Records 2018

Midnight Skyracer – Fire | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 01.01.18

I was well aware as I faffed about with the settings on my Nikon D5100 that we were steadily losing light on the opening night of the 2017 Cambridge Folk Festival, just after Midnight Skyracer left the club tent, following their rather tastefully rendered Thursday evening set.  We missed our opportunity during the afternoon at the duck pond, the predictable and overused haven for publicity snaps, due to the pre-festival traffic chaos across town.  With the light fading fast, I almost resigned myself to the fact that we’d missed the boat on this occasion but as luck would have it, the five musicians of this newly formed all-female bluegrass outfit left the stage just as the evening light decided to play fair with my camera’s limited capabilities.  I quickly assembled the musicians in a line just behind the stage, asked them to pick up their instruments and to pretend that I had just told them the funniest joke in the world.  After no more than half a dozen snaps, there it was, the photograph that now graces the back of this lovely debut album.  If this describes adequately the extent of my involvement in the making of the album sleeve, then the word that describes my contribution to the material contained within would be ‘zero’, clearing my conscience in order to write a few words of how I feel about the music.  The 45-minute set that the packed Cambridge audience witnessed on that Thursday evening back in the summer, provided a clear indication of what these gifted musicians were capable of doing when it came to the recording of a studio album.  The Carrivick Sisters after all, had been here before and were no doubt thinking to themselves, wait ‘til they hear this!  A few months earlier, Charlotte and Laura had slipped me an early nod and a wink as to what they were up to and this performance at the Cambridge Folk Festival had been very much anticipated.  I wanted this debut album to be good and I’m delighted to say that it has exceeded my expectations tenfold.  Fire is actually a great record, with some fine performances, both in terms of its instrumental prowess and its vocal delivery.  Described as a ‘hard driving Anglo-Irish Bluegrass band’, Midnight Skyracer features the talents of Leanne Thorose on mandolin, Tabitha Agnew on banjo, Charlotte and Laura on guitar and fiddle/dobro respectively and Eleanor Wilkie driving things along on double bass.  A ‘supergroup’ of sorts made up of musicians who have served time in such outfits as the Absentees, Cup O’Joe, Cardboard Fox and Reckless Abandoners, Midnight Skyracer has all the vital components to compete with other bluegrass outfits not only in the UK but also on an international scale.  If the dexterous playing and fine arrangements are all perfectly in place – just listen to their treatment of Hazel Dickens’ “Working Girl Blues” and the traditionalSusan Anna Gal” for proof of that – then the cherry on top of this proverbial cake, must be the two lead voices of Leanne and Tabitha; the former who injects a hard-hitting and determined country-inflected growl, whilst the latter provides a smooth, breathy, delicate alternative, which brings to the album a beautiful contrast.  Added to this, the sibling harmonies of the Carrivick twins, with Laura also providing the lead vocal on Bill Monroe’s “Sitting Alone in the Moonlight”, the whole thing dovetails together with seamless precision.  Fire hasn’t been off the player throughout the festive season and I dare say it’ll stick around until the spring, and then no doubt beyond that.

Maimu Jõgeda – Pühendus | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 05.01.18

There are few better ways to spend thirty-three minutes than in the company of Maimu Jõgeda’s captivating accordion.  On Pühendus, the young musician invites us to explore the landscapes of her native Estonia via twelve original instrumentals, all played with palpable emotion and dexterity on a single instrument, with nods towards Estonian folklore.  Whilst the album is saturated in a distinctively folky sound, Jõgeda also allows her jazz roots to show, having previously performed as part of a number of jazz ensembles.  Folk melodies on such tracks as “Kolme Peale”, “Kahekõne”and “Pilvede Tants” are set against sprawling backdrops that incorporate nimble rhythms and evocative jazz chords whilst “Sekundid” and “Pühendus” are almost cinematic in their searching tranquility.  And as you reach the end of this mesmerising set, it’s comforting to know that this crowdfunded debut album is just the beginning of what promises to be an exciting career.

Laura Smyth and Ted Kemp – The Poacher’s Fate | Album Review | Broken Token Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 06.01.18

If you’re going to make a traditional folk album, it’s significantly helpful to be immersed in the genre.  And, as the senior librarian at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, Laura Smyth is positively drenched.  She’s also fortunate enough to possess a gorgeous voice that, with help from the album’s sparse production and Ted Kemp’s subtle guitar and banjo accompaniments, places The Poacher’s Fate amongst the fine releases of Anne Briggs and Shirley Collins.  Here’s an album that harks back to the unadorned gems of 1970s folk via tracks such as “Cecilia” and “The Brown Hare of Whitebrook”, where voice and story interact so nakedly and enchantingly, as well as the album’s only instrumental track, “Winder’s Hornpipe/Kill Him With Kindness”, which showcases Laura’s haunting handling of the concertina.  When Ted Kemp’s sturdy vocals are introduced on tracks such as “Murder in the Red Barn” and the stunning unaccompanied version of “Brave Bembo”, shimmering reflections of The Watersons are hard to miss and, in a world of over-production and over-ambition, it’s utterly refreshing to discover an album that strips everything back to the bare essentials.

Ben Morgan-Brown – Cold Rooms | EP Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 07.01.18

Having just lent my thoughts to the debut album by Midnight Skyracer, the recently formed Anglo-Irish all-female bluegrass quintet, we turn to another Josh Clark-produced release, this time the third EP by Exeter-based singer-songwriter and guitar player Ben Morgan-Brown.  Ben’s fluid acoustic guitar sound is put to good use here on these five self-penned songs, one of which is a delicate instrumental.  There’s shades of Nick Drake here and a little Nick Harper there, and probably one or two other Nicks along the way, together with a certain Bert, yet Ben manages to inject enough of his own personality and delicate style to give these songs their own identity.  I’m reminded of Elliott Smith for some reason, possibly in the personal treatment of such songs as “Sunken Treasure” and “No More Fooling”.  Seen as a turning point in his musical endeavours, Ben reflects on the last few years of his life, which have seen him marry, divorce, lose several important people and spend a month in hospital after being poisoned in Morocco, all of which would make anyone catch their breath for a moment, and with Cold Rooms, Ben appears to have done just that.

Winter Wilson – Far Off on the Horizon | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 09.01.18

This may or may not be the right time or place to pick up on a few niggles, but there again, when is a good time and where is a good place?  Recently, the British folk scene has been awash with an almost relentless parade of themed projects, recordings and shows of the Full English Elizabethan Transports of Child Migration variety (musicals basically), together with a more widespread outbreak of collaboration fever, each usually commissioned by this, that or the other festival (or a certain house in Camden) with much intermingling amongst a finite bunch of young (and old) musicians, often fresh out of folk college and each project set to meet an ambitious deadline.  Although there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this – in fact they’re rather popular I hear – I do have my reservations about whether the songs are sufficiently ‘worn in’.  Musicians who work together over longer periods of time tend to take their time in order to work up a repertoire that allows the songs to grow and develop and eventually change into something unexpected and special.  Having said this, Miles Davis’ modal experimentation that turned up as the seminal album Kind of Blue, was basically a jam with one or two guidelines, yet it has been for some considerable time my favourite album of all time.  The music journalist Pete Frame would have to invest in an ocean-deep inkwell to keep up with those aforementioned folk collaborationists in his detailed family trees, yet with Kip Winter and Dave Wilson, we have just the two names to consider, both of whom continue to deliver high quality material and with as little pomp and fuss as is necessary.  Thoroughly content to mark their niche on the British acoustic music scene as a semi-pro duo, their trajectory was recently skewed when redundancy forced them to make unexpected and difficult decisions, which resulted in the duo establishing themselves as a fully-fledged and hardworking professional musical partnership.  Believe it or not, Far off on the Horizon is Winter Wilson’s eighth studio album and once again showcases Dave’s fine song writing credentials.  There can’t be many around who have not heard at least one Dave Wilson song or indeed seen the duo at some point, possibly at a local folk club, or at one of our many festivals, some as far as New Zealand and Australia.  Many more are about to become familiar with the duo (and their songs) as they support Fairport Convention – Mr Frame coincidentally had his work cut out on this band’s extensive family tree if memory serves – on their imminent winter tour.  Songs likely to prick up the ears of those attendant Fairporters, those they successfully entice from the rowdy theatre bar that is, could quite possibly be “The Ship That Rocked”, “The Old Man Was a Sea Dog” and the poignant “Ghost”, each of which appear on this latest release.  Alluding to various hot topics such as migration, growing old and how it’s possible to go from a girl to a ghost at just eighteen years of age, Kip and Dave tell stories that continue to resonate.  I’ve always enjoyed Dave’s songs and continue to do so, especially in the way that Kip sings them and particularly if the song calls for her to fall helplessly into that distinct soulful blues mode, exemplified here on “Tried and Tested”.  There’s passion involved, as well as a clear understanding of each of the songs.  You tend to instinctively know from the start, that Kip and Dave don’t have the sort of deadlines to meet as mentioned above, instead they take their time to ensure their songs are ‘worn in’ and ready to go.

Jim Ghedi – A Hymn for Ancient Land | Album Review | Basin Rock | Review by Marc Higgins | 10.01.18

Rob Young’s fascinating book, Electric Eden: Unearthing Britains Visionary Music successfully expands an examination of English Folk Music, looking backwards and forwards at that peculiarly British strand of pastoral music, connecting Fairport Convention, Pink Floyd and Apex Twin.  On the other side of the world, the Aboriginal People believe in Songlines or dreaming tracks and connect traditional music strongly to place with songs describing landscapes.  The brass on Roy Harper’s “When an Old Cricketer” and the lyrics together evoke a rich sense of Englishness, as do the wry melancholic lyrics of Nick Drake, or the acoustic guitar of Nic Jones on “Courting is a Pleasure”.  All of these strands, come together on this album, a sense of place, a sense of pastoral honesty and integrity and a sense of being connected.  A Hymn for Ancient Land is simply that, a celebration of The Moss Valley, Ghedi’s spiritual and physical home and other places he feels connected to.  Jim Ghedi is a masterful musician and writer, and like a pagan lightning rod running backwards, the power of the landscape he describes flows back up through his feet, his body and out into the air.  “Home for Moss Valley” celebrates the place of Ghedi’s upbringing and is a gloriously powerful soundscape.  Atmospherics and some crystalline piano notes shimmer around some huge guitar chords, Jim like Michael Chapman, knows how to wring everything ounce of emotion out of a big guitar strum, playing the air around the instrument as well as the strings themselves.  Cello, Double Bass and Violin add some melancholia, avoiding cloying sentimentality as deftly as anything Robert Kirby arranged.  This is beauty, but a savage beauty that leaves you breathless.  “Cwm Elan” has a lighter touch, guitars and harp are a lyrical shorthand for journeys through the Welsh Cambian landscape, walks taken, sights seen and conversations had.  Ghedi’s love of the places he describes and sense of wonder is palpable and infectious as he recounts his travels like a musical Richard Long.  “Bramley Moor” features a wonderfully deft cyclical guitar, reminiscent of Michael Chapman or an English John Fahey, the knotted frenetic pace describing the battle with frackers to protect the five mile valley the tune describes.  “Fortingall Yew” a stand out track on a stand out album is a stunning guitar and cello piece, layering Jim’s electric and acoustic guitars into a sublime series of knots and branches.  The hymn to an example of Britain’s longest lived native tree is crying out to be on a playlist to accompany Roger Deakins mindful writings on woods and wild swimming that are name checked in Ghedi’s excellent sleeve notes.  “Phoenix Works” is an altogether edgy piece, a wonderful evocation of the settlements of Ridgeway and Ford, pre-eminent for hundreds of years in the industry of scythe and sickle makers.  The lyric, a powerfully delivered over some powerful electrical guitar, is in part the remaining fragment of a poem written by one of the workers and part Ghedi’s extrapolation of that workers life.  Part reflection, part work song this is another album highlight.  The line “now this land has spoke” is an apt by-line for this excellent album.  Ghedi’s voice as he tells the workers story is a rich instrument, shaped in Sheffield, it is hewn from broadly the same landscape that he describes and that just adds to its power and integrity.  Dipping into his Irish heritage “Banks of Mulroy Bay” is a traditional tune, starting as a crystalline piano duet and ending as a beautiful folk song delivered by Jim Ghedi like a church hymn.  The mix of Jim’s voice and the harmonium is just beautiful.  “Sloade Lane” is Jim Ghedi playing some very pastoral guitar that would make John Renbourn smile with some sensitive brass accompaniment.  Like the sky overhead Ghedi’s guitar links all of these pieces together a beautiful foil to all of the rich elements on this stunning album.  From his beginnings on his first album as a deft and dexterous guitarist, an English Jack Rose or William Tyler, like Nick Jonah Davis, who also plays on this album, Ghedi is developing into a complex musician with a lot to say and interesting ways of saying it.

Various Artists – Topic Records: The Real Sound of Folk Music | Album Review | Topic Records | Review by Steve Henderson | 11.01.18

With both a new generation of folk musicians pushing the boundaries of tradition and a flood of singer songwriters clutching acoustic guitars and heading for a stage near you, there seems no better time for a record company to fling open its doors to a treasure trove of a back catalogue. So, it’s timely that Topic Records have followed the release of their Voice of the People box set with this two CD collection, Topic Records: The Real Sound of Folk Music, which contains some of their finest music.  On their way to the music hungry public are a range of CD introductions to their major artists too.  On the first CD, there are guitar pickers like Davy Graham with the truly iconic “Anji”, Martin Simpson with his own fine composition, “Never Any Good”, and Martin Carthy with the “Scarborough Fair” track that Paul Simon famously ‘borrowed’.  Exemplary songwriters with a social edge have their place with Dick Gaughan’s “Both Sides the Tweed” and John Tams’ “Unity (Raise Your Banners High)”.  Let’s not forget the women on this with well-known tracks from Shirley Collins, Eliza Carthy, Anne Briggs and Silly Sisters.  Then, there are the bands with both Pentangle and The Watersons putting in appearances.  The second CD digs deeply into the catalogue with Peter Bellamy’s “When I Die” and looks to the more recent “Man in The Moon” from The Full English.  It goes fully (Northern) English with tracks from Vin Garbutt and The Cheviot Ranters as well looking across the Atlantic with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott’s “Talking Dustbowl Blues”.  It also nods at folk music’s ability to draw the historical strings together with “Love Will Tear Us Apart” by June Tabor and Oysterband.  Whilst some folk fans will, no doubt, be familiar with several of the tracks here, each is a little gem awaiting discovery by those less familiar with the label’s output.  Those more familiar with these tracks may well be attracted by having so many favourites in one place.  Then, of course, there’s the fact that you should get these 28 tracks for under a tenner.  A bargain if ever I heard one.

Red Shoes – It Isn’t Over Yet | Album Review | Cedarwood Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 12.01.18

Red Shoes are Carolyn and Mark Evans, Carolyn vocals and Mark guitars.  It Isn’t Over Yet is the duo’s third release, with the duo augmented by friend players like Dave Pegg and Ric Sanders from Fairport Convention, and on dobro Joe Brown.  Musically Red Shoes are good time acoustic folk country with voice or voices blending beautifully with thoughtful guitars.  Spread across the double album are tender, heartfelt observational songs, with the first disc containing band songs where the acoustic trio of Carolyn, Mark and second guitarist Nigel King are joined by Sanders distinctive electric violin, Peggy’s huge sounding bass, Rob Mason on drums and legend Joe Brown on dobro.  It is an album of contrasts, the band tracks to get you moving and the second set of acoustic numbers to get you thinking.  “Salters Screen” is a bouncing upbeat track that takes a nostalgic look back at an old cinema, the kind of modern folk song, glancing nostalgically into a shared past that Fairport themselves could cover. Stand out tracks are smouldering country anthem “I Wish It Would Rain”, “Maple Tree Boy” and traditional “Reynardine”.  “I Wish It Would Rain” is a big hitter song, you feel you have always known, with a lyric calling for change and great electric guitar and a huge Dave Pegg bass pattern.  “Maple Tree Boy” puts the recollections of Arthur Wallace, navy medic on ‘Juno’ beach in 1944, to music.  The arrangement on the song is one of taut restraint, Carolyn’s pure voice tells the story while Sanders’ electric violin builds an atmosphere.  The recording throughout the album is spot on, and on this track the drum sounds monumental, processional and funereal.  The traditional song “Reynardine” is here reimagined, as is the folk tradition, into a protest song of our times.  Carolyn Evans has twisted the verse structure of the song’s narrative from a tale of an ‘other worldly’ visitation into a defence of the fox and denouncement of the barbarism that is hunting.  Evans’ powerful voice, accompanied by Rob Mason’s powerful drum builds a captivating rhythm.  “Floorspot Annie” is another modern folk song, a well observed portrait of a walk on floorspot folk club performer, real life tinged with melancholy.  For “Six Boats” and “All the Way to Troon” Mark Evans takes the lead vocal an interesting contract to Carolyn.  “All the Way to Troon also features some fine Celtic guitar flourishes that evoke the spirit of Bert Jansch or Michael Chapman a reminder of the dexterity of long time guitarist Nigel King.  This is a fine album of acoustic gems with splashes of rocking country fire.  The trio of Red Shoes make a comfortable, timeless sound and open a window into small town nostalgia, regret and real lives lived.  The addition of Bass, Drums, Violin and Dobro give the album a sprinkle of sparkle and fire.  Tracks like Carolyn’s reading of “Reynardine”, “I Wish it Would Rain” the anthemic “Hostile Place” and “Maple Tree Boy” are reminders that hidden behind a manufactured homogenised auto tuned mainstream with performers selected by celebrity panels and auto tuned, there is a world of small labels and real talents more deserving of our attention.  What is wrong with the world indeed.

Will Varley – Spirit of Minnie | Album Review | Xtra Mile Recordings | Review by Steve Henderson | 13.01.18

If you look back at musical history, it’s part of the folklore that many singer songwriters have started off in the bedroom.  Before your mind goes elsewhere, think of the likes of Paul Simon or Ed Sheeran who probably crafted new songs in the privacy of their own room before launching them on public ears.  With some interest in their songs garnered from those that matter, the next step is often that decision as to whether to go for the fleshier sound of a band.  With Spirit of Minnie, that’s exactly where Will Varley finds himself.  Having been feted and supported by such as Billy Bragg, Frank Turner, The Proclaimers; the headline gigs are now coming and his new record shifts away from previous recordings which were mainly in ‘man with acoustic guitar’ territory.  Its immediate predecessor, Kingsdown Sundown, turned its guns on uncaring politicians in a piercing way and other records have shown Varley to be a reflective dreamer reaching out with his lyrics to those of like mind.  So, where does that leave his new record?  Ditched are the humorous elements of previous songs such as “Talking Cat Blues”.  In come musical hooks like the refrain on “All Those Stars” which will appeal to those who like to sing along.  Aided and abetted by that full band sound (bass, drums, etc), it’s more of a foot tapping and shuffling record than its predecessors – you’ll find it difficult to stop yourself with tracks like “Seven Days”.  That’s not to say he’s disappeared into a sugary sweet pop mix as we hear on The Postman which builds slowly into its musical crescendo. It’s an approach to arranging songs that he returns to on the closing track, “Insect”.  However, keeping in touch with previous records, the acoustic guitar remains to the fore with tracks like “Statues” and “Breaking the Bread”.  As various as the song titles suggest, lyrically, he’s become even less direct than before and leaves the listener to paint their own picture on tracks such as Screenplays.  His fans, new and old, will find the musical territory is rather unfamiliar on Spirit of Minnie but that reflective mind is still beavering away to produce music that intrigues in its mystery.  It would have been easy for him to reproduce the approaches of the past as they’d gone down well.  So, hats off to Will Varley for taking his music to the next level – it’s worth following to see where it takes you. 

Adrian Nation – Anarchy and Love | Album Review | Laburnum Bridge Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 14.01.18

Adrian Nation has a rumble of a voice and an easy delivery, the words tumble from his mouth, seeming as effortless as rain on a tin roof but as perfectly formed as water drops.  Whether performing his own songs or interpreting others material as the album opens with a powerful reading of Runrig’s “Rocket to the Moon” and closes with a classic Burns lyric, Nation is a distinctive performer.  He inhabits a song like “When You Love” finding a beauty and a groove, stretching moments.  This is the languid acoustic blues of Bruce Cockburn or the warm well-worn delivery of Show of Hands.  Like John Martyn you can listen to the poetry of individual phrases or you can just sink back into the instrumental sound of his vocal.  Embellishments like percussion and layered backing vocals just burnish the considerable beauty of Adrian’s voice and his 12 string guitar.  Nation desperately wants to take you with him, below the titles of tracks like “The Benderloch Stone” he lists the places where the songs were written.  There is a clear relationship between inspiration and song, a strong sense of place in Adrian’s work.  Some of the dates span years demonstrating that these songs have been lived with, have travelled and developed over time.  This is a labour of love with an investment of time, effort and love.  Joel Schwartz from the excellent Birds of Chicago adds electric guitar alongside Jonathan Potts’ low whistle and Hannah Fisher’s fiddle casting a Celtic miasma across “The Benderlock Stone”.  Nation is a considerable guitar player and his atmospheric songs are interspersed with some dexterous and beautiful 12 string guitar instrumentals, pieces like “Carpe Meridianus” place his playing and feel alongside masters like Stefan Grossman or newer troubadours like Glenn Jones or Jack Rose, there is craft in his fingers and the guy has some chops.  The track “Anarchy and Love”, an album highlight takes the anthemic spoken blues of Bruce Cockburn and rolls it up into a ball of bile and anger.  Nation and Schwartz’s guitars spit screech and snarl at each other behind a tense emotional lyric inspired by a graffiti phrase ‘we are the happy future fight now’.  The song is a gloriously collision of emotions that titles the album.  “Without or Without Me”, perhaps subconsciously, because of the title, has the expansive feel of a Joshua Tree U2 track.  The expansive chiming guitars, the breathy potency of the voice, the sense of space all suggest a kind of stripped back U2 at the height of their 80s powers.  A symphony of shimmering guitars, lyrical lyrics and a sense of passion, sublime, even anthemic.  “Dying of Democracy” burns out of the speakers, a dirty electric guitar like Roy Harper at his smouldering “One Man Rock And Roll Band” best.  Another wonderful spoken blues vocal snarls and snakes its way through some vitriolic thoughts on the circular end of civilization.  Gino Mirizio’s percussion and Jonathan Potts’ violin add some light and sparkle to the electric guitar on another stand out track.  More people need to hear this song and more people need to hear this man.  Adrian’s dad gets a heartfelt dedication on the album and his last words form the bones of “River in the Rain” the most emotionally raw and poignant song on the album, a celebration of relationships and a reminder of what is at the core of life.  A moment of honest beauty after the fire storm of earlier tracks.  To underline what underpins the album the final track is an arrangement of Robert Burns’ “A Mans a Man” an 18th century pondering around what exactly is a true measure of man.  Deep thoughts and truths to close on as Adrian celebrates what connects us all.  A stirring close to an intensely rich and emotional album that brings together charged political vim, rolling road songs, sparkling instrumentals and a tribute to his departed father.  Simply stunning in its breadth and depth.

Frigg – Frost On Fiddles | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 15.01.18

After a five year recording hiatus, Frigg have delivered a brawny eighth album that, once again, demonstrates the Finnish band’s extraordinary energy and invention.  Their previous release Polka V (2012), which was named Folklandia’s Folk Album of the Year and earned the septet a Teosto Prize nomination, certainly took some following, but thanks to some scintillating strokes on fiddle, guitar, mandolin and bass, and a selection of enchanting waltzes, polskas and sprawling melodic soundscapes, Frost on Fiddles is nothing short of a triumph.  The album marks the first time the band has produced a record as a collective, a decision which has affected the overall presentation for the better.  Whilst nimble tunes and energetic crescendos are still intact, there is a depth to Frost on Fiddles that, via such arresting tunes as Kenkkuni & Pikkuni and Deep Water, finds new hues in Frigg’s already colourful palette. In true Frigg style, however, the tranquillity of their more pensive moments is offset by such tracks as “Friggin’ Polska”, with its distorted mandolin and stadium rock influences and the squealing abandon of “False Legenyes”.

String Sisters – Between Wind and Water | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 18.01.18

Formed at Celtic Connections in 1998, String Sisters boasts no fewer than six of the world’s best fiddlers.  Annbjørg Lien (Norway), Catriona Macdonald (Shetland), Emma Härdelin (Sweden), Liz Carroll (United States), Liz Knowles (United States) and Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh (Ireland) comprise the powerful fiddle-driven engine of this supergroup whilst guitarist Tore Bruvoll (Norway), pianist Dave Milligan (Scotland), bassist Conrad Molleson (Scotland) and percussionist James Mackintosh (Scotland) provide a masterful and similarly international rhythm section.  Now in their twentieth year, String Sisters present Between Wind and Water, a wonderfully textured collection of twelve tracks that stir the soul and pluck at the heartstrings.  Conceived during the summer of 2017 in Shetland and recorded in Edinburgh during the autumn, the album glides puckishly between heartfelt ballads, agile tunes and haunting vocal pieces such as the jaw-dropping “Det Bor I Mina Tankar”, a traditional Swedish song chillingly sung by Emma Härdelin. Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh’s self-penned “Mo Nion O” (My Daughter O) is the kind of magical lullaby that can only come from the shores of Ireland whilst Tore Bruvoll’s “Vinterfolk” provides the perfect sparkle for a crisp winter’s day thanks to its delightful melody.  The album culminates in a live performance of three tunes by Liz Carroll.  The closing set, entitled “The Blooming Conductor”, showcases the talents of the band’s ten members and places the proverbial cherry on top of what is, indeed, a rather tasty birthday cake.

Salt House – Undersong | Album Review | Make Believe Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 19.01.18

And then there were three.  When the Scots band Salt House first set out on their adventures back in 2013, they were a quartet made up of four musicians whose debut album was greeted with critical acclaim.  Since then, the band have undergone some changes, with original members Ewan MacPherson and Lauren MacColl remaining in the line-up, and the addition of lead singer Jenny Sturgeon, who takes over where Siobhan Miller left off.  Undersong is equally as good as the band’s debut, which features both traditional and original songs, together with the odd Robert Frost poem re-set to music, each performed with gentle arrangements and alternating vocal performances, which keeps the album interesting.  Recorded by seasoned record producer Andy Bell in a restored church on the island of Berneray in the Outer Hebrides, beautifully captured in the trio’s video promo of “Staring at Stars”, the songs capture the essence of such a breath-taking setting.  Curiously the band’s debut Lay Your Dark Low back in 2013 doesn’t include Ewan MacPherson’s song of that name, although it does appear here, accompanied by some sprightly guitar work courtesy of its author.  “The Sisters’ Revenge” perhaps showcases what this incarnation of Salt House does best, that is to bring stories alive with gorgeous playing and empathetic voices.  Glad to see them back. 

Blitzen Trapper – Wild and Reckless | Album Review | Universal Music Group | Review by Damian Liptrot | 20.01.18

Wild and Reckless is the album that grew out of a musical/rock opera that Blitzen Trapper performed over a period of months at a theatre in their home town of Portland, Oregon.  An everyday dystopian tale of a bad boy turned cop then gone rogue, 13 year old killer girls, street sirens in black Trans-Ams – you know the sort of thing.  However, as main Trapper, Eric Earley asserts, in the end, it’s all about the music.  For those of you, who like me, were unfamiliar with their oeuvre, a quick glance at the online information sets the pulse racing, with a potted history of their 15+ year, 9 album career that promises experimental country/folk/rock with a Sub Pop past and comparisons the likes of Flaming Lips, Wilco and Calexico littering the pages.  What followed took a sideways step from the above, yet in an interesting, unexpected and ultimately quite satisfying manner.  Jumping straight past the opening track to the title track (a quirk that resurfaced on several machines), rather than a quirky melange of looped sounds and spikey guitars, what emerged was the sound of peak period Dylan (Blood On The Tracks, Desire, if you feel the need to ask) married to the dynamics and phrasing of top form Bruce (Born To Run, through The River, of course).  Now we are all familiar with the concept of superstars singing each other’s songs but trust me, this was eminently more interesting that the Boss knocking out “Blowing in the Wind” or His Bobness giving us his take on “Thunder Road”, as in my experience, such tributes are always a disappointment and Bob would probably deconstruct it into a reggae style, just because he can.  As you would expect, all this was excellent preparation for the short following track, “Forever Pt 1”, which is the largely instrumental missing link between “The Great Gig in the Sky” and the intro to “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”, with occasional Hawkwind type bubblings below.  And that, my friends, sets the scene for the album, there’s more of the Bob/Bruce collaboration, with drop-ins from the likes of Bob Seger, Tom Petty and whisper it quietly, Bryan Adams.  There’s a nod to Slow Train Coming and of course the muscular reference to the “Black Trans Am” is another comeback for The Boss.  There’s also the promised experimentation, with sampled speech that hints at the futurama leanings of Yoshimi versus the Pink Robots and the found sounds of Primal Scream at their finest (Screamadelica. if you need to ask).  The whole experience was like meeting a new friend and finding they share much of your CD collection.  A transfer to a player that loves the whole of the disc enough to play it through, reveals that the title track is a whole short story in a song, that sets up the whole of the concept within the album, although the collection stands alone as a set of songs rather than having to focus on the links between them.  An unexpectedly enjoyable experience and one that will be repeated.  Sadly, their April 2018 UK tour takes in only 3 venues but there is much back catalogue to be explored.  It’s all out there on the likes of Deezer and Spotify, so you can try before you buy.  Give them a chance, I’m glad I did.

Josie Duncan and Pablo Lafuente – The Morning Tempest | Album Review | Oakridge Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 21.01.18

This rather splendid and tasteful debut by the award winning Scots/Spanish duo Josie Duncan and Pablo Lafuente, sees a musical partnership that finds little difficulty traversing the wealth of Gaelic and Scots traditions with nine immediately accessible songs.  Whilst their handsomely printed press release recommends the opener “The Night Visiting Song”, my attention is immediately drawn to Josie’s own beautiful “The Great Escape”, which fortunately has no tunnel digging scenes here, nor any ‘Cooler Kings’ scurrying down the hillside on their Triumph TR6 Trophy.  Instead, what it does have is a delicate melody that suits Josie’s and guest vocalist Colin Macleod’s voices, and is well worth putting on repeat for a play through of several times.  As well as the original material, we are treated to some rather satisfying readings of traditional songs such as the portentous “King Orfeo”, the galloping “He Called for a Candle” and the ethereal closer “Potato Puirt”.  It’s quite possible, or should I say it’s a dead cert, that the Gaelic songs will define Josie’s singing career and it’s quite easy to see why.  There’s a certain clarity in her voice on such songs as “Thug Mi ‘n Oidhche” and “Uamh An Oir”, which resonates long after the songs have finished. A beautiful debut and a duo to watch out for this coming festival season.   

Peter Knight’s Gigspanner Big Band – Live | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 23.01.18

I have to confess right from the start that Peter Knight’s violin work whilst in his former band Steeleye Span somehow passed me by.  Perhaps I was just distracted by the band’s stripy tank tops and flowery shirts or Maddy Prior’s exhausting cavorting, or perhaps – and more than likely I hasten to add – it was just me being utterly inattentive, but whichever way it was, I clearly missed it.  The first time I noticed, I noticed in a sudden head rush that had me reaching for the hand rail.  It was a moment of clarity, almost an epiphany, when I first saw Peter Knight’s Gigspanner on stage, curiously enough at a Butlins holiday camp.  Stranger things have happened, but possibly not as noteworthy as that particular moment.  I had the mosh pit to myself, seated on the floor with my eyes closed as this beautiful music washed over me, courtesy of Peter on violin, Roger Flack on guitar and Vincent Salzfas on percussion.  Three studio albums and countless shows down the line, the trio are still performing albeit with a new percussionist (Sacha Trochet), and the deed of capturing their newly formed ‘Big Band’ live was not only an obligatory requirement but something of an essential necessity.  Teaming up with the hugely popular duo Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin (now Edgelarks), creates a winning formula, with Henry’s distinctive Dobro dovetailing with Flack’s acoustic guitar, notably on the album opener “The Butterfly”.  Add Hannah Martin’s unmistakable voice to proceedings and we’re onto something special before the end of “Silbery Hill”, the second song in.  The shimmering Eastern flavoured “Last Broadcast” is a highlight, which features Phillip Henry’s Chatturangui (Indian Classical Slide Guitar), beautifully complemented by Peter Knight’s flittering fiddle and Hannah Martin’s alluring vocal.  This is an album best served with the lights down and the volume turned up to match that of a live performance.  With no visual distractions, save for the pretty sleeve, put together incidentally by Tim Mars and Kate Stretton with Deborah Knight’s photography, the ‘closed eyes’ routine works best.  One of those rare occasions that a live album works really well.

Laura Mulcahy – Funeral, Home, Lizard | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 24.01.18

Uncompromising, intense and unique.  Laura Mulcahy blends ordinary and extra ordinary.  Laura’s voice can be layered gossamer beauty or it can be a raw punk folk eldritch.  Against Mulcahy’s acoustic guitar on tracks like “Real Estate” or “Murmuration” there is a raw folk quality, untampered or untamed beauty like Gay Woods or Vashti Bunyan, sprinkled with a little shimmering misty magic.  But within the psych folk swirl there is a more than a little Marianne Faithfull bite and vim.  Elsewhere on “Dreams”, “Monster Lullaby” and “Requiem”, choirs of backing vocals, evoke the stately gothic atmosphere of “Dead Can Dance”, while as bright as Lisa Hannigan Laura skips over the top of chiming guitars like a proto Cocteau Twin.  Summoning dark observational lyrics like a folk chanteuse or a cross between Sinead O’Connor and Morrissey at times this is like a strange Country Celtic Folk Rock collision, with bitter lyrics delivered deadpan over upbeat music.  The song “Moonshine” says it all in its title alone, a melding of images of brutal hooch and beautiful night washed landscape.  Part of the power of this album is the contrast between the purity of the voice and the stark uncompromising lyrics it delivers.  “Fire in the Belly” another album highlight, adds electronic trip hop to the mix and its title seems apt for this set of songs and Mulcahy herself.  Occasionally she delivers a piece of strange pure wonder, “Lizard Lady” with its woozy keyboard, or the off kilter classical Harpsicord led “The Affair” sound like a round the piano singalong in an afterlife pub for the dammed, led by Peter Hammill.  “Cuckoo”, “Even Stephen” and “Legs Eleven” are Laura packing no punches, spitting out fire or letting off steam, railing against the skewed eye of the media backed by Wayne P Sheeney’s skilful layers of razer edged guitar.  “Supper at the Cousins” on one hand sounds like Victoria Wood channelling The League Of Gentlemen, expect that trying to make light of the most uncompromising and painfully frank songs I have heard in a long while seems crass.  Powerful and disquieting. Dick Gaughan once said in song “for me to help make the most people happy I must make you even more sad and angry now.”  Throw together the charming uniqueness of Ivor Cutler, the bruised lyricism of Sinead O’Connor and the raw crystalline beauty of Nico performing “The End” with a harmonium and you have Laura Mulcahy.  Uncompromising, intense and unique.  Much of this album isn’t going to be played on the radio, an often raw and edgy listen it is never the less an emotional and rewarding album.​

Matthews Southern Comfort – Like a Radio | Album Review | MIG | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 25.01.18

If you were to hear a conversation between Iain Matthews and Martin Simpson you would struggle to identify which one was speaking, so similar are their voices and accents.  This probably has something to do with the fact that they are both from Scunthorpe, born seven years apart in the North Lincolnshire town and having no doubt shared some of the same stomping ground.  Another key point is that they have both spent a good deal of time in America, made loads of albums and both prefer six strings to a punch in the face.  Here we concentrate on the elder Scunthorpian, Scunthorponian, Scunthorper or whatever the collective noun is, as he releases his latest album with his second most famous outfit.  We know Iain has historically befuddled us with his name – Ian/Iain, Matthews/McDonald – that he was an original member of Fairport Convention, his name (minus the ‘i’) being the second name beautifully calligraphed by Pete Frame on the cover of the ’72 compilation set History Of, and that he also scored a number one hit with Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” the year after the iconic festival in upstate New York with the first incarnation of Matthews Southern Comfort.  Cut to the new line up of the band and we find Iain joined by his Dutch pals Bart Jan Baartmans, Bart de Win and Eric De Vries, who release a generous offering of no less than fifteen songs, mostly originals with the odd Carole King, James Taylor and Ian & Sylvia song thrown in. Actually, the Gillette/Campbell song Darcy Farrow was recorded widely yonks ago by such artists as Ian & Sylvia, John Denver and Linda Ronstadt, not to mention MSC on their Second Spring album almost 50 years ago.  If “Darcy Farrow” (or “D’Arcy Farrow”) still identifies Iain Matthews as a fine folk storyteller, his humour is also captured in “Jive Pajamas”, which also indicates that the latest incarnation of MSC are remarkably adept at having fun.  Another song revisited here by the new band is Carole King’s “To Love”, originally recorded by the band on their debut LP Later That Same Year back in 1970, which here in its slightly slowed down groove still sounds as good as ever.  For those who prefer a good old moan at the state of the world, “The Age of Isolation” and “Bits and Pieces” seem to do the trick.

BKO – Mali Foli Coura | Album Review | Buda Musique | Review by Marc Higgins | 01.02.18

BKO are a quintet of musicians from Mali. At their core is French percussionist Aymeric Krol, who in Bamako to study percussion under the master musician Ibrahima Sarr assembled the core group of musicians that form the band.  Originally the BKO Quintet, releasing an EP in 2012 and an album in 2013 the group’s sound has become harder and more electric with each release.  Now just known as BKO, a snappier more rock sounding proposition, their album Mali Foli Coura just crackles and burns with a raw garage band energy.  West Africa’s Kora, the 21 string harp lute has conquered the ears of the world, the ‘falling water’ notes of its lyrical arpeggios have an undeniable universal beauty.  But BKO are built around the the Donso Ngoni, picture a Kora with only six strings played on its side like a guitar and the Djeli Ngoni, imagine a stretched banjo like instrument (the banjo being a descendent of the Djeli).  The Donso Ngoni is the instrument of the Malian hunter people the Donso, the Djeli Ngoni the Griots or Djeli.  The Griots are the storytellers, historians, praise singers, repositories of oral tradition. Their two vocalists Fassara Sacko and Nfaly Diakité are Griot and Donso respectively.  So BKO are very much a meeting of traditions and musical strands.  But this captivating album is not just about the instruments or heritage, it is more about what those instruments can do in the hands of inventive virtuoso players.  It is the double bass thumping of the Donso Ngoni and the Djeli Ngoni, given a raw overdriven electronic attack on “Tangwanana” the opening track that grab and hold your attention.  The tight percussion of Krol, Fassara Sacko and the fore-mentioned Ibrahima Sarr, the pulsing bass of the Donso Ngoni and the electric Djeli Ngoni make a wonderful music that owes as much to the primal rock of The MC5 and the spacerock of 70s Hawkwind as the meeting of Malian musical traditions.  “Salia” opens with the strange 50s rock meets Ali Farka Toure sound of the Djeli Ngoni, some hypnotic solo and duet vocals, building to some superb wah wah Ngoni playing.  Those wonderful call and response vocals and otherworldly electrical Dejli Ngoni feature on “Strange Koreduga”.  Anyone labouring under the misconception that ‘world’ (sic) music is dry, worthy and dull, listen to the last minute of this track, it has as much attack, bite and punk energy as anything by The White Stripes.  “Dirty Donso” features a kind of phased vocal that sounds like the best of the much missed Malian musician Issa Bagayogo.  Before his untimely death in 2016, Issa was affectionately known as Techno Issa for his perfect marriage of Mali roots music and western dance.  The smooth vocals and the huge beat on this track demonstrate that BKO have much to offer to the Dance Music audience.  Remixers have already started reworking tracks off this album, and it isn’t even out yet, but to these ears the rhythms and pulse of the original music have a stronger pull.  “BKO Nana” and “Rougeot” follow the band’s distinctive template, a great groove, some raw electric licks, solid bass riffs and a fine impassioned vocal.  Closing track “Mon Amour” is a beautiful love song with French singer songwriter Mathieu Boogaerts on second vocal.  The BKO sound, with the light as air springy bass riff and the sparkling Ngoni is a perfect summer dance hit in the making, you can easily imagine this playing in a million cafés or on a host of hip playlists.  A gossamer light pop closer that again shows how easily Mali can blend with western dance music.  Perhaps the legacy of this excellent album and this fine band is to demonstrate that the term World Music is a taunt to the lazy, a reminder that there is a world of music out there and it ignore it is ultimately to miss out.

Dirt Music – Bu Bir Ruya | Album Review | Glitterbeat | Review by Marc Higgins | 02.02.18

Tim Winton’s poetic seminal book Dirt Music deals with struggles against a hostile environment, loneliness and the power of nature.  Music and the lure of music is central to the story.  Dirt Music we are told, is “Anything you could play on a verandah.  You know, without electricity”.  Dirt Music the band is frontier music, songs and sounds from the wilderness or the desert.  Chris Eckman from the wonderful American band Walkabouts (themselves named from Nichola Roeg’s film about the human cost of being lost in the outback),  Chris Brokaw one time member of The Willard Grant Conspiracy and Codeine and Hugo Race formed Dirtmusic in 2007 to explore common roots in urban folk blues.  These roots were enriched by performing at the 2008 Festival in the Desert, working with Malian desert blues band Tamikrest and recording in the famous Bogalan studios in Bamako Mali.  As a duo of Eckman and Race the immersion in Malian music got deeper Troubles (2013) and Lion Music (2014) represented a collaboration at both the writing and performing stages, offering a sharing of music that is unique.  For Bu Bir Ruya, Dirt Music’s fifth album takes the gritty trance electric Desert Music north to Istanbul, drawing in Murat Ertel and Umit Adakale.  The link to verandah music or sounds from the wilderness is still there, but its shifting and evolving, growing from improvisation it is shaped by circumstances, the moments, the musicians and the space.  “Bi Di Sen Soyle” is a stunning opener, the hypnotic Electric Saz snarls and spits, guitars shimmer over layers of percussion and beats build a huge brooding desert space.  The vocals are sublime, sounding like Gil Scott Heron or God Speed My Black Emperor, grainy recordings sent back from some blasted post-apocalyptic future.  The music is shamanistic and trance like, you could lose yourself in the groove you could just listen and get lost in the listening.  “The Border Crossing” is funky electronica with the soupy percussive slither of the best of The Neville Brothers, enthused with the shimmer of Dr John’s Gris Gris.  A potent, ambiguous lyric tells us the world is getter smaller.  We are all travellers armchair or otherwise, but we also all involved, touched by conflict and refugees, we can no longer be, just out of range.  “Go the Distance” is another beautiful Electric Saz and Guitar duet, waves of sound, a slow building anthem to taking the long route, a kind of hymn to Paris Texas’ Travis.  “Love is a Foreign Country” is built round a vocal from Gaye Su Akyol that is just captivating in its intimacy and sheer power.  This is as seductive and enveloping as a cool courtyard or oasis after the desert burn.  “Safety in Numbers” is another thought provoking song, a swirling hymn.  Brennan MacCrimmon’s vocal tells a powerful story.  The album closer and title track features Gorkem Sen’s Yabahar a huge room filling acoustic instrument that makes the atmospheric sound, part wind in the wires, part end of the world that runs through the track.  An unnerving unworldly counterpoint to the passionate vocal.  This is hypnotic and thrilling album from a shifting and changing band, sometimes hypnotic it infolds you, sometimes it is as sharp and hard edged as the wind from the desert.  Hey mister don’t you know the world is getting smaller, sometimes this is a cause of shame and conflict, sometimes this is a force for good.  Dirt Music a sharing and meeting of music from different continents represents the good that comes from a small world.  The light of discovery as bright as a desert sun, reveals much that was previously hidden.

Crayon Angels – Postcards | EP Review | Submarine Broadcasting Company | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 03.02.18

Named after the old Judee Sill song, Crayon Angels are a trio consisting of Natalina Castiglioni on Vocals, Del Halpin on Guitar and Ian Montague also on Guitar, whose latest EP Postcards is chock full of melodies in just four songs.  Unlike Judee’s claim, this trio’s songs are hardly out of tune nor is anyone to blame, they are very definitely in tune and their acoustic/electric guitar base provides a fitting canvas upon which Natalina’s colourful textures are splashed.  The opening song “The Last Leaf” is bright and breezy, immediately accessible and is topped off with an infectious lilting refrain.  The title song “Postcards” is almost McCartney-esque in its melodic simplicity.  Although hardly teenagers, the trio sound so refreshingly youthful.  To be perfectly honest, when I first heard “The Last Leaf”, I imagined the singer to be a 17 year-old male with his fringe in his eyes.  Just goes to show how our assumptions work.  “Your Sorry Self” is another highly melodic song, along the lines of Extreme’s memorable “More Than Words”, filling the EP with colour and sound, which coincidentally is the title of the final song.  I’ll be watching with keen interest at which direction Crayon Angels take.  Now excuse me, while I listen to it again a few times.

Zoe Boekbinder and Dustin Hamman – Among Horses II | EP Review | Kudos Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 04.02.18

The story apparently goes that the New Orleans-based singer songwriter Zoe Boekbinder and Portland’s Dustin Hamman, also a singer songwriter, were dropped off at a farm ‘in the middle of nowhere’, actually a solar powered farm house in Northern Spain, surrounded by endless pine tree covered hills, scattered with Spanish horses, and were given seven days to get to know one another and come up with some music.  One can only imagine what would have happened had things gone horribly wrong, but fortunately, with the help of a bunch of vintage microphones and a handful of instruments, things went rather well, the result being the six original songs on this EP.  The ‘Among Horses’ concept is rather a good idea, where complete strangers are put together to make music.  Based in Barcelona, this collaborative enterprise released the first in the series as Among Horses I, which saw a collaboration between Withered Hand and Singer of Songs and we are told that there is already a third combination in preparation.  In this idyllic setting, both Zoe and Dustin pooled their creative resources to create these songs, one or two of them sounding very much a part of their surroundings, “Celebrate” for instance, which utilises convincing mariachi-styled trumpets, whilst the opening song, “Sixty Spanish Horses”, relates directly to the farm’s most notable feature right outside the temporary studio door.  What the songs may lack in polish, they gain in both energy and immediacy; a sort of Antony (and the Johnsons) meets Madeleine Peyroux, leaving the listener breathless by the end of the 26-minute EP.    

Mary Gauthier – Rifles and Rosary Beads | Album Review | Proper | Review by Marc Higgins | 05.02.18

Mary Gauthier is a distinctive songwriter and performer whose world weary and knowing vocals are a powerful instrument and instantly recognisable.  No stranger to writing about her own pain and demons or the grit that gets in the gears of day to day life, Gauthier has used her song writing to work through addiction and her own childhood abandonment as an orphan.  Rifles and Rosary Beads, with its songs written as part of Songwriting with Soldiers, a non-profit programme, facilitates bringing together professional songwriters and wounded veterans and active duty military on writing retreats.  So these are co-written songs, personal songs where Gauthier tells the stories of veterans and their families, abroad and at home.  Such is the power of Mary Gauthier’s writing, voice and delivery that tracks like “Bullet Holes in the Sky” and “Rifles and Rosary Beads” are as strong as the best of her material.  Gauthier breathes life into the stories of war scarred veterans getting by on free breakfasts uneasy with the attention of cheering crowds.  These are not songs of glory, these are the stories of ordinary people, doing often ordinary jobs, like the female mechanic in Iraq dealing with the emotional fall out to sexual harassment and the dehumanisation of conflict.  Mary has an real ability to tell real stories, using the small details to connect to people and everyday life.  Here, like Davy from “Christmas in Paradise” stealing a Christmas tree or peddling golf balls, you can see the waitress circulating in “Bullet Holes in the Sky”.  These are powerful short stories, social records or mass observation, rather than generic country pop songs written to order.  Mary Gauthier’s voice is a thing of beauty and tightly wound power, observing and serving up potent emotional slices of a life lived.  Pain connects us all, you don’t need to have lived the life described to be able to connect with the Vicodin pain killer dreams and the way we dull the aches we can’t deal with day to day.  Laid bare, with just a little studio sparkle, recorded so closely you can hear the chair and guitar creak on tracks like the amazingly powerful title track Mary Gauthier’s singing and the arrangements lend an intensity to already emotional songs.  “Mirrors frighten me, don’t recognise what I see, the stranger with blood on his hands, brother I’m not that man”.  The writing is anthemic, eternal and resonates as strongly as earlier songs of regret inspired by conflict like “Waltzing Matilda”.  Ethereal trumpet bugles, wordless vocals, occasional squalls of electric guitar, marching drum beats instruments are sympathetically placed to deliver the emotional message of the songs.  “It’s Her Love” is a beautiful blues that underlines how it’s the love of others that shield us from the darkness within ourselves or the darkness created by others.  The emotion described is real, raw and speaks to us all.  Even before you consider the extreme circumstances that have given birth to these songs, the emotion, the regret and pain speaks to us all.  This is a powerful album from a powerful writer and performer.  A high water mark from a singer songwriter who hasn’t released a less than impressive album and a fine point to enter if you have missed out on twenty years of fine recordings.

Ady Johnson – London Songs | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 06.02.18

It came as little surprise when New Year’s Day was chosen for the single release from Ady Johnson’s second full-length album.  The London-based singer songwriter has a knack for writing memorable songs, not just for their infectious melodies, but also for their down-to-earth subject matter.  Ray Davies has been mentioned in the same breath as this Suffolk-born musician and it’s not difficult to relate to this; an album entitled London Songs could quite easily be the title of a Davies release.  Wrapped in a sleeve depicting a misty skyline viewed from Hampstead Heath, or for that matter, a panoramic view of Old Father Thames winding serpent-like in an easterly direction, picking up reflections the Shard, the Gherkin or any of the other prominent landmarks in its murky waters on its way, would have been un-Johnsonlike.  Instead, a cover reflecting austerity, the singer sitting outside a rundown used furniture establishment just happens to fill the cover with character.  It also reflects the songs within perfectly, whilst at the same time paying homage to Johnson’s former profession, an antique furniture restorer.  These songs grow on you with each repeated listen.  The punchy “Put the World on Standby” almost kicks into “Itchycoo Park”, another notable London song, before we see Johnson withdraw from the world momentarily.  Johnson refuses to hold back on the personal stuff with two notable songs dedicated to his ‘Nan’ and his ‘Granddad’ respectively in “Bring You Back” and “Thank You for the Good Things”, each gently acoustic and tender.  If the tender numbers begin to take command towards the end, then “Whale Song” comes along just in time to remind us of the high energy skiffle Johnson is known for; think along the lines of “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream”.  What can I say, London Songs is one of those albums you like to keep handy, not necessarily in the car or in the shed, but in that special place where you like to dream.

Mike Reinstein – Acts of Love | Album Review | Irregular Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 07.02.18

I’ve always found that a good opener is almost guaranteed to keep you listening, even if the title utilises one of Oxford University’s top ten most irritating expressions.  “24/7 Care” is simply a beautiful pop song celebrating the most important people in our society, those who care for us, all wrapped up in an arrangement of a Ray Davies standard.  It’s actually such a good opener that you tend to stall getting on to the second song.  It’s important though that you do though, otherwise you just might miss “The Gardener of Aleppo”, a poignant comment on war, from the perspective of a thirteen year-old Syrian boy, lamenting the death of his father; a simple song, delivered on ukulele, but with an extraordinarily powerful message.  Acts of Love is Mike’s fifth album to date and is one of those albums by a singer songwriter who cares, in that he cares about the songs that he writes, making sure there are no throw away songs.  Pick any of the songs here and it will mean something to you; whether it’s the lazy lounge jazz arrangement of the title song “Acts of Love”, or the joyful optimism in “Everything’s Going My Way”.  Then there’s “Seaford Song”, which recalls a holiday when “Little Eva sang on the house PA” to a thirteen year-old Mike Reinstein, which further references some of the most important names of the era, Stevie, Marvin, Martha and Sam and Dave, no prizes for guessing who Mike’s referring to here.  If this wasn’t enough, this latest collection of songs includes a gorgeous tribute to Billie Holiday, from the angle of a young fan by the name of Peggy Lee, set to a melody based around “Strange Fruit”, Holiday’s most poignant song.  “I Love Everything You Do” is a highly accomplished song, which really should be recognised for what it is, a song written almost definitely as act of love.

Maeve Mackinnon – Stri | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 08.02.18

Maeve Mackinnon is a contemporary Gaelic singer and Stri (to strive or struggle), is her third album.  Maeve has a powerful and rich voice, but after Don’t Sing Love Songs in 2007 and Once upon an Olive Branch in 2012, both fine albums, Stri represents a massive leap forwards in terms of sound and confidence. Beautiful acoustic folk has evolved into a huge swaggering contemporary sound.  Tracks like “Iomaraibhu Eutrom” (Row Lightly) and “Roisin Dubh” (Little Black Rose) place Maeve’s beautiful voice at the centre of lush and contemporary soundscapes.  Snappy tight rhythms drive everything forward, Patsy Reid’s fiddle and Jarleth Henderson’s Uillean Pipes bind everything to the Tradition, but behind there is a lively brew of keyboards, accordion and synths giving the music a bit of sonic sparkle.  Nothing sounds forced, like a Spinal Tap new direction, or some kind of self-conscious fusion, it just sounds perfect.  The blend sounds like Davy Spillane’s early album triumphs, where the musicians bring a sense of energy and the unexpected to traditional material.  “Moch an Diugh a Rinn mi Eirigh/Puirt-a-beul” (Early Today I Rose), is the point where the album really crackles with energy and fire.  Duncan Lyall’s wonderful production builds an eerie atmosphere, looping Maeve’s voice over a ‘progtastic’ swirling Hammond, straight off that 70s World in Action theme, and an atmospheric pipes passage.  The lyric is a tale of betrayed love, Maeve’s delivery against such powerful backing makes the whole thing sound charged and supernatural.  The second half of the piece is a trance like swirling dance of electronica, mouth music that is simply hypnotic.  Anyone beguiled by the latest Afro Celt Sound System album or the Peatbog Faeries acid croft music is going to be stopped in their tracks by this.  “Ailean Duinn, O Hi Shiubhlainn Leat” (Dark Allan, I would go with you) and “Ceann Traigh Ghruinneart” (The Head of Gruineart Sands) are slower more brooding atmospheric pieces.  Ross Martin’s guitar, Patsy Reid’s fiddle and Duncan Lyall’s huge Bass build a slowly shifting musical mist around Maeve and again the effect is sublime.  We’re Not Staying is a powerful self-written song about exile and dislocation, in terms of arrangement it is probably closest to the earlier albums.  Gaelic or English you can hear the passion in Maeve’s singing.  “O Mo Cheist am Fear Ban” (Oh My Love the Fair One), the album closer is an exercise in restraint and the power that comes when less is more.  Against powerful piano chords and Patsy Reid’s beautiful fiddle, impeccably recorded, Maeve wrings out the emotion out of a song of love and separation.  The trance like dance of “Moch an Diugh a Rinn mi Eirigh/Puirt-a-beul”, the 70s jazz fusion electronics of “Bodachan a Gharraidh” (Little Man In The Garden).  The powerful storytelling and writing of “We’re Not Staying”, balanced against the restraint and emotion of tracks like “O Mo Cheist am Fear Ban”.  The assured and atmospheric playing of musicians drawn from across contemporary Gaelic and Traditional music and through it all the perfect voice of Maeve Mackinnon.  Shot through with presence, class and power surely this is an album that is going to make people listen and listen again.  Highly recommended

Alash – Achai | Album Review | Smithsonian Folkways | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 09.02.18

Newcomers to Tuvan throat singing might at first feel slightly alienated by its harsh guttural tones – think Tom Waits after swallowing a pneumatic drill with the on switch pressed – but once you imagine those vocal affectations as musical instrumentation, it all becomes infinitely more palatable.  I first became aware of this style of singing through a Frank Zappa documentary, whose televised soiree, filmed just prior to the legendary musician’s death, saw purveyors of this particular style jamming with Frank, members of the Chieftains and Johnny Guitar Watson amongst others (that must’ve been a good night) and the sound of those voices seems to have stuck with me.  The three Tuvan musicians known as Alash, Bady-Dorzhu Ondar, Ayan-ool Sam and Ayan Shirizhik, treat this tradition with respect, dedicating this album to Kongar-ool Ondar, the father of a generation of throat singers, with the title Achai, which is Tuvan for ‘father’.  Despite the highly idiosyncratic singing style being an integral part of this record, there are some fine moments of standard singing, together with some beautifully delicate instrumentation courtesy of the two-stringed Igil or ‘horsehead fiddle’, the Doshpuluur (Tuvan lute), the Xomus (mouth harp), as well as accordion and flute, together with some surprising beatboxing courtesy of special guest Shodekeh, the Baltimore-based beatboxer.  If at first you don’t succeed with Tuvan throat singing, then try again, it can be most rewarding.

Camarao – The Imaginary Soundtrack to a Brazilian Western Movie 1964-1974 | Album Review | Analog Africa | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 10.02.18

When we think of the Forró parties that took place at the Caxangá neighbourhood theatre in the 1960s, its windows flung open wide, the infectious music dancing out onto the balconies in the hot tropical breeze, we might think of Reginaldo Alves Ferreira, otherwise known as Camarão, the originator of the first band playing in the Forró style.  Opening with rowdy dialog, this album soon erupts into highly infectious dance rhythms from the Brazil of 1964-74, with the accordion very much at the forefront.  Camarão, the name meaning ‘shrimp’ – not because he was particularly small built, but because he always arrived late and with glowing red cheeks – brings some of the raw energy of the dance music of Northeastern Brazil, with no less than sixteen mostly instrumental tunes.  The addition of horns to this music was largely due to Camarão, who introduced the fatter sound to Forró, marking him and his band out as important figures in this genre.  Compiled by Samy Ben Redjeb, founder of Analog Africa, this compilation was five years in the making, bringing together a showcase of music captured from six albums made during ten years of activity, which not only showcase Camarão’s musical ingenuity but also his sense of humour. 

Gem Andrews – North | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 11.02.18

Following Scatter and Vancouver, the first two full-length albums by Gem Andrews, both incidentally awarded an approving thumbs up in the pages of Northern Sky, comes North, Gem’s third release to date.  The LP sleeve shows a sunburst Gibson hanging precariously from Gem’s shoulder, the Liverpool-born singer songwriter standing ankle deep in sea water, a snow white lighthouse and neighbouring coastal cottages looming large behind.  With no title or name printed on the front cover, we are presented with this ambiguous, almost melancholy image of someone in deep thought, which is reflected on “Two Lighthouses”, one of the two Julia Darling poems here arranged for song.  The songs fall effortlessly between acoustic folk stylings and country-flavoured pop, often guided by an air of optimism.  There’s some delightful interplay between pedal steel and mandolin in places, especially on “Two by Two”, courtesy of Chris Hillman and Bernard Wright, whilst the mostly self-penned songs remain uplifting in their simplicity.  Gem’s hand-picked band drives along the lilting “Medicate”, which continues to offer a sprinkling of good cheer. There’s certainly a feel-good spirit at work here, even on the brassy gypsy fiddle arrangement of Lungs, despite its hard-hitting message.  With an early indication of the Kate and Anna McGarrigle influence on “Sing Your Song”, Gem once again pays direct homage to the Canadian siblings with a fine reading of Anna McGarrigle’s “Come a Long Way” before the close of the album. Such songs demonstrate strength, yet there are also moments of vulnerability; “Bare” for example, with Gem’s slightly fragile vocal, crucial and most fitting for some of the more emotional moments.  A lovely album.

You Are Wolf – Keld | Album Review | Firecrest Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 15.02.18

You Are Wolf, is a collaboration between singer Kerry Andrew, multi-instrumentalist Sam Hall and percussionist Peter Ashwell and Keld is the title of their new album release.  The album is chock full of folk songs, some you may have heard before, some you may not.  I would at first venture to describe the opening song as unaccompanied, but nay, ‘tis accompanied by a variety of clicking, tapping and clapping, with a brook babbling along in the background.  The Baffled Knight neatly introduces Kerry’s voice to us (new to me at any rate), whilst also taking us back to nature, a reflection of the album’s title “Keld”, which is an old word for ‘the deep, still, smooth part of a river”.  The album’s theme is indeed freshwater, illustrated by the cover shot of an almost submerged Kerry, surrounded by a ripple.  I’m assuming much of this album was considered whilst swimming in the wild, one of her other passions, and some of it is very much reflected in the material here.  I often wonder how I would feel if I was hearing some of these familiar folk songs for the very first time.  I would probably be just as astonished with some of the melodies as I initially was, yet the songs being revisited and re-shaped by today’s young folk singers impress me by the virtuosity of their voices and of the highly inventive arrangements.  Oh she just sounds just like Lisa Knapp thought I when I arrived at “The Weeper”, but then realised it was in fact Lisa Knapp guesting. Kerry has that sort of ‘otherworldliness’ we find in such singers as Lisa Knapp, Emily Portman and Bjork even.  Folk songs are often obsessed with drowning and there’s plenty here to submerge oneself in, not just the investigation of ordinary human beings and their relationship with water, but also the spirits and myths, the mystical and magical, the ethereal and the supernatural.

Cath and Phil Tyler – the Ox and the Ax | Album Review | Ferric Mordant Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 16.02.18

It seems rather a long time ago since Cordelia’s Dad was going at it full throttle, delivering their message ala grunge to Nirvana audiences across the globe.  Well, something like that at any rate.  Since relocating to the North East of the UK, from the north east of United States, New Jersey-born Cath Tyler (formerly Cath Oss) has become something of a local folk authority whilst forming a musical partnership with Newcastle-born husband Phil, the duo delivering stories in the most stripped-down form, accompanied by a clear, crisp, drone-like guitar and occasional banjo and fiddle.  The songs are almost eerie in their delivery.  The story of “The Two Sisters” is told as if delivered from the pulpit, the sprawling ballad coming in at a little under eight minutes, but riveting throughout.  Cath’s long-time experience and knowledge of the Sacred Harp singing style, serves her well in her almost organic vocal delivery, matched by Phil’s empathetic accompaniment.  The duo’s voices on such as “Rainbow” and “Talk about Suffering” are emotive, almost grief-stricken and wonderfully authentic at the same time.  This is how folk songs should be treated.  Although I plainly hear the sound of Cath and Phil from just up the road, I see Jean Ritchie and Doc Watson; I see misty mountains and log cabins, I see the history of ordinary people unfolding before my ears and eyes.  This is the real deal revisited.

Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman – Personae | Album Review | Iscream Music Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 19.02.18

Georges Braque once said of his artistic relationship with Pablo Picasso, that they were like “mountain-climbers roped together” which is in a way reflected in the dramatic Romantic-period cover photo on Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman’s latest album release.  Personae, the duo’s fifth album release to date, sees the two musicians similarly bound, not just through their fine music, but in everyday life too, the husband/wife team so completely as one.  Much of the material on the album is co-written by the duo, with a couple of traditional song arrangements and the one non-original, Sandy Denny’s memorable “Solo”, familiar to those who were fortunate enough to catch Kathryn recently in the revived Fotheringay, Sandy’s early Seventies folk rock band.  There’s one or two surprises here, including the playful “The Poison Club”, which is the duo’s equivalent of the “Magical Mystery Tour” but in reverse; it’s not a club one would be in such a hurry to join.  There’s also a couple of familiar guests popping up, firstly Sam Kelly, who duets with Kathryn on the rollicking opener, the traditional “The Knight’s Ghost”, a song with as much drama as the Géricault-like cover shot, and later, brother Seth adds fiddle to “Old, Old, Old”, a song about a Seychelles giant tortoise who lives in the shadow of his own mortality, much longer than most of us have to endure.  Kathryn, one of the most cherished voices on the British folk and acoustic music scene is on top form throughout, here roped together once again with her perfect accompanist, whose production is lovingly realised.

Park Jiha – Communion | Album Review | Glitterbeat | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 20.02.18

This experimental debut solo album by minimalist South Korean musician Park Jiha, known for her work with fellow musician Jungmin Seo in the group 숨[suːm], is rich in atmosphere from the start.  Park Jiha’s tonal adventures are composed and performed on such traditional Korean instruments as the piri (double reed bamboo flute), saenghwang (bamboo mouth organ) and yanggeum (hammered dulcimer), revealing some groundbreaking and individualist music based on the traditions of Korea.  The piri’s distinctive sound is reminiscent of the crumhorn, the Renaissance period German instrument, although it looks more like a small bamboo whistle about the size of a regular tin whistle.  The instrument’s ebbs and flows work particularly well alongside the bass clarinet as exemplified on the title piece, “Communion”.  Involved in traditional Korean and classical music from an early age, Park Jiha takes bold steps with this instrumental album in collaboration with Kim Oki on tenor sax and bass clarinet and John Bell on vibraphone, whilst various percussion is added courtesy of Kang Tekhyun.  If “Throughout the Night” is reminiscent of the type of sounds you might hear through the sound system that accompanies an art installation in the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern, “The Longing of the Yawning Divide” provides us with a beautifully melodic piece, reminiscent of the sort of music Stomu Yamash’ta was producing in the early 1970s.  Originally released locally in the winter of 2016, Communion is set to be released through tak:til and Glitterbeat in March 2018.

Roger McGuinn – Peace on You | Album Review | Retroworld | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 23.02.18

The second solo album by The Byrds frontman Roger McGuinn, which was first released in 1974, could quite easily have been re-issued as a companion piece to the earlier Roger McGuinn (1973).  Both have a similar sound in places although Peace on You seems to be a little more focused, rather than the almost shambolic eclecticism of the former.  Once again surrounding himself with choice musicians, including Tommy Tedesco, Leland Sklar, Al Perkins and Russ Kunkel, Peace on You has much more of a Californian singer songwriter vibe going on, rather than the jingle-jangle folk pop investigated by his previous band.  Having said that, the old Rickenbacker does make a cameo appearance on the rock-a-bluesy “Gate of Horn” with a tongue inserted in a certain cheek.  Mostly self-penned in partnership with Jacques Levy, some of the other songs covered are from the pens of Al Kooper, Dan Fogelberg (both songwriters who also appear on the album) and Charlie Rich, who penned the title song.  If the crisp acoustic guitar on “Going to the Country” falls very much in line with the sort of playing of contemporaries such as Stephen Stills, the Tex-Mex feel on “Together”, courtesy of Tommy Tedesco’s flamenco guitar, offers another, rather agreeable aspect.  The arrangement on Dan Fogelberg’s “Better Change” borrows heavily from CSNY, with not one of them present, despite Crosby and Nash making an appearance on McGuinn’s previous record.  Although quite suitable as a single re-issue, my money would’ve been on a double featuring the first album alongside.     

Jez Lowe – The Dillen Doll | Album Review | Tanobie Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 25.02.18

Released purely as an accompanying soundtrack to Jez Lowe’s novel The Dillen Doll, the songs on this CD, released under the same name, appear as a suite, featuring several familiar songs from the North East, each joined in one continuous piece of music.  The songs, some of which have been re-written to suit, serve as a reminder of days gone by and I dare say we see the collection both as a nostalgic trip down memory lane, whilst also being a reliable document of the lives and times of the working classes in the industrial North.  Those unfamiliar with this particular region may have to reach for a glossary of terms in order to work out what “As me an’ me marra was gannin’ to wark” means, but those of us with familiar links to Tyneside will no doubt find it all music to our ears.  The book is Jez Lowe’s first novel, set at the turn of the 19th Century and the people who inhabit the songs find a new place within the context of the story, adding a further dimension to their respective characters, such as the book’s heroine Dolly Coxon, herself featured in the song “Do Li A”, which closes the collection.  Tyneside shines through the story and indeed through the songs, a character in itself and one that is celebrated through the distinct voice of Jez Lowe, a key player in the endeavour of keeping alive the social and cultural traditions of the area.  Anyone who has followed Jez’s career will know him as a writer of songs, which reflect the social history of this particular neck of the woods, songs that often sound as if they could have been traditional songs themselves.  Here, Jez performs the songs that would no doubt have been an influence to him when he first picked up his guitar and bouzouki way back in time, songs like “Here’s the Tender Coming”, “Byker Hill”, “Broom Bezzoms” and “Bobby Shafto”, each song awarded the treatment they justly deserve, helped along by regular bandmates Kate Bramley on violin, Andy May on Northumbrian pipes and David De La Haye on bass among others.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a book to read..

Screaming Orphans – Taproom | Album Review | Self Released | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 26.02.18

Right from the off, Taproom is an album that demands attention.  Ireland’s “Hour of Need (Gallant Heroes)” has it all – arresting choir harmonies that put the Medieval Babes to shame, stirring Uilleann Pipes, tight production of the band’s instruments and a brawny political message.  And the energy and captivation doesn’t let go for the ten remaining tracks, the majority of which affix Irish traditions to a strikingly modern and infectious pop/rock sound.  Screaming Orphans is an all-female four-piece hailing proudly from County Donegal and consisting of sisters Joan Diver on drums and vocals, Angela Diver on bass, violin and vocals, Gráinne Diver on guitar and vocals and Marie Thérèse Diver on keys, accordion and vocals.  It’s clear that some of the magic on this lively release comes directly from the fact that the band is family – indeed, they were originally joined by their parents before the call of the road became too loud – and, as with many similar outfits, much of the alchemy at play is founded in Celtic veins.  Press the needle down too firmly on Taproom and it will bleed Irish blood, so evident in the music is the band’s heritage.  Tracks such as the happy rambling “Home”, the brooding and rhythmic version of Patrick Joseph McCall’s “Follow Me up to Carlow” and the traditional “Paddy’s Lamentation” paint some stunning Irish landscapes whilst “Raithneach a Bhean Bheag” is sung entirely in the band’s native tongue.  For the finale, however, the girls hop over to Scotland for a snappy little rendition of The Proclaimers’ anthem “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)”.  With its heady mix of old Celtic magic and new sounds, it’s no wonder that Taproom is receiving rave reviews.  The album has already topped the iTunes charts and was named Folk ‘n’ Rock Magazine’s 2017 folk/pop/rock album of the year.

Shankara Andy Bole – Rainbow Crow | Album Review | Left Leg Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 01.03.18

Compulsive scanners of album covers and details, those of us who spend hours hunched over boxes of records and CDs enter a Zen like state.  Fingers flicking eyes alert for gems.  Everyone has their own talismans or touch stones they look for Beacons if you like shining through the unknown.  It might be labels, producers, covers.  For me anything on Peter Gabriel’s Real World label gets checked out, similarly anything recorded at the Real World studios gets a closer look.  Both of these things are indications of quality and an inevitable left field approach.  The name Shankara Andy Bole and Taylor Whitham’s striking Crow Art cover both grab your attention and the fact that its recorded at Real World draws you in like the slow unwrapping a present.  The music, Bouzouki, Ebow and loops is initially unclassifiable, by turns beautiful and dissonant, serene and savage.  After the fleet fingered folk jazz of guitarists like Gordon Giltrap, John James and the pervasive influence of dexterous American players like Michael Hedges, the UK has developed an experimental ‘guitar’ music scene.  Dean McPhee, Andy Cartwright’s project Seabuckthorn, Nick Jonah Davis, James Blackshaw and many others play a music about space and ambience, economy and pared back beauty.  To my ears, although with an obvious link to the transcendental 70s guitar flights of Steve Hillage and Daevid Allen, Shankara Andy Bole inhabits this world of shimmering pensive atmospheres with his Bouzouki and Ebow flights of delight.  He is a multi-instrumentalist and composer who has recorded with artists as musically varied as Gong and the Bushbury Mountain Daredevils.  He has recorded a series of solo albums and Rainbow Crow, as chromatically expansive as the title suggests is his seventh.  The album showcases Andy’s powerful Bouzouki playing and constantly inventive looping, there are no overdubs on this album, what you hear is what you get from one man.  But listen first then go back and marvel at the bow.  “Red Crow” opens decisively with some big chords and a sense of space.  A Bass motif and Bouzouki duet together slowly building a sense of tension and power.  The final electric notes, siren screams of stringed who knows what, hypnotically wail and call, suggesting at first that Shankara Andy Bole has completely revealed his hand on the first track.  Track two “Orange Crow” that strangely intoxicating North African tinged world of Dead Can Dance, percussive finger taps and the resonant strings build a strange dance tune track three, “Yellow Crow” starts with a dissonant looping and some bouzouki notes that just hang in the air.  This is American primitive player John Fahey or improvisational noise merchants The No Neck Blues Band. At time the music sounds almost treated and cut up.  “Green Crow”, track four opens with some Michael Hedges style tapping, the resonance establishing the physicality of the instrument and the space both it and the musician occupy.  Some beautiful chords and reverberating notes add a Moroccan or Spanish feel like ECM’s Anouar Brahem.  The space between the notes and the phrases just add to the beauty.  A rising glissando six minutes is sublime, as beautiful as a slowly rising sun cut by heat haze.  The slowly picked Bouzouki notes are simply beautiful with all the resonant power of a Malian desert blues guitar.  Part Tinariwen part Robby Krieger on “The End” this is potent music that crackles with energy and potential.  Fourteen minutes of transcendental blues and brilliance.  “Blue Crow” carries the musical journey into a more invasive mood with some Flamenco influenced runs.  “Indigo Crow” twists the North African Bouzouki with some hypnotic electronic bubbles making a compelling music of contrasts like the 80s Free Festival favourites The Ozric Tentacles twisting Dance and Prog into something new and strange.  “Violet Crow”, the final track is a slower more hesitant piece like John Renbourn playing a medieval dance piece bringing this strange and compelling dance to a close.

Commander Cody – Flying Dreams and Rock n Roll Again | Album Review | Retroworld | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 02.03.18

It’s difficult to think of the early Seventies Country Rock scene without at least one mention of the man known as Commander Cody (George Frayne), whose Lost Planet Airmen provided the perfect vehicle – in this case a truck or open top Cadillac or even an assortment of airplanes for that matter, judging by the LP sleeves – for some of the most notable good-time licks of the period.  This probably had as much to do with guitarist Bill Kirchen, whose flamboyant style was exemplified mostly in the extended live versions of “Hot Rod Lincoln”, where the guitarist ‘does’ everyone from Link Wray to Hendrix.  Although the band never quite matched the success of their debut 1971 LP Lost in the Ozone, with the possible exception of their eponymous release of 1975, Commander Cody has continued to work as a solo artist, releasing several albums over a 40 year career.  The two albums re-issued here are from the late 1970s after the Commander had ditched the Lost Planet Airmen and had begun working under his now well established pseudonym.  Although the running order of this re-release is presented as Flying Dreams first and then Rock ‘n Roll Again, they were in fact originally released in reverse order, both on Arista, which is slightly confusing.  With a voice that often resembles that of Alice Cooper, albeit without the snakes, swords and shock stage shows, Commander Cody sings in an authoritative manner, occasionally with a touch of Dr John’s southern voodoo, notably on “Take the Fifth Amendment”.  The two notable covers on Flying Dreams are still surprising today, The Band’s “Life is a Carnival” probably not so much as The Beatles’ White Album period “Cry Baby Cry”, which has Lennon’s acoustic guitar and George Martin’s harmonium surgically removed, to be replaced by sultry sax and gospel choir.  Not Commander Cody’s best work, but notable mid-Seventies albums nonetheless.

Luke Jackson – Solo Duo Trio | Album Review | First Take Records | Review by Paul Jackson | 03.03.18

It used to be that the ‘Live’ album along with the ‘Best Of’, ‘Covers’ and ‘B Side’ releases were routine, cheap fillers to capitalise on commercial success.  These days, for the jobbing musician who gets the bulk of their income from regular touring, selling CDs at gigs can also be a financially worthwhile asset.  It seems logical, therefore, to put out releases between ‘proper’ albums that serve all of the above in being relatively cheap to produce, are a product that keeps the attention of interested parties and, if possible, shows a different side of the act in question.   At 23, Luke is now three full and one mini album into his career and given he tours almost continuously, a live album has been on the cards for some time.  As Luke plays in several different guises, solo, as a duo with bassist Andy Sharps, or as a trio with Andy and Connor Downs on drums, he factored in the novel idea of capturing each of these identities in a single show.  Once this premise was established, the rest was straightforward.  That is, plenty of rehearsing, the finding of a venue and an enthusiastic audience.  On the technical front, live and recorded sound was organised by Dan Lucas, a sound engineer and producer who has worked with Luke on his last two releases.  They mixed the tracks between them, cut the twenty songs from the night down to fifteen and finally, Denis Blackham at Skye Mastering did the mastering duties for the finished product.  Obviously, any live album is only going to be as good as the performance itself and the extent to which this is authentically captured, particularly given there is only one go at it! Luckily, the sound quality here is exceptional and in my view, the best recording yet of Luke’s vocals.  A few years ago, a reasonable criticism might have been that his voice was better than his ability to harness it.  However, over the past two or three years in particular there is a sense of him having grown into it and the immediacy of this recording captures a vocal power, range and sensitivity that is completely in service of the song.  The album rolls along very naturally, as it did on the night, with the musical intensity building through the solo and duo parts to the six-song trio finale.  Another nod to the recording quality here as the supple musicality of Andy Sharps’ bass and percussive thump of Connor Down’s drums form the bedrock of a truly thunderous Trio sound.  As is the norm with live albums, over the 15 tracks, there are sprinklings of updated older pieces, core set songs and some previously unreleased numbers, so everyone is going to have their personal favourites.  For me, these are many.  There is a wistful revisit of “More Than Boys”, the title track from Luke’s first album back in 2012.  The intervening years have moved it from a then seventeen year olds ‘rites of passage’ observation into something altogether more adult and reflective.  “Last Train”, from the same album and the tale of a soldier returning from war to bring news of the loss of a friend to his family, is a marvellously understated performance that perfectly suits the lyrical gravity of the song.  There is also something immensely moving about the crowd singing along as it segues into a passage from Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind.  It still surprises me that such a powerful, timeless song is yet to be snapped up by some folk luminary and I can just imagine a version given the Fairport Convention treatment.  In the duo section, “Father’s Footsteps” from 2014’s Fumes and Faith gets a major makeover from its original breakneck swagger to an Americana type groove.  It’s propelled by the meatiest of bass lines from Andy Sharps and features some faultless ‘old timey’ style harmonies that bring an ageless feel to the proceedings.  Then there is the previously unreleased “Made of Stone” in which the Trio move between pop, rock and yearning soul in a shade over four minutes of music.  It’s another of those songs that defies categorisation, which is an undoubted strength of Luke’s as his influences are just absorbed without any obvious reference points, but perhaps also a bit of a drawback when the Radio 2 Folk Show are compiling their Playlist!!  “Sister”, again from Fumes and Faith is full of ghostly mythology, from the stark opening of Luke’s guitar and vocal all the way through to its denouement.  Concluding proceedings both on the night and CD, is the now staple live show closer “The Road” from 2016’s Tall Tales and Rumours and is another whistle stop tour through modern country, roots and soul, culminating in an infectious crowd sing-along.  All in all a very fine album indeed, showcasing some great song writing, a marvellous voice and the tightest of playing.  Solo:Duo:Trio does exactly what it says on the tin and is the perfect introduction to Luke in all his forms, and just has to be the next best thing to having been there.

Brad Mehldau – After Bach | Album Review | Nonesuch Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 08.03.18

Stare a few moments at the spiral staircase on the cover of Brad Mehldau’s latest record and you’ll suddenly become unsure whether you’re looking up or down.  It’s this somewhat vertiginous feeling, mixed with a paradoxical sense of logic and reason that makes the music of Bach perpetually engaging and Mehldau – one of the most versatile of living pianists – acts as a reliable guide as we tackle this most disorienting spiral.  After Bach is an entirely unaccompanied offering from Mehldau which presents straight-forward readings of a selection of JS Bach’s Preludes and Fugues, interspersed with Brad’s jazz-infused and deeply emotive After Bach pieces which erect some dazzling structures on the great composer’s sturdy foundations.  “After Bach: Pastorale”, for example, presents a dizzying ascent and descent of the scale, complete with some very welcome blue notes, whilst “After Bach: Dream”, with its languorous melody and creamy chords, suggests that Bach, Debussy and Bill Evans are each being channelled.  The album is bookended by two elegant Mehldau originals.  And whilst the opening track “Before Bach: Benediction” introduces the classical-inspired journey we’re about to take, Brad leaves his most exquisite work until last.  With its reverent, elegiac chords and fizzing, high-noted finale, the eleven-minute “Prayer for Healing” is worth the purchase of this stunning LP alone.

Beth Nielsen Chapman – Hearts of Glass | Album Review | BNC Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 10.03.18

Beth Nielsen Chapman has one of the great ballad voices in music and this album really proves that.  There are some up tempo stormers on this her latest album, “Come to Mine” and “Enough for Me” crackle with up tempo radio friendly sparkle, but Beth really shines on the slower numbers where her voice just smoulders and shines.  Tracks like “Old Church Hymns and Nursery Rhymes” and “Rage on Rage” shimmer with emotion as her beautiful voice draws every nuance out of the lyric.  Melancholic Noir, Country Torch Songs, Beth breathes the words and everything glows like burning embers, infused with emotion and a smouldering power.  Paired with a Pump Organ or beautifully picked guitars, she inhabits the lyrics like a glove.  The world of dry deserts, old front porch swings, drinkers and the people that forgive them, of holding on and the sound of sirens.  It’s a world mined by the best of contemporary Country Music, but Beth Nielsen Chapman weaves those seductively melancholic stories with mastery and perfect balance.  This is an intimate album, the layered guitars on “Epitaph for Love” or the stroked electric piano on “You’re Still My Valentine” and the perfect layered choir of vocals are soft, crooned, to draw you in.  There is beauty and poise in every note and when she roars there is a huge power too.  Like k.d. lang she can kill you with the subtle cadence of her quiet or slay you with the emotion of her huge held notes.  Hearts of Glass features several gems, plucked from Beth’s own back catalogue, re-recorded, moved from piano to guitar with touches of production and studio presence.  Songs like “Child Again” and “Dancer to the Drum are placed centre stage and reborn.  Featured here is a first time release of Beth’s version of the classic “If My World Didn’t Have You” featuring Rodney Crowell on backing vocals.  Great pairing of two fine voices and another reason to hear this fine album.  “Life Holds On” here as a pared back version that makes her 1990 version sound very busy, is anthemic and a personal favourite from many on this album.  The performance has that rolling lilt and effortless delivery that brings to mind Bruce Cockburn’s wry observational writing and delivery.  From a tale of melancholy comes a building sense of hope and tenderness.  Producer Sam Ashworth layers a few players around Beth to create beauty.  This is a fine album, a fine addition to Beth’s growing canon.  A fine addition to those albums like Emmylou Harris Wrecking Ball, k.d. lang’s Ingenue or Lyle Lovett’s Step Inside This House, that are exercises in restraint, where a powerful voice testifies inside of a cathedral of minimal accompaniment.  Hearts of Glass represents the best of all worlds.  If you know Beth already then here are new versions of treasured songs that allow you to fall in love all over again.  If you don’t know Beth’s albums then here is a perfect distillation of that voice to die for and some stunning bits of song writing presented here in all their glory.  This pairing of Beth and producer Ashworth informed by a love of the Civil Wars duo and their clarity and space is inspired.  Here’s hoping it isn’t a one off.

Bird in the Belly – The Crowing | Album Review | GFM Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 16.03.18

Through a kind of cyclical Folk reincarnation, the spirt of the original Steeleye Span, the much under rated Psych Folk 70s Band courses through Bird in the Belly.  To be clear this is not a Maddy Prior side project, although I think she’d be impressed by this bands stripped back but layered dark Folk.  There’s no connections through members, but there is a connection through spirit and intent and a symmetry in the synthesis of both bands.  Both met as members performed on Festival bills.  Bird in the Belly, comprising of Alt Folk musician Jinnwoo, Traditional Folk duo Hickory Signals, muti-instrumentalist producer and arranger Tom Pryor and visual artist musician Epha Roe all met while performing in earlier incarnations at Cecil Sharp House, as part of a Young Folk Artists celebration organised by Sam Lee’s Nest Collective.  A meeting between Ashley Hutchings and Maddy Prior and Tim Hart at Keele Festival planted the seeds for Steeleye.  Both Bird in the Belly and the 70s Folk Legends are comprised of existing recording musicians.  There is also a big connection through the kind of Gothic Folk Psych music, with its take on traditional music that both bands play.  But Bird in the Belly are very much not a homage, or a 70s Alt Folk revisit in the style of the excellent Offa Rex a vehicle for the Folk Rock revival fantasies of The Decemberists and Olivia Chaney.  The Alt Folk, Folktronica of Jinwoo, the delicately balanced string arrangements of Tom Pryor and the ethereal piano of Epha Roe means Bird in the Belly occupy a very different world.  But there is a connection through intent and spirit, although the musical palettes are very different.  “Give Me Back My Heart Again” the opening track begins as a glorious A Capella duet between Jinnwoo and Laura Ward, Hickory Signals vocalist.  The two powerful and very different voices twine and work well together.  The track sets up the album like “A Calling on Song” on Steeleye’s Hark the Village Wait or Fairport Convention’s “Come All Ye” on Liege and Lief.  The pulsing beat of violin and drum carries a kind of Medieval Dance or Morris feel to the second section of the piece.  There is a passion and a power, like a summoning or an incarnation taking place around a camp fire.  Welsh Ploughboy features the einut of vocative vocals of Jinnwoo and Laura Ward in an arresting arrangement of a fine traditional song.  The lyric offers a caution to a labouring young farmer while evoking the heady 70s atmosphere of Traffic’s “John Barleycorn” with a catchy chorus and that sublime flute break.  A strong track.  “Shoreham River” with its gory refrain about legs and a broken spine contrasting the layers of acoustic guitars, vocals, violin and strings is as Gothic dark as any lost late 60s Folk Private Pressing.  “Old Squire” and “Duke of Grafton” typify the strengths of this superb album, finely balanced voices and instruments create an effortlessly beautiful sound that just carries you away.  A church choir of vocals underpins a timeless lyric and a sublime violin part.  Listen out too for Epha Roe’s ethereal piano part too.  “Horace in Brighton” and its lilt reminds me of the slightly melancholic feel good acoustic music that Johnny Flynn recorded for the wonderful Detectorists TV series.  “Verses on Daniel Good” lifts the tempo and is rollicking murder ballad with some huge Bellowhead choruses.  “The Lillies” mixes atmospheric wave sounds and voices like a hypnotic whaling ballad recorded in a swell.  The album closes as it opens stripped back to the considerable beauty of the human voice and we are left staring at the sea.  Along with Offa Rex’s treatment of Folk classics and Mishaped Pearls often hallucinogenic music, Bird in the Belly make a music that breathes a new life into old old music.  In their professed mission to rediscover and represent lost musics, they produce a powerful and evocative music that places the past very much in an exciting present.  “The Crowing” is visceral and distilled down to an essential essence that is both ancient and contemporary.  Here’s very much hoping that this album and a film documenting the bands researching into the material on this album are the first steps in a long journey.  For me there is the same potential of the new that was contained in Hark the Village Wait and Liege and Lief, but time will tell.

May Erlewine – Mother Lion | Album Review | Earth Work | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 17.03.18

It’s taken a while to get around to this one and I’m not entirely sure why.  Maybe it’s the sparse cover artwork – just the name of the artist and the title on a white ground – I’m not sure, but I do know that once I had it on the player, I was moved to keep listening.  Never judge a book by the cover they say.  It’s the voice that draws you in first and foremost, matched by the quality of the songs.  May Erlewine has the ability to keep us listening, certainly on songs as soulful as “Shake the World” and as pretty as “Paint the Town”.  Seen recently as one third of The Sweet Water Warblers, along with Lindsay Lou and Rachael Davis, May treats us here to fourteen songs of astonishing beauty, certainly on such as the delicate “Mountain Top” and the album closer, “Grateful”, a gospel anthem if ever there was one.  This album confirms that May is not only a key player on the local Michigan scene, but also should be considered a contender on the world circuit.  That good.

Anne-Marie Sanderson – Book Songs Volume 1 | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson| 19.03.18

Anne-Marie Sanderson’s third EP release is inspired by a handful of books the singer has devoured over time, books like Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible and Sarah Hall’s Haweswater for instance.  Celebrating literature in such a symbiotic way is quite novel (no pun intended), Anne-Marie herself referring to the project as ‘cross-pollination between art forms’, going on to cite the practice as a very natural thing to do.  The mysterious Holloways of South Dorset’s sandstone, as investigated by Robert Macfarlane, Dan Richards and Stanley Donwood in their compelling study of the subject, is hauntingly captured in “Holloway”, a thoroughly atmospheric opening song.  The same could be said of the EP closer, which sees Anne-Marie traversing the adventures of Doris Lessing’s literary siblings Mara and Dann, with the alluring “Mara’s Song”, which I would assume will have listeners unfamiliar with the book scurrying down to their local library with haste.  Accompanying herself on multiple instruments including guitar, cello, viola, clarinet, flute and percussion, Anne-Marie’s songs are performed with an assured confidence, her voice very much a focal point and her subject matter tenderly executed.

cua – Songs of the Hollow | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 21.03.18

Tight three voice harmonies as rich and sharp as anything that came out of Laurel Canyon CSN, razor sharp instrumental folk music that manages to be part Celtic, part Balkan and part Hot Quintet of The Hot Club of Paris.  Unaccompanied singing with the vim and social comment of Coope Boyes and Simpson and good time music with the lilt and roll of The Saw Doctors.  cua (no capital letter at the start) is the sound of three multi-talented musicians and singers playing together and the ambience of the room that they are recorded in, vital raw and real.  But beneath the deceptive surface of the sea that is cua there are depths and riptides to draw you in and carry off the unwary.  cua themselves, from Laois in Ireland, describe their music as Atlantean, inspired by the history, landscape and people of the Atlantic areas.  So that explains those rich West Coast vocal harmonies and the links to Bluegrass and American Roots music.  Irish economic migrants took the music to America and cua bring it all back home again.  “Atlantic Cross”, the strong album opener beautifully mashes spiritual Americana with the best of infectious Irish folk music driven by fine fiddle playing.  This is not good timey diddly music though, like the best of Folk there is a darkness at its core, its ‘pretty’ surface belies the depth and danger beneath the surface.  Tracks like “I Blame You”, “The Other Man” and especially “Animals” seduce your ears, delicate pure playing and the fine vocals of Davidson, Booth and O’Meara charm you and deliver emotional songs that doesn’t hold back or pull any punches.  “The Other Man” takes the sentiment of Martin Niemöller’s famous poem First They Came and puts on a contemporary twist.  The rich imagery of “The Hollow Men” and the album title itself suggests a dark folk tale, calling up the sense of TS Ellio’s Hollow Men, indecisive spirits trapped in a limbo between salvation and damnation.  Now there is a tale for our times.  This is cua, charged and making you think.  As emotionally complex as the taste of a characterful single malt, there is beauty and there is the burn.  Percussion is minimal and under stated, but there is a pulse and a beat to tracks like the excellent “I Blame You” behind the rich harmonies and some sublime guitar.  The voice is king too, glorious harmonies and layers of voice run through the album.  Spiritual like on “Waco” or stately and evoking Coope Boyes and Simpson at their finest on “The Other Man”.  “Waco” with its handclaps manages to be as righteous and funky as Stax era Staples Singers.  Soul Folk in Action indeed.  There may even be a cross over Dance remix in there somewhere too.  “Mother Earth” is a glorious closer.  The Bouzouki resonates and rattles like a hammer dulcimer, beautiful music gives way to characteristically rich vocals on a wonderful hymn to consequences.  Three musicians, three voices and the sound of the space around them.  Stripped back to its base ingredients the recipe for the album makes it sound simple, but there is a power and a depth in apparent simplicity.  The more you listen the more you hear, the more you hear the more you want to listen.  The roots of this music spread wide, anchoring cua like a colossal tree giving them a strength a rigor and a real presence.  Coastal Music looks to the horizon and is music without borders, traditional folk, jazz, classical music American, Roots music whatever it is, it is a vital music.

Keith James – Captured | Album Review | Hurdy Gurdy | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 23.03.18

For many years now, Keith James has been regarded as a leading interpreter of the songs of Nick Drake, Leonard Cohen and John Martyn, together with selected poetical works of Dylan Thomas, William Blake and Federico García Lorca, to name but a few.  Although there might be a question mark over why anyone would want to slave over the variety of open tunings and complex arrangements of Nick Drake’s idiosyncratic songbook, we have to concede that Keith James puts this musical knowledge to good effect on some of his own songs as well.  Collected from Keith’s back catalogue of recordings and releases, Captured, sub-titled The Best of Keith James, operates as a fine introduction to the sheer variety of influences the singer, songwriter, poet and producer has taken on and subsequently mastered.  Drake’s highly prophetic “Fruit Tree”, Cohen’s “Anthem” (you know, the one that contains Lenny’s oft quoted line about cracks that let the light in), a smattering of beat poetry with Kerouac’s “Daydreams of Ginsberg” and Ginsberg’s own “Blue Angel”, set to rather trance-like acoustic accompaniment, are all included here to rub shoulders with a selection of other contemporary songs and poems set to music.  The songs are indeed poetic and the poems are melodic whether borrowed from some of our iconic literary figures or indeed from Keith’s own pen; almost half of the selections here are Keith’s own compositions, including the notable “Decorated Cardboard Human Shapes”.  If the Drakes, Blakes and Lorcas were predictable in this double CD set, then the surprises came in the form of Portishead, Cream and Suzanne Vega covers with fine interpretations of “Glory Box”, “White Room” and “The Queen and the Soldier” respectively.

Ninebarrow – The Waters & The Wild | Album Review | Winding Track | Review by Steve Henderson | 23.03.18

To say Ninebarrow is something of a cottage industry is to underestimate them.  Whether it’s selling CDs, songbooks, t-shirts or greeting cards, their website reveals them to be busy bees.  Whilst, of course, good commercial sense is no indication of the quality of their music, positive comments abound from the likes of Mike Harding and Kate Rusby as well as a nomination in the 2017 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards.  It seemed like it was time to get the music microscope out and peer through the lens at their latest record, The Waters & The Wild.  Jon Whitley and Jay LaBouchardiere are Ninebarrow and they hail from Dorset which probably accounts for the pastoral feel to their music.  Theirs is a close harmony vocal that decorates a mix of self-compositions and traditional songs.  The Waters & The Wild arrives with its owns songbook if you should choose to flash a little more cash.  Both are immaculately packaged and presented with an attention to detail in their art that may surprise you.  Whilst production on earlier records has been handled by the duo, The Waters & The Wild has been produced by Mark Tucker whose skills have been in demand with everyone from Show of Hands to Fairport Convention.  It’s an excellent production giving clarity to their mix of reed organ, ukulele, tenor and octave mandola, piano, viola, cello, double bass and assorted percussion.  A nod of respect should go to Barney Morse-Brown’s string arrangements too.  The mournful cello on the closing “Sing a Full Song” is a treat in itself and draws out the tenderness from this John Kirkpatrick song.  Elsewhere, the well-read duo draw their lyrics from poems such as on the title track which takes W.B.Yeats’ The Stolen Child as its inspiration.  The Dorset dialect poet, William Barnes, is adapted for “Hwome” with its delicate plucked strings making for a simple but effective introduction to the song.  It’s a song that is symptomatic of that earlier pastoral comment as is “Gather It In” where the reed organ is to the fore.  That’s not to say that the duo don’t have a darker side as you’ll find when you encounter the hanging on “Thirteen Turns”.  However, their music is gentle even when the lyrics bring a disturbing element to the song.  As a further example, take their version of the traditional song, “Prickle-Eye Bush”, which has less of an edge to it than that from Spiers and Boden.  It’s pretty and appealing but, perhaps, not necessarily for those who want some grit in their oyster.  That warning aside, Ninebarrow’s new record has a carefully crafted beauty that should see them gather in many more fans.  Expect more plaudits to follow.

Low Lily – 10,000 Days Like These | Album Review | Mad River | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 27.03.18

One of the most important aspects of successful roots music is to make the songs appealing and accessible, something that usually comes through fine performances, convincing arrangements and thoroughly good singing.  Low Lily appear to have ticked all boxes with 10,000 Days Like These, the trio’s debut full-length album release.  Liz Simmons, Flynn Cohen and Lissa Schneckenburger combine their respective roots credentials, which includes Bluegrass, Irish, Scots and Old Time Appalachian folk songs and tunes together with the odd rock classic, in this case Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms, whilst maintaining quality sound throughout all eleven selections.  Vocally, the trio excel in places, such as on “Dark Skies Again”, which sees the three singers interweaving their voices almost angelically.  Reminiscent of the sibling vocal pyrotechnics of the Rankin Family, the entire album is full of surprises, beautiful melodies and super fine performances throughout.  A lovely record.

Birds of Chicago – Love in Wartime | Album Review | Signature Sounds Recordings | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 30.03.18

Back in February 2011, the Wheelhouse in Wombwell, a house concert venue located just a stone’s throw away from Barnsley town centre, was enjoying its usual cheerful gathering of regulars, guests and curious travellers from far and wide when JT and the Clouds arrived in town, their UK tour manager also being the owner of the venue.  It was indeed a night to remember, a night of discovery and a night that I unexpectedly gained a pal from Chicago.  Up until that point, I don’t think I had any of those.  On that occasion JT was joined by his Chicago-based band The Clouds, made up of Dan Abu-Absi, Chris Neal and Mike Bruno, who between them performed a totally acoustic set of songs from their current Caledonia album, together with one or two from JT’s new rootsy side project Mountains/Forests under the guise of JT Nero, the Chicago-born singer-songwriter’s solo alter-ego.  Little did we know back then that JT would soon join forces both musically and romantically with another huge talent on the American/Canadian roots scene, one Allison Russell, the leading voice behind the hugely popular Po’Girl, one of the brightest stars in a star-filled Galaxy.  Once JT and Allison joined forces, sparks flew all over the shop and Birds of Chicago was born; born to spread their love, their infectious personalities and their utterly gorgeous songs to the world.  Love in Wartime is the duo’s third studio album, following on from their self-titled debut, their last album Real Midnight as well as a live album Live from Space.  Those who were knocked out by Po’Girl’s “Kathy”, JT and the Clouds’ “Fever Dream” or indeed Birds of Chicago’s sublime “Sparrow”, will no doubt immediately fall in love with these eleven songs.  Through songs like these, certainly the title song “Love in Wartime”, the funky “Never Go Back”, the astonishingly exquisite “Superlover” and the soul-filled Baton Rouge, Birds of Chicago manage lift your spirits to places your spirits need to be lifted in these sour times.  Utterly soulful, rich in texture, beautifully arranged and highly melodic throughout, Love in Wartime is an essential addition to any record collection, whether you’re into this sort of stuff or not.  For this album, which was produced by JT and Luther Dickinson, JT and Allison are joined by Chris Merrill on bass, Nick Chambers on drums, Joel Schwartz on lead guitar, brother Drew Lindsay on piano and keys, Dan Abu Absi on guitars, Javier Saume-Mazzei on percussion and Kelly Hogan and Nora O’Connor providing harmony vocals.  This year, the organisers of the Cambridge Folk Festival have had the good sense to ask Rhiannon Giddens, a friend of JT and Allison, to accept an offer to act as guest curator at the festival, essentially to invite a bunch of first rate performers to the celebrated annual event and amongst those invited are Birds of Chicago; a huge opportunity to open doors to new audiences.  I sense that a great number of music lovers still unaware of Birds of Chicago will be suitably impressed and will no doubt add this couple from Chicago and Montreal respectively to their Christmas card lists.  I see absolutely no reason why not.

Miriam Cooke – Freefalling | Album Review | First Night Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 30.03.18

Miriam Cooke has a clear voice with the purity and power of Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell or Joan Baez.  The arrangements are simple giving her singing space to shine through and shine gloriously it does.  Miriam makes it sound so simple, so effortless and so perfect.  On songs like “Freefalling” and “Picking the Roses” her voice soars, hitting and holding notes with a gentle vibrato that is graceful and beautiful. I found myself listening to songs twice, once just for the cadence of the voice, solo or layered like a choir of smoke, then again for the lyric.  Each note is loved and packed with emotion.  But there is also a subtly, no pointless virtuosity or histrionics here.  Miriam is a storyteller, a drawer of pictures with some well observed imagery on “Freefalling” that avoids the usual and looks at real life.  Miriam herself says that she is drawn to music that is both lifting and at times painful.  Much of this album, like the lyric for “Bring Me with You” fulfils that brief, with pastoral acoustic music and her singing soothing the soul while the sometimes quirky lyrics create a tension.  Cooke’s gently picked guitar accompanies throughout with banjo, double bass and strings helping to build an atmosphere.  The Cello and strings weave around the lyric on “An Apple a Day” transforming a well-trodden idea into something sublime and uplifting.  Country and Folk elements run through Hello My Friend and the voice just soars.  Miriam Cooke is an archaeologist, Musician, broadcaster for the BBC, C4, 5, National Geographic and The Discovery Channel.  With a BSc an MA and a PhD in Archaeology.  A former international model, she trained as an actor and musician, producing and starring in Soldiers of the Damned, a psychological thriller winning Best Director at the Marbella International Film Festival.  That alongside all of this Miriam Cooke, writes and performs fine folky acoustic pop, makes you wonder if there is anything left for anyone else to do.  This album isn’t going to win a Mercury Prize or necessarily change the world.  But it does provide finely crafted sensitive songs delivered by a classic singer songwriter that nods back to those gatefold sleeved albums by Sandy Denny, Judy Collins and Joni Mitchell.  This is a delight throughout.

Ash Gray – Chicken Wire | Album Review | Labelship Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 30.03.18

Texan songwriter Ash Gray now relocated to Sheffield in the UK brings together Yorkshire and Austin Texas musicians.  The resulting album blends Country and an undercurrent of 60s Psych music.  The cosmic cowboy of Texas blended with the gritty Folk Troubadour of the UK.  Chickenwire is a pleasing mix of very chilled folk country, playing and sung with the lopping ease of Wizz Jones and the moonshine Americana that American Beauty era Grateful Dead did so well.  Josephine Clark showcases Ash Gray’s fleet fingered acoustic and a wonderful layered vocal.  The track sounding like a blissful 70’s singer songwriter or something that might have appeared on a David Ackles Elektra album.  “Sundown” builds into wonderful up tempo Country Rock, another great Ash Gray vocal backed by Cello and atmospheric pedal steel.  Thought “The Creek Don’t Rise” would be a Dylan LeBlanc cover, but Ash Gray takes the same kind of Folk blues lyrics and turns out a masterful piece of electrifying bar band blues.  I bet this track rocks live as it just jumps out of the speakers.  Tracks like “Golden Road” and “It Might Get Loud” are shot through with that rural boogie feel that characterised early 70s Grateful Dead.  The laid back vocals, the strummed guitars and the woozy bar piano.  This is audibly the same man who recorded 2013’s fine “Once I Got Burned” but there is an agreeable swampiness and richness to the new album that adds sparkle and depth.  The title track blends in a kind of Tex Mex, Desert Blues with a dub or reggae beat that shimmers and shimmys out of the speakers.  You can hear the smiles and nods as the band plays together.  This is the sound of musicians in a room having a good time.  Listen long, listen hard and turn it up.

Darwin’s Daughter – The Dark | EP Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 01.04.18

Dark Fires opens with the plaintive notes of a piano and Fiona Ruth’s vocal.  The music is atmospheric, filmic, like the theme to a snow kissed thriller.  Fiona, solo or layered has the feel of Judie Tzuke or Kathryn Williams.  “Moonlight” is a delicate, hesitant lullaby, Fiona’s voice against guitar, piano and Kim Porcelli’s wonderful Cello.  Another wonderful track.  “Angel on My Shoulder” written following the loss of Ruth’s sister in law is a plea for quiet reflection amongst the noise of life.  Fine lyrics, emotional vocals and beautiful playing.  “Godless World” an ode to the fading of values owes much of its melancholic atmosphere to the huge Cello notes against Fiona’s intimate vocal, a small voice against the dark.  Fiona Ruth is a graduate of BIMM in Dublin where she studied song writing.  Darwin’s Daughter’s EP The Dark represents a confident longer release, following a 2016 single, from an already evolving performer and songwriter. Dark Fires opens with the plaintive notes of a piano and Fiona Ruth’s vocal.  The music is atmospheric, filmic, like the theme to a snow kissed thriller.  Fiona, solo or layered has the feel of Judie Tzuke or Kathryn Williams.  “Moonlight” is a delicate, hesitant lullaby, Fiona’s voice against guitar, piano and Kim Porcelli’s wonderful Cello.  Another wonderful track.  “Angel on My Shoulder” written following the loss of Ruth’s sister in law is a plea for quiet reflection amongst the noise of life.  Fine lyrics, emotional vocals and beautiful playing.  “Godless World” an ode to the fading of values owes much of its melancholic atmosphere to the huge Cello notes against Fiona’s intimate vocal, a small voice against the dark.  Fiona Ruth is a graduate of BIMM in Dublin where she studied song writing.  Darwin’s Daughter’s EP The Dark represents a confident longer release, following a 2016 single, from an already evolving performer and songwriter.

The Often Herd – The Often Herd | EP Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 02.04.18

The Often Herd are a hybrid. Guitar, mandolin, an American fiddle player and a jazzy Double Bass player produce a hybridised Bluegrass topped with West Coast vocal harmonies.  Recorded by this British band in Newcastle this is acoustic dance music with some fine trio vocal harmonies spun out over the top.  The least it will do is set your feet tapping, by the end it will have you throwing your dance partner around.  Their touch is always light and sparkling with some deft acoustic guitar and fiddle transporting Bob Dylan’s “Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” to a dance in a Parisian Cafe.  Sam Quintana’s Bass is a rock solid structure around Rupert Holmes guitar, Evan Rhodri Davies’ mandolin and Niles Krieger’s Fiddle just soar like Bluegrass birds.


Heather Downie – Nae Sweets for the Shy Bairns | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 02.04.18

It takes a listen to realise how brave and how decisive this album is and how much it demands your attention.  The title Nae Sweets for the Shy Bairns, it quickly becomes apparent is very apt and as much a statement of intent or a manifesto.  Harpist and Singer Heather was introduced to music at the age of nine by the late Martyn Bennett and the involvement in music has continued ever since.  She is a graduate of RSAMD, a Young Traditional Musician of the Year finalist in 2015, teaches at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and is a member of the excellent Top Floor Taviers.  On this her debut album Heather holds nothing back, she is fresh, confident and feisty making music that demands your attention.  For “The Love of Levers”, Heather Downie’s Harp and Tia Files’ Guitar twine together in a way that is beguiling.  Heather says this is the first set they played together and the interplay between the two instruments is testament to that.  Fleet fingers and a funky pulse builds up between the guitar harp and Files’ percussion.  Nigel Gow’s “Lament for the Death of his Second Wife” is a slow potent piece that burst with tension and emotion.  Downie and Files play together beautifully, wringing every emotional nuance out of the fine tune. Stuart Hamilton’s sensitive recording at Castlesound means we feel the air around the instruments and hear every guitar harmonic and the dying resonance of the harp.  As if this wasn’t enough Heather is also a sensitive vocalist and songwriter.  The “Best of Us”, written for her aunt, features beautiful verse vocals and some simply stunning chorus vocalese.  William and Wizards is another stunning duet with what sounds like an electro harp and a funky jazz guitar grooving over some tasty percussion.  As slippery and hypnotic as a West African Kora, Heather’s Harp is pure jazz and makes Dorothy Ashby’s bebop experiments of the 50’s sound kitsch and stilted by comparison.  “Stronger than You Know” features a fine vocal by Corrina Hewat and some wonderful production from Corrina that lift the track to Imogen Heap or Kate Bush level.  Just stunning.  Stunning too is “The Field of Gold showing that the harp, in the right hands can create the ornamentation and resonances of Piobaireachd or Highland Bagpipe Music.  Like Dick Gaughan’s guitar playing on his version of “51st Divisions Farewell to Sicily”, Heather manages to coax the eerie stops, runs and harmonics of the pipes from her Harp.  Downie keeps surprising right until the end and “Under the Stars” is Heather and Tia duetting with sound recordings from South Portugal.  Downie confesses to being a compulsive field recorder, capturing ambience and places as memories.  “Under the Stars” transcends any labels of traditional music and becomes the universe.  Heather shows she can be the Steve Hillage of the Harp, Tia throws some weird shapes on the guitar, the vocals kick in and we are gone.  Ambient Chill Out master musicians that deftly avoid all the clichés associated with both those labels.  This another way of coming at the electronica traditional music of Shooglenifty and the Peatbog Faeries and as left field as the best of Martyn Bennett.  You could base an entire career on the emotions, musical potential and ideas in this track.  It’s not nearly long enough, I could listen to the first two minutes on a loop all day.  A stunning and unexpected closer which I’m not ashamed to say made me cry.  Heather Downie manages to perfectly communicate the emotions tied up in a very special moment in an atmospheric place.  This is an absolute monster album you should rush out and buy now, full of great depth and beauty.

Port Cities – Port Cities | Album Review | Turtlemuzik | Review by Marc Higgins | 04.04.18

Layered vocals against guitars and keyboards Port Cities are a hard band to classify.  This Canadian three piece from Nova Scotia who recorded in Nashville manage to blend elements of both locations into their sound.  The band, Dylan Guthrie, Breagh Mackinnon and Carleton Stone, reckon a port city is where cultures and histories collide and goods and ideas are imported.  Port Cities the band and the album seem to be very much a melting pot of ideas.  Intelligent country pop meets rock sheen with some lofi moments of grainy textures and an almost Neil Young edgy perversity at being in the gutter.  Album closer “Astronaut” is a case in point with Breagh Mackinnon’s voice at its most bleak and Rickie Lee Jones like, delivering a lyric about the way childhood dreams are worn down by ‘so called life’.  Her vocal beautiful and bruised against squalls of electric guitar.  Less is more in terms of intensity and emotion.  “Back to the Bottom” is a perfect example of Nashville perfect pop vocals, against bubbling electronics and stadium rock guitar hooks looped like The XX meets Coldplay.  “Don’t Say You Love Me” has an impassioned vocal like anthemic Bono or David Gray.  “Sound Of Your Voice” with its Fleetwood Mac rolling drum pattern, Country Rock guitars and vocals is Port Cities softer side.  “Burn That Bridge” is a captivating mix of classic Country Ballad verses over pulsing electronics giving it a strongly urban feel.  This track or Astronaut is going to crop up as quiet moment soundtrack in Criminal Minds or Greys Anatomy.  Worlds collide with rustic and atmospheric meeting urban electronics and textures.  This is the sound of a band with World Class Stadium sized ambitions and some interesting ideas.

The Rheingans Sisters – Bright Field | Album Review | RootBeat Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 04.04.18

Bright Field is the third album from The Rheingans, musicians, composers and folk music scholars.  Anna is a Toulouse based musician and violin teacher.  Rowan balances this duo with the Lady Maisery trio and has appeared on three notable releases in the last two years, including the Songs of Separation project which won BBC Radio Two’s Folk Award for best album of 2017.  Bright Field’s music is atmospheric, twining voices and violins with beating drums.  “Bright Field” crackles with pastoral energy as wooden instruments and human voices connect to the landscape.  From Kathleen Neeley’s evocative woodcut imagery on the sleeve, to the woodland photos inside, the power of nature revealed in “Green Unstopping” and the masterpiece that is “This Forest” a sense of the power of the natural runs through.  Dylan Fowler’s recording gives the individual instruments space so you hear air and resonance.  This is not a multi-tracked, textured album, but an exercise in delicate fragility where every nuance is heard and treasured.  The beautiful vocals and soaring strings on “Edge of the Field” are quietly revealing, an exercise in measured passion. Every note in Three Springs the closing instrumental chimes and sings.  “Dark Nights/Swinghorn” illustrates the sisters’ belief that lightness and darkness exist at the same time, intertwined.  There is dark beauty and light beauty. The first tune is unsettling with a degree of dissonance and the second by comparison uplifting as the sunlight returns.  “Bright Field” is an exercise in minimalism, the duetting violins slowly build tension till it released by Dafydd Davies-Hughes reading RS Thomas’ poem.  That same beautiful gradual release comes into play on Lo Segoner where instruments joined by spiralling heavenly voices.  Balanced and interlinked beauty and moments of darkness, this is an emotional and uplifting album.  Given room to breathe, the music of The Rheingans Sisters just soars.

Gnoss – Brother Wind | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 04.04.18

Gnoss can lay down fiery furious dance music, but what sets them apart is their ability to smoulder and simmer.  “The Moul Head” reels rock furiously, while the layered whistles and vocals on “Brother Wind” revel in restraint with a calm beauty.  “The Closet Bodhran” set of times has a groove, but it doesn’t just thump there is grace and subtlety.  “My Ship” plays vocals against flutes and whistles, building in intensity to present the fire and the simmer sides of this band.  Craig Badger, Aidan Moodie, Graham Rorie and Connor Sinclair in Gnoss on Brother Wind manage to be both the storm and the calm before the storm.


All the Luck in the World – The Blind Arcade | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 05.04.18

All The Luck in the World are three Irish musicians from Ireland now based in Berlin.  ATLITW make a sound that is strummed and picked guitars with vocals that recall Ben Howard or Nick Mulvey.  This is an intimate music, hushed vocals breathed into microphones while guitars gently loop.  Light jazzy percussion, keyboards and bass swell their sound to create moments of intensity but theirs is in essence the sound of light, air and delicate moments.  Tracks like “Starboard” and “A Thousand Eyes” are built around a percussive keyboard riff, beautifully played delicate guitar parts and a wonderfully plaintive vocal.  This is carefully crafted music that rewards careful listening but with three guitarists sounds great live too.  “All the Ghosts”, layers up the vocals to deliver the anthemic guitar pop child of Mumford and Sons and Snow Patrol.  Via parents record collections and hipster compilation intimate guitar playing singers like Nick Drake and John Martyn at their gentler moments begat Ben Howard, Nick Mulvey, Villagers and a million others.  Now via evolution Bears Den and younger bands like All the Luck in the World cipher glorious vocal harmonies, gently played guitars through pop’s keyboard studio sheen to make beautiful music.  Lauren Canyon harmonies and strumming meets silicon valley’s electronica via 80s guitar loops, glimpsed through dusty folk textures of harmoniums and pianos. A carefully crafted delight from start to end.

The Penny Black Remedy – Maintaining Dignity in Awkward Situations | Album Review | Mono Del Mundo | Review by Marc Higgins | 07.04.18

The London based but internationally flavoured Penny Black Remedy are like a dark western swing equivalent of Victorian music hall.  Like the Handsome Family, up tempo feel good dance tempo music often carries a twisted wry lyric.  “So I’d Murder to Have You Back” has the sweet duetting vocals of TPBR singers Keith M Thomson and Marijana Hajdarhodzic recounting the fall out of a vicious breakup, or in “Seventy Years” is a sombre assessment of life.  But this isn’t typical Country melancholy as the lyrics are delivered with a wry smile like a musical or music hall.  With song titles and lyrics like “Trying to be a Slightly Better Person” it’s easy to imagine we are watching an Ian Duryesque stage show, characters dressed in Burlesque or Cabaret style emoting by limelight in a seedy theatre.  Croatian Marijana has a big powerful voice, that holds your attention and lends surreal songs like “You Should’ve Left Your Money at Home”, with its rockabilly guitar and crooning vocals, a Brechtian edge.  “It’s Dark Outside” repaints the Christmas schmaltz of “Baby It’s Cold Outside” for a world full of serial killers.  Keith M Thomson is at his most Nick Cave with a rumbling baritone.  “Is it Safe to Say Goodnight” the final song is the like the closing song in an Addams Family Christmas Country Special.  I now a vision of this song played by the band wearing bad Val Doonican Christmas Jumpers waving to the cameras while they sing this.  The music and the band are glorious too, gypsy tinged country with luscious violin, picked and strummed guitars and infectious rhythms.  As the wonderful painted cover suggests, ever so slightly kitsch, but taking on the world on its own terms.  The Penny Black Remedy are from David Lynch’s hallucinogenic circus tent of Country.  Beautiful music, sinister arch lyrics wonderfully delivered.  Maintaining Dignity in Awkward Situations indeed.

Connla – The Next Chapter | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 09.04.18

Connla are a five piece band from Armagh and, Derry in Northern Ireland.  Connla is a character from Irish mythology upon whom are placed a series of geasa or obligations, he cannot turn back once he starts his journey and he must not refuse a challenge.  Both of these are admirable qualities in a band. Right from the start Connla confound with the squalls of Paul Starrett’s electric guitar that open Organised Chaos a gently pastoral track with traditional instruments and voice building a bubbling trance like pulse.  From abstract instrument on the first track Ciara McCafferty wonderfully soft soulful voice is the star on Connla’s stunning take on “Wayfaring Stranger” and Rhiannon Gidden’s “Julie”.  Connla take Gidden’s doomy introspective bluegrass and infuse it with light and mysticism, excelling the original.  The band excels also on the instrumentals, Mighty Makena’s smoulders with a bluesy intensity and “Crunchie Hill” just burns with atmosphere, dazzling precision and passion.  Connla are great interpreters of song with strong versions of songs by Rhiannon Giddens, Sean Tyrrell and Dick Gaughan.  In each case the band gets inside the song and makes it feel like an original.  The most surprising is probably the delicate Celtic swirl they make of Mountain’s 1971 Pappalardi classic “One Last Cold Kiss”.  Can I recommend “Nantucket Sleighride” next, proves that folk music underpins everything.  The musicianship through the album is just exemplary, guitars, pipes, whistles and harp are stunning throughout.  Standout has to be “The SS Baychimo” and “Matinee at Charlies” set for their beauty and the players interplay.  The third geasa placed on mythical Connla was that he must never tell anyone his name.  Not such a great quality for an excellent band building a reputation.  So after hearing this excellent album we need to celebrate, share and sing the praises of Connla loud if they are mystical bound not too.  A strong album from an interesting band. 

Sam Reider – Too Hot To Sleep | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 12.04.18

Sam Reider is a jazz pianist turned roots musician, son of a theatre composer and Klezmer musician.  Following a series of midnight sets at a bar in Brooklyn, Reider found himself suffering from insomnia.  With fragments of melodies running through his head he would play the piano.  Conjuring endless images Too Hot to Sleep is the resulting album, earworm tunes and melodies, a soundtrack to the quiet of the night.  The albums starts strongly, first track The Murder drips suspense and tension.  Moody black and white Parisian crime drama soundtrack, all trilby hats, turned up collars and curling smoke.  Except the cafe with the moody detectives is on an American windswept prairie in a Sergio Leone Western.  After the frantic city bustle of “Swamp Dog Hobble”, “The Moment After”, is a pensive beautiful piano piece shimmying between genres.  Sam Reider, like Italian Ludovico Einaudi, has a sensitive style that is classical, with enough swing to be dinner jazz.  The track is grounded by the gritty saxophone and violin choruses.  Wanderings is Reider at his most romantically expressive.  A hesitant piano with an eerie two note sonar like motif opens the track, there is a beautifully sad middle section with elements of Thelonious Monk’s keyboard wanderings around the beat.  Eddie Barbash’s Alto Saxophone playing is breathy and simply divine.  The title track is another other worldly piece which finds Reider as his most Ellingtonian, duetting with Barbash’s Johnny Hodges or ‘Getzy’ alto.  “Too Hot to Sleep” is simply stunning, one to get utterly lost in.  Across two parts “Lazy Together” starts as a loping meander across the prairie then becomes a sublime piano and guitar duet.  The piano has the flavour of a sitar or Kora and the whole thing has a transcendental feel.  One of many album highlights this is for lovers of Bill Evans.  “Late Twenties Lament”, sounds like a vamp on “Brother Can You Spare a Dime” a wonderful piece of 78 era swing.  Album closer “Baku” has a gypsy jazz flavour, j with the sound of the keys on the accordion and the saxophone echoing each other.  This track builds to a furious closer, you can imagine the band moving and grinning to each other as they play, I bet this is a stormer live.  Fast or slow this album is going to tax, or delight people who like to classify.  Is it Country, Folk, Classical or Jazz?  The only is yes, yes it’s all of those, sometimes at the same time and glorious because of it.  One of the most exciting and interesting things I have heard in ages.

Glymjack – Light the Evening Fire | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 16.04.18

A Glym Jack was 18th Century thieves slang for a Link Boy, someone you might employ to light your way home and lead you safely through the dark and unknown streets.  Greg McDonald and Glymjack, ably supported by a cast that includes Phil Beer, Steve Knightly and Miranda Sykes from Show Of Hands, take the image of fire and produce a cycle of songs, some linked thematically, some by mood delivering a soundtrack for our troubled times.  Sometimes the glimpses in the dark Glymjack’s torch reveals are stark and grim, sometimes it leads us true and offers hope.  “Light the Evening Fire” could be a song of evening homeliness, but instead the ‘down on his luck’ singer huddles around his fire reflecting wryly on his bleak situation.  Greg Mcdonald lists what he is prepared to burn to get through the night while Phi and Steve chant “On the Fire”.  Twisted through a beautifully delivered song is a hard message in this folk song of the future.  “The Wolf Who Cried Boy” with very clever word play takes the gathering wolves of the previous song and shows how the Gordon Gekko’s and leaders of this money motivated world are turned on when their luck falters.  This is a wolf eat wolf world.  Grounded in folk, with a gloriously dark version of the traditional ballad “Bows of London” and a rollicking version of “The Sweet Trinity” these tracks bookend folk ballads of contemporary Britain.  Tracks like the rich “Hope Point”, a lyrical trip through rural exploitation and lives hard lived.  Consciously setting McDonald’s sharp edged observations alongside older tales of the darkness in us all, “Made in England” is a tale of rough sleeping soldiers on the streets of an uncaring London.  Beautiful playing, a soaring violin and an earworm chorus paints a catchy but bleak picture.  Train noises become helicopters in a sweat drenched dream folk Apocalypse Now moment and bleed into “Night Vision” thoughts of the dispossessed servicemen.  This album highlight track crackles with atmosphere and venom setting the dark against the ordinary.  Anthemic Bright Sparks closes the album, a tribute to two bright beacons of English progressive politics, John Ball, radical Priest involved in the peasant’s revolt and Emily Davison suffragette protester killed at Epsom Derby.  Again the writing and the use of language is stunning.  The tune is stirring and the sentiment of sparks, stamped out but fanned by time is inspired.  The cycle is complete, we are back at the evening fire, marginalised, forgotten, eyes closed lost in thought we see sparks.  “First they call you a head case, then they call for your head”.  The album starts with a refuge fire and ends with a metaphorical fire of hope delivering bright sparks.  This is a brilliant album, storytelling through a cycle of gritty songs like Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska.  At times brooding and atmospheric like Roger Waters or Pink Floyd.  At times it does sound a little like Show Of Hands, but to many, me included, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  Greg McDonald and Glymjack names to remember.

Tupelo – The Hearts Bloodline | Album Review | Crashed Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 17.04.18

Rocking Alt Folk Band Tupelo from Dublin and Mayo in Ireland produce music with rock grit and punch.  “Break Loose” is a jaunty track, infectious chorus, folk rap and screeching guitar.  “Cotton to Silk” is soulful with the feel of an early mellow Meatloaf piano ballad tempered with a sweet fiddle sound.  “Joyous” and “Nursery Rhyme” are a sweet folk pop numbers with the warmth and soul of The Hothouse Flowers.  James Cramer is a considerable vocalist and on stripped back tracks like “Queen of the Vale”, “The Shriven Dust” or “Rivets in you, he and Julia Haile” really smoulder together.  The doubling of the two voices is really something on an ending that blends Celtic fire with Eagles’ harmonies.  Cramer also delivers on “Always Take the Gold”, a southern rock burner with the torque and spark of Lynyrd Skynyrd or Kings of Leon.  Final track “Solid Ground” distils together everything that Tupelo do well, huge Hammond organ sound, heavenly chorus, spiritual vocals from Cranmer and that Celtic soul Van Morrison does so well.  When this album gets it right, it’s gets it very right and magic crackles from the speakers.  Tupelo present a pleasing mix of rock grit, Celtic sparkle and heavenly gospel piano soul ballads that surprises right to the end.

Sarah McQuaid – If We Dig Any Deeper it Could Get Dangerous | Album Review | Shovel and Spade Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 19.04.18

Produced by Michael Chapman, who sees his role not unlike that of a film director, in his pursuit of getting “more out of Sarah than she thinks is in the tank”, Sarah McQuaid’s fifth album showcases the Madrid-born, Chicago-raised singer songwriter’s idiosyncratic approach to song writing.  The songs here are well thought through, highly measured and beautifully captured in all their moody splendour.  Accompanying herself on both electric and acoustic guitar, with some piano and in one case, a totally percussion-based backdrop (“One Sparrow Down”), the dozen songs capture both her distinctive voice and her mature musicianship.  The songs here cover a range of topics, such as mortality, or more importantly, what exactly is the most eco-friendly way of disposing of oneself after the Grim Reaper has made his inevitable house call.  The subject matter of “Break Me Down” is perhaps something most of us would rather not think about – but probably should.  There’s a couple of instrumentals, a medieval chant and a cover of Jeff Wayne’s memorable “Forever Autumn”, yet the album really focuses on some of Sarah’s most enchanting songs to date, including the first single release from the album, the ethereal “The Tug of the Moon”.

Ross Anslie and Ali Hutton – Symbiosis II | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins |25.04.18

Symbiosis II is the follow up to Ross Anslie and Ali Hutton’s excellent instrumental album Symbiosis.  Ali and Ross are a pair of musicians who together or apart consistently turn out interesting and exciting music.  They have gathered around them an impressive set of supporting players making a bigger and more adventurous sound.  Duncan Lyall’s keyboards or production seem to be making a big impact everywhere at the moment.  Patsy Reid’s strings fill everything out and the presence of three drummers and percussionists means the album never sits still.  “Kings” and “Docs” are built around a pulse that is part percussion part Moog thump, building an infectious tune with the skittish whistles and guitar.  This is a stand out element of the album and is 21st Century folk dance at its best, layering old and new together.  “Birds” is altogether more delicate with a picked guitar refrain and fret squeeze suggesting the movements of birds.  The playing of the Highland pipes and whistles is deft, making images of intricate dance moves.  Like the previous track the electronic keyboard part is both a contrast and an important element in this dance.  “Goretree” opens with beautiful guitar harmonics, breathy atmospheric whistles and rippling keyboards, conjuring up the spirit of a harp.  Timeless and haunting.  “Love” starts as a found sound or texture, introducing the superb crackling whistles and pipes that hob and weave around each other with a slow grace.  Mournful, beautiful and steamy.  “Mick’s” is part Bladerunner atmospheric rainstorm part frantic dance, managing to be frenetic and brooding at the same time, collapsing into a squealing hurdy-gurdy swirl.  “Mink” is another that knits together ancient and modern in a way that sounds invigorating rather than contrived or self-conscious.  Textures, electronic beats whistles and pipes build a beautiful whole with a wonderful crescendo.  This album offers the best of both worlds combining and contrasting thumping deftly woven intricate but pounding up tempo dance numbers with others so delicate and slowed they hang in the air like mist.  Aptly named the album consistently blends and combines the best of ancient and modern to make a perfect synopsis.

Seabuckthorn – A House With Too Much Fire | Album Review | Bookmaker | Review by Marc Higgins | 30.04.18

A House With Too Much Fire layers guitar tones and pedal steel like glissendoes.  Slowly building sounds suggest Desert sunrises or open urban spaces unfolding in front of you. The tracks are comparatively brief, but without percussion time drips by, as measured as a Godfrey Reggio Philip Glass Music and Film collaboration.  Staccato string like motifs on tracks like “Figure Afar” give the music one foot in the hypnotic minimalism camp.  The landscape imagery on the sleeve and the shifting soundscape suggests a gloriously blissed William Tyler, Dean McPhee or even country ambient wizard BJ Cole let loose in the world of weird ECM Jazz.  This is Seabuckthorn or Andy Cartwright’s ninth release, rather like Stephan Micus he layers and plays different instruments to create a whole that sounds at times like traditional music from a lost civilization he’s discovered in the mountain territory of his Alpine home.  “Inner” pairs a treated American Tribal Drum rhythm with a meandering Desert Rock guitar line, we are in the bleached bone and wind sculpted landscape of a Georgia O’Keefe painting. Disentangled is a fragile disconnected piece with a lone picked guitar line wafting over the ambience.  “It Was Aglow” takes the shimmering looped guitars of Durutti Column to this barren landscape.  The piece packs in so much, an album highlight and a long journey in a comparatively short track.  Blackout oozes atmosphere, wind instruments call, guitars squall over a slowly shifting scene.  Andy Cartwright and Seabuckthorn have, on the strength of this cinematic album, a lot to offer the world of the soundtrack, with the way they conjure smouldering shimmering ‘scapes’ before your ears and eyes.  It isn’t just atmospherics though, that sells the music short, “Submerged Past”, another strong track is built around a beautifully nimble acoustic part and some huge electric chords.  Stately, majestic music with layers of guitars and percussion.  If Tangerine Dream had stuck with guitars and played the Folk Clubs, capitalising on “Cloudburst Flight” they might have sounded like this.  “Sent in by the Cold” has that spectral, spatial quality of ECM music, the bowed and stroked guitar building long resonant notes that hang in the air, you can feel the harsh outside pressing down.  With the pastoral beauty of “Submerged Past”, the bleached wild west of ‘Inner’, the clanking industrial landscape of “Somewhat Like Vision” and all points in between this is an emotional and atmospheric album that takes you places.  It can be background or it can be everything, something you can get lost in.

Hannah Sanders and Ben Savage – Awake | Album Review | Sungrazing Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 01.05.18

Most who stumble upon the voice of Hannah Sanders agree that there’s a purity to it, which is a rare thing.  You believe every word she sings, whether the songs are from the tradition or whether they’ve been thought up and written down by contemporary minds.  The effect is very much the same.  Dylan once said “know your song well before you start singing” and you know instinctively, with a voice like this, Hannah knows these songs inside out.  Ben Savage skitters around with extraordinary empathy both in his vocal textures and instrumental prowess. Sitting down to listen to anything by this duo is as easy as making a cup of tea, opening a book or nodding gently in an armchair.  Awake reminds us of something we tend to sometimes forget, the reason why people do this, why people sing and why people listen.  There’s eleven songs here, six of which are Hannah and Ben originals, whilst the others are either arrangements of familiar traditional songs or songs written by folk song royalty, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger for instance.  A pretty faithful reading of Woody Guthrie’s “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key”, with Billy Bragg’s Mermaid Avenue tune still attached, feels very much like the definitive version, and it may well be.  Likewise, Pete Seeger’s “One Grain of Sand” comes across as both beautifully arranged and hauntingly sublime, whilst “7” takes a wander through nursery rhyme territory, revisiting the ‘One for Sorrow’ motif in a most touching way.  Then there’s the instrumental side of this duo’s repertoire, with “Every Night When the Sun Goes Down”, featuring Ben’s seasoned command over the Dobro.  Accompanied by a series of monochrome Tarot cards, the twelve-page booklet perfectly illustrates the songs that appear on this truly gorgeous album. 

The Mammals – Sunshiner | Album Review | Humble Abode Music | Review by Marc Higgins | 05.05.18

The Mammals blend together an earthy soul, glorious vocals, some front porch folk rock grit and a liberal pinch of weird.  The long standing band return after a period away with the goals of raising social consciousness and raising a party spirit.  “Culture War”, “Fork in the Road” and “The Flood” are Soul Folk with those close harmony layered vocals that always bring to mind The Byrds or The Grateful Dead at their most earthy.  Mike Merenda’s rich voice against a fine soup of pedal steel, thick electric guitar chords and banjo just soars.  This is a tight rocking band with punch and grit.  Some lyrical quotes in “Culture War” place The Mammals firmly within the tradition of Folk Music as protest music and an instrument of positive social change.  “Beautiful Girl” is a beautifully bare piece with Ruth Ungar’s voice recalling the crystalline intimacy of Karen Dalton.  The Mammals are also a party band, and organ driven Ska stomper “Doctors Orders” talks to your feet with glorious fiddle and whooping vocals to get you moving with some of that Bad Manners meets Little Feat fire.  “Maple Leaf” perfectly marries those soulful harmonies, raw southern rock sounds and an amazing groove.  With its Memphis Brass licks, solid bass and perfect vocals this just screams radio hit.  “Sunshiner” is another album triumph.  Intimate folk vocals, hypnotic guitar and washes of shimmering pedal steel.  I could listen to those perfectly pitched harmonies over and over, beautifully languid, when you’ve got Sarah Jarosz contributing to your heavenly backing choir you can’t go far wrong.  Close your eyes and it’s the early 70s with Prelude’s “After the Goldrush” coming out of the speakers.  “Staying Up Late” doesn’t break the perfectly blissed mood delivering a slice of Laura Nyro or Carole King piano balladeering.  On this track and “My Baby Drinks Water”, Ruth Unger’s vocals continue to delight.  Like “Another Man Done Gone” or “Find the Cost of Freedom”, the apparent simplicity of “My Baby Drinks Water” belies the depth and punch in this bluegrass spiritual.  “When My Story Ends” is an upbeat affirming, reading of the last moments of life, like Phil Ochs “When I’m Gone”.  “Big Ideas” is an anthemic sprawling track, taken at Neil Young slow burn tempo.  Jacob Silver’s Bass, spare percussion and a shuffling electric piano lay down a beat, while Pedal Steel and keyboard atmospherics wash around us.  Mike and Ruth lay down some intergalactic lullaby lyrics about big ideas and the whole tracks cooks with a hazy ambiance.  Despite the ‘flat on your back’ like Dylan’s “Forever Young”, the overall effect as it closes is uplifting and positive as befits a fine album.

Greg Russell and Ciaran Algar – Utopia and Wasteland | Album Review | Rootbeat Records | Review by Steve Henderson | 06.05.18

Whilst you might have seen Greg Russell appearing as part of The Transports cast and Ciaran Algar lending his talents to Sam Kelly’s Lost Boys, it’s their appearance as a duo that has caused the biggest stir.  Winners of the Young Folk Award at BBC Radio Two Folk Awards in 2013, the duo offers up Utopia and Wasteland as their fourth studio album.  It arrives after both winning the Horizon Award for Best Emerging Act at the 2014 Folk Awards as well as being nominated as Best Duo in 2015.  As much as their mantelpiece has filled with awards, their climb up the slippery pole of popularity can be simply stated as meteoric.  Utopia and Wasteland marks something of a departure from earlier duo records which were largely filled with the songs of others and traditional arrangements of tried and tested folk material.  Not only is production in the hands of the vastly experienced Mark Tucker but, also, all but two of the eleven tracks are written by the duo members.  The material tends to fall into instrumentals contributed by Ciaran Algar and songs written Greg Russell.  The former gets chance to show his abundant fiddle skills on “Warwick Road”, “The Moving Cloud” and the waltz leading into a triumphant finish that closes the album, “De Gule Huis”.  A collection of tracks using tune sets that show off his ability to be as gentle and moving as he is energetic and vibrant.  As if to prove wrong my simple categorisation of their talents above, it’s a song by Ciaran Algar that provides in its lyrics the title of the album, as “We Are Leaving” considers the juxtaposition of rich and poor that was apparent in the tragic Grenfell fire.  It’s the kind of political swipe that recalls Chris Wood at his finest and, indeed, “1908” continues that political thread as Greg Russell adapts the words of a Broadside Ballad to his own tune.  However, that’s not all.  In his song writing breadth, Russell shows a maturity that exceeds his young years with songs about relationships with “All the While” and a yearning for home on “Seven Hills”.  It’s just one of the indicators that this is a duo packed with talent – you’ll be hearing lots more of this pair, for sure.  Starting with Utopia and Wasteland would be a good jumping off point for you.  

Green Rock River Band – Edgelands | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 08.05.18

Clive King had Stig of the Dump, JG Ballard Concrete Island.  The Folk Blues tradition has a long fascinating with the open road, rambling, roaming.  But in line with those two otherwise unconnected writers, Green Rock River Band on Edgelands explore those unloved, overlooked spaces on the edges of cities.  The Edgelands places are, the band says, a very British, suburban kind of wilderness.  The album opens with Jeremy Sachs’ evocative and gritty vocals on “Hard Times” a tale of how easy it is to be felled by poor circumstances.  There is a Tom Waits crackle and rasp to Sach’s vocal, think Mumford and Sons with bite.  The Brass and chorus vocals create a superb 21st Century Folk Song.  “Blackbird” continues that gritty vibe while upping the tempo and throwing in a beautiful atmospheric instrumental break to show it’s not just rabble rousing protest music.  “I Loved This City” is another stirring tale of the denizens of the Edgelands battling against the uncaring modern city. Wonderfully stirring vocal from Rebecca Freeman.  Against these unsettling parables “Brockwell Park” is an intoxicating celebratory piece of dance music to remind us of the good that happens when people come together in public spaces.  “Kevin, King of the Edgelands” is a whirling, roaring, larger than life ballad.  With tongue firmly in cheek Green Rock River Band tell a spicy tale of children’s passions and feral escape.  Think Police Dog Hogan or Show Of Hands for that small lives writ large quality.  “There’s a Sadness” is a wonderful Country-tinged Edgelands melancholic gem with a passionate vocal again from Rebecca Freeman.  “Infinite Possibilities” has a fine woozy tempo, surreal observational lyrics and the feel of the unclassifiable Handsome Family at their best.  Again there is a lovely touch of the Tom Waits growl to remind you of the darkness beyond the service station strip lights on this album highlight.  “Tomorrow” closes this loose thematic concept album and as the title suggests it’s a song of hope and a gently furious call for a better world.  The violin and tune evoke that British pastoral melancholy of Johnny Flynn’s theme to The Detectorists.  A wonderful singalong closing refrain of Del Boy, this time next year future dreaming.  This is a wonderful vivid and evocative album.  Thoughtful lyrics with sensitive music.  It functions as a subtle whole and it is quietly stirring rather than finger stabbing or flag waving.  Thematically linked as a flowing whole like Dark Side of the Moon, but individually strong as well.  Highly recommended.

Old Salt Union – Old Salt Union | Album Review | Compass Records| Review by Marc Higgins | 09.05.18

From the opening this album bursts apart with glorious harmonies, upbeat melodies and that dancing western swing violin jazzy guitar interplay.  Opening tracks “Where I Stand” and “Feel My Love” are so infectious and so familiar, slipping into your consciousness like faded comfortable jeans, you are convinced they are covers.  The tracks are of course strong assured band originals, polished sparkling pieces of radio friendly pieces of Pop Country.  So right that they feel fully formed and years old.  The band powers through a tight, dazzling fast footed set of musicians.  “Bought and Sold” is a slower more considered number, all rich harmonies and the warm keening of a pedal steel. This band can do furious and smooth with equal flair.  The cover of Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al” is a glorious frolic.  It is to Old Salt Union’s credit that they own it completely.  The Graceland 80’s favourite is reborn completely as an Old Salt Union Country classic.  “Tuscaloosa” perfectly marries finger picked banjo, John Brighton’s fiery fiddle and those smooth harmonies.  “Flatt Baroque” is a fast instrumental with the bands chops and prowess as a dance band well and truly on show.  Gypsy trills on the mandolin, atmospheric handclaps and infectious music.  “Closer Here and Off My Mind” is a sure footed fast tempo stormer.  The band get a real groove going with some call and response vocals, kazoos and a kind of timeless hillbilly freak out on the fade.  Big hearted music that whether slow or fast warms you and raises a smile.

Old Crow Medicine Show – Volunteer | Album Review | Columbia | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 14.05.18

Twenty years on the go and the Old Crow Medicine Show release their sixth studio album to date, which once again demonstrates the band’s own unique blend of bluegrass, traditional mountain music and twangy country to great effect.  Some of the band’s trademark live sound is captured in the likes of “Shout Mountain Music”, “The Good Stuff” and “Elzick’s Farewell”, with one or two moments of tenderness, including the homage to homesickness, “Look Away”.  If Ketch Secor, Critter Fuqua, Cory Younts, Morgan Jahnig, Chance McCoy and Kevin Hayes, sound like characters from an old B movie western, their music belongs to the main feature.

The Salts – Brave | Album Review | Braccan Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 14.05.18

As both the band’s name and the album title suggests, the music here is of the high seas, shanties given an injection of folk rock, with an unmistakable Englishness.  Even their recent festival bookings seem more than just suitable, such as the Tall Ships Festival in Greenwich and the Pirate Festival in Brixham.  The song titles confirm the band’s raison d’être, “Haul Away for Rosie”, “Running Down to Cuba” and “Fire Marengo”, even “Drunken Sailor” gets an airing.  Have your Kwells with you for this voyage.


The Lonesome Ace Stringband – When the Sun Comes Up | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 15.05.18

Chris Coole, John Showman and Max Heineman make up the Lonesome Ace Stringband, with banjo, fiddle and bass under their respective command.  The Canadian trio’s third album takes old-time music and gives it a modern twist, taking the tradition to new places, whilst mixing their own original songs with established material, notably “Pretty Boy Floyd”, with a nod to both John Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie.  Despite some stellar playing, the trio’s vocal prowess ought not to be overlooked, especially on “Life’s Treasure”.


John Statz – Darkness on the San Juans | Album Review | Why River | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 15.05.18

The Denver-based singer-songwriter pours his heart out on this fine album of personal songs, the production of which make the songs sound even more personal and intimate.  Highly prolific with eight albums under his belt, John Statz writes in a fluid style, with uncomplicated arrangements and engaging stories.  Surrounding himself with close musician friends, the intimacy of these songs allow the listener to feel very much a part of the team.


Robert Lane – Only a Flight Away | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 15.05.18

With commendations from the master of English song writing Ray Davies, Robert Lane exercises his craft once again in this third release, an album of self-penned songs ranging in style from the folk/pop leanings of “The Instigator”, to the rock solid band arrangement of “Man of the Moment”.  Impressive in its scope, Only a Flight Away is almost a compendium of styles, all of which demonstrate Robert’s versatility as a songwriter and tunesmith.  The bluesy “Baby Knows” could not be more different from “Hoping for Anything (But You)”, yet they’re both distinctly Robert Lane through and through.


Ry Cooder – Prodigal Son | Album Review | Fantasy | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 16.05.18

I can actually remember a time when we used to look forward to the new Ry Cooder album, just to see where this man’s impeccable taste would take him next.  Questions would invariably arise, such as, would there be any trademark bottleneck guitar wizardry, or any mandolin driven spirituals?  Would Flaco Jiminez be there with the frills and thrills of his Cajun accordion or would Bobby King and Terry Evans be around to deliver their soulful harmonies?  For a good while it seemed to be nothing but soundtracks and collaborations with world musicians, devoid of the core sound that made us listen to Cooder’s music in the first place.  Well, some of that seems to have been revisited, reorganised and revitalised on Prodigal Son, Cooder’s first album in six years.  Incredibly, we seem to be hearing the voice of a youthful Ry Cooder once again, not the voice of the 71 year-old we fully expected.  Even on the haunting “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”, Cooder’s voice is weathered but strong.  The slide accompaniment is reminiscent of the familiar Paris Texas motif, once a Cooder staple and certainly great to hear once again.  The famous Cooder eclecticism is evident here once again, much the same as during his Into the Purple Valley period, dipping into Chuck Berry during the album’s lead track, the funky “Shrinking Man”.  It’s also rewarding to hear Cooder revisit the Woody Guthrie legend with the gorgeous “Jesus and Woody”, one of the album highlights, with echoes of “Vigilante Man” back to haunt us.  Cooder’s chief collaborator on these songs is Joachim Cooder, his son, whose flair for drums and percussion is evident throughout.  There’s a relaxed atmosphere on this album, which is both refreshing and delightful to hear.  Although there’s no Flaco, there is the slide guitar, the voice, the mature taste in songs and yes, we also get a bit of Bobby King and Terry Evans, doing what they do best.

Scott Matthews – The Great Untold | Album Review | Shedio | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 16.05.18

This album, made up of stripped-back songs, holds our attention through its poetic beauty, its simplicity and its restrained atmosphere throughout.  The Wolverhampton-born singer songwriter has shown remarkable progress since he arrived on the scene twelve years ago with his debut album Passing Stranger and his sound is very much now established.  There’s a warmth and honesty about Scott’s vocal delivery, which is unmistakably his own.  Yes, there are comparisons to those who went before, and I have to concede that were Island still making sampler LPs like Bumpers and Nice Enough to Eat, then Scott Matthews’ songs would be placed precisely where the Nick Drake songs were on the 1970 records.

Courtney Marie Andrews – May Your Kindness Remain | Album Review | Loose | Review by Steve Henderson | 17.05.18

Starting with her Honest Life record, Courtney Marie Andrews began a steady climb up the collective Americana psyche.  It caused Loose to rerelease her earlier On My Page record and, now, we have a new record to ponder, May Your Kindness Remain.  All this in the space of a couple of years.  You’d think with such a rapid musical output that quantity might be winning over quality.  It’s pleasing to report that’s not the case.  The approach to On My Page sat snugly alongside Honest Life with its high quality songs and sympathetic accompanying musicians.  Now able to tour with her band, it’s probably not surprising that May Your Kindness Remain finds the musicians involved are let off the leash with wild abandon.  Their presence felt strongly across the whole of the record but, especially, the guitar work from Dillon Warnek.  As the organ swells on the opening title track, we’re reminded that her music has a retro feel that looks back at country and rock in equal measure.  Let’s not forget that quality vocal either as it has drawn comparisons to the likes of Joni Mitchell and Emmylou Harris.  Earlier records have tended to be introspective and sorrowful.  Whilst that can still be found on tracks like “Rough Around the Edges”, she’s found looking around at the world that causes sorrow as she bemoans the ‘American dream dying’ on “Two Cold Nights in Buffalo”.  There’s always a bluesy gospel feel to be found in her music and this is drawn to the front when she employs backing singers on various tracks but most obviously on “Kindness of Strangers”.  It’s not a cheery, dance around the room kind of record and she’s talked of her own loneliness in the past.  However, the warmth in her music comes from the sadness and the caring attitude that causes the word kindness to pop up more than once on the record.  May her kindness remain and may her talents keep delivering records as good as this one.

Rachel Brown and The Beatnik Playboys – Look Who’s Back | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 17.05.18

Rachel is a considerable talent, a powerful vocalist and a fine piano player.  Both her voice and her playing adapt easily to fit the furious bar blues and the torch songs the band play so well.  Rachel Brown’s rich voice draws on Country, Rock n Roll, Rockabilly and sultry Jazz.  “Look Whose Back” and “Count on Me Baby” place a warm Lyle Lovett like vocal against a pulsing jazz piano.  On “Blue Diamond” Rachel’s vocal has the wonderful melancholic ring of Gillian Welch.  “Blinders” is a smouldering piece of piano led blues with a killer violin from Emma Shook, guitar from Dave Huddleston and a huge vocal from Rachel.  Well back from the microphone she just powers out of the speakers.  Nathan Bell’s “Whisky You Win” is a potent song turned into an empty bottle anthem of regret.  Rachel Brown wrings every note out beautifully, Nathan himself says, she makes his songs her own.  “No Lock No Key” and “Acceptance” are exercises in restraint, jazzy percussion, sparse piano that is more Ellington or Evans than Bar Honky Tonk.  Rachel’s emotional torch singer vocal just smoulders and burns on these stunning slower numbers.  This album is equally suited to loud parties with a full house and those moments at 3am when the lights are low and the whisky wins.

Ben Reel – Land of Escape | Album Review | B Reel Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 18.05.18

Ben Reel’s eighth album features a dozen new songs by the Irish singer songwriter, recorded at Ben’s home studio in South Armagh, the songs being treated to lush arrangements throughout, with Ben’s fine vocal at the helm.  Soulful in places, Land of Escape provides the sort of escapism we currently crave, especially on such songs as “Some Mercy, Misty Morning Rain” and the tender “Paradise Found”.


Milton Hide – Little Fish | EP Review | Howdy Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 19.05.18

Convincing performances by Eastbourne-based husband and wife team Jim Tipler and Josie Tipler, with six choice songs, the themes ranging from Brexit, Japanese carp migration, ideal locations for enduring cerebral hypoxia and a touching homage to home, each obviously revealing something rather more poetic than their title would suggest.  This is a surprisingly enchanting EP.


Mischief Afoot – Mischief Afoot | Album Review | Wild Goose Records | By Allan Wilkinson | 20.05.18

Cotswold-based trio Becky Dellow, John Davis and Jeff Gillett, otherwise known as Mischief Afoot, present a diverse collection of songs and tunes from the English, Irish and American traditions, with one or two self-penned compositions included.  Highly listenable and engaging, the songs and tunes have a freshness, despite the age of some of the material.  Nice to see that we never seem to tire of such ballads as “The Deserter” and such beautiful melodies as “Bridget O’Malley”, both treated here to fine arrangements.


Barefoot Jerry – Watching TV/You Can’t Get Off With Your Shoes On | Album Review | Retroworld | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 21.05.18

The third and fourth albums by Nashville-based country rockers from the mid 1970s, reissued in one package.  Barefoot Jerry has become the pseudonym of multi-instrumentalist Wayne Moss, as exemplified in his appearance in the landmark country outlaw film documentary Heartworn Highways (1976), although the name was originally applied to Moss’s ever changing band in the early 1970s.  The two albums represented here demonstrate the band’s versatility as top Nashville session musicians, with such material as their impressive signature workout “Two Mile Pike”, the Arabian themed “Ali Babba”, a suitably stomping take on Little Richard’s “Lucille” and especially for Lord of the Rings aficionados, the highly sentimental synth-led “Hero Frodo”.

The Jellyman’s Daughter – Dead Reckoning | Album Review | Boat Duck Records| Review by Marc Higgins | 22.05.18

Imagine the plaintive vocals of Gillian Welch and those lush layered harmonies of artists like the The Wailin Jennys or the pop folk of The Weepies married to the aching tension of Damien Rice and you are in the territory of The Jellyman’s Daughter.  Floating on glorious string arrangements or punched out over Banjo, Guitar and Cello, Dead Reckoning is a wonder of delights all the way through.  “I Hope” and “Giving Up” are stunning earworm tracks, up tempo stormers you are convinced you’ve heard before.  “I Hope” is a paradox, a dusty Americana duet about Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh.  Contrary contrast or not the song is an infectious stunner.  Emily Kelly’s and Graham Coe’s playing and vocals are captivating.  “Oh Boy” is all about beautiful harmonies, at times there is a touch of The Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody” balanced with Emily’s punchy vocal and a simply beautiful Cello part to add another layer of emotion.  “Dead Reckoning” the song is an emotional duet over a rich wash of strings.  The music builds and falls perfectly, with space used perfectly to create atmosphere and beauty.  “The Worst of it All” has the tension and sparse beauty of Damien Rice at his brooding best on a glass half empty song.  “The Shoogly Peg” is an atmospheric instrumental as Banjo, Cello, Double Bass and Mandolin trade licks to great effect.  “Cry Cry Darling” is a fine cover of the Jimmy C Newman country classic.  This track doesn’t appear to be on the digital version of the album, so support your local music seller and get a physical copy.  “You Don’t Know Love” is another album highlight with simply glorious vocal layers and harmonies.  Fans of The Staves will find much to lose themselves in this simply stunning song.  “White Shadows” is another filigree fine arrangement, Emily and Graham’s vocals perfect against Bass, Guitar and Mandolin. Starting like the aching best of Gillian Welch, the strings when they come, just pile on the tension.  A perfect piece of melancholia to wallow in.  This is a stunning blend of acoustic instruments, sublime vocal harmonies and heartfelt songs, lifted still higher by fine supporting players and the ambience of the recording.  Absolute delight from the first to the last moment.

Jill Jackson – Are We There Yet? | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 23.05.18

Are We There Yet? conjures up images of fraught and overlong childhood car trips.  On the journey from her first release to Are We There Yet fifth album Glasgow based Paisley born singer songwriter Jill Jackson’s voice has deepened and smoothed, maturing like a vintage wine.  On the warm “Country of 1954” and the jazzier “My Baby” it is a seductive and enticing instrument, just a touch of vibrato and husk.  1954 adds an ethereal prairie pedal steel, telling the story of Jill’s grandparents meeting.  Lyrical mentions of Greyhound Buses and Californian Sunsets create a sense of place in this lifelong love story.  “My Baby” its Resonator guitar and piano pulse is infectious foot tapping hot jazz.  A distant cousin of the baby that just cares for Nina Simone.  Jill’s voice shimmies through jazz as easily as it flows honey like through country.  Of course on a song inspired by a love of Benny Goodman the versatile Gustaf Ljunggren swaps his pedal steel for a light as air clarinet.  Jackson builds a beautiful song around childhood cries of “Are We There Yet?” on holiday journeys to Blackpool and a love of Buddy Holly.  The storytelling and the sound are both seductive.  While the songs are separated by time and distance, like Kate Campbell’s “Galaxie 500” Jill uses a car and the radio as touchstones to draw captivating pictures.  Finally serves up Doo Wop, Boo Hewerdine on a Ska Organ and a Jazz brass section to deliver a sensitive but swinging ballad that is just a wonder of restraint and grace.  As always on this album Jill effortlessly delivers a perfect vocal.  “Needle And Thread” is a jazzy feel good song in Imelda May territory with a great chorus on this one take singalong.  “Sweet Lullaby” is another of those delicate spiritual ballads that Jill does so well.  Her picked guitars and vocal are joined by Kathleen McInnes’ voice and the results are sublime.  “Hope and Gasoline” is another reflective, car time travel song that links to the album title as Jill escapes aged 17 in an Electric Blue Vauxhall Cavalier.  Layers of players and instruments wrap around Jill’s vocal, again with admirable restraint to create a beautiful song.  “Dynamite” is a real air punching song, a brave and anthemic attempt to document overcoming anxiety lying on the bathroom floor.  One to jump up and down to, live it should be dynamite indeed.  “Goodbye” beautifully commemorates Jill’s Gran and that sense of losing someone.  The arrangement is simple, voice, guitar and atmospherics, as the lyrics and Jill Jackson’s singing create such an atmosphere.  The loss and emotion in the voice is real and affecting.  Are We There Yet?  On the strength of this album I’d say yes, definitely.  Sympathetic, sensitive players, superb songs and arrangements and Boo Hewerdine’s production mean that Folk, Country, Ska and Jazz Torch Songs blend into a cohesive and captivating whole.  Of course through it all runs the emotional husky smooth joy that is Jill’s wonderful voice, both carried and carrying.

The Poozies – Punch | Album Review | Schmooz Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 24.05.18

Punch is the eighth album from The Poozies and the first since Eilidh Shaw and original Poozie Mary Macmaster were joined by Tia Files and Sarah McFadyen.  Opening track “Punch” is a building fiddle tune, full of spark and rhythm.  The addition of McFadyen means that two and sometimes three fiddles weave and dance together alongside Files’ strident guitar and that stomping beat.  It sets up the album nicely.  Mary Macmaster’s Gaelic vocal and an atmospheric fiddle feature in the hauntingly beautiful Ailein all drifting mist after the swirling stomp of the opener.  “Bloodknot” sets some often surprisingly spiky fiddle parts against Tia Files insistent guitar part.  Two fiddle players on one track often creates some interesting sparring lines.  “Soaking” uses Sarah McFadyen’s distinctive Orkney burr to tell a humorous tale on this Country flavoured track with moments of real beauty and farce.  Isobel uses those perfect Poozie vocal harmonies to create real beauty and charm.  “Knees of Fire” is another twisting tune, starting on Files guitar and the gloriously fat bass sound of Mary’s Electro Harp with the twin fiddles joining.  Anais Mitchell’s “Wedding Song” sparkles through its treatment by The Poozies with otherworldly bent notes and weirdness from the Electro Harp, beautiful vocal harmonies and moments of dark Psych Folk.  Album closer “Easily Led” is a passage of measured pleasure with those distinctive Andrews Sisters honey vocals and the gentle accompaniment of the harp.  A lullaby to end off a real punch of an album.

Carlene Carter – C’Est C Bon | Album Review | Retroworld | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 24.05.18

An enormous amount of love and attention has been paid to the accompanying booklet for this difficult to listen to re-issue of Carlene Carter’s highly synthetic 1980s pop drivel album.  Once dubbed Country Music Royalty, Carter encapsulates the irritatingly programmed sound, the songs of which in all fairness probably couldn’t be improved upon even with the help of a Gibson Hummingbird.  Meanwhile, we are left with some highly forgettable video age nonsense.


Charlie Daniels Band – Epic Trilogy Volume 4 | Album Review | Retroworld | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 25.05.18

Known widely for the hit single “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”, Charlie Daniels has traversed various musical styles since he arrived on the Country music scene in the 1950s, from Blues, Cajun, Western Swing and Outlaw Country.  Here we have three albums, originally released over a ten year period from 1972, reissued as a 2-disc set on Retroworld.  As a multi-instrumentalist, Daniels has been a much sought after session figure during the 60s and 70s, and the three albums included here, TE John, Grease and Wolfman (1972), Whiskey (1974) and Windows (1982) provide a fine introduction to the Charlie Daniels Band in their prime.

Gothard Sisters – Midnight Sun | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 26.05.18

Despite hailing from Edmonds, Washington, the Gothard Sisters (Greta, Willow and Solana), appear to have most of their influences very much grounded in the Irish tradition, the siblings being equally at home with Irish dancing as they are with their Celtic fiddle tunes.  Midnight Sun finds the trio in fine fettle both in their tunes and in their song choices, with some fine storytelling in “Mermaids”, “Bells on the Hill” and “Rose, Marie and Heather”.


Poco – The Songs of Paul Cotton | Album Review | Retroworld | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 27.05.18

Some claim Poco to be one of America’s most underrated bands, largely due to the phenomenal success of The Eagles, a band that recruited at least two former members of Poco during their early years.  Alabama-born singer songwriter and guitarist Paul Cotton replaced founder member Jim Messina in 1972 and has since played a major part in the survival of Poco over the years, eventually leaving in 2010 to pursue other things.  The ten songs here represent some of Cotton’s finest moments with the band during their Epic years, including such familiar fare as “Ride the Country”, “Keeper of the Fire” and a live recording of “Bad Weather”.


Ben Glover – Shorebound | Album Review | Proper | Review by Marc Higgins | 28.05.18

The Punchy slide guitar that opens “What You Love Will Break Your Heart”, sounding like it’s been lifted off a 80s Tom Petty album is an immediate indication of how high Ben has lifted the bar on this new album.  “It felt time to go bigger sonically, as my last albums have been quite stripped back and raw”, says Glover.  There is a swagger and a more layered feel to the opener and the album.  As well as a conscious decision after 10 years of recording to move into a new phase, the sound of Shorebound was also a product of having two brilliant guitarists playing off each other in the studio.  Ben Glover’s voice is still a charged emotional force, “A Wound That Seeks the Arrow, a duet with Angel Snow is a tour de force.  A delicately balanced arrangement of stroked guitars and Cello gives the singers room to build up an emotional tension.  “Northern Stars” is another vocal triumph that Celtic lyricism is tempered with some of the soulful raggedness of Gavin Clark from Sunhouse and Clayhill and Neil Young’s up lifting falsetto.  A shuffle beat feel good song that is going to sound great at summer open air festivals.  “Catbird Seat” is a duet with Mary Gauthier, his breathy voice complimented by her distinctive tones.  A collaborative writer throughout his career including writing Blackbirds the Americana Music Association UK’s 2017 International song of the year with Gretchen Peters, Ben says “I’ve been fortunate to work with amazing, fearless artists who have allowed me to deepen and widen my creative process.”  Shorebound features twelve songs, ten of which were co-written with and feature the voices of people Ben feels are his “closest musical cohorts”.  The brooding mystical voodoo of “Dancing with the Beast” summons some of the dark mojo of Nick Cave or Grant Lee Phillips.  The insistent guitar and piano and Gretchen and Ben superb performance as they wind together and push each other on, delivers one of the strongest tracks on a consistently strong album.  “Kindness” showcases Ben Glover’s ability to write and deliver folk anthems in this perfect solo track.  Of his first performance of the song Ben says, “it was very evident to me, at that moment, that it’s essential we try and offer some light through our music. Art connects directly with the soul and the soul always responds to the light”.  “Ride the River” is another example of how Ben’s superb voice is lifted further still when harmonising with another strong singer, on this track Kim Richey.  With a gritty organ and a soaring electric guitar “Ride the River” balances moments of spiritual quiet and uplifting soulful bliss.  “Song for the Fighting” is performed with Nielsen Hubbard, who along with Glover and Joshua Britt make up the song writing trip central to the excellent Orphan Brigade.  Another huge anthem, the two singers work well together and build a taut soulful atmosphere on a huge classic rock track. U2 would kill to crackle and burn like “Song for the Fighting” does when it hits its stride.  “Wildfire” is another potent rocker, a piano ballad featuring Ricky Ross from Deacon Blue again there is a beautiful balance between calm and rock blast.  “My Shipwrecked Friend” is a song writing and vocal collaboration with Belfast singer songwriter Anthony Toner.  A great song crammed with maritime imagery and metaphors and two voices that blend well together.  Lyrically “Keeper of My Heart” has a pinch of Seasick Steve’s “I Started off with Nothing” in its DNA.  Robert Vincent and Ben Glover deliver a fine set of life metaphors with that lazy swaggering tempo of Ray Lamontagne and some fine country playing.  The song rolls along and delivers line after line of timeless folk blues writing and atmospheric playing.  If you have never heard of Ben Glover, then this album will delight and amaze and have you hunting down his catalogue in wonder.  If you have heard and loved Ben’s earlier recordings then this album, with its atmospheres and sense of growth will delight and amaze.

Yonatan Gat – Universalists | Album Review | Glitterbeat | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 29.05.18

New York City-based guitarist, producer and experimental composer, originally from Israel, Yonatan Gat seems to be on an urgent quest to explore as many influences as he possibly can on this his second album release.  With plenty of light and shade, garage noise and tranquil delicacy, punk sensibility and ethnomusicological curiosity, Universalists delves deep.  Joined by Gal Lazer on drums and Sergio Sayeg on bass, the trio’s sound is enhanced by a 1950s field recording from Genoa, together with a powwow drum combo from Rhode Island, not to mention some fine vocal delights during the almost epic Chronology.  Throughout, Gat’s confident and distinctively brutal guitar playing shakes each arrangement to life, with little room for fillers.

Malphino – Visit Malphino | Album Review | Lex | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 30.05.18

This London-based Cumbia collective encourage us to visit their Utopian island on this their debut album.  We need look no further than their collective moniker to discover their origins, ‘Mal’ from tuba player David Aird’s Malay background and ‘Phino’ an indication of accordionist Alex Barrow’s Filipino roots.  Together, David and Alex along with DJ Yu Sato, percussionist Antonin Voyant and organist Graham Mushnik, Malphino have created a multi-faceted environment for musicians and visual artists to explore their collective ideas with intriguing results.  Difficult to describe but easy to understand once you are acquainted with it, the rhythms and textures of cumbia are infectiously explored on this generous 17-track debut.

Various Artists – Kinder Shores | Album Review | Rees Care Leavers | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 30.05.18

A bit futile reviewing a charity compilation as the point is to put your hand in your pocket and give to a good cause, regardless of how good the album is.  Fortunately, this compilation of a generous 19 tracks by the likes of, okay let’s start with the biggies, Ralph McTell, Fairport Convention, Show of Hands, Oysterband and Home Service, is highly listenable, despite the fact that you may possibly already have most of the tracks included in your own collection, most of the tracks being already available on other albums.  The compilation possibly introduces some of us to lesser known, yet equally important contributors including Eric Sedge, whose song “She’s the One”, was the inspiration for this project.  The brainchild of retired Cromer based social worker Jenni Randall, Kinder Shores aims to raise funds for a new project in East Anglia that will provide ongoing support for those who have previously been in care.  Other artists involved include Chris While and Julie Matthews, Fraser Nimmo, Edward II and annA rydeR (!?)

Wolfe Jackson – Nobody Knows Me (Better Than You) | EP Review | Self Release | By Allan Wilkinson | 30.05.18

The press release for Wolfe Jackson’s debut EP Nobody Knows Me (Better Than You) boasts a click-free, tuning-free and headphones-less live off the floor performance during the recording of these seven songs, however it all sounds pretty polished to me.  The London-based singer songwriter discovered himself as an artist during his stay in New York and has subsequently honed his sound through the slick production of Leo Sidran.  The sparsely arranged acoustic pop songs, such as the soulful John Martyn-like single “Comfort Love”, mark Jackson as a talent on the rise.


Dàimh – The Rough Bounds | Album Review | Goat Island Music | Review by Marc Higgins | 30.05.18

Dàimh pronounced dive, are a Scottish Highlands based band with an ongoing mission to defend and promote Gaelic culture.  Translated from the Gaelic Na Garbh Chrìochan, the Rough Bounds are an area of West Lochaber where Dàimh were formed twenty years ago, regarded historically as an unruly and inaccessible.  Dàimh take the unspoilt natural splendour from that area not the disruptive inaccessibility.  While not necessarily the free jazz rebels that the historic connection might initially suggest, they are challenging the tradition, looking forward and back with a mix of half band compositions and half traditional material. S Trusaidh mi na Coilleagan and Tha Fadachd orm Fhin feature the beautiful Gaelic singing of Ellen MacDonald.  “12th of June” and “Donald MacLeod Reels” are nimble tightly played sets of tunes, the two sides of the mighty Dàimh, Pipes, Fiddles, Accordions and Guitars either furiously pushing dancers on, or weaving softer accompaniment to Gaelic song.  The songs a mix of seldom heard and better known ballads, cover all the expected Dàimh themes, drinking, fighting, heartbreak and heading off to sea, never to be seen again.  Indeed the sleeve has a key of symbols for each of these and a diagram to show which songs touch on which themes.  An excellent idea if there ever was one which could be universally adopted across the Folk and Acoustic tradition.  Stately and beautiful on “Oran Bhagh a Chaise”, drawing pictures behind the beauty of Ellen MacDonald’s voice or bubbling with rhythm light and colour on “Happy Fish” this is a delight of an album listening or dancing.

Brubeck Brothers Quartet – Timeline | Album Review | Blue Forest Records | By Liam Wilkinson | 31.05.18

Chris and Dan Brubeck, sons of jazz legend Dave Brubeck, are joined by guitarist Mike DeMicco and pianist Chuck Lamb for a shimmering live performance which marks sixty years since Dave Brubeck’s historic 1958 State Department Tour.  Brubeck masterpieces such as “Blue Rondo a la Turk”, “Easy as You Go” and “Tritonis” are revisited via Dan’s formidable drums and Chris’s ever-cunning trombone and bass, proving once again that the Brubeck family were born to make music with one another.


Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette – After the Fall | Album Review | ECM | By Liam Wilkinson | 31.05.18

Capturing the magic of their previously unissued 1998 New Jersey performance, this release marks thirty five years since the foundation of the jazz super-trio.  Despite being recorded following his prolonged illness, After The Fall preserves an instance of Jarrett at his most graceful and playful, especially during Charlie Parker’s “Scrapple from the Apple” and John Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice”.  Peacock’s bass is limber and often breathtakingly energetic whilst DeJohnette dazzles with his usual froth and fervour.  A work of unflagging dexterity and ultimate beauty.


Tracy Grammer – Low Tide | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 31.05.18

Tracy Grammer rose to acclaim in the late 90s as half an eponymous duo with Dave Carter.  Following Carter’s death in 2002, Grammer toured on her own, building a, reputation as a musician, interpreter of song and songwriter across two albums and two EPs. Low Tide is the first collection of Grammer’s own songwriting and represents a major developing in terms of sound and delivery.  “The Hole” and “Mercy” are wonderful Country Rockers.  Smooth of voice but lyrically sharp when writing about herself and her failures in love, Tracy delivers superb openers.  Her intricate acoustic guitar contrasts with co-producer Jim Henry’s spikier electric guitar work.  “Forty-niner” has a softer atmosphere, clouds of atmosphere and Tracey’s warm perfect vocals are spot on.  The song is an observational piece about gamblers, mining for silver dollars, driven like Gold Rush hopefuls.  “The Mark” is literally a gospel rocker, detailing Cain’s blistering statement of purpose, brimming with vim and fire.  Whether throwing up washes of abstract noise of stabs of Rock n Roll hellfire fury Jim Henry’s guitar cooks, perfectly contrasting Tracy Grammer’s superb vocal.  “Daffodil Days” is a melancholic look back at a failed relationship, packed full of well-drawn imagery it is delivered with warmth and love.  Gramme says of Low Tide, “My entire musical foundation – Classical, Country, Pop and Folk – informs this recording.  I feel like I found my voice – many of them, actually – and told the truth”.  If you are smitten with Tracy Grammer the angelic ballad singer, then “Were You Ever Here” and “Good Life” are probably Tracey’s strongest vocals on the album.  She just rings out on “Were You Ever Here”, the quality of her singing against her Viola made me think of Mary-Chapin Carpenter’s Come on Come On and the track “I am a Town”.  Both singers use space and let you hear every note, both songs use rural nostalgic metaphors to build atmosphere.  “Good Life”, Grammer’s most requested song in concert is an emotionally charged review of her father’s trials and troubles told from his perspective.  Again the imagery and writing is spot on, the song atmospheric and delivered with love.  The last verse is a poetic truism, full of real experience and a sense of a real life lived.  Tracy Grammer’s cover of Kate Bush’s “Cloudbursting”, stripped of its pop and imagined as an emotional Country lullaby is glorious and delivered with love.  A song about remembering a lost father and nature’s rebirth it makes a perfect song cycle with “Good Life” and the gentle “The Verdant Mile” written for Dave Carter and first recorded in 2004.  “Free” is a hopeful hymn, full of warmth and joy, an affirmation after the songs of love, loss and family.  A hopeful note after a journey through grief.

Mishaped Pearls – Shivelight | Album Review | Mishaped Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 01.06.18

Mishaped Pearls formed around the duo of multi-instrumentalist Ged Flood and vocalist Manuela Schuette, their second album Thamesis released in 2014 was a real stop and listen moment.  Shivelight, named after a word in a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem meaning the lances of sunlight that pierce the canopy of a wood.  Right from the start there is a sense of the surprise of bright sunlight against the gloom of the forest.  Of the balance and sparking interest created by chiaroscuro.  “The Cuckoo” a version of the English Folk song, after the dreamy almost hallucinogenic Thamesis, has a much harder edge, like a raw Appalachian song played around a pulsing electronic beat.  Manuela Schuette’s beautiful voice, surely one of ‘the voices’ around, is set against an eerie drone violin.  The guitar rhythm at times sounds like an autoharp.  It might be the mentions of log cabins, mountains and associated imagery, but the track sounds like it’s played on a Blue Mountains porch by the couple from Grant Woods’ American Gothic painting.  “Queen May”, a rework of the Christmas carol Down in yon forest, has a sublime stroked guitar part I could listen to all day, the vocals from Ged and Manuela sound like they are just breathed out.  There is an obvious nod back to the perfection of the Thamesis album with the strings, but the West African sounding  guitar weaving over the top pushes the track into something new, something exciting and strange, a true fusion of music with the ‘so English’ chorus vocals against the staccato guitar like part.  Nature permeates through Shivelight and the lyrics of back to back songs “Nature Waking” and “Fishes” brim with pastoral images of early morning reveres and the world in flight.  “Nature Waking” has another of those earworm African guitar or Turkish Saz Baglama parts.  Its percussive and exotic sound, plus the mouth harp like sound that drifts through, help build a evocative kind of folktronica or steampunk feel where ancient and modern weave, then blend together.  Ged Flood, whose vocals we hear on this track, wanted to make an album that was musically modern in its approach, with a wide variety of instruments and soundscapes but also lyrically interesting with topical subject matter as well as stories from the past.  Three or four tracks in and it is clear that Mishaped Pearls have achieved that and then some.  As a reviewer, captivated by a new album, there is a danger that you gush and then it doesn’t capture others.  You feel like you are the early identifier of something pivotal, a zeitgeist and misjudge it.  However, after two very significant albums I’m going to call it, Thamesis and Shivelight, for me place Mishaped Pearls alongside 60s Fairport or Steeleye Span mark 1 and 2 as a force to be reckoned with and treasured.  If no one else agrees it’s their loss.  “Fishes” mixes up an electronica rhythm with hypnotic vocals, some thoughtful lyrics and Lauren S Pardue’s glorious Folk Rock violin.  Pardue’s atmospheric violin and those wonderful vocals continue on “Jonny’s War”.   This is no “Fighting for Strangers” or “Plains of Waterloo” though, the song, slowed down to a trance like contemplative state deals with depression and inner conflict.  “Jesus’ Crooked Shadow” is another perfect example of old and new melded to create a captivating whole.  Vocal chants and loop cuts fracture the song while Manuela shines at her classical best over the top.  Think Ommadawn or Incantation era Mike Oldfield meeting Wilhelmenia Fernández’s “La Wally” from French film Diva.  “Three Cries” is a personal song written and sung by Flood, prompted by his late Dublin born mother’s imprisonment for circulating Free Ireland leaflets in Dublin.  That Flood includes elements of the Irish song “The Auld Triangle” is no coincidental mash up.  The song first appeared in a Brendan Behan play and details the day to day routine in Mountjoy Prison, where Flood’s mother was held and the day is punctuated by the jailers ringing of the old triangle.  “Three Cries” is an anthemic quiet storm.  Ged’s singing, the chorus and inclusion of elements of a classic song create another glorious earworm.  Western sounding strings and the Andean charango charge up the insistent “When Summers Stood Still” a song that marries perfectly memories of long childhood summers and the realisation that we might be running out of time on this planet in a darkly hypnotic whole.  “Nursery Rhyme no 9” written by Flood for a ukulele class of young children, could be the thoughts of that summer bound kid.  The album ends suddenly at the end of this innocent dirty with a powerful punchline.  Mishaped Pearls album Thamesis was a dreamy stunner, Shivelight manages to build on that strong set, making something that consolidates and exponentially grows their sound and appeal.  If the former album was a dreamer dozing by the banks of the Royal River, Shivelight is a joyful shouted set of poems too insistent and too beautiful to be ignored.

The Fretless – Live From Art Farm | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 02.06.18

With a cover that is a dreamlike collage mixture of John James Audubon-esque birds and lush Rousseau foliage, dotted with vintage dancers and musicians this is a set that intrigues from the get go.  The Fretless are on one level, to paraphrase the advert, exactly what it says on the tin, four musicians playing acoustic instruments without frets.  Beyond the sharp band moniker that does not do Trent Freeman, Ben Plotnik, Karrnnel Sawitsky and Eric Wright justice, they are so much more than a clever name.  There is grace and beauty as well as spark and fire in their playing.  The inner sleeve photo, presumably taken at the intriguingly named Art Farm, shows four musicians playing violins and a cello, mid tune, intently watching each other.  The clue about their interconnectedness and ability to flow beautifully together is right there on the jacket.  Fretlesses repertoire is traditional Irish tunes, connected to dozens of backrooms in County Clare, Donegal or Wicklow.  This is not however just a smoky bar session set, a jumper wearing frantic instrumental duel, the ‘trad arr’ equivalent of jazz blowing or the cutting contest.  Alongside moments of fire and passion there are passages light as air and paper thin.  The drawn out cello and violin notes on “Dawning of the Day” have a breathy quality like the tune is being slowly blown on a whistle or pipes.  The beauty comes from the restraint in the quartet’s playing.  The music is never dry or academic, there are plenty of moments where the musicians’ yelps punctuate furious up tempo flights of playing.  The Fretless do not use all their virtuosity to smother the joy in four instruments playing together.  The arrangements are always interesting on tracks like “MacLeod Farewell/Palmers Gate” the violins take different lines or parts rather than chasing each at breakneck speed like the worst of traditional music.  Throughout the tapping of the violin strings manages to suggest the strum of an acoustic guitar or on “Maggie’s Set” the skittering beat of the bodhran.  Then there is the fact that this is a live recording, as if to dispel any suggestions of studio artifice or foul play, there is an audience.  The whole set is recorded by three ambient microphones, leaving no room for mistakes or wobble’s, this is, to coin a phrase ‘warts and all’, but frankly I can’t hear the slightest suggestion of spots blemishes or protuberances.  The playing may be within the Irish tradition, but there are some fine band compositions, as well as arrangements, throughout the set.  Ben’s excellent “Holton Alan Moore’s” has a ‘light as air’ train like melody that suggests the Penguin Cafe Orchestra.  There are even passages where alongside the ghost strumming guitar, someone manages to evoke an accordion like sound from a violin.  In a blind listening many would question the fretless nature of the band.  Obviously the point of this review is to motivate you to rush out (or increasingly frantically surf online) and get a copy of this album.  The fact that most of it, beautifully filmed, is available on YouTube, shouldn’t prevent that.  Rather, the stunning videos give you an opportunity to marvel at the dexterity, grace and sheer ‘howthefuckdidtheydothat’ ness of the instrumental wonder that is The Fretless.  Further motivation to support their efforts rather than a disincentive.  If the sights and sounds don’t motivate you, then either you have no soul or you were expecting an album of funky Jaco Pastorius covers, now there’s an idea…

Dave Holland – Unchartered Territories | Album Review | Dare2 | By Liam Wilkinson | 07.06.18

As jazz conversationalists go, Dave Holland is a right old chatterbox.  The 71 year old British bassist has been engaging in musical deep and meaningfuls with the cream of the jazz world for over forty years.  His latest outing, Unchartered Territories, presents no fewer than twenty-three fascinating collaborations with renowned sax man and old sparring partner Evan Parker, as well as pianist Craig Taborn and percussionist Ches Smith.  Spread over two CDs and three LPs, the album moves ever-seductively through melodic, abstract, meditative and adventurous dialogues between these four outstanding musicians.


Espen Eriksen Trio with Andy Sheppard – Perfectly Unhappy | Album Review | Rune Grammofon | By Liam Wilkinson | 08.06.18

This aptly titled fourth outing from the Norwegian trio presents a paradoxically melancholic yet blissful set of piano-based, saxophone-led originals.  Whilst Lars Tormod Jenset and Andreas Bye lay their delicate and creamy bass/drum bedding, Eriksen gives the album its shimmer with his wonderfully measured yet effervescent piano as renowned guest Andy Sheppard weaves in some delightfully impassioned threads on sax.  Highlights include the wonderfully evocative “Suburban Folk Song” and seductive “Naked Trees”; see the penultimate track “Home”, however, for an example of how a jazz foursome can reach a place of emotional intensity whilst remaining thoughtfully restrained.


Phantom Voices – Peace By Peace | Album Review | Wyre Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 09.06.18

Phantom Voices are a six piece classic Folk Rock band from Lancashire.  Peace by Peace is their second album, a solid set of traditional material with versions of “Molly Vaughan” and “Lovely Joan” and strong band compositions.  With five vocalists, three guitarists and the formidable violin of Richard Curran, the band has a varied and rich palette to draw from.  Joanne Byrne’s powerful and emotional voice, by virtue of being the only female singer is instantly identifiable and always enjoyable.  At other times, like on “The Red Falcon” you are left captivated by a vocalist, but otherwise in the dark.  “The Red Falcon” is an example of the band’s less is more, perfect restraint.  The vocals recall late period Robert Plant at his most contemplative, breathy and mystical.  Special mention too for the beautiful guitar part, the violins blending with the melody from “Silent Night”.  For me, along with the stripped back chilling “Old Ned”, these more skeletal moments are album highpoints, nicely complimenting the storming rockier numbers.  Dave Swarbrick heard something of Pentangle in Phantom Voices’ sound, for me, on tracks like “Lovely Joan” the band is mellow, but with the tight punch of mid 70’s or early 80’s Fairport.  “Peace By Peace” the track is an intelligent tale, triggered by finding a world war battlefield map.  Thought provoking and emotional its vocals, violin and passion inhabit the same space as the best of Show Of Hands.  “Loving You” is a country blues styled love song driven by furious guitar and mandolin a proper stomper like the roaring “Molly Vaughan”, that follows.  “Kitty Breaks” has a bewildering rhythm with some confounding layered vocals.  Imagine Ian Dury covering Seth Lakeman.  “Phantom of the Fell is a glorious closer, all furious Prog guitar and chorus vocals.  Classic Folk Rock throughout, superb vocals and a solid balance of light and shade from a fine band.

Duotone – A Life Reappearing | Album Review | Garrett Brown Music | Review by Marc Higgins | 10.06.18

Duotone is multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and live looper Barney Morse-Brown.  A classically trained Cellist, an accomplished guitarist and fine vocalist, on so many levels A Life Appearing is the musical equivalent of watching someone rubbing their stomach and patting their head while riding a unicycle and playing a kazoo.  Live the looping is breath taking as the unassuming Morse-Brown builds up layers of sampled Cello, Keyboards, Guitar and vocals.  But you don’t marvel at the showy virtuosity, what pulls the air from your lungs is the beautiful way the layers mesh together to make a delicate and perfectly formed whole.  He does the right things, not the flash things and is quietly spectacular, helped by his deadpan demeanour and a passing resemblance to a Steampunk scientist.  The album opens with “A Life Disappearing”, a smoke like instrumental with layers of emotional cello, percussive guitar and choral wordless vocals.  “Hear You Whisper” takes the long Cello notes and builds a subtle acoustic love song, blending perfectly from the instrumental track before.  Morse-Brown’s inspiration for this album came from the book “A Shepherds Life” by Victoria Crowd.  The book contained a series of paintings that document moments from 20 years in the life of Shepherd Jenny Armstrong.  The richly coloured, atmospheric and slightly melancholic paintings directly influenced the imagery in linked songs “Hear You Whisper” and “The Room”.  Blending the melancholia tinged perfectly formed 60s Folk of Nick Drake with the layered vocals and atmospherics of Bon Iver this is definitely one of my albums of the year.  “Halfway House” showcases Duotones’ resonant acoustic guitar, timeless and beautiful.  The song dissolves into a choir of circling vocals like the finest moments of the Fleet Foxes or Great Lake Swimmers or a time capsule of perfect Laurel Canyon American singer songwriter vocal harmonies.  “The Faintest” builds atmosphere with Cello and the layered vocals of Ben and Kris Drever.  Delicate, perfectly balanced the perfection of this track stretches time in a William Blakeian way as you lose yourself in each moment.  The punchy pace and anthemic refrain at the end recalls the power and atmosphere of Elbow, hypnotic and heady.  “The Faintest” reprises later in the album with a resonant electric guitar lead and an aching strings melody.  Martha uses the voice beautifully with a plaintive lead from Ben and a distant wordless chorus that makes the track sound brooding and cinematic.  The album cycles closing with A Life Reappearing, an affirming positive note carried by a classic Duotone strong earworm melody that builds then dissolves.  Like Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, Nick Drake’s Bryter Later or the already mentioned Bon Iver’s For Emma Forever Ago.  This is a rare delight, a set of songs and music, linked by narrative, mood and theme that can be listened to as a shimmering whole but stand up perfectly as individual jewels.  As John Peel said, in another time and another place, a lifetime ago on the sleeve of the first Pentangle album “Play this record to those you love”.

Ben Sures – Poema Poematis | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 12.06.18

In 2016 Ben Sures received a grant from The Canada Council, the counties most significant granting body for Arts and Culture.  The grant was to have his songs arranged for horns and strings for concert.  Arrangements were by Edmonton trombonist Audrey Ochoa, who also assembled a horn section alongside Canadian Folk Music award winners The Bombadils, Luke Fraser mandolin and Sarah Frank violin.  Ben felt that as this was a once in a lifetime event, that it should be recorded.  The concert and subsequent album were titled Poema Poematis, meaning version in Latin.  Through the performances Ben Sures offers impeccably tight 50s styled Jazz and observational song writing, as dry as Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner or a louche, nerdy Nick Cave.  New versions of Sure’s most popular songs. Imagine the idiosyncratic lyrics of a less cynical Loudon Wainwright fronting a big band with the wry slight smile of a beat poet Jake Thackeray, casually dropping in a reference to the last time he did mushrooms.  The jazz references are spot on, with a double bass that is pure Mingus, a growling raw burst of St James Infirmary and some cafe violin and Reinhardt guitar flourishes.  The Brass players are superb, flying together or delivering intelligent solo passages.  The whole band swings, Ben Sures’ songs and delivery swing and bubbles.  If Noel Coward was alive today in urban Canada, cocktail or cigarette holder in one hand he would be delivering gloriously left field dry songs like “Holes” or “Postcards”, universal enough to speak to the listener but with enough personal poetry to be interesting.  The slightly otherworldly or retro feel is carried through onto the sleeve where hand drawn musicians lifted from a Verve, Vogue or Riverside 50s Jazz album sleeve have swarmed up the TV show gantry from the Elvis Presley Jailhouse Rock video.  “In Burma” mixes it up with a skittish hand clap rhythm, some woozy brass and lyrics that lurch between tragic comic and profound.  Chunks of Ben’s chat between songs, his great stories, like smart stand up, illustrate the origins of some of the songs.  “Used to Have a Raygun” is a surreal flight of fancy song, inspired by a fan’s comment, but even in Ben’s fantasies there is a lesson to be learnt and a deeper dimension as he condenses the sense of Walter Tevis’ “The Man Who Fell to Earth” into a crazy song about a disco ball.  “In a Perfect World” marries what sounds like Charlie Parker-esque vamp on the Batman theme or a 60s Tom and Jerry soundtrack with crazy lyrics and Klezmer music.  Like the rest of the album what sounds like a crazy bolting together, as disparate as the characters in “Everybody Matters”, on paper, just flies in performance.  As beautifully surreal as the love child of Woody Allen’s stand up and the eccentric realities of Vivian Stanshall is Sures the singer songwriter swinging along on some fine ensemble jazz.  But like on “Any Precious Girl” beneath the smiles there is the serious message that we are all different and being different and fragile is alright.

Dowally – Somewhere | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 15.06.18

Dowally is the meeting point of a trio musicians from very different worlds. Daniel Abrahams is an Edinburgh jazz guitarist, Phill Alexander a performer of Klezmer music and Rachel Walker plays traditional Scottish folk fiddle.  The band are named after a signpost on the A9 for the tiny hamlet of Dowally. Luckily they weren’t on the A368 in Devon near Crap stone.  Perhaps they’d been there and thought better of it.  The incident is eluded to on the striking landscape cover of the album.  Rafaela Taylor’s rich artwork is part fantastical rural landscape part Alfred Wallis naive port and evokes the high energy interest of Dowally’s music perfectly.  The exact opposite of the phonetically similar Deolali, a Hill Station in India where British Soldiers described themselves as Doolally, losing their minds in boredom as they waited to be shipped home to the UK.  Very much the mirror of the spirit of Dowally and their music.  Ultimately a name is name, except that of course it grounds the band and their music in the beautiful, rugged Scottish landscape and establishes a definite connection, while taking you on a varied and exciting journey.  “Sunday Brunch”, with more beauty than the title suggests, sets the scene.  Accordion swirls like Scottish weather, while guitar and fiddle melodies run over the top as striking as shafts of sunlight or birdsong.  Demonstrating that Folk is an idiom, “Fluorescent Banshee” marries “Fluorescent Adolescent” by that Sheffield unaccompanied trad vocal group Arctic Monkeys with Scottish fiddle tune Banshee.  Dowally punch through the track brilliantly, breathing some Scots bravado into the lyric and the fiddle tune sounds perfect.  “Up the River” is another perfect guitar melody, partnered with a wonderful whistle part to make a jazzy stuttering rhythm.  “Castellation” and “Be Mine or One” are atmospheric instrumentals, swirling accordion, striking fiddle and jazzy guitar.  “And I Love Her” is a slowed down brooding version of The Beatles ballad.  Wonderful vocals and a very European accordion raise the emotional intensity of the song giving it a new depth. St Vincent’s throws in some sensitive jazz and classical piano over a fiddle dance tune.  This is music that goes where it needs to, finding its own way and confounding expectations.  “Veruda” with some of the nimble atmospherics of June Tabor and Martin Simpson’s Aqaba, is a flamenco tinged tune with the Mediterranean feel of The Goran Project or Radio Tarifa.  Somewhere features an array of guests in the mix, Dominic Baikie adds his soulful voice to the two vocal tracks and Ciaran Ryan of Dallahan adds his tenor banjo to the album closer “Port Inn Hornpipe”.  Quickly a nimbly paced tune morphs into a brawl of a piece, a kind of traditional music football terrace chant and finally a piece of Oompah music from the bar scene in Lionel Bart’s Oliver musical. You are kept guessing and on the edge of your seat till the end.  Double Bassist Danny Thompson’s much under-appreciated 1980s trio that straddled Folk, Jazz and International musics was titled Whatever, that being Danny’s response to bewildered listeners question is it Jazz of Folk.  Likewise Dowally may be rooted firmly in Scotland, but Somewhere sprawls across the musical map, taking a Magical Mystery Tour or an atmospheric slow boat of a long journey, not always the expected route, never the obvious route but always scenic, interesting and enjoyable. 

Various Artists – Gathered From Coincidence | Album Review | Grapefruit Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 17.06.18

The sub-title of this three CD boxset says all you need to know – ‘The British Folk-Pop Sound Of 1965-66’.  Well, almost all you need to know.  Otherwise, there wouldn’t be much point in this review.  Younger readers have become familiar with a mixing of genres in music as their ears are bombarded every day with blends of hip-hop, folk, heavy metal, grime and so on.  Whilst these days everyone picks from this smorgasbord of music, it’s easy to forget that genres had their own distinct spaces back when older readers were young.  Now, for example, it seems almost crazy that Bob Dylan got heckled by folkies for having the audacity to pick up an electric guitar.  Yet, such genre bias was present back in the music scenes of the 60s.  With all this in mind, Grapefruit Records, that immaculate compiler of history, has turned its attention to the mid-60s when folk and pop collided.  Their three CDs come with 26 tracks on each disc capturing a time when Dylan helped light a fuse that helped to blow down the walls between folk and pop.  Needless to say, there are various Dylan covers included here whether by recognised folk musicians such as “The Times They are a-Changin’” by The Ian Campbell Folk Group or pop stars such as Heinz with The Wild Boys’ version of “Don’t Think Twice it’s Alright.   Naturally, Donovan is on here too with his immortal song “Catch the Wind” from the early part of his career when he was marketed as a home grown British Dylan.  As ever on their boxsets, there are rarities that spice up the appeal for the serious music fan.  Here, we get a Hollies period Graham Nash guesting on an acoustic demo of “Go Away” by The Mirage.  A song that The Hollies never recorded though they did record “Very Last Day”, a Peter, Paul and Mary composition that found its way onto their first album and the second disc of this set.  A pre-Moody Blues Justin Hayward pops up with his own composition, “Day Must Come”, catching him as he transitioned from working with Marty and Joyce Wilde into worldwide fame.  There are similar folk flavoured recordings from familiar pop names such as Marc Bolan, Marianne Faithfull, The Kinks and The Pretty Things.  Again, Grapefruit Records have come up with an informative booklet that gives the background to each of the songs and some of the related history.  It’s a picture laden glossy affair that really adds to the package as a whole.  Obviously, it’s a collection that is suited to the music aficionado but it offers great value for those steeped in music from the period.  Long may Grapefruit Records intertwine the familiar with some of those lost strands of music in such wonderful packages.

Steve Tilston – Distant Days | Album Review | Riverboat Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 24.06.18

We tend to wait in eager anticipation for any new Steve Tilston album, not least for the likelihood of discovering a bunch of new songs, each of which will almost definitely be well-thought through and well-written, they will no doubt be treated to a fine guitar accompaniment and will definitely be delivered in an instantly recognisable, reliable and distinctive voice.  Now and again though, this may not be the case, in that Steve occasionally collaborates with others, sometimes re-working older songs in a new collaborative setting, and very rarely a ‘best of’ compilation might appear; The Greening Wind in 1999 for instance, which is as good a ‘best of’ you’re likely to get.  In 2007, those good people at Free Reed also produced a five-disc retrospective, which is a must for Steve Tilston completists.  Here though, is something very special.  Distant Days sees Steve looking back once again, this time at some of the songs that he may just have almost forgotten about.  There’s a sense of ‘now, how does this one go again?’ especially when it comes to re-visiting songs written almost half a century ago.  Anyone familiar with exclusively Steve Tilston’s current work, will probably be astonished at just how youthful he sounds on his early albums, on such songs as “Time Has Shown Me Your Face” and “I Really Wanted You”, yet hearing these songs performed once again in the context of a mature singer all these years later is a joyful thing.  I once heard Steve introduce “Let Your Banjo Ring”, by recalling his own father using the word ‘banjo’ as a generic term for any stringed instrument, and here Steve performs the song on the instrument it was first intended.  Other songs are just as familiar today as they were back then when they were first written as they have remained in Steve’s set, his biggest ‘hit’ for instance, “Slip Jigs and Reels”, here performed with the same enthusiasm present as in its very first airing.  Others appear here as stripped down versions of songs originally treated to lush arrangements, such as “Is This the Same Boy?” which gives us the opportunity to appreciate the song in its rawest form.  With informative sleeve notes for both the casual listener as well as the curious guitar player, the nineteen songs on Distant Days, subtitled Solo Acoustic Recollections, is another confirmation that this songwriter just keeps on giving.   

Andrew Collins Trio – Tongue and Groove | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 26.06.18

The Andrew Collins Trio sounds like a suited, cool and dry 1950s Brubeck style Jazz group, all buzz cuts, Raybans and dog tooth suits.  The truth could not be wilder and farther away.  Andrew Collins and his trio marry the impeccable workmanship and musicality of classic modern jazz with the fiery attack and infectious smile of furious Bluegrass.  With Andrew equally comfortable on Mandolin, Mandocello, Mandola, Guitar and Fiddle, alongside equally versatile and virtuosic Mike Messatesta on Guitar, Mandolin and Mandola and underpinned by the rock solid Double Bass, Mandocello and vocals of James McEleney, they perform something that has been described as Chamber Grass.  Whatever you call it, you can marvel at the influences, references and nuances or you can close your eyes and lose yourself in two albums worth of stunning playing and invention.  “Tongue and Groove” is one of those perfect album titles, a disc of songs – tongue and a disc of instrumentals – groove.  This is album that does exactly what it says on the tin. Andrew Collins bring a seemingly effortless and very smooth musical prowess to their playing.  It’s never overly slick, widdly or dexterous for its own sake.  Like watching a Pizza Chef shaping the dough base there is considerable visible skill and experience being used to get the task done, but it is never overly flashy.  “Cello Song” is a dark version of the Nick Drake song.  Collins’ Mandocello has the resonant sound of an Oud which alongside the other-worldly octave violin and those hypnotic wordless passages layers on the atmosphere, suggesting a sun crossed Mediterranean or North African courtyard.  Tom Parker’s “I Drink Whisky (My Gal Drinks Wine)” is more journeyman, a bright old timey piece of blue grass.  “Black Veil” as “Long Black Veil” was written by Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkins, most famously covered by Lefty Frizell its been recorded by everyone from Johnny Cash and Marianne Faithfull to the Chieftains.  Dark and brooding the trios version and arrangement is stunning, a dark mix of bowed double bass, violin and some sublime vocals. “ Just A Gigolo” is a version of Louie Prima’s 50s career relaunching swinging coupling of two early 20th Century classics “Just a Gigolo” and “I Ain’t Got Nobody”.  “Thanks to Prima” and a gloriously overblown 80s version by David Lee Roth (possibly his only mention in Northern Sky Reviews until he joins Fisherman’s Friends for their Van Halen covers album) (Ha! – Ed), these songs are forever joined.  The opposite of the Prima celebration of excesses and failure, the Andrew Collins Trio version starts with some pathos like the regretful strumming of a wry drunk, building to a sharp piece of jazzy mandolin and vocalise that retains a connection with real emotion. “Coming into Hard Time Blues” is a fine Collins original.  Its acoustic delivery, the timeless quality of the arrangement and those warm Barbershop harmonies mean it sounds like both a 30s 78 and a Trump era contemporary piece of wry commentary.  Perhaps that’s the point, making a musical connection in these hard times.  With a borrow from Hank Williams’ “Hey Good Lookin’”, “The Hat” is a jaunty throwaway take on the Roger Miller song, along with the closer “Leaving’s Not the Only Way to Go” there are a pair of Miller tracks on the album.  “Nothing about Us” is by the always interesting Canadian singer songwriter and musician’s musician, Kevin Breit.  The trio’s version is emotionally charged and heartfelt, an acoustic lament with some beautiful guitar and mandolin.  “King Midas in Reverse” is the Graham Nash song celebrating the opposite of the golden touch.  Andrew Collins and Trio manage to make this self-deprecating Hymn their own.  The verse vocals have a touch of world weariness and the choruses with Andrew and James work well with the pop saccharine veneer of the Hollies’ original.  “I’ll Be There (If You Ever Want Me)” was originally a 1954 for Ray Price.  After JJ Cale’s and Eric Clapton’s electric guitar led versions, Collins’ trio cover the jaunty tune with Hot Club Jazz guitar and rhythm.  “Katy Dear” is a traditional song, variation on “Silver Dagger”, delivered here as a brisk Mandolin and vocal tour de force.  The final Roger Miller song is a bitter sweet Country tune with some fine playing and vocal harmonies.  “Groove” is the aptly titled instrumental album from this pair.  “Famous Last Words” are wonderful Guitar and Mandolin tunes that have some of the relentless attack and rhythm of Leo Kottke, while the interplay with the Double Bass suggests Pentangle mid-flight.  The Grumpus is wonderfully knotted and gnarly, like Bella Fleck’s electro Jazz Blue Grass tunes.  It swings, but like a tired moonshine drunk desperate for the floor to stay still.  “Goodbye Blue Sky”, from Pink Floyd’s 1979 opus The Wall, is simply glorious.  The trio capture the sense of menace and power perfectly and wring every bit of emotion out of the tune.  Floyd themselves not afraid to dabble with acoustic pastoral imagery and atmosphere, welcomed into the Folk tradition, glorious.  Simply beautiful is “Lullaby for Len”, crying out to be sequenced as perfect incidental music, just close your eyes and let the pictures form.  Eerie with a real hairs on the back of the neck quality is “Kentakaya Waltz” the Violins crackle with real emotion and, power.  Forget “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”, this is the real sound of a supernaturally possessed fiddle channelling otherworldly inspiration.  So, like Eliza Carthy’s Red Rice, how do we view this release from the Andrew Collins Trio, is it a double album or two separate simultaneous releases.  The flow of the two volumes titles suggests a strong connection either as two linked volumes or as separate albums.  But it’s definitely “Tongue and Groove”, you have to start with the songs album, “Groove Tongue” sounds like a Harry Potter or Tolkien character and twee acoustic middle earth this isn’t.  Across two albums worth of goodies, gems and delights it sometimes feels like we have been spoilt, like Andrew Collins and his trio have revealed all of their tricks, but can you really have too much of a good thing.

Mathias Eick – Ravensburg | Album Review | ECM | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 27.06.18

Norwegian trumpeter Mathias Eick returns for his fourth outing on ECM with an arresting collection of originals, each owing their genesis to family, friends, childhood, love and a sense of home.  Eick’s deeply thoughtful playing has all the brooding intensity of Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko but his incisive lines seem to flow unashamedly towards equally euphoric and melodic estuaries.  As well as drummers Torstein Lofthus and Helge Andreas Norbakken, bass player Audun Erlien and pianist Andreas Ulvo, Ravensburg benefits from the chilling bow of violinist Håkon Aase whose interactions with Eick are simply astounding.  It’s doubtful that any other jazz album could more successfully capture the capricious emotions of homesickness, melancholic memory and bitter sweetness of time’s passage.  A treasure.

Denys Baptiste – The Late Trane | Album Review | Edition | By Liam Wilkinson | 28.06.18

It’s refreshing to hear John Coltrane’s later and lesser known work revisited, even more so when said work is creatively reframed, often in more accessible settings.  British saxophonist Denys Baptiste makes a fine job of it given that he, like Coltrane, is a reeds-man with a sensitive and spiritual approach.   Nikki Yeoh’s painterly piano helps, of course, especially on the breath-taking “Peace on Earth” which, like many of the nine other tracks, soars with otherworldly grace.


Serious Child – Empty Nest | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 29.06.18

A fiftieth birthday present place on a five day song writing workshop with Boo Hewerdine, led to Alan Young being persuaded by Boo to record an album that he would produce.  From that birthday present and chance meeting came Serious Child the trio of Alan, Carla March on vocals and Steve Welsh on bass and Empty Nest the album.  As well as the flair for song writing that captivated Boo Hewerdine, Alan is also a fine vocalist.  Smooth velvet like Chris Isaac on “Blue is only a Colour” or worldly like Grant Philips on “Paul the Bag” and “I Don’t Remember Venice”.  He makes lyrics flow conversationally and naturally, telling real stories.  The mother whose child is leaving home or the aging gangster clinging to the idea of his youth, real people populate these songs.  The bright intelligent pop rock sound of tracks like “Time Keeps Rolling” sounds a lot like Boo Hewerdine himself.  I say that as a Boo fan, there are the same intelligent interesting arrangements and lyrics, suggesting a real meeting of minds with the sound and production.  Alan duets with Tanya Brittain, another strong vocalist on “Kind Man’s Bluff”, the thoughtful and sharp lyric is a collaboration between Alan and Tanya.  Tanya’s accordion playing also adds still more considerable colour to a number of the tracks, adding that cosmopolitan folk pop sparkle and sophistication you get with Eddi Reader.  Alan and Boo’s guitars and a ‘world in action’ styled 70s organ add some rock glimmer and edge to tracks like “No Missed Calls” another excellent song on a strong album.  There is a rock n roll or new wave tightness, like early raw Dire Straits on “Speeding” that is refreshing, the sound of a band playing together.  Here’s to chance meetings, late bloomers and living dreams when they lead to albums like this.  Recommended listening and top down driving music.

Misner and Smith – Headwaters | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 01.07.18

Actors and Folk Rock Musicians Sam Misner and Megan Smith make parallels between acting and musical performances.  “Each actor’s job is to interpret someone else’s words and trying to get to the heart of what it is the playwright is trying to express”.  A succinct description of the role of the performer.  Throughout this album the central focus is the song and the duo’s trademark harmonies, rich and perfect on the Simon and Garfunkel classic “America” and the aching “Expecting to Fly” by Buffalo Springfield.  The layering of instruments on Seven Hour Storm to create a complex Folk Rock haze is gone, pared to the core of guitar and vocals there is a real sense of a 60s Greenwich Village performance with the pair perched on bar stools.  Pete Seeger is dropping in later and over by the door in the turtleneck smoking, it’s one of Peter Paul and Mary.  The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Coconut Grove” is one of the moments where Misner and Smith’s performance carries the original forward.  “Coconut Grove” has a hazy sparkle on the guitar and a presence on the guitar that makes it sound like a track from David Crosby.  If you want to know how a slightly blissed out Spoonful cover might have sounded on If Only I Could Remember My Name, it’s here and it’s lovely.  Similarly reimagined as a sensitive coffee shop ballad is Talking Heads New Wave Rock “City of Dreams”.  It becomes a cousin to Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer”.  Stripped back to its core of a sublimely quirky guitar part and beautiful vocal harmonies, reimagined as a Laurel Canyon mystical trip Dr Dog’s “Turning the Century” is a wonder, worth the price of the album alone.  I grew up with the originals of “America”, “Expected to Fly” and “Return of the Grevious Angel” thumping through my bedroom floor as they seeped into my dreams.  Hearing those is like greeting old friends or visiting the small town where you were born.  The tracks that really grabbed me were The Lovin’ Spoonful and Dr Dog tracks, maybe because they were reimagined  or because they weren’t part of my 70s soundtrack.  Pleasurable visits to old friends or discoveries of classics sensitively and perfectly rendered this is just a delight, a delight of performance and song. 

Scott Wainwright – Talking Backwoods | Album Review | Saw Music | Review by Marc Higgins | 02.07.18

Scott Wainwright is a sensitive vocalist and a fine guitar player with a captivating line in acoustic blues like the UKs answer to a slurred world weary Chris Smither.  However, like Leo Kottke, Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, Michael Chapman and many many others, Scott has much to say when he pushes the vocal mike away and just plays his guitar.  Anyone who feels that many of the new wave of UK and American primitive guitarists haven’t moved that far in 40 years since Fahey or Kottke, really needs to listen to this album.  “Remember the Zoo” is a glorious foot stomping acoustic piece.  Fingers fly like the best of Michael Chapman with a head bobbing insistent rhythm, but it really lifts off when the phased ‘juddery’ tape machine electronics start.  Dub Michael Hedges anyone.  What makes Talking Backwoods special is the way that ancient meets modern, ancient being guitars and period electronics, modern being beats, textures and ideas.  Sometimes it’s a smooth blend, different flavours and accents like a cocktail blind tasting.  Sometimes it’s a collision of separate parts with the joy in the differences and contrasts.  “Backwoods Progress Blues” takes a Chicago Blues guitar and RL Burnsides it.  A wonderful pile up of urban noise, car alarms, phones, trains and radio noise cut across the guitar.  This is Twenty First Century porch blues by a modern highway, jamming with the commuters like Sonny Rollins.  “The Refuge Of Hope” is a beautiful melody, played straight and clean long enough to convince any nay sayers unfamiliar with Scott’s material that he isn’t just a pedal head with a board of loops, but that he can really play.  Delta Surfin’ is interstellar travel by guitar with a movement of slow Tangerine Dream abstraction and a movement of hot blues that just builds and builds.  “Eleanor’s Dance” is another pastoral interlude, a Renbournesque Celtic twirl spins round the dance floor with some atmospheric electronics.  “Better Days” is a stunning train blues, with track noises and steam, invigorating and cinematic, managing to be nostalgic and forward looking.  “Better Days” ahead and behind if you like.  “Before the Battle”, “After the War” is an acoustic masterpiece, slide and perfect picked notes over layers of bird song and atmospherics with an up tempo final section.  “Mellow Rag” has an earworm repeating motif and some wonderfully retro keyboard squeals, with some of the 80s chill of Kraftwerk, duetting beautifully with Wainwright’s guitar.  “Dolly Johnson” is a rustic piece of guitar with what sounds like bones or spoons as rhythm.  Effortless summer breeze music that you could listen to all day.  The album ends on a trio of perfect acoustic guitar tracks “The Distance Between Us” is cerebral and thoughtful with both the notes of the guitar and the sounds of playing forming the piece.  It has that wonderful sense of space and contemplation that characterises Windham Hill recordings.  Leo’s Greenhouse places a delightful guitar part with a touch of Nick Drake over electronic washes.  “At the End” closes the album with a reminder that fundamentally Scott Wainwright is a master of the guitar, picking and sliding a perfect tune as a final piece.  American William Tyler experimented with live electronics, Michael Chapman pushed the improvisation envelope with his electronica and Guitars albums on Blast First Petite, Gomez in the 1990s melded together the  gritty 78s sound of acoustic blues and retro electronica.  For those prepared to listen and travel with it, like a sound wave leaving our galaxy, the envelope of instrumental guitar music is still being pushed.

Alden Patterson and Dashwood – By the Night | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 03.07.18

Once you twig that Alden, Patterson and Dashwood are in fact three people, the name tends to roll off the tongue a little easier.  The three people in question are Christina Alden who sings a bit and plays guitar, Alex Patterson plays the fiddle and also sings a bit and finally Noel Dashwood adds splashes of Dobro and sings a bit too.  This ‘singing a bit’ lark is especially noteworthy when it comes to Christina, who has a fabulous voice, very distinctive, full of character and just right for the songs this Norwich-based trio choose to sing.  Their second album comes hot on the tail of the trio’s debut release Call Me Home and begins with not one, but two songs inspired by contemporary novels, Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Travellers Wife and secondly Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus providing the inspiration for the title song.  This brings a literary perspective to their song writing credentials from the start.  The a cappella “Red Rocking Chair” on the other hand borrows from the tradition and demonstrates the trio’s flair for vocal arrangement, with some fine harmonies.  A fine blend of traditional and self-penned songs, which are almost impossible to separate.

Stick in the Wheel – Lemady Arise | EP Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 04.07.18

Slightly different to what we normally expect from Stick in the Wheel, but equally engaging nonetheless.  The two tracks on this limited edition 7” demonstrates the band’s experimental credentials, with a haunting take on “Lemady Arise”, featuring the voice of Wolf People’s Jack Sharp, whilst the band create the essence of the pipes’ drone.  The flip side on the other hand, sees the usually stoic-faced Nicola Kearey putting aside her angry voice temporarily, for an almost ethereal reading of the traditional “As I Roved Out”, with EAN fiddling, twiddling and faffing in the drum and bass box.


Tami Neilson – Sassafrass! | Album Review | Outside Music | Review by Marc Higgins | 06.07.18

Sassafrass is a slang term for a sassy, feisty, spirited woman.  As such it is a perfect term for this album from Tami Neilson that just glows with sass, positive attitude and spirit.  Tami is a Canadian born, New Zealand resident singer songwriter and a one time member of The Neilsons.  Released a few years after the excellent Don’t Be Afraid, Sassafrass! is an exciting development from that album’s brooding Sun Records, stripped back intensity.  Tami’s glorious voice, slipping between Rockabilly rumble and soulful ‘60s Atlantic Records’ swagger is still the star, delivering powerful lyrics, but it is pushed further and really shines through the on the money, top class accompaniment.  “Stay out of Business” is a growl for independence, Neilson is at her ‘60s pop with attitude’ best.  The swagger spills out, with her laughter between lines part of the track.  Brass lays down some sharp licks, the backing singers crackle with attitude and that otherworldly Pedal Steel adds an edgy Martin Denny weirdness to proceedings on this arresting opener.  Tami’s voice on Bananas moves effortless between the alluring purr of Eartha Kitt and a full flight big production Shirley Bassey.  The music is a glorious mash up of Country, Classic Stage Musical and Cuban Jazz.  The resulting sound is a perfect accompaniment to the tall cold cocktail in a kitsch glass, an antidote to this sweltering summer.  “Diamond Ring” uses a more intense soundscape, starting with an infectious, beautifully captured drum part, it builds to a smouldering dark song.  Ethereal keyboards pan like distant cars in a woozily drunken dream soundtrack.  Like Bobbie Gentry at her Mississippi Soul best, “A Woman’s Pain” is a stunning Country mistreated woman classic, simmering with emotion, the space around the guitars and pedal steel builds tension.  Another excellent vocal from Tami makes this an album highlight.  Devil in a Dress” continues that intimacy, there is a touch of Amy Winehouse louche swagger to the vocal against the Brass, but it feels more like shared influences rather than a nod from Tami.  “One Thought of You” is a glorious crooned ballad with a touch of those creamy Ray Charles, Nat King Cole or more recent Amy Winehouse or Richard Hawley noir, tour de forces.  “Smoking Gun” takes an intense brooding Twin Peaks atmospheric tune and just burns. Eerie backing vocals, dirty guitar and a powerful Tami vocal builds an edgy filmic classic.  “Miss Jones” is a lyrical homage to Sharon Jones, whose snapping funky whose intelligent soul is a clear influence on Tami’s growing sound.  This is another track that bursts from the speaker with swaggering attitude, funky rhythms and lust for life.  If “Kitty Woman” has a video it starts with a Ronnette look alike putting the needle down on a Dansette Record Player, the track just extrudes that compressed 60s single vinyl magic.  Upbeat and sharp, delivered breakneck like all the best 60s singles to keep it short and essential the song just screams classic pop class.  “Manitoba Sunrise” as “Motel 6” is a richly titled lush sounding melancholic Country lament to the pain of being continents away from those you love.  Tami Neilson yelps and croons with the heart rending intensity of Roy Orbison.  Being more of a thinker than a pre-alcohol natural dancer, I appreciate the power of the upbeat numbers, but for me Tami comes alive on the ballads and “A Good Man” is one of the best.  Neilson stretches out on a slower number in the room between the instruments.  Tami’s long soulful notes and the late drum beat puts me very definitely in mind of Sam Cooke’s 1964 spiritual masterpiece “A Change is Gonna Come” minus those lush strings.  The lyrics are, are more possibly less immediately anthemic, but there is definitely the same soulful majesty and power as Neilson testifies over an atmospheric guitar and those string sounds at the end, when they come, hit the spot perfectly.  A beguiling mix of intimate and high lush  production, part dark country or rockabilly swagger, part late night alcohol fuelled surreal seafront tikki bar soundtrack, this is a must hear album.  If 2015’s Don’t Be Afraid didn’t convince you, then the attitude, bounce, soul and power of Sassafrass! surely demonstrates beyond all doubt that Tami Neilson is a major talent demanding of attention.  The exclamation in the album title says a lot about Neilson’s determination and the power of this record. 

Alistair McCulloch Trio – Off the Hook | Album Review | Rostral Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 16.07.18

The Alistair McCulloch Trio play a sharp clean version of Traditional Folk Music with a little jazz swing.  The opening set ‘Mazurkas’ perfectly demonstrates the trio’s strengths.  Beautiful, clear well defined Fiddle and Whistle lines weave around each other, as dexterous and captivating as birds in flight.  Trio leader Alistair and one time Capercaillie member Marc Duff are masters of their respective fiddle and whistles, conjuring light, shade and interest.  Aaron Jones of the excellent Old Blind Dogs and Kate Rusby’s band handles the vocals through Off the Hook, his voice on “Green Grow the Laurels” and “Billy Taylor” is spot on, clear and considered.  Even on “Brady’s Set” an up-tempo twisting set and multi tracked Marc Duff playing the whistles and Bodhran this is an album that is as much for careful listening to as frenetic dance moves.  “Whistle Solo” doesn’t herald the arrival of the traditions equivalent of a thirty minute Prog rock styled percussion feature.  Rather a set of tunes where Duff’s beguiling bird like whistles are to the fore to better show his flying fingers and delicate touch. Although I bet a mammoth whistle Moby Dick like solo by Marc Duff would be breath taking.  “Shetland Set” with the beautifully stark “Da Day Dawn”, in McCulloch’s hands solo fiddle has never sounded so evocative and so emotional.  There is beauty in his playing of the tune, but there is also a touch of the savagery of the season it commemorates.  Through the other tunes the music builds and swells delightfully as the fiddle is joined by whistles and a percussive guitar.  Aaron’s vocals come into their own on Wild Rover he nails a sense of regret and delivers real emotional punch.  When he holds a note there is a touch of Dick Gaughan’s beguiling yelp to his voice.  Simply stunning and captivating with the whistle and fiddle adding to the wonderfully melancholic atmosphere.  “Urquharts” the album closer is a slow burning beauty built around emotional fiddle and whistle parts and a harp like guitar or bouzouki.  Fast is good, with the instruments weaving together and sparking off each other, but the slow numbers bring such atmosphere and moments of contemplation on a very strong album.  While a long established live draw, this is the trio’s first album after scores of appearances on albums for other people.  The band feels Off the Hook is a distillation of their live performance and across ten tracks the three players bring a great sense of a whole, while individual tracks reveal hidden depths and subtleties that hold your interest to the end.  Hopefully the title is a gentle repost to the many who have asked at gigs for a trio CD, rather than an indication that now that obligation is fulfilled that’s it.  Hopefully the trio will not let themselves so easily off the hook.

Daniel and Emma Reid – Life Continuum | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 17.07.18

Sweden-based duo, couple Daniel and Emma Reid perform songs, self-penned tunes and traditional material from both Scandinavia and the British Isles.  The pairs playing is beautifully matched and striking.  The choice of instruments, with Daniels’ Saxophones and Flute twinning with Emma’s Fiddles means the sounds and arrangements are always fresh and engaging.  “Alice from Morko” brings together Baritone Saxophone and Fiddle, the instruments swoop and dance together perfectly. Freed from the percussive beat of Bass and Drums all the jazz associations fall away.  The saxophone works as a Folk melody instrument, both instruments carry a pulsing rhythm.  There is an ECM Jan Garbarek feel to Daniels long languid notes and a great quality of space.  Fluttering Soprano Saxophone and a high notes on the fiddle on “Troll Doctor” create a bright melody that is the duetting instruments blurring together beautifully.  Life Continuum Baritone Saxophone and Fiddle, with great sustained Baritone notes at the start.  Both instruments filled the space and had great presence.  Superb contrast between the plucked fiddle notes and the over-layed Baritone and Soprano Saxophones.  In the hands of masters all instruments sound amazing, the sense of space conjuring memories of Paul Horn’s classic Taj Mahal recordings where he plays into the sustain of the space.  “Hav Av Blatt” gives more room for Emma’s stunning fiddle against Daniel’s lyrical piano.  The resonant keyboard melody is delightful, but we are drawn to the burr and slurred passion of Emma Reid’s fiddle which is just sublime a contrast to the piano lullaby.  “Silly Ian” and the instrumental passage on “Golden Slumbers” are as pure and sharp as forest sunlight, with both instruments delivering a high register melodies that are arresting.  Emma Reid discovered the Thomas Dekker poem before discovering that the Beatles also used its words.  Emma’s vocals are a double tracked delight and in no way nod to Abbey Road.  The final Soprano Saxophone and Accordion melody on “Golden Slumbers” is also a delight.  The recording of the album is just top notch, with the instruments given room to breathe every note stretches out and flowers.  “Keep You in Peace” a perfect lullaby and ‘warm glow’ concert closer if I ever heard one, is an example of the duos less is more and less is best approach.  The pair’s instruments and duetting vocals sound like a finely tuned orchestra, anything more would be ugly and superfluous.  Emma’s closing tune “Ensamheten” is a brooding soaring masterpiece where the sound of fiddle, Baritone Saxophone and Accordion deliver a huge rumbling landscape of sound that fills your senses.  A folksy take on Gerry Mulligan’s transcendental playing on Beaver and Krause’s 60s stoner album Grandharva.  Or a continuation of Barbra Thompson’s solo Saxophone track “Down by the Sally Gardens” on Songs from the Centre of the Earth, where she duets with the insides of Abbey du Thoronet in Southern France.  That tune became the theme to TV detective drama A Touch of Frost.  Thompson a composer and Saxophonist who’s playing and writing crossed genres is another good reference point for this excellent album.  Like Danny Thompson’s Whatever in the 1980s and Jimmy Giuffre’s cool jazz trios of the 1950s and 60s this duo of musicians produce beautiful, meditative music that finds perfect melodies, jazz in folk and  the folk in jazz.  Lovers of melancholic landscape instrumental music that refuses to sit comfortably in one genre, listeners to Jan Garbarek, recent Andy Sheppard, Barbara Thompson and Charles Lloyd will find much to enjoy here.  As will anyone captivating by those moments of piercing solo violin against the strings in Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending.  Swedish pastoral music anyone, labels are just labels, where ever it sits this is a fine listen.  Jesse Jackson, speaking at Wattstax, famously sampled by Primal Scream, another band who straddled genres said “Today on this program you will hear gospel, and rhythm and blues, and jazz. All those are just labels. We know that music is music”.

Tony Winn – Push and Pull | Album Review | Free Fall Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 18.07.18

Tony Winn is an earnest spirited performer and despite seven albums and a career stretching back thirty four years a new name to me.  So no surprise then, given that pedigree, that the album crackles with experience and confidence, that tunes and lyrics feel familiar, like old friends or classics.  Tracks like “Push and Pull”, “What’s the Moonlight For” and “Lover is the Reason” blend slippery free festival protest music with a punchy reggae beat and the smoother music of Show Of Hands.  His passionate delivery and the sharp protest lyrics put me in mind of those excellent new wave Tom Robinson Band records.  Or standing in front of an impromptu flat back lorry stage in a cornfield near Stonehenge surrounded by a buzzing festival crowd.  Grock is beautiful acoustic singer song writing at its best.  Swirling finger picked guitar around a perfect vocal like the best of Chris Smither or Bruce Cockburn.  The story of the melancholic inside of the revered clown is a classic and the delivery is spot on.  “You’ll be the Ruin of Me” is a perfect Country ‘singing into your beer song’, but Winn’s delivery lifts it into a strident powerful song.  Helen Mulley from Helen and the Neighbourhood Dogs delivers a smouldering duet vocal on this brooding album highlight.  Andy Trill delivers a perfect guitar solo too.  Push and Pull contains “Occasional Affairs”.  “I Stop to Wonder” and “Come and Go with Me” a set of exquisite piano ballads.  With just a little late period Dylan crackle Winn’s voice and writing is heartfelt and emotional, while the playing around him is sympathetic and atmospheric.  Little splashes of accompaniment like Jonathan Evans’ crackle like jewels.  Throughout the writing is spot on, words flow from Winn an intelligent pop writer.  Songs like “Mad Love” marry some of the uplifting graceful feel good music of early 70s Van Morrison with a pop beat.  “A Quiet Night” is a perfect lullaby streaked with the voice of weary experience.  Perfect that is until the dark punchline, adding more than a touch of Edgar Allen Poe to this Goodnight album closer.  Of course Tony Winn, seasoned performer and storyteller holds your attention to the end and this final surprise is the last stop through an interesting and enjoyable album that mixes energy and quiet introspection. 

Rab Noakes – Welcome To Anniversaryville | Album Review | Neon Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 19.07.18

Feb 2017, Rab Noakes performed a well-attended acclaimed concert at that year’s Celtic Connections Festival.  That concert, its songs and its players form the bones of this album.  The songs by Rab, span nearly 50 years of song writing, from 1969’s “Together Forever” to “It all Joins Up in the End” from 2017.  Welcome to Anniversaryville as a title is a wry reflection on the passage of time and that the more time passes the more significant dates stack up.  Rab’s excellent notes, a fine read on their own, mention a few, 70 years since his birth, 60 since he encountered an inspirational image of Elvis, 50 since his first ‘appear on the billings’ paid gig.  “Let the Show Begin” with an infectious beat and Innes Watson’s fiddle is a great opener, a statement of intent.  “It all Joins Up in the End” stems from Rab’s realisation that he was now older than his Father when he died in 1985, someone he still thought of as an ‘older guy’.  Like Van Morrison, Rab Noakes is a master of mining his own past and experience for touch stones and experiences that resonate with the listener.  “It all Joins Up in the End” celebrates the rock and roll lifespan and that the songs of his youth still excite Noakes.  I first heard Rab’s “Together Forever”, written on 1969 and a postcard of a trip to Denmark, covered by Lindisfarne on their 1971 Fog on the Tyne album.  Rab’s version here is a joy, infused with a buskers punch and bounce.  “Gently Does It”, an anthem written for Alex Campbell, proves what a stella songwriter Rab is, with fragility sensitively examined.  “Just One Look” a hit for Doris Troy in 1963 cements the anniversary diary aspect of this album, included as a reminder of a significant ‘eyes across the room’ moment 30 years ago between Rab and his wife Stepney.  “TCB (Working Man and Working Woman)”, is Rab as protest troubadour over some glorious Rock n Roll guitar, snapping at generations of inept governments with some thoughtful and well-chosen barbs.  Commissioned by the Hands Up For Trad project Scotland Sings, “The Hand-wash Feein Mairket” is a brilliant Burns referencing piece of contemporary commentary.  Sensitive, insightful and sharp as we would expect from Noakes.  Rab and Kathleen MacInnes’ version of “Long Black Veil” is a dark masterpiece, harnessing Johnny Cash’s Sun Sessions guitar twang and the Gothic chill of The Handsome Family.  The Murder Ballads continue with the otherworldly “Twa Corbies” here merged with a Scots Gaelic version.  The two versions of the story blend into a performance that is dark and atmospheric, proper Acid Folk.  A Stark contrast to Kathleen McInnes’ stately version on her 2006 Summer Dawn album.  Working with MacInnes has reconnects Rab with the Scottish Folk Song tradition of the revival Folk Clubs. Still in the 60s Clubs Rab and Kathleen run together “Tramps and Hawkers” and Bob Dylan’s masterful “I Pity the Poor Immigrant” demonstrating their shared ancestry.  Again the performances and material, still painfully relevant today are powerful.  The Cash connection continues with Rab’s take on “Still in Town” that Cash covered on his 64 Walk the Line album.  That distinctive electric guitar is there, but Noakes’ jangling acoustic gives it a Folk Country edge and sparkle.  “Jackson Greyhound” nods to Dylan with the tempo and tune reminiscent to his “Highway 61 Revisited” or road songs like “National Seven” off John Renbourn’s eponymous 1965 album.  Rab of course layers the writing, looking outward and considering the bigger picture, his wonderful guitar joined by some glorious brass and a violin as dry as a 60s Atlantic Records session.  “London Town” is a contradiction song, its bright jangly pop sound at odds with the story of Rab’s long association with the City as he contrasts his happy memories with its reputation.  “Use of Underground” field recordings makes it sound dreamlike or like a busking performance.  Playing what we would now call House Concerts, Rab plays a lot of anniversaries, 40ths, 50ths, 60ths.  His own 70th being a first. An accomplished performer Rab likes to add a couple of songs from the Patron’s year of birth, often needing to refer to sheet music charts as well as the record charts.  “Anniversary Song” was a hit for Billy Cotton in May 1947, there is little of the smooth lush big band in Rab’s continental troubadour rendering of a song that was a birthday hit.  Album closer was the encore at the concert that started the album process off, “Tennessee Waltz” was another 1947 hit, this time for Redd Stewart, but Kathleen MacInnes’ glorious voice leans more to Pattie Page’s seductive and lush version.  This album overflows with ideas, sometimes these and the informative narrative makes it feel like a best of or a Compilation.  Welcome to Anniversaryville by its nature looks back and celebrates, longevity, significant events and times, but there is as much to celebrate in the fact that, at an age traditionally associated with retirement, taking stock, sensible cardigans and reflection Rab Noakes is on fire, burning with energy and creativity.  The album cover is a deftly painted nod to that San Quentin Jim Marshall photo of Johnny Cash giving the warden the bird, with Rab joyfully sticking two fingers up at life and expectations, happily making new anniversaries.  Repeated listens reveal touches and sparkles from the band, always deft and sympathetic never showy or attention grabbing to the detriment of strong songs and wonderful performances.  It’s difficult to pick out one top song, so many of the tracks illustrate the different strengths of individual songs and the strength of the album as a whole.

Brent Cobb – Providence Canyon | Album Review | Low Country Sound/Atlantic Records | Review by Steve Henderson | 23.07.18

Whilst Nashville remains the capital of country music for many, there’s an increasing interest in songwriters with a rougher edge hailing from other areas of the USA’s southern states.  Music fans are well aware of the scene in Austin and the surrounding areas of Texas but now we’re hearing great music from Kentucky, Georgia, Alabama and so on.  These are areas rich in musical history – think of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Tony Joe White and The Allman Brothers for starters.   Artists that draw their inspiration from their own local backgrounds just as we hear in the rising tide of songwriters like Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell, Colter Wall and Tyler Childers.  Georgia born Brent Cobb floated into view with his 2016 release Shine on Rainy Day, a record that got everyone talking and a 2017 nomination as Emerging Artist Of The Year at the annual Americana Music Awards as well as a Grammy nomination for Best Americana Album in that same year.  The much-anticipated follow up record, Providence Canyon, is now in our midst.  Like its predecessor, it’s produced by Grammy Award winning Dave Cobb – yes, musical talent runs deep in the family.  As you’d guess from its title which nods in the direction of the Providence Canyon State Park in Southwest Georgia, this album is again inspired by Cobb’s roots in that area.  The title track itself being a pedal steel driven celebration of a trip with friends to this beautiful part of the world.  “High in The Country” tells of the escapism from the daily drudge that such trips offer as does “Sucker for a Good Time”.  There are great hooks wherever you look with two of the best coming with “King of Alabama” about the loss of Wayne Mills and “Come Home Soon” with its yearning for a return.  This latter track is typical of the layers that Cobb adds to his lyrics with its reflection on the outsider who has no home, the problems of addiction and a life on the road that comes with the dichotomy of being alone whilst surrounded by lots of people.  He’s a master of capturing what he sees on his travels.  Like its predecessor, there’s a mix of musical approaches ranging from a back porch, chilled feel through to an electric band sound like the southern boogie of the closing “Ain’t a Road Too Long”.  On the latter, we’re reassured that Brent Cobb will be pursuing this career for some time just as he encourages Lorene to chase her dream on the track bearing her name.  That’s good to hear as this album proves Brent Cobb not only chases dreams but catches them too.

Philip Marino – Chasing Ghosts | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 29.07.18

Philip Marino, American born and resident in Essex, has a great voice, an intimate, emotional instrument with a little vibrato that draws you into his songs.  There is a soulful spiritual rumble to Marino’s singing like Jeffrey Foccault or Brett Sparks from The Handsome Family.  There is a real sense that having got your attention he has a story to tell and some wisdom to share.  This is the music of the leafy rural backroads and white clapperboard churches, filtered through the UK South East. Intimate voice and guitar anthems like “In My Blood” and “Try” with the excellent Louisa Carrington on second vocal just crackle with emotion.  The lyrics are thoughtful and reflective on the human condition, hitting a warm spiritual groove like a bar room acoustic guitar toting Hothouse Flowers.  Lyrics like “I’m halfway done with my life”, from “This Time”, or “still don’t know what it means to win” have a very agreeable note of engaging melancholia without any sentimentality.  These are Marino’s lyrics and there is real sense that he has lived every syllable and is telling it like it is.  A sleeve image backs this up with a wonderful monochrome shot of a brooding reflective Philip.  Street Photography style he is looking away, distracted, not meeting our eye, snapped through an out of focus foreground.  The image builds the mood and suits the material perfectly, making a well-constructed whole.  The title, lyrics and the wrap around images on the album sleeve, suggest that these are potent symbols for a life lived and a hard road travelled and are not lightly chosen.  The album is beautifully ordered and constructed designed to drunk whole, gradually bigger arrangements develop with the atmospheric organ keyboard and electric guitars on the title track or the distant pedal steel on “This Time”.  “When the Wind Blows” opens with Philip’s excellent, close to the mic vocals, drawing you in.  The drums shuffle a delicate rhythm, backing vocals and splashes of guitar and keyboards add colour, but it’s never overstated or cloying.  There is always a sense of tasteful, sophistication and restraint in the playing, as everyone is holding their breath or collectively going ssssshhhh.  Listen to the space on the final track, the room around the vocals or the finger snap rhythm.  On tracks like “The Road Goes Down” there is a dark fire underneath Marino’s excellent vocal, suggesting he can roar when the moment arises.  The band roars too, with some dirty bar band guitar and atmospherics, rocking out in a mighty fine way.  “Closer No Turning Back” fades beautifully into a vocal close then confounds with a burst of a Tex-Mex Americana meets Focus to leave you with a smile as the band chuckles on the fade.  A strong set that seethes with potent and energy, a real grower. 

Amanda Shires – To the Sunset | Album Review | Silver Knife Records| Review by Allan Wilkinson | 01.08.18

When I was first given the opportunity to speak to Amanda Shires back in 2012, I felt I was talking to an artist entrenched in what we know as the sound of Americana, but I soon discovered her desire to make radio-friendly pop songs too; “if they don’t have drums on the track, nobody’s gonna hear it” admitted the singer at the time.  Amanda had already released a couple of albums and has since released a couple more.  With this fifth release, the Texas-born, now Nashville-based singer songwriter has moved into a refreshingly new phase, taking a new direction with some of her most personal songs to date.  More confident as a songwriter, performer and musician, the ten songs sound contemporary enough to enable them to straddle the borders between mature song writing and radio-friendly pop.  Amongst the new songs is a new reading of an older song, the song that opened her 2011 release Carrying Lightning, giving the record its title.  The whistled intro on “Swimmer” has been revamped and replaced by a slick arrangement, yet the song still stands out as the most accessible, commercial, radio-friendly song on the album.  Produced once again by Dave Cobb, who also plays bass, the album also features contributions by Jason Isbell on guitar, Peter Levin on keyboards and Jerry Pentecost on drums.  Having travelled the road widely, playing ‘first’ fiddle to Rod Picott amongst others, and more recently with husband Jason Isbell, Shires has pretty much established herself as a solo artist in her own right with songs that are both varied and accomplished, notably “Parking Lot Pirouette” and the ballsy “Break Out the Champagne”, written after an air disaster ‘near miss’, and with an already suspicious attitude towards the safety of air travel.  Fortunately, Amanda Shires was spared and was determined to get on with the show.

Trail West – From the Sea to the City | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 02.08.18

Trail West are a six piece from Glasgow.  From the Sea to the City refers to the journey that many Gaels make, at some point in their life, moving from their homes by the sea to the city, relocating for education or for work.  The journey opens with “Bernies Second Debut” a great mix of sensitive power ballad piano, pipes and whistles underpinned by Andrew Findlater’s powerful drum rhythms.  “McAlpine’s Fusiliers”, made famous by Ronnie Drew and The Dubliners, words written by Dominic Began, is a modern folk classic, sardonically recounting the post war life of the Irish Navvy, industrial migrants underpinning the construction industry.  Trail West’s version marries some of The Pogues’ punk energy and the pumping rhythm of industrial machinery.  Simply beautiful are the Gaelic vocal numbers, “Mo Ghruagach Dhonn” and “Oran An T-Saighdeir”, there is something atmospheric and hypnotic about Seonaidh Maciintyre’s vocals especially when is he joined by Lucy Doogan.  “Take Me Home” is an anthemic love song written by Macintyre.  “Mary K’s Waltz” is a beautiful tune written by Malcolm Jones who played on Trail West’s last album.  The piano playing on this track and Box and Whistle is tasteful nodding to sensitive classical or drum less jazz as much as Scots traditional music.  More firmly in the Scots tradition for dance is “The Tayvallich Turkey” with the band playing infectious fast and furious accordion, pipes and whistle tunes.  “Mo Dhuthaich” is a tune by Hector Murray, Trail West impart it with great emotion and potent, the stirring keys and Allan J Nairn’s electric guitar with the burr and sustain of bagpipes.  Again the piano delivers some surprises with some fine musicianship and flourishes by Jonathan Gillespie against the drumming of Andrew Findlater’s.  A strong closer on a strong, engaging and often surprising album that manages to be as interesting a journey as the title and cover imagery suggests.

Various Artists – Destination Fellside Recordings 1976-2018 | Album Review | Fellside | Review by Marc Higgins | 06.08.18

After 42 years and the release of over 600 albums Paul and Linda Adams, who have run Fellside almost single handed are moving into semi-retirement, with the label continuing in a lower key way.  Destination is a taking stock and a celebration of Fellside one of the biggest independent Folk labels in the UK and Lake the biggest UK label for British Jazz.  Both labels are institutions, providing excellent recordings of new and archive material, quietly making a lot of listeners and fans very happy.  Across three discs, chosen to describe and celebrate the Adams’ and Fellside’s journey is a bewildering array of delights and gems.  It isn’t a best of or a simple story of, neither is it a clear out.  The proof and the sense of it is in the listening.  Disc one opens with a beautifully live sounding instrumental by Geoff Purvis and Terry Docherty.  Significantly Terry recorded the first Fellside release which was his own debut.  More significantly the opener “Blackthorn Stick/Saddle the Pony” is from a rehearsal for an album that predated the label, but it was recorded at Fellside Recordings (the Adams’ front room) so is doubly worthy of inclusion.  Other gems on the first disc include, Brian Peters’ excellent 2017 recording of “Draggle Tail Gypsies”, like many especially recorded for this collection.  A personal favourite of mine is the atmospheric “Old Folks at Home” by Steve Turner.  Another strong, striking performer is the strident live recording of “Turpin Hero” by Barry Skinner.  Skinner went on to record an album for Fellside, but this track is, from a college concert recorded by Paul Adams in 1968, another milestone.  Striking for its delicate vocals is the Jolly Jack live version of “Lovely Nancy”.  Beautiful and put me mind of early Steeleye Span and the sadly departed Tim Hart.  Steeleye’s Maddy Prior, long connected to Fellside delivers a stunning unaccompanied “Sheepcrook” and “Black Dog” with Rick Kemp along later.  Fine too are the Appalachian sounding “Going to Leave This Country” by Sara Gray and Martyn Wyndham-Read’s Wainwright, both artists with a long connection to Fellside.  Briefly a Steeleye and a stalwart of the Folk Scene is John Kirkpatrick, Paul Adams describes him as a serial hitchhiker, regularly turning up on Fellside releases, he contributes “The King and Tinker”, an a cappella festival performance.  Similarly impressive is Benji Kirkpatrick’s “Nancy of London” on disc three.  Masterclasses in guitar and vocal are Dave Goulder’s version of the traditional “Long Larkin”, “Land of the Leal” by Bobby Eaglesham and Jez Lowe’s “Town Tales”.  Three performances and performers I could listen to all day.  It’s a brave performer who takes on anything off Nic Jones’ Penguin Eggs and John Wright’s a cappella “Farewell to the Gold” is a delight.  John’s rendition is delicate and light alongside the big voices of Jolly Jack, John Kirkpatrick, Swan Arcade and Jimmy Aldridge and Sid Goldsmith who appear in the collection.  Disc Two contains three stripped back wonderful tracks Fellside licensed from other labels.  Vin Garbutt does “Boulavogue” from a Folk Review magazine album Peggy Seeger “Single Girl” and Cherrington and Ward’s heavenly version of “I Live Not Where I Love”.  If the 1958 Seeger track doesn’t send you rushing back to her early Topic, Folkways and HMV sides and Pamela Ward’s voice to the Brew House Records albums then I don’t know why.  Running alongside Fellside is Lake, a label tasked with making available Trad and Mainstream Classic British Jazz from the 50s and 60s.  Paul Adams has been a jazz fan since his teens, his love of the institution that is Chris Barber has led to putting out CDs of much of the Barber band’s input from their first 15 years and making live recordings for the Dutch Timeless label who handle some of Chris’ more recent output.  The Lake label gives us a Djangoesque piece of jazz guitar and violin from Diz Disley recorded in 1959 for Doug Dobell’s 77 label based in his Charing Cross Road Jazz record shop.  Someone who crossed, so to speak, from Fellside folk to Lake Jazz was Marilyn Middleton-Pollock, originally a folky she delivers an Ottile Patterson blues belter vocal on “Melancholy Blues” with beautiful playing from Phil Morris, Lake Records House Band trumpeter.  This track is from a cassette only album, so most likely on available here.  With a wonderfully swaggering vocal from the leader himself and some lewd Saxophone the Chris Barber Band live in Birmingham in 2001 roar through a Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee number “Cornbread, Black Peas and Molasses”.  The closer on disc two is The Lake Records All-Star Jazz Band, an ensemble that grew out of the labels involvement with Keswick Jazz Festival.  On a live sound check, playing it for only the second time, the band nails Ellington’s “Cotton Tail”.  I’m sure that the Duke would of loved, madly or otherwise, Duke Heitger’s trumpet slurs and growls on a killer track.  Disc Three opens with the contrasting and surprising “Spirit of the Dance” setting Paul Sartin’s violin against Jane Sartin’s beats and programming.  Beguiling and indicative of the always changing nature of Folk, but seemingly at odds with the live club sound of a lot of the other performances.  Across the three disc set you are spoilt for cracking duos, Spiers and Boden who recorded four albums for Fellside, Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick here with an unissued live track from the 1990s, Tom Kitching and Gren Bartley, Nancy Kerr and James Fagan blaze through Leon Rosselson’s “Across the Hills”.  Top examples of songs that crackle with the joy of club performances are Bram Taylor’s “We May or Might Never All Meet Here Again”, James Findlay’s “Mantle of Green”, brilliant Pete Morton’s solo voice “The Cuckoo” and Hedy West’s wonderful rendition of “Little Sadie” taped live in 1967 by Barry Skinner after an impromptu banjo lesson.  Also fine bands abound, very new to me were the excellent Elbow Jane and the quite unique The Hut People. Like Chris Barber’s live track, Alabama Blues by The Jake Leg Jug Band, is a rich, layered and powerful with none of the barefoot, addled, cider jug waving abandon of a Jug Band, another strong recommendation.  Two powerful vocalists stand out for me on this final disc.  First there is Ewan McLennan who delivers a chilling version of “Edwin in the Lowlands” that is simply stunning, like James Findlay he was discovered by Fellside on the Mike Harding Radio Two Folk Show. Secondly there is Bob Fox’s “Standing at the Door”, for a man who has often recorded as a duo he packs a powerful punch on his own and this is ‘just’ a 1998 unissued trial recording, stunning.  “Please sir could I have some more… THATS ALL THERE IS!!” the impressively buoyant Jeff Barnhart and Thomas ‘Spats’ Langham, part George Melly grinning growl, part Jungle Book Louis Prima, irreverently clear the air at the end.  Along with Landmarks and The Journey Continues and this Destination Paul and Linda Adams have put together a trio of sets of recordings marking the end of their era at Fellside.  42 years and 600 releases, taking a hobby and building it into a business doing something you love is impressive, even before you consider the quality that shines out of this three disc set.  Paul maintains they don’t discover people that talent will out.  Even if you believe that self-depravating account then Fellside have helped ‘out’ an impressive array of performers including, Brian Peters, Steve Turner, Bram Taylor, Spiers and Boden, Gren Bartley, Ewan McLennan, James Findlay, The Hut People and of course Jez Lowe.  They have given a mid-career leg up to Hughie Jones, Bob Fox, Rick Kemp and many others.  Fellside has begat Lake allowing people like me to revel in jazz recorded before we were born, like archaeologists or miners bringing gems from retired labels like 77 or Brewhouse.  Smallfolk label was created just to allow the release of music from the kids TV show Bagpuss, songs of my youth.  Extensive activity by Lake led to the BBC4 Jazz Britannia programme.  Perhaps they might be interested in a Fellside one too.  Compilations are wonderful things, chances to discover new things, rediscover old things.  Like a planted seed roots and shoots fire off in different directions as you chase down more by new discoveries and more by people you are reacquainted with.  Always tempered with mixed emotion when new discoveries of vintage material means missed opportunities and some sadness.  “We’re singing for companions that time slipped away”, says Ian Walker on Companions. Paul Adams extensive notes are exhaustive and fascinating and too often record the passing of performers and people instrumental in the Fellside story.  So it’s mixed emotions, happiness at hearing these recordings, happiness at such an amazing journey and fine recordings and sadness at peoples passing and the ending of an Era.  Sunset or Sunrise though, only time will tell, you can’t keep good ideas down.  “Thanks for your company thank you for your songs, take care until the next time you’re passing by this place, I’ll leave you with a smile she said and an honest warm embrace” Ian Walker Companions.

The Shackleton Trio – Fen, Farm and Deadly Water | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 08.08.18

The Shackleton Trio, formerly the Georgia Shackleton Trio, features fiddle player Georgia, guitarist Aaron Bennett and Nic Zuppardi playing mandolin.  The trio plays an effortless sounding blend of music that draws in influences from the American, British and Scandinavian traditions. The band is first and foremost true to itself with influences being melded with flavours of the band’s native East Anglia.  Fen, Farm and Deadly Water, the evocative title of their second album does sound like a chapter title from Graham Swift’s epic Fenland novel Waterland.  The music is acoustic and beguiling mix of dexterous instrumental bluegrass, bouncing pulsing ballads and atmospheric dark Folk.  The trio has a way of using space and musical accents to create interest, that and the combination of guitar, fiddle and mandolin reminded me heavily of the excellent Whippersnapper.  Opener “The Fashionable Farmer” based on a broadside ballad, is a jangling jaunty tune carrying a story of struggle as true today as it was then.  Storytelling and beautiful music, delivered with a smile, in a way that reminded me of a Fens Kate Rusby.  It’s good to see musicians adding to the tradition and bringing something alongside the well visited anthems.  “Radish Boys” is a version of “The Ancient Cry of the Radish Boys at Great Yarmouth” originally printed in 1842 and unique to 150 sellers at Yarmouth.  Jaunty and enlightening music, locally sourced with no ‘music miles’ is a great thing, giving the Shackleton Trio their own voice and identity.  Accordion player Karen Tweed’s “Only Viveka”, “Swedish Polka”, “The Penknife Killer” have travelled further but are beautifully played and a delightful sparkling listen.  “Old Blue” is an 19th Century American song with fine guitar by Aaren Bennett and a stunning vocal by Georgia.  The Stanford instrumental, dedicated to the landlord and pub in Lowestoft is a catchy melody with excellent playing by Aaren, Georgia and Nic as each instrument runs with the tune.  “Powte’s Complaint” is based around a poem penned in 1611, reflecting the bitter mood of the fens faced with the land being drained by the Dutch.  Eerie plucked fiddle notes and a ‘hairs on the back of the neck’ vocal from Georgia charges the air and builds tension with a sweet trio instrumental between the verses.  Local pig Farmer Fred Rooke wrote “Fenland Song”, a reminder of the power of the waters held in check.  Stunning playing on the jaunty tune by the guitar and mandolin on this East Coast folk gem.  “Closer Down into the Sea” is a slightly melancholic reflection of the plight of the seaside town as numbers of visitors fall and they fade away.  An affectionate, slightly nostalgic postcard written and sensitively delivered by Georgia with some clever lyrical twists.  Different elements, traditions and players blend together to make a distinctive assured charismatic performance that holds your attention and isn’t afraid to make you think. 

Kila – Tóg é go Bog é | Album Review | Kila Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 14.08.18

If we were to gather together each Kila release along with all the various solo records and side projects, we would have a rather prolific collection to behold and Tóg é go Bog é would probably gleam as the band’s stand out statement.  Originally released on CD and cassette back in 1997, the album has now been re-issued as a double LP set, due in no small part to popular demand from vinyl revivalists.  The Dublin-based band perform most of their songs in Gaelic, with the exception of the plaintive “Tip Toe” and present the sleeve notes in the same manner, leaving us in no doubt to the band’s origins.  Unlike many contemporary Irish traditional bands though, Kila fuse their own particular Celtic roots with musics from all over the world, notably Africa.  The mixture of African-inspired drums and percussion on the title song, provides a unique canvas for its Gaelic lyrics to splash their colours, likewise the a cappella “Bi Ann”, which blends beautifully the Gaelic song with Ladysmith Black Mambazo-like harmonies.  It’s world fusion with subtlety, which even at that time provided the band with a chart single, “Ón Taobh Tuathail Amach”, sung in their native tongue with a Cuban/Afro influence, which was pretty much unprecedented at the time.  If “Double Knuckle Shuffle” demonstrates the band’s playfulness, Dee Armstrong adds beauty through her sublime fiddle playing, notably on “Charlotte’s Web”, the opening tune to the “Dusty Wine Bottle” set.  Then there’s the sheer energy of the band in full flight, such as the opener “Gwerzy” and the steady build of “Rusty Nails”, which makes the album just as important as it was back in the mid-1990s when it was first released.

Gregory Page – A Wild Rose | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 15.08.18

While himself a North London born Irish-Armenian third generation musician with a grandfather Dave Page who was a master Uilleann Piper, Gregory Page describes his music as Americeltic.  Like the Malian Griots the Pages are generationally alive with music, Gregory’s parents met while their respective bands were touring Europe, his mum was lead singer in The Beat-Chics, London’s first all-girl pop group who toured with the Beatles and his uncle Dave was Tom Jones’ original drummer, playing on “What’s New Pussycat”.  Americeltic deftly describes both the placing of instruments with Pedal Steel, Pipes, Lap Steel, Flute and Whistles blending with guitars and mandolins.  There is also something of the Celtic spring or bounce to the music that Gregory and his band make.  This rich musical heritage demonstrates the experiences and flavours he has to draw on when making music.  “I Say Adios” takes a smooth Country lyric and some fine vocals from Gregory with a little of the warm whine of Goldrush Neil Young and Cindy Wasserman.  Songs like “Born with the Shakes Inside” deftly marry sensitive thoughts on the frailty of the human condition with warm folk music.  “Dreams to the Rescue” has some of that Celtic lilt and bounce and some excellent pipes from Eric Rigler who played on Titanic and Braveheart.  “The Trouble With You is Me” is a heartfelt sour love song, delivering wry lyrics alongside aching pedal steel from Doug Pettibone and Gregory’s and Cindy’s voices blending beautifully.  “A Funny Trick” is another perfectly balanced stripped back song with a warm vocal from Gregory and Sky Ladd’s sparkling piano.  Ladd’s piano and Page’s guitar shine through playing together on the achingly beautiful instrumental “Goodbye Jack” that perfectly closes this intimate and sensitive album.

The Hot Seats – Stupid Mountain Too Big | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 17.08.18

The Hot Seats, for the purposes of this, their first album in three years, are a five piece band from Richmond Virginia, with fiddle, guitars, banjos, bass and attitude.  There are tracks like “Ida Red” and “When You Were Young” that are hot as their seats with frenetic playing and passionate vocals, then there is the more chilled ‘hots’ like “Briney Foam”, same twisted gnarly music but at a New Orleans Funeral Band tempo.  “Briney Foam” has some delightfully sweet harmonies and Rudys Bzdyk’s fine trumpet.  The crazy ‘Robert Crumbesque’ cover might suggest that the band have overdone the home grown or chugged too hard on the bootleg liquor, but beneath the chaotic miasma around The Hot Seats is some sharp musicianship, listen to the dexterous picking on “Life Story” or the chiming instruments and tricky timing on “Bad Decisions”.  Like The Handsome Family, The Hot Seats subvert the County or Bluegrass form, slipping some thought provoking lyrics in among the sweet playing.  Some are just deliberately ripe Country double entendres like the lyrically rich, but ‘won’t get played on the radio’ “Hammer Time”.  Some like “Bad Decisions” are wry comments on life, some like “Briney Foam” touch on notions of self, while “Compliance” and “Gun Crazy (In The USA)” offer a damming assessment of the US and UK today, that seems strangely lacking elsewhere.  Twined around earworm tunes are some dark questioning lyrics.  “Your silence is compliance, your compliance is required” is as sharp and satirical as Gil Scott Heron at his driest.  “Gun Crazy” is a punk-grass protest that manages to avoid politics and just poke fun at the problem.  Elvis or Jerry Lee is definitely in the building for the ending too.  Put Stupid Mountain Too Big on as background and its sweet acoustic bluegrass bending into jazz with some rich harmonies.  Stop and listen and there are sharp barbs and jagged reefs below the calm surface of the fast flowing river that is The Hot Seats.  Here’s hoping the track by track notes from the press release sheet are on the album or in the CD booklet as they are a scream.  God what Century am I living in, just looked online, short run CD 250 copies available on Bandcamp.  I’m off to mourn the death of physical music and you need to rush out and get a copy of this album.

Niteworks – Air Faìr An Là | Album Review | Comann Music | Review by Marc Higgins | 25.08.18

Niteworks is Ruairidh Graham, Allan MacDonald, Christopher Nicolson and Innes Strachan. On Air Faìr An Là the Niteworks quartet is augmented by guest vocalists Julie Fowlis, Ellen MacDonald, Iain Morrison, Scottish Gaelic vocal trio Sian and traditional string ensemble Kinnaris Quintet.  The music Niteworks plays is traditional, the title track is composed by Màiri nighean Alistair Ruaidh a 17th Century poet who lived on the Isle of Skye, but their instruments of choice and approach, I think, takes what they do as from what we understand as traditional music, as it possible to be.  Niteworks blend traditional music, voices and instruments with dance beats and electronica.  Mercifully and to the bands credit it sounds nothing like those dentist waiting room albums from the 1990s where Gregory Chant was layered against electronic beats.  What it sounds is exciting and entirely natural, the bubbling notes of Allan MacDonald’s pipes wrap perfectly around Innes Strachan’s syths and electronics, with Ruairidh Graham’s inventive percussion and drum work being anything but rigid and repetitive.  Quickly I found myself giving up on ‘instrument or electronics?’ and found myself just enjoying the music and sounds.  “Dookin” opens with some wonderfully expansive and descriptive electronica washes that completely contrasts the fiddle and pipes.  But this is no fish fingers and custard or snail porridge, the resulting sound, a kind of call and response between electronics and the traditional, traditional instruments, is simply captivating.  The final trance like minimalist motif of fiddle or synth as the track closes is going to make acoustic instrument traditional music sound lacking by comparison.  Sian, Eilidh Cormack, Ellen MacDonald and Ceitlin Smith, sound stunning against a swirling soup of synth, bass notes on the title track.  Alex Smoke, record producer, electronic musician and songwriter Alex Menzies’ production is superb throughout softening the hard edges on Niteworks previous album and here he drops in a little Dub to the voices.  Like “Wolves in the Night” features a vocal from Iain Morrison, managing to alternate between spectral choir and brooding Bon Iver.  Niteworks and Alex Smoke’s production build a wonderful atmosphere around the singer, creating one of many strong tracks.  “Óran Fir Ghriminis” by John MacCodrum, features Julie Fowlis sounding wonderful, again wrapped in a little studio smoke and backed by some percussive electronics.  Callum ‘Ruadh’ Nicolson, recorded in 1968 adds an atmospheric, gritty spoken piece to Calum Ruadh MacNeacail, grounding the band very much in the tradition and history, while Niteworks add a hypnotic trance like tune that nods as much to Tangerine Dream as the Folk Tradition.  “Do Dhà Shùil” opens with atmospheric electronics, and the sublime voice of Ellen MacDonald, 2016 MG Alba Gaelic singer of the year and frequent member of the live band.  Suggestions of rain noise, weather build.  The ringing looping pattern is it percussion or keyboards, it doesn’t matter the sound is hypnotic and quite beautiful.  Waves of synths suggesting 70s mysterious Vangelis or Jean Michel Jarre and some wonderful drum work build the track till what is left is The Kinnaris Quartet, carrying the atmosphere on with strings.  “Lùths (Gabh Greim)” is another atmospheric electronic track, majestic and brooding with a dark beauty.  “Cumhachd” is a perfect melding of Allan MacDonald vocals, pipes, Fiona MacAskill’s fiddle, electronics and some studio magic.  The separate elements are identifiable but twine together perfectly to make a glorious whole.  It’s almost certainly a cliché, but the evocation of the Skye landscape is so complete the music is filmatic.  Niteworks on Air Faìr An Là offer an exciting glimpse of a music that Janus like, manages to look backwards and forwards.  They are not the first to try this, but without a doubt they make a superb job of showing a future music.  There is brooding singer songwriter, mystical ethereal Gaelic, shimmering electronica which sometimes rocks and sometimes dances like mist, what would 1968 66 year old Crofter Calum make of the killer bass line behind him.  “But I’ve got to sing my songs in my own fashion, in my own way, in my own manner and I’m damned if I’m going to do any other thing” he proclaims proudly.  So I hope he would admire the spirt and singularity of Niteworks and their stunning album.  Like the glowing graphic on the stunning album cover, the band sits proudly within the landscape, recognisably different, but complimentary and beautiful in that space. 

Terence Blacker – Enough About Me | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 01.09.18

Terence Blacker is a singer songwriter and writer of wry offbeat songs.  Like dry Jake Thackray and American Tom Lehrer, Blacker has the ability to look at the ordinary, everyday, that nobody writes about and turn out gems of social observation.  Like Lehrer and Thackray his powers of observation are coupled with a dry sometimes cynical, knowing delivery that sharpens the songs.  These are not just funny songs, like interludes from 70s That’s Life or Nationwide, there is a beautiful irony.  Earlier pieces like “Would You Love Me If I Were Brazilian” poke fun at the ordinary as Terence over a wonderful 60s Samba beat points out that everything he does would be exotic, exciting and more desirable if he delivered it over sophisticated guitar singing in another language.  Through songs like “Harry Loves Porn” or “Sad Old Bastards with Guitars” lamenting those people who sung “Hope I Die Before I Get Old” then didn’t and endlessly relive their youth, Blacker with sharp rhymes, excellent lyrics and self-deprecating humour delivers truths without labouring the point or preaching.  On “Enough about Me”, with its wonderful cover image and Stand Comedian one liner title, business is very much as usual as Terence Blacker delivers wry barbed messages over beautiful guitar.  “Still Searching For That Heart Of Gold” with lovely harmonies, revisits a slightly more positive version of “Sad Old Bastards With Guitars”, celebrating the lot of the aging Folk performer, stringing acoustic hit lyrics into an anthem for the marathon runners of music, still going and still hoping.  As a contrast, and demonstration of the lyrical power behind the grin, “I’ll Be There with You”, takes the same qualities of age, consistency and the long road and weaves three minutes of poignant, delicate beauty.  Like Simon and Garfunkel’s “Old Friends/Bookends” there is power and charm in Blacker’s honest and sparse delivery.  Alongside the honesty of “I’ll Be There with You Terence” is a consummate crowd pleasing performer and songs like “I Can’t Call My Baby ‘Baby’” are a stand comedian’s routine set to sweet jazz tinged acoustic cafe music.  The barbs and depth are still there as he ponders the impossibility of marrying well-worn clichés with contemporary ideas and language, while wryly noting that there are still moments of passion when ‘baby’ hits the spot.  Terence Blacker is in good company as I am sure I remember reading that John Walters and John Peel wouldn’t playlist anything that used that epithet.  Blacker himself as well as a songwriter and performer is also a writer of adult and children’s fiction and wrote and presented the BBC Radio Four series on politically incorrect music Taboo-Be-Do, so this is clearly a subject close to his heart.  Disappear is a barstool drinking flight of fancy song that avoids a lot of the Blues clichés with some wonderful references and wordplay.  Think 60s Al Stewart singing a song in the spirit of Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl’s “Space Girl Song”, on a stool in The Asteroid Belt’s answer to Les Cousins.  “First World Blues” again takes the form of the Blues and the protest song and turns it on our broadly concerned but bigoted and cosseted look at the world.  An answer to all those people who start a party conversation with ‘you think you’ve got it bad but…’  Through the album Blacker’s ordinary eye wryly considers affairs in Marriage Song #1, with his dry delivery underlining the emptiness of an affair. The same character from Sad Old Bastards with Guitars and Still Searching pitches in perfectly on The Thoughts of an Average Man, against hipster designer trendy folkies. The description is spot on, fill in the details and shame the guilty yourselves. Easy Listening with some clever lyrics, fine harmonies and a flute part lifted off a 60s John Martyn album. The Blues of ‘Blind Boy’ Waddington-Bruce pokes fun at the British Blues revival and English Blues musicians.  Clichés and Blues imagery is ripped apart and some myths explored and exploded, brilliant.  “The Band Played On” is a surreal and dark tale about playing in the pit band at a high class Parisian orgy.  Terence then uses that bizarre metaphor of playing on despite the chaos, as a life lesson that is surprisingly sharp and knowing.  Blacker, underneath the humour is a powerful assured guitarist with a strong rhythmic right hand, excellent musicians around him, every now and then like on “I’ll Be There with You” and “An English Love Song” he delivers a straight ahead perfect lyric in a perfect song.  Humour in music divides, some people don’t want songs that raise a wry life or a smile, but this is knowing writing with the laughs masking depths and intelligence.  Anyone who can write songs that smoothly reference Star Trek and The Matrix has to worth a considered listen. 

Assynt – Road to the North | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 02.09.18

Assynt, are a new Scottish trio, playing self-penned tunes influenced by the Highland and Gaelic Traditions.  The band comprises David Sheddan Pipes and Whistles, Graham Mackenzie, Fiddle and Innes White Guitar and Mandolin.  On this, their first album they are joined by BBC Radio Scotland’s Young Musician Of The Year, Charlie Stewart on Double Bass and Drummer Scott Mackay.  Playing from the start is breath taking, fast and fleet fingered.  The pace and power of the musicians is a thing of wonder.  There are moments of slow reflection like the guitar, fiddle and whistle on “Foward Thinking”, or the circling on “Ava May”.  Elsewhere the slow, atmospheric starts to Conal MacDonagh and Aidan Jack heralds some precise, breakneck playing.  Both are equally impressive, the brooding atmospheres or the moments of musical downhill skiing where the landscape flies by at an impossible speed as we cut between trees and rocks. One has more power because of the other.  Assynt are named after an area of West Coast Scotland, north of Ullapool.  Assynt, Road to the North, sounds like a road sign, a signpost indicating the start of a long and interesting journey through a beautiful and exciting landscape.  Notification of a band connected to a place and a tradition, declaring their intention to take us somewhere worth visiting. 

Letitia VanSant – Gut it to the Studs | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 03.09.18

Letitia VanSant writes fine songs and delivers them in a voice that first demands, then holds your attention.  The grit and rasp of experience mixes with a beautifully phrased delivery, like the burr on a country violin or the crackle in Stan Getz’s low drawn out saxophone notes.  There are the captivating high notes of Jewel Kilcher and a little of the Beatnik world weariness of Ricki Lee Jones.  On melancholic anthems like “Come Sit by My Fire” and “Taking Back the Reins”.  VanSant offers masterful exercises in less is more production and arrangements.  Letitia’s guitars and minimal splashes of other instruments garnish that stunning voice and her strong writing.  Songs like “Where I’m Bound” and “Bluebird” offer writing so confident and erudite that they flow like well-travelled classics or covers.  “Gut it to Studs”, the album title track, bursts with rich and personal imagery.  In a building metaphor Letitia describes the confidence needed to start again, by removing everything but the bare bones and firm foundations.  A vaguely creepy but inspired set of enthralling metaphors.  “Gut it to the Studs” is an apt description possibly of VanSant herself, who with a degree in Human Rights and Humanitarian Issues, years of experience in progressive advocacy, fired up by the power of music to move and motivate, left the nine to five to become a musician.  There is a modest assurance in the players around VanSant, they offer atmosphere and texture rather than widdly, showy histrionics.  Gut it to the Studs is a better album for Alex Lacquement’s lyrical jazzy upright bass and Dan Samuels’ minimal but tight percussion on the beautiful “Bluebird” and “For What it’s Worth”.  Their superb playing provides the trapeze and safety net, between which Letitia’s voice just soars.  Listen out too for Patrick McAvinue’s atmospheric Country fiddle on the first two tracks.   Letitia VanSant’s conviction that ‘we are in this political crisis in part because we have a lot of spiritual work to do’, that people need to ‘think deeply about our priorities to confront our fears’ informs the album’s one cover, a version of Stephen Stills iconic LA protest “For What it’s Worth”.  Her soulful, smouldering version just crackles with heat and tension as West Coast Folk Rock protest goes spiritual.  “Wild Heart Roam” is an exercise in perfect minimalism, with some atmospheric guitar and Letitia’s vocals stretching out to hold you till breaking point.  “Dandelion”, against freeway noise, runs with Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi”’s lyric and sentiment as VanSant evokes the 60s anthem in the first verse, rails against blind stupid consumerism, but delightfully manages to find green shots of hope and a movement building against the asphalt desert.  Closing track “Sundown Town” is a song for people who aren’t green shoots, trapped in their homes by their fear, watching others struggle for freedom.  Final, uncomfortable food for thought.  Letitia VanSant takes the back road, real life, lifeblood music of rural America, and through the force of her sparkling song writing, ‘stop the traffic’ voice and sterling band, burnishes it till it shines, presenting a captivating album that really delivers. 

Yvonne Lyon – Everything’s Fine | EP Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 05.09.18

Everything’s Fine is a single taken from the eighth and latest album, Metanoia by Yvonne Lyon.  “Everything’s Fine” the track is a sparkly, light upbeat piece of Celtic Americana.  Yvonne’s voice within the first moments reminds me of both Eddi Reader, who she has toured with and Aimee Mann, two of my favourite singers.  Eddi is there in the freewheeling opening and chorus, Aimee’s angst singer songwriter edge in the chorus.  The song, a new version of an old favourite, is upbeat, an infectious earworm with a positive lyric.  “Where the Poor Find Gold” leaves the Celtic Pop Folk of the lead track.  The tune is carried on a mandolin like instrument that twists into an oriental sounding instrument while Yvonne evokes an experimental Robert Plant in the middle section.  Hope brings beats and scratching to the mix, with Lyon’s most ‘Aimee Mann’ vocal creating an intimate close atmosphere.  The voice sample over the piano sounds like a folksy chilled Public Information Service.  The whole effect is captivating right up until the end. Yvonne has delivered a three track off what sounds like an interesting, intelligent and beautiful album.  Certainly makes me want to hear the rest, which I guess is the point. 

A Different Thread – On a Whim | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 09.09.18

Staffordshire’s Robert Jackson and North Carolina’s Alicia Best make up the formidable team of A Different Thread, a duo who blend their own particular roots with quite pleasing results.  The dozen songs included here are all self-penned apart from the traditional “The Prickly Bush”, but it’s difficult to tell them apart.  Having first met two years ago in Ireland, the duo have honed their craft through busking, performing and now in the studio, with a style they refer to as British-Americana, which is as good a description as any.  There’s a maturity in Robert Jackson’s voice, which sounds like it’s done some travelling, put to good use on such songs as “Honey and Fire” and “Charlotte”, complemented by Alicia Best’s empathetic harmonies.  Then, when Alicia takes the lead, the roles are reversed with equal merit.  It’s when the duo share verses that the magic starts, again on “Charlotte”, one of the album highlights, and again on “Chairs Instead”, with a perfectly placed trumpet solo, courtesy of Rusty Smith, one of the choice musicians involved in making this really lovely record.  The worst disservice you could do to A Different Thread, is to not check them out.

Rachel McShane and the Cartographers – When all is Still | Album Review | Topic | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 10.09.18

Some delightful arrangements of traditional songs each with a contemporary feel. Rachael’s voice may not be quite as distinctive as Kate Rusby or Ruth Notman (for instance), but clearly her arrangements fall along similar lines.  It’s been almost ten years since Rachael’s debut album No Man’s Fool, which is largely due to her long time commitment to Bellowhead, for which she was a founder member.  Working with such an outfit would no doubt have prepared the singer, in terms of touring, stagecraft and studio work and with these songs and tunes, we find a confident artist poised to take the spotlight once again.  The material chosen for this project deserves a good home and it’s with Topic Records that Rachael now finds herself, one of the oldest independent folk labels, not only in the UK, but in the world.  Songs such as “Ploughman Lads”, “Green Broom”, “Two Sisters” and notably Rachael’s reading of “Lady Isabel”, clearly demonstrate a natural flair for storytelling.  With fellow ex-Bellowheaders Paul Sartin and Andy Melon on board, along with a fine cast of musicians, notably Matthew Ord and Julian Sutton (The Cartographers), When all is Still should see Rachael emerge as a British folk music ‘A’ lister with little fuss whatsoever.

Dur-Dur Band – Dur Dur of Somalia Vols 1 and 2 | Album Review | Analog Africa | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 11.09.18

Analog Africa continue in their endeavour to introduce new audiences to the authentic sounds of Africa, bringing to our attention what could possibly be described as the musical treasures of the continent, with the reissue of the first two volumes of the Dur-Dur Band of Somalia’s back catalogue.  Originally released in the mid to late 1980s, the album is presented as both a triple LP set and a two-disc CD, the two volumes augmented by a handful of additional tracks including a couple of previously unreleased items, “Salkudhigey” and “Haddi Anan Gacaloy”, two lengthy numbers of note.  It should perhaps be pointed out that Analog Africa founder Samy Ben Redjeb went through an unusual set of procedures in order to obtain the material here, allegedly having an armed escort accompany him during his visit to Somalia’s capital Mogadishu.  A little scary granted, but the rewards are abundant.  With Redjeb referring to the music as “some of the deepest funk ever recorded”, the young band’s enthusiastic take on Muqdisho Funk, Disco, Soul and Reggae is very much evident on these 18 tracks, the initial release in an intended three-part series, although I could take issue with the producer of Saafiyeey Makaa Saraayeey, which had me checking the disc for fault more than once.

Dan Webster – Devil Sky | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 12.09.18

Dan Webster possesses a confident soulful voice, think Mike Scott of The Waterboys channelling rich Americana.  “Play Cards and Late Night Bars” marries a Celtic lilt and violin with a driving tune and a punchy beat.  “Home Again” is altogether more pensive and smooth.  Dan Webster delivers a superb crooning Ryan Adams vocal, wringing emotion out of every note.  Bo describes a, father and son’s journey through childhood.  The whole track whirls and swirls with an infectious pulse, its opening is strangely reminiscent of Talking Heads’ “Road to Nowhere”.  Emily Lawler’s violin stars on this track.  Altogether more subdued, but beautiful for it, is the duet between Dan and Danni Nicholls on “Haul Away”.  “Mary Anne”, “Freedom in Surburbia” and “Sand” with strong soulful vocals, ooze the gospel pop sophistication of The Hothouse Flowers.  Picked mandolins and violin give an unplugged feel but Dan’s vocal and the classic organ sound just crackle with power.  “Nothing at All” is plucked guitar, strings and a killer vocal from Webster, marrying power and vulnerability like Damian Rice at his most potent.  Quiet fire until the end he vamps like a potent Moondance era Van Morrison on “Anyway”, subdued but smouldering with a longing beautiful fade.  Lovers of the taut tension in the ballad moments of early Van Morrison, Ryan Adams or Damien Rice.  Those who delight in those moments where bringing it down a notch raises the heat, building a soulful glow, will linger long here.  There is much to be enjoyed when a long sustained simmer produces a rich concentrated sauce of richly flavoured delights. 

Hannah Rarity – Neath the Gloaming Star | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 13.09.18

The absolute star of this excellent album is Hannah Rarity’s voice, delicate and pure, full of nuance on “Wasting Time” and “Where Are You (Tonight I Wonder)”, revisited from Hannah’s 2016 Beginnings EP, or more powerful but still perfectly phrased on “Neath the Gloamin Star at E’en”.  Hannah, BBC Radio Scotland’s Young Traditional Musician of the year in 2018, delivers a debut album that packs a quietly powerful punch, as arresting as a footstep in an empty county Chapel.  The music around the voice has a beautiful stillness too, like looking out over gently falling snow.  John Lowrie’s piano on “The Land O’ the Leal” is perfect chamber jazz, as delicate and considered as Hannah’s stunning vocal, Sally Simpson’s fiddle and Viola add atmosphere.  Hannah is a subtle, understated interpreter of songs, effortlessly making classics like Andy M Stewart’s “Where Are You (Tonight I Wonder)” her own.  Alongside this considerable talent the two of her own songs on the album, “The Moon Shined Bright on My Bed Last Night” and “Wasting Time” are also delights, beautifully delivered.  “Alison Cross”, a version of the Child Ballard, which I know as a Psych Folk Rock Stormer by Mark three Steeleye Span here is a beguiling swirling jewel shot through with dialect and fire.  Innes White contributes some perfectly phrased, understated guitar parts through the album, echoing but never smothering the song or Hannah’s star voice.  Stalwart musician Phil Cunningham delivers waves of ethereal Accordion, adding a shimmering accompaniment to “Rose O’ Summerlee” and another perfectly phrased stunning performance by Hannah Rarity.  Sitting here, early on a crisp bright September morning, Hannah Rarity’s music is a delicate perfect accompaniment to the scene, but I’m sure full summer sun with lush greens and deep shadows or winter’s falling snow and smothering thick mist this beautiful album would fit perfectly cinematically whatever ever the scene.  It’s customary to pick a track to accompany the review, but it’s hard to pick just one from the light and shade of Rarity’s take on “Erin Go Bragh”, the slightly country “Wander Through This Land” or nine other gems. 

Thabang Tabane – Matjale | Album Review | Mushroom Hour Half Hour | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 15.09.18

Deeply spiritual music from the Mamelodi township area of South Africa, on the outskirts of Pretoria, as Thabang Tabane continues the musical traditions set by his father, the late Philip Tabane, a leading force in the malombo style, who died earlier this year.  The ten songs that make up this, Tabane’s debut album, are infused with a richly percussive feel, with dance rhythms that can be equally enjoyed seated or up on your feet, although Bengheko could very well challenge those still sitting.  Named after his grandmother, the album has a familial feel, with such song titles as “Father and Mother” (composed by his father) and “Thuli” (Mama), yet as a whole, the focus on these songs is the spirit of malombo and its contribution to the traditions of South African music.  The highly rhythmic percussive songs are complemented by Tabane’s confident vocal delivery, augmented with some fine contributions by fellow musicians Dennis Moanganei, Sibusile Xaba and Thulani Ntuli.

Chris Thomas – Bound to the Ocean | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 15.09.18

Having previously honed his craft in several local bands as well as a successful Pink Floyd tribute show, Devon-born singer-songwriter Chris Thomas has concentrated his solo song writing credentials into this, his debut album, which showcases his flair for writing accessible folk/pop melodies, especially on such songs as “Don’t Follow Me” and the lilting “Whenever I Sing Georgia”, a song clearly important to Thomas, in that it relates to his late step mother’s love of Ray Charles and the fact that he performed “Georgia on my Mind” at her funeral.  It doesn’t take long to warm to these highly personal songs, including the punchy “Gwendolyn Rose”, a song written for his own daughter, or the optimistic “Wake up Smiling”, which is sure to bring out the sunshine on a dull day.  There’s nothing throwaway on Bound to the Ocean, with each song, each melody and each performance nicely settling into the top drawer.

Edwin Hawkins Singers – The Buddah Collection | Album Review | Retro World | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 16.09.18

Between 1969 and 1998, the Edwin Hawkins Singers released a string of gospel albums and enjoyed at least one smash hit with “Oh Happy Day”, a song that resonated in popular culture during the late 1960s, inspiring George Harrison’s similarly sounding “My Sweet Lord”.  Three of those albums, It’s a Happy Day, Live at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and Peace is Blowin’ in the Wind, each originally released on the Buddah label, are collected together here as a two-disc set, featuring some of the choir’s most enduring songs such as the aforementioned “Oh Happy Day”, featuring soloist Dorothy Combs, very definitely residing exclusively in the left speaker for some unfathomable reason, whilst a good part of the Peace album, features seasonal songs such as “White Christmas”, “We Three Kings” and “Oh Holy Night” as well as rather soulful take on Bobby’s classic.

Ryley Walker – Deafman Glance | Album Review | Dead Oceans | Review by Steve Henderson | 17.09.18

Followers of Ryley Walker on Twitter get drawn into a world of life on the road where tales of fast food and travel blur into opinions on music.  It’s hard to tell whether it’s fact or fiction at times but what’s clear is that he’s happily taking a singular path through life.  So, it is with each new Ryley Walker record.  Deafman Glance is now in our midst and takes a stride or two into a new direction as you’d expect.  Fans who were drawn to earlier releases on the basis of his ability to take folk music and layer jazz into it like a modern day Tim Buckley or John Martyn will find that the palette used to flavour his music has been added to in various ways.  You’ll still find some nimble acoustic guitar work on the instrumental “Rocks on Rainbow” but be prepared for excursions into other territory.  For example, the album opens with the languid blues of “In Castle Dome” with its dreamy flow driven by synth and flute as much as the guitar work that Walker has at the heart of his music.  Elsewhere, tracks like Accommodations are a throwback to the avant-garde approaches of the likes of Frank Zappa who was also not frightened to experiment with his music.  The increased infusion of jazz into the music is apparent on tracks like “22 Days”, “Spoil with the Rest” and “Telluride Speed”.  However, it would be foolish to categorise this as a jazz record as the influences come from across the rock spectrum as much as anywhere else.  Indeed, it’s the inability to pigeonhole this record in a convenient way that makes for much of its appeal.  The rich and varied approach on this album is helped by the fact that he’s now surrounded by a set of good musicians that has emerged from the pool of contacts in his almost constantly gigging world.  Duo partner, Bill MacKay, pops up with his electric guitar on various tracks and LeRoy Bach provides a steadying hand not only with keyboards but on the production controls of this record.  For sure, the musical evidence confirms this approach to the recording has helped foster a creative melting pot on this record.  Who knows where he’ll head off to next?  I can see long extended classical pieces, even concept records or film soundtracks.  There’s almost no end to the possibilities.  Meanwhile, enjoy the ride on the imaginative Deafman Glance.

Mairearad and Anna – Farran | Album Review | Shouty Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 18.09.18

Mairearad Green and Anna Massie, raised by Achnahaird Bay and The Moray Firth respectively have strong historic and current connections to the sea.  This is evident in the nautical title of this, their predominantly instrumental fourth album, Farran being the Scots word for the Starboard side of the boat, the glorious maritime cover images by Illustrator Chelsea Free and last, but by no means least the jaunty rolling music the duo play.  The boat on the cover is named for the one song on Farran, and the scene on the gatefold places us in the rolling waves, at sea, the scene is very much set.  Between them Anna and Mairearad play guitar, fiddle, accordion, pipes and harmonise vocals well. Mairearad and Annie can deliver the driving energy of Coigach, an uptempo duet of guitar and pipes written by Maireaead’s piping teacher, the rising swell of Wee Mcghee’s, skittering Accordion and Anna’s percussive guitar.  Self-penned “The Merton Set” features a more reflective gentle guitar twining with the Accordion, building to a faster intricate close.  “Molly May” features the duo’s charming harmonised and solo vocals on JP Cormier’s bitter sweet reflection on a life at sea laid to waste.  The two voices sweeten a melancholic tale and deliver an album highlight.  Mairearad says that moving north and living by the sea, now that she is living in Ullapool, definitely slows you down.  The change of pace, might have given time for reflection and time to discover local tunes, but hasn’t dulled the energy in the music of this duo.  Reflective music with space and the grace of a coastal sunset like the “Brewery” set of tunes or the moody closer Mo Chailin, are placed alongside the more frantic traditional “Thadelo’s Slide/La Rachoudine.

Mark Harrison – The Panoramic View | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 19.09.18

A curious release this time from country blues devotee Mark Harrison, with each of the songs prefaced by a spoken introduction by the familiar voice of Gail Porter, who effectively saves us the bother of reading the sleeve notes.  There’s a demo feel to each of the songs, as if they haven’t been quite worn in yet, something that will no doubt happen after several outings.  Still good though, quite unconventional in places, with direct references to such blues luminaries as Son House, John Lee Hooker, Mississippi John Hurt and Eddie ‘Guitar’ Burns and at one point assuming the role of one of the old blues masters himself, being rediscovered after several dormant years, and how that might have felt imagining what it must have been like to be confronted in old age by a curious white college boy clutching a microphone on his front porch on “Rediscovery Blues”.  With Charles Benfield on double bass and Ben Welburn on drums and percussion, together with additional help from Paddy Milner, Paul Tkachenko and Ed Hopwood, the songs are fattened out and brought to life.

Ruston Kelly – Dying Star | Album Review | Rounder Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 19.09.18

Carolina-born, Nashville-based Ruston Kelly’s debut full-length album release and UK tour, which are both now very much upon us.  Not only does Dying Star boast a lead track “Jericho”, a first single release “Mockingbird”, a video release “Big Brown Bus”, but also, none of these are indeed the title track, so already we have four good things to think about.  The album is also released on one of America’s most cherished Americana and Bluegrass labels.  If Robbie Robertson and Co chose to employ a ‘father figure’ in the band (Garth Hudson), then Kelly goes one step further and has his actual father and mentor Tim ‘TK’ Kelly in the band, taking care of pedal steel duties, one of the album’s strong points.  The album follows Kelly’s initial EP release Halloween, released last April and continues to showcase a very promising new talent.  Co-produced by Kelly and Jarrad K and recorded in El Paso, Texas, the album forms a strong initial statement, which will serve Kelly and his band throughout their imminent tour of the UK.

Tia McGraff – Stubborn in My Blood | Album Review | Bandana Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 20.09.18

Tia McGraff has one of those voices that blends angelic note hitting ability with just enough rasp or crackle to give her life lesson lyrics gravitas and weight.  There is a little of the Country Blues burr of a sweet Bonnie Raitt or even Bonnie Tyler with a touch of Dolly Parton.  It’s a confident voice, with great phrasing and an ability to hold your attention.  As well as an assured sincere Tia is also a captivating writer, songs like “Pilot of Change” offer the gleaming radio friendly sheen of Shania Twain applied to real life lessons and some catchy phrases.  “Hole in Your Heart” twines some eternal lyrics we can all relate to and an achingly emotional delivery.  A pared back arrangement with guitar and harmonising vocals to the fore, gives Tia’s performance room to really shine.  “Travelin’ by Guitar” is an anthemic ballad to the romantic lure of the journeyman guitarist.  McGraff manages to inhabit a kind of Rootsy John Hiatt vibe.  “Let ‘em See Your Strong” starts with a sensitive piano part that sounds like a riff on Bryan Adams’ “(Everything I Do) I Do it For You”, but Catherine Marx’s piano playing and Tia’s vocals have grace and sensitivity, a wonderful Gospel groove develops and the netherworld of 90s film tie in power ballads is deftly avoided.  The title song is an examination of McGraff’s origins, with touches of a Celtic air and whistles to create mood.  “One Tin Soldier” is another Tia performance that perfectly marries smooth and gritty, pop sheen vocals and some West Coast jangling guitar.  Ironic dark lyrics offer a stark warning about spiritual consequences.  Even without the backing of her excellent band, Far Away Man’s nuanced emotional vocal, resonant guitar and Ellen Day’s stunning violin, all pack a real punch.  Tia McGraff’s performance and phrasing makes it sound so effortlessly perfect.  “Forbidden” waltzes through a biblical twist on desire between meeting strangers, like a country take on a lush 50s smooth Doris Day ballad, played on a wintery snowy day valve radio.  Timeless and old school beautiful.  The lyric is a cracking co-write with Pete Reily and Henry Priestman too.  One person’s stubborn is another one’s single minded determination and focused vision. Tia McGraff makes ear friendly, universal, valve warm, comfortable leather sofa rootsy music with veins of back road Gospel, passion and a touch of vim and vinegar to temper the sweetness.  If this drive and determination, running through a musician or singer at a capillary level is stubborn, then stubborn is good and we need more single minded, affirming, smile on the face music.

Stella Chiweshe – Kasahwa: Early Singles | Album Review | Glitterbeat | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 21.09.18

For world perspective, if we consider that the biggest UK single of 1973 was Dawn’s ever-so-twee “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree” and by 1983 we had arrived at the dazzlingy colourful Karma Chameleon, courtesy of Culture Club, then Stella Chiweshe’s run of singles, released exclusively in her homeland during this period, seem positively raw.  At just 16, the young Zimbabwean Mbira master shone in her field, that of the ancient mystical music of the Shona people, yet she endured a fair amount of irritation along the way, not least the reluctance she found in her male contemporaries, none of whom would teach her the instrument and being refused by Mbira makers to build her an instrument.  The upside to this archaic attitude towards women is that it made her even more determined and she soon became known as the ‘Queen of Mbira’ and remains so today as a 70 year-old rebel.  With a keen command over the thumb-picked instrument, together with an almost mournful, yet determined vocal delivery, the songs here remind us of the raw power of the music produced during the rise of the Chimurenga revolution and the time when some of us first became aware that there was more to life than Tony Orlando and Boy George.  With shakers providing the rhythm, these eight captivating songs serve as a good introduction to Stella Chiweshe’s music and as a fine collection in lieu of those ever-so elusive 45s.

Alina Bzhezhinska – Inspiration | Album Review | Ubuntu Music | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 22.09.18

Jazz and the harp have enjoyed some lovely flirtations and full-blown affairs over the years, most notably via the music of Dorothy Ashby and Alice Coltrane.  Now another female artist is ushering the harp into the spotlight. The UK-based Polish musician Alina Bzhezhinska’s second album Inspiration – featuring saxophonist Tony Kofi, bassist Larry Bartley and drummer Joel Prime – has just been unleashed, much to the delight of Alina’s growing fan-base.  It comes after several years of collaborations with the cream of the London jazz scene, countless festival appearances and her 2005 solo classical album Harp Recital.  How she fits all this in whilst maintaining her tutorship at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and London’s Goldsmiths University is anyone’s guess.  Nevertheless, Inspiration is an album which cannot be adequately described with such limp adjectives as sumptuous and exquisite; it is, in fact, a ten-track deluge of effervescent, enchanting and barrier-smashing meditations on compositions by John and Alice Coltrane, each awash with Alina’s colourful harp swirls and Tony Kofi’s exploratory sax lines.  Highlights include the dreamy “Following a Lovely Sky Boat”, featuring Kofi’s soaring soprano sax, and the nine-minute, jaw-dropping ebb and flow of “Journey in Satchidananda”.  There are also moments on this album of extraordinary tenderness, especially during “Spero”, a gorgeous mid-point duet from Alina and Tony.

Tony Kofi – Point Blank | Album Review | Last Music Company | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 23.09.18

As the British Isles endures its strangest days for generations, there are a few remaining things of which this country should be proud.  One of them is Tony Kofi, a jazz musician of Ghanaian descent who has, over the last couple of decades, risen to the peak of the British jazz scene with true grace and a heartfelt dedication to his music.  Here is a saxophonist, flautist, teacher and composer who is held in the highest regard by fans and fellow musicians alike and whose gutsy hard-bop style confidently fuels the engine of many of a jazz festival, concert or LP.  Point Blank, Kofi’s latest album, provides further proof of this fine reedsman’s prowess.  With Pete Whittaker on organ, Simon Fernsby on guitar and Pete Cater on drums – collectively known as The Organisation – Kofi delivers a formidable set of covers that explores the rich history of this evergreen genre.  There are interpretations here of tracks by Pepper Adams, Horace Silver, Wes Montgomery and Lonnie Smith, each melody painted lovingly by Kofi’s baritone sax and Fernsby’s guitar on a canvas of Whitaker’s soulful organ and Carter’s immaculate percussion.  And holding the whole thing together is a palpable sense of generosity; Kofi may be a punchy player, but he certainly knows when to let his fellow musicians take centre stage.

Two Niles to Sing a Melody – The Violins & Synths Of Sudan | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 24.09.18

All the capital cities of the world are in possession of their own rich cultural heritage and Khartoum is certainly no exception.  In this release, we find some of the Sudan’s own musical highlights from the period between the 1970s and 1990s.  Some of the titles reveal the struggles ordinary people endured through the period both before and after the 1989 coup, such as Kamal Tarbas’ “Min Ozzalna Seebak Seeb” (Forget Those That Divide Us), Zaidan Ibrahim’s “Ma Hammak Azabna” (You Don’t Care About My Suffering) and Hanan Bulu Bulu’s “Alamy Wa Shagiya” (My Pain And Suffering).  The violin and accordion sparring can be hypnotic in places, with some haunting orchestral arrangements, conjuring an almost brooding feel, though tinged with optimism.  Plenty of scope in terms of the sprawling “Al Mursal” (The Messenger) by Mohammed Wardi to the fleeting instrumental “Elhabeeb Wain” (Where is My Sweetheart) courtesy of by Ibrahim El Kashif.  Worth investigating.

Richard Thompson – 13 Rivers | Album Review | Proper | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 25.09.18

If the young songwriter of the early 1970s was concerned about what might be at the end of the rainbow, then it stands to reason that the fully mature songsmith of forty-odd years on would be concerning himself with the ‘rattle within’.  The life cycle isn’t over yet by any means, though an artist of Thompson’s standing would perhaps be leaning on the periphery fence looking inward at a life well lived at this point.  The recent Thompson has been hugging his acoustic guitar rather a lot, whilst revamping his past glories, but on 13 Rivers, the guitarist once again brandishes his trusty Stratocaster for a ride hardly ventured since Mock Tudor perhaps, just prior to the turn of the last century.  There’s some superb performances here from the start, “The Storm Won’t Come” immediately draws the listener in with a song of expectant change disguised as impending doom, accompanied by a determined tribal beat.  It’s an unexpectedly long opener, but totally spot on the mark for Thompson.  The aforementioned “The Rattle Within”, is actually a wry look at the God problem posing the all-important and oft repeated question, basically who’s going to save us from the inevitable?   There’s the obligatory biblical references also in “Bones of Gilead”, then there’s the equally obligatory guitar motifs, blistering and glistening on such as “Her Love Was Meant For Me”, “Do All These Tears Belong To You” and “The Storm Won’t Come”, together with one or two bluesy moments, notably “The Dog in You” (a Thompson title if ever there was one) and the mandolin even comes back out to play on the folky “No Matter”.  True to form, Thompson leaves us with a reflection on the bigger questions in “Shaking the Gates”, a song that confirms that some of us remain dreamers, through and through.  Produced by Thompson and engineered by Clay Blair, 13 Rivers sees the guitarist collaborate once again with regular musicians Michael Jerome, Taras Prodaniuk and Bobby Eichorn on what could very well be his finest album in several years.

Iona Fyfe – Go Away From My Window | Album Review | Cairnie Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 26.09.18

After a couple of EPs, Away From My Window is the debut album from folk singer Iona Fyfe and a concept album to boot.  Surrounded by nimble sympathetic players Iona presents a set of traditional songs and songs by contemporary Scots writers including.  Fyfe herself.  The variety and pedigree of players and co-conspirators, demonstrates the strength of the tradition Iona has grown up within and how firmly she is bedded in it.  Musicians include players from Dosca, Salsa Celtica, Gnoss, Rura and Charlie Stewart BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year.  Production is by Jani Lang of Dallahan and the excellent album photos are taken by Louise Bichan, herself an excellent experimental but under recorded Scottish musician.  Alongside some well-chosen samples Iona showcases the universal nature of the tradition of song in her native Aberdeenshire.  “Guise of Tough”, a Bothy Ballad, Iona learnt from the singing of Jack Duncan, has a jaunty air with Fyfe’s wonderfully clear voice and a warm accompanying chorus.  Listen out too for Jani Lang’s fiddle.  “Glenlogie” a rare event in the Folk tradition is a song of love with tragedy averted.  The strings are warm and uplifting, as befitting the tale and wrap perfectly around Fyfe’s vocals.  “Banks of Inverurie” is a duet between Luc McNally’s guitar and Iona’s perfectly phrased understated singing.  Splashes of Fiddle and Simon Gall’s edgy piano build atmosphere still further.  “Away From My Window” opens with some wonderful atmospherics carrying in a speaker pondering the nature of the oral tradition and performance.  The speaker, like the extensive song notes accompanying the album, give a great sense of Iona’s grounding in the music that came before and the music that goes on around her.  The song is simply a delight, a superb vocal is joined by some emotional strings that swoop and call with great portent.  Aberdeenshire singer Lizzie Higgins’ 1969 version of “Bonny Udny”, accompanied by Iona’s band opens Fyfe’s own version.  My Grandmother had a copy of Lizzie’s Up and Awa’ Wi the Laverock 1975 Topic album, despite being Treasurer of Towersey Village Festival my Gran was no folkie, so that and the name made me suspect we were distantly related.  The two versions of are wonderfully contrasted with the musicians bridging the gap beautifully.  Two very different singers, connect through the song.  Iona’s voice sounds purer still alongside Lizzie’s rich burr with its distinctive vibrato.  Bass and Piano ground the performance with a kind of jazzy Classical air building to a glorious, pipes and fiddle ending.  “Take Me out Drinking Tonight” is a song I knew through louche Americana versions by Michael Marra who wrote it and Cuban American Guitarist and Singer Isaac Guillory who frequently played it live.  Iona with a bar room piano and a fine folk club chorus fills it with pathos and regret rather than hedonism.  Either way, the performance is nuanced, emotional and a delight to listen to.  “Banks of the Tigris” is Iona’s own reflection on the conflict in Syria and the Middle East, ever present in her teenage years.  Connected to the album by Fyfe’s passionate vocal and through its part in the tradition of story songs, sonically it is apart with its boiling background washes of programmed sounds.  The song seethes with disquiet and anger, part traditional ballad it has some of the edgy feel of Dick Gaughan’s “Song of Choice” from A Different Kind of Love Song.  Iona’s vocal places it in context, but there is a sense of a stranger darker music lying just beyond the reach of Away From My Window.  “Pit Gair”, in part a duet with Cameron Nixon, in part a lively tune is a fine closer more easily within the Folk tradition.  Iona Fyfe is an assured singer, with a clear sense of the music she grew up with and her place within that stream.  She has a very good ear and has gathered an excellent supporting cast.  This is a strong long form debut with both power and potential.  It will be interesting to see where Iona’s muse carries her, within the stream of the tradition she is so acutely aware of and sensitive to.  If there are ten song links below this review its, because I couldn’t distil it down to one or two tracks. 

Northern Flyway – Northern Flyway | Album Review | Hudson Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 27.09.18

Before re-listening to Northern Flyway for this review, Karine Polwart’s Pocket of Wind Resistance and Keld by You Are Wolf were on heavy rotation on the stereo.  Both are excellent albums by accomplished singers and fine musicians.  What connects these three projects was the way that Northern Flyway, Keld and Karine Polwart take wonderful voices from the Folk tradition and surround them with ‘new’, electronics, found noises and samples, collaging words as much as atmospheres and sounds as for their meanings.  Northern Flyway take the cold stark atmosphere of 80s left field underground hit “It’s a Fine Day” by Jane and Barton, a pinch of “Oh Superman” era Laurie Anderson at her minimalist digital best.  They stir in a big scoop of Martyn Bennett’s other worldly ‘croft-tonica’ wizardry.  The resulting album, while sometimes, moment by moment a difficult listen, is a majestic masterpiece.  At times it’s as if the 60s BBC Radiophonics Workshop had enthusiastically embraced Folk Rock.  Outward looking musically expanded lookers and seers in the 60s,  The Incredible String Band, Pentangle and Traffic to name a few, made music with the instruments that surrounded them in their bedsits, flats and bucolic country cottages.  Perhaps the digitally literate generation of Folk musicians simply have different (pro) tools at their fingertips.  Humans have always looked to the birds.  In mythology, they are carriers of souls, messengers to the gods, our familiars.  In ecology, they are our measure, our meter, they mark the seasons.  Northern Flyway make music and build songs that examine all of these aspects.  Fragments of interviews, beat box percussive vocals and concern for the plight of our birds are very now, while atmospheric flutes and funereal drum sounds are as Psych Folk as Wicker Man.  Arriving with some of the bird sounds from bird song expert Magnus Robb and The Sound Approach used extensively through the albums.  Vocalists Jenny Sturgeon, Inge Thompson and Sarah Hayes weave hypnotically together on “Flyway”.  Atmospherics, electronics, acoustic drums, harmonium, bird sounds and interview conjure a quiet storm that the voices soar over.  The Witches incantations from The Scottish Play given wings.  On “Rosefinch” fluttering vocal beats lay down a skittering rhythm with the distinctive vocals of Jenny Sturgeon and Inge Thompson strident and powerful over the top.  “No Barriers No Borders” bird song and vocal wooshes surround the head, almost claustrophobically so.  The singer, I think Inge Thompson, considers the flying birds enviously over a Carole King like piano melody.  Occasionally the spoken vocals offer glimpses of real people Creature Comforts style humour, little light touches that raise a smile and make it all seem warts and all real.  Left field soundscapes aside, “The Gannets” opens with an interview clip that questions our future without currently declining seabird populations.  The music is hypnotic and has an ethereal quality.  Layers of flutes and voices suggest the atmospheric music of Andrew Cronshaw’s Finnish fusion band Sans.  “Curlew” is inventive percussive beat boxing, accordion and a vocal that has some of Eliza Carthy’s burr and timing about it, it is a thing of wonder.  A squall of electronics that resolves into birdcall opens “Lost Lapwing”, edgy sounds and an upbeat tempo keep you on your toes, till a sense of calm like flight after the ground falls.  A hypnotic song of contrasts.  “The Eagle” is adapted from the poem by Lord Tennyson, but the glorious vocals and invocations of flight are all Northern Flyway.  “Loch Carron Flame” places a chilling vocal over classic Berlin electronic music cut with a, spoken piece lamenting the lost flame shell colonies.  This builds to strident piano like keys and a captivating vocal duet on Nomads.  “Owls” uses space around bird sounds, a spoken piece that perfectly captures the excitement and mystery of those creatures. Rather incongruously the middle uses that ELO Horace Wimp vocal hook to make something that is strange left field pop.  “Huginn and Muninn” marries stark folk singing, dulcimer and some evocative electronics to tell the tale of the Raven.  A strange melange of medieval music and electronic music builds till the album ends in birdsong.  It is not often you hear something that manages to truly sound new and fresh, but evolved rather than forced.  Something as vital and alive as Folk music is constantly changing and shifting.  It’s impossible to accurately predict the future without appearing foolish, but in the music of Northern Flyway you can catch glimpses of possible exciting futures where ancient meets modern and has a great time.  One day when it’s mapped out, all this will make sense and sampled, layered electronics alongside acoustic instruments and captivating vocals will seem as natural as the electric guitar and electric violin playing jigs and reels.  Meanwhile this is a captivating album and a great place to spend time, waiting to see what will be.

The New York All Stars – Burnin’ in London | Album Review | Ubuntu Music | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 27.09.18

My one and only trip to Birdland – New York’s premier jazz club – was inspired by my adoration of two great sax men. The concert, back in 2012, was a celebration of the late, great John Coltrane and was led by renowned hard-bop player Eric Alexander, a saxophonist who has been building a towering reputation since his 1992 debut.  It was, without a doubt, the finest jazz concert I’ve seen and only cemented the respect I have for this masterful player.  This month, Eric releases Burnin’ in London, a recording of a rattling two-night engagement with the New York All Stars at London’s Pizza Express Jazz Club back in November 2017.  As well as Eric’s animated and venturesome playing, as well as his sudden and sizzling bursts of Coltrane-inspired riffs, the album benefits from the ebullient piano of legendary jazzman Harold Mabern, the octogenarian pianist who has sided for such luminaries as Sonny Rollins, Lee Morgan, Freddy Hubbard and Blue Mitchell.  These two outstanding players are at their spirited best on such standards as “I Could Have Danced All Night” and “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes”, just two of the six tracks that make up this juggernaut of a set.  The line-up is completed by France-based American bassist Darryl Hall and Austria’s Bernd Reiter on drums, a powerhouse rhythm section that keep this magnetic set rolling along superbly.

Besides Daniel – Teeming | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 27.09.18

All references point to this album being correctly entitled T E E M I N G, rather than just plain old Teeming, a term defined by Danny Brewer as being ‘in motion with life’, which pretty much reflects how the Georgia-based musician known as Besides Daniel sees himself at the moment, and which apparently requires spaced capitals.  The songs are personal, reflective and in places emotionally charged, centred round his now settled status as a husband and a father, each delivered in a highly versatile vocal style in the Jeff Buckley tradition.  It’s difficult to single out highlights here, but it wouldn’t be far off the mark to cite “French Braid”, “Apologise” and “If You Ask Me To” as little gems in their own right.


Tumbling Souls – Between the Truth and the Dream | Album Review | Wee Studio Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 27.09.18

The Tumbling Souls play Old Time smooth 50s Country with the warm pop harmonies of Eddie Cochran or early Roy Orbison.  This is music of the Wild West, the West West Atlantic Coast of Scotland and The Hebrides that is.  Willie Campbell’s bright valve radio vocals croon through “Don’t be Afraid of the Dark” and “Heart to My Soul” with Caledonian Pop Country sensibility that is captivating.  This is energetic honest music, “Knowing Where You Come From” reminded me of the lush vocals and bouncing Country Rock of Brinsley Schwartz and “(Whats So Funny Bout) Peace Love and Understanding”, with a rolling Accordion and a cosmic lyric.  “City Of Adelaide” is further proof that Tumbling Souls are masters of blending together glorious vocal harmonies and living breathing Country Folk dance music.  “Rain and Clay” builds a great rhythm, some dirty electric guitar and those infectious group chorus vocals.  “Wishing My Time Away” cuts between foot stomping dance music and some atmospheric a cappella vocals.  Think The Waterboys “Bang on the Ear” for a sense of the spirit, tempo and bounce.  “Foundation” is a, slower tempo, smouldering song.  A superb vocal from Willie Campbell, evokes a Hebredian Ryan Adams in a fine performance.  “Stornoway at 2am” is another atmospheric slow number using a clicking clock rhythm to create tension behind passionate playing and a classic Tumbling Souls chorus.  The instrumental break is beautiful too.  A lively lovely album where intelligent deftly played West Coast Pub Folk Rock with lush vocals to die for raise a smile and set your feet tapping.

The Tannahill Weavers – Orach | Album Review | Compass Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 29.09.18

Named for Paisley’s historic weaving industry and local poet laureate Robert Tannahill, The Tannahill Weavers performed first in 1968, recording their first album “Are Ye Sleeping Maggie” in 1976, the first release on Plant Life Records, a label owned by Steeleye Span’s Nigel Pegrum.  Along with Blowzabella, The Tannahill Weavers represented the labels biggest seller.  Fifty years of playing live has led to Órach their eighteenth and crucially Golden Anniversary album.  The band might have moved on from their uniform of waistcoats, Victorian shirts and Status Quo denim jeans that they wore on their first album sleeve, but founder member Roy Gullane, original roadie turned band member Phil Smillie, John Martin (neither Island Records singer songwriter and guitar wizard or the 19th Century Romantic  Apocalyptic Landscape painter) and Lorne MacDougall, with a supporting cast of well-wishing collaborators have delivered a half century album that is a masterpiece of traditional Celtic music and a summing up of the band so far.  First track Órach is a classic set of Tannahill Weavers tunes.  The playing through the set is beautiful without being overwhelming.  The Weavers are joined on this mix and much of the album by Aaron Jones on Bass and Russell Hunter on piano.  “Jenny a Things” is a sweet romantic song with lush vocal harmonies care of Roy, John Cassidy and the band.  Harmonies or counterpoints the vocals are sublime, carried by some gently bubbling music. Christchurch Cathedral written by John Sheahan of The Dubliners, learnt from Shooglenifty’s late great Angus Grant Jr, is a sublime tune played more for listening than for dancing.  The Tannahill Weavers have a lightness of touch with the fiddle, whistles and guitar that makes everything float and glide.  That same lightness and space makes “The Jeanne C” skip and bob, while the band’s warm vocals swing with their playing having an airy grace.  “The Northern Lights” is a chance for some beautiful whistles Flute and pipes playing.  The band work through the set gradually shifting up through the gears from misty and gentle to more frenetic.  Soft or driven the playing is always atmospheric rather than mechanical dance music.  “Oh No” sung by Les Wilson, is a Humblebums era Billy Connolly song that The Tannahill Weavers rehabilitate with their lush almost Eagles Country Rock vocals bringing out the lyrics emotion and finding the beauty.  No disrespect intended to the legendary Big Yin or the mighty Humblebums.  “Sunset over the Somme” is an achingly beautiful, stop and listen heart in the mouth tune. Guitar, whistles and an ethereal choir of voices and pipes make something that stops time and makes you really listen.  Former Weavers Dougie MacLean, Colin Melville, Kenny Forsyth and Ian MacInnes add to the wonderful atmosphere.  Les Wilson provides the rich vocal on “Fragment of a Scottish Ballad” a Robert Tannahill lyric with excellent support from Weavers old and new.  The Asturian Sessions are a set of tunes that demonstrate the international and interconnectedness of traditional and Folk music, featuring musicians from the Asturian region of Northern Spain and Dougie MacLean’s didgeridoo.  As well as an exotic World Map it’s also a fine listen.  Track Ten “The Ghost of Mick McDonnell”, is written by Daithi Rua, with whom The Tannahill Weavers first recorded the song.  “Like Sunset over the Somme” it links to World War One, like that track it is finely played and atmospheric.  “Like Sunset over the Somme”, with its fine vocals and melancholic music it is an album highlight.  “Jessie the Floo’er O’ Dunblane” is another Robert Tannahill poem, bought beautifully to life by the Weavers.  Vocals are by 80s band member Ross Kennedy.  “The Battle of Sheriffmuir” is an evocative Robert Burns, John Barclay poem, delivered like a traditional Highland rap over some fine music.  The album closes with the Gordon Duncan Set a deftly played swirling instrumental closer.  Órach manages to flow into all points through the 50 years of the band’s existence.  Musically and spiritually it connects all the players, Robert Tannahill himself and through the playing demonstrates that the music is still moving onwards, never frozen looking backwards.  A celebration of spirit that is never just nostalgia. Golden indeed.  As good a point as any to get on board if you haven’t already.

Andrew J Newall – Reflections from an Airport | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 30.09.18

It’s been a while since a song brought a tear to these hardened eyes, but Andrew J Newall’s “Everyday”, a song for his son, lost to a road traffic accident at a very young age, did just that.  Perhaps it’s due to the song’s absence of sentimentality that affected me most, just a simple love letter to the son he obviously misses, tenderly captured in an accompanying video included on the disc.  This is as good a starting place as any to begin a subsequent artist/listener relationship and yet it doesn’t stop here.  Reflections from an Airport is packed with great songs, each delivered in a confident voice reminiscent of the much missed Jackie Leven, each song, a story desperate to be told.  To make this album work as well as it does, Andrew surrounds himself with the right people, Sandy Jones for instance, whose production is sumptuous and Graeme Duffin whose warm textures add to the atmosphere.  Despite the emotional turmoil of re-visiting very real life changing events, Andrew offers some optimism in such songs as “Raise Your Head”, “Go On, Go On” and “This New Dawn”.  A fine album.

Justin Kauflin – Coming Home | Album Review | Qwest Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 01.10.18

Bring together one of the finest contemporary jazz pianists and a world renowned producer and you’ll almost certainly get an impressive album.  But when that producer is Quincy Jones and said pianist is Justin Kauflin, a blind musician whose intention is to communicate, through sound, the incredible colours and textures he experiences against the black and grey landscape of his blindness, what you actually get is an extraordinary musical project indeed.  From its opening chords, Coming Home presents something very special.  These are utterly beautiful compositions, most of them Justin’s own work, but some of them interpretations of the work of other writers such as Sufjan Stevens’ “John My Beloved” and the two striking readings of The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever” (one accompanied and the other solo).  But whilst it’s nice to hear Justin’s take on these well-known melodies, the peaks of this record are reached via the pianist and keyboardist’s own pen.  And that pen has a wonderfully diverse nib.  There’s the slick and soulful “Pendulum”, the joyfully nimble “Country Fried” and a host of deeply contemplative and melancholy tracks such as “Lost” and the album’s title track, all of them showcasing the musicianship of a stunning ensemble which includes Chris Smith on bass, Corey Fonville on drums and Alan Parker on guitar.  And as well as the legendary Quincy Jones, the prolific bassist and producer Derrick Hodge also mans the levers and dials.

Sans – Kulku | Album Review | Cloud Valley | Review by Marc Higgins | 01.10.18

Since A is for Andrew Z is for Zither in 1972, multi-instrumentalist, writer and producer Andrew Cronshaw has been making unclassifiable music that lives in the sifting sandscapes between the genres that we create to try and describe music.  For forty years Andrew produced a succession of exciting, atmospheric and always beautiful albums, blending Folk Music from across the world with magic.  2014 saw the release of Sans Live, the first release from Cronshaw, reeds player Ian Blake, Amenian Duduk player Tigran Aleksanyan and Finnish singer Sanna Kurki-Suonio.  With the addition of Sanna’s daughter Erika Hammarberg as guest singer, Sans have recorded Kulku, their first studio album.  “Pursi – The Rowing Song” begins with a stunning unaccompanied trio of vocals from Sanna, Erika and Ian.  The melody is a beautifully recorded swirl of Finnish Kantele, Zither and Tigran’s evocative Duduk.  The Duduk, if you are not familiar, looks like a recorder, but delivers a breathy vibrato sound that is sonic heaven.  That kind of auditory trainspotting where you mentally classify and tag what you hear is often impossible with Sans.  Zither, Kantele, Marovantele, Duduk or the multitude of Reed instruments that Ian Blake plays make identification at best tricky and often impossible with some kind of intrusive, Tubular Bells Vivian Stanshall master of ceremonies to announce the instruments.  While the identity of individual instruments may be masked to all but Cronshaw anoraks, what is never in doubt is the hairs on the back of the neck troubling beauty of the sounds that inhabit every track on this extra ordinary album.  “Tuudittele Tuuli – Cradle O Winds” pairs the savage beauty of the Bass Clarinet with its free jazz edge and Sanna’s rich vocal, Tigran’s Duduk joins in and we are on an emotional journey.  Sans music is rich with the spirit of the Scandinavian landscape and that icy ECM Jazz Folk that Jan Garbarek has made his own. But there is an emotional edge, a warmth and an intensity that is unique to Sans.  The melodies played by the Bass Clarinet of the Duduk can be listened to on their own and they individually hold your interest, like the other worldly music of Stephan Micus. Sanna Kurki-Suonio’s vocal on the traditional Finnish lyrics is a feast on its own.  “Rauta – Iron” and “The Recollection of That Day” – “O Chiadain An Lo/Lusabatz Ararati Vra”  have the bubbling synth like pulse of the Zither that is pure Cronshaw at his most beautiful evoking flashes of sunlight or movement that are pure poetry.  “The Edge of Autumn/Hayre niki Karot” is a Cronshaw, Blake Aleksanyan composition and is a stripped back trio performance for “Marovantele”, the two sided double strung stereo electric Kantele invented by Cronshaw, Bake’s Reeds and the Duduk.  The notes hang in the air with the Marocantele rippling in each speaker and the Clarinet and Duduks long notes lingering like mist.  This is a track, like so many on this stunning album that I found myself endlessly repeating.  “Kulkija – The Walking Song” shakes you out of your reverent fog as Sanna and Erika’s vocals, Jim Sutherland’s percussion and Sans’ instruments deliver an infectious skanking rhythm that bobs and swings in an infectious way.  Completely at odds with the previous track, but a very much just a different kind of beautiful.  “Astele Oro – Step Carefully Stallion” layers Erika’s vocals against those of Ian Blake and Sana to create a sonic wonder as arresting as the Trio Bulgarka vocals on Kate Bush’s Sensual World. Time and time again Kulka offers music that is utterly captivating.  “Kazvatti – Four Sorrows” has string guitar like notes hanging in the air, with the achingly beautiful voice of Erika Hammarberg wrapped around by the Bass vocal of Ian Blake, creating an atmosphere that is pure Dead Can Dance or Koyaanisqatsi.  Another perfectly formed shimmering gem of utter joy.  “Kaik Mia Ilot Unohin – I Forgot All Joy”, “Stopped Singing the Songs”.  The title alone is an evocative poem and the opening of resonant Duduk and Zither notes that fill the ears do not disappoint.  Ian Blake’s winding Soprano Sax melody and Sanna’s vocal on the traditional Finnish lyrics are a late highlight on this consistently stunning album.

Floating Circles Quartet – Eleven Yesterdays Ago | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 02.10.18

If you’re unfamiliar with London based combo the Floating Circles Quartet, the opening bars of their four-track debut EP might prepare you for an impressive half hour with a fine guitar-based jazz outfit.  But soon their key ingredient rises to the surface – that gorgeously pure clarinet of Aiden Pearson – and the whole thing takes on a lovely new persona.  Indeed, Pearson is the brainchild behind this project and, as well as his clarinet, his own painterly compositions are what lend this EP its excitement.  There’s also the tight arrangements of Dom Stockbridge’s guitar, Jonny Wickham’s bass and Arthur Newell’s drums, most impressive on the EPs title track as well as the skittish and evocative “Grandfather’s Clock”.

Kitty Macfarlane – Namer of Clouds | Album Review | Navigator | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 02.10.18

When I first heard Kitty Macfarlane’s debut EP, Time and Tide, in the spring of 2016, it was immediately obvious to me that we had a major new talent on our hands, a singer, songwriter and importantly, a new nature conscious presence on the British folk and acoustic music scene.  The unaccompanied opening verse of “Wrecking Days” was almost enough to confirm this and immediately made me to sit up and listen.  Here, Kitty revisits the song midway through her much anticipated debut full-length album, with Jamie Francis’ banjo replaced by his Folk Rock inspired electric guitar.  The song is joined by ten others, mostly self-penned with a couple of traditional songs and one adapted poem.  Once again, Kitty’s material is drawn from the landscape, notably the vast wetlands of her native Somerset, not only from the land but from the sky above it, with a song about the pharmacist who gave clouds their names, which in turn gave the album its title.  Then there’s the unlikely setting of the Mediterranean island of Sant’ Antioca, just off the South West coast of Sardinia, which centres around the ethereal ancient world of sea silk spinning, in fact Kitty’s notes on meeting the last surviving sea silk seamstress Chiara Vigo are utterly enchanting, as are the field recordings made by Kitty and co-producer Sam Kelly especially for this project.  Joined together with the sounds of laughter, birdsong, the lapping of waves and the ripples of streams, the songs are allowed to breath alongside nature, effectively lifting the songs to a new level of enjoyment.  You feel as though you are at one with nature, with the starling murmurations, the sea, the eels, the ancient crafts of the Med and the Atlantic castaways and cuttlefish bones.  This is everything we expected from Kitty and more.

Vidar K Schanche – Awakening | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 02.10.18

The Norwegian guitarist and composer Vidar K. Schanche has put his heart and soul into Awakening, a project that has been years in the making.  The result is a sprawling, cinematic album which exists in the space between dream and reality and addresses the longing for what we gain and lose throughout our lives.  Along with an impressive roster of Norwegian musicians, including vocalists Dag Sindre Vagle and Eva Haugen Bjerga, violinist Nils Økland and saxophonist Arild Hoem, Vidar presents an album that resists classification and revels in its ability to capture emotion through sound.  There are moments of brooding drama such as “Alive”, “Dead to the World” and the ominous “Grey Line 2”, as well as wonderfully contemplative instrumentals such as “Dream 2” and “Dream 3”, both making the most of Hoem’s pensive sax.

Young Waters – Young Waters | Album Review | Monokrome Music | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 03.10.18

With comparisons already made to such acts as the Incredible String Band and Fleet Foxes, this young five-piece outfit describe their music as ‘twisted neo-folk’, which provides us with something of an idea of what to expect prior to hearing them.  When we do hear them, there’s something quite alluring about the band’s overall sound, ethereal and dreamlike in part and if indeed twisted, then twisted in all the right places.  Recorded in parts at the famed Real World studios, Peter Gabriel’s place, their compositions have been taken seriously enough to be rewarded with sumptuous production, with attention paid to getting the vocals just right.  Young Waters consists of singers Theo Passingham and Kerry Ann Jangle who also play guitar and percussion respectively, with Liam O’Connell on double bass and vocals, Calum Smith on violin and Rowen Elliot on viola and violin.  Though the empathetic voices of Theo and Kerry Ann are the main focus throughout, we should acknowledge the startling interplay between the instruments, with some feverish violin work, especially on the masterful “Weary Soul” and the beguiling “Swimming Pool”.  Emotionally charged, this fine debut is likely to make a big splash on the current acoustic music scene.  Be prepared to wade in at your earliest opportunity.

a’Nish – Way of the Gull | Album Review | Purt Sheearan Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 05.10.18

a’Nish – not to be confused with the Indian singer nor the Bombay-born British sculptor – is the name of a superb Brit five-piece who combine Irish, Scottish, Manx and Scandinavian folk traditions to create a wonderfully infectious sound.  Their latest album, Way of the Gull, is a follow up to their 2011 release Nish as Rish (also the band’s former name) and, once again, showcases this nifty group’s wide range of talents.  They’ve certainly come a long way since meeting at York University all those years ago.  Renowned vocalist Ruth Keggin is joined by strummers Dave Pearce and Karl Kramer as well as fiddler Anna Goldbeck-Wood and bassist Vanessa Hutchinson for an album of mostly nimble instrumentals with a few gorgeous songs thrown in such as “The Seagulls of Kristiansund” and the life-affirming Annabelle’s.  Amongst the instrumentals there are moments of magic that hark back to early Planxty albums, such as the stunning “Out of the Orient”, with its invigorating mandolin lead, as well as the haunting “Raad Ny Foillan”, which incorporates piano and whistle to lend this constantly engaging album an expansive and evocative texture.

Phillip Henry – True North | Album Review | Dragonfly Roots | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 06.10.18

Saving the right moment to sit down and listen to Phillip Henry’s debut solo album has been well worth the wait.  I held off until its release date with an hour of undisturbed quiet in order to absorb the material and soon realised 11 songs and 54 minutes later, that I’d written nothing but a bunch of superlatives, which seemed to describe the cover artwork, the liner notes and most importantly, the beautiful music within.  Phillip Henry is a familiar face on the British folk and acoustic music scene, along with Hannah Martin, now collectively known as Edgelarks, but also as a fine accompanist to a variety of projects.  True North is Phillip’s moment alone.  Travelling the world in search of the roots of the slide guitar, the styles have been totally absorbed, from the old blues masters such as Blind Willie Johnson on “I Can’t Keep From Trying Sometimes” and “Pandit Debashish Bhattacharya”, whose influence can be heard on both “Reverence Revisited” and “Kalyan Variations”, by way of the Indian Chaturangui, a 22-stringed instrument.  The title song “True North”, written by Phillip with Hannah and inspired by a touch of homesickness whilst in Tasmania, sees Phillip in good voice, whilst “O’Carolan’s Welcome” demonstrates how well the chaturangui adapts pretty Irish Harp music from one of the tradition’s finest exponents.  Good also to hear a fine reading of Tim O’Brien’s “Brother Wind”, a song this reviewer heard the author sing at the 1995 Cambridge Folk Festival.  A fine meditative album.

Pilgrim St – The EP | EP Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 07.10.18

From the energetic folk punk of “My Little Blackbird”, to the more reflective pensive atmosphere of “Giving it up this Time”, Pilgrim St are an always engaging listen.  Emerald has the chiming mandolin energy of the quieter moments of Led Zeppelin Three or Four, its tempo and bounce sounding like a Bluegrass Saw Doctors.  “Hurt People Hurt People” has an agreeable world weariness, presenting a slice of perfect Irish Americana with a bit of bite.  The playing is superb throughout and the four tracks on this fine EP leave you wanting more.


Richard Durrant – Stringhenge | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 08.10.18

Richard Durrant is a gifted and lyrical guitar player that is abundantly clear from this double CD release.  On the first disc, playing a concert guitar crafted from a 5,000 piece of English bog oak, a four string Tenor guitar and a much more humble ukulele, Richard plays a set of mostly Bach instrumentals.  “Stringhenge Part One” is a captivating listen.  Durrant’s playing has the nimbleness of Steve Hackett, himself an excellent classical guitarist with a wider repertoire than his earlier band associations might suggest and the pastoral swing of John Renbourn, someone else who was both influential and all over the guitar in terms of influences himself.  Tracks like “The Deep Dark Woods”, originally the Double from JS Bach’s 2nd Lute Suite, are lyrical, beautiful pieces of guitar with perfect timing and some surprising flourishes.  “Sorton’s Hornpipe” based on “Jacky Tarr” a traditional Scottish tune, carries whispers of Bert Jansch in the first moments, then swings through a Folk Dance, jazzing it like John Renbourn at his best.  The harmonics in the last section are a complete delight.  “A Brief History of Wood” rocks too, classical guitar and some of those reflective quiet moments Greg Lake did so well on “I Believe in Father Christmas”.  His grace and nimble playing manages to rehabilitate the Ukulele, giving it the light and sparkle of a high strung guitar, rescuing it from the humorous foot note it is in danger of becoming.  “Two Ukulele Bourees” is Bach’s 3rd Cello Suite, sparkling and very much not played for laughs.  Richard can play it slowly too, with space and tension, on “The Skye Boat Song” he creates interest and tension but using sparse playing and some classical flourishes to great effect.  Disc One “Stringhenge” is sublime, beautifully recorded solo guitar.  It stands alone as 36 mins of instrumental music that stops time.  It also lulls you into a false sense of security as disc two The English Guitar Hymnal.  Is more of a thematic set that plays with both the form and your expectations.  Opener “My Lady Jane” is a sublime guitar piece with organ, dedicated to John Renbourn.  I think he’d be listening hard and it would have raised a chuckle.  “The Walrus Tree” uses wonderfully recorded atmospherics and some Beatlesque backwards tape to accent Richard’s achingly beautiful guitar.  The wonderful recording captures every note and inflection with sympathetic accompaniment to make it all shine.  “Edward the Good Angel” is a stately, captivating and brave arrangements of elements from Elgar’s emotional Cello Concerto.  The minimalism of the ending against the bird song is a wonderful contrast to the earlier dense guitar and harpsichord.  “Kenneth the Hedge” is perfect Pop Prog, conjuring the spirit of Syd Barrett era Pink Floyd and the humour of Genesis’ Gabriel era Selling England by The Pound.  The chorus has all the power of Elbow if anyone thinks this is just 70s pastoral whimsy.  “To Be a Minstral” is Richard’s fine voiced take on Bunyan’s “To be a Pilgrim”, a rich tune familiar to any Renbourn fans.  The Church Organ at the end, puts us in Church and makes it a Hymn as well as heralding a wonderfully swinging instrumental. Frank Bough’s “Allemande” is a wonderfully surreal English dance tune.  “Morris Dreams” has a touch of “January Man” to it.  Imagine a concept album played by members of Jethro Tull and Van Der Graff Generator and you’re not far wrong.  “May Dances” meet rich vocals lifted straight from a Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers or A Passion Play with a touch of Fox head-wearing Gabriel.  Anyone who thinks music lost its way in 1977 will have this wonderful track on repeat.  It fades to bird song which makes the final track sound like a hidden track and a moment of perfect Englishness on this surprising cycle.  Interestingly listening to this as a stream, it was followed by Richard Thompson’s latest Thirteen Rivers and the two sat well together.  Stunning guitar, perfectly recorded, wonderful arrangements, sympathetic players, capped with perfect moments of English pop whimsy.  A disc of classical guitar and then a disc that glistens like it was recorded after XTC, Mike Oldfield, Genesis and Peter Hammill spent an afternoon in a rural English Pub.  What’s not to adore on this album by a captivating English virtuoso and eccentric, five parts Pentangle, five parts Oldfield or Stanshall.  Brilliant.

Malawi Mouse Boys – Score for a film about Malawi without music from Malawi | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 08.10.18

“If money was available, I could do my best to make everybody in the world happy” – so says one of the musicians in a band so poverty stricken, that their own story could easily be made into a film in its own right.  Forced to sell grilled mice on skewers at Malawian roadsides, the four young musicians gathered together a range of homemade instruments, such as knocked together guitars and a drum kit that included a kick drum pedal built from coat hanger wire and an ingenious hi-hat cobbled together from the cog plates from an old bicycle. Despite the band’s Heath Robinson instrumentation, the musicianship shines through, more from determination than anything else.  Their usually highly melodic music and chant-like songs featured previously on such releases as He Is #1 (2012), Dirt is Good (2014) and Forever Is 4 You (2016), have been put aside for this project, produced by Ian Brennan, and originally intended for a film soundtrack but never used, made up of sound poems created from found objects such as old beer bottles, broken spokes, water buckets, trapped insects and children’s voices, to name but a few.  I don’t for one minute imagine this record will be popped on the player for much enjoyment, but the haunting sounds, just 15 short tracks, one at just 23 seconds long, certainly made me curious enough to look deeper into this incredible story of survival.

Winston McAnuff and Fixi – Big Brothers | Album Review | Chapter Two Records/Wagram | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 08.10.18

French/Jamaican collaboration featuring 1970s Roots Reggae stalwart Winston McAnuff (Electric Dread, Inna De Yard) and French accordionist Fixi, who pool their respective influences in a hotpot of vibrant rhythms, including Cuban styled piano, reggae, electronica and a shimmering vocal contribution courtesy of Angola’s Pongo (aka Pongo Love) on the pulsating “One Note”.  Big Brothers, the second album release by McAnuff and Fixi, follows on from their debut A New Day (2013) and is awash with fine accordion flourishes courtesy of Fixi, with some thoughtful conscientious songs, such as “I Came I Saw, Crying For Love”, the poignant Think and the infectious Cuban-influenced title song, as well as some soulful moments, notably “Sweet Love of Mine”.


Ben Kunder – Better Human | Album Review | Comino Music | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 09.10.18

This second offering from Ben Kunder follows hot on the heels (well almost) of his impressive debut Golden (2015) and once again showcases the Toronto- based singer songwriter’s knack of writing easily accessible indie-pop tunes, each written from the heart.  The title song, “Better Human”, gets right down to it from the start, an optimistic confessional and a personal pledge to try a little harder; a notion we should all endeavour to achieve, especially in times like these.  With lots of guest musicians helping out, including Sarah McDougall, Jim Guthrie, Carleigh Aikins, Maia Davies and Anna Ruddick amongst others, Better Human communicates through song precisely how Ben Kunder feels and in a manner we all understand.  Fuelled by a recent tour with fellow Canadian songstress Oh Susanna, Ben’s songs seem to appear well worn in and have in turn successfully helped him to negotiate the ‘difficult second’ obstacle with some confidence.

Storm Jameson – The Year of Orbison | Album Review | Flood Music | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 09.10.18

There’s a brooding undercurrent to much of the material on The Year of Orbison, the new release by Matt Gold and Jim Tashjian, collectively known as Storm Jameson, presumably named for the 20th century Whitby-born novelist.  Whilst the Chicago-based duo’s treatment of “Jesus on the Mainline” retains much of its Ry Cooder feel, with funky electric guitar licks throughout, the dreamy Godzilla & King Kong demonstrates the duo’s flair for fluid and understated guitar motifs, befitting a homage to the silver screen.  With Gold and Tashjian’s previous catalogue of work in such outfits as Sun Speak, Hood Smoke, District 97 and Miss Remember between them, the two guitarists pool their respective influences well in order to create an informed collection of songs, both well-known and not so well known, including a contemporary arrangement of the traditional “Silver Dagger”, sounding for all intents and purposes like a hybrid of Bonnie Prince Billy and REM, as well as a poised acoustic rendition of Stephen Foster’s timeless parlour song, “Hard Times”.  Definitely worth checking out.

Bokante and Metropole Orkest – What Heat | Album Review | Real World | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 09.10.18

From the first few bars of album opener “All the Way Home”, we detect that this bunch of musicians mean business, an outstanding collaboration between multi-cultural supergroup Bokanté and the Metropole Orkest, featuring the sultry voice of the Montreal-based Guadeloupian Creole singer Malika Tirolien.  These two hugely respected collectives, led in turn by Michael League and Jules Buckley, meet with mutual respect and a clear musical vision, with an impressively uncluttered sound, which in other hands might not have worked quite so well.  Retreating to Spain, with the intention of tracing the music of both Africa and the Arab world and giving the music a modern spin, both League and Tirolien worked on the songs, effectively creating an exciting body of work, which would prove to be both musically satisfying and culturally aware, then to top it all, you could also dance to it.  There are also some enormously satisfying moments for the listener, particularly in the slide guitar work on both “Fanm” (The Woman) and “Maison En Feu”, the syncopated rhythms and drums of “Bod Lanme Pa Lwen” and “Reparasyons” and the soothing melody weaving on “Chambre a Echos”.

Gren Bartley – Quiet | Album Review | Wooden Walls Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 09.10.18

Gren Bartley has been enjoying a sabbatical over recent years, very much off the music scene, a scene that Gren has contributed so handsomely to over the years, therefore it has come as a pleasant surprise to see him return with a new album, which the singer, songwriter and virtuoso guitar player has been literally giving away (well almost) through Bandcamp.  Once again, Gren’s guitar playing is the focus on these nine songs and in particular, the instrumental pieces, such as the hypnotic “Missing You”, originally written for the kora by Seckou Keita along with the featured slide guitar work throughout.  The album opener, “Feeings of Mountain and Water”, is possessed of an utterly enchanting ambience, the Fuzai Jin composition perhaps reflected in the album’s title.  After being further drawn into the delicate ethereal nature of the two opening pieces, Gren delivers the curiously jaunty “Hukilau”, Jack Owens’ popular ukulele song covered over the years by everyone from Bing Crosby to Tiny Tim.  “Imperfect Love”, the only song on the album to feature another musician, Julia Disney, whose atmospheric contribution gives the closing piece additional depth and which rounds off what could be seen, with the possible exception of the delightfully quirky “Hukilau”, as a deeply reflective and meditative suite of beautiful music; but there again, we all need a little bit of Hukilau every once in a while.

Kelly Oliver – Botany Bay | Album (Brief) | Self Release | By Allan Wilkinson | 09.10.18

British folk singer Kelly Oliver returns with this her third full-length album to date, this time produced by Stu Hannah, featuring a selection of exclusively traditional ballads collected from her native county of Herefordshire.  With storytelling at the forefront, songs such as “The Trees They Do Grow High”, “Dark Eyed Sailor”, “Died for Love” as well as the title song are treated to fine arrangements throughout. Helping out are guest musicians including Phil Beer, Luke Jackson, Lukas Drinkwater and Jamie Francis amongst others, each fattening out the sound more than adequately.


Delta Ladies – Hillbilly Trance | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 10.10.18

Vi Martin and Dee Stone, otherwise known as the Delta Ladies, no doubt named after one of Leon Russell’s finest songs, present their own take on deep and dark Americana in this remastered and expanded reissue of their Hillbilly Trance album, named for their own idiosyncratic style, which is a pretty accurate description.  The songs are indeed trance-like in places, each incorporating sweeping violin motifs, driving banjo and bluesy harmonica, with percussion provided by Danny Bryan.  Both “Rock of Ages” and “Thieving Boy” pretty much set out the tenets of their style, which has been described as ‘Old Time meets the Velvet Underground’, illustrated in the accompanying inner sleeve photograph.  With Eastern influences blending seamlessly into the mix, such as on “Trance Dance”, and the epic closer “Hear Me Calling”, the Ladies manage to straddle international borders with ease.  Strangely compelling.

Rick Kemp – Perfect Blue | Album Review | Fellside | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 11.10.18

Pretty much paired down to essentials, the songs on Perfect Blue are delivered with little fuss, predominantly on acoustic guitar, with only the sparsest additional accompaniment.  The former Steeleye Span bassist flexes his song writing muscles with a collection of self-penned songs, with the exception of Stars, written by daughter Theresa Kemp.  Theresa also duets with her dad on the torch-lit power ballad “Somewhere along the Road”, which features the Ewanrigg Community Choir, a gig closer if ever there was one.  With a CV that includes working with such illustrious bands as Jethro Tull, King Crimson and The Maddy Prior Band as well as producing material by folk acts The Johnstons and Swan Arcade, Rick has rarely taken centre stage, swapping his trademark bass for acoustic guitar.  Rick tackles the songs with a confident voice, often going for the falsetto and overdubbing his own harmonies, which keeps it all pretty much a solo record, although he does elicit the help in places of such musicians as Doug Morter on guitar, Ian Kellett on keyboards, Dave Langdon on pedal steel with Fellside’s Linda Adams providing keyboard, whilst Paul Adams takes his usual place at the production desk.

Weight Band – World Gone Mad | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 18.10.18

I guess that when you’re associated with one of the most iconic bands of the rock era, there’s almost a sense of duty to keep the spirit of that band alive once the original members have either gone doing other things, or in the case of three members now, gone forever.  Jim Weider has been associated with The Band, the Woodstock-based quintet of musicians who between them released at least two landmark albums of the 1960s, toured with Bob Dylan during his most gruelling period, tolerating the wrath of disgruntled audiences throughout the world, and who went on to set an example for their many contemporaries to follow.  The Weight Band has gone to great lengths to keep the spirit of The Band alive, playing their now iconic repertoire, but also writing and performing material that falls well within the musical remit of the original outfit.  With Weider replacing Robbie Robertson in 1985, going on to contribute to three albums with The Band, Jericho, High on the Hog and Jubilation, the guitarist served his time with the band well. Now joined by other musicians with links to the original members of The Band, Michael Bram, Brian Mitchell, Matt Zeiner and Albert Rogers, Weider continues to write and perform in this vein, and with the release of this, their debut album, they come over as a tight band that shows no signs of flagging.  Occasionally sounding eerily like their mentors, especially on such tracks as “Big Legged Sadie”, with its almost identical Rick Danko vocal together with Robbie’s idiosyncratic dampened guitar licks, existing fans should take to this very well.  However, newcomers to The Band should start with Ronnie Hawkins and catch up first.

Raintown Seers – The Mermaids Pool | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 11.10.18

Now into their sixth year, the Derbyshire-based folk quartet Raintown Seers present a new collection of songs, largely written by the band’s singer/guitarist Neil Fisher, with the exception of the traditional “Bonny Ship the Diamond” and Ewan MacColl’s “Champion at Keeping ‘em Rolling”, both of which are treated to fine arrangements here.  Neil is joined by Steve Hyde, Lisa Lovatt and Dan Hall, who between them create the sort of folk music once popular in the 1960s with the likes of the Ian Campbell Folk Group, which is not a criticism.  Unlike Ian Campbell and Co though, Raintown Seers venture into Folk Rock territory with such songs as “Peter’s Stone”, with its extra boost courtesy of Danny Walsh’s Rickenbacker bass, and I doubt Campbell would’ve dared reference Joy Division (“The Last Boat”), even if they’d been around in ‘65.   John Riley (Revisited) is a fine example of how well the band interprets Fisher’s original songs, a duet with a fine vocal courtesy of Lisa Lovatt, together with a touch of kalimba adding to the atmosphere.  With informative sleeve notes, including helpful map coordinates, The Mermaid’s Pool and Other Stories, is both well produced, well presented and well performed.  Jimmy Webb’s timeless “Wichita Lineman” is tucked away as a bonus track, reminding us once again what a fabulous song it is, even without Glen Campbell, the Wrecking Crew or indeed the sumptuous orchestrations; it’s just a folk song after all.

Alan Prosser – 5/4AP | Album Review | Rafting Dog Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 11.10.18

If I didn’t so rigorously adhere to the old adage ‘never judge a book by its cover’, then I might just have missed this one, and that would’ve been a shame.  Dreadful cover aside, the songs are quite exciting, especially “Simple is Never Easy”, which tears into the running order almost from the start, after a rather melancholy instrumental opener “Ridingate”, named for the Roman landmark of Canterbury.  On “Simple is Never Easy”, the guitarist and founder member of the Oysterband, brings some of the band’s vitality to the arrangement, yet makes it all his own.  With each of the songs separated by instrumental interludes, the album manages to flow, allowing a breather between songs, a sort of moment for reflection.  Prosser introduces some quality songs along the way, including “Suicide Bomber”, with its uncommon time signature and Middle Eastern instrumental solo, which keeps our attention focused.  It doesn’t take the listener long to realise that much of this album, in fact all of it, is in 5 time, exemplified in Dave Brubeck’s classic cool jazz standard “Take Five” or Pentangle’s own folk/jazz version “Light Flight”, the theme from the 60s TV show Take Three Girls.  Here Prosser examines its potential further and creates some adventurous soundscapes, both instrumentally and through songs, including “Out of Kent”, “Five for You” and the beautiful “Amy Isn’t Waiting”.  Davy Graham fans will notice the homage in the title, based upon Graham’s mid-Sixties collaborative EP with Alexis Korner, 3/4 AD.  The Mike Oldfield-styled Tommy Atkin’s “March (5/2)”, which closes the album, is as good a closer as any I can think of.

Miles Hunt – The Custodian | Album Review | Good Deeds Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 12.10.18

Revisited and well-rehearsed in preparation for his forthcoming UK tour, the Wonder Stuff frontman selects thirty songs from his prolific back catalogue and presents them in stripped down acoustic form.  The title of the two-disc set comes from a conversation with fellow singer songwriter Tom Robinson, who suggested that Hunt’s repertoire of fine pop songs actually belongs to his audience rather than to himself or indeed his publisher and that he should see himself more as a custodian of this impressive body of work.  The songs chosen from four decades of song writing includes such notable Wonder Stuff hits as “The Size of a Cow” and “Caught in My Shadow”, together with new material, including the title song “Custodian” and “Fits and Starts”, a video for which has just been released.  There are omissions, but none of them particularly glaring, unless of course we had any burning desire to revisit the band’s biggest hit, a cover of Tommy Roe’s “Dizzy” – though perhaps Vic Reeves wasn’t available for the tour, or indeed the legendary back flip!

Sharon Lazibyrd – Half Shame and Half Glory | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 12.10.18

Somerset singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Sharon Lazibyrd cites both Julian Cope and PJ Harvey as influences, yet neither are really evident in her music and songs, which lean more towards her own idiosyncratic song writing and folk storytelling, in fact, “More for Less” comes more or less from the Leon Rosselson tradition of songwriting.  There’s an almost whimsical and lilting quality to some of her songs such as insanely cheerful “Don’t Worry” and the album opener “Mr Smilie”, a sad story delivered in a jaunty ukulele-strummed style.  “Opium of the Masses” on the other hand, tackles all our hopes and fears in these dodgy times, delivered in a style reminiscent of Australian singer Cath Mundy.  A thoughtful songwriter with a familial voice you soon warm to.

Iain Thomson – No Borders | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 12.10.18

Iain Thomson, brought up in Dumfries, piano player since the age of seven, guitarist and singer since his teens, one time Singing Shepherd; Hill Farmer on the Isle of Mull, brings a wealth of life and experience to his playing, song writing and performance.  That life is etched into Ulla Ohman’s wonderful portrait photograph on the album’s gatefold inner.  Iain’s evocative voice, balancing warmth, character and life delivers songs like “All our Stories” and “The Winter Winds Blow” are delivered with power and integrity.  Backing from Marc Duff’s Whistles, Uilleann Pipes and layers of vocals adds punch and presence.  “Reunion” is a stunning song of hope, Iain’s fine vocal and intricate guitar joined by Hannah Fishers emotional violin and shining backing vocals.  “The City Sleeps” is a bright skittering tune with a great chorus, fine vocals from Iain and Hannah and some great folk flavours from Marc’s bodhran and whistle.  Pathos and emotion blow through “Living on the Edge” an examination of alcoholism.  Special mention must be made for Marc Duff’s atmospheric Wind Sythesizer on this track.  “Glendale Martyrs” tells the tale of John MacPherson and The Glendale Crofters of Skye fighting against injustice and the clearances, a folk song in the making.  “No Borders” uses a fine refrain on guitar and bouzouki to deliver an anthem of a song about refugees and the forced immigration during the highland clearances.  The album closes with “An t-Eilean Alainn” a poem by Angus MacTavish, away at boarding school missing his home on Mull.  Iain delivers a fine vocal and draws on his childhood classical piano lessons, Marc Duff adds an atmospheric whistle on this wonderful Celtic closer.  From the easy on the ear, sing along songs like “Back to the Sheds” and “The Long Road Home” to edgier tracks like “Living on the Edge” or the surprising “An t-Eilean Alainn”, with excellent backing from some fine players this is a fine album of strong songs and strong performances. 

Bixiga 70 – Quebra Cabeca | Album Review | Glitterbeat | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 12.10.18

Now well into their eighth year, the São Paulo-based 10-piece collective release their fourth album with no small fanfare.  Once again their Afro-Brazilian roots are explored in eleven exhilarating instrumental pieces, each a fusion of belting horns and driving percussion.  With their usual comfort zone being very much a live setting, both onstage or the studio floor, for this album Bixiga 70 utilise the studio more as a tool for exploring their richly melodic sound further with some sparkling results, building each piece carefully and precisely, a little like the colourful jigsaw puzzle featured on the cover, alluded to in the album title.  It’s difficult, if not impossible, to escape the influence of African music in Brazil and here the two cultures find mutual empathy with ease, the band having absorbed a diverse range of influences from Ghanaian highlife singer Pat Thomas and Nigerian saxophonist Orlando Julius, to the city of São Paulo itself, its vibrant music scene providing the pulse.  The hard driving rock arrangement of such as “Levante” suggests that Bixiga 70 is unafraid to take this music to the edge. 

Nathan Bell – Loves Bones and Stars, Love’s Bones and Stars | Album Review | Angry Stick | Review by Marc Higgins | 13.10.18

Nathan Bell, freelance writer, Guitar teacher and singer songwriter, has already released what he describes as three albums about being a working class American.  Nathan calls these his Family Man albums.  Philosophical, after a health scare that he himself belittles, Nathan realised he was surrounded by love and after writing about others, found himself writing about his love and his family.  What he describes as the bones that keep us upright and strong.  Almost apologetically he found he’d put together another Family Man album.  Alongside killer songs, Nathan has a perfect singer songwriter voice, shaped by experience and life, like a classic chair, it is worn smooth by use, love and familiarity.  It has timbre and a bit of crackle like Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark or Robert Fisher of The Willard Conspiracy, while it lopes effortlessly and swings, syllables bouncing like a strummed baritone guitar.  Songs like “Would be a Blackbird”, written for Bell’s wife Leslie and “Loves Bones and Stars, Love’s Bones and Stars”, with its sublime guitar part, are folk anthems in the making, shot through with sharply observations and burnished till they are metaphors.  “A Day like This” written for a friend’s grandchild became also a letter to Nathan’s own children.  Like a Country I Ching the song is packed with images, bucket list suggestions and advice.  This is a song where repeated listens turn up gem after gem.  “Fragile” is a rumination and an atheists prayer.  Read as a words or heard as a song, the writing is spot on and the delivery, over some fine guitar is poetic.  Metal with one of the best vocals on the album, especially when it’s alongside Annie Mosher’s harmony, is an old man’s reflection on his place in it all.  It’s another set of perfectly balanced, paired back lines, as much poetry as song, describing perfectly the romanticism in time past and time passing.  “Whisky You Win” Nathan feels, might be his best ever Country song.  In the hands of a big hat wearing lesser talent, the song might be as over ripe as the title suggests, but with Bell’s timing, delivery and sublime lyrics it is an anthem of heartfelt truisms.  World weary and throwing stones at himself this is wounded, burned Bell at his most Townes Van Zandt.  “My Kid” is more sharp writing, deep thinking on religion and philosophy wrapped in a father’s pride, tempered with a little of James McMurtry’s fire.  “To Here from There” is a reminder of Nathan’s mastery of the acoustic, chiming and nuanced alongside another top vocal and lyric.  “Gold Wedding Ring” is another stone cold Country classic, a revisit of an earlier recording and a duet with Annie Mosher channelling Dolly herself.  “Faulkner and Four Roses”, featuring Leslie Bell on second vocal, is a bitter sweet ode to long life and the  ability of whisky to dull the pain and features Leslie Bell on second vocal.  Bravely Nathan closes the album by lifting the lid on his process, revealing a stripped back, rawer vocal and guitar “Loves Bones and Stars” and an uplifting duet version of “A Day Like This”.  With artful touches of Cello, Harmonica and some perfect second vocalists to offset Nathan’s wonderful guitar, vocals and songs this is an album embarrassingly stuffed with classics.

Nathan Bell – Er Gwaetha Pawb a Phopeth | Album Review | Angry Stick | Review by Marc Higgins | 13.10.18

You wait, a day, for a fine album by a sharp, finger picking, country tinged singer songwriter then, like buses, two come along at the same time. Nathan has released the stunning studio album Loves Bones and Stars, Love’s Bones and Stars and this a live album Er Gwaetha Pawb a Phopeth Live in Wales.  Recorded at a bijou Welsh venue Cwtch Coffee House, this is Nathan Bell paired back to the essential and in an environment where he sounds entirely at home.  “Goodbye Brushy Mountain”, a brooding prison song, crackles with pent up energy live.  Nathan’s voice inhabits the song’s convict character completely and the guitar part has one of those motifs I could listen to all night, where Bell’s mastery of the instrument is clear and the only thing in question is how many hands he has.  If you needed to be told, it’s there on the sleeve ‘no overdubs autotunes or performance alterations were made to this recording’.  This is one man, his bruised troubadour voice, harmonica, two hands and one guitar beautifully recorded.  What others might see as limitations, are challenges and chances to shine as Nathan Bell turns in a stellar performances to an appreciative audience.  In spite of everyone one and everything is the English translation of the title.  There is I think a certain Journeyman pride on show here as Bell travels between back road gigs and larger venues, delivering the goods.  “American Gun” is another metaphor filled anthem delivered over a resonant guitar hook, laying waste to macho heroes.  “MIA” is an evocative song about those people who are lost after serving.  Some fine singer songwriter harmonica too.  There is a great, relaxed honest live atmosphere as Nathan talks song origins, between guitar flourishes, on tracks like the bluesy “We All Get Gone”.  “Whiskey You Win” is a killer country song, skilled writing and a heartfelt performance, delivering that sense of burned out resignation that Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark do so well.  Superb album tracks like “A Day like This” and “From There to Here” work perfectly as languidly swinging guitar and voice, with every nuance of both sparkling in the space around the performance.  “North Georgia Blues” is a fleet fingered closer, a Country Blues that connects current troubles with historic misery, a reminder that somethings never change.  The applause and calls for more are genuine and heartfelt.  Final word goes to gig compare, whose unedited intro of “and here we have Nathan Bell f..king hell” closes the album.  Given the quality of the album this feels like an honest assessment not gratuitous profanity or hollow praise, high recommendation indeed.

Annie Dressner – Broken Into Pieces | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 14.10.18

Since moving to the UK seven years ago, New York City-born Annie Dressner has been steadily building a reputation for herself as a fine new voice on the acoustic music scene.  Having made one album already, Strangers Who Knew Each Other’s Names  (2011), and receiving airplay along the way, along with some exposure at one or two major UK festivals, this singer songwriter is set to make her mark with this, her Nigel Stonier produced second album.  With a delivery reminiscent of a young Nanci Griffith and at times the late Dolores O’Riordan, Annie takes care to ensure each of these eleven self-penned songs maintains her own individual personality, especially on such pop-fuelled songs as “Don’t Go” and “Heartbreaker”, the heartfelt Kentucky and the wonderfully optimistic “Morning”.  With plenty of assistance from Nigel Stonier, together with Matthew Caws on guitar, Che Beresford on drums, husband Paul Goodwin on keyboards, with Polly Paulusma and Dan Wilde providing back-up vocals, Broken into Pieces should see Annie’s star rise.

Gary Stewart – Oh My Weary World | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 15.10.18

There’s so many different sides to Gary Stewart that it’s difficult to keep up.  Not only is Gary the gun-for-hire drummer who beats the blue blazers out of Hope and Social’s kit as well as that of other bands including Ellen and the Escapades, he has also enjoyed a stint as one Rosie Doonan’s blooming petals, in her much missed acoustic quartet The Snapdragons.  Then there’s the spotlight that he often occupies as the diminutive figure of Paul Simon, taking on the entire Graceland album, possibly the greatest album of the 1980s, and he does it with such flair.  A Scot by birth, Gary is more associated with his adopted home of Leeds and the thriving local music scene that surrounds him, carving out a name for himself not only as a music ‘doer’, but first and foremost as a singer songwriter, whose opportunities to deliver his own unique songs is perhaps getting slimmer in view of all his other pursuits.  No matter, pen has once again met paper, chords have been developed, melodies constructed and here we have another solo offering from the singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist.  Oh My Weary World is a brand new collection of songs, each of which are delivered in Gary’s own distinctive voice, a voice he reserves for his own songs and quite different from the one he uses for “Boy in the Bubble” and “All Around the World or the Myth of Fingerprints” and everything in between.  It’s a voice that fully suits the acoustic setting and the subjects he writes about.  Melodic, well-structured and immediately accessible, songs such as “Crossing T’s”, “Love to Jupiter” and “Escher Sketches”, each showcase Gary’s pop/folk sensibilities, songs you are likely to remember.  

Rachel Newton – West | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 16.10.18

There is a special power and a particular pleasure to be found in solo instrument recordings.  Grace, beauty, art and the bravery of having nowhere to hide or nothing to hide behind.  Rachel Newton, Singer, Harpist and 2017 BBC Radio Two Folk Award Musician of the Year, brings a fine voice and mastery of the Harp to her music.  Her playing on the acoustic harp and the electroharp is rhythmic and confident.  “Gura Muladach Sgith Mi” and “Maid of Neidpath” place Rachel’s clear and resonant harp alongside her fine singing voice, with Gaelic lyrics and words by Walter Scott. Instrumentals like “Suilven”, one of Rachel’s own compositions, give her playing room to breathe and fill the room with beauty.  “Once I Had a Sweetheart” is a traditional song I knew from The Pentangle and Rachel from the singing and playing of Peggy Seeger.  Rachel’s version, with some lovely Harp passages is a joy to hear.  On “Hi Horo’s na Horo Eile” and “The Skye Air”, Rachel’s playing is slow, with the ringing phrases spaced, sounding at times like an atmospheric music box.  Beautiful songs like “For Love” and “A Token” are intercut with shorter but equally lovely instrumentals.  “A Token” collected in Arkansas places a dark Folk country lyric over an emotional harp part.  From the expansive sleeve photos showing Rachel brandishing her harp like a musical lightning rod in an Achnahaird landscape, under an emotional sky, there is a strong sense of place.  The album was recorded in Rachel’s grandparents house in Wester Ross, Achnahaird.  Rachel raised in Edinburgh, spent holidays up north in her second home at Wester Ross, so this place has great significance.  A personal place to record a personal album with the music a response to the landscape at its resonance with Rachel.  The harp is at its insistent most guitar like for Jolene the surprise closer.  Rachel’s voice carries the Country classic well and her Harp playing delivers the songs rhythm well.  It’s not a novelty extra, rather it’s further proof of the interconnectedness of music played by Folk on both sides of The Atlantic and a, strong end to an album that both stimulates and soothes.

David Messier – Time Bomb | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 17.10.18

This impressive second offering from Austin-based singer songwriter David Messier has a certain urgency about it as the title suggests, with eleven strong and highly melodic songs, not least the opening track.  “Television is Better Than Love”, boldly asserts that this is indeed so, especially in the current Television Age, a thought we should perhaps consider as we rush back to our respective sofas in order to catch episode five in our latest gripping box set.  Better than love? Perhaps David Messier has a point.  There’s a certain confidence in the writing here, as well as in the arrangements, performances and delivery, which is all the more remarkable in that it took just 22 days for Messier to write and record the album.  Well-produced and maintaining a pop/rock sensibility throughout, Time Bomb is what we like to refer to as a ‘grower’ and after just a couple of play-throughs, the songs become quite familiar, even the adventurous title song, a multi-layered, multiple-key opus of considerable complexity, yet completely listenable, not unlike some of Jeff Lynne’s arrangements for ELO.

The Whispering Tree – Invisible Forces | Album Review | Eyelash Soup Music | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 18.10.18

Opening with the hauntingly beautiful These Houses, a song about the monuments of homes that live on after we’re gone, Invisible Forces is an album that creeps into your ear and lingers there like, as the song says, “a ghost from another time”.  There is, indeed, something timeless about the music that Franco-American duo The Whispering Tree make.  With such stunningly produced Americana as the swaggering Heavy and the brooding, bluesy “Split in Half”, as well as the whimsical Garden and mischievous Fat Cat, this second album from the duo seems to exist in its own suspended realm.  Eleanor Kleiner and Elie Brangbour’s many apparent influences are showing on this record, but thanks to the wonderful clarity in the musicianship, lyrics, vocals and production, each of the eight tracks shimmer like new coins, especially the album’s closing song “Bells” which, with its steadily chugging percussion, stunning harmonies and wailing guitar solo, urges us to listen again from the start.

Bert Jansch – Just a Simple Soul | Album Review | BMG | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 19.10.18

It was during the 1992 documentary Acoustic Routes, a film about Bert Jansch and his contemporaries, that fellow Scot Billy Connolly traced the career of this highly charismatic singer, songwriter and legendary guitarist, by taking a closer look at Bert’s various LP cover shots, which according to Connolly, illustrated the singer’s progress from the skinny young folk singer of the mid-1960s, sitting in a seemingly bare and empty flat, to the handsome caped elder statesman who looked as if he had “joined an obscure order of monks” on the cover of his 1982 LP Heartbreak.  This was as good a way as any to traverse the story of Bert Jansch, however, another way would be to listen to 39 hand-picked tracks from Bert’s prolific back catalogue.  Many of us are already familiar with Bert’s story, his contribution to British folk music, his status as a highly influential and highly regarded guitar player, his standing as a remarkable songwriter and the sheer wealth of music that he’s left us with.  His name alone is an enduring legacy, which pops up in just about any conversation concerning the acoustic guitar.  Some say ‘Yanch’, others say ‘Janch’, whilst his good pal of many years Ralph McTell says ‘Jance’.  If the streets of London were once scrawled with primitive slogans to the tune of ‘Clapton is God’ courtesy of rock fandom, then the very same honour might well have been simultaneously bestowed upon Bert from the folk community, had the folk community been daft enough to bother.  Fortunately, Bert’s music doesn’t just belong to the old guard and many new listeners are discovering his music every day and this collection makes a good starting place for the newbie.  The two CD set features just short of 40 tracks that spans Bert’s career, from “Strolling Down the Highway”, the opening song on Bert’s self-titled debut LP of 1965 to “High Days” from his final album The Black Swan of 2006.  In between, fellow guitarist and collaborator Bernard Butler has compiled a broad selection of Bert’s back catalogue, including his take on the Davy Graham instrumental “Angie”, the piece that every self-respecting guitar player felt they had to learn before considering themselves a guitar player.  There’s a handful of fine arrangements of traditional songs here, including “Reynardine” and “Rosemary Lane”, then the odd contemporary song of the time, Ewan Maccoll’s “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” featuring a duet with Mary Hopkin, together with the odd blues number, including Bert’s take on the old Walter Davies blues “Come Back Baby”, as well as one or two of Bert’s own songs, including “Fresh as a Sweet Sunday Morning” and the evocative “Daybreak”, lest we forget that Bert was also an excellent writer as well as an innovative musician.  The forty years covered here reveal that little has changed in Jansch’s vocal delivery, or indeed his idiosyncratic guitar style.  It’s as if time has stood still.  Though a very gentle man, Bert is known for the strength of his playing, his attack of the strings, which is always highly expressive.  Although this collection covers his solo work, rather than his Pentangle repertoire, there are a number of collaborators featured here, including John Renbourn, Danny Thompson, Rod Clements, Helena Espvall, Bernard Butler and others.  This is a fine representation of Bert Jansch’s best loved work.

Karine Polwart – Laws of Motion | Album Review | Hudson Records | Review by Steve Henderson | 20.10.18

Lavish praise, indeed, was heaped on Karine Polwart’s last album and its wider theatrical project, A Pocket of Wind Reststance.  It was well deserved praise and it certainly gives the ring of truth to that much overused phrase concerning the arrival of her ‘much anticipated’ follow up, Laws of Motion.  So, here we are, the big moment has arrived.  She returns with regular musical partners, brother Steven Polwart and Inge Thomson, on board for Laws of Motion.  It resembles its predecessor in terms of its approach and is equally accomplished in delivering some classy music.  This begins with the lovely balled, “Ophelia”, with its slightly haunting melody drawing you into the journey through the album.  On the title track that follows, the electronic introduction is a sure-fire sign that Martin Green of Lau is co-writer on this song about migrating refugees.  Originally written for the Martin Green’s Flit album, it’s a worthy song to adopt as the title track for the Laws of Motion and its theme flags the political mood of various other tracks.  “Suitcase” from Flit also gets reappraised though there is a further new collaboration with Martin Green, Matsuo’s “Welcome to Muckhart”, that tells the tale of a gardener from Japan who found that tending a Japanese garden in Scotland acted as a source of solace after the personal turmoil created by a major earthquake at home.  Returning to the spoken word driven style used to great effect on her preceding album, Polwart adapts the clan motto from Donald Trump’s maternal Scottish family to deliver a powerful reminder that offering hope mixed with fear is a dangerous combination on “I Burn But I Am Not Consumed”.  The US President has been a common theme of late for songwriters but she provides an imaginative angle with lyrics that speak from the view of his mother’s birthplace on the Isle of Lewis.  Sydney Carter’s “Crow on the Cradle” is a rare dip into the songs of others but it fits perfectly with Polwart’s affection for avian themes but, this time, carrying an anti-war message.  The album closes with “Cassiopeia”, a chilling song that mixes past government advice on war and how to protect against radioactive fall-out into a warning for the future.  As her sleeve notes say about the advice on hiding places, “now, where is the jam cupboard?”  Truthfully, I’ve no idea but I hope that I can listen to this album in there.

Eddi Reader – Cavalier | Album Review | Reveal Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 21.10.18

Vocalist with 80s band Fairground Attraction, Solo performer and musician for nearly thirty years Eddi Reader is an unstoppable force, a sparkling, shimmering whirlwind of musical energy.  She has a huge presence that fills a space, turning venues of all sizes into her parlour as she chats with the audience and delivers jaw dropping performances.  Eddi possesses the voice and the fearlessly loose sensibility of a jazz singer, being effortless virtuosic without the histrionics.  Why she isn’t talked of in the same terms as classic period Van Morrison or a Celtic Rod Stewart is a mystery to me.  As a writer or a performer of traditional songs, or others material she is both major league and pretty much peerless.  So given all that a new album from Eddi Reader is always a cause for celebration and that to one side Cavalier is a very fine addition to her already strong catalogue.  Opener traditional song “Maidens Lament (An Charraig Dhonn)” is a soft slow folky shuffle.  Eddi just breathes the lyric carried on a choir of her own and Siobhan Miller’s backing vocals.  Clarinet and Michael McGoldrick’s whistles perfectly blend together smooth Benny Goodman jazz and Traditional Folk.  The result is a delightful breathy masterpiece.  Wonderful is a piece of sophisticated pop, tasteful like the best of her Fairground Attraction recordings.  The glorious chorus vocals could be lifted straight off Eddi’s self-titled classic second album.  “Cavalier” with a superb vocal, great Atlantic Records Brass and an insistent tune carries the intelligent pop feel on.  Eddi’s vocal is infectious with her whoops and yelps creating an intoxicating atmosphere.  “Starlight” with its 50s Freshmen chorus and cool jazz reeds is a masterpiece of sophistication.  Boo Hewerdine’s song and the arrangement are so timeless it sounds like a cover.  This has seasonal hit written all over it.  “Meg o the Glen” is another traditional tune, Phil Cunningham’s Accordion and Alyn Cosker’s drumming ensure that the song and “Brenda Stubbert’s Reel” at the end are alive with rhythm.  “My Favourite Dress” has Eddi’s crooner side on show, slow and emotional like Glasgow’s answer to k.d. Lang.  “My Favourite Dress” and “The Loch Tay Boat Song” continue the slow and sensuous.  Steve Hamilton’s piano flows and shimmers like ECM ambient jazz smoke with punches of Jazz Bass while Eddi delivers a sublime vocal that raises the hairs on the back of your neck.  That spiritual, stripped back Jazzy Soul Folk that Van Morrison got inside on Hymns to the Silence abounds on a track you can lose yourself in.  Fishing adds some lovely brass to the mix and continues that stunning run of tracks, Eddi’s voice just shines and the band around her crackles and sparkles.  “Maid of the Lough” is another Hymn like Folk anthem, a rootsy take on Christopher Cross and Yacht Rock, but the backing is understated and tasteful and the track is another triumph of stillness and atmosphere.  “Old Song”, as the title suggests, is a warm nostalgic call to the singer to sing us an old song in this old time swirl of a track.  “Pangur Ban and The Primrose Lass” is a wonderful diary entry set to music, about Eddi’s cat, late night song writing and the musician’s lifestyle.  Wisely’s vocal is classic Eddi over gentle guitar lines, delivering reflective life lesson lyrics.  The final track is an arrangement of Robert Burns’ “A Mans a Man for a That”, an 18th century pondering around what exactly is a true measure of man.  Eddi long a huge fan and interpreter of Burns has chosen deep thoughts and truths to close. Interestingly this is the second album I’ve reviewed this year that has ended on this Robert Burns poem, the first being Adrian Nation’s “Anarchy and Love”.  If you love a fine vocalist, a singular writer and interpreter who flows effortlessly between genres and can summon tears of joy then this album for you.  If you get the chance see her live, her voice will floor you as will her connection to her band and the audience.

Martha Fields – Dancing Shadows | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 31.10.18

Martha Fields has bona fide Southern swagger that is clear from the start of this fine album and demonstrated consistently throughout.  “Sukey” a song for Martha’s Cherokee ancestor who lived and raised seven children in a West Virginia Cave, crackles with attitude.  Drums are taut and the electric guitars rock n roll fire, while a pedal steel evokes distant wolves.  “Paris to Austin” is a more tender travel song, a brush beat on the drums conjuring a sense of passing rails or roadsides.  Martha’s voice is equally at home on the electric opener or the more gentle melancholia of the second track.  “Exile” is a steamy swampy song, dirty guitars, Hammond organ and Martha’s passionate vocals tell the bitter sweet story of the travelling musician.  Even tender “Demona” sets gentle mandolin and sweet fiddle against insistent drum brushes that make your bones dance and again that sense of exiled isolation seeps through.  “Oklahoma on My Mind” sets an aching vocal against stripped guitar and percussion with soulful words about being apart from home.  “Forbidden Fruit” is all about that huge shimmering 50s guitar sound and Martha defiantly spitting out vocal lines like a Rock n Roll hellfire preacher.  The sequencing of this album is spot on, with quiet following full sun no shade hot.  “Last Train to Sanesville” and “Maxine” manage to be both and cook with that Texan Hot Country that 80s Michelle Shocked nailed so well on Short Sharp Shocked.  There is some killer Honky Tonk piano and squalling guitar too.  “West Virginia in My Bones” continues the exiled theme, demonstrating that in death, home is where the heart is.  Superb sheets of guitar and another passionate vocal from Martha are star turns.  “Dare Thee Well Blues” turns down the gas a little, but Martha’s vocal, wrapped in guitar and pedal steel still burns and seethes.  “Hillbilly Bop” is an aptly named Rock n Roll stomper that gets inside your bones and makes you move.  “Said and Done” is an acoustic blues wild ride, Fiddle, finger picked dobro and guitar don’t let up for a second with Martha deftly laying it down over the top.  “Lone Wolf Waltz” is the ubiquitous slow dance at the end of the evening after the frenetic electric square dance that precedes.  Martha’s vocal is, as always, measured and spot on, a powerful powerful instrument carried triumphant on the lush backing through this set of double edged love songs and postcards home.

Gecko Turner – Soniquete: The Sensational Sound of Gecko Turner | Album Review | Lovemonk | By Allan Wilkinson | 01.11.18

The best of the highly infectious sound of Spanish-born singer songwriter and musician Gecko Turner, featuring fourteen tracks, each lifted from previous releases with exception of “Cortando Bajito”, a brand new track.  The combination of jazz, blues, samba, reggae, hip-hop and electronica, is seamlessly mixed with visceral Iberian grooves with guest appearances by UK vocalist Eska, Brazilian, flamenco percussionist Rubem Dantas and Cuban pianist Javier ‘Caramelo’ Masso.   In places reminiscent of Sly Stone at his most soulful and sultry.


The Pine Hearts – Carousel | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 02.11.18

From Carosel’s opening track “Living with Depression”, which marries an Velvet Underground indie staccato rhythm, sweet Bluegrass harmonies and some striking real world lyrics, The Pine Hearts catch your attention.  From the bowed bass notes at the start through the brooding ‘waiting for my man’ atmosphere there is real.  The Pedal Steel “Let Me Down Easy” continues that interesting marriage, mixing Joey Capoccia’s and Kendl Winter dry vocals with warm pedal steel, banjo and fiddle.  “Open Road” has some glorious vocal harmonies.  “Good Luck by the Sea” is an up tempo glorious piece of Bluegrass with imagery around going blind, getting by and wry life lessons.  “Back to Sustain” has another wonderful Joey vocal over a, riff that surreally nods to “Everybody’s Talking” as he delivers some melancholic lyrics in an atmospheric song.  “Carousel Horses” paints pictures of “lost highways to ghost towns, vacant hotel lobbies and forgotten dreams” perfectly summing up the slightly surreal, eerie atmosphere that the album creates and inhabits.  It’s the mix of nostalgia and slightly twisted reality in a Grant Wood painting. “Window From Above” takes the Carter Family stripped back music and adds a touch of weird like the Gothic tinged Handsome Family.  “Holding On” is a wonderful layered song, offering hope, but it’s the dry desperate hope of people sitting on the roof watching the rising waters close in on them.  It’s the slightly wry of dark lyrics over warm beautiful Bluegrass or Country music and lush vocal harmonies that makes The Pine Hearts an interesting listen.

The Furrow Collective – Fathoms | Album Review | Hudson Records | Review by Steve Henderson | 03.11.18

Winners of Best Group category at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards in 2017, The Furrow Collective have been coming up on folk’s outside track since their formation in 20013. This English/Scottish band consists of Lucy Farrell, Rachel Newton, Emily Portman and Alasdair Roberts who all have hectic musical careers on the go.  This makes their third album, Fathoms, into something of a delicacy to be savoured.  The four busy individuals make time to work together because of their shared love of traditional song.  As with previous releases, the sleeve notes on Fathoms are comprehensive in establishing the origin of these songs complete with the folk song index numbers (Roud, Child Ballad, etc) where appropriate.  Again, they’ve put their music in the production hands of Andy Bell who has captured the arrangements in a delightful way.  Sometimes, the songs are presented more in a harmony singing context as with the gorgeous “Write Me Down”.  However, there are some wonderful lead singers in the band with, for example, Rachel Newton featuring well on “The Cruel Grave” with its dramatic guitar work, Alasdair Roberts bringing his Scots intonation to “The Cabin Boy”, Lucy Farrell’s opener “Davy Lowston” and Emily Portman on the popular “My Son David”.  If anything, their ability to select good songs, sing them well and bring the whole together has taken another step up with this third record.  However, it’s not as much the songs or the singing that captures the ear as much as the arrangements which include not only the expected fiddle, guitar and so on but less familiar instruments such as the harmonium and electroharp.  Carefully constructed arrangements create distinctive moods for the songs that mean this record is a cut above your usual contemporary albums of traditional song.

Gypsyfingers – Stranger Things | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 04.11.18

Released on the eve of their winter tour, producer Luke Oldfield (Mike’s son) and songwriter Victoria Coghlan, otherwise collectively known as Gypsyfingers, create an almost otherworldly soundscape, rich in both melody and lyrical content alike, and – let’s not beat about the bush here – highly listenable tunes.  It’s folk/pop at its most accessible, created in the rather impressive setting of Tilehouse Studios, built for Mr Oldfield Snr. complete with vintage equipment and analogue tape machines; a playground for sound if ever there was one.  Whilst “Hey Maria”, the first single release from this, their second album, demonstrates Gypsyfingers’ credentials as first rate songsmiths, it’s with such songs as the album opener “Half World”, the spirited “Quit the Game” and the title track “Stranger Things”, that Mike’s influence is most evident, especially in Luke’s fluid guitar solos, reminiscent of “Moonlight Shadow” (for instance), rather than anything tubular or bell-like.  We’re reminded here that having music in the blood ain’t no crime, in fact it’s a veritable quality.

Esbe – Mystra | Album Review | Self Release | By Allan Wilkinson | 05.11.18

For her second album release, the London-based singer known as Esbe ventures into the Byzantine Empire, with a suite of engaging music that incorporates poetry and phonetic vocal sounds that relate to the Mystra Renaissance.  Composed, arranged and performed by Esbe, the twelve enchanting songs take us to another time, opening doors to a particular sonic experience.  With her Turkish/Algerian/Austrian/Polish background, Esbe creates an atmospheric, almost ethereal soundscape, which aims to take the listener on a journey through the dreams of Constantine, the voyage of Byzas and the mysteries of the era, reflecting on the stories and evoking the spirit of the past, keeping the music, literature, art and architecture of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages very much in mind.

Carr and Roswall – Time Flies | Album Review | Dalakollektivet Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 06.11.18

It’s a rather unbelievable fifteen years since Ian Carr and Niklas Roswall dazzled us with their debut album Step on It, whilst at the same time confirming their respective instrumental prowess on such tunes as the punchy “Ghan Blenk” and the dreamy “Day on the River”, and now they return to the studio for another feast of Anglo/Swedish guitar/nyckelharpa magic.  The urgency in which the opener “The Asbestos Suite” is performed indicates that the time for this reunion hasn’t come too soon.  True to the album’s title, time has indeed flown by since their first collaboration and some of those initial sounds still resonate to this day and are further explored here with eleven cleverly crafted instrumental pieces.  Some are originals, whilst others draw on both the traditional music of Sweden as well as classical music (Cedervall clearly straddling those borders), each piece demonstrating Ian and Niklas’ dexterity on their respective instruments, whether that be the guitar, the nyckelharpa or the moraharpa.  This is one of those albums where you discover something new upon each listen.

The Trials of Cato – Hide and Hair | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 07.11.18

Hide and Hair is the debut album release from The Trials of Cato, a young trio comprising William Addison, Robin Jones and Tomos Williams, who recently stormed the UK folk scene after honing their craft in the unlikeliest of locations, Beirut.  Originally from Yorkshire and North Wales, the trio have traversed a familiar route for adventure seeking British musicians, initially through busking and going on to play venues of varying sizes in Lebanon, where they were all working at the time, then returning to the UK supported by a strong and enthusiastic word of mouth following.  With interweaving guitar and bouzouki, together with sweeping tenor banjo and mandolin flourishes, the songs and tunes are supported by dextrous musicianship throughout. With such familiar material as Graham Moore’s “Tom Paine’s Bones”, as well comparatively less familiar fare sung in both English and Welsh, notably “Gloria”, “Haf” and “These are the Things”, together with a rather sturdy reading of “My Love’s in Germany”, the trio appear to be on the cusp of great things.

Gilmore and Roberts – A Problem of Our Kind | Album Review | GR Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 08.11.18

Katriona Gilmore and Jamie Roberts, five studio albums in, deliver that stripped back power folk rock that serves Seth Lakeman so well.  At times this album pares back their sound a little and at other times it pushes it to big league.  “Gauntlet” with a huge folk rock drum sound from Fred Claridge, Gilmore’s electrifying squalling violin straight off Liege and Lief, bursts from the speakers.  The duo balance light and dark well, offsetting emotional violin against tender duo vocals.  “The Philanthropist (Take it from Me)” sets the story of Laurie Marsh to a beautiful guitar melody in Jamie’s tender song, again the vocal harmonies are a delight.  Ben Savage’s Dobro accents superb fiddle and vocals from Katriona on “Things You Left Behind”.  Fine words and another delicate melody make this a strong track on a consistently strong album.  “The Smile and the Fury” is another light and shade anthemic track.  Passages of gathering storm brooding atmospherics are balanced perfectly by furious flights of intensity.  Lyrically it’s a folk ballad built around a photo of a calm faced woman facing down an EDL protestor at a rally.  Quiet or furious if crackles like the best of Show Of Hands.  “Bone Cupboard” built around a handclap rhythm and harmony vocals is one of the soulful surprises on the album.  Spiritual Americana at its best, if this isn’t snapped up by Rihanna Giddons it’s only because she hasn’t heard it yet.  “On the Line” opens with one of those fleet fingered guitar lines that will have John Renbourn smiling wistfully on his cloud and playing along.  An exercise in restraint the sublime guitar is joined by the duos beautiful vocals delivering a thoughtful lyric.  The divine guitar and vocals continue on Average Joe, another Folk classic in the making that wouldn’t sound out of place in a set by Nine or Rising for the Moon-era Fairport Convention.  Listen out for the captivating knotty layers of vocals at the end of this track.  Traditional “From Night Till Morn” lets Jamie Roberts dexterous bug atmospheric guitar breathe and shine on a superb instrumental with just little shimmers of other instruments the beauty of it leaves you with a smile.   Smart spot on duet vocals, fiery fiddle, captivating guitars and some surprising turns – this is an album to put on repeat and start again as soon as it finishes.

Imar – Avalanche | Album Review | Big Mann Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 08.11.18

With its many collaborations, the word ‘supergroup’ has become a mainstay of the contemporary folk scene.  However, the word takes on a whole new suitability when applied to Glasgow-based combo Ímar.  Consisting of current and former members of such renowned outfits as Mabon, Talisk, Mànran, RURA, Barrule, Cara, Mec Lir and The Lowground, it should come as no surprise that Ímar’s first album Afterlight was a work of breath taking beauty.  Now, only a year later, this agile band returns with Avalanche, another imposing selection of instrumental ear-pleasers.  Opening with the sprightly “Deep Blue”, Avalanche starts as it means to go on and, via such galloping tunes as “Rambling”, “The Third Attempt” and the stunning “Trip to Novi Sad”, we’re treated to some bold and furious fiddle lines courtesy of Tomás Callister, the wonderfully restless concertina of Mohsen Amini and shimmering bouzouki strokes from Adam Rhodes.  Along with Ryan Murphy’s blustery flute and the constant heartbeat of Adam Brown’s bodhrán, Avalanche ploughs through the speakers with powerful majesty.  When it comes to second albums, you simply can’t ask for more.

Liraz – Naz | Album Review | Dead Sea Recordings | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 09.11.18

If a glance along your record shelves presents a dangerous lack of Persian music, the situation can be easily remedied by grabbing a copy of Naz, the debut album by Israeli musician and actress Liraz.  Singing with a seductive Farsi tongue, Liraz presents an album that addresses matters of utmost importance to this young artist – most notably the role of women in society – by drenching her subject in constantly beguiling layers of Persian hip-hop, a style of music that utilises traditional instruments such as the kanoon, lyra and ney as well as wonders of modern electronica such as the electric oud, synths and programmed drum patterns.  This multifaceted record moves confidently between rhythmically enticing tracks such as “Zendegi” and “Mahtab” to haunting aural landscapes such as “Bito” and the gorgeous closing track, Taxim, leaving its listener with a pleasing appetite for more.

Sascha Osborn – Looking Out and After | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 10.11.18

Sascha Osborn is difficult to easily classify, her smooth voice, backing of acoustic instruments and electronics and her ability to blend spoken verse and sung lines are going to cause obsessive pigeon-holers heart failure.  The light percussion and rhythm from Simon Edwards and Roy Dodds and Patrick Wood’s keyboards on the title track suggest a jazzy Summer Lawns era Joni Mitchell kind of vibe.  Sascha starts off speaking the first verse as poetry, then singing the second verse.  The effect with Wood’s keyboards bubbling a 70s groove and flourishes of acoustic guitar is sublime and instantly summery.  “Could it be You” continues that delicate music, jazzy Double Bass with a perfect chorus vocal that suggests heart stopping Judie Tzuke or the classically trained jazz singer Jaqui Dankworth.  “Brooklyn” mixes observational writing and another stunning vocal performance from Sasha.  “An Unseen Star” moves it along with a bluesy vibe and a beautifully dark feel as tasteful guitar and Hammond organ washes weave an atmosphere.  “Gone Too Far” opens with some great Americana guitar and a powerful rhythm from Dodds and Edwards gives it punch.  “Tough Talking True” and “Where Now” are a delightful blend of smooth 70s Weather Report keyboards bubbles and sophisticated guitar and rhythm.  Sascha’s vocals just shine over the top, breathy and intimate.  “Take a Moment” has that snapping beat of Moondance era Van Morrison with its intoxicating soulful jazz sophistication.  “People Come and People Go” has the feel of a classic in the making, a concert closer or a perennial encore, both its verse and chorus are delightfully delivered and anthemic.  This is an excellent and surprising album.  Retro feel in places and contemporary in others, but always achingly hip and sophisticated.  Patrick Wood’s production is classy and timeless and Roy Dodds and Simon Edwards, half of Fairground Attraction as was and the UKs answer to Sly and Robbie sprinkle on their musical blend of Folk Jazz World fairy dust.  The resulting album with Sascha Osborn’s stunning vocals, sophisticated guitar and keyboards over world class rhythms is a delight from start to end.

Breabach – Frenzy of The Meeting | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 11.11.18

“Prince’s Strand” is a slow swirling tune, written by Breabach’s Piper James Duncan Mackenzie.  Rather than insistent music to drive the feet this is steeped in atmosphere and portent.  One of this Scottish band’s strengths is that they are equally as at home playing for the listener as they are the dancer.  Track two is “Knees Up”, a more straight ahead tune for the dancing, but Megan Henderson’s beautiful vocal crackles with a mysticism that moves it beyond just dance music.  “Winter Winds” is a more reflective, wistful ballad, contrasting the interwoven furious bagpipes on Western Isle Dance.  “Birds of Passage” conjures up breathy images of flying birds and their passage with beautiful layers of vocals and instrumental.  Lilting whistles, flutes and fiddle evocatively draw pictures on this track and the improbably titled “Goggle This”.  “The Oban Ball” shifts subtly to hold our interest through two tunes, the first “The Ball That Was in Oban” starts with a hypnotic percussion rhythm before blending into the softer “Thunderstorm on Thunder Bay”.  “Invergordon’s Welcome” also features a contrast, setting a gentle guitar riff against the more intense pipes.  Further contrast comes from the guitar and Megan’s, Gaelic vocal on “An E Mo Chur Fodhad”, which manages to be both technically breath taking, beautiful and a total departure from the first tune in the set.  “Frenzy of the Meeting” is another of those contrasting pairs of tunes that Breabach do so well, with opening “Incahoots” brooding menace contrasting the circling music and “Ceòl Mòr” or mouth music of the closing piece.  The album closes with the band’s take on Iain Mac Dhùghaill’s nostalgic poem about the braes of Ruskich.  An epic track, Megan’s stirring vocal backed by the rest of the band builds to a triumphant close.  My benchmark for beauty, subtlety and power in instrumental folk music is Donal Lunny’s eponymous live album from 1987.  Breabach can do the furious, metronome precise dance music, but rarely they can also do the brooding slow beauty and there is real grace and power in their restraint.  Building on the ideas and experimentation of their 2016 album Astar Breabach have opened up a rich musical landscape with “Frenzy of the Meeting”.

David Leask – Six in 6/8 | EP Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | Stars: 12.11.18

Six in 6/8, sounds like sleeve notes or an album title from 60s era Dave Brubeck as he pushed cool jazz time signatures.  Nothing that simple though, of the musical genres and musicians gathered together, cerebral piano led jazz doesn’t get a look in, except in as much as it led to layered textured guitar driven Progressive rock that occasionally there is a slightly waft of.  David Leask mixes rock sheened big guitar driven powerful Country with more reflective Celtic Folk and more.  Indescribable is top down, hot day on the highway Nashville music, with Leask’s vocal a masterclass in emotional major league Rock.  “Red Balloon” sets David’s voice and its timbre against dobro and Celtic whistles.  “Caught in the Tide” and “You Think No One Loves You” feature that voice, in Prog mode against squalling guitar or gutsy and soulful like a Mark Cohen or Liam Ó Maonlaí from The Hothouse Flowers, but always interesting.  “Between Him and Me” deals with personal spirituality, layered between waves of electric guitar and atmospheric David delivers another killer soulful rock performance.  Six in 6/8, may, on one level, be an exercise in writing emotional nuanced songs that deal with big issues, but it also works very well as an EP introduction to a Scottish Canadian singer and songwriter with potent words and a powerful voice.

Mike Farris – Silver and Stone | Album Review | Compass Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 12.11.18

Tennessee-born rocker Mike Farris keeps things tight and soulful throughout the dozen songs on Silver and Stone, an album named after his wife’s wedding ring.  That piece of jewellery has been on Julie’s finger for 23 years, through thick and thin and this album is a celebration of that enduring relationship.  Garry West’s production may recall the golden age of Stax and the vocal performances may be easily likened to those of Sam Cooke and Otis Redding, but none of this appears to be forced, rather, the grooves come over organically, a reflection on a life well and truly lived.  Whilst the Bill Withers song “Hope She’ll Be Happier” showcases Farris’s sensitive side, delivered in a voice very much his own, “Movin’ Me” has Al Green and Curtis Mayfield written all over it; a fine vocal performance, augmented by a blistering guitar solo courtesy of Joe Bonamassa.  When Mavis Sings, another Farris original, is a fine homage to the Queen of Gospel herself, Mavis Staples, a close friend, whose story is told with informed authority.  Despite his rough and ready, slicked back hair, shades and leather image, the voice, performance, musical arrangement and overall production is more in keeping with black tie and Valentino suits, slick soul at its best.  Surrounded by a cast of musicians who have collectively served time with such artists as Dusty Springfield, Elvis Presley, Bonnie Raitt, John Hiatt, Patty Griffin and Delbert McClinton, to name but a few, Silver and Stone stands as a fine statement of Nashville Soul.

Fofoulah – Daega Rek | Album Review | Glitterbeat | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 13.11.18

Upon first hearing the ‘dystopian electronics, sabar beats and shamanic chants’ of the London-based Afro-dub ensemble Fofoulah, I imagined this would be the sort of music you could possibly find in the deep cellar bar urbanism beneath an acid rain-soaked Blade Runner-type city as the residents wait for the oncoming apocalypse.  Of course, Fofoulah are more optimistic than this, as they release their second album, the follow up to their 2014 self-titled debut.  Highly dramatic, the rhythms of the Gambian sabar drummer Kaw Secka, together with the production of keyboards player Tom Challenger, hold nothing back in delivery, with some hard driving beats and Sci-Fi sound effects to keep things in order.  Delivered in Wolof, a West African language from such countries as The Gambia and Senegal, the tracks, such as “Seye” (Marriage), “Ndanane” (Star) and the almost tortured performance of “Kaddy”, written in memory of the Grenfell disaster, quiver with pounding futurist beats, whilst the title cut settles into an appealing groove.

JP Bimeni and the Black Belts – Free Me | Album Review | Tucxone | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 14.11.18

There are certain hints of Otis Redding and Al Green in the singing style of Burundian-born, now London-based JP Bimeni, a soul survivor in the truest sense of the term.  Whilst fleeing his devastated home during the Burundian civil war in the early 1990s, Bimeni was shot, had his last rights read and remained on a wanted list, yet through all this has managed to survive, through convalescence in Nairobi, living as a refugee in Wales and then moving to London, where he has managed to carve out a niche for himself in the Motown and Stax grooves of the Sixties.  Written by musical director Eduardo Martinez and songwriter Marc Ibarz, the soul-fuelled album is very much about the dance floor, though the lyrical content is about survival, relating to the essence of Bimeni’s experience of living through civil war and the haunting legacy of the Hutus and Tutsis conflict, which included witnessing the murder of many of his schoolmates at the age of just 15.  With titles such as “Pain is the Name of Your Game”, “Better Place” and “Free Me”, we can only scratch the surface of Bimeni’s experiences.  The music though, is the key to personal survival – “When I sing I feel like I’m cleansing myself: music is a way for me to forget”.

Siobhan Miller – Mercury | Album Review | Songprint | Review by Marc Higgins | 15.11.18

Mercury is the third album from Scottish singer Siobhan Miller and the first entirely composed of original material.  Thematically this a development from Strata, Siobhan’s 2017 album which collected songs Miller had grown up listening to and performing.  After showing us her foundations on Strata, on Mercury Siobhan reveals song by song where she is now.  The opening title track skips and snaps along, a marriage between folky acoustic instruments, lyrical piano and Siobhan’s wonderful vocal.  “In Sorrow When the Day is Done” starts as an intimate folk song, the huge pulsing bass motif takes it somewhere else, the earworm mass vocal chorus is completely captivating and the stuff of hit singles.  Spanning all points from intimate to soulfully expansive in just over four minutes is no mean feat.  Strandline is another carefully constructed and arranged song, building slowly, through a divine chorus into a powerful performance.  The strings and electric guitar sound anthemic and lend intensity to the final verse.  “The Western Edge”, inspired by “A Song among the Stones” by Kenneth Steven, lightens the mood, dancing and skittering on Louis Abbott’s drum playing.  Siobhan’s vocals layer beautifully with Rachel Lightbody’s, pairing perfectly.  “Slowest Days” is an intimate cuddle of a song, written with Abbott it reflects on shared moments, with the authors sharing some of the vocals.  It is, like the rest of this album, enveloping, captivating and sophisticated.  “Carrying Stream” with its Ben Howard or Jose Gonzales guitar line is very contemporary, but Siobhan’s vocal, solo or layered is the perfect icing on a sublime song.  “The Growing Dawn” features another almost obligatory captivating chorus alongside a captivating arrangement where elements are added in to accent, then fall away to grab your attention again moments later.  “Keep Me Moving On”, with a driving rhythm, ‘If boredom is the illness then movement is the pill’, ‘if I’ve already tasted it then it can’t be best’ is the troubadour’s anthem to the new experience and fresh horizons, rather than just introspective excess.  Another strong song on this strong album, with its positive sentiments making it uplifting.  Losing is all chiming guitars and warm vocals, the chorus has the feel of a perfect poppy Snow Patrol moment as perfectly constructed and, layered as a Scottish Carpenters.  An idea possibly echoed in the warm dreamy album packaging and Portraits with that summer retro hat.  “Let Me Mean Something” starts as a duet between Innes White’s John Martynesque acoustic guitar and Siobhan’s beautiful vocal.  Layers of electric guitar and atmospherics drive the song on, making a powerful and meaningful closer.  With a more complex and sophisticated sound around thoughtful songs, Mercury is a surprising development from the already accomplished and arresting Strata.  One listen and its abundantly clear why musicians like Kris Drever and Eddi Reader want to be involved in this album.  Siobhan’s voice is a mighty instrument, carried by all the players and these arrangements which rise and fall beautifully, it positively demands your whole attention.

Yves Lambert Trio – Tentation | Album Review | La Pruche Libre | By Allan Wilkinson | 16.11.18

Very much inspired by The Temptation of Saint Anthony, the cheerfully smiling Yves Lambert is set amidst the Bosch-like serpents and fish-things on the cover etching of this latest release by Yves and his trio, Tommy Gauthier and Oliver Rondeau, who are equally pleased with themselves on the inner sleeve.  If this medieval setting is a little unfamiliar, then the music is immediately recognisable, or at least the style in which the trio play is.  The Quebec sound, essentially accordion, fiddle, guitar and busy stomping feet is very much the order of the day, with plenty of reels, a little call and response, the odd minstrel ballad and plenty of feisty musicianship.


Dan Fogelberg and Tim Weisberg – Twin Sons of Different Mothers | Album Review | Retro World | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 16.11.18

Reissue of Dan Fogelberg’s collaborative album with Tim Weisberg.  Very deliberately out of Fogelberg’s recognisable style and with Weisberg’s flute taking centre stage for much of the very short album, coming in at just over thirty minutes, the album is highly melodic, so much so it could easily find itself in the easy listening browser bins.  Flutes were popular in the 1970s, most notably with Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull) and Thijs Van Leer (Focus) and also a host of Prog Rock outfits such as Genesis, Traffic and Camel.  Here though, particularly on “Lazy Susan”, the arrangement is reminiscent of the pastoral sound of Nick Drake’s “Bryter Layter” of Seatrain’s “Flute Thing”.  Although voices are heard during “Lazy Susan”, it’s not until half way through the album that we hear the first song, the Moody Blues-influenced “Tell Me to My Face”.  Surprisingly, the mainly instrumental album did quite well at the time (1977) reaching number 8 in the US charts, an achievement only beaten by his earlier Phoenix LP and later with The Innocent Age in 1981, all three making the top ten.

Katy Moffatt – Katy/Kissin’ in the California Sun | Album Review | Retro World | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 18.11.18

If Retroworld were to reissue any two of Katy Moffatt’s albums, then it might as well be the two that the Fort Worth, Texas-born singer songwriter made in the 1970s; her debut Katy and its hot on the heels follow up Kissin’ in the California Sun.  Like the Beatles, the Stones and Dylan (well almost) before her, Katy’s debut is made up of covers, her own song writing having to wait until her second album.  The ‘covers’ are well chosen though, which draw from a broad scope of styles, including the Hammerstein/Kern show tune “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man” and Ray Willis’ “I Can Almost See Houston from Here”.  It’s with the soulful ballads though that Katy really excels, with a gorgeous reading of “Easy Come, Easy Go” and her own Kansas City Morning from the second album.  The second album also begins with one of her own compositions, the title track, with a further three self-penned originals, though her temptation to rework other established songs is still very much apparent, with Carole King’s “Up on the Roof”, Curtis Mayfield’s “Um-Um-Um-Um-Um-Um” and a rather steamy “Walkin’ After Midnight”.

Gaye Su Akyol – Istikrarh Hayal Hakikattir | Album Review | Glitterbeat | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 19.11.18

After establishing herself as one of Turkey’s most promising young performers with her last album Hologram Imparatorlugu in 2016, Gaye Su Akyol has in no way rested on her laurels, returning with an astonishingly well produced follow up.  The ten tracks that make up Istikrarh Hayal Hakikattir confirms the Istanbul-born singer, songwriter, producer and ‘audio/visual conceptualist’ is no flash in the pan.  Translated as ‘Consistent Fantasy is Reality’, the album’s mission statement is that of ‘pure freedom’ and an escape from the chaos of an increasingly conservative country on the border of the Middle East, Europe and Russia.  Though contemporary in its instrumentation, in its lyrical content and in its attitude, the melodies are very much in keeping with the traditional styles and classical scales of her native Turkey.  With these familiar motifs, the escapism alluded to in its title is an alluring concept; Gaye Su Akyol is indeed living the dream, living the fantasy, and it’s all very real.  Blending these ancient Turkish musical signatures with a sort of sneering Dick Dale Pulp Fiction guitar solo on such as Laziko works tremendously well, as does the synth pop peppering on the title track.

Hidden Cabins – The Hidden Cabins Band | EP Review | Pyrrhic Victory Recordings | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 20.11.18

Originally conceived as a duo, this New Jersey/North Carolina partnership Hidden Cabins, consisting of Craig Cirinelli and Brian Hofgesang, soon expanded enough to include new members Rich Perry on drums and Jason Del Guidice on bass, bringing to the party a much fatter and edgier sound.  It was never just a guitar/vocal concept and the songs were invariably embellished with effects, added percussion, ‘split channel amp tones’, some of which are still present here, but the addition of the rhythm section certainly adds a bit of punch.  Recorded in rural New York State, the five songs “The One That Got Out”, “The Calming”, “News at Eleven”, “One More Slip” and “Bet it all on You”, sound pretty well worn in, whilst at the same feel rather new and fresh.  The overall EP actually sounds like this indie-folk rock band are thoroughly enjoying themselves and that feeling has every chance of rubbing off on their audience given half the chance.

Hickory Signals – Turn to Fray | Album Review | GF*M Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 21.11.18

A fine collection of songs both new and old, original and traditional, each delivered in a clear and unpretentious manner with a clear and unpretentious message.  The songs, whether borrowed from the tradition, “Who Put the Blood”, “Bushes and Briars” or adapted from poetry, “Noise of the Waters” (James Joyce) or songs written from scratch, Rosemary, Kana, Zelda, each here receive the Hickory Signals treatment, featuring at the core, the distinctive voice of Laura Ward.  One or two of the songs here were first heard on the duo’s EP Noise of the Waters, the title track of course as well as the highly infections “Here I Am”.  Whilst husband Adam Ronchetti’s multi-instrumental prowess embellishes his wife’s vocal performances, there is a tendency to concentrate on Laura’s voice, notably her reading of Frankie Armstrong’s “Doors to my Mind”.

Jesse Matas – Tamarock | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 22.11.18

Jesse Matas has been a singer, songwriter and band front man for 22 years.  He is also a published poet with a first collection due to be published in 2019.  You can hear his rock poems on tracks like “Monach” where with a voice like Allan Ginsberg or Laurie Anderson Jesse is riffing on words and the sounds of words like a deadpan beat poet.  He has the ability to impart great potent and power into his words with his distinctive vocal and delivery like a rock Mary Margaret O’Hara or Bruce Cockburn.  “The Myth of Forests”, a spiky guitar and a garage band drum with a spoken poet is disconcerting, unnerving, recalling the disquiet of The Velvet Underground and “The Gift”.  With Tamarock written in part in the wilderness silence, there is light amongst the shade with the beautiful guitar interlude of “Sleep” and “Footpath” the succinct closer.  “Tamarack” the opening track, is as curiously surreal and cut up as anything on David Bowies Hunky Dory, the acoustic guitar, piano and Jesse’s delivery strongly reminding me of the hallucinogenic folk of “Andy Warhol” or “The Bewley Brothers” as if covered by Tim Buckley.  Songs like “Walking Human” and “Rock and Sand” have a real Neil Young vibe, monolithic slabs of guitar and huge drums link straight back to “Down by the River” and “Cortez the Killer”.  Tunes crackle with menace and swagger with the power of a circling shark or a darkly confident gnarly cage fighter waiting for a moment to strike.  His voice is more Michael Stipe than CSN&Y but that adds to the brooding edge.  Like Terry Reid’s “River” or Neil Young’s “Harvest”, Jesse Matas weaves together acoustic pastoral whimsy and dirty electric guitar majesty to make a series of often surreal and left field songs.  Spacial and stark like the Gothic Americana of Robert Fisher’s Willard Grant Conspiracy or The Walkabouts.  Slip in amongst favourites like Tim Buckley, Neil Young, Mary Margaret O’Hara or early mysterious REM, a quietly confident classic in the making.  There is fire in a name. 

Talisk – Beyond | Album Review | Talisk Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 23.11.18

Beginning with its serene guitar/concertina/fiddle melody, one which urges the captivated listener to crank up the volume and fall willingly into a Celtic trance, the stunning Montreal – opening track of Talisk’s latest album Beyond – soon leaps into a compelling rhythmic gallop.  It’s a wonderfully inviting and momentum-gathering gambol that leads us excitedly into the remaining tracks of the Scottish trio’s second LP; most notably “Serbian Dreams”, with its hypnotic arpeggios, the feverish and swelling “Farewell”, complete with swelling chorale, and almost symphonic title track.  It’s little wonder that this intrepid threesome has been busy gathering awards and accolades since the release of Abyss back in 2016.  This relatively new outfit have already bagged themselves a BBC Radio 2 Folk award as well as a couple of MG Alba Trad awards, and the praise from fans and reviewers continues to pour in.  It’s all down to the nimble concertina of Mohsen Amini, Hayley Keenan’s soul stirring fiddle and the restless strings of Graeme Armstrong’s guitar and the sound that this amazingly small ensemble makes which somehow manages to expand and sprawl during the dramatic “Cabot Trail” and somewhat filmic “Liddesdale”.  Traditional instrumental folk music doesn’t come more powerful nor more arresting than this.

Larkin Poe – Venom and Faith | Album Review | Tricki-Woo Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 24.11.18

Those who were lucky enough to be around at the beginning of Larkin Poe’s exciting ‘journey’, a journey that has been on an upwardly mobile trajectory since Rebecca and Megan Lovell first branched off from their elder sibling whilst adopting a name borrowed from one of their ancestors, will have noticed a much harder approach to their own idiosyncratic southern roots sound.  Though the hollow acoustic guitar and trusty Dobro have been pretty much replaced now by solid bodied instruments, Rebecca Lovell’s highly distinctive voice is still at the forefront of the duo’s immediately recognisable blues-based sound.  From day one the duo’s desire to create their own brand of bluesy grooves was very much evident, even at the time of their earliest ‘seasonal’ EP with the blistering “Principle of Silver Lining”.  Venom and Faith, the title taken from the sultry “Honey Honey”, is the third album by the Nashville-based, Georgia-born siblings, which sees the duo continue their search for their own infectious ‘Southern Gothic’ sound with eight new originals and a couple of covers, Bessie Jones’ soulful “Sometimes”, incorporating a sound previously explored by the duo on their live favourite “Black Betty”, here treated to a bold and brassy accompaniment, together with the old Skip James blues “Hard Time Killing Floor”, with some searing vocal/slide sparring.  No strangers to collaboration, having previously worked with the likes of Elvis Costello, Steven Tyler, Thom Hell and Blair Dunlop, the duo are joined by guitarist Tyler Bryant on the blues-drenched Mississippi.  Despite the duo’s endeavours to create a compelling contemporary blues sound, most notably on “Ain’t Gonna Cry” and consistently through the conduit of Megan’s brilliant slide work, the old instruments do occasionally come out and play, the banjo evident on the sizzling “California King”, keeping to the rootsy tenets the duo are known for.  

Afro Celt Sound System – Flight | Album Review | ECC Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 25.11.18

If ever a band was to use a name that perfectly described what was in the tin, then the Afro Celt Sound System would be it.  From the outset on this, the collective’s latest album release, Griogair Labhruidh sets out their stall with a fine reading of “Marbhrannn do Shir Eachann Mac’illEathainn/Lament for MacLean”, leaving us with little doubt as to where the ‘Celt’ bit fits into the brand name, whilst N’faly Kouyaté and the Amani Choir swiftly follow with the show-stopping “Sanctus”, which shows us where the ‘Afro’ bit comes in on equal terms.  Just two tracks in and we’re fully up to speed about what this bunch of brilliant musicians are all about.. but then there’s so much more besides.  At the core of their eighth studio album, is Simon Emmerson, who along with N’faly Kouyaté and Johnny Kalsi are joined not only by the Amani Choir, but also Stone Flowers and the Johannesburg-based African Gospel Singers, each outfit bringing something rather tasty to the party.  If the restrained introduction to “Sanctus” has the power to lead the listener into a dreamlike state, then it’s not for long, as the heart-stopping power of the dhol drum kicks in, effectively bringing the Afro Celt Sound System very much to life.  This all works tremendously well in a live setting as anyone who has caught one of the band’s festival appearances or live shows will testify, but this extraordinary powerful sound can also been captured in the studio, and in this case, it certainly has.  Armagh’s Ríoghnach Connolly is here once again to lend her highly distinctive voice (and flute) to proceedings, notably on the four-part “Migration Medley”, a suite dedicated to the inherent comparisons between both bird and human migration, combined subjects close to the hearts of Simon Emmerson and Mark Constantine, who share an interest in bird-watching and for the work the Amani Choir musical director Emmanuela Yogolelo and Ríoghnach Connolly have done within the refugee community of Manchester and surrounding area.  “Night Crossing Part 1” from the medley is utterly gorgeous, as is the later “Rippling”.

Birichen – Hush | EP Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 26.11.18

Birichen is the creation of Highlands’ singer Catriona Sutherland.  Joined by Iain-Gordan Macfarlane on fiddle and guitar and Robert McDonald on dobro slide guitar, this represents Catriona and Birichen’s first release.  Stand outs on this five track EP are opener “Holding on to Each Moment” and the closer Birichen’s version of Jim McLean’s glorious highland clearances song “Smile in Your Sleep”.  “Holding on to Each Moment” layers a beautiful melody that recalls Johnny Flynn’s evocative music for The Detectorists.  A pastoral idyll is evoked with carefully layered bird song and atmospherics.  The fiddle and guitar parts are simply perfect, adding to the atmosphere and glints of brilliance in their own right.  Catriona’s delivery of the love song is a wonder, her voice blending sorrow and joy.  “Smile in Your Sleep” written in the early 60s, as a lullaby lament for the Highland clearances, by Piper Jim McLean is a powerful song.  Birichen’s version opens with ambience of children and rain as if it is being sung to a slumbering infant.  Catriona’s breathy delivery is hypnotic, captivating.  Iain-Gordon’s guitar is resonant and atmospheric, but Sutherland’s vocal is powerful, wringing every drop of emotion out of a poignant song.  I could listen to these two tracks especially all day.  Birichen’s version of Gillian Welsh’s “Scarlet Town” replaces the pulsing Americana of the original with a fiddle led folkiness, it sounds so right you’d swear it was a band original.  The big guitar chords and swinging fiddle of “Gonnae Get Good”, an original composition by Catriona, hint back to her jazz roots, with another superb vocal to boot.  “L.A Freeway” nods to the influence of Country on Catriona.  At a slow, contemplative pace compared to Guy Clark’s original, the sweet fiddle is the same, Catriona’s fine vocal finds meaning and avoids the odd bar room chorus on this leaving song.  Birichen across the six tracks of Hush, offer a glimpse of potential possibilities.  Catriona Sutherland’s stunning voice completely inhabits songs by other Songwriters, finding meaning in well known, well covered standards. Iain-Gordon Macfarlane and Robert McDonald provide atmospheric and rich musical accompaniment.  The choice of material and inventive use of atmospherics suggests an inventive meeting of minds in this trio’s excellent debut. 

Frank Burkitt Band – Raconteur | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 27.11.18

Originally from Edinburgh, Frank and partner Kara Filbey swapped late night music and Scottish pubs for North Island New Zealand in 2014.  The addition of James Geluk on Double Bass, Cameron Burrell on Mandolin and Banjo and a different perspective on Americana, Roots music, Jazz, Country and all points in between led to the Frank Burkitt Band.  With a band name that suggests a polyester suited covers band jazzing up rock covers in a smoky Northern working man’s club circa 1972 and a cover that recalls hand-tooled leather wine list or menu this album intrigues from the first encounter.  Early erroneous impressions are instantly dispelled, by the passionate, heartfelt and finely crafted music within.  “Work So Hard” mixes up a plaintive guitar straight off Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home”, a testifying Hammond organ and some tight tasty vocals and you have soulful music that confounds to the end.  The first track is punctuated by a flute break and ethereal vocals that could be lifted clean out of Traffic’s “John Barleycorn” period.  Till it body swerves bucolic whimsy to end up in Muscle Shoals.  Memphis Soul territory.  “Simple” is a taut funky number with a punchy double bass rhythm.  The band’s vocal harmonies are tight, spot on and a delight. Frank Burkitt’s bluesy lead vocal is strangely captivating while the band wraps him in layers of blue grass, blues and a Cello arrangement.  What sounds in a words and paper review like a musical ingredients list, in the ears, just cooks.  “Raconteur”, the track, is just divine.  A wry reflection on being the life and soul of the party.  A example of a tender reflective song growing out of a, situation that was quite possibly anything but.  Sonically its Van Morrison Hymns to the Silence or Veedon Fleece, or Blue Rose Code at their soulful best.  Frank’s and Kara’s vocal are passionate and spot on, meshed together.  The improbably named Baron Oscar Laven lays down an ambient ECM trumpet that is to die for.  “Breathe Slow” builds a beautiful atmosphere around glorious vocal harmonies, Mandolin and a rich Cello.  “Paint the Town” lifts the reflective mood with a punchy feel good song that has the swagger of Imelda May and the Circus Brass band ragged spit and polish of Bellowhead.  Music you can chuck yourself around to.  “Gypsy Barber” blends the smooth drifting opium haze of Leon Redbone’s slurred Parisian Café Jazz with a Bluegrass shuffle.  Again Baron swoops and soars on the clarinet.  “Albert Woodfox” is a surreal tale in a folk song with the band’s characteristic lush vocals and arrangement.  “Walkin Right” is a glorious crooned Country song.  The evocative Jazzy Double Bass line nods to “Walkin” the 1954 Miles Davis tune and Frank’s vocal is superb.  A Capella song “My Heart Waits” is a stunning showcase for three voices and a late reveal of yet another side to this multifaceted surprising band.  The cover, with its enigmatic monogram or crest, suggests an expensive treat or a pair of finely tooled duelling pistols.  What is does is only hint, tantalisingly, at the rich variety of feel good music within.  Country, Folk, Jazz, 70s bucolic Folk Rock and an array of treats for the ears waits for the listener intrigued by the band and this album.

Jaywalkers – Time To Save the World | Album Review | Burnt Chilli Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 03.12.18

The Jaywalkers deliver a rootsy, authentic Americana. Doubly impressive given that Mike Giverin, Jay Bradberry and Lucille Williams are a UK three-piece.  “Homage to the Fromage” is a beautiful opener, picked or plucked strings, weaving fiddle and a thumping Double Bass beat.  “What Do I Know” and “This Time” balance light and dark with sparkling mandolin and some atmospheric bowed fiddle notes.  Jay Bradberry’s vocals are just a delight, very much the icing on a layered performance that has all the bluegrass sparkle and tension of Crooked Still.  “(Please) Rescue Me” just flies with a bright Country Pop feel, a fine chorus and some infectious playing.  Beneath the sparkle “This Time” ponders the ways we are damaging the natural environment and titles the album.  “This is the One”, with rich vocal harmonies, and a hummable tune is another delight.  Breaking the musical fourth wall, as well as addressing issues, this is also a song about creativity and writing a song that songsmith Mike Giverin is pleased with.  It does underline the fact that the warmth and openness of the Jaywalkers’ music should appeal to a wider international audience.  “Life I Chose” is another that looks at the romance in the life of the troubadour journeyman musician.  It’s a warm, wry smile in the evening sun song.  Scott Poley’s pedal steel adds some Country sparkle alongside The Jaywalkers’ distinctive harmonies on this classic “Meet on the Ledge” encore song.  The wonderfully Burnt Chilli Creek is another exciting instrumental with the foot tapping melody bouncing between the instruments.  “Too Close for Comfort” features another great lyric about picking your way carefully and a find vocal from Jay.  With a great rhythm this is another track that has the makings of a great live song.  Album closer is a one Mike, studio live, lively bounce through Johnny Cash’s Big River.  The track pulses with energy and life and leaves you wanting more.  Warmth, energy, thoughtful writing, beautiful vocals and fine ensemble playing there is so much here to recommend.

Simon Todd – Half Empty/Half Full | Album Review | Ginger Tom Music | Review by Marc Higgins | 03.12.18

Half empty half full, which every you decide initially, this is a grower, careful listening delivers nuanced intelligent songs and polished crafted music.  “Down to the River” is delivered with a bite and vocal growl that reminded me of Don Henley’s 80s “Smugglers Blues”.  There is a bounce and jaunty folk energy that recalls Show Of Hands’ blend of Folk and Roots.  “Send Her Home to Me” is a heartfelt song that will appeal to fans of Boo Hewerdine who Co-produces and plays on this album.  Well-crafted songs and performances continue with “And I Get Weak” that has a lot of the energy and sparkle of Crowded House.  Simon Todd has a voice and a feel that wouldn’t be out place on a daytime national radio playlist.  This track especially sounds like a hit.  “Poppy Fields” is a darker, more atmospheric protest song that crackles with emotion.  Again that Boo Hewerdine influence is there and I say that as someone who has a few feet of Boo’s albums on the shelf.  “Judas Kiss” and “The Last Step” are jaunty popish tracks, with some of the jangly punch of 80s Squeeze or even The Manic Street Preachers.  Beautifully put together classic, intelligent guitar pop with edge, delivered with energy and bite.  Demons layers thoughtful acoustic guitar, a superb vocal shot with emotion and some excellent lyrics.  “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” closes the album with a raw blues bite and growl.  Simon Todd snarls and spits through a lyric and plays some angry guitar.  Love that loudhailer vocal verse too.  Vim and energy close the album with a final note like a slammed door.  This is an album that needs a wider audience, there are some powerful embers which when fanned could easily become a big deal.  Half Empty/Half Full?  I’m saying well-made craft beer with distinctive taste and sophisticated flavour from a Boutique Brewery that could have high street appeal and go down nicely with a lot of the discerning if they’d give it a go.

Ewan Macintyre – Road Junkies | Album Review | Broken Car Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 03.12.18

Some albums, like hot baths on December evenings, let you lower yourself into them and recline there in utter comfort and satisfaction.  Road Junkies, Ewan Macintyre’s latest record, is one such LP, lapping at the ears with a wonderful warmth as each song froths with Tim S. Savard’s fiddle, evocative slide guitar from Pat Steel and Ewan himself, as well as some gorgeous electric guitar from Tyler Lieb.  Sideways provides a sumptuously cinematic opening whilst songs such as “Going Nowhere”, “Cuckoo” and “Natalie” demonstrate the impassioned song writing of a fine soul artist.  There are also some impressive and beautifully arranged forays into the realms of folk such as “Take Yourself Out” and the sprightly instrumental “Mondays”.  Of course, it’s the voice that will keep us coming back to this record; the cordial Scottish lilt in Ewan’s vocal, coupled with the weather-worn intonations of a notably emotive jazz singer, lines each track with a uniquely inviting glow.

Raoul Vignal – Oak Leaf | Album Review | Talitres | Review by Marc Higgins | 03.12.18

French singer and guitarist Raoul Vignal creates a music that shimmers and rests lightly on your ears, without ever being throwaway or lightweight.  “Pepas Eyes” features his perfect Nick Drake like acoustic guitar and a very intimate, hypnotic vocal.  In a development from his previous album there are wafts of atmospheric wind and brass instruments rising and falling around him.  Think languid Cool Jazz or Modern Jazz Quartet.  “No Faith” continues the ethereal Folk Jazz, with another beautiful melody and vocal on a song that has a John Martyn Solid Air or Van Morrison Astral Weeks feel.  The tracks have a stripped back economical beauty and grace, like watching the weather or a slowed down dancer.  Tom Chargnard’s Saxophone is just a perfect piece of phrasing, languid and minimal.  “The Dream” starts with layered guitars, like acoustic 80s Shoegaze music.  The rhythmic looping guitar and Raol’s stunning vocal reminded me of label mates Stranded Horse, another favourite.  Stunning, music you have to stop and listen to.  Again it is layered with flutters of bird song jazz that draw pictures of movement.  This isn’t party music, or dance floor music, but time and time again Raoul Vignal uses small inflections and low volume to draw you in and hold your attention.  “Blue Raven” has a vocal that is slurred Martyn through and through.  You catch individual words, but the voice is a sound, an instrument, rising and falling as impressionistic as water.  Musical accompaniment to Monet’s huge late period, pond paintings or Mark Rothko’s glowing colour abstract images.  “I Might” is breathy perfection, small jewels of words with wafts of Cool Jazz.  The shimmering reeds and Gregiore Colson’s vibraphone around Vignal’s guitar and vocal are just sublime.  “I Have Sinned” lifts the mood a little, opening with a Tim Buckley like electric guitar part.  The vocal is pure Nick Drake or early Al Stewart, intimate, breathy and low in the mix.  With a guitar motif that recalls Roy Harper, two part “The Waves” is a majestic mood piece. Raoul’s guitar and voice are insistent and edgy, slowly building intensity and mood.  The guitar becomes just a mood, waves of sound that evoke the sea, building back up to an instrumental with a wordless vocal that is just beautiful.  Chamber Jazz, classical music and Folk entwine.  “Mirror” puts Vignal’s vocal against a skittering drum and Double Bass part that reminded me of a beautifully abstract take on Tim Buckley’s version of Fred Neil’s “Dolphins”.  Jordy Matin’s Bass and Lucien Chatin’s playing shines here as it does throughout.  Like the rest of the album, this is perfectly phrased, heady, intoxicating stuff.  “The Valve” blends quiet and disquiet with pure acoustic guitar pitched against longer abstract electric notes.  Quiet is also interspaced with louder faster more intense jazzy moments.  Raoul’s vocal just flies over both.  Contemporary musicians like Ryley Walker and Raoul Vignal make a thoughtful moody Electro acoustic music that Janus like looks back to the more freewheeling looser 60s and 70s sounds of John Martyn, Tim Buckley, Davy Graham and Michael Chapman while sounding bright lively and contemporary.  More power to them I say, this is gently powerful music that should be on everyone’s radar.  Vignal with his quartet of sympathetic players summon up a quiet storm.  Check out too The Silver Veil, Raoul’s previous album and a more intimate stroll through his musical musings, you won’t be disappointed.

John Meed – Never Enough | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 04.12.18

The widely travelled John Meed delivers each of his songs in an uncomplicated and unpretentious singing voice, removed only slightly from an actual speaking voice, perfect for the sort of poetic songs he writes.  On this, his seventh album release, the Manchester-born, now Cambridge-based singer songwriter creates an inviting world in which to explore.  From the evocative opener “Side by Side”, a meditation on simple human encounters on a train, the Leonard Cohen influenced title track and the plaintive “Strange Thing”, featuring some pretty alto sax courtesy of Myke Clifford (friendly long time Cambridge Folk Festival MC) and on through to the epic Bordeaux, John maintains a distinctly stoic delivery throughout, creating something that is at once highly engaging and equally thought-provoking, with the occasional nod in the direction of the cafe streets of Paris.  Rather than being left with a sense of ambiguity, listening to Never Enough makes you feel that you know John Meed much better than before.

The Willows – Through the Wild | Album Review | Elk Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 04.12.18

It’s difficult to put your finger precisely on what exactly constitutes The Willows’ trump card, it could be any of a dozen things.  Perhaps it’s their excellent choice of material or maybe it’s the cohesive nature of their arrangements.  It could be the clever interplay between Ben Savage’s informed Dobro fills and Cliff Ward’s guitar and banjo work, or alternatively Katriona Gilmore’s fiddle and mandolin playing.  Personally speaking, any of these examples work equally for me, but I suspect what gives this band their winning hand, is the distinctly breezy voice of Jade Rhiannon Ward, immediately recognisable and quite possibly the jewel in their crown.  Through the Wild is the band’s third full-length album release and features nine original songs credited to the band as a whole, together with an arrangement of the traditional “The Lovers’ Ferry”, which features a fine vocal performance by Jade Rhiannon and some tasty slide playing courtesy of Ben Savage.  Evan Carson’s sheer command over all things percussion is very much in evidence on the driving “Pearl Hart”, which evokes all the excitement of its subject, the famed highwaywoman who went off to join Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, whilst the band find such gentle and tender moments as “Out of Our Hands” and “Dear Lily” irresistible to play alongside the stompers.  Bringing the band’s rural Cambridgeshire into focus on such songs as “Perfect Crime”, “False Light” and “Gog Magog”, the Mark Tucker/Ben Savage production team have delivered a winner here.

Dawda Jobarteh – I Met Her by the River | Album Review | Sterns Music | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 04.12.18

There’s always something immediately warm and soothing about the kora, and Dawda Jobarteh’s new release is indeed no exception.  The instrument is enough in itself, especially in the hands of such a remarkable musician, yet when placed amongst other instruments it truly comes alive.  I doubt there’s anything quite as cool as a guy meeting his girl down by the river, carrying his kora (without its case) as seen on the cover, a still from the promotional film that accompanies the title track.  I probably wouldn’t have guessed that the final track was a re-working of Adele’s “Hello” until at least the chorus, had I not caught a glimpse of the track listing first.  The piece settles in alongside the other compositions on the album, notably the spaced-out version of Mongo Santamaria’s bluesy 1958 classic “Afro Blue”, which is treated here to something along the lines of what Hendrix was remembered for during the final moments of the Woodstock Festival.  Another notable example of the rich Gambian kora/griot musical heritage and a fine addition to any serious record collection.

Me and My Friends – Look Up | Album Review | Split Shift Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 05.12.18

With shades of Penguin Cafe Orchestra in places, notably on the instrumental title track “Look Up”, and with a wealth of Sade-like vocal inflections, Me and My Friends’ third album release seems to ooze joy from the start, with an infectious album opener “Another Lifetime”.  The UK-based outfit, namely Nick Rasle on guitar, Emma Coleman on cello, Sam Murray on clarinet, each of whom provide the band’s distinctive vocals, together with James Grunwell on bass and Fred Harper on drums and percussion, soak up the essence of a range of West African grooves, such as Afrobeat, Soukous and Highlife, together with their own take on roots reggae, resulting in a vivacious mix, which is immediately accessible both on and off the dance floor.  Once the groove is established, there’s a tendency to feel short changed if the song finishes too early, which is largely due to the delicate exchanges between the cello and clarinet and some of the most gorgeous harmony vocals.  Fortunately most of the selections are generously timed.  With all nine self-penned selections, save from the one cover, a sultry reading of John Lee Hooker’s bluesy Sometime, Me and My Friends create a warm and inviting sonic experience throughout, urging further investigation on this reviewers part with immediate effect.

Moonlight Benjamin – Siltane | Album Review | Ma Case | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 06.12.18

A surprisingly adrenaline-soaked rocker of an album this, the opening track of which immediately alerts us to the energy-packed Voodoo inspired goodies to follow, as Haitian singer Moonlight Benjamin attacks each song with unmitigated authority.  Much of the album is delivered in Creole, Haiti’s official language, with some French included. There’s no translations included and neither should there be, as the songs pack so much of a punch, you almost instinctively know what is being passionately conveyed.  Now living in France and named for the luminescence that was expected to light her future according to her adoptive father, the Reverend Doucet Alvarez, the orphaned singer cut her musical teeth singing gospel in church, going on to join singer/guitarist Tines Salvant.  A period of hard work followed, in which the singer honed her craft, paving the way for her own spiritual journey into the music she describes as a mixture of Voodoo and Rock and Roll.  With a hard rocking blues undercurrent, exemplified on “Chan Dayiva”, the title track “Siltane” and the dramatic “Doux Pays”, together with such powerful performances as the album closer, “Met Agwe”, Moonlight Benjamin is in possession of an utterly commanding voice that should be heard by many.

Cam Penner – At War With Reason | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 07.12.18

Cam Penner has a soulful voice, shot with character.  On “Gather Round” his chorus of ‘come on people’ is part “Games Without Frontiers” Peter Gabriel, part Curtis Mayfield.  Delivered over a captivating soundscape of electronics and strummed guitar chords.  “Eastside” continues the grainy, intense, distinctive soupy sound of drums, guitars, loops and raw organ.  Think RL Burnside’s urban electric blues with a beat poets rap jazz edge.  This is the Folk Troubadour, as a loop pedal savvy pavement busker, playing the studio like a big instrument.  A rhyme spitting malevolent guitar slinger for the mad max generation, as much influenced by Ginsberg, Gil Scott Heron and Steve Earle’s curled lip snarl as Dylan.  Cam Penner throws words and phrases out with the cadence and punch of rap and performance poetry.  “Poor You” crackles with power and atmosphere the vocals fold in on themselves as much sound as words, soulful and hypnotic.  There is an infectious guitar hook, but the music is a beautiful hybrid, rhythmic and sharp while delicate and heartfelt.  “Lights On (High School Musical)” just seethes with snarling raw guitar, a vocal, spat out like teeth after a punch and a ‘radio play impossible’ chorus.  “Tell Me When They’re Gone” is more of a tender nature.  Still driven by a killer drum rhythm that John Bonham would be proud of, Cam’s vocal is a crooning Mayfield soulful falsetto, tender over the urban beat.  “I Ain’t Nobody” aptly demonstrates the beautiful contradictions and collisions as Penner crafts a new music, a raw but beautiful John Fahey like guitar part syncopates with vocal loops of mouth music and trip hop keyboard bass notes.  A wave of minimalist repetitive chaos spirals in and settles to something strange and beautiful.  “It’s a Constant” takes a looped Prison Chain Gang work song call and response and marries it to an emotional folk song.  The stomping rhythm and the powerful vocal both get into your brain.  “Right Here Right There Like That” with a vocal that sounds strangely like a rawer edgy Chris Martin, testifying over a shimmering Hammond organ, is a powerful song, overflowing with soul and spirit.  After the sonic textures of the rest of the album, “Over and Over” is guitar and vocal, bare and stripped back.  “When it’s all Over” is a curious twisted lullaby shot full of life lessons and metaphors.  Affecting and emotional, Cam delivers a killer vocal and bluesy guitar, with the closing music feeling like an end credits instrumental as the hero walks towards the horizon.  The tracks are short, never over staying their welcome but packed full of grooves and grimy punch.  With the drive of Sun Records Johnny Cash, Cam says what he has to say then stops.  Consistently delivering an exciting collision of electrified Seasick Steve Folk Blues, urgent rap verse and some greasy boogie energy.  Layered, textured but taut and funky with drive.  Lights on or lights off, fans of Daniel Lanois, The Neville Brothers, RL Burnside, even The White Stripes will find a kindred spirit and rewarding listen. 

Peter Hammill – X/Ten | Album Review | Fie Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 08.12.18

This release is essentially a complete, yet sparsely performed live version of Peter Hammill’s last album From the Trees, which was released in 2017.  The songs are in the same running order, each performed on either acoustic guitar or piano and lifted from European shows recorded between November 2017 and May 2018 in both Italy and Germany, together with one song recorded in Bristol.  As idiosyncratic a performance as one might expect from the former Van der Graaf Generator singer, the songs are roughly hewn, so much so that the singer almost apologises in advance in his sleeve notes that accompany the release.  As he points out though, the errors could very well be “outweighed by moments of intensity and inspiration”.  The value of this collection is really their stripped down to basics form, presumably something possibly like they must have originally sounded when first written.  Those familiar with Hammill’s distinctive vocal delivery from the late Sixties on, will be little fazed by these performances, whereas newcomers might just be a little startled.  Packaged in a sleeve resembling something close to the old gatefold LP covers of Hammill’s formative years, complete with inner sleeve for the disc, X/Ten is certainly a must for fans and completists.

Townes Van Zandt – Down Home and Abroad | Album Review | Floating World | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 09.12.18

These two live shows, recorded almost a decade apart, feature a selection of Townes Van Zandt’s finest compositions, with just four repeated songs over the two shows.  The two-disc release captures the enigmatic songwriter on fine form in both 1985 and 1993, the latter just three and a half years before his untimely death in January 1997.  The earlier show, recorded at the Down Home in Johnson City, Tennessee reveals a troubadour wafting through town like tumbleweed, joined by flat-pick guitarist Mickey White and flautist Donny Silverman, engaging with a lively Tennessee audience, especially during the talking blues songs, “Fraternity Blues” and “Talking Thunderbird Blues”.  The second show was recorded in Helsinki, Finland, Townes’ first visit to the country, and reveals a singer with a more weather-worn vocal delivery, yet conversely a much harder and punchier guitar approach.  At times, the Texan songwriter drifts off into his own world between songs, tales of being chained to a tree and going to the hospital with war paint on, yet remains as beguiling as ever as a performer.  Despite struggling through some of the songs, Townes maintains the melancholy and overbearing sadness in such songs as “Kathleen”, whilst lifting the audience spirits with “If I Needed You” and “Tecumseh Valley”.  The recording is beset with a few minor squeaks and buzzes from the PA, but nothing as poor as the recently released double LP set from the American Music Hall in San Francisco from 1991 (with Guy Clark). It’s interesting to compare and contrast these two performances, both of which stand up as fine examples of a remarkable and much missed songsmith at play.

Callum Wood – She Wynds On Magic | EP Review | Park Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 10.12.18

Calum Wood is a composer, singer and guitarist from the North East of Scotland.  She Wynds On was commissioned by Visit Cairngorms with the aim of promoting a new route called the Snow Roads through the Cairngorms.  Kind of like the Golden Age of Steam railway companies promoting locations to encourage travellers on their trains, Calum has composed and recorded an EP of music, a soundtrack for the Snow Roads.  Title track “She Wynds On” is a gentle romantic ballad with Calum’s fine vocal and accompaniment from Ross Ainslie and Charlie McKerron.  The lyric draws on Wood’s own childhood experiences of the Snow Roads.  Superb harmony vocals and  Ainslie’s atmospheric whistles make this a strong opener.  The remaining four tracks, “Blairgowrie to Braemar”, “Braemar to Ballater”, “Ballater to Tomintoul”, “Tomintoul to Grantown-On-Spey”, describe stages on the journey along the Snow Roads.  The titles themselves sound exciting, the music is cinematic keyboards, stirring Folk Rock guitar and atmospherics.  The tracks on the EP are Calum’s evocation of the drama, history and scenery in an area dear to him.  With a trip app that offers interactive content for the traveller alongside the soundtrack on the CD, this is an exciting mixed media opportunity to experience music, sights and sounds.  Makes a change from the dry voice of the sat nav insisting you make a u-turn at the available opportunity having failed to turn down the near vertical bridleway it insisted was a main road.  In this era of slowing physical sales could it be that location specific interactive content and music, like the Aboriginal Songlines are the way to engage with music fans.  If so this experiment could turn out to be significant.

Yvonne Lyon, Stewart Henderson and Carol Henderson – Vesper Sky | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 11.12.18

Yvonne Lyon is a powerful singer and songwriter.  Stewart Henderson is a poet songwriter and someone who has long influenced Lyon’s writing.  Carol Henderson is a storyteller, broadcaster and radio dramatist.  This is a meeting of minds, a meeting of idioms and a meeting of voices.  On paper Vesper Sky by Stewart Henderson, Yvonne Lyon and Carol Henderson is a disparate collection.  Stewart and Carol are both poets, while songwriter Yvonne Lyon delivers sophisticated acoustic music.  In actuality the three performers and their material connects and the different flavours combine and contrast beautifully.  The first two tracks, “After the Fall” and “Vesper Sky” written by Stewart and Yvonne, sung by Yvonne are rich folk country, with Seonaid Aitken’s lovely violin to the fore and Lyon’s vocals just flying.  “How Clatter the World”, a trio composition, is spoken by Carol over pulsing textures, piano and atmospherics and is melancholic but arresting.  “Eyes Down” and “Considering the Hours” fine poems by Stewart Henderson.  Rhythmic and crackling with energy and tension, song like with the repeated refrain about phones and screens in “Eyes Down” they sit well with the earlier pieces.  “The Avenue” is part spoken poem, part poignant piano ballad by Yvonne channelling Aimee Mann or Jane Siberry.  The voices, separate but together echo and follow with great feeling, playing with the form of both song poetry.  “Under a Wolf Moon” is a divine song written by Yvonne and Stewart, fine vocal and guitar by Yvonne.  Against minimal backing, Yvonne’s voice and phrasing just shines through.  “Poem Breakages”, is thoughtfully read by Carol Henderson, has a cadence, rhythmic lollop and repeated line, all appear song like in this context.  Stewart Henderson’s tongue in cheek delivery and a smile raising lyric on “Perfect Fit” is held in check by a wonderful Country slide guitar.  Demonstrates that wry Country is a close cousin to performance poetry.  “Children Mind Your Language”, is a glorious Hymn to inclusion and the barrier free shared space that is the playground.  Yvonne delivers over glorious feel good brass one of the album’s best songs.  Somewhere “In the Library” and “Be The” are wonderfully resonant pieces delivered solo by Stewart, crammed full of rich word play and joyful syllables.  “December Coast of Galloway” is another trio composition and another glorious Hymn like song.  Imagine part Aimee Mann part In thanks delivered by Yvonne on perfect form.  Another album highlight, brimming full of very English sounding brass.  “The Minds Not What it Was” is a powerful poem for two voices, the speakers echo and counterpoint in a way that reminded me of the masterful play for voices, Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood.  Another piece I found myself playing again and again, for the wisdom, the cadence and the collision of voices.  “Everything in Heaven” had the feel of WB Yeats’ The Second Coming already referenced by Joni Mitchell.  Start with this track, it has everything, atmosphere, two masterful voices, a stirring strings motif, stunning wordplay and more atmosphere than should be in one song.  “Living This Long/Deep Me Deep”, with its stone church piano and charged delivery by Carol has a finality and summing up, like we are grave side in a county churchyard.  “Enjoy Not Endure”, with its jazzy piano and the feel of Dylan’s “Forever Young” is a sublime closer.  Spoken and sung the three voices twine perfectly on the uplifting lyric and a perfect closer.  Carefully ordered, sequenced and put together, this what if album is a glorious success.  Three voices speaking and singing, as connected as they separated deliver a collection of delights and surprises. 

Night Tree – Dedications | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 22.12.18

While sounding like they come from everywhere, drawing in Irish, traditional, classical, bluegrass and European jazz, this American Swedish band came together as members of Boston’s New England Conservatory.  Dedications is the band’s second album and it is a stunner.  The first track, the curiously titled “Elvish Welfare Suite no 1” is a collision between expansive instrumental folk and ECM jazz, the fiddle and the saxophone soar together.  Moments of joyous celebration that slam and swirl, dance with moments of reflection.  The paired back solo violin, as evocative as Vaughan Williams’ “Lark Ascending”, twines with a Jan Garbarek pure Saxophone and a growling accordion.  “The Last Day of Summer” is another earworm tune, this time carried on the Cello and Fiddle.  Strangely reminiscent of Toto’s “Africa”, it has the bounce, lightness and indefinability of the best of The Penguin Cafe Orchestra.  Percussionist Julian Loida’s instrument list reads like a poem and he uses his array of drums to great effect on “Oya”, building up a very African groove.  After swirling, stomping instrumental music, “North Carolina Cottage” starts as delicate earthy Bluegrass with Sunniva Brynnel’s beautiful voice well to the fore.  Typically for Night Tree the song doesn’t musically stand still for long and soon bowed Cello bass line is soon joined by a snorting bellowing free jazz forest animal saxophone.  The end, like the Brass folk dance “Year with the Yeti/Wings from the North” that follows is uplifting and vital leaving you with that woodland walk flow.  “Baby Blue” is a stunning lullaby written by Julian Loida, rich doo wop vocals blend seamlessly with plucked fiddle strings, the effect is atmospheric and uplifting.  “The Girl in the White Dress”, written for Lily, one of the band’s violin players manages to be both a delicate accordion mist and a huge stomping furious dance as only Night Tree can.  Like “North Carolina Cottage”, “Blue-Eyed Sailor” is a ballad interlude to the frenetic instrumentals, a piano led Celtic influenced song, with Sunniva’s beautiful voice centre stage.  The final track “Gentle Storm” marries one of those circular Soprano saxophone parts that always makes me think of Jan Garbarek’s Nordic Folk Jazz, to a rustic fiddle dance.  Here, as on the rest of the album, saxophonist Zach Mayer’s playing is just sublime.  The band profess to sometimes playing in the dark, to force them to really listen to each other’s playing.  If you like music firmly contained within one genre, without deviation or progression then you’ll hate this. If you like music that goes where it pleases or where it needs, following the sounds and spirit rather than watching for boundaries, signs and maps, then you will love Night Tree and Dedications.

Alastair Savage – When Barley Reaches Shore | Album Review | Woodland Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 31.12.18

There is something deeply atmospheric and evocative about Alistair Savage’s playing, there is sweet with a touch of dark melancholy.  Solo violin tracks like “Marquis of Tullibardine” manage to dance and pop with a lively rhythm and energy.  The playing is never overly furious and frantic, there is great power and tension in restraint. Hector the Hero has beautiful haunting violin and powerful bowed bass, with the accents and drawn notes sounding as much Classical as Traditional. Music this pared back means you can lose yourself in every note and every emotive draw of the bow, and lose yourself you will.  Later tunes in this set build with fire and energy but there is always a sense of space and light throughout. After the gloriously evocative melodies of Niel Gow, William Ross and James Scott Skinner, “The Soldiers Prayer” is Alistair Savage’s own composition. Written as an acknowledgement of the death in 2009, in Afghanistan of 21 year old Richard Hunt from the 2nd Battalion the Royal Welsh. Richard was the 200th British soldier killed in the Afghanistan conflict and the tune mixes the anger of war with the sadness at being far from home.  The two sets of tunes that make up Islay Wedding are an incredible emotional 15 minute journey, mixing tunes for a friends and his own weddings. Alistair’s violin is as expansive and emotional as we expect, but here is joined by Euan Drysdale’s reflective piano and guitar and Iain Crawford’s solid grounding Double Bass.  The trio blend thoughtful sparkling playing and some rawer emotional playing.  The interplay between the violin and piano on “The Boat to Jura” and “Finlaggan’s Farewell” is just a delight.  Another delight is the duo playing of bowed double bass and violin on the “Marquis of Huntley” set.  “Chapel Keithack” pairs Savage’s pure and thoughtful violin with Euan’s gently strummed guitar.  “The Music of Spey” is another piece as much Classical or Cinematic as Folk, every note is wrung out of the violin and piano chords at the end just hang in the air.  Reflective and expansive mood music that can hang in the air or pop and dance like the most furious frenetic traditional music. A real grower.