Music Reviews | 2019

Joe Pisto and Fausto Beccalossi | Interplay | Album Review | Belfagor | 21.01.19

A sort of ‘meeting of the spirits’ featuring Joe Pisto’s informed guitar playing and Fausto Beccalossi’s enchanting accordion flurries. Predominantly instrumental with a few moments of scat vocals, Interplay is a delightful experience, which I imagine could be enjoyed in a variety of ways; in a grand Spanish concert hall perhaps or over coffee and croissants at a shady pavement table outside a Parisian cafe, or indeed an equivalent establishment in Lombardy on the banks of Lake Como, the essence of which can easily be found simply by playing this CD on your home player. It’s dreamy stuff and easy on the ear, despite the complexity of the performances. “Sevilla”, the opening composition, steadily builds from its plaintive beginning to some vibrant and passionate exchanges on both instruments. The eight original pieces are each rich in melody, evenly paced and hugely enjoyable at the same time. Interplay is the best word to describe what these two musicians do and with not a single note wasted in the process.

Porchlight Smoker | 4 | Album Review | Long Way Home Music | 21.01.19

Brighton-based British/American alt-country quartet Porchlight Smoker return with just under a dozen predominantly self-penned originals on this the band’s fourth album release, aptly entitled 4 (Four). The band’s choice of covers sit well with their original songs, such as Gillian Welch’s mournful Annabelle and a rather faithful reading of Ben Harper’s heartbreaker Walk Away, both of which are treated to distinctive arrangements here. There’s some fine and engaging storytelling, such as Steve Bell’s Loch Nan Dorb and The Clearances, both of which demonstrate the band’s folk sensibilities. With convincing vocals courtesy of all four members Steve Bell, Fred Gregory, Scotts Smith and Warman, the album flows with a showcase of melodic songs and with one or two surprises along the way, such as Gregory’s entertaining This Little Secret and Shoulda Dun Better at School, together with the charming instrumental Passchendaele Waltz.

Merry Hell | Anthems to the Wind | Album Review | Self Release | 22.01.19

For the last eight years the band formerly known as Tansads has been trading under the Merry Hell banner and bringing to each of their many concert appearances just that. They’re undoubtedly an exciting live band, full of energy and vitality, yet their anthemic songs have found an equally acceptable place on the four fine albums recorded during this period. For Anthems in the Wind the band have revisited some of their most familiar songs and have reset them for acoustic performance, recorded live at one or two suitable venues in Bunbury, Wigan and Northwich. Though very much acoustic, this doesn’t for one second mean that the strength of these songs is lacking in any way, shape or form. The stomping “Loving the Skin You’re In” is just as energy-driven as it was when it opened the band’s second album back in 2013, if not more so. The very same can also be said for such songs as “Over the Border”, “This Time” and “My Finest Hour.” If the band’s familiar energy levels are very much maintained here on these songs, then the band’s sensitivity is also maintained with sincere readings of some of the band’s most notable torchlight songs, “Lean on Me Love” and “Leave the Light On.” For those already familiar with Merry Hell, this is a great addition to your collection; for those unfamiliar, this is a great place to start.

Du Glas | Too Many Ghosts | Album Review | Self Release | 27.01.19

Debut album from Penzance-based four-piece country/folk combo, whose name translates from the Cornish as ‘blue/black.’ Of the thirteen songs here, a dozen are originals written by the band’s guitar player Anthony Power, with just the one cover, Jean Richie’s staple “The L and N Don’t Stop Here Anymore.” Although the band maintain a crisp acoustic sound throughout, there’s something slightly wobbly about Lucy Osborne’s lead vocal, which may be the result of over-enthusiasm, though she does a convincing Chrissie Hynde on “Serpent Dance.” Anthony Power’s guitar, mandolin and backing vocals, together with Tom Dauncey’s driving double bass and Ged Kingsford’s empathetic drums, seem to get the job done, a job further peppered and seasoned by a handful of guest contributors, who effectively brighten the overall sound with splashes of fiddle, dobro and flute.

Reg Meuross | 12 Silk Handkerchiefs | Album Review | Hatsongs | 27.01.19

A mixture of songs and spoken word telling the story of Lillian Bilocca in the wake of the tragic Hull triple trawler disaster of 1968, which claimed the lives of fifty-eight men. The six songs, together with their spoken introductions, evoke the true life characters involved in this struggle. Reg Meuross’s words are brought to life by a convincing cast, including Mick McGarry and Sam Martyn, with a further contribution by Brian W Lavery, whose book The Headscarf Revolutionaries this song cycle is based upon. The subject has caught the imagination of many, not least with this release together with the accompanying multi-media shows, but also with a recent BBC documentary and at least a couple of plays, most notably Maxine Peake’s recent The Last Testament of Lillian Bilocca with music by The Unthanks. A great effort is being made to keep this tragic story and the uprising that followed very much alive in our minds.

John Kilzer | Scars | Album Review | Archer Records | 29.01.19

The sentiments in the opening verse, ‘It ain’t no big deal, I’ve got a flatbed truck, Half a tank of gas and sixteen bucks..’ in a half Eagles, half Springsteen delivery, would probably not be immediately associated with the thoughts of an ordained Minister, yet this is by no means the only surprise on Scars, the new album by Jackson, Tennessee-born, now Memphis resident singer songwriter John Kilzer. This second album release for Memphis based Archer Records, is made up of eleven new original songs, written in just under three weeks, and each delivered with Kilzer’s unmistakable gritty vocal. Produced by Matt Ross-Spang (John Prine, Jason Isbell), SCARS was recorded with old school attitudes, from behind the glass, live off the floor, with vibrant results.  “The American Blues”, the first single from the album, is a pretty much down to earth no nonsense cut, although It sounds the most commercially appealing, whereas “Hello Heart” demonstrates Kilzer’s more sensitive side, with a soulful performance; “all Memphis music is soul music” concludes Kilzer. The optimistic acoustic title song alludes to Kilzer’s own demons of the past, a dark highway well travelled and the eventual sanctity of a Masters of Divinity from Memphis Theological Seminary, together with a PhD in religious studies from London’s Middlesex University and his current status as Reverend Doctor Kilzer at St John’s United Methodist Church in Memphis. A former athlete, teacher and Geffen Records recording artist, we get the feeling through these songs that his journey is nowhere near complete.

Matt Owens | Whiskey and Orchids | Album Review | Urby Records | 06.02.19

A rather tasty collection of songs here, songs that form the basis of this Nigel Stonier produced debut solo outing from Noah and the Whale’s bassist and co-founder Matt Owens. The eleven songs lean effortlessly towards a Country feel but appear to cover a broader canvas, with subjects ranging from knackered old pianos, American girls, a notable night before Christmas, together with a song that describes (in no uncertain terms) a less than favourable following year.  “Lay Down Honey” is instantly accessible as an album opener and first single release, featuring the voice of Thea Gilmore, which serves to lift and complement the song in equal measure. “The Piano at the Greyhound” demonstrates Owens’ credentials as a fine lyricist, whilst the title song eloquently describes a failed relationship with both passion and affection. With shades of Shane MacGowan, notably on “Christmas Eve” and “One Fuck of a Year”, two seasonal songs, the latter has the potential to become an anthem for our modern world, a world possibly in crisis.

The Leylines | Recover Reveal | Album Review | Self Release | 07.02.19

Formed more or less a festival band, or at least a festival is presumably the environment they work best, the West-country based band have now been around for a good five years and in that time have garnered a rather healthy following. This is possibly due to the sheer energy the five-piece band emits, choosing a name that conjures up no small measure of pseudoscientific strength and vitality; a more than suitable name for their wares. Not specifically a folk rock band, but purveyors of a musical genre you might associate with such bands as The Levellers and Ferocious Dog, a vibrant rock band then, with acoustic instruments including the all important fiddle, together with a lead singer blessed with the voice of Eddie Vedder. Steve Mitchell leads the band with focus and determination, and is joined by a tight musical collective, featuring Dan Thompson, Hannah Johns, Sean Booth and Dave Burbridge.  Following the success of their 2016 debut Along the Straight Track, the second album release Recover/Reveal showcases their current energy-driven set, kicking up a storm in places as one of titles suggests. The visuals that accompany the song “This is Your Life” are an indication of just how young the band feels, whilst the music demonstrates the band’s musical maturity. The dozen songs are driven along with tight arrangements, all of which you can imagine providing many a mosh pit with plenty of sweat and adrenaline this summer. Do check them out.

Ranagri | Playing for Luck | Album Review | Stockfish Records | 07.02.19

I guess any new offering from this exceptional Anglo/Irish acoustic quartet could be seen as an eagerly awaited event, indeed this particular release couldn’t have arrived sooner. Musically inventive, whilst maintaining an easily accessible sound, Ranagri are a class act whose musical virtuosity and complexity sits well with the original material they produce, notably the songs from the pen of Donal Rogers. Playing For Luck is the band’s fourth studio album and includes a dozen original songs delicately arranged by the band, which also includes Eliza Marshall, Ellie Turner and Joe Danks completing the line-up.  The musical democracy embodied in these four musicians is reflected in Emre Meydan’s inner illustration, which sees the band depicted as Kings and Queens from the pack. Luck plays only a small part in this band’s success, which has more to do with hard work, a multitude of live appearances and various side projects, which has seen these musicians work with a host of household names including Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Peter Gabriel and Tony Christie. It’s difficult to single out particular songs from this set, but you would do well to start with the dramatic “Trees”, the haunting “The Stranger” and the utterly beguiling and beautiful “Out There.”

Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba | Miri | Album Review | Outhere Records | 09.02.19

Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba’s fifth album Miri is more of a reflective set than the muscular Ba Power, the band’s previous album release four years ago. “Kanougnon”, the opening song, could in fact quite easily be taken as a lullaby, with Amy Sacko’s soothing vocal and Bassekou Kouyate’s fluid playing, together with a guest appearance by noted Moroccan Oud/Guimbri player Majid Bekkas. There’s a gentleness to this enchanting music from the start, echoed in the title instrumental “Miri”, which literally translates to ‘dream’ or ‘contemplation’.  Known to straddle two very distinct styles of playing, that of the traditional Ngoni (lute) music of West Africa and also that of a more explorative nature, we see Kouyate experimenting with a bottleneck for the first time, bringing an oriental feel to “Wele Ni”, which comes across more ‘Fenghuang/Hunan’ than ‘Paris/Texas’, yet this exemplifies Kouyate’s continual experimental musical journey. If “Wele Ni” looks towards the east, then “Wele Cuba” certainly casts an eye to the west, by incorporating Caribbean rhythms, which dovetail perfectly with the band’s very distinct, almost anthemic African chorus. There’s plenty of guests here including Abdoulaye Diabate, Kankou Kouyate and Habib Koite, together with Dom Flemons (Carolina Chocolate Drops) who adds some highly percussive ‘bones’ to the song “Fanga.”

Jamie Hutchings | Bedsit | Album Review | Come to the Dark Side Luke | 10.02.19

Nine highly personal songs of a very much stripped down nature from Sydney-based singer songwriter Jamie Hutchings. The album title itself reflects the atmosphere of the songs; a lone voice from a room, emoting in a most introverted fashion with sparse arrangements, a gently strummed guitar with one or two rich embellishments. The opening song “Second Winter” is in a way reminiscent of the late Isaac Hayes’ treatment of “I Stand Accused” (the long version) with its spoken intro making up half of the performance; a completely different message, but with the same purpose, of setting up an unforgettable, yet everyday scene. Nowhere does Hutchings attempt to sell us a perfect singing voice, utilising instead, his own individualistic approach to storytelling, which befits his bedsit manner. It’s a whisper in your ear, very personal, highly charged. Recorded in a former shearing shed in the Australian outback, the stark songs are reflective, contemplative and utterly beguiling. Definitely worth a listen.

Deer Tick | Mayonnaise | Album Review | Partisan Records | 14.02.19

Mayonnaise seems to be an odd title for this collection of songs by Rhode Island band Deer Tick, that is until it becomes clear that this release of ‘odds and sods’ is intended as additional dressing for the main course, that being the band’s previous albums VOL 1 and VOL 2 released simultaneously last year, as well as being a souvenir of the material chosen for their recent tour. This release includes alternative versions, one or two covers as well as some brand new material, including “Old Lady”, which sounds for all intents and purposes like John Prine channelling Hurricane Smith at Tittenhurst Park circa 1971. Of the songs the band chose to borrow from others for their most recent shows, George Harrison’s “Run of the Mill” stands out. Originally from arguably the best of all post-Beatles’ solo releases All Things Must Pass, the performance doesn’t quite match up to Harrison’s passionate vocal on the original, but they have a damn good try nevertheless, in a Cat Stevens sort of way. The Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes” is also charming in its execution, with some slightly more inventive percussion replacing Mo Tucker’s click track tambourine on the original. “White City” is pretty much a straight homage to The Pogues, though a take on Bert Jansch’s reading of “The Curragh of Kildare” would have suited the album set better (in my humble..), if not the live performance. If “Memphis Chair” is to be seen as an almost throw away cocktail lounge instrumental, the bass driven Hey! Yeah! brings us back to reality with some vibrancy. Personally, the favourite has to be the return to “Limp Right Back”, an alternative take that sprinkles a little magic dust over all the other little odds and sods.

Ruth Notman and Sam Kelly | Changeable Heart | Album Review | Pure Records | 20.02.19

The Mansfield-born, now Derbyshire-based Ruth Notman and Bristol-based Sam Kelly have effectively pooled their respective talents to present a mixed set of traditional, contemporary and self-penned songs, on this their debut duo album, together with the help and assistance of a handful of select musicians, including Josh Clark, Anthony Davis, Ross Ainslie and Damien O’Kane, who also produced the album. Often, upon its arrival, we instinctively know that a new album will take several runs through before we get used to it; this is known as ‘grower’ and it certainly has its place. Then there’s the sort of album that comes along and is an instant and immediate winner, Ruth and Sam’s album Changeable Heart is one such album and grabs you from the first note.  That first note in this case, together with following few bars of “Bold Fisherman”, appears to echo Kate Rusby’s familiar sound, which is either coincidental or more likely due to the fact that the song, together with the rest of the album, was recorded in Kate’s Pure Records studio, with her husband at the controls. Once these two highly distinctive voices are heard though, something quite new and refreshing comes through. The title song superbly demonstrates the duo’s capacity for collaboration, something the two musicians are hardly new to. Ruth has worked with a string of co-conspirators such as Bryony Bainbridge, Saul Rose and Hannah Edmonds and Sam’s list of collaborators is seemingly endless, notably The Changing Room collective with Tanya Brittain and his own Lost Boys band. Together though, this duo works extremely well with some astonishing results, notably the romping “The Cunning Cobbler” and the jointly written title song “Changeable Heart.”  For those with a healthy respect for traditional songs, “My Lagan Love”, “Caw the Yowes” and “Sweet Lass of Richmond Hill” really couldn’t be in better hands, two of those hands delicately tinkling the ivories in a most dreamlike way. Ruth’s own “As You Find Your Way Home” is a welcome addition to her own songwriting repertoire, accompanying herself on piano accordion, a newish departure for the singer, whose years of hearing Saul Rose’s melodeon in her left ear has obviously done her no disservice whatsoever. As the cover design suggests, this album is all about love and the songs certainly live up to that notion and nowhere better than in the chorus of the duo’s gorgeous reading of Paul Brady’s “The Island”, the song that closes the album, leaving us with only one burning question.. when can we expect the follow up? A lovely, warm and uplifting album.

Kel Assouf | Black Tenere | Album Review | Glitterbeat | 22.02.19

For anyone new to the raw and pulsating sound of desert blues, Kel Assouf pretty much lays out the essential tenets of the genre on this album. The Nigerien guitarist Anana Ag Naroun brandishes his trusty Gibson ‘Flying V’ like any western rock god and his licks dominate the band’s sound. Augmented by drummer Oliver Penu and producer/keyboard player Sofyann Ben Youssef, the trio’s exuberant energy can be felt immediately as they launch into the infectious guitar riff on “Fransa.”  Based in Belgium, the trio steadfastly approach the guitar riff-laden rock numbers with some urgency, although Youssef’s keyboard is equally energetic on such tracks as “Tenere” and “Ariyal” as are the prominent drums. Lyrically, the songs have a tragic potency and refer to the ongoing struggles of the nomadic Kel Tamashek. Some of that passion is evident in these songs. It’s not entirely made up of adrenaline-laden rockers though, as we are treated to a moment of sensitivity on the utterly beautiful “Tamatant”, which seems to shimmer on an oasis of golden desert sand.

Chris Grant | The Road | Album Review | Spey Valley Records | 23.02.19

No stranger to Glasgow’s thriving ‘open mic’ scene, the Morayshire-born singer songwriter Chris Grant delivers a further dozen songs here on his seventh album, each of which showcase his distinctive soulful growl, reminiscent of Cocker (Joe, not Jarvis) and each performed with a similar passion. Despite this being a solo album, as opposed to Chris being accompanied by his regular band Blues Response Unit, the songs on The Road are still treated to full band arrangements, a sound that could easily fill concert auditoriums and festival fields around the country.  Written and recorded over a four and a half year period, the songs feel somewhat ‘broken-in’ as if they’ve seen some of that long road already. Recorded at the Old Tannery Studio and surrounded by a good team, including Colin Austin who co-produces the album, Chris Grant sees this project as a ‘labour of love’ and some of that toil has now resulted in some soulful songs including “Broken, I Can Change” and “Don’t Go Yet”, each of which have the potential to be around for some time.

Gordie Tentrees and Jaxon Haldand | Grit | Album Review | Greywood Records | 25.02.19

Ontario-born singer songwriter and former boxer Gordie Tentrees, together with fellow Canadian companion of the road Jaxon Haldane, take their respective guitars, harmonica, dobro, porch board bass, tambourine, musical saw, cigar box guitar, banjo and mandolin and serve up a feast of acoustic songs, a dozen to be precise, each recorded live at various venues in Alberta. The songs avoid polish and leave all the rough edges in, the aim presumably to provide the listener with precisely what they might hear at one of their many shows. The two musicians have travelled far and wide and have certainly put in all the leg work, having performed over five hundred shows in eleven countries over the last three years. Bluesy in places, the album’s charm is in its down home, back to basics aesthetic.

Kaz Murphy | Ride Out the Storm | Album Review | Self Release | 02.03.19

In a career that has taken him from South Jersey, through Philadelphia, on to Santa Fe and Seattle and then more recently Los Angeles, singer songwriter Kaz Murphy has spread his dulcet tones far and wide. With one or two notable liaisons along the way, from his friendship with Dave Van Ronk and his work with poet Allen Ginsberg to the formation of his own band Mad Mad Nomad, a career has been formed and a craft steadily honed. The fourth in a series of albums released by Murphy, Ride Out the Storm once again showcases some fine songwriting and storytelling, delivered in a voice that falls halfway between Tom Russell and Scott Walker.

Elles Bailey | Road I Call Home | Album Review | Outlaw Music | 04.03.19

The young Bristol-based singer songwriter Elles Bailey effortlessly straddles the lines between country and blues with her second album release, the follow-up to her 2017 debut Wildfire. Recorded in both Nashville and Wales, the album sees the husky voiced singer on good form with eleven songs written over a two month period, each one treated to a fine arrangement, backed by some of Nashville’s elite. Collaborating with Roger Cook, Bobby Wood and on “Little Piece of Heaven”, Dan Auerbach (The Black Keys), the singer is in good company.  Whilst the bluesy “Medicine Man”, the first single release from the album, demonstrates Bailey’s gritty earthiness, the concluding gospel tinged “Light in the Distance” clearly demonstrates her soulful bones. Produced by Brad Nowell and Steve Blackmon Road I Call Home alludes to a life virtually lived on the road and with a five bar gate of over 200 gigs already achieved, the album with no doubt serve the singer well over the next 200.

Greg Hancock | The State of My Hair | Album Review | Self Release | 04.03.19

A thoroughly engaging suite of highly personal songs from Devon-based singer songwriter Greg Hancock, who showers his memories with an almost tangible sense of warmth. Despite changing the names of some of the real life friends, associates and relations depicted in these stories, the characters remain alive and real to the listener. The identity of some of the characters can’t really be hidden, such as Greg’s own mother, who features in both the titular opening song and the album closer, “Bedtime Now.” Neither could there be any ambiguity in the subject of “Creases and Marks”, a deeply autobiographical study of the inevitable ageing process and the very song that marked the starting point for this album. Less specific characters inform such songs as “Thunderbird Wine”, a song which allows listeners of a certain generation to immediately relate to these almost cinematic reminiscences, bringing to mind our own particular Garys, Suzannes and Sharons from our own past, together with all the fumbling, the old railway lines and our own particular youthful tipple.  This is highly observational stuff indeed, covering all aspects of everyday life, from troubled unrequited love and eventual loss of innocence, to the ageing process and dementia, all observed with a measure of dark humour. With one instrumental, “Odyssey FC”, its title referring to the Odyssey Folk Club in Southend-on -Sea, Hancock provides us with a Bryter Layter moment, a perfectly timed musical interlude, which prepares us for the rest of the stories to come. By Hancock’s own admission, these fleeting reminiscences are not particularly significant, but as with all our best memories, they pop up now and again when we least expect them, and like them or not, they make up who we are today. This rather seductive album should be revisited every now and again, like a good book.

Katie Spencer | Weather Beaten | Album Review | Self Release | 10.03.19

I first became aware of the young singer songwriter Katie Spencer a few years ago at the Beverley Folk Festival, not as a performer, but as a teenager, just crossing a field with a large guitar case in her hand, her hair fashioned like David Bowie’s character in the film Labyrinth; well not quite as theatrical as that, but close enough to make an initial impression. I think I was pondering upon the fact that at the time folk festivals were by and large attended by adults and small children, a trend that has thankfully evolved over the last few years, with a healthy presence of lots more teenagers and young adults.  It may have been the following year, when I once again caught a glimpse of this little ‘Jareth’ crossing another field and this time I was curious enough to find out what was in the case and what it sounded like in this young musician’s hands. I was actually very much hoping that I wouldn’t be disappointed, which I wasn’t. Katie stepped up on stage shortly afterwards and performed a bunch of songs, which I immediately identified as something very special indeed. Katie is the sort of performer who commands your attention and your respect from the start without being in the least bit rock star about it. She seems delicate and fragile initially, but then you soon become aware of her strength, both as a singer and as an informed guitar player. She comes over as a thoughtful and conscientious young woman, with a clear understanding of where her music needs to go and where it might eventually take her.  Weather Beaten is Katie’s first full length album, a taste of which we first heard on her initial release, the Good Morning Sky EP, which featured an appearance by the late Ted McKenna. The EP also gave us an early indication of Katie’s developing songwriting style and her seemingly effortless ethereal sound. This was followed by a further recording, Live Soundtrack to a Short Film, which opened with the dreamy Drinking the Same Water, which appears again here. Influenced by both Roy Harper and John Martyn, Katie’s strength lies in the actual feel of the songs, rather than their message. I listened to this album three times through before actually consciously listening to the words, yet once we do eventually get around to concentrating on the lyrics, we’re treated to a further discovery.  Produced by Spencer Cozens (John Martyn, Joan Armatrading) and Katie herself, Weather Beaten features nine self penned songs, together with a reworking of the traditional “Spencer the Rover”, a tribute perhaps to the late John Martyn, or maybe to her producer, or maybe even to her own family name. Spencer is all over this album. Songs like “Weather Beaten”, “Hello Sun”, “Too High Alone”, featuring Martin Winning on clarinet and even the instrumental “Helsa”, each have a dreamy quality that Katie makes her very own.

Simon Stanley Ward and the Shadows of Doubt | Songs from Various Places | Album Review | Self Release | 18.03.19

Simon Stanley Ward is the only cowboy on the British country scene whose choice prairie partner from the cavvy is a camel, or so we’re led to believe on the cover shot of the new album by this ‘surreal’ singer songwriter. With his long term band the Shadows of Doubt, Simon delivers ten highly original and idiosyncratic songs, turning the apparent influences of John Prine, Hank Williams and Dwight Yoakam on their head, with songs that explore a desire to be Jeff Goldblum (but only in Jurassic Park), the pros and cons of being a Beluga Whale and the importance of water. Hugely Enjoyable.

Danny Schmidt | Standard Deviation | Album Review | Live Once Records | 18.03.19

The tenth studio album sees the renowned Austin-based singer songwriter explore, amongst other things, fatherhood and family, with ten new songs, expressed with a distinctively cracked, almost fragile delivery. Described as ‘pencil sketch songs’, Danny elicits the assistance of a handful of choice musicians, including his partner Carrie Elkin on harmony vocals. Produced by Will Robertson, Standard Deviation once again reveals a songwriter’s songwriter doing what he does best, that is to present us with a showcase of remarkable songs from the heart, including such delights as “Newport ’65”, which channels mid-60s Dylan and the achingly poignant “We Need a Better Word.”

Nigel Stonier | Navigate | Album Review | Shameless Records | 19.03.19

Renowned record producer pops out from his familiar position behind the console to deliver his latest solo album of original songs. Part Robyn Hitchcock, part Chris Difford with a whole load of Nigel Stonier in between, songs such as “Bad Dancers of a Certain Age”, “One of the Good Guys” and “Red Letter Life”, reflect the human condition from behind a wry smile. Whilst we find a tender side of Stonier in “Me With You” and “Safe Place”, two self-probing love songs, “What Could Possibly Go Wrong” is almost cinematic in its world view of the current situation we find ourselves in. Produced in partnership with Seadna McPhail, Navigate does precisely what it says on the tin, through our lives and times.

The Unthanks | Lines | Album Review | RabbleRouser Music | 20.03.19

Essentially three unique song cycles, threaded together by history, poetry and from female perspectives. If previous projects by The Unthanks have involved large scale productions to include brass bands, strings and even full blown symphony orchestras, Lines pretty much gets back to basics, with emotive vocal performances, subtle arrangements and in the case of Parts Two, the use of the piano Holst wrote the Planets on and Part Three, the piano that originally belonged to Emily Bronte herself; we can only imagine the powerful connection in time and space between the popular 19th century writer and Adrian McNally’s tentative phalanges. Although in terms of distance, the Bronte Parsonage and the Hull docklands are practically neighbours, bookending the county of Yorkshire, the worlds of the Bronte family and Lillian Bilocca’s Headscarf Revolutionaries are worlds apart, yet there’s still the subliminal connection in and between the lines. As is expected, Emily Bronte’s words are eloquently delivered by both Rachel and Becky Unthank accompanied by Adrian’s delicate piano, whilst the guests, including both Sam Lee and Tim Dalling on the ‘middle’ song cycle which traverses the poetry and letters of WWI, brings another fresh dimension to the project. Originally written and performed in 2014 to celebrate its centenary year, World War One focuses on one or two slightly more obscure writers such as Jessie Pope and Teresa Hooley, their words so powerfully and emotively delivered. The arrival of each new project by The Unthanks, whether it be a new band album, a stage or tour production, a sideways diversion or simply an impromptu sing around the piano, it’s always an event. Lines is a three part event that should be heard, absorbed and remembered, beautifully packaged and presented as something to cherish.

Harbottle and Jonas | The Sea is My Brother | Album Review | Brook View Records | 26.03.19

Our obsession with the sea has been detailed in every corner of the arts, from Hokusai’s monumental painting The Great Wave, Debussy’s impressionistic orchestral composition La Mer, Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Iris Murdoch’s Booker winning novel The Sea, The Sea and countless folk songs and shanties throughout time. The subject rarely fails to intrigue and always feeds the imagination, with its myriad stories. The Devon-based duo David Harbottle and Freya Jonas bring the subject alive once again in song, with an album comprised of predominantly self-penned songs reflecting our relationship with the sea, from various perspectives, such as the heroics of both the friar who stayed aboard the sinking Titanic to be with his congregation “Fr Thomas Byles” and Grace Darling, the lighthouse keeper’s daughter who saved lives off the coast of Northumberland in the mid nineteenth century “A Lady Awake”, to Lillian Bilocca’s tireless campaign for better working conditions in the fishing industry in Kingston upon Hull in the 1960s Headscarf Revolutionaries. Even the unlikely appearance of Jack Kerouac, whose lost novel The Sea is My Brother provides the album with its title, makes this album ever more appealing. Perhaps it’s the duo’s arrangement of a poem by John Masefield “Hall Sands” that effectively injects real spirit into the album, a song you’re likely to play over and over.

ImRam | Ever New Joy | Album Review | Beautiful World Agency | 26.03.19

This album should perhaps begin with track two, a wonderful blend of new and old, as the opening mantra on “Maheshvara Shiva” is guided by its contemporary feel, its bluesy lead guitar sparring effortlessly with tasteful electronica, a music designed around its alleged healing powers. ImRam is a Kriya Yogi, a healer who takes his music seriously. He surrounds himself with a multi-national collective, from his native Russia as well as India, Ukraine and the UK. The musical styles are even more eclectic, traversing Indian ragas, bhajans, kirtans, Sufi, Celtic and assorted shamanic chants and mantras, effectively uniting in a broad musical sphere. It’s rewarding to listen to, it feels good and has the potential to heal, an important attribute in these times, evident in such explorative signatures as “Sita Ram”, “Elfie’s Song” and “Lonely Shivaya.”

Nick Waterhouse | Nick Waterhouse | Album Review | Self Release | 26.03.19

This is the fourth album by Santa Ana-born singer, songwriter and record producer Nick Waterhouse, whose retro rock stance seems to play out for real, each song sounding for all intents and purposes like the ‘real deal.’ With plenty of twangy guitars, a voice not unlike prime era Eric Burdon and a band of musicians and singers suited to the authentic Fifties era – the album was in fact recorded at Electro Vox Recorders, which is as near as we’re going to get to this highly distinctive style – this eponymous release shamelessly shows its roots on such delights as “Wreck the Rod”, “Wherever She Goes (She is Wanted)”, “Black Glass” and the vibrant instrumental “El Viv.”

Ustad Saami | God is Not a Terrorist | Album Review | Glitterbeat | 26.03.19

There was a time in the mid-1990s when the mesmerising sound of the Pakistani devotional singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan would drift through the unassuming household of a quiet suburban South Yorkshire village, largely due to the influence of the then ultra popular Jeff Buckley, together with the lead song from the soundtrack of the Tim Robbins Death Row drama Dead Man Walking. It was a sound from another world, which was at once hypnotic, mysterious and deeply spiritual. This sound has been largely absent around this particular household, until that is, the arrival of this Ian Brennan-produced album. Released as Volume 5 in Glitterbeat’s ‘Hidden Musics’ series, the album features Pakistan’s Ustad Saami, a 75 year-old Khayal singer, Khayal being the predecessor of the popular Qawwali music famously produced by Ali Khan between the mid-1960s up until his death in 1997, with six titles which revisit the intense drones of an archaic form, performed in a multitude of languages, including Sanskrit, Farsi, Hindi, Urdu, Arabic and what might be politely described as gibberish. Recorded at Saami’s home in Karachi, the six pieces of varying lengths, “Hymn” coming in at just over a minute, whilst the sprawling “Longing” reaches almost nineteen, are deeply hypnotic and feature a voice that would be almost impossible to imitate, accompanied by a minimalist drone-like harmonium. The roots of this music stretches back to the 13th century and in this release, we detect that it has lost none of its power over time.

Copper Viper | Cut It Down, Count the Rings | Album Review | Self Release | 26.03.19

With tight vocal harmonies and empathetic guitar/mandolin/fiddle playing, Robin Joel Sangster and Duncan Menzies perform with an almost sibling closeness, not unlike their inspiration, Simon and Garfunkel and the Milk Carton Kids, two combos who exemplify a certain vocal closeness that doesn’t necessarily adhere to the notion of having to be strictly connected by genes. The London-based duo have begun to spread their wings with an impressive debut album consisting of eleven self-penned songs that straddle the lines between Country, British Folk and Bluegrass; an album that will no doubt serve them well as their name becomes better known, with such fine arrangements as “Bad Desires”, “Hung Up Alone” and the rather sublime “Fly.” With Ryan Hadlock at the helm at the Bear Creek Studio in Woodinville, WA, and the album being mastered by Gavin Lurssen (Plant and Krauss, Oh Brother, Where Art Thou), further credentials are rendered unnecessary. Cut it Down, Count the Rings is one of those albums that hung around the office for a few weeks before I got around to listening to it, which was inevitably followed by a niggling feeling that I had in fact wasted those weeks.

Dallahan | Smallworld | Album Review | Westpark Music | 04.04.19

The five-piece Scots-based band return with their third album, once again exploring a broad range of musical styles, incorporating Balkan influences, Roma Gypsy melodies, North American tunes as well as traditional Scots and Irish material. The title appears to reflect the fact that musically speaking, these musicians do indeed inhabit a small world. In just five years Dallahan have provided a veritable melting pot of both instrumental compositions and songs, here delivered in both English and Hungarian. The ten selections showcase a tight and empathetic unity between the five musicians, with compelling arrangements throughout, from the opening set “Aye Chiki Chiki” through to the sublime closer “Arok Arok.” There’s a vibrant atmosphere permeating the album, which truly reflects the band’s world savvy live set. It goes without saying that on these songs and tunes, there’s no slouching, with each musician’s contribution being nothing short of outstanding.

Mike Vass | Save His Calm | Album Review | Unroofed Records | 04.04.19

Occasionally, a musician comes along and surprises us by delivering the unexpected – Tim Edey proved himself as a virtuoso guitar player, then astonished us further with his equally astonishing melodeon playing. Phillip Henry let us know how good he was on the Dobro, then stuck a harmonica in his mouth and left us breathless – that sort of thing. We’d just about got used to the instrumental flair of Mike Vass, which is what I expected from this album, only to find Mike revealing his outstanding songwriting credentials and soothing singing voice reminiscent of Master and Everyone-period Bonnie Prince Billy. On Save His Calm, Mike treats us to something rather different to what we expected, an album of gentle and calming songs, as the title suggests, although a closer look at the title will reveal a more obvious reason when descrambled.  If Decemberwell (2012), In the Wake of Neil Gunn (2014) and last year’s Notes From a Boat confirmed Mike’s standing as a fine instrumental genius, then Save His Calm rounds off a perfect circle with songs to remember, including the contemplative “Gates of Saints”, the delightfully frank “Done With Calling You” and the hypnotic “The Rainbow of Your Last Days.”

Blick Bassy | 1958 | Album Review | No Format | 06.04.19

Reflecting on the events that led to the independence of his native Cameroon, Blick Bassy’s tender song cycle showcases a rather affecting relationship between his own highly distinctive vocal dexterity and the fine performances provided by the small gathering of musicians, including Clement Petit on cello, Alexi Merrill on trumpet and keyboards and Johan Blanc on trombone. At the centre of the album, and its chief subject, is the anti-colonialist leader of the Popular Union of Cameroon, Ruben Um Nyobé, who in 1958 was killed by French troops, an episode pretty much suppressed until recently. In an effort to iron out the skewed history of his homeland as chronicled by his biased educators, Bassy employs a tender approach to highlight the truth behind his country’s troubled past, whilst delivering eleven utterly soothing songs, including the dreamy “Where We Go”, which almost abruptly concludes the album.

Amy Thatcher | Solo | Album Review | Self Release | 06.04.19

Those who have already discovered Amy Thatcher for themselves will undoubtedly be familiar with her work with either The Shee, Sting, the Monster Ceilidh Band or indeed The Side, Kathryn Tickell’s band, or maybe all four. In each of these outfits, Amy plays an important dual role, that of an excellent accordion player and energetic clog dancer, but also as a composer in her own right. On this, her debut album, Amy goes solo as the title suggests and explores her compositional chops in more detail, as well providing us with more of her nifty finger and footwork. Albeit totally instrumental, the tunes are highly personal and in one or two cases, written with friends and bandmates firmly in mind, such as “April’s Child”, written for The Shee’s Lillias Kinsman-Blake, “Jo Lin”, for one of Amy’s best pals and “Ian’s Favourite” for a former teacher, written during Amy’s final year studying folk and traditional music. If Solo is dedicated to friends and family, nowhere is this more apparent than on “Sleep Spindles/Zakopane Christmas”, the former tune written by Shona Mooney, her bandmate from The Shee, the latter, a seasonal tune written for both Amy’s and her husband’s families. Amy’s latest musical venture will see her once again with Kathryn Tickell as part of her brand new venture, The Darkening, along with Cormac Byrne, Joe Truswell, Kate Young and Kieran Szifris.

Becky Mills | Tall Tales and Home Truths | Album Review | Talking Elephant Records | 06.04.19

Often, taking time over a project leads to greater results and for Becky Mills’ new record, six years was enough to ensure that her listeners would sit up and listen. With ten original songs, Becky once again demonstrates a clearly defined confidence in both her song writing and her strong vocal performances, accompanying herself on guitar with unfussy arrangements, which allows her selection of fine collaborators the space to express themselves. Ruth Angell’s warm and inviting violin never outstays its welcome, nor does Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne’s concertina. Blair Dunlop’s atmospheric electric guitar is restrained, providing the space for Becky’s story telling, notably on “The Lady of Ballantyne.” Lyrically, the subjects weave between family stories and local folklore, inviting us to eavesdrop on the former Waking the Witch singer’s ethereal world. It’s been a while since Becky’s debut solo album Dandelion, and the arrival of Tall Trees and Home Truths has been well worth the wait.

Union Duke | Golden Days | Album Review | Self Release | 07.04.19

The third album release by Toronto-based five-piece Union Duke, once again showcases the band’s raw exuberance with a sound that comes as close to a live performance as possible, before an audience of just the production personnel. The thirteen songs are all originals, written variously by four of the five musicians and delivered in a contemporary indie-rock/bluegrass/country style, with some delicious vocal harmonies, very much their own. “Heavy Wind” is a perfect opener, imbued with an urgency in its delivery, which effectively paves the way for such accessible tunes as “Bird on the Wing”, the uplifting “Chasing Headlights”, the banjo-led “Fare Thee Well” and the title song “Golden Days (I’ve Been Down).” If “Coffee/Whiskey” shows off the band’s informed bluegrass chops (there’s even a ‘yee-haw’ in there somewhere) and “Torn in Two” is possibly as Country as it gets, then the pop sensibility of “Reminder Song” should ensure the band plenty of radio play.

Jonathan Day | A Spirit Library | Album Review | NiiMiika | 07.05.19

Just a glimpse at Jonathan Day’s tour schedule and we detect a well-traveled musician, with festivals, gigs and workshops from Shrewsbury to Hong Kong, Glastonbury to Bangkok, Llanfyllin to Tokyo. With such a tour planned, you would expect a performer to have something worthy to take on tour with them and in this case, we see the release of Jonathan’s third album, a conceptual piece that is at once atmospheric, ethereal in places and spiritual as the title suggests. With lyrics inspired by a deep well of literary sources, from Hermann Hesse to the Lakota visionary Black Elk, as well as a seventh century poet and the memoirs of the explorers Mallory and Irvine, the songs are richly embellished with inventive flurries courtesy of a variety of instruments from around the world, including the butterfly dulcerina, the tanpura, the suang guo and the mellotron, together with various percussion from the kitchen. Together, the instrumentation lifts each song from the page to the studio with impressive results. The opening piece, with the portentous title, “A Spirit Library – Welcome for Those Arriving, Lament for Those Lost on the Way”, is as grand an opening statement as can be expected to make an appearance on any singer songwriter’s third album release. A Spirit Library isn’t party music, nor is it something to play in the airport, rather it’s an album to listen to in the comfort of your armchair, with the coffee percolating beside you. It will help you dream.

Fémina | Perlas and Conchas | Album Review | Self Release | 08.05.19

We don’t really need a diploma in Latin to figure out that Fémina translates to ‘woman’, a more than suitable moniker for these three Argentinian vocalists, whose sultry and sensual harmonies weave their way across continents, from their native San Martin de los Andes in the southern region of Patagonia, to the clubs of New York, Paris and London. The trio is made up of sisters Sofia and Clara Trucco, together with Clara Miglioli, who each appear a little like Botticelli’s Birth of Venus on the cover, their hair and conchas (shells) coming in as handy as fig leaf replacements from an earlier story. If the cover attempts to demonstrate their sensuality to varying degrees of success, the songs certainly come closer. Sensuality drips from the performances, certainly on “Agradezco” (I appreciate) and “Treparme” (climb up) with superb vocals both individually and collectively, to an enticing set of beats. Iggy Pop even makes a guest appearance on “Resist”, evidently unable to resist an attempt to sound equally as sensual as Fémina.

Curtis Eller’s American Circus | A Poison Melody | Album Review | Self Release | 04.06.19

One of the most rewarding things about the songs of Curtis Eller, is that they take you to a different time and place to what you’re probably used to. In the past, the banjo-totin’ troubadour has provided us with tickets for an extraordinary trip through the annals of American history, evoking the spirit of the silent movie stars, dead presidents and boxing giants along the way, with the occasional pigeon ‘coo’ thrown in. Like Zelig, you imagine Curtis popping up in Movietone newsreels, appropriately attired in baggy trousers, vest and sneakers; the vaudeville clown with a deeper message, the burlesque entertainer with a pocketful of dreams. A Poison Melody sees Curtis and the American Circus come of age as the songs begin to grow on you from the start, notably “Radiation Poison”, “No Soap Riot” and the daring “After the Riot.” The vibrancy of Eller’s engaging performances are enhanced at every step along the way by the soaring punch of Steve Cowles’ tenor sax, Danny Grewen’s trombone and Danny Abrams’ baritone sax, or Tom Merrigan’s smokey blues piano on “Pay the Band”, not to mention Dana Marks and Stacy Wolfson’s alluring vocals, which effectively weave the soul into all the right places. At the helm though, Curtis Eller, whose expressive banjo licks are plucked and stroked with delicate restraint. The title song itself wouldn’t seem out of place on Tom Waits’ debut Closing Time, it’s superb duet providing the heart to this extraordinarily superb album, whilst the band’s treatment of Pete Seeger’s “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” deserves revisiting again and again, lest we forget.

Alex Seel | Spell on a Tin Drum | Album Review | Self Release | 06.06.19

Often singer songwriter albums, with no specific points of reference, covers for example, or that old famous guitar player who contributes a solo via email from his Malibu beach house, are sometimes difficult to write about. Then there’s always the sad back story of broken hearts along the road, personal tragedy or that specific lost weekend no one speaks of any more. In the case of Alex Seel’s new album Spell on a Tin Drum, we don’t need to rely on anything other than the songs themselves, which are immediately accessible and thoroughly engaging. Apparently written for the most part in a caravan on the west coast of Ireland, which is probably as good a place as any to come up with this sort of craftsmanship, the nine songs are highly melodic, beautifully arranged and feature some fine contributions, notably Tom White’s bluesy trombone on “Grass is Greener” and Toni Geiling’s sweeping violin/viola accompaniment on the album opener “Take This Guitar.” If identifying an influence or indeed a precedence for Alex Seel’s sound, Tim Buckley’s HAPPY/SAD period springs to mind, especially on “Before the Sun Goes“, the resemblance of which is slightly uncanny. As a dyed-in-the-wool Buckley head, I return to this one a lot, as should you.

Buford Pope | The Waiting Game | Album Review | Unchained Records | 25.07.19

Mikael Liljeborg, otherwise known as Buford Pope, hails from Gotland, an isolated Swedish Island in the Baltic Sea. Raised on a diet of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and Neil Young, whose influence is evident here, especially on the Young inspired “Hey Hey Aha”, Buford Pope’s prolific output is beginning to stretch beyond his well explored European stomping ground. This latest collection of a dozen self-penned songs, points towards a more mature period of creativity, the mandolin-led “Hard Life” reminiscent of Steve Winwood’s return to form in the mid-1980s, contrasting with the gritty blues of “A Hundred and Ninety-Nine” to the delicate rendering of both “Can I Be There For You” and “Tell Me What I Am”, each of which demonstrates a decidedly tender side of Pope’s writing. With Mark Drake sharing a writing credit on the opening song “America”, The Waiting Game is pretty much Buford Pope through and through.

Dan Korn and Joe Sharp | Polaris | Album Review | Self Release | 26.07.19

There’s something delicate and dreamy about the songs of Dan Korn, decidedly whimsical in places, “Idaho” and “Women in Love” for instance, then strangely emotive in others. Delivered in a fragile, almost whispered manner, there’s a consistency to the duo’s simple arrangements, just guitar and double bass with some additional percussion in places. Joe Sharp’s bass lines are both empathetic and understated, as are his harmony vocal parts. The classically trained musician also contributes two of his own original songs, “For Love” and “The Promise”, both seamlessly dove-tailed alongside Dan’s lion’s share of the writing. This is the sort of album you could take into a quiet solitary space and not come out for a while.

Katie Doherty and the Navigators | And Then | Album Review | Steeplejack | 27.07.19

With a vocal timbre reminiscent in places of Nancy Kerr, the Newcastle-based Teessider Katie Doherty explores her own self-penned songs with a voice made to do magical things. The arrangements are beautifully traversed by Katie’s lead collaborators, Shona Mooney (The Shee) on fiddle and Dave Gray (Världens Band) on melodeon, whose empathetic playing and collective craftsmanship weave around Katie’s voice in a most versatile and informed manner. Even during the one non-original track “Polska”, a traditional instrumental, Katie’s ethereal voice permeates, bringing with it a sense of the ‘otherworldly.’ At the piano, Katie emotes in rich swathes of melodic grace, notably on the delightful “Heartbeat Ballroom” and in particular, the uplifting “We Burn”, which features the cast of Beyond the End of the Road, bringing the album to a close. This is an album that won’t be filed away on the shelf, not for a good while yet.

Gavin Sutherland | A Traveller’s Tales | Album Review | Self Release | Self Release | 27.07.19

It’s still difficult to hear the name Gavin Sutherland without being instantly reminded of such engaging melodies as “Love on the Moon”, “Midnight Rendezvous” or the lilting “Lifeboat”, along with elder brother Iain’s highly melodic “When the Train Comes”, “Moonlight Lady” and most memorably, “Arms of Mary”, during the Sutherland Brothers’ creative peak. I say ‘creative peak’, but perhaps that should be amended to ‘peak of their popularity’, as the two musicians, now into their autumn years, are still creating fine songs. A Traveller’s Tale is Gavin Sutherland’s sixth solo album to date and once again builds on a prolific catalogue of fine self-penned songs, created in quite a different way to those memorable SB&Q LPs of the 1970s. The internet provides new opportunities for communicating between musicians and the dozen songs here eloquently demonstrate that the distance in miles can be reduced to a matter of millimeters when using current studio technology. Those musicians, which include Seattle’s Nancy K Dillon, together with Heidi Browne, Dave Sutherland and Nick Zaka, offer fine contributions to each of the songs, delivered in Gavin’s now familiar, almost JJ Cale-like growl. The swampish vocal sounds are so authentic that “Wheels are Rolling” and “The Bend in the River” could be mistaken for something recorded in Muscle Shoals, rather than on the north-east coast of Scotland.

Michael Walsh | Quarehawk | Album Review | Self Release | 28.07.19

Any ambiguity we might have surrounding the definition of the word ‘quarehawk’ is almost immediately resolved as this Manchester-born, now Sheffield-based musician sets out his manifesto midway through the title track, a set of three tunes with a spoken interlude in the middle. It’s bold, it’s liberating, and it’s joyous in its delivery, “I am the one whose head dances to a different beat”, he tells the listener before he goes any further. “I am the boy who could be a girl, I am that little boy who plays with dolls”, he continues, with unwavering boldness. He’s also “the fluter who wants to play slow” and it’s while playing his wooden flute and indeed his tin whistle, that we begin to completely understand the uniqueness of this ‘English cousin’, as he sets out to show us his Irish roots. The tunes are rich in atmosphere, brilliantly performed and sincerely delivered. “The Visitor” is a beautiful meditation on loss and reflection, spoken in a tender, yet completely honest voice, as poet Mike Garry’s gentle and dignified words dance upon the sound of a traditional air, “An Buachaillín Donn” or “The Brown Haired Boy.” By way of contrast, the Armagh-born singer Ríoghnach Connolly joins Michael on the stunning “Shores of Lough Bran”, together with some delicious harmony vocals courtesy of Bryony Griffith, reminding us once again that the Irish quite possibly have the all best tunes around. Other influences are explored such as the Asturian music of Western Spain, notably the lively “Barralin/Pasucáis de uviéu”, as well as being reunited with old friend, the Basque master of the Trikitixa, Kepa Junkera on the title piece together with the bonus ‘party mix’ of the same tunes. Bookended by a couple of tunes “Marian’s Favourite” and “Crowley’s Reel”, recorded live to a vinyl lathe, adds a touch of authenticity to the music on the album, reminding us of the past and as Michael tells us in the sleeve notes, “Don’t touch those knobs! It’s all about the crackle.” Standing in an alleyway, illuminated by the beam of a streetlight, lipping his flute and gazing up at the stars, we are provided with a twilight image that pretty much sums up the charm of this highly individual musician and the music on this album is a reflection of that in spades.

Chris Rawlins | Bring on the Rain | Album Review | Self Release | 29.07.19

The high rise cluster of buildings on the cover of Chris Rawlins’ debut album suggests an adopted home of urban Chicago, though having spent many years developing his craft in New York, this singer songwriter actually began his journey in the wonderfully named Kalamazoo in Michigan some years before. Despite the stark inverted urban landscape, the songs have a surprising gentleness and simplicity to them, each delivered in a relaxed, almost reflective manner. Surrounded by a handful of choice musicians, notably Brian Wilkie on pedal steel, the songs lean towards tender country fare, though there are moments when Rawlins’ love of jazz is apparent, such as on “Leave.” Recorded in Chicago and produced by Steve Dawson, Bring on the Rain points positively in the direction of good things ahead for this new artist.

Sam Baker | Horses and Stars | Album Review | Self Release | 01.09.19

Sam Baker’s story has often been told, a terrorist attack survivor, a lone troubadour and a passionate storyteller with a difference. Singer songwriters often have the luxury of inhabiting fictional characters in their songs whilst also eloquently telling the truth about themselves at the same time. Sam’s songs tell us that his own reality has come at great personal cost, some of which is reflected here in a sparse and clutter free setting. For Sam’s first live album, those life experiences come to us in a most direct manner, before an almost silent audience. Though it sounds pretty much an empty space judging by the sparse applause, there is still much electricity evident in the room, this particular room being the Event Center in Buffalo, New York. Recorded back in July 2018, the songs were never intended for release, being just another in a series of recordings made for the sole purpose of listening back, just to see how it went. The dozen songs are familiar and delivered with passion, a lone voice accompanied by an electric guitar, a bit of harmonica and the occasional percussive stomp. In a way, Horses and Stars just might be a good starting place for those not yet touched by this unique performer’s songs, such as “Broken Fingers”, “Angel Hair” and “Same Kind of Blue.”

Vera Van Heeringen | Won’t Be Broken | Album Review | Wood and Steel Records | 06.09.19

If ever I’m fortunate enough to be at a festival with Vera Van Heeringen on the bill, I always stick around for her entire set, regardless of who might be appearing on the other stage. I always find her sets easy to settle into, which no doubt has something to do with her distinctively warm voice, her command over both guitar and mandolin and her unique stance as a first rate wordsmith. As a former member of the New Rope String Band, notable for their completely bizarre slapstick humour, Vera always came over as the female equivalent of Buster Keaton, her stoic expression effortlessly bringing joy to the audience. Here though, we see a completely different side of Vera’s multitude of talents, and on this her third solo album, which follows the equally impressive Standing Tall (2011) and Proper Brew (2015), the Dutch singer songwriter continues to show remarkable skill, whilst placing herself at the forefront of the growing tradition of transatlantic acoustic musicians.  We really need look no further for proof of Vera’s exceptional song writing  credentials than with the opening song “Gods”, which eloquently explores the changes we could make if only we were of a more divine nature. There’s pain within the lyrics, each adhering to a searching quality, unafraid to take a peek into the dark side, “Man with a Gun” for instance, which demands repeat plays. Stylistically, Vera and her faithful collaborators, Dave Luke on guitar and mandolin and Andy Seward on both electric and double bass, maintain a now familiar new bluegrass sensibility, with a brief ‘toe-in-the-Bayou’ moment on “Blankets”, where Dirk Powell and Jock Tyldesley’s accordion and triangle take us immediately to the swamps of Louisiana for a perfect conclusion to Vera Van Heeringen’s best album yet. Won’t Be Broken is perhaps a reflection of her engaging live appearances, the songs demand your attention throughout and coming in at just over half an hour, it’s hardly a big ask, so afford yourself the time and you certainly won’t be disappointed.

Kae Shelby | Music and Motorcycles | Album Review | Willow Sound Records | 06.09.19

With an interesting backstory, including her career as an Ottawa law enforcement officer, the Ontario-based singer songwriter Kae Shelby returns to her first love, writing and performing quality songs. After serving a period as one half of the duo DanahKae with musical partner Danah-Lee Krieger, Kae goes solo with the release of her debut album Music and Motorcycles, the title inspired by the optimistic road song “My High, My Way.” The album shimmers with soulful rock ballads, including the highly radio friendly “Waiting for When” and the bluesy “Through the Reckless”, a song influenced by the relationship between Kae and her own father, which is both tender and highly emotive at the same time. There’s a subtle confidence ingrained in the eight predominantly self penned songs, with a couple of covers, Melissa Etheridge’s “Late September Dogs” and Brad Paisley’s “When I Get Where I’m Going”, both of which dovetail neatly between Kae’s originals. With North Easton on guitar, producer Anders Drerup on additional guitar, as well as sharing backing vocal duties with Kelly Prescott, the album maintains an intimate, uncluttered feel. There may be sadness here, but that sadness is offset by a resilient spirit and an inspirational drive.

TMSA | Young Trad Tour 2018 | Album Review | TMSA | 07.09.19

Ensemble performances by the finalists and winners of last year’s BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year Competition. As opportunities arise for our younger musicians, a spirit of unity supersedes a spirit of competition and the ten selections here demonstrates that unity perfectly well. With some outstanding musicianship and confident vocal performances, Hannah Rarity, Rory Matheson, Amy Papiransky, Alexander Levack, David Sedden, Luc McNally and Charlie Stewart shine under the directorship of Anna Massie. Selecting from a deep well of both traditional and original material, including songs from the pens of Amy Papiransky, Brian McNeill and Findlay Napier, both songs and tunes are treated to fine arrangements, each musician’s contribution demonstrating startling maturity.  The TMSA (Traditional Music and Song Association) of Scotland was established over fifty years ago and as a membership organisation continues to nurture new and exciting talent from north of the border. The voice of last year’s winner Hannah Rarity is represented here with a fine performance of Brian McNeill’s “Strong Women Rule Us All”, whilst Rory Matheson’s fingers walk all over the keyboard with Scott Skinner’s “The Mathematician”, but it’s the ensemble pieces such as the traditional “Tae the Beggin’” that demonstrates the collective’s chops best.

Oh Susanna | Johnstown | Album Review | Continental Song City | 07.09.19

It’s hard to believe that twenty years have passed since the initial release of Oh Susanna’s debut album Johnstown at the back end of the last Millennium. Suzie Ungerleider began her musical journey four years earlier in the mid-Nineties, with the launch of the Canadian singer songwriter’s debut EP following shortly afterwards. A year later, five acoustic songs emerged as A Shot of Oh Susannah, each of which would later appear in more polished form on this album, included here as bonus tracks. Johnstown was always a bold statement that showcased Oh Susanna’s burgeoning prowess as a credible songwriter with a convincing voice to match, a sort of Patti Smith attitude delivered via Emmylou Harris tonsils. Produced by Peter J Moore (Cowboy Junkies, The Band), Johnstown has barely dated in the intervening years, in fact it sounds as fresh today as it did upon its initial release. Songs like “Alabaster”, “Old Kate”, “You’ll Always Be” and the title song mark Oh Susanna as one of Canada’s most convincing folk voices around today and the reissue of this landmark album reminds us of this fact all over again.

Annie Keating | Can’t Stand Still | Album Review | 8th Street Studios | 08.09.19

A spirit of movement is captured in six songs on Annie Keating’s new mini-album Can’t Stand Still, very much reflected in the blurry walking feet and topsy turvy title on the album cover. It’s almost as if we were already prepped for the instant vibrancy of “Beholden”, which opens the record, its gutsy electric guitar lick courtesy of Dan Mills, who co-wrote this and three other songs on the record. “Beholden” captures our attention immediately, which is further maintained in the following five songs, notable the punchy $20 and the groove-laden “Mother of Exile”, curiously reminding me of “Oops.. I Did It Again”, which I don’t necessarily think of as a bad thing; I’ve always believed that Britney had all the best melodies, even if her lyrical content left a lot to be desired! Finally, the mini-album concludes with a faithful reading of “Trouble”, one of the songs written by a recuperating Cat Stevens in the late Sixties after being treated for a collapsed lung, which in this case is delivered in a more familiar, vulnerable, almost fragile Annie Keating vocal.

Amy and Gavin Davenport | A Boat of Promises | Album Review | Hallamtrads | 09.09.19

This is the first outing on record for the husband/wife team of Amy and Gavin Davenport (Albion Band, Crucible), though they’ve been singing together for a good while. Both come from families known for their singing and therefore it was only a matter of time until the duo produced their own debut album. Like their Sheffield-based pals Nancy Kerr and James Fagan, the duo sing and write their own songs with further emphasis on the reworking of both traditional and contemporary material, both singing throughout, with Gavin’s guitar and cittern accompaniment, as well as guest appearances by Tim Yates, Tom Kitching and Jon Loomes.   There’s a strong focus on the sea, emphasised not only in Amy’s evocative cover painting, but also by her background as an experienced tall ship sailor, with fine readings of such songs as Stan Rogers’ “The Jeannie C“, John Connolly’s “The Widowmaker” as well as Gavin’s own “A Boat of Promises”, from which the album takes its title. The duo’s combined singing voices work well together, especially on such songs as “Drowsy Sleeper”, a version of “Silver Dagger” and Archie Fisher’s “The Return“, a sequel to “The Witch of the Westmorland”, yet it’s with such songs as “I’m a-Fading Day by Day” and “Anne Bonnie”, that brings Amy’s surprisingly strong and convincing voice to the fore. Nancy Kerr’s “Droving Dreams” is a fine optimistic opener, given to the duo as they set out on their further adventures, first London and then Liverpool, their current home, a song that I’m sure resonates throughout their lives, whilst serving as their own particular signature. Living in a city with strong connections to both the sea and music, A Boat of Promises could perhaps be seen as an organic continuation of its seafaring history and its strong musical heritage.

Sara Grey and Kieron Means | Better Days a Comin | Album Review | Wild Goose | 10.09.19

Sara Grey, whose voice has been a familiar sound on the world folk scene over the last half century, is joined here by her son Kieron Means, whose own voice is reminiscent of Doc Watson, which brings a sense of authenticity to this fine collection of both traditional and contemporary songs. Sara’s reputation on the Old Time music scene, both as a fine solo singer and banjo player, as well as a collaborator in her popular duo with Ellie Ellis, is well documented. Those of us who remember the 1980s will remember some of the duo’s engaging shows on the British folk club circuit at the time.   Unsurprisingly, both mother and son sound good together here, their empathetic voices melding like honey. Both Sara and Kieran are steeped in the traditions of American folk music as opposed to what we like to refer to as Americana, which the two musicians are only too keen to point out. With over half a century as a performer behind her, Sara has a rich repertoire to draw upon and on Better Days a Comin, the sixteen songs and tunes showcases the duo’s familial unity, especially on such songs as the lilting “On the Way to Jordan”, from which the album gets its title, the blues-drenched “I Know Those Tears”, the apocalyptic gospel of “When This World is at its End” and the unaccompanied “Away Down the Road.”

Jake Aaron | Fag Ash and Beer | Album Review | Self Release | 11.09.19

The opening instrumental on Jake Aaron’s debut album came as something of a surprise, not just because of its title “Elvis Has Left the Building”, but because I didn’t expect such a jazzy Jimmy Smith-styled groove as an opener to an album entitled Fag Ash and Beer. Even though the cover Polaroid perfectly explains the album title, it still betrays the music within. Steve Lodder’s organ sound is straight out of a late Sixties exploitation movie and is surprisingly, just about the only thing like it on the album. The title song that follows immediately afterwards, brings us around to something more like what I expected, something more kitchen sink, with Jake Aaron’s crystal clear acoustic guitar very much to the fore and with an almost spoken vocal, together with a barking dog; this is no ordinary record.   There’s one or two shorter musical interludes between the songs, “For B”, “Allegro”, “Also” and “Late Night Radio”, all of which brings character to the album as a whole, rather than just serving as fillers. “Genevieve Alright” is reminiscent of Seventies Kevin Ayers, whilst “Morning Town” has the jangly resonance of the Byrds’ “Chestnut Mare.” Aaron’s own nod to all things equine, comes at the end with the extended instrumental “Give Me Your Horse”, which features the two Steves, Waterman on trumpet, sparring effortlessly with Lodder’s swirling organ. It’s a mixed bag as Aaron rightly points out, “like rummaging through an antique market.”

I See Hawks in L.A. and the Good Intentions | Hawks with Good Intentions | Album Review | Western Seeds Record Company | 12.09.19

The first thing that struck me when I first picked up the sleeve of this record, was just how daunting it must be for an MC or DJ to introduce an outfit with a name made up of a dozen syllables, yet I’m sure this must have happened since the California-based quartet I See Hawks in LA met up with Liverpool duo The Good Intentions. From the banks of the Mersey to the ‘chaparral foothills of the Sierra Madre’, these six musicians have pooled their creative juices for their first collaborative release. Having met whilst Peter Davies and Gabrielle Monk were on a US tour as The Good Intentions, the collective worked up a couple of songs, “White Cross” and “Rolling the Boxcars”, in a Highland Park studio and then added the rest via the internet, a handy tool which effectively makes 5000 miles disappear with a click of mouse. With distance no longer an issue, the ten songs were developed over time with the core of the album written in partnership between Davies, Paul Lacques and Rob Waller, with roots firmly steeped in country music and with instantly accessible melodies throughout. With jaunty sing-along fare such as “Blue Heaven”, “Steel Rails” and “Will You Watch Over Me Now”, Victoria Jacobs’ “Hills on Fire”, written in collaboration with Lacques, adds a touch of something different, a tender performance that somehow seems to be quite out of step with the rest, an album highlight in fact.

The Ale Marys | The Ale Marys | Album Review | Wee Dog Records | 12.09.19

A gathering of cowboy hats and pink hair styles hailing from the West, not the west of Tombstone, Dodge City nor indeed Nashville, but rather West Yorkshire, where the husband and wife team of Gerry and Ani McNeice co-write all ten songs on this, the country pop quintet’s debut album release. There’s mellow guitars, with the occasional obligatory ‘twang’ and tasty harmonies, led by Mr McNeice’s warm delivery throughout. The thing that makes this album so easy to listen to is perhaps Dave Turner’s whistle and flute (instruments, not cockney rhyming slang for his dapper attire), which seems to temporarily take us away from the Wharfedale Prairie and to places new.  There’s one or two guest appearances of note, including Michelle Plum’s emotive vocal on “I Walk Alone”, former Yachts/Christians songsmith Henry Priestman on the Joanna, together with the velvet voiced Edwina Hayes on the George Jones influenced “Drinking Again” and David Hartley providing some pedal steel in all the right places. Reflecting the fun of the band’s live set, The Ale Marys ought to congratulate themselves for making an album that raises a smile in these unsmiling days, especially on such songs as “Party”, “The Rest of My Days” and “Easy Fool”, which feels like a return to Ry Cooder’s Chicken Skin Music period. Treat yourself to some infectious Wharfedale High Life, but be sure to wear your stetson with your wellies.

Rachel Harrington | Hush the Wild Horses | Album Review | Skinny Dennis Records | 13.09.19

The first thing that hits you when you hear the sound of Rachel Harrington is the hurt in her voice. It seems genuine and real and when you read between the lines and crucially, listen to the lines themselves, it doesn’t take much to find the essence of Rachel Harrington’s heartbreak. During her recent convalescence after suffering exhaustion following some heavy duty touring, the Oregon-based singer songwriter took some time out to recharge, rescue a couple of horses, mourn her grandmother’s passing and write some songs.  Hush the Wild Horses is Rachel’s fifth studio album and features eleven remarkable songs that cover a range of topics, from war, addiction, childhood abuse to horses of course. Tipping her cowboy hat to her songwriting hero Guy Clark, Rachel taps into Clark’s unique craft and writes a song, along with Mandolin Hooper (great name), which could easily have come from the master songwriter’s pen. “Susanna” serves as a fine tribute to two much missed figures on the music scene. Bookended by two songs based on our equine friends, “Hush the Wild Horses” and “If Wishes Were Horses” focus on Rachel’s most recent project, the care and protection of two horses, both of which were heading for a grim fate. If anything can pull an ailing songwriter through recovery, then wild horses are possibly hard to beat.  Rachel approaches difficult subjects with an almost tangible sense of Cathartic determination, “Child of God” not only touches upon, but pounds with an iron fist the subject of childhood abuse, whilst “Save Yourself” serves as a heartfelt reach out to her meth-addicted brother. Despite almost forty-five years since the end of the Vietnam War, the effects are still being felt, not only by the veterans themselves but also the people around them. “Mekong Delta” is a tender reflection, inspired by the letters left by an uncle who committed suicide upon his return from South East Asia. This is an album that really tugs on the heartstrings.

Rod Picott | Tell the Truth and Shame the Devil | Album Review | Welding Rod Records | 14.09.19

This is as intimate as it gets with Rod Picott wearing his heart very much on his sleeve, courtesy of a dozen songs recorded in the rawest of forms, one man, one guitar and a bit of haunting harmonica. Tell the Truth and Shame the Devil doesn’t for one second set out to masquerade as a polished album, but strives to present itself as an infinitely more honest record of his feelings, stripped down to basics. The subjects raised benefit from this paired down record, with an emphasis on every single syllable uttered, rather than worrying oneself about a bit of tuned percussion over here in this channel.  “I lost a couple of high notes from the top of my voice” is a fine opening line, which not only reflects all the moaning Picott has apparently been doing, but also a reflection of his age (early 50s). There’s a sense that the Maine-born, now Nashville-based songwriter is having a good old hard look at himself after a recent health scare. Rod looks back and reminisces about childhood, helping his father bail out their flooded cellar in “Bailing”, the harsh reality of suicide – his own as suggested in “A 38 Special and a Hermes Purse” as well as that of a childhood peer “Mark” whose short life ran parallel to the Kennedy assassination and key moments in The Beatles’ story, together with a meditation on Rod’s place among a lineage of testosterone-fueled fighters in “Mama’s Boy.”  Written for the most part by himself, with three of the songs co-written by Slaid Cleaves “Mama’s Boy”, Ben de la Cour “A Beautiful Light” and Stacy Dean Campbell “80 John Wallace”, who presumably provide all those important finishing touches, the songs on Tell the Truth & Shame the Devil shows us an artist holding a mirror up, all of which he will no doubt share as he takes to the road again, reminding us that it “still beats the hell out of hanging sheetrock.” Amen to that.

Amy Speace | Me and the Ghost of Charlemagne | Album Review | Proper Records | 15.09.19

As a former Shakespearean actor, Amy Speace is grounded in the art of bringing stories to life and with the eleven songs on Me and the Ghost of Charlemagne, the Baltimore-born songwriter does precisely that. Often the songs deliver heart wrenching messages in an almost matter-of-fact manner, such as the the achingly melancholy “Ginger Ale and Lorna Doones”, which has no room tears, no heartbreak, just an overwhelming sense of emptiness, where no words are necessary, just a hand to hold. “Pretty Girls” is a meditation on the sort of hopeless envy that plagues the plain among us, with all the unfairness that comes with it and bravo to Amy for even going there.  Written with Jon Vezner, “Back in Abilene” revisits the early 1960s, whilst evoking the despair felt as Walter Cronkite delivers the impassioned news bulletin he’s most remembered for, as life goes on 180 miles to the west of Dallas. All these songs are powerful in their own individual way, with unfussy arrangements and empathetic musicianship from all involved. If Ben Glover’s gorgeous lullaby “Kindness” is a perfect closer, delivering an optimistic message, then the title song “Me and the Ghost of Charlemagne” is the perfect opener, a gentle piano and voice song with almost subliminal strings that builds to something worthy of any torch-lit stadium audience, a beauty of a song that confirms Amy’s credentials as one of America’s most underrated voices at the moment.

Session Americana | North East | Album Review | Self Release | 16.09.19

It’s probably unusual to come across an album made up of songs from such diverse sources as James Taylor, The Pixies, Tom Rush, Jonathan Richman and Donna Summer, unless that is, you consider the geographical area from which all these artists came. New England is a melting pot of styles every bit as important as other notable musical areas of the United States and it’s by bringing these styles together that some of this can immediately be seen. The musicians at the core of Session America are joined here by a handful of singers and musicians to help breathe new life into some familiar and not so familiar songs from the Northeast, hence the album’s title. Fading in with a faithful reading of James Taylor’s “Riding on a Railroad”, which could quite easily be James Taylor, the songs take us on a journey through the past, with several voices adding spice to the main course.  Produced by Kris Delmhorst and Ry Cavanaugh, Northeast informs us that the roots of Americana are still a vibrant force in this particular area, and in a way echo the sort of thing explored in the late 1960s just outside Saugerties; although rather than plowing the tradition as in the case of The Band, these musicians are very much focused on contemporary songwriters from the Massachusettes and New Hampshire areas over the past half a century. One or two of those musicians are no longer with us, Morphine’s Mark Sandman for instance, whose song “The Night” is given a convincing melancholy reading by Ali McGuirk, whilst Donna Summer’s “Dim All the Lights” is treated to an Axl Rose vocal courtesy of John Powhida, offering a change rather than a rest. It’s perhaps with performances such as Jennifer Kimball’s reading of Patty Griffin’s “Goodbye” though, that gives this particular collection its heart.

Niall Mc Guigan | Spiritual Anarchy | Album Review | Self Release | 17.09.19

As a practicing music therapist from Castleblayney, Co. Monaghan, specialising in medical ethnomusicology, it stands to reason that Naill Mc Guigan should explore a wide range of musical influences, including Mongolian throat singing and mandolin-led folk rock, which filters in through this latest collection of songs. Spiritual Anarchy looks at the world around us in trying times, and investigates spirituality and its place in today’s society.  If “Butterfly” feels as if it could have been recorded in the midst of late 1960s psychedelia, both in its symbolism and arrangement, with a solid rock base and Incredible String Band/Dr Strangely Strange interludes, “I See” lends it’s feel more to U2, though once again, the arrangement calls for a change in tempo midway through, providing some dreamy fiddle which adds to the meditative refrain. The retro feel continues through to the concluding song “Mother Father”, which is reminiscent of Steve Miller’s “Journey From Eden” in part, as well as the otherworldly meditations of the young Syd Barrett. Poised to award Spiritual Anarchy just three stars, “Saoirse” came along, showed her face and tipped the balance towards four. A grand song.

Chris While and Julie Matthews | Revolution Calls | Album Review | Fat Cat Records | 25.09.19

Celebrating 25 years together as one of the country’s foremost music duos, Chris While and Julie Matthews show no signs of slowing down. Their songs have taken them all around the world several times, building a strong following along the way. They smile when there’s nothing to smile about, they laugh at themselves and the world around them and they cry when things go horribly pear-shaped. Chris and Julie are not just a singing group, they’re an institution. Oh yes, we’ve had Shakespeare’s Sister, Pepsi and Shirlie, Mel and Kim, but these two are the real deal.  Chris and Julie have been accused of being too polished and not rough enough around the edges, but what’s wrong with getting it right? The songs on Revolution Calls are treated to sumptuous arrangements throughout, from the hard driving title song, so vividly captured in Bryan ‘Brysy’ Ledgard’s cover design, through to Julie’s dreamy “Stardust”, each song in between a showcase of their intuitive craftsmanship. With the songwriting democratically shared, the songs dovetail together so well, it’s often difficult to tell which one’s at the helm and which one’s navigating. It’s a partnership of a vessel very much on course. If Julie takes care of the political angle, venting on those responsible for the mess we’re all in “Shake the Money Tree” or our collective irresponsibility when it comes to our dismissive attitude towards ecology “Landfill”, then Chris provides some of the tender moments in the beautiful “Two Halves Together”, a song based around a friend who moves his house from the suburbs to the coast, to get a better view from his window and “Long Lost Friend”, tenderly meditating on losing touch, which we all unfortunately do through nothing more than life getting in the way.  Julie addresses her concerns through her pen, issues that shouldn’t be issues in a perfect world, with “Coming Out” being foremost among them. This is where Chris and Julie excel, in their refusal to dilly-dally and get to the point, yet in such an eloquent and tender way. It hasn’t been a good year for the two women, both losing friends and Julie losing her mum, all coming at an already grim time in everyone’s life and “Black Dog” demonstrates that having friends around might just allow us to see through the darkness. Revolution Calls once again shows us a musical partnership that can deliver on their promise, something our politicians fail to do over and over again, whilst driving home their message with exquisite harmonies and memorable melodies.

Show of Hands | Battlefield Dance Floor | Album Review | Proper Records | 26.09.19

The addition of master percussionist Cormac Byrne to the current line up of Show of Hands, can be immediately felt on this, the band’s eighteenth album to date. Joining Steve Knightley, Phil Beer and Miranda Sykes, Cormac not only peppers the songs with choice beats but transforms the overall sound to something new and vibrant on such songs as the opener “Lost”, the reggae influenced “Dreckley” and the infectious title song “Battlefield Dance Floor”, a thoroughly engaging drinking song set among the army campfires on the eve of several notable battles, as ‘Bhangra meets Morris” with Show of Hands very much under the influence of the Dhol Foundation. It’s a fatter sound, fattened out even further by the The Bridge Hill Shandy Men, a vocal chorus which includes one Paul Downes, a fellow Arizona Smoke Revue survivor.  If drums are to be a feature on this album, then it stands to reason that Military drums should also be included, making their appearance throughout Steve’s celebratory song “Swift and Bold”, written for the 6 Rifles Infantry Regiment in Exeter, for which he was subsequently made an Honorary Rifleman. Made up of predominantly self-penned material, Battlefield Dance Floor also includes one or two non-originals that were possibly far too tempting to leave off, Leonard Cohen’s “First We Take Manhattan” for instance, which receives a faithful impression from Steve here, whilst Phil delivers a rather tasteful reading of Richard Shindell’s road song “Next Best Western.” Writing in collaboration with Johnny Kalsi (Dhol Foundation/Afro Celt Sound System), Steve stretches his world sensibilities further with “Mother Tongue”, a poignant song that employs some delicious spiritual chanting courtesy of Shahid Khan.  For over thirty years Steve and Phil have been recording and touring as Show of Hands, building a reputation as one of the hardest working and most successful acts on the British folk circuit. With Miranda Sykes’ place in the band now firmly established, providing all the necessary bottom end together with her distinctive vocal contribution, and now the augmentation of Cormac’s genius, it’s going to be difficult to think of Show of Hands as anything other than a fully formed band and this album merely confirms that notion.

Andy Clark | I Love Joyce Morris | Album Review | Greywood Records | 27.09.19

Initially, “Welcome to the Party” sounds for all intents and purposes like Glenn Tilbrook after a lost weekend listening to Double Fantasy, but there’s so much more here than meets the ear. I Love Joyce Morris, named for the family apple tree that his children would play around, as indicated on the cover illustration, is awash with accessible songs and Beatles influenced melodies, certainly on “Socks and Shoes”, “Welcome to the Party” and “Hunker Down.” If the opening song clearly invites us into his world, “But for You” goes on to set out the singer songwriter’s story so far, with a driving Graceland rhythm, whilst meditating on the fact that “time flies by at such a rate”, well doesn’t it just?  There’s just too much to like on this album, which unashamedly borrows from 1970s pop (surely that’s the opening guitar tumble to The Boxer on “Monsters” isn’t it?), yet he does it so well. “Daddy Please” is possibly the only rootsy departure from the album’s consistently melodic sound, with a few banjo-totin’ Bluegrass Clichés thrown in, whilst the kids ask all the seriously unanswerable questions. The tender moments are eloquently delivered, such as the gorgeous “Sunny Boy”, with a similar message to Lennon’s love letter to Sean in Beautiful Boy and the closer “Apples”, which confirms what we had already begun to suspect, that Andy Clark’s kids are but the apples of his eye. Well produced and packed with memorable songs and instrumental breaks in just the right places, I Love Joyce Morris is a record you will want to hear over and again.

Stone Irr | Performance | Album Review | Darling Records | 27.09.19

Performance opens with “Nosedive”, it’s initial opening a cappella line a convincing pastiche of Smile period Beach Boys, whilst the Thom Yorke inspired song that follows captures quite a lot of what Stone Irr is all about. Moody, atmospheric and melodic, the songs on Performance, the second album by the Indiana-born, now Los Angeles-based singer songwriter, demonstrate the work of a burgeoning artist, clearly at one with his vocal range, which often moves towards falsetto.  If “All We Want Anymore” borrows from The Beatles at their Abbey Road best, with some accomplished melody lines and informed harmonies, the songs that follow meander slightly through various avenues of expression, with a clear emphasis on Stone Irr’s multi-tracked vocals throughout.  Produced by Mark Edlin and Ben Lumsdaine, Performance keeps to a stylish, unwavering Elliott Smith-like path, with one or two highlights, “Storyline” and “Calm” being the most obvious, before “Cheer Up” returns to the sort of melancholy Radiohead made a career out of.

Bob Bradshaw | Queen of the West | Album Review | Fluke Records | 27.09.19

Queen of the West is almost cinematic in its execution, a landscape of dusty roads, border towns, ‘floating’ mountains and deep ravines, inhabited by outlaws, where Cork, Albuquerque and the ancient walls of Japan become one. A concept album of sorts, Queen of the West showcases Bob Bradshaw’s imagination in thirteen songs, related in style and character but equally they stand alone as individual stories, snippets in the lives of those inhabiting the general narrative. Foremost in the story is Ruby, the Queen of the West, whose presence is felt both in terms of a real life femme fatale and also as a theatrical character, echoed in the melodramatic feel of “Ruby Black.”  Bob Bradshaw’s attention to detail never wanes throughout the song cycle, whilst adopting all the twang necessary to evoke the feel of the West, but also utilising the fine collective of singers and musicians at hand to develop a more universal musical appeal. The exquisite “Child” reminds us of the campfire songs of old, in the manner of Utah Phillips’ The Goodnight Loving Trail, whilst “The Wearing of the Black” references the old country, effectively bridging the two cultures at the heart of this engaging story. There’s humour, sadness and hope along the trail, together with all the mystique of the Old West. Listening to these stories, you somehow feel a part of them.

Rachid Taha | Je Suis Africain | Album Review | Naive/Believe | 29.09.19

I imagine it might have been a difficult task for those around the late Algerian singer and activist to oversee the release of Rachid Taha’s final album, recorded exactly one year ago almost to the day. Ironically, the final song on his final album is called “Happy End”, which is perhaps an eerily fitting conclusion to a vibrant and inventive career, a career which saw collaborations with Brian Eno, Damon Albarn and Mick Jones (The Clash) amongst others.  Je Suis Africain features ten songs, which includes the singer’s first song in English, “Like a Dervish”, which pulsates with joy and includes Ian Dury-like spoken passages. Though the songs maintain a highly contemporary feel, they are enriched by the close attention to Arabic traditional music, exemplified in the opening song “Ansit”, which shimmers like the North African terrain it so evokes. Rachid spoke in a variety of languages, performing in Arabic, French and Franglish, yet his music goes further, to include Spanish and Mexican influences, “Wahdi” for instance, featuring a sumptuous vocal performance courtesy of Flèche Love (Amina Cadelli) with a little Mariachi thrown into the mix. After mishearing the lyrics to “Andy Waloo” for Andy Warhol, imagining for a moment a pastiche of an old Bowie song, I definitely heard a crystal clear reference to Johnny Cash along with a choice English expletive somewhere in the mix, which makes Taha’s music strangely all the more engaging.

BaBa ZuLa | Derin Derin | Album Review | Glitterbeat Records | 01.10.19

Derin Derin is the first studio album in five years for Istanbul’s art house ensemble BaBa ZuLa, whose expressive and expansive sound dominates this ten-track release.  If sections of the album sound akin to film soundtrack music, then this is possibly due to the fact that some of it was originally conceived as music for a documentary about birds of prey.  Having been around for a good twenty years now, BaBa ZuLu have the chops to sound authentic and utterly contemporary at the same time.  So determined to create an authentic air, the band posed for a sleeve photograph, using an early photographic technique, evoking the spirit of their forefathers.  The four musicians, Osman Murat Ertel, Mehmet Levent Akman, Periklis Tsoukalas and Umit Adakale, may look like roadies for System of a Down, but their contemporary rhythms are steeped in Turkish traditional music, with the electric saz coming to the fore in places, along with the classical oud.  At times those two instruments sound deliciously vibrant together, “Haller Yollar” and “Ruzgarin Akisi” for instance, but for such tracks as “Kurt Kapma” and “Port Pass”, it could be an entirely different band, utilising sound effects, samples and programmed beats.  “Salincaksin” or “U are the Swing” has a particular emphasis on the beats, played by Ertel’s children on a kit modified by the late Can drummer Jaki Liebezeit, who the band had connections with.  Despite being vocally uninspiring, instrumentally BaBa ZuLa is both an adventurous and enigmatic band in equal measure.

Finn Paul | Wind and Stone | Album Review | Self Release | 02.10.19

Having been raised in Perthshire, Scotland, Finn Paul has effectively absorbed the surrounding landscape, whilst developing his own individual song writing style and competence at playing the guitar.  Wind and Stone is perhaps the result of tapping into that very distinct landscape, along with his enchanting adventures on the Isle of Lewis and his visits up into the Highlands.  In places the songs sound introverted, in others trance-like, “Treat Her Fair” for instance, which seems to plod on in two chords for a little too long, together with a highly mannered vocal style, but hey, if Nick Mulvey and Roo Panes can get away with it! It’s a moody affair from start to finish with some sweet moments, notably “Fortune.”

Chris Cleverley | We Sat Back and Watched it Unfold | Album Review | Opiate Records | 09.10.19

Chris Cleverley approaches the problem of his ‘difficult second’ head on with something bold, brave and utterly compelling.  This shouldn’t surprise me, but still it does. Having already demonstrated his credentials as a first class songwriter four years ago with his debut album Apparitions, Chris takes giant steps by exploring the current world we live in, its change in attitudes and its call for tolerance, whilst waxing lyrical on such topical questions as anxiety, gender and mental health.  With the album’s title borrowed from one of a dozen eloquently written and passionately delivered songs, the sentiment of that particular song appears to permeate throughout and perhaps questions the problem at the core of all our current woes, that we do seem to sit back and watch it all unfold, something we will surely be quizzed about by future generations.  The mature, poignant and well-developed songs tackle subjects we need to address, whilst refusing to pander to ambiguity.  If “A Voice for Those Who Don’t Have One” and “Happy and Proud” tackle such hot topics as anxiety, panic and gender with uncompromising conviction, then “The Arrow and the Armour” does likewise with matters of the heart and provides us with an example of the fact that love songs and the ways of writing them, has certainly not dried up yet.  One also has to question how bad things can get if we have to consider such eternal sunshine of the spotless mind questions as explored in “I Can’t Take It”, suggesting a pill to wipe out all our feelings and memories, which seems to be a plausible option, however catastrophic it might be in the long run.  With Sam Kelly at the helm, the production sparkles with Chris’s informed finger-picked guitar up in the mix, especially on “Scarlet Letter”, together with some fine contributions courtesy of, among others, Evan Carson, Lukas Drinkwater, Marion Fleetwood, Hannah Martin and Kim Lowings.  If the songs and the music on this album are testament to Chris’s thoughtful and generous spirit, then providing a guide to the open tunings and indeed precisely where the budding guitarists among us should stick our capos, is above and beyond the call of duty. This is an excellent album.

Penguin Cafe | Handfuls of Night | Album Review | Erased Tapes Records | 09.10.19

Keeping the spirit of his father’s music alive, Arthur Jeffes continues to build upon the unique and original compositions for which Simon was known.  An initial play through of the nine gentle and moody instrumental compositions that make up Handfuls of Night, possibly suggests something more suited to a Thomas Hardy film adaptation, “Chinstrap” for instance, or maybe even “Adelie” both of which conjure up images of Jude Fawley chipping away at his stones.  Further investigation however tells us that it is ice rather than stone being chipped away at, for a suite dedicated to an Antarctic adventure, as illustrated in the cover shot and in the composition titles, such as “The Life of an Emperor”, one of our endangered species – we’re definitely talking penguins by penguins here.   The project began with four especially composed pieces in celebration of the four species native to the Antarctic, the Chinstrap, Adélie, Gentoo and Emperor, all of which are suitably name-checked here.  The wide open and sometimes hostile spaces that provide a home for these creatures are suggested in such pieces as “At the Top of the Hill They Stood” and “Pythagoras on the Line Again”, the latter of which provides a slight echo of something Arthur’s dad did for the Malcolm soundtrack over thirty years ago.  There’s tension throughout “Chapter”, with its trance-like arpeggios keeping very much to the Penguin Cafe ethos of minimalism and adventure, which appears here in equal measure.  Whether the music on Handfuls of Night evokes for you the Antarctic tundra, Hardy’s nineteenth century Dorset, a cluttered metropolis as viewed from an overhead cable car or the mysterious surface of the Moon, it’s pure musical escapism, which will take you wherever you want it to.

Rafiki Jazz | Saraba Sufiyana | Album Review | Konimusic | 09.10.19

Whenever all nine members of the Sheffield-based multi-cultural collective Rafiki Jazz line themselves up ready for action, there’s an immediate sense of the world united in music, with such iconic instruments as the steel drum, the tabla, the kora, the oud and the berimbau sitting side by side on stage, collectively representing the music of the Caribbean, India and West Africa, along with Arabic and Brazilian cultures; it’s almost like having all your world music requirements satisfied in one go.  Rafiki Jazz also boasts at least three very distinctive voices, each of which explore an array of diverse languages such as Urdu, Hebrew, Gaelic and English in a similar manner as the instruments explore their own individual sonic languages. Versed in a rich mixture of Sufi, Hebrew and Hindi, the voices of Sarah Yaseen, Avital Raz and Mina Salama steer such songs as “Su Jamfata” along with both passion and determination, whilst the instrumental prowess of the various musicians, including kora player Kadialy Kouyate, maintains this universal musical conversation throughout the album. Saraba Sufiyana, which translates as ‘Mystic Utopia’, consists of eight songs, each showcasing the collective’s extraordinary versatility, with one or two special appearances, such as established British folk luminaries Nancy Kerr, Sam Carter and Greg Russell, the Gaelic singer Kaitlin Ross and the throat singing of Juan Gabriel Gutierrez, that effectively broadens the musical landscape further, whilst breaking down barriers and borders with aplomb.  It’s such a tired notion when it comes to a genre we recognise as ‘World Music’, to see language as a barrier. In the case of Rafiki Jazz and the songs presented here, an understanding of those various languages is perhaps redundant; it’s the overall sound that really matters. Coming in at almost ten minutes, the album closer “My Heart My Home” is a triumph of empathy and unity, featuring a multitude of voices and vibrant instrumentation.

Bantou Mentale | Bantou Mentale | Album Review | Glitterbeat Records | 11.10.19

The cover shot and various accompanying photos kind of explains the Bantou Mentale ethos, that of the various traditional Congolese people of Kinshasa in full tribal dress, making themselves very much at home in the Parisian Chateau Rouge.  The music echoes this with the dozen tracks that make up the band’s self-titled debut. The four members, Cubain Kabeya, Chicco Katembo, Apocalypse and Doctor L (Liam Farrell), play hard, energetic, slightly rough-edged and driven music.  If “Suabala” demonstrates the band’s utterly contemporary grime feel, then the heart of the album might be found in “Papa Joe”, written in memory of an old, now deceased friend who allegedly threw all the best parties, whilst the soul is successfully captured in the impassioned vocal on “Boloko”, each being possibly the most accessible songs on the record.  With musicians from the ranks of such notable outfits as Staff Benda Bilili, Konono No 1, Jupiter & Okwess and Mbongwana Star, it’s little surprise that Bentou Mentale shimmers with strong beats, colourful effects and vibrant rhythms throughout the twelve tracks.

Sleave | Don’t Expect Anything | Album Review | Engineer Records | 18.10.19

To be honest, this sort of record rarely finds its way into these pages, Northern Sky usually veering a little more towards the rootsy side of things. The Richmond, Virginia four-piece Sleave, consisting of Charlie Bowen on guitar, Julien Robert on drums, Samuel McClelland on bass and Daniel Salinas on vocals, are a kind of throw back to the early days of Grunge, with obligatory shorts, black t shirts and inverted baseball caps. The dozen songs on their debut album Don’t Expect Anything succeeds in blowing the dust off speakers a little more accustomed to the gentle vibrations of the acoustic guitar, the Kora and the mountain dulcimer. Needless to say, Sleave can (and do) wake up the neighbours.  I enjoyed listening through to this album, which borrows from some of the cliches of alternative rock and American hardcore, with a Punk sensibility and the distant echoes of Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Formed a good quarter of a century after the heyday of Grunge, those years seem to have evaporated before our ears. Full of vitality, energy and sparkle, Sleave have managed to capture their distinct live sound with apparent ease. Go on, give your speakers a dusting.

Bird in the Belly | Neighbours and Sisters | Album Review | GF*M Records | 21.10.19

The Brighton-based four-piece Bird in the Belly take us on another moody excursion through the past with eight traditional song adaptations, together with two originals on this, the band’s second album.  Following on from their impressive and critically acclaimed debut The Crowing, which introduced us to the contrasting voices of Laura Ward and Ben ‘Jinwoo’ Webb, Neighbours and Sisters investigates the darker underbelly of society, focusing momentarily on prostitution “Phoebe to Phyllis”, the lure of death “Coal Black Wine”, condemned prisoners “New Gate Stone” and “45 George Street” and the sins of a Victorian workhouse master “All You Females”.  Each song is well researched, stylishly performed and delivered with authority and with a no-nonsense approach.  Recorded in Brighton, keeping just about everything in-house, including the impressive sleeve artwork, which focuses on a collection of framed reliefs representing each of the songs, crafted by Bird in the Belly guitarist Adam Ronchetti, the album creates a feeling of mystery and curiosity.  Clearly darker than its predecessor, the focus is very much on the dual voices, with Tom Pryor completing the impressive collective’s line-up, whose multi-instrumental embellishments bring out the character of these unique songs. If any comparisons were necessary, which they are not, then Webb’s voice may be compared to that of Sam Lee, whilst “All You Females”” could be mistaken for Stick in the Wheel at their stomping best.  Aside from these two random similarities, Bird in the Belly are otherwise rather unique and utterly compelling.

Sway Wild | Sway Wild | Album Review | Self Release | 01.11.19

Those already familiar with the music of Dave McGraw and Mandy Fer will know that it would be a difficult musical partnership to improve upon.  Both are excellent songwriters, singers and musicians, perfectly matched in terms of musical harmony, yet with the addition of bassist Thom Lord, the dynamic has been significantly changed, enabling Dave to explore the rhythms from the vantage of the drummer’s seat, which in turn allows Mandy to stretch out further, bringing her distinctive guitar playing much more to the fore; a much fuller sound, courtesy of a classic power trio format.  Soulful, funky and melodic throughout, the songs on Sway Wild’s debut self-titled album are further enhanced by the contribution of friends Alison Russell and JT Nero of Birds of Chicago on the opener “Comin’ and Goin’” and then again on the infectious “Chimney Fire”, complete with its memorable hook and odd expletive.  Fearless in their delivery, Sway Wild approach such songs as “Til the Honey Come” with energetic verve, Mandy’s almost sneering guitar licks in direct competition with the horn section. Vocally, Mandy excels on “Impatient”, with an utterly soulful performance, enhanced further by Dave’s intuitive harmonies.

Harri Endersby | Mazes | Album Review | Ivy Crown Records | 01.11.19

Drawing from the same well of vocal styling as Josienne Clarke, the County Durham-based singer songwriter Harri Endersby wafts her ethereal sounds your way via nine self-penned songs on this, her second solo studio album, which comes hot on the heels of her 2017 debut Home/Lives.  With sparse arrangements built around Harri’s voice and guitar, piano and mandolin, and with only the slightest embellishment, courtesy of Rich Marsh, Ciaran Algar, Toby Shaer and Ian Stephenson, Mazes captures the steady development of a vibrant singer songwriter, whose ties to the North East remain a focal point of her work.  “Mountainside” is a gentle folk/pop opener, suggesting an affinity between human nature and the natural world, its spirit captured in the accompanying video promo for the song. there’s a sense of joy and gentleness embedded in each song, which invites further attention. The title song providing possibly the richest vocal performance on the album. If it worked for Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird” and to a lesser extent Roger Waters’ “Grantchester Meadows”, birdsong can be a most pleasing way to open a song and Harri finds it hard to resist on “Isla”, a gorgeous song featuring some fine ensemble orchestrations.  Co-produced by Harri and Rich, Mazes takes you to places you didn’t know you wanted to go.

Annie and Rod Capps | When They Fall | Album Review | Yellow Room Records | 01.11.19

The dozen songs on When They Fall, the eighth album by the Michigan-based husband and wife team Annie and Rod Capps, have a bright and breezy feel, yet nothing here is what you might call lightweight. Performing together since the early Eighties, the two multi-instrumentalists have traversed their own musical landscape, dipping their toes in rock, musical theatre, Americana and country to find the sound they present here.  The uplifting “Poor Old Me” sets the toes-a-tapping with some ease, despite the desperation of the message, with a perfectly timed homage to the Stones in the coda. “Beautiful Scarecrow” brings a sense of 1950s radio in its arrangement, like the songs our folks listened to in post war hardship; just gorgeous to listen to.  Time is addressed in both “Brevity” and “Happy New Year”, reminding us of how time slips away, and don’t we know it.  With a cover illustration presumably representing the album’s penultimate song “This Little Apple”, one of the album highlights, the song name checks those that have served, Leonard Cohen, Aretha Franklin, Tom Petty, David Bowie, Glen Frey and Guy Clark among them.  Closing with “Build the Fire”, gives us an open invitation to sing a campfire chorus in the good old tradition, successfully capturing the essence of this duo’s unmistakable sound.

Atlas Maior | Riptide | Album Review | Atlas Maior Music | 01.11.19

Based in Austin, Texas, Atlas Maior, named for the masterpiece of Dutch cartography, explore a wealth of musical influences, notably Arab, Turkish, Indian and Latin American, together with home grown jazz courtesy of the alto sax of Joshua Thomson.  The eleven instrumental pieces draw from a deep well of styles, most prominently the familiar maqamat modal style, which effectively draws attention to Thomson’s sparring with Charlie Lockwood’s oud explorations. It’s almost like taking the ‘duelling banjos’ theme to another level altogether.  If “The Curse” exemplifies this from the start, with each instrument striving to outdo one another in a highly competitive show of dexterity, then nowhere is this feuding instrument notion better captured than on the album closer, the sprawling “Osman Pehlivan”, which features guest oud player Palestine’s Sari Andoni, who provides Lockwood with an ideal sparring partner.  If the oud takes precedence in a number of places throughout Riptide, then “Nastaran” is a showcase for one of Thomson’s alto sax workouts, whilst “Chamber of Mirrors” introduces for one track only, the cinematic violin playing of guest musician Robert Paolo Riggio, which brings tension to the piece with a capital T.  Riptide is full of musical ingenuity and dexterity, held together by Ted Camat in the drum seat and double bass duties split between Gary Calhoun James and Tarik Hassan.

Terry Hiscock | Falling More Slowly | Album Review | Self Release | 01.11.19

Terry Hiscock’s contemporaries back in the late 1960s and early 1970s would have been the likes of Fairport Convention, Fotheringay and Steeleye Span, foremost bands of the early days of British folk rock, though his band Hunter Muskett, named for an eccentric Cornishman, never quite achieved the same level of success.  Perhaps best known for his song “Silver Coin”, covered by Bridget St John and Archie Fisher among others, Terry returns with an album of songs that clearly show that the intervening years have been kind to him and that his voice remains warm, his writing thoughtful and his musicianship very much intact.  Falling More Slowly is not just a bunch of songs banged out to flog at gigs, in fact it’s anything but.  This stylishly crafted album brings out the best in these songs, with originals such as “From Here to Rosedale” a song about the blues singer Robert Johnson and “Where Are You Now (Sweet Marie)”, which is a love song reminiscing on those evenings listening to Dylan records, notably his titular Blonde on Blonde period heroine.  There’s a couple of familiar non-originals, the gospel tinged “Jesus on the Mainline” and the wonderfully entertaining “She Broke My Heart”, each prefaced with an atmospheric musical interlude, “Shenandoah”, “Blue Moon” and “Wild Mountain Thyme” among them. For the delicate “Dave’s Song”, Hiscock hands over the vocal duties to Gaynor Taylor, whilst Essex-based Noel Gander delivers “One of These Days”, otherwise it’s Terry Hiscock all the way.  An impressive and long overdue debut.

Bella Hardy | Postcards and Pocketbooks | Album Review |Noe Records | 01.11.19

If we consider the twelve years of music making and nine albums along the way, Postcards and Pocketbooks: The Best of Bella Hardy could hardly fail to impress through its sheer expansiveness in terms of songwriting and musical collaboration.  Twenty-seven songs collected from a journey covering well over a decade, provides a wide variety of music all of which is presented here with a thoughtful running order, from Bella’s troubled pop sensibilities of “Learning to Let Go”, through to the previously unreleased “Tequila Moon”, Bella’s distinctive voice ringing out throughout.  Presented as a miniature double album with gatefold sleeve and pretty inner sleeves, Postcards and Pocketbooks is as good as a ‘best of’ compilation can get.  Eight of Bella’s official album releases are represented, with only the seasonal Bright Morning Star absent for obvious reasons, with informed choices from each, together with one or two previously unreleased tracks.  When it’s light it’s light, when it’s dark, it’s most definitely dark and Bella is one of the singers who does it best.

Alan Prosser and Al Clarke | Living in Clover | Album Review | Rafting Dog Records | 01.11.19

Blues-based at its core, Living in Clover feels like a concept album of sorts, with themed songs, a sense of reflection whilst at the same time a notion of forward thinking, with occasional sound effects adding to the atmosphere.  Oysterband’s Alan Prosser collaborates closely with harmonica player Al Clarke on this intriguing collection of songs, such as the driving “Dream On”, setting out their stall with some bluesy harmonica and stomping rhythm. “Hold Back Time/Time Machine” maintains the ‘concept’ theme with a sense of urgency and drive.  Although the songs are highly creative with mature lyrics throughout as well as thoughtful arrangements, the songs could benefit further with slightly stronger vocal performances in places.  “High Rise/Living in Clover” brings into focus the heart of the album, the resilience of the elderly, with a spoken interlude, a true voice of the people, “I’ve never been lonely, I’ve always been a happy woman, I’ve had no grub to eat, I’ve gorn without, it was a very very hard living but we got through”, a voice echoed once again at the end of the album.  The instrumental “Jack’s Tune” is also reminiscent of the sounds of yesteryear, with a Max Geldray type harmonica solo, not unlike the musical interludes between sketches in the 1950s Goon Shows, whilst “Lazy Boy” becomes a dreamy interlude in itself, a delicate meditation almost shoved to the back of the class. Not perfect, but a thoughtful album nevertheless.  

Johnny Coppin | 30 Songs | Album Review | Red Sky Records | 15.11.19

Like most compilations that span decades, they usually provide a good place to start if you are not already familiar with a particular artist’s work. In the case of these thirty songs, the listener is formally introduced to the songwriting legacy of one of the UKs most enduring talents.  Johnny Coppin has been at it for a good while now and in just under two hours, over four decades can be traversed with a fine selection of songs lifted from several of Coppin’s album releases, both solo and in collaboration with others, such as Mike Silver and Phil Beer. Opening with one of the song writer’s favourite openers “When All is Said and Done”, the double CD gets off to a great start with one of Coppin’s most accessible songs.  Borrowing from the ‘red disc/blue disc’ combination, famously used for the Beatles most successful compilation albums, two sides of Coppin’s career are represented, with full band releases first, followed by those of a more stripped down acoustic setting. If four decades are represented, then the sound of the 1980s is unavoidably present, with over-produced and heavy on the reverb keyboards and guitars, but that goes with that particulat decade’s territory. There’s more than two sides to this writer’s credentials though, and Coppin takes the poetry of Charles Causley, Christopher Marlowe and Laurie Lee, among others, and crafts memorable songs from their words, notably Causley’s “Innocents’ Song”, later covered by the popular folk outfit Show of Hands and once again prepares us for the seasonal period and just in time. On the whole, these are songs of a well-travelled troubadour and provide a condensed taste of a notable song weaver’s story so far, which serves as a fine introduction to Johnny Coppin’s prolific canon, which in turn could have those new to the songs delving further.

Aziza Brahim | Sahari | Album Review | Glitterbeat Records | 15.11.19

The Algerian singer, actress and activist Aziza Brahim returns with Sahari, her fourth studio album and her third released on the Glitterbeat label, which once again reflects the tragedy, turmoil and tradition of her homeland. Far from the Saharawi refugee camps of the Tindouf region of Algeria, Brahim sets out her stall in Barcelona, her adopted home and once again delivers some of the most accessible music in the genre, with instantly memorable melodies and engaging rhythms throughout.  Her distinctive voice drives the songs along, reminding us that from tragic circumstances comes enchanting music, the words of which are really inconsequential, leaving the feel of the arrangements to do all the necessary communicating.   The voice and the guitars are very much to the fore, underpinned by the tabal drum, which is effectively at the very heart of this music.  The title track itself is a good example of old traditional styles meeting head on with contemporary grooves, together with some highly infectious tribal vocal techniques. The same can be said for the arresting “Ard el Hub”. These songs can be trance-like in places, which is probably the best way to enjoy the music; to find the time and inclination to fully absorb yourself in these delightful rhythms. If the songs reflect the hardships and turmoil of music in exile, then the cover shot for Sahari, of a young girl dressed as a ballerina against a refugee camp background is utterly compelling, with optimistic young dreams captured right there against vivid blues skies. Wonderful.

Luke Jackson | Journals | Album Review | First Take | 15.11.19

It’s perhaps remarkable that at just 25, Luke Jackson delivers his fifth album, when some musicians of this age are barely off the starting line.  It’s even more remarkable that a 25 year-old can write such a song as “Baby Boomers”, an astute comment on our times, which encapsulates perfectly a young person’s fears.  Adopted by the British folk community, Luke’s stylised approach and mannered vocal authority could equally fit neatly into a much wider arena, much in the way of your Ed Sheerans, in fact it’s hard to resist thinking that if only Sheeran’s audience could hear these songs!  Co-produced with Dan Lucas by his side, Journals shows a maturity in Luke’s songwriting. If “Baby Boomers” demonstrates Luke’s credentials as a fine chronicler of modern times, even if might be a one-off Billy Bragg/Grace Petrie moment (although “This Ain’t Love (But It’ll Do)” has its moments), then “Home” shows us Luke’s sensitive side, with a powerful love song topped by a show-stopping power ballad vocal performance.  The album’s show stopper is probably “Queen in Her Own Way”, which takes us to highly personal territory, a beautiful statement of family love, sung in the third person and addressed to Luke’s father upon the occasion of his Nan’s passing.  With a gentle reading of Sandy Denny’s “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” following immediately afterwards, almost as a coda, any Larry David murmurs of disdain are withheld on this occasion. Famously sacrosanct territory it has to be said, with only one truly acceptable re-working, which she did herself for the Unhalfbricking album fifty years ago, it’s completely understandable how irresistible this song can be; it’s a damn good take all the same.

Various Artists | Sunshine of Your Love: A Concert for Jack Bruce | Album Review | MIG | 15.11.19

Jack Bruce’s stately position in the history of popular music cannot be overstated. A stalwart of the British blues boom of the early 1960s and noted bassist with such outfits as Blues Incorporated and the Graham Bond Organisation, to the much more succinctly monikered rock trio Cream, the musician is remembered here in a concert staged on the first anniversary of his death. The concert brings together a variety of musician friends, former collaborators and members of Bruce’s own family in a celebration of his best loved work, including such songs as “I Feel Free”, “White Room” and “Sunshine of Your Love”, which the three disc release is named for. Among the invited musicians captured here on two CDs plus a DVD film of the event, include volatile Cream band mate, the late Ginger Baker, who appears towards the end of the show, staged at the Roundhouse in London, on both “We’re Going Wrong” and the aforementioned “Sunshine of Your Love”, whilst Eric Clapton, who wasn’t in attendance, contributes the final instrumental “For Jack”, a plaintive acoustic meditation accompanied by some familiar humming, with the famed guitarist clearly reminiscing about his old friend.  The accompanying concert, organised by Jack’s daughter Aruba Red and widow Margrit Bruce Seyffer, is captured on the accompanying DVD, which opens with some vintage monochrome footage of Bruce performing “Train Time”, a bluesy harp solo, reminding us of the giant behind the concert that follows. The opening song “Hit and Run” featuring fellow bassist Mark King, interweaving vocal duties with Stealth, also features Clem Clempson, looking uncannily like Clapton, who delivers some fine lead guitar. The same line-up follows with a stirring take on “I Feel Free”, the scat vocal intro having Bruce’s unmistakable mark all over it. If Liam Bailey contributes some eerily close vocals, especially on “Politician” and the old Skip James blues “I’m So Glad”, other notable appearances include Roxy Music’s Phil Manzanera, Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson and British soul singer Joss Stone. With a couple of high points being “Don’t Look Now” delivered by the octave-spanning London-based singer Nandi, together with an inventive cello-accompanied “Rope Ladder to the Moon” courtesy of Ayanna Witter-Johnson, the only real ‘neither here nor there’ moment goes to Hugh Cornwell and his soulless and forgettable “Hear Me Calling Your Name”, only the slightest niggle in an overall glowing event, which raised money at the time and continues to raise money for good causes.

Atlantaeum Flood | One Day | Album Review | Self Release | 15.11.19

Those of us with memories as long as a Camel track, will recall a time when Prog’s overblown concerts – an articulated lorry just for the giant Persian carpet for example –  resulted in a speedy return to the three minute pop song courtesy of a thing called Punk. Then there was the lamentable visage of Andrew Latimer reaching Nirvana during an overlong guitar solo in The Snow Goose on the OGWT back in the day, which had us all reaching for the off switch.  Prog isn’t new by any means and there are those among us who still search for inventiveness and progression via the twelve notes available to us.   Atlantæum Flood, a name that includes a ligature, which in itself achieves its Prog pretension status, may be looking towards pushing the boundaries with this concept album, each track essentially named for the eight distinctive periods that make up an ordinary day, “Before Sunrise”, “After Sunrise”, “Before Noon” etc. and onward to midnight (or just after), but there’s not an awful lot of difference between each of these pieces, they all sound pretty much mid-morning.  Each piece, essentially a chord progression repeated over and over with one or two embellishments, enjoys bits of birdsong, some ethereal noodling, one or two Mike Oldfield-like guitar motifs and some tension building arrangements, all of which is quite listenable, certainly more than what might be considered minimalist elevator music, but One Day sadly fails to sufficiently excite.

Ainsley Hamill | Belle of the Ball | EP Review | Self Release | 01.12.19

This debut outing as a solo artist sees Cardross singer Ainsley Hamill stretching out with just five songs on her first solo EP Belle of the Ball.  Already known for her work with Barluath, The Unusual Suspects and Fourth Moon, Hamill’s refreshingly soulful voice, a mixture of Julie Fowliss and Heather Small (if you can imagine that), is very much to the fore, backed by some well chosen accompanists, notably The Lost Boy’s Toby Shaer and The Willows’ Evan Carson.  Equally at home with traditional Gaelic material “Latha Dhomh’s Mi Buain a’ Choirce” and self penned originals “Runaways”, “The Green Woods Back Home” and the title song “Belle of the Ball”, Ainsley Hamill appears to have all the confidence and vocal assurance to find her own niche in this ever expanding genre. Belle of the Ball provides a taster of what’s to come when she releases her debut album due for release in 2020.

Benji Kirkpatrick and the Excess | Gold Has Worn Away | Album Review | Westpark Music | 01.12.19

Having served as a longtime member of both Bellowhead and Faustus, it came as something of a surprise when in 2015, Benji Kirkpatrick delivered the excellent Hendrix Songs album, which effectively saw the multi-instrumentalist stripping down to basics a dozen of the legendary guitarist’s best loved songs to reveal something very special indeed; great songs with equally great melodies, performed with more than a little TLC.  Four years on and still loaded with musical vigour, the son of folkies John Kirkpatrick and Sue Harris, once again looks towards his more rock oriented roots, this time concentrating on thirteen rock-infused originals.  Opting for the classic power trio format, Kirkpatrick is joined by Pete Flood on drums and Pete Thomas on bass, who between them make for a cohesive driving unit. The songs are unsurprisingly mature with some fine arrangements, fleshed out by the inclusion of just two guest vocalists, Rowan Godel and Janie Mitchell.  The driving “Pinned Down” and “Human Cost” to the stomping “A Classic Cut” are matched measure for measure by the instrumentals, the Eastern-influenced “Stuck in the Loop”, and the complex Maartin Allcock-like grooves of “Got to be all Mine” to the album’s show stopper, the soul-fuelled “In Your Cave.” True to most classic rock albums, there also the obligatory sensitive ‘Tears in Heaven’ moment, in this case the delicate “Back to the Fold”, which is perfectly poised for balance. Gold Has Worn Away shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it does and therefore isn’t going up onto the dusty shelf anytime soon.

Jim Moray | The Outlander | Album Review | Managed Decline | 01.12.19

The first thing to notice on The Outsider, is just how good it sounds. The guitar on “The Isle of St Helena” just couldn’t sound better, each ‘turnaround’ almost melts into your ears.  The collection of traditional songs are delivered in a most direct, uncluttered fashion, with Moray on top vocal form. The arrangements are given a few ‘Stick in the Wheel’ type hand claps rather than bothering with a drum kit or array of Yamashta-like percussion, which keeps things tight and accessible.  The songs remain pretty simple throughout, which they each appear to benefit from.  Recorded at three or four locations around the UK, the ten songs benefit further from some choice contributions from Sam Sweeney, Nick Hart and Jack Rutter, among others, along with a recently acquired 1949 Epiphone Triumph, apparently obtained from a Liverpool cabby.  Joined by Josienne Clarke on “Lord Gregory”, the duet stands out as an album highlight, which is reminiscent of the Child Ballads project produced by Anaïs Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer a few years ago. Once again, a flawless pairing. Now resident in Merseyside, a place that presumably has more to offer than taxi drivers’ discarded vintage instruments, the album concludes with a warm and faithful reading of “The Leaving of Liverpool”, something that would presumably grieve this singer very much.

Mishra | The Loft Tapes | Album Review | Hudson Records | 01.12.19

There’s at least two ways of understanding the music of Mishra, the obvious way being to hear the songs ant tunes on this album, the other way being to see them in the flesh. For a backstage radio session at this summer’s Cambridge Folk Festival for instance, the four-piece outfit appeared to take the traditional pose of such notable musicians as Ravi Shankar and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, by sitting cross-legged in a slight crescent shape, performing with such instruments as the Tabla and Calabash as well as the more Western derived banjo, bouzouki and whistles.  Born out of the duo of Kate Griffin and Ford Collier, Mishra sees the two musicians joined by Joss Mann-Hazell on bouzouki and double bass and John Ball on Tabla, whose role is a little like that of Garth Hudson of The Band fame, that of a teacher, his experience in Indian Classical music being crucial to Mishra’s development.  On The Loft Tapes, the musicians take their Eastern-flavoured music to new areas as they interweave American and their own British roots influences into the mix, notably on “Road Dust and Honey” and “Taru”, together with the instrumentals such as “Jog for Joy”, whilst also including an inventive take on Gillian Welch’s “Scarlet Town”.

Josienne Clark | In All Weather | Album Review | Rough Trade | 01.12.19

There’s little doubt that Josienne Clarke is possessed of one of the most original singing voices in the country, not only in the melancholy of her timbre, but also in her unique phrasing, each lyric pitched like poetry, delivered with poise and high artistry.  Having worked closely with both guitarist Ben Walker, the jazz composer Kit Downes and more recently Samantha Whates in PicaPica, Josienne has developed her rich vocal style without losing any of her originality, inventiveness and humour.  The songs included on her first solo record on Rough Trade are distinctively Josienne’s, a little bit quirky, a little bit serious, a little bit playful, a little bit wistful, but never throwaway. It’s almost as if every syllable and every note are strategically placed for best effect, from the mournful opener “Learning to Sail in All Weather”, the optimistic “Leaving London” to the highly infectious pop drama of “Slender, Sad and Sentimental”, which should be compulsory listening when running the hoover around the house.

Diabel Cissokho | Rhythm of the Griot | Album Review | Kafou Music | 01.12.19

“We Can Do Blues” sings Diabel Cissokho just ten seconds into the opening song on this, the Senegalese singer and kora master’s fifth album release Rhythm of the Griot. Delivered in French, “On Sait Faire Blues” is an affirmation of what soon becomes pretty obvious, that this band can indeed do the blues. It’s a crossover of sorts, a mixture of trance-like blues and delicate kora playing in the traditional style, from a musician who now splits his time between his native home of Senegal and his adoptive home of Cornwall. The songs here may seem contemporary and vibrant, with some over-loaded reverb, but the essence of this music stretches back through centuries and some of that feel is ingrained in the rhythms he and his collaborators produce.  The sparring between the stringed instruments and the blues harp is evident on the instrumental “Koullo”, which brings a sense of a blues conversation, with each instrument vying for dominance, whilst “Manssaya” achieves the same but within the context of a conversation between voice and kora. The highly infectious call and response groove to standout track “Barakhama” brings possibly the strongest sense of tradition, reminiscent of some of Ali Fark Toure’s early work, as does the final track “Fasso”, with a guest vocal performance courtesy of Nama Cissokho.

Lakou Mizik | HaitiaNola | Album Review | Cumbancha | 01.12.19

Uplifting collaboration between Lakou Mizik and a host of guests, from Leyla McCalla and the Preservation Hall Jazz band to members of Arcade Fire. Never a dull moment from start to finish with some of the most infectious grooves and festival rhythms, where Haiti meets New Orleans with relish. With both historical and cultural connections, the Caribbean spirit is matched with the enduring spirit of Louisiana, where the mix of styles and textures go hand in hand, with each of the musicians delivering fine performances throughout, both vocally and instrumentally.  With the disastrous events of 2010 clearly serving as the foundation upon which Lakou Mizik was built, a spirit of empathy and solidarity unifies the ‘collaborative gumbo’, which comes over as pure celebration. The celebratory “Iko Kreyol” makes an appearance, reminding us once again of its place in both Haitian and New Orleans culture, a nod also to the Dixie Cups and the late Dr John. It’s not all street party and celebration though, with one or two moonlit melodies such as Steeve Valcourt’s sumptuous “Rasanbleman”, featuring Leyla McCalla’s voice and cello. With contributions from Anders Osborne, Troy ‘Trombone Shorty’ Andrews and Jon Cleary among others, HaitiaNola brings a unique blend of Mardi Gras and Kanaval, which is both irresistible and essential listening.

Kankou | Kuma | Album Review | Cannery Row Records | 02.12.19

Mali’s Kankou Kouyate and Scots producer Mark Mulholland join forces for this exceptionally rich and varied album, which seems to effortlessly span musical cultures. Kuma, which translates to ‘Words’, finds Kankou on fine form, the warmth and texture of her voice very much in focus, with some equally rich arrangements. Having met in Bamako in 2017, the two musicians have developed a working relationship which is full of empathy and innovation.  Hailing from a highly respected family of musicians steeped in the Griot and Jeli traditions, her father being Fousseyni Kouyate, brother of Bassekou Kouyate, Kankou manages to bring her own musical heritage into a fresh contemporary landscape with an almost Neil Young-like title track, a Sandy Denny-ish “Obadya” and a veritable rock workout on “Dimi”, complete with sneering heavy on the wah-wah guitar licks. Through it all though, it’s Kankou’s voice that leads us on the journey, which also features contributions from Olaf Hund on ‘electronics’ and Vincent Bucher on harmonica.

The Milk Carton Kids | The Only Ones | Album Review | Thirty Tigers | 02.12.19

Nice to see the Milk Carton Kids back to their stripped down acoustic best, there’s nothing quite like gently played acoustic instruments to bring out the best in close harmony voices. Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan have already established the fact that they have two of the most compatible voices on the acoustic music scene and the seven self-penned songs on The Only Ones very much confirms this.  With some tasty guitar licks ala David Rawlings, especially on “I’ll Be Gone” and “I Was Alive”, the duo pepper their songs with a bright and crisp sound throughout, while their voices dovetail effortlessly on each of the songs. There’s an intimate feel maintained, especially on “My Name is Ana”, which you can imagine being performed right there in your room, just for you. The only negative point I reluctantly mention with this release is that it’s a little too short, just 25 minutes, which is no doubt handy for the 10” vinyl release, but on CD, a bit of a brief encounter, in fact about the size of a pixel.

Catherine Rudie | The Möbius Kiss | Album Review | Madge Wildfire Records | 03.12.19

Having endured the dual crisis of the termination of both a long term relationship and the creative space in which the London-based singer songwriter worked, Catherine Rudie responded by channeling her creative juices into the making of The Möbius Kiss, the title being derived from a David Byrne drawing. Losing herself in an almost covert operation, of stealing time at her workplace at the weekend, a space conducive to creativity and an ideal replacement for the one she had lost, the Sutherland-born musician focused on her own situation, with beguiling results, one of them being the sound of the building’s elevator, together with the proclamation ‘going up’ in the introduction. Those results have been further enhanced in this debut album, with more than a little assistance from Stephen Hodd.  Otherworldly in places, Catherine’s breathy, almost spoken passages, evoke a ‘faeries at the bottom of the garden’ feel, a momentary escape from reality. Traditional instruments such as the guitar, piano and percussion get a mention in the credits, but are then dwarfed by the presence of the term ‘sounds’, suggesting that the songs are largely accompanied by ethereal instrumentation or perhaps anything that comes to hand. Despite the almost dreamlike arrangements throughout, the lyrical content verges on the darker side of the human condition with the eerie counting that lurks within the title song, together with the almost isolated statement ‘electric orange’, then the broken bottles and sharp knives of “Everyday Dangers”, the stinging insects of “Chasing Wasps” with the vaporous peel of a midday bell, to the slightly unnerving fingers of “The Airtraffic Controller”. It’s all rather mystifying and slightly perplexing, but definitely worth further investigation.

Frank Birtwistle | Volume Two | EP Review | Self Release | 03.12.19

On this second helping, Frank Birtwistle, the Sheffield-based composer and guitar player, delivers seven evocative instrumentals, each of which explore the tonal qualities of the acoustic guitar, much in the manner of the Windham Hill musicians before him. With just single word titles, that is with the exception of “Midsummer Haze”, such pieces as “Horizon”, “Gossamer” and “Seasons” take us on a restful, meditative and trance-like journey.  At times reminiscent of the guitar playing of Gordon Giltrap, Frank Birtwistle never overloads his pieces with an unnecessary note count and tempo remains steady throughout. There’s dexterity in his playing but nothing flashy, reminding us once again that guitar playing needn’t necessarily be a competition. Volumes One, Three and Four are also available from the artist.

Gyedu-Blay Ambolley | 11th Street Sekondi | Album Review | Agogo Records | 07.12.19

The award-winning Ghanaian saxophonist and singer Gyedu-Blay Ambolley returns with an album of feel good songs, each of which is an indication that Highlife is alive and well. His twelfth album release since 1973, 11th Street Sekondi appears to continue from where the late Fela Kuti left off, albeit in much shorter portions. With Afrobeat being very much the order of the day, Ambolley’s arrangements occasionally come very close to the Kuti style, notably the engaging “I No Dey Talk I Do Dey Lie” and “Who Made Your Body Like Dat”.  Known as an early pioneer of Rap, Ambolley’s rich baritone has become widely known both on home turf and throughout the world, the title of this album a direct reference to the district of West Ghana, where the musician was raised. If the sprawling “Ignorance” delivers its ‘call and response’ message to a driving beat, “Who Go Pay” takes on a much more joyful attitude, a song to bring a bit of sunshine to these bleak winter months.

Steve Hogg and Jeff Spencer | Present Nilsson Sings Newman | Album Review | Self Release | 09.12.19

Tribute album’ are fun, more so for the artist recreating the music than for the listener it has to be said. Many classic albums have been carefully recreated in an almost forensic fashion, with bold attempts to get the timbre of the voice just right or the sound of the bass spot on. It’s rather curious then that in the case of this album, which sets out to revisit Harry Nilsson’s homage to a selection of Randy Newman songs, that we have a tribute of a tribute. The point of it all is unclear, but the sound of it is rather good. Perhaps there was an opportunity here to cover ten different Newman songs (there are plenty to go at), but I rather suspect this is more a homage to the late Harry Nilsson, a much missed talent. Hopefully, Steve Hogg and Jeff Spencer’s labours here will signpost new listeners to the original release fifty years on.

The Legends of Tomorrow | Don’t Go to Nashville | EP Review | Market Square Records | 30.12.19

Despite Colin Harper’s assertion that these songs are merely observations, “Don’t Go to Nashville” comes over as either a tongue-in-cheek or a scathing attack on Music City, reminding us of the fact that there just might be “too many songs and too many co-writes going wrong”, while name checking the unusual coupling of Joni Mitchell and Ralph McTell in the same sentence and an overriding nod towards “Hey Jude” during the coda.  The author of such books as Dazzling Stranger (Bert Jansch and the British Folk and Blues Revival), Harper occasionally puts aside his pen and picks up his guitar to perform with a bunch of friends under the guise of ‘Legends of Tomorrow’, where such songs emerge.    Sandwiched between two new songs, “Don’t Go to Nashville” and the teasingly curious “Greta Thunberg at the End of Time”, an environmental meditation in the style of The Cranberries, are three songs originally recorded between 2000 and 2008, remastered here by Cormac O’Kane for this release. A stand out “People on the Highway” recalls Pentangle’s Solomon’s Seal-period and features a fine vocal courtesy of Janet Henry as well as an uncredited Martin Hayes on fiddle.

Wayward Jane | Old Train | Album Review | Self Release | 30.12.19

Wayward Jane have so much going for them musically, not least the voice of Sam Gillespie, whose instantly identifiable tones bring a warmth to the songs on the Edinburgh-based quartet’s second album release. “Hills of Mexico” is infused with everything that makes Old Time folk music accessible today, with a percussive banjo, skittering fiddle, unintrusive double bass, all of which brings the best out of Gillespie’s lead voice and Rachel Walker’s almost subliminal backing vocal. A fine start to an album of fine songs and instrumentals. If the excellent “September” and the title song highlight both ends of Gillespie’s vocal range, then “Lyra’s Tune” and “Sandy’s Mudcat” showcase the instrumental prowess of all four musicians, without any obvious pointless ‘sore fingers’ showiness.  Rachel Walker’s voice can be enjoyed on “Carolina”, her regional dialect clearly cutting through, successfully bridging the Atlantic Ocean with panache. Throughout the album, there’s a live feel devoid of clutter and ruthless overdubbing, focusing instead on the sound the band presumably aim for when standing before their audiences, of which this reviewer wishes to be part of before too long.  With fine interpretations of the Son House blues “County Farm” and Gillian Welch’s “Elvis Presley Blues”, Old Train is almost guaranteed to find its way onto your player time and time again.

Natalie MacMaster | Sketches | Album Review | Linus Entertainment | 30.12.19

Natalie MacMaster’s status as Canada’s ‘Queen of the Fiddle’ is confirmed once again here with her first album release in eight years.  As expected, there’s some inspired playing on the dozen tracks, not only from Natalie’s own dexterous fingers but also from accompanist Tim Edey, whose flair on both guitar and accordion cannot be overstated.  There’s a stream of pure joy flowing through the centre of this album, with each instrumental set showcasing the relationship between each of the instruments, a veritable conversation devoid of words.  If these are merely sketches as the title suggests, then I’d like to hear the finished work. The album almost serves as a ‘music for all occasions’ scenario; there’s barn dances, square dances, slip jigs and reels a plenty, each of which can be equally enjoyed seated or up on your feet. “Professor Blackie” alone is such a beautiful air, that you can easily imagine it being chosen for the birth of a child, the first dance at a wedding or indeed, a funeral for a friend.

Catherine MacLellan | Coyote | Album Review | Self Release | 30.12.19

After a brief period of time away from song writing in order to concentrate on a body of work related to her late father, Catherine MacLellan returns with her sixth album to date, a showcase of mature song writing with melodies you feel you might already know (but more than likely don’t).  Despite the lineage, the daughter of renowned Canadian songwriter Gene MacLellan, famed for penning such songs as “Snowbird”, a hit for Anne Murray back in 1970, together with comparisons to fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell, Catherine MacLellan can really be considered an artist in her own right, with a penchant for delivering songs that are uniquely her own.  Despite Catherine’s devotion to other projects, the last four years have proved to be highly productive judging by the standard of these fourteen songs and we need look no further than the opening title song “Coyote” for proof of Catherine’s credentials as a first rate wordsmith. The songs such as “The Road is Divided”, “Waiting on My Love” and “Out of Time” benefit from fine arrangements and a full band sound, which is neither cloying nor cluttered; in fact everything seems to fit dovetail-like. In the hands of Catherine MacLellan, nouns such as reflection, heartbreak and hopefulness become more than mere words, they become almost tangible entities through these songs.

Kelly Steward | Tales and Tributes of the Deserving and Not So | Album Review | Glass Wing Records | 30.12.19

The cover shot of this album by Illinois-born singer songwriter Kelly Steward suggests that she has at least two sides, those being the ‘tales’ and ‘tributes’ or perhaps the ‘deserving’ and the ‘not so’.  It’s an intriguing start, rewarded by what lies beneath the surface. There’s a feeling that this debut album has been a long time coming, after years of movement, of life changes, of reasons to make songs and at the age of 42, it just seems like the right time to release her debut full length album.  The presence of Greg Whitson’s lap steel and Dan Pitney’s pedal steel keep the country roots growing throughout, which effectively feed Steward’s country sensibilities, but there are also bluesy moments, such as “Outlaw” and “Earthquake”, together with an obvious nod of respect towards Bonnie Raitt on “No Time for loving You”. At the heart of the album comes a moment when genres and styles become obsolete, with the sublime “Travelin’ Ghost”, a moment to savour.

Matthew Robb | Dead Men Have No Dreams | Album Review | Self Release | 30.12.19

The name Townes Van Zandt immediately springs to mind from the opening line of the title song on Matthew Robb’s latest release Dead Men Have No Dreams. The rugged sepia mugshot featured on the cover conjures a mixture of archive material from Ken Burns’ Civil War series, to how you would imagine the man behind such songs as “Waiting Around to Die” or “Poncho and Lefty” to look, although Townes never did look quite so bedraggled, even when he was slurping vodka and coke from separate bottles. Matthew Robb presents to us an image of the well-travelled troubadour, with ten songs, some sprawling as in the title cut, others not so.  If the social messages in both “Common Destiny” and “Spoils of War” work so well, it’s because of the almost jaunty take on the old talking blues model, almost as if saying, take it or leave it, it’s your call, with a shrug. The same can also be applied to “Pass the Buck”, where Robb wears his Dylan sensibilities on his sleeve. “Mothers Song” once again recalls Townes in reflective mode, a song that would be a suitable climax to a late night candle-lit song sharing soiree, just as the last of the Jack Daniels is poured.

A Winter Union | Live in Concert | Album Review | Self Release | 31.12.19

One disappointing aspect of becoming an adult is the likelihood of chronic cynicism setting in when it comes to the Festive Season, which in time may even become ever more pronounced if you let it. When did we stop sending Christmas cards because we were concerned about trees for instance? When was it okay to introduce profanity into a Dickens Christmas classic? When did we start wishing it was all over before November was done?  They say Christmas is for kids, which may or may not be true, but I sort of hanker after the excitement of those long gone days as I begin my third act. If there’s one thing that comes somewhere near conjuring up those ancient feelings, it’s not the smell of cooked turkey, nor is it the chilly feel of the oncoming snow, or indeed the sight of half a million lights attached to your next door neighbour’s garage. No, it’s very definitely the sound of songs and carols that bring out the seasonal cheer.  A Winter Union has become a tradition in itself simply because the musicians involved can do it so well and we can appreciate it. The launch of this live CD, recorded at the Otford Memorial Hall in Kent, precisely one year ago, coincided with the collective’s current tour, their final date being held at The Greystones in Sheffield. It was a rainy, not snowy night and the stage had been set to include a fully illuminated tree and winding holly busily climbing each of the microphone stands. A Winter Union is basically made up of two established folk duos, Ben Savage & Hannah Sanders, Katriona Gilmore & Jamie Roberts and Jade Rhiannon Ward of The Willows, that’s two highly distinctive voices and three extraordinary instrumentalists and much more besides, each of whom were only too pleased to sign several copies of this souvenir CD, suitable for one’s own collection or as Christmas gifts for pals and with Jess Morgan’s enchanting design, it also makes a fine decoration to sit next to the baubles on the Christmas Tree.  Most of the songs on the CD came out to play on the tour, traditional seasonal fare such as “We Three Kings” and “Ding Dong Merrily on High”, one or two originals, including Jade Rhiannon’s “Elizabeth Woodcock” and Katriona’s delicate “Every Midnight Mile” as well as a few well chosen, notably Robb Johnson’s “Boxing Day” and Robbie Robertson’s “Christmas Must Be Tonight”. Now normally such songs as Joni Mitchell’s “River” are considered sacrosanct, but Hannah Sanders delivers something close to perfection on both the album version and what we heard at the Greystones, with Ben Savage creating the sweetest of sounds as tone bar meets steel strings on his Dobro. Both this years’ live performance in Sheffield and the recording from last year remind us that Christmas really isn’t just for the kids, it’s for anyone with a sense of seasonal wonder.