Music Reviews | 2017

Aurelio | Darandi | Album Review | Real World Records | 09.01.17

During his thirty-year career in music, Honduras-born musician Aurelio Martinez has become known as the master of Garifuna music, specifically the style known as paranda, which is imbued with infectious and inviting dance rhythms.  His fourth album to date, Darandi, once again features a plethora of raw melodies together with lyrics covering everyday topics, each injected with the brightest of dance grooves, which are not too dissimilar to the music of his Cuban and Colombian neighbours.  The tradition this music draws from is both rich and varied, with a balance of African or Caribbean roots; which means when you hear those grooves, the sun automatically begins to shine.  The songs are probably more familiar than you at first think as most of them have been recorded previously.  Here though, the songs are given a distinctive live feel, due in no small part to the fact that they were recorded at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios, where the songs were recorded live from the floor, with the singer noting afterwards “We got into a zone where we felt like we were in our own community, playing Garifuna music for our people.  It was a special feeling”.  Joining Aurelio for the sessions are Guayo Cedeño on lead guitar, Emilio Alvarez on bass with both Onan Castillo and Joel Martinez on Garifuna drums and vocals.  Enjoy the songs either once again or for the first time in the way they are supposed to be heard.

Iona Lane | Solace | EP Review | Self Release | 20.01.17

A surprisingly powerful second EP from Lancaster-born singer-songwriter Iona Lane, whose slightly fragile voice is reminiscent of that of a young Suzanne Vega, or maybe even a Laura Veirs.  That said, it’s that very delivery that helps give these four songs their power.  The steady orchestrated build on Amsterdam, a reflection of the singer’s brief visit to the Netherlands a couple of years ago, is very much integral to keeping our interest until the end of the song – a tipped hat to Joel Shooter for those delicate off beats on that one and to Bess Shooter for the ethereal flute part.  If Iona’s voice did at first remind me of the young Vega, then “Sometimes” is every inch as pop friendly as “Marlene on the Wall” and I see no reason why it shouldn’t receive the same sort of airplay.  “Fly” or “Fall” sees a slightly more mellow side in Iona’s approach, with some delicate intonation, backed by an empathetic band arrangement.  The final song on the EP, “I’ll Run Without You”, is even more sparsely arranged, and invites us all to join in, to relieve the boredom of singing alone.  I see only good things ahead for Iona, and I look forward to hearing more and maybe even singing along, despite my own comparatively wobbly singing voice.

Baba Zula | XX | Album Review | Glitterbeat | 25.01.17

This two-disc compilation covers a wide range of music courtesy of one of Turkey’s most interesting psychedelic outfits.  Here, taking the ‘best of’ concept to new heights by choosing live recordings and remixes, instead of re-releasing already established tracks, the Istanbul-based explorative ensemble celebrate their twenty-years together with a release that captures some of their most adventurous work.  Covering a wide range of styles that includes psych-rock, Anatolian folk music, Krautrock and anything else that comes to hand, XX (or ‘Twenty’) not only provides something new for established fans but also a good starting point for newcomers to their music.  It has to be said, there’s plenty to go at here, especially with an additional disc covering dub mixes.  The gentle side of Baba Zula can be found in the enchanting trance-like sound of Cecom, complete with the dreamy sound of gently splashing waves, assorted exotic birds singing and crickets chirping, which is in stark contrast to their more suggestive “Erotika Hop”, a sort of fleeting “Je t’aime moi non plus” for those in a particular hurry.  XX also demonstrates the band’s fondness for collaboration, with such luminaries as Sly & Robbie, Mad Professor, Dr. Das (Asian Dub Foundation) and Alexander Hacke (Einstürzende Neubauten) to name but a few, adding their particular musical voices to the mix.  By all means let the cover shot distract you and enter the world of Baba Zula.

Kate Dimbleby | Songbirds | Album Review | Folkstock Records | 26.01.17

Bristol-based Kate Dimbleby, daughter of broadcaster David Dimbleby, has carved out a niche for herself in the genre of layered vocal pyrotechnics, inspired by those of Bobby McFerrin after studying with him in New York.  Experimental throughout, Songbirds features eleven songs, each showcasing Kate’s vocal inventiveness, creating close harmonies through the medium of the vocal looper pedal.  All the voices are hers, whether sung in scat form or in more coherent lyrical song.  There’s a cupful of The Roches in some of its quirkiness, a shot of The McGarrigles in some of the more tender moments, together with a teaspoonful of Laurie Anderson in the slightly challenging “Happy”.  Occasionally there’s a sense that Kate is experimenting even during the performances here, bringing the meandering closing verse of “Whatever” to its conclusion with “That’s about enough of that!”  There’s no doubting Kate Dimbleby has a very good and soulful singing voice, “These Things They Will Come” is proof of that.  Above all though, Songbirds is a celebration of the human voice and some of what it is capable of, something the Dimbleby family are only too familiar with.  Like Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells though, where the musician plays every instrument except the drums and a bit of flute, therefore making the claim for an entirely solo effort void, Kate concludes an almost totally a cappella album with a few field recordings and assorted electronica on the closing track “Song for a Hill”.  So, an almost totally a cappella album then.  Produced by the young Lauren Deakin Davies for Folkstock Records, Songbirds has every likelihood of taking you by surprise as it did I. 

Brigitte DeMeyer and Will Kimbrough | Mockingbird Soul | Album Review | BDM Music | 05.02.17

It’s easy to picture Brigitte DeMeyer perched upon a high stool, her arm resting almost lifelessly on the bar, a glass tumbler twisting back and forth between her arched finger and thumb, the bourbon almost done, as the singer’s smoky voice infiltrates the joint.  Then there’s the heels of Will Kimbrough’s boots resting upon the end of the bar, one leg over the other, as the guitar player reclines just enough as to avoid falling backwards.  This is the picture that accompanies the New Orleans-influenced song “The Juke”, one of a dozen songs on the duo’s latest album release Mockingbord Soul, a picture of smoke-filled juke joints, nighthawks and barflies, the Rock-Ola awaiting a spare nickel.  The Nashville-based duo have been making songs together for six years and have in that time honed their craft with delicious vocal harmonies, seasoned playing and a penchant for writing evocative songs.  It’s Nashville Soul, delivered here on their first album as a duo.  That the duo hail from different parts of the country, Brigitte from California and Will from Alabama, makes it all the more evident that their pooled resources, influences and inspirations melt into something new, vibrant and at the same time utterly beguiling.  Whether it’s the informed finger-picking on such songs as “Running Round” and “Broken Fences” or the more jazz-inflected “Honey Bee” or the bluesy title song, the material is consistently handled with confidence and style.  Then, as if all the surprises appear to have been delivered, the album closes with an unexpected gem, Robin Williamson’s “October Song”, which appears to have found itself a million miles away from the Edinburgh folk cellars of the mid-sixties, yet once again the song captivates in its beautiful simplicity.

Townes Van Zandt | Texas Rain | LP Review | Charly | 07.02.17

From the opening few bars of “If I Needed You”, we know we’re onto a good thing.  Uncomplicated and immediately accessible, Townes Van Zandt introduces us once again to his artistry with a song that needs no introduction.  The fact that on this version the singer-songwriter is joined by Emmylou Harris only adds to the joy.  The first time pressing on vinyl of Townes Van Zandt’s album of duets Texas Rain comes as a handsomely packaged double disc set, featuring other guest appearances by Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker and Freddy Fender amongst others.  Initially intended as a sort of comeback album after Van Zandt’s ‘lost’ period, the project was soon transformed into a fully formed duets album, culminating in one of the finest recordings in the Texas singer-songwriter’s canon.  Originally released on CD back in 2001, the Kevin Eggers-produced album features Freddy Fender adding authenticity to “Pancho and Lefty” with its injection of Tejano, partly sung in Spanish, whilst Jerry Jeff Walker’s reading of “Blue Wind Blew” sees the two musicians evidently having too much fun; Walker’s quip during the song’s coda is a tell-tale sign of Van Zandt’s then current period of sobriety.  “Waitin’ Around to Die”, one of Van Zandt’s earliest songs, maintains its mournful properties with Calvin Russell adding no further glimpses of joy.  There are lighter moments however with Kimmie Rhodes joining Van Zandt on the frilly “Brother Flower”, whilst Kathy Mattea’s silky voice empathetically dovetails with Van Zandt’s inherent sensitivity on the gorgeous “At My Window”.

Townes Van Zandt | Flyin’ Shoes | LP Review | Charly | 07.02.17

When the needle first located the groove on a borrowed copy of Townes Van Zandt’s 1978 release Flyin’ Shoes, it had already been around for a good ten years.  It was in fact, the first LP I’d heard by the Texan singer-songwriter, although many of his songs were familiar from versions recorded by others, notably Emmylou Harris and in particular her reading of “Pancho and Lefty” a couple of years before this release.  The opening few bars of “Loretta”, gave me the impression that there was more to this songwriter than I’d first imagined.  Cut to 1990 and this enigmatic son of a Fort Worth lawyer rolled into my hometown like tumbleweed, to perform in front of a dozen people, a moment I could hardly have believed had it not happened right before my eyes.  Much of Townes Van Zandt’s back catalogue is currently available again on vinyl and in the case of Flyin’ Shoes, on special edition blue vinyl, and it has to be said, sounding as good as when I first heard it back in the mid-1980s.  In just ten songs, all written by Townes apart from Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love”, easily as hot as the version famously delivered by Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks during the Last Waltz concert and film in the early 1970s, the album captures Townes Van Zandt at his creative best.  With the aforementioned Loretta, a breezy love song and a fitting opener, through the desperately melancholic title song “Flyin’ Shoes”, complete with its crying harmonica intro, and then over to side two for “Dollar Bill Blues”, with its curious Pinky and Perky-backing vocal effect, the timeless “Rex’s Blues” and of course the lilting “Pueblo Waltz”, which name checks his good pals Susanna and Guy Clark, always a good thing, we find an artist at his peak.  A few months after I saw Townes Van Zandt for the very last time, he was gone, an almost inevitable result of years of abuse, leaving a legacy of music, songs and a reputation of being one of life’s true one-offs.  Now that twenty years have gone since the passing of Townes Van Zandt, Flyin’ Shoes has been released as a remastered edition, sounding fresh and ready for new and old ears alike.  With extensive sleeve notes taken from the first CD pressing of the album, together with lyric sheet both included in the four-page inner sleeve, the LP version of this album is something to long admire, the songs reminding us all of the enormous contribution Townes Van Zandt has made to the tower of song.

The Backyard Devils | Honkytonk Heartbreaker | Album Review | Self Release | 16.02.17

From the opening few bars of “Rambling” it becomes immediately obvious that The Backyard Devils have a raw energy ready to share with anyone in close proximity.  Twangy guitars, gravelly voices, attitude in spades and an immediate groove best served in a late night bar that stocks good whiskey.  It’s Rockabilly at its core complete with a well-slapped upright bass together with the skittering shrills from its little sister the mandolin.  Christien Belliveau’s lap steel comes across as completely devoid of coyness, rather an extrovert such as on “All I Want to Do”, where it effectively steals the show.  The New Brunswick-based outfit are also able to deliver the sort of Flatt and Scruggs bluegrass that first caught our ears as Bonnie and Clyde created havoc on the streets of Texas during the Depression, “Gospel” and “Morning Peeler” are both testament of this.  Mostly self-penned, the songs also feature a pretty faithful take on the Stanley Brothers’ “How Mountain Girls Can Love”, albeit with an almost sneering vocal.  Complementing the music is the cover, a sepia shot reminiscent of Hopper’s Nighthawks painting, likewise conjuring the afterhours.  If there was any doubting this band’s ‘road’ credentials, look no further than “Hard Times”, which is laced with images depicting the flip side of the perceived glamour of it all.

Top Floor Taivers | A Delicate Game | Album Review | Self Release | 17.02.17

We seem to be getting rather used to seeing young musicians in collaboration these days, whether that be as part of a ‘collective’, a themed commissioned project, or more commonly as part of a good old tried and tested band.  In any such format, the strength of this collaborative prowess appears to awaken something special in these musicians time and time again.  Top Floor Taivers is such an outfit, made up of two Scots, Claire Hastings and Heather Downie on ukulele and clarsach respectively, a Lancastrian pianist, Tina Jordan Rees and an Irish fiddler Gráinne Brady.  Currently based in Glasgow, the quartet arrange their music to reflect the tradition, on such material as “Johnny o’ Braideslee” and “The False Bride”, as well as showcasing their own compositions, “Jeannie and the Spider”, written by Heather and her brother Alasdair and “Little Man”, written by Claire Hastings based on an old nursery rhyme.  Added to this, the repertoire also includes one or two contemporary songs, such as Richard Thompson’s hugely popular leather-clad redhead/motorbike combination “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”, Findlay Napier’s beguiling “Princess Rosanna” and Leonard Cohen’s pessimistic “Everybody Knows”, each showcasing the band’s flair for arrangement.  Contrary to their collective name, these musicians have hardly been idling away their time, recently being nominated in the Up and Coming Artist category at the 2016 MG ALBA Scots Trad Music Awards.  The Taivers are already a good three years into their stride and A Delicate Game may just prove to be a fine debut for them. 

La Mambanegra | El Callegueso y su Mala Mana | Album Review | Movimientos Records | 18.02.17

From the opening bars of Puro Potenkem, the lead song on the new album by Colombian orchestra La Mambanegra, there seems to be an immediate desire to drop everything – apart from a handy saucepan and wooden spoon – in order to shamelessly dance around the kitchen; the pan and spoon blending nicely with the very prominent cowbells and various other assorted percussion on this most lively album.  It’s pretty much salsa, or more accurately break salsa through and through.  Rich in Latin rhythms with a little Funk and a pinch of Hip-Hop thrown in, the songs feature some highly engaging and vibrant call and response styled vocals, whilst the horns blow like there’s no tomorrow.  The energy refuses to subside over the next eighty-odd minutes, in fact in places the horns seem to be positively on fire, especially during the trumpet solo on “El Sabor De La Guayaba”.  Listening to El Callegueso y su Mana Mana is like opening the curtains upon summer, even though we’re still in the middle of February.  The nine-piece La Mambanegra, or The Black Mamba, brings together some of Colombia’s finest musicians, from the funky percussion through to the horn section, a sort of Santana without the wailing guitar solos.  The charismatic Jacobo Vélez peers through reflected shades on the cover, which to me is reminiscent of Leadbelly from an entirely different era, though with the blue skies reflecting the Caribbean Sea rather than the cotton fields of Louisiana.  The only aspect of this release that slightly unnerves me, is the photo of the two furious-looking machete-wielding women on the reverse of the cover.   

Thom Hell | Happy Rabbit | Album Review | Lost Boy Records | 20.02.17

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

Fairport Convention | 50:50@50 | Album Review | Matty Grooves | 21.02.17

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

Bargou 08 | Targ | Album Review | Glitterbeat | 23.02.17

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

Jim Lauderdale | London Southern | Album Review | Proper | 03.03.17

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

Coven | Unholy Choir | EP Review | Self Release | 04.03.17

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

Neil McSweeney | A Coat Worth Wearing | Album Review | Hudson Records | 17.03.17

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

Jenn and Laura-Beth | Bound | Album Review | JBLB Records | 21.03.17

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

Ann Duggan | Dust Upon the Wind | Album Review | Self Release | 22.03.17

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

Oka Vanga | Dance of the Copper Trail | Album Review | Crazy Bird Records | 22.03.17

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

Roving Crows | Bury Me Naked | Album Review | Self Release | 01.04.17

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

Mike Bloomfield | A Retrospective | Album Review | Retroworld | 02.04.17

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

Mokoomba | Luyando | Album Review | Out Here Records | 03.04.17

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

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

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

Hunter Muskett | Unafraid and Sober | Album Review | Self Release | 09.04.17

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

Madison Violet | The Knight Sessions | Album Review | Big Lake Music | 11.04.17

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

Steve Soden and the Sweet Peas | Welcome to the Asylum | Album Review | PB Music | 16.04.17

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

Ewan MacPherson | Fetch | Album Review | Shoogle Records | 18.04.17

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

Elliott Morris | Lost and Found | Album Review | Dominoes Club Records | 20.04.17

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

Tamikrest | Kidal | Album Review | Glitterbeat | 20.04.17

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

Vieux Farka Toure | Samba | Album Review | Six Degrees Records | 20.04.17

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

Johnny Cash | The Original Sun Albums 1957-1964 | Album Review | Sun/Charly | 11.05.17

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

Emily Mae Winters | Siren Serenade | Album Review | Self Release | 29.05.17

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

Tilly Moses | Alight and Adrift | Album Review | GingerDog Records | 01.06.17

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

Katie Spencer | Good Morning Sky | EP Review | Self Release | 02.06.17

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

Track Dogs | Serenity Sessions | Album Review | Monde Green Records | 06.06.17

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

Front Country | Other Love Songs | Album Review | Organic Records | 07.06.17

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

Sam Amidon | The Following Mountain | Album Review | Nonesuch | 23.06.17

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

Ashley Hutchings | Street Cries | Album Review | Talking Elephant | 02.07.17

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

Josienne Clarke and Kit Downes | Such a Sky | EP Review | Self Release | 05.07.17

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

Keith James | Tenderness Claws | Album Review | Hurdy Gurdy | 06.07.17

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

Richard Thompson | Acoustic Classics II | Album Review | Beeswing | 08.07.17

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

Martin Simpson | Trails and Tribulations | Album Review | Topic | 17.07.17

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

When Rivers Meet | Liberty | Album Review | One Road Records | 09.08.17

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

Reg Meuross | Faraway People | Album Review | Hatsongs Records | 10.08.17

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

Jupiter and Okwess | Kin Sonic | Album Review | Glitterbeat | 13.08.17

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

Sam Baker | Land of Doubt | Album Review | Self Release | 15.08.17

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

Callaghan | The Other Side | Album Review | Self Release | 16.08.17

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

Holy Moly and the Crackers | Salem | Album Review | Pink Lane Records | 22.08.17

There’s little doubt that Holy Moly and the Crackers are one of the most vibrant live outfits in the country today, a band whose individual members attract your immediate attention, making it difficult for you to take your eyes off any one of them.  There’s the charismatic frontman Conrad Bird, whose towering personality betrays his diminutive frame, a passionate performer with all the theatrical prowess of a seasoned Thespian.  Then there’s Ruth Patterson, the perfect foil for Conrad, whose radiance could be compared with that of a 1940s Hollywood movie starlet.  Their chemistry is tangible.  If this was not enough, then there’s always the supporting cast whose stage antics divert your attention from the main protagonists momentarily; Rosie Bristow stage right, her bohemian accordion aflame, Martha Wheatley stage left, her soaring trombone pointed directly at the audience, both musicians fully immersed in dance as they entertain.  This highly engaging band from the North East, presents some of that live magic here on Salem, their second full length album, with one or two songs that have been hanging around their live repertoire for some time now.  There’s the sultry “Sugar”, with its crackly retro intro and Conrad’s growly, almost lecherous delivery.  Then the rockabilly of the punchy “Cold Comfort Lane”, with its sneering guitar riff commanding your attention, followed immediately by a taste of the Deep South on “Hallelujah Amen”, a slice of swamp gospel which would ring in your ears after each show, now finally available to take home with you.  Difficult to categorise, Holy Moly and the Crackers weave several musical genres into an exhilarating tapestry all their own, one minute very much gypsy folk influenced, the next a thoroughly absorbing country gospel soul, with plenty of attitude punched in, a sense of the burlesque injected into everything the band play.  Holy Moly are a band that most festivals should be placing at the top of the bill if only the regulars would step aside.  Listen to this, then see them at your earliest convenience, you will not be disappointed.

Ron Pope | Work | Album Review | Brooklyn Basement Records | 25.08.17

Ron Pope’s presumed creed, a desire to work to live, rather than to live to work, as emphasised in this album’s title song, certainly seems to reflect a perfectly logical work ethic, yet with seven solo albums now under his belt in just fifteen years, there appears to be a contradiction in terms.  This singer songwriter indeed lives to do this.  Recorded at an analog studio for the first time, rather than digital studio, Work reflects Ron Pope’s life thus far with a collection of highly personal songs, some recorded almost as stripped down acoustic demos with no further embellishments, some arranged around his finely tuned band, each of the performances sounding both relevant and accomplished.  Produced by Ted Young at the Welcome to 1979 studio in Nashville, the album includes songs of a philosophical nature, the notion of a relatively young man pondering upon his own mortality in “Someday We’re All Gonna Die”, whilst reassuring us that his dancing days are not over yet by any means.  We get a sense that Ron Pope is very much here and still very much enjoying it, occasionally alluding to a more hedonistic lifestyle with the soul-filled rocker “Let’s Get Stoned”.  On perhaps the prettiest song on the album, The Weather, we hear a fabulous duet with Georgia singer Molly Parden, whose gentle harmonies add something relatively sweet to what is essentially already an easily accessible album.

Mark Lavengood | We’ve Come Along | Album Review | Earthwork Music | 26.08.17

These days the Dobro might well be seen as an integral part of most modern Bluegrass outfits, yet we rarely see it in the hands of a lead player, rather somewhere to the side, its player poised over the instrument in one of two optimum positions; the traditional seated position with the guitar upon the player’s lap or alternatively, the now much more familiar standing position with the Dobro ingeniously strapped to the player’s torso.  Michigan-based Mark Lavengood appears to have no problem bringing the instrument to the fore, the instrument featured liberally throughout We’ve Come Along, his new album.  Not only do we become acquainted with Lavengood’s playing, his songs and his voice here, we also get a sense of his character, notably during the intro to “Vulpes Vulpes”, which captures some studio banter, a little like the memorable Morrissey exchange between Ryan Adams and David Rawlings that famously kick starts Adams’ Heartbreaker album.  There’s some familiar material here, such as Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart” and Ralph Stanley’s “Bound to Ride”, both of which sit well between the original songs and tunes, the tunes being a couple of interludes that offer contemplative moments between some of the more raw performances.  The sprightly “Three Day Blow”, with its references to the Velvet Underground and “Sweet Jane”, suggests a rather different musical background to the acoustic bluegrass that makes up We’ve Come Along, an edgier offering.  Joining Lavengood are Keith Billik on banjo, Kyle Rhodes on guitar, Jason Dennie on mandolin and Spencer Cain on upright bass, who between them create a laid back contemporary approach to this old mountain music.

Jon Palmer Acoustic Band | The Silences In Between | Album Review | Self Release | 27.08.17

The Jon Palmer Acoustic Band is one of a handful of Northern British outfits frequently booked for their fully functional credentials as an exciting live band, more than capable of finishing off an afternoon, an evening or an entire festival in style.  Wearing their folk rock roots very much on their sleeves, embellished here and there with some notable rogue folk and alt country elements as well as the occasional sea shanty, together with an almost tangible sense of fun, the band seem to be tailor made for live performance.  In the studio, their repertoire, mostly made up of Jon’s original songs, transfers quite well, with the band’s endeavour to capture the same energy.  There’s ample strummed guitars, skittering fiddle runs and lilting mandolin chops, all of which drive the songs along, whether they concern little earthquakes, cold winds and whiskey, or just the sweet innocent ignorance of love.  There’s also a cheeky nod towards Snow Patrol during the instrumental interlude on “On the Day I Stumbled Into You” – in the words of the great Barry Norman “and why not?”  Throughout, Jon and the band maintain a firm grip on good time folk music, despite pointing out in the lyric of “Barleycorn Boy”, it’s not a folk song because “nobody dies, nobody drowns and nobody gets lost at the fair” a veritable anthem to the folk song tradition nevertheless.  There’s The Waterboys, Oysterband and Saw Doctors, and then there’s Otley’s favourite band, and with this album, very definitely at the top of their game.

Dona Onete | Banzeiro | Album Review | Mais Um Discos | 01.09.17

The voice of the feisty 78 year-old Brazilian singer Dona Onete takes you a little by surprise upon first hearing it.  There’s not the slightest glimmer of a shrinking violet here, instead we find a singer who certainly means business, in fact there’s almost a sense that Dona is making up for lost time.  Having given up any thought of being a singer when at the age of 22 the newly wed Amazonian was forced to silence that most distinctive voice for a spouse who didn’t much like it, Dona went on to pursue other fields of endeavour instead.  Having worked as a history teacher and campaigner for workers’ rights during the ensuing years, she eventually found herself retired and widowed and answered a call to return to the path that was probably always meant for her.  After releasing her debut album Feitiço Caboclo at the age of 73, Dona now assumes the mantle of ‘the grande dame of Amazonian song’ and holds back little lyrically with songs that address gay rights, indecent proposals, fishy-smelling waters “No Meio do Pitiú” and an assortment of different types of kiss; either ‘hot, frozen, sweet, salty, bold or abusive’.  Working within the rhythms of the traditional carimbo, samba, pagode, ska and bolero, Dona Onete is convincing throughout with some sumptuous musical arrangements intent on forcing listeners to their feet.

Kate Ellis | Carve Me Out | Album Review | River Rose Records | 02.09.17

Listening to the songs of the Baton Rouge, Louisiana-born, now London-based, singer songwriter Kate Ellis, reminds me of first hearing Nanci Griffith at the outset of the so-called New Country scene back in the mid-1980s, a time when country music became relevant once again after a period of rhinestone encrusted miasma.  Raised in New York to an American father and English mother, the young Kate Ellis was exposed to folk music at an early age, with grandmothers on both sides also being musicians.  Leaving a career in law aside, Ellis has returned to that music with her formative influences intact, from Johnny Cash and Pete Seeger to Gram Parsons and Leonard Cohen, with her own father as a closer to home inspiration, he having once performed with the legendary Hank Williams.  Kate’s voice is the main focus here, lifted by mature songs and strong arrangements.  The standout song, “Ones You Love the Most”, is up there with the very best of the genre, both in the writing and the delivery, whilst songs such as “Paper, Scissors, Rock” and “Inside” demonstrate the work of a mature songwriter.  “Going Against the Grain” is also a fine example of her collaborative aptitude, with a fine duet with co-writer Andy Hobsbawm.

House Above the Sun | Five Hours North | Album Review | Self Release | 03.09.17

The first single and album opener on Five Hours North, the blues-based “Runaway Devil”, immediately demonstrates this band’s Americana credentials, despite the intro’s apparent Eastern influenced guitar riff.  With Jim and Ariel Moreton at the helm, the London-based outfit stretch their own distinctive sound on this, the band’s debut full-length album and follow up to their self-titled debut EP of 2015.  The ten convincingly stylish songs draw on the combination of Jim’s guitar and voice, the undoubted driving force behind “House Above the Sun”, along with the sparsest, almost tentative harmony accompaniment of Ariel, which seems to fit perfectly the mood of the songs.  The smooth West Coast groove on such as “Eagles Dare” balances measure for measure with some of the more blues-based material, notably “St Augustine’s Blues”, the opening bars of which could easily have been lifted from the Woodstock soundtrack.  Putting aside the prominent electric guitar momentarily, we are treated to “Footsteps”, a fairly stripped-down acoustic performance with just a smattering of electric frills, which gives us a glimpse of the Moreton duo’s intimacy.  Not just a great debut, but a truly great album.

Elliott Brood | Ghost Gardens | Album Review | Paper Bag Records | 07.09.17

For their sixth album release, the Juno-winning Ontario-based trio Elliott Brood have found themselves in unexpected reflective mood having stumbled across some old demos and song sketches that were thought long lost.  Revisiting these song ideas, the band have polished up some of the material that forms the basis of Ghost Gardens, a title that refers to those gardens that seem to thrive long after the original owners have gone.  In a way, this title reflects the fact that the seeds for these songs were sown long ago and have now been given the opportunity to bloom.  The eleven songs don’t necessarily fall into any discernible style or order, rather they’re formed under the influence of various genres; “Til the Sun Comes Up Again” and “Dig a Little Hole” skiffle-like in their simplicity, “Gentle Temper” almost Ryan Adams-like, “Thin Air” could have been recorded in the 1920s and judging by the wind-up gramophone intro, it just might have been, whilst “2 4 6 8” has an almost Clash-like approach once it gets going, hard rocking and attention grabbing through to the end.  The melody line of “For the Girl” could easily be mistaken for a Paul McCartney throw away from his self-titled debut, just as the dust settled on the Beatles’ tombstone back in the day, a notion echoed in the “Revolution #9” effects-laden penultimate track “Searching”.  Slightly eccentric, Ghost Gardens is a fine little album of new material from older ideas.

Quetzal | The Eternal Getdown | Album Review | Smithsonian Folkways | 13.09.17

The extensive sleeve notes contained within the handsome 44 page dual language illustrated booklet, detailing thoughts on social justice, race, anger, frustration, disillusionment and hopelessness amongst the indigenous peoples of Latin America, almost overshadows the music found within.  One of the two key players on The Eternal Getdown, Martha Gonzalez, an activist, feminist music theorist, assistant professor of Chicano and Latin studies, who just happens to be in possession of a strong and forceful voice to be reckoned with, endeavours to address some of the many issues in song here on this, the second Quetzal album release on the Smithsonian Folkways label.  Quetzal Flores, the founder of this outfit, translates some of the many theories on the struggle for dignity that explain the ‘eternal getdown’ into 18 superbly produced tracks that cross styles and borders to create lavish musical vistas, which include the Spanish-flavoured “La Bamba” and “La Loroncita”, the Stevie Wonder influenced “Getting to Know” and the ultra-catchy “Pillow People”, which I defy anyone to play through just the once.  The music can be enjoyed on its own merits, but identifying and understanding some of the social concerns, ideologies and basic human empathy, will make The Eternal even more fulfilling.

Sarah-Jane Summers | VIRR | Album Review | Eighth Nerve Audio | 14.09.17

When Sarah-Jane Summers confided in me, “it doesn’t fall wholly within the traditional genre”, little did I know precisely how far removed from your common or garden fiddle tunes album VIRR actually is.  Highly experimental at its core, the twelve-track concept album explores the sonic possibilities of the viola and fiddle without bothering us with actual tunes.  The plucks, scrapes, taps, pats, rubs and lovingly rendered caresses allow us to eavesdrop upon something intimate, whilst Sarah-Jane investigates, experiments and ultimately flexes her curiosity, conducting her sonic inquisitiveness with a devoted touch.  Each of the pieces reflect the forces of nature in terms of the weather, each named by Norwegian terms such as “Katrisper” (a strong gale), “Aitran” (fine rain) and “Unbrak” (the beginning of a thaw).  This daring adventure could be taken as Avant Garde in its concept, but at the same time, allows us to feel the wood, the catgut and the horsehair like never before, with only the hint of a musical air, so we needn’t overly worry ourselves about getting up and taking our partners.  Astonishingly creative.

Massa Dembele | Mezana Dounia | Album Review | Izniz | 15.09.17

Recorded in Ougadougou, Burkina Faso, in the eastern region of Mali, this relatively short album, just eight compositions rendered in about 30 minutes, bears all the hallmarks of the enchanting traditional music of the jeli, whilst playing the kora-like kamala n’goni, not normally associated with the griot music tradition.  The abundance of trance-like n’goni flurries, together with Demele’s rich falsetto, notably on the opening title song, “Mezana Dounia”, augmented by Dembele’s own percussion, captures our attention and imagination from the start.  There’s something relaxed about Dembele’s fluid playing, which is at once meditative, contemplative and almost spiritual in feel.  The thirty minutes of playing time, although too short for this kind of music, is easily remedied by repeat plays.

The Emily Askew Band | Alchemy | Album Review | Self Release | 16.09.17

Transforming old styles into new is a notion I always respond quite well to – as long as it doesn’t include suddenly bursting into inner city rap midway through with an ‘explicit’ sticker slapped onto the CD sleeve.  The Emily Askew Band handle this material with delicate detail, both instrumentally and vocally, with a dozen well-crafted pieces of music drawn from such early forms as French Renaissance, 13th century secular English, Medieval Galician and the odd chant from the Llibre Vermell de Montserrat.  The accompanying 12 page booklet eloquently describes the historical context from which these beautiful melodies derive, whilst Phillip Speakman’s photographs capture the essence of the instruments in close up; the shawm, the vielle, the bagpipes etc., each alluding to ancient times.  These particular instruments, all in the more than capable hands of Emily, sit well with the relatively modern folk styles and techniques provided by Jamie Roberts’ idiosyncratic guitar playing and Ben Corrigan’s electronics, as well as the highly empathetic fiddle playing of John Dipper, each of whom bring to the project an intriguingly stylised feel.  Adding further atmosphere and depth to the music is the array of percussion utilised to great effect by Simon Whittaker and Louise Duggan.  “Pase el Agoa Ma Julieta” also finds the band in fine vocal fettle with an astonishing 15th/16th century Spanish a cappella song, where the singers are joined by special guest James Patterson.  There’s nothing stuffy or overly academic with these interpretations of early music, rather the musicians bring to Alchemy an all embracing and highly affectionate warmth, just right for a beautiful music we should all really cherish.  

Satuo | Earned | Album Review | Self Release | 20.09.17

Vienna-based band Satuo release their third album Earned, which combines the five-piece band’s Austrian, Italian and Finnish musical roots with a dozen easily accessible songs, each imbued with a distinct folk/pop sensibility, whilst at the same time borrowing from French and American influences.  Bright and breezy from the start, the opening strummed guitar intro on “One Day” being an optimistic beginning to what is essentially an ‘up’ record.  The songs are predominantly sung in English, despite the band’s multi-national personnel, with one or two songs sung in the band’s native languages, notably the beautiful “Muista Minua”.  The band’s name translates from Finnish as ‘fable’ or ‘fairy tale’ and the stories here are told with an uplifting delivery.  Laura Maria Korhonen’s voice dominates most of the songs, all of which are treated to fine arrangements throughout, with occasional banjo, mandolin and guitar embellishments, together with Laura’s own musical saw and melodica.  The blues workout based around the traditional gospel song “Motherless Child” opens up an entirely different feel to close the album, with an assured performance that warrants further investigation.  The album comes complete with a 16-page booklet, illustrated by Magdalena Wolf, whose naive artwork rather tastefully complements the songs. 

Jen Cloher | Jen Cloher | Album Review | Look Out Kid | 25.09.17

The lyric “those who can, they do, those who can’t, review” didn’t go unnoticed by this journalistic pretender as the Melbourne-based singer songwriter Jen Cloher made clear her stance on the state of the music scene in Shoegazers, one of the ten songs on this her eponymous fourth album.  There’s a distinct sense of saying it how it is in these songs, which surprisingly comes across as quite refreshing.  Throughout the album, we find a close collaboration with her musical partner/wife Courtney Barnett, whose sneering left-handed guitar licks embellish the songs in all the right places.  Appearing almost Patti Smith-like on the cover, a candid shot that could easily have been snapped by Robert Mapplethorpe, the image is just as revealing as the songs, such as “Strong Woman”, which is about as up close and personal as a songwriter gets.  Patti Smith, an obvious influence, gets a namecheck on the album opener “Forgot Myself”, which is also treated to a Kubrick-esque promo video, featuring Barnett in duplicate.  Barnett’s idiosyncratic guitar playing, notably on the free-flowing “Analysis Paralysis”, makes the enjoyment of this record even more enjoyable.  Strong, punchy and packed with observations on her relationship with a successful partner on the indie music scene, (Shoegazers, Loose Magic, Great Australian Bite), this album is essential for all its joy and sorrow.

Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real | Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real | Album Review | Decca | 30.09.17

With all the necessary country sensibilities you would expect from the son of legendary songwriter Willie Nelson, together with the influence of his mother’s record collection (Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan), this young surfing cowboy fits the bill for introducing his own brand of rock-inflected country to the world with a band of friends, whose collective name derives from a lyric in the old Neil Young song “Walk On”.  Curiously enough, the band went on to back Young on some extensive touring, which also led to helping out on the Canadian rocker’s last two studio albums.  Opening with the soul-fuelled “Set Me Down on a Cloud”, we find something more than your usual country rock, something rather more captivating.  The band are pretty much on form, tight and together, with some keen guitar licks towards the end of its seven minute spree.  Willie himself appears on the lilting “Just Outside of Austin”, with one or two trademark licks, whilst his octogenarian Aunt Bobbi plays piano, keeping it all pretty much in the family.  One of the real surprises on this, the band’s eponymous album release, is Nelson’s vocal sparring with Stefani Germanotta (Lady Gaga to you), who between them create the sort of vibe once entirely the domain of Delaney and Bonnie, with the magical waters of Muscle Shoals almost audible in the background.  The swampy vibe on Carolina has Dr John’s voodoo stamped all over it, albeit with a mischievous nod towards Roger Miller’s “Dang Me” tagged onto the end. Lukas Nelson’s band did promise us something real and this just might be it.   

Richard Thompson | Acoustic Rarities | Album Review | Beeswing Records | 03.10.17

Released ahead of his autumn tour, Richard Thompson revisits some of the more obscure songs from his back catalogue.  We really have to go back to 1976 for his very first career retrospective, the Island double set Guitar/Vocal, which saw the release of a collection of live recordings, studio outtakes and assorted rarities including material with his former band Fairport Convention and duo songs with his then wife Linda.  Here though, fourteen of his lesser known songs are re-recorded with sparse acoustic arrangements following the lead of both Acoustic Classics I and II, recently released on Beeswing Records.  There are no less than six previously unreleased songs rubbing shoulders with the so called ‘rarities’, however we do see the re-emergence of some of the more memorable songs from Thompson’s impressive back catalogue, such as the Henry the Human Fly-period “Poor Ditching Boy”, with Thompson’s familiar mandolin/guitar/accordion arrangement, Bright Lights‘ “End of the Rainbow”, just as sparse and melancholic as originally planned, and Hokey Pokey’s “Never Again”, originally performed by Linda Thompson back in the day, each of which sounds surprisingly new and fresh once again.  Of the unreleased material, we find Thompson in Bretchian mode with the highly theatrical “I Must Have a March”, and again in delightfully playful mood with his homage to the legendary Alexander Graham Bell.  For completists there is a return to that earlier Island release, with the inclusion of “Poor Will and the Jolly Hangman”, although I would imagine for the completist or die-hard Fairport fan, it’s the new reading of Sloth, complete with overdubbed harmony vocal that will be seen as a valuable addition to their record collection. 

Sam Gleaves and Tyler Hughes | Sam Gleaves and Tyler Hughes | Album Review | Community Music | 19.10.17

Passing The Den at one of the UK’s biggest folk festivals this year, some of these songs beckoned and one felt instantly transported from the flat summer fens of Cambridge to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, through sound alone.  This is a delightful album made up of fourteen songs that instantly appeal.  Sam and Tyler work so well together as a duo, with a sense of the essential, rather than the overblown in their respective playing.  You almost imagine this album to have been recorded direct from the back porch, as the cover photo suggests; the banjo and guitar interplay complementing the duo’s dovetailed vocal harmonies throughout.  It’s with little surprise that Sam and Tyler cite their parents and grandparents early on in the credits, for giving these musicians the grounding of a good Virginian home, from where much of this music derives.  Although many of the songs sound traditional, for the most part the songs are from the pens of such memorable writers as Boudleaux Bryant “Well I Guess I Told You Off”, Ola Belle Reed “Tear Down the Fences” and Maybelle Carter “Lonesome Homesick Blues”.  It is however with their own material that the duo shine the most, such as Tyler Hughes’ tender “When We Love”, a ballad that underscores the importance of love in troubled times, with a gentle reminder to those in power who often choose to forget such notions.  Sam and Tyler’s empathetic playing is certainly matched by their harmonious singing voices as they bring the essence of mountain music to a world audience.

Davy Graham | Folk Blues and Beyond | Album Review | Bread and Wine | 25.10.17

Listening back to what is now considered a folk classic, Folk, Blues and Beyond, Davy Graham’s second album release, now sounds pretty pedestrian in the vocal department, although his mastery of the acoustic guitar is still startlingly vibrant.  Whether tackling blues standards such as “Cocaine”, “Rock Me Baby”, “Leavin’ Blues” or “Ain’t Nobody’s Business What I Do”, the influence on the young guitar explorers of the mid-1960s such as Bert Jansch, John Renbourn and Wizz Jones is all too evident and a great debt is still owed to Graham by young guitarists even today.  Whilst we continue to cite The Beatles, The Incredible String Band and to a certain extent Paul Simon as early explorers of World Music, Graham was already at it in 1964 with such melodies as “Maajun (A Taste of Tangier)”, an instrumental the guitarist found whilst visiting Morocco around this time.  In the early Sixties, even the most adventurous folk musicians couldn’t escape the influence of Bob Dylan, and here Graham turns his attention to “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright”, which here receives one of its earliest cover versions, complete with the rhythm section of Tony Reeves and Barry Morgan on bass and drums respectively.  With original sleeve notes by producer Ray Horricks, together with additional booklet notes by Rolling Stone’s David Fricke, the re-issue of Folk, Blues and Beyond confirms it to be an essential record for any serious collector of British folk records.  

Gigspanner | The Wife of Urban Law | Album Review | Self Release | 28.10.17

The arrival of any new Gigspanner album is always preceded by eager anticipation in these quarters and the trio’s fourth album to date is no exception.  So good is Peter Knight’s trio, I’ve come to expect nothing short of musical excellence in both their choice of material and their intricate arrangements, but most importantly, in the standard of each musician’s masterful playing.  Even after a swift change of line up, Sacha Trochet replacing regular percussionist Vincent Salzfaas, who was forced to retreat due to ‘family matters’, the standard has remained of the highest standard both in their instrumentals and in the songs.  The Wife of Urban Law, its title taken from a gravestone in an Oxfordshire graveyard, features just nine tracks, each one imbued with that special Gigspanner treatment.  Take the traditional “Spencer the Rover” for instance, covered by many in the past, the tune may have been compos-ed by the roving Spencer but here the song benefits considerably from this fabulous arrangement by the trio.  The very idea of including a highly melancholic klezmer instrumental midway through, a perfect change of direction to follow the lyric ‘caused him to lament’, Knight wandering very much into Daniel Hoffman territory, that is both inspired and unexpected at the same time.  It’s this sort of adventurous spirit that has been the benchmark of Gigspanner’s appeal through their recorded output thus far.  Vocally, Peter Knight never strays into cloying techniques and keeps it pretty simple, which seems to keep us focussed on the material’s more enchanting moments.  Both live and on record, Peter Knight’s Gigspanner continue to thrill, just in time for their imminent extensive British tour.

Edgelarks | Edgelarks | Album Review | Dragonfly Records | 03.11.17

Standing back to back on the sleeve of their latest album, Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin enchant before a single note is played.  Birds circle the margins as the duo’s newly adopted name suggests, serving as an eloquent introduction to the twelve songs included within, which enchant equally. Hannah Martin’s mature vocal delivery has either developed over time or maybe it’s always been that way without us really noticing.  Rich in texture, due in no small part to John Elliott’s special touches, the songs are allowed to breathe through the duo’s arrangements, from the opening song, “Landlocked” through to the eastern influenced sound of “The Good Earth”.  Conceived in Australia while out there on tour and recorded in Cornwall, the album also features Phillip Henry’s familiar slide guitar and beatbox harmonica playing, both understated and never getting in the way, therefore allowing each song to remain uncluttered with only the essentials shining through.  The songs indeed shine through, with two of them having previously been aired during Hannah’s tenure with the Shake the Chains project, the almost whispered “Yarl’s Wood” and the exceptionally tender “Song of the Jay”.  Adding to the Indian flavour of this and other songs on the album is Niall Robinson on Tabla, with other contributions from Lukas Drinkwater on bass.  “We’re all passing through” suggests the sleeve notes – be sure to let Edgelarks pass through you. 

Brother Roy | Last Man Standing | Album Review | Self Release | 04.11.17

It’s rewarding to hear a record so chock full of songs rich in melody, with lush orchestrations, maturely written lyrics and embellished with the sound of a sweet Hammond organ, occasionally swirling along in the mix as if it was 1965 again.  “Heartbreaker”, the opening song, ticks the same boxes that Lennon put his proverbial mark to in the early 1970s, in the days when he would be seen hanging out with Harry Nilsson, downing the Brandy Alexanders like there was no tomorrow.  Claimed as a ‘rock and roll missionary’, we tend to listen with great expectations and speculative curiosity that we may just be in the presence of a musical authority.  Well I don’t know much about the man they call Brother Roy, but I trust my taste buds and these songs work blissfully well on my remaining senses.  Based in New York, Brother Roy has a confident approach to song writing, occasionally wearing his Leon Russell, Harry Nilsson and Beatles influences very much on his sleeve, but it apparently suits him, and in the case of Last Man Standing, it suits this reviewer well too.

Kate Rusby | Angels and Men | Album Review | Pure Records | 21.11.17

The wings are out for Christmas as Barnsley’s favourite daughter pops down from the top of the tree to celebrate the festive season in song.  Surrounding herself with members of her own touring band, including husband Damien O’Kane and accordion player Nick Cooke, both of whom also take care of production and mastering respectively, the songs bear all the hallmarks of a new Kate Rusby album, each of the thirteen selections treated to informed arrangements, including a seasonal brass section with Andrew Duncan at the helm, and fine performances throughout.  There’s a good mixture here, including Richard Thompson’s uplifting “We Sing Hallelujah”, Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne’s timeless “Let it Snow” and Chris Sugden’s playful “The Ivy and the Holly”, as well as the more traditional seasonal fare, “Hark Hark, Sweet Chiming Bells” and “Deck the Halls”.  Notably, Kate also revives her own super hero “Big Brave Bill” who this time sets out to save Christmas, which will no doubt keep the kids happy.  For me though, the golden bauble on this particular spruce, is Kate’s reading of David Myles’ “Santa Never Brings Me a Banjo”, featuring Union Station’s Ron Block on banjo and Sierra Hull on mandolin.  Christmas albums are not everybody’s cup of Yorkshire tea, but this one will certainly be played on December 25th around this reviewer’s house.

Saskia Griffiths-Moore | Night and Day | Album Review | Music Without Measure | 23.11.17

One or two firsts here, notably the first time I’ve reviewed an album produced by an artist who once established a Harley Street practice, who then went on to travel and explore music.  Not so new and unusual are the musicians Saskia has hooked up with, each of whom have previously been given column inches within these pages, notably Ciaran Algar (fiddle), Lukas Drinkwater (bass) and Evan Carson (drums).  Add the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award nominee Jack Cookson to the line-up and there’s a very healthy collaborative vibe behind Saskia Griffiths-Moore’s songs.  Defining her music as Anglicana, Saskia explores light and shade on this her second studio album, with ten self-penned songs and a delightful reading of the traditional “Wild Mountain Thyme”.  With a confident self-assured vocal delivery, the songs leap out at you, such as the album opener “All for You” and the punchy “Joy of Defeat”, whilst others demonstrate Saskia’s handling of restraint, notably the atmospheric title song “Night and Day”.

Laura Cortese and the Dance Cards | California Calling | Album Review | Compass Records | 25.11.17

There’s an immediate warmth to Laura Cortese’s new album California Calling, which features her band, the Dance Cards, namely Valerie Thompson (cello), Jenna Moynihan (fiddle) and Natalie Bohrn (bass), together with multi-instrumentalist/producer Sam Kassirer.  Musically speaking, the songs cover a lot of ground, ranging from the pop sensibilities of Stockholm and the title song “California Calling” to the rootsy grounding of the opener “The Low Hum” and the traditional “Swing and Turn”.  With an initial Beach Boys-styled harmony vocal, “Hold On” builds to Eleanor Rigby-styled proportions, demonstrating just how far Laura Cortese has come along in terms of her musicality since those formative days on Boston’s acoustic music scene.  With such songs as “Pace Myself”, the chosen single from the album, we see that this is no ordinary Americana album, rather a richly interwoven and extraordinarily well-constructed acoustic-based pop record, likely to reach a much broader audience than the usual fare.

Gavin Sutherland | Wireless Connection | Album Review | MIG | 26.11.17

It’s been a couple of years since Gavin Sutherland’s previous album A Curious Noise, the style of the songs of which I likened at the time to that of the late JJ Cale, with all his mystery, his Tulsa growl, his cliched laid-back bluesy sensibility.  One-time member of the Sutherland Brothers Band and the hugely successful Sutherland Brothers and Quiver, Gavin Sutherland seems to have done what every self-respecting pop/rock star should do, that is to grow old gracefully, not that he could really be described as old.  Nowhere on this latest release, Wireless Connection, do we see an artist pretending to be twenty again, but rather we see a mature musician utilising his distinctively weathered voice to deliver a dozen highly personal songs that range from the enduring appeal of the gramophone record, the magnificence of the Northern Lights, the connections between us all through the power of the wireless and the simple pleasure of sipping blueberry wine.  It might be a long while since those youthful siblings were lying in the arms of Mary, bobbing up and down on a lifeboat or providing Rod Stewart with one of his biggest hits, but it’s still rewarding to hear the familiar Sutherland sound this far down the road.

TootArd | Laissez Passer | Album Review | Glitterbeat | 05.12.17

From the funky opening guitar riff of the title song “Laissez Passer (Let Him Pass)” we immediately recognise the desert blues territory we’ve once again strayed into, with TootArd’s six musicians foisting their own particular Golan Heights roots upon the genre.  The band, whose name translates to ‘Strawberriest’, present a healthy mix of mountain rock and infectious Jabali reggae, which effectively brings to the fore their own Syrian roots, their occupied home of Majdal Shams remaining very much close to their hearts throughout.  On this, the band’s second album, although the first to receive an international release, the music exudes an incredible sense of joy, though the songs tell of the struggles that come with surviving difficult times in occupied territory.  There’s catchy riffs, infectious refrains and celebratory choruses, all of which makes Laissez Passer an uplifting experience, particularly “A’sfur, Sahra” and the memorable opening title track.

Kirsty Merryn | She and I | Album Review | Self Release | 06.12.17

Some really fine material here, each song an example of the work of a seemingly mature singer, songwriter and performer.  Based in London, although originally from the New Forest, Kirsty Merryn presents quite a remarkable debut album, remarkable first and foremost for being just that, her debut.  It all sounds pretty accomplished from the start, as Kirsty accompanies herself on piano on the opener “The Pit and the Pugilist”, sounding for all intents and purposes like Belinda O’Hooley’s twin sister.  Steve Knightley takes over midway through the album, offering the lead vocal on “Forfarshire”, a song about Grace Darling, which is a little like having David Crosby chirp in just after the final chord of “Little Green” on Joni’s Blue.  Kirsty’s voice is strong, confident and dominant and by the time we get to “The Fair Tea Maker of Edgeware Row”, hers is really the only voice we actually need.  Despite this, most songs about this particular lighthouse keeper’s daughter usually gets a thumbs up, whoever chooses to sing it, the story itself an utterly powerful slice of Northumbrian drama.  Collaboration appears to be spread across Kirsty’s debut, Luke Jackson popping up on “Delilah and Samson”, this time providing more drama from a different book altogether.  Along with Delilah and Grace Darling, Kirsty Merryn paints bold portraits of Annie Edson, Henrietta Lacks, Georgiana Houghton and Emma Hamilton – strong, adventurous and singular women, whose lives should be remembered and celebrated, and on She & I, they most certainly are.

Daniel Carlson | Not a Drawing | Album Review | Folkwit Records | 07.12.17

The advice that Daniel Carlson received during the making of his new album Not a Drawing was apparently ‘less Paul McCartney, more Pink Floyd’, although the songs here sound pretty much like lots of McCartney enhanced by Floyd gadgetry.  Imagine a tank-topped fool on the hill dancing around a ruined amphitheatre in Pompeii and it all will come clear.  The Chicago-born singer songwriter, who now oscillates between Amsterdam and New York City, thinks art, breaths art and probably devours art for breakfast.  Careful to ensure his songs are wrapped in sleeves designed by known artists, in this case Nayland Blake, who also came up with the album title, Carlson takes time to associate with such artists, together with video artists on each project, demonstrating a symbiotic relationship with the art world, which in turn seems to inform his own songwriting.  There’s a tendency to think of the songs as an artistic statement rather than just a bunch of good songs.  I expected to hear a sonar ping at the beginning of “All on Display”, the Floyd influence probably at its most obvious, yet in other places, Carlson’s songs can be compared to Jeff Lynne and surprisingly on “Everybody’s Dumb About You”, to Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, the Moog maestros behind some of Stevie Wonder’s finest work.  This said, Not a Drawing is essentially a song-based album, rich in melody and oddly appealing.

India Electric Co | Seven Sisters | EP Review | Self Release | 08.12.17

With a cumbersome monika that could easily be mistaken for a utility card on the Asian edition of Monopoly, the London-based Cole Stacey and Joseph O’Keefe present the second in a trilogy of EP releases, the title of which once again relates geographically to the duo.  Following on from EC1M, named for the postcode of the Clerkenwell district of London where the initial EP was recorded, Seven Sisters relates in name two areas of importance for the duo, the district of London where much of the material was first imagined and the name of the coastal cliffs of Sussex, close to Stacey’s childhood stomping ground.  Recorded at both Sutton House in Hackney and in an empty house in Devon, the marriage of the rural and the urban is once again explored, the five songs and standout tune set demonstrating once again the duo’s command over arrangement, particularly on the album closer, “Flash Company”, slowed down – compared to other familiar versions – to reveal a distinctive focus on the story, its eerie backdrop apparently featuring an atmospheric bowed cymbal.  With material spanning three centuries, from English songs and Scottish ballads through to Northumbrian dance tunes, Seven Sisters is yet another landmark release for a duo currently making a big splash in the acoustic music pool. 

Assembly Lane | Northbound | Album Review | Self Released | 09.12.17

Upon first hearing Assembly Lane’s debut album Northbound, the last place that came to mind was Newcastle upon Tyne, but this is indeed the city the four members of the band, Tom Kimber, Niles Krieger, Bevan Morris and Matthew Ord chose as their base.  Their fresh take on bluegrass and traditional old time folk music seamlessly intertwines with a rich and assured contemporary Americana feel, from the traditional “Sir Patrick Spens” and “The Hills of Mexico” to three rather tasty originals from the pen of singer/mandolin player Tom Kimber.  For those with a lifelong love of all things Big Pink, Assembly Lane treat the best of the double negative titled songs, “Ain’t No More Cane”, with almost reverential respect.  These musicians are no slackers when it comes to instrumentals either, with Kimber’s “Mind the Gap” and “Fivefold”, both of which allow the band to stretch out.  Closer to their current home, “The Fair Maid of Northumberland”, previously heard by both Dick Gaughan and Rachel Unthank and the Winterset on their debut record, is treated to a fine arrangement and an equally fine and convincing vocal, demonstrating that the band are just as comfortable with British folk song as they are with the American material.  As I pop the proverbial needle back to the start for the umpteenth time, I can confess to really liking this album a lot.  What’s not to like?

Head for the Hills | Potions and Poisons | Album Review | Self Release | 09.12.17

The Colorado-based four-piece roots outfit Head for the Hills openly admit that there’s no re-inventing the wheel here on their fourth album release, but there again, if it ain’t broke, why fix it?  One thing’s for certain, what we get from the band is variety; one minute experimental bluegrass, the next jazz-tinged acoustic swing, each selection tantalisingly fresh and accessible, with top drawer musicianship and mature vocal harmonies throughout.  The songs tackle realistic subjects, drawn from the darker side of the human condition, such as the title song itself “Potions and Poisons”, those conditions highlighted almost in list form.  There’s food for thought, accompanied by a rhythmically tapped foot, all of which makes for a fulfilling listening experience.  The instrumentals “Floodwaters” and “Bucker” adhere to the sore finger ethic, with some fine syncopated rhythms that I imagine almost guarantee whoops and hollers all in the right places during live performance, something we should all experience first-hand at our earliest convenience.

Rhiannon Scutt | #9 EP | EP Review | Self Release | 10.12.17

When musical partners Rhiannon Scutt and Pete Sowerby, otherwise known as Rita Payne, parted company a couple of years ago, the news came as a bit of a shock and with a fair deal of sadness.  This seemingly perfectly formed duo, with instantly recognisable melodies and unmistakable vocal harmonies, rose in local popularity like lightning, swiftly progressing from reliable support act to headliners almost overnight.  One life lesson learnt a long time ago though, is that you should never take sides in a divorce and it was relatively easy to watch Rhiannon continue as a solo singer songwriter and performer, occasionally dipping into the curious world of Devo, as part of a tribute act to that particular band, whilst Pete continued with the expanded Rita Payne.  Named after the Sheffield cafe where the EP was recorded, #9 offers a handful of new original songs using musicians who had up until this point never heard the material before. A live jam then, with one or two rough edges, compensated by the vibrancy of a live off the floor performance.  It’s not the tightest recording of Rhiannon’s career thus far, but it’s probably her most honest and true; ‘Beautifully imperfect’ is the way Rhiannon describes it.  With songs such as the delicate “I Swim” and the highly personal “Waging War”, Rhiannon demonstrates her own resilience as a surviving solo artist, with a promising future just around the corner.

Thunder and Rain | Start Believing | Album Review | Self Release | 12.12.17

Listening to Thunder and Rain’s new album Start Believing reminds me of first hearing the Rankin Family back in the Nineties, their rich harmonies and rock/pop/country sensibility a reward for anyone who cares to listen.  Formed around the nucleus of mandolin player Peter Weber and singer/guitarist Erinn Peet-Lukes, whose formative busking days in Seattle set the ball rolling, a ball that has picked up a little momentum after the duo expanded the band from just the two of them to a rather larger collective, resulting in the current line-up of Weber and Peet-Lukes together with bassist Ian Haegele and dobro player Chris Herbst.  Produced by former band member RP Oates, who also contributes guitar, piano and banjo, Start Believing maintains crystal clear production throughout, with informed musicianship built towards raising Erinn Peet-Lukes’ fine vocals to the fore throughout.  Despite a pretty dreadful cover shot, Erinn apparently surrounded by Kraftwerk on a summer vacation, the songs are thoroughly accomplished, immediately accessible and utterly radio friendly for any truly discerning and feel-good radio station.

Lauren MacColl | The Seer | Album Review | Fèis Rois | 15.12.17

Commissioned by Fèis Rois, The Seer is a new work by Lauren MacColl, one of the finest contemporary fiddlers in Scotland today.  If this was Prog Rock, this would no doubt be a concept album, but as we are knee-deep in the Scots tradition, let’s call it a commissioned suite, based upon the prophecies of the renowned 17th century Highland prophet, Coinneach Odhar, the Brahan Seer.  The ten original pieces that make up the suite feature both instrumentals and songs delivered in both English and Gaelic.  Lauren’s work as part of the all-female quartet RANT, the brilliant Salt House and as a member of Rachel Newton’s touring band, has stood her in good stead for such a grand project as this, where she invites some illustrious company to join her.  With accordionist/piper Mairearad Green, fiddler/pianist Megan Henderson, guitarist/mandolin player Anna Massie and percussionist James Mackintosh, Lauren has gathered an empathetic group of fine musicians, embellished further by Rachel Newton’s trademark Clarsach flourishes together with her unmistakable voice on “Taladh Choinnich Odhar” and the powerful last words of the prophet, “An Unkindness of Ravens”.  Wrapped in a sleeve evoking the brooding atmosphere of the bleak Highlands landscape, beautifully photographed and designed by Somhairle MacDonald, The Seer’s overall impact, musically and visually, is both contemplative and utterly dramatic at the same time.

Johnny Cash | Greatest Hits | Album Review | Charly | 15.12.17

The recent plethora of Johnny Cash re-issues through Charly, all seven original Sun LPs newly remastered and released on 180 gram audiophile vinyl, together with the slightly expanded CD box set featuring those seven albums plus a special bonus disc of rarities, has effectively put Cash’s formative years back in the public conscience.  Twenty songs from the period between 1955 and 1961 have been carefully chosen and compiled for the release of this greatest hits compilation, featuring such classic Cash 45s as “Cry! Cry! Cry!”, “Folsom Prison Blues” and “I Walk the Line”, packaged in a sleeve that could easily be mistaken for an original Sun release if it wasn’t for the Charly label tucked away in the corner, such terms as iTunes, Spotify and ‘digital stores’ in John A Singleton’s sleeve notes and of course, the barcode.  Times may have changed since Sam Phillips first recorded these gems as the actual celestial sun beat down on his tiny studios on Union Avenue in Memphis Tennessee around sixty years ago, yet listening to this collection reminds us of just how important the songs really are.  If you were to really concentrate whilst listening to the songs, on that particular period of history, on the twang of the guitar and the percussive rhythm of the ‘dollar bill’ sandwiched between the fretboard and the strings, on the simple arrangements and most importantly, on Johnny Cash’s iconic tones – hairs may very well stand up on the back of your neck.

Willie Campbell and the Open Day Rotation | New Clouds in Motion | Album Review | Invisible King | 24.12.17

Based on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, this highly regarded singer songwriter and one time co-frontman of indie band Astrid, continues his run of critically acclaimed albums under the guise of Willie Campbell and the Open Day Rotation, with this outfit’s third album New Clouds in Motion, following on from the success of Down by the Head (2008) and the Tony Doogan produced Toxic Good Toxic Bad (2012).  Adopting a bright and breezy pop style, the songs tend to jump off the disc rather than sidle up slowly, with accessible melodies reminiscent of such bands as fellow Scots, the Sutherland Brothers and Quiver.  Continuing to bridge mature rock sensibilities with guitar-driven pop, songs such as the opener “Mary Rest Your Head”, “Born to be Blind” and the Springsteen influenced “Going Through the Motions” suggest a vibrant live band at work, while mellow curios such as “I’ve Got a Kite” and “Winter Late in Spring”, keep things evenly balanced.

The Railsplitters | Jump In | Album Review | Self Release | 29.12.17

Occasionally, a CD drops into your lap and without so much as another thought, goes immediately onto the player.  There’s normally a reason for this; either the cover design is so utterly thrilling you just feel obliged to stick the record on, then again, it might be the name that you recognise and with itching curiosity, you’re overwhelmed with a burning desire to find out what all the fuss is about.  Then there’s always the possibility that you’re entranced by subliminal messages cleverly embossed into the cover, forcing your hand, but I think that’s unlikely.  Usually, and certainly in the case of Jump In, it’s because you’re already very much familiar with the band’s golden track record and you know instinctively that you’re in for a treat once again.  Five years in and with one or two line-up changes along the way, the Railsplitters’ third outing follows their self-titled debut The Railsplitters (2013) and their second helping The Faster it Goes (2015), and brings with it a further ten immediately accessible songs and tunes as we pretty much knew it would.  The Colorado-based bluegrass quintet serve up the material with no small measure of maturity, vigour and professionalism, with great songs and stirring tunes right from the heart.  Lauren Stovall’s distinctive vocal delivery is very much there again, along with Dusty Rider’s busy banjo playing and Peter Sharpe’s equally busy mandolin playing.  Joe D’Esposito’s assured fiddle playing dove-tails into the mix whilst Leslie Ziegler drives it all along with her double bass.  Never failing to miss their stride throughout the album, the Railsplitters provide just a taster of what we should expect to find on the band’s forthcoming tour.  I can’t help thinking that it’s going to be even better than before.

Fela Kuti | Box Set #4 | Album Review | Knitting Factory | 31.12.17

There’s little doubt that Fela Kuti’s popularity grew after his death in 1997.  Re-issues of his albums, under various guises including Koola Lobitos, Nigeria 70, Africa 70 and Egypt 80, have come and gone over the last couple of decades since his untimely death, with each LP release finding new audiences worldwide.  The current trend for music curatorship continues with Erykah Badu’s choice selection of seven LPs from the Afrobeat creator’s back catalogue, the fourth edition joining three previous box sets curated in turn by Questlove, Ginger Baker and Brian Eno respectively.  Bearing in mind that these previously released sets make up a total of nineteen LPs, you might think we’re fast approaching the section marked ‘and the rest’.  We would be wrong though, as this limited edition set includes the brilliant Coffin for Head of State (1980), with it mesmerising guitar riff underpinning some of Fela’s most hard hitting no-nonsense pidgin lyrics.  This, combined with Yellow Fever (1976), No Agreement (1977), J.J.D. (Johnny Just Drop) (1977), V.I.P. (1979), Army Arrangement (1984) and Underground System (1992), marks out yet another bold statement in Fela Kuti’s prolific output.  Characteristically, most of Fela Kuti’s compositions are long, in some cases taking up both sides of an LP, split between parts one and two, whilst in other cases, just one song per side.  This may be one of the reasons why Fela’s work was rarely heard on the radio.  Dressed in their original sleeves, some of which were designed by Lemi Ghariokwu, Fela’s long-serving visual force, the seven LPs provide yet another insight into one of the most charismatic, ambiguous, unusual yet gifted musicians to come out of Africa.