.  At times whimsical, such as the surprising Maggie, Molly and Raul, which could be an outtake from the White Album, the songs weave an adventurous path, all of which keeps the listener attentive.  If “No Strange Thing”, the only co-write on the album (with Ridley Bent) and featuring a vocal duet with Emily Braden, shows a soulful side of Swain’s character, then “Take Me Up”, the album’s closer, alludes more to an ambient Classical yearning.  If the music on Never More Together should require a visual aid, then the fold-out poster illustrating the complex workings of the mind might just do the trick.

Doug Eunson and Sarah Matthews | Song and Laughter | Album Review | Coth Records | 06.06.16

If all the incarnations of Cupola (Cupola, Cupola:Ward and DanceCupola) more than adequately showcase the musical chops of Doug Eunson and Sarah Matthews, then Song And Laughter aims to get back to brass tacks, once again highlighting the duo’s credentials as singers of folk songs and tellers of stories.  The dozen songs and tunes here are collected from several sources, from John Tams’ lilting “Lily Gilders” to “The Dutch in the Medway”, which once again shows that through his poems, Kipling continues to make exceedingly good songs.  Then there’s Leon Rosselson’s homage to Aesop with the fable of “The Ant and the Grasshopper”, which continues to delight.  There’s an hour of engaging songs on this latest release by the Derbyshire-based duo, including one or two original compositions by Sarah Matthews, including the uplifting instrumental “Songbirds in June” and “High Flyers”, written as the sleeve notes indicate, in praise of Rolls Royce in Derby, whose 100 years of aero engineering excellence has indeed taken us high.

The Bramble Napskins | Kettle is King | EP Review | Paper Plane | 23.06.16

There was an excitable din coming from the Wold Top marquee at this year’s Beverley Folk Festival as The Bramble Napskins brought the Sunday afternoon Moonbeams concert to a close.  The seven-piece York-based band led by Evie Rapson, whose voice seems almost too powerful for the rest of the musicians, created just the sort of energy that would have new fans queuing up after their show, eager to take a bit of them home with them, while club organisers hung around to see if they could book them for their respective venues.  Kettle Is King is the band’s debut EP, which features five songs that effectively showcase the band’s World-influenced sound.  The copy reviewed here was the very last one on site, the others all having been immediately snapped up.  There’s an able-bodied rhythm section of drums, bass and guitar, with the all-important accordion, flute and tenor sax combination taking us on a musical adventure. But it’s Evie’s extraordinarily strong voice that makes the band what it is, a voice that can pivot effortlessly between the soulfully sweet title song “Kettle is King” and hard folk stomping “Dance” with seemingly little sweat.  If there was any doubting the quality of Evie’s voice in the first four songs, then look no further than the gorgeous plaintive finale “Little Boy Traveller”, which signals the arrival of a new voice to take notice of.  Co-produced by Paper Plane label mate Dan Webster, the five songs included here make up much more than a stop gap while we await their planned debut album, which should be available soon.

The Danberrys | Give and Receive | Album Review | Self Release | 27.06.16

The new offering by The Danberrys is one of those Americana albums that brings instant gratification; great songs, great arrangements, great musicianship, great performances. The ten songs are immediately accessible and cover a deep well of influence from the worlds of rock and blues to bluegrass and country.  The East Nashville-based duo at the core of the band are Ben Deberry and Dorothy Daniel, whose relationship goes back to high school where the two met as teenagers.  Now married for ten years, the duo’s musical bond is just as close, evident in every note on this album.  Drawing from Dorothy’s grounding in soul and blues together with Ben’s love of bluegrass, rock and country, the magical sparks that began to fly on the duo’s previous releases, the Company Store EP (2011), their self-titled debut full-length release in 2013 and now on Give And Receive, are in no hurry to burn out or fade.  Produced by Ethan Ballinger, the album’s notable songs include the bluesy, gospel-tinged “Don’t Drink the Water”, which sees the duo emote deliciously throughout, Dorothy’s assured performance on her own “Lady Belle” and the all-out bluegrass romp of “Long Song”, complete with possibly the longest count-off in the history of bluegrass.

The Changing Room | Picking Up the Pieces | Album Review | TCR Music | 01.07.16

The Changing Room, Sam Kelly and Tanya Brittain’s Looe-based folk collective, continue to create a fine blend of easy-on-the-ear folk music of a Cornish flavour with the release of this their second full-length album. There’s a healthy stylistic mix of contemporary modern folk song with the occasional hint at something slightly older – I can’t help thinking Bal Maiden’s “Waltz” wouldn’t be lost on a Fivepenny Piece LP from the early 1970s – the eleven songs, however simplistic in places, measure up to anything that’s currently being explored in British folk music today.  The Cornish songs Gwrello Glaw “Let It Rain” and “Delyow Sevi” are convincing, despite being delivered by a couple of singers from Norfolk and Yorkshire respectively.  Where the album works best though is in the steady build of Caradon Hill and the driving rhythm of “The Cinder Track”, both songs exemplifying Kelly and Brittain’s credentials as choice collaborators, both as writers and performers.  With the collective already featuring such fine musicians as banjo player Jamie Francis and percussionist Evan Carson, both of whom complete the Sam Kelly Trio, together with harpist Morrigan Palmer Brown, The Changing Room’s latest release also features notable contributions from John McCusker, Belinda O’Hooley and Kevin McGuire, each of whom add their own distinctive touches.

Tuulikki Bartosik | Storied Sounds | Album Review | RootBeat Records | 03.07.16

This delightfully evocative instrumental album has been described as s love letter to the Estonian landscapes of Tuulikki Bartosik’s childhood, yet the tunes included here could also easily fit into the role of accompanying a Thomas Hardy film adaptation.  There’s little doubting Bartosik’s credentials as a highly imaginative and expressive accordion player, yet in the case of Storied Sounds, it’s the inventiveness of the musical arrangements, together with the use of atmospheric field recordings that brings these thirteen pieces of music alive; a meeting of music and nature so beautifully captured and encapsulated in just under an hour.  These compositions were actually imagined and written over a long period of time yet they seem to effortlessly dovetail together as a whole as if they were written, arranged and recorded in the same week.  Joining Tuulikki Bartosik on this particular venture are Timo Alakotila on piano, Villu Talsi on mandolin and Dylan Fowler on guitar, all of whom contribute something extra special to these recordings.

Kaela Rowan | The Fruited Thorn | Album Review | Shoogie Records | 04.07.16

Kaela Rowan is a hidden treasure, a singer whose second album is packed with little surprises, not least the two collaborative songs with Rajasthani singer Dayam Khan Manganiyar, Eilean Fhianain and Griogal Chridhe. Based solidly within the realms of Kaela Rowan’s own Scottish Highlands roots, the traditional ballads included here, sung in both English and Gaelic, come alive before us through imaginative arrangements, courtesy of chief collaborators James Mackintosh and Ewan MacPherson.  If these songs were learned as a young session singer, then it’s not difficult to relate to some of the sources; maybe Dick Gaughan for “Now Westlin Winds”, possibly Andy Irvine for “As I Roved Out”, conceivably Paul Brady for “Mary and the Gallant Soldier” and as for “Lord Gregory”, name your own source.  If Mackintosh’s delicious percussion drives the album along, then it’s with some of the contributions courtesy of John McCusker, Patsy Reid, Griogair Labhruidh and Jarlath Henderson and others that embellish the songs further.  It has to be said though, that it’s with the voice of Kaela Rowan that much of our attention is paid, and rightly so.

Bitori | Legend of Funaná | Album Review | Analog Africa | 05.07.16

The history of popular music has taught us that one sure fire way to ensure the success of a record is to ban it.  This has happened on countless occasions over the last few decades, especially in the case of those records containing daring lyrics of a sexual or political nature.  Imagine then an entire musical genre being banned.  As a forbidden music, Funaná appears quite harmless in comparison to, let’s say, Frankie’s Relax, but to the Portuguese rulers of the pre-independence Cape Verde Islands, the distinctive gaita diatonic accordion music later popularised by Victor Tavares, otherwise known as Bitori, was at the very least frowned upon as peasant music and at worst perceived as a threat to colonial rule and therefore being caught playing it had serious consequences.  Originally released in 1998, over twenty years after Cape Verdean independence, Bitori Nha Bibinha, the album’s original title, made a major splash with Cape Verdeans and was considered the best Funaná album ever to have been produced.  With the rhythm section of Grace Evora on drums and Danilo Tavares on bass, together with the voice of Chando Graciosa, the now re-issued and re-titled Bitori – Legend Of Funaná – The Forbidden Music Of The Cape Verdi Islands, finds a much more accepted reception as a vibrant and colourful dance music, free from its troubled past and a music to enjoy and celebrate.

Nancy Kerr | Instar | Album Review | Little Dish Records | 06.07.16

There are one or two things we can always rely on when it comes to Nancy Kerr.  First there’s the confident and assured voice which never seems to falter, a ‘folk’ voice whose owner takes care to ensure there’s never a wasted syllable or note. We can also rely on Nancy Kerr to be surrounded by choice musicians as she is in the case of her new release Instar.  Then there’s the honesty of her lyrics and indeed her lyricism, songs of which we have come to expect nothing short of quality.  So, there are one or two expectations before the needle even hits the groove (or whatever the terminology is for compact discs).  What I didn’t expect from Instar was to be listening to the album almost constantly throughout the month of July, a month that culminated in the singer and her band of sweet visitors, launching the album with a performance on the main stage at the Cambridge Folk Festival.  With Rowan Rheingans (a musician who popped up all over the place during the festival, not only with this band but also with Lady Maisery and the Songs of Separation project), husband and long-time musical collaborator James Fagan on guitar and bouzouki, Tim Yates on double bass (replaced by Rick Foot at the launch), Tom Wright on a variety of instruments not least drums and who also produces, Greg Russell on electric guitar and CJ Hillman guesting on pedal-steel, the Sweet Visitor Band creates a panoramic soundscape for these songs to rest.  Rowan Rheingans’ bansitar (a banjo that sounds like a sitar), provides some of the album’s most evocative sounds, notably on the songs “Kingdom” and “Seven Notes Adieu My Love”.   Throughout the album, made up of thirteen self-penned songs, covering such subjects as gender identity, human rights, women’s freedom, austerity, tolerence and a whole host of other topics, we sense that the musicians involved instinctively suspected that they were making something rather special. I think their suspicions were correct.

Alice Jones | Poor Strange Girl | Album Review | Slid Records | 07.07.16

There appears to have been quite a lot of ground covered before the arrival of this debut solo album by singer, multi-instrumentalist and dancer Alice Jones.  The Ripponden-based artist has managed to substantially soak up the folk traditions of both Britain and America, having been raised in a folk music household and has subsequently managed to blend them all together in a rich melting pot of traditional song and dance tunes.  In places reminiscent of Rachel and Becky Unthank’s early recordings, especially on such songs as “The Cruel Mother”, “Woody Knows Nothing” and the beautiful “Her Bright Smile Haunts Me Still”, Alice maintains her own distinctive Yorkshire vernacular throughout, which gives the songs their powerful earthiness. At times the album feels like two very different albums in one, with the delicate songs providing one half while the whistle-led instrumentals provide us with the other.  With the ever reliable Tom Kitching on fiddle and Hugh Bradley on double bass, Alice takes command of the rest, all of which reveals a fine debut and potentially gives us a new voice to watch out for in the future. 

Khmer Rouge Survivors | They Will Kill You, If You Cry | Album Review | Glitterbeat Records | 09.07.16

Anyone who recalls the dreadful Killing Fields of Cambodia, whether in news bulletins between 1975 and 1979, or via the brilliant Oscar-winning Roland Joffe directed film of the same name, or indeed anyone who quivers uncontrollably in their seats each time they see a red gingham table cloth, the word fear might automatically spring to mind.  We may recall the brutality of the short-lived Khmer Rouge regime, the insanity of Pol Pot’s vision of a religion, money and education-free Cambodia, but what of the survivors?  More to the point, what of the music created by these survivors.  For the third instalment of the powerful Hidden Musics series, producer Ian Brennan continues to pursue the traditional music of South East Asia with a collection of songs under the chilling title ‘They will kill you, if you cry.’  The pained vocal performances included on these fourteen songs are matched measure for measure by the scarred faces of the musicians, revealed in the moving photographs included in the sleeve artwork. It’s difficult to listen to these songs without imagining some of the pain that these musicians endured.  However many female blues singers we may have heard, from Bessie Smith to Janis Joplin, Memphis Minnie to Nina Simone, the pained Smot vocal style of Keut Ran could not be mistaken for anything other than profound sorrow.  Despite the album’s darker tones, there are one or two moments of light, Thorn Seyma’s “Bong Euy Sdaap Pkor” for instance, which comes across as a lilting campfire song.

Sera | Little Girl | Album Review | Folkal Records | 14.07.16

After casually inspecting the sleeve and accompanying lyric booklet of the latest release by singer-songwriter Sera, I was unnecessarily worried, not by the image of the blurred figure in the quivvering Blair Witch Project woods, but by the cowboy boots, shown in more detail on the back cover.  By default I feared the prospect of yet another British singer obsessed with the latest season in the Nashville boxset, but thankfully, after hearing the songs, I was pleasantly surprised. I was first of all surprised by the standard of those songs and in turn impressed by Sera’s confident and assured voice, then furthermore grateful that the cowboy boots were likely worn for comfort rather than as a Tinseltown fashion statement.  Sera’s North Wales background can be detected in such songs as “When Will I Be Home”, which hints at the singer’s Caernarfon roots.  Those roots are further emphasised on “Mond Am Eiluiad”, sung in her native tongue and a million miles from her Tennessee pretentions.  Highly melodic in places, Sera’s songs work best when adopting almost Beatle-esque middle-eights, such as on the immediately accessible “Carry Me”, one of the strongest songs on the album.  Sera has released several albums and EPs so far in her career, sung in both Welsh and English and despite Little Girl’s overall Americana feel, there is an indigenous spirit here that cannot be mistaken.  Assisted in no small part by multi-instrumentalist/producer Eddie Al-Shakarchi, the dozen songs and additional bonus track clearly indicate an artist’s coming of age.

Hannah James | Jigdoll | Album Review | RootBeat Records | 24.07.16

If the perceived adolescent voice of Kate Rusby reflects the back lanes of suburban Barnsley, then the hums, yodels and vocal doodles on Hannah James’ debut solo album conjures the dark dark woods of an M Night Shyamalan film, or wicker figures perched upon cliff tops with the beetle in the desk that goes round and round.  Based on a stage show of the same name, Hannah explores her own musical past in words, music and dance, all three of which are inextricably linked and each of which she is neither stranger not novice.  There’s an ethereal undercurrent permeating these lullabies, jigs, marches and broadsides, each delicately written, borrowed or deconstructed and reconstructed to suit Hannah’s sensibilities.  Yet it’s all shaped in an adventurous journey celebrating movement through sound, even the dance steps, essentially a visual feast, can be enjoyed as a sonic experience.  For the visuals, we leave it in the more than capable hands of Elly Lucas, whose photography shows us the Hannah James we all know and love and with not a single drop of splashed paint in sight.  The photograph on the back of the accompanying booklet shows Hannah clog dancing barefoot, which is audible on “Barefoot Waltz”, a whispered dance if you will, one of the treats that makes this a beautiful little album.   

The Lowest Pair | Uncertainty As It Is Uneven/Fern Girl and Ice Man | Album Review | Team Love Records | 25.07.16

One of the most distinctive vocal collaborations in recent years came courtesy of Anaïs Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer on their Child Ballads album and tour.  There’s something similar going on here with the latest couple of releases by Kendle Winter and Palmer T Lee, otherwise known as the Lowest Pair, so similar in fact that at times you feel the two duos are one and the same.  On this occasion the Olympia, Washington-based duo have released two albums simultaneously, almost as a double album but separated as fine companion pieces.  The banjo-wielding duo traverse the moody backwoods of America with a bunch of memorable and atmospheric earthy songs, at times with a nod towards such contemporaries as Ryan Adams for instance on “Strangers”.  If the songs on Uncertain As It Is Uneven have a tendency to be light and breezy, those on the second disc Fern Girl And Ice Man demonstrate a more pensive, thoughtful mood with such songs as the sombre “Tagged Ear” and the curious “Totes”, each delivered with something of a beguiling air.  If the mood is at times imbued with a quiet melancholy nature, then there are moments when the duo demonstrate an urgency to deliver, on such songs as “Sweet Breath” and “Mason’s Trowel”, both of which highlight the duo’s chops as first rate pickers.   

Richie and Rosie | Tractor Beam | Album Review | Self Release | 26.07.16

If there’s a slight difference between Richie Stearns and Rosie Newton’s album shot and that of the accompanying press release for the duo’s debut album Tractor Beam, then the fact that the album is now three years old might explain one or two things.  The album was recorded in Trumansburg, NY and released in 2013 but is now being re-issued in the UK ahead of the duo’s much anticipated visit to these shores next year.  With just a fiddle and a banjo, together with two voices, the dozen songs range from self-penned material such as “Ribbons and Bows”, “Take It or Leave” and the title song “Tractor Beam”, a handful of traditional songs including “Say Darling Say” and “Trouble in Mind”, plus one or two instrumental delights such as “Shirt Tail Boogie” and “Lost Goose”.  The duo also manage to squeeze in one of Townes Van Zandt’s best loved love songs, “If I Needed You”, bringing a taste of their own brand of old Americana to new ears.  As a bonus, a live recording of the traditional “Ruben’s Train” and “Hangman’s Reel” are included featuring Willie Watson on guitar, showcasing the duo’s credentials as seasoned performers.

The Stray Birds | Magic Fire | Album Review | YepROC Records | 28.07.16

One of the memorable moments of the 2015 Cambridge Folk Festival was when all three members of Lancaster County trio, the Stray Birds huddled around one single microphone on the main stage; to the right, Charlie Muench leaning against his upright bass, in the centre, guitar picker and occasional fiddle player Oliver Craven, face almost completely obscured by the circular frame of the diaphragm condenser microphone and finally to the left, singer and fiddle player Maya De Vitry, whose determined voice is of the sort you imagine would come out of the mouth of Gillian Welch’s wayward kid sister.  The songs on Magic Fire, the band’s third album to date, are bookended by two outstanding tracks in “Shining in the Distance”, which opens the album, raising the bar from the start, along with the powerful closer “When I Die”, complete with its tour de force three-part harmony intro. In between there are surprises for those familiar with the Stray Birds’ back catalogue.  At times on Magic Fire, the trio reflect mainstream Country of the stadium variety, such as “Third Day in a Row”, a Nashville jukebox cut if ever there was one, albeit with a definite sense that the music is very much at the forefront, leaving behind the spotless white suits and matching Stetsons, along with the meticulously trimmed goatees and substantial bouffant wigs.  The Stray Birds are about the soulful heart of Americana and Saturday night dancing, they’re about “Mississippi Pearl”s and Sabrina pulling grapes from the vine.  They’re the Stray Birds and they’re here. With excellent production courtesy of Larry Campbell, whose work with Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and Levon Helm doesn’t go unnoticed, Magic Fire is probably one of the finest albums of the year.

Broom Bezzums | No Smaller Than The World | Album Review | Steeplejack Music | 29.07.16

A rather accomplished fifth album by Germany-based British folk duo Andrew Cadie and Mark Bloomer, otherwise known as Broom Bezzums.  Though I say duo, there’s a major contribution here by Newcastle-based singer-songwriter Katie Doherty, credited as a member of the band on the inner sleeve but confusingly remaining out of the spotlight on the cover, tucked away on the reverse instead; kinda reminds me of another notable duo.  Flicking through the accompanying booklet, we see all three musicians in the centre spread visually echoing what we hear on such songs as Jez Lowe’s “Bare Knuckle”.  Along with the original compositions, such as Bloomer’s “Cold Wind Blow” and Cadie’s “Fishing in Troubled Waters”, the duo appear to be equally at home with traditional material such as a convincing arrangement of “High Germany”.  Doherty, with the world in her hands on the back cover, contributes one of her own songs, the optimistic “Passing Through”, complete with vocal echoes of Nancy Kerr.  Billy Bragg’s memorable re-working of an old Woody ‘Gaffrey’ lyric in “Way Over Yonder in a Minor Key”, receives more impressive treatment during the closing five minutes of this well worth a listen hour of music and song. 

Ben Bedford | The Pilot and the Flying Machine | Album Review | Waterbug Records | 30.07.16

The fourth album release by Springfield, Illinois-based singer-songwriter Ben Bedford, takes us on a journey of sorts. Its title song, which comes in two parts, is echoed in the Icarus-like cover illustration by local Springfield artist Michael A Dunbar, whose sculptures have inspired the songs.  The notion of flight runs through the songs, from the twin title songs to the evocative “The Voyage of John and Emma”, recounting the journey that his own ancestors took when they left England for the Promised Land a few generations ago.  “High and Low”, alludes to the vast open skies above, while Orrery, a skittering dialog between guitar, fiddle and viola, conjures up the essence of flight in its lush arrangement.  The songs are in fact treated to rich string orchestrations throughout, with an emphasis on Bedford’s crisp guitar playing.  One to savour. 

Kieran Towers and Charlotte Carrivick | Wolves a’ Howlin’ | Album Review | Self Release | 01.08.16

Charlotte Carrivick changes musical partners for this cheerful instrumental collaborative album with fiddle player Kieran Towers, which features fourteen tunes either self-composed or borrowed from others.  Having cut her musical teeth with sister Laura in the popular Carrivick Sisters and more recently enjoying some success as a member of Cardboard Fox, again with sister Laura, the multi-instrumentalist weaves in and out between Kieran’s assured fiddle playing, while alternating between banjo, mandolin and guitar.  Almost entirely instrumental, the tunes really do speak for themselves throughout, from the frantic Foghorn Stringband romp of “Best Timber”, to the foot-tapping closing title song, the only trace of a vocal endeavour on the album, albeit via whoopin’ and a-hollerin’ with the two musicians doing their best impressions of howling wolves.  An album best served by the campfire, with something boiling and bubbling along in the pot.

Seth Lakeman | Ballads of the Broken Few | Album Review | Cooking Vinyl | 07.08.16

It’s hard to believe that Seth Lakeman is around to his eighth studio album now; it seems like only five minutes since the release of his Mercury-nominated debut Kitty Jay, which hit our ears with convincing force back in 2004.  A dozen years have indeed passed, enough time for Seth to develop and grow into one of the most prominent and popular figures on the British folk scene and with this latest collection of songs, we see evidence of a musician in control of that reputation.  Once again recording in a unique location, this time the Great Hall of a Jacobean Manor House, the Devon-based singer, songwriter and musician delivers songs that on this occasion feature lush vocal harmonies courtesy of siblings Emillie and Beth Key along with their cousin Meghann Loney, otherwise collectively known as Wildwood Kin.  Predominantly self-penned originals, the album features some of Seth’s most soulful songs to date, along with an unexpected take on Laurelyn Dossett’s doleful “Anna Lee”, memorably recorded for Levon Helm’s celebrated Dirt Farmer album.  There’s one or two typical trademark Lakeman stompers present, such as “Innocent Child”, which might otherwise have been subliminally absorbed had it not been for the Wildwoods’ stunning contribution, “Elsewhere”, Seth continues to explore traditional ballads collected from Cecil Sharp’s archive over in Camden, a good stride from Devon, but well worth the effort.

Noura Mint Seymali | Arbina | Album Review | Glitterbeat Records | 16.09.16

A couple of years ago, Noura Mint Seymali’s first international release Tzenni came along, a good ten years after the singer’s initial fusion experiments with husband Jeiche Ould Chighaly, whose distinctive electric guitar lines that imitate the traditional tidinit (Moorish lute), perfectly complemented Seymali’s vocal flights both then and now.  Prompted by the trance-like groove of “Eguetmar”, the opening track from that 2014 album, which first came to Northern Sky’s attention via the August/September Songlines covermount CD of that year, a love affair ensued with both the voice and the music of this adventurous Moorish griot singer and musician from Mauritania.  This follow up album is once again filled with strong and vibrant vocal performances, with Seymali accompanying herself on the ardine, the traditional Mauritanian kora-like stringed instrument made specifically for women.  If the opening few bars of the title track sound a little like Ian Dury’s “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll”, then they could not be further from the lyrical intention of Noura Mint Seymali’s devotional music, with Arbina itself being a word for ‘God’.  Yet creating a contemporary feel for these otherwise traditional Mauritian melodies is quite intentional, with Chighaly’s guitar weaving effortlessly between Seymali’s ardine flurries, helped along in no small part by the empathetic rhythm section of Ousmane Touré on bass and Matthew Tinari on drums.

Cera Impala | Tumbleweed | Album Review | Self Release | 19.09.16

The last thing likely to cross your path as you listen to Cera Impala’s new record is tumbleweed.  With an almost sultry vocal delivery, the dozen or so songs on her latest album release, find the singer in good form, her breathy, soulful and honey-rich voice at the forefront throughout and with not a single guitar in earshot.  Driven along by some tastfully rendered fiddle courtesy of Dirk Ronneburg and pretty grounded double bass runs from Joel Sanderson, Cera’s banjo and uke accompaniment allows just enough space for the one or two guest appearances, notably Mary Macmaster’s electric harp on the brooding “Flicker n’ Shine”.  With songs that are often cinematic, such as the title song “Tumbleweed” and “Ponderosa”, and at times the slightly whimsical “Roll a Joint” and “Magic”, Cera and her band are also fully equipped to delve into Portishead territory with the contemporary feel of the album closer, “Home”.

Hannah Sanders and Ben Savage | Before the Sun | Album Review | Sungrazing Records | 01.10.16

As Hannah Sanders and Ben Savage embark on their first tour together as a duo, rather than Ben just backing up Hannah on guitar and dobro, the first thing you might notice is the closeness of their performances on stage. Standing almost attached at the hip, a single microphone positioned midway between their instruments and their voices, it’s impossible to imagine a more intimate performance outside the realms of Kris and Rita back in the early 1970s.  Some of this is evident in the songs on their debut duo album, an album so delicately capturing each gentle note and vocal nuance, that it’s difficult to imagine listening to one without the other.  With their contrasting voices, Hannah and Ben adapt traditional material with convincing effectiveness, especially on such as “Lady Margaret” and “Come All Ye Fair” and “Tender Maids”, but also on their two original co-writes, The Fall “Hang” and “What’s Tonight My Love?”  Bob Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather” is such a great dialogue ballad that it seems impossible to fail with the quality of those lyrics. Hannah and Ben make it a theatrical event, with each becoming protagonists as the gentle drama unfolds.  David Travis-Smith’s production keeps the instruments crisp and clear, as the two voices organically meander and mingle, dropping in and out of focus where appropriate.  This is a late evening album that should ideally be accompanied by good wine and subdued light.   

Ian Hunter and the Rant Band | Fingers Crossed | Album Review | Proper Records | 03.10.16

In 1970 there were four curly-locked blondes who each gave the rock world a good old kicking; one was called Plant, another was Daltrey, the third was David Bowie and the fourth was Ian Hunter, the only one of the three who we had little clue as to what he actually looked like.  The ever-present Orbison shades obscured the identity of the Mott the Hoople singer, whose confidence was legendary.  ‘There’s only two rock n roll bands in the world, the Rolling Stones and us’ he quipped from the stage of the Doncaster Top Rank back in the day. Bowie rescued the struggling band in 1972 by giving Mott the Hoople their first big hit and Hunter reflects on his old pal in the wake of his passing with “Dandy”, a song that could easily have been the B-side to “All the Young Dudes”.  This is retro-glam at its best. Ian Hunter’s current role in music may be as a sort of cult figure, but he can still write good pop songs and this is a good example. Fingers Crossed finds Hunter in fine voice throughout, a sort of Dylanesque snarl, which comes in useful for the rock anthems, such as the opener “That’s When the Trouble Starts” and the evocative “Ghosts”, a song recalling the legendary figures that haunt Sun Studios in Memphis, while the title song finds Hunter in folk balladry mode, recounting sixteenth century press gang oppression.  There is a distinct sense of history evident here, even though one song carries the title “You Can’t Live in the Past”, with Bow Street Runners recalling London’s crime-fighting history.  Despite the cover shot, there’s little sign of Ian Hunter putting his feet up quite yet. 

Heidi Talbot | Here We Go 1,2,3 | Album Review | Navigator Records | 07.10.16

Delicately produced by husband and musical partner John McCusker, Heidi Talbot’s fifth album release is possibly the Co Kildare-born singer’s most personal album to date.  Having written, or at least played some part in the writing of the bulk of the album, there’s a sense that Heidi may have been in a reflective mood at the time of writing and recording; reflective in terms of recalling absent friends, while at the same time showing gratitude for those still around her.  There’s a sense of family, certainly on “Song for Rose (Will You Remember Me?)”, a song for Heidi’s late mum, which is delivered as a lullaby, the coda of which includes the voice of the subject’s granddaughter.  The theme of motherhood is echoed in Natalie Merchant’s beguiling “Motherland”, which is treated to a faithful reading here.  If the title song is brimming with optimism, then even the potentially saddest songs on this collection appear to be uplifting at the same time; this is testament to Talbot’s optimistic nature.  The optimism may be the result of the many changes in Heidi’s life, having had a second daughter, a new studio built, a new label and having formed a new band for this project.  Guests include Admiral Fallow’s Louis Abbott, Duke Special, Boo Hewerdine and the man very much of the moment, Adam Holmes.

Frank Carline | Promise and Betrayal | Album Review | Resofone | 09.10.16

Doncaster singer-songwriter and local blues legend Frank Carline releases his fifth solo album, which sees the musician in thoughtful and contemplative mood. Promise And Betrayal, is an ultra stripped-down affair; a collection of songs, sketches, moods and reflections, each bound by a common thread.  Bookended by two short pieces with the same title, “The Man on the Corner”, the dozen songs and instrumental pieces, adhere to a theme pertaining to certain aspects of the human condition and in particular what our expectations are when it comes to difficult relationships.  Frank takes a step back to consider the other protagonists in a particular story or circumstance.  On the blues standard for instance “It Hurts Me Too”, Frank ponders how the story would unfold from the stance of the other protagonists in the story, other than the main narrator; these are the thoughts that kept Frank awake during the nine months of sporadic recording which has now resulted in this album.  Some of the ideas derive from reading Joan Le Mesurier’s account of her love triangle with actor/husband John and comedian Tony Hancock, whose catchphrase ‘Stone Me’ is used twice here.  If we look deeper into the lyrics we find something much more thoughtful than your usual down-trodden blues, with Frank searching through his own artistic sensibilities for answers.  In stark contrast to some of the more blues-driven songs on the album, “No Use To Say Goodbye” sees Frank in a much more reflective place, a moment of tender contemplation.  The album has a homemade feel in the sense that it sounds up-close and personal, as if the songs are being delivered just for the one listener.  Produced by John Crisp with Frank playing all the instruments including guitar, slide guitar, harmonica and various percussion, Promise And Betrayal takes us on a contemplative journey through the roots music Frank knows best.

Kate Rusby | Life in a Paper Boat | Album Review | Pure Records | 18.10.16

One of the things that you can almost always guarantee when it comes to a new Kate Rusby album, is that it will be well produced.  There’s none of the ‘recorded live from the floor in ten hours’ rhetoric about Kate’s albums, nor is there any room for the old chestnut ‘it’s close enough for folk’.  Kate’s albums are beautiful creations and this tradition continues with Kate’s thirteenth solo album to date. Reliability is a useful term when describing Kate’s music; rarely, if ever, are we left disappointed after a concert or festival appearance or indeed with the arrival of a new album by the singer.  Kate’s voice is as reliable as her Barnsley accent, as dependable as her curly highlights and as remarkable as the musicians with whom she often surrounds herself.  The old adage ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ seems to be the creed of the Rusby industry.  There may be one or two adventurous musical passages here and there, courtesy of producer/husband Damien O’Kane, who has taken time to explore more ethereal textures in some of the arrangements, but Kate continues to do what she does best, that is, deliver both self-penned songs and traditional adaptations with equal command, from her own tender “Hunter Moon” and the poignant title song, “Life in a Paper Boat”, based on thoughts of forced migration, to the tension-filled arrangement of “Benjamin Bowmaneer”, the sprightly reading of “The Ardent Shepherdess” and the sublime closer “Night Lament”.  The album bristles with sonic and lyrical delight and features one or two special guest appearances, notably on “Only Desire What You Have”, which finds Union Station stalwarts Ron Block on fine form on banjo and Dan Tyminski swapping the vocals he usually shares with Alison Krauss with little noticeable difference.  If that wasn’t enough, there’s also Michael McGoldrick conducting his usual magic on whistles.  Recently, and perhaps most notably at the Underneath the Stars festival and the Cambridge Folk Festival, Kate and her band concluded the shows by dressing as super heros, complete with blue capes and masks, performing “Big Brave Bill”, an uplifting song about a Yorkshire Tea-drinking miner from God’s own country.  Listed as a bonus track, “Big Brave Bill” concludes this selection of songs, complete with fine brass arrangement recalling the fine summer days by the bandstand in the parks of Barnsley.  Take Kate’s advice and get kettle on and enjoy this lovely album.

Martin Green | Flit | Album Review | Reveal Records | 19.10.16

Once again Martin Green flexes his experimental chops with the follow up to 2014’s Crow’s Bones, an album that left this reviewer reaching for the blades. Flit is equally downbeat, dark and brooding, but also highly experimental, atmospheric and possibly more engaging than it’s predecessor.  Once again Becky Unthank offers her beautifully natural voice to the project, a commodity that never surprises but always satisfies.  Joining Becky this time around is Adam Holmes, whose highly distinctive voice matches Becky’s in terms of bleakness and ethereal ghostly darkness.  The songs are linked by themes of human movement, migration and uncertainty in the world, inspired by first-hand stories, some personal, others more general.  With music composed by Green, the songwriting credentials of a handful of artists such as Karine Polwart, Anaïs Mitchell, Sandy Wright and Aidan Moffat are called upon for collaboration purposes.  The result is quite startling, with one or two true gems amongst them, including Mitchell’s “Roll Away”, Karine Polwart’s “Strange Sky” and “The Suitcase”, complete with Moffat’s compelling spoken intro.  The plight of those enduring migration problems in the world today is deftly explored in Polwart’s “Laws of Motion”, possibly the most poignant song on the album and the one song whose lyrics were chosen to appear in the accompanying booklet.  Produced by Adrian Utley (Portishead) and Martin Green, Flit demonstrates further Martin Green’s visionary musicianship, something explored in detail as accordionist extraordinaire with regular folk trio LAU. 

Mark Harrison | Turpentine | Album Review | Highway Records | 20.10.16

A clue to how British blues singer Mark Harrison came up with the title of his fifth album release might be found in the opening song “Black Dog Moan”, but also the idea might pertain to “Hardware Store”, a lilting country blues, which aptly addresses this reviewer’s own particular fear of everything DIY.  If we can for a moment rid ourselves of the prevailing smell of turps, we also discover a further ten songs and just the one instrumental, each of which somewhere along the folk end of the blues spectrum, with a nod to such notable influences as Charley Patton and Blind Willie McTell on both National steel and twelve-string guitars respectively.  The general feel of the album is of a jingle-jangle guitar picking nature with occasional electric guitar runs thrown in.  There’s a lightness of touch rarely heard on blues records these days, which makes the album feel relaxed and even dare I say, cheerful.  The Cajun feel to the concluding track “Shake the House”, shows a further side of Harrison’s repertoire and allows for a bit of a band workout.  Produced by Tim Bazel, Turpentine also features Charles Benfield on double bass, Ed Hopwood on drums, percussion and harmonica and multi instrumentalist Paul Tkachenko handling the rest.

Luke Jackson | Tall Tales and Rumours | Album Review | First Take Records | 25.10.16

At just 22, singer-songwriter Luke Jackson has become a remarkable presence on the UK acoustic music scene, surpassing most of his contemporaries with his continued quality songwriting, while maintaining a very distinct sound all his own.  There’s a maturity in Luke’s songwriting that places his songs pretty high up the bar.  With Tall Tales And Rumours, his fourth release to date, Luke reflects on his own personal situation, that of a travelling musician, which at one point sees the singer in a late night Kansas City hotel miles from his Canterbury home, experiencing homesickness in a moment of tender reflection.  Luke’s songs have an engaging narrative, such as “Leather and Chrome”, which sees a father’s unaccomplished dreams being passed on to a son to fulfil.  Luke’s sensitive antennae continues to be alerted with such themes as Alzheimer’s in the opening a cappella song “The Man That Never Was”, a raw study of the effects of the disease upon country singer Glen Campbell, as witnessed in the recent film I’ll Be Me.  Unafraid to traverse the various styles and genres that have influenced his music, Luke rounds off the album with a Muscle Shoals-like soul-filled performance of “The Road”, which could point the young performer in an entirely new direction for future projects.  Joining Luke once again is his trusty rhythm section of empathetic musician/friends Andy Sharps and Connor Downs on bass and percussion respectively, whose spit and polish shines further light on an already impressive talent.

Ange Hardy and Lukas Drinkwater | Findings | Album Review | Story Records | 26.10.16

It’s little wonder that we are hearing rather a lot of Ange Hardy these days, one of the most focused, hard-working and prolific artists to have emerged in the last few years; it almost appears like she has been hidden away from us, almost imprisoned, only to suddenly and unexpectedly burst out with the energy and determination of someone discovering freedom for the very first time.  This focus continues to grow and develop with the latest album and first collaborative project with Lukas Drinkwater, a busy musician in his own right, stepping into the spotlight for the first time as a songwriter and joint front-person.  With a keen eye on presentation, Ange and Lukas wrap their songs in beauty, with a monochrome sleeve and lyrics booklet.  The songs are self-composed in the main, some elaborations of existing traditional material and one or two familiar songs such as “The Trees They Do Grow High” and “The Berkshire Tragedy”.  “By the Tides” is a moving comment on our current migration situation in the Med, with a sense of family at the core, an eloquent comment on our troubled times.  Ange Hardy and Lukas Drinkwater refuse to herald in their songwriting credentials with overblown fanfare, but with restraint and humility.  In other words, this is what’s happening, please deal with it. Both Nancy Kerr and Kathryn Roberts join Ange on “True are the Mothers”, three mums in unison, which is truly beautiful in its execution.  This really is a fantastic record.

Orkesta Mendoza | Vamos a Guarchar | Album Review | Glitterbeat | 01.11.16

For their second album release and first on Glitterbeat Records, Tuscon, Arizona’s Orkestra Mendoza provide a wide open vista of cross-genre styles such as cumbia, mambo, ranchera and mariachi through the musical sponge that is band leader Sergio Mendoza.  If the highly percussive rhythms and sultry arrangements echo the music of a bygone era, the excitable keyboard runs often create an almost 1960s sci-fi feel.  Imagine an end of series knees-up on the original Star Trek set; “Redoble” is probably what you would expect Kirk and Spock to dance to while deploying various Vulcan hand gestures.  Joking aside, Orkesta Mendoza provides a rich and varied soundscape synonymous with Mexican border region influences.  On the eve of what could possibly be a disastrous period for American/Mexican relations, should one particular politician get his way, this music has possibly never been more relevant, more welcomed or more embraced.  The dreamy Misterio, featuring Salvador Duran’s evocative vocal performance, is this particular region’s equivalent of what the Buena Vista Social Club were delighting the world with a couple of decades ago.

Georgia Ruth | Fossil Scale | Album Review | Navigator | 03.11.16

Following on from Georgia Ruth’s acclaimed debut album Week Of Pines (2013), Fossil Scale comes with a very distinct contemporary feel, utilising synths, layered recorders, guitars and keyboards.  The emphasis on ambience and atmosphere doesn’t go unnoticed, with each of the songs suitably arranged to make each one stand out.  Previously known for her harp playing, the instrument is put pretty much aside in favour of piano and guitar, while at the heart of the record is still Ruth’s voice, which at times becomes an empathetic instrument in its own right, both in English and Welsh language delivery.  For the most part written in the small North Wales town of Caernarfon, where the singer spent much of her time prior to relocating to Cardiff, the album was eventually recorded in both Cardiff and London.  With both Welsh and English influences clearly present, Ruth also reaches for other world influences, incorporating additional sarangi textures courtesy of Suhail Yusuf Khan, on both the album’s opener “The Doldrums” and closer “China”.

The Way Down Wanderers | The Way Down Wanderers | Album Review | Self Release | 07.11.16

The initial play-through of The Way Down Wanderers’ new album release brought to mind what you might expect to hear if Jake Bugg were ever to join forces with Mumford and Sons.  There’s a sort of joyous free spirit feel to the dozen original songs on this the band’s self-titled debut album; songs that can lift your spirits if you want them lifting. I can only imagine that the band are hot property as a live outfit; young, charismatic and with enough street cred to leave their contemporaries in the shade, but there again, I haven’t seen them yet.  Chicago-based, the Wanderers have not been at it long, with just two years and a couple of EPs under their belt, but there’s every possibility that Austin Thompson, Collin Krause, John Williams, John Merikoski and Travis Kowalsky may become festival favourites in 2017.  This album will almost certainly not hinder their potential rising star.

Steve Tilston and Jez Lowe | The Janus Game | Album Review | Tantobie Records | 21.11.16

It’s a collaboration that you desperately want to see work; the coming together of two distinctly individual performers.  Despite being well established solo performers, both have enjoyed a string of collaborations in their respective careers, Steve Tilston with John Renbourn’s Ship of Fools, WAZ and most memorably in partnership with the late Maggie Boyle, while Jez Lowe has enjoyed some success with hurdy-gurdy player Jake Walton as well as being the leader of his own band the Bad Pennies.  Both are possessed of instantly identifiable personal styles in terms of their song writing credentials, their immediately recognisable voices and their equally distinctive instrumental chops.  These days of multi-collaborative work, forged by a plethora of young musicians who by learning their craft through such as the folk music degree courses, are organically entrenched in it, but this doesn’t always apply to highly individual performers who have been at it for years; there’s a sense that they have to work at it a lot harder.  All the material on The Janus Game is written jointly by the two songwriters, with each sharing the vocal duties democratically.  The songs range from the powerful to the whimsical, exemplified by “Lucky Sami”, a song addressing the current refugee crisis and “The Wagga Moon”, a thoughtful reflection on the faded steel industry, while “The Strings That Wizz Once Strummed” and “Mrs Einstein” are jolly nods towards the influence of guitar mentor Wizz Jones and the long suffering spouse of our favourite physicist.   The album title derives from the opening song, which looks at the dualism of truth and deception, the past and the future, utilising the image of the two-faced god from Roman mythology, hinted at in the double portrait on the cover.  As a collaborative experiment the album works surprisingly well, but at the risk of essentially sounding like two individual mini albums wrapped into one, but maybe that’s just because I can’t shake off the notion that these are two highly individual solo talents.

Gilmore and Roberts | In Our History Live | Album Review | Grr | 25.11.16

One of the most hard working duos on the British acoustic music scene, Katriona Gilmore and Jamie Roberts have been plying their trade for ten years now in back street pubs, upstairs function rooms and miniature house concerts as well as some of this country’s biggest stages, not to mention similar stages around the world.  During their ten years together, the duo have provided us with a catalogue of memorable self-penned songs, some of them included here, songs like “Fleetwood Fair”, “The Stealing Arm” and the scorching opener “Doctor James”.  Throughout this live album, which was recorded at various venues during the duo’s spring 2016 tour, we get to hear over a dozen examples of what makes this duo so popular, each song performed with confidence and skill, but also we get a sense of the duo’s engaging personalities, Katriona welcoming us from the start as if we the listeners were actually at the concert as well as some determined cajoling in order to get their audience singing.  All the songs included in the set have been previously released on one of the duo’s four studio albums, such as Katriona’s eternally pretty “Travelling in Time”, Jamie’s alluring “Selfish Man” – complete with its lighter-waving (or is that mobile phone waving these days?) – communal conclusion, with the addition of “Billy Green”, the duo’s contribution to the Songs For The Voiceless project. Also included is a more recent instrumental addition to the duo’s live set, Elzick’s Farewell, which is featured here for the first time.  At times the duo’s arrangements verge on full-blown folk rock, especially when utilising the stomp box, on “All I’ve Known” for instance.  For the duo’s fifth album release, the obligatory live album couldn’t have come at a better time in their career and this one does everything it says on the tin.

Sweet Liberties | Sweet Liberties | Album Review | Proper Records | 26.11.16

The thing that makes Sweet Liberties immediately engaging – and this is before we get to the subject matter – is the contrasting voices of Nancy Kerr, Maz O’Connor, Sam Carter and Martyn Joseph, who effectively take us on a journey through song. The first four songs introduce these already familiar voices in turn, each rich in texture and utterly absorbing in their respective storytelling qualities.  Nancy Kerr’s reputation as one of our finest singers has been well documented in recent years and acknowledged further by such as the BBC Folk Awards.  Three of Nancy’s four contributions here can also be found on her superb Instar album, “Kingdom”, “Seven Notes” and “Written on My Skin”, while the fourth provides the album with an uplifting and lilting Music Hall styled song, “Lila”.  Maz O’Connor has likewise received plaudits for her contribution to the current folk scene and in particular through her mature songwriting, which is represented here with three highly accomplished songs “Rich Man’s Hill”, “This Old House” and “Broken Things”.  Nancy and Maz are joined by two formidable male counterparts, Martyn Joseph and Sam Carter, both of whom make their own distinctive mark on such themes of slavery and worker’s rights. The point of this collection of songs though, as commissioned by Folk by the Oak and the English Folk Dance and Song Society, is the celebration of 800 years of the pursuit of democracy.  A timely project then in these troubled times.  Adding flavour to the dish is Patsy Reid and Nick Cooke on fiddle and melodeon respectively with additional drums and bass courtesy of producer Tom Wright. 

Will Varley | Kingsdown Sundown | Album Review | Xtra Mile Records | 28.11.16

In a sense, listening to Will Varley’s new album Kingsdown Sundown is a little like first hearing some of Bob Dylan’s earliest recordings; one man, one guitar, a gruff voice and a clear message in each of the songs.  Devoid of any pointless over-produced clutter, the songs are direct and pretty much in your face, especially such songs as the opener “To Build a Wall”, which immediately states its clear message, that there are indeed many ways to build a wall if we are daft enough to build them.  The Deal-based singer-songwriter possesses the same sort of authoritative voice that we once heard in the early 1960s folk protest boom, especially on such songs as the bleak “Something is Breaking” and the overtly political statement “We Want Our Planet Back”.  Recorded underneath a pub by the sea in Deal, Kent, quite a distance in terms of time and space from Greenwich Village, yet the sentiment is still there loud and clear.  There will always be room for protest in folk music, especially in times like these.

James Edge and the Mindstep | Machines He Made | Album Review | Self Release | 05.12.16

The vinyl LP version of the second album release by James Edge and the Mindstep is presented as a two-disc set, handsomely packaged in a sturdy white gatefold sleeve, illustrated with four intriguing square Rothko-esque crimson panels designed by James Newman Gray.  Just holding the sleeve while the needle drops onto the grooves of the first disc seems to be an integral part of the experience.  The music on the four sides, a total of eleven titles, suggests that the running time might be a little over the single vinyl format limit, but I suspect it has more to do with ensuring that the grooves are set at their best quality.  Yes, one has to get up three times during the play through, but it’s well worth the effort in this, the ‘lazy’ epoch.  After the relatively short opener Jacob, which gently eases us into the suite of songs, the epic Ammonites gets right down to business with a dazzling arrangement that perfectly epitomises the improvisational spirit of the album.  Reminiscent of some of John Martyn and Danny Thompson’s groundbreaking work in the mid-1970s, the trio of James Edge on guitar, Andy Waterworth on double bass and Avvon Chambers on drums successfully dovetail their loose, yet passionate playing, together with a tightly interwoven string arrangement, which reveals something of the richness of anything you wish to cite from Five Leaves Left.  If “Ammonites” revels in its sonic beauty, then “On a Red Horse” opens the flood gates for some passion, grace and fire, with a deliriously strong performance that Radiohead might be pleased with.  With all his musicality and integrity, James Edge is also a writer of fine melodies and songs like “Four Two Four”, “In the Hills” and “A Room” showcase James’s credentials in this department amply.  In either format, vinyl, CD or digital download, this is quite unexpectedly a brilliant album by an artist worth watching out for.  

Hickory Signals | Noise of the Waters | Album Review | Self Release | 06.12.16

For their second EP, the Brighton-based duo Laura Ward and Adam Ronchetti, otherwise known as Hickory Signals, present six songs ranging from traditional through to contemporary originals by way of a reconditioned James Joyce poem, from which the title derives.  Prominent throughout is the voice of Laura Ward, whose confident delivery gives each of the songs a powerful punch. Her reading of the traditional “Unquiet Grave”, together with its sparse string arrangement and almost dispassionate strummed guitar accompaniment seems to bring to the song the haunting quality the lyrics richly deserve.  Irish Ways tends to enfold within it a similar atmosphere but with an acoustic musical arrangement that almost echoes Pink Floyd’s “One of These Days” in full flow strangely enough; it’s good to hear traditional songs being explored in this way, intentionally or otherwise.  Of the duo’s self-penned team efforts here, it’s the Eastern-influenced “Here I Am” that skitters along tastefully and brings to the EP a lightness of touch, which is in stark contrast to the opening title song “Noise of the Waters” and which showcases the duo’s obvious flair for musical arrangement.

Jasmine Rodgers | Blood Red Sun | Album Review | Self Release | 10.12.16

When I first met up with singer-songwriter Steve Rodgers a few years ago to chat to him about his songs, his music and his dad, I discovered there was a younger sibling in the family, who according to Steve, ran around stadiums with him, while dad Paul Rodgers of such notable bands as Free and Bad Company, busied himself with sound checks.  Little did I know then that Jasmine Rodgers, like her brother and father before her, was quite a singer and musician.  If Jasmine’s rock sensibilities come from her dad, then her sense of poetry and her distinctive looks probably come from her Japanese mother.  Following Steve into the six-piece rock band Boa, Jasmine was prepared to jump into that world while also absorbing contemporary music such as New Kingdom, PJ Harvey and Fugazi, together with such diverse genres as dance music and the ethereal voice of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.  The eleven songs on her debut solo album Blood Red Sun indicate that little time has been wasted and Jasmine emerges as a fine solo performer, with a confident voice that traverses a broad musical palette.  Songs such as “Icicles” and “Sense”, both released as a double-sided single are perfect examples of what to expect from this fine singer and performer.  Good things to come for sure. 

Home Service | A New Ground | Album Review | Dotted Line | 10.12.16

It’s been an astonishing twenty years since their last – and it has to be said – their finest album Alright Jack back in 1986, and now Home Service are back with a brand new studio album.  Instrumentally the band are still very much on form, with some ingenious arrangements, utilising the band’s familiar brass section alongside John Kirkpatrick’s accordion and Graeme Taylor’s expressive guitar work.  Vocally, a long way from the band’s heyday it has to be said with John Tams, whose soulful voice, full of grace and humility, became the heart of the band. John Kirkpatrick steps into those shoes and provides a rather pedestrian performance by comparison, but that’s hardly his fault, it’s just the way he sings.  Having said that, Kirkpatrick’s voice does suit what we think of as Folk Rock down to the ground and in this case, a new ground indeed.  If I’ve been over-critical about John Kirkpatrick (how dare I, he’s an English folk icon), then I find very little to fault in either the musicianship, the arrangements or the actual lyrical content of these songs.  The new and original songs mix well with the old and traditional, such as the well-trodden “Arthur McBride”, with an emphasis on the interweaving of brass instrumentation and bold electric guitar.  There are one or two moments of musical eccentricity, such as Kirkpatrick’s “Dirt, Dust, Lorries and Noise”, which in other hands would be a disaster, but here is just spot on, together with more sensitive fare, such as Derek Pearce’s “Melting”, which sees the band on their finest musical form with a rather confident Kirkpatrick vocal and a belting Taylor solo.