Music Reviews | 2020

Blackbird & Crow | Ailm | Album Review | MIG Music | 04.01.20

We tend to talk a lot about darkness in folk music, as if it was a prerequisite to reflect our current feelings, which are a little on the bleak side, but often the question arises “how dark?”  The opening couple of songs on Ailm, “Harlot on Holy Hill”, which segues into “The Witch That Could Not Be Burned” suggests to us pretty much “as dark as it gets”; the second song could perhaps be a contender for a replacement theme song to the next season of Peaky Blinders, with pitchforks replacing lethal ‘baker boy’ caps. The spoken passages add to the unsettling tone of the song, especially when delivering such lines as “I am the cursed, I am the damned, there’s fire in my blood and there’s pitchforks in your hands”, to the backdrop of sneering grungy guitar licks.  County Donegal’s Maighread Ni Ghrasta and Stephen Doohan make an engaging noise on their second album release, with brooding Gothic vocals and atmospheric arrangements throughout the fifteen songs (the final two being radio edits of songs already included). Maighread has a versatile vocabulary when it comes to delivery, one moment she conveys sensitivity on “Margaret the Martyr” and “Parting Rag”, the next passion and soul on “Sweet Surrender” and “Orphan’s Lament”, then goes on to add all the power of a venomous attack on “A Pox on You”, almost spitting out the words before your face. Thankfully the Dolores O’Riordan yodel inflections are kept to a minimum, although one threatens to slip out during the opening line of “Mo Chuisle”, but in the main, we are treated to an original voice.

Lunatraktors | This is Broken Folk | Album Review | Self Release | 05.01.20

An extraordinary take on both traditional and contemporary folk song, performed by utilising voices and percussion, courtesy of Carli Jefferson and Clair Le Couteur, who put aside standard instrumentation in favour of a more immediate and accessible feel. So, no strings, keys, buttons or reeds and only the occasional low whistle, leaving the duo to explore the various sonic possibilities of their own bodies in order to create a completely pared down sound. Losing none of the impact of each of the songs, which cover everything from Cossack folk songs to traditional Irish and Australian ballads, the duo fuse such stylised influences as drum n bass, jazz and flamenco; a cappella singing with sonic benefits, so to speak.  Highly theatrical in places, notably during the delivery of the story of “Arthur McBride”, to the Paul Brady melody, rather than the one used by Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick in the long distant past, the vocal delivery seems to come over almost as pantomime vernacular, whilst the one original song on the album “Turn of the Plough” is reminiscent of Faun Fables at their best, with an almost eerie aura surrounding the performance. It’s not polished, in fact before an audience, their act can verge on the comical, almost clown-like, though the songs still manage to cut through leaving an indelible mark. John Lennon playfully quotes from “Maggie May” at the close of the first side of Let It Be and here the song receives equal irreverence, delivered in an almost ‘club singer’ style. Listening to the songs on This is Broken Folk, requires a different kind of attention really and although it all sounds rather peculiar at first, further listening highlights its apparent depth.  Following up on 2017’s superlative Every Soul’s A Sailor was never going to be an easy task and there may not be quite the same consistency of style and quality on The Unconquerable Past. Nevertheless, there’s much to admire in terms of the maturity in the song writing of this multi Juno Award winning musician and The Unconquerable Past makes for a fine addition to Stephen Fearing’s catalogue of recordings.

Frank Carline | Black Crow Blues | Album Review | Resofone Recordings | 15.01.20

Doncaster’s favourite bluesman Frank Carline returns with ten songs on the first of two proposed acoustic albums, each recorded in the attic studio of neighbour, producer and good pal John Crisp.  The so-called ‘one take’ recordings are by definition off the floor recordings that capture the essence of Frank’s live sound.  This first volume features a selection of four originals, a couple of Dylan covers, a George Jones standard and three blues classics, each performed in Frank’s distinctive style.  Of the originals, “Poppy Day” is possibly the most personal song, reminding us of the ravages of war and its effect on an ordinary northern family.  Frank has never bandoned his roots and has effectively remained a fixture on the ever-evolving Doncaster music scene for the best part of half a century and often reminds us of the good old days such as when Dylan’s “Watching the River Flow” could often be heard on the jukebox at the Silver Link pub along Bradford Row in the early 1970s.  At the album launch at his local Roots Music Club, all the songs came out to play, despite recuperating from a recent bicycle accident, which involved a faulty manholecover, which has left Frank nursing several fractured bones and a heavily bruised face.  “I’m going to get one of those Phantom of the Opera masks” quipped Frank from the stage at the launch.  If the steadily strummed take on George Jones’ “Bar Tender Blues” is slightly out of Frank’s comfort zone, then Robert Johnson’s “Come in my Kitchen” is very much back to Frank’s more familiar fare, as he accompanies himself with some informed bottleneck guitar playing.  The title song sees Frank delivering some strident slide playing and a convincing vocal, revisiting Dylan’s lyrics with some urgency, which may possibly be one of the reasons why Frank sees this as a ‘dark’ album.  A fine harmonica player, Frank was under instructions not to exert himself on the instrument during the launch, but on this album, those notes ring out clear.  Hopefully Frank will be back on his feet soon but in the meantime Black Crow Blues is a fine example of why he remains a much loved figure in his hometown. 

Aerialists | Dear Sienna | Album Review | Fiddlehead Records | 15.01.20

Formed in 2014 by Berklee College of Music students Adam Iredale-Gray, Elise Boeur and Mairi Chaimbeul, Aerialists explore a broad range of influences on this, their second full-length album. Dear Sienna covers a lot of ground not only in its diverse influences but also in the varied locations in which the album was conceived and produced, from Glasgow, Vermont, Boston and Toronto to New York and Gothenburg.  Some of that diversity is evident in the compositions, such as ancient 300 year-old “An Gille Dubh Ciar Dubh”, a love song explored by Chaimbeul within the frame of a complex time signature.  Despite the variety, there’s a sense of unity that brings all these songs together, which makes for enjoyable listening.  The harp and fiddle combination on the title instrumental is augmented by an informed rhythm section, giving “Dear Sienna” a fine contemporary sound. If the band’s flair for arrangement offers some highly textured and fluid performances, the songs further benefit from some excellent vocals courtesy of Swedish singer Isa Holmgren on “Jag Vill”, Canadian singer songwriter Taylor Ashton on “Lessons in the Losing” and Mairi Chaimbeul on both “An Gille Dubh Ciar Dubh” and the ethereal “Orchard”.  An intersting collaboration that sounds as if some serious thought has gone into the project.

Lina_ Raül Refree | Lina_ Raül Refree | Album Review | Glitterbeat Records | 15.01.20

Portuguese Fado is one of the most distinctive styles of singing in the world today, loaded with passion, grace and fire.  I was a good two and a half songs into this album before it occurred to me that something was missing, the presence of the traditional guitar accompaniment, or perhaps even the string quartet or even the full orchestra.  Instead, we hear piano and synths, which brings to the music a different kind of atmosphere.   For the first time, the Portuguese singer Lina joins forces with contemporary producer Raül Refree to create a new soundscape for these ancient songs, which rather than modernises them unnecessarily, brings a new sense of atmosphere and feel to the ‘Queen of Fado’ Amália Rodrigues’ notable repertoire.  It’s not until the album closer “Voz Amália De Nos” that we hear the more familiar guitar, accompanying the only song on the album not from Rodrigues’ repetoire, which is an almost tongue-in-cheek reversal of styles.  The delicate piano accompaniment and effects work together quite effectively on “Gaivota” and “Quando Eu Era Pequenina” and in a way, reminds us of some of the work Isao Tomita did for Debussy and Mussorgsky in the mid-1970s.  Having done something similar with Rosalía on her Los Angeles album, though in the Flamenco style, Raül Refree approached this project with the same focus on detail.  In both cases, the essence of the music remains intact and if anything enhances the passion, rather than dilutes it, with the voices on both projects taking centre stage throughout.  With each of the songs selected by Lina, this album serves as both a homage to her musical heroine, whilst at the same time broadening the appeal of Fado amongst new listeners. 

Della Mae | Headlight | Album Review | Rounder Records | 15.01.20

Having formed in Boston just over ten years ago, the now Nashville-based trio Della Mae continues to deliver bold and confident performances with their latest album Headlight, their fourth full-length album release and first for five years.  If the cover illustration depicts a comic strip version of the trio holding aloft their various symbols of intent, the portrait on the accompanying lyric booklet seems to say so much more about their strength of character.  This strength is evident in the lyrical content, with an almost over-riding commitment to women’s issues and basic human rights.  These musicians mean business, their very name a reminder of the physical abuse of women through history and woe betide those unwilling to pay attention.  With Celia Woodsmith on guitar, Jenni Lyn Gardner on mandolin and Kimber Ludiker on fiddle, the acoustic trio play as well as anyone in their field and proudly display their chops, especially on such things as the instrumental “Peg Monster”.  Della Mae’s versatility is not only demonstrated in their abundant instrumental prowess and Woodsmith’s dominating voice, but also in their straddling of styles; one minute the purveyors of sweaty Honky Tonk /jukebox forage on “First Song Dancer”, the next soulful Birds of Chicago/Po’Girl-like Americana on “It’s About Time” and “Working”, with no small help from the McCrary Sisters.  It’s been five years, but it’s been worth the wait.

Bai Kamara Jr and the Voodoo Sniffers | Salone | Album Review | Moosicus/MIG Music | 24.01.20

Raised in both the UK and Belgium, his father being a former ambassador to Sierra Leone in Brussels, blues singer and musician Bai Kamara Jr returns to his African roots with an album entitled Salone (Sierra Leone in the Krio language), which features fifteen new songs.  A dapper dresser as the cover shot suggests, the multi-instrumentalist comes over as mixture of John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Robery Cray and Ali Farka Toure all rolled into one, augmented by an empathetic band of musicians, the Voodoo Sniffers, that includes Patrick Dorcean on drums, Eric Moens and Tom Beardslee on guitars and Desire Some on bass.  Although very much based in the Blues, Kamara possesses a lightness of touch, illustrated on some of the more lilting numbers such as “Morning School Run Blues”, “The Rest of Everything” and “Lady Boss”, whilst “Some Kind of Loving” and “Black Widow Spider” lean more closely to the Afro/American blues tradition. Vocally, Bai Kamara is right up with the best of them, full of confidence and assurance, without sounding overly derivative. This is the blues for today, rich with sparkle and verve, although perhaps a little cheeky in places, “Naked Girls on the Merry Go Round” for instance, but this is a good thing. We don’t want opur blues to be watered down too much. The arrangements are often rich in texture, especially when leaning more towards Kamara’s African roots, certainly on such songs as “Homecoming”, “Cold Cold Love” and “Riverboat Blues”.

Deborah Rose | The Shining Pathway | Album Review | Self Release | 25.01.20

Occasionally, the back story of an artist can appear to be infinitely more interesting than the product itself and Deborah Rose may just suffer from this with her new album The Shining Pathway.  This back story includes the patronage of Mary Gauthier, touring with Jimmy Webb and Judy Collins, having an MA in song writing, recording a song at the home of Eva Cassidy’s parents in Maryland and performing before a Presidential candidate in New Hampshire, not to mention channelling the spirit of Joni Mitchell and “Nash and Stills” – not sure where Crosby and Young were at the time – at the very place where all the folkies used to hang out in the late Sixties.  Then there’s the bit about writing songs in the presence of the Queen (the actual Queen, not Joni).  This isn’t to say that any of this is the fault of Deborah Rose, but perhaps not having any of this knowledge would have led to a more sympathetic review.  Nevertheless, there’s a good voice at work here and a sensitive song writer seemingly holding her own.  Hailing from Newport (Wales) and now residing in Shropshire, the exhaustive travelling throughout the US has certainly left its mark on Deborah’s musical sensibilities. The album is quite sweet in places, almost otherworldly, certainly on “Bluebeard”, an enchanting tale of the women/wolves variety and also on the dreamy “Butterfly”.  If “Basket of Roses” pays homage to the aforementioned Joni Mitchell, evoking the spirit of her most personal album to date, then the album closer “Shallow Waters” is perhaps Deborah’s most personal song on this album, summed up in a quote from the opening verse “chasing the wrong kind of dreams”.  Well, perhaps not.

Seth Lakeman | A Pilgrim’s Tale | Album Review | BMG | 31.01.20

It seems only fair that Devon’s Seth Lakeman should tell the story of the Mayflower’s epic journey to the New World on the 400th anniversary of its historic voyage, not only because Plymouth’s cobbled streets are but a stone’s throw away from Seth’s neck of the woods and that he spent much of his childhood on the quay, or the fact that he has since sung, fiddled and performed on some of the tall ships in the harbour and in most of the old fishermen’s pubs in the area, but because this story is very much in his blood.  For A Pilgrim’s Tale, which consists of a dozen songs, mainly from Lakeman’s own pen, but also one or two traditional songs such as “Pilgrim Brother”, “Sailing Time” and “The Digging Song”, together with “Westward Bound” based on John Masefield’s Laugh and be Merry, Lakeman has sought the assistance of such notable collaborators as Cara Dillon, Benji Kirkpatrick and Ben Nicholls, together with his own father Geoff Lakeman who also lends his voice to the project.  Crucially, the whole project is held together by Paul McGann’s remarkable narration, which adds an almost solemn drama to the tale.  The story is told so convincingly, that the fact and the fictional blend seamlessly together, detailing both the apprehension and excitement of the voyagers as well as the fears and uncertainty of the Wampanoag people whose lives were to change forever overnight.  Four centuries have passed since the Mayflower first dropped anchor at Cape Cod, but its legacy has lingered long, set within several key locations in both America and the UK, some of which Seth Lakeman will visit as part of his forthcoming tour to launch this album, beginning at Doncaster’s CAST Theatre, a few miles north of Scrooby, home of William Brewster, one of the Pilgrim Fathers who sailed on the Mayflower.  Some of these locations are vividly captured in the songs as well as the vast ocean that lies at the heart of the voyage.  After visiting the Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts, where the singer got to speak to the Wampanoag residents, Seth Lakeman returned with a clear idea of the ‘vibe’ he wanted these songs to project.  A Pilgrim’s Tale reflects that vision and makes for compelling listening, something to absorb yourself in.    

Julie Abbé | Numberless Dreams | Album Review | Self Release | 31.01.20

Two things initially drew me into this album of songs and poems from both England and Ireland; Julie Abbé’s richly honeyed voice and the smouldering cello played just as it should be played, courtesy of Dominie Hooper, but it doesn’t stop there.  The traditional songs are well chosen, especially “Courting is a Pleasure” and the gorgeous “Kellswater”, both learned and adapted from Nic Jones and Andy Irvine respectively.  Raised in the Poitou-Chaentes region of France and steeped in the Bal Folk music tradition, Julie Abbé looks west for the material that inspired her debut folk album Numberless Dreams, produced in collaboration with Sid Goldsmith.  Written on Brexit Day, this review is marked with a certain sadness and the songs will probably serve as a reminder of the day whenever I return to them, which could be often, especially after hearing Sid’s concertina on the “Flagstones” instrumental, which in this case could serve as a French accordion, but we won’t dwell on today’s events here.  One of the other important aspects of Numberless Dreams is the fact that Julie has managed to successfully transform a handful of poems by the celebrated Irish poet W.B. Yeats into viable songs that truly work.  Comfortable with both accompanied and unaccompanied a cappella singing, Julie Abbé brings to the folk table a new voice to celebrate.

Martyn Joseph | Days of Decision | Album Review | Pipe Records | 31.01.20

There’s little doubt that Phil Ochs left the world too early, when he still had plenty to say.  When Bob Dylan stood down as the people’s protest singer in the mid-1960s, Phil Ochs was still only too willing to take up the mantle, still fired up and with something to say.  For Days of Decision, the noted Welsh songsmith Martyn Joseph selects fourteen songs from the Ochs’ canon and presents each one of them in its rawest and most stripped down manner, just a strummed acoustic guitar, a few simple keyboard strokes and a familiar and inimitable voice.  There’s a sense that Martyn Joseph enjoys performing such songs as “I Ain’t Marching Anymore”, “That Was the President” and the immortal “There But for Fortune” and judging by the intimate readings here, there’s some of the original passion associated with Ochs, but above all this, there’s a sense that the singer wants us to be more aware of this body of work, especially those new to the Phil Ochs repertoire.  Like many of those we have lost too early and who we seem to foist upon their legacy a sort of morbid and maudlin attachment, Nick Drake and Jeff Buckley spring to mind, the work deserves to be celebrated rather than mourned.  Martyn Joseph does this here, fourteen times over.

Gren Bartley | Quiet II | Album Review | Self Release | 31.01.20

Gren Bartley always provides a certain place for the listener to go, a place of meditation and repose, where the mixed up, muddled up, shook up world can do one.  He does this by paying attention to the sonic possibilities of his beloved steel resonator guitar, which he treats with respect.  We had a taste of this back in the autumn of 2018 when the first helping of Quiet was released and Quiet II essentially continues where the last one left off.  When listening to Gren’s instrumental compositions, there’s a tendency to focus not only on the notes, but also the ambient sounds that surround the notes; the scrape of the strings, the gentle clatter and clangs of the slide and the resonant touches upon the body of the instrument itself.  It’s all part of the same piece and in a way, makes each piece feel like they are being performed right there in front of you.  Opening with a delicate reworking of the dreamy Santo & Johnny instrumental Sleep Walk, the ten-track album delivers on its promise to look at the quieter nature of the music that Gren is making at the moment.  The bluesy “True” confirms that song writing is still an essential part of Gren’s remit, yet it’s during the instrumentals where we get to hear the musical passion and ongoing interest in music from around the world, including India, Africa, China and Scandinavia.  If “Hukilau” was the feel good Hawaiian selection from the first Quiet album, then “I Wish They Didn’t Mean Goodbye” serves as the same here, despite its title.  Each of the selections are fresh off the mixing desk with the exception of “The Entrance”, an earlier piece from a couple of years ago, which evokes the spirit of the Griot traditions of West Africa. This is another great Sunday morning record.   

Che Apalache | Rearrange My Heart | Album Review | Free Dirt Records | 31.01.20

With members from Argentina, Mexico and the United States, the Buenos Aires-based string band Che Apalache provide enough diversity both in terms of their ethnicity and their musical style with an album chock full of surprises, from authentic Latin grooves and Bluegrass, by way of jazzy swing time rhythms and breath-taking dove-tailed four-part harmony a cappella singing. With Joe Troop on fiddle, Pau Barjau on banjo, Franco Martino on guitar and Martin Bobrik mandolin, the quartet are equipped to take on complex arrangements, while remaining highly accessible and listenable.  Avoiding settling into a predictable groove, each of the twelve selections pivot from one style to another, keeping the album fresh and exciting throughout, whether re-visiting the Old Time repertoire in “Rock of Ages”, the straight Tim O’Brien-like Bluegrass of “The Dreamer”, the hard hitting vocal pyrotechnics of “The Wall” or the soulful Gospel of the title song, which could essentially rival the Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys in places.  Once you’ve heard the Béla Fleck produced Rearrange My Heart you will want to hear it once again to make sure you weren’t hearing things the first time around.

Three Cane Whale | 303 | Album Review | Field Notes Records | 08.02.20

This is a live album, but not in the sense of a performance in front of an audience, but in the sense of several living, breathing ‘plein air’ performances in the South Somerset area around the A303 trunk road.  There’s birds singing in the background and the close up sound of movement along the A303 itself, along with the gentle sound of the elements and when those elements become less gentle, the rattling of cutlery and chit-chat in the local tea rooms, none of which distracts from the twelve plaintive musical compositions that make up this gorgeous album.  The album begins with the sound of a squeaky country gate opening three times, presumably to signify the arrival of the three musicians, before taking up their positions in a South Somerset field.  The twelve instrumental compositions are delivered by this trio of empathetic Bristol-based musicians, Alex Vann, Pete Judge and Paul Bradley, who have an array of over fifteen instruments at their disposal, from acoustic guitar and mandolin through to the more exotic bowed psaltery, lyre and miniature harp.  Rob Harbron returns to make sure all this is recorded, mixed and presented in the fashion in which it was intended, after serving the trio well on their second album, Holts & Hovers in 2012.  It’s a little Penguin Cafe, a little Amazing Blondel and a good deal of Three Cane Whale originality rolled into one.  I would suggest that in the castles, churches and tea rooms of South Somerset, 303 should be placed alongside the cream teas, postcards and trinkets, as a true souvenir of this part of the world.

Fierce Flowers | Mirador | Album Review | Self Release | 15.02.20

Every now and again, an album pops up that you just can’t stop listening to, which in turn makes you feel that all is good with the world as the virtual sun comes out and the winter goes away.  On Mirador, all this happens before the end of the opening number, “Song to the Open Road”.  The most head-scratching thing about Léo Divary, Julia Zech and Shushan Kerovpyan, collectively Fierce Flowers, is that they’re apparently not sisters, though their rich and highly textured harmonies could easily be mistaken for those once delivered by the likes of the McGarrigles or indeed the Roches.  The dozen songs included here are performed in both French and English and both are certainly equally appealing.  Instrumentally, these women keep it fairly simple; Léo’s on guitar, Julia’s on the fiddle and banjo and Shushan takes care of all those important double bass lines.  In place of the usual sore-finger pyrotechnics associated with Old-Time Bluegrass, Fierce Flowers find arrangements that allow for atmosphere, often enhanced by Julia’s inventive scraping, notably on Léo’s title song “Mirador” and Shushan’s “Thorny Path”. Cutting their teeth on the underground Parisian old time scene, the trio have developed a style that is at once American but also laced with their own French heritage, notably the lilting “Belle Paresse”, which shows the flip side of this trio’s engaging repertoire. “Tell Me Lies” is a showcase for both Julia’s songwriting and her credentials as a fine lead singer; just one of several reasons why I adore this album.  The only problem I have with it is that I can’t seem to get it off the player, where it’s been spinning virtually non-stop since a week last Wednesday. Simply gorgeous.

Frigg | Frixx | Album Review | Self Release | 17.02.20

Frixx marks the twentieth anniversary of music making by the outstanding Finnish septet Frigg, their name taken from the old Norse for ‘Beloved One’ as well as the Norse goddess of love and fertility, yet unfortunately translated into something a little more disparaging in my neck of the woods.  Their uplifting acoustic sound however permeates this, their latest twelve-track album, which also marks the band’s tenth release to date.  Once again the arrangements are richly observed with moments of subtlety followed by moments of sheer exuberance, with each of the seven musicians’ musical prowess and individuality dove-tailing into a pleasing whole.  With eleven band originals and just the one traditional adaptation, Frigg sweep through each of the compositions with a flair all of their own, a fine mixture of homegrown folk and American Bluegrass.  Despite this, their music could only come from Scandinavia, a music easy to understand once heard. Twenty years doesn’t seem to have slowed this band down and with this celebratory album, especially the “Smoke on the Water” riffing on “Varpunen”, I foresee more excitable mosh pit activity during the summer festival season.

Ian Carr and the Various Artists | I Like Your Taste in Music | Album Review | Reveal Records | 17.02.20

After seeing the celebrated ‘go to’ guitarist in several line-ups over the years, usually seated alongside an extraordinary vocalist or sandwiched between equally extraordinary musicians, Ian Carr’s own adventures as either a soloist or as the focal part of one of his own collaborative endeavors, never cease to surprise me.  Always utterly inventive, a little bit different (in a good way) and always infused with a little humour, Ian’s albums are usually a joy to behold.  I Like Your Taste in Music is right up with the best of them.  Based in Falun, Sweden, Ian once again teams up with Maria Jonsson and Staffan Lindfors, who both appeared on the last Various Artists album Who He? as well as Laura Wilkie on violin and Thomas Gibbs on piano and harmonium.  There are also one or two guest appearances, which makes the Various Artists a little more various.  The instrumental pieces on this album are both highly inventive and easy on the ear at the same time, with “Climber” being a fine example of a swing between Scandinavian, Scottish and jazz influences, a tune that according to Ian used to be called “Pisspod” after accidentally dropping his ipod down the toilet on a train.  It’s a bold move to include a song that runs for almost eight minutes, with just two words repeated over and over in “Oh Yeah”, but this indicates clearly Ian’s lovely humour in a time when we need it most.  Once the oh yeah’s are delivered though, the piece opens up into something rather exceptional, before the kids come in with some gleeful ‘oh yeahs’ before the end. It’s almost like a John Coltrane number with the signature tune replaced by words before the improvisational part takes over.  Is there really a better function for music, than to touch you, intrigue you, impress you and to make you smile all at the same time?

Dana Immanuel and the Stolen Band | Mama’s Codeine | EP Review | Self Release | 17.02.20

There’s no easing oneself into the music of Dana Immanuel and the Stolen Band, whose opening song and title track to their new EP “Mama’s Codeine” hits like a shot of adrenaline once the frailed banjo leads you into the boudoir.  It’s excitable stuff from the start, as the London-based all-female outfit lay on you their own blend of bluesy Americana.  The EP is made up of three Dana Immanuel originals, together with a revitalised “Shady Grove”, which sounds for all intents and purposes like Hazel Dickens on speed, together with a short reprise of the title track, delivered from the depths of Hell.  Perhaps it’s a little lazy to quote directly from the band’s press release, but their personnel details are clearly irresistible.  There’s Feadora Morris on her ‘unhinged’ electric guitar, Hjordis Moon Badford with her ‘gymnastic cajon’ and ‘technicolour harmonies’, Karen Grymm Regester slapping her ‘glitter-sprinkled’ double bass and Basia Bartz, ‘fiddling fit to watch Rome burn by’.  Then there’s Dana herself, her sneering saloon voice leading the party into debauchery and mayhem.  You tend to think that you should refer to these five musicians by their title ‘Miss’ or you might just regret it.

Bonny Light Horseman | Bonny Light Horseman | Album Review | 37d03d | 17.02.20

I’m convinced that the American singer songwriter Anaïs Mitchell can do no wrong, a notion I first adopted after Young Man in America followed Hadestown back in 2012.  Since then I’ve had the pleasure to have seen her perform a number of times, chat to her during Nic Jones’ set at the Cambridge Folk Festival and then marvel at the fact that her Hadestown folk opera claimed eight of the fourteen Tony Awards it was nominated for and I still haven’t mentioned the Child Ballads collaboration album with Jefferson Hamer back in 2013.  We’re fortunate to live in these times.  Named after the traditional English folk song Bonny Light Horseman, Anaïs joins Fruit Bats leading light Eric D Johnson and guitarist Josh Kaufman for a fine ‘supergroup’ collaboration, which in turn is both the title of the album and opening song.  After Child Ballads, there was little doubt that Anaïs was more than capable of delivering convincing modern renditions of the folk canon and Bonny Light Horseman further demonstrates this understanding, through her passion for the songs and Eric and Josh’s complete empathy.  Both Anaïs and Eric are in possession of voices that cut through with not one ambiguous utterance, something traditional folk songs benefit enormously from.  There’s ten songs here, which includes fine arrangements of “Jane Jane”, “Blackwaterside” and “Lowlands” among them, coming in at just over half hour, which leaves us desperately wanting.  Well, I guess there’s a whole lot more out there to go at.

Sam Lee | Old Wow | Album Review | Cooking Vinyl | 17.02.20

I stand in the dubious position of being undecided as to whether I prefer live or recorded music.  Both have their good and not so good aspects.  In the case of Sam Lee, I tend to sit very much on the fence and find both thoroughly fulfilling.  It’s all in the voice really, Sam being pretty much in a class of his own.  His voice is idiosyncratic and mannered, yet utterly believable and convincing, which sits comfortably on top of all the arrangements.  He’s a storyteller with conviction and expresses himself superbly well, appealing to a wide range of musical ears, both the intensely observational as well as the casual listener, not to mention the odd Peaky Blinders fan.  The Bernard Butler produced Old Wow is Sam’s third full length album and sits comfortably beside its predecessors, the first of which was nominated for the much lauded Mercury Prize back in 2012.  The gentle nuances of Lee’s voice are expertly captured, especially in the quieter, more sublime songs, such as “Balfanen” and notably “The Moon Shines Bright”, which features a cameo appearance by the Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser, referencing “Wild Mountain Thyme” in a ghostly Wuthering Heights’ Cathy fashion.  The songs fall under three similarly titled headings Heart, Hearth and Earth and tenuously explore these themes throughout the album, the notion that it’s all about the Earth, that any change has to begin at home and that it all has to come the heart.  If “Spencer the Rover” appears as a favourite among Yorkshire folkies, especially those from around the Rotherham area, the highlight for this particular Yorkshireman is “Lay This Body Down”, a grim yet engaging free slave song originating three thousand miles west of the Pennines.

Rowan Godel | Where the Wild Horses Roam | Album Review | Self Release | 18.02.20

Little did I know when I sat down to watch a performance of Neil Gore and John Kirkpatrick’s folk opera Rouse’ Ye Women! back in March, that almost a year later I would be sitting down to listen to the debut solo album of one of the production’s key players.  Rowan Godel was in prime position to appear in the role of ‘Bird’, simply because she sings like one, which is evident in the album’s opening song aptly entitled “Songbird”.  Predominantly self-penned with just three additional traditional songs, Where the Wild Horses Roam is a delightful start to what promises to be a fruitful career as a recording artist.  If “Wayfaring” shows us the lilting sparkly side of Rowan’s pop sensibilities, then the sparseness of “The Snow it Melts the Soonest” demonstrates a masterclass of the ‘what to leave out’ model of arrangement, which allows us to hear the best in Rowan’s voice, a voice that dominates throughout the twelve songs here.  Her voice gets even better when she joins herself on the choruses, exhibiting an informed understanding of harmony, brilliantly executed on the sublime “Lovely on the Water”, which could have been recorded in the choir of Canterbury Cathedral in all its liturgical glory, were it not a teary parting song.  Joined by Benji Kirkpatrick for much of the album, along with Tim Cotterell, Adrian Oxaal and Lindsay Oliver, this Al Scott-produced album is a remarkable debut and one that should be heard.

Fairport Convention | Shuffle and Go | Album Review | Matty Grooves | 19.02.20

If you walk along the Fortis Green road in the heart of Muswell Hill, you will come across the old Fairport House, where the band would noisily rehearse back in 1967, taking part of their name from a wooden plaque screwed to the wall next to the front door.  Remarkably, the plaque is still there even after all these years, whereas the old Kinks’ house across the street, where the Davies brothers would punch each other’s lights out all day (and most of the night), has very much disappeared.  This is perhaps a sign of the endurance of Fairport Convention, who are still together fifty-three years on and with original member Simon Nicol, whose parents owned the house, still at the helm.  During the last half century Fairport have released over thirty albums of varying quality, many more if you count all the compilations and live recordings, and the band shows no immediate signs of slowing down.  Shuffle and Go is surprisingly good with one or two fine moments, notably the highly melodic McCartney-esque “Cider Rain”, which suits Simon’s voice remarkably well, written by the Brittany band Rosemary and the Brainless Idols.  If Chris Leslie’s “Shuffle and Go” almost guarantees jiving in the aisles, then Rob Beattie’s “A Thousand Bars”, one of the band’s favourite subjects, will no doubt have its moment when the lighters come out during the chorus at this summer’s annual outdoor shindig near Banbury.  Sharing the lead voice throughout the album, Simon, Chris and Dave (Pegg), maintain our interest and keep the album flowing, even coming together to share the verses of James Taylor’s “Jolly Springtime”.  No Fairport album is complete though, without one or two fiddle tunes, notably the rather enchanting album closer “Precious Time”, courtesy of Ric Sanders.  Personally, I can’t help being a die hard fan of the old stuff, but I reckon I’ll pop Shuffle and Go on the player every now and again.

Ry Cavanaugh | Time For This | Album Review | Cav Productions | 20.02.20

I imagine that the two photographs that make up the centre spread of Ry Cavanaugh’s new album Time for This, bring a lump to the Session Americana front man’s throat.  Accompanying his ukulele-totin’ old man on harmonica in the corner of the room, the sharply-dressed kid is obviously taking note, which will no doubt come in useful later.  Named after Ry Cooder, whose eponymous debut LP had just been released, the singer songwriter has found time in his schedule for this, a tribute to his late father’s craft, treating nine of his songs to warm and gentle arrangements, none of which sound in the least forced or rushed.  There’s obviously warm memories here of the Country and Honky Tonk singer George Cavanaugh, who at the time of those early photographs, would bring home many notable musicians and some of that warmth reveals itself in these songs.  It all sounds up close and personal with Duke Levine and Jennifer Kimball helping out on both guitar and vocals respectively. Between the three of them, new life breathes in such songs as “Too Tired for Drinking”, “Trinity” and “Gypsy Dad”, with sparse yet complete arrangements.  A fine tribute to a fine song writer, father and mentor.

Moonlight Benjamin | Simido | Album Review | Ma Case | 21.02.20

Haiti has long been associated with Voodoo and Moonlight Benjamin takes these things seriously.  Now based in France, the Haitian singer doesn’t muck about with her sound, delivering a consistently gutsy and bluesy trance-like groove throughout, especially on such songs as “Salwe” with its driving beat and sneering guitar licks.  Simido is Benjamin’s follow up to 2018’s Siltane and is once again dominated by her no nonsense tour de force vocal, each number written and performed in her native Creole language.  With some pretty consistent guitar riffing throughout, Simido is infused with a rock sensibility that falls somewhere between Classic Rock and Punk, with a little Desert Blues injected in all the right places.  “Pasay” races through its three and a half minutes, taking no passengers, whilst “Belekou” smothers itself with an after hours feel of the dark side.  With all the song lyrics written by Benjamin and musical arrangements composed in collaboration with Matthis Pascaud, Simido stands as a fine follow up to its predecessor.

Jon Hassell/Farafina | Flash of the Spirit | Album Review | Glitterbeat | 22.02.20

This re-issue of the landmark 1987 ‘Fourth World’ record, produced in collaboration between the celebrated production team of Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, Flash of the Spirit takes us back to the fruitful marriage of Jon Hassell’s inventive ambient explorations and West African percussion/voice featuring the eight-piece Burkina Faso ensemble Farafina, who took their balafon beats, flute flurries and ethereal voices to new places back in the mid-80s, which back then was pretty new.  Eno and Lanoise were barely off the sound desk piecing together U2’s Joshua Tree, when this project came along to change things around a bit.  In places, notably on “Air Afrique”, one imagines back then that the purist might object to authentic traditional dance music being invaded by modern electronic atmospherics, but then again those into ambient music might think the opposite, that the drum and whistle gets in the way.  Those who can enjoy both the ancient and the modern equally will probably enjoy this particular sonic blend.  The album closes with perhaps its most memorable piece “Masque”, a sprawling eleven-minute epic of tension piled onto more tension with little release, which perfectly showcases the ensemble’s adventurous spirit.

Kit Hawes and Aaron Catlow | Pill Pilots | Album Review | Big Badger Records | 23.02.20

There’s a special thanks to Martin Carthy included in the sleeve credits for this album and in a way, I feel that extended thanks could go to Dave Swarbrick, the legendary duo being the template for Kit Hawes and Aaron Catlow’s music.  Since those days, the fiddle/guitar format has worked well in folk circles, the Dransfield brothers spring to mind and more recently Ciaran Algar and Greg Russell, each who share the same sort of empathetic musical relationship.  Sheelanagig’s splinter duo carry on this tradition, exploring both traditional and original songs in a simple stripped down format with no further unnecessary embellishment.  On this follow up to the duo’s debut album The Fox (2016), we find some well-trodden traditional material here such as “Hard Times of Old England”, “I Know My Love” and “The Yellow Handkerchief” (also known as “Flash Company”), as well as lesser known songs and tunes.  Kit and Aaron also inject one or two of their own compositions into the mix, including the title song “Pill Pilots”, a song named for the brave mariners of Bristol, who would take their lives into their own hands as they guided tall ships through the channel and along the River Avon.  Throughout the nine songs and tunes, the playing is exemplary, a showcase of dexterity and flair that ought to be heard far and wide.

John Blek | The Embers | Album Review | K&F Records | 25.02.20

County Cork singer songwriter John Blek returns with his fifth solo album The Embers, which serves essentially as the third instalment of a four-part themed album series relating to the elements.  If 2017’s Catharsis, Vol 1 covered the Sea and last year’s Thistle and Thorn looked at the Earth, then The Embers is pretty much centred around the theme of Fire, “The Flame” being possibly the most obvious song, “We lit a fire and we let it burn..”  If the narrative of each album draws on these themes, however tenuously, then John manages at the same time to keep it all a little subliminal, allowing each album to stand alone, The Embers being no exception.  If “Empty Pockets” isn’t quite autobiographical, despite the lyric “With these rusted strings I will make my fortune, singing for my supper on every corner”, which relates to the life of a travelling troubadour, then “Ciara Waiting” clearly relates to loved ones back at home, in this case his fiancée.  The singer claims not to have heard Tim Buckley, but occasionally the similarity in his voice and phrasing is uncanny, especially on the ethereal “The Haunting”, a performance exquisitely spine-tingling.  John always includes an instrumental, which he sees as a reflective interlude, giving food for thought and here “Old Hand” provides a couple of minutes of Bert Jansch inspired beauty.  Throughout the album, like the other four before it, John maintains a high standard of craft in his songwriting, a clear and crisp finger picked guitar style and a mature and confident vocal performance. A voice that should be heard widely.

Stephanie Hatfield | Out This Fell | Album Review | Self Release | 26.02.20

Detroit-born, now Kentucky-based singer songwriter Stephanie Hatfield gives ‘tremendous’ thanks to the musicians, friends and family members who helped her with her fourth album release Out This Fell, which features ten original self-penned songs.  Equally at home delivering her own material as channeling the likes of Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin (a quick peek through her YouTube videos is testament to this), Stephanie commits to serving up full-bodied performances, backed by a small ‘family’ of musicians who are only too aware of what she’s looking for, notably the omnipresent Bill Palmer.  With a powerful delivery throughout, each song is inflected with either an indie rock or country twang sensibility, each fuelled by raw emotion, both in terms of the writing and performance.  If “Michigan” and “River Still Runs” demonstrate Stephanie’s sensitive Sunday morning side, then “Day or Decades” and the Spanish-flavoured “Lucy” are probably more suitable for Saturday night; there’s even a bit of mariachi ingrained in the lilting “Not Her”.  If we needed proof of Stephanie’s classical training though, we need look no further than “Gone Gone Gone”, in which the singer flexes her operatic chops, if only for a moment.

Sam Lewis | Solo | Album Review | Loversity Records | 27.02.20

Just one man, one guitar and a bunch of stories from the heart. Sam Lewis performs nineteen songs from the stage at the Southern Grand Studios in his adopted home town of Nashville before a small audience, effectively making everything warm, cosy and atmospheric.  This is nothing new for this engaging singer songwriter, who’s been performing alone on stage for over ten years now, garnering a reputation as a soulful troubadour with a good story to tell.  With three studio albums behind him, there’s plenty of material to choose from for his live set, though in addition here, Sam treats his audience to four new songs, most notably the wryly humoured “Neighbors” and the opener “What Does it Mean”.  In some cases, the comparison between the earlier recorded versions puts the emphasis on the starkness of the solo performance, notably on “Bluesday Night”, which is stripped of its guitar/organ gospel feel, leaving it feeling a little too sparse.  Those familiar with the originals can fill in all the gaps in their heads without too much bother.  Having said that, it’s always rewarding to take home something as close as possible to what you’ve just heard on stage, therefore Solo will make an ideal souvenir for the shows he delivers during his current UK and European tour.  Do check out those earlier studio albums though, Sam Lewis (2012), Waiting on You (2015) and Loversity (2018).

Deitsch | Mittsommer Sessions | Album Review | Artes Records | 01.03.20

There’s something immediately appealing and enjoyable about this new album by the German folk quartet Deitsch, which may have something to do with my unfamiliarity with traditional German folk songs and tunes.  It’s not far removed from the sort of music we hear from Scandinavia, from Scotland or indeed Ireland, there’s the presence of fiddles and flutes, shepherd’s pipes and guitars and the occasional diatonic accordion, together with some splendid voices, all of which makes a pleasing mixture.  Fuelled by lashings of cold peppermint tea, Gudrun Walther, Jürgen Treyz, Barbara Hintermeier and Steffen Gabriel set out to record a baker’s dozen worth of songs and tunes, incorporating ballads, minuets, polonaises, schottisches and other dance-able gems, all pleading for you to take your partner.  Some of this material is quite old, notably “Es Geht Eine Dunkle Wolk’ Herein”, which apparently has its beginnings in the 16th century and the words for “Der Winter Ist Vergangen” go even further back, both enhanced by up to date rhythms and each encouraging your feet to tap whenever you’re ready.  Despite being recorded in the midsummer heat of June, suggested in the album title, notably an awkward time of year for these delicate instruments, the cohesive musicianship is still very much intact, perfectly pitched and delightfully vibrant.  For a first outing, Mittsommer Sessions has set the bar pretty high for anything Deitsch might seek to follow it with.

Various Artists | Uzelli Elektro Saz (1976-84) | Album Review | Uzeli | 02.03.20

The traditional Saz or Bağlama looks a little like a cross between a lute and a bouzouki and has three pairs of strings and in some cases an extra seventh.  With its attachment to Turkish culture, the acoustic instrument has been around for centuries and is immediately recognisable by its distinctive sound. Uzelli Elektro Saz (1976-1984) takes thirteen examples of the instruments’ versatility in its electric and amplified form, a development still frowned upon in some quarters.  This unique compilation, culled from a mammoth archive of such recordings, brings a new sense of vitality, both as a lead instrument and as an accompaniment or sparring partner to vocal performances.  As the instrument maintains its status as a dominant force in traditional Turkish music, the tracks are carefully gathered from the tape archives of the Uzelli record label, curated by BaBa Zula’s Murat Ertel and his wife Esma Ertel.  The choices are varied, with each selection a demonstration of the versatility of the musicians involved, with some great performances throughout.  As an introduction to the Saz and to Turkish music in general, look no further.

Doc Watson and Gaither Carlton | Doc Watson and Gaither Carlton | Album Review | Smithsonian Folkways | 03.03.20

There was a time in the early 1980s when I saw no need to listen to anything other than Doc Watson LPs after hearing Red Rocking Chair, an album he made with his son Merle and double bassist T Michael Coleman.  That album opened the floodgates to a wealth of material that the legendary flat-pick guitar player recorded from the early Sixties onward, a good deal of them with Merle, one or two with his extended musical family and other such collaborations.  Blind from an early age, the Deep Gap, North Carolina musician was more than proficient on both guitar and banjo and became a much loved figure on the Old Time music and burgeoning folk scene, his soothing fatherly voice being familiar to many up until his death in 2012.  Despite being twenty-two years his junior, Doc seemed to have no problem in referring to his fiddle playing father-in-law accompanist Gather Carlton as ‘son’ midway through “Corrina”, which I’m sure would have put a smile on the faces of those present.  These original tapes, which represent some of Doc’s earliest live recordings from New York City’s Greenwich Village, are raw, unpolished and precisely as it happened, emphasised at one point during “Groundhog (Blind Lemon’s Version)” by the clearly audible ringing of a landline telephone, perhaps an early indication of the presence of mobile phones we have to put up with today, but somehow being rather less irritating.  With one or two familiar folk staples of the Old Time canon, such as “Reuben’s Train”, “Handsome Molly” and “Bonaparte’s Retreat”, Doc Watson and Gaither Carlton is an essential release for Watson completists, with plenty of background information and vintage photos included.

The Unthanks | Diversions Vol 5 – Live and Unaccompanied | Album Review | RabbleRouser | 05.03.20

Since 2005, Rachel and Becky Unthank have appeared in a variety of combinations, from their humble beginnings as a fine vocal duo, then doubling in size to a fine quartet, then a quintet, then a quintet with a brass section or a string section (and occasionally both), then backed by a celebrated brass band to an entire philharmonic orchestra among other variants.  For this project however, the fifth in their Diversions series, the siblings return to basics with a slimmed down version of The Unthanks, featuring Niopha Keegan, their long serving sister from another mother (hmm, as a rhythm that doesn’t quite work so well does it?)  Deliciously in tune with one another, the trio traverse a variety of songs, many new to us, with the inclusion of just three that have previously been recorded by the band.  For those familiar with The Unthanks purely from their inclusion in the Detectorists TV series, the eerie “Magpie” is included here in all it’s dark beauty, certainly not quite the same version as the one used as the theme song to the Seventies children’s TV show of the same name that’s for sure.  If “Magpie” reveals the darkness in some of the trio’s repertoire, then their lighter side is captured in such songs as Lee Nicholson’s “Where’ve Yer Bin Dick”, the traditional “Geordie Wedding Set”, comprising such delights as “We’ll Aal Be Wed In Our Auld Claiths” and “Hi Canny Man” and the mellitological mash-up of Connie Converse’s “Bees” and Peter Bellamy’s nod to Kipling’s “The Bee Boy Song”. Perhaps though, the trio’s breathtaking treatment of Richard Dawson’s “We Picked Apples in a Graveyard Freshly Mowed” should be considered the set’s showstopping performance, one of those three part harmony songs where you swear you can hear more than three voices; perhaps they’re just ghosts?  Although these songs were all recorded live, from London to Newcastle and Dublin to Belfast, we should perhaps not consider it a live album as such, but rather, an exclusive studio album that just happens to have been recorded before audiences, the most natural environment for these songs to be performed and heard.

The Maniacs | The Maniacs | Album Review | Self Release | 06.03.20

Taking three eighteenth century country dance tune books as a source and starting point for this project, Belshazzar’s Feast accordionist extraordinaire Paul Hutchinson joins forces with clarinetist Karen Wimhurst, violinist Seona Pritchard and cellist Gill Redmond for ten dazzling arrangements of tunes from those collections.  Despite taking a rather Punkish name for the collaboration, Maniacs merely describes the quartet’s maniacal love and appreciation of this type of dance music, which is demonstrated in the delivery.  The ten compositions included were selected from twenty chosen for a residential music weekend held at Halsway Manor in Somerset and went on to be recorded in Shroton Church in Dorset.  It’s always futile to try and describe this sort of music, but once heard, there’s an almost instant familiarity and recognition, which at one moment sounds very much like those engaging country dance tunes we hear in period dramas and Hardy adaptations, then again there’s a distinct Classical feel, together with a few subliminal jazz undertones added to the mix.  It’s all good music though, which swings in places and somehow takes you by surprise.  Quite lovely really.

Mr Alec Bowman | I Used To Be Sad and Then I Forgot | Album Review | Self Release | 10.03.20

Like Leonard Cohen before him, Mr Alec Bowman’s limited vocal range has its benefits, where almost spoken passages and gentle instrumentation brings to the fore the poetry in this album’s lyrical content.  When you’re in the process of revealing so much of yourself in such a personal way, then those words should be heard as clearly and unambiguously as possible.  This is where Alec’s strengths lie, in his ability to tell the story honestly and clearly without the frills of an over-emphasised style.  Producer Josienne Clarke makes several appearances as a multi-instrumentalist collaborator, with the occasional vocal contribution, yet remains pretty much in the shadows, a whisper of encouragement here and there, sharing the love and the occasional joke.  Despite the dark and brooding lyrical content, there’s a refreshingly light and airy feel to the album as a whole, as suggested in Trevor Hamilton’s optimistic cover shot, reminiscent of Judy Collins’ Wildflowers LP from over half a century ago.  With a pinch of Nick Cave, a sprinkling of Robyn Hitchcock, half a spoonful of Syd Barrett and a whole dollop of Mr Alec Bowman, I Used To Be Sad & Then I Forgot is something you might choose to play on a Sunday morning when everyone’s still asleep.

Elis Macfadyen | Dreamers and Journeys | Album Review | Self Release | 22.03.20

From the opening song “Life’s a Journey”, Elis Macfadyen invites us to join him on an odyssey, an adventure through the highways and byways of the mind of a dreamer.  There’s something very familiar in these songs and especially in the melodies; “Living Your Life in One Day” seems to be as familiar as “Danny Boy” and “Auld Lang Syne”, despite the fact that it’s a brand new and original song.  This is probably why the thirteen songs appear so accessible upon first hearing them.  There’s a gentle, almost meditative feel to the songs, especially in Macfadyen’s uncomplicated delivery.  With some tender unintrusive accompaniment courtesy of Rachel Campbell’s fiddle, Ed Sloggie’s accordion, Alan Macfadyen’s bass and Dave Mcintosh’s brush work, Dreamers and Journeys maintains focus throughout and ensures a smooth ride to the end.

Aruba Red | Shadow Work | EP Review | Self Release | 22.03.20

Wearing a feathered owl mask upon her forehead and resembling a young Annie Lennox, the cover shot of Aruba Red’s second EP release Shadow Work suggests the notion of wisdom, as the Stuttgart-born singer songwriter and daughter of the late Jack Bruce delivers five highly personal songs.  The five songs lay bare her soul as she confronts her past and the journey thus far travelled, a hazardous journey it has to be said, filled with the trauma of childhood, the horror of an abusive relationship and all the anxiety that goes with such a journey.   Through the healing process of music, Aruba tackles her demons and addresses some of the issues in a Cathartic manner, whilst delivering a delicious vocal performance, augmented by some fine contemporary beats and tender melodies.  Breaking the chains of an eventful past, “Release Me” goes some way of letting us know what she’s been through and how she now feels, whilst “Change” continues the theme of liberation, complete with a conversation with a child, emphasising the point, “the more you don’t love yourself, the more you’ll die”.  Listening to these songs can fill you with sadness, but at the same time, a good deal of hopeful optimism.

Anna Lynch | Apples in the Fall | EP Review | Self Release | 23.03.20

Impressive five-song EP from California-born, now Asheville, North Carolina-based singer songwriter Anna Lynch, whose Country/Bluegrass sensibilities are perfectly captured, especially in the opening song and title track “Apples in the Fall”.  Nostalgic yet avoiding sentimentality, the song takes a glimpse at small town America, with reminiscences of long gone factories and tired old brick buildings, ‘old shacks with breaking backs’, a heartfelt lament for the long lost Sebastopol apple industry and all treated to sumptuous guitar/dobro duelling of a Phil Donnolly/Jerry Douglas standard (what’s not to like?)  Though it’s difficult to get past this opening song, skipping back half a dozen times at least, all of the selections are particularly good in their own right, including “Bitter Bones”, one of Anna’s earliest songs and the gorgeous “Do You Miss Me Yet”, both confident performances with instantly memorable melodies.  I look forward very much to more from this promising artist.

Amberly Chalberg | Hi-Line | Album Review | Self Release | 01.04.20

With almost half of the twelve songs warning us of ‘explicit language’ there’s a tendency to conclude that Amberly Chalberg means business here; she’s a lil bit cheeky, a lil bit angry, a lil bit Country, but then she’s also a whole lot of confidence all rolled into one.  Montana-born and raised, Amberly approaches the songs on Hi-Line from the perspective of building upon the work she’s already put into her debut EP, There Will Come a Day, which is made up of songs written for her ailing father, specifically to lift his spirits, after he was diagnosed with colon cancer back in 2013.  An understandably tough time for the singer.  The songs on this, Amberly’s first full-length outing, are bold, direct and confident, with a gutsy delivery, especially on the gutsier songs, “Crazy Bout You” and “Lil Bit Country”.  Hi-Line gives us certain inroads into precisely how the singer feels, with songs punctuated by deep emotion and with one or two tender moments such as “One Last Time”, an album highlight.  Dedicated to her late father, with the symbolic white horse head dominating the cover artwork, Amberly should be pleased with the results as I’m sure you will be.

Salt House | Huam | Album Review | Hudson Records | 01.04.20

Salt House is a class act.  With two fine albums behind them, the band’s debut Lay Your Dark Low (2013) followed by Undersong (2018) and a slight change of line-up, this is all the proof we need.  Salt House now return with their third release, maintaining the same personnel as on their previous album, with original members Lauren MacColl and Ewan MacPherson, together with Jenny Sturgeon making up the trio.  With Huam, the band has definitely found its feet, an album that showcases the song writing credentials of both Jenny and Ewan all too well, together with the superb musicianship and flair for arrangement of all three, notably the dreamy “Mountain of Gold” and the rich mosaic of sound that underpins “Lord Ullin’s Daughter”.  There’s a definite feeling of both empathy and unity in each of the ten selections.  For Huam, pronounced Hoo-am, a Scots term for the call of an owl, Salt House team up once again with producer Andy Bell, who helps deliver an enchanting album made up of original songs and thoughtful arrangements of poems set to music from the pens of Emily Dickinson, Thomas Campbell and notably, Nan Shepherd, whose “Fire Light” opens the album.  Crafted between Inverness-shire and Shetland and recorded in Argyllshire, the overall feel of the album relates to the rural environment around them, something close to each of the musicians’ hearts, so much so that sales from Huam will go towards helping the conservation charity Trees for Life.  A tip top addition to a steadily growing collection of first rate albums.    

Alden, Patterson and Dashwood | Waterbound | Album Review | Self Release | 01.04.20

You don’t have to wait long for a burst of Alden Patterson and Dashwood’s trademark three-part harmonies, just half a minute into the opening song and our spirits are effortlessly lifted.  Waterbound is the third album by the Norwich-based folk trio and once again, the song choices are just right, both original and traditional, each well-constructed and delivered from the floor, so to speak.  This is essentially a live album recorded in just ten hours and without an audience, though much of the trio’s stage dynamic is successfully captured. If the short time span comes as a surprise, then the fact that all but one of the nine selections are ‘first takes’ is positively startling, but then again I’ve seen this trio live and therefore know perfectly well that it’s like water off a duck’s back to these three musicians.  Writing songs from or about a songwriter’s own neck of the woods always appeals and Noel’s “Broads in December” is a fine meditation on the famous Norfolk holiday destination, although from an out of season perspective.  The old timey title song “Waterbound” works tremendously well as a three-part a cappella performance, serving as a fine showcase for Christina, Alex and Noel’s collective vocal prowess.  The intuitive interweaving of the fiddle, dobro and guitar remains one of the trio’s focal points, along with Christina’s inimitable and strong voice and the trio’s tight harmonies, all of which places Alden Patterson and Dashwood among the most enjoyable outfits currently working on the British folk scene.  

Tamikrest | Tamotaït | Album Review | Glitterbeat | 01.04.20

The now familiar pulsating beat of a good strong Sahara blues number always conjures up the summer festival season, where the mosh pit expands to the edges of the marquee, heads bobbing in unison to the immediately identifiable rhythms and predominant guitar licks.  “Awnafin”, the opening song on Tamikrest’s fifth album in ten years, demonstrates this from the start.  Tamotaït means hope for a positive change, something continually prevalent in troubled North Mali, the band’s homeland, from which they are exiled.  These nomadic Kel Tamasheq musicians are sharp, street wise and youthful, but at the same time remain close to their traditions and take their music seriously. Guitarist Ousmane Ag Mossa has a similar charismatic presence of a Bob Marley or a Jimi Hendrix, a comparable charm as well as a sense of defiance, which almost insists that you be drawn in. The music is also slightly mesmerising, its pulsating and trance-like rhythms immediately transporting the listener to an entirely different place and mind set.  “Timtarin”, featuring the voice of Moroccan singer Hindi Zahra exemplifies this notion.  The dynamic force of Tamikrest’s rock affiliation can be found in the blistering “Anha Achal Wad Namda”, which could warrant at least a mention in Kerrang!      

Matthews Southern Comfort | The New Mine | Album Review | MIG Music | 01.04.20

Kicking off with an unusually slow burning opener, a fine arrangement of Joni Mitchell’s “Ethiopia”, although possibly the sort of song you would expect to find midway through side one, or in Joni’s case, midway through side two even, Matthews Southern Comfort get off to a restrained start.  It’s not the first time the band has covered a Joni song and maybe not the last, but possibly on this occasion, the album would have benefitted from a slightly punchier opener.  Maybe “The Sacrificial Cow” or Inbetween” would have been more fitting starters.  What do I know?  The melody of “The Hands of Time” appears to have the feel of Dylan’s “Lay Down Your Weary Tune” in places, whilst both “Feed It” and “Patty’s Poetry”, are shrouded in eighties MOR, the band I imagine sporting dinner jackets with rolled up sleeves and shirt collars worn over the lapels.  Ed Snodderly’s “Working in the New Mine” rescues us from that particularly dismal decade with something a little more soulful, a little funkier if you will, a refreshing take on the song, which also provides the album with its title.  “The Hole” also captures the band, which consists of Bart Jan Baartmans, Bart de Win and Eric De Vries, at its tightest, not to mention Matthews’ seemingly ageless vocal.  Unlike the Joni song, “In the Next Life” is perfectly placed as an album closer, a song of both regret and optimism at the same time.        

Rebecca Hill | The Airing | EP Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 01.04.20

The Airing contains just four instrumental arrangements for lever harp, fiddle and mandolin, two of which were composed by Rebecca, the plaintive “Newark Seaglass” and the title piece that concludes the EP.  With Charlie Stewart on fiddle and Graham Rorie on mandolin, Rebecca, a semi-finalist of the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award back in 2016 alongside Charlie, takes her influences and inspiration, based on the Traditional music of the West Coast of Scotland, and moulds it to her own specific style, which is both delicate and assured at the same time.  Whilst the opening traditional tune “The Marque of Huntly’s Farewell” demonstrates some fine interplay between the harp and the fiddle, the title composition “The Airing” is an essay on musical focus and empathy between the musicians and their respective instruments.  Lovely.

Siobhan Miller | All Is Not Forgotten | Album Review | Songprint Recordings | 01.04.20

Scotland has a knack of producing some of the most notable singers in the world today and in particular those in the folk idiom.  Siobhan Miller is one of those singers, whose reputation not only as a fine singer, but also a songwriter, performer and interpreter of traditional songs, is growing with each album release and each live appearance.  In just a decade, we’ve seen the young singer surrounded by birds, holding close the Scottish city landscape, wearing a big floppy hat, not to mention sharing the frame with her former musical partner Jeana Leslie and now, for her fourth album, we see a confident and assured singer in profile, as captured by photographer Elly Lucas.  Though now very much a solo performer, the Midlothian-born singer falls into collaboration with apparent ease, on this occasion working alongside Kris Drever, Megan Henderson, Innes White, John Lowrie and Kim Carnie, not to mention husband Euan Burton.  The warmth of Siobhan’s voice is captured immediately on the opening title song “All is Not Forgotten”, which has the power to engulf the listener momentarily in a blissful reverie. There’s no particular desire to be anywhere else, other than nipping over to the kettle, make a cuppa and starting all over again from scratch.  The repeated refrain that closes the song almost ensures that Siobhan is not going to be forgotten anytime soon.  If the song, co-written by Siobhan, Kris and Euan, is a perfect opener to this album, then the traditional “May Morning Dew” demonstrates just how well these musicians can adapt traditional songs and turn them into something quite beautiful, in this case with some weeping violin courtesy of Megan Henderson.  Siobhan and Kris duet effortlessly on the gorgeous “Selkie”, also known as “The Selkie of Suleskerry”, which originates from Kris’s neck of the woods on Orkney, whilst the melody of “Loving Hannah” once again sends goosebumps all over the place.  In a perfect world, we would hear “Now You Need Me” on the radio often, instead of some of the unlistenable contemporary ‘beats’ we’re served up regularly, but that’s just an old fart talking.  With every song on the album, both original and traditional, being of such high class, it comes as a delight to hear the album close with Siobhan’s reading of Adam McNaughton’s hilarious Music Hall ditty “Cholesterol”, perhaps reminding us all to take it easy while we’re self-isolating.  An easy five.         

Jake Blount | Spider Tales | Album Review | Free Dirt | 01.04.20

Rhode Island-based banjo picker and fiddle player Jake Blount explores the rich tapestry of traditional sounds from the Appalachians from the perspective of the Black experience.  Spider Tales takes a hold immediately, from the trance-like banjo picking and simple rhythmic percussion on Lucius Smith’s “Goodbye Honey You Can Call That Gone” through to the Josie Miles blues “Mad Mama’s Blues”.  Like the music of The Carolina Chocolate Drops before him, the selections are as authentic sounding as you can possibly imagine, presented with the additional bonus of quality sound, certainly on such inclusions as “Roustabout”, “Old-Timey Grey Eagle” and “Boll Weevil”.  The album title alone gives us little doubt that Jake is unearthing deep roots throughout the album, with each of the fourteen songs and tunes entrenched in a folklore that stretches back to the homelands of Africa.  Even the now very familiar Lead Belly song “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” invites us to look deeper than that of Kurt Cobain’s swansong, to a deep rooted song of real hardship.  Work songs and spirituals such as “Move, Daniel” and “The Angels Done Bowed Down” maintain a rawness that takes us way beyond imitation or pastiche, but instead gives us a real sense of history and tradition.  It’s certainly not all doom and gloom though, with some feisty instrumentals such as “Rocky Road to Dublin”, derived from the Cherokee banjo/fiddle playing of Osey and Ernest Helton.  A fine engaging and earthy album.

 John Cee Stannard | Folk Roots Revisited | Album Review | Cast Iron Recordings | 02.04.20

It’s with some sadness that this review comes shortly after the passing of John Stannard, who died on 18 March 2020, yet it also seems fitting that we’ve been given this opportunity to pay tribute in our small way.  The cover artwork for Folk Roots Revisited may jog a few memories, to those who remember the folk outfit Tudor Lodge back in the early 1970s, or those rabid LP collectors who search fruitlessly for the band’s incredibly rare eponymous debut, which was at the time treated to a memorable die-cut six panel sleeve by the band’s high profile record company, Vertigo, whose swirly monochrome label is still a sight for sore eyes.  Phil Duffy’s caricature drawing of John can be seen on this early record sleeve, which has now been replicated for this release.  Under the name John Cee Stannard, the musician has up until recently remained a regular name on the blues music scene, yet this timely addition to John’s recorded output takes the singer songwriter right back to his original musical roots, featuring a dozen songs new and old.  One or two of the songs were written decades ago, in fact around the time of the Tudor Lodge record, “Lovely Day” and “If Only She Was Here” among them.  There’s an immediate sense that this album was intended as John’s swansong,  a sense of looking back over the years, notably with the inclusion of a song called “I See a Boy”, which could be seen as a companion piece to “I See a Man”, a song that appeared on the earlier album.  Some of the songs were written during a song writing course run by Kathryn Williams in Totleigh Barton in Devon, the final one, “The Last Time”, being a moving ode to his wife.  If “The Last Time” could be seen as prophetic, then so could “The Ferryman”, which sees John reaching out for his final guide and therefore becoming a fitting epitaph.  Sleep well John.

A Choir of Ghosts | An Ounce of Gold | Album Review | Greywood Records | 03.04.20

James Auger, under the guise of A Choir of Ghosts, describes this debut album release as a ‘diary of experiences and feelings’, which perhaps sums up the eleven tracks nicely.  Working in collaboration with the Canadian producer Terry Benn, the Sweden-based singer songwriter and musician creates expansive soundscapes for his songs, from the veritable opus of an album opener “Sinner in Rapture” to the country-inflected pop of “Outside the Window” and “The Taste of Smoke”.   Kurt Cobain has been mentioned in connection with Auger, possibly due to the similarity in places of their respective rasping vocal delivery, but there again, on such songs as “The Days Fade Quicker” and “The Water”, the voice couldn’t be more different, leaning more towards the current wave of Nu-folk stylists, with Johnny Flynn springing immediately to mind.  “Better Off Alone”, featuring a guest vocal from Ellen Sundberg, brings a new dimension to the overall sound of the album, whilst the simplicity of “Southwest of the Sun” indicates that Auger has the ability of holding your attention with just a strummed guitar and some un-intrusive, almost minimalist backing, leaving the voice to do all the work.

Carus Thompson | Shakespeare Avenue | Album Review | Valve Records | 03.04.20

Produced by Sean Lakeman and recorded in Dartmoor, Devon, Shakespeare Avenue is a showcase for ten original songs from the pen of Australian singer songwriter Carus Thompson.  The songs are delivered in a clear and direct manner, augmented by some fine accompaniment courtesy of Sean, his brother Seth and his wife and musical partner Kathryn Roberts.  The songs would stand up in a solo context, but benefit further from some fine arrangements and accompaniment, notably the hypnotic feel good guitar on “End of the Day” and the pure radio pop of “Unless We Go Now”, an almost tangible flashback to The Equation.  Named for the address in Bath where his Grandfather lived before leaving for Australia, Shakespeare Avenue is the link between Thompson’s home and his ancestral home, as well as having the obvious poetic connotations.  Returning to that ancestral home, Carus brings a sense of place which effectively bridges the distance between each home on either side of the world, with references to both in “Shoulder” and “Yagan” on one side and “Land’s End” on the other.

Serious Child | Time in the Trees | Album Review | Four Left Feet Records | 04.04.20

For this second album by Alan Young (Serious Child), we see the indie folk singer-songwriter leave the city behind for the Sussex woods, which provides the inspiration for these ten songs.  The close proximity to nature and in particular to the ‘ancient oak and beech woodland’ can be felt at the very least through the song titles alone, such as “Brambles”, “The Oak” and “Bonsai”, each relating to the great outdoors.  Produced by Boo Hewerdine, Time in the Trees also employs such diverse instruments as the Harmonium, Vibes, Dulcitone, Marxophone and that old Prog favourite, the Mellotron, all of which are essential in creating an ethereal feel throughout the album.   There’s a Scott Walker quality to Young’s vocal delivery, which is clear, unambiguous and thoroughly engaging throughout, peppered in places with John McCusker’s fiddle and whistle, which adds a further touch of class.  This is a soothing album, with a gentleness that mirrors the environment in which Young and his chosen musicians find themselves.  A desire to get away from social media and back to the garden.  “Falling” seems to stand out in style, and comes from a slightly different angle, a song that wouldn’t be out of place in a Brecht/Weill collaboration; a moment of burlesque, or should that be Newton-esque respite?  With a song inspired by renowned Bonsai master Chiako Yamamoto (“Bonsai”) and a brief look into the world of botanist Dr Mark A Spencer (“Brambles”), this is an album to pop on your portable player and listen to whilst strolling through your nearest forest.

Jeffrey Foucault | Blood Brothers | Album Review | Blueblade Records | 05.04.20

It’s almost twenty years since the release of Jeffrey Foucault’s debut album Miles From the Lightning back in 2001 and there’s a sense that a long and winding road has been subsequently travelled.  Blood Brothers is Foucault’s first album since Salt As Wolves (2015) and features ten new original songs, including a couple of co-writes with drummer Billy Conway.  Foucault’s broad smile on the cover, a clever pastiche on all those classic Blue Note LP sleeves from the 60s, seems to be reflected in some of the songs; it’s hard to imagine the opening line of “I Know You” being performed without a smile.  There’s an almost American Gothic feel to the domesticity embedded in the opening song “Dishes”, which is effectively comforting, before all war breaks out and a return to the bleak undercurrent of our troubled times in the punchy “War on the Radio”.  If Foucault is perfectly fine delivering songs on his own, such as “Pretty Hands”, albeit with some fine guitar courtesy of Kenneth Pattengale (Milk Carton Kids), it has to be said that there’s something quite special about his chosen guest vocalists, such as Kris Delmhorst, a noted singer songwriter in her own right, who accompanies her husband in all the right places, specifically on “Dishes” and “Rio Cello Brown”, whilst Pieta Brown can be heard on the tender title song “Blood Brothers” and Tift Merritt on the sublime “Blown”, possibly the album’s Gram and Emmylou moment.  Kate Lorenz, Bo Ramsey and Laurie Sargent provide further vocal contributions.

Robert Cray | That’s What I Heard | Album Review | Nozzle Records/Thirty Tigers | 06.04.20

For those of us who remember his breakthrough album Strong Persuader, back in the mid-1980s, which contains the highly memorable “Right Next Door”, together with TV appearances on such shows as the The Tube, the name Robert Cray will no doubt be synonymous with both the soulful blues musicians of old, such as Sam Cooke, Curtis Mayfield and Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland as well as anything associated with the blues.  In the appropriately entitled That’s What I Heard, Cray and his band re-visit some of the songs that clearly demonstrate where his influences lie, with some fine interpretations of Mayfield’s “You’ll Want Me Back”, Deadric Malone’s You’re the One” and Don Gardner’s infectious “My Baby Likes To Boogaloo”.  If Cray’s distinctive guitar playing has earned him the reputation he very much deserves, playing alongside such notables as Eric Clapton and Buddy Guy, then it’s with his voice that we concentrate on here.  The opener “Anything You Want”, one of four original Cray compositions, is every bit as good as anything we’ve come to expect from the band over the years and for the all-out gospel sound of “Burying Ground”, Cray recalls the Sensational Nightingales, but also some of the iconic Ry Cooder recordings of the mid-1970s, notably the live Showtime set at the same time.  Produced by Steve Jordan, whose song “Promises You Can’t Keep”, co-written by Danny Korchmar and Kim Wilson, is one of the album highlights, also features guest appearances by Ray Parker Jr and Steve Perry.  That’s What I Heard could very well be your next Saturday night and Sunday morning album simultaneously.

Various Artists | Maghreb K7 Club | Album Review | Bongo Joe Records | 07.04.20

Subtitled Synth Raï, Chaoui & Staifi 19851997, this compilation is made up of tracks from the Maghreb region of North Africa, originally released on cassette only and produced between 1985 and 1997 in Lyon, France.  The influences are widespread and cross regional, bringing to each of the selections a rich variety of diverse sounds.  There’s much fusing together of traditional styles with more localised contemporary grooves, notably on Salah El Annabi’s “Hata Fi Annaba” with its nod to Jean-Michel Jarre’s familiar “Oxygene” theme.  Opening with determined footsteps across the stereo plain, followed by some frantic French dialogue underpinned by space age synth effects, Zaïdi El Batni’s “Malik ya Malik” strives to give us a sense of place and time, with some confident call and response vocals and almost tribal beats.  This music was performed in the cafes of Lyon towards the end of the last century, which must have been a delight to curious visitors, yet none of it appears to have dated much at all.  Interestingly, some of the selections have been modified from their original versions, at times without the artist’s permission, all of which adds something to the mystique of these recordings.  

Terence Blacker | Playing For Time | Album Review | Talking Cat Recordings | 08.04.20

Perhaps this album should be called Playfully Playing for Time, as there’s a good deal of playfulness in Terence Blacker’s lyrics, which cover some of today’s hot topics.  That playfulness has come at the right time when we all need some light relief, where just a certain turn of phrase can serve as a potent tonic.  Recorded with a group of Italian musicians in southern Italy, the songs on Playing for Time are treated to some fulfilling musicianship, notably Hartmut Saam’s informed accordion playing.  Some of the song titles speak for themselves, “Fake News” “Europa, Mein Amour” and “Me Too” for instance, each of which tackle their subject with humour and warmth, avoiding pointless attack or sour grapes, in fact, I’d go as far to say that “Me Too” is song writing of a Loudon Wainwright III standard.  If “Europa, Mein Amour” is a reluctant, if heartfelt farewell to our neighbours and is effectively bang up to date in its sentiment, then “The Sha-La-La-La Song” is a homage to our yesterdays, when life seemed much simpler, a radio under the bedclothes and the Everlys giving us hope for a brighter future and maybe the birth of one or two baby songs along the way. 

The Idumea Quartet | More Than One | Album Review | Penny Fiddle Records | 11.04.20

Expressive performances for those who like their string quartet music to swing a little more than that of Schubert.  The Idumea Quartet, comprising Ewan Macdonald and Jane Rothfield on violins, Becka Wolfe on viola and Nathan Bontrager on the big boy, treat their respective instruments to some down home Appalachian folk music, which in turn has a way of lifting your spirits, suitable for any Saturday night barn dance.  The sprawling “Falls of Richmond/Grub Springs” gets the album off to a great start, with a medley of full-bodied tunes and sprightly tempo changes, before the discovery that the quartet are not exclusively an instrumental outfit with a fine reading of the traditional “Silver Dagger” courtesy of Becka Wolfe.  The much covered “Cluck Old Hen” is given an almost melancholy arrangement here, as too is the traditional “And Am I Born To Die”, each keeping the Old Time and Sacred Harp traditions very much alive and well.  Far from the Appalachians, “Carthy Hoose” began its journey in Martin Carthy’s kitchen in Robin Hood’s Bay, Jane being a long-time pal of the Waterson/Carthy clan, an original tune of imagination and invention.  The bold experimentation found within these songs and tunes speaks for itself, yet it’s with the quartet’s arrangement of Joe Birchfield’s “Sally Ann” that we see the Appalachian folk traditions rubbing shoulders with the minimalist exploits of Terry Riley, with startling effect.  

Andrew Hawkey | Long Story Short | Album Review | Mole Lodge Records | 11.04.20

Without sounding ever-so-slightly ageist, for I’m no spring chicken myself, I confess to a tendency of steering clear of pension-aged singer songwriters, especially if they’ve never crossed my path before. It’s therefore a joy to hear Andrew Hawkey’s new record Long Story Short, an album packed with great songs that could possibly give the young whippersnappers out there today something to think about.  The 77 year-old, Cornishman, a long-time resident of Powys, mid-Wales, makes such a good mature sound through these ten songs, with a confident and engaging delivery that appears to betray his years, both smooth and soulful with a touch of melancholy in places.  If such songs as “Dear Friend”, a superb ode to friendship and the Country-inflected “Golden Heart (on a Rusty Chain)” keep you listening attentively in your chair, then “Jones on Me” will probably make you fall off it, a southern soul crooner reminiscent of the heyday of Muscle Shoals music making, underpinned by an organ part worthy of Spooner Oldham, which will probably help you hear the slight ripple of the Mississippi River in the background; or maybe that’s just my fertile imagination at work.  Yep, I love this one, a real surprise.

Peter Knight’s Gigspanner Big Band | Natural Invention | Album Review | Self Release | 16.04.20

If Peter Knight’s post-Steeleye outfit Gigspanner was always going to be a perfectly formed trio and Edgelarks, comprising Hannah Martin and Phillip Henry, were always going to be a perfectly formed duo, then despite some hesitation about whether or not perfectly formed things need any further embellishment, Peter Knight’s Gigspanner Big Band reveals, unsurprisingly really, a perfect union.  This is the Big Band’s debut studio album, having tentatively dipped their collective toes in the water with a live album released back in 2017.  For Natural Invention, a name derived from David Kidman’s review of that live album for FATEA magazine, the perfectly formed John Spiers joins the line-up for that additional spark – as if they really needed it.  As is the usual case with Gigspanner, in all its various incarnations, the musical arrangements are superb throughout, a lesson in dexterity and drive, delivered with passion and flair and a clear understanding of traditional material and its value.  “The Snows They Melt the Soonest” and “Long a Growing”, also known as “The Trees They Do Grow High”, are once again brought to life in a clear and refreshing manner, as are “Earl Brand”, “Searching For Lambs” and “Courting is a Pleasure”, beautifully sung by Hannah. Midway through, Peter leads the band in a thoroughly uplifting reading of “The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night”, under the title “Daddy Fox”, with Phillip’s Sonny Terry harmonica hooping away, giving us a real and exhilarating sense of the Fox’s eager exploits.  John Spiers brings a sense of the sea to proceedings with a dazzling reworking of the shanty “Haul on the Bowline”, whilst both Roger Flack and Sacha Trochet lift everything with their informed artistry.  Even after a generous 63 minutes, we are left wanting more. Masterful, as expected.    

Orkesta Mendoza | Curandero | Album Review | Glitterbeat | 16.04.20

It takes less than two seconds to fall into the feel-good grooves of “Paleta”, the reggae-tinged opening song to this dance-fest of an album, courtesy of Calexico’s Sergio Mendoza.  Orkesta Mendoza’s third album release and second on the Glitterbeat label, is a fine blend of boogaloo, cumbia, ranchera and good old rock and roll, all rolled into one fabulous celebration of music that needs no labels or indeed borders.  Just about every track features a guest, from Sean Rogers to Nick Urata and Brian Lopez and Charlie Moss to Gaby Moreno, Carrie Rodriguez and Moira Smiley, whose “Hoodoo Voodoo Queen” closes the album on a retro note, evoking the feel of a 1950s jukebox.  “Boogaloo Arizona” could possibly have been considered for the album opener, not least due to Ampararo Sanchez’s sultry opening invitation, introducing Orkesta Mendoza with all her distinctive rolled ‘r’s delivered in all the right places, an inviting number that almost bursts into the theme from Hawaii 5-0 with its prominent mariachi horns.  “Eres Official” is as rock and roll as it gets, with its metaphorical feet on both US and Mexican soil, effectively bridging cultures in the spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood, whilst the one instrumental on the album, the catchy “Bora Bora”, comes across as a likely candidate for playing at a party on board the Starship Enterprise.  This is only a difficult album if you’re not up for dancing.   

Kadialy Kouyate | Nemo | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 22.04.20

Taking inspiration from the rich Griot traditions of West Africa, the Senegalese singer, songwriter and musician Kadialy Kouyate puts a contemporary spin on seven original songs, each accompanied by his expressive mastery of the Kora.  Nemo, or ‘blessings’, accurately describes these engaging meditations, from the affectionate family oriented “Ye Nale”, the compassion of “Juguya” and the freedom of “Kuno”, each song performed with sensitivity and craft.  Kouyate’s singing has a certain warmth throughout, a voice that captures the humility in each of these blessings, whether they’re focused on socialising, youth, hard work or indeed friendship, as indicated in the final piece in the set, “Mamadou”, dedicated to Kadialy’s friend and percussionist Mamadou Sarr, who also appears elsewhere on the album, notably on the hypnotic “Agna Bara”.  Nemo is a relatively short album, coming in at just over thirty minutes, yet there’s a feeling of fulfilment once the applause fades on this final track, which was presumably recorded live. 

Nels Andrews | Pigeon and the Crow | Album Review | Self Release | 22.04.20

For Nels Andrews’ fourth album, Pigeon and the Crow, the Santa Cruz-based singer songwriter addresses some of his inherent midlife issues in ten excellent songs, each peppered with stylish accompaniment, not least the Irish flavoured flute courtesy of producer Nuala Kennedy and the highly individual voice of Anaïs Mitchell, a voice that embellishes rather than dominates.  Shane Cook’s weeping violin on the album opener “Scrimshaw” adds a melancholy feel that seems to hover through some of the more sensitive songs on the album.  The evocative “Memory Compass” introduces us to Kennedy’s haunting whistle, which gives the song its Celtic feel, echoed once again in the album’s title song “Pigeon and Crow”, co-written with AJ Roach and probably the finest song on the album.  Steel Drums make an appearance on “South of San Gregorio”, courtesy of Chris Wabuch, bringing a sunny calypso feel midway through, complete with well-placed ‘sha-la-las’.  “Table by the Kitchen” provides Anaïs with the opportunity to almost duet with Nels, rather than just back him up; if Anaïs Mitchell’s voice is in the house, then it would be wise to use it.

Pete Morton | A Golden Thread | Album Review | Further Records | 22.04.20

When I first saw Pete Morton back in the late 1980s, I was struck with the determination in which this young Leicester-born singer songwriter delivered his bold songs, “The Sloth and the Greed”, “The Last God of England” and “A Babe of the World” amongst them.  With a workingman-like attitude and rolled up sleeves, the former Punk turned folk troubadour forced me to sit up and listen and thirty-odd years later, I’m still listening and fortunately still sitting up.  A Golden Thread is an album of recently composed anthems, traditional re-workings and an updated title song, originally from the pen of another noted folk troubadour, the late Pete Seeger.  Nothing here is preachy, pointy-fingered or overtly angry, but rather hymn-like, meditative and humble, yet still gets the point across.  If the traditional “Barbry Allen” comes steaming along like a runaway train, utilising the same broad strides as Fairport’s “Matty Groves”, then the big issues are handled with care and compassion.  “The Grenfell Carol”, is an optimistic seasonal ode to those who lost their lives in one of our most catastrophic peacetime events, a touching letter to those who could have prevented such a tragedy if only to ensure this sort of thing never happens again.  “Yemeni Moon” carries a similar message to the similarly uncaring warmongers in our midst, complete with an urging to listen once again to an early Dylan classic, whose message still matters.  Jude Rees joins Pete on “Emily Dickinson Revisited (Good Day, Mr Nobody!)”, providing the album with one of its most tender moments.  On a lighter note, for those of us who have traversed the capitol’s network of tunnels and tracks, for either work or pleasure, “Metropolitan Safari” name checks some of London’s notable landmarks in a song that even Ray Davies might very well tip his cap to.  Like all good folk club finales, Pete leaves us with a rousing reading of the traditional “The Farmers Boy”, the irresistible chorus just crying out for an audience to join in.

The Reverend Shawn Amos and the Brotherhood | Blue Sky | Album Review | Put Together Music | 22.04.20

Subtly paying homage to the legendary blues harp master Little Walter, both visually – a thoroughly relaxed fan sits beside an airstream trailer listening to one of Walter’s records with the gatefold sleeve resting upon her lap, features in the picture on the back of the lyric sheet – as well as audibly, the musician’s formal address mentioned in a line from the album opener “Stranger Than Today”, Mister Marion Walter Jacobs seems to be a dominant force behind Sky Blue.  Amos’s harmonica playing comes very much to the fore whenever the mood takes him, notably midway through “Troubled Man”, which also features a duet with Ruthie Foster, who brings to the table a sprinkling of her own soulful blues.  The Rev is quick to point out that the Brotherhood is indeed a band of brothers with each member, Brady Blade, Doctor Roberts and Christopher ‘CT’ Thomas, being a vital part of the sound.  Like a cross between Elvis Costello and Randy Newman, Amos delivers an unexpectedly short burst of energy on “Hold Back”, a blistering rocker that demonstrates that this particular brotherhood means business, a sound repeated in the pumped up “27 Dollars”.  Gutsy, bluesy and soulful in places, notably on “The Pity and the Pain”, which comes with some convincing Muscle Shoals-like piano and guitar sparring, Blue Sky is a blues album with a difference.

Ultan Conlan | There’s a Waltz | Album Review | DarkSideOut Records | 22.04.20

Galway crooner Ultan Conlan returns with ten soul searching songs, working alongside noted bluegrass producer Sean Watkins and a gathering of top drawer musicians that includes Don Heffington, Sebastian Steinberg, Gabe Witcher, Rich Hinman and Tyler Chester, all of whom have worked with a veritable list of notable contemporary songwriters.  Recorded at Heritage Recording Studio in California and mixed in Nashville, There’s a Waltz is Conlan’s fourth full-length album release and once again focuses on his remarkably warm voice, a rich blend of Roy Orbison/Richard Hawley, which is both strong and assertive, yet vulnerable at the same time, helped in no small measure by the harmonies of the Watkins siblings, Sean and Sara of Nickelcreek fame.

Santrofi | Alewa | Album Review | Outhere Records | 24.04.20

The debut album by the Accra-based eight-piece collective Santrofi, meaning a rare bird in Akan mythology, captures the dynamism and energy of their live set, seen by many last year at some of Europe’s biggest international festivals, including WOMAD (UK) and WOMEX (Finland).  Absorbing the highly infectious rhythms of their forebears, especially those associated with vintage Ghanaian Highlife and funky Afrobeat, the ten songs remain a level of vibrancy and clout throughout the album, each selection showcasing the band’s startling ability to provide a fresh take on these irresistible rhythms.  Racial diversity is high on Santrofi’s agenda, significantly in the album title Alewa, which refers to the local black and white striped confectionary.  With bassist Emmanuel Ofori at the helm, the musicians create a sound that demands increased volume to the norm and never mind the neighbours.  The sparring between the horns and the funky rhythm section provides a strong base for the voices to blend in with, whilst the colourful and affecting stage antics, such as doing press ups mid song or just engaging with their audience on the mighty “Adwuma”, will just have to remain in our memory and imagination until better times are upon us, which will hopefully be soon.

Blakeley & Son | Nuts & Bolts | Album Review | Self Release | 23.04.20

It comes as a pleasant surprise to find such a complete and cohesive musical father/son partnership, whose familial playing permeates ‘Nuts and Bolts’, their new album together, following on from their 2015 debut The Long Way Home.  Garry and Edd appear to be equally at home with traditional material as well as their own tunes, not to mention the odd non-original song, namely Richard Thompson’s bleak “The Poor Ditching Boy”, which is treated here to a fascinating arrangement, with a skittering fiddle underpinning Garry’s vocal throughout.  If Dominic Behan’s lyrics to “Crooked Jack”, set to the tune of “Star of the County Down”, is forcefully delivered with some determination, then the traditional “Mary and the Soldier” is handled with contrasting delicacy, set to an uncluttered arrangement, which assists the story’s feel through to the end.   If the vocal tracks are served up tastefully, then the instrumentals are at the very least a showcase of classy musicianship in themselves.  “Alfred and Matilda” and “Solitude at the Long Barrow”, both composed by Mr Blakeley Snr, are performed by the duo with evident empathy, the latter introducing Garry’s delicate low whistle playing credentials to boot.  Joining Garry and Edd are several percussionists, together with guest appearances by Phillip Henry, John Spiers, Roger Flack and Dan Jefferies, whose guitar solo on “Dark Water/Show Me the Money” puts the rock in our socks, but for the most part, ‘Nuts and Bolts’ is very much down to the nuts and bolts of the Blakeley duo.  Tom Curd also appears toward the end, delivering some fine Highland piping on the final set, the funky “Shooting With the Kids/William’s Reel/Spanner in the Works.  With both musicians busy in other areas, Garry being a member of Feast of Fiddles and Edd being a fine producer in his own right – check out Peter Knight’s Gigspanner Big Band’s latest release for proof of that – we hope it won’t be another five years before their next duo album.

Maya Rae | Can You See Me? | Album Review | Black Hen Music | 24.04.20

Despite her youth, Canadian singer Maya Rae is in possession of an extraordinarily mature voice, a voice very much versed in jazz, as exemplified in the songs on her debut album Sapphire Birds, made up largely of jazz standards with just a couple of originals, including the title cut.  For her second release, recorded and released whilst still under the voting age, Maya stretches out her writing abilities, co-writing all eleven songs with her brother Gabriel Evan.  Singing professionally since the tender age of twelve, Maya has performed widely, occasionally with some notable Canadian jazz musicians and for this release, she has sought the assistance of the cream of contemporary Americana, including Steve Dawson, who also produces, Kai Welch, JT Nero and Allison Russell, with a fine rhythm section of Jamie Dick on drums and John Estes on bass.  The title track “Can You See Me?” opens the album with a broad smile of a welcome, an invitation to stay a little longer, to join the party, grab a drink and leave your coat over there somewhere.  In uncertain times it’s hugely satisfying to be made to feel this much at home.  “The Sun Will Come Out Again” is an achievement in itself, a bold melodic statement that falls somewhere between The Beatles and ELO, with an optimistic message and a storyline you have no desire to leave.  There’s a confidence in Maya’s voice and perhaps a vulnerability too, but it’s also utterly convincing and as impressive as anything you imagine a seventeen year old with such an obvious talent might come up with.  If the voice smoulders through all five and a half minutes of “Freedom Fighter”, then the question of how this could be created by someone so young arises.  The same could be asked of “New For Me”, a song Maya claims to be about her first love and how to figure out her emotions.  The healthy mixture of an assured voice, the standard of these siblings’ songwriting skills, the contributions made by such venerable company, along with Dawson’s informed arrangements, this album couldn’t be anything other than a sure fire winner.  A class act and a performer to watch out for.

Fra Fra | Funeral Songs | Album Review | Glitterbeat | 05.05.20

Glitterbeat’s Hidden Musics series has already unearthed field recordings of Vietnamese indigenous music, the music of the Pygmies, survivors of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and more recently the mesmerizing music of Pakistan, courtesy of Ustad Saami.  Producer Ian Brennan once again captures something unique here with the sixth in the series, this time the funeral music of Ghana.  The Fra Fra quartet is captured in seven celebratory chant-like songs, recorded for the most part in procession and in all cases outdoors, a little like the funereal marching bands of New Orleans, but with comparatively more austere instrumentation.  Through ‘Small’, an aptly named musician who appears on the cover, we hear the sound of the two-stringed Kologo guitar, which provides much of the rhythmic sound, together with a small ensemble of percussive rattles and bone mouth flutes.  The focus throughout though, is on the clear and assured voices that bring these songs to life, songs with presumably clear and unambiguous messages, judging by the such titles as “You Can’t Escape Death”, “We Must Grieve Together” and “Naked (You Enter and Leave This World With Nothing”.  

Kirsty Merryn | Our Bright Night | Album Review | Self Release | 05.05.20

If Kirsty Merryn’s first outing She and I was a celebration of inspirational women throughout history, then the London-based singer songwriter’s follow-up concentrates on tales of the supernatural, revealed in a dozen beautifully crafted songs and tunes.  Blending traditional song with her own compositions through thoughtful piano arrangements, Kirsty creates an atmosphere of ethereal enchantment, inviting a few special guests along to help tell the stories of ‘ghostly lovers, thieving politicians and cunning little foxes’.  Phil Beer provides the fiddle on “Banks of the Sweet Primroses”, which spars effortlessly with Kirsty’s strident piano and confident voice throughout.  Kirsty’s own “Constantine”, a love song to a Cornish beach, features a duet with co-producer and multi-instrumentalist Alex Alex, whose breathy voice perfectly compliments Kirsty’s, in one of the album’s definitive moments.  From the rugged coastline of Cornwall, Kirsty elicits the help of Sam Kelly, a couple of hundred miles east and a short ferry over the Solent to the Isle of Wight for another album highlight, “Shanklin Chine”, a haunting song delivered by two completely compatible voices.  Magical and at times otherworldly, Our Bright Night is an album to lose oneself in.

Damily | Early Years: Madagascar Cassette Archives | Album Review | Bongo Joe Records | 06.05.20

Having virtually invented his own idiosyncratic style of playing, the tsapiky guitarist Damily has produced some of the most infectious sounds from Madagascar since the early 1980s, with just six selections featured here, originally released on cassette.  Time doesn’t appear to have devalued or dampened the brightness of these recordings, each selection imbued with a feverish spirit and a jubilant groove, party music for those who really like to party. The sprightly guitar runs on both “Mangebakebake” and “Tulear” are both hypnotic and soothing and race alongside the voices, interweaving in a torrent of joy.  It’s difficult to listen to any of these tracks without a smile or indeed without moving at least one part of your body, if not multiple parts.  Bongo Joe Records continue to search out and reveal music from around the world that results in a great deal of satisfaction. Early Years: Madagascar Cassette Archives is no exception. 

Jack Sharp | Good Times Older | Album Review | From Here Records | 06.05.20

Produced by Stick in the Wheel’s Ian Carter, Jack Sharp’s debut solo album Good Times Older finds the Wolf People front man in good voice, accompanying himself on a crisp sounding guitar, not unlike that of Nic Jones during his heyday. Taking his home county of Bedfordshire as a starting place, the mixture of traditional songs, originals and the one non-original, “God Dog”, written by Robin Williamson and memorably performed by Shirley and Dolly Collins on the acclaimed Anthems in Eden record back in the late 1960s, provides a varied and enjoyable programme.  The guitar playing is highly accomplished throughout and complements Jack’s exceptionally assured voice on all eleven songs. Carter’s band mate Nicola Kearey adds harmonies here and there, while also designing the cover, with further embellishments courtesy of Laura Smyth on concertina and Edwin Ireland on cello. Recorded at Elstow Moot Hall, the performances have a live feel throughout, the hall’s acoustics most noticeable on the unaccompanied “Jug of This”, all of which remains crisp and clear for the duration. Good Times Older really does evoke the feel of Penguin Eggs, Sweet Wivelsfield and A Handful of Earth, which is both refreshingly nostalgic as well as being bang up to date contemporary at the same time.

Asian Dub Foundation | Access Denied | Album Review | X Ray Production | 11.05.20

Access Denied is a veritable assault on the senses, a blended miasma of rap, punk, dub reggae and rock, loaded with samples and scratchy beats, yet an album with something to say. Often menacing and sneering in its delivery, from the pulsating shock of “Can’t Pay Won’t Pay”,  through the space age pyrotechnics of “Stealing the Future” to the hard rock of “Mindlock”, its brutal synths and thrilling ray gun intervals, a mixture of raw sound and sixth form rap lyrics, ever searching for a rhyme.  There’s hardly any respite from the assault, with the possible exception of “Realignment”, which offers a moment of reverie. If “Front Line” calls for a united society, Comedian Stuart Lee drives the message home further with a no holes barred attack on racism, xenophobia and general bigotry, whilst the young Greta Thunberg is given yet another platform to deliver her message and to warn us of our impending doom in “Youthquake Part 1”.  All very contemporary and noisy, yet engaging in places.

Lucinda Williams | Good Souls Better Angels | Album Review | Highway 20 Records | 11.05.20

The fourteenth studio album in a career that spans just over forty years.  Good Souls Better Angels demonstrates that this Louisiana-born songstress shows no immediate signs of slowing down any time soon, nor for that matter does it look like Williams is even considering conforming to other people’s rules or indeed pandering to perceived tastes. The opening song “You Can’t Rule Me”, sets out these parameters from the start.  These twelve songs show a determination to be her own boss and the first rule of being a good boss is good delegation and for this album Lucinda surrounds herself with Buick 6, her regular touring band, each of the musicians evidently on fire.  The songs have a certain punch, whether they’re blistering attacks such as “Wakin’ Up”, for which the singer could be Patti Smith’s kid sister, or on the slower ballads, “Big Black Train” for instance or the sprawling “Good Souls”, which highlights her tortured soulful pleading delivery in just under eight minutes.  That voice though, a mixture of late night barroom slur and late morning hungover drawl, Williams could sound like a parody of herself if her songs were not as good as they so obviously are.

My Girl the River | Cardinal in the Snow | Album Review | Self Release | 11.05.20

Following My Girl the River’s debut This Ain’t No Fairytale, their new album Cardinal in the Snow opens with an assured performance on “Something in the Water”, a deliciously melodic opener that provides nothing short of a showcase for Kris Wilkinson Hughes’ understated southern vocal, which remains the focal point throughout the songs on this album. The Louisiana-based singer explores her southern roots, alternating seamlessly between deep and soulful balladry, to the funky southern fried playfulness of “Hot Chicken”.  Under normal circumstances, the festive season would be avoided at all costs during the warm months, but the gorgeous “Christmas in July” is well placed here, the mood perfectly captured with all the nostalgia of a seasonal Fifties fireside hit.  Joined by partner Joe Hughes, their daughter Ruby, Will Kimbrough, Juan Solorzano and Danny Mitchell, the arrangements remain uncluttered throughout Neilson Hubbard’s fine production, with each of the dozen songs delivered in a fresh and breezy manner, notably “Needy”, “I Try” and the title cut “Cardinal in the Snow”, whilst “Won’t Find Our Bones” smoulders in a southern haze, keeping the listener fully absorbed to the end.

The Lowest Pair | The Perfect Plan | Album Review | Thirty Tigers | 11.05.20

Kendl Winter and Palmer T Lee, otherwise known as The Lowest Pair, return with their sixth album to date, delicately produced by Mike Mogis, who strives to take the duo’s sound to unchartered waters. The Lowest Pair’s familiar clawhammer banjo and guitar sparring is still very much intact, yet the sound is lifted by the array of session musicians brought in to embellish the duo’s sound.  The Perfect Plan is a bold statement, which further demonstrates the duo’s unique empathy, notably on the sufi-inspired “Wild Animals”, which features some convincing call and response motifs, underpinned by an equally convincing contemporary beat. “Too Late Babe” has a free flowing pop charm, suitable for freeway cruising in an open top car, whilst the cascading guitar tumbles of “Morning Light” build to an uplifting climax, suitably enhancing the song’s questioning lyric. Winter’s idiosyncratic vocal prowess dominates the album, which is a little bit Anaïs, a little bit Emmylou, but very much herself. The closing title song “The Perfect Plan” is a fitting anthem to our relationships, our hopes and fears and our place in the general scheme of things, ‘Just because it didn’t go the way we planned doesn’t mean it didn’t go how it was meant to”; a thought very much to ponder on.

India Electric Co | The Gap | Album Review | Shoelay Music | 12.05.20

The second full-length album by the curiously named Devon duo India Electric Co. finds Cole Stacey and Joseph O’Keefe at their creative best, with eleven selections each of which are treated to highly inventive arrangements throughout.  With so much music at our fingertips these days, cultural influences are not only easier to absorb into one’s work, but are almost inevitable and Stacey and O’Keefe make it their business to ensure that those influences are best placed.  It’s so subtle that the borders are almost undetectable, leaving us with a music that is at once utterly engaging, yet slightly mysterious at the same time.  If Cole Stacey’s voice commands attention, then Joseph O’Keefe’s multi-instrumentalism provides more than a mere backdrop for the songs to live, but a rich palette of colour that is critical to the duo’s overall sound.  “Five Senses” plays with flirtatious time signatures, whilst the lyric takes its inspiration from the poetry of Sarojini Naidu, the all too short song being an album standout.  “Parachutes” once again takes inspiration from poetry, which in this case is blended with traditional Irish influences to good effect.  In other places Robert Frost dances with Bembé rhythms (“Great Circles”) and not one but two concluding pieces are influenced by the duo’s experiences with Midge Ure (“Tempest I” and “Tempest II”).  Throughout the relatively short album, there’s not a single note wasted.  Despite the brightness and glow of the songs on The Gap, the duo have managed to wrap the disc in a sleeve that even makes a rainbow look dull.  Not sure what the thinking was here, but the music compensates more than satisfactorily.

Bug Bear | Dockroyd Nights | EP Review | Self Release | 12.05.20

Kurt Wood takes to several locations around London to put together his new EP under the guise of Bug Bear.  Neither a bug nor a bear, but something in between, this young singer songwriter’s distinctive vocal style is enhanced by a breezy guitar style throughout, from the gentle restless spirit of the multi-seasonal “Milestones” to the Steely Dan groove of “Gullible You”.   takes us to another place altogether.  With the help of a handful of musicians, notably Luke Yates, who not only provides the violin on both “Milestones” and the EP opener “Workhouse and Hatchet” but also co-produces, Dockroyd Nights provides a glimpse into Bug Bear’s slightly curious world.

Will Pound | A Day Will Come | Album Review | Lulubug Records | 12.05.20

Even down to the colour of the cover, Will Pound’s A Day Will Come is a celebration of the European Union through and through, a veritable travelogue through the sounds and rhythms of twenty-seven countries, blown (and not forgetting sucked) through his faithful harmonica or bellowed through his trusty melodeon, with no small measure of assistance from a choice bunch of musician friends across nations.  Having spent last summer travelling across Europe, meeting musicians along the way, this album is the result of Will’s expedition, a collection of music taken or inspired by the traditional music of such countries as Bulgaria, Croatia, Latvia and Malta, just four of the nations that have held a fascination for this adventurous and eager to learn musician.  Almost entirely instrumental save for one or two songs and spoken passages, A Day Will Come, subtitled ‘a musical journey across the European Union’, manages to effectively cross fertilise styles, with each selection (bar one) a combination of two distinct geographical areas with astonishing results.  It was probably felt that in the case of Ireland, the wealth of music was diverse enough to have a set of tunes for itself, with some pretty outstanding playing from Liz Carroll on fiddle and Jenn Butterworth on guitar. Listening to the juxtapositions of the varying styles and traditions is probably the album’s most pleasing aspect.  A Day Will Come, its title borrowed from a Victor Hugo speech of 1849, is both uplifting and thought-provoking, whilst maintaining a sense of optimism throughout.

Luc McNally | Night Off | Album Review | Self Release | 13.05.20

Glasgow-based singer, guitarist and bouzouki player Luc McNally releases his delightful debut album, which consists of eight songs and tunes, some traditional, one or two self-penned while the others are borrowed from such notable sources as Mark Oliver Everett and Randy Newman. As with most debut albums, the material has been collected and developed over what the County Durham-born musician describes as “a very busy few years”. Having already clocked up some notable landmark achievements such as being one of the recipients of the Molloy Award at Trip to Birmingham Tradfest (2017) with Iona Fyfe’s Trio and reaching the final of the BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year Award twice in subsequent years, McNally has made some giant steps in a potentially fruitful career thus far and Night Off marks what could very well be the beginning of a successful stint as a solo artist.  If “Grace Kelly Blues” served as a fine opener to The Eels’ Daisies of the Galaxy album two decades ago, then it makes a fitting return here, doing precisely for Night Off as it did for The Eels, minus the brass band. Obviously a keen flat picker, McNally’s take on Norman Blake’s “Church Street Blues” favourably delivers on its promise, with the very essence of the Woodstock Mountains captured, whilst Randy Newman’s “I Think it’s Going to Rain Today” is a stripped down to basics performance, sounding very much like a home made demo. The instrumentals are all well performed and demonstrate an empathetic team effort, whilst Michael Marra’s self-probing “The Beast” is almost solo barbershop in its multi-layered a cappella harmonies. With most successful solo albums, having the assistance of a small collective of collaborators is not essential but good when you can get it and here McNally is joined by Graham Rorie on fiddle and mandolin (who also produces), Charlie Stewart on double bass, Stephen Henderson on drums and percussion, with further contributions courtesy of Innes Watson and Rufus Huggan on fiddle and cello respectively. A fine debut.

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit | Reunions | Album Review | Thirty Tigers | 14.05.20

Jason Isbell returns with his regular band the 400 Unit and ten new songs, each of which further demonstrate Isbell’s credentials as one of the finest songwriters on the scene today. Using his own success and how to deal with it as a starting point, Isbell takes a deep look into his own troubled past, his relationships and memories of childhood, in an almost cathartic, self probing manner. “What’ve I Done to Help?” he asks, it being the burning question here and a question often repeated to the point of distraction, a plea for salvation perhaps, with even David Crosby on the team providing those almost subliminal harmonies. Isbell’s songs are believable, poignant and sometimes painful in their honesty, such as “Dreamsicle”, which looks at how young people deal with being uprooted due to parental conflict.  Having a long hard look at oneself can be difficult even at the best of times, but having to confront one’s demons with marital issues, a young child to take care of and the impending doom of a pandemic, not to mention alcoholism, just intensifies the situation. To a songwriter of Isbell’s standard, such conditions seem to move the work to another level of intensity. Lines are delivered with great conviction, such as the opening line of “Overseas”, ‘Used to be a ghost town, But even the ghosts got out’. A known Dylan enthusiast (to put it mildly), his Bobness gets a mention in the haunting “Only Children”, which provides Isbell with extra marks for rhyming ‘Dylan’ with ‘children’, whilst “River” provides us with an almost perfect metaphor for a faithful soulmate. Perhaps the album’s highlight though is the utterly compelling “St Peter’s Autograph”, a song written for Amanda Shires after the death of her friend Neal Casal; Guy Clark and Townes standard songwriting right there.

Watkins Family Hour | Brother Sister | Album Review | Family Hour Records | 20.05.20

Having already made their mark on the acoustic music roots scene, both through their solo work and as part of other outfits, not least Nickel Creek, along with Chris Thile, siblings Sara and Sean Watkins return with an exceptionally raw and vibrant album; a showcase of their shared musicianship.  As a duo, both musicians shine equally in their own specific field, Sara being an expressive fiddle player and Sean being an intuitive guitar player and both seasoned singers, possibly from birth.  If their debut album as a duo consisted of covers, then Brother Sister explores their own writing capabilities with fine results.  In most cases when we claim brilliance in a musician, then it’s often due to the speed and dexterous flair of the playing.  In Sara’s case, it’s the underplaying that creates the atmosphere that in turn adds the appeal of the songs on Brother Sister.  During the pop-influenced “Just Another Reason”, Sara’s touch is so light in places, that we almost feel the very fabric of the instrument as the bow moves at a snail’s pace across the strings.  This isn’t easy to pull off and the song benefits hugely from the sonic effect.  If we wax lyrical about the playing, then the vocal prowess of the siblings is even more extraordinary.  It’s that old familial harmony thing that comes along every now and again that makes the sound so unique and utterly their own.  Brother Sister is mostly self-penned with one or two covers, notably Warren Zevon’s Excitable Boy era “Accidentally Like a Martyr”, which is sensitively performed, together with Charley Jordan’s hot and jumpin’ 1930s hit “Keep it Clean”, which features guest vocalists David Garza, Gaby Moreno and John C Reilly, which is fun indeed.

Joe Edwards | Keep On Running | Album Review | Tiny Mountain Records | 20.05.20

It might be said of Keep on Running that it benefits enormously from the musical embellishments that appear throughout, not least the guitar, dobro and pedal steel courtesy of producer Steve Dawson, whose informed playing brings an extra sparkle to the eleven songs that make up this debut album.  Hailing from the Wiltshire Delta of Devizes, Joe Edwards avoids the stereotypical version of British Blues by demonstrating restraint, his cool J.J. Cale-styled growl, underpinning each of the self-penned selections with rewarding results.  There are tell-tale signs of his British roots, not least in his honest delivery, in the way he pronounces each syllable of ‘cap-it-tal’ in “Capital Blues” for instance.  There’s no shouting involved, rather a whisper, which helps Edwards convey his message more convincingly.  On paper, the title of “Don’t Let the Bastards Get You Down” could almost prepare us for a Billy Bragg type tirade of anger, but instead the song is delivered as a tender ballad, having the same effect for the thinking listener.  Edwards delivers each song in a similar manner, a little like Sean Taylor, never preachy, rarely in your face, seldom flag waving, but persuasive nonetheless.  This is gentle blues for the most part, tender balladry for the rest, and a good listen throughout. 

Pharis and Jason Romero | Bet on Love | Album Review | Lula Records | 01.06.20

There might be several contributing factors as to why Pharis and Jason Romero make such good music together.  Could it be their telepathic communication skills, both as singers and as musicians or maybe just their choice of instruments and material?  Could it have have something to do with their very specific location, namely their banjo shop just outside Horsefly, British Colombia, which appears to be a conducive place to write and make music as well as flogging banjos.  The songs on this, their latest album release, Bet On Love, is a combination of all these factors.  Completely self-penned, each of the eleven songs are delivered through informed playing and empathetic harmonies, captured with instinctive sensitivity by producer Marc Jenkins.  If the cover design shows two human bodies connected at the neck by each end of a single rainbow, this is precisely how the songs feel, that is, very much connected, which is further emphasised by the ‘rainbow arc’ mentioned in the opening line of the opening song, the bluegrass-infused “Hometown Blues”.  There’s something immediately attractive about “New Day”, which just might have something to do with Patrick Metzger’s simple but effective bass line, it’s quirkiness taking the song to unexpected places.  It’s the longest song on the album yet seems all too short.  The songs are often of a personal nature, in some cases focusing on the passing years, or ‘blurring’ years, “Right in the Garden” being a case in point, “We All Fall” another.  There’s some soul searching going on in these songs and just a little heartbreak, notably “World Stops Turning”, which closes the album on a slightly less than optimistic note, which would perhaps have benefited if it had changed places with the lilting “Kind Girl”, which in turn features some tasty mandolin runs courtesy of John Reischman.  A really lovely album.

Elizabeth and Jameson | Northern Shores and Stories | Album Review | Self Release | 01.06.20

When we think of the ‘concept’ album, we might inadvertently venture into the murky backwaters of Prog Rock, before we find a safe tributary back to reality.  The Radio Ballads might have been considered concept projects when they were first aired back in the late 1950s and Northern Shores and Stories comes closer to the latter.  Elizabeth & Jameson take us on a journey through songs and stories from the North Yorkshire coastline and in particular Whitby, home of many myths, legends and spirited stories, though not entirely the home of free ale (“Bottomless Beer”) and overlooked by the stillness of the mysterious Benedictine Abbey above the town.  Hannah Elizabeth and Griff Jameson blend together their respective backgrounds in traditional folk and folk/pop for this ambitious debut, which features songs and stories based on the people and places associated with this particular locale.  The songs are all Elizabeth & Jameson originals and cover various aspects of time and place, inspired by letters and photographs, together with personal accounts.  “Bet & Terry”, one such account, is perhaps the album’s defining moment, a spoken field recording, addressed to ‘Rachel’, the granddaughter of Bet, who tells of her first meeting with her granddad some years before.  I would’ve liked more of the same, voices of real people, real lives and real stories.  Embellished with various sounds of the seaside, notably the intro to “Live by the Sea”, Northern Shores and Stories makes for a heartfelt and nostalgic glimpse into our past.

Maimu Jõgeda | The One About | Album Review | Self Release | 01.06.20

The piano accordion can be an expressive instrument in its own right when in the correct hands and can span a broad canvas in terms of musical arrangement, away from its familiar use as an accompanying instrument.  Maimu Jõgeda is such a musician, whose inventiveness and flair for the instrument’s possibilities is explored in these dozen pieces.  Born and raised in the Estonian village of Rõuge in the Võrumaa region of the country, Maimu cut her musical teeth on classical and jazz with a keen eye on the traditional music of Estonia.  The physical object itself is represented with one or two squeaks and clatters, which makes the music seem all the more tangible and raw.  Mostly self-penned, with one or two melodies adapted from traditional Estonian bagpipe tunes, the pieces are all played solo, each rich in atmosphere and each tenderly performed.  If music is made to take the listener somewhere else, somewhere enchanting and ethereal, then the forests of Southern Estonia are as good a place to start as any.

The Danberrys | Shine | Album Review | Singular Records | 02.06.20

From the initial twang of “Shine”, the opening song from Nashville-based duo Dorothy Daniel and Ben DeBerry’s latest album of the same name, we seem to be effortlessly transported to the swampy backwoods of the Deep South, with its dark and atmospheric undertones.  The husband/wife team deliver these dark, if at times spirited glimpses of Americana, over a dozen selections, each self-penned, three of which are co-written with Jon Weisberger, with Dorothy’s soulful voice at the fore throughout.  Recorded in just three days and produced by Brian Brinkerhoff and Marco Giovino, these childhood sweethearts feed off one another’s strengths throughout the record, especially on the album’s first single release “The Mountain”, which features a soulful guest appearance by Darrell Scott.  In places, the songs are enigmatic and instil a desire to learn more about the characters and themes, “Francis” for instance, or perhaps “Never Gone”, a song about a friend’s dying father, who seeks forgiveness in his final hour.  As a timely follow up to 2016s Give and Receive, Shine maintains a certain vitality and promise for the duo, but I still think the best is yet to come.

Dan Whitehouse | Dreamland Tomorrow | Album Review | Reveal | 02.06.20

Dreamland Tomorrow represents two very distinct sides of Midlands’ singer songwriter Dan Whitehouse, both his experimental side and his raw, stripped down to essentials side, essentially two albums joined at the hip.  The two discs contain a generous 22 songs, one or two familiar, but mostly new.  Markedly different from one another and each having been tackled by two different producers, Dreamland by Tom Rose and Tomorrow by Boo Hewerdine, the songs on the former are reminiscent of Scott Walker’s more adventurous exploits, whereas the latter borrows heavily from Hewerdine’s distinctively melodic style.  If the first disc demonstrates the experimental side of Whitehouse, with a couple of pleasant surprises, Trashcan Sinatras’ “Weightlifting” and Sunhouse’s “Crazy on the Weekend”, which reminds us once again of the talent that got away, the second leans more towards the usual singer songwriter fare.  In some cases, the songs are not dissimilar from those performed by Hewerdine himself, the closest example being “The Birds Are Leaving”, one of Hewerdine’s most notable compositions, delivered here as faithfully as one can imagine.

Lizzy Hardingham | Seven | EP Review | Self Release | 03.06.20

With one full length album and a couple of EPs already under her belt, Lizzy Hardingham returns with a themed EP, consisting of songs specifically relating to the sea.  Named for both the number of seas and the number of selections on the EP, Seven takes us on a journey across oceans, from the Arctic down to the Antarctic, through the Atlantic and Pacific, north and south both, and not forgetting the Indian Ocean.  Opening with “King of the Boundless Deep”, the majesty of the whale is addressed, with Joseph Edwards Carpenter’s eloquent words set to an uplifting melody.  If the troubled history of the whale’s dominance over the oceans is an essential ingredient to any collection of sea songs, then the shanty is possibly its most popular form of expression.  Lizzy’s confident voice tackles both “Rolling Down to Old Maui” and “South Australia” with no small measure of gusto.  Both “Shallow Brown” and “Shenandoah” are treated with the respect they deserve, yet it’s the beautiful “Memorial for a Glacier” that pips everything else to the post as the EP highlight, a gorgeously delivered self-penned song with Jack Frost at its heart.  With half of the proceeds from sales of the EP going to the RNLA, Seven serves as a timely reminder of the wonder and admiration we hold for the sea, as well as the tempestuous relationship we continue to have with it.

Chris Gray | Chris Gray | Album Review | Self Release | 03.06.20

Like a lot of debut albums by gifted musicians who’ve already spent many years honing their craft, Chris Gray’s self-titled inaugural effort is brimming with musical dexterity, ingenuity and expressiveness throughout.  The Lockerbie-born multi-instrumentalist and composer places his inventive whistles and Pipes very much in the mix, not so much as lead instruments, but as part of the whole, giving the fine array of musicians around him plenty of space to breathe and to express themselves.  An album made up entirely of instrumental music, the ten original compositions were recorded in both Glasgow and Edinburgh in 2019 with fellow piper Calum MacCrimmon sharing the producer’s chair.  The album has an ensemble feel, with contributions by an array of top notch guest musicians, including Innes White on guitar, Laura-Beth MacCrimmon on Mandolin and Mohsen Amini on Concertina, amongst others.

Teddy Thompson | Heartbreaker Please | Album Review | Thirty Tigers | 03.06.20

It’s always a remarkable thing I find, when you can spend almost half your life in a newly adopted home and still hang on to your roots.  Teddy Thompson may have made his home in New York City, where he’s been living since his early twenties, yet now well into his forties, the British singer songwriter and son of folk legends Richard and Linda Thompson, maintains some of that very distinct Britishness in his writing, his recording and his performance, despite adopting very American musical influences.  I think this is what we love about him on this side of the pond and I dare say, this is likewise what they think about him over there.  Heartbreaker Please is Teddy’s sixth solo album release in a twenty-year recording career and despite such stylised songs as “Record Player” and “Why Wait”, which could have been recorded by Sam Cooke and Wilson Pickett respectively, Teddy’s inimitable vocal style is maintained throughout.  Existing Teddy fans will no doubt love this album, whilst newcomers will be equally impressed.  It’s soulful, well-produced and immediately accessible, despite its predominant heartbreak theme, which is illustrated perfectly in the striking sleeve design.  Like Adele’s debut 19 back in 2008, Heartbreaker Please is a break-up album, but perhaps from a more mature perspective.  As Teddy explains, “So I tried to make an effort here to set some of the misery to a nice beat!”

A Different Thread | Some Distant Shore | EP Review | Self Release | 03.06.20

Robert Jackson and Alicia Best, the Anglo/American duo professionally known as A Different Thread, return with this five-song EP, which effectively bridges the widening chasm that would normally be filled with live shows up and down the country and further afield.  Consisting of five familiar traditional songs, the EP takes no getting into and no getting used to.  The duo’s unfussy arrangements and raw performances, as if recorded in a quiet, unassuming space, create an immediately accessible and intimate experience.  It’s as if Robert and Alicia are right there in the room with you, as close to a live show as we are currently allowed to get.  The lead song, “Red is the Rose”, is delivered in Alicia’s unmistakable North Carolina inflection, interspersed with Robert’s empathetic, yet relaxed harmony.  Nowhere does it feel that either one is taking the lead, it all seems uniquely democratic throughout with lots of sharing out of the verses.  A long time enthusiast of The Band, I could only be delighted with the acapella take on “Long Black Veil”, the haunting vocal blending only adding to the songs’ mysterious feel.  Some Distant Shore will put us on until we meet again in person, which will hopefully be soon.

astrid | Storm Sessions | EP Review | Wee Studio Records | 07.06.20

Hebridean natives Willie Campbell and Charlie Clark reunite and revisit “Distance”, one of astrid’s best loved songs, which opens this highly melodic four-track EP.  Having formed in the mid-1990s, astrid (mandatory lower case ‘a’) have enjoyed a fruitful couple of decades on and off, receiving much airplay and sharing stages with several high profile acts notably Belle and Sebastian, The Proclaimers and Edwyn Collins, who also produced one or two of the band’s albums.  If the opening song has all the tenets of an enduring radio song, then the band have no problem diving headlong into Country fare with the equally melodic “Falling and Flying”, which is slightly slower than the Crazy Heart film version, delivered by the highly unlikely pairing of Messers Farrell and Bridges. No fillers here, with “Modes of Transport” and “Poison Reaction” giving us no reason to turn off before the thirteen minutes are up, just long enough to enjoy over a coffee.

Chip Wickham | Blue to Red | Album Review | Lovemonk | 07.06.20

Brighton-born flautist and saxophonist Chip Wickham, we might be transported away on the Starship Enterprise and all that, a notion possibly encouraged by such titles as “The Cosmos” and “Interstellar”.  If however we choose to keep our feet firmly on the ground, what we have here is a rather tasty instrumental album of six lush compositions, brilliantly performed by six intuitive musicians.  It’s the record that you play after the party’s over, when they’ve all gone home and you can reach for that special bottle you saved under the table for later.  Wickham’s playing is full bodied-throughout, complemented by a collective of choice jazz musicians, which includes the customary rhythm section of keys (Dan ‘JD73’ Goldman), double bass (Simon ‘Sneaky’ Houghton), drums (Jon Scott) and percussion (Rick Whiting), but also Amanda Whiting’s ethereal harp, which seems to take the music to those aforementioned cosmic landscapes.  Dreamy in places, Blue to Red, has to be sipped gently, during the quiet and certainly after hours. 

TootArd | Migrant Birds | Album Review | Glitterbeat | 07.06.20

What better metaphor for the stateless people of occupied Golan Heights than that of migrating birds, with all the optimism and freedom that this image carries with it.  Brothers Hasan and Rami Nakhleh take their basic disco beats and enthusiastic synth licks, then mix them in with traditional Arabic inflections to create an exhilarating and pulsating party vibe, which is both infectious and enchanting at the same time.  Although imbued with uplifting melodies and danceable rhythms, there’s a sadness to the songs, which is apparent even to those unfamiliar to the language.  Each of the songs are kept deliberately short and punchy, something not entirely consistent with regular Arabic melodies in the classical tradition, for the purpose of maintaining a high adrenaline level on the dancefloor. Not sure the cover artwork for Migrant Birds adequately sells this album, but perhaps it makes us think of the heyday of 80s disco culture nevertheless. 

Larkin Poe | Self Made Man | Album Review | Tricki-Woo Records | 12.06.20

The fifth studio album from Atlanta’s Larkin Poe is packed with sneering guitar licks and powerful vocals of the sort we’ve come to expect from the Nashville-based siblings Rebecca and Megan Lovell.  There’s no holds barred as the band launch into “She’s a Self Made Man”, the gender twisting album opener and debut single from the record.  It’s been a roller-coaster decade for the Lovells, who burst onto the scene back in 2010 with a series of seasonal EPs, released each season of the year specifically to gauge the direction the band might take.  A sensible plan I always thought.  The trajectory of the band’s direction since those early decisions were made has taken the sisters to many stages in many locations, their blues-based rootsy rock n roll always at the fore and ready to kick whatever ass might inadvertently get in the way. You don’t come away from a Larkin Poe gig disappointed, neither do you come away unaffected by Rebecca and Megan’s boundless energy and engaging southern charm.  I loved the band in 2010 and I continue to love them today.  Rebecca’s lead vocal is maturing like vintage wine, yet she’s still under thirty.  “Ex-Con” features a confident, full bodied soulful vocal, that adds another notch to Rebecca’s guitar.  Megan’s voice is at her fingertips, a slide guitarist whose playing over the last ten years has made me thing along the lines of Duane Allman, Lowell George, Bonnie Raitt, Megan Lovell. Not a bad lineage really. Self-produced with assistance from their “good buddy and engineer” Roger Alan Nichols in Nashville, Self Made Man indicates that the Lovell sisters are not only still very much on the road, but are wearing a groove into it.

Charlie Dore | Like Animals | Album Review | Black Ink Records | 15.06.20

Like Animals is the tenth album by Charlie Dore, one of our most underrated songwriters and most criminally overlooked singers of our times.  Looking forward to a new Charlie Dore release has become an eagerly anticipated pursuit.  Like Animals doesn’t disappoint, in fact, it’s currently on its ninth play through.   Once again the songs are written in collaboration, predominantly with long time musical partner Julian Littman and in the case of the utterly gorgeous “A Hundred Miles of Nothing”, a duet with The Magic Numbers’ Michele Stodart.  The songs play out like hidden dramas, with ingrained humour and subtlety and from the vantage point of wisdom, whether meditating of our powerful puppeteers (there’s a growing list to choose from), to the almost forgotten names from our past, and the inherent magic those names conjure, again, there’s a list.  “Ray and Lisa, Lisa and Joe” gets to the point and saves the trawl through Greene, Flaubert and Tolstoy to bring us the essence of the affair in just under four minutes, while “Rivers of Cortisol” brings us closer to how Charlie Dore ticks.  The songs could be poems with no need for further embellishment, yet the performances and arrangements perfectly bring these meditations alive, not to mention the spangles and adornments courtesy of Jackie Oates’ viola, Jessie May Smart’s violin and Quentin Collins’ flugelhorn, each of which effectively adds to the polish that places Little Animals at the very top of the Northern Sky playlist.

Bob Dylan | Rough and Rowdy Ways | Album Review | BMGS4 | 19.06.20

If we consider just for a moment Bob Dylan’s body of work over the past six decades, then narrow it down to the opening tracks of each of his albums, we’re already into genius territory.  Let’s recap; “Blowin’ in the Wind”, “The Times They Are a-Changin’”, “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, “Like a Rolling Stone”, “Tangled Up in Blue”, “Hurricane”, “Jokerman”, need we go on?  Rough and Ready Ways continues the tradition with the excellent “I Contain Multitudes”, its cultural references frantically overflowing throughout, yet at “Maria Elena” pace; a sprawling roll call that includes everything from Edgar Allan Poe’s tell-tale heart to Chopin’s Preludes, by way of Anne Frank, Indiana Jones and the Rolling Stones.  Like Leonard Cohen’ last few years, Dylan’s vocal is pretty much down to a spoken word variety here, which in a way, does the song a service.  This is a low-key stunner of an opening song.  Dylan’s entire raison d’être could possibly be wrapped up in the lyric of “False Prophet” – “I ain’t no false prophet, I just said what I said, I’m just here to bring vengeance on somebody’s head”, Dylan coming clean and with little ambiguity. Both “False Prophet” and “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” return to a muscular R&B, the former not a million miles away from “Pledging My Time”, the latter as punchy as “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”, but both certainly harder hitting. It wouldn’t be a Dylan album if it were devoid of Shakespearean quotes or Biblical references, and here they come at us with the urgency of a sermon, most notably “Murder Most Foul”. A meditation, all seventeen minutes of it, which may have been seen as a gift to Dylan fans at the beginning of the lock down, when it popped up out of the blue as the first new Dylan song in several years.  It was received by the thirsty at the well.  Here, the song concludes the album, a lament for JFK over half a century of mulling the messy affair over.  Again, the references come at us like graffiti, from Beatlemania to Woodstock and all set to a similar arrangement as the album’s magnificent opener. An album then, bookended by two of Dylan’s finest statements in decades, and the first Dylan album in decades that I just can’t stop listening to.

Edikanfo | The Pace Setters | Album Review | Glitterbeat | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 21.06.20

The Pace Setters is a reissue of an album originally released almost forty years ago by the Ghanaian band Edikanfo, a name that translates as ‘leader’ or indeed ‘pace setter’.  At the invitation of the eight-piece band’s manager Faisal Helwani, Brian Eno produced the album in Accra.  Eno claims that the project was an early Graceland idea and recalls the sessions as “joyful”.  Some of that joy can be felt once again almost forty years on, notably in the highly infectious rhythms of George Williams’ “Something Lafeh-O”.  History has told us that Edikanfo’s big moment in the spotlight was scuppered by Ghana’s coup d’état on the eve of what could have been a successful touring and recording career for the band.  Ironically, just as the band reforms, renewed and re-energised, another tragedy strikes in the form of COVID-19, effectively silencing the band once again.  Hopefully, we will soon see this band on our stages, but for now, the six tracks on The Pace Setters will just have to do.  Have on your dancing shoes.

Lisa Marini | Born in Tribes | Album Review | Self Release | 02.07.20

Lisa Marini may well have become a lost soul had it not been for the healing power of music.  Despite a problematic adolescence, absconding at a young age, bits of petty crime, drugs and busts, unstable parenting and resulting despair, music arrived at a crucial moment, steering its liberating raft gently towards a teenage girl, in which an artistic bent is subsequently revealed.  It’s not an uncommon story, where art plays a valuable part in rehabilitation and thankfully Lisa Marini found her muse through words and music, which now resonates in an atmosphere of contemporary rhythms and rich vocal textures.  There’s an essence of Amy Winehouse stored away here, in the way in which Lisa blends her jazz influences with an indie sensibility, occasionally popping up in the timbre of Lisa’s vocal delivery.  There’s also a sense of liberation and change in some of Lisa’s highly personal lyrics, which is symbiotically captured in the Escher influenced cover illustration, courtesy of Anna Millais.  In the opener “Piece by Peace”, Lisa pleads for cleansing, almost setting out her desire from the off.  “Everything changed throughout the making of this album” Lisa declares on the inner sleeve, a statement that takes precedence, a mantra of hope and optimism.  It takes a few plays through before we feel equipped to empathise and truly connect, but once the connection is made, it’s tangible.  With Born in Tribes, Lisa comes through the dark times with a statement that any new artist would be proud of.

Matt Hill | Savage Pilgrims | Album Review | Quiet Loner Records | 04.07.20

In places reminiscent of the late Jackie Leven, albeit shifted from the Kingdom of Fife to the Sheriffdom of Nottingham, Matt Hill tells a good tale.  Each song is a story, often cinematic and in at least one place set to a convincing Ennio Morricone soundtrack, where the atmosphere and feel takes on the spirit of a Sergio Leone Western.  If “The Exile of DH Lawrence” shows us one side of the prairie, namely through Nottingham’s favourite son, then “Gary Gilmore’s Last Request” offers a glimpse at the other, a strange but factual encounter between the man on Death Row and the Man in black.  It’s been a song just waiting to be written.  Recorded at The Kings Arms in Salford, whose most famous ex-barfly might possibly be George Orwell, the songs are captured using vintage microphones to create a retro live feel, though recorded in the attic studio, rather than in the bar over a pint with Mr Blair.  British literary figures don’t stop there, as Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Bendy’s Sermon” is referenced in the action-packed boxing yarn “Bendigo”, with seconds most definitely out.  Savage Pilgrims is a rare example of Anglo/American sensibilities merging like honey.

Stripmall Ballads | Distant | Album Review | Freeloader Free Press | 05.07.20

Maryland-based Phillips Saylor Wisor (The Shiftless Rounders/King Wilkie) takes us on a journey through the backroads of America under the guise of Stripmall Ballads, his now familiar Woody Guthrie-influences pseudonym.  Like Guthrie, a troubadour in search of a crossroads, Wisor inhabits the role well, with a weary gruff voice and lonesome guitar that sounds like a freight train.  With a voice that is reminiscent of a mixture of Bonnie Prince Billy and Austin-based Danny Schmidt, there’s a fragility matched equally with its strength.  With such songs as “Susan at the Crossroads”, “Don’t Mind Me” and  “Pull Over Johnny”, Stripmall Ballads leaves a taste of dusty roads in our mouths. 

David Gibb and Brady Rymer | Songs Across the Pond | Album Review | Self Release | 06.07.20

The most immediate sign that this is an album for children and families, is probably Stacey Thomas’s vivid artwork; a trailer load of musical instruments, an assortment of pond and wild life and two very distinct flags, though the song titles come a close second.  Derbyshire’s David Gibb joins hands across the Atlantic with New York-based Brady Rymer, who between them deliver an album of highly melodic and highly uplifting songs to brighten up even the dullest of days.  These are nursery songs for today’s generation, with road trips, the smell of summer, eternal friendship and both Albert Einstein and Mr Potato Head in the same verse.  In places, the material appears to focus on our Anglo/American connections and differences, such as “Roundabouts”, which I suspect is written from Brady’s perspective, whilst “Two Towns” shows our closeness despite the physical distance between us.  Then there’s “You Say This, I Say that”, which effectively clears up one or two misunderstandings we’ve picked up along the way and finally gets to the bottom of what exactly an eggplant is.  If the 3+ among us need a quick Fab Four primer, “Living in a Beatles Song” does the job fabulously, with its veritable roll call of Lennon/McCartney characters from Eleanor Rigby to Rocky Racoon.  There’s a couple of covers, Sam Cooke’s timeless “Twistin’ the Night Away” and Cat Stevens’ uber joyful reggae-fuelled “If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out”, which is the best fun since Harold used to knock about with Maude.

Libby Rae Watson and Bert Deivert | She Shimmy | Album Review | Hard Danger Studio | 07.07.20

It’s hard to believe that even back in the 1970s, finding and collecting blues records was something you had to work at. The records were just not available, so the opportunities to discover the pioneers of the blues could only really be achieved  by gluing one’s ear to the Alexis Korner radio show, whilst perusing the mail order lists on the back cover of Blues Unlimited magazine.  Towards the end of the decade, physically seeking out and finding the old blues giants themselves, became an obsolete pursuit as many of them reached the end of their respective third chapters.  Libby Rae Watson remembers driving out to Crawford, Mississippi in search of Big Joe Williams in the engaging preamble to “Big Joe”, which reminds us once again of what a thrill such an adventure must have been.  Today, finding those old blues tunes is merely a matter of scrolling through Spotify and meeting those heroes would take less than a few seconds on Facebook; much more immediate, but not half as much fun.  ‘Fun’ is a good way of describing some of the songs on She Shimmy, blues music rooted in the string band tradition, where washboards, kazoos, jugs and shimmering mandolin runs ruled the day.  Joining forces with Swedish blues aficionado Bert Deivert on mandolin and dobro, Libby Rae selects some of the country blues classics she grew up with in Pascagoula, Mississippi, many of which must have rubbed off from her mentor, the late Sam Chatmon of the Mississippi Sheiks fame.  “That’s Alright” and “Ashtray Taxi” are both delivered in the distinctive style of Chatmon, who died at the beginning of the 1980s and whose headstone was allegedly paid for by Bonnie Raitt.  She Shimmy is actually dedicated to Chatmon, and features some top flight guest appearances, including Eric Bibb and Charlie Musselwhite.    

James Oliver Band | Twang | Album Review | Last Music Company | 07.07.20

Former Glas guitarist James Oliver explodes onto a busy rock and blues scene with a fine debut packed with American cars, twangy guitars, burning Elmore James slide licks and a no nonsense Hugh Cornwell “Go Buddy Go” vocal.  Oliver’s retro rock is handled with respect, his influences worn openly and his flaming guitar the focal point throughout, though there are one or two moments when the guitar moves aside for some rich collaboration, notably Billy Lee Williams’ Zydeco accordion flurries on “Stay Outta Trouble”.  In just over thirty minutes, the eleven selections hardly pause for breath, each a powerhouse performance, where volume and tempo are in competition with one another throughout, even the two instrumentals “The Missing Link” and the album closer “Misirlou”, neither of which would be out of place in a Quentin Tarantino soundtrack.  The Robert Johnson opening to “Clean House” momentarily suggests a respite from the up-tempo energy-driven programme, only for the foot to hit the accelerator but a few seconds in.  For the best part the songs are self-penned or in collaboration with Dawson Smith, however there are a couple of Big Joe Turner blues shouters, “Honey Hush” and the Elmore James fuelled “TV Mama”.

John Jenkins | Growing Old (Songs From My Front Porch) | Album Review | Self Release | 08.07.20

If the general theme of John Jenkins’ new album is perhaps lost youth, the ageing process and mortality, then the songs are delivered in a deceivingly youthful voice.  The immediate expectation, judging by the cover shot, is of old time fiddle tunes from the Appalachian Mountains, yet Growing Old, subtitled Songs From My Front Porch, is far from this.  Each of the dozen songs are accompanied by a simple guitar-led arrangement, with an emphasis on people, locations and time; the lonely war hero in “Daniel White” for instance, or the dark backwoods of the Townes Van Zandt influenced “Bear Lake County” to the highly personal temporal meditation embedded in the title song.  The Liverpool singer songwriter is joined by one or two additional singers and musicians, each of whom help to lift the already strong arrangements.  There’s a Celtic feel to “Heartlands”, emphasised through the fiddle and flute accompaniment, courtesy of Amy Chalmers and Andy Connolly respectively.  Then there’s a rich vocal duet with Siobhan Maher-Kennedy on the tender “The Mountain Between Us”, whilst the elements are on hand to help give “Jackson’s Farm” all the necessary atmosphere.  Good songs, well played and delivered with humility.

Amy Duncan | The Hidden World | Album Review | Filly Records | 09.07.20

For her seventh album, The Hidden World, the innovative Edinburgh-born singer songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and photographer takes us on an atmospheric journey through a highly idiosyncratic and poetic landscape.  With ten original compositions, Amy Duncan once again evokes her own highly distinctive sensual world.  Rich in sonic textures, the songs create an intimacy between the artist and the listener, utilising synths, guitar, electric upright bass and piano, with an occasional international feel, notably on the Hindustani flavoured opening lead song, from which the album’s title is derived.  Dreamlike in places, The Hidden World has the sense of being just that, a secret, concealed, distant and unattainable world, ethereal in fact.  Despite her otherworldly mantle, Amy is only too keen to point out that she’s not an alien and like Kate Bush before her, is capable of creating music that is curiously strange but with an invitingly acute pop sensibility, “Make it Good” for example.  On the page, her lyrics read like poetry, meditations, states of mind, yet Amy’s breathy vocal and sumptuous arrangements take those notions to another place altogether. 

Jodie Nicholson | Golden Hour | Album Review | Self Release | 10.07.20

Jodie Nicholson is a young singer songwriter from just outside Darlington, whose songs are sensitive, often full of melancholy and always thoughtfully written, performed and produced.  Though originally released back in September on CD, Jodie’s desire to release Golden Hour on vinyl, which she describes as her ‘let’s go for gold’ moment, has been helped along through additional funding from her friends and fans via Kickstarter, during probably the most difficult time in the history of the music business.  When I began reviewing albums, the format was almost exclusively records, then known as ‘records’, now known at best as ‘vinyl’ and at worst as ‘vinyls’ plural.  There was the odd cassette, though I would steer clear of eight-track cartridges, which in my opinion were only good for radio jingles.  These days, the 12” record is a much sought after goal for many young aspiring artists and I completely understand the reasons why.  If you’ve laboured over your art, then why wouldn’t you want the fruits of your labour pressed into a long playing disc, wrapped in a sleeve that you can actually see and read, whatever’s printed on it?  The songs on Golden Hour are the sort of songs that benefit from the warm sound produced by records, songs like “Crossroads”, with its rich piano accompaniment and ‘heavenly’ choir, or “Losing Track”, the focus single, with its multi-track sparring vocal and the dreamy “The Rain”, an album highlight.  “Oceans” reappears towards the end as an extended mix (Pinch & Dash’s Envoxa Remix), which is possibly the only track on the album to get the party going on Saturday night, while the earlier version of the song, together with the rest, is very definitely for Sunday morning.  The songs deserve to be heard in this format and hopefully one will find itself between my Red Nichols and Harry Nilsson LPs before too long.

Kimberley Rew and Lee Cave-Berry | Sunshine Walkers | Album Review | Self Release | 21.07.20

Best known for penning the pop classic “Walking on Sunshine” for his band Katrina and the Waves back in the mid-1980s, a song that remains a much played radio hit today, Kimberley Rew has enjoyed a varied musical career, having also served time with the legendary Soft Boys with Robyn Hitchcock in the late 1970s.  Over the years the songs have kept on coming, even scoring a Eurovision winner in 1997 and in partnership with his wife, singer/bassist Lee Cave-Berry, produced several solo albums between them both, which this compilation concentrates on.  Sunshine Walkers features over twenty feelgood tunes, from dog songs to cat songs, bear songs to pig songs and even the obligatory Christmas song, each showcasing some quintessentially English song writing.  Sharing the lead vocal duties throughout this compilation, both Kim and Lee are given their moment in the spotlight, with plenty of humour along the way, notably Kim’s music hall ditty “Bloody Old England” and Lee’s “Backing Singer Blues”, which puts that spotlight right on the out of the spotlight sidekicks of the world.  Grumbling has never sounded so uplifting.  Amongst the Chuck Berry licks, the Jerry Lee piano strides, the occasional nod towards Blondie, the B52s and Squeeze, the punky “Hey War Pig”, the funky “Some Days You Eat the Bear”, the reggae infused “The End of the Rainbow”, the Hendrix wah wah of “Flower Superpower” and the abundance of good time rock ‘n’ rollers throughout, there’s still room for one or two tender moments too, notably “The Safest Place” and “Happy Anniversary”.  With an array of notable contributions, Robyn Hitchcock, Katrina Leskanich and Glenn Tilbrook amongst them, Sunshine Walkers will have you walking on sunshine from the opening few bars of “The Dog Song” through to the euphoric optimism of “Simple Pleasures”.  

Steve Crawford and Spider Mackenzie | Celticana | Album Review | Self Release | 22.07.20

There’s something reminiscent of early Jackson Browne in Steve Crawford’s songwriting style and delivery, which isn’t a bad thing.  On the contrary, many contemporary singer songwriters would sell their soul at the crossroads to be mentioned in the same sentence.  Celticana is a fitting title for this album, which attempts to bridge the Atlantic from Aberdeen to Austin, by way of his Crawford’s current home in Germany.  A solid wordsmith, Crawford delivers each song with confidence and warmth, notably “After the Ceilidh”, “Some Peace to My Worried Mind”, “Glen Deskry” and the Warren Zevon-like “Get Shit Done” among them.  The songs are enhanced with Spider Mackenzie’s informed harmonica playing, adding atmosphere and filling spaces where spaces need filling.  A formidable player who knows when to hold back and when to dive deep into a solo, Mackenzie takes the spotlight on a couple of instrumentals, “Socks No Shoes”, which demonstrate Mackenzie’s Sonny Terry-like dexterity, flair and ear for a good tune and “Bernera Blues”, which shows remarkable restraint.  Mackenzie’s contribution is further emphasised in the lyric booklet, detailing precisely which gob organ is used for each song for some inexplicable reason. 

The Haar | The Haar | Album Review | Nimbus Records | 23.07.20

Named for the eerie sea fret that clouds the northern coastlines of the British Isles, The Haar is a new folk quartet made up of Irish singer Molly Donnery, celebrated bodhran player and percussionist Cormac Byrne, fiddler Adam Summerhayes and accordionist Murray Grainger.  Having first met at the Craiceann Bodhran Festival on the island of Inisheer, Molly, Cormac and Adam soon discovered a musical empathy, which has resulted in a fine album of traditional material, each song treated to smooth and engaging arrangements.  With such familiar songs as “The Creggan White Hare”, “Two Sisters” and “My Lagan Love”, the four musicians create a moody atmosphere, a showcase of combined musicianship, topped off by Molly’s haunting voice. “Willie Taylor” is no ordinary reading of the song.  Loaded with drama and tension, this is storytelling at its best. 

The Mammals | Nonet | Album Review | Humble Abode Music | 24.07.20

There’s an immediate warmth that fills the air once Ruth Ungar Merenda’s honeyed voice flows from the speakers on “Coming Down Off Summer”, her breathy lines and gently strummed ukulele as soulful as just about anything produced in Muscle Shoals.  We all have our own ways of ‘winding down’ after work, after an ordeal or in Ruth’s case, after a tour.  Ruth does it more than adequately in song, whilst reflecting on her adventures, with only a handful of festival laminates to show for it.  These are the personal songs we want to hear and that we can in a way connect with.  The Mammals have been returning from summer festivals for over twenty years now, albeit with a nine-year hiatus in the middle, collecting many a laminate along the way.  This is a band you want to join, immediately.  Nonet simply describes the nine musicians now involved with the band, an outfit led by Ruth and husband Mike Merenda.  The ten original songs, written by either Mike or Ruth, are like melted butter, sumptuously arranged with tight performances throughout.  The Dylan influenced “If You Could Hear Me Now”, written by Mike and beautifully rendered by Ruth, really wouldn’t be out of place on the ‘Freewheelin’ album, its simple finger-picked guitar and sparse embellishment providing the song with all the necessary warmth and atmosphere it needs.  Then there’s the actual physical presentation, especially for the deluxe edition, which includes an additional bonus five-song disc and a handsome booklet containing the lyrics, with original artwork by designer Carly James, which adds to the classiness of The Mammals, a band everyone should hear, even if they can’t actually join.

Waaju | Grown | Album Review | Olindo Records | 30.07.20

I quite like the word ‘waaju’, which means ‘to urge, inspire and to take action’, a good starting point for any musical combo that takes it’s music seriously.  The young London-based quintet not only take their music seriously, but take it to places otherwise unchartered.  It’s a fusion of global styles from Moroccan gnawa to Mali’s rich folk music by way of a distinctly British jazz feel and injected with the infectious carnival spirit of the Caribbean.  Predominantly instrumental throughout, with the exception of the funky “Time’s Got a Hold”, featuring Will Heard’s Stevie Wonder styled vocal, the six tracks evoke a live feel, which one could imagine being a more enjoyable experience than on record.

Etuk Ubong | Africa Today | Album Review | Night Dreamer | 31.07.20

Essentially an album created with the specific intention of capturing Etuk Ubong’s vibrant live sound and recorded direct to disc in just one sitting on the final day of a week long session.  Africa Today features the dual trumpet sparring of Ubong and fellow Lagos musician Michael Awosogo, which dominates the sound throughout, delivering both energy and spirituality with their immediately familiar Afrobeat rhythms, albeit with some slightly wobbly vocals in places, especially on the title cut.  Nevertheless, the highly percussive driving sound keeps the performances alive and focused throughout.  Using vintage recording equipment, the production team at Artone Studios in Haarlem in the Netherlands have managed to capture a warts and all live performance, which appears to keep the spirit of Nigerian music alive.

Kristen Grainger and True North | Ghost Tattoo | Album Review | Self Release | 06.08.20

There’s a touch of velvet ingrained in the songs on Ghost Tattoo, where each performance is treated to polished and uncluttered instrumentation with Kristen Grainger’s arresting voice serving as the proverbial cherry on top.  Dan Wetzel and Martin Stevens’ guitar and mandolin sparring is as tight and intuitive as the very best in the Bluegrass genre, with plenty of room for invention and flirtation.  Completing the quartet is Josh Adkins, whose un-intrusive bass runs maintain a joyful rhythm throughout.  You can often judge a band simply by the covers they choose to play, especially when the original material stands up measure for measure to the songs written by others.  Ghost Tattoo features no less than four non-originals, by the likes of Peter Rowan, whose soaring banjo-led “Lonesome L.A. Cowboy” evokes the spirit of the Free Mexican Airforce of yore, then there’s the brooding melancholy of the Secret Sisters’ bluesy “Mississippi”, the delicious harmonies of Cahalen Morrison’s “Down the Lonesome Draw” and most notably some fine duetting on Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott’s superb “When No One’s Around”.  Of the original songs, “Keep the River on Your Right” provides the perfect opener, with some homely advice, whilst “Ghost of Abuelito” questions the very existence of home in a heart wrenching song of child separation. This is a first rate album.

Saskia | Are You Listening? | Album Review | Self Release | 02.08.20

Saskia Griffiths-Moore is in possession of the sort of alluring voice that wouldn’t have been out of place in the London bedsits of the early 1970s.  The former Harley Street craniosacral therapist, who sold up shop to follow her muse, first set out busking in the streets of the West Country, before pursuing a recording career, which has resulted in a handful of fine albums, including a tribute to the songs of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, recorded at the famed Abbey Road Studios in  London.  Are You Listening is the first of two planned albums in collaboration with the Susanne Marcus Collins Foundation, Inc and features some of Saskia’s finest songs from the past five years, revisited, reimagined and redelivered in a gentle stripped down acoustic fashion.  Among the older material such as “These Hours” and “Bring It Down” originally from her Ocean of Stars album, and “In Time” and “Wash It Away” from her Night and Day album, are two brand new songs, “Best of You”, which is possibly the album highlight and “Come Comfort Me”, a beguiling anthem for these times.  The songs provides a glimpse into Saskia’s world, with some empathetic contributions by fellow musicians David Ian Roberts on guitar, Thomas Holder on double bass, Ali Petrie on piano and Gabriella Swallow on cello.  Unfortunately, I developed an aversion to the song “Hallelujah” which closes this album, some time ago when it became a karaoke staple for X Factor contestants, Leonard Cohen’s lyrical genius evaporating into pop wannabe soup.  Other than this personal niggle, the songs on Are You Listening feel right for today.

The Wilderness Yet | The Wilderness Yet | Album Review | Self Release | 03.08.20

The Wilderness Yet are a Sheffield-based trio, whose eponymous debut album serves as a veritable soundtrack to accompany our reconnection with nature in peculiar times.  Rosie Hodgson reconnects with Crossharbour band mate Philippe Barnes and regular collaborator Rowan Piggott for a dozen well-crafted and richly textured songs relating to our trees, our birds, our cruel and heartless relationship with the whale and our tempestuous kinship with the changing seasons.  With a name borrowed from Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem Inversnaid, The Wilderness Yet evoke the spirit of nature, which is symbiotically echoed in Adam Oehlers’ delicate autumnal artwork.  Equally at home with stripped down to basics three part harmony a cappella, such as Rosie’s gorgeous “In a Fair Country” and the title song, as well as fully instrumental excursions, where the trio are joined by De Dannan’s Charlie Piggott and Johnny ‘Ringo’ McDonagh, together with Evan Carson on bodhran, The Wilderness Yet demonstrates once again that folk song continues to have much to say in our ever changing times. 

Shiran | Glsah Sanaanea with Shiran | Album Review | Batov Records | 04.08.20

Whenever we visit certain areas of the world that are unfamiliar to us, there’s a tendency to leave the beaten track in search of the real culture of the people, rather than just stick to the dedicated tourist areas.  When compared to her previous self titled debut, which was loaded with pop electronica and synths, Shiran’s new album Glash Sanaanea with Shiran, appears to adhere to the same notion, that we are perhaps getting closer to the almost tangible traditions of the Yemen, through the expressive power of such instruments as the oud, kawala and kanun and in particular, Shiran’s almost trance-like voice.  As in the case of much traditional music around the world, the power is in the performance and not so much in the volume of the instruments.  Recorded in Tel Aviv, the eight selections bring Shiran’s Yemen homeland closer through the sheer vibrancy and crystal clear instrumentation on such songs as “Ya Ahl San’ah” and “Qal Al Mouana”, together with the spiritual honesty of Shiran’s strong and passionate vocal, which has an immediacy to each performance throughout.  Along with the aforementioned oud, kanun and kawala, courtesy of Shauli Itzhak, Amir Alaev and Amir Shahsar respectively, the album also features Elad Levi on violin, Eyal El Wahab on cello and Ben Aylon and Roei Fridman on percussion, with further vocal contributions of Shimon Nataf, Nati Faiz, Ron Bakal, Shauli Itzhak and Shiran Avraham.    

Painted Sky | Dawn | EP Review | Old Barn Productions | 08.08.20

It’s always rewarding when a relatively new act takes the time to consolidate their music in just a handful of tracks that effectively showcases their range.  On the Dawn EP, folk siblings George Brandon and Holly Brandon (The Magpies), give us a glimpse into their flair for arranging and delivering faithful interpretations of traditional songs such as “The Two Sisters” and “Barbara Allen”, as well as showing their informed approach to instrumental adventures, such as “The Red Bee Set”, which seems to sonically illustrate the flight path of a bee, featuring Holly’s expressive and skittering fiddle throughout.  This kind of empathy comes from many years of playing together, their sibling dove-tailing detectable from the start.  The second instrumental on the EP takes us in the familiar foot stomping direction of Quebec, with Simon Riopel’s “L’Air Mignonne”, which once again suggests that the world is a small place in the hands of such musicians.  Finally, completing Painted Sky’s initial showcase, a self-penned song in which the duo tell us about a local Berkhamsted legend in “Peter the Wild Boy”, a more contemporary sounding acoustic song set among the 18th Century upper classes.  There’s nothing on this EP that suggests we have anything other than a quality act in our midst.

Lauren MacColl | Landskein | Album Review | Make Believe Records | 09.08.20

Known for her work with such outfits as Salt House and RANT, Lauren MacColl is an expressive fiddle player with a sensitive touch.  Landskein comprises eleven delicate airs, each of which underlines just how expressive Lauren’s playing can be.  Almost completely solo, with the assistance of James Ross on piano in places, the sparseness only highlight’s the richness of Lauren’s performances throughout, each piece enriched with both subtlety and sensitivity.  Recorded at​ Abriachan village hall near Loch Ness, the selections, some of which are taken from the Simon Fraser Collection (1715-1745), first published in 1916, capture the haunting eeriness of the location, which is reflected in the album’s title.  Landskein is a fine addition to an already impressive solo canon, which includes Strewn with Ribbons and When Leaves Fall, together with much of her collaborative output.

Archie Brown and the Young Bucks | Lonesomeville | Album Review | Self Release | 14.08.20

The legacy of the Young Bucks stretches back to the pre-punk miasma of the Pub Rock era, formed by Pat Rafferty and Tony Wadsworth, with frontman Archie Brown joining their ranks in the sweltering heat of 1976, taking their name from a line in the 1948 Bogart/Bacall movie Key Largo.  With later links to such bands as X-Ray Spex, Dexys Midnight Runners and Supertramp, the band grew out of the fertile Newcastle music scene, enduring one or two line-up changes along the way, yet in 2020, they are back to tell the tale.  With a prominent twangy telecaster, courtesy of Wadworth and a retro rock feel throughout, together with the occasional seasoning of Rafferty’s Tex-Mex accordion and Jerry Lee piano, the band makes a welcoming noise, especially to ears accustomed to the spirited revival of a rock and roll aesthetic.  In other places there’s some strategically placed bluesy organ motifs, together with warm strings, notably on the gorgeous “A Better Life”, which romantically intertwine with two weeping guitars.  The band also have their Stax moments, such as the funky “Serious”, where the ripples of the Tennessee River running through Muscle Shoals can almost be felt.  With a part-bandit/part-Covid19 protection warrior cover illustration, Archie Brown has one foot in the past and the other very much in the present, which is reflected in these fourteen highly listenable songs.  The smouldering guitar solo midway through the sultry opener “Madam Cocaine” is an invitation for listeners to slip off their shoes, relax a little and stick around for the duration.

Layla Kaylif | Lovers Don’t Meet | Album Review | Self Release | 17.08.20

Best known for her hit single “Shakespeare in Love”, released on the eve of the new Millennium, Dubai-born singer songwriter Layla Kaylif returns once again with seven new songs, each delivered with the same pop sensibility that has worked for her in the past.  The title track “Lovers Don’t Meet” serves as a fine opener, with all boxes ticked from first person verses, steadily building choruses and a strategically places key change, all necessary ingredients for a radio hit, or these things used to be in my day.  Recorded in Nashville, the songs on Lovers Don’t Meet transcend our expectations with some finely crafted songs, accompanied by a video promo of the lead single “As I Am”, which sees the British Emirati singer-songwriter busking in the streets of Central London, from the Chinese lanterns of the West End to the Tate Modern on the South Bank, culminating in the shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral, with a reminder of George Floyd’s final words, and all from a safe distance, masked and booted, a poignant reference to the current mess we’re all in.

George Sansome | George Sansome | Album Review | Grimdon Records | 18.08.20

Produced by Ben Walker, George Sansome’s eponymous debut presents a bunch of traditional songs, some well known, some familiar and some obscure, each supported by their respective ‘Roud’ index number, suggesting there’s been some extensive preliminary research here.  With most folk album debuts, it’s also about what to leave out as to what to put in.  Confident in his vocal delivery, the young singer/guitar player of Granny’s Attic fame serves the songs well, in that neither his vocal delivery nor his guitar dexterity gets in the way of telling a good story.  Almost completely solo, with just the addition of Tom Bailey’s double bass on the opening track “Collier Lass”, the feel of the material is not unlike that of early Martin Carthy albums, once again, the emphasis being on the songs themselves, with a clear reminder of the past.  “Bonaparte’s Departure for St Helena” brings to mind a more contemporary folk voice in Jim Moray, who also recently recorded the song and both presumably inspired by the singing of Nic Jones.  With informative song notes, wrapped lovingly in pink, George Sansome marks a bold stride in solo workmanship and confidence.

Kansas Smitty’s | Things Happened Here | Album Review | Ever/!K7 | 19.08.20

Kansas Smitty’s is a small music venue on Broadway Market in Hackney, North London, which is one of those venues that has been hit quite badly in the course of recent events.  Kansas Smitty’s is also the name of the house band, whose delicious music has spread out of the confines of its Victorian surroundings, where things ‘really happened’ over the years, to such notable venues as Ronnie Scott’s and The Jazz Café.  At the helm of the outfit is the American-Italian alto-saxophonist/clarinettist Giacomo Smith, whose cool approach to melody permeates the nine selections included here.  There’s nothing that will be a challenge to those who say they don’t like jazz, which, as my son often reminds me, is like saying that you don’t like fruit.  The compositions are both relaxing and adventurous at the same time, with some fine performances delivered by a cast of musicians that includes Joe Webb on piano, Will Cleasby on drums and Ferg Ireland on bass.  I’m reminded of Mingus in places, notably on “Sambre et Meuse”.  With each of the selections composed and produced by Smith, Things Happened Here serves as an album to savour until the septet are able to take to stage again.

Marie Fielding | The Spectrum Project | Album Review | Rumford Records | 20.08.20

Cutting her musical teeth in the late Jim Johnstone’s acclaimed band and other notable dance bands, whilst also working in collaboration with dozens of diverse musicians, Marie Fielding’s self-taught musical prowess shines through the ten compositions on this, the fiddle player’s latest project.  With three and a half decades of experience, Marie’s versatility as a musician, composer and teacher dominates her music and the Spectrum Project provides a glimpse into her world, a world further enhanced by her credibility in the visual arts, having also created the cover painting. Sandwiched between an introductory piece and its companion outro, the other eight mostly self-composed pieces feel like a showcase of Scottish and Irish traditional music, which demonstrates Marie’s credentials as a fine and expressive interpreter of the tradition, whilst bringing to the table something new and vibrant.  With a focus on ‘the moment’, the compositions were created in the studio rather than having been rehearsed beforehand, which gives the project a sense of immediacy and flow, allowing her fellow musicians, Tom Orr, Luc D McNally and Donogh Hennessy, the space to express themselves.  Standout pieces include the strident “Aran Islands” and the comparatively graceful “Gracie’s Lullaby”, whilst “Muriel’s Oatcakes” has all the ingredients of a firm festival favourite.

Gren Bartley | Kindred | EP Review | Self Release | 21.08.20

Originally from Stratford-upon-Avon, singer songwriter Gren Bartley has been making quality records for over fifteen years now, either on his own or in  collaboration with others, notably Tom Kitching, that quality has never wavered.  Lately producing a series of inventive EPs, we see a growing experimental side to Gren’s musical language with an emphasis on atmosphere and emotion, yet still working within the framework of his contemporary folk influences.  Kindred features just five tracks, three songs and a couple of instrumentals, including the haunting title song, which is flavoured with warm strings and bold electronica.  The harpsichord flavoured “What We Once Saw” sees Gren in experimental mood, ala Isao Tomita, whilst “Walk” once again features Gren’s now familiar resonator guitar and slide, which leans ever more towards an Eastern feel, handled with such gentleness, one can almost touch the morning dew upon the Acer palmatum. 

Mulatu Astatke and the Black Jesus Experience | To Know Without Knowing | Album Review | Agogo Records | 22.08.20

This second full-length album collaboration between the Melbourne-based Black Jesus Experience and noted Ethiopian vibraphonist Mulatu Astatke, delivers a fresh and dynamic melting pot that sucessfully blends Moroccan, Zimbabwean, Moiri and Ethiopian influences with instantly rewarding results.  It’s party music with a conscience.  To Know Without Knowing is a feast of vibrant Ethio-Jazz, contemporary hip-hop and spirited funky grooves, which takes as its starting point, the sound that Mulatu pioneered in the late 1960s.  From the album’s lead single “Kulun Mankwaleshi”, an arrangement of an Ethiopean wedding song, which utilises the Ethiopian anchi-hoye scale, to the sprawling ten minute “Living in a Stolen Land”, which features the sultry voice of Vida Sunshyne, the musicians seem to have an almost telepathic understanding, which comes across loud and clear through the nine selections.

Johnny Steinberg | Shadowland | Album Review | Self Release | 23.08.20

Despite the use of such song titles as “New York Tooth and Claw”, a three-page gatefold centre spread depicting a sprawling desert road that goes on forever and a rusty old Texan water tower dominating the cover, Johnny Steinberg is a Yorkshireman who claims to be “a huge fan of Neil Young and Yorkshire Tea either separately or together”.  The ten songs that make up this well-travelled troubadour’s debut album are universal and any such geographical claims seem redundant.  Recorded in Nashville, the UK and Denmark, Shadowland demonstrates an assured approach to songwriting of a universal nature, which is all the more impressive if we consider Johnny’s background, having only relatively recently fallen into music after facing redundancy from the day job.  These are like songs on the road and of the road.  With both Boo Hewerdine and Chris Pepper on board, the songs have a quality one has come to expect from such exalted musical company.  When seated at the piano we hear Johnny’s sensitive side, especially on “Set Sail and Go” and the closing song “England”.  Kira Small’s voice provides an empathetic counterpart to Johnny’s world weary vocal, as does Carol Lea on “Man on Wire” and indeed Kate Heaton on “New York Tooth and Claw”, a song embellished with Chris Pepper’s Robert Fripp-like E Bow guitar ala “Heroes”. 

Rory Butler | Window Shopping | Album Review | Vertical Records | 24.08.20

Cameron Watts’ striking cover painting on Rory Butler’s debut album Window Shopping immediately suggests that a 12” vinyl version would be more suitable for the coffee table.  With thickly applied oils, our obsession with the ‘selfie’ becomes an instant theme, alluding to the album’s title, which has become a national pastime.  The immediate influence identified in these ten original songs is John Martyn, whose soulful vocal is almost imitated in places and the Edinburgh musician comes very close to the original as do the guitar runs, especially the wind up motif on “Simon Says”.  In a virtual John Martyn soundalike version of The Voice, all four mentors would slap their buttons simultaneously before the end of the opening chorus of “Lost and Found”.   Finding originality is not our concern here, a homage can be a good thing, a lineage needs continuum and John Martyn is a good place for any musician to start.  Rory’s originality and personality comes through his ideas, of tackling the problems, fears and anxieties of the digital age, with social media being of chief concern, exemplified in such songs as “Mind Your Business” in which the songwriter claims to be “living online” and the poignant “That Side of the World”, written after witnessing the distressing teatime news images during the Syrian refugee crisis.  For all the Martyn similarities, there’s a huge talent at the midway junction to finding his own voice, which I predict will be explosive.  

The Jayhawks | XOXO | Album Review | Sham/Thirty Tigers | 25.08.20

It doesn’t seem all that long ago since The Jayhawks could be seen on MTV rubbing shoulders with Nirvana and the Black Crows, casually waiting for the sun, with all that road going and all that hair!  It may come as a surprise that the band actually began their long journey over 35 years ago and it’s good to know that they’re still going strong.  XOXO is the band’s eleventh album release, created by its surviving members Gary Louris, Marc Perlman, Tim O’Reagan and Karen Grotberg and is the first album to recognise each of their songwriting abilities, with each member of the band contributing their own material and taking lead vocal responsibilities, yet maintaining the overall and very distinct Jayhawks sound.  That trademark sound is all in place throughout the album, with one or two surprises, “Living in a Bubble” for instance, with it’s piano-led melody reminiscent of the late Emitt Rhodes, complete with McCartney-esque harmonies, an anthem for our times perhaps?  There’s nothing ‘run of the mill’ or ‘resting on one’s laurels’ on XOXO, with an almost tangible breath of fresh air weaving through the dozen songs.  Karen’s sensitively delivered “Ruby” and “Across the Field”, work in perfect contrast to the radio pop catchiness of Tim’s “Dogtown Days” and “Society Pages”, or indeed the immediately identifiable Jayhawks drenched opener “This Forgotten Town”.  XOXO is not only a successor to the band’s most recent projects Paging Mr. Proust and Back Roads and Abandoned Motels, but probably outranks them both considerably, especially in terms of being the result of a band working together in the way that bands ideally should.

Cinder Well | No Summer | Album Review | Free Dirt | 26.08.20

There appears to be a trend these days to revive the sort of vocal power associated with Margaret Barry, notably Ballyhaise-born Lisa O’Neill and in a way, Amelia Baker, the California-born singer songwriter who performs under the moniker of Cinder Well.  No Summer is the singer’s third album and follows her self-titled debut of 2015 and the more recent The Unconscious Echo in 2018 and includes a mixture of original self-penned songs and arrangements of traditional material.  The strength in Amelia’s voice is undeniable, a rich delivery evident in each of the songs, notably the almost unaccompanied opener “Wandering Boy”, unaccompanied save for a wearily sparse pipes-like drone.  It would not be difficult to imagine this confident voice in any number of rural Irish pubs in better times.  There’s a bleakness embedded in the lyrical content, especially the title song, which is completely devoid of the warm season in both the song’s title and in its feel.  It’s melancholy feel is echoed elsewhere on the album, on “Fallen” for example, a reworking of a song that originally appeared on her debut mini-album five years ago.  The gently plucked electric guitar strings provides a suitable backdrop for the traditional “The Cuckoo”, which wouldn’t be out of place on a Doors album.   It’s all fantastically atmospheric, even the inclusion of a 47 second soundbite that could have soundtracked a deleted scene from Blade Runner, a suitable intro to the bleak closer, “From Behind the Curtain”.  Though not a Saturday night party album, No Summer is utterly engaging as a piece of atmospheric melancholia.    

Skerryvore | Live Across Scotland | Album Review | Tyree Records | 27.08.20

After sixteen years on the road it seems only right to release a live album, especially now, and especially one that focuses on the cities, towns and villages in their own neck of the woods.  Skerryvore is a band that was made for the road and their anthemic songs and vibrant Celtic pop benefits enormously from a live audience’s response, which is captured here in its hot and sweaty best, most notably through the opening pipes solo to “Slan and the Rise”.  From the frantic acoustic guitar drone of “Trip to Modera” recorded in Edinburgh, through to the anthemic “Path to Home”, recorded at a show 93 miles north (as the crow flies), which delights the Aberdeen audience at the Tivoli Theatre, the album is packed with tight arrangements and explosive energy.  Fuelled by the twin pipes of Martin Gillespie and Scott Wood, the fiddle playing of Craig Espie and Alan Scobie’s rich keyboard work back in the shadows, the tight rhythm section of Fraser West and Jodie Bremaneson on drums and bass respectively and fronted by the voice of Alec Dalglish, Skerryvore’s highly charged music guarantees an experience that is both exciting and entertaining at the same time and is best served live.  “At the End of the Line” demonstrates that it’s not all high energy and anthem, but tender and melodic in places.  In addition to the music, what is genuinely lovely about this album is that the band dedicate the entire 12-page accompanying booklet to the venues at which they played, with a short paragraph for each, claiming that the parties were never so great than at the Sky Gathering Halls, that the pre-gig cocktails at the Nevis Centre were second to none and that their many wild nights at the Ironworks in Inverness will outlast the bricks and mortar as the future of the venue comes into question.  Venues need this sort of boost at the moment, a nod to their combined efforts.  

Pedro Lima | Maguidala | Album Review | Bongo Joe Records | 28.08.20

This timely reissue of Pedro Lima’s much sought after classic Maguidala, features just four tracks, running at just over thirty minutes, yet there’s a sense of fulfillment and completeness in that half hour.  Despite having been recorded and first released back in 1985, the recordings sound surprisingly fresh and vibrant, with the twin guitars of Leopoldino Silva and Pety-Zorro sparring effortlessly between puxas and rumbas, each of the four numbers guaranteed to get feet moving, if not entire bodies.  Born in 1944 on Sao Tomé island, the singer was known throughout Sao Tomé and Principe as “A voz do povo de Sao Tomé” (the people’s voice of the island), and his death in January 2019 saw the passing of perhaps the islands’ best loved musician.  It’s not surprising that the four selections that make up this album are so tight, the band having already been playing together for a good two decades.  A joyful sound for a joyful album. 

Annie Dressner | Coffee at the Corner Bar | Album Review | Proper | 04.09.20

One of the joys of floating on the periphery of the music scene, masquerading as an informed music scribe, is those rarest of occasions when a songwriter sits down to perform a brand new song for your ears only, in it’s most stripped down and rawest form.  “Would you like to hear a new song” said the New York-born singer, as we sat beneath a tree next to the duck pond at the Cambridge Folk Festival.  I was all ears as the singer went on to debut “Nyack”, which in turn becomes the opening song on Annie Dressner’s third album release Coffee at the Corner Bar.  The song is a tender reflection of Annie’s own childhood memories centred around the New York borough where she grew up.  Eight years ago, Annie left her hometown and moved to Cambridgeshire, just fifteen minutes from where we were sitting on that sunny afternoon and where she now lives with her musician husband Paul Goodwin, who produced this album.  Coffee at the Corner Bar is a rather fitting title for this album as it reflects the conversational nature of songs, which you can imagine being discussed across the table.  Taking the Magnetic Fields’ “The Book of Love” up a few octaves, Annie delivers an encouraging take on one of Stephen Merritt’s 69 conceptual love songs, which fits together snugly with Annie’s self-penned songs that make up the rest of the album.  If sitting across from Annie in a field is not quite available to you, then the songs on this album, including “Dogwood”, “Beyond the Leaves” and “Pretend”, from where the album title derives, offer something similar; they feel like they’re being sung just for you, only on this occasion, Annie brings the band along too.

Eliza Jaye | Middle Child | Album Review | CRAFT Pop | 04.09.20

It was with sadness that we heard of the passing of Eliza Jaye earlier this year after putting up a fairly good scrap with cancer.  The Sydney-born singer and musician covered some considerable ground during her short life, notably a stint playing fiddle and singing with the Brighton-based Moulettes, after being spotted in a Brighton pub by Oli Moulette.  Middle Child is a fitting musical statement, which features songs that effectively showcase several sides of this engaging performer, from the sublime “Tenderness”, complete with ethereal harp and theremin, to the raucous “Run Like the Nile”, which sees the singer blend the rockabilly ballsiness of Imelda May with the Gothic daring of Bif Naked, a transition the singer seemingly negotiates with relative ease.  Produced in partnership with Joe Gibb, Middle Child embraces Eliza’s diverse tastes  without the album appearing like a mish-mash of styles.  Each of Eliza’s compositions compliment one another, however different the delivery of each performance might be.  If “Déjà Vu” is the sort of song David Lynch might use as a recurring theme in one of his films, “My Sunrise” has Jeff Buckley written all over it, a song that would provide an ideal soundtrack for the waking hoards at Glastonbury just as the sun rises over the Tor.  That’s a fanciful thought, yet this music seems to reach for an emotional reaction.  If Eliza’s Indie leanings are suitably explored throughout this album, there’s also a brief venture into Anita Ward-like disco fever with “I Do”, a potential dance floor staple.  Eliza Jaye has left us a minor masterpiece and has indeed left us far too early.

Oh Susanna | Sleepy Little Sailor | Album Review | MVKA | 06.09.20

When the Toronto-based singer songwriter Suzie Ungerleider, otherwise known as Oh Susanna, first released her second album Sleepy Little Sailor back in January 2001, the new Millennium was still in its infancy and the current popular music of the day was dominated by Limp Bizkit, Bob the Builder and Baha Men’s “Who Let the Dogs Out”, whilst the iTunes media player was simultaneously being launched to cater for some of this stuff.  Twenty years seems a lifetime away to a twenty year old, but to some, it’s merely a heartbeat away.  Twenty years to Oh Susanna probably means the bulk of her creative output, the pursuit of Canadian citizenship, a battle with breast cancer and more recently, the re-issue of her earlier output in deluxe editions.  The Sleepy Little Sailor deluxe edition, released on CD, digital and for the first time vinyl, follows the re-release last year of her debut album Johnstown from 1999 and features the original eleven songs, plus five previously unreleased tracks, either recorded during the original album sessions or more recently.  Suzie’s voice shines through every single track, which pivots between a gentle whisper, notably on the achingly sombre “Beauty Boy” and “Sacrifice”, to the full-throttle bar room bellow of “Ted’s So Wasted”, which indicates plainly that Oh Susanna means business.  With the one non-original, Otis Redding’s soul-drenched “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember”, Sleepy Little Sailor comes around once again just at the right time, when we need it most. 

Justin Wells | The United State | Album Review | Singular Recordings | 07.09.20

The lines that map out the life of the woman who dominates the front cover shot of Justin Wells’ second album The United State, indicates a life well lived and one immediately suspects, a life lived through thick and thin, ups and downs and for better or for worse.  The songs on follow a similar time frame, a sort of cradle to the grave concept, starting “in the womb”, Wells tells us, and then “ends after death”, from the great unknown to the sombre twenty seconds of the funereal “Farewell Mr Hooper”.  Wells is at pains to tell us that this project is a joint effort and that both the names and the faces of his collaborators are included in the sleeve.  A concept album of sorts, rather than just a collection of unconnected songs, the theme that runs through is the path we follow through life, stopping off at each stage.  With a distinct country feel and a familiar cracked vocal, not unlike that of the late Eric Taylor, songs such as the sneering “Never Better”, the bluesy “It’ll All Work Out” and the anthemic “Walls Fall Down” each help to tell a tale that is very much worth telling. 

Joshua Burnell | Flowers Where the Horses Sleep | Album Review | Self Release | 09.09.20

York-based Joshua Burnell’s career gathers momentum with this latest self-penned collection of songs.  Already established as an extraordinary live act with his six-piece band, the singer songwriter and multi-instrumentalist is proving himself a major player on the current folk and acoustic music scene and these ten songs are testament to that.  There’s shades of Jim Moray and Seth Lakeman here and there, but Burnell is by and large making his own mark in pursuit of his own particular niche on the music scene, even to the extent of assuming a similar role to that of Cabaret’s Joel Grey on “Let Me Fall Down”, where Burnell takes an opportunity to bring a little burlesque to the fore, a throwback to the seedy Kit Kat Club scene of the 1930s.  With a title influenced by the ordeals of Japanese-American interns during WW2, who were forced to live in stables and who grew flowers to make their ordeal more bearable, Flowers Where the Horses Sleep takes on a richly poetic relevance. Nowhere on the album do we find any ‘fillers’, as each song is treated to a sumptuous arrangement and with first rate performances.  If “Le Fay” demonstrates the full power of Burnell’s musical artillery, together with guest contributions courtesy of Nathan Greaves, Kathleen Ord and Tom Mason, then the relatively sparse “Run With Me” shows the flip side of Burnell’s musical prowess, with a gentle collaboration, featuring a guest vocal from Frances Sladen, along with Katriona Gilmore’s empathetic fiddle.  The song is also depicted in the cover artwork, a papercut by Hari and Deepti, a Mumbai husband and wife team, which shows a definite symbiotic visual art/music relationship, as does Elly Lucas’s now trademark body art photography.  Outstanding.    

Paul Armfield | Domestic | Album Review | Self Release | 10.09.20

In times like these, when socialising in numbers is not only frowned upon but actively discouraged, isolation becoming the norm, it’s good for the soul to be given the opportunity to think about the importance of home and to be presented with a thoughtfully executed soundtrack to accompany our solitude.  The world immediately prior to the outbreak of COVID-19 had become almost unbearable, forcing some of us into voluntary isolation even back then and to think once again about the importance of those in our immediate proximity.  Paul Armfield captures the essence of ‘home’ in some of its various aspects on this new ten track album, from the actual ‘mortar, bricks and sticks’, in his case on the Isle of Wight, to the people and things within, with each song delivered in a gentle homely arrangement and enriched by his familiar velvet tones, which is like a fine red wine that you don’t mind paying that little bit more for.  If we think back to the months immediately prior to the lock down, the world had become almost unbearable with the furore of the election result and the ongoing Brexit/Remain debate, so a song like “I’m Not Here” becomes an anthem for those of us in utter despair, me included.  “I’m Not There” continues to soundtrack feelings about the state of our society.  Then, for any parent who has gone through the trauma of the ‘university farewell’, “Fledgling” rings certain bells and is a clear reminder of the curious mix of sadness and relief (and occasionally the clinking of Champagne glasses), but also the fact that the door always remains unlocked.  The songs are written with intelligence and a burning curiosity and are wrapped in a cover created from Paul’s own linocuts, which somehow fits perfectly with the subject at hand.  Domestic has a lot more to do with homeliness than loneliness and serves as a good friend in these extraordinary times.

The Magpie Arc | EP1 | EP Review | Collective Perspective | 11.09.20

In the truest sense of collaboration, the five musicians that make up The Magpie Arc, Nancy Kerr, Martin Simpson, Adam Holmes, Tom A Wright and Alex Hunter, pool their respective influences in this exciting new band setting.  Unlike the almost endless stream of themed folk projects over the last few years, funded by this, that or the other, the musicians involved here return to the notion of sharing ideas and making new and original music together, in this case in a studio within a Victorian factory complex in the former industrial heartland of Sheffield.  None of these musicians take a forced lead, rather, they work together as a team, which comes across in their overall sound.  If anything, the style relates to British Folk Rock of the 60s and 70s, in that there’s a tight rhythm section at work with some tasty electric guitar courtesy of Simpson, known predominantly for his virtuosic acoustic guitar work and who appears to relish in the challenge.  The four songs featured on this initial EP provide a snapshot of what to expect when the band’s debut album arrives next year and adheres to a relatively democratic share of the songwriting credentials, notably Nancy’s atmospheric “Canon”, Martin’s strum-along country ballad “Love Never Dies” and Adam and Tom’s radio friendly “Whenever I’m Alone”.  This is one of them ‘watch this space’ releases for sure.

Krononaut | Krononaut | Album Review | Tak:Til/Glitterbeat | 16.09.20

With guitarist Leo Abrahams leading this project, the ten highly inventive instrumental pieces are a showcase of freedom and experimentation, which traverses light and shade in ever changing mood patterns.  Fusing together Abrahams’ classical background with Martin France’s jazz sensibilities, the potential for discovering alluring soundscapes is explored with startling results.  There’s a punch to France’s drum patterns, which underpin some of the more complex guitar and bass noodling, courtesy of Abrahams’ and Tim Harries respectively, notably on “Mob Kindu”.  Dark and industrial in places, the sound textures work together and never stray too far from their intended path. Recorded live, with no overdubs, the highly improvised set is a bold musical journey that allows each musician, including Shahzad Ismaily on bass, Arve Henriksen on trumpet and Matana Robers on sax, the freedom to explore.

Kris Delmhorst | Long Day in the Milky Way | Album Review | Big Bean Music | 17.09.20

‘Long day in the Milky Way’, is the opening lyric to this new album by the Brooklyn-born singer songwriter Kris Delmhorst, a line from “Wind’s Gonna Find a Way”, the lead song.  Now based in Massachusetts, Kris Delmhorst delivers twelve predominantly self-penned songs, with the exception of a fine reading of the Rickie Lee Jones song “The Horses”, which retains some of the author’s soulful delivery here.  Recorded in an old farmhouse in rural Maine, Long Day in the Milky Way is Delmhorst’s eighth full-length album to date and brings together a team of choice musicians, with an emphasis on collaboration.  The songs were written for the most part at a retreat in New Hampshire, where a collaborative atmosphere was forged, notably with a handful of empathetic voices that give this album its spark, namely Rose Polenzani, Rose Cousins and Annie Lynch.

Ben Bedford | Portraits | Album Review | Cavalier Records | 18.09.20

Portraits is a fine compilation made up of some of the best songs from the Illinois-based singer songwriter’s first three albums, Lincoln’s Man, Land of the Shadows and What We Lost, all released between 2007 and 2012.  Bedford points out that the selected songs are indeed like portraits, either of people, places, events or memories.  Despite the album being a collection of songs written at slightly different time periods, Portraits has a  flow and can be enjoyed as a stand alone album, with strong, confident and accomplished performances throughout, from the banjo-led Civil War epic “Lincoln’s Man”, which takes us on a journey through the past like a Shelby Foote narrative, through to the concluding “Goodbye Jack”, a spirited ode to an old sea dog.

Kirsten Thien | Two Sides | Album Review | Screen Door Records | 21.09.20

New York-based singer and musician Kirsten Thien has taken an unusual route in order to follow her passion, by swapping Wall Street for Beale Street, as the Georgetown University Business School graduate straps on her axe and follows her muse, becoming a credible performer with a natural feel for the Blues.  Her fifth album is released on vinyl, giving us two sides to think about, which opens with the storming powerhouse of “Shoulda Been”, with a confident vocal and some sneering slide guitar.  Conversely, “Sweet Lost and Found” has all the ingredients of a radio friendly pop hit, immediately demonstrating the two sides we find in Thien’s music.  The Buddy Guy influenced “After I Left Home” references John Lee Hooker and features a scorching guitar solo courtesy of Arthur Neilson and a down and dirty vocal performance from this gutsy songbird.  If “Montañas” sounds a little out of place here, Thien’s Spanish delivery deserves a place all its own, a potential second career perhaps as a convincing fiery Latin songstress, with all the ‘r’s rolled in all the right places.  The album concludes with an overdue reading of Leon Russell’s soulful “I’d Rather Be Blind”, completing a rather complete album, with rather more than merely two sides.

Lisa Mann | Old Girl | EP Review | Jayray Records | 22.09.20

West Virginia-born Lisa Mann’s confident voice permeates this five-track EP, recorded in her adopted home of Portland, Oregon.  Predominantly self-penned with the exception of a pretty gutsy reading of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s 1938 classic “That’s All”, memorably adapted by Ry Cooder in the early 1970s as “Denomination Blues”.  Here, Lisa returns to the song’s gritty source, with a late night vocal and a sneering guitar solo courtesy of Jason Thomas.  With further contributions from Louis Pain on Hammond B3, Michael Ballash and Dave Melyan on drums and some empathetic backing vocals from Sonny Hess, Brian Foxworth, LaRhonda Steele and Arietta Ward, the Kevin Helm produced EP proves that this old girl is far from putting her bass back in its case.

Rakoczy | Frontrunner | Album Review | Talking Cat | 23.09.20

The debut album by Anglo-Hungarian folk singer Rakoczy opens with an earth tremor of a calling on song, as Phil Martin’s “Hooden Horse” is treated to dramatic pipes, pulsating drums and a no-nonsense vocal delivery, courtesy of this young Budapest-born, now Manchester-based performer.  With a clear equine theme, initially illustrated by the cover photo of a close-up of a horse’s eye, the songs include Ian Anderson’s “Heavy Horses”, which rubs hoofs easily with such traditional fare as “Poor Old Horse”, Skewbald” and “Dead Horse”.  Whilst Rakoczy’s own music hall-flavoured “Miss Portly”, demonstrates a breezy delivery, whilst addressing an early example of the cruel world of bet fixing,  “Creeping Jane” is probably the album’s highlight, the first single release in fact and a song  that clearly evokes the spirit of 1970s Martin Carthy, with a Millenial sensibility.  There’s nothing here that indicates anything other than a fresh slant on a familiar body of work.

Malaya Blue | Still | Album Review | Blue Heart Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 24.09.20

It’s not difficult to gently ease oneself into Malaya Blue’s new album, its opening title song a late night helping of hot buttered soul, which features a bass line straight from the heart of Robert Cray’s original band, courtesy of Richard Cousins.  The Robert Cray connection doesn’t end there, as the Norwich singer’s third album Still features a dozen songs written alongside Dennis Walker, a noted Cray collaborator, who between them serve up a range of bluesy and soulful originals, from the funky “Down to the Bone”, to the steamy “Hot Love”.  With Nat Martin on guitar, Stevie Watts on keys, Mike Horne on drums and Eddie Masters on bass, Still can be hard hitting in places, notably “Kiss Your Troubles Away” and “These Four Walls” and tender in others, notably the piano-led ballad “I Can’t Be Loved”.

Fay Hield | Wrackline | Album Review | Topic | 25.09.20

A fine mixture of traditional and original songs from the darker corners of the woods, Fay Hield’s fifth album sees the Sheffield-based singer, songwriter, musician and scholar add her own words to an already wealthy canon of stories in just over 45 minutes of otherworldly escapism.  There are witches, fairies and ghosts a-plenty within these songs, some chilling, some ethereal, some tender and each loaded with imagination.  Helping to deliver these stories is a first rate collective of musicians, namely her long time collaborator and multi-instrumentalist Rob Harbron, Sam Sweeney on fiddle,  viola and nyckelharpa, Ben Nichols on double bass and Ewan Macpherson on jaw harp, each of whom also lend their respective voices here.  Fay’s own songs are both melodic and poetic, in that they read like poems on paper, notably “Call the Storm” and the emotionally haunting “Wing Flash”.  As a response to the Cruel Mother, Fay’s “Jenny Wren” is as close to a traditional song as a contemporary writer is likely to get, whilst the sprawling epic in this collection, Fay’s adaptation of the traditional “Sir Launfal”, is a fine example of both storytelling and editing skills.  Hearing “Sweet William’s Ghost” is like hearing the voice of the late Maggie Boyle once again, which is both a moving and a celebratory experience all at the same time.

Eric Johanson | Below Sea Level | Album Review | Nola Blue Records | 26.09.20

New Orleans-based singer and guitarist Eric Johanson is a third generation Louisiana musician, whose genetic makeup is entrenched in the Blues.  Below Sea Level is Johanson’s second album and the first on Nola Blue Records and features some fine Paul Rodgers-like vocals and blistering riff-laden guitar solos throughout.  Working in collaboration with Luther and Cody Dickinson, the cuts on Below Sea Level range from the hard rocking “Buried Above Ground” and “Down to the Bottom” to the soulful “Changes the Universe”, complete with Ray Jacildo’s empathetic Hammond B3, to the deep southern sneer of “River of Oblivion”.  Luther Dickinson’s production is crisp and uncluttered, with an emphasis on Johanson’s bold guitar work, both slide and standard, with one or two acoustic forays towards the end, offering a more delicate side to this engaging young bluesman. 

The Lost Doves | Set Your Sights Towards the Sun | Album Review | Green Tea Productions | 27.09.20

Highly melodic and Byrds-like throughout, Set Your Sights Towards the Sun evokes the sun-drenched coastline and boulevards of California, its jingle jangle mornings and cool tequila evenings, with a Rickenbacker twelve-string not too far from the action.  Ian Bailey and Charlotte Newman have crafted a superb album here, which is a reminder that good songs, good arrangements and an beady eye on the past can’t do any harm.  Taking care of all the instruments themselves, with the exception of drums, who the Lost Doves entrust to one Little Bobby Rockin’ Box, Ian and Charlotte work together like seasoned collaborators, neither one of them taking the obvious lead.  The title song is a powerful opener with a immediately identifiable pop sensibility, a radio song if ever there was one, best served from the console of an open top Pontiac Grand Ville, preferably red.  If we’re not yet familiar with Charlotte’s shimmering voice, then “Waves” confirms our suspicions that we have something special to write home about here.  This is the only song on the album written by Charlotte and I suspect there might be more where that came from.  “You Stop Me from Falling” is a clear indication that these two voices have no problem in dove-tailing, a notion confirmed later on the gorgeous “Wired to You”.  The lion’s share of the writing falls on Ian’s shoulders, whose seasoned credentials and ink-filled pen have the power to pull us out of our Covid doldrums.  There’s a tendency to feel that someone’s having a proper blow out on “The Clowns are Coming to Town”, the album’s lone instrumental, which is almost like the album’s “Tomorrow Never Knows” moment.  If “Sally Weather” is also eerily close to John Lennon, then the subliminal sitar on “More Than I” and the “Isolation” coda could be reminiscent of his former band mate George.  But it has to be said, a Beatles influence really can’t be too far away on an album of such melodic beauty as this. 

Rura | Live at the Old Fruitmarket | Album Review | Self Release | 28.09.20

It’s hard to believe that Rura have been together now for ten years, during which they have delighted audiences across the globe with their own special brew of instrumental Celtic music.  To celebrate their first decade, the four musicians, Steven Blake, Jack Smedley, David Foley and Adam Brown, invited a handful of pals along to Glasgow’s Old Fruitmarket back in February, for the final day of the Celtic Connections Festival to join them for a concert to remember and luckily, someone had the tape was rolling.  Among the band’s vibrant instrumentals, which run the gamut of emotions, from fast paced stompers such as “Dark Reel” and “Day One” to the more sublime “In Praise of Home” and “I’ll Never Forget” interspersed with its engaging spoken field recordings.  Adam Holmes changes the mood with a couple of his own songs, “Mary” and “Weary Days”, reminding us once again of what an incredible voice he’s in possession of, a sentiment the audience fully agree with judging by the applause.  Despite the adrenaline rush of some of the performances here, none of them appear rushed or hastily rendered, but is instead are delivered with composure and much regard for the material, creating an event that I for one, would have liked to have attended.  It would’ve been a fitting live finale in light of the craziness that was to follow a couple of weeks later and which continues to plague us almost eight months on.

Various Artists | The Great White Dap EP | EP Review | Ghosts From the Basement | 01.10.20

Wrapped in a sleeve that parodies the 1970 Island sampler LP Bumpers, The Great White Dap is released in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Bristol-based independent label Village Thing.  The four-track sampler EP of the same name, released in the early 1970s as a showcase for the label’s first four albums, is updated here with six tracks this time, presented as the ‘great granddaughter’ of that initial release and which features some of the label’s most notable musicians, Wizz Jones, Ian A Anderson, Derroll Adams, Steve Tilston (with Dave Evans), Al Jones and The Sun Also Rises.  There’s some tasty acoustic sparring between Ian A Anderson and Ian Hunt on “Time is Ripe”, the song that contains ‘A Vulture Is Not A Bird You Can Trust’ lyric, which became the title of his 1971 LP, and again on “What Would You Be?” this time with Steve Tilston and Dave Evans, the song being an outtake from Steve’s debut An Acoustic Confusion sessions, never before released until now.  Other highlights include Wizz Jones’ optimistic “When I Leave Berlin”, featuring the Lazy Farmer band and Al Jones’ “Tell the Captain”, which references to the label’s home town.  Produced by Anderson, the EP is a reminder of the thriving Bristol folk scene in its heyday, yet sounds refreshingly good today.

Ian A Anderson | Onwards Vol 2 A Crown of Crows | Album Review | Ghosts From the Basement | 02.10.20

One of the big surprises for me over the last six months of abject social misery, was to become a fan of Ian A Anderson’s music.  I’ve read numerous articles and editorials by Ian over the years, met him on a couple of occasions, bumped into him at festivals, contributed just the one review for his lamented magazine, but never really got to see him with a guitar in his hands.  Onwards! Vol 2 – A Crown of Crows is Ian’s second retrospective, which follows Onwards! Vol. 1, subtitled 50 years of deathfolk, blues, psych-fi, trad and world twang, and features a further 21 selections from half a century of sporadic music making in various combos.  The great thing about samplers, collections, best ofs and in this case, career retrospectives, is the variety of sounds on offer, which weave and wander through fifty years of changing influences and keen musical investigation.  “Another Normal Day” is Anderson at his solo best, similar to label mate Steve Tilston’s early recordings, a youthful voice and informed guitar accompaniment that communicates universally.  The double photo on the back of the sleeve shows a then and now Ian A Anderson in similar troubadour pose, where I can imagine all those in between Andersons, as I listen to these varied songs.  There’s the manic jug band harmonica blues of “Stereo Death Breakdown” from 1968, a mid-eighties electric slide featured on “City Jail Blues”, a pretty faithful reading of Mississippi Fred McDonald’s “Write Me a Few of Your Lines” from a 1980 Hot Vulture’s radio session, a rather lilting Depression-era take on Hezekiah Jenkins’ “The Panic is On” and for the first time on CD, a fine performance of the Napoleonic ballad “The Bonny Light Horseman”, once again demonstrating an eclectic repertoire.  The most recent recording is “(The Return of) The Western Wind”, recorded recently in Bristol complete with a black crow coda and like that crow, delivered in a voice that appears not have changed in over fifty years. 

Tom Moore and Archie Moss | Spectres | Album Review | Slow Worm Records | 03.10.20

Some inventive arrangements here by two of the British folk scene’s brightest young musicians, now working together as a duo since the departure of Jack Rutter from the live favourites Moore Moss Rutter a good few months ago.  On this, the duo’s second album release, we find eleven original and atmospheric instrumentals that appear to take the duo’s musicianship to the realms of ambient music, certainly experimental and something certainly removed from the realms of straight jigs and reels.  The title track has a steady build, which explores the musical possibilities of the viola and diatonic accordion, with a few ‘samples’ thrown in, to effectively add to the tension.  “Pop One” is more familiar fare, a tune that flits and skitters and occasionally stops for breath, courtesy of Archie’s bellows.  The album works best when it offers melodic tunes that build from an experimental mindset, or that include percussive elements such as “Lek” or importantly, those deeply soulful tunes that manage to stir the emotions, with no need for words, such as the all too short “Green Belt”.  I’ve been putting this album on, and leaving it on.

The Teacups | In Which | Album Review | Haystack Records | 04.10.20

Celebrating ten years together as a fine a cappella quartet, The Teacups present their third and sadly their final album, as Alex Cumming, Kate Locksley, Will Finn and Rosie Calvert call it a day.  Having met at Newcastle University, where the four singers were studying for the folk and traditional music degree, The Teacups have taken their music and their infectious personalities far and wide, each involved in their own side projects along the way but always reuniting for an occasional brew.  Like actual teacups, their song arrangements are immediately homely, familiar, delicate as porcelain and always ready to share.  If you’re going to bow out, then why not bow out with an absolute humdinger of an album?  In Which reveals a quartet at the top of their game and in superb vocal form, with each voice captured at its best, courtesy of Pete Ord’s fine production.  From the opening “Agamemnon”, a Hamish Maclaren poem set to a Paul Davenport tune, we are assured of this outfit’s credentials not only as fine singers and arrangers, but also as collectors who can see a song’s immediate potential.   Alex’s own “Celestial Tea” fits in well with the more familiar traditional fare, such as “The Weary Cutters”, “Deep Blue Sea” and “Dogger Bank”, each performed with a bright and clear delivery and interspersed with a handful of shorter “Vignettes”, vocal interludes that appear to hold the whole thing together.  Bernie Parry’s timeless “Man of the Earth” is given a new breath of life with a fine arrangement courtesy of Will, which demonstrates perfectly this quartet’s empathetic vocal qualities.  The Teacups have never had an obvious leader, but have instead adhered to a democratic vibe, where each voice, each personality and each smile is equally as important as the other.  The Teacups will be missed, but the tea will still come in one form or another.  So put the kettle on.

Lunatraktors | Bonefires | EP Review | TPR Recordings | 05.10.20

Margate-based Clair Le Couteur and Carli Jefferson, otherwise known as Lunatraktors, follow their acclaimed debut album This is Broken Folk, with a four-track EP, released on the anniversary of the burning of the Houses of Parliament in 1834, with three traditional adaptations and a seasonal Carol.  Predominantly tuned folk drums, body percussion and a smattering of harmonium, the focus is on the duo’s idiosyncratic vocal blend, it being their trump card.  “Black Raven”, which opens the duo’s debut album is revisited here as “Black Raven II”, which sees Clair in full on Paul Robeson mode; a dark, brooding, yet powerful performance, underpinned by Carli’s military drums, evoking the spirit of the Russian wars.  The highlight though, has to be the rousing version of “16000 Miles”, with its infectious rhythms and thoroughly engaging lead vocal, which is loaded with spirit and invention.  With growing momentum, Lunatraktors are reshaping the course of folk music as we speak. 

Dyble Longdon | Between a Breath and a Breathe | Album Review | English Electric Recordings | 06.10.20

It’s always particularly sad when a record drops through the letterbox from a singer or musician who has recently left us and is unable to see the fruits of their labour, simply because their time ran out far too early.   Before her untimely death in July, the former singer with both Fairport Convention and Trader Horne, teamed up with Prog outfit Big Big Train’s David Longdon for an ambitious album made up of seven lengthy Prog-like songs, each featuring Judy’s lyrics and David’s musical arrangements.  Taking the album’s title from a phrase used by a friend to describe where magic happens, Judy embarked on this project, which she had hoped would come to fruition after first seeing David perform with his band five years earlier.  Suspecting this would be her final album after contracting cancer, the singer remained optimistic and focused throughout and the album stands as a fine swan song, especially for a woman who set out to be a librarian.  Recorded at both Real World Studios and Playpen Studios in Wiltshire and Bristol respectively, Between a Breath and a Breathe is helped along by a cast of fine musicians, including Big Big Train band mates and is produced by David Longdon and mixed by Patrick Phillips.

Adam Sweet | Sink or Swim | Album Review | Self Release | 07.10.20

Confident strokes are taken for Adam Sweet’s second full length album release, in which the young Exeter-based blues guitarist delivers a dozen strong self-penned tracks, written for the most part in collaboration with songwriter Steve Black.  Equally at home with early evening rock openers “You or Me”,  late night blues smoochers “Miss You So” and Sunday morning shower crooners “Like it or Not”, Sweet gets to the root of a song with ease.  There’s even room for an Allman Brothers inspired instrumental midway through “”Devils Lake”, which could be worth investigating further.  Some of the credit should go to the musicians he surrounds himself with, in this case Josiah J Manning on keys, who also co-produced the album alongside Sweet, Ian Briggs on harmonica and the tight rhythm section of Ian Jennings and Garry Kroll on bass and drums respectively.  Additional sprinkling of joy comes courtesy of Alex Hart and Joanna Cooke who provide backing vocals.  Having first picked up the guitar at the age of seven, then being mightily impressed by seeing The Hamsters at a Lyme Regis theatre, the seed was sown and today we’re seeing the fruits of this West Country boy’s labours

Willie Campbell | Nothing’s Going to Bring Me Down | Album Review | Invisible King | 08.10.20

The title of Willie Campbell’s latest album could be seen as an optimistic statement for our times.  The Isle of Lewis-based singer songwriter treats the current crisis as a challenge and doesn’t let the lockdown scupper his artistic vision.  For the title song “Nothing’s Going to Bring Me Down”, Keith Morrison’s piano accompaniment underpins a warm melody and an optimistic message, which appears to suggest that with every cloud, there is indeed a silver lining.  Much of this album is uplifting in its own way, the ten songs  delivered in positive tones, each lyric written and delivered with a sense of unity.  Almost rejecting nostalgia and the past, “Keep My Dreams of Yesterday” focuses our attention on the here and now, while “Miracles of Joy, Miracles of Pain” looks forward to a brighter future.   That future is further addressed in “Wolves to Run”, a song drawn from a sense of not so much celebrating the melancholy past, but looking forward to the endless possibilities, if we put our minds to it.  Nothing’s Going to Bring Me Down closes on an Everly Brothers-like lullaby, a meditation on home, a place of comfort.      

Chris Fox | From the Shadows | Album Review | Self Release | 09.10.20

If Cambridge is home to this award winning singer songwriter, then his songs owe more to a much broader landscape, from the Cambridgeshire Fens to Nashville’s Music Row and Austin’s Sixth Avenue.  Chris Fox’s mixture of Americana, Country and Blues is infused with a British folk sensibility, all of which enables a focus on sensitive song writing.  The production keeps Chris’s voice high in the mix with little enhancement, creating a highly intimate feel, as if the singer is actually whispering in your ear.  Further along, Chris is joined by Zoe Wren, who helps bring the sentiment of “I’m in Love with You” to life, with some non-intrusive violin, courtesy of Jasmine Watkiss.  “Motivator Blues” brings the party to life, with its funky rhythms and bluesy sentiment as does “Who Really Loves You”,  with some empathetic guitar runs courtesy of producer Dan Wilde.

David Grubb | Nano | Album Review | Self Release | 10.10.20

Originally intended as an EP, Nano developed into a full length album of original instrumental compositions, with some reference to David Grubb’s traditional roots.  Still made up of just five pieces plus a short introduction, Nano encompasses all the thought processes, feelings and concerns of those of a songwriter, yet endeavours to demonstrate what he’s thinking without the use of words.  Inspiration comes from the environment we live in, with all the political and economical concerns built into the mood and shifting tempos within these tracks.  “SOS” appears to be sending out a cry for help in Morse code, while the fiddle laments and emotes through the jagged figures throughout.  If “SOS” is indeed a call for help and urgent assistance, then “The Space Between”, provides a sense of calm and despair at the same time, like sitting for a while in the Rothko Room at Tate Modern, in fact, come to think of it, the colours used for the album’s artwork seem to reflect precisely this.   For musical build and tension, we need look no further than “Super”, the liner notes of which reflect the mood of the piece, hope, warmth, reflection and acceptance.   Thoughtful music captured flawlessly.

Martin Simpson | Home Recordings | Album Review | Topic | 11.10.20

There’s evidently an unexpected plus side to the lock down after all, the fact that Martin Simpson’s planned live album had to be cancelled and is instead replaced with a bunch of home recordings, which sound as intimate as you’re likely to get.  There’s an immediate sense of place where you feel like an invited guest, along with the birds that you can hear on one or two of the performances, notably the gentle instrumental “Lonesome Valley Geese”.  “Geese!” exclaimes Martin mid flow.  Martin is doing here what he does best, that is to locate timeless gems, treat them to a highly personal arrangement, polish his nails, pick up his guitar (or banjo or ukulele) and then work his magic.  In this case, there’s a dash of Dylan “The Times They Are A Changin’”, a portion of Prine “Angel of Montgomery”, a wee dram of Williamson “October Song”, a lick of Lyle Lovett “Family Reserve” and more than a tad of trad “Deliah”, “Plains of Waterloo” and “House Carpenter”.  This is nothing new for Martin Simpson, who has really been doing this for decades, but somehow, Andy Bell and Tom Wright have helped create a sound that is essentially live, but devoid of auditorium noise or indeed the clattering of pint pots at the bar.  Hearing Martin’s own reading of “Admiral Benbow” is an unexpected surprise, the song having already been visited on the superb 1980 album A Cut Above, but this time without the help of June Tabor or indeed the Prunettes!  Martin also revisits his own “An Englishman Abroad”, which is sprinkled with vivid characters from his New Orleans days, together with a perfect guitar accompaniment, which is a reminder of why this musician is so important.  This is an album to listen to over and over and which could only really be improved upon had there been some interference from the cat.  

O’Hooley and Tidow | Live at St George’s | Album Review | No Masters | 12.10.20

Recorded shortly before the lock down, Belinda and Heidi’s Live at St George’s sees the popular duo on stage for the last time for a while, delivering just over a dozen of their idiosyncratic songs, which includes a selection of their most poignant songs, a couple of covers, Elliott Smith’s melancholy-drenched “Between the Bars” and Kathryn Williams’ wedding gift to the couple “Small, Big Love” and curiously, a minimum of between song banter, which as a live album, I could have done with more of.  There’s a brief spoken passage in the middle of “Beryl”, together with the off-stage music hall sing-along “All For Me Grog” and a bit of audience participation during “Gentleman Jack”, which suggests we are live; that and the applause of course, of which there is an abundance, but mostly it could’ve been for all intents and purposes a studio album.  The past ten years have seen this partnership blossom, from the small northern venues to major festival stages, both musicians gaining confidence along the way and together becoming one of our best loved double acts.  Equally at home with social anthems that are loaded with strong messages as they are with heart stopping ballads, Belinda and Heidi showcase their credentials as first rate song writers, while at the same time demonstrating their almost unique vocal blend.  Maintaining their West Yorkshire inflections throughout, their songs are littered with characters such as Beryl, Ronnie, Jennifer and Wayne, not forgetting the clever Mrs B and their most familiar figure, Gentleman Jack, whose reputation is enhanced in no small way by the song’s inclusion in the popular TV series of the same name.  Recorded at one of Bristol’s finest halls and utilising the venue’s majestic Steinway Model D, the songs spring from the floor on what has become a memorable and joyful night, before the world changed.

Our Man in the Field | Company of Strangers | Album Review | Rocksnob | 13.10.20

This fine debut album by singer songwriter (and actor) Alexander Ellis, otherwise ‘Our Man In The Field’, demonstrates confidence both in the writing and in the delivery.  There’s something of a David Gray detectable in Ellis’s vocal delivery, which works well, especially when accompanied by the fine pedal steel playing of Henry Senior.  The live sound has a very human feel, where soul and emotion takes precedence over polish and gloss. Not that this isn’t a finely polished album, it is, but the songs are also given plenty of room to breathe, especially “Eleanor’s Song”, “Thin (I Used to Be Bulletproof)” and “I’ll Be Gone”. 

Steve Tyler | The Enduring and the Ephemeral | Album Review | Self Release | 14.10.20

‘Hurdy Gurdy based multitrack compositions for the end of time’ sounds a bit ominous, yet this is how Steve Tyler describes the music on his debut album.  The nine moody instrumentals have a sense of the medieval about them, a bit Wicker Man in places.  If “Utopia Regained” provides a moment of calm, a little like Hergest Ridge period Mike Oldfield, “Chronophage” is disturbingly noisy with far too much going on, so much so, I had to turn the volume down a bit, which I never even had to do with The Who. 

Rustam Quliyev | Azerbaijani Gitara | Album Review | Bongo Joe Records | 14.10.20

The ‘gitara’ is Azerbaijani for ‘electric guitar’ and at the geographical point where Eastern Europe, Russia and the Middle East  meet, they appear to have a fondness for their six-stringed axe along with those who play them.  The nine instrumentals captured here span Rüstəm Quliyev’s entire career and features some of the guitarist’s finest performances, where speed seems to matter; not quite shredding, but fairly nimble nonetheless.  Having lost Quliyev to cancer in 2005, Azerbaijani Gitara stands as a fine tribute to this legendary Azerbaijani musician.

Thee Holy Brothers – My Name is Sparkle | Album Review | Regional Records | 15.10.20

Marvin Etzioni and Willie Aron present an ambitious song cycle which sees Elvis in Jerusalem as the androgynous ‘Sparkle’ searches for God.  You instinctively know this is going to be interesting from the start.  Having between them previously worked with such acts as Counting Crows, Lone Justice, Rickie Lee Jones and The Balancing Act, the two musicians, who here adopt the tongue-in-cheek monikers of Buddy Holy and Johnny B Holy respectively, already have a head start.  Conceived as a two act play, My Name is Sparkle probably works best on the stage rather than on record.

Kete Bowers | Paper Ships | Album Review | Current Records | 16.10.20

Kete Bowers is a Liverpool-born singer songwriter with a touch of the Townes Van Zandt about his delivery.  Paper Ships features nine self-penned songs that are almost as dark as the cover shot, which sees the dim-lit singer surrounded by some of his ‘stuff’, which includes a Dylan compilation, that effortlessly rubs shoulders with a Johnny Cash companion.  You can imagine the songs on Paper Ships being recorded in this room as it appears to reflect the atmosphere in the songs, an atmosphere of aloneness and melancholy.  The album was actually recorded in Toronto with Cowboy Junkies’ Michael Timmins at the helm, who also plays guitar, with a handful of choice musicians, including brother Peter Timmins on drums.  It’s easy to get lost in these songs, they have all the necessary credentials to draw the listener in, especially the emotive “A Place by the River”.

Harbottle and Jonas | The Beacon | Single Review | Self Release | 01.11.20

The title of the new single release from the locked-down Devon-based duo Harbottle & Jonas refers to Ugborough Beacon, an ancient landmark close to the place where David and Freya live, in the Dartmoor area of the county.  The song, which also features Annie Baylis on violin and backing vocals, is the first offering from the duo’s next full length album due for release in the spring and stands as a beacon of hope and optimism in these exceptional times.  The three musicians provide an almost cinematic sound, with rich sweeping strings and pensive interludes, creating an arrangement of dramatic depth.  After some heavy duty touring that led up to the lock down, David and Freya took it as an opportunity to have a close look at their forced exile, which they saw as “a journey of discovery, that has taught us the importance of love, compassion and empathy, whilst discovering the needs and delights of our inner creature”.  A period then of ongoing inspiration and productivity and if this single is anything to go by, the album will be an eagerly anticipated event.  “The Beacon” will be available from all digital outlets from Tuesday 10 November, 2020. 

Barbara Dickson | Time is Going Faster | Album Review | Chariot Records | 02.11.20

One of the most enduring voices on the British music scene, Barbara Dickson continues to explore the power of song with a new album that features one or two choice covers, a couple of traditional ballads, a revamped show tune and no less than three from her own pen.  With a title that possibly eludes to her steadily advancing years, Barbara betrays this notion, appearing to have been at the elixir of life, judging by the impressive cover shot, which shows an artist in her prime.  Barbara chooses to kick the album off with an old Robin Williamson song from the Incredible String Band’s eponymous 1966 debut, “Good As Gone”, which is treated to a new and contemporary keyboard-led arrangement, while at the same time tipping her hat to the hedy psychedelic days of yore towards the end of the song.  In contrast, Troy Donockley’s Uillean pipes come into their own during Barbara’s reading of the traditional “Barbara Allan”, set to Barbara’s own melody.  “When Shadows Meet the Light” is a song that seems to encompass some of Barbara’s notable artistic endeavours and is a mixture of her folk sensibilities, a sense of the theatrical and a demonstration of her ability to write a good torch ballad, an obvious choice then for the first single from this album.  This has the potential to be a great live show stopper, should we ever get back to such a thing as a live show.  Having already released an album of Gerry Rafferty’s songs, To Each and Everyone (2013), Barbara once again returns to the Paisley bard’s canon, with a soulful take on “Look Over the Hill”, once again treating the song with the respect it rightly deserves.  Perhaps the highlight of this collection though, is Barbara’s reworking of Hamish Henderson’s Scot’s ballad “The Ballad of the Speaking Heart”, which sees Barbara return to her original vernacular, providing us with a powerful performance.  Time may be going faster for Barbara, even in these times, but it appears to be time well spent. 

Jenny Sturgeon | The Living Mountain | Album Review | Hudson Records | 03.11.20

Listening to Jenny Sturgeon’s new record is a little like embarking upon a ramble through the Cairnhorns.  The music Jenny creates lends itself to this sort of exploration, a journey through the senses, where time appears to stand still.  Not many genres allow for this.  There are no Death Metal albums dedicated to the countryside that I know of, nor are there many 1990s Grunge records that evoke the beauty and tranquility of this part of the world.  The closer to ambient folk music we get, the more we find musicians returning to the natural world in search of inspiration and Jenny does this well, as exemplified in the twelve selections here.  The song titles alone appear to spell out the content, such as “Frost and Snow”, “The Plants”, “Birds, Animals, Insects” and “The Senses”.  It’s not just the gentle compositions that makes this such a sensuous experience, nor is it the sparse arrangements and the tender touch of the keyboard, it’s also the use of a multitude of sound effects that offer a flavour of the natural world, as birdsong weaves between the selections, which is never cloying or invasive, but adds to the experience.  Produced by Andy Bell, The Living Mountain takes us away momentarily from these uncertain times and helps us breathe in cleaner air.

Stage Door Guy | Wroclaw | Album Review | Self Release | 04.11.20

Essentially, a dozen expressive statements performed by guitarist CJ Williams and actor and writer Adam Brody, each vying for the title of crown prince of sneer.  If there’s a determined sneer in the vocal delivery, then this is matched measure for measure by Williams’ guitar.  It may be a long way between Manchester and New Orleans, yet Stage Door Guy manages to bridge the chasm with aplomb, a little like Dr John Cooper Clarke meets, well, Dr John I suppose.  Heavy on the ‘twang’ the songs pivot between the Syd Barrett-like playfulness of “Guy That Stole My Bike”, the Punk sensibility and attitude of “Stop Your Whining”, albeit in a “We Can’t Start the Fire” kind of way, and the Chicago Blues approach to “Karen’s Sexless Marriage”.  If “Cartoon Man” appears to be a strange meeting between Pete Shelley, Chet Atkins and Steve Bell, then “Amazing Grace” takes Gospel to another level altogether and has probably never been heard quite like this before; it’s Gospel ala Billy Bragg circa the Miner’s Strike.  Distance isn’t the only ground covered on Wroclaw, as the styles mingle and match throughout, with one or two reference points, including Freddie Krueger, Dead or Alive and Joy Division, providing something for everybody and something for nobody all at the same time.

Michael J Sheehy | Distance is the Soul of Beauty | Album Review | Self Release | 04.11.20

Citing the role of a stay at home dad as his ‘main gig’, singer songwriter Michael J Sheehy takes time out of that particular occupation, mainly evenings and weekends, to put together a collection of new songs for this, his first solo album in ten years.  As Michael himself points out, these are late night recordings that feel intimate and gentle, which is precisely what they are.  There’s no smoke and mirrors here, the homemade tracks sound homemade, with simple arrangements and sensitive guitar playing, yet with some cloying programmed beats in places, which don’t really add anything.  I think “We Laugh More Than We Cry” would have been much better with the sort of arrangement awarded “Turn Back From Home” and “Tread Gently, Leave No Scar”.  Occasionally sounding like a cross between Boo Hewerdine and Scott Walker, with a little bit of Leonard Cohen thrown in, certainly on “Judas Hour”, Michael’s voice takes the spotlight throughout, with a further focus on the lyrics. Though for the most part written during the first year of his daughter’s life, the songs are more to do with how Michael was feeling during that period, rather than having any direct reference to fatherhood.  Apparently these ten songs are part of a broader project, so it’s likely there will be more in due course and maybe one or two about that particular rite of passage.  As the current state of affairs continue with much uncertainty, perhaps its a good time to delve further into this sort of writing.

Darrell Scott | Jaroso | Album Review | Full Light Records | 06.11.20

“Come on in… grab a chair wherever you may” Darrell Scott urges by way of an invitation to this very intimate PA free concert in a small adobe church in the village of Jaroso in south central Colorado.  Just one look at the cover shot and we know that it must be a small but intimate congregation.  Having shared rather larger stages in the past with such as Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt, Brittany Howard and one or two blokes as well, notably Robert Plant, Darrell Scott is no stranger to stage craft and holds a pretty convincing rapport with his audiences.  Just a couple of stage mikes and one or two for the audience, the recording is as near to completely acoustic as it gets, which adds to the experience; you really do get a sense of the occasion.  Accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, banjo and occasionally nothing at all, Scott’s warm voice is as natural as can be expected, with one or two moments that would have been needlessly ‘corrected’ in a studio recording.  The set includes songs that Scott refers to as “old, new, borrowed and blue”, notably “There’s a Stone Around My Belly”, “Life is Cheap” and Hoyt Axton’s “Evangelina”.  If the audience pays attention throughout “Who Carried You”, a Malcolm Holcombe song, simply introduced as a “Malcolm song”, then it becomes more animated during the choruses of “On Life’s Other Side” and the coda to “Colorado”, for which the crickets join the congregation.  The CD concludes with an unconnected bonus track, “A Satisfied Mind” from an entirely different concert, with a markedly larger audience and joined on stage by Patty Griffin, Buddy Miller and the aforementioned Led Zep front man.

Joachim Cooder | Over That Road I’m Bound | Album Review | Nonesuch | 07.11.20

Uncle Dave Macon, or the ‘Dixie Dewdrop’ as he was known back in the early part of the last century, who would no doubt be known as just plain old ‘Dewdrop’ in these frustrating times, is now a figure from the distant past, a showman from the 1920s and the first real star of the Grand Ole Opry.  Over the Road I’m Bound is a collection of Uncle Dave’s songs, which in the hands of Joachim Cooder are given a new lease of life, albeit slowed down in tempo to the originals.  The urgency in which Uncle Dave originally delivered the songs, appears to have been replaced by mood, atmosphere and feel, delivered with the assistance of Cooder’s instrument of choice, the mbira, one of the most beautiful sounding of all African instruments.  Like his dad before him, Cooder has the sort of voice that couldn’t really be described as polished, yet it’s just right for these songs, again, just like Ry Cooder’s voice suited such songs as “Always Lift Him Up”, “Vigilante Man” and “Little Sister” back in the day.  Cooder Snr. appears here on both guitar and banjo, helping out as his son once helped out on the Buena Vista Social Club sessions back in the mid 1990s.  Accompanying Cooder on this album is Juliette Commagere on backing vocals, Dan Gellert  on Banjo and Fiddle, Rayna Gellert also on fiddle and Sam Gendel on Bass with Vieux Farka Touré guesting on guitar.  Personally, I just can’t stop playing this gorgeous album and would suggest that you buy it now instead of waiting around ’til Christmas on the off chance that it’ll be under the tree.

Zoë Modiga | Inganekwane | Album Review | Yelloewax | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 08.11.20

The last time an album sleeve featured a bovine community with any real artistic merit to speak of, was probably Pink Floyd’s experimental Atom Heart Mother back in 1970, the music inside leaving a lot to be desired.  The music on Zoë Modiga’s new album however, is staggeringly good.  Following three years on from her fine debut album Yellow: The Novel, this second helping features no less than sixteen tracks, delivered almost exclusively in her native isiZulu language, with some fine and assured vocal performances throughout.  Zoë is a storyteller in the most unambiguous definition of the term, influenced by her grandparents and committed to preserving the stories and traditions of her own South African culture.  The title translates as Zulu Fairytale, which obviously gives the project some context, yet despite this reviewer’s lack of the lingo (my loss), the lack of complete understanding doesn’t in the least prevent me from enjoying the sounds, the rhythms and the compelling emotions explored, together with the clarity in which all these things are conveyed.  The Minnie Ripperton-esque scat vocals of “Uthando” for instance, needs no further explanation and can be enjoyed by all.  The one song delivered in English “Black Butterfly”, is more like the jazz ballads we’re used to, yet it shows where the magic really lies in Zoë’s songs.  For my money, be it in English or isiZulu, Zoë Modiga can sing her heart out until the cows come home.

Jimmy Regal and the Royals | Late Night Chicken | Album Review | Self Release | 09.11.20

With a track list resembling a fast food chain menu, there’s lots of finger lickin’ delights included on this new album by the South London-based blues band.  Jimmy Regal and the Royals wear their influences pretty much on their sleeves while paying homage to one or two blues giants, including Howlin’ Wolf with a blistering performance of “Commit a Crime”, Jerry Byrne’s exhausting “Lights Out”, written by Dr John and Seth David of course, as well as the surprise inclusion of Junior Kimbrough’s “All Night Long”, all of which sit nicely alongside the originals.  Anyone fortunate enough to have been around to watch John Walters’ Blues Night back in the 1980s will no doubt recall Kimbrough’s “In the City” as the memorable play out tune at the end of an epic marathon night of blues music.  There’s no Jimmy Regal to speak of, but there is a Joff Watkins, who blows some convincing harp, who spars effortlessly with CJ Williams’ twang-laden guitar, the two evidently made for one another.  Sammy Samuels is at the drums and percussion seat, with Alan Hughes also on percussion for one track only, “Can’t Cry No More”, which also features a nice touch courtesy of  the Kora player Diabel Cissokho, who assists in a gentle collision of two disparate worlds.  If the majority of this album is the sort of stuff that comes out at night to mix with the sweat and beer, the groove on “Going to the Fair” has JJ Cale written all over it, in both its feel and execution.

AL_X | Low Cloud | Album Review | Fluttery Records | 10.11.20

Liverpool’s Alex Dunford releases this seventeen-track album, his first release since 2014’s Shunt.  Once again the pieces are imbued with atmosphere, texture and ambience, utilising all the best traits of electronica in an orchestral setting.  Dunford claims that it’s a lot calmer than previous albums and admits that he himself listens to drone based music to help him with sleep!  I’m not sure whether this is true as I find his music good to read to, where staying awake is essential.  Perhaps the album’s strongest aspect is its mixture of acoustic and electronic sounds, which endeavour to find a unique meeting point.  Influenced by Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategy cards, especially during artistic blocks, Dunford manages to create his otherworldly soundscapes that often have a cinematic quality to them.  Predominantly instrumental, we don’t hear a human voice until forty minutes in, when Jeff Jepson provides the vocal on “Leaving the World Behind”, the closest thing on this album to a radio song perhaps?

Multiquarium Big Band | Remembering Jaco | Album Review | Naïve/Believe | 11.11.20

“What was it like to play with Jaco?” asks Peter Erskine, Jaco Pastorius’ former Weather Report band mate, “in a word it was fun”.  Remembering Jaco is a musical project, which sees the collaboration between the French Multiquarium Big Band and the famed gypsy guitarist and former child Protégé Biréli Lagrène.  Putting aside his guitar, Lagrène takes the fretless bass to places only ever ventured by Pastorius in his heyday.  Having made his mark on the jazz fusion scene back in the 70s and 80s with Weather Report and Pat Metheney, as well as having a stint with Joni Mitchell, who effectively transformed her music almost overnight, Pastorius created an instantly recognisable sound, which Lagrène tastefully replicates here, while adding his own touch of genius at the same time.  The nine familiar pieces represent some of Pastorius’s finest moments, such as “Barbary Coast”, “Liberty City” and “Kuru/Speak Like a Child”, interspersed with one or two spoken interludes, as Erskine remembers his former collaborator, which has the feel of beat poetry about it, spoken over some cool jazz runs.  With his life dramatically being cut short in his mid-thirties, the charismatic bassist is remembered with grace and respect and once again, we hear the essence of the ‘Bass of Doom’.

Ian A Anderson | Royal York Crescent EP | EP Review | Ghosts From the Basement | 12.11.20

More ghosts from the basement, the latest coming in the form of a limited edition EP which recalls Ian A Anderson’s third album release on Village Thing Records, Royal York Crescent.  The EP features four of the songs from that album, the last four tracks on side one for those who might not remember the original back in 1970 and which you can still get via Discogs from around £30 to £150.  More affordable is this grand little EP, which comes in celebration of the album’s fiftieth anniversary year, though in this case, without the instruction to ‘play loud’.  Perhaps our sensitive ancient ears should be spared any unnecessary trauma.  The four tracks, two vocal and two instrumentals are evocative of the times and are once again a reminder of the burgeoning Bristol scene of which I was too late to the party, and also too far away to be fair.  Ian is on fine vocal form and handles an acoustic guitar well, holding his own among his peers Wizz Jones, Bert Jansch, John Renbourn and the like.  For the curious, Royal York Crescent is the street where Ian lived until he was drawn to the legendary Soho all-nighters for a while, returning sometime later.  Joining Ian here is Ian Hunt on guitar, Ian ‘Heavy Drummer’ Turner on bongos and John Turner on double bass, together with a bunch of hyperactive birds throughout the instrumental “Goblets and Elms”, who each turn in empathetic performances.  Incidentally, the photograph on the reverse of the sleeve is of our tall moustachioed troubadour performing on stage at the very first Glastonbury Festival.  Take that Dolly Parton!

Chilly Gonzales | Chilly Christmas | Album Review | Gentle Thread | 13.11.20

If Ken Burns was to make a documentary series about Christmas, this would be the soundtrack.  Seasonal songs in a minor key to old black and white photographs, highly melodic classics for people who don’t necessarily like Christmas perhaps.  I have to say though, I do like Christmas and I love this as well.  The opener is possibly the first rendition of “Silent Night” that has reached my ears that wouldn’t be out of place in the TV series World at War, just at the point where Laurence Oliver narrates over footage of the invasion of Poland.   The fifteen selections stretch over a broad canvas, from old favourites such as “We Three Kings”, “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “Good King Wenceslas” to seasonal pop staples such as “Last Christmas” and “All I Want for Christmas”, the album highlight and only original song here being “The Banister Bough”, which features a guest vocal from Feist, who also appears with Jarvis Cocker dueting on “Snow is Falling in Manhattan”.  On both this and “In the Bleak Midwinter”, Jarvis channels late period Leonard Cohen, complete with deeply enunciated wisdom.  If all this sounds as bleak as the bleak midwinter itself, then “Jingle Bells” comes along to embellish any Buster Keaton scene you care to mention.  If I make all this appear to fit in with a general movie soundtrack theme, then that’s because it sounds like one.  For this year in particular, I see no reason why this shouldn’t make a perfect soundtrack to your imminent holiday period madness.  Good health. 

Ben Glover | Sweet Wild Lilly | EP Review | Proper Records | 14.11.20

I imagine the overriding desire to maintain momentum in these difficult times is stronger than usual, a time to ponder on the future, focus on direction and to tie up all those loose ends.  Under normal circumstances the County Antrim-born singer songwriter Ben Glover, now very much a key player on the Nashville scene, would focus on a short but intense recording schedule, yet in lock down, he seems to have taken his time over these four songs, a couple of which were written some time ago, and it certainly shows.  Those two songs were co-written by long time collaborator Gretchen Peters, which Glover lays down with sensitivity and grace, not least the stunning “Arguing with Ghosts”, which features Kim Richey and Matraca Berg on backing vocals and some slick electric guitar runs courtesy of Colm McLean, notes literally sent from Belfast to Nashville with love.  “Broke Down”, also co-written by Peters, sees Glover reveal a potential show stopper for future concerts, which can’t come soon enough for all of us.  While the tender love song “Sweet Wild Lily” opens this EP, featuring a little help from Megan McCormick, the four songs conclude with “Fireflies Dancing”, written in the few minutes after witnessing a Busby Berkeley dance display of the creatures from the vantage point of a back porch on a hot July Mississippi night.  Evocative stuff.

Star Feminine Band | Star Feminine Band | Album Review | Born Bad Records | 15.11.20

If you were to tot up the ages of this seven-piece all-female Benin-based group, the figure would still be under one hundred.  In fact, the average age of these young musicians is just fourteen, ranging between ten and seventeen.  Female groups in Benin are practically unheard of and therefore Sandrine, Grace, Julienne, Anne, Angelique, Urrice and Marguerite are well aware that they might be seen as a little shoal of fish swimming in a male dominated pool, yet they sparkle with joy and warmth.  Before the opening song “Peba” reaches it’s first chorus, there’s already an infectious pulsating vibrancy that flows from the speakers, which calls for us to turn up the volume and to get on our feet.  Formed after responding to a call from a local radio station to take part in what could be potentially a life changing opportunity, the girls were selected to take advantage of some free music training sessions, organised by André Balaguemon, a local musician; in fact, two of his daughters are members of the band.  The eight selections, mostly written by Balaguemon with further input from the musicians themselves, encompass a fertile cross pollination of styles, from Highlife, Congolese Rumba and Garage Rock, which are mostly performed in French with the occasional venture into their own local languages of Waama and Ditamari.  The Star Feminine Band may appear to be something of a novelty, especially in terms of their demographic, but the potential for these young women to make their mark on the international music scene is already very much there. 

The Bills | ‘Til the Blues Have Gone | Album Review | Wheeling Records | 16.11.20

Not to be mistaken for the Canadian folk quintet of the same name, though perhaps this duo do have a bona fide claim to the name, in view of the fact that the two musicians here are genuine Bills.  Bill Booth and Bill Troiani hail from Maine and New York City respectively and have since decamped to Norway, where the two of them have enjoyed separate careers in music.  Having played in various bands together as well as a duo since 2012, the two have failed to record anything until now, this being their debut duo album.  ‘Til the Blues Have Gone features a dozen original songs, each of which is a showcase for the duo’s own particular slant on deep blues and country swing, with the exception the old Son House blues “Grinning in Your Face”, which is treated to a slick arrangement, together with a portrait of the Mississippi Delta bluesman included in the lyrics booklet.  The songs maintain a distinctively mature feel throughout, with some fine performances, such as the brooding “Keeping the Blues Alive” and the pop infused “Already Gone”.  With Billy T on bass and Bill Booth on guitar, fiddle and banjo, the duo are joined by Alexander Pettersen on drums and percussion.

Rachel Newton | To the Awe | Album Review | Shadowside Records | 17.11.20

I guess we’ve come to expect nothing short of ‘class’ from Rachel Newton, the Scottish singer and harpist, whose exquisite musicianship has been integral to such explorative outfits as The Shee and The Furrow Collective as well as her own solo projects over the past few years.  To the Awe, Rachel’s fifth solo album to date, pays tribute to the women who have inspired her, while at the same time focusing on the various life stages of women from a strong female perspective.  Atmospheric throughout, the ten selections include contemporary arrangements of much older songs and poems, from a wealth of inspirational sources.  With a title taken from a 19th century poem by Felicia Hemans, To the Awe delivers on its promise, despite the challenges of lockdown, where a small collective of empathetic musicians gel in less than ideal circumstances.  Rachel Newton handles things with maturity, flair and attention to detail, with assistance from co-producer Mattie Foulds, who helps to make this album sound as fresh and natural as if were in fact a studio album.  Rachel’s bedroom wardrobe is an effective substitute for a studio, from which her vocals are delivered, though perhaps not the harp, which I imagine is too big to squeeze between the coat hangers.  Lauren MacColl’s fiddle weaves in and out, sparring deliciously with Rachel’s harp, especially on the short improvisation “I Will Go”, while Mikey Owers’ sensitive brass adds some perfectly placed embellishment in places, underpinned by Foulds’ technical wizardry.

Terra Spencer | Chasing Rabbits | Album Review | Self Release | 18.11.20

Terra Spencer describes herself eloquently on her 2019 debut Other People’s Lives, notably on the song “Other People’s Wives”, where among her confessions, the Nova Scotia singer songwriter claims she’s not educated on the names of garden flowers, that she doesn’t make good coffee and importantly, she works out in the cold burying the dead for a living.  On Chasing Rabbits, the funeral director turned songwriter continues to reveal aspects of her life, with Joni-like candour.  “In the City” is a good starting place to pick up the story, where Terra reflects on her childhood, her college days, boyfriends and the trouble they bring, the natural world around her (albeit still demonstrating some difficulty with the names of trees), all accompanied by lavish orchestration courtesy of the Bela String Quartet and a piano motive evoking snowfall.  “In the City” is Carole King, Carly Simon, Ann Murray, Helen Reddy and Joni Mitchell all rolled into one.  It’s over six minutes long but feels like three.  “Lunenburg Moon” is treated to some fine vocal harmonies by fellow Canadians Luke Fraser and Sarah Frank, otherwise The Bombadils, who between them create a gentle bluegrass feel reminiscent of some of Alison Krauss’ early work.  “Training Day” turns to a rich gospel feel, which deserves the double count in and minor chords in all the right places.  From some recess of Terra’s mind, the name of the “Manitoba Maple” pops up midway through the album, with a tender ode to the tree, a metaphor for family, home and the passing of time, complete with a sumptuous brass section.  Chasing Rabbits is a rich and often uplifting collection of songs to remember.

Scott Cook | Tangle of Souls | Album Review | Self Release | 19.11.20

There’s little doubt that Scott Cook goes out of his way to provide us with plenty to go at with each new release and the dozen songs on his seventh album Tangle of Souls is no exception, as it comes with a 240 page cloth-bound hardcover book, which is literally packed with detail.  There’s plenty in there, from Adam to Aristotle, the Buddah to Bush, Woody to Whitman and an obligatory mention of Trump, not to mention song details and exactly how to play them should you choose to.  Recorded in both Canada and Australia with the band The She’ll Be Rights, Tangle of Souls is a road map for the well-travelled, exemplified in the sprightly opener “Put Your Good Foot in the Road”.  If “Leave a Light On” demonstrates Cook’s sensitive side, his political side is touched upon with “Say Can You See”, which recalls the protest songs of Woody Guthrie, firmly stating his position in the world, wherever in the world that might be, he does seem to move around quite a lot.  “Passing Through” brings Dick Blakeslee’s song up to date, recalling what Ry Cooder did so effectively with the alternative Great American Songbook in the 1970s.  There’s lots to reflect on here, lavishly packaged for your listening and reading pleasure. 

Pictures From Nadira | Morula | Album Review | Fluttery Records | 23.11.20

The Munich-based quartet Pictures From Nadira follow up their highly regarded debut Nadira, with what is described as a ‘concept album’, choosing a biological term for the “developmental stage of an early embryo of multicellular organisms” as its title.  Morula reflects the changes within the band’s general make up and ongoing ethos, with moody and atmospheric results.  The eleven minute tempo changing “Messn I, Miku, Messn II” is the standout track, which threatens to break into Limp Bizkit at any given moment and with a decent German Fred Durst soundalike, it could have gone to an otherwise different plane.  Completely instrumental however, the four pieces endeavour to “combine different genres to represent the up and downs of life”, which comes across loud, if not quite clear.

Tanya Brittain | Hireth | Album Review | TCR Music | 25.11.20

Up until now we’ve pretty much associated the name Tanya Brittain with The Changing Room, the duo Tanya formed with Sam Kelly back in 2014.  For her debut solo album, the Cornwall-based singer/songwriter/musician explores a distinctive Breton sound, with passionate theatrical vocals and sweeping accordion flurries.  The atmosphere conjurs up the over-spill of wicker chairs outside plein air Parisian cafés, Sunday Impressionists discussing Weill and Brecht and Samuel Beckett over a drop of Absynth or perhaps a slurp of Pineau des Charentes.  It’s 1920s Europe with a pinch of Bohemia and a distinctive ambience to go with it.  In places, the songs come across as theatrical, as if part of a period Bohemian play, full of drama and expression.  “Make the Change” for instance, which you can imagine being delivered from a single spotlight, the singer’s eyes rested on one specific member of the audience somewhere up in the Gods.  As with everything Tanya Brittain touches, it’s always classy stuff and this is no exception.  With all the minor chords in all the right places, “Something More Precious” sees Tanya’s smouldering voice entwined with Alan Pengelly’s accordion motifs, providing all the emotional investment the song rightly deserves. Joining Tanya and Alan are Mark Barnwell on guitar and bouzouki, Annie Baylis on violin, Mattie Foulds on percussion and Ben Nicholls on bass.

The Haar | The Parting Glass | Single Review | Under the Eaves Records | 27.11.20

One of the unfortunate aspects of our ongoing world crisis in terms of music making, is that some of the new and potentially important acts to emerge this year have been cruelly prevented from demonstrating before a live audience what they can do in a recording studio.  With the release this summer of The Haar’s debut album, Adam Summerhayes, Murray Grainger, Cormac Byrne and Molly Donnery should have been enjoying its success on our various stages, instead the musicians have been forced to put things on indefinite hold.  In the meantime, the quartet release this new single and accompanying video, a highly rewarding reading of the old Scottish traditional song “The Parting Glass”, which is filled with mood, tension and atmosphere. The song, which has enjoyed fine versions by the likes of The Clancy Brothers, The Dubliners, Robin Williamson and Cara Dillon, through to Ed Sheeran and Alexander Armstrong, has been recorded in precisely the same manner as indicated on the cover photographs and indeed the video, separately that is. The song doesn’t sound like it was recorded at a distance though, in fact quite the opposite.  With four pairs of eyes closed, The Haar are pretty much together as one.

Austin Meadows Wilkerson | The Old Wood | Album Review | Self Release | 28.11.20

I wonder if there’s a better theme for a progressive contemporary orchestral suite than the deep dark woods?  The Old Wood takes us on a dramatic journey through mysterious leaf-strewn winding paths and curious dark hollows, with Kentucky composer/songwriter Austin Meadows Wilkerson very much leading the way.  The eleven pieces are woven together with dramatic tension by a group of classically trained musicians, whose expressive piano motifs, sweeping strings and celestial harp flurries enhance the guitar-based compositions.  The song titles themselves give us a sense of the journey ahead before a single note has been struck, with “Old Forest Road”, “Bed of Leaves”, “The Deepening Wood” and “The Heart of the Wood”, guiding our way.  If the inventive arrangements are reminiscent of the Progressive Rock albums of the 1970s, complete with Roger Dean gate fold sleeves, then The Old Wood offers an updated slant on the genre, with rich chamber orchestrations, Beach Boys SMiLE-period harmonies and an emotive near falsetto vocal expressing the stories throughout, stories and sounds that evoke the spirit of the woods in question.  This is one of those albums that should be heard in full; forty-eight minutes of invention, texture, commitment and care. 

Ashley Hutchings with Becky Mills and Blair Dunlop | A Midwinter Miscellany | Album Review | Talking Elephant Records | 29.11.20

At first I wasn’t too sure about the spoken interludes on this very seasonal midwinter album, a collection of themed songs, poems, prose and reflections, put together in a short space of time by Ashley Hutchings with former Waking the Witch singer/musician Becky Mills and Ashley’s chip off the old block, Blair Dunlop.  After a couple of plays through, it becomes apparent that the spoken bits are integral to the piece.  Recorded over a couple of days in Derbyshire just as the summer leaves began to fall, the album’s overall feel is that of a live recording, in that the songs were recorded in just a couple of takes each, which brings a sense of immediacy to the project. Known for his popular annual Albion Christmas Band shows, the former Fairporter releases A Midwinter Miscellany to fill those pencilled-in diary dates unfortunately forced into submission and erased by the current pandemic and to provide a seasonal connection to those who will sadly be missing out this year.  While dad contemplates George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, together with a little Angela Carter or indeed his own contemporary seasonal thoughts on our forthcoming “Hibernation” period, Blair delivers their co-written song “Her Name Was Mary”, with Blair in good voice.  Blair also goes on to deliver a fine duet with Becky on her own especially written “Sweet November”, while Blair’s mum Judy Dunlop makes a special guest appearance, putting Thackeray’s “Mahogany Tree” to her own melody, reminding us once again what a fine and completely distinctive voice she is in possession of.  I’m really not sure whether it would be best to play this album first thing in the morning or late at night, but either way, listening by a crackling open fire, by a tastefully decorated Norway Spruce or by a triple-glazed window overlooking a snow covered meadow, either would do it for me.

Zoe Wren | Reckless River | Album Review | Self Release | 30.11.20

A good starting place for this brief appreciation of Zoë Wren’s debut album, would be a robust show of hands for the actual production team.  Carefully scrutinised by Lauren Deakin Davies, Tristano Galimberti and Zoë’s herself, whose attention to detail should be commended, the entire album sounds superb from the start, each making sure Jonny Wickham’s bass can be heard, Martin Ash’s viola comes in and out at the right intervals and David Delarre’s mandolin skitters here and there to grand effect.  Written and produced between Zoë’s London home and her new home in Switzerland, Reckless River is not only a showcase for Zoë’s songwriting credentials, her distinctive voice and her classy fretboard mastery, but also for her range.  The traditional “Let No Man Steal Your Thyme and the Country inflected “Don’t Touch My Guitar” could be from two completely different musicians.  Zoë appears to be equally at home with her own songs, such as “Ring in Your Pocket”, “Elephants and Drums” and “Come Home”, as she is with traditional British ballads and bluesy Honky-Tonkin’ fare.  Good things in store for Zoë for sure judging by this fine debut. 

Beans on Toast | Knee Deep in Nostalgia | Album Review | Self Release | 01.12.20

It soon becomes pretty obvious as to why Beans on Toast chooses to release Knee Deep in Nostalgia and The Unforeseeable Future separately, as the two simultaneously released albums bear little resemblance to one another.  The Frank Turner-produced Knee Deep in Nostalgia reveals a bunch of heartfelt songs with an eye firmly on the past, while The Unforeseeable Future is pretty much a good old strum-along whinge ala Billy Bragg, of hating the Tories, down with this, down with that, with no apparent offer of any solutions and obviously preaching to the choir.  Knee Deep in Nostalgia however, has something to savor, songs like the country inflected “What Would Willie Do?” for instance, which turns our attention to the original outlaw (oops, that’s just a bit of lazy journalism right there), or perhaps more specifically, simply the desire to live the Willie Nelson lifestyle.  A favourite drama teacher receives similar praise, as Beans recalls his schooldays, while at the same time, reflecting on families in “Family Tree” and dancing to all those classic records such as The White Album, Graceland, Closing Time and Blonde on Blonde, on “The Album of the Day”, although imagining anyone dancing to “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” is a bit of a stretch.  Joining Beans on the positive uplifting album are Frank Turner, Matt Hensley, Matt Nasir, Guise and Anna Jenkins, whereas the second album is completely solo.

Magpie Arc | EP2 | EP Review | Collective/Perspective | 03.12.20

For the second in this series of three Eps, currently being trickled out in advance of the ‘band of pals’ full length debut due for a 2021 release, we are once again treated to some full-blown Folk Rock in the capable hands of Nancy Kerr, Martin Simpson, Adam Holmes, Tom A Wright and Alex Hunter, collectively Magpie Arc.  If “Darling Charms” falls somewhere in the middle of a Fotheringport Albionspan ball park, with Nancy Kerr’s dominant and convincing lead voice in full command of this new material, then the torchlit “I Should Have Walked”, written by Martin Simpson, showcases once again Simpson’s sensitivity and reliable way with words.  Nancy’s “Cinnabar” expresses vividly the unified tightness within the band, a band we’re all desperate to see live.  As a fine conclusion, Adam Holmes goes all Born on the Bayou on us with “Roll Your Stone Away”, co-written by Tom A Wright, and which features some tasty slide guitar, where you get the feeling that someone is relishing in his long awaited Lowell George moment.  We need more Lowell George moments in the world today.  This is just good stuff to get your ears around.

Dan O’Farrell and the Difference Engine | Richard Scarry Lied to Me | Album Review | Gare du Nord/Humphry | 04.12.20

It’s good to hear an opener like “Here it Comes”, which pays homage to the Stones’ “19th Nervous Breakdown”, not just in its instantly recognisable guitar riff, but also in the memorable ‘here it comes’ chorus build; there’s nothing quite like a slice of mid-Sixties Stones to express immediacy and directness.  The Southampton-based trio of Rick Foot, Chris Walsh and former Accrington Stanley frontman Dan O’Farrell serve up their third helping with over a dozen O’Farrell originals, wrapped in a sleeve that echoes both Lennon’s Sometime in New York City and Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick, oh and something else by Roxette, a broadsheet featuring the album title as a scandalous headline.   Who is Richard Scarry anyway?  An American children’s author of over 300 books, mentioned in passing along with a multitude of other things that Dan is afraid of on “I Am Afraid”, such as Alzheimer’s, Fascism, spiders and voices that draw him to the edge.  There’s a sense of time ticking away in some of these songs, certainly in “Tempus Fugitive”, together with a sense of struggling through, where we need look no further than “Hedgehog”; the curling up in a ball analogy not lost on anyone in the current crisis.  If some of this appears dark, then light is very much at the end of the tunnel on both “In the Sun” and “Slow Magic” both of which provide the album with a glimmer of hope, radio friendly REM styled pop tunes to get us through, the latter complete with Nancy Tomkins’ sunny flittering flute throughout.  There’s a lot to go at here, with thoughtful lyricism and highly melodic tunes to match.  Love it.

Rachel Walker | Gaol | Album Review | Red Rose Records | 05.12.20

Not to be confused with the old English term for prison, but the Scots Gaelic term for lurve, Gaol, pronounced a little like ‘girl’, is packed with love throughout, with eleven songs performed in either Gaelic or English and each translated in the accompanying booklet.  The Lochaber singer songwriter, composer and tutor delivers each of the songs with confidence and with the help of esteemed company, including Alice Allen on cello, Rory Grindley on drums and Jarlath Henderson on Uilleann Pipes and whistle.  The opening line to “All For You”, ‘there’s a scar on my finger where a promise burned my skin’ is the sort of gorgeous lyric Leonard Cohen would’ve been proud of.  Gaol really doesn’t keep you hanging on waiting for something special to happen; the quality of both the writing and the performance is evident from the start with “La Luain”, which serves as an inviting opener and features a complimentary duet with James Graham.  Rachel’s voice is both strong and delicate at the same time, a passionate singer with an additional spark.  Made up mostly original material, Gaol also includes one or two traditional songs, including the stunning “Thug mi Gaol Dhut, Thug mi Gradh Dhut (I Gave You Love)”, which closes the album.  Lyrically, the opening line to “All For You”, ‘there’s a scar on my finger where a promise burned my skin’ is the sort of considered meditation that Leonard Cohen would’ve been proud of and provides the album with one of its high points.  Recorded far from the madding crowd beside a wood burning stove at St Mary’s Space in Appin, Argyll, some of its crackles evident towards the end, the warmth comes through loud and clear on this superb album.

Anna Elizabeth Laube | Annamania |  Album Review | Ahh….Pockets! Records | 06.12.20

Annamania is a retrospective album, a collection of songs most of which first appeared on Anna Elizabeth Laube’s first four albums, released over a ten year period between 2006 and 2016.  With most collections of this nature, Anna selects from a broad canvas to keep things interesting, selecting a dozen of her finest songs, together with just the one cover, Tom Petty’s “Time to Move On”, which features a piano and French Horn duet, with the Seattle Symphony’s John Turman, plus a couple of additional songs, one of which was featured in the Netflix show Locke & Key.  Anna appears to be equally at home with a slice of country pop “Sweet Boy from Minnesota”, the tender memory of an afternoon in a Lisbon city park “Jardim da Estrela”, complete with lilting accordion flurries courtesy of Chris Joyner, to some late night bar room blues “If You Build It”.  Channeling Bonnie Raitt, Anna delivers a sultry vocal on “Beautiful Boy”, accompanied by some tasty slide guitar, while “Hippie Boyfriend” demonstrates Anna’s more whimsical side.  A good introduction to Anna Elizabeth Laube and a timely update of her story so far.  

Paul Ruane | Sound | Album Review | Independent Release | 07.12.20

There’s a simplicity in Karen Tweed’s cover sketch, yet there’s nothing simple about Paul Ruane’s playing.  Known for uttering the one syllable word “Sound” for anything he approved of, Paul was a fiddle player of note, inspiring many with his knowledge of music and enthusiasm for passing it on to young people.  Opening the gatefold sleeve, we see a smiling Paul with the neck of his fiddle gripped tight, while on the opposite side, we see an array of additional musical instruments used to further enhance the eleven instrumental pieces on the album, some of which were recorded after Paul’s untimely passing in 2016.  What could have been a mournful musical statement in view of the circumstances, has actually become nothing short of a celebration, where it’s almost impossible to do anything but smile, just like Paul in the picture, when we hear these delightful tunes.  With Paul’s family helping out, notably his wife Dee on button accordion, who plays pretty much throughout the album, together with daughters Celia and Eva joining in on whistle and fiddle respectively on “Stool of Repentance / The Cow That Ate the Blanket / The Gallant Boys of Tipperary”, and whose joyful playing bounces out of the speakers, complementing dad’s informed playing.  The Leeds-born musician, whose family heritage is set very much in County Mayo,  began this project back in 2012 and with the help of family and friends, including Louis Bingham, Dave Wood and Norman Holmes, leaves us with something very personal and expressive to remember him by.

Ewan Macintyre Band | Dream on Sally | Album Review | Broken Car Recordz | 08.12.20

I always quite enjoyed the theatricality of a Southern Tenant Folk Union performance, which always kept us all on the edge of our seats.  This had a lot to do with Ewan Macintyre’s on stage showmanship mixed with his sense of on the button musicality.  A lot of this appears to have stayed with the Edinburgh musician as he continues to hone his craft in his newfound home of Montreal, with a couple of solo albums already under his belt.  Dream on Sally sees the singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist spread his wings even more with his own band and eight highly individual songs and tunes, each delivered with some soulful clout.  There’s lots of influences here, certainly with his own Scots heritage, noted on the instrumental “Muckle Mooth”, but also in the contemporary rhythms and a pop sensibility of “Same Story”, a great opener for certain.  The pulsating beat that leads us into “Eyes on the Road” reminds us of Ewan’s flair for a good beat, while the scat vocal and whistled chorus on “Each to their Own” could easily be Gene Kelly dancing in puddles, once again alluding to Ewan’s theatrical bent.  I mentioned how soulful some of these songs are, which is exemplified in “Bright Lights and Pictures”, one of the album highlights, not quite in the Redding, Gaye and Pickett sense, but soulful nevertheless.

Paul Winter | Light of the Sun | Album Review | Living Music | 09.12.20

When I first saw the cover of Paul Winter’s new album, I immediately thought of the kind of CD you might find on the counter of a New Age shop on the high street of either Glastonbury or Totnes, right there next to a fine display of crystals, incense sticks and tie-dyed gowns.  Instinct told me that this wasn’t going to be the kind of soprano sax solos John Coltrane would demonstrate on interpretations of Julie Andrews’ songs, where the number of notes couldn’t possibly be counted, even if you slowed it down by half.  I imagined, and quite rightly so, that this album was going to be soothing and it certainly is.  Paul Winter is no spring chicken, having been around a good while. Now in his eighties, the musician has recorded forty albums and has spent much of his career developing what is referred to as Earth Music, where music and nature enjoy a symbiotic relationship.  Having worked with a variety of outfits over a sixty-year career, such as the Paul Winter Consort and the Paul Winter Sextet, serving as mainly as the bandleader, this is the first time that Paul is featured as the soloist, his instrument being the main focus throughout.  Occasionally, Paul is joined by the sounds of nature itself, a wolf call, a few crickets and birdsong, most notably on “The Well Tempered Wood Thrush”, where the Wood Thrush, JS Bach and Paul blissfully collaborate to great effect.  For that piece alone, Light of the Sun is worth investigating further.

Words of a Fiddler’s Daughter | Rúnian | Album Review | 10.12.20

An engaging collaboration between the celebrated musical duo The Ciderhouse Rebellion and the young poet Jessie Summerhayes, where words and music complement one another over eight powerful readings, underpinned by some highly expressive playing courtesy of both Adam Summerhayes (Jessie’s dad) on fiddle and Murray Grainger on accordion, while Jessie reveals her poems in an assured and often passionate manner.  Adam and Murray appear to perform as if scoring a film soundtrack, each note – or each series of notes – improvised to reflect what’s happening on screen, or in this case, what’s happening in the narrative of each poem.   Borrowing an Anglo-Saxon word for ‘whisper’ for the album title, which is also the title of Jessie’s book of poems that the piece is based upon, Rúnian is a journey into the often mystical, mysterious and sometimes mythical world of yesterday, set around the folklore of Jessie’s own locale, of Saxons bashing Normans, breaking bones and standing stones, serpents and creeping wolves, fear and loathing in the North East, with the Venerable Bede taking note, and with a touch of Norse mythology intertwined.  At times the edge of the seat excitement is tangible, the fiddle, accordion and voice working in symbiotic rapture.  The Ciderhouse Rebellion whispers on..

Colour of Light | Once Lay a King | Album Review | Self Release | 26.12.20

Blending some fine and expressive blues harmonica playing, courtesy of Jon Burr, with two convincing voices, Paul Naylor and Emily Levy, a sound emerges that is at once both original and appealing at the same time.  It’s probably the blend of two non-blues voices with a strong blues harp that makes this Leeds-based band’s sound so unique.  The album, made up of songs predominantly written by Paul Naylor, though each musician, including guitar, banjo and ukulele player Jonny Flockton and bassist Adrian Knowles, has a share in some of the songwriting, showcases some fine writing, notably the infectious album opener “This Isn’t Fate”, with it’s emotive chant-like refrain and the title song “Once Lay a King” , complete with some vigorous harmonica soloing.  “Restless Night” is a clear demonstration of the band’s improvisational dexterity, with some fine scat vocals along with a credible conversation between the harmonica and the banjo.  Difficult to categorise (though why on earth should we), Once Lay a King is a fine debut with a few memorable moments.     

Larkin Poe | Kindred Spirits | Album Review | Tricki-Woo Records | 27.12.20

Rebecca and Megan Lovell have been far from slouches over the past ten years, having released several albums and EPs along their musical journey, as well as having played just about all over the globe, winning the hearts of many along the way.  Dipping into their own record collections for the occasional cover, the siblings have taken the opportunity to deliver an album chock full of ‘em and with some surprising choices along the way.   The Allman Brothers’ “Ramblin’ Man” comes as no real surprise, nor does Derek and the Dominoes’ “Bell Bottom Blues”, an album highlight, in view of Rebecca and Megan hailing from the same stomping ground, albeit several decades apart.  The surprises begin when we come to the English diaspora, with the inclusion of The Moody Blues, Phil Collins and Sir Elton, with interesting readings of “Nights in White Satin”, “In the Air Tonight” and “Crocodile Rock” respectively.  Describing Kindred Spirits as “an emotional twisty turny journey”, the siblings confess that they initially recorded the entire album in less than satisfactory conditions, which resulted in a piece of work that effectively diminished the duo’s trademark closeness, then made the crucial decision of going back to record the whole thing again, this time live and very much together, which gives the album a more intimate, direct and real feel. If Eric Clapton and Bobby Whitlock’s timeless “Bell Bottom Blues” is the crowning glory of this collection, with some exceptionally vibrant lap steel work courtesy of Megan and gorgeous harmonies from both, then “(You’re the) Devil in Disguise” is for my money, a close second, a show-stopper of an Elvis cover, choc full of sultry minor key rock ‘n’ roll method dramatics that would probably make Lee Strasberg smile. 

Ayom | Ayom | Album Review | Amplifica Records | 28.12.20

Despite the inherent difficulty in relating to the infectious sounds of the summer while still in the throes of a very bleak midwinter, Ayom do their level best to bring a sprinkling of joy to the world with eleven bright and cheerful songs loaded with Latin rhythms based on the folk tunes of Brazil and Angola, though from a Mediterranean base.  With the Minas Gerais-born Jabu Morales bringing her distinctive voice very much to the fore, Ayom’s self-titled debut album is a rich blend of styles, incorporating much of her Candomblé and Afro-Brazilian rhythms, augmented by Alberto Becucci’s accordion flurries.  Both “Cachaça e Macarrão” and “Baile das Catitas” are clearly intended to fill a dance floor, loaded with the vibrant colours of Brazil, yet at the same time inhabited by Morales’ adopted Barcelona sensibilities.  Even the slower, sultry ballad “Balzaquiana” is imbued with a hot summer feel and yet hopefully never too far from an ice cold Caipirinha, or maybe the odd Cuba Libre. This will put you in the mood for the summer, if we’re allowed to have one that is.

Katie McNally Trio | Now More Than Ever | Album Review | Self Release | 29.12.20

This second offering from the Katie McNally Trio comes just over four years after the trio’s debut The Boston States, the title of which gives us a clue as to Katie’s old stomping ground (who now actually calls Portland, Maine home).  Flanked by Shauncey Ali and Neil Pearlman on both viola and piano respectively, fiddle player Katie McNally explores the roots of Scots and Cape Breton traditional music with a clear focus, maintaining quality throughout and under the guidance of producer Anna Massie who knows a thing or two about that sort of thing. With a title that expresses the importance of music and art in these difficult times, Now More Than Ever focuses on Katie’s dexterity as a fine fiddle player, yet also showcases Neil’s very distinctive command over the keys and Shauncey’s empathetic viola playing, which underpins Katie’s assured playing perfectly.  Reviewing this album on New Year’s Eve seems to be completely apt.

The Chair | Orkney Monster | Album Review | Folky Gibbon Records | 30.12.20

The Orkney-based festival band who go under the name The Chair, “let’s face it, it’s (the name) a lot less scatological than The Stool” insist the band, have been going now for almost seventeen years and although they’ve played countless gigs and festivals, this is only their third album to date, so perhaps very much a long awaited event. The band get down to business immediately with their stomping opener “Beachcombers”, which is one of those showstoppers that begins on a relatively chilled note, only to build into the sort of tune that bends festival crowd barriers and leaves every single chair vacated.  Smartly attired for this particular outing, the eight-piece outfit appear with full brass paraphernalia within the pages of their tuppenny Gutter Soond periodical, which reports that girls have become driven to beer and the loss of two towels and a knife and fork in its headlines.  So plenty to read as you listen/dance.  The inclusion of Tom Waits’ early masterpiece “Shiver Me Timbers” does nothing but confirm this band’s versatility and we can only wait in belief that we’ll be able to see the band sometime in the not too distant future. Until then, get your dancing shoes on.

Reg Meuross | Reissues | Album Review | Hatsongs | 31.12.20

It’s difficult to tell when this reviewer first became aware of Reg Meuross; it was after the Panic Brothers certainly, but whether I recall him with Hank Wangford’s Lost Cowboys I cannot tell, though I’d certainly heard of Hank of course; why, any band that had a singer who went by the name Irma Cetas was always going to hit my radar soon enough.  No, I think I’m pretty sure I came onboard after the release of Dragonfly, Reg’s fourth solo album back in 2008, which is one of the six out of print albums re-issued here in full, wrapped in brightly coloured gatefold sleeves. The earliest re-issue here is Reg’s debut solo album The Goodbye Hat, which was originally released back in the mid 1990s, and includes some of the songwriter’s highly melodic pop tunes, including the opener “One Last Time”, followed by the title song “The Goodbye Hat”, which is clearly a top notch radio song.  When I first met Reg back in the summer of 2009, he told me that he’d been around a long time and almost twelve years later, he appears to have been around an even longer time and counting, having delivered a highly prolific repertoire of songs on several releases, a good eight albums on top of the six re-issued here. Short Stories, Still, Dragonfly, All This Longing and Leaves & Feathers show the steady progress of Reg as a songwriter to watch, each album of which contains several songs that continue to show up in Reg’s live set to this day, including “It’s Me or Elvis” and “The Man in Edward Hopper’s Bar” from Still, “Lizzy Loved a Highwayman” and “And Jesus Wept” from Dragonfly, “Looking for Johnny Ray” from All This Longing and “One Way Ticket to Louise” and “My Jerusalem” from Leaves and Feathers, to name but a few. At this point in his career, Reg could’ve released a nice handsomely packaged double Best Of collection, which would’ve served as a fine introduction to his earlier work, but I guess this would be like choosing your favourite child.  Re-issuing these six albums in full, all of which together contain a total of eighty songs, provides listeners with something much more complete and certainly a reminder of the quality work Reg has produced over the years.